Tythel ducked and Catheon’s claw cut through the tree behind her. Leora and Eupheme had to vanish in its shadow to avoid being trapped beneath its branches. Tythel rolled to the side as Catheon finished his work, cutting the tree stump down the middle with an overhead slash. She inhaled with the motion, focusing on her breath, and let loose a gout of dragonflame only feet away from the half Alohym. Fire washed over him, and Tythel kept up the flame. Don’t push too hard, she reminded herself, stepping forward. Dragonflame didn’t kill Rephylon. She was certain she couldn’t count on it to finish the job here either.
True to her expectations, Catheon came bursting out of the flame, flying towards her. He’d expected Tythel to still be where she had been, and the step forward meant his blade overshot. She caught his arm before it could strike her and pivoted, hurling Catheon over her shoulder and into the ground. Dirt and stones flew from the impact sight. She pulled back, ready to slam him again, but Catheon lashed out with his other hand. If she wanted to keep her wrists attached, she had to let go of his arm.
He’s so fast! It had been the same with Rephylon all those months ago. In some ways it was worse. Rephylon had been inhumanly fast but had greater bulk that made hit harder for him to redirect his momentum. Catheon was every bit as fast but could pivot in an instant. Tythel had to leap back from his strikes again. A knife passed over her head when she dodged one particularly close blow, and Leora frowned in frustration before Eupheme forced their battle back into the shadows.
There was no sign of Daetor or Tellias. Tythel silently prayed that Tellias was all right.
“You monster,” Catheon hissed in that distorted voice.
“I’m the monster?” Tythel responded, landing on a boulder and reading herself for Catheon’s next strike. “Look at yourself. You’re twisted.”
“I’m perfect,” Catheon said, breathing deeply. He was wearing down as much as she was, and they both were taking advantage of the momentary pause to their battle. “I was remade into a god. You…you’re a dead end. The last member of a dead species. Not even – a half-member.”
Tythel resisted the urge to lunge at Catheon. It was what he wanted. If she tried to press the attack now, his speed would turn the tide so quickly she’d probably be dead before she even realized she’d made a mistake. “The Alohym killed them,” she said, spitting the words through clenched teeth. “You were remade by murderers, and they set you like a lapdog to finish their dirty work.”
“Sent me?” Catheon said, the words loaded with scorn. “You think they sent me? I came of my own free will. I gathered allies. I hunted you. If I’d been sent, I’d have a fleet behind me. You’re a dead woman. You realize that, right? I just wanted it to be me that killed you.”
Tythel recoiled slightly in confusion, tilting her head. Her nictitating membranes flashed as she processed what he was saying. “That…why? What wrong have I done to you?”
“You don’t know,” Catheon said. The words weren’t really directed at Tythel. He seemed to be talking more to himself than anything. “After all this…you have no flathing idea.” Catheon hissed out a breath and refocused on her. “You are a monster and a killer. A murderer and a rebel. Dozens of deaths lay at your feet, Tythel. I came to make sure you answered for at least one of them.”
Tythel felt a chill creep up her spine. Who did I kill that he cared about so much? So many things made sense now – Catheon’s dogged pursuit, his hatred, the fact that he seemed to bear her particular ill wills. It must have been one of the Alohym soldiers she’d killed in their battles. Right? Or perhaps, a treacherous voice in the back of her mind whispered in Nicandros’s voice, it was one of the farmers in the fields you torched. Perhaps an innocent civilian in a burning home from your battle with Rephylon. How many have you killed, girl? Do you even know? “Who?” Tythel asked, choking the word out.
“Who? Who?” Catheon flew at her, striking with even greater fury than he’d previously shown. Tythel was barely able to dodge his strikes, and a few managed to slice narrow lines on her arms and legs.
Tythel dropped to one knee and brought up her unlight shield. Catheon’s blade tore it in half with a screech of metal and a shower of unlight sparks. The display blinded Tythel’s good eye for a moment, and she felt Catheon’s hand close around her throat. “You killed my father you shadow-damned bitch!”
No. Tythel grappled the limb around her throat, but Catheon’s skin was shifting, flowing like wax, pulling its chitinous mass over to harden his arm. She couldn’t get her talons in deeply enough. As it pulled away, it revealed a human arm dangling at his side. A small part of Tythel noted it was not a normal arm – it was shrunken and shriveled, like it belonged to someone deeply malnourished. He’d curled the hand into a fist, but it seemed that effort was so great it caused the limb to tremble. The skin was grey and slick with excretion.
