How Time Changes

1

The Chosen One


“Hello, gentlemen!”

The crew turned, and immediately weapons appeared in their grip as an aasimar paladin - radiant and in full armor - stepped onto their ship.

The man chuckled, a deep, warm sound like honey. He held up his hands, “Now now, there’s no need for that - I come in peace! In fact, I have a question for all of you.”

The men and women looked at each other uneasily, no one moving as the blue-skinned man cupped his chin in amusement. The aasimar shook his head, and walked over to a railing to casually lean back on it.

“You see, I have this problem,” he started, putting his palms together, “I’m supposed to be this… chosen one thing, you know, stop some big evil or something, the usual,” he waved a hand dismissively, then put his hands back on bannister and leaned back with a heavy sigh, “Which is a very sticky situation, considering I have absolutely no interest in it.”

“That is a… sticky situation.”

The crew turned to look as their captain emerged from belowdecks. He was pale, with black hair tied back in a low ponytail and an equally dark beard. Pointed ears and red eyes gave him an otherworldly air. He waved them off, slowly walking up to the paladin.

“See?” the aasimar asked, pushing off the railing and putting a hand to his chest, “It’s nothing personal, really, I just want to be my own man.”

“And what does that have to do with your being on my ship, sir…?”

“Kasesi - just Kasesi,” the paladin replied, circling the pale captain and nodding, “Yes, see, I heard you were an elder vampire, and I was quite hoping you really were,” he paused when they were face to face once more, “See, I’m not just your run-of-the-mill ‘chosen’ aasimar - my goddess has actual plans for me beyond just enforcing law and order on the world.”

“Which makes leaving more difficult, I imagine,”  the captain drawled, eyeing his… guest suspiciously.

Kasesi snapped his fingers, “Smart man! So I came to ask some… well, let’s be honest, evil folks to help me out with something,” the paladin walked away, holding out his hands, “It’s just a little thing, small favor, I’ll owe you one,” he turned again, to lean back on the railing once more, “I just need someone to give my deva an infernal wound after I manifest him on this plane.”

The elder vampire took a moment to consider the proposition before slowly advancing on the aasimar, “If I understand you correctly,” he paused scant inches from the paladin, hands clasped behind his back, “You intend to bring an angel onto the material plane, and would like me to wound them, so that they are forced to remain?”

Kasesi grinned, crossing his arms and completely at ease, “Like I said - just a small favor.”

“I’m going to need more than a favor in return,” the captain said.

“Hmmm,” the aasimar said, cupping his chin, “Now what could I, a paladin raised from birth in a temple devoted to a good goddess possibly have to interest you?”

The vampire arched a brow, waiting.

“Oh, you’re no fun,” Kasesi said, waving a hand, “Alright, there’s a very evil, very cursed item in the vault of my temple - I don’t know what it is or what it does, but it’s locked up in a temple, so that should tell you how powerful it is. If I’m going to get it for you, though, I’m going to need you to agree to help me first.”

“I understand retrieving this item will likely be difficult-”

The paladin scoffed, pushing off the bannister and holding up his hands as he walked past the captain, “Oh, fuck no. When I say my temple, I don’t mean the temple I was raised in - I mean it’s my temple, devoted specifically to me. I can walk in and take it and everyone will just assume it’s for chosen one shit,” the man whirled on his heel, one hand on his hip, the other holding up a finger for emphasis, “But if I take it, I’m not going back - so, do we have a deal?”

The captain considered his guest with a piercing red gaze for a few moments - then stepped forward and held out a hand, “We have an accord.”

Kasesi grinned, lowering his aura to shake, “So, what should I call you, captain?”

“I am known as the Baron,” the vampire said, pulling back his hand, “But captain will do.”

“Whatever you say, Bare-Bare,” the aasimar said with a wink - and then he was off, jogging down the gangway with a hand over his shoulder in farewell, “I’ll be back in a few hours - be ready!”

The captain went to the railing to watch the paladin make his way through the small port used only by pirates and other scallywags - he couldn’t blend into the crowd, as aside from the glowing they gave him a wide berth. The vampire shook his head, and turned back to his ship.

***

Kasesi chose an old hill near the pirate port for the venture. The Baron had already secured the artifact on his ship, and only the crewman carrying the earth of his homeland accompanied him. It was a dark gray afternoon, clouds gathered above them as if in preparation of what was to come.
The aasimar stood at the top of the hill, and turned to address the captain, “The best I’ll be able to do is keep him bond after I manifest him - not for long, though.”

“Understood,” the vampire replied, flexing his sharp-clawed hands in preparation.

The paladin nodded, then turned away. He took a deep, steadying breath, gripping his halberd in both hands so that it pointed at the sky, “Sorry, old man.”

Kasesi began to channel his divinity into the weapon - the glow surrounding the aasimar seemed to ebb away from him, infusing his halberd instead. The crewman edged back in concern, and the Baron held out a hand to still him. Divine energy seemed to pulse from the paladin as he gathered more and more of it, the metal tip starting to glow white-hot. Slowly, awkwardly, the sky above the point seemed to crack - with each new split, a pulse of divine energy burst out.

The aasimar closed his eyes, sweat dripping from his brow as he concentrated - the sheer amount of power threatened to overwhelm him and undo his work. He grit his teeth, pushing, reaching both inside and outside of himself for the link between him and his deva.

The Baron held up a hand to shade his eyes from the light, while his crewman fell to their knees.

There was a thundering crack as the line above the halberd suddenly shot up - tendrils of radiant rainbow light seemed to spill outwards from it as it pulled apart. It rumbled apart like a fissure caused by an earthquake, more rainbow colored light pour through as it widened.

Kasesi fell to one knee, hands now above him as he forced himself to keep the halberd upright and straight. He peeked an eye open, and then closed it against the light of the holy plane. With a hoarse scream, the light from his weapon thrust into the hole and dragged out a being made of the same light.

The rip in the planes closed with a sound like an avalanche and a final pulse of holy energy. The deva struggled against bonds of white light, sending out erratic blasts of divine light that scorched the sands with such intensity that they became glass.

The Baron leapt forward once the creature was clear of the portal and plunged his hand into the deva’s shoulder.

The angel shrieked and it shook the ground. The vampire reached with his other hand and grabbed the wing behind his injury - and tore it off.

The captain leapt away as the deva plummeted, holy light leaving him as he acclimated to the mortal plane. He hit the sand hard, kicking it up as he flailed mindlessly against the pain.

Kasesi’s grip slipped from the halberd, and he collapsed into the sand in exhaustion. He panted for a few moments, feeling tears build at the corners of his eyes - but he’d expected it to hurt. There is no bond that can be broken without some kind of pain, he thought as he got his hands under him and forced himself off the ground. When he looked up, his deva met his gaze.

“Kasesi,” the angel - who appeared as an older man with short blond hair - panted, eyes full of pity, “What have you done?”

Oh, the paladin thought, Why couldn’t you just hate me?

Never, the deva replied telepathically.

The Baron hoisted the exhausted aasimar to his feet, “We must leave.”

“Yeah,” Kasesi agreed, trying to get his feet under him and failing, mostly being carried along by the vampire. The crewman snatched up the nearly abandoned halberd, and they left the deva to his pain in the sand.

***

Once on the ship, the paladin fell into a deep sleep for several days. When he awoke and stumbled his way topside, he could see nothing but sea and sky in every direction. He shuffled to the ship’s railing, and leaned over it to look out, no trace of the energy he’d shown previously. And no aura of divinity, either.

At night, the Baron appeared at the aasimar’s side with not even a whisper of sound, “Do you regret your decision?”

Kasesi shook his head, “It was necessary - the pain will pass, and my strength will return.”

“It will be some time before we reach a far port,” the vampire said, “And my crew and I will need to feed.”

“I won’t stop you - if it’s other pirates, I might even help,” the paladin said, then laughed humorlessly,

“You know, it’s funny - I wish I could be what they wanted. The devoted chosen one ready to give his life for the world - but… I’m not. And I can’t change that.”

“You will become used to being alone,” the Baron said, memories of a country that no longer existed haunting his eyes. The rest of him, however, was still and sharp - ready to strike.

“Speaking from experience?” Kasesi said, then straightened up with a groan, “Besides, I’m only alone in my dreams.”

“Oh?” the vampire asked, watching his guest from the corner of his eye.

The aasimar lightly bumped their shoulders as he walked away, “I’ve got you while I’m awake, Bare-Bare.”

“You’re bold with the liberties you take, for someone who can no longer defend themself,” the Baron said, turning to watch the paladin head back below decks.

“So kill me,” Kasesi shrugged, “I’ll probably be sleeping a lot, all you need is to put the pillow over my face. Slit my throat. Plunge your claws into my chest and rip out my still beating heart, if you want to be dramatic about it.”

The vampire snorted - amused despite himself.

The aasimar looked over his shoulder and winked, “That is an invitation to my bed, by the way - if you’re interested.”

“You’ve been careful not to fall,” the Baron said, “Are you sure you want to be so reckless now?”

“Aw, you do care, Bare-Bare,” the paladin said, waving over one shoulder as he retreated below decks.

Once he reached the room he’d woken in, Kasesi collapsed against the back of the door. His legs went liquid and he fell to the floor - he buried his head in his hands and sobbed, unable to stop himself. He’d never realized what it meant to be alone - truly alone - until now, and he ached with it. With the black hole in the middle of his chest that seemed to suck in every other emotion he tried to feel.

“What a pathetic display,” the captain said, cupping his chin and standing in front of his guest.

Kasesi began to laugh - it cut through his sobs, but didn’t end them, “You’re… abso… absolutely… right…”

The Baron crouched in front of the aasimar, shaking his head, “Did you think to seek comfort from me? We are business partners - nothing more.”

The laughter got worse, causing the paladin to double over with the force of the near hysterical laugh-sobs, “Ridiculous… I know… I’m… ”

“You still claim not to regret your decision?” the vampire asked, red eyes glowing, “While sobbing into the deck of my ship, do you still believe this to be the best course?”

Kasesi took several minutes to get a hold of himself, and leaned back against the door, panting. He eyed his host with the glimmer of amusement, “Are you trying to salt the wound? How crude.”

The Baron arched a brow, “I have the artifact, and you are a large deal of trouble. It would be a simple matter to return you to your temple.”

“And then I will use the fullest of my strength to hunt you to my dying day and kill you so thoroughly even the name you keep to yourself will be forgotten to the annals of history,” the aasimar replied with a gentle smile, “We can have this conversation as many times as you like, Bare-Bare, but my answer will be the same.”

The vampire reached forward and gently closed his hand around the paladin’s throat. He increased the pressure slowly, watching the reaction.

Kasesi maintained eye contact, but didn’t fight off the the Baron as the man continued to apply pressure. The captain stopped just short of crushing the aasimar’s windpipe, still just watching. The paladin wheezed for breath, but didn’t move.

“You really intend to keep yourself cut off from your divine power?” the vampire asked, “Even if it costs your life?”

Kasesi couldn’t reply, eyes rolling into the back of his head and drooling.

The Baron released the paladin, standing.

The aasimar gasped and coughed, rubbing at his throat as he caught his breath. After a few moments, he looked up and winked, “Was it as good for you as it was for me?”

The vampire rolled his eyes, “I cannot decide if you are stupid or insane.”

“Why settle for one?” Kasesi asked, legs slipping against the floor as he tried to stand.

The Baron watched him struggle for a few moments before sighing and grabbing the aasimar by the upper arm and tossing him onto the bed.

“Thanks,” the paladin said, voice muffled by virtue of his face being pressed into the mattress.

“Sleep,” the vampire said, beginning to fade out of the room, “And perhaps you will stop trying to use me to commit suicide.”

“It’s endearing, admit it,” Kasesi said, shifting just enough to keep from suffocating.

As the Baron disappeared, his voice carried one last message, “It’s annoying.”

***

The paladin kept his word - when the pirates attacked another ship, he made no move to stop them. While they were other pirates, he made no move to help, either - just watched from the deck of the Baron’s ship with mild interest. The second pirate ship they came across, however, he joined in the action.

