Chapter 28: Water, Poison, and Fire

Chapter 28: Water, Poison, and Fire

Damn you, Waif. That’s what his father used to say. 

The day his mother left their home for good after too many beatings, too little food, and far too little love, his father drank and raged and yelled. Damn you, Waif.

The day his father cut off the forefinger and middle finger of his left hand at the mill, he stumbled home, having gotten drunk before even tending the wound properly, and gesticulated wildly, bloodily at his terrified son. Damn you, Waif, he howled.

Waif got caught the first time he stole something. He was desperately hungry and crept to the baker’s stall at the market to nick a roll from a small pile still warm from the hearth. The baker chased him, shouting, all the way home. Waif ate the roll as he ran, too hungry even to wait, or to give it back. When he got home, his father listened stonily to the baker’s ranting but offered no compensation. And when the baker, red-faced and fuming, finally stomped away, his father muttered weakly, Damn you, Waif.

Waif was feverish, sweating profusely, delirious. The filthy gory rat bite on his arm had turned into a raw sea of burning pus. A scene swam before his half-open eyes…even his wildest and most vivid nightmares had never approached anything remotely like this.

Waif had left home as a boy just shy of his eighth birthday. He lived on the streets and stole to survive before finding a home in The Den. The thieves trained him, fed him, sheltered him, and gave him structure. But never once did he receive what he needed most.

Until Gnome followed him that day.

You’re a good rogue, Waif, Gnome had said. A compliment. A compliment paid by a stranger without calculation. It was a moment of generosity, of affection, even. This was so foreign that Waif had no reaction at all that day. But the warmth of that one small phrase grew into hope within him, a hope that someday he might actually belong.

And now Gnome lay wounded against a grimy wall. The blow had knocked him unconscious, though he now seemed to be stirring feebly.

A frightening, tall blonde man in dark red robes had floated—not walked—into the room. Am I dreaming this? His gaunt face was a mask of hatred as he surveyed the scene before him. The man pulled some shimmering garment over himself and disappeared entirely from view.

Yes, I must be dreaming, Waif thought.

His eyes drooped heavily closed.

It’s not real, Boudreaux! Gnome’s shouts penetrated the thick wall of burning pain that had become Boudreaux’s reality. The hard stone beneath him felt cold. Cold! The blast he had experienced made him feel like he could never again feel cold as long as he lived. Yet the stone was cold beneath him. 

It’s not real, Boudreaux!

Boudreaux began to understand. He opened his eyes in time to see Arden bounding directly over him, swords drawn. He saw his friend rushing a hideous hybrid scorpion man, and Boudreaux willed his arms to move and push aside the heavy dead body that pressed down on him.

Cords of shredded muscle grew unnaturally out of the scorpion man to support the appendages that had erupted from his skin. His compact, hunched form was all weaponry, with two clawed arms, beneath a blade-wielding set of powerful human arms, and a stinging tail bobbing menacingly overhead.

Arden was having trouble even getting an attack in. He dodged the slices, snaps, stings, and punches like some manic dancer on a bed of hot coals.

Boudreaux was on his feet, running. By the time he arrived, Arden’s midsection had been grasped by the monster’s right pincer, and he was yelling and beating wildly on the claw, with the hilts of both swords.

Dodging a vicious lash from the tail, Boudreaux launched himself onto the smooth segmented crab arm that held his friend. Immediately he felt the other set of vise-like pincers closing around his own right leg.

“Take the man-parts, Arden, I’m on the crab,” he grunted.

The sheer exoskeleton made it hard to get a good hold on the Islander’s appendages. Boudreaux turned his attention to the claw that was grasping at his leg. He grabbed both sides and twisted violently. There was a loud crack and the claw, along with part of the arm, came free in his hands.

Nearly suffocating from the pressure on his abdomen, Arden focused on the Islander’s human arms and scimitar. It was extremely awkward—being squeezed and lifted slightly off the ground, while at the same time having Boudreaux’s huge muscular form laboring beneath and between him and his foe. But fortunately this was awkward for the scorpion man as well, and they were too close for his lethal stinger to be of use.

