Chapter Fifty-Six: Rest & Recuperation
I hesitantly ran my fingertips over the gilded hilt and pommel of the Godslayer protruding from my Arianna’s chest. The silver, gilt-encrusted blade was buried hilt-deep through her heart, leaving only the crossguard and hilt visible. The large sapphires were splashed with dried blood. Despite the presence of the blade, her chest rose and fell at a steady rate while she breathed.
‘How can she look so peaceful?’ I reached for her face again but stopped short. She had so little memory of her time with me in Dauthrmir. My touch was more likely to scare her than it was to comfort her. I felt my heart breaking all over again.
For so long I had been convinced that she died…yet she was here.
Fear gripped me like a vice, making me hesitant to open my eyes. Of all the things to happen after taking that piece of myself back, he had done the one thing I didn’t want.
Limbo, a place I never wanted to revisit, yet it was like I had experienced it for the first time all over again. Anger rose in my chest and a sigh escaped me. The image of that blood-drenched room and the dozens of blades piercing Arianna flashed through my mind again, making my entire body tense. How I wished that I had tortured the Angel for his contributions.
A shiver ran through me and I shifted to nuzzle deeper into my pillow. When I realized I was touching skin and not fabric, I paused. Warmth, accompanied by a slow and steady heartbeat. The musky-sweet scent of jasmine and vanilla. I cracked one eye open to see pale white skin and a belly button mere inches from my face.
Carefully, I shifted one arm further over her abdomen and placed it against the mattress to lift myself up. When my gaze fell on Arianna’s peaceful face my heart seemed to stop for a moment before beginning to race. I reached for her face but stopped when she shifted to roll toward me in search of warmth. Despite a brief grumble, she didn’t appear to be awake.
‘When did we get here?’ I glanced around the dark room briefly to confirm that we were still somewhere in Sihix’s domain, then looked down at my ayraziis again. Just the thought sent my heart soaring again, and I sighed. ‘Honestly. Our relationship isn’t a new development. I shouldn’t be…’
I extracted myself from the bed in careful movements as to not wake Arianna, then strode around our room in search of a robe. The room was far too cold for nudity, tempting me to return to bed and Arianna’s warmth if I couldn’t locate clothing quickly enough.
When I passed a mirror I stopped and examined myself with a frown. Despite feeding from Arianna, the scars left by Eoraso were still visible on my torso and arms. My hair had lengthened by more than half a foot and someone had undone the braided section.
‘Perhaps it’s time for me to cut it…’ I pulled my hair over one shoulder but hesitated when I sensed movement behind me. It appeared that I wouldn’t be alone with my thoughts after all…but I didn’t mind. Her scent reached me first, before her legs grazed past my tail. Finally, her fingers slid down my lower back as she came to stand beside me.
“What’s wrong?” Arianna asked.
“I don’t feel any…” I trailed off when I glanced down at her, “…different.”
“Want to try that again?” Arianna arched an eyebrow at me. “That wasn’t convincing.”
“Neither of us are under the sway of the other’s venom anymore?” I murmured, bringing both of my hands up to Arianna’s face. She just smiled and watched me with a piercing gaze as I ran a thumb over her lips. Even without saying it I could tell she was studying me to determine if I had somehow changed.
In truth, I still felt like myself…until I looked at, spoke with, touched, or smelled her. It was as if I were falling in love with her all over again. Perhaps that was exactly what it was. After all, that part of myself had been digging through memories of the past while I slept. I sighed. It was such a strange situation to find myself in.
“I’m assuming Sihix did something.” Arianna shrugged and took a few steps away from me, trailing her fingertips along my skin until she was out of reach. “I don’t remember much after he turned your shard to darkness and returned it to you. He warned me that he would intervene ‘before we could kill each other’ if I ‘lost’ to your strengthened venom.
“What were you thinking about before I came over?”
