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War of the Animum

The Road to Ruin - Chapter Eight

The Prancing Pony was the cheapest Inn available in Gorelik and that showed in the chintzy décor, stale odor, and cramped quarters. But if Raven was going to conserve every coin possible, he couldn't afford to spring for more luxury. Besides, they'd all spent days sleeping outside on the ground. Having a bed, however potentially infested, was a damn luxury.

Anyone who complained could pay for themselves or go sleep in the alley.

After all, Raven had spent hours tromping up and down the packed streets of Gorelik, looking for work. But this city was too much the tourist town for anyone to need a hand with the kind of work Raven could offer. He couldn't do customer service and that was all that was needed around here.

In fact, half the reason he'd gotten rooms at The Prancing Pony was because the proprietor was in need of someone to haul dirty linens to the wash center and haul the clean ones back again. Raven had gotten half off the room for doing the dirty work.

Elsewhere, nothing. No work. No jobs.

And he was not going to resort to petty thievery.

The need to acquire a sword, however, was undeniable. Raven did not like feeling exposed and undefended. His back felt too light without the blade and the hunting knives Sleet's mother had given him were of little use. Unless he felt like gutting a deer, he supposed.

There was a knock on the door.

Raven looked at the door, eyes narrowed. Either it was the proprietor with another menial job or Malach and Tungsten had returned. He pushed himself up from the chair, sweeping the curtain back over the window as he passed.

The knock came again, more insistent, but before it could finish, Raven flung the door open, fixing the visitor with a glare.

A woman smiled back at him, glasses framing her face as she met him eye to eye. There was a practiced ease to her grin and the way she flicked her curls back over her shoulder.

“Not interested,” Raven said, and made to close the door. Though, 'too poor' would have probably been the more accurate response. He could stand for a little stress relief and his hands were becoming tedious.

A palm hit the door, keeping him from closing it. “I'm not selling,” the woman said, near a purr, though she winked at him. “Not anymore at any rate.”

Raven's eye narrowed.

“She's with us, Raven-san,” came a voice over her shoulder and a giggle accompanied it, though from a different owner.

He fought the urge to sigh. “I should have known,” Raven muttered, but he let go of the door and took several steps back, giving them leave to enter.

Tungsten was here with Asclepius and that meant the strange woman was either their missing animus or the anima. Raven suspected the former. And look, Malach was here, too, with Heimdal at his heels.

“Nice of you to join me,” Raven said as he took back his chair. It was the only one in the room but he'd already claimed it. He was the one who hauled the soiled linens after all and some of them were beyond foul.

Melath leaned against the door as though preventing anyone from entering or leaving, Heimdal taking up post beside him.

“It's a big city,” Tungsten replied, either failing to catch the annoyance in Raven's words or purposefully ignoring it. He flopped down onto one of the two beds, grimacing as he poked at the uncomfortable mattress. “We didn't even find Mira-san. She found us.”

“Only at Orthrus' insistence.” Her grin never faltered, her eyes glittering with amusement that seemed directed at Raven alone. “Mama always said I'd never make nothing of myself. Guess now I can prove her wrong.” She planted a hand on her hip and added another wink.

“Orthrus,” Raven repeated.

And then there was that sensation, one he'd grown to both recognize and loathe. He'd hated the feeling of magic since he first encountered Balaam all those months ago. He had yet to grow used to it. It was like static all over his skin, like the breath punched out of his lungs. It reminded him of Balaam, an overwhelming feeling of helplessness, and the unfortunate truth that he was only human. Only mortal.

Orthrus blurred into view with little fanfare, as though reluctant to do so. Asclepius liked to appear in a shower of rainbow-colored sparkles. Heimdal with a puff of earthen dust. Iblion, Raven remembered, had carried the scent of rain. Hephaestion popped into sight all at once and the universe seemed to stretch to accommodate him.

