“Ah! Will!” Alexander's voice was chipper and sudden. Will stopped in the foyer a distance to the front door of the palace. The little blond boy came running over to him instantly through the door and hugged him around his thigh tightly.
Will patted the blond hair as he tried to balance his weight with an extra body clinging to him fondly. “Alexander!” Will breathed softly with a smile. “What are you doing here?”
“It's my day to play with Ree-Ree!” he exclaimed jubilantly, looking up to Will with bright blue eyes. “Where is he?”
“He's busy right now.” Will petted his head again, then stepped back as Alexander let him go. Will knelt before the little boy, smiling as kindly as he could to him. “Want to hang out with me instead? I'm going to the docks to meet with a strange person.” He asked his question as you would to trick any child, baiting them to do something they might ordinarily not want to.
Curious, Alexander tilted his head to the side to look at the knights standing behind Will, then he looked back at the young man kneeling before him. “You're not scared?”
“I am. That's why they're all coming with me.” Will pointed at the knights, making his smile really bright. I can't let him wander about the palace and freak out when he can't find Rhys. It'll be easier if he can just come with me.
“Mm, okay!” Alexander nodded and clapped his hands together. Will nodded and stood up. As soon as he was standing, Alexander took his right pinky finger in his hand and held it tight. “I'll protect you, too!”
Will chuckled at the statement and smiled down to him. “How very brave!” He looked over his shoulder at the knights and nodded to them. “Shall we? Carriage, right?” Viau looked at the other knights around him a bit nervously, but subtle enough that Alexander didn't notice. Will turned on his heel and walked with Alexander toward the front door. “What'd you eat for breakfast this morning, Alexander?”
“Kiwi and …some kind of weird bread Momma made me eat.”
“Was it good?” Will asked as they went through the front door. Outside it was drizzling; the winter rain was upon them in full now. The wind carried the soft small droplets around playfully, although the air was cold.
“No. It had seeds in it. Probably of some bug again.”
“Aww, she just won't stop feeding you bugs. What kind of bug was it this time?” Will led Alexander, and the group of knights, toward the nearest carriage that was already hitched up with two horses and ready to go. As the two got closer, the footmen standing around it started bustling about once they realized he had picked them for the trip.
“A crab. Definitely a crab. It was really hard bits.” Alexander nodded, his face contorting in a playful way that showed his disgust.
He probably means it was egg bread that had grain seeds in it. But why the kiwi? Will wondered as he helped Alexander into the carriage first. “What about after? Did you have a snack before coming here?”
“Of course! Oranges and squishy cheese!” the boy yipped as he jumped in, rocking the enclosed carriage's cabin back and forth with his jumping.
“Settle down. What if the crabs come out of your tummy because you made them motion sick?” Will teased with a smile on his face. Immediately Alexander stopped and sat on the bench without issue. Will turned at the door, once inside, and addressed Viau. “One of you can come with,” he whispered, “The rest will have to follow in a different carriage.”
“I don't think that's wise, but very well.” Viau grumbled.
Will blocked the door from the knight entering in such a bad mood. When Viau looked at Will to protest, Will set a parental glare on him. “Shut up and deal with it, and put a smile on your face.”
Will noticed as Viau clearly bit the inside of his lip, puckering the skin. Then the knight relaxed his face, and then showed a very good fake genuine smile to him. Satisfied with that display, Will stepped back and sat on the bench next to Alexander. Once Viau climbed in, he shut the door, and the carriage promptly started moving.
Alexander held tight to Will's hand once he was sitting down next to him. “Are crabs really that scary?”
“Certainly.” Will nodded, looking down to him with a frown. “Haven't you ever heard of the horse-sized crab? It's huge!” He held his arms open in a wide gesture to give the small boy a sense of how big this crab was. “And will gladly eat all of your pie and cake before you even have the chance to smell it!”
“You're being mean!” Alexander whined, shutting his eyes. “There's no such crab!”
It made Will chuckle. Perhaps that was a bit too much. “But if there was, you're being so brave, you'd fight it off from the two of us, wouldn't you?”
“I s-suppose...” Alexander sniffled, answering in a trembling voice. “If that'll make you feel better?”
“Of course. I'm not very good with crabs myself either, you see. So we both have to be brave and make loud noises to scare it off.” Will nodded to him.
The rest of the carriage ride to the port was simple enough. Alexander and Will talked about what the boy'd been eating, and making up wild tales about how Mia was putting bugs in everything and what kind of bugs they were. Frightening bugs like, bugs that have their butts on fire, and bugs that spit silk thread from their teeth, and bugs that if you touched them, you'd get pricked by tiny little barbs of poison that'd kill you in an instant. The whole thing made Viau roll his eyes and close them, because if he had them open, he'd have let on how annoyingly disappointed he was with this whole conversation. Part of Viau wanted to join in, and make their wild tales even more terrifying, but the other part of him rationally realized that Alexander was just four-years-old, and scaring him probably wouldn't be the best thing to do – no matter how he sliced it.
