Trissiny reached by reflex for her sword, finding nothing. Of course; there was no telling where she’d dropped it. It might be half a block away. She tried to scramble to her feet and reach for her divine power, which combined had the effect of driving her right back to the floor. The first action set off waves of pain from the collection of bruises and minor fractures she’d just acquired, and the second caused a stab of agony in her temples.
It wasn’t like when she’d been shot with the divine disruptor in Veilgrad; the magic was there, she could feel it and touch it as always, but her nerves felt fried and trying to embrace it brought pain. Trissiny had never experienced this personally, but Professor Yornhaldt had described the effects in great detail in class specifically because he refused to subject students to them Circle backlash faded quickly, but for now, the aftermath of having her divine spark crushed by a powerful arcane charge left her dazed and unable to cast.
She just needed minutes, maybe only seconds, before she could shield and heal herself again.
Syrinx’s stride broke into a run; she dashed across the marble floor at the fallen paladin, raising her sword. She did not have seconds.
Then a lightning bolt cracked across the museum’s foyer, bursting into a shower of sparks that ignited the blue bubble of a shielding charm around Basra, who stumbled to the side from the hit.
A second shot struck her, then a third, and she scrambled behind a pillar.
“Afternoon, boss lady!” called a tall, hatchet-faced man in the scruffy remains of a nice suit, striding into the museum with a wand in each hand. “Glad I caught ya. Consider this my two weeks’ notice.”
“Your existence has been an unbroken succession of mistakes, Shook,” Basra snarled from her hiding place. “This one was your worst, and last!”
He laughed derisively, a note in his voice almost as wild as her own. “Rrrrriiight back atcha, sweetheart.”
Basra spun back around the pillar and charged right at him, keeping her body low and her blade up. Her shield had recovered from the impacts in the intervening seconds, but Shook had also not been idle, having switched the settings on both his wands. The ex-Bishop pelted across the floor toward the door at a pace that would reach him in seconds, but he fired back with straight beams of light instead of lightning bolts. The impacts made her shield flash entirely opaque and begin to smoke; after three hits it was clearly on the verge of collapse, and with a shriek of pure frustration, Basra broke off her attack again and rolled behind the dubious cover of the half-crushed front desk.
He shot that, too, beams punching straight through the heavy wood. A moment later she lunged out the other side, soaking up another hit—he was a pretty good shot with those wands—and somersaulted behind a marble wall separating the foyer from the wide exhibit space behind.
Trissiny gritted her teeth, trying again for the magic. A faint flicker pulsed through the air around her, slightly assuaging her battered body even as it sent another spike of pain through her head. She just needed a few more seconds. Hopefully this guy had bought her enough time…
She was abruptly jerked out of her thoughts, literally. He had crossed the rest of the distance to her in long strides, and now seized her by the collar of her breastplate. In the next moment, Trissiny found herself being bodily dragged around behind another low wall separating out what appeared to be a gift shop. Despite the indignity—and the additional pain in her limbs—she couldn’t find it in her to complain too much. Basra would be crazy to have tried this without a ranged weapon of her own, and Trissiny wasn’t entirely sure she was yet capable of walking to cover under her own power.
“Omnu’s balls, it’s the twelfth fuckin’ century,” her rescuer grunted. “What’s the big idea, goin’ around dressed in metal? Get your shit together, girl, I’m not draggin’ your heavy ass all over this place.”
“Fair ‘nough,” Trissiny wheezed, managing to arrange herself sitting up with her back against the wall. “Just…buy me a minute, please. And thanks for the save.”
“No worries,” he muttered, crouching by the end of the wall and leaning just enough to peek out. “Call me Thumper. I’m here with Bishop Darling.”
“Oh, you’re Guild? Good.”
“Good?” He glanced back at her. “Probably the first time a Hand of Avei’s ever thought that was good.”
Trissiny let it go, concentrating on trying to regather her magical focus. Even giving a Guild countersign would just lead to questions, and this was no time or place for explanations. The power was there again, accessible but still weak. In fact, she decided that was for the best. Keeping the glow low and minimal, she carefully directed precise currents of healing magic to every place that hurt.
“You’d better hope that creature’s a lot more use than I found him to be, Trissiny!” Basra’s voice echoed through the museum. The wide-open marble construction made it aggravatingly impossible to tell where the echoes were coming from. “Any shield you can put up, I can crack! It’s your sword against mine, and we both know how that ends, don’t we?”
