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Mother of Monsters Chapter 01

Page history last edited by Sea Foam 5 years, 5 months ago

     Dread Beast manticore: a ferocious monster with the head of a colossal man, the body of a grossly oversized lion, the wings of a gigantic bat and an enormous scorpion tail with venom that could melt through the strongest armor.  It also tasted a lot like chicken. A little gamey maybe, but a nice break from the dried meat and fruit my party had. Not surprisingly it made for good entertainment. Hero humor, you know?

 

     I turned my attention to the armored giant sitting across the fire from me as I struggled to use the decapitated beast’s head as a puppet.

“What say you, Ironclad, fancy a game of fetch?” That really wasn’t a good idea; it must’ve weighed as much as I did in armor.

“I’ve a stick you can fetch,” Ironclad responded without looking up from the meat in front of him.

“Oho, have a bone to pick with me, do you?”

“And what a bone it is.”

“Must you two be so disgusting at this time of the night?” Emerald, our dainty little archer demanded from his side. “There are ladies present.”

“Indeed,” I nodded and grunted as I dropped the beast’s head, “but the lady hasn’t spoken.”

“Fuck you, Pillar,” she spat.

“And that is exactly why I cannot count you amongst the ladies.” With a satisfied air I sat atop the monster’s head, my feet struggling for purchase on the uncannily human cheeks. “What say you to this affront to your honor, dearest Waltz?”

The robed figure crouching before the fire giggled. “Travelling with such fine gentlemen as yourselves, one quickly adjusts to rather crude behavior. One also learns to say things such as ‘your mother is a whore’ and ‘rats have larger knobs than you’ from time to time. It comes with the company.”

“How is it that she can speak of whores and knobs but if I bring up the simple idea of fornication I’m branded some sort of hag?”

“Might be because you can do it with a straight face,” Ironclad suggested. “Look at Waltz, she’s still blushing.”

“Fuck you too.”

“Though we might also judge less harshly,” the giant continued, “if you were actually offering.”

 

     There was a loud clang as Emerald smacked the man beside her in the helm with a stick. His head didn’t even move. That was Ironclad for you; he charged into battle with two shields and a mace, but all he really needed was his head. Rather than reacting to the attack he hadn’t even felt our bruiser simply shrugged and raised his visor to take another bite of meat. Even craning my neck I couldn’t see more than his mouth. I never had. That was a skill that would make even Barrel blush, wherever he was lurking, but Ironclad seemed to do it entirely by accident. How odd.

“Anyway,” I said to no one and everyone at the same time, “we should do something with the rest of the carcass. It would be a shame to have one meal from it and abandon the rest.”

Ironclad looked up from the rest of his meal. “What do you suggest? A trophy? I know nothing of taxidermy and the pelt is rather damaged.”

“That is true. I did entirely fail to make a clean cut at the neck, did I not?” The ruff was ruined.

“Yes. I imagine there are bruises where I got at it too,” the iron behemoth nodded.

“And arrow holes all over,” Emerald added. “You’re welcome, by the way.”

“I think I may have burnt a hole through it at one point as well,” Waltz contributed from beside the fire.

“I only hit the eyes.” I barely glanced at the black cloaked figure that materialized beside me. That kind of behavior was standard for Barrel and I refused to give him the satisfaction of jumping anymore.

“I think you got a blade or two into the testicles as well, did you not?”

He shrugged. “Eyes of the libido.”

“That makes nary a lick of sense and you know it.”

There was no need to even look to know his eyes rolled under those curly black locks. “The claws and liver should be valuable. I want them.”

“And no one else does. Consider them yours.” Barrel vanished as easily as he appeared; I didn’t even see him move. It was almost like dealing with a ghost, but if you listened closely you could hear the sound of flesh being sliced in the distance.

 

“We should go over our plan again,” Emerald suggested after some time. “How exactly is the fearless hero planning to slay our dread beast echidna?”

“Let me guess,” Ironclad grunted, “the usual?”

