((WR - January)) Home Away From Home

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     Oribos was odd, a sterile city that clearly hadn’t been built for mortals. Libelle had entered the Shadowlands in an effort to prove that she was useful to Sanctuary, but it was taking some getting used to. Staying a night in Oribos gave her some time to think and collect herself, or at least grow somewhat accustomed to the strangeness of being a mortal among spirits. Oribos was not well prepared for an influx of mortal visitors, but a back room of the inn had been stuffed full of cots which could be rented for an entirely unreasonable fee. Libelle didn’t have much money to her name, but she didn’t know where else to go.

     On that first night she slept fitfully, her mind spinning in strange vivid dreams that played like vignettes. She was balancing on a branch with the breeze threatening to catch her wings and pull her away. She was running with her head close to the ground, following some urgent instinct to just get away. She was floating languidly in the water, ducking her head under the surface to search for seagrass and feeling utterly unworried. She was exhausted when she woke, but she wasn’t terribly surprised. It was hard to sleep in new places, especially when violating the separation between the living and the dead. 

     She stretched her arms above her head and nearly dropped the object that was clenched in her fist. She fumbled with the object as it fell before managing to clasp both hands around it, one underneath and one on top. She raised the top hand carefully, like she was opening a clam shell, and peered at the thing she had caught. It was a perfect white orb, perhaps the size of a small citrus fruit, with a pearlescent sheen swirling over its surface. It had a solid heft to it.

     Libelle lay back on her pillow, perplexed, and held the orb up in front of her eyes to examine it better. She turned it back and forth, and its weight shifted as though it were filled with fluid. She definitely hadn’t had it yesterday, right? She would remember something like that...right? But she wasn’t sure. She’d had enough lost time episodes in the past few years--maybe she’d had another. 

     Wherever the orb had come from, and whatever it was, she felt the need to keep it safe. She emptied out her coin purse and stuffed her meager savings into the leather bag she carried over her shoulder. She re-fashioned the drawstrings into a loop that could be fit over her head, then nestled the orb in the pouch and hid it inside her shirt.
     Now she had a mission, at least--figure out what the heck this orb was. 

     Libelle left the inn feeling fuzzy with fatigue. She needed someone who could help her, and at the moment she could only think of one person who she knew was also visiting the Shadowlands. She backed into an alcove off the street, not wanting anyone to overhear her business. “Sabeinne dej Dynastus,” she quietly spoke into the hearthstone, and then waited, holding her breath. She waited for a long time, and had nearly given up, before she received a response.

     “Libelle?” the familiar voice echoed out of the hearthstone, surrounded by a fuzzy distortion that wasn’t present on Azeroth. But at least it was working. Libelle let out the breath she’d been holding.

     “Yes, hi, I um...I’m in Oribos,” Libelle began, then blurted the rest. “I could use some help with something. I think it could be magic? I don’t know.”
     There was a brief pause. Libelle could almost see her mother drumming her fingernails on something, thinking. “Very well. Meet me at The Penitent’s Embrace in Darkhaven, in Revendreth. It’s a lovely little tea house, very refined. You’ll love it.” 

     Libelle knew she wouldn’t love it, and she knew her mother knew it too. “Okay, I’ll get there as soon as I can,” she replied, resigned to an uncomfortable afternoon.

     It wasn’t too hard to find transportation to Darkhaven--the afterlife was well-connected, at least. Libelle enjoyed getting to ride on the back of one of the spirit-wyrms that ferried travelers from Oribos. Its energy was warm, a little fuzzy feeling. But her spirits sank as soon as she saw where the wyrm was taking her. Darkhaven was dreary, its stone buildings looking damp and cold. 

