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Chapter Fifty-Eight: A Lari’xan’s Test

Posted in Book Three, and Of Astral and Umbral

Chapter Fifty-Eight: A Lari’xan’s Test

 

‘She’s still frustrated with me…’ I watched Arianna’s pale back as she worked cleaners through her long hair. She’d barely said a word to me since arriving in the springs, leaving me feeling a little lost. I turned away and submerged myself. Her change in demeanor was my doing, my fault. I had foolishly assumed that she wasn’t ready to make such an important choice yet. ‘No wonder she’s taken to calling that part of me “puppy”…’

A hand plunged into the water above me and gripped my hair, reeling me to the surface. I braced myself and moved to strike my attacker but stopped myself. Arianna backed me toward the edge of the spring until my only choice was to sit.

“You’re sulking.” Arianna ran her fingers through my hair before perching on my lap.

“I’m not sulking,” I murmured, turning my face into her hand. Her scent, her warmth and, above all, her affection. If I wasn’t careful, my other self could cost me everything. Arianna leaned into me and rested her head on my shoulder. Her fingers trailed down my torso in an agonizingly slow manner. “Arianna… Aren’t you still upset with me? You were in a good mood, but I—”

“I obviously need to get better at showing you my affection if I’ve left room for you to doubt what my decision would be,” Arianna spoke quietly, her tone indecipherable. Her words stunned me into silence. That wasn’t the problem. Not at all. The blame was fully on my shoulders.

“You’ve done nothing wrong, Arianna.” I rested one arm behind her back and gave her a firm look. “Though I certainly won’t complain if you decide you want to spoil me with more affection. I’m quite enjoying the attention.”

“But—”

“We need to work first,” I interjected, giving her a brief squeeze. “You’re worried about what’s going on in both forests, aren’t you? If we’re going to work together, and I mean truly work together, then there is much I need you to tell me.”

“Tell you?” Arianna murmured. I nodded in silence and watched her chew on her lower lip, her gaze slightly averted while she thought. She didn’t appear inclined to remove herself from my lap any time soon, and I didn’t want to give her the wrong idea, so I waited. “I’m not sure where to start.”

“You remember the corruption in the Ceilail Forest better than the other part of Sihix, right?” I offered, watching her gaze flick to meet mine. She still looked uncertain about something.

“Can I just show you?” Arianna leaned closer, her face mere inches away from mine. She tapped one of my temples with her fingers and smiled. Her arms wrapped around my neck as she pressed herself tighter against me. “I want to get you back to the house and to myself as soon as possible…”

Arianna pressed her lips softly to mine. Her timid kiss was a stark mismatch to the desire I sensed from her. The realization almost startled me into breaking away from her—desire, not hunger. ‘How could I be so foolish?’

I bought my free hand up to cradle Arianna’s head and returned her kiss. The lingering tension in her body seemed to disappear all at once. Her relief was soon swept away by desire again. She attempted to straddle me, and I would have let her, were it not for the sound of nearby footsteps. I tightened my grip on her to keep her still and then pulled back from her lips, bringing my mouth to her ear. “Settle down. We aren’t alone.”

“Maybe I don’t care…” Arianna murmured, trailing kisses down the underside of my jaw. I let out small sigh and ran one of my hands down her side. She was far too tempting. I picked her up and lifted her fully out of the springs, startling her into grasping my shoulders and flicking her tail up and over her lap. “Hey, where—”

“We should get dressed,” I informed her, shooting her a soft smile when she pouted.

I set Arianna down by our waiting change of clothes and reached out to grab my first layer of attire, but her hand coming to rest on my abdomen stopped me.

“Later, then?” Arianna looked up at me while tracing her claws along the contours of my torso. Her light, teasing touch made my skin prickle into goosebumps and sent a shiver through me. My sanity wouldn’t hold out for long if she truly intended to show more affection toward me.

“How could I refuse?” I mused, reaching up to brush her damp hair out of her face. “I intend to indulge you later, when it’s appropriate, and when we won’t be interrupted by—”

I fell silent and glanced over my shoulder when the approaching voices grew louder. Arianna peered around me briefly before looking up once more, a small frown tugging on her lips.