“So that's when I told her that chandelier had to come down. And you know what she did?”
“Screamed.” Rhys guessed casually without even looking back to Adell. He didn't sound interested per se, but it wasn't a strong enough tone to convey that he didn't want to hear the rest of the story. The sound of voices echoing around us in this dark creepy place is comforting.
The two were walking up a wide staircase in a dark castle; several tall spires, mostly square in design, with large thin windows, with a few circular sections at corners deeper inside the structure. It was situated in a mountainous area full of bare rocks that looked like basalt. Very close to it, just at the edge of a human-made platform that had a broken statue of a a stoic man, was the top of a giant waterfall. The sound of the rushing water echoed off the rocks and deep into the castle. It was a haunting white noise that didn't comfort either.
Cascading around their feet was a thick fog, making it nearly impossible to see where they were stepping, so they tread slowly. In Rhys's right hand was a kerosene lantern, illuminating enough for them to see by, though the light made the fog reflect its thickness and made it difficult to see the bit of floor closest to the lamp. Rhys had his left palm pressed gingerly against the wall. They had made it through the front doors, and up the first flight of stairs from the entry foyer. The landing they had stepped onto had only a single large double door that was shut tight, so they opted for going up the next flight of stairs they saw, heading higher.
Adell was a few steps behind Rhys, his hand on the banister to guide himself up. “She screamed!” Adell confirmed with a droll tone. “You should've seen this chandelier, Rhys. It was god-awful ugly.” Rhys began to snicker, half-way at the way Adell was narrating like this was a satirical play, and half-way at his own imagination starting to picture the chandelier. “It had a hundred frickin' candles on it across three tiers, and tons of crystal danglies to increase sparkle potential and if that wasn't bad enough – you know what else it had? A bow.”
“A gift bow?” Rhys asked disinterested. He stopped walking for a moment to muse his thick blond curly hair from his forehead off and fluffed it up. The dampness from the pouring rain they had walked through weighed it down so the movement didn't do much besides fling off some drops of water and take the odd feeling of cold clumpy hair sticking to wet skin.
“Godwilling, but no. A bow.” Adell cursed as they stepped around the gentle curve into the next landing. “This big red ribbon bow was tied at the base of it as if to make it look cute and appealing. I wanted to hurl!” He gestured with his free hand, his double-breasted dark coat flinging about sloppily from the sudden force, drops of water getting lost into the fog.
“So you hurled it.”
“Couldn't. It was too damn high. But I did knock it pretty hard with the ladder when I was trying to climb up to reach it.” Adell sounded somewhat proud, but also disappointed that he couldn't outright destroy it.
“What did Mia do?” Rhys started chuckling again, but he was speaking with a plain tone to convey his pretend attempt at seriousness.
“She about strangled me!” Adell groaned. “You know, she called it the most beautiful chandelier we've had to date!”
Rhys shook his head. “She needs to stop trying to outsmart the truth.” He chortled, then stopped walking. The two looked around the landing – empty of furniture or anything of note. “So, what happened to the chandelier?”
“I had it moved to her study.” Adell ran his hands across his forehead and into his red hair. In the dark light, Rhys only saw the outline of the motion. “Didn't Hydros say she'd meet us here?”
“Maybe she meant higher up still?” Rhys frowned. “She couldn't have meant that room downstairs.”
“The door didn't open.” Adell's brow furrowed as he stepped over to his friend. “We could go check it again if you want.”
“Maybe…” Rhys tapped his foot softly a few times as he thought. Adell waited, looking over his shoulder to the staircase to their right that went higher into the castle. “I feel like that might've been the main audience chamber. You saw the size of this castle – it might be we're supposed to meet there.”
“I dunno. It seems too obvious to hide something special behind a locked door.” Adell shook his head. “Let's check out this floor first before we carry on.”
“All right.” Rhys nodded, with a tone like he didn't want to agree.
The two proceeded forward through the landing to explore the floor. They didn't wander too far down the dark hallways they found. They stepped through an open-floor gallery that looked down to the foyer below, found a decent sized ballroom, and then a seating room – but the strangest thing was the lack of furniture. It was eerie.
Tripping, he fell face first into the damp dirt through some ferns. As Crow climbed onto his hands and knees, he looked over his shoulder at the red flames licking their way closer. He could already feel the heat off them, and although the forest was dense, it wasn't able to slow down the fire in any way.
“Oh shit.” Crow clambered up, stumbling as he hurried forward. “Where are we going?” He shouted to the men ahead.
“There's a river this way.” Matéas called back. He was bleeding from his torso, his long black hair a mess, gouges on his face and arms – blood and dirt mixed together in his dark robes in a sickening pattern. He was being held up by Phyte, which baffled Crow since Phyte was a fair amount shorter than Matéas.