“I was thinking perhaps it’s time to cut my hair,” I answered, pivoting to look in the mirror again. There was a sharp intake of breath before Arianna stalked back over to stand between me and the mirror. Fire shone in her eyes as she glared up at me and bared her fangs. “What—”
“Don’t cut your hair!”
“But, as a ‘taken’ Adinvyr—”
“No! I like it long.”
“Keeping it long when I’m spoken for is—”
“To the hell with cultural rules! What your ayraziis wants takes priority.”
“My parents and your father will eviscerate me if—”
“If you cut your hair I’ll cry.” Arianna crossed her arms and gave me a defiant look. I simply stared at her in disbelief. She seemed quite serious, but I couldn’t recall her ever indicating her thoughts about my hair before.
“Arianna…” I sighed and placed a hand on my hip as I studied her expression. “We’re meant to cut our hair when we find our ‘queen’. It indicates that we’re spoken for and it discourages others from interfering. Not only that, but Lucifer and my parents are already upset with me for—”
“We can find some other way to signify that!” Arianna retorted, her face flushing. “Do you actually want to cut your hair?”
“Well, no, but—”
“Then don’t,” Arianna stated, earning another sigh from me. “I…really like your hair as it is. You wouldn’t want me to cut my hair, so…”
Arianna flushed darker and looked away from me, a pout settling on her face again. I couldn’t help but smile and reached up to ruffle her curls. She shot me a sideways look briefly and then looked away again.
“Still tired?” I chuckled when she tried to suppress a yawn. “I suppose I should apologize for waking you, shouldn’t I?”
“Then come back to bed,” Arianna grumbled, shifting to lean up against my side. She must have heard my pulse quicken, because soon one of her hands came to tease along my torso and she shot me a mischievous smile. “Should I be worried about what’s running through your head, Master?”
“Not at all.” I chuckled. “You aren’t planning to sneak off and find trouble to get yourself into?”
“Sihix is still blocking my senses!” Arianna pouted. A moment later she flushed and hurried to backpedal. “I-I mean, I know it isn’t safe to go try to fix either of the forests right now anyway. So—”
“You’re not fooling me.” I slipped an arm behind her back and steered her back toward the bed. Her soft skin had already begun to grow cool from the air in our room. “Far be it from me to deny you if you wish to return to bed. You’re certain you want me to join—” I faltered, earning an odd look from her. “—never mind.”
“Hmmm, having some issues with your ‘fire’?” Arianna asked, tilting her head. Her fluffy white ears made the motion far more cute than inquisitive. I couldn’t help but grin crookedly at her. “What?”
“You’re adorable.” I reached up and tugged on one of her ears gently. “To answer your question…the information is difficult to sort through. That part of me spent decades here with Sihix, and in…that place. Even so, it seems more intent on bringing up memories of you—and Limbo.
“My perception feels a little…skewed.”
“Is that so?” Arianna murmured, trailing her claws down my abdomen. She stopped short of wandering too low, a sweet smile spreading across her lips. “That’s why you seem so much easier to fluster, is it? I can hear your heartbeat hasten at every little thing I’ve been doing, you know.”
“I can trust you to keep my on my toes at any rate,” I remarked dryly, tracking her as she moved away and threw herself on the mattress. She stretched out on her stomach and yawned widely before shooting me an expectant look out of the corner of her eyes. “You may be trying to hide it, but you’ve glanced at my scars at least six times already, Arianna. You’re still concerned?”
“Shouldn’t they have finished healing after feeding from me?” Arianna pointed out, shifting to lay on her side so that she could watch me. Once I slipped into bed beside her, she sat up and reached across me to prop herself up so that she was looking down at me. “I want to make sure there isn’t something else going on with the wounds that I missed.”
“You’re cute when you’re concerned,” I murmured, reaching up to brush stray hair out of her face. A coy glance was all I got before she placed a hand on my chest and summoned her darkness. Her eyes unfocused and followed something as if she were reading. ‘That’s right…I should be able to see now as well.’