It had been a month since they left land, and the separation from his deity still showed in Kasesi’s fighting. While his strikes were still heavy, they were less precise - and blows he had been able to shrug off previously now hit with the expected results.

“You could heal your arm,” the Baron said later, watching the aasimar create a makeshift sling.

“Could,” the paladin replied cheerfully, then winced as he jostled the broken limb. It didn’t help that he was attempting to patch himself up on the deck of the ship.

“Is your goddess really so likely to find you from such a minor spell?” the vampire asked, crossing his arms.

“She’s likely to find me from someone saying her name around me, just because she’s looking,” Kasesi replied, tying the sling one-handedly and awkwardly contorting his head to try and get it over, “Which is why I haven’t told it to you.”

“Should I be worried about facing her wrath?”

“Nah,” the aasimar replied, finally getting the sling around his neck. And then it slipped free due to being too loose, causing the paladin to cut off a shout as it hit his leg. After taking a moment to hiss in a breath, he forced himself to relax, “She’s always known I’m a shit. It’s one of the reasons why she likes me. Liked. Maybe - I don’t actually know how she actually feels about the whole forcing a deva to remain on the mortal plane thing.”

The Baron sighed, and walked behind Kasesi. He reached down and grabbed the ends of the cloth sling - then jerked it up.

The aasimar pounded his uninjured fist into his thigh, and spoke through gritted teeth, “Thanks, Bare-Bare, really needed the… hand.”

The vampire gave the sling an extra yank as he tightened the knot, “Are you suicidal?”

“Maybe a touch,” Kasesi replied, catching his breath, “You know, I could have taken on that whole crew myself before.”

“Was this a test then?” the captain asked, circling back around.

“It’s important to know your limits,” the paladin said, “And since I don’t really plan on sticking around…”

“We have a month yet,” the Baron said, “It will likely take your arm that long to heal. I suggest you learn to dodge.”

“Good advice,” Kasesi said, grunting as he got to his feet. He gave a wave as he limped towards the railing, leaning on it heavily to look over the ocean, “You know, being a sailor doesn’t seem half bad - relaxing. Little weird for a vampire, but whatever.”

“I find it more strange that an aasimar would choose a vampire’s ship as the location for separating himself from his god,” said vampire replied, remaining where he was.

The paladin shrugged, then grumbled and put a hand on his injured shoulder, “What can I say? I might not be a very good person, but I am a fairly smart one.”

“This is what you consider wise?”

“You ask a lot of questions,” Kasesi said, turning to lean back on the railing, “But I like the sound of my own voice well enough to answer them. Any reputable ship would have a log with my name on it - and most the ones landing in good ports would have known who I am with little trouble. Besides that, any tiny amount of holy energy I may still be harboring is being completely overshadowed by your evilness - let’s call it a shroud of darkness, hm? Properly… chilling?”

“You have given this considerable thought,” the captain said, “I suppose that must mean you are insane.”

The aasimar snorted, “Too smart to be stupid, eh? I’ve heard worse insults, I suppose. Not at me, of course - actually, probably by me, if I think about it.”

“And how do you intend to mask your holy energy when off my ship?” the Baron asked, cupping his chin.

The paladin grinned, “You already know, huh?”

With a sigh, the vampire walked over to the railing, “I made no comment since you did give me the more powerful artifact, though I had wondered why you bothered with two. Fighting the curse on that amulet-”

“Oh that’s why you choked me,” Kasesi interrupted, pulling out said amulet by hooking the string on his thumb and pulling it taut, “Like, I figured you knew about the second artifact, but didn’t know you already knew it was an amulet. Did seem weirdly overboard to prove a point…”

“-is the more likely cause for your current weakness than the separation alone,” the captain went on, as if he hadn’t been interrupted.

“Eh, it’s a minor curse at best,” the aasimar said, letting the amulet - a stylized stone eye - fall against his chest, “A normal person would be inconvenienced at worse.”

“You don’t know what it is,” the Baron said, “You didn’t know what the other artifact was either.”

“Are you about to lecture me about the dangers of giving unknown evil artifacts to dangerous vampire pirates?” the paladin asked, face falling.

The dangerous vampire pirate glared sidelong, “Do I look like your parent?”

Kasesi snorted, “I mean you’re at least old enough to be.”

“You’re going to die on your own. Swiftly and with no one to regret your passing.”

“I can’t tell if that’s a thinly veiled threat or thickly veiled concern,” the aasimar said, then sighed heavily as he turned to face the ocean again, “I’ll be out of your hair soon enough - not that it really matters to you. You’ve got the artifact and you got to rip off a deva’s wing.”

“Do you assume I enjoyed it?” the captain asked.

“I mean, it’s pretty impressive whether you did or not.”

The Baron hummed noncommittally.

***

“You’re leaving me in a pirate town?” Kasesi asked, testing his still newly healed arm.

“Where else would I leave you?” the captain asked, “You asked for passage - passage was given. I have no plans to go further out of my way.”

“Fair enough,” the aasimar said, shrugging, “I was more just curious - never been to a pirate town before.”

“You’d do well to keep your mouth shut and leave as soon as possible,” the Baron said, “Unless your idea of a glorious death is bleeding out on the floor of what passes for a tavern here.”

The paladin laughed, “You know, you keep trying to convince me you don’t care, but you’re doing a really poor job of it.”

“I have no need to convince you of anything,” the vampire said, looking up from the desk in his cabin, “What are you doing here?”

“Well, I figured since this is my last day on the ship, I’d explore the only part I hadn’t been to,” Kasesi said, looking at one of the paintings in the room.

“For someone who claims to be trying to live their own life,” the captain said, returning to his logs, “You have a remarkably low sense of self-preservation.”

“If you were going to kill me you’ve had a whole month of opportunities,” the aasimar said, squinting as he tried to figure out what the castle depicted was, “Besides, it wouldn’t be hard for you to kick me out.”

“It’s Barovia,” the Baron said.

Kasesi paused, then looked over at the vampire and blinked, “Oh.”

The captain paused.

The paladin snorted, and went to investigate the bookshelf, “Figures - dead guy from a dead land. Bet you got books on the place, too, huh?”

The Baron rolled his eyes, returning to his work, “What goddess would want you as a chosen one is beyond my comprehension.”

“Right?” the aasimar asked, scanning the titles on the spines, “Not a sympathetic bone in my body. To be fair, you are evil. And pretty old. I’m sure you’ve had time to get over it.”

The vampire hummed noncommittally.

“Are you ignoring me?” Kasesi asked, pulling out one of the books and jumping onto a couch.

The captain said nothing, working on his logs.

“Interesting,” the paladin said, attempting to read the foreign, dead language through sheer will, “I’ve never been ignored before. Well, not the way you’re ignoring me. In the temple they just ignored anything that made me seem like an asshole instead of a divine puppet of the gods, created to do their bidding. Or when I asked for more baklava. They said I’d get fat. Can’t have a fat chosen one, I guess. This book would be better with pictures. Maybe I should draw some?”

The Baron glanced up from his desk.

The aasimar grinned at him over the book, “Made you look.”

“It’s a treatise on the agricultural state of Barovia,” the vampire said, “There are no pictures that would enhance such a reading.”

“Cows,” Kasesi replied.

“I take it back,” the Baron said, “You are stupid.”

“Took you long enough,” the paladin said, then sighed and stood, returning the book to the shelf - in a different place. Then he stretched, heading for the door, “Well, guess I better get moving - don’t miss me too much, Bare-Bare.”

“Of that I have no fear.”

***

Kasesi wheezed in a breath, blurrily looking down at his stomach. He pulled his hand from his side, finding yes, that was still bleeding. One of his eyes was closed due to a second gash on his forehead, and he looked up again, wondering why the room was still spinning when the fight had clearly stopped.

“Pathetic,” a familiarly derisive voice said, “You’re off of my ship for one week and you’re already proving me right.”

“Hey… Bare-Bare… didn’ expect-” the aasimar paused to turn and vomit, though most of it still landed on himself.

The Baron sighed and turned on his heel, “Pick yourself up you lout.”

The paladin huffed out a breath, and leaned heavily on the table behind him to try and stand - knocking it over and landing on the ground again. He blinked up at the ceiling, wondering if the crack he’d heard was the table or his back.

The vampire rolled his eyes and snapped his fingers.

One of the crewmen that had accompanied their captain ashore collected Kasesi from the broken table, throwing him over one shoulder. The aasimar groaned, and soon blacked out.

He woke to the familiar rocking of a ship, and the same room he’d used for the past two months. Everything hurt, and something as simple as putting a hand to his bandaged temple was an effort. With considerably more effort, he pulled the blanket up and saw his middle was bandaged as well. He panted as he laid back in the bed, and closed his eyes.

“I don’t really… understand this part,” he said out loud.

“And here I expected some asinine speculation,” the Baron said, suddenly standing in the room.

Kasesi huffed, “Heh. Alright, if that’s… what you want… I guess… you realized… you’re… madly in love with… me?”

“No,” the captain said, “But you are a point of interest.”

The aasimar creaked one eye open, “I’m… interesting, huh?”

“People are inherently selfish,” the vampire said, “I have lived for many years, and while I have on rare occasion met the truly selfless man, you are not one of them. A fact you well know yourself.”

“True.”

“Yet, as selfish as you are, you make no effort to keep yourself alive. You make no claims to desire power or wealth - what weak selfishness you have,” the Baron stepped closer leaning over his guest, “And yet it consumes you - you left power, acclaim, and glory. You risked falling in your quest to possess nothing but yourself.”

The paladin closed his eye, “Doesn’t that just… make me a narcissist?”

“You hate yourself too much for that.”

Kasesi winced, but said nothing.

“You dance on a knife’s edge - not too far to fall, but not of a strong enough moral fiber to be considered good. Conscious of your flaws, but unable to change them - though not, I doubt, from lack of trying.”

The aasimar opened both eyes this time, but still said nothing.

The captain cupped his chin, “While this existence is with purpose, it is also long and dull. Rarely do I find something or someone that catches my interest. I am curious to see how long it takes for you to cut yourself.”

“I’m… flattered,” the paladin said.

“You should be,” the vampire reached out and put a hand over the paladin’s face, “Sleep.”

He did.

2

The Pirate



“What’s this?” Kasesi asked, frowning at the leather armor thrust at him on deck.

“Captain says you stand out too much,” the pirate, a lizardfolk named Kaegro, crossed his arms, “I do not understand why he is keeping you.”

“Apparently I’m interesting,” the aasimar drawled, looking over the set, “I’ll look like a pirate in this.”

“You are a pirate now,” the lizardfolk said, “But you are still mortal.”

“Sorry to be slowing you down,” the former paladin said, “Not sure how much of a pirate it makes me if I won’t steal from or harm the innocent.”

Kaegro scoffed, “We rarely do that to begin with. We board to hunt - to kill. Not to steal.”

“No wonder you can’t afford a fashion sense,” Kasesi said, grinning.

“I fail to see how altering the coloring of my clothes will improve my skills.”

The aasimar rolled his eyes, “Maybe it will distract them. So how’d you sign aboard?”

“I was captain of my own crew, until I found one who was stronger,” the lizardfolk said, licking one of his eyes, “I offered myself to save my crew. He killed my crew, but allowed me to join his.”

“Harsh,” Kasesi said, then shrugged, “But hey. He is evil.”

“And powerful,” Kaegro said, “But I still fail to see the use you serve.”

“Entertainment?” the former paladin offered, “It’s pretty obvious none of you know how to have a good time on your own.”

“Careful, paladin,” a human pirate nearby said with a sneer, “You have no place here.”

“Not according to your captain,” the aasimar replied cheerfully, “Though honestly, I’m with you - being kept as a pet by an elder vampire just seems like it’s going to end badly for me.”

“You would be so lucky,” the woman, Lianne, spat, “Likely the captain just wants that bauble round your neck.”

“Really?” Kasesi asked with exaggerated astonishment. He awkwardly shifted the armor to one arm, and pulled the cursed amulet off and held it out.

