There was another rumble echoing far off into the distance. It's aftershock rippling across both the building and ourselves. A tremor that was comparable to that of a mini-earthquake.
For my side, I thought it was a cause for concern. Ria, on the other hand, couldn't look less bothered even if she tried.
"What Her sister is in the process of becoming a ravenous monster, I think a bit of wall smashing and furniture breaking is a bit warranted here. So long as it isn't my spine she's snapping into pieces, can't say I have any complaints."
She made a good point. Couldn't think of any rebuttal for that, except for the one, the big one, the one with white hair and pointed ears, currently hot on our heels like some kind of fantasy terminator.
"And if it's the Elf that's after us… well," she continued, breath growing heavy from fatigue. "Guess we better hurry then, huh"
The Elf that was after was… yeah, I don't think I'll be able to get used to such a phrase. Not with Ash, at least. Yet there was still that part of me that wanted to rationalize it all… I mean, I have already seen her like this before, haven't I Albeit, with a little more spring to her step.
What if she really was like this all along She was made a knight for a reason, wasn't she Loyal knight to the demon queen Terestra.
Then there was the other part, the part that wanted to derationalize the rational… I don't know, feelings are a complicated thing to sort out. I tossed it aside for now. Won't get any closure if I wasn't alive to receive any.
We continued, a step at a time, until...
"Homestretch," I whispered.
The exit to the building was like a beacon of hope in a sea of despair, the moonlight rays of the outside filtered through the shattered glass panels of the double doors. I felt my insides give a backflip just at the sight of it.
Walked again, a little faster in pace this time, eagerness trumping pain, relief replacing unease. I was barely leaning on Ria at this point, we were so nearly there.
Then very nearly again.
Walked long enough to have reached the exit by then, yet it was just as far away as it was 30 paces ago.
We didn't move a single inch.
"Homestretch…" muttered Ria with a half-hearted sigh. "What a way with words you have."
I looked to her for clarification, which she simply followed up by floundering her fingers in a mystical manner.
"Magic…." she whispered in an exaggerated ominous tone.
I hate magic.
"I don't suppose you can - "
"No, I can't, it's a barrier, a big stretchy barrier," she interjected. "Didn't feel it when we first got here, meaning she only had it made recently. Clever illusion, actually. Could run an entire marathon and we still wouldn't have made a smidgen of progress towards it. Watch."
Ria stretched out her hand in front of us. Nothing looked out of the ordinary, nothing until she slowly swayed it around - that's when the wrinkling started. The rays of moonlight, the shattered double glass door, the path leading to it, the view of it forming ripples across her every movement.
Bye-bye beacon of hope. Hello again, sea of despair.
"Funny though," Ria said, withdrawing her arm back to her side. "Barrier like this, it's a very complex, very strenuous piece of magic. Surprise she'd go out of her way to create one that expands the entire building just for one stray away. She must really hate your guts."
Gears in my head began turning, like disjointed puzzle pieces fitting into place, I had a thought. 'Please don't make me kill you', was one of the things she had said to Adalia.
"I don't think the barrier is for us," I said.
There was a scream. A loud, deafening scream that filled the halls with its ferocity. A scream that flooded me with dread and fear like nothing else. For it was an empty scream, one without malice, without hatred, sadness - nothing. Just a simple frenzied scream of madness.
And in the midst of the vocal dissonance, another tumultuous boom resonated throughout the vicinity… the ceiling appeared to be creaking. Then - an explosion, blasting both sight and sound into a raging miasma of white dust and falling concrete.
We turned around in an instant.
A hole in the ceiling. In front of us, visible through the dissipating smoke, standing tall atop a mountain of debris, the piercing glimmer of emerald eyes stared back at us, unflinching.
Ash took a step towards us, the dirt and dust that caked her entire body going disregarded, as a magnificent glow of white light materialized a gleaming silver sword into her grasp. Didn't even know she could do that. What else didn't I know about her
I took a step back.
"Well, that one's certainly for us…" Ria said.
What was Ash thinking in there, if she even still had thought What's her goal To kill me Capture me
That small part in my mind blared out to me again - go and reason with her. But I already tried, haven't I And what did I have to show for it
I wasn't listening to that part anymore.
My eyes shifted over to Ria's. "Get us out of here - Now!"
No jokes, no witty remarks this time. Ria grabbed hold of me, both arms wrapped tight around my body, just as Ash spurred towards our direction. Her eyes met mine, bare meters away with her sword held high, before the very sight of her became enveloped by a sea of flames that soared high into the air.
There was a high-pitch screech, then the clangor of heavy metal - a sharp gust of wind whistled past my face.
I felt myself be lifted to the air.
Ria, in her phoenix form, tethered her talons once more to my back and soared upwards in a blaze of golden feathers. Leaving behind Ash, her sword striking fissures to the concrete where we had previously stood, mere inches from my position.