“Yes. You up front blocking attacks, me running around sticking my sword in the exposed bits, Emerald in the middle harassing it and Waltz in the back providing some heavier ranged damage.”

“That again?” Emerald complained. “Let us try something different!”

I held my ground. “The usual works, and the lair of the greatest beast we have ever fought hardly seems like the time to experiment.”

“I guess,” Emerald relented. “I have some poisons I can tip my arrows with that should be effective.”

“Good. See to it that Ironclad gets some for his mace as well.”

“You think that will matter?”

“It might. The echidna is said to be enormous, this will be a battle where we need every advantage we have, so I would rather waste the poison on a mace than not use any.”

“So much for not experimenting.” I couldn’t see any of Ironclad’s face under his visor but I could hear him grinning.

“Could you be any more intolerable?”

 

     The party settled down. We finished eating, checked and stowed our weapons, and we grew quiet, all of us transfixed on the fire. Well, all of us with the exception of Barrel who sat on the edge of the firelight with his back to the rest of us. Emerald idly poked at the flames with a stick before suddenly speaking.

“Do you wonder if we even need to do this?” She asked.

“Why not?”

“Well, Tusk’s party already killed the other echidna. The mother of all monsters has no mate; we needn’t worry about the monster birthing any more dread beasts. Is it worth risking our lives to kill something that can do no more harm?”

“It most certainly can do harm!” I blustered.

“It can,” Waltz said dreamily, “the one Tusk killed was a male. For all we know this one could still be pregnant with more monsters. I’ve heard of some lizards that are born pregnant, even. Even were it not able to make more things like that,” she said with a vague gesture to my seat, “it would still eat travellers and assault merchants itself.”

“Lizards? Really? I mean yes! I, for one, will not allow such creatures to live and breed so closely to my home! It must be slain!”

“Oh?” Emerald intoned, “Are you sure not wanting to let your little brother eclipse you has no involvement with this decision?”

“For the last time, I am not jealous of Tusk! This job needs doing whether he did it first or not! He even needed twice as many people to do the job! And he borrowed my sword!”

The archer giggled. “Sorry, sorry, I had no intent to strike a nerve.”

I bristled. “Why, you...”

“Well, I think a little sibling rivalry is cute,” Waltz smiled.

“Hmph.” There was nothing I could say to that face. Instead, I turned my head away, but even that drew another laugh from Emerald, which in turn seemed to encourage Ironclad to come to my rescue.

“Of course! Things like honor, women, overeager little brothers and vast sums of money given as rewards for slaying the echidna hold no bearing at all!”

“Quite.”

“As long as everyone is safe,” Waltz agreed.

“I wouldn’t mind the money,” Emerald said with a shrug.

“...” Barrel brooded.

 

     I meant it. Money? Yes. Honor? Yes. I wanted those things. Of course I did. Standing by and knowing that people were being hurt while I could stop it? That would be truly intolerable. Even if that bastard Tusk had supposedly taken care of the problem first.

 

     I sat back against the cooling flesh of the manticore and watched Waltz playing in the fire. Her eyes blazed brighter than the firelight as her fingers traced glowing pink patterns in the air. In response to gestures I didn’t understand the flames flickered and spun into unnatural shapes, sometimes twisting into cones, other times twirling in vertical loops and in one stunning instance turning into water that dropped back into the pit to make a plume of steam. That was magic, a real mage’s magic, not the brutish Fist variety. The patterns in the flame were so intricate, I could almost make out… ha, she spelled her name! It was more like looking at needlepoint than someone actually writing though. There were even little birds at the corners. Adorable.

 

     Waltz really was something else. She was probably the only one among us who didn’t have wealth or fame as even a secondary goal. So noble, so pure. And beautiful, too. Intolerably so; her gentle womanly curves caused pangs in my chest when I looked at her. And such grace! A woman like her had no place in an adventuring party, especially mine. Yet there she was, sitting at our fireside like a lamb in a den of dirty lions. She was too good for us.

