A Fleeting Hunt
‘Arianna, focus.’ I held back a sigh and looked down at my ayraziis. Instead of doing as I asked, she tightened her grip on my arm and kept it captured by her bust. She didn’t appear at all concerned that there could be more beasts within Dauthrmir hunting her.
“Nalithor? Arianna? What in the hells are you doing back here?” Lucifer demanded when we strode into the throne room. He rose to his feet and stalked toward us, fuming. “Until this threat has been taken care of—”
“The Elders appeared in my domain the moment we thought to rest,” I interjected, keeping my voice level. “We have reason to believe it is actually safer for Arianna to remain here—and she intends to go into the city as we had planned.
“We’re here to pick up Eyrian, Reu, and Azhar before doing so.”
“What?” Lucifer turned to look at my ayraziis. “Arianna, I’m well aware you can handle beasts with ease, but—”
“They’re playing a game.” Arianna shook her head but continued to hand on my arm. “I refuse to let them win. We’re going to go to take a look around Dauthrmir, and visit the temples, as we intended to do.”
“‘They’ are playing a game?” Sihix approached us, his eyes narrowed.
“Aren’t they always?” Arianna smiled sweetly but her eyes shone with murderous intent. When no one answered her, she turned serious once more and looked toward her father. “They are hunting me and yet I was able to sense them when Eyrian, Reu, and Azhar could not. Either something keeps them from smelling the damned things, or the people controlling the beasts wanted me to know it was there.”
“She believes this is another test aimed at discovering the extent of her power—or her connection to me,” I added, earning a deep frown from Lucifer.
“I agree with her assessment,” Yiltanys muttered. The Lari’xan glanced toward the throne room doors briefly with narrowed eyes before shifting his attention back to us. “If Her Highness was to remain in hiding it is reasonable to assume that our opponents would attack the people of Dauthrmir next.”
“What better way to draw out the First Princess?” Sihix sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, looking unimpressed. “How classless.”
“Let’s go.” Arianna turned on her heel and released my arm. “We’ll just kill anything that decides to attack us.
“It’s probably best if I hold back…right?”
“If they’re truly testing you, then yes,” I murmured, a sense of displeasure welling within me. “However…making them believe you are weak could result in more attacks.”
“Pretending to be a mouse isn’t going to work anymore,” Sihix stated, crossing his arms.
“They need a reason to be cautious of you—both of you.” Yiltanys glanced between me and my ayraziis. “Sihix and I will not tolerate Balance acting with unnecessary restraint.”
“‘Unnecessary,’ huh?” Arianna laughed. “By whose standards? Ah well, we’ll figure it out.”
Arianna showed no sign of stopping, leaving Eyrian, Reulidru, Azhar, and myself to chase after her. She looked up at me with a devious smile when I fell into step with her but said nothing. I knew she and the Lari’xan were both right—going into hiding would only serve to put Dauthrmir’s citizens in danger. Even so, I wanted to protect my ayraziis.
“Now, now, you needn’t look so tense.” Arianna laughed. “We’re more than capable of crushing these bastards and their pawns. They’re Chaos Beasts and they smell as such.”
“And if we still can’t sense them?” Eyrian finally growled. I could tell he was losing his patience with Arianna but I couldn’t blame him. She seemed far too relaxed for the situation.
“Well, I could always enlist the stars to kill all our prey if you’re so worried,” Arianna stated, turning to look at the agitated Draekin. I looked down at my ayraziis and sighed in exasperation, earning a small smile from her. “Working within mortal boundaries would be a pain in this situation.”
“And you know as well as I do that that would be going too far.” I pulled my arm from her grasp and placed it around her shoulders instead, eliciting a small huff from her. “If you do something so drastic you’ll frighten the citizens. We should take a more methodical approach.
“We already intended to patrol through each of the districts. Continuing with that plan should provide us with the coverage to look for more of those blasted creatures.”
“Sihix and Yiltanys said they’ll take care of the palace,” Reulidru added with a mutter. “We can begin with the Sapphire Quarter and work our way down. Shall we search the entire city before returning to the temples for business?”
“I don’t think we’ll have to go to that much trouble.” Arianna shook her head and shoved her hands deep into her pockets. “It doesn’t seem likely to me that they’ll be content to observe or wait. My guess is most of their pawns are around the palace, the Sapphire Quarter, and perhaps the Nobles’ District. We should assume that, if one was already by the palace gates, the rest are relatively close.”
