The sky is ablaze with the colors of sunset, though the sun itself cannot be seen, and the horizon is limned in all directions, making it impossible to tell just in what direction the sun is rising or setting. At the horizon, the sky meets with a sea of roiling clouds, and all about, there are countless sky islands not simple disks with hanging stalactites like Rephidim, but twisted shapes, like great hunks of clay grasped in a child's hand and twisted about, then turned to stone and adorned with clinging vegetation, crashing waterfalls with no apparent source, spiraling towers, and weathered menhirs inscribed with arcane runes. Firebirds flit about, then soar, circling above and then shooting off, dancing, twirling, this way and that, their shrill cries echoing like distant peals of thunder.
Two mages are locked in magical combat within Zakaro's realm. For the moment, the arena is a stone circle set upon the flat top of a small sky island, rimmed by broken menhirs and tangled vegetation. A bruised and bleeding white-furred, platinum-haired bat soars overhead, dodging little imps that each look like a cross between a chibix and a caricature of a demon, complete with spaded tail, cloven hooves, stubby horns, and holding little pitchforks.
A gray-furred fox'taur gallops about the stone circle, waving her hands and watching, her gestures answered by dips and dives from the imps. She giggles when one of the imps succeeds in poking Wynona, eliciting an angry squeak of protest from the bat.
Meanwhile, hovering to the side and above this arena, there is a "sky island" that looks like a broken off section from some grand castle specifically, a banquet hall, with a long table set out with a feast of bizarre delicacies roast firebird, dragon soup, boiled cockatrice eggs. Reclining at one end of the table is a bat with fur covered in runes, holding a fluted goblet fashioned from a spiraling unicorn's horn, sipping a steaming, fermented drink from it as she watches the exchange below.
One of the imps has latched onto Wynona's ear, and chews at it ferociously, but she wrenches away from a couple of the others, and finds an opening She raises her hands, which crackle with electrical energy, and, before the imps can close in on her again, she unleashes a sizzling bolt, which shoots down toward Yffryn with the sound of a thunderclap.
Where the bolt strikes, the rock cracks and shrapnel is sent flying, along with a gray-furred fox'taur caught in the rim of the blast. The imps suddenly seem aimless in their soaring, and Wynona tears off the one that was chewing on her ear. Her eyes full of anger and tears, she squeezes the hated monster until its eyes bug out comically, and then the creature explodes in a pop of greenish smoke.
While her attention is diverted, however, Yffryn extracts herself from a few pieces of broken stone, looking to be in better condition than being so close to an explosion might warrant. She begins to redirect the imps to attack Wynona again.
Wynona shouts, "Oh no you don't!" and her hands glow in preparation for another bolt. But, before she can fire it off, Yffryn makes a sly grin, and whispers some arcane word. The surroundings melt away, to be replaced by a new scene… or, perhaps, a very old one.
Wynona finds herself on the deck of the Lalee-Papu, an old-style airship soaring over the sands of the Himaat Desert. The crew scrambles about, the deck in chaos. Over by some crates, a big black Vartan seems enamored with a shiny sword he's holding. Wynona stands amidst a magic circle at the prow. A couple of Savanites are climbing the rigging, going up toward the envelope. Yffryn scampers across the deck, pushing aside a Kavi crewman. "Now, Wynona, you can't unleash that here! You'll kill them all!"
Wynona's eyes widen and glaze. "No … no, it can't be … No … I can't kill them. Not again… "
Yffryn, looking a bit the worse for wear, with a few scorch marks on her fur now, stops by the Vartan, snatching the chitin blade from his talons. Before he can do more than scrawk in protest, she gallops toward Wynona … right past Zakaro's banquet table, which is incongruously now situated on the deck of the airship.
Zakaro smirks, amused at the chaos whirling about her. "What a grand show! It seems a shame not to have much of an audience for it."
A winged Ki'rin appears on the deck, looking lost. "What … am I too late?" she asks the seated Eeee.
Zakaro seems quite cheerful, even amused at Envoy's appearance. She waves her over, and gestures toward a cushioned place at the banquet table. "Hardly. I should be sorely disappointed if it should end too quickly."
Blinking, Envoy takes the offered seat. "It turns out that I do have a boon to ask of you, since your efforts in Morpheus' chamber were for naught."
Wynona seems to snap out of her trance, as she sees Yffryn galloping over toward her with a sword. An arcane utterance escapes her lips though certainly not complex enough to complete so much as a cantrip and a gust of wind shakes the ship. Yffryn hazards the rocking better than most of the bipeds, but she stumbles sideways into some stacked crates of supplies, losing the momentum of her charge. Zakaro seems entirely unaffected, and nothing spills on her banquet table despite the shifting foundations. However, she looks away from the latest exchange toward Envoy. "A boon? Well, if that is what you were asking about, then, yes, I should think it is a bit late for that. These two are competing for my favor. It would be hardly sporting to allow you to jump in as well."