‘Children? I guess I can’t be cross about you stopping me,’ Arianna remarked in a thoughtful tone, crossing her arms beneath her bust. ‘This time.

‘Can you help me with my kimono after you’re done with yours?’

‘Of course,’ I answered, tracking her as she moved a few steps away to fetch her undergarments. My mouth curved into a smirk when I spotted the translucent black lace bra and panties she had selected. A little lace bow with a bell attached to it adorned the center of her bra. ‘Are you attempting to seduce me, Arianna?’

‘I don’t think I have to “attempt”,’ Arianna retorted, shifting to flash her round ass at me before pulling her panties up. She shot me a playful smile over her shoulder when she straightened. ‘You’re not going to get to help me with my kimono if you spend all of your time watching me.’

Shaking my head, I hurried to dress myself and then lifted the next layer of Arianna’s kimono for her. We had agreed that we wouldn’t need tougher clothing on our way to the temple since it was so close to one of Sihix’s villages. Unlike the forest’s border, the pathways in this part of the forest were clear of underbrush. Some portions even had stone walkways.

“A-ah! The God and Goddess of Balance are here!” A young voice yelped from behind me as Arianna slipped her arms into the kimono. “I-I’m sorry, my lord, my lady, are we—”

The God and Goddess of Balance. My pulse sped up with a mix of both joy and apprehension. That was how we were meant to be addressed. It felt so incredibly right, but it made me worry that the Lari’xan had made a decision without Arianna’s consent. Even if she had made a decision, I hadn’t yet proposed to her and she hadn’t done anything to indicate her choice to me.

I couldn’t help but glance down at my ayraziis again. Her heart, too, had begun to beat faster and a faint flush had risen in her cheeks. I leaned down to give Arianna a kiss on top of her head briefly before pivoting to look over my shoulder at the trio that had interrupted us.

“We just finished,” I answered, pivoting to look over my shoulder. Two children and a young woman, all of Elven descent, flinched and averted their gaze when I looked at them. Whoever they were, the other part of myself didn’t appear to have any memory of them. ‘He was able to “adopt” people even while we were captured…?’

“Shall we get back to work?” Arianna’s question drew my attention. I reached up to pluck a hair stick out of her hair and then stopped with a smile. “Mmm? What?”

“You seem to like my gift,” I answered, gently tugging at the ornament.

“‘Work’, my lady?” The eldest of the three Elves frowned at Arianna. “Are you and your husband not intending to rest? Lord Sihix said you have both been through much.”

“I can’t rest when there’s work to be done.” Arianna shook her head and strode past the three Elves, seeming oblivious to the way they shied away from her. “We want to heal Sihix and Yiltanys’ domains as soon as possible.

‘She didn’t correct them…’ I stared at Arianna’s back for several moments before moving to catch up with her. How was I supposed to take that? Did she truly think of me in that way? Was it simply because explaining our position to mortals was too complex? “Arianna.”

“Wha—” Arianna turned to look at me but cut herself off and simply blinked at me for a moment. “What? What? What did I do? Why do you have such a big smile on your face?”

“You didn’t correct her,” I replied. My smile turned into a smirk when Arianna turned red to the tips of her ears. So, it sounded natural to her then.

“W-we should get to work!” Arianna whirled around to start walking again, but not before I caught sight of her face growing redder.

“Oh? You’re not going to pop the question here and now?” I teased, pitching my voice lower just to watch her squirm.

“I know that’s not how it works!” Arianna exclaimed, her tail smacking into the base of a tree in her haste to turn on me. “After all, if it did work that way, you would already have—”

I couldn’t help but laugh when Arianna cut herself and turned her back to me again. Her tail switched back and forth at a rapid pace, and I could tell she had crossed her arms. When I placed my hand on her shoulder, she jumped and glanced up at me with a reddened face.

