Alis in Training
Suelo knocked lightly. The door swung inwards a little.
She stepped over the threshold into the cold gloom of her friend's house.
"In here." There was nothing in the voice. No expression, no feeling, just words. Dead words.
Suelo pushed gently on the door to Alis' room. It made no noise as it swished over the carpet. Alis was sitting on the edge of the bed like a broken doll.
"I heard," Suelo said, with tears in her voice. "I'm so sorry, Alis."
Alis suddenly crumpled. Suelo moved forward and caught her, holding her tightly as she sobbed into her shoulder, swallowing random breaths with little whoops.
After a few minutes, Alis pushed Suelo away and wiped her eyes. They used to be so pretty, Suelo thought sadly, but now they were red, puffed, tortured.
"Can I stay with you?" Alis asked quietly, her voice catching.
"You know you can. You're welcome there at any time."
"I need you... I need you to sell this place. I need the money."
Suelo looked Alis straight in the face, a little puzzled, but more surprised.
"Weapons. Armour. I have to find Odin." Alis got up suddenly, swallowing back her emotions visibly. She started grabbing things: belt, boots, her hair band, Nero's dagger. "I have to find Odin," she repeated. "I'll have to ask around."
Suelo felt loss, sad and hollow. Alis was going to follow her brother, and right now she wouldn't even know why. It would not be to complete Nero's crusade for the truth, nor for any of the reasons which drove her brother.
Alis would never be able to live here. She was blindly trying to escape, to find some purpose to distract her, to leave her shallow and vapid life in Camineet's walls behind. To escape Lassic and his propaganda. She would not be able to live within the lie Nero had died for.
She was lost, alone, and right now, it was for something to do – to occupy herself and replace the emotional problems with others more substantial – but it would become revenge, Suelo knew. Her Alis would die and be replaced by something tragic.
Suelo could never wish to stop her, but right now Alis wasn't thinking, clearly or otherwise. She needed delaying, and she needed an ally. Someone to trust in a world of deception.
Suelo put her hand on Alis' chest, stopping her.
"No," she said. "They might be watching. I'll ask around. You stay here and grieve like a good little cowed peasant."
"Hello," Alis said sweetly, leaning down, her hands on her knees. "What's your name?"
The cat meowed.
"Oh," Alis said, feeling foolish. "I thought you could talk."
"I can," said the cat. "My name's -" and he meowed again.
And Alis had to giggle. The impulse surprised her.
Alis spun, desperately, trying to follow the changing pitch of the whine with her ears. Her sword was held ready, but with the flat presented rather than the edge. She'd found that swatting these things was easier than cutting at them.
The whine changed, suddenly increasing in volume. Alis ducked, feeling the spiny legs of the Sworm Fly catch in her hair, and flailed upwards with her sword. It buzzed angrily at her, and turned to hover just out of range. Alis lunged, but it darted away from her sword like a dragonfly.
Alis tossed her head to get her long hair out of her face. The fly hummed at her.
When it moved, it was so fast Alis couldn't react. It darted towards her with sting extended. It left a red line across her check, and she cried out and spun away. A bad move, she realised quickly. In her disorienting spin, she had lost the fly.
A sudden buzz at her back made her whirl. She saw a glimpse of the fly, its sting gleaming blackly, and ducked.
There was a thud, and the buzz stopped.
Alis looked up to see the fly on the ground, and Myau standing on it, grinning.
Odin came up behind her, his axe gleaming with transparent ichor. There had been five flies, and Alis had spent the whole fight duelling with one.
"I think you need some help," said Odin kindly.
The wooden poles came together a few times, before Odin caught hers.
"Alis, you're trying to fence. You're trying to hit my sword."
Alis yanked at her pole, but Odin might as well have still been made of stone.
Odin sighed, letting the pole go. Alis staggered back.
"This is not for show, or for a contest. It's not your job to hit my sword, it's your job to hit me. It's my job to make sure you hit my sword."
Alis didn't like that sigh of his. She heard it a lot, and it sounded long-suffering, but she bit down her frustration.
"Okay," she said through gritted teeth. "I'll try."
She swung at his head. Foolish, but Odin decided to leave that lesson for another day. At least she was aiming for him.
Alis' pole met Odin's with a loud report, and immediately disengaged to come around at head height. Odin ducked beneath the swing, bringing his own pole up under her arm. Alis twisted awkwardly out of its way, and managed to manoeuvre her pole into a clumsy block to deflect Odin's next blow.
The two separated.
Alis edged in slightly closer. She had learnt very quickly that charging was a very stupid idea.
