I leaned back in the seat while Nick ate, my stomach starting to misbehave. Just seeing any food in this place, with that thick smell of ashes hovering over everything, was enough to make me want to vomit. I had long since dropped the cigarette on the floor.
"I wonder where Lila went, she's been in the bathroom an awfully long time," Nick said, dabbing his lips with a napkin. He had cleaned the plate. Probably even licked it when I wasn't looking. I knew Nick well enough, despite not having seen him in such a long time.
"Girls take longer to pee than guys," I shrugged.
"Oh look, it's Hess."
"Where?" I looked out the window, but Nick pointed towards the bar. It was Hess; at least, it was her head, on that long neck of hers. The rest of her body wouldn't fit past the door.
She wore a drooping frown.
"Right here, right now, kids."
Worming our way through the busy bar (and getting cursed at, royally) we apologized and elbowed and went outside, after Hess' retreating head. She hopped like an oversized bird to a less-populated area, a wing out to guide us along. I heard her mutter, "Stupid ignorant rats!" I couldn't tell whom she was referring to, but I did have a bit of a hunch.
When we were mostly out of earshot of anyone, Hess lit into us with words of fire.
"The girl was taken by a bounty hunter while you children were joking around! We'll have to catch up to the bastard-"
"What? But she's still in the bathroom, isn't she?"
"That's when I saw her last." Nick tried to be helpful.
"Me too!" I looked to Hess, who shook her head with a fierce scowl.
"We'll have to catch up to the bastard," she repeated, "Hop on, kids- let's go. We can't afford to have her sold on the black market. She knows too much. Good gravy, and here I thought at least the green-haired boy had some honor when it came to girls."
The air whirled around us-people down below took the cigarettes out of their mouths to look up. Hess beat her wings and set out over the corroded old buildings of this area. Her neck swayed as she looked and smelled for any trace of the kidnapper. I had my arms around her neck, and Nick grabbed onto dull green fur behind me.
I think Hess saw Lila before I did, because once I caught a glance of the bright blonde hair, Hess was already plummeting for a deserted alleyway. Dark wing beats echoed around the walls of the alleyway as Hess hit the ground.
"Boys! Hide, quickly!" Hess shook us off. I flattened myself against a wall and blended in. Not sure where Nick went, because Hess started gnawing on a trash can and beating it around. I looked up to see the three crocodilian jailers swoop overhead, but luckily they didn't find Hess suspicious enough to investigate.
"They're gone. Let's move," Hess growled. I hopped above her shoulder blades and seated myself, wondering where Nick had gone.
A trash can lid flew, and Nick hopped out. He brushed garbage off his clothes. Hess hissed at him so he hurried onto her back.
In avoiding the jailers, we'd lost track of Lila. A few more minutes were spent rather aimlessly circling around before Hess caught the scent again. "Here we go boys, hold on tight!" she said before folding her wings in and diving. I nearly fell off at the shock of the landing, and when I hopped off Hess' back I noticed her hooves had cracked the pavement below us.
"Which one?" I asked, looking at each house facing of them appeared to be in poor condition and deserted. Smashed windows gaped at us like open mouths with jagged teeth.
" house! They went in there! Well dammit, don't just stand there gawking! Get going, boys!"
Nick and I ran towards the door of a particularly musty-looking house, Hess ambling behind. When we found the door to be locked, Hess motioned us aside with a wing and belched the door down. She muttered something about waiting outside for us and creating an alibi, then went off to mess with some more trash cans, on the pretext of 'looking for food.'
I nodded to Nick, and we carefully stepped through the burning remains of the doorway. We skipped across a floor covered with at least an inch of dust (ew!) until we found definite footprints . . .footprints leading up a rickety old staircase! I distinguished two pairs-one belonging to the delicate feet of Lila, and another with huge, flat soles. Almost inhuman, the larger footsteps were.
I was about to run up the staircase when Nick put his hand on my shoulder. "Hey. Think I can borrow your Star Bracelet a second? I'll go up there and throw it down to you and all, but I just don't trust the stairs."
"Okay, fine, just be careful with it."
I handed Nick what he wanted, and he fastened it around his own ankle to leap up. Then he threw the bracelet back to me. I bounded up after him. He had certainly been right about that staircase: One of the stairs splintered when I tapped it with my toe!
When confronted with a hallway, we both paused and listened hard. A deep mumble of the voice reached my ears, and I knew the guy we were looking for was in a room to our right. I waved Nick towards me and we crept down the hallway together.
The mumbling voice grew louder. I leaned against the door that I felt led to the right room, and, making sure Nick wasn't too far behind, slammed into the door with all my strength. We spilled into the room.
