Pithy drummed her fingers absentmindedly on the new cane she had summoned, eyeing the objects sitting atop the table belonging to the Crucible’s announcer.
Crunching sounds periodically interrupted the silence. Moments ago, after she had explained the basics of their situation, Dew had distributed a few orange packages to the rest of them at her request, and the contents had proved to be hard, flat biscuits that tasted thickly of cheese and spice. For the most part, the other two occupants of the room seemed content with focusing on their meal rather than breaking the awkward silence that had descended over the room ever since the man who called himself Nero had been convinced to return Pithy to her natural form. Naturally, she had not grown back into her clothes.
She had made nothing of it, using it instead as a chance to apply new bandages, since her own had grown loose and fallen during her transformation, but she felt a flare of irritation every time she recalled the way Dew’s gaze had lingered on her until she had dressed. The man in question was sitting against a nearby wall, digging into his meal. A white bandage adorned his wounded arm, the rags of Pithy’s robe now discarded. His smaller shooter was resting by his leg, within easy reach, and his gaze frequently roamed towards the other man in the room.
Nero had been made to sit on his cot. An improvised sling had been fashioned for him from some of the supplies that had been stored in the cabinet and the bandages Dew had found in the diner. He occasionally looked up from his snack to toss the others looks of annoyance, but he had ceased his resistance when it became apparent that Pithy did not intend to pursue her feud with him.
Pithy studied the displays atop the table. One of them showed various vistas of what she assumed to be the various locations within City of Echoes, likely seen from the eyes of the drones spread throughout the area. Another contained a map of the whole city, with several conspicuous dots slowly moving throughout its surface. A moment later, she caught sight of one of these dots where she imagined the tower to stand. Only one, however. Pithy frowned, bringing a hand to her chest, where her beating phylactery rested. The mess of cables behind the screens told her little about how the machines worked, but she knew of one thing that every competitor held and could be used to keep track of them. It served to confirm her suspicions that the College could keep tabs on her even without the use of the drones.
“Which of these is my next opponent?” she asked.
Suppressing his irritation for himself for not thinking ahead to shut down or at least lock his system, Nero replied, “The purple dot.” The point in question appeared to be moving through the port district, which lay northwest of the Governance Hub, in a straight line and with a intriguing disregard for the buildings in its path.
Pithy merely nodded, her eye tracing the movement with a distracted interest. It was useful knowing the locations of the other competitors, but that was not the true reason why she had climbed the announcer’s tower. She could have such a thing as her next foe’s location of one of the drones, and Nero would have happily answered from the other end in accordance to his role as supervisor. She simply was not certain how to approach the topics she wanted to discuss. Her sister had had a way with words, and a caring disposition that had made others fall in love with her, but that had never been Pithy’s strength. She’d had precious few of those, in fact.
Sighing, the elf turned, spinning the chair in front of the table to face the two men. She sat on it, the trio forming a triangle inside the room.
“There are things I’d like to know about this ‘Crucible’ I’m a part of, Nero. Will you answer if I ask?”
A dazzling smile shone upon Pithy as the dark mage told her, “But of course. Consider me a captive audience.”
Pithy considered that expression in his face, and decided it promised a headache. “True. I don't intend to leave before I am satisfied. But you won't do me much good as just an audience.” She frowned, then closed her eyes.
How would she have played this? Chances are she would not have gone as far as breaking the arm of the one she wished to speak with.
“I would not be surprised if your first concern was getting me out of here. You might not care about me or my intentions beyond that, but I am willing to answer any questions you have for me. I will be as forthright as possible, if you promise me the same from you.”
Nero’s demeanor did not falter as he scratched his jaw in a quizzical manner. “Ya don’t have much I’m interested in. I’ll answer what I feel like. Regardless, it might shock ya to know, but uh, I don’t have all the answers either.”
There was a beat of silence, where Pithy’s head drooped slightly. It was as she had expected, but that olive branch had taken more effort to extend than she cared to admit. “Very well.” The woman opened her eye, giving the man an even look. “I’ll take what I can get. You have already told me some reasons why the College is conducting this tournament—”
“He did?” Dew perked up. “How come I didn't hear about that?”
“Quiet,” she admonished. “We’ll go over that in a moment.” Turning to Nero, she continued. “For now, I want to hear about some details that have been bothering me. For example, why were we chosen to participate? My recruiters knew too much about me to have been a coincidence.”
