It was that suggestion to rage that caught Anivari’s attention. The tiefling inhaled deeply, letting all that anger towards the crow amass in her head, and she felt herself grow stronger. While this rage didn’t mean she was any more intelligent, it did mean that her physical abilities were increasing. She backed up, cracking her knuckles, before running at the doors and throwing her shoulder against them. She didn’t care what she had to do; getting inside was all that mattered. So she rammed the door, hoping it would give way and allow her inside. If not, she’d have to use one of those rage abilities of hers.
Nick yelped, ducking under the statue’s sweeping blade just in time. The thing wasn’t particularly fast or skillful, but it was strong, and probably made of something harder than stone. And that sword was definitely enchanted, judging by the way it cut through the floor. Nick’s wings beat frantically to bear him away from the danger, the spines on his tail lifting and preparing to be flung. Meanwhile, the massive doors dented under the weight of Anivari’s might, but ultimately seemed to be holding fast. The spinagon called out with his mind once more, having heard the banging on the door. There’s more of them! And there were – three more, eyes igniting and stone arms shuddering into motion.
The first couple of slams into the door didn’t do much to open the door. Well, third time’s a charm. She backed up even more this time, picking up her speed and slamming into the doors with even more force than before. Finally, she heard that satisfying crack as the doors opened. And as soon as she stepped in, the naginata was out of its place on her back, gripped tightly in Anivari’s hands. Her goal was to get him out of this place alive! She spun the weapon, aiming the blade at one of the statues. “Nick!” she called out harshly, her body seeming to glow a bit with a fiery aura.
“’Ello! So nice of you to burst in, Ani!” Nick called back, though the cheer in his voice was somewhat dulled by the massive stone fist that clocked him in the jaw. Fortunately, the fist itself was not enchanted, so the spinagon was able to weather the blow surprisingly well despite his small frame. Still, it knocked him back, just enough for a blade to slash through his wing membrane and make him cry out in pain and alarm. His flaming tail-spines fired on instinct, burying themselves in one of the statues to little effect. Stone didn’t burn, after all.
Anivari winced herself, almost as if she’d been the one to take the hit. Forget it. She replaced the naginata on her back and charged towards the statue that had hit Nick. She brought her fist towards its face, that aura shimmering around it. One of her abilities: Earth Totem. Her skin took on a greyish hue, while remaining mostly red, with only a slight tint to it. And if that first hit didn’t do anything, she would just keep pummeling. Punching and kicking was all she really knew, and she’d be damned if she let that fail her now.
A chunk of stone was taken out of the statue’s face, but it didn’t react as any normal person would to being hit. Rather than reel, it simply turned as more bits were punched out of it, and raised its sword. A particularly powerful punch, though, managed to decapitate it altogether, and the rest of it crumbled to dust; it seemed whatever magic was holding it together was housed primarily in its head. Was it the same for the others, though? Nick stood up and fished his fork out of his luggage, doing his very best to keep one of the statues at bay while the other two closed in on the tiefling. “Go for it, Ani!”
That encouragement was all she needed. She still had that rage flowing through her, but she had an idea of how to defeat the things now. Casting a glance at the crow, who sighed and resignedly spread his wings, she called on another ability of hers: Ferocious Beast. The crow let out a screech, diving towards a statue near Anivari to distract it while the Tiefling focused on the second. She reached with both hands, aiming to grasp the statue’s head and rip it off. She would have used the sword of the last one, but it was probably dust like the rest of that statue she had decapitated. She chanced a moment to look at Nick. As long as he was okay, then it was all worth it. “Just a little longer, Nick,” she said out loud as she glanced back to the statues.
Nick wasn’t a very capable proficient fighter, but he was fast – faster than any unaugmented human, and certainly fast enough to outpace the animated statue before him. Conversely, he really had no way to damage the thing, lacking the strength or the weaponry to pierce its hide with any sort of effectiveness. The statue in front of Anivari jerked backwards in an attempt to evade her grip, but was not quick enough. The stone crumbled beneath the strength of her hands, as the remaining statue swung at her torso with enough force to cut through marble. It was eerie, the way they fought, without a single word or tell.
The crow screeched again and aimed its talons right for the statue. Not that it would do much, but it was meant as a distraction. Anivari barely moved out of the way, the blade catching her on her side. She let out another roar. It should have been a roar of pain, but it held more rage than anything else. Pulling her fist back, the tiefling lashed out, driving it forward as hard as she could. The sooner she dispatched this one, the sooner she could help Nick. That was the only thing she could think about. Nothing else mattered.
Several of Nick’s spines buried themselves in the back of the statue’s head, while the crow scratched at its eyes. Thusly distracted, it could not properly respond when Anivari’s fist connected, breaking a hole in its neck and making it stagger. Nevertheless, it pressed on, blade thrusting forth at the barbarian’s chest. Of course, it didn’t ‘see’ from its eyes, so its aim was clear even with the bird clawing away at its face.
There was only one thing Anivari knew to do. She clapped her hands on the blade, twisting her hands to divert it away from her. She could only have two rage abilities active at once, so she would have to sacrifice one for what she wanted. She severed the Ferocious Beast ability, activating another. This one was her Beast Totem, which made her natural armor even stronger. Anything to boost her endurance. She pushed back at the statue, aiming to knock it over before attempting to pound its face into dust. She couldn’t leave this one yet. She had to kill it. The crow, no longer being compelled to help, fluttered towards the ceiling and hovered there, now comfortably out of harm’s way.
