Chapter 31: Private Tragedies
Place one foot in front of the other and keep walking. Smile and wave at the dignitaries. Do not show any emotion; simply be the tia-aldyn of the Medjai. They know what has occurred between your betrothed and yourself. You know it. But no one will acknowledge it, not here.
Let him take your hand. Be delicate. Seat yourself at his right side at the head of the table, make light conversation. Laugh as required and eat what is given to you.
No emotions. No anger. Not tonight, not before these people.
From where she sat within the palace's grand hall, Cordelia could feel hundreds of eyes upon her. Yet, she saw none of them in return; she was too busy reciting the verses in her head. At present, she found it difficult to believe she would, or even could, endure otherwise.
The hall was done up in all grandeur, fine fabrics in shades of golds and blues hanging from wall to wall. Shadows darted about corners, fleeing the wash of golden light as each nook became illuminated, in turn, by the crystal chandelier above. The long, gilded table running the length of the hall held a hundred seats to accommodate Lut Gholein's dignitaries, as well as their guests. It was feast to welcome, a splendid occasion to remember.
Yet, the sorceress noted as she reached for her goblet of bitter wine, there was little joy to show for it.
"We fully expect great things from the re-opening of the trade routes." Someone said to another, who simply nodded, albeit rather solemnly, in agreement. Cordelia found she had little interest in such matters just then, despite the upbringing offered to her and her sisters in Oberon's household. Her father had always insisted they kept their hands dipped into the dirty linens of politics and economy, nomadic as their lifestyles were. Such knowledge, he had stressed time and again, was more than useful for the survival of one's people.
She sipped her wine absently, pausing only to wrinkle her nose at the tangy bitterness of soured grape. The liquid burned her throat, but then she caught her mother glancing her way, and, by habit, schooled her lips and face to form the same aloof smile that she had worn all evening. Subtle, even imperceptible; Cordelia knew with absolute certainty that she merely appeared wine-sick to the average Lut Gholein nobleman. They would think only that she was disinclined towards the grape. She also knew, without a doubt, that her mother would not be so easily fooled.
Arlene Dymigar sat by her husband, slender fingers interlaced where they lay upon her lap. One crimson brow, perfectly mirrored by Cordelia's own, was arched in grim amusement; her eyes were upon her daughter's, amber-gold, half-lidded beneath heavy lashes. The round, bearded dignitary across her spoke animatedly, his every word punctuated with conversational gesticulations of his hand and sporadic laughs here and there, but she was distracted, her gaze never once shifting. For a moment or two, Cordelia marveled at her mother; clearly inattentive to her current conversation partner, she nonetheless appeared to be listening, the occasional brief nod of the head seemingly encouraging him to continue.
Then again, Arlene had always been the epitome of dignity and grace. Kind, wise, yet stern when need be, she radiated poise and elegance; that which, among her three daughters, seemed dominant only in Asha. Estarra was cold, and Cordelia, rebellious.
All that, however, mattered little at present. Arlene was watching her, though not without a glint of sorrow within her eyes; sorrow for the happiness of her child, which, surely she knew, was forever forfeit. Cordelia noted, dourly, that her mother's eyes were rather less apt to brighten with a smile at present. It was as if the woman, elegant as she was, had aged a few years in the span of a few short months. The thought made her sick.
She looked away. She knew her mother watched her still, silent as the grave, alert as a hawk in hunt; yet Cordelia could not bear to face her mother at present. Jerhyn's voice caught her attention for a moment or two, his dulcet tones more than unusually crisp at present. She could only imagine that he, much like herself, stood in a state of clouded discontent far beyond measure.
Her thoughts were yet, again, punctuated by the rising of another prominent voice of formidable volumes. It was loud, but not obnoxiously so; simply clear enough for neighbouring diners to politely overhear, and, if they so desired, join in the conversation. Charming, warm, yet coy in its own manner, the honeyed cadence spoke with absolute confidence, jested radiantly, and offered compliments to even the dullest dignitary. Cordelia found she did not need to look to ascertain the owner of the voice, and, without quite meaning to, she pursed her lips, swallowing hard.
