Dimensional Disarray {The Complete Story} - Chapter 25 - InactiveAndUnattractive (2024)

Chapter Text

{Background Music - Dark And Desolate}

Lucy's senses spun in the darkness as she hurtled through the enormous silver pipe, her hair tangling in the rushing wind and her clothes snapping against her skin. The feeble glow of a nearby fire offered little solace, casting eerie shadows that danced around her. Despite the chaos, Kai, her unexpected savior, seemed to relish the adventure, his laughter bouncing off the metallic walls.

A sudden, prolonged turn signaled their descent, and Lucy was expelled from the pipe through a hole in the ceiling, her screams swallowed by the rushing air. Unfortunately, Kai's landing was less graceful, eliciting a sharp grunt of pain from Lucy as she felt a jolt shoot through her chest.

As Kai gently lowered Lucy to the ground, she clung tightly to the unconscious form of Chip, as though he were her last tether to reality. With the aid of Kai's torchlight, she surveyed their surroundings, realizing they stood upon a stone platform overlooking a familiar room. It resembled the chamber beyond the first gargoyle walkway, yet it led in a different direction, shrouded in mystery and uncertainty.

Disappointment flooded Lucy's senses. Just as she had a glimmer of hope that Kai had offered her an escape from her wretched circ*mstances, reality hit her hard. If she were to list her least favorite places in the universe, the sewer would undoubtedly secure a spot in the top five, closely trailing just behind the dreaded dentist's office.

"Hey!" Lucy jumped as Kai's fingers snapped in front of her face. She glanced up to see him standing before her, torch in hand once more, his face etched with genuine concern. "Are you okay? No fatal injuries or… very minor cases of serious brain damage?"

Suddenly, his empty hand clamped onto her face, pressing against her cheek, much to her discomfort. "Are you concussed?! Can you calculate the circumference of the sun?!"

Lucy swatted Kai's hand away, her heart still racing from the adrenaline of their escape. "I'm fine, darn it! And nobody knows what circumference means!"

She paused, taking a deep breath, gathering herself to regain composure. "Forget about me, will you? Chip's the one who needs help!"

Kai's worried gaze shifted to Chip, lying motionless in Lucy's arms. He quickly descended to the ground and gestured for Lucy to put Chip down. Lucy complied, sitting down and setting her friend between them.

"Chip, my friend…" Kai murmured, his tone heavy with concern. "What happened to him?"

Lucy recounted the details of her fight with the Shadow Bat to the elf, her voice trembling slightly as she relived the harrowing encounter.

Kai emitted a pensive hum, his expression turning serious as he scrutinized his friend. "Blast it all. I should have anticipated The Vampire King had left a Shadow Bat lurking in these depths. They're markedly more potent than his other creations, especially when the Blood Moon is factored in."

He sighed heavily, shaking his head. "Consider yourselves fortunate; they're incredibly combustible. Had they not been, they might have trailed us during our escape."

Lucy's gaze faltered, a fleeting discomfort crossing her features. She understood that Kai's familiarity with the Shadow Bats stemmed from the anomalies that had altered everyone's memories, except her own.

"Oh, Chip…" Kai rumbled softly. "You know, I always imagined I'd win with my six-hour stay in a Grackmyte nest. But it seems you've stolen my crown in our 'worst places to be' competition!" His tone gradually shifted to one of amusem*nt, and laughter bubbled out of him uncontrollably.

Lucy shot the elf an anxious glance as his laughter subsided, his attempt at humor falling flat in the tense atmosphere. In response, Kai immediately delivered a punch to his gut, causing Lucy to recoil with a shocked gasp.

"Sorry! Bad timing for jokes," Kai muttered with a hiss of pain. "But seriously, Chip will be okay. No matter how different he may look, pinching that one special nerve under the fat on his neck would always jolt him awake!"

Lucy turned her attention back to the raccoon, studying him with a mix of concern and skepticism. She regarded Kai's words with caution when reaching out, her touch light as she gently squeezed the fur on Chip's neck between her thumb and index finger.

{Background Music - Watchers Of The Universe}

Suddenly, Chip's eyes snapped open, his breath catching sharply in his throat. With a noise between a gasp and a scream, he jolted upright, startling both Lucy and Kai, whose reflexive yelps echoed in the stillness of the room.

Lucy's heart skipped a beat as she watched Chip double over, his breaths escalating into coughs that seemed to reverberate off the distant walls, a sound both alarming and strangely comforting. She felt a surge of relief flood through her, mingled with a tinge of anxiety that refused to dissipate until she knew this wasn't some illusion.

"Chip!" Lucy exclaimed, tears of joy welling in her eyes as she witnessed her friend's recovery. Overwhelmed with emotion, she couldn't resist pulling him off the ground, causing Chip to gasp in surprise. As she hugged him against her cheek, he tensed momentarily, his body stiffening at the sudden closeness. "You're okay! I was so worried about you!"

"Ah! Hey, get off!" Chip hissed, his attempt at pushing her away thwarted by her steadfast grip. "We have rules, remember? This is not a cuddlefest, you idiot!"

A hearty laugh from Kai drew Lucy's attention away from the shadows dancing along the cavern walls. He looked just as relieved as she did, his eyes sparkling in response to her affection. She couldn't help but feel a surge of warmth at the sight.

"Thank you," she whispered to the elf, her gratitude genuine and tinged with a hint of wonder.

"Who are you talking— " Chip began, confusion etched on his face like lines in ancient stone. Yet, as he turned around and saw Kai on the other end of the stone ledge, his expression transformed into one of sheer shock, as if he had stumbled upon a long-lost treasure buried beneath the rubble of forgotten memories.

"Kai?" Chip's voice softened, a melody of disbelief and joy weaving through the cavernous silence. "You're- you're here?" His words echoed, resonating like a whispered prayer answered by the gods themselves, stirring the very air around them with newfound hope.

Wordlessly, and now almost nervously, Kai nodded, his eyes betraying a kaleidoscope of emotions swirling beneath their surface. His gaze flickered between Lucy and Chip, as if navigating the treacherous currents of uncertainty, unsure of his footing on the precipice of their reunion.

Lucy set Chip down just in time for him to dart toward Kai, his excitement palpable as he closed the distance between them in a heartbeat. The raccoon scampered up the elf's frame with the agility of a woodland sprite, wrapping his little paws around Kai's neck in a tight embrace. She watched as Kai hesitated, his torchlight illuminating the conflict playing out in his eyes. And then, almost hesitantly, he returned the hug with his other arm, his chin resting gently on the raccoon's head.

Lucy's heart surged with emotion as she beheld the touching reunion of two souls whose bond of friendship seemed unbreakable at long last.

After a fleeting moment, Chip withdrew, his paw tenderly coming to rest on Kai's dirt-streaked cheek, a kaleidoscope of emotions swirling in his eyes, blending happiness with disbelief. "I… I can't fathom that you returned."

In an abrupt shift, his visage hardened, his hand delivering a stinging blow to the elf's face, prompting Kai's cry of pain and Lucy's startled gasp. "You've got some nerve, don't you?! Coming back to me after the emotional turmoil you left me with!"

"Chip, I've missed you too." Kai sighed softly, his tone strained and carrying the weight of remorse.

Well, almost unbreakable. Either way, a fond smile graced Lucy's lips, softening the edges of her weary soul. Yet, beneath the surface of her joy, there lingered a subtle undercurrent of unease, a whispered question echoing in the depths of her mind. What was Kai doing back with them all of a sudden?

As Chip parted his lips to speak once more, a soft hiss escaped, his body convulsing involuntarily as his paw pressed against his temple, a visible sign of the lingering torment he had endured.

"Are you okay, my friend?" Kai asked with concern as he reached out, but Chip's other paw swatted him away with unexpected force.

"No, I am far from okay," Chip muttered through gritted teeth, gingerly pulling away from Kai's embrace and lowering himself back onto the ground. "Ugh, everything hurts… How did we even end up over here in the first place?"

Lucy's hands clenched together nervously as she gathered the courage to speak. "What's the last thing you remember?" Her voice wavered slightly, betraying her concern for Chip's well-being.

Chip paused, his gaze distant, lost in the labyrinth of fragmented memories. "It's all so hazy," he began, his voice laden with uncertainty. "That cursed Shadow Bat snatched me up, I know that much. But everything beyond that felt like… a nightmare. Just darkness and agony."

Chip's words tugged at Lucy's soul, stirring a profound ache within her heart as she imagined him lost in that dark abyss. Suddenly, he turned his attention to Lucy. As his eyes met hers, she felt a tender tug at her heartstrings, a silent acknowledgment passing between them, unspoken but deeply felt.

"But amidst the torment, I could hear your voice faintly, like a lifeline in the void," he confessed. His eyes, usually sharp and determined, now held a glimmer of raw emotion. "You… you saved me. Again."

Lucy's eyebrows arched in astonishment. Her gaze softened with empathy as she absorbed his gratitude. Without another second of hesitation, she reached out, her hand finding his paw and offering silent reassurance and support. Chip's ears perked up in surprise, but he remained in place, not pulling away.

"It was agonizing to watch you be taken for the second time down here," Lucy confessed, her voice barely above a whisper but brimming with raw sincerity. "But I would have moved mountains to bring you back, regardless of your wishes."

Whether Chip would have contested her resolve if he fully grasped the depth of Lucy's devotion remained uncertain. However, at that moment, he simply nodded, his expression reflecting a mixture of gratitude and humility, as he offered a subdued "Thank you."

A nostalgic sigh escaped Kai, drawing Lucy's attention as he gazed at her and Chip, his jubilant emotions palpable as he absently rubbed his chin.

"I'm just relieved it's finally behind us," Chip confessed, a sense of fatigue evident in his words. He let out a weary sigh as he turned away from Lucy. "I hope to never endure anything of the sort again."

Feeling a mixture of exhaustion and relief, Lucy withdrew her hand from Chip, placing both of hers in her lap. Despite everything, she was grateful that her friend was back safe and sound.

"Lucy, it's imperative that we ascertain whether the Watcher's exposure to the anomaly has left any lasting effects," The Sister Soul interjected urgently. "Any symptoms emerging from it could pose a dire threat to reality itself!"

Lucy's smile faltered, her throat tightening with anxiety. "And how are you feeling now, Chip? Are there any alarming sensations coursing through your body?"

Chip locked eyes with Lucy, his expression weighted with thoughtfulness as he considered her question. "Well, apart from this relentless pounding in my head, I seem to be holding up all right."

The Sister Soul released a soft sigh, emanating a wave of relief that seemed to envelop Lucy alone.

Chip's demeanor shifted, his eyes betraying a trace of concern. "I should be asking about you, really. You went to extreme lengths to eliminate that Shadow Bat for my sake, and I know crossing such a line wasn't something you wanted…"

{Background Music - Silence}

Lucy's smile wavered, a mix of guilt and unease shadowing her features. "Oh, I didn't kill it, Chip. I… I merely inflicted fatal wounds," she confessed, her gaze flicking to Kai, who seemed increasingly tense. "Kai arrived just in time to finish the deed. He rescued us, set the place on fire, and guided us here through that massive pipe in the wall."

Chip's gaze trailed Lucy's, landing on Kai, who sat with fists clenched, the doll held firmly in his lap.

"So, you came through for us after all," Chip remarked, his tone a blend of astonishment, confusion, and suspicion. "What prompted the sudden change of heart?"

"Yeah, and why do you have that doll that I'm eighty-five—" Lucy's words tapered off abruptly, her eyes widening in disbelief as she hastily rummaged through her bag. "One hundred percent sure was in my bag the whole time?"

Kai shrugged, a subtle discomfort creeping into his demeanor.

"I suppose I have quite the tale to share," he muttered, his gaze darting away with a mix of anticipation and anxiety.

❤❤❤

{Background Music - Echoed Desolation}

Kai recounted the tumultuous events that had transpired since he last encountered Lucy and Chip. He admitted to eavesdropping on their conversation outside his hideout, torn between the longing to join them and the necessity of maintaining his secrecy for the sake of his loved ones. As he continued, he delved into the harrowing encounter with The Entity, a malevolent force distinct from The Vampire King, which had ensnared his soul years prior. He bared the agony inflicted upon him by The Entity, detailing how it tormented him with revelations about Khiara and Bonnie's downward spirals, aiming to coerce him into succumbing to his vampiric instincts. It forced repulsive thoughts about the 'innocent human girl' into his mind. Lucy felt a combination of discomfort and revulsion, realizing that these thoughts were not of Kai's making. Nonetheless, she grappled with the unsettling truth that someone had harbored such thoughts at all.

Continuing his narrative, Kai disclosed his confrontation with the haunting voice and recounted his vehement outburst against it. This confrontation ultimately led him to discover a mysterious doll hidden within his hideout. Initially wary of its presence, Kai found himself drawn to the doll, and upon closer examination, he was overwhelmed by a flood of suppressed memories dating back to a time long before the war. In a poignant twist, this unexpected encounter provided Kai with a brief but profound respite from the relentless torment that had plagued him for so long.

"The doll must have fallen out of my bag when you attacked me," Lucy said, her voice tinged with surprise as she observed Kai cradling the doll on his lap. A puzzled expression flickered across her face. "And now it's your… emotional support toy?"

Meeting Lucy's gaze, Kai nodded, his eyes gleaming with unapologetic pride.

"I've named him Benjamin! Holding him keeps the bad thoughts at bay," he explained tenderly, lifting the doll to his face and planting a kiss on its head. "You can't have him back, I'm afraid. I've already marked him as my own."

"Wow…" Chip commented, his voice laced with surprise.

Lucy felt a pang of unease witnessing Kai's attachment to the doll, but she pushed it aside. If it brought him comfort, she could overlook its origin as a possession of a deceased child and her original intention to bury it.

"Anyway," Kai continued in a calm voice, bringing his explanations to a winding stop, "at that moment, I knew deep down that this solace would not last forever. Once it faded, I'd be right back at square one. But I was determined not to let him gain an advantage over me. For the first time in years, I felt ready and willing to face him, which brings us to the here and now."

Lucy's heart swelled with a mixture of empathy and fury for the torment inflicted upon Kai. The violation of his mind and the imposition of lecherous thoughts filled her with intense anger. It was one thing to endure such depravity directly, but to witness someone else being coerced into such repulsive thoughts was unforgivable.

With unwavering determination burning in her eyes, Lucy knew that The Vampire King had to be brought to justice. The night would not draw to a close until it happened.

"Kai, I'm so sorry…" Chip's voice quivered with guilt, his regretful gaze fixed on Kai, who bore the weight of untold suffering since their last encounter. "I shouldn't have left you so abruptly. If only I had stayed, perhaps I could have…"

Kai raised his palm, halting the raccoon's flow of remorse.

"Don't burden yourself with this, Chip," Kai advised, his voice steeped in empathy. "You simply can't carry this guilt as if you alone were accountable for everything. It would crush you! And it's simply not fair, no matter how persuasively your mind may argue otherwise."

Chip's mouth opened and closed, a sigh escaping him as he shifted his gaze away, his inner turmoil palpable in his eyes.

"I know," he admitted, his voice tinged with vulnerability. "It's just difficult not to instantly jump to that."

He glanced at Lucy, a mix of shame and struggle reflected in his eyes. Lucy's heart twinged with sympathy as she witnessed him wrestle with his emotions.

"In my years here, I've come to realize that wrestling with the knowledge that our actions might have changed someone else's life is a profound challenge," Kai said, clutching the doll to his chest as he faced the flowing water below. "But water will always find its course, regardless of where you try to guide it. Ultimately, it's up to the individual to navigate through the current."

As Chip absorbed Kai's words, Lucy noticed a slight easing of tension in his shoulders. She hoped he was reflecting on her earlier words outside the elf's hideout.

"You're right," Chip admitted, his voice trailing off into a murmur. "It's just… challenging to fully accept sometimes."

Kai nodded empathetically, his gaze reflecting understanding. "We all carry burdens," he spoke gently. "If anything, I owe both of you an apology. Earlier, I resisted your support out of fear, worrying I would drag you into the darkness that still haunts me. It was… wrong."

Lucy's heart swelled with compassion for Kai, sensing the weightiness of his confession.

"You know, it's okay to be afraid, Kai," she reassured him, her voice soft and comforting.

Kai met Lucy's gaze without malice, his eyes reflecting a blend of gratitude and vulnerability as if her understanding had lifted a burden from his shoulders, allowing him to breathe a little easier.

"Maybe so, but that's no excuse for my previous actions," he admitted, his tone heavy with regret. "I only hope that you can find it in your hearts to forgive me and grant me a chance to prove myself."

"What do you mean?" Chip asked, hope flickering in his eyes like a distant flame suddenly reignited.

"Surely not what I think he does," The Sister Soul whispered, evoking a twinge of worry within Lucy.

With another deep breath, Kai's gaze shifted to one of resolution.

"Allow me to clarify; you two stand closer to the sewers' exit than ever before," he explained, his voice resolute. "I aspire to join forces with you to jointly vanquish The Vampire King and purge Redwell of his malevolence once and for all."

