Alisbeth groans into the dirt as they lie in a heap. “Ow.”
Koltira unwinds himself from Grimory and sits up to take in their surroundings. Darkness and fog surrounds them. In the distance is a sea of black. Damned souls wander aimlessly, though some wail from cages or stocks. With a shock he notices his friends are ethereal; he looks down to find that he is as well.
“Everyone in one piece—more or less?”
Grimory sits upright, a hand on his forehead. He groans and shakes his head to ward off the throbbing in his skull. “Less,” he responds, getting to his feet.
Anarchaia does the same—brushing herself off and glancing around. “Well…that was less painful than I expected.” She inhales deeply and grins. “And I don’t appear to be sick anymore.” Her grin fades after a long moment and she taps her chin when her parchment and quill do not appear. “Though I appear unable to conjure anything…”
“Where did our lady friend go?” Grimory asks, eyes straining to see through the mists.
Koltira peers around for Ashildir, but his eyes fixate on something else. Alisbeth, black-haired and fair-skinned as the day he’d met her, kneels to dust herself off. He rubs the pad of a thumb and finger to his eyes and looks again, but she is still there.
“Alisbeth?” he asks cautiously.
The blood elf looks up to smile at him, noting how alive he looks as a spirit; how his eyes are a blue glow instead of a torrent of frost.
His mouth gapes open as he stares into her green eyes, then he grabs her in a hug. She gives a delicate, gentle laugh into her fingertips.
Ashildir emerges from behind a large boulder, cracking her back and stretching her shoulders. “That was not a comfortable place to land.” She frowns. “I am sorry, little ones. You fought valiantly, but now your fate is shared with me.”
“Well, I mean, we were trying to get here anyway,” Grimory responds, looking down at his unmarred torso after realizing his old wounds are no longer ailing him. “So, no worries?”
Anarchaia rubs her gloved fingers together in fascination, brow furrowed beneath her mask. “Y-Yes.” Her attention flicks upward at the others and she lowers her hand. “…Alisbeth? What…?” She straightens at the realization that the flesh covering her fingers has returned and clears her throat. “Y-Yes!” she repeats and turns to Ashildir. “We were tasked with reprimanding Helya. This is precisely where we wanted to be.”
Grimory also stares at the other two elves, confused and interested at Alisbeth’s altered appearance. A thought claws at the back of his mind. She looks so familiar. “So…what’s that all about?”
Alisbeth widens her eyes at the sudden attention. “What’s what about?”
Koltira smiles and pulls some of her hair forward to show her the color. “Your eyes are green, too.”
She gapes in shock at her hair and the others for a long time. Then pushes to her feet. “We can’t stay here long,” she says gravely. “Khadgar said it would drive us mad.” She picks up her axe and sneers, then forcibly takes Byfrost from Koltira. “Trade me. That thing is…chaotic. I don’t like it.”
Grimory lifts his hands to his head to see if he’s changed at all, then gives an apathetic shrug when he finds his horns still attached to his skull.
Ashildir purses her lips. “The little death knight did not tell me this was part of your plan. But I will still help you, nonetheless. What is my worth if I do not keep my word?”
Anarchaia narrows her eyes at Alisbeth’s sudden sobriety, then give a stern nod to Ashildir. “Yes. Perhaps you can still aid us, and in return we can see that you come back with us.” She continues to fiddle with her fingers at her side as she speaks, giving another look around. “That spear should come in handy if you still have it.”
Ashildir raises her spear. The light breaks through the fog, but not nearly as effectively as before. “The fog in Helheim is thick. This is the best I can do.”
Alisbeth nods once, curtly. “It is adequate, Ashildir. Thank you.” She looks at the others, tapping her chin with the pad of her index finger. “Lead the way with the light. I will take the right, Koltira on the left. Grim, you take the rear and watch our backs. Ana in the middle. Freeze anything that moves.”
Koltira and Ashildir take their places and wait for the others. The death knight continues to stare in awe at her. She shoots him a look and he turns away to keep his eyes peeled.
The mage and demon hunter give nods of agreement and move as they’re told. “So, this is advanced-er fog,” Anarchaia chuckles, rubbing at her upper arm.
“If you’re just going to make jokes on the level of your teacher in terribleness, maybe you should just shut up for this trip,” Grimory grumbles from behind her.
“Hey, at least I’m trying Mr. Serious,” Anarchaia responds sharply. “But by all means continue to be boring.”
“Quiet!” Alisbeth snaps. “We move together. We move fast. We move quietly. Do you hear me?”
Koltira gives a curt nod. “Aye.”
Ashildir mimics him. “Aye.”
Anarchaia bristles as an uncharacteristic annoyance swells within her chest. “Yes, ma’am,” she hisses in a low tone.
Grimory chuckles. “You got yelled at,” he whispers, then flinches when Anarchaia whirls around with a fist ready. He gives another chuckle when she returns to marching.
Spirits come through the fog, attracted by the shieldmaiden’s light, some harmless and others angry. “Heads up!” Alisbeth hisses. She ignores the harmless spirits, but grips her weapon as a vrykul soul comes screaming up to them, his armor rusted and covered in seaweed.
Koltira stares as if hypnotized by the red vapor rising from the mouth of the Maw. The vrykul raises his sword over the death knight. The Redblade sweeps around to catch the ghost blade and she glares at Koltira.
“Eyes open. Head on a swivel.” She smacks the back of his head with her open palm. Then she leaps past Anarchaia to stop another soul on her side. “Wake up, you guys! Ana! Where’s my ice?”