Damned bird. Of course it wouldn’t help them unless magically compelled. Nick darted under his statue’s sword and jabbed at the construct’s head with his fork, only to feel his arm nearly pop out of its socket from the recoil. It may have been a long shot, but at least he was trying, and distracting Anivari’s opponent as best he could with his tail-spines. At last, the statue fighting her buckled, falling onto its back and immediately trying to rise before being pummeled into the while marble floor once again, finally vanquished beneath the tiefling’s fists. Meanwhile, Nick had managed to bind his own enemy’s fists behind its back with his tail, pulling as hard as he could to keep it from breaking free. He could feel his hold slipping, but still strove to hold it back. “Ani…!”
As soon as the Tiefling heard Nick’s shout, she leapt to her feet and charged at the statue, aiming a vicious kick to its head. Her golden eyes, now that she was a little closer to Nick, were glowing red. It almost seemed as if this was what made her hate magic so much most of the time. Of course, this wasn’t the real reason, but she didn’t really like this side of herself. Anivari had no time to dwell on those thoughts. If the kick missed, she’d follow it up with a quick grab to rip off the head again if she could, but if connected, she hoped it would be strong enough to cave in the damned thing’s head.
Nick caught a glimpse of those eyes, as she approached to vanquish that final foe. Silent as ever, the immobilized statue could only stare lifelessly ahead as Anivari’s kick took its head clean off, sending a shower of small stones falling onto Nick. The devil winced, but was overall unharmed. The only damage he had sustained was to his uniform, the vest of which had gotten sliced down the middle during a narrow dodge. With a sigh of relief, he uncoiled his tail from around the statue’s wrists and let it fall. “…Phew. Thanks, I’d ’ave really been screwed if you ’adn’t come in, Ani.” He privately opined that she was quite majestic when she fought, in a savagely beautiful way.
As soon as the last statue crumbled, she fell to her hands and knees, breathing heavily. The aura around her faded, her eyes becoming golden once more. “I… told you,” she gasped. “I’m not letting you die.” She lowered her head, trying to catch her breath. Oh, dear. Her side hurt now. It was bleeding a bit, and she didn’t have a way to heal herself. She stood shakily, her head pounding. “We… we should probably get going. Before there’s more of them.”
“I’m… gonna ’old you to that.” Nick blushed, thought he did not lose focus on the task at hand. He was a bit tired himself, having been dodging practically non-stop that entire time. He reached out to gently grab Anivari’s hand and pull her along, up a flight of stairs that had shimmered into existence when the last statue had been defeated. “Are you alright, Ani?” He looked worriedly at the cut in her side, already thinking of fishing his first aid kit out of his luggage and tending to her.
Anivari, so used to being alone in her life, was a stubborn one. She let him lead her up the stairs, but when asked if she was okay, she simply nodded. “It’ll be fine. It’s just a scratch.” She frowned a bit, squeezing his hand gently. “Raging like that…. it takes a lot out of me. I’ll be alright soon.” She used her free hand to grab the gourd from her hip, and proceeded to take a swig, glad it was water in the gourd and not alcohol. She had a dry mouth and was still breathing heavily. Her side still burned a bit, but she ignored the pain. She’d tend to that later, after the bird was taken care of.
“‘It’s only a scratch’, she says.” Nick huffed disapprovingly, squeezing her hand a bit in return. “First chance I get, I’m lookin’ at your cut. No ifs or buts.” As they reached the top of the stairs, the spinagon turned his attention to what lay before them – what appeared to be a simple, immaculate white marble floor, with nothing inherently distinguishable about it. The devil blinked, though, feeling a tingle up his spine. There on the other side was the staircase leading to the next floor – it seemed like nothing more than a simple sixty-foot walk. Why, then, did he feel so unnerved? His tail wriggled anxiously as he scanned the room, as he might uncover some hidden danger by doing so. Nothing, still. “…Somethin’’s not right.”
Anivari smiled softly. “Alright,” she muttered. But, she was of the same mind as he was about this floor. She took a breath, her free hand clenching into a fist. Raging back to back? It would be dangerous, she knew. But, she wouldn’t mention that. Maybe it was the brightness of the room? No. There was more to it than that. “I don’t like this either,” she muttered, her golden eyes sliding to look at him. Going across like this could be dangerous. Or stupid. But Anivari had gone into fights with both of those and come out on top, hadn’t she? She slipped the gourd back onto its hook, sliding off the naginata. Maybe she wouldn’t have to rage if she focused on using her weapon instead.
“Mmmh…” Nick shuffled his feet uncertainly, glancing around one more time. His Devil’s Sight didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. He probed the room telepathically, searching for the mind of anyone hidden invisibly, only to come up short again. “Um… I don’t know what to make of this. Maybe we should…” The devil took aim before flicking a tail-spine at the ground in the center of the floor, to instantaneous results: the middle of the ceiling suddenly opened up, to reveal what appeared to be a glowing orb of golden light. Nick hissed as the light touched his skin, leaving his flesh red and blistered; he hopped back, pulling Anivari along with him, although that didn’t seem necessary. When the light touched her, it had no effect at all.
