“Heads up,” Rauru called. Meru, along with the rest of the battlepack, shifted slightly from their concealed trench. They had been waiting for hours for the lightning rail to make its appearance, and now it was racing toward them. They still had a ways to wait, but Meru and the others were perking up and itching for the fight. Meru wanted badly to prove herself to her new squad. She was the only natural-born among them, and it carried with it a stigma of weakness and complacency among the Shou Fu.
Meru watched Rauru closely for his signal to Shift, and put forth extra effort in order to make the transition just as quickly as her dog-born companions. Soon, the lightning rail’s warning whistles could be heard as it glided and crackled on its tracks, and Rauru finally motioned for the attack to begin.
The eight of them burst into a sprint, eating the distance between their hiding place and the rails. The conductor didn’t have time to comprehend the danger and act before all eight of their massive bodies hit the cars in practiced unison. With a loud crackle of some kind of magical power, the engine lurched and derailed. Meru scrabbled up the side of the train and leapt high as the train’s cargo followed its engine, crashing and whipping around as the rail continued to snap angrily.
Meru landed lightly on her paws and kept moving. The cargo had to be destroyed quickly, before any survivors of the crash rose from the confusion.
Grakkas flew lazily in the warm winds over the Southern plains. He was returning to Cinderfell for the first time since the Dawn Patrol had parted ways, and was filled with an unexpected trepidation. After living for so long in constant urgency, the quiet rebuilding process was too painful for him to handle. He was the first to leave after Gwind had ascended, and he wasn’t sure of what his reception would be like after over a decade of self-imposed exile to Pelor’s Fire. Aurora became something of a second home to Grakkas… although he wasn’t entirely sure where his first home was, exactly… and Anubis even became something of a friend as they traded their knowledge with one another. Anubis had seemed so powerful when they first met, and indeed he was. Still, it was strange, upon departing from Aurora, to realize that Anubis was now his peer.
Shaking his head a little, Grakkas inspected the lands he had taken part in saving as it scrolled by, and he could almost imagine the way it looked, back then. Had it already been twelve years? He thought of how easily Westwater had burned in the Hellfire. That had been the last straw, seeing how badly the peaceful little town of Westwater had been rent by Baphomet.
If he didn’t pay attention, he’d miss his mark and pass by Jarl’s little place. Grakkas focused on the landmarks below and flew a little lower, below the cloud cover. He chose to visit Jarl first, since he had been the most understanding of everyone. Cerlissa was brooding constantly over her contributions and itched to travel North, but Baldred had convinced her to stay a little longer. Probably out of fear for her sanity. Vicorin… well, Vicorin’s just an ass. Grakkas looked forward to seeing him.
As Grakkas studied the ground and humored a little nostalgia, something seemed different. He looked a little closer to find what looked like the straight, distinctive line of the lightning rail. Frowning, Grakkas looked toward the mountains ahead of him, to the East, making sure that he hadn’t already passed Westwater while he was caught up worrying about stupid things he couldn’t change. It couldn’t be the lightning rail. The rail stopped at Westwater…
That’s when he noticed the train. He watched in mild curiosity, intending on asking Jarl about it, when the train lurched and flew off in a crazy direction. Grakkas hesitated, but a few moments later, when the sound of the crash made its way to him, the spell was broken. Grakkas dove toward the wreckage.
Soon, Grakkas knew that the train hadn’t crashed on its own. Giant armored dogs nearly the size of Grakkas himself were working quickly over the wreckage. He watched one of them fish out the conductor from the engine car. He flew (let’s face it, fell) as swiftly as he could, empowering himself as he went, but he didn’t make it to the babbling conductor quickly enough to save him, and the dog unceremoniously shook the man, breaking his neck and probably his spine.
It’d been too long since Grakkas had a good fight. It was over for that dog the moment he had landed on it. Most of its rear had been crushed from the initial impact, but Grakkas knew better than to leave even an injured combatant behind him when confronted with multiple enemies. He reached down and grabbed the growling beast’s throat and tore it out. He then threw the gore in the face of the nearest dog and drew his sword.
There were still several of the dogs to contend with, but the first died easily enough. Grakkas stood, still atop the beast that had killed the conductor, and roared a wordless cry of challenge to them.
No one could have planned for this. None of the spymasters that Meru had spoken to had told her that the area was guarded from the air. She had seen the beast land hard on top of Rauru, and looked over the train car just in time to see it tear out his throat and send it flying into the face of Grikoru, who yelped in surprise and hopped away.
Meru racked her brain trying to figure out just exactly what they were dealing with here. Her first thought was “Dragon”, but despite its shape, it just wasn’t quite big enough. Perhaps a young one…
It was then that the thing stood, and Meru knew its name. Even in dog form, she was able to warn her nearby squadmates of the danger.
