(this is a direct sequel to this story. you might want to read it first)
Mouse never returned.
The rest of them—Stance and Tide and Ashes and Sparrow—always knew that it was a possibility. The ruins were dangerous, they knew that well enough; the unquiet dead, the ancient traps ...
But Mouse was supposed to be better.
She was the best of them.
And yet ...
"S-she's fine," Tide finally stammers, "just ... just delayed a bit. Right? She has to be ..."
Sparrow, pragmatically, voice empty of their usual lilt: "It's been a week."
"We could try to find her ...?" Ashes says, clutching his bad arm tightly against his chest. He should know better. He's always forced himself to be too brave.
Tide shivers at the thought, brain gripped by a cold fear which the heat from their fire has never yet thawed.
"You think we'd be any use? We wouldn't get halfway to the vault without her, and who knows where she is."
"Maybe she's stuck somewhere? Caught in a cave-in, not a trap. Maybe she needs our help."
"S-she wouldn't get caught like that, not Mouse ..."
Poor, loyal Tide.
She's always idolized Mouse, ever since that day long ago when she got her name on the sea's iridescent shore. Mouse pulled her weak, loose-skinned form out of the wave's oily grasp as if she weighed nothing at all, and slapped away the ocean's last clinging tendrils—
Perhaps her name was cruelly given, a reminder of something she'd rather forget, but it was hers.
"But what if—"
"No," Stance's voice rumbles deep inside their bones, as distantly inevitable as a storm gathering over far-off mountains, "we cannot."
The others glance uneasily at the place outside their circle where Stance doesn't sit; the place where each of them sees her wide-shouldered bulk painted in the splotchy brushstrokes of phantom nerve impulses. Her existence infects all of them equally.
"Stance, uh, can you feel anything about Mouse ...?"
The three of them don't like thinking about Stance, nor the ways she drinks down their senses and feels their thoughts. That ancient taboo still lingers; only Mouse truly liked her.
"She is gone."
"Unknown. Too far away. But the part of me which was with her is gone. Consumed."
"Oh," Ashes murmurs, "so there's no chance that ...?"
"If you found her body it would not be her in it."
Tide starts crying, big bubbly tears dribbling out of eyes already worn and red. The others move to comfort her, and themselves; Stance lets her body fade as she paints opiate warmth across her vessels' bodies.
Far away, in the heart of the ruins, Mouse struggles to claw her way out of that old brass bowl.