“I believe the idea was gettin’ people who wanted something bad enough to not just risk their lives, but also be willing to gamble on a wishing machine existing in the first place.”
“That doesn’t explain how they knew to reach us specifically. We do not even come from this world.”
Nero offered another shrug. “Dunno how they did it. My guess is some kind of...help. Like, someone pulling strings and making stuff happen in the background. A driving intelligence, somewhere in the city...or beneath it, judging by the massive hole in the Commercial District.”
“A hole?” Even as she asked the question, she recalled the tremor she had felt that morning. Regardless, that hardly bore thinking on when she considered the rest of what Nero had told her. An intelligence aware of the inner details of the life of beings outside its own realm. Such a thing would be clairvoyance of the highest order, capable not only of accessing all information, but filter it for relevance. Would this be limited to present and past information, or to future as well? The distinction grew blurry when one considered separate universes. Of course, the information regarding the contestants could not have been uncovered by the college through conventional means, but the idea that such a thing might have been involved was so outlandish that Pithy had a hard time not rejecting it out of hand. If such an intelligence had a direct stake on the proceedings of this ritual, outmaneuvering its designs would be nigh impossible.
That said, Nero had framed this as a guess, and any information she derived from it would be pure conjecture. There was no reason for her to believe that the tremors were at all related to the source of the College’s source of information either. “What happened this morning? And what makes you think it is related to this supposed ‘intelligence’?”
“I thought I told all ya in my announcement this morning?” Nero glanced upward, as if to better remember by searching the ceiling. “Big boom in downtown. Probably set by one of the factions, most likely the military-looking people in the choppers. The whole City was supposed to be a no-fly zone, designated by Continent United and to be investigated by the College, but it looks like someone’s gettin’ in on the action. It’s the most normal thing that’s happened, really, so I don’t think it’s related to the ‘intelligence’ but instead a way for the outsiders to get at it. Someone knows more than we do about what’s goin’ on here.”
She did not know enough about the politics of this world to call Nero’s words into question. All she could tell was that one mysterious organization was already enough to contend with. However, for all she knew, she might not have to. Pithy frowned. That is an interesting thought. If their goals are in opposition, they might take care of certain obstacles for me. Alas, she knew that was mere optimism on her part. One way or another, she had not ran into any such groups as of yet, and so had no way to verify Nero’s claims.
“I suppose time will tell.” She sighed, leaning back against the chair, and gave the other man in the room a sidelong glance. “Let’s leave that aside for now. Repeat what you told me about the goal of this Crucible. What does the College hope to get out of this?”
Were Nero’s eyes open, he might have rolled them as he exhaled through his nose. “...Some of ‘em want the wish for themselves, some just wanna learn and discover for the sake of science. This place is so full of magic and technology you can hardly tell the two apart, and there’s potential for great good or great evil if humanity can figure out how it works. And, obviously, what happened here in the first place.”
“Sounds about right,” said Dew, crumpling the bag in his hand and throwing it across the room. It bounced atop the overburdened trash can and fell to the floor. “You got the power-hungry crazies trying to get their share of the pie, and then you got the nerds who think this is an experiment and want to see what happens. Gotta wonder which one’s the crazier of the two, though.”
How uncharacteristically perceptive of him. The latter, of course. Anyone capable of seeing a battle for what is thought to be a wish-granting machine as an experiment would either be insane, or know something no one else is privy to. Otherwise, what they have orchestrated is closer to a disaster in the making. But where does that leave us who would participate in such an exercise?
“Don’t stop there, Nero. I want to hear what you want in all this.”
“Told ya that too.” The dark mage’s patience was beginning to wear thin. Of course, it was dubious if the spirit of cooperation had ever taken root in him. “Gonna stop ‘em from the inside.”
“Stop them,” Pithy repeated. Her dispassionate gaze seemed either unaware or uncaring of her prisoner’s mounting irritation. “You place me in an awkward position, Nero. Who do you wish to stop? Those who wish to take the wish for themselves? Or all of them?”
“Whoever I can. They’re all either psychotic, in one way or another, or ignorant of the powers they’re messin’ with. I mean, just take the lanterns. Simplest, most common artifact we got, but in a world without magic can ya imagine how they can be abused? Take a look at the giant fortress bird and tell me these people oughta be toolin’ around with Echoes and wishes.”