The mage turns to impale not just the attackers, but all the spirits around them with sharp spears of ice raised from the earth. She scowls beneath her mask as the survivors groan and wail in agony. “Better?”
Grimory gawks at the pillars of ice, then turns on Anarchaia. “Is this what you’re capable of when you fight?! Wh-…?” He growls in frustration. “Do you realize how annoying that is?”
The mage simply shrugs and carries on as though not having done anything of significance.
Alisbeth snarls at the mage. “Don’t waste your energy on unnecessary killing. Not all of those sought to harm us.” She slaps the head of the Maw down away from Koltira’s face. “Don’t listen to it. Mind on the mission.”
“I’m sorry, Ali. You were right. It’s…chaos. It wants death. It needs to feed.” His eyes fixate once more and she pushes it down again, pinching his chin in her fingertips.
“You can’t feed it if you’re staring at it. Eyes forward, farstrider.”
Ashildir stares down at the group. “Your friends are not right,” she says to Alisbeth. “Why are you not belligerent?”
Alisbeth furrows her brow. “I’m never belligerent. I feel completely normal.”
Ashildir cocks an eyebrow at the elf, then stops in her tracks.
“Why have we stopped?” Alisbeth steps around Ashildir and frowns. A huge, furry, three-headed hydra sleeps in the path.
“Guarm,” Ashildir whispers.
Anarchaia scoffs. “A puppy? I’ll take care of it.” She pushes her way past the others, fire surrounding her clenched fists.
Grimory grabs her hard by the shoulder and pulls her back. “Ana, have you completely lost it? That thing is huge,” he hisses. “Khadgar said we’d lose or minds but you’ve already gone, apparently. Get ahold of yourself.”
The mage blinks then shakes her head and places a palm on her cheek. “Y-You’re right. I’m sorry. I…don’t know what came over me.”
Alisbeth sets her hand between Anarchaia’s shoulder blades. “Ana, I need you to do something for me. I need you to try to keep a clear head for this. Can you do that?”
Anarchaia turns to Alisbeth and hesitates before giving a nod. “Yes. Of course.”
Alisbeth licks her lips. “I don’t want to ask you to do this, just so we’re clear. But I don’t see another option and you’re the least likely to get hurt.” She moves the mage and points out a path to the left of the huge hydra. “See those rocks? If we can get to them, we can pass the…dog thing.”
“Guarm,” Ashildir says again.
“Yes, Guarm. I need you to go first. Be as quiet as possible. If anything happens I want you to blink your ass back to me. Can you do that? Can the team rely on you for that?” Alisbeth sets her hands on Anarchaia’s shoulders and looks into where the girl’s eyes should be.
Anarchaia furrows her brow and the rage and irritation from before returns, but she swallows it. “How would that help the rest of you? I’d be the only one on the other side.”
Alisbeth chews on the inside of her lip. “You’re helping by making sure we can get across those rocks. I’d go but if that dog wakes up it’ll kill me and come for you guys. But if you go, you can be out of there before it has time to get up. We need you, Ana. You’re the only one who can do this. You do trust me, right?”
The mage bites her lip to hold back the sass. “Yes,” she responds, turning to the sleeping beast. She sighs, giving one last shake of her head before slowly making her way for the opening, walking on the toes of her boots. She pauses when the dog’s breath hits her full in the face and she covers her nose in disgust. I suddenly don’t miss being able to smell things.
Alisbeth chews on her bottom lip in apprehension, absently reaching out to push the Maw back down out of Koltira’s face.
He smiles and wraps his arms over her shoulders. “I love you so much, Alisbeth.”
She smiles awkwardly and pats his hand, never taking her eyes from the mage.
Grimory watches with impatience rather than apprehension, his arms folded over his chest.
Anarchaia wedges herself between the dog’s titanic arm and the rock beside it. She easily slips through, only stopping when the beast’s snorting ceases for a brief moment. She gives a sigh of relief once past Guarm’s flank, stepping as far away from it as possible. She places her hands on her hips and grins. “Piece of cake.”
Alisbeth smiles and raises a thumbs up to Anarchaia. “Okay, guys, let’s go.”
One of the beast’s three heads snaps to attention, ears perked and alert. Its beady black eyes focus on the four before him and he growls, waking the other two as they slowly get to their feet.
Anarchaia grits her teeth and she waves her arms. “Run!!” She throws a small, harmless shard of ice at the dog’s backside in hopes of distracting him and stiffens when one of the heads whirls around to glower at her.
Grimory sighs, claws forming beside him. “Honestly,” he grunts.
“No!” Alisbeth shouts, elbowing Grimory in the side. “Run! Go! Go!”
Ashildir spins and retreats up the path.
Alisbeth pushes at Grimory and Koltira. “Ashildir, help!”
“Come, little ones!” She scoops Koltira into one arm and Grimory in the other.
The demon hunter growls and pushes against the arm restraining him. “No! I can take him!”
Anarchaia swallows as the monster turns in its narrow clearing to face her. She squares her shoulders and glares up at him. “So be it,” she hisses. Her entire body bursts into flame. “Guess this is what I get for being cocky.” Guarm belches out a torrent of multi-colored flames over her; she throws up an arcane shield ; and strains against the impact.
“Ana, get the hell out of there!” Alisbeth screams. She turns her back to Grimory and reaches her arms out as though beckoning the mage into them.
Koltira squirms in the shieldmaiden’s grasp. “Let me down! I want to see it!” His eyes focus on the glowing fire from Anarchaia and Guarm. “I just want to look at it!”
Ashildir holds the death knight tighter and lifts Grimory from his feet. “Come, little mage! It is not safe! You cannot fight him!”
