The flowers you need... ones with the evil eye. I've seen them. Once.
Set out with a hunting party of... about a score. Healers for the petrified. They had all the supplies, but they still needed a tracker.. so they hired me.
I told them the tracks were old... the scent had been washed out... and the eaten remains of the petrified we found weren't fresh. Told them something else had moved in, maybe... but they weren't turning back.
Found broken trees, patches of burnt forest, and a lot of caves. I knew we were on top of something deep... a big lair, a hive... maybe passage to the Underdark. I told them the basilisks were gone, and there was something new. And we should turn back. But they found two petrified intact, so they pressed on. They reasoned -- maybe the new thing was gone, too.
Reached a cave entrance, big one, big dark mouth to a lair, where the light doesn't hit but the water flows down in the rain and the dirt is rich... Hundreds of those flowers, all over it. Like a garden for the petrified we saw -- dozens, all intact, but scraped with big claw marks -- like they were placed. Told them a third time we should fuck off and forget it... but they moved in. Started retrieving and healing.
It was a behir. It was waiting for us... dozen-legged, fifty-foot, storm-spitting, dragon-eating monster. Three got dusted by lightning -- the lucky ones. The rest, it ate. Mocked us the whole time it squeezed us to pulp, slashed us open and gulped us down -- but it never hurt the petrified, or the flowers. Like they were traps.
I got out with two porters and a priest. Haven't been back since. You need those flowers? I'll get them for you. But you're not coming.
* * * * *
March 8th, 2021.
The slayer hadn't even wanted Anya to come, but here they both were, approaching the behir's lair early in the morning. It was the cusp of dawn, when mist flowed over the ground in the deeper parts of the Wilds, and the faint lights of glowing fungus and nature spoirits gave way to a pale gray light that preceded the blaze of the sun coming through the canopy. Two dark handprints, myrmidon-charcoal, covered most of the slayer's face, and a thick stripe had been smeared across her eyes; it was slathered on her arms, dusted her armor, and had been dabbed liberally on her skin underneath, masking her scent with the neutrality of dust left over from an incinerator.
Her armor was simple hide, and underneath was her shirt of mithril chain, the strange metal not nearly as conductive to electricity as most others. Every weapon was carefully wrapped in strips of hide -- hand-and-a-half swords, hand-axes, and a half-dozen knives tucked away -- and the squat flasks and vials held under her sash had each been filled to the brim and stoppered, the overflow meticulously wiped away, no room for air nor any accompanying sloshing and splashing.
She was silent, without scent, and crept forward two slow, careful steps towards the wide mouth of the lair. The ceiling hung thirty feet overhead, dangling with ancient and fire-blackened roots, and on either side of the steep slope of the cave were petrified people -- nearly thirty in all, their surfaces showing the scrapes of mighty talons -- and countless flowers that caught the faint light, seeming to stare at them like unblinking eyes.
Not so very deep within the lair, perhaps a hundred feet down, a massive creature breathed, hissed, and rumbled in its slumber.
Anya followed her friend at a considerable distance. She was similarly dressed in soft leathers, but had traded the mithril for a padded shirt, and was keenly aware that it would not provide the same level of protection. The application of charcoal, once explained, had made sense. She'd even gone so far as to dust her hair with it. Her face wasn't as liberally painted as Ettyn's. She only needed to stay hidden until the fight started, and then there would be no avoiding notice.
She stopped twenty yards back from the mouth of the creature's lair to allow the slayer to continue on alone. While she waited, she tallied the bodies and the flowers. Her initial impression was we're going to make so much money.
The sound of the sleeping creature had her guard down for the moment. She reached up to pull her hood over her head and stepped to the side, positioning herself outside the direct line of sight of anything exiting the lair. While she watched Ettyn, she moved her fingers, balling her hands in to fists and relaxing them rhythmically.
