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Sacrifice

StoriesbyJurixe Sep 25th, 2013 99 Never
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  1. She looked down at the blank parchment before her, spreading her gloved fingers out as she watched the flickering candlelight cast long, thin shadows upon the vellum. The half-melted candle was the only source of light in the dark, silent Archives, not even a sliver of moonlight filtering through the tall windows - but she didn't mind. She had always preferred the quiet of the night.
  2.  
  3. Her grey eyes moved to the long, polished tooth beside the parchment, and she exhaled through her nose in a faint sigh. He'd given that to her as a gift, a memory of the momentous battles they had fought together. She admired its curved perfection for the thousandth time - it was a fine quill, and she liked it very much. Writing letters to each other was a favourite pastime of theirs; she had hoped to write him many more letters with his gift, but it seemed that she might not get her wish now.
  4.  
  5. Still, she thought morosely, if nothing else it seemed morbidly fitting that it would write what might very well be her last letter to him.
  6.  
  7. Resolutely, she reached over and picked the quill up, dipping it carefully into her inkwell. She took extra care with wiping the residual ink off the pointed tip, scraping it against the rim over and over again, but knew she was only stalling for time; the complete blankness of the parchment was taunting her, challenging her to put idle thought to written word, as if there were even enough words in the Achaean language to fully express the chaos in her head. She had so much to say, but at the same time, she had nothing to say.
  8.  
  9. More accurately, she didn't know what to say.
  10.  
  11. The Apocrypha spoke often of sacrifice, of loss, of pain and of death in His name. The first three were concepts she was well-familiar with, part and parcel of the divine tragedy that was life; she was no stranger to death either, having met her demise countless times over by swordpoint, poisoned arrow, or even the stopping of her heart.
  12.  
  13. But she had always come back.
  14.  
  15. It was one thing to charge towards imminent death - swords and shields, broken arms and bleeding wounds, she understood, having fought in a hundred wars and waged a number of her own. All Mhaldorians knew death, when it came in this form - these were clean deaths, straightforward deaths, expected deaths. They made -sense-. Run a sword through a person's gut too many times, spill too much blood and they would die, simple as that.
  16.  
  17. Tampering with magic, however, was a different story entirely. She'd heard of fates worse than death when magic went awry, when rituals failed and when the elemental clashed with the spiritual. In battle, at least you had some physical, quantifiable control over your destiny; magic was intangible, invisible, completely dependent on the strength of your will - on forces beyond her control and comprehension, and she hated that. She was completely out of her depth here, and to her it felt like walking slowly off the edge of a steep cliff amid a thick fog - a blind march to an inescapable end.
  18.  
  19. Teras,
  20.  
  21. I hope you are well. I have not seen you for many months now, but I expect city and House duties keep you preoccupied.
  22.  
  23. I am writing you this letter because...I have agreed to assist Cleric Hexan with a dangerous ritual. I will not go into too much detail here, but it involves Chaotic possession, and he said he needed the blood of a strong Mhaldorian. I volunteered, but I
  24.  
  25. The faint sound of bone scratching upon parchment stopped as she paused, hand trembling slightly, the only outward sign of a panic she could not entirely hide. She shut her eyes. Strength, she ordered herself, trying to regain her courage. He needed to know.
  26.  
  27. The scratching resumed.
  28.  
  29. am afraid that I may not...be strong enough. I do not know what we are dealing with. Even he is not sure of what might happen. There is a very high chance that it could...fail.
  30.  
  31. I have no choice. She pressed the tip down hard as she wrote, as though the physical emphasis of the action could be translated into corresponding mental fortitude. I spoke to the creature controlling him during one of his episodes. She is powerful. He said that he came from the far north, where she lives, but she has the capability to possess him and take over his thoughts and actions even here. He could be dangerous. We cannot allow a fellow servant of Evil to be manipulated by an agent of Chaos.
  32.  
  33. We have to...try.
  34.  
  35. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  36.  
  37. Just days before, she had been severely unnerved when she had found the normally stoic Hexan singing and twirling in mid-air, dancing among the churning red fog.
  38.  
  39. "What are you doing here, Hexan?"
  40.  
  41. He'd looked at her with glazed eyes, the alien hue so different from his usual storm-grey - a colour she knew well, for it was her own. "Flying, of course! I love flying!"
  42.  
  43. Hexan would never say that. It was getting worse. She'd slapped him, she remembered, out of instinct; she'd never slapped anyone before, much less thought her first victim would be him. "Control yourself! Fight it!"
  44.  
  45. Then his voice had changed.
  46.  
  47. "Oh, it's -you- again, foolish girl." He'd smiled at her, and it was his mouth; but it was too cold, too vindictive, to be his smile. "See what I can do to him, even from so far away. Hexan is mine. There's nothing you can do about it."
  48.  
  49. She'd been terrified inside, but thankfully, she was nothing if not a good liar. She'd felt her features smooth over into her customary disdainful blankness, raising her chin a little as she stared as his face with stranger's eyes. This isn't him. "Enjoy the last moments of your meagre power, witch. It will soon be broken."
  50.  
  51. He'd narrowed his eyes in anger at her. "I am no mere hedge witch! And my powers are beyond your imagination, 'Jari'. What a stupid name for you...how pathetically deluded he is. Look at him, nothing more than a puppet in my hands, how easily I manipulate him by his weaknesses!"
  52.  
  53. Despite her fear, she'd almost smiled, then. Occult power or no, attempts to taunt and intimidate were familiar ground for her. "I am the Nagarani. I have destabilised entire city governments, turned friend against friend, spread misinformation and rumour to incite unrest and pandemonium the world over. And you speak to me of manipulation? You rely on your powers to force it, witch; but I have no need of that. What I do, I do on skill -alone-. If you think to frighten me with this, you are sadly mistaken."
  54.  
  55. His paw had flashed out, grabbing and holding her chin in a grip designed to bruise. "Brave words, little Nagarani," he'd hissed at her, eyes glowing with unnatural rage.