She lunged, but not far enough that she overbalanced like last time, but Odin turned sideways and brought his pole down on top of hers, pushing it to the ground.
"A tip," said Odin as he helped her up. "Stop aiming for my head."
Alis spat out a leaf. "Why?"
Odin stuck his pole in the ground and sat on a log. "The head is a small target and the most manoeuvreable part of the body, partially because the neck is so limber, but mostly because it's on top."
Alis thought about this, but couldn't see it. She said so.
"Move your head."
Alis shook it.
"Now move your head without moving your neck."
Alis had to think about that, but twisted her torso.
"Now without moving your waist."
Alis bent at the knees.
Odin pulled his pole from the ground.
"Now don't move your head at all." he said, and swung.
Alis felt a moment of panic. How could she protect herself without moving ...
Her own pole swung up and fast, cracking loudly against Odin's.
"See?" he said.
The Governor tried to scream a warning, desperately trying to warn them away.
"I have faith that you will kill Lassic and return here eventually," his mouth said instead. His face rearranged itself to show helpful concern. "You should rest here a while after your long journey."
Alis bowed with genuine gratitude.
"Thank you, Governor."
After they had left, the Governor's body stood up from the throne and stretched, spreading his arms to the ceiling.
His voice laughed, but there was nothing human in the sound.
Allied with the Governor, and aided by an Esper. Lassic would have to consider them a threat now, and if they actually found some Laconia, then all the better. Lassic had to be made to act. His terror of mortality would translate into fear of the metal. Killing the child, the cat and the brute would not assuage it. The threat would then be demonstrated, and there was only one way to rid the system of the only thing that could now kill him.
The Governor screamed in the back of his own mind.
The hot Motavian wind blew through Alis' hair, as her pole cracked heavily with every parry. She was getting better, she knew, but Odin was holding back. If he ever brought his full strength to bear on her, she would never stand a chance.
Suddenly, Odin stepped past her, leaving her with her pole on the wrong side. Before she could bring it around, Odin had grabbed her flying hair and yanked her backwards.
"I've been thinking about your hair," he said conversationally while holding his pole at her throat like a sword. "I think you need to cut it, or at least tie it back."
Alis glowered at him, and Odin laughed.
Alis was sweating.
She had a band of cloth holding her hair in place that helped, but Motavia was far hotter than she was used to. Odin seemed to take it in his stride, though.
She parried his blow (and she had noticed recently that Odin had actually started seriously attacking her rather than just defending himself) and twisted her pole, and his, up and over her head. She then let his pole go, and brought her own around at chest height.
But Odin had stepped back, freeing his own pole earlier than she had planned for. Another step took him out of range, and his pole intercepted hers before she could start a second stroke.
They stayed like that for a second, poles locked corps a corps.
"Never get yourself in this position," Odin said, and grabbed her wrist with his left hand.
Even then, it took Alis a second to realise what had happened. Odin had disabled her. There was no way she could break his grip, but she tried anyway. Odin laughed and let her go.
Alis moved straight back in, attacking again, but fast. Faster than she ever had, alternating sides of attack so quickly that Odin (seemed to) be able to do nothing but defend.
Then Odin caught the far side of her pole, not the near, and brought it inwards, whilst he stepped back to avoid it. They were caught corps a corps before Alis realised it, and Odin grabbed her wrist again.
He laughed. "You don't learn, do you?"
Alis brought her knee up. Odin folded over it with a grunt.
"Not bad," he croaked.
Odin chewed on his sandworm jerky.
"No, that really was good. You'll never be as strong as me. You need other advantages. Speed, accuracy, and reactions. All of that can be thought of as fast-thinking, which is what you did."
He winced in memory.
"Just don't do it again, huh?" he said.
Noah closed his fist over the note.
"I will come. We must protect the planets of the Algol System from evil."
Odin raised an eyebrow. "A bit melodramatic, surely?"
Noah moved his gaze to the big man, and Odin shifted uncomfortably.
"We must first go to the Gothic Forests and find Dr. Luveno," Noah said, still looking squarely at Odin. Alis was vaguely aware of some sort of pecking order being decided.
"We can't get across the river," Alis told him. Noah turned and smiled.
He dropped the crumpled paper as they left. It had only had one word on it. One word and a signature.
The Black Cancer, the Dark Force, and now Lassic. Three times makes a pattern.
Noah sat on a log, watching them duel with the vague interest of a polite spectator. Myau sat beside him, his head cocked. Occasionally he would lick a paw.
Alis and Odin stamped back and forth across Palma's richly black earth, their poles cracking and echoing through the Gothic forest. Alis parried Odin's mighty strokes, but her deflections were only that. They only bought her a little time to get out of the way. Odin was too strong for her and always would be.
