Silmeria got them up and moving again, then turned Alicia's body back over to her. She paused, glancing aside at Rufus as he closed the bottom of his arrow sheath before rising to his feet.
'Do you think he got it from a Dísir?' She tried to maintain a casual tone even as an image rose in her head of a beautiful semi-immortal woman, who bore a striking resemblance to the painted image of a battle maiden reputed to be Silmeria, holding out her hand to a green-haired man. She suddenly felt very plain and dirty in her sweaty clothes.
'Unlikely,' came the distracted answer.
"Then you think he stole it?' she asked, horrified. She edged away from her first and potentially morally ambiguous guard, all her warm feelings of companionship disappearing. He didn't seem to notice. 'I thought we could trust him...'
'There's no one we can really trust,' Silmeria reminded her darkly, taking control briefly to glance over Alicia's shoulder and check behind them.
'But we need allies,' her host protested.
'Yes, we do. But I would not give total trust to anyone. I advise you to do the same,' the Valkyrie counseled her. 'You musn't depend too firmly on someone who could fail or betray you.'
They walked on a few more steps before Alicia gathered her courage to continue. 'Do you trust me?'
'...Yes. While knowing your limits,' Silmeria said finally. Sensing the princess's sadness, she hastened to add, 'You're becoming stronger. But you're mortal yet.' And afraid, but she didn't say that, though they both knew it. Silmeria casually changed the subject.
'If Rufus did steal that item, it would mark him as a crafty and skilled man. We could surely use his talents.' This did not help Alicia's depression. 'Of course, he probably didn't need to, nor would it have been easy to have gotten past the traps surrounding such items. It is likely he impressed some foolish, lonely Dísir guard--they're all female,' she said, as if foolishness were limited to mortal-ish females. 'And he recieved that as an award for the entertainment. We can still use such a man,' she said thoughtfully.
The depression increased as the princess considered what exactly Silmeria meant by "entertainment". Her knowledge was limited, but the Valkyrie's tone hinted it was not something as simple as juggling or music she spoke of. No, she spoke of something...indecent.
That thought, combined with the lack of faith in her host, made Alicia want to cringe. Instead, she made a promise. 'I'll become stronger on my own.' And she sensed Silmeria's approval, as if she'd gotten exactly the reponse she'd wanted. Alicia was getting a little better and reading her emotions, like facial expression she couldn't see but could feel in bursts of warmth or empty coldness at varying temperatures.
The trio walked into the cavern in vastly different stances; Alicia was dejected but still relaxing out of the claustrophobic earlier paths, Rufus was eyeing the stalagtites hanging far overhead, and Dylan was turning his head left and right to check for moving shadows. The expanse laid out before them was startlingly bare, dotted with a few torch-stands in uneven intervals, but the muggy air was a relief after the dryness of the tunnels. The princess nodded her head towards the barely visible exit ahead of them and pointed it out, earning another sarcastic remark from Rufus, as seemed to be his habit and what she had expected. But before Alicia could so much as breathe a sigh of relief for their safety, Rufus and Dylan began snipping at each other on the subject of protocol--how the archer spoke to Alicia's royal self, to whom he had not yet sworn loyalty to.
Silmeria broke in. "Enough!" she said scathingly, as annoyed with her einherjar as she was with Rufus, for involving himself in so petty an arguement. She could commend any form of behavior she wanted from Rufus herself, whenever she chose if she cared to. The two men fell silent, and by the scrapping of boots behind her, had turned to face her. She stood quietly, eyes narrowed in concentration, ignoring Alicia's queries. Without so much as a hint of a private warning, she spun slowly on her heel. "I sense a guardian beast. I TRUST you two still have some fight left in you?" she asked almost mockingly.
Naturally, it did not stop their reluctant guard from questioning her. But this allowed Alicia to hear the explanation of the transformed souls that safeguarded their homeland, acting as sentry in the form of beasts in certain locations.