After watching the battle go on for a bit, Envoy says, "I doubt that I could have engaged in this sort of competition anyway. It's against my nature to try and hurt someone. Otherwise I would have tried to strangle you while you were disoriented in the crystal chamber. I suppose I will just have to try and convince the winner to ask the boon for me."
"Or I could help one over the other," she adds, looking askance at Zakaro. "Cheating is allowable, isn't it?"
Zakaro seems awfully nonchalant about the strangling remark. Maybe it's a Babelite thing. Gods know, it seems the Sisters have done enough strangling of each other (and other nasty things). In response to Envoy's question, she shrugs her wings. "Cheating is always allowed, so long as you don't get caught, or so long as nobody bothers to punish you for it."
"In other words," Envoy translates, "So long as you find it more entertaining than annoying?"
Zakaro smiles and shrugs noncommittally. The airship rocks the other way. The Savanites are just about to touch a burning torch to the envelope, when Wynona looks away from Yffryn, shrieking, "NOOOOOOOO!" Yffryn seems tempted to try to take advantage of the distraction, but then notices the flames licking the envelope. She utters an arcane phrase … and the scene melts and changes again.
The airship deck sprouts grass, and the ground outside rises up violently, while the individual crew members fade into obscurity, and the airship envelope expands and melts into the sky. Within an instant, the scenery has changed, such that it appears that the arena is now set within a vast, forested pit, surrounded by tall walls of rusty-red rock that rise upward … much like the Red Cliffs of Himar, except that here the forest is surrounded by them, rather than the cliffs comprising a plateau.
Large walking machines can be seen in the distance, high above on the rim of the "pit", large enough to easily encompass a city. In fact, it looks like there are some buildings in the distance. The style of the architecture looks Himarian.
Looking at the grass, Envoy tries singing a simple growth spell to see if she can still magic.
A giant zeppelin looms high up overhead. It looks like the Intimidator. There are other airships as well … and … an airplane?
The grass stirs in response to Envoy's singing. On the one hand, Envoy senses reluctance. On the other hand … she's getting far faster results than she ought to, for she's seeing growth before she has spent enough time to have even completed a cantrip.
Zakaro glances askance to Envoy. "I have little patience for all that chanting and making of magic circles for a proper magical duel. I find instant results to be far more exciting."
Envoy continues the spell, encouraging wild growth in the hopes of tripping up or immobilizing the ground-bound fox'taur.
Yffryn is right in the middle of bounding over toward Wynona, who has in her disoriented state collided with a newly formed tree. Wynona flutters to the ground, and while Yffryn pulls her sword out (She seems to have kept it from the last scene), the grasses around her paws sprout up, the bushes reach out, and they start tangling her in place. She yelps in surprise, and then hacks at the plants in anger.
Zakaro giggles, then reaches over toward the table, grabbing a handful of luminescent larvae from a bowl, and cramming the squirming creatures into her mouth. She chews noisily, then daintily wipes at her mouth with a kerchief.
While attention is drawn to the Fnerf's predicament, Envoy looks over the contents of Zakaro's dining table, searching for any metal or glass implements the bat is likely to use.
Wynona staggers to her feet, and then notices the tangled Yffryn. She waves her hands and mutters a phrase, and the wind starts picking up, and the sky clouds over.
Alas, it looks like Zakaro isn't refined enough to actually bother with utensils, and the only "glass" she bothers with is her fluted unicorn-horn goblet.
Yffryn looks up worriedly at the gathering clouds, and at flashes of lightning in them. While Zakaro grabs up a plump nectarine and takes a messy bite out of it, Yffryn utters another phrase, and the scene begins to shift again. The walls collapse, and the vegetation melts away into dunes of multi-colored sand, while the sky takes on glows of all sorts of unnatural colors. The sand is colored in waves, and it seems as if a wind blows across it, changing the colors in sweeps as it goes.
"She's trying to use Wynona's nightmares against her, it seems," Envoy comments to Zakaro, and eyes the nectarine.
Wynona continues to chant, building up a potent spell … but as she does so, it seems that the ground about her unnoticed, for her eyes are closed seems to respond in strange ways. Sand gives way to sharp crystals that grow outward, sprouts of vines, bursts of … styrofoam? … and a little wind-up toy Korv that chatters its beak and walks a few inches before it explodes in a burst of confetti.
