Chapter 41: Broken Ground
“I told you already, I can’t let you in! Now go away kid!”
Under a guardhouse built against the wall, Nisha was arguing with the soldier guarding the door.
After having followed the instructions of the various soldiers carrying supplies up the stairs, the clamor of the ongoing siege continuously leaking from the large stones separating her from the battlefield, the little girl had finally arrived in front of the former guard station, which now served as the main headquarter of the defense force.
“I already told you! My name is Nisha Dharnas, I have to speak with the marshal. Let me in! Now!”
A small dust cloud rose when she stomped on the ground, her frustration piling up, similar to the debris from the enemies’ projectiles on the streets that, along with the endless arid weather, had transformed the previously crammed roads in bone-dry wastelands.
Tempted to conjure her [Taurith Short Swords] from her [Soul Space], stab the guard and force her way in, Nisha used all of her willpower to resist that urge, calmly asking for the door’s opening once more.
“Listen up, brat. You are not the first one to try to seek refuge here, but impersonating a noble is a serious crime. I don’t want to arrest you, so go away, I won’t let you in!”
“Why can’t you understand?! I’m not impersonating anyone, if you ask the marshall, he will confirm it. Just ask him!”
“I’m not going to risk cleaning the latrines for a week because I angered the marshall for an unknown little girl! Leave, we’re under siege and I can’t talk to you anymore. If I can still see you after three seconds, I’ll have to use my spear to drive you away!”
I would like to see him try. But I don’t have time for this, what can I do to see Luthais?
The door behind the soldier suddenly opened, another man with a decorated uniform jacket left the room and wrinkled his forehead seeing the scene occurring in front of him, his short size constraining him to look up at the two verbal opponents.
“Lieutenant, what is going on here? What is all this racket about?”
His haughty stature, combined with his shrilling nasal voice, drove Nisha to instantly dislike him; but his reaction to the lieutenant’s report surprised her.
“Sir! This girl keeps pestering me about seeing Marshall Dharnas, she claims to be part of his house, going as far as to pretend to bear the Dharnas name. I know the marshall has no daughter, so I tried to make her leave, but she doesn’t listen!”
“Wow, are you a dwarf?”
Grandpa told me about that species, they are supposed to live in a far away kingdom. I didn’t know there was one here.
The admiration in her eyes as she looked at the man seemed to have an effect contrary to what was intended, as the officer’s eyes started bulging out of their sockets, his face reddening in an unhealthy colour.
“Such insolence! Lieutenant, I demand you to chase this brat out of here without wasting any more time, I have never been -”
“Nisha, there you are! You shouldn’t run away like that.”
A female voice cut the tiny officer in his rising fury, ringing out out from behind Nisha.
Turning around, the dragon spotted Lance Corporal Hale and her group of soldiers, still dragging the hand cart.
“It’s the enemy! The girl is a spy, kill her!”
The door guard couldn’t say whether the command the tiny officer had shouted before bolting inside the building, screaming, was a result of his true vigilance or his misplaced hate due to the dwarf comment.
“More enemies have arrived, it’s the Legion this time! Help! Someone get the Marshall!”
Nisha herself had no idea what was going on, she had only wanted to meet Luthais, that was what she had clearly stated; however she had been suddenly treated like an enemy, her friend Hale was apparently regarded as a foe too; and it irked her.
Confused by the obscure relationships between the different parties around her and the violent development, Nisha was late to react to the soldier’s movement, and she only looked down on her chest upon feeling a sudden pain. The tip of a spear was grotesquely protruding out of it.
Ironically enough, there had been no pain when the spear had pierced her back, no sensations had coursed her body before she noticed the iron head, there had only been a slight discomfort.
Now that she knew what was causing the irritation, the injured girl could feel every rough edge, every bump the smith had made when he had fashioned the weapon currently cutting into her flesh, each of them sending bouts of pain through her body.
Sh*t, this hurts. But I’ve had worse before.
In the deepest part of Nisha’s being, the flame and the runes were raging against their restraints, begging her to allow them to be set free, howling at her to let them out, driving their master on the verge of madness, unable to fight the overpowering demands, they had to break free and be concentrated on the wound.
Regrettably the iron in her flesh was sapping all her strength, her mana and aura were working at closing the wound in vain.
With whatever strength she had left, Nisha’s shaky hand reached out to the spear’s handle and infused it with all the mana she could muster, letting it slip in the rough shaft, the stick splintering and crumbling away under the weak grasp.
A burning sensation accompanied Nisha into the darkness.
And I only wanted to see Luthais … Sorry Anna, sorry Lydia, looks like I won’t be able to help you anymore.