Ettyn turned a slow look over her shoulder at Anya, and made a few motions. Wait. Then another, a hand up with three fingers, as if holding back a spell. She motioned to herself, then into the depths, and covered her eyes as she indicated something come out. Then she cracked a grin at her, though there was something grim hiding behind the comical expression, a desire for revenge and an end to this lingering trauma...
...then she turned to step down into the lair, doing her best to watch her footing without actually taking the details in. So much of it was familiar, but the familiarity would only hurt her focus now. No mind was paid to the petrified, either. She focused on reaching the bottom, slipping out of Anya's sight.
Anya kept her hands balled up this time. An icy blue light seeped from between the fingers of her left. As Ettyn moved out of view, she stepped back again, picking her footing blindly but carefully. A critical eye remained on the entrance to the lair, judging the distance, the likely spot for the creature to emerge, and how quickly it would be able to cover the distance between them. When she thought she'd gotten to a place where she would be able to hide after casting, she stopped and waited.
It felt like a long wait.
It was about a minute. That was how long it took Ettyn to creep into position, coming up to the head of the massive beast, barely visible in the dark... though a subtle shift in her black sclera seemed to accommodate this to some degree. Hide wrappings muffled the quiet hissing of steel as two swords slid from their sheaths, and she carefully shifted the heels of her boots, slowly lowering sharp, spiked spurs...
Moments later, a horrible shriek echoed out of the lair, as ten clawed, muscular legs carried the bulk of a blue-gray salamander-like monster out of the depths, smashing through one of the petrified captives and a dozen of the flowers, but through sheer luck its wildly thrashing tail struck little else. A stream of lightning scoured wildly across the ground and up to the ceiling, rocks tumbling into the lair entrance, but it could not strike its antagonist -- the slayer was perched on top of its head, calves tucked into its horns, spurs twisting into its ear-holes, and her swords jabbed deep into its eye sockets. Though she seemed to be working on popping the ruined eyes out, most of her focus was on staying on top of the creature's head.
"YOU WILL BOIL IN MY GULLET!" it howled as it threw its head back, trying to claw her off with its forelimbs, as she pressed herself low and close to its head, narrowly avoiding its talons.
That was not what Anya had been expecting to see emerge from the lair. She watched the behir come thundering out and almost felt bad for it until it started yelling. As it lifted its head to try to unseat Ettyn, she raised her left hand and opened it. Five points of light jumped across the distance and impacted the behir on its exposed throat and belly. It wasn't looking at her and she wasn't sure it was able to see anything at all, but she still ran once the spell left her hands. She cut across the space in front of the lair, well away from where she had been while casting.
Blood was pouring into its punctured ears and its eyes were ruined, but it could still feel. It knew something was still attached to the top of its head (painfully so), though it could not smell the creature that had just darted in front of its lair and seared bolts of light into its skin, not with the charcoal masking her. It stomped out of the lair, mercifully missing her, and twisted around so it could get its tail closer -- managing to lash around the slayer and yank her off of its head, squeezing her torso and pushing its tail spines through her skin. She let out a winded cry, and it laughed evilly as it whipped her around. "YOU'LL JOIN YOUR FRIEND SOON, MAGE!" it roared, and released Ettyn in an arc towards its wide open maw...
But the damage to its ears had affected its sense of space and balance. The slayer bounced off the tip of its nose, was bucked just clear of its snapping teeth, and tore loose her sash as she was tossed free. She thudded painfully into the ground by its scrambling feet, as a dozen flasks of highly flammable liquid variously broke in its mouth or tumbled intact down its throat.
Anya had changed directions as soon as Ettyn was tossed, and was running towards the behir... at least until she saw it fail to catch her. She skidded to a stop and pointed at the behir, and a tiny bead of light bloomed in the back of its throat.
"Get up, Ettyn! Get up, get up, run!" She had her eyes fixed on the behir, staring intently at that little light while she backed away. Just in case that didn't buy enough distance, she waved her arms over her head and yelled. "Come on, over here you fucked up salamander!"
