Esper had never slept before, but she did now… and when she woke up, she found herself with a cloak bundled up under her head, another wrapped around her like a blanket. She rose slowly to find two human women sleeping near her… clear familial resemblance. Sisters, perhaps, or mother and daughter… she found judging mortal ages to be difficult, but one was older than the other by some degree. They were naked, and in bad shape, and they had a single cloak drawn over then by means of providing shelter.
These two women… they must have been with the Knights who had betrayed her. Clearly, they had suffered under them as badly as she had, at least. And yet, they had given her most of the available clothing and shelter, sharing what little remaining. The giving of so meager a gift, when they had so little to give, broke Esper’s heart… and she took care to wrap both of the cloaks that had been used on her around around the pair of women before turning her attention elsewhere.
Her eyes found a sword. A dawnsteel sword. She picked it up, and immediately dropped it… her right hand too weak to even support its weight… much less fight with it. Cursing softly, she picked it up in both hands, expecting it to come to life in her grasp… it didn’t, of course. She was no longer an Archon… at least not the same kind of Archon. She wasn’t sure what she was, anymore. Zaasteroth had called her the Archon of Despair, but she couldn’t feel Stasis anymore… not since she had refused him the night before. She recognized the blade, however… she had given it to Laika herself, what felt like billions of years ago. With this blade, she had founded an order… a righteous light in the darkness to provide Hope.
Esper no longer felt Hope. She couldn’t bring that to the world, but she would not bring Despair instead. She would find something else to provide.
Taking the sword, she walked to the river that had once separated this plain with the Darkstone from the others. The Darkstone felt like little more than a formation of rock now. She stepped into the river, bathing herself, washing the dirt and cum from her skin. It didn’t make her feel clean – nothing was ever going to make her feel clean again – but it was a start.
She stared at her own reflection, and she barely recognized herself. She looked almost the same as she had that morning when she had taken to the skies with Laika to fight back the demons… but at the same time, she looked nothing the same. Completely alien.
She had no idea who Esper was. As she stood there for more than an hour, feeling herself, noticing examining every oddity about her body, she realized that Esperiel was gone. Zaasteroth had destroyed her and left something new in his wake. She was like an entirely new person, but one without purpose, one without skills or a destiny.
It was time to figure out who Esper was.
Esper picked up the sword again… in her left hand. It was a simple sword drill, a trio of slashes and thrusts, but she dropped the sword during a simple wrist movement. Cursing again, she picked it back up, and did the drill again. And again. And again.
She was still doing it, two hours later, when Elise found her. The human woman watched in silence for a time as Esperiel rather incompetently worked through a few dozen weapon stances and routines, using her offhand. It was humiliating to have so much trouble with something she had mastered before the sun in the sky above this world had been born… but what was that humiliation compared to what she had already suffered? It was nothing… and so she continued.
At last, she stopped… and took in her wings. They had regrown most of the way during the night… the magnificent white wings of a greater Archon regrowing from her back, stretching out for yards in either direction. By the end of the day, they would have returned to their former glory.
Esper cut them off again.
It hurt, but it hurt considerably less than when Agatharon had done it. It hurt less than nearly everything the demons had done to her for a million human lifetimes. Immediately, she could feel the itching again as they began to grow back, so she took the cloak and cut it into strips, using two of them to bind what was left of her wings bent together, locked in place against her back with no room to grow.
“Why do we have wings if not to fly?” Elise said quietly by way of questioning.
“Why do we have feet if not to walk the ground?” Esper countered, putting the sword down and finally looking at the other woman. Considering her. Evaluating her. At last, she nodded. “You are… a descendant of hers, yes? Of Laika?” When she nodded, Esper continued. “When I met her, she was a prostitute… did you know that?” Once again, she waited for the nod. “It didn’t matter where she came from. She had will. Strength. She was the first… with her, I built an order that pushed Zaasteroth and his horde back into their prison and kept them there. It took the combined power of all of Mundas… but it started with Laika. Now it will start with you, but…” she paused. “I need you to take my hand.”
Elise looked at her, confused. “Why?”
Esper saw no reason to mince words. “I need to know if I can trust you,” she said. “I need to know.”
Elise took her hand, and Esper almost fell over with the agony as her true feelings washed over her. Not a whisper of pleasure. She forced herself to keep standing, keep holding onto Elise’s hand for a long minute before she let go. “Together, we’re going to push them back,” she swore. “The four of us.”
“Four?” Elise asked.
“Four,” Esper agreed. “One,” she said, pointing at the woman herself. “Two,” she continued, pointing at her sleeping sibling. “Three,” she continued, pointing at herself.
And then she put two hands on her belly… on top of the life that she somehow, impossibly, felt growing within her. A life that shouldn’t be able to exist… but did. “Four…” she whispered.