Anivari should have felt embarrassed. Or afraid. Or something when Nick sat himself in her lap. But she didn’t, instead only feeling what seemed like an odd sense of relief. She gently placed her hands on his sides, taking a breath. And, oh, she felt him tense. She wouldn’t dare ask about that now. Or here. But, she did make a little note of it to ask about that later. Of course, now she began to feel something. She was slightly worried, hoping that this… wouldn’t hurt him. Or worse. Her hands gripped his sides just a bit tighter. Not enough to hurt him – she’d never be able to do that – but enough to remind herself where she was. But as he stood to leave, Anivari blinked in surprise at the brusque motion, tilting her head before rising to her feet and following him. She was still worried, but decided not to speak unless he did first. All the while, she hooked a thumb into the belt on her pants, running the other through her hair and playing with the beads on the necklace she wore.
“…I’m sorry about that, Ani,” Nick said, still sounding uncharacteristically cold and serious. Just before leaving the shop, he morphed into a bird and perched atop her shoulder. “Not as sorry as I should be, but I am sorry. That seer could have exposed our presence –my presence- to the entire city, and we’d be in a right mess if that ’appened.” He was silent for a while, before finally speaking again, and when next his voice came forth, it was closer to his usual expressiveness. “I know where to find your mum, Anivari!”
Anivari perked up at that, forcing herself to stop fidgeting. She lifted her free hand to her shoulder, lightly smoothing his feathers since he had become a bird again. “It’s alright,” she said. “I’d rather you be safe. I made you a promise, and even without that contract, I would still do anything in my power to get you back home alive.” She smiled, though, when he mentioned her mom. There: that was a better topic. “Good! Let’s go find her, then. And… let’s hope she likes me, huh?” She chuckled and started walking again, waiting for his directions. Meanwhile, the crow just fake-gagged and descended back into her shadow.
“I… appreciate that sentiment, Ani. Yes, let’s find her!” How could he tell her that he’d just thrown his immortal soul into a bargain – one that wagered his freedom on being able to complete his quest to vanquish the nine Archdevils and instate that nasty opportunist seer as one of their replacements? Put his entire existence on the line, to fulfill his promise to her? Perhaps he’d tell her when he reached that goal. And if he failed? Well, it wouldn’t matter if he failed, would it? “That garden out in front of the city? She’s there. Our new friend gave me a vision of her, but we’ll have to be careful. Creatures who aren’t lawful good or lawful neutral can get lost in the garden really easily. It’s like a magical disorientation effect. Keep your head level, and don’t lose track of your surroundings once we enter.” The raven’s talons drummed lightly on Anivari’s shoulder, looking ahead and trying to appear confident. Being a bird, Nick didn’t really look any particular way other than ravenly.
Anivari nodded and changed her path towards that garden. Of course, she realized. If the stories of her mother were true, then it made sense that she’d be in a garden. Anivari kept her hand up, still petting Nick. It was the only thing keeping her focused and not a terrified mess. Anivari took the time that she walked to center herself. Just enough so that she would be focused when she went into that garden. After all, he had warned her she could get lost. And, she wasn’t very good with puzzles and the like as it was. She finally spoke, after a moment. “I’m…. still nervous,” she admitted. “But, I don’t think there’s anyone else I would rather have with me for something like this. I love… having you with me.” She blushed again. There, she’d gotten close to what she wanted to say. She glanced at her surroundings, even though she hadn’t made it to the garden yet, clearing her throat.
“I’m nervous too, Anivari. It’s okay!” Bird-Nick cuddled up to her cheek, while doing his best to keep a watchful eye on their surroundings. Any landmarks that could serve as reference points later, he stored away in his memory. The devil in raven’s clothes found his infernal eyes drawn to the mouth of the garden, which looked to him less like a welcoming floral arc and more like a gaping maw, seeking to plunge them both into an unsolvable maze. But, if the seer was to be trusted – and the seer had, indeed, wagered his own soul on it as well – Anivari’s mother drifted somewhere among these impenetrable hedges. The object of their journey lay somewhere ahead, so close and yet so far. “And, I… I love being ‘ere with you. You make it all bearable. No, scratch that – it’s better than bearable. Even though these are the Upper Planes, this ’as been the nicest time of my life, and it’s all thanks to you. I’d say so far, it’s all been more than worth it.” And considering the weight of the deal he had just struck, that was saying a lot. “Thank you, Anivari.” His feathers rustled as he gazed into the misty reaches of the garden, determination replacing his trepidation. “Now, let’s finish this.”