Could a sense of moral responsibility truly be what moved this one? Perhaps, perhaps not. However, she knew that if it was the whole College he had taken issue with, his meddling could well cost her her wish. But why would he lie about this? He must have known I would not like this answer. She studied his face, and then prodded, “Do your ‘bosses’ agree with this?”
It was a shot in the dark. Nero might have been a mage, but any design of his would be exponentially more difficult to accomplish if he lacked any kind of help on the other side. And for a moment, his expression took a confused cast. Is that…?
It faded just as quickly as it came. His voice developed more of a point as he told Pithy, “You’re not as clever as ya think.” He paused momentarily to think. “My only friends are a long, long way from here. If I do this, I’m hopin’ there won’t be any more disturbances across worlds. Tournament hasn’t lasted a day and the anomalies are gettin’ worse. The way I see it, nobody anywhere’s safe until the College’s done meddling.”
Pithy glanced away and tapped her fingers on her cane, digesting the warning. It did not do her much good. Her hands had been tied from the start. “Have you been told what I want to do with the prize? The recruiters seemed to know.”
Nero shook his head. “Nope. I figure it’s none of my business, though. Still, if you’re inclined to tell, I’ll lend an ear. Sometimes it feels better just to get stuff out there.”
“What a gracious favor,” she said, wryly. “You are right when you say it is none of your business. Still, you will make it your business one way or another if you move against the College before this ‘Crucible’ is finished. If it is after, may the Eight favor your endeavors. If not...” Tap, tap, tap went her nails against the crystal.
She needed to decide then, how much she wished to tell, and how much of it had to be truth. “I am sick, Nero. I was born sick. When I was younger, I had trouble even walking outside. I would occasionally lose my breath for no reason at all. I sickened often and deeply. Small cuts would bleed for days without closing properly. My kind live longer than humans, but it would not have been strange if I’d perished at a young age even for your standards.”
“Don’t look so sick right now,” commented the other occupant of the room.
“Thank you, Dew. That is very perceptive of you.”
Nero said nothing, but his face had changed. First the corners of his mouth began to twitch, and as Pithy continued, his characteristic grin fell apart. When he gazed at her now, it was with sorrow and regret, as if he could imagine the suffering that she’d gone through.
“I do not know how common the talent for magic is for humans in your world. In mine, it is rare, but present among them. However, all among elvenkind have the potential. That said, much like my physical growth, my magical growth was… stunted. I often had difficulty harnessing the power I possessed, but I could read the tomes, and understand the lessons, so I pored over them.” She tapped the side of her head for emphasis. “One day, I came by a very particular kind of magic, and realized that it could be used to halt the spread of the disease and remove its symptoms. Imagine my surprise when it actually worked.” She pursed her lips, fighting a nostalgic smile. “For a long time, I thought that was that. My magic took on the aspect of the spell used to sustain my body, but that was a small price to pay for being able to move and reliably use my power.
“But I only managed to buy time. The disease is still there, and my body is dying. My magic may try to treat the afflicted parts, but it will eventually reach a point where the best it can do is patch the blemishes over.” At this, she brought a hand to her hair, and parted the swath that usually covered her right eye. The crystal mask that covered the eye, the brow and most of her cheek glittered in the light. “I do not know how much time I have left, but it is not long. I have tried everything, Nero. I even tried to get a god to notice my plight and help me.” She smiled bitterly. Self-deprecatingly, and that was not something she could fake. “This is my last chance, and if I have to step on thirty-two other wishes to take it, so be it. It is far less than I’m willing to pay.”
“...I see.” The bespectacled fellow glanced down at the floor, his voice low. “I wish I could help you, but my magic… it can’t do that. No matter what I learn, it seems there’s always someone I can’t help. Some wish I can’t grant. I’m sorry that this has happened to you.” He took a long breath. “In my world, ten percent of all people have the gift of magic. All kinds of stuff. If there was a way to get you there, maybe someone’d be able to help. But the Crucible’s all we got right now.”
Sympathy. That was not something she received often, for few were the ones she told of her plight. Receiving it from someone she held under threat of death made her all the more uncomfortable. What she had sought had been for the man to understand where she stood, not to evoke pity in him. Pithy nodded soberly, gaze fixed far away, at some point beyond the corner of the room. “If I’d come to interrogate you and found that you were willing and able to fix all of my problems, I’d be terribly embarrassed indeed. If you truly wish to help me, or any of the other desperate fools still fighting, let the Crucible reach its conclusion unobstructed.”