“How is a river going to help?” Crow called back.
“Water on our clothes will reduce our burns.” Akiio pointed out.
“Quiet.” Isaac held out his hand to them. He led them toward a thicker clump of brush plants, and gestured for them to lean down and be quiet. Quickly, the group did so, and no words were exchanged questioning it.
Crow looked overhead. Through the canopy he spotted several dragons flying about, one spitting out flames from its gaping maw constantly onto the forest below with no mind to aim. It's steely scales sparkled in the darkness of the Threshold's night as if it were made of metal. Crow felt his teeth clench uneasily.
Three dragons – three gods pissed at Matéas. Crow inhaled the hot air through his nose, immediately regretting it. But he needed air in his lungs.
A few seconds more, the dragons passed in a giant circle out of sight, going back to the direction the group had fled from. Another second after they were gone, and Isaac began to continue forward crouching with his knees low to the ground. Once he was a few steps ahead, Akiio went after him. Another delay before Matéas and Phyte followed, and then Crow, followed by the newest annoying person to this entourage: Amau.
“Again,” Crow whispered, “Why are we heading to a river?”
“Because it'll be safer than here.” Amau commented softly in a tone that left Crow wanting to spin around and kick him in the jaw.
Isaac stopped a few minutes later. As the group gathered up behind him to look, Crow realized he hadn't even heard the roar of the river over the flames coming after them. Akiio and Isaac's eyes met briefly as they exchanged a wary glance.
That's like how Will and I look at each other when we're worried shit'll go bad. Crow thought. He turned to look over his shoulder at the flames, then down to Matéas. “Now what?”
“Jump.” Akiio stated.
Before Crow could look back to him, The rapids are just ahead after this – do you see how dangerous that is? No fucking way. Was what Crow was going to say … But Akiio had already jumped, at the same time as Isaac. Then Crow was pushed by Amau.
Six staggered splashes were drown out by the roar of the fire and the river.
Crow gasped for air each time his head came above water. He tried to open his eyes, flailing out his arms to guide himself upright, left or right, some direction. The current of the river was so strong, he was being bolted around like a leaf. One glance afforded him the sight of Matéas and his trail of blood, Phyte flapping his arms frantically, then another where Isaac yelped as his face went underwater. The six men were spun about in circles by the rapids, they smacked into smooth rocks, swallowed water, and were bumped around. Then a drop came. Not a waterfall, but a sharp drop in the layout. Akiio went over it first, his black hair spun about in the white foam as he was pulled under. Crow yelped audibly, trying to gasp for the last breath of air, as he was pulled under.
Crow shut his eyes tight, feeling himself spun around, and then sucked in by something. Somersaulting over and forward, suddenly the force of the water stopped pushing on Crow. His head broke the smooth surface of water, and he gasped loudly for a breath. Immediately Crow lifted up his wet hand to clear his eyes of water. He was swimming, still, in a dark cavern inside an air pocket. Next to him Isaac and Akiio were pulling themselves up onto the rocky flat shore, coughing and gasping.
Crow swam to the edge next to them to pull himself up. Coughing sounded behind him as Matéas, followed by Phyte, popped up. Matéas went for the shore, while Phyte floundered in the water senselessly for a few seconds.
“I hate water! I hate swimming I hate it I hate it now I'm all wet O I hate this!” Phyte wailed as he tread water to the shore.
“Oh god, just shut up.” Crow groaned, pushing his bangs back over his forehead.
“We made it!” Amau cheered as soon as his face broke through the water. “I was worried that we wouldn't get into the tunnel since we were moving so fast!”
“Tunnel?” Crow asked.
“Oh, yes yes.” Amau nodded his head, pushing Phyte forward.
Akiio rolled onto his back, coughing up more water. Isaac dragged himself next to him, pushing his black hair from his eyes with care. “You okay?”
“I have the possibility of throwing up, but I'm alive.” Akiio stated with a hoarse voice.
Crow looked from them back to the gods as they climbed up onto the shore. Amau stood first, soaking wet in his cream and ivory robes. “Well then, this way.” He didn't smile, but sounded like he knew where to go. He clapped his hands together, then stepped away from the water toward the rocky cavern wall. “Can I get a bit of light here, Crow?”
Confused, Crow got up and went over to him. It took Crow a second to concentrate the force of energy in the power of his palm. I'm wet, but it's like magic. It'll work. Just borrowing a tad. Just a little light – a little flame. A small flame appeared in the palm of Crow's open hand.
Amau grabbed Crow's wrist, yanking him a step closer to the wall. He lifted Crow's hand up and down a moment to different areas of the rock. Once he found whatever he was looking for, he released Crow, and then with both hands, pushed the rock he'd found down and toward the wall. The rock moved and then a loud click was heard. A few more rocks crumbled away just in front of them, falling from the one Amau had pressed, and a small opening big enough for someone to crouch through appeared. Through it was a bright warm orange light like it was indoors.