Before stepping through that arch, Anivari closed her eyes. When she opened them, there was a look of conviction in them. “You’re right, Nick,” she said. “It’s almost over.” She took a deep breath, stepping forward. She lowered her hand from petting him, knowing that it would be a distraction. A wonderful, reassuring distraction, but a detriment to their focus all the same. With that same fiery determination that she had when she first stepped into the arch, she made her way through the garden, making sure to pick up on any bends or turns in the path. But even then, she still kept herself open to feel for something that felt right.
As soon as Anivari walked into the mist, it seemed to close around her like a cold, damp fist, similar to how the water elemental had done, only less overtly murderous and more… warning. Warning this unlawful fiend that the further she walked into the garden, the tighter this hand would grip, this hand of frigid loss and sapping despair. Until her resolve was crushed, until she had been led and misled beyond the brink of hope. Until this insufferable creature on her shoulder had betrayed her, and all that remained was the laughing monster in her shadow. The flowers in the garden, varieties of such colour and liveliness, seemed harshly muted by the mist that seeped along every aisle, down every stepping-stone path, through every hedge. The grasses rustled, the leaves whispered, and as if by magic – by magic! – the trail was gone.
Anivari’s step faltered, just a bit. Oh. Not this again. She blinked, trying to push the negative thoughts from her head. How badly she wanted to focus on the good. Her mother had to be in the garden. It made sense! Amaryllis had always loved flowers and gardens, hadn’t she? But, of course, that creeping doubt hit her again. What if she’d been lied to? What if her mother wasn’t in this place, after all they’d been through to get here? Anivari had no other leads. So she did the only thing she could, and continued forward, making sure not to stray from that straight line just yet. She had to calm herself first, knowing that she would focus better if she was calm. But… maybe… was that something over there? Maybe if she… no! Stay on task. If it was the presence she was looking for, she’d feel it as she got closer. There was no need for her to stray too far from her goal. Which, for now, was to walk the straightest line she could through the garden.
Nick felt that fist closing in around him, as well, felt that fiery determination seeping out of him by the subtle yet brutal cold. He had seen the path, hadn’t he? He had remembered each turn they had taken, each flowerbed they had passed. So why was it all gone, vanished from his memory and leaving behind this infuriating gap? He tried to recollect their progress in his head, tried so very hard, and found himself coming up blank once more. His feathers seemed to wilt as he slumped on Anivari’s shoulder. “…Maybe you should’ve left me be’ind, Ani. The garden knows me for what I am. It senses my evil. I’m only makin’ things that much more difficult for you.” As he spoke, there was a faint cracking, uncomfortably similar to the noise of breaking bones. Had the hedges always had thorns? The blades of grass underfoot seemed remarkably… blade-like, all of a sudden.
Anivari shook her head. “No.” That determination was back, it seemed. “I would not have left you behind.” With each word, she doggedly persevered in put one foot in front of the other, just to get her closer to that fleeting image that had seemed like something familiar. How could it have been? Even if it was her mother, Anivari had known the woman for all of a few breaths before she was gone. “I… I couldn’t have left you behind. I… made… I made a promise! And nothing will stop me from keeping it!” She could hear something, she thought. A soft humming… or was it singing? Maybe… maybe it was her? She clenched her jaw, fighting with herself, it seemed. She still remembered part of the way. Even without the path to guide her, she knew she’d been travelling in a mostly straight line. Finally, with a deep intake of breath, she spoke once more. “I… I l-love…. you, Nick. And… I’m not leaving you!” She blushed again, pushing through all that doubt just to get closer to what she thought was her goal. That beautiful voice, if it was truly someone she wanted to find, was her only beacon out here. And she would make sure she reached it.
“You…” Nick had been on the verge of feeling himself shatter, his evil and the soul that bore it snuffed out by the garden’s crushing despair and loss, until he she spoke. He heard the iron in her voice, the fire beneath her skin, the force of her resolve and the truth of her profession. And then, he was a bird no longer, walking beside her in his true form once more. Pallid and sickly though he appeared, it seemed some of her resolve had infected him and rekindled the flames behind his eyes. “Then I’ll not leave you either, Anivari,” he declared hoarsely, coughing out a dry laugh. He remembered the name he had been given, upon awakening in Phlegethos with horns curling from his head and a trident thrust into his hand. His true name, the true name of the devil Nick Shadow… “Anivari, my name-” And then, he heard it as well. That singing, cutting through the fog like the hopeful rays of sunrise into night, and he felt tears welling at the edges of his eyes. Path or no path, she was near, and they would find her. He could almost make her out, always seeming to dance at the very edges of their vision, the obstructive fog always keeping her just out of arm’s reach. But the song, the song grew louder, and louder still, until the specter danced away no more, and she was there, there!