Zakaro nods. "Her field is in dreams, after all." She looks toward Envoy and notices her eyeing the nectarine, then takes a larger bite out of it, grinning, then tosses the remainder over her shoulder. It lands in a pile of red sand, which shifts blue.
Envoy reaches down to scoop up some of the glowing sand in one hand, and starts a spell of enchanted transformation on it which would require a very extensive ritual under normal circumstances. If successful, it should cause the person hit by the sand to be changed into a sandstone statue, without actually killing the subject.
The sand explodes in a burst, showering Envoy. Zakaro looks in time to see the sand-covered Envoy (and the sand is shifting colors, giving Envoy the appearance of beingtie-dyed) and she snorts, then guffaws loudly in a most unladylike manner.
Envoy blinks. "That was not the effect I had hoped for," she explains.
Yffryn gallops up to Wynona, but then Wynona opens her eyes. She unleashes her spell … which, to Wynona's surprise, does not result in a lightning bolt coming down from the sky and striking Yffryn. However, it does result in a giant foot coming down from the clouds. Yffryn lets out a shriek, and quickly babbles some phrases!
"Just how closely does this environment mimic that of Fortunatis?" the party-colored Aeolun asks Zakaro.
Zakaro says, "It mimics Wynona's perception of it, as modified by Yffryn's … and, incidentally, anyone else sharing the dream reality. The actuality hardly matters." She reaches toward the table, picking up a fat and lazy-looking chibix, and, while it struggles in her grasp, she casually rips off its wings. It begins letting out an unearthly shriek, and she seems to be pleased by the sound.
The surroundings shift again … and the sand beneath Yffryn ripples like water … and then it becomes water. As the foot comes crashing down though becoming less substantial all the while Yffryn plunges downward into a pool of water, while the surrounding desert (and other strangeness) gives way to the wilderness of the land of Zahirinee. In fact, Zahirinee's cabin forms, replacing the Gateway Chamber, opposite the pool.
Envoy looks over her shoulder to see if Zakaro's garbage pile remains unchanged through the shift.
Wynona once again tries to readjust to her surroundings, and sees the fox'taur in the water. The fox'taur's head pokes up, and she taunts, "Now now, Wynona! You can't go lobbing spells at me in here … or you'll disturb the pool!"
The garbage pile, actually, seems to be melting away with each change in the environment, though it doesn't vanish entirely. Now, the accumulated pile has become a boulder, though as Zakaro tosses the discarded chibix wings onto it, they start a new collection of trash on the rock. She pries apart the shell plates on the chibix's back, and starts to bite into its fleshy hump. After getting a good mouthful, and as the chibix goes into shock and abruptly quiets, she discards it, tossing it over her shoulder, over the boulder, while she chews, looking quite contented.
Wynona frowns at Yffryn … then grabs a rock, and chunks it at the fox'taur's head.
"OW!" shrieks Yffryn, not ducking fast enough.
Wynona picks up another rock, and takes careful aim, sticking her tongue out of the side of her mouth in contemplation, while Yffryn foxtaurpaddles.
"Wynona!" Envoy calls to Air Mage. "Can you soundproof the air around Yffryn so that she can't say anything?"
Wynona blinks. "That's a great idea!"
"Oh no you don't! No more Miss Nice Gal!" Yffryn calls out, and utters some arcane phrases of her own.
Wynona squeaks, then rushes to fire off a spell of her own. But the environment is already starting to shift again. The forests are shrinking back, turning to stone, forming buildings, though the grass more or less remains. The pool changes shape, though it's still water … now a fountain instead, with Yffryn still in it.
As the surroundings continue to change, Envoy recognizes it. She hasn't actually been here … but she's seen pictures. It's the Mages' Guild of Babel. It's night time, and there's the sounds of shouts and music in the distance. It looks like a bunch of mages in red robes are hunkered over, across the field, next to bundles of … fire works?
A few mages mostly bats, some snakes meander about, and a Savanite servant sprints by. Wynona still utters her chant, but she looks about at her new surroundings. A look of recognition glimmers in her eyes as well … and tears.
"Concentrate, Wynona!" Envoy urges, and looks over Zakaro's munchies for something she might be able to distract Yffryn with. Preferably something that bites or stings…
Well, there's a boiled horrib … but horrib tail is generally prepared so that its no longer poisonous. That said, the point is still fairly sharp (and would likely prove just as dangerous as the utensils or pieces of glass that Envoy was looking for earlier). There are also several bowls of squirming bugs, and a stuffed skedat (lying underside up) which is well beyond being able to bite on its own, but still could probably conk someone on the head if thrown.
Envoy reaches for one of the bowls of bugs, saying to Zakaro, "Mind if I borrow some of these?"
