Sahirasalanathala shrieked, red-light spears reforming in her hands, and dove at them. Yerik dodged, down and to the right. One spear sliced through their left wing. They cried out, stunned and in pain, as a handful of azure feathers drifted away and reddish blood dribbled from the wound.
Yerik lurched back again and the spear pulled free, only for Sahirasalanathala to swing back around, aiming for the side of their head.
Yerik dropped, coming even with the edge of the mesa again. From the corner of their eye they could see the two Hemkirish watching with hungry, angry eyes. Beyond and around, the Bazaar was filled with dust and debris and panicked people.
How many had already died? How many had been maimed, injured, and lay trapped under the rubble?
Jaw tight, Yerik snapped their wings and dove away from the mesa. The deer followed, red light pulsing around her.
“Give me the stone!” she screamed.
They didn’t answer, leading their fellow angeliki in a wide arc around the Bazaar, through the blue-purple sky.
A spear plunged past their head, dropped, and disappeared in an explosion of light. Yerik closed their eyes, too late. Everything turned red, then black, then red again.
She slammed into them from behind, wrapping one arm around their chest. Her fingers dug into their flesh, gouging their skin through their shirt. They grabbed at her hands and tiny, sharp spearheads of reddish-orange stabbed into their palms and arms.
Yerik shouted and hissed in pain.
Sahirasalanathala laughed. She pulled back one arm. There was another flash and a dagger of red light plunged into Yerik’s belly.
They gasped, gurgling as ragged spikes of pain shot through their chest, down their legs, into their back and wings.
Beautiful, but only a shadow of what they had once been. The silver bracelet gifted by the Elders of the Guild contained just a few grains of sand, microscopic bits of the stone that Desdedeira had become. Just enough to give them wings.
Sahirasalanathala was screaming again, twisting the dagger.
Grains of sand.
Yerik reached into their belt and pulled out the broken piece of sculpted stone. The hum was so loud now that they could feel it in the tips of their feathers and tips of their fur.
They dropped the stone.
It fell. Tumbling. Spinning.
The dagger in their belly disappeared, fading into nothingness. Sahirasalanathala lurched back, her expression stunned and horrified.
Yerik folded their wings and fell.
As a general rule, Hemkirish were not stupid. They were big (well, bigger than Foxin) and strong, too. Their hearing was not the best, though, and these two were not paying attention to anything except the angelik fight taking place overhead.
They would be easy to sneak up on.
Rueppelli made his way down the side of a building, claws digging into the rapidly-widening cracks and crevices. He went upside down, head first, gaze fixed on the two Hemkirish while his ears swiveled round and round, tracking the angeliki and his (temporary) Neanderthal partner.
He hadn’t gotten her name.
He was one building back, behind the Hemkirish. The alley was empty, the panicked citizenry having cleared out and made for the Crossroads. He stopped on the second floor and followed a ledge forward, towards the two idiots and the edge of the mesa.
He got three steps before the ledge crumbled beneath him.
Swallowing a yelp, he pushed away, trying to jump forward to the rest of the ledge. But that gave way beneath his paws, too. With a crack and a rumble, the entire alley-side wall of the building — stone, metal, glass, and wood — came tumbling down like a landslide.
This time, Rueppelli did yelp. Spinning, jumping, twisting, he moved from one piece of debris to another, a chunk of wall to a pane of glass to a metal pipe, panting as he struggled to stay on top of the collapse and not get buried.
Jump jump jump
The collapse rumbled across the road and slammed up against the building opposite, filling the air with dust and the noise of stone and metal crashing together.
Rueppelli leaped, grabbing a window frame, hauling himself above the tumbling mass. The frame and the rest of the building shook with the impact, raising more dust, momentarily obscuring his view.
He thought he heard stone crunching.
He coughed, and the dust began to clear. He blinked, and found himself staring eyeball to eyeball with one of the Hemkirish.
Not, unfortunately, the one carrying the bag with the head.
Improvisation. Foxin are good at that.
Rueppelli snapped his head forward and caught the Hemkirish’s flat gray nose between his sharp teeth.
The Hemkirish howled, head rearing back.
Up and over.
