Author's Note: I don't really know why this chapter took seven years to finish, though some major shake-ups in my life had a big part. Things are a lot more stable now, and thanks to several hour-long epic music compilations on YouTube that broke the writer's block, I'm finally ready to move on with the story! I've come too far on this thing to quit now, I feel. I was writing ahead, too, when I was stuck on these fight scenes - the next chapter is already longer than Chapter Fourteen was, so I won't be starting from scratch in order to see that you get it before the heat-death of the universe.
I combined the Chapter Fifteen parts into one, as it was originally supposed to be. I think some reviews might be lost - not sure, but I didn't delete them on purpose if they do disappear, just so you know!
By Amanda Swiftgold
BOOK TWO: DRAGON CAMPAIGN
The souls flickered like fireflies around him, fading in and out of his vision. The small hallway was more like a tunnel, an intake into Mayfil's towering black bulk which he'd chosen as his entrance to the city. Kanzas hadn't hesitated as he'd leapt from Taranis' back onto the little platform, hadn't flinched as the stream of small pale lights brushed past him, but now as he padded quietly in the darkness, he could feel the small of his back growing cold with nervous sweat. He readjusted his grip on the long metal claw he held.
Softly, the lights tickled his skin as they brushed past, making sounds like faint whispering he wasn't sure he wanted to hear. The green light grew brighter at the end of the passageway, and he stepped slowly into the small chamber there, squinting around cautiously. It seemed empty except for the souls, which were swirling like a maelstrom in the center before being pulled in different directions. The floor was clear and glass-like with some kind of odd many-colored liquid rippling beneath.
Three dark archways spaced evenly around the room led to other tunnels - which one would take him in the direction of the generator? As if to challenge the knot of nervous tension that was forming in his gut, Kanzas stepped forward and into the center of the chamber. The long-tailed wisps of light surrounded him, the breeze of their passing ruffling his hair, the loose ends of his cloak and belt. There was nothing to be-
-here, you're here-
-waiting for you-
He froze, pupils contracting sharply as he listened to the words that murmured around him. Several of the wisps were no longer moving, instead hovering there before him, the twinkling intensifying. "Who?" he growled, swiping at them. Uncomfortable prickling scratched along his nerves when he came in contact. "You Winglies'll just have to wait-"
Kanzas turned again, feeling the sudden burn of the Dragoon Spirit beneath his armguard. Despite its apparent urging, however, he ignored it, eyes flicking this way and that as if to catch the souls and freeze them with his glare. "Is this all? There aren't enough! Wait your turn!"
"Don't you dare!" the man snapped, turning once more to face the direction he thought that voice had come from. He tried to calm himself, feeling jumpy, irritated, as if that would in some way hide the fear. "You - I know you - I thought you'd be here - don't you dare-!"
This voice was stronger than the others, the glow that separated itself from the stream larger, brighter. "A living soul…I know you, I know my son, my eldest. And they who also know you here…" The gentle voice of the man who'd been named Any seemed saddened, almost horrified. "What have you done?"
"You think you can judge me, you? I am not ashamed!" Kanzas yelled, his fists clenched. If he focused, he could see the vaguest outline of his father's form surrounding the small light, and he bared his teeth at the expression he imagined there. "You could do nothing even when you lived! I won't apologize for it, and I have nothing to say to you!"
The Dragoon took a step toward one of the archways, still hearing the voice behind him as he moved. "They can't send me on - I won't go without all of you! The connections are too strong. You were taken from me, you and your mother and all your brothers and sisters scattered to the corners of Endiness, and I couldn't keep on-"
"And so, bravely, you let yourself die?" he asked bitterly, half-turning. "When it was your misbegotten spawn that destroyed us all? And now you wait for all of us to make the journey to Hell with you? I've lived now almost as long as you ever did, and I've been through - things you couldn't imagine! And here you think giving up makes you so noble-"
Kanzas cut himself off suddenly, feeling the rumbling of the city beneath his feet. It was stronger than the shaking that had plagued the city since he'd gotten inside, the aftershocks of the Dragons' attacks on its exterior which he'd barely paid attention to. Was that a generator? Someone made it this soon?
Adjusting his balance as the tremors worsened, he began to back toward the archway he'd picked, sure that any direction was better than staying. Ignoring the further cries of his father's soul, he watched as the shiny, transparent floor of the chamber tilted slightly. The whirling lights dissipated as the device in the ceiling cracked and shifted, dangling from its place there. Quickly turning on his heel and sprinting for the darkness of the hallway ahead, he barely got three steps into it before a curved blade whipped toward him.
Cursing sharply, he ducked to one side, the edge of the blade whistling past his chest but carving a slice from his left forearm. He smacked hard into the wall of the tunnel, automatically pushing off it and twisting into a kick intended to knock his opponent down. Instead of flesh, however, his foot drove into something made of metal, sending it backward with a strange whirr, yet his spirit orb drew in life energy as satisfyingly as ever.
Was it another one of those Mininto spirit machines? Unlike the one they'd encountered on the way to Fort Magrad, however, this one had probably been created to attack intruders. Drawing up into a defensive stance, Kanzas peered at it, looking for what might be its vulnerable points, obviously different from those of flesh and blood creatures.
It was made of black metal and shaped like a tall Human with thin limbs, a large circular blade in place of its right hand and three long, nasty-looking knives on the left. Spikes bedecked its shoulders and jagged razors edged one foot, while the other leg ended in a sharp point. The visible weaponry was enough to make even him cautious in his approach. Like the mining machine, the thing seemed off-balance, its torso swaying back and forth at the waist, but Kanzas had seen it was fast despite that. He'd have to make sure he was just as fast, then.
Reaching for the ties of his cloak with his free hand, he pulled it off and flung it at the machine to distract it, following the cloth with a quick lunge of his claws. The whine of metal on metal sounded amidst the tearing noise, and he cursed under his breath as the large circular blade ripped up through the cloak, aiming blindly for him.
Deciding to change tactics while it was still somewhat tangled, he twisted sideways quickly, avoiding most of the strike, and moved further down the hallway where there was more space to maneuver. "Over here, you walking stovepipe," he goaded, waiting there defensively. It was quite likely that the insults were pointless, but they were still rather satisfying. "You don't even have the sense Soa gave a halfwit, do you?"
Lacking the intelligence or ability to just pull the cloth away, the thing simply shredded it until it fell to pieces. It made no reply or reaction to the words, just a single screech of metal as it jerked toward the sound of Kanzas' voice. Once in position, it moved in a surprisingly fluid fashion for the Human, pushing off in a kind of handspring and flipping toward him. However, he was ready for it.
Glad of the armguards protecting his skin from the jutting spikes, he countered the machine's jabs and lunges, keeping an eye out for some way to press the attack. The usual vulnerable points weren't apparent here, but he remembered the mining machine from the snowfield and thrust his claw toward a seam in the metal when there was an opening.
It punctured with an odd hiss of air, and he dragged the blades sideways as best he could before the circular blade threatened to take his head off. Ducking away in a lunge, he pulled the claw along as well, leaving hanging jagged edges in his wake and revealing the gears and tubes that helped make the machine run. I wonder-
There was another hallway intersecting just a short distance down, and he used the extra space to keep himself moving around the thing, avoiding the blades as best he could and ignoring the few slashes it managed to get in. As fast as it was, with its inner workings exposed and vulnerable it was no match for an annoyed Thunder Dragoon.
Paralyzing it with a bolt of electricity - although it took some effort to generate it in this place - he slipped behind it and grabbed it at the shoulder and upper arm. "Too bad you don't have a brain knocking around in that tin-pail head," he grunted, slamming it face-first into the brick wall. Its metallic skin crumpled and buckled flat upon the impact. With a forlorn squeak, it slumped forward at the waist and then collapsed into a heap, its bristling weaponry no longer so impressive lying there in the hallway.
Kanzas stood back, satisfied he'd defeated it, but before he could even check the state of his wounds, he caught a glimpse of something further down the connecting passage. Still panting from the exertion of the fight, he simply stared into the shadows, amber eyes wide and fixed on the shimmer of light. Expecting a teleporting Wingly, he prepared to strike, but he wasn't ready for what was actually there.
The soul he saw was motionless, waiting for him to make out its shape, down on one knee as if in homage with her arms crossed in front of her bare, bloody chest. His breath caught in an audible gasp, the tight clench of his fists relaxing as a wave of some unidentifiable emotion crashed through him. His claw-piece clattered to the floor, ringing bell-like through the stillness. Though his lips moved, he couldn't force a sound out, as if he'd reverted to the time after he'd killed her, that year he'd barely had the will to say a word-
She lifted her head, one eye gazing up at him from beneath the ragged fringe of her short blonde hair, and then in a single motion stood up and backward, disappearing into the shadows. Not a moment later, Kanzas ran after her, his objective forgotten as he followed the soul wherever it was leading.
Standing at the edge of the platform where the small teleporter had dropped them, Syuveil gazed out across the chasm with interest. "Quite a warren," he remarked, "though I suppose it serves as security for the main tower as well, since Winglies can fly right past it."
Damia shuddered, keeping her hand firmly twisted in the hem of his tunic. "Can't we do that, too?" she asked plaintively.
Stephen had let them off near Mayfil's large intercity teleporter before flying away to attack the city's outer structure, but they had not gone far before reaching the apparent end of the path, a round platform below the second chamber. Although other platforms dotted the huge area, located both higher and lower than theirs, there was no obvious way for Humans to reach them.
The whole setup seemed to be some kind of convoluted staircase, the small teleporters taking them further and further down around the large central tower, but here where the brick path to one of the transports should have been, there was nothing but ragged rock. The sight of another chamber further below seemed to indicate there had once been one, but it was impossible to tell if this dead end was the fault of the Dragons' destruction or the Winglies' defenses.
Shaking his head at her question, the scholar crouched down, inspecting the raised rim of dark brick surrounding them, barely visible in the gloomy greenish dim of the Death City. Streams of souls flickered not far away, drawn into the many various intakes dotting the tower. "As we discussed, we'll have no idea if we'll be able to collect the energy needed to transform here. Since we'll definitely have to be able to fly out once the city falls-"
A rumbling sound punctuated the accent of his words, the platform shaking beneath them. With a frightened cry, Damia pulled at his sleeve to tug him back from the edge. "Watch out! It - it can't be falling already, can it?"
Catching his balance, he retreated a few steps, glancing up to the shadows of the structure above as tumbling bricks and rubble caught the light of the soul streams. All coils and jags, the city seemed like a hulking, spiny dead thing, more organic than constructed. "No, but the Dragons are doing their jobs well," he murmured, hating the odd twisting pain that gripped his gut as he thought of Tsavor, his vassal Dragon's final moments repeating in his mind. "They…ah…"
"Syuveil?" She poked at his arm until he looked down, embarrassed by how childish and small she felt, but also afraid of what might happen if she let him continue his obvious obsession with his Dragon's death. "How are we supposed to go on?" If it was up to her, they would turn back, but that was impossible now. She drew herself up a bit straighter, taking a deep breath. "We'll have to fly."
He blinked at her almost owlishly behind his spectacles, reaching for her shoulder to steady her as another tremor shook them. "No - look. Where the rim dips, here, there's a device on each side. See how they jut out?" The Jade Dragoon took a step forward, pressing down on what appeared to be thin air. With a soft buzz, a shimmering path formed between the stone prongs, stretching across the chasm toward another platform not far away. When he lifted his foot, the blue-edged ribbon of light vanished as if it had never been. "Rose spoke of this, didn't she? There may be another way."
Damia's crimson eyes were wide at the thought of trusting herself to something like that. The upper city in Vellweb was bad enough, but a walkway made of energy? "I-I-I don't think we-"
He smiled kindly at her, stepping out again to create the path once more, both feet this time. Despite the sheen of sweat on his forehead, he appeared at ease with standing over what amounted to a bottomless pit. "There's no need to worry. Whatever else you can say about Winglies, their craftsmanship is flawless. We'll hurry. There's no other way, and the others are counting on us to reach the generator here. Come on; I'll go first if you like."
The teenager shook her head quickly, grabbing for his hand and squeezing it tight. "No, let's - let's go together." There really wasn't much time, and she didn't want to make him continue to have to waste it persuading her.
Syuveil nodded, starting forward at a quick pace. After a moment's hesitation, Damia moved along behind him, her fingers clasped almost painfully around his. He didn't look down, pulling them into a near-jog, and less than a minute later they'd reached the platform at the other end. The girl let out a muffled shriek as the pathway died behind them, but by then her feet were firmly on the stones once more.
"There!" he said brightly, trying to hide his own sense of relief. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
Her skin even whiter now than usual, she nodded back, keeping hold of his hand. He chuckled, letting her have the comfort. Although he didn't want to admit it, it made him feel better as well to know there was someone there, now that the sensation of having his vassal Dragon's emotions always with him was gone. That was a hole that mere closeness couldn't fill, but the other Dragoon was, at least, keeping him from thinking about it quite so much.
Another tremor shook the edifice, the faint sound of a draconic roar echoing somewhere above, and Damia bit her lip hard. "Let's go," she whispered. "There's no teleporter here. Let's cross while we still can."
"Of course." They set out at a fast walk again, following the road of light into the shadows ahead. Unlike the first, however, this one stretched further, eventually reaching only a tiny node which seemed to reflect the path, making it turn sharply to the left. "That's odd…"
He frowned at this, slowing, and as he did so, Damia bumped into him, screeching and throwing her free arm around his waist as if he was an anchor. He let out a curse, stumbling and flinging out his hands to steady them both. "Oh, gods! Don't stop here!" she pleaded, her cheek pressed hard against the metal spear strapped to his back, the pinch of it the only thing keeping her from losing her head from fear.
"We're going the wrong way," he pointed out, dragging in a deep, almost gasping breath. "I think that's the first chamber we passed through, over there."
"I don't care," she gritted out between clenched teeth. "Please, Syuveil! Let's just get back to something solid!"
Straightening up slowly, he sighed, taking a tentative step. "All right," he soothed. "We'll get to the next platform and sort this out there."
Not responding with words, Damia let go reluctantly, following him further down the path. However, a moment later it was she who stopped them again, ducking as a streak of blue shot past them, her nails digging sharply into the back of the scholar's hand. "What was that?!"
"It-" Keeping his feet firmly planted, Syuveil twisted where he stood to follow the apparition with his gaze. "I think it escaped from one of the streams. A specter of some sort?" He watched with obvious fascination as the thing turned. "Are those arms-?"
Was he actually trying to study it? "Is it coming back?" she demanded, wondering if she dared try to wield her hammer while they still hung in midair. Even knowing that she had the Dragoon Spirit, that there were wings to catch her like before, she certainly didn't want to have to find out if it would work the same way this time.
"Looks like it," the young man murmured, reaching back for his spear. Much to her relief, he did not yet tug his hand from hers. "Get ready, Damia, here it-" Mayfil suddenly shuddered around them; unlike before, the tremor seemed to increase in intensity. A roaring sound filled the air, louder and louder despite the source being nowhere in sight. An overhang dangling not far ahead crumbled. Huge chunks of brick broke free and fell, to Syuveil's eyes, almost in slow motion toward the platform at the other end of their path. "Oh Soa, get rea-"
The rubble sheared through the jutting prongs like a knife, and not a second later the solid bridge beneath their feet became mist and faded into the darkness. The girl's terrified cry rang out, just as it had in Vellweb months ago; Syuveil desperately tried to keep hold of her as he plunged into the shadows below, tried to call for his spirit, but her fingers, slick with sweat, slid from his.
"Damia!" he screamed, seeing only a blur of blue slamming against the edge of a lower platform, and then a sharp pain in his head sent an explosion of color across his vision, and he saw no more.
Her bow held ready in front of her, Shirley made her way down a passageway which was oddly full of light. The floor beneath her feet was semi-transparent, with some mass of color and liquid roiling below, and part of her mind couldn't help but admire its colors even as she hurried nervously to cross over it. The rest, however, was caught up in the small points of light that seemed to drift past her, floating along like moonlit snowfall.
Just…don't look at them. They can't hurt you, she tried to reassure herself, rushing onward. At least one of them had already completed their mission; the tremors from the explosion had forced her to stop and wait so she wouldn't fall on her face, even though it hadn't seemed close by.
That meant she could afford to dawdle even less, however. Although she had grudgingly agreed they needed to split up in order to approach and infiltrate the city, both she and Belzac had drawn the line at any one of them fighting the ruler of Mayfil alone. Once the generator was destroyed, she had to find Rose. They were all supposed to meet up with her before moving on to confront the Overseer together, but she had a feeling the Darkness Dragoon wouldn't wait for long. She could feel small warning tugs from her spirit, feelings she was coming to realize meant the others were being wounded as they fought. This was something new that she had only begun to notice now that all seven of them were together, and it was both reassuring and worrying in turn. None of the tugs so far, however, had much force behind them; she didn't know if that meant that the wounds weren't serious, or if the bonding of the spirits wasn't strong enough yet to give her more.
