29. A Clash of Wind
“This isn`t working!” I threw my arms out in frustration, the pathetic shield of fire faltering.
“You need to be more patient, solidify your mind, and it will,” Aramis advised, pressing his folded arms tightly to his chest. We`ve been at this for two days, trying to keep the shield up, to not let anything through.
My head was hurting as much as my aching limbs did. Perhaps I shouldn`t be training directly after work? It had absorbed all the energy out of me that I sometimes blacked out at night without even washing.
I thanked whatever gods were listening for the absence of the king in my bedroom these past two days, for my appearance was far from presentable. Not to mention I had no wisp of energy left.
I heard a snort coming from behind me, and that only intensified my annoyance.
“Mind your own business,” I told her, my tone venomous.
That only resulted in her laughing. “I can’t help how utterly miserable you look,” she heaved the basket of dead plants in her hands, moving to hover at my side. “It`s amusing me in my forsaken state.”
“Glad I could get a laugh out of you,” I smiled at her, though my smile was nothing sweet, “but perhaps you should learn to keep your amusement to yourself.”
Those ethereal white-silver eyes gleamed with challenge, and her mouth curled up in a smirk. “Perhaps you should make me?”
The air around us seemed to thicken, was it her magic or the growing tension, I did not know. And I did not care.
I would happily burn that smirk right off her face.
A pointed cough cut the silent fight between us. “Easy you two,” King Calix warned, though his eyes remained on the canvas before him, stroking it lightly with his brush. “We don`t want to ruin the garden now.”
Elsie grinned and bowed her head. “Of course not, Your Majesty,” she then winked at me. “Keep practicing.”
I pursued my lips, watching her hum and go back to cleaning the garden. She didn`t seem all that bothered with it unlike the first time she came down here. That was a lovely sight to watch; her cursing and huffing every time she bent to pick up torn out roots or withered flowers. But now she seemed to delight in her work –or more specifically delight in watching my failings.
“You shouldn`t fight amongst yourself,” Aramis said, “you`re supposed to band together.”
I scoffed. “She was the one who attacked me in the first place. And I don`t see how we`ll work together.”
He shook his head, clearly disapproved. “You must, for you are the one to bind them together.”
Without meaning to, a grimace escaped out of me. “Yeah. I still don`t get what`s that about. Care to explain?”
His eyes rolled at my feline smile. “I don`t know everything, Mistress.”
“You know a lot…”
“Still…” he sighed, scratching the back of his neck. “I`m not familiar with it, for the four of you never existed in the same time before. But I think it has to do with leading them, keeping them in order.”
My stomach lurched at that, and my face twisted in dislike. “I`m not really fit for that. I can barely keep myself in order.”
He looked as if he was searching for something in my face, a frown carved deeply on his mouth, then he shrugged. “Oh well, all in good time. Now,” he clapped his hands together, “practice!”
I involuntarily groaned, straightening my back and closing my eyes.
Screw being a full Slifer!
I`ll just build a career around catching gremlins –it seems to be the only thing I`m good at.
My better judgment and my common sense glared down at me, and I wanted to smash something –preferably the Book of Decimus. Why was it so hard to form a shield, or more accurately to contain it?
Aramis left earlier, and I was sitting cross-legged on the grass alone in the dark, grasping for every string in my mind to hold the damn shield. It took more restraint than I ever thought. It certainly wasn`t like creating that fire snake, were it seeped out of me in a thrill. No, this was like trying to keep the fire inside.
The clouded moon and the chirping of insects were my only companions, and I was beginning to tire.
Actually, that was a lie. I`ve felt tired from the moment we began this lesson, like my mind wouldn`t function properly. But I kept pushing myself, kept pressing on that tether in my head that held everything together.
I willed the shield to still, a familiar warmth against my face, around my body.
It rose out of every pore within me, but unless I gripped it tight, it would curl right back.
Even my breath seemed to gather in my lungs, suffocating me. But I did not yield, did not sway. It shouldn`t be hard now, the shield is formed. But keeping it that way, keeping myself encased in flames…
A gust of air came right at me, and I gritted my teeth and steeled my mind. Hold it, Lydia! Do not let it back in you.
My fire appeared to listen, solidifying around me like a shell, and the faint smell of something burning entered my nose. Well, that`s another shirt down the drain.
