LXII.

She told herself that she was just flying. But no, no, death by disembodiment tangled in branches rushed at her, and at some point she stopped trying to convince herself until she heard him.

“Lyra!” The voice, the touch, the arm that wrenched her away from the fatal trajectory of gravity and drew her against him.

She opened her eyes again, though her world flashed white from agony and she clung onto him and dear life.

Her eloquence and self-awareness for hypocrisy, though, she did not hang onto as she commented, “You look horrible.”

And it was true, he was too pale and the angles of his cheeks protruded and she could feel the thick bandages encasing his torso, but he smiled and everything felt as though it would be fine, “I missed you, too.” He muttered as he frowned at her wounds, running a hand over them and mended despite her claims that she would be fine.

A powerful beat against the winds and they soared, “I am sorry,” she muttered.

“No, none of that now,” Perhaps his senses were still numbed by painkillers and medicines, perhaps he just couldn’t hear them over the beats of inexplicable irrationality, a “you saved me on multiple occasions as well,” would have sufficed but no, his free hand drew her to him by the cheek, and he was about to tell her, for he was sure, now, no contract could have muddled his feelings and she deserved to know, he wanted her to know, “Lyra, I…”

An arrow accompanied by a rain of its brethrens shattered any time for sentiments: he drew his wings together, spun aside. In hindsight, this was all very bad timing, he cursed his medicine-muddled brain.

Then from afar sounded a loud crash, a beast’s cry elicited a cacophony of pained wails: Jiube made a toy out of the archers with a swipe of bloodied claws.

For a second, she was trying to close her eyes again, pretend that the dark fabrics of his cloak was the night sky as she snuggled against him, hoping to forget. What was he going to say? She wanted to ask, but his grip tighten, “There are more of those puppets.”

They were five approaching shadows preluding their master whose plumes matched the too-blue sky.

“Leave me somewhere,” she invited no arguments. “You can’t even defend yourself holding me.”

“But…” in a fruitless search for a better reasoning he resigned, shifted as another arrow sailed by.

He dove for the ground, pulled up gently for her to find earth as he glided back into the skies, meeting their pursuers with a single spin and a deafening clang as he ended the smooth arch in a puppet’s shoulder. She was amazed by his agility before, but she was mesmerized by the way he brushed the strikes and the burdens of gravity aside, slipped out of a sword’s reach with a bat of his wings. She paused in her track, found herself gaping, but thought better and continued to run; clangs thundered above, a puppet cried out and plummeted following its head. She grimaced and attempted to maneuver her way out of the twisted woods. A clang, a crash, a flitting shadow. A hint of a paranoia made her look.

…But he was weaker than Eridani remembered, he didn’t already dispatch of her goons and she wanted to pretend that it was because she became stronger, but no, no he readjusted his grip upon his sword too often, bit his lips too much, his breaths broken like his frame.

He looked terrible. Her king was not supposed to look like a shadow of himself, and above all, her brother was not supposed to be capable of a look as vengeful as that glare he deigned to spare her.

“What have you done?” His eyes asked, she asked herself.

What have I done, he looked at me with the same disdain as the other Nokshans. As though to agree, yes, she was cursed after all.

“Why did you choose that human?” He hardly registered her question, darted back for a breath from her incessant pawns.

“Eridani, I cannot believe you,” His gentle voice was more harsh and hoarse than she remembered. “I had to.”

“She forced you through the contract?”

“No, none of that. She’s…she’s my fated one.”

“A mere human?” Of course, the Creator obstructing His subjects from becoming all-powerful. “But a human, a weakling like her? A filthy, simple –”

“I will not tolerate another word against her,” He was the king for a reason, Eridani did not even see the blur of shadow as a blade found its way against her neck, his voice was so commanding from behind her, so menacing. “Not even from you.”

“Are you so deeply bewitched by her?”

