Eupheme saw Tythel duck under Catheon’s wild slash, the blade cleaving the air over her head. Tythel lashed out with a slash of her own talons, once again raking the thick chitinous plating that covered his body. He shrieked and took the sky, giving Tythel a moment to dive into cover. She pressed her back against a tree, and that let Eupheme know Tythel was at least safe for the moment from Leora.
Leora, however, wasn’t interested in Tythel at the moment. Eupheme leapt back and Leora’s drove her blade into the empty air Eupheme had just vacated. Twisted herself mid-air, Eupheme vanished into the shadows.
Instantly, she was taken to the place between.
Eupheme never spoke of this place, not even with Tythel. It was the great secret of the Umbrists, something never revealed to outsiders. The world between Aelith and the Shadow. A frozen realm where time barely passed. This section of it, at first, looked just like Karjon’s valley did in the real world, but the colors were faded to shades of grey and everything ran like a smudged painting in motion. The ground was the only solid object here – trees, shrubs, and people were as substantial as the smoke their blurred outlines resembled.
Leora would appear here any moment. Eupheme ran a few paces away and dove through a tree to give herself cover.
Pausing to wait, Eupheme glanced upwards.
The sky was always different in this place. In the Capital, Eupheme saw a twisted, nightmare world that she took as the Alohym’s home dominating the sky. In the fields, she’d see shifting lights that took the forms of animals and people that vanished into mist. She’d expected to see the same here, but that was not the case.
The sky above this valley was dominated by an immense skeletal dragon, far larger than any dragon had been in life. Its eyes were the only spots of color, twin points of cold blue light in the center of its empty sockets.
The crunching of boots wrenched Eupheme’s eyes from the specter above her. Leora had entered this place.
“Eupheme? Where are you?” she said, her voice almost playfully singsong.
Eupheme’s answer was to duck down and peer around the tree, trying to pinpoint where she was. Her hand tightened around the hilt of the dagger.
Here, Leora would be as insubstantial as any other person. They’d have to jump back to the real, physical world to try and strike each other. Duels between Umbrists were complex dances of feints, trying to trick your opponent back to the physical so they would try to strike you since they believed you overextended while at the same time striking because you truly had the upper hand. Eupheme would wait until Leora was close, and then she would-
The dragon overhead roared. Eupheme flattened herself to the Earth, and Leora let out a frightened sound.
It didn’t move from where it was floating. Smaller sounds echoed after the roar.
The shadow reflection of Catheon had raised its hand, and a beam of unlight was beginning to emerge from the appendage. It moved so slowly here, barely at a crawl, but far faster than anything else could travel. Wisps of smoke rose from its length as it started to stretch towards Tythel.
“Tick tock,” Leora said mockingly. “Are you going to make it back in time to shove her out of the way? I do hope you try.”
Eupheme gritted her teeth. Tythel’s hair was starting to rise in slow motion as she lowered her head. Would it be enough? It has to be, Eupheme thought. If she reappeared in the physical, she’d give Leora a clean shot before Eupheme could return to this place.
There. Leora walked through a shrub that parted for her passage, no more disturbed by her presence than anything else here. Eupheme lunged for her, her arms wide open. It looked like a frantic, desperate move. Like Eupheme was taking a stupid risk, exposing herself.
Leora didn’t blink, keeping her eyes wide open as Eupheme passed through her like she was a ghost. “You honestly thought I was going to fall for that?” she asked, sneering at Eupheme.
“You always were greedy,” Eupheme muttered, standing up. They both dropped into fighting stances and began to circle each other. Daggers that couldn’t cause any harm lashed out, each one trying to bait the other.
The unlight beam was halfway to Tythel now. “Come on, Eupheme,” Leora hissed through clenched teeth. Even though the blows were painless, their brains were both insisting they were in mortal peril. The longer this went on, the more likely it was one of them would instinctively make the jump back to the physical world, driven by pure reflexive desire to protect themselves. “Let this go. Walk away. I won’t stop you.”
“Walking away was your thing,” Eupheme said, her blade passing through Leora’s eyes. This time she did force the other Umbrist to at least blink. “I stayed, Leora.”
“Don’t you dare call me that,” Leora said with a sneer. Her blade passed through Eupheme’s heart, and biologic panic made Eupheme tumble. Her body was insisting she should be dead. It wanted to get away. “I thought you’d use my proper name.”
“You abandoned that when you abandoned us!” Eupheme shouted. She lunged, her blade rising through Leora’s chest. Leora shuddered, trying to fight the same demands on her body that were plaguing Eupheme.
“I told you to come with me. You didn’t understand. You never understood.”
“I was ten!” Eupheme said, the words coming out as a strangled cry. “What was I supposed to understand, Leora? I’d lost my mother and my father, I’d watched my home burn, and my older sister was saying we had to join the people who had done it!”
Leora had the decency to wince. Behind them, the unlight beam struck the tree that Tythel had been pressed against. She’d ducked in time, but it was a near thing. The tree was already starting to swell, splinters were forming along its length. It would explode any moment. “I didn’t expect you to hide,” Leora said, her voice hoarse. “I looked for you, Eupheme. I looked everywhere.”
“You didn’t look here.” Eupheme spat the words. “I spent a full day in real time here. By the time I got out, you’d killed everyone else.”
“It wasn’t just me,” Leora countered. Sweat was beginning to bead her brow. Eupheme would be relieved, but her own hands were starting to tremble. They’d both bounce back to the physical as soon as the splinters hit them. Their bodies would insist. “And I’m sorry that happened. But you didn’t let me explain, Eupheme.”
“No. I didn’t. And I don’t care, Leora. You betrayed your oaths, you betrayed our order, and you betrayed me. I stopped caring for you a long time ago.”
“I’m your sister,” Leora said, stepping forward.
Eupheme lunged for Leora’s heart. “My sister is dead.”
Leora leapt back and jumped back into the real, believing Eupheme overexposed. Eupheme followed and tossed the dagger she’d concealed in her other hand.
Leora was already gone. She’d already stepped back into the shadow.
What? Eupheme tried to follow, wondering what Leora’s trick was. Something struck her in the back, sending her stumbling forwards. She whirled.
Their Lumcaster, Daetor, stood there. In her focus on Tythel and Leora, Eupheme had forgotten about the man. Eupheme’s back screamed with pain, and she could smell her own charred skin. Worse, it had lit up the entire forest. Eupheme had no shadows to jump into.
“Goodbye, little Umbrist,” he said with a grin.
Before he could fire, a gauntleted hand closed around his wrist and tugged. The beam of light went wide, and Daetor barely was able to raise a screen of light between himself and Tellias’ next blow. The artificial light he’d created faded. “We’re not finished,” Tellias snarled.
Eupheme didn’t waste time thanking him, instead gritting her teeth and diving for a nearby shadow.
The duel with Leora would have to continue there.