Ties That Bind: Part Ten
The impact of the explosion tossed Layla to the other end of the room, slamming her against the adobe wall with brute force. Stars danced in her half-blinded eyes, but she fought to stay conscious, determined to keep going. The Gnorbu propped herself up against the wall, staggering to her feet. There had never been a time where she'd felt so ill with exhaustion. Her head throbbed, but it wasn't just the pain that didn't feel right. Something had changed.
Validus paled, looking ready to fall over in shock. “You reversed it... the curse...”
Layla's eyes widened. She could sense the difference. It was a strange, indescribable feeling she'd never experienced; something below the surface, something alive. Hesitantly, she raised two fingers to her neck to feel her pulse.
Two heartbeats. It had worked. Curious and slightly disgusted, the Gnorbu spread out her palm, summoning whatever curse she now had control over. Sure enough, a red, fluttering orb materialized into her hands, throbbing with life and memories. She stared, having a hard time believing what she was seeing.
“Your heart is in my hands...” Swallowing, Layla looked over to Validus, who looked about as terrified as she was. The Gnorbu frowned. “You're under my control.”
The man behind the whole operation had been taken down by a young girl. The unexplainable event disturbed the Krawk's followers greatly and, petrified by the prospect, caused them to scurry out of the room as fast as their legs could carry them. They shouted of witchcraft and possession, fleeing from what they'd witnessed.
Every enchantment on the sorceress's property had been broken, and Layla could feel a surge of strength flow back into her. Isis seemed to have gained some of her vigor as well. The Kyrii managed to make her way over to Harwood, who appeared quite ill. The Eyrie was no longer in immediate danger, however, as the Gnorbu was relieved to see.
“So,” Validus said grimly, “the odds play against me now. I wouldn't blame you if you were to slay me.”
“As much as I'd like to,” she said, glaring at him angrily, “it would make me no better than someone like you. But make one move, and I swear to Fyora, I'll do it. The game is up.”
The Krawk gave her a distant look, his face twitching into a slight, maniac grin. “The game is never over.”
“Do it, Layla!” Harwood roared, reaching for a guard's forgotten sword.
The Gnorbu was startled by his outburst, but before she could react, Validus made his move. Smoke exploded where he stood, shrouding his figure completely. Harwood rushed into the fog, but nothing was to be found of the Krawk.
Layla knew she still had the power to finish Validus off, even at a distance. She looked to the orb she had summoned, ready to crush the foul thing. But the small sphere had dissolved in her hands, red magic dripping through her fingers and making her skin tingle.
“What? Did he...”
“I'm afraid that a mage of that level can't be stopped so easily,” Isis said gravely. “He might have destroyed to curse, or perhaps...well, you never can tell. But the important thing is that he's gone, for now. And we're all still alive. I thank you for your help.”
Layla looked to the Kyrii, feeling herself swell with pride under her gaze. “You’re the one who completed the Counter, though, ma'am.”
“It was your idea, and you who carried it out.” The sorceress smiled warmly. “And thank the stars that you did. They left everything in quite a mess, but we survived. But that's likely to change if you two don't get some assistance.”
Layla turned to Harwood, who had propped himself up on a chair. “Are you all right?”
The Eyrie's face was blank. “You should have stopped him.”
The Gnorbu cringed under his gaze, averting her eyes. “Well, I didn't. I don't think the same way you do, Harwood – I'm not a defender. But that's not what matters right now. You need some help.” She smiled slightly. “You look like something the devilpuss dragged in.”
Harwood was silent, looking less than amused.
“We'll all need to recover from this. Are you feeling well?” Isis asked Layla.
“Not very, but I just need some rest.” Her stomach felt like it had vanished, leaving a sickly feeling of nausea and weakness. If anything, she just needed to lie down.
“It may take a while. The Krawk's curse over this place caused some severe exhaustion, especially for those with magical abilities. I'm surprised you were able to perform a spell at all in such a situation.”
“It was just a bit of luck,” Layla said, her face flushing, “that's all.”
Isis smiled. “Perhaps. Now, come and rest.”
Just a few days later, Layla decided that she'd made a full recovery, feeling well-rested and refreshed. The sorceress was kind enough to let her and Harwood stay until they were well enough to leave. Isis herself was taking longer to recuperate from her mistreatment, but she was on a steady path back to feeling normal once again. She and the Gnorbu had spent some time cleaning up the house after they had rested enough, getting rid of the repulsive mess Validus's men had left. They talked all the while, and Layla explained everything that had happened during her journey to the sorceress.
