Suffi put one foot in front of the other.
People stared at her. Of course they did. She had been one step from being queen of the city, and now she was walking the streets in rags, pale as a corpse, her eyes empty. Hollow eyes met their shocked gazes. There was no expression on her face.
No sense of loss, although so much had been lost.
The ash-men had cut them with the sword of smoke, severing soul and body.
Somehow it was Krait, the soft and spoiled one, who was recovering. Who was fighting through. She was just a shell, needing his shoulder to lean on and barely able to keep her feet moving.
It was hard to remember they were her feet. There was a strange distance between Suffi and her body, as if she was controlling herself through distant strings, puppeteering the body’s limbs and gazing out from the body’s eyes but never truly one with it.
An ember of thought in a bed of flesh waiting to become ash.
She was hollowed out. If being held up by her brother stirred some emotion in her, it was a like a stone cast into an empty well meeting water far below, the sound echoing up from far away.
“Come on,” Krait was saying. “Come on just a little farther.”
When it was done, they had turned on each other. Wrestling and cutting each other with knives, fighting until one man was dead, sprawled out on the ground. With blank eyes she had watched the dead man crumble to ash, watched them reach into his chest and take out a flaming stone.
Her own lungs had burned. In that moment of absolute bleakness, the world was flat, and even breathing seemed pointless.
They had taken the ember from their comrade’s corpse and pressed it through her lips, forcing her to swallow. The flame had burned all the way down her throat, expanding into a star of heat within her chest, a last glimmering of life within her cold chest. A spark that flared for one thought, one purpose; the dream of making everyone like she was now. Ash. Cold ash.
It was a zealous, bitter longing, an angry satisfaction. It was so precious now, when every other emotion was muted and numb as ice, to feel that one spark rise in her chest. She clung to it.
They had shown her. A new manner of sword, one her hands had never shaped. A way of war she had yet to conquer.
That was what they needed. Not the queen of the city. Not the proud girl with her schemes. The hands, half-mutant but skillful, that could shape works of wonder and deadly precision.
Hands to shape a new weapon.
For a moment I was simply numb, in disbelief.
I watched as Cabochon fell, but it wasn’t until his corpse began to faded, dissolving into motes of Mana, that emotion caught up with reality.
Rage. Absolute, lunatic rage overwhelmed me, and I felt the Dungeon tremble slightly, saw spirals of dust fall from the vaulted ceilings as I brewed in fury, watching the five adventurers descend down a rope towards the Garden of Glass Bells. Cabochon was dead. The egg was taken.
Neither was beyond reclamation. Cabochon could be revived. The egg could be taken from their corpses.
But in a moment of carelessness, I had allowed so much to be taken from me. I seethed. The creatures of my domain swayed and growled and gnashed claws and teeth through the air, caught by the furor of my thoughts. I watched the motes of Mana surround the hunter with her deadly bow, weaving through the air to touch her and sink through her skin. A golden storm of sweeping lines and tiny comets burned around her as she stole Cabochon’s essence.
In moments like these, the powerlessness of being a core surged through me. I had no hands to crush the life out of her. No claws or teeth of my own. I could only throw my creations against the enemy, and watch, wait, pray for them not to meet Cabochon’s fate.
The intruders were talking, planning. Discussing whether to follow the breach down. They knew my guardian was defeated. That the way was clear.
There would never be another chance like this. I would never allow there to be another chance like this.
But I wanted them to come forward, to press into the dark. They would regret it if they did. Come to me, I wished, come here so I can have my beauties grind your bones to dust and crush the dying breath from your bodies.
They tossed a rope down the breach, securing it around a tree root. Greed had won over caution.
I would have my chance at revenge.
They descended into the glass gardens, where the ghostly glow of the translucent mushrooms underlit them coming down the rope, one by one.
I wouldn’t let them get that far.
One of the conditions of the hunting grounds had been that none of the hunters would be able to bring in that damn incense to bind me. As such, I could intervene a little more directly than usual.
By say, eating the roots anchoring the rope away while the swordsman and the mage were halfway down. The sudden collapse of their anchor sent them crashing to the ground, crushing fungal bodies beneath their own, the injured swordsman letting loose a scream of agony through clenched teeth as the mage’s weight crashed down atop him.
And then the secret doors opened.
The nacre-spiders came down on silver threads, long bladed limbs reaching for the ground as their lithe bodies dripped from their secret compartments.
The archer, the scout, and the old man were still above.
Just two, versus all my beautiful spiders, against Cabochon’s dear brothers and sisters.