I remained silent as I examined Arianna. At first glance she seemed too relaxed. However, the way she spoke and the glint in her eyes contradicted her apparent demeanor. My mouth curved into a small smile when I shifted my vision to examine her power.
Her darkness had spread everywhere.
‘What is it, Nalithor?’ Eyrian shot me an odd look.
‘It will be easier to draw out our prey if they think she’s lax,’ I pointed out, glancing down at the princess again before looking back at the Draekin. ‘She’s already spread her darkness everywhere it can reach. She’s putting on airs to lull our opponents into a false sense of security.
‘We should do the same.’
“Ah, do you guys still want to get some breakfast?” Arianna inquired, tilting her head slightly. “Nalithor and I already ate but you three haven’t had the chance yet, right?”
“Is this really the time—” Reulidru fell silent when Eyrian clamped a hand on his shoulder.
“We can get some street food when we get to the Merchants’ District,” Eyrian answered with a smile. “That way we can eat without slowing you down.”
‘He’s bad at this, isn’t he?’ Arianna glanced at me.
‘That’s as good as you’re going to get out of him when he’s worried,’ I replied, chuckling. ‘You’re certain about this, Arianna?’
‘Do you really think a proud huntress is going to let you coddle her?’ she countered, her gaze sharp. ‘Nalithor, the beast I found at the palace was a trivial one. If the rest are like that we can wipe them out with ease—hells, most of the city’s guards can probably handle ones like that.
‘However, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that Duxes were brought in.’
Arianna slowed to a stop on the road leading down to the Sapphire Quarter, a small frown tugging at her lips as she turned in place. Darkness swirled around her feet as she tilted her head, looking as if she were listening to something. I raised a hand to silence our companions when I saw them open their mouths to question her and shook my head.
‘That sounds like cracking glass…’ I felt my pulse jump into my throat and quickly shifted to look at the crystalline road beneath us. Small fissures spread beneath our feet like a spider’s web, making their way slowly across the width of the road. “Arianna—”
Power burst outward from her, a look of pure rage on her face. Her power plunged into the road beneath us and out the other side. Darkness coiled around two thick objects and then yanked. The creature shrieked in terror as Arianna’s power ripped it forcibly from the road and dangled it in the air.
“Arianna, the road is going to collapse if we stay here a moment longer!” I gripped her by the arm but she refused to budge.
“It will be fine,” Arianna stated dismissively, her fiery gaze remaining on the beast she had caught. Though it wasn’t a Dux, it was still much larger than the first one she had found—and we couldn’t risk it falling into the districts below us. “I’ve changed my mind. We’re going to hunt down every last filthy creature in the city and then repair the barrier. Aurelian, Elise, and the temples can wait.”
Arianna turned on her heel as her darkness tossed aside the beast. Before any of us could react, dozens of ice spikes tore through the creature. Fire followed soon after, causing the beast to explode. My ayraziis didn’t bother looking back to check if the creature had truly perished. Instead, she continued walking toward the Sapphire District with a murderous look on her face.
“Care to share the reason for your change of heart, Your Highness?” Azhar crossed his arms as he followed Arianna.
“Had that been a road in the lower districts, it wouldn’t have held under the weight of the civilians and the pressure of the beast’s grip,” Arianna answered with a low growl, her control of her form slipping for a mere moment before she reined herself in with a sigh. “We’re going to operate under the assumption that our quarry has already decided to harm our people.
“Your Highness,” Aurelian acknowledged, appearing by the furious princess.
“How many of your Chosen are with you in Dauthrmir?”
“Six dozen,” Aurelian answered, smirking. “Your orders?”
“Hunt the bastards down.” Arianna’s frigid glare gave the God of War pause, before he broke into a broad grin and turned to look at me.
“Well, that’s that then isn’t it?” Aurelian laughed. “You don’t plan to argue with that do you, Nalithor?”
“I question her obviousness, but she is right all the same,” I answered dryly, catching Arianna’s brief pout before she smoothed her expression over. “If even the Lari’xan will interfere, then we should be free to move as well. Relay Arianna’s orders to the other deities in the city as well—it’s within all of our interests to protect Dauthrmir, after all.”