"Shirley - stop - can you hear me?"
The red-haired woman's quick, almost fearful jog suddenly halted, and she twisted around to find the source of the voice, though there was nothing but more specks of light. "Huh - what? Who are you? Come out and face me!" she called, slowly reaching back for an arrow.
One of the glowing orbs brightened, drifting closer, almost directly in front of her. In the odd light of the hallway, she thought she could see the vague highlights and shadows of a face drifting above it, a realization that made the hair stand up on the back of her neck. "It's been so long since I've seen you," the man said, although she was half sure no sound was reaching her ears. "You were still a small child, then. Oh, you look just like Lynae…"
Her eyes narrowed suddenly, and then she blurted, "Wait, you're…my father?" As young as she'd been when her owner's death had pulled their family apart, she thought she could still remember him, if only a little - the sound of his laugh, the scratchiness of his beard against her face. "I knew you'd…passed," Shirley continued lamely, "but I didn't expect to find you in this place."
"I won't go on without my family, all of you - they can't force me to. The connection's too strong," he explained with obvious longing. "Shirley, your brother-" Before he could say anything further, the dark shape of a clawed hand shot out of the shadows, closing around the soft ball of light and squeezing. She heard her father cry out before being cut off suddenly in mid-scream.
"I think that's quite enough of that. Don't you?" a male voice asked laughingly.
Choking back a cry of her own, Shirley shoved away quickly, staring in horror. The being before her was like none she'd ever seen. Vaguely Human-shaped, he was tall and scantily clad, possessing gray skin and crimson eyes that appeared to be mere gashes in his skull. Curled horns protruded from the sides of his head, a long thin tail twitched lazily, and bat-like wings stretched upward behind his form. "You're - a devil?!"
"Indeed. My name is Menon, dear child, very pleased to make your acquaintance," he said, bowing extravagantly. "I'm sure we'll get to know each other quite well, yes?"
She flinched at the leer in his tone, holding the bow before her as if it could shield her at all. "W-what - why did you-?" What did you do to my father? her mind raged, though she couldn't give it voice.
"Oh, now, don't mind that. I'm sure you're not here for a family reunion. There must be other reasons…like this?" Gesturing grandly, he swept his arms up and forward, a smear of darkness forming in the gap between his claw-fingered hands. Shirley could only watch uneasily, anticipating a magical attack and trying to brace for it.
The shadow slowly coalesced into a small figure, gaining limbs and definition, and then discernible features, until at last it was finally revealed. The young girl the devil held out toward her had long dark hair and dark eyes, a metal collar and chain encircling her slender throat.
The cruelty of what she was seeing made her dizzy for a moment, her head spinning as she tried to reject the reality of it. But it was impossible - she'd seen that face in her dreams many times, had looked into those eyes over and over again as her remorse forced her to relive the moment when she'd murdered the child.
Dried blood encrusted the entire front of the slave's tunic, and fresh continued to well out from around the blade still embedded in the center of her chest. The gash was larger than the blade which had caused it, as the ending of the Dragoon transformation had returned it to its normal size. "I thought she was dead," was all she could whisper.
"Oh, she is, darling. At least mostly." Hands beneath her arms, Menon lifted the girl up like a sacrificial offering. She moaned softly, blinking down at the archer, and Shirley let out a cry, trying to keep her balance as she fought against the emotional blows of guilt and dread. "You must have had so much fun the first time, I thought I'd let you finish the job."
"Stop it!" she demanded as her stomach lurched, quickly blinking away the tears that threatened to blur her vision. "Put her down, let her go!"
"Why don't you make me?" he rejoined childishly.
Trying to control her trembling, Shirley reached back to her quiver in response, hesitating for a brief second before pulling out two arrows at once. Catching one between her teeth as she brought them forward, she drew back the other on the string, leveling it at Menon with a scowl.
He laughed with delight, holding the little girl higher, not coincidentally shielding much of his torso with her body. When she adjusted her aim, as if to shoot him over the girl's shoulder, he moved her again, taunting, "Ooh, ooh, can you? Do you think so?"
The Dragoon's breath caught. Even as long as she had been practicing with the bow, she was not so sure of her aim that she would risk trying to shoot the devil around the child - and that was assuming he wouldn't move her into its path anyway. What can I do? I won't hurt her again!
The girl's large eyes seemed to plead with her, though she made no sound, and above her Menon's inhuman expression was one of sadistic glee. "What are you going to do, Human?" he asked as if reading her mind. "Every moment you waste struggling with your dismal, boring morality, she suffers a bit more. So much kinder to put an end to it, wouldn't you say?"
Don't talk to me about kindness, Shirley thought, pulling the arrow back a little further despite the force it took to do so. Winglies rarely practiced archery, having no need for it with their magic, and they often underestimated the killing power of arrows as compared to a sword. She could only hope that devils thought the same.
The bowstring twanged as she let it go, dropping the bow from Menon's face downward. Sixty pounds of pressure drove the arrow through the devil's foot and into the glassy floor with a gritty crunching sound, and the second arrow she'd been holding in her teeth followed, pinning his other foot a moment later.
He cried out in surprise, obviously not expecting that, and as he wobbled, unbalanced, she whipped another arrow from her quiver and shot again. Menon jolted backward with the dart skewering his throat. Wet, infuriated gurgles emanated from his lips, and bright red blood trickled down his chin as well as from the arrow's point of entry. It was already pooling on the cracked glass beneath his feet.
Most Humans or Winglies would have been dead, but Shirley felt her hand trembling around her longbow's grip as the devil straightened, his wings snapping wide to help him stay upright. Deliberately, he seized the girl's chain and swung her outward, dangling her by her collar as she suddenly choked and pulled at it, writhing in midair.
His lips formed words his damaged esophagus wouldn't let him utter, but the Dragoon wasn't paying attention to that. Her heart thudding wildly in her chest, the red-haired woman shot another arrow with a silent prayer for her aim, not at the devil's exposed chest but rather for the wrist of the hand holding the child. It pierced through with another spray of red, his fingers going slack and the chain slipping from them.
Shirley jerked into motion, running toward him, sliding her arm between bow and string so she'd have both hands free. His red eyes, filled with hatred, bored into her, and he raised his other hand-
"White-Silver Dragon!" she gasped, and in response to her plea the spirit orb bouncing on its chain around her neck burst into a bright white glow, blinding the devil as she ducked down to grab up the dark-haired girl on the floor at his feet. He burbled his outrage around the arrow in his throat, slamming his fist into her back as she passed him and forcing a gasp of pain from her as she lurched forward.
Sliding and skidding on the slick surface of Menon's blood, she twisted as she fell to absorb the shock and protect the child, who was limp in her arms. As quickly as she could, despite the protests of her spine, she pushed up to her knees, staring down at the small figure. The fear and pain in the girl's eyes had not diminished, her face drawn and sunken in the white light of the Dragoon Spirit, and Shirley's expression was anguished as she breathed out, "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean it. Can you forgive me? I-"
The girl sighed a bit, smiling just slightly before turning her head to glance toward Menon, and the Dragoon followed her gaze briefly, watching as the devil tore the arrow from his wrist. No, he was far from killed, and there wasn't much time.
"I'll make this stop now," Shirley promised, her words tumbling over one another quickly as tears welled up in her eyes. "You'll go where it's bright and warm - can you see it?" She reached for the hilt of the dagger she'd driven into the young slave's chest, watching her long lashes flutter, watching her nod very slowly. I won't let them harm you anymore. I won't let them! "Just close your eyes; you can see it right ahead, can't you? Everything will be all right there. You'll see…"
When the girl's eyes had closed, she pulled the dagger from her chest quickly, expecting a spurt of blood, or paroxysms of pain, but instead the small body simply relaxed, a long breath leaving her chest, which didn't rise again. Above her, a small light coalesced, visible even through the waning light of Shirley's spirit orb, growing brighter and brighter. The soul moved in a quick spiral around her, tousling her red hair in its wake, before rising up and vanishing on its way.
Tears trickling down her cheeks, Shirley quickly turned her head to face the devil, adjusting her grip on the stained dagger as she moved to stand up. He'd pulled out the arrows she'd shot and they lay on the ground at his feet, the one from his throat still in his grip and covered in his bright blood. He stood there staring at her, appearing little worse for wear despite the dripping puncture points visible on his body. However, Menon's eyes were wide, his expression one of horror, and he let the arrow fall with a wooden clatter. "It…can't be!"
Startled, she couldn't even say a word in response before he stepped back, disappearing into the shadows as quickly as he'd arrived. Couldn't believe I got past him, saved her? I shouldn't complain, but something feels wrong.
Biting her lip, she tucked the dagger into her belt and reached to squeeze her spirit orb in her hand before slowly approaching the place where the devil had stood. Viscous colored liquid was oozing up through the cracks in the glass floor, and she quickly grabbed up her arrows, trying not to touch the stained areas; she couldn't afford to waste her limited ammunition, no matter how much she wanted to leave the tainted darts behind.
Pausing to lower her head sorrowfully as she passed the girl's body, and murmuring a farewell, Shirley then hurried on toward the generator still waiting ahead. Hopefully, there would be nothing else standing in her way.
Although the city was beginning to tear itself apart around them, here before the Gate a wide patch of brick remained still. Seemingly alone but for the gray shape on her shoulder, the Wingly Overseer stood there, empty eyes staring blankly into the darkness ahead, one hand loosely grasping a grotesque scythe. Despite the destruction, a steady flow of souls continued to pass overhead and through the shimmering film of the black Gate behind her, drawn inexorably to their final destination.
Dark wisps of flame sprouted suddenly before her, and Ieo turned her head as a devil appeared at her feet. Drawing himself up, Menon placed his fist to his chest and bowed, but something about him seemed almost flustered, a sense of having run instead of teleported. Streaks of dried blood stained his gray skin, though there was no longer any evidence of wounds.
"Mistress," he choked out, resentfully biting back the rest of his message until he was acknowledged. The agreement between the Devildom and the Winglies, however, meant a certain protocol was required even in circumstances like this.
Zackwell stretched almost languorously from his perch on the Overseer's bare, pale shoulder, the little spiky form leaning forward as if to look down at the other devil. "Menon," he said, channeling the silenced woman's voice through his. "It seems you do not come to report your success."
"Mistress, it's a - it's - the woman is - they brought an eversoul!" he cried, stretching out his clawed hands and flexing them in frustration.
There was a pause, a tiny frown line forming between her arched brows, and Menon knew that he'd surprised her. This was not part of her plan. "She still lives, then."
He hissed at the unspoken question. "Of course! I wouldn't risk unleashing it here!"
Fresh blood welled from Ieo's skin as Zackwell shifted in consternation, sitting back again on spindly legs. "Is she trained?" he asked for her.
Menon shook his head. "No - no, she seems to have no idea."
"Then a chance remains." There was another moment of silence, and then she lifted her arm, removing the devil from her shoulder and stretching her hand forth.
He leapt from her fingers, reshaping as he fell, and stood from the ground in his true form, tall, gray-skinned, two horns sprouting from the crest of his head. "Don't worry about the eversoul, Menon," Zackwell said, flexing his wings and grinning in anticipation as the smaller devil bristled in response. "She's my job now."
"And while you're having fun, the entire city falls around us," he hissed back with a quick glance to Ieo. The Wingly woman made no indication that she'd heard, or was even paying attention, simply standing there as if carved from stone.
Zackwell chuckled, unconcerned. "The Gate, here, is all that matters; as useful as it is, in the end Mayfil's only brick and metal, as easily reformed as a body from a soul. And speaking of such, Menon, Mistress is in need of a certain one, brought right here. Melbu Frahma's stolen slave will be coming back to us soon. We'd like to make the poor little Dragon-child feel properly at home, even though she has no bonds of her own."
Although he glowered, the other devil finally nodded, bowing again to the Overseer before stepping back and vanishing. A moment later, Zackwell did the same, leaving Ieo alone in wait.
Her bound lips curved up slightly. It would not be long now.
The floor was hard beneath him, the metal shaft of the spear strapped to his back pressing uncomfortably against his spine as he lay in a sprawl. A wealth of aches and pains were making themselves known, but Syuveil didn't move, taking a careful inventory of possible injuries. There were bruises, certainly, and his head felt like it was on fire. He could also smell the tang of blood, feel its stickiness pooled beneath his cheek. The realization that his head was injured made him open his eyes, however unwilling, but at the brightness of the light he cursed and quickly closed them again.
Eyes still kept tightly shut, he slowly twisted himself around, pushing into a seated position, untangling his legs. All limbs working - good. He must not have dropped very far, then, or else something had broken his fall. Syuveil ran his fingers through his bloody hair, grimacing a bit at the damp coolness of it. He could probably count himself lucky that he'd woken up at all, with his head bleeding and no one around to tend it this time. Or was there?
"Damia?" Covering his eyes with his newly stained hand, he peered between his fingers until he got accustomed to the light; although it wasn't nearly as strong as daylight, it still hurt. "Damia, are you here?"
Nothing answered his call, only the faint echoes of his voice returning to his ears. He and Damia had indeed been separated. Syuveil frowned, letting his hand drop as he looked around once more.
What he'd thought was a constant radiance was actually a steady stream of small lights, flying upward and past him through a grid into the darkness above. He couldn't recall falling through it, although the gaps between the bars were certainly big enough to allow it. The floor below him was transparent, and a many-colored liquid swirled beneath, the shiny blues and golds giving him the uneasy feeling of sitting in an ocean's shallows but not getting wet.
Swaying as if waves were indeed rushing against his ankles, he finally pushed up to his feet, blinking again to clear his blurry vision and then patting at his face as he noticed his glasses were gone. A quick search of the area revealed nothing, and with a muttered curse he finally staggered toward the dark archway that loomed in the wall across the room. It was the only path available to him, and no matter where it led, or the state of his wounds, he had to follow it.
Syuveil entered the hallway, feeling the darkness of the tunnel swallow him, and as the light faded behind him a sense of dread, of sudden fear, settled in. With Tsavor dead and Damia lost, he felt entirely, terrifyingly alone.
Trailing one hand along the wall to keep his position, he trudged forward, his footsteps on the brick matching the sharp throbs of pain echoing through his skull. Although the thought had occurred that he could use his Dragoon Spirit to try to locate the half-mermaid in the same way Shirley had described before, he knew that he wouldn't be able to concentrate until his headache cleared. Until then, he just had to keep going. It was important to stay awake when you had a head wound - he'd learned that during the fight in Fort Magrad, and it annoyed him now that he'd suffered that injury again, if perhaps less serious this time.
The path rose as it curved around, giving him hope, and a small smile crossed his face as he saw light ahead of him. Syuveil stepped into it to find that he was indeed above the room where he'd landed, looking down into it through the odd grid that made up its ceiling.
"The souls seem to rise through the floor below," he observed a bit fuzzily, speaking aloud to remind himself that he was still awake. "Or is it merely energy? Can't tell for sure…they're smaller than the souls we saw earlier." He took a few steps closer, eyes half-closed as he peered into the chasm. "Some pass through the grid, but the others…hah, Winglies do like invisible pathways, don't they?"
"It's probably because they rarely have to use them."
He spun around at the sound of that voice, although the room continued spinning quite a bit longer. Swaying and trying to force away the dizziness, he reached back with some reluctance to unhook the heavy spear hanging from its strap on his back. "Shynn…I never thought I'd see you again."
"Yes, I know." The spirit stood in front of the doorway leading out of the chamber, appearing just as he had in life, pale skin and dark hair, with no evidence of his violent death, or even of the madness that had seized him before he had fallen from the tower circle. Wrapped in his navy cloak, he held his double-bladed sword at his side, watching his childhood friend closely. "I wasn't sure we'd ever meet again, either. But now you're here." He raised his free hand, flexing gloved fingers as if testing their responsiveness. "And so am I."
Slowly, Syuveil brought the weapon forward, setting it on guard before him and trying to hide how off-balance he was. If this came to a fight, he knew already that he would have the worst of it. "I don't want to fight you. No matter what happened, even though-"
"Even though I betrayed you, betrayed Diaz? Even then?" he asked, raising his sword in front of him in the same guarded way. "What if I want to fight you, Dragoon, and step out of your shadow just once?"
"My shadow?" he repeated slowly. "I never…"
The man shook his head, one corner of his mouth lifting in a patronizing smile. "Yes, you never meant it to be that way, I know. But that's how it was, regardless. Not quite your parents' son, though they took me in; not quite your brother, though I was raised with you. Even when we escaped Zenebatos, it was because of your planning, and then, though we both served Diaz, you were the one chosen as a Dragoon!"