Ettyn's ears were ringing from the impact, but she picked out Anya's words over the din. She didn't care about the swords still stuck in the creature's eyes -- she could get new swords -- just pushed up from the ground and started running, spurs giving her a bit of stability as she scrambled upright. She was moving away from the beast as fast as she could, her steps hobbled until she flexed her hand and slapped her thigh twice, and her muscles worked all the harder to make her stride into bounding leaps.
Her path was straight until she heard Anya, and glared over her shoulder at the behir with its glowing mouth starting to crackle. It had managed to hear her, lining up what would likely be its very last lightning bolt right at her friend. She swerved towards Anya, arms open to fold around her as she pushed deeper into her sprint and jumped into her -- there was a flicker as her arms closed around her, and she twisted in the air as they shifted through the black mists of her magic some thirty feet away. They reappeared for only a moment and vanished again, right into another, deeper shadow that dropped them further thirty feet. The slayer tried to turn her body to cover her friend's from harm when they slammed into the ground.
Anya had been expecting to get hit by a behir or a lightning bolt, but she had not been expecting to get hit by an Ettyn in a dead run. At the moment of impact she yelped and took her eyes off of the behir, breaking her focus on maintaining the little bead of light.
As soon as they disappeared into the shadows, a low rumble started in the creature's throat and blossomed in to a rapidly expanding fireball that ignited the alchemist's fire it had swallowed. Any flasks that hadn't exploded popped into shrapnel that sliced their way out of the behir. Adding insult to injury, the crackling charge it failed to dispel in time backfired in its mouth.
Not quite a hundred feet away, Ettyn and Anya hadn't gone far enough to get out of the splash zone.
Some bones were flung free while others simply fell in place, but its scaly skin, its fat and muscle, its organ, and all of the blood and other fluids it contained? They were flung out in every direction, a mist splattering the lair entrance and the two intrepid hunters first -- followed by a shower of heavier chunks falling from above. It was a number of seconds before it (or most of it) stopped, and the slayer loosened her hold, pushing up off of Anya and into a crouch, and looking her over with a silent question: You okay?
There were several painful looking slices in her sides, two in her back and one across her stomach, and though they oozed black blood, none seemed to have gone so deep as to seriously debilitate her.
The blasted, steaming remains of the behir behind them were spared a simple glance.
Anya looked at Ettyn, wide eyed, then to the place where the behir had been. Her eyes welled up and her shoulders shook. For a brief moment it looked like she was going to cry -- until she started laughing instead. "That was disgusting!" she gasped, and tried to wipe her eyes with a less dirty part of her shirt. "Are you all right?"
The black mist followed soon after. At first it seemed like faint trails... but with all the torment it had inflicted and delighted in over the years? Creatures it had devoured not for any hunger, but to glut itself on suffering alone? The behir had been a truly terrible thing out there in the Wilds, and its essence was building into a great cloud that curled along the ground, arcing towards the slayer, though she scarcely paid any attention to it. "I'm fine, Anya," she wheezed a breath, feeling at her wounds. "Probably need the spare salve if you've got it... fucker ate mine."
As her eyes roved over the lair entrance, and the various petrified people, the bounty of flowers, and the promise of years of loot (and likely a mountain of filth) at the bottom of the lair, the black mist surged into the back of her. Was it dawn's finally coming through the canopy, or did her skin appear -- less ashen? A deep, healthy-looking tan, naturally olive and darkened by time in the sun, marked by pinkish-white scars that stood out angrily as a legacy of all her deeds, and hazel eyes were restless, worried and sad.
A breeze from the mountains picked up, the branches rattled, the scattered clouds and morning mists rolled in front of the rising sun, and her black eyes were steady on the mouth of the lair, her grayish-tan skin -- the shade it usually was -- all but covered by behir goop. Slowly... she cracked a grin. "Gut bath is good for the skin, princess. Fancy stuff."
Anya had been digging through the bag of her lap, bones and glass and other bits clicking together while she searched. With a triumphant flourish, she held the bottle of salve out to Ettyn, and looked up at her friend. Her eyes widened again at the sight of color in her eyes and skin, but before she could call attention to it?