“Grakkus.” She growled. Tiru, the nearest to her, looked toward Meru in alarm.
The fabled Dragonkin was known even in the Dynasty. He uncurled himself and drew a fantastic sword from a rather plain-looking scabbard. He stared down two of them, who circled, unsure, before locking eyes with Tiru, who refused to back down from this threat. Tiru moved forward to attack, breaking the spell and causing the rest of the squad to move forward at the same time.
Meru had other plans. She knew facing Grakkas head on was a death sentence, so she broke formation and loped around to his flank.
It looked for a moment to be a mistake. Grakkas cut through Tiru with an almost lazy swipe of his sword, and the rest of the Fu were retreating quickly, leaving Meru on the other side of him and stuck. Separated from the pack.
Her decision proved to be the best in the long run, however. Grakkas was pursuing and managed to cut down Grikoru with a blast of bright, liquid blue flames that stuck to her like tar. The retreat was going to end badly for them if Meru didn’t do something about it, so she ran and leaped at his back. She bit down at the base of his wing. Lucky, since she may not have been able to pierce his skin to hold on anywhere else. His skin was strange to the touch. Leathery and pliant, but resisting all attempts she made to tear through. Meru scrabbled at his back with her claws fruitlessly, until she invoked her secondary rite. Familiar magic spread through her thick, blunt claws and suddenly, Meru was finally gaining some traction. She used it to rake open long wounds in Grakkas’ flank.
Meru knew that this would be the last thing she did, and silently urged the remainder of her squad to run. To retreat to fight another day. She also knew that they wouldn’t hesitate to do so. It was the way of the Fu to cut their losses and abandon their injured or weak, she just didn’t think she would be one of them so soon.
Grakkas finally reached around to remove her, and she tasted blood as he pulled her off. She hoped, for a moment, that her squad could see that. If they did, she’d always be known as the one who drew blood from the Vulkann sky menace.
What happened next wasn’t something she expected. As she struggled helplessly in Grakkas’ hands, he took a deep breath and blew in her face. She felt the Shift approach against her will. Panicking, Meru twisted and fought harder, managing to bite down hard on his forearm before Shifting back into her birth form. She was tiny, but not helpless. She drew her sword and prepared to die at the hands of a legend.
However, Grakkas seemed suddenly unwilling to fight. Meru was infuriated by his arrogance at this point and feinted, then stabbed him sharply with her spirit sword. She could probably Shift back to the fighting form now, since her armor and sword was working, but she didn’t think she could do it quickly enough.
Grakkas’ only response was to sheath his blade and scowl at her. At least, Meru assumed that he was scowling. It was hard to tell. Meru’s rage consumed her, and she unleashed a volley of attacks. Each cut she made was smaller and shallower than she expected, but she was drawing blood. She’d keep it up until he bled out if she had to.
This Elf was making it very difficult for Grakkas to keep her alive long enough to interrogate her. Her friends had run off without her, but she didn’t seem altogether worried about it. Odd, since he had killed three of them on their way out. But this one seemed ready enough to challenge him alone.
This damned sword was beginning to irritate him, though. He was about ready to just light her on fire and have done, but this was a magic Grakkas was unfamiliar with. Having gone through all the trouble to find and acquire the Stones of Power, Grakkas had assumed he knew all about the various magics that could be found in the world. Turning into a giant dog-bear-beast wasn’t something covered by any of the Magics found in Vulcanica, and that piqued this Dragon’s interest well enough to motivate him to keep this insatiable Elf alive.
So he waited. He waited until she got sloppy with anger or exhaustion. It took longer than he thought it might. He absorbed the stinging blows as best he could without any armor on. None were as bad as the mighty tears she’d given him near the base of his left wing, but each one of them held a painful quality that Grakkas was no longer much used to bearing.
When he saw the opening, he reached out with both hands, quick as a snake, and grabbed her by her arms. The look of surprise on her face was worth every stinging lash she’d given him. It was even better when he spread his wings and began to buffet the air, slowly rising with his angry cargo.
He honestly didn’t expect her to put her sword through his forearm. It really did not occur to him that she was so bent on making him murder her. What he wanted to do was drop her and let gravity deal with it. Instead, he flexed his forearm, locking the sword there, and twisted it out of her grasp. He was holding the Elf awkwardly in one hand by her shoulder, causing her to cry out in pain from his claws.
When her voice started changing, Grakkas started to get worried. He looked down at her to see her twist around and plant a furry paw on the arm that held her. Genuinely worried that he’d be forced to kill her, Grakkas began to make for the ground again.