Rueppelli jumped from the window frame, digging his claws into the top of the Hemkirish’s head, giving himself a very nice launching platform. Tail flared, legs extending, he jumped, sailing through the air, across the debris field, towards the second Hemkirish and the bag —
— a massive grey arm lashed out and caught him around the throat.
Rueppelli gurgled, lower body continuing forward even as his head was brought to a sudden and painful stop.
The second Hemkirish scowled at the fox, growling, and squeezed.
Another gurgle and Rueppelli began to claw at the massive grey arm.
He reached back, pulling the needle-thin knives from the secret pocket in his vest.
Or he tried to, at any rate. The first Hemkirish, his nose a bloody hole in the middle of his face, caught Rueppelli’s right arm and twisted, hard.
Something popped and the knife dropped.
Rueppelli whimpered and brought the other knife around, ramming it deep into the Hemkirish’s shoulder, just above the strap of the bag. A howl, and the grip around his neck disappeared.
He dropped his knife and fell, then stopped short again. Now he was dangling by his wrist more than a foot off the ground. His arm popped again.
The Hemkirish with the bloody nose raised Rueppelli higher until they were eye to eye. Blood stained his flat gray teeth, but he was smiling.
“This one will rip this one’s limbs from their body, one by one.”
“Now that is a terrible plan,” Rueppelli panted. “There are much more satisfying forms of retribution. Tea, for example. I despise the stuff. Tastes like wilted grass.”
The Hemkirish roared and shook Rueppelli. Shook him hard until it felt like every joint in his body was ready to snap and darkness curled at the edges of his vision.
When the Neanderthal finally showed up, Rueppelli was so dizzy and nauseous that he couldn’t even see that it was her at first. He just knew that the Hemkirish had dropped him.
He lay there for a long moment, breathless, almost blind, and very sore.
There was lots of yelling in his immediate vicinity. And more yelling and crashes of thunder from the angelik battle, wherever that was taking place. He really didn’t want to turn his head to look.
Instead, he laid there and counted his fingers and toes.
Then one of the Hemkirish stepped on his tail.
Rueppelli squawked in outrage. The foot lifted away and he rolled to the side. His arm popped twice as he rolled, joints realigning.
The Neanderthal was in a ridiculous tug of war over the bag with the stone head. She was spitting curses, one foot braced against the Hemkirish’s chest as she tried to yank it off his shoulder by the strap. The Hemkirish who was holding the bag was barely even trying to hold on to it; even with his injured shoulder, he was still too strong. The bloody-nosed one was laughing, his chest heaving.
Well she was just terrible at this.
No wonder Cherrein had driven her out the shop.
(For a moment he wondered if Cherrein had made it to safety, then decided that he had more important matters to deal with.)
Broken tail hanging limp, he stood, tugged his vest straight, and stepped forward. Two steps took him to the needle-thin knife that he had dropped when the Hemkirish wrenched his shoulder. He curled the toes of his left foot around it and kept walking. Four steps took him to the knife that he had rammed into the Hemkirish’s shoulder. He curled the toes of his right foot around that one, too.
He stopped, raised a finger, and cleared his throat. “Ahem. Gentlemen. Lady. We appear to have come to an impasse. Perhaps a mutually-satisfactory solution might be negotiated.”
The Neanderthal stopped spitting curses, but she kept her foot against the Hemkirish’s chest and her hands wrapped around the strap.
They all turned to look at him.
Bloody Nose sneered. “This one will be satisfied to toss this one from the cliff and leave this one to the cloud monsters.”
“Ah. Yes. Well, this one would not be satisfied with that solution. Something else, perhaps?”
Another crash of thunder and the sizzle of lightning. Far away, but powerful enough to make his fur stand on end.
The Neanderthal’s eyes widened as she watched something over his shoulder. The Hemkirish looked … alarmed.
The Neanderthal released the bag and dove for the pile of debris. “Get down!”
He got down.
Yerik fell. Wings folded tight around their body, they shot down towards the clouds, chasing the piece of sculpted stone. Cutting the sky.
Sahirasalanathala followed, wings flapping madly, a body-length behind. Then an arm’s length.
Still falling, following the tumbling piece of rock that was once a Goddess — and could be again.
Their belly still hurt.
