Who Brings SteppiesNSFW
(Never-finished story, Shadowbringers 5.0 finale spoilers) Lani desperately tries to hold on, but her grip starts to slip... Tala and the Scions have to bring her back to her senses before it's too late.
"Is that... Vauthry?" Ryne seemed unwilling even to breathe his name, as if speaking it would break the spell and the world would fall back into peril. She clutched her hand to her chest, looking the fallen Lightwarden over.
He was a tall, fit man with a beautiful gold-tinged face and wavy golden hair, lying on the golden floor beneath his golden throne in his golden armor (covered in golden wings lined with golden swords). ... To be fair, he certainly didn't look like the lumpy, sickly-grey-skinned, cruel-faced lord of Eulmore. Though his whinging sounded the part. "But... I am all-powerful..." His head dropped to the floor.
"More like was that Vauthry," Lani said, beaming. She was still bouncing from foot to foot, fists at the ready.
Urianger inclined his head in confirmation. "There lieth the last of the Light."
"And good godsdamn riddance, too," Miah added, lowering her greatsword into its holster on her back.
Tala slipped her daggers back into their sheaths, looking down at their fallen foe disdainfully. "Tch. You can say that again."
"With your powers, you could have done so much good..." Alphinaud mused, holding his tome of arcanima to his chest. He stared down at Vauthry almost pityingly.
"I see... it's finally over, then." Ryne let out a breath of relief. "Now night will return to Norvrandt, bringing salvation to both of our worlds..."
"Yep. And we missed it all. Yet again," Alisaie grumbled, her hand on her rapier. "Would've liked to tear him a new one personally. I haven't forgotten how he treated my brother."
Y'shtola placed her hand on Alisaie's shoulder, quietly soothing the smaller girl's grumbling. She looked Vauthry over curiously. "A dramatic transformation. The result of the sin eater within emerging to claim dominance, I assume."
Thancred, ever in command of his emotions where Ryne was concerned, noticed Ryne smiling at him and simply nodded and turned to the Warrior of Darkness and her companions. "We've secured an escape route. Do what you must."
"What I must..." Lani turned back to Vauthry, staring him down. The others stood back, watching. Knowing what was to come.
Vauthry - or Innocence, as he had called himself - strained to lift his head. His voice, too, was weak and forced. "Why? Why am I cast down... when it is you who are the villains?" His arms weakly propped him up, his head barely able to lift far enough to make eye contact with Lani's knees. "Father told me... that I am hope. I am righteousness. That I am... a god... That is why I was born... As man and sin eater both..."
"And yet, the sin you really needed to eat was being ugly as," Miah whispered.
"Shhh!" Tala whispered back, snorting with suppressed laughter and elbowing Miah. "This is an important moment!"
Miah grinned, tilting her head. "What? Am I wrong?"
Innocence was still whining. "I kept the people safe! They respected me! Worshipped me! How can this be? I should be the one... looking down at you..." His gauntleted (golden, of course) fist slammed against the ground in impotent rage.
The assembled Scions only continued to stare coldly down at the broken Lightwarden. Alphinaud averted his eyes, unable to watch the shameful display any longer.
Indeed, Innocence's body was already dissolving into motes of light aether. "Help me, damn you! I am... your god..."
"Okay, here we go," Lani said, ignoring Innocence's pleas and bracing herself. This was the moment of truth.
Tala knew she'd been struggling... been aching with the magnitude of the task placed on her, but had kept a cheerful face nonetheless. "You've got this, Lan..." she whispered.
Miah nodded, but her hand was on her greatsword's hilt. This could be their salvation, yes, but it could just as easily be their end. If she couldn't contain it... no amount of fighting would save them, but Miah might be able to prolong her friends' lives just a little.
As a cloud of light aether formed over the place where Innocence had lain, shimmering and beautiful, Lani drew in an unsteady breath, lifting her gaze toward it. It gathered itself, then... Parts of it broke away, plunging intoher chest. Small and few at first, then all at once, the rest, crashing into her like a ton of bricks. She squeezed her eyes shut and held her arms out, welcoming it in, embracing it, even as its intense cold felt like it would freeze her solid. She was soaked in sweat with the sheer effort of holding it all, but then... at last, she breathed out a sigh and opened her eyes. And the rest of the Scions breathed out breaths they'd been holding with her.
