Iwas feeling lightheaded upon leaving Elmiryn in the wash room, and entered the kitchen with a hunger so vast that even I was startled by it. A quick search produced strips of cured beef in a small barrel tucked into the corner of the room. I wanted to eat all of it, and could have, but there wasn’t any time for it. Finding a small canvas bag, I put some of the dried meat into it, along with a wedge of cheddar cheese. I found a roll of twine on the counter and pulled out a small length of it, cutting it with a cooking knife. Using that piece, I tied the bag closed. That done, I cut a much longer piece of twine, and used it to make an impromptu strap. I pulled the twine over my head, the length of it crossing my chest to where the bag sat against my hip.
Next, I grabbed a handful of beef strips. Glancing around me one last time, I returned to the parlor.
Quincy and Sedwick sat sipping their tea in silence, side by side on the sofa. The man appeared to be meditating, the wizard staring off into space with a haunted look. They both looked up as I approached. I became shy at the attention and sat on the floor near the center table, my shoulders hunched.
Sedwick stood. “Here, Nyx. Sit here.”
It was a gentlemanly gesture, but it made me uncomfortable. “No thank you. I prefer the floor.”
The man gazed at me a moment, apparently uncertain, but then he sat down without another word. Quincy took a long draw on her tea as she gazed at me over the rim of her teacup. It put me on edge. I pulled my knees to my chest, hugging them, and tore out a large bite of beef. I chewed it slowly.
I avoided making eye contact. Sedwick cleared his throat and shifted on the couch. I wanted to pour myself some tea, but felt too self-conscious. The silence was to the point that we could hear the distant voices of those struggling to save their homes from the fires. I hoped they weren’t spreading anymore than they had, but it felt like a futile wish.
I swallowed the food in my mouth and took another bite. My eyes took in my surroundings, but my thoughts were elsewhere.
My mind still turned over what I had just done, and there were excited trembles blasting through me as I remembered each moment.
Elmiryn was right. I had changed. But was that so weird? I had been in dark places, and the source of my hope and determination was once again in my company. Whatever fears, whatever barriers of intimacy, were all gone now. I could feel it. Even given how close we’d been before, a line had just been crossed.
And…I wanted to do more. Elmiryn’s facilitation made me braver, made me less concerned about my sexuality and the effects it may bring.
After feeling the shape of her under my hands, after tasting her desire on the tip of my tongue, there was no use in dancing around it.
I wanted her. I wanted Elmiryn.
Not an altogether new concept, but to admit this was freeing.
Yet I had refrained in the wash room, aware that giving in to my impulses would be folly. There were things to be done, and the time simply wasn’t there. I didn’t want my first experience to be a rushed affair. I also didn’t want to be just another easy conquest. The idea repulsed me.
But it felt good to forget, just for a second, that I was some spiritual abomination outside of the natural order. Lacertli may have provided a way to salvation, but the sting of being something so wrong was still acute to me. Elmiryn dulled that pain.
My ears tweaked as I heard the warrior in question finally emerge from the wash room. She began doing something in the kitchen, and I had to resist the urge to turn and look. I didn’t want to appear over eager at her return. Actually, I felt nervous. The wash room had become a sort of special sanctuary for my forwardness. Out here, though, I felt timid again. This was all still new to me, for all my show of confidence.
Within a moment she came into the parlor room–dressed, clean, and looking re-energized. I felt the tightness ease away from my body as I looked up at her. Elmiryn looked very charming in her new clothes.
She gave me an amused smile as she crossed her arms high on her chest. “Kitten, what are you doing on the floor?”
I swallowed the beef I had in my mouth and said, “Oh, you know. Just subverting sedentary convention. That’s all.”
Elmiryn giggled and I even heard Sedwick chortle. I smiled, feeling warm.
“Shall we then?” Quincy said, setting her tea cup aside and standing.
I nodded and stood. Then I gave a start and turned to Elmiryn. “I should tell you. Farrel’s gone.”
She arched an eyebrow at me. “Gone gone?”
I looked down at my shoes, suddenly ashamed. “Gone. I couldn’t find him…alive or dead.”
Elmiryn reached out and patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Nyx. I’m sure the Rabbit’ll turn up.”
“Ah, speaking of which!” Quincy exclaimed as she looked at me.
I looked at her, wary. It was true that I hadn’t had many encounters with the wizard, but what I had seen was forever burned into my mind–literally. She’d blasted away the flesh of my hand once, after all. To see her exclaiming in such a fashion, a very mundane and unmemorable thing to do, somehow seemed extraordinary to me. The Quincy I remembered was cold, monotone, and seamless. This was the opposite. Did Tonatiuh really change her so much?
