Wednesday, July 16, 2014

That's all she wrote

Or, more to the point, all I wrote.

Season 2 ended with last week's episode.  Over the summer, I'll be editing and rewriting and other such writerly doings, which, ideally, will result in a collected edition some time this fall.  There will be extra material (epilogue, etc) not included here, as well as a tighter version of the story.

Thanks very much to everyone who's been reading.  There are still more stories to tell about Jax, her friends, and her family, but I'll be taking a bit of a break to work on other projects before I get to them.

If you haven't already, feel free to like the Hemisphere Studios Facebook Page, and keep up with all my various fictional goings-on, which include books for sale (sometimes free), new projects, and the eventual return of Jax Edison.

Thanks again for reading. I hope you enjoyed it!

--Chris

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

S2:39: A Rest for the Weary

Jax stood, arms around Nikki, her eyes taking in the unfathomable devastation around her.  Small fires burned in the twisted wrecks of train cars and dead monsters, and the air was thick with the bitter tang of blood.  There was blood everywhere, soaking into the ground, covering everyone, living and dead, on what was left of buildings... no matter where Jax turned, she saw nothing but blood and fire.

“Jax?” Nikki whispered.

“Love?”

“I can’t have our baby here.”

Jax closed her eyes. She was so tired, more tired than she’d ever been.  Her body ached from head to toe, her mind was dense and foggy, and she felt as though she’d aged decades since the last time she held her wife, but there was one more thing she had to do before she could rest.  It was the most important thing she’d ever done, and she had no idea how she was going to do it.

“I know dearest,” Jax said softly, holding her closer.

“It’s just...” Nikki leaned back against Jax.  “I don’t know how much longer we can put this off.”

Jax nodded, resisting the urge to sigh.  She didn’t want Nikki to mistake weariness for frustration.  “Where?”

“North,” Nikki said.  “I want to go back to where I was when they took me, where Ralf...” her voice broke.

Jax nodded again.  “Okay.”

“Can you get me there?”

“Yes.”

“Soon?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

Jax had no answer.  Then, a voice from behind her made her smile.

“Let me guess, you need a ride somewhere.”

Jax turned to see Myselle Wescott and her husband Trav.  Both were battered, covered in blood, their clothes torn, but they were alive.  “Captain,” Jax said, her smile growing.

Nikki beamed.  “Captain Wescott!”

Myselle laughed.  “Well, I’m not captain of much these days,” she said.  She looked down at Nikki’s belly.  “You seem about ready to pop.”

Nikki’s smile was weary.  “Well past ready,” she said.  “The problem is...”

“The problem is, you need a place where you can grow roots and bear your fruit in peace,” Myselle said.  “I don’t imagine the bloody ruins of a city would be your first choice for that.”

Nikki shook her head.

Myselle grinned.

“I have a feeling you’re about to make us very happy,” Jax said.

“Well,” Myselle chuckled, “wait til you see what I’m offering, then tell me how happy you are.”  She whistled loudly, and the lifeboat floated into view, its hastily patched air sac bulging around its stitches and folds.

“I saw you crash...” Nikki said, awestruck.

“Hey,” Trav said with a grin, “so long as you can walk away...”

Myselle nodded.  “And we did a bit more than that.  There’s a pile of bodies back that way,” she jerked a thumb over her shoulder, “that’ll testify to that.”

“But how did you repair it?” Jax asked.

Myselle smiled with no small amount of pride.  “I have a good crew,” she said.  “Anyway,” and she was on to business, “where can we ferry you?  I have to admit, she may be airworthy, but she’s not the fastest ship ever to sail the sky, and she’s not the most comfortable ride you’ve ever had.”

Jax reached out and gripped Myselle’s forearm, then pulled her in for a rough embrace, clapping her on the back.  “She’s beautiful,” she said.  “I wouldn’t trade a ride on that ship for a stateroom on a luxury skyliner.”

