The Dark Assailant
Row and Minto wait until midnight before approaching the willow tree at the edge of the encampment that makes up the so-called city of Palinthia. They are wearing different clothing after their bath in the river, which they had to buy from the one of the peddler booths. All of Row’s belongings were left behind in Sliver Bay. There was no time to fetch all of her belongings before fleeing in the coach provided by Sir Prandon. Minto did not even bring anything with her when she left her aunt’s brothel.
What they did manage to take with them, they ended up leaving in the coach rather than making the three day trek from the boarder of Lord Goldfrey’s territory to Palinthia with heavy trunks. Instead they each bundled as much linen as they could onto their backs, which they have now left at the travelers’ campsite in the area designated to them by the overseer; the man assigned to watch over the travelers and charge new arrivals for their stay.
The two women find Seamus and Nuve along with several other men standing around a gigantic cauldron over a low burning fire. Seamus is standing on a wooden stool so he can see above the rim of the massive pot while stirring it with a long wooden paddle. “Over here.” Nuve waves to them when he sees them. “You two look ravishing as always.”
“You’re so sweet.” Minto kisses his cheek. Row smiles shyly while thinking about how easily her friend takes a complement from Nuve as opposed to a stranger like Jeric. The strange man they parted ways with at the travelers’ camp is actually present amongst the men surrounding the hanging tree. Apparently he plans to volunteer his services to Kifflan’s ritual.
As if on cue, Kifflan emerges from behind the tree with his arms spread wide to greet the brave men who have chosen to assist his endeavor. He is now wearing a dark cloak with the hood raised but his white face is plainly visible underneath. “What a marvelous turnout,” he greets them with his normal overbearing smile and friendly demeanor. “I was afraid your town had forsaken me.”
“Hail to the demigods!” the men shout proudly. Row notes that Nuve is remaining silent rather than supporting the demigod as she expected him to. He seems to have less of an obsession with Kifflan than either Husk or Wan.
“Thank you, thank you.” Kifflan lowers his arms to calm the crowd. “As you all know, we are here tonight to confront an Each Uisge.” Again a roar of support rings out. “In order to do so I have enlisted the help of my very own sorcerer.” He gestures to Seamus who is still busy stirring his massive cauldron. Again Row notes his lack of enthusiasm. She is beginning to wonder if she should have done more to prevent this current course of events.
“Are you ready, Seamus?” Kifflan asks with enthusiasm in his voice.
“Why is everyone treating this like a festival?” Minto is starting to shiver. “You said an Each Uisge was a horrible thing that ate humans.” She is tugging on Nuve’s sleeve.
“These people have never seen one,” he admits. “With a demigod present, they assume they have nothing to fear. This is a cause for celebration to them.”
“You don’t think Kifflan can handle the Each Uisge, do you?” Minto realizes. “Is he so different from your beloved Wan and Husk?”
“He is.” Nuve stomps his foot angrily. “He is nothing like the noble defenders I knew. He is a wretch who stumbled upon a power he does not understand. Can you tell; he is drunk on the power and support people shower him with? He is obsessed with showing off.”
“So this is a parlor show for him,” Minto surmises. “What happens when he fails?”
“Nothing.” Nuve grits his teeth. “Who will hold him accountable? He’ll just run off like he always does.”
“This has happened before,” Minto gasps. “When?”
“In Glass Gate,” Nuve answers. “A group of ghouls once scaled the walls and killed the outer guards. They rampaged through the streets transforming dozens of people until Lord Glasstien finally agreed to send for a demigod. Kifflan was the first to respond. He arrived in a wagon caravan filled with his fanatic followers all singing his praise. Everyone thought they were saved.”
“But he failed?” Minto cocks her head like she always does when she gains interest in one of Nuve’s stories.
“He chased the ghouls through the street, dealing with their taint on sight.”
“He killed everyone they transformed,” Minto gasps.
“He left a trail of bodies behind him, each with a single wound puncturing a vital organ,” Nuve continues. Minto looks like she might be sick at any moment. “I don’t blame him for that.” Nuve shakes his head. “What else could he have done? There is only one way to cure a ghoul.”