“There’s my bold-yet-bashful vixen,” I mused, tucking a stray curl behind her ear. “I can’t claim you aren’t wrong—it doesn’t work that way in Vorpmasian culture. There are many factors to consider if I decide I want to—”

“‘If’ my ass.” Arianna rolled her eyes at me and then began walking again. Her steps weren’t rushed, but she shot me a look over her shoulder when I hesitated to follow her. Just how much did she know? “You’ve made it quite clear you don’t want anyone else to have me, Nalithor, and I’ve done the same. In some cultures, that would be enough.

“I may be ignorant of Vorpmasian ways but I doubt you, of all people, would make such declarations without some kind of intent behind them. At least, not continuous ones. Besides, I’m confident no one else can compete with me.”

“Yet you still get jealous,” I mused, moving to follow her. ‘However, I can’t fault her logic.’

“There’s a difference between ‘possessive’ and ‘jealous’.” Arianna snorted, shaking her head. “Enough. We’re getting sidetracked when we still have work to do—work you insisted on interrupting our bath and my affections for.”

“I suppose you’re right.” I shot her another smirk when I fell into step with her. “You have encountered corruption such as this twice in the past, correct?”

“Yes—Sihix’s other…eighth? And in Ceilail,” Arianna murmured, tilting her in thought for a moment before nodding briefly. “I was completely ‘gone’ when I dealt with the corruption in Sihix. Compared to my child self, I’m ‘controlled’ now.”

“Controlled by me,” I commented casually, drawing my fingers down her spine. She shivered and shot me what she most likely meant to be a chastising look, but the effect was lost on me. “You forgot to put your collar on.”

“Ah…” Arianna paused to open her shrizar and pulled out her collar, and I promptly snatched it from her. Before she could question me, I shifted to fasten it around her throat myself.

“How far gone were you when you cleansed Ceilail?” I asked, allowing my fingertips to trace the edge of the collar and then along her shoulder. When I nudged her kimono off one shoulder she sighed and shot me an aggravated look. It did nothing to disguise her desire.

“Well, I was still ‘there’ when you and I were conversing in that disgusting room,” Arianna replied as she tugged her kimono back into place. She looked like she was going to say something else but stopped, a frown settling on her lips while she contemplated something. “I don’t like this. The forests have villages within them, and temples to the Lari’xan they’re associated with. Sihix, Ceilail, Xiinsha—I’m assuming the others are much the same.

“Angelic runes are usually involved with the corruption in some way—golden light giving way to a thick, disgusting substance. What I saw in Sihix and Ceilail previously was black and moved like molasses.”

“Yet here the corruption is brown,” I spoke, nodding my understanding. “I don’t recall hearing word about missing High Priests or Priestesses here. Nor were missing citizens reported from any of the villages.”

“Missing…right.” Arianna’s frown deepened. “Perhaps black aether is a later stage of corruption, or there is something specific that makes it change to that color? As far as I’m aware, Corentine is the only High Priestess of Sihix—and she’s hundreds of feet above the surface.”

“We should hurry to the temple.” I nodded to Arianna and grasped her hand. “My concern is whether or not that temple is the one we’re actually looking for. Ceilail had several ‘fake’ temples within it—Djialkan’s investigation and your ability to see the corruption are the primary reasons you were able to find the correct one.”

“Well, you and I can both see the corruption now,” Arianna pointed out, linking her fingers with mine. “That said, there’s so much of it around here that I’m not sure if we’d be able to find the ‘correct’ temple. Since the corruption isn’t black yet, and the Angelic runes haven’t warped, I’m thinking there’s a missing piece.”

I nodded my agreement and then shifted my vision to examine our surroundings for myself. There wasn’t even the slightest sign of black aether among the corruption, and the runes were as crisp as if they’d just been written. Whatever the corruption was clinging to, it didn’t appear to be Sihix’s power. It had adhered to something else.

“This would be easier if he wasn’t suppressing my instincts.” Arianna sighed, shaking her head. “Though, I’d probably run straight for Yiltanys if he wasn’t.”

“Do you think that, perhaps, this corruption is new?” I offered, earning a startled look from Arianna. After a moment, she sunk into thought and I continued, “The color and the crispness of the runes would indicate that this hasn’t been going on for long. We thought that the corruption had been here for a long time because of the state Yiltanys is in, but what if that isn’t the case?

