Book II - Chapter 49

Chapter 49

 

Nul

 

[Lesser Dodge] activated as Nul’s body shifted, avoid yet another missile of frozen air as it whizzed past his head.

[Backstep] carried him further.

Another ability tied to the first, as three more projectiles followed: impacts smashing straight down into the street where he’d been standing.

This was getting dangerous.

For the life of him, Nul couldn’t figure out how it was that he’d given his position away, but he knew better than to wait for the target to try again.

Hand signal, two nods in response, and Nul was moving once more. They would try from three sides, see if there was a weakness in the [Barrier.] Somewhere in smoky mess, their target was a sitting duck, but they had yet to put a shot in her.

Somehow, though, the Mage didn’t seem to share their problem.

“Nul… Kill that bitch!” A loud groan came from the far side of the street, behind him.

Nul didn’t have to look to know it was a man lying in a puddle of blood trying to hold in his own guts. They would probably never walk right again, even if they did get a healer in time. Frozen air, right through the leg, followed by a nasty fall. Options were limited, even if they could drag the man back to a Church, or hire some healer off the books.

"You hear me? Kill ‘er already! Split ‘er fucking head open!”

It was times like this, that Nul couldn’t help but remember that killing Mages was a tricky business. Management, logistics, the basic skills to enter combat with such a foe: in truth the skill was less of an organized practice, and more of an artform. Or, at least that was how Nul preferred to think of it-

[Spell Sense] screamed, and Nul jumped back, again.

Directly ahead, and uncomfortably close, an [Eclipse] spell burst in and out of existence.

The blinding flash of light left his ears ringing. Normally, he’d be unable to take a shot for several minutes- perhaps weeks, but he’d come prepared. With a small sigh, Nul repositioned his tinted glass lenses, and checked his ears. The thin rolls of cloth were still in place. He always made a rule of wearing them, uncomfortable as they were. It seemed, today, they had been worth the trouble.

This job was turning out to be a lot more than he’d bargained for.

Another [Eclipse] spell, slightly farther off this time, was followed by a resounding [Barrage] that landed close enough so that Nul could appreciate the cool breeze in its wake. His breath fogged up, as the chill dispersed. He took his shot, watching the bolt smash into the target.

There was no noticeable reaction, which meant that the [Barrier] stopped it.

Strong.

This was no joke.

“Getting tired yet?” Nul shouted, right before [Backstep] and [Lesser Dodge] kicked in. Two more shouts rallied as the others did the same to reposition.

“I’d be getting tired, if I were you!”

“Dead tired!”

Part strategy, part truth.

Calling out before relocating was meant to confuse the target, but in this case, Nul had to believe they were close to running out of mana.

He had to believe it, as much as he was praying for it.

Sooner or later, even the best of Mages ran low, but for whatever reason- this one seemed to have strength to spare. Those fire spells, especially, had him cautious. One mistake, one misstep, and it was more than apparent how one of those could turn the tide of a battle.

Just like it already had.

Nul shook his head at the thought.

So far as others in the Mercenary Guild went, he'd never much liked working with Oeth’s band. On the few jobs they’d been partnered together for, Nul had found that group to be savage brutes with a bad habit of dragging out jobs. Playing with their food, as it were.

To the old guard of the Mercenary Guild, those who’d been in the trade long enough for hot blood to cool, the job was just that: a job. Responsibility that was meant to be taken seriously, done properly. He was getting older now, so perhaps that made him the minority, but if Nul was hired to kill someone, Nul killed them. Simple, straightforward: the career alone made it difficult for him to attend sermon, he didn’t need any other reasons to feel guilty beneath the Light. There was no reason to go adding rape or torture to the list unless it was written in as a requirement.

Another spell whizzed by, impacting the street once more. Not a hit, but close enough to cause concern. He'd have to move again, [Lesser Dodge] pulling him farther back.

Nul watched as two more crossbow bolts struck out into the smoke, then watched as they failed to achieved much of a result. If they had hit the Mage earlier, the injury seemed to be making no difference. She wasn’t slowing down, and her attacks in retaliation were getting more accurate with time. The poison wasn't taking effect.