Alphinaud was the first to notice. "Look! The sky!"
The clouds of eternal Light dissolved away, giving way to a starry night's sky.
"You did it! You really did it!" Tala rushed over to Lani's side, gazing up at the sky along with her. "Lixia, look... The last of the Light, gone..."
Lixia manifested a small body, the succubus settling onto Tala's shoulder to stare up at the sky. "It's as beautiful as your first victory..."
"I never doubted you for a second," Miah said, slapping her on the back.
"Me neither," Lani said, grinning. She stuck her hands in her vest's pockets, staring up at the sky with a contented smile. This whole mess was over, finally... At last, she could relax, and...
A soft tinkling sounded as Lani lost her grip. "Gg... Gggh... haaaah!" Clouds of light aether spilled from her, her vision frosting over with their icy chill. Her head throbbed like someone was bashing it in with a rock, over and over. She broke out in a fresh sweat, dropping to her knees.
"Lani!" Tala called, her voice sounding like it was malms away. Lixia dove back into her chest as the waves of Light threatened to drown the little voidsent.
Alisaie stepped forward, reaching out a hand, but Lani's vision swam, making it seem like there were two of her. "Are you alright? ... Say something!"
Lani couldn't bring herself to speak. The pain was intense, more than anything she'd experienced before. "H... Hhh...!"
Miah drew her greatsword, hastily putting herself between Lani and the rest of the Scions. "Okay, maybe we celebrated a bit too soon!"
"Twelve forfend, she cannot contain the Light! She's beginning to turn!" Y'shtola's voice quivered in alarm. "Urianger, if you've aught up your sleeve, now is the time!"
Urianger's gaze dropped, a heavy silence filling the air.
Ryne broke it with a cry of shock. "It's changing back!" She pointed at the sky, where the clouds of eternal Light rushed back into place as if they'd never left. Kholusia had gotten its Lightwarden back.
"No, no, no, no...." Tala braced herself, doing her best to shield the voidsent wrapped around her soul from the waves of light aether now bombarding them all. "This isn't supposed to happen like this!"
Lani writhed in place, clutching her head. Her every nerve seemed to be glowing with pure agony. She could barely even breathe...
"The combined power of every Lightwarden is too terrible a burden for any one soul to bear," came a voice from behind them. The Crystal Exarch, striding purposefully toward them despite the oppressive forces of Light that threatened to suffocate everyone atop Mount Gulg. He pushed past Miah, moving to stand before Lani.
Lani lifted her eyes, struggling to support herself, her blurred vision just barely making out the hooded figure now standing in front of her.
"But two... two might just be able to share it." The Exarch slammed the point of his staff down into the ground, piercing it and summoning forth a portal to the Crystal Tower. And through it stepped... No, it couldn't be...
"D... Dali... ya...?" Lani managed, her voice weak and strained. "Ho... w..."
The gorgeous Elezen woman who stepped out of the portal looked like a portrait of an old Ishgardian queen, brought to life and given a more modern wardrobe. Her clothes were simple and straightforward, but the quality and subtle details belied their true nature. She put her hand to her chest, her mouth dropping open in shock, as she took in Lani's condition. Her accent was as refined as her clothing. "Lani!"
"Go to her," the Exarch said softly. "She needs you now."
Daliya rushed to Lani's side, putting an arm around her and - somehow - relieving some of the intense pressure inside her. Daliya's body glowed with the same soft blue as the Exarch's staff now did. "Lani, it will be all right. I am here with you now. We are going to make it to the other side of this together. Your friend told me all that I needed to know."
"Exarch, your skin... What are you doing?!" Alisaie cried.
Y'shtola gritted her teeth, stepping forward. "No ordinary person can handle that amount of Light! You know that! And you seek to doom yourself with her?!"
"We're just adding to the casualties!" Tala hissed. "There has to be another way than this!"
"Do not interfere!" Urianger said harshly, holding out an arm to stop the others. "Please, I beseech you all... let him do this."
"Though I searched and searched, I came to understand that my role in this tale is only - can only ever be - to reunite the hero and her friend at this moment. Our bonds bring us strength... and if there is anything our hero needs now, it is strength," the Exarch said, leaning heavily on his staff. The crystallization of his body had clearly significantly advanced, and with every second he held the spell that shielded Daliya, it spread further, consuming his body by ilms. "My role served, I slip now from the tale... but thank you... my friend, my inspiration.. for fighting for this world... for believing..."
