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Draco's Den of Debauchery

Divine Comedy
Paradise Lost
Original Sin
Bed of Serpents
Total Depravity
Forbidden Fruit
Well of Urd

The Phoenix Curse: Chapter Twenty-Three
And Into the Bonfire

Ironmonger’s attention riveted on Phaedra, and he clucked reprovingly. “My, my… Phaedra, you've certainly fallen in with the wrong crowd these days,” he commented, gesturing towards the soot-covered and battered group. “You know, I've been searching for you.”

Jareth’s jaw dropped in surprise. “You… know him?”

Phaedra nodded mutely.

But it was Ironmonger who responded, “Of course, she does! Why Phaedra and I were set to be married not long ago. Isn’t that right, dearest?” he added in a much gentler tone, though his words were still full of disdain. “You are promised to me. After all, she gave you to me, and now, I have found you.” He gifted the blonde with a large grin, but somehow, it came off as twisted and grotesque. Possessive.

The woman blinked. “That was a long time ago,” she replied, her voice tight and mournful. “Why are you here? Why are you doing this, Danya?”

He growled, face flashing with anger. “Do not call me that! I’m no longer that pathetic and besotted fool!” he hissed furiously. “She made me Ironmonger! She made me her knight, her champion against the treacherous vau’yon who would do her under!” He grinned then, his emotions shifting faster than should be possible.

Something appeared in his hand, as if by magic. It sparkled in the sunlight, a stark contrast to the smoke billowing all around them.

Ironmonger smirked.

It was the mayadalan.

The knight cackled, watching their shocked faces with obvious glee. “Beautiful, is it not? And yet, it brings to life such horrors!” He motioned towards the army and then abruptly frowned in disappointment. “Still, it's not enough, but if I kill all of you, she will surely return to me. I will find the Sayfuddin. And then together, she and I will rule this pitiful world.” He paused, tapping his chin and abruptly changing emotions yet again, smiling maliciously. “But first, a taste of the phoenix curse, I should think.”

Ironmonger held up the statue, its gemstones glittering in the light of the suns, and a wave of power shot through the area, striking everyone. The ghostly shadow of a phoenix flew out of the mayadalan, wings stretched majestically, plumage bright and tall as it swept through them. There seemed to be no effect until Marquel screamed loudly.

The knight simply smirked, narrowing his gaze on the boy as Marquel’s eyes suddenly transitioned from purple to orange in the space of a few seconds. His mouth snapped shut, and he rose to his feet with jerky movements but without use of his limbs, like a puppet on strings. He didn’t seem bothered by the wounds on his shoulder and thigh that were oozing a brackish poison.

“Marquel?” Lucas asked hesitantly as he stared straight into those tainted eyes.

He silently reached for the boy, but a hand shot out, wrapping around his neck. Marquel stared on blankly, even though his own fingers were attempting to squeeze the life out of Lucas.

Ironmonger guffawed as Ciara rushed to the redhead’s side, trying to force Marquel to release him. Her attempts were useless, and she finally resorted to shoving the hilt of her sword against the younger man’s hand, prying his fingers from Lucas’s neck. The quetz sputtered as he fought to draw a breath, staggering away from the now motionless Marquel as Ciara stepped back. They both watched him warily.

“This is the true power of the mayadalan,” Ironmonger stated smugly, “to turn the living into the walking undead, completely without their own will. The curse of the phoenix!” He cackled insanely, still holding the golden statue. “Kill them!” he ordered. “But do not harm the blonde!”

As one, the army of corpses raised their blades in a jerky, uncoordinated motion and began to move in on the companions. Jareth’s sword immediately cleaved through the air, trying to stave off the advance, but it seemed hopeless. There were so many enemies and so few allies.

Rivalen snarled, his ferocious growl resounding through the air. His back bowed as he transformed into something new, skin rippling and eyes flashing a brilliant gold. His body flexed, taking on the form of the fire-breathing Aset, a winged feline with a great shaggy mane. The mimicker rose into the air with a great beat of his powerful wings, immediately sucking in a breath to blow down fireballs at the unsuspecting corpses. There was little his sword could do against the dead, but as a beast, he had more than a fighting chance.