The change was swift, and soon he was dealing with a dog-bear-beast again. Out of real options, Grakkas punched her in the face. “What is wrong with you?!” he shouted at her.
In response, the Elf-beast lunged.
Grakkas punched her again.
This exchange repeated itself several times, until the Elf-beast became very slow to recover from the blows. When she was finally so dazed and exhausted that she half laid on the ground, Grakkas took a moment to remove the sword from his arm, only to have it disintegrate in his hands. Sighing, he approached her again. Slowly this time.
The woman didn’t move against him this time. Taking a deep breath, he empowered it to suppress her again. Dog-bear-beast made way for Elf woman once again, and Grakkas reached out to pick her up.
She seemed to surrender… until the last possible second, when the same damned sword found its way to his thigh. It wasn’t deep at first, but Grakkas was so surprised to find it there after having watched it disintegrate in his hands, that he didn’t move away at first. When he didn’t, she took the opportunity to give it a shove, until the tip of the blade met bone.
Grakkas looked at the sword in utter shock, then at the face of the Elf, then back at the sword in his leg.
Then his leg gave out.
That was it. Grakkas reached out to the tiny form pinned her on her back. He dragged his leg behind him and swung around to straddle her. Then he put one massive hand on her chest and one on her face. With a push, he pressed all the air out of her lungs, and stopped when he heard a pop. Then he covered her nose and mouth, as well as most of the rest of her face, until she passed out.
Her armor and weapons all vanished, then, and he was left with a naked, bruised, and broken Elf woman.
Grakkas became suddenly awkward, straddling a naked woman in the middle of nowhere, and swiftly removed the hand he’d used to press the air out of her lungs. He bent over to check if she was dead. She wasn’t, which was a relief. If she had died, Grakkas would have taken all these injuries for nothing, and he’d feel both stupid and guilty all at once.
Frowning, he remembered the lightning rail, probably full of injured passengers. Not even a full day back to Cinderfell and he was starting right where he left off, tending to the wounded. He wasn’t sure how to touch the Elf now, so he left her there, confident that she’d be out for a few minutes at least.
When he turned towards the cars, however, he didn’t hear the usual wailing and praying that generally accompanied the afflicted. In fact, it was entirely silent. He glanced back at the Elf and limped closer to the train. He was relieved to find that the cars weren’t filled with passengers at all. It was a cargo train filled with food and supplies, probably headed for Trada. He spotted a car spilling out apples and knew that it would be going all the way to Aurora by way of ship. It hurt Grakkas in a special way that he wasn’t able to save the only passenger on the train, but it lifted a great burden knowing that he could rest and heal himself and move on.
So Grakkas sat and concentrated on his Dragon magic. He empowered, and felt the familiar strength of empowerment, but his wounds continued to weep. Grakkas frowned and drew on the Stone, and it seemed to work, only he continued to bleed. Truly alarmed now, Grakkas shuffled back over to the Elf and lifted her unceremoniously over his shoulder. He probably couldn’t fly, now that he’d lost as much blood as he had, so he concentrated on his meager Pact travelling skills to get him the rest of the way to Jarl’s place in the mountains.
The jarring, falling motion woke Meru, and her head lolled as she tried to look around at her surroundings. They had definitely moved away from where Meru had fought the Dragon Grakkus, but she wasn’t sure how she had survived long enough to be here.
That’s when Meru realized that she was still in the hands of Grakkas. She meant to attack him, she really did, but she was so weak that her armor had left her, and there was such an immense pain in her back and chest that she decided to play up her unconsciousness for a little while longer.
She could hear a small child yell in the Vulkann native language, “DAD. SOMEONE IS BLEEDING IN THE YARD.”
There was a conversation somewhere after that, but her Vulkann was honestly pretty sketchy, since there weren’t any native speakers in the Dynasty. She had a hard time keeping up with their quick, mumbled conversation. Then Grakkas spoke, and it made her start. She could have kicked herself for giving herself away like that, but she continued her limp facade in the hopes that he wouldn’t notice.
“Jarl,” She assumed that was the man’s name that was stepping out of the house now, “I fucked up.”
“I’d say you did.” the man responded, “Who’s the girl?”
“Forget the girl, idiot, I’m bleeding out here!” Grakkas let Meru slide off his shoulder and drop to the ground, and it was all she could do not to groan in pain from the impact. Her foot was twisted under her in a weird way and while she managed to stay silent, she couldn’t keep her face from showing her discomfort.
“Mabel!” Jarl called toward the house, “Mabel, quick with the bandages! Clear off my workbench please thank you!”
Grakkas and Jarl moved away together, and Meru caught a few mumbled insults from Grakkas as they went inside, leaving her in the yard. When it had been quiet for a moment, Meru chanced moving her leg to a more manageable position.
