Battle of the Theran Warp

StoriesbyJurixe Apr 4th, 2013 30 Never
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  2. [The warp is destroyed again, Naga. Do you have time to resplice it?]
  4. Jariel's dark head jerked up as the voice of the Nagaraja echoed in her mind, suppressing a brief flicker of irritation as she processed the information. Ever since the Naga had decided to reroute the wormhole in question to lead into the city instead of the isle, they were constantly finding it destroyed and having to resplice it every few months or so. Not an altogether difficult job, but it required the full concentration of two Serpents for a whole quarter of a day to create the magical channel.
  6. [Yes, Nagaraja, if you will take the Theran side.]
  8. [On my way.]
  10. Feeling the telepathic link severed, the Mhun exhaled slightly through her nose in something resembling a sigh, folding the parchment in her hand neatly and slipping it into the bag at her side.
  12. It would have to wait.
  14. Drawing her black cloak tighter around her, she slipped quietly out of the cavernous guardhouse, emerging into the noxious red fog that blanketed most of Mhaldor. The tainted air seared her nose and throat as she took a deep breath, the burning discomfort at once familiar and welcome.
  16. Red and gold Mhaldorian flags fluttered high above her slight figure as she strode quickly past the large gatehouse opposite, wicked iron spikes of the portcullis gleaming as they caught what weak light filtered through the dense crimson haze. Beyond the gates, a rocky wasteland shrouded by the same encompassing fog was barely visible; she turned away from it, however, instead following a winding path that led up the mountain and deeper into the city of Evil.
  18. Stepping carefully along the uneven, rocky path, she made her way up the black mountain, stopping just before a particularly treacherous ravine. Here the stench of death and decay was particularly potent, scores and scores of jagged stalagmites playing sentry on either side of the narrow road; upon them impaled the broken, bloody bodies of unfortunate slaves in various stages of decomposition. Droplets of blood splashed onto the red-stained ground from the freshest corpses, the rhythmical drip-drip-drip a steady accompaniment to the endless, irritating buzzing of the hovering flies.
  20. All this seemed not to faze the Mhun as she closed her eyes, apparently concentrating on something unseen. After a moment, her silver-grey eyes flicked open again, a slight frown of displeasure marring her brow.
  22. "So it is destroyed," she muttered in annoyance. Without turning, she snapped her fingers, seemingly to no one in particular. A split second's silence - then the shadows around the ravine seemed to move as five cloaked figures stepped into view behind her, each with a quiver full of arrows slung over their shoulders and a sleek darkbow in their hands.
  24. "Be on guard," Jariel instructed. "The Nagaraja and I are going to recreate the warp that existed here."
  26. The cloaked guards nodded as one and melted back once more into the looming shadows, quickly disappearing from view. Right on cue, Jariel felt the cool presence of the Nagaraja's consciousness touch her own.
  28. [I am ready.]
  30. [Very well, let us begin.]
  32. The Mhun closed her eyes, clearing her mind of all distractions. In her mind's eye, she began to conjure an image of the small village of Thera, picturing the tall, close-built houses, paved roads, and neatly arranged flowerboxes full of sweet-smelling flowers. Quaint shops clustered here and there along the roads, the majestic Lucretian Athenaeum looming in the eastern side, amber-gold statue of the former mayor in the circular plaza - all were present in her imaginary representation of the village.
  34. Then she narrowed her focus still further, visualising in great detail a spot just a little way south of the town centre - a tiny place where cheerful shops lined each side of the road, the paving stones of the road a little uneven from the steady tread of frequent passers-by. Finally, when she had the image held in her mind, she thought of the Nagaraja himself in the centre of the road, seeing his austere features as clearly as though he were standing in front of her; grey eyes, black hair, and slender frame very much like her own.
  36. Picture complete, she whispered an incantation under her breath, the single word trembling with power as it left her lips. Abruptly, she felt a rush of magical energy surge through her body and into the ether, travelling towards its distant focal point.
  38. For a moment it drifted, searching...
  39. searching;
  40. there!
  42. A familiar tremor shuddered through the Mhun as she felt her energy touch and meld seamlessly with that of her fellow Naga, creating a channel through which they would slowly carve a wormhole, connecting the two locations for faster travel.
