At a mad dash, Trek followed Lina from the forest. As soon they cleared the tree line, he extended the length of his strides and brought himself up beside her.
“Hey, what the Hell happened?” he panted.
Lina only ran faster. “I tripped his security system! They’re right behind us!”
Trek looked over his shoulder. In the distance he could see the mansion lights, but he didn’t see any torches emerging from it. Brow now furrowed, he looked back at her. “You mean the guards?”
“No! Run faster!”
“What’re we running from?”
The trail sloped down and the two skidded to the bottom. As soon as they cleared the dip, Trek checked behind them again. At first he saw nothing, but a moment later he had to blink and recheck his vision.
The forest ended about twenty five yards behind them. Nothing emerged from the trail, but the shadows began to extend beyond the reach of their trees, sifting like a dark film. They spilled across the trail and rippled up in a coagulated mass, reminding Trek of the black mess that had spilled from the wound of an old acquaintance who had suffered an arrow to the liver.
“What is that?” he shouted.
“I don’t know!”
Without missing a step, Lina raised her hand and whirled around to hurl a fireball at the mass. The flames impacted the darkness, but the effect was like trying to hack up a shadow with a sword.
The mass didn’t make a sound as it swept over the terrain, nor did it disturb any of the dried shrubs that it blew through. It bubbled like water on a crocodile’s back before suddenly something about the size of a cannon ball exploded from the front of it.
The ball was a small section that landed several yards ahead of the main flood. More tangible than the mass itself, it hit the ground and rolled before it split at its equator. The slit yawned open and two rows of elongated, silver teeth protruded from within. Four legs formed beneath, and a pointed tail formed at the end until the ball had taken more of a teardrop shape. The resulting creature, though it had no eyes, ears, or nose, gained instant cognition and began to sprint after its two targets. It snarled and snapped, thrashing its head from side to side as though a bug had entered its head.
More segments ejected from the mass, transforming moments after hitting the ground and racing ahead with the same goal in mind. It wasn’t long before the penumbra was gone and instead replaced with a herd of the gnashing little fiends. The creatures moved easily as one body almost as though they had never separated at all.
Lina didn’t even have the mind to curse the situation. She barreled down the trail at full speed, not even slowing down when she felt Trek tap the back of his hand to her arm.
“We can’t go back to the city with these things on our tail,” he shouted.
Lina glared at him. “Why the Hell not?”
“Because of the people of course!”
“Screw ‘em! Every man for himself!”
“If you go back there then you can kiss that orichalcon good bye!”
“Then what do you expect us to do?”
“Head ‘em off somehow! Do you have any ideas?”
“Actually I do! Raywing!”
Trek watched in disbelief as Lina took off into the air. “Hey!”
Lina waved him on. “Just keep running! Take the trail down into the ravine!”
“That’s a dead end!”
Trek growled and shook his head. He didn’t exactly trust Lina not to fly off and leave him to get eaten, but in this situation he had no choice unless he wanted to lead the creatures into the city. When the trail forked, he bypassed the connecting V and leapt directly from the high road to the lower one that zigzagged down into the valley. Instead of following the path, he took the slope straight down, sometimes skidding and sometimes falling. Rocks loosened and followed his decent along with sheets of dirt and gravel. There were hardly any trees to speak of, nothing to swerve around or act as a possible pacifier of the momentum he picked up.
Lina flew down ahead into the bottom of the ravine. The heavy winds made flying a precarious task and several times she was nearly thrown into the mountainside.
At the bottom of the valley there was a river half hidden under snow banks. She dropped herself down onto one of the banks, or rather collapsed ungracefully with her lack of control, and looked up to gauge Trek’s position.
Trek was nothing but a dark blur making its way down the mountainside. Chasing after him was an array of smaller blurs that combined to make one large black cloud that reminded her of locusts. Giant, mutant locusts.
She raised her hands and closed her eyes.
“Darkness beyond twilight…” she began her conjuration of Dragon Slave.
As usual, she didn’t think much about Dragon Slave’s consequences on the surrounding land. She only knew that there was a problem to be dealt with and that, disregarding the concept of ‘overkill’, she had the means to do so. In the course of one night, her casual quest for wealth had turned into a near death confrontation. She wasn’t going to stand by passively and let Silos, or his monsters, make attempts on her life.