“I didn’t think that looked terribly comfortable.” a woman’s voice all but sang to her. She spoke in a slow, melodious accent that Meru found comforting and beautiful. “Oh stop pretending,” she went on, “Straighten that leg out. Here, I’ll help you.”
The woman’s hand caught Meru’s ankle and she tugged, hard. Meru yelped as she was flipped onto her back. Her eyes fluttered open to gaze on a tall, slender figure standing over her. The sun was at the woman’s back, and something about the way she stood just so, made Meru think that she was standing there specifically to make Meru peer into the sun in order to see her face.
“I’m Mabel,” The woman said, “and I’m here to make sure you live.” The woman crouched, revealing a face with large, wide eyes and a slender mouth. Her ears were longer than Meru expected to see, but the whole effect, while mildly unsettling, made for a beautiful, ethereal look about her. She continued to speak after Meru had focused her eyes on hers. “It’s not going to be pleasant, but if you work against me, it’ll be worse. If you try to kill me,” Meru felt the woman’s cool finger poke her in the forehead, “I’ll take it personally. Understand?”
The woman leaned into Meru, her finger digging painfully into her forehead until Meru nodded and said, meekly, “Mm hmm. Yes. I understand.”
With that, Mabel went to work. She began to hum a tune that Meru could have fallen asleep to, if it weren’t for the twinging, stabbing, jerking pains racing through her every time Mabel touched her. It made for a very strange experience.
Grakkas took a deep breath and opened the door to the room that Jarl and Mabel had cleared out for the Elf to recover in. He’d been attacked before and knew what to expect. He expelled the magic suppressing Breath upon entering, but didn’t see her.
Grakkas stepped further into the room, and once he did, he heard the soft click of the door shutting behind him. Alarmed, Grakkas grabbed the door handle and, in his haste, tore the entire door off its hinges. When he stepped into the hallway and looked out to see which way she went, he found her kneeling at Mabel’s feet.
“Wrong way, darling.” Mabel had her finger place’s between the Elf’s eyes, pushing her down. “I’m afraid we want to keep you alive, and if you go barging into my son’s room, you may startle him. He’d tear you apart in a moment, so I suggest you sneak out the other direction next time, hmm?”
The elf whimpered a little as she tried to resist the Fey woman, and Grakkas watched in awe as Mabel subdued her using only the one finger. Mabel won the exchange and the woman caved. “Yes. Okay.”
“Grakkas?” Mabel released the Elf, who dejectedly turned back to her room. Mabel followed her there, presumably to replace the bandages that had slipped in the scuffle.
“Hmm?” Grakkas growled meekly. There was no denying Mabel anything, and he was ready to take what he knew was coming.
“You have this door fixed by the time I’m done here, got it?”
“Hm.” Grakkas grunted his assent and turned and picked the door up off the ground to inspect it. He winced at his forearm, still hot and sore from where the Elf had put her sword through the flesh there. “Mabel?”
Mabel turned her attention toward Grakkas, her earrings jingling.
He gestured toward his arm, “Do you think you could uh… check on this? After?”
Meru sat quietly at the table for dinner. She’d managed to resist most of Grakkas’ attempts to heal her using his vile Vulkann magics, but her body eventually betrayed her and she was now able to sit up and breath without much discomfort. Grakkas had broken nearly all of her ribs, her collarbone, and dislocated her arm in their initial fight. Further, Mabel had broken her foot near the heel, as well as her nose when she had fallen from the initial injury, when Meru had attempted to escape her treatment. She tried to fight Grakkas when he had come to her room to retrieve her, but in the end she was sitting at the dinner table, staring at her full, untouched bowl of dumpling soup.
Everyone was talking amiably to eachother. Jarl was somewhat quiet compared to Grakkas and Jarl’s son, Rathiel. Mabel only interjected to poke fun at Grakkas, and it was all Meru could do not to laugh at some of her comments.
It was all so… normal. As if she were a fly on the wall rather than a prisoner with her knees tied to a chair.
“Have you seen Gwind, lately?” Grakkas growled through his pointed teeth.
“Not since she took over the godhood, no.” Jarl replied. Meru understood the words, but not their meaning. Perhaps a cultural thing that her tutors hadn’t known of. Jarl added, “BH is a Protector now, in New Turath, though.”
“Oh? How’s Cerlissa holding up?”
Mabel dropped her fork and rolled her eyes. Grakkas looked confused.
“Is Cici coming to visit?” The young boy all but stood in his chair, “DAD AM I OLD ENOUGH FOR A CONTRACT YET?!”
