There were a few aspects of this situation that could generously be called "lucky." For one, the trail of dead foliage the darkening left behind led him straight to her. Another was that she still needed to stop to rest, to eat, and to sleep at night. That, combined with Rian's tireless trek into the Endless Forest meant he was rewarded at the end of his first day with a glimpse of her between the trees.
He'd called her name and ran to her, carried completely by his delight in seeing her again. However, dead brambles and brush sprang up around him, cutting him off from her. He cut through them with a hunting knife until the blade dulled. This did little to deter him, but he did change his approach.
He watched her from a distance, always keeping her in his sight, but trying to stay out of hers. That thing inside her, whatever it was, obviously didn't want him close, which convinced him he was doing something right. He had to get close to her somehow, but he had to use more cunning.
So, he followed her day after day, stopping when she stopped, eating when she ate, and sleeping when she slept, but always keeping one eye open. All the while, he tried to work out how to approach her without alerting the darkening to his presence.
Uncounted days into his journey, Rian rested under a tree while Deet napped a few yards away. While he knew he should take the opportunity to get some shuteye as well, he felt too restless. At least it gave him some time off his feet. He watched her sleep, endless familiar questions running through his head, when a flash of red caught his eye.
He stayed perfectly still, listening to the brush rustle and twigs crack as something circled them. He caught a glimpse between the trees. A red cloak, a claw, a beak... Skeksis.
Rian was on his feet in a second. He caught sight of the red cloak again. The Chamberlain? What was he doing out here? Certainly up to something, but what? Spying, perhaps? It wasn't as if they had gelfling to do it for them now.
He grabbed the hilt of his sword and began to unsheathe, but then thought better of it. The coward won't get close enough to taste me steel. Instead, he grabbed his bow and threw a quiver full of arrows on his back.
The red cloak flashed through the trees again and again, moving in the opposite direction of Deet. Rian spared a glance back at her. She slept still as stone under a tree's shade. She wasn't going anywhere any time soon. I'll be back, he silently promised her, not daring to make a sound. Then he positioned an arrow against his bow string and stalked after the Chamberlain.
He walked along, eyes peeled, arrow at the ready. It didn't escape his notice that this could be a trap. They could be luring him out here to catch him alone, but he was already alone. So what difference did it make if they ambushed him in one spot or another? At least out here, Deet was far away.
Finally, he found himself in a clearing, surrounded by a circle of trees. This is it, he thought, pulling the bow sting taut. He waited for the attack, but only caught more glimpses of red through the trees. "I know you're here," he growled at the red cloak as it circled him. "Show yourself, coward."
"Ah, Brave Rian," The Chamberlain squawked from the shadows. "We meet again."
"We would, if you showed your hideous face." Rian's ears twisted to catch the Chamberlain's footsteps and he rotated to keep the arrow pointed at his target.
"Sticks and stones, gelfling, sticks and stones." The Chamberlain's voice carried through the trees. "But words can hurt. I know very well. You should know too, if you learned anything."
"I know your tricks by now, SkekSil." Rian spat the name like a foul taste in his mouth. "You twist lies and truth to turn gelfling against gelfling. But tricks are all you have, smoke and mirrors. Your words don't work if no one believes them."
"Smoke and mirrors?" The Chamberlain mused. "Is true I prefer cunning and finesse over barbaric force. Peace is better than war, is it not?"
"There was never peace!" Rian tightened his bow string. "You drained gelfling! You corrupted the Crystal! You destroyed our home!"
"Did not drain gelflinf until recently," The Chamberlain dismissed, as if the other two claims were mere footnotes. "Is necessary for survival."
"Then how does SkekGra survive without it?" Rian snapped back.
"SkekGra?" The Chamberlain screeched, finally letting some true emotion slip to the surface. "You dare invoke the name of the Heretic?"
"He survived for four hundred trine without essence or the Crystal. You never needed any of it. You're just gluttons."
"Is payment for years of service," The Chamberlain answered. "You gelfling cannot rule yourselves. You need us."
"You're wrong!" Rian shot back. "Gelfling thrived in harmony with Thra before the age of the Skeksis and would have continued to do so if you never came."
"You think was all peace and harmony before us?" The Chamberlain questioned. "Was primitive time. Gelfling can be brutal."
"You don't know anything about gelfling," Rian growled back.
"I don't?" He could hear the Chamberlain's wicked grin in its voice. "Tell me, what was ancient gelfling punishment for patricide?"
Rian felt all the blood leave his face and his arms dropped just a little. The Chamberlain broke into a cackle, but all Rian could hear was his father's dying screams.
"Oh, so you must have some idea," The Chamberlain laughed. "I wonder what would Captain Ordon think of you now?"