“Tristi’s also gone,” she said. “And he wanted to send you his regards.”
“I’m sure he did…” I muttered. Why had he hurried me up the entire time if he could have left whenever he wanted to? I had a feeling I’d never understand the champion of luck, and I couldn’t say that I’d miss him too much.
“I have a few questions I’d like to ask you about him later, if that’s all right?”
“That’s…fine.” It actually wasn’t, but I could see no reason to refuse.
We started to leave the house, but Elmiryn paused at the door to gaze back at everything. I stood near her, and took in her expression–wistful…perhaps sad. Eventually her eyes rested on something in the parlor, and I didn’t have to guess what it was. I turned to gaze at the portrait with her. Sedwick and Quincy waited outside, on the lookout for trouble.
I let the back of my hand brush the warrior’s. She looked at me, and the fact that she didn’t smile had me worried. Was it possible that her family could’ve been affected by the destructive battle with Tonatiuh? “What’s wrong, Elle?”
“I don’t know where my family is. I don’t know…if I still have a family.”
“The meteor, the fires…” I trailed off, unable to finish.
Elmiryn already was shaking her head. “I don’t think my mother’s in Malvene. She hates this city during this time of year.”
I felt a sense of foreboding about it, but I asked anyway. “And your father…?”
The warrior’s face darkened in a way I hadn’t seen before. “The asshole had better be alive. We have unfinished business.”
I blinked, taken aback. She looked at me for a moment, then grinned, the darkness fleeing her face. “Sorry.” She jerked her head toward the others. “Come on. I’m sure you’d like to hear our side of the story now.”
I swallowed and nodded. Elmiryn could be a little mercurial at times, but that was by far the most extreme I’d seen.
As we followed Sedwick’s lead to the shard’s gateway, they each in turn explained what had happened since arriving in that dimension. They got about as far as their conversation with Nadi before it devolved into bantering and bickering.
“Of course, this ginger-headed idiot had to open her foul mouth and speak ill of my husband,” Quincy said, with a disdainful tilt of her nose.
“You weren’t exactly being very kind yourself, if I recall…” Sedwick muttered. “You both gave as much as you got.”
Elmiryn just snickered. “The difference being that I could handle it. The wizard, on the other hand, turned into a hysterical chicken shit and tried to off herself–”
The wizard shot her a look. “Shut up, Elmiryn, that isn’t how it went and you know it.”
The warrior crossed her arms, smirking. “You ran off a cliff.”
“Well, given the company…”
“Ungrateful! That’s what you are! And after all those times I’ve saved your life…”
“What?” Quincy and Sedwick said this together.
“Quincy. Come on. You must remember how I caught you at the cliff. Or the time I decapitated that soldier about to bite into your neck. Or the time you nearly fell and got swarmed by the undead–”
“That’s just stretching it! We were all watching each other’s backs—”
“And what about those rogue ghosts that were going to tear you apart?”
“I could’ve handled them!”
“Oh, and did I mention? There was a fly about to buzz into your open mouth. I swatted it out of the way just in the nick of time,” Elmiryn mimed doing just that, making Quincy startle back. “Surely, it would have lodged into your throat, causing you to panic, and then–knowing your dramatic personality and naturally clumsy nature–would’ve resulted in the greatest cluster fuck this side of the Hellas. No really. True story.”
We all slowed to a stop to stare at her.
When Sedwick let out a rumble of a laugh, I smiled uncertainly. Quincy looked ready to blow, the way her face turned red. Elmiryn just kept batting her eyes, body posed in the most pretentious I’d ever seen–head thrown back, chest puffed out, hands high on her hips.
Then, without warning, a smile spread on the wizard’s face, and she put a hand over her mouth as her shoulders began to shake.
Elmiryn grinned as she nudged her. “Hm? Hmmm? See! I told you!”
“We should spread the word then,” Sedwick started. “Hamlets the world over will sing their praises of Elmiryn the Good.”
The warrior’s nose wrinkled. “That’s not a proper name for a hero! You could easily call a prostitute that.”
“Well I’ll be sure to let everyone know then.” Quincy’s face wasn’t red anymore, but her cheeks were still tinged pink, and there was a light in her eyes that hadn’t been there in the previous hour. She fixed the warrior with a smirk.
Elmiryn opened her mouth, a mischievous expression on her face when she paused and looked at me. I blinked at her, confused. Clearing her throat, the redhead shrugged and said, “Take care in what rumors you spread. People may start thinking you’re a regular connoisseur of the world’s oldest profession.”
