Chapter Sixty-Two: Defiled
‘At this rate we won’t return to Sihix’s domain until well past midnight.’ I glanced to the side at Nalithor and then focused my gaze forward again. We had been walking for hours yet we’d found nothing to help us with our task. Arom’s shield of light kept the forest’s corrupted inhabitants from wandering too close to us, but not from following us.
Hundreds of corrupt creatures and people alike surged around us, tossed aside by Arom’s shield. We had yet to come across any of the Elven markers that Arom believed would assist us, and Nalithor was becoming more agitated by the step. While Erist and her husband were surrounding in light that shone a myriad of pinks, my nylziis was cloaked in darkness.
I had the feeling that, if we didn’t find a hint soon, Nalithor might snap.
‘Quite the scary one you chose, hmmm?’ Sihix quipped, his voice full of interest.
‘Are you implying something, Sihix?’ Nalithor bristled and glanced over at me.
‘I’m not going to meddle that much.’ Sihix laughed. ‘…yet.’
‘I’d prefer it if you didn’t meddle at all,’ I crossed my arms, suppressing the urge to unleash hell on the Lari’xan. ‘Nalithor and I can manage ourselves quite fine without—’
‘I would disagree with you there,’ Sihix interjected, his comment causing Nalithor’s tail to snap to the side. ‘The two of you have much you still need to discuss and yet this Adinvyr of yours is hesitant to do so. Did Arom tell you nothing, Nalithor?’
‘We are working, Sihix,’ Nalithor replied tersely, a growl rumbling in his throat. ‘This is not the time for such discussions. The corruption in this forest far exceeds our expectations and we can’t risk anything causing us to miss our quarry.’
‘Nalithor is right,’ I agreed, nodding my head once. ‘Whatever we need to discuss will have to wait.’ I paused to shoot Nalithor a sharp look. ‘That said, if the puppy is considering doing something that will make me skin you—I recommend you put him in his place immediately, Nalithor.’
‘It’s nothing like—’
‘I refuse to let the puppy’s inexperience and skittishness get in our way.’
‘Didn’t you say yourself that I need to accept that part of myself?’
‘Would the puppy abandon me?’
‘Of course not.’
‘What about you then, hubby?’
‘I would sooner disembowel myself.’
‘She’s trying to say not to let the puppy rule you.’ Sihix sighed in exasperation. ‘Honestly. Why can’t you creatures ever simply say what you mean? Is it truly that difficult a concept for you?’
‘You’re one to talk, oh-so-mysterious Lari’xan.’ I snorted.
“Here,” Arom spoke up, drawing my attention toward him. “This…was a marker.”
“‘Was’?” I strode over to the flat stone the God of Love had crouched by.
“It’s broken.” Arom frowned at the cracked stone. “The aether has been drained and the engravings removed. Someone may have been expecting us.”
‘Well, that isn’t exactly a far stretch.’ I pursed my lips and shifted to look at the encroaching horde. “We shouldn’t stay in one spot. Let’s get moving again.”
‘Are you alright?’ Nalithor nudged me with his tail.
‘I could ask you the same thing,’ I replied, catching the small sigh that escaped him. ‘Our companions may be oblivious but I’m not. Your rage has been growing for hours yet you still haven’t snapped.
‘Just what is my favorite predator up to, hmmm?’
‘Favorite predator?’ Nalithor chuckled and put an arm around my waist. ‘Without you, this hunt would not be an enjoyable one.
‘That said…we are running out of options. If the temple markers have been destroyed we will have to think of something else. Of the two of us…you are the expert on corruption.’
‘You want to know what I think we should do?’ I murmured, watching my nylziis nod.
“Honestly, has every person and creature succumbed to the corruption?” Erist sighed, her voice heavy. “Are we certain that fixing the source of this madness will cure the people as well?”
“No,” I answered. “If we can avoid slaying Yiltanys’ children, we will. However, if it doesn’t work and he has no alternative to offer…”
“…Arianna and I will deal with them,” Nalithor finished, his tone frigid. ‘I have no intention of sharing our prey with them. They can find their own.’
I arched an eyebrow at Nalithor as he pulled me through the forest once more. His taut grip on my waist and the faint tremor in his hands betrayed the depth of his growing rage. A small smile spread across my lips. It was so tempting to see if I could urge him into acting upon that whirlwind of feelings, but I knew better.
