Lowell came to his senses in a completely dark cave. He was on the ground, alone. He couldn't see anything.
"Mage?" he called out as he tentatively lifted himself up. "Are you there?"
"Mage?" he tried again, gulping his saliva.
He couldn't believe he was gonna use this name. "...Leolia?"
Still no answer.
Well, he could hear some water up ahead, but the echo of the walls made it hard to grasp where.
"Doan?" he thought as he remembered the lenses that could help him.
And his companions with night vision. "Anna, Drix, Orwenna?"
Nothing still. He waved his arms in front of him, looking for a wall. His foot tripped into something wooden.
Tentatively patting away at it, he managed to understand it as the remnants of his mandolin.
He felt like crying.
He hated being alone.
He hated feeling alone.
He hated that they all got what he'd asked for for as long as he could remember, except him.
"Oh, will you please dry those tears Lowell," a glacial voice said. "Boys don't cry."
"I'm a girl..." the three year old replied.
"That is not how it works. You are a boy and boys don't cry. Now behave."
"I don't know what to do with our little Lowell. He refuses to get in his clothes," the voice said to another.
"That's because they're boy clothes! I don't want them!" the five-year-old pleaded. "Because I'm-"
"Shut up. Your mother and I are talking," interrupted the other voice, painful like fire.
"This boy's not right," the icy voice muttered, thinking the six-year-old couldn't hear it. "We need to do something."
"Don't worry," the burning one replied. "I'll shape that thing into something presentable. BOY! COME HERE!"
The girl obliged.
No, he didn't need to relive those days again. They'd been pushed aside long ago as the childish fantasy they were.
He continued to limp in the dark for some time. Longer than five minutes, less than an hour. He couldn't determine further.
It had been long enough since he'd last called for help.
"Roland?" he shouted. "Roland, by the pantheon's sake, if you can hear me!"
"Boy!!" he somehow managed to shout even louder.
Well, this was still just as useless. He could still hear the water at least, so he hoped he was making progress.
Progress to where, though? To another direction he didn't want to go in?
"Impossible. You are impossible to work with, Lowell." The glacial voice circled back and forth around the fourteen-year-old, who had turned down yet another perfectly good marriage candidate. "House Crescent will never want to talk with us again after the way you treated their daughter."
He didn't respond, as he had learned he should. Still, had he, he would've told her he was into men.
Well, women were fine while he still had some... male urges to take care of, but while he had stopped talking about it, it was still his plan eventually. Her plan.
Well, maybe she should try again? It had been years, maybe things would be different...
Things hadn't been different.
Things would never be different.
He was a fool and a freak and he better never talk of this in front of good company again.
Now off to your room, boy.
Women were so lucky, thought the sixteen-year-old. So lucky and they just never knew it.
It's so easy to live life with the good kind of body. He had to trudge along the hard way, like actually strong people did.
There is no worth to anything without adversity.
That's why he fled the voices. Because he didn't need their safety nor their world.
He would carve his own, as a musician, and for doing it all from scratch, he would be acclaimed as he should.
The Mad King gave away benevolently so much all over the world. It was downright ridiculous.
Everywhere, smiling faces that hadn't deserved a lick of their happiness. He had no doubt most of them were faking it, pretending it didn't need to be deserved to try and lie to themselves that their joy was genuine.
He was no fool. He wouldn't fall for it.
Now, those stories of an actual challenge gauntlet by this Mad King? It was so far out of his usual modus operandi, it must've been for something truly out of the ordinary!
No, Lowell had realised now. It had been a trap. To lure his group, and him specifically. Then things were handed out in mockeries of actual hardships, like they always were. He seethed at all that. At this toothless dungeon, at how quickly his dumb companions had lapped it all up.
"HUH!?" Lowell coiled into attention. "Who said that!?"
Nothing but the noise of water running up ahead.
He was going crazy. He needed food, he needed water. He needed rest.
He knew moving forward would lead him to at least one of these things.
He found himself on the ground again. Had he passed out?
He stood back up, took a moment to reorient himself, find the wall again, and walk forward.
His shoe accidentally shot into something that must've been on the ground; it was launched ahead by a few feet.
Tentatively, he approached where it must've stopped, crouched to pick it up... And found the broken remnants of his mandolin.
"What... the..." He felt around for the item, both confused and mesmerised. Had he walked in a circle?
Must've been because of the darkness. He had to be careful.
"Leolia?" he called out. "Doan? Or one of you three? Boy?"
He threw the wooden splinters off to the side and continued ahead.
"Bu, jvyy lbh cyrnfr qel gubfr grnef Ybjryy," n tynpvny ibvpr fnvq. "Oblf qba'g pel."
"What?" asked a confused Lowell holding a broken mandolin. "Where am I? ...Oh."
"I'm a girl..." the three-year-old replied.
"Gung vf abg ubj vg jbexf. Lbh ner n obl naq oblf qba'g pel. Abj orunir."
"V qba'g xabj jung gb qb jvgu bhe yvggyr Ybjryy. Ur ershfrf gb trg va uvf pybgurf," gur ibvpr fnvq gb nabgure.