Orthrus was shorter than Raven would have expected. Shorter than Mira and Heimdal and Malach and Raven, probably more on par with Tungsten. Unlike the others, he had the look of age on his face and experience in his eyes. His skin was tanned, easily as dark as Mira's own, his black hair glossy, long, and liberally streaked with grey. His eyes were red, like Asclepius', though on him they were more sinister in appearance.

“I am Orthrus,” he said, tipping his head in a show of respect. “Am I to understand that you are considered the leader?”

Raven scoffed. “No. That would be Alaris but she's on the other side of the continent.” And wouldn't she be surprised to meet Mira? At least the streetwalker will be of more use than Sleet. “I'm just here to make sure these ones don't get killed.”

“We're not helpless you know,” Tungsten said with a frown.

Raven ignored him. After all, Tungsten had lost half their coin and all he'd done was take twenty steps into Gorelik.

“We'll meet Alaris in Lesoth,” Raven continued, rapping his fingers over the arm of the chair. “In fact, we all need to talk about just how we are going to do that.”

Mira inclined her head, accepting his answer, and made herself comfortable on the bed. Though she sat with more elegance than he would have expected. Malach and Heimdal remained by the door.

“Obviously, I cannot Earth-walk through the sea,” Heimdal said. “And none of we deities can teleport. That was a skill limited to first tier alone.”

Because it would be too easy if the deities were useful.

“We'll need coin for passage on a boat then,” Raven said, bracing his elbows on the arms of the chair and steepling his fingers. “I gather it won't be cheap?”

“To cross the Kilieth?” Mira snorted, pushing her glasses back up her nose. “That's a week-long voyage if you've fair weather and the boat doesn't sink.”

Tungsten nodded, pulling something from one of his pouches and scribbling on it. “Yes. On top of that, the transkilieth voyage docks on the western edge of Sanjara. Lesoth, if I'm not mistaken, is closer to the east.”

“And three is my limit for Earth-walking,” Heimdal said, leaning against the wall as he crossed his arms. Malach, for his part, was silent.

“Where is this Alaris?” Mira asked, raking a hand through her curls. She tapped one booted foot on the floor. “I assume not in Thessalia.”

“No. She's in Darthen,” Tungsten answered. “She'll sail from there to Lesoth.”

“And those are rougher seas,” Raven said, something he knew from rumor but not personal experience.

Many a tale of woe had he overheard from sailors in taverns, expressing their dismay over one shipwreck or another. They spoke of strong currents, vicious weather, and rocky protrusions that would rake the hull of the boat when they appeared from a blanket of fog.

Raven often wondered how much treasure rested at the bottom of the Arbeth Sea. Trader ships, pirate ships, and charter ships alike had fallen victim to the Arbeth. Wise-minded sailors took the longer journey, around the circulo de la muerte. Or, in Sanjaran, the Death Circle. It was a region of deep water, more oval than circular, with vicious storms and rumors of a deadly whirlpool. Many claimed that it existed. No one claimed to have seen it.

“Then there is every possibility we will arrive either at the same time or close enough to it,” Tungsten commented. “Even if Heimdal has to Earth-walk us in stages.”

Raven arched a brow. “Malach can't do it?”

He shook his head, straightening against the door. “I cannot.”

“Yet, anyway,” Heimdal said and unfolded his arms to rest a hand on Malach's shoulder. “Given enough time to strengthen the bond and he may prove capable.”

“How much time?” Tungsten asked, leaning forward. His eyes lit up with curiosity, quill poised to scribble down some notation.

Heimdal rolled his shoulders. “It depends on how hard he works. He must learn to control other abilities first.”

“Um. If I might say something?” Mira said, raising one hand and drawing attention her way. “Isn't all of this pretty irrelevant since you're broke?”

Asclepius flopped down on the bed, pillowing her hands behind her head. “Well, we have to head for the coast anyway. We can look for work on the way. Or, you know, opportunities.”

Raven was certain he would not like whatever opportunity Asclepius had concocted. Neither, apparently, did Orthrus as he shot the bubbly deity a look that translated as directly parental.