Until we had something to channel that rage against, it was best not to tempt him.
‘You never answered me—what do you think we should do?’ Nalithor gave my waist a brief squeeze.
‘We’re going to have to go into the tunnels,’ I replied, frowning. ‘It’s either that, or we will have to stop somewhere and channel most of our power into finding the source. I’m not convinced that our shields will be able to take the beating within the tunnels, but staying still presents us with other challenges.’
‘I…don’t think I will be able to control myself if we enter the tunnels.’ Nalithor shivered, his tail sneaking over to coil around mine. ‘Even here there’s only one thing I want to do more than purge this forest.’
‘Oh, and what is that?’ I asked, intrigued.
‘Conquer you.’ Nalithor’s husky declaration brought an amused smile to my lips.
‘I’m quite certain you’ve already succeeded in that, Nalithor,’ I commented with a quiet laugh. ‘Are you not satisfied enough with last night?’
‘I won’t be satisfied until I’m certain you belong to me completely.’ Nalithor’s serious tone made me glance at him again. ‘I’ve had enough of others attempting to draw close to me purely for my power, my status, or because of my allure as an Adinvyr.
‘You…don’t appear to be like them. I can’t say that I’ve ever met anyone quite like you, Arianna. You’re so infuriatingly resistant to me and yet…’
‘…I fell in love with you anyway?’ I offered, watching as he averted his gaze. Even with his helmet in the way I could tell he was flustered by my bluntness.
‘Had you not suffered the misfortune of being raised with Humans, I might be vexed by your use of that term,’ Nalithor remarked dryly, pulling me closer to his side. ‘It is accurate but it doesn’t quite carry the appropriate weight, now does it?’
‘Hmmm?’ I tilted my head, wracking my brain for what he could be referring to. The common tongue was certainly simpler than Draemiran, and that was especially true of their words for expressing anything to do with emotional or physical love. If I hadn’t known better I would have thought the language was trying to outdo itself. ‘Ah. I know.
‘Sel reslrrt cimyr nyld zyl vyghr.’
Nalithor came to an abrupt stop and stared down at me in disbelief. He was at a complete loss for words and, instead of speaking, pulled me into a tight embrace after several seconds. The sound of his racing heartbeat brought a small smile to my lips. I caught Erist and Arom giving us an odd look but Nalithor was either oblivious or didn’t care.
The speechless Adinvyr slowly released me, any hint of his prior rage gone. It was quite obvious that he hadn’t thought I would go with a proclamation as serious as that, but I meant it.
‘Your hearts…beat only for me?’ Nalithor asked in a tone that indicated he wasn’t certain he’d heard me right. ‘You even went as far as to alter it to a plural, Arianna? I… Why—’
‘Why would I give only one to you?’ I countered with an amused smile. ‘One way or another, I intend to make you my god. To the hells with your pedigree, species, race, power—none of that matters to me.
‘What does matter to me is that I can’t imagine sharing this role with anyone else…and that your feelings are mutual. The point is moot if you don’t feel the same way.’
‘No one else could hope to compete with you, and I would never give them a chance to,’ Nalithor murmured, his tone still one of shock. ‘It’s so easy to forget, sometimes, that this role was yours first—that you never had and never will have a reason to seek me for my power or my “pedigree” as you put it.
‘Even so, you’re certain you desire…me? Not someone less—’
‘I already submitted to you. You’re not getting away from me that easy,’ I informed him, smacking him with my tail as I strode past. ‘No one will get in my way—and that includes you.’
“Are you lovebirds done?” Erist called dryly, her arms crossed as she watched us. “You look like you lost, Nalithor, whatever it was.”
“He lost the battle but he won the war,” I replied with a smirk when Nalithor didn’t say anything. “As for our work, we have limited options remaining if the markers are broken. We either enter the tunnels, or we stay in one place for a while so that Nalithor or I can use our power to locate the source.”
“It would be best if we did not venture into the tunnels,” Arom spoke, frowning. He casted a glance in Nalithor’s direction before looking at me. “I have seen, once, what happens if your nylziis is consumed by his role. From what I understand, you are even worse.
“Three of us can stand guard while the fourth searches.”