The drums of irrationality finally stopped because he knew its name, knew its concurrent race with his heartbeat, and his only duty pronouncing it, “Yes.”

“What? How could you so shamelessly say so –”

“ — She is the most determined, strong, and all in all the most admirable individual I have ever beheld,“ Why was his voice shaking? He knew he never said a thing he was more certain of. “I love her.”

“You…” This was no brother of hers. A puppet. A shell. No king of hers should be this…vulnerable. Animalistic anger overtook her senses, and she grabbed his blade, pulled, the pain didn’t register but her brother’s senses did as he instinctively sought to protect, released the hilt in fear of his resistance cutting his little sister.

Weakness, she cut those bonds so was free from those weaknesses. She saw his eyes then, widened with a splinter of horror, realizing her resolve as she turned his own blade on him, her bloodied hand clamped around the weight of her conscience, a sharper cut any blade can deliver, the weight of his and her decision. But, her hands carried through in a single stroke and bathed in guilty red.

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LXI.

She wrenched her blade free, trying to ignore the fountains of red that pooled like wine in a Creator’s parable. Her heart thundered as the circle about her grew tighter, the skin of her palm was ready to break at each painful clash against sweat, leather, metal, hastily uttered spells.

She looked up, the bluejay was watching her every move from a higher slope. A misaimed spear distracted her, and she guided the thrust across the radius of the circle into an unsuspecting swordsman. She glanced up again, but the bright blue was gone. A wild guess prompted her to swing, spin, the sting of her raw palm proved her right.

“Did he teach you?” Eridani hissed, shoved and sent her stumbling backward and the soldiers scattering as they knew better than to interfere. “Why would he teach such a pathetic thing?”

“You are not your brother’s keeper. Aldebaran can do as he pleases,” She was uncertain if it was wise to provoke that Nokshan as blue feathers bristled, a hateful glare chilled her spine.

“You don’t deserve to utter our King’s name,” The Nokshan growled, launched herself into a fiery of slashes and haphazard jabs and, while Lyra saw through those and parried or avoided or suffered only minor scratches, the last kick landed square upon her stomach, crushed her against jagged barks of an ancient trunk.

She gasped, fell to her knees and looked up just in time to see Eridani’s blade burying into the tree where her neck had been. Her heartbeat roared oppressively accompanied by numbing agony; but still, her body moved on their own accords as her elbow struck the wrists, stole the half-lodged sword then blunted and stunned with the back of the hilt.

“Arrogant, misguided Nokshans do not deserve to serve the Creator if she cannot even grasp the concept of respect,” Lyra held the tip of a blade against the young Nokshan’s throat, pinning her to the earth.

“What are you going to do?” Narrowed eyes pierced her and Lyra almost forgot she was the one holding the sword. “Kill me? What would my brother think?”

“Don’t pretend that you care for him. You are the one who animated your own father’s corpse against him.”

“Do you not do the same? Parading your dead father’s face to gain power for yourself, threatening your kinsmen into submission?” She spat, “Who is worse, then, one who walk in the muck, or one who walks in the much and preaches as though she is untainted?”

Wrong, this Nokshan saw not the constant greyish tumult behind her forced smiles, the noises, the resolve that gathered her into a form. Wrong, this assumption saw not the narratives, the pain and scar she earn every time she donned the mask of her father, the selfless justifications.

“No.”

The air behind her split, she attempted to dodge, but she sidestepped too late and the blade caught her waist.

She snapped around, brought together her sword and the confiscate blade to block another heavy blow. There were two, those lifeless Nokshan puppets, who remembered their sword and spells but not their life and tales. Eridani had already regained her ground and armed herself with a passing soldier’s blade. Lyra glanced from one puppet to another, marked the remaining spirits trapped within, the gentlest breeze made her side sting and her abused back ache.

A puppet stepped forward, she dropped a sword and raised a hand between them. In a blink, she could feel the air pressure of the strike reaching her, but she connected with the disgruntled spirit first. The blade landed upon the shoulder of her outstretched hand, blood, she just saw the single strand of spirit within her hand.