"Your nostrils are flaring, little sister. You had best check yourself before papa sees you seething at Asha again. I imagine he will chastise you sorely for it if he does."
Cordelia lifted her eyes, slanting her gaze aside towards where her sister sat. Estarra was smiling, it was true, but there was a slight strain about the corners of her crimson-painted lips, as if she were both unamused and bored. "Whatever do you mean?"
Estarra jerked her head lazily to the side, as if in some sort of a jaded gesture to point out the source of their mutual disgust. "You know what I mean."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Cordelia returned her sister's smile, sweet, yet bland in its own manner. Yet she followed the point of Estarra's gesture, shifting her gaze towards where Asha sat at Saul's right hand. He remarked at something, and she laughed in return. Cordelia found she could not stomach much of that scene, though to react further would be to prove Estarra correct. Instead, she turned her head, shifting so as to pointedly avoid looking at the two of them, then fixed blank eyes upon her middle sister. "I absolutely.. do.. not.. comprehend."
Estarra laughed, a dry, airy thing, though the tone of her voice was ever so slightly laced with mild antipathy, only just perceptible for one who listened closely. "Well, our eldest sister is certainly making a spectacle of herself, whether or not you comprehend. I think she is husband-hunting again."
"She won't get anything out of him. He has no wealth, no name, no family. She'll find that out soon enough." Cordelia thinned her lips, arching her back as she leaned forward upon the table. She could feel her collarbones showing from where she stressed her posture; it ached, but in an oddly agreeable manner. "And then she will throw him aside for better prospects."
"Perhaps it would have been better if father had betrothed Asha to Jerhyn in your stead." Estarra observed mildly, then leaned forward, quietening a touch. Jerhyn had glanced aside just then, perhaps having heard his name, though Estarra simply smiled, rather more sweetly than usual, at him. He returned the smile with mutual politeness, evidently unawares, then turned away to continue in his conversation, some grueling debate on taxes in wartime. "You do not seem to mind his lack of wealth in the very least."
"Stop it. Things are what they are, and it's not as if I have my heart set on him." Cordelia muttered; she knew very well what Estarra thought of her lie, the knowledge of which was confirmed as the latter laughed. "Asha can have Saul, and I will marry Jerhyn just as our father wants. Everyone wins."
"Everyone wins." Estarra repeated in the manner of a reply, her tone dry. Cordelia watched as she turned deep blue eyes towards Asha, shifted aside to study Saul for a brief moment, her sharp, narrow nose wrinkling briefly. "For what it's worth, it really is quite distasteful."
Cordelia could not help but to smile at that. And as she lifted her gaze to meet Estarra's wry, knowing smirk, she found, if anything, she had some comfort in her sister.
If Lut Gholein was the crown jewel of Aranoch, it could only be said that the palace was the crown jewel of Lut Gholein. Built in the year of the Great Desert Storm, a time where the elements were mankind's greatest threat, the palace had housed decades and centuries of kings, the forefathers and ancestors of Jerhyn's family tree. Gold-paned windows lined the exteriors, where gleaming white marble reflected the great lights of the sun and the moon. Colour-tinted glass chandeliers lit the halls, every inch within exuding grace, elegance, and grandeur.
Deeper and deeper into the lower bowels of the palace, one found intricately-furnished apartment complexes of silver and bronze, brightly lit with crystal sconces and golden candles. Plush divans lined with satins and velvets rested about the apartments, laden down with fat pillows of softest down. The apartments were sanctuary, places in which those who lived within the palace found peace, rest, and sweet slumber.
This was no longer the case.
Clumped bloodstains, fresh-stained crimson and dried, clumped brown matted the fabrics together and dyed the floors a river of death. Corpses; guards, servants, maidens lay strewn in various postures, defiled and broken by the stink of unrest and despair. Innards curled against corners, entrails forming pathways where, surely, victims of some demonic raid had been dragged away. Death hung heavy within the air.