“Crimson beyond blood that flows, buried in the stream of time…”
Half way down the slope, Trek tore off the first creature from his neck. He kicked another one into a boulder and nearly tripped over one that had gotten ahead of him. The herd was gaining on him and there was not much else he could do to stay ahead except fall faster. It was in these situations that he wished he could be more agile, but after having spent so many years packing on muscle he was more like a lumbering grizzly bear running away from a nest of bees. Looking ahead he could see a faint, pinkish light begin to expand in the river below. As he came closer he could see Lina standing with glow forming between her hands.
“Please be another fireball,” he prayed.
He had never seen Dragon Slave, but he, along with many others, had heard stories of its destructive power. If Lina were to use the spell it would surely get rid of the creatures, but it would also take out the entire valley and possibly even a chunk of the city. If that happened then people would wake up. Silos and the authorities would close in and all of their efforts would be for nothing. He couldn’t speak for Lina, but he knew that he would be caught and executed, probably even his family as well. He had caused enough trouble by that point that the townspeople would hardly feel compelled to take pity on them.
Lina timed herself carefully. She wanted the brunt of the blast to hit the creatures and it would be a pity if she caught Trek as well. If he died then she would have to do some more asking around about the orichalcon.
“…is where your power grows,” she continued, constructing the magic carefully as the energy began to push her hands away from each other.
Trek went white. That was no fireball.
“Lina, no!” he hollered, but was still too far away to be heard. Foregoing the sliding method from the next boulder he landed on, he took a running leap and free-fell a good one hundred feet further down the slope. His ankles gave way when he landed and he ended up rolling another fifty feet.
Lina kept her eyes shut in concentration. The snow fall began to swirl into a miniature cyclone that swept up and surrounded her. Several rocks shook slightly before levitating several inches from their spots, followed by smaller pieces of gravel that hovered straight up.
“I pledge myself to thee, to conquer all the foes…”
The distance that Trek had put between himself and the creatures was swallowed up only too quickly. Several creatures descended upon him and finally he had to grab his boot dagger for assistance. He took a slice at one of the monsters that pounced on his shoulder and was glad to see that the blade had an effect. He deduced that the creatures were solid only as individuals. When they collected, they formed an insubstantial congregation.
Lina’s hands drew further apart. The pinkish glow between them turned orange and several vaporous streams began to writhe up from the ground and wrap themselves into the whirlwind around her.
“…who stand before the mighty gift bestowed upon my unworthy hands…”
Despite the possible breaking of his ankles, Trek took another leap and tumbled down another two hundred feet until at last he landed hard against the slope that would eventually form into the river bank.
“Lina,” he shouted, his voice now unable to reach its maximum volume due to the extent of his fatigue. He gave up trying to get her attention and instead focused on a more direct approach.
The monsters remained relentless in their chase. They fell upon his back and latched onto his legs. Their teeth sank into his armor and finally he forewent trying to fling them off one by one. He purposefully stumbled down into a roll that ended up crushing several of the creatures that had attached to his legs.
Lina shifted her feet apart and raised her hands over her head. “Let the fools who stand before me…”
A monster landed on Trek’s shoulder and bit down into his collar bone. He grabbed it by the tail and slammed its head into the edge of a rock as he dashed by. He was close to the river bank now, running along an edge set roughly twenty seven feet above the water at a sixty degree angle.
His legs protested as he dropped from the edge and collapsed into a sliding position that landed him by the water. The pack he had been carrying had been lost upon his first descent into the ravine, for which he was now grateful. He was weighted down by at least eight little wriggling balls of teeth and legs.
“…by the power you and I possess.”
He lunged from the bank onto a rock protruding from the water. He couldn’t spare the time to give thought to his speed and the further injuries that would result from his actions. He hurled himself from the rock and made directly for Lina.
Lina’s eyes shot open. The massive ball of energy in her arms she shifted to the side and prepared to launch forward.
The last syllable was severed when she was suddenly slammed with the force of a charging three hundred pound mass of man and monster.
Trek tackled the woman, both of them falling backwards into the freezing water. The swarm of creatures followed right behind, some scattering along the riverside while the majority pursued their would-be prey into the rushing current.
The river was deep and it wasn’t long before it swallowed up the entire disturbance. The creatures on the riverbanks came to a halt. Having lost track of their target, they dispersed gradually and scoured the immediate area in search of a trail. When none was located, they stood still. They had no reason to move without a target to follow.
It was a full fifteen seconds before a section of the river exploded into a pillar of water. The water gushed high, and along with it there spewed bits and pieces of bodies that had previously been monsters. A leg here, a lower jaw there, all rained down.