The woman frowned at it, then glared up at its owner.

“Go on,” the paladin grinned, “Take it. Give it to Bare-Bare, with my regards.”

Lianne snarled, then snatched it, “I will - and then you will be gone.”

“If you say so,” the aasimar said, watching her stomp off.

“You must be confident that the artifact is not the reason for your stay,” Kaegro said.

“Pretty sure I’ll have it back before morning,” Kasesi said, “Besides, the captain is a pretty straightforward guy - if he wanted the amulet, he would have said so.”

“This is true,” the lizardfolk said, licking their other eye, “He is far too powerful to need to deceive a hatchling like you.”

“Hatchling?” the aasimar deadpanned, “I’m over forty years old, you know. I’m sure you’re not spring chicken, but...”

“I am a lizard, not a chicken,” Kaegro said without a trace of humor, “And I was referring to your inability to care for yourself, not your age.”

“... eh, I’ll give you that,” the paladin said, then stilled as his amulet fell back around his neck.

“Why are you angering my crew?” the Baron asked.

The lizardfolk bowed their head and walked away.

“Aw, and I was starting to think we could be friends,” Kasesi said, then sighed and turned to face the captain, “It seems my existence itself is a point of contention. It’s actually pretty refreshing. Much better than the kowtowing.”

The vampire frowned, “I won’t stop them from killing you.”

“Do they know that?” the aasimar asked.

“Would it alter your behavior if they did?”

“Mmm, I suppose not,” the former paladin said.

“Then it does not matter if they do,” the Baron turned, walking away.

“I’m starting to think you just like not answering questions,” Kasesi said.

“I have already given you far more answers than you’re due,” the vampire replied.

The aasimar snorted, looking at the armor again as he muttered under his breath, “Claims not to be my parent but keeps lecturing me anyways…”

The captain glaced back, but chose not to speak.

The former paladin looked up, speaking at the same volume, “I know you heard me.”

The Baron faded from view.

Kasesi laughed softly to himself, then sighed and headed towards his cabin to try on the armor.

***

“Here,” Kaegro said, dumping a string instrument the aasimar had never seen into Kasesi’s lap.

The former paladin was bandaging his injuries from the latest slaughter, sitting cross-legged on the deck. He frowned down at the instrument, “What?”

“You say you serve as entertainment,” the lizardfolk said, sitting across from the aasimar, “You will be more entertaining with this.”

Kasesi laughed, setting aside his bandages for the moment, “You’re not wrong, but… I don’t know how to play this. I don’t even know what this is.”

“You can learn,” Kaegro said, licking an eye. They gave the former paladin a cursory glance, “You are so soft and killable.”

“Well we can’t all be born with scales and claws,” Kasesi said, plucking at the strings.

“Sadly,” the lizardfolk agreed, nodding sagely.

“Ugh, this is why you grabbed that piece of shit?” Lianne asked, crossing her arms and standing over the pair.

The aasimar hummed a tune, and tried to pluck it out on the instrument. Frowning, he examined the instrument and twisted a knob at one end, plucking the strings to tune them.

“If his purpose is entertainment, he should be entertaining,” Kaegro replied.

The woman snorted, then sighed and sat, “I suppose you have a point - doubt he can even carry a tune on his own.”

“I know a girl with ruby eyes and a sour disposition,” Kasesi sang to the simple tune he’d started strumming;

“I’m sure she hates me, but it’s hardly an imposition,
I know I’m not a likeable man, and I don’t exactly do all that I can
To change the way that others view me,
Otherwise I wouldn’t be here, besides it’s easy to see,
She’s an evil bitch, and I don’t give a shit,
So say what you want, Lianne, say it again and again, 
And maybe someday I’ll care, and it’ll be true.”

The aasimar smiled benignly at the pirate woman, who fumed. Kaegro looked between the two with a blank expression.

Lianne spoke through her teeth, “Of course you sing like an angel - you practically are one, after all.”

“Worst subject in the temple,” Kasesi disagreed, “They made me practice for hours to get all the chants and mantras right.”

“Your rhyming was indeed approximate at best,” the lizardfolk agreed.

“I’ll work on it,” the former paladin said, plucking at the strings again, “I’m not all that used to improvising, and the only songs I know are religious shit.”

“What!” a svirfneblin pirate demanded, practically tripping over themselves as they rushed over, “You don’t know a single sea shanty or limerick?”

“Weren’t in the curriculum,” Kasesi replied, grinning, “I take it you know a few?”

“Don’t start you tone-deaf toad!” Lianne ordered.

“Your singing is as unpleasant as your face, Orale,” Kaegro agreed, licking an eye.

“Well someone has to give this man a proper education,” the deep gnome insisted, using both hands to gesture at the former paladin.

“I will stab my ears out,” the female pirate said, pulling out a dagger to prove her point.

“That’s… a terrible threat,” the aasimar said, “Usually you threaten to harm the other person - not yourself.”

“I do hate you,” Lianne said, then looked back to Orale, “ I will stab your ears out, since you don’t use them anyways.”

Kasesi returned to humming as he plucked the strings of the instrument, ignoring the exchange of threats and eventual violence. Kaegro got up to break things up, leaving the aasimar to his own devices.

“I told you not to anger my crew,” the Baron said, appearing behind the former paladin.

“Is Lianne ever not angry?” Kasesi asked, “I can’t be held responsible for people who are always angry.”

“Where did you get that?” the vampire asked.

“Ask Kaegro,” the aasimar replied, “I don’t even know what it is - well, other than an instrument.”

“It’s called a dulcimer,” the captain said, “Why did Kaegro give you an instrument?”

“Everybody needs a hobby,” the former paladin replied.

The Baron gave him a sidelong glance, “That is not an answer.”

“I noticed,” Kasesi said, “See, I can do it too.”

“You are not the captain, and my tolerance has its limits.”

“That’s unfortunate for you, isn’t it?” the aasimar said, “Well, and me, but killing me means nothing to me and ends your…”  the former paladin smiled at a successful chord, “Distraction.”

“How much trust do you put in the idea that I will not kill you simply due to what is likely a passing fancy?” the vampire asked.

“Not much, but you haven’t yet and this is not half as annoying as I have been,” Kasesi said, “Besides, this time I’m on your ship by your… well, I’d say request but I feel like it was more of a demand. Will? That’s a fair middle ground, I think. Here by your will, not mine.”

“Perhaps you should become a bard,” the captain drawled, “Your attempts at a honeyed words are in vain against me, but others may see something slightly redeemable in you.”

“Redeemable?” the aasimar asked, “That’s an interesting way of looking at it. Better disappear if you want me to make nice - looks like they’re heading back.”

“Lianne is angry at your lack of respect,” the Baron said, “Which I am sure you are aware of.”

“I’m not changing that.”

“I am aware,” the vampire said, fading from view.

The former paladin smiled and looked up as the three crew members returned.

***

“You’re drunk,” the Baron observed.

Kasesi snorted, leaning over the railing of the ship and taking a drink from the green bottle in his hand, “Wha’ gav’it away?”

“Where did you get that?” the vampire asked.

“Ship,” the aasimar said, making the ‘p’ pop, “Mos’ pirats don’ ge’ drun-kuh offa blood, y’know?”

“And what brought this desire to divest yourself of your-”

Sssh-sh-sh-sh,” the former paladin waved a hand vaguely, “Enough a’ tha’ fancy tal’.”

The captain rolled his eyes, “Why are you drunk?”

“Lianne made a pass a’me,” Kasesi grabbed the railing and leaned back, rocking onto his heels, staring up at the sky, “Go’ mad when I turned ‘er down.”

“As far as I can tell, you’ve yet to accept an invitation from anyone - despite making your own offers,” the Baron said, “Why should this be the refusal you need to drink for?”

“Cause we were may’b geddin’ along?” the aasimar shrugged, then sighed, “Don’ really ge’ th’appeal, t’be honest.”

“Oh?” the vampire arched a brow.

The former paladin sighed again, more heavily, and propelled himself forward to lean over the railing again, “Yeah - in tha temple, it was pard a some of tha riduals, and I don’... hate it, buh…” Kasesi shrugged again, “Nah somethin’ I’m int-intres… in-ter-es-ted in. On’y flirt cause is funny - on’y offer ta peep… ple tha’ I know won’ accep’.”

“What happens if they do?”

“Why?” the aasimar grinned, whole body rolling to the side as his head lolled, “Y’tryin’ ta take m’up on somethin’ I said?”

“No,” the captain said, both brows raising, “And certainly not when you’re like this.”

The former paladin snorted, taking another drink without righting himself, “F’tha bes’. Pends on tha person, think. Like I said, don’ hade it, buh nah mah thing. Guess if I liked’em I’d be ‘kay wif it, buh…”

The Baron said nothing, waiting.

Kasesi groaned as he slid himself off the railing, laying down on the deck, “Stars’re nice ou’ here.”

The vampire watched the drunk aasimar, “I suppose.”

The former paladin was quiet for some time, watching the sky. Every so often he’d take a drink, sometimes glancing at the captain.

It was the only thing that let the Baron know his prodding hadn’t been forgotten.

“Nah,” Kasesi said at last.

“Pardon?”

“Nah gonna say,” the aasimar said, “Weird ‘nuff conver-conversation wiff a guy like you.”

“A guy like me?” the vampire asked.

The former paladin threw out a hand, accidentally tossing his bottle, “Whoops…”

“Probably better that way,” the captain said.

Kasesi blew a raspberry at the Baron, then sighed, “Why d’ya wanna know?”

“I didn’t really care until you tried to hide it,” the vampire said.

The aasimar chuckled, “Tha’s fair.”

The silence dragged on again, the sounds of waves lapping against the sides of the ships and creaking of the wooden vessel the only sounds.

“Siddown,” the former paladin said at length, patting the deck next to him, “Yer too far up.”

“You know that doesn’t affect my hearing,” the captain said, frowning at the spot.

Kasesi rolled his eyes, “Y’wanna know or nah?”

With a put upon sigh, the Baron sat next to the drunkard.

“... I jus’ don’ ge’ it,” the aasimar said, “Sex. ‘Lationships. None of it ‘ppeals t’me. Maybe jus’ cause I’mma shelfish bashtard, buh… go’ nah indrest in any a’ it.”

The vampire glanced at the former paladin, then followed the intoxicated man’s gaze to the stars.

“S’pose it seems silly,” Kasesi mumbled, “Geddin’ sho wor’ed up ober somp’in’ sho…”

“Was sex one of the domains of your goddess?” the captain asked.

“Yeah,” the aasimar said, “Nah playin’ a guessin’ game, r’ya?”

“No,” the Baron said, “I was merely trying to discern why temple rituals would require intercourse.”

The former paladin snorted, and it turned into a laugh, rolling onto his side facing away from the vampire, “You soun’ like an ol’ man.”

“I am an old man,” the captain said, “And while I will never deny you are, as you put it, a selfish bastard-”

“Damn straighd,” Kasesi said, but quietly.

“However I fail to see how understanding what one does and does not like is selfish.”

The aasimar said nothing in response, still facing away from the Baron.

The vampire went on, looking over at the former paladin, “Selfishness and desire are mutually exclusive concepts. You cannot selfishly not want something - it’s antithetical.”

Want t’be alone,” Kasesi refuted.

“Do you?” the captain drawled, looking up again, “Or do you not want to have sex or a relationship?”

The aasimar closed his eyes, feeling a headache coming on as his drunk mind tried to process the question, “Ugh.”

“Would it have been more selfish to agree to have sex with Lianne to keep your relationship civil, or to do as you did and refuse her due to your own inclinations?”

Ugh,” the former paladin said with more emphasis, rolling onto his back and flinging out his arms, hitting the Baron and not caring, “I’m too drun’ fer this.”

“Are you?” the vampire asked, without any intent to move.

Kasesi shot him a glare, forcing himself to sit up with a groan, “Yes.”

Can you walk?”

“‘Boudda fin’ ou’,” the aasimar slurred, almost falling as the ship rolled while he was getting to his feet. He managed to catch himself by half falling on the captain.

