“That wasn’t even close to ten seconds! It was at least twenty-three!” Tim said as Darkos hurried back over. “Look at Lou! She’s all over the place.”
This was a bit of an exaggeration. Yes, a skeleton had managed to somehow rip a hand off of the elderly water mage, but that was hardly ‘all over the place.’ Darkos had seen a lot worse in his time. Then he felt bad. Sure, he’d seen people dismembered, impaled, consumed, immolated, and so on, but that didn’t mean Lou had experienced any of this. In fact, she probably was in the worst pain she’d ever been in. Most people didn’t ever lose limbs, and he happened to know from Geela’s first-hand accounts that losing limbs hurt a lot.
“Sorry! I got it, I got it. Oi you!” he yelled at the skeleton, who was currently chewing on Lou’s hand. “Drop it!” He pointed at the ground. “Spit it out. Now!”
The skeleton just made an ugly snarl sound and chewed even more.
Usually when Darkos had to try to wrest something from the mouth of a wild animal, the bone in question was the object he needed to remove. He’d never considered that he might have to wrestle something from a bone. Yet here he was, trying to scold an angry skull into submission. Without the peanut serum on him in any way, and with no physical ability to grapple the skeleton, he had to settle for a minor heal. Ideally, he’d conserve his heals for Geela, but Lou deserved this one. With a flash of light, the skeleton shrieked in dismay and dropped the hand.
“Alright, Lou, hang tight,” he said. “Come on over here, I need you to hold it in place. Yeah, okay. Yeah that works. Sorry, I’m a projection, I can’t really hold it for you. Thanks, Vortex, that helps a lot.” Darkos guided the mages through the positioning of the severed limb, before everything was lined up perfectly. “This won’t hurt a bit. Like it actually won’t. Promise.”
The woman looked miserable as Darkos poured some extra healing magic into making sure that her hand was not only reconnected but painless.
“Thank you,” she whispered, voice trembling, and Darkos felt extra bad for his callous attitude.
But there was no time for an additional apology, as another skeleton launched itself at the crew. This time, Darkos was prepared and sent a small dart of healing at it, knocking it away mid air. He was torn between conserving healing and calling over support, or using up more of his healing magic. They really couldn’t risk Noire noticing the small band, however, since this scheme of Geela’s might be their best hope at delaying the fiend, so he didn’t summon any additional fighters. Instead he continued scorching angry skeletons as the mages hurried about their work.
We’re good here, Geela, he projected after another minute or so of work. What’s next?
Darkos could all but feel the smirk on her face.
Noire gets its power back. With this, Geela released her gripped hands in Noire’s direction. The force of the magic returning to it thrust it back several feet. Ten feet, to be precise, where it slipped onto the slide and whizzed past the four mages and Darkos, barreling towards the column on which sat the barrel.
Oh man, Geela. You’ve really thought of everything.
Naturally. Then her thoughts grew serious. How long? That’s going to take out our primary source of weaponry against the skeletons away, so we can’t draw this out much longer.
Darkos looked back at the sun. Maybe five minutes? Maybe a little more or less. We should be good, right? He looked back at Geela, but his eyes were caught by Noire’s zooming form as it collided with the pillar. Just as Geela had intended, the barrel tipped briefly before crashing down on top of it.
A scream of agony pierced the hall. Though none of the fighters glanced over—the skeletons hadn’t faltered in their onslaught— Darkos could tell everyone hadheard. They’d heard and were invigorated by the noise.
On the ground, underneath the shattered wood, Noire’s body was blistered and swollen. Darkos watched, waiting for it to struggle to its feet, but it didn’t move, and for a moment, he thought it was dead.
Then he felt a terrible, awful, no good sucking feeling in his stomach, and his whole world spun. A second later, he’d been forcibly pulled back to his body, where he found, to his horror, he was not alone.
Get the hell out of my body, Darkos said, outraged and freaked out. That’s mine. My parents made me that.
“Darkos?” Geela’s voice did even more to make him freaked out. He didn’t think he’d ever heard her so scared. “Darkos.” She rushed to his side, her hood falling back as she did. Underneath the hood, she looked way worse for the wear than he expected. Her eyes were red, her face stained with blood, and her cheeks were hollow and pale. But even worse than that, was the look of helplessness on her face.