So it didn’t affect her? She thought she might be able to work with that. The tiefling paused, almost tempted to snatch the crow out of the air and toss it into the light. She looked at Nick, and then herself. “Maybe I could carry you or something. To keep the light on me, I mean.” She furrowed her brow, clenching her fist as she felt a little sting from that cut again. Ignore it, she told herself. She glanced around and sighed. “I mean. It’s not… I don’t feel hurt by it?” She was confused. “Is it because I’m not full oni?”
“I think it might have more to do with me technically bein’ evil,” Nick said, chuckling sheepishly. He crossed his arms and gazed at the light thoughtfully, seeming to cycle through possibilities one by one before his expression brightened as something feasible hit him. “Oh, I know! The luggage.” The devil opened the top of his suitcase and gave Anivari a winning smile before stepping into it, one leg at a time, and sinking down out of sight. “Okay! I think if you close the latch at the top and roll me to the other side, I’ll be fine. My luggage isn’t evil at all – in fact, it’s one of most agreeable containers I’ve ever encountered.” His voice was a little muffled from inside the suitcase, but still audible.
Anivari nodded and clipped the luggage closed. Though, she didn’t just roll him to the other side. She lifted the luggage in her free hand and began to make her way across the room. She was still alert, though, and it seemed that the crow was smart enough to use the side of Anivari to avoid the light. Damn. She didn’t know if it would affect a being like the crow. But she had almost hoped it would actually singe the thing a little. She grumbled about that, rolling her eyes.
“Whoaaa… I’m all floaty!” The voice from inside the luggage, though even more muffled now, sounded almost like a kid’s excitement upon getting on a ride at a fair. “Is everythin’ okay out there?” Indeed, it seemed like nothing else was happening – the golden light sphere seemed to be the only defense active on this floor, in the case of evil intruders. Luckily, this evil intruder had a neutral companion. Anivari would reach the next flight of stairs without any hindrance. The crow, on the other hand, would have to fly quickly – the holy light scalded it for every inch of the way across.
“Everything’s fine. Dumb bird should probably move faster, though.” The crow glared at her with all eight of his eyes and darted across to the staircase. Anivari sighed. “The light isn’t bothering me. Except for it being really bright and annoying.” She started up the stairs, not daring to let him out until they were out of the light. Once they were, she set the suitcase down gently and opened it back up. “There. We should be alright for the moment, unless there’s more of that light on the next floor.”
The crow sat on the rail of the steps, pulling singed feathers from himself. “Ungrateful bitch,” he grumbled. “Can’t even be bothered to help me after I helped you against that statue. Why am I not surprised?”
“Thanks for carryin’ me, Ani. Oh, and bird?” Nick’s horned head popped out of the suitcase to glare at the crow. “When this is over, I’m going to roast you up and serve you to Anivari. You probably taste awful, but I think I’m good enough of a cook to make your wings edible with some butter and the right seasonin’.” He climbed out of the Hellspace Luggage, taking a moment to stretch his limbs and crack his back before looking at the floor they had ascended to. This one was different again – it seemed to be a maze of mirrors, each of which stretched from the floor to the ceiling, leaving no room to see the stairs on the far end. “…Oh, boy, this looks fun. Twenty soul coins says there’s some ’idden nastiness in there.”
Oh, no. Anivari looked at the mirrors and clenched her fists. She resolved to stay calm. “Oh, I have no doubt,” she said slowly.
The crow landed on her shoulder, still fixing the singed feathers. “Oh, look, the idiot’s boyfriend is a snappy one! Hey, remember what dear old daddy used to do with rooms like this? With all the mirrors?”
Anivari scowled and grabbed the crow by the throat in a display of frustration verging on violence. “Shut. Up.” She tossed the bird to the ground and inhaled deeply, turning to Nick. “I am not very good at things like this.” Well, she was being honest. That was a start. “I mean… puzzles aren’t really my thing. If I can’t punch it or barrel through, I’m usually at a loss.”
Nick hesitated, looking from the entrance of the mirror maze to Anivari, studying her face with growing suspicion and concern. “What does that mean, bird? …Anivari? What about your dad and mirror rooms?” He bit his lip uncomfortably. He didn’t want to be poking at Anivari’s sore memories, but if he understood, he might be able to find some way around it. The devil moved closer to her and took her hand, giving it a comforting squeeze. “It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me, but maybe it would help me come up with something to help us out.”
Another something she had never let anyone see in her was plainly on display now: fear. She trembled slightly, turning her head away from the bird. “M-my father used to lock me in a room. F-full of mirrors. W-wouldn’t let me come out until I could shatter them. W-without my hands. He wanted me to do it with magic.” She closed her eyes, reliving those awful memories. “It was…. painful, to say the least.” She held her breath, almost expecting him to laugh at her. Or call her weak. Or stupid. The crow didn’t have to speak out loud to make her hear its words. She always heard them.
Nick listened to her speak with increasing anger and sorrow. And seeing her hold her breath like that, as if expecting him to deride her, just tore at his heart. “I’m sorry you ’ad to go through all of that, Ani,” he said quietly, shifting to give her a gentle hug, his warm cheek pressing against her upper stomach. “Really, I am. Magic is already a frightenin’ thing, and your dad gave you such a terrible introduction to it.” He looked up, his blue eyes glimmering with determination. “I’ll make good on my promise, Anivari – I’ll free you from your father’s legacy, crow and everything besides.”