I punched a dark looming figure while Nick swept to the other side, guns blazing twice. The dark looming figure turned out to be a coat rack, so I tossed it to one side and looked just in time to see the real culprit leap out a window.
"Rags, gimme your Star Bracelet, gimme it, I think I can get this guy- "
"No way, Nick! I'll go after him!"
"C'mon, I wanna shoot him. You should look after Lila!"
"Lila!" I saw Lila lying trussed up on the ground, and immediately I undid the catch to the Star Bracelet and flung it at Nick. He bounded out the window after the kidnapper while I knelt at Lila's side.
"Shit Lila, he got you wrapped up well." I ran my fingers across her arms, but the bonds were too tight for me to loosen that way. She could move nothing except her pleading eyes. The gag, I decided, would be the first thing to go.
I searched the room for something sharp while gunshots rang outside. I grabbed a shard of glass from the broken window and began sawing away at the grimy ropes, even though the shard bit into my hand with each stroke. Eventually I had to drop the shard of glass because it slipped through my blood, but I'd gotten Lila's mouth, hands, and feet free by then. Tugging the other ropes loose was cake once I'd cut off those knots.
Awkwardly at first, I started rubbing Lila's reddened hands. Got blood all over her skin, but I was so worried about her circulation. This whole process of freeing and touching seemed to have taken hours, days even- but it couldn't have gone on that long because by the time I'd tried to get Lila to her feet, I could still hear Nick shooting outside.
Mu chose to make his presence known then. I'd forgotten that he'd been riding in my shirt this whole time! He made a cute noise and started licking the blood off my fingers. His tongue felt rough and cool, just like a cat's. When he had finished, my cuts were magically sealed and most of the blood was gone.
Then Mu hopped onto Lila's head, chirruping and batting at her hair. Lila didn't respond, instead clutching her face with her hands.
I helped Lila hobble to the window (she didn't seem to feel like talking, thankfully) to see how things were going outside, and realized that our foe hadn't been human at all.
Because you know, regular humans kind of like, fall over and die when they're shot in the chest? I just saw Nick plant a bullet where the bounty hunter's heart would have been, and it didn't even slow him down.
When the bounty hunter sent out a huge tentacle of oozing shadow slime from his chest, then I realized we were dealing with an elemental such as Hess or Mu. Only, instead of being aligned with fire or water, this guy had an affinity for shadow.
The shadow elemental wore a wide-brimmed hat and a robe decorated with summoning circles. His eyes gleamed silver as he twisted his tentacle ever tighter around Nick. Nick gritted his teeth, managed to snake his gun arm out of the tentacle, took aim, and shot.
The hunter reeled, his tentacle slithering away from Nick's body. Nick peppered the guy with a few more bullets, but then the hunter pinned Nick in a full-body tackle. I saw the hunter reach back and draw out a horrible curvy knife. I was tensed to jump then, even though the distance to the ground was three stories!
"Ni-" I started to yell, but my voice was cut short by a bellow from Hess.
My kyrin tore the bounty hunter off of Nick. The curved knife flashed and spun in the middle of the street. Hess stomped towards the bounty hunter with her wings spread and her tail lashing. I could hear rapid pleading from the bounty hunter, and saw that his gloved hands were held in surrender.
Hess latched her teeth into the back of his robe and yanked it off of him, bringing the hat with it. The shadow elemental retreated into a blobby shape and started to squirm away when Hess put her hoof down. I looked away. One only needed to smell the burning darkness and feel the flash of heat to know how the battle had ended.
"Lila. You're okay, let's, let's go back down," I breathed, turning my eyes from the string of purple smoke that now rose into the sky. The bottom of my stomach dropped. My face burned. For some reason I saw Lila in a way I had never seen her before. Well, maybe it was her especially dirty .I don't know! There was just something different.
"Pokeetsu!" Mu interrupted my thoughts. He had hopped to the windowsill. Waggling his tail and pointing a paw, he said 'Pokeetsu!' in a tone that told me he was not merely trying to be cute.
I leaned out very carefully, holding Lila to my chest with my other hand. Someone approached Hess and someones, actually.
Think of a huge, white weasel with a fiery red mane and seven tails. A unicorn's horn spirals from her forehead, crystalline and prismatic. Now think of the weasel as fifteen feet long and armed with glittering claws. That's the kind of creature that was sliding down the street. She wore a saddle, and on that saddle a knight in white armor perched and hefted an ivory axe.
The giant weasel snorted fire every now and then. She was a fire elemental for sure. Weird how much of a contrast there was between this kyrin and Hess!
Hess' fur stood on end the whole time. The weasel halted and sank to her belly about ten feet away from Hess. I noticed that Nick had put his gun away, though, and had his arms crossed.
The weasel's rider dismounted.