Rian renewed his grip on his arrow and tightened his bow string once again. "Keep my father's name out of your filthy mouth, SkekSil!"
"Ordon knew the value of order and peace," The Chamberlain went on, "and you broke that. Would he be proud to know his sacrifice only led to suffering? Death? Failure?"
Rian's cheeks flushed as he aimed his arrow. "Don't talk about my father like you knew him!"
"And you knew him so much better, hmm?"
Rian's heart pounded in his ears. His fingers itched to loose the arrow. He saw red. His arrow flew forward and buried itself in the trunk of a tree.
A snicker rang in his ears. "No, not there."
"Show yourself, coward!" Rian called as he notched another arrow.
"It is a poor hunter who needs his prey to show itself. I wonder, what would father think?"
"You know nothing!"
"False! I know father would still be alive if son could protect self."
"Shut up!" Rian pried his eyes for his target. They followed the flashes of red as it circled through the trees.
"Rian could not defeat Hunter on own. Ordon needed to take son's place."
"I said, shut up!" The red cloak passed again. He calculated where it would next appear and tightened his bow string.
"Father died because son was weak."
The arrow flew. The Skeksis shrieked and fell to the ground with a thump.
Rian darted into the trees as he claimed another arrow from his quiver. In an instant, he stood over the Skeksis, arrow pointed at the creature's throat. SkekSil continued to moan in pain over the arrow sticking out of his shoulder. Rian stared down at his prey with cold eyes, forcing down the part of his heart that insisted on feeling compassion for the wounded creature. This is no helpless fizzgig, he reminded himself. This is a monster.
"Please," SkekSil begged. How quickly the tone changed. "Please have mercy. You don't want to kill me. I can be useful. I can-"
Rian released the arrow and it sunk into the ground just a hair away from the Skeksis' head. "Get up," Rian commanded. "Get up and go back to your Emperor, but give him my message. Tell him the gelfling will never go back to being his slaves. Tell him we will fight to the last. And before this is over, he will feel the wrath of Thra itself."
"Very well, gelfling," The Skeksis grumbled, stumbling to his feet. "I deliver message, but allow me to leave you with a message of my own. A question, more like. Do you think Rian is greatest threat to Skeksis? Did Rian cause retreat at Stone-in-the-Wood? If not you, who?"
Rian felt the blood drain from his face. "Deet…" This was a trap, but not for him.
"Oh, it has a name," The Chamberlain snickered. "Now gelfling, which would be smartest move? Who do Skeksis destroy first?"
The Skeksis' cackle stung in his ears as he ran back through the brush, pulling aside thorn branches with his bare hands, to get back to her.
A rumbling rushed in from the side. Tree trunks crackled like snapping twigs as the thing bolted closer. Rian turned toward it, hands shaking. He drew an arrow.
The monster crashed through the trees. Rian stood stunned for a second too long. The thing swiped out with its claw. He dodged, but the claw clipped his arm.
He let out a pained hiss as he clutched his grazed arm and looked back at the creature. What was that thing? He knew his father slayed hundreds of atathim of many kinds during the wars. That's not what this was. He barely had time to think as the claw came down on him again. He dodged and searched his belt for anything that could be useful. Dagger? If it could pierce the thing's armored skin. Sword? Same problem. Plus, those claws looked strong enough to snap the blade in half. His arrows were scattered everywhere and none within his reach.
What he wouldn't give for one of Deet's smoke bombs or even her fire tricks. Deet was always full or tricks and ideas. And I bet this thing burns.
But he couldn't go on dodging forever. If wanted to get to Deet, he needed to fight back.
He drew his sword, his best option. Another claw came down. He swung. His sword clashed against it like armor, but at least it drew back. It tried again, and again he blocked.
As he and the monster continued their dance, he recalled a story about his father, how he saved Maudra Fara from an arathim when she was a childing. He killed the giant beast with just the tip of a broken spear by stabbing it up through the mouth. Did this thing have the same weakness? Did he dare get close enough to find out?
Well, he had to try something. This thing didn't seem to be wearing out any time soon. He dove forward, sword pointed at the thing's throat. The monster seemed shocked for a moment, and it let him in. His sword plunged into the monster's stomach. A soft underbelly. This thing has a soft underbelly. Before he could withdraw and stab again, claws clamped around him and pressed him against its front.
"No! No!" he screamed, thrashing against the vice-like grip. He needed to get out. He needed to protect Deet, to save her. This thing couldn't have him. He pressed both feet against the monster's belly and pushed back with all his weight. Just when he felt the claws' grip begin to loosen, something came barreling in hard and fast.
He flew through the air and found himself crumpled on the ground, the wind knocked out of him. For all of Thra he'd swear he got hit by a runaway carriage.
Behind him, he could hear the sounds of a struggle and the monster's distressed cries. He began to pick himself up when something wooden thwacked him on the head.