“Get them out of here!” Alisbeth shouts over her shoulder to the woman.
Grimory continues to struggle as he’s carried off. “She needs help!”
“The hell I can’t,” Anarchaia laughs, shattering the shield around her and sending the shards at the monster’s face. Guarm howls in pain as one of his eyes is pierced; he sends more fire her way. She narrowly dodges and returns with her own blast of flames, smiling maniacally beneath her mask. “Twenty years,” she muses. “I can do this. No problem.”
Alisbeth growls and runs forward, throwing out her red ring beneath the creature as she shouts to grabs its attention. After a few solid smacks a shield of bone rises up to spin around the death knight. She glares over at the mage.
“Get out of here, you idiot!”
Guarm rears up and stomps down, knocking her to the ground. She skitters backward and stretches for her sword, holding it up as he snaps his teeth at her. Instead of digging into her gear, her sword slips between his teeth to slice open the gums on the upper and lower part of his mouth.
“Ana, please,” Alisbeth begs, staring at the mage through Guarm’s legs. “RUN!”
Anarchaia ignores Alisbeth’s pleading and runs forward, leaping onto the large rock beside the dog and jumping through the space between it and Guarm. She clings to his fur and summons five large spears of ice down onto the beast’s back. Guarm, one mouth filled with blood and slaver, yelps and rears again, throwing his shoulder against the rock to shake her off. The mage grunts in pain as she’s thrown back to the ground, the flames around her sputtering out. Her eyes widen as she looks up to see a massive paw ready to flatten her.
Alisbeth grabs the paw with a shadowy tendril and pulls with all her might, rolling as it comes to land where she’d been laying. Ashildir stomps forward, her hands free of the others.
“Get Ana out of here!”
Ashildir nods and runs to pick the mage up by the scruff of the neck and cart her away.
Anarchaia kicks. “No! I can handle it!”
Guarm’s heads rear back, then spits flames of purple, orange, and green at Alisbeth. The swirling bones around her shatter one-by-one. She reaches out her hand, panting, as she pulls his own life force into herself. But it’s not enough. She screams as her ghostly body dissolves in embers, leaving an ashen outline on the ground, the Redblade crossed over the ashy torso. Guarm sets his sights on the mage and the shieldmaiden.
Anarchaia sobers at the sound of Alisbeth’s screaming, watching on as the girl is burned to nothing. Trembling, she looks up with tear-filled eyes as the beast turns his attention to them. She swallows, lifts a hand, and in a flurry of sparkles the two women fade into nothingness.
Alisbeth flails on the ground for a moment before she realizes Guarm is nowhere to be seen and the swirling one-way portal into Helheim is beside her. She stops screaming and lays motionless on the ground as she stares up at the black nothingness above. “We have to get out of here,” she whispers to no one.
~ * ~
Koltira glares across the bamboo cage to Grimory. “We should be down there. We could’ve taken it.” He harrumphs and folds his arms. “Didn’t need to be man-handled by a giant woman.”
The demon hunter nods and paces like a captured animal. “Your wife is super bossy,” he scoffs, slashing at the bars as he’s done a few times now. “If we’d all fought together we’d have taken him.”
Koltira purses his lips. “She is my captain. Always was, even when I outranked her in Andorhal.” He cocks an eyebrow up at Grimory’s horns, then glares back outside the bars. After a moment his eyes shoot to the horns again.
Grimory pouts, folding his arms. “I don’t care what her rank is. She’s bossy. And—”
Trying not to make any sudden movements to tip off the demon hunter, Koltira slips a gauntlet off and reaches up a hand to feel the horn.
Grimory stops when he feels a hand on his horn. He cocks his head to narrow his eyes at Koltira. “What… What are you doing?”
“Have you ever felt your horns?” Koltira asks, not bothering to stop rubbing his palm up and down the one. “They’re so…rough…but smooth at the same time. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt anything like them.”
Grimory’s lips flatten to a line and for a moment he’s unsure what to do. He finally bats Koltira’s hand away. “Everyone’s gone mad.”
Anarchaia and Ashildir fade back into existence before the men’s cage. The mage, still teary-eyed, sinks to her knees and sniffles. “It’s all my fault,” she moans, rubbing at her cheek through her mask. “Ali…”
Koltira drops his gauntlet and grabs the bars, pressing his face into one of the squares. “Ali? Where is she? What happened?”
Terrified screams erupt up the path and then stop. “Alisbeth!” Koltira tears at the cage door, trying to break free.
Anarchaia jumps, jerking her head in the direction of the scream, her brow furrowing at its familiarity.
“She succumbed to Guarm’s wrath,” Ashildir explains solemnly, holding her spear with both hands, then takes a step back when Koltira rushes the bars. “However…” she stammers, wary of the group’s behavior.
“She what?” Koltira screams. “Get me out of here! Let me—”
“Get them out, we have to find another way around,” Alisbeth says, her face set and betraying nothing of what has just happened to her.
Anarchaia stands at Alisbeth’s voice, furrowing her brow in confusion. “But…I saw you die.”
“One cannot truly die here,” Ashildir explains. “After all, you are all already dead.” She gives a sad sort of smile down at the mage. “Albeit temporary.”
A soul in a nearby cage giggles. “There ain’t no other way ‘round.”
Alisbeth glares at him. “Helpful. Thank you.” She turns her back to him as Koltira pushes past Ashildir to run to her.
“Gotta mask the smell,” the prisoner continues, tapping the side of his finger to his nose. “Guarm smells everything. Even in his sleep.”
Alisbeth smiles at him over her shoulder as Koltira hugs her. “Very helpful. Thank you. If there is anything we can—”
“Let me out of this cage! Please!” cries another cage occupant.
