The situation was seized when Hakeem and I restrained Bronislav. The nature spirit seemed almost skeletal now, with his cheeks and eyes sunken in, and his grassy hair hanging limp and colorless. Without his well of energy to draw from, the spirit withered further, even as I tied some of the rope Quincy lent me around his chest, arms, and legs. Elmiryn recovered last from the lightning blast, and she was none too happy about it.
“The fuck was that…?” She slurred, her body still trying to keep itself steady even as she knelt on the ground.
“Lightning. From Quincy’s staff,” I answered as I crouched by her. “Are you okay?”
She looked at me, her face still twitching on a minute level, and I could see in her eyes just how much charity she was going to spare anyone who so much as pushed her a little bit. “No, kitten. I am not.”
Her head turned and she fixed her irate stare on Quincy, who was, at the present moment, happily cutting away at Bronislav’s meager clothing.
“Quincy,” Elmiryn said in that iron voice that made my heart jump. “Do you make a point of not giving a shit about the people around you, or are you just that thick?”
The wizard paused in her work, scraps of cloth in her hand as she slowly met the warrior’s gaze. “It was an accident. I wasn’t thinking.”
“So that makes it okay?”
“I’m sorry, all right? Hakeem was in danger!”
“You didn’t even know in what capacity, and yet you were just fine with blasting Nyx and me with your hocus pocus, huh?”
“When a god says my husband could die, I listen.”
“You’re eager to see our pact over aren’t you? You want me to draw on you now, you fucking klutz!?”
“Why are you yelling at me? I already told you, I didn’t mean–”
“The fuck with what you didn’t mean, you could’ve killed us!” Then suddenly Elmiryn pitched forward, clutching at her chest. “Nrrrgh!”
I grabbed her around the shoulders. “Elle? What is it!?”
“Her heart,” Lacertli hissed in my ear.
I looked at him. Since the start of the fight, I’d forgotten he was even there. Or…no. Perhaps not forgotten. Because it hadn’t felt like he was there. It were as though he vanished, then reappeared, right back onto my shoulder. I suppose even a god doesn’t care to be struck with lightning, then thrown to the ground.
“He’s right,” Hakeem said over us. I looked over at him next.
The Fanaean wizard was sitting on the forest floor, patiently waiting for his wife to finish her work with the cloth scraps so that he could cover his naked body. While he sat loosely holding his knees, he made no greater attempt at concealing himself. In strange turns, his lack of humiliation made the situation less mortifying, and I was able to look at his face without blushing too much. If I could trick my mind into believing it, then Hakeem would be like any Ailuran male before or after a transformation.
That thought made me feel a lot better.
“Elmiryn’s heart has been through a lot recently, Nyx,” the man said. “Between her confrontation with Artemis, and her recent binge drinking, I’m afraid the risk of dying from heart failure is much greater now.” His face, now once more an adult’s, no longer conspicuously displayed his emotions. But I had grown accustomed to his features enough to suspect a hint of apology in his countenance.
“So the lightning…” I breathed.
“She should be careful,” he finished with a nod.
“What are you two saying?” Elmiryn snapped.
She shifted and raised her head, forcing me to pull away. Her face was tight with discomfort, but her bright eyes shone with determination. I wasn’t sure of it, but the colors that draped her skin seemed to glow brighter somehow.
“I can’t take it easy. Who the hell can take it easy in a place like this? We’re about to come to a swarm of monsters, and you want me to take it easy? Should I lay down for a massage, too?”
My eyes narrowed. “Elmiryn why do you insist on pushing things so far?”
“Pushing things how far? To where it needs to go? For all we know Syria could be right around the corner, and damned if I’m just gonna sit on my ass because mud boy here says my heart can’t take it!”
Quincy threw the cloth she had collected to the ground and stomped over Bronislav’s prone body. “Don’t call him that!” she shouted.
“Elle, you’re going too far!” I added.
Elmiryn glared at me, then up at the brunette. “None of you have any idea what I’m capable of. Not a single clue!” Then in one explosive motion, she bounded to her feet and drew her sword. She only stumbled a few steps, her eyes rolling briefly before she managed to settle into her stance.
I stumbled back, my hands up, my eyes, wide. Quincy’s staff appeared in her hands with a flash, her face contorted in anger. Hakeem had risen to his feet as well, a dark expression on his face.
