Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 24.4

NYX____________________________

Bound by my word and fueled by a desire to survive with all that I had regained, I fell into my shadow.  In the cloud and dust, where light was obscured, it was easier to do, and this time I didn’t have a bewildered passenger in my arms.  The shadows here were drawn to me, and I moved over that cold and slippery ground with an ease that was growing each time I came here.

In the Umbralands, I learned that creating a shadow is hard when you’re making it from nothing.  As I neared the commotion, my gut fell.  By the looks of things, it would be harder still.  Tonatiuh was so bright that his own shadow was swallowed up.  The light encompassed him.

What could I do?  The darkness shrank away from him, and his luminescence was so strong as to repel me.  I started to feel helpless as I watched Quincy and Elmiryn charge off without me.  The wizard pulled a bold move and climbed atop Praxidice’s back.  In little time, I lost sight of Elle.  Things were getting away from me, fast.

Then I felt like a cajeck.  Was I not in control of the shadows?  Could I not shift them as I wished?  I’d made shadows in the midst of light before, and I could do it again.  With two hands and my mind honed in on my task, I set about digging up a shadow for Tonatiuh.  I had to lean back with all of my body as natural law fought with all its strength to keep me from achieving my goal.  It was doubly hard because my target kept moving.  I could feel the sweat bead on my brow and I grit my teeth as I pulled.

To my relief, a shadow started to appear, and it grew darker and darker.

Yet the battle had taken a dire turn.  Tonatiuh’s brute strength was easily overwhelming the dragons.  Both were pinned down.  I was beginning to see how their sister could fall so quickly after being struck by the spirit’s meteor.  I could see Quincy holding on for dear life as Praxidice thrashed and fought to regain freedom.  I could not see Elle anywhere nearby.  I struggled with the shadow I had made, trying to make it stronger.  It still wasn’t enough for me to work with.  I could feel it in the way it seemed to slip about Tonatiuh’s form like an unfastened sheet.  If I didn’t do something, Tonatiuh was going to kill the dragons.

As my panic mounted and I thought my hold on the shadow would give, something incredible happened.

It started to rain…with weapons.  Big, heavy, deadly weapons that just came from the sky.  It was quite…lucky, and I had a sneaking suspicion of who to thank.

All around me I could see and feel the shadows of the falling blades and bludgeons.  I eased my grip on Tonatiuh’s shadow and started launching the weapons at the spirit.  My aim wasn’t perfect because the items fell so quickly, and many of the blades left only flesh wounds because they didn’t strike at the right angle.  Regardless, with each successive strike, I felt the resistance in Tonatiuh’s shadow lessen.  It was like the light wavered and I was able to darken his shadow further.  With a wave of relief, I saw that I now had something that adhered quite nicely to the spirit’s form, and it didn’t require as much work from me to keep it visible.

As the shadow was attached to the spirit, the next thing was to will it to do as I pleased.  In my favor, there was enough harmony in the environment that I had reign over the Umbralands and its components.  It took a good push from me, but the shadow followed my commands, if grudgingly.

First, I made Tonatiuh miss his strike against Poena when he brought down the meteorite.  Next, I nearly made him fall when I jerked his shadow’s knee, then his shoulder.  Out of nowhere, Elmiryn appeared, and she capitalized on the situation by landing a shot in Tonatiuh’s eye with the bow and arrow she’d found.  After he pulled the arrow out, I took his fists and made him hit himself.  Quincy seemed to be having a time of it, since the dragons doubled their efforts to break free.  I wondered how she’d managed to hold on so long.  She was given a reprieve when the spirit’s fury finally saw him releasing the dragons in favor of trying to stomp me.  I hadn’t realized that I was visible to him in any way, and I grew alarmed to see my own created shadow hurtling at me, but I dodged his attack.  If there’s one thing I’m good at–it’s running away.  His fury was interrupted when Elmiryn landed another shot in his throat.

It really felt like we were wearing him down.  Winning.

Then Tonatiuh did something I didn’t expect, but perhaps I should have.  The dragons didn’t seem to expect it either, and it was only due to a warning from Quincy that Praxidice stopped and took cover.  Me?

…I was far too close.

With a silent scream, Tonatiuh let out a blast of light–a flare so strong that I lost my hold on his shadow and my own.

I was launched out of the Umbralands and fell onto the half-world with a nasty thump.  The wind was knocked from me, and the heat blistered my skin.  If Tonatiuh came any closer, I was certain I’d die.  But that fate was not to be mine.

There was a petrifying screech.  I could feel the clothes about me ignite into little flames, and I thought in that detached way, “Can I not keep one outfit in any of this!?”  With all that I had, I fought to roll away from the heat.  The flames were snuffed out, but still the heat scalded me, and I cried at the touch of hot rubble to my bare skin and stockinged legs.  Daring had me squinting sidelong at the source of all this brilliance.  My stomach dropped and all my thoughts of certain victory with it.

The brilliance faded.  Silence rang through the air.

…Poena was lost.

The great dragon stood immortalized in my memories forever.  Her wings, half-spread, appeared as ruined sails–tattered and blasted through.  Her beautiful scales had lost their luster and instead were dull and charred.  They fell like old tiles from her hide.  Poena swayed, first one way, then another.  I could not see her front, but after she keeled over onto her side and the dust cleared, I could see all the good her tough scales had done her.  Her face and chest and forearms had been reduced to blood and pulp–the skin and natural armor blasted away by Tonatiuh’s burst of power.  I was reminded of the time Quincy had kidnapped Lethia, and the flesh had been blasted from my hand from the wizard’s stellar exit.

The sunny giant let out a disgusting chortle as the wound in his neck bubbled.  I could hear Praxidice cry out in fury and agony.  Her sisters were lost to her.  She was alone now against this great foe.  With little effort, he hefted Poena’s body and tossed it into the air.  I could feel the ground begin to tremble as the orphaned dragon moved forth, but it was too late.  Tonatiuh’s mouth parted, and impossibly, Poena was swallowed whole.  The sound of bones crunching, of skin and flesh being torn, made me feel ill.

With Poena’s tail still dangling from between his teeth, the monster dodged Praxidice’s charge with a speed he previously did not possess.  The dragon, being so large and moving so fast, could not change direction very quickly.  Like a bird, Tonatiuh tilted his head back and gobbled the rest of his meal.  The corpse vanished into his belly as if it occupied little space.  I swallowed at the lump in my throat.  Was it my imagination, or was the giant even taller and brighter now?  The cuts on his body started to heal so rapidly that I doubted my regeneration was so quick.  The hole in his throat sealed, and his eye, with a nasty pop, grew back.  He let out a booming laugh that chilled me.  “I will consume you all!” he bellowed.

There was a thwip, and an arrow struck the giant in the side of the neck.  Four more quickly followed.  Two joined the arrow in his throat, and two struck his left side and his left shoulder respectively.  The giant coughed and gurgled as he tore the arrows from deep in his throat.  Blood gushed and spurted before bubbling to a low stream.  With rage in his eyes, he turned, and I could see Elmiryn approaching, another arrow readied.  She was within shouting distance of me now, and seemed unaware of my presence.  I could see the smile on her face as she said loudly, “Did I give you permission to talk?”

Trust Elmiryn to antagonize the giant that had just consumed a dragon whole.

Tonatiuh’s body started to glow again in that ominous way, but Praxidice would not be denied a second time.  With a half-flying jump, she descended on the spirit with claws slashing.  Like a feral cat, she wrapped herself around the spirit’s body and did not let herself touch the ground–not that hard a feat.  In all this time, the sunny giant had grown imperceptibly, and the dragon was about the size of a large dog to him now.

This didn’t stop Praxidice, however.  Her hind legs kicked at his back.  Her fangs buried deep into his shoulder.  I could almost feel the disregard for her own safety, and of course, that of Quincy’s.  Tonatiuh struggled to get a good grip on the dragon, and finally his hands closed around her neck.  Elmiryn had been firing arrows all this time, and the giant was beginning to look like a pin cushion.  Still, none of her attacks seemed as effective as when she’d hit his throat, and for that, she no longer had a clear shot.  Tonatiuh remained impervious.

I stumbled to my feet, some plan half-forming in my head, when something flitted by me in a jangle of metal.  I did a double take.  “Tristi!” I cried.  There was a mixture of relief…and dread.

I could see the symbols flashing around his body as he sprinted toward Tonatiuh, a lance in one hand, and his gloved fist glowing.  “Spirit!” He bellowed.

The giant bent his legs, squeezed Praxidice’s neck so that her violent slashings quieted.  In a booming voice, he said to Tristi,  “I am not a common spirit!  I am the lost son!  The rightful heir!  I.  Am.  Tonatiuh!”  Rather than throw Praxidice, as I’d expected him too, Tonatiuh surprised me yet again.  He jumped.  High up into the air, so high as to leave the wind screaming about us.  I was cast down, and so was Elmiryn.  Over the din, I turned and saw her lock eyes with me.

Tristi did not fall.  Did not even falter.

The sphere of symbols about him turned blue, and they all changed to one shape–a crown and a star.  With an almost tribal yell, the champion of luck was lost in a flash, and a small smoking crater was left in his wake.  I didn’t see him up in the sky, but I did see Tonatiuh twist in the air so that the dragon was now beneath him.    Seeing what happened after he had eaten Poena, I knew we’d have no hope then.  I hurried to Elmiryn, half-crawling, half-running.  “Elmiryn, are you alright?”

“Quincy…Praxidice…” The woman’s eyes were on the sky, and I could see the tension in her face.  “They’ll die.”

In the back of my mind, as the seconds grew to a crawl, I wondered how Farrel was doing.  If he had run away by now, I wouldn’t have blamed him.  I suppose I would have wanted to as well, a few weeks ago.  Now, the feeling was absent.  I wouldn’t go anywhere until my promise was done and Elmiryn was okay.  Even given this horrible sight, I was going to stay.

We watched Tonatiuh’s jump reach its peak.  His body began to glow, and I realized he wasn’t going to just fall, he was going to blast back to the ground.

Then the blue light that I had previously seen around Tristi appeared in the sky in a mammoth sized sweep, and it scythed toward them.  It sounded like crackling thunder, and my hairs stood on end to see such power.  The blue light vanished as quickly as it came, and the giant’s glow faded as he and the dragon started to fall…but not before Praxidice kicked him away, revealing just what had happened.

Tonatiuh’s arms had been cut off.

Praxidice, so petite in comparison to that sunny brute Tonatiuh, let out a victorious cry as her wings unfurled and she took to the air like a fish to the sea.  The way her body arced through the air was so beautiful.  My hope started to lift and I grabbed Elmiryn’s arm.  “Elle!  Look!  She’s okay!”

When the warrior didn’t say anything, I looked at her and saw that the tension hadn’t gone from her face.  “Yeah.  Praxidice is.  But Quincy’s in serious trouble unless the dragon catches her.”

I looked.  Indeed, in the dark sky, I could see a small figure falling.

“Come now…we must have faith in our briny-headed lass, shouldn’t we?”

We both jumped and turned to see Tristi standing there, hair mussed and a crooked smile on his face.  His clothes were smoldering and his shirt torn at the front to reveal his sweaty chest.  He would have looked handsome, in a roguish way, if one were into that sort of thing.  He pointed at the sky as he shouldered the lance–or what was once a lance.  The weapon’s blade had been charred and warped.  “Look there,” he said. “And you’ll see the fledgeling is learning to fly!”