Arden focused his double-bladed attack on the scimitar. The Islander was strong but he was no match for Arden’s speed and skill. Even so, Arden took a nasty left hook to his jaw from the man’s weaponless fist. Having pummeled the blade hand into weak submission, Arden leveled a blow at his opponent’s left shoulder. He did not cut the arm off completely, but his sharp blade sunk deep into the taut tissue.

This happened at precisely the moment that Boudreaux cracked off the other segmented arm beneath him. Arden was still wearing the pincer and half of the arm connected to it, and the two men clattered to the floor on top of one another.

The mutant man struggled to stay upright. His left arm hung limply at his side, having been very nearly cut asunder. Both of his scorpion arms had been torn off, and he stumbled for stability, using his scimitar briefly to prop himself up.

Neither Boudreaux nor Arden would know for a long time why the clawed gashes appeared on their chests out of nowhere. It would be months later, in a casual conversation with X’andria, that they would put it all together. But just as they were recovering from the fall, and readying themselves to stand and finish off the abomination before them, they felt their flesh sliced deeply by the air itself, and blood began to flow.

The scorpion man staggered backward a few paces, creating just enough distance to utilize his freakish stinging tail.

Ohlen was finished. He had no strength left in him. He stopped fighting.

As soon as his body went limp, the undead creature on top of him stopped fighting, too. Instead it foraged for the leather satchel Ohlen carried over his shoulder, now pinned beneath him and steeped in sticky blood.

The beast flipped him over and looped a stumped arm inside the thick leather strap. With a violent yank, the strap broke and Ohlen’s bag came free.

Just like before, at the rock where he had meditated, the creature single-mindedly searched for his ivory case.

It extracted the ivory case.

Ohlen, gasping for breath, began calling desperately upon the reserves behind his reserves.

It was fumbling with the case now—trying to open it.

Ohlen rolled painfully onto his side and tried to push himself onto all fours.

Somehow the handless monster had opened the case. The orbs were out. They were cradled in the dead flesh of its forearms, which it held together to form a trough.

This cannot happen! Ohlen screamed in his mind, as bloody snot and drool extended in viscous ropes from his broken face to the floor.

X’andria sprinted into the horrific scene. Boudreaux and Arden lay prone in a pile on the floor before a huge semi-human scorpion. Behind them, Ohlen was barely recognizable on his hands and knees near a monster she could not identify. Gnome was slumped by an unconscious boy near the wall.

She was rushing to aid Ohlen when her sharp eyes picked up something else in the space.

First she noticed the foul water stirring in the pool of sewage, which swirled unnaturally, like unseen hands were pulling and sculpting the fluid into a living corporeal entity. X’andria knew of only one way that elements could be manipulated: it required a controller.

Eyes darting, she detected the ripple in the air nearby. Although it was the faintest of wavy interruptions in light, she was not fooled.

Precious blood was pouring from her friends. Their savaged bodies were tortured and exhausted. She thought of the terror of Zarina and her girls, of the husband that Zarina had told her was most surely dead now.

And it made X’andria angry.

Holding her silk pouch tightly, she funneled her fury into fire. She fed it with her mind, fueled it with the torment she had experienced as a captive, fanned it with her desire for revenge.

Flame belched from X’andria’s entire body. It leapt from her toes, from her knees, from her waist, from her chest and shoulders and fingers. Blue-white searing energy exploded out of her mouth and her eyes and her ears. With the intensity of rage she focused the incendiary blast into a jet of flame that sped through the space and engulfed the coward sheltering in invisibility near the pool.

Screams and flames erupted out of the nothingness. But quickly a burning man emerged. He was frantically pulling off flaming garments, screaming and coughing, his blond hair burning.

Elias? It can’t be! X’andria’s stomach lurched.

He was barely recognizable from just two days earlier. Nearly hairless, with charred and blistering skin, his piercing blue eyes stared back at her.

But he was different now. Where before he was all about intelligence and ambition, now he projected only hate and superiority.