Grimory steps out of his cage and lifts his eyebrows. “Oh, really? So…nothing can kill us then?”
“No, but the pain is very real,” the shieldmaiden warns. “Uncertain as to why you’d want to submit yourself to suffering.”
Alisbeth squares her jaw. “The pain is one-hundred percent real.” She pushes Koltira from her, but he remains close and strokes her hair with his ungloved hand. “We need a plan. Something to hide our smell. Any…” She sighs and pinches her eyes closed, preparing for exasperation. “Any ideas?”
The mage returns to rubbing her thumb and forefingers together at her side and gives a glance around, still recovering from the shock of seeing a friend incinerated. “Seaweed,” she mumbles, bending down to grab a fistful from a pile. “Smells pretty rancid…and it’s everywhere.”
Ashildir sneers at the seaweed. “What are you proposing we—”
“We wear it,” Alisbeth says, eyeing the vrykul souls with the plants stuck in their rusting armor. “Wrap it around ourselves like a blanket. That’s brilliant, Ana!”
Anarchaia scowls as though she’s been insulted, the trauma fading. “I know,” she scoffs, wrapping the seaweed about herself like a scarf and crinkling her nose at the smell.
Grimory does the same, stuffing some in his boots and belt. “Brilliant isn’t the word I’d use.” He rubs at his eyes, pain beginning to crawl its way into his skull from the stress. “We need to get out of here.”
Alisbeth slaps away Koltira’s hands as he tries to dress her in seaweed. “And what word would you use, Grimory?” She slaps the death knight away again. “I’m perfectly capable of dressing myself. You, however, are missing a glove. Where is it?” She rubs her face as he goes to retrieve his gauntlet. “We need to get out of here now.”
She sighs and lets Koltira wrap the plants around her, then helps cover him in them as well. The whole time growing more painfully aware of how Koltira and Anarchaia seem to be worsening by the minute, while Grimory only seems as frustrated as herself.
“I dunno. Something less flattering,” he hisses in Anarchaia’s direction. “Something that won’t stroke her already huge ego?”
The mage scowls in return, fists clenched. “Oh, so I’m not allowed to be aware of my own intelligence? My abilities? Sounds to me like you’re just jealous.” She stomps over to him. “Need I remind you of the victor of every duel we’ve had? Every game we’ve played?” She grits her teeth and pokes him hard in the sternum. “The only thing huge here is your—hggrk!”
Grimory pulls his claws out of Anarchaia’s gut and watches her double over to the ground. He glances at Ashildir once again. “You’re sure we can’t die, right?”
Alisbeth leaps between the two, eyes wide with shock. “Stop that! What the hell has gotten into you?” She stoops to assess the damage done to Anarchaia. “And yes. I died and went right back to the beginning.”
Ashildir nods. “The little death knight is right. We are already dead, so we cannot die permanently. How else could Helya trap her souls in here if they could escape merely by dying?”
Grimory gives a triumphant grin. “Good.” He leans down to glower at the mage behind Alisbeth’s back. “You remember that.”
Anarchaia gives a weak gurgle in response, an arm over her profusely bleeding stomach. She makes to say something, but is distracted by the fluid surrounding her. A smile spreads across her face. “It’s red,” she chokes before losing all strength and falling limp.
Grimory claps his hands together as though having completed something significant. “Welp, let’s get going. Preferably before she comes back.”
Koltira stares at the demon hunter in shock, his mouth agape. He drops to his knees and lifts Anarchaia’s spirit from the pool of blood. “Ana? Ana?” Her figure fades in his arms, leaving nothing but the crimson puddle behind.
Alisbeth spins on Grimory and grabs one of his horns. She smashes the side of his head against the cage and glares at him. Grimory yelps in pain as his head is struck against the bars. He growls and grabs Alisbeth’s arm with a mutated claw, readying himself to attack her, too.
“We don’t have time for this! I get that you have jealousy issues with her and my husband, but this is not the time to go bringing it up.”
“It had nothing to do with—”
She hits his head against the cage again. “Now fall in line.”
“Agh! Stop!” He stumbles back when he’s released, rubbing his head and in agony. “No one made you the fucking boss,” he snaps. He opens his mouth to say something more, but is met with a fist to the jaw.
“Asshole!” Anarchaia barks, fire at the ready. “I should fry you right here and now!” The fires die out and she turns away, a hand over her chest. “But I’m better than that.”
“Oh, then shall we change leaders? Let’s see, who hasn’t killed a party member yet?” Alisbeth, Ashildir and Koltira raise their hands.
Anarchaia keeps her hand lowered, still feeling responsible for Alisbeth’s death. “I didn’t want to lead anyway,” she mumbles. “I’m obviously overqualified.”
Grimory spits at the dirt and folds his arms. “Then lead the way, o valiant leader.”
Koltira furrows his brow. “What about me?”
Alisbeth’s jaw tenses. “You want to lead?”
“Okay. Where should we go?” She folds her arms under her bust and rests on a hip.
Koltira stares over her shoulder. “Over there.”
She turns her head then stares incredulously at him. “That’s the opposite direction from where we want to go. Why would we go that way?”
Koltira shrugs and smiles. “The way those lanterns hit the fog is really pretty.”
Alisbeth breathes several heavy breaths through her nose and swallows a frustrated scream. “Get back into formation. All of you. We’re leaving Helheim. Now.”
Anarchaia and Grimory cast disgusted glares at one another before doing as they’re told. Grimory glances down at the mage in front of him, thoughts racing through his mind of slicing her open again and how easy it’d be.
