That first night out in the Albian snow passed with little event. Whatever Quincy said to Paulo, they seemed to agree to set it aside until we could escape the Other Place. But after the following day came and went, then the one after that, and the one after that… The prospect of escape seemed to dwindle away. Paulo’s resignation started to feel infectious, and his avoidance of us understandable. Lethia was quick to succumb to her melancholy. As Lacertli’s champion, I felt duty-bound to keep trying. It helped that I was also desperate to find a way to escape my company. Lethia’s moping alone made the cold that much more unbearable. Quincy fought alongside me, searching the snowdrifts and attempting spells, but her presence was grating, and her frustration over our plight was palpable.
The brunette was driven by her need to save Hakeem, who remained in a coma. The wizard man lay wrapped in daesce skins near the fire where we fed him small amounts of clean snow in a feeble attempt to keep him hydrated. If he didn’t wake soon, it wouldn’t matter. He’d die of starvation. Quincy clung to a sort of stubborn hope over Hakeem’s survival, and I found myself envious of her dedication to her spouse. My chest felt devoid of those feelings, and I missed them.
When I found a moment to myself, I would sit and wonder where Elmiryn had gone, why she hadn’t found us yet, why I expected different from her. The Other Place gave me no stars to count–the stars that Elmiryn had promised me in her arrogance. I wished she were there with me, but my feelings were clouded with complications.
As if the rest of my life were any less complicated.
Lacertli did not speak to me much in those days. Sometimes I could see golden eyes blinking at me from the shadows, but my patron remained silent. I knew what he expected of me. Survival. For that, I knew I had graduated from his terse guidance. I was restless without it, but I tried to stay in the present, as he would’ve wanted. I just wish the present didn’t feel as suffocating as it did.
Why couldn’t anyone see that what we needed to do was to move camp? When I suggested this tactic, I was met with heavy resistance. The excuses ranged from Hakeem’s coma, to the treacherousness of the mountains, to the lack of resources away from Holzoff’s. Still, I felt it was entirely possible that Paulo could have missed something in his time searching here. The Albian mountains seemed to specialize in the hidden, and maybe something had changed? It felt appropriate that the Other Place would change with time.
On the fourth night, I trudged my way back up the snowy hill from the daesce valley. It was a horrible, treacherous place, but if we were lucky, sometimes we could find salvageable supplies. The daesce weren’t good for a food source–eating their tainted flesh would make us sick–but they were good for their hides, and their teeth and claws could be used to fashion tools and traps. These were things Paulo showed us in our first days on the shard. In the long frozen time that he had spent in that frigid place, he had grown into a strong and capable survivalist. Gone was the whiny teenage boy I had met, though his surliness lingered, dark like charcoal in the magicked flames that had scarred him.
Now and again, I’d catch him glaring after Lethia. For the most part, the pair avoided each other, but now and again, Paulo would spare a barbed comment. The enchantress took his withering animosity, and I could see the penance in her face. I did not feel sorry for her. Intellectually I knew my hatred for the girl was misguided, but it was like a compulsion that kept spinning me in circles. Sometimes I hated being so self-aware. The only way I could separate the nature of my persistent anger from that of Paulo’s was in believing this: While I was certain that Lethia’s part in Paulo’s disfigurement was completely coerced, I could not say the same for the fate I suffered under the girl’s powers and Izma’s will.
The more I lingered on this reasoning, the more suspicious I became.
So when I made my way back to our humble camp, I focused on Lethia and said, “Artaud, it’s been five days and four nights. As the only one of us who could sense the Gates, you said you’d find a new way out. Why haven’t you found something yet?”
She didn’t respond. Argos, his loyalty to his owner regained, stayed faithfully by her side as she stared into the campfire, waiting for the flames to wane before she added more wood. That was the most use she had been to us. In her sleeplessness, Lethia tended the flames that kept us alive while we toiled for an escape. This didn’t foster a great deal of gratitude in me, however. It was a far easier job staying near the warmth of the campfire then risking your life out in the dark cold where the monsters lurked.