 

“You know, if you keep staring at her like that you’ll get her pregnant.”

I couldn’t help starting this time as Barrel spoke beside me.

“We both know that to be impossible!”

Emerald giggled on the other side of the fire. “Perhaps, but only because your efforts have shown us so.”

“Is that r-really—” Waltz stammered, “I mean, must we speak of such things now?”

Ironclad roared his laughter. “What’s the matter, to embarrassed to think of the things old Pillar has done to you in his head? If you goad him into it he might just feel guilty enough to make an honest woman of you!”

“Ironclad!” Waltz always flushed up when she was the center of attention, and now was no different. She looked from the sniggling behemoth, then to me with rose red cheeks, then  pulled her hood over her face and bowed her head. I hated to see her teased like this, and yet…

 

     I stood so quickly the manticore’s head rolled onto its side behind me and strode to Waltz’s side. This was an opportunity, and if I never got the chance again I would not wish to regret it. With all the flair I could manage I knelt on one knee and took the mage’s nearest hand into mine.

“Pillar?” I couldn’t blame her for being surprised. I was surprised I was doing this myself.

“Waltz… we have journeyed together long and far, protected each other more times than I can count, but once we pull this off… we won’t need to do those things anymore. With this last beast slain our comrades in arms can clean the world of the rests of the dread beasts. We can both retire somewhere quiet if we wish, but I don’t wish to do it alone. What I wish to say is… well, er… will you marry me?”

I had no ring, but my thoughts were pure. No sound save the crackling of the fire stirred our camp as Waltz processed what I’d said.

“You musn’t joke about such things, Pillar.”

“Aye, I would never.”

“Then you really mean…” I nodded. Shock set itself farther into the girls face before the beginning of a smile peaked through. “If I were to be wed with you, then yes!”

 

     Waltz almost knocked me over when she jumped into my arms for a hug. I savored the feeling, welcoming her warmth and closeness before noticing that the camp was still deathly quiet. All eyes were on me, but shouldn’t someone be clapping or crying tears of joy or something?

“Did you really?” Barrel asked, breaking the crypt-like quiet surrounding me.

“Yes?”

“Do you realize how much bad luck proposing right before a fight is?” Ironclad shook his head slowly as he looked down at you.

“Nothing more than superstition.” It was hard to keep the doubt out of my voice.

“If you die because of this,”  Emerald sighed, “You are not allowed to haunt me.”

“As if I would have any desire. Why are you all not happy for us? Do you think my love will distract me? Ridiculous! If nothing else knowing that Waltz’s hand awaits me will be my strength, a raison d'être! Right, Waltz?”

“Yes, of course!” The girl barely managed to make eye contact with me before looking away again. “A raison d'être, and a little cottage, and three or four children… oh, I’d need to get mother to teach me how to make her pies…”

“Perhaps,” Ironclad spoke as he drummed his fingers on a steel-covered thigh, “more than one of you will be distracted.”

“Yes, yes, enough of that. Barrel, you take first watch, everyone else should go to sleep.”

A chorus of grumbles was all I got as an acknowledgement, but at the least my party was still disciplined enough to follow orders.

 

     The morning came bright and warm, not that either pleasantry would matter much inside the dread echidna’s lair. A labyrinth of caves stretched under the mountains in the area, full of monsters both known and unknown. The echidna had been busy all these years, her work was sure to be evident in the beasts we would have to slay to reach her. I watched over my team as they broke camp and once again checked their weapons. We were ready.

 

     Camp was only about a half hour’s walk from the nearest cave’s mouth, the one Tusk’s party used. If all went well we would simply be able to follow the path markers they left behind, march right into the dread echidna’s lair—with time and energy allowed to kill a few dread beasts in between, of course—slay it and then leave. Of course, it couldn’t be that simple.

“The trail marks are gone.”

Not only that, there weren’t even any obvious tracks. It was as if someone had come through and wiped them all away. The beasts had gotten smarter recently, even going so far as to ambush trade routes at tactical points blocking any chance of escape, but were they that intelligent now?