“We should consider the possibility that the corruption was started there and that whoever is behind it moved here next.”

“That could be fun…” Arianna murmured, bringing a finger to her lips as she smiled.

“You didn’t answer my question.” I chuckled.

“The forests are massive,” Arianna began, a frown returning to her face, “I don’t like the idea that all of Yiltanys could be consumed by corruption to that extent in a short period of time. That said, how do we define ‘new’? We have no real idea how long Sihix or Ceilail were corrupted for before I got to them—and Xiinsha showed no sign of ever being corrupted in the first place.

“If it’s new in a relative sense, it could have been going on for decades.”

“That wouldn’t explain the drastically lower amount of corruption here,” I countered, motioning around us with my free hand. “It’s possible that efforts were primarily focused on Yiltanys first. If the people responsible don’t have a proper grasp of the elements, they could have left after finishing their work there.”

“Because they may have believed Sihix would corrupt itself in time?” Arianna offered.

“I am not an ‘it’!” Sihix bellowed, appearing in front of us.

“Well, we were talking about your forest and not you,” Arianna replied.

“Just the person to tell us how long this has been going on, though.” I examined the Lari’xan, unable to read his expression. He seemed more interested in looking at Arianna than me.

“Maybe if the little one asks me very nicely I will cooperate. Sihix leaned over and prodded the tip of Arianna’s nose.

“Eat shit,” Arianna stated, dragging me by my hand past the laughing Lari’xan.

“Now, now, princesses shouldn’t speak in such a way!” Sihix floated into view, reclining on a cloud of darkness. He placed a hand over his heart in mock hurt. “Do you really hate me so much, Arianna?”

“Your carefree attitude pisses me off.” Arianna snorted at the Lari’xan. “Hate you? No. I just wish you would treat us a little better and be more cooperative, seeing as we actually want to help with this mess your domain is in.”

‘Did you just actually try to be diplomatic?’ I arched an eyebrow at Arianna.

‘Lari’xan are eternal, right?’ Arianna glanced at me. ‘“Eventually” getting around to it by his terms could be centuries. I doubt that is anywhere near soon enough for the mortals living here or even in Falrrsald.’

‘So you want to convince him to depart with more information if he has it.’ I looked at Arianna and then over to the smirking Lari’xan. He seemed enamored with her, yet I couldn’t determine if it was genuine. Whatever he felt toward her, it didn’t register to my senses as an Adinvyr at all. “What are you after, Sihix?”

“Results.” Sihix grinned broadly but kept his eyes on Arianna. ‘She’s already struggling with it. See?’

I bit back my distaste for the Lari’xan and shifted my attention to my ayraziis instead. Her pupils had dilated further than necessary for these lighting conditions and her gaze seemed unfocused. Although her hand was still in mine, her grip had gone slack. I felt her pulse slowing down, but her thoughts appeared to be a whirlwind. The barriers around her mind felt like they were shaking with force from within.

‘You intend to lift your suppression?’ I growled at the Lari’xan.

‘Balance—and the fanatical desire to fix it—is important to the longevity of this universe,’ Sihix started in a lecturing tone. ‘Arianna is the fire, the action, the blade. A living weapon, if you will. Her partner—be it you or someone else—has to be able to control that part of her. That also means knowing when to let her unleash.

‘Whether it’s her or her partner, it isn’t beneficial for us to have Balance fully subservient to us. We wanted to protect ourselves against both betrayal and any corruption that could happen. Balance has the power to break free of our restrictions if the situation is dire enough.’

‘Is it truly that bad, or is she pushing herself?’ I shot Sihix an agitated look before returning my attention to Arianna. Her lips parted and she glanced up at me in a questioning manner when I tugged at her earlobe, but there was something still “off” about her gaze. “What’s wrong, Arianna?”

“I smell something strange,” Arianna answered.

‘She is pushing herself,’ Sihix stated. I was surprised that he answered at all and didn’t expecting him to elaborate. He clearly intended to observe whatever was going on. “What do you smell, Ari-mrii?”