Anivari took his hand in hers. No. This time, there would be no turning back. No fear! She stepped forward, and there she was. Anivari wasn’t afraid, simply speechless. She wasn’t tall like her daughter, no. But had pale blond, almost white hair. And her eyes. They were almost as golden as Anivari’s own eyes. She was pale, but not too pale. And Anivari couldn’t help herself. “M-mother?” She kept moving until she was standing right in front of this shade, daring to hope it was all true, that this was real.
The woman turned, took a moment to ensure that her eyes were not playing tricks, and smiled brightly. Of course she would recognize the tiefling before her. That was her daughter! “Anivari?” Her face shifted, turning to an expression of worry. “What are you….” Her eyes fell to Nick. “And…” She couldn’t finish the question. Momentarily lost in the wonder of actually seeing her mother, Anivari had to remember why she was there. She blinked a few times, forcing the crow from her shadow.
“I… thought maybe…” Steeling herself, she gripped the crow by its neck, just to be certain it didn’t bite her, and lifted it so her mother could see it. “Father… he bound this thing to me when I was a child. And for years, it’s been nothing but trouble, pushing me to do… terrible things to people. Making me doubt myself. Making me think… that I wasn’t able to be loved.” She then glanced at her companion, standing fast beside her. “But then I met Nick. And… I can’t be happy with him with as long as this crow is dragging me down! I wanted to ask: could you help?”
Amaryllis looked at the crow, her expression darkening for a moment. “Oh, child. I would be able to, yes. In exchange for one very simple thing. From the both of you.” She turned to Nick, first, a fierce little spark in her eye.
“…Yes, Ma’am?” The devil coughed the last bit of hopelessness from his lungs, making eye contact with this woman who they had undergone so much to find. The crisp hoarfrost of loss still laced his wings, but it was relegated to a mere afterthought in the presence of Amaryllis. What had they to despair about anymore? Against the garden’s best efforts, they had found that which they sought!
She cast one last glare towards the crow before looking back at Nick. “All I ask is that you make Anivari happy. It… breaks my heart to see what her father has done to her.” Then, she turned to her daughter. “And, for you, my dear. I want you to be happy. This one cares for you. Otherwise, would he have come all this way to help you?”
Anivari blinked. She was right, the tiefling knew, and used her free hand to squeeze Nick’s a little tighter. And she began to do something she had never done before. She began to tear up a bit – but these were not the same doubt-riddled tears of sadness she had shed earlier. This time, she wept for sheer joy, because this was a task she could definitely do. “I will, Mother. I promise. I… I love him.” And, with a raised brow, Amaryllis turned to Nick.
The devil’s mouth fell open in surprise. Something like that, to which he had already committed his very soul, was her only request? And yet, when he answered, he wore a humble smile that came close to being rakish, respectfully inclining his head to Anivari’s mother. “I’ll do this, Ma’am. For you. And for her. And because nothin’ at all would make me ’appier than seein’ ’er ’appy.” Not even rulership of the Hells. Not even ultimate power. As far as Nick Shadow was concerned, this tiefling’s smile was beyond value, and he’d do anything to keep it bright. His hand responded to hers in kind, tightening its grip as he felt his spirits soar, shrugging off the last of the mist’s dampening.
Satisfied with that answer, the former priestess smiled. She looked at him a moment more, her pale eyes passing over him. And then, she turned to Anivari and took the crow from her. “This won’t hurt you, child,” she said. “I cannot promise it won’t hurt the bird. But if what you say is true… then I don’t think you mind that too much.” She closed her eyes, and began to whisper to herself. A prayer, laced with magic. But, the most impressive part was her aura pushing over the crow as it struggled in her grip. It let out strangled cries, its eyes landing on Anivari. And… then it was over. The crow lay limp in her mother’s hands, slowly beginning to look… less demonic than before. It almost looked like a normal bird now.