“Then what did he do?” Minto pries. “He obviously caught up to the ghouls responsible, right? He killed them, didn’t he?”
“He set a trap. He lured them into a populated bazaar and hunted down each one while they were busy attacking humans. After destroying the last one, he gazed upon the destruction and proclaimed his victory.”
“And what of the people he let them hurt?” Minto asks while already knowing she is not going to like the answer.
“Rather than wait to see if any of them could be saved, he extinguished the possibility that any of them might transform,” Nuve answers solemnly. “He doesn’t care about humans in the slightest. He just loves the attention he gets. He’ll employ any means to achieve his goals, regardless of the death toll.”
“And you think he’s going to do the same in Palinthia?” Minto gulps.
“I'm sure of it. Look at all these people he’s gathered. What possible use will they be against a massive water hoarse like Each Uisge? The moment any of them get close to it, they’ll adhere to its skin.”
“They’ll what?” Minto is shocked.
“That’s what an Each Uisge does. It traps people who touch it and drags them down into the sea, drowning them before devouring their bodies, bones and all; everything save for their livers.”
“So why did Kifflan bring them all here?” Minto is practically trembling.
“To distract it,” Nuve answers coldly. “They are nothing but a decoy so he can get one good strike on it with his Arma. That’s all it will take.”
Minto spins around, taking in the voices of all of the men nearby. “Fifty, no sixty, maybe even seventy men; that’s the cost of killing one water hoarse? We have to do something.”
“What?” Nuve shrugs.
“I don’t know. We have to tell them. Get them to run as far away as possible.”
“They won’t listen to us,” Nuve sighs. “Besides, it’s already too late.” He grabs her chin and directs her ear toward Seamus, who has already begun the ritual, chanting something indiscernible while splashing the ground with the contents of his cauldron.
“Alright, men, grab a bag of salt and pour it around the base of the tree,” Kifflan shouts at his obedient followers while gesturing to a large stockpile of burlap sacks filled with salt, apparently accumulated by the town under Kifflan’s instruction. “It’ll help purify the beast’s taint and keep it from moving from this spot.”
“How will salt do that?” Minto asks Nuve.
“It has mana in it, just like water,” Row answers while grabbing her shoulder from behind, startling the blind woman.
“I thought you said earth wasn’t like water,” Minto whines while trying to catch her breath.
“Most rock is too mixed but certain pure minerals like salt and quartz work well as barriers of mana. Unless the Each Uisge has a strong enough aura, it will not be able to pass through areas purified by salt.”
“Its aura is strong enough though,” Nuve mutters to himself. Minto is able to hear him though and continues to whimper in fear.
Row saunters back down the slope that Nuve and Minto are standing on so that she is closer to Seamus. “What are you doing?” she asks as he continues to splash the boiling liquid of the cauldron on the ground.
“Performing the ritual,” he answers with a shrug.
“What exactly is this ritual?” Row pushes him to the side of the wooden stool so she can stand on it as well. Seamus’s face turns red as he tries not to fall off. It has been a while since he has seen Row in her younger form and now he is also in his, making him feel the same way he did when they first met. Of course his memory of the moment is from Row’s point of view.
“This is sheep.” Row recognizes the sent of the boiling liquid. “Are you cooking a sheep?”
“Apparently it attracts the Each Uisge.” Seamus shrugs again. He knows little more than she does about the ritual he is performing.
“Why exactly did Kifflan need a full-fledged sorcerer if he was just going to lure the thing out with food?” Row demands angrily. “How incompetent is he?”
“Actually…” Seamus is about to argue when the sound of someone screaming draws their attention away from the cauldron. People are piling over each other to flee in fear as a man is dragged along the ground by his leg. There is a dark rope wrapped around it, leading back up into the tree.
“It’s alive. It’s actually alive,” they cry as they run in all directions pointlessly.
“Calm down,” Kifflan tries to control them. When the rope crosses one of the lines of salt in the grass it bursts into flames, dropping the man on his back before disappearing back into the drooping leaves of the tree.
“Now, Sorcerer!” Kifflan shouts at Seamus.