The monster parts didn’t stay solid for very long. Moments after landing, they sizzled and then dissipated into a film the likes of which they had originated.
The water pillar dwindled back down just as the center of it began to bubble. A few moments later, Trek floated face up to the surface. He was beaten and bleeding to a good extent, but he was alive and his condition wouldn’t prove fatal. He had stopped Lina and saved himself, and the city, a heap of trouble. People would have lost their homes and he would have ultimately lost his life.
To the presence of air he coughed and took several deep breaths. His body rose fully to the surface of the water, but then it rose even higher until it seemed to float in mid air. He ascended until suddenly from beneath him, two hands emerged pressing into his back.
If impending doom had a face, it would have looked like Lina Inverse. Too infuriated even to curse, the fiery sorceress exhibited her super-anger-induced strength when she hoisted Trek up out of the river and slammed him down into the first hard object she spotted, that being a rather large boulder at the water’s edge.
Trek grunted as he landed against the rock. If not for his armor, the impact would have probably broken a few ribs. He managed to get his arms around the boulder and hold on to it as he caught his breath. Even though Lina was something beyond enraged, but he couldn’t bring himself to pay it much attention. He was too busy hurting.
Wheezing angrily for breath, Lina stormed from the river one step at a time. The remaining creatures took immediate notice of her, though no sooner did they gather than they met a quick, collective death with one fireball. After dispensing with the pests, Lina then turned and stood shivering, watching Trek with a particularly refined sense of animosity.
Trek laid still for several minutes. He didn’t care if Lina hated him. He never regretted doing the things that he felt he had to do, which was why he had asked for her help in the first place. After a moment he cracked open his eyes and dared to lift his head a notch.
“I think we-“
“Mega explosion array!”
The entire earthen section of the river bank on which he lay exploded into a thousand pieces. The concussion sent him flying into the air and he landed some yards away.
Lina said nothing more. She was aching, but more than that, she was freezing. Unable to control the shivering of her body, she headed slowly past Trek and back up the ravine. It was going to be a long walk.
“Hurry and get up, you want to get Naga so bad,” she growled.
Trek groaned and rolled off of his injured arm. He didn’t know if he had suffered any broken bones or internal bleeding, but his body wasn’t really wasn’t his primary concern. His first thought was to check his vest pocket. He rested his palm against it and grinned when he felt the outline of the bracelet.
Lina led the way back to the city with Trek following some yards behind. Trek had gathered the pack he had dropped and it wasn’t until they reached the shrine that he thankfully let it fall from his aching shoulders.
“There,” Lina said, falling against the side of the pedestal, “Do your thing and let’s get out of here.”
“What happened back there? Where’d those things come from?” Trek asked, his fingers trembling from cold as he took the ring from his pocket.
“The library. I don’t think that I was seen by any guards on my way out, but don’t take my word for it. Now hurry up, I’m freezing!”
Trek climbed up to statue. He dusted the snow from its head and shoulders and then, taking a deep breath, held the ring between his thumbs and index fingers.
“Here goes,” he muttered and lowered the ring to the statue’s forehead.
Lina watched and hugged her arms around herself. Despite the cold, she was still on edge and the slightest disturbance would have been enough to provoke a Fireball or an Explosion Array from her. The entire ordeal had already put a serious damper on her plans and now she wasn’t even sure if it would be safe for her to sleep in the city.
Seconds passed and there came no change of the statue. Naga remained set in her slumped position, dead to the world as life-size symbol of degradation.
Trek tried again by touching the ring to the statue’s shoulder, and then to its hair, and then to the chain connected to it. Each attempt resulted in the same effect.
“Dammit!” he shouted at last and slammed his foot into the side of the pedestal. He turned and raked one hand into his hair, slumping down onto the step. “It’s not working.”
“I see that,” Lina replied as she watched him, “Maybe it’s because you’re not a skilled user of magic.”
“Good thought. You try.” Trek stood and handed her the ring.
Lina slipped the ring onto her wrist and climbed up to the statue. While Trek moved behind the statue, she came to the front of it and flexed her hand a few times.
“Hm…I don’t feel any kind of power coming from this thing whatsoever,” she said. She placed her hand to Naga’s head, specifically making sure to let the ring contact the stone. “What else have you done to try and break the spell?”
Trek sighed. “I’ve only managed to get a few magic users up this far. They tried every kind of healing spell they knew. Recovery, Flow Break, Dicleary, and I think one tried Disenchant.”