A breeze from the mountains picked up, the branches rattled, the scattered clouds and morning mists rolled in front of the rising sun, and the change was gone. The slayer's black eyes were steady on the mouth of the lair, her grayish-tan skin -- the shade it usually was -- all but covered by behir goop. Slowly... she cracked a grin. "Gut bath is good for the skin, princess. Fancy stuff."
Anya stared, hard, until Ettyn turned back to her. When she did, she shook the jar at her. "Back up salve. I'll make more from one of the owlbears."
This one smelled less acrid than the others. She'd added some of Alexia's echinacea to fight infections and the stink.
Ettyn took a whiff as soon as she opened the jar, and glanced at Anya. "Smells like the little one," she grunted. With her free hand she reached out for a simple clap to her friend's shoulder, and moved off to begin dressing her wounds. "Can start gathering the flowers... but stay near the top. Could be traps, or young... and plenty of loot to go around," she added with an audible grin.
"She grew the flowers." It wasn't at all surprising that Ettyn could pick out whose garden something came from. It should have been, but it wasn't. While Ettyn got to work taking care of the wounds, Anya started for the lair and the flower clusters.
She used a bone handled knife to cut them carefully and twine from her bag to bundle them together. If Ettyn was close enough, she would hear Anya quietly apologizing to petrified figures as she reached around them to get to as many blooms as possible.
Ettyn heard the apologies, and chuckled quietly. "We'll get to them, too... but they'll have to pull their weight. Hauling that skull back to Skoggard." She braced herself as she slapped the sizzling salve into her ragged wounds, black-blooded and death-cursed once more.
The portal from Twilight Isle flashed a moment before Anya stepped through. She had traded her usual casual clothes for head to toe hunting leathers. Knee height boots were buckled on over leather pants and a thickly padded leather jacket was pulled on over a tight fitted shirt. As she passed the stalls in the market she smiled to anyone whose eye she caught but did not pause. Her attention was on the sands outside of the bazaar.
When she reached the edge of this different kind of wilds, she stopped. The wind was kicking up drifts of sand already and she needed protection. She unwound the deep blue sash around her waist and tied it instead around her face to cover her nose and mouth. Now confident that she would be able to focus, she stepped out to the desert. As she walked, she hummed to herself. Anya wasn't certain how giant adders hunted but she was fairly confident in assuming it would know she was there before she saw it. The knowledge was somehow reassuring.
The farther into Cadentia she got, the more she started to notice the features she had been looking for. Finally, she found a semi circle of rocks that would work for her purposes. She hopped up on to the one on the edge. It appeared she'd reached the chorus of the song she'd been humming while she restarted the same pattern of notes she'd been repeating while she searched. She hopped from rock to rock, now singing quietly. I'm way too young to lie here forever, I'm way too old to try so whatever come hang. Four hops and then she was on the central point of the curve. She squinted at the center critically, looked up at the sun and into the distant desert. Let's go out with a bang, Bang! Bang! Bang! Anya turned to look up behind her at a gentle rise in the land. She nodded again, satisfied.
When she hopped off the rock, she walked up the hill. At the apex, she scanned again. No movement yet. That wasn't a disappointment. She used her left foot to trace a circle in the sand around her. Then added in runes around the edges. The outline glowed red and she disappeared. When she was gone, the red took some time to fade away. Every hour the sands pulsed with the light again.
Even this early in the spring, the desert was hot. They had arrived by Anya's prepared portal from Domus before dawn, giving them time to further prepare the ground -- and to set up a Bedouin tent in the eye of a needle between two large rocks that had split apart some years ago, too narrow (if only just) for the likes of a giant sand adder. Camels had been hired to haul water and other supplies going back and forth from Cadentia, but with a hearty smack, had been sent braying all the way back to the nearest oasis a few miles away.