If it wasn't for her being blinded by Ria's fire… capture was out of the question, then. Damn it, Ash.
Another flutter of wings and Ria soared us into the hole in the ceiling Ash had made. From there, it was a continuous mad dash towards every pathway we could find. I spun around, only for a second, and saw that Ash had already followed us through.
I was left dangling like a loose strand of string. With every swerve, every sharp turn, I collided with the hard wall. I knew it wasn't deliberate, but it didn't help soothe the growing ache in my shoulders.
It was still audible. Past the intermittent shrieks of a frenzied beast, she could still be heard. Through the rising tremors and quakes that shook the very walls of the building, she wouldn't relent. Shortening the distance with every second, Ash was an unstoppable force of nature that couldn't be hindered.
Even through a dozen walls of solid concrete, just when we would think we had finally eluded her, she would smash through them without any extra effort, reducing what stood between us to mere rebar and debris and the chase would continue.
Meanwhile, it persisted, the struggles from up above, Matriarch against Matriarch, tearing away what was left of the already dilapidated building. Walls toppling, ceilings collapsing, Ria did her best to evade them all.
Second floor, third floor, fourth floor, first - elevation constantly shifting with every new hole that crumbled open. Yet even with the hostile instability of the structure, Ash jumped, dodged, and climbed through them all - using everything at her disposal to not lose sight of us.
Something had to be done. She was still gaining ground despite all odds.
But what What could I do
Again, from the first floor to the third in one meteoric streak upwards, yet our distances never lengthened. They only seem to shorten.
Something, but what What!
The irrational part blared out to me again, a growing clamor in my head that just wouldn't turn off - 'Talk to her!' it yelled repeatedly.
No other options presented itself to me. None that I could come up with.
Talk to her!
I turned. Ash had her hand outstretched, nearly, very nearly there, grasping for a hold me, snatching, and very nearly seizing. The bandage I placed from a time that seemed so long ago now, still wrapped around her palm. I took in a breath.
She lunged. Her grasp narrowly avoided by a corner turn. I tried again.
"Stop it, Ash! Stop! You need to snap out of it!"
Ria let out an ear-splitting screech directed solely at me. Even without words, I knew what she was trying to convey - That talking to her wasn't of any use, that I was simply yelling at a soulless husk.
I just didn't care.
"Stop chasing us, Ash! Listen to me - just listen! Please!"
Her next grab didn't miss. A fistful of fabric, the back of my shirt was being wrenched back. Stopping me, stopping Ria. Broaden wings, harder flaps, all to no avail.
The sword in Ash's right hand made to strike.
That's when I felt something inside me snap.
I remembered shouting, remembered feeling as if a dormant beast had awoken within me. Remembered anger surging through every vein in my body. I also remembered that the voice that left my lips with that shout certainly wasn't my own.
Ash released her hold and off we went, speeding down the corridor without a second's hesitation.
Further from the Elf, who stood still and rigid. Further from her, whose stare met my own once more as we drifted further apart. Further from Ash, whose blank expression seemed to flicker - to falter, if only slightly.
We rounded another corner before I could have a second look.
Ria maintained a brisk pace, but it looked as if Ash had stopped giving chase. I could hardly believe it, and judging by the way Ria kept cocking her head back at me, neither could she.
We thought we were safe. We weren't.
There was another scream from up above, a different scream from all the others. A shrilling pulsating vibration rippled with that scream, and it persisted for longer than the rest.
I thought nothing of it until Ria plummeted to the ground, sending us crashing into the hard concrete floor with a rough stumble that twisted my broken foot even more.
I held back the urge to scream out loud in favor of focusing on what the hell just happened. My eyes search around, catching sight of Ria right beside me, suddenly in her human form and frozen stiff.
"Ria!" I called out to her, reaching out a hand to her body. "You okay What happened"
"Stupid… bloody… Matriarch…" Each word she let out was with strained effort, she struggled to twist her head towards me, grunting, "Powerful scream… the frenzied… capable… immobilizing magical… creatures."
I saw her try to get up, through focused grunts and every ounce of strength, before collapsing with a heavy breath.
"Can't… move…" She said, and once she saw my concerns, added, "It's okay… lasts only for… a while. What I want… to know now… is… how… you managed to overrule... a Matriarch's… control."
My memories flashed back to just then, how Ash just obeyed so suddenly. I looked back at Ria.
"I don't… I don't know," I answered.
"Clever… real clever."
Confusion, confused amusement, was what she stared back at me with, it remained that way for a while until a loud stomping noise from right behind us faded it into raw apprehension.
"Whatever... you did," she said gravely. "Do it... again."
I turned myself over.
Ash stood looming over us. Gone was that brief flicker of emotion. Those expressionless eyes that stared back at me, that gripped the sword tight, was not one that I could outmaneuver any longer.