Ciara and Lucas stood back to back, casting spells as they fought to stave off the undead and protect Navar nearby, just beginning to awaken. The prophetess gritted her teeth and knocked away the tarnished blade of an enemy, but a sudden prickling of fear raced across her subconscious. She caught the movement out of the corner of her vision and reacted almost immediately, her instinct to survive surpassing her intuition.

“Look out!”

She turned and grabbed Lucas, shoving them both to the ground as a huge axe whistled overhead. They landed harshly, the smaller quetz ending up on the bottom with a pained grunt. But before he could even react, Ciara quickly threw herself to the side and shoved him away, the same axe striking the ground where they had just been. Sparks shot up as the metal slammed into a rock and skittered off to the side.

The quetz glanced up at their attacker, only to start as he saw Marquel yank his weapon from the ground, his eyes blank. He advanced on them again as both scrambled to their feet, hands scrabbling at the dirt.

Ciara quickly brought up her sword, blocking his next downswing as Lucas rolled to the side. The prophetess strained at her opponent, the curse increasing his strength. The woman's knees buckled beneath her, and she fell to one as he lifted his axe once more. Neither was sure what to do, both unwilling to hurt someone who was forced to attack against his own will.

Marquel stumbled when a body barreled into him from behind. Navar had braved the pain of her injuries, seared skin stinging as she wrapped her arms around the boy’s neck. He grunted but was unable to keep his hold as the prophetess wrestled the axe from his hand. He struggled to free himself, even as Ciara knocked him to the ground, nearly crushing the verdillan who had rolled out of the way in the nick of time. The other two went down in a tangle of limbs with Ciara emerging on top, quickly casting a spell over the unsuspecting boy. Vines emerged from nowhere, wrapping themselves firmly around Marquel, pinning his body to the ground.

He strained against the tough bindings, almost completely silent in spite of the fact that the restraints dug into his skin and tore open his flesh. Ciara just heaved a deep breath as she leaned over and looked into his cursed eyes.

“He is under hypnotism,” she decided, shaking her head as the sound of a bow twang alerted her to the still present fight, the burning smell from earlier lingering. “We won’t be able to free him unless we can gain control of the mayadalan.”

Navar nodded numbly, still somewhat dazed, but her face set with grim determination. “There’s no other way around it then. We will have to fight.”

“Remain here with him. He’ll need to be watched.” Ciara slowly rose to her feet, unsheathing her blade and setting her sights on the dead gathered around them.

The charred remains of many abominations were already on the ground, Lucas throwing out spells as quickly as he could. But countless more swarmed closer and in far greater numbers than the redhead could ever hope to defeat. He already looked weary, and Ciara wasn’t sure how much longer he would last.

Navar didn’t even bother to argue as the other female moved to the quetz’s side. The brunette knew that she wouldn’t fare well against the undead. For one, she used her own body as a weapon, and it wasn’t like that would work against a corpse. For another, she was too dazed to even stand without swaying, her body covered with burns. If she went into the hoard of undead, she might as well magic a target onto herself. She’d probably attract less attention that way.

Nearby, Jareth hacked away at a dead soldier, one with flesh still hanging from its bones. Chain-mail clinked faintly as was cleaved in two, the corroded metal not enough to protect it from the captain’s sword. The monster crumpled into a pile of twitching parts, even as a skeletal hand clutched at the human. He simply kicked the thing away, finally coming face to face with the cause of the madness, Syl Ironmonger himself.

The other man grinned evilly, raising his hands to show the captain that he was fully armed, both blades glinting dully. In return, Jareth leveled his sword, face set in a firm scowl. His eyes narrowed at his enemy, the one who dared to claim the woman the skipper loved.

Ironmonger laughed. “Come then, little Jareth, show me the anger that he spoke of so dearly.”

Jareth gritted his teeth before digging his boots into the ground and darting forward. Their weapons met with a resounding clang, and the captain pulled back, spinning on one heel to quickly slice at Syl again, wielding the Xaldin one-handed. The other man easily blocked, rearing back with his second sword to retaliate. Jareth was too fast, however, quickly dropping to one knee. As the blade whooshed over his head, he side-rolled, coming up on the balls of his feet. He was standing a second later, already moving towards Ironmonger. He slashed with a vicious downswing meant to cleave the knight from shoulder to hip, completely ignoring the fact that the other man wore armor. Then again, perhaps it didn’t really matter.