“Bluffing,” Thumper grunted, “or ignorant. There’s a reason they quit making weapons powerful enough to break a paladin’s shield. That thing was good for one, maybe two uses when it was brand new, and that was before it sat under glass for fifty years. I’m amazed it still had enough juice for one shot. She tries it again, it’s likely to blow her fuckin’ hand off. If it does anything at all.”
“How do you know that?” Her new companion had slicked-back hair that gave him an oily look like the stereotype of a potion salesman, but he was obviously no stranger to violence, like most Eserites. His once-smart suit was torn and singed in multiple places, and he had a streak of blood down the left side of his face from a wound on the temple that looked like it had only just clotted. Altogether he didn’t look like the sort of person whose head was filled with historical trivia.
“I took the museum tour,” he replied, glancing at her again, this time with a little smirk. “Try crackin’ a book sometime, paladin, get yourself some culture.”
“So she either doesn’t know her big surprise weapon’s a dud, or she’s trying to intimidate us…” Trissiny trailed off, eyes narrowing as she almost absentmindedly finished applying divine healing to the necessary spots. “Hey. Can you fake a demon ambush?”
Thumper shot her an incredulous look. “Can I fuckin’ what?”
“Knock some things over, shout and shoot your wands. Make it sound like something’s attacking us here.”
He caught on immediately, a malicious grin stretching across his features. “Oh. Make noise and break shit? Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can manage that.”
She raised her voice to a near-shriek, and slammed one boot into a display of little wooden figurines. “From the stairs! Look out—no, behind you!”
Thumper bellowed in convincing pain and blasted several more harmless gift items with lightning bolts, lunging across the store space to slam his shoulder into a row of shelves and send the entire thing crashing over.
While he carried on demolishing the gift shop, Trissiny lunged forward out of cover, making a beeline toward the broken front doors. She made herself stagger to her hands and knees, and then struggle back upright, head down and panting laboriously, then proceeded again with a heavy limp, arms around her midsection to cradle her ribs.
The blur of motion was all the warning she had. Basra Syrinx at the height of her power might have been more careful, but Trissiny had taken the time to ask her grandmother in the grove what anth’auwa meant and how they acted, and this time it seemed she’d predicted the woman’s actions accurately. Seeing an enemy alone and vulnerable, just as before, Syrinx charged to attack, heedless of the fact that Trissiny had baited her into the open in range of Thumper’s wands.
Not for nothing was Basra a blademaster; she crossed the space between them far faster than she’d been moving before, perhaps sensing that there would not be another chance. It was all Trissiny could do to react in time.
But her reaction was not sword against sword. Light burst from her, filling the atrium, and her sword and shield coalesced in her grip from wherever they had fallen. Basra tried to adjust, her reflexes almost elf-like, but here she was disadvantaged by her own burst of speed. She just didn’t have the space to change course, and slammed sword-first into Trissiny’s impenetrable shield of light.
The blade went flying from her grasp, and Trissiny slammed the metal shield into her, igniting Basra’s shielding charm and sending her reeling back. Basra tried to turn her stumble into a more orderly retreat, but Thumper popped up from behind the low gift shop wall and set about systematically ravaging the front desk behind her. That was as close as he dared shoot with Trissiny in melee range, but it had the effect of making Basra choose between facing the paladin or a veritable wall of lightning bolts.
Sensibly, she chose a third option, hurling herself to the side in a bid to put distance between her and Trissiny. Thumper’s barrage effectively cut off her access to the exhibit hall, but there was one more place she could go: a staircase at the other end of the lobby, leading up to the second floor.
“NOT THIS TIME,” Trissiny roared, dashing after her with golden wings flaring.
Basra let her pursue for three yards before whirling mid-step, golden gauntlet upraised and with a vindictive smirk on her face.
Apparently she hadn’t been bluffing. It was all Trissiny could do not to smirk right back in the half-second before the glove came to rest against her sphere of protection.
Sparks flew from it, and nothing else happened. Basra wasted another half second dithering in shock, while Trissiny carried on with her sprint, leading right past the woman and also pivoting mid-step to bring her sword down in a vertical sweep.
The ancient sword of the Hands of Avei carried countless scars and dents from its legendary adventures; people who didn’t know what it was often mistook it for a battered old piece of junk. At the very least, they reasonably tended to assume the pitted blade couldn’t possibly be all that sharp. This assumption was in error.
It cut cleanly through muscle and bone, taking Basra’s left hand off just above the wrist, gauntlet and all.
Basra’s scream was ear-splitting at that proximity, but even that was immediately drowned out by the explosion. The impact on a divine shield followed by a drop to the floor proved to be more than the old enchanted weapon could take, and the gauntlet discharged every remaining spark of arcane power it held in a single burst that hurled both women away from each other.
