A/N: To my faithful readers, I'm sorry that this chapter has been so long in coming. Its overall length (which is twice as long as any other chapter I've ever written), combined with my work schedule and constant distracting myself have led to a delay in it's completion. Hopefully I'll be able to continue at the previously established pace of about a chapter a month, but I make no promises. Hope times are going well for everyone and that you enjoy!
Sutty93 (Nick)

When Sheik awoke the next day, they had to fight the urge to leave the room which the Night Queen had let them use. But the fear of provoking her anger at wondering Pandora's Tomb by themself or without a blindfold kept them from doing more than banging on the door occasionally in case someone was able to hear it and allow for them to leave the room. By the time they'd been up for a couple of hours, they really had to relieve themself and were starting to get hungry. Resolving to risk Queen Jazabel's wrath if no one came to let them out in the next half an hour, Sheik went to their pack and pulled out their small golden horseshoe shaped harp.

As was often the case when they played recently, their fingers immediately began to pluck the notes to the song they had written with Cascie the year before. It was a slow, simple melody that reflected their love for each other. Closing their eyes to better picture Cascie in their mind, Sheik let a couple tears flow as her voice came back to them singing after they had fallen into bed together the night before they left for Pandora's Tomb. Allowing each pluck of the cords to bring the perfection of that moment back to them, Sheik couldn't help the urgency to play faster and faster so as to keep the rush they felt as high as possible which ultimately led to them play a different song entirely.

By the time they noticed that they had stopped playing what they had come to call Cascie's Cassation and begun to play something darker, they heard a small clap emanating from the doorway. Startled by the surprise audience, Sheik's fingers froze as they turned to see the queen of the Ladies of the Night dressed in an old-fashioned blackblood dress. While Sheik was slightly relieved to no longer be confronted with the Night Queen's near nudity, her choice in dress was almost as distracting. It was at least a few centuries old, if not older. She still wore her black feather cape and its attached spiked collar, which was how Sheik first recognized her.

Seeing them falter in their playing the Night Queen said, "Please, don't let my presence distract you. That first piece was beautiful, and I was most interested in where that next one was going." She walked into the room gracefully and shut the door before leaning against it as if she expected them to continue playing.

Their mood for their music gone, Sheik tried to shy away from her gaze as they made to put their harp away. "I'm not one for an audience, but thank you for the compliment." Turning back to gaze at the Night Queen, they asked, "Does your presence here mean that I am allowed to wonder about and see to my body's needs?"

A look of surprise crossed her face as she looked upon Sheik. "Oh, my apologies! It's been so long since we've had an outsider here that I forgot that you couldn't leave. Come with me," she said offering an arm and the blindfold. "Again, I apologize for taking my beauty rest; I should have realized that you would need to leave your room much sooner."

Taking the blindfold once again, Sheik tied it around their eyes and put their arm into Queen Jazabel's. As the two of them walked out of the room to what Sheik hoped was a kitchen and some place private for them to relieve themself, Sheik asked the question that had slowly simmered in their mind since the night before. "Your Darkness, why do you insist that I wear this blindfold, yet allow me to remove it once in a room where, presumably, more of your culture's secrets could be exposed to me? Your throne room alone had some intriguing and disturbing items in it that will captivate my wandering mind in the coming weeks. If you were comfortable letting me see that, as well as everything else, why do you insist on blindfolding me while we roam the halls?"

It was an uncomfortable moment for Sheik as they awaited the Night Queen's response. But despite their unease, or maybe because of it, Sheik felt that she was smiling as she thought of how to respond to this question. "You are a rare person, Sheik Visagar. If you would permit it, I'd very much like to spend much of our travels together getting to know you." This was said in a much quieter tone than what Queen Jazabel usually used, almost as if she was talking to herself and not them. "But to answer your question, I insist upon the blindfold for protection; both yours and mine. My predecessor carved these walls, floors and ceilings with scenes of the darkness she wished to inflict upon the world, as well as what I've come to realize are prophecies of my own unleashed darkness. If you saw some of the things that we Queens of the Night are destined to do, I fear that you would not wish to be associated with me or my Ladies. And despite what our tendency towards isolationism would suggest, we do want to have the world befriend us. I've long since memorized all these scenes a thousand times over, but I'm still surprised by them coming to pass. I feel that there's one or two that are swiftly approaching, but we'll see what happens if and when they do."

Taking an audible gulp upon hearing this, Sheik refocused their blinded vision forward, as if they were unable to look upon the Night Queen's visage even in their mind's eye. As the silence ate away at their nerves, Sheik couldn't help but overthink the explanation that Queen Jazabel had given. They opened and closed their mouth a few times over the next few moments as they'd contemplated asking for more clarification, before then reconsidering.

"Doesn't that seem backwards?" Sheik asked as they descended a small staircase. "I mean, if I were to decorate a space, I wouldn't put my greatest secrets on display in the areas where everyone would be able to see them; I'd want them hidden away in rooms where few would be welcomed. Carving them into the hallways seems counter productive, both functionally and aesthetically."

Queen Jazabel gave a slight laugh at this as she continued to lead Sheik to wherever. "Perhaps," she said contemplatively. "But the fact that Pandora was, to put it mildly, eccentric cannot be understated. The both of us are deeply paranoid of having our home invaded, and have taken numerous steps to ensure that any outsider deemed worthy enough to be granted entry into our hallowed halls cannot give an accurate floor plan. I apologize that I've had us doubling back on ourselves three times already in this journey alone, but I will take no chances when my home is under constant threat from the Crusaders and others like them. This is also why I was so harsh on Mai-la and Athena, because I can't defend Pandora's Tomb from an invasion led by one of my own." The Night Queen fell silent at this point, seeming to think about the impossibility of her continent spanning kingdom being felled by traitorous machinations. Sheik gave her a sympathetic squeeze in the hopes that a show of solidarity would bring her out from her hostile thoughts.