Ettyn created spells of her own, simple lines in the sand at different intervals that quickly faded, wards to tell them when they were no longer alone.
Just as crude but more forceful were the times she tightened her fingers through the sand into a tense, shaking fist, held it above the ground as violent wisps of black mist gathered around her flesh, and punched down with a THUD. These were in narrow places, too: "Don't draw it here 'til we're ready to break it."
The last was the large clay amphorae, filled with meat and blood and whatever bits were cheapest from the Cadentia butcher shops. The insides were all smeared with bull elephant sweat, and as soon as the amphorae were all in place along the ground? They removed the ash-dusted lids to let the powerful scents carry on the wind.
Throughout this long process, whenever it became too hot, Ettyn recommended that they rest for an hour or two in the relative coolness of the tent. She spent as much time sleeping as she did massaging aching wounds and stretching her joints; the rest gave her crude magic time to recover, but the strain of it was stacking pain upon pain.
Only when it neared dusk did the slayer change from her loose-fitting clothing into her half-plate. The adder would be on its way back from hunting to bed down for the night, and if it had overeaten as much as the contract claimed? Then pickings were already slim, and it would still be hungry -- hungry enough for a detour.
Anya had arrived in loose fitting clothing from head to toe. When rests were recommended, she took them. Her magic would be more useful when the time for the fight came, but she was willing to be well rested when it was time to act. Overall, she was considerably less active than Ettyn during the day.
When dusk came upon them, she changed in to the same tight fitted hunting leathers as she'd worn the day before. She wound the blue sash around her face to cover her mouth and nose again. The half plate Ettyn wore elicited a sympathetic frown. Rather than trouble herself with anything heavier, she waved a hand and light crept over her, wrapping her in a hardened skin of magic protection.
"Do you still have scrolls?"
"Plenty." Ettyn patted two places -- the sash around her waist, and a pouch under her arm -- where clearly marked scrolls with different colors and materials binding them had been tucked away. Recognizable by sight or touch. She had a narrow quiver packed tightly with arrows, a longbow, a war pick at either hip, and a rarely seen hammer across her back.
Black mist flared across her eyes, and she hissed painfully... then told Anya, "It's coming."
Outside, there was the sound of shifting sands as if in the breeze... but no breeze. The sand kicked up into rolling clouds was all happening along the same sinuous path, quickly closing on their ambush.
Anya didn't draw a weapon. Instead, she backed away several paces. Despite the heat of the desert, she was rubbing her hands together.
"Drink the other vial. It won't hurt as much."
Ettyn did as instructed: she popped the cork, drained the vial, and cast it aside on her way out of the tent after Anya. She made a face, but if the (lesser) burning bothered her this time, she didn't say anything about it. She removed her bow, slid out an arrow, and kept a scroll bound with gray twine and written in gray-black ink tucked into her palm. It would be very hard to draw and shoot while holding it... but that had never been the point.
The giant sand adder finally burst through its own bank of desert dust, sinuous motions turning to a straight lunge that brought it into view. It was more than sixty feet long, and fat from the herds it had been glutting itself on, with thick and powerful muscles under the light brown scales -- patterned to resemble desert sand and rocks. It glided smoothly over the sand, but when any part of its underbelly landed in a dip or came down from cresting a ridge, it landed with a heavy THUD from its colossal weight. It had found the furthest of the amphorae and drawn back, its neck coming up to give it some height -- then it twisted its head to the side, meaty frills stretching at the hinges of its jaw as it snapped its teeth into it. Blood, meat, and shards of clay burst out, and the meat was slowly stiffening and turning to stone, and it wasted little time in scooping them into its mouth.
Its eyes had once been a pale golden, but had run almost completely red. It may have burst vessels from exertion, or its own furious bloodlust, though the nomads here claimed its eyes ran red with the bloody tears of its victims. Whatever the cause, it looked furious. The amphorae were tempting, difficult to ignore, and its head swayed between them as its tongue darted out... but this was not the filling meal it had expected.