Come, she asked and it left its shell behind. The sword cutting into her stopped its malicious track, fell limp as the sack of tortured flash fell forward. She stepped back, watched the lifeless form join dust.

“You…how…” Eridani’s shock was hardly noticed by Lyra as the latter took the chance to run, broke through the dented circle choking her with an explosive spell.

“Give chase, your idiots,” A shout from behind, she bit her lips and sprinted against jolting pain.

More than thrice she nearly twisted her ankle dashing full speed down the overgrown hill, the last occasion being that a blockade of soldiers had obscured the narrow mountain path where she came. She darted into the cover of forests, ducking a hurled spear while swallowing in attempt to quench the fire creeping up her throat from her lungs. Dense green shadows and panic made her a moth, drawn to lost directions and the first bright spot of light offered over the bough of a slanting, rotting tree. She ran towards it, skidded to a stop, swallowing the bitterness of impending doom.

Of course, she had to be trapped to a cliff, panting like an old horse while her world shifted in twisted visions of blood loss and agony. It was an abrupt outcropping of rock, the mocking stage for her pathetic demise either by falling off the crushing heights or rushing into the soldiers emerging from the shadows like hell’s minions.

“Give up, princess,” A captain stepped forward with a sword and declaration drawn. “Surrender now and the Grand Priest may even absolve you of your follies.”

“No,” She clutched stubbornly to her blade, to her crying wounds. “I don’t need a pest to absolve my sins.”

The general guffaw over her blasphemy was hushed by the Captain’s order to ready their attack as she grimaced, she neared the edge of the fall.

Lyra.

She jolted, Alde?

Jump.

What?

She barely summoned a shield to block the first shower of projectiles, and the last arrow undid her spell, grazed her chin as she tilted her head, her world spun. Where are you? I…

I will catch you, jump.

I…

“Surrender, princess.”

Lyra!

She gasped, killed logic and turned and leapt, squeezed her eyes shut to fall.

The Girl

She had a monster, and he agreed to tame it.

He heard the door ring and knew it was her and opened the door. His sister showered him in thanks, made promises of her child’s angelic qualities, hugged said child, hugged him, and was gone.

“So, it’s just the two of us,” Only several hours, but he grumbled to himself. “Stop staring and get your ass in here.”

The little girl blinked at the harsh tone of voice, glared at the language by narrowing her large almond eyes, a splitting image of the mother that just left. “A true gentleman invites his guest into his household.”

Ah, it’s been a while since he’s heard that tongue he hated; so he turned, left the door ajar and her with the decision to follow suit or not, “That was an invitation, enough,” He added. “And, I am no gentleman.”

She pouted.

****

She evolved. It only took a month.

“Uncle, uncle,” She would call in her sweet voice, musical like her father’s. “What are you doing?” Her small chin would then place itself upon the edge of his table, her small hands grabbing the sides to see.

“Work,” He grunted just beyond the patter of keyboard. “Go and finish destroying my living room, please.”

For a six years old, she was quick to catch on sarcasm, “I didn’t destroy it last time, it was just…furnishing.”

“Wow, ‘furnishing,’” He angled his laptop just enough to meet her demanding gaze. “Such a big word. Do you even know what it means?”

“Of course!”

“Well, the random paint splatters don’t seem to agree.”

“The walls were too boring!” She crossed her short arms. “Just like you.”

“Oh, too bad that this boring uncle was going to take you out for ice cream, but since you think it so boring — ”

“ — Yay, ice cream!” As she dashed out of the room, presumably to get her purple boots even though it was the middle of summer, he couldn’t help but smile.

But that simple exercise stung, smiling took too much and he just opted to press the knots in his back and hand.

****

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Don’t have one.”

“Why?”

