LVI.

“Who’s there?” The sun has yet to set, it was far too early for the appointment; the villager stood behind his bold question with a straight back and a weathered hand upon the broad sword strapped to his belt, waited.

The others darted behind fallen idols and a spell of illusion, and together beheld the approaching sound. Lyra’s throat went dry, for one reason or the other the incoming enemies escaped Alde’s observant eye, or they gave him reason to be unable to warn her. Alde? In dreaded silence, she watched the three shadows approach, though all of them were not human, but rather, winged. She attempted to reason, deemed one of the figures familiar but not enough to be Eridani. Then she saw, as the approaching forms came closer, amongst the three she recognized the bright, pure white wings.

Snowy, she remarked. Just like that of a nightmare not too long ago.

“Who are you?” The grandfather demanded, his grip upon his weapon tightened.

No…Lyra thought to herself, for she knew this aura as the three drew closer; though the face disagrees, it was identical to the egret-winged man in her vision about the mercenary, about Alde’s childhood tragedy, this spirit was that of his —

Father? His alarm went to her. That…can’t be…Lyra, what is going on? Those fogforms returned, I was occupied but…

I…The figures drew closer, blank eyes scanned over the old man and ignored his propositions of peace as the grey-winged by the egret’s left hand drew her sword, deflected the old man’s machete. He screamed a spell and shielded himself with a talisman, though the egret shattered his defenses with a blast of sheer energy. But, before the third, brown-winged Nokshan could slice through the old man, Lyra sprung forward, parried the swing with a stab. The brown-winged retracted its attack and spun aside with perfect ease, returning the princess’s attack with tenfold the ferocity. A sharp pull from Athlem saved her head, though not from the crumbling, raining debris of the ancient stones as the egret aimed to miss with yet another explosive blast. Pillars snapped, caved; Lyra gasped, gave her aunt a final shove into the clearing of the main hall before a crushing pain knocked the wind out of her lungs and her off of her feet and smashed her against the ground.

“Lyra!” She looked up in swirling visions of the ongoing battle; the cry came from her aunt, though instead of being directly before her, the woman had been captured by the vicious grasp of the brown-winged one, strangled, suspended in midair.

Horatio had met more than his match in the two other Nokshans, clashes of metal heavy against her drumming ears; the old villager attempted to help, but the egret tossed him against the stone walls with savage, amused ease. A horrid screech beside her drew her attention away from the onslaught, and Athlem had regained ground and air as her previous captor clenched its eyes, blinded by a concoction of acids splashed to its face by the desperate physician. Immediately, Athlem took this chance to scurry to her trapped niece, predicted with a grimace the state of the princess’s right leg buried to the knee under a broken segment of the stone pillar before starting to loosen the debris with careful blundering. Lyra tried her best to limit herself to a wince though her world swimmed black and bright.

Lyra, release this stupid command! He sprung into the temple despite the heat burning into his neck.

She might have called off the contract, but the pang remained: images flushed his mind of that fateful day, his dying father suspended before him, slumping to the ground, red, red and muddied white. Father…his head threatened to burst with every turn, he stumbled through the darkness, screamed the only name that made him remember that this was not the past, not that evening, “Lyra!” The booms and low rumbles of the earth were nostalgic ill omens, he sprinted, the main hall opened before him with the deliberate relish of a nightmare.

With its back to him was the shell, the crude imitation that reminded him of his father. Those wings, the snow white that had so often been his blanket or held him for a tale by the fire, the spirit within them, all stolen, intermingling in a forbidden existence sustained by the aura of their resurrector. How and when Eridani had learned such a sacred, damned spell, he knew not. And at that moment, she had sealed her fate.

Still, the parody of a Nokshan turned away from the struggling humans to face to him, studied him with its blank eyes.

“Those wings do not belong to you,” Aldebaran bellowed more to the conscious controlling the corpse than to the subject itself, his knuckles turning white from gripping his sword; he darted a quick glance to the suffering around him, saw Horatio nearly exhausting his powers just keeping the villager out of the way of his opponent though much relieved now that the attention of the egret was diverted; impressed by what he could only guess to be Athlem’s handiwork, the temporarily incapacitated Nokshan tumbling about in pained blindness, though his heart skipped a beat at Lyra’s agony.

Her teeth had mercilessly dug her lower lip open to suppress her screams as Athlem made yet another fruitless attempt to dislodge a stubborn stone just enough to create corner of air for the princess’s leg to slip through. Had the egret not suddenly speak at an unexpected proximity, he would have forgotten himself and gone to free Lyra instead.

The shadow of a familiar voice rasped, “Have you came to save me?”

“Eridani, you have crossed the Creator’s limits,” Even when he was calling it a different name, the images imprinted themselves onto the moving corpse’s facade to the point that he was tempted to hack them away.

“Come,” The images said. “Save me, my son.”

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