There was a long dark full of pain.
Jasper felt his muscle crawling and shifting atop his bones. He could feel feathers twisting their way out of his flesh, his skin calcifying into scales, his fingers becoming claws. With all his will he forced it to stop there, to end before he really became a monster. The changes came and went, fading back into human again and again only for some new monstrosity to arrive. The pain twisted him about, making him writhe, kick, writhe.
But through the agony he felt a hand grip his shoulder and pull him up.
He got his hands under him, stumbling to his feet. His ears rang. His vision blurred.
Through it all he saw an impossible chaos, like a watercolor of a battle where the paints had run together, leaving nothing but terrible red impressionism. The golden barrier was gone, collapsed.
The angel was down on one knee, gasping. As Jasper's vision cleared he could see the wringer had ripped dozens of small holes in her body, the edges of each wound surrounded by a froth of golden smoke. Blue flame billowed from the wounds like gore. Her face was half-gone, like an ancient statue chipped away until all detail was eroded to nothing.
Jasper kicked her spear away.
The hand squeezed his shoulder. He turned and saw a familiar grin, mostly empty space.
"Ain't it grand?" The old cook chuckled. “The gods be good t’ us today!”
I don’t know about that…
Something writhed on the ground. Jasper looked and saw a shapeless lump of flesh, molding itself like clay in an unseen hand. It was getting bigger. It kept folding in on itself, and somehow making itself bigger with each contortion. Golden wings sprouted from its back and then turned into slime. Teeth erupted in spiraling sucker-mouths.
Half-angel, half-starspawn. Probably not happy with either parental figure.
“That…” Jasper was numb to the sight of the thing that he’d made from himself. “We’d better get out of here. Fast…”
He stumbled forward to where Thorn lay, grabbing her by the scruff of the collar and pulling her up onto her knees. She grasped at him, struggling for a moment, nearly clawing his face with her nails before she realized who it was.
“In the flesh.” Flesh that was still shifting. He watched black fur come up across his knuckles, his fingers lengthening into talons. His face– was he even recognizable.
“You’re an idiot.” She groaned, blood on her lip.
“And that’s one of my better qualities. Come on.”
Together they staggered across the stage, Dessim grasping Thorn and helping her towards the steps.
The angel began to rise. She was still terribly, terribly broken, blue-white flames billowing out of the breaks in her inflexible metal body, but she held out her hand and the spear flew into it.
A brave man had made it up onto the stage, clambering up the struts that held the raised foundation. He swung his axe at the back of her head.
“Remove yourself from my presence.” She commanded. His blow stopped midair. Slowly, his eyes wide in his face, unable to move his mouth enough to scream, he turned the blade back on himself and sawed his own throat open.
“You are nothing…” She groaned after Jasper, her voice crooked and strange; it sped up and slowed down and skipped syllables like a scratched record. Slowly she began to climb onto her feet.
The blob of flesh lurched forward. It had shaped itself into a twisting pillar of fingers, and now it fell onto the flat of its belly, scuttling across the ground like a centipede.
Before the angel could make it to her feet, the thing was wrapped around her, a coil of ever-shifting flesh. It grabbed at her with claws and with sticky, tar-thick slime, bit with a hundred mouths, its entire body a single knot of grasping motion that curled over her. She let out a scream of frustration, trying to push forward as the beast grabbed hold of the stage with octopus arms to restrain her. For a moment she was able to make forward progress, each step dragging the swelling mass of the beast with her–
Then it opened a massive mouth and dragged the angel in.
"Good beastie…" Jasper said in numb disbelief.
They went down the steps, racing. The last of the guardsman had been chopped into a pulp, and the crowd was roaring, cheering, some of them reaching out to touch Jasper as he hurried by. His vision swum– it was impossible to tell one blue-clad face front the next. Men were hacking at the stage’s foundations, tearing it down. They were lifting the dead onto spears to parade them like battle-flags.
He could hear voices but not words in all the turmoil. They were chant-sing-roaring something, and it was all a confusion of noise.
The three of them brushed through the crowd and reached a pair of horses, a rider in a long cloak holding them steady against the chaos. Dessim pushed Thorn aboard and clambered up. Jasper grabbed the rider’s slim hand and swung himself aboard.
“Do you have a plan?” He asked, weakly. “Because I ran out, oh, about a death ago.” The last of the Sunfather’s Blessing had been used up on the platform. His three lives were spent.
“Head for the Ruins. The angel will struggle there, in all the waste-mana.” The rider said, not looking back at him. But Jasper still recognized the voice.
She spurred her heels into the horse’s flanks and they took off, galloping down the streets.
Behind them, the monstrosity was still growing. It swelled like a pustule, letting out tendrils of flesh patterned with dozens of ring-mouths. The stage began to groan and crack beneath its weight.
She turned back to him, and he saw her face, shining with the exhilaration and adrenaline of the moment. Blue paint covered one half, down across her nose and lips, a golden triangle under one eye.
“Is it true? Did the old gods really send you?” She asked. The way she asked– the religious fervor burning in her eyes– made it almost hard to recognize her as the same scared girl Jasper had met.
“It’s more complicated– I’ll tell you when we’re out.” He promised.