He clenches his jaw. “This is stupid. It probably won’t work.”
“Grim? Be a doll and shut up. Let’s go.”
Ashildir lights the way as the group moves along the path at a steady place. They reach Guarm and Ashildir stops. “Be quiet, now, little ones. I don’t know how his ears do.”
“Hold your breath if you have to,” Alisbeth hisses through her teeth. She sidesteps and stoops to retrieve her sword from the charred outline of herself.
Anarchaia folds her arms and once again does as she’s told, smirking at the dog’s injured eye as they pass.
Grimory rolls his eyes but otherwise makes no signs of objection, keeping quiet until the party is safely on the other side.
Alisbeth scans the new area as she shrugs off her seaweed.
“Such a revolting disguise!” Ashildir complains. “My armor still reeks of seaweed!”
Koltira laughs beside her, picking pieces of plant from his armor. “At least we didn’t get eaten?”
Anarchaia throws off her makeshift scarf and shudders. “Where to next?” She glances ahead on the path. “Up the steps I presume?”
“Obviously,” Grimory snaps. “Look, there’s some sort of altar at the top, overlooking the sea.”
“I noticed,” Anarchaia retorts. “I was asking the leader. Not you, Sir Kills-alot.”
Alisbeth casts her gaze to Ashildir. “What sort of being is Helya?”
“A sea witch,” the shieldmaiden replies.
“Then we head to the altar. Can you guys behave yourselves that long? Please?”
“Anything for you, my love.” Koltira wraps his arm around her waist.
She gives him a tired smile. “Thank you. It means a lo—”
“Oh my gods, look at that!” Koltira runs off after a light in the mists. Alisbeth sighs and frowns at her feet before taking off after him.
Grimory gives a light chuckle at Alisbeth’s expense and follows after.
The party passes a large clearing in which a behemoth rampages around, attacking as well as fending off a multitude of vrykul men. It is much too distracted to bother with the group as they pass. The ground shakes with each step it takes and it roars as it hurls souls off itself.
“Koltira!” Alisbeth catches up to him and drags him down by the back of his cuirass. “We’re almost out. Please stay with the group. Just a little farther, okay?”
He furrows his brow. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was…” He presses a palm to his forehead and closes his eyes. “You’re right. We should keep going.”
Grimory scoffs when he catches up, rolling his eyes once more. “This is tedious. I’ll see you all up there.” He extends his wings and leaps from the ground, gliding his way toward the altar.
Anarchaia glowers after him. “Good, we were sick of your shit anyway.” She pushes on past the other three and onto the stairs ahead.
Koltira stands and dusts himself off. “Those two are going mad.”
Alisbeth purses her lips and just nods. “Yes. That’s why we need to hurry.”
Ashildir waves to them as she follows the mage. “Come, little ones. We are nearly free from this place.”
Anarchaia bounds up the steps as quickly as she can, using her magic to throw anything in her way off the short cliff. Along the way, a broken vase covered in moist dust catches her eye. She pauses and wipes away the grime, then, with a shaking hand, pushes her mask up above her mouth and nose. A gasp fills her lungs at the sight of her porcelain white skin and glossy pink lips. She pushes the mask up further but only catches a glimpse of her two, intact eyes before the sound of the others following causes her to reflexively cover her face once more. She turns and continues up the steps. When she finally gets to the top she opens her mouth to reprimand Grimory but is instead met with a stories-tall woman made of skin and scale.
“Look, I activated the shrine,” Grimory sneers, arms folded.
Alisbeth lowers her eyebrows in annoyance as Koltira runs ahead to meet the other two. He leans his elbow on Grimory’s shoulder and settles in a casual pose. “‘Sup?” He jerks his chin at the demon hunter.
Alisbeth stands beside Ashildir and tries to look braver than the huge woman makes her feel. “Helya. We bring a message.”
“Are you going to touch my horn again?” Grimory whispers cautiously to Koltira, tilting his head away as though he already knows the answer.
Koltira raises his eyebrows in complete innocence. “Why would I do a thing like that?”
“Oh I’m certain you do,” Helya calls, her voice reverberating through land and sea alike. “It’s a shame I do not associate myself with the pleas of vermin. Your souls are here, and here they shall stay.”
Alisbeth grits her teeth as the voice shakes her. She glances over at Anarchaia, wondering if it would be a better idea for her to communicate with the goddess, since the elf’s memories on the subject seem a little fractured.
Koltira raises his other hand as slow as possible then taps the very tip of Grimory’s horn with his fingertip. “Touch.”
Grimory growls and shoves the man away, claws at the ready once again. “Don’t touch.”
Anarchaia catches Alisbeth’s eye and gives a frustrated sigh. She steps forward and straightens her spine. “Helya,” she calls with Odyn’s voice instead of her own. “You’ve become unjust in your rule. Free the souls that you have no dominion over and stop this abuse of power, or face the consequences.”
The sea witch pauses before bursting with laughter. “So you’ve spoken with Odyn?” Her fanged mouth stretches in a grin. “Very well, champions.” She points a long, clawed finger at the foot of the cliffs, to the giant still battling countless spirits. “Those who defeat Geir are permitted exit from Helheim.”
Koltira laughs. “You’re not supposed to fight me, remember?” He reaches out and slaps Grimory’s horn.
Grimory gives another growl and lunges at Koltira, tackling him to the ground. He aims a blow to his face, but is lifted completely off the ground by violet light.
Anarchaia scoffs as she holds the Illidari at her mercy. “Animals. All of you.”
Alisbeth clears her throat. “Surely there must be a more peaceful way, Helya? After all, wouldn’t a benevolent ruler accrue a more devoted following than a malevolent one?”