Listening to Silmeria taunt the uncertain archer into prickly defensiveness that served as a substitute for battle-courage as Dylan looked impassively on, made her wonder about the methods the divine being inside of her used so easily. As if sensing her dismay the Valkyrie suddenly submerged into her deeper conciousness before Alicia could question her, and she was left to move quickly aside as Rufus pushed past her with a huff.
She followed the two uneasily further into the openness, trying to shield her thoughts from Silmeria without seeming to do so, and phrase a suitable leading remark about the way Silmeria spoke to other mortals. Their footsteps echoed loudly in the silence, and she decided that was what was making concentrating difficult. They crossed wordlessly in front of a set of stairs leading up to a mounted circular dais surrounded on four points by slender tapering towers.
A strong white light appeared at the tops of four stone towers as they past them, like that of bright clouds covering the sky and tainting the sun's light without taking away its strength. Alicia was halfway to shielding her eyes when both of her guardians moved in front of her as a strange form began to materialize in the center of the slender light-towers. Adrenaline pumped back through her veins, surging life into her tired limbs with each pounding beat of her heart.
'What is it?' she asked, just as the Valkyrie made her own comment, shifting her weight to better see.
'Such armor!' she said admiringly. Then she seemed to remember it was an enemy. 'But it may be thinner in the back...' Just then Rufus twitched aside, grabbing an arrow. The princess was left to stare in shock as a rhino-like monster several feet higher and many times more massive than even Dylan filled her vision. Suddenly the cavern didn't feel as big as before.
"It looks as surprised to see us as we are to see it," Rufus whispered, crouched halfway between a defensive and an attack stance.
The bigger warrior sneered at it, hands tightening on his sword. "Pity only invites death," he said authoratively. "Now attack!" He ran at the beast, who just stood there as if it couldn't believe its prey risked making such a stupid move. Rufus and Alicia ran after him. The guardian beast pivoted slowly, armored everywhere from its handless arms to all four ankles, trying to get a lock on its attacker. Its massive horn loomed over an eyeless face and gaping mouth that blended seemlessly into its chest area, also protected with a thick shield. Dylan ran around it, keeping its attention with sharp battle cries, surveying the creature for its weak spot. He headed toward the unprotected but thick purple tail but the rhino managed to lumbered around at enough of an angle to keep its hindquarters out of his reach. Frustrated, his sword clanged loudly against one of its shielded arms, but did little but chip away at the armor.
Rufus stopped further away and aimed lower, but his arrow bounced off its spiky belly armor with a *clink!*. He swore. "It's covered everywhere!"
Its hooves flashed darkly and it turned to face the second menace, but stopped before Alicia, who had paused with uncertainty.
"Move!" Rufus yelled, running back to her but not moving fast enough.
The rhino's mouth opened for a burst of fire to envelope her. "Aaah!" she screamed, dropping to the ground and turning on her stomach trying to escape. Her skin seemed to ripple with heat.
"Princess!" Dylan swung his sword at the beast's face, re-directing its attention. Rufus reached her side and gaped at the burns on her thighs, hands and face where her clothing's weak magic had not protected her.
'Heal!' Silmeria ordered.
"Heal..." Alicia repeated weakly, using her only magic ever learned and rarely used. A white mist glowed around her briefly, not very strong, but it took away the pain and blisters, leaving only raw-looking pinkened skin.
"Call an einherjar!" Rufus urged, grabbing her by the crook of her arm and hauling her to her feet. They swayed as the rhino pounded past chasing Dylan, and he tightened his grip on her.
'They aren't strong enough yet!' Silmeria answered Alicia's question before she could even ask it. They had collected another heavy-warror like Dylan earlier.
"Come on!" Rufus's yell, combined with the crashings of hooves and screaming of the two opponents, raised the din to such a level that for a moment even the demi-goddess could feel the vibrations of it in her host's chest, more powerfully than the rapid beating of her heart.
'But we need them! This will make them stronger!' Alicia protested as Rufus let go of her so abruptly she lost her balance as he ran back to the battle. She fell to her knees as her blood rushed about.
