Aboard the Winnow
"So here's the plan. An Equaliser is a land-locked dragon—can't fly, can't chase us if we choose to fly, and so on. Most of the time, this would mean getting our backline caster—Auren—to engage it from the safety of the Winnow, but an Equaliser is an exception."
Lili and Avett are standing at the edge of what seems to be an endlessly north-spanning forest. Lili's passed these types of areas on multiple occasions—she's always seen them on her lengthy car trips down south, and it's always eluded her as to what could possibly be beyond those tightly knit, tall pines. When she squints into the overgrowth, she sees the occasional patch of greenery against the floor of dead leaves and scattered pinecones. Darkness swallows up the treescape if she tries to look any further ahead.
A shiver actually runs down her spine. She turns to meet Avett. "How so?"
"Auren might be the best Eldrak his school's seen in twenty decades—" He stops and rolls his eyes as if he's just quoted something from the big man himself. "—but the Equaliser's smarter. It thrives in forests, and Auren just isn't capable of making the clean, pinprick-precise shots that he needs to shoot through all of this." He motions to the cliquish pines. They're clustered close enough so that the average person can just fit between two trunks without it being too tight of a squeeze.
"But you can?" Lili finishes for him.
"Fuck no." He pats the huge crossbow at his side. "I'm an average shot, Lilith. Using blasters any further than ten metres is a nightmare, it's why I favour this bad boy here. Wouldn’t know what to do without him."
She presses her lips into a thin line. "Don't use me as an excuse."
"I'm not dumb. I just love jumping at any opportunity to make you uncomfortable."
Ugh. He's giving her another one of his insufferable, smarmy smiles, and she doesn't even have the means, let alone the resolve, to punch it right off his dumb face anymore.
"Though we're definitely on even footing." He pivots on his heel and peers into the forest with those slitted eyes of his. He sees way more than Lili ever could. "Wouldn't be too smart if you used your projectiles here."
Lili actually freezes, like the dumbass she is. It takes her a moment for her to realise that he doesn't mean that she's physically incapable of doing so, but that it would be unsuitable in regards to their surroundings. "I don't intend to," she answers. She has to force her voice into being steady.
It's not like she came unprepared. The heavy press of cold steel against her back serves to remind her of this fact—she'd taken it at the very last second from the armoury, and it'd been coated in a fine dressing of dust and cobwebs when she found it. It's far too heavy for her to swing without throwing the rest of her weight off balance, and she's never really used a real sword before, but entering the forest unarmed, especially in the presence of a powerful mark, doesn't exactly seem like the smartest decision.
Avett flashes a glance towards the blade. She hopes he'll dismiss it. She can't help but release a silent exhale when he turns back towards the forest and beckons her forward with an overhead throw of his arm.
"Come on. Don't wuss out on me now."
"I'm not scared of ghosts."
Immediately upon entering the forest, Lili feels the air drop a few degrees. The overhead canopy of pine needles provides a shade that's lasted this place for centuries, leaving her with a chill that brushes her cheeks every time she turns her head to survey her surroundings. The ground is soft, like she's stepping on a trampoline, not to mention uneven—she's going to trip for sure if they find themselves needing to make a hasty getaway.
She paces forward a bit until she's right next to her partner. He's checking the display on his GlassLink every so often while keeping an eye on his surroundings. The huge crossbow that's strapped onto his back glints every time he walks underneath a sprinkle of sunlight.
Lili chews the inside of her cheek. She remembers how difficult it'd been for her to lug it into the armoury from the entrance. If Lili had even a fraction of Avett's competency, she'd be unstoppable. Now she can't even lift a glorified cut of iron without tripping over her feet.
Selfishness blooms inside of her like a rose without petals. Addled with guilt and shame, she opens her mouth to admit her shortcomings, just as he had in that ship—
Avett's hand is in front of her face, and he's waving it up and down. "Gonna need you back on Earth, Lilith—we're close."
You don't need me, she briefly considers saying.
She inhales sharply instead because now isn't the time for self-deprecative tirades and other floaty, useless time wasters. "Where?" she says instead.
"Couple of metres ahead and just beyond this clearing." His eyes are fixed to something in the distance. When Lili traces his line of sight, she catches a wisp of gossamer cloth, though it quickly slips between the tree branches and out of sight.
She draws her sword from its sheath; they're treated to the most horrendous, ear-grating rattle when she does. Avett whips around with a scowl, and he's probably ready to lecture her when a whirl of blacks and whites slam down into the tree next to them. When she dares a glance sideways, she sees a tendril of pure darkness—so dark that it hardly looks real. It's withdrawing back, leaving a trail of smouldering, ink-black smoke.