They were about to offer words of encouragement as well when a most welcomed smell distracted them. Taking a deeper whiff to ensure that they were not mistaken, Sheik heard the gentle, teasing laughter coming from the Night Queen. As the sweet smells of vanilla, cinnamon and maple permeated the air, Sheik concluded that they'd finally made it to the kitchen, and that their favourite breakfast was being cooked.

Letting go of her hand, Sheik left Queen Jazabel as they threw caution to the wind and blindly walked in the direction of the fabulous smells of the Verlangien culinary delight. As if they were floating on a cloud, Sheik walked into the kitchen. It wasn't until they smacked into a waist high counter that Sheik turned back to where they'd left the Night Queen, a silent look upon their face that pleaded with her to allow for them to remove the blindfold. Feeling a hand on their shoulder, Sheik turned to where they thought the contact was coming from as their blindfold was removed.

But rather than the Night Queen before them, as they thought would be their first sight, a different Lady of the Night altogether greeted them. Instead, there was a girl who looked no older than nineteen; but given their talk with the Night Queen and Lady Mai-la the previous night, Sheik knew that this wasn't necessarily the case. Taking a closer look at her, they saw that the Lady stood upon a pedestal made of thick snakes that coiled around her legs making her seem to have the lower half of a giant serpent. Despite this though, she was still a head shorter than Sheik. Her fiery orange hair was a mass of loose curls that came to her seemingly too large for her small body breasts. Even more shocking was that smaller snakes coiled in her hair, seeming to keep it out of her way.

"You must be the famous Sheik Visagar," the Lady said. "Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Euryeno. And if the drool coming from your mouth is any indication, I think that you'll find that my Verlangien Toast is some of the best you've ever had." Much like her chest, Sheik thought her voice was too deep for her frame. But her stone-grey eyes had a kindness to them that made Sheik instinctively trust this Lady of the Night. She then spoke in the harsh gurgles that Sheik now suspected was the fabled Language of Darkness, while looking to the ground. "Please," she said, extending an arm to the table in the room's centre, "allow for Dusa to seat you."

Sheik then felt a jolt of fear as something thick began to wrap itself around their leg. Looking down, they saw a cobra easily twice as long as they were tall, with its tail wrapped around their calf, raise itself to eye level before, to Sheik's shock and amazement, it clearly bowed to them. That's when they felt a gentle tug on their leg as the snake turned towards the table and slithered towards it. Unsure of what to do, they allowed the large snake to guide them to the table. A moment later, a plate filled high with Verlangien Toast coated in a generous layer of maple syrup was laid before them by Lady Euryeno as a thin snake extended from her hand and dropped a fork and knife. "Eat, Sheik Visagar. By the look in your eye, and the way you walked into my kitchen, I know you must be hungry and will greatly enjoy this breakfast. And worry not," she said with a conspiratorial wink, "I didn't put any of my babies' venom in…this time."

Unnerved slightly by the look in the Lady's eye and the tone of her voice, Sheik took the utensils in hand and cut themself a piece and put it in their mouth. Slowly chewing, the wonderous taste of the Toast and maple syrup on their taste buds overrode their caution as a blissfully euphoric moan escaped their mouth. As the Night Queen sat across from them with a plate of her own, Sheik began to eat in earnest.

As they walked out into the courtyard, once again blindfolded and being led by Queen Jazabel, Sheik felt the heat of the setting sun on them. It was an unusually warm night for this time of year, being so far south, and they took a moment to bask in the warmth. It was about an hour after they'd finished eating and the Night Queen had brought them to their room to ensure that they had everything packed. Once they'd descended the steps that seemed to lead from the entrance to Pandora's Tomb and into the courtyard proper, Sheik turned to the queen. "Forgive my impudence, Your Darkness, but might I remove the blindfold? We are outside, after all." There was a moment's silence, where Sheik thought that they had angered Queen Jazabel, but when the blindfold was loosened and fell away, they turned to see the Night Queen standing with her back to the sun. Raising a hand to block out the suddenly blinding light, Sheik gave a quiet "Thank you," to the spikey silhouette of the queen.

Queen Jazabel only smiled slightly in response, before the pair of them turned to the sound of horses galloping up from Sheik's left. Looking to find the sound, Sheik took in the vastness of the courtyard. It was mostly barren, but the sheer size of it all could comfortably hold the entirety of their hometown, with room to spare. Spotting the approaching horses, Sheik recognized Sir Greystone riding the lead horse. As he approached them, he gently pulled on the reins and brought the trio of horses to a stop barely two steps away.

As he slid down, Sheik noticed that he too was dressed in clothes meant for the outside world and was again relieved to be no longer confronted by his near nudity. Giving a bow to his queen, Sir Greystone began to sign something to her. Turning to the Night Queen in anticipation of a translation, Sheik was slightly annoyed by her just nodding and thanking Greystone before she stepped up to a horse and climbed upon it. Sheik hid their slight annoyance from showing on their face before climbing the last remaining horse.

A flutter of wings brought Sheik's attention back behind them to see a small cluster of bats smash itself together to form the body of a woman who looked to be around their own mother's age. She bowed deeply to Queen Jazabel before saying with a slight Ginokese accent, "You wished to see me, Your Darkness?"

"Yes Regina, I did. I have a special assignment for you," the Night Queen responded, causing a look of shocked anticipation to appear on the Lady's face. Smiling darkly at her subordinate, Queen Jazabel gave a small laugh without opening her mouth. "Yes, Regina, it is indeed what you've long dreamed of. Me and Greystone are going on a journey and we don't know when we'll be back, and I'm putting you in charge of Pandora's Tomb."

Dumbfounded, Lady Regina looked like she didn't breathe until excited words escaped her mouth in bursts. "Than-In charg-YES-Me?!" Realizing her words were more just what was running through her head than actual words, the Lady shut both her mouth and eyes as she took a calming deep breath. "Thank you, Your Darkness; this is an honour beyond words," she said in a controlled voice as she bowed deeply to the Night Queen.