"I never realized," Syuveil said quietly, his heart sinking at the extent of his friend's jealousy. Though he'd always been aware of it, in some way, knowing how far back it went stung deeply. "If I'd known, maybe it would have…but still, what you did…that was inexcusable, Shynn!"
"You don't understand. I never wanted friendship and honor to be handed to me on a platter, given out of pity!" His voice, which had grown louder with rage and frustration, broke suddenly, descending to nearly a whisper as he went on, "And yet in the end I challenged the Dragon, I defeated it as fairly as you, only to have the spirit instead choose some…some girl who hadn't even fought for the chance!"
He frowned, trying to make his eyes focus again, even just a little. "Damia's proven herself since, not least by setting foot in this place, and besides, it certainly wasn't her choice!" The Jade Dragoon sighed, suddenly leaning heavily on his spear. "I can't fight you, Shynn. I won't. I'm not as…lucky as you think. I might've killed her with my recklessness; I have to find her-"
Inscrutable gray eyes regarded him during his outburst, and then softly he interrupted with, "She isn't dead, yet. She isn't a spirit."
Startled, he straightened up again. "You can tell?"
"Of course I can. How else may a spirit know when the soul they are bound to comes to join them?" Raising his double-bladed sword, he swung it before him almost idly, slowly advancing on the scholar. "We who have not passed through the Gate into Hell remain here only because of our bonds with the living, and once again, Syuveil, the only reason I am not yet there is thanks to you-"
Instinctively trying to draw back, Syuveil felt the heel of his boot slide off the edge of the precipice, and he let out a yelp as he tried to right himself. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Shynn lunge toward him, and a piece of his mind, even enveloped in panic as it was, was ready to find out exactly what lay beyond living existence.
However, instead of the stab to the chest he expected, he felt pressure at the back of his neck as he was suddenly jerked back upright and a few steps away from the edge. The other man let go of his cloak, and, too dizzy to stand, Syuveil collapsed on knees made of jelly, gasping for breath.
"I was going to tell you," Shynn said suddenly, the evenness of his voice completely shattered now. "I was going to tell you what I was planning, but there you were with that arrogant ass of a man, and all I could think was that already another Dragoon had replaced me! Syu, believe me…I shouldn't have done it, but I meant to kill Fara and take back the girl once I had the spirit, I swear it!"
"I believe you," he got out placatingly, hoping that he could somehow avert a repeat of the madness of that night. "I believe you. I did even then, remember?"
He nodded, though frowning deeply, still holding his sword aloft. "Yes…and so you should know that I was charged by the devils of Mayfil to fight you, to kill you, to delay you from your goal - and I accepted this, ever more betrayal in return for your loyalty!"
There was a sudden blur of silver in Syuveil's vision, and then a metallic ringing sounded on the floor nearby. "Shynn?" he whispered in disbelief, staring blearily upward at him.
"Once a traitor, always a traitor," Shynn explained sardonically, though he softened his words with a smile, as rare on his face in life as it seemed now. "Devils' orders or no, my will is my own, and I choose to help you now, even if it won't right the mistake I made." Before Syuveil could respond, he leaned forward and placed his gloved hand on the Dragoon's bloody hair, glowing with a pale golden light.
He choked back a disbelieving breath as the throbbing ceased within his skull, as the dizziness ceased and his vision sharpened again, as much as it ever did without his spectacles. "How did you-?"
The man grasped his elbow to help him back to his feet as he said, "Spirits are made of energy, and without the limits of a Human body, my energy can take the shape I want it to. So, I used some to heal you. Winglies can use their energy while alive, of course, but their bodies are made for it."
"But how, if that's the case?" Syuveil pressed, intrigued by this. "You seemas solid as I am." Apparently, he had much still to learn about what existed beyond death, and for a fleeting moment he regretted the need to destroy this place. Still, the discovery that Human ghosts could apparently use magic was a great one indeed.
Shynn chuckled at the intensity of the curiosity on his friend's face. "This body was given to me by one of the devils so I could fight you; its flesh is only imitation, so I can work around it." The amusement faded quickly, and he frowned. "But there's little time for this, Syu. I was told your targets were the six generators."
The Dragoon nodded pensively. "Yes. I suppose we had no chance of keeping that secret, did we? We came down into the city as close as we could to our goals, so, assuming I didn't fall too far off-course, ours should be the nearest one." Perhaps Damia had made her way there as well, he added to himself silently. As unlikely as that seemed, he had to allow himself to hope it would be true.
Silent for a moment, his eyes growing unfocused, Shynn then snapped back to himself with a curt nod. "That way," he said, pointing leftward at a doorway set into the wall above the grid. Picking up his sword once more, he stepped out onto what appeared to be an empty square before turning to beckon the scholar forward. "Follow where I go exactly, unless you want to fall."
"Again," he muttered, paying close attention to where he was placing his feet as he followed the spirit along the invisible pathway. Although he couldn't discount the notion that he was being led into a trap, something within him wanted to trust his friend as he once had, and in any case he was inclined to be grateful for the healing.
Several careful minutes later and they had made it across the grid, running forward through the passage that lay beyond. "Not much further now," Shynn told him, showing no signs of being winded.
Syuveil, however, slowed to catch his breath and gazed upward as several small balls of light, similar to the ones he'd seen before, flitted past overhead. "Those…are souls," he began. "Like you."
"They go to their destinations, free of the bonds of life." The dark-cloaked man turned to beckon at him again, pointing forward, a guiding ghost about to show him his future. The light of the passage before them had a bright, greenish glow that obscured the details of the pathway. "And our destination lies just ahead."
He readjusted his spear in his hands, giving Shynn a terse nod, and then they ran forward together, bursting into the generator room - which was deserted except for the low, glowing shape of the device in question set into the floor. Syuveil let out a soft breath of relief. "Well. Now to destroy it."
He had taken only one step inside, his mouth opened to ask about the emptiness, when there was a sudden flare of shadow between him and the dome. "You!" a raspy feminine voice croaked from within the blackness as it resolved itself into a tall, spindly shape. "You were reanimated to slow him down, not help him!"
Syuveil reeled back, raising his spear defensively as Shynn beside him did the same with his own weapon. As curious as he had been to see the devils that Rose had described, the reality of the thing's snarling visage immediately repulsed him. Eyes a smear of red, horns and wide, leathery wings, strips of cloth barely covering a female form - though he was unable to see every detail clearly, he gritted his teeth, knowing what was soon to come.
Shynn smirked at the devil, shifting forward a bit in preparation to strike. "That was quite a mistake on your part, wasn't it?"
"Will you still be laughing when I take that body from you?" the devil sneered, raising a claw-fingered hand. However, her expression suddenly froze as nothing happened. "What-"
The Human man tried to hide his own look of surprise, chuckling shakily. "Perhaps only the one who fashioned this form for me can take it away?"
"You can go and find him," Syuveil offered, tucking his spear under his arm. "Of course, by then we'll have finished what we came for!"
One glance at Shynn was all he needed, and without any further words, they charged the devil together, splitting off in opposite directions as they reached the infuriated being waiting for them. Fuming at the dead Human, the devil turned to swipe at him as Syuveil tried to slip around behind her. However, her tail - although since it protruded from her mid-back, between her wings, he wasn't sure if he could even call it that - whipped toward him, forcing him to turn his strike into a blocking maneuver.
The surprise gone, the two continued to circle the devil, trying to get in a blow. However, she moved quickly and efficiently, razor-sharp claws slicing gashes into both of them, although Shynn did not bleed, unlike the Jade Dragoon; whatever material made up his body absorbed the wounds as if they were nothing. Realizing this, he tried to put himself between the devil and Syuveil, his double blades whirling.
Aiming carefully when her attention was focused on Shynn, the scholar rushed in from the side, holding his spear like a lance and driving his entire weight against it as he felt it pierce flesh. The devil whirled, flinging him away as his grip slipped from the wood. She let out a hideous howl, grasping at the spear and wrenching it from her side, only to be met by the blade of a sword goring her chest and knocking her to the brick below.
Resisting the urge to cover his ears against that horrible screaming, Syuveil moved to pick up his spear, but his head jerked upward as he heard a sudden pained gasping from his friend. "Shynn?" he asked, wondering what could have caused it in someone seemingly invincible.
From the other side of the wounded devil, Shynn was breathing hard, covered in a spray of dark red. Even as he watched, his hands, gloves and all, were slowly crumbling into dust. "It's the blood," he forced out. Below him, the devil grinned, her lips twisted into a feral, hateful expression. "Hurry, the generator, go-"
"How am I supposed to destroy it?" he asked urgently, half-turning that way.
"Attack it!" came the response. "I don't think it's shielded, they never figured this would happen - hurry!"
Feeling reluctant, he nevertheless did as he had been urged, calling on his Dragoon Spirit. The phantom leaves swirled around him before solidifying into the mystical armor, lifting him off the ground. Flapping his shimmering wings to gain altitude, he dove for the glowing dome, delivering strike after strike to its surface with the double spearhead. Several long cracks formed along its surface, leaking a luminous green energy, but after several long moments it seemed to stay contained.
Frowning, he rose up again, feeling his power diminishing as it always did, and then after a second thought turned and looped back downward. "Come on, let's go!"
Though Shynn had moved away from the devil's pooling blood, pieces of his imitation flesh were still flaking away, drifting around his feet like dust. He looked at the generator, shaking his head, and then his expression set resolutely. "It didn't break through!"
"I know!" he cried back. "Come on, we'll go together!"
"Don't be stupid! I'm dead, Syu! How will you run in time if you lose your Dragoon power?" Staggering slightly, he reached with mangled, crumbling hands to wrench the blade from the devil's chest. She snarled and swiped at him, though he evaded clumsily and then ran for the dome. "I'll take care of it! Your job's not done here."
"Shynn!" He hesitated, but inwardly he realized that this was the best thing, the only thing, that they could do. All he'd wanted was to be one of them, to have his own moment of glory. "Thank you," he said, unconsciously whispering the words.
Poised on the metal rim of the generator's dome, the dark-haired man looked like a splotch against the glow, his arms wrapped around the central hilt of his sword as his fingers were now too deteriorated to be of use. "Fly that way," he called up, gesturing with his head. "The Overseer waits by the Gate; I can feel her there, feel its pull. I'm sorry that we'll never meet again-"
Syuveil was already flying as the words hit his ears, his head bowed against both the rush of the air and the equal onrush of sorrow. The device rumbled and burst behind him into a pillar of energy and light, its explosion propelling him faster onward even as it dissolved the soul in its midst.
All dark corridors looked alike, though this one seemed a bit wider than most, obviously a major passageway through the city. There was also a stench in this hallway quite unlike the rest of Mayfil's dust and mold; it was becoming alarmingly strong and rank as she followed it further.
Hurrying on her way toward her target, Shirley suddenly drew up short, seeing the soft glow of light ahead. Now the smell of decay enveloped her, making her gag briefly. I don't know if I want to see what's causing it! Not even the hottest day of fall butchering on the farm had ever smelled quite like this. She went forward anyway, however, because there was no choice.
The sound of a low, female shout met her ears, and then another noise like something wet in a sack hitting the brick. "Rose?" she called, recognizing that cry. "Are you all right?" Her bow ready in her hands, the Dragoon ran into the intersection that lay before her, and then stopped, staring.
Rose, her sword held before her, still stood in position at the end of her last slice. Piles of body parts scattered the floor around her, the flesh all a maggoty, rotting greenish-gray. Between the two, another thing slopped to the ground, cut in half by the Darkness Dragoon's strike. Holey, slimy intestine uncoiled within their offal around her feet.
"Dear god!" Shirley gasped, covering her mouth and nose with her free hand. The stench hit her again, and she couldn't keep from vomiting, though out of embarrassment she managed to duck down one of the connecting hallways before she did so. When she finally returned to Rose again, she felt a little better, as long as she didn't inhale much. "What are they?"
"I think the question is 'what were they'?" the pale woman answered, thankfully making no mention of her reaction. "And that's Human, mostly."
Her eyes widened, and she felt a lump of sadness form in her throat. Almost angrily, she choked it down. "This is the city of the dead! How did living Humans get here?"
"They are dead. Were dead," she corrected herself. "Now they are even more so, I hope. They were slaves, sent here for punishment, left to wander and starve and die. It was a favorite sentence of Frahma's when I was with him; I don't suppose that's changed since." Her mouth was set in a grim line, her posture composed as always, but her voice was full of outrage. "Their souls have already been sorted, I think, but their bodies weren't allowed to rest."
The remains scattered along the floor were far more decomposed than those of the slaves she and Kanzas had found all those months ago, and in some way that made it a bit easier to look at them. "Another thing we'll be putting right here," she murmured.
"Indeed. Anyway, I can hardly smell them now," Rose finished.
"I certainly don't see how," Shirley returned. She looked down the dark intersecting arms of the corridors to either side of them. "Are they dangerous?"
She shook her head. "I've had no trouble. They seem to have been sent to guard this passageway, which I think will lead to the center of the city." She gestured with her chin down the northernmost hallway of the intersection, her eyes following that pathway with undisguised impatience. "There are a lot of them, but they move slowly, and it must be taking them all some time to arrive. They come in small waves. I can hold it for a while."
"I…good. That's good. I'm glad you're all right, but I still need to get to the generator I was assigned." Not wanting to think about the devil Menon, much less speak of him and what he'd done, Shirley didn't explain why she'd been delayed. That it was Rose listening would only make it harder to tell, anyway. "Only one has been destroyed so far, I think."
"Right," she said, glancing around. Apparently satisfied that no more enemies were coming at this time, she fished a cloth out of her belt pouch and began to clean the ugly brown ichor from her sword blade. "Don't feel you need to stay to help, Shirley. I'm not the one you need to worry about." She paused, apparently debating something silently, and then exhaled a deep breath. "Look, Kanzas went by not long ago, crossing that way." She pointed down the left-hand hallway in a quick, annoyed motion. "He didn't even notice when I called out to him. In a place like this," Rose continued disapprovingly, "a spirit could easily have distracted him."
"Oh," Shirley said softly. Though the images of the dolls on the shelves flashed through her mind, she quickly focused in on one in particular. Rough bloodstained cloth and a name- "It must have been her."
The Darkness Dragoon raised one shoulder in a shrug. "Whatever it was, he won't make it to his generator at all in this state, and I sincerely doubt anything I could say would help. You go after him, Shirley. I'll be fine."
Already turned halfway there, she stopped and looked back, biting her lip. "Promise me you'll at least wait for someone else before you head for the center!"
"Just go!" Rose called, already scanning the other corridors for a glimpse of any more walking dead.
Making a sound that was half like a growl and half a sigh, the red-haired woman turned on her heel and ran down the new passageway, keeping her own eyes open for obstacles as she went. She knew Rose well enough to realize that she wasn't going to stay in the intersection for much longer, but she couldn't wait around with her, either, not when she'd already missed her own goal once, and with this sudden diversion as well. Despite the darkness, the way was clear enough that she could move along at a fairly quick pace, keeping her eyes open for any sign of where Kanzas had gone.
She soon found that she didn't have to look very hard, however: the hallway opened up into a small chamber filled with tiny dots of light. The souls flared upward from somewhere below and disappeared into the pitch-black overhead, swirling around a little outcropping of brick floor. There, the Thunder Dragoon stood, facing the form of an unfamiliar woman. Though she seemed to be speaking to him intently, he was saying nothing in return, only looking at her in utter stillness.
Slowly coming to a stop and catching her breath, Shirley watched them in her turn, wondering how to approach the two. She was sure that this stranger was the spirit Rose had spoken of. The girl he was going to marry in Aglis, she reminded herself. The one he said he…killed…
The young woman's shirtless back was a flayed, bleeding wreck, the skin hanging off it in tatters that seemed to dance in the faint breeze, the wake of the passing souls. Shirley recognized those kinds of wounds, though, most thankfully, she'd never had to experience them for herself. Kanzas had never said just how he'd been forced to kill her, but with this it had become all too clear, and her heart ached in empathetic agony. Winglies often forced Humans to punish their own as a punishment in itself, as a deterrent to future disobedience. They'd handed him a razor-whip, and-
Sensing her presence, the woman turned abruptly to face her, startling Shirley. She glared with one eye, the other missing, a sunken pit covered by a web of long-healed scarring. Her short hair was an ashen blonde, hacked off haphazardly around her face. The skin on her front was almost worse than that of her back, the slight swell of her breasts a shredded, bloody mess of tissue. "Who are you?" she demanded.
