Chapter Seventy-Seven: Their Game, Our Pace
“Is the Elf alright?” I questioned, glancing at the Draekin.
“I wish she wasn’t.” Eyrian snorted in response. “The Beshulthiens need to teach the Elf races some damned manners.”
“Their hatred of Humans is not misplaced, even if it is misaimed,” Nalithor muttered, shaking his head. “The Elves are the least of our worries, for now. When word of her behavior gets back to Rabere he will likely take corrective action.
“For now, I want to see what manner of shape the city districts are in.”
“About that,” Eyrian began, offering a sheet of paper to Nalithor, “the Families are already suggesting changes.”
“Changes to what?” I questioned. Nalithor skimmed the document and then lowered it so that I could see. “Ah…but isn’t it too soon for that?”
The document listed a variety of amendments to the monument in the Merchants’ District. Now that they knew I was alive, they wanted to amend the engraving to reflect that. One or two Families had suggested removing the monument entirely, but the remaining Families appeared to have shut down that idea.
“Far too soon,” Nalithor murmured.
“They want to decide matters now so that the order can be given the moment we’re prepared.” Eyrian shrugged before placing a hand on his hip. “That aside, I’m afraid we can’t let the two of you wander alone today. At minimum, I will accompany you. However, it would be for the best if we brought along two more.
“The rest of our men will work from the shadows.”
“Call for Reu and Azhar, then,” Nalithor suggested almost immediately. “The four of us together isn’t at all unusual and shouldn’t raise suspicions.” My nylziis paused and glanced down at me, his mouth curving into an amused smile. “Do you intend to wander the city in your armor, Arianna?”
“At least this way I can put brats in their place without having to change first.” I crossed my arms at him, watching his smile broaden.
“Summon something more appropriate for a day in the city,” Nalithor stated before leaning down to kiss the top of my head. “You needn’t be on-edge when you have us with you.”
“Fine…” I grumbled, summoning lightweight Susthulite trousers and a cropped shirt. When I caught Nalithor already staring, I knew I’d made the right decision and couldn’t help but shoot him a smirk. ‘You said we were going into the city for business and pleasure, but it looks like you are thinking more about the latter now.’
‘You make it difficult to think of much else,’ Nalithor answered with a chuckle.
“We should stop by the temples once we’ve worked our way down to the Merchants’ District,” Eyrian suggested as he stuffed his hands into his trouser pockets. “Aurelian and Elise want something from us, apparently.”
“My men tell me we should search the temples,” Reulidru spoke in a low voice after appearing beside us. For the first time since I’d met him he was dressed casually and his demeanor was relaxed.
“Mine said the same,” Azhar stated as he walked out of the base of a tree. He didn’t bother to cover his mouth as he yawned, displaying fangs to rival an Imviir’s. “Hear you three had an interesting morning.”
“Lucifer likes to keep things interesting, that’s for sure,” Eyrian muttered, grimacing. “Even a few decades of service to him doesn’t get you used to it, either. Soon as you think you’re learning his quirks he changes it up again.”
“You’re the one that thought joining the Imperial Guard fresh out of the academy was a good idea,” Nalithor pointed out, smirking. “We’ve both known him since we were young yet you still went with the toughest job you could find.”
‘Nalithor seems happy,’ Djialkan remarked, nuzzling my shoulder as I followed the men in silence. ‘Falrrsald may have been troublesome, but I believe it was for the best. Neither of you appear to have lingering reservations.’
‘Are you implying he wasn’t happy before?’ I glanced at the fae-dragon before picking up my pace. The group of men seemed to have forgotten that their strides were much longer than mine, but I didn’t mind.
‘He was not,’ Djialkan stated, his tone final. “Alala and I will be rejoining Onyre and Aleri to continue our discussions, assuming neither of you have arguments against that.”
“We should be quite fine,” Nalithor answered, turning to look at the fae-dragon. In doing so, he finally seemed to notice that I was lagging behind. A smile spread across his lips as he closed the distance between us and put an arm around my waist again. ‘You should have said something.’
‘I didn’t want to interrupt.’ I shook my head slightly. ‘Besides, I can keep up.’