Elmiryn turned to look right away, but I was frowning at Tristi.  Something about what he said was tickling my mind, but before I could make the connection, the warrior started shaking me.  “Nyx, Nyx! Look!  I can’t believe it!!” She laughed, and I turned to see what it was that had her so excited.

My jaw fell.

QUINCY_________________________

…As far as deaths go, I didn’t quite expect this.  Maybe Master Saerth would think this is funny.

She held on, not so much because she wanted to, but because the force of Tonatiuh’s leap was such that Quincy was flattened against the dragon’s hunched back.  She had managed to climb higher after the dragon’s release, and had even been set to jump down onto Tonatiuh upon the dragon’s attack, but the creature seemed to all but forget that the wizard was even there, and the danger of being tossed to the ground became too great a threat.  Now even that option was lost to her.  Quincy felt her breath squeeze from her lungs, and the air she tried to suck in was cold and thin.

Hakeem.  I’m sorry.  I’ve finally gone too far.  Graziano, I failed you.  I really am scum.

She saw a crackle of blue energy in the sky.  Her eyes rolled to stare at it through her wild mane of hair.

I wouldn’t have made this mistake before.  I wouldn’t have been so helpless.  Elmiryn was right.  I’m nothing without my trinkets.  Without the light inside me, I’m just lost in the dark.

Quincy’s body started to lift as Tonatiuh’s jump reached its speak and gravity began to hail them back.  Tonatiuh’s body began to glow.

What…could I have done different?  Does it even matter now?

Then the woman’s eyes hardened, and with her sword still gripped in her hand, she kicked away from the dragon’s back, flipping once before she started to fall on her own.  Her jerkin, now stained from the blood of her wounded shoulder, flapped at the back as she fell.  Blood trailed from her left palm where she had been gripping the dragon’s spine, and she saw the crimson droplets lift in the air as if ascending to something greater.  Quincy realized her tears were joining them.

No.  I will be the master of my fate.

As her eyes slipped shut and she waited for that fatal landing, a crash of thunder and a flare of blue through her eyelids had her eyes snapped wide open again.  A great wave of blue light sliced through the air, flashing through Tonatiuh and the dragon.  She could feel the shock wave through the air.

The dragon let out a screech before kicking the giant away.

She was still close enough that she could hear Tonatiuh’s strangled cry–a pitiful bleat in comparison to his fearsome screams.  There was that wet, gut-turning sound as his arms cut just after the elbows.  Blue blood flowed through the air.  Tonatiuh started to tumble toward the earth.  The winged serpent started to circle in the air, and Quincy knew it intended to dive toward the sunny giant.

The wizard let herself flip over once so that she faced the rising ground, and tried to level herself out in the wind so that she did not spin.  This served to slow her descent some, but Tonatiuh fell with great speed, his body tumbling.

Quincy, with eyes narrowed to the wind, pressed her legs together and her arms to her sides.  Tilting forward, she angled herself toward Tonatiuh’s form.  The speed with which she now fell made her stomach lurch unpleasantly.  Tonatiuh finally managed to fall steady with his back to the ground, and his soulless eyes fixed onto her.  At first it looked as though she were aiming too high, so she tried to adjust.  That was when she saw the dragon appear below her, its broad wings tilted back as if she meant to catch the woman.

Quincy looked down once, and in that instant, her mind was set.

She touched down onto the serpent’s back, and as soon as she felt her gravity anchor…

…She started to run along the beast’s back.

A scream tore past her lips as she gripped her sword with both hands, tip pointed toward the sky.  The dragon’s body shifted beneath her, and Quincy knew she’d have to jump before she lost her footing.

It was perfect.  The dragon had flown them in close enough and Tonatiuh was right where she wanted him.

With all the strength she could manage, the woman jumped off of the dragon’s shoulder.  The creature’s head twisted to the side as she flew past, and it let out a short screech as if it hadn’t expected the woman to do that.

“Tonatiuh, you are mine!” she screamed as she turned her rusty sword and brought the blade to bear.  Given her descent, it appeared she would fall on his gut, piercing him there.

…Only Tonatiuh flipped once in the air, and Quincy felt her heart stop.  That nightmarish fate that had loomed over her each time she had taken the corrupted spirit into her heart now came rising up to greet her faster than she could react.

Tonatiuh’s flat teeth parted, and he swallowed Quincy whole.

All she saw and felt was darkness.

ELMIRYN________________________

That couldn’t be right.

Elmiryn rubbed at her eyes, and looked again.  “Where’s Quincy…” she breathed.

Nyx’s voice was small.  “You saw what happened.”

“No, I didn’t.  I mean…I…” she shook her head with a frown.  “That can’t be right.”

“Quincy was devoured,” Tristi said.  His voice was low and flat, and the crooked smile he’d been wearing was gone from his face.  He pulled at Nyx’s shoulder.  “Come, sweetest.  Let’s away.  Their impact will be quite a thing!  I fear…” and he faltered.  “This battle.  It is lost.”

The warrior started shaking her head.  “No…”

“Elmiryn, I think Tristi is right, we should run!” Nyx started to pull her arm.  “Atleast to avoid the impact!  It only makes sense!”

“To who!?” Elmiryn shouted.  She didn’t know why she felt so angry.  Because Tonatiuh killed Quincy first?  Because the spirit had wrought so much destruction on her people and was about to get away with it?  Because Tonatiuh was a braggart who was going to have his way?  The woman drew her sword and wiped the sweat from her eyes.  “I will not show this creature my back!”  Elmiryn started looking at the ground. Her mind started buzzing with thoughts–

–it wasn’t as strong as before–it was just a taste of that previous power–what were the trade-offs?–

Tristi said to Nyx.  “Stay or go, it is your choice.  I have made mine.”  There was the crunch of rubble as he left.

–the currents–the threads–the individual grains–robbed of their purpose–

Nyx came near and her voice was tight.  “Elle–”

Elmiryn’s eyes turned to fasten onto Nyx’s.  There came the sound of Praxidice’s wings beating, of Tonatiuh’s ferocious scream.  Their time was up.  “Nyx, do you trust me?”  The girl opened her mouth to answer, her wild hair dancing about her anxious face.  If the last thing Elmiryn saw were those pretty tawny eyes looking at her like that…

But it was too late.

Elmiryn grabbed the girl to her and the world howled around them.

Nyx hugged her around the torso as the tremors rattled their bones.  The woman gazed forward, unblinking, as the dust surged in whorls of cement grey and earthworm browns.  She felt no wind.  Elmiryn wiped away the blood that had dripped from her nose.  Nyx, no doubt confused by the lack of wind, raised her head to look at her.  Her eyes widened.

“Your pupils…they’re so wide, your eyes look black!” Nyx whispered.

The warrior opened her mouth to say something, but felt a new fit of nausea punch its way up her mouth.  She turned away, pressing the back of her hand to her mouth.  Words were dangerous.  Music teased its way into her thoughts.

Making a barrier from dust and air?

I must say, I’ve never quite heard of that.

A combination of gaseous and physical particles…

Yes, I suppose in theory that would work.

You seem to have a knack for this.

Elmiryn shook away Meznik’s melodic voice and turned to Nyx.  The girl stared at her a moment longer before her attention was taken up by the commotion of their larger neighbors.  The dust had cleared enough that Tonatiuh and Praxidice could be seen once more.

There was a new and deeper crater off-center from the original impact site.  The weapons that had littered the ground had been either destroyed or buried from the force of the impact.  As for the beast that had created it all…

Tonatiuh raised himself off the ground and was now of a terrifying height.  Praxidice soared about in the air, and the dragon seemed as much at a loss as they were.

“I can’t…make anything that big,” Elmiryn muttered.  She paused on the word ‘make’ because she really had no idea what to call it.  She never thought she’d be able to command the basic elements again after the dwarven colony.  Ah, well.  Desperate times, and all that…

Tonatiuh’s bloody stumps began to heal and grow.  Within a few seconds he once again had two full arms.  He threw his head back and crowed,  “Ana alm-tesurh!!  Halward, wetsh wana akl atfalk!”

“What the hell is he cackling about?” Elmiryn muttered.

Nyx shook her head.  “I don’t know Talmas…But if I had to guess, he’s probably cursing the god king.”

Elmiryn slashed at the air with her sword. “And yet Halward would see us crushed by this bastard…there’s no point shouting at him.  The fucker’s deaf to anything outside of heaven.”  Nyx gave her a hard look, and the woman shrugged.  “What?  He’s not your god.”  The woman tightened her grip on her hilt and started to march forward.

Nyx sputtered after her.  “Wh-Where are you going!?”

The woman shrugged.  “Where else?”  She pointed up at Tonatiuh, who had taken to trying to snatch Praxidice out of the air.  When he jumped, the ground rumbled.  The serpent was roughly the length of his forearm now…

“Elmiryn, no!”  The girl jumped in front of her.  “You will not!  I won’t let you!”

The warrior sighed.  “Nyx, I’ll be fine.  He doesn’t even notice us down here anymore.  We’re like ants to him.”  She didn’t add that she had a secret weapon of sorts.  Best to save that for later, when there was proper time to explain.

“Just my point!” the girl screamed shrilly.  “This battle is done, there’s nothing else we can do!”

A loud sound boomed through the air, cutting their conversation short.

Tonatiuh was gripping his stomach a look of pain on his round, flat face.  He opened his mouth and the sound came again, deep and rippling.  Elmiryn’s brow raised.  “Is he…burping?”

Then the spirit did something unmistakable.  He wretched, and rather than liquid…corpses came.

First Poena.  Then the bloody chunks of her sister, Erinyes, followed.

With the expulsion of their remains, Tonatiuh inexplicably began to shrink.  He continued to wretch, a horrible sound, and still more things came.  Hundreds of pounds of gold and rubies, as well as a tree, a hoard of skeletons (“Is one of those Quincy’s?”), smaller chunks of meteorite, and what appeared to be a small mound of weapons.

Tonatiuh was now back to his original size.

Elmiryn turned to Nyx.  “Let’s go!” and took off running.

Praxidice was quick to move in as well.  With a low rumble, the dragon slammed into the giant from the side.  Tonatiuh was still suffering from his strange convulsions and went flying like a doll through the air.  He crashed into the buildings at the edge of the clearing with Praxidice atop him, and as Elmiryn neared, she could see the ribbons of blue blood that streaked the ground.  She slowed to a stop and heard Nyx join her side.  With pressed lips, the woman put away her sword.

“Finally, you’ll give this up?” Nyx said, panting a little.

The warrior shook her head.  “I’ll wait to see if something goes wrong…but we should let Praxidice have her revenge.  She’s lost more than any of us.  It’s her right.”

She could hear Meznik’s music swell into her mind again.

Refusing the spotlight?

Don’t look now, but I’m starting to regain my faith in you.

Elmiryn said nothing, and Nyx was similarly quiet as they watched Tonatiuh’s struggles quiet beneath Praxidice’s rending fangs and claws.  Just as it seemed that life would flee him for good, something odd happened…

Tonatiuh’s body quickly expanded to the shape of a ball, like a spring contraption, effectively knocking the dragon off of him.  Elmiryn had her sword out in a flash and was rushing forward.  “Damn, what now!?” she cursed.  She could hear Nyx following close behind.