"That's because they're boy clothes! I don't want them!" the five-year-old pleaded. "Because I'm -"
"A girl." Lowell said, finishing the sentence.
"Fuhg hc. Lbhe zbgure naq V ner gnyxvat," vagreehcgrq gur bgure ibvpr, cnvashy yvxr sver.
Even this garbled version of his father's voice scared him to the core.
"Please, I need you to listen to me," Lowell pleaded, hunkering down and pulling his younger self into a tight embrace.
"Guvf obl'f abg evtug," gur vpl ibvpr zhggrerq, guvaxvat gur fvk lrne byq pbhyqa'g urne vg. "Jr arrq gb qb fbzrguvat."
"Run away from them. As fast as you can. Anywhere, someone, somewhere is bound to take you," he demanded. "Can you promise me that?"
"Qba'g jbeel," tur oheavat bar ercyvrq. "V'yy funcr gung guvat vagb fbzrguvat cerfragnoyr. OBL! PBZR URER!"
The girl obliged.
...What had that just been? Lowell looked around him confused, not to mention fruitlessly as light still had not appeared anywhere in this total darkness.
Had he... Done something? Something about his... childhood memories…
He didn't want to look at them again. So he couldn't confirm anything.
The noise of water never seemed to get closer.
"Vzcbffvoyr. Lbh ner vzcbffvoyr gb jbex jvgu, Ybjryy." Gur tynpvny ibvpr pvepyrq onpx naq sbegu nebhaq gur sbhegrra-lrne-byq, jub unq ghearq qbja lrg nabgure cresrpgyl tbbq zneevntr pnaqvqngr. "Ubhfr Perfprag jvyy arire jnag gb gnyx jvgu hf ntnva nsgre gur jnl lbh gerngrq gurve qnhtugre."
"Mom," Lowell said, his hand clutching his teenage self's. "I am not very interested in women."
"And I would tell you more than that even, but it'd be pointless, since you do not care about me. You are never gonna listen, just spout this endless dribbel that's as scary as any babbled loud noise."
The ghostly appearance of the woman didn't respond, unmoving, as if stuck in time. "You are just no longer gonna be in my life. In person, in thoughts, in apparitions. You missed your chance," he finished.
Things were different now.
Things would never be the same.
He was a fool to not have taken his leave sooner. He should've left their toxic company years ago.
Before their hatred poisoned his mind.
Women were so lucky, thought the sixteen-year-old. So lucky, and, maybe, he was one of them.
It's so easy to live life with the good kind of body. The good kind being the one you wanted.
He could've paid any cost to obtain his choice. But that was desperation, not a requirement.
He'd fled the voices, because their only desire was to hurt him and stifle his growth.
He would find his true family elsewhere, as a musician, and for that, he would strive.
The Mad King gave away benevolently so much all over the world. As if by astral magnetism, he had found companions that needed those boons too, even if he didn't know it yet.
Everywhere, smiling faces. Maybe he and his friends would join this crowd soon.
It warmed his heart.
And there he would go, on the quest to find one of the Mad King's gifts. A justification his mind had created for why he'd needed one. No, not a justification. An excuse.
The Mad King had known Lowell needed this convoluted setup to get his mind to change. But he couldn't deny it either - the time he'd spent with Doan, Boy and Leolia, even before they went by those names, had already fragilized the monolithic teachings of his parents that had been etched into his brain. This day had just been the last struggle of a dying bigotry.
And he was letting go.
A bright light enveloped the tunnel suddenly, as a door in the wall in front of him opened. Almost blinded, he looked behind him for a second while his eyes adjusted, and spotted the remnants of his mandolin just lying there, even though he'd been walking for hours. He chuckled, picked up whatever he could salvage from it, and crossed the door.
"Bu, jvyy lbh cyrnfr qel gubfr grnef, Ybjryy," n tynpvny ibvpr fnvq. "Oblf qba'g pel."
"What?" asked a confused Lowell holding a broken mandolin. "Where am I? ...Oh."
He knew what words he would need to say.
"Lowell! Get your ass over there, wherever you are!" shouted Drix, exploring through the corridors looking for him. "I, uh... miss you, buddy..." she mumbled to herself.
"Lowell! Please, we are waiting for you!" yelled Orwenna in another tunnel. "We have unanimously decided not to move ahead without you!"
"How are they doing?" asked Boy.
"Still no luck, apparently..." replied Anna, her goopy hand holding her chin.
"I'm sure he'll pop up somewhere eventually," Affirmed the mage, still busy drying out her robe and her fur. "Have you seen that guy's sheer persistence?"
Boy chuckled. "More than once, for sure... The days where I haven't had an occasion have been rarer than the opposite so far."
"Ah!" exclaimed Anna before her face drooped once more. "Nevermind. Drix thought she saw his shadow."
"Alright. That's enough energy spent," Boy started. "Let's just stop the search and camp here. This is a prime location for a meetup, a big, central room. Noisy waterfall that'll probably grab his attention. If he pops up again in the middle of the night, this is where we'll have the highest chance to encounter him. Tell Drix and Orwenna to come back."
"I guess we are a bit tired..." admitted Anna.