Above, the feathered terrors were moving in now, having gathered their numbers. They would reclaim the egg and my pride. I would have my pound of flesh for Cabochon.
Izzis was bemoaning his fate again. The adventurers had quickly become less and less forgiving of his Izzisry, and Princess Telurum was obsessed with them now. She spent all day watching them forage, scrap with the local predators, tell adventuring stories, mix politice. He’d been cast aside, discarded with fickle cruelty. The little homunculus spent most of the day moping and trying to subtly flex his muscles whenever the princess was looking his way.
He’d even tried taking a bath, just to see if that would lighten their mood towards him.
Nothing. Not even a congratulations on bravely facing the fearsome foe of running water.
He had retreated into his hidden burrow to sulk, pulling the leaves over the entrance. Within, a little thimblefull of fruitscraps was slowly fermenting into wine. Well. Wine-ish.
“The problem is, that little imp’s leading us in circles.”
His ears perked up. It was Nathaniel, the alchemist, who spent all day grinding strange concoctions and trying to make Izzis fetch him ingredients.
“Are you sure?” The other one, the bard, had been kinder to Izzis. For that reason he hadn’t bothered to learn her name. He only learned the names of people when they were going on his List. It was a List of grudges, ranked from most petty to least.
Someday, someday he’d get revenge for every kick and mean word.
“Yes!” Nathaniel hissed. Izzis crept closer to the entrance of his hidden lair, peering through the leaves. They sat together, hunched over the fire, whispering. “I found the gate back yesterday. It’s not more than a thousand feet away.”
“Let’s go then, right now. I swear, under gods’ sight, things are watching us in this forest.” The bard shivered.
“Without Telurum? I don’t think she knows how bad she’s messed up. I think her father will kill her.”
“If we bring Telerum, she’ll try to bring Izzis. And if he’s been leading us in circles there’s no saying he won’t run and warn the Dungeon.” There was a logic building here, and Izzis didn’t like it.
It wasn’t like he’d been purposefully sending them around and around. He was just buying time until he knew where they were going!
“So let’s kill him now and say it was an accident.” Nathaniel whispered. “Say we stepped on him, whoops.”
There it was.
Izzis tensed to run.
“Kill Goliath?” At the sound of the third voice, the bard and the alchemist both snapped their head up. Princess Telerum floated above them, wings sparkling, her
Izzis sighed. His angel.
“I suppose he has gotten a little boring…”
The face of a heartbroken homunculus is not a pretty thing. Cross a miserable toad with an infatuated bat, and there’d be some approximation. Splash in a goblin’s teeth and a lemur’s eyes and you’d be getting somewhere. But for the final touch, you’d need the sliminess of a snail.
“I’m glad you see it that way.” Nathaniel said, clearly nervous. He wasn’t used to plotting murder, that was clear. “We were worried you would…”
“It’s necessary.” The bard interrupted. “Once we get back to the Dungeon, there’s no telling who’s side he’ll take.”
“Right, let’s go find him then.” Telerum clapped her hands together. Nodding, the two of them rose to their feet and went in opposite directions.
As they spread out through the forest, calling his name in the tone you might use for a particularly unintelligent dog, Izzis took this small moment in his life to feel very sorry for himself. He sniveled.
That was when Telerum’s head popped over the edge of his little burrow, upside-down, her golden hair streaming down around her face.
Clambering inside, she set her hand in his and whispered. “We’ve got to go.”
Izzis could have flown without using his wings. Hand in hand, they crept out of the den, and-
The bard was staring right at them. “Thought so.” Sawing a note on her violin, she summoned a phantom hawk. Izzis chuckled nervously.
“Izzis really time for violence?” He tried.
She smiled, and thrust her arm forward, the hawk leaping into the air and swooping towards him with wings outstretched. Izzis raised his spiked mace-
Telerum lifted her hand and a lightning bolt leapt from her ringed finger, scattering the ghost-hawk to mist and searing the bard’s hair as the woman dove for the ground to avoid the passing spear of electricity. It slammed into a tree trunk and the bark erupted into flames. “Run!” The princess called, diving forward while the nasty, treacherous bardling was recovering.
“Running!” Izzis agreed, pumping his wings desperately and jumping from branch to branch.
“NATHANIEL! IT’S GETTING AWAY!” The bard bawled, climbing to her feet and dashing after.
Hectic and frantic, they all rushed for the portal, the strange crystal leaves and blue lights of the Everforest blurring past.