"Hess," chimed the weasel, while her rider stood at her shoulder.
"Inferno," Hess grunted in return, shifting from foot to foot. I could see her eye glinting from under the mess of hair on her forehead. Hess' eyes are scary-orange and yellow irises, and white pupils.
Inferno had eyes of pale yellow, no pupils at all. I couldn't decide who looked the scarier of the two.
"Hessia," Inferno said in a singsong voice, "I thought you'd run away like the good little coward that you are long ago. What are you doing back here? Still looking after that mutt prince of yours? What was his name. . .what was his name. . ."
"How dare you call him a mutt prince!" I saw more of Hess' eyes and decided she was definitely angrier than Inferno, if not scarier. I wondered what about those words would rile Hess up like that, and then, of course, I realized. . .they were referring to me. Uh oh. I figured I'd best stay out of the way up here, with Lila. Yep.
"His mother was a mutt, and his father was a mutt. And his grandparents were shameful enough to mate despite the sacred code," Inferno spat. I heard the slap before I saw it, and Hess stumbled back. Though wings were necessary for flying, they didn't allow Hess to keep her proper battle stance. She had claw marks across her cheek.
"It's a different world now than when you left it, Hess! All the rules have changed. If you even begin to pretend that you support that mongrel of yours, I'll have every right to kill you!"
"You'll have to beat that lie out of me! I'll serve my prince through thick and thin, and naught can change tha-aaaUGH!"
Inferno drew back, her horn covered with my kyrin's blood. Hess' head darted in like a snake, but the weasel laughingly batted her away with a paw. Hess fluttered her wings in Inferno's face, causing the weasel to blink, and in that instant my kyrin also kicked. Red erupted from Inferno's shoulder, dribbled across that pure white fur.
The score was even. Hess with a horn wound to her shoulder, Inferno with a hoof-shaped dent near her neck. Lila squeaked I was holding her so hard, so I shifted her slightly. Mu sat on the windowsill and watched in stillness. By the time I looked up again, Inferno had scored a bite and twin slashes across Hess' chest, no injuries in return.
Nick squirmed in the grasp of the white knight. My best friend seemed to be struggling to grab his gun-but the knight had a grip more solid than iron. The knight's axe lay on the ground near the bounty hunter's knife.
Hess needed help. Inferno moved like a ribbon in the wind-there one moment, gone the next. A slash mark adorned Hess' brow, and the searing, hissing blood of a fire elemental was blinding her.
I could still see. I was frozen. I couldn't get down from here. Nick had my Star Bracelet. I didn't even think about going down the stairs. I had this crazy idea of jumping down and just wailing on Inferno, but I couldn't leave Lila. I could only stand there and watch while Inferno grabbed Hess and pushed her face into the ground.
"Say it! Say what I want to hear, and maybe I'll let you off easy!" Inferno laughed, but Hess only snorted and struggled against the weasel kyrin's weight. Hess managed to whip Inferno across the shins with her tail. The weasel smirked, and then idly grabbed Hess' tail with a hind paw, snapping it easily between her toes.
Hess managed to bite back a cry of pain, but Inferno hadn't finished yet. Smoothly, systematically, and all the while keeping a paw on top of Hess' snout, Inferno gripped Hess' wing and started snapping it. I could hear the bones cracking all the way in the third floor of this building. Inferno snapped Hess' wing in twelve places before she let my kyrin scream.
"Had enough, weakling?"
"I WILL NEVER FORSAKE HIM!"
"Will you never shut up!" Inferno slammed Hess' face back into the pavement, and now her spare paw latched onto one of my kyrin's splendid antlers. Digging her hind paws into Hess' back, Inferno tugged-and ripped- and tore.
I just couldn't watch anymore. I just couldn't. I dragged Lila to the other side of the room with me, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I was crying. I pictured Hess with the gong on her back, Uncle Tonic by her side. The sunset glowed behind her. I framed that image. If Hess were to die today, that was how I wanted to remember her. Not with her face under the paw of that horrible, horrible creature.
I didn't even want to think what might happen should Inferno and her rider come poking around this house for me. I dimly remembered them from my time here before-they'd been in the service of my father, at least I recognized the knight's armor.
Armor. Oh shit. I left it in the Way.
Sometimes, I found, back when I was in a jail cell, the only way to make time pass by faster was to look at things a little less closely, to fall asleep with my eyes open. I stared at the window. Clouds made the sky grey, and the air smelled like rain. I had no idea where Mu went, but I knew he couldn't have gone far.
Still staring at the windowsill, Lila's face in my shoulder, I thought I had slipped into a half-dream when I saw two gloved hands reach over the window. Nick's face popped up after.
We didn't say anything, but Nick waggled his hand in strained greeting.
