Chapter 107 – Broken.
Rachael sat on one of the remains of one of the walls, Crystal cradled in her arms. It wasn’t the most comfortable, but it would do for the moment. The stench of the swamp certainly wasn’t helping though, and that was ignoring the scent of death that lingered from the things hidden below the waters. She hadn’t seen them yet, but she knew what was there. Bodies twisted by dark magic, by death, into something else. Creations that should not be, just like with Bowser’s experiments, but much more refined, and on a larger scale. The residual magic that lingered in the air was too potent to be ignored, to not be noticed.
She looked at her lover, gently stroking her face, love, pride, and worry warring within her. Every visible patch of skin was slick with blood, the side effect of having directly blocked Arcane’s magic while Rachael had supported her from the background, wresting Arcane’s source of power from her. Rachael had wiped away as much as she could, but still it persisted, as much physical as it was magical. Trust Arcane to do something so nasty. She had poured her healing magic into Crystal as well, and it had worked, as best it could, but there was only so much she could do. The rest was up to Crystal’s magic, and the power of the bond between them. Crystal would be fine, she knew that much, but Crystal would not be waking for a while, that piece of knowledge also clear.
There was more damage than just the external wounds. Crystal had pulled on power that perhaps they should not have. But Crystal had been desperate, they both had been desperate, and it had been there, accessible, Crystal somehow able to touch it. And it had given them what they needed, Crystal able to bring them all to here, and giving them the power to face off against the ancient. One who once perhaps, they would have called a friend.
Or perhaps not. All of her memories of Arcane were tainted, and all she could see now was the continual manipulation that they suffered at her hands.
Like when they had channelled the magic of the tempest leylines for the ritual at Odinsphere, the magic that Crystal had pulled on had done other things to them both as well. Burnt them, in places that weren’t physically there, something that they would heal from as they had done before, and that had also changed them. Again. It hadn’t effected her yet, at least as far as she could tell, but she had no doubt that it would in time. But for her lover, it was more than just a little obvious.
Crystal’s wings and tail were no longer just manifestations. They were now very much real. Permanent. And to be honest, rather awesome, fitting their nature as deep dragons. And her armour had changed. No, that wasn’t right. It wasn’t Warrior’s armour any more. It was her own now, and she looked more like a rider than most riders that she had seen. An amalgamation of bone and metal, Crystal had wicked looking armoured plates on her shoulders, an intricate breastplate that covered most of her front, albeit with the obligatory cleavage, armoured plates on the side of her waist and hips, clawed gauntlets, and knee high heeled boots. All that spoke of dragons. And something akin to skeon in her bikini area, but as much armour as the rest of it. Rachael knew that Crystal had a new sword and shield as well, but those had vanished when the fighting had stopped.
she still has the armour and weapons of the ageless queen,
it is bonded to her,
a part of her,
it is a manifestation of what you both are,
of what you have claimed.
as to which she uses,
that choice is hers,
the methods still the same.
The skimmer was safely landed on one edge of the island, no worse for the wear for what it had gone through. Hope and Fairweather had managed to keep it out of the way, Arcane showing no interest in it. Which was good. Crystal would not have handled it well had they gotten hurt because she had dragged them along. But on the other hand, leaving them behind may not have worked either, Rachael not sure if they would have been able to use the shift array to get back to the skimmer without a clear indication of where it was. One of the many limits of what was otherwise a very powerful array. Clocky and Fairweather had briefly exited the craft, but there wasn’t much for them to do out here at the moment, so they had returned to it, until they were needed. Tayja was at a bit of a loss as well, being rather silent, and had joined the others in the skimmer. What she had just witnessed, been involved in, was well outside the boundaries of normality.
There were four other riders as well, and their dragons of course, three that she recognised, all with adorable fox features now, and one that she did not. Physically they only looked a little worse for the wear, probably from the fight against the demons whose bodies still lay around, but she knew that they were not in a good way. While they had been shielded from Arcane’s onslaught, they had still suffered through everything else, and as to its impact, she had no clue, but it was clear that it had effected them. Significantly. A lady knight had died in front of them, the most powerful of their ranks. Slaughtered with ease, by something that should not have been there in the first place. Warrior had been holding back when she had hit Cassia. Arcane was not as kind. The look in her eyes, it had been so much more intense than what she had seen from that vision.