Gawking, Crow knelt down to look but was immediately blocked as Amau climbed down and went in. “Hurry, now.”
Crow grimaced but looked back to the others. “What is this place?” The flame in his hand sputtered out as he shut his palm.
Phyte, who had been complaining to Matéas for the last minute about how soaking wet he was, responded. “Levi's lair. He hasn't been in the Threshold in a really long time though, so it probably won't be much.”
“I'm sure it'll be fine.” Matéas commented, shifting down to his knees to look at the warmth through the hole. Nodding with a bit of uneasiness, Phyte helped Matéas over to the opening. Crow waited for them to go through before looking over to Isaac and Akiio.
“We'll be just a minute.” Isaac waved to Crow. He'd rested Akiio's head on his lap and was stroking his hair with care. Akiio's eyes were shut, but Crow could see his brows furrowed.
“All right.” Crow nodded, and then stooped through the opening.
Indoors was really just that: indoors. The cavern with the still water underneath the rapids opened up into a modest room with a ceiling twelve-feet high held up by square pillars that looked carved from the rock itself. Hanging from above were six simple chandeliers illuminating the room, which was full of boudoir furniture: a sofa, lounge chair, vanity, four chairs at a dining table, a wardrobe. At the far end of the room was a hall leading to a string of doors where Crow spotted a clock similar to the one in Phyte's house.
Curiously, Crow tilted his head to the side upon seeing the grandeur of the place. What the heck is this? Isn't Arluin some stuff old god who never hangs out here?
Phyte helped Matéas over to the sofa where they began to disrobe him to inspect his wounds. Amau had disappeared down the hall, returning a moment later with a white wooden box in his arms. “Found the first aid kit!” He chimed happily, going over to Phyte's side. “Do we do burns first, or cuts?”
“Let's mix it up and do the blood first.” Matéas commented sarcastically to him.
“Oh good idea. Don't want it to stain Levi's furniture!” Amau nodded happily, opening the box and began to rifle through it for gauze.
“Yes.” Matéas shut his eyes; probably hoping to make the stupidity go away from him. “That was my reasoning.”
Crow took in a breath, then went over to the dining table to sit down. “So, this is Arluin's place?”
“Yeah.” Phyte nodded as he began to help wrap Matéas's wounds. “He never liked company hanging about so he figured if he started his home in a place where people would dislike, he'd never get any guests.”
“Not very hospitable of him. Never stopped me anyway.” Amau commented, handing Phyte the next roll of gauze.
“A tornado couldn't stop you.” Matéas jabbed at him.
Crow chuckled. The two of them were making Matéas look like a poor child's toy, wrapped up in gauze terribly, attempting to cover all of the bloody wounds. He looked around, then got up and walked over to the wardrobe. I feel like Will poking around. He opened the wooden wardrobe to see towels, robes, sheets and blankets. Frowning at the find, Crow tilted his head to the side curiously, then gathered up some of each. He took the first set to Matéas, the second to Phyte, and skipping Amau, Crow went back out to the cavern to check on Isaac and Akiio.
Just as Crow got out there, Akiio was standing up with Isaac's help. “You look puke ready.”
“Just did.” Akiio glared at him but his words had no force behind them. Isaac took the bundle of blankets from Crow, wrapping them around Akiio's shoulders. “Will you be leaving?”
“I need to get back to Will.” Crow replied, crossing his arms.
Isaac looked back to the pool of water as it rippled. “I know that, but we really need your help.”
“How? With what?” Crow waved out his arm. “I can barely light something on fire. You've got Phyte and Amau here, you'll be fine. The other gods shouldn't know about this place right? So they shouldn't be coming in to attack or anything.”
“It's Phyte.” Isaac whispered, helping as Akiio stepped closer to Crow and the entrance inside. “He's not well, okay, after dealing with this sort of thing.”
“Been attacked before?” Crow raised a brow.
“A few times.” Akiio nodded.
“A few more with just me.” Isaac nodded with him. The sad look on his face pulled at Crow's guilt as their eyes met. “Please. He thinks you're his friend right, so out of friendship you should stay.”
“Puh-lease.” Crow grimaced, turning to go back inside. “That little tart-faced ghoul ripped out Will's soul to eat it.”
“Phyte did what?” Matéas's cold voice sent a shiver down everyone's spine. Immediately Phyte began giggling like an innocent idiot, moving to finish wrapping the bandage around Matéas's brow. It didn't hide the unimpressed glare coming onto the god's face, no matter how injured he was.
“Phyte pulled out the flame of Will's soul and tried to eat it.” Amau commented helpfully.
“He tossed it haphazardly to his mouth.” Crow added with disgust as Isaac and Akiio came in after him. Once they were in, Isaac helped the nauseated young man over to the dining table.