What do I do? He tried to think at her, but her presence was gone from his mind. Instead was a suffocating whirlpool of gunk and mud. Despite trying to catch his breath, Darkos couldn’t stop himself from slipping, deeper, and he wanted nothing more than to tear at his own face to get it out.
You will receive your just punishment for betraying me, Darkos. Noire’s voice was a black hole in his skull. I have consumed the souls of my other failed children. They served their purpose, bringing me power. You are all that is left. I will make this hurt. I will make her do it.
“You know what to do, Geela.” It sounded like Darkos’s voice, but he wasn’t controlling it. This wasn’t good. “You know how to destroy me.”
“Oh don’t be stupid, Noire.” Geela’s nose wrinkled, but her eyes stayed worried. “Killing Darkos’s body would just banish you back to your old one.”
“Then let me keep it.” Darkos could feel his lips twist into an ugly smirk. “This is easier than returning to that damaged form anyway. Either way, you do not get this back.” Slowly, Darkos’s limbs agonizingly pulled themselves to a stand. “He will only last a few more minutes anyway. You really raised a wonderful vessel for me. He fits like a glove.”
As the presence in his mind expanded, Darkos felt as though he could barely draw breath. Yet, at the same time, he could feel a pull towards it. A call. Noire was his parent, after all. His source. He couldn’t fight it out.
“Darkos.” Geela hurried to his side, getting dangerously close to Noire. Darkos wanted to tell her to get away but he couldn’t speak. “Darkos, listen to me. You have more differences than similarities. You can fight this.”
All Darkos could do was control his eyes, which he jerked around in his head. Geela’s green eyes followed his gaze, her brow puckering in concern.
What makes us different, Darkos thought. What doesn’t make us different? You’re a gross, evil shadow thing. You have no one pulling for you, no one in your corner. His body stood up straighter, and Geela took several steps away. Darkos kept up his thoughts. No one wants you to win. All your followers are gone. Either we killed them or you did, but you have no allies left.
Darkos, I do not need allies. Noire closed Darkos’s eyes, plunging him into deeper blackness. I have already won.
Fine. Fine, not allies. You have no friends. No family. No one who cares about you. No one who loves you. Darkos tried to inhale deeply but only darkness flooded him. You can’t feel love, and I feel sorry for you!
For a moment, he hung in stillness, circling the drain, moments from falling into the cavernous void at the bottom of the pit. He heard, somewhere deep in his core, the screams of millions.
Then he heard a sound from the Mortal Plane around him. His jaw had pried itself open and now emitted an ugly laugh.
Was that supposed to hurt me? Noire asked.
Darkos didn’t respond. His mouth was still laughing, but this time, he actually was laughing along with it. He was about to try to think something witty in Noire’s general direction, but in the next moment, he was being waterboarded by the delectable peanut water his mother had made. Geela had followed his gaze to the bucket of water he’d stashed to the side and had slipped off to grab it while Darkos had delayed Noire.
Noire’s presence screamed in Darkos’s mind as he gulped down more and more of the elixir. Darkos, meanwhile, enjoyed the lightly flavored beverage while the Void Fiend howled in pain.
“This attack is merely temporary!” Noire’s voice sputtered through the liquid. “Your supplies are limited, and petty summoner that you are, you do not know from where to summon more weapons. I know your limitations, little Geela. If you knew a source of these foul components, you would have brought more to this battle.”
Through his now open lids, Darkos could see Geela’s eyes report back that Noire was, unfortunately, correct. The only nuts Darkos had known Geela to summon were peanuts, which she’d probably stolen from the crops in her old home Region. Unfortunately, peanuts were out of season, and Geela, off the top of her head, probably didn’t know the specific locations of any stashes. It would take her hours to psychically comb through kitchens and farms around the realm to find more nuts.
“By weapons, he—er, it—means peanuts, right?” a new voice asked. Darkos hadn’t seen his parents join the fray, but that was definitely Dad speaking. “Am I right in thinking that, well, if you know the general area… Rather, if you knew a specific location, you could summon them? I’m not well versed in magic but—”
“We got some sandwiches in the kitchen.” Mom sounded disapproving. “Back in our house. I trust you know the area. Arthius forgot that basket right before we headed out. Had to stop by McRenolds for those horrible cow and chicken sandwiches.”