Sheik looked to the queen as Lady Regina straightened herself and a raven as large as an eagle and as white as freshly fallen snow in the glow of the full moon perched on her shoulder. Queen Jazabel's face was a mask as she gazed upon the slight fear the raven on her shoulder caused Lady Regina. Raising a finger in warning, Queen Jazabel spoke in a grave tone, "Be warned, Lady Regina, I'm leaving my second in command, Nikki, to watch over you. I know your heart and ambitions, and Nikki will not hesitate to enact morsels of my wrath should you do something that would upset me. Do not disappoint me, Regina, for it may be one of the last things you do." She gave a pause and Sheik could hear the gulp from Lady Regina's throat even upon their horse. "Do I make myself clear?" she asked with some of the deadliest edge in her voice that Sheik had ever heard.

Giving a fearful look to the large bird on her shoulder, the Lady of the Night nodded. "Yes, Your Darkness. I will rule as best I can in your absence," she said with a slight shake in her voice.

Nodding, the Night Queen's tone became much gentler with her next words. "I've already told Mai-la this, but when Athena returns, I don't want her to leave until my return. If it comes to it, lock her in the solarium." By the gasp Lady Regina gave at this, Sheik knew that this was a more severe punishment than they realized. "When our journey's done and we are on our return voyage, I will send Cadel to you. When she returns here, you are to light the nightfire beacon. I want every Lady of the Night here to welcome me home."

Sheik thought they saw a look of confusion spasm across Lady Regina's face at the mention of the beacon before the apparent explanation, and they made a mental note to ask about it later. "It will be done, my Queen," Regina said with another bow. "Safe journey and thank you again."

Rather than answer, the Night Queen turned her horse around and made her way to the other side of the courtyard. Barely a second behind her, Sir Greystone too turned his horse without so much as a nod to the Lady of the Night. Sheik waited a second longer, gave an awkward wave to Lady Regina, before turning around and urging their horse to catch up with the Night Queen and Sir Greystone. As they drew even with Queen Jazabel, Sheik was about to ask how they were to leave, for they could see no break in the walls that denoted a doorway, when they saw that she was once again holding out the blindfold. Taking it with a sigh and tying it around their eyes, Sheik muttered under their breath, "You're too paranoid."

Suddenly the horses were running at a full gallop, and Sheik nearly fell off if it wasn't for their tight grip on the reins. Once they'd regained their balance, Sheik strained their ears for the scraping of stone and the clanging of chains to denote that a gate was opening. But when after a minute of hearing nothing but the pounding of the horses' hooves, Sheik felt a sudden fear that they were going to crash into the large walls. Resisting the temptation to pull on the reins, Sheik could only scrunch up their face as they braced for the impact they felt was imminent.

But no bone breaking crash came.

Instead, the horses seemed to gallop for much longer than Sheik would have thought it would take to reach the walls of Pandora's Tomb. When they felt their horse leap, Sheik felt their legs tense around the animal's flanks in a desperate attempt to not be thrown into the large canyon that they knew was below. They gave a quick prayer to Lilith hoping that these horses could make the jump. It was with a rattling jolt that Sheik felt that their prayer was answered.

For another twenty minutes the horses galloped before slowing and coming to stop. "Thank you for indulging my paranoia," the Night Queen said in a mocking tone, signalling that she'd heard Sheik's previous comment. "You can now remove the blindfold, if you wish." Relieved to finally see once again, Sheik immediately took the blindfold off. Blinking away the glare of the setting sun, they saw that they were back in the field that Sir Greystone and Lady Mai-la had first found them in. Looking to Queen Jazabel with a silent question, she seemed to understand as she said, "Like many stories, your journey to the realm of the Night finishes where it started, at least from my perspective."

"Does this mean that I'm no longer welcome in Pandora's Tomb?" Sheik asked.

"Not in the same way you were for the past night and day. Come our journey's end, should you wish to return with me and Greystone to our home, you may come to our gate. And depending on our state, I may even let you get some sleep. But if you were wanting to further explore my seat of power, I'm afraid that I cannot give you such allowances. Once our quest is over, you will never be able to set foot inside our walls again, on penalty of death." When Sheik saw the look of sorrow cross the Night Queen's face, their confusion once again spread on their face. "I do not enforce this for myself, it is a magic that Pandora wove into the walls herself to ensure its protection. I had to personally kill the last person who broke this law, as well as her husband, and it is not something I wish to be reminded of."

Tears fell from the queen's eyes as she abruptly turned away from both Sheik and Greystone, leading her horse away from the both of them. Sir Greystone made to go after her, but Sheik put a hand gently on his arm to stop him. Not withering under his glare at being stopped, Sheik whispered softly, "Let her grieve for a moment, she clearly needs it." When he relaxed, and didn't move to go to his queen, Sheik continued. "Do-Do you know who?" they asked him timidly. The Lord of the Night shook his head before getting a pensive look on his face and tapping a finger to his temple. "You have an idea, but you don't know for sure?" Sheik tried to interpret, getting a nod in response.

Before they could ask who he thought the Night Queen was grieving, she returned to them with a face that clearly wanted to be stone cold, but the tracks of her tears down her cheeks gave it away. "If either of you talk, sign or speculate about who was the last person to step foot into Pandora's Tomb for a second time, I promise you that my threats against Mai-la last night will seem positively tame and a slap on the wrist compared to what I will do to you." Her voice was her usual dark intensity, but as she guided her horse past them to continue on their way, Sheik thought they saw the sadness still in her eyes. "Now let's go! Penthus is a two- and half-day journey from here. The sooner we get there, the sooner we get the map that leads us to the others chosen by destiny, and the sooner we can begin our quest in earnest," she said to them without glancing over her shoulder. With a kick of her heels, her horse was speeding away.

Looking to each other for a brief second, Sheik and Sir Greystone quickly followed Queen Jazabel's lead and had their horses speeding away.

They kept up the steady pace for most of the night, not talking except to give a warning for any low branches that were sticking out over the path. They stopped to rest briefly and have a lunch comprised of dried meats, grapes and cheese about an hour after midnight before starting out again at a slightly slower pace. Queen Jazabel's foul mood persisted the rest of the way until they set up camp outside a town on the border between Cawdor and Conrutl about half an hour before dawn.