Yerik reached the stone, Sahirasalanathala less than an arm-length above them. In a single movement that sent pain bursting through their body, they unfolded their wings, lashed out an arm to grab the stone, and snapped down.
Sahirasalanathala fell back, further away, teeth bared in a snarl, eyes wide. Red light enveloped her entire body, pulsing out in eye-searing waves.
Yerik continued to fall, ignoring the deer’s howl of outrage.
She was correct. They belonged to Desdedeira. And only Desdedeira could end them.
The clouds wrapped around them. The blue-purple sky disappeared.
They spread their wings wide, slowing, slowing. Stopping. For a moment they were still, not moving, not breathing.
The clouds were thick, and there were sounds out there, lost among the whiteness, that they didn’t recognize. Hungry sounds.
Yerik lifted the stone. The final form of the Lost Key had not been planned by the angeliki. Desdedeira, like any Deity, could assume any form that she wished, and she had taken uncounted numbers of forms in the billions of years that she had existed. Perhaps this form, the Human female, was one that she taken once upon a time and, in her final moments of divinity and transcendence, she had remembered it. And clung to it. Perhaps she had chosen this form as her angeliki, en masse and one by one, had beaten and hammered and pummeled her, down and down and down.
One last time, they traced the curve of the curls, remembering the glory that had once been.
Somewhere out in the clouds, Sahirasalanathala was screaming their name.
They closed their fingers around the stone and squeezed. Squeezed. Crushed. Tighter and tighter. The stone quaked in their hand, shivered and lurched. Resisted. Tighter and tighter they squeezed, the stone cracking. Flaking. The particles dug into their skin, cutting, mixing into the wounds that already marred their flesh. Into their blood and sweat.
Power. Magnificence. Light. Transcendence. Glory.
The human form that was Yerik shifted. It grew, broke, and became more. More. More. Yerik disappeared. Yerikkalathlanianthalsassa was reborn. Platinum lightning, and thunder, and a dazzling radiance every shade of blue that had ever or would ever exist, and burning shafts of gold. And wings, ten, a hundred, ten hundred, snapping and rippling and beating.
Sahirasalanathala swooped out of the clouds, her teeth bared, her broken horn gleaming. Silvery and blue and gold lights shimmered across her reddish sheen.
Still screaming, she collided with Yerikkalathlanianthalsassa. For one brief instant, one second, less than a second, she was herself again. Touched by the remnants of Desdedeira, touched by the power that had created her of nothingness, she assumed her true form, ancient and glorious: pulsing, swirling waves and scarlet and sparks of orange-gold.
Together, they flew back and up, through the clouds, into the bright blue-purple sky. Higher. Towards the single mesa that rose above the clouds.
And as they flew, their angelik forms faded. Lights straggled away in wisps and streamers, red and silver. Feathers of azure and red and orange and pink shifted into solidity again and were torn away. Tufts of gold fur. Lightning crackled and fizzled. Thunder rumbled and died away, quieter and quieter.
As the dust that was Desdedeira dribbled away, Yerikkalathlanianthalsassa paled, dimmed, grew duller and duller. Yerik re-emerged. Solid again. Human. More and more feathers and fur tore away from their body as they plummeted towards the mesa, their arms wrapped around what was left of Sahirasalanathala — a sliver of stone plunged through her back and into her heart. Her wings were gone, her scarlet light rapidly fading to cherry to rose to coral.
They hit the mesa, the two fallen angeliki arm in arm. They tumbled and rolled, smashing through debris, through buildings, down the road. Sliding, grinding, wheeling across the ground. And finally, finally skidding to a stop.
Coughing, Yerik pushed onto their knees. Buildings groaned ominously around them. Dust clouds shifted and drifted, and here and there pieces of wall and panes of glass and lengths of pipe tumbled down.
They opened their hand. The wounds in their flesh had closed. The silver bracelet thrummed and the last bits of the sculpted stone, the last grains of Desdedeira, dribbled into nothing.
The remains of Sahirasalanathala continued to collapse. Her antlers, her fur, her hooves, her clothes. Degrading, deteriorating until all that remained was the shape of her body in the dirt.
Another angeliki gone, forever.
How many of them were left?
There was a scuff of sounds against the roadway.