“Now what?” he asks stupidly.
“Resume the chant. Call to the Each Uisge and convince it to manifest itself.”
“This is never going to work,” Row groans while staring down into the cauldron again. She screams as Seamus suddenly pulls his wooden paddle out, nearly splashing her with the boiling liquid. She steps down off the stool and backs away as he tugs on his sleeves, which are longer than his arms because of his young appearance, until they are covering his hands. He pushes against the side of the cauldron, using his sleeves to keep from burning himself, until the entire pot tips sideways, spilling its contents out onto the ground.
Row can see the bones and pieces of flesh from the sheep she could smell before. Its face is raw from being boiled but it is definitely contorted in pain. It must have been alive when Kifflan and Seamus dropped it into the boiling water. It would make Minto sick as she refuses to eat anything that was once living aside from fish. Row however is not disturbed in the slightest.
The sound of the screaming men picks up again as several more of the dark rope nooses descend to the ground, plucking them up one by one. They are careful not to touch the salt this time and actually manage to pull a good number of people up into the tree. Row’s slightly pointed ears twitch as she hears the tree’s victims bones snapping as they are slammed against every branch on the way up.
“We’re all going to die!” the men shout as they continue to run around in a panic. Nuve, who had been higher on the hill and closer to the tree, scoops Minto up in his arms and starts to run down the slanted plain. He does not even stop to help the other men as they attempt to follow him down the hill.
“The demigod lied to us,” the men are finally aware of their true purpose.
Kifflan rolls his eyes at the pathetic sight before him. He had hoped that the Each Uisge would manifest itself properly before it began to thin the number of sacrifices he brought it. He is tossing his long athamé up and down in his hand, feeling the weight of the heavy rippled blade as he waits for the Each Uisge to show itself. He will not be able to attack it until he has a clear opening to kill it with a single blow.
“Do something,” the men scream at him as he stands at a safe distance, in a circle of salt he poured around himself at least a foot high.
“You're a coward. The demigods are all cowards.”
“You may be right about it but it won't matter,” Kifflan sighs. “If you survive, I'll be your savior and no one will believe otherwise.”
“Seamus, we have to stop this.” Row shakes her servant by the shoulders from behind. “Kifflan’s obviously mad.”
“It’s too late,” Seamus argues. “The Each Uisge is coming.” He gestures up at the branches of the tree, which have begun to twist and bend. They are wrenching themselves into a different shape.
“That’s definitely a horse.” Row gulps as she recognizes the long neck of the beast, made up of thick branches extending above the rest of the tree. After a moment the leaves on the end have shifted to form its head with hollow gaps left to represent its eyes and mouth. It looks like it is ready to start eating people already.
Row’s stomach lurches as she smells fresh blood. Her sharp eyes can see the entrails of the men it captured a moment ago, strewn between the branches like giant red worms. “Seamus, you have to stop,” she repeats in a pleading voice.
“There it is!” Kifflan is laughing maniacally. He is gripping the athamé in his hand tightly but it almost seems to want to fly out of his grasp and straight the massive horse shaped tree on its own. “That’s it, Arma Driv. Tell me where to strike.”
“Hurry,” the men plead with him but he will not be rushed. He is taking his time to find the best angle.
“You there, run underneath it and strike its trunk with your pitchfork,” he shouts at one of the men. “See what happens.”
“Are you mad?” The man shakes his head vigorously. “There is no way I'm going anywhere near that thing.” He tries to run past Kifflan.
“Did you not hear me?” The demigod grabs and tosses him back toward the tree, sending him somersaulting head over heels. With no other choice the man attempts to flee the field in the opposite direction, coming dangerously close to the trunk of the tree.
Suddenly three more large branches touch the ground in the perfect places to be the legs of the horse, with the trunk as the forth. The roots of the willow snap as the horse lifts its final leg into the air and promptly kicks the man. He flies straight past Kifflan and slams into the ground at the bottom of the hill, next to Seamus and his cauldron. His face is bloody and his chest has caved in from the impact.
“What have you done?” Row shakes Seamus again. “Make it stop.”
“How?” he sputters.
