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Chapter Fifty-Five: Convergence

Posted in Book Three, and Of Astral and Umbral

Chapter Fifty-Five: Convergence

 

When I began to wake, the proximity of familiar darkness made me snap fully awake in an instant. My eyes flew open and soon after a growl left me. Sihix grinned and leaned forward to poke one of my cheeks. I leapt out of bed and aimed a punch at the Lari’xan but he caught my fist in one hand.

“Good reflexes, but attacking me won’t get you anywhere.” Sihix’s grin broadened moments before he flung me aside. He let out a hearty laugh when I summoned a cloud of darkness to catch myself. “Aren’t you going to ask how your precious nylziis is?”

“Eh?” I stopped myself from charging Sihix again and looked at him for a moment. “Is he still being stubborn about merging with himself?”

“He is, but that isn’t what I was referring to.” Sihix appeared in front of me and tilted his head in thought, examining the darkness I’d landed in. “Ah well, you’ll find out soon enough. You’ve been asleep for a week—how are you feeling?”

“A week?” My jaw went slack for a moment before I scowled. “You’re keeping me from being able to sense anything. Why?”

“You’re a little too close to your darkness, my cute little Arianna.” Sihix bent over at the waist and prodded the tip of my nose. “How about you give the role of Balance over to Nalithor fully and marry me instead? You’re already like a queen of darkness anyway, so why not make it official?”

“Wha—? No.” I crossed my arms and glare at the grinning Lari’xan. Much to my displeasure, his grin only widened further at my rejection. “Where is Nalithor? My guards and Guardians? Isn’t Lehrr supposed to be around here somewhere as well?

“Given the state of your domain and your neighbor’s, aren’t you being a little too—”

“You’ll handle it eventually, I’m in no rush.” Sihix straightened to his full height and made a dismissive motion with one hand. “Your guards and Guardians are earning their keep—I sent them to procure building materials for one of my villages.

“Your nylziis…ah, what is the plural of that word again?”

“There isn’t one.”

“Right. Both of them are stubborn as ever—the shard more so. The one that came with you has come around to the idea, but the one that has been with me refuses to merge until he’s gotten to speak with you in private.”

“And Lehrr?”

“Would you rather marry Lehrr instead?”

“No! Am I not allowed to be concerned about someone that helped me?!”

“I’m kidding, of course.” Sihix made that dismissive motion again, earning him a growl this time. “We will handle the matter of Lehrr later as well. Your nylziis comes first. His current state is wearing on my patience and he still requires healing.”

“Healing?” I frowned up at Sihix, unsure what to make of the half-surprised, half-amused expression he shot me.

“You will see soon enough. Come along.” Sihix made a motion and wrested control my darkness from me with little effort. The cloud disappeared, dropping me promptly on my rump. Muttering curses under my breath, I pulled myself to my feet and followed the cheeky Lari’xan. “I heard that.”

“Like you care!” I retorted.

“Of course I care—my favorite little Arianna rejected me and went as far as to curse at me behind my back! I’m heartbroken.” Sihix made a dramatic gesture and grasped his chest, but his confident smirk made his sarcasm even more obvious than his tone did.

“Humph, no wonder Djialkan and Corentine never let me speak with you.” I snorted at Sihix as I picked up my pace to keep up with him. The bastard was damn tall. He was a lot more “normal” looking than Ceilail and Xiinsha, but I couldn’t decide whether he looked more Devillian or Elven.

“Tch, where did that one run off to now?” Sihix brought a hand up to his chin and rubbed it while looking around. Threads of darkness no larger than strands of hair spread outward from him briefly before returning to him. He shot me an intrigued look over his shoulder and spoke again, “You’ve certainly grown too close to your darkness if you could see that.”

“I don’t see a problem.” I shrugged, earning a chuckle from Sihix.

“Just one of the many reasons that Chaos, Balance, and I all favor you,” Sihix informed me, motioning for me to follow. That one is skulking around the temple and the other one is still asleep. We’ll get your little conversation out of the way so the bastard can cooperate.”

“And if he doesn’t cooperate?” I asked while following close behind.

“We can flip a coin to decide which one of us makes him cooperate.” Sihix grinned broadly at me over his shoulder and then faced forward again. “So, you remember that both Yiltanys’ domain and mine have troublesome magics brewing within?”

“Mmhmm. Yiltanys looks mostly normal to regular vision, but looking at its aether…” I pursed my lips, reaching for the memories felt strangely fuzzy. “The entire forest was corrupted. Yours is better off.

“Actually, do Lari’xan even have genders? You and Xiinsha both look male, but—”

“Is that an invitation to prove my gender?” Sihix shot me a sly smirk and reached toward his waistband.

No it is not!” I snapped.

“What a shame.” Sihix laughed, coming to a stop by the base of a tree. “There, that’s the temple ahead. I’ll go wake your nylziis and instruct him to mentally prepare himself for the merge.

“And keep him from interrupting your conversation with the shard, of course.”

Sihix disappeared into the shadows, leaving me alone amid the gargantuan crystal trees. I crossed my arms and sighed, unable to process the Lari’xan’s behavior. He was nothing like what I expected. Shutting my eyes, I attempted to spread my senses through the forest again but there was nothing. I cursed—the bastard knew me too well.

“That scent…” A familiar voice murmured as I neared the temple.

I peeked around a crumbling wall and pursed my lips when my gaze fell on a bare back and long white hair. Sihix’s shenanigans even kept me from sensing the “wrongness” of Nalithor’s separation. The longer hair, slightly younger features, and distinct lack of Draemiran clothing were the only reason I could tell the Nalithor before me was the shard, and not the one I had been interacting with since coming Below.