  56.  
  57. "I'll take great pleasure in making you eat every..single..one."
  58.  
  59. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  60.  
  61. With an effort, she shook herself out of her nightmarish reverie and closed her eyes, trying to calm herself. The reassuring image of Teras's face surfaced in her mind's eye, brow slightly furrowed in his typical expression of concern. He had always been the comforting, stoic presence, her anchor during times of turbulence, and she missed his presence so badly it was like a physical ache.
  62.  
  63. There was no point holding back now; she might never have another chance. There was no more time.
  64.  
  65. I miss you, Teras. She was seldom so straightforward, but there was a first time for everything. She had never felt so -aware- of her mortality before; every pinprick of feeling, every exhalation of breath, every thump of her heart a miracle of nature, a divine gift - why was it the closer to death you were, the more alive you felt? Her handwriting became more and more untidy as a sudden, irrational fear gripped her: in a world where people lived for centuries, she had never been worried about time, but now it seemed to suddenly be running out. Where had it gone? What had she done? She wanted to say everything; but there was time for nothing.
  66.  
  67. I wish you were here. It will begin in three days...I am terrified of what might happen. I do not know if I am strong enough - if we can do this. And yet I know that I cannot do naught, for then we have already lost.
  68.  
  69. Something gleamed in the light as she moved her hand, and her eyes fell upon the silver serpentine bracelet that wound around her wrist. Tempered in Targossan blood, he'd told her, and a sad smile touched her lips at the memory.
  70.  
  71. Carefully, she reached down and unpinned a brooch from her dress. It wasn't much to look at, blackened and dull, shaped like a dagger - but it was one of her most prized possessions.
  72.  
  73. I wanted to make something for you, as a reciprocatory gift for the bracelet. I fear I might not have time now, so...please keep this safe for me. I attach little value to possessions of my own, except a scarce few; I stole this from the Fellowship of Explorers during an exhibit of artefacts uncovered from the lost Seleucarian Empire, in front of the keep at Nicator's Crossing. It has been with me ever since. You can return it to me if
  74.  
  75. No if, she told herself sternly. Trust in yourself.
  76.  
  77. Determinedly, she crossed out the word.
  78.  
  79. when I return, and see you again.
  80.  
  81. Always yours,
  82. Jariel
  83.  
  84. ==================================================================================================================
  85.  
  86. As most things, it had begun with light-hearted banter in the guardhouse, where they always congregated. She'd first noticed something was amiss when she saw the bandage on Hexan's neck - a small thing, in retrospect, but she wasn't a Naga for nothing. Attention to detail was part of the job description. The smart thing to do would have been to lie to her, and she would have been none the wiser; instead he'd coughed and tried to brush it off, which had naturally roused her interest even more. Eventually, through sheer perseverance plus no small number of threats, she'd coaxed the story out of him.
  87.  
  88. He wasn't a Licharon by blood, she knew; but he'd never mentioned his true family up north until now. Some time ago, he'd explained, he'd returned to the northern wilderness to visit them - and in the process somehow run afoul of some strange Occultist woman in the area, who had promptly placed a curse on him that allowed her to seize control of his mind and body. All she could glean from him was that the woman was related to him in some fashion, but he'd refused to divulge further information, saying only that it would endanger her unnecessarily.
  89.  
  90. According to him, he'd devised a ritual that would supposedly remove her hold on his mind, but it required the blood of another who was strong. He'd asked her if she remembered him begging a vial of her blood from her, long ago; she did, dimly. She hadn't thought anything of it at the time - blood was a familiar sight to most Mhaldorians, and besides, she would have denied him nothing back then. He'd admitted that he'd begun the ritual, but when the time came to use her blood he'd faltered, not wishing to put her in danger, and had used his own blood instead in the faint hope that it would be strong enough to overcome the Occultist's parasitical bond upon him. The ritual had worked, but only temporarily - now, he explained, she had returned and her influence over him grew stronger by the day.
  91.  
  92. She'd been furious - both because he hadn't breathed a word of it to her, and because of his hesitance to involve her - and insisted that he try again. He, however, had had other ideas.
  93.  
  94. "I cannot let you do this, Jariel. It is too dangerous."
  95.  
  96. "You have no choice."
  97.  
  98. "I can do it...another way. Alone. I couldn't...if you...There is no need for you to-" He'd looked away.
  99.  
  100. "You already attempted the other way. If you recall, it did not work."
  101.  
  102. "It's -too dangerous-. I would rather...just live with it, instead of endangering you. You- you don't understand how-"
  103.  
  104. Nothing he could say would change her mind. "Being controlled by Chaos is dangerous for everyone around you as well. We have to try. I will trust you to kill me if something goes wrong. We must all die at some point, and if this is my time, so be it. But I will not stand by and allow her to prey on your weakness if I can do something about it."
  105.  
  106. Something flickered in his eyes. "Why are you doing this? Why are you helping me?"
  107.  
  108. "If the situation was reversed, and it was me that needed your help. Would you do it?"
  109.  
  110. "In a heartbeat."
  111.  
  112. "Then this is the same."
  113.  
  114. "That is the reason? You'd do it just because I would?" He'd lashed out at her abruptly, his voice sounding rough and strange. "Do you really care about what happens to me at all, or are you doing it just because you have to? Because it's your duty? You don't care that much. Aren't I right? I'm right. I'm right...aren't I?" he'd faltered, suddenly looking unsure and clutching his head.
  115.  
  116. He had the -nerve- - after everything they'd been through -
  117.  
  118. Hurt and enraged, she'd torn off the silver handkerchief around her wrist and flung it at him, the ball of silken cloth glancing off his startled face. She'd given him one, once upon a time, he'd been one of the first to receive her favour - but it had evidently long turned to dust, just like what they had shared. "Look at that, Hexan. Look at that and say that to my face. You promised you wouldn't forget - but you have."
  119.  