Quincy glanced at me, before returning her eyes on the warrior. Her smirk had turned into a full predatory smile. “Oh, all I have to do is say the right things to the right people.”
Elmiryn didn’t look amused anymore. I felt nettled and frowned at them both.
Then Sedwick jumped in, his expression trying to convey a warning without words. “Elle!” He said loudly. My ears tweaked to hear him use her nickname. “If Elmiryn the Good wouldn’t suit you, than what would?”
The woman batted her eyes at him, and we all looked at her.
A slow chuckle came up her throat and she rubbed the back of her neck.
“Maybe…” she started slowly. She shrugged and looked up. “Elle, the Friendly Ghost?”
My eyes fluttered.
I tried to hide the smile that started to show by biting my lip, but I knew it was a losing battle. “Um…I’m certain that’s already being used.”
Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck again, and I could see a sense of relief pass her features. “Really?” she giggled.
Behind me, Quincy and Sedwick chuckled. In truth, I was glad to have the tension vanish. The banter continued, and it was more of the same.
“Shall we call you, Quincy the Klutzy?”
“Here’s a suggestion: How do you like Elmiryn the Crippled? Or what about, Elmiryn the Lifeless?”
We went at a brisk pace, down avenues and alleys, piercing the shadows of tall buildings swathed in stellar splendor, and passed smaller structures colored in the fiery passion of Fiamma. With the current company being so swept up in their talk, I found my thoughts began to trail.
It was strange seeing the way Elmiryn, Sedwick, and Quincy got along. It was a complicated dynamic, I could already tell. Elmiryn had clearly taken to her usual provocations, but it was different from how she’d behaved with me. Now I saw that her teasing in the past had been very mild in comparison to what she and Quincy slung at each other. It was sharp, nettling, and at times, bordered on cruel. I was certain, given the prides these two had, that tails must have been stepped on often. But seeing how Elmiryn laughed at Quincy’s hostile responses, I saw how much she enjoyed the interaction.
It made my hackles rise.
Quincy, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have any interest other than to find Elmiryn’s weaknesses and poke at them. The wizard had a temper, it was easy to see, but she was also stubborn and resilient. For every quip that landed home, the woman was back with a dozen to match. Though she feigned contempt for Elmiryn’s antics, I could see that she was into the verbal sparring as much as Elmiryn was, though I suspected it was just to find a way to best the warrior psychologically. She struck me as the type that liked to pick things apart. A sort of scientific mind, if you will. But when the wizard found her prize…? What then?
I certainly wasn’t going to facilitate their silly games. To have Quincy look at me as if I were some sort of tool to use against Elmiryn already had me wishing I could slap her.
Sedwick seemed to fit into the group as a long-suffering mediator. He cut in when either woman crossed a line, and he kept things as light as he could by redirecting the conversation. Much of the time, though, he kept out of it. A wise decision, I thought.
Eventually, after Sedwick announced our imminent arrival to the gateway, Elmiryn turned to me.
“Gods damn, I just realized. We were supposed to be telling you what we’ve been through this whole time.”
I gave her a strained smile. “You were.”
The redhead looked at me with feigned uncertainty. “Did we mention this was a long story?”
“About three times, now.”
“It’s a really long story,” they all said simultaneously, wry smiles on their faces.
“But it’ll have to wait,” Sedwick said.
We followed the man over a retaining wall into a narrow road. This far out, the buildings weren’t as collected together. Elmiryn had muttered something about “round-assed nobles” and I suspected this was where some of the richer ilk resided. Honestly, I’d heard of homes being this large in books and by word of mouth, but it never really strikes you until you see it, does it? I looked across a vast front yard, gated of course, where a massive four-story mansion with large windows and a circular tower managed to cast a long enough shadow to reach us so far away. I couldn’t imagine anyone living in something so large. It just seemed so…excessive.
Where the main road curled about these mammoths of architecture, we strayed, coming up against the tall black iron-wrought gate for the grounds before us. The bars were thick and close together, and there were wicked spikes at the top to discourage climbing. Sedwick pointed through the bars. “Our way off this shard is there.”
Quincy scowled. “Well that’s inconvenient.”
I peered around the bars to get a look at the lock.
I grinned. “Have any of you got a pin?”
No one had one, but Quincy managed to produce a hook knife which I recognized to be used in clay shaping. I shook off my confusion as to why she would have something like this (she’d pulled it out of a pouch I’d thought empty) and set to work. Five minutes later, we were walking through the gate.
“These people spend tons of gold just to make their homes feel safe, and here you come along to undo it with barely any effort,” Elmiryn murmured, an almost proud smile on her face.
