Nialane Antaeus/The Secret

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Pello thought to himself quietly as they approached the edge of the wood. A slightly irritated look peeked through his normally stoic demeanor. His thoughts were bleeding through to the surface.

”Keeping this girl occupied is like trying to memorize the names of every fish in the sea! Impossible.” He sighed audibly as he looked back to the little girl twisting her mossy hair and smiling as she trotted along behind him, “and daunting,” he added. “When Nikias gets back he is never gonna hear the end of this! What was he thinking?! Leaving a recluse mage in charge of a ten year old!”

“Hmmm?” Nia asked as she sucked down the last square of William’s Chocolate and Peanut Butter Masterpiece, making a note to herself to go back to Founder’s Falls and get a case more. To further remind herself she reached into her pocket and felt the embossed numbers of the charge card her father had left with her, just in case. A candy shortage was a qualified emergency, in her mind.

It took a moment for Pello to remember that she could hear his thoughts. Lucky for him though, she was far too preoccupied to have paid any mind to what he was just thinking. He made a mental note to remember not to think such things in her presence.

Pello stopped in front of her and turned to face her, his expression once again transforming into the instructive face she knew so well. “Nia, we are about to go after a detachment of the Circle of Thorns. These are not the ones we are used to. These are much darker sorcerers. Have your wits about you.”

Nia smiled as she looked up. “As always, Pello.” She extended her hands and called her power to them as she prepared to pray.

The last of Nefaria’s guards had slumped before them. Nia paused quickly to heal Pello’s scratches before they continued forward. They could hear ancient Latin words uttered before them as the glow intensified.

“Nos subsequens vestri ruina, inimicus, ut nos redimio vos ut…”

Pello knew right away what spell was about to be cast. “Get back Nia…”

But Nia was already back, and had dropped to her knees to say a prayer. A foreboding feeling had already come over her but it was too late for them to run. “Father Poseidon…”

“And don’t speak!” Pello roared. But it was too late.

A black glow enveloped Nia as streaks of violet and navy swirled around her form. Furious and unable to hide it, he charged forward and socked the Sorceress Nefaria as hard as he could with his granite encased fist. Before she crumpled to the ground, she smiled at him victoriously. What had happened, no one knew how to undo.

Nefaria was dead. Pello dropped all of his armor and flew back where Nia had last been. She was not there. At least he thought she was not there.

A squid-like being hovered in Nia’s place, looking confused.

“Oh for the love of Olympus!” Pello cried as he shook his head. “Why you?”

The squid shook her head and shrugged her tentacles.

“Well at least you have a sense of humor about it,” he chuckled softly, but quickly turned grim. “The spell that was just spoken was one that Letho and I ran into many years ago, before you were even talking. It is called the Animatus curse. Whatever is spoken after the spell is what you are bound to in form. Since you spoke the name of Poseidon before she could say anything worse, you will take the form of Poseidon’s creatures.”

The squid’s many eyes grew wide before the black vapor enveloped her once again, and an exhausted Nia dropped to the ground.

“But I…don’t want…to be a squid…forever.”

Pello grimaced. “You won’t always be one, but until you learn to control it, you will become one at random intervals. You may also have other forms you can become, we just haven’t seen them yet.”

“Can’t they…cure this stupid thing?” Nia looked exasperated as she clutched handfuls of grass.

“No. Letho and I never found a way to cure it. He said he knew someone that it had happened to but they never figured that part out. They just had to learn to control it.” He stopped to clear his throat. “Your father is going to KILL me.”

“No…he won’t…” she stammered as she laid on her back, the dark energy making her increasingly drowsy.

“Come Nia, we should get you home to rest. I will talk to your father when he returns from the dojo,” he whispered gently, reaching down to cradle her in his arms.

Nia sighed resignedly. “Why is it always me?” She whimpered quietly, watching her fingers spontaneously change back and forth between tentacles.

Pello watched her drift to sleep as he stalked back through Perez Park and into Atlas Park once again. Not a soul had paid any attention to him until then. He had seen one of these hunters before, but he was not sure why they paid him any mind this time.

The Quantum gunner approached him rapidly, his gun cocked and ready to fire.