“I am not a leaning post,” the Baron said without malice, glancing at the former paladin.

Kasesi rolled his eyes, picking himself up all the way and stumbling below decks.

The vampire watched him a moment, then looked back up at the sky, trying to remember the last time he’d admired it.

***

The Baron looked at the headless body on the dusty ground, blood still spurting from the neck stump. There was a loose crowd, but most were already walking away - in a pirate town like Highwater, a murder in the streets was nothing new. Slowly, the vampire’s gaze shifted to the sun glinting off the tip of a haldberd’s still bloody blade - up the wooden shaft of the weapon, and up to the face of the former paladin that wielded it.

Kasesi’s face was impassive, staring at the body of the man he’d decapitated.

“... he wasn’t a pirate,” Orale the deep gnome said, sniffing, “Or attacking us.”

“I know,” the aasimar replied, “But he knew who I was.”

The vampire captain couldn’t refute that point - the likely escaped slave or refugee had ran towards them, shouting the former paladin’s name - about to say more before he’d been cut off. Rather literally.

Kaegro licked an eyeball, crossing their arms and walking up to the corpse, “It’s been nearly fifty years - it was bound to happen eventually.”

Lianne snorted, leaning an elbow on Kasesi’s shoulder awkwardly due to the aasimar’s great height, “Shouldn’t of run up on us like that - even if he recognized this dick he should have seen the rest of us.”

The Baron wondered when his land crew had become so… predictable. Kasesi did as he wished, as always, and the other three seemed to have taken to him better than the rest of the crew. It had happened slowly, he supposed, slowly enough that he hadn’t noticed until now.

“We have business,” the vampire said, turning and walking on.

Lianne shoved at the former paladin’s face as she walked away, lacing her fingers behind her head.

It seemed to pull Kasesi from his stupor, and he whipped his halberd to the side to get most of the blood off before returning it to his back. His walk, however, was tense and alert, unlike his typical deceptively casual stroll.

“I heard there are some troubles overseas,” the lizardfolk said, “We’re likely to see more prey like that one.”

“Is that so?” the aasimar asked stiffly, the blue of his face paling.

The Baron glanced back, then ahead again.

“Yeah,” Orale added, taking out a trick dagger and playing with it, “Heard there were plagues and shit, too - good thing we’ve been avoiding those ports for a while. Sick people taste gross.”

“And they don’t fill you up,” Lianne added, sneering at a passerby.

The former paladin hummed noncommittally, watching the ground.

“Guess you won’t be making anymore port calls, eh?” the deep gnome grinned, elbowing Kasesi in the hip, since he couldn’t reach the man’s side.

“Don’t worry,” the female pirate laughed, “We’ll make sure you still get fed and watered.”

“Thanks,” the aasimar said.

“You lack your usual energy,” Kaegro observed, licking an eye, “Does the possibility of being recognized really bother you that much?”

The former paladin forced a laugh, “No, no, just thinking how those poor saps probably still expect me to save them.”

Lianne barked a laugh, “As if you could save anyone.”

“Silly, right?” Kasesi said, smiling though it was strained, “To think some asshole who ditched them fifty years ago is going to show up now and solve all their problems.”

“You can’t even solve your own problems,” Orale cackled, flipping his dagger.

The lizardfolk made a krring noie, “How would you even go about solving a plague? Likely you would just catch it and die.”

“Probably,” the aasimar agreed.

“Mortals are so cute,” Lianne said, “Dying from disease.”

“That’s enough inane chatter,” the Baron said without looking back, “We are here with a purpose. Act like professionals.”

“... professional what?” the former paladin asked, a beat later than usual, “All I see are bunch of professional assholes.”

Lianne and Orale snickered, but quietly. Kaegro tilted their head curiously.

“Then it should not be hard to act the way you are,” the captain said.

“Full of shit?” Kasesi shot back.

“If that is how you wish to conceptualize it,” the elder vampire replied.

***

Kasesi stared out over the ocean, leaning against the railing of the ship. They were in less familiar waters, and he wore a coat against the chill. He breath ghosted around his mouth like a fog as he spoke, “We’re further north than usual.”

The Baron appeared behind the aasimar and took a step forward to stand next to the other man, “Your time here, as it is, is at an end.”

“Finally tired of me?” the former paladin asked, smiling tiredly, “Going to throw me to the depths, letting me freeze as a drown?”

“I will give you two options, though I have already surmised your choice,” the vampire said, able to see the coast that was still invisible to Kasesi.

“Well if I get to chose the way I die, I’d prefer it was by a dragon,” the aasimar said, “Not fire though - that takes too long. Good, clean bite - straight through.”

“Interesting you should mention biting,” the captain said, turning to face the mortal, “Your options are this: leave this ship at the next port or I will make you a permanent member of the crew.”

The former paladin whistled low, blinking at the Baron in surprise, “That would… certainly keep my goddess from reclaiming me, wouldn’t it?”

“Indeed,” the vampire said, looking out over the sea again.

Kasesi sighed, a cloud of breath coming out as he looked out as well, “And it’s less likely that any refugees or slaves are this far north - at least right now.”

“You’d have time to disappear into the eastern mountains before they arrive en masse,” the captain agreed.

“That’s… quite an offer,” the aasimar said.

“It’s not an offer,” the Baron said, “It’s an ultimatum. You have until tomorrow to decide and prepare.”

The former paladin laughed, “I thought you already knew what I was going to chose?”

“You have surprised me in the past,” the vampire said, “I fail to see why that should change now.”

“So what do you think I’ll pick?”

“To stay,” the captain said, “It is easier, and you have a penchant self-destructive behavior. Not to mention your tendency to fill the emptiness left by abandoning your goddess and deva with your… friends.”

Kasesi side-eyed the other man, “Huh. Never pegged you for the sentimental type - well, not for anything that isn’t Barovia.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You don’t want me to fall.”

The Baron said nothing.

The aasimar turned to lean on the railing with his back facing the ocean, “You don’t think I’m strong enough to leave and take care of myself, but you’re making a pretty considerable effort to convince me I should. Short time to think about it, telling me what you think I’ll do so I’ll be contrary and do the opposite… you won’t even stay in port if I leave, will you?”

“No.”

The former paladin chuckled, head falling back, “After all these years, you’ve got a soft spot for me, Bare-Bare.”

“You have ceased to be interesting,” the captain said, “Since you no longer serve in that capacity, I have no use for you as a mortal man.”

“Could have abandoned me in Highwater,” Kasesi said, grinning, “If you really didn’t care, you’d stop at a port you were bound to visit  - but you don’t want me to change my mind.”

The vampire faced the aasimar, and regarded him with a quiet intensity.

“Uh… what?” the former paladin asked, grin faltering.

“I don’t want you to fall,” the Baron said, “I don’t want you to stay on my ship. If you leave, I don’t want to give you the opportunity to reverse one of the few good decisions you’ve made in your miserable, selfish life.”

“Oh… getting serious there,” Kasesi said, looking away and scratching the back of his neck. He seemed to deflate, looking down at the water hitting the ship’s side.

“Eternal life is a serious commitment,” the captain said, and gently placed a hand on the aasimar’s shoulder, “But - for good or ill - I leave the choice in your hands.”

The vampire walked away then, leaving the former paladin to his own reverie.

***

“Sure you aren’t going to miss me?” Kasesi asked, standing at the top of the landing ramp.

“As if,” Lianne scoffed, giving the aasimar a mock punch to the chin, “Go break someone else’s heart, you rotten bastard.”

“Are you sure you don’t want your halberd?” Kaegro asked, tilting their head, “You were hardly a threat with it. You are practically defenseless without it.”

“Nah,” the aasimar said, shifting the strap holding the dulcimer on his back to a more comfortable position, “Traveling minstrels don’t carry halberds. I’ll be fine with a dagger - might even pick up archery.”

“Since you’re from a desert land, I will give you a good piece of advice,” Orale said, “Don’t eat the yellow snow.”

“Thanks,” the former paladin said, snorting. Then he paused, “Huh. I didn’t even think about seeing snow. Suppose I should get some warmer clothes for it…”

“And snowshoes,” the deep gnome said, nodding, “And a hat. Gloves? It’s hard to remember when it stops affecting you.”

“Just don’t be a bitch about it,” Lianne said, crossing her arms, “Though it’ll be hard for you.”

“Here comes the captain - probably to throw me out himself,” Kasesi said, looking behind the others.

The female pirate punched him in the arm as she walked away, “Not like he’d give anyone else the honor.”

“Miss you too, Lianne,” the aasimar said, “Bye Kaegro, Orale.”

“Take care of yourself, there will no longer be anyone to do it for you,” the lizardfolk said, copying a sign of affection it had seen other kindred do and tousling the former paladin’s hair.

“Don’t do anything I would!” the deep gnome said, waving as he walked away.

Kasesi waved as they walked away, then sighed and turned and crossed his arms, turning to the Baron as the captain approached, “Happy now, Bare-Bare? I’m listening for once.”

“Satisfied,” the vampire said, and held out a hand, “Had we met under different circumstances, you would have made a worthy opponent.”

“Don’t get all choked up,” the aasimar deadpanned, but then grinned and shook, “I bet you would have been fun to try and kill.”

“Considering what you consider fun, I believe that,” the Baron said, and clasped his hands behind his back, “I doubt we will meet again.”

“Yeah, speaking of that…” the former paladin reached into a messenger bag on his side and pulled out a small framed picture, holding it out, “Here.”

The captain accepted, then snorted at the portrait of Kasesi grinning back at him.

“Had that made a couple of decades ago as a parting gift, back when I actually thought I’d leave myself,” the aasimar said, shrugging, “I was planning on saying some dumb line about you missing my handsome face, but… eh, just take it. Kind of surprised you didn’t just chuck it into the harbor.”

“Good luck, Kasesi,” the vampire said, “You’re going to need it.”

The former paladin snorted, lightly punching the captain in the shoulder, “I’d return the sentiment, but…”

The Baron leaned up whispered a name into the aasimar’s ear.

“And I thought I had a cool parting gift,” Kasesi said, then sighed and stepped back - a few steps down the ramp, “Take care of yourself, ___.”

“Get off my ship,” the vampire said, fading from view.

The aasimar snorted, and turned around. He took a steadying breath, and walked down the ramp.

3

The Bard



“How can I be out of shape?” Kasesi muttered to himself, panting as he hiked through the trees, “And where the fuck is this village?”

His foot caught on a rock and the aasimar tripped down a short hill with another curse, checking his instrument once he’d righted himself.

“Lost?”

The former paladin looked up to see a woman in hides and fur leaning on a tree nearby, smiling in amusement.

He snorted, “Seems pretty dumb to try and deny it.”

“Have you ever been in a forest before?” the woman asked, “Ever?”

“No,” Kasesi sighed, picking himself up, “I’m from the desert, so I’m afraid this is entirely new territory for me.”

The woman whistled, “What brings you all the way out here?”

“Let’s call it a change of pace,” the aasimar said.

The woman held up her hands, “I don’t ask too many questions - most folks don’t ‘round here. What’s your name, stranger?”

“Kasesi, and you?”

“Amanda,” the woman held out a hand to shake.

“Nice to meet you,” the former paladin said, shaking, “I heard there was a village around here…”

“Yeah, let me show you the way,” she said, waving a hand as she led the way.

Thank you,” Kasesi said, heaving a sigh of relief, “Who knows how long I would have been lost without your help.”

“To be fair, I’ve been watching you go in circles for a few hours now,” Amanda said.

“I must have looked like a dumbass, huh?” the aasimar laughed.

The woman laughed as well, “Good sense of humor - you’ll need it out here. If you can cut it.”

“Haven’t left myself much choice,” the former paladin said, ducking under some lower branches.

“You sure are tall,” Amanda said, walking backwards to watch the man continue ducking.

“Really? I hadn’t noticed,” he grinned.

The woman snorted, turning back around, “Don’t waste your breath flirting with me - if I had any interest in men, I’d have bedded one already.”