“Nalithor?” I pivoted to look at him when he still said nothing.
“I will conduct the search,” Nalithor spoke, his voice husky. He cleared his throat as if it would disguise the reason for his tone and then turned away from us to sit on a felled branch.
‘Just what did you say to him, girlie?’ Erist shot me a baffled look as we spread out to protect Nalithor.
‘Nothing to worry about,’ I replied with a vague smile.
‘Arianna…lend me your power,’ Nalithor murmured, the subtle shift of his head indicating his attention focusing on me. ‘Just some. The less time this takes, the better.’
‘Take what you need,’ I replied as I shifted my barriers for him.
‘What I need will have to wait.’ Nalithor sighed as tendrils of his power passed through my barriers and tugged at my darkness. ‘You truly make it difficult for me to want to focus on work, Arianna.
‘What you said…you truly meant it?’
‘I wouldn’t have said it otherwise,’ I answered, attempting not to shiver under the caress of his power. ‘You believe you can locate the Lari’xan’s power amidst all this muck?’
‘It should be quite simple to do so, yes.’ Nalithor allowed several more tendrils of his power to drift over to me and wrapped them around my torso. ‘The heart of a deity has a particular feel, and a particular look, to it. One that belongs to a Lari’xan is even more potent than yours.
‘The corruption here resembles nothing akin to light. Yiltanys’ heart should be simple to find. If not, then I will search for blackened aether. If I lose myself…join me.’
‘And if I try to take your prey?’
‘Then I will find a suitable punishment for you after we’ve finished.’
I smirked to myself and fell into silence, allowing Nalithor to focus on his task. Teasing him could wait. I’d already pushed my luck by being so blatant with him, especially since he’d already attempted to refocus my attention to work beforehand.
‘Ahhh, it warms my heart to see my favorites like this!’ Sihix purred, making the corner of my eye twitch. ‘You truly intend to let him do all the work, Arianna?’
‘I’m better suited to smashing things.’ I twirled my sword in one hand while looking out at the creatures beyond Arom’s shield. His light burned their skin whenever they touched it yet that didn’t stop them from trying to reach us. ‘Are these creatures even alive still?’
‘They are,’ Sihix confirmed, adopting a serious tone. ‘Who or what is controlling them is another matter. Their minds are…hibernating. I shudder to think that this could have happened to my children as well.’
‘Shouldn’t beings like yourselves be capable of preventing this from happening in the first place?’ I inquired, uneasy. ‘That said, deity hearts only respond like that when something fatal is approaching them, right?’
‘For deities such as yourself, yes,’ Sihix replied. ‘We can’t be killed, but we can be weakened or threatened. Our existence and our connection to the forests is integral to Avrirsa’s stability. If all our domains were to be corrupted, the rest of the world would soon to follow.
‘However, no one stands a chance at corrupting our domains if they can’t first subdue us. For our hearts to respond in such a way, the attackers must have some idea of how to incapacitate us for an extended time.’
‘Such as dismembering?’ I questioned, sensing Sihix bristle when he hissed. ‘It’s similar with the other gods, isn’t it? If someone were to take my head and bury it somewhere far from my body—’
‘That is one option, yes,’ Sihix interrupted with an audible grimace. ‘Whoever is behind this knows that Avrirsa would fall apart if we were somehow removed entirely. They seek to bind us in a way that keeps us from acting—which should indicate the false Elders are responsible. Remnants of another world have a vested interest in keeping us from restarting the universe again.
‘It’s the corruption that concerns me. It’s an unnecessary step, and one that would make us more inclined to begin the worlds anew. Even the “Jivyador” should know better.’
‘Well, Nalithor did say that there’s a rift between the factions of Jivyador,’ I offered, resisting the urge to peek at my nylziis. ‘There’s several different groups, that much is for certain, and we believe that some may have been thrown into different shards during the Split. Now that they all have to share, they’re vying for power.’
‘Humph, and you two still have to find the ones responsible for setting the Split in motion,’ Sihix muttered. ‘Cleansing the Aledacian Forests comes first. We—and our Guardians—should be plenty capable of protecting ourselves from the threat once freed.’
“Whatever he’s doing, these nasties sure don’t like it!” Erist exclaimed through gritted teeth. Butterflies of pink light swirled around her and her drawn weapon, making the corner of my eye twitch.