'I never intended to initiate them in such a fierce battle...'
Ahead of them, the rhino reared onto its hind legs and titled its head, dropping its horn at Dylan, who barely managed to scramble away in time. His sword flashed in the light as he ducked and rolled, popping up underneath an arm and hacking away forcibly enough tear partway through the armored limb.
Roaring in pain or anger, or both, the rhino charged and knocked him sideways off his feet. Another round of fire exploded from its mouth.
'He's fighting alone!' Alicia pleaded as Rufus's arrows failed to slow the beast's rampage even when they scored. Internal silence. Then--
'All right. Mithra...' she called as Alicia pulled herself up.
The robed mage appeared at her side. He glanced around, studying the situation, then nodded. "I too am ready," he assured her. And he forged on ahead, staff held at the ready, as if he had left the battlefield only yesterday. The guardian beast had blocked Dylan with its good arm and was swinging around its tailed to knock Rufus off his feet as the mage approached. Golden runes flashed in two circles, one inside another, around his feet as he stopped behind it and readied his spell. "Frigid damsel!"
A translucent white woman with long shimmering hair and a flowing dress that faded into nothingness answered his summons and circled over the rhino. With a tinkling sound of bells in the air she lunged thrice at their enemy, clawing at it with elongated nails like talons, and then jumped back into her world in burst of icy shards just before she hit the ground.
The rhino groaned deep in its throat at the painful distraction, tossing its horn about but failing to hit her before she disappeared, completely ignoring the others. It was the break they had needed.
In her mind's eye, Alicia recalled the earlier fight with the goblins, and ran at the rhino as inspiration struck and hopefully before fear could. "Alicia!" Rufus gasped, but she ignored him. At the beast's side she dropped onto her hip and let her momentum carry her forward, skidding under the heaving belly and ramming her sword quickly up and back down on the way. Jagged half-buried rocks tore into her thigh as she made it to the other side just as the rhino reared up, trumpeting in surprise.
"Agh!" she moaned through gritted teeth.
"You remembered that move," Silmeria praised hurriedly before urging her to get up before they got trampled.
There was no need to worry. Mithra's next spell caught the rhino in the chest as it dropped to all four hooves again and Rufus dropped to one knee to better aim at its wounded belly. But Dylan topped them all in two moves. He roared almost as loudly as the rhino as he jumped up into the air and dropped so heavily that his sword went through the half-torn muscle holding the broken limb to the body.
A shrill animalistic shriek rent the air and Rufus and Alicia gaped in disbelief. But Mithra quickly attacked the weakened side as Dylan performed an even more awesome feat, swinging angrily down and lopping off the unprotected tail in one mighty blow.
Blood erupted from the wounds as the rhino shot forth more flames into the empty air in front of it, rocking side-to-side in pain, unable to choose a direction to go in.
"Finish it!" Dylan yelled.
"Do lost souls have a place to call home?" Alicia whispered to the devoted guardian, knowing only Silmeria would hear her as she raised her weapon again in defiance to her pain.
"Heal," she said, casting her magic on Dylan multiple times, then herself again, hoping her skin would stop tingling painfully soon. She stood before the heavy warrior, who was sitting on a boulder. Their weapons were re-sheathed.
'Heal him again,' Silmeria told her.
Alicia glanced at the man's detatched expression. 'He seems fine.'
'Do it again,' the Valkyrie said curtly, then continued more calmly, 'I want everyone battle-ready at all times. No injuries, no muscle weakness.'
Alicia fought the urge to shrug and did as told then asked if Silmeria thought Rufus needed to be healed. She didn't. 'He was never hit.'
"Hey do you think we can use this?" Rufus called from the side, completely unaware he was currently the subject of their conversation.
Wearily Alicia dropped her arm and looked at him. He was toeing the rhino's dismembered arm-shield, which was longer than Dylan was tall. "It's not too damaged," he said thoughtfully.
"My lady," Mithra said quietly from behind her, and she turned to see his exhausted expression. Silmeria quickly called his newly awakened spirit back into Alicia's body and addressed the archer.