“She’s not a Kheldian…” He thought quickly to himself as he surveyed escape routes. “…but she looks like one…” Muttering various obscenities he catapulted forward, encasing himself in granite armor, still holding the sleeping child. Shoving the gunner, he watched him fall from a ledge several stories to his death.

He watched his armor fall to the ground before he took off running again towards the Temple.

“Bella!” He called to his twin telepathically. “I’m coming home. Meet me there. We’ve got problems!”

............................................................................................................   “Hi dad.”

Something about Nia’s greeting to her father was unusually restrained. But having been gone for several days, Nikias ignored the change in her manner as he joyfully replied, “Hello daughter, you have been busy as of late.”

Nialane shrugged apathetically, just as she had started to worry about telling her father of the accident. "Just training. Like I'm supposed to. As you have been." Her voice was melancholic—entirely out of character for the little girl.

Noticing something amiss, he nodded back as he replied cautiously: “It is good to train. You have a strange aura about you... what has happened?”

She tried not to panic. Eventually he would have to know about the accident, but she wasn’t sure she should try to explain herself. Backpedaling quickly she replied sweetly, “Oh, I'm fine dad. It's nothing really.”

Nikias knew better with Nia. She often became this way when she deemed it necessary to hide information. He raised an eyeridge as he studied her carefully. "I do not think that you are telling me all..." His reply was tinged with disappointment.

Panic was setting in as the little Mer eyed her father continually. He knew something was different and she couldn’t hide it forever, and Pello was hours from them yet. “What? Me? Hide something? Wh...why would I do that?” She stammered as she tried to suppress a sneeze. “I' Just a little cold,” she muttered, trying to avoid the random shape shift she felt coming.

Nikias couldn’t help but be a little disappointed as he shook his head at her. “No, there is more to it, I am sure of it. If you wish to keep it to yourself then do but know I will be here.”

Nialane sniffled guiltily, thinking the oncoming sneeze gone, then sighed. Off guard, she couldn’t fight back the sneeze this time and with the force of it, felt herself transform into a form that much resembled a squid, hovering before her father. She tried to think quickly to herself but realized she can't hide.

A startled expression quickly overtook his face, trying to understand what he had just seen. "You have an explanation, yes?" Just moments before he had greeted his apprentice Osanna telepathically, anxious to see her after such a long absence. He pushed back, telling her, “I will be with you in a moment... I have to deal with a situation...”

Knowing his undivided attention was with her, she knew she owed him some sort of response, though she was unsure what kind of response she could give him. In a sweet but distorted voice she thought calmly to her father, "Pello...understands more than I do. We were fighting this dark Circle of Thorns lady...and she said this spell but I was praying...and it all happened so fast!" Quickly the panic began to set in again, and it bled through even to her mind’s voice. "Then all the sudden I was this...thing."

Stopping to breathe deeply, he took in as much air as his lungs would hold. “I will need to speak with Pello then. I trust you are safe?”

As she hovered atop the surface of the altar, Osanna happily entered the room, expecting to see her Master and his daughter, but something was immediately wrong. “WHOA!” Swiftly she backed away from the strange creature.

Once again reminded of the gravity of the situation before him, Nikias spoke resignedly: “This is Nia. She is the situation. If only I could find Pello,” he fought to suppress a snarl in his voice.

The form’s control lessened its hold on her. Her father wished to know if she was safe, and she knew now that she owed him the truth about the Quantum and Void gunners that had begun chasing her. As the form faded away, she replied with a slight twinge of tiredness, “Um...that's another thing...there's kinda these things after me.” Sinking to the ground, she refused to believe she felt as drained as she was.

Osanna’s eyes grew wide with realization as she watched Nia emerge from a black cloud of Nicti energy.

Nikias tried not to become upset as he sighed, “That is how it always is.”

She thought to herself for a moment that the transformations were done with, but felt more coming right away. “Oh here we go again...” she muttered under her breath as she groaned exasperatedly. A hard exoskeleton immediately built up over her clothing, transforming her into a form much like a giant crab. Instinctively she hunched over to look at the beings she had become much taller than.

Unsure of what was happening, Osanna asked gingerly, “Don't you have any sort of control Nia?”

Nikias spoke gently to her, unsure of how the form would affect her emotionally. “You can only make it stop if your mind is strong enough... or you are bound.” He cringed slightly at the second option he spoke of. “You are filled with a strange power. If you can't learn to control it soon then I will need to bind you with word and spell to keep you and others safe...”