  44. Jariel's shoulders relaxed just a fraction as she opened her grey eyes. This was the tedious part of her work - remaining absolutely still so as not to disrupt the flow of the magic, holding the intended location in her mind's eye to maintain the link. She stood as though a statue for a long while as she channeled her power into the ether, ignoring the persistent hum and buzz of the swarming flies around her, wanting only for the task to be complete.
  46. [Alunei is here.]
  48. Jariel blinked as she heard the name, almost losing her concentration but quickly catching herself in time. That Eleusian Serpent. Now that she thought about it, it was very likely that she was the culprit behind the cancellings.
  50. [Is she the destroyer of the warps?]
  52. [I don't know. I just noticed her sip from a vial.]
  54. Unconsciously, Jariel's brow furrowed a little as she fought to maintain her focus and respond to the Nagaraja at the same time. Her body tensed slightly.
  56. [If you require assistance with her, Nagaraja, you need but to say so and I can be there in a moment.]
  58. No response for some time, then: [There cannot be long till the completion of the warp. Perhaps I can continue distracting her.]
  60. Any reply Jariel would have formulated was silenced by a sudden wave of tension through the link, his next sentence quick and clipped. [It is her. She says she is trying to keep the warp out of Mhaldor.]
  62. The Mhun tensed completely at the words, preparing to draw her bow. [Nagaraja, do you-]
  64. Abruptly she felt the wrenching loss of his magic, the precariously forged channel between them disintegrating instantly as their work was disrupted by some unknown source.
  66. [She broke it. Yanked me.]
  68. Letting loose a hiss of rage, Jariel whirled and drew a sleek wood grain bow from her baldric in one smooth motion, crying out a word of power as she did so. A pair of large wings flared out behind her, thrumming with latent arcane magic as they swept powerfully downwards, the force generated from that single beat propelling her high towards the clouds. Without further conscious thought, she folded them close to her body and dove towards the village of Thera, wings spreading quickly before she hit the ground to slow her descent.
  70. She reached behind her, drawing a grey-fletched arrow from her quiver and nocking it to her bow even before her boots touched the cobblestones. Sensing the offending Serpent to the north, she took a deep breath and aimed, loosing the arrow and watching as it soared through the air, curving elegantly to strike true her target.
  72. No time to congratulate herself. Quickly, she drew another arrow and shot it towards the Eleusian. Behind her, a soft 'twang' announced the release of another feathered missile by the Nagaraja, and they watched in satisfaction as both arrows hit their marks.
  74. Before they could fire again, Jariel sensed Alunei's hasty departure from the vicinity, and she lowered her bow with some disappointment.
  76. "What transpires now, Nagaraja Jevone?" she asked, turning towards the diminutive man standing behind her. "Perhaps it might be best to leave it for the present, and splice it again when she is not watching for us."
  78. Jevone frowned, and shook his head. "That would mean we are admitting defeat, and I do not intend to give her that pleasure. No, I want this wormhole respliced as soon as we can."
  80. He turned away, and Jariel heard his call over the telepathic link that all Naga shared. [Nagas Atreiyon, Vexul, come to Thera. Your assistance is needed.]
  82. [Aye, Nagaraja.] returned the two named Naga, and only a few moments passed before two dark shapes materialised next to Jariel and Jevone, their features obscured by similar long, hooded cloaks.
  84. A sequence of rasping rattles and sibilant hisses issued from the shorter of the two, a stocky-looking figure with a serrated dirk in hand. Jariel recognised the language of the Serpents immediately, as well as his meaning: "What is it you need from us, Nagaraja?"
  86. Quickly, Jevone explained the situation to them, and a thoughtful pause followed as the newcomers digested the information.
  88. "Annoying pest. Naga Vexul and I will run interference and keep the Eleusian busy while you both resplice the warp. We'll try to keep her off you until the warp is finished," rattled Atreiyon. Jevone nodded in acceptance and watched as both Naga melted silently into the shadows, the faint sound of scraping metal echoing in their wake as they prepared for battle.
  90. Jariel's grey gaze flicked to Jevone again. "We have little time. Since she knows you were the one splicing here before, might I suggest that we switch places? I will splice from Thera, this time, and yourself from the city?"
  92. "Very well," was all Jevone said before he turned, beginning a loping run that took him quickly out of Jariel's sight, and she knew he would soon return to the city. Taking a deep breath, she planted her feet slightly apart to steady herself in the middle of the road and closed her eyes, this time trying to visualise Mhaldor instead.