Syl blocked with an ear shattering clang and quickly countered, but Jareth ducked to the side. The force of the knight’s swing caused him to list forward. The brunet took the opportunity to grab onto Ironmonger’s wrist as the other man struggled to recover. The two locked in a deadly stalemate, faces inches from each other.

A small tingle of foreboding raced across the skipper's spine, and he heard something step up behind him. But there was nothing Jareth could do as Syl latched onto him in return. However, a shadow passed overhead an instant later, air whooshing by the two of them. There was a snarl and the sound of bones snapping before Rivalen flapped back into the sky, circling around again.

Jareth had to bite back a pleased grin as the knight sneered, brows drawn tight with fury and lips curled back over his teeth, bared like some animal. Strength pushed against strength, their bodies oscillating back and forth in a test of endurance. Finally, the brunet broke away, shoving his body in a desperate lunge forward; he retracted his blade in the same moment that he shoved down on Ironmonger’s hand.

The knight stumbled to the side, one arm waving about to regain his equilibrium. Jareth took the opportunity and swung, but Syl managed to regain enough balance that he was able to tilt backwards, deftly avoiding a fatal injury. But Jareth’s blade was far larger than he had anticipated, and the tempered metal shattered the enlarged ribcage that decorated his breastplate, biting into the flesh of his chest and right shoulder. Brackish brown blood oozed from the wound, and Ironmonger hissed as he stumbled backwards.

The brunet continued to press forward, and his blade struck one of Ironmonger’s, knocking the scimitar from the other man’s grasp. Syl’s eyes widened in surprise as Jareth reared back to strike again. It was a ploy, however, and with a taunting laugh, his adversary swung his second blade under Jareth’s attack, knocking the Xaldin from his hands. Before the brunet could even react, his sword dropped to the ground and skittered away, a gloved hand wrapping around his throat and squeezing tightly. The captain was effortlessly lifted into the air.

Jareth wheezed, fingers scrabbling desperately at Syl’s impossibly hard grip. His enemy merely smirked as he lofted the brunet higher, amused by the way his feet kicked about uselessly.

“You son of a Niseian whore,” Ironmonger remarked in a dry tone as he allowed his sword to dangle in his grasp, bringing his hand to gently touch at the wound on his shoulder and chest. “That actually hurt.” He momentarily loosened his fingers but not enough to allow the captain free.

Jareth’s face twisted, beginning to redden from exertion and lack of oxygen. “It was… meant to, you… draxin' muni,” he wheezed out, eyes darting around, searching for his sword.

Syl snorted. “Ah, is this not amusing?” he taunted, squeezing his fingers around Jareth’s neck as he flipped his sword back to its rightful position. “The mighty Jareth needing my help. She would be pleased to know her enemies are so weak.” He narrowed his dead, pupil-less eyes. “Tell me where they are.”

The brunet frowned, grip turning white as he clutched onto Syl’s arm and fought to draw a breath. “What… d'you… mean?”

Before Ironmonger could respond, an arrow whizzed by him, nicking his wrist and causing him to drop Jareth in surprise. The captain sucked in a gulp of air and scuttled away from him on his hands and knees, reaching for his blade. Syl growled in anger, gaze darting upwards to find Lucas advancing on his position, face tight with determination. He was already notching another arrow.

“I'm done playing foolish games!” Syl snarled as he waved his empty hand at the quetz.

The redhead’s eyes widened as invisible fingers grabbed him, arrow dropping from his grasp. He attempted to push free with his own magic, but his energy stores were depleted. He could barely even call forth a handful of his own threads, not nearly enough to protect himself. Ironmonger’s magic wrapped around him, lifting him into the air and sending his body flying. He painfully slapped into a large tree, connecting with a wet snap, and his entire body crumpled to the ground. Lucas lay there unmoving afterwards, blood dripping from the back of his head.

“Lucas!” Phaedra cried out in shock, having a perfect vantage point from where she stood over Chelan’s fallen form.

At the sound of her cry, Syl’s attention diverted her way, a malicious and half-pleased grin on his lips. He idly kicked at the still gasping Jareth, who caught a heel to the face, neck jerking as he clutched onto his sword and fought to stop his head from spinning. He collapsed to one knee, struggling to rise again as his vision tunneled. But he breathed a little easier when he noticed a quickly approaching person in the background, this one still alive.

“Well, well, well,” Ironmonger murmured as he stalked towards the blonde. “If it isn’t the infamous Phaedra dear Danya longs for.”