Myselle laughed, punching Jax in the shoulder.  “Just for that, you get a seat by the window.”  They walked toward the floating lifeboat and a ladder dropped down to them.  Myselle looked over at Nikki.  “Can she climb?”

Jax looked down at her wife.  “Dearest?”

Nikki nodded.  “I’ll manage.”

Jax held the ladder steady while Nikki began to make her way slowly up to the hovering lifeboat.

“You’re leaving?” Maryza walked toward them, Commander Huxley and the few surviving soldiers of a once-mighty rebel army following close behind.

Jax indicated that Nikki should keep climbing, then faced Maryza.  “Yes,” she said.

“How can you just leave?”

“Nikki needs to give birth,” Jax said, “and she can’t do it here.”

“Why not?”

“She just can’t.”

“So, you’re leaving?” Maryza’s voice was full of disbelief, and more than a little hurt.  “But, all of this, all this death, this destruction, it was because of you.”

Jax stepped back as though struck.  She’d been blaming herself for this since she arrived, but to hear it from someone else... she very nearly promised to stay, despite that being impossible, when Myselle spoke up.

“Hey now,” she said, “this is all because of a handful of crazy people who had more power than anyone should have a right to.  Jax didn’t do this.  Jax didn’t make anyone do this.”  She shook her head.  “I’m a little surprised at you.”

Maryza scowled.  She was about to say something she’d regret later when Huxley laid a hand on her arm.

“Maryza,” the other woman said, her voice still echoing slightly.  “She’s right.  Anyone truly responsible for this is either dead or wishes they were.  Jax needs to look to her family.”

Maryza squeezed her eyes shut tight.  “Yes,” she said.  “Her family.  At least she still has...” she shook her head, then looked at Jax.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Jax went to her and gathered her up in a close hug.  “So am I,” she whispered.  “Maryza, I am so...”

Maryza shook her head.  “No,” she sobbed.  “No.”  She pushed herself back from Jax’s arms, blinking away tears.  “No apologies,” she said, “from either of us.  Go,” she said, forcing a smile.  “Take care of your own.  I’ll manage here.”

“I’ll help you,” Huxley said.  “We’ll help you.”

“We?” Jax raised an eyebrow.  She could tell Huxley wasn’t referring to the bedraggled handful of traumatized soldiers.

Huxley smiled, and something... other looked out from her eyes.  “It’s a bit of a story.”

“I look forward to hearing it.”

Huxley laughed.  “Once I figure it out, I’ll be happy to tell it to you.”

Jax nodded.

“Oi!” Myselle called down from the lifeboat.  “You coming, Edison?  Your wife looks about ready to let loose your spawn right here in my boat, and I’m not having that.”

“Yeah!” Jax called up.  “Coming!”  She climbed a few steps up the ladder, then looked down.  “Maryza,” she said.

Maryza looked up.

“You’re one of mine, too,” Jax said.  “When you’ve finished here, you come find me.”  She gestured up the ladder.  “Myselle will know where.”

Maryza nodded.  “Thank you.”

Jax smiled, then climbed the rest of the way up the ladder.

***
It wasn’t too long a journey to the ravaged ancient northern forest, but it was long enough that Jax had to carry Nikki down from the boat.  Myselle and Trav followed after.

“There,” Nikki murmured, pointing to a patch of ground covered in a large brownish stain.

“Is that where..?”

“Yes.”

“Nikki, are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Jax nodded, then set Nikki down on the ground.

The pregnant dryad stood, the toes of her bare feet digging into the blood-soaked soil, her arms raising to the sky.  Her hair lengthened, green tresses twisting into vines, her arms stretching out to become branches.  Leaves began to sprout out from her body and soon, where once Nikki Bones had stood, a tree loomed over them all.  A single fruit hung from a branch, and began to ripen before their eyes.

“Shouldn’t be too long,” Myselle said.

“Long enough,” Jax said.

“For what?”

Jax smiled.  “A good nap.”

