Chapter 28.1

HAKEEM_________________________

If he traced the ways of his life with a finger, he was certain it would be as a river, branching off in wild directions, untamed save for the pull of the universe.  At the beginning, the line would be straight and singular and bold, entertaining no splits in motive or consequence.  But upon the moment he became a true wizard, upon the moment he gained his temporal chain mail, that all changed.  Suddenly it was a series of decisions and resets that cut across his existence like claws, telling him he was never going to get it right the first time.

…And yet, amidst the struggle, there was always that glow.  That pull of light that kept things going.

He could feel his wife’s presence at his side.

But this wasn’t the time for inward musing.  The wizard returned his attention to the matters at hand.

They took Nyx back to the hut Hakeem had been using.  Sedwick carried the young Ailuran, her head lolling in the crook of his arm.  Her eyes were shut and her expression lax, void of that fury that had so gripped her not long ago.  Void of that need to save her friend.  No…her lover.  He could hear it in the girl’s voice, as if she were clearly saying it herself. His ears had turned warm, tickled by a knowing that spoke of something…lacedwith power.

Given all this, he could understand the girl’s reaction upon seeing Halian shapeshift.  If it were Quincy in the ring, left with nothing but her fists and her wits, he’d be running in there himself, Lycan tradition or no.  But Elmiryn had managed to defend herself until the last.  She seemed to use a sort of force to keep Halian back.  Whatever the warrior had done, Hakeem sensed no magic…or at least, none that he had been trained to notice.

More and more, Nyx and Elmiryn were proving quite a strange pair.

The man-boy led them through the village with his wife at his side, the elemental trailing behind them.  The Lycans were slow to disperse, but there were some that had taken to following them at a distance.  They whispered excitedly, their eyes wide.  It was Elmiryn who had won the battle, but it was the group of outsiders who had collectively rocked the village.  The news would no doubt spread to the neighboring villages of the redheaded warrior who stood toe-to-toe with one of their best, and her bizarre group of comrades.

Comrades…was that what they were now?

Hakeem had in fact noticed an odd sort of connection, particularly between Elmiryn, Quincy, and Sedwick.  It wasn’t perfect and by no means smooth, but it followed a pattern of exchange that gave each person a defined role.  The clash he’d seen was not new to them.  But Nyx was not yet a part of this dynamic, and her presence seemed to add a new level of complication to the dynamic.

It was no secret that the Ailuran didn’t like Quincy.  While he would have defended his wife to the death, the wizard also knew when the woman stuck her foot in her mouth.  It was an old trait from her youth, and seeing it again had, in a bizarre turn, made him even more grateful to the others.  They were reawakening the woman he had originally fallen in love with.

If only he could turn back time enough to undo his loss in age.

In his new state of youth, Hakeem found that he could not use his arcane armor.  In order to go back in time, he had to be able to assume that particular place in time. If he was restrained, if he was missing limbs, if he was in a drastically different state of health—then that place in time would reject him.  The wizard didn’t just go back to that time period as a future self versus his past self.  He became his past self, preserving the continuum of time whilst accomplishing what many only dreamed of doing.  As a child, he could not assume the role of a man.  He was a different person, and felt that acutely.

His time with the Lycans had given him something, and he was hard pressed to give it back.  People could be trusted, even the thorniest and the wild of them, and he meant to show his gratitude in as many ways as he could.

And yet there were present obstacles that still needed addressing.

“I worry for your friend.  Artemis’s attention does not come lightly,” Hakeem said.

“She’s a thick skin,” Sedwick said from behind.  “If she just keeps her tongue from escaping her, then she’ll be fine.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Quincy muttered.

“There’s not much we can do, anyway…” The elemental sighed.

It was true, so Hakeem moved on.

The wizard looked at his wife and said in Fanaean, “You seem out of sorts.”

Quincy looked dolefully at the sky.  “I miss the suns,” she said in his native tongue. “This Other Place keeps them hidden from us.”

“Maybe we just need to look harder.”

“My eyes are tired from searching.”

Hakeem reached out and brushed the back of his hand against hers.  She looked at him, her azure eyes alight, and he smiled.  “You have their brilliance inside you, Mweze.”

“Then perhaps I should remove myself, lest I scorch the goodwill about us.”

“You’re talking of the little spat you had?”

The wizard sucked at her teeth, a sour look coming over her features. “I’ll not apologize.  It was something that needed saying.”

“I was not going to ask for that.  I’d just like to know how you feel about it.  It seems to have upset you in ways beyond the issue at hand.”

Quincy glanced back at Sedwick, and Hakeem did the same.  The elemental locked eyes with them and spared a small smile before looking away.  His wife returned her gaze to him, her lips turned down at the corners.  “I always thought queer folk to be…strange, in a discomforting way,” she muttered out of the corner of her mouth.  She shrugged.  “In the end, I find it doesn’t bother me quite as much as I’d thought.  I don’t feel like shouting them down, anyway.  But…it still isn’t normal, is it?  It seems the thorniest way to love.” Now she blushed, crossing her arms and pouting a lip.  She debated what to say next, then started in suddenly with, “Elmiryn is a mama’s girl, like any other Sibesonan.  But say one foul thing against her mother, and she doesn’t just get mad, she gets practically murderous.”