"Help yourself," Zakaro says, though she first grabs a handful from the bowl, and shoves several of the squirming, biting bugs (apparently immune to their stings herself) into her mouth, crunching messily.
Taking the bowl, Envoy starts pelting bugs at Yffryn, hoping one lands someplace vulnerable.
Wynona finishes her incantation, and a bubble pops into existence around Yffryn. The water is pushed away from her, and the fox'taur's limbs flail uselessly as the bubble begins to float upward, holding the fox'taur trapped inside. She moves her mouth, but no words come out. She crosses her arms, looking upset … then smug … until the bugs start flying at her. Although the bubble may hold Yffryn in place, apparently it does nothing to keep bugs out. The bugs burrow into Yffryn's fur, and in moments, she's squirming about, flailing and opening her mouth as if to howl, trying to nip at the creatures in her fur, and bat them away.
Wynona, however, doesn't seem to notice. She rushes over to a congregation of the mages. "Please! Stop! You don't know what's going to happen! You have to leave! Now! They're going to drop the "
"Now that is a spiffy spell," Envoy says of the bubble, then frowns at Wynona's comments. "Zakaro," she asks, "What will happen if the scene isn't changed before the Boomer hits?"
A briefly amused look on Zakaro's face suddenly turns sour.
The mages only laugh and clap Wynona on the back. They seem like acquaintances, but they don't seem to comprehend or believe Wynona's frantically babbled warnings … nor do they seem to notice her disheveled appearance.
"Oh," Envoy says, taking the look to be all the answer she needs. She then calls to Wynona, "You can't change the past, Wynona! Come over here by us!"
Wynona, however, seems utterly wrapped up in the nightmare, as the mages spread their wings and flutter over closer to the fireworks. She cries after them, pleading … and then, she looks up with wet eyes as there's a flash in the distance … over the heart of the city. The sky shatters, as if it were painted on a mirror that then broke to pieces. Wynona opens her mouth to scream.
Envoy stands up … but is frozen by the spectacle of the explosion. "The bubble… ," is all she has time to say.
Wynona babbles incoherently … and then, the sky tears apart. Fragments spin past, and Envoy catches glimpses of realms of fire … of water … of vegetation … swirling gases … blinding light … and a deep, cold void.
Zakaro mutters something in between chewing bugs … and then gravity seems to shut itself off. Zakaro floats up and off the ground, and wine floats out of her cup, into a glob that spins in place. Bugs flail their little limbs helplessly. The mages float up and off the ground, and a terrible wind whips through … though Envoy can only see its effects. She cannot hear or feel it.
The night sky changes. The stars seem to shine all the more starkly, and there is not a single cloud to be seen. The Procession no longer floats overhead. No, there are particles that drift by, and this way and that, they seem to resolve into silvery bands that stretch unfathomable distances, like arms reaching out to embrace the orb of Sinai that hangs in the sky low on the horizon. The buildings break apart, and the bodies of bats curl up, ears and eyes rupturing, bodies swelling.
Wynona, however, isn't among those dying horrible deaths. She must have caught Envoy's recommendation … a hazy circular outline can be dimly made out, surrounding her drifting form.
Envoy tries to cast a gravity spell to pull the air-bubbles back towards the ground.
At Envoy's command, the air bubbles float back down to the ground. Zakaro's floating wine drops, splattering messily in her lap. She grumbles, wiping at her fur, which, miraculously, isn't stained. (But then, if she had to worry about stains, she'd be WEARING all her food long before this anyway, the way she eats.)
A tower tumbles past, cleft at its base, hurtling overhead, leaving a trail of broken glass in its wake.
"All Wynona has to do is cancel the bubble around Yffryn to win," Envoy says to Zakaro. "Why not declare her the winner?"
Zakaro raises an eyebrow. "But she hasn't done it yet." She looks expectantly toward Wynona.
Wynona is crumpled on the stone ground, her face buried in her hands, her shoulders heaving with silent sobs.
Envoy blinks. "It's a fight to the death?" she asks the Goddess of Sorcery.
Zakaro seems surprised. "What else could it be? She could hardly suffer to have a defeated rival around, plotting revenge."
"Did Wynona know about that rule before the contest started?" Envoy asks, frowning.
"She should have figured that much out," Zakaro says, sounding faintly annoyed. She casts a glance over at Envoy … no, past Envoy.
Envoy looks over her shoulder to see what has Zakaro's attention.
A white-furred, platinum-grey-haired bat stands beside the table, adorned in leather and ruddy chitin armor that takes on a dark red cast in the dim Procession-light. Her hair is bound back in a braid that runs down her back, though a few stray wisps have pulled free, and dangle down in front of her ears. Her face holds a bitter expression, as she looks out on the scene, and she tightly clutches a double-bladed axe in one hand, while a curious and awkward-looking weapon is slung to her side a set of scales, it seems, though with a dagger's blade instead of a stand.