  94. Her heart was racing from the adrenaline of confrontation and the dread of being attacked, but somehow she managed to focus just enough to picture the bloodstained, corpse-strewn ravine of before, conjuring every craggy rock and jutting spike in vivid detail within her mind's eye. The familiar images began to calm her, lingering in her mind with more ease than that of Thera, for she knew her city like the back of her hand.
  96. Just as Jevone's stoic visage surfaced amidst the carnage in her thoughts, his cool voice echoed in her head, giving the signal. Obediently, Jariel spoke the incantation again, hissing slightly at the familiar tremor as their energies met once more.
  98. Night was beginning to fall upon Sapience as the Naga's work progressed apace, blue-grey dusk fading slowly into a darkness relieved only by the wan light of a few scattered stars. As the strange serpentine magic continued to reweave itself, she listened with half an ear to Atreiyon's terse orders over the telepathic channel, following their hunt of Alunei as best she could. Most of her attention was concentrated on the warp, however; a brief lapse in focus and they would have to begin all over again, which was time they did not have.
  100. The creation of the warp was not long in before an arrow whizzed towards Jariel, striking her in the left shoulder. A sharp pain lanced through her and her concentration scattered, causing the channeling efforts to collapse once again. Quickly, she whirled and drew her bow, but the Serpent had already disappeared from sight.
  102. Muttering a low oath, Jariel wrenched the arrow out from her shoulder with a soft hiss of pain, flinging it angrily to the ground. She uncorked her health vial and took a sip from it, watching as flesh knit itself together, the wound healing quickly. It was of little satisfaction, though, as Alunei had already accomplished her goal of disrupting her concentration, destroying all their previous work.
  104. [I thought you were going to keep her off me, Naga Atreiyon.] Frustration lent bite to her words as they travelled through the mindlink.
  106. The reply was equally terse. [We have been, we've stopped her from stabbing yourself in the back quite a few times already.]
  108. Slightly chastened but no less aggravated, Jariel grumbled under her breath as she prepared to splice the wormhole once more. 'She can just keep on doing this and it will all be an enormous waste of time,' she thought angrily, but this time kept it to herself.
  110. Once more, Jariel linked her magic with the patiently waiting Jevone, feeling their third attempt again working its slow way through the ether. She took a moment to assess herself, thinking. Judging by the Eleusian's previous attempts, as long as she did not hit anything vital, Jariel thought she could probably last through two or three arrows before she would be forced to stop or die. It might just buy the extra time they needed.
  112. [Naga Atreiyon.]
  114. [Aye?]
  116. [I will try not to break my focus if I should be hit again. You must double your efforts to keep her distracted, though, for if you do not I will perish eventually.]
  118. [Consider it done, Naga.]
  120. Over the next while, the Mhun persevered in her work as the other Naga worked tirelessly to protect her, the distant sounds of fighting reaching her ears even as she continued to eke out the wormhole inch by slow inch. Minutes passed by, and Jariel had just begun allowing herself to hope -
  122. Suddenly, something struck her hard in the back of her left calf, burning agony shooting up her leg as the missile tore through her flesh and lodged itself there. Wincing, she struggled to stay upright, noting with resignation the feathered shaft of yet another arrow protruding from her bleeding limb. Already, she felt herself beginning to weaken.
  124. [I will not last long, Naga Atreiyon.] She warned him. [Two more arrows or a backstab and I will die.]
  126. The Naga did not reply, but she sensed his own frustration growing as he faded in and out of phase, trying to keep a watch on the elusive Serpent. She admired his dedication, but it was clearly not quite enough.
  128. Just then, a huge shadow fell across the cobblestones as a large red Dragon thundered into view. Spotting the tiny Mhun below him, the Dragon lowered his head to Jariel's level, beginning to rumble a greeting - and another arrow chose that precise moment to hurtle past and lodge itself in her side, eliciting another pain-filled gasp.
  130. One more. She gritted her teeth, trying to keep her focus on her imagined destination and doing her best to ignore the excruciating torment.
  132. The Dragon's eyes, already saucer-sized, widened still further at the attack. He lifted his scaly head to survey the vicinity, sniffing the air experimentally. "Who was that? A tasty morsel?"