Though Nero opened his mouth to reply, no sound came out. He shut it soon after, his frown persisting. Several moments passed by in quiet.
“There was something else,” Pithy said, absentmindedly. “What happens tonight?”
“That’s my business.”
Her gaze snapped to him, regaining its focus. “Nero,” she warned. Do not become the thirty-third.
In an instant the dark mage’s empathy evaporated. He offered a smile as sweet as the one she’d given earlier—or rather, as hers had meant to be. The end result appeared less creepy, as his face was more suited for it. “Nero who?”
Dew whistled and turned his head to look at her expression. She hated him for it. Pithy realized that for the first time since she had started questioning Nero, all the other gazes in the room were fixed on her. “You had best give me something,” she told the man in the cot, “or it will not be your business for much longer.”
For a reply Pithy received a giant yawn. “Aaaaah! Man, who knew that havin’ guests was so exhausting?” Using a knuckle, Nero wiped a bit of wetness from the corner of his eye in an excessively flippant manner. “C’mon, I’ve played nice and given you tons of info, but a man’s gotta have his secrets. Our little meeting’s over, you two.” Without any apparent difficulty he crossed both his arms across his chest, still smiling while he looked between Pithy and Mountain. “If you’re not outta my hair in less’n ten seconds, I’ll give ya something all right.”
Pithy stared at the man silently. After a moment, she made to stand.
Dew gave her a surprised look. “Don’t tell me you’re just gonna leave it at that?”
“I told you to be quiet,” she said. With a grunt of effort, she pulled herself to her feet, but rather than heading for the door, Pithy moved closer to the cot. She looked down at the man as her hand went to the six-shooter’s holster.
Like a fox pouncing on a vole Nero sprang forward, shouting, “Law of Escalation!” with as much speed as he could muster. Three interlocked magic circles of brilliant green appeared in the air behind him with a chime, and he reached forward with both hands. His broken arm didn’t appear to be troubling him at all as one shot for Pithy’s head and the other toward the hand headed for her pistol. Her hand never reached the weapon.
There was a sound of snapping fingers, and a wall of wind crashed against him. His hands swiped at empty air as the sudden gale threw him back, tumbling over the cot and into the wall a handful of feet beyond it. He had only a split second to see that Pithy had looked away from the transformative glare of his magic circles before impact. “Nnuh!” Hitting with his back to the wall proved to be a stroke of luck, but the force pinned him against the unforgiving stone.
Mountain Dew, meanwhile, took the brunt of the curse. Without any delay whatsoever he sprang upward, not in a jump but in height. Before he could even figure out what was happening, he’d grown tall enough to clock his dome against the roof and slump back to the floor in an elongated, unconscious heap.
The gale raged inside the building for a few moments, hair and paper fluttering about and the miscellaneous objects and mechanical gadgets that had supplied the announcer’s tower tottering and falling from their places of rest. Just as suddenly as it had sprang, the roaring sound of wind finally receded, leaving in its place a shaken silence. Nero tumbled to the wooden floor, but before he could move again, he felt a cold, prickling sensation under his chin. Eyes rolling down, he caught sight of a small, crystal blade pressed against his throat.
“That is enough. I left you unbound as a courtesy against my better judgement, not so you could give me another excuse to kill you.” Pithy stepped back from the sprawled figure, even as she held the floating dagger to her captive’s throat, and took the chance to glance back at Dew’s distended, unconscious figure. She clicked her tongue.
With some effort, Nero planted his hands on the ground, righted himself, and rose with a series of muttered oaths. In his hand he held the dagger, no longer made of ice, but of inert cloth. Pithy scowled, even as the dark mage chuckled. “Neheh...kill me?” His wild grin showed his pearly white teeth. “You’re still thinkin’ too much of yourself, ice queen, when ya should be afraid of whatcha don’t understand.”
For the second time, the sound of snapped fingers resounded through the otherwise-quiet chamber. An odious yellow-green sheen filled the place, radiating from below instead of from behind Nero. A quick look down could confirm the presence of a vast magic circle that covered the entire floor. Its luster, more powerful than that of the circles that preceded it, reflected off Nero’s glasses and the monitors of his computer system from where they’d fallen.