Grinding my teeth, I crossed the distance between us in large strides and loomed over her. “Don’t ignore me, Lethia!”
“Nice to see you managing your newfound malice, Nyx,” Quincy said behind me. I turned to see her trudging through the snow, a dark look on her face. “Harassing the girl won’t make her any more productive,” the wizard finished. She must’ve finished her usual rounds, checking her magical wards and performing divination. At this point, I was prepared to say her efforts were worth about as much as Lethia’s.
“She isn’t being productive at all!” I growled in response. My scorching eyes turned back on Lethia, who still refused to look up.
“And I suppose acting bratty is better?”
My glare turned back on the wizard. “I’m only stating the truth.”
Quincy held up her hands and sidled past me, her eyes already on Hakeem wrapped up in daesce furs on Lethia’s other side. I pursed my lips and took a seat on the other side of the fire, across from them both. Paulo was absent from the camp and would not return for a few more hours, I guessed. That boy seemed to lose himself in the Albian wilds. I didn’t blame him, though. With us for company, who would want to stick around much? At least half of us were the reason Paulo had been trapped here to begin with.
Then Lethia mumbled something.
It was the first I’d heard her speak in days since arriving, and even Argos perked his head up in what seemed surprise.
Quincy paused in her hydration of Hakeem to turn and stare at the enchantress next to her. “Did you say something, Artaud?”
Lethia paled in the firelight and I could see her visibly shrink into herself, as if she were hoping Argos’s fur could just swallow her out of sight. I rose to my knees to better be seen over the licking flames of the campfire.
“Lethia, what did you say?” I demanded.
She looked at me, like a whipped child. Her eyes were ruddy and raw, her nose a deep pink.
“…North,” Lethia rasped.
“North?” I frowned and looked at Quincy, who shrugged at me. I turned a glare back on Lethia. “What is north?”
The girl bit her lip as if to keep the words from coming out. My eyes slowly widened. “Do you mean you’ve sensed a way out of here!?”
Again, another moment of silence.
“Well, answer!” Quincy barked.
Lethia looked between us meekly. “I may have.”
“What do you mean, ‘may have?’” I pressed.
“If what I sense is truly a gate… Then…”
Paulo’s booming voice cut her off, and like a snail, she retreated into her shell.
“I have dinner!” Paulo said as he came up with what looked like two thin rabbits gripped in one hand. “Finally, my snares worked!” This was the most upbeat I’d ever seen him. He had a crooked grin and a slight spring in his step, even.
“Lethia may have sensed a way out,” I said quickly.
This made the boy freeze, and his victorious smirk faded from his face. He turned and gazed at Lethia intensely. “Is this true?”
As I stated before, Paulo and Lethia had avoided addressing one another. It wasn’t the accounts we told him of what had happened to us since coming to the Other Place, or even something the two teens had spoken of together. They mostly just pretended the other didn’t exist, a peculiar social dance that both amazed and unsettled me. I would have thought, of all people, that Paulo would be angriest with Lethia for her part in his mutilation and his brother’s death. Instead, he was simply coldly indifferent to her presence, even his occasional harsh comments, usually shot off when the girl was in his way somehow, seemed hesitant. It were as if he hoped his refusal to acknowledge her would make her go away.
Now, seeing the two lock eyes felt like almost as big an event as Lethia talking after days of silence.
“I don’t want to say for certain,” the girl mumbled, breaking eye contact first.
“I don’t care how you say it, just say it!” He snapped.
“The north!” Lethia spat, suddenly glaring up at him. “I sense something to the north, all right?”
At this the boy, took a step back, his eyes widening. “You’re mistaken,” he murmured. “You have to be!”
“You’ve felt it, too! I know you have!”
“But it can’t be there!”
“Believe me, I don’t want it to be there, but–”
“Where!?” I shouted. “Sweet Aelurus, you two keep speaking in circles!”
“Syria’s tower!” Lethia cried out at me. “I sense that a gate may lie somewhere in the direction of Syria’s tower.”
Silence fell over us all.
Then Quincy snarled, “You knew this whole time, didn’t you?” She looked at Paulo next. “Both of you!”