Yffryn, back on the ground, is able to stand on her own, but she seems still preoccupied with the bugs assailing her, and seems to pay little notice to her changed surroundings given the distraction they provide.
"Oh!" Envoy blinks. "Hello, Rephath. Are you here to chop off Zakaro's head?" she asks, sounding a little hopeful. "Or is it Yffryn in trouble for using … this … as part of her attack?"
"Perhaps both," Rephath says, a cold edge to her voice. "It is Yffryn, then, that is responsible for this?"
A half-chewed bug falls from Zakaro's mouth. "Greetings, sister. It is but a contest between those competing for my favor. Yffryn … She is a dream mage. She has been changing the venue of the contest, to her advantage."
"I don't think Wynona is aware that this is meant to be a fight to the death," Envoy adds, trying to weigh in on Wynona's side of things. "If she knew, she wouldn't be participating willingly."
"Of course she wouldn't," Zakaro sneers. "That's why I didn't bother mentioning that part."
Rephath looks over toward Yffryn. "So … if I strike down Yffryn for this offense, does that ruin your challenge, Zakaro? Or does it make Wynona the victor?"
"Yffryn is helpless now from Wynona's spell," Envoy says to Rephath. "I think that should qualify Wynona as the winner without having to actually kill Yffryn. If you … disqualify … the Fnerf, though, then the victory should still go to Wynona."
Zakaro smiles. "And then I shall have the winner of my challenge. And then I'll grant her considerable power. More power than she has any right to use. That is, of course, what she'll request. They all do."
"Oh no!" Envoy says, and stands next to Zakaro. "You aren't pulling that trick like Inala did!"
"What trick?" Zakaro responds, giving Envoy a scandalized look. "It's simply the way it turns out. It's no trick. It's what they always ask for."
"Always?" the Aeolun sneers. "How can there be an always when these two are the first ones to get this far?"
Zakaro laughs. "You have no understanding how things work in the realms of the goddesses. Silly mortals. Concerned with such things as chronology and consistency. You'd suppose that the goddesses had to follow some sort of rules."
Rephath is silent for this time, quietly regarding the exchange between Envoy and Zakaro, having a look about her as if sizing the both of them up. She idly runs a claw along the edge of one of her axe blades.
Envoy turns to Rephath now, and asks, "Are you going to let this go on? You seem to be the only one that actually knows what's really going on, or else you wouldn't have severed your link to Morpheus."
Rephath faces Envoy fully. "Then tell me, Envoy of Lothrhyn, how should this game play out?"
"It shouldn't be played out at all!" Envoy argues. "Loan me your axe, Rephath, and let me take vengeance on Zakaro for the pain she's put my friends through. You've escaped the game yourself, but do you really want this creature," and here Envoy gestures towards Zakaro, "to win?"
Rephath looks coolly toward Zakaro, running her claw along the blade of the axe.
Zakaro stands up from her reclining position, shouting over toward Wynona, "It's not over yet! You have to defeat Yffryn! You have her within your grasp! FINISH HER!" Wynona shows no sign at the moment of having heard her if that's even possible.
Rephath looks to Envoy. "And what of Yffryn? Will she be dealt with as well? Or will all of this be laid at the feet of Zakaro?"
"She will be punished by the High Council of Caroban for trying to kill a fellow Mage," Envoy says. "That will happen regardless of any justice you mete out to her, if she survives. But if you kill her here, it really just means that I'll have to go back to Sunala's realm and try to fish her out. And it would further hurt Wynona, because it was her nightmare that was called up."
Rephath smiles wickedly. "Sometimes, when you die in your dreams … you die. Or have you become too spoiled by your early adventures in the realms? The rules have changed over time, in case you haven't noticed."
Nonetheless, the Goddess of Vengeance hands over the axe. "Here, then. Wield it wisely, Envoy of Lothrhyn."
Zakaro's eyes widen at this. "No! You can't do this! This is my realm! Rephath, you can't interfere like this! Envoy What are you doing? I … I can offer you power! Knowledge! My libraries are as extensive as Barada's!"
Hefting the axe inexpertly, Envoy looks to Zakaro. "I told you that you were a puppet before, and that I didn't believe in you. The only thing you can offer me of worth is your absence." Gritting her teeth, she takes a swing at the rune-covered Eeee.
Meanwhile, Yffryn nips at the last of the bugs. She casts about, eyeing her surroundings … and then she looks in surprise as Envoy swings the axe.