I hesitated for only a moment before shifting my vision. What I saw stunned me into silence. The ever-shifting energies around both of us were a painfully bright, colorful, chaotic dance. Seeing the darkness around my ayraziis gave me new perspective on the dark aura she seemed to cloak herself in. It was an impossibly deep darkness yet still radiated with both color and warmth. I could see her powers mingling with mine around the “edges”, but she seemed to instinctively draw her power back from mine whenever they began to mix beyond a certain threshold.
“Nalithor?” Arianna questioned, her tone suggesting that she’d asked several times.
“The power around us…” I trailed off, letting my vision fade back to normal. “I suppose I can understand why some of our comrades would be perplexed about your status.”
“I don’t sense any lingering aether in your wounds,” Arianna began, tapping her claws against my skin. An amused smirk formed on her lips when I twitched. “You still need to show me what happened, you know. I’m not going to be satisfied with the half-explanation you gave me before.”
“Now?” I asked, coiling my tail around one of her legs. “Are you certain you don’t wish to finish resting first?”
“I’m not going to be able to sleep well if I’m still worrying about this.” Arianna traced her fingertips over my chest, her lips tugging into a small frown. “Whatever happened aside, I’m pretty sure you should be at least a little upset with me for…”
I pulled Arianna into a kiss to silence her, but she made it difficult for me to withdraw. When I finally managed to bring myself to pull back, she crossed her arms on top of my chest and rested her chin on them, pouting. Her tails switched back and forth in frustration but she didn’t say anything more.
“You shouldn’t have been able to wound me in such a way to begin with,” I answered her finally, watching her pout grow. “I’m a trained warrior, Arianna, while you have learned through experience. Since I have had formal training and have done a great deal of fighting in the field… Clearly I needed to be shown that I’ve become complacent.
“That aside, Adinvyr nearly kill each other all the time—especially when it comes to couples. If you weren’t capable of injuring me, the people of Draemir would make our relationship…difficult.”
“Feeding should have healed the scars, though.” Arianna gave me a look before releasing a small sigh. “Show me what happened before we got to Sihix! A lot of things don’t make sense to me with all that information missing, you know?”
“And then you will rest?” I asked, earning a convincing nod from her in return. “Very well, I will show you all that happened. You may want to get comfortable first.”
“I am comfortable.” Arianna tapped her fingers against my chest a few times and then smiled. “That said, I will move if you aren’t.”
“You’re fine.” I ruffled her curls and then let my hand fall to her cheek. “Brace yourself. Our clash was rather intense. Close your eyes.”
She pouted but did as I asked. I took a moment to steel myself and then reached out to her consciousness. A small shiver ran through her as I pulled her gently into my thoughts and guided her through the events of that night. Her predatory fervor, her lust, and the way she had carried herself appealed to me far more than I wanted to admit.
“Vralsium, huh?” Arianna’s murmur made me pause and crack an eye open, but she just shot me an amused smile before tracing her fingers over my chest. “I suppose I should show you what drove me to that state since it wasn’t just the ‘feel’ of the wrongness nearby.”
“Later,” I stated, catching her hand as she reached for my face. “For now I want you to rest—and I should as well.”
“Fine.” Arianna rolled off me and sprawled out on her back with a sigh, then shot me a sideways look. “Hard for me to go running off in search of trouble when my senses are being cut off. You don’t need to look so worried.”
“I was concerned that knowing what happened might make you more upset about my scars,” I replied after a moment. Before she could respond, I shifted to lay my head on her abdomen and wrapped one of my arms around her. Her soft skin and comforting warmth drew a small sigh from me. I could have stayed like that forever.
Arianna said nothing and instead placed her forearm across my shoulders. Her thumb stroked my skin at a steady rhythmic pace, lulling me toward sleep. I felt well and truly exhausted. Remembering the events of Limbo was not the restful manner of sleep I had envisioned.
☽ ✷ ☾
“Nalithor, there is one more thing we must discuss before they arrive,” Sihix spoke in a matter-of-fact manner from his throne-like seat. His tri-colored eyes were narrowed at me and he had his arms crossed. I half expected him to begin chastising me.