Mabel shot Rathiel a look that wilted him back into his seat and quieted him into silence. Meru was lost, but it looked like Grakkas was, too.
Maru knew the moment she made the mistake. She was paying too much attention to the conversation, and found herself locking eyes with Mabel.
“If you don’t eat, I’m going to have to feed you.” She spoke into the quiet tension. Meru didn’t know what feeding her would entail, but Mabel had a way of following through with her promises, so Meru slouched and began to shovel some of the soup into her mouth.
“Don’t worry, Grakkas, Cerlissa promised she wouldn’t do it, no matter how much he begged.” Jarl turned toward Rathiel and said “One school of magic at a time, alright, buddy?”
The conversation continued on, and when everyone was finished, Grakkas stood and gave Meru the same look he always gave her when he was about to approach and expected a fight.
Before he came any closer, Meru spoke up. “Can I try to walk?”
Grakkas hesitated, looking toward Jarl for permission. Jarl shrugged and Grakkas moved to untie Meru from the chair.
Making sure not to move too sharply or quickly, Meru stood. Grakkas moved the chair out of her way as she did so. She had stood in her room before, but it was small and there was no room to walk about.
Meru turned around, using the table as a support, then faced the hallway. She took a deep breath and put her injured foot in front of her. Placing it carefully, she put some weight on it and continued the step.
Just as she lifted her other foot from the ground, her foot twinged and caved. She flung her arms out wildly in an effort to balance and found Grakkas’ arm as he reached out to catch her. She was surprised that he didn’t just let her fall. She looked over to find that she’d grabbed the same forearm that she’d stabbed. She quickly let go of it, and took a breath to try again. This time, she expected the pain and hobbled forward on her own.
Meru found herself turning to smile at Grakkas, proud of her accomplishment. She watched his face shift from frowning concern to delight when she did, and it bolstered her. She managed to make it to her room, with a bit of his help, under her own power. She was exhausted, then, and slept through the night.
Even with his wings folded tight to his body, Grakkas took up most of the room as he sat on the Elf’s bed. He had decided to wait her out, and she looked antsy enough to cave, soon.
“Please leave.” She looked like she was using every ounce of her patience in order to say ‘please’ between her teeth.
“Tell me your name and I will.”
The Elf put her face in her hands and made a frustrated noise. “I’m not telling you anything, just go away so I can plot my revenge.”
Grakkas chuckled. Meru had taken to describing all the colorful ways she’d kill him after she had healed after about the second day that he had been camped out on her bed. They were getting pretty amusing. It had been six days since Grakkas had entered her room intending on getting her name out of her, and Jarl had bet that he’d leave the room without it. Grakkas wasn’t about to owe Jarl anything, so he just stayed in the room with the Elf. He was on her bed so that she couldn’t be comfortable while avoiding him, which was a feat unto itself when he took up a good third of the available space. She seemed more talkative now than she was in the week he’d spent staring at her. He hadn’t slept at all, for fear of her killing him. Also because it annoyed her that he was staring at her upon waking. All the quiet boredom of her sleep was made worth it when she scrunched up her face in irritation when she woke.
She slept a lot, too. She was doing much better now, able to walk on her own, but she had some bruising on her lungs and kidneys that caused her a lot of discomfort, and her bones still ached her. She resisted Grakkas’ attempts to heal her using his newfound skill in Old magic, but she couldn’t stop him from monitoring her using the same magic. Particularly when she slept.
Grakkas was very familiar with her injuries by now. As she slept he felt each fiber stitch itself back together, and that patience paid off. Understanding how a body heals itself naturally helped him understand how better to do it himself.
Unfortunately, the more he understood her pain, the more he wanted to fix it. He saw right through her cool facade. She was hurting, even as she stood now trying to ignore him.
“What?” the girl asked. “What is that look for?”
It was pretty close. She was going to attack him. He kept staring at her, knowing that’s what was triggering it.
When she moved toward him, Grakkas flinched. He felt stupid for flinching, but flinching can save your life sometimes. Weirdly enough, there was no incoming attack to dodge. The Elf limped over to Grakkas. Staring at the floor she knelt and seemed to hesitate, then turned her head to one side, exposing her neck.
“What are you doing?” Grakkas shifted to get a closer look at her.
“I submit.” The Elf said, still not looking him in the eye. “My name is Meru, and you may have me.”
“What?” When she didn’t reply, he reached out to touch her shoulder to get her attention. In a fluid motion, she fell back, away from him, and laid on the floor. She still wasn’t looking at him, and he was confused to the point of alarm. The bed creaked as he uncurled himself from it, but she still didn’t move. She just lay there like she was giving up on her life. Grakkas placed his foot on the far side of her and carefully, as if she was going to strike at any moment, stepped over her and made for the door.