  134. Jariel squinted up at him through a red haze of pain, recognising him to be one of the city's enemies, Etorak. A former soldier turned traitor, he was now an Ashtani commander who accompanied the Overseer on his periodic raids upon Mhaldor, and she had encountered him once or twice upon the battlefield - though never, she mused, quite this close up.
  136. Had it been a normal day, she would have likely just ignored him or concocted some witty reply, but the potent combination of throbbing agony and copious blood loss was making her light-headed. Instead, she blurted out, "The Eleusian Alunei is trying to stop us from creating this wormhole into Mhaldor. I know we are not allies, but if you would eat her, I would appreciate it."
  138. Too late, she realised how ridiculous she sounded, and grimaced inwardly as she waited for his response. Stupid, Jariel. Instead of laughing at her as she expected, however, the Dragon merely looked thoughtful as he took in her battered form, blood still trickling from her numerous wounds and onto the dusty road.
  140. "Well, I don't like her. And I would rather help Mhaldorians than Eleusians," he rumbled.
  142. Abruptly, his reptilian bulk began to shrink quickly as he shed the form of the Dragon, scales melding and smoothing out into a solid carapace that covered his entire body. As he continued to transform, his large tail retracted until there was nothing left, his tooth-lined maw warped into insect-like mandibles, and his enormous wings folded neatly into his back and vanished before her eyes. Finally, when he had shrunk to the size of a human and stood upright on two legs, the last things to change were his eyes - fading from the angry crimson hue they were before to a vivid blue, the colour of the ocean on a sunny day.
  144. So surprised was Jariel at the now-Horkval's unexpected acquiescence that she nearly let her concentration slip, struggling for a moment to maintain control. "I...are you sure you're allowed to do this?"
  146. He shrugged nonchalantly and smiled, a long elemental staff shimmering into view as he closed his left hand around it. "Nobody said I couldn't." With that, he turned and pointed the staff a little distance in front of her, muttering an incantation under his breath.
  148. The ground trembled, and a line of jagged ice spikes burst up from the ground, growing in size until they towered high above Jariel, wisps of cold air rolling off and soothing her fevered skin. So closely packed were they that they formed a literal wall of ice before her, preventing Alunei from having a clear shot. He did the same behind her, and soon she was protected on both sides of the road by the icy barriers.
  150. Not a moment too soon, either, as another arrow sliced through the air towards them. Jariel tensed, but the archer had been forced to shoot high to get it over the wall, and the angle was completely off as it clattered upon the cobblestones a good way away. She breathed a sigh of relief.
  152. Next to her, Etorak frowned slightly, waving his staff in a circle around her head. To the Mhun's surprise, an exact replica of her materialised beside her, the illusion solidifying just enough to appear real at first glance.
  154. "It's a reflection of yourself," he explained at her questioning look. "This way, she won't know which one to hit first and it'll slow her down. They usually end up attacking the wrong one, and that will buy you a little more time."
  156. "Thank you," she murmured gratefully, and as he nodded and turned away, she concentrated furiously on channeling her magic towards Mhaldor. The creation of wormholes could not be rushed without the Ekanalian Jewel as a catalyst, and it would do little to actually hasten the process, but it made her feel better. The strange turn of events had her at once hopeful and uneasy, and she longed to be done with the whole affair.
  158. [How long more, Nagaraja?] she asked. Surely it could not be much longer.
  160. [Another hour.] He replied.
  162. Two-thirds through. Considering how long they had been working thus far, it did not seem like a long time, but she knew it could very well be - the Eleusian only needed a split second to disrupt her work, after all. It was out of her hands now, she thought, glancing over at her unlikely ally as he inspected the walls. All she could do was hold firm and pray that her unusual group of accomplices kept her alive long enough to complete her task.
  164. She felt Etorak's gaze on her as he approached, blue eyes appraising as he took in the extent of her still-fresh injuries. "Do you not have a boar tattoo?"
  166. Inwardly, Jariel cursed herself for forgetting. Of course the restorative powers of the magical boar tattoo would have served her well in this situation. Too late now, though. "I suppose not," she muttered through gritted teeth.
  168. Before he could reply, a confusing cacophony of animal cries and claws scraping on stone sounded beyond the wall, just before a peculiar host of forest creatures - a butterfly, fox, lemming, even a badger - leapt with unnatural agility over the towering blockade. In their midst was a short Dwarf clad in simple green clothes, clearly the master of the animals as they fell back to hover protectively at his side. He stared at Jariel and Etorak for a moment, and they stared back, neither side moving.
