Even as she leapt through the gate after Nganto, Alina realized that she was making a mistake.
Wrapping all of her Charms around herself as best she could, she crouched down low, taking in the scene. A cold, harsh wind blew through her, chilling her to the bone, and she knew that no cloak could guard against it. The sea sprayed, and she recoiled from the spatters it made as it etched into the rock. And then she heard the harsh cry, cut off almost at once.
â€œCome, now, child. It is not so great a task.â€ The man standing across the sea, on the prow of his ship, smiled kindly and raised his hand. Watery Essence gathered in it, and he threw it forwards, catching Mnalif Nganto across the chin. The Lunar staggered, but held her ground, as her torn jaw clicked back into place and her flesh began to re-knit. Her eyes remained fixed on his, and neither moved. Through gritted teeth, she forced out the words.
The man frowned, slightly. â€œI am Dukantha of the Lintha. I am your god.â€ Absently, he let another blast of acidic water fly.
â€œNo god of mine.â€ With supreme effort, Nganto raised her arm to knock it aside, letting it splash across her claws. Her palm smoked, but she ignored the pain. â€œI have worked with the Lintha, Yozi-spawn, but you are consumed. I will never be like you.â€
â€œPlease.â€ Dukanthaâ€™s chuckle cut through Alina more severely than the wind whistling around her as she crouched, unseen, and desperately tried to consider her options. â€œYou will break sooner than you think, Lunar. You are a mere mortal, in the presence of the Mother. The Glory of the Endless Sea is yours for the taking.â€ He gestured once more, sending a third blast of water into Ngantoâ€™s chest. Blood sprayed the rock as she fell to her knees. â€œI will stay here as long as I must, breaking you. It may take a day. Perhaps, if you are truly hardy, it will take a week. I doubt it. But then you will be sent back, through the gate. And you will call us forth. And the Sea shall flow into Creation through her servants, and prepare us for the Competition. No need to wait for my release on Calibration, not with your magnificent assistance. Glorious, foolish child, you are the key to Motherâ€™s victory.â€
â€œI would sooner die.â€ Nganto, with exceptional effort, stood once again. She leapt forwards, through the air, and Dukantha shook his head. As she came down, he swung out with one fist, slamming into her gut, swung her around once, and threw her back to the rock â€“ all without shifting his posture.
â€œIâ€™m sure that you would. Exalts are so foolish that way. Fortunately for us all, the option is not yours to take.â€ Dukantha smiled. â€œI can prevent your suicide as easily as I prevent anything else in this place. I havenâ€™t even had to call on Mother to control you, foolish child.â€ He smiled kindly. â€œAccept that pain is your existence, and you will be free. Free to serve us for all eternity.â€
Alinaâ€™s hands clenched, and she started to inch forwards. Dukantha, if this was truly him, hadnâ€™t noticed her. If she could reach Nganto, and get her back through the gate, she couldâ€¦
She paused, suddenly realizing something as a memory flowed to the surface. An understanding. This gate opened only from one side, into the depths of Malfeas. From the other side, she could close it. Dukantha could not follow.
It was the pause that warned him. Dukanthaâ€™s eyes sharpened, and he shifted his gaze away from Nganto for the first time. Alina felt him find her, felt herself freezing as her thoughts became a jumble of fear and confusion that she could hardly understand. Dimly, through a mist of agony, she heard him speak. â€œAnother little girl follows the first? How sweet. But you, I do not need.â€ Both hands came up, and the seas roiled, as Essence flared around him. His left hand gestured, and a geyser of acid bloomed forth from the sea, pouring towards her. Alina could not move. She could not think. She could not react. She could only watch as her death approached.
And then watch as something interposed itself.
Nganto snarled down at her. â€œIdiot sun-child! Get out of here!â€ Her face was inches from Alinaâ€™s, and the girl started backwards in fear â€“ as the acid spread around the sides, and the memory of Dukantha burned into her mind. Nganto roared in pain as it etched into her, and Alina crouched, still caught in the grips of Dukanthaâ€™s Charms as readily as if he were standing there clutching her throat. Above her, the Lunar weakened. In moments she would collapse, and then Alina would be washed away.
And then once again, fate intervened, as Cathak Lodaris came through the gate as though the seas themselves were aflame.
Seeing the situation, he reacted instantly. He dropped to one knee, sliding forwards, using the geyser to conceal his approach for a precious moment. As Dukanthaâ€™s eyebrows rose, following the sudden anima that was blazing forth, Lodaris hooked his legs under Alina and Nganto. His arms slammed downwards, and his feet kicked upwards and back, and the other two Exalts were flung towards the Gate, Nganto rolled around Alina like a shield from the geyser. Continuing his momentum, Lodaris somersaulted backwards, passing through the acid upwards, and hit the gate above the others and a moment behind. Behind him, he heard Dukanthaâ€™s wordless cry of rage, as the seas roiled with fury.
Lodaris came down hard beyond the gate, as Alina leapt from Ngantoâ€™s embrace to the gate. Pressing her hands to the rim, she shouted the words that she had remembered, as a gout of acid sprayed through the gate, eating its way into the floor. â€œJakarath parrerris!â€ With a final swirl of energy, the gate collapsed. For a moment, the armoury was still, as the beastmen and Exalts stared in confusion at Nganto.
Steel broke the silence, moving forwards. â€œNice work. The day is saved.â€ He drew his sais. â€œNow, just one little thing.â€
Ngantoâ€™s crew roared in anger as Steel walked towards her, and started to boil forwards. Everyone paused, however, when Alina stepped over the Lunarâ€™s body. â€œNo. We keep her alive.â€
The silence was deafening. Steel broke it. â€œAre you completely bloody insane? This is not a time for mercy!â€ He bit off the words, gesturing to Nganto. â€œShe is starting to heal. In a minute or so, she will be up again. And we cannot beat her.â€ The last sentence was dragged out of him, and he clenched his jaw. â€œHer crew, theyâ€™re wimps.â€ He made a dismissive gesture at the beastmen, who bridled. â€œI could take â€˜em alone. But she is something else.â€
â€œYouâ€™re right. She flattened us.â€ Alinaâ€™s voice was soft, and Steel nodded with a smile, starting to step forwards. As he did, she grabbed his arm. â€œAnd Dukantha flattened her. How do we beat him?â€
Steel paused. For a moment, he stared down at the Lunar, and then he looked back to Alina. â€œYou think sheâ€™ll help us?â€
â€œSheâ€™d better. Sheâ€™s seen what heâ€™s capable of, and she wouldnâ€™t serve him when it was that or death.â€
For a moment, Steel looked unconvinced. Then he sighed, shook Alinaâ€™s hand off, and re-sheathed his sais. â€œFine. We do it your way. I just hope this isnâ€™t a colossal mistake.â€
Alina watched as the Lunarâ€™s torn flesh gradually re-knit itself. â€œSo do I.â€