Ironclad adjusted his shield nervously. “Do you think someone else is here?”

 

     That would be the only other answer. Someone so twisted they would choose to protect the dread beasts over their own kind. There were those that had decried our extermination efforts as a genocide, but what of it? Would any of them really go so far as to enter the dread echidna’s lair to protect it? The beasts would devour them. The idea was preposterous, yet somehow I could not force it from my mind. That was a sign.

 

“Perhaps,” I growled. “Take your positions, and be wary. Barrel,  I want you on point; you can still find our path to the dread echidna, can you not?” He nodded. “Good, then let us go. With any luck we should be done in time for lunch.”

 

     I made to take my place behind Ironclad, but a small hand caught mine before I could move. I turned to see Waltz stubbornly stubbornly holding onto my glove but looking at her feet. Emerald walked past without a word.

“What is it, love?” When she finally looked back up at me Waltz’s face was beet red.

“I will watch over you, but, um, be careful, okay?”

A warm smile covered my face as I took her chin in my hand. “Of course. Now let us go, we should end this quickly.”

 

     Barrel led well. After a short hesitation at each split in the maze of the cave’s tunnels for Barrel to select the path we would take and for Waltz to leave a glowing beacon to mark the way for our exit we were off again. The rogue’s ability to follow signs I could not see was uncanny, but even more uncanny was the fact that even in the den of the beast spawning the rest we encountered not a single monster. There were traces, certainly, but we never caught so much as a glimpse of a dread beast. Something was amiss and we all felt it.

 

     For the most part the cave was pitch black outside of the circles of light Waltz’s will-o-wisps provided. What scenery could be seen was beautiful if mundane: crumbling stone and sand. That is, until we reached a large opening. A cavern within the cavern stretched out before us. Here the ceiling opened up to a high,bumpy affair, as if someone had masoned the ceiling with boulders and used luminescent moss as a cement. The ground was deep sand that crunched softly underfoot. Through some trick of geology the air was warmer and more humid as well.

“Is this… a nest?” My voice echoed off of walls I couldn’t see.

“Maybe,” Barrel mused, letting a handful of sand sift through his fingers. “Something came here often enough.”

“Then we must be getting—”

“I sense magic.” I would have been annoyed by the interruption if the strained expression on Waltz’s face as she spoke in the harsh magical light hadn’t been so jarring.

“From where?”

“Everywhere.”

 

     Everywhere? Then that would mean there was a human mage nearby. Someone actually had the gall to protect the maneaters that lived here. But That also meant... we were standing in the middle of a source of magic.

“IT’S A TRAP!”

 

     The sky fell. The thunderous roaring of a rockslide assaulted my ears even as I crouched down to cover myself with my shield and drew the power of the earth into me. I crouched and waited for the first boulder to crash down. It was a blow that never came; even as I took my position a sphere of protective magic blossomed around me and every stone that came my way was harmlessly deflected. Waltz. Waltz!

 

     Even as the last of the bass pounding of the sprung trap reverberated through the cavern I stood and whirled to face where I’d seen her last. My ears rang and my balance was shot, But I still clambered over the now rocky ground at a near run. I found her sitting in the middle of a sandy patch with her knees up to her chin and her hands over her head.

“Waltz!”

The girl was shaken, but still managed to force a smile as I helped her to her feet.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes, but forget me, what about the oth—”

“GRAH!” An eruption of stone on my left announced Ironclad’s recovery as the giant shed rock like rain from his shoulders. “You two alright?”

“Yes.”

“Emerald?!” he bellowed. A groan in the distance came as his answer.

 

     Waltz swung a will-o-wisp toward the sound to reveal the archer’s sprawled form some ways away, strung bow still clutched to her chest. Had she actually dodged most of those rocks? She’d only been caught in her right leg by a single large one but even from a distance it was obvious her shin was mangled. The three of us rushed to her side and Ironclad and I grasped the rock on opposite sides without either of us needing to suggest it. The giant nodded.