But I didn`t give one care, because it was working, slowly. The barrier wasn`t just upright, but it was staying there, warming the very air. I felt my mouth twitch in a smile, not having to open my eyes to know that a wall of fire enclosed around me. But not quite touching me, because I didn`t want to burn all my clothes and walk back to my room naked.
Nevertheless, I did it –or at least thought so until a stronger draft breezed by, creating holes within my shield.
I growled, breaking my concentration, the fire disappearing.
It turned off like a damn candle.
It`s still too weak, too thin.
But that wind was oddly specific to blow in my direction, almost as if it was targeting my shield. And as if hearing my thoughts, a feminine but malevolent giggle confirmed my suspicion.
I bared my teeth at her as I opened my eyes. “Do you have something better to do than constantly ruin my day?”
She was standing with that catlike grin on her lips, her shoulder-length hair a beacon of grey and white under the silver moon. The Slifer mark on her neck glimmered as brightly as her eyes.
“I was only curious about how you were faring,” she said almost innocently, though there was nothing innocent on her face. Her glimmering eyes trailed over me, and she clicked her tongue. “I see nothing of interest happened yet.”
I bit back my irritation, getting off the grass. “Why are you so keen on watching me? I mean, do you really think it`s a coincidence that you happen to come down to do your work during my lessons with Aramis?”
She lifted her hands in surrender, that smile still intact. “Busted, I guess.”
“Why?” I repeated.
She pretended to think, pursing her lips. I didn`t fail to notice that the air around us seemed to chill, growing colder. And even mist started to form between the bushes and shrubs. What the hell was she up to?
With a shrug, she said, “I want to know when you`re finally going to grace us with your full powers. The other two are getting there. But you…you`re different.”
I didn’t say anything as the mist grew thicker.
Something dark glinted on her face, and that smile vanished. “I don`t really understand why you`re supposed to be the most powerful. You`re the weakest of us.”
“Why, thank you.” I smirked.
“If you ask me, it`s not fair,” her eyes narrowed, tilting her head to the side. “Why should we wait for you to grow strong? Why should you to be the one to bind us?”
A sense of danger struck me, creeping underneath my skin like insects. She`s up to something...
The wind bearer took a step forward, and I took a step back.
“As oppose to who, exactly? You?” I said with more bravado than I felt. I would be damned if I showed any fear towards her. She didn`t scare me, only made my stomach fill with dread –caution.
“Well, I`m certainly much suitable,” she smiled thinly, “and I don`t need a trigger to own up to my full potential.”
“How do you know all of this?”
A part of me couldn`t shake the vexed feeling in my gut that she knew so much, and I had only learned these things recently. If Aramis hadn`t told me, I probably still wouldn`t know a thing.
She raised a sleek grey-white eyebrow. “Do you think your messenger is the only one with information? Trinivan has one of the oldest libraries, and it doesn`t take much digging in to find old manuscripts about Slifers. They were probably copied throughout the years. Wouldn`t be surprised if this palace has one.”
“And your problem with me is…”
She bared her teeth in a crooked grin. “I don`t have a problem with you. On the contrary, I would like to see how you bloom. If you can indeed burn the earth from its core. After all, it is our honor to prove ourselves to the gods.”
“And is that what you want,” I asked, one eye upon the startlingly creeping mist, “honor?”
Her eyes shined with a knowing brightness, as she folded her hands behind her. “Honor…and glory.”
My eyebrows rose at that. “And here I thought you wanted to protect your king.”
“Protecting my king will bring me glory, and everlasting pride. I will be written down in history books. My story will be told throughout centuries.”
I couldn`t say I was surprised of her arrogance, but to say it so blatantly.
Without much of a thought, I said, “Do you not care for your king?”
Those eyes never wavered. “Only for his safety. Otherwise, no. Do you care for yours?”
The question felt like a bile tightening around my throat. I almost screamed at her that I didn`t, that my instinct that day with the wizard hunters wasn`t to protect him especially. I didn`t care for him, only tolerated his presence, as he did mine.
But I didn`t feel like telling her that.
“And what do you want?” The way she tilted her head was almost like a predator.
I didn`t see any use of lying to her. “I want to be strong.”
“So that`s not so different from – “
“…to protect the people I love. Not for anything as trifle as self-glorifying.”
