There was a sound like thick ice shattering, and the box around Zarah collapsed, spilling her out onto the muddy ground.
“Whoo-oo!” Remy said from above her, and she rolled over enough to see him shaking out his seemingly-undamaged fist. “That was some tough stuff! Hey, Zarah! How are you?”
“You look awful,” Zarah said before she could stop herself.
Remy grinned. “I know! Isn’t it great?”
He was wearing the same grey coat as before, but had swapped out the shorts and flip-flops for a pair of what looked like dark green fisherman’s waders, and a purple and pink athletic bra. The whole outfit clashed horribly, and the umbrella he was holding didn’t help – it was translucent, with a repeating pattern of cat decals across it in red and yellow.
“…sure,” Zarah said, not having the energy to dispute the point. She accepted the offered hand and climbed to her feet, then instinctively reached out for her hammer before remembering its fate. The shards still sat in the mud where they’d fallen, and she picked up one about the size of a kitchen knife, ignoring the way it cut into her hand as she gripped it tightly.
“What, no thank you?” Remy pouted as she strode past him in the direction Metzin had been sent flying.
“Thank you,” she said brusquely. “Are we killing this woman or no?”
“Now you’re speaking my language!” He fell into step with her, grinning broadly. “Not literally, cause we’re still speaking Brechtin, but-”
“I got it.”
Up ahead, two figures tore apart the small forest, while a third lurked on the edges. Orae’s hound was larger than Zarah had ever seen it, the actual shade almost completely obscured by the thick ghostlight armour surrounding it, adding to its height and size. It attacked Metzin with ferocious fury, growls and vicious barks accompanying every movement as it battered and smashed through the constructs she attempted to constrain it with. She was successfully keeping it away, at least, but the hand clutched to her side made it obvious that the first attack had injured her, leaving her on the back foot.
Slightly further away, Zarah could vaguely make out the form of Orae, hovering just out of the range of the devastation. They’d discarded their suit jacket for a black cargo vest, and they held their pistol in both hands, tracking Metzin but holding their fire.
Zarah changed directions slightly, moving towards them, but Remy continued on straight ahead, slowing to a casual stroll.
“Zarah,” Orae said curtly as she neared, not looking away from the fight. “Glad to see you were so very capable of handling things on your own.”
She didn’t have it in her to argue the point.
“You shake,” she observed instead, looking at the way their hands were trembling around the gun’s grip.
“Keeping up the armor,” they said through gritted teeth, “isn’t exactly easy. Where’s Auclair?”
Zarah pointed wordlessly, to where the boy in question was closing the distance to the fight. Almost immediately, half of a tree trunk was sent flying off to the side by the hound, straight towards him. A horrifically loud crunch split the air, and the trunk tumbled in two pieces to either side of him, leaving a trail of splinters in their wake. Remy was, of course, unharmed, but the umbrella had been ripped out of his hands, and the entire front of his body was covered in dust.
He frowned, lips moving, but they were too far away to hear him properly.
Orae interrupted her thoughts, tone irritated. “Are you just going to stand there?”
“Explain to me how I do anything here,” she shot back. To be perfectly honest, she felt like she was about to fall over, but she didn’t particularly feel like telling them that.
They growled, then quickly reversed their grip on the gun, grabbing Zarah’s hand and bringing it up to take the grip. “You take this, and I’ll-”
The instant she realised what was happening, Zarah flinched away, tearing out of their grip and knocking the gun to the ground.
“What the fuck?!” they snapped, glasses slipping down enough to reveal a furious seaglass glare.
Zarah’s heart was pounding wildly in her ears, adrenaline rushing through her veins as she backed away another step.
“N-no,” she managed to say, as they crouched down to retrieve the gun from the mud. “That- no. No touch, no gun, no-”
Her instincts flared, telling her to move, but her reaction speed could no longer keep up, and so it was only Orae tackling her to the ground that saved her from being hit by the armoured hound as it flew back through the space they’d been occupying moments ago.
They hit the ground together, Zarah squelching into the mud with an unpleasant noise as Orae landed on top of her, one elbow driving into her stomach slightly and causing her to release her breath in a surprised whoof. They were surprisingly heavy, Zarah noted as they pushed themself off with a hand planted in the mud underneath her arm.
“Idiot,” they snapped. “It’s like you want to get killed.”
