This Time, With Feeling - Chapter 37 - Arcanette (2024)

Chapter Text

“So, Trousseau. Would you care to tell us about your family?”

Ori’s question drew all attention over to the apothecary of the hour. After the absolute disaster that Montwise had been, a family reunion was exactly what all of the travelers needed, at least in their opinion. Trousseau had always been so vague about his past that it was a surprise he had people aside from Shanna to return to in the first place. He clearly hadn’t murdered Eir’s Apothecaries if he was so ecstatic about seeing them again - it was about time that he finally spilled the details about who they truly were.

“Hm? Oh. Sure, I guess?” Trousseau nodded, paused to think over his words, then spoke: “Chief Castti is the leader of Eir’s Apothecaries. I thought about calling her my mom, but she was always really weird about that when I finally started doing it, so I decided to just stop it entirely.”

“Mom, huh?” Harvey, who had stayed rather silent up to this point, let out a forlorn sigh.

“Mhm,” confirmed Trousseau, “Like I said, I don’t call her that anymore, I just call her Chief Castti like the others. The others are Andy, Randy, Elma, and Malaya. All of them are older than me,” he explained, idly stretching himself out, “So, I was more like the baby of the group than anything.”

“Isn’t that quite a thought?” Claude commented with a little chuckle, “Since you considered your chief to be like a mother figure, did you think the same of those four?”

“Not at all, Uncle Claude.”

Claude curiously scratched his chin. The others considered their interest to be equally as piqued. A day that Trousseau was willing to talk about his past without being outright forced to by someone else (Shanna) was rare enough. Hearing a first-hand account of the people that he associated with prior to settling down in Canalbrine was nothing short of intriguing. Especially when Trousseau was typically so overly silent and eerily mysterious, it was sometimes like he didn’t even want to be considered a person and was content with being shied away from.

Seemingly content with his responses to the several questions he got all at once, Trousseau went back to being his usual quiet self. Occasionally, he would look out towards the nearby sea with a forlorn smile, or he’d adjust his filled satchel and comb through his hair with a brush that he probably stole from some poor unfortunate soul. Truly, it was nothing short of adorable, how excited he was over all of this. No one was used to seeing such enthusiasm from Trousseau, but the jarringness of it wasn’t something that they minded in the slightest.

“You must have missed Eir’s Apothecaries a lot,” chuckled Oboro, “Never have I seen you so excited about something before. Or excited at all, for that matter.”

“Yeah. I did miss Chief Castti and the others,” Trousseau nodded, casually shrugging his shoulders, “Seeing them all again will be nice. Maybe I can introduce you to each other.”

“If you do that, you should probably skip Claude,” Tanzy playfully pointed out, “A shirtless old man in their midst probably won’t bode well with the villagers, and it’ll be even worse when they find out about his career.”

Claude turned to give Tanzy a look, “Hey, now. I thought apothecaries weren’t supposed to judge their patients. Surely, that rule would apply to regular people such as myself too, hm?”

“You aren’t very regular,” replied Tanzy in a rather blunt manner, but her words were predictably brushed aside.

Rita had already been buried by Harvey hours ago. The travelers made the wise decision to get some rest prior to making their way towards Healeaks. Both because they needed time to recover from the fight against Rita, and more importantly, Harvey needed time off from adventuring for a while. His confrontation with Vanstein had ended even worse than he initially anticipated (which was saying a lot when he expected himself to perish to begin with).

But all of that was in the past, and it was about time to focus on the present. Trousseau was clearly excited to see his family again - Harvey didn’t want to bring down the mood by bringing his own personal issues into it. Long ago, his parents had already died, been buried by someone he probably never met before. In his opinion, Trousseau was lucky to have been adopted by two wonderful groups of people at all. Honestly, Harvey almost wanted to hold animosity against him because of it, only refraining from doing so because he knew it was petty and wrong and stupid.

“Trousseau?” he prodded instead, “Do you think that they’ll like us?”

“What reason would they have to not like you?” came the reply, blunt as ever.

Harvey opened his mouth to respond, then closed it before he could say something he’d certainly regret.

“Well…I guess it’s just my nerves talking. They always are,” Harvey half-lied, chuckling a little, “Never do they act up this much, though.”

Trousseau scratched under his chin, wondering just why Harvey would feel such a wave of anxiety now of all moments. Sure, it was the day after their confrontation with Vanstein ended poorly. And sure, Harvey was by far the most nervous member of the group no matter what the situation was. Yet, it was still suspicious, for him to be so hesitant leading up to a moment that was supposed to be happy.