Her eyes narrowed dangerously. “Trifle, you say? You think having power is trifle?”
“If you use it for that, I guess.”
She snorted a laugh. “Who would have thought you were a righteous one? Well, if you want to be strong, do you mind if I test you for a bit?”
My teeth grinded against each other, noting how the mist hid her body as if it was swallowing it. “You`ll not ruin the garden again!”
Her laugh echoed, those eyes glowing amidst the white fog. “Don`t worry, I won`t ruin it. But you should be more concerned about yourself.”
I knew she was up to something…
My body tensed, closing off in defense as the fog grew thicker and thicker, until she half-way disappeared within in. It slithered towards me like a serpent, and I used my magic to ignite a fireball in my hand. With this fog, no one would be able to see us, or anything of the garden for that matter.
She didn`t take her time, but struck fast. A whip of air that felt like glass flew from the mist, snapping violently against my face.
I hissed at the stinging pain, not being fast enough to dodge it –or see it. Something warm trickled down my cheek, and from the coppery smell I didn`t need to check to know what it was.
“You need to be faster than that,” she called from the dense smoke.
Not soon after, another hit sprouted my way, but I was able to block it with my arm –well not completely, for it still made a long slice down my forearm, the pain jolting through every vein. A gasp came out of me at the sight of blood running down my skin and soaking my white sleeve.
She didn`t let me breathe, for she kept sending one after one. Every hit felt like a piece of glass was being wedged into my flesh. I had dodged most of them, but not soon after I managed to evade one, another whip appeared from behind me and tore through my back.
I shrieked as I was forced on my knees, my eyes blurry and black spotted. I tried to construct a shield, but it was nothing compared to her wind. It broke apart from the first whip. I inhaled a deep breath, numbing the pain, and unleashed a fireball at her.
It was brushed away with a single gust.
My back sang with agony, the flesh throbbing, but I mustered all of my strength to stand on my feet.
“You have guts, I give you that.” Even though I couldn`t see it, I could feel her smirk.
The only thing I could see were her legs, appearing as if they were floating through the wisps of fog. If I can`t attack her with my magic, then I`ll try to tackle her to the ground. She seemed to rely on her magic too much. If I can find an opening…
She gave me one.
A lash of wind launched for me, and I ducked down as it slashed over my head.
I ran for her as fast as my throbbing legs could go, grinding my teeth when the pain screamed in my head, demanding to be treated. My vision almost failed, feeling like either I was spinning or my surroundings did. But I pushed all that aside, pushed myself aside, as I lunged for her and threw my fist, hoping it would collide with flesh.
She barked a laugh. “Ha! Do you really think I would fall for the same – “
Those moon-white eyes widened when I hunched my body to the ground, crouched, then swept my feet underneath her own. She tumbled off, losing her balance as she fell straight on her ass.
I smirked, a wicked delight filling me despite my state. And before she could move an inch, I stepped on her face, hearing the unmistaken sound of bones cracking. The sound brought more joy to me than anything else lately.
“You might be strong in magic,” I squatted down to whisper to her unconscious head, “but you need to get those arms and legs moving.”
And with that, I left her lying on the grass with a bleeding nose.
Blood dribbled down my back and onto the shiny floors, and I felt slightly guilty for the trail of red I left behind as I made my way to my room. But that didn`t exceed the feeling of the burning pain that seemed to seep to my bones. With every step I took, a whimper broke out of my lips, my body suddenly felt ten times heavier.
That bitch struck deep. I`m sure she had torn flesh apart, and if I didn`t get the proper treatment it might scar.
I just hope that her nose was permanently broken.
The throbbing didn`t ease, not with every step I climbed up the stairs, and it only intensified to the point my vision was losing out.
My breath came out in heavy gasps, feeling as if every time I inhaled air it added salt to the wound.
I just needed to get to my room. Maybe I could tell Luxus to fetch some help…or maybe I could sleep and all that would go away in the morning.
But I was dragging myself at this point, the cuts on my thighs weighing me down, and the one on my back like a giant boulder pressed there.
I wanted to throw up, but my mind seemed to focus only on the blaring pain, feeling like chunks of glass being wedged inside my skin.
Reaching the top of the stairs was like crawling with my legs sawed off. I nearly lost my balance when my eyes were filled with spots, almost falling back. But I steadied a hand on the rail, pinning my feet to the ground.