“I’m trying,” Nia thought desperately as she swiped at the air before her. “What? You're not going to...kill me...are you?”

He couldn’t help but glare at her, the very thought that he would harm her to him entirely asinine. “Don't be silly! Binding just keeps you from using your powers.”

Crumpling to the ground once more, Nia felt the exoskeleton fall away and her normal form return. The Nicti infused with her swirled around her a moment before dissipating. Pausing as though nothing was wrong, she brushed off her cloak. But she couldn’t hide her true feelings for long. “But, making me useless is a fate WORSE than death.”

In vain Nikias attempted to soothe the worried little girl, telling her, “You would not be worthless... you would just be given time to master you mind to be able to control it. Our family has used this for many years. I will give you time to try before we use such measures.”

Osanna and Nikias gazed at each other a moment, her eyes searching for some sort of an answer to their problem.

Whispering, Nialane gently prodded her father, “Would it...hurt?”

Sensing the meek demeanor that had overtaken her, he spoke reassuringly. “It should not hurt at all.”

Nialane frowned and nodded. "Well, I'll keep trying but I guess if it must be done it must be done." Attempting to explain once more she added, “I don't it could have happened. Pello is pretty upset about it.”

Nikias made no secret of trying to avoid the subject of Pello at the moment as he told her, “You are too young yet to know all of what dark mages are able to do.”

Pleadingly Nia spoke, her face now drooping parallel to the surface of the altar. “Please daddy, don't be angry with him. It wasn't his fault.”

Osanna couldn’t help but feel helpless as she once again searched for an answer. It seemed as though the normally level-headed Nikias wouldn’t even have one this time.

Nialane thought to herself sadly. "Don't hurt him..." She hadn’t thought to shield the thought.

Osanna’s worried expression became flat. “Don’t be silly, girl!” The very thought of Nikias hurting anyone was absurd.

Swallowing hard, Nikias explained as calmly as he could muster to the frightened little girl. “I am not angry. I am concerned that he failed to keep you safe.”

Sadness washed over her as she knelt against the cold stone. "He didn't fail. I did," she whispered to herself. A strange bubble began to exude around her once more.

“You did not fail, little one.” His response stopped short of coddling only slightly.

Looking for a silver lining to the cloud, Osanna added helpfully, “Perhaps this will be a valuable lesson?” Nikias glanced at her and nodded slowly.

Noticing her best friend enter the room, she smiled slightly through the film of the bubble. “Hi Zan.”

Nikias looked over to Zan and smiled, though his eyes remained grim.

Once again, bluntness became her exceedingly well. Zancleia spoke flatly, nodding: “Looks like all the rumors are true, hmm?”

............................................................................................................   Nia peered through the iridescent violet and navy bubble film. Pursing her lips together she thought quickly. “Oops... kittens... chocolate... rock candy... RATS! It's not working! Ummm... something... anything...

Osanna glanced at her doubtfully. “Pink elephants?” she added, trying to be helpful.

“Uhh... silk pajamas!” She let out a heavy sigh of relief. “Stupid sad bubble,” she muttered.

Nikias smiled and suppressed a chuckle. “You are able to be cute even when you’re in way over your head.” For a moment it was as though the problem had drifted away with the bubble, and she was just a little girl again.

Looking to Zancleia, Nia asked her quietly, “What rumors?” Curious to hear the answer himself, Nikias also turned in the Princess’ direction.

Zancleia remarked flatly, “Something happened. Unless, that is, you were harboring Nictus energy this whole time? Which, well, I highly doubt.”

Pouting as though a horrible curse had been pronounced over her, she replied under her breath, “I am not a Nic-ta-thing…”

Nikias nodded gravely. “Such energy is not normally found within Mer or Atlantean. She was cursed somehow by a Circle of Thorns mage…Pello was with her but unable to stop it. I don’t know how the energy was bound to her.”

Aloofly, Zancleia replied, “It sure looks like Nictus energy. Sooo, fill me in, hm? What can you do with it?”

“It feels like it as well,” Nikias replied with a shudder.