“I don’t know, just do something,” she pleads.
“Make a barrier with the salt!” Kifflan shouts down the hill.
“What?” Seamus stares at him in confusion.
“Watch.” Kifflan tosses and handful of salt at one of the new legs of the horse. The moment the grains touch the bark it bursts into flame, scorching the outside if only slightly. “Make a wall of salt around the tree and keep it still,” Kifflan instructs.
“Right.” Seamus gulps while closing his eyes. Row covers her mouth to keep herself from distracting him as he concentrates on his memories. Slowly the images begin to flicker through his mind. He can recall Salazar creating a barrier of a sort at one point in his long life. Finally the salt in the grass around the tree starts to rise into the air. It swirls around the tree as if being blown by the wind and then all at once converges on the willow.
The tree practically explodes in flame the moment the salt touches it. The loose leaves burn rapidly, shriveling up and falling off as ash while the branches turn black like charcoal. “You’re doing wonderful,” Kifflan cheers. “Keep it up.”
Row moves her hands from her face to gawk at the demigod as he finally leaves his protective wall of salt, dashing across the grassy hill and leaping onto one of the horse’s legs, the only one slanted enough for him to run up like a ramp. The higher he goes the more vertical the branches becomes, forcing him to resort to actually climbing them by leaping from each out jutting burnt stump with tremendous agility. All the while he is holding his athamé tightly, letting it guide his direction as it tries to rip out of his hand.
Row is so transfixed on the demigod that she does not even notice one of the dark ropes slithering along the ground toward her. With all of the salt now gone there is nothing keeping the nooses from capturing the rest of the men and dragging them up into the tree, tearing their flesh as it catches on the same jutting burnt stumps Kifflan is now using to scale his way to the top. Practically all of the men that have not already fled to the base of the hill have been dragged up into the tree by now, leaving Seamus and Row as the ropes’ final targets.
Seamus is practically keeling over, trying to catch his breath after the strain of controlling that much salt at once, when he hears Row screaming. In a matter of seconds she has already been dragged halfway up the nearest leg of the horse. The jutting out branches are scratching at her small form as she is pulled up but she is managing to avoid any serious injury at the moment. A bloodsucker’s skin is obviously tougher and therefore harder to tear than a human’s.
“Row!” Seamus shouts for his mistress as he darts up the grassy hill towards the leg of the horse. With his diminished stature he is far too slow though. She has already made it halfway up into the tree before he even reaches her. Without knowing what else to do he reaches up toward her, launching Arma Scov from his wrist, shredding the sleeve of his shirt in the process. The thin wire slithers up the leg of the horse, slicing through any branches in its way until it manages to latch onto Row’s arm, digging through her flesh until it reaches bone.
She can't help but scream as her arm is very nearly torn off by the razor wire. For a moment she is held between Arma Scov and the noose, suspended motionless in the air. Eventually the rope starts to tug on her leg again, causing Arma Scov to dig further into her arm and eliciting another shrill scream. Seamus doesn’t have any alternative though. He pulls on the wire a little harder, dragging her back down a good distance before the rope yanks on her again, repeating the process with even louder results.
Kifflan has stopped his climb in order to watch the spectacle below him. He can very easily identify Wan’s signature weapon. He shakes his head solemnly before leaping up onto another higher branch, continuing his climb. He has now reached the base of the horse’s neck. Though still moving slowly it is already struggling like a living creature, whinnying like a proper horse if not crying from the pain of its burning leaves. “Almost there,” he whispers to himself as the athamé in his hand struggles to free itself yet again. “Where is your weak spot?”
Down below, Seamus has resorted to letting himself be pulled off his feet by Arma Scov, which is now digging into his wrist as well. With the Bronze Cognition suppressing the rest of his demigod powers he is not even able to shape shift to heal himself like he normally would. Arma Scov continues to coil itself around his arm, raising him higher and higher until he finally reaches Row. “I'm here,” he whispers while sweeping the hair from her face. She has already passed out from the pain of being stretched between the razor wire and the noose though.
