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.”
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!”