“Arianna, you’re awake?” He turned to face me and took several steps to close the distance before growing still, flushing. “You’re…ahem. You’re still in your sleepwear, Arianna.”

“Hmmm?” I glanced down at myself. My fluffy robe had dislodged and slid down one of my shoulders to reveal my skin and bra strap. There wasn’t a reason for the Adinvyr to be flustered at all, from my perspective, so I just shrugged and reached up to remove my robe. “I can change—”

“A-ah…” Nalithor quickly closed the distance between us and caught my hands, stopping me from removing my robe. He flushed darker and averted his gaze while pulling my robe’s collar closed. “Honestly. When did you become so shameless?”

“Does an Adinvyr really have room to chastise me for being shameless?” I asked, prodding his bare chest with one finger. “Especially one that’s currently half-naked?”

“Well—”

“Didn’t think so.” I smirked at him and strode past him. My light armor took the place of my sleeping attire as I strode around the crumbling temple and examined it. The “shard” of Nalithor remained silent and followed me—his discomfort was quite obvious but I wasn’t going to press him. Yet.

“You’re…really the Goddess of Balance?” Nalithor questioned, his tone unreadable, as I perched on a fallen pillar.

“Well, if Sihix is to be trusted, I suppose I am,” I remarked, shooting the shard an interested look. He looked even younger than the Nalithor that had rescued me from Limbo—though I supposed that made sense since he didn’t seem to know my connection to that place. “You’ve been here a while, haven’t you?”

“It’s hard to judge the passage of time here,” Nalithor offered in response, though he hesitated to sit beside me. “When we were pulled into that place…”

“Humph, I wish I could kill ‘that place’ a few more times,” I muttered, earning an odd look from Nalithor. “You’ll get used to me, eventually.

“So, what did you want to talk about? I assume there must be some reason—”

“You aren’t going to ask how he is doing?” Nalithor interjected, glancing away from me with a frustrated look.

“Hmmm? First Sihix, now you.” I frowned. My confused tone drew his attention back to me, but he said nothing. “What—”

“You…don’t remember?” Nalithor frowned and turned to fully face me, bending over until his face was level with mine. He seemed unconvinced, at first, but after a moment his eyes widened and his lips parted. “At all? Nothing? They said you should have some recollection.”

“Remember what?” I demanded, growing frustrated.

“What happened on your way here,” Nalithor offered with a vague motion.

“Listened to your other self argue with Eyrian, ate dinner, finally saw what this region looks like…” I murmured, counting off on my fingers, then I paused. Nothingness. “Did I fall asleep?”

“Fall asleep… No.” Nalithor sighed at me and shook his head. “So the matter is not your personality, it’s your memory. I see.”

“Well I don’t see!” I reached up and grabbed a fistful of his hair before he could straighten. “What happened that’s making you all act so—”

Nalithor said nothing and instead dipped down to pull me into a tight embrace. He buried his face in the crook of my neck and shook his head when I started to question him again. His tight, almost desperate, grip baffled me. It was different from when my Nalithor embraced me. It was more like a platonic hug from a sibling or a friend than the touch of my lover.

“I was so worried that you simply didn’t care.” Nalithor’s shard breathed a sigh of relief and loosened his grip on me so that he could sit next to me. “Sihix didn’t tell you what I wished to talk about?”

“He was more interested in asking me to marry him,” I answered flatly, causing the Adinvyr beside me to bristle. “All he told me was that you wanted to speak with me before you’ll let him merge you and my-you back together.”

“‘My-you’?” Nalithor’s shard arched an eyebrow at me.

“Mmhmm,” I began counting off on my fingers, “my nylziis, my lover, my—”

“Enough.” Nalithor’s shard averted his gaze and clenched his jaw. I paused and just looked at him for a moment. The rage and jealousy wafting off him was far superior to anything I’d sensed from my Nalithor before. “That bastard—”

“Is still you.” I tugged on his hair to get his attention. “Which means, once you’ve merged back together, I’m yours.”

“Wouldn’t you rather be free of the role of Balance?” Nalithor sighed heavily and rested his elbows on his thighs, slumping. His downcast expression settled on the ground between his feet and he refused to face me when I tugged on his hair again. “That role is such a great burden. If my other self is also acting as the God of Balance, then I could free you from—”

“I was born into this role. You were not.” I adopted a frigid tone and watched him stiffen. “Even without a fancy formal title, Balance is in my blood. I’d likely become a vigilante if someone forced me out of the role itself.

“I’m not some damsel that needs saving. If anything, I should be considering saving you from the role since you seem so disturbed by it.”

I rose to my feet and took a few steps away from Nalithor’s shard. My Nalithor was quite comfortable with the role and seemed to have accepted that I was as well. This Nalithor, however, was another matter. He didn’t understand, and I knew I couldn’t expect him to. If he’d been split off sometime prior to rescuing me from Limbo, it was quite likely he’d left Nalithor long before becoming an official deity.

“Wait!” Nalithor’s arms wrapped around my torso from behind me and he pulled me back against his chest. His desperate tone made me falter. “Please, don’t leave me…”

‘What happened to being his fire for revenge?’ I resisted the urge to role my eyes and instead glanced over my shoulder at him. “Even if Sihix is smothering my instincts to keep me in line, just knowing that you’re separated from the rest of yourself bothers me, Nalithor.

“I know you’re avoiding whatever it was you wanted to talk about, just so you can draw things out, but I would advise against it.”