Shirley felt unsure, taken aback by the terrible wounds that the spirit still displayed on her body. However, Kanzas' reaction - or, rather, lack of one - spurred her on. He hadn't even looked over at her, remaining standing there, staring at the other woman with an absolutely blank expression. Disregarding her for the moment, Shirley stepped forward. "Kanzas," she said sharply. "You have to keep going."
"Who are you?" the woman asked again, a bit of a sneer twisting her lip as she cast her eye across the Dragoon's armored vest, her obviously well-made clothes, her general appearance of health. "What does some freeborn want with us? Or are you a Wingly running dog, a pet? You're not wanted here!"
Tensing, her teeth grinding together painfully, Shirley took another step, forcing herself to keep on ignoring the spirit's voice. "Kanzas! Do you hear me?" The woman - Jidena, Shirley remembered, that was her name - spread her arms as if to block either of them from coming closer to the other.
"Leave us alone!" she snapped.
The sight of her back, however, the wounds he'd caused, sparked the reaction that their words hadn't. The man raised his hand to his face, rubbing hard at his eyes. "Shirley?" Kanzas asked blearily. "What the hell're you doing here?"
"Who is she, anyway?" Jidena demanded of him, obviously annoyed by the lack of answer thus far. "What is this freeborn to you?"
"No one," he whispered, staring past her outstretched arm at the archer, blinking in confusion. "Nothing at all…"
Stung by the answer, and more than annoyed herself, Shirley took hold of her Dragoon Spirit on its chain, lifting the tiny orb upward. "White-Silver Dragon," she called under her breath, just as she had before. The spirit burst into its bright, white glow, the rays dancing across the two there, lighting the small room like daylight for a brief moment. The spirit cringed away, and she could hear Kanzas' soft hiss of shock. A glow of purple grew around his arm in resonance with her call, flaring up between him and Jidena, until she was merely a dark shape there between the two sources of light. And then, all at once, the glows died away, plunging the room into its unhealthy, green-lit blackness once again.
"Wake up," Shirley told him, surprised to find no plea in her voice. "The past is gone. We're in Mayfil, and I can't…" She drew in a deep breath, thinking of those rows of clay figures in his tower room yet again. I can't protect you from what you've done, she finished silently. "We can't wait for you," she said aloud instead. "Come with me, let's destroy these generators, and then we can go home!"
"Are you really going to listen to this?" Jidena asked him, glaring at Shirley with undisguised hatred. "Are you really going to listen to some freeborn bitch who doesn't know the meaning of suffering? You know where you belong."
Kanzas stared at Shirley, his face a mask of bewilderment. He'd felt the Dragoon Spirit's call, could still feel Taranis' presence in his mind; he knew what their objective was, why they were here. And yet, at the same time, it meant absolutely nothing. She could have been telling him that Frahma was dead and the war had been won, and he could not make himself care in the least. "Yeah," he said finally. "Yeah. I'm already home."
Jidena took one of his hands in her own, turning her back on the female Dragoon. "You do know," she said happily.
Mayfil shook, suddenly, and the faint roar of a Dragon could be heard above the falling stone from high overhead. The tremor that followed was not born of one of their vassals' destruction, however, but its source was rather from deep within the brick floor. It was somewhat far away, but could still be felt, hard enough that she fought to catch herself from falling, that Kanzas had to do the same. The spirit, however, did not seem to even notice, though she was apparently as solid as they. Somehow, as if she was part of the city, she was able to shift where she stood, to roll with its shuddering form.
"That's the second generator to go!" Shirley called once the remnants of the explosion had descended into their gentler aftershocks. "Rose is waiting! I can't stay here any longer, Kanzas!"
"Then go," he said tonelessly. "Just go on and leave. I knew you would, anyway."
The promise she'd made now seemed so long ago that it had happened in another era altogether, but his words still wounded her, a sudden pinch of pain within her chest. For more than a moment she wanted to stay, to prove that he was wrong, to make them both see that they were in Mayfil, the dead were dead and the living had to go on. It was not only tempting, but it also seemed right, like a duty, a necessary healing that only she could accomplish.
She knew, though, that this was something he had to do himself. The tiniest of hopes flickered within her - maybe, if he could put Jidena to rest here, come to terms with what he'd done - maybe then he would stop feeling like he had to kill people to save them. What had begun with this girl's death could end here with her ghost as well, and it wouldn't happen if she tried to force her way into the middle of it all. Besides, she did have a duty to Rose and the others, to follow their strategy in the hopes that they could defeat the Overseer and come out of this alive.
Without another word to Kanzas, she turned on her heel, taking the little pathway back out into the hall. As fast as she was going, however, she still could not help but hear the slight, smug chuckle that emanated from the other woman's throat as she left.
Shirley glanced back once before she was out of sight, fist clenched in anger. If this was what Jidena had really been like, she could understand how he might have been able to bring himself to kill her. The thought jolted her to her core, and she turned away quickly. It must be this horrible place getting to me, she told herself guiltily, and then she was gone.
As if she'd been paying no notice to the Dragoon's departure, Jidena looked at Kanzas closely, scrutinizing, before raising her eyebrow in a knowing manner. "Your lover," she said in an accusatory tone.
"No…not yet…" When she continued to give him that long, flat stare, he corrected himself vaguely. "No. My sister. It's…that's all."
"Your sister," she repeated scornfully. "A lot of good it did you."
His mind felt like fog. Seizing on anything, be it memory or feeling or knowledge, seemed almost impossible. "She was a child then," he fought to explain. "We had no power then, either of us, unlike…" He raised his hand, staring blankly at his wrist, where the light had come before. "Unlike now."
"You didn't need her then, so what do you need her for now? We were your family. I was your family. How could she know what we went through? How could she begin to understand? Your family abandoned you, just like mine did."
"I know," he said, so softly he could barely hear himself. However, in the back of his brain, Kanzas knew how ludicrous it was to blame his parents for not storming Aglis and taking him back, knew that they were as much a victim of the Winglies as he. He'd been a grown man when he'd been sold to the researchers. He should have been able to handle it himself.
He finally turned his face away from Jidena's piercing one-eyed gaze, taking a deep breath and looking toward the hallway Shirley had disappeared into. 'Wake up', he thought. Is this a spell? This place…Shirley…I should-
"Stay with me."
His head snapped back toward her so quickly he could feel it in his neck. "What?"
She smiled a little at his reaction, lifting their twined hands and rubbing her cheek against the backs of his fingers. "Always together. We promised, don't you remember? Have you gotten too old? I remember, like it was yesterday. It may as well have been."
Kanzas was surprised at how little hesitation he felt as he answered, "Yeah. You're dead, Jidena." She frowned as he continued, "You died ten years ago. You're dead, I'm not, and I can't stay with you. Can you even feel the way the city's shaking? Mayfil's going to fall. I ought to be helping them."
"You told me," she said sharply, abruptly letting go of his hand. "We promised we'd be together forever!"
He was now so far removed from who he'd been back then that he couldn't imagine making a promise like that and meaning it. Though a derisive, incredulous laugh threatened to well up from deep in his chest, in the end he could only continue to stare at her blankly. We were both just stupid, stupid children, weren't we? Forever?
The blankness remained as he watched her hold out her hand, seemingly grasping at thin air - and then there was a familiar knife there, the shard of metal she'd hidden from the Winglies and sharpened slowly, the one she'd used to kill the head researcher and bring down the sentence of execution on all of them. A thin length of cloth, the bandana that had once covered her long-lost eye, had been wrapped around one end to serve as a handle.
His mind swirling with confused emotion, he didn't react as, stepping close, she pressed it into his hand, curling his fingers around the makeshift hilt to make him hold it in the same way he'd done to Shirley only two days ago.
"You don't need them," Jidena told him, nuzzling gently against his neck. "I died so we could get out of Aglis…it's your turn, now. Die and be with me, Kanzas, and we'll finally be happy."
She stood back, smiling, expectant, waiting for him to agree as he once would have. Once, he'd needed her strength in order to go on living. It had been her hand that had held him up, she who'd fanned their despair into that ill-fated escape plan, she who'd led him quietly onto the testing pads when he would have kicked and fought-
He blinked bemusedly. It was as if he was seeing her now under a bright, harsh light, her flaws and humanity exposed as the holy martyr of his mind's eye dissolved away. His realization of Shirley's all-too-mortal faults had reassured him, but this was doing exactly the opposite, and he felt suddenly disgusted at both Jidena and himself.
"You should've stayed a memory," the Dragoon mumbled. Now even the way he remembered her had been tainted, and amidst the panic and confusion he had to fight the urge to just get away.
She tilted her head, frowning again. "What do you mean?"
"Sacrificing yourself for someone, but expecting them to do the same? It's stupid!"
"I don't understand. There was nothing else we could have done. You have a debt, don't you?"
"I know," he forced out. "I know…but I can't make the Winglies pay, either, if I go with you!"
"We always paid our debts to each other, didn't we? Didn't we all die together, even poor Esta who didn't try to escape with us? Yet your soul didn't come to join ours - why didn't you die with us? Why couldn't we all go together, like we promised?"
He didn't know how to answer her, to explain that he'd always considered himself dead on that day, impaled like the rest and left to die in the sun on the ocean wall. As he stood in silence, the words untangled themselves, pleas and excuses finally unraveling into a simple statement: "I wanted to live."
"Why?" she cried out. "What right do you have to live when all the rest of us have died?"
Kanzas shook his head slowly. "I have no right."
"You killed me."
"Yes. I didn't want to do it, but I did."
Jidena gestured outward in aggravation, a visible counterpoint to his strange calm. "Then make up for it. Come with me, it'll all be forgiven, and we'll be together forever-"
"There is no forever!" he finally burst out, snarling the words, emphasizing each one. "Don't you understand? No, of course not! I killed you. Even if I didn't mean to do it, my hand held the whip, and following you to Hell won't change that! I don't want to follow you anymore, Jidena. I lived, and you're dead, and I don't need you anymore!"
Shocked, she stood there in silence for a moment, and then she looked into his eyes and smiled. "I still love you. It's okay."
Kanzas stared at her for a long moment before lifting the knife in a heavy hand and plunging it into his stomach.
The ridged steps clanked and shook beneath him as Belzac climbed further into the bowels of the Death City, the ladder obviously not made for someone of his size. He grimaced at the whine of metal giving way, looking down nervously and hoping it wasn't much further to the bottom. The sooner he was out of this shaft, the better - even if it hadn't been small enough to make him claustrophobic, the cold feeling of the white blobs of mist occasionally shooting upward around him caused him to shiver in terror he could barely repress.
Those were souls, once belonging to people who had been just as alive as him, but now they were here, stuck in the green-lit darkness with no choice but to be pulled as the Winglies willed, sorted and sent wherever they wanted them to go.
Stop this, Belzac berated himself. You're almost there; the generator's not far now-
Suddenly, the city trembled, shaking violently enough that he was forced to pause, clinging to the ladder. Were the Dragons attacking the structure nearby, or had one of the others already accomplished their goal? Before the tremors ceased, he could feel himself tilting backward, the whining screech worsening as bolts pulled away from the shaft's wall.
He was unable to stifle a startled cry, although it was cut off again as the air suddenly left his lungs, forced out as his back hit the other wall behind him. The axe strapped there clanged loudly against the metal and sent a spasm of pain through him. The skin the Wingly's wind spell had torn away the day before hadn't been healed magically, either, and the sudden tensing of muscle sent new twinges to join the rest.
Wedged into the narrow shaft and thus unable to fall, the half-Giganto drew in a long breath, let it out slowly in relief, and clung onto one of the bent rungs until everything stopped shaking. "Well, then," he muttered to himself, trying not to watch the souls streaming past him as he carefully moved his feet against the opposite wall. Slowly, keeping his legs tense, he abandoned the ladder and began to 'walk' himself downward, pressing his arms against the other curved sides of the wall to slow his descent.
The open end of the shaft was not far below, and as he approached it, he let his legs relax, sliding easily the rest of the way and landing upright on the stone floor. Like most of the city, the room he'd landed in was black, lit only by a faint green glow, and he grimaced in annoyance at not being able to see. Funny how knowing something was going to leap out and attack didn't make you any more prepared for it.
Still, he reached to tug his axe from its harness, the weight in his hands comforting enough as he moved forward, aiming for the brightest concentration of light he could find. Apart from the steady noise of his footfalls as he made his way carefully down the path, Belzac could hear a skittering sound in the background, something that reminded him of the clatter of dry, dead bone. It stopped when he did, but not exactly at the same moment, and he kept turning this way and that as he went to try to catch a glimpse of whatever it was.
On the other hand, he could feel more than hear Gleam's self-satisfied roar in his head as his vassal Dragon destroyed more of the city above them. Another rumbling tremor shook Mayfil, stones plummeting from above, and he froze where he stood, cringing down and lifting his arms to protect his head. Some of the rocks seemed to fall past him on one side, not hitting the ground, and he gulped as he realized that the path he was on was likely more of a bridge.
Oh, Soa. Despite the fact that he could call on his Dragoon Spirit if he fell, he hated the thought that he was walking on a precipice over an abyss in near-pitch blackness.
Slowly, the floor stopped shaking. Swallowing down the bile that had risen, he continued very warily toward the green glow that was brightening ahead.
Belzac could make out what was causing it now, seeing before him a wide, low dome set into the floor just inside another room. Much to his relief, the floor ahead seemed to stretch all the way to the walls on each side. It was quite likely this was the generator, but rather than letting his guard down, he instead redoubled his watch, sure that there was something waiting here, guarding it.
"You might as well come out-" The large, shadowy shape that suddenly rose up before him blotted out some of the magical light, and Belzac drew back with a hiss of breath, raising his axe defensively. He blinked once, then twice, unable to believe what his eyes were telling him. "-Dad?"
It had been more than fifteen years since he'd last seen his father, Meior, but the figure of the Giganto merchant before him was nearly exactly as he remembered him. He was over a foot taller than his half-breed son, heavily muscled although he hadn't been a warrior in life, geometric red tattoos bedecking his bare arms and the sides of his neck.
Hit by the unwelcome rush of memories, Belzac gritted his teeth, baring them in unconscious anger. I didn't know he was dead! When - when was this? He left us, the bastard - he left us and didn't even have the decency to die where I could find out about it-
The soul took a step further forward, and he realized that perhaps something had changed after all. Mayfil's ghastly green light highlighted skin that was much paler than the dark brown he remembered, now a sort of purple-gray. It played up the shadows that pooled beneath a thick brow, across high cheekbones. Bracing his foot behind him so he wouldn't retreat any further, Belzac nevertheless couldn't restrain a gasp of horror as he caught sight of the side of the man's head where his skull had been smashed in, where brain matter spilled like a burst pudding from the rent.
Retching and gasping to keep the contents of his stomach from doing the same, the Dragoon shook his head in denial. "W-what happened? What happened to you? Dad? What-"
For a moment, the man seemed to pause, his face screwing up into a frown of frustration, before he let out a soft growl and his features relaxed into blankness. He made no response to the question, but rather took a step forward, moving toward his son.
Belzac fought to keep from backing up, his mind telling him that this couldn't be happening, that no one with a wound like that could be moving. That's because he's dead, dead, dead, he taunted himself, readjusting his grip on the battleaxe, lifting it higher. Meior had come and gone throughout his childhood, his visits more frequent at first as he taught Belzac the language of the Gigantos, but as the years had gone on, the visits had grown fewer and soon stopped altogether. Now he knew why.
"A-answer me," he forced out, trying to suppress the stupid quaver that tainted his voice. "Mom and I thought for years that you'd - you'd left us - I think we deserve to know what happened to you!" The soul halted again, shaking his broken head, and Belzac snapped, "Euri! Remember? Her name is Euri, and she loved you, even if she wasn't good enough for your godsdamned people for you to marry-"
Meior groaned suddenly, slumping forward, but Belzac didn't move, keeping the axe raised. He knew he really had no intention of bringing it down, though, at least not now. As angry and confused as he felt, the man before him was still - had been? - his father.
After a long moment, the Giganto pushed up straight again, resuming that cold, motionless stare. With no answers forthcoming, the Dragoon had finally had enough. "What do you want from me?" he snarled. "Tell me what's going on! Say something, damn you, or get out of my way!"
The man's sudden lunge took him off-guard, and his first instinctive reaction was to sweep inward with the blade to meet it. When he realized what would come of that, he tried to jerk sideways, twisting just away from the blow in an awkward motion and cursing himself for being so clumsy. Although he wasn't sure if the dead man would have been cut by the waraxe, he wasn't too inclined just yet to test it by slicing him open. Instead, he used the handle of the axe to deflect the next barehanded strike before twisting it to drive the capped end of it hard into the larger man's stomach.