     The tea house her mother had mentioned was, in fact, refined, in a way that felt utterly foreign to Libelle. The floors and walls were stone, like the majority of the architecture in Darkhaven, but covered richly in elaborate rugs and portraiture. The furniture was dark wood, gleaming almost wetly in the flickering light cast by the lamps and candles that dotted the room. The tabletops were covered liberally in doilies and lace tablecloths. Libelle felt her unkempt hair and practical traveling clothes burning on her like a sin. Sabeinne was seated at a small table in the corner, lounging like she’d been born in that chair, and sipping out of a teacup that looked both delicate and violent. Libelle ducked her head and hurried over to meet her, determinedly avoiding eye contact with any of the severe, stony-skinned venthyr that populated the room. 

     “There you are,” Sabeinne said as Libelle slid into the chair across the table. She gave Libelle a once-over that dripped with disappointment, but her eyes gleamed as though she could want nothing more than to be disappointed in Libelle’s appearance. Sabeinne leaned across the table and swiped her fingers through Libelle’s short-cropped, unkempt hair. “What on earth have you been doing with yourself?” Libelle tried to duck away, but Sabeinne gripped the back of her neck firmly with one hand and did something distinctly magical feeling to Libelle’s hair with the other. “There, I suppose that will do.”

     Libelle scruffed a hand through her hair resentfully, and felt it spring right back into the shape Sabeinne had coaxed it into. Whatever. It probably looked really good, actually. 

     “So, that thing I wanted to ask you about--” Libelle began.

     “Do have some tea,” Sabeinne interrupted, pouring Libelle a cup from a pot that was also fashioned out of aggressive-looking porcelain. 

     Libelle took the cup and looked uncertainly at the brownish liquid. She set it down in front of her. “Um, that thing I wanted to ask you about,” she said again, this time pulling the pouch out of her shirt. She opened the pouch and took the pearlescent orb gently into her palm. “I found this in my hand when I woke up this morning. I don’t know where it came from.” 

     “No time to catch up, hmm?” Sabeinne said, but the jab lacked conviction. Her gaze sharpened with interest when Libelle produced the orb. She held out her hand expectantly. “Here, let me see it.” Libelle reluctantly handed it over. 

     Sabeinne hefted the orb in the palm of one hand and gently probed it with the fingers of her other hand. Libelle couldn’t tell what she was doing, but a frown was deepening between Sabeinne’s eyebrows as she examined the orb. She hummed lightly with thought. “I don’t sense any arcane energies about it, but it doesn’t appear entirely inert, either,” mused Sabeinne. Keeping the orb nested in her palm, she raised it to eye level and peered at it closely. “It doesn’t feel as though it’s solid all the way through. We could cut into it, to see what’s in--”

     “NO!” Libelle cried, snatching the orb out of Sabeinne’s hand. She cradled it protectively to her chest. Her outburst had gained the attention of the tea room’s venthyr patrons, and she could feel their disapproval. The tips of her ears burned hot with embarrassment. 

     Sabeinne raised an eyebrow and leaned back in her chair. “Very well,” she said with extravagant patience. “We shall keep it intact. But I believe we’ll need to consult someone else if we are to learn anything more about it.” 

     Libelle nodded, curling down into her chair and willing the nearby venthyr to stop glancing at her and murmuring. “Whatever you think will help, just as long as no one hurts it.” 

     Sabeinne gave an authoritative nod, raising her teacup back to her lips. “I have made a contact here who specializes in magical artifacts. We shall pay him a visit.” She sipped at her tea and eyed Libelle’s untouched tea cup. “Do drink up. This wasn’t cheap.” 

     Once they had finished the tea to Sabeinne’s satisfaction, they left the tea house and Sabeinne opened a portal. Libelle peered into it uneasily, and caught a glimpse of more dreary gray stone on the other side. “Do we have to use a portal?”

     “Oh, do pretend to be Sin’dorei,” Sabeinne sniped, and nudged Libelle through. 

     Libelle hated the feeling of stepping into the air and winding up in a different place. It felt a lot like losing time--you were there, and then suddenly you were here, with nothing to connect one experience to the next. She didn’t have time to wallow in her discomfort, however, as Sabeinne immediately clasped a hand over Libelle’s shoulder and began steering her through the new location. Libelle craned her neck as they walked, trying to take in the cavernous stone space. It was full of venthyr, sweeping by tall and proud as though expecting everyone to move out of their way, and dotted with mortals who seemed shrunken in comparison. The space had the cold, clammy feeling of being underground. 