Lucy and Chip exchanged astonished glances, their eyes wide with disbelief. They hadn't truly anticipated Kai offering such assistance.

"Kai, are you certain?" Chip asked in surprise, his gaze fixed on Kai as though he'd sprouted a second head.

Kai nervously scratched the back of his head, his demeanor fraught with tension. "Not entirely, but I'm feeling more determined than before. And, while I may lack combat prowess these days, I can at least lead you to his lair."

He paused, his smile faltering. "I still represent a danger, particularly to you, Lucy…"

Lucy winced, her concern deepening as she grasped the weight of Kai's words.

"But in those recollections, I unearthed the purpose I once fought for," Kai pressed on. "My family, my friends. I caused them harm, whether inadvertently or intentionally. I can't erase those actions, but maybe now is the time to start making amends."

The Sister Soul groaned, her frustration evident. "Of all the times for a moment of clarity." At that moment, Lucy couldn't entirely disagree.

"Speaking of Khiara," Chip began, observing Kai's tense reaction at the mention of his sister's name, "are you still worried about her seeing you in this state?"

Kai offered a weak shrug. "How could I not? She's everything to me. Discovering what she's become in my absence feels like facing a fate worse than death. And yet, the idea of her possibly being angry or repulsed by my whereabouts all this time… I almost wish it were true, if only to spare her from the potential harm of this curse."

"None of that will happen, Kai," Lucy insisted, her brow furrowed and her arms crossed, exuding confident yet empathetic energy. "I may not know Khiara as well as you do, but I believe she misses you. Yes, she might initially be upset, but healing isn't linear, and I've learned that firsthand."

Chip chimed in with a smirk, his tone light but supportive. "The kid's got a point. Your family needs you, buddy. And if anyone can navigate their emotions, it's you. And I will gladly help break the ice for your symphony of sympathy."

Kai snorted, a hint of amusem*nt softening his expression.

"Nice alliteration, but my sentiments remain," he insisted, his tone serious. "I want to return. I want to see my sister and my comrades. I want freedom. I'm just… afraid to take that first step toward my desires, knowing it might be irreversible."

"But it's better than the alternative, right?" Lucy asked knowingly, leaning forward with her hands braced against the ground, her gaze steady and determined. "Lord Fear's plan takes shape in two weeks, and opportunities for closure are dwindling. If there's a time to act, it's now, Kai."

Kai's eyes flickered with a myriad of emotions in rapid succession. With a deep breath, he stood up, torch in hand once again, his gaze drawn to the gaping chasm that dominated the room, his focus fixated on the floating platforms beyond. Lucy leaned back as she and Chip watched him intently, their anticipation palpable, their eyes tracing every movement as he prepared to take action.

"I… don't know if I can," Kai admitted, his tone initially hesitant. But as he turned back to face Lucy and Chip, resolve crept into his voice, his eyes reflecting determination. "But I'm willing to try."

He paused, nerves resurfacing, his expression betraying nervousness. "If you'll have me, that is."

There was a pause, filled with anticipation and uncertainty.

"It depends… Are you willing to beg for it?" Chip asked teasingly, cutting through the serious atmosphere like a knife and eliciting a surprised squeak from Lucy.

Kai sputtered, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment, as Chip burst into laughter. The sound echoed through the room, clear amusem*nt at his prank evident in every note.

"Gotcha, you foolish son of a gun! Oh, your expression was absolutely priceless," Chip exclaimed, barely able to contain his amusem*nt.

Lucy, recovering from her initial shock, couldn't help but join in the laughter. The tension of the moment dissipated, filling the room with a sense of camaraderie.

"Oh, brother," The Sister Soul muttered, her voice tinged with exasperation but a hint of amusem*nt lingering beneath the surface.

As Kai regained his composure, he let out an indignant huff, his cheeks still burning with humiliation.

"You really know how to kill the mood, Chip. I'm starting to regret making the trip all the way out here to help you," he remarked, a playful annoyance lacing his tone alongside genuine embarrassment.

At Kai's words, Lucy's laughter faded, replaced by a puzzled frown as she regarded him. "Hold on a second. How did you manage to get here so quickly, anyway?"

Kai's gaze shifted to Lucy, a softened expression on his face. "Hmm? Oh, I took a shortcut. There's one near the upper levels that leads straight down to where we're standing."

Lucy's jaw hung open in sheer disbelief, a perfect mirror of the astonishment etched on Chip's face as his laughter gradually tapered off.

"I… I'm starting to think you weren't aware of that," Kai remarked sheepishly, his voice tinged with a hint of frustration. "But it's hardly my fault you never bothered to ask!"

The Sister Soul sighed discontentedly. "Well, they certainly act like best friends."

As if eager to dispel the awkwardness he inadvertently caused, Kai swiftly surveyed the area until his gaze alighted upon Chip. It was at that moment that he discerned something truly remarkable.

"Chip, my friend, your tail looks remarkably improved since we last saw it!" Kai exclaimed, his surprise evident in his tone.

Chip blinked, glancing over his shoulder at his once-injured appendage. Lucy mirrored his action, her eyes widening in amazement as they took in the sight of Chip's tail, now restored to its fluffy, pristine state, devoid of the twists and bends from its previous injury.

"Oh, wow!" Chip exclaimed, his shock evident in his widened eyes as he cautiously tested the flexibility of his rejuvenated tail. To both his and Lucy's amazement, it responded perfectly, moving as if it had never been injured.

"No way!" Lucy cheered, her excitement palpable as she clapped her hands. "Chip, this is incredible! You're completely healed!"

Chip's grin widened, his eyes sparkling with excitement like stars dotting the night sky. With a flick of his tail, it rose into the air, spinning with a newfound vitality that brought joy to everyone watching. As it twirled effortlessly, Chip's feet lifted from the ground, buoyed by the elation of flight once again.

"Whoa!" Kai gasped in surprise and amazement, a smile breaking across his face. "I don't remember you ever doing that before."

Chip winked mischievously at Kai, a playful glint in his eye. "Just a little trick I've learned with the new look."

He glanced over at his surroundings, suspended several inches above the ground. "Praise The Angel; it feels incredible to take to the skies once more!"

"Whoo hoo!" Lucy cheered, her fist punching triumphantly into the air, her enthusiasm infectious as she celebrated the return of Chip's special ability. As his feet touched the ground once more, he let out a contented sigh, and she caught the subtle glisten of sweat on his brow.

"It might take some time to readjust," Chip remarked lightly, his tone carrying a hint of optimism amidst the uncertainty, "but having my flight back will surely make things easier for the three of us as we continue on our way."

Kai's expression shifted to one of anxious hope. "You said the three of us. Does that mean…?"

Chip scoffed, smirking at Kai as if the elf were playing dumb. "Of course you're coming with us, dummy. This is a war, and we'll need all the help we can get to stop The Vampire King and Lord Fear."

Lucy nodded, her agreement tinged with unease that gnawed at her heart like a caged beast. Kai's vampire bite still weighed heavily on her mind, especially considering all he had shared moments ago. The risks involved in having someone like that so close to her felt… not very rewarding.

"Thank you. Thank you so very much!" Kai's gratitude radiated through his wide grin as he hugged his doll tightly. "I swear by The Angel itself that I will do my part to ensure we are victorious."

"…If you say so," Lucy said dubiously, her doubts simmering beneath the surface as she stood up, eyeing Kai with a mixture of concern and wariness. "Well, if we're as close to the exit as you say, we should keep moving before any other dangers show up."

She paused, a furrow forming between her brows as she regarded the elf with a skeptical expression. "Unless you happen to know of any other shortcuts?"

Kai appeared lost in thought for a moment before shaking his head. "Nope."

Lucy sighed inwardly. "Great."

"Oh, yeah. I've missed this guy," Chip chimed in with a chuckle, attempting to lighten the mood.

{Background Music - Silence}

Lucy stepped aside, her gaze lingering on Chip and Kai as they walked into the tunnel ahead. Kai's light led the way, casting elongated shadows that danced along the walls as they disappeared into the darkness.

"I don't like this," The Sister Soul murmured, her voice laced with an unease that seemed to permeate the very air. "With all that Kai has revealed since saving us, he appears to be a far greater threat than we had initially imagined."

Lucy shifted uncomfortably, The Sister Soul's words settling heavily upon her shoulders.

"If it's any consolation, I share your unease," she murmured, her voice tinged with apprehension, like a thread stretched to its limit. "But, well, that doll seems to be working so far, and he'd know The Vampire Cathedral better than anyone, so maybe it's worth giving him a chance."

She turned away from the tunnel before her, crossing her arms over her chest in a gesture of comfort. "And, you know, even if I'm scared, he still deserves a happy ending, Sis. And as it stands, we're the best people to make sure that happens before he tries running away again."

A pause lingered between them.

"All of that is… true, I will admit." The Sister Soul conceded. "And I suppose that sending him away would only complicate matters with Chip."

A beat passed before she let out an exasperated sigh, the sound echoing through the cavern like a solemn lament. "Very well. I suppose if it cannot be helped, he shall 'tag along'. But stay cautious of him, Lucy. Temptation is relentless, and even the strongest barriers have their weaknesses."

Lucy nodded, her resolve firm despite the tremors of uncertainty that coursed through her veins.

"…Thanks for your help, by the way, both with the Shadow Bat and when Chip was taken the first time," she whispered, a genuine warmth infusing her tone as she smiled. "I know we don't always see eye to eye, but you're good company, Sis. Though your attitude could use some work."

There was another pause.

"I… respectfully disagree with your assessment," The Sister Soul replied, a hint of reluctance softening her voice. "I don't seek praise for simply fulfilling my duty, but I am glad to have been of assistance. Whenever you listen to me, anyway."

Lucy's smile faltered, a flicker of disappointment shadowing her features. "Sis…"

"It is fine," The Sister Soul interjected gently, her tone betraying a touch of understanding beneath her stoic facade. "Now, let's not linger. It's time to escape this place already."

With a resigned sigh, Lucy directed her attention back to the tunnel in front of her. Taking a deep breath, she strolled forward. Her footsteps echoed softly against the cold walls as she hastened to catch up with Chip and Kai, who had already emerged on the other side, their silhouettes illuminated by the faint glow of freedom beckoning from beyond.

{Background Music - Lost in the Sewers {Upper Variant}

The third puzzle room stood out from the rest with its expansive layout, presenting a scene of meticulous design amid the damp surroundings. The walls, though relatively pristine, bore scars of time in the form of hairline cracks, while sporadic water droplets trickled down from the ceiling, adding a subtle rhythm to the room's ambiance. However, it was the complex mechanism at the far end that commanded attention.

Dominating the dark, underground chamber were three squares spaced along the ground, arranged in a horizontal path. Each square housed two vertical rows of star-shaped pressure plates, situated before translucent gray tubes that protruded from the lower wall. Above the plates, a series of intricately woven black and white pipes adorned the upper wall, their sinuous forms snaking their way just overhead of the imposing bars that obstructed passage to the next tunnel.

Lucy studied the elaborate setup intently, her brow furrowed in concentration as she took in every detail. The arrangement resembled a labyrinth, with two distinct rows of black and white pipes interconnected by a square loop on the far right. Between certain pipes lie several gaps. Positioned at the top and bottom were a pair of typical metal pipes, one leading from the wall and the other leading into the side of the closed tunnel.

{Author's Note: For a visual representation of this puzzle, check out the Intro to Physics section in Batman Arkham Knight.}

"Well, well, what a peculiar contraption," Chip remarked casually, his nonchalance a stark contrast to the gravity of their situation. "I'll take it over any more toilet heads, that's for sure."

Kai shot Chip a perplexed look, his confusion mirrored in Lucy's expression as she surveyed their surroundings.

"What do you think all those pressure plates do?" Lucy inquired, her voice tinged with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension as she gestured toward the abundance of switches scattered across the floor.

Already approaching the first row of plates on the far left, Chip replied, his determination evident in the set of his jaw. "There's only one way to find out."

As Chip stepped onto the row, a distinct click resonated through the room, sending a shiver across Lucy's neck as the plates lowered into the ground beneath his weight. The sound of whirring machinery echoed from within the walls as the corresponding pipe in front of him ascended several inches from the ground, its movement accompanied by a mechanical hum.

However, Lucy's anticipation quickly turned to disappointment as the pipe failed to connect to either row of black and white pipes above.

Above, water flowed from the wall into the highest pipe, tracing its path until it reached the edge. The lack of interconnected pipes caused the water to abruptly reverse, triggering a reset mechanism that returned the puzzle to its initial state despite Chip still standing on the plates.

"I think I understand," Lucy began, her voice steady despite the setback. "It's like those pipe mazes we encountered earlier. We need to guide the water through its designated path, likely ending at the pipe inside the tunnel's side."

Chip furrowed his brow, his gaze fixed on the plates beneath him, as he repeated the process of backing off the pressure plates and pressing them again, each attempt yielding the same disappointing result. "You might be onto something, kid, but I can't seem to raise this pipe any higher!"

"Perhaps this specific challenge would be better handled under, say, the superpower of teamwork?" Kai suggested, his voice calm yet filled with a sense of purpose as he prepared to contribute his effort to their collective endeavor.

Kai positioned himself on the right row of plates next to Chip, their combined weight activating the mechanism once more.

Another click followed, accompanied by the hum of whirring machinery. Once again, the transparent pipe in front of them rose from the ground, only this time it connected to the bottom row of black and white pipes amidst a symphony of mechanical sounds. Positioned between a curved conduit and the final pipe leading to the end, the pipe now formed a crucial link in the puzzle's intricate chain. However, despite their progress, the highest pipe still lacked a connection. Thus, the water halted at the edge before resetting once again, as if mocking their attempts to solve the enigma before them.

"Interesting observation," Kai remarked, his voice tinged with resignation. "It seems these transparent pipes move further along the puzzle depending on who steps on these plates below us."

He gave a sad sigh, his attention focused on the pressure plates beneath his feet. "Unfortunately, it seems that my years of malnourishment have left me unable to assist in reaching the top…"

Chip's ears perked up at Kai's observation, a spark of inspiration lighting up his eyes.

"Don't underestimate yourself, my friend. You may have just given me an idea," he said. Turning to Lucy, he instructed, "Kid, come over here and switch positions with Kai."

Lucy hesitated for a moment, then decided to comply. With her added weight, the pipe that Chip had kept elevated rose to the top level, connecting with a downward curve and the tube from which water would come, a tangible sign of progress in the intricate puzzle before them.

"That's it!" Chip exclaimed triumphantly. "So, I just have to use you when it comes to navigating the top row of this puzzle and then switch with Kai when it comes to reaching the bottom row."

Lucy, though pleased with their progress, couldn't help but adopt a hurt expression. "So, you're telling me I'm somehow bigger than him?" She gestured to Kai before looking down, propping her hands beneath her stomach. "I don't know how to feel about that."

Kai gave the doll in his hands a questioning look as he shrugged.

The room filled with a splash as water began to surge through the highest pipe once more, a steady stream cascading downward, guided by the interconnected tubes arranged through Lucy and Chip's efforts.

"Save the self-consciousness for later, kid," Chip declared. "We've got a puzzle to solve."

The water continued its leisurely journey through the first two pipes, tracing the intricate path before it with a gentle murmur. Lucy and Chip moved in unison to the second and third rows of pressure plates in the middle of the room, their synchronized steps echoing the clicks and hums of the machinery as they activated the mechanism. With each descent of the plates, a sense of anticipation filled the air, building as the transparent pipe on the left lowered and the central one ascended, seamlessly connecting to a curved conduit and a downward ramp leading into a loop. This loop would guide the water to the bottom row of the maze once it navigated past a gap at the bottom and another at the top.

As the water began its ascent up the loop, Chip and Kai advanced to the final rows of pressure plates, their movements precise and purposeful. The third transparent pipe lifted smoothly, seamlessly connecting with the bottom part of the loop and allowing the water to continue its ride. Sensing the opportunity to further aid their efforts, Lucy then switched places with Kai to ensure the clear pipe would rise higher and fill the second gap, driving their progress forward and finally giving the water easy access to the bottom row of the maze.

Kai and Chip returned to the second square of pressure plates as they focused on the final phase of the puzzle. Together, they pressed down on the plates, their actions creating a harmonious duet of clicks and a satisfying hum as the second translucent pipe ascended once again. It attached itself to the second-to-last curved tube past the loop, their coordinated efforts inching them closer to their goal. They then moved to the first square, repeating the process. As they pressed down on the plates once more, the first pipe connected seamlessly with the last curve leading back into the wall, completing the intricate network of pipes with a final click and a sense of accomplishment.

As the water flushed down the final pipe and vanished into the wall, a final click and a cheerful hum filled the air, signaling the trio's success. Lucy's heart swelled with pride and relief, a wave of emotion washing over her as the bars blocking the entrance to the next tunnel lowered into the ground, unveiling the path forward.

"Great work, everyone!" Kai cheered, his voice laden with enthusiasm. However, his celebratory mood was abruptly halted by a fit of coughing; the sudden interruption cast a shadow over the moment of victory. Lucy and Chip glanced at him with concern etched on their faces, but Kai waved it off, gesturing for them to continue despite the lingering discomfort.