The woman blinked, swinging her sharpened rod against a corpse that got too close. “You are no longer yourself,” she whispered, half in fear and half in sorrow. “Oh, Danya… what has become of you?” She took an unconscious step backwards.

Syl snarled, face reddening. “Stop calling me that!” he all but spat, lifting his sword to strike at her.

She cried out in surprise, blocking his sword with her metal rod. But he moved quickly past that, backhanding her across the face with a blow powerful enough to send her tumbling to the ground. Her mind spun as she gazed up in horror, cheek now bleeding as she found an enraged knight glaring down at her murderously.

Phaedra’s fingers searched for her weapon, but it was just beyond her grasp, behind Ironmonger’s feet. She scuttled away, trying to buy time as one hand reached for the hidden sheath at her ankle and the dagger within, a gift of the still unaware Chelan. Unfortunately, it seemed that her moment had come.

Perhaps this was justice for how she had wronged her onetime lover in the past.

Or maybe not,’ Phaedra thought as she saw someone step up behind her attacker. Suddenly, she rolled forward, fingers grasping at the dagger and driving it into the one part of Ironmonger that wasn’t armored. His foot.

He howled, hesitating in the middle of his downswing. It was more than enough time for a whip to crack through the air, wrapping around his arm and jerking him backwards. The blonde rolled to her feet as Ironmonger stumbled. She scooped up her rod at a run and darted forward, moving to defend Chelan from the approaching undead. She caught a glimpse of Tolian before her attention flickered to the corpses around her, and she swung at a dead and rotting soldier.

Ironmonger whirled to face this new opponent, completely ignoring the dagger sticking out of his foot. He growled at the sight of the engineer, who had swiftly recoiled his whip, preparing to strike again.

“Didn’t your mother teach you to never strike a female?” Tolian’s face flashed with fury. “You're less than a man, you draxin' muni.”

The knight snarled, biting back a sharp retort as the engineer swung the whip at him. He caught it in his grasp, yanking violently. Tolian jerked off balance, stumbling forward into the range of the deadly blade. Ironmonger slashed into the engineer before waving an idle hand at him, more invisible threads tugging at Tolian’s body and tossing him several yards away. He landed in a bleeding tangle, clutching at his broken shoulder.

Syl laughed out loud, though his army was nearly defeated. The few remaining now advanced on Phaedra and her fallen friend, eager to taste her blood now that they had seen their master attempt to kill her. Regardless, Ironmonger clearly felt he was winning, and with the bodies of his enemies strewn about, there were none that could defeat him.

“How easy. She had nothing to fear!” Syl cackled as he eyed the blood on the edge of his blade. “She will regret casting me aside now! Jareth and his companions…” He shook with not-so-silent laughter. “A dangerous band of mercenaries indeed. You fell like playing cards stacked too high.” He guffawed again as he brought the sword to his lips, tongue slithering out to sneak a taste.

“You will not find me such an easy opponent,” a voice called from just behind him.

Ironmonger turned around at a leisurely pace, taking in the sight of the bedraggled prophetess. Her clothes were stained with soot and blood, caked with the remains of the undead, but she held her sword firmly.

“Ciara… you must… control… the Edere…” Lucas whispered pitifully from just behind her as he attempted to rise from his crumpled position.

He had regained consciousness after his unfortunate encounter with the tree. However, every bone in his body ached, and it burned when he tried to breathe. In spite of that, he had recognized Syl’s magic and the attack that had been used against him, and Ciara needed to know in order to defeat Ironmonger.

Animum Edere, the third plane magic that was difficult for even Adepts and the quetz to master. It required not only control of the caster’s own threads and the threads of the world but also those of the enemy. Only individuals with the Sight could ever hope to master it efficiently, those able to see magic in its purest form, usually far beyond mortal capabilities.
And there were few who were able to access the Edere, much less harness it with the ease at which Ironmonger threw it out. Even the Drak’isi were careful in their use, though they still employed it nonetheless. Most remembered the old stories, tales of just what happened to those that the Edere found lacking, the ones who tried to control the third plane and failed. People were still discovering pieces of some of them, even centuries later.

Yet, that didn’t explain Ironmonger. Why hadn’t the elders known a human possessed such strong ability? Or… was there some other reasoning behind the knight’s skill?

