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Flicker I (Ch. 12)

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Space churned. Nan was once again in front of the mantis, in front of her dying friend.

{Woah, dizzy…} Diwa’s voice came from somewhere in her head, it was like he thought “at” her instead of speaking. A second spent banking on wobbly legs, then a firm shake of his head brought him back. {How do you have so much wh- gah!} Diwa took one glance at the mantis and dove through the space between Nan’s legs.

{Stab it! Stab it! Stab it!}

A reasonable request. That thing barged into the campus uninvited. That thing crossed Nan, Scourge of Veils by merely existing. That thing had the gall to hurt Izusa.

As she willed, strands of purple flame coalesced into her open palm, forging her partisan in an instant.

The mantis stared down at her, assessing the change in atmosphere, perhaps. It shifted its stance, lowering its front most sections so its forelegs were closer to the ground. One against the other it dragged the grotesque appendages, ridding itself of Izusa’s blood and emulating the sound of metal scraping against metal. Whym flowed as they took on a sickly green aura, ending in sickle-like points.

Fear consumed by rage, trepidation consumed by surety, Nan tightened her grip and darted forward. If the fiend was prepared to fight, Nan was all too happy to oblige.

She ducked a horizontal swipe. Too slow, much too slow. How did it ever catch Izusa? The crouched position it put her in was perfect. A dull buzz sounded overhead, the mantis’ other whym blade coming to bear for another attempt. This time, seeking to bisect her from head to waist.

She sidestepped, the emerald cased blade dug deep into the floor, just asking to be cut away from its owner, so Nan did.

Okay, so the cut wasn’t clean or complete, but the thing’s exoskeleton was pretty tough. The job was done well enough. As she pulled her partisan free, the limb folded over, hanging on by scant few muscle fibers. Blood, or as the biologist in her recognized, hemolymph, seeped from the new opening in heavy green-blue globs.

Not one to admire her progress mid-project, Nan used the opportunity to spear the mantis’ abdomen. It was then that she discovered her victim could scream.

Good.

Into the thrust, she stepped, burrowing deeper until she struck open air with a wet shucking sound and the splattering of insectoid viscera.

Heavy limbs skittered against the ground, tearing wooden boards. Wings beat at air the like a gang of toddlers with drums, succeeding only in cooling the space around them. All in all, a champion-like effort to free itself, despite the ichor it lost. As if she’d ever let that happen.

Shoulder braced against its quivering form, Nan pushed the mantis like it weighed as much as a cotton swab, the ruined forelimb, and at least two legs, shattered on the way to the wall. Upon impact, the mantis’ abdomen gave out in some places, spreading even more gunk everywhere. Nan didn’t care.

Exoskeleton Pulverization 101: kick partisan free. Stab again. Snap remaining forelimb. Repeat steps one and two until the twitching stops.

“Well then, I think we’re done here.” Izusa said.

“Not while it’s still moving!” Nan tossed her head back, only to see a bookshelf full of tomes. The magical kind, because she wasn’t at her university anymore, because university wasn’t a thing anymore as far as she knew, because Nan was too dead for post-secondary education.

“Oh.” She said, voice becoming much too little for her name. She glanced downwards, there was a certain weight in her hands. The partisan, clean of bug juice. “That felt real.”

Izusa grinned, decidedly alive and free of holes. She stood in front of Nan. “I have an affinity for hexes,” she said. “Cool, isn’t it?”

The partisan scattered, purple embers blown away by an invisible breeze as she let go. Nan all but hissed at her. “No, it isn’t cool!” She grabbed onto the Soother’s shoulders for confirmation of life. No bruises, no broken bones. She scanned Izusa, up and down until she was completely certain that none of the illusory wounds were present. “I thought you died, please don’t do that. Ever.”

Izusa stole a head pat, right in front of everyone as if it wasn’t embarrassing. She stepped back, saying, “Noted. More importantly, can you spare a mirror, Lilika?”

“But of course.” The bird-like herald twisted into the air, perching on the table next to Izusa. Her smile bothered Nan slightly more than Gawain’s. Beaks weren’t supposed to curve. She made a show of covering her front with a wing like a curtain. Vanilla scented whym billowed forth as she flapped her wing outwards. A perfect oval of reflective material formed, held aloft by a white and gold feather. “Have a look, dearie.”

A grey chest plate, roughly spade shaped, covered a padded gambeson. Pauldrons, slim, yet not form fitting ended in purple furred tufts. Providing a final a dash of vanity to the otherwise functional ensemble, a thick purple waist cape reached just below the kneepads of lightly armored leggings.