With a mix of accomplishment and anticipation coursing through them, they stepped past the completed puzzle and through the newly opened passage. Lucy, however, maintained a noticeable distance from Kai. Kai noticed her hesitation, and an apparent pang of shame twisted his expression into a frown, his discomfort mirrored in Lucy's troubled gaze.

"Uh, Lucy… I must say, I admire your cooperation with Chip." Kai cheered in an attempt to lighten the mood, his voice infused with a touch of warmth and sincerity. "If it were just the two of us, he'd spend hours complaining about my 'supposed' lack of focus during activities like this." He emphasized 'supposed' with air quotes, using only the index fingers holding his doll.

Despite the fear gnawing at her heart, Lucy managed to summon a small smile at Kai's praise, her gratitude for his acknowledgment mingling with a flicker of uncertainty. She hoped Chip appreciated her efforts just as much.

"First off, it's not 'supposed'." Chip grumbled as he shot Kai a sharp glare, his tone laced with a hint of irritation. "And I've only complained because the last time you got distracted, I ended up serving gruel for three hours with that musty centur of a lunch lady."

Kai groaned dramatically, his eyes rolling into the back of his head before snapping back to narrow at Chip. "It's been over a decade, and you're still complaining about that?"

Between Chip and Kai, Lucy couldn't help but find amusem*nt in their banter. Their camaraderie seemed to transcend time, unfolding as if nothing had changed in the last decade.

"Yeah, you're damn right I am!" Chip hissed indignantly at the elf, his tail swishing with agitation as he unleashed his frustration. "I could have been out partying with the boys if you hadn't been too busy ogling the cute teacher across the street to give me a heads-up."

"Forgive me for my curious age, then!" Kai exclaimed, throwing his hands up in a theatrical display of innocence. "But let's not pretend you aren't more disappointed about missing out on getting drunk than spending quality time with your BBB."

"BBB?" Lucy repeated in confusion, pulling Kai's attention to her for a moment.

"Best, bestest, bestie, of course!" Kai answered with a casual shrug, as if he hadn't just coined the term on the spot. Lucy could only blink in response, a small chuckle escaping her lips.

Chip let out a fake laugh, his head bobbing from side to side in a comical display as Kai frowned down at him again.

"Mighty fine words from the elf who bawled like a baby when I used him as a shield against an angry ghost because," and suddenly, he began to clumsily imitate Kai's voice, "'ectoplasm got in my no-no-square.'"

Lucy's shoulders shook with laughter, the sound bubbling up from within her despite the gravity of her situation. She quickly covered her mouth to stifle the sound, her eyes sparkling with mirth.

Kai's cheeks flamed, a fiery hue spreading across his face as he sputtered in embarrassment. "H- hey!" he exclaimed, his voice strained as he hastily lowered it, his hand instinctively covering the side of his face nearest to Lucy. "Don't mention that in front of the child, who happens to be The Hero of Prophecy!"

Chip's grin widened, relishing in Kai's discomfort as he smugly looked up at the elf. "Oh, why the embarrassment? Ghostly encounters make for great tales. Yours just happened to be a total failure."

Kai locked eyes with Chip for a moment longer, but his attempt to salvage his dignity only seemed to intensify his humiliation. With a frustrated groan, he turned away from Chip, directing a glare as sharp as daggers at the wall beside him. Suddenly, a malicious spark ignited in his eyes as an idea seemed to form in his mind.

"Whatever, Mister 'I had a nightmare of Squoosh-O's' kissing me,'" the elf declared loudly enough for his words to echo around the tunnel.

Chip's face fell in mortification, his expression a mix of shock and embarrassment as he emitted a choked gasp in response to Kai's unexpected counterattack. Meanwhile, beside them, Lucy couldn't contain her laughter any longer. She lowered her hands from her mouth, the sound echoing through the tunnel room and down the path leading out of it.

As Chip and Kai continued to exchange heated words, Lucy gradually managed to calm herself down, though she still needed to let out a few coughs to recover from her sudden fit of laughter.

"Okay, I have to say, you two are kind of adorable," Lucy remarked with a playful glint in her eye.

Chip and Kai fell momentarily silent at that, exchanging a shared look of mock offense directed at Lucy.

"Adorable?" Chip challenged. "I'll have you know, I'm the epitome of hostility."

Kai, still slightly red-faced, managed a wry smile. "If you find me at all endearing, perhaps you're not as innocent as I thought."

Lucy shrugged, her chuckle carrying over to the others as they continued through the tunnel. Soon, they reached a curved turn to the left that would bring them to the end.

{Background Music - Spoopy Doopy}

The tunnel widened abruptly, unveiling a small chamber cloaked in an eerie silence, punctuated only by the gentle melody of trickling water and a faint, almost mystical resonance resonating from the depths of the shadows. Jagged crevices marred the walls, while stubborn grime clung defiantly to the floor. Above, two rusted pipes wound their way along the ceiling, mirroring each other in a symphony of decay. On the right, the pipe curved gracefully downward, leading into a yawning orifice where a pool of emerald-green water shimmered with an otherworldly glow.

At the chamber's distant end, an arched aperture emerged from the darkness, a stark beacon of purity amidst the weathered decay. Thick, vertical bars obscured the full extent of the view, their surfaces pulsating with an ominous obsidian hue that emitted a haunting hum, like a lament from forgotten depths.

"So, this is the exit to the sewers," Chip remarked, his voice carrying a blend of relief and apprehension. He cast a wary glance at the imposing barrier ahead. "About time, I'd say. But it doesn't look like it'll be any easier to get through it."

Lucy and Chip closed the distance to the exit, their footsteps echoing softly in the chamber. Kai, his grip firm on the torch, held it aloft, casting flickering shadows that danced along the walls. His eyes, a reflection of both fascination and worry, darted between the dimly lit path ahead and the foreboding barrier blocking their way out of the sewers.

"They're so unlike any of the other blockades we've encountered in Redwell," Lucy mused, her brows furrowing in contemplation as she leaned forward, her hand propping against her chin. "And I don't see any mechanisms to open them."

Lucy stopped in front of the barrier. After a moment of contemplation, she tapped into her reservoir of vulnerability, harnessing her Soul Power. As the magic spread across her being, she raised her foot and delivered a forceful kick to the lowest bars of the barrier. The resulting clamor of metal echoed through the room, causing Chip and Kai to flinch away. Lucy teetered backward, her balance lost, and landed on her rear with a harsh yelp.

As the noise subsided, a heavy silence descended upon the chamber once more, wrapping around them like a suffocating blanket. The only sounds that dared to break the quiet were the low hum emanating from the undamaged bars and the gentle flow of water nearby.

"I'm afraid I've attempted something of that sort already…" Kai murmured, his shoulders slumping slightly in resignation. "Whatever those bars are constructed of, they seem impervious to any form of physical or magical interference."

"Okay, so… brute force isn't going to work," Chip concluded, rubbing his ears to ease the discomfort the noise had caused. "We'll need to find another approach."

Lucy nodded in agreement, her magic disappearing as she grunted through the physical ache that radiated from her body. As she shifted forward, her foot brushed over something on the ground, producing a clank that echoed softly in her ears. Intrigued, she paused before looking down, her eyes narrowing in focus. Moving her leg again, she discovered that each of her moves caused a similar noise.

The realization sparked a glimmer of curiosity amidst their predicament, prompting her to move to sit on her knees. Drawing her dagger, she dragged it across the area of interest along the floor, recognizing the scrape of metal emitting beneath a layer of grime.

"Hey, I think there's something under here!" Lucy called out, her voice a mix of excitement and apprehension.

Chip gave a look of surprise as he strolled up to Lucy, his curiosity piqued by her discovery. Seeing where she was examining, he swatted her hand away with his tail, a swift and unexpected gesture that caught Lucy off guard before, without hesitation, he thrust his claws deep into the sludgy, mire-covered ground, digging away at it with remarkable speed and precision.

Lucy watched in amazement as her friend worked, effectively peeling away the layers of grime with ease.

(Go, Chip!) she cheered in her mind.

Within seconds, he unveiled the contents hidden beneath the grime: a circular slot that was embedded into the ground, its metal surface reflecting distorted images of Lucy and Chip across its sleek exterior. Smooth and unmarred by the filth that had concealed it, the slot gleamed with an otherworldly sheen.

Lucy, Chip, and The Sister Soul gasped in unison as the hidden mechanism was unveiled before them. The base of the slot felt warm against Lucy's fingertips as she brushed aside some dust particles, revealing a hollow cavity that seemed custom-fitted for holding something of a distinct shape.

"Hang on, I recognize this contraption…" Chip began, his brow furrowed in deep concentration as he pieced together the puzzle before them. "There've been reports of similar ones in other dimensions, each custom-made to only activate with the Dark Bringers emblem."

"You mean the moon?" Lucy asked, her surprise evident as she looked up at Chip, her eyes widening with realization at the implications of his words.

Chip nodded solemnly, his gaze steady as he met Lucy's eyes. "Yeah. But like the sun, the symbol is sacred and only allowed use through The Lords or their most trusted acolytes."

His gaze moved to the bars, his expression changing to shock, as if the pieces of a puzzle had suddenly fallen into place. "I had started to think that maybe… The Vampire King infected and imprisoned Kai behind Lord Fear's back, but I was wrong the whole time. Lord Fear knew about this and helped The Vampire King lock Kai away!"

Lucy gasped, her eyes darting toward the threshold of the tunnel, where Kai stood anxiously, his eyes blown wide in shock. Her heart clenched at the sight of his distress, a wave of empathy washing over her.

"So I see…" Kai mused, his voice tinged with a mix of resignation and sorrow as he looked away, his head tilting in thought. "Yes, yes, it's all coming back to me. I… remember The Lord of Darkness's presence lingering as I was thrown into this very room all those years ago, powerless to do anything but watch as The Vampire King sealed me behind these desolate walls."

He gave a heavy sigh. "Unfortunately, at the time, my emotions were so high-strung that I fled before seeing where the beast hid the key to open the door."

"But that doesn't make any sense!" Chip exclaimed, his frustration boiling over as he turned to Kai, seeking answers in his eyes. "Lord Fear plans to exterminate every Light Bringer in the universe, not pit them against each other. Why would he help The Vampire King lock you away like this?"

"I don't know, Chip. I've… spent so long trying to forget that battle that most of its contents are a blur," the elf confessed, his eyes flickering with sadness, his fingers tightening around the doll's cotton head. "I fear that trying to remember would only further damage my psyche."

Chip's gaze fell, mirroring Lucy's sense of helplessness in the face of their predicament.

"Fearaity cares naught for the people, only his own twisted desires." The Sister Soul interjected, her voice seething with palpable anger. "He'd sooner weave lies, scheme endlessly, and pander to his whims, all for the sake of his insatiable thirst for power and control."

(Then you reckon he sanctioned this just to keep Mainyu in his corner?) Lucy queried.

"Something along those lines, indeed," The Sister Soul replied, her tone contemplative. "Or perhaps…"

"But regardless," Kai continued with a tinge of regret, unwittingly interrupting The Sister Soul as he glanced back at the others, "if that emblem is our sole ticket out of here, it seems luck has abandoned us."

He shook his head. "I've combed every corner of this place, only to uncover nothing but scraps, sludge, and sewage."

Lucy remained on her knees as she looked back at the metal slot, her mind swirling with thoughts provoked by Kai's words. He undoubtedly possessed a far more intimate knowledge of the sewers than most. If the key wasn't visible on the surfaces, where else could it be hidden?

While lost in thought, the continuous flow of water rang in Lucy's ears more than the humming of the bars. She turned her head, her gaze catching the pool to the right of the exit. There was something about the way the water moved—something about its rhythm—that beckoned to her, stirring a flicker of intuition within her mind.

Slowly, she rose to her feet, her curiosity pulling her toward the pool's edge.

"Wait, what are you doing?" She heard Chip ask behind her, but she paid it no mind. Standing before the pool, she peered into its depths, her reflection distorted by the liquid's surface. The murkiness obscured what lay beneath, yet that only seemed to intensify her focus when considering one possibility.

"Have you ever tried searching underwater?"

Chip and Kai exchanged shocked, uneasy glances before turning their attention back to her.

"Ah, no, I haven't dared," Kai answered, wrinkling his nose in disdain. "The water down here is notorious for its filth, and I doubt I could hold my breath long enough to search the deep pools, even if they were clean."

"Given your circ*mstances, it's probably for the best that you haven't attempted it." Chip echoed Kai's sentiments, his expression mirroring the revulsion. "Plus, who in their right mind would willingly dive into that mess based solely on a hunch?"

Undeterred by her group's shared aversion, Lucy spun around to face them, offering a confident nod. "Well, desperate times call for desperate measures, don't they?" she declared boldly.

Chip recoiled, his expression contorting with visible disgust as Lucy's words sank in. "Oh, you can't be serious right now!?" he exclaimed incredulously.

Lucy, however, remained adamant, looking back at the pool from over her shoulder. "Chip, if what Kai said is true, then this might be our only hope. And we've journeyed so far to reach this point, so you can be sure I'm open to every possibility, even the disgusting ones…"

She recoiled slightly, her eyes flickering shut momentarily. "Um, I'd rather not dwell on what lurks beneath the surface when I mention all of that."

"Your spirit is admirable, Lucy, but it won't be as straightforward as you hope," Kai interjected, concern shadowing his features as he motioned toward the pool behind her. "Down there lie the deepest, darkest depths of the sewer. Unless you've suddenly mastered the art of underwater breathing and prolonged eye-opening, survival is unlikely."

Lucy paused for just a moment, her heart fluttering with excitement and nerves as a very special thought came to mind. A smile, filled with anticipation, danced on her lips. With a determined flicker in her eyes, she reached into her satchel, deftly rummaging through her remaining supplies. Finally, her hand found purchase on the ornate silvery-blue headband she had been seeking.

Extracting the Hydren Circlet, she cradled it in her palms, feeling its weight and power resonate within her. As its hues shimmered against the dim stone walls, casting a soft, ethereal glow throughout the once-shadowed chamber, she couldn't help but feel a surge of confidence wash over her.

Kai's eyes widened, and an echoing gasp escaped him. "I- is that… a Hydren Circlet?"

"It sure is," Chip answered, his response carrying a hint of hesitation, as if he still couldn't fully comprehend Lucy's solution to their situation.

"By the light and the dark, I haven't laid eyes on one since…" Kai paused, his gaze wandering through the room, admiring the ornate details of the Hydren Circlet dancing on the walls, casting a captivating play of colors throughout the entire room. "Well, truth be told, I've never actually seen one, but the tales surrounding them were always captivating."

He looked back at Lucy. "May I ask how you came to possess such a rare artifact?"

Lucy managed to smirk, lifting the ornament so its hues bounced off the sides of her face. "It's a long story. But maybe Chip will tell you once everything here is taken care of."

She motioned back to the pool, feeling a sway in her legs from a mixture of adrenaline and uncertainty in her soul. "The important thing is that with this, I'll have no issues diving down in search of the key so we can get out of here."

"That's… not a bad idea," The Sister Soul commented warmly. "I'm impressed, Lucy."

Lucy felt a warmth spread across her cheeks at that little praise, her heart fluttering with a mixture of excitement and nervousness.

Kai, utterly captivated by the Hydren Circlet's mystical aura, appeared wholly convinced, his eyes sparkling with awe as he broke into a one-armed clap, a dopey grin crossing his face. Chip, however, took a cautious step forward, his expression clouded with a worrisome realization.

"But… that's an accessory for one," the raccoon explained, his tone tinged with reluctance. "If you go through with this, you'll have to do it alone, which is less than ideal in a place like this."

Lucy halted in her tracks, her heart sinking at Chip's words. The thought of leaving him again should have been enough to sway her decision, but the pull of the underwater mystery was too strong to ignore. She knew, deep down, that the key lay beneath the water's surface, and the possibility of their escape hung in the balance. Plus, there was the unspoken pressure of The Sister Soul's expectation, a nagging voice in the back of her mind urging her not to dismiss the chance because of her friend.

With a deep breath to steady her nerves, she squared her shoulders and spoke again, her voice carrying a hint of determination tinged with uncertainty. "I'm not keen on separating either, Chip, but if finding that emblem is our only way out, then I'm willing to take the risk."

Chip's expression remained stoic, his eyes reflecting his lingering concern. He took a step closer, as if poised to voice further protest, but Lucy pressed on before he could interject.

"Look, I've handled just about everything else in Redwell so far, haven't I? Remember the Shadow Bat? I faced it head-on without your help." Her hands tightened around the Hydren Circlet with each confident remark, its magical glow reflecting in her steady eyes. "A few minutes underwater won't be my point of no return. And I'll be back before you know it."

In response to Lucy's intervention, Chip's face softened, his ears drooping slightly. After a pause, he lowered his head and let out a sigh.

"I don't particularly fancy the idea, but you might be onto something," he admitted, stealing another glance at her. "Just… be careful? I don't…"

His eyes widened as if realizing the weight of his words before he cleared his throat and assumed his typical bitter demeanor. "You're too young to be meeting The Angel, and I'd rather not be the moron ordering some pastel-pink coffin before the Light Bringer genocide."