Anivari changed a bit then. She seemed different, almost as if there really had been a physical weight on her shoulders, now lifted by her mother’s magic. Amaryllis stepped forward and placed a hand on her daughter’s arm. “Don’t hate your magic so much,” she said. “You have enough of me in your heart that it won’t be like his. I can tell.” With a foreboding glance up at the sky as she stepped back, the expression on her face becoming more solemn. “Now, the two of you should go. But before you do, Anivari… I want you to know I love you. In the brief time that I had, I loved you, and I will continue to love you until this afterlife shines its last.” Anivari nodded, wiping her eyes a bit before tugging Nick along behind her. She had the clarity now to remember the way. Well, for the most part. It was after that straight line that she got… confused.
“I’m glad I got to meet you, Mrs. Amaryllis.” Even if it had only been for a few brief moments. Nick waved goodbye to the receding figure as the mists of Arcadia devoured her, sending her back to her peaceful existence amidst this verdant purity. While the draining cold of the garden would have little effect on them, having had their hope so thoroughly restored, it would not be wise to remain in Arcadia longer than was necessary; this realm, pleasant as it was to gaze upon, was not for them. He followed her back along the way – though it was lost to him, it seemed she remembered, and he trusted her to guide him this time. His oath to her had been fulfilled… but she was still bound to hers. They were not out of the woods yet, he thought as they made their way out of the garden – this time, exiting through the front entrance they had previously avoided. Now, they stood on the field just outside the city, the wind rushing through the grasses as the clouds gathered overhead. It seemed another rainfall was due.
Anivari lifted her head, looking up at the sky. She had this… feeling. And it was one she didn’t like in the slightest. But, thankfully, the field was familiar for the most part. She remembered skirting it to get into the city. The Tiefling took one last deep intake of breath before she squeezed Nick’s hand one last time and setting out across the field. “As soon as we get back,” she said, “I want a hot meal, some sake, and…” She blushed again. “And I want to sit with you, and hold you close.” She looked away, her face a much darker shade of red than normal.
“O-oh.” Nick’s own cheeks mirrored the redness on hers, though her didn’t look away, instead trotting along beside her and nudging her side. “I think we could make that ’appen. I’d like to.” Oh, how he’d like to have this all over with and just snuggle her in a place where he could be sure nothing would suddenly sparkle into existence and pull his guts out. Coincidentally enough, as he thought about that, he felt his spine tingle, as if a spider had just run up his back. Nick twitched involuntarily, but kept walking. The gathering clouds had darkened to herald the rain that would soon be upon them. The devil didn’t mind the rain, especially not if Anivari was there with him, but something was beginning to seem amiss. His five senses noticed nothing, but the tingling up his spine wasn’t letting up. If anything, it was becoming stronger the further out they walked into the field.
Anivari was feeling liberated. She didn’t keep herself as alert as she should have been. Not having that crow on her shoulder, or in her head, made her feel lighter and merrier than she ever had. She looked over at Nick, smiling as she walked with him, and not paying the slightest attention to the clouds. “I think I want to learn magic,” she declared. “After seeing my mother use some, and knowing what kind of person she was, I want to be like her.” She had a determined gleam in her eyes, and she almost seemed… softer, somehow. Not as cold or harsh now. Even though she’d never really been that cold or harsh with Nick. She squeezed his hand. “Also…. I didn’t make you uncomfortable… did I? When I said that I love you?”
Even as his blush deepened, the spinagon shook his head to dispel that notion. “No, no, not at all. That made me… really… ’appy.” He wriggled uncomfortably. He was itching now. “I’m… glad you’re feeling better about learning magic, and… that I got to help you with that. And all of this…” He stopped, a shiver running through his entire body. He knew what this was – or at least, he felt like he should know what it was. Instinctively, the sensation came surging up through his stomach and made him queasy – but instead of feeling faint, his senses sharpened to a razor’s edge, even as fear and adrenaline came rushing unbidden through his veins. Something was near – something dangerous and powerful enough to suffuse the air with killing intent and inspire such chilling sensations in him. And then he knew at once was it was, and cursed their foolishness. He should have disguised himself, coming out here into the open field. But he hadn’t, and now here they were – a pair of reeds to be caught in the storm. The first raindrops fell before them as a flash of golden scales pierced the clouds, and galloping down through the air came the ki-rin.
Anivari’s smile faded as she spotted those scales. She glanced at it, then at the other side of the field. Could they make it? “Nick,” she said quickly, turning to let him hop on her back. “Climb on. Now.” There was only one choice for them, she thought: run. She knew she couldn’t fight that thing. And even if she tried, she would probably wind up dead. She clenched her jaw. “I swore you’d get out of here alive. I intend to keep that promise.” Even if he had to shapeshift in order to help her move faster, she didn’t care. She just wanted to get out of there before things got bad.