It takes no effort for Seamus to slice through the rope with his sharp Arma though, freeing his mistress from her bonds. Rather than even attempting to climb back down from the precarious perch, Seamus wraps a portion of Arma Scov around the branch he is standing on and leaps off. The wire uncoils from his bleeding wrist slow enough to lower him to the ground safely with his other arm around Row’s waist.
Nuve and Minto are already waiting for them, having chosen to return rather than flee. “Is she okay?” Minto quickly checks Row’s pulse.
“She’s just unconscious,” Seamus coughs and wheezes while trying to catch his breath. He has expended more energy than he thought possible just keeping his arm steady so as not to slip and let Arma Scov dismember him.
“Where is Kifflan?” Nuve asks while glancing around. Seamus, unable to talk, simply points up at the tree. Nuve can just barely make out the demigod’s pale face in the dark. He is halfway up the neck of the horse, struggling to climb with one arm while clinging onto his athamé with his other. “He’s insane.” Nuve shakes his head in disbelief.
“At last!” Kifflan laughs madly as he reaches his intended destination. Midway up the neck of the horse, hidden in a mane made of knotted nooses, is a small pocket of bones from over a dozen separate victims, probably the first to be hung with rope made from the Each Uisge hair.
The athamé is practically shaking in his hand. “Here you go, my sweet death bringer.” He plunges the blade into the nest of bones as far as it can go, sinking into the pocket up to his elbow. He need not wonder if he has managed to damage the creature at all. He would not have been able to strike if the blow were not fatal. It is over; he has successfully killed the Each Uisge.
Down below, the ground starts to shake as the tree begins to topple over, having returned to being exactly that; a tree. It is not large enough to reach the actual town though, even if it were to fall in the exact direction of Palinthia. Luckily for the four remaining people below, the four feet of the horse have created a safe area where the tree will not touch the ground. “He did it.” Nuve is utterly shocked. He glances up at the falling branches in search of the demigod’s white face but he can't find him.
“He’ll be alright,” Seamus assures him through labored breaths.
“I'm not worried about him.” Nuve frowns. “If anything I hope he doesn’t make it.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.” Kifflan falls through the canopy of branches directly above them at that exact moment, landing a single step behind Seamus.
“Well done.” Nuve clenches his metal fist.
“It’s more than well done.” Kifflan glances up at the destruction he has caused. “Lucky little shelter you have here.” He eyes the four legs as well. “Who knew you four would be the only survivors.”
Nuve steps toward him but Minto grabs and pulls him back. “Don’t,” she whispers. “It’s not worth it.”
“Listen to your lady friend.” Kifflan smiles at Nuve smugly. “You don’t want to get on my bad side.”
“So this is it then?” Nuve asks in a calm voice. “You’ll leave Palinthia as soon as possible?”
“I'll leave when I feel like it, boy,” Kifflan scoffs. He has no reason to pretend to be friendly anymore. Again Nuve flexes his metal fist and again Minto holds him back. No matter how much he despises Kifflan, they can not afford to fight him, not while Seamus is so weak.
“Fine, then we’ll leave,” Nuve suggests.
“What a brilliant idea.” Kifflan nods. “There’s just one problem.” Nuve does not even have time to ask what it is before Kifflan has plunged his athamé into Seamus’s back, stabbing him straight through the heart. “How stupid do you think I am? This boy is more than just the Bronze Cognition; he’s the Jade Behemoth and the Silver Shape Shifter too. Did you really think I didn’t see it?” He glares at Nuve with his black eyes.
“But, but why…?” Nuve is too shocked to move. “He, he’s one of you.”
“Him?” Kifflan snorts. “Even if he were a proper demigod it would make no difference. There is no possible way I was going to pass up the chance to kill three of the nine in one place.”
“You’re not a demigod at all!” Minto shouts at him.
“Correct. I am but a humble man whose life was saved by a stroke of luck a hundred years ago. I have been living in fear of the rest of the nine ever since. I knew that one day they would come to take back what I stole. When that day comes I will need everything I can get, including your friend’s three powers here.”
Minto turns her face toward Nuve with a pleading expression. “Arma Driv? It kills with one blow. He’s dead.”