Tentacles began to replace Nia’s fingers once again. Panicked and angry, she slapped the back of her hand harshly and screamed at it: “STOP IT!” Sensing control slip away from her, Nikias gathered his power about him and began to siphon it to Nia, hoping to be of some aid to her.

“Remember Nia,” he soothed, “a clear mind has power; an angry mind loses it.” He added quickly through their telepathic connection, “Calm yourself.”

Even her voice whimpered through their minds. “But I don't wanna be a squidy thing, or a crab thing for that matter!”

He nodded visibly but replied still in their minds. “I know little starfish. You will be fine.” He reached out cautiously to scan her soul, grasping her transforming hand. He spoke aloud words that he had hoped he would never say, let alone about his only daughter. “It is Nictus but it is not bound to her as it normally would...”

Matter of factly, Zancleia replied, “Well, that much is obvious. The Circle doesn't normally deal with the Nictus; that's someone else's focus.”

Pressing his hand to his chin in contemplation, he spoke slowly and quietly. “Agreed. Once I speak with Pello I will know more. We will need to keep her safe until then.”

The transformation flickered in and out. Trying to help her, Osanna racked her brain for a distraction. “Nia—recite the summary of the book we read in class today. The one on the history of the surface world: the book on George Washing tone.” She nodded encouragingly.

Starting slowly, Nia thought back to the book. “Everybody thinks he chopped down a tree and said he couldn't lie... And they wanted him to be a King but he didn't wanna. And Martha hated the idea of being a Queen anyways. And he got the sneezes and he died.” Looking at Osanna’s blank expression, she prodded gently. “Did I get it?” Glancing at her father’s grim expression, feeling his worries exude from him like a heavy fog, she inquired to him. “But dad, I am safe, aren't I?”

Swallowing hard, he replied in the best way he could think of. “You will be as long as you stay here.”

At this point, she was not beneath begging. Peforming her duties was her only distraction. “But...I wanna keep training! I still have homework to do! Right, Osanna? Daddy, Osanna would NEVER excuse me from homework!”

Laughing softly, he paused to explain. “You will need to stay within the temple until we know more.”

Worn down, maturity was clear out the window at this point. “But...daaad!” She whined with all the intensity she could muster. “She'll fail me! I can't fail my trials and become a priestess!”

Tantrums would be tantrums, and he wasn’t about to punish her for one. Not now. Sighing heavily once more, he turned to Zancleia. “Do you have a plan?”

Spiritedly, Zancleia plead her case. “Confining her is not the right solution. It will make her think negatively of her surroundings and the temple and give the nictus the impression that it is in TWO prisons. Making it fight all the more.”

Krenus Deacon raised an eyebrow at the proposition. Osanna, however, relented, “Hmm... I suppose Zan is correct in that.”

Nia stared at her hands intensely, the form flickering in and out once more. Snapping to grab her attention, Osanna said brusquely, “NIA! Have you finished your homework today?”

Zancleia locked eyes with Nikias intently as she explained. “For that matter - as I said, the Circle doesn't usually deal with the nictus. Even if it isn't a friendly being, it is likely there against its will, as well as against hers.”

Osanna stopped to glance at Nikias as they listened. As she turned away, a little voice could be heard. “Uh oh.” Whipping around once more, Nia had transformed back into the squid she was once before, her inaudible whimpering echoing through their collective mindlink.

Krenus rubbed his chin, murmuring, "Not the oddest thing I have seen."

Cordially, Zan stepped forward, almost as though she meant to shake its hand. “I'm Zancleia, and you are bonded, or trapped, within my friend.” Her tone was almost diplomatic.

Nialane's and another voice echo intertwined through the chamber. "We...are...trapped. Imprisoned..."

“What is your name, Nictus?” Zan inquired fearlessly.

Krenus stepped back and shook his head. “This is beyond my knowledge,” he grumbled. Quickly, Zan looked to Krenus and informed him, “Well then it’s a good thing you’re nice to look at.” Raising an eyebrow at the bold princess, he replied simply. “Quite.”

The contortion on the squid’s face was noticeable before an alien voice began to speak once more. “I am Legatus.”

Zan returned to her diplomatic role once more, telling the form, “It's an honor to meet you, Legatus - I'm sure I speak for all those present when we say that your imprisonment is something we all wish to remedy.”