As his mother kept talking, Geela’s eyes glazed over. She laced her fingers together, and as Darkos’s vision began to fade a bit, he saw a keyhole shaped split in reality form. A moment later, a huge basket tumbled out. Geela flung open the lid and removed a fluffy, peanut and fruit sandwich. Even through his fading consciousness, Darkos could smell Mom’s old recipe, the kind that not even Geela could really replicate.
“Open up, Noire.”
The Void Fiend didn’t last another minute in Darkos’s body as he gulped down sandwich after sandwich. Darkos had spent months in the Void Realm, and in that time he’d had a single banana mousse. This was the tastiest meal he’d ever had in his life. The fact that it banished his evil, damned soul donor was just an added bonus.
As Darkos’s awareness returned, he could hear his parents and Geela bickering. “You could have told me you knew where a stash of nuts was.” Darkos could just barely overhear the conversation through Noire’s screams.
“If you’d told us that’s what you needed, I most certainly would have.” Mom crossed her arms. “More and more I’m understanding why ‘Great Communicator’ is not among your titles.”
“Enough!” With this shout, Noire swooped from Darkos’s body, and he fell to the ground, gasping and panting.
“Darkos!” Geela’s argument with Mom died in a heartbeat as Geela dropped the basket and crouched down beside him, eyes combing over his face. “Is it gone? Can you breathe? Can you think straight? Mind not too addled? Tell me you’re alright so I can get back to fighting without worrying.”
Darkos coughed a few more times before reaching out and grasping with his hand until it made contact with the basket. He grabbed a sandwich slice from inside and shoved it in his mouth with trembling fingers. Better safe than sorry. As he chewed, he grinned and flashed Geela a thumbs up.
“Doing good,” he said, mouth full of bread. “Thanks, Geela. Good catch on the peanut water. Thought I was a goner.”
“Smart to keep a bucket in reserve.” She reached under his arms and tugged as if trying to help him up. It was a thoughtful gesture, even if, as Geela, there was no way she’d be able to budge him.
He laughed and propped himself up on his knees before struggling to his feet. “Look,” he said, pointing at the sky. “Sun’s hitting the horizon. We did it.”
“With the sunset comes your death.”
Geela and Darkos span to see Noire rising to its feet. Its flesh melted back to unblemished as it stood, leaving no sign of the scars it had bore only moments before.
“I am the harbinger of night.” Its voice shook through the room like an earthquake. “I do not herald darkness. Darkness heralds me. Know in these last few moments that you have been delayed until the moment of your doom.”
A chilling smile flickered over Geela’s lips, and in that moment, none of the blood or damage on her face mattered in the slightest. If anything, they added to her look of cold, manipulative victory. Beside her, a circle formed on the ground, rimmed in sparkling gold light, and behind her, a radiant orb twenty feet across began to take form.
“How easily you fall to the whims of dramatics, little Noire,” Geela said, voice more than matching Noire’s in power. “A grandiose speech? Insulting and belittling me? Are you buying time or are you simply gloating.” She tilted her head, and her green eyes flashed with malice. “Poor thing. You really ought to keep the theatrics to mortals. You’ve just embarrassed yourself to your own peril.”
With this, she lifted her hands in perfect synchronization with the four figures that rose from the portal. Darkos didn’t know how she did it. As Carlosi, Vera, Renby, and the hero of the hour, Berta, emerged from the portal, swirling lights surrounded them, bathing them in a glow, transforming their outfits, and masking Berta’s visage to be similar to her old Celestial City look. It made sense, of course, that Geela wouldn’t want to be overt about giving the weapon to another Patron. Had to put on a good show for the followers.
Carlosi remained kneeling, hand on the ground, face contorted with concentration to keep the portal active as they fully exited. Vera stood by Berta’s side, holding Renby’s wand. The boy stayed as far away from the Blood Witch as possible while still remaining inside the circle. Within seconds, they were fully materialized and the portal rim faded. Berta took the wand from Vera, and the four turned towards Noire.