  120. A shadow crossed his slitted feline eyes, and he looked dazed, as if waking from a reverie. "The..handkerchief? But mine fell to pieces when I left, and you...him...I was not there, and I understand, but that does not mean it did not hurt...I thought things were not well, with..us.."
  121.  
  122. He was the one who left her. He'd left her, and he dared...
  123.  
  124. She hadn't even registered the tear that slid down her cheek, so foreign was the sensation. "I wish to do it because I can -help- you. I can -do- something. When all of them left me I...I did not know. Not until it was too late. It torments me, every day, wondering if I could have done something - anything - for them to stay. I will not lose you too. In this you cannot sway me, Hexan."
  125.  
  126. She'd turned swiftly around and walked away, leaving him alone in the guardhouse, a crumpled heap of silver silk at his feet.
  127.  
  128. =================================================================================================================
  129.  
  130. He'd reluctantly agreed in the end. She'd worn him down, and he had no choice.
  131.  
  132. The ritual, he'd told her, would take him six weeks to prepare. Six weeks was not much time; but it was just enough for what she needed to do.
  133.  
  134. She'd carefully selected her successors and given notice where it was due, ensuring that none of her responsibilities would be left unattended. Her sudden resignations had raised a few eyebrows, but she'd managed to deflect most of the attention easily, citing a desire to lessen her workload - a natural inclination, she thought, surely one that would make an acceptable excuse.
  135.  
  136. The most difficult had been her stepping down as the Nagarani; she had poured her heart and soul into her work, and there was still so much to do - but it had to be done. The bloodsteel manacle had seared her flesh painfully as she'd whispered her intent to resign to the Master, carefully omitting mention of the ritual even as the crushing weight of His Oppression bore heavily down upon her. He would assuredly not approve, but she wanted no one else involved - and she was determined that if the worst should happen to her, she wanted no loose ends, especially not in her beloved Naga. The assassins of the Lord had to press on with or without her.
  137.  
  138. There had been so many projects she'd never had the chance to finish - now would never complete, she'd thought with regret. And Aravil was so young, still so untested; now suddenly thrust into the highest form of leadership. He wasn't ready, not quite mature enough for the lycopod-strewn field that was Mhaldorian politics, and was still learning - but all she had taught him in the short time they had had would have to be enough. If she made it, she would be around to guide him; if not, he would survive.
  139.  
  140. Somehow.
  141.  
  142. "The transfer shall be done. You have served Me well in the Naga, Jariel," the guttural voice had finally whispered in her mind as she knelt upon the cold marble floor. "Your services are still needed."
  143.  
  144. She'd bowed her head, a somewhat futile effort to hide her expression from Him, though she could not see His visage. "As long as I am able, Lord," she'd whispered.
  145.  
  146. It was all she could afford to give.
  147.  
  148. =================================================================================================================
  149.  
  150. And so, here we are, she thought.
  151.  
  152. The thick sails of the Stygian Storm flapped in the salty breeze, the piercing screech of seagulls echoing high overhead. Below her, huge waves pounded wrathfully upon the jagged rocks that stood sentinel around the harbour, a timeless battle of sea against land that had earned Rageteeth Beach its name. The water was calm further out, though, glittering and sparkling under the gaze of the noonday sun; it would have been a beautiful day, if not for what was about to happen.
  153.  
  154. She looked down at her silver bracelet, feeling strangely hollow inside. There had never been a response from Teras; she would have to assume he had never received her missive. She had instructed Myalana to tend to her protege, but she had not seen Aravil, and she had hoped to speak to him...just in case.
  155.  
  156. A stroke of luck - right on cue, his familiar voice sounded over the House mindlink, greeting all the available Naga in realms. She ignored the chorus of replies, and focused her will on seeking out his consciousness alone. Hexan was nearly finished with the preparations; there was little time.
  157.  
  158. "Aravil."
  159.  
  160. "Yes, mother?"
  161.  
  162. "If anything happens to me..." she faltered for a split second, then took a deep breath. "Know that I have faith in you."
  163.  
  164. "What? What are you talking about?" She winced slightly at the obvious consternation and growing fear in his voice. Evidently she hadn't done a very good job of nonchalance - but farewells so seldom were. "You make it sound like you're going to..."
  165.  
  166. "Jariel!" Hexan's head popped around the door of the cabin, gesturing at her impatiently. "It...it's finished. Hurry."
  167.  
  168. She was out of time.
  169.  
  170. "I am proud of you, my son," she whispered, then brutally severed the link. To ensure he didn't try to contact her, she placed a hand on the menacing scorpion figurehead of the ship and concentrated.
  171.  
  172. The figurehead's wooden eyes glowed briefly, and a shimmering curtain of magic rose up, encapsulating the ship and all aboard. Abruptly, the chatter and murmur of the various mental communication channels in her head quieted, leaving only her own thoughts to fill the silence.
  173.  
  174. I'm sorry.
  175.  
  176. Taking another deep breath, she gathered up her courage and strode quickly towards the open cabin door. She stepped over the threshold, and moved to close it - but a small, dark shape zipped through the opening and into the cabin before the door was completely shut.
  177.  
  178. "What - " She squinted upwards, and was rewarded by a familiar, bright trill. "Itzal, it's dangerous here. You should leave."
  179.  
  180. The small grey bird merely chirped again at her and fluttered higher upwards to settle on a broad wooden beam, far beyond her reach.
  181.  
  182. Halfway through completing his preparations, Hexan paused to frown at the bird. "This is not the time to perch on my head, creature."
  183.  
  184. Despite her worries, Jariel almost smiled. "He is incorrigible, but Itzal will not interfere." She looked around at the dimly lit cabin, finding the once-immaculate room unrecognisable. The small bed and the dresser were shoved unceremoniously to the side, along with - she winced - haphazardly strewn provisions that had formerly been stacked into neat piles. As a result, a wide space had been cleared in the middle of the room, enough for several people.
  185.  
