Small masses of softly glowing light hovered randomly about the main chamber of the tree. Rotebi reached for one of them, but Kolkil smacked him upside the head before he touched it. Himeki dared to do it herself, cupping her hands around one. Its light dimmed out, revealing something white and fluffy—not unlike a larger version of the fluffiness that allows dandelion seeds to fly. She blew in her hand to put it back in the air, and it was lit again within a few seconds. As the group began to traverse the chamber, the lights moved about as to provide plenty of light to the passageway without impeding it.
The floor was wooden and had been painted with a coating of something transparent to make it smooth and richly colored, but blood had been splattered over it. All the blood was long dry, but some splashes were clearly older than other splashes. Most of the bones had been shoved off to the side—along with a few other things that wouldn’t decay, such as weapons, metal armor, and jewelry—but there were still a few remains that littered the middle of the room. Saraelye gave them no regard and heedlessly stepped on them if they happened to be where she was about to put her foot. When she came to a portion of a rib cage that was too large to step on or over nonchalantly, she paused long enough to kick it out of the way with more force than was necessary.
Yousei, still at the end of the line, stopped walking. "Something’s not right," she mumbled. She wasn’t sure whether or not she’d wanted the others to hear her, but no one did—except Kolkil who turned his attention away from Rotebi’s antics long enough to look at her quizzically. She returned his gaze for just a moment before turning away uncomfortably to look around the chamber again.
A short flight up steps through the giant bed of flowers led up to the alter. Saraelye stopped there, and Aikel and Kyri stopped behind her on the stairs. A quiet nervous-looking comment from Kyri was answered with some bitter response from Aikel, and within seconds the two of them were bickering about something irrelevant.
Yousei watched Kolkil creep around to the right side of the stairs. Saraelye’s actions at the alter had gone unnoticed, but she turned to look over her shoulder at Aikel and Kyri. She was obviously displeased with their bickering—she looked downright furious. She had moved her spear to her left hand to keep her right hand free for what she had been doing, but now she passed it back.
"Hey, duck!" Yousei screamed.
Kolkil kicked Aikel in the back. He slammed into Kyri, and they both went crashing into the flowers. Saraelye’s spear swung through the air where they had been. She growled in frustration and stabbed at Kolkil, but he was already jumping out of the way.
Unicorn cried out in panic, and Pegasus shouted, "It’s really sad that we didn’t see this coming! Get up, get up!"
Aikel scrambled up, grabbed Kyri’s arm, and half-dragged her until she was on her feet.
"No…" Kyri muttered.
"We can’t… not her!" Aikel protested.
"Do you think she wants to be like this?!" Unicorn demanded of them.
"Well, I can fight her!" Himeki grumbled and dragged Flenn forth to help her. Saraelye only jumped and took flight when she was met with a barrage of whip, sword, rock, and fist. Her attackers scattered when she slammed her spear into their midst. The magic surrounding it pushed them further away when it struck the floor, and it snapped back to its master’s hand when she flicked her wrist.
Pegasus transformed into his namesake while Unicorn became a cat.
Saraelye remained in flight, hovering prudently overhead and watching those below her. Himeki’s whip was more likely to hit one of her comrades if she tried to attack, so she backed up behind them to cast a spell. Rotebi ran out in front of her, but he stopped and hopped back when Saraelye stabbed at him. She was most concerned with Kolkil, as he seemed to be the only one actively trying to attack her. She shrieked and cringed. Kolkil jumped up and swung his fist into her chin while she was pulling Gelrini’s rock out of her bloody face. She kicked him as he landed and threw her spear to the floor between Gelrini and Himeki. The were both knocked aside by its magic, and Himeki lost concentration on her magic.
"Yahhh!" Flenn jump high enough to be level with his target. His sword was cloaked in his own fire sorcery as he brought it down on her. She spun and pushed against his chest with one hand as a white light formed in her palm. He was thrown into the wall beyond the alter, and he landed in the flowers. Saraelye winced against the pain caused by his magic, but his blade had missed her.
"Aikel… Yousei…" Himeki moaned.
"Come on!" Pegasus scolded, stamping his hooves. Aikel swallowed a wave of panic and climbed onto Pegasus’s back.