“Right.”

Myselle and Trav said their goodbyes, promised to return and check on them once they managed to get a proper ship going, and left Jax alone with her family.  Jax walked once around the tree, lovingly caressing the trunk with the tips of her fingers, then sat down with her back against it.  She looked up through the branches, then over at the single ripening fruit, and sighed.

“I really wish I had my hat,” she said.  Then, shrugging, she wrapped the torn and frayed coat around her, leaned back against her wife-tree, and closed her eyes.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

S2:38: The Disposing of One's Enemies

Jax launched herself into the air as the line of train cars flew off the broken tracks.  Rather than crashing to the ground, the cars -all six of them- decoupled and began to orbit Jax where she floated in mid-air before the howling Terrors.  As each car came to hover over her head, Jax pointed at one of the monsters, and the car shot forward at blinding speed to explode on impact with its target.  She did this in rapid succession, giving the creatures no time to react.

The first train car blew the remaining arm off one of them, the second took the rest of the other one’s ravaged leg.  A third car blasted a hole through the chest of the first Terror, and the fourth turned its head into a chunky paste. The fifth and sixth cars did much the same to the second, which was already on its remaining knee, and when the smoke cleared and the echoes of the explosions faded, there was only Jax, hovering over the mutilated corpses of her ostensibly unstoppable opponents.

The magicians in their circle began to mutter nervously, still floating high above the ground.  One or two considered casting spells, but then they looked down at the remains of what they’d believed to be their ultimate weapons and decided to maybe not draw too much attention to themselves.  Lora, for her part, was determined not to let any fear show, and chose this moment to mock Jax.

“Oh, so impressive,” she sneered, hoping her voice didn’t tremble too noticeably.  “But don’t forget, I still have your...”

“Shhh,” Jax said, bringing her finger to her lips.  Lora’s voice was immediately silenced.

Suddenly, Nikki was in Jax’s arms, and the cage was empty.  Jax floated gently down to the ground, holding her wife close.

“Jax?” Nikki’s eyes fluttered open, and a spasm of pain rippled through her.

“It’s me,” Jax smiled through tears.

“Jax, the baby,” Nikki gasped.  “She’s coming.  I can’t...”

“It’s okay.” Jax lay a hand on Nikki’s belly.  “Everything will be okay.”  She kissed Nikki on the head.  “Anaki’allandra.”

At the sound of her true name, Nikki sighed, the pain leaving her in a wave of euphoria.

“Anaki’allandra,” Jax said again, whispering so no one else could hear, “by the power of your true name and the love I feel for you, I command your pain to cease.”

Nikki smiled serenely as she found herself without pain for the first time in a very long time.  “How...” she whispered.  Then, shaking her head, she cried, “But, the baby.  Jax, she can’t come now.  I can’t give birth like a human woman.  I need...”

“Trust me.” Jax smiled.

Nikki relaxed.  “Always.”

Jax placed both hands on Nikki’s belly, leaning down and whispering.  “As for you, little Ajha’ xandrelle, this is your mother.” She grinned.  “Well, one of them, anyway.  I can’t wait to meet you, and to hold you in my arms at last, but it’s not time yet.  We’re not ready.  So, settle down. It’ll be time soon enough, but mama has some things to take care of first.”

Nikki smiled at Jax.  “Her name...”

“You said she’d tell me and she did,” Jax returned the smile.  “She’s very eager to be born, but she’ll wait a bit.”  She shook her head with a laugh.  “She’s a feisty one, our little girl, and impatient.”

“Yes, well, she doesn’t get that from my side of the family,” Nikki said, winking.

Jax smiled.  “Will you be okay here? I do have some work to do yet.” She gestured dismissively toward the ring of magicians and the empty cage at their center.

“Revenge?” Nikki’s smile fell.

Jax gripped her shoulder and gave it a squeeze.  “We’ll see.”  She stood and walked to Maryza, who was struggling to stand.  She crouched down next to her, whispering her one-time student’s name.