“One, two…”

“ARRRRGH!” A blood curdling scream from the archer almost made both of us drop the stone. “Leave it, leave it! Gods dammit!” A stream of curses that faded into near hysterical laughter followed from her mouth. Emerald really was in bad shape and there was nothing I could do, save look to my fiance.

“Waltz, please do something.”

She nodded. “I can get her free, but healing magic is not my forte. We must get her out of here, or she will die.”

“See to her leg first.”

Waltz immediately set to her task, first performing a spell that seemed to ease Emerald’s pain and put her to sleep, then examining the rock pinning her.

 

     I had other things to see to in the meantime. We were disorganized, distracted and vulnerable. We also still had a member still unaccounted for.

“Barrel!” I called into the darkness. No one answered, but he was a far better Whistling Fist than Emerald. If she had managed to avoid the worst of it Barrel likely hadn’t even been touched. Where was he, then?

 

     Of equal concern was the fact that even though we’d sprung the trap nothing else had befallen us yet. It would have to soon. I looked back to Emerald in time to see Waltz levitate the rock away. The girl’s leg was practically a pulp; even with the best healer she likely would never walk again. Assuming she lived.

“We need to move. Waltz, use that levitation thing to carry Emerald. Ironclad, watch our backs. I will take point.”

Despite his stress Ironclad sprang into position before turning to me. “What of Barrel?”

“If I know him at all he will be off observing from—LOOK OUT!”

 

     A hail of spears of light were launched from farther back in the cavern. Their glow lit the surroundings far brighter than our ghost lights did, yet I still could not see who had launched them. Even as I leapt sideways to add another layer of protection in front of the girls a dread filled my mind. From what I understood of that spell it was usually launched from directly in front of the caster; launching a distance from the mage was difficult. Whoever we were up against was good.

 

     The first wave slammed into Ironclad’s enchanted shield. Lesser men would have been blown back, but Ironclad’s Lead Fist skill was such that he barely moved.

“Run!” He shouted without looking back as another wave from a different location.

“No!” There was no way any of us would make it out of the cave alive if we turned our backs on a mage as powerful as this. “Waltz, where is he?!”

“Um, over there!”

 

     I drew my sword and charged in the direction my mage indicated. We needed pressure on that mage. My plan had fallen to bits, but I refused to let any more of my team do the same. I may have been responsible for leading my party into danger, but I was just as responsible for leading them out. I wouldn’t fail.

 

     Faster. I needed to move faster. The dread echidna was one thing, but this mage needed to be taken down immediately.  Another of Waltz’s ghost lights hovered along my path as I scrambled over the rocks. The light before me glinted off of something wet and white. A fang the size of my arm in a maw that could swallow me whole. Blast!

 

     I tumbled sideways as I evaded the charge, landing in a crevice between two large boulders. The gargantuan gray snake slithered past me at a pace I could never maintain on ground as rocky as the terrain here now was. I dragged myself to my feet and made after the snake’s tail even as it barreled towards Ironclad. It was too big, he couldn’t block it head on! Still, the steel behemoth lowered his stance and raised his shield. The snake slammed into it full force just as Waltz finished casting a spell to reinforce his guard. The dread echidna rebounded, then raised itself and hissed.

 

     The least I could do was distract the thing; Waltz was covering for him, but taking a blow like that would still be difficult even for Ironclad. I raised my sword above my head and summoned the power of the earth within me. My body grew heavy and sturdy as the low magic filled my being. Even as my mass skyrocketed my muscles strained to match, working with magically bolstered strength to move leaden arms.

 

     I swung down with my entire body. Lighter blows had cleaved dread beasts cleanly in half, but this one fell to within an inch of the dread echidna before hitting something and bouncing back with a crackle and a flash of light.