As Sheik sat down at the fire that Sir Greystone had started to cook a quick dinner stew made from the leftovers from lunch, they grinded slightly against the log that was their seat in an attempt to get some feeling back into their bottom. Seeing this, the Night Queen gave a smile, as she slyly did the same. Sheik was happy to see her smile for it meant that she wasn't upset anymore. This would make the journey much more tolerable, Sheik thought.

A strange sound broke Sheik's train of thought and caused them to scan the darkness for its source, before they saw that it was none other than Queen Jazabel. Sheik stared at this seemingly oxymoronic sight before them: the Night Queen, the most feared woman in all of Bolfodier and queen of the Ladies of the Night, was giggling like a sixteen-year-old girl whose crush had just told her a lame joke. Looking to Greystone, Sheik saw that he was smiling too. Confused at what was so funny, Sheik awaited the end to the queen's giggle fit before they asked what was so funny.

Still smiling, Queen Jazabel looked to Greystone and said, "Thank you, my dear. I really needed that." He just nodded before walking over to her and giving her a one-armed hug. The gesture was oddly like something a mother and son would share, and Sheik once again wondered at their relationship. Turning back to Sheik, Queen Jazabel said, "Seeing us try to regain feeling in our bottoms, Sir Greystone so elegantly suggested that perhaps the best way to regain sensation was rub ourselves on his numb and sore log." Sheik could see the giggles that were dying to escape her mouth in her eyes, and they knew from the way that she stressed 'elegantly' that the crass suggestion had probably been made in a most distasteful, and probably disrespectful, manner.

Cheeks flushing redder than the fire by the disgusting implication, Sheik turned an angry glare to Sir Greystone. "I would appreciate if you refrained from making such comments about me in the future. My heart and body are spoken for and I have no intention of betraying my lover's trust." Looking at the both of them once again, they continued, "That being said, if that is something the two of you are interested in, feel free to engage in such activities. Just please not in a way where I'm able to see or hear it."

Sir Greystone began to sign what Sheik hoped was an apology, a contrite look in his good eye. Sheik turned to Queen Jazabel looking for a translation to his hands. "Sir Greystone begs your forgiveness, Sheik Visagar," the Night Queen said. "He says his comment wasn't meant to offend or imply any sort of change in our dynamic. He simply was looking to make me laugh at his pun-crude as it was-after I'd been in a bad mood all night." She turned from Sir Greystone to fully look upon Sheik, indicating her next words were her words and not the Lord of the Night's. "As for your, shall we say, endorsement of such activities. The fact of the matter is that the both of us are, as you said, spoken for and have no desire to betray our lovers. In truth, I'm practically his mother; I raised him from when he was just a few weeks old and that is a line even I won't cross. We love each other with all our hearts, but that isn't the kind of love we share."

There was a coolness to the Night Queen's eyes that told Sheik of the truth and secrecy that her words implicitly imparted. It wasn't as cold as her wrathful warnings of earlier that night, but Sheik knew that this information was privy to a very few and that to reveal it wouldn't result in their harm, but would sour the queen's goodwill towards them in a way that was almost worse than the various tortures that had been threatened upon them over the past two nights. Giving a grave nod, they said, "I understand," and hoped that the look in their eyes conveyed the extent to which they meant this comment. Seeming to understand, both Greystone and the Night Queen nodded at Sheik's words.

A solemn silence fell between the three of them for a moment before the full meaning of the words she'd spoken came to Sheik. "Wait a minute!" they exclaimed. "Who are the lovers that you spoke of? Is there-can there be a King of the Night?" Sheik asked in amazement.

Laughing much more normally, Queen Jazabel shook her head. "No, there can not be a King of the Night; were my future selves to take a lover as I did, they'd simply be referred to as a concubine of the Night Queen. But my lover died before we were to be wed centuries ago. He was taken from me and I took my vengeance upon his killer in one of my most creative and torturous acts of wrath, if I do say so myself.

"As for Sir Greystone's lover, she is obviously a Lady of the Night. And if memory serves me correctly, she should be returning from Krakengärd with one of our newest Ladies. Her name is Selene, and I couldn't be happier about the match. Not only is it truly special when Ladies (or in this case, Lord and Lady) of the Night fall in love with each other; but for it to be my son falling in love with a Natural Born…I couldn't be happier," Queen Jazabel said with a radiant smile full of pride and love directed at Sir Greystone who blushed bashfully at his queen and mother's words.

"Natural Born?" questioned Sheik.

The Night Queen simply responded, "A Lady of the Night born without my or Pandora's interference." When she saw the continued look of confusion on Sheik's face, she continued. "The majority of Ladies of the Night are not simply called to our profession at random. Throughout both her and my own reigns, Pandora and I have traversed Bolfodier and chosen families to have the gift of the Night unleashed upon them. We don't know when the gift will reveal itself, for the most part, but most of my kingdom can be traced to one of these gifts. Natural Born Ladies of the Night are those who have no blood ties to these gifts and have seemed to have manifested the gift of the Night naturally within themselves. Since Pandora drew the final drop of blood from her mother and unleashed our birthright onto the world, there's been about a hundred Natural Born Ladies of the Night; and only five of those have been born since the time of the Taint. It's one of the reasons that I'm offering my help in this quest: to increase the rate of Natural Born Ladies of the Night."

As Sheik processed this information, a silence fell over the group. After a moment, they looked to their companions with a flurry of new questions in their head. Was Queen Jazabel a Natural Born? Had their family been gifted by either Pandora or Jazabel to one day bear a Lady of the Night? How were such gifts given? Why didn't she know when these gifts would manifest? And why wasn't she doing this to everyone to ensure that the whole world had the potential to join her kingdom? They were about to start asking all these questions, when a more pressing one popped into their head. "Why are you telling me all this, Your Darkness? I thank you for always indulging my curiosity, but it seems to me that you're revealing too much of your society's secrets without getting much in return," they questioned with a look of growing dread as the thought of being the Night Queen's secret keeper crawled up their spine in a cold wave.