Grunting, Meior seemed to absorb the blow, feeling nothing. With a scowl marring his face, Belzac quickly stepped back to avoid an overhand chop to the shoulder. It wasn't like fighting mist, at least, but if he couldn't even drive him back, there wouldn't be an end to this useless battle.
Were the Winglies or the devils behind this, or were his words spurring on this attack? Despite his bitterness at having been abandoned, and the sudden shock of realizing that those feelings had been meaningless, Belzac was sure that Meior wasn't trying to kill him on his own. His father had been kind, though distant, and very patient - and he had never really known how to fight.
Yet, if he was being controlled, the Dragoon couldn't see how, and he didn't have time to think about it further as a giant clenched fist drove straight for his nose. He turned his head at the last moment, the punch slamming hard into his cheekbone. Half-healed skin broke open again beneath the blow, and he gasped with the pain as it blurred his vision. This definitely isn't just a spirit, he thought, astounded, as he sluggishly swung his axe up between them in defense. This is flesh and blood! How can it be possible? He's obviously dead! I wish Rose had known something about this-
"Dad, stop this!" he tried, aware of the growing warmth of his Dragoon Spirit even through his chest armor. Once more, his opponent paused, groaning in an odd, disturbing manner as he shook his head. Not moments later, the structure of Mayfil shook beneath them as, somewhere, the second generator exploded, causing the two to stumble in order to stay upright. Pushing himself up straight again, he wondered if transforming would help end this battle; he'd just discovered after the fight with the Winglies in the mountains that his spirit could now hold more energy than before, so he wouldn't necessarily be compromising his mission if he did so. However, before he could come to a decision, it was too late.
Taking advantage of the slight tilt the room was attaining, Meior leapt down toward him, kicking out for Belzac's knee. The leather armor padding he wore there only absorbed a little of the tremendous jolt, and with a sharp curse he felt himself swiftly collapsing beneath the Giganto's weight. His battleaxe clattered against the stone of the walkway and then slid further away as Mayfil continued to tilt. Hands grabbed for his head as he went down, jerking him upward sharply enough that he felt a cracking of the bones in his neck, and then more sudden, spearing pain.
Not at all used to fighting someone larger than him, Belzac could only struggle as he was lifted further upright, trying frantically to get his good leg beneath him to ease the strain on his spine. Huge fingers pressed hard into the sides of his temples, enough to make him feel as though his skull was about to snap beneath the pressure. His own hands latching around Meior's wrists, he tried futilely to shove them away, a strangled cry escaping his lips.
The Giganto's cloudy eyes contracted sharply, and Belzac could only watch helplessly as a white mist invaded his vision until Mayfil's blackness was replaced by a blue Eastlands sky. Voices resolved themselves out of the roaring, pounding sound of his own heartbeat in his ears, and suddenly the Dragoon found he was watching from a distance, all the pain vanished, as his father approached two Winglies.
He remembered the place this odd vision was showing him, could even recognize the pale-haired foremen there; this was the plantation he'd grown up on, his old home as a slave. Unlike the broken, undead thing who'd just pummeled him, Meior appeared here as he once had, drawn up to his full eight-foot height, proud and unafraid of the wary Winglies as he stopped in front of them.
"Here, you're that Giganto merchant, aren't you?" one of the foremen finally said, scowling up at the man. "What's your business here? Merchant or no-"
The Wingly was interrupted brusquely by the jingle of a coin purse, his jaw dropping slightly as the Giganto upended it into his other palm, the glitter of gold pieces tumbling down into a small pile. He too spoke in the Winglies' language, which Belzac was a bit rusty on, although he could still make out the conversation. "Meior comes to buy family. Go, bring owner for paying as agreed."
Though they normally would have made fun of the clumsy way he spoke their language - the Giganto native tongue was very different from others, and they had trouble translating fluently - these two Winglies weren't laughing. Obviously torn between anger at being commanded and the sight of the shining coins, they looked to each other briefly.
"A-all right," the first one said again. "I'll go get him. Don't run off." His wings sprouted from his back, and he lifted a short distance off the ground, making for the buildings not far away.
What is this? Belzac thought, confused. Dad, are you showing me-
His fears were right; as he continued to look on, he saw the moving Wingly suddenly aim higher in the sky, raising a hand to his forehead in an unmistakable gesture as he looped back around. Storm winds picked up around them, the second foreman backing up quickly as the roaring gusts of a spell surrounded the merchant, battering at him forcefully.
Meior spun to face the airborne man, scowling and moving to tuck the money away again. Although his embroidered, fur-edged vest whipped around him, he appeared unharmed by the spell, the ring on one of his fingers sparking green. Gigantos were quite susceptible to magic, particularly the wind-element kind. Those who went among Winglies often wore items to protect them against such spells if they could afford to do so.
About to shout something up at his attacker, he realized, too late, that he'd turned his back on the other. Seizing a heavy wooden flail from where it lay nearby, the Wingly on the ground lunged forward, cracking the farming tool hard against the back of Meior's head. The huge man groaned, crumpling to his knees as blood began to well up from the wound, and the foreman struck him again as he toppled to the dirt, causing what looked like a large, ugly dent in his shaved scalp.
"Archangel's tits!" the Wingly cursed up at the other, waving the bloody flail at him. "What'd you go and start that for?"
Touching back down, the man glanced to their victim, who was trying futilely to push back up to hands and knees. Gold pieces were scattered around him, sparkling on the road like twinkling stars. "C'mon, that half-breed does the work of three men and he's not even full-grown. We'll split the money, keep him working, and no one will be the wiser."
"But what if the other Gigantos find out, get after us? They ain't all soft merchants, as you well know."
"No one will find out," the foreman stressed darkly. "If they ask, he never even got here. He could've died anyplace, right? Here, gimme that." He snatched the flail from the other's hand, swinging it hard once more for Meior's skull.
The vision descended sharply into blackness, sudden enough that Belzac, astounded by what he'd just seen, let out a startled gasp. The pain had not returned, and neither had his surroundings; for a moment, he just existed in that void, until a voice spoke to him.
He recognized the deep, lyrical timbre before he could make out what his father was saying. It had been a long time since he'd heard the Giganto language, much less tried to speak it, so he didn't respond, merely letting the shifting tones wash over him as they once had, years ago, when he was still learning how to understand.
"-can hear me. There is little time. A devil rests on my back and has stolen my will, forcing me to fight you. Destroy it to end this, Belzac."
"Dad, what-" he finally murmured back in the Human tongue, "I don't know - any of it - how are you-"
"There is little time," he repeated. "You have come far, and I will not be the end of your fight. The life I was granted is temporary, given only that I might stop you. Destroy the devil, and you will avenge my death on the Winglies with their downfall."
The Dragoon drew in a deep breath, feeling it fill his lungs now, the sharp pain suddenly surging back through him as physical sensation returned. However Meior's spirit had managed to make contact with him, the connection was obviously unraveling. "A-all right-"
"I am already proud," came the faint mental whisper, and then Belzac blinked, staring back up at his father's impassive, shadowed features. A moment later, he relaxed his hands, letting the younger man go. Meior then collapsed face-first to the floor, toppling in an eerie echo of what had happened years ago.
Confused and taken aback by what had just happened, and what he had learned, Belzac tried to step backward and ended up falling as his knee refused to hold him. Turning to catch himself, he winced as the pounding of his head merged with the sharp pain jabbing upward through his leg. Despite that, he felt about quickly for his axe, finding it behind him on the tilted walkway. Smacking his hand down on its metal handle and hauling it back, he lurched forward on his good leg, using the axe as a temporary crutch until he got a good look at what was going on.
Unsure what he was even looking for, he soon realized that it was impossible to miss: a large, spiky gray form seemed to rest on the top of Meior's shoulderblade. He peered down at it and frowned as two odd randomly-set eyes blinked back up at him maliciously.
His lip curling in disgust, Belzac knelt on his good knee in order to lift his axe again, prodding at the 'devil', if such it was, with the blunt end of the weapon. "Soa," he breathed. The gray mass shuddered slightly in response, soft and gelatinous, and in a quick, reflexive motion, he turned the battleaxe, bringing the blade down hard on the little thing.
The waves of multicolored light that had begun to spill from it petered out, black gunk oozing from the slice. Belzac chopped at it again with an angry snarl, splitting it nearly in half, and bit his lip against rising bile at the smell of it, at the sight of a pierced diabolical eyeball spewing forth its fluid. Trying not to pay attention to the reactive jerks of his father's body beneath it, he dropped the axe once more and grabbed for the ichor-smeared pieces of the thing that remained attached, tearing them from Meior's back.
Dark, venous connective tissue pulled taut and snapped, ripping away from the Giganto's skin. He hissed at the throbbing, burning sensation as the reddish-black gunk coated his fingers, but he continued to hastily pull the pieces free, noting with relief that the strange purple tint was fading from the other man's skin.
Belzac swiped his hands against his vest in an attempt to wipe off the devil's blood before reaching out. "Dad?" He tried to turn the prone form, shoving at his shoulder. "It's gone - are you-?" He jerked his hand back quickly when he felt the flesh give way, crumbling beneath his fingers like a clod of dirt. "What-?"
Temporary life, he realized, backing up as best he could as a warm light began to shine beneath the crumbling skin, highlighting the deep cracks which had formed in the body as if it was made of dried mud. After a moment, it flared brightly, and he covered his eyes. The light gathered itself into a ball, flickered, and was gone, as was the figure of Meior, leaving only the goopy mess of the devil in pieces on the brick.
Cursing, Belzac flexed his fingers with some effort, the burn of the blood having stiffened them, and then he shook his head hard to ward off the tears. He had a job to do here, and it didn't involve mourning a man who had died years ago. That, he figured, could come later, now that resentment had been replaced with sorrow. In the meantime, I'll help make sure that the Winglies can't control you anymore.
He called on his Dragoon Spirit, feeling the familiar golden armor forming around him, and exhaled as his wings lifted him off the ground. The pain of his knee was easing somewhat now without his weight to aggravate it. With a strong flap of his blue-violet wings, he shot off toward the dome just ahead, readjusting his grip on the axe. Something would have to break through its protection, he figured, and he might as well try what he was best at first.
Experimentally, he focused his energy toward the weapon he held, and the edge of the axe's blade began to glow a golden-orange in response as he swung it down hard against the dome. Much to his surprise, it seemed to give beneath the strike, bright green sparks of energy flying up. "That easy?" he murmured, rising up before lunging downward once more. Of course, the Winglies likely hadn't anticipated any other species acquiring the magic and power to break through to the generators when they had been put in place.
He attacked the dome repeatedly until the feedback of power massing around the cracks sputtered against him, knocking him back. The opaque material was obviously giving way to the force that lay beneath it, so it was time to go. Twisting as he shoved off against the wide metal rim, Belzac flew upward into the blackness, aiming back the way he'd come, toward the presence of his vassal Dragon waiting somewhere above.
Not just rocks, but huge twisted chunks of metal were falling around him, and he raised one arm to shield his face, feeling the little twinges against his cheeks and neck as pebbles and debris pinged off his armor. Perhaps he should find Shirley, make sure she was all right-
No, I shouldn't. She had been the first of the Dragoons, the first of them with powers, including that of healing. Of all of them right now, he had to believe that she could take care of herself, no matter how worried he was about her.
There were still Syuveil and Damia to consider, anyway. After how the scholar had been affected by what had happened with his Dragon, he couldn't be sure both of them were all right, even though they had gone together in this city of death. And then there was Rose, who was also waiting for their help. However, as the generator exploded behind him, shockwaves sending him hurtling ever faster though the falling rubble, he could only wonder if he would be able to locate any of them at all…
The soles of her boots thudded hard against the dark stone as she stormed her way down the hall, her free hand clenched into a fist and her fingernails digging hard into her palm. He says one thing and does another - I won't be able to destroy two generators and get back to Rose in time! I hope she waits for at least some of the others.
Shirley shook her head, frowning into the darkness before her. She'd just have to trust she was making the right decision. It was better this than wasting time trying to persuade Kanzas away from that spirit and ending up not making it to either generator. Hopefully, he would be able to say his goodbyes, to find some kind of peace with that girl, whatever he needed to do before this city fell apart, but the Dragoon knew deep down that there was little likelihood of that. She'd have to come back and try again. There'd be some way-
A pale, greenish light grew brighter along the hallway's walls as she approached the chamber, and she slowed slightly as the room came into view. Nothing was blocking her, nor had anything appeared to stop her. Maybe, if they'd set a trap for him using that spirit, they weren't expecting anyone else to take over the attack at this particular generator. If so, they were being careless indeed, and it wasn't too likely. She kept a close eye out as she entered.
The dome set into the floor was glowing and pulsing steadily, and she bit her lip with strange uncertainty, lifting her longbow and reaching back for an arrow. It was best to test its strength before she decided to use magic, and at any rate she had to hurry, no matter what she did. The feeling of the others being wounded kept coming, again and again, as they all fought to destroy the city, but one of them was definitely worse than the others. Someone would need her help, but who-?
And then, without warning, something slammed into her from the side, knocking the woman hard against the floor before she could set her dart to the string. Arrows clattered to the stone as they spilled from her quiver. Her head spun from the impact, and Shirley cried out in alarm as something huge and dark clutched at her, its weight preventing her from twisting back up to her feet.
"I don't think so, eversoul," a voice snarled above her.
"What are you-" The pressure increased, and her breath caught in her chest as she tried to draw in more air, her eyes wide as she stared up at the devil holding her down.
It wasn't the same as the one before, this one possessing two horns at the points of the large crest on his head. Thick black lines made a pattern around his crimson eyes and across his cheeks. Those eyes regarded her with surprising hatred. "Your existence offends me - why should a mere Human soul be allowed to escape the final judgment Soa created the Devildom to provide?!"
She shook her head hard. He'd come out of the shadows themselves, she realized dully, and yet it didn't seem that he'd attacked because they were trying to destroy Mayfil. "I don't even understand what you're-"
The devil sneered. "No, you don't know, and I intend to make sure you never find out. My name is Zackwell, girl, and you'll be crying to me for mercy before long."
With sudden panic, she twisted and fought to get away from him, but he merely extended his wings, shifting so that he was crouched over her like a gargoyle, and continued to hold her down. She resisted as hard as she could, but for all his lankiness he was quite strong. His weight kept her there, one long clawed foot on her stomach making it hard to breathe, the other one pinning her left arm firmly to the floor. Shirley struggled, trying to yank her wrist from his grasp, but her kicks were useless, and the pain increased in her forearm as he leaned on it harder.
"Silly child," Zackwell said, leering down at her as he seized her first two fingers and snapped them backward. She screamed sharply despite herself, and he grinned wider, breaking the next two slowly, one by one, and then her thumb, drinking in her cries of anguish. Finally, he simply let her hand fall, pressing his own against her shoulders now to restrain her. "So fragile, you Humans are. No more arrows for you, eversoul. Really, it was almost not worth doing. It's so much more fun when you struggle. Please, keep trying!"
Despite his exhortation, despite that she knew she should, Shirley didn't move, trying to catch her breath as the pain throbbed upward through her hand. She wasn't as easily disarmed as he believed, but she couldn't call on her Dragoon Spirit when he was so close, not when he would easily notice its sudden glow and pull it away from her. Someone will come, she thought, they'll have to, Kanzas isn't far and he'll come looking-
Searching her scared expression, the devil smirked, sitting back slightly. "How disappointing. I do wish I could kill you; it would be so much more fun to play with your soul instead, but we can't have that. I'll make do with your body, then." The look of hatred on his alien face deepened as she choked back a gasp of horror. "That's right. I'll have your body, and then your mind, and then, when you're broken and no more danger, your soul will be mine, too."
"Mayfil's falling apart!" she managed to retort. "You won't do anything! You're done playing with lives - ngh!" Shirley nearly bit her tongue as he rammed his balled fist into her solar plexus, tears filling her brown eyes as she tried to drag air into her lungs again.
Still straddling her, he reached for the collar of her tunic, dragging her face up toward him while she was too stunned to struggle. "There's always time for one more game," Zackwell half-whispered cheerfully. She raised her good hand sluggishly, attempting to hit him, and he dropped her back down with a laugh.
Shirley's vision went fuzzy for a moment as her head hit the brick, and as her hand dropped back her fingertips brushed something nearby on the stone. With sudden hope, she reached a bit further, trying to grab hold of whatever it was without drawing the devil's attention to it. Zackwell dragged one finger straight down her front from the neckline of her shirt and across the fasteners of her armored vest. The sharp claw tore through the cords and her clothing under it, carving a deep, straight red line into the skin he was revealing beneath. Even as her mind revolted in terror, even as the cut began to well up her blood, she hoped he was distracted enough not to notice what she was doing.
