Orym folds his hands and listens to the crackle of the fire, the sparks dancing away into the leaves, the jungle vibrant and green.
He can just make out the stars overhead through the thick foliage, twinkling like symbols of hope and home. The wind rustles in the shrubs and for a moment, only for a fraction of a second, he can pretend that they are safe. With the smell of leaf rot and wet underbrush and blooming life clogging his nose and curling around his lungs, he can close his eyes and pretend that he is home.
He breathes and breathes and breathes.
Fy'ra Rai shifts, her hand twisting about the vines.
She is watching out for them, her hair a brilliant beacon on the back of his eyelids.
They are safe.
No matter how much he tells himself that, he cannot quite believe it. Not with Dorian and Dariax back to back across from him, the bag and the crown next to the fire, the jagged onyx spikes glittering in the firelight with an almost malevolent glint in its dark depths.
He remembers how Dorian flinched sometimes, as if seeing something out of the corner of his eye, how Dariax would watch them, his gaze trailing over their faces as if following something across their cheeks or across their brow. How Fearne's eyes would occasionally slide right off of him, as if watching something that he could not see. And he would remember the spiders that he’d been told of, the spiders that Dorian had seen crawling out of their eyes and mouths and ears.
The crown was malicious, it was evil, and it sought only to corrupt. He could see it in the way Dariax shuddered, huddled against Dorian, both of them awfully small figures against the obsidian shadows.
He’d also seen a change in Dorian lately, a certain new flexibility that was more reminiscent of his other more reckless companions. He couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was truly alone now. He could still remember the way Dorian had clutched the crown, something wrong gleaming in his eyes- a want- a desire- a need that scared him out of his skin. Orym was scared for them, for his friends. It made him feel even more isolated. They certainly didn’t seem nearly as frightened as he thought they should be. They didn’t seem to be able to see the poisonous claws that the circlet was digging into them, the teeth that it sought to dig into their soft flesh.
It scared him, being alone. Mostly because he wasn’t nearly enough. He wasn’t. He was so small, he wasn’t nearly as capable as others he knew- especially not with magic. He’d never been too good with magic.
Fy'ra Rai's quiet murmuring drew him out of his thoughts, reminding him of her presence.
He wasn’t quite alone.
He wasn’t the only one looking out for them.
The ever capable Fy'ra Rai would help- was helping. She’d already saved them so many times. The crown had never even tempted her. He wasn’t alone, his burden was shared.
It was this fact that allowed his eyelids to grow heavy, his shoulders to relax, and sleep to claim him.
He wakes up in darkness.
Orym blinks, unsure as to where he is. He reaches forward, fingers crawling across the ground, scrabbling for purchase as his brows furrowed. He can’t find the others.
He cannot even make out his hand in front of his face.
He is alone.
Something turns in his stomach, a bitter rejection making his limbs leaden. The air is cold and harsh and stings his skin.
Orym shivers and that’s when the voice speaks, full of unspoken laughter, a cold delight, "Oh, poor little soldier, so far from home, so in over your head."
He straightens, eyes straining, but he is unable to make anything out in the darkness, a looming invisible presence making the hairs on his neck stand on end and a cold dread trail down his back like spider legs, "Who- who are you?"
The voice does laugh this time, smooth as silk, dripping with a venomous honey, "Don’t you know? I thought you were the smartest one in this little fuckup of a group."
He swallows back the bile building in the back of his throat, realization chilling his bones, freezing him in place. He manages to speak, still, despite the horror filling his lungs and his heart pounding in his ears, "You can’t have them," it comes out as little more than a whisper and he clears his throat, firmer, strength returning to him as he finds his resolve, "You cannot have them. We won’t let you."
The voice tsks, tutting at him as if he were a particularly sad figure, "Oh, but I’m afraid that you're all alone little wind warden. Alone as you’ve always been. Alone and unable to help. Inadequate, incapable, a failure."
Orym opens up his mouth to speak, to spit back, to tell her that his friends were more capable than she thought, that they would not fall to her clutches, but he coughs instead, retches, a viscous gunk forcing its way up and out. He gags, choking on his bile. It tastes of cinders, ash, and death. It burns like acid, eating away at his skin.
He can feel the spiders, he can feel them crawling out of his mouth and he gags on them, unable to speak, unable to breathe.