"It's too burdensome," she said without looking at him. She raised her brows at Dylan, who nodded.
"I am ready to continue," he said in answer to her expression.
Alicia didn't feel the same, although it had been a short day for them--they had risen late and taken several breaks. But the battles were taking their toll on her; she was used to a softer lifestyle. She didn't feel comfortable asking for another break, though.
So they went on out of the cavern, up another tunnel, although this one with a set of stone steps cut evenly into the ground, and finally back out into the fresh air that was so sweet in revived her a little. She took a deep breath, savoring the moment.
Which of course Rufus ruined by promptly demanding his payment. Dylan scowled at him.
She'd almost forgotten he didn't intend to stay with her. Even though she didn't know if she could trust him, she felt strangely hurt at the thought of him leaving.
'We'd make it on our own,' Silmeria comforted her.
"Please," she beseeched him, for once completely ignoring the Valkyrie, "won't you escort me to the castle?" She tried to make her case, but Rufus's expression became rather smirky. She didn't know why it bothered her so much.
Dylan reassured her he not only would stay by her side, but remembered the layout of the land. Before she could respond, Rufus made a soft snorting sound and asked where her loyal servants were.
"Isn't it about time you gave up this little charade, Princess Alicia? Or perhaps, since I can only assume the souls of your heavens-bound einherjar are listening--"
'Enough,' Silmeria said.
"--it would be simpler if I just called you...Valkyrie."
Silmeria raised Alicia's chin proudly. "Indeed," she said coolly, inwardly a little surprised he had managed to put two-and-two together. He had appeared almost as ignorant and naive as Alicia.
His eyes widened despite his smug analysis. "There's TWO of you in there."
"I'm Silmeria, hello," she introduced herself formally, not expecting much from him. But it turned out not out not only had he heard of her, he knew of her place in the trinity.
"Valkyries aren't incarnated as humans, not without a reason," he murmured, his brows drawing together in alarm. He actually managed to surprise her with his knowledge of Valkyrie lore and memory for gossip, detailing the rumors of Dipan's treachery-to-be. But he was completely off-based in his next words, accusing her of searching for evidence of rebellion for Odin.
She matter-of-factly declared her seperation from Odin and her intent to ally herself with the king of Dipan, letting no trace of any emotion come across in her face or voice.
'He knows more than me,' Alicia complained self-deprecatingly at the same time as Rufus subsided, finally reassured (though he remained somewhat aloof). Strangely, she thought, he glanced at his hand and told them to count him in.
'Why?' she wondered to Silmeria, who didn't answer.
There was no conversation after that, either aloud or between her and her and Silmeria, to distract her from what was looming ahead. They would pass through the city to re-stock supplies and sell the items they had gathered, banking on Alicia's long absence and age to conceal her identity. Then they would approach the castle that shadowed so much of the city, cold and impressive and guarded. Inside was an imposing figure, majestically robed and crowned, the menacing center of her dismal dreams, unmoving as stone but radiating distaste--all she had ever known from him. The ruler of Dipan, the author of her exile...
A/N: Wow, that was a lot longer than I intended it to be. This chapter just finally flowed for me, instead of resisting my attempts to write it. The battle scene gave me the worst fits. I suck at them. Be kind about that, peeps. ;0__0; *despair and tears*
To my reviewers:
100-series: "It seems like Silmeria walks a thin line between compassionate and ruthlessness." Yes, and you see some of that with the way she's manipulating Alicia's budding relationship with Rufus, b/c she doesn't want the princess to merely transfer her attatchment to Rufus, she wants her to grow independently strong. But that of course increases Alicia's isolation, however well-intentioned Silmeria was being. I hoped that sort of answered the discrepancy.
LotornoMiko--I was hoping you'd come and review. *smile* Thanks for noticing the arrow bit. I wanted someone to enjoy me trying to cover plot holes (ah, the arrows that never run out, and the 99 health potions they carry in their back pockets...).