Obviously, if Trousseau could sense that something was wrong, the rest of the group didn’t take long to catch on as well. Harvey, realizing that he had just made the entire atmosphere awkward, stared down at the ground in shame. While he so desperately wished to say what was ailing at him so much, his allies couldn’t know the truth. For if he were to tell them what was truly bothering him, the chances of their entire friendship being jeopardized were higher than he cared to admit.

Regardless, the bait had already been set, and Harvey merely needed to stick with it. As much as he wanted to flinch away from Arcanette’s hand being placed on his shoulder, he reasoned that he’d only look worse if he yanked himself away from her. Thus, Harvey looked up at her and flashed the cheeriest smile that he could manage. It wasn’t good enough, if the wider frown that spread across her face was any indication, but Arcanette was kind enough to drop the topic anyway. Harvey was more grateful for that fact than he should have been.

“You don’t have any reason to worry. When we get there, I doubt we’ll want to leave,” Trousseau assured him; from his mouth, any words seemed like hollow ones, but Harvey smiled at him anyway.

Fortunately for Harvey (or unfortunately, depending on how one wished to look at it), he and the rest of the group reached Healeaks within the hour. The first thing that they all noticed about the village was not the kindness of its residents; rather, the lack thereof. No one was there to greet them at the entrance like they’d come to expect from smaller settlements like these. Perhaps it was entitled, to expect lavish greetings from someplace that Trousseau had described to be so simple. But he was the one who had hyped up Healeaks to this extent, so it was only natural that they’d expect more than they would actually end up getting.

“It’s quiet around here, isn’t it?” Ori rather rudely remarked as they stepped into the village proper, “I mean, I didn’t expect it to be noisy or anything, but…”

“Ori!” Tanzy scolded, swatting the scrivener’s arm in a scolding manner, “Don’t be so rude. This is Trousseau’s home - the least that we could do is respect the environment he loves.”

In response, Ori merely huffed, “I’m not trying to be rude. All I was saying was that I thought there’d be more people around.”

“Yes, and that still can be interpreted as-”

“Enough!” snapped the voice of Petrichor, “Akalā is trying to tell me something.”

Attention turned over to the lājackal in question, who was lifted up on his hind legs and visibly sniffing the air around him. His eyes were closed, like he was deep in thought about something. Petrichor watched his movements intently, pondering on what her pet was smelling. Judging by the way that his nose wrinkled after a few seconds, whatever Akalā was taking in didn’t have a very alluring fragrance. The whine that he let out after finishing his business only confirmed that.

With his suspicions apparently confirmed, Akalā barked at his master, communicating with her in a way that no one else aside from Ochette - who obviously wasn’t present right now - could. Petrichor nodded along to his words, occasionally raising an eyebrow underneath her mask or gasping in overblown shock. The other travelers stared awkwardly, waiting for this conversation to end so that they could see the rest of Healeaks. At some point, Trousseau got bored enough to attempt to just walk off anyway, but a growl from Akalā told him that staying still was probably the best course of action until the dog was done.

And after a few more minutes, Akalā did indeed finish, stopping his barking altogether and sitting on his haunches as any regular dog would. Everybody diverted their gaze to Petrichor, waiting for her to translate what her pet wanted so badly to communicate to them. Whatever Akalā wanted to say must have been rather important, because Petrichor didn’t immediately reply with her usual Dark Hunter schtick. Instead, she actually stood there and thought over her words, something that was a lot more disturbing than it logically should have been (especially to the already anxious Harvey).

Finally, following a period of awkward silence that lasted entirely too long for anyone’s liking, Petrichor spoke: “Akalā told me that the air here smells tainted. Impure. We should tread lightly, lest the darkness swallow us like a ravenous beast.”

“Oh? What could he possibly be talking about?” asked Oboro, crossing his arms in suspicion.

Petrichor unhelpfully shrugged her shoulders, “Don’t know, but I do know that Akalā thinks this place is anything other than innocent. I have no reason to doubt his claims. The lājackal’s perception of danger is far greater than that of any human,” she explained, stroking along Akalā’s fur as she spoke.

“I don’t believe that I follow,” Arcanette chimed in with a look of pure confusion on her face, “Trousseau said that this was the village he lived in for years. He’d know if there was anything dangerous here, right?”