Small movement alone generated a huge torrent of pain that brought me stumbling to the ground, ultimately rendering me helpless on the floor. I could recede back but she'd just outpace me. I was just delaying the inevitable.
"Tell her... to stop," Ria urged, her eyes wide in alarm. "Say… something!"
I tried to focus on her face. "Ash…. stop." Tried to find a sliver of her true self in there somewhere. "Stay, Ash… don't move." As she braced the sword to plummet. "It's me, damn it!" The glistening tip of the blade pointed squarely to my chest.
I did not find her at all. The blade took its plunge. Maybe it was merely a flicker after all.
Time seemed to slow down in that one moment. I could see it all. The way she held the blade as she brought it down, how her emerald eyes kept staring into my own but never conveying anything. I had time to brace myself for the sword to bore through me.
Yet at the very second it was supposed to, I felt something light pressed against me instead, and a view of flaming hair coating my vision. It wasn't until I heard a howl of unbridled agony did I finally realize that Ria had rolled herself on top of me and took the brunt of the stab.
Wasn't enough. A portion of the sword pierced through her and stabbed into me. Like a hot iron pressed onto the skin, every receptor in my body was screaming with pain.
But I knew it couldn't compare to hers… to Ria's. Her face, inches from mine, her expression swimming in utter anguish. Blood, warm blood, intermixed, started pouring.
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"You're… fine." I heard her say.
Gritting her teeth, I saw her take a wavering breath.
There was a spark, vanishing as fast as it had appeared. Then two sparks, lingering in the air. Now there were three. Long strands of embers, encircling us before erupting into an explosive ring of fire that consumed everything within the vicinity.
Ash was blown back by the shockwave. Sent flying out of sight. The sword that impaled us disintegrated into nothingness, and the concrete we laid upon began to slowly melt into a bright glowing ooze.
By the time I realized what she was trying to accomplish, Ria had already done it. She had burnt a literal hole in the floor and consequently, we sunk into a freefall all the way down to the next floor below. The second.
We landed in an explosive swirl of dust and rubble, coincidentally, back in the same room we sought refuge in before. Only now, the ceiling was open and scorched with Ria's flames.
I couldn't even feel myself slamming to the ground, I was numbed to sensation. All I could focus on was how cold I felt, how every breath I took seemed to get weaker and weaker… how our blood continued to pool over our bodies.
For the second time in such a short time, I found myself treading at the boundary of death.
Ria started to stir. Raising her head, which previously laid slumped on my chest, with gasps of pain, her breathing as unsteady as mine.
"Told… you," she muttered weakly, managing a faint smile.
I tried to return it. A small chuckle. All I managed was a wheezing cough. I needed… sleep. I just needed rest. Then I'll be fine.
I allowed my eyelids to fall. Allowed the darkness to send me drifting. And I know when I next opened them again… I'll be just fine.
Something warm pressed against my lips. My eyes fluttered open.
Ria's face was unusually close to mine. Everything about her was too close for comfort. Her eyes that were shut tight. Her nose that grazed my skin with every exhale. And her soft lips, that pressed against my own.
The taste of metal pervaded my senses, the thick gelatinous mixture of saliva and blood seeping in. She impelled, forced it deeper into my mouth. I felt her pinch my arm, an obvious indication telling me to swallow. So I did. The muscles in my throat contracted wide.
Immediately, I started feeling much better. The familiar tingling sensation dispersing across the stab wound in my gut, the aching in my back. Strength was returning me. Foot was still hurting, as always though.
Ria pulled away, smacking her lips once, and stared at me. "Looks like... we're there now," she said as she rolled off of me. "Lucky you."
Her warmth on my lips, I could still feel it. I managed to sit upright, managed to take in a proper breath once more, and managed that chuckle I've been meaning to give.
"Does this mean I get to call you Riri now"
A feeble giggle. "Don't… push it."
Her words had no energy to them. When I saw the blood that continued to pour out of her chest, her lips, the relief I had instantly evaporated. She wasn't healing.
Ria forced a smile upon seeing my reaction and leaned herself against the same wall I did when we first arrived here.
"Yeah, still dying…" She said, her voice gradually fading in strength. "I don't heal."
"No, no, no… you're kidding," Never mind the foot, never mind the pain, I dragged myself beside her, eyes wide in panic. "What do I do What do you want me to do"
Her chuckle spewed blood, coughing copious amount at a time. I wish she didn't do that. The flames in her hair, the crimson luster in her eyes, they were waning by the second.
"Simple... really," she said.
From the bits and pieces on the ground, I saw her scoop up a shattered piece of sharp glass. I felt my heart plummet as she feebly stretched it towards me, beckoning for me to take hold of it.
She looked me in the eye and smiled again.
"Just finish the job."