Alala whacked me in the face with her tail before leaping off of Nalithor’s shoulder and scampering toward the nearest wall. She stopped at the base and waited for Djialkan, who promptly took on the form of a Devillian boy before picking her up. The fae-dragon grimaced as the delighted fox licked his cheek, then turned to make his way to their destination.
“Should we stop for lunch?” Eyrian asked, glancing between me and Nalithor.
“That would be best. We didn’t find time for breakfast,” Nalithor answered, nodding briefly.
“We did try to get you two to go to sleep earlier,” Reulidru pointed out. “Arianna’s an even worse workaholic than you are, Nalithor. You’re going to have to rein yourself in or else you will both exhaust yourselves. I doubt anyone else can stop her.”
“I’ll make him fight for it if he tries to stop me!” I protested. “After all, I can’t sleep if a problem is still bothering me. It’ll keep me up until I’ve fixed it or at least found a solution.”
“At least fighting me has a chance of wearing you out.” Nalithor laughed, squeezing me. “If you’re struggling with a problem then come to us—or at least me. It will be much easier to find a solution if we work together, won’t it?”
“That’s true, but…” I pursed my lips, unable to think of a valid argument.
“You will get used to it.” Nalithor kissed the top of my head again before turning to address his friends, “Where do you want to get breakfast then?”
“How about one of the cafes near the temples?” Eyrian suggested. “It’s on the way and the Families are frustrated that we haven’t been making many public appearances lately. If we play our cards right it’ll help with our story too.”
“Speaking of…” Reulidru nudged his glasses further up his nose as he turned to look at Nalithor. “Do you intend to go into town dressed like that? You’ll scare off everyone.”
I glanced to the side at Nalithor when he huffed. Reulidru had a point—Nalithor was still dressed in formal armor and his heavy overrobe. He looked rather imposing but, that aside, it looked far too hot to wear throughout the day.
“Reu’s right,” I stated before Nalithor could argue. I slipped out of his grasp and tugged at the front of his overrobe. “You’re going to bake yourself wearing that. I don’t particularly mind if you terrify everyone, personally, but I can’t have you uncomfortable either.”
“Very well, I’ll go change.” Nalithor gave in with a sigh and a small smile. When he glanced toward his friends, his expression was stern. “Wait near the gate where there are more guards. I won’t be long.”
Nalithor vanished into the shadows and I turned to look at his three friends, noting they looked a little rattled by the way he’d addressed them. A moment passed before Eyrian cleared his throat and motioned for us to walk again. I followed them but my thoughts weren’t on them, or even on my nylziis.
A small smile spread across my lips as we neared the palace gates. The soldiers guarding it looked at ease, as did my companions, but they had no reason to be. I wondered if they couldn’t smell what I smelled, or if perhaps the scent was normal to them by now.
“Keep an eye out, will you?” I strode past Eyrian and brandished my sword, giving him a pointed look. He didn’t even question me before immediately changing gears, a full set of plate armor shimmering into place around his form. Azhar and Reulidru were quick to follow, but spared me a questioning look in the process.
Instead of speaking, I walked over to the wall beside the gate and thrust the tip of my sword into a shadow. A piercing, bestial scream echoed through the air. The gate guards all drew their weapons and shifted to look toward the spot I had stabbed. I pursed my lips at the blood dripping through the air, then twisted my blade.
If the creature wouldn’t reveal itself I would make it reveal itself.
When the creature’s camouflage finally failed and disappeared I lost any remaining sense of amusement. The gate guards flew into a flurry of barked orders and sent one of their men running for the palace, and another to the Sapphire Quarter below. I leapt back from the creature when it swung at me. Eyrian and Azhar took the opportunity to put themselves between me and the creature, their weapons readied.
“I leave you alone for a few minutes and you immediately find trouble?” Nalithor sighed, appearing beside me from an explosion of shadows. “Honestly, it’s your talent for finding things like this that makes me inclined to lock you up in my domain for the foreseeable future.”
“You three couldn’t smell it?” I asked, looking at Eyrian and Azhar’s backs before glancing over to Reulidru.
“No, Your Highness, and I haven’t seen a Chaos Beast capable of camouflage before either,” Reulidru answered. He pulled a sheet of crystal out of his shrizar and scribbled something on it with his finger, his expression grim. “If it’s managed to get all the way to the palace we will have to assume there are more throughout the city. I’ll have our men assist the military and the Imperial Guard with the search.”