He collapsed onto his hands and knees, clutching to his staff to keep the power flowing through it. His breathing was strained and weak.
"You knew of this, Urianger," Y'shtola said calmly, realization dawning. "From the beginning, he planned to use the last of his power to summon this girl and shield her from the Light so she could save Lani - and Norvrandt. Even though it would kill him to do so."
"This plan is too stupid for words," Miah snapped, her fists balled. Still, even she had to release them, letting her greatsword's point droop. "But... If it really is the only way..."
Lani lifted her head - first toward the Exarch, who had given his life to make this happen... then toward Daliya, whose touch soothed her aching heart like a warm fire to a frostbitten hand. Familiar, comforting Daliya, who had always been there for her when she was needed... somehow, even now... She managed the beginnings of a smile through the pain. "Th... thank..."
A shot rang out, and Daliya's smile in return turned to a look of shock. She put a hand to her stomach, looking at the blood now staining her fingers in shock... then collapsed, sprawling across the floor beside Lani.
The Scions recoiled in shock, searching for the source of the shot. Ryne clutched her chest, gasping.
Behind the collapsing Daliya, the one responsible lowered his gun. Emet-Selch leaned forward, looking over the two fallen friends and Lani, whose face now showed a rush of pain and misery worse even than the one it had borne before Daliya's summoning. "To think that he went through all this trouble for the sake of a single hero. It's almost admirable in its absurdity. Alas, it is not your grand scheme that will succeed, but ours."
"You bastard!" Thancred shouted, hand on his gunblade.
Miah took a step forward, winding up with her greatsword in preparation for a mighty swing. "I'm getting really tired of seeing your face!"
Emet raised a hand. "Stay put. Your friends are still alive, but whether they remain so depends on you."
The two warriors stayed their blades, though it was an uneasy truce. Thancred gritted his teeth, lowering his hand. Miah clicked her tongue, driving her greatsword's point into the floor.
"Hm." Emet glanced at them to be sure they had been appropriately cowed, then turned to stare down at Lani coldly. "What a disappointment you turned out to be. I placed my faith in you. Let myself believe you could contain the Light."
Lani grimaced at him, unable to muster up words.
"But look at you now, halfway to becoming a monster." Emet gestured down Lani's body. "You are unworthy of my patronage."
"You smug asshole," Tala seethed. "What are you doing here?"
Miah put a hand on Tala's shoulder, but it was clear she had the same and worse in mind.
Lani closed her eyes a moment, gathering her strength. Her eyebrows knitted, and she opened her eyes, fresh determination blazing in them despite her pain. "What do you intend to do?"
Emet scoffed, shaking his head slowly and giving a disaffected shrug. "I am an Ascian. My heart's sole desire is to usher in the Great Rejoining. A hundred years ago, I entrusted my companion Loghrif with the task of increasing Light's sway over this world. This we sought to do by manipulating heroes. When that failed to achieve the desired result, I created Vauthry." His expression turned dark, and he glared at the assembled heroes. "But thanks to your meddling, that too has ended in failure."
"And they'll continue to end in failure so long as I still breathe!" Miah hissed.
Alphinaud took a tentative step toward Emet, his voice heavy with restrained anger and despair. "What was your true purpose in approaching us?"
This only seemed to piss Emet off - he raised his voice, rounding on Alphinaud. "By your Twelve, boy, have I not told you before that everything I said was the truth? You were specimens by which I might gauge humankind's potential as it stands. I genuinely had an interest in you. Genuinely considered taking you on as allies." Disbelief colored his voice, and Alphinaud stepped back, wincing. Miah stepped forward to cover him as Emet continued his explanation. "Provided she could contain and control the Light." He tossed a careless glance over his shoulder at Lani, whose despair had shown on her face a moment more. "If not then she - and by extension you - would be of no use to me. 'Twas as simple as that."
Thancred shrugged it off, his tone angry despite his attempts to keep it carefree. "So we've been found wanting. How disheartening." He lowered his gaze, tone steely. "But even had we fulfilled your condition, there was no guarantee that we would cooperate."