For the third time in the past few minutes, attention shifted from one person to another. This time, eyes were taken off of Petrichor and moved to Trousseau. The apothecary in question nodded his head in response to Arcanette’s question. Sadly, rather than assuring Akalā that he was being paranoid for nothing, it only seemed to make the lājackal all the more agitated. An annoyed, peeved bark raised from Akalā’s throat, the aggression in it so high that it even startled his beloved master.

The times when Akalā was so annoyed over something that he felt the need to alert the entire group were rare. In fact, those incidents had happened so few times that everyone was already used to him wordlessly (barklessly?) loitering by Petrichor’s side until he needed to assist her in finding the Creatures of Legend. Hearing such annoyance in his voice was thus a nasty surprise to each person present. Which happened to include Petrichor herself, the one that was most used to Akalā’s mannerisms.

“...Akalā really doesn’t think that we should do this,” said the hunter, though that was obvious even if no one else here understood his tongue, “If he feels uncomfortable here, then I’m afraid that the Dark Hunter does as well.”

Trousseau’s head slumped down in disappointment, visibly dejected that now two people (or one woman and her dog) disliked the village for very vague reasons. Oboro and Ori leaned over to give him a pat on each shoulder, but the damage had already been done. Now that Healeaks was deemed as suspicious by Petrichor and Akalā, it was having a visible impact on Trousseau himself, whether they meant to offend him or not. Seeing this was the final straw to finally get Claude to chime into the discussion.

“With all due respect,” he started, tone devoid of its usual co*cky playfulness, “I believe that Trousseau’s opinion matters the most out of everyone here, does it not? Neither of you know Healeaks like he does,” Claude pointed out, ruffling Trousseau’s hair to try and cheer him up before turning back to Petrichor and Akalā, “How would you feel if someone judged Toto’haha based on smell alone?”

Petrichor opened her mouth to counter this hypothetical scenario, only to realize that he had a good point. And, more importantly, that it was exactly what she despised Cohazeh for doing. It was the knowledge that she was almost on Cohazeh levels of unfair judging that made Petrichor sigh and throw her hands up in submission. While Akalā still didn’t look very convinced that this place had good safety regulations if it smelled this bad, a look from his master made him whine and sit down obediently, much to the relief of everyone else here.

“Exactly,” hummed Claude, “Now, we’ve delayed this long enough. Into Healeaks we go, hm?”

“Yes. In we go,” Trousseau nodded, walking into the village that he had been torn from for years.

If there was anything to give Petrichor and Akalā credit for, it was that they were actually right about this place smelling funky. Even Trousseau, who had been trained properly as an apothecary here, couldn’t stop his nose from wrinkling when he took a few subconscious sniffs of the air. He didn’t think that it smelled bad, per say. Moreso like someone left out their frozen food to rot for entirely too long. Trousseau refused to let a few bad stenches get him down either way, so he shrugged it off and trudged along the same way that he always would.

On the complete other side of the spectrum, Petrichor and Akalā’s steps could only be described as slow. The two moved at a snail’s pace that even a rock tortoise would scoff at. Arcanette frowned at the sight of her most energetic ally moving like she had molasses stuck in her boots. Maybe it would’ve been funny if Petrichor hadn’t already voiced her concerns in regards to the atmosphere of Healeaks. Instead of finding it amusing, Arcanette just found it jarring in the worst way possible; and a little disturbing if she thought about it too hard, too.

Regardless of Petrichor and Akalā’s apparent distaste for Healeaks - petty reasons for disliking it aside - the group still continued forward with enthusiasm. Akalā had said nothing explicitly bad about the village, after all. The only thing that he expressed was that the smell of it hurt his nose. Considering that an entire apothecary mini-group operated here, that wasn’t much cause for concern. All of those brews and vials probably would’ve stunk up the atmosphere anyway, not to mention that no one aside from Akalā himself could pick up on it. For all intents and purposes, there should have been nothing to worry about.

“A-ah…”

Should have. But tragically, hypotheticals matter not to the whims of fate.

Trousseau’s incoherent mumbling attracted the group’s attention in an instant. It wasn’t like him to babble under his breath, much less in a manner that none of them could easily understand. Claude and Oboro, the two that were by far the most close to him relationship-wise, ran over to see if he was feeling alright. After a bit of mental deliberation, Ori did the same, though she almost wanted to turn back when the two men in front of her froze in place.