"Yeah, I need to let the pages of my spellbook dry, too," Leolia replied. "A few hours’ break would be welcome."
They regrouped, made makeshift mattresses out of the moss that was growing there, and soon drifted off to sleep…
Not long before being awoken by a ray of light in the wall opposite the lake.
Doan had the least difficulties lifting their eyelids back open (though that does not mean it was easy), but the moment they saw the silhouette in the light, their whole body jumped to full attention. "Lowell!!" They jumped on their feet and went to hug their sibling in arms.
"I'm glad to be back," Lowell replied, returning the embrace. "And I'm sorry for today."
"It's alright," replied Orwenna, who had sprang out of Doan's chest. "If my hunch is right, today must've been a stressing and frustrating day for you, correct?"
"Yes, it has been. But that doesn't make my actions acceptable. Please don't just forgive me like this."
"Well, too bad," said Drix, taking Orwenna's place. "Cuz I'm gonna."
A little mewl escaped the sleepy lips of Leolia as she stood up and joined in the discussion. "So what's been your trial, fellow fragile person?"
"I'm not sure, but... I think I was sent on a trip through my own thoughts?" Lowell explained. "Wasn't exactly the best experience. But I needed it. I'm back in my groove now."
"That's good," Boy said from a distance, lifting herself up in a graceful movement that made Doan's heart skip a beat. "We just need to find our way out now."
"Hmm..." Doan thought for a minute. "Well, I saw nothing in either direction when I went looking for Lowell, so..."
Lowell glanced behind his companions, and pointed towards the lake. "What about the waterfall?"
His companions exchanged a look, then stepped aside, letting him approach the shore with a slow pace. Once he'd arrived at the edge of the water, he turned around. "Wait, you think...?"
"Yeah," Leolia admitted. "That's probably it for you. See you on the other side?"
The water took on a golden hue, as if wanting to confirm the group's suspicions.
Lowell stripped out of his clothing in one over-excited swoop, confided his late instrument to the princess, and plunged into the water after a running start. It didn't take him long before he started moving towards the waterfall, but he immediately noticed something in his brain switching and telling him underwater was the most comfortable place in the world to be. He still had regular lungs for now though, and had to break the water's surface to take a breath before plunging back in.
But yeah. This did feel nice. And comfortable. And natural. Just like what he felt happening to his body. It was as if his goatee, body hair and even his angular features were being washed away and smoothened by the water. Yes. That's what she'd waited a lifetime for, after all! She couldn't not be giddy.
She felt little slices on the side of her face, and quickly brought up her right hand to touch and appreciate her new gills. Breathing, with or without water, felt as natural as one another now.
As she reached the waterfall, she started flicking her legs as strongly as she could to try to climb up, and while it felt like the waterfall was tearing her masculinity out and watering new curves onto her body, even lengthening and lightening her hair towards a sandy blonde, little if not no progress was made.
She couldn't really see it, but she did feel it. The energy of the golden water approaching and concentrating on her location, the rest of the water turning back to its usual hue. This energy grabbed her at the hips, made her feel stronger than ever, and as she slowly managed to gain height, golden scales appeared atop her legs, wrapping them up inside a majestic scaly tail. Her heart had never beaten this strongly in all her life. She was exhilarated. Today was the day. No longer was she drowning in dark, deeply rooted thoughts, but she was finally free to sail wherever she wanted.
When finally she reached the top of the waterfall, she let her voice explode into song from the joy she was feeling in her heart. It sounded angelic, maybe divine even. The lyrics were simple, too: "I am Lullaby." While she didn't want to stop singing, she had a job to do, and looking around, she found what she hoped had been what she'd been looking for - a lever, eerily similar to the one in the trap room that had changed Doan. She flipped it with a flick of her tail, and slabs of stone started pushing out of the wall, forming stairs from where her party members were all the way up to the little alcove at the top of the waterfall.
They joined her at the top, and thanked the pantheon there was a door to get them out of here.
"Uh..." Lullaby realised. "Can someone lift me up?"
Boy grabbed her by the waist and cradled her in her arms. "That's until we find a better system, I suppose."
Maybe Lullaby was more bisexual than straight. Maybe the feelings she’d interpreted as “male urges” all these years ago was more a proof of desiring both teams.
"No fair, I wanna be carried too~" Anna jumped out of Doan to join Lullaby in Boy's arms.
The room in which they arrived instilled in them a strange calmness. Leolia recognized here the effects of an enchantment, but her attention was on the sigils on the ground written in chalk, which no mage would be caught dead unable to recognise. Those were a teleportation circle. She lowered herself to look at the circle from a closer point of view - the chalk was recent, perhaps even fresh.
And written next to it was "Yes, do go in".
"I swear, I will kill the Mad King myself one day," she growled.
But, well, it was otherwise a dead end. So they hopped in.
It didn't take them long to understand they had arrived in a garden of some kind. A housekeeper somewhere in her fifties, who seemed strangely unaccustomed to her own work outfit, had been waiting for their arrival. "If you would please follow me to the baths...? My master desires to speak with you once you have cleaned yourselves up."
"MAAAAAD KIIIIING!" growled Leolia again.