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.
…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.
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.