Ally heard someone she didn’t recognize begin speaking and before he was done with his first word, she was transformed into her sacramental robes. People who thought she was on a hair trigger didn’t understand her though. As soon as she left the extended moment of transformation, she looked to Mava to get a read on the situation.
Mava sat calmly in the circle, her back to the stone gray armored man that was speaking to them. Ally’s leader didn’t seem unaware of the danger, merely unconcerned. That didn’t de-escalate the threat in Ally’s mind though. Mava’s sense of peril had been a bit skewed even before she’d lived for tens of thousands of years.
Ally looked at her other companions for a read on how they were reacting. Gwen hadn’t changed yet, but Ally could see the calculations resolving themselves in Gwen’s eyes. The two of them were so different in that sense. Ally was fueled by her emotion, spikes of alarm translating instantly into action, which felt more or less the same as how she’d been when she was Aloka.
Gwen was different though, she echoed Gwena’s cold, deliberate decision making process in her actions. Where Ally’s response to danger was to get dangerous back at it, Gwen’s was to understand it.
Ally liked the idea that in an ambush like this, she’d be the one to hit first, but she had to admit to the merit of Gwena’s approach of making sure to be the one to hit last.
Then there was Zia, or Renata. She felt a lot like the bits of Zia that Ally could remember and if so she would choose the middle course, reacting only somewhat slower than Ally did but with a similar level of finality to Gwena. The principal difference was with Gwena if you could give her a good enough reason to stop, she would. Once you ticked out Zia though you had to pray to your gods for mercy because Zia wouldn’t show you any at all.
“Hello Daranth,” Mava said, not turning to face the armored warrior or his troop. “I know you didn’t mean to interrupt the discussion we were having.”
“Mava Sunsworn, there are few things in this world I would regret, but it is true that I would regret troubling you without reason,” Daranth, the armored man, said.
“Your reason had better be a good one,” Mava said.
“I bring word to you from Grand Strategist Nyka Nightsender of the Caverns of Night,” Daranth said.
“And how is my new friend doing?” Mava asked.
“She is well and in service to the Queen of the Throne of the Night once more,” Daranth said.
“Got her old job back did she?” Mava said. “Well that’s good. Maybe she can talk some sense into Sanielle. What word did she want you to bring?”
“Two messages,” Daranth said. “First, she wanted me to tell you that the beer was good but the tea was better. And, no, I have no idea what that was supposed to mean.”
“And what’s the second message?” Mava asked.
“That the Throne of Night commands that you die, and that we have been chosen to kill you all,” Daranth said.
“Huh, interesting, kind of figured that would be the case,” Mava said. “I suppose that came with a timeline too.”
“I’m afraid it did,” Daranth said. “No pledging to kill you ‘someday when we both have nothing better to do’.”
“That was a good trick, you have to admit,” Mava said.
“I do. Tell me did you and my brother ever get around to that?” Daranth asked.
“No, stupid fool got himself killed in a rockslide while I was asleep,” Mava said. “Such a shame. That would have been a good workout.”
“And yet somehow I have no problem picturing him getting crushed by a mountain,” Daranth said. “In truth, I only find myself wondering is how long it took before the mountain was annoyed with him enough to do that.”
Mava laughed, a good deep belly chuckle.
“I’ve gotta say, I do miss that idiot,” she said.
“Pardon me,” Renata said. “Are these people enemies?”
“Yes, they are,” Mava said. “Sworn lackeys of the Throne of Night, and so anathema to us and ours.”
Renata’s flames stayed steady. Because she was second in command and knew how to keep herself under control when the situation demanded it.
“Please, vassals, not lackeys,” Daranth said, not correcting Mava otherwise though.
“Shouldn’t we be killing them now then?” Ally asked. It felt weird to say the words with the people she was talking about killing standing barely a dozen feet away from them.
“We’ll get down to that in a bit,” Mava said and stood up to address Daranth again. “Nyka didn’t leave you any outs there did she?”
“One or two perhaps,” Daranth said.
“What did she tell you to do?” Mava asked.
“Specifically? She said ‘They need to die if we’re going to survive. Go find them and stop them, and tell them I sent you.’ I have to confess I’m not sure why she wanted you to know that though. I mean wouldn’t you just assume?” Daranth asked.
“Who doesn’t want their greatest enemy to know it was them that struck them down?” Mava said.
Ally knew she was lying, and she suspected that Daranth knew as well. There was some kind of communication being hidden in the subtext that Ally either didn’t remember enough to be privy to or simply wasn’t a part of in the first place.
“Indeed, so you can see where that leaves some options open to us,” Daranth said.
“We were having a conversation and you stopped us?” Mava asked.
“Perhaps not that many options,” Daranth said. “The intent of the Throne of the Night is not quite that easily blunted.”
“So we have to fight then?” Mava asked.
“I’m afraid so,” Daranth said. “It needn’t be a fight without honor though.”
“Champions only?” Mava asked. “Winner to hold the losers lives in forfeiture?”
“That would serve the Throne’s needs well enough,” Daranth said. “We could destroy you at the lowest risk to the Throne’s available resources, leaving it as strong as possible.”
“And if we win, the Throne of Night will have a clearer picture of our capabilities than it would get from a giant melee,” Mava said. “We accept.”
