“We ready, then?” asked Rafe brightly. Trissiny repressed a sigh. They weren’t ready; she did not have a good opinion of this plan, but the others had overruled her. Again.
“It’s a little unwieldy,” said Fross, drifting slightly to one side before catching herself. “The featherweight oil’s working, though. I don’t think I’ll have any trouble carrying it at speed.”
“Just be careful not to spill it. At least, not before it’s time to.”
“Yes, I know, Professor.”
She looked very odd with a cobbled-together tray of bottles and glass vials suspended from her, swaying gently back and forth. Fross appeared to be able to handle the weight, but the students were nonetheless keeping their distance, knowing what was in those bottles.
“I still don’t like that we pillaged Horsebutt’s grave goods to make that,” Ruda grumbled. “It’s not respectful.”
“We just took a few arrows to make the frame,” said Gabe tersely. He still had Juniper wrapped around him, and was still clearly feeling the effects of the war drums. The rest of them were mostly okay, thanks to time spent in Toby’s calming aura. “Just be glad Rafe had so much spidersilk in that belt or we’d have been truly fucked.”
“Still doesn’t feel right,” she said. “I left some food and ale, but… I dunno if that’s what he’d like. Don’t need an angry ghost coming after us”
“Well, he was a barbarian warlord,” Teal said. “What else would he like? We could leave some coins?”
“Hmph. Simple things, practical things. Food, drink, loot and girls. Oh,” she said, grinning suddenly. “Maybe I could strip down, lie on his tomb and jill myself off a couple times. Bet he’d get a kick out of that.”
“Okay,” Gabriel said after a moment’s stunned pause. “Two questions. Would that actually work, and if so, can I watch?”
“It actually might,” said Rafe, “and no, that seems like the kind of thing for which Trissiny would stab you.”
They all shifted their eyes to look at her. Trissiny glanced back and forth around the group, then shrugged irritably. “What? You’re expecting me to argue?”
“Horsebutt will have to be content with Ruda’s offering and our apologies,” Rafe said firmly. “I don’t think we can afford to waste much more time here. Fross? You’re up.”
“Wish me luck!” the pixie chirped, then drifted toward the doorway to the canyon. She was moving without apparent strain, but much more slowly than usual. There was a collective indrawing of breath as she came perilously close to clipping the stone doorframe with her makeshift basket, but she corrected and made it out into open air without trouble. From there she ascended rapidly out of sight. There came no immediate outcry from the centaurs; she had clearly well followed her instructions to move outside their range of view.
“Right,” said Rafe. “Demons, your turn.”
Juniper gave Gabe a quick kiss on the cheek, squeezed him once, and then let him go, backing away. Immediately the blackness in his eyes expanded to fill them completely and he hunched forward, features twisting as he fought the artificial rage induced by the centaurs’ infernal magic.
Teal shifted without a word; even with her wings folded tightly against her back, Vadrieny’s blazing presence was overwhelming in the cramped tunnel. She stalked forward, talons crunching on the gravel-strewn floor, the others pressing themselves against the wall to get out of her path, and laid one clawed hand on Gabriel’s shoulder.
“Right,” Rafe repeated. “Good. Now that you’re here and the moment is upon us, Vadrieny, I want you to grab Ruda too.”
“What?” Ruda said shrilly.
“She’s the most vulnerable of those left, with no magic of her own,” the Professor continued inexorably. “Get her to safety. The rest of us can cope.”
“Fuck you!” Ruda snarled, grasping at her rapier. “I’m not leaving my friends like that!”
“This isn’t up for discussion,” he said sharply. “Vadrieny—”
“Not happening,” said the demon curtly.
Rafe boggled at her for a moment, then scowled. “Look, this is in the best—”
“You look.” She pointed one wicked claw at him, glaring. “Ruda fights. She stands by her friends. Loyalty and valor—those aren’t just values, that’s who and what she is. Maybe someday, Rafe, someone will strip away your identity, and then you’ll understand why you don’t do that to a person. Ready to go, Gabriel?”
“As I’ll ever be,” he rasped, lifting his eyes to look helplessly at the others. “Guys, I… I’m sorry. I wish…”
“It’s all right, Gabe,” Toby said firmly. “Get to safety. Get Tellwyrn; that’s the best thing you can do for us now.”