This was a much lesser charge than the first one; Trissiny definitely felt the hit on her shield, but it held this time. Of far greater concern was that an extremely bright light had just gone off right in front of her face, leaving her blinking and staggering further backward in an instinct instilled by long training. When incapacitated, seek distance from the enemy.
Fortunately her eyes were not only acclimated to lights thanks to her own glowing effects, but benefited from the divine magic coursing through her body. She was blinded for scarcely two seconds, but upon blinking away the last sparks, found that Basra had let neither pain nor blindness slow her, and was just now bounding up the stairs three at a time. Cradling her left arm and leaving behind a trail of blood, but moving with amazing speed considering her condition. Trissiny had to wonder if she might have dosed herself with something alchemical before this.
“Quick, get to the other staircase,” she barked. “If we cut her off—”
“Those two staircases don’t open onto the same room,” Thumper said, approaching from the wreckage of the gift shop. “It’s a maze of galleries up there. And she’s gonna run, now. Jumpin’ you when you were down was one thing, but that bitch wants nothing to do with a pissed-off paladin at full power. Even wounded, all she’s gotta do is pop a potion and it’ll take us fuckin’ forever to run her to ground again.”
“Then we’re wasting time,” Trissiny said impatiently. “We can still catch her!”
He glanced at the door. “If that’s what you wanna do, I’m in. But is she the priority, here? We got a city bein’ eaten by demons as we speak.”
Trissiny froze, one foot raised to dash off after Basra. He was right. After that beating, Basra was officially not an immediate threat to anyone, but the demons in Ninkabi were ravaging and killing with every passing moment. She knew, intellectually, that what she needed to do was regroup with the others and press on to the cathedral to finish this.
The growl started low in her throat, rising in pitch and volume until she threw back her head and let out a shriek of pure, impotent frustration.
“Tell me about it,” Thumper agreed sympathetically.
“Again,” Trissiny spat. “Again that monster gets to slither away! How many times do I have to almost kill her before I can finish the job?!”
“Life’s like that, kid,” he said. “Sometimes the bastards get to walk all over you and stroll away whistling. But this time you hurt her good, and sometimes that’s just gotta be enough. Smartest guy I know once told me the key to never bein’ in a position where you gotta actually surrender is knowing when to make a tactical retreat.”
“Good advice,” she growled. “Ugh. You’re right, we don’t have time for this. Come on. Not that I don’t appreciate the backup,” she added while leading the way back out into the street, the enforcer on her heels, “but what are you doing way over here anyway, if you came with Sweet?”
He quirked an eyebrow at the use of the Bishop’s tag, but just answered her question. “Saw you come flyin’ in like a fuckin’ meteor. I gotta say, I wasn’t expecting to find ol’ Basra with the same idea, but I figured I’d at least better check and see if you were okay.”
“Sure, but why out here? Like I said, I got thrown by the big demon. Or maybe it was the big explosion, it’s all a little hazy. But that’s at least a block away. Tell me you weren’t thinking of pulling a museum job while this city’s under a demon invasion,” she added in a more dangerous tone.
“Hey, fuck you, lady, my priorities ain’t that screwed up. Anyway, I’m muscle, not an ops guy. I came here to kill demons, and that’s what I been doin’. For your information, since I—uh, got separated, I’ve done for at least a dozen of those scrawny guys in the armor, and two of the warlock chicks.”
“You attacked khelminash sorceresses?” she demanded, giving him an incredulous look. “With a wand?”
“From behind,” he clarified. “I’m not a moron.”
“Thumper, are you crazy? Stay with the group! You can’t take on a city full of demons on your own, even I couldn’t manage that. It’s amazing you haven’t gotten killed already!”
“Yeah,” he said, his tone strangely mild. He kept his gaze ahead, not seeming to really see the street in front of them. “Well, seems like a pretty good way to go. Look, you take the cross street up there, see? Hang a right and you’ll come right back to the square, I bet the others haven’t moved too far from there. Probably some of ‘em out lookin’ for you. If you’re good to go, I’m gonna get back to it.”
Trissiny slammed to a halt, turning to stare at him in bemusement. Thumper also stopped, but oddly refused to meet her gaze.
It took her a moment to understand, just because she wasn’t used to thinking of Guild members acting like this. Soldiers, though… Men and women in war zones tried this pretty regularly, enough that the Sisterhood had entire doctrines on the matter.
“Last I checked,” she stated, “Eserion has no use for cowards.”