Lina slipped the ring off and examined it more closely. Turning it from one palm to the other, she noticed an odd distribution in its weight. It was heavier on one side, but the weight transferred as soon as she flipped it.
“Wait a second,” she murmured, bringing it to her ear, “Do you hear something?”
Trek frowned. He took the bracelet from her and shook it by his right ear. Hearing nothing, he then tried shaking it by his left. It was a moment before his eyes widened. “There’s something inside!”
“It sounds like fluid.”
“Maybe that’s the trick, but how do we get it out?”
“Here.” Lina took back the bracelet and raised it over her head.
Trek sputtered and shot his hand out to catch the woman’s wrist just before she slammed the ring against the statue.
“Don’t break it!” he snarled, seizing it from her, “There could be anything inside there!”
Lina scowled and attempted to snatch it back. “Well what else do you expect us to do?”
Trek turned his back and held the ring up for a closer examination. “There’s got to be some kind of switch or something. Maybe something in the design, or on the inside that we have to find.”
“Well then it’s a good thing that we don’t have a sorcerer and his army of flesh-eating monsters on our tails, otherwise we’d be a bit pressed for time!” Lina retorted sarcastically, “Now gimme that!” She reached over the statue.
Trek stretched his arm up and kept the ring out of the shorter woman’s reach. “You’ll ruin it!” he snapped back, “And be careful of the statue!”
Lina circled around the top of the pedestal and grabbed the man’s vest. Trek pulled from the grip and then side-stepped to keep the statue between himself and Lina, but Lina grabbed onto the statue’s chain and used it to swing herself around and meet him from the other direction.
“Do you want Naga to stay like this or not!” she said, reaching her free hand again for the bracelet.
“That’s why I’m being careful!” Trek dodged her advance by ducking under Naga’s arm.
“You’re not being careful, you’re being stupid!”
“And what if you’re wrong! There might be acid inside this thing!”
“I was the one who got the ring so I should say how we use it!”
“You don’t even need to be here! You’ve already been paid so get out of here!”
“You said that Naga knows where the orichalcon caves are!”
Lina tackled the man and they both tumbled from the pedestal in a mess of flailing arms and kicking legs. Trek rolled over and pinned Lina who then leaned up and sank her teeth into the side of his neck where there already existed a set of teethmarks. Trek roared and yanked back, holding her down with his left hand while his right hand held the ring high.
Lina strained for the bracelet, but Trek’s size and strength were too much in a physical confrontation. Foregoing the physical methods, she stretched her arm up and opened her hand.
“Wait, look at that!” Trek suddenly stopped and pointed at the statue.
“-ball!” Lina hurled her hand forward. The heat that had accumulated in her palm was sent flying directly into Trek’s face.
Trek yelled as his entire form became engulfed in a sheet of flames. The impact knocked him backwards and landed him on the other side of the shrine.
“That’ll teach you to wrestle with me,” Lina muttered and dusted her hands together. Trek should have gotten the message by then that no one got away with disrespecting her, especially in the physical sense. She got up and turned to Naga’s statue to see if his surprise had been genuine or simply a farce meant to distract her.
Naga remained exactly as she was, but at her left shoulder there was now a small patch where the stone seemed to have receded and been replaced with flesh.
Lina approached the dais and rested a finger to her lips. “Odd.” She hadn’t cast any spells, and as far as she knew, the ring had done nothing special either.
Trek, ashen but largely unharmed, scrambled up from the ground and stumbled to the pedestal. At least that in having been engulfed in flames, he was no longer cold. He clambered up and stood at Naga’s left shoulder, staring at the spot of flesh as though it were the most beautiful treasure that he had ever seen in his life.
“What’d you do?” he cried.
Lina only shrugged. “I didn’t do anything. The ring is still intact.”
“Well something happened!” He circled around the statue like a mad dog picking at a porcupine. He took the ring out and tried again touching it to the stone to see if it helped.
Lina climbed up to the statue and pushed Trek aside to get a better look. The patch of skin was only about four inches in diameter, but it was gradually spreading. She pulled the glove off of her right hand and poked the spot with her index finger. The skin was cold, but it was soft and lenient just as she could have expected it to be.
“Wait,” Trek blurted, pointing out a bit of red substance at the edges of the expanding area. “What’s this?”
Lina looked and squinted at the substance. There wasn’t much of it to be seen, though it shriveled the stone like fire would to paper. She had to lean in close in order to make out the slightest bit of a swirling movement within it. At once she snapped her fingers and smiled.