“Climb on?” But it would be faster flying, wouldn’t it? Nick tried to make his point by spreading his wings, only to realize that the bone hadn’t fully set yet. Just another few minutes would do it, but they didn’t have another few minutes, did they? He was about to shapeshift when a blast of wind caught him dead-on in the face and disrupted his concentration, causing him to turn into a tiny spider and fall into the grass. The ki-rin whinnied, shaking out its platinum mane as it landed with a thunderous crash, sending sparks crackling across the field, and there was a yelp as Nick was zapped out of his spider form and flung backwards, his body writhing with electricity. The monstrous dragon-horse stepped forwards to tower over Anivari, mane rippling in the wind as it gazed upon her, like it was waiting for her to stand aside and let it finish off the devil.
Anivari darted over to Nick, her raging aura surrounding her tall frame. She grabbed him up from the ground, holding him tightly as she spun to face the ki-rin. “I won’t let you have him!” She furrowed her brow, taking in a deep breath and glancing at Nick in her arms. “Sorry if this hurts a little,” she muttered before focusing her levitation and making a beeline for the other side of the field. Anivari braced herself, expecting the lightning to hit her. She screwed her eyes shut, still floating as fast as she possibly could, still clutching Nick as close to her as she could without injuring his wing further.
In response to that, the ki-rin simply stepped into her path, a hoof lashing out with graceful violence to whack Nick out of her arms and into the air, before bringing its head around and driving its horn into the devil’s stomach. Nick’s eyes flew wide open, a silent scream issuing from his mouth as he was gored cleanly through the middle, hanging there for a moment that seemed to last an eternity. Shaking hands reached up as if to try and pull the horn from his guts, eyes filled with horror and guilt flickering down to look at Anivari, before a callous shake of the ki-rin’s head sent him flying off its horn and landing in a crumpled heap, with a rapidly-expanding pool of devil blood underneath him. Having somehow gotten not so much as a stain on its horn, the celestial beast stalked over to the devil’s twitching form, lightning gathering atop its head as it prepared to eliminate this stain from Arcadia.
Anivari let out a scream. “NO!” She rushed over, placing herself directly in front of him. “Not him! PLEASE!” She was sobbing, openly and loudly. She held her hands to the side, not caring if the ki-rin stabbed her through with its horn so long as Nick lived. She could feel… something in her, pushing itself to the surface. She wasn’t sure what that was. But she embraced it, her red aura shifting to a bright golden. Please. Not Nick. She could feel herself shaking in fear. Not for her life, but for his.
The golden creature gazed down at her, its large, beautiful eyes so… empty, and uncaring. Her emotions meant nothing to it. A devil had entered the Upper Planes, and it had to be destroyed; it was as simple as that. And so, the ki-rin reared up, and the lightning on its horn burst forth, arcing through the air to strike at Anivari. If she would not get out of the way, then she, too, would have to be eliminated. Mercy was not something celestials reserved for fiends.
Fine. If that’s how it had to be, so it would! Anivari let out a battlecry, rage and sorrow ripping through her as she launched herself through the air straight at the creature’s chest. She pulled her rage to the surface, lashing out with claws at those golden scales. She even added another one of her rage abilities, giving some elemental power to her strikes. She was using fire, trying to hurt the creature, trying to just get it AWAY from him! She growled, actually deciding to bite down on the beast as well as clawing at it. “LEAVE. HIM. ALONE!”
At the sudden violent resistance, the ki-rin leapt back with a surprised cry, though not before Anivari had managed to rake her claws across its armoured chest and bite a chunk of scales free, painful burns lacing the flesh beneath. It looked down, almost in disbelief, before meeting the tiefling’s eyes and slamming down its forelegs in a direct challenge to her. Gathering the storm at the tip of its horn, it charged her, faster than any creature that size should be able to move.
Anivari, despite her own size, was agile. She was also beyond angry at this point. Those emotions only fueled her power and her ability. A quick sidestep took her just out of harm’s way, the horn catching her pants leg and ripping through the fabric. She didn’t care, immediately going to wrap her arm around its neck and twisting in an effort to either wrench it to the ground or swing herself onto its back and continue clawing and biting. Anivari even aimed a few punches with her free hand, right at the side of the ki-rin’s face. “I. SAID. LEAVE HIM ALONE!” She let out another fierce cry, going so far as to bash her head against the scales. She was glad for her ability to ignore her pain at this point. Otherwise, she would be writhing on the ground in agony. But no. She would not let weakness show, not at this critical time.