Lucas was afraid that the latter was the real truth. And if that were so, then Jareth and his companions had far more to worry about than Ahriman. Just like Rivalen had suspected.

Ciara nodded at Lucas’ assessment, slowly advancing. “I will give you a taste of your own devilry,” she taunted Ironmonger.

Syl scoffed, accepting her attack as their swords met with a clang. “What’s this? A pesky insect?” he questioned in return. Empty eyes narrowed at her. “You underestimate me, little girl,” he intoned lowly with a voice that reverberated with something unexpected.

The prophetess started in surprise, her brief moment of shock enough for Ironmonger to overpower her, shoving her back a few feet. As she struggled to regain her balance, he flung an arm out, using the same attack that he had on Tolian and Lucas, but he knew nothing of this new enemy.

Unlike the others, Ciara could see it. Her master had ensured that she could perceive magic in its true form. So to her, the Edere came as an onslaught of a multicolored spell. The most prominent were the deep blue and earthy brown of Ironmonger’s own life lines, but several more joined together and attempted to wrap around her, inviting her to join the fate of her friends.

However, Ciara was not of Raetaen. She had skills that they could not comprehend.

With her sword in one hand, she mimicked Ironmonger’s stance, throwing her own wave of power at him. The green and black threads merged together with Raetaen’s own. And the two spells met in midair, slapping into each other with enough force to rock the ground and throw dirt into the sky. Energy crackled as they battled against one another, still invisible to the eyes of the others.

Ciara gritted her teeth against the strength of Ironmonger’s will, surprised that he would be able to utilize such a spell and even hold his own. There was something familiar in his power, something she recognized from Ahriman and from another source, one that should not have been on Raetaen.

She heard the sound of pounding feet behind her but couldn’t break her concentration to look. Out of the corner of her eye, Rivalen rushed past in his normal form with sword in one hand and his teeth bared. She caught sight of Jareth, rising shakily to his feet from behind Ironmonger, using the Xaldin to prop himself upright.

Something glimmered on the edge of her vision, and she caught sight of the mayadalan hanging from Ironmonger’s waist. Her mind flickered to Marquel, realizing that she had to regain it if she wanted to revive him. But her attention darted back to the battle, and she didn’t fail to notice the odd shapes advancing on the group from the far edges of her sight. Black shadows that were slowly easing their way towards the group.

Her eyes immediately went to Rivalen as he attacked Ironmonger head on, blade dancing through the air. Syl was forced to shift his concentration to his new foe, lessening the strength of his Edere. As the mimicker wove his weapon in a flurry, Ciara slowly turned his own magic back towards him, gradually gaining control of Raetaen’s threads.

The knight grunted, Rivalen managing to get past his defenses and giving him another vicious cut across his midsection. Ironmonger was tiring, and after using both the mayadalan and Edere multiple times, not to mention fighting in numerous duels, he didn’t have much strength left. As such, it came as no surprise when the mimicker broke through his meager defense once again, making Syl lose his grasp of the third plane.

Just then, Jareth darted forward and grabbed the mayadalan from the knight's belt. Ciara flicked her wrist at the same moment, sending Ironmonger careening backwards into a nearby hut, bringing it down over his head.

Marquel emitted a loud scream nearby before collapsing against the ground. His body finally ceased its struggles as Navar knelt beside him and Phaedra defeated the last of the undead. The area literally looked like some horrible battleground with charred and chopped remains of the undead twitching on the ground. And though none of them were aware of it yet, their victory had not gone unnoticed, not by the last hungry residents of Feng Huang.

“Hurry!” ordered Jareth, wheezing faintly. “Before he regains his senses.” The captain straightened with a wince as Phaedra moved to his side, the two making their way to the pile of broken wood, where they could just see the booted feet of the knight.

Ciara knew he could handle the situation, but Marquel still needed their help. “Jareth!”

With a nod, the captain tossed the mayadalan to her. She caught it easily before dashing to Marquel, who was completely still on the ground. Navar hovered over him, trying to shake him awake, but her efforts were in vain.

A quick scan of the rest of the area revealed that Lucas was already rising to his feet with a pained expression as he tried to concentrate on healing himself with what meager magic he had left. Tolian had limped his way to Chelan’s side and was helping the meran sit up. Both looked a little worse for wear, but they would live. Her eyes tried not to linger on the fallen body of Fuki.