She needed something else, and found herself glancing down at his feet.
Why not? It wasn't as if this were a contest, with rules and fouls. Odin was trying to teach her to fight and survive, and she was quicker than he was. He had taught her footwork and balance, not for this reason, it must be said, but...
Alis dropped under Odin's extended swing, falling into a crouch on one hand and the ball of her foot. She swung herself around on the later, her free leg extended. She felt it jar painfully as it connected with Odin's shin, but his foot left the ground, and he went over with an exclamation of surprise.
It would have been perfect if Odin hadn't landed on her arm.
Noah clapped slowly, trying hard not to laugh, but Myau was less restrained.
Odin and Alis sat on the ground, resting from a duel.
"We might have a problem."
Alis looked up. "What do you mean?"
"You will be faster than I am, I'm certain. I have too much bulk to move, and you're nimble, but as soon as you outpace me, there will be nothing to make you move even faster. I can't train you to be better at something that I am."
"Perhaps I can help," said Noah.
Noah unleashed another volley of fireballs, smaller and far weaker than the ones he used in combat, but just as fast.
Two from the first batch hit Alis in the thigh and midriff, exploding into puffs of smoke on her armour. She tried to move out of the way, but Noah tracked her, launching more. Alis tried to duck away from them, but another caught her on her shoulder.
Noah flicked his smoking fingers at her, and more fire sprung from the air. Alis swung her pole and managed to smite the first of them from the air, but had to move aside for the rest in that group. She upswung as she moved, but they were already past. Noah fired more.
Alis flicked her pole into a backhanded grip, and moved aside again, her pole swinging behind her. Another fireball exploded upon it, more from luck than anything else. Another volley hissed towards her. Alis turned the pole back around and swung it two handed. Another was cut into smoke, but three more hissed above and below the pole. Alis tried to turn back away from them, but the weight of her pole pulled her arm out and a fireball hit the outflung hand with a stinging flash of flame.
Alis bit her lip and dropped the pole. The tears that stung her eyes were not entirely from the pain. Four hits. In a fight, she would be dead four times.
Odin looked sombre, as if he had realised that all he had done is train her to fight him.
"Don't think about what you do so much, Alis. Conscious thought is slow. Your subconscious is far better than you could ever believe, but it is difficult to trust it, to let go and put your life in the hands of something you do not control.
"As a child, you have nothing but your subconscious. That is why they learn so quickly. Language, balance, all these things are learnt quickly by the subconscious. What you think of as learning is merely your conscious mind learning to trust the subconscious.
"This is why language is hard to learn as an adult. Why walking on stilts takes longer than walking on legs."
Noah paused, regarding Alis frankly for a moment.
"I would like to try something, if I may," he said then.
"What?" Alis asked suspiciously.
"Just... show you what I mean. To show you what you can do."
Alis looked unsure, but shrugged.
Noah touched her forehead with a dry hand. Alis felt a frigid power crackle across her mind, and the world fell away from her.
When Alis came to herself again, she was standing and sweating. Around her a multitude of charred circles marked impact points of Noah's fireballs.
Noah had a smug look and Odin looked stunned. Myau was washing, but that wasn't unusual.
It took Alis a moment to mentally check herself over. She had two burns, and one had been a glancing hit. That didn't seem too good until she looked at the number of ricochets and misses around her. Her mind went numb at the number.
A hundred. At least. Noah had not held back, not even a little bit.
Triada's massive metal doors swung inwards. The imposing inhuman bulk of a Robotcop was revealed to them.
Alis clenched her fist, digging her nails into her palm.
...it's too late for me, Alis. Be strong...
"We're here to see Doctor Luveno," she said casually.
"Do you have your roadpass?" The 'Cop's voice was hollow and expressionless.
Odin stepped forward and handed it to the droid. It glanced at it and handed it back.
"You may proceed."
"Thank you," said Alis. A drop of blood fell from her hand.
Alis and Odin danced around each other, their poles clacking.
Alis was beginning to realise that she was playing too much by Odin's rules. It was his habit to duel because he was strong and heavily armoured. As he himself had said, Alis' strengths would lie in speed and reactions.
This was not a contest. There were no rules. Swords were merely one medium, and one in which Alis was second to Odin.
She attacked viciously, driving Odin back briefly. She, herself, then backed off, creating distance between them.
Then she dropped her pole.
"We're not finished," Odin told her.
"I know." Alis crouched, her hands slightly extended. "So why are you standing there?"