But my eyes lingered on Paulo as something gnawed at me. “Lethia said you sensed it, too… But how could you?”
Paulo’s face hardened and I could see a dangerous look in his eyes, but I didn’t care. I rose to my feet slowly, taking his measure, thinking to myself, I could expect Lethia to be too weak to want to face her old home, but Paulo has no excuse!
“He’s an enchanter, like me,” Lethia said quietly.
Paulo was quick to close the distance between them and slap her. Argos rose, snapping and snarling, but with his companion retreating into his side, he could not act as he wished to.
So Quincy did it for him.
She punched the boy straight in the face. To his credit, Paulo did not fall, though he stumbled back a few steps in the snow.
“So long as we travel together,” the wizard seethed, “I will not suffer such conduct from you! Your brothers raised you better than that!”
“It’s just too bad you broke up my family, isn’t it?” Paulo returned hotly. He spat on the snow and crimson stained the white.
This cooled Quincy’s ire, but I could see her stance had not relaxed. She stood strong between Paulo and Lethia, and said, “I should’ve seen it… You were always sensitive to changes in the air.”
“I’m not an enchanter,” Paulo hissed. He pointed angrily at Lethia. “She’s lying!”
“Then why can you sense the same things she does?” I questioned. Then my eyes widened. “Gods… This whole time, you’ve been reading each other! That’s why you never spoke to one another! You could already hear what the other was thinking!”
Lethia flinched as if I’d threatened her. Paulo’s cold fury gained some heat as I could see his warm skin flush hot.
“Lies!” he shouted.
But it made so much sense. The pair’s odd behavior was tense, to be certain, but their refusal to address the other’s presence spoke of something deeper. A sort of fear? What did it feel like to have another enchanter around anyway? They were so busy building walls around their minds that neither stopped to really think of the true implications of the situation. The danger of it even.
I had read accounts, in my voracious reading as a youth, of enchanters going insane when not properly trained. Complications with the function of the mind and brain was inevitable, but to have a young enchanter lose control in their ignorance not only had risks for them, but for the people around them too. Had Paulo heard our thoughts without meaning to? Was that the real reason he avoided our company?
Quincy tutted at the boy’s protests. “Stop denying it! You’re an enchanter whether you like it or not! It’s bad enough you’re a late bloomer, but now we have to find you an enchanting master before you melt your brain in your obstinacy!”
“I’m not an enchanter,” Paulo argued stubbornly. He threw the rabbits down. “And I’m not going to Syria’s tower! I’m never going to that cursed place!”
He turned and stormed off, back toward the daesce valley. Quincy started to follow him.
“Paulo! Paulo!” she called.
“Leave him,” I said wearily.
I sat back onto the snow and buried my face in my hands. Paulo an enchanter. Lethia lying to us about sensing the gate. Clearly I had not done a good enough job of being focused on the present. I was too wrapped up in my frustration and loneliness. I could practically feel Lacertli’s stern eyes on me from heaven for my failure.
“He’ll get himself killed,” Quincy murmured, returning to Hakeem.
“He’s survived this long without us, I’m sure he’ll be fine,” I replied with a sigh.
My eyes flickered to Lethia, who still hadn’t emerged from the folds of Argos’s fur. The dog licked anxiously at the exposed skin of her neck, trying to offer her comfort.
I rubbed my chin. “We should leave as soon as possible. With or without Paulo.”
“I’m not leaving him,” Quincy said without looking up. She was once again trying to feed Hakeem clean snow.
“Then stay here,” I snapped. “I am tired of this Other Place and I won’t remain trapped by it any longer!”
“Ailuran don’t talk to me of exhaustion,” Quincy uttered ominously, her head turning just enough to let her eyes cut across at me.
“Paulo will come,” Lethia mumbled.
We both looked at her in surprise. Sniffling, she emerged from Argos’s side enough to glance at us both meekly.
I crossed my arms. “And what will persuade him to come so quickly?”
The young enchantress tucked a lock of wavy hair behind her ear and bit her lip.
“Me,” she said with a weak shrug.