“No.” Nuve shakes his head. “The wound is fatal if left untreated. He could still heal himself with Wan’s power.”
“Why do you think I forced him to remain as the Bronze Cognition?” Kifflan cackles. “He won’t be able to use any of his other powers.”
“I can heal him.” Minto drops to her knees in front of Seamus, who is keeled over on the ground, spurting blood from his chest with every beat of his heart. Her hands start to glow green the same way Kalina’s did whenever she healed Turok.
“Oh, but I can't allow that.” Kifflan lunges over Seamus’s head, stabbing her in the throat before she can even touch Seamus’s chest.
“No!” Nuve shouts as Minto’s falls backwards on the ground, gurgling and sputtering bubbles of blood mixed with air. He leaps over her and Seamus at the same time, tackling Kifflan to the ground and slamming his head against the hard dirt. “She was human!” he screams. “You’re supposed to protect people like her!”
“Haven't you realized by now? Human lives mean nothing to me.” Kifflan slides out from underneath Nuve easily before standing and dusting himself off. “Look around you.” He gestures to the many bodies strung throughout the tree above them. “I think at least fifty of them died. A small price to pay, don’t you think?”
Nuve is visibly shaking with rage as he charges toward Kifflan again. This time the demigod dodges him easily though, leaning back in time to avoid each sloppy punch or kick from his furious opponent. Suddenly, several bolts in Nuve’s metal appendage snap, falling out from their holes in the sides. The arm is now looser, allowing it to extend just the slightest bit further.
Kifflan is caught off guard but he still manages to lean back far enough to avoid getting punched in the face. Nuve opens his fist though, allowing his metal fingers to catch part of Kifflan’s hood, which he uses to drag the demigod’s head down and smash it into his knee, breaking his nose in the process.
Kifflan tumbles backwards while covering his bleeding nostrils with his free hand. His eyes are somehow blacker than before, emphasizing his rage. “I wasn’t going to kill you before, boy,” he spits. “You alone could have walked away from this.”
“Where would I go?” Nuve growls back. “Wan and Husk are dead. Seamus is all I have left.” He charges forward again, grabbing Kifflan by the shoulders and lifting him back to his feet before promptly punching him in the left eye with his metal hand and knocking him right back down. It is obvious that he is a much weaker demigod than Turok or Brand.
Kifflan scampers backwards along the ground again, trying to keep as much distance between himself and the enraged man machine trying to destroy him. Arma Driv is shaking in his hand but not nearly as much as when he was climbing the hanging tree. Even with his powerful eyes darting back and forth he can't seem to find an opening to strike Nuve. Any attack would contact his metal arm if only slightly and therefore not be fatal.
“What a useless weapon!” Nuve roars as he grabs Arma Driv and wrenches it out of Kifflan’s hand, twisting the demigod’s wrist painfully in the process.
“That’s why it’s not my only one!” Kifflan lifts his left arm and launches a chain from within his sleeve, the same way he did when he first saw Row. The cuff on the end clamps down on Nuve’s arm. Kifflan then steps on the middle of the chain, causing it to pull Nuve’s trapped appendage down to the ground. The more the chain retreats back into his sleeve, the closer Nuve’s arm is dragged toward Kifflan’s foot.
When his legs finally buckle, he falls to his knees in front of Kifflan, who promptly kicks him in the jaw. He falls backwards and twists around awkwardly due to his arm still being trapped. Kifflan takes a moment to check the damage to his left eye, which is swelling red already. Nuve yanks on the chain as he stands up, pulling it out from under Kifflan’s foot and sending him tumbling backwards. He is only stopped by Nuve’s weight on the other end of the chain in his sleeve.
Instinctively, he releases the chain from the launching mechanism hidden under his cloak, freeing himself so he can put more distance between the both of them. Nuve twirls the chain above his head like a whip though and brings it down on Kifflan’s back, knocking him flat on his face. By the time he manages to roll over, Nuve has already closed the distance between them. He steps on his stomach and proceeds to force the air out of Kifflan’s lungs.