When the woman didn’t continue, Hakeem prodded her gently.  “Mweze?”

Quincy released a breath of air she’d been holding.  She rubbed her brow and looked at Hakeem sidelong.  “That anger?  I felt it again after speaking to Nyx as I did.  Either the warrior is just really infatuated, or I’ve misread things.”

Hakeem chuckled.  “Quincy, you can only garner so much watching others from afar.  I’ve been trying to tell you that for years.”

The woman’s pout increased.  “I’m pretty good at it…” she mumbled.

The man-boy shrugged.  “Your insight has afforded you a view that others so close may not have seen, but now that you yourself are close to the people you observe, maybe you should consider switching your tactics?”  He looked at her, a glint of mischief in his eyes. “Perhaps by first gaining some.”

She huffed, swatting at his shoulder.  “I have tact!  I have all the tact in the world!”

Hakeem just laughed, letting the sound go unrestrained so that it reached up into the skies.

Quincy pointed a punitive finger his way.  “I think this new state has warped your senses!”

The wizard just smirked at her.  “You mean, I’m acting like a child.”

The woman blushed a deep red. “Th-That wasn’t what–”

“Mweze.  Please.  For the love of the gods.  Relax.”

They were nearly there.  Perhaps they could have walked faster than the leisurely stroll they moved by, but Sedwick didn’t seem to mind.  Quincy chewed on her tongue, her gaze holding fire as she looked around at everything but Hakeem.

Suddenly, she blurt out, “I don’t hate that they’re together.”

The man-boy looked at her with brow raised, but kept silent.

The brunette continued, looking increasingly flustered. “It’s just…it’s…it’s been so long since we’ve had that.  Why should they, with their backwards love, have it better than us?  I guess I just wanted to start some waves.”

“Mweze, as Sedwick said, your point was valid.  It was your motive and approach that was wrong.  If you know now that you were speaking out of envy, then perhaps that is something to look out for in the future.”

She sighed and nodded.  “You’re right.  I’ve been having trouble getting too emotional about things, and now I’m letting those feelings rule me.”  Quincy rubbed at her face.  “After Tonatiuh went, it was like…a fire had been growing inside me, and I hadn’t even been aware of it.”

“Then I will battle the flames with you, Mweze.”

She said nothing to this, and the wizard left her to her musings.

They came to the hut, and Sedwick laid Nyx down on the blankets.  The elemental turned to them as he straightened.

“She won’t be happy when she wakes,” he said quietly.

Quincy rolled her eyes. “She’ll get over it.  Elmiryn isn’t dead, that lucky idiot.”

As they exited the hut, Hakeem asked, “Can someone please explain to me what’s going on with those two women?  Nyx has something strange in her voice, and Elmiryn can apparently create barriers out of nothing.”

The others exchanged looks.  Quincy looked at him tiredly.  “Do you want the long, or the short version?”

“Short version, I suppose.”

“Too bad,” The woman said with a dry laugh. “There is no such thing!”

ELMIRYN________________________

Divine intervention was one of the things Elmiryn never thought she’d see…and yet, wasn’t that exactly what had happened?

There, in her billowy shroud, standing tall and ethereal with a fury too beautiful to name, was Artemis, holding back the beast that would have brought about an early death if only the incense sticks burned a little slower…

It sounded so poetic that way.  But as the warrior was scooped up like a child in the arms of the goddess, she decided that things weren’t quite so rosy.  Rolling off of the Huntress were thick waves of power, hot and disconcerting in their intensity, and flashing in the woman’s silver eyes was anything but kindness.  Elmiryn met this terrible fierceness with an ignorance she was aware of, and had no idea how to overcome.  It was as a child who met something so alien in its gravity that all one could do was wonder at the why and how of it.

With barely any effort, Artemis leapt up into the sky, and in a fashion that didn’t seem in keeping with gravity, she managed to slip in through the window of the tree house with barely a startled hair.  Elmiryn’s stomach lurched in her gut.

They are alien.

The gods, I mean.

Meznik’s melodic voice came in softer than usual, and the warrior thought it had something to do with caution.  Could the demon really avoid the attention of an almighty god?

That is why you feel as you do.

To understand them, is to be them.

Artemis set her down on the floor and resumed her perch gazing out at the forests.  Her eyes were narrowed now, her hand concealing half her face as she thought.

They like to pretend they know everything,

But omnipotence is overrated.

So let’s keep our little mysteries, hmm?

Let’s not be understood.

Elmiryn’s brow tightened, and she wanted to respond, but the opportunity slipped by like quicksilver.

“I’ve been aware of thy…troubles.”  Artemis said, her voice low.  She still didn’t turn her gaze.  “I know thy mind has always been a bizarre font of ideas, and likewise, thy spirit has always been a thing of curiosity…” Finally the goddess turned, her gaze searing.  “Yet what I have just seen is outside of the Way that governs the world.”

