She was with them, but she hadn't actually been with them in some time.
When had it happened? When had the family bond she'd shared with her "siblings" broken? They had been such an important part of each other's lives. They had defeated the Liche Lord Urathyme with that unity, that love for one another. Had it been a lie?
Or was it that like everything else, even the closest of friends could not remain together forever? They had been inseparable once. But that was then.
For Byrne, at least, things had changed.
Now she looked at them as they slept, alone under alien stars none of them recognized, and wondered who they really were. Was the whisper of the Mad God correct? She had heard his voice in the Dark Lord's tomb, clear as she could hear Corundar's titanic snoring now. He had said something, words she prayed to whatever powers watched over other powers were false.
Her heart was not so sure. Foul as Tharuzdin's speech had been, something in it rang too true for her to discount any longer.
"There are monsters in your womb. The others know, but they will not tell you."
She put her hand on her stomach, feeling how it was already growing hard and firm. Only a couple of months along now, she knew who the father was and by all rights, she should have been thrilled. Her love, the Lord of Flames, a god equal in stature to what she'd given up to go on this insane but vital journey, had been with her the night before she descended. It was his gift, his passion, that grew inside her now.
Wasn't it? It could be none other; could it?
But if that were true, and nothing else could be, how could her children be monsters? They would be infants born of love and fire, perfect in every way. She refused to believe the first part of the Mad One's message. She just couldn't bear anything else.
But the other half... Did her brothers and sisters know something about her pregnancy? If they did, and they were not telling her, she would roast them for the treachery! How dare they not reveal anything they'd learned? Weren't they her friends? She would tell them anything, even painful things if she had to. Didn't she have the right to the same thing!?! Damn them!!!
"Byrne! Knock it off... I'm tying to sleep." It was Faile's voice and Faile's hand throwing a rock landing nearby. Byrne blinked. She was flaming, really flaming. A corona of fire spiraled around her, burning all of the grass around her and slagging the nearby rocks. She was literally scorching the landscape, arcs of raw plasma coming dangerously close to where the others were sleeping.
"Dammit," she murmured. "Sorry." She reigned in her powers, bringing the flame inside to simmer around her soul instead. She'd said sorry, but she didn't mean it. If they were hiding something from her, as the stars were her witness, they'd all feel her heat before it was done.
"Okay." Faile again. "Spill it. What's bothering you?"
The winged elf, her peregrine feathers fluttering as she walked closer, had a look of concern on her soft face. She was so pretty in the moonlight, Byrne almost let her rage die down. Almost.
"Nothing. Go 'way."
Faile didn't listen. She never listened. Instead, she came within arm's reach and sat down. "No. You are upset. Tell me what's wrong. You've been like this ever since the tomb."
Byrne glowered and turned away. "I don't want to talk about it."
Another lie. She did want to talk about it. She wanted to wake everyone up and scream about it in fact. She wanted it all out in the open, with each of them confessing to whatever it was they didn't want her to know. Her hand went to her stomach again. They weren't monsters. They were beautiful, perfect babies and nothing would change that.
"Byrne, we love you. We want to help. Please talk to us."
The fire goddess felt her lip curl in sarcasm. "Oh really?"
Faile, never one to get subtleties of human speech, missed the sarcastic tone entirely. "Really. I want to know what is troubling you."
Byrne clenched one hand. The flames were burning hot in her now. She'd almost unleashed them at Tharuzdin's avatar but the others had stopped her. They didn't understand; none of them could. The power of Fire wasn't a gnomish power switch; it didn't just flick on and off. The inferno had risen and they hadn't let her give it release. It was still inside her, screaming to burst forth.
"Go away, elf. I'm serious. You don't want to be near me right now."
Footsteps approached her. Faile's. "Yes I do. Byrne, I'm your friend and if you won't open up to me, I can't help you."
Every word just made Byrne angrier. Her open up?!? She wasn't the one keeping secrets. She wasn't the one whispering behind people's backs. She wasn't the one who needed to start being honest. She was the only one here who was being honest! How dare she?
How dare she?!
And at that moment, Faile laid her hand heavily on Byrne's shoulder and turned her around. "Let go, Byrne. Please."
The touch, the words... Byrne couldn't take anymore.
So let go she did. With a snarl of incomprehensible rage, all her distrust and sense of betrayal came flooding out in a massive wave of divine fire. A cone of hellish, unyielding flame rushed from her body, picking the stunned elf up off the ground and hurling her backwards through the air. Faile had only a moment to scream before the heat seared the air from her lungs.
Wings on fire, skin steaming, and hair in ashed, the burning elf slammed into the ground in the midst of the Elemental's camp. Barely alive, she struggled to rise... and failed.
"Oh..." Byrne's heart sank as her horror rose.
"...my..." Her eyes widened as the flames dies on her fingertips.
"...gods..." The Mistress of Fire started running towards her charred friend even as her other companions began to rise from their beds, sounds of confusion all around.
"...No!" Byrne screamed, utterly at herself. What had she done? The monster wasn't inside her. It was her!
Before she could reach Faile, try to help her, desperately try to heal her, all motion in the camp stopped at the sound of massive wing beats. From high overhead, a dark shape swooped down into visibility. An impossibly black dragon, huge and armored in plates of bladed adamantine, landed on the ground near the camp. Its rider, clad in the same style of intricate metalwork, was laughing viciously.
His voice was like the sound of an vile claw ripping through the flesh of innocents. Byrne, indeed all of them, could do nothing but listen mutely as the newcomer spoke. Some dark energy held them fast, made them helpless in the wake of his arrival.
"My master sent me to seal your doom, but I see you are handling that all by yourselves." And with that, he nodded with a mocking salute to Byrne.
The wave of guilt cut her more deeply than any weapon could.
And in that moment, the dark figure attacked!