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“I won’t let you carry this by yourself.”

Sorey wasn’t sure whether those words were spoken out loud or not. By now Mikleo’s voice sounded as natural inside his head as it did outside, and the two of them were so often in sync that Sorey found it easy to mistake his friend’s words for his own thoughts. He wouldn’t have been terribly surprised to find that their minds were still connected even outside of the Armatus now.

Whatever the case, Sorey heard him. He heard him and he knew better than to argue—not least of all because he knew, in his heart of hearts, that he needed the support.

Those were the last words they exchanged, the last that they needed before rushing forward in the same instant. They invoked his Name in the same breath and joined as they had a hundred times before, silently and consentingly dividing their power and control in a way that was second nature: Sorey the brunt of their physical force and motion, Mikleo casting and holding artes and minding their surroundings.

He felt the weight in Mikleo’s heart join his own, the tears he was holding back and his angry sorrow—and while it hurt more than he could express, knowing they shared the same unspeakable anguish, he felt a little stronger for it. For Mikleo’s sake, as well, Sorey couldn’t falter. He wouldn’t let him bear anymore weight than he already did.

They didn’t slow down, didn’t look back. They charged Heldalf—what was left of Zenrus—with everything they had. Even when muscles burned and their body ached beneath the strain of depleted mana, they kept fighting—firing arrows, casting artes, trading blows, dodging attacks. Even when a swipe of the hellion’s claws tore open their side and stained their snow-white garments a shocking crimson, Sorey instantly countered with a hard slice of their folded bow across his arm while Mikleo quickly cast a healing arte to keep them going.

Their resolve was almost too determined—the longer the fight went on, the more frustrated they both became, both dreading and impatient to get it over with. Heldalf must have sensed as much; he stopped siphoning lightning artes and suddenly shifted into a more defensive stance. Shepherd and seraph turned hastier, more aggressive, and Sorey forewent their usual mid-distance attacks in favor of engaging the hellion up-close.

That was, it seemed, what Heldalf was waiting for.

He drove a massive fist straight down and they leapt to avoid it, drawing their bow in preparation for a point-blank shot—but in a motion too quick and smooth to be anything but calculated, Heldalf’s left hand blurred in the corner of their eye.

“Sorey!”

Suddenly Sorey was shoved aside, hard enough to lose his balance. Their bow left his fingers as he hit the floor and he was immediately aware of Mikleo’s power disappearing, leaving him, as if the Armatus had been broken—

He looked up and time seemed to stop. There was Mikleo, suspended where they’d both been just an instant before—and there was Heldalf, still relentless in his attack and his fierce eyes fixed forward—

Time resumed. The two collided, Heldalf swatting Mikleo down as though he were no heavier than a bird. He slammed him into the floor, hard enough to split the marble as his enormous claws pierced it like soft soil, pinning the seraph down on all sides. Mikleo’s shout said some of them found his torso.

And Sorey felt it.

Maybe there hadn’t been enough time since separating. Maybe it was a side effect of a forceful break on the seraph’s end. Whatever the cause, Sorey’s lungs were crushed under some invisible weight, his shoulder and his hip stabbed by blades unseen. It brought him to a halt as he was halfway to his feet, knocking him onto his knees. Stars danced across his vision.

Time had gone from too slow to too fast. He saw Heldalf move, saw the arte, but too late: the ground erupted with columns of stone and one struck Sorey dead-center in the chest. He heard a muffled snap, but then sight and sound blurred as he was thrown backwards, off his feet and onto his back in what felt like an instant. He rolled across the floor before coming to a dazed stop, trying to catch his breath, but a searing pain constricted his chest and he had to settle for small, shallow pants. He pushed himself up onto all fours, the agony of what had to be at least one broken rib throbbing in time with his pulse. The taste of blood was thick in his mouth.

“Such self-righteous anger,” he heard Heldalf muse, “but it would appear your strength is all show. Tell me, Shepherd—” Sorey forced his head up, meeting the hellion’s piercing gaze and mocking snarl without flinching. “—how many lives will it take to stain that naive heart of yours?” Lightning buzzed and crackled—beneath his hand Mikleo writhed, his body jerking into an arch so sharp and fast it might have threatened to break him in half.