Helya gives another laugh. “Foolish girl. What part of vermin did you not follow? I needn’t even waste my time talking with you, yet here I am. Take the deal or remain here for eternity.”
Alisbeth grabs Koltira by the back of his cuirass as he goes chasing after the restrained demon hunter. “This is your realm, Helya. We will obey your rules.”
“All of us will be released, yes?” Ashildir asks. “What of the other souls?”
“The other souls are mine,” Helya growls and waves a dismissive hand. “I’ve given them the same opportunity I’ve given you, and none have prevailed. Now go, before I change my mind.”
Alisbeth pulls Koltira away by the hand and waves the others to follow. “Well, you guys heard her. We’re killing that thing.” She sets her sights on the silhouette of the giant stomping through the bone field.
Grimory grunts in annoyance as he’s set down and released. He adjusts his belt and glares at Anarchaia. “Good. Some action.”
“Like you don’t get plenty,” the mage snaps, following the other three.
When the party reaches the circular clearing, the sound of cries of battle and agony ring throughout. Geir stomps past, throwing spirits from his coat and trampling them underfoot.
“Plan?” Anarchaia groans at Alisbeth.
She blinks, bringing herself back to the moment. “Take him down. Cripple his legs.” She runs for the giant’s legs, swinging at his kneecap.
Geir roars in annoyance as Alisbeth’s blade scrapes across his knee.
Anarchaia runs ahead, summoning a long whip made of fire. She throws it around Geir’s ankle. However, she lacks the strength to do much and is thrown across the clearing like a ragdoll. Koltira races sideways, his arms stretched wide to catch her. He wraps his arms around her waist and they both fall to the ground, the mage sat atop his lap.
“Hi,” he says sheepishly.
She quickly scrambles to her feet and clears her throat into a fist. “Thank you,” she says quietly while straightening, then turns and returns to the fray in a flustered huff.
Grimory takes flight, blowing fel fire in the giant’s face, blinding him temporarily. A large hand comes up to swat him away as one would a gnat; he narrowly dodges.
Ashildir pulls her arm back, teetering to gather strength. She springs forward, launching her spear toward the giant’s eye; it pops like a grape, raining clear liquid and blood down on Alisbeth and Koltira. Geir roars in pain and pulls the spear from his socket, then throws it on the ground like a toothpick.
Koltira smiles dreamily after the mage. A skull flies past his head, bringing him back to the present. The death knight runs behind the giant to swing the maw back and forth across the back of its ankle. Alisbeth works the Redblade across the other, but is quickly scooped up and held in a fist so tight she cannot breathe. He throws her; the shieldmaiden runs to catch her. They fall to the ground in a heap as the Maw’s spikes rake through one final time to sever the giant’s Achilles tendon. Geir drops to his knee and screams out, reaching behind him to find what had injured him. He wraps Koltira in his fist and throws the high elf into a rock wall.
Anarchaia grits her teeth in half-irritation, half-concern and blinks back into the fray before she collides with the cliffside. Out in front of the massive man, she winds up and, from her palms, conjures a massive vortex of fire into Geir’s face. The monster stumbles back onto his rear, rubbing the ash and burnt flesh from his face.
Grimory swoops down and slashes at the giant’s throat with his sharpened claws. The flesh slashes open but the wound is not deep enough to open the esophagus; Geir merely grabs the demon hunter with a hand before crushing him into the bone-strewn ground.
Alisbeth growls as Koltira runs to her side. An idea springs to her mind and she takes the Redblade in one hand and her Maw in the other. She swallows back her anticipation and turns to the shieldmaiden. “Toss me.”
“What?” Ashildir and Koltira demand in unison.
“Toss. Me. Now!”
Ashildir lifts Alisbeth and spins, throwing her forward like a shotput. The blood elf grits her teeth and swings to dig the spiked ends of each weapon into the beast. She sticks successfully, finding herself dangling from Geir’s shoulder. Using the weapons like ice picks, she climbs up then swings the Redblade to deepen the wound Grimory had made.
Blood pours forth from Geir’s neck and he falls back. The spirits around converge on the giant, hacking at his body with hatchets and swords. Grimory stumbles back to his feet and winces in pain. He stumbles again when the behemoth rumbles the ground. He runs around and dig his claws into Geir’s skull. The muscles in his arms swell and mutate; bony spikes pierce his skin as he pulls with all his might.
Alisbeth scrambles to her feet to view the giant, then notices the demon hunter. “Grim, stop! What are you doing?”
“Getting proof,” he growls, the muscles in his torso creaking as they tear. His horns curl outward and the tattoos on his chest illuminate the fog around him. He gives one final shout of vigor before ripping Geir’s head clean from his body. Holding the massive, bloody thing above him like a trophy, he grins triumphantly at Alisbeth, gnarled fangs overlapping his lips.
“Proof for what? I’m sure Helya saw us!”
Eyes wide with fascination, Koltira creeps up behind the distracted man, then reaches up with an uncovered hand to feel the longer horns.
Noticing Koltira on the edges of his vision, Grimory turns to hurl the gigantic head at him with an ethereal roar. “I said no touching!”
Feeling a sudden sense of obligation, Anarchaia runs forward to grab the object with her magic. She strains under the weight of it and is only able to slow it some before it flies from her grasp, continuing its path.
Koltira dodges back, but the skull flattens him into the bone littered ground.
Alisbeth leaps between them, fighting back tears. “Don’t!” She begs Grimory. “Let’s just leave, please.”
