Halfling- Chapter Twenty-Two

It was the big day. Or, night, rather. Apprehension thrummed through the group. Through everyone. Whatever animals or critters there had been in the daylight were cowering in safety, making no noise. The silence was eerie. Every once in a while the light rustling of clothing or armor could be heard, and the heat was thick and cloying, light sweat sticking on their bodies. Zaria had her hair up in ribbons and braids that some of the children had insisted on doing. She hadn’t had the time, but didn’t have the heart to turn them down. They had also said, very seriously, that they didn’t want her hair to get in the way of battle. She was with the outer group, sitting on the top step of the town hall, shoulder to shoulder with Gareth. She wondered if he would accept being the king to her queen. How silly, she thought. Of course he would, and she giggled.

Gareth glanced at her, and she gave him a soft smile. “Will you marry me?”

He smiled just as tenderly and softly. “Does that mean I get to be a king?”

“Yes, you can serve on me hand and foot, and bring me breakfast in bed,” she teased.

“Then I accept!” He kissed her on the lips, lightly and slightly chaste, aware of everyone looking at them from below.

“Then we have something to fight for: a royal wedding,” Rishtah said with a grin, and was immediately met with cheers and clapping. A light moment, and at the perfect timing because just then they heard the march of an army. It was still distant, and the clang of armor was just beginning to be heard. Zaria and Gareth squeezed hands, giving and taking strength from each other.

As one, everyone moved from the steps to the dirt ground, taking strength and energy from the earth they stood upon. They linked hands in a circle and drew power, sharing with the group. Zaria carefully let down just that one guard to share power, keeping the rest of her shields in place, remembering what Gareth and Rishtah had taught her and warned her about. It wouldn’t do to have so many people have access to her inner self. She felt the different and foreign bits of power in the circle with their own flavors, power she wasn’t used to.

They focused on building an orb that encompassed them, and then the town. It was stronger than the cloaking shield, and shimmered purple. The force of them all was almost staggering, and made it almost a physical thing, a wall that reached to the trees and over. She only hoped that there would be enough time for everyone to get out. She knew the shield would fall.

They heard the army stop, and the roaring of them all was almost deafening. Zaria wanted to shake with fear. She knew they were to die. With a final roar, the magical attacks came. Individually, they were nothing, a prick of a pin, but it was multiplied. Over time, the attacks would produce gaping holes, and then it would collapse. Gareth took more energy separate from the group and started fighting back. They still wanted to keep it a secret that Zaria was as powerful as she was, until the very last moment, until they were nearly decimated. He sent balls of energy from the universe raining down on the attackers, knocking out hundreds. But there were more, so many more. Gareth was starting to tire, she could tell, as connected as they were. His expression remained fierce and concentrated.

Zaria didn’t know how long they had been maintaining while Gareth took out the army with his greatness. How many thousands were there? The hits were knocking bigger and bigger holes into their circle. A great explosion shook the earth, and the circle went down, energy blasted away in a combination of purple and black sparks. Everyone shuddered and nearly fell to the ground, pale and sweating.

“I’ve tired of this. I could crush you like a bug,” a high voice called out. Through the smoke emerged a figure in a daring black leather dress. The V neck went to her navel, exposing much of her stomach. The leather was tight on her arms, the sleeves long and the top of the sleeve met in a V at her fingertips. The bottom of the dress met boots that went to the top of her thigh, which could be seen through the slit that went up to her hip bone. She wore a thick rope of a gold necklace that ended in a tassel at her belly button. Her toffee colored skin was shining with magic, and her dark hair was piled high up on her head, some curls spilling out. The crown that sat on her head was shining gold, the diamonds glittering even though Awen brought dark clouds with her, and the wind whipped around the group now huddled more towards the steps. Zaria and Gareth held hands, facing her.

Zaria’s heart was pounding; she thought it would pound right out of her chest. She had never felt more alive or electrified. She said nothing to the false queen’s taunt, only slightly lifted her head and met Awen’s black eyes.

Awen laughed. “My, my, you are audacious, aren’t you?” She slinked over to where Zaria stood, circling both her and Gareth since he refused to move. Zaria could feel in the grip of his hand that his muscles were taught and he tightened up even more. She then remembered that this was the first time he’d seen the queen since he’d betrayed her.