“If I knew that it wouldn’t be a problem.” Arianna shot Sihix a sideways look before tightening her grip on my hand once more and pulling me faster toward the temple. “It didn’t smell ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, per se. We can ignore it for now and focus on work.”

Sihix made an irritated sound and dismounted his cloud so that he was walking with us instead. His dismissal of my presence agitated me, but it also concerned me. Just what was he expecting Arianna to do?

“You’re really going down to that filthy place?” Sihix inquired as we neared the temple, casting a glance at my ayraziis. “Both of you will ruin your attire.”

“No we won’t.” Arianna shrugged and continued to stride purposefully toward the ruins, her eyes focused on the ruins. ‘He’s testing us, Nalithor.’

‘What, exactly?’ I shot a wary look at the Lari’xan before focusing my attention fully on Arianna. She appeared to be back to her normal self, but any hint of lingering desire was gone. Her mind seemed to have fully shifted to work. ‘I probably shouldn’t be disappointed about that.’

‘There’s two things we’re lacking compared to the two times I’ve dealt with this kind of corruption,’ Arianna began in a serious tone. She pulled her hand from mine and poked around the ruined temple, leaving me to watch her in silence. ‘First, we’re missing Djialkan’s guidance. While I knew something was wrong with Ceilail, it wasn’t until Djialkan fetched me and started leading me in the direction of the source that I finally locked on to it.

‘Second, if Sihix continues to interfere, I won’t be able to instinctively fix the problem. We’ll have to work it out—rationalize a way to deal with it. He may like to have his fun, but a Balance duo that can’t do their job without a crutch is useless.’

‘So, you believe he wants to test whether or not we’re capable of using our heads.’ I suppressed a snort and crossed my arms, tracking my ayraziis as she moved around the ruins. Even in her Adinvyr form her movements were more like that of an inquisitive fox. I couldn’t help but smile in amusement while watching her. ‘And what if this simply leads to me losing myself to Balance in your stead?

‘Mmm…’ Arianna paused with her hand against a crumbling pillar and looked back at me, her gaze unreadable. ‘That could be his aim too, I suppose. If you think about it, there’s a lot of reasons—and ways—for him to test us. On our own we both have done things here and there within the role of Balance.’

‘But we have yet to truly work together.’ I nodded to her and strode over to help search the ruins. ‘I don’t recall seeing an underground entrance in this temple before. You’re sure this is the correct one?’

‘Look at the corruption.’ Arianna swatted at my backside with her tail as she strode past.

I shot her an amused look before shifting my vision. What I saw consumed any shred of amusement or desire I felt. The corruption was up to our knees and spun like a lazy whirlpool around us. Instead of being drawn downward into the ground, it seemed to be coming out of it.

Pursing my lips, I shifted in place to examine the aether lingering within the ruins. I saw many buried pieces of rubble, and an indication of stairs leading down. However, the ground was fully soaked with the vile substance. Chains of aether hung on the walls and from the pillars of the temple, crisscrossed in a haphazard manner and adorned with a smattering of Angelic runes.

‘Ah ah ah,’ Arianna murmured, stepping in front of me and placing her hands on my abdomen. A growl escaped me when I looked down at her but she just smiled. ‘Do you really want to tear your way into the chamber below and submerge in all that muck?’

‘Submerge…’ I grimaced and looked at the corruption below us. My heart skipped a beat before a jolt of anger rushed through me. There were tunnels beneath us, stretching far into the distance in every direction. Each one twisted around the forest’s roots and was filled to the brim with the corruption. “Sihix… Didn’t you claim this wasn’t a pressing matter?”

“Of course, I’m sure you two will fix it eventually,” Sihix replied in a noncommittal tone that made my anger simmer. “Arianna, sweetheart, do you really think that the corruption will have any effect on the two of you?”

‘“Sweetheart”?’ I scowled at the Lari’xan but he didn’t seem to notice or care.