Maryza looked up, eyes half-closed with exhaustion.  “J-Jax?” she croaked.  “I thought it was...”

“It’s me,” Jax said. “Here.” She reached out, gently taking Maryza’s face in her hands and kissing the other woman on the forehead.

Maryza practically leapt to her feet.  Energy pulsed outward from her in an expanding shockwave.  “Whoa!” she said.  “How did you..?”

“You’ve done similar.”

“Not like this, though.”

“We’ll talk over the nuances later,” Jax said.  “Right now...” she pointed up.

“Ah, right.” Maryza said.  “Them.” Her face darkened, her voice coming in a low growl.  “And her.”

“Yes.”  Jax snapped her fingers, and everything came crashing to the ground: cage, magicians, and Lora.

Joran stood, the words of a defensive spell on his lips.

“Don’t bother, Joran,” Jax said.  “None of you have magic anymore.”

“What?”

“I took it away. And believe me when I say that you will never get it back.”

An old man stepped forward, favoring his leg, which had twisted when he fell.  “And what will you do to us now?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Jax said.  “Sure, I could squash you all right now without any effort, but you’re not worth scraping off the bottom of my boot.  Hells, I don’t even know you people.  I recognize that wretched little scum stain,” she pointed at Joran, “but I have no idea who the rest of you are, and I don’t care.”

“We are the Incorporated Guild of Magicians and--”

“You’re the Incorporated Guild of Shutting Up and Doing As You’re Told,” Jax said.  “And what I’m telling you all to do is piss right off.”

Most of the former magicians began to walk swiftly away at that point.  One or two lagged behind, not sure what to do.

“Where are we supposed to go?” Joran asked.

“I don’t care,” Jax said, “so long as it’s as far from me and mine as you can get.”

“And what are we supposed to do then?”

“Stay there.”

Joran swallowed hard and nodded, not liking the tone of menace that was creeping into Jax’s voice.  It occurred to him he did not want to become worth the bother of being scraped off the bottom of her boot.  He and the other stragglers turned and hurried after their fellowes.

Jax turned in time to see Lora Neely striding toward her, one of her own pistols in the young woman’s hand.

“That’s it!” she shouted.  “I’m done with all the clever plots and schemes.  I’m just going to shoot you!”

Maryza stepped in front of Jax, fire in her eyes.  “KNEEL,” she commanded.

Lora dropped to her knees, the gun falling from her hand.  She looked up at Jax, all bravado gone, and only fear remaining.  “What will you do to me now?” she asked.  “Are you going to hurt me?”

Jax shook her head.  “I’d like to, but fortunately for you, Nikki was not hurt too badly, our child is well, and therefore I’ve no particular reason to hurt you overmuch.”  She shook her head at the hopeful look on Lora’s face.  “Unfortunately for you,” she said, pointing toward Maryza, who approached Lora very slowly, “you killed her one and only true love.”  Jax stepped aside.  “So I leave you to her tender mercies.”

Before the young would-be assassin could react, Maryza reached out with one hand and gripped her face.  Lora screamed.  Smoke and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh wafted up from where hand met face.

“Yes,” Maryza said, an eerie calm to her voice.  “Yes, it hurts, doesn’t it.  And make no mistake, Ms. Neely, it will leave a mark.  In fact, it is my intention that you bear the mark of my hand upon your face forever.”  Her words were accompanied by a loud crack of thunder.  She leaned in close, talking over the sound of Lora’s constant screaming.  “Do you know what forever is, little girl? Forever is days followed by years followed by centuries followed by millennia. It is time unending. It is knowing that long after my bones have become dust, you will still feel my hand on your face.”  She pulled her hand away, leaving behind a mass of burned flesh in the shape of a perfect handprint.  It covered one whole side of her face, and the tips of her fingers had burned away clumps of Lora’s hair.  Smoke still rose from the mark.  Maryza stood over her, looking down.  “I curse you, Lora Neely, to wander this world for all eternity, never knowing peace, never knowing joy, with my mark forever burning into your flesh.  Then, perhaps, you will know the smallest measure of the pain you have caused me.”