“I can see why people have been fawning over you. Soooo pretty,” she drawled as she once again faced Zaria, drawing her black painted and pointed fingernail against Zaria’s cheek and leaving a red welt. Gareth made a movement and Awen whipped her head towards him. “You I’ll deal with momentarily,” she hissed through her teeth, fury in her eyes.

“But you, my darling, you should have died many moons ago,” Awen continued, her voice like silk and honey. Zaria could see how people could become entranced by her. She felt the pull herself, and resisted the glamour that Awen tried to hold over her. She got the feeling that not many could resist the glamour, because it was so strong. Zaria had been working very hard on her inner strength, and this played a part in that resistance. She could tell that it irritated Awen. “But I want to have fun with you. You would be such a joy to break. And break you I will. Both of you!” She shouted as she looked at Gareth.

They felt the attack suddenly build by a change in the air and then come, and they barely warded it off. Awen didn’t ever physically attack anyone, but she held out her hand like she was choking Gareth, and he took a strangled step towards her, one hand outstretched towards her and one around his throat. Zaria grabbed a large amount of power from her chi and threw it at Awen in a show of purple sparks. It hit her in the chest and she flew backwards, landing on her back.

With a shriek of rage, she flew back up, standing perfectly still. “I knew Gareth was teaching you how to use power, but I didn’t know you could draw the power of the universe as well. Interesting,” she seethed, clearly controlling her anger with great exertion. Her hands were balled at her sides.

Zaria worried that they had let this slip too soon, but she couldn’t bear to see Gareth harmed and she had reacted without even thinking about it. She gripped his hand firmly. “Yes, he has. And both of us together can beat you and your entire army to the ground,” she said fiercely, her anxiousness not showing in her voice or body. Inside she was shaking.

Awen laughed, throwing her head back and the awful sound passed through her lips. “Oh, you are funny. Tell me, my dear, did it almost kill you? That first time? Did you feel like your insides were being ripped to shreds?” Her voice had dropped to a horrible, rasping whisper, a macabre grin stretched across her face.

Zaria’s jaw clenched, the only sign of her discomfort. “Yes, it almost killed me. Is that what you want to hear? But I’m stronger now, and I can hold and throw more energy and magic than you deign to in your lifetime.”

Awen cackled, her changes in tone and sound were unnerving. It brought a shiver down Zaria’s back each time she sounded different. “Oh my dear sweet child. You have no idea what I’m capable of, and you best keep that in the back of your mind before uttering such nonsensical words.” Awen’s face suddenly lost all sign of humor. “I’m going to make you squirm and beg, and make you wish you had died that day. You will feel a great deal of pain before I’m finished with you. How much can the body suffer?” She casually walked towards Zaria, her face soft and hard at the same time. Soft with the desire to cause pain, and hard with anger.

Zaria didn’t back down, but she stood her ground. No one else spoke or moved, since this was clearly between Zaria and Awen. Even Gareth was letting her go at it alone, but he was close by just in case she needed him. “Our bodies can handle as much as our minds allow before our bodies give out,” Zaria answered in a broad sense, although both of them knew they were talking about Zaria.

“Aha!” Awen grinned wickedly as though Zaria had said something particularly insightful. “The mind. What can the mind handle?” Zaria heard a sharp intake of breath behind her, but she didn’t turn to see who was anxious.

“It depends on how strong one’s mind is,” Zaria answered, playing along since no one was being killed at the moment. She was ready the moment that happened.

“And how strong is your mind, princess?” Awen whispered, putting emphasis on princess. It made Zaria feel uncomfortable, and the hair on the back of her neck rose. Was this when she learned who had betrayed her? She heard a buzzing in her ears and she felt like there was an elephant on her chest, and the world was turning grey at the edges. Was this worse than she thought?

Awen looked delighted. “Gabriella, my love!” She clapped her hands once in a childlike glee. Zaria felt the blood drain from her face. Her mother?

“There’s my girl. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!” Awen clasped her arm around Gabriella’s shoulder when she had made her way slowly to the queen. She was crying, and fell to the ground on her knees at Awen’s feet. She groveled and grabbed at the leather skirt.