If he realized anything, she never knew it; a sudden low-pitched rumbling reverberated throughout the chamber as, somewhere within Mayfil, a third generator was destroyed. Stronger than the rest had been, it shook the floor beneath them alarmingly. Another one! And it was close, she thought, hoping that whoever had done it might sense something from her. She could feel her Dragon's frustration as she tried to find her, keeping her eyes high in the hopes that she'd soon see a flicker of white-silver coming to her rescue. /Eremi! Where the explosion just happened, I'm that way! Please, hurry!/
The rumbling grew more intense, a hail of rocks falling from the ceiling, striking the devil's back and rebounding against her arms and face, although she could barely feel it past the panic and revulsion. Zackwell looked up briefly, snarling into the darkness above, and Shirley's searching fingers finally snagged hold of something smooth and wooden. The floor tilted further, and her heart seized up as she heard the clattering sound of the rest of her arrows rolling away.
Zackwell's wings snapped open wide above him to shield him from the falling rock and give him balance, but as Shirley felt herself begin to slide down the incline, his red eyes fixed on her again. "This won't save you!" Growling in anger, he raised his hand and drove his claws through her right shoulder like pitons, pinning her to the stone.
Even as she screamed out in pain, Shirley lashed upward with the arrow she'd grabbed, driving it with all the adrenaline-laced strength she could muster into the soft hollow just beneath his eyeball.
His howl was terrible, even more than she'd expected, and his body arched backward and away from her, his claws pulling out of her flesh as he grabbed for the piercing shaft. An odd smoke was curling upward from the wound, and she realized vaguely that the arrow she'd grabbed had been one of the ones she'd shot into the other devil, Menon, now stained with his blood. Good! I hope it burns through your head!
Immediately, Shirley called on her Dragoon Spirit, the white light exploding outward like the sun rising over the horizon. Almost before it had finished forming around her, lending her its power, she pulled up one leg and kicked the devil hard in the center of the chest, knocking him away from her. Her wings did the rest, and a moment later she was flying as the floor fell away beneath them, gasping for air with the roaring of the crumbling city in her ears, both pain and relief pouring through her. Just that one blow to the stomach and it was still so hard to breathe.
As her bow and arrows were gone, and her fingers broken besides, she didn't bother looking for Zackwell, turning instead toward the large, circular generator below. The floor remained steady around it, although the rest of the room was half-destroyed, but she could hear its thrumming growing louder, almost strained, as it took on more of the load the other devices had once carried. With only one option available to her, Shirley lifted her hands above her head, calling on the Dragon magic of her spirit. "Star Children!"
Balls of golden light dripped downward onto the dome, and she flung out her hands despite the pain, watching the energy hiss upward in a prismatic flare; amidst that was a cracking sound, and she quickly flew higher, looking for the easiest escape route. /Eremi? Where are you? It's going to explode here, too-/
And then shadow passed before her vision, and Zackwell snarled in rage as he lunged for her, the arrow still jutting out at an angle beneath his eye, which wept blood instead of tears. "Eversoul bitch!" Clinging to her with his long legs wrapped around her waist, he grabbed a handful of her red hair, yanking her head back.
The fear returned, her stomach twisting with it, but amidst that was frustration and her own growing rage. She might die here, but it wasn't going to be without doing what she'd come here to do! She let her feet fly up over her head, let the devil's weight flip them over until he was beneath her, and then with a cry of anger Shirley shot downward, energy spilling from her wings as she accelerated both of them faster and faster toward the generator.
Zackwell fought suddenly to disentangle himself from her, to counter her movement with his own wings. He only succeeded in getting free a moment before she slammed him through the fractured dome with a sharp crack. Her head swimming, the healer frantically kicked off the remains of the slick surface, flying blindly upward as its light exploded, consuming what was left of the room, and then her as well, with a destructive roar.
There was no light in the passageway that stretched ahead, no greenish glow, and even the overhead flickers of the souls being drawn toward the Gate disappeared into the thick, choking darkness surrounding her.
It had been a long time since darkness had frightened her, since she had been a child, but something about this place seemed to dredge up memories once set aside. It had been an 'honor' to have her very own room in the palace, though it had really been more of a cubicle, and she was unable to cast the magic that would turn on the lights. She'd started hoarding candle ends, trying desperately to conserve the flame so she might fall asleep, so she wouldn't make a mistake when she was called and fail her master out of weariness.
The nighttime back then felt just like it did now, stifling, able to hide anything in its cloak.
One of the streaming spirits, larger than the rest and glowing blue, suddenly brushed close past her cheek. Rose jerked back sharply, her heart beginning to race. Though it had done no more than ruffle her hair in its wake, she felt her head spinning dizzily. It was too dark-
He would be there, she knew. Always when she'd thought he'd forgotten-
Too dark to see-
And the hands would-
When the fingers closed around her upper arm, Rose screamed, her reaction one of primal terror. She lashed out with her saber, though it threatened to drop from her fingers, weak and directionless despite the rush of fear. "No! No! Get away! Get away from me!"
"Hey! Hey, it's just me!"
Rose jerked to a standstill as she heard the familiar voice, staring at the blonde man in front of her. He'd stood back out of range of her blade, though some fresh gashes in the leather of his armguards showed that he'd had to parry the first few strikes. A dim torch flickered in his hand, burning cloth wadded around a pipe, chasing the shadows from his features.
"Zieg!" Her whole body was trembling, the point of her sword making wild, jagged loops in the air between them as she tried to hold it steady. She hated for him to see her this way, hated how far into the panic she had descended. It was just darkness, her own element, as much a part of her as fire was of him - so why couldn't she stop shaking? "I-I don't know what's wrong with me-"
"I think I do. Here." With his free hand, he reached up under his chestplate through its armhole, drawing out a small vial. Uncorking it with his teeth, he flicked the bottle forward and splashed the contents into her face.
She flinched back from the anticipated spray of liquid, but only gently-glowing sparks enveloped her, and as they faded she realized it had been a Mind Purifier. The magic of the potion had taken the clutch of terror with it, leaving her free to breathe again. Inhaling deep gasps of the stale air and exhaling slowly, Rose straightened up, rubbing at her forehead with her fingertips. "A fear spell. Something got me with a fear spell."
"Yeah. And a good thing, too. I'd never have been able to block your strikes with my arms otherwise," he told her with a wry smile. "You all right now?"
Rose nodded sharply, wanting to quickly put this behind her. "Part of the Overseer's defenses, no doubt."
"Maybe…or maybe it's just from the souls?" he wondered, gazing upward in ill-concealed wonder at the stream of them, pale and glistening in the light of his torch. "I didn't see any of these flying ones below, just a spirit of a different sort, and I didn't have any trouble there."
"Maybe. It doesn't matter, if it doesn't happen again. Do you have any more of those Mind Purifiers?" she asked, sheathing her blade. "I wish I'd thought of bringing some myself."
"Just one," he said, pulling it out and handing it over to her. "They're expensive in Vellweb. Here, you hold onto it, just in case."
She took the bottle and tucked it into her belt pouch, giving her fiancé one of her rare smiles. "I'm glad you're here, Zieg."
He grinned back at her, wrapping his arm around her shoulder and giving her a brief kiss on the forehead. "You should've waited for us, you know. But let's not argue about that now."
"Right," she agreed in a dry tone, as if to imply that she would have won that argument anyway.
He made a sudden face, dropping his arm. "What is that smell on you?"
"Walking dead," Rose said shortly, and his lip curled. "You'll get used to it." Waving it away, because there was nothing she could do about it here, she went on, "I suppose that explosion I felt earlier was from the generator you were sent to?"
Zieg nodded. "Yeah. They aren't shielded against magic, at least. I broke though it easily with a little borrowed power from Ember." He paused. "I think the Winglies have decided to summon souls, people connected to our pasts, to guard them. At least, that's who I came across waiting there."
The dark-haired woman raised her eyebrows, unsettled by the thought despite herself. If that was true, she had a good idea of who might be summoned to face her. All at once, her impatience to get this fight over with seemed to die away, replaced by a growing, creeping dread.
"I'll tell you about it when this is all over," he continued. "You've probably heard part of the story before, anyway. But, like I said, I had no trouble getting past him."
"I hope everyone else has your good fortune," she answered darkly.
"Me too." He looked around again at the dim passageway and the souls above, then cursed as the floor began to shake. The tremors were more violent than the weak, constant ones they'd both gotten used to as the Dragons above pulled apart the city. There was a faint, distant roar of energy - but not as distant as all that, for great chunks of the ceiling were shaken free by the force.
Dropping his torch, Zieg tugged Rose closer against the curving side of the corridor, and they made themselves as small as they could, curling inward to try to avoid being hit in the head with debris. The hallway was plunged into darkness as the burning rag was snuffed out by falling stone, and they clung together tightly, trying to keep from being separated should the floor cave in where they were standing.
Finally, the throes of the crumbling Death City subsided, at least for the moment, and the two slowly relaxed. The Darkness Dragoon braced one gloved hand against the wall, pushing herself straight again. "Another generator destroyed," she said, a bit shakily. As her eyes adjusted to the blackness, she scanned the ceiling for any telltale patches of light. "I hope I'm wrong," she began, "but I think the way back from here has been blocked. I don't see any more souls coming this way."
"No, but…look," Zieg answered. There was indeed another faint glow already making itself visible as the trail of souls swooped down from the floor above, coming in through the new hole in the ceiling. They streamed ever onward, in such number that he was sure now that these weren't just people, but also the souls of the higher creatures and monsters, maybe even things like animals and trees, so many dying and being taken away by the Winglies- "Let's keep going, then," the man finally said, tearing his eyes away from the sight. "The others know where we're headed, anyway."
"The souls are drawn to the Gate of the Inferno," she told him, pointing at the flow above where it disappeared into the darkness ahead. "This seems to be the main conduit. Those with no connections to the living in the world, if they aren't Wingly, are taken straight to the Gate. If we follow these, we'll come right to it."
He blanched slightly despite his confident demeanor. "Can't say I'm looking forward to that," he muttered, shaking his head, but he made no other protest as they broke into a run, accompanying the small balls of light overhead to their destination as quickly as they could, having to dodge and leap over the rubble of the falling city that littered their path.
After a few minutes, Zieg held out his hand to stop Rose, peering upward as they neared a larger pile of brick than normal, just where their corridor began to widen. There was a hole in the ceiling there, giving a view to a large area above. It seemed to stretch upward for several stories, bedecked with many of the hanging, mossy cables and chains that they had passed throughout Mayfil. "Hold on," he began. "I thought I saw-"
There was something moving up high in that room, slowly drifting lower, as if searching. Rose suddenly let out a breath of recognition. "Syuveil! Down here!" she called, cupping her hands around her mouth to amplify her voice.
The particular shape of his Dragoon form was identifiable even at a distance, white wings fanned out behind him. For a moment, the man merely hovered there, far above, but when he finally saw them below he descended quickly through the gap. The burst of bright green energy as his armor faded away showed little of the room they were in, just lighting up the bricks to either side, but it seemed clear enough that there was some kind of chamber just ahead. Once it was gone, their only light source came again from the stream of the souls above. "I'm so glad I found you!" he breathed.
"That was your generator just now?" Zieg asked, reaching to clasp his arm briefly in greeting. "You look like you had some trouble," he continued, eyeing him. The leather chest armor he wore over his gray tunic had some deep parallel gashes scratched into it, and the cloth beneath was stained here and there with distinctive dark splotches.
"Yes," Syuveil answered, running his hand up through his hair, the blood in it already stiffening half of it into a spiky mess. "I did have some trouble at first, but luckily, er, Shynn…helped me."
Rose wasn't quite sure that the failed Dragoon could atone for his treason against his lord and species now, but she elected to keep silent about that. "Another soul set to guard a generator, then?"
Syuveil shook his head hard. "He was sent there, but he didn't fight me. He helped," he repeated.
"Good for him," Zieg said.
"Souls can - well, it's no matter now. I'm no longer injured. I did have to transform to escape when the generator exploded, of course," he went on. "I can do so again, if I don't spend all my energy on the fight ahead."
"Well, you're still one up on me, both you and Rose," the Fire Dragoon said crossly, once again ruing the loss of his hard-earned spirit energy to the Wingly's spell in the volcano. "I had to do the same thing when my generator blew. If the Overseer doesn't have spirit power for some reason, one of you, or the others, will have to carry me out."
"Don't you worry about that," Rose told him, smiling slightly.
"That's right! Speaking of the others, where's Damia?" Zieg asked, glancing about as if expecting the girl to have trailed behind without his noticing her. In such darkness as they were in, it was almost possible. "Didn't she come here with you? Or, wait, was she with Belzac?"
The scholar jerked as if the question had been a physical blow. "I lost her! I lost her, damn it!" he burst out. "We hadn't even made it into the main tower. There was an explosion, and we fell from the bridge, and I couldn't find her again! I was hoping she'd made it back up on her own-" His voice wavered, and he leaned his head forward, reaching as if to adjust the glasses that were no longer there. When his hand didn't find them, he pressed the heel of his palm against one closed eye. "I guess she hasn't gotten here," he finished miserably.
Zieg blanched, immediately connecting the explosion with his destruction of the first generator. "If she's…dead…" he began.
"If someone dies in this place, we may well know about it right away," Rose said evenly, though even she couldn't hide her agitation at this news. "Connections to the living-"
"It is time to find out for yourselves," said a woman's voice nearby, startling the three as they tried to find its source in the darkness.
Rose went still as stone at the sound of it, her breath coming fast and ragged, and her fiancé next to her fumbled out for her arm. She made no sign that she noticed him at all, her eyes peering through the lightless surroundings until they ached with the effort. She didn't have to search for very long, however, before the walls of the room began to glow, harsh and green, the Wingly lights highlighting the black stone of the chamber.
It was no antechamber to the Gate, as she had supposed. The round room was large and bare of any decoration or furnishings except for, directly before them, a spiny arch, like the ribcage of some twisted living thing. Within the organic mass was a pool of blackness, even less than blackness; it was more the emptiness between starlight. The souls that streamed above them did not disappear into another room, but rather into the vast horizon of their final destination. They were standing directly before the Gate of Hell.
"Oh, my god," Zieg whispered, "we were here all along…"
Syuveil made a kind of choked cry, staring at the shimmery film in front of them, and what lay beyond. Even as they watched, the souls that flew through it seemed to vanish into the nothingness there. It was clear they weren't just disappearing as if into a portal - they were visible beyond the film, but only briefly. Void stretched before the little balls of light, the darkness of Hell consuming them in its gaping maw. "No," he said in a strangled voice, "no, it's empty-"
"I shall tell you that the half-breed Loreley yet lives," the stranger's voice intoned again, "though her time grows short as the blood even now seeps from her body. And what of you, Dragon-children? What of you?"
With some effort, the three dragged their attention toward the speaker. A visibly pregnant woman stood to one side of the Gate, initially going unnoticed next to its horrific splendor. Though she appeared as solid as they, she was obviously a soul of the dead. A thick horizontal gash marred her neck all the way around, evidence of a beheading, though thankfully her head remained firmly in place as she stepped forward.
"Mother," Rose said softly. "You still serve them even in death, don't you?" She was aware of Zieg's sympathetic gaze, of his second attempt to take her arm for steadiness, but she didn't find herself wavering, though she appreciated the gesture. "You don't remain here in Mayfil because your bond is with me."
She didn't look much like Rose, who had apparently gotten her looks from her long-dead father, except around the eyes. Her braided wreath of hair was a plain sort of brown, her face drawn with work and worry, though there were traces of a former youthful beauty.
"No," the woman said, in a very different sort of voice than her earlier declarations. "No, not for you. I wait for my love, my murderer, murderer of my child, his child-"
"Frahma," Rose finished for her, finally averting her eyes from her mother's face.
She could not remember the Wingly lord she and her mother had belonged to when she was born; when Frahma had seized the throne, their owner had been on the wrong side of the coup. His only legacy had been her name, for he had reserved the right to name his slaves and had delighted in choosing themes; he had named her mother Camellia for a flower as well. But in the end he had suffered for choosing to support the loser, and upon his execution she and all of his other slaves became the property of the new lord, Melbu Frahma.
Frahma, not unlike her first owner, was fond of themes in his slaves, choosing them for their looks as one might match a set of animals for their fur. She had suited his preference for the coloration of his attendants, and therefore had been taken from the kitchens to the palace halls. There she was trained along with other girls of dark hair to be both decorative and useful, whether for running errands or for getting in the way of an assassin's spell.
Rose had found her master nothing short of terrifying. Although he had once supposedly looked like any other Wingly, she had never seen it for herself. And so in the end she had never blamed her mother for convincing herself that she loved Frahma, for teaching her to do the same. It had made being his slave more bearable, had allowed a misguided loyalty to replace despair.