“You know, those don’t look all that threatening,” I commented, pointing at her magic with one hand. A muffled snort of laughter gave me the impression Arom agreed—though Erist didn’t seem to find it as funny.
“Just because it’s pretty doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous!” Erist snapped, pointing a finger at me. “Look at you! You’re an obvious example of that.”
“Enough.” Nalithor’s growl made Erist squeak and hide behind Arom. “Come, we’re going.”
Nalithor strode over to me and placed a hand against my lower back, nudging me onward. I internally cursed our plate armor as I obliged him. While there was a unique appeal to his fully armored appearance, I lamented the absence of skin-to-skin contact. A low chuckle from my nylziis gave me the impression he’d sensed my thoughts, earning a small huff from me.
‘Where is our prey?’ I asked, hoping to distract him from commenting on my thoughts.
‘My prey is right here.’ Nalithor tapped his armored fingers against my back. ‘The source of corruption is at least an hour’s walk away. However…this one is not underground.’
‘What?’ I frowned and shifted to give him a sidelong glance. However, too much of his face was obscured by his helmet for me to tell quite what he was thinking. ‘Where in the hells is it then?’
“Our target is airborne—a shard of the forest that was pulled into the skies,” Nalithor began aloud as Erist and Arom fell into step with us. “We may be forced to eliminate some of the Lari’xan’s children on our way there. Most of them are gathered around the source. If it comes to that, Arom, Erist, I want the two of you to focus on maintaining the shield around the four of us.”
“You do not trust Aurelian’s creations to keep us safe?” Arom questioned, but Nalithor shook his head in reply. “Then what?”
“I would prefer we have two layers of protection against the corruption around the source,” Nalithor began, his voice filled with disgust. “There is also the possibility that the forest’s children have learned to wield the corrupted power as a weapon. We must act with caution, loathe as I am to admit it.”
‘Good, his rage has returned.’ Sihix chuckled. ‘You must be delighted.’
‘Not unless I get to see him actually put it to use,’ I replied, crossing my arms. ‘You know, this whole hitching a ride thing is quite annoying. It’s rather difficult to glare at you or kick your ass.’
‘You wouldn’t be able to kick my ass either way,’ Sihix replied with a throaty laugh. ‘I do so adore your fire, Arianna. Never lose it.’
I bit back an aggravated sigh and focused my attention on our surroundings. Purging the corruption from the forest with darkness seemed like a much better way to handle the children and creatures, to me. With enough power we could destroy every last scrap of vile aether and, as Balance, I felt as though we should have been capable of that.
‘If you were a mated pair, yes,’ Sihix commented casually, eliciting a full-body twitch from me. ‘Until the two of you are willing to make an official decision, neither of you are quite as powerful as you should be.
‘If either of you attempt what you are thinking, the one that does it will be bedridden for the next month. Of course, I will be more than happy to take care of you and lavish you with—’
‘Lavish my Arianna with anything and I will take your head,’ Nalithor interjected.
‘I wouldn’t dream of leaving you out, Nalithor!’ Sihix exclaimed.
‘Silence.’ Nalithor snarled at the Lari’xan. ‘Unless you intend to help us with this mess, keep your mouth shut and let us focus on the task at hand. I grow tired of your constant distractions.’
I chewed on the inside of my cheek to keep myself from laughing. Despite the fact he was lecturing a Lari’xan, he sounded more like he was lecturing a naughty child. Of course, it made sense. Sihix certainly seemed to act like one at times.
The next hour was spent in relative silence. Erist and Arom were content to chat with each other in their native tongue, while Nalithor and I remained quiet. We were both far more tense than the God and Goddess of Love, and I was under the impression that their carefree attitude had begun to annoy Nalithor just as much as it annoyed me.
Within the past several minutes I had caught my first glimpse of our quarry; a floating island that hovered a few dozen feet above the forest floor. All that resided on the island was a single, massive tree and a building of unfamiliar architecture. The stench of corruption drowned out all else.
A shiver ran down my spine as I stared at the corruption billowing down from the tree and building alike. We weren’t yet close enough for me to make out the details, but I knew we were likely to discover something awful. The twisted aether in Yiltanys’ domain was like nothing I had experienced before, and I hoped we wouldn’t encounter something like it again.