Noah sat up straighter, suddenly interested. Myau's eyes brightened.
Odin came in closer, but cautiously. He tried a swing. Alis ducked. Odin cut downwards, and Alis shifted out of its way smoothly.
Alis did not press any form of attack, and Odin paused.
"I'm sick of duelling," Alis explained.
"So what are you doing?"
Alis shrugged slightly. "Trying other things. Dodging."
Odin stepped up to her and swung.
It was supposed to be a lesson – aimed at waist height where she could never duck it or leap it. Alis saw it coming, and never even considered. Her body wasn't even hers to control. Honed survival instinct took over, processing complicated physics in the same lightning fast way that allows a child to catch a ball.
She stepped within the swing and grabbed his wrist with both hands. Going with his momentum, she twisted his arm up and over her head, turning past Odin beneath it. She found herself behind the big man with his twisted arm folded over his shoulder. His knees were buckled in trying to ease the stress in his arm.
Alis kicked them and Odin collapsed.
"I still don't understand it," Alis said later. "I didn't think of any of that. I was only going to dodge – see how long I could last, but everything was sort of empty and clear. I didn't feel anything - not panic or anything. I could only feel my mind, sort of light and electric, and it just... kind of knew what to do."
Noah smiled to himself. Children got the same vague electric rush in their brains when playing catch. It was strangely satisfying to just catch a ball that was thrown, even just one thrown by yourself. It was the subconscious taking over, and all the rapid, impossible processing of chaos and physics that came with it.
It was a rush, if only a little one. To be able to do something without knowing how, to have a talent that seems, to the conscious mind, so difficult, and to be able to just do it so casually...
Artists felt the same watching pictures form under their strokes. It was the same.
But it was easy to give control over to the subconscious for a game of catch – so much so that that it was purely automatic. Life and death was harder, but Alis was getting there.
"Trust me," he said to Alis. "It's a good thing. Learn to trust it."
Alis felt her cheek burn in the wake of the missile, but had no time to assess how bad it was. She spun as she rose from her duck, adding momentum to her upward slash, and feeling her sword bite into the madman's side. There was a blue flash, and a sudden blast of force throwing her backwards. Her sword was gone, and her hand felt like the skin had been torn off in a sudden vicious movement. She landed heavily and awkwardly, rolling over clasping her hand. She managed to glimpse Mad, standing like the statue Odin once was, smoke pouring from his side.
Odin advanced cautiously past her, watching the lunatic scientist. Noah knelt beside her, and forced her to show him her hand.
"Electrical burn," he muttered. He turned around. "Myau?"
Alis looked down at her hand. It did look stripped, and felt like it, too. She bit her lip, feeling her eyes sting from the pain. There was a crash as Odin gave Mad a prod with his axe and the man-machine toppled over backwards.
And then the pain was fading. Alis blinked, and saw her hand become merely red and tender. Myau purred behind her head. She rolled over and scratched his ear.
"Thanks," she said.
"Your hair looks f'nny," Myau commented, eyes like twin smiles under her caress. Alis patted it with her spare hand, and found it was like a drifting cloud around her head. She looked back at Mad. He hadn't moved, and Odin was coming back, presumably satisfied that he was dead.
"I did it then," she said as Odin grabbed her and lifted her up. Myau gave him a dirty look as Alis' hand vanished.
"Yes," he said, looking her over for other wounds, "but you still need more practice. Your swing is too slow."
"What?" Alis exclaimed. "But I destroyed the..."
"M'nster," Myau supplied, padding around Mad's lab and sniffing gently. He wore an expression of extreme feline distaste. "B'lieve me."
Odin raised an eyebrow at Alis.
"With our help," he reminded her.
"Sorry," said Alis.
But she had killed this one, and it had been no easy fight.
Alis selected the next sword and sighted along it. It was as straight as a rule, and as sharp as paper. She tossed it, and the hilt came to rest in her hand. She rolled her wrist, making the sword dance from hand to hand, from a backhand grip to a forehand.
The shopkeeper thought she was showing off, but she wasn't. For one, she was testing it for balance and weight. For another, that sort of rapid manoeuvring of grip was something she had found herself doing in combat recently, so she had practiced it until she would be happily accepted as an entertainer at a fair.
The sword halted in her right hand with a brief snap of arrested movement. Alis looked at the shopkeeper.
"I thought ceramic would be lighter."
"It has a metal core," Odin said before the shopkeeper could answer. He reached over and took the weapon from Alis, giving it a once over as he explained further.
"A blade is no good without some mass behind it," he said. "It is the third advantage of ceramic weapons next to their edge and the fact they remain sharp for a lifetime. The weight can be tailored to the individual's preference."