Troublesome.

As much as he hadn’t liked Oeth’s group, or the way they handled their business, Nul had known Oeth well enough. The man had been cruel and ruthless, but he’d had talent. Though there was little sadness in hearing of his death, it served as a warning.

With the world falling down everywhere he looked, it seemed the only jobs left were the difficult, or the arduous. Only the strongest and more resourceful were still thriving. Ten or twelve summers back, he might have gotten by with a couple of hired thugs. Now, he only had a few men he trusted to get a job done. 

Hell, once upon a time, it was easy money. The targets were almost always some washed-out reject who could barely throw a lightning bolt. All Nul had to do was gather up a group looking for some easy coin, and Nul could sweep in and pick up the pieces once they were done. More than fair too, saying any of his hired help survived, they’d get their cut. That was how Nul got his own start, after all. 

Only thing it used to take was a shoddy crossbow pried out of some dead man’s hands- maybe some blood covered gear that could be washed clean, and a small sack of gold. If a person knew their way around the markets, with a keen eye? Hundred gold could soon turn into two hundred, then three. Few years, and you'd be looking at a downright professional: that was how a man made his way in the world.

Nul felt there was something beautiful about that kind of humble beginning. The first steps on the crimson road. Just keep taking the contracts with the red ink, and it was common knowledge that the trick was really just living long enough, so that the skills would follow. Such begets the saying Church’s own verse: “Men who stand upon this plane, are but the sum of their actions.”

But days like those were long gone.

Those small fry: the small contracts a man used to start with? They had dried up with the crops. When money and resources were this tight, the only people left issuing hits were of a different caliber. If someone like Nul wanted to make a living, they had to hunt the big fish. All, or nothing.

Nul’s men loosed. Another volley of bolts flew towards the target, and again they met fierce resistance. There was no true effect, not even with skills in use. Nul was certain his men had tried something there, maybe a [Quicken] and a [Pierce] attribute. Weak alone, but often effective in combination.

Yet, the Mage was still standing.

The smoke was finally fading off now, and he could see the woman and her staff- turning about and trying to find a line of sight to retaliate. Around her neck, though difficult to discern through the [Barrier] spell in place, something blue seemed to pivot.

Taming a Basilisk… Nul could only imagine. The Farstrider Mage was a dangerous opponent indeed: both a Mage, and a Tamer. Nul had never heard of such a thing before, but it seemed an incredible combination. Her pet had already complicated matters, taking down one of his men. More spells lashed out, and he watched as he men were forced to dodge, one of them rolling, then dashing forward in a panic as several [Barrage] annihilated the street behind them. Nul’s own [Spell Sense] began drawing at him, as the smoke and ashes that remained started to spin. Pulled, it seemed, into some sort of massive spell.

It was like a cyclone, spun up on the endless miles of dried-out fields outside the City’s walls. Ash and dirt were lifting into the air, casting shadow down on the street below.

"What in all the Light?" Nul stared into the maw of the storm, stunned.

Spells.

Suddenly, everywhere: there were hundreds and hundreds of spells.

He could feel them as they formed. Earth magic- but not slow, not clumsy. This was fast, wickedly so. It was overwhelming, still growing larger by the second. Was it a front? Meant to distract?

No.

No, Nul couldn't pin down their purpose- but he knew they were real.

Caution pushed him back. Beneath the Mage, he could see that the very ground was rising: not as a thin and delicate pillar, but as a mountain might rise from the sea. Beneath the Mage, the ground was rising. How much power, would it take to move that much stone?

“Men who stand upon this plane, are but the sum of their actions.”

Quietly, the words passed through Nul's thoughts again.

The Church was right, at the heart of it. He couldn’t deny the truth of this teaching- not as his eyes were forced to follow: no longer trying to peer down into a buildings foundation, but up. Up, as the target forced the world to lift them.

A Mage.

That title, passed around by the common man so carelessly, was such a common claim. Ten out of ten, if Nul met a person who had a way with mana, they called themselves a Mage. To the layman, any person on the street, it was the act of magic itself made the Mage. That was always the way it went, and that was the way people saw it.

So pure, so simple.