“Ah, it’s this!” She lifted her leg and pointed to the red smear on her pants.
Trek looked at the smear. “What’s that?”
“Stuff from some kind of tree in Silos’s library. It must have rubbed off on the statue when I was standing by it.”
“Well dammit, woman!” Trek shouted, grabbing for Lina’s pants, “Wipe the rest of it off!”
Lina backhanded him and snagged her cloak around herself. “Excuse you!”
Trek recovered from the blow. Instead of retaliating he simply pointed at the statue. “Just hurry!”
Feeling a bit awkward, Lina wiped off as much of the substance as she could. She managed one streak to the side of Naga’s face and one more to her right shoulder before there was not enough left to transfer.
The three streaks ate gradually away at the stone. Trek watched each area carefully as though he expected all of them to stop at any given moment. In an instant he would have returned to the mansion for more of the matter if he had to, but of course it wasn’t his first choice. Even if his plan didn’t end up working out entirely, just being able to see Naga’s flesh and reassure himself of her life as a warm-blooded human was more than he could have ever asked for. Many times he had almost resigned himself to the possibility that Naga was already dead, but to believe that meant that his own life had no further purpose.
Once the task was completed, Lina stepped down from the pedestal and waited. Now she didn’t regret having disturbed the strange tree. There was no telling how long Trek would have futilely toyed with the ring.
The stone eventually dissolved across Naga’s face, reviving the soft texture of her skin and also the material of the cloth over her mouth and eyes. Trek could hardly control himself as he watched the transformation. As the substance ate its way up into Naga’s hair he carefully rested his hands to her cheeks, letting the pad of his thumb graze across her skin. He then rested a finger under her nose. Suddenly his shoulders grew tense.
“She’s not breathing,” he uttered, his voice breaking.
“Of course she’s not breathing,” she said and pointed at Naga’s chest, “She doesn’t have lungs yet.”
Trek looked and saw that Naga was still solid stone from her collar bone down. The limited amount of the substance made its progress lethargic. He said nothing but nodded vigorously, realizing that he had just caught himself on the verge of tears for the first time in his adult life. Quickly he cleared his throat and smoothed a hand back over his hair.
Lina made a face as though she had just tasted something awful. “Are you-“
“No!” Trek wiped his palms to the tops of his thighs. “I’m just nervous right now.”
Lina, not buying his claim, scowled. She had never seen anyone get seriously emotional over Naga and she couldn’t justify such a thing happening.
“You know, you never told me how you know Naga,” she said.
Trek forced a chuckle and refrained from turning his head. “I thought you didn’t care that much about her.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong about that,” she replied with a shake of her finger, “If Naga is dead then I personally think that it’s for the better. I just want to know what kind of person, especially a grown man, gets all serious over a greedy, self-centered air-head who lacks basic intuition.”
Trek sighed. It wasn’t the first time that he had had to listen someone complain about Naga, though at the moment he found it strangely nice that someone knew Naga well enough to complain about her at all.
“I’m not going to stand here and tell you that you should like Naga,” he replied softly, “Just don’t be so quick to judge her. It’s my fault that Naga the Serpent ever existed at all.”
Lina felt her eyebrow twitch.
“You’re not…You’re not her father are you?” she asked hesitantly. The very thought made her blood churn.
Trek shook his head. “No. We’re only six years apart. Or at least we used to be.”
“Then who are you?”
“I was a hired hand of sorts.”
“What kind of work?”
He didn’t reply. He knew that Naga had been very secretive about all aspects of her past and he wasn’t about to reveal anything about himself that would in turn reveal something about her.
Lina waited, but when it became clear that she wasn’t going to receive an answer she sighed and turned her back. Trek was right anyway. She didn’t need to step into their business and she didn’t care about Naga. She had enough problems of her own.
Silence settled between the two and it was in this manner that they stood, each sinking into their thoughts.
When Naga’s arms were fully restored to their natural state, Trek lifted his hands and gently closed his fingers around her wrists. He pressed his thumbs to her pulse points in the hopes of locating a heartbeat.
“Lina, do you know where the nearest stables are?” he asked without turning around.
Lina looked over her shoulder and eyed him carefully. Something had just transpired, though she couldn’t say exactly what.
“I could find them,” she replied.
“I’ll pay you extra if you go get us a couple of horses. Take the West exit and follow the road to a cul de sac. There are stables at the end.”