The corpses littered the deeper underground levels of the palace, from living quarters, to kitchens, to servants' halls, to the dimly-lit caverns of the palace cellars. But the dead offered no trouble. Those with eyes intact simply stared blankly ahead, silent observers of the horrors that took place before the very face of their lifeless bodies.
Hours into the journey—or was it days, Saul found himself the unwilling witness of carnage that even he, seasoned as he was with the outcomes of Andariel's massacre, found difficult to swallow. The party was wearied; Araeya stood by his side, her brow creased in what seemed to be a perpetual scowl of disgust and exhaustion, though she would never let the latter show. Further along the corridor currently occupied by the Lut Gholein party, Baridth rested in an odd, yet well-measured sort of squat, the muscles of his calves rippling beneath the glimmering layers of his silver-scaled armour. His men, three in number, stood steadfast, silent sentinels that guarded the very shadows surrounding the small group.
Or what remained of it.
The hours had wrought far more than fatigue and exhaustion. Men had fallen—what meager number could be spared of Jerhyn's army, now decimated to numbers far beyond salvation was posted to follow the group on their mission. Eight they were, when they'd set out, and six remained. The others rested, now—rested eternally.
Saul watched Baridth for a moment or two, his own brow knitted beneath a layer of, what, surely must be sweat and blood. The young general was handsome, despite the scars that ran long and hard within his sun-worn skin. Dark, rugged curls fell loose about his head, matted to his scalp following hours cramped beneath the weight of a great helm, yet his features were sharp and undiminished. Regardless, Saul noted, the muscles of his own stomach clenching a little at the realisation, he was tired. It showed in the general's eyes, the pale hazel touched with a sort of weariness that seemed to all but suck the heart and soul from his face.
"Don't think so hard on things you can't change. That face does not suit you."
He glanced aside, roused from his thoughts by the tip of the shoe that had nudged the side of his own. Araeya met his gaze steadily, unperturbed by the wispy blonde feathers of her hair that rested messily over her face. "It's quite a sorry state to be in, however." He muttered, in manner of an answer. The men ignored him—perhaps they could not hear, or did not wish to.
Araeya stretched her arms upwards, and then to the side, eliciting several soft pops. "It is. But neither of us can do more, nor attempt to do more, than what we are already doing. What happen will happen. So why bother cracking a skull and a half over it? You might as well consider other things—those you can change."
She grinned, however wearily, at him. "Your lover's sister seems particularly enamoured with you. Change that."
Saul scowled. There was a cut at the side of his face—he had not noticed, before, but was party to it as his face contorted. The movement jarred, and it stung with blood and salted sweat alike. "She's not my lover."
"You don't deny that her sister was enamoured with you, then." Asha flipped her hair back carelessly. The golden locks were matted together with grime and stained oil. Yet there was no mistaking the airy, somewhat entertained expression upon her face. "She said little to others all night and had eyes only for you. For what it's worth."
"We're levels, Aya, levels beneath the palace, heading into the depths of Gods-knows-what. Are you quite certain this is what you want to talk about?" Saul peered at her in the relative dimness of the corridor. More than anything, he was sure it would do nothing to quell her interest. He cursed himself for knowing—and cursed himself for trying, even then, to deflect it.
She was relentless, as was expected. Laughing dryly, she fixed sharp eyes upon his visage. "She likes you. That much is obvious."
"She spoke to you, also, last night. Does that mean she likes you too?" He countered.
"Hardly." Aya shrugged one shoulder, turning her gaze back towards the men, watching with mild disinterest as one drank the remains of his leather skin. "Besides, she asked me to pass the butter. That hardly counts as a conversation. What did she learn of you last eve? What did you learn of her? We sat there almost four hours, Saul, and she all but stared at you for three and a half of it. Had there been dancing, she would have hung off your arms all night."
He grunted. "She asked of my heritage and I told her. That's about all that passed between us." He paused, peering at her, knowing full well that his rejection of her logic would not be taken lightly. Then again, it took very little to grate at Araeya's nerves these days—she was getting increasingly short-tempered. He knew it, and she did. "Why, if I may hazard a question, are you so worked up over this? You sound as if you were jealous."