Gabriel had time to nod once before Vadrieny steered him firmly out of the tunnel, wrapped one arm around his chest, and took off with a mighty beat of her wings. They were instantly lost to sight, but there came a whooping from above as the centaurs spotted the glowing demon passing.
“We are going to talk about this, you and me,” Ruda said grimly, glaring at Rafe.
“Can’t wait,” he muttered.
“Is there even the slightest chance of Tellwyrn coming to help?” Trissiny asked quietly.
“Not really, no.” Rafe shook his head. “She may be the biggest, baddest mage alive, but the Golden Sea… Even gods have had trouble navigating in here. Teleporting into the Sea is completely random. Traveling by foot or by air isn’t much better unless you’re going toward the edge. Nope, we’d best not count on any backup arriving.”
She nodded, unsurprised, and drew her sword.
Toby shifted uncomfortably. “How long do you think it’ll take Fross… Oh. That must be her.”
The sounds from above erupted into utter cacophony. The drums, mercifully, stopped. The centaurs’ hollering abruptly increased tenfold in volume and intensity, many of the shouts becoming outright screams, and the sound of hoofbeats thundered about even more erratically than when they had first arrived.
Fross’s collection of bottles had been a hodgepodge of disruptive compounds Rafe had been carrying. Hallucinogens and fear inducers, both of which he’d tweaked—while the others had woven together the hasty basket—to become airborne once opened. A bottle of pure elemental wind to spread the effects around as much as possible. A few bottled shades, barely intelligent shadow elementals which would rush around in a mad panic in the absence of specific orders; he had bemoaned the loss of those, but they would be just the push needed to scatter the suddenly drugged and terrified centaurs.
“Ahh.” Rafe grinned fiendishly, rubbing his hands. “I do love it when a plan comes together. Confusion and chaos, kids. This is why you don’t screw with the alchemist!”
“Time for us to move,” Trissiny said curtly, stepping out into the canyon.
Afternoon was fading above; it was already deep twilight within the canyon, only the reddish sky still showing any signs of light. The gloom was less disturbing than the chaos from the plains. No matter that the centaurs were enemies of the worst order, hearing them screaming in abject terror was not pleasant for anyone.
The others filed out behind her, quiet as possible; Trissiny barely waited for them to exit the passage before setting off back the way they had come.
It was a tense, macabre reenactment of their journey into the canyon in the first place. Again, the centaurs were galloping about without plan or purpose, but this time they were obviously suffering utter havoc, rather than exulting in high spirits. Here and there, sounds of fighting broke out as the potion-addled brutes turned on each other. This time, too, it was dark, and growing darker by the moment; Shaeine carefully tucked her black glasses into their case and then into her robes. As before, though, the students made their progress as carefully and quietly as they could without sacrificing too much speed.
With a horrible scream, a centaur pitched over the rim of the canyon above, striking the ground with a massive thud mangled by the snapping of limbs. She lay there, kicking with broken legs and shrieking nonstop until Trissiny darted over to her and beheaded the creature with a quick stroke.
The others stared at her, wide-eyed, as she returned to the group. Shaeine, though, nodded once in understanding. In that instance, the tactically sound thing was also the only kindness she could have offered. Neither of them could have healed those injuries, even if they’d wanted to.
“Hug the wall, just like we did on the way in,” she said, pitching her voice barely loud enough to be audible above the carnage. “If any more fall off, they’ll hopefully overshoot us. We don’t want to be landed on.”
She resumed her place in the lead, setting off. They followed again with only the slightest hesitation.
For all that the trip back started much worse than the trip out had been, it gradually got better. The centaurs grew more scattered and this time they actually managed to leave them behind; they had apparently made their camp above the tomb to wait for the students to emerge. They made much better time, too, moving with a purpose and a somewhat diminished need for stealth. In what seemed like relatively short order, the canyon walls shortened enough that they had to hunch to hide beneath them, which they did; distant or no, the centaurs were still audibly present, still making a constant din of screams and occasional crashes.