Lina looked back ahead and nodded. Witnessing Trek’s supposed attachment to Naga was a little bit more reality than she had been prepared for, and she was grateful for an excuse to leave. To her, Naga was the type of person whose death shouldn’t have brought sadness to anyone but her parents. Even the concept of Naga having parents was strange enough. After several encounters with the vacuous woman, Lina had convinced herself that Naga was the misshapen result of an odd bacterial growth that had accumulated in some scientist’s Petri dish. Naga’s ultimate demise would most likely end up as comedy relief to someone else’s adventure, no more significant than the popping of a balloon.
“All right. I’ll be back in a minute,” she said and headed off.
Trek waited until Lina was gone before he let go of Naga. He jumped down from the pedestal and looked outside to see that the snow flurries had grown rather thick. He couldn’t remove Naga from the shrine without first finding something warmer to dress her in.
Even though he had once seen Naga brave a snow storm in nothing but her two piece outfit, he was sure that she had only been acting out of pride. She had smiled the entire time and pretended that she couldn’t feel a thing, but this time would have to be different. He wasn’t about to risk losing her to hypothermia after he had gone through so much to get this far.
He went to his pack on the floor and crouched down to untie it. Opening the pack, he then set out the items from inside: Naga’s shoulder guards, headband, necklace, and all of her other accessories. It had taken him a long time, and in some cases a lot of money, to acquire them, but he hadn’t stopped until he had gotten every last piece.
After removing the items, he stood to shake out the cloth in which he had wrapped them. The cloth, maroon on one side and black on the other, was soft and just thick enough to be warm in the snow. This was with good reason as the clasps at the top of the cloth revealed it to be Naga’s cloak. He spread the cloak on the ground and then stood to recheck the statue.
Naga continued to hang lifeless from the chain, now only petrified from the sternum down. The snow had melted from her shoulders and her hair now shifted freely with the breeze that blew through the shrine.
Trek returned to the top of the dais and took a seat. He had waited so many years for this, but now that he was down to the last final minutes he was having difficultly grasping the reality of the situation. He had been so obsessed with undoing Naga’s curse that he hadn’t thought much about what would happen afterwards. He was not the same man that he had been twenty years ago and now his intentions had to be quite different.
He didn’t know what Naga would be like once she woke up. He imagined that she would be angry with him. More than angry with him. She would probably end up killing him on the spot once she found out what had been going on, but if she decided to do it then she would be more than justified.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of something wooden clattering against the ground. Suddenly cold, he shot up and turned to see the shrine keeper standing at the South entrance.
“What in Silos’ name is going on here?” Forn exclaimed as he retrieved his cane from the floor. His gaze grew icy as he caught sight of Trek on the pedestal. “You! Get down from there! How many times do I have to tell you to stop hanging around here?”
Trek unsheathed his spear from his back and leapt down in front of the pedestal.
“This is the last time, one way or another,” he replied. He and Forn had gotten into more than their fair share of confrontations. None of the arguments had gotten very far since Trek had acknowledged that the keeper was only doing his job. This time, however, he would not refrain from killing Forn if he had to. He would not let anything come between him and Naga.
Forn came forward.
“What’re you doing here so late? That wife of yours finally kick you out?” he chuckled.
Trek’s gaze darkened. “Leave Livy out of this. You don’t know what the Hell you’re talking about.”
“So you say, but you know people are beginning to wonder if she’s still alive. You spend so much time here instead of taking care of her.”
“I said shut up about her!” Trek roared and thrust his spear up to hold at the keeper’s throat. Any comment about his wife was usually enough to provoke a violent response from him. Livy was a good woman who loved him despite his pariah status and she had always done well to ignore the comments and rumors about their relationship.
Forn raised his hands and took a step back, having not expected such a hostile reaction. Usually a few fighting words were enough to get Trek to leave, not instigate a fight.
“All right, all right,” he said more gently, “Shouldn’t you go-“
His train of thought was derailed suddenly as he caught sight of movement over Trek’s shoulder. Squinting, he broke eye contact to follow the motion.
Trek held his breath as he watched Forn’s expression. The old man’s frown faded into a look of confoundedness and then into fear. His arms drooped and he seemed to forget about the spearhead pointed at his neck.
“Et…Et…?” Forn wheezed and was unable to complete the name.
For the first time all night, Trek smiled. He didn’t need to turn around in order to know what Forn was seeing. It was nice to finally see that look on someone’s face. At last there was someone else who understood that things had been going the wrong way. Everything that the city had come to base itself on was a lie, and Trek was only too happy to destroy the illusion.