Their glasses had slipped down to the very edge of their nose, revealing their eyes again. They really were the most vivid green, Zarah observed.
Then they slapped her across the face, ruining the moment slightly.
“Hey!” they hissed. “Are you present or not? Because if not, you being around is just a liability.”
As Orae spoke, the hound leapt over their heads again with a furious roar, rejoining the fight with the crunching of trees breaking.
Irritatingly, the slap had actually helped a little. “Present,” Zarah said, voice more raspy than she’d intended. “Sorry.”
They frowned, but then nodded and pushed themself up onto their feet. Zarah followed a little more slowly, heart still racing from the adrenaline. Unlike Remy earlier, Orae didn’t offer her a hand up, already turning their attention back to the fight.
Which was- fine.
She followed their gaze to the fight, just in time to see Remy get smacked down into the ground by, of all things, a road-roller made of ghostlight. It shattered moments later, revealing him to be utterly unharmed, but driven into the ground all the way up to hips.
“Uh.” He tried to push his hands against the ground, but they just sunk right in with no resistance. “Um. Guys? Help?”
Orae muttered something under their breath, then raised two fingers and let out a series of short, piercing whistles, a combination Zarah hadn’t heard before. Immediately, their hound drew back, dancing out of the way of a slew of I-beam javelins. Zarah saw its head spin around to lock onto Orae immediately, and then towards Remy as they made a series of quick hand signals.
“What- hey!” Remy yelled, as the hound dashed towards him. “Orae, no! Orae, don’t you dare-”
Zarah looked back at Metzin before the impact, tuning out the various noises. The other woman was watching them, that same placid expression on her face as she straightened the scarf around her neck, and a hole opened up in her chest.
Zarah had just enough time to think wait-,and then her brain registered the retort of a gun coming from next to her. She stumbled away from Orae, missing a step and nearly falling.
Orae glanced over at her, irritation plain on their face. “What?! Are-”
In their moment of distraction, with the hound busy helping Remy, Metzin struck.
All Zarah saw was a flicker of motion in the corner of her vision, before something yanked on her leg, pulling it out from underneath her and dragging her across the ground. Judging by the startled yelp from next to her, Orae was suffering the same predicament.
After a few seconds, the jostling stopped. Head spinning, Zarah looked down to find a red manacle clamped around her leg, the chain connected to it leading to Metzin’s hand. Orae had an identical manacle around their leg, but they hadn’t managed to sit up yet, one hand held to their head as they groaned.
Then, quite a few things happened in a very short space of time.
Zarah’s instincts flared, screaming at her to move. Following her gut, she looked up, just in time to see a veritable storm of I-beams falling towards the exact spot Metzin had dragged them into, and far too close to possibly get out of the way in time. Still, she began to move anyway – not even bothering to get to her feet, she started to drag herself in an awkward, frantic shuffle off to the side, and made it almost a whole half-foot before the beams made impact.
She squeezed her eyes shut, just as a series of horrific crunches drowned out the rest of the world. And for a brief instant, she actually felt the pain, the bones breaking and blood spraying, so intense it drew out the beginnings of a scream from the back of her throat. But then, a moment later, it was gone, and as she flinched at nothing, she realised that she’d been anticipating the pain so vividly she’d made herself feel it, even if just for a moment.
But the noises were real, her brain whispered to her, and she belatedly opened her eyes and looked upward, into an expense of red, that quickly resolved itself into a shape. Orae’s hound was standing over the two of them, paws planted firmly in the mud, back bent and bowed. The image resolved a little more, and she realised why that was – it had taken the brunt of the impact for them, and now there were multiple spears sticking up out of its back.
Faintly, she could make out a soft, wounded keening noise, ragged and uneven, as the ghostly form of the hound expanded and contracted with injured pants. Next to her, Orae let out a rough, wet cough, and she looked down to see blood spilling from her mouth, as well as from a cut on their forehead that was very conspicuously not healing.
The chains were gone, so Zarah managed to get to her feet and haul them out from underneath the hound. Once they were clear, it collapsed to the ground with a pained whimper.
“Orae,” Zarah hissed. “Are you okay?”
They moaned something incoherent, blood dribbling from the corner of their mouth.
“Uh, Zarah? Orae? I can’t see what’s happening. Did you guys win?”