"Rian not careful!" a familiar voice scolded.
"Hup?" He looked up and saw his poddling friend offering him a hand.
Rian took it, intending to push himself up for the most part, but the podling hulled him to his feet anyway. They turned to see the battle behind them, a second surprise revealing itself. Lore, Brea's stone protector, grappled with the beast.
"What that thing?" Hup asked, pointing his spoon toward the fighting creatures.
"No idea," Rian answered, huffing to get some breath back in his lungs.
The monster let out an earsplitting scream. It fell to the ground in a heap as Lore retracted its single claw.
"Come on," Rian said, grabbing his sword out of the creature's belly. "We have to find Deet."
"Deet?" Fire burned in Hup's eyes.
They took off through the forest, hardly noticing as brush and thorns scraped at them. Up ahead, they could hear screams. They ran faster. Purple light flashed between the trees. Finally, they found her.
When they made it to the clearing, they heard one more scream, saw another flash of purple. Then, a monster thudded to the ground. Deet stood in the center, surrounded by the dead bodies of three beasts. The purple in her eyes burned harsher than Rian had ever seen, as did the glow in her veins.
"Deet…" Hup whispered, staring stricken at her.
Her ears perked and she turned to them. "Brave Rian, Paladin Hup…" she spoke. It was her voice, but something else echoed behind it. "Follow us no longer. The vessel does not want you harmed."
"Deet, please," Rian dared to take a step forward. "You don't have to live like this. We can find a way to help you. Just come back with us. You don't have to fight this alone."
Her eyes turned away from them and looked sorrowfully at the ground. "It is not her choice."
A fire lit in Rian's heart. Ignoring Hup's warnings, he unsheathed his sword and marched up to her, or rather, the thing that was keeping her trapped. "Whatever you are, let her go!" he demanded, pointing his weapon at it. "She never wanted to hurt anyone! She doesn't deserve this!"
Deet's body turned toward him. Her eyes glanced down at his sword with little interest. "Deet is no captive. She became our vessel willingly." She put two fingers on the side of his blade and pushed it aside. "Your sword cannot change this."
She turned and began to walk away. He felt weak in the knees and noticed how dry his throat had become. No way to stop it. No way to save her. He couldn't' accept it. He refused to accept it.
"Wait!" He called out. His legs buckled beneath him and he fell to his knees. "Take me instead. I'll be your vessel. I am willing. Please. She has a family, people who love her. They're waiting for her back home. They need her. I'll gladly take her place. Please, just let her go."
She turned her head. The cold, unfeeling glow looked back at him. "It is not possible. What is done cannot be undone."
"No! No please!" He scrambled to his feet and rushed forward. "There must be a way! How can I save her? Please tell me!"
He grabbed her arm and it instantly brought pain to his hand, cold but burning. He dropped to his knees again, clutching the injured hand to his chest. Behind him, he heard footsteps as Hup hurried over. But he also heard rustling as Deet crouched down before him.
"Rian…" she said clearly, in her own voice, no echo behind it.
He looked up. Her face was kind and her eyes were clear. It was her, all her. "Deet…"
"You shouldn't have come here," she whispered. "It's not safe."
"Safe?" He spoke as if he never heard the word. "I don't care if I'm safe. I care if you're safe."
"Deet," Hup said in a soft, breaking voice, "please come back. We protect you."
She turned a sorrowful smile to him. "Hup, it means so much to me that you came back for me, but there's nothing to be done."
"Whatever's happening to you, I'm sure we can find a way to stop it," Rian insisted. "If we bring you back to mother Aughra…"
She shook her head. "There are some things that are beyond even Aughra's power."
"Please," Hup begged, tears forming in his eyes, "let us help."
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I love you both, but it's too late." She stood up and stepped back from them. "I don't know where my path will lead me, but you must leave me behind."
The purple glow fogged over her eyes once more. She turned and began to walk away. Rian could feel her slipping. He felt he was drowning. For one helpless moment, he considered letting her leave it at that. She'd walk away forever, he'd stay here on the ground, and everything after was empty. But Deet would never give in to despair.
"No!" he shouted, jumping to his feet. "No, I can't accept that. There's always hope, even in the darkest of times. You taught me that. I won't give up. I won't let the darkness consume you. Just tell me what I need to do."
She stopped and turned back to them. Her eyes were clear again, but the echo in her voice returned. "Restore the crystal. Set Thra right. Only then can darkness turn to light."
With that, the purple glow returned to her eyes. Rian and Hup stood frozen as they watched her disappear into the wood.
"What happened?" Hup asked, breathlessly.
He couldn't answer, only stared at the spot where Deet stood moments before.
"Rian!" Hup snapped, this time with more bite in his voice. "What happened?"