It was her turn to scowl. The sight made him smile, and he did so with great pleasure. "You, Saul…" She began, her tone dry as if she were somewhat disgusted at him. "…are living in a dream. You keep your head in the sand, and you think that all your troubles will disappear as long as you do not rise up to face them. Asha won't go away, however, not if you don't set her straight. You refuse to see the truth of this matter, and personally, I think it's because you're far too deeply in love with Cordelia to even dare consider another woman that way. Either way, you've got two choices. Just two." Araeya straightened, her chest swelling as she glowered down at him. "Either find some courage and fight for the woman you love, or learn to forget her and move the bloody hells on."
Somewhere along the corridor, a head turned to gaze curiously at them. Araeya was silent just then, having said her piece, though Saul was not quite inclined to believe that she would not yell at him if he chose to prick her again. If anything, the depth of her gaze as she stared him down was enough to warn him.
The truth of the matter, however, was that she was right. He found he did not want to admit it in the least—who would, after all? The eldest of the Medjai sisters had given him more than enough reason to believe she desired courtship. His previous experiences with romance had ended unhappily, or amiably; there were but three, after all. Mirai, a youthful indiscretion, now no more than a stranger to him. Raina, who loved another, and Illeria, who could not, and would not leave her family when he was forced to leave his.
There was likely a better time to ponder things of romance, but, even as he knelt, stretching the muscular fibres surrounding ankles and calves, Saul found he could consider nothing else. It was different with Cordelia. Somehow, in a way he discovered he could not name, it was different, always, with her. She saw through him, and with those eyes, ever begged to be released of her own fate. Oh, but she knew her duties, and understood the graces of the higher beings who had set her in her place. For a child with little experience in the real world, a child with a fearsome temper, naiveté to a point of being an annoyance, and due and undue pride to sink even the grandest of ships, she knew her place and duty. And she fought to do the right thing—though how hard, he remained uncertain. Certainly at times it felt as if she sought to release her feelings for him, but other times, in particular nights such as the previous had been, he thought he saw more within the depths of her eyes. A feeling of restlessness, a trapped spirit yearning to soar to freedom.
That much he saw in her. That much she allowed him to see, at the very least.
"She wants to do her duty." Saul muttered. The truth, at last—previously denied and quashed beneath the passion of his own adoration of her. "She needs to."
Araeya glanced back down at him. Empathy-riddled eyes lingered upon his face, and she smiled, grimly, apparently now less likely to bite. "So you know what to do. The question is, druid—why do you not do it?"
Saul sighed, shutting his eyes and rubbing his fist into the sockets. The pressure was comfort against the dull, throbbing pain plaguing his head. "I'll let her go. I have to, either way. She has her future, and I have mine." He paused a moment, then drew his hands away to gaze at the amazon. "What of you? If I let my love go—will you let yours in?"
She arched a brow at him, as if confused for a moment, but no longer than that. Realisation dawned upon her face almost immediately afterwards. She shrugged a shoulder lazily, her nose flaring a touch, though not with anger, nor annoyance. She was simply resigned. "There's nothing there. There can't be. Meshif wants so much more. I don't know how to give him more than what I already do."
"Which is—" Saul leaned forward, though he glanced back at her. "—what, precisely?"
Araeya laughed, though rather humourlessly. "Bodily pleasures, of course." Frankness won over—she was both unrepentant and mild. "Companionship at the end of a long and harsh day. That, I suppose, is something we both offer each other."
Saul wrinkled his nose, then glanced towards the men once more. Baridth had gotten to his feet; they were ready to move on. Heaving a sigh, he pushed himself upright, wincing at the downsurge of hot blood to the freed muscles of his lower limbs. His feet were weights – inappropriately heavy and oddly metallic. "Some would call that a relationship, you know."
"Some would." She admitted, turning her head to follow his gaze towards the men. Like him, she allowed her limbs the pleasure of a final stretch, deft fingers tensing upon the wood of her bow immediately after. "I don't, however. It is what it is."