Kasesi blinked, then looked away, “I don’t have an interest in anyone.”

“Oh, then flirt away I guess,” Amanda shrugged, crossing her arms behind her head.

The aasimar frowned, and looked at the woman’s back. Then shrugged, “I hadn’t intended it as flirting.”

“How can you flirt without meaning to if you’re not interested in anyone?” she turned around again, tilting her head.

“... I was raised in a temple with a sex domain,” the former paladin said impassively.

Amanda shrugged again, “Well there ya go. Must have been how everyone talked there. Don’t worry - there are plenty of stoic, emotionally constipated men around here you can learn from if you want.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Kasesi snorted, “Why are you out here, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I’m a hunter,” the woman said, “You scared away all my game with your tall ass feet stomping around, or it would be more obvious.”

“That’s fair,” the aasimar said.

“You can use some spare floor at our place tonight - can you play that dulcimer?” Amanda asked.

“Probably not right,” the former paladin admitted, “But I haven’t had too many complaints.”

“Eh, I’m sure we can find you something else to do to pay us back for teaching you how not to kill yourself,” the woman said, walking out of the forest and into a small clearing with a wooden cottage.

“How generous,” Kasesi said, “But fair warning, I’m told I’m very good at trying to kill myself.”

“I’ll bet,” Amanda said, “Penny! Evelyn! We have a really big guest!”

One woman in a plain dress came out from inside of the cottage, while a muscular woman wearing pants and cloth wraps around her chest came from around the back.

“Hello!” the topless woman said cheerfully, “I’m Evelyn - I’m the town’s blacksmith. Used to be my husband, but he died, so I took it up!”

“Nice to meet you,” the aasimar said, shaking hands.

The woman in the dress crossed her arms, “I don’t trust him.”

“I wouldn’t trust me either, I used to be a pirate,” the former paladin grinned, “Sort of.”

“If he flirts with you he doesn’t mean it and he’s not interested, but he’s going to kill himself if he wanders around on his own anymore,” Amanda said, crossing her own arms, “Think of him like a big baby.”

“Insulting, but accurate,” Kasesi said.

Evelyn grinned, “How exciting! I always wanted kids!”

“I didn’t,” the other woman, presumably Penny, muttered.

“While I appreciate the gesture, you really don’t have to-” the aasimar started.

“Who said you had a choice?” Penny asked, turning and walking away.

“... does she want me here or not?” the former paladin asked.

“She hasn’t decided yet,” Amanda said, “Come on, when was the last time you ate?”

Kasesi frowned down at his stomach, then shrugged and followed, “That is an excellent question I don’t have an answer to.”

Evelyn waved cheerfully and skipped back around as they went to the door. Inside the cabin was cozy, and some kind of stew was already cooking over the hearth. There seemed to be a main room and a loft that served as a bedroom.

Penny was sitting in front of a large window working on sewing a skirt together.

“Penny was a seamstress in the city, but there's not much call for that out here,” Amanda explained, “But Evelyn and I are pretty hopeless at that kind of stuff.”

“And keeping house,” the other woman shook her head, “But don't expect me to pick up after you, mister former pirate.”

Kasesi held up his hands, “Never. I may not always act like it, but I am almost a hundred years old.”

Penny glared up at him, “Are you trying to make a fool of me?”

“No?” the aasimar replied, arching a brow.

The woman glared at him a few moments more, then snorted and returned to her sewing.

“My great-grandfather was an aasimar,” Amanda said, retrieving bowls for the stew, “Outlived his son and my father. Though part of that was the two of them were obsessed with being monster hunters. My brother’s still running around out there - gramps pretty much raised me.”

“Oh, is that why you decided to help me instead of continuing to laugh at my misfortune?” the former paladin asked, finding a seat.

The huntress shrugged, “Maybe,” she brought over a bowl, “You know how to hunt?”

Kasesi accepted gratefully, “No, never had to before.”

“Are planning on traveling a lot?” Penny asked without looking away from her work, “If not, you might as well not bother.”

“I haven’t decided yet,” the aasimar said, then tried the soup. He sighed in relief, “I can’t even remember the last time I had food this good.”

“Well I guess I can’t see pirates making good cooks,” Amanda said, “Might not want to spread that fact around though.”

“So you actually believe me?” the former paladin asked, grinning.

“Why not?” the huntress asked, sitting with her own bowl, “You don’t have to be smart to be a pirate.”

Penny snickered at the comment.

“So, hunting and forest travel,” Amanda said, “Shouldn’t take too long for you to pick up the basics - it’s all practice from there.”

“Thank you in advance,” the aasimar said, “I wasn’t expecting a warm reception.”

“Don’t worry,” Penny said, “The rest of the town will be more than cold enough.”

“Small towns and villages are close places,”  the huntress added, “Evelyn and I grew up here, so even though some folks don’t agree with our professions, most accept it and move on. You’ll have to work hard to earn every bit of trust you get around here.”

The former paladin laughed, “I relish the challenge.”

***

“Hello!” Kasesi called out, grinning and waving to some farmers in their fields.

“Who’s there?” one of the men called back, shading his eyes against the brightness of the summer sun.

“Kasesi! The bard - I was here two years ago?” the aasimar replied.

“Oh yeah,” a second man said to the first, “I remember him - brought news from Del.”

“Right, right,” the first man said, then turned back, “D’ya bring more news?”

“From every town and village between Rorkston and Fautburg,” the former pirate replied, “I’m headed for the town square, just thought I’d say hello on my way!”

“We’ll hear the news in the evening then,” the second man called out, waving before returning to work.

Kasesi waved back, and hummed as he continued on. He greeted the other farmers he passed, and came to a collection of cabins that formed what could be considered a town by generous standards. He went to a section of flattened earth in the center of these and set up a place for himself. Most the villagers seemed warily accepting of his presence, though they kept to themselves.

He laid down a rough but thick blanket, and put a small folding stool in the center. He started by playing some of the local folk songs, attracting the attention of some children who came by to dance and sing along. As the day wore into the afternoon, the adults started joining the crowd.

Kasesi looked up as they did, and smiled as he switched compositions, playing for a few moments before he started to sing again:

In fair Rorkston the Hild boy’s been named Frederick,
And Paulette and Jean have wed, 
While the blacksmith John has kicked the bucket. 

Coron’s had a fire burn down Evan’s barn, 
The horses and the people are unharmed, 
So there’s no need for alarm.

Paul down in Hornthon built a well, 
And a newcomer priest arrived, 
To build a church to Helm. 

In Jordontown the shepherd’s ewe had twins, 
And Marian is looking for a husband, 
While Rorick the mayorship wins. 

Kolst has built an outpost looking for recruits,
Leandra and Caleb have died,
And there’s a monster on the loose. 

A friendly pack of werewolves, 
Has moved into Terryshire,
But Gloria has left home to rove. 

Maria passed in her sleep in Isaacstan, 
A funeral was held for all, 
And leadership passed to her daughter Fran. 

In Del the aunts have made an inn, 
A triton’s claimed the lake, 
Now no one can swim. 

Fautburg’s gotten bigger, 
From the merchants moving in, 
Dwarves by the name of Rigger. 

As the aasimar finished his news song with a flourish, he was met with a smattering of applause.

One of the farmers came forward, “Well, I’ve never heard the news delivered that way before, mister bard.”

Kasesi grinned, “Well, it was easier to remember everything in song, and since it’s what I do anyways…”

“Are you going to make a song about us, too?” a woman asked, stepping forward.

“Of course,” the former paladin said, “I have more detailed songs for each town, but I thought I’d test the waters. Everyone ready for more?”

After several agreements, the aasimar started up again.

***

“Well, look who’s back to hibernate for the winter,” Penny said, glaring up from the bar.

“Nice to see you too, Penny,” Kasesi said, pulling off his cloak as he entered the small inn, “So Evelyn’s forge is finished?”

“For now,” the woman said, sighing as she went to the smaller hearth behind the bar and poured out a bowl of stew, “Amanda should be back soon, had to resolve some stupid fight between Leonard and Dan.”

“Ten years and you’ve gone from outcasts to local leaders,” the aasimar grinned accepting the bowl before going to sit in front of the larger hearth in the common room, “How’s it feel?”

“Like work,” the woman replied, taking a seat opposite him, “Not something you’d know anything about.”

“Fair,” Kasesi said, tucking in to eat, “Had any interesting visitors?”

“One of those werewolves from Terryshire’s decided to move out here,” Penny said, “Name’s Stanley. Almost as flirty as you are, except he means it. That fucking triton’s still not letting anyone near the lake. And a Rigger came by to set up an outpost.”

“Korin’s not so bad,” the aasimar said, “And it looks like those wars are driving more dwarves to the surface. Soon they’ll outnumber you humans.”

“Evelyn will be thrilled,” the woman said, rolling her eyes.

Amanda walked into the door then, and smiled as she looked up, “Hey Kasesi, welcome back. How was Jordontown?”

“Full of sheep,” the man replied, “Some dwarves moved in there, too - the Uroths.”

“More merchants?” the huntress asked, retrieving a bowl of food for herself.

“Carpenters, surprisingly enough,” the former paladin said, “They weren’t very impressed with the workmanship of my dulcimer. Or bow.”

“What do they know anyways?” Amanda asked, smirking.

Someone else came down from the upper floor - a muscular, scarred human man.

“Evening, Stanley,” Amanda said, taking the seat Penny abandoned to return to the bar.

“Evenin’,” the man said, yawning. As he blinked, he noticed Kasesi, “Oh, hey, didn’ I meet you in Terryshire?”

“Probably,” the aasimar said, “I travel around a lot, but Del’s the only place I stay long.”

The other man scratched his head, “Why?”

“Best food,” the former paladin shrugged, “And Penny’s the only one who really gets me.”

“You’re a terrible person with a worse sense of humor and I wish you’d go die in a ditch,” Penny replied.

Kasesi grinned, “See?”

“He is a terrible person though,” Amanda smirked, “Don’t let his charm fool you.”

“Noted,” Stanley grinned, going to the bar to get food for himself, “Maybe he could use it to convince Korin to get out of the lake.”

“It hasn’t frozen over yet?” the aasimar asked.

Amanda rolled her eyes, “It has, he’s just being stubborn about staying out there.”

The former paladin sighed, bringing his bowl back to the bar, “I’ll go get him. I’m sure he’s half frozen as it is…”

“Don’t bring him here,” Penny said, “We already have you freeloading.”

“Bring him here? You’ve got it,” Kasesi said, grinning as he waved over his shoulder. He grabbed his cloak from the stand next to the door and braced himself as he went back out into the snow. He shivered and breathed into his hands, frowning. He wrapped his arms around himself and muttered, “He better appreciate this…”

It was almost an hour later that the aasimar returned, shoving a shivering triton in front of him.

Some of the locals had come for food and drink as well, and waved to Kasesi as he continued to shove the disgruntled triton in front of the fire.

“I’m glad you’re more stubborn than he is,” Amanda said, bringing warm food over for both of them.

“I am not stubborn,” the triton said, then sneezed. He glared at the bowl, but reluctantly accepted it.

Kasesi rolled his eyes, but turned in time to catch Evelyn as the woman jumped up for hug.

“Welcome back!” the blacksmith said, laughing, “Do you want to see the forge?”

“Maybe tomorrow,” the aasimar said, “It looked good from the outside, though.”

“Thanks, I worked really hard,” Evelyn said, grinning as she was set down.

“I can tell,” the former paladin said, then shivered and found his own seat by the fire.

“Your usual room is ready when you are,” Amanda said, “Try not to drip on the floor too much.”

“Thanks,” Kasesi said, sighing as he relaxed into the cushioned chair.

Penny scoffed and stomped over, “Cloak off.”

“Not moving,” the aasimar grinned.

“Evelyn,” the woman said, crossing her arms.

“Sorry Kasesi,” the blacksmith said, and grabbed one of the man’s arms to pull him out of the chair with relative ease.

“Nah, I get it,” the former paladin said, reaching up and unclasping his cloak to let it fall to the floor, “You have to live with her.”