     Sabeinne led Libelle to a small room that was almost entirely occupied by a heavy wooden desk. A slight, wizened venthyr sat behind the desk, examining what looked like an ordinary table-knife with a jeweler’s loupe. He handled the knife with pristine white gloves. The venthyr was bracketed on either side by shelves that extended to the ceiling, which were packed with an assortment of seemingly random objects. 

     The venthyr looked up as they entered the room. “Ah, Lady dej Dynastus,” he greeted Sabeinne silkily. He placed the knife aside on a silken handkerchief. “What have you brought me? This one is so much...livelier than your usual offerings.” The venthyr’s gaze roamed over Libelle appraisingly. It felt invasive. 

     Libelle instinctually shrank away from the venthyr, but Sabeinne tightened her grip on her shoulder, holding her in place. “Behave,” Sabeinne said, and it wasn’t entirely clear whether she was speaking to Libelle or the venthyr.

    “My little joke.” The venthyr chuckled, not very reassuringly. He leaned across the desk and held out his hand limply for Libelle to shake. “You may call me Ernol,” he purred. “And who are you, my enchanting young creature?”

     Not wanting to be rude, Libelle briefly clasped his fingers. “Hi, I’m Libelle,” she managed. 

     Sabeinne pressed on Libelle’s shoulder, maneuvering her back a step or two farther from the desk. Libelle shot her a grateful glance. “Now that we are all well acquainted,” Sabeinne said impatiently, “we do in fact have an artifact that we would like examined.” 

     Sabeinne held out her hand and looked expectantly at Libelle, who reluctantly removed the pouch from her shirt and brought out the orb. She placed it into Sabeinne’s waiting hand. 

     “We are curious as to its nature and origins,” Sabeinne explained as she handed the orb to Ernol. 

     “Ahhhh,” sighed Ernol sensually, turning the orb over in his hands. “How very intriguing.” He pressed a button on his loupe and an iridescent blue lens clicked into place. He peered at it closely, then pressed the button again, switching to a smoky gray lens. “Hmmm,” he mused. “This is interesting. It’s positively brimming with anima, and other magics as well, though nothing I can immediately identify. It appears natural in origin.” He tapped a finger to his bottom lip, the long, manicured fingernail flashing in the lamplight. Pulling open a drawer in his desk, he produced a small silver knife. “I believe we could cut into it to learn more, though that would likely do irreparable damage.”    

     “No!” Libelle cried, lurching forward to reach for the orb. “Why does everyone want to cut it open?” 

     Ernol chuckled and handed the orb back to Libelle, who quickly hid it away once again. He turned his gaze to Sabeinne. “My advice, then, would be to bring it to Ardenweald. If it truly is of natural origin, an expert there might tell you more than I.” He took out a pen and a small square of paper, and wrote a name on it. “Look for this person in the Heart of the Forest,” he said, passing the paper to Sabeinne. “She is a renowned scholar whom I have worked with in the past.” 

     Sabeinne accepted the paper and, to Libelle’s relief, they turned to go. 

     Sabeinne was able to create a portal for them to return to Oribos, but it took another mana-wyrm ride to transport them to the Heart of the Forest. When the massive tree at the center of Ardenweald came into view, Libelle could only stare. She gasped when the mana-wyrms dove to whisk them into the interior of the tree, a massive cavern that was brimming with life. When she dismounted the mana-wyrm Libelle just stood with her mouth open, gazing at the myriad fae and spirits and beasts going about their business. 

    “How distasteful,” said Sabeinne, shattering Libelle’s trance. “It isn’t even that there is dirt on the floor, the floor simply is dirt.

     Libelle just shot her mother a smile, and with an uncharacteristic jolt of confidence, she grabbed Sabeinne’s hand and dragged her off to find their contact, against Sabeinne’s surprised protests. 