 

     A barrier? A magic barrier? Whoever was helping this thing had actually managed to cast one of that variety on another creature? This mage was becoming more and more of a thorn in my side. I did not need anything making an eighty yard long snake harder to kill, but I had a race traitor protecting the snake, and the snake attacking us so I couldn’t focus on killing the race traitor so I might actually be able to kill the snake!

 

     I let the power within me disperse and sprinted toward the dread echidna’s head. A flying leap off of a boulder and a surge of earth magic turned me into a projectile worthy of a siege engine. Just in time to disrupt another lunge at Ironclad I slammed into the side of its head and dropped to the ground. As the beast reeled I ran back to take a position behind Ironclad and in front of Waltz and Emerald’s supine form.

“This isn’t working,” I snarled. “Waltz, we need to split up. Let Ironclad and I distract the snake, we need you to move Emerald and take out the mage so we can actually get in a killing blow.”

“No, that—guh!” Waltz grunted as another headbutt slammed into Ironclad’s shield. “That won’t work! The dread echidna is the mage!”

“That can’t be!”

 

     Such a proposition was absolutely ridiculous. That was what I thought until I saw for myself. The beast’s tail tip lit up in that same way Waltz’s did when she was casting a spell. The color was a blood red instead of Waltz’s gentle pink, but a spell circle formed as the beast traced several characters in the air nonetheless. Inhuman eyes glared at us with an unnatural glow, then the spears of light appeared all around us.

 

     No. I stared numbly at the dread echidna as the blows rained into Waltz’s shield around me. Tusk hadn’t mentioned this in his tales of the battle with the male. Had he forgotten to mention it? That was ridiculous. Holding back information like that was akin to murder; could he have been that intent that I not defeat the other echidna? Tusk would never. Then it must be something new somehow.

 

     No matter what brought this change, one thing was certain: we would die here. We could not run, we could not hide, and with two fifths of our number down or missing and a barrier around the dread beast we had little chance of striking any blows.

 

Yet that left us cornered, and cornered men were dangerous.

 

     A mighty roar ripped from my throat as the barrier protecting us shattered. No time for hesitation. I swept Waltz under my arm and covered both of us with my shield as the last of the spears rained down. No time for fear.

“You know what to do, love!”

“Yes!”

Only victory.

 

     I burst from our position at an angle, seeking to make the snake split its attention. On seeing me move Ironclad did the same in the opposite direction. That left Waltz, the apparently least well protected of those standing unguarded, but she had ways of protecting herself. And in exchange… there was a loud hiss as both Ironclad’s mace and my sword hit the dread echidna’s barrier at the same time. We weren’t equipped to combat mages, but if we kept hitting it, then eventually that guard would break. If during that time Waltz stayed silent and prepared a large spell while we held all of its attention we might have a fighting chance.

 

     Each of us got in a flurry of blows. The dread snake’s head whipped from side to side as we ineffectively flailed at it. Its eyes settled on Ironclad and it twisted its head at a right angle so its mouth opened perpendicular to the ground. Something flashed in the air  as it opened its mouth wide to snap up our behemoth. A knife?

 

     Ironclad angled himself such that the bite clamped around his shield to keep the jaws from closing all the way, but it seemed that was unnecessary. Even as it lifted him the snake let out a pained hiss. It shook him like a ragdoll once before tossing Ironclad to the ground and retreating, throwing its head from side to side to free the blade it had just lodged deeper into its mouth. The iron giant bounced once, but nowhere near as high as he should have; he’d used his Lead Fist abilities to gentle the fall. The resilient bastard was fine.

 

     I charged, not willing to miss such an opportunity, until a wave of what could only be described as wrongness swept past me like a wave through the breakers. There was no physical sensation, and certainly not one of any kind of attack, but everything felt off, as if the world itself had been ripped apart under my feet and hastily tossed back together. The second time in a year. I stopped in my tracks, disoriented and confused, though I knew not why.

 

     I felt as if something fundamental had been altered, but I did not know what. Ironclad felt it too, as he’d paused even in picking himself up. Nothing had changed in the cavern. The ground was still a cold spray of stone, Waltz still frozen in the middle of a spell and it was still pitch black save for our few circles of light. The only thing different was the dread snake.