What came next startled her even more.

The sunny giant, or the sunny ball, she should say, had collapsed.  It were as if a vacuum had appeared in Tonatiuh’s gut, and now he lay groaning and bleating as something from the inside pulled at his flesh and bones, making him look emaciated.  His bloody loose flesh retracted…but not because he was healing.

Elmiryn slowed to a stop for a second time, her eyebrows raised high.  Nyx went further a few steps, and the woman could see the shock on her face.  “Dear gods, he’s…vanishing into himself!”

Tonatiuh barely had strength to cry out.  His large flat face stared up at the sky, his teeth cracked and his eyes turning to stones.  The glow fled his body completely.  Then, bit by bit, he began to collapse, bones snapping and crunching and skin tearing and receding into the mysterious vacuum that had appeared in his gut.

With a roar, a flare came…and the giant was gone.

In his place stood Quincy, her eyes closed as she breathed slow through her nose.  Elmiryn swallowed, her eyes wide as she tried to make sense of the sight.  In the wizard’s hands was her sword, but no longer was it rusted.  The blade was a hot gold, like a ray of sunlight.  Elmiryn started to smile as she jogged to meet the wizard, but that smile vanished as she neared.

Quincy had turned the blade and pointed it at her heart.


Back to Break Time | Forward to Chapter 25.1

Chapter 24.3

QUINCY_________________________

It was time.  Finally–Quincy hadn’t realized how starved she’d been until now.

Tonatiuh was within her grasp.

It was true that he was nearly five times her size, a solid mass of muscle, and had scorching skin that rivaled the suns, but the wizard had handled such cases before.  She was more worried about getting caught in the crossfire.  One beast, plus two beasts, equaled Quincy dead between three.

As they ran, Nyx vanished from her peripheral vision.  When the wizard went to look, she saw that the Ailuran was gone entirely.  Elmiryn had looked as well but seemed less taken aback.  Or maybe she could spare little time to think about that, seeing as how she barely kept pace with Quincy.  The idiot’s inebriation took a great deal out of her.  In the back of her mind, the brunette agreed with Nyx that the warrior ought to have sat this one out.  But Elmiryn didn’t even entertain the notion, and if Quincy were in her place, neither would she.

That wasn’t to say she didn’t have her own difficulties to deal with.  There was still the cut on her shoulder that threatened to rip open every time Quincy jerked her arm too much.  There was also the red stinging of her hand from when she’d overdone it with the fire bracelet, not to mention the throbbing of her jaw and the mild headache it induced from when Elmiryn had punched her. (“Wait, she’s punched me in the head before hasn’t she?  Gods, it’s bad when you can’t keep track…”)  She grit her teeth and fought through the encroaching pain.

Tonatiuh was within her grasp.

Quincy could see the spirit, his great big body gleaming, the muscles shifting and coiling beneath his skin as he fought to keep the dragons from tearing into him.  It took all of his attention from her, which was in her favor.

As the story went, her blade came to host Tonatiuh when a nameless hero had pierced him with it.  She didn’t get much more than that–not why the hero felt the need to attack the spirit, where it happened, nor even where Tonatiuh had been stabbed.  But it seemed a simple enough task of trial and error.  Keep stabbing, hope something happens.  Keep stabbing, hope something happens.  Keep stabbing…

As the dust cleared enough that Quincy could see all three giants up ahead, the immensity of what she was getting into came in full light.  Tonatiuh stomped his feet, and her teeth rattled in her head.  One of the dragons’ screeched, and she thought she went deaf.  Tonatiuh struck with fists blazing bright, and she thought her retinas had been reduced to a cinder.  The dragons’ stirred the wind, and the woman found it hard to resist the currents.

She bumped into Elmiryn during one such moment and took the opportunity to scream, “Either they come to us, or we go to them!

“What?” the redhead bellowed back. The din of the battle was swallowing up their words.

Quincy didn’t have time to answer.  When she was close enough that the reality of being crushed was very much real, the wizard ducked around the swishing tail of the bearded dragon and closed in.  She felt the long tail whip over her, could swear she felt the scales skim her shoulder blades.  Her fingers spidered along the earth, feeling its heat as she scuttled on all fours.  The wizard hissed as the dragon stomped its foot and sent hot rocks and dust into her face.  Her vision clouded and she wiped hurriedly at her eyes, because she could not afford to be blind so close.  When her head lifted again, she saw the dragon’s foot descending towards her.

The woman yelled and rolled out of the way.  Her shoulder protested this greatly.  With a wince, she was once again on her feet in a readied crouch.  The dragon had ceased moving, at least for the moment.  Heart thumping, the wizard used its heel to leap up onto its rump.  At the peak of its height, the serpentine beast reached three stories.  Down on all fours, its long neck still had it reaching two stories.  From the ground to its lower back, Quincy had to fight up more than thirteen feet.  Its scales offered good footholds and she managed to hold on even as the beast started to shift and move.

Elmiryn kept running, her mind clearly set on some other plan.  As Quincy climbed further up the dragon’s back, she began to wonder if she should have tried for something else.  In summary, her current path sounded like folly.  “Jump up onto the dragon’s back, climb to its shoulder, then leap onto Tonatiuh like a Fury.”  Yes.  That sounded stupid even to her now.  As if to confirm the veracity of her feelings, the dragon was slammed in the chest by Tonatiuh.  The great serpent reared back, nearly standing up straight, and while Quincy clung to spinal fins halfway up, she felt like she really would be crushed.  To her fortune the bearded dragon slid its clawed hind foot back, its wings tilted forward, and with bunched muscles, it pushed Tonatiuh back with claws dragging along his skin.  The sunny giant screamed, claw marks on his chest.  Quincy cried out as the dragon landed on all fours again, its jaws snapping.  She felt as though all her bones had threatened to bounce right out of her skin.

The dragon beat its wings, stirring up the air so that Quincy’s hair was sent whipping, and the wizard turned her face into the creature’s back.  She lost her breath as the dragon pushed up, great wings beating even faster, and she felt gravity shift.  Her feet dangled free in the air.  “Oh gods, what was I thinking?” she thought as the vertigo seized her.  She dared to look.  They hadn’t gone high.  In fact, the creature had just used its wings to gain more lift on its jump.  It was kicking and whipping out its tail.  It caught Tonatiuh in his flat face, cutting his cheek and jaw.  Again, the giant screamed.  She could see the other dragon, rear up for a strike of its own.  This was the slimmer beast, with shinier scales and a gaze like blades.  The bearded serpent she rode scored a massive wallop into the spirit’s chest with its tail before it started to descend, one that Quincy was certain would have broken something, but the giant was quick to retaliate.  He grabbed the bearded dragon by the tail and before either Quincy or the serpent could react, Tonatiuh swung them onto the ground onto the other dragon, who was flattened with a growl.

Quincy screamed as she felt her shoulder rip open beneath the bandage.  The blood felt hot and was soaking through her wrappings.  The pain throughout her was one moment a throb, the next more like an all-encompassing stab.  She swooned, eyes rolling as she tried to better her hold on the dragon’s back.  The bearded dragon had landed on its side, but the wizard found its spinal fins a poor support to rest on.  The hand that gripped the fin was bleeding from the sharp edge.  Tonatiuh pinned both dragons down by their necks, using his right hand and knee.  In his left hand he gripped a steaming piece of meteorite, and this he raised in preparation for a strike.  She was concealed beneath the bearded dragon’s wing, the shadow over her large.

Once more Tonatiuh loomed over his next victims.  He was a devourer.  A parasitic agent that hungered without end.  Quincy knew how he worked, knew what it was he sought.  He was the very nature of a star.  Consuming, consuming, consuming…he’d eat these two beasts, and the power within them would become his own.  She knew this, from all the things he’d ever taken from her.  If he succeeded in killing the dragons, then all was lost.

As if to spare them, the sky started to rain…With weapons.  Quincy was nearly beheaded by a double axe.  This sparked upon hitting the scales, but the dragon’s hide was formidable.  Quincy, however, knew no such fortitude.  Wild eyed, she dodged next a sheathed short sword, a billy club, and a wide assortment of knives.  She was pelted by heavy metal objects at high speeds along her back and legs.  “Tai’undu, what is this!?” she shouted, wincing as a naked blade cut her hip.  Tonatiuh fared no better.  While the arsenal fell about her in an apathetic fashion, the naked blades and the heavy bludgeons seemed to seek him out, turning impossibly in the air to strike into his flesh.

“This, my dear, is a distraction, an interruption, a diversion,” said a deep tenor voice.  “I gave my magic a spin, and this heavenly fury you see is the result.”

The woman tried to look for the source, still wincing and squinty-eyed from the barrage.  What her eyes fell on made her seize up.  “Oh not you…”

The hail of larger weapons had ended.  The sky was clearing of the assault, and the man stood like he were impervious to the trickle of darts and bladed stars that now fell.  Tristi leaned on the dragon’s side with one hand, his deltaic face tilted to the side.  He flashed his fanged smile and said, “Hello little fledgeling.”

ELMIRYN________________________

Even as she gripped her sword, even as her brazen words echoed through her head, even as she felt the heat of the rubble stem up through her soles to the pit of her stomach in that pleasurable way–she knew she could not get in close.  Even with her injuries, Quincy was in a better state than Elmiryn.  The woman’s head was splitting apart at this point, and her stomach was lurching something fierce.  Her tongue felt parched.  She didn’t say them, didn’t even think them, but the words haunted the edges of her, pulsing like a heart in the dark–

Thirst Thirst Thirst Thirst Thirst

She heard him speak to her through the music in her head as she scrabbled over the destruction, her eyes vainly searching for some way she could join in the battle.

It was a bad idea.

She wasn’t surprised to hear him.  Still her lip curled downward and she muttered, “What was?”

The wine.

He was being unusually taciturn, and for some reason this annoyed her.  “You don’t think I couldn’t figure that out?”

Given your performance history,

I don’t think you could figure out

Which end shit is supposed to come out of.

That said,

I probably should have explained things to you.

You may have recognized

That you are different.

Well let me expand on that.

You are VERY different.

“Not quite human anymore, you mean,” the redhead spat.

No.  More like, “Not quite fae yet.”

She slowed, her heart thumping.  “…The fae?”

What did you think I was doing to you?

Turning you into a garbanzo bean?

“The things I can see that Quincy can’t…” She swallowed and felt her throat tighten.

Yes.  And the wine.

The fae cannot drink for a reason.

“Why didn’t you–DAMN it!  Why didn’t you tell me all this before!?”

You’re my toy.

That doesn’t mean I have to play with you all the time.

And I certainly don’t have to play by your rules.

Elmiryn felt a surge of illness overcome her, and she stumbled to the nearest broken column she could see.  She sat heavily on the uneven cement, and stared ahead with glassy eyes, her face green.  A big piece of meteorite, the size of her torso, flamed and crackled just a ways before her.  The flames licked the bottom of her field of vision, giving an infernal light to the battle before her.  Praxidice, the bearded dragon, had leapt up with wings beating, and had scored some powerful blows against Tonatiuh.  Poena, who had been turned away with a strong punch to the head by the giant, was now making to capitalize on this latest development.  But the advantage turned when Tonatiuh countered by grabbing Praxidice by the tail and slamming her into her sister.  Elmiryn saw Quincy still clinging to the dragon.

Quincy has a better head on her shoulders than you do.