     It took them some time to find the scholar. They had to ask around, and Sabeinne refused to speak directly to any of the fae, so they were left to make due with Libelle’s fumbling questions. Eventually they were led to a small faerie with bright, lustrous butterfly’s wing. She had a much more serious demeanor than most of her fellows, and was in the midst of examining a faintly-glowing plant and taking notes. 

     Libelle approached the faerie, though her gut clenched suddenly with nerves. “Excuse me, are you um...are you Whistledown?” 

     The faerie looked up, blinking rapidly through a pair of thick spectacles, and glanced inquisitively back and forth between Libelle and Sabeinne. “Yes, that is me,” she replied. “Who is asking?” 

     “I, um,” Libelle began, looking to Sabeinne for support. Sabeinne just impatiently waved her onward. “I was told you might be able to help me with something. I found an object, and it’s full of anima, but...we don’t know what it is.” 

     “Ah, a mystery,” Whistledown said, her eyes lighting up. She stowed the notebook somewhere on her person, which was puzzling since she appeared to be entirely naked. “I always have time for a mystery. Do you have it with you?”

     “I do.” Once again, Libelle reluctantly produced the pouch holding the orb. She tipped the orb into her palm and held it hesitantly in front of her, not entirely ready to hand it to a stranger again. Whistledown reached right over and plucked it out of Libelle’s hand, causing Libelle to jump in surprise. 

     “Hmm,” said Whistledown, turning it deftly with her tiny fingers and peering at it closely through her spectacles. “Why, this isn’t a mystery at all. It’s an egg. Similar to a wildseed, but not quite the same.” She looked over her glasses at Libelle. “Shall we make it hatch?” 

     Libelle glanced at Sabeinne, who was eyeing the orb with casual interest. Sabeinne gave Libelle a shrug that seemed to say, What? This is your affair. Libelle swallowed and looked back at Whistledown, then nodded dumbly. 

      “Hold out your hand,” the faerie instructed. She placed the orb in Libelle’s palm. Then she rummaged in her invisible pockets once more and produced a small bottle with a dropper lid. “Concentrated anima--don’t tell anyone!” said Whistledown, winking. Then slowly, carefully, she unscrewed the top and administered a single drop of anima to the surface of the orb. 

     At first, nothing happened. But then, the orb started to move. It wobbled, only slightly at first, but then its movements grew in strength until something burst through the side of the orb and then began to crawl out slowly. The thing appeared to be nothing but a crumpled mass of hair and legs. At first it looked horrifying, like the disassembled pieces of a corpse, but then it moved again, and continued crawling out of the ruined orb and onto Libelle’s hand. It was a large white moth, damp and rumpled-looking, with shriveled wings and an abdomen that was fat with blood. 

     “Fluttersnuff!” Libelle exclaimed. 

     Sabeinne watched with open disgust as the moth slowly crawled up Libelle’s arm and settled on her shoulder, then began drying its wings, pumping blood from its abdomen into them to expand them to their final shape.

     “What the hell?” Sabeinne observed. 

     Grateful tears pricked Libelle’s eyes and started running down her cheeks. “It’s Fluttersnuff. From before. I...I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know that I need him.” She lifted a finger to gently touch the tip of a feathery antenna, and the tears flowed freer.  

     Whistledown chuckled. “Well, it may not be a mystery, but something interesting, at least. It looks like you’ve acquired a bonded spirit.”

     Libelle blinked the tears out of her eyes and looked at Whistledown, confused. “Wh-what? This is my pet moth. What do you mean, a spirit?”

     “Simply that!” Whistledown exclaimed, bursting with an excitement that more closely resembled that of the other faeries. “I can’t tell you more without studying it, which would be really very fascinating. Would you be willing to let me observe it?” She produced her journal again and looked at Libelle eagerly. 

     Libelle nodded wordlessly, once more bursting into happy tears as Fluttersnuff began examining her face with his feelers. Her life had felt unstable for years, even more so in the past months, but for just a moment, with Fluttersnuff’s soft wings brushing her cheek, she remembered the feeling of coming home.

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