Trissiny called a halt; this was where they were meant to rendezvous with Fross, and there was as yet no sign of the pixie. She knew to head downhill, which would lead reliably to Last Rock, if she became separated, but Trissiny very much hoped it didn’t come to that. They wouldn’t know their missing classmate’s fate until they got back to the University in that case, and if Fross didn’t turn up there, they’d have no realistic prospect of mounting a rescue.
At least it was finally growing dark enough to see stars. The pixie would be much easier to spot against a black sky.
“Everybody catch your breath,” she said quietly. “When Fross finds us, we’re going to move as quickly as we can, straight downhill. Once we’re out on the open plain, stealth is not going to be a possibility. We’ll do our best to get out of range of the centaurs, and if any of them catch up, we’ll have to fight.”
“How long does that stuff last, Professor?” asked Toby.
“Should keep ’em completely out of commission for most of the night! I don’t brew halfway, sonny boy.”
“And after that they’ll have a hard time regrouping. They’ll have wounded to tend to, and whatever supplies they were carrying were almost certainly damaged in the chaos.” Trissiny nodded grudgingly. “It’ll mean a very exhausting night, but I’d say odds are decent that if we make good time we won’t have to deal—”
It had been perfectly still; none of them had realized anyone was there. But abruptly, a centaur burst upright out of the tallgrass not twenty yards away, where he had apparently been lying on his side. Trissiny spun to face him, and for an instant they locked eyes. His face was twisted by panic, but not reduced to witlessness. She saw him see her. See all of them.
He raised a horn to his lips and blew a series of sharp blasts, galloping back along the rim of the canyon toward whatever was left of the main herd.
“All right,” said Rafe, “which one of you forgot to make an offering to Arseface, the god of irony?”
“Nevermind,” said Trissiny. “We have to move. Those who are so inclined, say a prayer of guidance for Fross, but do it while we run.”
She suited the words with action, setting out at a sharp pace after doing a quick visual scan to identify the direction in which the prairie gently sloped. The others immediately followed; to her frustration, Trissiny had to moderate her pace somewhat. Clearly she was the only one accustomed to prolonged running.
In fairness, it hardly mattered. There was no way they were going to outrun centaurs.
For a good ten minutes it seemed they actually might; it was at least that long before the sounds behind them obviously became organized. Trissiny skidded to a halt, though, when the hunting horns rose. At least three separate tones. She turned back to face their pursuers. They were merely a line of indistinct shapes in the darkness, but even at this distance, she felt the faint prickling of diabolic magic at work.
“Stop,” she said firmly. Juniper leaned forward, bracing her hands on her knees; Shaeine was also out of breath. “Everyone catch your breath as best you can, we don’t want to face this overtired. Toby, can you ease everyone’s weariness?”
“I have been,” he replied, then grimaced apologetically. “Except… It won’t work on Juniper, divine magic’s not helpful for fae. Sorry, June.”
“’S’fine,” the dryad said, waving him off. She straightened slowly with an odd cracking sound like twigs snapping. She wasn’t panting; she wasn’t, Trissiny realized, breathing at all, but her body language clearly showed fatigue.
“Are you all right, June?” she asked.
“Yup. Just let me…limber up a bit.” Juniper rolled her neck and shook out her arms. “I’m not really used to running. I’ll be fine.”
“Good. When they get close enough to start their attack, I want you on point. Be out in front and take down whatever they send at you.”
“Can do,” the dryad said grimly, stepping forward to position herself between the group and the rapidly approaching centaurs.
“Shaeine, support her initially with your shields until the battle closes and Ruda and I advance to her position. I want her to take the first hits; use your best judgment about what’s too much for her to take.”
“Why’s that, exactly?” Ruda demanded.
“Psychological warfare,” Trissiny said, keeping her eye on the enemy. They had slowed their advance, forming into a more even line. That was not the behavior of people hopped up on alchemical terror drugs. Either the potions had missed a few, or they had a way to counteract them. It was barely more than a dozen, though, which was much better than facing the full horde of fifty. “They’ll open with arrows, spears and/or infernal magic. Juniper’s impervious to diabolism—well, diabolism of the caliber those creatures can manage. She’s also our most durable member, and can take a few hits. I want them to see their opening salvo fail to make a dent on a pretty girl in a short dress before we proceed to carving them up. June, as soon as you feel you’ve had enough, start backing up and Ruda and I will move in and take the front. Then focus on healing yourself until you feel ready to rejoin the fight.”