I tried to leap up with my customary grace, but found my body to be quite heavy. All right, I'll admit it-I'm a real weakling without that Star Bracelet. I couldn't even move Lila, but she woke up too so we both supported one another as we stumbled to the window.
The cool thing about Star Bracelets, probably my second favorite thing about them, is that they let you carry weights far beyond your normal capacity. So, Nick was able to fly up and bring both Lila and me down one at a time, no problem. Nick was pretty scuffed up, but the armored person had left him alone for the most part.
Hess. She lay in the middle of the alleyway. Her searing blood had evaporated in the rain. I noticed that some of the pavement had evaporated too. Kyrin blood is powerful stuff.
"Mercuroy," Hess rumbled. At that instant, thunder rumbled too. I shuddered, because right now Hess reminded me of some sort of storm goddess. One of her wings stood straight, while the other lay crippled by her side.
I rushed across the ruined street, babbling. I reached Hess, but somehow, I just couldn't touch her. My hand reached, but I drew away in revulsion and disgust. Her striped orange fur was a mess. Most of it was missing, in fact, probably charred away by Inferno's fire breath. I peeked at Hess' head, but half of it seemed to be missing without her antler. Inferno had stabbed out one of Hess' eyes too.
"Quiet, Mercuroy," said Hess, and then she added (under her breath of course) "You idiot."
"You're not, you're not dying are you Hess?"
She grinned at me lopsidedly, the most gruesome vision I had seen in quite a long time, with her missing most of her lips. "It takes. . .a lot more. . .than a fancy ferret. . . and her stupid horn. . .and ridiculous claws. . .to kill the royal bodyguard!" My kyrin had been forcing herself to stand, shattered limbs and all, as she spoke. Hess flashed another nightmarish grin. Her lone eyeball shone in the semidarkness of twilight.
"Tonight I leave for the mountains at the edge of the continent," Hess told me in between shuddering breaths, "I've heard the voices of the ancients and ignored them for too damn long. Maybe they'll heal me. I dunno. But I'll need to regenerate myself in the lava beds there if I'm to be able to protect ya'll. Ya'll-Lila, Nickeltaupe, and Mercuroy-are to find a safe place to hide until my return."
"Shut up! Remember that the safety of your people rides on the safety of yourself, Prince Mercuroy," Hess snarled, "I don't want you to try anything stupid while I'm gone. Is that VERY CLEAR?"
I held my hands up much like the bounty hunter had done just before Hess had disposed of him. She took that as a yes.
"Lila," Hess turned her head to the side, now speaking English for her benefit, "You're gonna need to keep an eye out for clues as to the whereabouts of your father. The sooner you can find him and your townie- thing-people, the sooner you can return home, and the less trouble you'll be."
"Yes Ma'am," Lila said, so quietly I could barely even hear it.
Hess' ear twitched. "Now ya'll go on out of here. And Lila? Put on that cloak and hat to blend in with the locals better. Ya'll'll be better off without me anyway. Less conspicuous. Any last words before I mosey on out of here?"
"Goodbye, Hess," I stammered.
"Goodbye, my Prince," Hess said in a surprisingly gentle voice, "I had to tell Fern one atrocious lie in order to get her off my back, but rest assured that you and your family are the only ones I'll ever serve. Now walk!"
So we walked. Nick told me about the opera house nearby. That sounded good as any place. Though I was tempted to go back to the Way to search for my armor, I already knew it was a lost cause. I looked back, but instead of the shine of Hess' remaining eye and her crumpled figure, I saw a void. She had already left, somehow, despite her injuries, beyond my sight.
I looked at Nick, and he sensed my question before I had even asked.
"Inferno and her rider were going to rendezvous with the phantom to pick up Lila," Nick said while twirling a gun on one finger, "But we beat them to it. That's what I think, anyway."
"But why would they want someone from Earth?"
"Who knows? It's not my problem, so I don't really care."
"Well it's sure as Hades my problem! I don't want their dirty hands on Lila or whatever; just to squeeze information out about her. And if you're my best friend, it'll be your problem too."
Nickeltaupe shook his head. "Whatever, Rags." For a moment I was incredibly glad of the language barrier between Lila and Nick. I'd have felt silly knowing that Lila had understood what I'd just said about her. I don't know why.a blush crept around my chin at the thought of what Lila might think about that.
"What's that?" Lila pointed. I'd let her sling her arm around my shoulder for support. I peered into the gathering darkness ahead and could make out a skeletal object with many sharp tips.
(A/N: Whoo, that was a doozy of a chapter. Sorry for the long wait. Due to computer problems I had to rewrite this whole thing it's a bit longer than my normal chapters, so I sure hope I've made up for the lost time somewhat _ )