Phyte laughed. “Oh, it was just an attempt. A silly joke. That's all. And it's not like I actually ate it.”
“Only because I stopped you.” Arluin's voice cut in.
“Crow tried to kill me before.” Phyte tried to direct Matéas's anger to a different target.
“Enough. I don't need to hear you two tattling on each other like three-year-olds.” Matéas rolled his eyes, moving his hand up to brush his hair from his forehead. The sloppy wrap of gauze around his arm fell loosely down immediately with the gentle motion.
“I swear. You're all such children.” Arluin sighed, walking over from the entrance, just as soaking wet as the rest of them, to Matéas's side. “How's your torso?”
“Hm, so it is.” Arluin knelt down, moving away the piles of gauze to take a look. “Isaac, can you get me some warm water from the bathroom down the hall,” he pointed toward the hall at the edge of the room and immediately Isaac went down it. “And Crow, can you reheat the soup on the stove.”
“What? I'm not a cook!” Crow gawked, crossing his arms.
“I don't recall my tone being one to question,” Arluin flashed a dark glare at Crow before he turned his eyes to Amau. “Why did you let Phyte tend his wounds?”
“It was cute watching the idiot try so hard at something he didn't know how to do. Kind of like watching a penguin attempt to fly.” Amau smiled at him brightly.
“Your moronic choice has used up most of the gauze. Go back to the pantry and fetch me more. Crow, why are you still standing there?” Arluin looked from the god to Crow.
“Because I'm still soaking wet!”
“Then take off your shoes and socks as you walk to the kitchen. Snap to it.”
“Fine!” Crow threw his arms up as he started down the hall. He passed Isaac in the process, then went grumbling on. The first door he tried was the bathroom, across from it was a bedroom, and then the pantry. After that was the kitchen.
It was rather plain and small – no large bar, big sink, or tall cabinets. Everything was miniature. But just as Arluin said, on the stovetop in a steel pot with the lid on it was a warm orange liquid. Crow stuck his finger into it, feeling it freezing cold, and then plopped it into his mouth. Tomato bisque that needs more umph. Fine. Stupid shitty gods and their stupid shitty chores. Crow turned on the stove, saw no flame come on, and then spent five minutes looking for a fire-starter tool. Frustration built up, and just as he zapped a flame out of his fingertips to light the gas stove, Akiio stepped into the kitchen.
“What do you need?” Crow asked with a fake pleasant tone.
“His bossy lordship wants a bowl of ice.”
“Didn't Isaac just get Matéas some hot water? What's the ice for?” Crow turned from the stove to watch as Akiio stepped over to the wooden ice box.
Pulling open the top small door on the left, Akiio chuckled. “It's not for Matéas.”
Crow's jaw hung open immediately. “He finally hit Phyte.”
“No. Phyte hit Amau across the room.”
Crow frowned, unable to process the small figure slapping the other. “Why?”
“He wouldn't shut up with his run-on sentences and somehow started commenting on how Matéas and Phyte can't have sex with his torso as banged up as it is now.”
“Stop.” Crow held up his hand immediately as a grimace came across his face. He suddenly looked paler and more nauseated than Akiio had just a short bit ago. “I don't wanna hear anymore.”
“That's what Phyte said.”
“No – no – stop stop – I really don't want to hear more.”
Chuckling, Akiio pulled out a tray of ice. He smashed the ice loose with a wooden hammer, poured it into a bowl Crow found for him, and then replaced what was left into the ice box. “I have to say: it's rather entertaining watching them get along. Suddenly Phyte isn't the most annoying god I've ever met.”
Crow hung his head, stirring the bisque with a wooden spoon. “Annoying isn't the reason I want to kill him.”
“True.” Akiio nodded. “We could do it now. Isaac has the gale blade. We could just slice him up in his sleep.”
“And then get beat up by Matéas afterwards.” Like Isaac would even let us use the gale blade to cut up Phyte anyhow.
“The guy is covered in bandages, what sort of damage could he do?”
“Ah, well, then you kill Phyte first.” Crow smirked at him. “I'll take a stab at him after you end up back in the hospital.”
“I am an assassin.” Akiio stopped at the door to the hall.
“Right. Not like Matéas doesn't strike fear and death being the god of poisons and noxious gases.”
Akiio threw a few shards of ice at Crow. Crow blocked a few with the pot lid. After a moment, Crow was back to stirring the bisque. He yelped when Akiio dropped a bit of ice down his shirt. Immediately, Crow swung around the spoon to smack Akiio with it, who darted away and out the door.
“You fucking child – I'm already cold enough as it is!”
Twenty minutes later, Crow came out with the pot of hot bisque and six bowls tucked under his arms. He set the table, then glowered at the group. Matéas had been changed into dry warm robes, wrapped in a blanket, sitting on the sofa. Isaac and Akiio had also changed, but were sitting at the dining table waiting for the meal next to Amau – who had not only changed but looked like he had showered and dried off.