Zakaro's look of fright quickly melts away. A cryptic word slips from her lips … and an unseen force slams into Envoy's midsection, thrusting her backward and skyward … well away from the banquet table.
In that instant, Wynona snaps out of her sobbing, uttering an incantation. The bubble around Yffryn wavers … and her mouth moves as well. Zakaro glares balefully at Envoy, already invoking another incantation …
For a painful instant, Envoy finds her lungs emptying themselves, pressure surging out, as she's gripped by cold vacuum … and then the next … she slams into a stone column, and slides down it … falling on a marbled floor. Her breath is knocked out of her for a moment … but, still somewhat dazed, she realizes that she is no longer hurtling through empty vacuum. Rather, she's slumped on the floor of a palace of Babelite design. She's certain she's seen pictures before of this as well. It's the palace of the Sabaoth.
Envoy gasps for breath, and blinks to clear her vision.
Zakaro pushes away from her table, standing her full height, glaring down at Envoy. "What … do you think that I am so lazy as my sister, Gorphat, that I should simply sit there, and let you slay me? You are in my realm, and I will not tolerate such pathetic displays."
Out of Envoy's line of sight at the moment, behind several statues and columns, there are flashes of electrical light, and animal-like growls, and sounds of smashing pottery and chitin. It would seem that Yffryn and Wynona are at it again.
Using the axe as a cane, Envoy pulls herself to her feet, wincing at the pain in her back. "You bled in the Crystal Chamber, Zakaro. I should have killed you then, but I felt … pity."
"Of course I bleed," Zakaro hisses, and she demonstrates by raking the claws of her right hand across her left forearm, drawing crimson lines in their wake. "My blood is very potent." She turns her arm, and lets her wound drip to the floor. It sizzles and hisses as it hits, and reddish clouds rise from the point where it burns into the marble.
Envoy sings a reshape spell, urging the floor under Zakaro to try and reach up with hands and hold her down.
Zakaro holds a finger to her lips, and Envoy's voice fails her. "I shan't be having you defeat me by sorcery, dearest Exile. The humiliation would be unbearable."
Holding the axe before her like a shield, Envoy runs towards Zakaro.
Meanwhile, the reddish mists coalesce, forming faces that writhe and twist inside them, and ethereal claws that reach out. Three of these whirling clouds of ethereal, quasi-organic forms begin to drift toward Envoy to intercept her as she charges toward Zakaro, each of them hovering inches above the scarred marble floor.
Envoy swings the axe at the phantoms, but doesn't slow down her charge.
The mists shriek and split as the axe slices through them, as if they were solid and actually wounded by its passage. Nonetheless, they flail out with countless sharp claws and barbs, leaving painful welts that rise on Envoy's skin, and refuse to be healed by her natural regenerative powers. They swirl about her head, obscuring her vision, and stinging her eyes. All the while, Zakaro's mocking laughter echoes about her. "Where is your pity now, Exile?"
There is a wet crunch underfoot, as one of the escaping bugs dies during Envoy's charge. She must be not far from the banquet table, even if she can't see it.
In an attempt to get the phantoms out of her face, Envoy lets loose with one of her ear-splitting screeches.
The wounded phantoms echo the Exile's screams, and for a moment, it seems that they have pulled free of her face, though her eyes still sting painfully, and her skin feels as though it has been scoured with sandpaper and raked with Zakaro's own fingernails several times over.
There is a peal of thunder that echoes through the unseen corridor, and cries of alarm. Envoy can hear the sounds of crumbling stonework, and Yffryn's voice, muttering something arcane. Perhaps there is about to be another scene change.
Envoy tries to locate Zakaro, and lifts the axe overhead to bring it down on whatever might be in range.
There's another ear-piercing shriek, as the third phantom is cleft in twain by Envoy's bold strike. The reddish mists dissipate, and though her eyes still ache, she is able to get them open enough to see her surroundings, even as they start to melt and reform, halfway between a badly damaged palace with scorch-marks here and there on the walls, and … another sample of Babelite architecture. The ceiling is rising, and the walls pressing outward, forming a nearly circular chamber, as runes and geometric shapes press themselves into the marble, as it darkens into blood-stained granite.
Trying to attack Zakaro's realm itself, Envoy tries bringing the axe down against the transforming ground.