He regretted his honesty, didn’t think that would call for even more questioning. “Don’t really have time for that kind of things?”

“Then what do you have time for?”

He opened his mouth to speak, the hand in his doesn’t seem so small all the sudden.

He wanted to snap, “Walking annoying children across the street to sight see,” but blurted instead, “You.”

It’s the same thing, same idea, he just didn’t want to waste that many words on her, that’s all. She smiled and pointed at another fluffy puppy.

****

Her condition made her older than her age. She knew she was special, that she was born with too much power, that her existence was unusual.

“Mommy said she named me after a bright star,” The girl was proud, musing in childish existentialism wrapped in blankets, staring at the stars hiding behind storm clouds and flashes of lightning. “If I die, I can be a supernova.”

“You won’t die,” His voice demanded no argument, though the words were nothing that he expected to pair with a cup of chocolate as he handed her her own mug. “I will make sure of it.”

She whispered a small thank you, snuggled with her blanket until that was insufficient and she went to him, stared at him a little before demanding a warm hug and fell asleep in his arms.

****

He knew all would come to an end, eventually. As he watched the girl levitating his living room’s sparse decor with the latest spell he taught her — also to be his latest regret — he caught himself beaming idiotically with stupid pride. He was grinning stupidly, and it was less painful now, he scoffed at himself, continued reading.

“Uncle, uncle!” She sounded far, probably strayed away to the dining room to steal some cookies on his unawares. “Uncle!”

The last call was too shrill to be playful, and he shot out of his seat to her in a panicked tumble, tripped on a dangerous chair and slipped on coloring pencils. God, his apartment was turning into a kindergarten, he forgot fear like this until now.

She curled into a little ball on the kitchen floor, a shattered jar of cookies next to her. She used her spell, he guessed, and that was the limit. So small, sobbing, he lulled her in his arms and convinced her that all was just a well-timed shadow, an imagined face she often pointed out within the tiles or towels and no ghosts plagued her mind.

“They said such horrible things,” The tears washed his shirt. “They were here.”

He knew this day would come, and that her visits were all for this day, anyway. Only a couple of months, a child take so little time to trust and attach. So, she, too, will forget. He, again, would live but be forgotten; but, he learned to smile and that was enough, “Forget, then, my sweet star. Sleep and dream, for the nightmares would be gone when you wake and see.”

And so she closed her bright, teary eyes, dreamed.

****

“So, you’ve done it?”

“Sealed her powers, and she should be fine as long as she doesn’t remember.”

“I cannot express my thanks.”

Nor can I, he watched the woman turning to her love, who carried the sleeping child in a careful cradle. They paid their respects, but he was simply paying his dues. They left just like the way they came, silent.

He was left, again, just like the way before, silent, though the corner of his mouth curled rebelliously.

An Uneventful Evening

One uneventful evening, Athlem was channeling her inner feline-ness, basking in the sunlight by the reading room’s window with a volume stolen from Horatio’s library — it still made very little sense that Etzion royalties needed their own separate archives — when she noticed that she emptied her satchel of dried plums. She stared at it in lazy annoyance, then convinced herself to leave her warm spot.When she stepped into their room, Horatio was where she left him in his usual rigid efficiency, scanning the monolith of a volume set before him, presumably about strategies or spells, though he was already holding out her desired bag to her as his piercing eyes stayed on the page.

“I still don’t understand how your teeth are intact after you’ve devoured cartfuls of these in the matter of days,” He muttered as she took the bag with glee, pecked him on the cheek in wordless thanks. “How are you feeling?”

“These little beauties are keeping my food down,” Seeing that the other chair was five steps away, she opted for a more comfortable spot upon his lap before fishing out another plum and examined it.

“Ew,” Horatio wrinkled his nose at the wrinkled, fruity abomination.

“Do you want to kiss me now?” She nuzzled, pouted, giggled as he frowned in conflicted indecision.