“That lock was pathetic. It’s obvious the owner just wanted to show off and look richer than he is without actually putting the money down to defend his claim.” I shrugged. “Of course, it’s entirely possible that there are guards patrolling the grounds. Maybe some attack dogs. Magical wards. Who knows? We aren’t actually breaking into his home…”
“But, attack dogs aside, they wouldn’t be a problem for you if we were, right?”
I bit my lip to hide my smile. Pride comes before a fall, and all that…
The courtyard of the mansion was arrayed in a circular design, with waist-high rose-bushes and swaying willows. The breeze picked up, and I inhaled that scent of destruction, of ash and dust. Even this far out, the aftermath of that terrible struggle with Tonatiuh could be felt.
I glanced at the others, and found equally pensive looks on their faces. Quincy looked upset, even.
At the center of the courtyard was a marble fountain. Sedwick slowed to a stop before this, his head tilted back. Elmiryn’s head was tilted back as well, her eyes focusing on something I couldn’t see. All I could make out was that the air seemed to ripple before us. The gateway.
The hairs on my skin stood on end.
And how did Elmiryn feel, leaving Fiamma for the second time with no clue as to when she’d return?
She looked at me, her eyes searching my features, for what I didn’t know. Then her face broke into a grin. “Let’s go, Nyx.”
I nodded, wishing I knew what she’d found. “Lead on, Elle.”
Without another word, without even so much as a look back, Elmiryn stepped through the gateway, and we followed her.
Nyx wasn’t used to Traveling the way the others were used to it. She had only done it once before, and even she was aware it was in a very unorthodox fashion. Her eyes wander into the spectral mist, catching glimpses of beautiful people and wondrous places. Her steps start to slow, and she lets out a breath…
Then Quincy has her by the arm and starts to force her along.
We can’t stop, the wizard says. And it’s dangerous to look into worlds that aren’t ours, so just keep your eyes looking ahead, unless you want to bring the attention of something dangerous.
But that’s fun! Elmiryn exclaims.
Sedwick grumbles for them all to keep silent, and the request is honored.
Nyx rips her arm out of Quincy’s grasp with a glare, and moves to join Elmiryn in the front.
With time, they came to a crossroads. This was strange to the Ailuran, because she hadn’t realized the In-Between space was capable of such structure.
After a moment of reorientation, Elmiryn pointed down one of the roads.
Here, she says. This is our fourth path.
Without another word, they travel on, till the mist and chaos thinned to nothing.
She took in a breath as the last of the Road gave way to grassy plain. The mist cleared.
They stood blinking in the darkness atop a tall hill. Overhead, there were no stars. No moon. Not even a cloud, as much as she could see. The wind was strong here, and swept her russet locks into a wild dance. She shivered and hugged herself, missing her cloak. Her jerkin was a poor cover.
Elmiryn and Nyx stood apart, hand in hand. Sedwick stood near, his brow furrowed.
“I think I know where we are,” he said lowly.
Quincy turned on the spot, taking in their surroundings. They had landed on the edge of a vast hilly plain, where further off, the wizard thought she saw the sandy shores of a beach. Behind them lay the edges of a dense forest that also stretched on as far as she could see. With numerous societies occupying the Sibesonan continent, there were only two forests that could be as large and as untouched as this one, and only one of those was so close to the ocean.
“Yes,” Quincy said. “I think I recognize this area as well.”
The wind came again, this time nearly threatening to bowl them over. Everyone braced against it, hands and arms shielding faces from the sting of the wind.
The wizard’s heart gave a twist, and she clenched her teeth. She hated winds like this. They always tricked her into believing that Jack was coming. As the champion of Njord, he’d had command of the winds, and his arrivals were always blustery at best. Older now, Quincy was certain that her father needn’t have arrived on such explosive winds, but Jack was a show-off by nature, and loved flaunting his power even when unnecessary.
Arrogant git, she thought with curled lip.
The wind died down.
With hands tight around her lightning staff, the woman turned and motioned for Elmiryn and Nyx to come near. As they approached, Quincy crouched. They did the same.
She asked in a low voice, “Do you two know where we are?”
Nyx shook her head, but Elmiryn nodded, a solemn look over face. “We’re far south of Gamath. I’ve passed this area before, but never ventured into it.”
“Then you know the precarious situation we’re in?” Quincy glanced at Nyx pointedly.
“Would someone like to clue me in?” The girl hissed, clearly vexed by their reticence.
Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck. “Nyx…you must know about this continent front to back from your reading. Tell me, who resides in the southeastern lands of the Sibesona?”
The girl didn’t even need to think about it. Her face blanched. “Oh no…” she moaned.