Saraelye recalled her spear and dodged Kolkil’s strike. She glared at Aikel as Pegasus took flight. She flew higher to remain out of Rotebi and Kolkil’s reach.
Kyri and Unicorn had approached Flenn inconspicuously, but he shook his head and warded them away even as he spit out a glob of blood.
"Hold still," Kyri told him as she knelt down.
"No." He tried to draw away. "Those girls… I…."
"Hold still," Unicorn repeated more sternly.
Pegasus charged at Saraelye, and when he was near, she charged at him. He flew over her to avoid her attack.
"Attack her!" Pegasus grumbled.
"I…" Aikel mumbled. She flew at them. Aikel leaned back and missed her spear by an inch. He swung his glaive to ward her off. She flew back donning a long bloody streak down her face and chest. She held her empty hand out and began speaking under her breath.
Pegasus charged so abruptly that Aikel snatched at his mane to stay mounted. Vines shot from the floor below. They twined around Pegasus’s legs or whipped at him. His charge was halted, but his momentum pushed Aikel almost onto his neck. Aikel swung his glaive when he was most forward and struck Saraelye down.
She hit the floor with a shriek. She took flight again only to feel another of Gelrini’s rocks driven into her collar bone. Flenn ran at her from the side and slashed. He sliced up her belly, but she dodged the rest, only to be kicked in the back by Kolkil. She was shoved toward Rotebi, who knocked her back to Kolkil. They juggled her between them for several strikes before she grabbed Rotebi and flung him into Kolkil. Kolkil had been ready to throw a knife at her, but it whizzed passed her shoulder.
"Stop it! Stop it!" It was Yousei’s voice.
Saraelye was about to throw her spear at Flenn, or perhaps Gelrini, but she spotted Kyri slicing at the base of the vines with her glaive. She raised her spear, and Kyri cringed, but she aimed upward instead.
Pegasus gave a shrill neigh of pain as the spear struck him in the ribs. He shrunk back to his original shape, and he and Aikel fell to the floor with a thud. Kyri and Unicorn ran towards them, and Saraelye was drawn away from them after being hit with a painful burst of Himeki’s magic.
Himeki drew her whip again as Saraelye approached, but instead Saraelye flew back, gathered a fireball in her raised hand, and flung it toward Himeki and Kolkil. Rotebi shoved passed them, and the fireball hit him square in the chest. He gasped and stood there for a few seconds, holding his hands out as if slow at catching something. Saraelye blinked her eyes in amazement, for he was unharmed. He inhaled, screamed, and threw his hands out. Another fireball—nearly twice the size of the first—materialized around his arms. It smacked Saraelye with its full force.
She wavered in the air. She coughed and wiped some of the blood away from her charred face with her equally charred and bloody hand. She raised her spear again.
"No way…" Himeki muttered in disbelief. Robeti collapsed.
Yousei ran over and vaulted up with her spear and collided with Saraelye’s side. She clung there for a fraction of a second, then pushed her foot against Saraelye’s hip to fling herself away. Saraelye screamed, and they both fell to the floor a few yards apart.
Kolkil’s knife fell from Yousei’s hand as she landed on her back with yelp. Saraelye made no vocal sound after her blood-chilling scream. The burnt and shredded gossamer that had been her wings drifted down and landed silently on top of her.
Kyri stood and stumbled toward her with Unicorn in tow.
"Hey, what are you—?" Flenn began as she began to cast a spell.
Aikel grabbed his wrist to keep him from interfering. "She’s defeated," he said. "Her curse is broken."
Himeki helped Yousei stand only to see her retreat into a corner. She moved to help Rotebi instead, but he preferred to sit. For awhile, his hair had been completely blue, but now it was mostly blonde again, with only an inch at the tips. He was dizzy but unharmed. Kolkil had a slash on his arm, which he covered with his hand.
Gelrini had only been hit once, and Kyri had healed it already. She wandered around collecting her rocks. She had shot many, but only two had hit their mark. She didn’t collect those two. It clearly wasn’t the blood that bothered her though, as many of the others she picked up had fallen in puddles of it. She didn’t put any of them back her belt pouches.
"Is your, uh, thing… hurt?" Flenn asked Aikel. His voice sounded much louder in the silence than he’d intended.