Somewhere, a fourteen-year-old Nan’s tummy fluttered. She was a knight; a freaking magical techno wizard knight! Nan coughed, brushing aside her excitement in the same moment. A lot of knights where horrible role-models, they tossed chivalry out as soon as the word “pillage” came into play.

“Will I look like this every time I… what’s the word?” Nan asked.

Lilika dismissed the mirror in a puff of smoke. “Shift. That’s the most typical one we use for it, at least. Some folks are quite fond of “invoke” and “awaken”. As for your first question: yes and no. There are a few ways to change your appearance, though the intentional ones take years to produce even superficial results.”

Gawain nodded. “And the form you take relies largely upon the circumstances under which you forged your bond. With duress came armor. Take heart, it’s the most natural form.”

Izusa made a low hum. “Natural is a questionable term to use.”

“You are free to your opinions,” Gawain shrugged her off. “The point is that we overestimated her presence, yet achieved a desirable result quickly enough.”

A dog with backswept antennae, Krowlwin, puffed himself up, black wings lifted slightly. “You overestimated her presence, not one soul else. And nearly brought her harm in the process.”

Sier gave him a placating gesture. “I’m sure Gawain didn’t mean to,” he said.

“More like he didn’t care. Gawain chains himself to the old ways, much like Yara and her insufferable herald. I’ll bet you anything he’s got nothing but vindication in that heart of his. Decency be forgotten. Sense be forgotten.” Krowlwin said.

Krowlwin extended his wings to their fullest, fixing Gawain a challenging glare. “Noel is dead. Felled by his foolishness, and your own.”

Gawain sat at attention, the air grew colder as he spoke. “Do not dare sully that name, honorless whelp.”

“Sure, sure. No use flinging insults at graves, I guess. Just humor me for a mite. If you were to hypothetically convince some poor gullible sod to slink off to the Wailing Valley with you, how would you manage to kill the instance’s archfiend by yourselves, let alone get there in one piece?”

“Whatever design my bondsmate and I pursue is no business of yours. Besides, I have not been afforded the opportunity.” Gawain kept a neutral look, though his voice was as cold as the metal scented whym that flared about him.

The raven-dog answered with his own. Red, laden with the acrid smell of ozone. “I wasn’t born yesterday. You will make another bond soon enough. And I will not allow you to claim your petty revenge oath as a personal matter. Not when you would drag another along with you.”

Whym flowed. Three crimson bolts of electricity curled into balls that drifted above Krowlwin’s head, setting a low buzz into the air. “I’ll dismiss you if I must, it’s not like Sier is hard hearted enough to let you fade!”

“Come.” Gawain stood uncowed. Spell threads, at least six in number, edged on the brink of creation.

Nan said that Gawain hadn’t mentioned a thing about vindication, but her words were lost somewhere between the two. Diwa hid his face under his paws. The quills set into his overlong tail stood up, their reach extended by claddings of gold whym. Lilika chirped as she fluttered out of the way.

“Please don’t do this.”

Seir’s voice came haltingly, nearly imperceptible by Nan’s ears, but it was more than enough to gain the belligerents’ attention. The spells dropped off. Well, Krowlwin’s exploded but didn’t do anything beyond making some noise. It was a small comfort to know her sigils weren’t the only ones to do that.

Lilika bobbed her head in agreement. “I am not at all interested in cleaning up after you two.”

“If my hour comes, Diwa won’t have to struggle to exist, and we have a new noble in our midst. We should be congratulating them, not squabbling.” Sier said.

For the first time, Gawain looked genuinely dismayed. “No! You will live a full and joyful life, I swear it upon every star, every planet, every god!”

“Gawain please,” Sier implored, smiling softly. “Today is a good day.”

Gawain lowered his head. “You… speak the truth. I apologize for the disruption.”

And so, under the watchful eye of a certain floppy bunny-eared boy young man, huzzahs were passed around, a bottle of wine was gently declined, and when it came time to depart, Sier snatched Diwa in his arms, not bothered his quills in the least.

“This is goodbye, then. Thank you for being my friend.”

“It’s not.” Diwa shook his head, tail lashing in distress as he returned to the ground. “We’ll visit you.”

{We’ll visit, right?}Diwa asked.  

After a brief, fruitless effort to send a telepathic reply, Nan settled for a nod “Definitely”

Izusa, Nan, and Diwa left Tomekeep Garuda together. A certain bittersweet feeling tugged at Nan’s chest despite how little she knew of Sier’s situation. She did just promise to return, but it wasn’t right to take someone close to him away. Nan knew how that felt.

There was also the matter of another, slightly less weighty, thing on her mind.

“Izusa?”

“Yes, Nan?” Oh, so she could feel it when other people said her name, too. That would take some getting used to.

“How do I un-shift, or whatever it’s called?”

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