Lucy nodded, a reassuring grin spreading across her face. "I swear by The Angel itself that I'll be fine."

She winked, trying to lighten the mood. "And for future reference, my favorite color is blue."

Chip snickered, a small hint of amusem*nt softening his usually stern expression. Unbeknownst to Lucy and him, Kai observed their exchange with a mixture of contemplation and fondness reflected in his eyes.

As Lucy turned back toward the pool, she carefully set the Hydren Circlet down on the ground, ensuring her hands were free to remove her equipment without further risk of getting them wet or damaged. Methodically, she began to unburden herself of her belongings, each item placed in a neat pile at the edge of the pool. Her bag, bracelet, cape, boots, and socks all joined the growing collection.

Just as she reached for The Sister's Pendant to remove it…

"Keep the necklace on, Lucy," The Sister Soul demanded, her tone leaving no room for argument. "Even without my brother's power, I can assist you in navigating the water to find the key."

Though taken aback, Lucy nodded in acceptance, grateful for the unexpected support. Her fingers released their grip on The Sister's Pendant, so it remained comfortably around her neck as she prepared herself for the upcoming challenge.

Crouching down, she retrieved the Hydren Circlet once more, feeling its weight in her hands as she took a deep, steady breath.

{Background Music - Silence}

With resolve in her heart, she carefully positioned it on the top of her head, the cool metal sending a shiver of anticipation down her spine.

{Background Music - Heart's Magic}

A gentle yet invigorating pulse of energy surged through her soul as the Hydren Circlet settled into place. A brilliant flash erupted, and vibrant, kaleidoscopic hues illuminated the walls of the sewer.

Kai, already captivated by the Circlet's earlier spectacle, widened his eyes in further awe, earning a newfound appreciation for the display as rainbow hues illuminated Benjamin's worn little face.

The ornament's mystical power enveloped Lucy's head, creating a transparent, shimmering field around it. With a breath, she realized that the magical barrier had formed an air pocket, allowing her to breathe comfortably in the damp, musty sewer air. She looked down with a sense of wonder, marveling at the enchanting display that spread to the rest of her body, capturing the finer details of her clothing and The Sister's Pendant. As the magical light reached her chest, she felt a comforting warmth in her heart, an empowering embrace that banished the chill of the sewers from her bones.

Once the magic reached her legs, her entire being glowed with radiant light. Chip's initial worry had given way to fascination throughout the transformation. As the display concluded, his eyes, reflecting the glow of Lucy's magic bubble, unconsciously softened as he took her in.

Lucy grinned widely, her excitement palpable, as she moved freely within the magical field that had enveloped her. The Hydren Circlet not only protected her but also enhanced her vision, allowing her to perceive the sewer with remarkable clarity. She could discern even the subtle currents in the water and the glimmers of debris beneath the murky surface.

She looked back at Chip and Kai from over her shoulder, her Hydren radiance shining against their awed expressions. Her gaze lingered on Chip—a silent exchange of trust and understanding, she hoped.

Turning back to face the pool, Lucy dragged her feet forward, coming to a halt when her toes dangled over the edge. She crouched down, her fingertips grazing the cool stone of the sewer, grounding herself in the moment.

Despite the reassuring presence of the Hydren Circlet, a persistent knot of nerves tightened in her stomach. The unknown depths before her still stirred a primal fear, causing her pulse to quicken. With a steady breath to compose herself, she focused on the greater purpose at hand. This dive would lead her out of Redwell's underground confines. She'd be granted the strength to confront Mainyu's evil. The strength to save the universe!

That was enough of a reason to keep going.

With determination in her heart, Lucy pushed off the edge and dove into the water with a resounding splash, ready to face whatever challenges lay ahead.

❤❤❤

{Background Music - Silence}

As Lucy disappeared into the water, the room, momentarily alive with kaleidoscopic hues, was plunged back into darkness, amplifying the anxiety that gripped Chip's heart. The sudden absence of her presence felt like a void, leaving him with a sense of unease as he awaited her return.

Try as he might, the raccoon couldn't shake the worry gnawing at his soul. The uncertainty of what challenges lay beneath the surface weighed heavily on him. And despite the kid's proven competence, he knew that skill alone wasn't a guarantee of survival in such perilous circ*mstances.

"Worry not, my friend," Kai reassured, his voice a balm to Chip's unease and his eyes shining with hope as he turned to the raccoon. "I have faith in The Hero, young as she may be. We'll be out of here in no time!"

Chip turned his head, observing Kai as he ambled back into the shadows before settling himself in the middle of the room. Placing the doll in his lap, Kai patted the ground next to him, extending a welcoming invitation to join him in the quiet moment of respite.

"Now, come over here if you please," Kai requested sweetly. "We've got much to catch up on, and I'm quite curious about this new form of yours."

The raccoon hesitated, torn between remaining vigilant and succumbing to his friend's comforting distraction. After a moment's contemplation, he sighed, resigned to temporarily set aside his worries.

As he walked over to join the elf, a singular thought came to mind: Good luck, kid…

❤❤❤

{Background Music - Under The Water}

Lucy's surroundings underwent a breathtaking transformation right before her eyes. The enchantment of the Hydren Circlet worked its magic, whisking her away from the grim confines of the sewers to an ethereal underwater realm. Vibrant hues pierced through the murky green, illuminating every detail with a radiant brilliance that defied the darkness. Swirling currents captivated her gaze, while the ocean floor unfolded in a mesmerizing mosaic of rocks and sandhills, adorned with stone structures stretching as far as her eyes could discern.

Adding to the enchantment, the waters were unexpectedly teeming with a new breed of creatures, their graceful forms gliding through the liquid expanse. Their gelatinous beings bore a resemblance to jellyfish, albeit with a fantastical twist. Instead of conventional tentacles, they boasted long, iridescent tendrils trailing behind them, softly glowing in the water's embrace.

As she treaded water to stay afloat, Lucy couldn't help but marvel at the hidden beauty concealed beneath the surface of the sewer.

"I fail to comprehend your fascination." The Sister Soul grumbled, her voice slicing through Lucy's reverie like a blade through silk. "Without the Hydren Circlet's magic, this place is as repugnant as the rest of the sewer."

"It's all about perspective, Sis," Lucy remarked with a gentle smile, thankful for the air bubble that allowed her to speak freely. "Everything and everyone has their flaws, but how you choose to view them makes all the difference."

She brought her hands to her heart. "I look at Chip and see the cutest critter in the universe."

She motioned to her surroundings. "Here, I see a world of magical beauty!"

There was a pregnant pause before The Sister Soul let out a resigned sigh.

"Well, if your optimistic outlook has brought you this far, then who am I to argue?" she replied with a hint of sarcasm tainting her tone. "But remember, we're not here for leisurely swims. If a Dark Bringer's emblem truly lurks within these depths, we must find it swiftly."

Lucy nodded as her gaze swept the water's surface, searching for any hint of the elusive key. Yet her attention was soon captured by the mesmerizing sight of the diverse array of sea creatures gracefully navigating the murky depths around her. She watched as their iridescent tendrils delicately manipulated the currents, extracting particles from the very air they swam through.

"Have to say, I didn't expect anything to be living in these depths…" Lucy mused, her hand absentmindedly tracing patterns on her chin. "Those creatures kind of look like jellyfish. Not that I've ever seen one outside of cartoons before."

"Aquamorbs, if my memory serves me correctly," The Sister Soul chimed in, her tone a blend of scholarly authority and mild amusem*nt. "They thrive in places like these, feeding on waste and detritus while also contributing to the delicate balance of the microbial community. In simpler terms, they maintain a healthy ecosystem within the sewer waters, which likely explains why these particular depths do not smell like the rest of the sewer."

As Lucy absorbed The Sister Soul's information, her expression softened with appreciation. She watched intently as one of the 'Aquamorbs' approached her side, its ethereal presence drawing her attention. Before she could utter a word, the creature emitted a mesmerizing light display that outshone even the brilliance of the Hydren Circlet. Lucy instinctively recoiled in shock, gaping as the Aquamorb glided past her without a care in the universe.

"Though generally peaceful, their bursts of light are a means of warding off hindrances or potential threats," The Sister Soul explained calmly.

"I should probably keep my distance then…" Lucy replied, her voice trembling with concern. "For all we know, losing The Dimensional Soul made them super aggressive as well. And I don't want to get into any fights after leaving all my equipment on the surface."

"True," The Sister Soul agreed solemnly. "There's also the fact that Aquamorbs are compelled to absorb and clean dirty liquid regardless of the circ*mstances, and to my knowledge, humans have more than half of their bodies composed of water."

Lucy's heart skipped a beat at The Sister Soul's words. Fear gripped her momentarily, but she took a deep breath, forcing herself to compose her scattered thoughts.

With a determined glare, she turned her focus back to the depths of the sewer. "Forget that. Let's just go find that key."

With resolve coursing through her veins, Lucy propelled herself through the depths of the sewer with a powerful surge of speed. Each stroke of her arms sliced through the water effortlessly, overcoming any resistance offered by the swirling currents around her. She maneuvered with grace, weaving her way through the dance of the Aquamorbs surrounding her. The Hydren Circlet's luminous glow left a trail of ethereal radiance in her wake, painting the surrounding landscape with a shimmering aura. Wide walls adorned with weathered plants and rusted pipes draped in delicate moss took on an eerie yet enchanting beauty, casting a spellbinding spell over Lucy as she ventured deeper into the underwater realm.

As she swam further ahead, Lucy scanned every nook and cranny of her surroundings, searching over, under, and around the rocky structures that dotted the seabed. Despite her thorough exploration, the moon emblem remained elusive, as if teasing her with its absence.

"Nothing yet, but don't give up, Lucy." The Sister Soul had exclaimed emphatically at one point. "We will search everywhere if we must!"

"Even over there?" Lucy inquired, pointing in a seemingly random direction amidst the vastness of the underwater world.

"Is there a part of everywhere?"

"Uh… I guess," Lucy admitted, feeling a bit sheepish.

"Then search there!"

❤❤❤

The search persisted, yet yielded no fruitful results. Frustration simmered beneath Lucy's determination as she perched herself on the ground, pondering with a furrowed brow and a hand resting thoughtfully on her chin.

It was then that her attention was drawn to a trio of Aquamorbs gliding towards her side. She leaped out of their path with a quick reflex, afloat once again as they drifted past. A particularly silly idea sparked in her mind at that, and she decided to follow them for a moment, mimicking the movements of their iridescent tendrils with her legs to the best of her ability.

"Just what do you think you're doing?!" The Sister Soul demanded, her tone tinged with exasperation.

"Shh!" Lucy responded with a mischievous gleam in her eyes as she forged ahead. "Let me work my magic!"

The Sister Soul released an irate sigh.

❤❤❤

Between scouring every inch of the water she could reach and mimicking the graceful movements of the magical creatures around her, exhaustion began to weigh upon Lucy. Eventually, she found herself perched atop a twisted rock structure shaped like a spire, a considerable distance from her starting point within the depths of the sewer. With fatigue tugging at her limbs, she settled into a seated position, crossing her legs and propping her elbows on her knees. Weary hands cradled her chin as she took a moment to catch her breath and ponder her next move.

"All right, I will be the first to admit that this place is… vast beyond expectation," The Sister Soul remarked, her unease evident in her voice. "Perhaps… wandering aimlessly and searching every crevice we come across would prove to be a fruitless effort."

"And not just because the universe doesn't have that kind of time, but I'm pretty sure I'd be old and gray before we ever found anything," Lucy replied with a huff.

Her gaze narrowed as she observed a group of Aquamorbs swimming in the distance. "It's a shame Kai didn't provide more information about this place. A little guidance would certainly come in handy right about now."

{Background Music - Silence}

"That can be arranged~"

{Background Music - Happy Clown}

Lucy's heart skipped a beat as the tranquil atmosphere shattered, replaced by the arrival of a cheerful, disembodied voice ringing in her ear. With a gasp, she jerked off the rock she had been perched upon, instinctively treading water once more.

Before her astonished eyes, a burst of pink light coalesced into the materialized figure of a white-faced clown dressed in vibrant red and black attire. The clown exuded an unsettling presence, with hands clasped behind her back and a wide grin stretching across her flushed lips.

"Well, assuming you ask nicely, that is," Stitches finished with a low purr, her voice slicing through the water with unsettling clarity.

Lucy's senses reeled, utterly taken aback by the clown's sudden appearance. She seemed to defy the laws of nature, effortlessly afloat in the water without ever treading or paddling. Additionally, she was encased in a bright pink forcefield from head to toe—a bizarre magic that seemed to repel the water, much like the Hydren Circlet.

"It's returned!" The Sister Soul gasped, her voice trembling with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity.

The clown tilted her head at Lucy, her bright pink eyes boring into the latter female with an unnerving intensity, a gaze so penetrating through the watery depths that it sent a shiver down her spine.

"Oh, look at you, so up close and personal," Stitches said with a giggle, raising a brow inquisitively. "It is such a pleasure to meet our human guest in her flesh," she added, her tone laced with an unsettling mix of amusem*nt and something darker lurking beneath the surface.

As Stitches drew closer, she extended a hand toward Lucy. Despite the surge of curiosity warring with caution within Lucy, she hesitantly reached out. However, her hand stopped short as she noticed a glimmer of silver on the clown's palm. Peering closer, she recoiled with a gasp upon discovering a small, sharp needle wedged into the clown's glove, poised to strike anyone who dared to touch it.

"Whoops!" Stitches exclaimed innocently, her voice laden with mischief, as she plucked the needle from her glove and tossed it aside. "I have no idea how that got there."

She watched the needle drift away through the water before turning her gaze back to Lucy, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips—one that danced on the edge of sweetness and something altogether more sinister. "Still, nice to know you've got the smarts to notice the unnoticeable. That'll make things… far easier for the both of us."

Lucy's body tensed involuntarily at the clown's choice of words, another shiver running down her spine as her instincts screamed for caution.

"Lucy, something is greatly amiss here." The Sister Soul muttered, her voice tinged with concern. "I- I cannot get a feel for this individual's pneuma!"

Though 'pneuma' escaped Lucy's understanding, she had an instinctual sense that The Sister Soul did not use the term in a reassuring context.

"W- who are you?" Lucy nervously asked the clown, trembling with a mix of fear and curiosity. "And- and what are you doing down here?"

Stitches flipped upside down, her cap's poms cascading over her eyes. "Stitches is my name, honey—she and her pronouns, if you're interested. And frankly, you should be asking why I'm down here at all."

Lucy felt a sense of foreboding creeping over her, pressing down on her chest like a leaden burden.

Stitches, with an eerie grace, continued, "I've been observing you closely for quite some time, you know. Every step of your journey, from the very beginning, has been under my watchful eye. And I must admit, your progression has been nothing short of impressive. You're proving to be quite the hero."

The Sister Soul sputtered in a mix of astonishment and concern, "How did she…?!"

Lucy's mouth opened and closed, her mind racing with a flood of memories—the chilling encounter with 'Stitches' at the bridge, the mention of her collaboration with Madeline by Mainyu. There was no denying it: she was now facing another of Lord Fear's minions, and confronting them without her equipment felt akin to signing her own death warrant.

"Um… I- I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're talking about," Lucy stammered, her voice betraying her nerves. She cringed at her terrible lie, her eyes darting around in thought. "I… I'm not The Hero. I'm just a regular, normal, ordinary girl."

Her voice cracked at the end. She could practically sense The Sister Soul's disappointment radiating through their connection.

The red and black poms of her hat slid past Stitches's eyes, revealing that her face had dropped in mock disappointment. "Oh, really? Then perhaps you should hurry off to contact the authorities and… file a report against your super mysterious doppelganger."

In an instant, Stitches disappeared in another burst of pink lights, only to reappear directly beside Lucy a second later. Lucy yelped and recoiled, but she couldn't get far before the clown looped an arm around her opposite shoulder and pulled her back, holding her in place with a surprisingly strong grip that was accentuated by the overlapping whooshes resonating throughout the water.

Lucy squeaked, attempting to struggle free. "Hey! W- what are you—"

Before Lucy could finish her question, Stitches snapped the fingers from her other hand, instantly captivating Lucy's attention with a flickering display of red and black lights in the water before them. The lights coalesced, flashing through blurry scenes faster than Lucy could blink. With each image, a resounding whoosh emanated from the water, accompanied by dozens of air bubbles shooting upward into the air.

Suddenly, the lights' projections froze, unveiling a strikingly lifelike image of Lucy from days ago. Disheveled, with her hair tousled and dark circles evident under her eyes, she was shown sleeping soundly in Blumiere's bed. Her tattered purple shirt and teal shorts peeked out from a thin gap in the blanket covering everything below her neck.

"Oh, that is unsettling," The Sister Soul remarked, carrying a tone of evident perturbation.

Indeed, it was. The sight struck Lucy like a cold gust of wind, causing her entire body to shiver involuntarily. At that moment, a profound realization of how closely she was being 'observed' washed over her, sinking into the depths of her being like an icy chill.