Given her obsessions, that’s saying something.

The warrior rose again with labored breath.  The edges of her vision rippled as sweat dripped from her chin.  She scowled and closed her eyes.  She’d learned a lot of things.  Things she couldn’t tell Sedwick or Quincy.  She knew, in a tired sort of relief, that she could impart these things to Nyx when the time was right, but for the moment, these secrets were hers.  Things learned whilst her consciousness was free of her body.

Elmiryn responded to Meznik through the music.

Can’t you tell me what it is you want?

Why did you make that deal with my father?

What were you looking for?

She says to herself that she feels too ill and exhausted to muster up the usual hatred and fight in her words.  And even if she weren’t, what would be the point?  She can’t hurt Meznik.  But even she can taste the resignation in the back of her throat.  Meznik responds, and there’s a trill in the music, like he’s chuckling.

What a stupid question.

I wanted my toy.

Are you tiring of this, already?

What of the things we discussed?

Don’t change the subject.

Achieving dreams.

Rising above your station.

Getting back at those that abandoned you in hell.

I already told you, I can get you in arms reach of Him.

STOP it!

I’m not your toy!

I want a real answer.

Where is that effervescent hatred I love so much?

That bullheaded drive?

What is this exhaustion that I’m feeling from you?

His music wilted.  As the fight just didn’t seem to be in her this time around, so it seemed to flee him.  When next he spoke, it was with a subdued voice.

Moron.  Pay attention to what’s around you.

You’d better not die over this silly promise.

Remember, you don’t need any of the others to get out of here.

You just need me.

The demon that ruined my life.

A real bode of confidence.

There is a strange freedom in being so hated.

Furthermore, demons conjure up infernal beings of hell.

I thought you people didn’t believe in men with bifurcated tails?

…Men with what?

Never mind.

Just pay attention, or your head’s going to be crushed.

Elmiryn’s eyes opened, just in time to see a mace smash the meteor in front of her.  The woman jumped to her feet and looked up.  The sky was raining with all sorts of weapons, big and small.  She gave shout as she parried a falling sword with her own.  There was no cover close by, but the warrior figured it was better to run for it than stay and be bombarded.  She ran for the nearest building with an overhang, eyes on the sky, her sword slashing out whenever she thought the deadly end of a blade was sure to hit her.  She couldn’t deflect it all.  The woman bared her teeth as her body was pelted.  Once a sai had hit her in the middle of the back so hard, she actually fell to the ground and thought her back was broken.  She wretched but found there wasn’t much in her stomach to spit up.  With a push, she was able to pick herself up again and resume moving.  The rain of weapons stopped before Elmiryn could reach her cover.  She stood with cuts on her arms and torso, and her shirt ripped in places. Her breath came harsh and uneven.  Meznik was gone from her head.

She looked down at the weapons around her, and her eyes brightened at the sight of one…

QUINCY_________________________

Hello little fledgeling…

“Don’t you dare call me that,” Quincy snarled at Tristi.  Or tried to.  The struggle of the dragon choked the fierceness from her words as she fought to stay on.

Tristi stepped away from the stamping feet and thrashing wings to regard her.  “Why not?  It is what your caregivers called you.”

“And they’re gone, aren’t they?”  She had to shout to make sure her words were heard.

Tristi chuckled and wagged a finger at her.  Somehow, he didn’t seem to raise his voice anymore than normal.  “Y’know, I had bet Jack that I’d find you first.  He wasn’t really in the mind for bets–nothing like his old self, the poor fellow.  But the words left his lips, ‘I bet you…’ and you know what my tenets demand.  Ah, sweet, sweet little bird.  Do you know what agony your disappearance caused?”

“Tristi this is hardly the time for this,” Quincy bit out.  Her throat was tight and her breathing short.  She honestly couldn’t tell if it was the commotion happening or what the champion had said.

The man inspected the ends of his copper ponytail.  “Ah, Quincy.  I get the feeling you do not like me.”

“The last time I saw you, you’d turned me into a bird.”

“A hawk chick, to be specific.  I thought it was a compliment.  Tobias didn’t seem to think so, if you remember.  He hit me in the mouth.  Hard.  I think that was his specialty.  Hitting things like a rock.  He certainly had the head of one.  Come to think of it, he hit me with that too.”  Tristi feigned a shudder.  “Scary man, when angry!”

“Cute.  Can we not talk about this now?”

Tristi did not leave, even as Tonatiuh roared in frustration from the weapons that seemed to resume hitting him.  They no longer fell from the sky, but jumped up from the ground.  Tristi also did not go when the dragons beat their wings, and Quincy wasn’t sure if they were trying to protect themselves or to use the distraction to gain their freedom. The champion of luck gave a nod.  “I had this sneaking suspicion that it would be to my good fortune to follow Nyx.  When that meteorite fell and hit the dragon, I thought I was mistaken.  But here I have found you.  Will wonders never cease?”

Quincy went to snap something at him, but the man had vanished.  She gave a shake of her head.  “Damn him.”

Though the dragon’s struggled, the great giant just managed to keep his hold, and as if realizing what his distraction would cost him, Tonatiuh once more raised his bludgeon for a blow.  “Tāʾsīn!!” he screamed. Die!!

His hand came down, and this time there wasn’t a massive voice to blow him off his feet.

…No this time, his own shadow started to play tricks on him.  Quincy didn’t recall there ever being a shadow to begin with, since Tonatiuh’s radiance choked it from the face of the earth.  Yet now, from the bottom of her vision something dark had appeared, and just before he could crush in the head of his first victim, the shadow jerked, and his arm followed.  Quincy was certain she’d seen the shadow move first.  She sat up and watched, brows knitted together.  The flying weapons had stopped.  Tonatiuh grunted, his face bunching in bewilderment as he looked down at his feet.

Quincy’s eyes turned wide.  What was that small shadow flitting across the ground?  She looked up.  There was nothing in the sky.  Tonatiuh seemed to have an idea.

“Little witch!” He rumbled.  He tried to stomp at the shadow but found his own dark outline was beat back in the chest, and so his body followed suit like a puppet.  Every time Tonatiuh’s shadow was moved, so was Tonatiuh.  The shadow’s left knee was knocked to the side, thus knocking his aside, compromising his posture. Then his shadow was struck in the left shoulder, and for a moment it looked as though he would fall.  Alas, the giant righted himself using the slim dragon’s neck as his anchor.  At that moment, there was a short thwip and the giant’s head snapped back with a howl.  Quincy heard laughter and turned her head.

Elmiryn stood at a distance, sword sheathed and bow in hand.  She must have found it from the rain of weapons that had fallen from the sky.  She drew another arrow from the quiver she had strapped to her back.  She grinned and said, “Gods I love shooting people in the eye…”

Tonatiuh ripped the arrow out.  Quincy was sprayed with blood.  The spirit let out another howl.  His mouth gnashed as his right eye bled down his face and into the spaces of his teeth.  Then, without warning, his left fist flashed up to punch him in the face.  Quincy could see his shadow do this a fraction of a second before he did.  Then his other fist came around, this one still gripping the arrow so it left a little cut on his chin.  The giant stumbled back, off of the dragons and Elmiryn shot him again, this time in the center of the throat.  He did not howl, but instead let out a wet gurgle.  This arrow he tore out as well.

Quincy’s stomach gave a twist as she saw the blood from his neck and eye begin to stain nearly his whole front.  If he died before she could get to him–

The dragons, now freed, rose with a vengeance.  Unprepared, the wizard was nearly thrown off before she once again found her footholds on the bearded dragon’s back.

Tonatiuh’s face was tight and almost orange with rage.  He curled in on himself, and his body trembled.  Rapidly, his body began to grow brighter.  The dragons were advancing on him, and Quincy’s eyes widened.  “Wait, wait! Don’t go near him!”

To her surprise, the bearded dragon slowed to a stop and craned its long neck to look at her.  Its sister, however…

The heat around them grew immense.  The wizard knew this heat.  Knew what it meant.  How many times had she used this power against others?  She screamed at the dragon, “Get down!” The beast looked at the sunny giant.  This seemed to validate Quincy’s advice, for the beast got down and raised its wings to shield the woman.  Through the spaces of the wings, the brunette could see Tonatiuh snap upright with arms and head thrown back.  His mouth was open in a silent scream.

Then the light came.


Back to Chapter 24.2 | Forward to Break Time

Chapter 24.2

ELMIRYN________________________

Perhaps their sneaking wasn’t really necessary, as the great giants were more focused on battling one another than the little people scurrying off in the background, but Elmiryn figured it was good to err on the side of caution.  Quincy had seemed to think so.  They found Sedwick on the way over, hunched down in what used to be a cellar, with the rubble about his feet turning muddy from his watery touch.  His white eyes lit up to her and Nyx with astonishment.

“Nyx!” he exclaimed, rising carefully.  “Where did you come from all of a sudden?”

Nyx didn’t speak right away, and Elmiryn gave her a nudge.  The girl seemed to start up again, throat moving in a swallow.  “Sedwick,” she said.  Her smile was uncertain.  The warrior knew the girl harbored some guilt over what had befallen the man.  She was eager for her to see how well off he really was.

“With someone like Nadi around, I’d think anyone was well off!” Elmiryn thought with a smirk.

Sedwick reached up an arm, and after a moment’s hesitation Nyx grabbed him close to the crook of his elbow.  The man smiled and patted her shoulder.  “Well met, Nyx.  Well met.”  He jerked his head at Elmiryn.  “I’ve been having a time taking care of this one!”

Nyx smiled wryly.  “Oh?  Not too much trouble, I hope.”

“Hey!” Elmiryn snapped.  She glared good-naturedly between them.  Nyx and Sedwick had a small laugh, and the warrior let a rueful smile slip her lips.  “Sedwick, we were going to help Quincy.  Do you know what her plan is exactly?  I’d hate to come in and ruin things.”

“Plan?  She has no plan.  None other than getting in close enough to stab that great sunny brute with her sword.  That’s it.”  He shook his head.  “She’s going to get herself killed over this silly obsession.”

The warrior shrugged and said mildly, “In a lot of ways, it’s healthier than my pursuits.”  None offered to argue.

Sedwick stooped to pick something up, and when he straightened again, he had Elmiryn’s belt in his hand.  “Here, I got this for you.  I even found a spare holster for the dagger.  Nothing for the pistol, though.  I’ve got that here, to keep safe.”  Elmiryn took back her belongings with a purred thank you.  She would have gone out there without the weapons, but she certainly preferred having them.  Sedwick went on speaking as she fastened her belt around her waist.  “I was staying back, in case I needed to jump in and get Quincy for a speedy escape.  If you two are absolutely set on going in there, well…my only suggestion is to get the beasts’ attention.”

Nyx frowned.  “Why?  They would kill us!”

But Elmiryn was already seeing Sedwick’s point.  She turned to explain it to the girl.  “Look at that fight, Nyx.  Do you think we could get close without getting crushed?  If we have their attention, they’ll stop long enough for us to approach.  If they decide to both attack us, well…we’ll deal with that.  There was once a story of Diokles and how he battled a giant.  The giant was a great big man, but Diokles was quick.  The giant began to get frustrated because his stomping wasn’t working.  He had to get down low to strike at Diokles with more precision.  That was when Diokles was able to reach for a killing blow.  Do you see?  Force the giant to come to you.”

