(Missed part 1? Start here!)
Thia snarled as she launched herself upwards at Loake and wrapped her hands around his throat. He didn’t have a chance to react. To his credit, Thia thought, Loake was trying to process many things at once, such as maintaining his spell on Stenwin, wondering how the enchantment holding Thia had failed, and struggling with the fact he was slowly losing the ability to breathe.
After her experience on the ceiling, Thia was particularly happy that Loake’s face was turning an interesting colour. Loake stopped waving his stumpy fingers in the air and instead tore at Thia’s hands, trying to loosen her grip. Thia held fast and smiled, lifting him a few centimetres off the ground.
Stenwin fell to the floor with a crash, Loake’s concentration being elsewhere, and Thia glanced over. He was laying face down and far too still. Thia squeezed harder upon Loake’s windpipe and found that increasing the pressure was almost effortless.
To her relief, Stenwin groaned, and whispered, “Methana smiles on me.” It was hard for Thia to tell as he was burbling into the wooden floor planks.
She grinned, then looked at Loake. His eyes were rolling back in his head, and his legs had stopped kicking at her. She threw him backwards and he hit the wall, landing on the floor like a crumpled doll.
She rushed over to Stenwin and eased him up, her arm behind his back so he could sit and face her. Stenwin’s left eye was bloodshot, a mess of red, but at least his skin was returning to its normal colour. He wheezed, sucking in air, and clutched his side. Thia pressed her hand against his torso and he winced.
“Methana may smile upon you,” Thia said, “But she sure likes to make you suffer first.”
Hooking his arm around her neck, she helped Stenwin to his feet and they shuffled carefully to an overturned chair. Thia wondered whether this had been her chair or Gweynn’s, before righting it and setting Stenwin down.
She almost didn’t hear him, but Loake was too angry to be stealthy. Thia whipped around to find Loake running at her, his arm raised, teeth bared in rage. Something bright and shiny and sharp glinted in his hands.
Thia could only think, ‘That bastard took my dagger.’ She was about to duck, when she remembered Stenwin sitting behind her. Thia realised, in a second, that if she moved he would be hit.
In her mind, she was already dodging, allowing Stenwin to take the brunt of the attack so she could round on Loake. But for some reason, her feet stayed still and time seemed to slow.
It made no sense to Thia; everything she had done until this point had told her that she prized survival above all else, that the logical thing was to step away so at least one of them would live on. Yet something gnawed at her inside and she remembered that Stenwin was only in that state because of her; because he had tried to help her.
“Foolish boy,” whispered Bethaira as Loake bore down on Thia, “But a useful ally, yes?”
Thia ignored Bethaira, and instead threw up her arms to brace for Loake’s blade.
In her mind, Thia heard Bethaira tut in disapproval and growl, “I am not enamoured with the thought of dying for your sense of guilt, child.”
Thia realised this was the feeling scratching at her and she felt annoyed that something so petty was going to end her existence.
Thia saw the tip of Loake ‘s dagger (her dagger, she thought, unhappily) approach her arms as she weakly tried to shield both her and Stenwin. She wondered, furious, whether Loake would keep her blade as a souvenir.
In an instant, heat suddenly erupted under her skin and shot out of her hand, a red flame which burst into the face of Loake, though a little off to the left. He screamed and staggered, falling to the floor as Thia’s arm shot backwards with the force of the blast.
Loake had thrown his hands up, but too late; he ripped them away and screamed again as his fingers made contact with the smears of flesh that had once been his face. Thia made the mistake of looking at what remained of Loake’s eyes, and pushed away the sensation of her stomach trying to forcibly eject her last meal.
Stenwin’s face, though speckled with blood and painted with bruises, was paler. He stared at Thia’s hand and she followed his line of sight. Her palm was a mass of blisters and blackened skin.
Thia looked at Stenwin in amazement, shaking her head.
“It doesn’t hurt,” she said, gripping and releasing a hand that, by rights, she knew should have been disintegrating with every movement.
Stenwin moved his gaze and looked directly into Thia’s eyes. His stare was hard and his eyes narrowed.
Thia felt afraid and, not for the first time, alone. She wondered whether Stenwin would condemn her, or rather how he would. There was no question that the power Thia wielded had a certain demonic stench to it, and its effects were devastating (though a small part of her, possibly even Bethaira, was rather pleased with just how devastating). As a holy man, Thia knew that Stenwin could not let this stand. She sighed, and thought that this was probably the last time she would dabble in this”mercy” business.
To her surprise, Stenwin smiled and said, “I thank you for my life. We have much to discuss, Thia, but I believe that will have to take a lesser priority.”