Nul felt his head tilting back, as the storm of stand continued to swirl, [Barriers] of frozen wind now lifted up above his head by a mountain of sand and dirt. He could feel them watching, like a pressure pushing down on his shoulders.

Should a person head in on the right day, the Church would tell them of the histories. Preach to them of stories and legends back when men first received mana, the gift from the God of Light. Songs of blood, still running through their veins: answers to how almost anyone could learn to twist some magic, one way or another. Why the drunk in the corner of the pub could take a mug of ale and pull a frozen dagger from it. Or, why some shouting bastard outside the tavern might know how to hurl wind about. It was said that everyone had at least a tiny speck of power, whether they found it or not. Truthfully, a man didn’t have to be something special in order to know a spell or two. All they needed, was to be practiced.

But, this was more than practiced.

His [Spell Sense] was going crazy, pointed on the storm, in the air, the walls of the buildings, the stone of the street. His remaining team had their crossbows ready- unwilling to take their shots without Nul’s say.

Nul wasn’t sure what to tell them.

He had met plenty of self-claimed sorcerers in the slums. He’d even met a few that lived up to their names, with talent to match: but practiced or no- they weren’t Mages. No, he would never call them such a title. In fact, it bothered him greatly. Such claims as that, why- it did him a disservice. They claimed to be what they weren’t, and no matter how great a pedestal they’d placed their own capacity, it simply demeaned Nul’s own life’s work.

Those fuckers weren’t Mages.

Those were as much of a Mage as a farmer’s lad was a bloody noble’s heir. Their sort? They were just people who knew some tricks, or some clever techniques. They might even be dangerous, but that didn’t change the fact that theyre were just pale imitations. At best, cut-throats that knew spells instead of swords. Stack one of them up against a real Mage, they wouldn’t stand a chance.

Killing a Mage… people didn't realize what it took. Fighting fire, brought to life from the substance you drew into your lungs. Wind that might cut you into shreds. Earth that might swallow you up and crush your bones. More terrifying than any trained warrior, was a being who could take the world, and make it kneel. To fight a Mage was accepting that the very world itself would become the enemy. How many years had he been doing this? Killing "Mages" for a living, he’d thought- believed, he understood this.

The mountain of stone only grew. It shaped, morphed until it stared back at him: a serpent of stone. Massive, powerful: it stared ahead at those foolish men who thought to challenge it, and opened its jaws to reveal giant stone fangs.

He’d been wrong.

“SHOOT” Nul shouted- screamed, as his body began to move. [Enhanced Reflexes] hit his muscles, his tendons, his mind, in a massive rush. Arms lifted, fingers drew, a bolt was snatched from the rail and thrown aside as his perception of time slowed.

He needed time: to stall. There was only one chance left to him now.

Two distant “thwacks” greeted Nul’s ears, and he saw them hit. Those were perfect shots, level and on target, despite being intercepted by a thick wall of frozen air-

Retaliation came immediately.

Firing positions were met by a [Barrage] of cold shards. Pieces and fragments scattering. The results were horrible, messy, dangerous- one of the worst kinds of spell, in Nul’s opinion: but he wasn’t concerned. His men would live, or they would die: but if any of them, at all, were going to survive, he needed to prepare. Those [Barrage] attacks were nothing compared to whatever was coming next.

Abilities, skills, spells: they all used mana one way or another, which meant they all had a limited supply. The early fight had been bad enough: throwing tremendous bouts of green fire, pulling up smoke and ashes as a cover. Hell, those green flames alone would have burned the scales off a fucking wyvern. Null wasn't sure what the Mage had up their sleeve that allowed them to keep casting spell after spell, but he knew his own team was quickly approaching their breaking point.  In about a minute his entire team was going to be spent.

This had to end now.

His hands kept moving, reaching for the special slot on the quiver on his back. Sounds were blurring badly, forming into a loud drone. The skill’s pressure was growing worse.

Dult was still down, no longer moaning but likely still bleeding, and Rufus… well… Nul had shot Rufus, but that was better than letting the man die of venom. The other two were reloading, preparing a second volley- which meant narrowed odds, and he could feel his chances of escaping unscathed diminishing as [Spell Sense] stopped screaming and turned into a siren of panic.