  186. Hexan stepped towards her, ritual marker in hand, and swiftly traced the sharp outline of a black pentagram around her. Once that was complete, he moved a little way away from her and drew one around himself. "Whatever you do, don't leave the pentagram," he instructed.
  187.  
  188. She nodded as she watched him reach into his pack and retrieve two bowls, one of which he flung towards her, along with a wooden vial. "We have to pour each other's blood. Pour it from the vial into the bowl, then set the bowl in front of the pentagram." She caught them and did so, carefully; leaning down to place the bowl as instructed before straightening to look at him. "Do you need a new vial of my blood?"
  189.  
  190. He paused for a moment, glanced at her, then shook his head. "I still have the vial you gave me. I can use it. We...we will begin." Turning away, he took a deep breath, rolled up his sleeves, cleared his throat - and snarled something incomprehensible into the air. His voice fairly crackled with mystical energy as he began a long, seemingly never-ending incantation, murmuring under his breath in some places and practically shouting the words in others. She watched with equal parts apprehension and fascination as a dull red light filled the room, growing more and more intense as he chanted.
  191.  
  192. Slowly, the light coalesced into a glowing red globe that hovered in front of Hexan, expanding before her eyes. His paws were a blur as they whirled incessantly over the sphere, eyes narrowed in concentration, voice growing hoarse as the incantation sped up - until he bit out the last word with some effort, and the globe stopped growing, pulsing ominously as it spun slowly in mid-air.
  193.  
  194. Sweat dripped from Hexan's brow as he examined the sphere quickly, finally giving a curt nod. "I hope this will work." Carefully, he floated the thrumming globe diagonally away from him, positioning it a few feet away from both pentagrams.
  195.  
  196. "Keep...keep still," he whispered, flicking a last worried gaze towards the globe, then began a new, muttered chant. Soft murmurs echoed around the room as he worked, eyes shut and brow furrowed in deep concentration - then with a triumphant exclamation, his head flicked up just as a shimmering, transparent barrier flashed into view around both pentagrams.  
  197.  
  198. The momentary triumph soon faded away as he took a deep breath to steady himself, bending down to pick up his own vial and bowl. Just as he began to uncork the vial, a violent shiver wracked his body, and he grimaced in evident pain.
  199.  
  200. "She...she is coming. Soon. You have to...pour this. In my bowl. Now." He tossed both objects to her again, sitting down and crossing his legs in the centre of the pentagram.
  201.  
  202. She looked down at the unfamiliar vial in her hand, popping the cork and watching as the blood trickled out into the bowl. It flowed easily, brilliant red and fresh.
  203.  
  204. He glanced over at her, his expression anxious. "Quickly, Jariel. Hand it here once you are done, before the moment passes."
  205.  
  206. She moved to hand it to him, but found her progress blocked by the barrier; thinking quickly, she set the bowl on the floor and gave it a light push towards his pentagram, keeping a wary eye on the hovering red globe that loomed a few feet away.
  207.  
  208. She watched nervously as the bowl skidded over the rough floorboards, but she'd judged it perfectly - he stopped it just in front of the pentagram with a paw, its contents intact. The minute it was in place, wisps of red mist began to spiral upwards from both bowls; Hexan, on the other hand, began quivering madly as he struggled to draw breath, eyes rolling back in his head to show only the whites. The bandage on his neck peeled itself off of its own accord, revealing a gruesome, blackened wound, and she winced as he abruptly let loose a half-roar, half-scream of agony that reverberated around the room.
  209.  
  210. The wound seemed to bubble before her horrified eyes, rivulets of blood streaming forth and staining his pristine fur bright crimson as they carved scarlet paths towards the floor. He collapsed within the pentagram, writhing in obvious pain, and she clenched her fist - she wanted to help, to kill, to do -something- - but she had witnessed enough rituals to know that one wrong move could mean the end for both of them, and so she forced herself to stay still.
  211.  
  212. Without warning, tendrils of white smoke began to curl upwards from all corners of the room, intermingling with the red mist and gradually solidifying into the hazy image of a stunning Rajamalan woman. She was almost a mirror image of Hexan, a lithe figure covered in sleek white fur - but it was her eyes that betrayed her true nature. Hexan's were the colour of thunderclouds, but they always had a warmth to them that drew people in; in contrast, this mystery woman had clear green eyes like chips of verdant ice, pure malevolence gleaming in their depths.
  213.  
  214. "Oh," the apparition crooned, and her high, cold voice sent a shiver down Jariel's spine. "-There- you are, dearest Hexan." Jariel tensed, but the woman's attention was fixated completely on Hexan. "This ritual again...so boring. Come now, what are you doing summoning me? You know it only hurts you." A humourless laugh echoed from her perfectly shaped lips. "Not that I mind you hurting yourself."
  215.  
  216. "Hello there, Lara." Though Hexan's body trembled with the obvious effort of sustaining the ritual, still he managed to smile faintly at the hazy, red-tinted image, blood staining his fangs. "You know me...I simply -relish- seeing you...always worth the effort, these reunions. I can barely see you, though...come closer, hmm?"
  217.  
  218. The woman scoffed, ghostly paws on her incorporeal hips. "I am no fool. I know you detest my efforts to convert you to the side of true power. To have you see the truth in beautiful, glorious Chaos." Despite her words, the apparition began to drift closer to Hexan's pentagram, seeming to Jariel to solidify as she approached. "How does the wound feel, hmm?" she asked sweetly, her voice dripping with mock sympathy. "Does it fester, little brother? Does it remind you of your weakness?"
  219.  
  220. Little brother. Jariel's eyes widened slightly in brief surprise before she forced herself to relax. She couldn't let the creature gain any advantage over them.
  221.  
  222. The room began to grow warmer by degrees as Hexan shut his eyes in concentration, the building heat turning almost oppressive. "The wound barely hurts, in truth. Perhaps you have lost your touch-" His forced calmness shattered as violent coughs wracked his body, blood dribbling from his lips to spatter upon the wooden floor.
  223.  