“Hey! Are you guys alright?” she questioned worriedly, pushing her way past the frozen-in-place Claude and Oboro, “What are you all looking-”

She got her answer soon, albeit not in a manner that she would have liked.

Ori stared down at the ground to see a sight that could only be described as horrific. Right there, slumped down on the ground, was the corpse of a woman with hair as orange as the fruit they had all enjoyed consuming plenty of in the past. Her face had an expression of pure horror on it - her last living moments had been full of agony and suffering. Most strange and creepy of all was the fact that her body had been frozen solid, surrounded in an ice cube that prevented her from decomposing and providing nutrients to the ground below and animals nearby.

Then again, there were absolutely no animals to be seen on the road to Healeaks, and the one right next to the dead woman wasn’t exactly in a state to be consuming her anyway. Not that horses were ever known to eat humans to begin with. Either way, there was a very deceased equine by the body of the unlucky lady who had met her end. Likely one that she had been attempting to escape on before something (or, more horrifyingly, someone) got to her first. There was no word in the Solistian dictionary that could possibly give justice to such a gruesome scene for how awful it was.

Seeing that half of the group was frozen in place, the four that weren’t quickly sprinted over to see what was wrong. Predictably, they immediately ended up regretting it, the entire traveling ensemble now staring down at the ice cubes that were once a woman and her horse. No one dared to say anything, not when there was nothing to really say in the first place. How were any of them supposed to comprehend this horrible sight, much less when it was in the village that Trousseau so loved?

Trousseau. He would surely be the one to know what was going on here, right? Perhaps they needed to take back the earlier thought about him not having murdered Eir’s Apothecaries. Who else would have been able to do such a thing without any remorse except someone who had never shown much emotion and compassion for anything in his past? Immediately, eyes turned to Trousseau to demand answers to this strange sight; sadly, answers were indeed what he gave in the end.

“Elma…” he whispered, barely audible enough for the others to hear.

“What?” Tanzy, doing her best to keep a level head as she spoke, tilted her head, “This is Elma, Trousseau?”

“It i-is,” confirmed the apothecary as he desperately attempted to stave off the tears gathering in his eyes, “And the h-horse is Jeyah…n-not that it m-matters now. They’re d-dead.”

Despite not having a clue as to what was truly happening here, Ori at least had the decency to take off her scrivener’s cap and bow to pay respect to the lives lost. Everyone else did the same, not noticing Petrichor and Akalā sprinting ahead of them to scout out the rest of the area. Trousseau’s face was more distraught than they had ever seen it before. When Lady Rosa died, the poor boy just looked understandably miserable; now, it seemed like his entire world was crumbling all at once, right in front of his eyes no less.

Not a single soul dared to speak. There was nothing to be said, really, when they just discovered the corpses of Trousseau’s fellow apothecary and her precious horse. In a way, it’d almost feel insulting to say anything at all when Trousseau was staring down a dead member of his second (third?) family. He couldn’t find it in him to speak any further, so the travelers were wise enough to keep their mouths shut as well.

“Hey, g-guys? Akalā a-and I found m-more…”

The group had never been so terrified about running forward, but they did so anyway, and what awaited them wasn’t at all worth the energy that they spent running up to Petrichor and Akalā. Sprawled out on the ground were numerous bodies, all of them frozen like Elma and Jeyah’s corpses had been. Now that they were actually paying attention, the group could also notice that there were suspicious purple blotches and marks all over each cadaver, untainted by the ice yet no less horrifying of a sight.

Theoretically, Harvey could have used his fire magic to defrost the bodies, with a little help from Ori as well. However, there was also no point in doing so when the people within were already dead. Since no one knew what the cause of death was, the possibility of these preserved bodies carrying a potential virus or disease along with them was very much a concern. Thus, despite how tempting of a thought it was, these poor souls couldn’t receive a proper burial until what caused this massacre was properly identified.

“Stefan? Natasia? Kenneth?” Trousseau desperately called out the names of who the travelers could only assume were a select few of the villagers resting dead on the ground. Obviously, the little apothecary received no response to his yelling. He swallowed, “Anyone? P-please…”

Trousseau called out into the abyss of Healeaks, but nobody answered; or came, for that matter.