The sound which meant that there was now only way Nul was getting out of here alive.

With a soft clatter, the bolt in his hand loaded on the slide, and the infamous [Sure Shot] began to take control. Layering overtop [Enhanced Reflexes] he could feel it focusing his thoughts. Forcing them towards the one thing that mattered.

Vision centered, then narrowed, condensing as if pulled to a translucent coin in the center of his sight. Distantly, he could hear the others. Their practiced shouts were meant to call further attention away from his presence as they shot for the second time.

Useless.

The [Barrier] spell shattered the attacks, and the Mage didn’t show any signs of stopping. Shouts were raised, but the words were lost.

Already, that all seemed much too far off: the skill had grown deeper.

Target.

His mind was on the target, and the outside world was becoming difficult to determine, as the visual of what was down the rail pulled his body towards alignment. Every fiber of his being was ready to release the string and loose the bolt, draining him by the second. It wanted him to shoot, and willpower alone was keeping that from happening.

Nul wasn’t ready yet.

[Sure Shot] was just a tool- a necessary implement, but in this case it would be useless alone. The [Barrier] was still up, and even if he shot now, nothing would change. He would hit the target, and it would be stopped early. At best, a minor injury, likely nothing more.

But it wouldn’t be on its own.

[Cascade] hummed to life within his weapon. [Quicken] followed suit. The bolt would hit twice, and both with three times the speed. [Pierce] activated, ready to breach armor and shields alike. All of his skills, hard-earned on the battlefield, combining into one attack.

Which left Nul one final trick: the bolt itself.

Wasting no motion as he twisted the arrow head with a nimble grip. The wood began to glow, patterns filling in alone the entire length.

A Runic arrow.

On the fair market, they went for anyways upwards of three hundred gold. Expensive indeed, be they relic or replica, but at times like this, Nul felt they were worth every piece. Worth every coin, down to the last copper. If he wanted something dead, no matter what it was, this would get the job done.

He felt the power sap out of him as the weapon tuned in his hands. Power creeping out toward the rails of the crossbow. Visibly there was nothing, but Nul could feel them. Humming under immense pressure: the culmination of years, decades in the job, layering his strongest talents, one after the other. Together, they would become unstoppable.

Now, all Nul needed to do was take a few steps forward and…

Hold.

Nul stopped short, target aligned, shot ready, but in his mind’s eye, the [Spell Sense] was going crazy. No longer just a cyclone of dust and ashes, no longer just ambient warnings around him: the scene was changing. To his far right, something was happening.

Distantly, he could hear curses and yells.

[Sure Shot] tunnel-vision wasn’t going to release him to check, but he could hear it wasn’t good.

The skill prodded at him, like the urge to swallow a sip of ale after a long day. It wanted him to fire, to send certain death forward: but Nul resisted. He needed to be certain this hit not just the target- he needed to know that when he fired, it was over.

Through the [Barrier] the figure was turning, aligning their body. Just a little more, and he’d have it. Not just the rib, the lung- but the heart. They were almost there-

[Spell Sense]

It couldn’t get any louder. Mana was moving, and fast. There was a spell coming, and it was directed towards him. He needed to shoot.

The target was right there. He needed to end this.

At the same time, everything else in his body was telling him that he needed to run.

The spell was coming, like a tidal wave on the coast- there would be no escape if he didn’t move. [Spell Sense] and [Sure Shot] were clashing against one another, battling for dominance in his mind.

Compromise.

Both.

Nul fired.

The string on his crossbow snapped from the force, the limbs shattered, but the bolt was freed. It flew, and it did so with perfection. Though Nul knew where it was heading, he couldn’t follow it with his eyes. Instead, he could only see the phantom traces of [Cascade] as the attack split. Somewhere in the distance, he felt it hit the [Barrier] then pass through.

He felt it hit again.

The heart.

Certain death. In that instant of time, Nul was sure of it.