“Her name is Gracia,” he replied proudly, “Princess Gracia Ul Naga Saillune. And as I’ve been trying to tell you for the past twenty years, she’s not an evil sorceress.”
Forn shook his head and took another step back. “What have you done?” he cried.
Trek found it almost a shame that he couldn’t let the old man live to tell everyone of what he had seen. Then again, everyone in the city would know something or another by the next day. They would come to the shrine with the intention of celebrating their farced victory over Naga only to find her long gone.
Without bothering to answer Forn’s question, Trek lunged forward and shoved his spearhead through the old man’s throat.
Forn could hardly react in time. The triangle of steel punctured the V of his neck and seemed to pop his carotid artery. His legs gave way and he crumpled, dropping his cane to grasp at the head of the weapon. Spurting blood made for a slippery grip and his attempts to dislodge the blade were futile.
As much as Trek disliked Forn, he had never wanted to kill him. Even now as he gave the spear a sharp twist into his spine, he didn’t particularly relish the act, but he couldn’t risk having the old man run off and wake the city. Even knocking him out and tying him up wouldn’t have provided enough time for a getaway.
Forn’s eyes turned red and blood leaked from his nose and mouth. It wasn’t long before his grip on the spear weakened and his body began to convulse. With a few resounding gurgles, he spit up one last ounce of blood before his eyes stopped focusing.
When he was sure that the old man wouldn’t be moving anymore, Trek stomped on his shoulder and yanked his spear back up.
“Sorry,” he muttered. His regret was genuine. He couldn’t remember the last time that he had killed anyone, but the feeling was the same: power and guilt. Wiping the blood spatter from his cheek, he turned to make sure that Naga remained undisturbed.
Naga had been returned completely to her natural state. Her legs, no longer stone, no longer supported her and she had shifted to the side. Her weight hung completely by the ropes around her wrists.
Trek dropped his spear and rushed to top of the pedestal. He clamped an arm around Naga’s waist and lifted her, then with his free hand he snatched his dagger from his boot and deftly sliced the rope from her hands. As Naga’s form slumped against him, he tugged up the cloth from over her eyes and pulled down the one from over her mouth.
“Naga?” he whispered and rested a hand to her cheek in an attempt to rouse her.
Naga’s eyes were motionless behind their lids. Her legs made no attempt to straighten, nor did her arms show any signs of energy or strength. Her skin was cool to the touch, but her heart was beating and her chest was moving with breath.
The simple signs of life were more than enough to satisfy Trek. For a moment he found himself relieved almost to the point of choking. He hugged Naga closer and brought her head to his shoulder, resting a hand to the back of her neck. After so many years of watching her statue, he could hardly believe that he was being given another chance to hold her again, to feel her the way that she was supposed to have been all along.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured by her ear in the faint hopes that she would be able to hear him. If anything else happened, if Naga’s human state was only temporary or if she were to die soon after coming back alive, the only thing he wanted was the chance to apologize to her sincerely. He shut his eyes he pressed his mouth to her hair. No one else would ever see such emotion from him.
After a moment he shook his head and straightened. Now was not the time to let himself get carried away with past events. Carefully he slipped an arm under Naga’s legs and lifted her. He stepped down from the pedestal and went to the cloak that he had spread on the ground. Lowering to his knees, he laid Naga on the material and then positioned her with her legs straight and hands folded on her stomach. He then wrapped the cloak around her and secured it with the clasps. Crouching beside her, he looked at the items that he had spread on the ground. He couldn’t leave them there, but he wasn’t about to try and dress Naga in them either.
Glancing around the shrine, he spotted the cloth on top of the pedestal that Naga had been kneeling upon. Like Naga, the cloth had once been stone but had now returned to its original condition.
He got up and grabbed the cloth from the pedestal and then gave the material a good tug. The cloth was thin, but it would be durable enough to suit his purposes. He returned to the ground and began packing the items up.
Lina snatched away the end of her cloak that had once again found its way into the mouth of the brown horse behind her.
“I said that’s not food!” she snapped and gave the horse’s bridal a sharp tug.
The horse snorted and jerked his head up. As though in protest to the blunt treatment, he stopped and looked at Lina as if expecting an apology. In effect, his black and white counterpart also stopped and perked his ears forward.
Lina suddenly found herself pulled to a halt. She turned and frowned at the two horses, giving a few insistent yanks to the reigns. “Come on, I don’t have time for this!”