“I…want to know what happened after they took you from Dauthrmir.” His question surprised me into pivoting to look at him, but his gaze was averted in discomfort. “I know what you’re going to say—that I could simply wait until I’ve merged with that one to find out or understand.

“But I want to know what happened in your words. From your perspective.”

“You would really put yourself through that?” I asked, staring at him.

“I think I have a right to know.” He straightened and turned to face me, his expression firm. “He only knows part of the story, doesn’t he? I tried asking him about it. He’s mostly ignored my attempts at conversation, but that was the one time I managed to get any manner of reaction from him.”

“He was pissed, I’m sure.” I sighed and crossed my arms. “The Angels took me directly to a cell in Limbo.”

“How long were you there?”

“Until roughly twenty years ago. I’ve grown up as a Human since then.”

“You were still a child when you were rescued?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that, but yes—I reverted to the form of a Human child when your other self rescued me from that place.” I tilted my head when I spotted the frustrated expression cross his face. It struck me as odd that both Nalithors were so at odds with the other.

“Where have you lived since then?”

“X’shmir—the airborne portion, obviously.” I pointed toward the sky, earning a dumbfounded look from the Adinvyr. “Darius was there too.”

“I don’t care about Darius.” Nalithor snorted dismissively.

“Well, you and your other self have some common ground after all,” I commented sarcastically. “Any other questions?”

“Did…they torture you in Limbo?” His dangerous tone brought an amused smile to my lips.

“I was tortured in both Limbo and X’shmir,” I answered, taking a step toward him and shooting him a teasing look when he bristled. That angered expression was a good look on him. “The scars are healed now, but it took the power of two Oracles, Djialkan, and Sihix to heal the wounds the X’shmirans inflicted.”

Darkness and pale flames burst outward from Nalithor and his tail snapped to the side. I smiled and giggled, highly amused. That’s what I liked to see—the anger, the passion. Just how entertaining would Nalithor be once he stopped being stubborn and merged with himself?

“Why is he allowing the X’shmirans to live?” His expression was icy for a fraction of a second before confusion took over, and he took a step back from me. “What—”

“If they’re slain and I’m too close…” I stepped up to him and pulled his hair over his shoulder, wrapping it around my wrist so I could pull him down. “I will die. It’s not as simple as executing the criminals for their crimes.”

“You’ll…” He dipped down and held me tight, startling me. Just like that, the rage appeared to be gone—or at least subdued. His pulse raced with fear, eliciting a small sigh from me. “You and he…you’re truly nylziis and ayraziis?”

‘Changing the subject, huh?’ I watched him in silence as he released me abruptly and put some distance between us. “Hmmm, is being my nylziis really such a displeasing idea?”

“N-no, that’s not—!”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” I laughed, linking my hands behind my back. “To answer your question, yes. He’s my nylziis, and anyone that wants to contest that can roll over and die for all I care. The people back home have an awful habit of thinking they can draw his interest, and I—”

“Then you’ve fed from each other?” Nalithor’s shard asked, surprising me again. His fists were clenched at his sides and he appeared to be struggling to contain both his anger and his jealousy. “You and he have… Argh! It makes me so mad just to think of it!”

He turned his back to me and punched one of the nearby walls, causing the eroded stones to topple to the ground. I just blinked after him, intrigued. At the end of the day, they were both parts of the same person—and therefore the same person—to me. The self-inflicted jealousy this one seemed to suffer from baffled me.

“I mean, if you want to think about it that way, you’ll be feeding from me soon too,” I remarked thoughtfully, watching him twitch. He didn’t turn, but he had turned so red that even the tips of his pointed ears had flushed. An amused smile tugged at my lips again as I watched him. “Getting jealous of yourself is a little pointless, don’t you think?”

“I can’t help it.” His shoulders slumped and he hung his head. “You were gone for centuries. Now, I find out you’re back and you’re…you’re with…”

“You really are like a lost puppy, aren’t you?” I laughed, walked over to him, and peeked around his side. “I don’t plan to let either of you out of my grasp. Instead of worrying about whether or not I can handle the role of Balance, you should consider if you can handle being my nylziis, my master, and my counterpart in the role.

He is plenty capable. You are clearly hesitant.”

“Have either of you given the other a zrintaas yet?” Nalithor’s shard glanced down at me, his expression unreadable.

“Mmm? No.”

“Because there have been no wars, or…”

“I can’t claim to be well-acquainted with Devillian culture anymore.” I turned on my heel and put my back to him—if they would end up merging, I didn’t want to give him any hints that I already had one for him. I still wanted it to be a surprise. “Like I said, I’ve lived as a Human for the past twenty years. X’shmir was cut off from the rest of the world until recently.”

“Cut off?” Nalithor’s shard sighed heavily in defeat. “I’ve wanted to be able to call you mine for a long time, Arianna. Seeing you with him is like seeing you in the possession of another man. Even if I’m some part of him that he threw away—”

He silenced himself and turned away from me when I moved to look at him. It struck me as strange that a “mere shard” seemed to have such individuality and depth of emotion. Was it because he’d been separated for so long? Had his exposure to Sihix changed something? Or had more of Nalithor split off than we’d realized?

‘The pieces of deities that are here joined me by choice,’ Sihix spoke as I went to reach out and question him. ‘When the worlds split I needed more power to sustain my domain since so much of my forest left with X’shmir. Nalithor didn’t throw any part of himself away.

‘They are both far too stubborn. I will be along with the other one soon.’

“You know,” I began while tracing a finger down Nalithor’s spine, “delaying your return to yourself means you’re delaying claiming me as yours.”