Seeming to see this growing dread within them, the Night Queen said in a gentle voice, "Because I'd like to be your friend. I told you as we got breakfast that I wanted to get to know you during our time together. Truthfully, I'm a very lonely person Sheik. I spend so much energy leading my Ladies, and making myself the most feared woman in all of Bolfodier, that I'm left with very few candidates to allow myself to feel any sense of vulnerability. I'm always hearing of how people bond over journeys such as ours, and I wanted to experience that myself. I know that I've made several threats against you in my vulnerable moments, and I apologize for that. I beg your patience and understanding in the fact that being allowed to show my heart is a very rare thing for me and that I often lash out when I feel that way to maintain my image and not feel the pain that my heart aches to allow me to feel. You're right in saying that I don't normally allow people to know the things about me that you do and live. So, if it's not too much to ask, would you accept my hand in friendship, and bear the growing pains that I undoubtedly need to push myself through?"

The reflected firelight in her black eyes gave her a truly smouldering intensity and vulnerability as Sheik looked for the truth in her eyes. After a long moment, in which the two of them gauged the other through the look in their eyes, Sheik nodded and said, "Yes, I think I can accept your friendship, Your Darkness."

Sheik woke the next day in the late afternoon, if the sun's position in the sky was anything to go by. As they shrugged off the sleepiness that always tried to keep them in bed that extra fifteen minutes, Sheik looked around their campsite in the full light of day. They were shocked to see a few wolves sitting quietly in the small clearing, before they realized that it was simply Greystone's pack keeping watch over them while they slept the day away. Standing up and giving a stretch, Sheik took a moment to savour not having to be dressed for the outside world. Running their fingers through their blonde hair and fluffing it, Sheik gingerly stepped up to the wolves.

The biggest one, a greyish white wolf with hints of red that made it look like it was a statue beginning to rust, raised its head as Sheik approached with their arms raised to show that they meant no ill will to the wolf. As they kneeled down before the wolf and tentatively outstretched their hand, it lowered its head slightly so that Sheik's hand was resting on the ridge between its eyes. Cautiously, Sheik rubbed the wolf's head, relaxing and letting out the breath they'd been holding when it growled contently at the attention they were paying it.

"Who's a good guard wolf? You are, you are," Sheik said with that voice people always get when talking to animals or babies. Adding their other hand as they petted and ruffled the large head of the wolf, Sheik thought they saw it smile and maybe even laugh at being treated so juvenilely. "Yes, you're a good guard wolf, aren't you," they further teased with a laugh of their own. Standing up, Sheik saw the look of disappointed suspicion cross the wolf's eyes. Kissing their fingers and giving the beast a pat on its head, they said softly, "I'll be back in a moment. Don't worry." Walking over to their pack, Sheik grabbed their clothes before walking out of the clearing to change and relieve themself.

When they returned a couple minutes later, and they saw the head of the large wolf rise up in anticipation, Sheik had to try really hard to not laugh at the adorableness of the animal. No longer concerned that it would attack them, Sheik strode over and plopped down before snuggling up to the wolf and using both hands to rub its flank and belly. The cooing and yipping that this caused, caused the other wolves to stir and first growl with annoyance before eventually demanding similar attention be paid to them as well. Before Sheik knew it, an hour had passed and the four wolves had surrounded them in a massive heap of fur. If this journey took much longer, Sheik feared that an argument was in their future with Cascie about their adopting a couple of dogs.

It was as images of their homecoming holding a wolf pup and Cascie's exasperation at that sight, flowed through their head that Sheik decided the time had come to wake their companions. But as they tried to extricate themself from the furry prison the wolves had surrounded them in, Sheik saw that both Queen Jazabel and Sir Greystone were awake and watching them with amused smirks on their faces. Greystone signed something that caused the Night Queen to chuckle slightly. "You're right, Greystone. They do seem to have changed their allegiance based solely on some head pats and childish affirmations on how good they are." Sheik made to apologize for causing any harm to Greystone's wolves, when the two of them started to laugh. "Don't feel bad, Sheik," Queen Jazabel said. "Grey and I had a bet about how long it would take you to feel comfortable with his wolves. I said you'd need a week, while he said you'd need three. The fact that you took less than a day is a happy accident that caused both our wagers to be rendered moot. But it heartens me that my new friend is so comfortable, so soon, around the more outwardly threatening aspects of the Night." Stepping up to the wolf pile, she reached out a hand to help Sheik escape. Pulling them into a brief but tight hug, Queen Jazabel placed a kiss on their cheek as she released the hug. "Sleep well, friend?"

Slightly taken aback by the gentleness of the greeting, Sheik looked into her eyes, searching for any sign of falseness. Shrugging half-heartedly, they replied, "It wasn't the worst sleep I've had. Can you actually tell me that you enjoyed sleeping on the ground with the sun blazing down on us?"

Smirking as she turned back to Greystone, the Night Queen shook her head. "No, that was not a pleasant experience. But, without the safety of Pandora's Tomb, my sleep is going to be irritable to say the least." Sheik could tell that she was also signing to the Lord of the Night as she talked to them, but when a new thought occurred to her, Sheik saw the tension pass over her entire body. Timidly, the queen turned her head back to them and said, eyes averted, "Forgive me; it just occurred to me that this may make me a bit unpleasant for the foreseeable future. And I do not wish to not only embark on this quest, as well as our newfound friendship, on such a bad note. I know that yesterday wasn't exactly the greatest start, but I'd like to apologize for that." Turning once again to her son like companion, she signed something to him, to which he simply nodded before return to his packing. "Sheik," she said as she turned back to them with an outstretched hand. "While Grey packs up our things, can I talk with you privately?"

The meekness with which this fearsome queen was now acting was off putting. But they had said that the two of them could be friends before they went to sleep earlier this morning, and Sheik both knew and felt that this friendship was important to the Night Queen. So, they silently told themself that they'd try to indulge her when they could. Taking her hand in theirs, Sheik waited to see what she would do.