  224. Jariel was torn between fury and concern as Lara smirked openly, watching his suffering with glee. "On the contrary, I think my 'touch' seems quite effective. You know this won't work, right? All this trouble for nothing-" Her gaze fell upon Jariel as she glanced around the room, and for an instant, shock and fury flickered across her expression. "Hexan, what have you done?! We are -supposed- to be alone!" she screamed, her ethereal body seeming to waver and shift for an instant.
  225.  
  226. Hope rose in Jariel's chest - if Lara was affected by seeing her there, surely that meant they were doing something right - until Lara's sudden fury subsided just as abruptly into dark amusement, green eyes glinting with hatred. "Oh, I see who you brought now. This foolish girl, this unbeliever, this pretender to the throne; the -former- Nagarani of Mhaldor."
  227.  
  228. The Mhun bared her ivory fangs in a soundless snarl at the ghostly Rajamala, but it only earned her another laugh. "Did you know that he tricked you? Pathetic, naive little creature. Oh, this is -just- perfect." Lara turned towards her shivering, blood-spattered sibling. "Why did you even bring her? You -knew- it wouldn't work this time. You managed not to pour your own blood this time, but you knew -all along-. Oh, but wait-" Her ethereal eyes widened innocently. "Did you bring her as a gift for -me-? Hexan, you shouldn't have."
  229.  
  230. Jariel flicked a desperate glance at Hexan, but he was studiously avoiding her eyes, instead tilting his head back to focus on Lara. "You're...wrong, Lara," he said, his voice laboured with pain. "It...it will work...this time."
  231.  
  232. The ghostly Rajamala laughed scornfully, her outline even more defined than before - it was almost impossible to tell that she was not the real thing now. "Your optimism is adorable, but - no." She began to chant in an alien language, and with every uttered word, the protective barrier around Hexan's pentagram flickered and shuddered under the magical assault.
  233.  
  234. Jariel's hands clenched into fists, but before she could even think to help, the image of Lara vanished - and Hexan's head snapped backwards with an agonised scream, an ominous 'crack' accompanying the abrupt movement. Her blood ran cold as his head turned slowly towards her, still tilted upside down at an impossible angle; his eyes glowed.
  235.  
  236. "You fool," he snarled, and the voice again was not his own - seeming to reverberate through the entire room with a ghostly resonance. "Do you know what happened, poor little Mhun? He used his own blood for both bowls. -Again-. Did he pretend to be hurt? To be unable to pour 'your' blood? You never learn, do you? He tried to spare you, foolish brat..." He grinned widely, the expression full of demented menace. "Happily, -I- have no such reservations about you."
  237.  
  238. An image flashed into her mind - uncorking the vial, tipping it into the bowl, blood flowing out - red and brilliant.
  239.  
  240. Fresh blood. She'd slit her wrist for him five days ago.
  241.  
  242. Oh, Hexan, you -idiot-.
  243.  
  244. She fought down the rising tide of fear and despair, forcibly schooling her features into a practiced blankness. Exposing your weakness to the enemy was always certain death. There was a way, there had to be a way around this...
  245.  
  246. Just then, Hexan wrenched his head upwards in a great struggle to regain control of his body, painstakingly inching his head around as grey eyes met grey. "Don't...leave...the pentagram," he choked out. "No...no matter what-"
  247.  
  248. Abruptly, his head snapped backwards again as Lara seized possession, splitting his lips into another wide, eerie grin as she stared at Jariel. "C'mere, 'Jari'," he crooned, slamming his head over and over against the invisible barrier around the pentagram as he tried fruitlessly to break it from within. "I'll end it quickly, I promise..."
  249.  
  250. Desperate ideas ran through her head. She could kill him. They'd agreed to - or rather, she'd made him agree, in case the ritual went wrong. She had her bow and arrow, still...but would it work, what if he was stuck with her, or worse, what if he didn't come back...
  251.  
  252. She met Hexan's possessed, luminescent gaze, her chin tilted upwards in a customary show of defiance. "Do you think that was not on purpose?" she said, keeping her voice purposefully quiet. "What he did with the blood?"
  253.  
  254. Or perhaps she should kill herself, but he hadn't used her blood...
  255.  
  256. The demented cackle that issued from his lips rang painfully in her ears, loud and harsh. "The ritual -barely- had a chance with -two- different types of blood; now with only his blood, he has no chance at all. Just like before!" he screeched with derisive laughter, the sound unnaturally high.
  257.  
  258. Blood. The blood...  
  259.  
  260. Her eyes flicked over to the red-stained bowl in front of his pentagram as the glimmerings of an idea began to form in her head. But she couldn't leave her pentagram...
  261.  
  262. "You weren't there, you wouldn't know. It's not as if you care, silly girl." Hexan began to bang his head even harder against the now shimmering, flickering barrier, copious amounts of blood streaming from his badly bruised face and head. "Just come here..and we can end this."
  263.  
  264. "I see," she responded quietly, drawing her dirk from the sheath upon her wrist. She didn't even flinch at the sting as the sharp blade traced a familiar path across her wrist, then dropping the knife to capture the emerging trickle of bright red fluid in a small, uncorked vial.
  265.  
  266. The white - or formerly white - Rajamala stared at her with wild, bloodshot eyes, forehead pressed up against the invisible wall. "Pointless. Utterly pointless, stupid girl," he taunted. "But you don't care anyway, do you? Say you don't care about him. Break him, and I'll release him. I swear it. I want him to hear the words, to let it kill him inside. I want the one to break him to be -you-." His body began to glow with a sickly red colour as he bared his red-stained teeth in a gruesome parody of a grin.
  267.  
  268. Blood dripped from her fingertips to splash onto the floor as she stared at the trapped Rajamala. "I will break him," she whispered, and Hexan's eyes widened in perverse delight.
  269.  
  270. "I will break him...free from you."
  271.  