“I am Nero the Genie. My Curse Laws have taken down combat mages who can level castles. Lemme give ya a demonstration.”
It occurred to the elf that she might have found a rare treasure in this human. Truly, were talents such as this common in his where? Her heartbeat felt like a drum on her chest, and there was nowhere she could look to escape the glow. The surge of power was almost oppressive in its scale. Had she known the man would escalate things to such a degree, she would have killed him outright. But now that it had happened?
Two alternatives occurred to her. Kill the man before the curse took hold, or draw enough power to destroy the floor the circle was inscribed on. Collapse the tower if needed.
The first one was unlikely to succeed. Nero had the initiative, and she did not know how this new magic might take root. Even if that was not the case, it would have deprived her from a valuable source of information. Which left the other option. There were hurdles involved in that one too. First, Dew was still unconscious, and there was no telling what would become of him if she tried to destroy the place. Still, that was largely inconsequential compared to her second concern. Can I draw on enough power to act on it? For a moment, she found herself staring at the whirling white gale inside. She might. The roaring wind drowned her ears, hinting at vast potential. Further than that, she might have been able to draw power enough to overwhelm Nero, but there was no telling what she might pull with it. The sound of chiming bells echoed in her mind, and Pithy shuddered. If she tried to escalate, any victory she could eke out would be overshadowed by a deeper loss. However, it had become apparent to her that Nero, like her, was not yet ready to cross the line and kill the other. Pithy let out a trembling breath, realizing that further confrontation would only end poorly.
Reluctantly, the woman closed her eyes and raised her arms in surrender, accepting of what might follow. The crystal she had used for support clattered against the ground. She had raised too high. Now it was time to fold, and wait for a better hand.
By the time Pithy’s arms had gone up, the curse’s effect was already taking hold. A sudden ache wrenched her stomach, and the next moment she began to grow. Her belly extended outward, straining against her tunic, followed by more and more mass accumulating all over her body over the course of seconds. Her black belt became tight, then agonizing, until it couldn’t hold against the pressure any longer. When it snapped, her gut surged outward to flop down against her now-massive thighs. The fat built up beneath her head, forming a second and then a third chin, while her arms thickened into drumsticks. Rolls piled up on either side of her torso, and her belly continued to swell until it hung close to her knees. While not in the best of shape, Pithy’s robe now covered a lot more than her clothes did in their sorry state. In fifteen seconds, Nero’s curse had bloated her to around six hundred pounds and struggling to stay standing. All the while, he watched intently, his fist over his mouth in the manner of a scholar reviewing an essay.
When the pain finally passed, Pithy allowed herself to open her eye. She immediately closed it again, making a repulsed noise.
“You are a pig,” she said, disgusted both at him and the feeling of fat jostling as she moved her jaw. Her tone almost seemed hurt under its anger. “At least being an owl had some dignity to it.”
“That’s the point.” Nero’s own tone expressed his anger unrestrained. Pithy’s ice cane shot at his head, levitated and sent flying by the remnants of her magic, only to trigger another curse on contact. It, too, turned to cloth and fell to the floor, though not before its force had beaned the dark mage in the nose and knocked his glasses off. Grimacing, he knelt down to feel for them. “Ya hurt me. Ya shattered my poor arm, and me healin’ it doesn’t take away the pain. Blast me into a solid stone wall, try ‘n smash my face in with a stick. Ya slammed me in the nuts, then stood over me gloatin’ about how easy it is to wound men’s pride. Assert yourself over me, will ya? Humiliate me? Well, excuse me if I return the favor. I hate people who are full of themselves. Only fair to knock ‘em down a peg.” His fingers closed around his spectacles, but he remained crouched behind the cot for some cover after putting them on. Though his eyes remained squinted, their gaze on Pithy conveyed a notable interest.
“So you are just a victim here? I am the one with the overinflated ego?” Pithy’s eye flared open, blazing with indignation. She was deeply thankful that Mountain Dew was unconscious on the other end of the room. “Your interference got me crippled! You took away my magic! Turned me into a child! Turned me into an owlet after that! I tried to make this a civil exchange, and you threw the offer at my face. I at least had the decency to treat your arm! You had best be able to fix my clothes!”