He looked at Alis and tweaked a questioning eyebrow.
"That one's perfect how it is," she said.
"We'll take it," Odin said, turning back to the shopkeeper, and Alis felt a flash of annoyance at the big fighter. She was capable of buying her own sword.
Odin and Noah ran as fast as they could, holding Alis between them. Myau scampered ahead, looking back frequently with worry in his eyes.
Not far. At least it was not far. Any other cave system may have been a disaster, but not those under Casba. The town sat right on top of them.
They took the final flight of rough stone steps, torn between speed and care. Myau had disappeared, gone ahead to find the priest. Noah muttered curse words or magic – Odin didn't know which – in his own language at every jolt.
Odin backed out into the light, and heard a scream from some unhelpful townsperson as his burden was revealed. Noah blinked as he came out, looking around for the priest, his grip on Alis' legs beginning to slip.
"Faithless Lassic," swore Odin, his voice rough with constrained grief and panic. "Damn the priest! Damn that cat! Where are they?" He saw the townspeople standing around and bellowed at them.
"She needs a priest! Damn your hides, help us!"
A couple of men ran forward, taking weight on either side of Alis. Between them all, they ran for the priest's small temple. Myau came running back from it, his tail lashing.
"He's wa'ting," he spat, his feline speech impediment more pronounced with his disgust.
Odin spared no comment, but moved as quickly as he could and dared for the curtained entrance. The priest appeared, pushing the hanging aside and then standing back to let them enter.
"On the bed," was all he said.
Odin and Noah laid Alis as gently as they could on the hard bed. Her blackened arm twitched spasmodically and something in her charred midriff weeped watery blood. Her throat made a rattling noise.
"Now get out," demanded the priest, and spared them no further look. Odin and Noah walked silently out while the priest gently peeled away the charred and sticky cloth on Alis.
Odin leant against the priest's house, turning the sand-coloured gem over in his hands. Tears blurred his vision, but to any who might ask he would say it was sweat.
Sudden anger flared deep in his gut and Odin spasmed his hand around the gem, clenching it tightly. He felt the sharp edges dig into his palm, and his muscles stood out on his wrist and arm, but the gem didn't break. It didn't even crack. There was not even that to soothe him.
For an instant he was going to fling the wretched thing away, cast it across the roofs and into the desert. Satisfaction lay that way. Hard, tearing and final.
But he couldn't. The useless thing was Alis' sacrifice. He had no right.
The gem fell from his hand, hitting the ground with a thud. White lines stood out on his palm, and he looked at them slowly fade to red. Something made a quiet, sad sound and Odin looked down.
Myau was sitting before the gem, looking up at him, his expressive eyes full of sorrow. Odin sat down next to him and began to scratch his ears, staring into the middle distance.
Myau didn't purr.
"You were overconfident, reckless. How dare you risk yourself? That was no little serpent. Dragons are an entirely different class of 'dangerous'. I warned you, you know I did, but -"
Noah put his hand on Odin's shoulder. Alis was pale, tired, still weak from her near-death experience and now fighting back tears.
"I think the lesson is learnt," he said softly. Odin looked at him angrily for a moment, and then stomped out.
Noah sat down next to Alis' bed, and put his hand on her arm, pink with healed flesh.
"He is a fighter, Alis," he said quietly. "Not a healer. This is how he is, but his heart is still human. His heart is still torn."
Alis looked down.
"Odin sat outside all night and all day, turning the Amber Eye over and over in his hands. He did not move to eat or drink, and nor did he sleep. You have touched him, Alis. In you, he sees the hope he had lost when he fell to Medusa. You gave him that, and he could not bear to see it – and you – go.
"He is not brusque because he does not care. He is brusque because you are everything that is left of all he cares about."
Noah got up.
"It seems you will be stuck here for a week at least," he said more normally, but there was still an edge to his tone. "Rest while you can. Odin and I will see if we can earn some money for the Landrover. I think we will need it."
The wizard walked softly to the door, but he paused there and looked back.
"Forgive him, Alis," he pleaded. "If he showed his emotions for everything he cared about, for every death which has touched him, he would have broken long ago."
Myau slipped past him as he left, and leapt up on to Alis' bed. There, he curled up next to her, purring loudly.
The heavy winter gear was restrictive, but Alis had learnt to deal with it.
Alis twisted easily out of Odin's way, ducking to avoid Noah's fireball. She rose up again as it passed, locking her pole with Odin's chest-height slash and using it to pull him around so Noah no longer had a clear line of fire.