The demon hunter lowers his stance like a lion ready to pounce. “Or else what?” His feet skid across the dirt as he makes to attack Alisbeth as well, but in a flash of light and smoke, the half-demon is reduced to nothing more than a bewildered sheep. It bleats angrily and charges Alisbeth anyway.
Anarchaia folds her arms and shakes her head. “Animals,” she repeats.
Koltira pounces on the sheep and laughs as he lifts it onto his shoulder. “Like catching murlocs with Faltora.”
Alisbeth sighs in relief to see Koltira isn’t badly injured, and beckons the others to head for the platform.
Anarchaia takes the sheep out of Koltira’s grasp and into a magic bubble, then settles it to float behind her. “He won’t be this way long. I can’t trust you’ll know what to do when the enchantment breaks. We have to hurry.” She pushes the man and Alisbeth toward the staircase.
“Helya!” Alisbeth shouts as she races up the steps. “We have passed your test. Release us, now.”
“Unworthy!” The voice booms back at them before Helya appears, glaring down at them. “You will stay in Helheim. Your souls are mine!”
Despite the witch’s words, five pillars of light burst forth around the altar, leading upward toward the sea of black above. Ashildir laughs at Helya’s bewildered expression.
“It seems even you are forced to honor your word, sea witch.”
Before Helya can retort or stop them, Ashildir steps into the light and ascends upward.
“Come, little ones! Before it’s too late!”
Anarchaia throws the sheep into its perspective light and waits idly at the back for Koltira and Alisbeth to do the same.
Koltira spins to take Alisbeth by the shoulders. “I have a better idea. Let’s stay.” He nods and smiles, his eyes pleading.
Alisbeth shakes her head. “No. We don’t belong here. Go, I’m right behind you.”
Koltira eases them away from the pillars. “But, this is how we should be. Look at you! You’re alive. You’re so beautiful. I can’t leave you again.”
She frowns and hugs him. “We’re not alive, Koltira. Not here, not there. Never again.” She gives him a hard shove into the light and sighs as it carries him away.
~ * ~
Grimory inhales sharply as he sits up, chest heaving as he takes large gulps of air into his newly awoken lungs. He coughs and stands, grabbing at his horns and looking down at himself. After a sigh of relief, he looks over to the lifeless bodies of his three friends as they lie peacefully below the iron crosses made of retired swords. Memory returning, he lowers to sitting and watches and waits for the others.
Koltira’s eyes snap open and whirl around to take in his surroundings. He sits upright with a yell, batting at the air. He grunts as he sees Grimory watching, then pulls himself to sit outside the small mass grave they’d been sharing.
Grimory looks away as Koltira returns, embarrassment filling his chest and cheeks. The cool wind of an oncoming storm breezes through the graves as they wait. Two minutes pass. Five. The demon hunter furrows his brow and crawls closer to the girls’ bodies, inspecting for possible signs of life. He sits back in the stones and grass when he sees none.
“What’s taking so long?” he mutters.
Koltira looks up from stroking Alisbeth’s hair. “I… They were right behind me.” Knowing that neither would show any real signs of life, he lifts their arms and watches them fall to the dirt. His dark lips purse together and he sits back. “I’m sure they’ll be up any minute.” The awkward silence draws between them for several minutes before the death knight clears his throat. “I won’t talk about it if you won’t.”
“Agreed.” Grimory runs a hand over his side to feel his closing wound; the dull pain reminds him that he is, in fact, alive. He glances down at Anarchaia and cringes at the memory of plunging his claws into her belly. How could I have been so terrible?
As if in response, the mage shoots upward, kicking Grimory in the face and scrambling away like a frightened animal. She turns, a hand full of fire and breath heavy, then gives a sigh of relief followed by a few coughs and sinks to her knees. “I-I’m back,” she breathes, fingers snaking under her mask to probe at the empty socket beneath. Her other eye wells with tears and she throws her hands back into her lap in frustration. “No,” she moans, her palms coming back up to cover her face.
Grimory also gives a sigh, rubbing at his aching jaw. “Welcome back,” he grunts sarcastically, blood dribbling out of the corner of his mouth.
Koltira eyes Alisbeth’s motionless body for a minute, then turns his gaze to the mage. “Where is she?” He takes Anarchaia by the shoulders, trying to be gentle through his panic.
Anarchaia lowers her hands to look up at him and sniffles. “She was right behind me,” she hiccups, then stifles another sob at the memory. “Oh Gods, I was so terrible. She should have left me there on common principle alone.”
Minutes pass and Koltira lifts the other death knight’s body to hold in his arms, muttering to her. “What did you do to her, Ana?” he shouts, reaching an angry hand at the mage.
Anarchaia skitters back, away from Koltira’s hand. “N-Nothing!” she cries. “She was right behind me, I swear!”
Grimory reaches between the gap to grab Koltira firmly by the elbow. “That’s enough. She’ll be back. Just be patient.”
~ * ~
Alisbeth turns to the mage and smiles. “After you.”
Anarchaia doesn’t budge, her arms tightening against her chest. “No, I insist.”
The hair on the back of Alisbeth’s neck stands on end as her nerves scream. Her smile doesn’t waver. “Let’s go together.” She reaches out to take Anarchaia’s hand.
Anarchaia, again, does nothing, staring at the death knight from behind her mask. “No.”
The elf’s smile falls. “Why not?”
Anarchaia grits her teeth and turns her head away as though offended by the question. “I like it here. I’m whole again.” She turns back to Alisbeth. “I’m staying.”
The death knight takes her by the elbow. “What do you mean you’re whole?”
Anarchaia wrenches her arm free. “It’s none of your business,” she snaps. “Just go.” Her hands ignite into balls of flame. “Or I’ll see to it that neither of us leave here.”