“Maybe if ya asked me for healin’ or something instead of sayin’ ya’d kill me, and not trashed some expensive hardware in a tempter tantrum, I wouldn’t have been so quick with the spells. Those curses were mostly in self-defense, lady.” Nero rubbed his bruised nose. “I can actually fix your clothes, though. Or make you new ones. Handy little hex called Law of Raiment. Though with that said, I only have two more curses you don’t know about.”
“Are you so unaware of how you come off through those familiars? You goaded me into coming here, challenged me when I warned you, and now you have the gall to suggest the fault lies entirely with me?” Pithy bit her lip, struggling to contain her temper. The man had excuses for everything. He would never admit to any fault no matter how much she yelled. “Turn me back. I’ve had enough of this.”
“Thirty seconds of standing still is enough?” Nero seemed incredulous. “Ya haven’t even gotten the chance to feel it all sloshin’ around yet. What’s the use of teachin’ someone a lesson if the penalty vanished right away, hmm?” Standing to his full height, the announcer crossed his arms again. “Let’s make this a learning experience. I’ll fix your clothes and dispel enough of the enchantment so that it wears off by tomorrow morning. A little reminder that ol’ Nero ain’t someone to be trifled with, and your ego ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
He murmured, “Law of Raiment,” and a multicolored circle appeared behind him. This one sported a modest shine, but under its glow Pithy’s clothes began to change. Staring with her robes, they repaired themselves, changing to suit her excessive frame with one exception: her tunic ended shortly beneath her bust, leaving her enormous, blubbery belly and all her rolls hanging free, though the robe obscured them well enough.
“Do you expect me to roll down the stairs? I’m not certain if I can even fit through the door, never mind the window.” She complained, even as her clothes were mended. She had a new appreciation for the plight of wealthy lords in times of peace. “I have already had three chances to kill you since we met. One at the window. One when Dew came in. One thirty seconds ago when you jumped at me and found a knife at your throat. That is not a lesson you wish to teach me, unless you want me to take the next chance I get. Turn me back, and I’ll see to it that this business concludes peacefully.”
A look of mild exasperation factored into Nero’s smile. “Then I guess we’re startin’ back at square one. Neheheh, we haven’t learned a thing!” He sauntered over to Dew, who was just beginning to stir. A wiggling of his fingers undid the Law of Escalation that had elongated him, but the quickscoper could only blearily mutter, “Huhwha?” before Nero’s palm made contact with his chest.
A weak mutter of protest could be heard as Dew shrunk down, becoming a cloth doll of himself that the dark mage unceremoniously chucked out the window. “No mass, no painful impact with the ground. In ten seconds that curse will wear off and he’ll be good as new, not that he deserves it.” He’d kept his eyes on Pithy during his little demonstration. “Ready to fly, Lady in Weight?”
Pithy tried to back away, found her wounded leg even less willing to support her weight than it had been when she was her normal size, and instead fell on her ample backside. Her cloak ruffled, betraying the movements of her flabby arms under it, but there was too much mass for them to get anywhere truly useful. “Blast it,” she snarled, the pain and humiliation breaking through what remained of her composure. “‘Lady’ this, ‘Lady’ that. That Howell man used that title too. What is it supposed to mean?”
Nero raised an eyebrow. “Er...it’s just a semi-formal way of referrin’ to a woman. Sometimes it’s a title. Like, if you call someone a ‘lord’, his wife is a ‘lady.’ Any noblewoman, really.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Ya don’t know your own epithet? I received the list for everyone’s right at the start.” For a second or so, the wheels turned in his head. Then, making his decision, he added, “Lemme heal your leg before I send ya packin’. That plus all that poundage sounds pretty painful, and I’m more the mental-trauma guy than the physical-trauma guy.”
“If you can even find it.” Pithy gave him a resentful look as he approached. Unlike last time, the the curse’s hold on her magic was a tenuous thing. Continuing to pressure Nero with physical punishment had only made him push back harder, but even if she would not have considered it in normal circumstances, she had other tools available to her. This was not something she would suffer, even if she had to harm herself in exchange. “Nero, I will break this curse myself if I have to, but it will be a lot more dangerous and I will be much more inclined to hurt you again if you do not lift it yourself. So let us do each other a favor.”
Her enemy stopped cold, uncertain. “Break…? No way. It’s...it’s too specialized! If expert healers can go their entire lives without drummin’ up an anticurse strong enough for me, no way in Zantopia you can just belt one out.” As before, he seemed inclined to believe whatever she said, balanced out with what he knew to be true.