The fact that he hadn’t screamed once was a true testament to how excellent he was at keeping his composure. Anyone else in his position, even the typically calm Claude, would have probably already passed out on the spot by now. Still, it wasn’t exactly pleasant for the rest of the group to listen to Trousseau’s distraught attempts to call out the names of his dead friends and family. Elma and Jeyah were only the tip of the iceberg, it seemed, the rest of Healeaks not even being spared from the wrath of this mysterious murderer or unknown illness.

“...I don’t understand,” Harvey dared to speak up over the miserable atmosphere.

“None of us do,” remarked Oboro, rather unhelpfully at that, “Might I ask what you are referring to specifically?”

“Everything. All of this…” Using his hands, Harvey gestured around the massacred village before continuing to speak, “....makes no sense. I know of no disease or virus or illness that freezes its victims into perfectly-shaped ice cubes. Do you?”

As much as someone wanted to speak up and say that they did indeed know what could have caused this, the simple truth of the matter was that they simply didn’t. Trousseau, the resident medical expert out of the group, was a bit too busy mourning the deceased villagers to give much input in the matter. The others, even for all of their relatively obliviousness when it came to matters of in-depth healing, knew that Harvey was correct. It was quite literally impossible for any sickness to have such drastic effects, especially on a trained apothecary.

“...Harvey is right,” said Arcanette, “This makes absolutely no sense. For all intents and purposes, a disaster to this degree should be impossible.”

“Well, it seems like it isn’t,” Tanzy stated as calmly as she could, her voice suggesting that she was desperately trying to stave off her own growing horror, “There isn’t anything we can do about this now. Right now, the best thing that we can do is keep ourselves safe by keeping our distance from-”

“Andy…R-Randy…w-why?”

“Never mind,” Tanzy muttered, quickly sprinting off to follow where Trousseau’s voice was coming from.

They really didn’t want to by this point, but the other travelers followed suit anyway. None of them were particularly surprised to see yet another pair of corpses at Trousseau’s feet. Both cadavers had been positioned in a way that suggested they were intentionally moved to bring whoever discovered them a sense of dread and horror. Whoever was behind this certainly succeeded at accomplishing that, unfortunately, because the sight of two brothers (presumably? Their appearances were too similar for them to not be related.) with blue hair dead in an ice cube like the rest was not a pleasant one in the slightest.

Something about these two corpses specifically were more disturbing than the rest. Perhaps it was the way that they were moved here from somewhere else, or it was the knowledge that two strong men could be defeated and frozen so seemingly easily. Every single thing here was horrifying, but this was the moment where the travelers well and truly realized that something was seriously wrong here on a logical level more than a moral one. More wrong than their minds could ever comprehend for the time being, at that.

“Akalā was right,” mumbled Petrichor, stroking the lājackal in question’s fluffy orange fur, “We never should have entered this cursed place.”

“How were we supposed to know about this massacre?” Claude bluntly countered.

“Hey, don’t take it the wrong way. I’m not blaming any of you,” Petrichor replied, throwing her hands up to try and placate the visibly annoyed Claude, “I was only saying that staying away and seeing none of this would’ve been nice.”

Akalā barked in agreement, only for his noises to soon die down into dejected whimpers and whines. The smell here was absolutely unbearable, but it was the knowledge that this was what became of Trousseau’s family that was even worse. For all of these months, he had been so excited to see them again. His face lit up when he was finally told that the time to visit Healeaks was nigh. Why was this how fate decided to repay his patience?

And what had become of Malaya and Castti, the only corpses that they hadn’t yet discovered?

The fact that no one could answer that question was nothing short of horrifying. Not even Claude or Oboro trusted themselves to try and comfort the visibly distraught Trousseau. What solace could they possibly offer for someone whose entire village passed away in such a horrific manner? Trousseau’s hands began to shake as he blankly stared at the horrible corpses of Andy and Randy. Oddly enough, though, it seemed to spark something in him, because he stood upright after a tense bit and cleared his throat to speak proper words at last.

“I-I’m going up M-Mount Liphia. Alone,” stated Trousseau, his voice even more cold and unfeeling than it usually was.

“Eh?! Like hell you are! Absolutely not!” Petrichor hollered, though she did quiet her voice down when Akalā whimpered from the high decibel at which she shouted, “I’ve more horrors in the span of a few minutes than I ever have in my entire lifetime. We’re leaving on the double, and I say that should be final!”

“Don’t even try to pretend like you have any idea what this is like for me.”

