Read Strength Online

Authors: Angela B. Macala-Guajardo

Strength (35 page)

BOOK: Strength
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“Why would anyone destroy such a beautiful city?” he asked, tears rolling down his cheeks. “This is my home.” He stared at the destruction around him, his only comfort being the central pillar, which remained untouched. Rooke sank to the ground and lowered his face in his hands. “Why?”

“The city can be rebuilt,” Roxie said comfortingly, but had no clue how to reverse the greying. Somehow the pillar alone remained pure white.

“My home...”

“Rooke? Are you going to be okay?”

Rooke bolted to his feet. “Gem! My precious Geminina!” He pelted away from Roxie as if he was being chased by an Elf.

“No, Rooke! Wait! Don’t go that way!” The ground trembled beneath their feet and his pace faltered. Roxie ran to catch up with him. “It’s in ruins over there. Please stop!” The ground shook again, harder. As they stumbled together over the quaking ground, Rooke stopped and turned to Rox. He looked like he had lost all hope—flushed with grief and exhaustion—and afraid that his wife was dead.

“Rox! Rooke!” A desperate voice yelled to them across the clearing. It was Aerigo, near the front of the pillar. “Get out of here!”

Roxie started to call his name, but had to duck as a dagger whistled by her head. It flew past her face and buried itself in the heart of the person she was supposed to protect. Roxie stared in horror at the ornate hilt protruding from Rooke’s chest.

Rooke sighed one last breath and he was dead before he hit the ground.

“No!”

Aerigo sprinted toward Roxie as two dark, winged shapes rose into the sky from opposite sides of the obelisk.

Roxie turned around to see an Elf brandishing a scimitar and heading straight for her. Aerigo rushed past her and seized the Elf by the front of his tunic, lifting him off his feet with both hands. Aerigo punched the Elf in the stomach and the Elf dropped his scimitar.

There was one fiery explosion, followed by another somewhere behind them. The ground vibrated. The Elf in Aerigo’s grip looked up at the sky, his face lit up by the sooty glow, and smiled. Aerigo chanced a quick glance behind, then stared in horror.

The two black dragons were attacking the central pillar—the pillar Leviathan had sent both Aigis to protect.

The Elf broke free of Aerigo and reached for his other scimitar. He raised the blade. Roxie grabbed the Elf, her eyes aglow, and squeezed his wrist with both hands. Bones snapped and popped under her hands. She ignored the urge to let go out of disgust. The Elf let out a howl, dropped his weapon and reached for his cloak.

The dragons pounded the monument with their fiery breath and armored tails, sending chunks of stone crashing to the ground below.

The Elf dashed something at the ground that exploded, creating a thick cloud of smoke. Roxie flinched and let go of the Elf to cover her face. Within seconds the smoke dissipated and the Elf was gone. “No!” Roxie clutched at her bleeding shoulder, which hurt anew.

The pillar began to crack at the base.

***

Leviathan breathed in sharply. He stopped moving and stared ahead, his mind racing telepathically to his world Phaedra.

Baku and Din stopped, too. “What’s wrong?” they asked simultaneously. The three had been flying through outer space towards one of Din’s worlds.

Leviathan’s eyes widened in horror. “My icon!” he rumbled hoarsely. Before he could say anything more, he stiffened as if turned to stone.

“What’s happening to him?” Din asked.

“He’s been petrified,” Baku replied. “Something’s happened to his icon.”

***

The monument shift on its foundation. It started to tilt to the east, toward both Aigis. For some crazy reason Aerigo ran over to where the pillar was falling and stood with his arms outstretched, like he was ready to catch it. Roxie thought of running up beside him. Maybe there was enough time for him to pass on some more magical knowledge. But she stayed put. Something just half as big as the obelisk would leave her as a bloody smear.

***

Nexus watched the monument tilt, feeling nothing short of pleased. Yes, he had lost three trolls and a handful of Elves, but they were expendable. Aerigo wasn’t dead, but he would be very soon. He was going to be crushed. Nexus wanted to laugh aloud at his genius, but held it in for dignity’s sake. He gazed at the once beautiful city, now grey, flooded with water, fire and smoke.


The destruction of this city pleases you?

A voice asked inside his mind. It was his mother, Kara.


