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“Hello mother,” said Phobos as she closed the door to her mother’s cell behind her, leaving her only separated by metal bars from the feral woman.

Large yellow eyes opened in the depths of the shadowy cell glowing like the flames of a candle. They regarded her dispassionately for a moment before recognition flickered across them. The large panther acknowledged her with a low, rumbling growl before lowering its head upon its crossed paws and closing its eyes again.

Phobos let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding. It was good. Her mother still recognized her. That meant that she wasn’t too far gone yet.

They had left for home the moment the research on the shadow clones had yielded results that seemed like that they would work. With every day that passed, Phobos’ anxiety was ratcheted up a notch. Until it was to the stage that she found herself waking up from nightmares of her feral mother’s teeth sinking into her throat drenched in sweat.

Phobos relaxed. She wasn’t too late after all.

The credit for that went largely to Epione. She had visited her mother every day in her absence, engaging her in conversation to ensure that she didn’t lose herself under the dual onslaught of isolation and Vita’s vile whispers.

She wouldn’t thank her. The gratitude of family was silent. A lifetime spent repaying debts that could never be repaid.

Sitting down cross legged close to the bars, Phobos cast a glance around her mother’s cell. It was a nondescript room with stone walls, no windows and a ventilation shaft that led out of one corner of the ceiling. Her mother was chained to the far wall of the room with mana suppressing shackles while a lattice of metallic bars blocked off the near end of the room, leaving a little space for visitors between it and the door.

The shackles glinted darkly as they constantly drained her mother of mana and vented it outwards, enshrouding her mother and the far end of the cell in a mass of roiling shadows. They had enough play to them, allowing her mother access to the entire cell including the trough of water placed in one corner. Arrangements had been made in another corner for the occupant of the cell to relieve themselves.

Phobos closed her eyes with a determined cast to her jaw. Hopefully, today would be the last day her mother would have to spend cooped up in here.

The constant drain on her mana due to the shackles had made Phobos’ mother extremely lethargic, but the sudden surge of her daughter’s mana made her eyes snap open. Getting up, she bared her teeth and growled warningly, the deep rumble vibrating its way up from the pit of her stomach.

Her muscles tensed as instead of heeding her warning, the mana of the figure seated beyond the bars of her cell surged even more strongly. There was a voice at the back of her head urging her not to harm that figure, telling her that she was extremely important to her somehow… but right now, all she could see, all her instincts were telling her, was that there was an intruder in her domain, flaring their mana in blatant provocation.

She padded forward silently; her massive body gliding forward with nary a sound. Only the slight clink of her chains playing out gave any indication that she was on the move. Reaching the end of her tether, she extended one paw out from between the bars, the extended claws glinting in the dim light streaming in through the edges of the door.

Suddenly, Phobos’ eyes snapped open and instead of their customary yellow, they were dyed a jet-black. “Sorry,” she whispered as with a sharp clank, the winch attached to the chains came to life, reeling them in.

Phobos’ mother yowled in anger as she was jerked backwards and dragged by the chains to the far end of the room. No matter how hard she struggled, without mana, her mundane strength wasn’t enough to snap the tensile metal. The chains didn’t let up, tightening further and further until they were pressing hard enough onto her skin to activate her Barrier with a soft white glow.

The shackles had already drained her mana to extremely low levels and now, the Barrier grew dimmer and dimmer as the final dregs of her mana were drained out of her along with the last of Vita’s divine power. With a final flicker of white, the Barrier winked out and, without their protection, the chains dug painfully into her skin.

The winch immediately deactivated, and the pressure eased up, letting her collapse limply onto the ground. Drained of her mana, she floated at the edge of consciousness as her body slowly morphed back to its Bestia form.

Suddenly, bright light flooded the entire room as the smokeless torches at the four corners flared to life, casting harsh shadows everywhere.

Out of the corner of her eyes she saw several shadowy figures approaching her. Blinking her watering eyes against the sudden light, she tried to force herself to resolve their features, but all she could manage to get was the impression that these figures all looked like her daughter… if, that is, her daughter was composed entirely out of shadows.

As the first of the figures stepped onto her shadow, it sank into it, disappearing without a trace.

Clarity flooded her mind as the figure appeared in her barren mindscape and blasted apart, flooding it with shadowy mana. As the exhaustion clouding her thoughts retreated like an ebbing tide, she tried to struggle up into a seated posture but gave up when she realized her body wouldn't cooperate.

The second figure stepped into her shadow, and through it, her mindscape. It burst apart similarly, like a balloon filled with water, washing her mind with another wave of mana.

Her muscles feeling like water, she only managed to flop herself onto her back after much effort. Staring up at the ceiling, she gasped for breath, tracing the natural patterns of the stone with her eyes as figure after figure stepped into her mindscape and gave themselves up to scour it clean of Vita’s influence.

Twin lines of tears streaked down the corners of her eyes and down the sides of her face.

‘Husband,’ she thought, a mixture of pride and sorrow filling her heart, ‘Our daughter’s all grown up. You’d be proud.’

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