Odin released his pole, and attacked again. Alis deflected each blow, but then had to spin away from him as a flurry of fireballs flared past her vision, but tracking after her. Odin pressed in after they had passed, his pole whipping through the air.
Alis parried it and changed to a two handed grip to come from the other side, whilst simultaneously turning to present a narrow silhouette to Noah. Odin deflected her attack, and she disengaged again as fireballs blew sprays of water up from the ice where she had been standing.
Her pole flicked itself into a backhanded grip as Odin came again.
Alis deflected his blow awkwardly, but the move and her grip put her elbow next to his face. She jabbed it backwards (but aiming for the chin, not the nose). Odin stepped backwards with a grunt, and Alis lifted her leg and planted it in the centre of his chest.
Fireballs hissed through the air towards her. No fair Noah, Alis thought, saving Odin when he's staggered.
But Alis didn't back off. She ran straight at Odin. Dropping her pole, she planted her palms on Odin's chest as she hit him, pushing him over. She went with him, her balance lost with the push. She was expecting it, though and pushed against Odin's weight to roll herself over and off him.
Odin hit the snow. Alis landed in a crouch at his head, and grabbed his pole from him before he had realised what had happened.
Noah seesawed his hand in the air.
"Not too bad," he said.
Alis found a handful of snow and flung it at him.
The Dead of Guaron Morgue walked.
The passage was thick with the shambling horde, moving slowly, but with an unstoppability about them. No fatal cut would kill them – they had to be in pieces before they stopped fighting.
Alis' sword sung back and forth, smashing through the crumbling limbs with great untargeted sweeps. With such a crowd, against such an enemy, it was all that could be done. Bones and grey flesh dropped to the ground until the passage was foul with its putrescence. Odin stood beside her, his axe swinging in time with her sword.
"Myau!" Alis called.
"I'm w'rking on it!"
One of the Dead burbled, and acid pooled in its mouth, ready to spit. Alis moved her shield to block it even as she swept her sword upwards, cleaving its lower jaw in twain. Acid splattered on the floor. Alis cut the creature's head from its torso.
There was a sudden burst of heat from behind them, but Alis couldn't spare a glance. She smelt smoke, though, and Myau said, in a very small voice : "The chest is open."
"Go on, Odin," Alis urged, knocking a Dead back with her shield.
Odin opened his mouth.
"I can handle them!" Alis hissed. "Get the armour!"
Alis hacked and slashed at the Dead, vaguely aware of Myau's particular brand of spinning-yellow-ball-of-claws combat replacing Odin to her left.
"Got it!" Odin called.
Alis swept an arm from its shoulder as it reached for her, then halving the head horizontally on the back swing. She heard Noah chanting and felt her skin prickle. Another Dead gurgled acid into its throat. Alis drew her sword back.
The world flared into brightness, and a cold wind hissed straight through Alis as if she was so much paper. Her sword flashed through the cold Dezoran air, hitting nothing.
They were outside.
Myau spat, as if there was a foul taste in his mouth.
"I think you might be able to conv'nce me to take a real bath this time," he said.
The thick scaled length of muscle shifted fluidly as the creature turned, its bodylength flowing as if oiled. Its mouth hinged open in a serpentine hiss, releasing a drop of yellow fluid on a thin viscous line. Her claws flexed, stretching themselves into angry, spider-like shapes.
Alis could feel the burning of her eyes on her scalp, but she was looking down, refusing to meet her deadly gaze. She saw Odin out of one corner of her eye, shifting his stance nervously. He raised his shield protectively. It was a glass mirror, but imbued with Laconia in the same fashion as leaded glass. It was second only to Alis' pure Laconian shield in strength.
Alis heard the dry writhing of the creature's serpentine hair and the impatient snaps of the darting mouths. She clenched her sword behind her own shield, fiddling nervously with the shield's strap.
An amazingly stupid idea struck her.
"Warrior brute," hissed the Medusa angrily. "How did you -"
Alis gave up, or gave in, or something. Suddenly she had no patience. She turned away from the creature as if repulsed or scared, but she kept turning, picking up speed, her arm swinging wide. Her cry was guttural, an explosion of sheer effort.
A silver bolt flashed down the passage, crossing the air with a whine like steel in a hurricane. There was a sound like a stone snapping, and the Medusa sunk, her head shattered and loose on her broken neck. Lumpy, oil-like blood dripped thickly from the caved-in mess of her forehead, carrying large shards of bone and torn skin.
Alis' shield rolled in a decreasing circle around the snake-woman.
Odin turned around slowly. Alis was rubbing her shoulder, but she smiled prettily at him and shrugged.
