Daliah watched as Claudia turned her head. Though she was hunched over, her face was visible, as her hair had gained a bizarre, sudden bounciness, like the tip of each strand was struggling to rise up. The face hidden in the hair seemed to have trouble looking ahead. It was much better at looking askance, with its forward face and protruding eyes of a half-human, half serpent. One hand reached out, fingers splayed far too wide like the golden talons of a hawk, and then the thing that was her daughter splashed face-first into the puddle of flesh that was once her jailer.
“Daliah,” an oddly familiar voice said.
It must be in my head. I’m dreaming, perhaps…
“Daliah!” It was loud and in her right ear, making her turn and shriek. Feminine, vice-like hands gripped her wrists and held her up. “Daliah, it’s me, Brinne! Look!”
She couldn’t believe it when she saw straight, perfect blonde hair and a relaxed face. It was her trusted friend, the one she had wanted Claudia to reach on Street Ten.
“Brinne? What’s going on? Do you know what’s wrong with her?” Daliah asked.
“We need to go.”
“Pick up your daughter. Do not tire yourself with words.”
Fluttering lower to the ground, the Fey morphed its chest into a vertical mouth of barbed ribs that clamped through one man’s waist, lifting him up and shaking until his lower half fell onto the others. Stumbling and throwing off guts, those most affected were not ready for its arm swipe, a long blade of bone that cut five men down.
Another crossbow volley sprayed more searing bolts into the creature, some planted in the base of its wings. Back arched and wincing, it fell, and the horde wasted no time. Skymetal lances stopped its fall and ducked it backward, skewering it over and over as each wound erupted with smoke.
“Careful!” Sallith’s voice boomed. “I do not know how much it can take, so do not kill it. It must be studied.”
Like one piece of meat stuck on four skewers over a bonfire, the mangled being hung and dripped an oily, rainbow-colored blood that pooled in the center of the sand. The men lowered their pikes, and, as graciously as possible, removed the blades from its flesh. The crumpled, shredded wings were like the remnants of a blanket.
You’re too weak now, Sallith thought, watching the column of smoke in the center of the pit. You’re wounded, and the skymetal overwhelms you.
Only a brief jog away, at the portcullis, Juxxa watched with a side glance, still keeping the elves in view. The Ozarian had a feeling this was all related to the note from the two elves, falsely accused of arson and passed off as humans.
What was it that one had said? ‘There may be hope for us after all’?
“You have no reason to fear the fall of Mirek,” the leader elf said. “More specifically, the stoppage of the matches. We know where your daughter is hidden, within the palace.”
Juxxa went deaf to all but his words, turning to him slowly.
“Pardon us. We could not reach you so openly to speak until now.”
“Where is she?”
“It would be difficult to describe the path. You are welcome to follow my two compatriots here. They will show you where your daughter is.”
“Look out!” the sneering elf said, as bone spears the length of the radius of the arena grew outward in an instant, one piercing eight men and nearly grazing Juxxa’s spine. Like the reverse of a blooming flower’s styles, they folded upward to the sky, then all retracted. The bodies bumped and tumbled over the rising Fey, wings healing in a tornado of smoke.
“You cannot defeat me!” it insisted, “and regardless, I don’t want to fight!”
Less than half the soldiers remained now, and they were backing away, arms lowering. Juxxa had seen more than a few battles, and these men were ready to rout.
“Who do I speak to?” Juxxa asked, turning around. It was then that he realized that somehow, the arrow from Kaj that had pierced his thigh was gone, and the wound was healed. Did the Fey do this?
“Follow them,” the elf said, captivated by the scene.
Thus Juxxa left, walking painlessly after two of the five elves. He would not have believed what he would have seen next, anyway.
After the bodies had fallen, one last figure fell atop the floating creature, only this one was clad in shining, black drake armor, ivory bow drawn and ready. The King had leapt from his perch and landed, planting a foot on the monster’s shoulder.
In a flash, the King locked his legs around its neck, bashing his back against its midsection and making it bob and sink. He drew an arrow from his quiver, each held in a catch that prevented them from pouring out, and stabbed it deep in the thing’s head. More arrows fired, two per breath, as its face became a churning, fuming target loaded with quills like the tail of a porcupine. It flailed, veered, and sunk lower, then tried flying into the wall, but there wasn’t enough force to throw the archer off. Its wings gave out in shock, and it began to fall. The King kicked himself free, and five men were ready, their weapons dropped, forming their arms into a safety net.
“Save your city and finish this thing!” the King roared, as the Fey plummeted into the sand.
Awakening from their awe-struck stupor, the men cheered as if they would never again for as long as they lived.
Sallith readied his next arrow, a piercer lined with catching barbs at the fletching. The barbs were made of the same skymetal, and they would stay in—deeply. I carved my nation into the stage for this battle, you putrid leech. You dare say we can’t win?
The Fey had expelled the arrows by morphing its head. Once reshaped to normal, its eyes refocused and seemed to recognize him.
“You…” the fluttering wings shrunk away. That flesh was now devoted to maintaining crucial body parts. “This is all your doing!”
It was the sweetest delight in the world, hearing the Fey distressed.
“Why?” The bones of its hands extended and grew into talons as wide as swords, with the garish web of muscle and connective tissue to use them. Men were swiped away, crushed, and smashed, but the exposure to the skymetal made the bone crack and rupture.
“For the boys!” Sallith said, analyzing the scene. It was getting down to the last man, and the slightest twinge told him he needed to compose himself. About fifteen men left, and they’re not happy about it. Then the ultimate idea hit, like tinder igniting the fire of a winter shelter.
“Stay your blades!” he shouted, drawing their attention. “Your equipment poisons it. Throw every piece you find at it! Drown it in metal!”
Though grisly, the men found this more agreeable, and rushed for every scattered bit of skymetal. Some threw long pikes, which it dodged with a casual stumble.
“It can’t fly! Throw the metal near its feet!” Sallith said, shooting a piercer. It found its home right in the Fey’s chest, making it bubble. Stuck in place from agony, it was exposed further by skymetal-plated arms, legs, torsos, helmets with the heads inside, and weapons all thrown on like a grisly, premature funeral pyre. Smoke now began to rise even where the skin wasn’t touching. The Fey’s whole body was erupting.
“I think that’s about enough,” a woman suddenly said, her voice reaching out from end to end from a magically-supported position. Sallith looked up and saw Merrian exactly where she had been, on his platform, arms crossed.
The sound of many wooden arrows tickled his sensitive ears. He flinched in reflex, ready to dodge, but they had been aimed at his own men from above. With only twenty shots delivered in the time taken to blink, all of his remaining men fell.