We seemed to hang there, suspended in time, everyone waiting for that flinty move that would spark the next sequence of events. Sweat rolled over my pulsing temple. I could feel a massive headache coming on. Why did things have to be this way? Why couldn’t we all just work together and get free of this nightmarish half-world? Was it really just Elmiryn, or was it all of us failing to control our urges?
I would feel the same… I heard Kali grumble deep within.
The exchange that followed was faster than normal speech, less because we were talking quickly, and more because we simply understood the other’s wordless intent. This was the first time since I had been reunited with my Twin that I had felt so close in thought with her.
What do you mean?
I mean the way Elmiryn is behaving now…I understand it.
Why? I don’t!
Nyx…perhaps you don’t understand this feeling because you have always been reliant on yourself.
That doesn’t make any sense. I’m weak, and Elmiryn is the most independent person I know!
I…Yes! Of course!
Let’s see. A woman who, since childhood, had her life planned for her by her father. A woman who worshipped the gods and trusted them to aid her in her road to greatness. A woman who relied on her fellow soldiers to keep her alive when facing down terrible threats. A woman who yearned for company so badly that she took an Ailuran outcast as her ward, despite the fact that she had been at war with the Ailurans for much of her adult life.
That…It doesn’t mean–
Elmiryn may be strong, and she may be capable, but she is NOT self-reliant. Since this whole mess has started, she has been forced to depend on people she hardly knows in very uncertain circumstances. That’s stressful enough. Now, after having everything she ever depended on taken from her–the gods, her family, her soldiers–add in Quincy risking not just HER life, but yours. You are the one person that has reliantly stuck with her since first meeting. I’d say, I’d be rather angry. I’d say, I might even be a little frightened. I can understand these things, sister, because I too have spent much of my life reliant on someone else. The very same person Elmiryn cares for, in fact. You.
And time suddenly came crashing back around me.
Elmiryn let out a low roar and dashed forward. Quincy brought her staff to bear, ready to block the woman’s attack. I was stuck, rooted to the spot for my sudden revelations.
But what happened next was not what either of us were expecting.
Instead of cutting at the wizard, as I’d thought she would, Elmiryn pushed at Quincy’s staff with the flat of her blade, forcing the brunette to correct her balance. Taking advantage of this, the redhead side-stepped the woman and did a quick spin, her blade swinging.
It slammed into Bronislav’s skull, splitting it cleanly down to the base of the neck.
The spirit made no sound or indication that he saw his end coming. There was just his brutal end, marked with a loud wet crunch. I let out a cry, my hands going to my mouth. Quincy sputtered as she stared from Elmiryn to the sword and back. Hakeem…just stood there, his eyes narrowed. I suppose there would be no love lost there, considering Bronislav had tried to consume his age.
Still gripping her sword, Elmiryn slowly turned her gaze toward me. At first I thought she was looking at me, and then I realized Lacertli was her focus of attention.
“This is what you wanted…right?” she panted.
Lacertli’s black tongue flickered out once, before he gave a small nod. “Yes.”
Elmiryn returned the nod, her lips pressed into a thin line. Turning her attention back to Bronislav, she ripped the blade out from the nature spirit’s corpse, then reached down into the gaping cavity that was his head. Ripping one half to the side, Elmiryn dug her hand in deeper, the wet sound of blood and organs telling me that she was really rummaging around inside. I felt sick, and I couldn’t help but remember my battle with the black nymphs and their monstrosity, their body parts littering the ground in so many disgusting pieces.
Stop thinking about that! Now you’re going to make ME sick! Kali complained.
“Elmiryn, what the hell are you doing?” Quincy asked sharply. She still hadn’t put her staff away, and I looked at her warily.
The redhead didn’t answer until she pulled her hand free of Bronislav’s corpse. Gripped in her hand was a dark object–too small and perfectly round to be any organ I recognized.
“While I find it bothersome in the manner with which ye discovered this seed, I shall yield that it makes for a much more expedient end to this trouble,” Lacertli hissed.
“I could feel it,” Elmiryn said, holding the ‘seed’ up close to her face. “Inside of Bronislav. I knew it was there because it reminded me of my own.” She looked down at her chest, then back up at the seed, blank faced. I shivered at her sudden lack of emotion. “It’s different from mine, though…”
“Tis natural, and of good make, that is why.” The god turned his head toward me. “She must plant the seed, so that a guardian may be born anew.”