Keeping a careful eye on the motionless Elf, he opened the door and left. He didn’t even go brag to Jarl about getting her name. He went quietly outside to bed to think about what might have changed.
Meru was confused. Grakkas had sat on her bed like a gargoyle for nearly a week, and then leaves when she finally submits. She sat up in her suddenly empty room, and was disquieted. She found she kind of missed the company. She had spent a long time being alone in this room while she had been recovering, and she hadn’t realized how much she didn’t like it until Grakkas had left again.
She missed her squad. She missed sleeping in a tiny room with seven other fellow Ru warriors. Carefree and sprawling haphazardly near and atop one another. Despite how uncomfortable and tired she was, she dreaded sleeping alone again.
Meru sighed and walked across the room to sit on the bed to think. When she sat, however, the frame creaked and snapped where Grakkas had planted himself, and Meru’s heart sank even further.
As she sat, defeated and bewildered at what the past week had even meant, she noticed something amiss.
The door was still opened.
Meru hopped up and paced over to check, and so it was. Grakkas had remembered to lock it, but in his apparent haste to leave the room, the door wasn’t entirely shut.
Her heart was pounding. She could leave. She could go back to the Fu Dynasty where she belonged and sleep with her companions again, rather than alone in that dusty little room on a broken bed frame.
Meru stepped out into the hallway, looking up and down, and moved toward the front door, avoiding the bedrooms altogether, and keeping close to the walls to lower her chances of finding a squeaking floor board. Finally, she made it to the door and found it unlocked. Opening it, she breathed in deep, relishing the fresh, outside air.
A growl froze her in her tracks. Meru peered about to find a large form laying near the door. A closer look revealed the sleeping form of Grakkas.
That was quick. Apparently going without sleep for a week will do that to an… a Dragon.
Suddenly, Meru felt a bit torn. For being a prisoner to someone that she nearly killed, he’d been very gentle with her. Indulgent, even. More than that, though, she was starting to enjoy his company. She wanted to know more about him.
She bit her lip, deliberating. She could run now. Get away from this house without hurting anyone in it. Only, she didn’t know if she’d make it. She didn’t know how long she was unconscious, so she didn’t know how far or in what direction she was from where they’d hit the lightning rail. Her injuries were still fairly severe. She didn’t have any supplies…
As much as she knew that these were all just excuses to stay, it calmed her to have them. They seemed valid enough. She stretched and looked around in the darkness. She hadn’t known that it was so late. There was no window in her room to tell the time with.
After a little bit of awkward, self-conscious false starts, Meru lay down near Grakkas and scooted herself so that she could feel his warmth. Immediately upon touching him, he rolled toward her and she was suddenly worried that he might crush her… again. She made an involuntary noise of alarm, but it turned out to be unfounded. He leaned toward her and, with an unfathomably large clawed hand, pressed her body to his chest like a child’s favorite toy. It was clear that he wasn’t awake, and she almost giggled at witnessing such an unconscious… adorable thing. His wing unfurled to cover them both, and Meru quickly dozed off to the comforting sound of a sleeping body nearby.
Someone was touching Grakkas. He hadn’t slept in literally a week, and they couldn’t just let him be?
“How long have you been there?” he heard Mabel ask. Grakkas grunted. This is where he slept, who cares how long he’d been there? He was sleeping.
“Umm, since last night. I think.” Another voice replied from somewhere nearby. He really didn’t care who it was. He wanted them both to leave.
“Here,” Mabel continued, “Let me help you up.”
The touching continued, until Grakkas realized that someone was attempting to lift his arm. He stopped fighting it and was startled fully awake when something in his arms started to wriggle out of them.
With a startled huff, he opened his eyes to discover Meru standing up and looking briefly back at him, looking chagrined as Mabel smiled knowingly at her. Meru glanced back and, seeing that he was awake and looking up at her, she… blushed? What the… what? Grakkas didn’t know what was going on, but he was altogether far too tired to sort it out right then. He closed his eyes and laid his head back down to sleep.
What felt like a few hours later, he awoke to a great thumping noise. Grudgingly sitting up, he went to investigate.
It sounded like it was coming from the other side of the house, and he shook off the last of the fog of sleep as he rounded the corner. What he found there made his blood boil. Meru, in full dog-bear-beast regalia, was crouched and ready to pounce on Jarl’s son, Rathiel.
Grakkas shot forward like a dart from a blow gun. He was on Meru in moments, ready to tear her apart. She didn’t react how he had been expecting her to, however, and nearly rolled past her when she yelped loudly and fell limp. Grakkas pinned her down and raised his fist to strike when she further surprised him by transforming voluntarily to her Elf form. Once again, she lay entire without clothing beneath him. Only this time, she was fully alert, palms out, and she was stretching backward awkwardly, exposing her neck and chest to him.
