Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Darkness of the Heart

Those who didn't awaken from the sound of Faile's scream or Byrne's wail of protest were roused from their beds at the roar of the terrible drake landing among them. Its howl was like the winds of death itself, shrieking through an abyss of the damned. Its teeth gnawed at the thought of tasting divine flesh, so close and so vulnerable from its surprise assault.

Azure was the first to rise, grace incarnate as he vaulted to his feet in a flurry of white and blue silk. The blue was from his robes, garment he wore even when he slept. The white was the billow of his long hair, spiraling around him as he moved easily into a defensive stance.

Next was mighty Corundar, muscles rippling under dusky skin as he stood up out of his wolf fur blankets. His hand reaching for his massive weapon Terrasunder even before he had fully awakened, he barely had time to block the first of the dragon's attacks.

Akasha was already awake, her healing senses screaming at the pain of Faile's suffering. Not as swift as the others, not as combat inclined, she still had the presence of mind to move away from the lash of the dragon's night-black tail as it rent apart the ground where she'd been standing. With her, she took her charred companion. Deceptively strong for someone as slight and frail as the Lady of Light appeared, she easily hefted Faile's weight as she dodged.

Nyx, her opposite in every way, was also awake. The appearance of the armored knight had torn her from her dreams, something she would have been grateful for had the reason been less dire. Her dreams of late were dark ones, even for her. For once, what she beheld upon waking was worse than what her mind conjure. The dark knight on the dragon's back held her attention in some strange way, his face half concealed in an adamantine mask. The warrior raised his weapon, a wicked curved blade on a spiked pole, as his scaled mount lashed out.

That left only Byrne, down on her knees in shock. The others were in trouble but she didn't even see them. All she could see, all she could think, was what she'd just done. Her friend, Faile, burned so terribly... and by her hand! Her powers! How could she?!

Around her, the battle raged. The dragon was fierce and powerful, blasts of hellish power scattering the others as they desperately sought to avoid its touch. Divine as they were, their bodies were still subject to damage. No mortal weapon could harm them, but there was nothing mortal about a dragon.

Nor, apparently, about its master. The armored knight was lightning fast and seemed to know where they would strike before they did so. His single glowing orb gazing at Nyx the whole time, holding her fast as if by paralysis, he fought off the dual attacks of both Corundar and Azure each time they tried to strike at him.

"If we are to stop the rider, we must bring down that which he rides." Azure's voice was calm, as always. He looked at his earthen brother with a knowing half-smile. "Destruction, I believe, is your specialty."

"Byrne! Wake up! I need a link here!" The giant man's words finally broke through her self-condemning haze. His gigantic sword held back a deadly dragon's claw as he reached out with his free hand. She knew what he wanted. With a deep breath, she put her guilt aside and took his grasp.

Instantly their powers united. Earth and Fire spiraled within their souls, touching along the contact between their hands. Energies blossomed into being, circling over their hands and down both their arms. The strength of Earth. The rage of Fire. Together, they became...

Magma. The force of a volcanic eruption burst forth and struck the dragon full in its armored chest. The rider's one-eyed gaze broke from Nyx as his mount reared up in pain and fell backwards with a roar of pain. The rider did so as well, an anguished shout of surprise as his drake crashed down into his pinned body.

"Nice!" Corundar followed up the dragon's fall with a stinging weave of sword strikes. It often came as a surprise to his companions how quick the big man could be. He looked like a brute, but his combat skills were as sharp and polished as a crystal rapier. As quickly as he struck, he darted out of the way.

Byrne saw why as Azure moved in to where the Earth god had been. One hand extended in a martial strike, the sea elf plunged his hand into one of the dragon's gushing wounds. He winced as the acidic blood blistered his skin. It was painful but not cripplingly so. What he did in return was far, far worse.

Calling on his own gift, Azure send the raw power of bitter cold into the blood. It turned into steaming ruby, a frigid wave of dragon ichor growing spikes of ice because of the instantaneous freezing. It was eerily beautiful to behold.

And vicious in effect. Once the dragon's blood froze all the way to its wound, the cold did not stop. It went inside the beast, forming more spikes and swelling the creature's veins past the point of rupture. It screamed again, flailing as its flesh began to tear open from within. Its chest heaved once, eyes wide in terror.

Rising to her feet in the flickering light of the dying dragon's screams, Nyx lifted into the air on onyx wings. Her eyes were blazing with shadow fire as she reached out, hands spread wide. Destruction might have been Corundar's "specialty", but she was the Lady of Oblivion. This creature was essentially already dead; there was no sense letting the thing continue to writhe and suffer.

She whispered, "Dust" and reality obeyed. The dragon shook once more and exploded in a storm of withering motes. Its armor fell to ruin, rusting instantly as each plate clattered soundlessly to the earth.