Alisbeth holds up her hands, palms to the mage. “Ana, please. We need to go.”
“Then go!” She hurls a bolt of fire at Alisbeth’s feet to get her to move.
The elf leaps away, then dives back at the mage to grab her. Anarchaia growls. She blinks away, then turns to aim another blast at Alisbeth herself.
Alisbeth holds the Redblade over herself to block the flame. A small amount surges around the blade and singes her cheek. “Don’t make me fight you!”
“Then go!” Anarchaia throws another flame Alisbeth’s way. “No one’s keeping you here! Just leave!”
“Not without you!” The flame smashes against Alisbeth’s stomach. She winces at the heat, then pats out the ignited areas. “You’re my friend!”
“Oh, don’t give me that.” Anarchaia steps a foot back as though to attack again but does not. “We’ve known one another for-what?-a couple weeks? You know nothing about me.”
“Fine, we’re not friends. But I’m not leaving you down here.” Alisbeth reaches a shadowy tendril forward to grip the mage to her. She wraps her arms around Anarchaia and hauls her toward the pillars of light.
“No!” Anarchaia’s body bursts into flames as she flails. “I’m staying!”
Alisbeth drops the mage and yelps, patting furiously at herself to put out any residual fires. The death knight growls and reaches out to grab Anarchaia around the throat and hurl her down the stairs. “You want to stay? Fight me for it.”
Anarchaia stumbles down the first few stairs before recovering and scrambling to her feet. She turns sharply and throws a beam of fire at Alisbeth, the foremost part taking the shape of a bird as it sails toward its target.
“Heh! You think you can beat me?” She laughs.
Alisbeth encases herself in a red shell, allowing the fiery bird to explode against it, shattering the shell to the ground at Alisbeth’s feet. The blood elf raises her sword and leaps down at Anarchaia, swinging to remove her right arm.
The mage ducks away from the swing and, while crouched, aims a fist at the side of Alisbeth’s knee as it’s the only unarmored place she can see.
The death knight screams out as her knee bends backward. She loses her footing and tumbles the rest of the way down the stairs. Limping, she lifts the mage into the air across the distance, suffocating the magic from her as she makes her way back. Anarchaia chokes as her throat his forcibly closed and she’s lifted off the ground. Alisbeth swings wide to take off one of the legs flailing in the air beneath the robes. The mage’s eyes water and widen as she looks down at the blade arcing toward her legs. She desperately attempts to move her leg out of its path, but the blade slices through the flesh of her thigh and she cries out in agony. Not able to do much else, she kicks at Alisbeth’s face with her uninjured leg.
The elf takes the mage’s boot to her face, the cartilage of her nose cracks and she falls to the steps below and screams out in agony.
Anarchaia inhales gratefully and winces as she stands, blood pooling around her foot.
Alisbeth pushes to her feet, eyes watering and blood streaming from her broken nose. She wipes it from her mouth and shakes it to the stones at her feet. With a cry of anger, she rushes the mage, sword raised and ready to swing for the other leg.
The mage gasps as she looks up to see the sword coming down at her, having not expected Alisbeth to recover so quickly. She cries out again as her other thigh is sliced into. Her feet fumble to move out of the way and she stumbles to the ground with two injured legs. She lifts a hand to throw a large, icy spike at the death knight in an attempt to defend herself from another attack.
Alisbeth throws herself to the steps, the sharp corner digs into her ribs as she hits her nose against the stone and screams in pain again. Rather than dwelling on her own pain, she scrambles for the mage to punch at the wounds in her thighs.
Anarchaia rolls out of the way completely, but groans at the pain in her bleeding legs. Losing strength, she hurls two more spikes of ice at Alisbeth with trembling hands. “Why don’t you just go?”
The spikes both strike the death knight on her chest. They shatter her breastplate with their cold impact and knock her back down the steps. Alisbeth hisses at the impact, then drags Anarchaia down with a shadowy grip. Blood swirls through the air between then in a line leading from the mage to the elf. Her nose pops back into place and her injuries heal. Anarchaia grits her teeth tightly together and can do nothing but endure the pain as her own life force is drawn from her being. Alisbeth stands, throwing a quick silence on the girl, then reaching to drag her back up the stairs.
She collapses to the ground and weakly lifts a hand to cast more magic only to find her voice gone. Instead she pushes weakly at the death knight, sparkles invading her vision. “No…” she groans. “Don’t…send me back…”
“Why?” Alisbeth demands. “Why would you want to stay here and slowly go crazier every day? You stay here, you forfeit your right to ever see Grim or Khadgar again.” She stops in front of the pillars to look into the mage’s mask. “Is that really what you want?”
Anarchaia swallows between shallow breaths. “Yes,” she responds with little thought. “Neither of them really care about me,” she wheezes. “Why should I care about them?”
Alisbeth shakes her head. “I don’t believe you.” She shoves Anarchaia into a pillar of light. “I’m right behind you,” she says.
Alisbeth steps to her pillar, then stops. She removes a gauntlet and looks at her hand, full and pink with life. She takes off her other glove and runs her fingers through her hair, smiling at the thickness and silkiness she’d lost so many years ago. Whispers fill her mind, beckoning her. She backs away from the light and follows the sound down to the black water below. Kneeling down, she leans over to look at her reflection. She smiles at the woman she barely recognizes anymore.
“Ssstayy wiiith ussss.”
Alisbeth recoils from the water as seaweed-covered skeletal arms reach for her. She blinks as her mind clears, then tears up the steps and hurls herself into the pillar of light before the whispers can call to her again.