The other travelers couldn’t hold back their gasps of shock and surprise from how harsh Trousseau’s tone was. They were so used to his voice sounding like he was permanently bored by everything around him that hearing him genuinely furious at someone was jarring, to say the least. Petrichor covered her mouth with a scandalized hand, backing up for good measure. Beside her feet, Akalā whined in dismay. Neither of them had been expecting such an extreme reaction from Trousseau, and they certainly didn’t think he’d say it in such a rude way.

Sensing that he just made the atmosphere awkward, Trousseau’s next words were said in a much nicer tone, perhaps a bit too nice for his standards.

“Please. Just let me do this,” he begged desperately, “I have to do this for Chief Castti. Maybe she can still be saved.”

Petrichor looked at Claude, who looked at Oboro, who looked at Harvey, who looked at Arcanette. The cycle of staring at any person except for Trousseau inevitably ended up repeating in a circle. With the exception of Trousseau himself, who stared down at the ground while waiting for the input of his fellow travelers. His fists would occasionally shake, showing that he understandably was still distraught over discovering the corpses of the entire village once known as Healeaks.

Obviously, the logical decision was for everyone to get up and leave while they had the chance. There was no telling if the killer (or killers plural, one person surely couldn’t have done all of this on their own) was still out there. In fact, they could be lurking in wait right now, anticipating the moment when one of them strayed too far away from the group. However, departing so soon without giving him proper time to grieve had a very high chance of making Trousseau’s mental state worse than it already was.

Moreover, the mystery of what waited atop Mount Liphia was too intriguing for anyone, especially Arcanette, to resist the urge to solve for very long. As disturbing as it sounded. Only one thing was certain thus far; whoever this mystery killer was, they had already been established to have brains and brawn in equal parts if moving everyone to set positions around Healeaks and the mountains nearby was a simple task. Still, it was entirely possible that this was the only chance for Trousseau to have some semblance of peace in this awful scenario.

If Castti’s corpse was atop the mountain, then the gamble would’ve failed to pay off, plain and simple. But what if she was still alive, waiting to be rescued? The one survivor of the massacre that had wiped out the village she and Trousseau loved so dearly. That thought was the one that ultimately convinced everyone to make their decision at last. Even if it may have hurt them more than they wanted to admit.

“...alright. You may climb the mountain alone,” said Claude, the thief speaking for the entire group, “Make sure to come back to us if anything happens, dear Trousseau.”

Trousseau visibly looked shocked that Claude actually agreed to his terms, but he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth (certainly not when Jeyah was dead, either). He nodded, gave his uncle a warm smile, and simply said: “Thank you. I will be fine.

Despite claiming that he’d be fine, Trousseau was, in fact, not fine.

The knowledge that his entire family was dead had fully set in by now. He hadn’t quite reached the acceptance stage of it yet, but every other sensation of grief had coursed through him in such a short span of time that it would’ve been worrying if he actually cared about his emotions. Right now, Trousseau was squarely in the anger stage, wanting to find who did this so that he could shove his axe down their throat. Even that was too merciful for them - he would certainly have to come up with the most foul concoction his mind and hands could conjure up soon.

Still, heartache aside, there was a sense of hope brewing within Trousseau’s chest, like the warm Sacred Flame that Arcanette worshiped. A sense of hope telling him that he didn’t yet know where Castti and Malaya were. If the two of them had somehow lived, then they’d surely be able to tell him who caused all of this tragedy and misery. With their help, along with the assistance of his traveling companions, they’d be sure to win against whoever was evil enough to cause a massacre to this degree.

Unfortunately, his hopes for one of them being alive was very quickly snuffed out.

“N-no…” Trousseau wanted to wail. Right there in front of him, near the peak of Mount Liphia, was the frozen corpse of Malaya. Another one of his family was dead, and it was all his fault for not being there, wasn’t it? “You t-too?”

Malaya, of course, couldn’t exactly respond. Like the rest of Eir’s Apothecaries and the other villagers in Healeaks, her facial expression suggested that she had died in agony and only felt terror in her last moments. Trousseau wished so badly to fall to the ground and weep to the heavens, but he steeled his nerves and forced himself to stay upright. As much as he wanted to grieve the fallen people of Healeaks, there was still one more question that needed answering, aside from the matter of who did this in the first place.

Where was Chief Castti? Had she perished as well?

