VI.

The night winds cut his cheeks as he attempted to continue gliding above the dense forests. The sky was especially dark in his clouded vision along with an unspoken question: what was that overpowering aura encircling the Princess?

“Ugh,” A sharp jolt by his side reminded him that he never bound his wound and now paid the price for his hastiness.

Still, he was far from safety, so he paced himself while his hand failed at staunching the oozing blood.

“Alde, where are you going?” Eridani ambushed him with a hug.

“It’s just a simple mission, Eri,” The little one let go of him, skipping around to store herself upon a shelf with a hop and a flap of her wings.

“What is it? Mother wouldn’t tell me.”

“It’s just two months, Eri.”

She pursed her lips, “One.”

“One and a half?”

Her smile was brighter than the vibrant blue of her plumes as she leant forward, throwing herself off the shelf into his outstretched arms, “You better be back by then.”

“I promise.”

He gasped, the harsh winds killing nostalgia. Wait for me…Eri…I’m going home…

As though to thwart his promise, fog dense enough to blind him to his own hands materialized within the blink of his eyes.

“What on earth…” A shift in the atmosphere prompted him to dive left, missing a gust of wind forceful enough to dent the trees below.

A strike the weight of rolling boulders followed split-seconds later, a splintering crash. He narrowed his eyes: the thin powder of moonlight fell through gusts of fog, outlining the looming stone giant the imperial summoners ripped from the earth to stop him. He aimed to fly above it, but the golem’s long reach caught him off guard.

Unbalanced from a close pass, he did not have time to comprehend the direction of the next blow. He drew his sword and spun around, but the stone staff knocked him out of the air and sent him crashing into the earth. The garble of crunching branches and bones in his descent was indistinguishable.

He recollected himself upon a stubborn branch, unable to distinguish joy from dread that he still lives since the battery was mostly absorbed by his wings. He turned around, and immediately regretted doing so as he fought his breath for what seemed like hours until he could finally push himself to stand against the weight of his mistakes and injuries and now broken wings, leaning against the trunk.

The world before him swerved: if only he could blame the fog or be deaf to the drum of uniform steps that he initially thought was his heartbeat; steadily, troops marched towards him in their panicked search.

As one of the captains drew closer, Aldebaran tugged in his broken wings, biting back agony, “Any trace of him? The golems moved.”

“It’s very difficult to search in the dark, captain.”

“…Lord Horatio would kill us if we don’t deliver…” The torchlight flickered and bounced off the captain’s thoughts that stiffened into resolve. “Smoke him out then, burn this area if necessary.”

“Yes, captain.”

Aldebaran didn’t understand what extent of desperation would justify the destruction of an entire forest, and his confusion allowed a slight stir to snap a small branch along with the two soldiers’ attention to him. A mere instinct made him leap off the branch, sheathing his blade in the captain’s throat while drawing a gash across the posse’s back; his pain dulled him.

“He’s here, help!” The soldier’s last words drew a squadron.

Before the body even hit the floor, Aldebaran squeezed his eyes shut, allowing his haggard breathing and skipping heartbeat to be the only sound to him. A blade was slashed at him, a spear was thrusted towards him, but did he care?

 

What is this beast? Horatio was mesmerized by the scene…even with his wings clinging lamely by his side, the Nokshan dove and swept past trained guards as though airborne, gentle yet with a deadly edge as he fell ranks after ranks. Time paused, the air was so dense with murder that it was as though the blood of his enemies stilled midair to record the fluid motions of his sword.

The advisor didn’t blink until the last of the fifty-men squadron struck the ground, and all was still. Aldebaran let out a shuddered breath as time returned to remind him of his suffering, bringing him to his knees though his hands clung stubbornly to his sword.

“Aldebaran Xacur,” Horatio tried the sound of that name aloud, turning the downcasted look to him. “Surrender. It would be a waste if you die here.”

The Nokshan loosed his hands from the hilt briefly to warrant the imperial advisor to tread a few steps over the carpet of corpses.

The Nokshan managed to pushed against the earth and lunge forward. But, the moon betrayed a glint of the weapon and Horatio knocked it off its fatal trajectory with a belated draw. He felt the screech of the collision and heard the snap and clang of a shattered blade. Then pain erupted in his left shoulder.

As the last bit of dust settled, Aldebaran’s strength forsook him and he slumped against his enemy’s frame. Horatio tossed his broken blade to catch the broken body, easing the Nokshan’s persistent grip and wrenched the damned thing piercing his shoulder free. The sting was bearable and the boy surprising light.

Aldebaran panted, giving up on struggling since the remains of his fight went to negotiate with his eyelids to stay opened. I’m sorry, Eri. The world was dark.

Horatio couldn’t make out Aldebaran’s fading whisper beyond a repeated syllable. “Eri,” he stilled and submitted to tormented rest as he lost to his heavy eyelids. Eri, the souls echoed.

Horatio reached for the vial deep in his pocket and uncorked it, forcing the cure to the poison dubbed on Lyra’s dagger down the Nokshan throat.

“A waste,” He convinced himself. “It would’ve been a waste.”

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