As for her mother, she could only look back in hindsight, now that she was grown, and see how she had brought herself to cope with the new situation. Camellia had been only a house-slave, one of hundreds employed to keep the gigantic Palace of the Winglies clean, but, as with her daughter, something about her had caught Frahma's eye. Looking at her now, Rose could only think that it hadn't been any excess of beauty, not that most Winglies seemed to find Humans all that attractive. Had it been the devotion she had trained herself into, to protect herself from fear of him? Whatever it had been, he had taken her to his bed for a time, which ended with a predictable result.
Oh, it had been long ago, but there were some things even a child could understand, even if they weren't told outright. She had been only five or six when the Life City was raised, when the Breeding Law was enacted in response to the excesses of the previous lord's reign, and her mother's pregnancy had come about less than a year later. Winglies lived so much longer than Humans, and their babies took three years to be born, so half-breeds could be told without even the Crystal Palace involved just by the length of time it took. When Camellia was found to have been pregnant nearly a year, with no end in sight, Frahma had declared her afoul of the law and sentenced to death.
He could have ignored the law if he had wanted to, as was his prerogative as the supreme ruler of his species; he had certainly done so before, and would do so again. He had always known the child was his, of course, and had always intended to have them both killed. It had just pleased him to wait that long before doing it. And so Rose had watched from her place along the wall as her mother had been dragged from the throne room, to be taken to Zenebatos and beheaded, and she had been so terrified of punishment for moving without orders that she hadn't even allowed herself to blink-
"Oh, my girl." Suddenly, the sound of the undead woman's voice changed again, becoming more taunting, almost amused. "How does it make you feel, knowing that no one here in Mayfil waits to make the journey with you? You will go straight to the void you are destined for!"
"My connections are with the living," she responded, not rising to that bait. "For me, that is enough."
"If you're not waiting for Rose, then why are you here before us?" Zieg demanded harshly, as if with his words he could chase away this specter whose presence was so obviously causing her pain.
There was a soft flare of shadow behind him, making the three Dragoons turn guardedly to face it. The Wingly Overseer stepped forward out of the darkness, pale and nearly naked, her strange appearance adding to the unsettling horror of the place. Her blank white eyes regarded them with seeming scrutiny, her bound lips curved in a smirk. Zieg and Rose immediately unsheathed their swords.
"I, Camellia, speak for Ieo, who gave her voice to the Darkness," the Human woman said sorrowfully, briefly herself for one more moment. "Her words are mine-"
"-My words are hers," she finished in that distinctly different tone, obviously completely taken over by the Wingly. "Behold the Gate, Humans, one last time with mortal eyes." Ieo suddenly held forth her scythe. "For I will send you through it now!"
Her feet left the ground as her wings appeared behind her, their bright bluish-white glow marking her position clearly in the darkness. Despite making such a target, the Overseer seemed completely unconcerned with the opponents she was facing, even waiting in place as Syuveil made the first lunge toward her, then casually dodging aside at the last moment. As she was unimpeded by any clothing but a long gauzy drape, she moved amazingly fast compared to the soldiers in plate armor that they'd fought before.
Zieg and Rose charged forward together, he with a heavy downward slash, she with an inward jab of her more slender blade. Twin clangs rang through the air as Ieo blocked both, spinning the scythe to drive them back and away from its edge as it whirled past.
The Darkness Dragoon glanced to her fiancé, the look saying everything for her. Their swords had a limited range when facing off against a pole weapon such as this; they were going to have to try a two-pronged attack in order to get at her with their weapons.
He nodded in agreement, reaching again beneath his chestplate and drawing out another small vial. "Let's try this!" he grunted, pulling back his hand.
Ieo could cast a spell and be gone from her position before it even hit its mark; indeed, they saw the flare of a sigil even as Zieg lobbed his spell-bottle at her. As Syuveil made another thrust with his spear at her back, she somehow she managed to hook the pole with the counterweight blade on the far end of her scythe and spin him into the way of the trail of sparks. Lightning exploded behind the Jade Dragoon, crackling up in lines of blue, and a blast of cold air suddenly enveloped Zieg and Rose.
Letting out a startled gasp, Syuveil moved to continue his spin and missed most of the lightning, which fizzled out quickly without Zieg's concentration behind it. The other two tried to dodge Ieo's spell as best they could, but it had a wide area of effect, and they couldn't avoid much of the bone-chilling frost that swept across their exposed skin, numbing their fingers and slowing their reactions as it hit.
The three Humans came to a brief halt to reposition themselves, glancing from one to the other. The Overseer too had stopped for a moment, hovering before them with an infuriating smirk, her weapon held almost negligently in one hand.
She was fast, Rose couldn't help but think, trying to fight away the tinge of despair that colored it. They were going to have to be careful not to get in each other's way again. Still, the Wingly didn't have armor, and using a magical shield would immobilize her. To her estimation, it would only take two or three good hits to bring their enemy down-if they could land them, anyway.
"Shit," Zieg cursed softly as he skidded back near her. "On that weapon! There's legs! Something's kicking!"
Rose gritted her teeth as she took a better look at the shape of the ugly scythe. What seemed to be a small body was incorporated into it; she would have thought it a child if she hadn't learned about the ability of Minintos to manipulate souls. The bone of the skull had somehow been elongated and spread to fit the long curved blade, which emerged from its mouth where its lower jawbone should have been like an extended metallic purple tongue. The legs he'd seen were coming from the shaft, as if the torso above had been merged with it. She felt a shudder run through her body as she realized what that kicking meant, her mind shying away from the implications. "That's horrible!" she muttered back to him, her brows knitting in a sudden surge of anger.
Their breath of air was over; Ieo was moving again, going from target to target, never staying in one place for long. Aided by the power of her wings, she spun and twirled from one foot to the other, the white drape of fabric fluttering madly around her and making it difficult to aim. Syuveil in particular, missing his spectacles, was finding it hard to differentiate between the cloth, her long shining tails of hair, and her pale skin beneath the dim light of the soul stream and obscuring glow of her wings. He jabbed for her wildly with the point of his spear as she spun by, only to hastily have to shift it in his hands to block the downward slice of her scythe.
"Why do you not transform?" She leapt back from Syuveil, ducking away from another of Zieg's swipes, and then raised the scythe high in the air. A ring of dark reddish-purple spread out from around its head, which she then launched hard at the scholar. The blast of magical energy hit him forcefully, throwing him backward - and straight for the Gate.
Rose, pivoting on her heel, cried out in alarm, too far away to do anything else. When she saw the sudden spray of stone arcing through the air, she felt her heart descend back out of her throat. By some stroke of luck Syuveil had hit the ribs and spikes that surrounded the dark portal, falling to the ground right next to the undead silhouette of her mother, who didn't flinch or otherwise react to either the flying debris or the Human man falling nearby.
He pushed himself back up from the floor to his hands and knees. Even from halfway across the room she could see that he was shaking in terror, the kind of fear the Mind Purifier in her belt pouch couldn't remove. She didn't blame him one bit, though; had he gone through, even living, there would be no return from that empty beyond. "Syuveil!" Rose called, taking a step in his direction. "Are you all right?"
"I'm the one you should be heeding!" the voice in the shadows called out for the Wingly.
All in one moment she was in front of her, twirling the scythe as if to prevent any inward attacks before swinging it down hard. Rose hastily brought her sword up to block it, feeling the impact send a heavy vibration throughout her slender blade. Bracing along the flat with her other hand, she put her weight into a shove, breaking the contact as she stepped back and away as quickly as she could. What else did they have to use against her? They were too far into Mayfil for their Dragons to be able to help them, though the gentle shaking of the room and the bricks beneath their feet indicated their vassals were still at work destroying the structure of the city.
Ieo chuckled, her mother's voice lending it a particularly off-putting quality. "Will you sacrifice your victory in order to secure your escape?"
Rose bristled. She'd heard them talking, and knew they had to be able to flee the falling city - she must be trying to taunt them into transforming, to make sure they would waste their spirit energy. Indeed, there was no need to transform here - the ceiling kept the Wingly down low enough to attack. True, there would be a boost to strength and speed, and their spells might be useful, but they could only be used once or twice. Would it be worth trying just for that benefit alone?
"You're thinking about it so hard," she continued in a condescending tone.
"For a mute, you sure are talkative," Zieg sneered, conspicuously ignoring Camellia, his gaze fixed on Ieo in deadly concentration. "Have something planned for us if we do transform, huh?"
"Another of those weapons that work against Dragons, perhaps?" Rose added, thinking of Frahma's ongoing fight against the Divine Dragon.
Ieo laughed darkly. "I should need that kind of power to destroy you? I think not!" Her finger traced a glow through the air, the complicated symbol flaring to life in matter of seconds. "Just this will do!"
Rays of light sliced invisibly through the Darkness Dragoon, causing her to reel in pain, and she dropped to one knee, off-balance. The Wingly continued to press in on the heels of the attack, flying through the last remnants of the fading magical cloud. As the heavy scythe swung down at her head, Rose desperately flung up her saber to try to ward it off, bracing the blade again with her left hand. Metal ground upon metal, and then a sudden snap rang out loudly in the chamber. She forced back her cry with great effort, biting down on her lip so hard it began to bleed.
"Damn you!" Zieg cried, slashing up at Ieo from behind.
Although she twirled and ducked to avoid the slice of the broadsword, whipping the shaft of the scythe back to block, for all her speed the Wingly was still not fast enough. The blue-green mist of her wings crackled and faltered briefly as a long diagonal cut opened up across the muscles of her back. Blood dripped freely onto the brick beneath her, a wide trail of bright red in spattered arcs across the floor as she danced back away from them again.
"You okay?" the blonde man asked Rose hastily.
She nodded once, still down on one knee. Her left arm hung loosely at her side, every nerve afire from the force of the blow, her palm stinging and the inside of her glove growing wet; the edge of her own blade had cut her through the leather. "My sword," she said tersely, throwing both the useless hilt and the broken end of the saber to the ground in frustration.
Taking the chance, Syuveil pressed his own attack from behind the Wingly, but he had not quite shaken off the fear or the physical effects of being thrown against the Gate, and he was easily driven back by a quick whirl of her grotesque scythe. Ieo flashed a tight-lipped smile at him, the shadows of the cord binding her lips giving her the look of a death's-head in the dim, and reached back for her wound. Her hand when she brought it forward again was covered in blood, which she smeared across the skull at the base of her scythe blade.
The scythe seemed to leap from her hand, growing monstrously into a giant skeletal thing. Long spindly arms and legs braced against the dark brick as it opened its mouth wide, gaping sockets boring into Syuveil's own green eyes. He let out a cry of shock quickly escalating into terror, scrambling back and raising his spear as if it could ward away the creature. Black, evil-looking clouds sprang from the skeleton's mouth, enveloping him and briefly hiding him from view; then, as quickly as it had sprung forth, it pushed up off the ground again and somersaulted back into its former shape, returning as a scythe to Ieo's waiting hand.
Zieg's expression seemed torn between disbelief and anger, now the only one left standing with Rose and Syuveil driven to their knees. The scholar coughed, looking pale and shaky, but much to their relief the attack had not seemed to wound him, at least that they could see from where they were. Almost deliberately turning her back on him again, the Wingly looked to Rose and Zieg, tracing yet another sigil. This time a small ball of light formed above her head, trailing a swirl of green and yellow sparks down around her in an obvious healing spell.
Rose could almost feel the lurch of her heart as it descended toward her feet in a fit of despair. Even that wound had taken so long for them to score, and now it would be nothing more than a long scratch along her back. Zieg said nothing, but she could tell from the clench of his jaw and the way he repositioned his hands on the hilt of his blade that he was feeling the same sense of futility. There had to be something they could do! Though her arm was still numb from the impact, she knew it wasn't broken, and so she shifted to stand up; without her sword, though, she wasn't sure what help she could be in the fight now.
Ieo made no indication she noticed Syuveil also struggling to his feet behind her, still focused on Rose. As Zieg slid his foot in front of his fiancée as if to guard her, the Overseer was moving again. Ieo swung the scythe in a sideways motion, aiming for Zieg's chest. The blonde man leaned backward to avoid the slice, exhaling sharply as it flew past him, and then he suddenly choked on his next breath, his eyes wide and staring. His skin seemed to go gray as the Wingly flipped her weapon around.
"No!" Syuveil shouted.
"Zieg?!" Rose demanded sharply, staring up at him above her, panic rising within.
Something pale and wriggling was impaled on the scythe's blade like a speared fish - Zieg's soul, skimmed right out of his body. The scholar could do no more than take a step forward before Ieo, her sewn lips twisted in a cruel smirk, spun the handle of the staff in her hands and slammed the shimmering ball of light hard against the stone.
Zieg's body collapsed bonelessly to the floor; his sword clattered to the brick as it fell from his nerveless fingers.
It was as if time had stopped somehow, as if she was watching him fall bit by bit, watching him die as he fell, unable to move or prevent it, unable to scream or catch him. Rose felt sick with disbelief and shock.
Ieo turned the scythe upright again, regarding the kneeling woman with her empty white eyes. The Wingly who had stolen her mother's voice didn't taunt her; she didn't have to. The look on her face said everything for her. Without Zieg, she was nothing but a slave cowering in an unlit room, cradling a flicker of light about to be snuffed out, just like his soul-
Drawing in air for a cry of rage and grief, Rose lunged to her feet and toward the Overseer in a single motion, but Ieo was not only ready for her, she had anticipated the move completely. The Wingly was behind her in an instant, swinging the scythe; its skull head connected like a club against her side, where her light leather armor did little to absorb it. She was sent skidding back across the brick as she fought to stay upright, dragging her gloved hand along the ground as if that would help to slow her.
It hurt to breathe, to move, a flare of agony that told her beyond a doubt that some of her ribs were cracked, if not broken completely. But this did not stop her; the complaints of her body seemed to have little meaning now. Rose spun for her opponent again, single-minded, her furor driving her to attack with nothing but her fists, her feet-the hand-to-hand Zieg had tried to teach her despite how naked she felt when fighting without her sword. Syuveil, the only one with the reach to get past the scythe, aided her as best he could, though she paid him little attention, focused completely on trying to make the Wingly woman pay for what she'd done.
Despite being attacked from two sides, Ieo seemed to have little trouble deflecting Rose's blows, though Syuveil's were proving more troublesome as he regained control of himself. Unable to be precise, he made up for it in a flurry of spinning moves that evoked his element, using the spear as both a weapon and a support. He swung himself around it to evade her counterattacks and at the same time deliver kicks to the glowing winged target.
Rose could feel her Dragoon Spirit calling to her through her rage; indeed, the voice of the Grand Dark Dragon seemed to be clearer now than it had ever been before. She had not heard the great Dragon speak since she had pierced it through to its heart, those months ago when she had won her power from its soul. This was the source, it seemed to say, this anger, this rage, this insanity. This was her weapon - she was meant to use it!
Now she needed little further prodding; her half-trained physical attacks were doing less than nothing. She ducked back as Ieo turned again, gasping involuntarily as her broken ribs delivered another sharp stab to her insides. She reached for her spirit with her mind, giving it the mental nudge that had become so familiar now, and felt herself lifted off the ground as the sphere of color and darkness enveloped her in her armor and its wings. "Astral Drain!" she cried immediately, gesturing at the Wingly and hoping it would work without a weapon in her hands. As unpleasant as it felt to receive healing this way, it seemed to be the best choice she had.
There was a heavy clang as Ieo blocked another jab from Syuveil's spear. She whirled instantly to face Rose, even as the Dragon magic's light engulfed her, carelessly turning her back to him as she raised her hand, so confident was she in her speed. Even without a sword to pierce her, the spell yanked a red vortex of the Overseer's life from her. Ieo's body jerked in reaction to the pull, but much to Rose's displeasure she was not cut open, did not react with the pain her other opponents had shown. In fact her bound smile was smug, triumphant, as she traced a large, bright magic sigil down from her forehead, where it flared brightly and vanished.
Both the stolen life-force and the Wingly's spell seemed to reach the Darkness Dragoon at the same time, the impact of it driving her armored feet to the brick in an undignified fashion. What was going on? This wasn't just the uncomfortableness of absorbing someone else's power. Her limbs felt so heavy, her wings as though they were barely flapping, and although the drain had eased some of the agony of her rib, it was by no means very well healed.
"What did you-" she choked out, trying desperately to kick back off the ground and into the air again, although it worked no more to help her fly than a child with a blanket on a windy day. This had to be why she had been taunting them to transform before, a spell that worked against Dragons alone.