"It worked," she told him.
Noah just stood, stunned. Myau padded up to the dead creature.
"But that was no fun," the cat said mournfully.
"That was bloody stupid," Odin said once they got outside. He raised one of his thick hands to forgo Alis' reply. "And don't say 'it worked'. That is not a mitigating factor. You threw away -"
"She threw away a defence inadequate against the enemy at hand, thereby freeing up her movement options, lightening her load, improving her balance and allowing her more freedom with her weapon. You know as well as I that Alis fights better without a shield. She changes grip and hands often and very quickly, and her sword therefore tends to come from sudden and unexpected directions. Oh, yes," Noah said as if he had almost forgotten his final point. "She also killed the Medusa." He looked at the Laconian weapon they had taken from the snake-woman, now gripped in Odin's hands.
"Nice axe," he commented, and walked off. Myau gave Odin a remonstrating look and followed.
Odin and Alis looked at their respective footwear.
"You're right," they both said at once.
Alis raised her hand. "My turn. You are right. I thought it was a stupid idea at the time. Just because it worked out in retrospect is no excuse. I'm sorry."
"No, Alis," Odin said. "Noah is right. Firstly because he has not yet been wrong, and secondly because neither have your instincts. You may have thought it a stupid idea, but your instincts have not yet failed us, and would not have even if you had missed. Trust them, Alis. They are our greatest asset."
Alis rubbed her shoulder in an embarrassed fashion.
"I wrenched something pretty bad if it's any consolation."
"Come on," he said. "You still need a sword."
Myau crept back to them.
"It's here, and it's big," he whispered.
Alis clenched her sword.
"Bigger than the whites?"
"Def'nitely," Myau said empathically. "Two corners away, but it's asle'p."
Odin unslung his axe.
"Then we take it now."
"No!" Alis said suddenly. She had been thinking. "No, I'll do it alone."
Odin gave her a warning look.
"Let me try," Alis said. "I do know what I'm doing."
"Not a good idea," Myau said. It was rare he got involved in the debates.
"Alis," Odin said, "don't think this is some sort of final test or anything. This is dangerous for all of us, let alone just you. It isn't going to give up the sword willingly."
"Trust me," Alis pleaded.
Odin looked undecided.
"I do," said Noah, and Odin glared at him.
"Very well," Odin conceded with bad grace, "but no heroics. We will be watching, and if I decide you need help, you're getting it."
Alis smiled in thanks, but she was nervous behind it.
"It won't come to that," she assured him.
Alis crept forward.
The passage was twice the width of any other they had seen, and led back to an opening in the side of the tower where the dragon could presumably leap into the winds. In front of Alis the walls had been torn down, opening up rooms on either side and one level up. The area was huge, cavernous, with broken stubs of walls defining squares and rectangles on the floors and walls.
The Great Red took up a great deal of the space. It was curled up, its rib cage expanding and contracting hugely as it breathed the deep breaths of slumber. Beyond it were a collection of skeletons, most still clad in armour. Somewhere in there was a sword made of Laconia, sharper and stronger than even her ceramic blade.
Alis stepped forward quietly, placing her feet with great care. She glanced at the huge beast from time to time, but it did not move.
Alis crept past its torso-sized head, feeling the rhythmic warm air of its breath around her.
Then the dragon stirred, and Alis froze. It opened its eyes, blearily looking down at her.
Fear leapt in Alis' heart, remembering the surge of deadly fire from the Casba dragon. The beast's nostrils flared as if it were sniffing her, and Alis stood before them, paralysed.
An impulse seized Alis. Afterwards, she would reason that the White dragons of Dezoris were larger than the Casba dragon, and they talked. This one was larger still. But, at the time, there was no such reasoning, at least not that she was aware of. She just did it, barely fearing the stupidity of the manoeuvre until it had long passed.
Alis threw her arms around the Great Red's snout and gave it a big kiss on the nose.
It was a remarkably civilised creature. It offered them dinner, even cooked it itself (although Myau foregoed the offer, preferring his meat raw). The dragon did not, however, eat anything itself.
"My lips do not cover my mouth as yours do," it explained. "I would expect that you would find the sight upsetting." It brushed a scattering of bones aside so it could lean its chin on one arm down at their level.
"I am glad at last to have true visitors," it, no he said. "It is a very lonely place here, and those who usually come here are not predisposed to chat. They come seeking a treasure I am burdened with."
Odin looked over his haunch of meat at Alis. She coughed.
"Well, actually, if you are referring to the sword..."
At first Alis thought the dragon bellowed, and scrambled backwards, but the noise was more like a string of thunderous barks.