“If you don’t find them I will rip them out of hiding myself,” Arianna stated, her tone causing Aurelian to abruptly cease laughing. “You saw the extent I was willing to go in order to kill those creatures in Falrrsald. I am not at all against doing so again.”
‘She hasn’t lost the over-protectiveness she feels for Devillians, has she?’ Aurelian glanced toward me before disappearing in a flash of flames.
‘At the very least, she rivals the way Lucifer and I feel about protecting her.’ I sighed and picked up my pace, soon falling into step with my furious ayraziis. Before I could say anything, she latched onto my arm with both of hers and squeezed it toward her bust. Her claws bit into my arm, her grip trembling with poorly restrained fury. ‘What do you plan to do while waiting for Aurelian and his Chosen to hunt the creatures down?’\
‘We’re going to hunt too.’ Arianna shook her head as if trying to clear it. ‘However, we’re going to hunt different prey while they work. We need to deal with the weakness in the barrier and repair it immediately—which means we need to find out why it failed in the first place.
‘We also have to consider the possibility that it didn’t fail.’
‘You think the beasts could have been made inside the city?’ I snarled, earning a wary look from our companions. “Put on your armor. We’re going to go check on the barrier’s source, and determine whether or not it is truly broken.”
Reulidru grasped my meaning immediately and grew pale, then turned to explain to Eyrian and Azhar.
‘If they haven’t found more beasts within the next two hours I will take things into my own hands,’ Arianna informed me, trailing her fingertips down my arm until she could clasp my hand in one of hers. With her other hand now free, she summoned leather armor around herself and slung the strap of a large sword’s sheath over her shoulder. ‘I can seek out our targets with darkness, I don’t need to do something as flashy as turn the stars against them, but it would be better if we combine our powers to do so either way.
‘If you’re right, and they’re hunting me, then their masters are likely hoping I will do something to make myself vulnerable.’
‘I don’t like this.’ I sighed, lacing my fingers with hers. ‘Putting aside how the beasts could have gotten in here, this is an incredibly overt move. Other than the few crazed bastards in Falrrsald, the Jivyador haven’t made such bold moves against either of us.
‘Either they are beginning to feel desperate, or this is related to one of the factions we aren’t familiar with.’
“Hmmm…” Arianna pursed her lips, a portion of her rage replaced with contemplation. ‘I want to say it’s probably the latter, but it’s safe to assume that all the Jivyador stand to gain from this situation.’
‘Sihix and Yiltanys don’t seem to want us to hold back,’ I contemplated, catching my ayraziis’ brief nod of agreement. ‘If you reveal your power or your form the Jivyador will feel more driven to come after you. As matters stand, they’re currently coming after you because of your closeness to me—they’re worried that Balance could be completed.’
‘I think Sihix and Yiltanys’ declaration that they’ll only accept us as Balance is partially to blame for this.’ Arianna grimaced. ‘We can almost guarantee that there were spies within the court—we’d be mad to think there weren’t any. Whether among the commoners, the foreigners, or hidden elsewhere, one of our enemy’s pawns would have heard what the Lari’xan said.’
‘That was probably their intention.’ I snorted in displeasure. ‘Those two clearly want us to act as Balance and with little regard for our seemingly precarious situation.’
‘Is it really a precarious situation when we’re both able to kill the Jivyador?’ Arianna asked, giving me a devilishly sweet smile. ‘I don’t know about you, but I’ve only been holding back because it’s too troublesome to hunt them down right now. There’s too many factions, most of which we know nothing of. If we wait, it’s possible they’ll destroy each other.
‘But I refuse to let them drag mortals into their idiotic quarrels.’
I couldn’t help but smile at her and squeeze her hand, earning a questioning look from her. She flushed and glanced away from me when I leaned down and kissed her cheek. She truly seemed unaware of just how endearing I found such declarations. Were she anyone else I would have said that she was being too bold or even foolish, but I knew Arianna could accomplish whatever she put her mind to—especially with me there to support her. Our time in Falrrsald had gone a long way toward making me realize just what she was capable of.
‘We should be careful for the sake of the people here,’ I stated after a few moments of thought, earning a questioning glance from her. ‘I don’t think either of us want to put the citizens in danger. If our enemies continue to attack us here, or begin to attack our people, then we are going to have to seriously consider leaving Dauthrmir behind.’