"A union of bodily pleasures and nightly romps." Saul grunted. He was not quite inclined to be polite, nor proper—Araeya did not seem the sort to remand propriety, at any rate.
She laughed, though like before, her voice lacked humour. "Indeed. Now shut up and go on."
They trudged along in single-filed silence. Too weary even to manouevre ginger-sidesteps along entrail-ridden corridors, they instead ignored the steady crunch of heavy-booted feet upon dusted bones, bloody footsteps etched into what was surely once-clean stone floors. What hellspawn they encountered along the way was easily disposed of—deeper down, the catacombs housed death and silence, more the latter, than the former.
Saul was barely aware of it, at first, when the cries of shock reverberated about him. Behind him, Araeya grunted, lifting slender bow to aim into the relative darkness of the corridor ahead. None said it, but all knew—they had found a nest of demons. No helpless birdlings, were these.
Araeya fired, and her arrow, set ablaze beneath dancing flames of crimson and gold lit the way.
Baridth had charged ahead, his silver broadsword held at the ready to parry the blades of the sentinels that lined the path. There were too many to count—great, hulking demons, perhaps once men, with scissors and blades for hands. It was more than the metallic hiss of their swords that rang aloud within the putrid air; screams, yells, and gasps rang true from the mouths of Baridth's men. They were wearied from travel and war, but they, each of them, fought to survive.
For a moment or two, Saul found he could only watch, eyes wide, as Baridth ducked beneath low-swung blades, reaching out with one veined hand to grasp his opponent's wrist. His broadsword flashed silver in the dim light, and then the sentinel fell to the ground in a heap. Yet there were more, similarly set-upon by his men, who stood shoulder to shoulder, outnumbered even then.
Araeya's roar was tinged with annoyance and desperation, and he could have sworn that she'd kicked him in the shins. More than anything, he wished to be free of the place, where the very blood of Nature was cut off by brick and stone. The amazon had made her way to his side, bow flexed as she took aim—moments later, the arrow found its mark within the throat of another vicious sentinel. He watched in dismay as it collapsed to the ground, bearing with it the corpse of what had once been a man of Lut Gholein.
He gnashed his teeth. One heavy hand moved before him, fisting roughly even as he drew that limb in circles—small at first, then widening to an arc near the size of his torso. For a moment or two, he doubted—but was heartened as the chilly winds within the depths of the cellars encircled that hand, moving upwards to bind about his wrist, and then his elbow. It was cool, like silken breath. Glancing aside, he saw Araeya focus, taking aim.
And, as she released her arrow, he released his. The frigid tempest that found its target wove ice about the hulking form of its victim. Petrified, the sentinel simply stared—but was soon shattered into nothingness as Araeya's arrow pierced its crystalline body.
They fired again, and again, he with alternating blasts of ice and wind, and she, with fire-laced arrows. Yet more came, and before long, he found himself panting with the effort. Baridth and what remained of his men were far from sight—he saw nothing but the flash of gold that streaked along the walls every time Araeya took aim, heard nothing beyond frantic screams and hisses. Like him, she grew wearier with every loosened arrow; this, he saw, however briefly as the light illuminated her sweat-damp brow.
He grunted. "Move back."
"What?" She glanced aside at him, slender fingers reaching to her belted quiver to withdraw another arrow. The lump in his throat confirmed his fears—it was almost empty. Yet she fired that arrow, watching with grim satisfaction as it split into three, all finding targets in head, throat, and stomach with bursts of warm light.
"Move back. We need to get away and regroup."
He thanked his gods as she took a step back. Privately, he doubted he had enough strength left with which to argue. For a moment or two, he peered into the darkness, though in vain. He could neither hear, nor see Baridth. He grunted, but there was a pit in the depths of his gut, where red-hot hands were twisting his insides into knots.
The breath of air that escaped his throat was cold. Yet, the air surrounding them grew steadily warmer as he flexed his right hand, the left gripping his staff hard. Behind him, Araeya let out a faint gasp, and deep within the recesses of his mind, he knew why. The ground crackled under their feet, the stones rattling as if the very foundations of the earth beneath them were troubled waters. Gusts of tepid air burst forth from the cracks between the stones.
