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The monster took one more shuffling, inevitable step forward, and the knife shot forward like a comet. The hit connected and Jowd took one unbelieving step backward before he slipped to the ground with a shuddering sigh, his face set in a stare of blank-eyed, faint satisfaction that, at last, something had gone to plan. Kamila, whom he’d protected by jumping in and taking the heavy blow in her place, cried out in shock before her face set in concentration and she began muttering the spell that would raise him back to his feet.

Alma’s eyes narrowed in a fierce glare at the monster that they’d inadvertently disturbed in its chesting place, a short blue thing carrying a hefty knife and a lit lantern. The thing was certainly no walk in the park—it had retreated, but it was shuffling forward yet again for another vicious attack. Cabanela hit it with Flare, only recently bequeathed to him by Bahamut, and Missile was harrying it, doing his best in a furiously barking, whirling rage. Alma, too, had been slamming it with her heaviest blows, but she was wavering on her feet from a previous attack. If she wasn’t careful, she’d be down too and then the others would have to fend for themselves.

She took a deep juddering breath, trying to sum up all her will and strength, and to her amazement, something deep within her answered. She drew into herself, readying her sword, and sprang forward in a brutal, graceful leap, while her sword swept a semi-circle bright as the moon and harsh as the sun. The monster howled, a hacking, gargling howl, and dropped its lantern before falling as heavily as Jowd had.

Panting, Alma noticed Kamila had managed to get her father up but she was unusually preoccupied—that attack had been like nothing she’d ever done before. A once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, brought on by desperation and rage? Or something she could train, use again and again? She vowed to find out when they were out of these caves—that had felt good— and turned to the monster. Its body had disappeared, leaving only the knife, which seemed to gleam far brighter than the ambient light in the caves would suggest.

“Cabanela,” she said, holding it out to him. “This looks like something you could use.”

He hefted it, a look of distaste crossing his face as he noted the pale blade splattered by unseemly red. “Mm, maybe not for me, baby,” he said, darting a look at Jowd, who shrugged uncaringly at this evidence of his recent pain, now vanished with the rest of his wound, although the splatter still remained on his shirt. “We’ll save it, anyhoot. Lynne or Memry might like it, they tend to use daggers.” He gave her a look of deepest admiration. “Whaaat do you call that thing you did there at the end?”

Alma huffed out a breath and shook off her lingering unease. “Don’t know yet…it was a new one on me.”

It was beautiful,” barked Missile, and she grinned at him, a little surprised that he had noticed in his frenzy.

“I was…desperate,” she said at last. “I suppose that’s what it was… one last desperation attack.” She slumped, putting her hands on her knees as she fought the dangerous lightheadedness. Instantly, Kamila was at her side, eyes round as she supported her mother. Jowd looked at Cabanela, his face anguished as he gestured to her helplessly.

Cabanela hissed out the few syllables of a strong Cure spell, his face own face set in lines of furious concentration, and she began to feel better almost immediately. They all four began to recriminate with her at once, Missile barking at their feet as the humans spoke all at once about her taking better care of herself and why didn’t you say somethin’ baby and, worst of all, Jowd’s pained and guilty silence. She held up a hand.

“It was a battle, not a training situation. If I’d gone down…” she took a breath, but went on, knowing what she was saying was true, “I trusted you, Kamila, to get me… us… back up again while Cabanela and Missile took down that fiend. We’re a team.” She took Jowd’s hand and patted it. “And while he might not have said it, I know Jowd feels the same.”

He pulled her in close and kissed the top of her head, then Kamila’s, and rumbled thanks to Cabanela and Missile. If he sounded a little reluctant even yet, that was something, Alma thought to herself, that they still needed to work out. For now, she retreated to being a queen, since they still needed to press on, and briskly got them back into marching order and on their way.

As she walked behind them, sword still at the ready against any more monsters, she stared once more at the gleaming edge of the blade. Desperation was all very well, but it was no substitute for preparation. Her hands tightened. The next time, she would not be caught so unready.