Harwood was absent, still resting in the room Isis had provided. No one took the risk of bothering him, but Layla felt the need to check in on the Eyrie after not having heard from him for so long.
The Gnorbu raised her enclosed fist to hesitantly knock on his door, fearful of his reaction.
Feeling a surge of relief, Layla pushed aside the wood. She entered to see Harwood sitting next to the window, looking out at the city below. He looked considerably better, if not for his tired, impatient appearance. Having had the curse lifted, the Eyrie did seem much more relaxed.
Layla walked over to him, sitting on his unmade bed. “You've been walking around. Feeling any better?”
The defender was expressionless. “I'll be leaving soon.”
Layla could sense his urgency to leave. Now that he was no longer pinned down by the Bind, surely he wanted to return to his unit. Nothing had changed, and she grinned at the thought. “It'll be a pretty long ride. You're nowhere near well enough to fly.”
Harwood didn't reply, his vacant features making the tension between them grow. The Gnorbu shifted uncomfortably.
“Are you mad at me? For not stopping him?”
The Eyrie sighed deeply. “Yes. But it would have taken more than that. Validus is an advanced mage, and you alone couldn't end him.”
“I'm just glad it saved our necks,” Layla said. Her shoulders slumped with regret, but his words were somewhat comforting.
“It did more than that. Validus has been a wanted felon ever since the war. Whether he's alive or not, he's made himself vulnerable. It won't be long before he's found.”
The Gnorbu's brow rose in surprise. To have even helped in catching a notorious criminal was something she never thought she'd be involved in. “That's good to hear.”
Before anything more could be said, Isis entered the room with a small knock on the door to alert them of her presence. Her recovery was visible as she grew closer to a picture of health. She had an air of dignity about her now, grateful to be back.
“I apologize if I interrupted anything. May I speak with Layla?”
The Gnorbu straightened, her curiosity piqued. “What is it, ma'am?”
The sorceress turned, her golden bangles clinking softly. “It's come to my attention that you possess a great deal of talent. From what you've told me, you've gone through much to get here, and you've nowhere to live. Though the invitation was forged, I would like to personally allow you an apprenticeship.”
“You mean...” Layla trailed off in shock. “I can... stay? And learn?”
“You would have to work for your keep, but I'd be happy to teach you, given that you accept my offer.” The Kyrii smiled. “You show much promise.”
The Gnorbu swallowed, trying to let her words sink in. She'd just been offered the very farfetched dream she'd longed for, and digesting this opportunity in her mind seemed impossible. A sense of joy swelled inside of her, too abundant to be held back. Layla rubbed at her itching eyes. “I-I accept. You won't be disappointed. Thank you.”
“And as for you,” Isis said, turning to Harwood, “you have fulfilled the mission you were given, despite the odds. I'm sure you'll be glad to know that Validus is being hunted down as we speak by the Lost Desert's most skilled trackers. Soon we may be able to unmask him and eventually bring him to justice. His game will end.”
“Is there any way I could repay you for your services?” she added. “It feels horribly inhospitable just handing you the set amount. I owe you more than that.”
“Transportation would be payment enough,” Harwood replied. “I need to leave as soon as I can.”
The woman frowned. “And you're well enough for travel?”
“Would I have asked if I wasn't?” The Eyrie was in no mood for pointless questions.
“So be it.” Isis nodded, turning to leave. “I'll have a carriage prepared immediately.” With that, she departed, true to her word.
Though overjoyed by her new apprenticeship, Layla felt her spirits sink as she watched Harwood gather his small bit of luggage. It was likely that she would never see him again. She couldn't say that she enjoyed his presence, and he probably thought the same of her. But seeing him leave made her sad, for some reason she couldn't place. The Eyrie had done much for her, even if he hadn't wanted to.
Harwood slid his sword into its sheath, grabbing the last of his bags as he headed toward the door.
The defender paused, not bothering to turn back. “Yes?”
Layla bit her lip. “I know you were forced into that mission, but thank you. For everything.”
“Getting sentimental, are we?”
“Not at all. You be careful.”
“Likewise.” Harwood left the room, and that was the last she saw of him.
She could have sworn she saw him smile.