  170. Rishen. Of course Alunei would have decided to bring her allies, now. Jariel watched the newcomer tensely, knowing she would die in a single hit if he should try to kill her; however, beyond that first glance, he ignored her as he turned and raised a pudgy fist towards the ice instead.
  172. Jariel watched in confusion for a minute before a thick gold ring on his middle finger caught her eye. As he drew his fist across in a horizontal slashing motion, the ring flared, sending a lash of orange flame speeding out from the tiny accessory to slice across the ice.
  174. Such was the intensity of the magical fire that the ice melted instantly where it touched, water streaming in rivulets off the smooth surface. As the foundations of the wall weakened, he repeated the gesture once, twice more - and with a great shudder the wall collapsed, fragments of ice flying every which way and striking the adventurers haphazardly.
  176. The next few events happened in quick succession - another arrow whizzed by, slicing through Jariel's reflection and causing it to vanish; the thin figure of Vexul appeared out of nowhere, plunging his serrated dirk in Rishen's back, the Dwarf giving a howl of pain as he turned to flee; Rishen's animal entourage was everywhere, biting, scratching, distracting just enough for their master to escape; Etorak conjured another reflection over Jariel, it shimmering into view just in time to deflect the dirk that materialised from thin air, Alunei herself snarling in frustration as she was revealed, realising her mistake.
  178. A split second later, Atreiyon appeared and deftly pricked Alunei twice with the sharp tip of his own poisoned dirk, her face twisting in a grimace as the venoms coursed through her system. Before she could recover, a whip hissed through the air, coiling around Alunei's midsection and yanking her towards the town square, away from Jariel. Quick as a flash, Etorak resummoned the wall of ice and restored her doppleganger, ensuring her safety once more.
  180. Panting, Atreiyon sheathed his dirk and turned to glance at Etorak, frowning briefly at him before arching an eyebrow at Jariel. Understanding the gesture, she shook her head fractionally at him, signalling that she was in no danger. With a nod, he darted around the wall and into the approaching night.
  182. Etorak's lips twitched in amusement, but he said nothing.
  184. Jariel was breathing hard from a mixture of fear and adrenaline, cold sweat trickling down her brow and dripping off her chin. She was finding it more and more difficult to stay conscious, let alone concentrate on the warp. White spots began to appear in her vision as the blood loss took its toll, a slick sheen of red covering the cobblestones nearest her. Blinking firmly, she shook herself periodically when she felt herself drifting, but she was having to do that with increasing frequency as the seconds ticked by.
  186. [Ten minutes.] Said the Nagaraja encouragingly, as if he could read her thoughts - probably able to sense her desperation over the link.
  188. The image of the ravine was beginning to blur and fade in her mind, but she clung to it determinedly, forcing herself to focus on minute details to restore her concentration. A tendril of red fog curling around a particularly tall stalagmite, a fly crawling over the open mouth of a long-dead Xoran - anything she could think of to keep the memory alive.
  190. Ten minutes. Just ten minutes. Stay awake, Jariel. Come on. You can do this, she chanted over and over in her head.
  192. The worst was yet to come, however.
  194. Out of nowhere, a high-pitched keening reverberated through the air, followed by a distant flare that lit up the night sky. With a sickening jolt in her stomach, Jariel recognised the ominous sign of a launched meteor arrow, watching helplessly as the burning sphere streaked towards her.
  196. Sure that this was the end, she turned her head away at the last second, bracing for impact -
  198. - and gasped as her reflection flickered and vanished beside her, the meteorite slamming straight through it and onto the ground. The force of the impact caused it to splinter into a few tiny, smouldering pieces, some glancing off her body, but none doing too much damage.
  200. Her relief was short-lived, however, as a succession of the same keening sounds echoed warningly in the distance, signalling that there was more to come. Unable to defend herself, all she could do was shoot an entreating glance towards the Horkval next to her, grit her teeth, and pray that she lasted just a little while longer.
  202. In contrast, Etorak appeared completely unruffled by the fiery hailstorm. He handled the unforgiving slew of meteor arrows as if they were no more dangerous than cotton balls, elemental staff circling and twisting in his dextrous fingers as he smoothly conjured reflection after reflection over her, methodically restoring each one as they fell to the blazing projectiles.
