Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Thane burst from the water as I lunged.
Snarling, Nanshe wrapped her vortex around herself, spears of ice swirling in the protective wall. I tried to dig my hands into the water, but the fluid was flowing too fast and flung my hands away. Something crunched as Thane’s scythe made contact, but those ice spears must have been dense because a moment later the weapon went flying out of his hand.
“Imbeciles,” Nanshe hissed. The chaotic echo in her voice had gotten worse. Ice javelins launched from the vortex, trailed by water whips that stung horribly. I couldn’t see her face through the funnel of water, but I was pretty sure the pale pulses of light shimmering across the roiling waves had taken on a desperate tempo.
“Sticks and stones, sweetie.” I pinched my fingers together, forming a wedge, and speared the water as quickly as I could. My wrist ached as columns of ice slammed into it, but I managed to breach her vortex.
Nanshe screamed as my fist plunged into her chest. With my fingertips reinforced, I managed to get all the way up to my thumb knuckle into her greasy, rubbery skin. Warm ichor spilled into my palm, clinging to my skin even after I’d pulled my hand back through the scouring vortex.
As I shook my hand and tried to get the dark stains off, I noticed the crumpled bodies of derketo horrors around my feet. Huh. She must have turned some of them against me, but they wouldn’t be able to get to me through my aura. As distraught as Nanshe was, she wasn’t stupid. She knew those abominations couldn’t touch me. So why would she just throw them away?
Inky water splashed on my face as Nanshe’s vortex collapsed. With the loss of its binding force, the twister spun out like a blooming flower. Inside, Nanshe stood gasping with the tip of Thane’s scythe protruding a hand’s length out of her chest. Slimy green ooze spilled from the corner of her mouth.
“At least you tried.” Her breathing sounded labored, her chest shivering against the scythe embedded in it. Frost began to form around the wound, and after a moment she reached up and snapped the protruding blade off. Behind her, Thane yelped and jerked away as a bolt of lightning split the arm of the scythe and burned his hands. Nanshe laughed, wet and unsettling. Her sightless eyes rolled as her head tilted. “I think I’ve had enough of your child’s play. Time to put the children to bed.”
“So be it.” I dashed forward and punched, putting my weight into it. The hard surface that crunched beneath my knuckles was unexpected, as was the searing pain that raced along the back of my hand.
Somehow, Nanshe had materialized a thick barrier of ice between us in what felt like the blink of an eye. Since I hadn’t seen her raise a wave, she’d probably frozen the water vapor in the air, and from the heavy dusting of frost across my back, she’d had to condense quite a lot of it from a wide area. I would’ve been impressed if my hand wasn’t throbbing so much. Damn it, that really hurt.
It sounded like Thane was having a worse time than I was. The howls of the abominations had reached a fevered pitch, and from the currents of power swirling in the air, they were starting to outnumber and overpower his specters. The flavor of the Paeden necromancy had changed as well, assuming a more traditional undead vibe than the previous half-life hue. My gut had a sick feeling in it, which probably meant that the derketo monstrosities could become undead, once their bastard lives had been taken. With Thane’s less than stellar proficiency at raising the dead, it was only a matter of time before the Carthian shades returned to Peklo, and then we’d really be out of luck.
I prised my fingers into the crack I’d formed in the wall of ice and strained against it. From the yells and wet slaps, it sounded like Thane had Nanshe’s full attention. I huffed. Damn, this ice was thick. My fingers were going to freeze off before I cracked a wider gap. If only I had one of Phaeus’ branding irons, or…
Well, my sword couldn’t burst into flames, but it was better than nothing. Summoning it and setting its point into the crack, I gave the frosty blue surface an angry glare. I couldn’t melt through it like Malia, but I could still make it tremble.
The ice hissed and cracked as minor fissures radiated from the tip of the sword. As I put more weight and power behind the sword, I felt a cold, tingly sensation wash over me, like the ghost of the barrier at the border. My hands went partially numb but I kept pressing against the wall of ice.