I smiled when his muscles twitched and his tail swayed over to wrap around my leg. He was so hesitant, it was kind of cute. Cute in the way that tempted me to seduce him. I bit back a laugh. ‘Perhaps that’s my hunger talking, but it does sound like fun.’

“Still being stubborn, is he?” Sihix called from off to my right. I turned to look at him and then paused when I spotted Nalithor behind him, my lips parting in surprise.

“Nalithor? Who did that to you?” I demanded, stalking over to him and motioning at his bandages. He said nothing and just stared at me in surprise. “I’ll kill whoever—!”

“Unless you intend to kick your own ass, you won’t be doing anything about it.” Nalithor lifted the arm that wasn’t in a sling and placed his hand on top of my head, giving me an odd look. “Well, perhaps you’ll be healing me.

“You…don’t remember?”

“That’s what I asked her.” The other one snorted.

“In the same way, too…” I glanced over my shoulder briefly and then back up at the wounded Nalithor, my heart in my throat. “You mean that I did that to you?”

“Aww, her distraught look is quite cute too!” Sihix laughed.

“Shut your mouth.” I glanced to the side at the Lari’xan, my darkness piercing the spot he’d been standing in. Both Nalithor’s tensed as if expecting Sihix to punish me for my actions, but the Lari’xan himself just laughed in delight.

“I made a miscalculation when keeping you from charging headlong into Yiltanys,” Nalithor spoke up, ruffling my curls to draw my attention away from the Lari’xan. “What do you last remember?”

“Mmm… Looking at the magics of Yiltanys and Sihix from the top of the hill.” I looked up through my displaced curls and pouted, my pulse still elevated. “Why has no one—”

“Because you’re a delicious, troublesome, powerful little predator behind that mask of reserved submissiveness,” Nalithor answered, backing me toward a wall with nearly each word. He braced himself with his good arm and leaned over me, a devious smile playing on his lips. “It took quite the bold move on my part to subdue you—a battle of predators was not what I was expecting to have with you.”

“Translation—you ‘infected’ him with your darkness in such a way that it lures him into his primal desires,” Sihix spoke up, eliciting a growl from my nylziis. “Your darkness has been making his ‘blood run hot’, as he puts it, since then. Seeing as you’re a possessive little creature, your darkness fights back against anyone that tries to heal him.”

“And I sure as hell won’t heal him.” The other Nalithor crossed his arm, making me sigh.

“You’re not angry?” I glanced at my Nalithor, pouting again. Even with the bandages in the way I could tell he was badly injured. The idea that I was the source of the injuries was almost unbearable.

“I’m not angry that you almost killed me,” Nalithor began, leaning down so his mouth was near mine. “I’m angry that you’ve been hiding such a predatory, powerful seductress from me.

“Did you think I wouldn’t be able to handle that side of you?”

“That’s enough.” The other Nalithor gripped my nylziis by his robes and yanked him away from me without regard for his wounds. “Even if she’s our ayraziis, intimidating her isn’t—”

“Intimidated?” My nylziis snorted. “Arianna wouldn’t let something so trivial intimidate her. Even the amount of power it took for me to subdue her didn’t intimidate her! It excited her.”

‘This is just so strange.’ I sighed and crossed my arms, glancing between the two Nalithors while they continued to argue with each other. Sihix chuckled and reappeared to my right, shooting me an amused glance before looking at the Nalithors as well.

‘They haven’t even noticed you’re famished, yet.’ Sihix tilted his head and pivoted until he was mostly facing me. ‘I was half-expecting you to pounce on the both of them after we arrived.’

‘That would be even more strange.’ The corner of my eye twitched. It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it hardly seemed appropriate considering their behavior—and the fact that my Nalithor required healing. “Are you two going to keep bickering, or are you going to let me heal those wounds?”

“I was thinking about perhaps having you clean them up with your tongue,” Nalithor replied casually, dropping his robes off one shoulder to reveal more of the bandages. The one over his heart gave me pause but he just smirked. “You missed. Even in that state you’re susceptible to my allure, it seems.”

“Yet she hasn’t officially chosen you yet,” Sihix spoke with a wide yawn, earning feral snarls from both Nalithors and a confused look from me. “Ah well, I’m in no rush for her to make her decision. I’m a Lari’xan, after all—we do live forever.

“Though, if she waits too much longer…”

“You can’t have her!” Both Nalithors snapped in unison, causing Sihix to smirk.

“That is up to her, not you.” Sihix made a sweeping motion at them with one hand. “Either way, sit. Let her heal you. After, we need to discuss merging—”

“I refuse to merge with this one.” My nylziis growled, cutting his eyes to the side at his shard. “This arrogant, bestial bastard is—”

“Then I refuse to let her heal you.” The shard appeared behind me and looped an arm around my waist, his other hand coming up to grip my jaw lightly. “I believe it’s high time that it was my turn to feed from her. You’ve already—”

I disappeared into the shadows and ducked behind Sihix as the two Nalithors flew at each other. The Lari’xan chuckled and plucked me out of the shadows, dropping me on my rump beside him.

‘What’s this about me choosing one?’ I pursed my lips and looked up at Sihix.

‘Nalithor chose to pursue you—therefore the final decision is yours.’ Sihix shot me a small smile and then turned his gaze to the brawling men. ‘He lost his right to choose you as his goddess when he instead chose to initiate the pursuit—it’s part of the Adinvyr culture that many of the younger ones overlook.

‘Their potential “queen” must choose them.’

“You know, at this rate I’ll have to heal both of you,” I called in exasperation.

My nylziis paused with a strange look on his face and briefly raised his fingertips to his chest wound. After a moment, he turned to me and spoke, “You don’t see me and him as different people at all, do you?”

