Side A – Nia
The Shatter drum responded to Nia’s touch with laughter.
The laughter of the volcano gods.
She wasn’t aware of screaming, but from the looks on the faces of the people around her and the fact that she’d somehow leapt six feet away from the drum, she was pretty sure the shriek that was echoing in her ears had been of her own making.
“Easy,” Osdora said. “We know there’s some lingering trauma that you’re working on.” She was at Nia’s side, inspecting Nia’s eyes for signs of irregular pupil dilation Nia imagine.
“Yeah, you might need to spend a while re-attuning to a drum before you can try playing at all,” Belhelen said. She had caught Nia’s drum so it didn’t topped over and was inspecting it for flaws, just as Nia had done a few moments earlier.
The rest of the Shatter band offered no commentary, looking on silently with, what Nia could only assume, was either disappointment or distain.
“No,” she said. “I know what this is.”
She’d spoken with Yasgrid about whether she might experience any real complications from her extreme session of Shatter drumming, beyond the convenient “fugue state” she was claiming it had induced. The most likely candidate was an echo of the trauma that had pushed her to play so hard in the first place, and while Yasgrid thought that there was a decent chance Nia wouldn’t be troubled by any complications apart from the physical ones she’d already recovered from, it seemed like life just wasn’t going to be that simple.
Which was irritating.
And irritation was exactly what Nia needed.
Picking herself up, she rolled her shoulders and glared at the Shatter drum.
“Pardon me,” she said. “I have to show an old memory who’s boss here.”
She strode forward, her hands balled into fists, intent on not simply playing the Shatter drum as she’d been instructed to, but smash it with all her might.
She wouldn’t break it of course. Not by playing it properly. The physical structure of the Shatter drum was far too sturdy for even the impressive muscles of a Stoneling to damage. Only the magic unleashed when it was played packed enough force to damage one, and Nia was willing to wager her soul that she had the strength to make sure that didn’t happen.
As she swung her left fist down in a hammer blow at the Shatter drum though, a hand caught her behind.
“Not like that,” Drum Master Pelegar said. Her frown didn’t invite questions or arguments.
Nia struggled against Pelegar’s grip for a moment, abandoning the effort when she decided lifting the volcano would have been easier.
“I need to do this,” she said instead.
“Why?” Pelegar asked. It wasn’t a request for an explanation. It was a challenge.
Side B – Yasgrid
The Trouble that had grasped Kayelle was fast enough to use her as shield no matter how Yasgrid maneuvered. Even the elven grace of Nia’s body wasn’t enough to match the creature.
“You can’t give it the blade,” Kayelle said. “It will kill us both.”
“No,” the Trouble cooed. “Why would I do that?”
Yasgrid rolled her eyes, though whether it was at the obvious truth of Kayelle’s words, or the obvious lie of the Trouble’s even she wasn’t sure.
“If you relinquish the blade, you will no longer be Bearers,” the Trouble said. “We only fear the Bearer. We need only kill the Bearer.”
Yasgrid watched the hand the Trouble clasped Kayelle with as she continued to stalk around it, forcing the Trouble to stay in motion as well.
It was well positioned to kill Kayelle, and it seemed to have plenty of strength to accomplish the job. Despite that, it hadn’t reduced the number of Bearers from an unusual high of “two” to the seemingly more manageable count of “one”.
It needed Kayelle alive. That much was obvious as well. The moment Kayelle died, the Trouble had no shield and Endings was nearly humming with eagerness to rid the world of the monster.
What wasn’t obvious was why it was bothering to talk at all. It wasn’t trying to move away with Kayelle and it wasn’t seeking to edge in close enough to make a strike at Yasgrid. It was holding the distance between them.
“Big blade it much too heavy a burden,” the Trouble said. “Called two this year. Why didn’t it call more? Need more than two to fix the Darkwood. Can’t be rid of us with only two.”
It was a question that had occurred to Yasgrid. Putting the burden of cleaning up an ever growing pile of toxic mystic runoff on the shoulders of one or two “Chosen Ones” seemed like a terrible approach to actually solving the problem. She’d wondered if it was just her background as a Shatter drummer that left her more comfortable with the idea of approaching problems as a group. Preferably with far more members than you needed, and backups for some of those even.
“That’s totally true,” she said. “Two’s what we’ve got though, so two will be enough.”
She knew the Trouble had been trying to throw her off her game. Making your opponent question why they were fighting in the first place was one of the most basic fighting tactics she’d learned as a kid. Destroy an enemies resolve and you could end a fight before the first blow was thrown. That was what a solid victory looked like.
So the Trouble was smart. Which meant their conversation was probably working on more than one goal. Convincing a Bearer to turn over Endings was a low probability gambit, and it came at the price of giving Yasgrid a chance to gather her wits and work out a line of attack. That meant the actual goal was worth the price of facing a fully engaged and prepared Bearer.
It was stalling for time. Yasgrid saw that in the same flash that told her why.
There were more Troubles incoming. The one that was holding Kayelle didn’t have to fight or flee. All it needed to do was hold them in place and let its friends attack from more directions than Yasgrid could defend against.