Even as his mind was staggered, the weight of his skills released all at once pummeled him back into awareness. His vision expanded all at once, world widening to the point of overwhelming, as the impact to his shoulder from the crossbow’s recoil forced his boots to skid backwards. Nul rode along with this as he let the skill [Lesser Dodge] kick in: throwing him further backwards with not a second to lose.

The remains of his crossbow were ripped from his hands: the weapon smashed to shards in an explosion of force that peppered him with shrapnel.

[Lesser Dodge] was activated once again, skill draining him greedily as he continued rolling further, back out of whatever attack had just landed.

He just had to hold out. Any second now, they would fall. They would bleed out in the dirt, just like anyone else- and yet, [Skill Sense] didn’t let up.

“Just die!” Nul shouted, as he drew a bolt from the quiver on his back. His weapon was gone, his skills were drained, his body was exhausted. He was at his wit’s end, and all around him: magic was forming.

Ashes were swirling, descending on him like a swarm of locusts. There were spells- Light help him: there were spells everywhere! It was as if the whole world was wrapped up in it, forming and shaping around him. [Spell Sense] was in disarray, as it tried to draw his attention in all directions-

He pivoted, dodging just in time as something erupted from the ground to find himself face to face with a serpent: a monster, made entirely of stone.

Sand, he realized. Its body shifting ever so naturally as the stone of the streets broke and reformed beneath it. The ground dissolved as it moved, stripped from where it had been laying undisturbed, to grow into the beast before him, The air around it, as well: dirt and fragments lifting in spinning chaos as sand and ash pulled from the wind, fixing themselves into larger clumps of stone.

With every passing second, it grew larger.

“AGGGGGG-“ To his far right, a scream cut off, and Nul glanced in time to watch one of his men be pulled down under a mass of solid rock.

The ground. Light help him, it was pulling them in!

Nul jumped, watching in horror as the stone beneath his feet gave way like an eggshell: pieces crumbling to an absence of solid material. If he hadn’t moved, he would have fallen- more than enough for his legs to have been locked down by the magic in motion.

Jumping had been the right choice, the escape had been his only viable option, yet Nul knew it had also been the wrong one. Airborne now, several feet above the ground, carried on the motion of his jump: he knew it was over.

This was the end.

One backwards leap of last resort- something done on instinct, and not with any sort of calculated plan. He’d been forced to the action or be trapped, but that was what it wanted. Looking back to his immediate opponent only confirmed this, [Enhanced Reflexes] returning as he watched as the serpent of stone opened its jaws, edges curling as if in a twisted grin. The magic had forced him into a position that he’d have no further escape.

In the air, there was nothing for him to interact with, no walls to kick, no ground to step from. As a warrior, he had no skills to change this situation. Time seemed to slow as Nul racked his mind for any skill that might save him- anything he could do as those massive stone jaws approached.

"Shit." He whispered.

There was nothing.

........................................................

 

[Eveth]

 

As Eveth knew them, spells were complicated. They could be replicated, taught, and adjusted, but at their core lay a process that was difficult to explain. The more one knew of spells and the logic which held the together, the more it was impossible to see the world without that same logic creeping in.

Knowledge, of how the smallest pieces formed together. Fragments which became strands, became layers, became disconnected forces linked only by the smallest bridges. Yet, all of them moved as one. All this, to form just one spell, but what was in front of her now, was not one spell.

It was thousands.

Rearranging, adjusting themselves to line the air as dust swirled upwards. Eveth could see them, watching the mana within as they changed. From complicated, to simple, to impossible patterns that mirrored total chaos from afar- all depending on how close in Eveth peered. Inches from her face, the magic was just a single spell, perhaps two, and nothing more than basic manipulation, but farther out: those multiplied. Again and again: they grew exponentially. There were layers- alignments and the crossing interactions between them that her mind couldn’t completely understand.

Not completely: an important distinction, as Eveth found she understood just enough.

There was a motive behind the colossal storm of mana raising the soil up around her. How it worked, exactly, was lost in the vastness of itself, but she could understand what it was trying to achieve. She only needed a portion, or an outline. She needed to scale back, beyond the details. No matter how rough her interpretation might diverge from the exact, the framework, that outline- was what mattered.

It pained her to look at it.