“Because you aren’t.” I crossed my arms.

“She’s right, you know,” Sihix added when they both went to argue. “This is only an issue because of what part of you you gave me. The passion and jealousy makes it difficult for it to accept you.”

“Don’t call me an ‘it’, you bastard!” the shard snapped.

“What if we both feed on her?” My nylziis questioned a little too seriously, turning to look at his other self—who turned brilliant red. “Your issue is that I’ve gotten to taste her and you have not, correct? That is a simple matter to address. After all, we both need to feed and so does she.”

“Wait, did you just volunteer me for a threesome?” I asked, the corner of my eye twitching.

“No, but that’s an option as well,” my nylziis remarked, rubbing his chin before shooting me a devious look. “I was talking about drinking each other’s blood, but if that is what you would prefer—”

“Ahem, don’t I get a say in this?” the shard interjected.

“Are you saying you wouldn’t want to indulge in—”

“I’m seriously going to roast both of you!” I shot to my feet and stomped one foot, my face burning hot. “Keep this up and I’m going to leave you both for Sihix to deal with!”

“I doubt they’d enjoy feeding on me much,” Sihix remarked thoughtfully. “Though, I wouldn’t be adverse to the idea. Men have their own unique charms as well.”

Sihix caught my fist when I pivoted to punch him, then tossed me over to both the Nalithors. The Lari’xan shot us a broad grin before disappearing into the shadows, leaving me alone with the two pieces of Nalithor.

“He’s worse than Erist could ever be,” the shard muttered.

“Humph. For once we’re in agreement.”

“You’re both pissing me off.” I growled at them as they pulled me to my feet.

“Ahhh, but don’t we smell delicious?” My nylziis teased, pulling me toward him.

“If that’s how this one acts, I can’t comprehend why you became his ayraziis,” the shard spoke, shooting a glare at my nylziis. “That aside, the three of us drinking each other would be reckless—if we both drank from you it would weaken you far too much.”

“Which is why her suggestion—”

I didn’t suggest anything!” I growled, grabbing my Nalithor by the front of his robes. “If the two of you would just fucking merge already we wouldn’t have this problem! You’re both being so damned stubborn!”

“And you’ve already caught the scent of my blood.” My nylziis smirked and gripped my chin, pulling me towards his face. “Poor little thing, are you hungry?”

“Sit and let me heal you before I decide to make it hurt more.” I bared my fangs at him, but he just chuckled and slid his robes off further.

“Now that I know the side that you’ve been hiding,” Nalithor began with a devious smile as he perched on a fallen pillar, “I won’t let you get away with restraining yourself. You make such a good huntress, but I doubt you can truly make me your prey.”

“Humph, like I’d try to make you my prey. Should be the other way around.” I snorted, catching the odd look they both gave me. “What?”

“She really doesn’t remember anything?”

“That is the impression she gave me, yes.”

“Hmmm, she seemed to remember when she woke upon arrival.”

“Sihix could have meddled.”

“No, I’ve seen her blackout at the mercy of her role before. This is the same.”

“What? What? What did I do?” I demanded, stomping my foot again. They were frustrating me so much that I was considering kicking their asses. First they acted like they hated each other’s guts, then they started speaking like that. It was maddening.

“Here, I’ll show you,” Nalithor pulled me toward him. However, instead of doing as he said he pressed his mouth to mine and kissed me deeply. The taste of blood almost broke me the instant I tasted it, but I quickly withdrew and shot him a disgruntled look. “So stubborn.”

“That’s not fair!” The other Nalithor tugged me away and kissed me next. A sound of pleasure escaped him when he tasted me, making my face turn scarlet. I quickly escaped him and then dodged my nylziis’ grasp as well.

“You’re both ridiculous!” I pointed at them in turn. “Just merge together already!”

“Hmmm, you were right—she is delicious.” The shard glanced at my nylziis.

“Of course I was right.”

‘They’re ignoring me?’ The corner of my eye twitched. “I’m going to kick both your asses!”

Darkness exploded outward from me briefly, causing both men to rise to their feet and take defensive stances, but the moment was short-lived. Sihix reappeared nearby and took my darkness from me when my head spun. This time, he did not appear amused. He caught me over his forearm when I doubled over, and then lifted me fully off my feet.

“Honestly, attempting to wriggle out of my suppression?” Sihix chastised me as he walked toward the two Nalithors. “Excuse me a moment.”

Sihix’s hand turned to darkness and pierced my nylziis’ chest, stunning both Nalithors into silence. I only managed an annoyed growl. When the Lari’xan retrieved his hand, he pulled a deeper darkness than Nalithor’s out of my nylziis. I started to ask what it was, but Sihix shoved my darkness—and what he took out of Nalithor—back into me before dropping me at the Adinvyr pair’s feet.

“Now then,” Sihix began in a lecturing tone, “the two of you should refrain from teasing her so much. I have other work to do. I can’t be babysitting the three of you. Let Her Highness heal you. Merging and feeding are both second to that.”

Sihix disappeared again before either of the men could say anything. I bit my lower lip and shook my head, attempting to fight off the remaining fuzziness. The amount of Nalithor’s lust clinging to the darkness was difficult for me to process.

“Too much?”

“Given the circumstances, perhaps. Otherwise, no.”

“Off with the bandages,” I ordered after pulling myself to my feet. “I still expect you to tell me what happened, too.”

“I’ll show you,” Nalithor offered.

“I’m not falling for that again!” I snorted, crossing my arms.

“I mean it this time.” Nalithor chuckled and pulled me over to him by my tail.

