Roman blocked the strange creature’s attack with his sword, catching it between strong pincers. It had to draw back to get free; when it did, Roman retreated as well, trying to get a better look at the thing. It was shaped like a centipede but was the size of a horse, glittering black in a hard casing. When it stood up, instead of a segmented underbelly, there was a wash of crimson glow.
The sight made Roman still. He stared into the swirl of it and felt something familiar twist in his gut, an old memory buried in pain. He shook himself out of it, twirled his sword, and braced for another attack.
“Where’d you come from, then?” he asked the creature.
“Lyryma,” Devikra replied.
From the direction of the camp came a scream. Devikra and Roman both turned that way to see an entirely different creature—something like a large bear covered in moss—attacking the camp.
“This shouldn’t be happening,” Devikra said, an uncharacteristic waver in her voice.
The creature chose that moment to attack. Roman was ready for it this time, side stepping the creature just in time. Rather than change course and go back for Roman, the creature dove for Devikra, its long body trailing behind it. It was fast, but before it could pass Roman by completely, Roman brought his sword down in a sweeping arc and sliced the thing in half.
The severed hind legs lost momentum and fell over, still twitching, still glowing, but the rest of the creature didn’t stop. It reached Devikra, and before Roman could even call out, it launched itself at her. At the same time, Devikra reached out toward it. Metal flashed in the sunlight, and even as its pincers clasped around Devikra’s arm, Devikra buried her knife in the roof of its mouth.
The creature made a pitiful, wailing noise and trashed to get free, but Devikra grabbed onto its head with her free hand.
Something unusual then.
Roman watched the crimson glow of the creature’s underbelly begin to shift, move, flowing like a liquid over the creature’s body toward Devikra’s hand as if pulled in by it. Devikra held the monster still until the glow reached her hand, at which point it burned brighter. A web of white veins appeared on the dark skin of Devikra’s hand, spreading up her forearm, and before long both the veins and the crimson faded, leaving Roman to wonder if he’d only imagined it.
With a snarl, Devikra buried her knife deeper into the creature’s head, until the end of it was sticking out the other side, and then ripped it free, shoving the creature away from her in the process. It fell to the ground, no longer glowing, no longer twitching.
Roman stared at Devikra, shocked. There was something familiar about what he just witnessed, if only he knew why. He asked, “How did you do that?”
Devikra ignored him, instead studying the wound on her arm with a detached curiosity. She wore a vibrant blue tunic today, so the spread of blood where the creature’s pincers had grabbed her was all too obvious.
Roman sighed. “Dev, let me see. That thing might be poisonous.”
“There’s no need.”
Before Roman could argue, a shrill voice called out his name. He looked over to see Thea, clutching her skirts, sprinting toward them. She gave the fallen creature a wide berth. “There are more of them at the camp! There are too many for the security team to take! Evelyne is fighting three—,”
Roman didn’t let her finish. He brushed past her, grabbing Devikra’s good arm as he did and dragging her with. He’d only seen her fight a few times in the old days, but he knew that even with an injured arm, she was a formidable enemy.
But when they reached the camp, Roman stopped short, horrified.
This was a battle they couldn’t possibly win.
There were monsters everywhere. Some were familiar to him, monsters that he’d encountered in Lyryma before, others were ones he’d only heard of. Thea was right—Evelyne fought three on her own. Cathwright, the dragon, was lashing out at a giant elk with tooth and claw. Leandros had to throw aside his gun and draw his sword as two shaari prowled around him. Roman’s heart twisted and he stepped forward to go help him, but Devikra stopped him.
He looked back at her, ready to tell her off, his words died on his tongue when he saw her expression.
He’d never seen Devikra look so hollow. She stared out at the scene like she wasn’t processing any of it, her gaze far away. She muttered something under her breath, Roman only catching the words impossible and where is he.
“Devikra?” Roman asked. When she didn’t respond, he pressed, “Let me go. I need to help them.”
“This enemy is too great for mortals to handle.”
“Mortals?” Roman asked.
“I’m sorry for what you’re about to see.”
Devikra stepped in front of Roman and shoved him back, away from camp—rather than stumble a few feet, though, the force of the push sent Roman flying. He hit the ground had and rolled through the dirt, carried by the momentum. By the time he caught himself and sat up, Devikra had turned back to face the camp.
Something she’d done seemed to call to the creatures like a beacon. They stopped what they were doing, heedless of their enemies, and turned to regard her with hunger. In this moment of stillness, Roman realized something they all had in common: they were all affected by the same crimson glow. Some of these creatures were rotting, some were maimed, mauled, falling apart, but they were all held together by that same magic.