Evelyn giggled, letting him fall back into the chair, “I want to live with Penny.”

Penny blushed and cleared her throat as she gathered up the wet cloak, walking away quickly to hang it up.

“Aren’t you guys cute,” Kasesi chuckled.

“Always,” Amanda said, grinning.

“Are you sure you aren’t lonely by yourself?” Evelyn asked, frowning.

The aasimar snorted, “Alone? I’m lucky to get any space with the three of you around.”

The huntress tussled the former paladin’s hair as she walked off, “Don’t feel sorry for him, Eve, he doesn’t deserve it.”

Evelyn giggled, following her, “Oh Mandy, that’s terrible.”

Kasesi grinned as he watched them walk away, then turned back to look at the fire. He glanced at Korin the triton, who was trying to hide the way the stew made him content. Stanley the werewolf appeared behind the other man’s chair and started teasing him. Closing his eyes, the aasimar could hear the townspeople sharing news and joking around behind him.

I’m practically respectable, the former paladin thought, and chuckled at it.

“Hey! Lazy bones!” Penny yelled, “Play something! At least pretend to earn your keep!”

“Alright, alright,” the bard said, laughing as he pulled out his dulcimer.

***

“There’s plenty of space in the barn, and you’re welcome to it,” Darren, a farmer, said as he led Kasesi inside, “Sorry, there isn’t much room in the house since the baby was born.”

“It’s more than enough, really,” the aasimar said, “I’m lucky you’re all kind enough to house me.”

“Well it could be decades before we got news otherwise, it’s the least we can do,” the other man said, “Once you’re settled, come into the house for a meal. You’ll be off in the morning?”

“As usual,” the bard replied, finding a corner to set up in, “Congratulations, by the way.”

“Thanks,” Darren said, and waved as he walked out, “We’ll talk more inside.”

Kasesi waved back, and put up his bow before laying out a bedroll. He left his dulcimer as well, and his pack before following.

Inside the small cabin, Darren and his wife, Sarah, had set food on a small, rough hewn table. The aasimar had to duck his head to fit, and was slightly too large for the chairs.

“Sorry for the cramped quarters,” the farmer said, scratching the back of his neck.

“I’m used to it,” the bard chuckled, and looked over at the man’s wife, “And this is the miracle babe?”

Sarah smiled, despite looking tired - she was a very small woman, for a human, and her brown hair was pulled into a loose, falling out bun, “Yes, he is - I was beginning to think the gods hated me, but then they brought him into my life.”

Darren smiled softly, but shifted his weight uneasily.

Kasesi noticed, but smiled at the woman, “May I hold him?”

“Of course,” she said, though her face wore hesitation as he held out the swaddled babe.

The aasimar realized why as soon as he laid eyes on the child.

Despite two human parents, the boy had lavender skin and a small tuft of purple hair on his head. Two nubs on his forehead would one day, the bard knew, grow into horns. The babe was sleeping, but Kasesi also knew that if he were to open his eyes, it would be with unnaturally colored sclera.

He smiled, “What a beautiful boy - so tiny, I can hold him in one hand.”

Both parents seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, relaxing.

“I imagine that’s why I was able to carry him,” Sarah said, “He’s the first to take after me.”

“I can tell,” the aasimar said, gently returning the tiefling child to its mother.

“Some folks around here are a bit…” Darren hesitated, “Superstitious about this sort of thing, so we haven’t shown him around. Most think it’s because we don’t expect him to last the year, but he’s healthy and plenty loud, for being so small.”

“I’ve met plenty of good tieflings in my travels,” the bard said, turning to the homemade meal, “Plenty of bad ones, too - but no more than any other race. You’re good-hearted, hard working folk - I’m sure he’ll turn out just fine.”

“Oh, he will,” Sarah said, smiling lovingly down at her son, “We’ve been trying for so long…”

“They’re not… really cursed, right?” Darren asked, “I mean, he’s my boy and I’ll love him, but if he needs a priest to lift something so he can be happy…”

Kasesi put on his best kind smile - he’d had plenty of practice over the years, “No, no - that’s all superstition. He’s no more cursed than I am blessed.”

“Well, it’s true you don’t glow like the stories say,” the farmer said. Then he sighed, smiling at his wife, “This time next year he’ll even have a name.”

“What were you thinking?” the aasimar asked.

“Kyle, for my father,” Sarah said, “Though we’re… trying not to get too attached. Just in case.”

“I understand,” the bard said, “I was just curious. I know it must have been hard so far.”

“Incredibly,” Darren nodded, “Well, you’ve been coming around for what… thirty years now? We must have been trying for damn near half of them.”

Kasesi laughed, “Well, congratulations - really, I’m glad things have worked out for you two.”

“Thank you,” Sarah said, still smiling down at her son. She started humming a lullaby, rocking him in her arms.

The bard looked down at his food, feeling something cold settling into the pit of his stomach.

Later, in the barn, Kasesi lay on his back and looked up at the rafters. He pulled out the cursed amulet around his neck and held it up to stare at it. Over the years, the small amount of holy energy he emitted had been neutralizing the curse on it. Soon, it would just be a regular magical amulet -and no longer the shield against his goddess’s discovery he’d been using it for.

But a tiefling…

Am I really thinking about stealing a kid? the aasimar thought, frowning. He sighed, letting the amulet drop, Not the worst thing I’ve done. I think. Would anyone notice?

The bard sat up, packing his things as he thought, It would be easy - just sneak in, grab the kid, never return. Probably save him from a bunch of villagers blaming him for every misfortune that comes their way for the rest of his life.

His parents really love him, though, he hesitated as he put on his pack, Well, Sarah does - not so sure about Darren. He was pretty hesitant about all this.

Kasesi shook his head, then looked at the barn door. Squaring his shoulders, he strode outside and over to the house. Quietly, he opened the unlocked door and crept inside. Darren and Sarah were asleep in bed, and the baby was in a crib nearby. The aasimar padded across the floor to look down at him, still undecided.

He turned at a rustle, and Darren sat and stared in surprise.

The bard didn’t move, just waited.

The farmer looked at his wife, then quietly got out of bed. Kasesi backed off as the man approached the crib, gently picking up his son and jerking his head to indicate the aasimar follow him outside.

I knew it, the bard thought, doing so. It didn’t settle the uneasiness in his chest.

Outside, Darren was looking towards the town. In a low voice, he asked, “There’s really no life for him here, is there?”

Kasesi hesitated.

The farmer shook his head, “I want to keep this kid - this is my son, you know? And Sarah… she’s so happy, finally she’s happy, but…”

The aasimar looked away, Oh.

“If this is the only child of mine I ever have, I want them to be happy,” Darren said, finally turning to look at the bard. He fixed the taller man with a hard stare, “I know how folks around here think. If he stays here, no matter what Sarah and I do, they’ll think he’s a devil child sent to cause nothing but trouble.”

“... probably,” Kasesi agreed.

The farmer looked down at the babe in his arms, then took a steadying breath, “I don’t know why you were planning on takin’ him yourself, and frankly I don’t really care.”

The aasimar glanced away, the unsettled feeling in his stomach and chest spreading down his arms and legs.

“Can you promise me he’ll be happy?” Darren asked, looking at his son, “If you take him from here, and don’t bring him back, will he be happy? Will you make sure of it?”

The bard looked back, then sighed, scratching the back of his neck, “I…”

“I want your word, Kasesi,” the farmer said, walking up to the taller man to look him in the eye, “I want nothing less than your word that if I give you my boy, you’ll take care of him.”

The aasimar met the hard stare, then nodded slowly, “I give you my word that I will do everything in my power to make sure he is cared for and… happy.”

Darren sized him up for a few moments more, then deflated. He looked down at his son, and brought the babe up to plant a gentle kiss on his forehead. The farmer smiled, but the watering of his eyes was obvious.

Kasesi looked away uncomfortably.

“Here, best get moving,” the smaller man said, handing over the child, “Before Sarah gets up and makes a scene.”

“Right. I… won’t be back here,” the aasimar said, accepting the tiny baby.

“I figured,” Darren said. With a final look at his son, the man shuffled defeatedly back into his cottage.

The bard looked down at the babe in his arms, then sighed and walked steadily into the woods.

4

The Father



The Baron walked into the busy inn and winced at the sound of a child crying. Why his contact wanted to meet here, he could only guess was a combination of illegal activity and a lack of funds.

“Sorry for the noise,” a serving girl said, approaching with a timid smile, “Our resident bard’s a single father, and didn’t have anyone to watch the baby tonight. Can I get you anything?”

“No, I’m waiting for someone,” the vampire said, scanning the room for the source of the noise - and paused.

“Very well, sir,” the girl said, and went off to return to the other customers. The inn was still packed and rowdy, just not rowdy enough to cover up the crying.

Narrowing his eyes, the pirate captain deftly made his way through the rambunctious crowd, silently sliding into the seat across from the single parent, “Where did you acquire a child?”

Kasesi creaked one eye open, then groaned and shut it again, resettling the baby on his shoulder as he gently bounced him up and down, “Half-stole him from some farmers in the sticks.”

Half stole?” the Baron asked, arching a brow.

The aasimar heaved a sigh - there were pronounced bags under his eyes, and everything about his appearance was haggard, “Dad gave him to me, mom wasn’t exactly there to protest.”

“I see,” the vampire deadpanned, then glared at the child, “I could put him to sleep.”

“As tempting as that is,” the bard heaved another sigh, forcing himself to sit up and open his eyes. He carefully laid the baby on the table, putting his head in his hands afterwards, “I promised his dad I’d take care of him, and I don’t think letting elder vampires use magic counts in that category.”

“Is that an inkling of responsibility?” the captain asked, glancing down at the child.

“More like a yoke of guilt,” Kasesi said, then shook his head, “Yeah, I took him for the reason you’re thinking.”

“I did not need the confirmation, but thank you, I suppose,” the Baron drawled, “Is he why you’re back in the city?”

“Yeah,” the aasimar said, “At least until he gets old enough not to cry out in the wilderness.”

“You live alone?”

Kasesi grinned, “Aw, you did miss me, Bare-Bare.”

The vampire rolled his eyes.

“I’m a traveling bard,” the former paladin said, sighing in relief as the baby finally started to calm down, “I bring news to remote villages.”

“How… dull,” the captain said, watching the interaction.

The aasimar stuck his tongue out at the babe, and wiggled a finger in  front of them. The tiefling child reached up and wrapped a small hand around the digit, gurgling tiredly.

“It’s so… tiny,” the Baron observed.

“So was his mother,” Kasesi said, “You might not believe it, but he’s already a year old.”

“And how long have you had him?”

“Most of that time,” the bard said, smiling as the child’s pink eyes drooped, “That’s right, you little shit, just go to sleep already…”

“What a moving display of fatherly devotion,” the vampire deadpanned, and something at the door caught his eye. He rose, “Well, I have business to attend to. Good luck with your newfound parentage.”

“Thanks,” the former paladin said, rolling his eyes.

***

“This seems familiar.”

Kasesi looked up and smiled, “Hey, Amanda - been a while.”

“About five years, you ungrateful bastard,” the huntress said, grinning. She dropped down from a tree branch and circled around, “And who’s this little guy?”

“Hi, I’m Kyle!” the tiefling child replied cheerfully, pulling at the straps of the harness keeping him on the aasimar’s back.

Amanda snorted, and undid them to pull the kid out, “Oh? And how old are you, Kyle?”

“I’m five!” he declared proudly, holding up a hand with all his fingers spread.

“Aren’t you a little small for five?” the huntress asked, resting the boy on her hip. She moved to walk next to the bard, and they both moved forward again.

“Everybody - everybody says that!” Kyle pouted, crossing his arms.

Kasesi reached over and tousled the mop of purple curls, carefully avoiding the tips of the boy’s slowly growing horns, “That’s cause you’re a squirt, kiddo.”

The child stuck his tongue out, but giggled as he batted at the aasimar’s hand, “Dad!”

“And where did your dad find you?” Amanda asked, arching a brow at the bard.