Instead it found people, two of them, standing defiantly before it. It bared its teeth, parted them in an angry hiss, and surged forward again, going in for the kill.
From the high ground she had claimed, Anya had seen the approach of the adder as much as she had felt it. One hand rested on a number of scrolls tucked into her her own belt and, when the creature surfaced, she drew one of them. She barely needed to read it, having transcribed it less than a day prior. But she still unfurled the scroll and recited the incantation from it.
A rumbling began one hundred feet back from the head of the adder that spread in every direction. Even if they weren't in the direct line of the spell, the earth under the two of them would still tremor noticeably. Anya planted her feet and squinted, shading her eyes with a hand. If this worked, the snake should be easier for Ettyn to damage.
Scales cracked and blood hissed out along its body where the violent seismic shocks rent its flesh, and the rocks it slithered past toppled onto and battered it. The giant adder was wily, but not enough to distinguish between a caster and one like the slayer, especially when the signs were not obvious. It recoiled, and Ettyn pointed her fingers past her bow and slid them together, as if snapping or striking a flint and steel. There was a spark, the fwoosh of a firebolt across the side of its head, and its attention refocused on her.
It drew its head back again, and snapped its fangs at the slayer, as quick as a whip. By the time it was done, she was on the ground on her side, black blood smeared around (though less than one may have expected), her skin gray and stone-like as if petrified the beast's venom. Her bow and arrow were still clutched in her grasp, and there was no sign of the scroll -- though ashes blew away in the sand near her hand...
Taking her for a helpless victim of its venom, it stretched its jaws wide, ready to snap up a meal.
Anya's eye flicked to Ettyn. The amount of blood was not of concern. If the slayer was still moving, she would keep casting. Ashes of her own consumed scroll scattered at her feet, mingling with the one she had given her friend. She raised her left hand high and yelled her incantation. There was a flash that originated with her hand but grounded behind the adder's head.
A line of fire spread back from the first spark along the length of the snake. Anya cut off the magic after a moment, balling her hand in to a fist and hissing with the exertion. Even in a place as warm as this, that level of casting sent chills down her arm in to her spine.
The fire bursting down the adder's back caused it to throw its head back and thrash in anguish, and finally turn its head to the caster. It started to slither forward past the slayer...
...who was already getting up. Anya knew how much blood was normal for her -- she was fine. Protective stone skin from the spent spell scraped together as she bounced on her feet, nocked one slightly longer arrow, and let black mist sweep her up into the air before its maw.
She loosed the arrow into its smoking, steaming and injured mouth, missing the swollen gland in the upper back of its throat and hitting the fleshy walls. Blood burst from the wound, and something else sizzled away, beginning its spread through its blood stream.
Ironically, the serpent began to stiffen and harden around its head as the petrifying paralytic began to take hold. It may have heard or sensed Ettyn landing, and certainly felt one more arrow glancing off its scales and another burying painfully in the corner of its eyes; that did not stop it from rearing up and snapping its long, envenomed fangs at the caster upon the rock.
Anya's eyes widened at the fanged maw coming directly at her. She juked sideways and to the right at the last possible moment when it lunged, and brought her left foot down hard against the sands. Ten feet in every direction erupted in a crackle of lightning and wind, enveloping the snake's head in a temporary sandstorm.
Sixty feet from where she had been, Anya reappeared, breathing hard. That had been considerably closer than she wanted to get to the snake.
More blood poured from the growing wounds in the adder's head as it hissed again, enraged, and twisted its head around after the slayer, finding her running towards two rocks some sixty feet from Anya. It lunged after her, catching her with a slam at the same time she was enveloped in black mist -- and triggering something crude in the sand when she vanished, a burst of ice that partially frosted and crystallized its already stiffening head.
Ettyn reappeared on the far side of the rocks, tumbling and wheezing when she stopped. The stone armor was already cracking and sloughing off of her skin, and her mouth was bloody from the impact, but she was still fighting. Three rapid shots into the stuck snake head between the rocks as she continued to run.