"Sheik flushed and froze as Queen Jazabel slid herself under their arm, hugging herself to their side. "Ah…Your Darkness?" they asked in confusion.

"Sorry, Sheik," she said as she untangled herself from them, but kept a hold of their hand. "I know my behaviour is causing you whiplash, but as I said before, I'm a lonely person that has spent centuries using fear and threats to mask my vulnerabilities. I'm trying something new by forcing myself to act affectionately whenever I feel the urge to spew threats or cause violence in hopes that it will help me transition to a more open individual."

They had started to walk slightly away from their camp as she was explaining herself. Sheik thought they understood her thought process, or at least the ideas behind it. "I know you just started, but do you feel yourself allowing yourself to open up more?" they asked.

"It's probably too soon to tell," she answered, "but I'm experiencing an odd side effect that may ultimately lead to some similar results as my goal." She looked to Sheik as she awaited their question; but answered it before they could voice it. "I'm feeling a jolt of mischievous pleasure seeing you be so uncomfortable with my attempts at being nice. I wonder what it would feel like to threaten you with a hug rather than a gruesome death?" she teased with a smile.

"But, to more pressing issues. I wanted to take this time while Greystone packs our things to share with you something private about myself; in the hopes of establishing a deeper bond between us. Do you find this acceptable?" she asked, turning to them with a masked face but eyes that showed the vulnerability within her.

Nodding, Sheik brought them over to a pair of small boulders and sat them down. "Don't feel pressured to share more than you're comfortable with. We're just starting our friendship, and even the deepest friendships allow for things to be unknown about each other. But despite that, I'm open to hearing what you have to say."

Offering them a private smile, Queen Jazabel said, "Thank you." Taking a deep breath before letting it out noisily, she said, "I wish to tell you of my former lover. And how it was that I came to both love him and lose him." Reaching into her cleavage and pulling on a thin chain that Sheik had failed to notice there the night before, the queen revealed a simple silver locket. "His name was Luxzefer. And he was my nephew." Catching Sheik's look of confusion and slight disgust, she continued, "It's not what you think. There was no physical aspect to our relationship. At least not in the way people would object to. I've honestly never much felt the need for such a relationship; no Lux made up for that himself. But I'm getting ahead of myself," she said with a sigh, as she returned the locket to between her breasts, over her heart.

"When my brother's son was born, I returned to my homeland in secret to congratulate Cassiel and Cassandra. And after I was reunited with my family, I was confronted by Lilith herself." Upon hearing this, Sheik gave a slight gasp. "She came to me and offered me a choice; and to this day, I'm not sure if I choose the right option offered. She offered a blessing on my nephew, a choice between his impact on the world: would he rule long but enact the Bloodline Web Curse that had been placed upon my family generations ago, or would he not rule at all and help the world come to accept the Night as a necessary part of Bolfodier. I obviously choose the option that would benefit me, while also keeping the Kanta family in power in Braria for the foreseeable future.

"I never told either my brother or his wife about Lilith's offer, and only told Luxzefer about it when he confessed his love for me and offered to be my concubine. He said that I had chosen right, that he was never fit to rule and that his brother was a more worthy king than he could ever hope to be. Leo was a great king, and my domain has been recognized by all of Bolfodier as a nation onto itself, thanks in no small part to Lux's help.

"But it was also through his attempts that I lost him."

Sheik saw the tears that were threatening to fall from her eyes as she relived all this. "You don't need to tell me this, Your Darkness; if it's too much we can just leave it there," they said in an effort to comfort the Night Queen.

Shaking her head, Queen Jazabel said, "No, Sheik, I have to finish this. For both our sakes." This caught Sheik off guard, and they couldn't think of anything to say, so just allowed her to continue. "As I alluded to earlier, Luxzefer was a very sexual being. Though he never was with me, he charmed his way into the beds of many women, causing no end of headaches for both his parents and me. I'm genuinely surprised that my brother didn't have to raise taxes just to pay off the bridal dowries from the maidens deflowered in Braria alone, let alone everywhere else. For my part, I had to swear oath after oath that the Night would not claim anyone in these families for the next three hundred years. Thank the spirits that those are up, as I was starting to run out of options in some countries.

"But back to the topic at hand, Lux's prolific number of lovers had the expected results: children. Luxzefer acknowledged three children born of these unions. A Creavitian princess bore him a daughter, and a rancher's wife bore him a set of twins, one boy and one girl."

"Only three?" asked Sheik with a dubious look. "You're speaking like he tried to bed all the women in Bolfodier, and he only had three kids?"

Sheik knew the disbelief on their face could be seen in the next village, but all the Night Queen did was smile that secretive smile that she'd given them earlier. "I said he acknowledged three. In truth, Luxzefer fathered four other children, for a total of seven. But he never knew the other four existed, and I never could tell him about them." As she revealed this, she got a haunted look of regret across her face. "But they aren't important just yet. What is important is his daughter from the rancher's wife.

"She grew upset with her father when he told her that he was marrying me, and not as she'd always hoped her mother. By this point in time, I was well known across Bolfodier, so I'd sent Ladies of the Night across Bolfodier to bring the joyous news of my pending nuptials far and wide. And when the Lady that I'd sent to relay this news to where the rancher's wife lived was attacked and kidnapped, and I was sent her ransom in the form of one her wolf's head, I was beyond angry. I grabbed Luxzefer and transported us to them.

"In my anger, I made the mistake of not being as attentive as I should have been. We were ambushed as soon as we arrived, my Lady was shot with an arrow and a pair of swords were held to Luxzefer's throat." Her eyes blazed with the memory as a couple tears escaped. "His daughter demanded that I call off the engagement and that her father wed her mother instead.