Anivari’s eyes flew open, widening as she felt him wrap his arms around her. She hugged him back, the muscles of her torso relaxing again. She could do this, she knew she could. Well, she wouldn’t have been able to if she was alone. But Nick? He made it easier to get through something like this. Because she knew she wasn’t alone, that someone was weathering the troubles ahead by her side. She looked at him, smiling a bit now. “Thank you,” she said. The fear was gone, but she was still a bit nervous. She didn’t want to mess everything up. What if she was so worried about the mirrors, she failed him? No. She couldn’t think like that. She inhaled deeply. “I- no, we can do this, Nick. I know it.”
“Definitely!” Nick smiled determinedly, looking quite a bit braver than he felt. For him to give a promise without a contract was something he wouldn’t do lightly, but he just had, to this woman who had so quickly stolen his devil heart. “If you like, you can just keep your eyes closed; I’ll lead you through, and we’ll be out the other side in no time.” He hopped off the ground to give her a peck on the cheek, and tugged at her hand to guide her into the maze, keeping that brave smile on his boyish face.
Anivari didn’t let his hand go. She closed her eyes, trying her best to focus on far more pleasant images than the mirrors. From the way her face darkened slightly, one could only assume that she was thinking about him. She tried to keep her breathing as even as possible. It wasn’t that hard with her hand gripped so firmly in his. She usually doubted people, but she found herself trusting him. If he said that they would get out, she believed that they would. After all, he had yet to let her down.
Taking a deep, quiet breath, Nick Shadow lifted his chin and walked into the maze of mirrors, holding Anivari’s hand tightly. All his muscles tensed in preparation for sudden danger, but to his surprise, none seemed immediately incoming. Almost against his will, the little devil glanced over to the mirror to his left, and saw himself… not staring back. Instead, his reflection was looking elsewhere, and looked a little smaller than he himself was. “‘Ey… ’old on, that’s me when I was an imp!” He continued walking, watching in wonder as the reflection walked alongside him. The mirror seemed to flicker with a flash of fire, and when the surface cleared once more, Nick’s eyes widened. “And now it’s a spinagon. Me as I am now.”
Should she open her eyes? Could she handle it? No, she told herself. She didn’t want to know what was in those reflections – at least, not yet. She kept silent as they continued onwards, doing her best to focus on Nick’s narration instead of her own pounding heart. “Is there anything… hostile… out there?” She didn’t dare open her eyes, not wanting to seem weak-willed.
“It doesn’t look like it. It’s just… me.” Anivari’s reflection wasn’t showing in the mirrors – at least, Nick couldn’t see it. He could see himself, though, and as the two of them walked, his reflection changed. “There I am as a merregon. I’m fightin’… and not gettin’ curbstomped. Wow. And then I’m a hamatula! I can throw fire now…” There was obvious wonder in his voice as they progressed, following Nick’s own chronological progression through the mirrors. They seemed to flow naturally, from transformation to transformation and mirror to mirror, showing the devil signing contracts, fighting foes and making friends. “Wow… and there, I’m a kyton. Those chains look so cool! And then, as an osyluth!”
Anivari found that she didn’t care about her own reflection. She only cared about listening to him. But, hey, she was brave! She could totally do this! With a slight frown, she opened her eyes as slowly as possible… and there she was. Most of the images she saw depicted her as a small tiefling, during her days of always being sad and hurt. Slowly, as they moved, she could see herself getting older and growing in power. But there was something different about her. In some of the images, she saw herself without the bird. That alone gave her a little hope as to the outcome of their quest. Maybe they really would be able to succeed. Maybe she wouldn’t slow him down Yeah, they could do it. The voice in her head telling her that it was going to work grew stronger, bolstered by the increasingly hopeful images she saw in the mirrors.
Not having noticed her opening her eyes, the spinagon continued traipsing along, fascinated by the evolution taking place before him in the mirrors. The aging reflections seemed to be naturally guiding them through the maze. Nick looked on in rapt wonder, walking without even watching where he was going. “I’m a cornugon! Finally, a greater devil… then an erinyes. Wow, I get good at fightin’! Then I’m a gelugon, and a cavaszu, and… yes! I finally become an archdevil!” Nick pumped his fist in the air, and saw the end of the maze ahead, along with one last look at his older self…
Anivari didn’t want to look at the last image. She had a feeling it would only show her death. She wasn’t immortal; her human genes had made sure of that. She glanced at the floor, having spotted the exit, and squeezed his hand again, lifting her eyes and happening to catch the reflection in the very last mirror. To her surprise, she wasn’t dead -rather, she was using magic, without a hint of fear in her future self’s eyes. She let out a gasp. “Magic?” A confused frown crossed her features. How was that possible? She hated her magic, and everything it represented – despised it, even! Remembering to keep calm, she forced herself to take a deep breath. Maybe if her mother was anything like the stories, that’s why she would learn to tolerate it. Internally, she shrugged. That was a problem to think about later.
Nick might’ve been too enraptured to hear Anivari, or perhaps he simply didn’t react in his eagerness to see what the mirrors foretold. He stood there, at the back opening of the maze, watching in silence. As the seconds ticked by, his expression went from hope and joy, to confusion, to shock, and then lapsed into grim silence. His face had blanched, and his shoulders shook subtly as he gazed at that last mirror. “…Let’s go, Anivari,” he said quietly, tugging on her hand, and turned away from that final reflection in a manner that could only be described as haunted. “This isn’t real.”