"See? There she is! An impostor on the loose all that time ago," Stitches exclaimed with exaggerated enthusiasm, her finger jabbing at the image of Lucy. "Such a travesty, isn't it? I know comedy, and there's no joke in worse taste than identity theft."

It had become painfully apparent to Lucy that Stitches had never taken her claim seriously. Yet, who could fault her for wanting to tread carefully? After all, hadn't the other Dark Bringers only become aware of her existence because someone had tipped them off?

"…"

{Background Music - Silence}

Wait. If the clown had been observing her every move since the beginning…

{Background Music - The Spectacular Stitches}

A chill ran down Lucy's spine as she turned to glare at Stitches, whose thoroughly amused expression only fueled her anger.

"It was you," Lucy spat, her voice thick with anger as she broke free from Stitches's grasp, jabbing an accusatory finger at her. "All along it was you! You're the one who told Lord Fear about me! You're the reason I'm stuck in this filthy water right now!"

Stitches put her hands behind her back, her grin not faltering; if anything, it seemed to widen further as Lucy's accusations hung between them, adding to the unsettling air that surrounded the clown.

"Well, well, I guess both our secrets are out, hmm?" Stitches asked with a knowing chuckle, her tone dripping with amusem*nt and a hint of sinister satisfaction.

"Then it's true?!" The Sister Soul asked in disbelief. "But that's impossible! Surely I would have sensed something. …Right?"

Stitches's following laughter grated on Lucy's nerves like rough sandpaper against her skin, each chuckle drilling into her ears and ricocheting inside her skull.

"I can't believe this…" Lucy hissed through clenched teeth, her voice barely containing the torrent of emotions swirling within her. "You sell me out and then have the gall to laugh?!"

She brought her hands to the sides of the Hydren Circlet. Its magic pulsed beneath her touch, a palpable thrum that mirrored the intensity of her rising fury. "You'd better conjure up a compelling reason why I shouldn't hurl this thing at you right now!"

Stitches remained unfazed, her demeanor as composed as a seasoned diplomat's. "Your survival, for one," she remarked casually. "But how about the fact that I come here as an ally, Lucy?"

Though Lucy was initially caught off guard by that remark, her surprise quickly gave way to a potent blend of skepticism. Folding her arms tightly across her chest, she seemed to physically emphasize her doubt.

"Oh, now what's with that expression?" Stitches challenged, her hands planted firmly on her hips. "You don't believe me, do you?"

Her tongue clicked in frustration, yet a glimmer of earnestness flickered in her eyes, revealing a vulnerability beneath her confident facade. "Well, they say to show and not tell, don't they?"

Another snap of fingers yanked Lucy's attention back to the mesmerizing display of swirling red and black lights. The scene shifted, plunging her into a first-person view of the grove beneath The Elf Nation. Panic surged as their escape route crumbled, and Bonnie's admission of depleted resources added to the sense of impending doom. Then, a crimson-clad arm extended from below, its fingers snapping with a familiar flourish. A pink shimmer had enveloped Lucy, Chip, and Bonnie, whisking them away from certain peril.

As the scene unfolded before her once again, Lucy's initial distrust melted into a co*cktail of confusion and sheer astonishment. Her eyes widened, her jaw slackening involuntarily as she leaned forward, as if drawn into the spectacle.

"Lucy, that orb…" The Sister Soul began with a note of unease. "It bears the same hue as this clown's eyes."

Lucy's gaze snapped to the clown's grinning countenance. Her eyes widened in surprise as she took in the joyful pink irises that mirrored the tiny orb from their past encounter. The Sister Soul's words rang true—coincidence or not, the connection was undeniable.

"You… you saved us back there," Lucy breathed, her voice tinged with shock, the words sounding almost surreal as they escaped her lips.

Stitches met her gaze, offering a slow, affirmative nod. "Among other endeavors, yes. Who do you think orchestrated the intricate scheme that led Madeline and Mainyu to clash on Cathedral's Road, diverting their attention from you?"

Her smile waned, replaced by a fleeting moment of remorse as she averted her gaze. "The sewers were an unforeseen complication, of course. Sewers never factor into the plan. But at least Maddy trusted me enough to verify your demise before departing this realm with her daughter."

Relief washed over Lucy at the confirmation of the little witch's safety, yet a pang of disbelief lingered as she gazed back at the vivid recollections of her narrow escape. After her previous harrowing encounters with Dark Bringers, the revelation that someone from Lord Fear's inner circle had intervened on her behalf was nothing short of staggering.

Yet a strange sensation blossomed within her—a blend of incredulity and, unexpectedly, gratitude.

"I- I don't understand…" Lucy murmured, her hand hovering as if to touch the memory, only to withdraw it as uncertainty clouded her thoughts. She found herself gazing back at the enigmatic figure before her, attempting to unravel the tangled web of events. "You serve The Lord of Darkness. You sold me out to him, and Madeline warned me that he seeks to thwart me at any cost. Why risk aiding me?"

At that, Stitches's grin faded into a contemplative expression, her vibrant pink eyes flashing with an unexpected depth of emotion. It was as if, for a fleeting moment, the playful facade melted away, revealing layers of complexity beneath.

The change was swift, and the clown's grin returned, wide and theatrical, as she leaned backward with a dramatic shrug.

"Lucy, dear Lucy, have you not heard the saying, 'life's a game, and we are but players'?" Stitches replied, her voice carrying a whimsical lilt that danced in the air. "I am the jester of dreams, you see, reveling in the camaraderie and merriment of celestial divides."

With exaggerated flair, she folded her arms and legs, adopting a pout. "But should the formidable Fearaity alter the rules, I worry I'll be left with naught but adversaries consumed by malice or drunk on power, which make for bad company in the long run."

Lucy blinked, her brows furrowing in perplexity as she sought guidance from The Sister Soul. (Is… Is she serious?)

"I… I have no idea," came the deity's bewildered response, mirroring Lucy's confusion. "She called him Fearaity, which I only do as a show of disrespect for his new age, so maybe…"

She paused, frustration blossoming in her tone. "Agh! It doesn't make any sense!!"

Shaking her head to clear the confusion, Lucy refocused on Stitches with skepticism coloring her expression.

"Let me see if I've got this right. You're actively opposing Lord Fear… because you're afraid of being bored." Her words held doubt, reflecting the incredulousness of her realization.

Stitches nodded, a glimmer of mischief in her eyes. "I've always disagreed with his nefarious goals, but I could never hope to stop him on my own, and the Light Bringers would hardly give someone like me the time of day at this age."

A grin flashed through her teeth. "Yet, I've known about The Prophecy from the beginning, and I feigned loyalty to the big bad so I could be the first to uncover who's destined to stop him. And that brings us to the here and now, human."

Lucy reclined, her efforts to grasp the clown's whimsical rationale thrown off course by the unexpected sincerity in those words. It was a deluge of emotion, hitting her with such force that she was left utterly bewildered.

"Fine, if we're supposed to be allies, why did you sell me out to Lord Fear?" Lucy pressed, crossing her arms defensively, her voice tinged with a mix of exasperation and bewilderment.

"Well, why not? He would've found out sooner or later, anyway," Stitches exclaimed, a maniacal glint dancing in her eyes. "Besides, no adventure's fun when it's easy, and what's a child in this day and age without some near-death experiences to fasten on the ol' belt?"

She punctuated her statement by playfully pinching Lucy's shoulder, causing the human to wince and reflexively clutch the area of impact.

Despite Stitches's explanations, Lucy remained skeptical; her brow furrowed and her eyes narrowed. The uneasy feeling deep inside her soul lingered, leaving her with more questions than answers. It was as though a shadow of doubt had settled over her, casting everything in a murky light.

"She's completely deranged!" The Sister Soul exclaimed with an edge of anger. Though she quickly regained her composure, "And yet, somehow, her intentions seem to align with ours."

Lucy gulped, a sinking feeling settling in her stomach. (I don't know, Sis. Even if she is telling the truth, clowns are hardly ever portrayed as good-natured in human media. For all we know, this could be the start of a long-winded betrayal.)

The Sister Soul emitted a grunt, devoid of any hint of amusem*nt. "Your kind's material means are rarely accurate from what I've gathered."

She paused, her voice giving way to perplexity. "Still, you're right to be cautious. I've done everything in my power to fathom her essence, all for naught. It's almost like… she doesn't possess a soul."

Lucy's eyes widened, her unease growing. She thought she heard Stitches giggle for a second, as if the clown held knowledge privy to no one else.

"However, despite this uncertainty, her offer of aid could be useful in getting us what we need here," The Sister Soul concluded. "And should she speak honestly, having a partner so close to Fearaity's inner circle could serve us well in the long run."

Lucy's thoughts raced, torn between caution and the hope of support. Her fingers drummed nervously against her paddling legs, and her gaze darted between Stitches and the fading display of red and black lights. The clown gave her a foreboding feeling, and though she knew her intuition wasn't infallible, it had rarely steered her wrong before.

Then again, she pondered Chip's willingness to extend trust to Kai despite his precarious state, a memory that suggested understanding and cooperation could emerge unexpectedly. And even without that, Lucy prided herself on reserving judgment until the full story unfolded, so…

Lucy drew in a deep breath, exhaling slowly to steady her nerves. "Well, okay then, Stitches. Since you claim to be on my side, I will… trust you."

Stitches grinned, her eyes alight with satisfaction. "Oh, thank you so much!"

Her hands clapped together, the sound echoing through the water's depths. "You won't regret it. We're going to make a real difference in the universe. It'll be a BLAST!"

"That's what I'm afraid of," Lucy murmured to herself, her apprehension palpable. She swallowed her trepidation before speaking up again. "Since you want to help, you can assist in searching for the moon key needed to open the sewers' exit, right?"

Stitches chortled, a hand resting casually on her hip as she looked away. "Well, I can't see how that'd work, considering I already know where Fearaity had Mainyu hide the little trinket."

A mischievous snicker escaped her lips, undoubtedly relishing Lucy's surprised reaction.

"Of course, it'd be no fun if I just gave it to you, would it? No, you'll have to work for it. And what better way to do so than with a game?"

{Background Music - Under The Water}

Before Lucy could voice any protest, Stitches pirouetted to face her, effortlessly gliding backward through the water with an almost ethereal grace.

"Follow the leader!" Her declaration reverberated through the currents, fading as she executed a swift turn and zoomed forward with astonishing speed. The water erupted with a thunderous whoosh, a trail of bubbles marking her path in a whimsical procession.

Lucy sputtered. "Hey, wait!" Internally, she sighed, regret seeping into her thoughts like water through a crack. The decision was made, and now she had to live with it.

With a resolve born of necessity, she propelled herself forward, determined to keep pace with the clown.

The chase was on. Stitches had already established an incredible head-start, effortlessly navigating around Aquamorbs and other hazards within the water with a grace that contradicted her chaotic appearance. Yet, rather than deterring Lucy, this spurred her on, despite the exhaustion of treading water for so long. With sheer determination, she weaved through sediment heaps and sinuous passages carved from individual rock structures, refusing to let fatigue slow her down.

Rolling her way past Aquamorbs, Lucy occasionally found herself caught in the currents, which ignited a spark of excitement within her as they propelled her forward through the depths with exhilarating force, each surge propelling her closer to Stitches and the elusive moon key.

"Woo-hee!" Lucy exclaimed as one current gave her a sudden surge of speed.

As Stitches sailed deeper through the depths of the sewer, she suddenly dove down and veered sharply left, disappearing into one of several large interconnected pipes on the ground. Lucy followed suit, propelling herself into the labyrinth of tunnels. Stitches's distant laughter echoed through the maze, her colorful form vanishing around corners, serving as a beacon urging the human onward.

Emerging from the maze, Lucy accelerated upon catching sight of Stitches; her senses heightened as she raced through the depths of the sewer. Her surroundings became a blur of color and shadow, the rush of adrenaline mingling with the fascination of her environment. Yet, beneath the excitement, a twinge of unease gnawed at her at the uncertainty of what lay ahead. Still, she refused to falter, propelled forward by the whims of the clown and the radiant glow of her Hydren Circlet.

The chase reached its crescendo as Stitches darted around the corner of another wall, leading Lucy to a colossal stone edifice, unlike anything she'd seen in these waters. Glyphs were etched into its surface, though time had eroded most into indecipherable shapes. Its sheer size dominated the landscape, casting a sprawling shadow that resembled a monstrous bat with jagged wings.

Slipping through a narrow aperture at the structure's base, Stitches vanished from sight, prompting Lucy to follow in haste. But as she crossed the threshold, an unseen force seized her, a sharp gasp escaping as she was wrenched into a powerful underwater current.

Lucy's surroundings blurred further, drowned out by the deafening rush of water. She could only scream as the torrent propelled her upwards with alarming velocity, a sickening sensation swirling in her gut. Then, with sudden force, she was expelled through an opening at the apex. Hurtling through the air, her cries were silenced as she crashed onto the icy stone floor within the colossal structure.

Whimpering as pain coursed through her body, Lucy struggled to sit up, her gaze drawn to the surroundings now bathed in the ethereal glow of the Hydren Circlet. Amidst the expanse, only a few distinct elements caught her eye—a yawning chasm behind, its depths beckoning back to the watery realm, and an ambiance saturated with a scent of dampness.

As Lucy struggled to steady herself, she found herself face-to-face with Stitches, who was floating several inches off the ground, her grin wide and unsettling in the ambient glow. Despite her unease, Lucy couldn't help but notice the gleam of anticipation in the clown's eyes.

"Nice of you to drop in!" Stitches laughed, her hands framing her face in mock surprise. "And just in time for the grand finale."

With a flourish, Stitches floated aside, gesturing towards something across from her. Curiosity piqued, and Lucy followed Stitches's indication, her brows lifting in genuine surprise.

Before Lucy now stood a pedestal, its height just above her hips, standing with an aura of mystique and power. Its surface gleamed with a silvery sheen, casting a bluish tint under the added rays of the Hydren Circlet. Crafted with precision, it bore intricate vertical lines that seemed to dance and shimmer in response to the magical illumination.

Resting atop the pedestal was a blue moon emblem, its hue deepening in the presence of the Hydren Circlet's radiant beams. The emblem emanated an aura of both trepidation and authority, holding Lucy's gaze in its captivating allure. As if in acknowledgment, the room itself seemed to react, casting shadowy shapes of claws and tentacles that writhed in harmony with the shifting light, creating an atmosphere that was both enchanting and subtly disconcerting.

"Whoa!" Lucy gasped in awe, her hands coming to rest over her heart. "It's far more vibrant than I imagined."

A tense silence settled over the area, and Lucy felt a prickling of fear creeping into her being.

(…But is it authentic, Sis?) she pondered inwardly.

"Let me verify. Standby," The Sister Soul responded. After a pause, she announced in surprise, "There's a distinct force of darkness within that moon, Lucy. Such matter is impossible to replicate. It's genuine!"

Lucy breathed in a mixture of astonishment and relief, a smile gradually tugging at the corners of her lips. At that moment, she entertained the notion that perhaps the crazy clown had indeed come through for her.

She approached the pedestal, her focus solely on the emblem before her. Unbeknownst to her, Stitches wore a triumphant smirk, relishing in the success of her scheme, as she watched Lucy's every move from behind.

Stopping in front of the pedestal, Lucy took a moment to absorb the emblem's intricate details and vibrant hues, marveling at its craftsmanship. With a mixture of anticipation and caution, she extended her trembling fingers toward it.

(Please don't be booby-trapped; please don't be booby-trapped…) Lucy silently pleaded, her mind echoing with a fervent plea. However, amid her anxious thoughts, a rather unexpected and unrelated notion intruded, prompting her to let out a dreamy sigh. (Boobies.)

Recentering herself, Lucy cast a determined glare back at the object of her interest. With swift resolve, she snatched the emblem from its perch, holding it against her chest as she braced for any potential danger, her eyes tightly shut.

"…"

A moment passed in tense silence, and Lucy cautiously opened her eyes. To her immense relief, there were no triggered traps or revealed malevolent intentions. The structure remained inert, and the emblem was securely in her grasp. A wave of reassurance washed over her as she realized that, against all odds, she had emerged from the ordeal unscathed.

Lucy let out a sigh as relief washed over her, her grin mirroring the sense of ease flooding her being. She turned to face Stitches, who had floated up with her hands behind her back, glee dancing in her narrowed eyes.

"Not bad, huh?" Stitches chuckled, her vibrant lips quivering with amusem*nt.

Lucy brought the emblem close to her face, her gaze flickering between it and Stitches before giving a slow, thoughtful nod.

"Something like that, yeah," she replied, her tone a blend of amusem*nt and exasperation. "You're… undeniably weird, Stitches. And I'm still ticked off that you exposed me to the guy who wants to kill my friends, but… you managed to pull through this time around."

Her expression softened, and gratitude warmed her heart. "Thanks for that, I suppose."

The Sister Soul emitted a pleased hum.