“In the - he found me in the- out in the woods,” the tiefling said, eyes shining as he threw his hands out in excitement, “Like this!”

“Must have been abandoned,” Kasesi shrugged, “You know how folks can be out here.”

“Yeah, unfortunately,” the huntress agreed, then grinned, “So where did you disappear to?”

“The city,” the aasimar said, “Thought it would be easier to keep track of the tike there.”

“You know we would have helped,” Amanda said, genuinely put out, “Would be fun to be a real aunt.”

“Sorry, you’ve already done so much for me,” Kasesi said, grinning sheepishly and holding up his hands, “I didn’t want to dump a baby on you, too.”

Kyle reached up and put his hands on the huntress’s face, making her look at him, “Are you my aunt?”

Amanda laughed, and kissed the boy’s forehead, “I am now - me, Penny, and Evelyn.”

“Who’s that?” the child asked, eyes growing wide.

“You’ll see soon,” the huntress said.

“Dad! Dad!” Kyle waved a hand to get the aasimar’s attention, eyes starting to water, then whispered loudly, “Dad, I have aunts now.

Kasesi rolled his eyes, “I heard, kiddo.”

“Why are you crying?” Amanda asked, concerned.

“I’ve neber had aunts before,” the tiefling said, sniffling and waving his little fists up and down, “And I’m so excited!”

The huntress looked at the aasimar.

The bard shrugged, “He just kind of… cries. Don’t worry about it.”

Coming into view of the village of Del, the trio made their way to the Aunts’ Inn.

Kasesi whistled, “This place has grown.”

“We’ve become a halfway stop for people crossing the mountains,” Amanda said, shifting Kyle to her other hip, “Stanley and Korin got together and run a restaurant on the lake now.”

“Called it,” the aasimar said, grinning.

“Kasesi!”

The pair turned to see Evelyn running out of a sizeable forge, leaving a shouting dwarven woman behind as she leap at the bard.

He caught her easily, returning the hug, “Hey, Eve.”

“Welcome back!” the blacksmith said, laughing as she was set on her feet, “Where have you been?”

“Raising this guy,” the huntress said, “Kyle, this is Evelyn, one of those other aunts I was telling you about.”

“Oh, how precious!” the blacksmith said, picking up the tiefling and tossing him into the air.

Kyle shrieked with laughter as he was caught and tossed again, “This is fun!”

“I’m so glad!” Evelyn said, “And what’s your name, little man?”

“Kyle!”

“Oh, you adorable thing, I could just eat you up,” the blacksmith said, nuzzling the child’s cheek.

“Noooo, don’t eat me!” the tiefling giggled, struggling against the hold.

Kasesi stepped in and picked Kyle up, putting the kid on his shoulder, “No child eating on my watch.”

“Dad to the rescue!” the tiefling said, hugging the aasimar’s face.

“Better get back to work,” Amanda said, “Kolga looks pissed.”

“Oops!” Evelyn said, then waved and ran back, “See you two later!”

“Alright, let’s get seeing Penny over with,” the bard sighed, moving Kyle to the ground.

The tiefling took his hand, humming happily, his tail swishing behind him.

Penny looked up from the bar as they walked in, “And here I thought you’d finally shuffled off.”

Kyle took off, half jumping on a stool and kicking and swinging his legs wildly to get on top of it. He half leaned over the bar to stare up at Penny with wide eyes.

“Meet our new nephew, Pen,” Amanda said, smirking as she walked in.

The other woman blinked at the child, then huffed and picked at his curls, “Kasesi, have you ever given this child a brush?”

“I’m Kyle,” the tiefling said, wincing as Penny ran a hand through his hair.

“You are a mess,” the former seamstress replied, picking the boy up and heading to the back, “Come on, someone has to make you presentable.”

“Presen-pres-present-” the child’s eyes started to water as he got frustrated.

Presentable,” Penny repeated, “Something your father doesn’t know the meaning of.”

Kasesi snorted as Kyle was whisked away, “Fair.”

“Come on, sit down,” Amanda said, waving a hand, “I’ll catch you up on what you’ve missed - and you can tell me more about this kid of yours.”

The aasimar smiled as he joined her.

***

“Dad, I wanna play,” Kyle said, stubbornly digging his heels into the ground.

Kasesi sighed, easily dragging the tiefling child along, “Not now, Kyle - we’re leaving.”

“Just for a little bit!” the child whined, trying to pry his arm loose with his free hand, “I never get to play!”

“You do this every time,” the bard grumbled, “Why can’t you just-”

“Why can’t you just do what you’re told, Sharen?”

The aasimar froze, looking around in alarm at the familiar voice of the head priest. No, he was human, he can’t be-

“Dad?” Kyle asked, “Dad, you’re hurting me!”

Kasesi looked down and let go of the tiefling’s wrist, having forgotten where he was.

The boy rubbed his wrist, pouting at it.

Oh, the bard thought, then leaned down, “I’m… sorry, kiddo. Why… why don’t you go play? We have time.”

Kyle sniffled, looking up. Something in his dad’s face made him blink in surprise, “Are… you sure?”

Kasesi smiled, “Yeah, go have some fun, I forgot about something I needed to do.”

“Okay,” the tiefling said, getting up. He looked over at the kids running around playing tag, then back at his dad. After a moment, he took off, calling out to the other kids.

The aasimar forced himself to walk slowly over to the woods, walking far enough away that he wouldn’t be seen. He was sweating and breathing heavy, his chest felt like twine was wrapping around his heart and squeezing. The bard slide down the trunk of a tree, curling into ball and closing his eyes tightly as the memory overtook him.

“It was just a game, Djehutimesu,” he insisted, looking outside of his palanquin and crossing his arms. 

“You are an important man, Sharen,” the head priest said, sitting across from him, “You do not have time for such trivialities.”

Kasesi muttered under his breath. 

“What was that? You should not mum-”

“I said I’m not a man!” the young aasimar said, “I’m a kid! Like them!”

Djehutimesu sighed, shaking his head, “You are the rebirth of all the Sharens to come before you - you are ageless. While your current body may be that of a child, you are a man of destiny - and you must act like it.”

“Fuck off.”

“See? You have already picked up that vulgar commoner language,” the head priest said, “This is all beneath you, Sharen.”

“My name is Kasesi,” the boy pouted, looking outside. Statues of the past Sharens lined the walkway up to the temple - all aasimar dressed in the same armor. 

“Your name is Sharen.”

“Samrial calls me Kasesi.”

“I am not Samrial,” Djehutimesu said, frowning, “Your deva has an interest in keeping you complacent - I have a duty to teaching you the knowledge you have lost in your rebirth.”

“What, did I never play before?” the kid muttered. 

“You do not have time for games,” the head priest said, then sighed, “Why can’t you just do what you’re told, Sharen?”

“Dad?”

Kasesi looked up in surprise, pulled back to the present.

Kyle stared, and put his hands on the bard’s knees as he stepped closer, “You’re crying.”

I’m just as bad as he was, the aasimar thought, then cleared his throat and forced a smile, “Must have gotten something in my eye. I thought you were playing?”

The tiefling stared, then huffed as he forced his way into the bard’s lap, hugging him around his neck, “It’s okay, Dad. Crying is okay. I cry all the time.”

Kasesi snorted, then started laughing… then started crying, hugging Kyle, “Yeah, that’s right, isn’t it? Better than letting it stay inside...”

It didn’t take the aasimar too long to compose himself, and when he did, he pulled back to look down at… his son.

“Feel better?” the tiefling asked.

“You’re a great kid, you know that?” the bard grinned, “Sorry I’ve been such a bad dad - I’ll do better from now on.”

“Okay,” Kyle said, grinning back.

Kasesi tousled his son’s hair, then shook his head and stood, “Come on - let’s get moving.”

***

Kyle pouted as he stomped over to his dad, sitting next to the big man.

“What’s got you worked up?” Kasesi asked, arching a brow.

“You always say I can live however I want,” the tiefling said, glaring at the ground, “And I wanted to play with Sandra’s doll, but she wouldn’t let me, and then she got mad when I took it.”

The bard sucked in a breath looking away, “I do say you can live however you want…”

“Exactly!” the ten year old said, throwing up his hands.

Kasesi frowned, then his eyes widened in realization. He put a hand on his son’s shoulder, “But Sandra can live however she wants, too - and she didn’t have to let you play with her doll.”

“But…” Kyle said, looking up at the aasimar.

“You have the right to live however you want, kiddo, that’s true,” his dad said, “But so does everybody else. And if you decide you want to live in a way that hurts other people, that’s fine - but you have to be willing to deal with the consequences.”

“Consequences?”

“Mm-hm,” Kasesi nodded, “How would you feel if Sandra took your bow?”

“Aunt Amanda made me this!” the boy said, picking the weapon up and hugging it to him.

“But she wanted it,” the aasimar said, “And she can hurt you if she wants. If you live your life in a way that hurts other people, that’s your right - but no one is obligated to like you for it. You have to be willing to accept that - you can’t go around hurting people and then complain that they don’t want to be around you,” the bard grinned, “But that’s not really the kind of person you are, is it?”

Kyle was already crying, and dropped his bow as he took off, “Sandraaaaa!”

Kasesi snorted, thinking,  It’s almost like I’m a real parent.

The thought made him pause, and he looked at the nearby farms, A real parent, huh...

***

“We’ve never been to Hornthon before!” Kyle said, running ahead excitedly.

You’ve never been to Hornthon,” Kasesi corrected, feeling old as he watched the tween darting between the trees, “I’ve been everywhere.”

The tiefling laughed, “You can’t have been everywhere, Dad.”

“Says you,” the aasimar grinned. It fell when he saw a small farm come into view. He took a steadying breath, and pressed forward.

Darren was out in the field, but dropped his hoe when he saw the pair approaching.

Kasesi looked away, scratching the back of his neck.

“Darren? Honey, what-” Sarah came out of the house, a toddler at her heels. When she spotted Kyle, she put her hands to her mouth, eyes welling with tears.

“Hi!” the tiefling said, blissfully ignorant, “I’m Kyle.”

Sarah recovered first, wiping at her eyes and picking up her daughter as she walked forward, “Really? That… that was my father’s name, you know. I’m Sarah.”

“Nice to meet you,” Kyle said, shaking her hand.

“This is… my daughter, Elizabeth,” the woman went on.

“Hi Elizabeth,” the tiefling said, shaking the little girl’s hand as well.

She giggled, “Hi.”

Darren cleared his throat, walking up to Kasesi, “So. He seems… cheerful.”

The aasimar glanced down, then away, “He’s… a happy kid.”

“That’s… good,” the farmer said, “Are you… adding Hornthon back to your route?”

“I was thinking… it was about time to,” the bard said, “Unless there’s a reason I shouldn’t…?”

Darren watched his wife and daughter with the tiefling, and shook his head, crossing his arms, “No, I… can’t think of a reason for that. Why don’t you two… stay here tonight?”

“Thank you, I think that’s… a good idea,” Kasesi said.

Later, after dinner, Kyle flopped onto his bedroll in the barn, “Darren and Sarah are so nice!”

“They are, aren’t they?” Kasesi said, sitting on his own bedroll. He hesitated, then spoke again, “What would you think of being a farmer?”

“Well…” the tiefling thought, “It’s a lot of hard work… but it would be easier to make friends if I was always in one place all the time.”

“Guess so…” the aasimar agreed, shoulders slumping.

“But I might not have met the aunts, and I wouldn’t get to meet everyone else, either!” the tween continued, sitting up, “That’s why I want to be a bard - like you!”

Said bard looked over, then snorted and laughed, “Well, as long as you’re doing what you want.”

“Always!” Kyle grinned.

“Get some sleep, kiddo,” Kasesi chuckled, “We’ve got a lot of news to collect tomorrow.”

***

“I don’t really get it,” Kyle said, putting his chin in his hands.

“Get what?” his father asked, smiling at the revelry.

They were sitting at a small table by themselves, outside the Hairy Fish restaurant in Del. The entire place was decorated with flowers and colorful cloth, and all of the residents had come out to celebrate the proprietors’ wedding. The men themselves were in the middle of the well wishers, Stanley grinning and even the proud Korin smiling.