“Ugh, I can’t decide if you’re just being patronizing or if you’re trying to frustrate Nalithor.” Arianna sighed and pressed her fingers to her temples. Her reaction eased my displeasure, but it lingered. Regardless of her reactions, it seemed that Sihix was intent to continue his antics. “I’m not worried about either of us becoming corrupted. If that was a possibility, I should have succumbed to corruption when I fixed the airborne section of your forest. The corruption there was far worse than what we see here.

“That said, there’s a high chance one or both of us will lose ourselves to our instincts if we wade any deeper into that filth. I’m rather certain that possibility is why you decided to join us, and why you look so full of yourself too.”

I remained silent and continued to examine the labyrinth of tunnels beneath us. The proximity to Sihix’s root system concerned me. What Arianna had found in the Ceilail Forest was awful. So many hundreds of corpses fused to the roots of the forest, but the chamber there was singular. There was no cave system attached to it. Here, it appeared that there was an elaborate system beneath Sihix’s forest.

It made sense, of course. I had received reports of such systems in X’shmir—and the Oracle had stated that one such system is how Arianna and Corentine brought her to the village within the forest. When first arriving in X’shmir, I had noticed the honeycomb of cut-off tunnels on the underside of the island, but I never imagined that it would be so extensive beneath an Aledacian Forest.

‘Arianna, what if the roots of most of the trees are being corrupted?’ I asked quietly, earning a brief glance from her. She shifted to follow my gaze and then placed a hand on her hip. She said nothing, but I sensed her thinking. ‘In Ceilail it was a single tree. What about in X’shmir?’

‘Djialkan never gave me an indication that I went to more than one place,’ Arianna replied after thinking on it for a moment. ‘The corruption from Yiltanys could be flooding through the tunnels to reach here. That said, I don’t think we can avoid going into the muck if we truly want to fix the problem.

‘You didn’t succumb to your instincts when you saw the corruption in Ceilail. I know part of that is likely because you couldn’t see magic, but I’m sure that place still felt “off” to you. What did I do about the corpses?’

‘You didn’t do anything about them.’ I shook my head. ‘They disappeared after you broke Ceilail out of the cocoon her heart had created around her.’

‘Then we can assume that we don’t need to do anything about the corpses here,’ Arianna began in a matter-of-fact tone, raising a finger as if to lecture me. ‘With that in mind, we need to look for the source.’ She pivoted to glance at the smirking Sihix behind us. ‘Normally I would say he’s trapped somewhere here, but obviously he’s not. I doubt all of this corruption is purely from Yiltanys, either. So…’

‘Lehrr?’ I offered, earning a brief nod from her. ‘It would make sense. The puppy doesn’t know where Lehrr disappeared to.’

‘You’re going to have to accept that part of yourself sooner or later,’ Arianna remarked dryly before turning to face Sihix. “Did Lehrr take your place willingly, or did someone incompetent mistake him for you?”

“Oh?” Sihix grinned. “So you two can use your brains! That makes me so happy.

‘What a pain.’ Arianna rolled her eyes and stuffed her hands into the sleeves of her kimono. “Perhaps that’s why the corruption seems weaker. Let’s go look for any sign of Lehrr’s heart, Nalithor. The heart of a god should still stand out among all the murk.”

I placed a hand on Arianna’s shoulder, stopping her before she could walk off. She turned to shoot me a questioning look, appearing unfazed by my serious expression. I knew her well enough to know she likely sensed my anger, but she just smiled when I didn’t say anything.

Even if she didn’t recall the state she had entered in the Ceilail Forest, it was still fresh in my mind. She had ripped into the magics of that place with her hands and darkness alike. It was akin to a child tearing the wrapping off a present. She had grown progressively angrier and more violent until finally giving the command that broke Ceilail free.

Then, too, she had wounded me. However, she had been in such a bestial state that she hadn’t drawn a weapon. Her nails weren’t even claw-like back then and yet she had torn me to shreds.

I didn’t want to risk either of us entering such a state.

“We can’t sit by and do nothing.” Arianna reached up to cup my face in her hand, earning a small sigh from me. Her touch was soothing even if her words were not. “You don’t want to let the corruption spread further either, right?”