The voice laughs, triumphant, delighted, gleeful at his pain, "You will die, Orym of the Air Ashari, alone and in the dark- thousands of miles away from home. Just like them. Not even your nature witch can save you now," The voice drops into a vicious hiss, "They will put on my crown. They will do my bidding. You cannot stop me."
He chokes, spits, and then, with an effort, swallows the gunk and spiders back, their legs twitching in his throat, making him shudder with horror and disgust and revulsion. He blinks in the darkness, the nothingness sucking at him, original reply dying on his stained lips. He pauses before speaking, voice hoarse, almost confused, incredulous with realization, "Are you really that afraid of me?"
The temperature drops and he retches again, sharp as he vomits up more of the unknown liquid. It’s all the answer he needs. The voice hisses, "You will die, Orym, choking like this on your own blood in the dark, utterly alone. Mark my words, it will come to pass."
Orym laughs, soft, unassuming, the foul sludge coating his teeth, spiders on his tongue, unable to hide his small victory over this great cosmic evil. It’s almost funny- how could something as terrifying, as horrifyingly powerful as this think of him as a threat? He who was so very very small and so very incapable in the face of the momentous events he found himself tangled up in, in the face of the monstrosities and magic that threatened him and his friends.
So yes, Orym, who was hardly higher than three feet and certainly nothing more than a mere pebble in this goddess's path, laughed, the sound of it almost lighting up the darkness, "I may die, but I will never let them serve you."
There is a sharp pain in his stomach, a stabbing and tearing sensation, a shriek of anger, and the darkness shatters like shards of glass into blinding white light.
Orym's eyes fly open and his stomach rebels. However, it is not that dreadful midnight blackness, but daylight that hits his eyes. He chokes again, his stomach aching as he vomits up more slime, heavy and dark. He hears the shouting of the others, already awake, and their hands on his shoulders.
He can't breathe, it just keeps coming, up and out, convulsions wracking his body. Someone is hitting his back, a cool hand on his hot neck, and then, with one last terrible cough, the pressure lessens, the last of the black almost-oil dripping from his lips.
It’s Fearne, soft and quiet, who breaks the silence and asks, "Orym, are you okay?"
He nods, not up for words yet as he pushes himself to all fours, grimacing at the dark ooze marring the dirt. Dorian's hands help hoist him up to his knees and he blinks stupidly at his friends. Opal looks unusually concerned and Dariax coughs, repeating Fearne's question, "You okay buddy?"
His voice scapes his raw throat but he manages, "Yeah, I… I think I’m fine."
Dorian asks, hesitant, worried, "Was it… was it the crown?"
They all glance at it, one end still glimmering in the sunlight from where it had slipped from the satchel, the shadows seemingly clinging to it by the coals of the campfire. Between two of its spikes, a spider has spun a silver web with gossamer strands.
Orym swallows and he tastes pitch and rot on his tongue, sharp and bitter, "I think so. Maybe. I don’t…" he remembers the voice, curdling his blood and burning his bones, leaving him feeling almost dirty even if he was unscathed, "Yeah, I think it was."
Dorian's lips thin and Dariax shuffles over to the crown, nudging it all the way back in the pack with his boot, until it’s hidden from view. Fy'ra Rai twists her staff in her hands, "Maybe you should keep that away from Orym, Dariax. Just for now. That stuff, it cannot be good."
Dorian scratches the back of his head, unsure, "I mean, I used to do that. But I guess the crown is okay with me now. Maybe it’ll be like that for Orym."
Fy'ra Rai lifts an eyebrow, watching him keep Orym steady, one hand on his friend's back. She huffs, skeptical, gentle but honest, "Do you really think that, Dorian?"
Orym rubs at his chest, feeling almost bruised but, strangely enough untouched and unchanged, "I'm fine." He laughs, glancing up at them, his smile nervous and quick and shy, like him, "I mean, it tastes bad but I think… I think I’m okay."
Fearne smiles, small and soft, "Good, I’m glad."
The others- Fearne, Opal, and Dariax, Dorian and Fy’ra Rai, they stick close, concerned, ready to help. The bag with crown lays just beyond their little circle, discarded for now but not forgotten.
But for now… for now the sun shines against the leaves, brilliant and bright, his friends surround him healthy and whole, and Orym…
Orym is not alone.