The girl nodded, but her frown remained in place.  “That still doesn’t account for the fact that we’re facing off three huge beasts, not just one.”

Elmiryn grinned. “And hey!  Look’it that!  There’s you, me, and Quincy!  Totally even now!”

Sedwick let out a chuckle.  “Woman, you do flirt with death.”

The warrior shrugged.  “I’d buy him a drink if I met him.”

“Go on.  Before the wizard beats you to the chance!  I’ll be here to scoop you all out if things begin to look hopeless.”

“Water gliding on your back, huh?  No thanks.  We’ll have this handled, Sedwick.  Just you watch.”

With that, Elmiryn and Nyx resumed their trek toward the battle.  They scurried from cover to cover, and all the while the redhead kept a look out for the wizard.

“Elmiryn,” Nyx said as they went.  “Do those dragons…can they communicate?  Do they understand Common?”

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at the question and glanced back at the girl.  “I have no idea.  Do you mean to strike up a conversation with them, kitten?” She chortled upon saying this.

The girl said nothing, and remained quiet the rest of the way.

Further on they went.  They were very close now.  So close that the rubble felt scalding hot to the touch.  Elmiryn was working up a sweat.  Her head was killing her, but she tried to ignore it.  Then the warrior spotted the wizard.  The wizard peered around a granite wall, her russet brown hair turned dusty.  She had her rusty sword out and pressed to her side with the length along her forearm.  Snickering, the woman bid Nyx to stop, and took up a small rock.  She took a moment to aim, and threw it at the wizard’s head in a small arc.

It connected.  Quincy just about jumped out of her skin, her sword whipping around as she searched for the source of the throw.

Elmiryn bit on her lip to keep from laughing.  Nyx scolded her.  “Oh, Elle, really…” she grumbled.

“Idiot!  What are you doing?” Quincy hissed.  Her face had turned red and her other hand rubbed the spot the rock had struck.  “That hurt!

“Tell that to my nipple,” Elmiryn said as she approached.

“Um, what?” Nyx’s brows burrowed in deep.

The warrior paused, sensing a hidden danger, and her eyebrows went up high.  “…Looong story,” she said, her smile fixed in place.

“That’s Tonatiuh there, I’m sure of it.  My sword’s been humming since he came.”  Quincy said, her gaze still a bit sullen as she held up her rusty sword and pressed it to Elmiryn’s arm.  Indeed, the warrior could feel the metal hum.

“Well now you can get him back.”  Elmiryn nudged the wizard with her forearm.  “And hey wizard, you weren’t the only one who lucked out.  I found my ward.”

“I can see that,” Quincy muttered.

“I also found The Rabbit, but he isn’t as interesting.”

“The…who?”

Nyx shook her head. “For heavens sake, why can’t you just call the man by his name?”

Elmiryn looked at her critically.  “You mean, ‘The Rabbit’?”

She received a sigh in response.

Quincy exhaled harshly through her nose before she spoke.  Her voice was tense and shaky.  “Elmiryn, it was quite nice of you to come dashing out here with your little friend, but unless you can figure out a way I can join in that fight without being crushed, I’m afraid there isn’t much else to do.”  There was a pause, then she added, “And I put out your stove fire too.  You were going to burn the house down.”

Elmiryn’s smile turned into a hook.  “My!  You certainly have a mind for the little things.  Did you also happen to dust the tables before you went?”

“If that’s the reaction you’re going to give me, I should have just left the damn fire going–with the grate open, just like you left it–and had some buttered crumpets instead.”

Thanks, Quincy.”

“You’re welcome, Elmiryn.”

“As for your grand plan, I’m in favor of not being crushed by those things.” Elmiryn pulled her jeweled dagger from its holster.  “And here’s what I propose to prevent just such a fate.”

“Your dagger?” Nyx said critically.

“I hate that thing,” Quincy said with a pout.

“Oh shut up, it’s perfect for this situation.”  Elmiryn gestured over her shoulder with it.  “I pull this, and all the sound goes out in the area except whatever noises the holder makes.  The beasts are bound to notice that in a hurry.  Whoever holds this dagger has the floor, and no one else will be heard.”

The woman started to hand it to Quincy, but Nyx reached over and gently laid a hand on her wrist.  “Um–!”

Both women looked at her quizzically.  The girl blushed and cleared her throat.  “I–I think I might be best suited for this situation.”

Elmiryn smiled and looked at her with head tilted.  “Really?  Do tell, kitten…”

NYX____________________________

I’ve experienced all manner of situations at this point.  My legs felt weak, but they did not shake.  My palms were sweaty, but were relaxed in their hold of the dagger and its sheath.  My gaze did not waver.  Was I becoming…brave? Where did that timorous whelp go, who so clung to Elmiryn’s leg at the first sign of a threat?  I stood, not certain of what it was I was becoming.  Just a little bit more, I started to believe in Lacertli’s idea of redemption.  I could redeem myself, one deed at a time.

When I pulled the dagger free, my ears started to ring with static.  Elmiryn and Quincy tried to say something to me, but just as Elmiryn had said, they were completely silent.  They gestured for me to go.  I slipped from our hiding spot and approached the battle.  The heat came over me in thick waves.  I was sweating so much, my new clothes were drenched.  I thought about the dragons, and what Elmiryn said they were.  Halward’s familiars.  Surely, they were capable of some level of discourse?  But given their screeching, I wasn’t certain I could achieve an adequate exchange in this realm.  I paused for a moment and closed my eyes, quickly going through those cold canyons of my mind until I crested the hill that served as my gateway.  The world sighed over me, and when I opened my eyes, I was in the Somnium.

I was a little surprised by what I saw.

The dragons were much the same, except that their forms seemed to have an inner glow.  The giant, however…

Whatever he was, in the eyes of the universe, he had the body of a frail and emaciated boy–still large by height standards–but I could see his skin sag around his bones.  Though his face was still much the same shape, it was leaner, the teeth rotted, the eyes crusted, the bone missing from his nose, cracks along the edges of his face like he were made of stone.  And the sunny glow that I saw in the Real World?  Absent here, leaving his body pale and almost a sickly green, save for an ominous glow in the giant’s stomach that matched those of the dragons.  There was no use wondering where the first dragon had gone, now.

Disquieted, I stopped in my advance and just watched the desperate looking creature battle the two glorious serpents.  The anxiety grew in me, and I looked down at my feet.

The soil felt hot beneath my new shoes.  I wiggled my toes beneath the fabric, and my footprint widened from how my foot shifted.  The ground shook terribly, and I stumbled back.  Dust and rock met me in a rushing cloud.  Lowering my arms from my face, I saw that the giant had slammed the bearded dragon onto the ground.  The dragon had its wings pinned beneath it, and the giant was over him with one foot.  The bearded dragon’s sibling tried to spare it the killing blow that was sure to come, all claws and beating wings.

But there was no sound.

I hadn’t been sure how close I needed to get for it to work, but sure enough, from the moment the dragon slammed onto the ground to the muted scream that the sunny giant attempted, they quickly saw what had happened.  The battle stopped with the giant’s foot still on the bearded dragon’s chest, the other dragon on the giant’s back with its claws dug into his skin and its mouth poised for a bite to the back of the neck.

Now that I had the floor…I didn’t know what to say.

I tapped the blade against my thigh and cleared my throat.  “Hello.”  Then I cleared my throat again and in a louder voice, with the dagger raised in the air, I shouted, “Spirits, I am here!”  The beasts looked my way.  I felt fastened to the spot and my mouth went dry.  Now I had the shakes.  It wasn’t just for them, but for what I was about to say, and who was about to hear it.  Conjuring up all the force and sincerity I could, I said,  “Hail!  I am Nyx, champion of Lacertli, the Dreamwalker, god of natural order.  Giant, release the dragon.  I wish for peace whilst I speak with you.”  And here, I sheathed the dagger, its job done, so that the beasts could speak.

“Champion, I care not a whit for your god.  I will not be moved,” the giant bellowed.  He had an odd voice–high and riled, but like a deflated balloon that had once been very big.

I tensed.  Pathetic as it may be, it had just dawned on me that just because I had a unique voice and a god’s name to throw around, that didn’t mean all present would just roll over for me.  When I spoke next, it was from my diaphragm.  “Spirit, you will honor my request.”

“I spit on it!” The giant returned.  He raised his fist in preparation for a strike.

This time I screamed, everything in me pulling as I pushed out the following words, “CREATURE, IN THE NAME OF THE DREAMWALKER, YOU WILL STOP!”  I could feel my animus pulse.  My throat tingled.  The air around me stirred.

The dragon on its back slipped away just in time, before the giant was blown off its feet in a rush of dust and wind.  The dragons, they were well anchored, and turned their electric gaze my way.  I gulped.

ELMIRYN________________________

Nyx had moved just out of range enough that they could talk again.  The radius appeared to be something like fifteen feet.  The girl would have to get in close, no matter what.  Elmiryn felt a little tension in her stomach that she didn’t like.  It reminded her of the first time she joined the battle field.  Quincy wasted no time in voicing her grievances.

“I can’t believe you gave it to her.”

Elmiryn didn’t look at her. “Stop grumbling.”

“You really believed the nonsense she said, didn’t you?”

“I believe Nyx wouldn’t lie.  If she thinks she can do it, than she can.”

“But they’re dragons,”  Quincy said, incredulous.

Elmiryn said nothing to this, but kept her eyes on Nyx as she slowly crept toward the battling giants.  In her hand was her dagger.  “She can do it.  With my dagger she can do it.”

They watched as the girl paused, and with a flicker, the warrior became aware that something had changed.  She didn’t know what.  The colors that comprised Nyx seemed richer, and her form didn’t seem quite so solid, and there was something oddly more distant to the girl’s image than what Elmiryn knew she was seeing.

“Where’d she go!?” Quincy stood, eyes wide as she scanned for Nyx.

Elmiryn looked at her. “You can’t see her?”

“No!”

“She’s right there!”

“Where?”

There!

“What?”

Elmiryn pulled the wizard down, “Just get down!  She’s there, trust me!”

The warrior returned her attention to Nyx and saw that the girl had moved closer now and was looking down at her shoes.  Elmiryn frowned and willed the girl to look up.  She just about launched over the wall when the dragon was slammed into the ground so close to the Ailuran.  Quincy had to grab her by the back of her pants.

“Hold on, don’t!” She said.  The wizard pointed, an astonished smile on her face.  “Did you hear when the dragon hit the ground?”

Elmiryn looked at her sharply.  “Damn.  Your right!  I couldn’t hear a thing!”

Quincy nudged her.  “There!  The beasts are starting to realize the sound is gone!  Now is her chance!”

Nyx didn’t speak right away, but when she did, it was with a small voice.  “Hello.”  The warrior blinked.  Was this the amazing approach the girl was going to use?  But the girl soon recovered, and she started again.  “Hail!  I am Nyx, champion of Lacertli, the Dreamwalker, god of natural order.”

Elmiryn sat back, eyes wide even as she heard Nyx go on speaking.  There was a burning in her ears and her mind felt like it were on pins and needles.  Nyx?  A champion? As in…?

She elbowed Quincy.  “Hey, does this mean what I think it means?”

“What does?  I can’t hear her, just Tonatiuh.”

“Nyx just said she’s the champion of Lacertli, the Dreamwalker, the…the god of natural order.”