Thia stared at Stenwin and let her confusion pour out through her eyes.
Stenwin smiled again but grimaced as he tried to raise his hand and gesture at the hut.
“Your aim,” he wheezed, “May require some improvement.”
Thia felt the heat on her neck before she even turned her head. Loake still lay squirming upon the floor, unable to find comfort in any of his contorting forms. However, past him, flames had grown long, born out of Thia’s unfortunate new parlour trick.
“Note for the future,” Thia thought as she stood, Stenwin clutching onto her for support, “Wooden huts + fire = bad.”
“Gweynn’s going to be annoyed to say the least,” Thia said, Stenwin hobbling beside her.
“Who?” Stenwin muttered.
Thia shook her head. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, “I don’t think she’s around any more.” She paused for a moment, Stenwin squeaking in pain, as she bent down to pick up her dagger. Apart from a bit of soot and some small spots of blood, it seemed fine. Pleased something was going her way, This tucked the blade into her belt and carried on pulling Stenwin towards the door.
Outside, a horse whined in distress, and Thia considered the issue of reinforcements. She decided she was too tired to consider much of it and would just have to deal with it when they got there.
They approached Loake, who had stopped thrashing around and was now just whimpering. He heard their footsteps and threw out a hand, trying to grasp at their legs.
“Help me, Thia!” Loake implored, “We were friends once.”
Thia snorted. “Only according to you,” she said, kicking his fingers away.
Loake yelped, his hollow eyes staring up at her. “You can’t leave me here!” he shouted. “There’s no one else!”
Thia looked around the room and estimated she had a few moments before the smoke overpowered them.
Curious, she asked, “So no nasty surprises waiting out there for us?” Out of habit, she nodded towards the exit before realising the gesture was wasted on Loake.
Loake’s hands locked around her ankle, his fingers digging into her flesh. “They’re a ways back, in the forest,” he said, nodding furiously. “Didn’t want the help overhearing nothing they shouldn’t. Now, please, just pull me out of here. I’ll tell you everything!”
Stenwin groaned and Thia suddenly felt the pressure upon her double. Not only had he passed out, but whatever Bethaira had done, it was beginning to wear off. She looked down at Loake and sighed.
“One problem, friend,” Thia said to Loake, “Is that I think you’ll just tell me anything.”
Loake began shaking his head to protest, but Thia kicked him in the side with much force as she could muster considering she was inhaling large amounts of smoke whilst carrying a not-unheavy warrior. Loake groaned and rolled away from her, trying to protect himself from further attacks.
Thia started dragging Stenwin towards the doorway, tears streaming down her face as the smoke filled her vision.
“Second problem, old chum,” Thia shouted back to Loake as he scrambled on the floor, trying to crawl towards her voice, “Is that I think it’s time I made my own truth.”
Finally, Thia reached the doorway and gasped, allowing the cool, sea air to fill her lungs. She tottered a few feet further down the porch with Stenwin, then collapsed. As was fast becoming a habit, Stenwin groaned.
“Just wait here,” Thia panted, laying him down on the ground. She stood and saw the frightened horse, its black shape shimmering in the darkness like moonlight reflecting off a lake. Its reins were tied to a nearby tree. Its head bucking up and down, it was trying to pull away, the sound of the flames howling louder and louder.
‘A wise beast,’ Thia thought.
She arranged Stenwin as carefully as she could, then marched back to the hut. The flames were licking through the roof now, the hut a small, glowing lantern in the darkness. As she approached, Thia saw Loake heaving himself upwards, feeling along the floorboards for a way out. He was only a few feet from salvation, but was twisting away from it.
This stood there, quiet, watching him scrambling for life. She watched. She let Bethaira watch.
Slowly, she pushed the door closed. A stack of firewood lay to the side. Thia reasoned Gweynn would have no use for it now, wherever she was. She grabbed the largest piece and pushed it against the door, jamming the other end against a porch roof strut.
Thia turned away towards Stenwin. With not inconsiderable effort, she dragged him over to the horse, the animal still pulling at its harness.
Thia laid a palm along its nose and shushed it until the horse had stopped stamping. Slowly, Thia untied the reins and led it a little way from the burning hut.
Stenwin was just about able to stand, but a slightly spooked horse made the job a lot harder. Eventually, Thia was able to push Stenwin onto the horse’s back.
“Be good,” she told the horse, “And I’ll steal you something nice.”
Taking the reins in her hand, she walked along, leading the horse and Stenwin away from the collapsing ruin.