The ki-rin roared and bucked wildly, slamming its head against the ground as its face was beaten. It resisted being hauled to the ground, being the size of an elephant and just as strong. The horn gouged a deep gash in Anivari’s side as she was swung onto its back, and feeling itself being grappled, the beast leapt into the air and began racing skyward, lightning crackling along its body and blazing into Anivari as she clung to it. Far below, Nick groaned, weakly lifting his hand in a vain attempt to staunch the bleeding in his stomach. Of course it wouldn’t help; he was bleeding out his back and front at once. The devil looked up, tears streaming from his eyes as he watched Anivari battle the ki-rin to save him. How dare he die, when she was trying so hard to fulfill her oath? Though he felt darkness at the edges of his vision, Nick grimly clung to life, desperate not to let her down.
Anivari continued to slam her fists into the scales. Yes, the lightning hurt. And yes, shooting up into the air was painful. Not to mention the gash in her side. She had NOT come this far to fail here! She had NOT told Nick how she really felt to let him watch her die! She let out yet another scream as she ripped the naginata from her back and started slicing at the ki-rin. She didn’t aim for anything in particular, only concerned with trying to hit the damned thing!
The lightning continued to pump through her, frying nerve endings and roasting skin. No matter what her pain tolerance was, it was certain that her body would begin betraying her before long. The dragon-horse bellowed in pain as its flesh was rent and carved by the naginata, but its scales protected it from the worst of the damage, and upon reaching the bitterly cold rainclouds over Arcadia, it stopped, angled its body and plummeted like a diving falcon, rocketing earthwards and intending to smash Anivari straight into the ground. Nick clenched his teeth until his gums bled, raging at his body, feeling his consciousness slipping away despite his very best efforts. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I failed you, Anivari. I’m so sorry.” A fresh spurt of blood from his stomach wound nearly did him in then and there, with only a titanic effort allowing him to remain conscious at all. He saw them hurtling towards him, the ki-rin and Anivari on its back, and hoped beyond hope that she’d survive the fall.
Anivari’s body was, in fact, betraying her. One of her arms had been rendered completely useless, miraculously remaining wound around the ki-rin’s neck. But still, she continued to strike at the ki-rin with her good hand, slicing and hacking as best she could, crying out as she felt herself in so much pain that only got worse with each racing second. There was something else, though, stirring within her, stronger than the pain. Maybe it had been awakened by the words her mother had spoken to her. Maybe it was her love for Nick that awakened this. But with that golden aura surrounding her, she pushed out with it out of instinct. And she could feel these flames covering her entire body. Golden and white, burning hotter than her previous ones. That burt of magic pushed her off of its back, and she brought the enchanted naginata straight down at the ki-rin’s neck, at one of the gouges her claws had pulled scales from.
The ki-rin howled into the screaming wind, its hooves pounding into thin air and propelling it towards the ground at a terrifying speed. The lightning had all but left its form, discarded as it focused all its energy into this earthward flight. Anivari’s naginata finally drew blood, hacking through the scales and digging into the celestial’s neck – not enough to kill or even cripple it, but certainly enough to enrage it even further, and cause it terrible pain. Perhaps that was what prevented it from hitting the ground at terminal velocity and destroying both itself and the tiefling in a spatter of golden gore, but slow it did, albeit slamming Anivari into the field first and skidding across the ground away from her. It snorted, already trying to rise, while Nick channeled all that was left of his strength into calling to the barbarian.
Please… come here…
There was a groan from the Tiefling as she pushed herself up to her feet. She could feel multiple broken bones, scorched nerve endings, blistering flesh. She looked back to Nick, one hand gripping the bleeding wound in her side, the other hand gripping her blade still, and moved to Nick, limping and gasping with each and every breath and step. Upon finally reaching him, she fell to her knees and felt a cracking in her right one. She grunted, tilting her head down and touching it to his. “We can… still g-get out.” She had to stop and turn her head, coughing out blood onto the grass. “I…I promised you.” She was shaking, pain and sorrow ripping through her. Tears fell from her eyes, her body broken and bloody. She couldn’t allow it to end like this. She had to get back up. She had to! Her head lifted, glaring over at the ki-rin, waiting for its next move.
With his unbloodied hand, the devil lifted a contract for her to see. Its parchment was a sheet of black iron, and its lettering danced with fire kindled from another, lower plane.
Nick Shadow the spinagon smiled at her one last time, his tears mingling with the blood and dirt. His vision was blurry; all he could make out was her vague outline. But she was there, as he knew she would be. She had promised.