“Got it.” The dryad smiled brightly at her. “You know, you’re actually really good at this!”
“This is what I’ve trained for my whole life,” the paladin said grimly.
“And me?” Rafe asked. Trissiny repressed the first comment that came to mind. Thanks to him and his nonsense, she was conducting this battle with their two most impervious members—one of whom was also their hardest hitter—absent, not to mention their ranged magic support. This was not the time, though; you didn’t berate your troops right before an engagement if you wanted them fighting at their best.
“Unless you’ve got a weapon, hang back. Since holy magic won’t heal Juniper and I’d rather she not waste her energy, use any applicable potions you’ve still got to support her.”
“What, no special instructions for me?” Ruda asked grinning.
Trissiny shook her head. “Your job is to kill things. I don’t think you need supervision.”
The pirate laughed. “Once in a while, roomie, you say something that makes me think we just might learn to get along.”
“Here we go,” Trissiny said firmly as the centaurs let out simultaneous blasts on three hunting horns. “Stand firm and show them just what they’re messing with, people.”
The centaurs—fourteen of them—formed a cohesive line fifty yards distant. At their center was a female who stood head and shoulders taller than any of the others, wearing a feathered headdress and carrying a long staff surmounted by a collection of grinning skulls. Even from this distance, Trissiny could feel the demonic magic radiating from her.
One trotted forward, a male—the same one, she realized, who’d spotted them and sounded the alarm. He made a diagonal pass across the distance between the two groups, studying them. She saw the moment when he realized they had no bows, wands or spears: a savage grin broke across his features and he wheeled about, charging forward directly at Juniper.
The dryad had stepped forward, placing a good six yards between herself and the other students, and stood there, watching him come. He eyed her up and down with a leer even as he rapidly closed with her; even if she didn’t know the habits of centaurs, Trissiny would have suspected his intent. In seconds, he had closed the distance. Not slowing in the slightest, he re-angled himself to pass perpendicular to the battle lines, reaching out to grab a fistful of Juniper’s hair in passing.
He might as well have grabbed a tree.
The centaur emitted a pained squawk as he was brought up short, flopping onto his side, his legs going out from under him. Juniper very calmly raised her own leg and kicked him right under the chin.
With a disturbing pop, his head went sailing back the way he had come, striking the ground and bouncing toward the other centaurs. It vanished into the tallgrass before reaching them.
With a howl of rage, another female broke from the centaur lines and charged forward, this one brandishing a staff somewhat less elaborate than that wielded by their leader. She gesticulated with this as she came, sending a huge, roughly bird-shaped patch of shadow careening straight at Juniper.
It struck the dryad and vanished.
The charging centaur’s yells only grew more furious. She launched two more of the shadow-birds, each of which simply petered out upon making contact; the second one, Juniper actually swatted out of the air, grinning.
Her smugness vanished when the warlock changed tactics, hurling a fireball. The dryad yelped, diving frantically out of the way. The spell impacted the ground just beyond where she had been, igniting the tallgrass; Juniper rolled to her feet and lunged away from it in a panic, even as the rest of the students were forced back from the growing blaze, Rafe fishing frantically in his belt for something to put it out.
The centaur warlock brandished her staff again, grinning triumphantly and calling another ball of fire into being. Her own victorious expression was snuffed out when a translucent silver wall sprang into existence right in front of her. Moving too fast to stop,she slammed into it at full speed with a hideous crunch and staggered backward, then fell to the ground, stunned.
“Good work, Shaeine!” Trissiny shouted. “Everyone, regroup! Back away from the fire. Juniper, this way! Don’t get separated!”
The centaurs had started to move forward at a walk, the leader brandishing her skull staff overhead. The students were in disarray, despite Trissiny’s efforts to regather them together; the fire was taking hold admirably in the dry tallgrass, spreading fast and unpredictably.
And then, out of nowhere, a blast of frigid wind ripped across the space between them, accompanied an instant later by a brutal splattering of sleet. In seconds, the fire was gone and a swath of scorched tallgrass glistened under a thin coating of ice.
“Hi, guys!” Fross sang, zipping into their midst. “What’d I miss?”