“I-is that…” Erist stuttered, dumbfounded.
“One of Yiltanys’ Guardians.” Nalithor snarled, his tail snapping to the side and into my legs. I glanced at him briefly but said nothing—even without my senses my anger was growing. How Nalithor, with his senses intact, hadn’t snapped yet was beyond me.
“Even the Guardians succumbed to it?” Arom murmured uneasily, bringing his fingers to his chin in thought. The usually reserved God of Love’s face was twisted with concern. “How do we plan to make it to the island? It’s as if the entire population of the forest has gathered here.”
“No.” Nalithor put his arm in front of me when I took a step forward. “We’re not going to resort to killing them—yet.”
“But—” I began, but Nalithor’s darkness coiled around my throat and cut me off.
“We will travel through the branches high above,” Nalithor began in a dangerous tone. “Once we have a better vantage point we will decide what to do. Corrupt or otherwise, the Guardians are not something to trifle with—and certainly not something to kill.”
Nalithor tossed me up into the branches and then leapt up after me. I caught myself and shifted to growl at my nylziis but he had already leapt on ahead. Muttering curses, I launched after him and followed him toward the source of the corruption. Erist and Arom struggled to keep up but Nalithor refused to slow down.
I narrowed my eyes at the Adinvyr’s back as I chased him through the trees. Darkness rippled freely around his form but his other elements hadn’t joined the dance—yet. The corrupted light aether in the trees fled from his power, dimming each tree he touched. Unlike our hurried companions, Nalithor made no sound as he raced across the branches.
‘The predator is back.’ I smirked to myself and channeled a new burst of speed, catching up to my nylziis in two bounds. His darkness recoiled from mine but I wasn’t having any of that. I entwined my darkness with Nalithor’s and pulled it toward me, eliciting a low growl from my nylziis.
‘What are you plotting?’ Nalithor asked, giving up on withdrawing his darkness.
‘I can’t let you have all the fun to yourself,’ I replied with a smile. ‘You—’
I cut myself off when Nalithor skidded to a stop and caught me by my arm. Before I could question him, he pulled me to his side and released a feral snarl as he looked somewhere behind me. His remaining elements burst into existence around him, leaving my skin prickling with energy. Fury came off of him in waves, stealing my breath for several seconds.
“What is it, Nalithor?” Erist asked when she and Arom finally caught up to us.
“Those bastards…” Nalithor’s voice twisted with rage as he released a stream of curses.
‘I will lend the two of you my power,’ Sihix began with a disgusted snarl. ‘Don’t leave even a scrap of that filth remaining.
‘Arianna, I apologize for this.’
‘Apologize for what?’ I asked, but my question was answered the moment Sihix removed every single seal he’d placed on my senses.
“Arom, Erist, get behind one of the trees!” Nalithor snapped at our companions when I began to tremble. ‘Arianna.’
‘Nalithor…the light.’ I clenched my jaw so hard it creaked.
‘Surrender yourself to me.’ Nalithor’s command didn’t quite register. When I didn’t say anything, he shifted me so that I could see what had drawn his attention in the first place.
Beneath the floating island was a pool of molasses-like goop. The large pool fed several surrounding streams and creeks. Tiny winged creatures flitted erratically around the pool, their light a dim brown. I felt like I should have known what it was, but my mind was far too consumed with fear of the light.
‘A fairy spring, Arianna,’ Nalithor spoke again, startling me. ‘This is aimed at more than just Yiltanys’ domain. We have to fix this.
‘Surrender to me, and together we will eradicate every last scrap of corruption.’
‘But…’ I shook my head hard and attempted to swallow my fear. ‘That light is like—’
‘I’ll make certain you don’t feel a thing,’ Nalithor murmured, lifting his hand up to my throat. My vision swam with his darkness as it enveloped me and drowned out all else. ‘How shall I reward you when we’re done?’
‘I…won’t have to feel that blasted light?’ I hesitated when I felt Nalithor lift off my helmet. ‘Hey, at least let me keep my armor on!’
“You won’t be needing it,” Nalithor whispered against my lips. When his mouth fully pressed to mine, his power, scent, and taste consumed my senses and made me oblivious to almost all else.
The last thing I felt was our combined darkness, followed by a turbulent shockwave.