“Really? No one asked if I wanted to dry off?”
“Oh do shut up.” Arluin came in, fresh from changing into dry clothes. “We aren't your servants.” He stepped up, taking off the lid to the bisque. “You did heat this thoroughly, didn't you?”
“No, I was standing next to it slowly heating it with love and care just so I could drop ice cubes into your bowls.” Crow crossed his arms.
“All right, no reason to be cross.” Arluin raised his brow. “Wouldn't want Will to see you with such a sour look on your face. I did suggest you take off your shoes.” Arluin strut over to the table without much care that he was crossing in front of Amau before he stopped next to the pot of soup.
“And walk around cold and barefoot?!”
Akiio rolled his eyes, spooning himself up the tomato bisque. He made a poisoned face at Isaac to mock Crow as he passed the blond a bowl full of the soup. Isaac whimpered his giggle down his throat as he took the bowl.
“Standing over a stove for that long, were you really cold?” Arluin asked, handing the next bowl to Akiio, who took the cue and started to spoon up servings for the others.
“Yes!” Crow gasped. “I wouldn't want Will to see you so cruel and – and – cold!”
“Shut up, Crow.” Akiio looked up to him.
Crow gawked down to him. “He made me stand over and heat you dinner and you guys get all changed and warm and dry and I'm still in soaking wet clothes!”
“Enough!” A pillow smacked Crow in the face. Crow heaved, looking up toward Matéas who sat with another held up and ready to volley forward. “Bitch once more and I'll suffocate the life right out of you!”
“Does he have any life? Look at how cold he is!” Amau chuckled, sitting down next to Akiio.
“That's it – I'll ring your fat neck!” Crow darted down to punch Amau but Akiio stood up immediately and caught him, pushing him back. “You will look very attractive with a black eye!”
“I've had one once.” Amau pondered, crossing his legs. He paused, then snickered. “Of course, that was just a black eye ball that Phyte lent me to scare off some fling.” Crow struggled to get free from Akiio's grip, trying to swing his arms at the god. Akiio pushed him back, hugging his arms more around his torso.
“Hey, how did that go?” Phyte asked, walking over from Matéas to the table.
“Decently, I suppose. She did come back the next week.” Amau laughed. “Course, she was dead that time.” He laughed harder. “Oh, humans die so easily. Didn't know she'd die of fright.”
“You sick bastard!” Crow barked. “Let me go, Akiio, they both deserve to be tar-dipped and feathered!”
“As much as I agree with you, I kind of was looking forward to eating first!” Akiio griped.
“Perfect – how about I make a side of posh god gratin!”
Isaac hung his head, pulling the bowl of tomato bisque close to his chest. “If only they could get along with other things.” He whispered softly, sipping some of the soup.
Another pillow smacked Crow in the face. “If I have to get up, you will all regret it!” Matéas bellowed from the sofa.
Before Crow could retort in his anger, the whole cavern shook, dust falling from the ceiling. The soup in the bowls spilled loose, and the pot rattled. The group fell silent.
Without making a sound, Arluin leaned down and picked up the pillow. As he straightened back up, his eyes continued upward to focus on the ceiling. He lifted his palm, signaling to the group to remain silent. “Getting worked up causes our powers to release energy. They'll find us if we aren't careful.”
“So what?” Crow asked, his voice squeeking in anger. “We're just supposed to–”
Arluin smacked him in the face with the pillow without releasing it. “Be helpful.” He whispered harshly.
Gaping, Crow gestured his arms wide above his head then asked, “How?”
As Arluin dropped the pillow down to his side, putting his hands on his hips, his eyes scanned over the room. Crow was mad, but he could tell the god was weighing their options before speaking. “Matéas, can you summon anything?”
Matéas lifted his hand to his chin, thinking it over. “It doesn't take much effort to release irukandji toxin into the water.”
“Perfect.” Arluin didn't smile, then turned to Crow. He continued to whisper, but his words were precise and cut the air. “You'll head out into the river. After the rapids, it calms into a soft ebb. Resurface then and use Invictus to channel Tengyi's flames upward to create a beacon. You'll have to be quick getting out, as the toxin will be coming right after you.”
“Wait, what,” Crow held up his hands. “It I make a beacon it'll just turn me into bait.”
“The toxin will camouflage any hint of the cave's entrance, but just a drop will kill you.” Arluin continued in a calm soft voice.
“What does that matter – I'll still be a beacon of death!”
Arluin stepped forward and grabbed Crow's damp bangs that were starting to curl into their natural shape as they dried. The force of his grip made Crow yelp. “Stop bitching. We need you to lure them away.”
“And what'll I do in the meantime – they'll catch and kill me!”