Determined to answer that question once and for all, Trousseau moved past Malaya’s corpse. No matter how much he really, really didn’t want to. His footsteps were obnoxiously loud in the dirt, something that he would have found strange if he didn’t have dozens of other issues to be concerned over right now. Trousseau forced his feet to propel himself forward, ignoring the rational part of his mind as he was so often prone to doing. Logic had long since been flushed down the toilet - he could only let his gut force him to continue now.

Trousseau subconsciously turned his gaze up towards the shining sky above. It was a sunny, bright-blue day, a perfect time for a reunion. But he felt no joy as the rays bathed down upon his skin. Somehow, the ice that Malaya and the others were encased in hadn’t yet melted from the warmth, not that it would really matter if they did. Freeing them from their prison wouldn’t bring them back to life. Thus, with a heavy heart, Trousseau reasoned that he’d simply have to-

“...hello? Is anyone there?”

Like the corpses he discovered on this day, Trousseau froze; even in the deepest pits of his own misery, he recognized that voice.

“Ah! Chief Castti?” he called back, “Is that you?”

“Trousseau?!” shouted the voice of Castti atop Mount Liphia, “Oh, you’re alive! I’m so grateful…”

Tears finally began to fall down Trousseau’s eyes. Hearing that his chief was alive was nothing short of relieving. No, relieving was too small of an adjective to describe how happy he truly felt to know that Castti hadn’t died like the rest. Both of them were the only survivors out of whatever massacre happened here, but that was okay. With Castti here to comfort him and help him bring whoever did this to justice, everything was going to be okay, even in Trousseau’s aching mind.

“Chief Castti!” Trousseau laughed in relief and anxiety and happiness and so much mirth that it was almost jarring, “Where are you?”

“Up here!” replied his chief, her voice just as motherly and silky-smooth as ever.

Indeed, when Trousseau finally made it all the way up the mountain of misery, he at last saw a familiar face that wasn’t frozen and dead. Blonde hair arranged into a neat little bun. A dress-like outfit adorned in blue and white - the signature twin colors of Eir’s Apothecaries. Lastly, and more importantly, there was a hat on the woman’s head that looked like it would be much more fit for a sailor than a medic. Trousseau could point out all of these attributes and more in a heartbeat.

It was her, his chief, the only other person besides Shanna that he considered to be like a mother to him.

As soon as her teary eyes laid upon Trousseau, Castti held her arms out, her ocean-blue eyes now a lot more red (likely from crying, not that she could be blamed for that). Trousseau, ecstatic to see that someone here was actually alive, wasted absolutely no time in running up to his chief and leaping into her embrace. Her arms were just as warm and comforting as he remembered them being. There was no time like the present to finally reunite with his beloved chief when the atmosphere was so bleak otherwise, in Trousseau’s opinion.

Trousseau couldn’t help but squeeze his second mother figure tight. His body did its best to fight back a smile, saying that this wasn’t at all the time to crack a grin. Of course, Trousseau promptly ignored those concerns, figuring that they weren’t worth worrying about in the slightest. Comfort was absolutely something that he needed, and if Castti happened to be the one to provide that, then so be it. Who would he be, to refuse her affection at a time where both of them needed it most?

Sure, the rest of Eir’s apothecaries - and the entire village of Healeaks - had been reduced to nothing more than frozen corpses on the ground by a mysterious murderer. And sure, Trousseau would take a while to recover from this incident, if ever. With Castti and all of his traveling companions here by his side, though, he knew that it was possible. Yes, the little apothecary thought to himself, feeling hope for the near future, Everything is finally going to be-

“A-ah…!”

Pain. Searing hot, like an oven.

The gods weren’t done tormenting Trousseau yet, it seemed.

Because it was right as he let his guard down that he felt a scorching, burning pain like no other course throughout his entire body. The agony seeped into Trousseau’s very veins, burned his poor beating heart, and made him feel like he wanted to take a deep sleep, preferably a permanent one. A sleep that he’d never wake from in the living land. Realizing that something was wrong, Trousseau snapped his eyes open; sadly, it did him no good, for his vision was already escaping him!

A gloat filled Trousseau’s ears, devious and despicable: “You always were a gullible fool, Trousseau.”

It was Chief Castti’s voice. She was hurting him.

More importantly, she was actively enjoying it. Trousseau, in a rather uncharacteristic but no less understandable action, screamed.