“Fross!” Trissiny shouted in relief. “Thank the goddess, I was afraid they’d caught you. Can you discourage them while we pull back together? Elemental magic only, they may be able to turn arcane spells against you.”
“Excuse me, I’m an arcane sciences major. I know my circles of interaction. Hey, four-legged assholes! BEHOLD!”
From the tiny point of white light that was the pixie sprang forward an unthinkable torrent of magic. A wave of wind rippled across the plain, drawing the centaurs up short; in its wake came dozens of icicles, spraying across them without pattern. They let out cries of surprise and pain; some of those shafts of ice were sharp enough to pierce flesh. A few halfhearted bursts of fire cut swaths into the ice storm, but after less than half a minute, the centaurs broke formation and wheeled about, galloping away in full retreat.
“They grow up so fast,” Rafe sniffled.
“Is everybody all right?” Trissiny asked as they finally managed to regroup.
“Peachy keen! I’m…whoo, head rush…” Fross chimed weakly, and dropped suddenly from the air. Shaeine dived forward to catch her in her cupped hands.
“Fross!” Toby said in alarm.
“She’s okay,” Juniper assured them, peering down at the spent pixie, “just exhausted. Pixies are basically made of magic; she can’t exactly run out, but she can dip so low she’s got no energy left for stuff like flying and talking. Here, give her to me, your fingers’ll get frostbite.” Tenderly taking Fross from Shaeine, she set the pixie atop her head, nestling her into her thatch of green hair. “There. That was a lot of power to be throwing around at once. She’ll be okay in a few hours.”
“So we can’t expect her to do that again anytime soon?” Rafe said, glancing back the way the centaurs had gone.
“Better not. Honestly, I think she might try, but she’ll just burn herself out again. It’s not…unsafe. Like I said, pixie magic is pretty much bottomless. But there’s a limit to how much she can hold at one time.”
“So she needs to regenerate,” said Trissiny, “and we need to move. I don’t think we can afford to assume they’ve had enough.”
“What would you guess are the odds?” Toby asked, as they fell into step behind her. She didn’t try to lead them at a run, this time; she’d chivvy them into a faster pace presently, but for now, Fross wasn’t the only one needing to regather her strength.
“Depends on too many factors we can’t really understand,” she replied. “Mostly down to their culture and the psychology of that big one who was leading.”
“It comes down to this,” said Ruda. “They’re raiders. We’ve just embarrassed them twice; they can’t have that. The leader can’t have it, it’ll be cutting into her authority. If we scared them badly enough, she may not be able to whip them back into fighting shape to come after us. Otherwise, they definitely will.”
“Their apparent leader, in addition to being an abnormally large specimen, was clearly a warlock of significant power,” said Shaeine. “It is difficult to imagine that they are more frightened of us than they are of her.”
Toby closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. “So you’re saying…”
“We’re saying,” Trissiny said grimly, “it is going to be a long night. Walk faster.”
There were few things more brutally exhausting than a long fighting retreat, as they soon learned.
The centaurs did not give up. They managed to kill a few with each engagement, but the overall trend in their numbers was in the opposite direction as they gathered more of their scattered herd. The students suffered only minor wounds, easily mended with three light-wielders and an alchemist in their group, but they were leaning heavily on Toby’s gifts and Rafe’s concoctions to keep their energy up. Nobody knew exactly where the tipping point would be, but they were all very well aware that magic and alchemy were not long-term substitutes for rest, especially when they were alternating constant running with short bursts of grueling violence.
The first time the centaurs charged again, a swift counter-charge by Trissiny and Ruda smashed their lines, throwing them into disarray. Despite their disadvantages in numbers and size, the two humans were wreathed in healing light from Toby and mobile barriers provided by Shaeine; the centaurs very quickly grew tired of fighting indestructible little pests who darted into their midst wielding cold steel, and broke away to regroup.
Thereafter, they abandoned their strategy of using numbers and weight, preferring to make passes from a safe distance, firing arrows and spells. Shaeine continued to shield the group from projectiles and Fross, by that point, had recovered enough to retaliate with ice bolts, though at Juniper and Trissiny’s insistence, she carefully paced herself. Even Rafe managed to be helpful, hurling vials that unleashed fire, poison, blasts of wind, glue, and all manner of effects. Any lone centaurs who wandered too close to the group were taken down brutally by Juniper; the couple of times small knots of them tried to charge, those who slipped past the dryad were cut down by the two swordswomen.