“You can’t wager our lives like that!” Renata said.
“Anything we do from this moment forward wagers our lives,” Mava said. “If we fight them, any one of us could be killed in the process. If we submit, they will kill us. If we flee, they could catch us. Every path we take from here is a risky one. This particular path places all of the risk on me, where it belongs.”
“No,” Daranth said. “You are the leader of your group. You cannot also be its champion.”
Mava cocked her head slowly to the side and Ally felt the surrounding temperature drop noticeably.
“What?” she said, the single syllable as sharp as a blade.
“The Champion’s contest is specific. Leaders cannot be the ones to stand for their cause. They must remain apart from it so that when their champion falls they can complete the terms of the dispute for themselves and their followers,” Daranth said.
“I am my queen’s champion,” Mava said. “I am always the one who fights for her interests.”
Ally wouldn’t have been surprised if Daranth had backed down. Mava neither looked nor sounded happy and even with the talk of killing one another, the atmosphere had been too pleasant for Ally to see the two of them as real enemies.
“Your queen isn’t here Mava, and we were not ordered to seek her out,” Daranth said, stepping forward. His warriors stepped forward with him and Ally became highly aware of the sheer mass of the force facing them.
It felt like a low lying hill had come to life in individual pieces and was intent on burying them under an earthquake.
If Daranth and his forces were a hill though, Mava was beginning to look like a volcano that was ready to blast them to pieces.
“It’s ok, I’ll fight for us,” Ally said, stepping forward to enter Mava’s field of vision.
“That’s not your job,” Mava said.
“With all due respect Commander, it’s what I was literally born for,” Ally said. “Trust me. I can do this.”
Mava turned a scowl on Ally that could have made a steel bar bend away in fright. Ally stood firm though. She knew Mava’s anger was driven by concern for the safety of the people entrusted to her. She also knew that since they were outnumbered roughly ten to one the best chance for a positive outcome was to take Daranth up on his offer and beat him fairly.
Gwen was probably capable of winning that fight, she’d beaten three Chrysalstones already, and Renata seemed to have the whole ‘destroy her foes’ thing well in hand based on the trail of destruction that she’d left in her wake, but Ally shared Mava’s protectiveness towards her teammates.
“This warrior is acceptable in our eyes,” Daranth said. “It will be an honor to shed our blood together.”
Mava clenched her fists and mumbled something in a language that Ally was sure was neither English nor one of the ancient tongues she remembered Aloka speaking.
“Give me a minute,” she said. “I need to talk with my would-be Champion.”
“Prepare her properly,” Daranth said. “This contest must be unquestioned.”
Mava dragged Ally a dozen paces back down the trail they’d walked, just far enough that they wouldn’t be overheard easily but close enough to intervene is Daranth or his warriors tried anything against Renata or Gwen.
“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into here,” Mava said without preamble.
“Maybe not,” Ally said. “But I know what’s going to happen if I don’t do this. We’re going to fight all of them and that’s not going to go well for anyone.”
Mava’s scowl softened and she exhaled a slow breath.
“No, it won’t,” she said. “Can you do this though? It’s not a normal fight you’re getting yourself into here. This isn’t self defense. This is a Champion’s Battle.”
“I know,” Ally said. “I remember those. Somewhat.”
“You’ve never killed anyone before,” Mava said. “Not in this life. It’s not as easy as you think it will be.”
“I can fight hard,” Ally said. “I’m struggling to keep the thunder in check already.”
“That’s not the hard part,” Mava said. “The hard part is what comes after.”
“Gwen killed those Chrysalstones,” Ally said. “If she can survive it, I can too.”
“You’re not Gwena,” Mava said. “She always had ice in her veins, and it still impacted her. You’ve always been more open than her, and that’s not an advantage here.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Ally said. “You’re right that Gwen was impacted. She still hasn’t transformed, and that’s probably because part of her doesn’t want to fight. Look at Renata there too. She doesn’t want to fight either. I can protect them from that.”
Mava rubbed her forehead as though soothing away a constellation of painful memories.
“Not a bit of change,” she said. “You’re still focused on saving us all.”
“Is that bad?” Ally said.
“It’s gotten you killed once already,” Mava said. “So yes, it is. I’d hoped we’d make it to the Training Hall so that I could beat the notion into you that you had to protect yourself too, but why should life be that easy.”
“I don’t think you could hit me so hard that I wouldn’t want to protect the others,” Ally said. “And I don’t think I’d want you to even if you could.”
“No, I don’t suppose I could,” Mava said. “But one day with you all back isn’t enough. I’m only going to let you do this if you promise me one thing.”
“What’s that?” Ally asked.
“Daranth wants an honorable battle,” Mava said. “I think I know why, and I think that could be a good thing for us ultimately.”
“Then I’ll fight honorably,” Ally said.
“No,” Mava said. “You’re going to fight to survive. No matter what it takes. I’ve seen you fight dirty in your past life and I know you have the self defense training to do it in this one. If you’re going to fight for us, then you’re going to use every dirty trick in the book. I am not going to lose one of my sisters. Not again. I don’t care what oaths I have to violate.”
“Ok, I’ll do it. I’ll do what it takes to win, no matter that is,” Ally lied.