Yes, Asher had been warned, but it was still not a fate that she had deserved, that she should have had to suffer. It was something that should not have occurred.
The least they could do was offer her a proper burial or send off. But not here.
This place needed something completely different. If it actually worked.
Rachael put her thoughts aside as Ueana, Fleur and Coorie walked up to her, their dragons padding up behind them, and a little fox cub with two tails by their feet. Crystal would have loved it if she’d been awake. The riders were cute, the fox features really a perfect fit for them. But they all looked shattered, hollow, especially Ueana. Her ears drooped a little, her tails hanging limply behind her. It pained Rachael to see them like that. Crystal’s daughter, the Pyrefox. And an Arctic Fox and an Ashfox. The knowledge a gift from Dragon. Ueana stopped just short of them, staring down, tears dripping to the ground, her bondmates beside her.
“I had so desperately wanted to see you both again, but not in these circumstances. Not like this. I... we...” Ueana shook her head. “Asher, she was so proud. So strong. So certain. Willing to fight fate. She had given up so much to be where she was. She watched over us. Helped us, helped me.” Tears started streaming down her face. “And that lady, Spited, Arcane, whoever she is, she just tore her apart like a rag doll.”
The pain was clear in her eyes. “It’s so wrong. I... for all that happened, for all that we’ve been through, for the reasons why, the journey, to this point, it was happy. Nice. All of us together. Becoming what we are. I thought that it would stay that way, that we would find Water, and bring her back to Alysia. Then, I’m not sure, but still together. Perhaps even with you two. A nice dream.”
More tears, Ueana wrapping her arms around her chest. “But that’s never going to happen now. She’s gone. And... and we would have died too, if you two hadn’t shown up. The ancient, she was going to just wipe us all out.”
“We... owe you our lives,” Coorie added. She seemed to be the calmest of them all, but that was a facade, the raging emotions clear in her eyes.
Rachael’s vision went blurry as she looked at the riders. She wasn’t Crystal, but the pain was just as strong for her, and dammit, she would cry if she wanted to. “I’m sorry, that we didn’t make it in time. We’ve been trying to find you for weeks.”
“I’m just grateful that you found us at all.” Coorie stated.
Rachael took a deep breath, trying to stabilise her emotions. “We should give her a proper burial, or whatever is the custom.”
All three nodded their heads. “That would be nice. She deserves that at least.” Fleur this time.
“Do we take her back to the Empire?”
Ueana looked at her, thoughtful. “No. Not there. There is nothing there for her. She should return to Winters Haven. There was someone there who was important to her.”
Rachael gave them a weak smile. “Yeah, we can manage that.” They’d been there, so they’d be able to shift there, if she managed to get it to work. Otherwise they’d just fly, but it’d take a while, but given the circumstances, she’d prefer the faster method. “Did you want to return with us?”
More thoughtfulness, and more pain, and then a nod from Ueana. “Yes. We need to tell her. In person. She deserves that much.”
Ueana stood, back to staring at the ground, silence between them. Rachael looked to the familiars as Callisto made a low rumbling noise, and looked directly at her. Alysia has indeed been correct about their familiars, the intelligence, the awareness was there. And that one could breath flames as well, something that had always been a staple of dragons, but not of familiars.
“The ancient. Why did she do that? I thought...” Ueana waved her hands around in confusion. “You said that they were concepts...”
“Concepts now given form, part of the consequence of the pulse. Ancients... they are neither good nor evil. They just are. But, Arcane, she’s a self serving asshole.” She couldn’t help it, how she said the last bit. The difference between Velvet, Warrior, and Arcane was so stark though.
Ueana stood there, tears flowing again, both of her bondmates putting an arm around her. It was more than just the bond between them. There was real love too. Strong.