Huh. This was a new one.

“I'm just saying,” Asclepius said, tossing the dark-haired deity a bright grin that did little to soften the chastising glare.

“We will be doing nothing that in any way condones Sleet's lifestyle,” Raven declared, unable to entirely swallow down his disgust.

“I have another option,” Malach said, finally offering something to the conversation, though given the way he was rubbing his forehead, the many personalities in the room was wearing on him. “There is a tournament here in Gorelik. Tomorrow. We could participate.”

Tungsten straightened. “What kind of tournament?”

Even Raven was intrigued. He remembered seeing a few signs posted here and there that had clusters of people around them, but hadn't stopped to investigate. Especially since it didn't matter as he was broke and disinclined to socialize.

“Martial arts and weaponry,” Heimdal offered. “There's a fee, of course, but I think that between us, we are skilled enough to make the fee worth it.”

Raven stroked his chin, considering. He was, by no means, a master swordsman. But he'd learned a few tricks over the last few years and more than a few nontraditional moves. Malach, he suspected, had been warrior-born and trained for his entire life. No doubt he could prove victorious.

“And the prize?”

“Enough to cover passage to Lesoth and more,” Heimdal said with a smile. “Taking third would make us break even with a little extra to spare.”

They would need to acquire weapons. Raven doubted the tournament provided them. And though they shouldn't draw attention to themselves, the need for coin was immediate. Besides, Alaris was unlucky enough to have Sleet with her. He was all the distraction Balaam needed.

“It's worth the risk,” Raven decided aloud and he sought Malach's gaze. “We'll need weapons. Are you up for another jaunt into Gorelik?”

Malach inclined his head. “I am.”

“Good.” Raven clapped his hands together and rose to his feet. “The room on the right is ours as well, I'll let you figure out the sleeping arrangements.” He snagged his travel cloak off the back of the chair, slinging it over his shoulders. “Malach, you're with me.”

With any luck, this tournament would be all the answer they needed.

0o0o0


As the first drops of rain fell, Malach felt his frown deepen. Bad enough that it was hot and humid, more so than yesterday, but the increasing downpour was not helping matters. Rather than cool the air, it made it stickier. His clothes clung to his back and shoulders and thighs, inhibiting his movement.

The rain and the heat made everyone complain, under their breaths and in their heads. The general discontent was a buzz to his senses, a nagging itch at the back of his skull. There was excitement, too, eagerness to see the tournament bouts. The rising wave of exhilaration was just as painful as the discontent. Jarring, too.

Malach rubbed his forehead, the ache in his temple just shy of unbearable. His sword was a welcome weight, though the hilt was rough and unfamiliar. He missed his own blade, his ancestral sword, that he'd had to leave behind. It was no longer his.

Steady, pup. You must concentrate.

He felt oddly naked without Heimdal beside him. “I am concentrating,” Malach replied, though there were cracks in his figurative walls. He continued to catch snatches of conversation and part of him couldn't tell if they were aloud or internal. “They have not called my name.”

Raven, however, had already been summoned. Malach had stood with the rest of the crowd, watching as the mercenary dispatched his first opponent with ease. He would dare say that Raven hadn't broken a sweat either, disarming and then defeating the man with economical motions. If all of their competition proved to be so unskilled, then the prize coin was already in their pockets.

If only Asherah could make their path so easy.

The others were somewhere else in the crowd. Tungsten had taken up residence in the stands, under one of the balconies and out of direct sunlight. The poor mage was sweating worse than anyone else, his ink running down his face and his pale skin a bright shade of pink. Mira hadn't said where she would be, but Malach knew she flitted about the crowd, perhaps charming coin or precious jewelry off unsuspecting men.

She was welcome to it. The less Malach knew about it, the better.

“Malach Nahlson.”

He looked up at the sound of his name. A thickly-bearded man was scanning the crowd, tapping a rolled up parchment against his thigh.

Malach lifted a hand. “Here.”

The bearded man nodded. “You're up next. They tell you the rules?”