“You’re just going to let him touch your tail like that?” The shard cleared his throat, his face flushing.

‘This part of you is much younger than you are, isn’t he?’ I glanced at my nylziis, watching as his amused smirk grew.

‘Your tail is rather hot at the moment,’ Nalithor commented, running his hand down it firmly and laughing when I twitched.

“He is my nylziis, you know.” I glanced over at the shard when he opened his mouth to tell his other self off. After brief thought I rose onto my tiptoes and patted the shard on the head. “‘Puppy’ is an appropriate nickname for you after all if you’re young enough for something like that to fluster you.”

“I-I’m not—!”

“Coming up with nicknames now, are you?” My nylziis ran his hands up to my hips and shot me a sultry look. “What’s mine then?”

“Hmmm…” I crossed my arms for a moment while thinking. Several options shot through my mind, but I wanted something that would fluster both of them. They’d frustrated me so much in such a short time, it was time for payback. I smirked and bent over at the waist, trailing my fingers down Nalithor’s chest as he attempted not to stare down my blouse. “How about…hubby?”

When they both turned scarlet and failed to respond I straightened and crossed my arms, shooting him a victorious grin. My nylziis opened his mouth a few times, attempting to come up with something to say, but he failed each time.

“I-Isn’t he only your nylziis?!” the shard demanded, his fists clenched.

“For now,” I replied innocently, watching as they both grew a darker red. Satisfied that they were adequately flustered, I shifted to look down at my nylziis again. “Now then, are you going to behave and let me heal you or no?”

He nodded in silence, earning an amused giggle from me. Neither of them managed to think of anything else to say, leaving me to heal my nylziis in silence. I was thankful for the reprieve, even if it would only be brief. When I finally got to Nalithor’s worst wound, I paused, unsure of what to think.

“I…”

“I did say you missed.”

“But…all the way through? Even if I missed the important bits, that’s still—”

“She’s cute when she’s worried,” the shard remarked, looking down at me with an intrigued expression. “You actually think he—we’d—be angry with you for inflicting a wound like that?”

“Of course!” I responded.

“She still doesn’t quite grasp Draemiran culture,” my nylziis spoke, chuckling. “If anything, I’m frustrated that you can perform like that when you fully unleash yourself. It means you haven’t been sparring me at your full strength.”

“You haven’t been sparring me at full strength either,” I retorted.

“I suppose you are correct.” Nalithor smiled and ruffled my curls. “The darkness Sihix withdrew is something troublesome you did. When you ran me through with Eoraso, you left your own darkness behind. You almost made me your prey, your thrall.

“It took every ounce of my power to remind you that you are my prey.”

“Any other wounds?” I sighed after I finished closing his chest wound.

“Just hunger…” Nalithor leaned toward my lips and then paused, cutting his eyes to the side at his other self. “You haven’t fed while here at all, have you?”

“I-I…well…” The shard flushed and glanced away from us.

“Humph, virgin.” My Nalithor rose to his feet and turned to face his other self. “You disappoint me. How do you expect to be of use if—”

‘I can’t believe these two.’ I perched on the pillar and propped my cheek on my fist, watching as they started bickering again. I let them continue for a few minutes before deciding to speak up, “Are you two going to merge, or do you plan to make this more awkward than it needs to be?”

“He wants the chance to feed from you before merging together.” My nylziis motioned at his other self. “Something about it being ‘not fair’, and ‘getting back at me’. I may as well be dealing with one of my younger siblings.”

“Ah yes, our siblings.” The shard rubbed his chin in thought. “How have they been? Is Ijelle still finding trouble around every corner?”

“Of course, she wouldn’t have it any other way.” Nalithor sighed heavily, then glanced at me. “Though I suppose this one isn’t much different in that regard.”

“That is true,” the shard murmured. “It’s a good thing they weren’t paired.”

‘Honestly, can they just decide whether or not they get along?’ I swallowed a sigh and observed as they began discussing both family and Draemir. The fact that they sounded the same made it difficult for me to follow their conversation, and I soon let my attention wander elsewhere. ‘I really worked him over, huh… What did he mean when he said I almost made him my prey? Even the other one seems a little wary of me. Was it really that bad?’

“Arianna?” A hand came to rest on each of my shoulders, startling me from my reverie. When I looked up, both of them were standing to either side of me. They were easy to differentiate between thanks to their clothes, but the faint scars left on my Nalithor’s torso bothered me. I wasn’t good enough to heal such severe wounds fully.

“I should probably give healing you another go,” I murmured, reaching up to touch his chest. Nalithor caught my hand and stopped me, a gentle smile on his face.

“Leave it.” Nalithor linked his fingers with mine to keep me from placing my palm on his chest. “I clearly need a reminder to keep myself from growing complacent, and if it is from my ayraziis that’s all the better.”

“But—” I started to protest, but he silenced me with another smile. He seemed so genuine that it felt wrong to argue with him.

“Would it really be alright for us to feed from her in this state?” the shard questioned with a small frown, his eyes slightly unfocused while he examined me. “Her aether is rather weakened, just as Sihix and Djialkan said.”

“What’s this about you both feeding on me?” I narrowed my eyes and looked between them. “You’re supposed to be merging, not indulging.”

“Sihix claims we can’t merge if we haven’t both fed—and this one hasn’t been feeding.” Nalithor jabbed his thumb in his shard’s direction.

“And we’re not allowed to feed from anyone else.” The shard crossed his arm and huffed. “Not that I would want to, of course, but Sihix’s reasoning rubs me the wrong way.”

“Which is?” I prompted, the corner of my eye twitching.