With eyes wide in panic, Kifflan slides a small blade out of his sleeve and slashes Nuve’s shin, causing him to jerk back, taking enough weight off of the demigod so he can slide out from underneath him again. He scampers along the ground for a few more feet before the chain strikes him again, this time wrapping itself around his neck and pulling him up to his feet. Nuve yanks hard enough to drag the weak demigod toward him and then promptly punches him in the left eye again with his metal fist, sending Kifflan flying backwards into the original trunk of the hanging tree.
Blood is trickling from a fresh cut above his eye now as well as down his back from a gash on his shoulder. His eyes are flickering, barely maintaining their black appearance and instead showing Kifflan’s original brown irises. Nuve marches toward the bleeding man slowly, putting very little stress on his right leg. Kifflan is a pathetic sight, bleeding from his nose, eyes and mouth and everything in between but he is still standing.
Just as Nuve is about to punch him again, Kifflan lunges forward, ducking underneath his metal arm and standing up properly directly behind him. He is above to drive his small blade in-between Nuve’s shoulder blades when the metal appendage twists inhumanly around and grabs him by the arm, flinging him right back into the trunk of the tree. Nuve then proceeds to punch him in the right eye with his left arm while trying to let his right one untangle the cables he has just twisted.
Kifflan’s head bounces back and forth between Nuve’s fist and the tree trunk several times as he struggles to maintain his grip on the blade in his hand. Finally he manages to slash at Nuve’s face. With his metal arm still twisted awkwardly, he is unable to block it. He leans back but it is not far enough. The thin blades slides neatly under his chin, slicing his throat open.
Nuve stumbles backwards in panic, trying to cover the wound with his left hand. Kifflan’s eyes are black again and his white teeth are visible as he smiles menacingly at Nuve, though also covered in blood he has spit up. Nuve powers through the pain in his metal arm to twist it back into place and then uses it to grab one of his pouches of black powder from his satchel. He rips it open with his teeth and smears the powder over the hole in his throat.
Kifflan watches with interest as he strikes a match and lights his own neck on fire. It explodes in a flash of flame, searing his flesh and cauterizing the wound. Immediately Nuve starts to cough as he is suddenly able to breathe again. Kifflan’s jaw drops in disbelief for a long moment before he finally shakes himself back to his senses. He dives underneath Nuve’s arm again and scampers along the ground towards the place where he dropped Arma Driv.
Just as he picks up the athamé, Nuve steps on his hand, snapping his wrist. Kifflan screams while rolling over, cradling his broken appendage and staring up at Nuve’s face, blackened by his own explosive powder. “Never, in all my years, have I met someone as resourceful as you,” he grunts in pain. “I concede. You have bested me. I shall leave Palinthia immediately.”
Nuve opens his mouth to say something but no words come. Kifflan’s eyes widen as he realizes that he can no longer speak. If he had any intention of forgiving Kifflan before, it has just dissolved. The demigod brings his arms toward his face but is too slow to block a kick to the forehead from Nuve, which knocks him out cold. He then lifts the athamé from the ground next to Kifflan and drives it into his skull, effectively killing the Dark Assailant.
Before the black light of the rapture even appears in the sky, Nuve has dashed across the grass and dropped to his knees above Row. Her mouth is closed, meaning that she is breathing through her nose, which he promptly pinches to cut off her airflow.
She jolts upright almost immediately. It takes her a matter of seconds to assess her surroundings, including her two bleeding comrades on the ground around her and the black light descending from the sky. “Seamus?” She lifts her servant’s head into her lap. “Seamus, come on. You can heal from this. You can heal from anything.”
Nuve is struck by the sudden realization that Seamus should have died multiple times throughout his travels with Row. Had he not miraculously managed to encounter and inherit the power of the Silver Shape Shifter he would never have even lived to meet Nuve. “It’s not working,” Row screams at Nuve. “Do something.”
Nuve rolls up his sleeve and offers his arm to Row, who bites it without a second thought. When she has siphoned enough of his energy, she bites Seamus’s neck and attempts to force it into him. It is futile though. She can keep him alive this way only as long as she has energy to give. It will do nothing to heal the hole in his chest though.