"I stood there, stunned by their brazenness, and enraged at the death of my Lady, and knew that I couldn't do anything before Lux's throat was cut should I try to attack them in some way." Looking into Sheik's eyes with a fierce glare that seemed to pierce to their soul, she continued, "I hope that you never find yourself in that position Sheik, for there is no worse feeling than being able to do something but knowing that it could never be done quick enough to save the one you love most. The girl once again demanded that I relinquish Lux to her mother, threatening me with the fact that if I did not do as she asked, she would spend her life hunting down and killing every Lady of the Night that she could find. And when she gloated about sending their heads to Pandora's Tomb for me to see who I'd lost, my rage boiled over and I attacked her.

"And that was when her mother cut Luxzefer's throat so deep that his head was nearly severed from his body.

"I cradled the man who had loved me like he'd loved no other, my fiancé, my own nephew as he bled to death; his blood covering me more thoroughly than I'd been since I became Queen of the Night. Once I'd felt his life leave him, I turned my wrathful gaze on the rancher's wife. And with a snap of my fingers, a rift opened in the sky and a chimera made from the creatures of the Night descended and ripped the woman apart.

"And then I had my hand around my niece's throat. Pinning her to a tree, her dangling toes at my knees. 'You're going to regret this whole endeavour, my sweet Anna. But don't worry, I'm not going to kill you; despite how much I want to, and how much you'll wish I had. No, you will live, a long life, I will ensure that. You will find love, and you will become that which you so despise. You will become the whore you always accused your mother of being when you give birth to another man's child. And you will be one of the greatest sires of Ladies of the Night in all of history. I will claim daughters from your descendants until I am no more than dust blown in the night breeze. And if you ever so much as look funny at any of my Ladies ever again, I will have all the creatures of the Night torture you into madness a thousand times over, before they rip you apart, bit by bit, and eat you over the course of a decade.'

"And with those words, I slammed so much Darkness in her that the tree I was holding her against withered into nothingness in seconds, and the earth around us died in a circle three times my height from where we stood. It's still barren to this day." Sheik tried to think of ever hearing of such a place, but couldn't think of any that they knew of. "Like I said, it was one of my more creative punishments."

Taking another deep breath, the Night Queen leveled her black eyes upon Sheik in a most intense stare. "And now, I must slightly confess something to you, that may be a little upsetting."

Looking into her eyes, now weary of any signs of guilt, Sheik gave a hesitant nod. "Very well…go on."

"It concerns Cascie van Rahl." Sheik's attention was fully seized upon not just hearing Cascie's name in the Night Queen's mouth, but her full name, and they were immediately overcome with dread. Seeing this, Queen Jazabel raised her hands defensively. "What I have to say is not a threat or update on her well-being; it is simply a fact that I'm sharing with you. You know that I've watched you and your family over the years, so imagine my surprise when two differently tasked informants send me complimenting updates: the descendant of Lucius Ovapasch is set to marry the descendant of one of Luxzefer's unclaimed bastard children upon the former's return to their hometown."

Sheik felt their breath hitch in their lungs. Could it be true? Could Cascie be related to Luxzefer Kanta, nephew to the Queen of the Ladies of the Night and her lost love? But when Sheik realized that lying was a waste of energy, as well as detrimental to her wanting to be friends, they knew that Queen Jazabel had to be telling the truth. For the next minute Sheik started to say something every few seconds before closing their mouth again and having a new thought flitter through their mind. When their mouth finally seemed to work again, Sheik asked the only real question they could have had, "Who?"

Giving them a slightly disturbed smile, the queen responded, "That is one of my favourite family secrets. As is Brarian tradition, when Lux turned twenty-one, he was sent on his Reckoning. Reckonings are meant to show what the future king of Braria will be remembered for; but since Luxzefer was never going to be king, his Reckoning was something that I secretly returned to Terang for. To say that Cassiel and Cassandra were shocked by what their son had to do is an understatement. It was honestly so adorable to see him blushing and being so bashful telling them what he had to do; it's one of my favourite memories. When he finally told us, I was also shocked at the implication. He was to go north to Ginok, enter the service of one of the noble houses and seduce one of its daughters.

"By this point in time, Lux was well known in all of Braria for his sexual reputation. And I could see the veins in my brother's head ready to pop and had to hold back the laughter that was threatening to consume me. Cassandra was the first to speak, simply telling him to be careful and to not break the girl's heart. Having had to put out all the fires his son's antics had caused in Braria, my brother was quite restrained when he told Lux not to get distracted and to just do what was required and to leave once it was done. Luxzefer, for his part, was aware that an incident like this could spark a war; and nobody wants a war with Ginok, especially with their ability to challenge a king's right to rule. And the House of Kanta's rule of Braria could have been in jeopardy should such a challenge be issued."

"You're telling me that my fiancée's got both Ginokese and Brarian royal blood in her veins?" Sheik asked, finally finding their voice.

"No, she doesn't have Ginokese royal blood" she iterated. "There's a difference between royal and noble. Although, this particular noble family was extremely close knit with the royal family. So close that they had arranged for their first and second born children to wed. Hence, Luxzefer decided to seduce the youngest daughter, a girl named Mythany. I won't go into details, but from what he said, Lux was as delicate as he could be, given the circumstances. He even told me that he told the girl what he was sent to do, and that she harboured no ill will towards him for it, and I'm quoting him directly, 'in fact, it made her pull him to her chambers all the faster.'"

Sheik thought of Cascie and how she was always ready to love them, and sadly now realized that it was inherited. Shaking that thought from their mind, they looked to see what progress Sir Greystone was making gathering their things for the night's journey. They had a sudden urge to get on the road that they hadn't had a few minutes ago. But as they were about to get up, a new thought occurred to them. "You speak as if this seduction resulted in this pregnancy, yet not even Luxzefer knew of the result, so how did this not erupt into a political firestorm?" Sheik asked with a glare to the Night Queen.

Giving them a mischievous smile, Queen Jazabel said, "My nephew's seduction of the girl didn't result in the pregnancy that spawned your fiancée's ancestor. That came much later, on the eve of her wedding if I'm not mistaken. The two of them stayed in touch, writing letters over the years, occasionally meeting up to converse in person. It was close to a decade later that he was invited to her wedding. By this time, the two of us were courting, but having me at a wedding is a recipe for disaster, so I stayed away. Lux told me that she invited him to partake in a private party that she was hosting with a few of her friends where clothing was prohibited. He said that it was a good time and that her husband was there; everyone just assumed that the baby was his. It was only an accident that I found out that she wasn't.