It was only for an instant. The arte faded and he dropped back to the ground with a gasp; Heldalf never looked away from Sorey, who tried again to stand but failed, still too winded and battered.

“Luzrov Rulay,” he hissed—or tried. His mouth formed the words but his voice wouldn’t complete them, still smothered beneath that phantom pressure and trapped between his bruises and broken bones. He sucked in a breath, only to immediately lose it as pain crushed it out again and made the room spin.

Again thunder roared, this time shaking the ground.

He was sure Mikleo tried to hold back the scream. It was like nothing Sorey had ever heard out of him before: a loud, guttural sound, broken but angry, raw but defiant, and the sound of it hurt in a way Sorey couldn’t put into words.

He forced his throbbing head up, willing himself to watch through blurred eyes as Mikleo twisted violently with pained spasms—assaulted and burned by the same lightning that had watched over him all his life.

Planting his forearm against the ground, Sorey hauled himself up and dragged his body forward a few inches. He collapsed, cringed, each gasp burning, and then did it again. He was doing little more than crawling closer to death, he knew, but it was that or nothing. Everything else—his reason for being here, his answer, his preparation to lose Mikleo, everyone if necessary—was abruptly forgotten.

Not like this.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

Again the arte ceased and Mikleo’s cry cut off as suddenly as it started, the very last of it twisted by a choked sob. His angry face didn’t reflect the sound, nor the tears streaming down his temples, signs of breaking beneath the pain or his grief or both.

The branches of white-hot lightning had left dark scores on the floor. Sorey tried not to imagine what it had done to Mikleo’s body, inside and out.

This time the moment of reprieve barely lasted a second. Heldalf all but ignored the weakened seraph now, his hostile stare fixated on Sorey even as he electrocuted Mikleo again, again, each time longer than the last.

Sorey was no stranger to the concept of death, especially now—but suddenly the weight of reality hit him as solidly as a physical blow, the horrifying realization that Heldalf intended to kill Mikleo then and there, as slowly as he was able. Sorey’s blood ran cold and he felt sick, angry and anxious and stunned. A pain blacker and hotter than his cracked rib pulsed in his chest.

He lost count of the cries. He couldn’t tell if he’d crawled ten feet or ten inches. He was vaguely aware of the rest of their friends on the other side of the room, too far and too winded for their distant voices to reach his ears. He couldn’t take full breaths and his vision was dimming as his mind panicked, but there was nothing else to do but keep moving and he did, fighting through the pain and swallowing his blood and not daring to take his eyes off of where Mikleo continued to fight his own feeble battle of resistance—

—right up until he didn’t, and dropped back to the ground and went still.

Sorey froze. His breath caught and his mind went blank, unable—or refusing—to process what had happened. He stared and waited, his head throbbing with the force of his pulse and his arms shaking beneath his weight, but Mikleo didn’t move.

Seconds passed. Nothing changed.

Something inside him—that quiet pillar of strength that had brought him this far, holding him up no matter the odds or his fears or his misgivings, no matter what he stood to lose, no matter how much he hurt—that something broke.

And suddenly Sorey doubted everything.

He regretted everything. Every choice that had led them up to this point was suddenly a mistake—every lost life pointless, every small victory meaningless.

He had been nothing but selfish the whole way—always thinking of himself and his intentions and his own desires, not listening enough—

He wasn’t angry. It wasn’t grief, not even despair anymore—he’d bottled up and banished the last of those emotions the moment he decided to take up his sword against Zenrus. If possible, this was even worse than that violent, tumultuous assault of emotions: this was the complete absence of anything, the cold emptiness of shock and denial. He felt as hollow as his accomplishments did right then, dizzy and sick with the shock of having his confidence torn out of him a second time—completely this time—

In the back of his mind Sorey knew he was panicking, letting emotion drown out logic and his determination and his answer—but none of that mattered because he couldn’t think straight, couldn’t breathe—and worst of all he couldn’t protect the one person he had always been so certain would make it through everything—the one who was supposed to outlive him and go on living, not die a twisted and empty death like this—

Sorey’s voice was still nothing but a failing rasp, but he accepted the agony in his chest and sucked in breath after desperate breath as he tried to get the words out, as if they still mattered.