“I am an elf. I might be a whelp to my elders, but I would not be surprised to learn your grandmother is younger than me. I have spent years studying methods to heal diseases and remove curses. Do you really want to test me now of all times? Because I am of a mind to be tested!”
Distress polluted Nero’s smile as he recalled Pithy’s story from earlier. After a moment of gears racing in his head, his expression turned bitter. “Not fair…” he growled in a whisper. In a flash, he raised both hands toward her, making finger-guns. Minuscule black circles appeared on his finger tips, and in a voice as cold as glacier in midwinter he said, “Dammit. Fine. Get up, go to the window, I’ll undo the curse, and you leave. Not gonna heal ya, not gonna change your clothes again. Just go. Any funny business...” He trailed off, unable to finish the ultimatum, though the implication was there.
Not good enough. Putting her back against the window was the last thing she intended to do. There was no guarantee that he would not simply turn her into a puppet and fling her away before she could react. “Do I look like I can move?” She only looked at him irritatedly. “Remove the curse, heal me, and I’ll leave on my own. I swear on my power that if you do this I will retreat peacefully.” The vow came out evenly, but only as she spoke it did she realize that there was no guarantee that this otherworldly mage knew the weight to such a promise in her own realm. Indeed, as she saw the suspicion in his eyes, he realized those were simply words to him.
This time, Nero didn’t believe her. In the end he trusted his power alone. Yet, it was obvious Pithy wouldn’t even try to move unless he obliged her. He felt manipulated and afraid. Who the hell was this woman to have such power? If this was average for the Crucible’s competitors… the dark mage shivered before curling the fingers on his right hand. The black magic circles dissipated, and he swiped away from the Lady in White to remove the curse. Without delay she began to shrink, steam billowing from her skin as she closed in on her former size. Next, he held out his palm, and a stream of rosy-red energy transferred from him to his target. It lasted only a moment before he cut it off, however, and he resummoned the black circles after. “It’s healed enough to get you out of here.”
Under her cloak, now much too large for her, she gingerly pressed her hand against her thigh. There was some irritation, but the distressing pain she would have felt moments ago had all but vanished. Slowly, she rose, experimentally using it to hold her weight.
“You kept your end of the bargain.” Her tone held a mixture of surprise, gratefulness and frustration. She could not have healed such a wound herself. She wondered if Nero knew how vexing it could be to have the knowledge to act on something but the inability to do so properly.
“Mostly do. Go away and don’t come back.”
Pithy grimaced and looked around the trashed room one last time. Her gaze lingered on the mage’s hands for a moment, then nodded. No matter how much she detested the man, she had given him her word.
This time, she used the stairs.
Dew was waiting for her downstairs, sitting under the shade of the tower with his legs crossed. He glanced at her when she noticed her approach. “Yo. I expected to see another puppet fly out the window any second now.” He frowned at the oversized boots and gloves she was carrying in her arms, shrugged, then looked down at her leg. “You managed to make him heal you?”
“We struck a deal,” she admitted. “He healed me in return for my leaving peacefully.” In the end, it was not a conclusion she was particularly displeased by. If she forced herself to think critically and did not account for the indignities she had suffered, she had come out of the encounter with more than she had had coming in.
Mountain Dew clearly did not share in that assessment. “You mean that fucker’s still up there as if nothing happened?” He scowled, rising to his feet. “Give me a minute. I’ma go find a place to snipe him from.”
Dew froze, then gave the woman an annoyed glare. “Come on, you saw what happened in there. He made us look like a pair of dumbasses.”
Us? You were hardly touched by that sorcery. I have to live with the memory of this humiliation. Pithy had to stop herself from correcting him. “I am well aware. Nonetheless, there was one question he refused to answer. It worries me.”
“The thing about tonight? So... what? You gonna head up there again and hope he’s in a better mood this time?” He scoffed. “Just shoot the guy if he’s planning something.”
“No,” she sighed, dissatisfied. “I fear he may be working with others. If we kill our one lead now, we may not be able to see what is happening until it's too late. We’ll have to wait and keep an eye out for anything that happens. Nero will know where I am, but he does not have a bead on you. We’ll have to take advantage of that.” Pithy glanced at her surroundings. “But that can wait for now. Let’s find a place to rest.”