Nanshe screamed as my blade plunged into her. Chunks of ice floated in the air around us, suspended by the slow motion that comes when chaos draws out time. I saw her sightless eyes widen, watched the pain tug at the corners of her mouth as my sword pierced her chest and embedded itself to the hilt in her chest. Her arms flew wide as we collided, lightning spurting from her fingers. Then time sped up, and momentum flung us over. We splashed heavily in the water, salt and slime stinging my eyes.
“Got you.” Nanshe smiled and coughed ichor. The air crackled as her head tentacles wrapped themselves about me, latching on with their wet suction cups. Each had something sharp in its depression, maybe a needle or a beak, and as they pricked my face I felt something trickle under my skin.
My vision went dark, and try as I might I couldn’t yank myself away from Nanshe. When I tried to leverage against my sword, the blade snapped, probably brittle from whatever frost trick Nanshe had used on Thane’s scythe. The sensation of ants danced across my skin, everywhere but the circles where Nanshe’s suckers were injecting their toxins. Her laughter filled the small, cramped space.
“Enjoy your sanity while it lasts,” she whispered. “We’ll have nothing but panic and madness when she arrives.”
Something sharp nicked the tip of my nose. Light flooded my eyes. Shrieking, Nanshe flew back, fountains of ichor pouring from her severed tentacles. Thane stood over her with the most terrible scowl I’d ever seen on him, his scythe arcing back in front of him as he completed his stroke.
“I’ve had enough of you.” He tried to stomp her, but she scrambled away, splashing water and laughing maniacally. Thane gripped his scythe and went for another sweep.
The stubs of her ruined tentacles slapped the sides of her head as she crawled away. “Yes, yes, enough of everything.” Her eyes were wild, her mouth twisted in a wicked grin. “Can’t you feel it yet? She’s almost here.”
I pried off the dead tentacles and flung them in the water. “You’re insane.”
“No, never.” She bared her fangs at us. “More sane than you’ve ever been. Only the mad would let her out.” She tilted her head so suddenly, it creeped me out. “Did she get to you? Do you serve her?” She gasped. “How long have we been preceded?”
Shivers wormed their way down my spine, mingling in strange ways with the tingling of the leftover poisons. My body was purging the toxins slowly, but there was no divine healing that could shake how unnerved I felt about her sudden personality shift. It was almost as if…
Like a storm rolling in, a heavier aura filled the air, dispelling the chill Nanshe had exuded. It was almost comical how easily the new presence batted her aura away. But it was terrifying, too, because, for all Nanshe’s bluster, she really had the power to back up her oppressive presence. And this new being radiated such power it dwarfed all of us combined.
But it was a warm presence, like leaving the cold of a mountain river for the warmth of a spring. Cinnamon and pepper spiced the air, carried on a cloud of myrrh. It made my nose itch and cleared away the nausea and disorientation I’d felt with ease. And, worst of all, it made my hackles rise.
Thane flinched, his shocked eyes finding mine. He shivered. “Do you feel it?”
I nodded. “Let’s get out of here.”
“What about her?” He jerked his head at the gibbering merfolk queen.
“Not our problem.” Fighting off the shakes, I drew a portal in the air with my trembling hands and poured my power into the rent, which took its sweet ass time opening up.
Thane frowned and folded his arms. “She still has the souls of our Oracles.”
“I don’t think she’s going anywhere anytime soon. We can come back.” My shoulders shook with the effort of opening the portal. This environment was absolutely awful. Before, I’d been able to at least strain some magic from the surroundings, despite the territory being under Paeden control. Now, with this new power pissing its claim all over everything, I couldn’t even get the hostile magic to respond, much less acknowledge it still laced the earth. And Thane was throwing a tantrum about the dead.
“Come back? Do you realize—?”
“Yes, you idiot,” I said, gritting my teeth. “I was culling souls before you were a twinkling of a divine idea. That’s my old scythe you’re holding. Now get off your ass and help me open this.”