Of course,

he said. ‘
Why wouldn’t it?’

‘Was it really necessary to destroy it?

Kara materialized in the air beside him. Her dark hair waved about slowly, even though the wind was blowing hard.

‘It’s part of my plan, Mother. Just watch.

He smiled at his handiwork.


Well, I’m glad to see you happy, again.

She floated before him, kissed him on the forehead, and vanished.

Nexus’s ego swelled.

***

The air around Roxie changed. It felt static, as if a thunderstorm were nearby. Aerigo’s muscles tensed and bulged as if he were already holding up the pillar. The air grew hotter and thicker as well, and then Aerigo roared, either in pain or rage—or something that caused Roxie to run towards him, but she stopped when his body became enshrouded in what looked like a glowing fog. The fog shot out in all directions like snaking arms. One arm reached for Roxie’s face and swiped the air in front of her eyes as something held it back. The arm got sucked back towards Aerigo and joined the fog’s upward and outward growth. The fog took on the shape of a ghost as it grew hundreds of feet tall. A pair of muscled arms formed with big hands reaching for the obelisk. A head rose over the shoulders like a growing thunderhead cloud, eyes, nose and a mouth, all the features replicating Aerigo. Legs clothed in his pants, boots and metal bands straddled the open grassy area, one far to Roxie’s right, and one to the left. The astral projection—or whatever it was (Roxie decided to settle on that term)—grew far bigger than she’d ever seen Aerigo as a giant. It was two-thirds the height of the monument, with its arms reaching just a little higher. Aerigo’s astral arms, projected against the dark sky, reached up for the obelisk.

Roxie dropped to her hands and knees and narrowed her eyes. Strong, hot winds swirled around her with tornado force. Aerigo must’ve summoned a thunderstorm in the shape of him or something, except tendrils of this “cloud” kept lashing out, as if trying to break free of its molded form. More arms reached for her and Rooke’s corpse. Roxie crawled over to the corpse and huddled next to it.

Suddenly, Roxie felt like Aerigo was standing next to her, even though she could seem him at the base of his astral projection. A transparent dome appeared around her, shimmering like a soap bubble. The tendrils that reached out for her slid over the barrier feet away from her face.
Magic barrier. Thank you!

One dragon dived for where Roxie huddled. The swirling winds buffeted it, but the dragon didn’t veer off course as a piece of Aerigo’s astral projection went after it. A tendril shot out from the shin and wrapped itself around the dragon’s neck. The dragon somersaulted midair, then was flung back in the direction it came as fast as an arrow.

Aerigo’s astral hands caught two corners near the top third of the column, making a low rumble and sizzling noise. The second dragon flew at Aerigo’s flesh and blood body, a fireball leading the attack. The fireball got swept away in the swirling winds, but detonated close to Aerigo. The astral projection flinched, then put pushed its power against the tilting obelisk. Aerigo’s physical feet crushed the rock beneath him, causing him to sink up to his knees in dirt and stone.

The approaching dragon got sucked into the vortex, just as his fireball did. Two more tendrils broke away from the main projection and coiled themselves around the dragon before throwing it after the first beast.

Roxie flinched when the sidewalk around her shuddered beneath her feet. When she opened her eyes, the ground was marred with spider web pattern of cracks. “Oh great! And I just fixed the whole damn cliff, too!” The sight of Rooke’s corpse, which she couldn’t bring herself to touch, sobered her frustration.

Once the astral projection’s elbows were level with the shoulders, the obelisk stopped tipping over and the swirling winds grew more violent. Roxie gripped one of Rooke’s arms to keep him from being swept away. She dug her free hand in one of the milieu of fresh cracks and held on tight.

Aerigo heaved the column upright, slow and steady. There was a low rumble as the far edge fell back into place. Aerigo’s astral hands peeled away, then he placed them on the sides of the pillar. The astral head bowed with its mouth wide open, its massive shoulders rising and falling with each breath. Aerigo’s real body mirrored his projection. He took a deep breath, then lifted his head. The pillar began to glow white, then faded, red lines glowing where it had cracked. Aerigo dropped both sets of arms.

Roxie realized that she had been holding her breath. She exhaled with relief.