And then, even as he stamped his foot into the ground, the stones fell away. The very earth exploded to form a fissure, crimson flames bursting forth to scour and burn. Coal-red lava swirled about the grounds, engulfing all in its path, even as he turned on his heels and reached for the amazon's wrist.
They ran along previously-trodden pathways, never once looking back. She panted, occasionally stumbling, until at last, they both fell. He felt her boot collide with the side of his face as she rolled over, but could only utter a grunt of resistance.
"Sorry." She panted. "—didn't mean to do that."
Saul grunted again, though to his chagrin, the sound came out rather like a moan. The pathetic whimper did little justice to his sentiments towards her at present, so he reached out to slap the side of her head. The accompanying yelp made him smile, if only a little.
"Bastard. You—" Araeya heaved, her voice cracked beneath some kind of strain; what, at present, he found he did not care to know. "—just destroyed Jerhyn's palace. Congratulations."
He tried to speak, but his throat was dry. Instead, the druid released a chuckle.
The shadows grew long as the last rays of the day's sun fell upon the Jewel City. It was hot, the whispering twilight winds blowing storms of golden sand across dune and stone. Night was close at hand—the city began to sleep. The long, winding street of Lut Gholein's marketplace quietened, dimly-lit at every stall with wax and oil. Fishmongers and producemen tossed away what remained, that had not been sold. Fabric merchants hastened away their stores, rolls of lustrous fabrics that echoed the glory of the city: silks, satins, velvets and brocades in all hues and patterns.
Tucked away into its corner beyond the locus of the marketplace, Drognan's home could hardly be considered a shop. It was true that he traded—years spent studying the arcane had brought about his desire to hoard items of magic, items of the arcane. Wands, staffs, and staves lay in iron-cast handles inset within the walls of his outer quarters, on display. In true Lut Gholein fashion, he lined the walls with fabrics—gold and orange shielded the insides of his abode from the sun, and plush cushions upholstered in crimson velvet offered respite to weary travelers.
Or, at least, those whose company he enjoyed.
Cordelia leaned back in her seat, shifting briefly. The large tome held upon her lap slanted inwards towards her chest; the words were lost to her. It weighed heavily upon her—though in more ways than one.
"Drognan?" She queried, her voice quiet.
The magus sat close by her, one arm propped against the richly-lacquered rosewood desk set between them. His brows were furrowed, eyes dark with concentration as they scanned the expanse of the page open before him. He let out a grunt of acknowledgement.
Cordelia bit her lip. For a moment or two, she wondered if his acknowledgement had been a show of politeness, as opposed to actual interest in what she had to say. She sighed. "…it's been hours. Almost twelve."
He took his time—likely to finish a sentence. Yet when he raised his eyes to her, she saw a strained sort of worry, as if he, too, were anxious for the fate of those deep beneath the city.
Those, who even then, fought to protect that which they loved. Their land. Their honour.
"Almost twelve." He affirmed, his voice equally quiet. "You worry for them." It was not a question.
"Them, yes." She admitted this easily—then bit her lip and glanced away as he smiled.
She dared herself to meet his eyes. Kind, warm—lacking in accusation, as her father's had been. Lacking in calculative schemes, as Asha's was apt to be. "Saul, too." She breathed.
If he was, at all, surprised at her admission, Drognan did not show it. His face retained its neutral visage as one slender-fingered hand moved to pluck silver glasses from his eyes. "You are to marry our Prince." Simple words—yet, like a pinprick to the heart. His eyes were softer, now, as if he had found some measure of understanding with which to consider her situation. "Child, you walk a thin rope."
Cordelia managed a wry smile. Part of her wanted to laugh. "That won't matter if he doesn't come back alive, now. At any rate… it's not as if I have a choice in the matter. Women are pawns in the game of alliances."
He blinked placidly at her, turning a touch. "Are they?"
"Are they not?" She frowned.