“Are they all like that? Can they all do that?” Coorie gave her a worried look.
neither should she.
Rachael shook her head. She would have to follow up on that.
“What will you do now?” Rachael then asked. They were well aware of what Asher’s mission had been. “After the burial.”
“I... we... don’t know. But...” Ueana paused, and seemed to compose herself a little, resolve in her eyes. “This mission, that we took on, I know that we all agreed, we’re eager to do it. But, we can’t continue the search. I cannot, will not, risk the lives of my bondmates. Especially if we were to run into her again. It would break us, more than anything else could. I’m sorry.”
“I understand.” She really did. Crystal had almost died once already, and she was not going to let that happen again. Sure, their recent actions didn’t necessarily represent that, but they hadn’t known that they were going to face Arcane, and somehow, they had found the power necessary to hold her back at that point. They had titles, warriors blessing. These riders, they did not.
Coorie stepped forward, holding out her hand, dropping a ring into Rachael’s when she held it out in return. “This is the ring, the clue to Water that we found on the dying rider. It was what Arcane was after, the reason that she attacked. Armur was close to it when Crystal knocked it out of Arcane’s hands.”
“She said that it was theirs,” Ueana added. “But I thought that Water was one of the Demon King’s lieutenants?”
“That is what Alysia had said,” Rachael said as she looked at the ring.
And then gasped in surprise. “This doesn’t make sense...,” she muttered to herself. The magic of the ring, it was familiar. A little too familiar. “This... is Trish’s magic!” Except that Trish had died over a thousand years ago.
“Trish?” Fleur asked, seeming a bit startled.
“Yeah.” Rachael stared at the ring. The tendrils that Kyril had mentioned, they were there too, including one that pointed right to where they were. And a few other strange ones that had a different feel to them. “She was a priestess of the Core, of Arcane. Before the shattering. She taught me how to use magic. But, she also died back then as well, long before the demon king started his attack.”
Fleur looked conflicted, but didn’t say anything further.
There was another moment of silence, before Ueana seemed to pick up the courage to speak again.
“What did Crystal mean, when she said that she, or both of you, were the guardian of dragons?”
Rachael grimaced a little. “That... is a little complicated, and to be honest, I don’t fully understand it either. It’s a title that we have, one that we seemed to have gained rather than being granted, and it’s tied into our nature. That we are deep dragons. Perhaps other things as well. Let’s just say that we may have more of a connection to you all than anyone realises. That, and Crystal really likes dragons.” She did too, but Crystal certainly took the prize there.
“Is she going to be alright?”
Rachael nodded. “Yeah, she will be. She’s just going to take a little while to heal.” It was going to be interesting, trying to get her into the skimmer’s beds too. A problem for another time though. She was quite happy with her in her arms for now, just in case.
“Hmm?” She was still sitting in front of them.
“Crystal, is she Pyre?”
She had wondered if they’d ask that. “Yes. That’s what the ancients seem to call her at least.”
Rachael stood, stretching her own wings and tail as she sent a message to Kitsune, Crystal still in her arms. The day was getting on, and the stench of the swamp was only getting worse. “Let’s get Asher’s body back to Winters Haven. We’ll try the same way that we used to get here.” Hopefully she’d be able to pull enough mana for it, with the addition of the four riders, their familiars and the fox cub. And Asher. Crystal’s biggest issue with using it hadn’t been shifting them all, but locating Ueana in the first place, but still. It was a lot.
‘-I’ll give you a hand there.-’
Rachael blinked, a little surprised. She had thought that Velvet didn’t pay them much attention, unlike say, Warrior, who was more than a little invested in them. Crystal in particular.
‘-Sorry. All of this though, it’s been rather important. Perhaps too much so. We hadn’t wanted to stay out of it all, but somehow, I don’t think we can. Even with the unwritten rules of the ancients.-’
Rules that Arcane had broken?
‘-That I am not sure. But, something is very much wrong.-’
[[Arc 7 end.]]