“As long as you're faster than them, you'll stay alive.” Arluin commented.
Crow threw his hand up so Arluin was smacked. With his hair released, he took a sudden step back, turning to look at Akiio for some kind of help.
Akiio looked down to the bowl of spilled soup in front of him. “It'll increase our chances of survival.”
“So. You'll all happily sacrifice me to a half dozen dragons that will kill me?”
“The journey will reveal just who you are.” Amau stated clearly without whispering.
Crow turned to look at the god in disbelief. This ass hats really want me to – fine. Fine. Fuck it, fine. At least I won't have to listen to them bitch and moan.
He pushed past Arluin, heading straight for the entrance. Crow stopped at the edge of the water, taking in a deep breath. I'll have to move really fast. He looked behind him when he heard a rustling; Arluin and Amau were helping Matéas over to where Crow was standing. In the darkness, with the light coming in from the bright warm living room, Matéas looked feeble and ill – as if he'd physically aged four times. His eyes met Crow's and, although it was brief, there was an expression of apology on his face.
Crow inhaled again, turning promptly to the water. Three, two. One. Crow jumped forward and into the water. He popped back up, took a breath, and pushed his bangs from his eyes. “After this, I'm going back to Will.”
“It might be a while.” Arluin stated, him and Amau leaning down with Matéas to the water's edge. “I'm sorry you didn't get anything to eat before leaving.”
“Save the crap, Arluin.” Crow glared over to the servant. “I just have to move fast, right? Doesn't matter if I torch shit?”
“Mind the amount of power you utilize. Tengyi… won't be too forgiving otherwise.” Matéas warned.
Matéas reached out and grabbed at Crow's hair. “I'll join you.” Before Arluin and Amau could argue, Matéas had fallen forward into the water and wrapped his arms around Crow's shoulders. Crow waved at them frantically as he took a breath and ducked down into the water. He leaned forward and swam for the opening to the rapids. I hope to … well … anybody, that I don't hit my head. What the hell is Matéas thinking?!
As soon as Crow was near enough, the current of the rapids sucked him straight out of the small calm corridor. He closed his eyes tight, and snapped his hand to cover his mouth, holding his nose tightly shut. Crow spun around forward, over his feet, and twisted around in the violent current. It was worse than getting to Arluin's. Finally, after another somersault, Crow was rocketed into calm waters. He spun around, opening his eyes. The feeling of Matéas still clinging to him was there. It was impressive how the god was able to hold on so strongly although he was injured.
Great. The sky is dark. I can't tell which way is up! Crow flailed his arms about for a few seconds. He felt the tips of his fingers hit icy cold air. That's out! He frantically swam toward the cold air, bursting through the surface to take in a gigantic breath of air.
“Thank you.” He whispered hoarsely. He licked his lips, then swam for the rocky edge. Matéas took a breath of the air then whispered something he couldn't hear. Gotta get out fast. Matéas is putting in a deadly toxin. Just as Crow got out, he looked down into the water. It looked the same in the darkness, but he could feel that somehow the current was being forced to mix with something it didn't normally have.
Sighing, Crow looked up. Immediately he fell to his knees. Matéas groaned, falling to his knees right beside Crow. High above the two, circling in the sky of the still burning forest, Crow could see the shape of a long skinny dragon. Of, fuck am I crazy. Crow wiggled his right hand's fingers nervously. Please, let this work. A small flame formed in his palm. Crow took in sharp breath, then tossed the flame high above him. The flame seemed to propel itself exactly how high Crow wanted, shooting above the canopy and the thick smoke. It burst in an explosion of flames scattering around, and without fail, the dragon screeched a roar out and started for the flame.
Shit shit shit – fuck – I should've thought what to do first! Crow scrambled up onto his feet and started running away from the rapids. As soon as Matéas heard the dragon, he shot up and ran right behind Crow. The trip was hard; the shoreline of the river was thick boulders and sharp rocks. The few times he slipped, he almost scratched himself so badly he bled. Just bruise, please. He begged himself, pulling himself back up. He turned to look over his shoulder, then with his right hand threw another small flame high above to explode in the same manner as the first. This explosion, although small, almost hit the dragon. It screeched in surprise, then opened its maw, and a wave of flames shot down at the river's edge.
Without time to even cuss about his predicament, Crow slid on his left onto a boulder. He coughed when his chest hit the rock, then yelped as he rolled sideways and landed in dirt and pebbly sand. He heard Matéas slide down next to him to see if he was all right.
Think fast. Or you won't get out of there alive. A voice echoed into Crow's head.
“Ten – Tengyi?” Crow asked nervously, pushing up onto his knees. He looked above him, seeing the dragon speeding toward him. He'd been spotted by that last blast. “Shit!” He shot up, slipped again, scrambled up, ignoring the pain in his palms from the pebbles and dirt making the blood rush. “If you've got any ideas – now is the time to share them!”