There was a fleeting softness in Stitches's expression, a rare moment of vulnerability that vanished as quickly as it appeared. In an instant, the clown was back to her usual cheerful demeanor.

"Well, I suppose it's safe to say I'm on your side now, huh?" Stitches chuckled, drawing closer and laying a hand on Lucy's shoulder. "I've got a good feeling about you, Lucy. Keep at it the way you are now, and you might just be the one I've been searching for all these years."

Lucy's smile faltered, a flicker of uncertainty crossing her features before she quickly masked it. Something was unsettling about those words.

"Now then!" Stitches exclaimed, pushing away from Lucy with a clap of her hands. "This has been fun, but it's about time for you to return to the surface and pound The Vampire King into dust."

With a playful wink and a cheeky tongue poke, she added, "And since you've been such a good sport tonight, I'll give you a little shortcut, free of charge!"

"So, you're going to teleport me back to Chip and Kai?" Lucy asked.

{Background Music - Silence}

Stitches's expression twisted into one of malice, her gaze never leaving Lucy's as she raised a hand toward the far wall.

"Something like that," she murmured, her tone laced with a chilling edge.

{Background Music - Terrible Things Are Happening!!! {Redwell Variant}

A crackle of pink lights danced around her fingertips, coalescing into a trio of bullets resembling the bells on a jester's cap. They spun through the air with a mesmerizing glow before colliding with the stone wall, unleashing a thunderous boom as they blasted through. A jagged, sizable hole emerged, and with it, a rush of water cascaded into the cave. Lucy recoiled in shock and horror, her expression a canvas of disbelief, as she watched the room begin to fill with water.

Before she could comprehend the gravity of the situation, Lucy felt red and black hands seize her wrists, her grip still tight around the moon key. Stitches floated in front of her, her sinister grin and eyes gleaming with malevolent delight.

"Happy trails, Lucy!" Stitches exclaimed, her voice tinged with a wicked edge. "Until next time."

With surprising strength, the clown spun Lucy around, hurtling her toward the gaping hole.

"Lucy!" The Sister Soul cried with alarm.

The world around Lucy blurred as she plummeted through the air, her heart pounding with adrenaline and fear. Her lips parted in a harsh cry, the sound lost in the rushing of water as she descended back into the depths below.

The impact of the water was a jolt, its dark embrace enveloping her as she struggled to regain her bearings. Before she could gather her thoughts, a powerful current seized her from all sides, dragging her with relentless force. Like invisible hands pulling her into her deepest nightmares, the current whisked her away from the safety of land and back the way she came.

Lucy's screams echoed through the water, a chilling symphony of fear and confusion. Amidst her terror, the mocking laughter of the clown mingled with her cries, growing fainter as she was dragged further into the abyss.

❤❤❤

{Background Music - Silence}

"And… that's pretty much the gist of it." Chip concluded. With his head resting on the lumpy, fabric-covered lap of the elf, he absentmindedly toyed with his claws while divulging the intricate details of his transformation.

Kai absorbed Chip's account with a conflicted expression, fidgeting with Benjamin, who perched on the elf's knee opposite Chip.

"Wow," Kai finally uttered, a mixture of awe and worry in his voice. "You've… really thought this through."

He heaved a somber sigh, his fingers tracing idle patterns on Benjamin's cotton face. "I'm sorry, Chip. If I had known you were uncomfortable before—"

Chip cut him off with an amused snort. "Now who's the one apologizing for crap beyond their control?"

Their eyes met, and in that moment, a silent understanding passed between them. With a gentle motion, he trailed his tail across Kai's lap, a wordless gesture of comfort and solidarity. "Don't worry about it, man. It's not something I was ever really open about. Hell, even Blue didn't find out until after the war started."

"…So you say," Kai responded. A small, genuine smile graced his lips. "Well, as long as you're happy, I'm happy. And if I ever gather the courage to return home, I'd be more than willing to help introduce the new you."

Chip's expression turned distant as he looked down. He still harbored reservations about revealing his new identity to Redwell's other residents, especially Bonnie. However, as he contemplated the risks everyone else was bravely facing today, he couldn't help but entertain the possibility that perhaps…

(Some food for thought…) he mused internally. (There are more important things to worry about right now.)

His thoughts drifted away, drawn back to the pool by the rhythmic play of ripples and splashes. With each false alarm that the kid might surface, his ears twitched involuntarily, and his eyebrows furrowed in sync.

Kai observed the furrow in Chip's brow and the distant gaze in his eyes. The elf's expression mirrored that of his friend, as if he too could sense the growing unease.

"You're thinking about Lucy, aren't you?" the elf asked gently.

Chip nodded slowly, the soft rustle of Kai's cloak adding a soothing rhythm to the moment.

"It's been a while since she dove in," Chip murmured, his arms crossing over his furry chest. "She could still be searching, but what if something went wrong with the Hydren Circlet? What if she's lost, or—"

He cut himself off, a gasp escaping him as a calloused hand gently rested atop his head, the thin fingers brushing against his drooping ears with a tender touch.

"Chip, take a breath," Kai interjected gently but firmly. "Obsessing over worst-case scenarios won't help. I've been there; believe me."

Chip offered no verbal response; his emotions were conveyed through a sad chirp that escaped through his open mouth.

"Several years of solitude have left me… terrible with words." Kai continued with an uneasy tone. "But if fortune has favored Lucy for this long, I see no reason to doubt it will do so now."

Chip sighed, the weight of Kai's words sinking into his mind like pebbles in a pond. Despite his initial resistance, he couldn't deny the undeniable truth in them. He had seen firsthand how the kid had held her own—an unexpected display of tenacity that was more impressive than he cared to admit. It left him with a glint of optimism, a hope that she wouldn't let some stupid pool bring her down after everything else.

His gaze lingered on the pool, its surface reflecting the shifting light above. As he continued to contemplate Kai's reassurance, the grip of his worries seemed to loosen. They still lingered at the edges of his mind, but the rhythmic play of water and the unyielding resilience he knew the kid possessed provided a subtle comfort, like a soothing melody in the background of his thoughts.

Chip released another sigh, tinged with reluctance. "You're right. It's just… hard not to fret when you're yanking a kid so far out of her element and into dimensional disarray."

He shook his head, a bitter expression crossing his face. "Blue might not see the problem with it, but I sure as hell do…"

Kai nodded sympathetically. "I understand. But I assure you, she'll be okay," he said, offering a reassuring smile down at the raccoon. "Trust in your friend."

Record scratch. WHAT?!

"Whoa, whoa, hold up!!" Chip exclaimed, his concern overshadowed by sheer incredulity. Springing to all fours, he whirled around to face a startled Kai. "You've been locked away too long, so you'd better get your mind right. That overly optimistic weirdo is not my friend!"

Kai's mouth hung open in surprise. "Excuse me?"

Chip waved the elf off. "You're excused, but my statement stands."

He began pacing back and forth, his paws producing a repeating pitter-patter against the stone. Disbelief and incredulity were etched across his features, his fur bristling in protest at the words he'd just heard. "She's dragged me into more trouble than I ever wanted. She wasn't even supposed to leave her home, yet somehow she stumbled upon The Sister's Pendant with no recollection of how, and suddenly she's hailed as a hero. It's completely maddening!! I only agreed to come with her to prevent her from getting herself killed."

As Chip spoke, his pacing grew more agitated. Kai watched, appearing somewhat sheepish, as he rubbed the back of his head.

"You appear… passionate in this resolve of yours, my friend," Kai began, his voice measured but firm. Clearing his throat, he simultaneously set the doll in his lap and shifted his expression into something more serious. "However, I can't say I entirely believe you."

Even as Chip stopped pacing and shot a glare at Kai, the elf continued. "I know you, even when I'm not feeling like myself. Your demeanor towards children isn't cruel, but there's this subtle look in your eyes that suggests you'd rather be elsewhere. However, with Lucy, it's different. I've seen how you engaged with her after I sent you away. You listened to her as she comforted her, and you laughed at her joke not too long ago—things you rarely do with me, by the way."

His expression softened. "It's evident she looks up to you, and even if your feelings aren't quite the same, there's a level of care you show her that goes beyond mere obligation."

Chip opened and closed his mouth, his jaw clenched in a silent struggle. Beneath decades of denial, a minuscule flicker of softness danced in his eyes, betraying a connection deeper than he was willing to admit.

"Even if that were true, it wouldn't last," he forced out through clenched teeth.

His scowl directed itself to the ground, his claws scraping against the rocky surface beneath him, a physical manifestation of the turmoil within. "Any affection she has for me is temporary. Sooner or later, she'll realize she's in over her head, run back home, and forget all about the other dimensions. And me."

Kai tilted his head, his expression softening. "Is that what you want to happen?"

"It's what needs to happen," Chip gruffly replied, shaking his head. "She's better off not caring about me, anyway. Those who have before ended up hurt, dead, or, in your case, a mixture of both."

Kai's expression grew horrified. "Chip—"

A resounding splash cut Kai off, stealing the air from the room and sending both him and Chip whirling around in shared surprise. The pool surged with an uproar, forcefully ejecting Lucy into the air. Bathed in the surreal silver and blue glow of the Hydren Circlet's lights, she soared upwards, her screams echoing through the area.

Their horror intensified upon her impact with the ground, her body landing with a reverberating thud that harmonized with the swift falling of water back into the pool. As she made contact, the ambient lights scattered throughout the room, emanating from her headpiece, flickered before extinguishing. With it, the protective auras that had encircled her vanished as if they had never existed. The room plunged back into darkness, with only the light from Kai's torch cutting through the gloom.

The sudden spectacle left Kai and Chip frozen for a moment, their eyes wide with disbelief. Then, a terror-filled gasp escaped from Chip, and he scurried over to Lucy's side, much to Kai's knowing satisfaction.

❤❤❤

Lucy lay sprawled on the ground, her senses still reeling from the abrupt ride through the current and her expulsion from the pool. Her body throbbed from the impact against the ground, and a chilling taste of stone lingered on her tongue.

Yet, amid the disarray, she became aware of muffled footsteps drawing near, accompanied by a distant, concerned voice calling her name. With great effort, she lifted her head off the ground, her vision clearing enough to meet Chip's gaze. Worry was in his eyes as he peered at her from such close quarters, silently questioning whether she was okay or not.

"I'm fine, Chip…" she mumbled and attempted a smile, though it faltered amidst her daze.

Chip flicked his eyes up and down, as if ensuring her safety, before stepping back, his usual scowl gradually returning. Lucy breathed a sigh of relief at the familiar sight.

"It seems like you had quite the ordeal down there," Kai remarked, rising to his feet with his torch and Benjamin in hand.

"Yeah, you could say that…" Lucy replied, her gaze pointed as she slowly rose into a sitting position. As the initial shock ebbed away, excitement surged within her, propelling her upright with such suddenness that Chip and Kai were momentarily startled.

A genuine smile lit up her face as she proudly displayed the moon emblem in her hands. "But look what I got!"

Though the emblem lacked the enchanting aura of the Hydren Circlet, it still captivated the elf and the raccoon, enveloping them in a sense of wonder and admiration as it merged with Lucy's infectious enthusiasm.

"Wow, you actually did it," Chip murmured in awe, his tail rubbing his eyes almost as if to clear disbelief. "Nice work, kid."

Lucy beamed at the raccoon. "Thank you!" Then she turned her attention back to Kai. "I suppose there's no reason to wait any longer, is there?"

"No, indeed," Kai agreed, his gaze fixed on the gate with a mix of anxiety and determination. "Once we open the way forward, we'll be out of the sewers with only a few final steps to him."

It was evident that Kai was nervous, perhaps even surprised to have come this far.

"Hey," Chip called out, meeting Kai's eyes with a soft smile. "We've got your back, man."

Kai returned Chip's assurance with a grateful smile, a glimmer of gratitude in his eyes despite his nerves.

Once Lucy set the emblem down, she removed the Hydren Circlet from her head, tossing it back into the water. Its one-time use rendered it purposeless, and the water was already tainted beyond repair. Gathering her scattered belongings, she started to slip on her socks and boots, attempting to contain her annoyance as her mind replayed the events of a few minutes ago.

(Do you still think listening to that clown was a good idea?) she internally asked The Sister Soul, feeling slightly irritated.

The Sister Soul let out a pensive hum. "Her circ*mstances still raise suspicions, and her methods of assistance were undeniably eccentric and somewhat nauseating… Nevertheless, you've emerged with the object of interest intact, so perhaps a modicum of gratitude is warranted."

Lucy suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. Gratitude had been far from her mind as she was forcibly swept into the current. At least for now, the absence of the clown meant her frustrations could take a backseat.

{Background Music - Final Steps}

With everything back in order, Lucy retrieved the moon key from the ground. She skipped over to the men, perfectly swiveling toward the gate, its glowing bars still blocking the way ahead. Crouching down, she inserted the emblem into its slot. It fit with a satisfying click that echoed through the room. The bars' glow dimmed, and their mesmerizing hum faded away as they slowly parted, revealing the way forward.

All at once, a sudden buzz emanated from Lucy's satchel, startling her and the others. It was quickly followed by the familiar ringtone of her phone, its sound muffled by the thick material of her leather bag.

Lucy reached into her bag and retrieved her provided cell phone, swiftly flipping it open to silence it before bringing it to her ear. Barely had she finished her greeting when a voice emanated from the other end.

"Lucy! Thank The Angel that you've picked up," Blumiere exclaimed in relief. "I've been trying to reach you and Chip for hours, and Chip's emotions have been in a frenzy. Where have you been?"

It dawned on Lucy that now, near the exit to the sewers, she and Chip would likely have phone service again. She glanced at Chip, and the raccoon promptly dove into the fur on his back, extracting his phone. Flipping it open, he briefly examined the contents before his eyes widened in annoyance.

"For goodness' sake, Blue, there are over fifteen missed calls on this thing!" Chip hissed. "Didn't the kid say not to helicopter us or something!?"

"Lord… Blumiere?" Kai whispered in shock, his features paling.

"As I said, Chip, your emotions were utterly tumultuous. Given the precarious state of Redwell, I feared the worst," Blumiere elaborated, his voice carrying a hint of relief upon discovering Lucy and Chip's survival. "What happened?"

"Uh, well… That's kind of a long story," Lucy answered, her free hand nervously rubbing the back of her head. "Chip and I ended up in Redwell's sewer systems, but Kai has helped us escape, and he's joining us to stop The Vampire King."

Kai's shoulders tensed, and Chip shot Lucy a glare as he returned his phone to the fur on his back.

"Wait, Kai?" Blumiere repeated, his shock and disbelief palpable. "You mean Khiara's brother? He's alive?!"

Chip sighed heavily, running a paw down his face in exasperation. "Blue, how about we reconnect later? We're currently in the middle of a rather urgent task: saving an entire world, in case you've forgotten."

"…Ah, yes, indeed," Blumiere replied after a moment, his tone measured and tinged with nervousness. "I'll leave you to your task, then. Best of luck, my friends."

After the call ended, Lucy carefully stowed her phone back inside her bag. She and Chip exchanged glances before turning their attention to Kai, who appeared visibly nervous.

"I must admit, it's rather surreal to have heard the Lord's voice after so long," Kai remarked, a faint smile playing at his lips. "Judging by the sound of it, he hasn't changed all that much over the years."

"You'd be surprised," Chip replied with a sympathetic hum. "I understand if it's too much to ask for you to talk to him now, but please know that if we survive this ordeal, I'll need to fill him in on everything that's been happening with you."

Kai sighed heavily, his gaze dropping. "I understand. I can only hope that he won't judge me."

With that, Lucy, Chip, and Kai redirected their focus toward the exit of the sewers. The path ahead was short and narrow, leading to a gleaming metal platform. Its surface, reflecting a faint golden light from above, seemed to dance with the existing silver, beckoning the group onto the passageway to the upper realm.

Lucy drew in a deep breath, her shoulders tensing with determination and wariness. "Here we go."

{Background Music - Broken}

The atmosphere in Khiara's home was lonely, manifesting into a weight that pressed down on the elf as she sat against her desk. The handmade shrine towered above her, a silent witness to her struggles, its presence accentuating the weight of responsibility pressing down on her shoulders. She sat for hours, her shaking knees drawn up to her chest, and her sweat-covered brow pressed against them.

She looked like she was dying. In truth, she felt on the brink, with the toll of recent events etched on her features, and the memories playing on a loop in her head—a relentless assault like a grotesque parasite that had wormed its way into her skull and infected every corner of her already unstable mind. Now, more than ever, the leader was a mere shell of her former self, ensnared in the tempest of her own internal anguish.

She had barely closed her eyes since locking herself away from the rest of Redwell. Not only did her flowing tears make it difficult, but horrifying flashbacks to her recent mistakes appeared whenever she did. She saw the human's optimistic visage twisted into fear, as well as her people's horrified and disappointed expressions in response to their madwoman of a leader blindly thrusting her sword through what little serenity they had left. Then, the most haunting image of all: Bonnie's hurt, blood-soaked face, thrown against a wall by her own hands.

"I… I didn't mean to…" she murmured sorrowfully after several minutes of sniffles and whimpers, a refrain she had repeated for the last few hours. "I didn't… I was only following what I believed to be right. To ensure everyone else's safety."