Off to the side, Jax and Nikki watched.  Nikki looked up at her wife.

“Jax,” she said, “do something.”

Jax indicated the scene before them.  “I think Maryza is doing plenty.”

“I know,” Nikki said.  She looked deep into Jax’s eyes, and Jax saw the bottomless well of compassion Nikki held within her.  “Do something else.”

“Nikki...”

“Lora deserves punishment,” Nikki said.  “I know that.  I was there when she shot Ralf.  I...” she shook her head.  “But she’s angry, Jax.  So very angry.  I saw that in her.  Lora Neely has always been angry, almost her whole life, and I don’t think she even remembers why anymore.”

“Yeah,” Jax said softly.  “Anger is like that.”  She sighed.  “I can’t undo what...”

“I’m not asking you to,” Nikki said.  “Just... do something else.”

Jax thought a moment, then her eyes lit upon her old gun on the ground.  She smiled.  “Yeah, okay,” she said.  She turned to Nikki with a wink and said, “You’re going to like this.”  She walked over to Maryza and Lora, the latter of whom still kneeled and was weeping softly, her tears turning to steam where they touched Maryza’s mark.  “Maryza,” Jax said.  “A moment of your time.”

Maryza approached her.  “I won’t undo the curse, Jax,” she said, “and don’t you dare try.”

Jax shook her head.  “No no,” she said.  “Lora deserves that, no question.”  She sighed.  “But, I think we both know that, were he here, Ralf would argue that she deserves something else as well.”

Maryza stepped back, a look of fury on her face.  She glared at Jax.

Jax held up her hands.  “Maryza, please understand, I completely agree with what you did.  Honestly, in your situation, I would have done worse.”

Maryza said nothing, still glaring.

“But you and I are like that, aren’t we?  Quick to anger, quick to take vengeance against those who wrong us.”  She lay a hand gently on the other woman’s shoulder, and was encouraged when she didn’t back away.  “That’s why we’re so drawn to people like Ralf and Nikki.  They ground us, remind us the world isn’t all horror and pain.  Their compassion and grace cools our fury, just when it’s most needed.”

“Yes, well,” Maryza said, her voice thick with tears, “I don’t have that person anymore.”

“I know,” Jax said.  “I know.”  She gripped Maryza’s shoulder, knowing how desperately her friend needed to vent her grief, but knowing also that it wasn’t yet time.  “But it’s in his memory, and in honor of the man he was, that I want to offer Lora something.”

“What?” Maryza was skeptical, but curious.

“A chance,” Jax said.  “That’s all.  Ralf would want to give her a chance.”

“A chance at what?”

“Redemption.”

Maryza drew a long shuddering breath and wiped tears from her eyes.  All she could do was nod.

Jax gripped her shoulder again.  “Go see to Nikki for me, if you would.  I’ll just be a minute.”

Maryza nodded again, then went to Nikki, who opened her arms.

Jax walked over to Lora, who still kneeled in the dirt weeping.  She bent down and picked up the gun, then said, “On your feet.”

Lora neither moved nor spoke.

Jax reached down and grabbed her by the front of her shirt.  “I said on your feet!”  She hauled the girl up to a standing position.  “Look at me,” Jax said.

Lora kept her head bowed.

“Look. At. Me.”

Lora looked up, eyes red and puffy from crying, the mark on her face fairly pulsing with heat and pain.

“Give me the other gun.”

Lora looked confused.

“Now.”

Lora fumbled the other gun out of its holster and handed it Jax.

Jax looked over the familiar guns, smiling.  “You’ve taken good care of them,” she said.

Lora said nothing.  She was growing more confused by the moment.

“I carried these guns through a very bad time in my life, finally laying them down when I found a better way,” Jax said.