  272. Without waiting for a response, she put two fingers to her lips and whistled a sharp, piercing note, the sound echoing within the confines of the tiny chamber. Nothing happened for a moment - then a small, dark shape hurtled down from a high beam above, streaking towards the bowl beside Hexan's pentagram.
  273.  
  274. For the first time, Hexan looked stunned. "What-" Before he could react, however, the small bird had already struck the bowl hard enough to tip it over onto one side with a clatter, sending blood flying everywhere - some of it spattering onto the pulsing, throbbing globe.
  275.  
  276. The entire cabin shook with the force of his enraged roar as Hexan collapsed onto the ground, writhing wildly. "NO!" he screeched, his claws gouging long scratches into the wood as Lara tried to pull his body upright. "I WILL NOT ALLOW IT!" Bit by bit, his left paw rose upwards towards the humming globe, as though struggling to overcome a constant downwards pressure. "HEXAN!" he screamed again, his other paw attempting fruitlessly to restrain himself and halt its inexorable rise. "NO-"
  277.  
  278. The orb pulsed once, twice.
  279.  
  280. And the room exploded.
  281.  
  282. Both Mhaldorians were thrown to the ground from the force of the conflagration, the protective barriers around their pentagrams flickering and shuddering as wave after wave of blistering magical fire thundered powerfully against them. The blinding light of the flames scorched Jariel's eyes and she snapped them shut with a cry of pain, throwing an arm up to shield her gaze; not, however, before she saw something hurtle out of the adjacent pentagram and crash into the floor.
  283.  
  284. Slowly, the flames died down and the overpowering heat and light with them, returning to more regular levels. Carefully, Jariel shifted her arm away from her still-shut eyes; finding the back of her eyelids acceptably dark, she cracked open first one eye, then the other.
  285.  
  286. She struggled stiffly to her feet, swaying a little from light-headedness as she looked around. The cabin was still mostly intact, but most of the furniture and provisions were completely destroyed - nothing left but soot and ashes. A few feet away in the other pentagram, Hexan had just begun to stir, one hand pressing against the side of his forehead with a groan; her attention, however, was drawn by the flickering image of Lara sprawled upon the floor, apparently expelled from Hexan when the holocaust globe had exploded.
  287.  
  288. "Hexan..." the apparition wailed, reaching out towards his pentagram, her ghostly arm flickering and wavering - no longer as solid as before. "Hexan. I love you. You cannot do this! You love me too! You said it yourself! I only did this for -us-. P..please.."
  289.  
  290. A sharp, ringing note sounded in the air as Itzal streaked over Jariel's pentagram, and with a jolt she realised - the vial was still in her hand. Carefully, she lofted it straight upwards, watching anxiously as the bird caught it deftly in his dark talons, folding his wings close to his body and entering a sweeping dive towards Hexan's bowl.
  291.  
  292. Despite his grave wounds, the frustrated roar that escaped from Hexan was still thunderous as he convulsed in the confines of his pentagram and raked madly at his bloodied head, trying to throw off the last of Lara's control.
  293.  
  294. "GET. OUT. OF. MY. HEAD!"
  295.  
  296. Right on cue, Itzal swooped in and struck the bowl again at a precise angle - the bowl clattered upright, wobbling dangerously. Demonstrating perfect control, the bird spun around in a neat pivot and flapped his wings rapidly, ascending in quick spirals before his talons snapped open, releasing the uncorked vial in his grip.
  297.  
  298. Time seemed to slow as the vial plummeted straight downwards, down and down and down-
  299.  
  300. -and struck the middle of the bowl with a loud crash as it spilled its carmine contents everywhere, some of it splashing out onto the floor from the impact.
  301.  
  302. Abruptly, the blood in both bowls began to froth and churn, the dark lines of the pentagrams glowing an eerie red. The magical barrier around each pentagram flared once and dissipated as Hexan shouted an indecipherable magical phrase, his voice raw and hoarse.
  303.  
  304. "No!" Lara screamed in despair, struggling to rise, her body shimmering in and out of visibility. "No!"
  305.  
  306. Wasting no time, Hexan clambered to his feet with the aid of his staff, rivulets of blood trickling down his once-white muzzle as he fixed the apparition with a piercing glare. "There is a reason I left our family, sister," he rasped. "No one stood by me back in the north. Our family left -me- long before I did. And you dare speak to -me- about love? You, who possessed me and tormented me for so long? You would have killed me and Jariel just a second ago! Now, if you wouldn't mind..." One paw clenched tightly around his staff as he levelled it at her, his arm surprisingly steady.
  307.  
  308. "Fuck off."
  309.  
  310. A sizzling streak of lightning roared out from the tip of Hexan's staff, blinding in its intensity as it struck the image. Both Hexan and Jariel cringed and covered their ears tightly as Lara's apparition let loose a long, unearthly shriek, the discordant note reverberating around the room for an excruciating few seconds before - at long last - the image disintegrated, leaving behind curling wisps of white smoke that spiralled into the air and vanished.
  311.  
  312. "It's done." Hexan leaned heavily on his staff, suddenly looking very pale and very haggard. "Our bond is...is no more. I could not tell you more about her before, because..the less you knew, the harder it was for her to harm you directly. I..she is my sister, by blood. She's a tad..insane. Ahem." With that, his staff clattered to the ground as he fainted dead away.
  313.  
  314. "Hexan!" Anxiously, Jariel took a step out of the pentagram towards him. The minute her foot touched the floor, however, her eyes rolled up into her head and she collapsed in turn, her body sprawled out upon the wooden boards where she fell.
  315.  
  316. No one stirred as the glowing pentagram around her faded back into its former black outline, then dissipating into thin air.
  317.  
  318. ================================================================================================================
  319.  
  320. It was a few moments before Hexan stirred, uttering a low groan as he blinked a few times and painfully pulled himself up to a sitting position. "Ugh...I'm...sorry I lied, Jariel, about the blood, I had to..s-" His eyes widened as he turned and saw her unconscious on the floor, and he struggled to his feet, stumbling a few times as he hastened over to kneel by her side.