“Agreed,” Osanna added, grimacing.

Zan’s tone became more firm. “However - we need to know that you seek no harm to our friend Nialane. We have concern for her, as well - and we won't tolerate threats to her. Some of your kind are friends to us, but most ... we will admit are enemies.”

The otherworldy voice snapped back gruffly. “I am one of many. I do not speak for the will of others. I am a soldier at command.”

Nikias stood back, watching over the situation with care, not wanting to interfere and cause harm.

Osanna came closer to the squid, speaking to it as though it were one of her young students. “Ah. Then you as one of such beings has a choice about whether you will cause harm to your current host. Tell me Legatus: Do you have control over the choice of host you use? Or over your host at all?”

............................................................................................................   The creature’s alien tone became increasingly veiled with harshness. “We are soldiers, friend or foe, at the command of another. It is not my will that will determine your friend's fate. But whilst I dwell within her, she has limited control.”

Speaking quickly, Krenus prodded the creature: “Who is the one that determines her fate?”

Osanna questioned the alien crossly. “Do you have the ability to move from her into another?” Posturing the question in her own mind, Zan muttered, “I doubt it ... I've never heard of a Nictus and host unbonding, at least not without some help.”

Once again the alien voice screeched through the room. “I am bound to this...thing. Until the will of Atrox sets me free, or death.” Osanna’s face dropped with the final word of its statement. Krenus, however, could not help but smirk. “Then I suppose it is our job to convince him to set you free,” he mused. Nikias looked blankly at Krenus as he spoke, unsure of the outcome.

A curious expression popped across Osanna’s face. “What is Atrox?”

Rage built up in the dark aura around the Kheldian. “Enough of these questions, foolish mortals! Atrox, divine sorcerer, wills it so!” Not expecting the creature to lash out, Krenus blinked several times.

Stepping forward with her hands on her hips, Osanna glared at the squid in front of her. “I don’t see that you have much choice my friend.” With a huff, she crossed her arms.

The dark wisps around Nia’s imprisoned form surged from her squidlike form as the angry spirit became increasingly enraged. “I need not have a choice!” The high frequency shriek reverberated against the stone. “His will eclipses desire! He can torture…your friend.”

Osanna’s eyes widened as she stared down the creature. “That would be VERY bad for you.” Unsure of what to say next, Krenus nodded to Nikias, speaking quietly: “I suppose I should start to find this Atrox.” Nikias swallowed hard as he looked to the fading cloud of dark energy, watching Nia emerge from the dissipating mist, laying still on the altar and moaning in pain. Krenus looked at her, disappointed that he could not ask the creature where he could find its master. “That may be what is needed,” Nikias whispered in reply, averting his eyes for a moment.

Glancing at the weak form on the altar, Osanna looked to Krenus, asking, “Do you need assistance, or at least company, Krenus? I can at the very least lend my prayers for your protection as you…convince this being to be of assistance.” Nia looked up to the familiar voices for a moment, then pressed her forehead against the stone.

Sighing once more, Krenus replied to the anxious priestess. “Well, it is useless now unless Nia knows where this Atrox can be found.” Not willing to take ‘no’ for an answer, Osanna looked to Nia, stepping forward to cautiously brace her shoulder. “Where were you and Pello when this happened?”

The expression on Nikias’ face was strangely emotional, much unlike his normal demeanor. “If we have no other options…I may need to seal her power away until we can find what we need.” Nodding solemnly, Krenus replied quietly. “That may be wise brother.”

Stubbornly Zancleia eyed Nikias. “Well - the creature doesn't seem to really desire to escape. The curse may have bonded it to Nialane, so it could torment her -for- Atrox. I don't really know to what ends, but whatever they are, the creature will die if Nia does - and whatever torments are done to Nia, it will feel and suffer, as well.” Osanna did not find herself in agreement with Zan, however. “Nikias- until we know the span of this things control- I believe it to be prudent to at least remove it's ability to use Nia's powers...”

But Zan wasn’t willing to lose the argument that easily. “I disagree. Whatever this thing is, I think it could be better served by showing it some freedom. Allowing it to experience the world for itself. You heard it - it's brainwashed, mindless. Besides. Nialane seems to have more access to -ITS- ability than it does to hers.”