He screamed to the heavens, he screamed for his dear friends, he screamed for the undeserving deaths of those within Healeaks. There were dozens of reasons for Trousseau to scream right now, and so he put all of his emotions and sorrow into his voice, in hopes that his allies would hear him and come to arrive like a pack of shining sanctum knights to save him. Alas, Trousseau’s idealistic scenario simply wasn’t meant to be. Castti, clearly having planned all of this out, silenced her poor unfortunate (very much former) subordinate by pressing her hand against his mouth, muffling his shouting into her palm.

“Now now, Trousseau. Good boys don’t scream,” she crooned, stroking his snow-white hair with her free hand. The hair that he had tidied up specifically to look good for his adoptive family. Castti continued: “Didn’t your parents teach you that? Well, before leaving you to die in isolation, that is - just as I will be doing.”

Already feeling drugged out of his mind, Trousseau could barely manage a pained moan when Castti practically threw him off of her. Normally, he was rather strong; in an ideal scenario, he even could have fought her off with ease. The element of surprise combined with the power of whatever substance she injected within him, however, proved to be tragically effective at staving off Trousseau’s almost superhuman strength. Defeated, he collapsed to the grass with an audible thudding noise, barely having enough strength to let out a groan of betrayed agony.

For her part, Castti didn’t seem to care about her horrible actions. In an unbelievably casual manner, she hummed to herself and tucked the syringe that she used to drug Trousseau into her satchel. The absolute worst part of it all was that a satisfied smile spread across her face as she did so. During better times, Trousseau had seen Castti smile plenty of times. He knew exactly the way that her lips curled upwards after she had told a particularly funny joke or gotten thanked by a patient.

It told him one thing: Castti wasn’t under the influence of mind control or poison. His own adoptive mother was genuinely enjoying and taking pleasure in watching every bit of life fade away from his eyes and entire body. Trousseau desperately wanted to cry, but his tear ducts no longer worked, and they never would again. What little was left of his working mind told him that this had been her plan all along. Castti intentionally preserved the corpses of the villagers in order to lure him here, force him to let his guard down, then kill him in cold blood.

Why?

Trousseau repeated that singular word like a mantra. Really, it was all that he could do, now that he was quite literally on his last legs. No part of Trousseau’s ailing mind could possibly fathom the reason why Castti would do something this horrible to him and the rest of Healeaks. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like she was going to be giving him an answer prior to his demise. If anything, his confusion only made her downright evil smirk spread across her face more.

“Farewell, Trousseau. Enjoy your medicine. I’ll enjoy hearing all of Timberain scream like you and the rest of this miserable backwater village. Their precious coronation, sweet little wedding, both ruined by my rain. The weather that you so loved. Life works in amusing ways, does it not, snowdrop? Speaking of snowdrops, I should find a use for them; dead people don’t need such useful herbs in their possession, after all…”

The last sentences that Trousseau was able to hear were from his own former chief, someone that he once held so much respect for, yet she now returned his affection by slaughtering everyone that he cared about in his past (and then himself).

Were his throat still functioning, Trousseau would have screamed again. All five of his senses were being violated in the worst way possible. Soon enough, his body would cease any further attempts to keep him alive, deeming him as nothing more than a lost cause. Castti having the decency to give him a relatively quick death in comparison to the horror that the rest of Healeaks went through could hardly be considered a mercy. Trousseau was far too gone to think of it as one.

Death wasn’t something that he ever really thought about, but he always imagined that he’d spend his last moments surrounded by love and happiness and affection. Three things that, currently, Trousseau would have traded anything in the world to receive. Worst of all was that even his years of experience as an apothecary wouldn’t help him here. His old friends and family, the people that he cared most about in this world, were gone. Even if Trousseau’s current allies were to discover him now, he’d be too far gone to possibly save, especially without a second proper healer.

Trousseau was going to die with the others. It was all his fault.

Right when Castti’s footsteps dissolved into nothingness, Trousseau lost his sense of hearing. After that, he was no longer able to taste the foul bile building up in his mouth (which would have been a good thing if he wasn’t literally dying). Next, Trousseau’s eyes squeezed shut against his consent, leaving him unable to even look at the beautiful view atop Mount Liphia before his death. The sensation of the smooth grass brushing against his chin: gone and forgotten. Seconds later, Trousseau’s nose was no longer able to smell the blood gushing out of the area that Castti pushed her syringe into.

And eventually, at the end of the line, he stopped thinking entirely.

END OF STORY ARC FOUR.

This Time, With Feeling - Chapter 37 - Arcanette (2024)

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