“You two should return to the palace,” Eyrian stated, rounding on me and Nalithor. “I’m sure you want to get involved but—”
“No… I have a bad feeling about this,” Nalithor murmured, his gaze on the beast.
Eyrian opened his mouth to tell Nalithor off and then frowned at his expression. The Draekin shifted to examine the beast again, then grew pale. “Nalithor, get her out of here. Now.”
“Come along, princess,” Nalithor spoke in a tone that left no room for arguments and pulled me into his arms. ‘Troublesome as you can be…it’s a good thing you caught its scent when you did.’
My nylziis pulled me into the shadows and, before I could question him, we reappeared in a familiar place. However, this time he hadn’t needed to conjure a doorway to take me there.
“Your domain? What—” I turned to look up at Nalithor but fell silent when I saw the fierce expression on his face.
“They’re hunting you,” Nalithor stated, simmering rage tinging his voice. “It was tracking your every movement—wouldn’t take its eyes off you.
“You’re not going back to the palace until we’ve made certain there aren’t any left.”
“But I was the only one who could smell it!” I protested, ignoring the sound of the approaching Vulin. “It was hiding more than just its visual appearance, at least from them. How do you plan to hunt them down if I’m not there to find them?”
“Yiltanys and Sihix will take care of it,” Nalithor answered. He gripped me by the hand and tugged me toward his palace. “You and I will stay here until they send word that they believe it is safe.
“Yumeko, Arianna and I will be in the mrifon lounge—please have breakfast brought to us.”
“Of course, Rely’ric,” Yumeko spoke happily. “Who would you like me to send to keep an eye on your friends?”
“Have Daijiro select fifteen to go to Dauthrmir,” Nalithor answered, earning a startled squeak from the female Vulin. “Four are to serve Yiltanys and Sihix—they have matters which need to be taken care of, and will likely have more with the beasts’ appearance. The rest are to help Eyrian and his men.
“Relay those orders to Daijiro immediately. We can stand to wait for breakfast.”
“Y-yes, Rely’ric!” Yumeko exclaimed before darting off.
“We won’t be passive.” Nalithor shot me a knowing look when I opened my mouth to protest again. “You and I can both see aether now—which means we are the best candidates to examine the data from the academy.”
“Data?” I asked, sighing. “Nalithor, I haven’t eaten yet. You’re moving far too fast for me.”
“The beast had to get past the barrier somehow,” Nalithor began as he led me into a plush room, indicating for me to sit. I knew he wouldn’t hear any arguments still, so I obliged him. “We are going to go through the past several days of records from the academy and see if we can figure out how the beast got in. It could be related to the attack on Skae’dar.”
“Skae’dar?” I sighed at him.
“N’tarsorn territory,” Nalithor answered, sitting beside me. “Whoever controls the beasts should know that isn’t where you were, but we can’t rule out the possibility that the incidents are related.”
“It could have been a distraction,” I pointed out. “How many troops did Dauthrmir send with Haruto and the other two Families who left to check their territories?”
“None, Yiltanys and Sihix advised against it.” Nalithor’s brow furrowed and he crossed his arms, sinking into thought for a moment. “They told me to take you to my domain and remain here with you until they’ve eliminated the beasts within the barrier.”
“They’re going to act?” I arched an eyebrow. “Then we should assume something nasty is brewing. Can you obtain the academy’s data from here?”
“With ease,” Nalithor replied, a small smile on his face. He pulled me close and breathed a shaky sigh, his fingers digging into the small of my back. “We need to work on your communication skills, Arianna. If you find or sense something—”
“Hey, at least I told them to keep an eye out!” I pouted, gripping Nalithor’s shirt in both my hands as I glared up at him. “Even I didn’t think it was going to be a beast! I thought it was going to be a person—”
“And you thought ‘stab first, ask questions later?’” Nalithor gave me a look.
“Well…maybe,” I grumbled before shaking my head hard. “Okay, maybe it wasn’t the ideal course of action but—”
“You are arguing for the sake of arguing.” Nalithor kissed me briefly before withdrawing, a smile on his face. “There is no changing my mind on this—my priority is to make certain you’re safe. I refuse to put you in harm’s way unnecessarily.”