Drognan smiled—and she saw the irony, yet truth in the curve of his lips, and in the twinkle of his eyes. "That is for you to say. The decision is yours to make, child. It was always yours—only, it is a difficult decision to make. Sometimes, we are lost—but that does not change the fact that you, and only you alone, can change the road you walk. No one else can make you go where you do not want."
"A man might bind his daughter to a fate chooses. She belongs to him." She leveled her gaze, never once breaking away from the sight of his own eyes. "How does she change her fate?"
"Child, no matter what the circumstances, a man will always do well to remember that it was a woman who birthed him. I trust Oberon remembers. And if he does not, then it is up to you to honour yourself as a woman with pride and dignity." The magus leaned back in his seat, his expression somewhat mild. He regarded her, in that moment, not as an elder—but as a friend, capable of offering comfort with wit and cynicism. If anything, his face said such. "You were never one to follow rules, anyway. Not even when you were younger."
Cordelia chuckled dryly. Eyes rolled of their own accord. Yet she found she had nothing to say, and instead, pursed her lips. "What they're facing down there—Drognan, do you know?"
He sighed, then met her gaze squarely. For a moment or two, she learnt to appreciate just how old he had gotten. "Who can say? They are far beyond our reach, now."
"Far… beyond our reach." Cordelia echoed his words, her voice low. She was only just slightly aware of how the faint tremors wove themselves about her body, rendered her a poor, shivering child. She shut her eyes, clenching her teeth.
And prayed for the survival of one she had learnt to love.
How long, Saul wasn't quite inclined to discover. When at last he woke, it was to darkness—though, from deep within the belly of the cellars, it seemed the time of day was inconsequential. The smell of blood and metal hung thick within the cold air; grimy soot clung to his skin, as if glued therein with sweat and tears. The floor was rough beneath his back.
Beside him, a body stirred. One warm arm was woven about his own, as if to keep him close. The darkness swallowed all else.
The amazon heaved a quiet sigh as the grip upon his arm loosened somewhat. He felt the brief tension of her body as she stretched, then sat up as she did, the fabric of their clothes rustling against the friction of the ground. Her voice was hoarse. "This is bad."
He managed a weak chuckle, then lifted one hand to rub at the back of his head. "There's nothing for it. We'll have to keep moving. I don't know about you, but I'm not planning on dying in here."
"In here? Gods, no. You've got far too much to say, and I've got more to see." Araeya swallowed several times, the dry gulps giving way to a series of coughs. She growled under her breath, then shook her head in the relative darkness as he made to pat her back. "I'm fine. Get up?"
The walls were slick beneath his fingers as he scrabbled at them in his attempt to get to his feet. Beside him, Araeya made a likewise attempt, exhaling tiredly as she stood up straight.
They moved in silence; he, leading, and she following, for once, not at all inclined to offer some feminist remark. If anything, she seemed completely at ease to trail behind, one strong hand clutching onto the back of his shirt as they moved. Far better, he imagined, than finding oneself lost and alone. For that, at the very least, he was grateful. She counted footsteps as they walked, and he heard the quiet breaths that accompanied every step they took.
Thirty two. Thirty three.
The corridors were narrow, but they made their way hence without much difficulty. What demonkin they had expected to meet did not come—they went, unhindered.
Seventy eight. Seventy nine.
On and on the corridors wound, snaking corners and endless halls. When at last they came into light, it was a dim sort of glow; not warm, yet not entirely cold. It was merely that—dim, dull light that bounced off the walls from where their torches were held. Enough to illuminate blood-stained walls and grimy floors. The air hung thick with musk and, heavy with death.
There was relief, but only briefly so. Trepidation cloaked all. Echoes arose; soft, musical notes that painted an eerie backdrop against the relative silence. Faint whispers of a lonely, lilting melody—some dark, forgotten hymn to the heathen gods of old. For a moment or two, the druid wondered if his mind had been addled. And knew himself sane as the sounds yet again arose.
He swallowed. "I can hear singing."
Araeya blinked, then glanced about. When at last she turned to face Saul once more, he saw that she was slightly green in the face, though that did little to comfort him. If it caused Araeya to worry, it was bad. "Singing? As in, singing at the chapel?"