Grakkas hesitated. Only then did he realize that someone else was hitting him.
“GET OFF OF HER I WAS ABOUT TO WIN THE GAME GRAKKAS GET OFF GET OFF GET OFF.” Rathiel was beating his fists on Grakkas’ thigh, and Grakkas thought it was about time to get some information because something was very different about the Elf and this whole situation.
“Grakkas! Wait!” Jarl ran up and touched Grakkas’ other thigh, “It’s not what it looks like.”
“I was playing.” Meru spoke up. She was still stretching backward, but she was looking at him now. “I swear, I wasn’t going to hurt him. I was playing.”
Grakkas looked at Jarl for confirmation, who nodded and started to push him off of the girl. He obliged him and stood straight, confused again… still.
“What is happening?” Grakkas asked Jarl, “Also, she told me her name so I win.”
Jarl was about to reply, but the little yard between the house and the back shed became suddenly crowded with a three canine intruders. Grakkas stood and cursed his thoughtlessness. His sword was on the other side of the house, leaning against the rail of the front porch. It couldn’t be helped, so he empowered, using his Dragon Stone, and readied his Demon Fire. With Jarl here, this wasn’t going to last long.
Meru opened her eyes when Rathiel suddenly stopped yelling. Grakkas had shifted his attention elsewhere, and Meru twisted around to see what had caught his eye. Grakkas finally moved away from her, allowing her to see what had quieted everyone.
Three of her former companions prowled into the yard; two of them in guardian form. Baru locked eyes with Meru, “We’ve come to arrest you, Meru, and take care of any witnesses.” As he finished the sentence, his eyes trailed to the shed, where Rathiel was headed, probably to hide. Grakkas reached for his hip, where his sword would be. It was probably still up front.
Suddenly, Meru realized that something was wrong. There should be four of them. She whipped her head about, trying to spot Shezru. He was a stealthy bastard, and probably waiting for an opportune moment to strike unexpectedly.
“What for?” Jarl spoke up.
Baru focused on him, and replied, “For surrendering to the enemy, of course.” He past Grakkas, back to Meru, “She may have given up Dynasty secrets.” a smirk cut across his face as he finished, “We just can’t have that.”
Even before he finished speaking, Baru began to Shift. Meru was still lying on the ground, and didn’t have a lot of time to react. Her Spirit armor whispered into existence, and she rolled away slightly to try to deflect the attack. Grakkas intervened, however, and shoved him mid-leap, throwing him off target by several feet.
Meru scrabbled to her feet as Grakkas followed up on his attack on Baru. Jarl was deftly avoiding and confusing Tisru and Junru to the point where they were nearly attacking each other. Grakkas was clearly more reserved after having been injured by Meru, and was clearly on the defensive. Rathiel emerged from the shed dragging a warhammer as he ran fearlessly toward his father.
Meru decided to follow Rathiel’s lead. She didn’t want any of them to die, but as the aggressors in this particular situation, she preferred Grakkas and Jarl’s family to the wanton destruction spearheaded by Baru. The Vulkanns had been kind and forgiving, and suddenly the ideals instilled in her as a Ru seemed empty and worthless. She’d rather stay here than return to the Dynasty under accusations of treason.
Solidifying her resolve, Meru shot around to the front of the house, heading toward Grakkas’ sword. As she rounded the corner, however, she stopped cold. Shezru was closing the door quietly behind himself as he entered the front door of the house.
Meru darted back to the side door and quietly opened it. As she slipped inside and past the master bedroom, she could hear Mabel chopping something at the counter, humming quietly as she worked. Meru’s heart was beating rapidly, and she had to force herself to calm down and keep moving. She was almost there.
“Jarl, could you ask Grakkas and Meru to quiet down out there? They’re going to bring the house down if they keep it up.” Mabel still didn’t know. Meru wanted to cry out, but she feared that if she gave herself away, Shezru would hurry to kill his mark. Mabel went on, chatting amiably, “I think there might be something there, love. You know I caught them cuddling this morning? I wonder what they were doing in that room for all that…”
There was a screeching, metallic noise and Mabel cried out. Hoping she wasn’t too late, Meru exploded into a sprint down the stupidly long hallway toward the kitchen. Mabel was pressed up against the counter holding her hand to her chest, her chopping knife, twisted and still glowing red skittered across the floor away from her.
Meru didn’t think about it. She didn’t consider the long term consequences of attacking a fellow Ru in a blind rage in defense of an enemy civilian. She only knew that Mabel didn’t deserve to die.