This was far beyond what she claimed to know. Just watching it, Eveth felt as if her skull itself might shatter, just in trying to get a grasp on what was being manifested.

But she didn’t need to.

Just the purpose: the end result what they were trying to do, not how they were trying to do it. It didn’t matter how curious she was, all she needed was their intent. What they were trying to achieve…

She could see what it wanted.

The spells wanted to raise her up from the basement, but it wasn’t.

Why?

Eveth stared, mesmerized as the mana moved. Everything it could ever need and more, was all there. Yet, the spell wasn’t forming. Why wasn’t it forming? Everything they wanted, everything they were commanding the magic to do: it was all there. It was all there.

So why?

She looked closer.

Closer still.

Even if she couldn't understand the spells, she could see the trends.

There was a similarity.

There was a gap: blank space.

As if someone had come in with a knife, and cut between the “if” and “then.” Like a guillotine had come down, and chopped the magic, itself.

The spells were there, but separated.

The longer Eveth stared, the more she felt she could see- could understand, if barely. Even if that comprehension was fleeting as the wind, she was sure of it now: there was an infinitely small space. The final connections couldn’t form, and as a result, the force that guided them simply couldn’t reach… but by the Light, were they trying.

Efforts were reforming, trying to find a way around the empty space. Trying to sneak past, to run through, to overwhelm.

That was the cyclone. Airborne soil, disorganized and random fragments breaching through, trying to act on a command. Wild, rampant: it was beautiful as it was terrifying.

Eveth wanted that power.

She wanted to command it. To possess something like that, which put her life’s work to shame. The realization wasn’t jealousy, but inspiration. 

She wanted this to work. Wanted to see it come to life.

Pieces, portions: everywhere, there was something new. There, was a pillar, a reinforcement- a breaking and shattering, a molding: pieces and pieces and pieces all moving as one, forcing forward on the power of immense will. Strength that could raise the ground beneath her feet, could press them forward to the street above, could carve them into shapes and specters. Impossible strength, only it was bottled up.

Trapped.

Was it really, though?

Earth was a stubborn element. Eveth could never hope to command in the way it needed, not even just in the act of completing what was attempting to take place, but what if she tried? If she reached for the reins herself and threw herself at the task? What the magic couldn’t do alone, Eveth might complete in part.

She certainly couldn’t with Earth, but instead… Soul?

Flawed... it would be flawed. There was no way something like that could be exact, the effectiveness would be reduced, perhaps as much as half... but it was plausible.

Eveth knew it could be done.

One step further than reinforcement of an element, one step behind that of its own spell: the magic was already there. What was called for wasn’t that she needed to control it, so much as that she simply needed to fill it in. Not to commanded it, but simply connect the pieces.

Simple, really… just fill them in, piece by missing piece. All one… two… tens of thousands of them.

No, that wasn’t going to work. She would need years: there was no way she could focus enough to delicately complete the connections that this magic demanded. Eveth knew it couldn’t be done, but what if…

What if she threw details aside?

If she didn’t even try to be precise, or accurate, at all? If she took all her mana, poured it out atop the magic like a flask overturned, maybe-

The ground swelled.

Eveth felt her legs give way, as her reserves began to empty. All at once, she was down from three fourths of her potential, to half, to a quarter.

More.

MORE.

It took, drank her mana like a person dying of thirst. The magic was taking- stealing, grasping for her as its source: unwilling to let go.

“IT IS TIME.”

Her mind was abuzz, voice in her skull changing shape. No longer was it a being of reason, of familiarity. It was something else.

“LET THEM KNOW FEAR. LET THEM COWER.”

Two bolts flew towards her, shattering useless on her [Barrier]

Eveth retaliated. [Barrage] unleashed towards the ground below… below? She was in the air?

 

No, she wasn't in the air: the ground had lifted her here. The Guild’s basement had swelled, changed to something else. She watched as more magic began to from, booming voice in her mind changing to mad laughter.

“YOU WILL NOT ESCAPE.”

She couldn't think.

There was too much happening, too many spells at work.

A bolt flew towards her, glowing fiercely. With brutal force, it smashed into her barrier.