Anivari looked at him, a confused expression on her face. Not real? But… she had seen her past self, just as she remembered. How could it not be real? Once again, though, she trusted his discernment. Anivari stepped forward, following behind Nick. She inhaled deeply, blinking slowly. “Nick? What’s wrong?” She was worried, and it showed in her bright, golden eyes.
“It’s an illusion of some kind. It ’as to be.” It couldn’t really be prophetic, not with what Nick had seen. All the Nine Hells, smoking and bloodstained, littered with the corpses of innumerable devils that had fought and died for the causes of their overlords. At the head of it all, there he had seen himself, knelt and broken before the might of Asmodeus, the ruler of the Hells; vanquished, at the very brink of reaching his goal. He had seen his soul be cast back into the lowest pits of the Infernal hierarchy, reduced to something even lower than an imp and fated never to rise again. According to the mirror, if he pursued his path of ascension, he’d meet with a fate far worse than death. “…What I saw will not come to pass. It musn’t. It ’as to be a lie.”
Anivari pulled Nick to her, closing her eyes as she hugged him. Her own breathing was steady, but her hands shook slightly. “We should keep going,” she whispered. “Just… just to get out of this place.” She may have seemed less shaky than before, but the entire room still unnerved her. The mirrors in particular still bothered her somewhat, but she wasn’t really ready to let that slip just yet. She’d already told him why mirrors bothered her. The crow hovered nearby, its red eyes fixed upon them.
Nick’s breath hitched when she pulled him into a hug, hesitating for a moment before wrapping his slender arms around her body, pressing his face into her and closing his eyes. “…Yeah, we should. Thank you, Anivari.” He didn’t pull away, though; she was so warm and comforting, making him feel safer than he ever thought he would in this hostile place. He accidentally brushed against the cut in her side, which brought it back into the forefront of his mind. He’d take care of that soon enough, he decided – as soon as they had a moment to spare. A quiet hum issued from the little devil’s mouth as he embraced her tightly, hoping he could reassure her in some capacity as well.
As she pulled back, she felt that sharp sting of pain in her side. However, the Tiefling didn’t let that show. She couldn’t. Instead, she looked around for the stairs or a hallway. Anything. She started to walk across the floor, the crow landing on her shoulder. She glanced back towards Nick. “I think if I ever get a pet after this, I’m getting a dog. Or something less vocal than a dumb crow.”
The crow puffed up, almost letting out a hiss. That hiss, though, was more of a laugh as it tugged at her hair once more. “Do you really think I want to be stuck with you any longer than I have to be? Perhaps in the next life I’ll have a competent partner. Not a stupid, fearful child.”
Just ahead of them were the stairs to the next floor, curving around the inside of the tower as it brought them to the next level of the tower. “With ’ow disagreeable you are, I’d be surprised if you’ll be anyone’s partner in your next life,” Nick muttered. He gave the tiefling a wry little smile. “I could get us a ’ellhound. Lots of devils keep them as pets, and they’re not too ill-tempered. I mean, by the standards of Lower Plane beasts, anyway.” As they made their way up the stairs, the spinagon wondered how many levels there would be. Did the tower have an extraplanar interior? It might be hundreds of times bigger than it looked, for all he knew. He hoped there wouldn’t be too many more trials to overcome before they could leave.
Us? That sounded nice to Anivari’s ears. She blushed once more, nodding as she made her way up the stairs. She was wondering herself when they would find her mother, or anything that could help them to that end. She was more than ready to be rid of the bird – even more now that it was back to tugging at her hair rather painfully. She swatted at it, hoping to make it stop, and gave Nick a rueful smile. “I’m sure almost anything would be more agreeable than this asshole.” Oh, dear. Anivari must have been frustrated in order to swear like that. She didn’t often use language like that, unless she was angry.
Nick nodded in agreement, childishly sticking his tongue out at the crow before turning his attention to the floor they had arrived on. This one was much different from the ones they had seen previously; they now stood confronted with a perfectly vertical wall of water. This water seemed to fill the entire level, which went up further than could be seen. Nick thought he saw a faint spark of light distantly above them, and peered into the dark liquid. Definitely magical darkness, his Devil’s Sight told him, but what awaited in that water? “I think we’re meant to go into it.” His wings rustled in anticipation.
Anivari frowned, looking at the water. “Even after what happened last time?” She was wary, as she should be. “If… if that’s what you think is best.” She bit her lip, nervous and fidgeting, as she reached to take his hand. The tiefling may have been brave and reckless, but she felt braver when she was with him. “Let’s go, then. And hope that we’re getting close, eh?” She smiled at him, her golden eyes lighting up as she looked over at him.
“I don’t think it’s ’oly water.” He’d be able to feel if it was, from being near it. Nick reached out cautiously, his hand sinking into the water as his other went back to grasp Anivari’s. He arched an eyebrow curiously – there didn’t seem to be any change in temperature, but it felt… dark, somehow. Normally, such a thing shouldn’t have been palpable, but Heaven subverted a lot of rules that way. “Yeah, let’s ’ope. Well… on we go.” Taking a deep breath, the little devil stepped into the wall and was submerged, beginning to swim towards the distant light high above.
Anivari took as deep a breath as she could before stepping into the water and following suit. The crow, on the other hand, flew along the edge of it, since it lacked the means for any sort of real underwater locomotion. Anivari could hold her breath a while, but she wasn’t the best swimmer. She was struggling just a little, but she kept a brave face in order to make it seem like she wasn’t slowing him down. Her side stung with every movement of her arm. But, once more, she didn’t comment. She couldn’t waste the oxygen at any rate. Please. Just let them get closer, or simply reach it – whichever happened first.