Yerik looked up to see the two Hemkirish, looming and furious. They were bleeding and growling. They tilted their bodies, arms lifting to grab Yerik.
A silent flash of red and green and the two Hemkirish fell face first into the road. Thud. Dust puffed. Needle-thin knives protruded from the bases of their necks, and Rueppelli stood on their backs.
The fox grinned. “My two to your one. I win.”
Yerik coughed again, the sound turning into a rough laugh. Their gaze shifted at movement behind the Foxin: a female Neanderthal, bruised and bloodied. Her eyes darted to the bag that slumped from the shoulder of one of the Hemkirish. There was no madness in her gaze, no devotion; only fear and desperation.
Not a cultist. Very much the opposite.
Rueppelli leaned down and tugged the bag free. “Well, at least we can report to the Elders that we have accomplished our mission. The client should be happy. I wonder of the Temple of Unanswerable Prayers will increase their security after this?”
Yerik pushed slowly to their feet and stepped around the indentation that had once been Sahirasalanathala. Later, they would mourn for the angeliki she had been, not the mad Cervithian she had become. And for the horrors that she had caused today, the lives that she had ended.
They made their way over to Rueppelli and carefully took the bag. Flipping back the top flap, they peered inside.
Stone eyes starred up at them. Unblinking. Sightless. Hollow.
The stone hummed.
Yerik hastily closed the bag again. Their gaze darted to the Neanderthal, and then away.
“Yes, we did recover the stolen bust. A pity, though, that we lost it again.” Yerik held out their arm, the bag dangling from one hand. “Stolen. And the thief disappeared into the crowds of the Bazaar. We lost track of her immediately. We have no idea where she went with the Key.”
The Neanderthal made a high-pitched squeaking sound of surprise. Then she leaped forward, snatched the bag, and ran. Her feet beat against the alleyway as she ran for the Crossroads, the bag and its Key tucked tight against her chest.
Rueppelli squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. He sighed, long and low. “You think the Elders will believe that?”
“I think the Elders understood exactly what we were hired to recover.”
Rueppelli opened his eyes. “So they sent you to retrieve it, knowing that you would do anything to keep the Key from Desdedeira’s cultists. Even hand it over to an — well, I guess we could call her an anti-cultist — and let her disappear with it to only the Gods know where.”
“Wandering the roads between worlds. Never stopping, never staying in one place for too long, just in case. Just in case any surviving cultists are looking for her.” Yerik paused. “A noble fate, but not a kind one.”
The fox grunted. “I don’t think she’ll be wandering those roads alone. She did say we at one point. Probably for the best that she has some help. She really is quite terrible at this.”
“I trust her and her associates to keep the Lost Key hidden more than I do the Temple of Unanswerable Prayers to keep it safe. They knew what they had and still allowed it to be stolen.”
Rueppelli groaned. “All right. Yes. Very well. If the Elders are going to subvert one of the foundational principles of the Guild just because they don’t want all of creation to be eaten, who am I to argue?”
Yerik chuckled, the sound trailing off as they caught sight of a squad of Crossroads Guards running towards them. A couple of Minotaurians — one of whom looked a lot like the Guard who had greeted them — and a couple of Humans and a Felinian. The squad was dodging around and jumping over piles of rubble, running as quickly as they could, armed with swords and daggers and pikes and pistols.
“Mmm.” Rueppelli scratched his nose. “Do you think this qualifies as causing trouble?”
Another “Mmm.” The fox took a few steps to the left and picked up a bottle of Oscirian brandy. He brushed it clean, squinting at the label, then nodded in satisfaction. “Do you think they’ll let us drink this before they try to throw us off the side of the mesa?”
“Just remind them that I can fly.”
“Excellent point.” Rueppelli popped the cork and took a deep swig of the brandy. “Now then. My tail is broken, my arm has been dislocated and relocated twice, I have an awful case of tinnitus from someone throwing thunder all over the place, and my vest is ruined. Here’s the brandy. I know a good beach. We’ll recuperate, get our story straight — you’ll tell me everything — and then we will sadly report to the Elders and our client that we lost the artifact.” He took another swig and held out the bottle. “Is that suggestions amenable to you? Partner?”
Yerik took the bottle and held it up in salute. “It is. Partner.”
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]