“Muh-magic,” Lora said.

Jax shook her head.  “No.  It was... never mind.  You wouldn’t understand.  And that’s kind of the problem, isn’t it?”  She held the guns out to Lora.

Lora blinked, not sure what to do.

“It’s okay,” Jax said.  “Take them.”  When Lora made no move to do so, Jax said, “I promise, this isn’t a trick.  They’re yours now.  Take them.”

Hesitantly, Lora reached out and took the guns.  She put them back in their holsters.

“Very good,” Jax smiled.  “Thank you for not trying to shoot me.  That would have gone very badly for you.”

Lora shook her head.  “I don’t... I don’t want to shoot you.”

“Good,” Jax said.  “Now, Maryza has laid her curse on you, and I’m not intending to reverse it.”

Lora nodded.

“But those guns represent something,” Jax explained. “When I first took them up, I was filled with a rage I didn’t know what to do with.  I’d been wronged, far worse than anyone here ever wronged you, but I’d sworn to one I loved dearly not to avenge that wrong.  So,” she said, “I decided I would do right.”  She pointed to the guns.  “I’ve charmed them.  They won’t fire in anger, nor will they kill a true innocent, but their aim will always be true in service to a righteous cause.  They’re bound to you as well,” Jax went on.  “You won’t ever be able to take them off until you’ve done enough right to atone for all your wrong, but when that day comes, when you reach the day you lay those guns down, then the mark on your face will fade, the curse will be lifted, and you’ll be free to live as you see fit to the end of your natural life.”

“I’ve done a lot of wrong,” Lora said softly.

“I never said it would be quick.”

“And I don’t know how to do right.”

“Also never said it would be easy.”

Lora nodded.

“So,” Jax said at last, “you understand?”

“I do.”

“Good.” Jax nodded.  “Now, get along with the rest of your life, however long that might be.”  Before Lora turned to leave Jax said, “And understand one other thing.  I ever lay eyes on you again, I’ll make this curse seem like a blessing.”

Lora paled, then nodded, then turned and walked quickly away.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

S2:37: Fall of the Five Martyrs

Maryza stood staring up at the hovering magicians, their captured dryad, and the armored monsters they’d just summoned from the depths of the world.  Vaguely, she heard Commander Huxley ordering her soldiers to fall back to a defensive perimeter.  A loud howling brought her attention back to ground level, as a group of demonically possessed Vothlanders ran screaming toward them.

Without thinking, Maryza threw a shield around them.  It encompassed her, the remaining magicians, Commander Huxley, and those soldiers that had managed to fall back in time.  Two soldiers, a young man and woman, were torn to pieces by the Vothlander demons as they pounded against the impenetrable magical barrier.

“What do we do now?” Jaesa asked, her voice trembling.

“Now,” Maryza told her, “you hold this shield.  You others help her,” she said to the other magicians, “unless you’re healing.  Commander Huxley,” she turned and saw Huxley on her knees, a pool of blood steadily growing around her as it flowed freely from the arrow in her chest.  One of the Vothlanders had fired it just before the shield went up.

“S-sorry, Luh-Lady Cuh-cuh-cuh...” A bubble of blood burst on her lips and she slumped over.  Maryza rushed to her and caught her before she hit the ground, cradling the young commander’s head on her lap.

“It’s just Maryza,” she whispered.

Huxley favored her with a bloody smile, her black-ringed eyes sinking into a very pale face.  “Huh-habit,” she said.  Then, her smile failing, she gripped Maryza’s arm with what strength she had left.  “Duh-don’t,” she gasped.  “Don’t... let me... don’t...”

Maryza knew what she feared.  “Shhh,” she said, stroking Huxley’s hair.  “Shhh.  You won’t become one of them.  I won’t allow it.”

“Puh-pr-promise?”