Malach breathed steadily, patting the sword at his hand. “Yes. Fight to disable, death is an automatic disqualification, and I am to cease when my opponent yields.”

The excitement of the crowd pulsed at the back of his head, pounding in his ears. He winced. Thankfully, the bearded man didn't notice.

“At least someone paid attention then,” the bearded man muttered and pulled out his parchment, checking something off before passing Malach. “Ergyle Crahn?”

A voice sounded from the back of the milling contestants, either Malach's opponent or part of the next batch. Business as usual. Malach palmed his sword again and stepped to the end of the tunnel, peering into the bright afternoon at the arena and the combatants present. He could feel the heat wafting inward. The dry, almost sandy ground would slow him down. The roar of the crowd would make concentrating difficult.

The tournament was, at least, not unlike the trials for status and honor that the Kurai routinely conducted. Malach was used to fighting for a crowd. Performing would not put him ill at ease. He only worried about the effect of all the background noise in his head.

You will do fine, Heimdal said.

The gong sounded, ending the match, one opponent standing victorious over another.

Malach's stomach churned. Heimdal's reassurance did little to calm the disquiet. Malach strengthened his shields and prepared to step into the heat.

His first bout was at hand.

0o0o0


Asclepius bounced excitedly next to him, unfazed by the heat and the crowds and the rising scent of hot, unwashed bodies. Tungsten, for his part, buried his face in his sleeve and lamented his decision to wear his robes. Though, in the long run, he would be grateful for their protection. He could already feel the burn on his cheeks and face.

“Get him!” Asclepius shouted, joining the roar of the crowd, fist pumping in the air.

“One would think you would be opposed to violence,” Tungsten said, huddling deeper in the hood of his robe. He was scholastically interested in the bouts, but little else. Physical exertions such as this had never been his forte and so held little interest to him.

Asclepius nudged him with a shoulder. “Real violence, sure. But this is more like a sport. A challenge. There's no risk of death.”

“Not intentionally anyway,” Tungsten said and fought back a wince as one of the men absorbed a blow to the shoulder and ducked in under another swing.

So far, in the dozen matches, Tungsten hadn't seen anyone die. But that didn't mean the arena floor wasn't spattered with blood and bits of cloth. One unlucky contestant was probably going to lose his limb but if infection didn't get him, he would live. Another would be permanently scarred. The slightest misstep could mean death.

Tungsten shivered. No. This was not his idea of a good time.

The crowd's roar grew louder in approval. Tungsten peered out of his cocoon of sweaty robes and saw that the dark-skinned man stood triumphant over his opponent, one booted foot pinning the blond down by his neck as he lay face down in the dirt.

Tungsten didn't know how many more bouts remained, but he hoped it was few. It was hot out here, he was thirsty, and the man behind him kneed his spine everytime he leapt to his feet to celebrate one good strike or another.

Two more combatants walked to the center of the arena as the previous left, one limping, the other striding with confidence.

“Look!” Asclepius all but squealed, squeezing his arm tightly. “Malach's up again!”

This time, Tungsten made himself pay attention. He'd already seen Raven-san duel twice and come out victorious. This would be Malach-san's second round. He wondered, in the end, if it would come down to Malach-san and Raven-san battling each other.

Malach-san's opponent was actually a woman, though given her attire and cropped hair, Tungsten had performed a double-take. Though there was no mistaking her ample bosom, barely restrained by the ties of her leather jerkin. It seemed impractical to Tungsten, but perhaps she intended glimpses of them to serve as a distraction to her opponents. That she wielded dual-blades, shorter than Malach's but more maneuverable, was impressive.

They bowed to each other, a yard apart, and waited for the signal to begin. The crowd quieted to a dull roar, the atmosphere heavy with expectation. Malach-san was focused, stare even and face clear of expression. His opponent grinned, bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet.

“This is going to be good!” Asclepius giggled, jumping to her feet, her magic coiling about her in a nearly visible sparkle of excitement.