Not him, don’t do it, please—not him—

His head was light. The floor spun beneath him and he felt weaker than he ever had, inside and out.

I can’t—I couldn’t protect anyone—not Gramps, not Muse—the rest of our family—I can’t protect you—I can’t—I can’t—I can’t lose you too not like this I can’t it’s too much there’s no way I—

The movement was so small that he almost missed it, so inconsequential that he thought nothing of it—just Mikleo’s arm dropping limply to the side. His palm touched the floor—and in the blink of an eye a spear of ice rushed upward, burying itself deep in Heldalf’s shoulder. It ran straight through and emerged from his back, now a shimmering crimson.

Heldalf tensed, but he seemed more surprised than pained. Mikleo—awake, alive—held his gaze defiantly, his own stone cold and hard despite his ragged breaths and the blood trickling from his nose and his hairline and the dead weight of his limbs.

When Heldalf bared his teeth in a savage grin, Sorey’s fear and desperation finally connected with his nerves. The hellion turned aside, ripping the frozen stalagmite from the ground with nothing more than that movement, and dragged Mikleo along to hurl him bodily across the room.

Sorey was already moving. He lunged up onto his feet and stumbled sideways. He didn’t regain his balance or get his arms up as intended, but he managed to get between Mikleo and the wall that Heldalf had been aiming for, which was enough. The impact sent them both to the floor, Mikleo’s weight grinding against Sorey’s ribs and finally freeing his voice in an agonized shout. Even then he held tight, fingers numb but grasping Mikleo’s sleeves in a delirious fear of being separated again.

They tumbled over one another before landing in a heap of exhaustion and groans and heaving breaths. The white floor was streaked with Mikleo’s blood; Sorey was warm with it. Before he could even try to look his friend over, let alone inquire as to his condition, Mikleo shook off his grip and pushed himself up onto his hands, head hanging and more crimson dripping rapidly from his nose and chin.

“Say it,” he croaked. He didn’t look over at Sorey. There was a glazed look to his eyes as they bore into the floor, the distracted look of someone struggling to focus. His arms trembled. Two syllables were probably all he could manage in his condition.

Sorey wanted to object. He wanted to tell Mikleo to sit this one out, to reassure him that he didn’t have to do anything else. And yet…

Even if that was true, and Sorey still had the strength to stand and fight on his own… this wasn’t about that. Not anymore. That fearful inferiority he’d felt just now, the dread of doing nothing to help someone he cared about—refusing Mikleo now would be shifting that same burden onto his shoulders. Denying his help would mean denying his responsibility—to himself, to their cause, and to Zenrus.

I didn’t come all this way just to be a liability.

I said it before. Do I need to say it again?

Was Mikleo asking that now, in a silent thought somehow passed between them? Or were the words just that clear in Sorey’s memory? He couldn’t have said for sure, but either way, his answer was the same.

They hadn’t come this far for nothing. None of these sacrifices would go to waste.

Sorey felt the last of that crippling doubt dissipate. The ache was still there—it always would be—but that was alright. He wasn’t alone. They would face it together, just as they had faced everything else.

He sat up, snarling through the pain, and met Heldalf’s waiting gaze.

“This pathetic will to live… how desperately you cling to life. And for what? To continue suffering?” He raised his left hand again but Sorey beat him to it, screaming the Name with all the grief, heartache, fear, anger, and frustration that continued to twist inside and gnaw at him.

Not again. Never again.

“Luzrov Rulay!”

No more victims.

Only answers.

Their left hand seized their bow. Their right concentrated a rapid Elixir Vitae against their middle as they launched to their feet, briefly staggering beneath their combined wounds and their exhaustion before falling into a run. Mikleo didn’t have much strength left to lend, but it was enough: they narrowly dodged the next blast of lightning and fell to one knee, string bent and arte cast, held for just a moment—long enough for their dread and sorrow to wash over them anew, to sense one another’s suffocating heartache as well as their resolve—and Sorey wasn’t sure whether it was himself or Mikleo or both who pushed his thoughts into words.

“I won’t forget this pain—ever!