Elmiryn nodded. “Lycans.”
“As I’m sure you all know, therians are spiritual beings,” Sedwick said, drawing their attention. He had crouched behind them, as well, his eyes narrowed at the forest. “That means, unlike some of the humans we’ve encountered, they’ll be able to sense us. Touch us.”
“How can that be?” Elmiryn asked.
Quincy swept her hair back with a sigh. “Unlike other therians who appoint shamans, priests, and healers to take care of the deeper matters of the spirit world, Lycans train all their young in the ways of communicating and interacting with the spirits. They also practice primitivism, believing that some of the newer technologies, like guns, and even swords, diminish their connection with the land. Because of their staunch devotion, they hold the favor of some benevolent beings. Powerful beings. Forest nymphs, air spirits, earth trolls…”
“It’s why the Fiamman kingdom hasn’t tried edging them out yet,” Elmiryn said. “They have greater numbers than the Ailuran Nation, and they have powerful magic on their side. Their knowledge of the land would’ve put the king’s army at a great disadvantage.”
“So we were the easier target?” Nyx asked, her brow furrowed.
The warrior shrugged, unapologetic. “Yes.” She looked to Sedwick next. “Is it true that Lycans hunt spirits? That they can kill and eat them?”
Quincy puckered her lips and looked at the man too. Sedwick scratched at his scar. “It’s true that they can kill spirits, but I doubt they eat them. I’ve only interacted with them a little since becoming an elemental, and most of everything else I know is hearsay from the spirits traveling. They’re a secretive lot.”
“Well, what do we do here? What are we searching for?” the wizard said.
Elmiryn tilted her head back and took a deep breath. “This is the fourth path. Air.” She looked at Quincy, then Nyx. “Go on. What does air represent in our world?”
Nyx looked up in thought. The brunette frowned, but turned her eyes down to think as well.
She thought of the way dandelions flew with the breeze, the way a first breath after a long dive restored vitality, the way the world was shifted by the phantom hands of gusts…
She thought of Jack, holding her as a child, doing cartwheels through the sky. She thought of how they cut through clouds, startled birds, and tore through the skies at high speeds with nothing to stop them. Jack’s laughter mingling with hers. The wind roaring. Knowing that they could stay up in the sky for as long as they wanted, and often did.
Quincy hadn’t realized she’d closed her eyes, but judging by everyone’s looks, she’d been silent for sometime.
Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at her. “Well? I thought you knew a bit about this sort of thing? Or are you a two-bit hack who just pretends to know?”
The wizard narrowed her eyes and rubbed at her staff vigorously, making her hand tingle from the trade in energy. Then, without a word, she reached over and tapped Elmiryn’s hand.
The woman gave a jerk and let loose a sharp curse. “You shocked me!” she exclaimed.
“I didn’t think anything could shock you, given your appalling history.” The wizard held up her hand as the warrior started with her retort. “You want to know about the significance of air? Well I can tell you. I’m certain, given that we’re following your spiritual path, that the western symbolism applies here. It’s simple. Air signifies freedom. Change.”
“Powerful inner strength,” Nyx added.
Sedwick nodded, rubbing his chin. “We’re in one of the last remaining untouched resources of the Sibesona. No industrialism, no destructive magic users, nothing outside of nature. Dense forests for miles around, with clear and hilly plains to the far south. The air here is clean and pure, rivaling those of the mountains…”
Nyx bit her lip and looked to the forest. “And the Lycans. They are shapeshifters. Spiritually powerful. They are the guardians of this free place and exhibit that same innate fortitude.”
Elmiryn stood suddenly, and they all looked at her.
“So instead of avoiding the Lycans, we should be finding them,” she said.
“That’s assuming they haven’t already found you,” a new voice answered.
Elmiryn stiffened and slowly turned, one hand going to her sword. Quincy cursed, jumping to her feet with staff held at the ready. Sedwick and Nyx did much the same.
Standing behind them were ten men, all dressed in a similar grassy camouflage blanket that shadowed their faces and stretched down to brush their ankles. Their bodies were painted with a strange dark grease. They lacked in clothes save for simple cloths to conceal their manhoods. Each was equipped with two spears–one long, one short. One for throwing, the other for fighting. Their forms seemed to waver at the edges, and their color seemed dull…but these were not phantoms. These men were very solid, and none looked pleased.
One of them stepped forward and pulled the blanket from his head, revealing a short crop of black hair and coal gray eyes. He had a gentle slope to his jaw and a large aquiline nose. His brow was bunched as he jerked his head toward the forest.
“Let’s go tkelechog, before death finds you as well.”