“I think,” Geela said, head tipping only slightly as she looked at Noire with disdain, “this is checkmate.”
Then, behind her, the glowing golden orb expanded thrice-fold and shattered all remaining windows in the hall. It surged forward, melding and shifting in shape, before landing in the center of the room, just beside Noire, with the power of a cannon blast. Maybe more than a cannon blast. More like if the sun itself had cannons and was shooting a very angry cannon down from the heavens, as if to say the sun was very displeased.
And it was the sun. The magic here was definitely light, cosmic slanted, and very much not Geela’s. But why would the sun be mad at them?
“I have fought my way through a most foul and filthy cocoon, one which separated me from my people.” The being’s voice was way too loud, almost too much for Darkos to even understand. “That which held me from my church has finally been vanquished, and I will not stand by as they turn to follow a pretender.”
Darkos and Geela exchanged weary looks.
“Is now really the best time?” Geela asked.
The light had faded around the figure enough for Darkos to make out a twenty foot tall woman with a long mane of luminescent hair that fell past her feet. In one hand she gripped a spear as long as she was tall. Though Darkos was no pony worshiper himself, he’d spent enough time in the Celestial City to recognize the Goddess of the sunrise and sunset, Celeste.
“I challenge you.” She pointed her spear past Darkos, past Geela, and directly at Berta.
A silence fell across the hall. Not even Noire made a peep, understandable since, of all the Gods it could face down, Celeste probably stood the best chance against it.
“Me?” Berta sent Geela a shifty glance. “I, ah, I think you might be mistaken.”
Celeste’s silver eyes narrowed. “I rarely am.”
“Berta,” Geela hissed. She nodded at the witch before jerking her head at the towering Goddess that glared them down.
“I can’t fight Celeste! Are you insane?” Berta shot Geela a nasty look before turning back to Celeste. “Just one moment.”
Darkos coughed and took a few steps away from Geela and Berta. As he walked, he gently tapped a pile of stones with his foot, causing a small avalanche of pebbles and rocks to fall.
Celeste’s eyes shifted to him, and she gave him a withering glare. For his part, Darkos could only offer a weak smile and a small wave. Yes he was risking the irritation of a very powerful Patron, but he’d kinda been doing that for the last few years. At least Celeste was lawful good and less likely to evaporate him. Besides, he’d done what he needed to, and that was buy Berta and Geela a few moments of time.
Whatever they’d discussed, muted by the sound of rocks clacking into each other, must’ve been in Geela’s favor, for she sent the Blood Witch a sugary smile. Berta glared at her, before waving a hand. Immediately the stench of blood seeped over the hall, almost enough to make Darkos gag.
“To me,” Berta said, before looking back at Celeste. “Shall we take this outside?”
At this, another dozen or so people flocked to Berta’s side. Illisandra, Gene, Carlosi, and Vera, of course, followed by the eight grandchildren of Vera and Renby. The only person who lingered by Geela’s side was the Eight’s grandfather.
“I should stay with you,” he said, to Geela, voice quiet. “Keep the wand charged until, you know, we figured out what to do with it.”
Berta, to Darkos’s surprise, didn’t contest this. She sent a venomous smile at the young man, before her face transformed back to a grimace.
“You owe me one,” she said to Geela.
“I don’t think I do.” Geela waved a hand at her. “Don’t keep our good friend waiting.”
Celeste kept Berta’s gaze locked as she moved to the window. Berta followed and a moment later, the two leapt from the hall, taking to the skies. Darkos followed them with his gaze as long as he could before turning back to Geela.
“Now what?” he asked. “We’re kind of—”
“Now what indeed?” Noire, who had safely waited until the Goddess of sunrises and sunsets had left the vicinity, was back with all the bravery it had failed to show moments before. “I very much think that your plan has gone awry, little Geela.” Extra malice dripped from the last two words. Geela was right, Noire was having a bit too much fun here, but right now it didn’t feel like much of a victory. “Once I defeat you and absorb your power and the power of this sacrifice you have so thoughtfully provided me, I will use that energy to fully transfer my essence into this host. My transformation shall be complete as the sun dwindles in the sky, and then even Celeste will not be able to stop me. I would thank you for your generous sacrifice but we have delayed long enough. Now you die.”