Tythel remembered the slug she’d pulled out of Rephylon. Tiny and shrieking and half mad. It had the same texture to its skin, the same near-helplessness.
She couldn’t draw breath to flame. She couldn’t break free of the iron grip of his healthy arm now that he’d reinforced it. Tythel kicked out, trying to slash his stomach with the talons on her feet, but the angle was all wrong. She managed to croak out a single word. “Who?”
The grip around her throat tightened. “Rephylon. You murdered him in the street, where everyone could see. You pulled him from his thrissulth. You didn’t even let him have the peace of death within it!”
Tythel’s eyes widened and she tried to speak again, but Catheon was beyond listening. His wings buzzed and they were shooting airborne. Tythel could see Eupheme right where they’d been. Even in his rage, Catheon wasn’t completely distracted. The valley shrunk beneath them.
They passed through the illusion and higher into the air. Catheon’s armor continued to flow. His head was exposed to reinforce his chest as she tried to kick at him, and for the first time Tythel saw his true face. It belonged to a boy about her age. His hair only existed in splotchy patches across his scalp, his eyes were far too wide, and his adult teeth had somehow grown in behind the infant set, giving him a double-jawed look. “You deserve nothing but death,” Catheon hissed. Without his armor – his Thrissulth, Tythel supposed – his voice was hoarse and pained.
The valley was now so far below them, Catheon had to stop ascending to still have air he could breathe. Even the tip of her father’s mountain was beneath them, and the individual trees ran together into a sea of green. Tythel’s vision was starting to go dark, and Catheon’s grip on her neck lessened slightly. “No, Tythel,” he croaked. “You don’t get to…die like that. You will…die like your father.” His mouth twisted into a terrible mockery of a smile. “In terror as the ground approaches.”
Catheon let go.
Tythel started to fall, tumbling end over end. No! It was exactly like before, only there was no Karjon beneath her, trying to guide their path to something safer. She spread out her arms and legs, trying to brace herself so she’d fall facing the ground. Tythel’s mind raced, and just as Karjon had tried to slow their descent with his flame, she let loose a burst.
It didn’t do anything to her fall, just sent her tumbling again. The benefit of the flame had been the thermals it had provided to Karjon’s wings.
Not like this. Tythel ground her teeth together as the ground rushed closer. Not like this!
Why not, girl? Nicandros’s voice sneered in her mind. He’s just doing exactly what you want. Avenging his father. Why do you have the right to seek vengeance when he doesn’t? Why is it just that you killed Tomah, and unjust that the Alohym killed your father? Are you really any better than Catheon? Let the ground come. End this cycle of death. Rephylon had been Catheon’s father. Just like Karjon had adopted her, Rephylon had adopted Catheon.
Tythel felt despair well up in her chest, far greater than the mere fear of death. Her nictitating membranes cleared away tears as the ground loomed even closer. Wasn’t that right? She’d only done this to herself. How did she have the right to hate above all others?
She passed through the illusion, and something drew her attention. The bank of the lake had been scorched by lumcasting and arcfire. Daetor’s mangled corpse was slumped onto the ground, as was Tellias, still trapped in his armor. He had no power, and worse, there was no sign of motion.
Stop mourning the dead. This time it wasn’t Nicandros’s voice she heard, but her father’s. Instead, look for the living.
I want to live! The thought burned through Tythel’s mind. The ground was so close now she could see blades of grass. Something ripped behind her. I can’t die yet!
An immense strain pulled at her back, so great it almost tore her shoulders from her sockets. Her path towards the ground turned horizontal as instincts she didn’t know she had pulled, and suddenly those blades of grass were rushing past her instead of towards. Her path took her over Tellias. She could hear his heart for an instant, a single beat assuring her that he still lived.
Tythel looked over her shoulder to see a pair of beautiful, golden wings stretched out from her back. Her armor still clung to her by the band at the waist and at her throat, protecting her front. That barely registered – she had wings. She smiled fiercely and banked, turning her momentum. It felt so natural, so right, she had to fight back the urge to whoop with glee. Grief was forgotten. Pain was a distant memory.
She dove closer to the ground and snatched a struggling sack from the earth before pumping her wings and pulling herself into the air.
I can fly. Tythel was giddy with the thought, all her despair – for the moment, buried under joy. I can fly, and Catheon has no idea.
Tythel pushed herself up towards the barrier of the illusion, waiting for Catheon to descend.
She’d be ready for him.