"Then I simply kill you all," Emet said with a half-smile. "At the very least, it would restore the world to the way it was before you went about trouncing Lightwardens willy-nilly." He glanced down at the two fallen ones. "Suffice it to say it would be most inconvenient for you to circumvent the terms of my trial and leave with all that Light - and I would be lying if I were to claim his actions didn't have me worried." He nudged the unconscious Crystal Exarch with one foot.
Another tinkling of shattering crystal signaled that the transformation had progressed a stage further. Lani's stance had weakened, and she coughed up a glowing splatter onto the ground. Her skin, normally a healthy terra-cotta, was cut with blotches of pearlescent white. Her eyes had the same imperious, luminescent golden color that Vauthry's had at the moment of his transformation.
Emet's attention was drawn back to her, and he stepped over to the agonized Warrior of Darkness, looking her over. "Hm. You still retain your form and your senses..." He crouched down to meet Lani's eye level, straddling the unconscious Daliya. "...but you have all but become a sin eater. Whether you will it or not, your mere existence will serve to engulf the world in Light." Lani stared down at the ground, despair etched into her features. "Those in your company will likewise turn into sin eaters, and in time you will succumb to your base instincts and hunt innocents to feast on their sweet, sweet aether."
Tala elbowed Miah hard. Miah elbowed her back. "Shhh! This is important."
Lani's blurred, frosted-over vision could barely even make out Emet's face, ilms from her own. His voice may as well have been a distant memory.
"Those few with the will left to fight may rise up against you. But before your absolute might, they will quickly know despair." Emet's tone and expression took on a cruel, mocking caliber. "There is no hope! We are finished! Humanity is finished!" His features twisted into an evil smile. "Ahhh, the irony. What Vauthry achieved through bliss, you will achieve through despair." He hefted Daliya's unconscious form onto his shoulder and got to his feet, a self-satisfied smirk on his face and a gleeful spark in his voice. "But I have overstayed my welcome. I shall look forward to seeing you bring the world to its knees, hero."
A snap of his free hand's fingers made the Crystal Exarch vanish into nothingness.
"Exarch!" Alphinaud cried, reaching a hand out.
"I have naught to show for all the time and effort I invested in you lot. These two will be a small token for my troubles." He turned to look at the Scions. "I did not expect that I could learn aught from humanity, but I may yet learn something from all the knowledge he had hoarded for his precious hero. And this one's connection to her hero will surely be of use. Perhaps I'll even get two mighty sin eaters out of this. What luck!"
His feet lifted off the ground, and he hovered high into the air, staring coldly down at the company before him. Tala drew a fistful of throwing daggers, rearing back. "Don't think you can run!"
"Stop! You might hit her!" Miah hissed, grabbing Tala's arm.
"I pity you, I do," he said, ignoring the two Scions and staring down at Lani. "Your friends are now your foes. If you do not kill them, they will kill you." He gave her a pitying, cloying smile. "When it all becomes too much to bear, seek me out at my abode, in the dark depths of the Tempest. There, you may complete your descent into madness with some dignity, far from prying eyes. Till then, I bid you farewell... eater."
And with that, he and Daliya vanished.
The tinkling of crystal sounded once more, and Lani - filled to bursting with light aether and impotent rage and despair - screamed her defiance to the world. More and more of her skin flaked away, revealing more blotches of pearlescent white. Her body took up more and more of the platform they rested on.
"The transformation is picking up speed now!" Miah cried. "We can't stay here! We have to go!"
"Lixia, hold tight," Tala murmured, vaulting down the stairs and making for the escape route Thancred had pointed out. The voidsent's spot of darkness paled before the brilliant beacon that was Lani, filled to the brim with the aether of every Lightwarden in Norvrandt. The other Scions didn't need much encouragement to follow, and weren't far behind, save one.
"We can't leave her!" Ryne yelped. "Not now!"
Thancred grabbed her wrist, dragging her away. "We've done all we can for the moment! We regroup and find what we can do later!"
But as fast as the Scions fled, Lani was faster. They were halfway through the gold-and-marble palace that Vauthry had built for himself atop Mt. Gulg when they heard a thunderous boom behind them. It was the sound of one of Lani's boots crashing down as she took a step. Her skin was still only patchy, and her gaze was determined, not the blank stare many sin eaters had. But she was, nonetheless, enormous. Her steps were precise, steady, and slow... and yet she was already not far behind.