The astral form slumped its shoulders and began to dissolve like a storm cloud breaking apart. The air calmed down and cooled off as the last of Aerigo’s phenomenal energy was spent. His giant projection evaporated and he bent over, hands on his knees and gasping air.

Roxie let go of Rooke and ran over to Aerigo. “Are you gonna be okay?”

He forced himself upright and winced. “Just a little tired.”

“Just a little?”

“We gotta get off Phaedra.” Laboriously, he walked over to where their packs lay.

“Why?”

“Nexus is trying to kill us. And he’s started by tiring me out.”

“He did a good job of that.” Roxie folded her arms, which set the cut on her shoulder throbbing.

Aerigo pulled out a plastic bottle with a clear liquid in it and stood. When he turned around, Roxie noticed a big cut on his bare chest. “What happened to you?”

“The trolls.” He squirted some of the liquid into a cupped hand. “Put your hand down.”

Remembering her ordeal in her grandmother’s bathtub, Roxie hesitated before obeying. She clenched her teeth as Aerigo rubbed the cold balm onto her injury. Roxie squirmed in pain and fought back a yelp. Aerigo took his hand away and Roxie saw that the cut was healed. She touched it, testing for any sore spots. Her skin was pink and whole. “Ow, by the way.”

Aerigo looked at her affectionately, and started to pour the last of the healing balm into his palm.

She took the bottle from him gently. “Here.” Roxie squirted the substance into her hand and rubbed the open slash on his chest. Aerigo squinted his eyes and clenched his jaw, and Roxie felt his muscles tense and relax under her hand. Once he took the empty bottle from her, she realized she could stop touching his chest. “All better?” she asked, flushing.

He nodded. “Thank you.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter 27

 

 

 

Rooke’s corpse lay on its back with an ornate dagger protruding from his chest. His head was tilted to one side, his face relaxed, almost happy. Happy to be back with his wife, Roxie guessed. His legs were skewed and blood seeped from his mouth and the stab wound.

Aerigo bent down and pulled out the dagger, then chucked it aside. He folded Rooke’s hands over his rotund belly and straightened out his head and legs. Limping his way back to Roxie, he said, “It’s time to leave.” He fell to his hands and knees.

Roxie knelt beside him. “Aerigo! What’s wrong?”

He was breathing hard. “I forgot how… draining that was.”

“Let me help you up.” Roxie wanted to panic. Who knew how many more enemies were nearby, closing in for the kill? Aerigo didn’t object. In fact, he put one arm over her shoulders and they stood together. Aerigo was sticky with sweat and his skin felt like he was on fire. “To Baku’s?”

“No. Too obvious. He knows me well enough to know that’s exactly where I want to go.” Aerigo took a deep breath, raised his free arm and tried to pass into another world. His arm shook and he almost collapsed again. He bent over gasping for breath. “I can’t—you gotta do it.”

“How?” she said.

“Stretch out your arm and spread your fingers. I’ll direct us to where we want to go.”

She did and he rested his arm and hand on top of hers, his sweat gluing them together.

“Do you feel anything?”

Frightened.
“Yeah.” Something like a fabric wall pressed against her palm. It felt solid, yet flexible.

“Find the center and push it with your mind.”

Center?
She felt around as if she were looking for someone with her mind, and accidentally found what she was looking for. The discovery startled her and she almost lost track of the door as her hand brushed upon something round and more solid than the rest of the fabric. “Push the round thing?”

“Push it hard.”Roxie pushed at it and nothing happened. She pushed harder and the door responded by pushing back. No wonder Aerigo had almost collapsed. It felt like she was trying to push a ten-ton block. When the door pushed back it felt like deep water pressure trying to crush her skull. She braced herself, then pushed harder, and the air in front of her began to look watery and swirl. The door pushed back just as hard, sending them both stumbling backwards. They caught their balance and Aerigo plopped his arm back on top of hers.

“Again. You’re getting it.”

For some reason, the door’s stubbornness annoyed her. She imagined herself reaching out with both arms and visualized both her hands on the firmer center. As she physically leaned forward, she visualized throwing all her weight into the center of the door.

The shock of world-hopping jolted them, and then they were standing in a new world.

“I did it!” Roxie exclaimed, half disbelievingly. A willow forest lay ahead with remnants of a campsite underneath the largest tree. The surrounding land was covered with rolling, grassy hills.