“That if we feed from someone other than you, we forfeit the role of Balance and our chances with you,” Nalithor answered dryly. “They’re growing impatient with waiting for us to ‘make up our minds’. Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t be allowed to feed unless our lives were in danger since we’re not…”

“Married,” the other one stated when my Nalithor hesitated. “Sihix is bending rules left and right since he favors you, Arianna, but such allowances won’t last long. The other Lari’xan are growing agitated.”

“You said Arianna’s aether is weakened?” Nalithor looked to his shard, who nodded. “Humph. I suppose now I know why I ceased being able to see magics.”

‘Is it really necessary for you to both feed on me?’ I glanced at my Nalithor.

‘Given Sihix’s annoyance with the situation, I don’t think he’s lying,’ he offered in response, an amused smile stretching across his face when my eyes dropped to the scar on his chest again. ‘You’re still worried about that?’

‘Well…’ I looked away, feeling heat rise to my face. ‘Sooner or later you should show me what happened.’

“You’re not going to make us find other food, are you?” the shard gave me a worried look. “Sihix was quite serious about stripping us of our power and our access to you if we ‘betrayed’ you in such a way.”

“Yes…Sihix is a little frightening when it comes to Arianna,” Nalithor murmured his agreement, his expression thoughtful. “Worse than Lucifer, at any rate, and infinitely more powerful. It would be best if we didn’t provoke him further.”

“‘Further’?” I arched an eyebrow and then sighed, shifting to look at the shard. “Can you even control your venom?”

“Ah…”

“Humph, well, at least this gives me a rare opportunity.” Nalithor rose to his feet and motioned for his shard to stand up. I glanced between them, a little uneasy about whatever my nylziis was planning.

“What rare opportunity?” I asked.

“I can finally see what kind of face you make when bitten.” Nalithor purred in response, lifting my chin. His devious smile and the chuckle that followed made me bristle and growl at him.

“Y-you plan to watch?!” I demanded, baffled. “How do you plan to keep from kill—”

“Oh? You want to see what sort of cute face she makes?” the shard pulled me to my feet and spun me so that my back was against his chest. “I suppose we can agree on that, at least. After all, I’ll get to enjoy that sight too once we’re restored.”

“So you can be agreeable at times.” Nalithor nodded to himself before shooting me a sly smirk. “Poor thing, you’re conflicted, aren’t you?”

“I can’t fathom how you’re fine with this!” I huffed before shying away from the other one when I felt his lips against my throat. “H-hey, I didn’t agree to this yet!”

“‘Yet’.” The shard chuckled, gripping my chin and turning my face toward his. The sultry expression on his face made me pause—it was much different than the “lost” manner he’d been acting in. “He has fed before, I never have. It’s only fair that I get to enjoy you before going back to him, isn’t it?”

‘You‘re really fine with this?’ I glanced toward my Nalithor.

‘There’s a certain appeal to seeing you overcome with lust when my venom rushes through your veins,’ Nalithor answered a little too seriously, so I just stared at him. ‘As you’ve been pointing out—he is still me. Unless you would prefer something a little more…’

‘I’ll kick your ass!’ I snapped, feeling my face flush in response to the knowing look he shot me. “Don’t give me that look, Nalithor. I’m not—”

“Of course, of course.” Nalithor chuckled, before glancing over my shoulder at his other self. “Blood only. I won’t attempt to impose other rules on you—I know how delicious she is myself. Keeping your hands off her is an impossibility.”

Fine. If this is what it takes to get you two to merge back together, then—” I cut myself off with a startled gasp when the other Nalithor’s fangs pierced the right side of my neck. Fire rushed through my veins from his bite, far hotter than when I’d felt Nalithor’s venom before.

“Ohhh, now that’s a good look on you, my dear.” Nalithor cupped my face in his hand and then pressed his mouth to mine, kissing me deeply while his other self groaned into my throat. I attempted to contain myself as the venom threatened to overpower me, but a hand slipping between my legs sent that chance out the window. “Mmm…are you certain you don’t want to indulge in this chance, Arianna? Those sounds of yours lead me to believe otherwise.”

“I’m gonna kick your—” I started to growl at him, but before I could finish he sunk his fangs into the left side of my throat. He didn’t bother to hold back his venom, allowing it to rush freely through me. My knees buckled and I lost all control over my form. Their venom and their touch set my body on fire but I refused to give in so easily. To become their prey without a fight was unacceptable.

Before my hazy mind could formulate a plan, my Nalithor withdrew from my throat and forcibly yanked his shard from my throat. He braced me against his chest and placed one arm behind my back, a chuckle rumbling beneath my cheek. His amusement made me want to punch him but I didn’t have the strength for it.

“Now then, which one of us would you like to bite in turn, my dear?” Nalithor stroked his hand down my back, that simple gesture sending a shiver through me.

‘Bite…that’s hardly enough anymore,’ I shut my eyes briefly. There was no way in the hells that I would admit that. If they could refrain from feeding for so long, then so could I. Being weaker in some way wasn’t acceptable. “Too much effort.”

“Aw, was our venom too much for you?” The other Nalithor teased, earning him a foggy glare. “Hmmm, how about this?”

My body tensed, ready to pounce as the other Nalithor reached up to slice his throat open. The trickle of blue-black blood captivated me, briefly, before the scent of closer blood caught my attention. My Nalithor forced me to face him again and pressed his mouth to mine. The taste of our combined blood on his tongue made me lose myself in an instant. I was so terribly hungry and they were both just so willing.