When neither of the horses budged, she brought her hand to her face and growled. She had never been much of a horse person, having always preferred to walk whenever possible, or when she was in a hurry then she preferred to fly. Horses were noisy, smelly, stubborn, and sometimes just downright stupid.
“I’m calling both of you Gourry from now on,” she muttered.
Her gaze averted for a moment before she suddenly got an idea. If the horses were anything like Gourry, or herself for that matter, then they would respond to food better than brute force.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small, folded cloth. There wasn’t much inside of the cloth, only her emergency rations for extremely hard times, but hopefully it was something that the horses would be interested in. She opened the cloth and presented the animals with a few squares of dried fruit.
“You guys hungry?” she asked with a false grin.
Both horses lifted their heads in sudden interest. Brown Gourry was the first to extend his nose forward and attempt to grab one of the squares between his lips.
Lina stepped back and gave another pull to the reigns. The horses complied more easily and she was able to lead them on without further fuss.
“Yep. Just like Gourry,” she muttered and her expression grew soft.
Upon reaching the courtyard, she wrapped the horses’ reigns around a nearby lamp post and then ran into the shrine. No sooner did she enter the building than she came to a sudden halt.
“What are you doing?” she shouted.
Trek was sitting cross legged with Naga held across his lap. Behind him was a body that looked as though it had once been the shrine keeper. Startled by Lina’s intrusion, he snapped his head up and frowned.
“I just wanted to keep her off the ground! Did you get the horses?” he asked. If there had been any softness to his demeanor before Lina had entered, it was thoroughly gone. He stood up and kept his arms locked around Naga as though he were glued to her from his biceps to his fingertips.
“That’s not what I’m talking about!” Lina shouted and pointed to Forn’s body. “What happened here?”
“The keeper was making his rounds. I had to keep him quiet.”
“You couldn’t have just gagged him with something?”
“I meant with a rag! You didn’t have to kill him!”
“Since when does Lina Inverse care about the value of one human life? I didn’t want to risk it. Just grab that pack and let’s get out of here.”
Lina stepped to the side as Trek brushed past her. All of her previous assumptions about him suddenly flew right out the window. She had thought that his rescue of Naga had been some kind of good deed, or perhaps a task completed out of a sense of duty as an old friend. And yet the look on his face was not that of an old friend. He was stony like a professional guard dog whose only friends were the friends of his master. She didn’t doubt that he would have turned on her in an instant if she had thought to threaten Naga with bodily harm. If this ended up being the true case, then the three of them traveling together would prove to be a big challenge. Blowing Naga up had been one of her favorite pastimes.
She turned and stepped a wide circle around Forn’s body in order to reach the pack that Trek had motioned to. She grabbed the bundle to sling over her shoulder and then jogged out. It was true that she wasn’t at all a humanitarian, but neither did she appreciate unexpected sights of blood and gore. It was no chip on her shoulder though. She hadn’t particularly liked Forn’s attitude.
Trek was waiting by the black and white horse by the time Lina joined him outside. He shifted Naga onto his shoulder and held her steady with one arm. He then grabbed hold of the saddle with his other hand and stepped his foot into the stirrup. With one great heave, he hoisted himself up to mount the horse and then settle Naga down across his lap.
Lina approached the brown horse and grabbed the saddle with both hands. She pulled herself up and situated herself with the pack tied around her shoulders. She then grabbed the reigns and brought the horse around.
“Do you know where we’re going?” she asked.
“We can’t stay in the city,” Trek replied as he tugged the cloak further up around Naga’s face, “but I know of a place near the Northern pass that’s far enough away. We can stay the night there.”
He kneed his horse into a canter and took off across the courtyard, stirring up cakes of freshly fallen snow.
Lina too kicked her horse, but the horse just snorted and swished his tail.
“You’re not doing this to me now,” she growled and heated her hand with a small fireball.
Gourry’s ears pinned back. Before the woman could touch his hand to him, he reared and took off after his friend.
Lina was jolted and nearly fell forward. She maintained her grip and bounced back into an upright position.
At any moment she wished that she could have just woken up someplace else. As she contemplated her current situation, she was having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that not only had she directly and indirectly risked her life for Naga, but that she had also forfeited her chances of sleeping in a nice warm bed for a while. Then again, she remembered that her efforts were not for Naga’s sake. If all turned out well, then she would soon be rich and also be rid of Naga, Trek, and all of the problems between.