It managed to stop me from tumbling backwards, but my head still spun, my eyes still blinked back tears.
But I was close…so close.
My legs were refusing to cooperate –at least not in the way I wanted them to. Each step was shorter and heavier than the other, and I was leaning on the wall for support, but that only did a little.
Nonetheless, small relief washed over me when I spotted the doors to my bedroom.
But my eyes must have stopped working or something, because I could see what seemed to be a lump of shadows gathered at the front –or that`s how it looked like to me.
When I itched closer, every breath like a sharp blade being run down my throat, that lump of shadows moved, turned. And a face appeared, but my hazy vision only allowed me to look upon a pair of eyes that seemed to have a storm gathered in each one.
Those eyes widened, and a deep voice spoke, “What happened…”
I didn`t hear the rest, for my body completely crashed down, shutting off. Everything turned black, and I could sense myself falling, expecting the cold floor to kiss my face.
But it wasn`t the floor that greeted me, but an unfamiliar warmth.
“She`s waking up.” Luxus` voice swam in my head, but all I could focus on was the unusual feeling of numbness down my back.
I knew I was in a bed –likely mine –for the smell of my pillows was familiar. I could sense someone coming to sit beside me for the mattress sunk, and the hand that was lightly stroking my spine was delicate.
“Lydia, can you hear me?”
It was the princess, for who else possessed such a gentle sound. I groaned my answer, my head buzzing as my eyes fluttered open to see her worried pretty face hovering over me.
It`s then I realized I was lying on my stomach, bare of any clothes except for my undies. Instead of flipping to my back, I hugged the pillow I currently had my face buried in.
“I feel like shit,” I told her, grimacing at my croaky voice.
Every joint in my body pulsed –not from the searing pain, I gathered, but from a strange achiness. Still I felt exhausted, too tired to even lift a finger.
She smiled faintly, relief dawning her expression. “You`re fine. Just a little rest is all you need.”
“What happened?” the words were hard to form, “how did I end up here?”
From the corner of my eyes, I could see shadows stilling, until they moved a couple of inches to be within my sight. His face was as expressionless as always, but an odd calm painted the king`s face, as if he was calculating how best to skin someone alive.
Lis glanced at her brother, at the strange way he looked at my broken down body. “Gabriel called for me. He said he found you with those injuries.” Then she steered her attention at me and said, “May I ask what happened?”
Just the memory made me recall the pain inflicted on me, even if the wound was no longer there. “Elsie –the Wind Slifer –her and I had a little match.”
The princess`s brown eyes widened, drifting over my exposed skin. “She did that to you?”
Despite my state, I grinned. “You should see her face. I believe she`s still unconscious in the garden.” At the mention of the garden, dread filled those eyes, so I quickly added, “Don`t worry. The garden is safe.”
Still, her face hardened as she turned to her brother. “This is unacceptable, Gabriel,” she told him, her tone stern. “We must have a word with Calix. If he wishes to have a place for her in the palace, he better keeps her in order.”
“I agree. This won`t be tolerated,” the king stated, something lethal lacing his words even though he seemed like he tried to mask it.
“I`m sorry if I`m troubling you,” I said to the two, and meant it.
Lis whirled at me with resolution. “Nonsense, Lydia. That girl will learn to behave or I will see her out myself.”
I had to admit that I was a tad surprised that the princess can even make such threats. Though king Gabriel looked at her with a hint of pride.
I snuggled closer to the plush pillow, finding comfort in the sweet scent, but also feeling a little awkward that I was just lying face down with my back bare while the king and his sister stood at the foot of my bed.
“You should get some rest,” Lis advised –ordered – me. “Don`t go to work tomorrow, and put your lessons with Aramis on hold till the next day. I was able to stop the bleeding, but the cuts were so deep that I`m afraid there`s a high chance it would scar.”
My eyes rounded, though I did not feel disappointed.
She noted my expression, and her own softened. “I`m sorry. I did my best, but the cuts were made with such a strong magic that you`re lucky enough it didn`t bleed out and kill you.”
I cracked a thin smile. “It`s alright, I don`t mind a few scars. Thank you, Lis.”