The axe cleaves into the stone, wedging itself, and sending cracks radiating outward. Robed bat mages cry out, "Stop! You'll interfere with the Ritual of Transference!" But the scene apparently has not wholly formed just yet. Tables rise, with bodies upon them, and bars spring up around Envoy, forming a cage. It seems at first to be far too small to hold Envoy … but then she realizes that she is getting smaller. Her very form is being altered, and she finds it hard, then impossible to grasp onto the axe. Her ears grow large, her muzzle long and pointed, with sharplittle fangs, and she sprouts a large fluffy tail, and fluffy fur, while she shrinks down, finding herself sitting in a cage. Envoy … is now a fuff'nar. And it looks like there is an altar elsewhere in the room with a bat strapped down, much like Wynona in appearance … while a white-furred spherical … creature? … is located in the center of the magical circles.
Envoy tries to get out another screech before the transformation can complete.
It comes out sounding something like the word for "Kill!" in Babelite.
"Cryona!" shrieks Wynona from somewhere out of view of the fuff'nar cage, and then lightning shoots across the chamber. The cage rocks, and the cords holding it down are burnt and severed. It topples over…
… then lands heavily on the floor. The cage door pops open. A fox'taur rushes past, while several bats in the robes of the Royal Mages of Babel wave their arms and wings about, protesting loudly. "You're ruining the ritual!"
Envoy scurries out of the cage, and runs on her short little legs towards the axe.
There's an ominous *snap* from somewhere behind Envoy, roughly in the direction of the center of the magical circle. "Oh no!" a bat cries out. "Grab the cords!" "It's too late! She's ROLLING!" "RUN!"
Meanwhile, Envoy the fuff'nar pitter-pats across to the axe, reaching it … for all the good it does at the moment.
Spinning around, Envoy tries to see what's happening in the center of the circle now. "Dead?" she asks.
A huge ball of white fluff rolls toward Envoy. During one of its rotations, she can see what looks like a flattened-out face with four pudgy ears, its mouth puckered into a look of alarm. Little vestigial paws stick out uselessly from the fluff, wiggling faintly.
Scarlet? wonders part of Envoy's mind, while the rest of it urges her fuff'nar body to run in any direction that isn't in the thing's path.
Although Envoy the Fuff'nar may be small, she still possesses the sometimes annoying capacity to run far faster than her little paws should otherwise have a right to, and though the fluff passes behind her close enough that she can feel a rush of air and hear the sickening schush of rolling flab, she is able to get out of the way in the nick of time. Thunder echoes through the chamber, and a few sharp implements are flung by, as Wynona and Yffryn make violent exchanges.
"How dare you bring up Cryona?!" Wynona screams, unleashing a pulse of ball lightning that whips across the room.
"KILL!" Envoy squeals, and heads towards the sounds of the Fnerf mage.
The Fnerf gallops along, and spies the axe sticking into the floor. Her tail swishes happily, as she leaps over, and braces her forepaws, grabbing hold of the handle and pulling back, trying to wrench it free, heedless of the fuff'nar right behind her.
"KILL!" Envoy cries again, and tries to sink her teeth into one of Yffryn's hind leg achille's tendons.
Just as Yffryn pulls Rephath's axe free from the floor with a triumphant cry, a little gold-and-white fuff'nar sinks its sharp teeth into the back of her hind paw. "AHA AAAAAAIIEEEEEEEEEE!" she shrieks, thrashing her leg in a reflexive shake.
Envoy clamps her jaw down, like any good little fuff'nar, and tries to hold on.
Meanwhile, the ball of blue lightning changes its course, bearing straight toward the thrashing fox'taur. Yffryn shakes her paw about, hopping on her other feet, while the little fuff'nar demonstrates the tenacious grip that fuff'nar muzzles possess, as it whips around, hanging by its teeth.
Yffryn raises her axe, poised to strike at the offending fuff'nar … and then … the ball lightning hits her. "YAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" With a crackle and fizzle, sparks play over her fur, and she shakes about, every hair sticking straight out. It doesn't do much for the fuff'nar, either.
Envoy's jaws let go of the fox'taur's leg at that point, as she loses control of her jerking muscles.
The fox'taur collapses in a heap, the axe clattering against the floor. The chamber fades away … as the surroundings revert to Zakaro's realm once more. Actually, the floor hardly changes at all, though the walls break up and form menhirs that ring the circle, and scraggly vegetation sprouts up beyond that, while the ceiling breaks away to reveal a cloudy expanse that seems to be locked in eternal twilight, filled with myriad strangely shaped sky islands that float about. Zakaro's broken banquet hall is among them, hovering above and to one side of the circle. The fuff'nar shimmers and grows in size, scales forming on its throat, its muzzle becoming more abbreviated and rounded, the tail vanishing, and feathery wings sprouting from its back, until it is, once more, Envoy the Exile.
Wynona, breathing heavily, and marked with several scrapes and gashes, staggers over to stand over the fox'taur. "Had … pant, gasp … enough?" she wheezes.