“For the first time in my life, I shall refuse that offer for the safety of my mouth.”

“It’s not that bad! Even a fetus can handle it.”

“Our child is going to be born more sour and wrinkler than any newborn if you keep eating that,” He mockingly wailed. “Oh, the horror.”

“So, you mean our child will grow up to be just like you? That is not far from my expectations.”

“Hey!” She giggled at the tickle of his prickly stubble as he nuzzled her neck, pecked at her cheeks.

Then she wrestled him from his tickling advances, laughing, cupped his face and wandered amongst the lines of his features while leaning into the gentle circles his hand were drawing on her back. She traced the narrow bridge of his nose, the hiding his piercing eyes and observations, the darkening eye bags — which she was the proud author of for the past fitful night of cravings or nightmares or vomiting or a hellish concoction of all of the above — the thin lines at the corner of his eyes deepened by the above mentioned fact, his cutting cheekbones, parted lips. Stubborn, beautiful, beautifully stubborn, she placed her forehead against his.

The eloquence always escape him when she was with him, but his mind strove to mend: Her hair was glossed with streaks of sunlight, her eyes narrowed by subtle puffiness of sleeplessness and motherhood, but he hardly noticed. The lines of her frame, her round cheeks and nose, all streaked with sunlight, she was always so blindingly beautiful. Fragile, stubborn, succinct. A single lowering of her lashes, a pout, or a single phrase, and he would be fulfilled, blessed.

“I am,” she went back to cupping his cheeks, tilted his chin “too much in the sun.”

Of course, she meant not the highlights of her hair, and he wanted to verbalize his understanding, realized he didn’t need to. She leaned in, he met her, tasted sweet.

Then the taste sour, he realized, “Ugh, you didn’t.”

She pulled away, giggled devilishly, leap off of him and ran for the door before he could tickle her. He spat, reached for water to stop the burn of his tongue.

“Good day to you,” She waved childishly, disappeared behind the door to return, he presume, to her favorite perch in his reading room.

He stayed there, trying to savor the sour, sweet of her upon his lips as he grimaced, laughed, opted to lose interest in his volume and pursue a much greater importance.

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.”

LVIII.

Eridani confirmed that the Taurian clan had very little concern for what became of her: their continued ignorance of her disappearance was proof enough.

The fact was no shock.

Ever since she was born, she knew: mother was too fatigued rebuilding the clan to bother hiding her disdain for the child that lived in her mate’s place. The prophecy diverted when she was born, she often mused with her important advisors about her younger child. It’s as though her cries silenced the Creator.

Yes, she knew that by defying the texts of the Creator’s foretelling, her birth had doomed her people into this unforeseen period of utmost confusion.

So, she thought she was so lucky to have a brother who treasured her. She thought she was blessed to be protected by the prophesied “great King,” the raven with the same blood as her, the blood of the strongest warrior and the greatest healer in the history of Nokshan existence. She thought Aldebaran saw her simply as “his bluejay,” his precious little sister, and not the child cursed into isolation for her tenets-defying existence that he needed to pity.

And so she was wrong. He probably only shielded her for the praise of their clansmen. He chose a mere human over her. It made sense, Eridani supposed. Even he, her sole protector, could not help but thought it better if father didn’t die for her, that she should have just been a stillborn, mourned than forgotten.

Interestingly enough, she realized her brief days of life as a stillborn would have left her at a better opinion amongst the clan, anyway.

But she digresses. She embarked upon this strain of thought merely by the sight of the crumbled corpse upon the floor. A few spots of snowy feathers remained, and while she knew the owner of those egret plumes also possess half of her blood, it was difficult for her to be moved.

“Ha, I won, again,” She choked out bitterness and bile: the reason she was alive was the reason she had to be cursed.

Did she ever choose to be born? The father she never met allowed himself to be blinded by his love for his mate, his children, yet never thought about the broken pieces his loved ones would be left in at his death; and the shards of broken hearts cut her infant mind and her wounds remained, if not multiplied stubbornly each year she struggled on.