Nick wriggled through the water, keeping his wings tightly folded to his back and using his tail to quickly propel himself upwards – though not so quickly that he’d let go of her hand. The devil peered through the magical darkness, and saw nothing at first… only to realize that the shadows were taking shape, becoming the faces of devils – devils he’d known, and complete strangers, all whispering the same things.
Traitor, outlander, disgrace…
Abandon the path; surrender to the deep…
Remember Icarus, and do not fly too high…
Even as she swam right behind him, she could see her father and the crow. Stupid. Weak. Useless. The whispers almost tempted her to let go of Nick, almost caused her to let herself sink and let all of that breath out just to fade into the depths. Stupid child, can’t even do the simplest things right. She screwed her eyes shut, but that didn’t tune them out. You’re nothing without me. Everyone will leave you. Even that one. No. The whispers were wrong. They were wrong. He pities you. Just like all the others. If you weren’t so naive, you’d see it. NO! She willed herself to tune out the whispers, but they still wouldn’t stop. Just give in. The darkness is so much more comforting. And the dark will never abandon you like he will.
You have not even the strength to protect one woman. How do you think to topple the rulers of Hell? Nick gritted his teeth and continued squirming upwards, even as the shadows’ words continued to jab into his mind, sharper and sharper with each phrase. You are as an insect underfoot to those you seek to vanquish. He KNEW that, and it didn’t MATTER. Nick’s hand unconsciously clenched tighter around Anivari’s, as anger filled his little body. He knew all of this already, and had accepted it as the truth. People only like you because they think you cute and docile. Should you ever sit on the Throne of Nessus, you will do so alone. UNACCEPTABLE. Nick bit straight through his lip, feeling the shadows begin to actually stab at his body, slicing through his uniform and piercing his skin. She will leave you once you have fulfilled your contract with her. Do not delude yourself into thinking these feelings will last. …That couldn’t be true, could it? The devil’s swimming faltered, slowing until he was just hanging there in the water, his breath slowly escaping his lungs. That light seemed so distant…
See, foolish child? He’s already abandoning you. Anivari clenched her jaw, feeling Nick’s hand tighten around hers. She opened her eyes, watching as he stopped, but refused to let herself falter as well. She’d defied her father before, and could do it again! She continued to push on, even feeling the same shadows piercing her own skin. She knew she shouldn’t. But she let herself give in to her rage; it would, at least, dull the pain as she pushed on. She moved up higher, her eyes now red and staring at that light as she grabbed ahold of Nick. Do you think that will help you? Maybe not. But it was something. More than these stupid voices were doing. You know that once the novelty wears off, he’ll leave just like everyone else. Perhaps your time with the mirrors didn’t teach you anything. Maybe you need another lesson!
The additional contact from Anivari snapped Nick back to his senses. His eyes narrowing, he focused his most positive thoughts, fashioning them into mental spears, and hurled them in all directions, eliciting screams of rage from the shadows as they were harshly denied. Even Anivari would be able to hear those shrieks of agony, and even through the thick dark in the water would be able to see Nick give her a fierce look before clasping her hand in his and pulling her upwards into that light, which was suddenly so much closer than it had seemed moments ago. I won’t leave you, Anivari! I promise, in the name of everythin’ I hold dear! And of all those things, he realized, he held her dearest of all.
The agonized screams made her blink. But she pushed back with her mind towards him. And I’m not leaving you, Nick. I swear it on my honor as a warrior! That was all she could swear it on. Her honor meant everything to her. Even when she did things others would frown upon. His words made her heart swell and the rage fade. Even when it died down, the pain from the wounds now covering her body didn’t bother her. She felt like she could do anything as long as she was with him. Her hand squeezed his gently, a smile touching her face as she looked at him. The light didn’t concern her now. Only Nick. That was all that mattered. She was sure, as he was in her mind, he could feel the emotions pouring out of her. And it made her heart swell even further.
Her thoughts gave him the last bit of resolve he needed to push onwards, pulling her up with him through that inscrutable light. The devil broke the surface, gasping as he took air into his lungs, and at once looked around to try and find a way out of the water. They seemed to have come up in a strangely-illuminated pool. The darkness below could no longer be seen nor felt. There was goodness in the air, so thick that one could almost taste it; Nick felt his head swim as he dragged his body out of the light-water. To his surprise, he wasn’t wet at all, nor were his clothes or his luggage. “Are… are you alright, Ani?” He looked back into the pool to make sure she had come up as well.
There was a gasp and a little coughing from the tiefling as she broke the surface of the water. “I’m… I’m okay. Just… a bit out of breath.” She was confused as to why she wasn’t wet, but then, nothing was as it should be in this realm. “Ugh. Please let this be the end.” Oh, and the crow had popped back up. He hovered in the air, moving to land on her shoulder. What a joy. Anivari was exhausted; two instances of raging back to back like that took a lot out of her. She grabbed at her gourd, taking a long drink and almost wishing she’d thought to put more sake in it. At least that would keep her going. Even so, water would do for now. She pulled herself from the pool, shaking her head to clear those thoughts the darkness had pushed into her head.