She glances around at her surroundings again, searching for anything that might help. “There!” She points at the rapture in the distance. “A demigod can heal from this. I saw it with Lodar. Help me get him into the light.”
Nuve stands up slowly, wobbling from side to side on his injured leg. He is obviously mulling over what she just said; a demigod can survive a wound from Arma Driv. It is worth a try. Ignoring the pain in his arm and leg, he hoists Minto up over his shoulder and dashes across the grass back toward Kifflan’s body. “Wait, what are you doing?” Row shouts at him.
He ignores her while placing Minto at the edge of the rapture and pushing her into it while making sure it does not touch him at all. Instantly the light shoots back into the sky and disappears from sight. Nuve is almost sure he was too late but when he checks Minto’s eyes, he notices that they have turned black, just like Kifflan’s. She has just inherited the power of the Dark Assailant.
Across the field Row is still trying to force more energy into Seamus with tears in her eyes. She knows that only one of them could inherit the rapture but she can't help but hate Nuve for choosing Minto over Seamus. If only he could use one of his other powers, especially Wan’s.
She is still sobbing over him when Nuve returns carrying Minto again. He stares down at her solemnly, not able to say anything. “What do I do?” She looks up at him pleadingly. Nuve opens his mouth and taps his own teeth. “I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried. His life force isn’t what’s fading. He’s bleeding to death.”
Nuve crouches down to lay Minto on the ground before tapping his teeth again. He then grabs Row by the shoulders and lifts her to her feet. “I don’t understand.” She blinks the tears out of her eyes. Nuve pulls her back down to the ground and repeats the process, tapping Row’s teeth instead of his this time before lifting her onto her feet again. “You want me to bite him while standing up?” Row is confused.
Nuve glares at her angrily for a moment before grabbing her arm and actually biting her. She jerks away from him but he holds on tightly while sucking on her skin. “No, that’s not how it works.” She shakes her head. “I'm trying to give him energy, not take it.”
Nuve rolls his eyes in annoyance before taking a deep breath to calm himself. He kneels down again and pulls up one of Seamus’s eyelids, showing Row his brown irises. He then bites and sucks on Row’s arm again while motion from Seamus’s eye to hers. “Wait, you want be to suck out the Bronze Cognition again?” she finally realizes what he is trying to convey.
Nuve collapses on the ground in relief to show that she is correct. Row quickly kneels down and bites Seamus’s neck again. This time, rather than trying to force energy back into him, she draws it out instead. Nuve watches intently as the brown color fades from Seamus’s eyes and appears in Row’s. A moment later she starts to grow to the size of an adult again. Seamus however remains in his childlike form. Row stops growing though when she reaches the appearance of an eighteen year old, rather than a twenty-two year old like before.
Nuve cocks his head in confusion, prompting her to give him a quick explanation. “I’ve already fed on you today. I can't absorb all of the Bronze Cognition, that’s why Seamus isn’t growing again either, the unrequited youth spell is still in effect.” Nuve’s expression changes to one of concern. “Don’t worry, he can still use the other powers now,” she assures him. They both watch as the wound on his chest starts to close. It is slower than usual but it is still enough. He will definitely survive.
Nuve switches his attention to Minto when he notices her stirring. The wound on her throat is barely healing at all. The immortality of the Dark Assailant may have slowed the bleeding but it is not the same as Maumolla’s or Brand’s power. She will have to heal at a normal rate and there will definitely be a scar.
Eventually she opens her eyes and begins to shift from side to side, struggling to sit up properly. Nuve leans over her and places a hand on her cheek to calm her. She blinks at him repeatedly while jerking her head in shock. “What’s wrong with her?” Row is startled. Nuve flashes her a smile but is still unable to say anything. He knows exactly what is wrong though. Now that Minto has the sight of the Dark Assailant, she will never need her seeing eye potions again. She is no longer blind.Slowly Minto reaches a hand up to Nuve’s face. She runs her fingers down his chin until they reach the scorched part of his neck. He can't help but smile down at her while touching the similar wound on her throat. Neither one of them can say anything. Nuve does not care though. He is just happy that she is alive.