Before I knew what was happening, a hand wrapped around my throat and pinned me to the ground. I reached up and tried to pry Nalithor’s grip from my throat but he wasn’t budging. Next, I went to kick him off me but he had prepared for that too. A small jolt of his darkness forced my senses to clear faster.

‘Too much.’ Nalithor’s hand twitched, glancing off to the side. ‘Look.’

I followed his gaze and felt my lips part in surprise. His shard was collapsed in the grass a few feet away, utterly enraptured and shivering. It was difficult to tune out the whimpers of pleasure that escaped him, but I couldn’t even recall biting him.

‘When did I…’ I paused and grew still when my Nalithor’s lips brushed against the side of my throat.

‘You always manage to blur the lines between hunter and prey, don’t you?’ Nalithor asked as he ran his tongue over the puncture wounds in my throat. ‘I don’t recall agreeing to let you use your venom, Arianna.’

‘I still don’t know how to control it!’ I protested, but he just withdrew from my throat and smirked. I went to protest again but instead fell silent and held a hand to my head. My quickening pulse sent their venom stirring in my blood again and threatened to wrest control from me again.

“Well, this should be good enough.” Nalithor released me and rose to his feet. He straightened his robes before looking over to his other self again. “I suppose I should have known her venom would be too much for you—even I struggle to handle it.”

“It will have to do.” Sihix appeared next to me and glanced down with a curious look. “I suppose I should thank you for subduing the other one, even if it wasn’t intentional.”

“Subduing… I guess you could call it that.” I sighed, unwilling to move from my spot in the grass quite yet. It seemed like every little move sent the combined venoms on a rampage again. ‘Shouldn’t your venom be the more potent, Nalithor?’

‘Tch, it’s probably because he’s my “fire”.’ Nalithor’s agitated response made me shoot him an amused smile. ‘To think he’s so weak to yours…’

“Are you ready to merge, or will Arianna and I have to force you?” Sihix questioned in an impatient tone.

“I’d be lying if I ever claimed to be truly ready,” Nalithor answered with a small frown. “Is it alright to do this when the two of them are in such a state?”

“It will have to be.” Sihix stepped away from me and grabbed my Nalithor. He shot me an amused look over his shoulder before tugging my Nalithor over to the other one. “Now then, this shouldn’t hurt. I can’t vouch for your mental state—you will likely have to work that out yourselves.”

I forced myself to sit up and winced when my head spun. Their venoms, their lust, and their scents were nearly enough to make me lose myself again, but I shoved back against it. I was too curious about Sihix’s plans to let something like that overtake me.

“You should rest,” Sihix spoke, glancing over his shoulder at me again. “That venom is only going to get stronger when they merge. Ahhh, I suppose before that…”

Sihix made a motion and then dropped my Nalithor beside the other one, both unconscious. The Lari’xan crossed his arms within his sleeves and turned to face me fully, his expression one of contemplation.

“What?” I asked, resting one arm on my knee. “I’m assuming you knocked them both out for a reason.”

“Why haven’t you chosen him yet?” Sihix furrowed his brow at me.

“Isn’t that too risky right now?” I sighed, then shook my head. “That isn’t to say I’m not prepared to make him understand my intentions, but…”

“But war is still a ways off?” Sihix offered, smirking. “I’m well aware of what Corentine did with that crystal you were so fond of. You’ve decided to give it to him when you have the chance, then?

“Have you considered that you could give it to him now and explain it as a war gift?”

“I’m rather certain that wouldn’t have the same effect.” I shot Sihix a sideways look when he chuckled. “The other Lari’xan are growing impatient? Or…is it a problem with the Jivyador?”

“Jivyador…” Sihix laughed openly. “That’s a good name for them, I suppose. To answer you: both.

“We dislike breaking our own rules, and the ‘Jivyador’ are clamping their fangs around deities like Nalithor who are without a counterpart. They’re frustrated that their ruse of a competition failed to lure out his intentions. According to my sources, their next step is to cut off Nalithor’s access to food—even if it’s you, and even if his life is threatened.

“Their actions will be more believable if they target similar deities.”

“They intend to starve him until he takes a goddess?” I spat with distaste. “And what of the other Lari’xan?”

“We don’t want to take such drastic measures.” Sihix shook his head. “That said, we must concern ourselves with the movements of those…creatures. They have their ways of finding out if Nalithor disobeys his new orders.

“We would rather not pressure you, but it is still something to keep in mind.”

“And this merging?” I pointed past Sihix at the two unconscious Adinvyr. “Was it really necessary for them to feed first, or are you playing more games?”

“Both!” Sihix responded cheerfully, pivoting to look down at them. “As I said, little one, you should rest. At the very least, refrain from moving too much. You’re no match for his venom once he’s his normal self.”

“Very well,” I murmured, settling my back against a crumbling wall. “His venom will change after? Even what’s already been injected?”

“It is a risk, yes.” Sihix nodded briefly before outstretching a hand and holding it above the pair of Nalithors. “Promise me one thing, Arianna.”

“Hmmm? What’s that?” I tilted my head, intrigued.

“Don’t delay your gift to him out of fear of the Jivyador.” Sihix glanced over his shoulder at me again, his gaze firm. “A finished pair is far more beneficial and powerful than two independent deities. The Jivyador can’t truly Exile either of you, and even if they try…we will handle it.”

“If you insist,” I mused, a small smile on my face.

“Good.” Sihix returned his attention to Nalithor and then shut his eyes, summoning darkness between his hand and the unconscious Adinvyr. “Brace yourself, Arianna. You will have to win the battle against his venom. If you lose…well, I’ll separate you before you kill each other, at least.

“You’re both so very awful at managing your hunger.”

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