"I was on a mission in Ginok for a completely different reason, when I smelled her. This was less than a year after the rancher's wife and daughter killed Luxzefer, so to smell him was almost intoxicating to an alarming degree. I completely abandoned what I was doing and followed the scent of my dearly departed lover to a large cottage on the edge of Ginok's capital. She was six and sleeping between her parents; Mythany's husband looked a fair amount like Lux, so the mistaken identity was forgivable. But I knew, the smell of my own blood was more foreign to me than the scent of him. I spent the rest of the night, as well as the week's that followed, watching that girl sleep. When one night, she was having a nightmare, I stole into her room and sung her the lullaby that my grandmother would often sing for my parents when they were younger. And as I brushed my finger against her cheek, she visibly relaxed; I had to hold back the tears at finally being so close to Lux again, however convoluted."

There was no hiding the tears she cried now. Gentle rivers from her eyes, marring the marble of her face, flowed until they silently fell from the cliffs that were her cheeks. Getting up and crossing over to her, Sheik put their arm around her shoulder in a show of solidarity. "I think that both Lux and Cascie would be thankful that you gave comfort to your niece. I know that I am, as well as grateful that you've kept your watchful eye on my love's family. I'm happy knowing that she has such a dedicated defender."

Nodding against them, the queen wiped the tears away with a sleeve of her dress. Sheik thought she was about to say something before Sir Greystone approached them, a questioning look on his face as he looked to them. He started to sign something, before the queen answered. "Yes, my dear, I'm alright. Just old memories about Lux. Thank you for packing everything." And then she was on her feet, a hand held out to help Sheik up. "Come on, there's about an hour of daylight left. And if we hurry, and don't stop too much, we should make Penthus by tomorrow midmorning."

Taking the offered hand, Sheik stood before making their way over to the horses. "Let's go then. The sooner we get to Penthus, the sooner we can begin to track down the others."

"Yes, I'm looking forward to meeting them also. Something about this whole venture is just screaming to me that it's going to be entertaining to say the least." A smile that Sheik couldn't quite identify crossed the Night Queen's lips as she said this; it seemed to be a mix of dread, anticipation, excitement and surprise.

Greystone began to sign something, that caused her to give a sigh. "Don't remind me; this slow travel and dress are bad enough. Spending so much time in the sun is going to give me a headache as big as Mai-la's infatuation with you." Sheik saw the laughter in her eyes, and the annoyance in his, and wondered if they were always bantering like this.

Sliding into their saddles, the three of them were soon off, continuing their trek east. They didn't ride as hard as the previous night, but in order to reach Penthus as quick as they could, it was still a quicker ride than Sheik would have used for themself. But whereas the previous night's ride had been made worse by the queen's sour mood, tonight's was one made easier by the easy conversation that flowed between them.

The Night Queen told them more about her youth, her parents, brother, and what growing up a princess had been like. For their part, Sheik offered up what it was like to grow up trying to live up to the expectations of one family, something that Queen Jazabel understood all too well. They also discussed how Sheik had gone about becoming Sheik. She was quite interested in how and why they had gone through with the change, Sheik thought it was almost offensive, but knew that she was only driven by curiosity and a want to be as correct as possible. Jazabel even told them that she had once tried to have someone like them become a Lady of the Night a few decades ago, but the pushback of magic had nearly killed her and left her bedridden for nearly a year and half. She then confided that the magic was much more tolerant of Greystone becoming a Lord of the Night.

Sheik was shocked when the light of dawn was beginning to brighten the northern horizon. The night had passed much quicker than the night before, and they all seemed to be less tired. Seemingly heartened by this fact, they pushed the horses to go a little faster. They whined in protest, but when the queen told them that they'd be taking tomorrow night off, the horses seemed to accept and proceeded to run slightly faster.

As the sun rose higher, more and more reflections of its light bounced across the landscape from all the marble buildings in the surrounding villages. Covering their eyes from a particularly annoying glare, Sheik once again thought how obnoxious the overuse of the white stone was. Yes, the temples for the worship of Lilith were stunning, and seemingly in every community no matter how small; but that didn't mean that every house needed to be hewn from the same stuff. Republikos was lucky that there was both so much marble in their borders, and little demand for it outside said borders.

Once the sun had been fully risen for an hour, the three of them finally came across a sign that declared Penthus was only a few leagues over the next hill. Taking a moment to rest the horses and stretch, Sheik looked to the Night Queen and had a flash of memory at the thought of how they'd learned of this mapmaker. "You know that we can't have you revealing yourself to this mapmaker, right?" they questioned.

"What do you mean?" she asked cordially, but Sheik saw the flare of fury at being told what to do.

"Well," Sheik continued with slight caution, "when we first learned about this person, you got very angry. It does us no favours, nor your Ladies, to have the Night Queen appear and threaten someone who can apparently make a map to anywhere. I understand your need to dissuade them from making certain maps; all I'm saying is to do so without revealing yourself. Because, if your enemies found out why you were here, they might try to take advantage of that."

Taking a moment to think over what they said, Queen Jazabel gave Sheik a silent appraisal. "Wise words, my friend," she said after a moment. "I would have you return to Pandora's Tomb to be my advisor, if doing so didn't mean also having to kill you. Your years of study and unique upbringing have made you one of the wisest people I know, that isn't at least a century old. Once we complete our task and you return home, would it be rude of me to stop by from time to time and get your opinion on whatever is plaguing my mind?"

Forgetting about the stretch they were in the middle of, Sheik was taken aback slightly by the queen's praise and request. Nodding, they climbed back atop their horse. "Of course, Your Darkness. To be an advisor to the Night Queen would be a great honour."

On her own horse now, Jazabel nodded contently. "Excellent," she said softly before sending her horse trotting ahead.