“Prepare to defend the building! Guards, take your positions and – Nisha! Is that you ?! What happened here?!”
That was the last thing the dragon heard before nothingness fully claimed her withering senses.
Darkness had become Nisha’s old friend by now. She didn’t fear the night and even felt at ease hunting under its black cloak; after all she could no longer see a difference between daylight and nighttime.
This dusk however felt foreign to her, much darker and colder. Struggling to get up, the dragon looked around, seeking to visualize the bindings that kept her in place.
But there didn’t seem to be anything physical suspending her or keeping her afloat. Only shadows, as far as the eye could see.
No sensations left in her limbs, the formless constraints sealing her inside a small room, Nisha was waiting silently, unable to tell if a single moment or an eternity had passed.
Eventually, she couldn’t take it anymore and despaired.
Help me, please. Whoever can hear me, I don’t know what to do anymore. Help me.
Grey ravens appeared out of nowhere, circling around Nisha in a feather storm. Like leaves in an autumn breeze, they danced around the dragon, ghostly and without a proper outline. Suddenly the birds shifted and melted together, forming a grey circle beaming in oscillating colors.
“Do you know it is the first time you have prayed? I am happy to see you again.”
Rippling like water, the darkness parted, akin to a veil, opening a passage for two figures to penetrate the circle.
“Yes Nisha, it’s us. We are here.”
Free from her confinement as the ravens had dissolved them, Nisha threw herself towards the welcomed visitors, excited.
Within Gabriel’s embrace, feelings slowly returned to her numbed limbs.
I am glad to see you again too. But what did you mean by prayer? I don’t think I ever prayed to anyone.
Unlike the last time they had seen each other, the two shapes that had emerged from the veil did not exactly mirror the appearance of humanoid beings, they looked more like echoes of real persons than fleshly apparitions; they were living shadows, featureless; yet Nisha could effortlessly recognize the energy circling around the goddesses.
“Prayers can come in many forms. A fleeting thought in a moment of danger, the feeling of thankfulness after a peaceful day, all of these can be taken as a short prayer.
You reached out a plea to anyone that might be listening, and we answered. So here we are.”
Downright kindness played on the otherwise expressionless white mask as Gabriel smiled down on her, while Bael was explaining the reason of their arrival.
Where am I? And what is happening to me?
Nisha became more aware with the passing of time that this realm was not real, an illusion so to say. Her voice didn’t sound like hers and her body, although it had came back to a warm and responsive state, didn’t look like the elvish figure she had gotten used to over the last turn either.
My body … it’s so different!
“For someone asking such smart questions, you discovered that quite late!
To answer your questions, we are in the place in between. Neither here nor there, it’s not bound to any location. Where sound fades and light pales. It is called Ataraxia.
Normally you shouldn’t be able to enter it, no one can. But there is one exception, one possibility for mortals to seep into this realm.
Gods use this place to traverse the world from time to time, however mortals also enter it when they hover between life and death.
Because this is the place where life fades, extinguished by darkness, and where lights return to blaze in the world.”
Worry seized Nisha’s heart, the icy sensation from earlier was still lingering in her flesh and bones, making the threat of death more concrete than ever.
As she was about to speak up, Bael’s hazy figure took her hand over Gabriel’s shoulder, a single line painted on the blank canvas that was her face to depict her small smile.
“Don’t worry, as the goddess of death I can assure you, it is not your time yet. Even if things had developed differently, you would have probably only slept for … a very long time.
But you asked what was happening and I have to say, you have been very active recently. You made a lot of new acquaintances, which helped to settle the situation in [Blackquarry]. As soon as you lost consciousness, Marshall Dharnas who had exited the building saw you collapse from the spear wound. A dangerous cut – if you don’t mind me saying so -, it grazed your heart, it is the reason why you fell, unable to gather your power. That’s my guess at least, since the last time I saw you, you were able to heal your wounds on your own to some extent.”
Playing with the dragon’s scales, Bael’s avatar gave off cozy warmth enkindling the dragon’s cold body.
The blissful feeling combined with the gentle light enveloping her almost put Nisha to sleep, when Gabriel talked.
“Luthais only saw your blood and almost made a mistake, he was about to order the guards to attack the legionaeres belonging to the Second Legion in retribution.
You are quite lucky, Nisha, do you know that? Lance Corporal Hale saw how you were hurt and rushed to your side, trying to help you, ordering her troops to stand down. An armed conflict between the legionaeres and the Leandar’s defenders would have sent many souls towards this realm – more than those already heading that way.
However, you friends didn’t kill each other. I won’t exactly tell you what happened to let Lance Corporal Hale have her moment of glory when you wake up, but without her I would have had to welcome you in the land of the dead for a while.