Somehow, Remy had ended up back in the ground, but headfirst – all Zarah could see was a pair of legs waving about fruitlessly in the air. His voice was muffled, but the fact that they could still hear him at all was honestly impressive.
Zarah was exhausted, Orae was unconscious, their hound was heavily injured, and Remy was- Remy. When Zarah looked back over at Metzin, she expected to see her looking victorious, or at least satisfied. She had the clear advantage here – Zarah was the only one in anything resembling fighting condition, and Metzin had already thoroughly trounced her.
Instead, hand still clutched to her side, she just looked… pensive.
Her lips moved, and Zarah just managed to make out her voice over the distance and rain.
Then she turned on her heel and disappeared into the trees.
Zarah watched her go, wanting nothing more than to take off after her, but she just simply didn’t have the energy left. To pursue her, to fight again, or even, at this particular moment, to manage to stand up.
Orae coughed again, sending another splatter of blood flying. They’d ended up half in Zarah’s lap when she’d collapsed, which was convenient, because she didn’t think she could have moved to check on them. Their pulse was still strong, at least, their skin warm and vital, and Zarah had no idea what to do beyond checking those. They didn’t have any visible injuries apart from the glancing cut on their forehead, and she couldn’t see any reason for their current state other than…
“Guys? Seriously, if you’re dead, I can’t tell! Okay, if you’re dead, say absolutely nothing.”
“We-” She had to cough and clear her throat. “We are alive!”
“Hell yeah! I love being alive; love to try it someday. Hold on, I think I’ve-”
There was a vaguely wet suction noise, followed by the messy scrabbling of limbs and occasional mutters in a foreign language.
“Yes!” Remy crowed eventually, voice no longer muffled. “Take that, mud! You better watch out, lady, cause I’m gonna aaaaand she’s already gone, huh?”
Zarah twisted her neck around to look at him as he squelched over. The upper half of his body was completely covered in mud, dripping from his matted hair and out of the sleeves of his coat. Ironically, his waders were almost completely clean.
“Ugh,” he said, spitting out some mud. “Zarah, no offense, but your country’s dirt tastes terrible.”
He planted his hands on his hips, looking around. “So, did we win, or…?”
“She ran,” Zarah said, ignoring the use of ‘we’. “Not sure why.”
“And you and Luce didn’t-” He seemed to notice what had happened to the hound for the first time and winced dramatically. “Oof. Okay, yeah. I was wondering why Rae-rae was napping, actually.”
…Rae-rae?! “You know what is wrong with them?”
“Uh, yeah, dummy.” He waved a hand at the hound. “Do you not see that, or…?”
As if in response, the hound whined, low and pitiful.
“Oh, come on, you big baby,” Remy said. “It’s not that bad, stop whinging.”
The hound – Luce? – made another pitiful sound.
“You are whinging!” Remy said, sauntering over. “If it was going to kill you, it already would’ve! Probably!”
“Stop saying ‘whinging’,” Orae said groggily, and Zarah glanced down to find their eyes open, if a bit unfocused. “Sounds stupid in your accent.” Their accent was completely different, all broad, slow vowels and chewed-up consonants.
“Oh, hey, Rae-rae!” Remy called, already hopping up on the hound’s back and taking hold of one of the beams impaling it. “Glad you’re not dead! Also, this is probably gonna hurt! A lot!”
“I said not to-”
Remy yanked the beam out.
Dog and master let out simultaneous howls of pain, and Orae somehow managed to flail their elbow directly into Zarah’s crotch.
“You fucker!” they yelled, then immediately realised where they’d been lying and shot upright. “Oh, shit, I-”
Zarah let out a pained, high-pitched keening sound, and slowly toppled over.
She could hear Remy cackling as she lay there, waiting for the edges of her vision to stop being all fuzzy. After only a few seconds, though, the laughter abruptly turned into a surprised yelp, and then the wet squelch of someone landing in mud.
“Did he-” she asked weakly.
“Mm-hmm,” Orae responded in a strained voice.
“Good.” The pain, thankfully, had begun to fade. “Are you okay now?”
“Mm,” they grunted. “Not yet, but working on it.” Their normal accent had returned, crisp and sharp once more.
“Good,” Zarah repeated. “Then I am going to faint now.”
Zarah passed out.