“I promise.” Maryza’s voice trailed into a sob.  Huxley was dying.  Ralf was dead, Nikki near dead, Jax had vanished, probably dead, and it was unlikely Myselle and Trav survived the wreck of their lifeboat.  Now, quite possibly her last friend in the world was dying in her lap.  She looked up at the sky, past the towering forms of the Ancient Terrors that pounded against her shield, past the hovering magicians and their long-suffering prisoner, and past the cackling young assassin sitting above it all.  She looked up, to one she knew was above all of creation and whispered, “Why are you doing this to me?”

Then, with a violent gurgling cough, Commander Huxley breathed her last.

Maryza stared down at her, a snarl on her face.

“No,” she whispered.  “No, I will not have this.”  She looked up again and screamed.  “I will not have this!”  She turned briefly toward her magicians.  “Keep that shield up!”

Jaesa turned to her, exhaustion evident on her face.  “Their magicians have started attacking it,” she said.  “I don’t know how long we can...”

“Keep. It. UP!” Maryza shouted.  Then, without another word, she turned to Huxley, reaching deep into herself, and through herself, into the vast infinity of magic, which she poured into the commander’s body.  Huxley twitched, her back arched, and light began to shine from behind her closed eyelids.

Maryza, a familiar voice spoke in her head.  What are you doing?

“I’m bringing her back!” she growled.

Maryza, the voice was sad and pitying, you can’t bring her back.

“One,” Maryza said, her jaw clenched, “I don’t recall asking what you thought.  Two, don’t make me laugh.  People come back from the dead all the time.  Look at this entire town, and those Vothlander scum out there!”

They’re possessed by demons, Maryza. They aren’t back from the dead.

“Then I’ll possess her with something else,” Maryza argued, still pouring magic into the lifeless body of her friend.  “What’s the opposite of demons?”

The voice paused, clearly stunned by the question.  Maryza, it said finally, you really don’t want to do that.  Demons do have an opposite, but to bring one into the physical world, in the body of a human... it’s never been done.  You can’t know the power you’ll be...

“Again,” Maryza shouted, “I don’t recall asking your opinion!  Now, either help me or piss off!”

She could almost hear the voice sigh.  Okay.  But this is going to cost you.

“Oh, is it?”  Maryza said.  “Because I haven’t paid enough?”

No.  Not for this.

Without hesitation, she said, “Fine.  I’ll pay it.”

Yes.  And sooner than you’d like.

There was a final surge of energy, and something moved through her.  Then, once the bright shining light around Commander Huxley had dimmed to a glow, the young woman sat up, coughing.  She looked up at Maryza, then down at herself.  “What did you do?” Her voice had a hint of echo to it.  She shook her head.  “No,” she said.  “I know what you did.”  She looked sternly at her former commander.  “There is something else in here with me.”

“I know.”

“You promised.”

“It’s not a demon.”

Huxley thought a moment.  “No,” she said.  “It isn’t.  It could prove to be so much worse for me, though.  Me, and the world.”

“I’m sorry.  I just...”

Huxley reached out and cupped Maryza’s face with her hand.  “Don’t,” she said, smiling.  “I live, and despite what may be in here with me, it is me that lives.  So, thank you.”

Maryza smiled, tears running down her cheeks.

“Now,” Huxley said, her voice still echoing slightly.  “Drop the shield.  I’ll deal with the Vothlanders.”

“Alone?”

Huxley smiled.  “Trust me.”

Maryza nodded.  “What about the Terrors?”

“They’re for you to handle,” Huxley said.  “And Maryza,” she gripped the other woman’s arm again, no less desperately than when she lay dying, “that’s when the price will be paid.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You’re about to.  Drop the shield.”

Maryza took control of the shield and dropped it, causing the magicians holding it to stumble backward.  Huxley rushed out, her sword swinging so fast it was little more than a blur.  The shield went back up immediately, and everyone watched in awe as the resurrected former legionary commander leaped from foe to foe, dispatching them as though they were drunken brigands rather than hulking savages possessed by war demons.  As each Vothlander fell, Lora Neely became more enraged.