Quincy’s face drew long and she looked at Elmiryn sidelong.  “She said what?

But the exchange was cut short when Elmiryn heard Nyx scream, “CREATURE, IN THE NAME OF THE DREAMWALKER, YOU WILL STOP!”  The air swirled about them, and both women were forced to duck and cover their faces from the dust and rock that stung them.  Elmiryn could feel it down to her marrow, the way she felt the sound reverberate throughout her, then echo like she were a deep and vast canyon.  The hairs on her body stood on end.  Her ears rang as if she’d just been caught in a protracted battle, filled with bursting cannons and screaming men.

Slowly, Elmiryn raised her head, dust sifting away.  She saw Quincy do the same.  Both had their mouths open, and peered cautiously over the wall.

Tonatiuh was blown off his feet.

“She did that with her voice,” Elmiryn breathed.

“I heard a bit of that.  Like an echo from somewhere far away.”  Quincy swallowed audibly.  “What have you been hiding, Elmiryn?”

“I swear I had no idea.”  The woman started to smile.  “But thinking back on it…”

“What kind of magic is that?  Is it a new power she’s gained as a champion?”

Elmiryn just shook her head slowly, then after a moment’s thought, she rose and started to approach.  Quincy didn’t follow right away, but soon the warrior heard the wizard trailing behind her.  They arrived at the girl’s side just as she began to speak with the dragons, who, by and large, seemed to be attentive to her.

NYX____________________________

I was trying hard not to panic.

I couldn’t lose my composure with two great big dragons staring me down, but I was worried that I had overdone it with my voice.  I really had to ask Lacertli if he could train me in the ancient bardic arts–if he even knew them.  I worried that my voice had hurt the others.  Surely it was possible if Tonatiuh had been so blown away?  The sunny giant did not stir from his place on the ground, where he’d landed.  I wondered why the dragons hadn’t been affected.  Was it their natures as godly familiars that had spared them?

But that didn’t matter at the moment, for I had their attention, and it was their favor I had to earn.

I bowed low, my eyes on the ground.  “Spirits, I am honored in your presence.”

There was a rumble from one, and I dared to glance up to see that the bearded dragon was shifting off of its back to face me properly.  I felt Elmiryn and Quincy appear at my sides.  I was glad they were okay, but willed them to keep silent.

“Raise thyself, champion.” The voice was deep and bass-like, with a raking hiss that sounded as though breath were being drawn with each word.

Slowly, I straightened.

“Thou hast stunned the giant, and we have precious little time for discourse.”  It was the bearded dragon who spoke, though her mouth did not move at all.  It was like her thoughts echoed through the air.  “I am Praxidice, and my sister is Poena.  The noble dragon you had previously met was known as Erinyes, though she is lost to us now.”  It blinked its eyes slowly at me.  Its sister, Poena, gave her wings a shake and watched me with narrowed eyes.

I swallowed and placed my fist over my heart–over Lacertli’s mark.  “We had no quarrel with your ilk, noble Praxidice.  I would avenge your sister’s death.”

“You had some among your company that tasted of dark power.”

I clenched.  The dragon was speaking of Farrel.  “Fair and noble spirit, the halfling was tainted by a greater spirit, who planned to deceive you as to his whereabouts.  I can lead you to the fiend’s lair.”  I bet Volo didn’t count on me actually utilizing my bardic talents to talk to the dragons.  It would be his undoing.

“Very well.  That accounts for him, young champion.”  But Praxidice fixed her eyes on Elmiryn, and bared her teeth.  “But that says nothing of her.”

“Who, me?” I heard Elmiryn say.

I looked at her and let out a cry.

The Somnium reveals things that the eye cannot see.  It makes ideas into a reality, does away with false appearances, and reveals that which lingers on a spiritual level.  This was the first time I had ever looked at Elmiryn in the Somnium, and I did not like what I saw.

The woman was translucent, not solid, and in her chest I could see a large seed that had sprouted, large and bulbous, that stemmed through her limbs, even up into her head where the trailing roots reached out of her ears and hugged the sides of her face in a spidery reach.  Her eyes were black.  There was something about her face that did not seem to sit still.  When she looked at me, the image smeared and blurred, and I could see the skull beneath her skin.  There were two dark bumps on either side of her head, near the hairline, and I saw how the roots seemed to be pushing at her skin, fighting to sprout.

I covered my mouth and stared at her horrified.

Elmiryn gave me a dubious smile before even that faded away.  “Nyx…what’s the matter?”  It didn’t occur to me at the time, but later reflection had me puzzling over how the woman could see me in the Somnium.  Quincy was oblivious to my presence, after all.  It didn’t take me long to draw up a theory.  The seed in the warrior was doing something to her…changing her.

“Her aura tastes of murder and madness, champion.  We sense something greater amiss.  Would you ask us to turn a blind eye?” This was not Praxidice, but Poena, I suspected. This dragon had a lighter voice, but it was harsher and verged on outright hissing.

I swallowed and reached a hand out to Elmiryn.  The woman took mine, and I could feel her warmth, feel her flesh.  I closed my eyes and said, with perspicacity, “My patron tells me that all beings under the gods are born with a certain amount of debt.  Some have more than others.  I too, have great debt, spirits.  I…care for this woman deeply, and I take her as my responsibility as she takes me as hers, and I would see no harm come to her.  If that is not just, than perhaps I do not wish to be just.  I only wish to be in harmony.”  My head bowed, and after a moment’s breath, I raised it again.  My mouth was thin.  “Spirits, I offer you my strength and the head of one you have sought long, and in exchange I would see that none of my companions be harmed.”

“You ask us to go against our nature.” This was Praxidice.

I looked at them, and something rose from inside me–something alien and different.  Something that wasn’t me. “Nature is ever changing.  It asks for sacrifice to see one’s will done.  What wouldst thou sacrifice to see thine greatest enemies felled?” My voice was steely.  The air felt charged from it.  I took a deep breath, suddenly starved for it, and my eyes fluttered.

Elmiryn squeezed my hand.  “Nyx, what’s going on with you…?” She was looking at me, that little wrinkle back in her brow.  I looked at her, and with a gentle hand, I reached up and brushed my thumb over her worry line.  I said nothing, but my expression was grim.

The dragons didn’t have long to think on it, for Tonatiuh was stirring once more.  I could feel Quincy tense up next to me.  The brunette muttered Fanaean curses.

“Champion…vermagus…Were you any other creature, my sister and I would snap up your company and seek our vengeance alone, but if you can aid us and promise peace until your departure, than so shall we spare you and yours our wrath.”

I bowed, “On my word, Praxidice, we will honor your trust.”  And I felt something claw up my spine and into my skull.  I shivered a little.

“And your word is no small thing, as we have seen.  But come, let us cease this talk, for the time for battle is nigh!”

The ground rumbled as Tonatiuh rose to his feet and screamed into the air, his fists pounding his chest.  I squeezed my eyes shut and went inward.  It was time to leave the Somnium and its sights.  I ran through the canyons of my subconscious, wondering how time worked in this somnambulant in-between.  When I was on the other side, I opened my eyes and found myself back in the Real World.  Tonatiuh was once again the burly giant he had been, and the dragons no longer glowed.  Best of all, Elmiryn didn’t look so nightmarish.  I handed back her dagger and said, “Elle, go back and hide!  You aren’t well!”

Quincy jerked, staring at me with eyes popped.  “Damn!  Where did you come from!?”

Elmiryn crowed into the air, “Oh-HO!  Now you’re telling me to stay behind?” She shook her head as she put the item away. “Not a chance!”  And with that, Elmiryn drew her sword.

The ground gave another rumble as Tonatiuh slammed both his fists down.  We fought to stay on our feet.  Quincy instinctively had grabbed onto my shoulder to keep from falling, and her gaze was intense.  Fearful…but hungry too.  “Sorry to burst your collective bubble, but I think the option for running is gone now!”

Tonatiuh screamed at us, the sound rivaling my own.  He pointed a finger my way, and bit out, “I shall eat your heart!!”  Then his gaze flickered to the side, and fixed on Quincy.  Without lips or eyebrows, it was very difficult to discern the emotion that came over his face.  It appeared like shock, but could’ve been confused with relief as well.  Then Tonatiuh’s body started shaking, and a sharp, rippling sound reached us.

…He was laughing.

“Ah!  Quincy!  Baghun knt ant alan!”  It wasn’t Fanaean, nor Indaban, nor Santian.  My guess was that it was Talmas, the common language of Talmor.  It seemed my guess of Tonatiuh’s origins had some weight.  The great giant laughed and slapped his stomach.  “Come!  We shall see who is master now!”

Quincy was red in the face when she pointed at Tonatiuh with her sword.  “I will have you, damned spirit!  You are mine!

Poena screeched.  No longer in the Somnium, I could not understand the dragons as I had before, but the meaning was clear.  They would have their vengeance before Quincy’s agenda was met, no exceptions.  They struck forth, kicking up hot rubble, and their wings stirred the dust high above our heads.  Straggling behind them, the three of us followed.

The battle began.


Back to Chapter 24.1 | Forward to Chapter 24.3

Chapter 24.1

NYX____________________________

We had started running even before the beast came, but it was like it sensed our presence.  The air became rent with its fierce cries, and no amount of haste could put distance between.  The sound filled us.  Spurned us.  Only Tristi seemed above it all, and he took the lead.  He guided us through dizzying passageways and small back streets where our view of the city’s festivities became filtered through steel fences, lenticular windows, and steam.  Overhead, the colorful fireworks continued to compete for everyone’s attention, but for our eyes, there was but one thing that stood out to us–and that was the great and sweeping shadow that streaked through the glory.

We came to the end of our cover when we entered a residential district filled with similar homes.  We were going to be forced out into the open with no opportunity to flee it again anytime soon, it looked like.  I prayed our exit from this shard was close.

“Don’t stop!” Tristi barked as he picked up his pace.  His jacket strained against his back as he charged out into the open street, the phantoms swallowing his form.  “The nearest alley is only two blocks away!”

We struggled to keep up.  Farrel panted behind me, and I fared only a little better–lacking that stamina that my Twin often lent when the going got hard.  I was ready to grab Tristi’s coat tails and let him drag me when–

I heard a whistle.  THE whistle.  The one I’d heard before, the one that had so captured my attention back in Volo’s company.  I nearly twisted my ankle looking over my shoulder.  “That sound!!” I exclaimed.  Farrel bumped into me as I stuttered to a stop.

“What sound?” Tristi asked over his shoulder.  Then he saw that I wasn’t following anymore and reluctantly slowed.

Panting, I gazed wildly around me.  It sounded like it came from behind us, but where exactly?

“Nyx, what’re ya doin!?” Farrel snapped, bent over onto his knees and his skin drenched in sweat.

I ignored him, my ears straining as I heard the whistle again, come closer, and closer, and then…

Like an apparition, she was there, her eyes on me like jeweled lenses catching the light and setting my skin on fire. My breath caught.  Even in her disheveled state, she still left me stupefied.  Her leather pants were whiter at the knees than I last remembered them.  She wore a wrinkled cotton shirt that was unevenly buttoned, and the frizz of her hair defied the restraint of her ponytail.  There was a ruddy look about her eyelids as if she’d been awake an age without ever pausing for sleep.  I felt my whole body tingle.

My voice was small in my ears.  “E-Elle…?”