Nick took a brief moment to scowl at the crow before stretching out his wings and fluttering up to kiss the tiefling’s forehead. He reached below her chin to make her meet his eyes, to see his proud, honest smile. “I trust you, Ani. I trust you with my life. You’re so strong and inspirin’, you know?” He unconsciously brought his hand up up to fix his messy hair, while maintaining eye contact with her. “’Old on just a little longer, okay? I think we’ve made it.” Indeed, this floor looked peaceful and pleasant compared to the others; a garden whose greenery covered the floor and ran up the wall, with flowery vines descending from the ceiling. Roses bloomed and gave birth to new light, which in turn trailed along a marble path that led up to a dais some hundred meters away. The place radiated peace and serenity, to the point where even Nick felt himself relaxing just a bit.
With the rage having subsided, her eyes were golden again when they met his. She smiled at him, taking that chance to kiss his cheek. The next words out of her mouth were ones she had never said to anyone before. “And I trust you, Nick, with more than just my life. I trust you with everything I am.” Her voice was low, but full of determination and bravery. Perhaps it was this floor that gave her that courage. But there was something about it that made her feel completely at ease. She chanced a look around, and there was something in her eyes – the threat of a tear. Anivari stepped forward, her heart pounding. “The one my father used to have keep watch over me,” she explained. “She told me that my mother used to love places like this. That she had her own garden full of flowers.” She gazed around at the flowers, that tear having become more than just a threat. “What if… what if she doesn’t like me?” She paused. “What if she is afraid of me, Nick?”
“’Ow could she be? The only scary thing about you is how beautiful you are.” The little devil took her hand and smiled, his cheeks flushing with joy. The significance of her saying such things to him was not lost on him – he felt his heart swell, and wished more than ever that he could properly express exactly how he felt about that… but now was not the time, nor was it the place. Having risen to the top of a celestial tower, the only thing to do was to get what they had come for. Nick felt that they had spent more than enough time in Lunia as it was, and with their having broken into the tower, it would only be a matter of time before the hound archons caught onto their trail and hunted them down. The spinagon fought down the pounding in his chest and began to walk along the path towards the dais, still feeling warm from the words she’d spoken.
His words made her a bit more confident, even if his comment about how beautiful she was made her blush. Yes, they were so close. Maybe now she would be free. Maybe she would be able to live normally without that damned bird. And maybe, with Nick, she’d be able to be happy for the first time in her life. She took a deep breath, using her free hand to smooth out her hair and gazed at the dais, wondering if her mother would appear once they stepped on it or if they would find yet another test to face. It didn’t matter. They were there together, and she was sure that anything was possible as long as they were united. She smiled, unable to contain that grin from spreading across her face while she was here in this room.
As they drew closer to that platform at the end of the level, what at first seemed too distant to make out clearly turned out to be shrouded in a veil of light. A simple wooden throne, over the sides of which draped a pair of white feathered wings. Standing at the base of the dais, they could see it plainly – an angel, sceptre in hand, gazing at the two of them with obvious intrigue in its shining eyes. Its form, while clearly male, was of beauty far surpassing what any creature should have the right to bear. “…A surprise indeed,” said the angel, its words echoing musically in their heads, like the plucking of an enchanted lyre. “Two infernals, risen to Heaven, break into my tower and demand audience. Your unusual performance during your ascent interested me, which is why I have not slain you both. You stand before Sariel, ruler of this tower and servant of Paragon Barachiel; speak, if you have aught to say worth the listening.”
Anivari had to remind herself to be polite. She took a deep breath, bowing her head. “It’s… this crow. I was forcibly bound to it as a child. And all my life it has been trying to make me into an evil, spiteful person. My mother was a priestess when she was alive, and… I was hoping that she could help me reverse the magic that was used to bind it to me.” The crow was, amazingly, silent. It fluffed its feathers, staring with those red eyes. Talons were digging into her shoulder, and she could hear its anger in her head. How dare she bring the powerful Yatagarasu in front of an angel? She must have been as stupid as she looked, and would be lucky to make it out of this tower alive. She held her breath, tuning out the words of the crow, even though she was rightfully terrified of the being before her.
“A thing of evil sits on the shoulder of one who deserves better.” There was the vague sense that Sariel was moving, and then the angel was behind Anivari, plucking the crow from her shoulder and holding it tightly. A look of clear disdain crossed his features as he looked upon Yatagarasu, and for a moment, an overpowering aura of killing intent flooded the garden. Only for a moment, though, before Sariel released the bird and walked around the two of them, clasping his hands behind his back. “You have come for guidance, then – to find your mother. And you trust this vile creature to lead you there.” The unfavourable description he applied to Nick was less of an insult and more of a flat statement; it seemed that Nick knew it, too, since he did not react to it, other than giving a subtle nod. “Perhaps I can assist you, if only to see you both gone from this realm. Two things, I must know: your mother’s name, and her alignment.”
Anivari wanted to protest. To say that Nick was many things, and all of them were good. At least, in her eyes, they were. But she glanced at him, taking that silence as her cue to ignore it as well. “Her name was Amaryllis. And, if I was told the truth, she was lawful neutral.” She cast her eyes back to the ground. “I’m afraid… I don’t know much else about her.” She had been told that her mother died in childbirth, and now hoped that everything she had been told was true. She dared not look directly at the angel, unable to imagine what it would be like if she did. The crow, having been released from that grip, let out a subtle hiss and fluffed itself up once more. It remained silent, but its red eyes glittered angrily.