He was laughing.
"I suspected it, my lady," he bellowed, still in the throes of humour, "but at least thou hast the courtesy to be both polite and honest. It is a depressing fact that none comes here for any other purpose."
"We will," Alis promised. "When our mission is over, I would be honoured if you were to accept our company again." Something about the dragon's formal courtesy was rubbing off on her.
"Well said, my lady. I, too, would be honoured. But, now I am curious. What is thy mission?"
Odin shot her a warning glance, but Alis found herself trusting the creature.
"We seek to depose Lassic."
"On the end of a sword," Odin added.
"My sword?" the dragon asked, raising a scaly eyebrow.
Noah put his meaty bone to one side and spoke up for the first time.
"Lassic has magical armour of great power," he said.
"Laconia, then," the dragon said thoughtfully.
"Likely," Noah said, "and the only hope we have is to match it with Laconian weapons of our own."
"My kind usually cares little for human politics, but Lassic is not to be tolerated. Be warned, however, his death will not be the end of it. A shadow lies behind him."
Noah looked up sharply.
"Take thy sword, my lady," the dragon said, waving over to the skeletal pile. "Bloody thing. It's not like I can use it, and I am sick of such as he –" and a claw gestured towards Odin – "challenging me for such a prize. I would gladly see it gone. There is but a small condition, my lady."
"Say that thou hast killed me. Mayhap I will be left in peace for a time. I don't like eating people."
"That's good to hear," Odin said.
"Carnivores taste horrible," the Great Red muttered.
Noah got up and walked over to the pile. Digging around, he came up with a shining blade that looked as though it was forged of untarnishable silver.
"Aye, that's the one," the dragon said gloomily.
"Does it have a name?" Alis asked.
"Aye. The one who first waved it inefficiently at me called it – would you believe – 'Dragonslayer'?"
"I think we can dispense with such an obviously inappropriate name," Noah said solemnly as Alis giggled behind her hand.
They walked out through the stone corridors of the dragon's home and into the bright day outside. Odin prodded Alis in the ribs.
"Why don't you ever greet me like that?" he asked with a hurt frown. Then he grinned to let her know it was a joke.
Alis laughed and stood on tip-toes to plant a friendly kiss on his cheek.
Odin pushed bits of the fire around with a stick. They were back on the mainland and making their way to Camineet.
Not even Alis could think of it as home anymore.
"Baya Malay then?" Odin asked.
Alis had been thinking about that.
"No," she said, and looked at their faces. "Not yet."
"We're as ready as we'll ever be," Odin pointed out.
"I know. But Lassic..." Alis sighed, and looked to the east. "Lassic has troops in Camineet, Parolit and Scion. I don't like that. We have to stop him. We clean them out, all of them. Starting with Camineet and working across. We must destroy his capacity for revenge."
The fire reflected brightly in her eyes.
"We leave nothing behind which Lassic can use. The deaths end here."
Triada's massive metal doors swung inwards. The imposing inhuman bulk of a Robotcop was revealed to them.
"Do you have your roadpass?" The 'Cop's voice was hollow and expressionless.
Alis smiled brightly.
Her sword sang. Shards of red crystal from the 'Cop's eyes sparkled briefly in the air.
The double doors towered like dark monoliths. Odin and Alis stood in front, beside one another, each before one of the two wooden portals.
They glanced at each other. Odin nodded.
The passage boomed as their synchronised kicks burst the doors open. They each stepped forward, over the threshold as the King turned to receive them, spreading his arms.
"Ah, my children..." he said.
The two fighters stepped apart slightly, revealing the others behind them. Myau, his eyes like burning amber, stepped between them and sat down in a cat's manner, glowering. He hissed, showing bright teeth.
"Oh, you have done very well to come this far," and the King smiled condescendingly. Alis set her jaw in anger and Noah put a hand on her arm.
"You are very lucky indeed," said the King, still smiling, "but do you really wish to kill an old man?"
A crystal note vibrated solemnly as the great shining length of Elsydeon scraped slowly from its scabbard. Alis turned it, edge forward, so her face was bisected by the bright light of the blade.
"No," she said. "We don't."
She lowered it, but into a guard position.
"But we will."
When the legend was written, it was told that Alis killed Lassic with the dagger given to her by Nero as he died. Many doubted that such a weapon could be effective against Lassic's Laconian armour, believing instead that it was Elsydeon, Alis' sword, which struck the fatal blow.
But it was Odin whose weighty axe finally breached Lassic's defences, just as it was Alis who struck the telling blow against the Medusa.
History has no need for circles and poetry. That is for stories.