‘And it wouldn’t do for us to have a war with them in the city itself.’ Arianna sighed and nodded subtly. ‘I’ll be more careful. I don’t want to be the reason the people here get hurt.
‘Now, as for the barrier…’
‘I don’t sense any tears nearby, and it certainly hasn’t completely failed,’ I began, glancing up at the sky above us. ‘The more I consider it, the more likely I believe it is that the beasts came from within the city. The Jivyador could have teleported them through the barrier, but it’s also possible that they turned civilians into beasts.’
‘Ugh, this is why I want to stamp out all the existing problems within the city,’ Arianna grumbled as she gnawed on her lower lip. ‘We can’t realistically eliminate crime in the empire, I know that, but we’re going to have to do something along those lines in order to get rid of the beast blood and other issues.’
‘Even if it means reintroducing crime ourselves to restore balance?’ I asked, frowning at her. ‘If we get rid of all crime within the empire it won’t be long until we’re forced by our role to act.’
‘I don’t think we have another choice anymore,’ Arianna answered, shaking her head. ‘The acquisition of beast blood and other substances has probably spread through the scum of the empire already. Even though Devillians don’t need to utilize such things, they could easily use addiction to control weaker pawns.
‘I’m thinking we should slowly implement some form of organized crime after everything else is taken care of. That way, we can manipulate them into having some form of code against things we absolutely will not tolerate—and can potentially reduce random attacks and thefts.’
‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’ I gave her a disbelieving look. ‘How about we try my way first, Arianna? If we can deal with the problems without such drastic measures, we should.
‘For now, can you please focus on the matter at hand? The barrier room isn’t far.’
“General Vraelimir, General Il’thar,” a guard called as she hurried to meet us. “We were told you were coming, but we didn’t think— Y-Y-Y-Your Highness!”
“Mmm?” Arianna glanced toward the startled woman. “Save your surprise for later. We need to examine the barrier.”
“O-of course, Your— Eek!” The guard dropped to her knees and covered her head with hands when Arianna’s darkness whizzed past her.
A choked gurgle was the only sound the beast behind the guard made before Arianna tossed it aside. Without a word, my ayraziis tugged at my hand and began walking toward the structure ahead of us. Reu stopped to reassure the guard but Eyrian and Azhar paid her no mind.
“Eyrian, Azhar, sweep the building and have your men come search the personnel,” Arianna ordered, turning to look at the pair.
“How did you know our men—” Eyrian started, his eyes widening slightly.
“Because you’re even more paranoid about my safety than Nalithor is,” Arianna stated flatly, placing a hand on her hip. “Furthermore, they’re not good enough to hide their presences from me—especially not if they’re going to try to hide in the shadows.
“If any of the personnel here show even a minor hint of corruption, arrest them and take them somewhere we can hold them without exposing others to it.”
“As you command.” Azhar bowed slightly before sweeping past us and up the nearest flight of stairs.
“Very well, Your Highness.” Eyrian sighed in defeat and gave Arianna a brief nod before looking toward me. ‘What do you plan to do if she loses her patience or her temper?’
‘I will have to do something to calm her down if she nears either state,’ I answered while leading Arianna toward the barrier room. ‘We can’t risk her losing control over her form, or going to the extent she did in Falrrsald. If she decides to tear the sky down to hunt the beasts she’ll frighten the citizens far too much.’
“Nalithor, what idiot’s idea was it to have so few guards here?” Arianna turned to look at me, her expression filled with even more frustration than her voice. “The barrier protects the entire crater, doesn’t it? I don’t sense anything wrong here but we should dedicate more to guarding something so integral to the people’s lives.”
“I believe their reasoning was something along the lines of, ‘if our enemies penetrate so deeply into the city, we have far graver things to worry about.’” I grimaced, shaking my head. “When we return, we can advise Lucifer to have the guard strengthened, if you like.”
“Not just here—in all the territories,” Arianna answered, a small frown tugging her lips. “I don’t smell, see, or sense anything off with the magic here. That said, if I wanted to cripple the empire I would attack the barriers at their source.”
“And that beast was far too close for comfort?” I offered, earning a nod from her. “I agree with you, of course. We should also increase the guard units and number of patrols throughout the city. Beasts in the crater is rare enough—beasts in the city itself is unheard of.”