“That is all I need to know, half-breed.” Once again, the angel spoke the title without any vitriol or hatred, as if such negative emotions were beneath him. He glided back up to his throne, extended his hand and held forth what seemed like a magical hologram, representing entire planes. The gleaming peaks of Mount Celestia shone in his palm one moment, then shifted to another plane, represented by an endless, beautiful orchard. Sariel closed his eyes, murmuring something under his breath, and then withdrew his hand before addressing Anivari. “You are in luck, tiefling. Your mother’s soul dwells in the Peaceable Kingdoms of Arcadia, a realm adjacent to the Heavens. You need only find one of the white ivory portals in the citadel below us, and you shall pass into the next realm. But beware – the hound archons have picked up your scent, and are hot on your tails.” The angel’s eyes glittered in amusement. “Here: I shall move the two of you outside my tower. From there, though, you will have to find your own way. Good luck.” Without another word, Sariel waved his hand, and suddenly Nick and Anivari were outside the tower… several hundred feet in the air.
Anivari normally would have bristled at being called a half-breed, but she kept her composure, her eyes darting upwards as she heard him speak of her mother. She hoped that the name of the realm her mother was in wasn’t another trick. However, when they were teleported, she ended up looking down a bit. The crow lifted off of her shoulder, managing to hover in the air. Astonishingly, it even saw fit to offer a helpful comment. “You know,” it said. “You did find out you can levitate.” It rolled its eyes, quietly snickering at her as she focused in order to prevent herself from crashing into the ground.
“OhdearohcrapohshitohnoOKAY,” Nick exclaimed in quick succession as his wings went into action on instinct. When that instinct was overcome, though, he dove for Anivari, moving under her and trying to hold her up with every ounce of his very average strength. Of course it wasn’t enough to hold her aloft, but it would slow both their falling considerably. In the meantime, Nick looked earthwards, his Devil’s Sight desperately seeking out one of the portals Sariel had mentioned. While he couldn’t see any at the moment, he -could- see a squad of hound archons barking orders at one another, unsheathing their swords and spreading their wings as they prepared to rise and meet the two falling fiends.
She managed to hover enough to make it a little easier on Nick. Anivari reflexively screwed her eyes shut so she didn’t have to see the beings heading for them. But the crow did. “Ugh. I hate dogs almost as much as I hate this stupid woman.” It lifted up into the air, silent once it was away from them. Steeling herself, Anivari opened her eyes to assess their pursuers. “Oh, crap,” she muttered. “This cannot be good.” She looked to Nick. “Can we outrun them?” She really didn’t want to fight them, only being able to rage a maximum of four times per day before completely draining herself and already being halfway to that limit. On the flip side, she knew raging might be the only way to get them both out of the approaching encounter alive. “I would rather not fight them.”
“Me neither.” Archons – even the low-ranking hound archons – were fearsome fighters, far deadlier than the animated statues had been. And here came almost a dozen of them, winging their way through the citadel skyline to get a clear shot at them. Luckily they didn’t seem to be armed with ranged weapons, so they had a bit of time. “Normally, I’d say we couldn’t… but all we have to do is find an ivory portal like Sariel said, so maybe. If we could just see one – oh, there!” There was one beneath a bridge, far below. The bridge hung over a river that flowed from further up the mountain, so presumably the portal was to send ships from one plane to the next. Nick bit his lip uncertainly; they’d have to be terribly precise in their descent, or they’d either end up crashing into the bridge or falling into the river of holy water beneath. But he’d try, for both their sakes. “Let’s go for it!” And go for it he did, straining his wings to beat as fast as they would to bear them in the direction of that bridge as the howling archons pursued them through the air.
Anivari turned her attention to where Nick had pointed. “Let’s go, then.” She hovered after him, pushing herself to move as quickly as possible. Even then, she wasn’t as fast as she would have liked. Perhaps it was because of her size. But, either way, as she felt herself nearing that portal, she closed her eyes, holding her breath and bracing for impact. The crow was easily keeping up, but even if it would have fallen behind, she knew it would pop up with them in the next realm, just as it always did. Silently, she was thankful that this was almost over, even if that angel had rubbed her the wrong way. She resolved, right then, to never have to come back to a place like this. She would rather brave the Hells than come back to the Heavens.
Nick gnashed his teeth, knowing that he could outpace Anivari if he let her go but refusing to leave her behind. The menacing barks and shouted challenges of the hound archons, along with the aura of righteous fury they projected, made them seem even closer than they were, in turn causing the spinagon to force himself to fly even faster. “C’mon… c’mon!” But at this rate, they really would make it, it seemed! He couldn’t help feeling a bit of hope, but reserved it for when they would be safe. And as they reached the portal, that hope blossomed further, the teleportative light devouring them both- just as a horrifying pain ripped through his wing, eliciting a gasp from the devil as he and Anivari tumbled through the space between planes. Towards Arcadia, where the angel had said they’d find her mother…
Anivari heard the gasp from Nick, but she didn’t dare mention it before they were safe. The hound archons terrified her, but she wouldn’t dare let that show. The pain in her side flared up again, chiefest among the many wounds she’d sustained during their ascent. She clenched her jaw and inhaled deeply, trying not to make a sound indicating how badly it hurt. As they tumbled through the portal, she screwed her eyes shut, bracing herself for impact, hoping they wouldn’t crash into the ground upon emerging. That would hurt more than just the stretching did.