Ties That Bind: Part Nine
Released from the cellar, Layla and Isis were told to stay silent. Layla didn't want to risk disobeying the guards' orders, but she could see that their tough facade was only hiding their fear. Their prisoners, though weakened, still had magical capabilities, and they were cautious because of this.
Layla wondered what they had experienced that had made them so afraid. Whatever the cause, the thought was only fleeting; her mind was too full of terror to make room for questions. She didn't know what was going on, but she knew for sure that she had a large disadvantage against the opposing forces. The Gnorbu fervently hoped there was a way out of this.
The two captives were escorted to a large room with adobe walls and exquisite furnishings. Mauve, near-transparent silk was draped over the doorways and windows, making the room's lighting a hazy pink. The décor suggested a relaxed atmosphere, but there was a taut sense of anticipation lingering in the air. More henchmen were inside, guarding the exits and waiting for something. Layla noticed that the ceiling was domed, much like the chamber of magic back at her uncle's manor.
She and the sorceress were roughly tossed to the floor and jeered at by the guards. Layla glared at them, but kept her distance. She helped Isis sit up, the sickly Kyrii too shaken to do so herself.
The sorceress looked to her grimly. “It is time.”
The Gnorbu frowned. “What do you mean? Time for what?”
“For what the Krawk has been planning. The final part. This isn't likely to end well...”
The woman's frail, hopeless appearance tried to ebb at her faith, but Layla stood fast. “Not if I have a say in it. Harwood is alive. He's the best there is. We can get out of this.”
Everyone fell silent as a brown Wocky entered the room. He eyed the room's occupants indifferently, his mouth set in a thin line. Though he showed no feeling, he brought with him an aura of dark excitement. The magic in the air shifted drastically upon his presence, emanating from his body.
The Wocky's gaze turned to his followers. “Bring him in.”
Whatever hope Layla had was stamped out like a dying flame. Harwood was brought into the room, his sides heavily flanked by guards. Having difficulty walking, he'd clearly had a much rougher treatment than the other captives. From what the Gnorbu witnessed, it seemed as if he'd tried to fight his way out and failed. She could sense that his curse was reaching its peak. He didn't have much longer now.
The Eyrie was thrown at the Wocky's feet, the henchmen erupting with rows of laughter. Layla craned her neck, trying to keep him in view. Harwood silently stood to his feet, giving the Wocky a murderous glare.
“And so, one of the greatest is brought to his knees.” The Wocky looked down at his prisoner with equal loathing. “Tell me. How does it feel?”
Harwood growled, instinctively reaching for his nonexistent sword. “Who are you?”
“For how successful you were, you're surprisingly thick. But, if you don't care for guessing games...” He shut his eyes with an impatient exhale. His features began to twist and bubble, his face melting into grotesque shapes before growing solid once again. Fur flashed from brown to blue, his muzzle and ears elongating. In seconds, he was no longer a Wocky, but a starry Gelert.
Layla couldn't believe her eyes. “Bastion.” The mage she'd grown to know and love was a criminal?
“Surprised?” Bastion looked at Harwood, a glint of satisfaction in his eyes.
“Hardly,” Harwood snarled. “The man you're impersonating has nothing against me. How cowardly of you, to hide behind the innocent. Show yourself.”
The Gelert frowned. “Now you're catching on.”
Once again, he features began to morph, his figure altering more drastically than the first transformation. His fur turned jet black, hardening into thin scales. In an instant, a shadow Krawk stood before them.
The Eyrie's brow furrowed in confusion. “Validus?”
“So you remember. It wasn't too long ago. Our paths crossed briefly during that war, but you did a lot of damage for so short a time.” The Krawk's lips twisted into a sneer. “You did off with my allies, my brothers. Not only did you defeat their cause, but you took their lives as well. I fought on the sidelines, away from the center of the battlefield. I survived but witnessed their downfall.”
“And that's why you set this up...”
“One life for the many you took. It's hardly fair, but I mean to make it last.”
“I was doing my job. Protecting the country and taking care of idiots like you.” The Eyrie glared at the Krawk. “I never stopped anyone who didn't deserve it.”