“I get weddings,” the teenager went on, smiling at his ‘uncles’, “The aunts, Stanley and Korin… they’re all so in love, and that’s wonderful. I want that, someday… but…”

Kasesi tilted his head, waiting - he’d gotten better at this ‘being a dad’ thing over the years, and one of the biggest lessons he’d learned was patience. If old Bare-Bare could see me now…

“I don’t get… them,” Kyle said, waving a hand at some of the stragglers.

The aasimar followed his gesture, seeing some of the young adults his son’s age in various stages of flirting and making out. He snorted, “What’s to get? They’re probably just worked up by the event. Happens all the time.”

“But that’s what I don’t get,” the tiefling said, “All the other kids my age seemed to be obsessed with kissing, and… and sex and… canoodling!”

“Canoodling?” Kasesi chuckled, wondering where he’d picked that one up.

The teen rolled his eyes, “You know what I mean. They all want to and I… don’t. Is that weird?”

The bard felt something… equal parts warm and tight in his chest. He hadn’t expected… well, he hadn’t expected a lot of things when it came to his kid, but he really hadn’t expected… this.

He forced his usual grin, “Well, do you think I’m weird?”

Kyle grinned, “Yes.”

“Little shit,” his dad said, reaching over and affectionately pushing the tiefling’s head. Hair tousling had become difficult with the teen pulling his rather long hair into a high ponytail, but Kasesi made due.

The tiefling laughed, pushing him away.

“What I was trying to say,” the bard said, shrugging, “Is that I don’t get it either.”

“Huh?” Kyle blinked, eyes going wide in surprise.

The aasimar shrugged again, leaning back in his chair as he looked over the festivities, “I don’t get it either - the appeal, what makes people want it, even if they’ve never had it before… I’ve had sex and I still don’t get it.”

“Really?” his son asked, gripping the edge of the table.

“Really,” Kasesi said, noticing. Then he grinned again, “But hey, at least you get the love thing - I don’t get that, either.”

Kyle frowned, then tilted his head, brows furrowed in confusion.

The bard looked away, “I know, it’s so sad I’m destined to be alone forever.”

“What? No you’re not.”

The aasimar flinched, looking back.

“You’ve got me and Penny and Evelyn and Amanda and even Stanley and Korin,” Kyle said, “You aren’t alone. And… and just because you don’t want to marry anyone doesn’t mean you don’t know love. I mean… you love me, right?”

Kasesi stared, blinking. Had he ever said…

The bard started laughing.

His son pouted, “Hey!”

“You ruined my moment, fair’s fair,” the aasimar said, “But seriously, kiddo… Kyle.”

The teen straightened - his dad didn’t use his name often.

“You’re the best kid anyone could ask for,” Kasesi said, putting a hand on the tiefling’s shoulder, “I haven’t done anything good enough in my life to deserve you, but I’ve done my best. I’d have to be the most heartless bastard in the world not to love you.”

Kyle’s eyes watered, already about to cry, “Really?”

“Really,” his dad said, grinning.

The tiefling pulled the big man into a hug, “Well I love you, too! And so does Amanda! And… and Evelyn, and even Penny! So… so…!”

“It’s okay,” Kasesi said, patting his son on the back - and for once, he felt it, “It’s okay.”

***

Kasesi sighed heavily, rousing himself. He was in front of the hearth in the Aunts’ Inn, and someone - probably Penny - had thrown a quilt over him. He’d found himself taking naps more often as of late, and found himself tiring more easily.

“Kyle went out hunting with Amanda,” Penny said, reading in a chair next to him. She, too, looked older - her black hair, pulled into a neat bun, was laced with gray, and crows feet radiated from the corners of  her eyes. She had a pair of spectacles - a dwarven adaptation of gem magnifying lenses - on, to help her read.

“How does she keep up with him?” the aasimar asked, yawning.

“Hunting is mostly staying still, or so she tells me,” the woman replied, flipping a page, “She isn’t ‘keeping up’ with anyone.”

“How long have they been out?”

“A few hours.”

For some time, the bard watched the fire crackling in the hearth. The silence was comfortable - as if the warmth from the blaze infused it.

“I don’t think… I’ll be leaving in the spring,” he said.

Penny snorted, “Is mortality finally catching up with you?”

“Afraid so,” Kasesi replied, “I am past a hundred thirty. I’ve only got a few years left.”

“Looks like Amanda will outlive another aasimar,” the woman replied.

“Love you too, Penny,” the bard said, closing his eyes with a grin. It fell as he kept thinking, “Do you think he’ll be okay?”

“What, without having a uselessly large parasite to keep in line?” she asked, closing her book and setting it aside. The woman groaned as she rose, stretching before heading towards the bar, “He’ll be fine.”

“Probably better off,” Kasesi added.

“Probably,” Penny agreed, retrieving two bowls of soup, “He’ll still miss you though. Evelyn will be a mess for weeks, if not months. Amanda will probably take a long hunting trip to get over it.”

“And you’ll keep everyone together?” the aasimar asked, opening his eyes to accept a bowl.

“What else would I do?” the woman sniffed. She looked down at her bowl for a few moments, “Did I ever tell you why I came out here?”

“No,” the bard said, shaking his head.

“I was married to a beastly man, so I killed him,” Penny said, eating a spoonful of soup, “This was the only place I had to go.”

“I’m technically the chosen one of a temple across the sea,” Kasesi said, “I got some help from an elder vampire pirate to escape my destiny and hide out up here.”

“So you really are useless,” the woman said, “I’m hardly surprised.”

“I’m not exactly shocked you’ve killed a man before,” the aasimar grinned. He sighed, setting the bowl aside, “Do you ever wonder if you made the right choice?”

“Do you?”

“No,” the bard said, “But sometimes… I still feel guilty about it.”

Penny shrugged, “That sounds like a you problem.”

Kasesi laughed, “That’s true.”

The woman glanced up at him, then sighed and rolled her eyes, “But I do understand - as loathe as I am to have anything in common with you.”

“Thanks,” the aasimar said, holding out a hand.

Penny stared at it, unimpressed… then sighed and took it, “What do I care? You’re going to die soon anyways.”

The bard laughed again, “Fair.”

***

“Who’s that for?” Kyle asked, walking into the room he and his father used in the inn.

Kasesi laughed, “An old… friend. Doubt he’ll get it, but… eh. Figured I’d better write it down before I kick it.”

“I could take it,” the tiefling replied, pulling off a wolf skin cloak, “You know… after.”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” the aasimar said, face falling, “I… used the word friend… a little liberally.”

“Is this friend dangerous then?”

Very,” the bard said, raising his brows for emphasis. Then he chuckled, “But do what you want. I don’t tell you what to do now, I’m not going to tell what to do after I die.”

Kyle frowned, then sighed and walked over gave his dad a hug around his shoulders, “I’ll miss you.”

“I know, kiddo,” Kasesi said, folding up the letter and writing a name on the front, “I’ll do my best to look out for you in the afterlife, but I’ve got a few people there that aren’t very happy with me.”

“It’s okay,” the tiefling said, pulling away, “I can take care of myself. I’m not a kid anymore.”

“You’re right, you’re not,” the aasimar agreed. He turned in his chair, then smiled, “Hey, how about we go play a song together?”

Kyle grinned, “Yeah! I’ll go get set up!”

As his son ran out the door, the bard flipped the letter over, sealing it with wax. He snorted, holding it up to look at it, “Well, maybe you won’t get this, but… thanks, captain.”

Then he set the letter on the table to go play music with his son.

Epilogue

The Children



High Priest Wyldol woke before the sun. He sat up in his very fine bed, which sat atop a golden platform in the middle of a room with an open wall. Glyphs depicting the history of the temple, Sharess and her chosen, Sharen, decorated the walls and pillars.

The man, a blue skinned aasimar with white-blond hair - like his father before him - rose, pulling a silk robe from the foot of his bed and donning it. When a knock sounded at his door, he wasn’t surprised.

“Megwel,” he called out, walking over to the balcony.

An almost identical man entered the room, wearing a white linen skirt common to their people. The most striking difference between them was that Wyldol wore his hair in long dreadlocks, while his twin kept his short, “So Ullium told you?”

“Of course,” the head priest replied, “As I’m sure Ilvaria told you.”

Megwel joined his twin on the balcony. The temple overlooked the entire city, the earliest of gray dawn light the only illumination, “She did. Sharen is dead.”

Wyldol snorted, “Our father is dead - Sharen is eternal.”

“So he is,” the warrior twin said, “Do you have further guidance?”

“Not now, no,” the high priest replied, “Though I am sure Sharess will not sit idle. No doubt she will recognize your hard work and have you take that layabout’s place.”

“I will welcome it if she does,” Megwel said, “But she may yet choose-”

“Wyldol!”

The men turned as a woman burst into the room, half-dressed and panting as she ran up to them. She glared up, also blue-skinned, but with pointed elven ears and matching finer features, “You’re both here. It must be true then.”

The high priest rolled his eyes, “Decorum please, Uvratim.”

“Fuck off, we’re siblings, aren’t we?” the woman demanded, straightening. She was of a height with the men, and crossed her arms, “The old bastard’s dead. Hope he enjoys Sharess’s eternal embrace.”

“Sharen is not an easy life to live,” Megwel said, looking back over the city, “And anger will not change what happened.”

“You can fuck off, too,” Uvratim said, rolling her eyes, “I don’t see you running - he was just a coward.”

“Regardless of what he was, he is dead,” Wyldol said, headed towards a large stone altar in his room, “And we must prepare to accept Sharess’s will.”

“Why don’t you just name Megwel the heir now?” his sister grumbled, “We all know you want to.”

“It does not matter what I want,” the high priest said.

“Bullshit.”

Megwel put a hand on his sister’s shoulder, “Uvratim, please.”

“We are all in the service of Sharess,” Wyldol went on, “And it is by her will we shall abide.”

The woman rolled her glowing white eyes, “Whatever -  call me when you’ve heard from the big woman upstairs.”

“You two shall be the first to know.”

***

Camping by the side of an oasis in the middle of the desert, Ilrol also woke. They rubbed their eyes, yellow skin almost blending into the sand beneath them. In the distance, an ancient, decrepit temple could be seen. They sighed, looking up at the stars still dotting the early morning skies. They reached up one hand, fingers spread.

“Safe journey, Sharen.”

***

Vallen the elf yawned as he emerged from below decks, the sky pink with dawn. He looked around, spotting his friend sitting on the ship’s railing, leaning back against the forecastle. He put his hands in his pockets as he approached.

“You’re up early.”

“We can go home now,” the woman said, brushing her red hair out of her face. She was an aasimar with freckled green skin, dressed much like their sailor compatriots.

“What?” the elf asked.

“Kasesi’s dead,” his friend replied, “Eron told me last night.”

“Eikont…” Vallen started, then scratched the back of his neck, “Sorry.”

The woman laughed, turning to grin at him - even so, he could see tears at the corners of her eyes, “It’s not like I actually knew him, y’know? It’s fine. Sorry to have wasted your time dragging you out here with me.”

The elf sighed, and leaned on the railing in front of his friend, “Well… I guess we could… keep going for a bit? It’s not like you won’t know if the temple needs you…”

Eikont laughed again, looking out over the horizon, “Yeah. Thanks, Vallen.”

“I mean, your dad just died, so…”

“Adventure?”

Vallen sighed, rolling his eyes, “Adventure.”

His friend grinned, reaching out to hold the elf’s hand.

He let her.

***

Kyle sighed, looking up at the bright sunny sky before looking back down. There was already a little sprout, and one day, there would be a tree to mark his father’s grave. The young man leaned down, dry eyed, and touched the still fresh turned earth. He closed his eyes, then nodded and stood.

From a side pouch, the tiefling took out the wax sealed letter with the name he didn’t recognize. He nodded again, tucking it away again. As he left, he glanced back - and smiled.

“Bye, dad - love you. See you again someday.”

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