As the battle with the dragon ended, Akasha's own conflict concluded as well. The elf in her arms had been horribly injured, burns over most of her body. Faile's wings were practically bone and ashes; not one feather remained on them nor did skin cover much of their span. It had taken a massive outpouring of energy to heal her, but that was the Lady of Light's blessing. Though Faile had been nearly gone, her fate was never in question. Akasha simply refused to let Death win, not while she still breathed.

Byrne rose to her feet as the dragon died, running to Akasha's side. "Is she... will she live?"

The glowing woman nodded, her patient wreathed in healing light. Already, color and life were returning to Faile's skin. "She will live. The dragon's breath will not claim her this day."

With a half-choked sound, Byrne stared at Akasha. "D-dragon's breath?"

The gifted healer nodded. "Yes. Such terrible burns. What else could have done this?"

Before Byrne could answer, one of Corumdar's war cries caught both their attention. "Hello?!? We aren't done back here!" Their three siblings were still engaged in battle, this time with the ashed dragon's rider. On foot now, he was proving to be far deadly than his steed. As fierce as the abyssal drake had been, its master was even more terrifying.

As quick as he seemed strong, he was parrying Corundar's strongest attacks, dodging Azure's bolts of ice, and seemed impervious to Nyx' necromantic spells. The sound of steel on steel rang out where they were battling, sparks dancing as they clashed and parted.

"Go on and help them; I have her. She'll be safe." Akasha nodded to the fight. "They need you."

Byrne swallowed but stood, her axe coming to her hand with a thought. Akasha thought the dragon had burned Faile? But...

No time for that now! Hefting her weapon, Byrne roared as she ran towards the battle. She had hurt her friend; at least this way she could take that pain out on someone else. Fire erupted from her blade, a torrent of flames enveloping both it and her.

The black knight raised one hand, a wave of force smashing Corundar backwards. A sweep of his blade-staff sent Azure away with a shallow cut across his ocean blue chest and Nyx' lightning bolt rebounded off his armor and sent the dark sorceress reeling through the air. He turned to face Byrne, momentarily clear of foes.

And then vanished with an amused glitter of his exposed eye. Byrne snarled in impotent fury and slammed her axe into the ground where he'd stood. "No!" she howled. "Get back here you bastard!!!"

It took all three of them to pull her off the spot, Azure grabbing her arms while Corundar knocked the vengeful, burning weapon from her grasp. Nyx was holding her fast with a spell, trying to reason with her and bring her down out of her rage. "Byrne, calm down! He's gone! We need to get out of here before he comes back with a stronger force! Byrne!"

After a few more moments struggling against Nyx' glowing hand of magic and Azure's masterful pin, her body went slack. "But... damn it!" She was nearly incoherent, but her friend's words were getting through. Barely.

As Azure stepped away, Corundar took his foot off her axe with a grimace. The smell of burnt flesh was thick in the air. Another sibling hurt by her powers. She looked down, feeling sick. "I'm sorry, Cor."

The big man shook his head and kicked the weapon back up into her hands. "Don't be. The dragon tried to fry Faile; it died for that. Its rider won't fare any better when we see him next."


The half-giant put his foot down, a gesture that shook the earth. "No buts! We have to get moving. Everybody, pack up and let's move! The next portal's around here somewhere and the sooner we find our way back to our world, the better!"

Byrne shook her head. "But Faile didn't...."

Azure put his hand on her shoulder. "We know, Byrne. She's not dead, but we can not stay here and risk a larger assault. The Maimed Lord is sending his agents at us and now that we've been located, there will be more. Corundar is right." His smile was as cool as his touch. "We have to move on."

Akasha packed her bed rool and laid it next to Faile. "She's still unconscious. Cor, you'll have to carry her."

As her siblings prepared to move on, Byrne put her things in her backpack quietly. She looked at Faile the whole time. What would happen when the bird-lady woke up and told the others what really happened? Before that happened, she should tell them herself.

She opened her mouth to speak and was interrupted again, this time by Nyx. "The forces of Undeath are moving against us even now. It will not be long before Vecna's next attack."

"All the more reason to move! Byrne, you got something to say?" Corundar looked at her expectantly, obviously impatient to head out.

She tried to speak. She needed to tell them the truth.

But the words wouldn't come. The guilt was just too much, the shame ran too deep. Try as she might, nothing moved past her lips. She barely even breathed. Finally, she stopped trying. "No. Nothing." It was barely a whisper.

"That's what I thought," he rumbled as he threw his bag over his shoulder. "Then let's get going. This portal isn't going to deliver itself to us."

Byrne bowed her head, unable to look at them right now. Gathering her belongings, she fell into step behind Nyx. Usually the first in line, she didn't have the heart to do anything but stand in back right now. Her stomach hurt. She felt downright ill, disgusted at herself....


A reality away, a wizened hand moved over a crystal orb, watching the six as they made their way into the night. The Lord of Whispers laughed dryly, a hollow sound to match his hollow heart. He'd been unable to find them until now, but dark secrets were his domain. The moment the Lady of Fire chose to keep this one, the entire scene became his to witness.

"Excellent. Excellent..."

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