  321.  
  322. "Jari. Jari!" He shook her a few times, gently at first, then more urgently. "Damn it, Jari, are you..." The slash wound on her wrist caught his eye, still trickling a slow stream of blood - there was blood everywhere. He brutally forced down the growing dread in his heart, reaching over and rifling quickly through his discarded pack to produce a thin strip of cloth, which he wound tightly around her wrist. "Jari...please."
  323.  
  324. Don't die on me now.
  325.  
  326. Unfortunately, the binding seemed to have the complete opposite effect - Hexan watched in growing alarm as more and more blood soaked the cloth, turning it first deep crimson, then - peculiarly - black.
  327.  
  328. This wasn't supposed to happen... "-Do- something, Itzal, damn it - you were useful before! Don't just - -stand- there-" he shouted uselessly at the bird perched nearby, clutching briefly at the fur on his head as he looked down at Jariel in despair. "I knew I shouldn't have let you- your blood, Jari, gods -fucking- damnit-" Hurriedly, he undid the bindings on her wrist and threw the sodden rag to one side, grabbing another piece of cloth from his pack and tying it even tighter around the still-running wound, pressing down hard on it with his paws.
  329.  
  330. "Please..." he whispered under his breath, his entire body trembling violently as he maintained the pressure on her wound, "gods, please...not her."
  331.  
  332. Suddenly, she twitched under his touch, coughing once, twice - spitting blood out on the second. He felt a split second's relief at her being alive - which dissipated just as quickly as a low, raspy chuckle escaped from her bloodied lips.
  333.  
  334. It wasn't her laugh.
  335.  
  336. "Hexan..." she whispered in a brittle voice not her own, her eyes still closed. "Oh, Hexan. You care for -this- little bitch?"
  337.  
  338. -No-.
  339.  
  340. He scrambled to his feet, grabbing his marker off the bloodstained floor and rapidly sketching a sloppy pentagram around her. With a few muttered words, a shimmering barrier re-emerged around the pentagram, and only then did he look at her, quivering with fear and rage.
  341.  
  342. "You...Lara- you fucking- leave her alone. Leave her alone, Lara," he said, trying his best to sound authoritative but failing miserably. "I didn't want her involved. This...this is between you and me. Don't do this, Lara- leave her out of it."
  343.  
  344. Jariel laughed, a harsh, rattling sound. "Oh, but how I -love- to see you beg, darling brother," she rasped. "You almost won...but she opened herself to me, for you. Made herself vulnerable to me, when her little bird splashed that blood. And then she stepped out for you- I suppose I should thank you, even..." Slowly, jerkily, she pulled herself upright - and Hexan felt his heart sink as she turned two glowing eyes towards him.
  345.  
  346. No. No. No. The single syllable reverberated in his head; it was all he could think about as he stared at her. This can't be happening. "Lara. What do you want from me?" He dropped his staff, letting it fall to the ground with a clatter. "Leave her be. I...she- she doesn't deserve this. Tell me. Tell me and leave her alone."
  347.  
  348. The Mhun tilted her head slightly, strands of dark hair wisping against her deathly pale cheek as she looked back at him. "But don't you want this, little brother?" she crooned, reaching out a hand towards him, stopped only by the barrier. "I love you. And you want her to love you. This is a perfect match! We can be together..." Her lips pulled upwards into a twisted smile, contorting her features into something slightly demonic.
  349.  
  350. Hexan shuddered slightly in repulsion. The Occult magic really had warped her mind into something unrecognisable, he reflected sadly. "We're siblings, Lara," he said as gently as he could. "I don't...I don't care for you that way."
  351.  
  352. Jariel snarled then, baring her curved fangs at him as she pressed her body against the barrier, digging her nails into the invisible surface. "You don't care for -me-, but you care for -this- flea-ridden trollop? This little slut?" Her eyes glowed briefly red with rage, before abruptly subsiding. "Well, brother dear, there's one other way to solve this, you know. My link with her isn't as strong as yours. It's a terribly easy solution." She smiled widely.
  353.  
  354. "Kill her."
  355.  
  356. He flinched as the unspoken thought was said aloud, clenching his paw tightly. "Lara...just- just leave her." Desperately, he looked into Jariel's glowing eyes, his expression hardening. "I know you can hear me, Jariel. Fight her, damn it! Fight her like you told me to. You are a Mhaldorian, a Sartai - she is nothing! Regain control!" he cried.
  357.  
  358. "Nothing, am I?" the Mhun growled. "I knew you couldn't do it. You weakling. You were always the pathetic, useless little weakling that nobody wanted." She threw her head back and laughed, the sound brittle as glass. "Why? Can't bear to lay a paw on this pretty little face?" She reached up, digging a sharp nail deep into her cheek and dragging it down, carving a bloody furrow through her skin as Hexan watched in horror.
  359.  
  360. "She can hear you just fine, you know. She's screaming, actually." She laughed again, wrenching her finger away from her face and pressing the bloodied digit to her lips, blowing the stunned Rajamala a mocking kiss. "I think I rather like the sound."
  361.  
  362. I can't let her do this.
  363.  
  364. "I...I'll do it, Lara." His mouth was dry as he said the words. "I'll...kill her. I'll kill her and banish you in the process. Is that what you want?" He reached down for his staff, pointing it directly at her heart, his hand shaking. "Lara...please," he whispered. "It doesn't have to end like this. Don't make me do this."
  365.  
  366. Her eyes glowed red again, and she threw herself at the barrier, crashing painfully into it as she snarled at him. "You LIAR!" she screeched in fury. "You were going to banish me anyway. You never cared about me, you selfish piece of shit! All I wanted was for you to love me, Hexan..."
  367.  
  368. Without warning, she brutally dug a second fingernail into her cheek, rending flesh asunder as she tore a second wound open right next to the first. "Decide fast, my love," she crooned, blood dripping down her face as she stared at him. "Every second that passes, every drop of blood shed, my hold on her tightens. Let her live, and we can be together..." Her face contorts. "Or kill her, and see if she returns from death. See if old man Thoth doesn't claim her soul. Just see!"