  204. Eventually, apparently realising the futility of the strategy, the rain of meteors stopped. When the dust settled, the road around Jariel was pockmarked with small, smoking craters, bits of rubble strewn everywhere, but the Mhun herself was completely unharmed. Some of the tension seemed to leave her slight frame as she sagged a little from relief.
  206. A wave of exhaustion swept over her. It was so tiring, this splicing business. Getting shot at, and bleeding, and the stress from anticipation, and not being able to defend herself...all she really wanted was shut her eyes...just for a moment...
  208. [One minute.]
  210. It was Jevone who saved her, those two words sending a jolt through the Mhun and snapping her back to full alertness. Appalled at how close she had come to losing the incantation, her brow furrowed even harder as she pushed her magic further, renewing her efforts to compensate for her near-disaster.
  212. It was now or never. If she couldn't last through this final minute, everything would have been a complete waste of time.
  214. [One minute, Naga Atreiyon. You have to keep me alive.]
  216. "One minute," she relayed to the Horkval, and he nodded in acknowledgement.
  218. "We have this," he said, his expression unchanging, but his tone somehow reassuring.
  220. Jariel wanted badly to believe him, but would not let herself do so until the wormhole was fully created and solid before her eyes. She knew from experience that complacence could destroy everything in just a second's lapse, and she wasn't about to let that happen. Not now, not when she had come so far.
  222. Alunei must have realised that her window of opportunity was closing, as well. Abruptly, orange flame lashed the other side of the ice wall before her, striking it in quick succession until it disintegrated once more into a pile of icy rubble. Deadly arrows whistled through the air towards Jariel, and though Etorak was still able to protect her with his deft spellcasting it was clear that even he had to be fully alert, now, for his timing had to be perfect. One slip, one arrow, and Jariel was dead.
  224. Atreiyon rippled into view next to her, this time with bow in hand as he drew and fired shot after shot in the opposite direction. He was a better archer than Alunei and she had no Magi to protect her with reflections, so the arrows soon stopped as she was forced to take cover.
  226. "Hmm. I cannot sense her." A worried frown upon his features, Atreiyon turned and vanished into the darkness. Shortly after, a flash of azure light in the distance announced his successful transition into phase, no doubt to hunt the errant snake down. Ever-vigilant, Etorak summoned a third wall of ice, leaving absolutely nothing to chance.
  228. The last thirty seconds were agony for Jariel, both literally and figuratively. The arrows lodged in her body brought a fresh wave of pain every time she shifted even slightly, and the stress of being on constant high alert was mentally draining. Still she held on to the picture of her city in her mind, willing herself to keep her focus.
  230. Come on. Come on. Nearly there. Just a little bit more...
  232. She counted the seconds under her breath slowly, trying to be conservative in her timing.
  234. Twenty-five...
  236. Twenty...
  238. Fifteen...
  240. (They seemed to stretch on forever, why would time not hurry up already?)
  242. Ten...
  244. Nine...
  246. Eight... (come -on-)
  248. Seven...
  250. Six...
  252. Five... (nearly, damn it)
  254. Four...
  256. Three...
  258. Two...
  260. And finally, -finally-, the outline of the finished wormhole hovered in mid-air before her. flaring briefly in vivid, glorious colour before it faded slowly into nothing. Jariel thought she had never seen a more beautiful sight. Trembling with exhaustion and unimaginable relief, she closed her eyes, probing with her mind just to make sure - and it was still there, a reassuring presence as she sensed the familiar ravine beyond.
  262. Oh, thank the Lords.
  264. A second later, Alunei burst once more from the concealing shadows, lips pulled back in an ugly snarl as she leapt towards Jariel. Etorak shouted a warning, but the Mhun was already gone, having spun deftly away from Alunei's reach the moment she appeared.
  266. Alunei hit the ground and rolled smoothly to her feet, tail lashing in agitation as she growled, taking a step towards Jariel - then buckled to her knees with a surprised cry as first Atreiyon, then Vexul, materialised out of nowhere and plunged their dirks deep into her back.
  268. Momentarily stunned, the Rajamala struggled to her feet, but swayed as Vexul pricked her twice with his dirk, the venoms making her muscles lock up; Jariel slipped behind her, wrapping her iron-tipped whip around her neck and pulling it taut as she struggled for air; but what finally felled her was the arrow that shot towards them in the darkness, striking Alunei straight through the heart.