She brushed a couple hairs from my face gently, and I blushed a little at the unaccustomed gesture. I`ve never had someone do that for me, and to have a woman like her do it as if I was someone dear to her…it`s overwhelming.
“Gabriel,” she didn`t look at her brother as she covered my body with a warm blanket, “watch out for her, will you? I`ll go fetch some servants to help me clean the blood in the halls, and possibly remove an unconscious Slifer from my garden.”
I cringed when she mentioned the blood. “Sorry.”
She didn`t mind me, but gave a stern look at her brother, as if telling him to not do anything stupid. He raised an eyebrow at her, and a silent conversation went between the siblings before she exited out of the door.
Luxus patted his paw on my cheek, and I smiled weakly as I attempted to get up.
“You shouldn`t move. Lis will kill me if she knew I let you roam about.” His voice was authoritative, but not harsh.
“I only want to grab something to wear,” I said, hissing slightly at the terrible stiffness in my muscles.
The covers slid off my naked form, crumbling around my waist, and I rushed to cover my breasts, my whole skin suddenly heating.
I didn`t mistake the sharp hitch of his breath. “You don`t need to cover yourself, Lydia. I`ve already seen and touched everything.”
My cheeks flamed at that, and Luxus jumped off the bed and retreated to a corner of the room that he obviously found to be very interesting. I bit the inside of my cheek to hide the annoyance –or the embarrassment.
My lashes lowered, the redness of my face not fading. But instead of staying quiet, I said, “Were you here for…”
I only nodded, distracting myself with trying to raise my body from the bed. I pushed my torso up, but felt like great weights were dangling from my neck, pulling me down. A groan of frustration slipped out of me.
He was there in an instant, pinning my arms to my side and tugging me down to stay rooted on the bed. “Stay,” he said, his face not unkind. “Don`t exhaust yourself.”
Elsie must have wrecked my brain as well if that man before me was the same as the one who looked at me like I was a mere insect.
Tingles went down my spine where his fingers touched, and despite my tired body, my stomach lurched with a known thrill. My breasts, fully exposed before him, seemed to perk up in anticipation. And when those sinful eyes drifted lower, I quickly hunched my back and folded my arms over my chest.
Get your head out of the gutter, Lydia!
To my utter horror, he didn`t fail to notice how I pressed my legs further, as if he knew the heat that started to form between them.
Luxus seemed inclined to go through the wall.
He visibly gulped, snatching his hands away as if my skin burnt them, and without so much as another glance he said, “Stay here, I`ll get you something to put on.”
The king disappeared into my closet, and I blew out a breath and sunk back on the sheets. As if my head wasn`t already spinning, it seemed to endlessly twirl and twirl.
I really needed to get some rest…
A few moments later, he emerged out with a simple long-sleeved beige nightgown. I took it from him, clutching the soft fabric against my skin, and quickly put it on –well, I attempted to.
I cried out when I tried to put it over my head, a stabbing sensation slipping along my back, leaving my arms momentarily immobile. “Shit!” I bit my bottom lip, realizing that my fingers were trembling.
The king cursed silently under his breath, but with one long step he was in front of me.
“She told you not to move, your skin is still raw from the closed wound,” he actually scolded, those black eyebrows furrowed.
I didn`t say anything. The pain knocked out all the words from my mouth. I inhaled through my nose, watching him take the nightdress from my hands.
I resisted the urge to let my jaw drop to the ground when he took one arm and gently slipped it through the sleeve, then did the same to the other one. He tucked my head into the neckline, pulling the dress down. All the while, his eyes were focused as if he was crafting an artwork.
And I now fully believe that my brain stopped working.
“There,” he said, stepping back. “Now sleep.”
I wanted to wash my hair from the dirt, given that the princess cleaned all the blood off my skin, but I doubt the king would let me move an inch. Not to mention I didn`t have the energy to even blink.
So I crept over the silky sheets, sighing blissfully at the total feeling of comfort. My eyelids were getting heavy, and I wanted to welcome the drowsiness with open arms.
But a force made me call out, “Your Majesty…”
A hum was the only indication that he heard me.
I yawned, feeling tears brim as I buried my nose into the pillow, inhaling my scent –his scent. Sleep beckoned to me like a siren, my entire body feeling sedated. It absorbed everything around me, every thought and word.
Before I was completely swept off to the land of slumber, I whispered, “Thank you.”