Rowen closed his eyes as the cavern shook with the force of his attack. His bow was crackling with the energy, sending vibrations into his shoulder. The vacuum sucked out the sound, and in total silence the armored spirits crumpled from the sudden decompression. Dala was still screaming orders from his force bubble. Kento took care of him with a hit from his nunchuks. Dala was knocked out. Some lackeys carried him off before the other guys could get in a hit.
Rowen felt the energy ebb and fell to his knees. The air whooshed back in... and Kento yelled. The archer darted up, realizing the recoil from his attack had propelled Kento to the ceiling. Fortunately Sage and Ryo caught him. Before Rowen could cross the distance, all three of them toppled into a pool of water.
"Dude," gasped Ryo. "Lose some weight."
"Very funny!" Kento splashed in Ryo’s face, which got an answering knock on his helmet.
Rowen helped Sage up. They surveyed the twisted metal shells around them. "You might have warned us," the blond said.
"No time," murmured Rowen. He was feeling Strata react to the Torrent armor orb, but he couldn’t understand... wait... "That’s it!"
"You get a read on it, Ro?" Ryo sheathed his swords, looking around.
"The water. This pool, where is it coming from?"
Sage pointed. "Over there." It was a fissure in the wall, too small to fit an armored man.
Rowen frowned. "Then find the closest tunnel. Let’s go." He stowed his weapon and set out.
I’m coming, please hold on, Cye.
There was a warm, smooth weight of a body wrapped around Cye. Slowly he opened his eyes. "Ro-chan?"
Then he realized the body didn’t have any limbs.
Everything rushed back, battering his mind, seeping in as surely as any of Sekhmet’s poisons. Physically he was going to make it, but waking up to a roomful of snakes was too much to bear. Shuddering, too tired to cry, he curled up in a ball.
~Be still. You are shocked like prey.~
At first Cye thought he was hallucinating. The anaconda slid around him, and he realized it was shivering, keeping him warm. There were no other snakes nearby.
~Be limp, and you will heal.~
Cye’s body obeyed the strange voice as his eyes rolled back in a faint.
When he came to again, a Burmese python was propping him up around the anaconda’s snug coils. Cye shuddered, nearly weeping in hysteria.
~Be colder. Be calm. We have water.~
His brain slowly began to pick up on his surroundings. This room smelled different from the first, more stale and dank. The snakes were not clustered around him, but writhed in monstrous piles, trying to keep warm. He realized just how cold the room was. Snakes were cold-blooded; it ought to be hotter.
~Water. You want water.~
"Yes," he croaked. His throat still stung from the two snakes. Whatever they’d injected from their fangs had been some kind of muscle relaxant and anesthetic. Now it was wearing off, and he could feel every abrasion on his body. He was bruised all over from the various constrictions. Once more, there was no sign of any poison other than the bite marks.
The anaconda lifted its head and looked right at Cye. Its beady eyes had no red this time. Right then, Cye felt the low thrum of energy coming from the creature.
~You must wake. Master will return.~
That decided it. The snakes freaked him out, but for some reason they were helping. Cye tried to move himself in the right direction. He was too drained to walk, so the snakes half-dragged him as he crawled. They were careful not to coil around him. Instead they slithered alongside and let him put his hands on them.
A small stream fed into the cavern. Cye collapsed in, submerging his head, gargling out the horrible taste. The python sloshed a little water on his belly and legs. He washed, and tried not to remember what every mark and stain represented.
Now that he was thinking more clearly, he regarded his two saviors.
~Too cold, water.~
The anaconda seemed to have the power of speech. Cye tried not to think of the last snake he’d read about who could talk. "The water doesn’t make me cold." It was sort of like talking to the fish and whales and dolphins. Sekhmet had mentioned something about the anaconda being different from its counterparts in the wild.
Sekhmet. "Where is he?"
The anaconda curled around Cye, and for a terrible moment he thought the warlord had returned, that it would begin again. But the anaconda was only trying to warm him up again. Cye tried not to feel like dinner, or worse, and let the animal come close.
~The demon called Master away.~
The demon? Oh. It had to be Talpa. There wasn’t much Cye could do against Sekhmet without Torrent. And he had a good idea that all his unlikely good samaritans would turn on him the minute the Warlord of Venom returned.
The anaconda nudged his side gently. ~Rest, or see the Mother?~
"What? Whose mother?"
~She. Master answers Her, without the demon.~
"Without the armor, you mean."
~Yes.~ The snake began uncoiling. ~Mind-talk better.~
"Oh dear." ~Like this?~
~Good. Follow, Warm One.~
Cye shook his head and trailed after the snake. He had to give it a try. If there was someone, or something, that would protect him from Sekhmet, he had to ally with her.
As they traveled downstream, Cye realized how filthy the water became. The little stream widened and slowed, and it seemed to be picking up all the dirt and leavings from the animals. He spotted a few shed skins, ghostly in the dim light. He realized that few of the snakes they passed looked well. Their scales were peeling and infected, their eyes listless, their backbones showing from lack of food. It was an altogether pathetic sight.
Where the stream emptied into a stagnant pool was an imposing pillar of snakes. Cye fought the urge to vomit. One or two he could handle, but coming this close, to too many...
~Have peace, armor-bearer. We will not harm you.~
A gigantic cobra from near the top of the stack uncoiled. Unmistakably Her, Cye was riveted by the deep green glow of her eyes. True cobras were longer and had the girth of a long-neck bottle. She was almost as big as the anaconda. And Her voice... he was reminded of the Kipling story, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. This one, whoever She was, could look into a man’s eyes and pull out his every thought.
~Mm, this will not do. Come here.~
Cye moved closer. He was frightened out of his mind, but he could feel her energy and he dared not disobey.
Her eyes glowed an unearthly green. A feeling of lassitude came over Cye, and he felt cleared of the terror. She crawled a little away from the pillar, where dozens of serpent eyes watched. Cye followed, feeling his strength returning.
~I am sorry, so very sorry for what my children did to you. No creature should endure that.~
~It... it wasn’t their fault. Sekhmet made them.~
She turned her head, the slightest ripple traveling down her flank. ~Naaza especially.~
~Naaza...?~ Sekhmet. Was that his real name?
~We took him in when his humans turned him away. And so it was only fitting that he returned the favor, once he came to power.~ She flicked her tongue, tasting the sour air of the room. ~None of us counted on the demon poisoning Naaza’s soul. The gates were closed to us, before we could escape.~
Cye looked around, his brows knitting. Nothing was sacred to Talpa, not even these belly-crawlers... ~You tried to fight him?~
~Yes. Our strongest warriors were vanquished, and Naaza himself turned on us. Yet if not for his presence, the demon would have slaughtered us all long ago.~
~That... that’s no way to live!~ Cye gestured angrily at the chilly room, the polluted water, the pathetic animals. He turned back to Her unearthly gaze, and stopped. What am I saying? These things violated me. They...
~My children were under Naaza’s control,~ She said sadly.
Cye clenched his fists. He couldn’t just stand here and ignore what was going on around him. Yet he had to get out of this nightmare. ~That water... can you show me where it leads? Can you show me the way out?~
~Yes, of course. It is a small thing for the bite-strangle-death you have been through.~
Cye shuddered at the unfamiliar word. It sounded horribly fitting. She was already slithering her way down the pile. He would not be afraid. He would not. The Ronin clenched his fists, and knelt before Her, trying not to break into nervous tears when she flicked her tongue questioningly at him.
~Allow me to do something for you.~ His kanji burned bright and true, reflecting off her serpent eyes.
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