His leering features twisted in recognition. The watery conjuration looming behind him splashed back down into formlessness.

I cannot let this happen! Ohlen forced himself to crawl.

The monster was sliding itself forward toward a burning man who had appeared out of nowhere. Ohlen grabbed for the sheathed sword still attached to him. Attempting to stabilize himself on one weak hand caused him to pitch forward onto his ruined face, his other arm buckling.

Lying powerless with his face pushed into the ground, he fumbled to unsheath his sword. Accomplishing that, he slid and scraped the weapon along the floor so that both hands were again in front of him, one of which now held a weapon.

Ohlen pushed himself back onto his hands and knees and willed himself to pursue the shambling monster before him. With a desperate lunge, he extended flat and drove the point of his sword through the calf muscle of the creature’s left leg. Holding the hilt with both hands, Ohlen rolled onto his back to leverage as much tissue as possible from the decayed leg.

Ohlen could not see how effective his effort was, but he heard the stuttering flap of heavy feet and knew that damage was done. Lying on his back, he could only see toward the mouth of the drainage tunnel through which they had entered. He saw Waif, white, glistening and unconscious on the ground. He saw Gnome just teetering into a standing position.

“Gnome!” Ohlen yelled. It was the last of his strength. “Gnome. Please!”

And all went dark for Ohlen.

Boudreaux struggled to extricate himself from Arden. Arden began prying loose the giant claw still clinging to his midsection.

“Incoming!” Boudreaux yelled, and he rolled to the side.

The scorpion tail smacked into the ground right where he had been moments before, leaving a shiny patch of bright green venom steaming on the mark.

Arden was still freeing himself when the second attack came whipping mercilessly downward. And it would have hit him, too. But the instant before impact, the inert body of the formerly glowing mutant warrior sailed lightning-fast to hover directly above him. The tip of the savage stinger penetrated through the Islander’s suspended body, glistening cruelly with blood and poison, before retracting back into the air.

The hovering corpse then went spinning through space and hit the scorpion man hard in the chest and face knocking him backward onto his huge tail.

X’andria—eyes still burning orange with patches of flame dotting the floor surrounding her—had adjusted her focus to the scorpion man, gold loop held aloft.

“I’ve got this,” Boudreaux spat, and he pounced on the maimed and flailing scorpion assailant.

“Arden!” X’andria yelled, and she pointed to Elias, smoking on the far side of the room.

 “Mordimer!”

The shriek was bloodcurdling. Sunk into that sound was the anguish of a mother who has lost the father of her children, the horror of a wife who has lost her husband to violence, the panic of a human being witnessing hell on earth.

And it stopped. The walking corpse that had been Mordimer turned to the sound, turned to the vision that had been its last comfort in life. The white eyes, without pupils, rested blankly on Zarina, on the two girls cowering behind her legs.

And then it continued to amble forward toward Elias, with its prizes finally collected.

But the pause lasted just long enough to give Gnome time to rush up from behind. He jumped and sailed, feet-first through the air, landing a powerful blow to the monster’s broad back.

It pitched forward.

And the marbles flew into the air.

Elias was still staring in outrage and disbelief at X’andria when the marbles hit him.

One landed on his left side, about where his stomach was. The other landed just above his right knee.

They sprung to life. Hundreds of barbed blades sprouted from both orbs and they cut and pulled and burrowed their way beneath his skin, blood spraying from both wounds.

He sunk to his knees as they swam through him. It was simultaneously the greatest pain and the greatest pleasure he had ever felt.

As Arden ran across the room, the whole terrible scene unfolded in slow motion. The orbs arcing through the air; Gnome toppling behind them; the undead beast grasping in space with its stumps as it fell forward; the orbs landing and spinning their way into the vile man’s charred flesh.

Elias’ screaming stopped and the shiny fathomless black eyes clicked open just as Arden arrived.

He did not hesitate.

Using both swords like a giant pair of scissors, Arden separated Elias’ head from the perforated ruination of his body.

READ CHAPTER 29

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