“Arianna-jiss,” Aurelian began, appearing beside us, “I believe we’ve eradicated all the beasts within the city. My men are gathering the corpses and bringing them to the academy for examination.”
“I’d like you to search outside the city as well, if possible.” Arianna turned to look up at him. “Also, I was wondering if it would be possible for you to lend me some of your men.”
“For what, Your Highness?” Aurelian arched an eyebrow at her. ‘Not at all intimidated by me, is she?’
‘Clearly not, if she is so comfortable giving you orders,’ I answered with an amused smile. ‘I’m surprised you’re putting up with her.’
‘The two of you are the only ones besides the Elders with the authority to do so—and I do love Vorpmasia. If I can help protect it, I will.’ Aurelian crossed his arms as he looked down at my ayraziis and waited for her answer.
“You’ve probably heard about the ‘package’ we had delivered, right?” Arianna motioned vaguely with one hand, her gaze narrowed. “I want to make certain that nothing escapes confinement within the academy—and that nothing breaks something out. Nalithor and I haven’t yet had a chance to examine that creature, and my brother is going to be held within the academy for some time now as well.
“Nalithor and I are going to advise my father to strengthen the guard posts all throughout the city, but I would feel better if the academy’s underground had extra protection.”
“Elise and I can work out something,” Aurelian stated, nodding. “If I ask, Llrissa’ll probably lend us some of her Chosen too.”
“Then please see to it immediately,” Arianna said as she turned away from the God of War.
‘You think they are related to this?’ Aurelian asked me as he disappeared.
‘I can almost guarantee it. They are the reason Arianna and I are here instead of in my domain,’ I answered, eliciting a snarl from the deity. “Arianna, this way.”
Arianna followed me down several hallways until we came to a pair of large stone doors. She frowned slightly when I led her past the stone doors and into a spherical room. At the center, a large sphere made up of each type of elemental crystal hung suspended in a cage of intricate gold and platinum filigree. To the uninitiated, it looked like a gaudy, oversized ornament.
“General,” a man spoke up. He approached us with a thick folder of documents in one hand. “We haven’t noticed any unusual changes in the barrier or its behavior. You’re certain there’s beasts inside the city?”
“Arianna-jiss killed one just outside this building,” I answered, placing one hand on top of my ayraziis’ head. The man blinked at her in surprise and then bowed slightly. “I want the data for the past several weeks. We’re going to double-check your findings to make certain there wasn’t anything minute you and yours missed.”
I glanced down at my ayraziis when I felt her step away from me and her attention shift. Her gaze was fixed on the glittering crystal in the middle of the room. It was easily twice her height, dwarfing her as she approached it.
“Arianna-jiss, don’t touch that! Only members of the Shujare—”
I sighed and pressed my fingers to my temples, watching as Arianna placed her hand flat against the crystal’s surface. Opaque, multicolored aether engulfed them both in the blink of an eye, startling the barrier guardians within the room. When the aether dissipated it revealed Arianna standing there in her full form, horns, fox ears, wings, and all.
How the people in charge of the barrier hadn’t yet been briefed was beyond me.
“Well, Arianna?” I asked, watching as she glanced toward me briefly.
“There’s no corruption, but it was weakened,” Arianna answered as she removed her hand from the crystal. She brought her fingers to her lips as she thought for a moment before continuing, “It should be at its full strength now, as should the other crystals it’s connected to.”
“Did it take too much?” I asked with concern, pulling her toward me.
“No, it just surprised me a little.” Arianna laughed, shaking her head. “The filigree has something to do with directing the crystal’s power, I assume? We should check to make certain it hasn’t been damaged or warped. I doubt there’s many things that could weaken a crystal like this one.”
“You’re all to keep this quiet, understood?” I spoke up, watching as the staff within the room stiffen. “Eyrian will see to it that you each swear to secrecy once he’s finished with his current task. For now, get Her Highness the original plans for the crystal.”
“R-right away, General Vraelimir.” One of the women bowed to me before running for a nearby door.
‘Caution isn’t at all in your vocabulary, is it?’ I asked dryly as I reached up to tug at one of her fluffy ears. A startled expression crossed her face as she reached up to feel her own ears. ‘The barriers are linked to each of their respective Royal Families. It seems to have forced you into your true form—you should change back before your wings knock something over or you hurt them.’