Does that answer your questions, Nisha?”
Loosening her embrace, Gabriel’s avatar affectionately held the dragon in her arms, the gentle aura surrounding the angelic woman making her appear like a mother in Nisha’s eyes.
You didn’t say a word about my body’s unusual shape here yet, nor have you told me how I can get out.
It’s not that I don’t want to stay with you, but my sisters need me. They are protecting grandfather’s remains, I don’t want anyone to hurt them.
Squirming inside the cuddle, the dragon twisted her body, looking for the exit of the plane.
The circle’s light allowed Nisha to examine her body more closely, the goddesses had distracted her from that task.
She had scales, they felt less hard and sharp compared to her natural form, they were more ethereal, but not incorporeal enough to slip through the threads that had held her, the bindings didn’t completely belong to [Ataraxia], nor did they belong to Nisha.
Her claws weren’t draconic but way more sinister, meant to gouge eyes and injure rather than scratch in a hunt.
“Luckily time has no meaning in here, this is where everything dies and rises, even time has no grasp over you here. Our conversation here lasts thousands of eons and a single second at the same time. [Ataraxia] is a weird place in that regard. In many others too. You wouldn’t believe all the wonders that happen in here.”
Bael’s explanation made no sense to the dragon, but she trusted her saviours, they had saved her before and she believed that they wouldn’t lie to her without a good reason.
“You know, something bothers me. You said those vessels are your sisters, right?”
Indeed, Annabelle and Lydia lived in the cottage with grandpa and me. They feel as close to me as Little Breeze, Little Stream and Little Terra. Is something wrong with that?
Bael’s tone shifted from doting to pouting, like a cat on whose paw Nisha had stepped a second ago.
“I’ll tell you where the exit is, under one … no, two conditions!”
The woman’s wronged expression changed into that of a mischievous animal.
Don’t be so mean, Bael. Just tell me, come on.
Leaving Gabriel’s hug, Nisha jumped onto Bael, pushing her to the ground to playfully bite the side of her neck.
Tell me, I have to go back to my sisters, I can’t make a deal with you. We’re friends, right?
“Alright, alright, just let me state my two conditions, I promise you won’t mind them at all.
First, you have to let us see you once in awhile. Even if you don’t mean it, pray from time to time. Without that we cannot visit you, even if we want to. Just a small quick thought from time to time.
We miss you too, you know?”
Tickling the beast’s sides, Bael counterattacked despite Nisha’s massive body. Moving was as easy as before, but if she had to estimate her own size, she was currently almost twice as big as she was in dragon form, albeit Bael’s shadow didn’t lose out in size or strength as she effortlessly blocked her claws and poisonous fangs.
Fine, I had no idea I could contact you by praying. You’re both very nice with me; and I’m also very thankful, I got to spend more time with Eldrin thanks to you, I can never repay that fully. And you gave me my eye back too, I know you didn’t have to do that.
What’s the second condition?
“Isn’t it quite obvious? Gabriel and I agree on this, you know? How should I put it …”
At first Nisha couldn’t figure out what could cause the goddess to delay her request, however after seeing Bael trying to avoid the issue, the dragon finally understood the emotion on the avatar’s impassive face.
What? You… you are shy Bael? Hahaha!
“Hey, don’t laugh. I’m being serious here! But okay, I’ll say it, if that’s what you want.
You see, we’d like to have an affectionate name from you too. It’s unfair that Anna and Lydia got one before us, we’re the goddesses here!”
The wronged kitten expression resurfaced when Nisha’s large body rocked with laughter, she had expected a much more serious issue.
“Sheesh, it’s not that important. You don’t have to give us one if you don’t want to.”
No, wait. You misunderstood. No, really. Why would I need special names for my family? Do you want to be my older sister or my young aunt?
“You’re really killing me here, Nisha. Gabriel, you tell her, I can’t do this right now.
Feeling exasperated by the embarrassing exchange with the lovely creature, Bael lost her grip on her avatar and it faded away. As for Gabriel, she resumed her hug.
“Aunt Gabriel doesn’t sound so bad. I’ll think about it. Anyway, I’ll tell you how to get out. It’s fairly simple. Just smash the ground below you.
Don’t let my cute newly-found nieces wait.”
The single line painted on her avatar’s face, typical of Gabriel’s smile vanished along with the goddess.
Unwilling to waste anymore time, Nisha raised her large claws, casted a last glance at the darkness that was [Ataraxia], a grin playing on her nightmarish face, and demolished the soil that had materialized under her feet.
Suddenly there was light.