“Nyx, I finally found you…” she whispered, her eyes fixed on mine.  Her face was blank, like this was as much a shock to her as it was to me–and then, she grinned.

I would have launched into her arms right then were it not for the terrifying screech and descending threat that broke the spell.  My eyes snapped up and I saw the beast–with its leathery wings, the span of four chariots, and its long spined neck craned toward us, with the talons of its feet glinting and spread in preparation to snatch up its prey.

…The thing that Volo so feared was a golden dragon.

It clipped back its wings and reared back its head, spearing itself toward us with claws a menacing promise of death.  Its gleaming sunny scales reflected the fury of the fireworks, and its blue slitted eyes fixed on us.  I had two choices.  Either go for Elmiryn, or go for Farrel.

…It really was no contest.

With a yell I leapt for Elmiryn, tackling her around the middle as the dragon’s shadow grew starker around us.  I could hear Tristi and Farrel shout, but with a will, we passed through into the Umbralands.  We tumbled, head over heels, and when we settled, I was the one sprawled on top.  The world around us was still a glaring white from all the damned light, so there wasn’t much room to move.  The white spaces were like pitfalls that led back to the Real World.  We sat on the black island that was the dragon’s shadow, and I held my breath as I saw the monochromatic figure tower over us, screeching.  A turn of my head showed me that Tristi and Farrel had vanished–their silhouettes absent from the area.  No doubt, the champion of luck had pulled off some trick.  The small pang of guilt I felt for leaving Farrel eased a bit.

“What in the nine hells just happened?” exclaimed Elmiryn.  Her voice reminded me that she had no idea what I was capable of–but even that seemed to take a secondary concern as I became aware of my face in her chest.  Oh, we are a passionate people, us Ailurans.

My head practically bursting with blood, I raised myself to look at Elmiryn’s face.  The woman in question gazed about her, bewildered, eyes straining as she tried to get a sense of where she was.  “Am I hallucinating again?”

“N-No, Elle,” I said quietly.  “You’re in the Umbralands.  I…I brought us here.”

She looked at me, cerulean eyes blinking.  “You did?”

I nodded, an odd quiet coming over me now that the object of my motivations was in my grasp.  The shadow around us shifted and I could see the dragon was preparing to take off again.  Once it did, we’d lose our place in the Umbralands, and I didn’t have it in me to create new shadows.  I reached a hand toward her face.  “You’re okay,” I breathed, eyes tearing up.  “Elmiryn, you’re really okay!”

She took a breath, eyes going wide, and I saw myself reflected in her gaze.  Then the woman smiled her broad smile, and she pulled me to her in a tight hug.  I hugged her back in kind, my body shivering.

“You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through!” I said with a tight laugh.

“I could say the same, kitten.”  Elmiryn returned, and her laughter became a part of me, sending a pleasure so deep as to force me to sit up and squeeze my thighs around her sides.  I pressed my forehead to hers and looked into her eyes–

And that was about as far as I got.

The dragon took off, taking its shadow with it.  We fell through the white and back into the Real World, bodies suspended before we crashed back to the ground.  Elmiryn looked green as I disentangled myself from her.  “Yeah, that? I don’t think I’m ever going to like that,” she said weakly.

“Sorry,” I said, but my eyes were on the skies.  The dragon was flying away.  No…not just flying away, but toward something.

My eyes bugged.  “Tristi!?”

The champion of luck was free falling through the sky with Farrel in his arms.  They were tiny so high up.  I could recognize them from the color of his jacket and Farrel’s light crop of hair.  I had no idea how they came to be up there so quickly, but my guess was that Tristi had called forth his chance magic…and this time, it didn’t look like the result was very fortunate.

I ran forward, the phantoms still teeming about us, and tried to call out to them.  “Tristi!  Farrel!”  But what could I do?  Within seconds, the dragon would have its meal and–

There was a golden flare in the sky, as something, a small meteor it looked like, came searing through the air to crash into the dragon.  There was a halo of light and dust around the burning rock, and this fanned out upon impact.  The air stirred, giving pause to all around us.   The great beast let out a painful cry, such that I was made to flinch as if I had been struck.  Intermingled with it was a chilling scream, like one from a man, but the volume was much too powerful to belong to a mortal’s.  The dragon came crashing, crashing, crashing down, and with a cataclysmic boom, it struck the earth.  What I found odd was that the meteor didn’t change course, or burst apart.  It seemed to…plow, as hard as it could, into the dragon’s chest, never once losing contact, even as I saw the dragon’s wings beat it.  Where did it and the meteor land?  Was anything destroyed?  Were any humans in our world killed, as when Tristi had dropped that orb of his?

If I had any question as to how this translated in our world, my answer came swiftly.  Screams and shouts filled the air as the festival goers ducked from the sweep of air that came surging from the point of impact.  A large slim column of dust rose, and there it towered into the dark sky, the night swallowing its peak to make it seem an endless giant.  Then the crowds around us fell still and quiet.  The fireworks, slow to realize the gravity of the situation, popped and cried jarringly, till less and less, they vanished for good.  The sky was scarred from their presence, and my ears rang from the absence of din.

My breath rattled past my lips and I shook my head.  “What…was that?” I breathed.

A dragon’s screech scattered my confusion as I twisted around to see yet another dragon coursing through the sky.  But it passed over us as it glided cautiously toward the landing site where its brethren no doubt still lay.  Another soon followed it, this one twirling and swooping in agitation.  It flew a bit lower than its fellow, and I saw it fix its blue eye on us, but like the other, he too passed us by.

This brought my attention to Farrel and Tristi, still falling, but so much closer now to their demise.  Their descent was much too fast, but I started into a sprint anyway, meaning to beg the shadows to take them.  In the back of my mind, I knew I was too far away.

I screamed when they hit the ground.

…And then…they bounced.

Having stopped in my horror, I was startled enough to move into a walk, then from a walk to a jog, then from a jog to a run.  “Sweet Aelurus, you’ve got to be joking!?”

Farrel and Tristi bounced again.

They were just within shouting distance, but I could hear Tristi laughing maniacally as he and Farrel rose up into the air once more, just over five stories, and came crashing back down.  Their bodies tumbled and twirled.  Farrel was screaming.  I wasn’t sure if they would bounce again, so as soon as I was able, I willed their shadows to take them.  They fell to the earth but didn’t come back up as before.  I slowed to a jog until I found the two of them, lying in the middle of the road.  The champion of luck had his eyes closed and was grinning, while Farrel was on his stomach and retching.  They must have slipped into the Umbralands, but without a shadow to sustain them there, they slipped right back, as I had planned.

“That was fun,” Tristi chuckled.  He opened one abalone eye and looked at me.  “Your trick was unnecessary.  We would’ve kept bouncing until we were safe.”

“Given your dislike for Farrel, I wanted to be sure,” I said dryly.

“Oh.  Perhaps wise.  Perhaps.”  The man’s eye flickered to something behind me.  He sat up.  “Ah, and who is your friend, sweetest?”

Sweetest?” Elmiryn appeared at my side.  She fixed me with a questioning look and I winced.

“I told you not to say that.  Why does everyone insist on calling me things I do not like?” I mumbled.

Farrel, with a little puddle of vomit next to him, rolled onto his back.  He glared at Tristi.  “Ya bastard.  You did that on purpose, didn’ ya?  I thought we were done for!”

The champion of luck pushed his glasses up onto his nose with a sigh.  “Little man, just be glad I wasted my good fortune on you.”

I kneaded my temples, eyes slipping closed as I tried to find my center.  “Elmiryn, you remember Farrel.”

“Oh.  Yeah.” She nodded at Farrel with a smirk.  “The Rabbit.”

“And this,” I went on, before Farrel could say something, “Is Tristi.  He, uh…” and I trailed off here, my brow bunching as I tried to think of what to say.  “He’s been following me,” I ended with a lame shrug.

“Is that all you’ve got to say?” Tristi chuckled.

“Is she supposed to say something else?” Elmiryn asked, a hook to her smile.

“Well, the girl was following me for a time.”

“And you find it important to make this distinction?”

“I believe in giving what is due, and in this situation, credit is due.”

“For following you?”

“For following my unfollowings.”

“What the fuck does that even mean?”

“Have you found anyone else, Elmiryn?” I interjected.  The last thing I needed was for the warrior to pick a fight with a champion–which was part of the reason I didn’t bother mentioning Tristi’s nature.  I was almost certain that if Elmiryn learned what Tristi really was, she’d go looking for trouble on that basis alone.  Given the exchange I just saw, I didn’t need to add to the fire.  “I found Argos, but he’s…well, he’ll join us later.  So far, no luck with the others.”

“Sedwick is with me,” Elmiryn said, her hooked smile still in place and her eyes stubbornly fastened onto Tristi’s.  Then, slowly, she broke the eye contact and craned her head.  The crowd had started to disperse in a low din, but not enough that we could see far beyond us.

My mouth dropped.  “Sedwick!  What is he doing out here?  I thought he was in Gamath!”

“Long story.  But I imagine we’ve both got those.” The woman stood on her tiptoes and blew her whistle.  I winced and clapped my hands to my ears.  The sound was sharp and incited a funny feeling in me. Elmiryn glanced at me with a grin.  “Sorry.  I forget it works a bit too well on some people.”

I pointed at it. “Is that thing magic? Where did you get it?”

The warrior nodded.  “Again, long story.  I think only people I trust or care about can hear it, myself not included.  I’m trying to see if the others can hear me.”

“I thought you said it was just Sedwick with you?”

“Did I?”  The warrior rubbed the back of her neck, “Ah, sorry.  I ran into Quincy too.”

I grabbed her arm, my eyes narrowed.  “Quincy? The-heartless-wizard-who-stabbed-me Quincy?”

“…Quincy, eh?” Tristi raised his head and stared at Elmiryn with deep eyes–those same thorny faraway eyes I had seen now and again.

The warrior looked at me.  “She isn’t heartless.  A bitch, maybe.  But not heartless.”

Tristi had propped himself up on his elbows and Farrel was now making an effort to sit up.  The champion of luck spoke.  There was a light to his eyes, much like when I’d first met him. “My luck has bought you all some time.  It would appear drawing the first beast’s attention as I had left it open to that strange interruption.  My suggestion?  Let’s away while there is still a chance.”  He smiled.  “All of us.”

“You did that on purpose?” Elmiryn said, pointing to the sky.  She shook her head.  “Do you know what you just did?”

“Stopped this idiot from being eaten?”  Tristi jerked his head at Farrel with a saintly look.

“Those are the Blessed Dragons, Praxidice, Erinyes, and Poena!  Halward’s familiars!  Y’know, the ones who ate their way out of Nathric?  The fucking reason this festival even exists?  You think you’ll get away with hurting one of those things?”

Tristi paused, eyebrows up high.

I looked at him, flabbergasted.  “Tristi you didn’t know that?” I exclaimed.  What I didn’t say, but still meant, was, “How could you not think of that?  I thought you said you’d been around an age!?

The man sat up, a scandalized look coming over his features.  “No.  Nonononononono-NO.  I knew that.  But the repercussions hadn’t quite reached me until now…You know how my magic works, little one.  There are certain outcomes I have no control over.  The death of one of the Blessed was hardly in my favor.” He frowned.  “Damn.  It won’t be long before Fortuna tells me to fix this.”  This surprised me.  So the goddess of luck could not cross lines?  Well, it was Halward, star ruler and god king.  It seemed all gods had their boundaries.