Shaking her head to clear away her grim thoughts, Ciara clutched the golden statue in her hands and swiftly crossed the lingering remains of the undead, kneeling next to Navar and Marquel. His breath rose and fell so shallowly that she was surprised he still lived, especially with his horribly pale but also bruised skin. Only the barely noticeable twitching in his hand gave any indication that he had life left in him.

“I don’t know if it will work,” Navar murmured, moving her fingers to the boy’s neck and checking his pulse. “He might be too far gone.” Her eyes were sad, if still a bit dazed.

“We might as well try. It’s not like we have anything to lose,” Ciara answered simply, pressing the back of her hand to Marquel’s forehead. “Besides, I have the feeling that he is going to be a part of us.”

The verdillan eyed the older female, catching the odd lilt to her tone. “You have the feeling? Or do you know?”

There was no compassion in Ciara’s words. Truthfully, the woman sounded as if aiding Marquel was something they were supposed to do no matter what, like the decision had been made for them before they even knew they had a choice. She sounded like helping him was something she did out of duty, not out of a genuine concern for his wellbeing.

“Does it matter?” Ciara returned with a raised brow as she rubbed the golden metal of the mayadalan with her thumb, contemplating the carved wings and ruby eyes.

She had no idea how to use such an object, and a quick glance told her that Lucas was busy healing Chelan. Further, a prickling at the edge of her senses alerted her to the fact that they did not have long before they would be in another battle. She could almost see the shapes forming on the far edge of her senses, forms that she did not recognize. Ciara would have to awaken him herself.

“Do you even know how to use that thing?” Navar asked softly, his pulse actually starting to stabilize under her fingertips. “It might hurt him… make things even worse.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Marquel’s fingers clench faintly.

Ciara didn’t answer, instead focusing her attention on the statue. She traced its gilded edges, finding it odd that she could not feel any threaded magic linked there. The phoenix was something she was not familiar with at all.

“Ciara?” Navar pressed again as she saw his fingers slowly uncurl.

The prophetess blinked before shaking her head with a heavy sigh. “No.”

The answer was simple yet weighted with the truth. If she didn’t know how to break the curse, she couldn’t free Marquel. It should have been just an innocent statue, but considering its composition, the mayadalan was something stealthily alluring, quietly enticing the owner with its winking jewels and shiny metal.

“You’re a prophetess, correct? A Seer of some sort?” the younger female insisted, finally noting that Marquel’s chest was visibly moving. “Can you not just look into the future and figure out how it works?”

“I can’t!” Ciara snapped, fingers tightening as she glared. “I’m not some fucking god!”

Always, they assumed so much. She was invincible, invulnerable… heartless, merely a tool to be used.

“I’m only mortal. Perhaps with more skill than some… but mortal still!”

In her annoyance, she tossed the mayadalan to the ground. It struck with a slight roll, just beyond Navar’s fingertips as she jumped to catch it.

“I know nothing of this… this thing,” Ciara continued, scowling as she snatched the mayadalan back. “There is nothing I can do.” She hesitated, eyes glazing over. “Nothing… but destroy it.” Her face brightened, and she grabbed her sword, quickly pulling it from the sheath.

Navar gasped. “It is a holy artifact! And what if it destroys any chance of helping him? We have no idea what it will do.” She edged away from her companion, who now had a manic gleam in her eyes, dragging Marquel with her. “And certainly, don’t think of doing it here, practically on top of us. It is full of magic!” She pulled the boy even further away from the clearly deranged human.

“And it will break just as easily as an unholy one,” Ciara argued, an odd expression on her face.

She hefted her blade up high and brought it down on the shining statue. It struck with a resounding clang, reverberations shooting up and down her sword. The mayadalan shattered into a dozen pieces, splintering in a spray of garish black and rainbow light. A shockwave pulsed through the area, rattling the ground and causing Ciara to drop to one knee.

Marquel gasped, chest heaving as his back arched off the ground. Behind him, the remaining skeletons of the undead army crumpled, becoming nothing more than piles of dust and dingy metal.

Creeping among the remains, strange shadows ghosted across the ground, cautiously making their way from the trees surrounding the hamlet and into the clearing. They slithered painstakingly, waiting for the perfect moment to strike, perhaps planning to catch the group off guard. Either way, no one had yet to sound an alarm, all too caught up in the aftermath of the battle. It was only a matter of time before their presence would be noticed.