“Do something!” she screamed at her magicians, who in turn commanded the Terrors, who renewed their vicious attack on the weakening shield.

Maryza looked around her, at the soldiers huddled on the ground, too weary even to raise their weapons, and the magicians standing by her, not much better off.  That was when she knew.  She knew what she had to do, and what she had to pay to make it happen.  If she hadn’t pushed so much magic through herself bringing Huxley back, she might have the power to do this herself.  As it was...

“Jaesa,” she said.

The young woman turned to her.

“I’m so sorry, Jaesa.”

“Sorry for wh--” and then she couldn’t speak, as she was slaved to Maryza’s will, a living extension of her own powers.

Maryza went to each in turn, linking them to her and stealing their free will, offering an apology to them all.  When at last all five magicians were slaved to her will, she forced the shield outward, which staggered the Terrors back a few steps.  One last time, she offered her apologies.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I am so very sorry.”  She tried not to look at them.  They could neither move nor speak, but Maryza did not prevent them from crying, and each wept openly.

Then Maryza rose into the air, her slaved magicians swirling around her, energy pulsing and flowing from her to them and back, as she used them to hold the magic she could not channel herself, knowing that what she planned would burn each one of them to ash.

And the Ancient Terrors lurched forward, reaching out with their hideous armored claws, and Maryza unleashed every internalized spell she had copied from her cards, forcing the magic through each of her magicians, as though they were little more than living cards themselves.

Fire erupted from Jaesa, melting the armor of the Terrors and charring the flesh beneath, but still the monsters came on.  A young man named Esrin was a conduit for lightning, as though every storm to ever rage across the surface of the world was directed against their foes.  The Terrors fell back, armor cracking and splintering under the onslaught, skin frying and bones cracking, yet still they came on.  The ice of a thousand winters poured forth from a woman named Tienne, freezing the Terrors in their tracks.  Breaking free cost one an arm and the other part of a leg, but they broke free and came on.  From the girl Braiel, and her lover Joson, twin tornadoes spun the Terrors about, until their armor was all but gone, and they were battered and broken from being smashed together, yet still the lumbering behemoths came on.  Finally, Maryza unleashed a blinding wave of pure magical energy, which burned the five magicians to nothing, and flattened the Terrors to the ground.  In the aftermath, Maryza fluttered down like a leaf, the ashes of her sacrificed brethren falling about her.  She could not rise from where she fell, nor could she work any magic.

And still the Ancient Terrors rose, and came on.

Far above, where they had risen to escape the battle, the enemy magicians hovered with their captive.  Lora sat atop the cage and laughed.  “Poor little Maryza,” she said.  “All alone and powerless with no one left to save you.”

And it was true.  Though possessed of inhuman strength, Huxley was locked in battle with the remaining Vothlanders, who had launched a concentrated attack on her and kept her from coming to Maryza’s aid.  She would soon win through, but it would not be soon enough.

And Lora continued to laugh, while in her iron prison, Nikki wept.  On the ground, covered in mud and ash, Maryza waited for the end.

Then, there was a wind.  A fierce shrieking wind that tore through the battlefield.  Thunder roared and lightning flashed across the sky, which had turned a deep shade of crimson.  Through it all, faint yet growing louder, the long mournful howl of a train whistle could be heard.  It was approaching on the raised tracks that once led directly into the city, but now lay cracked and broken at the edge of the battle.

A voice rang out, echoing across the sky for all to hear.  It was a familiar voice, one that stopped Nikki’s tears and made Maryza smile.

“Oh, Lora,” the voice reverberated with the ever-louder whistle of the train, “Vicious, cruel, stupid Lora...”  Maryza looked up, and saw the train approaching the broken edge of the tracks, Jax Edison standing upon its lead car, hair and tattered coat flowing in the wind.  She spoke again, her voice one with the storm.

“You have made me very angry.