Tungsten laughed and shook his head, settling in too watch. A wind stirred, making the clothing of the two fighters rustle. Seconds passed, but the moment the bell was rung, Malach-san rushed at his opponent, breaking his stillness.

She whirled to avoid him, light on her feet, her laugh bright and clear. Malach-san was slower, but he still managed to defend against her quick movements. Tungsten watched them, wiping sweat from his brow and eyes, muscles tense. Their feet kicked up dust and the lady got in a lucky strike, a small line of blood appearing on Malach-san's cheek.

He faltered.

Tungsten sat forward, on the edge of his seat. Was something wrong?

Another exchange of blows, faster this time. A jagged piece of cloth fluttered to the dirt, cut from the woman's long-tailed coat. She ignored it, pressing harder against Malach. He stumbled on nothing, fought to catch his balance.

Beside Tungsten, Asclepius went still. “Something's wrong,” she murmured, confirming Tungsten's suspicion. Her magic took on a discordant buzz, jarring against his skin.

“What is it?” Tungsten asked, rising to his feet. Someone shouted behind him and he quickly sat back down, but he sat forward, concerned.

“I don't know.” Asclepius' lips thinned.

Malach faltered again. The hilt of his opponent's sword struck him square in the abdomen. The low thump was audible even over the crowd. He reeled, sword drooping, and beside him, Asclepius went taut.

“It's not Malach,” she said with sudden understanding, gaze jerking upright and staring away from Gorelik. Not just away, but off and to the north-west.

North-west where they'd sent Alaris and the others after the last animus.

“Oh, no,” Asclepius breathed, eyes rounding, her magic lashing out in a storm of worry and despair. “Erebus.”

It was the last thing she said before she blinked out of existence. Tungsten stared where she had been, and the crowd around him grew quiet. Though the match below captured most attention, the spectators behind Tungsten could not have missed Asclepius' jaunty presence vanishing.

Oh, dear.

He hurried to his feet, keeping his head low as he sought to flee from the stands. He glanced at the arena below, dismayed to find that Malach-san was on his knees, a blade to his throat. Sweat coated his brow, his sword many feet away. Whatever had caused Asclepius to vanish must have been a distraction to him.

It was up to Raven-san now. But first, Tungsten needed to find Mira-san and Orthrus. Surely they would have an answer.

Asclepius?

Nothing. The spot inside his head he associated with her presence wasn't empty, as it always felt when she had to be elsewhere for a Conclave or something. But she wasn't responding. Her presence was muted, thick with frazzled energy, but she wasn't paying him any attention.

Tungsten nearly tripped on the folds of his robe as he hurried down the steps, forcing himself to gather them up. No one followed him out of the crowd, demanding to know about his companion, so that was a relief. His concern for Asclepius, and now Alaris-san and the others, continued to grow.

He stepped off the steps and turned to go under the tunnel that connected the arena to street-level. He paused in the shadows, relieved at the lack of sunlight.

The crowd roared it's approval for Malach-san's defeat and his opponent's victory. The next combatants entered the arena and Tungsten glanced over his shoulder, finding that only Raven-san was stepping back into place. Ah. They were down to the final seed then. Raven-san would face Malach-san's opponent.

What a relief. At least they would receive the coin for third place. Malach-san should not be so disappointed. This would be worth it after all.

Someone grabbed his arm. Tungsten startled with a shout, whirling. Mira-san held up her hands, staring back at him.

“Easy,” she said with a curve of her lips. “Didn't mean to scare you.”

“I wasn't scared,” he muttered, though his heart was pounding in his chest.

“If you say so.” She tucked her hands into the folds of her skirt, eyes glittering with amusement. “Orthrus is gone. Just took off. He muttered something about Balaam and vanished. I take it your sparkly companion did, too?”

Tungsten nodded. “Only with fewer details.” He frowned.