Splinters fly and rain down like wooden raindrops. And in front of them, in broad daylight, is a hulking mass of unearthly terror.
Terror has her heart in a vice-like grip, but years of living in the wilds force her legs to move as she retreats backwards. Another vine lashes out at them, and this time it knows where to hit—Lili drops to the floor and rolls, but when she's upright again, she finds that her breaths are shallow, and her sides are singing in washed-out pain.
She's become too reliant on her affinity, she realises. It feels like she's piloting her body remotely, making her reflexes and reactions dulled. Her ether isn't just a crutch—it's her entire psyche. And she's letting it all catch up to her.
Avett leaps onto an appendage, his eyes flashing with determination as he rides it all the way into the clearing and towards the Equaliser. Then he kicks off, his crossbow held above his head with both hands, and slams his entire magazine into its veiled head. The metallic ring of each and every arrow firing into its head comes next.
Lili watches the Equaliser wobble, hundreds of iron-tipped arrows embedded into what she presumes is its skull—except there's no blood. No organic discharge.
Her breath catches in her throat. She calls out his name.
Avett snarls, his hand already on his blaster. He fires a few warning rounds, using the recoil to send him retreating through the air faster—and the dragon actually flinches from it.
Realisation sweeps over her features. His crossbow hadn't hurt it at all, but the blaster—a weapon powered by what seems to be artificial ether—had. Avett quickly comes to the same conclusion as her. He's already catching her eyes and yelling at her to do what she has to do.
She bites her tongue and wills herself into a state of tranquillity. It doesn't work—especially when the Equaliser turns to her, its beady eyes piercing through her like she's paper-thin. It doesn't blink, she realises.
She raises an arm. It's in a clearing, so she has a clean shot. She half-heartedly reaches into the void, her mental fingers splayed and ready to explore the world beneath the surface. When she dares to open her eyes, all she sees is the allure of the deep. Of a world she'll never return from.
Avett comes careening into her not a moment sooner. Another tendril smacks down only millimetres away from her feet. Before she can catch her breath again, he yanks her up by the arm and breaks into a sprint she knows she won't be keeping up with.
Not for a single second does he let go of her hand. He even slows down, just a smidge, for her. And then it occurs to her, with a traitorous drop of her stomach, that he knows a lot more about her current predicament than he lets on.
Lili, as she expects, actually does trip, but she's only introduced to the delightful flavour of forest musk and rotting wood for a brief second before Avett hauls her right back up by the arm. When she looks around, she sees no sign of the Equaliser. But there's another scowl on his face. And he's not letting go.
She finds herself returning that scowl. "Let go."
"Fight back," he fires back.
Her body stiffens. She opens her mouth, but the words stay lodged in her throat.
"I'm not letting go," he says, his breathing uneven despite his constitution, "until you pry my dead, cold hands off your wrist."
She gives him a pathetic little shake of her hand. It doesn't work.
"I should have known—I smelled it on you, from the moment I walked in on you in that bathroom, you didn't have a lick of ether on you." His grip tightens. "And you usually reek of it. Am I wrong?"
"So?" She shakes her hand again. "It's not your prob—"
"It's my problem when we're meant to be a team, Lilith." His voice is sharp. He throws down her hand. "Why'd you come here? Why didn't you tell Auren, get him to work his Gallian magic on you—"
"It's not magic." She doesn't say that it's because she's scared of being dumped and left in the Hive to die, or worse, back at the house she's lived in for the past six years.
He chokes. "You think I give a fuck about semantics when we're knee-deep in shit? Your ether is feather-fine delicate—just like you, by the way, princess—and about as reliable as parlour magic. Tell me I'm wrong. Because I'm not."
She clenches her fists. “It was going to be fine. And it is reliable. Just not… today.” Her voice trails off.
Avett turns towards the sky. He takes a steadying breath. It doesn't work. So he whirls back instead, his hands splayed in anger. "You couldn't even unsheathe right—scraped the blade all up against the scabbard, and you expected what? Expected your ether to somehow miraculously come back so you could go in all swinging again? I bet that thing's too heavy for you to even handle."
She doesn't say anything. Her eyes drift downwards and towards the piece of dead bark that's lying flat amongst a spread of moss.
Recognition smoothes over his features. "Stars, you thought I'd take it down myself."
"You're used to it," she offers. "You prefer it."
His body goes still.
Suddenly, she feels a whole lot more awkward than before. "I—I just thought you could handle it fine, I didn't expect… that to happen."