He was staring at his own hand. Black feathers grew from the knuckles, and backwards-hooked thorns rose up from a scaly pattern on the back of the palm. No. Go away. Stop. He willed, and the monstrosity retreated, leaving the hand as it had been–
Except for the fact the last two fingers ended in stubs just past the knuckle.
The price the wringer had extracted. Those two fingers had grown and grown– behind him he could hear the crowd wailing in horror as the beast began to rampage. He turned, seeing it over the low rooftops, its hunchbacked shape beginning to sprout up thousands of golden wings. Preparing to fly.
With a flare of light from within its belly–
The angel tore through in a torrent of flames, rising up into the sky. Two long ribbons of gold-red fire traced around her form in a braided helix. Blood soaked her feathers.
She turned her head and saw them rushing towards the city’s edges.
And she raised her golden spear.
Amaria grasped Jasper’s shoulder and climbed to her feet atop the horse, balancing there, and reached behind her back. A spear hung at her shoulders. Jasper recognized it– a pale length of white wood carved with thousands of spiral runes. The elf who’d hunted for the sand-devil had carried it.
They flung their spears in the same moment. As the weapon left Amaria’s hand it erupted into a razor-thin beam of silvery light, stabbing up through the sky in a single moment of annihilation. It hit the angel’s shoulder and cleaved through with a gout of flame.
In return, the angel’s spear struck down into the horse’s chest, caving ribs in, piercing organs. The poor beast was pinned to the cobblestones like a butterfly on a collector’s board. Amaria and Jasper were sent sprawling to the streets.
He gasped, feeling bruised to the core of his being as he began to climb back up. It wasn’t enough. Not fast enough to escape, not strong enough to live.
All he was doing was running out the clock on his life, dragging it out for second after second.
And I’ll keep fucking doing it. Jasper promised. Until I have to stop.
The angel dropped from the sky, and held her hand out. The spear ripped free from the horse’s carcass and shot towards her fingers with a metallic chime. Amaria was still trying to get back on her feet. She was an easy target– Jasper saw it and the angel did too.
“Kneel.” She commanded. Amaria dropped to her knees, letting out a harsh gasp of surprise as her body betrayed her.
Jasper could have ran. Instead, he shouted, “Hey, did you fall from heaven? Because I hate to tell you, but the landing did a number on your face!”
He was already mid-throw as the dagger appeared in his hand, materializing just in time to spin off his fingertips into a flashing arc of silver–
An arc that came to an abrupt, sparking stop as the angel swatted it from the air with the tip of her spear. She smiled softly as she aimed her spear towards Amaria.
“You put on a noble effort, but it wasted on this false prophet. I feel only pity that you gave your devotion so easily.” She drew back and–
The Patriarch arrived like a thunderbolt. His sword struck the spear aside and danced, slashing one, two, three. It was so quick that Jasper couldn’t follow, but the blade left a blurred and streaking shadow behind, as if it was carving apart the world and letting darkness bleed in.
The angel parried, parried, parried, flashes of metal meeting metal and unleashing sprays of sparks– retreating three steps as the tip of her spear turned each blow aside and darted for his throat, gathering light at its tip in the moment before impact.
The Patriarch turned, caught the spear as it plunged over his shoulder, and bent into a strike aimed for her one good eye.
She parried with the back of her hand, kicked him hard beneath the ribs, and pulled her spear free of his grasp as the man faltered. Taking a step back, the angel lifted one hand, palm flat. “Kneel and release your weapon.” She commanded.
He did no such thing.
“Patriarch of Saltboon, your foolishness knows no bounds.”
“And yet my daughter exceeds me.” The man answered.
Jasper had grabbed Amaria and was pulling her to her feet. He was slow. Too slow, compared to these titans who moved like the wind.
“Familial piety is no excuse.” She retorted, without sympathy. “All that you have been given, I take from you now. That which descends from the gods must return to them.”
A gold-blue ring of runes appeared in her hands and was mirrored on his heart. Something leapt between the two runic seals, out of his chest and into her hand. It was a shard of flame– beautiful, brilliant– and her fingers clutched shut around it, crushing the light forever. The Patriarch stumbled, a sudden grayness to his skin and a weakness trembling through his arm.
“Behold, how little you are without their gifts.”
She took his Skills. Probably his Class too. His Talents. Everything. Jasper realized.
She advanced and struck for his heart.
Amaria let out a short, hurt sound, so much more pained than a scream.
He turned the blow aside with his blade, and genuine shock ran across the angel’s face for a moment, those cold, evil features widening in surprise.
“You humans take a perverse pleasure in drawing out the inevitable…” She mused.
“Pleasure?” Jasper said, feeling actual rage shake in his voice. “Sweet-cheeks, I hate to tell you, but I’ve been faking every orgasm.”
With all his will, Jasper reached for the dagger that lay behind her. It shivered, spun, and flew up into the air. She never saw it coming– only felt it bite suddenly into her back, throwing her off balance for a single fatal moment.
The Patriarch’s blade carved from shoulder to hip, tearing away her right wing and cutting open a huge wound that bled out with flames.
“We have to go.” Grabbing Amaria, he wrenched her away from watching the fight, and fled down the streets. Behind them, metal rang against metal, golden spear against iron blade.
Jasper didn’t see the man die–
He only heard the moment when the sounds of war came to a sudden, breathless stop.