This long engagement stretched for over and hour before the students, faltering with weariness, changed their own tactics. As yet another column galloped past, readying their bows, Fross zipped overhead to blast them with wind and snow from the other side, herding them closer to the group, while at the same time Shaeine slammed a shield into place, boxing them in. Ruda, Trissiny and Juniper waded into the mix, wreaking devastation, until the centaurs broke completely and scattered, beaten and demoralized.
One group, anyway. There always seemed to be more trickling back into the herd to replenish their numbers, even as the students grew weaker and more weary.
In the aftermath of the failure of their last charge, they attempted to regroup into battle lines, as they had in the first place, but were sent into full retreat when Toby burst into radiance with an intensity that lit up the prairie like high noon. Throwing his arm forward, he sent his own aura rushing at them, a small mobile sun. In its wake, Trissiny could feel the crawling miasma of infernal magic burned away. The centaurs finally retreated out of their line of sight.
“Sorry, Shaeine,” Toby said ruefully.
“No apologies necessary,” she replied, rubbing at her eyes. “I would appreciate a word of warning next time, however.”
“There’s…there’s not gonna be a next time,” he said. “I can’t manage that again. Guys…I’m nearing the point of burnout, here. If we don’t do something to stop this soon…” He let the thought trail off. It wasn’t really necessary to finish it.
The light of the gods was infinite in scope and depth, but there were stark limits to how much of it mortal flesh could safely channel. “Burnout” was not a euphemism; clerics who drew too deeply on divine power tended to literally combust. Some deities cut off their followers before it got to that point. Avei, trusting her soldiers to recognize the battle in which they would die, did not. Trissiny wasn’t feeling the warning twinges of heat herself, but she had been relying more on muscle while Toby was using divine magic entirely.
“It will be as the gods will,” she said grimly, bringing up the rear of the party.
“That’s just fuckin’ wonderful, that is,” Ruda growled, trudging along just in front of them. “What a fucking miserable place to die. No proper body of water within miles.”
“We’re not going to—” Trissiny broke off her reassurance as Juniper abruptly collapsed.
“June!” Ruda shouted, rushing over to her and kneeling at the dryad’s side. “Oh, fuck…she’s not breathing!”
“She doesn’t breathe,” said Rafe, coming over beside her. “Not the way we do, anyhow. You won’t find a pulse, either. See, her skin’s warm. Dryads go all wooden when they die, she’s fine.”
“I think ‘fine’ might be an overly optimistic description of someone who has just fallen unconscious,” said Shaeine. Indeed, Ruda’s shaking and patting was getting no response at all from the dryad.
“All right,” Rafe said grimly, hooking his hands under Juniper’s shoulders, “We’ll have to—OW! My back! Holy fuck, she weighs a literal ton!”
“Metaphysical properties of a tree, remember?” said Trissiny. “That’s how she’s been shrugging off all those hits. I guess if she’s not conscious to control it, she gets more…tree-like.”
“I’ve never seen a tree faint before,” Toby said worriedly.
“I bet if you ever saw a tree run cross-country as long as Juniper just has, you’d see it faint.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s it exactly,” Fross said, buzzing about their heads in a tizzy. “Dryads are really strong and very durable but they aren’t perfect, everybody’s got their weaknesses. Fire’s very bad for them, and they’re really meant to be kinda stationary. Oh, man, what are we gonna do? We can’t let her die, Naiya would massacre everybody within a mile.”
“No one is letting anyone die,” Trissiny said firmly. “Rafe can carry her.”
“Are you out of your—”
“Featherweight oil!” she snapped. “Surely you didn’t use all of it making that absurd basket?”
He blinked at her. “Oh. Huh. That’s actually a pretty good idea. Right on…sorry about this, Juno, but I’m going to have to lather you a bit,” he said, turning back to the fallen dryad and reaching into one of his belt pouches.