“Will this repay my family debt?” Elmiryn asked, clutching the seed close to her now. A small frown had appeared on her brow.
Lacertli looked at her. “When light and dark is once again in Harmony, then shall thy family regain a level of honor.”
“It would take a lot more than this to get us back on track, wouldn’t it?” The woman muttered.
“Such is the debt, such is the payment. Bronislav’s debt has been collected. Now let his successor take on the task of restoration.”
She considered him for a moment. Then she said something that nearly made me faint.
She relished the looks of astonishment on everyone’s faces. Quincy looked like she had just swallowed a bug, the way her lips screwed up and her eyes popped. Hakeem’s mouth dropped, his brows knitting together. Nyx looked ill, her skin paled and her posture weakened to the point that the warrior was certain a breeze could blow her over. And Lacertli…?
His golden yellow eyes blinked once before he grumbled and laid his head on the Ailuran’s shoulder as if to take a nap.
Elmiryn pouted. “Really? That’s all you’re going to do?”
Lacertli didn’t raise his head. “This god does not take to childish games, Fiamman. Plant the seed. My patience grows short.”
The woman rolled her eyes and cleaned her sword’s blade on the grass. After sheathing it, she searched for an adequate spot on the ground. Meanwhile, her companions cursed at her.
“Halward help you, FIamman, you are such an idiot!”
“Mkundu, bote swaini!”
“Elle that was completely unnecessary!”
And so on, and so forth. It was all just so much noise to Elmiryn. She spared them an unconcerned shrug and knelt down at a spot she felt adequate to begin digging. As her fingers plunged into the soft soil, her mind tickled, and she froze, her spine straightening.
Thou art testing thy limits.
Lacertli. The woman smirked but the expression lacked real mirth. She didn’t like it when Meznik invaded her mind, why would she like it any more when a god did it?
I just wanted to see if I could say ‘no,’ even if I didn’t mean it. She replied inwardly.
Are ye satisfied?
Then why play that game?
Better question–why not?
Elmiryn dropped the seed into the little hole she made and pulled the soil back in. After she patted it down, she stood and turned around.
“All right. I buried the seed. Now wha–”
Behind her, she felt a swift boom that knocked her forward a few steps. Dirt and rock pelted her back and rained on her head and shoulders. Stammering, she moved to draw her sword again when she turned and saw what had made the ground explode as it did.
A small child-like creature, with long skinny legs and arms, a perfectly round head, and leaves for hair, crawled up out of the soil, his green eyes blinking. He had the same fire in his gaze as Bronislav had, and his face was a rich blue.
Elmiryn stared. “Is that…?”
“Tis not he whom ye so quickly dispatched, but his successor. I think I shall name him…Stanislav.”
The little nature spirit blinked his small eyes and held his hands up to his face with wonder. “Stani…slav?” he whispered.
“Now wait a minute!” the woman seethed. “You knew he would come springing up from the ground like that! Why did you just let me stand there like a moron!?”
She wasn’t sure it was possible, given his inhuman face, but she could’ve sworn that Lacertli smirked at her. “As ye would put it…why not?”
Nyx giggled. Quincy crossed her arms and fixed Elmiryn with a satisfied grin. Hakeem was busy looking at his feet, but the corners of his lips were twitching. The warrior could only stand there, her mouth struggling to come up with a witty comeback when it suddenly hit her…
The fact that everyone seemed surprised by this only made her laugh harder.
“What?” She giggled out. “It was good! It was a good prank!”
She was met with exasperation.
Undeterred, Lacertli continued. “Stanislav, I am Lacertli, and under my guidance, these braves have given thee life. Henceforth thou art the guardian of the blackwood. Thy successor, Bronislav, failed in his duties by letting desperation get the better of him. All ye must remember is to trust in thyself and the ways of Harmony, and thou shalt know glory like none other!”
“This seems like a lot to put on a newborn…” Nyx mused.
Lacertli glanced at her. “As a spirit, Stanislav is born with innate knowledge from the energy he is comprised of. Only certain details need be filled, and he is ready to carry on his full duties as a guardian.”
“The woods…” Stanislav murmured, his round face frowning. “They scream! What has become of the light here?”
“Demons. Evil spirits. Search within thyself, Stanislav. Thou knowest where these interlopers carouse. Lead these braves to them, and the threat shall be removed in full, leaving you free to do thy good work!”