‘Linked? So they probably need something from the Families on occasion?’ Arianna murmured, tilting her head in thought as her form melted back to that of a Human. ‘I doubt my father neglects the barrier’s upkeep. Could my absence be part of the problem?’
‘I doubt it. The barriers were created after…’ I shook my head. ‘Damage is more likely. However, I see nothing to indicate anything wrong with the crystal or the equipment here.’
‘Let’s examine it then.’ Arianna nudged it with her darkness. ‘We can start going over the data when we return to the palace tonight. For now, if we find nothing wrong here, we will have to assume that the beasts were brought into the city—or made.’
‘Will you have your men join the protective details?’ I asked her, frowning.
‘No, they’re not equipped to my liking yet.’ Arianna shook her head slightly as she walked a slow circle around the crystal. ‘I’m going to have them continue sorting through data until we’ve fetched their armor and weaponry from Aurelian and Elise. Then, and only then, will I consider truly putting them to work.’
‘So you’re only tolerating Eyrian, Reu, and Azhar because they’re well-armed?’ I chuckled, shooting her a knowing look. ‘You may be a bit stern with them, but your heart is in the right place. I’m sure you’ll grow on the rest of your men soon enough.’
‘Perhaps…’ Arianna trailed off in thought.
“Your Highness,” the woman from before spoke up, reentering the room with a large scroll in hand. “These are the plans for the crystal’s installation. We took an etching after the metal was in place, you’ll find that here as well.”
“Good, thank you.” Arianna took the scroll from the woman and then tossed it into the air, unraveling it with her darkness. She glanced over at me and then waggled one of her fingers at me. ‘Come on, hubby-puppy. You’re not planning to sit back and watch me do all the work, are you?’
‘You truly intend to keep calling me that, don’t you?’ I sighed at her as I strode forward, my heart skipping a beat despite myself.
‘Mmm?’ Arianna glanced up at me, a playful smirk on her lips. ‘You haven’t told me to stop, and it gets a reaction out of you every time. Which part would you rather I drop—the “puppy” or the “hubby?”’
‘I think that should be obvious,’ I answered dryly.
‘Oh, not at all,’ Arianna answered innocently as she linked her hands behind her back. ‘You could dislike either one, or it could be a matter of Draemiran versus the common tongue! I have no idea unless you tell me what you want yourself.
‘Ahhh, but we should focus, shouldn’t we?’
‘Whatever keeps your fury in check,’ I stated, noting the surprised look she shot me. ‘I don’t want to have to subdue you, Arianna. I’m upset by these events as well, but you are my priority. It’s becoming more and more difficult to keep your identity a secret and we’ve barely been back for two days.’
‘I’ll try to be more careful.’ Arianna nodded to me, a small smile on her lips. ‘Do me a favor and brief Djialkan on what’s happened? I’m going to compare the crystal to these schematics—after, you can go over them. Doing separate checks, and then a check together, would probably best.’
‘Very well.’ I smiled and ruffled her curls before allowing her to stride away. Once she shifted her attention to her work, I released a heavy sigh and simply watched her for a while. With anyone else I would have been satisfied that they could protect themselves after such displays. However, with Arianna, I found myself growing more concerned instead.
I closed my eyes and took a steadying breath, resolving myself to focus on work for the time being. Arianna and I were more than capable of protecting ourselves and each other. We had both slain a Jivyador each whilst in Falrrsald. If anything, my worries were misplaced. Attacks from beasts and their masters we could handle—somehow, keeping her identity a secret seemed more difficult.
‘I’ll have to keep a closer eye on her,’ I considered, examining the rippling darkness around her. Every now and then, the shadows revealed a fleeting glimpse of her Devillian forms. It was as if her power was eager to reveal her. My power snaked its way over to her and coiled around her torso, reinforcing the magic she had used to shift.
She was so absorbed in her work that she didn’t seem to notice. I smiled to myself and leaned back against a nearby wall. I could hear Eyrian, Reu and Azhar approaching with their men in tow, meaning I had little time remaining to brief Djialkan. Resigned, I reached out to the fae-dragon and began to tell him all of what had happened.
It was my hope that he could convince Onyre and Aleri to lend further aid.