“What did we say about bringing mortals to your domain?!” The angered voice made Nalithor pause, an intrigued expression crossing his face. My nylziis shifted to look toward the Elder as he appeared. “Return her to wherever the hells she came from or—”
“You would have me willingly put my ayraziis in danger?” Nalithor inquired, settling a dangerous look on the Jivyador.
‘I would argue that disobeying them, for now, is probably more dangerous,’ I quipped, glancing toward the enraged “Elder.”
“If the God of Balance cannot protect someone from those pesky creatures, then he has no business being a deity at all,” the Elder retorted, snorting. “You may have your breakfast but I expect you to return her to where she belongs after you’ve finished.”
“She belongs by my side.” Nalithor growled at the Elder. He took a deep breath and then exhaled, his expression one of immense annoyance. “Very well, we will return to Dauthrmir.”
‘You’re giving in?’ I glanced to the side at my nylziis, surprised he hadn’t put up more of a fight. However, the glimmer of hatred in his eyes as he stared at the Elder made me fall silent again. It was subtle, but he had the look of a man that had noticed something upsetting.
‘Their power is nonexistent yet he knows about the beasts in Dauthrmir already,’ Nalithor stated, his muscles tensing. I could sense him struggling with the desire to draw his weapon against the bastard Elder, far more than he had prior to regaining the lost part of himself.
“Do you intend to stand there and watch us the entire time we have our breakfast?” I shifted to look at the Elder and placed a hand on Nalithor’s thigh when I sensed him preparing to pounce. “My nylziis said he would do as you asked—there’s no reason for you to linger.”
“You should tighten your Human’s leash.” The Elder sneered at Nalithor. “She should know better than to speak to Us in such a fashion.”
Leaving it at that, the Elder disappeared entirely and Nalithor let out a stream of curses. He slammed his fist into the floor hard enough to crack the wooden boards and split open his skin. I sighed at him and took his hand in mine so that I could heal it.
“Is it my turn to lecture you about caution and patience?” I asked dryly.
“That was far more difficult than I thought it would be,” Nalithor groaned, his shoulders slumping. “We should probably bring back food for the others. They’re going to be cross when we return so soon. We’re going to have to increase security in the entire palace as well, but especially in our wing of it. And—”
“Nalithor,” I interjected, watching as he took a deep breath. “They’re clearly playing a game. I’m certain they’re trying to distract us from something else. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to get caught up in their games or their pace.”
“You’re right.” Nalithor pulled me into a tight embrace and buried his face in my shoulder. His heart was racing and his body trembled with adrenaline, giving me a small indication of just how close he had come to attacking the Elder—and just how worried he was about my safety. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“And I won’t let anything happen to you,” I countered, tugging on his hair since I couldn’t prod his chest. “When we get back we should proceed into the city and act as normal.”
“Arianna, that is the last thing we should do!”
“Think about it.” I pulled out of his embrace and crossed my arms at him. “Not only do we have business with the temples and their owners, but a sudden change in our plans or behavior may be precisely what those bastards are after. Furthermore, if we become reclusive they may turn their tactics against the people instead.
“We should force them to match our pace.”
“As long as you’re safe, I…” Nalithor supped my face in both hands and sighed, shaking his head. “No…that’s too selfish of me.”
“And I recall you recently lecturing some ‘pups’ about acting in their own interests,” I teased him, smiling. “Nalithor, we’re both more than capable of handling any threats on our own. Together, we shouldn’t have any issues. The people, however, do require protection.”
“Then we had best find the barrier’s flaw as quickly as possible,” Nalithor murmured, straightening his posture. However, he still didn’t look fully convinced. “If something happens—”
“I won’t leave your side,” I replied, rubbing my cheek against his upper arm.
“If it would save you—”
“Arianna, if there’s a real threat—”
“Then just make me your goddess and it will be fine.”
“Hubby-puppy.” I reached up with my free hand to grip his chin and then laughed when I spotted his flustered expression. “You may call me adorable all the time but you have your moments too.”
“Very well,” Nalithor spoke, his tone a mix of amusement and defeat. “I do hope you enjoy my company, Arianna, because you will not be leaving my side for even a moment until this matter has been dealt with.”