Through her barrier.

Her chest.

She felt it, as the shaft passed through. She felt it break skin, bone, blood, organ-

[LIVE]

Mana exploded.

Eveth felt the world tilting. She was on the street? The stone itself was carrying her- the wound was gone. The pain was gone.

“NO ONE STEALS FROM ME.”

It was gone? How was it gone? There was blood on her shirt, and mana…

Gods, there was so much mana. Everywhere, in her eyes it was swimming, blinding. It burned. Lords above, it burned. Her mana?

She gasped, coughing as she spit out sand and ash. There was almost nothing left. She had to stop, had to stop now before she collapsed-

“YOU WILL DO NO SUCH THING, HUMAN.”

The voice crushed her.

The words weren’t a command, they were an absolute. The stone began rising beneath her forcing her up, disassembling into the wind as soon as: pillars falling away as if nothing but dust.

“YOU ARE CHOSEN. YOU WILL SERVE.”

Her mind was spinning. She wanted to fall, but she couldn’t. She just couldn’t! The mana, everywhere: so much mana. Logic, precision, patterns-

“TOGETHER WE WILL-“

The voice shook, wavered.

“WE WILL- stop!”

 It shook again, rattling in her skull.

“STOP? WE- will stop! Stop, stop, stop! Enough already!”

The whole world was vertigo. She was standing? She was falling? Everything around her was a blur.

“What?” She was asking a question, and hearing it rattle on in an endless loop.

Quieter, and quieter…

“Eveth, it’s over. We’ve got them.”

“We… got them?” Her question seemed far away.

“Yeah, just relax.” The normal voice had returned, once more. The thunderous shouts were gone, blocked?

Eveth didn’t know. All she knew was the ground. She could see the ground, the beautiful ground.

“Hey! Eveth? Are you alright? Eveth?”

Eveth slumped down, hands touching the warm stone gingerly as her mind raced. It was so simple, so peaceful, but beneath its surface: it was all there. She could still remember, for this moment, how she’d seen it. Genius- no, more than genius. This was like she’d managed to peer beyond the curtain. Hundreds of spells, hundreds of patterns, thousands of potential avenues for application and-

She threw up.

“Oh.”

Twice.

“Oh geez.” The familiar chill of healing filled her veins. Dizzily, she stood back up. “Maybe you should take it easy…”

“I’m fine.” She wiped her mouth, contemplating the urge to crouch back down.

“Yeah, well you don’t look fine.”

“I’m completely-“ Eveth gritted her teeth, as she held back another wave. “-fine.” She said.

“If you say so.”

Taking a deep breath, Eveth released it with a long sigh. Then another… then another. The spinning sensation was settled now, and she had her bearings. They were on the street, somehow. She couldn’t remember how they’d gotten here.

Everywhere she looked, there was evidence of the fight. Buildings scorched, walls melted, stone morphed…

“Did we get out with Earth magic?” She asked, glancing at the pile of fine sand around her feet.

“Yeah, I think I made a… pillar? Added some additional features, but it was something like that.”

“Where are the they?”

“Down for the count. Wounded guy is wrapped up that way, there’s that dead guy over there… another two of them are stuck in that brick wall over there, so they might get out… eventually. The last one is… well, just mind your step.”

Eveth glanced back down, tactfully ignoring her own contributions atop the stone work. There, only a few paces away, she could see a… face.

Just a face, barely above the surface of the stone.

It stared at here, intensely.

“Mercy.” The face gasped. “Please, mercy.”

“Gods.” Eveth took a step back.

“Mercy… mercy. Please, I’ll pay. I’ve got gold. Please… it’s hard… to breathe…”

Eveth stared, dumbfounded. The man’s face was just that: the rest of the body was entirely engulfed.

“Why didn’t you just kill them?” Eveth asked quietly. The snake around her neck shifted slightly. “Why not just kill them and be done with it?”

“That’s... that's not what I’m here to do.”

“You’re not…” Eveth stopped short. It was a non-answer if she’d ever heard one. “Fine, I’ll do it.”

“Please… please…” The man’s begging hadn’t let up. “If it’s not gold… I’ve got… other things… anything you want… anything.”