Trissiny scanned the horizon. On this flat terrain the centaurs really shouldn’t have been able to get out of their view so quickly, especially when they were up the incline, slight as it was. Perhaps the Golden Sea had shifted them away… But then, how did they keep following? Ansheh had said they had ways of controlling or at least influencing the Sea’s changes up to a point.
In the end, logic only went so far; she was a creature of faith. They were still out there. They were still coming. She could feel it.
Her fellow students were in sorry shape. Fross seemed to have recovered from her previous exhaustion and was buzzing around Rafe, chattering something about dryads at high speed. Ruda and Shaeine were both sitting in the grass, the pirate looking absolutely worn out. The drow was poised as ever, but even her slim shoulders were slumped with fatigue. Toby had kept his feet, but his face was drawn tight with exhaustion.
Trissiny wasn’t tired. She had always had more stamina than the other girls she’d trained with; now, with the goddess supporting her, she was still good to keep going. The others, though, weren’t going to last much longer.
“Toby,” she said quietly, “a word?”
He looked up, glanced over at the others, and nodded, allowing her to lead him a few yards away. Still plenty close enough for Shaeine to hear, but it couldn’t be helped.
“I need you to look after everyone,” she said quietly. “Keep them safe, and keep them moving. Do not stop until dawn at the earliest, and even then, not until the Sea gives you something defensible to camp in.”
“Triss, no,” he said sharply. “I know what you’re driving at, and you can forget it. We stick together.”
“That ship has sailed,” she retorted. “We should have made our stand when we had the full group together. Everyone’s on their last legs; they can’t keep doing this. Look at me. I can.”
“I wasn’t trained for diplomacy, so I hope you’ll forgive my bluntness,” she said fiercely. “You are holding me back. None of you can fight in anything approaching my league, with the exception of Ruda, who doesn’t have any magic supporting her. Having to ride herd on all of you is crippling me. If I can get into the middle of the centaurs, call on everything Avei will give me, go all out… Well, only the gods know what will happen, but it will be a very different game. All I need to do is take out the leader, I think.”
“And the others? How will you get back, even if you win? And how can you possibly win? Trissiny, think about this, you can’t seriously—”
“A paladin’s life is sacrifice,” she said coldly. “With all due respect, Tobias, I suggest you get used to it.” He reared back, staring at her as if she’d slapped him, and a stabbing pain shot through her heart. “This is what I do,” she said more gently. “This is what I am. I fight. I protect. You nourish and support. These are the roles our gods called us to, Toby. You have to let me do this.” He just stared at her, anguish suppressing the weariness on his face. She reached up and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know I’m asking a lot, and I’m sorry. But I need you to get the others moving, make them accept this, and get them home, and safe. Can you do it?”
He closed his eyes for a long moment, then nodded, swallowing heavily. “I guess I’ll have to,” he said miserably, opening his eyes to look at her again. There was a strained moment between them, and then, suddenly, Toby wrapped her into a hug, squeezing fiercely despite the way her armor had to be digging into his skin. “Omnu light your path, Hand of Avei,” he whispered fiercely, then kissed her on the forehead. It tingled nearly as much as the gentle warmth of Omnu’s blessing did, settling over her.
A blush suffused her features as she finally, reluctantly pulled back; Trissiny devoutly hoped none of what she was feeling was visible on her face. Of all the silly things, at a time like this…having the tingles over a boy. Mother Narny would either laugh at her or box her ears.
Suddenly, she realized that Shaeine was right there. The drow reached up to place one hand gently on Trissiny’s cheek, and she felt another light sensation ripple through her like a gentle breeze.
“Wisdom guide your steps, sister,” the priestess said quietly, “and bring you safely back to us. An’thashar talamyth nil.” She stepped back three times, bowed deeply, and turned back to the others.
Trissiny swallowed, forced herself to meet Toby’s gaze, and nodded to him. “Go. Now. I don’t know how much time I can buy you.”
Turning her back on them was easier than facing them. She wasn’t made for heartfelt goodbyes and awkward embraces: she was the Hand of Avei, a creature of justice, of war. Among the torrent of emotions spiraling through her was a rising sense of purpose. Certainty.
Trissiny strode forward, alone, toward the enemy, while her friends resumed their retreat behind her, and found that for the first time in days, she was finally calm.