Ciara and Navar turned their attention to Marquel, and his eyes fluttered, suddenly becoming crystal clear before closing again. With a wave of the older woman’s hand, the vines restraining him disintegrated. He took deep breaths before opening his eyes once more, instantly gazing at the two women around him.

“Why didn’t you just kill me?” the boy demanded, voice slightly hoarse.

Navar frowned. “That is not our way--”

“Because you were still human,” Ciara interrupted.

“Human?” Marquel scoffed. “Abomination is closer to the truth.” His face tightened at the reminder, memories flashing before his eyes.

He had always been a shame and a disgrace, something beneath their notice, beneath the right to live. And before he had fled, his neighbors had made sure that he knew it.

“You would have been better off killing me,” he added, barely loud enough for them to hear. “It is what I would have done.”

Ciara pursed her lips. “What good would that have been then?”

Marquel didn't respond, merely hissing as one hand automatically clamped down on the bite on his shoulder. It was strangely beginning to fester, though it flowed with clean, untainted blood.

“That damned statue,” he cursed, more to himself than to the others, pressing a hand futilely over the injury. “Where's my axe?”

Not even a word of thanks. Not that Ciara expected it. She jerked a thumb behind them, where the weapon lay abandoned. He followed her directions boredly, fingers twitching to have the axe close at hand.

“You're leg is bleeding,” Navar put in, reaching for him.

“It's fine,” he growled, jerking away so quickly that she was left grasping for empty air, disregarding the pain that shot through him. “I'll take care of it myself.”

“Fine,” she gritted out, easing back from Marquel. “Kisou-forbid I should try to help you.”

“Ah, it is probably just the lingering effects of the dread, my dear verdillan,” Lucas announced as he fluttered over to them with his irrepressible grin clearly evident. “It tends to make one act rather surly.”

“You forget, this is his normal behavior,” she pointed out, receiving a scowl from the boy in response.

Lucas tipped his head. “Perhaps. But unless you have experienced the drowning nothingness of Hou-Hou's curse, you cannot really assume anything.” He turned his steely gaze down on Marquel. “The goddess chooses where to lend her aid, and if you are weak, she consumes you.”

“I am not weak,” the boy shot back through gritted teeth. “If that myunil had fought fairly, I would have cut him to pieces!”

The quetz remained unperturbed. “Strong in body, I will give you that much,” he countered, sounding unusually sober. “But inside, you're still just a child.”

Marquel squared his jaw and suddenly pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the extent of his injuries. “Quiet, you feathered-fool,” he spat, turning to scoop up his axe and effectively ending the conversation.

Lucas watched him go with pitying eyes as silence descended, but it only lasted as long as it took for Ciara to come to a realization.

“Somehow, I cannot shake the feeling that everything is connected,” the woman commented with a strange expression. “Inteus, Murdoch, and Ironmonger have all bled the same brackish blood, and as far as I know, there isn’t any race on Raetaen that does that. Nor should a god bleed… or be attacking the masses, for that matter,” she added, her fingers drumming across her knee in thought. “Obviously, something is not right. Phaedra apparently knew Ironmonger beforehand, so he can’t have always been vicious and cruel. Much like Inteus was not always bloodthirsty. A slaver, yes, but not bloodthirsty.”

Navar inclined her head. “Just before you broke the statue, Marquel’s blood was beginning to turn the same color.”

“They are symptoms of the phoenix curse,” Lucas affirmed as he lowered himself to the ground beside them. “To live forever in a body gradually dying until it is reborn but completely under the control of destruction, unable to die unless by the hand of others.” His voice was a mixture of awe and horror.

Could it really be the Ahriman that Jareth and his associates seemed to loathe so much?

Just then, there was a slight skittering of rocks, and everyone’s attention flickered to side. They gasped in shock at the sight of the shadows approaching, gem-colored eyes unblinkingly staring. Their three-fanged mouths opened in a quiet hiss, even as clawed hands scrabbled at the dry and dusty ground.

Everyone started as a wave of recognition swept through their group. However, only the males knew what they really were, and only Lucas knew what they were capable of.

“Ilith save us,” the quetz breathed as he jerked back to his feet, Ciara and Navar doing the same. “The deus.”


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Cassandra Smith
Copyright 2006-2008
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