LIX.

“We have to go,” She knew he was going to be fine and she was being more than a little silly for being so worried and if he was conscious she would never live it down but still, still she wanted to stay by his side, be the first thing in his feverish vision when he wakes.

What is this inexplicable irrationality?

“I will be there in a moment,” Horatio nodded and left her to her own devices.

She ruffled Jiube, straightened her belt heavy with a dagger and its longer pair; the weight was reassuring, though her training was not so. The pieces of metal were but instruments to focus her spells and spirit manipulations, the latter a skill seemingly passed onto her in gradually through her contract. Or perhaps from the voices that so often took the form of her father, visited her in her deepest nightmares.

No matter, they were to set out.

“Don’t worry about it,” Athlem’s hand rested upon her shoulder. “I will keep a close watch on him.”

“Take care of yourself first, I am sure he will be fine.“

A kiss on her forehead, and she went out to her uncle. Accompanied by several able villagers, whose faith had been bolstered by the grandfather’s retelling of the confrontation, they took to the mountains in the unlikely brightness of midday.

“The fog forms only stay away during midday, we can’t have them alert whatever enemies we might be spying on,” Ophie’s logic was sound, and they could only silently endure the grueling sun, slightly saved by the occasional clumps of forestry dense enough to spare them shadows.

A young man led them, followed by Horatio while Lyra trailed a few steps behind, just far enough to overhear the mutters of conversation.

“The princess is quite a walker, isn’t she?”

“A fighter, too,” testified the grandfather.

“Why can’t she be our leader?”

“Why not?” Grunted the old man. “So far we’ve only had men ruling us, and they all turned out to be scums, so we might as well.”

“Prince Horatio might hear.”

“If he minds, then he’s a scum, too.”

Lyra smiled to herself and tuned into the series of small talks that her uncle has eased the nervous young man into.

“Doctor Denthea…where is she from? She looks almost Nokshan-like,” and a hurriedly added as the youth forgot himself in a sudden sense of familiarity. “If Your Highness don’t mind me asking.”

“Of course not. Her hometown is within a province length from the rumored realm of the Nokshans,” Horatio mused. “Thus the similarity, I suppose.”

“Ah,” the man swallowed other questions as he continued to systematically pick his way up the mountain.

Soon enough, he announced that they are within a few leagues to their destination, and all conversation died to watchful observation. Lyra attempted to pick out that same beat she noted within the temple from the rustle of leaves and the dull steps of earth about her, but a voice nearly made her jump.

Hello, my child.

God, she cursed under her breath. Not now.

The multitude chuckled, I take that you didn’t miss us?

I don’t need your power, be gone.

Well, Just like her, they were unconvinced. Had you borrow power from us, maybe your dumb crow wouldn’t be on the verge of death.

Please, I…know. She still blamed herself, for twice his blood washed her hands.

The mountains ahead, The infinite voices fell back to one, to her father’s. They are quite foul. You will need me.

I don’t need you.

Ah…you are quite the jester. Tell me a better joke.

You…Then a piercing screech, the earth shook.

“What was that?” A collective question, they hid; Lyra followed her intuition through the overgrowth, the villagers followed her.

They came to the source: at the clearing, imperial soldiers flanked the mountains dotted with workers scurrying to stuff themselves with gruel and the spot of rest they were allotted before they pick up their picks again to burrow deeper into the large crater they have made. For a second, one may think they were misguided miners. But, their methods were a purposeful purposeless; this became obvious to Lyra as she saw the chaotic aura plaguing the injured mountain, raw spirits and their disturbed energy waiting to be collected by a cloaked figure.

“The Nokshan,” Ophie rasped.

Ah, the pieces found their way to a hypothesis in Lyra’s mind: for the spirit of chaos was not unfamiliar, it was the same aura of the three revived corpses. So, Eridani had been harvesting spirits from the mountain to enable her experiments. How Nokshan of her. She turned over the options, chose one, signaled the others to leave.

She reached out to the disgruntled spirits, they made her plans easier, seized them, and with a forceful twist of her hands returned them to their shells. A hiss of violent chaos, Eridani was, as expected, alarmed and aware of their presence: but before she could bound upon them, the restored mountains let out a mighty rumble, the tree sprites and their lesser brethren sprung forth and seized their aggressors, tore and bit and strangled until the dried earth was watered again.

Then the first boulder fell, crushed a few poor workers.

She dashed down the path where they came. The mingled screams blurred by distance, still the spirits were too enraged to tell friend from foe; in a desperate shove, the tunneled side of the mountains caved in, pushed forth, drowning all those around in a wave of rocks and boulders and choking dust. Lyra saw the approaching crash, her faraway companions, ducked to opposite sides as trees were uprooted and buried. Then another screech. A shadow, a blur of bright blue in the stark blue sky.

Lyra barely dodged as the ground where she was caved in, the fiery of a slash explained the irrationality that wasted stealth.

“Lyra of Lunzeldine,” The young Nokshan hissed. “Come to die.”

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