“I won,” She recalled a comment made behind her wings: why is she a bluejay? Aren’t Lord Aldebaran and our King ravens?

The bright color is a warning, the mother answered her son. Warning for all to just stay away.

But aren’t bluejays common and weak? Back then, Eridani cared enough to peer back and glare, saw the eagle fledgling be led by his mother to the other side of the street.

“How am I common and weak?” The common ones won’t be isolated.

And weakness? She strode over towards the entrance of the temple, followed the trail of crimson, his blood, she could tell from the smell. The blood of the almighty King of Nokshans, spilled by her puppets. By her.

She was capable of wounding the so-called prophesied King.

Unlike him, she was not distracted. No traumatizing pasts or useless sentiments haunted her, no human bewitched her. She was far greater than him, a raven. Shame on him for losing to a little, common bluejay.

“Very well done, Eridani,” Claud followed the trail of blood to her. “Now that they are without their Nokshan, we will see how they fare against your minions.”

“Shut up,” She needed not the priest to remind her of her hypocritical diagnosis of her brother; besides, the Priest was far too talkative for her liking, anyway.

“It’s a pity three of your minions were dispatched of,” He mused. “And, our most useful one, too.” Of course, he meant the egret.

“No matter, we still have plenty.”

“And I thought you had some qualms about the whole operation of using your dead clansmans’ wings?”

Eridani gritted her teeth, “Did you give me a choice?”

“No, but you didn’t take half the persuasion that your brother endured,” Claud mused, feeding upon the young Nokshan’s rising rage. “And, he still persisted.”

Weaknesses, weaknesses, “but what good did that do for him?” He would just continue to be weighed down by his sense of purpose, protecting humanity and their selfish interests. “It seems to me that he needed no persuasion when it comes to the princess. Perhaps the problem is not about the subjects to be persuaded, but the persuader?”

“Ah, but you cannot blame me for not being equipped with the art of seduction,” Claud had little qualms for entertaining Eridani’s nightmare and largely inaccurate interpretation of Lyra’s character. “My methods are a lot more…forceful.”

“Yet forceful methods will only get you a common bluejay,” She muttered more to herself than anything, whatever line of flawed logic her mind pondered upon before was forever ruined as she considered her own self worth altogether crumbled like the antiquated, obliterated temple about her, obsolete. “It surprises me that you think yourself in possession of any methods at all. A man with methods would probably allow me to attack them now since they are at their most vulnerable?”

“Oh, I am sure they already weaseled back to their little den behind that old geezer’s talismen. Their paranoia will be their adversary enough, we can wait,” Claud belittled the young Nokshan’s temper too much to take any insults she hurled at him seriously: who was he to deprive the young Nokshan the means to normalize her enslavement to their contract? “I am sure they noticed our operations on the other end of the mountains and would eventually come to us…”

Eridani growled at the idea of idle waiting, kicked at the loose pieces of debris until they tumble off the clipped stairs and down the jagged hills.

“So be it.”

LVII.

No…the glint of the sword and those egret wings, the sheer power they possessed that never before were seen by his people, only meant to be used for healing and only belonging to the man that was his father.No, his father was incapable of such a mocking smile, incapable of raising a sword against his own beloved son that he gave his own life to protect. His instincts guided the oncoming storm of slashes and stabs aside, his doubts aside.