“What is it?” I sighed in exasperation. “I don’t think I can take more lectures.”
“It’s a message for your other self, for when you return to him.” Sihix’s expression gave me pause despite my desire to argue against him. I didn’t intend to return to that one without a fight. I was my own person now…mostly.
“I still don’t intend to go back to him.” I crossed my arms but curiosity got the better of me. “That said, I suppose I could give him the message since he’ll be coming here with my Arianna anyway.”
“Do not fear the false Elders.” Sihix rose from his chair and took several steps toward me, allowing darkness to coat his form. My pulse leapt into my throat, making it difficult to breathe or swallow. “The moment you begin to fear the false Elders and what they may be capable of, you will lose. You will lose yourself, your role, and any chance of keeping Arianna alive.”
I awoke with a jolt and my pulse racing. My grip on Arianna tensed briefly before I buried my face in her stomach and forced myself to calm down. A message like that from Sihix to me was not how I wanted to start my morning.
With care, I pulled myself out of bed and then pulled more blankets over Arianna’s sleeping form. She was so deep in her slumber that she didn’t even shift in search of me this time, or react to the shifting of blankets. I sat on the edge of the bed and stroked her hair for several moments in silence, watching for any sign that she might need to be saved from her dreams.
Alas, she was peaceful.
‘Well, at least one of us is.’ I stood again and dressed in a loose kimono before striding through the small house barefoot. Even if it was mine, I felt disconnected from it because it technically belonged to my fire—not me. Yet, I knew where everything was. Every book, every cooking utensil, every little trinket, and even some crystals that I’d taken for study.
I decided to cook breakfast for Arianna and myself to get my mind off Sihix’s warnings and the dreams from earlier in the night. Instead, I turned my thoughts to Arianna’s reaction toward my hair. She seemed truly adamant that I shouldn’t cut it—if that was the case, then I had to think of some way to keep our parents from being insulted by it.
Even if it was troublesome, I couldn’t help but be amused. I couldn’t recall any time prior where Arianna had openly admitted a specific aspect of me that she liked. She was obviously attracted to me, of course, but she seemed to hold herself back in some ways. I was pleased despite myself—and despite her threat that she would cry if I cut it.
‘I suppose that just indicates her seriousness,’ I mused, pulling a cutting board down from one of the nearby cabinets. ‘Hmmm… Perhaps I will cook her a Draemiran breakfast in return for what she cooked for me before.
‘Djialkan, where in the hells are you?’
‘Oh? You can reach me from there now, can you?’ Djialkan murmured in an intrigued fashion. ‘I am with Arianna’s guards and Alala. Sihix asked Alala and I to show them around the forest and put them to work so that they would not interfere.’
I frowned briefly. ‘Shouldn’t Sihix have wanted them to help protect Arianna?’
‘She does not need protection while here,’ Djialkan answered, exasperated. ‘We will return in two days. You have until then to adjust.
‘Is Arianna alright?’
‘She’s a little frustrated because the wounds she inflicted on me left scars,’ I replied with a small sigh as I began slicing fish for our breakfast. ‘She healed me, and I’ve fed, but the scars remain. That blade of hers is troublesome. Even if I would prefer that the scars stay, they shouldn’t have.’
‘Humph. Adinvyr.’ Djialkan’s tone made it clear he was rolling his eyes at me, but I said nothing. Arguing with the fae-dragon was far too much effort than it was worth. ‘I will examine your scars when I return. You are right that they should have healed.’
Djialkan’s presence faded, leaving me to prepare breakfast in silence. Sihix hadn’t even given Arianna a chance to eat before luring her to talk to my fire. She had been asleep for so long beforehand, and it felt as though we had been sleeping for a long time after. My stomach rumbled as if to confirm the thought.
‘Perhaps I’ll start some soup and rice for us too…’ I set aside the fish and rummaged through the nearby pantry, looking for anything that stood out. ‘She always like dumplings when we were younger. Think I’ll make those too.’