Repeat this incantation. Come to me the ardor of dreams.
“Cometometheardorofdreams!” Crow said as quickly as possible as he sprinted forward.
Immediately upon finishing the last word, an orb of flames burst around Crow's body. He helped, rolling down into a ball instinctively, covering his head. The orb of flames expanded to encompass Matéas, who fell to his knees. As the orb grew hotter, the flames spinning around them to create a motion, the two were lifted off the ground.
Matéas exposed his palm to the flames and shouted out, “Begone!” A billowing cloud of thick heavy smog erupted from his palm, trailing behind them for half a mile as the orb shot into the sky.
The flames grew bright enough that Matéas had to pull his hand back and cover his eyes. The two yelped as they were lifted higher … higher …
Something hard was pressed against Crow's cheek. It was firm, and cold, but not smooth. Crow groaned, realizing he was awake and alive, and in pain. He opened his eyes, then shut them immediately. “I'd better not be dead.” He grimaced, then opened his eyes again. The sound of wind whistled around him, but otherwise it was quiet.
Groaning once more, Crow pushed himself up to his knees. Then he squinted into the darkness of the sky, falling back onto his butt to take in the sight. I'm at … Tengyi's alter? “Matéas?” Crow asked, looking next to him. The god of poisons, didn't move, laying face-down a few feet from him. “Shit.” Moving to inspect him, caused Crow to wince – his entire body screaming of the pain of all the falls and trips he'd just taken rushing back. He tapped Mateas's shoulder, moving his hair to see the god's face.
“He'll be resting for a while.” Tengyi's voice echoed to Crow, but not in his head.
Startled, Crow looked up, his hand recoiling from the god on the ground. In front of him, having come up silently was Tengyi. Steam shot out of an opening in the joint of his jaw as the god nodded his head to him.
“Uh,” Crow blanked on what to say.
“I'll watch over him.” the god stated in a rumbling voice. “They cannot reach him here in this domain.”
“Ah.” Crow nodded as if that were the acceptable answer, but his mind swam with confusion. Why the hell did Matéas even come with me – what about Arluin – and Akiio – and that turd, Phyte? Oh and that other one Amau?
Tengyi chuckled, a shot of steam blowing right at Crow. “You've been gone a few days from him, but you should return now.”
“Few days?” Crow gawked, trying to stand up right away. “What do you mean a few days? It should've been barely one!”
“You were hidden for a long while, and unconscious for a day.” was the response.
Crow's heart sank. “I … I … What about Will? And … Time shouldn't flow like this in the Threshold – right – this is against the rules!”
For a moment, Tengyi didn't say anything. Then, seeming to think the response was required, the dragon spoke, hot sparks floating out of the joint of his neck as he lifted it up. “That one you were with creates a void of time to keep those he finds entertaining near him longer.”
Disheartened, Crow fell back down to his butt. His knees just didn't want to work. I was stuck for several days? Days? Just how long will this insanity cost me? I … I should've listened to Will and stopped dealing with the gods, but … His blue eyes looked over to Matéas still sleeping. “H – How can I get back even?” Crow asked softly. Can I even get back?
“That door will return you.” Tengyi answered, then flew up over the platform and started about on his round across the sky again. I will watch Matéas as he rests. He utilized a lot of energy to stave off the pursuit with that smog.
Crow rubbed his forehead, squinting down to his feet. “Heh. I'm a mess.” He shook his head, chuckling, then began to look himself over.
His dark slacks were covered in dirt, torn around his knees, where he could see small scrapes on his skin. His boots looked like he'd gotten each of his feet caught in a rocky tumble jar, all scuffed up and damaged. His shirt was covered in dirt and torn. But he wasn't wet anymore.
Shaking his head, Crow stood up. He sighed, looking out to the darkness of the sky, then turned to look around the platform. Down a short set of stairs was the door Tengyi had directed him to. Wobbling over to the door, Crow felt himself dragging his feet. Why am I so tired?
The flames of ardor suck large portions of your energy to be utilized, although it uses only 1% of my power.
What is it? Crow asked, still heading for the door. He stumbled down the steps, wincing as the impact of each step hurt his ankles.
An immediate recall to my platform.
“Cool.” Crow shrugged. He stopped at the door, gingerly tapped the knob, then twisted and it pulled it open. He stepped through into the dark of night. “Oh, fucking hell – really?”
The wind blew his curly hair wildly around, his face was smacked with large wet rain drops that immediately soaked him through his clothes. The lights on the street were lit, but he could barely tell through the thick rain and wind blowing around him. A rumble of thunder made his spine feel like it was stabbed with a needle in a million places, shooting pain all up and down his back.
A storm had rolled in, he had returned during the worse part of it.
Gotta remember the way to Will's estate – wait will he even be there – fuck it – I'll just try the palace first.