Aerigo’s head fell onto Roxie’s shoulder and rested there, his burning cheek against hers. His weight bore down on her shoulders, and he began to breathe easier.

Oh goodie. For once I’m not the once passing out and having to be carried around.
Roxie bent her knees and grabbed Aerigo by the back of his own, then straightened up and trudged over to the campsite.

***

Leviathan was freed of petrification and he excused himself from Din and Baku to what tragedy had befallen his city. He instantly transmitted himself to Phailon, hovering next to the pillar.

Half the city had been reduced to a smoky ruin and the remainder was scarred with wreckage. Phailon’s great pillar was intact but there were giant scorch marks in the shape of hands hundreds of feet from the top. The Dragon God flew over and grabbed at one as he tried to contain his rage.

Images of the attack on Phailon flashed through Leviathan’s mind: the falling pillar, two evil black dragons, people running and screaming, trolls, one good man’s death and the Elf who toppled him. Fury, sadness, fear, the sharp smells of fire and blood. All the pictures and emotions in Aerigo’s mind filled Leviathan’s. He snatched his clawed hand away as if he had been burned. “Nexus!”

***

Roxie laid Aerigo down at the campsite with his body leaning against a log, and borrowed his dagger and collected tinder to start a fire. A circle of rocks with black and grey ashes inside was already provided for her. She set up a teepee with her tinder and collected dried moss at its base.
Now for the hard part,
Roxie thought unhappily to herself. She reached for Aerigo’s dagger and the flat rock she had found earlier.

There was a clatter of small pieces of wood.

Roxie snapped her gaze to the fire pit, holding the rock and dagger loosely. “No! That took me forever to set up!” She kneeled over the pit and painstakingly propped all the pieces of wood against each other. “Now stay up this time,” she said to the tinder, collecting the dagger and rock again.

A breeze came by and the teepee shifted—but stayed standing.

Roxie stared at the teepee, waiting for it to fall, yet the tinder stayed put. She closed her eyes, exhaling with relief, then adjusted the moss and began trying to make sparks.

All she managed to do was heat up the rock with friction as she wore a groove on its face. After several minutes of trying all sorts of ways to scrape, scratch and cut the rock to make sparks she gave that up and tried to magically light the wood, even though she didn’t know any fire-starting spells. She pointed a finger at her teepee. “Fireball!”

Nothing.

“Fire blast!” she yelled, pointing with her palm.

Still nothing.

She held out both hands. “Flame-oh, light-oh?”

Nope.

“Alaka—oh that’s so cliché!”

She threw the rock down in frustration. The rock connected with another sitting along the ring and, thanks to her brute strength, sparks flew out and landed in the moss. Smoke rose from the moss.

Dumbfounded by her stroke of luck, Roxie almost let her success die at the hand of a passing breeze, but regained her senses just in time to cup her hands around the glowing moss. She blew gently on it and, a few more handfuls of moss later, the tinder began to burn. Once the entire teepee caught flame, she chanced leaving Aerigo behind in search of extra fuel.

Roxie learned that it took a lot of wood to keep a fire going. By midnight she decided it was time to let it die down. But not to sleep. She had promised herself and Aerigo to stay awake all night. The distraction of keeping the fire alive had helped greatly. Fatigue was catching up with her now though. Her eyelids kept lowering and it hurt to keep her eyes open. She longed to lower her chin to her chest, and every so often she snapped into wakefulness every time her head dropped forward. Roxie stopped drawing in the dirt with a stick, threw it in the fire and reached for her canteen. At some point growing up she had been told that drinking water would keep her awake, but the cool liquid did nothing to help. If anything, it made her sleepier.

Roxie rubbed both eyes, yawned, and scooted closer to Aerigo. She sat in the crux of his waist, her knees drawn up to her chin and arms hugging them to her chest. Small flames and glowing embers flickered under her gaze. Roxie stared at these dancing lights, mesmerized. In under a minute she was asleep.

In her dream Roxie was being chased by a dark figure that she refused to turn around and identify. She had to get away but her arms and legs wouldn’t pump as fast as they could. Something was dragging her down. Suddenly she was falling down the side of a cliff. Right before impact she woke up.

The pale colors of dawn painted the horizon. She yawned while the first birds filled the air with their song.