"She's gaining on us!" Alisaie shouted. "Hurry!"
Even at top speed, the little humans had no hope of competing with the casual stroll of the titan pursuing them. A terrifying BOOM just fulms behind them made the group stumble, keeping up their pace - they couldn't let her catch them, couldn't fall here, there had to be a chance -
And then another BOOM crashed down in front of them, the massive boot in plain view before them for a moment before Lani advanced. The group stopped to catch their breaths, chests heaving, and watched Lani step down the massive Talos's arm like it was a gangplank from a ship.
"Did she just... step over us?" Miah asked, panting.
Tala nodded. "She moved her foot out of the way... so she wouldn't kick us..."
Y'shtola furrowed her brow. "And if I'm not mistaken... she has maintained far more of her form than is normal for eaters."
"We might still be able to save her, you all!" Ryne said. "Please, let me get to her! I can calm the raging Light in her, I know I can!"
Alphinaud put a finger to his linkpearl. "Chai-Nuzz. I'm sure you saw the Lightwarden that just escaped."
"Night save us," came Chai-Nuzz's distorted voice. "She is terror itself... How could our hope have become our bally downfall?!"
Alphinaud ignored his awe. "We might be able to stop her, but we need a ride. Pray prepare some mounts for us at the foot of the Talos. We'll be there soon."
"And, Thancred..." Ryne said in a small voice. "I might... need some help managing the aether of something this big."
Thancred nodded. "I'll make a call to Amh Araeng. But we had best continue to run before she's too far away."
This promise gave Ryne a burst of new energy, and she took off running. "Come on! Let's go!"
At the foot of the Talos, Chai-Nuzz and Dulia-Chai and an assembly of dwarves and Eulmorans had gathered.
"I cannot thank you enough," Alphinaud said as Alisaie clambered onto the rolling tank the dwarves had prepared.
"No time for thanks! Go after the girl before it's too late!" Chai-Nuzz said.
"Where..." Ryne trailed off as she caught sight of a Crystarium Skyslipper zipping towards them from the direction of the Ladder. At its helm was a dark-haired girl with an equally dark dress. "Gaia! You came!"
"Dibs on the middle seat!" Miah called, running to meet it with a surprised Ryne trailing just behind. Thancred and Tala trailed after them at a jog, while the rest of the Scions looked at the rolling deathtrap the dwarves had prepared them.
"Well... I suppose it is preferable to going on foot again," Urianger said with an air of resignation, climbing aboard.
Y'shtola chuckled as she joined him. "As we are somehow not smeared on the bottom of Lani's boot and there is somehow still hope of restoring her to her senses, I will gladly accept whatever else fate has in store for us."
The tank clunked into motion as Alisaie found the throttle, quickly increasing it to its maximum speed.
"Sister, please, at least try to keep our safety in mind!" Alphinaud cried, gripping his seat for dear life.
The tank sprang into the air, its wheels converting to maneuvering jets. Alisaie licked her lips, leaning forward. "We'll be fine! Hold on!"
"What you were doing wasn't already worthy of a hol-" The roar of the turbo jets drowned out the rest of Alphinaud's comment.
In the skyslipper, Ryne sat up front with Gaia, while Thancred and the two women sat in the back.
Gaia focused on the terrain ahead of them and the retreating shape of Lani's shimmering brown hair as she lumbered toward the sea. "So, are you going to explain this to me, or what? Your father only told me to come as quickly as I could."
Neither Thancred nor Ryne jumped to correct Gaia about the nature of their relationship. "It's... a long story, I may have to tell you the whole thing after," Ryne admitted. She placed a hand on Gaia's where it rested on the controls. "I'm glad you came, even though you didn't know what you were coming for. Other than me."
Gaia's voice got quiet and flustered. "Yeah... well... I just had to make sure you weren't in any danger, is all. Don't read into it."
"Lixia, I hate to do this to you, but you're the one who has the most personal experience with anything like this here. Do you have any idea what's going on?" Tala asked, letting a tiny Lixia manifest and drop into her palm.
The little voidsent cringed back at the intensity of the Light, but did her best to stand all the same. "If it's anything like what I went through, some people, some strong wills, can fight the influence. The power, it lures you. Tries to tell you that it can help you, that you'll stay in control. But if you let it in, all you're doing is drowning yourself. And... even if you don't, you can't hold your breath forever."