"Rose! Look out!" she heard Syuveil cry from where he stood across the way, but she realized that Ieo was no longer between them just a moment too late. There was a flash of white before her face and then a tightness around her neck, a weight on her back that made her bow forward, forcing her to catch herself with her elbow, pinning her arm uselessly beneath her.
In reflex, she released the useless armor, but the moment had so disoriented her, and the tightening around her neck was causing so much panic she couldn't fight off, that even as the effects of the weakness spell dissipated she could not prevent the Wingly from dragging her by her throat up to her feet, twisting the long gauzy wrap to choke her with one hand as she flew higher.
"Now, now! I won't kill you; Melbu wants you back. Aren't you a lucky girl?" In that moment she couldn't tell if it was Ieo or Camellia speaking in truth. "You are stolen property, after all. So be good, and after I take care of this last nuisance, you can go back where you belong-"
As though from the other end of a long tunnel, she could see Syuveil lunging forward with his spear. Rose realized vaguely that she was being used as a shield as Ieo swung her, stumbling, into his path, but she could do nothing to stop it. Her hands and feet were quickly going from tingling to numb, and she couldn't make them move no matter how she tried.
The Jade Dragoon twisted only slightly as he attacked through, eyes narrowed in concentration. The edge of his spearhead sliced her arm open at the elbow as it passed, hitting its mark behind her; the drape around her neck tightened, then loosened suddenly, and she felt herself falling to the floor. Ieo made no sound of pain or dismay, could not, but as Rose pushed herself up she could see through bleary eyes the brightness of the blood now streaming from the Wingly's bare thigh in rivulets down her leg, could see the clenching of her free fist betraying her anger.
"Human worm," her borrowed voice snarled from the shadows. "Risking your own comrade for a scratch? Unexpected of you!" She turned the scythe in her hands, her wings flaring for a sudden charge at the Jade Dragoon. He was forced into the defensive as she swung it fast, driven back from Rose with every strike of the purple-hued blade even as he blocked them.
Her head was pounding, her wounded arm throbbing in time with it, but she no longer felt herself descending into unconsciousness. The bright flare of light as Ieo cast a spell at Syuveil made her wince and look away briefly, but she could hear him cry out as the multicolored clouds hit him, Ieo's words ringing in her mind: 'Melbu wants you back-'
As she shifted slowly upward, Zieg's body swam into view across the horizon of the floor she was lying upon, his hazel eyes wide and staring sightlessly. His sword lay there next to his open hand. The reality of what had happened jolted her to the core. With one desperate, wheezing breath of air, Rose pushed up to her knees, then to her feet. Springing into sudden motion, she grabbed up Zieg's broadsword, hoisting its weight with both hands. There were tears flowing down her face, heavy streams of them. Where had they come from so copiously, from her physical pain or her heart's grief?
Syuveil, despite the cuts the last spell had opened across his skin, was still desperately trying to land another hit, sweeping inward with the spearhead. Ieo twirled away, dodging casually, reaching to her leg as if to gather more blood to wipe upon her weapon-
Rose let out a rasping scream despite the state of her throat, the sound of it thready and painful, and swept the heavy blade up in an arc, slicing a wide, deep cut diagonally through the Wingly woman's naked, unprotected chest and neck. The momentum of the strike and the broadsword's weight made her stagger back a few steps. Ieo's colorless eyes seemed to be watching her without comprehension, a second's worth of blank surprise before the blood suddenly sprayed forward, her heart's last beats forcing the fluid from her body in a thick, bright spray. Even the scythe she held seemed to convulse, its legs thrashing wildly as if to express the agony that even in her dying moments could not pass her sewn lips.
The Wingly's body collapsed, and she found she could only stare down at her corpse, at Zieg's lying so nearby, the tears continuing to stream down her cheeks; the broadsword dropped from her hand back down to the brick, too heavy for her hand now.
"Soa! You caught her!" Syuveil breathed, almost in disbelief; his voice sounded like it was coming from miles away. "It's over!"
As if his words had caused it to come, or perhaps in response to the Overseer's death, a rumbling began to resound through the walls. It soon became obvious that, as with the prior explosions, it was one of the generators going. The shaking did not get much stronger in the core of the city where they remained, though Syuveil still stumbled as he made his way over to where Zieg lay.
Rose watched him, staying very still, even as the tremors died away. There was a soft flare of light from the area of the gate, the shadowy silhouette of her mother crumbling away as whatever the Wingly had done to recreate her form dissolved along with her, but the raven-haired woman could only give her a glance before returning her attention to Zieg.
Syuveil was at the Fire Dragoon's side now, and Rose found herself holding her breath as she watched him check the fallen man for any signs of life. No matter how he tried to hide it from her, checking for a hint of breath, for any sign of a heartbeat, she could tell that he was not finding anything to give them hope. Zieg's soul had been taken, after all, and what was a body without a soul but another corpse in the Death City's halls?
Her gaze swept across the Gate of Hell, its edifice remaining still and steady despite the constant shuddering of the rest of the room. Its emptiness was somehow a welcome sight, a place where the overwhelming sense of grief and anger that twisted her heart could not be felt.
As though he knew the bent of her despairing thoughts, Syuveil's hand flew out and he seized her ankle tightly. "Rose, no!"
She opened her mouth to respond, pulled back on her foot as if to kick him away, but the sound of a sudden, trembling gasp of air drove everything else out of mind. Zieg was shifting, the color coming back to his skin as he dragged in another breath. The Darkness Dragoon dropped to her knees so fast spikes of pain shot through them, lurching to his side.
He blinked, again and again, as if to clear the blurriness from his eyes, open and staring for so long. "Don't ever...want to do that again," he forced out with a shaky chuckle.
"Zieg," she whispered back hoarsely, unmindful of the fresh tears that were stinging the corners of her eyes, welling up to join the sticky, drying mess of the rest. She reached to touch his face with her hands, tracing the burn scars, the familiar shapes of his features, over and over, as if making sure she wasn't hallucinating this.
"You did it," he said softly, reaching to cover her gloved hands with his own, and she found herself smiling through her tears.
When Zieg struggled to sit up, Syuveil moved to help him. "I really thought you were dead," he said wonderingly. "I thought she'd taken away your soul."
"I wondered that myself," he said, "but I think she just...pulled it out. I could see what you were doing, like I was...above it all, and there was this...silver cord attaching me to my body, but I couldn't-"
He stopped talking as another shockwave rushed through the room from below. This time it was not so gentle. Already down on the floor, they were able to weather the first of it well enough, the three of them grasping each other's arms and shoulders and staying low. But the violent shaking did not cease, and the sound of crumbling stone began to resound in their ears, plinking down from above, first small pebbles and soon larger chunks of it. The hole in the ceiling near the entranceway to the room was quickly letting down more and more rubble from above, steadily blocking that way out even if they had wanted to risk it.
"That's the fourth generator!" Syuveil shouted to them above the steadily increasing roar of the crumbling city. He pushed to his feet with the aid of his spear. "The two left can't take the strain, and one of them is right below us! We need to get out of here, now!"
The Darkness Dragoon nodded at him, shifting to drape Zieg's arm around her shoulders. "Let's go!"
"Divine Tree, Rose!" her fiancé protested. Even through the haze of being halfway into death, he had still clearly heard the sound of her being choked. Now, being so close, he could very clearly see the angry red splotching that ringed her throat beneath her dark tunic's collar. "Your neck!"
"It's fine," she rasped, though the sweat that was dripping down from her hairline was giving the lie to her words. Just saying that much was making her want to cough and try to clear her throat. "I can carry you-"
Zieg held up his hand as if to stave her off. "No, you don't need to; I got enough energy to transform."
She nodded, unable to hide her relief at that. The two helped each other stand, and then a moment later, with twin flashes of red and indigo, both of them were in the air, joining Syuveil. They ascended through the hole in the ceiling and higher into the chamber above the Gate, not yet able to savor their victory.
"Now you'll stay with me," she whispered.
Despite the deep, calming breaths he kept trying to take, he could still feel the presence of the blade in his stomach, the throbbing of pain that surrounded it as his blood rushed there, clamoring to spill out of him. His breath quickened, faster and faster until it matched the pounding of his heart, or perhaps it was merely the shaking of Mayfil beneath them as it tore itself to pieces.
How had this happened? He found himself mystified by what he had done, his fingers working in direct opposition to what his mind had decided. He'd even put it in just the right spot, the same place where the horn of the Grand Thunder Dragon had pierced him through. Indeed, it was also the place where the point of a stake had pressed into his belly and he had decided, no, he would not join the others in their miserable deaths-
"I knew it," Jidena continued. "I knew you wanted to. Now you'll make up for it."
"I didn't mean to do it," he repeated yet again, not sure now if he meant stabbing himself or killing her.
Her smaller hands moved to his, prying them away from the knife and lifting them to her face. When she let go, however, he did as well, letting them fall back to his side. She frowned, and then the blade jerked within him as she took hold of the wrapped hilt, moving to wrench it free, to let his blood fountain forth.
Pausing before doing so, she tilted her head back. Looking down at him, she smiled as if sharing a secret. "It doesn't matter. Not anymore."
Kanzas felt a sudden spark of electricity crack through his body. He gasped, the sound became a snarl, and he suddenly batted her hands away, pulling the knife out himself. "Yes, it does!" In the same motion, he swung his arm forward and stabbed the steel into the hollow of her throat. Her single eye widened, her protest caught unsaid as a bright light spilled from her gaping mouth, and he began to laugh, short, sharp barks of it, as her limp form slid down to the floor. "Now I meant it!"
He watched then as the both the blade and the body she'd been given crumbled into a pale dust, as the orb of the soul jerked out of the remains, flying upward and away without hesitation. When it had gone, he stood there numbly as Mayfil rumbled and shook.
The bricks toppled around him, tearing away from the ceiling and slamming down nearby, hard enough to knock him off his feet. The russet-haired man rolled a short distance, biting off a cry as the excruciating flare of pain from his wound jerked him back into awareness. For a moment he considered just ignoring it, pretending he wasn't bleeding for as long as it took to drain him dry, but then as if half-asleep he reached for one of the holes in his shirt, pulling it wider and tearing at the garment so he could bind the wound.
Somehow, the others had done it, had destroyed the generators, the city, the Overseer, and he hadn't taken part in it at all. Maybe you should just follow! Kanzas thought at himself with surprising bitterness. Not as if they really need you, apparently-
However, he could hear a roaring, screaming sound in his head, and realized with a start that it was not himself but Taranis, affected by the emotions through their link. There was another, less familiar sensation as well, a tugging from his Dragoon Spirit. It wasn't the same as when the others were searching for him, but more of a cry for help, a sense of distress. Wherever it was coming from, he could tell it was close.
"Forget this!" he muttered, feeling the warmth of his blood still covering his fingers as he tied a knot in the cloth around his middle, feeling the blood rise in his throat until he had to cough and hack to clear it from his mouth. His own life running through his hands-
There was another explosion of rock nearby, the little room crumbling around him, and Kanzas pushed up higher on his knees, a burst of panic allowing him to call on his spirit just as the floor gave way beneath him, sending him tumbling into the chasm below. He tried to keep the flying rocks away from his face as he plummeted wildly, trusting his wings to catch him as he righted himself. /Taranis? We're getting out! Just as soon as I-/
A high-pitched whine met his ears, straining and growing more intense by the second. Looking around for its source, he caught sight of a pale green glow below, odd among the darkness of the crumbling city's stones, and swooped closer to it. This must have been one of the generators, possibly the last, and it was straining to keep what was left of the city afloat. Wisps and tendrils of light flared all about it, excess energy burning off like a halo. But what was that dark spot on top? It didn't look like rubble-
"Oh, damn, kid," the Dragoon said under his breath, catching sight of the splotch of blue spread out across the generator's unbroken dome. The front of Damia's leather tunic was a dark, wet red chain of gashes; more blood, sticky-dark, stained the surface beneath her, hissing and sizzling amidst the overflow of magical power. Hadn't she gone with Syuveil? Where was he, then, and why hadn't he protected her?
She had not escaped the falling bricks any more than he had, and more rocks fell even as he flew toward her, ricocheting off his back and wings. Kanzas grabbed Damia's unconscious body off the overloaded dome, arcing back upward as pain sent a fuzzy white to obscure his vision. She was warm, almost feverish, against his bare upper arm. Uncaring by now where he was going, he continued to fly until he nearly collided with Taranis, the Dragon's whining howl breaking him from his daze.
/Out,/ Kanzas thought to him, reaching to take hold of the halter rope. /Show us how to get out, find the others, I don't care-/ Yanked suddenly into motion, he concentrated on simply holding on, Damia's teal hair whipping him in the face; it smelled like it was smoldering, acrid and unmistakable. The darkness was becoming a faint, lit tunnel, the light brightening as they went, and he could only watch in wonder. I didn't think I-
Mayfil exploded over the horizon, its last gathered stores of energy releasing in a ball of fiery greenish-white. The glow reflected brilliantly off the scales of the six Dragons and the armor of their Dragoons as they fled the disintegrating city.
Without anyone actually giving the order, they met on the top of a high mesa nearby, the first of them looking frantically for the rest, taking count of who was there and who was not. Eremi remained protective of Shirley even after she had come down off her back, though she was wounded herself, her scales blackened and patchy on one side. The White-Silver Dragoon had only escaped because her vassal Dragon's arrival had shielded her from most of the generator's blast.
Kanzas and Damia were the last to arrive, five bruised faces looking to them worriedly as Taranis set down. The violet Dragon flared his wings defensively to try to keep them from approaching, unrestrained by his Dragoon's usual mental leash. Stephen, who had been circling the falling city as if lost, was not far behind.
Kanzas' Dragon had barely set foot on the ground before Belzac was there, flying in despite Taranis' snarl and lunge and taking the girl from his unresisting arms. Unlike the others, the half-Giganto remained in his armor, hovering slightly above the ground, unable to hold his weight on his crushed knee. He flew Damia away from the angry Dragon and toward the others before taking a good look at her. All of a sudden, he didn't have to fight to keep hold of his adrenaline and keep transformed. The sight of the myriad slashes in her chest and stomach sent spikes of terror lancing through him. "Oh, gods," he gasped, staring down at her.
"Is she-?" Zieg asked, unable to give voice to the entire question. Next to him, Syuveil was tense but silent, his fists clenched as he waited for the response.
"She's alive," he answered after a moment, breathing a sigh of relief. It was echoed by the scholar, who made as if to push up his absent glasses with a shaking hand. "Not doing too well, though - Shirley?" He turned to look down at the red-haired woman. "Can you - I mean-"
She looked around at the rest of them, surveying their various wounds: Damia's battered body, the blood that trickled from Kanzas' lips and his blank-eyed expression, the spotty hemorrhage lines crisscrossing Rose's throat and the burst vessels in the whites of her eyes. Thankfully, Syuveil and Zieg seemed to only have minor cuts and bruises, as far as she could tell. Her own broken fingers refused to move at all, and, now that her Dragoon armor was gone, the shoulder of her pale tunic was quickly becoming soaked with a large splotch of red. She held the front of it closed with her good hand, putting pressure against the slash down her chest.
"I don't know," she whispered finally, almost frightened but for the numbness. There was a sparkling cloud of smoke and dust where Mayfil had once hung ominously in the night sky. Her heart wanted to leap in joy at the realization that they'd destroyed the place, but she still couldn't feel anything but horror and sorrow. "I…" Dizzy, she swayed on her feet, toppling forward before she even realized what was happening.
"Shirley!" Belzac cried out, starting toward her, but with Damia in his arms he couldn't do anything but watch helplessly as she collapsed.
Syuveil intervened instead, catching her before she hit the ground, and grimaced at the slickness of blood that he could feel just upon that contact. "Her shoulder's bad," he said after a quick look. "Holes? How'd that - there's a lot of bleeding-"
"Ulara's nearby," Zieg reminded them. "I'll lead you to it. The Dragons will get us there fast enough. We'll make sure everyone's okay before we do anything else."
"Hurry," Belzac urged, already flying Damia toward Gleam. Even the fact that they'd obliterated the City of Death meant nothing now with those he cared about still in danger. "Eremi should let you ride, Syuveil, I hope-"
"Right. We'll figure it out. She'll be fine. We'll all be fine," he reassured the other man vaguely, heading after him with Shirley. Although Kanzas had given no sign of even noticing what was going on, he was still over where the Dragons were resting, the large creatures visibly agitated by the state of their Dragoons.
Rose frowned, but she too was turning to follow even as she said hoarsely, "I just hope Vellweb can hold out until we get back."
"We'll have time before the Winglies retaliate. Besides, we can't help them like this," Zieg responded sternly. Even if his fiancée had been inclined to argue, she didn't say anything, seized with a coughing fit after speaking. He nodded with finality. "All right, so let's get to Ulara, and fast."