As the minutes dragged on, Khiara's weary mind persisted in sifting through the shattered remnants of her recent actions. Amidst her inner agony, the human's sanguine image emerged, a supposed beacon of light in Redwell's shadows. A human, a being of kindness and resilience who had persisted in stirring a long-lost hope within the elf after frequent rejections. A stranger who, out of the goodness of her heart, sat Khiara down and listened to her struggles, fully aware of her opposition.

She didn't understand. She couldn't fathom how anyone could hold such zeal against such dire circ*mstances. Why did the human treat her with such compassion? How could she willingly turn away from an easier path forward, instead choosing the elf's rocky resistance in favor of Bonnie's plan?

Her mind shifted at that, and Bonnie's heartfelt visage emerged in the human's place. In a tender moment, he had sat faithfully by her bedside as she lay incapacitated with a broken leg, the result of a reckless tumble down the steps to their home. With her brother absent, assisting other elves, he had taken it upon himself to read to her, offering solace amid her pain and solitude

Bonnie. Her friend. Her ally. Her betrayer.

He had been her best friend, a pillar of support even before her brother's tragic demise. Their bond, woven by sentimental strings of laughter, gossip, and trust, had been what tied them together for years.

She had never anticipated the weight of the strain that would follow her brother's untimely death. In the weeks after assuming leadership, bedtime stories and adventures around the world felt hollow and unsatisfactory, though Bonnie, unwavering in his devotion, persisted tirelessly to bring those days back to her. It was a mixture of sweetness and maddening resolve. Matters only worsened when tragedy fueled her resolve to dismiss Bonnie's unwavering faith in the emergence of a hero to vanquish Mainyu, despite previous failures to do so.

She forced him to shatter The Redemption Mirror, convinced it would spare further heartbreak. Shame lingered when he left from sight, but she kept firm in her resolve without looking back. Yet, the heaviness in her chest persisted, a silent warning that her rejection had driven away her closest friend and would push him to drastic measures behind her back.

And she was right. The revelation, unveiled by a guilty human, stung even with its expectancy, mixed with a recognition that her oldest friend had resorted to schemes in the very shadows Kai had sworn to destroy.

"He was supposed to protect me…" Khiara muttered, bitterness lacing her words. "He was supposed to stay by my side like Kai said. But he betrayed me, and for what? So he could march off into certain death?!"

Her tone carried a subtle undercurrent of misery, a poignant acknowledgment in the depths of her heart that she harbored no resentment towards Bonnie. Besides Kai, the guard stood as one of the kindest souls she had ever encountered, displaying compassion even towards creatures others deemed dangerous, such as the Grackmytes he released back into the wild. Now, the weight of her recent actions bore down upon her, leading her to believe she had fallen so far that even Bonnie's kindness had worn thin, perhaps abandoning his promise.

She couldn't blame him if that were the case.

Each memory tugged at her already fraying heartstrings, unraveling her remaining layers and exposing all her suffering to the unforgiving light. Her burdens closed in around her, leaving a heavy ache on her shoulders and a gnawing guilt in her soul. She had ventured too far in her pursuit of safety, and the repercussions with her people loomed ominously, promising swift and severe consequences. She envisioned being overthrown, exiled and left abandoned amidst the chaos of a devastating war.

As if such a fate could ever suffice as punishment for someone like her.

She raised her face from her knees, and it looked sunken, with tear streaks stuck to her cheeks and swollen eyes a bright red resembling blood. She slowly stood up, numb from her legs and shoulders, and turned toward the handmade shrine to her long-dead brother. Familiar pieces to an unsolvable puzzle lay before her eyes. The parting letter Kai had given to her and Bonnie. His favorite flowers. His sword's scabbard, the weapon itself shoved under her bed the millisecond she slammed her door in a futile effort to conceal her sins.

And last but not least, the portrait, which lay in the center of everything else. A moment in time, only a few days before he had gone, forever frozen in a period when smiles and laughter came as easy as the sun and moon.

She reached out, tracing the edges of the portrait's frame. The warmth of the texture offered a fleeting reprieve from the chill that had settled into her icy skin. When moving her touch to Kai's half of the picture, the smooth glass carried a faint memory.

"I still remember that day…" she whispered, her voice quivering. "I begged for you to stay, to send anyone else after him, but you insisted that you were the best for the job. Bonnie believed you. Why wouldn't he? You'd never steered him wrong before."

Her fingers curled around her brother's framed face, and a bitter taste rose in her mouth in response. Gazing at her younger self's smile once brought relief from the darkness in her soul, but now all she felt was mockery.

"You said you'd come back. You lied," she hissed, growing more irate. "Why? Why did you lie? Why did you lie to us?! Why did you lie to ME?!"

The picture gave no response, and frustration welled up within her, pushing her to slam both hands against the sides of her desk, nearly knocking over everything in the process.

"WHY AREN'T YOU ANSWERING ME?!"

Her house echoed with the reverberations of her outburst, and as the anger drained from Khiara's being, it left behind a hollow emptiness. The picture, unfazed by her words, continued to stare back at her, the beaming faces frozen in time, a stark contrast to her tumultuous emotions.

Understanding hit her like a tidal wave, and the following quiet was so deafening that it made her ears ring. She backed away, breathing heavily with her hands shaking as she clutched the sides of her head.

"I'm losing my mind," she murmured, a sharp gasp escaping her lips at the thought of her sanity slipping away like Redwell's sand in her fingers. How dare she raise her voice? How dare she subject her brother's memory to such harsh interrogation, seeking answers that would forever remain elusive? How dare—

Her eyes darted around the room. Was it just her, or were the walls closing in? Were they going to suffocate her?!

"I- I have to… I need…" Her words trailed off, but the urgency behind them was unmistakable. She needed to escape, to flee the suffocating confines of her surroundings.

She abruptly turned on a shaky heel, scrambling toward the front door that seemed to mock her by moving further away the faster she ran. She slammed into it, and pain surged within her as she fumbled with the knob, pulling it open with desperate strength.

Thick fog shrouded The Elf Nation as it'd been for years. Most residents had gone back indoors after the human left to confront Mainyu, and Khiara hoped that the few who remained wouldn't pay attention to her as she sprinted outside of her house and through the active village.

She ran, her heart pounding in her chest, and she did not slow until she was lost in the fog. Only then did she stop, releasing a shaky breath as she leaned forward, hands on her knees.

Her remaining breaths came in as ragged gasps, the cool mist of The Elf Nation settling into her lungs like poison. The urgency that had driven her away from home had given way to a sinking and crippling sadness. The fog thickened around her, clogging her ears and muffling the already sparse sounds that drifted through the area. The absence of the bats, usually a constant presence in the sky, only accentuated the eerie silence that now enveloped the area.

In her uncertainty, she thought of the human and her group far beyond her walls, engaged in battle against The Vampire King.

Did they make it to his home? Had they even survived the journey? Questions whirled around in her head like a raging storm, adding to the crushing feeling on her shoulders. She was scared. She—

And then, through the fog, she heard it—hurried footsteps clacking against the stone. Her head snapped in the sound's direction, and there was Bonnie, emerging from the direction of Cathedral's Road. Even in the mist, his panic and desperation were clear on his face, and his eyes, fixed on the path ahead of him, made Khiara's heart skip a beat.

Her friend rushed past her in the direction of his residence. It left Khiara in a state of confusion, anxiety, and sorrow. She was left to stand in place with a fresh sense of dread, knowing something terrible had happened.

❤❤❤

Bonnie's hooves pounded the ruined sand, each step creating a frantic thud that reverberated throughout The Elf Nation. The cool and dense fog ensnared him like twisting vines, muffling the whisper of the wind in his ears and obscuring the world around him into a hazy blur.

His breaths came in ragged as he ran down the hill, past wilted flowers and the skeletal remains of elves. With each hurried and panicked jolt of his body, the broken bow in his shaking hands scraped against his tattered vest, and his quiver bounced.

Fear and failure pressed against him like talons against his head and shoulders, but a glimmer of hope burned within him—hope that Lucy and Chip had survived their descent into the darkness, whether through aerial benefits, magic, or something unrelated to them. The memory of their screams cut through him like a knife, and it pushed him to run faster until the wound beneath his bandages throbbed.

As the familiar hole in the ground loomed ahead, Bonnie leaped frantically into his home, grabbing one of the ladder rails to spare himself the harm of a reckless descent. The thud of his feet meeting the rough and parched ground reverberated through the space around him. His heart hammered in his chest, its frantic rhythm mirroring the urgency of his movements.

He sprinted across his residence, nearly toppling onto the cluttered workstation that awaited him. He practically threw his broken bow onto the makeshift table, the pieces clattering amid the disorder, and then threw himself onto his chair, wincing at the ensuing creak beneath him.

Fingers still twitching, he fumbled for his necessary tools, moving in a blur when tending to his weapon's severed string and fractured wood. As he worked, a palpable tension hung heavy in the air, making it difficult for the guard to focus. He struggled to push it aside, determined to concentrate on the task at hand.

Khiara may have been mistaken, but at least she's willing to accept that.

The guard tensed as Lucy's words replayed in his head, each syllable carrying more accusation and disappointment than the real thing. The claim pierced his heart like one of his arrows, and he felt a sharp sting spread through every fiber of his being.

All you've done is deceive her and betray her trust, with no remorse whatsoever!

"That isn't true…" Bonnie muttered to himself. The words felt bitter on his tongue, reminiscent of the acrid tang of blood. "All I've ever done was try to help her, but she wouldn't listen. She…"

His breath hitched. "I- it's your fault! It could've been easy, but you ruined everything!"

A sense of adrenaline flooded his senses in response to his own words. When he squinted his eyes toward his cluttered table, he could almost see the human's face before him, her features sharp with reproach.

-I- did the right thing! And the fact that you don't understand what I witnessed in that house shows the kind of -friend- you are

"Stop it…!" the guard hissed, his plea a desperate attempt to silence the haunting memories.

His trembling hands clenched around his tools, the scent of wood filling his senses, almost overwhelming in its intensity. "Nothing else worked! What was I supposed to do?!"

You've only ever tried to connect with the 'old' Khiara—the one full of joy and light, free from the shadows that haunt her now. What Khiara needs most from you is to embrace the person she is now—the one who's scared and traumatized, who's in desperate need of support and understanding.

Silence followed, broken only by the guard's ragged breaths and the creaking of his chair. The air around him felt constricting, like the witch's oppressive grip around his neck. It felt as though the vines had permeated the very walls, wrapping themselves around him with a relentless grip, mirroring the suffocating hold of his undoubtedly guilty conscience.

His thoughts drifted to the days before Redwell, a time marked by a humdrum existence that lacked the vibrancy and excitement he had craved since middle school. Kai broke that monotony, bringing forth a new beginning of action and adventure. However, it was Kai's younger sister, Khiara, who truly gave meaning to Bonnie's existence. Even now, the warmth from their first meeting on a sunny afternoon enveloped his soul—a memory filled with sweet treats and endless tales of adventures.

Without her brother, Khiara assumed the role Kai had left behind. Fresh off his grief, Bonnie supported his friend's quest for revenge against Mainyu—a mistake he now recognized. Each death and failure pushed Khiara into a restless and paranoid state that worsened with every visit from Mainyu. Bonnie, longing to help, attempted to reintroduce a sense of familiarity between them, including sharing stories to embark on adventures away from home. He tried everything, yet every effort was met with rejection, and it was as if the foundation of their bond no longer mattered.

The hurt lingered, but now, with Lucy's words pressing in from all sides, a seed of doubt had sprouted, blossoming into a flower of uncertainty that cast a shadow over everything he had come to believe. A haunting question crept into Bonnie's troubled thoughts as he resumed work on mending his broken bow: Had his attempts to help Khiara, to reintroduce days long past, only served to make things worse?

Memories of his earnest efforts flooded his mind in the form of flickering images. A suggested excursion to the grove below their home had made her recoil with a visible disdain he failed to comprehend. Stories of their past escapades, once a source of joy, had only made her snap at him, with one instance earning him a slap in the face. He never understood it. He couldn't understand her! Grief took time to heal, but he shouldn't lose what he liked over—

He came to a sudden halt, his eyes widening, and his breath quavering. What he liked. Not what she liked.

The room appeared to constrict around him, the air heavy with the sickening stench of remorse. His attempts to relive the days of carefree joy were now painted with a pallet of selfishness, rooted in a desire to help his friend but clouded by a longing to preserve the happiness he had come to cherish.

The realization came crashing down on him like a torrential downpour, and he jolted away from his work, causing his chair to creak again. Like the bats that circled his world, he was blind. Blind to Khiara's struggles and the repercussions of his actions. Such possibilities tore him up like paper, and he sank into his chair, a burden like bricks settling on his shoulders.

"What have I done…?" Bonnie whispered, his words fragile and faint, carried away by the winds of despair. They reverberated in the stillness of his home, strained by the taste of blood still lingering on his tongue. His features, once confident and assured in the matter, shook with shock and horror. The once-assured guard now found himself lost in a sea of devastation, drowning in the consequences of his unwitting contribution to Khiara's misery.

He ruined her. He made her into something so unrecognizable that it left a hollow pit in his stomach. In response to that fear, he was driven to lies and attempted thievery, one final effort to reclaim stability.

By The Angel, Lucy was right about him.

Amid that realization, his shaking hands tightened their grip on his tools. He resumed the meticulous process of mending the weapon, enveloped in a tense silence broken only by the steady clinks and clanks of the tools against the wood. Each blink of his eyes brought Khiara's pained face into his mind, a burning reminder of his unknowingly inflicted discomfort.

After repairing the wood and replacing the string, the guard holstered his weapon and stood up from his seat, his movements slow when hobbling over to an existing pile of arrows among his jumbled assortment of sticks and stones. Each one stuffed into his quiver left more weight on him, pressing down with force more unrelenting than usual.

He had everything he needed to leave after that, but now it felt like he was at a crossroads, torn between finding Lucy and Chip and facing the immediate danger or confronting Khiara with all he had learned.

{Background Music - Silence}

"Bonnie?"

He stopped, snapping his head in the direction of the ladder to the outside world, where a voice, Khiara's voice, cut through his stillness. It seemed like the choice was made for him.

❤❤❤

Not a minute passed when Khiara saw Bonnie scale the ladder out from his hidey-hole, armed to the teeth like she'd never seen before. As he stood before her, she could not hide the shock on her face, for the guard's usual air of security had been replaced with a sense of vulnerability most rare these days. His disheveled appearance, coupled with his quivering shoulders and the way he bowed his head in an attempt to evade her gaze, deeply unsettled her.

Concern etched itself onto Khiara's visage as her gaze flitted between her friend's trembling form and the desolate surroundings that enveloped them. "Bonnie? W- what happened to you? And… where's the human? Did she make it?"

Bonnie's silence only served to deepen Khiara's unease, and when his words finally stumbled out, they seemed to hang heavily in the air between them, creating a barrier that neither could breach.

"I, uh, there's something I have to tell you," he began, his voice faltering.

Khiara's worry intensified, and she crouched down, her expression a mix of intrigue and concern, as she offered her full attention to her friend. Her mind raced through a flurry of both pleasant and troubling memories involving the guard, each adding to the gnawing fear growing in her chest. What could have transpired to leave him so tense and afraid?

"Khiara, I…" Bonnie's voice wavered as he took a deep breath, his head bowed. "I… I'm sorry."

{Background Music - Lost And Alone}

Khiara's eyes widened in shock.

Bonnie solemnly shook his head. "I've been… I've been a fool, Khiara. When Kai died, the wound was fresh, and I blindly supported your decision to take his place without truly understanding the consequences."

His hands trembled as he spoke, the weight of guilt undoubtedly etched across his currently concealed face. "Had I honored his words by bringing you away from danger, or Redwell entirely, perhaps none of this would have happened."

Khiara's heart seized in her chest. "Bonnie—"

Bonnie lifted a palm. "Please, Khiara. Let me finish."

A heavy sigh escaped him. "I always believed that I was helping you by trying to make things how they were before tragedy struck, but I see now that I should have supported you through your grief instead of trying to force you back into the past. I was… afraid of losing the stability I'd found when meeting you and Kai, and I simply couldn't accept that idea, no matter what you said."

Khiara's breath hitched, her gaze dropping in response to the sudden surge of sorrow that gripped her.

Bonnie's shoulders sagged under the weight of his confession. His voice wavered, and he swallowed hard before gathering the courage to continue. "You've changed so much, Khiara, and I'm scared. I can't understand or predict the person you've become. It frightens me. I wake up from nightmares of your outbursts. Nerves gripped me every time we've spoken since you sent me off with The Redemption Mirror. I was desperate for a solution, and I thought killing Mainyu was it. I convinced myself that doing so would save my friend from herself."

Bonnie's gaze met Khiara's, his eyes clouded with guilt and glistening with unshed tears.

"But I was wrong about that as well, wasn't I? I shouldn't have given up on you like that. I should have never tried to steal from you, Khiara. You're the most important person in my life, and I'm sorry for everything."