Her first attack made contact, but her focus was bad and he was able to shimmy away from it before it did any real harm. She closed on him and shoved, hard. His lower back hit the protruding countertop, knocking him off balance and gave Meru a chance to hook her blade beneath the plates of his armor and lodge it there.
This was a tactic that the Fu sternly discouraged. If a Spirit weapon is separated from its creator, it can be recalled and reformed. If it’s lodged in a living body, you lose your weapon. Meru subscribed to the logic that an impaled enemy was easier to overcome.
Shezru was far from beaten, however. He regained his balance and lunged at Meru. She slipped inside his guard, but the sheer weight of him atop her injured body was agony. Her newly stitched ribs cracked and ground against each other and she tasted blood. She could feel the hilt of her blade pressing against her stomach, entirely out of reach. Meru was starting to panic. Of all the times that it would have been fine to die, this was not one of them.
Shezru was moving to slice open Meru’s throat when he emitted a grunt of pain and surprise. He twisted back to throw Mabel across the room behind him. She managed to keep hold of the bloody, two-pronged fork that she’d used to stab him. He made the mistake of lifting his weight from Mabel and she retrieved the Spirit blade from him only to replace it immediately, at a slightly corrected angle. He reared back from her instinctively, but Meru followed him. She ignored her bodies screams of torment and kept hold of her blade.
The next few moments would never leave her. The familiar smell of Shezru’s sweat, his breath warm on her face as she followed his retreat. Her own screams ringing in her ears and the distinct, slippery feeling of blood between her hand and the handle of her blade. She caught up to him and rammed the sword through his armor, feeling it pierce the layers around his organs, scrape on bone, and finally penetrate his heart and lung, lodging itself firmly into his ribcage. She closed her eyes, and continued to follow him as he fell to the floor.
When her blade whispered from existence, she knew he was dead. Meru used the last dregs of adrenaline to drag her broken body over to Mabel, who sat up to stare wide-eyed at Meru.
“Are you… Okay?” Meru ask her.
“You saved my life.” Was Mabel’s only response. She sported a long, shallow scrape along her face, and she still favored her hand, but she looked okay. “You killed him to save my life.”
“I…” Meru coughed and drops of blood spattered, she must look like hell. “Yeah. I guess I couldn’t stand the thought of missing out on your dumpling soup.”
Mabel scooted over and put her arms around Meru, “Thank you.” Meru grunted in pain at her embrace, but didn’t fight it.
There was a commotion at the back door, and the smell of acrid smoke wafted in. The sound of running footsteps came closer and Meru wearily formed a short blade and turned to face the next problem while Mabel steadied her shoulders.
Jarl hesitated when he entered the kitchen. After taking a quick moment to consider the evidence of what had happened, he rushed to Mabel and helped her to stand. Without Mabel’s steadying hands, it was easier for Meru to slide to the floor. Her small blade vanished, but she kept a weak hold on her armor out of habit. Something was badly wrong, and she felt like she was dying.
Now was fine, though. Mabel was safe. Jarl was safe. Grakkas was… here? She felt the ground fall away from her and lifted her eyes just enough to see his vaguely familiar shape.
“Come, Mabel,” Jarl said calmly, “The house is on fire. Rathiel is outside waiting.”
The dimness of the house gave way to bright morning as they left the house. Jarl and Mabel started to bustle about in an attempt to quell the sticky blue flames that had attached themselves to the outer walls of the house. Grakkas lay Meru down on the grass.
“You’re dying, Meru.” Grakkas told her. His voice sounded a little strange, and when she looked at him, his face was twisted with emotion. She could only nod in response. She knew it.
A pulse of powerfully acute magic rolled over her, and when she looked up again, Grakkas was smaller. Not small by any means, but his massive wings were missing and his overall bulk had given way to a more natural tone. Meru had never really thought of Grakkas as a man before. She’d thought of him as more of a creature. A story. This must have been what he looked like before he stepped into the songs.
“Let me save you.” It was a question. It sounded like an order, but he could have done it with or without her permission. She didn’t have the strength to fight it, and they both knew it.
“Take me with you.” Meru shut her eyes in an effort not to cry. The pain of her injuries was one thing, but the anguish of leaving her life behind was another thing entirely. Grakkas picked her up off the grass and leaned her against his chest.
“You can’t keep up.” He stated matter of factly. The blankness of his tone gave him away. He didn’t want her to die.
“If you can grow wings,” Meru took a steadying breath, “…So can I.”
Meru felt the pain from her wounds suddenly lessen. It felt like diving into a river after hard training in the heat of the day. She couldn’t help but relax into it, and soon she felt the pull of sleep drag her into unconsciousness.