  270. With a last, rattling gasp, Alunei collapsed to the ground, blood pouring from her mouth and splashing onto her green tunic, joining the growing red stain on her chest. "You- wait-" she managed to choke out, before her eyes rolled back into her head and her lifeless body slumped sideways, hitting the cobblestones with a final-sounding 'thud'.
  272. The danger finally over, Jariel sank to her own knees, her vision swimming as the pain threatened to overwhelm her. Footsteps approached, and a figure bent down next to her, laying something on the floor with a clatter as it did so.
  274. "Here, Naga."
  276. She felt something slender pressed into her hand - a vial. Uncorking it, she took a few sips of the liquid within, recognising the faint spice of the health elixir as it slid easily down her throat. It worked instantly, a surge of rejuvenating energy flooding her limbs.
  278. Her mind a little clearer now, she glanced down at the arrows still lodged in her side. There was nothing for it. Bracing herself, she gritted her teeth, took a firm hold on the shaft of each arrow, and ripped them roughly out of her body.
  280. White-hot pain exploded behind her eyelids as the arrows wrenched free of her flesh, making her see stars for a moment before another quick sip from the vial reduced the agony to a dull, throbbing hurt. She turned slightly, nodding her thanks to the familiar figure of Atreiyon beside her as she took a last sip, stoppering up the vial and handing it back to him.
  282. "Thank you, Naga. I suppose that was your arrow?"
  284. The Dwarf smirked as he accepted the vial from her, tucking it back into his pouch and picking up the bow he had dropped. "Yes, it was."
  286. A corner of her lips quirked upwards. "A good shot."
  288. "No greater pleasure, I assure you."
  290. A sudden, squelching 'pop' made them both look over to Vexul, a few paces away. The taller Naga had one foot on the back of Alunei's corpse, holding it steady as he wrenched her head clean off the body with his whip. He looked up towards them somewhat apologetically, and despite themselves, the two Naga chuckled.
  292. Jariel got somewhat unsteadily to her feet, feeling the wounds itch and tingle as the health elixir worked its magic. She looked over to the nearby Horkval, surveying the scene silently, and felt a rush of uncertainty. What was she supposed to say?
  294. "I...hope you do not find yourself in trouble for...this," she ventured.
  296. He glanced over at her, blue eyes glittering, and gave his trademark shrug. "I'll deal with that when it happens. It's not expressly forbidden." He winked.
  298. It still didn't seem enough. What did others usually do in this situation? Hug? She grimaced at the thought. "I could..shake your hand..." She floundered.
  300. He uttered a deep, rumbling laugh, and shook his head. "A 'thank you' will suffice."
  302. She chuckled softly, the sound low and melodic. "Very well. Thank you, then."
  304. Etorak nodded slightly and stepped back from her. "I told you we had it." With a grin, he uttered another incantation and a pair of fin-like wings flared out behind him, carrying him swiftly into the air and out of sight.
  306. The Mhun watched him go, shaking her head even as the ghost of a smile flickered over her lips. What an unexpected day it had been. She turned to her fellow Naga. "Come. Our work is done. Take the body, offer what little essence it is worth to the Masters - bring the head, as well."
  308. Bending down, Vexul scooped up the severed head and tossed it into his pack, seemingly oblivious to the still-dripping blood. In turn, Atreiyon looped his whip around the ankle of the decapitated body, dragging it unceremoniously behind him in the dust as he nodded to Jariel.
  310. On an unspoken signal, the three Naga turned as one, beginning a short, quick run forward - then suddenly they leapt into the air, and a rush of colour and sound burst forth as the newly created wormhole materialised, swallowing them into its depths before it faded back into nothing.
  312. Just like that, they were gone.
  314. ======================================================================================================================
  316. The rain came later that night, washing away the blood and sweat from the cobblestones, and the path was so worn as it was that a few more dents in it were hardly noticeable.
  318. In fact, really, one would almost think the battle had never happened if not for the single memento discovered at daybreak - a severed, blood-encrusted Rajamalan head, mouth lolling gruesomely open, sightless eyes peering out from its lofty perch atop a pike planted firmly in the road.
  320. The screams of horror resonated through the invisible wormhole, reverberating around Mhaldor in a distorted, eerie cacophony as the citizens glanced at each other, wondering what was going on.
  322. Back in the guardhouse, the Naga merely smiled.
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