As Bonnie's words seeped into Khiara's fractured heart, feelings of affliction, indignation, and dismay churned within her. She clenched her fists into her shirt, the intensity of his confessions leaving a physical ache in her fingers. The fog, a silent witness to their conflict, seemed to thicken, mirroring the haze of confusion and turmoil in her mind.

Memories of heated outbursts replayed in her mind. Her frustrations, previously considered a justified reaction against Bonnie's attempts to restore a past marred by loss, now felt misguided in light of his fears. Things concurrently made so much and little sense, but she knew she had played more of a role in this rupture than she thought.

Uncertain whether to maintain her guard or embrace Bonnie's vulnerability, Khiara's eyes delved deeper into his, searching for sincerity amidst the turmoil. The notable courage it took for him to admit his mistakes, despite his apparent unease, coaxed her to at least consider letting down her defenses.

"Bonnie…" Her voice was level, yet it was thick with emotion. She closed her eyes, taking a moment to steady herself before continuing. "You're important to me, too. And while I can't say I don't appreciate the apology, it's hard. Those years were the worst of my life, and with Kai gone, I needed your support more than ever."

She shook her head. "I'll accept that your loyalty has gone far, but you were so insistent on picking up where we left off that it felt like you didn't love Kai as much as I did."

She heard Bonnie's breath hitch, but she didn't dare open her eyes, fearing the heartbroken expression that might be etched on his face.

"I- I swear to you, that was never my intention," he stammered, his fists pressed against his vest, his voice laden with a mix of anxiety and urgency. "Kai was everything to me. I just… I thought I was doing the right thing for the both of us."

Khiara nodded, hoping that Bonnie would sense her silent acknowledgment, understanding that she believed him, at least to some extent.

"I needed to leave the past behind, but… I realize now how reckless it was." Khiara continued, shifting, so she now sat on her knees. Shivering, she felt a cold chill creeping up her legs. "You were grieving just as I was, and I'm sure my rejections made you feel like your feelings didn't matter."

"I…" Bonnie stopped, turning away from Khiara. "Something like that, yes. The foundation of our bond came from those carefree days. Without them, I started to think that… you didn't need me anymore."

"I always have. And I'm sorry I made you think otherwise."

Bonnie met her gaze, astounded to find Khiara's eyes open, their softened expression mingling with the lingering hurt.

"And you're not all to blame," Khiara admitted, lifting her gaze toward the shadows veiling the sky, casting a strangely ethereal glow around her, paired with a crisp breeze carrying a scent of rot. "Kai's death was a wound that refused to heal. In that was a thirst for vengeance that drove me into a role I hadn't necessarily wanted but felt obligated to take, whether he or anyone else wanted it."

She brought a hand to her heart, feeling an ache from the memories. "Turns out that only made things worse for The Elf Nation. All those failures pushed me over the edge, and… Well, you know the rest, don't you?"

Bonnie nodded, his response barely audible over the howling wind.

"I might have persuaded most of the elves here, but the truth is that I always anticipated resistance, particularly from you, especially after the Redemption Mirror's supposed destruction," Khiara confessed, her voice tinged with regret as she lowered her gaze to her friend. "The reality stung more than I'd care to admit, but I understand why you did it. I could hardly blame you for taking matters into your own hands."

She reached out, her fingertips ghosting over the guard's bandages, before drawing back when she saw him tense. "Bonnie, I never meant to hurt you. Or scare you, to begin with."

The wind died down, leaving the duo in a heavy silence once again.

"But you did. You let Mainyu get to you. Your refusal to send anyone else after him only added to his methods of torment against us." Bonnie's words hung in the air, a mixture of penitence and determination.

He crossed his arms, his shoulders jumping in the process. "It… wasn't right, Khiara. And despite the aftermath, I show no remorse for saving The Redemption Mirror or helping Lucy move beyond these walls if it meant you and everyone else would be safe!"

Khiara bowed her head, willingly taking in Bonnie's words. It struck a chord with her, not only as a leader but also as someone burdened by the consequences of decisions made for the sake of what she deemed necessary rather than right. Every decision was a heavy stone on her conscience.

She had chosen to surrender to Mainyu's wrath.

She had chosen to lock her people behind bars and force Bonnie into maintaining that rule.

She had chosen to attack an innocent human. She had chosen to—

Her thoughts ceased. In a moment of intense vulnerability, she was on the precipice of admitting to something that she had kept hidden—the results of her struggles, the reality of her failed leadership, and the toll it had taken on her well-being. The human's words burst in her ears like gunfire, making holes in the walls she had long built to conceal the truth.

Everything bore down on her all at once, and the shame she felt was overwhelming. It was then that she confessed, her voice barely a whisper, "I tried to end my own life."

❤❤❤

Bonnie's eyes widened in horror.

Khiara's confession had hit him with an unanticipated force, leaving him breathless and struggling to find the right words for such a deeply personal reveal. The anguish in her eyes grew more pronounced, and he felt a profound sadness as if knowing the full extent of her sorrow with only seven measly words.

Khiara looked away, her eyes growing moist before being veiled by the mist that enveloped them. "It was… a long time ago. Things felt overwhelming, and I just wanted to escape. I didn't care how I did it or who I might have hurt in the process."

She chuckled, and the noise carried a bitter tinge devoid of humor. "Couldn't bring myself to finish the job, though. Suppose I couldn't do that right, either."

Bonnie's heart sank as Khiara's words settled in, the weight of their implications heavy on him. Lucy's words echoed in his mind once more. His plan, born out of desperation to revive a bygone era, now seemed more flawed and misguided than ever. It was a realization that the human appeared to grasp far better than he did.

The real Khiara, burdened by struggles beyond his comprehension, had been left vulnerable by his pursuit of misguided ideals. Abandoning her to pursue his ill-conceived efforts could have pushed her to the brink of another attempt.

He could have killed his best friend…

Taking a shaky breath, Bonnie finally spoke, his voice soft and laden with remorse. "Khiara, I- I'm so sorry… I'm so sorry for not understanding and being there when you needed support. I should've seen the signs, should've—"

Khiara's following teary stare, one without malice, silenced him. "No. Don't apologize."

She looked away again. "It was one of the darkest times of my life, but it's over now. And even though the pain is still there, I've at least accepted after enough time that it and loss are okay for me to feel after everything."

She brushed away a tear from her eye before continuing. "To tell you the truth, those bars were for my safety as much as everyone else's. Staying here, surrounded by all these people and with you knocking on my door almost every day felt like the only thing keeping me in check."

Her gaze shifted to the ground, her intense stare fixed on the sand beneath her feet, as if searching for answers or solace in its grains. "Another mistake for the list, I suppose."

"Khiara…" Bonnie started to say.

"I was wrong," Khiara suddenly admitted. "I was wrong about a lot of things. I've known that for years, and I never dared accept it like this. Not until now."

She sighed, covering her face with her hands. "But it doesn't matter anymore, does it? By now, it's far too late for second chances."

A deeper sense of regret pooled in Bonnie's stomach, overflowing with every word that spilled from Khiara's lips. At that moment, his friend, hunched over on the ground with shaking hands concealing her chapped face, no longer looked like the innocent and carefree young elf he had tried so hard to revive amidst a war of chaos and suffering. All he saw was a broken soul, lost and alone, in need of a real chance to face her demons.

A flicker of resolution ignited within him. Despite his fear and uncertainty about what to do or say to bridge the emotional chasm between himself and his friend, Bonnie was determined to try. By the Angel, he owed Khiara that much!

With a deep, steadying breath, he schooled his features into something resolute. Swallowing down the bitter taste of anxiety on his tongue, he approached Khiara. As he settled on the warm sand next to her, hugging his knees to his chest, she lowered her arms and looked at him in surprise. He quickly averted his gaze to the front, however, hoping to keep his unease settled in favor of offering solace and understanding.

"It's never too late. Not until you well and truly give up," he responded, his voice carrying a newfound conviction. "Even after everything, the people still rely on you, as do I. They're… scared, perhaps more so with your earlier rampage. You can't erase those mistakes, but… I think redemption can be done."

Khiara remained silent, her expression solemn.

"It will be hard, but it won't be impossible," the guard continued, wavering as he navigated the situation's delicate terrain. "And, um, you… I, ah. You won't have to do it alone. Because… I want to be there for you, Khiara. Different than before! So, I can understand who you are now and properly help you work through things."

Khiara interrupted, her voice and expression wrought with puzzlement, "Why, after everything? How can you still want to help me?"

Bonnie took a breath, his determination faltering when he met Khiara's eyes.

"Because… you're my friend, Khiara," he answered without pause. "And I want to forgive you. Yes, it will take time, but… I'm willing to put in the work for improvement. So long as you can do the same."

Khiara looked to hesitate, her brows furrowing as she was undoubtedly torn between a chance for atonement and maintaining her comfortable security. Bonnie could empathize with her reluctance. Transitioning from familiarity to something new and daunting so abruptly was never easy or enjoyable.

After a prolonged silence, Khiara looked ahead and sighed. "There's probably no choice in the matter, anyway. Assuming the human beats Mainyu, there'll be no need to keep all of this up. The people will expect change, and… perhaps I'd be happy to welcome it with that bastard out of the picture,"

Bonnie's eyes softened as he took in her reluctant acceptance, grateful for the understanding that passed between them. Yet, his mind briefly flashed to the urgent reason he had hurried home for additional supplies, signaling the need to bring their conversation to a close.

"It might not be so bad with you around, though," Khiara continued, directing a warm smile at Bonnie. "I mean, I'm still mad as hell at you, but… you're my little brother. And I love you."

Bonnie's eyes widened at the familial term, his mouth dropping open in surprise. His heart raced, flooded with astonishment and joy.

He'd been aware of the familial connection with Khiara, 'a bond that transcended friendship' according to Kai, but hearing the elf before him explicitly refer to him as her 'little brother' was something different. He couldn't help but recall the countless times Khiara had shielded him from cranky Bihops and Moldings during his early days of training with Kai, back when she regarded him with a fondness that made him feel like a precious resource.

For a moment, he was frozen, stuck on his next move. After a beat, a warm smile played on his lips. This was it. This was what he needed all along. Assurance. A confirmation that despite everything they had been through, she still cared about him.

He wanted to be closer to her, to throw himself into her arms and bask in a familial warmth, but fear still dangled above him like the rope of a noose, so he settled for placing his smaller hand against the back of her larger one.

"I… love you too, big sister."

Khiara's initial response was a soft smile, a spark of warmth mirroring Bonnie's as the true extent of their connection became apparent.

Until a shared cringe washed over both their faces.

"Wow! I am never calling you that again," Bonnie exclaimed with exaggerated enthusiasm.

"Ugh! Yeah, same here," Khiara swiftly agreed, drawing back and dropping her hands into her lap. "I think we got the message. Let's go back to being friends."

With a shared, sheepish grin, the two burst out laughing, the sound echoing through the Elf Nation. The tension that had once occupied the air dissipated, replaced by a newfound camaraderie that enveloped them like a warm embrace. The weight of unspoken grievances lifted, and the air felt fresher and crisper in the wake of their redemption.

As their laughter slowed and dwindled, Bonnie and Khiara exchanged glances, their eyes holding a mix of relief and much-needed understanding.

(I never thought it'd be possible to see her like this again…) Bonnie thought to himself with a smile. (There's a lot to make up for, but if I can still make her laugh, maybe there is a chance for me.)

On the horizon was a promising future—a resolution of personal growth and the beginning of a renewed connection. With each step forward, Bonnie and Khiara embraced the possibilities that lay ahead, ready to face whatever challenges came their way, together.

"I'm glad we had this talk. It was certainly long overdue," Khiara acknowledged, bringing her hands together for an anxious clasp. "I'm sure it won't be the last, though…"

Bonnie slowly nodded his head, knowing that would be the case. "Reconciliation is seldom easy, but I have faith we can pull it off."

There was a pause, and his expression grew more concerned as he stood up. "But it will have to wait. I need to find Lucy and Chip before it's too late."

Khiara's smile dropped, and her unease became more prominent. "What do you mean by that?"

❤❤❤

{Background Music - Silence}

Bonnie recounted everything that had transpired to Khiara since he, the human, and her pet had ventured to Cathedral's Road.

"Oh my god…" Khiara whispered through a gasp, her eyes widening in horror as she covered her mouth. "One of Lord Fear's Elites? Here?!" Panic surged through her at the thought. "A- are they still around? The witch?"

"I don't know. I got away when the bridge collapsed and ran here as fast as I could." Bonnie's voice rushed with urgency, the clinking of his arrows on his back punctuating the dire circ*mstances. "But Lucy and Chip are still alive, Khiara. I know it. Lucy has magic from the Dimensional Soul that responds to her emotions. Assuming she used it in time, then she and Chip are lost in the sewers as we speak."

Khiara's mouth opened and closed. She had been too overwhelmed with anger to realize it before, but the idea of a human doing magic was astonishing. That little girl was indeed something different.

"I need to go back for them." Bonnie's resolute voice interrupted her thoughts. "Lucy has The Redemption Mirror, and with The Dimensional Alignment in two weeks, it's our last chance to at least bring Mainyu down with us."

Khiara observed, stunned, as her friend stepped closer, gently clasping fingers from both her hands within his own, sharing a reassuring squeeze.

"I… can't predict what may happen, but if I shan't return, hold on to everything we've discussed. Stop at nothing to pursue the peace and recovery you deserve." Bonnie conveyed with a heartfelt gaze. "Kai thought the world of you. You… are my world in itself. Never forget that."

Khiara remained seated, her eyes fixed on Bonnie as he retreated up the hill. Her mind felt like a battlefield, with memories of past failures and the looming presence of Mainyu waging war against the newfound hope inspired by her friend's words.

In her mind's eye, fragments of the past flickered in and out. The scared faces of the elves she had failed, the innocent human she had harmed, and the pain in Bonnie's eyes—all threatening to swallow her up all over again. Yet, amidst the shadows, a flower grew, blossomed by Bonnie's sincerity and their promise for a fresh start. His words clung to her like a lifeline, urging her to break free from her chains.

Bonnie's steps grew fainter. Upon nearly leaving her sight, Khiara's hardships reached a thrilling crescendo. With a burst of determination, she rose from the ground, her voice like the wind.

{Background Music - Save Us All}

"Bonnie, wait!"

He stopped and turned, surprise etched across his face, unlike the newfound courage within Khiara.

Taking a step forward, Khiara felt the sand crunch beneath her feet, returning her to the present. "I'm coming with you."

Bonnie recoiled, his shock evident in the way his eyes widened. "Khiara?"

Khiara further advanced, each step purposeful, until she and Bonnie were directly in front of one another.

"You were right. I can't erase my mistakes, but I can remove their attributes as a starting point," she said, her voice carried by resolve. "Allowing Mainyu to roam this world for as long as he has is my greatest mistake. Fixing everything will be a journey, but if I'm going to start anywhere, it should be by bringing him down once and for all."

That felt good to say.

"Khiara, I… I'm not sure," Bonnie voiced reluctance. "A lot has changed beyond The Elf Nation, and you're hardly in the right state of mind to face Mainyu again."

Undeterred, Khiara knelt at Bonnie's height, softening her expression to the best of her abilities.

"The human told me that if someone can help, they should do so," Khiara explained in a gentle voice. "I've ignored my abilities for a long time, but now, with an opportunity like this in my hands, I must try. So, you either take me with you, or I sneak around your back."

Taken aback by the elf's bold declaration, Bonnie's eyes flitted around, as if weighing his options. With a sigh, he relented, a reluctant smile gracing his lips.

"Very well," he conceded. "But if you're serious about this, you're going to need a weapon."

❤❤❤

In less than a minute, Khiara sprinted back up the hill and into her house. Ignoring the stagnant air, heavy with the remnants of a life she had left behind, she crouched, reaching under her bed. Her hand fumbled until it closed around the hilt of the sword—her brother's sword. Drawing it out, the blade gleamed despite the absence of light. She held it up, her reflection staring back at her, distorted across the polished steel. The years etched on the weapon mirrored the toll on her spirit, and yet, she had never felt more empowered than when holding it.

Rushing to grab the sword's scabbard from her shrine, she slung it over her shoulder. Her eyes caught her family picture, and the once mocking smiles no longer felt so. They were just… there.

A solemn whisper escaped her lips, "I'm sorry about everything before. I promise that I'll set things right. I'll make you proud."

As she turned and prepared to leave her house once more, she could almost feel the gaze of her brother's portrait lingering on her, a silent but steadfast presence filled with the faintest hint of pride.

❤❤❤

Khiara and Bonnie regrouped at the second gate, the entrance to Cathedral's Road, which stood wide open after Bonnie's earlier frantic exit. Side by side, they faced the ominous path ahead, its shadows concealing both dangers and the potential redemption of their souls.

"You ready?" Khiara asked, her gaze fixed on the foreboding entrance.

Bonnie nodded, a fierce smile spreading across his face. "Always have been."

Dimensional Disarray {The Complete Story} - Chapter 25 - InactiveAndUnattractive (2024)

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