Miro appeared in Ardent’s darkened living room, next to the spiral staircase. He dashed up them two at a time. “Ardent! Ardent!” Below, he thought he heard a crashing noise by one of the walls. He reached the top of the spiral into a moonlit bedroom and ran, half-stumbling, towards the giant bed. “Ardent! Summon Sessile, she’s under attack!”
Ardent twisted about, sitting upright in the bed. “Justice! Miro, what happened?”
Miro stumbled to a halt at the edge of the round bed, suddenly seeing what was in front of him. Ardent was naked, and not alone: Whispers Rain was sitting up beside her. She was wearing a tunic and tights now, but Miro had the impression she’d been naked a moment ago. No time to process this. “Summon Sessile,” he repeated, “she’s—”
Sessile was in the room, curling up around the bed. Bull was crawling into her through a gap forced open between two of her segments. “What in the name of Justice are you doing with my golem?!” Ardent roared.
Bull wisely teleported away.
Ardent vaulted across the bed at Miro. He twisted to see what was behind him, and narrowly dodged as Cat tried to grab him. Ardent curled Miro to her chest with one arm instead. Her eyes flashed with stored power as she lashed out with her other fist. Cat attempted to evade.
The blow sent him reeling, arms flailing as he struck the floor. Rain screamed. Ardent leaped from the bed, Miro still held tight in one arm, and planted a hoof on the panther-man’s chest. “Who are you, and what are you doing in my home messing with my people?”
The panther snarled and teleported away. Ardent stomped her foot to the floor with a growl, then glanced down at Miro. “Miro, sugar, what happened? How badly hurt are you?”
“I’m fine,” Miro lied. “We need to go after them before the teleport-trail fades.”
“Honey, you’re wounded, I can’t—”
“Loyalty,” Rain whispered, crawling to the edge of the bed. “They hurt you.”
Miro glanced at her, at the hideous rope of obligation on her soul. It is not chance she is here, or chance that my assailants were sure Ardent would not receive messages. And if I accuse her, Ardent will not believe me.
Ardent hovered a hand over his cut and bruised face, not touching him. At some point she’d remembered she was naked and made a chiton for herself. “I can’t heal you in the Etherium – Justice abandon it all—” she looked over her shoulder to the place where Cat had disappeared.
Rain followed her look. “Go after him. I’ll take care of Mirohirokon.”
No! Miro clutched at Ardent’s chiton. “Don’t leave me here. You’ll need more power to catch him,” he said. She hesitated, torn. “Please, Ardent. Please.”
A new bubble formed in the air before the bed, and all three of them looked to it in surprise. Play Until Collapsing Dreams stepped out of it. “Ardent, you’ve had a breach, and they left a major vulnerability in your wards, and your pet—” the cat-eared fey started to say, then took in the scene. “—oh, I guess you know.”
Ardent smiled grimly, and shifted her grip on Miro to cradle him in both arms. “Yeah. I know. Can you identify the intruders and tell me who they are?”
“Uh.” Play rubbed the back of her neck, fluffing her short dark hair. Her eyes went to Miro, took in the blood-smeared slashes on his face, the shredded, blood-stained clothing. “Yes. Yes, I can do that. Give me a minute.”
“Take all the minutes you need.” Ardent walked over to Sessile’s injured side and used aether to mend the rent. “How’re you doing, baby?”
Sessile sighed and wiggled her tail tip. “Better. My wards still hurt, though.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Play, give me everything you can on those Idealless rot-ridden beasts. You need anything from me? Permissions on the home. I’ll set those now.” She shifted to support Miro on a cushion of aether against her chest, and made a series of runes in the air.
“Yes, that. That should be good. Where are you going?”
“I’m gonna get Miro out of this Justice-deprived blighthole of a city.” She gave Whispers Rain a regretful look. “Sorry, sweetheart, but—”
Rain shook her head, waving off the apology. “No, no. You do what you have to do. We can catch up later.” She offered a hesitant smile, eyes worried.
Miro tried to disengage from the satyress’s hold. “Ardent, no, I can’t leave—”
“Honey, you can argue with me when you’re not bleeding. We’ll know who they are and have evidence against them soon, I can catch them later, I am fixing you now.” She cupped the back of his head in one hand to look in his eyes. “All right?”
He wanted to argue with her, feeling a terrible urgency for reasons he couldn’t articulate, the sense that they needed to do something now. But Ardent was right. Those inept minions would not have been entrusted with the location of the phoenix rose. He and Ardent would be in a better position once they had whatever information Play could obtain. Miro sank down, wincing, and closed his eyes. “All right. But I am coming back.”
“We can talk about that when you’re not bleeding, too. Sessile, open up, please.” Ardent ducked as she carried Miro into the earthserpent’s body. She waved a hand over the empty cargo area, conjuring a bed that spanned the width of the serpent’s body, and lay Miro down in it.
“I truly am not dying,” he told her.
“That’s great news, hon. Stay put for me anyway.” She sat on the edge of the bed and laced her fingers through his. A conjured toga replaced his shredded robe, and summoned bandages covered the rent flesh. Ardent closed her eyes and extended her arm to touch Sessile’s side, tracing patterns over the transparent wall. “Is that better, Sessile?”
“Mostly, I think. It still feels a little weird.”
“If you’ll be all right for tonight, we’ll take you to Contemplation After the Storm tomorrow and he can straighten you out.”
“Sure, I’m fine. Where are we going?”
“Just a min.” Ardent pulled her bag out of her locket, then dumped the contents of the bag on a chair. The space-expanding enchantments on both items would fail quickly in the aether-starved Broken Lands. She summoned a few other things, including her walking boots and a crystal ball. She found her destination in the scrying device, and floated it out of the golem’s mouth to socket into her nose. “There. Port as far as you can, then earthswim to it.”
“On our way!” The view outside flickered to starlit darkness on the ridgeline at the edge of the Etherium. That darkness became absoute as Sessile plunged into the slope. A flutter of aether from the golem held Miro and Ardent in place against the change in orientation.
Miro drew in a deep breath in the still darkness. The absence of Moon aether all round him was a weight removed. The Broken Lands were parched, but at least they didn’t press upon him with an insistent demand he couldn’t meet. “I’m sorry I got you hurt, Sessile,” he told her, quietly.
“Oh, no, don’t be! You needed help!” Sessile said. “I’d much rather I got a little dinged up then you got killed! Or kidnapped or worse! That’d be terrible. And Ardent would be sad too.”
Miro’s lips twitched. “And we can’t go making Ardent sad.”
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