I jerk upright with a startled gasp. Dace scrambles to his feet, hands on his chakram and searching for danger. My heart hammers against bone; heat warms my cheeks. Kam was about to kiss me, and I freaked out. Way to not be awkward, Shari.
I suspect “freaking you out” was his intention. He counted on your inexperience to snap you out of the trance. Vayu’s presence, like a downy cloud that provides shade on a hot afternoon, envelopes me once more and a tension I didn’t realize I’d felt loosens. Despite Vayu’s dry teasing, part of me felt bereft without him.
The deva’s smug smile stretches just between my eyebrows. I picture even, too-white teeth bared in a cocksure grin. It is only natural to miss Greatness, after all.
Ugh. Definitely didn’t miss that arrogance.
Vayu’s chuckle corkscrews down my spine.
Dace settles back into his watchful position and his gaze scours the expanse beyond our tiny bubble of light. I had hoped that with Apaosha gone, the taint of the surrounding darkness would lessen but it remains just as ominous as before. The air retains its sour odor and clammy feel but the stalking otherness that signified the demon’s presence has lifted.
I glance around the ruins of the obelisk. Kam, head pillowed in my lap, and Zakk, drooling on his pack, are still out cold. No sign of Naja. “How long was I gone?”
“You only closed your eyes for a couple minutes and then you started gasping like you were drowning.”
“It felt like hours.” I trace Kamiron’s brow with gentle fingers. His color has returned and his chest rises and falls in deep, even breaths. “He broke the tether.”
“I felt it. Discord.”
“What do you think it means?”
“Dunno, but whatever it is, it ain’t good.”
“It’s a natural response to breaking the link between Ater and Earth,” answers a smoky, female voice.
My breath catches; Pele, Dace’s deva. I had forgotten they can hear and speak to us thanks to Zakk.
“If it’s natural, why did it feel like we’d just done something disastrous?”
At the elements hesitation, a troublesome doubt creeps into my heart; I bury it before Vayu notices.
“It may feel that way,” Ymoja acknowledges, her words careful and deliberate. “But it is necessary.”
I sense her sincerity and my intuition assures me she would never lie--outright. My Mama used to say the Devil don’t need to lie if He can misdirect. If that’s true, then what are the devas desperate to conceal? That question leads me to others: What do any of us really know about the devas and what they want? Can we even trust them?
I suspect the answer isn’t as altruistic as they’d have us believe.
Dace inhales once, sharp and swift. Snatching up my longbow and clutching it like a club, I try to follow his unblinking stare but I might as well be trying to peer through velvet curtains. Several tense seconds pass before Dace exhales and the controlled blue-white flame lining his chakram dissipates.
“Naja’s back.” Dace flops against the rubble of the obelisk. Fatigue turns his impish features skeletal. “Here’s hoping our Little-Engine-That-Could found a way out.”
Bursting from the opaque surroundings like a catapulted arrow, Naja circles Dace twice and then perches on my knee. Her talons dig into my filthy breeches and I wince. She adjusts herself and takes stock of our surroundings--ruby eyes lingering on Zakk’s unconscious body--before nuzzling Kamiron’s chin.
Kam’s lids lift and gray irises lock on me in drowsy content. “Morning.”
I offer a faint smile. “I think the last time we woke up like this, I was supposed to wolf out and eat your face. We’ve gotta stop meeting like this.”
Kamiron’s mouth quirks, but then his eyes narrow. He rolls to his feet and reclaims his sledgehammer. Naja springs towards Zakk, hovering above him and looking every inch the protective dragon guarding her clutch. Her tail lashes about in agitated loops while she surveys the smothering dark.
“Glad to see you vertical, man.” At Kam’s continued silence, Dace’s voice quavers with exhaustion and the first stirrings of apprehension. “Chameleon?”
“Get up. I hear something.”
That gets our attention. Dace and I scramble up and I’m surprised that my legs begrudgingly support me. Zakk, of course, remains dead to the world.
It takes several swallows for my voice to work. “Hear as in . . .?”
“Something bad is coming. Several somethings. We need to go. Now.”
The necromancers must have either overcome their hesitation to cross Apaosha or they sensed the discord brought on by the demon’s death. I somehow guess it’s the latter, considering necromancers deal in the business of death. The fine hairs along my arm rise and suddenly hanging out in the only circle of light for miles doesn’t seem like such a brilliant, life-preserving idea.
We might as well wave flags that advertise, “All-you-can-eat buffet, right here!”
Tucking my longbow under my armpit, I shovel loose items into our packs while Kamiron and Dace reach for Zakk. Naja disappears into the darkness and immediately returns. She does this twice more before I get it.
“She’s trying to lead us to the way out.” I strap on my pack and toss the other three to Kamiron and Dace. I tuck my longbow into my belt loop, careful to keep it from jostling my tailbone. It’s awkward, but it’ll have to do. I snatch up Zakk’s naginata and motion for the guys to go ahead of me. Burdened as they are by both Zakk, and their things, I’ll be the first and only line of defense. I test the weight of the polearm. Though it towers above me, its balance is impeccable and it responds fluidly to my movements. The knot of tension in my belly uncoils. I’ll be able to use it, at least.
“No rest for the weary, huh?” Dace grumbles, hoisting up Zakk. He and Kam stagger under his dead weight. “Who would have thought such a skinny guy could be so heavy?”
Somewhere behind us (hopefully far, far behind) a bellow like that of a bear breaks the quiet. Another, equally terrifying snarl, answers it. The liches are hunting us. Suddenly Zakk’s naginata feels inadequate against barbed whips that can demolish stone.
“My brother Vayu will scatter your scent while Gaian and Pele make sure the necromancers cannot so easily pursue,” Ymoja shares as we abandon the bubble of light engulfing the ruins of Apaosha’s obelisk. “But you must hurry.”
Our pace turns into an awkward trot-shuffle. Vayu, about the tether Kam destroyed . . .
There will be others, he interrupts and he sounds both impatient and defensive. And your mission will only become more difficult from here on out. The Darkness-That-Hunts will not sit idly by while you disrupt his plans. Instead of worrying about the effects of breaking a tether, I suggest you concentrate on eluding your pursuers and uncovering your next destination.
I tighten my grip on Zakk’s naginata and focus on the feel of the wood against my palm. Again, misdirection . . . but Vayu’s suggestion isn’t unwarranted. There are more pressing matters. They’ll be time to unravel the truth later. If we live.
Muggy heat pools the sweat to my lower back and the blisters formed by my feet rubbing against my leather boots are an exercise in slow torture. Still, I force myself to stumble through gloom that sinks into my skin with smoky talons. Only the dim flicker of Dace’s chakram illuminates the path ahead. The sound of Kam’s jagged breathing, the clomp-clomp of Zakk’s naginata against the malleable floor, and the stiff press of my longbow digging against my spine anchor me to reality. The fear-filled beats of my heart as it rams against my ribcage drags me down into myself. I search until I discover the feeble throb that indicates a tether is somewhere far, far away. Submerged amidst the darkness, blood, and monsters of Ater.
No rest for the weary indeed.
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