Still, the latter hindered him enough for the puppet to fathom an effective idea: instead of attacking the skilled Nokshan, it stunned him with an explosion, cratering the ceilings directly above them and tested the crumbling temple further. While Aldebaran dodged debris and shielded the villager and Horatio nearby, the grey-winged launched itself at him with a spiral of maddened slashes, though he saw through the apparent disorder and found an easy crack within its defenses that allowed him to put the corpse back to peace. When he raised his attention back the egret, it had swept to Athlem’s side on her unawares with a smooth bat of the wings, and only by Lyra’s warning and her last-minute spell the blade missed her vitals, but the pierced shoulder stunned her. The egret kicked the doctor aside, Lyra screeched something incomprehensible. He told Horatio to take the villager and doctor to safety, and his wings carried him swifter than Horatio’s panic. The puppet gathered yet more energy into his hands, and it took shape, grew dangerous edges. A spear? A long sword? He didn’t really try to see it as he just thought about getting to her. It raised the deadly weapon, brought it down. He called forth spirits of his own, dove.

She was deafened by a screech of the earth as it shivered under an explosion of heat and sounds and light, blinded, deafened, scorched. The temple’s only thin traces of light had been extinguished, and she willed to tear herself free from the rubbles.

Lyra? His protective arm was about her shaking frame. Hold still.

He eased the rubbles off her leg, pulled her free; she screamed into her sleeve.

He hovered a hand over the broken bones and flesh, she leaned into him instinctively, felt the breath of his words brushing the top of her head, this time said aloud as though for affirmation. “Hold still.” It was that same warm sensation engulfing her poor leg to the point that it was nearly unbearably scorched before all the pain were memories.

“Thank you…” She wanted to see him, but a vague outline in the darkness was all her human eyes could make out; then she remembered her aunt. “Athlem, is she…”

“I forced the others to go ahead first,” Alde suddenly slinked away, reducing the enveloping warmth of his being to but a single hand helping her to her feet.

She felt stupidly alone, tested her steps before nearly stepping on what she could only assume to be the limp body of the white-winged Nokshan. So in the end, she bit her already cut lips. I still failed to protect him.

Alde pulled her forward, “I am only sustaining this place from falling apart for a while, so let’s go.”

He dragged her along the sharp turns made more difficult by her still weak leg and his unwillingness to slow down. Still, she fought to keep up, as each treacherous step lend to more rays of light courageously leading them to the exit. It wasn’t so bad after awhile, she thought she was matching his pace. Then she realized it wasn’t that she was getting faster, but that he was slowing down, perhaps the darkness was an obstacle even for a Nokshan since his steps slip once or twice amongst their long trek.

At some point, she just focused on the ground immediately before her in fear of twisting her ankles or falling on those jagged, broken rocks. Then she saw at first the imperceivable spots. Irregular, but more and more common. She attempted to distinguish it, thought it some rare stone unearthed by the explosions, but as she walked on a ray of light struck a spot and the dark red beamed back alarm. Too fixated in her study she didn’t see the feet before her pause, and she effectively crashed into him.

“Sorry,” He mumbled, made a lame attempt at continuing forward but instead slumped against a convenient wall.

“Alde!” She flew to his side, wrestled his wings aside to expose his face dressed in deathly palor and his tunic darkened by malicious crimson. “My God, you…” He crumbled to his knees, brows wrinkled in troubled perturbation as he attempted to find her face within the blurred visions multiplying before him.

“Lyra, I…,” If he was to die, would it be selfish to tell her? She was holding him as though he was made of glass, though his mind was muddled and she failed to see. “You…you are…”

As though to thwart him even at a time like this, the ground beneath them growled, antiquated bricks gave way in the distance.

“No…get up,” She swung his arm over her shoulder, managing to hoist him up with incredible effort. “We have to get out of here.”

He mumbled, his conscious slipping as much as her steps. She didn’t notice how blinding the sunlight was when she set foot upon soft dirt and grass, didn’t notice the distress of her aunt and uncle when they found her covered in blood, didn’t mind the villager’s state of shock at the defeat of not one, but three Nokshans. All she knew was the haggard breath brushing against her neck, the suppressed winces of pain that tore at her heart, that they were far too slow, that she hated herself when she couldn’t heal him due to some strange disturbances within his own spirits. All she knew was that if his heart stopped, so would hers.