Stanislav’s eyes suddenly began to glow, and he nodded vigorously. “Aye, m’lord!” He looked at them all, and Elmiryn’s face twitched from the eager look on his face. What an ugly little thing.
“Come ye braves!” He exclaimed. And without warning, he turned and dashed into the woods, his arms and legs suddenly becoming whip-like vines to grab and swing on the trees. “This way!”
“Hey!” Elmiryn started, before she took off after him.
Behind her, the warrior heard her companions give chase as well, and just like that they were tearing through the blackwood after Stanislav. Elmiryn struggled to keep his little form in view as he bobbed in and out of sight. The stitch in her chest protested, and her breathing became labored. She hated this new vulnerability in her. As much as she loathed to admit it, Hakeem was right. Her body had been through much–what with the lack of sleep, the close calls, the drinking. Speaking of a drink…her mouth was parched.
They seemed to go on forever until suddenly Stanislav stopped, his form ducked low within a set of shrubs. Elmiryn only spotted him because his leafy head was raised enough so she could still see his glowing eyes. He gestured for them to come closer, and following his lead, the warrior ducked low and approached. Glancing back, she saw the others do the same.
Up ahead, there were sounds of laughter and clinking glass. A small glow weakly flowed past the black trees.
“How many are there…?” Elmiryn breathed.
“Many,” Stanislav whispered back. “You glow too much. Stay behind me and the trees.” Carefully, he began to crawl forward, and with a sigh, she followed.
The treeline thinned as they went, and within a moment they had to stop, because before them was a great field. Looming over the field was an old castle keep–the one they had spotted earlier on the other floating islands.
Elmiryn stopped short, her eyes widening. Behind her, she heard Nyx give a low whine.
Hundreds and hundreds of spirits filled the field, and each was more terrifying than the last. The woman’s eyes flickered from horror to horror, and she tried to fashion a plan to get rid of them. When getting rid of them seemed less and less likely, she started trying to think of a plan to get by them. When even that seemed unlikely, she wondered if it was possible to at least steal a drink or two.
After all, when looking at the fifteen-foot-tall monster made of nothing but eyes, or the cackling mob of shadowy spectres, or the four-legged beast with the head of a mosquito–all of a sudden, the prospect of getting drunk didn’t sound so bad.
Then Elmiryn’s eyes widened.
“That’s it!” she breathed.
“What’s it? This entire journey? Because that’s about how I feel right now,” Nyx said weakly.
“There’s so many of them out there,” Quincy breathed. “Even more than the Belcliff soldiers we fought!”
“Somehow, I think this bunch will be a tad bit more challenging than a mob of shambling undead,” Hakeem muttered darkly.
“Will you fuckers listen to me?” Elmiryn snapped. When all eyes had turned to her, she jerked her head excitedly toward the evil festivities. “An army is like any snake. Cut off the head, and the rest becomes useless!”
Nyx frowned. “I’m not following.”
“She’s saying we should kill Syria first,” Quincy explained, but by her expression, she wasn’t thrilled by the idea.
“But I thought we were going to take care of these spirits first!” Nyx exclaimed.
Elmiryn replied, “We are going to take care of them, that’ll just be the last thing on our agenda!”
Hakeem frowned at her. “By your logic, slaying Syria will weaken this mob. Many of them will flee this place entirely. The ones who remain, we can pick off when they scatter. Is that right?”
“But you’re assuming the spirits will not somehow get involved when we confront Syria!”
Elmiryn pointed up at the castle keep. “Look at that place. Its space is limited. Only a certain number of spirits can enter at any time. Plus, we’ll have the advantage by having the upper ground. We can take whatever they throw at us!”
“Still too many assumptions. The variables are not in our favor!”
“Nothing is in our favor!” She snapped. The others stared at her. Elmiryn continued, her hand gesturing out at the field. “I don’t know how many times we have all come close to death, but we got past it every time because we were determined not to fail! Yes! You’re right! There is a chance we could die! But if you let your doubts beat out your hope, then you’re only raising your chances of failure! Nothing we do in life is guaranteed. We just happen to be living an extreme example of that! But I’d have thought you people would have accepted that by now!?”
“As uplifting as your hope-filled speech is, we still need a plan of sorts, or do you think we can just wish ourselves to safety?” Quincy remarked coolly.
Elmiryn grinned. “That’s easy, wizard. Tell me, what’s your favorite color?”