  369.  
  370. Cold dread gripped his heart in an icy fist. A million possibilities ran through his mind - but they all led to the same conclusion. There was only one way out.
  371.  
  372. Jariel... He shut his eyes briefly. She would have wanted him to do it. A memory of her grey eyes surfaced in his mind, and it strengthened his resolve.
  373.  
  374. She would...understand. She would come back.
  375.  
  376. She had to.
  377.  
  378. Gathering all his courage, he roared fiercely at the Mhun in the pentagram. "She will rise anew, Lara. She is the strongest person I know. Now -die-, selfish bitch. You're no sister of mine. Die and -be- -fucking- -gone-!"
  379.  
  380. Once more, white-hot lightning thundered out from the tip of his staff, shattering the magical barrier and striking Jariel straight through her chest; he threw all his desperation, his rage, his guilt into channeling the magic straight at the small Mhun in front of him, the beam far brighter and more powerful than anything he had ever produced in his life.
  381.  
  382. He could barely bear to watch as she screamed and convulsed in the middle of the pentagram, darts of electricity crackling all around her arching, shuddering body; but interspersed between her cries of pain were hoarse shrieks of wild, demented laughter, the two sounds almost indistinguishable from one another.
  383.  
  384. "How fitting," she gasped through the evident agony, "how -exquisite-. You are killing- the woman you tried so hard to protect. She weakened herself for you. This wouldn't have happened...if not for you. Remember this...remember this, little brother."
  385.  
  386. "Remember that this is all...your...fault."
  387.  
  388. With those terrible last words, Jariel's back arched violently off the floor, her mouth open in a silent scream. A loud, ominous snap was heard as her back broke under the sheer force of the spasms - and just like that, she slumped back onto the floorboards, no longer moving.
  389.  
  390. For a split second, Hexan couldn't move, his eyes fixed on the crumpled form upon the ground.
  391.  
  392. Your fault, Lara's ethereal voice echoed in his head. All your fault.
  393.  
  394. Jari.
  395.  
  396. I'm so sorry.
  397.  
  398. A grey blur hurtled past him and towards the body as Itzal swooped downwards, fluttering to the floor to peck insistently at her. Over and over he pecked, harder and harder even, leaving visible marks - but it didn't get so much as a twitch out of her.
  399.  
  400. Eventually, he managed to pull himself together and went to her, gently nudging the distressed bird aside and attempting to ignore Itzal's anguished, staccato cries as he scooped her limp body into his arms. This wasn't the first time she had perished in His service, he told himself sternly, trying not to look at her.
  401.  
  402. But this was the first time it had been by his hand...
  403.  
  404. It wasn't her time. It couldn't be. It -wasn't-, he chanted desperately over and over in his head as he strode quickly towards the gangplank - as though if he said it enough, if he believed it enough, it would be true.
  405.  
  406. She'd come back. She had to.
  407.  
  408. He chanced a single glance at her face - and immediately wrenched his eyes away as he blinked hard, wishing he hadn't. Unlike most people in death, Jariel's eyes were wide open and staring, focusing on nothing in particular.
  409.  
  410. They no longer glowed, though.
  411.  
  412. This time, they were grey.
  413.  
  414. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  415.  
  416. The black falcon screeched in wild joy as she soared high above the sleek Windcutter, something small and struggling clutched between her wicked talons.
  417.  
  418. He smiled slightly as he watched her do a triumphant lap around the ship, before he placed two fingers between his lips and gave a sharp, piercing whistle.
  419.  
  420. Immediately, the bird tucked her wings close to her side and entered a steep, swift dive, slicing downwards through the air towards him. Moments before she would have crashed into him, her wings flared open with a practiced ease, arresting her fall and leaving her hovering just above his head, flapping leisurely to remain aloft.
  421.  
  422. "Good girl." He had a better view of the creature writhing in her iron grip now - it was small, black, ugly, loudly protesting, and looked vaguely familiar-
  423.  
  424. Oh. Right.
  425.  
  426. "Surely you know better than to chase gremlins by now," he chastised the falcon, but with no real malice to his voice. "Come on, let him go. He might actually have something important for me." He'd picked up the slight rustle of parchment amid the gremlin's high-pitched, vehement complaints.
  427.  
  428. She gave a short shriek of disapproval at him, but grudgingly released the gremlin, allowing it to land on the deck with a heavy 'thunk' before she took to the skies again with a defiant cry.
  429.  
  430. He sighed, glancing after her. She was going to be petulant for days.
  431.  
  432. "Well?" he asked the gremlin, who had picked himself up and was busy muttering in an incomprehensible language as it dusted itself off. "What news from the mainland?"
  433.  
  434. The gremlin grimaced at him, looking mutinous - but he was used to their tricks. Slowly, he drew his sword an inch out of the scabbard at his hip, taking care to let the sun catch the gleaming steel; the effect was instantaneous as the creature cringed away instantly. Sullenly, it tugged a slightly crumpled piece of parchment from some hidden pocket and thrust it at him with ill grace, then vanished in a puff of oily black smoke.
  435.  
  436. The brisk sea breeze tugged at the ribbon around the letter as he turned his attention to the missive. It seemed fairly heavy for a letter, as if it held something within. Turning the rolled-up parchment over, his heartbeat quickened slightly as he saw the familiar silver seal upon the letter, eagerly breaking it to review the contents within.
  437.  
  438. A minute later, however, that anticipation was replaced by something much darker.
  439.  
  440. "Gavin!" he shouted, not looking up from the letter.
  441.  
  442. A short, stubby shipmate stumbled up the stairs towards him and offered a clumsy salute. "Aye, Captain?"
  443.  
  444. "Turn around," he said tersely, gauntleted fingers closing tightly around something small and black.
  445.  
  446. "We're going home."
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