Right behind the arrows, Anya yelled another incantation from her post higher up on the rise. Within a twenty foot radius centered over the adder's head, a sheet of ice and hail pummeled the ground. She was splitting her attention between the retreating slayer and the trapped snake, and missed the building tension in its tail. "Run, run, run," she muttered encouragingly. She knew Ettyn wouldn't hear her over the sound of the large body writhing in the sand. She was instead helping her friend along out of sheer force of will.
In spite of its loss of depth perception, the adder managed to slam its muscular tail right into Anya. The impact to her gut sent her flying back -- armor or no, she wasn't standing up to that. She landed on her back several yards away and let out a pitiful wheeze, silently thanking all the gods that the snake was still stuck while she took a moment to roll back to her feet.
Rather than try to wriggle its way out backwards, the adder finally surged through the two rocks and managed to snap its jaws sideways around the fleeing slayer's torso. Fangs sunk in painfully, piercing through hide where they could and drawing blood from the wounds, though the venom pumping in seemed to have no effect. The slayer in its maw had far too much fight in her for its liking--
--which she demonstrated by drawing both of her war picks and fully blinding it with three furious, well-aimed blows to its eyes.
Anya was moving again, this time in the direction of Ettyn. She wasn't fast enough to prevent the jaws from closing around her friend, but with the adder distracted, she was able to sprint closer and reach up to clap a hand on the slayer's shoulder. The sands erupted again, and lightning crackled out from the point of contact, kicking up sand and wind. Ettyn and Anya vanished in the whirlwind, tumbling to the ground sixty feet away, momentum carrying Anya several feet further.
Ettyn landed with a wheeze, and the adder started thrashing around to find them, dizzied by another thunderclap in right in front of it, scattering rocks and debris with every collision -- and setting off hidden glyphs with violent bursts of the slayer's death-cursed magic.
"...Th-thanks, princess," the slayer grunted, swaying back to her feet as she noted how sluggish its thrashing had become. "Keep at it. I'm going climbing," and she spat blood in the sand and made a running leap onto its tail, using her war picks to scale her way up its back.
"Keep at it," Anya panted. "Right. All right. What now?" What she did know was that she needed to keep it confused. Her left hand lit up again. She inhaled sharply, exhaled slowly, then held her breath and threw a fireball at the snake's face.
With another deafening boom, the adder's head was on fire. That made it very angry. It whirled around towards the source, but could not shake the slayer off as its once sinuous movements stiffened from the venomous arrow in its mouth. Its sand-colored scales were now actual sandstone. It started to charge down the caster, but a sharp pick-slam into its side forced it off course, sweeping past and away from her instead.
Ettyn had been moving quickly, a burst of speed and strength leaving six gaping, fractured, crumbling wounds in its sides, freely spilling gouts of its blood -- and putting her all the way to the back of its head.
"Earthquake!" the slayer yelled as she hung onto one pick, flailing around on it like a ragdoll as the beast tried again to shake her off.
Anya couldn't move and manage a spell like that. She planted her feet and shouted the words to the spell, trying to be heard over the sound of the massive body thumping against the ground, and rose in volume as the sands under the snake began to rumble and shift. She turned her head away from the debris that kicked up from the massive tremor and closed her eyes.
Things cracked and shattered and crumbled up and down the massive adder's spine, and a vast amount of blood and much of its guts seeped out into the sand as it collapsed with a THUD, kicking up an even more massive sand cloud. By the time it settled, the outcome was clear -- the beast was dead, and the slayer was laid out flat on her back, panting heavily.
She bolted up to sitting when she heard the ridgeline of dunes overlooking the site of the battle erupt into cheering. No vast crowd, but some dozens of nomads and travelers, by hoof, foot, or truck, had heard the explosions and come to watch from a distance. Though most of the verbal cheers were in Arabic, Turkish, and Cantonese, none of which Ettyn knew, they at least sounded pleased.