"You can't hear it?"
"I can." She muttered, dryly. "I was hoping it was just a telltale sign of my going mad. Like those bells you hear. As it is…" She paused, flexing her fingers where they rested loosely at the center of her lax bowstring. "…I think we may be meeting more than just a band of troubadours in here."
"Or one troubadour. It sounds like a woman." The words escaped gnashed teeth—Saul found he had little patience, nor strength saved to say more. He walked—and then did a double take.
Araeya swore as she collided heavily into his back. Strings of ancient curses found their way into his ears; irritable, and perhaps a touch uneasy, he found she was far easier than normal to antagonise. Apology, however, was the last thing on his mind.
He hissed, clutching her wrist. "Shh. Look up there."
"Where?" She scowled—then squinted into the dimness ahead. He fancied she sought to seek more; if anything, her eyes narrowed, lips thinning. "There's definitely a person in there." She confirmed, her voice low.
Saul sighed; Araeya's face confirmed his worst fears. She managed a grim smile, then jerked her head towards the source of their trepidation. A feline-like stealth replaced her weariness; languidly, with an almost seductive sort of grace, she placed her index finger to blood-stained lips, motioning for him to be silent. Slender fingers reached for an arrow, quickly notched to the string of her bow even as she took a measured step forward.
The singing ground to a slow and steady halt. Gleaming aqua eyes widened at the sight of the adventurers, riddled with fear and the knowledge of discovery. The owner of the voice sat naked, perched upon a pile of rubble. Long silvery hair cascaded to the floor, barely-curling tips strewn over hay-covered stone—tendrils fell to shield the bountiful mounds of her pristine physique. She stared between druid and amazon, head tilted as if to consider them both. Breathtakingly beautiful, yet in her way, dangerous. Perhaps she was the child of seduction and sin, made whole.
"Oh, gods." Araeya breathed. Before so beautiful a creature, Saul found the amazon lacking—dirtied and soot-covered, with shaggy hair so inelegantly shorn. "Don't—"
He swallowed, then gritted his teeth. The word hung upon his lips, even as he dared himself to look the woman in the eye. The demoness. "Siren."
And, even as he brought his hand low to sweep forth what defenses he could from the earth, the demoness stood—leapt through the air, hair sweeping from the motions even as she dodged Araeya's arrows. For a moment, Saul stood, transfixed, separated from the demoness by only a wall woven of what meager vines had answered his call. Then, the moment shattered, and from the ceiling came the invisible tempest that threatened to drown, to sweep them away.
He opened his mouth to scream, but found only the bitter chill of a watery doom. In the darkness, he found Araeya's hand—gripped it tight. Then, as the siren began to sing once more, allowed himself to be taken into the fold of nothingness.
Author's note: Before any of you say anything—yes, I know. I suck, I'm horrible, I deserve to be fed to the wolves. Don't hurt me! I am now officially working as a writer, yes, so casual writing for me has taken something of a turn. I am very glad, though, that I've managed to finally squeeze this chapter out. It's been sitting in my files for ages—through a computer change, through the release of Diablo III, and through a lot of planning with my partner-in-crime, Ophelion. If there's anyone to thank for my determination in getting this fic to the end no matter what, it's her.
Thanks also to the rest of you faithful readers, old and new. I'm sorry I've disappointed you all with the long wait, and I hope you'll continue to take this ride with me as I GO ON TO FINISH THIS FIC.
Also, if any of you are wondering, yes. I AM enjoying Diablo III, even if majority of the angry people in the Blizzard forums are crying bloody murder about it. I personally enjoy the game, even though I think it could be better. But hey, what can claim to be perfect in this day and age? I say, enjoy what you're given, and I certainly intend to enjoy. And yes, there WILL be a fanfic from me, partially anyway, with regards to Diablo III.
Until then, do look forward to my next chapter, "Into the Arcane"—hopefully that won't take a year, aha! Do review if you can, and drop me a line! They're always much appreciated! Cheers!