“Do you… accept… my contract?”
Anivari let out a choked sob, moving her hand from her side. She pressed it gently against his face, closing her eyes for just a moment. “Y-yes,” she managed. She hoped this would do something. Help him. She didn’t even care about herself. Just let him live. There were no gods for her. No god would listen to her cries. So, she simply put her faith in her own ability. Her urge to get him out of here alive. Please. She braced herself, hoping against hope that this wouldn’t hurt him. She wouldn’t let him die.
“I… I accept… the contract.”
With a rattling sigh and a hoarse chuckle, Nick closed his eyes and was reborn.
Power gathered in that place, surging up from the Hells, along the River of Blood, through to Arcadia to follow the decree set by divine law. The Infernal Hierarchy worked its magic, the wheel turned, and flames exploded upon that field, washing harmlessly over Anivari while setting the grass around the devil’s body ablaze. He opened his eyes, blue having become amber, his pointed canine teeth having sharpened into proper fangs and his tail near doubling in length. His muscles tightened and his body stretched to assume the new form the contract had allowed it to access. Where Nick Shadow the spinagon had lain, Nick Shadow the merregon now stood.
With a look of cold fury written on his beautiful face, he took Anivari’s hand, guiding her to her feet. Her wounds had faded along with his, leaving her just as strong as she had been before the battle had begun. Now very nearly tall enough to gaze directly into her eyes, Nick opened his free hand and his fork came spinning into it from out of his luggage, itself having grown longer, more ornate… and visibly deadlier, its tips brimming with Mephistopheles’s hellfire.
“I think I’ve ’ad quite enough of this realm, my dear Anivari,” hissed the legion devil, giving his trident a casual whirl as his spined tail lashed behind him. “Let us slay this creature and be gone.”
Anivari gasped as she looked at him. She was able to breathe, to stand. And she grinned a bit, that white-gold fire still surrounding her hands. She leaned closer to him, pressing her lips to his for a moment before gripping her naginata once more and shooting a glare at the ki-rin. “I couldn’t agree more, Nick,” she said with a growl. She moved, crouching a bit and holding the naginata in both hands. With a twirl of the blade, she glanced at it and spotted that place she had sliced into earlier. There. Weakness. And that is where she would launch herself. She leapt into the air a bit, stabbing forward with the blade. She would not miss this time.
The ki-rin, having risen to its feet, whinnied defiantly and launched forth a lance of lightning… to little avail. Not only had Nick’s own magic resistance gone up, but it seemed he was sharing that resistance with Anivari. And, indeed, it seemed as if more than that was passing between them, as he swung his bladed trident with berserker strength and cracked the ki-rin’s perfect platinum horn, while Anivari’s naginata bit deep into its neck. She found that she was able to move ten times faster than usual, fully able to keep pace with Nick as he blurred forwards to slash his tail across the wounds on the ki-rin’s chest and set its unguarded flesh ablaze. A hoof lashed out, catching the merregon in the jaw and sending him tumbling backwards – only this time, he immediately flipped to his feet and sent a line of flaming tail spines flying at his assailant, forcing it to avert its eyes. His voice hissed through Anivari’s mind:
One more growl from the Tiefling as she ripped her naginata back and out of the wound on the ki-rin’s neck. This time, when she brought the blade down, she activated her rage once more in order to push even /more/ strength into the swing. She aimed at the already open cut, aiming to cleave the thing’s head off. It would not be a clean cut if it hit. No. It would rip and tear into the beast, almost ripping the head from it. She no longer cared that her more primal side was showing. If the blade missed, then she would reach with her hands to rip its head off that way. “This. Is. For. NICK!” She brought a knee up as she aimed the naginata. She wanted to, at the very least, get one more hit in at the damned thing’s face.
With its eyes turned away, there was no way for it to evade the oncoming deathblow. The ki-rin squealed as its mane was painted with its own lifeblood, pouring forth as fatal injuries were delivered and subsequently worsened. Its hooves thrashed about, slamming into Anivari’s body far less effectively than they had before. Lightning erupted in short bursts, painful but far from crippling. With Nick’s power shared in the tiefling’s body, she had little to fear from the dying celestial. Its head was shorn clean from its shoulders, eyes rolling up and mouth falling open as holy ichor poured from both ends of the decapitated head. Nick stalked forwards, his movements lithe and graceful, and examined the corpse briefly before spitting and winding an arm around the tiefling’s shoulders, nuzzling her cheek, unmindful of the blood dripping from her hands and down the front of her clothes. “Come, love,” he murmured. “Let’s not drag out your oath to me any longer than it ’as to be.”