Struggling to her feet again, Envoy groans. "Wynona … it won't end until one of you is dead. Those are Zakaro's rules."
Wynona blinks a few times, looking at Envoy. "What … what are you saying?"
Up at the banquet table, Zakaro is back to her old routine, stuffing down food. She must have gotten hungry during all the fighting.
"She wants you to kill Yffryn, or be killed by her," the Aeolun explains while trying to pick up the axe again. "You have to … quit. Refuse. Anything but go along with it. She'll do to you what Inala did to me if you win, force you to wish for power."
Wynona looks down at Yffryn, breathing heavily. "I … I don't want to be an avatar."
"You don't have to be!" Zakaro calls out, between bites. "But I can grant you power. Envoy's experience was simply poisoned, on account of Inala's tendency to cling. I just offer you raw power. A chance for respect. A chance to be known as something other than 'Wrong Way Wynona'."
"Yeah," Envoy says. "You could be known as 'Wynona the Terrible' instead. Power is meaningless if you don't have the wisdom to use it."
Wynona blinks at Envoy. "Hey!" Then, she blushes, looking away. "Uhm … what happens if I refuse, then, Envoy?"
"I don't think anything will happen," Envoy says, wearily. "You should be able to just walk away. Yffryn won't have won, because she didn't kill you, and you won't have won because you didn't kill Yffryn. That's the real choice you need to make, Wynona. Do you want to kill the Dream Mage?"
"No!" Wynona blurts out, then calms. "No … no, I don't. She … she really hurt me … but I got in a few zots, too. I've got no good reason to want to really hurt her." She shakes her head, then looks up toward Zakaro. "I won't kill her. I think she's defeated quite enough … and whether she is or not, I don't want any more power. I've got quite enough as it is, and I can barely handle that. I don't want to hurt anyone … not Yffryn, not Envoy, not even you. Just … let me go."
Envoy smiles to Wynona. "Good choice. Better than mine was."
Wynona walks over and tiredly hugs Envoy. "Thanks for setting me straight."
Zakaro, meanwhile, just looks stunned down at the scene.
The Aeolun hugs back, and suggests, "Let's pick up Yffryn and go back to the Crossroads. Let Zakaro choke on her food."
The sky seems a fraction darker. The firebirds drift downward, disappearing through the blanket of clouds. Zakaro broods over her meal. A crack splits open one of the menhirs at one side of the circle … and as it pulls open, through it can be seen the interior of the Crossroads circle.
Envoy lays down the axe so she can use both of her arms to try and get the zapped Fnerf onto her feet.
The axe almost seems to glow now … or, rather, everything is growing so dark that it seems bright by comparison, for it seems to be exempt from the dimness falling upon Zakaro's realm. The portal to the Crossroads is similarly exempt, though it casts no light upon the menhir circle. Yffryn groans, and staggers to her feet, though she doesn't seem quite coherent at the moment, and certainly in no state to put up a fight.
Once Yffryn is up, Envoy picks up the axe again and tries to get the Dream Mage moving towards the portal. "You can make it, Yffryn. I need to give this axe back to its owner."
Yffryn stumbles along with Envoy. Wynona follows, though she hangs back, looking up at Zakaro at the banquet hall. "I … I feel really awful. If everything here is shutting down … does that mean she dies?"
"I think it means she doesn't get to be real in the first place," Envoy says, looking back briefly into the darkness. "She didn't rise above her creators' programming. Don't feel sorry for her, Wynona."
Envoy manages to get Yffryn through the portal, and the fox'taur stumbles into the center of the crossroads archways. Wynona turns away from Zakaro, her head hanging low. "I can't help what I feel, Envoy."
The sky darkens more, until there's little to be seen beyond the portal and the Crossroads beyond, and the axe held in Envoy's hand.
"I know, Wynona," Envoy says, quietly. "It helps me to know that it will mean less suffering for Morpheus though."
As Envoy steps through, Zakaro's realm slips away. Wynona appears behind her. And then … there's a sound of cracking stone. Cracks run across the surface of the statue in Zakaro's archway, and the archway itself.
The Aeolun find a stone to sit on, and lays the axe of Rephath across her lap. "So … that's how it's done."
The statue cracks and breaks apart, and the archway as well, collapsing into a pile of rubble … while the red stone path beyond disappears in the silty gray mist. There is a distant rumble, as the crystal mountain that the path led to cracks and falls in upon itself, knocking up clouds of dust. When the dust clears … there is nothing left of it but a crater with a few gray wisps rising from it.
Envoy looks to Blakat's archway, and sighs. "One more to go, and then … then Inala will have to be dealt with somehow. Maybe I can get Blakat to invade Paradise. What do you think, Wynona?"