He snapped his gaze back to hers, baring his teeth in a snarl and clenching up his entire body in sudden fury.
Trissiny was not in the least intimidated. “And that’s what that is, Thumper. No matter what you’re running from, ending it yourself is cowardice. Are you a Guild enforcer, or are you going to give up and seek an untimely demon-related death? Because those are the two options. There’s no overlap.”
He physically swelled up, and for just a moment she thought he might take a swing at her.
Then, quite suddenly, he deflated. The red faded from his face and the man closed his eyes, letting his shoulders slump.
“You got no idea what you’re talkin’ about, kid. If you knew my story, you’d be puttin’ that sword in my ass yourself.”
“Then do me a favor and don’t tell me about it while I’ve got all this to deal with,” she snapped, gesturing with her blade at the ravaged city around them. Then, catching herself, Trissiny shook her head. “No, this is… Look, Thumper, I’m not a confessor, and I definitely didn’t pass up on chasing Syrinx to waste time with whatever drama this is. If you really think you’re ready to find out what Vidius thinks of your life’s work, then…go do what you want, I guess. But if there’s still an enforcer of Eserion under all that self-pity, then you come with me and bust some heads. Make the call.”
She turned and strode off in the direction he’d indicated, leaving him behind.
Trissiny was almost surprised to hear his footsteps as he jogged to catch up, but kept it to herself. She did glance sidelong at him when he fell into step beside her, if only because he was glaring at nothing and muttering a prolonged soliloquy of obscenities.
“Save that anger for the demons, not me,” she advised.
“I’m not mad at you,” he spat. “Mad at me.”
“Well, same goes. We’ve got a lot of work still to do.”
He didn’t stop cursing, but she didn’t press the issue, and they rounded the corner onto the next cross street leading back to the square. In the next moment, a shrill squeaking rose out of the noise echoing from every part of the city, followed by a tiny red streak bounding erratically over piles of rubble straight toward them.
“Meesie!” Trissiny cried, stopping and descending to one knee. The little elemental squealed ecstatically, swarming up her body like a squirrel climbing a tree, coming to rest on Trissiny’s shoulder where she began patting her ear, cheek, and hair as if checking for injuries. “I’m glad to see you, too,” Trissiny said, standing back up and unable to keep the smile off her face. It felt good to smile.
“Hey, I know that rat,” Thumper commented, studying them quizzically. “What, no hug for me, too?”
Meesie blew a tiny wet raspberry at him, then turned around and wagged her rump in his direction.
“If I had a copper,” the enforcer grunted.
“Hey!” called a voice from up the street, commanding their attention. Three more figures were approaching.
Though it was Schwartz who had shouted, waving as he ran toward them, Grip led the way, leaving him and Jenell to trail after her.
“What the fuck are you doing with this assclown, Thorn?” she demanded, giving Trissiny a quick once-over and then Thumper a scathing look.
“Thorn?” he asked, frowning. “What’s that, a nickname?”
“It’s a tag, you impossible dipshit,” Grip snorted.
He blinked, twice.
“Oh, yeah, she’s Guild,” the other enforcer said, grinning. “Trained and tagged by Style herself.”
“These are interesting times we live in, Thumper,” Trissiny said sagely while he gaped at her. “Ease up, Grip, I don’t know what issues you two have but Thumper saved my bacon back there. Basra showed up, apparently out of nowhere, and decided to…give me a hand.”
Thumper let out a bark of malicious laughter, to the bemusement of the others, while Trissiny continued.
“I was in no state to deal with her when I hit the ground. It was a very good thing he was there to have my back.”
“Did you finish her off?” Jenell demanded, her face taut.
“Does anyone ever finish her off?” Trissiny replied bitterly. “I bled her pretty well, this time, but that was it. I swear that woman is more slippery than the Wreath.”
“Well, look on the bright side,” Thumper offered. “Anybody that hilariously evil and also harder to kill than she has any right to be is absolutely gonna end up as a succubus. Every minute she’s still alive, at least that’s not happening.”
A chorus of groans answered him.
“Don’t even joke about that,” Jenell grated.
“I’m glad to see your ass in one piece, Thorn,” Grip added, her expression more serious. “Now get it back here with the rest of us.”
“Bad?” Trissiny asked tersely, already striding forward. The rest of them fell into step alongside, Meesie bounding from her shoulder to Jenell’s and then back to the top of Schwartz’s head.
“Yeah, well, lemme put it this way. Remember the giant fucking demon with the unbeatable superweapon in his eyeballs that you and your paladin pals went to all that trouble to finish off? Apparently, that was the easy part.”