A faint click from the forest put her on high alert. Something shot out of the bush towards Aerigo’s unprotected shoulder. Roxie managed to catch the object before it struck him, but the impact stung her palm. She pulled it out and threw it to the ground, then clutched her hand. The foreign object was a dart of some kind with a thick, inch-long needle. An image of a dragon was etched into the glass vial. She looked at the hole in her palm and the skin around it turned a livid pink.
Poison!

There was another soft click from the forest and Roxie shielded Aerigo again.

A second dose of toxin entered her system.

Roxie moaned as she pulled out the dart. Her hand was already swelling and it burned and itched. She gritted her teeth, forced herself to her feet as she mentally searched the trees for who’d shot at Aerigo. She fell to her knees after one step and waited for her head to stop spinning. She tried to stand again, gave up when her head spun, and sat on her heels. And then it felt like her windpipe had shrunk. She put a hand to her throat and tried to take a deeper breath but couldn’t get air in as fast as she wanted. Roxie crawled over to Aerigo on three limbs, her poisoned hand pressed to her stomach. She called his name weakly.

Aerigo continued sleeping.

She sucked in air. “
Aerigo!
” Roxie gasped at a sudden stab of pain, which blossomed all the way to her shoulder. She squinted her eyes closed and prodded his side. “Wake up,” she pleaded hoarsely.

A pair of hands clasped her left hand.

“What happened?” Aerigo asked.

Roxie snapped her eyes open and Aerigo repeated his question. She glanced at the pair of darts, then held up her throbbing hand. Aerigo took her hand and looked at it, then glanced at the spent darts.

“Help me,” Roxie said. She started tilting to one side, but Aerigo caught her by the shoulders.

“Try to stay awake.”

The fire in her arm was spreading to the rest of her body, making her feel faint.
Bad fire.
Aerigo’s vision of the phoenix surfaced in her mind. She opened her mouth to say the two words but no voice came out.

“Rox?”

Her head lolled forward and she fell unconscious.

***

Nexus lay sprawled on his throne, an elbow on one armrest and his leg hanging over the other. Once again, he was waiting. His vaulted palace glowed amber, like some eternal sunset, and the air hung warm and heavy. Nexus hated sunlight and kept his realm’s sky blanketed with dark clouds that stormed when he was in a foul or exultant mood.

In the center of the hall, a patch of air blurred while its edges looked like they were getting sucked into the middle. A pale hand appeared, followed by an arm and the rest of a body cloaked in black. The Elf stepped forward as the air returned to normal behind him. Kabiroas pulled back his hood, revealing a narrow, pale face full of gloating.

Nexus stood and beckoned the Elf forward. “Welcome back, Kabiroas.”

“Excellent news, Nexus. Our task is fulfilled.”

“The Aigis are dead?”

“The girl took both poison darts. Her death is certain, and Aerigo is spent. He has fled to yet another world.”

“Then he’s wasting his time trying to save the girl. Call back Gilonas and Dakar. Aerigo is no longer a threat now that everyone’s armies are almost done assembling.”

“Yes, sir,” the Elf said, inclining his head.

Nexus made his way down his stairs and past the Elf. “Follow me,” he said in a low, excited voice. They crossed to the palace entrance and two great doors swung open of their own accord, groaning deeply. An expanse of rocky desert blanketed in storm clouds splayed out before them. The air was hot, yet the gusts of air cold. Electricity tugged at loose hair. Nexus clasped his hands behind his back and gazed at the empty land before them. “Is this land fit for open warfare, or what?”

“It is,” the Elf said, a hand twitching for a saber.

In the middle of this plain rose one stump-shaped plateau, with a gnarled tree atop it. “That’s where I shall be watching the war unfold,” Nexus said. “I’ve shaped my realm with the sole purpose of war in mind. One army on that side.” He raised an arm and gestured to the ride side of the plateau. “And one on that side.” He held out his left arm and pointed to the left side. “And both will collide in the middle.” He clapped palms together, interlocking his fingers. “Bam. No sneak attacks; just a simple battle to the death.”

“What’s with the tree? I suggest cutting it down.”

Nexus laughed. “That tree has earned the right to live. It’s a long story.”

“What next, Master?”

“Now the war can begin.”

BOOK: Strength
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