“Anything?” As the serpent spoke in Eveth’s head, she could feel something shifting. “He said anything, right?”

Was that the feeling of interest? No… not quite, but close. Somehow, it was more complex. Eveth wasn’t sure what to make of it.

“That’s what he says.” Eveth muttered as she lifted her staff experimentally. It felt heavy, like lifting something made of iron. Her body was tired: this was the lowest her reservoir had been in years.

“Hmm… hey, hold on a second.” Around her neck, the Basilisk was unwinding. “I’ll be right back.”

Rapidly, the serpent weaved away, down her arm and then down her staff. Seconds later, it had coiled around the man’s face.

Eveth saw mana pulsing.

Healing magic. Faith always seemed like gibberish to her, but it seemed like “wrong” gibberish this time.

“Please… please… I’ll do it. I will. I swear- anything.” The man’s eyes almost rolled back in his skull, as he gasped. “I do! I do! Yes, I swear it! I swear on my mother’s grave! Yes! On my father’s knife! I swear! I will! I've got it, yes!”

Eveth listened to the one-sided conversation as this continued.

The man’s face contorted, spasmed, and then finally reach a calm. Apparently satisfied with the outcome, the Basilisk returned to its perch by the same route it had left. Just as before, it returned so with uncomfortable speed.

Eveth stopped to consider that.

Small as it was, the snake seemed almost unnaturally quick. Come to think of it, beneath the fatigue, her hand still hurt a little…

“-and so anyways, long story made short, we can cut him loose.” The voice returned, halfway through whatever it had been trying to tell her. “He’s clear.”

“What?” Eveth asked, blinking.

“We can let him go.”

“We can what?” Eveth coughed, spitting out what she hoped was dirt “This fucker was trying to kill us! I’m pretty sure he shot me, and you want him back on his feet?” She felt at her chest.

She’d been shot, hadn’t she? She could have sworn...

The snake seemed to pay her protests little mind.

“Yeah, we can unearth him a bit. Not all the way on his feet, maybe more like… halfway? Doesn’t matter, he’s not going to try anything.”

“How the hell do you know that?”

“We talked it over. Reached an agreement.”

“You talked it over.”

“It’s pretty weird how you worded that as a question, but somehow didn’t ask anything.”

“We can’t let him live. He’ll be after us as soon as we turn out backs”

“Hey, now- hold on just a second. He’s not going to be killing anyone any time soon, and he’s-“

“ALL HAIL THE TINY SNAKE GOD!” Eveth turned, as the face in the pavement shouted. “I AM FAITHFUL! ALL HAIL!”

“You did not just…” Eveth stopped, as the man’s eyes locked on to her with intensity.

“ALL HAIL THE TINY SNAKE GOD! I SERVE, I AM LOYAL!” The man shouted, gasping for air between, with ragged breaths. His gaze was wild. “I AM FAITHFUL!”

“See that, Eveth? Problem solved.”

“No.”

“Yes. Completely solved.”

“No, snake. That’s… that’s the opposite of a solved problem.” Eveth stared at the man’s face, as he struggled, trying to shout- but also desperately trying to breath in his confinement. “What the hell did you say to him?”

“Oh… yeah. It wasn’t really me doing the talking. Healing magic has been having some side effects recently, but… uh… yeah. There was a conversation, and it all worked out.”

“Side effects?" Eveth stopped. "You mean that second voice, don't you?”

“What? Oh, that's not important. Don't worry about it. Anyways, he has something on him that we need.”

“Like what, a dagger to stab us with?”

“I AM FAITHFUL! I AM!” The man shouted again, eyes moving wildly as around Eveth’s feet, the sand began to spin. “FAITHFUL! ALL HAIL!”

Earth magic was forming now. She could already see the mana in the air, element just waiting for her to reach out. There in the sand, were endless patterns, power just waiting to be tapped into. She could already feel the nausea rising, accompanied by the taste of bile.

“No, Eveth. Not a dagger.” Around her neck, the Basilisk turned to her with a long hiss, moving until its tongue flicking out just inches in front of her nose. “He's got your bounty paper.”