“Of course not.” I covered her hand with mine and gave her a small smile. “I simply worry about what lengths we will go to. You’ll get upset if you injure me again.”

“Injure… Ah.” Arianna’s eyes widened slightly. “Well—”

“You won’t kill each other,” Sihix interrupted, his playful expression gone. “You’ve only ever sustained wounds from her because you tried to stop her right, Nalithor?”

“That’s true…” I murmured, glancing back to Arianna. Sharing the responsibility of Balance with her still seemed strange to me in a way. Our entire time thus far in Falrrsald I had done my best to keep her from drawing the Jivyador’s attention. The situation was now almost the opposite. If they caught wind of Arianna’s involvement it wouldn’t be good by any stretch of the imagination.

‘We can worry about them when the time comes. Arianna patted my cheek before letting her hand fall to the side. ‘I have an idea where to look. You’ll be coming with me, won’t you?’

‘Of course.’ I slid my arm behind her back and rested my hand on her hip. The contact calmed me further, luring my thoughts away from the simmering rage the corruption made me feel. ‘I just want to do something. We must do something.

‘You just can’t help but be concerned where action will lead us,’ Arianna mused, a wry smile gracing her lips. Her gaze flicked around our surroundings briefly before she looked up at me again. ‘That said, I don’t think I can find our quarry with my senses suppressed to this degree. You’re going to have to feel out the source with your power.’

I pursed my lips. She was right, and I had the feeling that was exactly what Sihix wanted. It was obvious that Sihix fully trusted Arianna to carry out the duties of Balance, and he seemed to have sufficient proof to that effect. However, I was likely an unknown to them. The Jivyador had restricted much of my movement and, if Arianna was the one intended to have the role of Balance in the first place, the Lari’xan probably wanted proof that I was cut out for the job.

That I could do more than keep Arianna under control.

‘And if I lose control?’ I glanced down at Arianna. ‘Will you stop me?’

‘That sounds counter-productive,’ Arianna replied with a playful smirk. I opened my mouth to respond but promptly shut it when her tail coiled around mine, sending jolts of pleasure through me. ‘Enough procrastinating, Nalithor. You want to act—so act. It really isn’t as complicated as you’re making it.’

I took a deep breath and allowed my vision to shift yet again. Arianna was right. Letting my concerns get in the way of our work was detrimental. If I wasn’t meant to let the Jivyador frighten me or make me hesitant, then it made sense that our shared role shouldn’t make me wary either.

After all, I had yearned for so long to work freely without the Jivyador’s interference. Why hesitate now?

My power spread throughout our surroundings while I held on to Arianna. Even her presence seemed to disappear as I searched the forest. The corruption was strange, but so was the presence of the Angelic runes. Wherever the sickly aether was, there were Angelic talismans applied to it. My mouth curved into a frown—sealing talismans.

I placed my freehand against one of the talismans and every fiber of my being bristled, rejecting the talisman’s magic. That wasn’t Angelic magic, regardless of the writing used. Whatever it was, it was so wrong that my rage bubbled over in an instant.

Every last scrap of that magic had to be purged from both of the forests.

“Arianna,” I spoke, looking down at her when I heard a suppressed giggle. “You are going to help me destroy the magics binding the forest. After, we should have an easier time finding the source.”

“And if we find the source on the way?” Arianna asked, uncoiling her tail from mine in an agonizingly slow manner. She giggled again when I shivered.

We will fix it,” I informed her, pulling her tighter to my side when she started to pull away. “And we are not walking.”

“Not— Eek!” Arianna yelped, startled when I pulled her into the shadows with me.

‘Lend me your power,’ I spoke quietly but firmly. She didn’t hesitate to open her barriers further to me, allowing me to draw on her darkness.

I wove our powers together before lashing out at the nearest talisman. Cold, sluggish, and vile. The aether within made my skin crawl. The foul magic attempted to latch onto us but Arianna was quick to erect a shield of darkness around us. An amused laugh left her when the unknown aether ran the other direction.

However, her laughter was soon cut off and I sensed growing anger within her.

‘What is that? Arianna’s frigid tone gave me pause. She took the opportunity to pull me through the darkness until I was facing what she’d spotted.