Roman could feel it in all of them, an unnatural spark that called to him and felt so, so familiar. He realized, with shock, that he could feel it in Devikra, too—purer, brighter, a thousand times stronger. It drew Roman in the same way it drew in those monsters.
More creatures were coming out of the forest, now, all of them changing their course, away from the camp and toward Devikra. Some of them, Roman saw, were people. All of them, he knew almost intrinsically, were dead.
Roman could only watch in horror alongside the rest of the team, all waiting for the inevitable, messy end as one woman confronted a small army of twisted, mutilated monsters. But that end never came.
When the creatures were close, Devikra raised both arms, and the ground began to shake. The unthinking creatures didn’t slow. Devikra closed her hands into fists, and a strong wind picked up, working free dirt and foliage and whipping it into the air, forming a cyclone around Devikra and the creatures, shutting Roman and the others out.
Her back was to the camp, now, so only Roman could see the way her eyes turned entirely black.
The creatures only stopped when thick bramble shot out of the ground, winding together, moving like a thousand delicate snakes. It wrapped around each of the creatures, holding them still, leaves and branches continuing to grow until they swallowed the creatures whole. Until the branches around them had grown so thick that nothing of them was visible.
Roman stared, speechless.
The growth of the brambles slowed, and then suddenly and all at once, they caught fire.
Only Roman was close enough to realize that there was no heat. Orange flames licked at the bramble, but it didn’t burn. They spread to Devikra’s dress, the bright fabric slowly catching fire, but Devikra didn’t so much as blink.
“Leandros, get your team away from this place,” Devikra said. She still stood within a cyclone and spoke quietly, but they all heard perfectly. “These monsters will keep coming until you’ve gotten away from Lyryma.”
She turned to face the team. She still looked like herself, Roman’s friend of several hundred years, except that those strange markings on her skin had come to life. They’d become real flames, flames that licked her skin but didn’t seem to cause any pain, just like the fire that didn’t burn the bramble.
Roman rubbed his eyes. When he looked again, a pair of dragonfly wings made from fire spread out behind Devikra, casting a long shadow in the grass. When she turned back to look at Roman, his knees gave out, and he hit the ground hard.
“You’re—,” he gasped, when she was close enough.
She held a hand out to him, helped him to his feet. The flame touched his skin, but he didn’t burn, either. “You’re still set in your course?” she asked. “Knowing now who I am, you’ll still go to Orean?”
“I have to,” Roman said.
“Very well,” Devikra said, something darkening in her expression. She took a step closer to him, and when Roman tried to back away, he found himself frozen in place. No matter how he tried to move his body, it didn’t listen. “I’m sorry for what I have to do, now. When this is all over, I’ll fix it, if you survive.”
Roman’s eyes widened. He was able to do that much, at least. “What do you have to do?”
Devikra didn’t answer, instead touched two fingers to Roman’s forehead. Roman dropped at the scorching touch. It felt like the flames dancing across her skin leapt inside of him, and with each beat of his heart it spread, stretching to the furthest reaches of his body until nothing was free of the fire.
Somehow, beyond the pain, he felt the pressure behind his eyes that meant they’d changed to black. He was sure, in that moment, that he was dying. The pain may only be in his head, but he—everything he was and everything that he fought to be—was dying, and he couldn’t move.
Ellaes crouched in front of him, her face framed by fiery wings the only thing that he could see. “I’m sorry, Roman,” she whispered. “For everything.”
Ellaes, Atiuh’s nympherai Guardian, goddess of the elements, leaned down and kissed Roman’s forehead, a cooling balm. With a final brush of wind, she disappeared just as Leandros reached them. He dropped to his knees beside Roman. The panic in his eyes reminded Roman of another time, a poisoned memory.
“Roman, talk to me. What did she do? How can I help?”
“You can’t,” Roman gasped.
But with Ellaes’ disappearance, the pain began to fade. Roman shoved Leandros away, weakly, and sprawled out on his back, unable to move except to convulse when a residual wave of agony coursed through him.
Leandros glanced back, then swore. “Roman, close your eyes. Gareth and Evelyne are coming.”
Roman did as Leandros said, realizing his eyes must still have been black. He didn’t feel it anymore.
“Can you walk?” Leandros asked.
Roman tried to move, but the pain was still too much. He winced, felt his consciousness begin to slip away. The last thing he heard was Gareth’s worried voice and Leandros’ tense answer; the last thing he felt was Leandros’ arms around him, lifting him off the ground and carrying him back to camp.
A/N: I’m dying to know – did anyone see that coming?
Starting next week, I’m going to have to take a month-long hiatus from posting Fractured Magic. One of the most important exams of my life (I’m sitting for the bar in a new state), and I’ll have to spend all of my time studying. Thank you all for your understanding <3