“I’m glad you did anyway,” I said, meaning it.  Was that blasphemous?  Somehow, the usual nervousness over such a concern was absent.  I extended a hand to Farrel and the man stood to his feet with a teeter.  “It’s the first honest bit of help you’ve given since I met you.  Thank you, Tristi.”

The champion of luck waved my comment away, his expression still preoccupied.  “Now, now.  Enough of that.  You’re going to make me ill.”

Elmiryn waved her hands to get our attention.  “Hey, this is all fascinating, but I think I like Tristi’s idea.  Let’s get the hell out of here while we can.” The crowd had thinned enough that we could now see down the street.  Further on, two figures could be seen, solid as we were, running toward the crash site.  Elmiryn frowned.  “What the hell?  Where are they going?  They must’ve heard my whistle…”

“Is that Quincy and Sedwick?” I said squinting.  I didn’t recognize Quincy–where was her cloak?  And wasn’t she a blond?  I didn’t know much details about her, other than these.  It took me a moment but I did recognize Sedwick.  He was still his bald, pale self.  Half his body was clear, like he’d turned a part of himself into water.

Elmiryn already was moving toward them, a frown on her face.  “Yes…it’s them.  Something’s wrong.  They had to have heard my whistle.”  She took off in a sprint, and with a start, Farrel and I followed.  I heard Tristi sigh behind us and soon he caught up, his long graceful body easily keeping pace.

It wasn’t back the way we came, but down the main road where much of the stunned aftermath I had seen at the tower collapse made an encore here.  But whereas the destruction of the tower saw the area all but deserted, there were many more people at the heart of the destruction, still lingering, still staring starry eyed up at the sky as the dust settled over them in a film–setting these phantoms deeper into their roles and us farther from them as mortals and beings from the same world.  I couldn’t help but gaze into each face as we hurried by and I thought, “This is Death preying on Life.”  Could I blame Tristi for what happened here?  I’d already been convinced of his innocence in the event of the tower, but here it seemed too incredible to even consider his guilt.  So huge was this destruction, that drawing connections between the almost otherworldly tower of smoke and the lanky figure next to me, was like connecting a single tiny ant to the cause of my own demise.  The threads of speculation ran much too thin, and it repelled me to even think that such a thing could be asked for.

And yet…looking into those crestfallen faces, seeing those lost children, those weeping women, those harried sidewalk heroes that tried to lend a hand whilst the authority figures around them–city guards–looked on in stupefied silence…looking into those faces as we pressed further into the heat, could I still tell Tristi “Thank you?”  His luck, his damnable luck that had played to his favor and ours now saw the cost of hundreds of lives, and my earlier gratitude soured, for it made me sick that my life was spared because of such destruction.  I would have rather faced off with the dragon.  Surely the damage would not have been so deep.

But here I am rambling.

The time slipped away from me, losing itself in compression, as minuscule moments filtered through my perception in all the hullabaloo.  The streets, for another two or three blocks, were untouched, save for the ash and dust that had started to rain down on the city.  But the closer we got to the site of impact, the more we saw the true spread of destruction.  There were cracks running down the streets.  Churned hard brick and cement revealed the dark soil underneath.  Windows were blown out.  Fiamman lamps bent or knocked over altogether.  Pieces of the meteor had broken away, contrary to what I had thought, and smashed into a building or two, the rock still flaming.  Fires spread.  People fought to save their homes and livelihoods.  Some tried to save their loved ones from the rubble.  We knew were were getting close when the number of buildings left standing was reduced to nothing, creating a sight of devastation and ruin.  This fanned out at least a quarter of a mile in radius.  We came upon this view, and yet it wasn’t the most awe-inspiring thing.

What was awe-inspiring, was seeing the dragons battling a giant at the center of it all.

Not like the horned giants I had seen before, mind you. But a glowing, sunny giant, who looked like a burly, muscular man in a loin cloth–but his head…  Sweet Aelurus, his head.

It was mostly flat at the front, and circular, and when he turned his face to us, I realized he had the face of base-reliefs from Talmor.  I had seen drawings in my books, and there was no doubt.  I would dare say, this giant was the inspiration for the style.  To further describe him, he had a feathered head dress and a red and green colored bone through his large hooked nose, with an elliptical rectangle tattooed about his eyes in black ink to make them stand out.  His face was boxy and wide at the cheekbones.  The horrifying part was that he lacked lips, so that he bared his large flat teeth perpetually in the face of his serpentine foes.

There was one moment when one of the dragons, with a long trailing beard from the bottom of its chin, slunk low, then struck up–meaning to catch the big fellow in his gut with its fangs.  But the sunny giant screamed so loud I thought I’d go deaf, and he smashed at the dragon’s head with his elbow, stunning it.  This was the source of that great scream I had before.  The beast’s brother tried to sneak up on the giant at this point, but the man was too quick.  He boxed the other away, and so it went.

The meteor had all but been destroyed, scattered pieces of it being knocked away in the scuffle as the great beings raged.  My guess was that the giant had somehow been in the meteor, but I couldn’t be sure.  I couldn’t see the dragon that had been first struck down.

We four hid in the rubble, behind a crumbled wall as the earth shook beneath our feet with the great battle.  Tristi and Farrel cautiously looked on.  “Öctér!  Look at them go!” the halfling exclaimed.  I could feel him shivering from where I sat.  Still, I didn’t look right away.  My eyes were on Elmiryn.  She’d gone pale and her skin was completely drenched in sweat.

“Elle, you don’t look well,” I said, touching her shoulder.

She glanced at me and smiled sheepishly.  “I’m…yeah, you’re right.” She twisted to peek over the top of the wall and whispered, “I’ve heard that giant before.  He’s been all over.  Must’ve found what he was looking for.”

“The dragons?” I asked.

“It would appear so…” Tristi said.  “Though what manner of creature he is, I haven’t the slightest idea.”

I wanted to say the same for Tristi, since his race, nor even his species, had been made clear to me in all this time, but I refrained.

I turned to Elmiryn. “Do you see the others?”

“Yeah…” she muttered, frowning.  She slid back down and shook her head.  “I don’t believe it.”

“What?”

The woman started to smile as she pointed over her shoulder.  “Quincy is going towards the fight!”

I looked now too, and sure enough, I saw a small figure slinking toward the battle, sword in hand. “Sweet Aelurus!  Does she want to die?”

No answer.  I glanced at Elmiryn to see that a look of realization was pulling her features slack.  “Tonatiuh?” she breathed.  Her eyes fluttered and she looked up at me.  “I think–no, I’m pretty sure I have to go out there,” she said louder.

I dropped down to her, both my hands grabbing her arms.  I looked at her with eyes wide.  “Elmiryn, no!

But the smile was spreading on her lips–that wide, full-toothed reckless smile that turned my stomach into knots.  With firm hands, she pulled herself out of my grip.  “I have to.  I promised.”

“Promised what? What could possibly justify running out there??”  My eyes were tearing up now.  Elmiryn, stay with me, please gods, you can’t just go gallivanting off again, PLEASE–

“Quincy and I made a vow.  We’d take care of our other struggles, and help each other find what it was we were looking for.  Then we get to fight each other, one last time, to the death.”

I hit her in the shoulders, tears spilling forth.  “Cajeck, why would you swear by such a thing!?” I shrilled.

“It was the only way we could work together.”  Her tone suggested this was obvious.

“That’s the best reason you can give me?  Y’know I had to literally be torn apart just to find you again!?”

“Technically, she found you,” Tristi said behind me.

I bunched, my eyes closing.  “Shut up, Tristi.”

Elmiryn palmed my cheeks, and I reluctantly opened my eyes.  Her face was close, and her smile had turned gentler.  “Hey…believe me.  I’ll be fine.  You think I’d leave my ward to fend for herself?” she blinked at me.  Then again.  …And again.  Finally she let her head drop and I could hear a loud dejected sigh.  “Gods damnit, I really wish I could wink at you.”

I grabbed her wrists with a baffled look.  “Elle?”

The woman raised her head again, and with one last look at me, kissed me on the forehead.  She gave it some thought, then kissed me on the lips next.  She lingered there, and my eyes fell shut.

But the moment was over too quick, and she pulled away, her eyes twinkling and her predatory grin back in place, before she turned and darted around the wall, out of sight toward the battle.

I sat there, blinking, my hands still in the air where I’d held her.  My mouth jawed, fingers flexing as I tried to process my situation.

…Then I leapt over the wall, after her.  Elmiryn didn’t expect me coming, so when I shoved at her from behind, she tumbled onto her knees.  Bewildered, she looked at me.  “Nyx?” she held up a hand.  “Aren’t you going off script, here?”

“Cajeck!” I shouted.  My face was red and my fists balled at my sides, and when I said the word again, I put in all the emphasis I could.  “Cajeck!”  Elmiryn visibly flinched as she rolled over onto her bottom.  She batted her eyes at me as I stood huffing over her.  I jabbed a finger at her face.  “You can be SO inconsiderate!  So obstreperous!  So–so–rrrrgh!–so damn full of yourself.  Did I not just say I had been torn apart trying to find you? Didn’t I!?  Did you think that meant I sat on my ass whilst you were running around–” I struggled for something to say, hands wheeling through the air.

“…Higgeldy piggeldy?” Elmiryn offered uncertainly.

I picked up without a hitch.  “Whilst you were running around, higgeldy piggeldy!? I am not going to be the mewling maiden you leave behind!  Call me a harridan if you must, but this fucking role you’re so eager to stick me with is not to my liking!  I may not be the most cocksure warrior there is, but I am also not a vitreous little fool to set aside!  I am not denigrating you, I am giving you a reality check.  I am not going to let you just run off!  Not after what I’ve been through.  No!  NO! I won’t.”

Elmiryn glanced off to the side.  Then her eyes snapped back onto me.  “Soooo…come with me.”  She shrugged.  “I don’t mind.”

I remained huffing and glaring at her, shoulders up around my ears, and my knees shaking.  Then I started to nod in a quick, jerky way.  “Yeah.  Yeah.  Okay.  Yes.  I’ll go with you.”  I cleared my throat and swiped my bangs from my right eye.  Then I added in a quick mutter. “Obstreperous.  Someone who is noisy and unruly.  Vitreous.  To have a quality like glass.  Denigrate.  To unfairly criticize.”

Elmiryn smiled slowly at me.  “Thank you.  So I’m noisy?”

I looked at my shoes.  “I was stretching that one a bit.  I wouldn’t say you’re noisy, per se.  Still, the word ‘disruptive’ applies, especially when you’ve had something to drink–”

“Oh, kitten, you do lavish me with your Words.”

“I’d rather lavish you with something else.”  I had said this low and fast, but still I went red hot.  The words came out quicker than I could stop them.  My eyes stayed fastened on my shoes.

“Huh!” Elmiryn sounded surprised.  Frankly, so was I.  All this excitement and honesty had me spilling things out before giving it any serious thought.

I squeezed my eyes shut.  “I–I–I want to make sure you’re safe, and I can’t rest easy unless I’m at your side.  So please.  Let’s just…get this over with, Elle.”

“Okay.”  I heard movement and creaked my eyes open.  Warily, I looked up.  Elmiryn was on her feet and held out her hand to me.  “Let’s go Madame Fussy Britches!”


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