‘That…’ I released a feral snarl and tightened my grip on our combined powers. Our quarry was close and in far worse of shape than I would have imagined. Even if the corruption in the forest was still brown, that place was an unnerving black. A blackness not created by shadows or darkness.

Arianna caught herself on my torso when I suddenly pulled her out of the shadows and into the chamber she’d spotted. The smell of death was so thick in the room that it made it near impossible to breathe. I hesitated to summon orbs of Magefire. If the smell was that strong, then there had to be a horrific sight waiting for us.

My ayraziis took two fistfuls of my kimono and growled, her body tensing against mine. I felt her exquisite rage trembling just out of reach behind her deeper barriers. There were no doubts in my mind that we had found the correct place, but we weren’t alone.

‘If I summon fire…she’s going to lose herself,’ I placed a hand on Arianna’s back, pulling her closer. Her face nuzzled into my chest and an amused smile pulled across my mouth. ‘Even so, we do have to deal with this mess.

‘Arianna.’

‘I know,’ Arianna nodded into my skin. ‘Whichever one of us loses it, we can’t interfere until they’re obviously finished. Understand?’

‘Otherwise we’ll attack the “meddler”.’ I stroked her back and listened as she breathed a relieved sigh. ‘Are you ready?’

‘Ready as I’ll ever be.’ I felt her shrug before she took a step away from me.

I raised a hand and concentrated briefly, summoning pale fire to my palm. Seconds later, the flames formed small orbs and scattered throughout the chamber. Everything seemed to stop when I laid eyes on the sight within the room.

The chamber was constructed by man and was not a natural cavern. Corpses littered the floor, hung from the walls on spikes, and yet more were hung by a combination of nooses or chains from the ceiling. There were splashes of blood on almost every surface of the room—including the massive crystal at its center.

Layers and layers of crystal created a double-flowered impatiens bloom that stood twice my height. While the crystal was black, it was faintly iridescent and had shifting veins of white. It was just barely translucent enough to show the outline of a male figure inside. He was frozen in the middle of a guard stance, as if he’d been in battle before his heart created the cocoon around him.

A portion of the crystal had warped and expanded to shield a second, much larger figure. I could only stare for several long moments. Dragon. What was a dragon doing in a subterranean chamber such as this, and why was the Exile’s heart protecting it as well?

“Huh, I heard you two were meddlesome but I didn’t think you were fast too!” A young voice released a hollow, emotionless laugh that sent a chill down my spine.

‘That voice…’ My anger swelled and I turned to scowl at its owner. ‘Arianna.’

‘I’ll take care of them.’ Arianna summoned Eoraso and settled her gaze on the three Elves we had passed at the spring. ‘Break Lehrr and his friend out quickly, will you?’

I followed Arianna’s movements as she dashed for the young woman and the two twisted children, but there was no hesitation within her. Arianna had no qualms about cutting down anyone involved with the corruption of the Aledacian Forests. It came as a relief—I could focus on the other matters without having to worry about supporting her.

My spear materialized in hand as I walked across the corpse-strewn floor. Lehrr, the First Exile. Someone I had been told I must kill, yet his presence didn’t elicit that manner of response from me. He was also a man that had helped my ayraziis when I was not there to do so.

‘At the very least, I can free him and see what he has to say for himself.’ I placed a hand against the crystal and concentrated for a moment, feeling the energies shifting around it. More sealing talismans.

I stole a glance at my ayraziis to check on her progress and stopped what I was doing, shocked. Arianna’s blade tore through the throat of one of the children, sending the child’s head rolling across the floor. For all of a second, I felt like I would be ill. She slew a child without hesitation, after all—who could do such a thing?

My unease didn’t last. The vertebrae in the child’s head lengthened and then split with a sickening crunch, forming “legs”. The disgusting magics in the chamber strengthened and then rushed toward the decapitated head and its matching corpse. When the magics reattached the separated parts, the “child” released a crazed laugh and lunged for Arianna with a dagger.

When the blade narrowly missed Arianna’s throat, I snapped.

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