"I see... Miah, you think you can keep her entertained while we come up with a plan?" Tala asked, tucking Lixia back into her chest.
Miah smirked. "Who's covered your butt for every botched mudra, slip of the knife and failed assassination since we got here? I think I can handle distracting her."
Thancred was disassembling and reassembling his gunblade to make sure it's working well. "I'll cover the girls. They'll move in when you get her back to her senses."
"Oh! No, I can cover the girls, you keep her distracted," Miah said cheerfully, patting Thancred's shoulder. "Thanks for volunteering."
"I see you haven't changed a bit, Miah," Thancred said, rolling his eyes.
Miah clicked her tongue. "The thing is, I don't know if I can trust you with them..."
"See, now that's just what I was thinking about you," Thancred retorted.
"Gaia! Zip us past her and drop off Miah for a distraction!" Tala called.
"She means Thancred!" Miah added.
Thancred slotted the cartridges Ryne had enchanted into his gunblade. "All right, all right, if it will shut you up. But not a hair on their heads had better be harmed, you understand?"
"Not a one! They'll be perfectly safe with me!" Miah said, beaming.
Thancred grunted, readying his gunblade and leaping down, shouting in hopes that his small voice would carry enough for her enormous ears to hear. "Lani! Where do you think you're going?"
The thundering footsteps of her movement came to a stop, and she looked down at the tiny gunbreaker, her shimmering gaze fixing on him for just a moment. "The Tempest. To get Daliya back. Don't try to stop me." She started moving again, simply walking around the tiny obstacle as if he weren't even there.
"A sin eater who can talk...?" Ryne whispered. "There's no such thing! This has to be the real Lani..."
Lixia's presence tugged on the edge of Tala's consciousness. Get me close enough to talk to her!
Tala relayed the request. Gaia leaned forward, her hands on the yoke. "Are you insane? Have you seen the size of her arms? One swat and we're falling out of the sky!"
Ryne placed her hand on Gaia's arm, keeping her pleading gaze straight ahead at Thancred. Gaia glanced at her, then swallowed hard and looked ahead as well. "... Okay. I'll... give it a try."
The skyslipper swooped over Thancred's head and looped around, diving down between Lani's legs at the last second. As Gaia had hoped, Lani was ready to swat them with one colossal hand, not prepared to block with her legs, and the skyslipper was only barely clipped by the shifting of one titanic knee. Gaia clutched the yoke tightly, pulling up as much as she could. "Go!"
Tala jumped out of the skyslipper, gracefully backflipping into the air to cling onto Lani's neck from behind. "I'm sorry, Lan, but we have to stop you! This isn't good! For you or for anyone!"
"You know nothing of what is good for me," Lani said, reaching up for Tala. Her voice was sharp and cold, nothing like the warm and friendly Lani that Tala was familiar with. "You don't know what she means to me. For her to die here on the First because of her connection to me... It's unforgivable. I don't want to hurt you, but I will do what I have to if you try to stop me."
As Tala dodged Lani's hands pawing at her back, groping around for Tala, Lixia's voice came through Tala's throat. Strained though it was by the proximity to such intense waves of Light, it came through clearly. "Lani, you have to listen. All this Light is not your ally! It only wants to consume you!"
"A little shadow such as you has no place telling me what I have to do," Lani said, finally grabbing hold of Tala and dangling her by one leg in front of her face. "Perhaps a weaker soul, like the one you once had when you lived, would yield. But I? I am going to save my friend, and save this world. I have never been more sure, more at peace with that thought."
Lixia grunted in frustration. "You don't understand! This is just what the Light inside you wants you to believe! And if you do what it asks, then-"
"Enough," Lani said, tossing Tala and Lixia to the ground. That massive boot, longer than Tala was tall, pressed down on Tala's back as she tried to push herself upright. "I warned you."
"Ggh..." Tala rasped in a breath, looking up, but the weight of the boot pressing down on her forced it back out of her again.
"I thought the same as you!" Lixia pleaded, burning some of her limited aether to speak unchained by Tala's inability to breathe. "I loved someone dearly, I thought I was in control, I thought I could somehow save her from the end of the world with all the power the darkness gave me! Instead I- as soon as I came to see her, I devoured her, soul and all, until there was nothing left of her but memories! I had... I had to watch myself kill her! You don't want that, do you?! To see Daliya die by your own hand?!"