"No," Aikel answered, petting Pegasus carefully. "He’ll be okay."
"What about Saraelye?" Himeki asked Kyri. "Is she okay?"
"I… don’t know," Kyri said worriedly. From the corner of her eye, she saw Yousei sit down heavily. Saraelye’s cuts and burns were healed, and her breathing was steady, but she was still unconscious. "She’s… alive."
"Don’t act like that," Rotebi said when he saw Kolkil roll his eyes. "I like her too. She was nice."
"She wasn’t that nice," Kolkil grumbled.
"Yeah, so? I like you, don’t I? So I can’t be that picky."
"Is your arm alright, Kolkil?" Kyri asked.
"Yeah," Kolkil lied. Kyri knelt by where he was sitting, but he drew away.
"Hold still. I can help you," she said.
"Stay away from me!" he growled.
"Don’t be such a butthead," Rotebi nagged tiredly.
"Ooh!" Kyri groaned. "First Flenn, and now you? Do people just like being in unnecessary pain? Even Himeki wasn’t very cooperative!"
"I was trying to cast a spell," Himeki said defensively.
"So was I!"
"Aren’t you tired, Kyri?" Aikel asked.
"Yes… but not so tired I can’t heal his arm." After a pause, she asked, "Or was that supposed to be a hint?"
"To shut up and give it a rest?" Aikel asked with exasperation. "Feel free to interpret it that way."
"Hmph!" Kyri muttered before she began ignoring him. "Are you okay, Rotebi?"
"Hey, you’re nice too," he realized.
"Why, thank you."
"But I’m fine."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. I’m just tired."
"Sit up," Kolkil told him when he leaned back.
"Because we’re going to have to leave."
"Actually…." Kyri sighed. "We can’t leave Saraelye here unconscious. If she doesn’t wake up, we’ll have to carry her back. So maybe we should all rest here for at least a little while."
Aikel nodded. "It’s getting late anyway," he said. "It’ll be dark long before we get back to Nalya, and the last thing we need is to try and balance on tree branches we can’t see." He was tempted to lay down on the floor, but no amount of weariness could make him touch that blood-soaked wood more than he had to. He reluctantly said, "We’ll spend the night here."
Himeki wandered over to the altar and picked up the clear green orb that rested there. She held it in both hands and stared at it while leaning her elbows against the altar.
"What’s that thing for?" Flenn asked quietly.
"Hmm?" Aikel had to follow Flenn’s gaze to know what he was talking about. "Oh…. It’s for killing."
"Y… yeah?" Flenn stuttered.
"Yeah," Aikel said. "That’s all, really."
"It’s made of the things life is made of," Himeki offered studiously, "how does it destroy so much?"
"I just know that it does."
For the next hour, they were still. One of them would shift occasionally in a failing attempt to be more comfortable, but the only steady sound was that of the leaves through the trees. Himeki finally moved from her awkward position, shaking her limbs to alleviate their numbness.
"This is… human magic?" she asked of anyone who knew. She held the orb up to her eyes again.
"Yeah," Kyri said. "Aikel’s family descends from the clan of warriors that made it."
"I can feel it’s power, but I can’t understand it at all," Himeki grumbled.
Aikel finally found himself a relatively clean spot on the floor to lay down. It seemed only a few seconds before something soft was rubbing against his face. A burst of warm air hit is cheek, and he waved his hand to get rid of whatever it was. Pegasus’s teeth closed on his leather armor and jerked him to his feet. He stumbled and looked around in befuddlement and staggered wearily.
"Help us, Aikel."
"Huh…?" Aikel mumbled. He wasn’t even sure who had been the one to speak, save that it was one of the females.
"Be a gentleman," Pegasus nagged. "Help get her onto my back."
Saraelye was still unconscious, and Pegasus had transformed to carry her.
"Is it… morning already?" Aikel asked as he lifted her.
"Yeah," Kyri said dismally. After Saraelye was secured on Pegasus, she asked, "Are you okay, Yousei?"
Yousei looked up, apparently startled, but her eyes didn’t really seem to focus. Her face was pale, and she looked like she was about to be sick, but she nodded.
"Let’s go then," Aikel mumbled. Rotebi patted Yousei’s head as he passed her.
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