“Mom?” Zaria said softly, so crushed and heartbroken that this could have happened. Zaria’s voice seemed to wake Gabriella out of some sort of reverie and she started to turn and apologize, but Awen grasped her hair, and she cried out but nothing further.

Awen smiled at that. “Tell me, princess, do you remember that night your beloved father died? Our righteous king?”

Zaria didn’t answer, only stared at her mother. The woman that had nurtured her for her entire childhood. She had betrayed her? In what way? Disbelief, sorrow, and anger were all building within her. “Yes,” she finally whispered when she realized Awen was waiting for an answer, her voice hoarse. She realized that tears were falling down her cheeks, and was barely aware of Gareth standing behind her, his arm around her waist.

“How do you think we found you?” Awen looked at her, through her, and was perversely enjoying this. Zaria slowly shook her head, not understanding why. Why had she done this? “Your mother was so kind to tell us which village you were in, had been hiding in. It took a lot for me to get through to her. Your mother was strong, once. But I broke her, and she’s been broken ever since. Just like I will break you.” Awen bent and raked her long fingernail across Gabriella’s cheek, breaking the skin this time and blood ran down to mix with her tears. But she didn’t try to stop her from doing it. She accepted it as though it were a just punishment to happen.

Without thinking, Zaria ran forward to stop it. Awen swept her arm out, knocking her back with a magical blow. Awen snarled. “She’s mine! She was mine first!” She roughly grabbed Gabriella under the chin, lifting her up from the ground. “Isn’t that right? Before you ran off with the king, you were mine!” Awen screamed mine, and it echoed across the buildings.

Zaria stopped in her tracks, shocked. “What? What do you mean?”

Awen ignored her now, almost all her attention on Gabriella. “How does it feel, watching your family get destroyed?”

Gabriella sobbed, and finally looked at Zaria. “I’m sorry,” she choked out, her eyes pleading. With those two words, the reality struck, and Zaria knew it was true. She didn’t know how to feel; she felt frozen in place. She heard Gareth snarl behind her and felt his rage, but it seemed distant to her.

Immense satisfaction was on Awen’s face. “I’ll be taking you with me,” Awen said, waving her hand down Gabriella’s face and she seemed to fall asleep, slumping in the queen’s arms. She laid her on the ground and stepped over her. “The rest of you will be coming with me as well,” she grinned, and motioned behind Zaria, who turned around to face them. Most of the elders slumped their shoulders and stepped forward to take the side of the queen. Rishtah kept her head high, her face drawn in sadness.

“You will see, princess, that given enough time, anyone can become corrupted,” she said, holding out her hands to her minions.

Zaria tried to make sense of what she was seeing. “Why? Why do this? Why pretend to fight with me?” No one answered her, only looked at Awen with reverence.

The clank of armor drew everyone’s attention to a couple of halflings with someone in their arms. Zaria recognized her sister with horror. “No!” She screamed, running towards her. Awen knocked her back and she couldn’t reach her sister. She creamed wordlessly, tears running down her face.

“I will take your sister too,” Awen said. “Just for the fun of it. I will be back to deal with your betrayer of a boyfriend,” she hissed, still angry and never forgetting.

Zaria pulled with everything she had, until the atoms almost fried her synapsis, and hurled it at the queen in a rage. The purple energy hit Awen’s black energy, and they both screamed with the force. Everyone else was knocked back at the collision, both Awen and Zaria with their palms outward toward the other, energy clashing until they both ran out of what they could throw. It happened at the same time and the silence was sudden and complete.

“Maybe I will take him too!” Awen rasped, and hit her with a final flick of the hand, one that Zaria wasn’t prepared for. The black ball hit her and she went down, stunned beyond comprehension. She heard shouting and felt Gareth pull energy. She could only see the dark and cloudy sky without stars above her, so she didn’t know what Gareth had done. Rain droplets started to hit her, and she could only lay there, not moving. She wanted to fight back with whatever was happening, but she was on the verge of passing out. Why was she holding on? She felt someone grab and shake her, taking her in their arms, but she couldn’t focus on their face. Finally, the darkness came and she welcomed it.

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