Quite some time later I had cooked practically the entire pantry, filling the house with a myriad of scents. I arranged the food on two trays and carried them into the bedroom, surprised to find that Arianna was still asleep despite all my rustling in the kitchen. Her stomach, at least, was awake given the low growl I heard. I chuckled to myself and placed the trays on a table before returning to the kitchen to fetch tea, cups, and honey.
After I finished setting the table I strode over to the bed and brushed Arianna’s hair out of her face. She grumbled something and began to roll over but stopped before she could finish the motion. I smiled at her when she cracked an eye open to look at me.
“What smells so good?” Arianna asked with a slight slur.
“I decided to make us breakfast—there’s tea as well.” I ruffled her hair before moving out of her way to fetch a kimono for her. She swayed to her feet and pawed at one of her eyes, yawning, before letting me help her into the kimono. “Did you sleep well?”
“I dunno yet.” Arianna yawned again before leaning up against my side and tugging at my clothing. “You should’ve woken me up so that I could help!”
“I wanted to let you rest a little longer.” I guided her over to the table and then motioned for her to sit in one of the chairs. “Given your reaction to this region, I’m assuming that you spotted problems for us to fix. It seemed best to make certain you could recover as much as possible.”
“You haven’t looked yet?” Arianna motioned out a nearby window as she took her seat.
“I want to see what you saw first,” I answered, taking a seat across from her. “Given your reaction to it, I have to assume that we won’t be able to wait long before addressing it. Even with Sihix suppressing your instincts you’re still tempted to do something about the problem, aren’t you?”
“Well…yes,” Arianna grumbled, flicking her gaze away from me briefly. She stared out the window in silence for a while before returning her attention to me. Her lips parted to speak but she paused and tilted her head, shooting me a confused look. “What?”
“You’re beautiful,” I informed her with a small smile.
“Oh please.” Arianna flushed and reached for her tea. “My hair is a mess, I’m barely dressed—”
“My wild, beautiful ayraziis.” I teased her, watching her face redden more. “We should do what we can to make certain we’re fully rested. I wouldn’t forgive myself if I let you push yourself too hard and something happened to you because of it—I’d like to think you feel similarly about me.
“There’s a reason you haven’t gone off on your own to deal with it yet, isn’t there?”
“Mmm?” Arianna paused with her fork between her lips and then finished eating her bite of food before replying, “Well, first of all, you don’t want me wandering off on my own. Second…I don’t know how to even begin tackling the problems. Neither of us are Chrot’zi. Entering Yiltanys would be a fool’s errand.”
“Even for Balance?” I motioned between us and watched her tilt her head in thought. “It’s our duty to fix the problem, so there’s likely some way for us to address it—from either inside or outside the forest.”
“How are we ever going to decide which one of us will do the cooking?” Arianna’s question surprised me into laughter. “What? I’m serious! This is really good! Speaking of…is there more?”
Arianna tilted one of her bowls to show it was empty, then shot me a pout when I continued to chuckle. I plucked several of her empty dishes off the tray and then made my way to the kitchen, soon returning with more food for her. Even though I had only been gone for a few minutes, she perked up and looked genuinely excited to see me when I returned.
‘I can’t believe any part of me ever considered keeping her at arm’s length,’ I placed the bowls on her tray and then reached up to ruffle her curls. The sight of her collar around her throat made my pulse quicken briefly. Had she decided to put it on while I was busy? “Will you show me what you saw of the forests? After breakfast, of course.”
“I can show you now.” Arianna offered me her hand and wiggled her fingers at me. “It’s just an image, nothing as complex as what it took for you to show me the… ‘aftermath’.”
“Finish your breakfast first,” I replied dryly, giving her a look when she picked up a dumpling with her free hand and shoveled it into her mouth. “We can, and should, take our time. I am curious, of course, but…”
I trailed off into a sigh when Arianna’s thoughts breached mine and shoved the image of the two forests and the X’shmiran crater into my mind. My frustration was brief. The two forests wrapped around what used to be the country of X’shmir was breathtakingly beautiful. However, it was the same thing that we all saw.