That got Lani to pause. And in that pause, Miah dropped out of the sky, greatsword point-down, onto Lani's foot.
Lani howled, staggering back and releasing Tala. Thancred launched into action, dragging Tala away from Lani, while Miah rolled to her feet. "Sorry, Lan. But this can't go on. We're not going to lose you, and we're sure as hell not going to let you take anyone else from us, either."
The skyslipper crashed to the ground not far from Miah, empty. Thancred set Tala down, running towards where it had fallen from. "I told you I don't want them harmed!"
But the girls were in no danger. Ryne grabbed hold of Gaia's hand, wings of light fluttering gently behind the two of them as they descended towards the giant Lightwarden. "Now, Gaia!"
Lani looked up towards the source of the voice, mouth open in shock, but it was too late for her to stop it. The two Oracles pressed their hands to either side of Lani's head and channeled their power through her. The power of Light that calms, and the power of Darkness that invigorates. And there was already so much inside Lani that, unable to hold on any longer, she finally let her mind be lost in the flood.
The bed beneath Lani was soft and warm, and there was fresh, steaming-hot tea on the little table beside her bed.
Her body felt like it had been beaten to a pulp by a team of angry Talos, but it was her own. A nightmare? She lifted her hands up and stared at them. No sign of the alabaster blotches. No fogged vision. No agony in her mind.
She sat up. Tala, Miah, Ryne, and Gaia were talking in hushed tones, though they stopped and stared once they caught sight of her. Gaia's hand timidly searching for Ryne's on the chair between them caught Lani's eye, and as soon as their hands touched, Gaia turned her gaze away.
"You're awake," Ryne said, her voice thick with joyful tears. "I thought... maybe we'd messed something up, I didn't know at all what I was doing, but... you're awake..."
"The others are out doing anything they can to find a way to stop you from transforming, to get down to the Tempest, to save our friends. Even just holding it off a few more days will mean something," Miah explained.
"In the mean time, get a drink," Tala said. Lani couldn't help but notice that her dark brown skin was covered by a thick bandage around her middle.
Lani winced. "So... that part was real, then..."
Tala smiled wryly. "Unfortunately. Just a few fractured ribs, nothing some white magic and rest can't help."
"Tala's into getting stepped on, but I think usually only by girls her own size," Miah added helpfully. "You should try again now that you're back to normal."
The joke broke the tension, and relief spilled into the atmosphere in the room.
Lani took the teacup into one hand, sipping at it. "Cinnamon tea..."
"I thought the smell of it might wake you, since Thancred told me you like it," Ryne said sheepishly. "I guess it worked."
"That is the fourth pot of tea we've brewed today, though," Gaia added.
Lani chuckled, taking another sip. "Thank you. Really. I don't know what came over me. Is the little shadow okay?"
"Lixia?" Tala summoned her palm-sized form out, revealing the little succubus reclining in her palm. "She's exhausted, but safe. It helped a lot once you weren't full of angry Light aether anymore."
"Hm..." Lani tilted her head, setting the teacup down. "Thanks, Lixia. I probably would have ended up like you if you hadn't said that. It must have been painful to reveal that."
"Oh! Not at all, I made it up," Lixia said cheerfully, sitting up to get a better look at Lani.
"You... what?" Lani asked, somewhat taken off guard.
Lixia shrugged. "There was no girl I loved, no murder I regretted. I was a lonely girl with a big fragile heart and a weak will when the darkness consumed us. I gave in to temptation almost immediately, and I enjoyed everything that followed until our world was fully consumed."
Tala covered her face with her free hand. "I was wondering why you hadn't told me that story in all our years together."
Fortunately, Lani didn't seem too bothered, staring in shock a few moments more before laughing. "Well, any port in a storm, right? Serves me right for trusting a succubus."
"Yes, serves you right," Lixia said smugly, wrapping her arms around her knees. "But I try not to make too much of a habit of lying. I was willing to try anything, just then."
As Ryne squeezed her hand and drew it closer, Gaia wriggled free and slid her hand back into her lap, embarrassed. "Shouldn't we go tell the others she's okay?"
"Yes! And get some drinks. I hear alcohol is great for keeping the Light in," Miah said cheerfully, pushing the door open. "First round's on me!"