Anivari leaned closer to Nick, barely even out of breath as the flames died down and her rage subsided. She smiled at him, happy that he was alive. That’s what mattered. “Yes,” she said. Her face flushed as she spoke. “Let’s… go home.” Her hand tingled a little from the bursts of lightning. It was more of an annoying feeling than anything serious, almost as if her hand had fallen asleep after being pinned beneath her head while she slept. She slipped the naginata back into its place on her back. “Just… please tell me we don’t have to go back through Lunia to get home.” She didn’t really like the idea of having to face those hound archons again. Or dealing with that angel who had insulted Nick to begin with.
He laughed, though the thought was almost enough to make him shiver. “No, no, we don’t. The only reason we went to Lunia in the first place is because the ’Eavens are a good place to start looking for good or lawful spirits. As soon as we find a portal, we can go right home.” And there was a portal to be found nearby, in the woods with the metallic trees where they had first tumbled into Arcadia, wounded and fearful – a far cry from the stature they cut now. It was within sight, only a short way past the treeline. It seemed the rain had stopped, and the first rays of the sun reflected gorgeously on the gold and silver trees, casting Nick and Anivari’s faces in pure, plain light. He reached down to take her hand and started towards that portal, his amber eyes shining with the promise of home and respite.
A relieved sigh escaped her lips. As she let him lead her, she realized something. It didn’t matter to her what form he was in around her. All that mattered was that he was alive. And, after all, she had kept her promise. Contract or not, she would have hated herself had he truly died. However, she did have a question. “That contract, the last one. It was different. What… what was it?” She wasn’t skeptical any more, finding instead that she was more curious than anything else. She tangled her fingers with his, her skin still warm to the touch with that fire within her. Well, it was either that… or the yearning thoughts suddenly creeping into her head.
“Oh, um.” Nick’s face flushed slightly, which looked markedly different now that he looked fully-grown. “Yeah, it was, um, different, to put it mildly.” Lowering his voice to a near-whisper, he mumbled, “It was a Familiar Contract. That means that we’re, um, bound together. In mind and body, we’re able to share powers and thoughts and feelin’s. It’s, um, pretty intimate. About the most meanin’ful thing a devil can give someone out of their own free will.” He stopped, then, a few feet away from the portal. “It’s also the only kind of contract either one of us can dissolve, anytime we want. So, with that in mind…” Nick turned, his pale, pretty face blushing bright red, and knelt before Anivari, holding out a ring set with purest amber. “Anivari,” he said, making absolutely certain not to stutter, “would you do me the honor of lettin’ me be your familiar?”
Anivari was listening the entire time. A familiar. That’s what the man at the shop had called him. That’s what that stupid crow was supposed to be. However, Anivari already liked… no, loved… Nick. And she had liked him more than the crow at the start. But when he knelt in front of her like that, seeing his beautiful face blush like that, she felt her heart race. Should she? After what had happened with the crow…. She pushed that away. No, he had said it himself. If she needed to, they could dissolve it. And… he hadn’t lied to her before. Anivari took a deep breath, trying not to blush herself. “I… N-Nick….” She had to pause to stop the stammering. “Yes, Nick,” she finally said. “I would like that.” She smiled at him, her golden eyes lighting up as they met his.
“…” Nick Shadow had no words to thank her, or tell her how wonderful she was, or how gratified he felt that she’d taken the contract, that she’d trusted him enough to guide her through all of this, to fight for him, to let him take care of her and to take care of him, to brave this most hostile of places together with what had then been only a stranger, and now… he slid the Familiar Ring onto her ring finger, and exhaled at length before looking up at her. “Anivari,” he said, his voice devoid of any nervousness or uncertainty as he rose to his feet, “I love you. I’m in love with you. I want to be with you until I reach my end and beyond that. And… oh, screw it. Come here.” Waiting then no longer, Nick took her by the shoulders, pulled her into a deep, loving kiss, and stepped backwards into the portal.
Having watched carefully as he slipped the ring on her finger, listened as he stood and said those heart-stopping words, her eyes widened and she blushed even more. Before she could reply, his lips were on hers and they were falling into the portal. She didn’t mind. Everything was perfect in that moment. And no matter what was thrown at them from then on, she knew they could face it down, as long as they stood by one another, held fast and kept that bond between them hale and fastened by trust, loyalty and love.