Balaam must have attacked. But Asclepius was worried more about Erebus who had been bonded to Sleet. Tungsten sincerely doubted Balaam or Frost would kill Sleet, but that left the unthinkable: either Sleet had been taken or he'd voluntarily gone with Frost. But what did that mean for the other animus? Were Alaris-san and Ashur and Beryl-san okay?

“We should find Malach, see if Heimdal left as well,” Mira-san said, the roar of the crowd nearly drowning out her words.

“The combatants gathered at the other side of the arena,” Tungsten said, preparing himself for stepping back into the harsh sunlight. “We should find him there. No doubt being tended to the medics.”

“That was a hard hit he took,” Mira-san agreed and she took the lead, easing back into the arena and leaving Tungsten to follow.

They kept to the bottom, heads down, occasionally watching the battle between Raven-san and the duel-wielding woman. It was fierce, neither giving away, the sharp rapport of metal against metal an increasing cadence. If Raven-san won or lost, it would not matter. They would get what they needed regardless.

The raw chaos at the combatant holding area was a striking difference compared to the orderly atmosphere it had been at the beginning, Tungsten noticed. His eyes rounded as people rushed back and forth, shouting commands. The scent of blood was heavy, thick in the air and staining the ground. Men and women alike groaned in pain. The most ambulatory of the combatants had either already taken their leave or leaned against the walls, clutching their minor injuries.

Malach-san was one such patient, holding a piece of cloth to his forehead while Heimdal crouched next to him, attending to the slice on his left leg. Both were more irksome than debilitating, though the look on Malach-san's face suggested frustration and anger.

“Are you all right?” Tungsten asked, twitching. He knew very little about medicine.

“I'll live,” Malach-san replied, his face very pale and tight around his lips and eyes.

“Third place isn't bad,” Mira-san said, her eyes knowing as she crossed her arms over her chest. “It's enough to recoup the cost and get us horses for the ride to Arkady.”

“We are more concerned by the events in Darthen,” Heimdal said, his expression grim. “I do not know what happened save that I felt the sharp dip in magical energy.”

Mira-san frowned. “Meaning?”

“Balaam killed another deity,” Tungsten supplied, his insides twisting. He thought of Alaris-san and the unknown animus, logically the only two who could have suffered a loss. Unless Balaam had aimed for Iblion.

“There is more. Worse.” Heimdal finished tying off the bandages around Malach-san's legs and pushed himself to his feet, dusting off his knees. “Erebus has vanished from all ability to sense him.”

Tungsten's mouth dropped. “He's dead?”

The roar of the crowd, the stamping of excited feet, nearly drowned out Heimdal's answer. The last bout must have been decided.

“No. He's gone.”

“There's a difference?” Mira-san asked.

The Earth deity nodded, encouraging Malach to remove the cloth from his face so he could inspect the wound. “Somehow, Balaam has found a way to shield our divine presence from even Hephaestion.”

“Then Frost took Sleet-san,” Tungsten realized, hating that he'd been right. They'd lost not only another animus, but Sleet-san and Erebus as well.

The low sound of the gong echoed in the air, signaling the end of the tournament. The cheering grew in volume, rattling in Tungsten's ears. He winced, feeling immediately sympathetic for Malach-san. Surely, the mind-walker had it worse.

Heimdal made a noncommittal noise. “Perhaps.” He shifted his attention to his anima. “Malach, this won't need stitching.”

“Thank Asherah for that.”

“Raven did not win,” Mira-san said as she walked up to them and Tungsten couldn't remember when she had wandered away. He hadn't seen her go.

Tungsten winced. “They'll be no living with him.” Though second place would still net them a hefty profit.

Mira-san smirked. “He'll have to learn to deal with disappointment.”

Tungsten wished it were that simple. But the fact remained, they faced a losing battle with little hope in sight. They had little information and were running out of time. He was worried, Asclepius remained a distant presence, and no answers were to be found.

Worse of all, Tungsten could not shake the feeling that Balaam was winning.

***

(to be continued in "Quisling")

Cassandra Smith writing as Nicole Wilkinson
Copyright 2006-2016
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