Validus chuckled humorlessly. “If you're removed from the picture, it would make things much quicker. I mean to continue my brothers' plans. But I had to get rid of you first. What better way than to back you into a corner? You fell for it all too easily.”
“It was simple. Find a way to slip on a curse without your notice, and I could do whatever I pleased. Concealing a curse within a spell like a Bind is elementary, even one like this.” The Krawk smirked. “It is quite a curse. Forbidden in most countries. It has such wonderful advantages, though. I know everything about you, Syrus.”
“You enjoy mind games, don't you?”
“This is more than a game. But if you need proof...” With a wave of his claws, Validus summoned the curse, a red orb floating above his palm. He held it delicately, examining it pulsing exterior. “A heart is a funny thing, both figural and literal. It holds a being's soul and constantly keeps it alive. But all it takes is a single squeeze,” the Krawk said, digging his claws into the sphere, “to stop the flow of life.”
Harwood clutched his side, staggering as he went stiff with pain. However violent the curses attacks had been before, it seemed to double in strength. The Eyrie could hardly stand, but he hung on to what little stamina he still possessed.
“I don't know what they see in you, Syrus. It only took a single woman to bring you down. How can they trust a defender who can't protect even his beloved?”
“We're alike, you know,” Harwood coughed. “Fighting for things we lost.”
Validus frowned, tightening his hold on the curse. “I am nothing like you.”
The Krawk turned, spotting Layla in the crowd. She stood, defiant and terrified, shaken from having to sit and watch the conflict unfold. “I don't know who you think you are, but you leave him alone!”
Validus looked to her, something like sympathy resting in his solemn eyes. “I apologize, but it ends for you here as well. You were just caught between the plans. Nothing can be done for you now.”
Turning his attention, the Krawk leered at the defender. “Goodbye, Syrus.”
Not but a second later, a blast of white erupted in between Validus and Harwood, engulfing the two in a blinding light. Layla cringed at the raw power, shielding her eyes from the explosion. The blast lingered, and she could feel the Bind constrict violently. Validus was finishing off Harwood, taking her down with him all the while. The Gnorbu had never been so afraid, but she refused to go down this way.
An idea struck her in the nick of time. It would take her all, but she had to try.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Layla strained herself to concentrate. As drained as she was from the enchantment that was laid over the area, she forced out whatever magic she had left. The Gnorbu focused it into a spell that materialized as a stream of purple energy. It was like a small, shimmering snake compared to Validus's sea of power, but Layla was able to slip the spell into the blast unnoticed.
Throbbing, convulsing energy swallowed her tiny sliver of magic, and the power that surrounded it was unimaginable. Determined, Layla muttered a Counter spell underneath her breath, hoping against hope. Validus's attack was fully aimed at Harwood, so slipping around his defenses wasn't as difficult as she had expected. Her magic crept in like a growing virus, undetected and dangerous.
Layla's breath grew heavy, sweat running off her brow. She didn't have much time left. The Gnorbu controlled the potent magic in the only way she knew how, a sharp pain stabbing at her gut from the strain. She'd reached her limits, but it had been just enough. The little Counter spell grew more dominant as the seconds past, enlarging until it had swallowed the attack, redirecting it at the caster. The room now bathed in a violet light, the Krawk's henchmen cowered, sensing the disturbance. Shock was written all over Validus's features, completely taken aback.
With one last push, Layla used the last of her energy to finish the spell, shoving it with all her might. Luckily, she'd gained the element of surprise. He had underestimated her.
But it wasn't enough.
Layla knew she didn't possess the strength to complete the spell. In a few seconds, it would all be over. Validus would kill them all, and try as she might, she was powerless against him. Her small attempt was as hopeless as it had looked from the beginning. Now it would vanish, and the Krawk would do as he wished.
But someone had been watching. Isis placed a hand on Layla's shoulder with a surprising, vice-like grip. The Gnorbu flinched, feeling a new energy flush through her veins. Instinct took over, now that she'd been fed the very thing she needed to complete her task. Her Counter spell gained a life of its own, cutting through the barrier Validus had raised. As the two enchantments collided, an even brighter flash immersed the room. The blast rang in her ears – the sound of pure magic.
To be continued...