 

     Even as I watched it shrank, changed. Everything seemed to happen at once. Its eighty meters dropped to forty, to twenty, to ten. The slate gray scales on the upper portion of its body gave way to fair skin. That skinned portion shifted and stretched. Limbs formed as if a skilled sculptor stretched them out of a piece of clay, and likewise what was apparently a torso formed. A waist pinched in from the tube the body had been before to form a narrow portion that swelled out into a wide pair of hips and melded seamlessly into the parts that were still snake. Large but pert breasts jutted out from what must now have become a second rib cage. Above that a neck also formed itself by shrinking inward as the snake head gave way to a delicately curved but strong face adorned by full pink lips, slitted amber eyes and a shock of tussled back-length raven black hair. The result was a motherly woman chopped off at the hips and grafted onto a gigantic snake. It wasn’t entirely unappealing; if I wasn’t careful her nakedness could become a distraction.

 

     Ironclad finished standing and we both stared on as the dread echidna—no, it was too small and familiar for that title now—as the echidna pulled Barrel's blade from it’s mouth and spat red spittle. The knife clattered to the stone ground and the beast stared in wonder at its own hands. This was our chance!

 

     Ironclad shook his head clear of the what just transpired almost as soon as I did. He raised his mace and swung down as I angled past them both and spun to slice the beast’s back. The echidna still bothered to block Ironclad’s mace with an arm, but both of our weapons crackled and hissed against its barrier. Both of us doubled down on our force and Fist magic to press the attack and the echidna seemed to shrink into itself as we pushed forward from opposite sides. Just a little more…

 

     The rustle of a cape was all that announced Barrel’s reentrance. He dashed in from the side, dagger held low and close to his body. The moment the enchanted tip touched her barrier the protection shattered. Barrel’s dagger slid home into her side and my own sword slashed downward across her shoulders. This was it!

“Get back!” Waltz cried.

 

     As one we leapt away. Barrel’s skill as a Whistling Fist lightened his body such that he seemed to fly back into the shadows. Waltz’s spell was a mighty one: twin spears of rock formed from the ground and the ceiling, points shooting towards each other to meet in the center. Had the echidna still been the same size it was when our mage started that spell it would have been impaled for certain, but at its current size it was small enough to roll down the slope of the bottom point and avoid damage.

 

     The echidna wallowed on the ground with one hand clutching its stab wound, bleeding heavily. We could still finish it! Ironclad and I ran in, heedless of the hand the snake raised toward the sky. The palm smacked down into the ground and a wave of dust marked the outer edge of a magical force blast. Both of us were blown backward, but the mace warrior had been fast enough to raise his mass using his Fist magic before the wave hit him and hadn’t flown as far.

 

     A wave of light spears appeared in front of Waltz, and the snake turned to face them. With a gesture from the echidna Ironclad jerked forward as he found his feet and glided toward our enemy. Waltz’s spears crashed into the second shield on his back and disappeared. Ironclad hurried to raise his shield as he continued floating toward the echidna, but with a pained scream and a spurt of blood from her back she yanked it down. With a gesture almost too fast to see she formed the tip of another spear of light in her palm and thrust up into the giant’s exposed chin. I watched in horror as it split the chain mail protecting him and slid into his skull.

 

Ironclad’s body went still.

 

     No! It was too late. I knew it, but I bellowed and attacked anyway. The snake dropped the corpse of my friend wove another circle in the air. Right before I was within striking range it clapped, and the world exploded in a flash of blinding light and a crack of deafening sound. The ground I was too dazzled to see rushed up to meet my face.

 

     My hearing returned slowly as the ringing in my ears faded. The stars in my vision vanished, but there was nothing to see save darkness until a bright strobing lit the dark nearby. Illuminated by the flashes Barrel seemed to move in slow motion as he danced between spear of light after spear of light. He dodged ten, maybe fifteen of them as I watched before one caught him in the calf and he went down with an agonized grunt. Even as three more spears materialized around him he searched frantically for some sign of help.