Or at least, that’s what I initially thought.
Before I could question why Arianna was showing me the “normal” appearance of the region, the vision changed. I grew still and felt my jaw go slack. Such beautiful terrain had been marred, perhaps irreparably, by such hideous and foul magics. Arianna didn’t share what she felt from or towards the magics, but it didn’t take much for me to imagine.
“Is there more soup?” Arianna asked casually once she withdrew from my thoughts and allowed my vision to return to normal. I just stared at her for a moment, dumbfounded. If there was anything I knew about my ayraziis, it was how violently she reacted to such wrong things.
“You think that I may have to keep you from following your instincts again?” I asked, narrowing my eyes at her.
Arianna smiled and propped her cheek against her fist, watching me with a predatory gaze before speaking, “I nearly slipped out of Sihix’s control at least once already. You should be ready for when it happens again. We can both agree that neither of us are a match for his power—which means he let his grasp loosen on purpose.”
“He is known for being somewhat of a trickster, is he not?” I sighed and then rose to my feet. “Hand me your bowl. There’s still more soup left if you want it.”
“Yes please.” Arianna gave me a brilliant smile and passed me her bowl.
When I got to the kitchen I set our bowls aside and then placed my hands on the counter. Anger seethed within me. I couldn’t fathom why someone would want to defile the Aledacian Forests in such a manner. Their power, their beauty, both marred by that strange viscous substance. Was it truly a type of magic?
‘It has to be, if it requires magical sight to see…’ I took a steadying breath before moving to refill our bowls. ‘I must control myself. We can’t both fall to the instincts of Balance. Arianna needs to be able to rely on me to anchor her.
“We have two days before your guards and Guardians return, Arianna.”
“Oh? Good, so we have some time to work without their interference,” Arianna murmured as I placed more food in front of her. She tracked me with a thoughtful expression as I took a seat across from her once more. “We should probably start with Sihix’s forest since we’re already here, and it’s safer than going to Yiltanys. That said, I got the impression that Yiltanys’ corruption is spreading here.
“There’s also the matter of Lehrr still. Sihix left me with the impression that there’s something odd going on with that one as well.”
“How about we go for a stroll and see if we can confirm that the corruption is spreading between forests?” I offered with a small smile.
Her concern about Lehrr concerned me, threatening to make jealousy rear its head, but I forced myself to remain calm. After all he had done for her in X’shmir, it was understandable that Arianna might hope to repay him in some way. More than anything, I was bothered that my fire didn’t seem to have any recent memory of seeing Lehrr outside of the “prison”. No matter where I searched, it had been decades since we’d encountered each other.
“The corruption should be our first priority.” Arianna nodded and then ate a few bites of her soup before continuing, “If it really is spreading, then fixing Sihix’s forest would be a temporary measure. We could eradicate the source that’s here—wherever it is—but that wouldn’t keep Yiltanys’ corruption from overtaking Sihix eventually.
“Yiltanys should look just as white and golden to aetheric vision as it does to our normal vision. Since it’s so vastly not, we should assume that either the source of corruption is nearby or that Yiltanys has been corrupted for a long time. Perhaps even both.”
“There’s also the corruption that’s ‘dripping’ down into the crater,” I spoke, earning a brief nod in response. “Very well. After we’ve finished our breakfast we will go to the nearest edge of the forest to determine whether or not that foul magic is spreading.”
I watched her carefully for a few moments before returning to my own breakfast. Her mere presence affected me far more than it used to, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I felt more determined than ever before to make her my goddess. If that meant getting her to choose me in return, then I would make it undeniably clear that there was no choice better than me.
‘Which means I need to work with her instead of trying to keep her from it.’ I considered what that meant for a moment, but my mind was made up. Arianna would be my goddess. There was no one else I’d consider taking on as my partner in life, nor was I willing to let the Jivyador get in the way. ‘Together, we will crush them.’