Black mist was beginning to rise from the beast and swarm towards the slayer's back, but it did not seem to dissuade the onlookers... though the blighted life essence could easily be mistaken for desert dust at a distance.
In direct inverse of Ettyn, Anya sat down heavily when the adder stopped moving. She turned to look towards the dunes when the cheering started. Perhaps she recognized their elation faster than the slayer. She raised a hand in the direction of the bulk of the cheers, then pulled her knees in to rest her forehead on them.
She closed her eyes for two long, slow breaths. Her mental inventory revealed nothing broken. That was a welcome surprise. Her head was swimming but not from poison, just exertion. Overall, she'd gotten out less damaged than expected. When she lifted her head to look at Ettyn, she unwound the sash from around her face so she could be heard clearly and yelled, "Let's not take this contract again."
"...Yeah! Yeah... I..." Ettyn sounded distracted. She'd pulled off one of her gloves, and was flexing her hand while she stared at it. Hard to see at this distance, with the sand clouds, but it seemed... a healthy tan. Her hair, a warm brown. The sand cloud rose up to obscure her, and fell away again.
The black-eyed, raven-haired, ashen-skinned slayer turned back to Anya, pulling her glove back on as she got to her feet. "One of a kind contract... but, no more big serpents," she promised -- she counted the behir as one, even with its limbs. "You okay?" Her wounds had lessened, as they often did after a big kill, but she was definitely hobbling her way over to her friend.
In the background, many of those who'd been cheering were starting to move in towards them and the corpse, while others ran back to town with news.
"I will be. Just... need to sleep." Slowly and with an undignified groan, Anya got to her feet. She watched the crowd descending on the corpse of the monster. "It bit you. How do you feel?"
If it weren't for the fact that the body was downhill, she wouldn't have tried to make it. As it was, that was the only direction she was interested in going. She half-walked, half-slid until she was next to Ettyn, looking down. "If you feel sick at all, they have to give us the venom sac."
"Fine. Poison doesn't take to me much... That and the doses of antivenom must've done the trick," Ettyn said, and scrubbed at her jaw. "Just... felt weird. Thought maybe some... I dunno... sorcery happened. Looked... felt, a little different, for a moment there." She shrugged, finally. "Big kill."
"The behir did that to you too. Your eyes change." It occured to Anya then that people probably weren't around to witness those big kills often. She had been watching the group swarming the dead thing, but now she looked away towards Ettyn and gestured towards her own eyes to illustrate. "They're green." It was said in a tone that made it seem she was offering proof that she'd seen it.
Ettyn was quiet for a long moment. Finally she barked, "Mind the venom! Mind the gland -- that's ours! Clean harvest of it -- fifty silver!" Money and sharp orders seemed to mobilize and organize people, and gave her something else to focus on for a moment. She rubbed at her face, running her fingers along her scars, and finally looked back at Anya.
"I killed a unicorn. Became a terrible thing." She was quiet again, and frowning now. The little motions of her inscrutably dark eyes were subtle, but maybe Anya had seen her mortal eyes enough to know that they were flickering with worry, uncertainty, bordering on panic. "--What does it mean?"
"No you didn't. You become good at killing terrible things. It means something. I'm not sure what. I need to go to the bookstore." Anya assumed that answers to everything were in the bookstore. "You have green eyes. They're pretty. The curse just makes them look black."
"Hey! Don't take both fangs! One of those is mine!" The mage's attention turned again to shout towards the people below, using a battlefield voice. They backed off immediately and she nodded, satisfied. "Can we go get something to eat? And drink? I'm freezing."
Ettyn turned a little violet at the compliment, but her embarrassment evaporated quickly. "Yeah... great big feast. Get the feeling we won't pay a copper for it," she said.
The weapons were collected, the tent packed up, and Ettyn had given the fur-lined cloak she'd worn early that morning to Anya to wear. And when the crowd began to drag the great adder back to Cadentia, with trucks and tow hooks?
The two slayers rode back to the city in style.
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