“Pillar! Wal—” His cry was cut short as the spectral weapons descended into his chest.

 

     Blast it! Blast it all! It wasn’t supposed to be like this! I shook with silent rage, listening for any sign of the echidna as Waltz recovered and sent out several more will-o-wisps to light the cavern again. The echidna was nowhere to be seen, but I caught the angry red glow of one of her spell circles several yards away out of the corner of my eye. There was a distant snap, then a far closer whoosh and suddenly the snake was right behind Waltz.

 

     My fiance let out a yelp and spun to face the snake as its hands ripped at her barrier with its own. I began running towards them before I registered what even just happened.

“Infertile bitch!” the monster cried before one last burst of strength shattered Waltz’s barrier. The mage raised her hands as the echidna surged forward. She was no fighter; the echidna knocked her arms away as if they were nothing and dipped forward to sink long canines into her neck.

 

     Just a little too far. A few yards more and I could have stopped her. Instead I ran towards them from what felt like a mile away through air thick like molasses as the fangs connected with flesh.

 

     In my mind the moment was an eternity, but the experienced predator ended it in an instant. Waltz gasped and stepped back, staring in shock at the echidna as she clutched her wound. The echidna said nothing as the two stared at each other for just a moment before the snake backhanded her so hard she flew sideways and the lights in the cave went out once again.

 

     I ran mindlessly to the spot where they’d been last and swung my sword in a rage. Again and again I slashed at empty air, wailing all the while. Unable to swing my sword or bear my anguish anymore I dropped the weapon and fell to my knees in tears.

“Waltz! Waaaaaaaltz!”

“Pillar…” My fiance’s voice came weakly from nearby and I crawled for her, groping in the dark until I found her hand. It already grew feverish.

“Dearest! I am so sorry!”

Weakly, her other hand found mine and locked it in their grasp. “It does not hurt,” she breathed in a shaky voice. “Can you believe that? It actually feels really...”

“Just— just hold on. As soon as we get out of here I can get you treated.” Treated for a venom none had ever survived before. “And then, and then… we will marry, just as I promised. It will be a grand—”

 

     The sound of metal sliding against stone stopped me mid sentence. Reluctantly I slid my hands away from my fiance’s and stood to face the sound. Death by my own sword, then?

“Come,” I demanded of the darkness. “Stop hiding and show yourself!” I pivoted toward the sound of a stone shifting. “Coward! Let there be but a candle so that I may—”

 

     A dull orange light flickered into existence over my head. Rage-filled amber eyes reflected its light no more than a foot from my face. The echidna hissed. It held my sword in its hand with the blade dragging along the ground, but dropped the weapon as soon as I saw it.

“This sword reeks of my husband’s blood,” the snake hissed.

“Aye, it was the blade that killed him. I only wish it was my hand guiding it, monster.”

 

     The hatred in its eyes had been a controlled one, if barely. My words, however snapped something inside of it and the barely contained rage burst forth. An invisible hand grasped me, and though I filled myself with fist magic to make myself heavy it still flung me across the floor. I was pummeled against the ground in an arc around that circle of light and angry echidna, guided by her outstretched hand. Left, then right, then left again. She flung me upward once into the high ceiling, and then released me to let gravity drop me to the ground before her. I was dazed, but still tried to sit up as her weight settled onto my legs. Rattled as I was I was powerless to block or strike back as the echidna balled her fists and rained blow after blow into my head. She screeched with each blow, “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you! I’LL KILL YOU I’LL KILL YOU I’LLKILLYOUI’LLKILLYOUI’LLKILLYOUI’LLKILLYOUI’LLKILLYOU! DIE!”

 

     Every strike brought a wave of pain, but I cared not. My last thoughts as consciousness faded and the world went dark went to Waltz. “I’m sorry.”


If only I’d known how dark my world would get.

 

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