Nikias pondered quickly. “That could be true…” he mumbled.

Nia writhed on the altar stone, mumbling with a blank expression. “"

Rubbing his chin as he listened, Krenus repeated quietly to himself. “Forest bonded host…”

She continued to mumble, her eyes growing wider, as though in shock. “ the...g...gate...way...Nefa...ria...over...lord...of...sp...irits...”

He comprehended at once. Krenus turned to Nikias and spoke quickly: “I will check there at once.” Nikias nodded to him, telling him, “Be careful.” As Krenus prepared for travel, he nodded in return and assured him, “I will send word as soon as I find anything.” Nikias swallowed hard, pausing to express his gratitude.

He looked back to Nia, who had pressed her head against the stone once more as Nicti energy glowed from her eyes. “ com...mands...” She groaned as the last of the squid form faded away and the energy left her eyes.

............................................................................................................   Nikias felt the change in her energy as she slumped against the stone. Cautiously he approached her, watching her move delicately, as though she was made of the thinnest glass. “Will you be alright Nia?” he asked her. He was not sure himself of the answer. A worried look washed over his normally calm expression.

Her state was not that different than someone who was delirious. Reality was not exactly within reach at the moment for Nia. Feebly she responded, “Alright? Just...weak... Why would I not be alright?” Glancing up at her father with eyes both filled with fear and entirely vacant, she tried to search his expression for meaning. He rested his hand on her head, running his fingers through her hair idly.

As Zancleia excused herself to begin her work, Nikias looked to her hopefully. It was odd to him that she could be the answer, but with the unusual situation at hand he was altogether willing to take any help that crossed their paths; anything to heal his daughter.

An exotic woman, recently come to the surface from another corner of the word approached Nikias slowly. Nia thought hard, remembering the woman’s name to be Swami. She had a kind face and beautiful garments that reminded her of sherbet. “Is she alright?” she asked in a heavily accented voice. Nikias swallowed hard and tried to respond out of Nia’s earshot, still stroking her hair. “I do not know yet…” The sound of his own words made him even more disquieted than before.

Toxarys entered the room quietly, nodding to Nikias, as Krenus called out to him. “Nikias, I need you to look at something. I am coming back to the temple as we speak.” In moments, Krenus was back in the ritual room with them. He lowered his hood, briefly making eye contact with Nia and smiling to her, then nodded to her noticeably worried father. For a moment a smile crept across her face as well, bringing her a measure of comfort. He laid a bundle of cloth on the opposite edge of the altar, revealing the shards of a broken wand wrapped in it.

Nia lifted her head just enough to slide her hands under it, staring at the relic. “I know this thing. The lady’s wand.” Scanning the wand in the hopes that the origin of the spell might be apparent, Nikias briefly tried to keep track of all the people entering the room. Krenus looked to Nia, asking her gently, “What lady?”

Blankly she responded, “She has many guards.”

Sighing audibly, Krenus looked back to Nikias, who had just finished scanning the wand. “Can you find anything from the wand?”

Her voice had become lifeless. “A heart of stone and malice.”

Nikias looked to his daughter then to Krenus. “The wand has the power of the Nictus within it. It was destroyed by something I do not recognize.”

Robotically, Nia added, “Nefaria…the Cruel.”

Krenus nodded slowly. “Hmmm... Is there any way you can use this to track her?” Nia looked to him sadly. “She is...dead. Pello killed her. Only one remains now.” Krenus lowered himself to look into her eyes. “What about Atrox then?” Nialane shook her head resignedly. "I never saw this being you speak of...Only Nefaria."

Nikias looked to Krenus as he stood up once more. “I will let Zan research Atrox. We will focus on the wand…and Nictus.” Bowing to Nikias, he spoke quietly. "Then for now I require rest, send me word when you find something out.” Nia looked up briefly, whispering to him, “Fair tides Krenus. I hope to see you soon.” Nikias nodded slowly, gratefully speaking to his dear friend. “Go then and take your rest. I will be sure to call for you when the time comes.” As he left the room, Krenus thanked Nikias and continued to his chambers.

Bending to meet Nia’s unmoving gaze, Nikias ran the back of his knuckles against her face softly. At least something of her remained familiar though so much had changed. She pressed her face to his hand, finding comfort in his presence.  

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