Then he turns and faces the forest again. "We're going back to the ship. I'm swapping out my crossbow for something with a battery, and Auren'll fix you up, maybe lecture you as well, deduct your pay for this job, I don't know. I'm gonna fucking give you an earful too—after I get this dragon."
She hangs back as he starts to walk forward.
"And don't stand so far from me." Avett doesn't bother looking at her. "I'm not hitting someone who can't defend themself."
She shakes her head, though she knows that he can't see it. "Do you know where you're going?"
He raises his GlassLink into the air. There are two signals—one for the dragon, and the other for the ship.
And then he stops. Looks back at his screen while he slowly turns around.
Dread settles in her stomach. There is an—insurmountable deposit of ether right above her.
Avett grits his teeth. "How the hell did it manage to…?"
Tendril after tendril hits the earth, causing a mess of rotting pine needles to splash up like water. She stumbles backward, her eyes tearing up from the smoke. If she lets even one of them touch her—she's done. She's not sure what it'll do to her, but she'll be done.
Two white-hot blasts of energy whip past her cheek. The Equaliser makes no sound, no verbal indication that it's been hit—but it does throw its body backward and shudder after. When Lili turns to escape, she finds two limp, blackened snakes, looped around their position like a cobra encircling its meal.
That's when she realises, as the dragon quite literally seems to whirr back to life, its once lame tendrils now floating in the air and poised to bat any escapees mid-leap, that they've just missed their chance of escape. The shots he'd fired had only served to anger it further.
"Lilith," Avett shouts. His voice pitches, just slightly. "You better start fucking firing."
She doesn't. She's got nothing because she's useless, a waste of space, and a fucking leech who can't even do her job when it really matters. But she yells out to the abyss anyway, her lungs screaming and straining against her ribcage. She calls out to the chill swirl of power within the globe, and then to the bitter lode of coal that's found a home in her soul.
And then she snaps open her eyes. She's on the ground, her hands bracing her body and balled around clumps of dirt and bark. Her body is retching in refusal to cooperate. It's like it's against her very nature to use ether. Like she's not worthy of the power it'll bestow upon her.
Avett curses again and leaps in front of her. He slices outward with an arrow. A tendril drops to the ground in front of them and dissipates into smoke soon after. The dragon doesn't flinch—instead, a new growth sprouts from its damaged limb.
"Auto-recovery if we're not using ether," Avett grits out. "Get up and behind me. I can't trust you to not kill yourself in the state you're in right now."
She draws herself to her feet. Her sword feels heavy at her side, so she unsheathes it and holds it out in front of her. "If we cut the stuff behind us, we can get out of he—"
Avett lashes out with his arrow, and another tendril flops to the floor. "Easier said than done, princess. One of us is going to have to distract it, and at the risk of sounding like a demeaning prick—I can't exactly leave you alone right now."
"Yes, you can." She grips her sword tighter. "I'm not usel—I can hold my own. You'll distract it, and I'll work on our escape route."
He stops. Then he turns back to face the Equaliser. "Fine."
She makes her way south, leaving the proximity of Avett. She might be powerless, but she's used to the thrill of combat. She'll cut them both free, ether or no ether.
One step. Two steps. Lili raises her sword above her head. Her balance wavers, but she brings it down on the first tentacle. Avett's already backing up from his bastion, his legs bent in preparation to spring backwards at any moment. Hope blooms in her chest as she whirls and leaps into the air, her blade trained onto the second tentacle.
But then something grazes her shoulder. It's hot at first, but it immediately subsides into a chill that reminds her of when she rubbed peppermint oil onto her skin during her younger years. Then it flares up, and then she realises—she's been hit. It's gone right through her caster's uniform, and right onto her exposed skin.
Her back hits the floor next, and she goes skidding. Avett turns, yells her name, but Lili hardly registers it. All she sees is the whirling mass of inky appendages, crawling, twisting towards him. He let himself get distracted. He let one through.
Step by step, she throws herself forward, her head inches above the ground. Save Avett, is the only thought on her mind. With an outstretched arm, she remembers the way Auren's ward had felt against her fingertips, how its faceted surface had not just protected them, but crushed his barrier in turn.
She needs that power. More than ever.
Please, she begs silently. Please let this work.
She chases that string of power all the way to its source; a deep reservoir of ether, going further than she can see. It steals her breath away. It tastes like coal and wood.
A laugh makes its way out of her throat like a cough. She's been scared of her own personal ether this whole time. And she still is.
The tendrils envelop her, a cocoon of oil and dirt, and she's treated to a world of darkness—one she's never known before.