A crescent of emerald light arcs around Kamiron’s body, swallowing him in a cocoon of moss, bark and rock. The giant horse screams a harsh, brutal noise that makes me wince. Its hooves rebound off Kamiron’s earthy shell and he stirs.
Vayu! We have to help!
I must teleport a physical body and not pure energy. It takes time, he grumbles.
I watch Kamiron roll out of the way of another attack. The ground recoils at the missed blow and Kamiron is on his feet. He moves with poise and purpose despite the crimson darkening his aketon and the bruises blossoming across his gold skin. The head of sledgehammer shimmers a green so pale it is nearly white. The giant horse shrinks back, baring its rotted teeth. Kamiron lifts his head and stares.
I gasp when I see his face. His eyes blaze a deep emerald. Kamiron’s muscles bunch and he brings the head of his weapon smashing down to the ground. Beneath him the transparent black floor shatters and a trail of shards and glass arrow for the horse. Kamiron launches into the air, jumping higher than humanly possible. He lands on the horse’s withers.
“You cannot defeat Apaosha, child,” a thunderous, deep voice booms. “My very nature is eternal!”
Kamiron says nothing. He skims up the massive animal’s neck . . .
The image fades into transparent fog.
Step backwards, he orders. Before I can make a comment, my feet shuffle back and I feel the oddest sensation. Not quite like wading through a tub of whipped cream, but something similar. My heel sinks a quarter of an inch and I recognize the spongy feel of the transparent floor in what naked belt lady called “that horrible creature’s Den.”
The smell that hits me sends me to my knees, gagging on the rot of animal feces baking in the Georgia sun. Vayu takes over my body and reaches for my longbow. I vaguely recall dropping it before I fainted. My fingers spasm and a gentle current blows away the foul stench. My throat unlocks and I finally breathe without choking.
Why is it so potent?
Vayu draws an arrow from the air, one much bigger than any of mine. It lights up the darkness like a yellow-red flare. Apaosha is an old nemesis. From the time Before. He has always proven a . . . problem for me.
You mean he can exploit your weaknesses.
He is nearly my antithesis, Vayu corrects, stung. I sense that I’ve hurt his pride by implying he has weaknesses.
You have an antithesis?
Vayu ignores me. Instead my (our?) attention centers on Apaosha. The horse rears onto its hind legs and thrashes its head, trying to buck Kamiron off but he is as surefooted as a panther. He has reached the top of Apaosha’s head--which is nearly the size of my bedroom back home--and slams his sledgehammer into Apaosha’s skull. The creature shrieks and gallops left as if he means to run away but Kamiron is ruthless. Again and again, Kam slams his sledgehammer as if pounding a nail into Apaosha’s forehead, right between its eyes.
Vayu/I train the blazing arrow on Apaosha’s chest.
Gaian, Vayu intones and Kamiron’s head jerks slightly. We will purge him of this form.
Kamiron manages one last strike before Apaosha bucks him from his body. Vayu waits until that exact moment to strike. His massive arrow corkscrews through the air. I wait for the telltale thwunk of impact but a half-second before collision, the arrow breaks apart, transforming into a thousand golden feathers that glow like fireflies.
I gasp at the dizzying beauty of the whirling plums that circle the massive horse.
“Vayu-Vaata!” Apaosha thunders. For the first time I notice that the feathers are eating him. As each feather caresses the horse’s rotten flesh, it sucks up and neutralizes the decay and leaves nothing, not even the smallest speck of flesh behind.
“Purge him of this form” Vayu had said. Are you destroying his essence?
No. Vayu sounds tired and old. I feel the weight of eons behind his answer. Apaosha cannot be destroyed so easily, no matter how I might wish it. I can only purge his physical manifestation, rendering him powerless unless--
My spine contorts painfully as Vayu jerks back, horror dawning on him at some realization I don’t understand.
Apaosha’s laughter makes my ears ring. There is no sign of the horse, only feathers coated in reeking tar, but I still feel Aposha’s presence like a hulking wraith. A chill rubs against the left side of my body and I shiver. Vayu lashes out with a cutting airstream. A gale force of wind encircles my body like a suit of armor.
“She is mine!” Vayu snarls and I am shocked at how deep my voice comes out and the weird sensation of speaking without moving my own jaw.
The cold recedes and Apaosha’s laughter doubles. I clench my teeth to keep from vomiting.
“It is no matter, old friend. There is another child, one no longer protected. What a delightful vessel he shall become once I have contaminated him.”
Vayu/I whip around to find Kamiron wheezing, kneeling with the sledgehammer resting near his knees. His eyes are no longer green and he looks dangerously pale. There are more bloodstains now.
My heart constricts at the sight, but Vayu has gone into a raw panic. Pain shoots through my body and my thighs as he forces me to sprint towards my friend.
But we are much too late.
Kamiron’s eyes latch onto mine before his entire body stiffens. The blue veins of his neck strain against his skin and turn black; his mouth opens as if he means to scream, but no sound emerges. By the time Vayu and I reach him his convulsions wrack his body and his eyes roll into his skull. Flakes of hoarfrost coat his skin and the air surrounding him feels like ice.
Kneeling, I move to touch Kam but Vayu stops me. I struggle, trying to take back control of my body, but pain like a jellyfish sting cuts me.
We can’t touch him. Apaosha’s hold is tenuous and he could try to possess you instead. That would be infinitely worse.
I don’t see how that can be worse. I’d gladly take Kamiron’s place.
The struggle is brief and anticlimactic. One moment Kamiron thrashes against an unseen assailant, the next he’s slumped on his side and unmoving. If not for the slow rise and fall of his shoulders, I’d fear he was dead.
Again, I sense Vayu’s deep weariness. This battle is now up to your friend. There is nothing we can do but see who emerges as victor.
I cringe. “There has--”The weakness hits me like a punch to the chin. One second I’m crouched near Kam, the next I’m on my back too exhausted to even lift a finger. I hurt all over and Vayu’s borrowed strength has leaked away. I don’t need him to tell me that our time is up. I try to fight the fatigue, but it is overwhelming. Despite my protest, despite Kam fighting for his life and Zakk and Dace running for theirs, and despite me vulnerable and defenseless, surrounded by darkness and enemies, unconsciousness drags me under.