Elmiryn moved to raise herself from the floor, intent on looking the deity in the face, but found the weakness in her arms was too great.  The action seemed to disagree with her new intake of wine, the drink turning rotten in her veins and stomach.  Her left eye had swollen more, forcing it into a squint, and her lower lip was cut and swelling now as well.  Her head throbbed in a dull ache, the previous pain having washed away like an ebbing tide.

The warrior crossed her arms and looked into the goddess’s eyes.  “Halian came at me with all he had.  I did the same.  I don’t see the problem.”

Within the next instant, the woman’s vision tunneled so much she was blind, pain slicing into her head, down her spine, and into her limbs.  She was on the wall, Artemis holding her up on her feet by the shoulders. “The problem, Elmiryn, is that thou seems to have a power that was not meant for thee, and yet thou uses it with little thought to consequence!”

“Little thought…to consequence…huh?” The woman panted, feeling her adrenaline kick in.  Firing under her skin was a deep animal instinct to curl up and hide, and she fought this with everything she had.  She would not curl up.  She would not apologize.  “I thought about it…plenty, Arty.  I thought about dying…before I could get the person I care about…out of here alive.” Elmiryn spared the briefest grimace before a smile blossomed across her lips.  Her vision still had yet to clear, so she stared with eyes wide, hoping some sight would tell her what to expect.  She went on, her breath returning to her, “I thought about the bitch enchantress that got us into all this mess, and how I’d like to get her head on a fucking pike.  And ya wanna know what else I thought about, when all those stupid concerns over undoing a reality I can’t even buy into anymore was bleating off in the distance?”  Elmiryn grabbed Artemis’s wrists, her body shaking.  “I thought about all those assholes sitting up in heaven who let a little girl fall to the mercy of a greedy idiot and an insane demon!”

The goddess’s face finally appeared amidst the snowy tunnel of her vision, and the warrior could see the Huntress was more than a little surprised by her audacity.  It wasn’t shock or rage that illustrated this to her.  It was the deity’s non-reaction, her blank expression, her cooled gaze.  The fire and fury had fled from her all at once.

Artemis slowly let Elmiryn go, and the warrior slid down the wall to the floor, her heart doing a marathon in her chest.

“You think so little of us…” the goddess breathed, frowning.

“I think shit of you,” Elmiryn spat.  She was surprised to find her eyes welling with tears.  Her body wracked with shivers as the need to run increased ten-fold.  The anxiety was foreign to her.  She had never known this much fear.

Artemis crouched down, her gaze now intent.  “I see thy mortal soul is still intact.  Dost thou know why thee weep?  Why thy heart palpitates with such fear?”

The warrior, still shaking, wanted to say something snide.  A rage, one she hadn’t even felt whilst facing Halian, was fighting its way up, and upon realizing she was not immediately dead, it was getting hard to stop.  She was like a child throwing a tantrum.  She hated that she kept drawing those parallels.  I’d be a terrible writer.

Yet for all the foul insults she could conjure, they all lodged in her throat.  Instead, the woman shook her head jerkily to the goddess’s question.

Artemis smiled for the first time.  “Thou art out of Harmony, and thy soul mourns the lost connection.  In fighting me as you are now, you are causing your spirit great stress.  Stop fighting nature, and thou shalt know peace again.”

“And what?  Just accept you’re always gonna rule the world?”

The goddess shook her head.  “We do not ‘rule’ the world as you say.  We are the world.  The very air you breathe.  Everything you taste, feel, touch, and see is in communion with us.  Why rail against that which provides structure in a universe of chaos?”

“Why not?  Maybe chaos is better.  At least we could build from scratch,” Elmiryn snarled, feeling the tears course down her face.  Her cheeks turned hot and her head started to pulsate with a new breed of pain from the way her sinuses strained to produce more tears.  She wiped at her face and said, “You haven’t exactly given me many reasons to feel nice.”

Artemis only raised an eyebrow.  “And by that token, neither have you.”

“So what?  Do you break out the tea and we sit and talk about our feelings?  Do you tell me what it’s like to sit on top of a world and not care about it, and I tell you what it’s like to be crushed under your fat ass?

The goddess let out a sudden laugh. “Oh, what sharp tongue!  Thou art fortunate I am the one to hear this tantrum.  Many of my brethren might not be so forgiving!”

“Fuck you,” Elmiryn bit out just before her face crumpled and she turned to the wall.  Damn it, why can’t I stop?

“I already told you why.”

Get out of my head!

“I am not in your head.  You just happen to think loudly.”

“Well pardon me…” Elmiryn covered her head with her arms.  “I…I feel like I’m six again,” she whispered, sniffling back snot.

She felt Artemis hand on her hair and peeked through her arms to see the goddess gazing at her with the same look of intent as before.  “Perhaps, thou should have been my child, instead of Halward’s.  I would not dare speak against the god king, but I cannot fathom why he would neglect such a willful thing such as yourself.”

“Luck I guess…” Elmiryn muttered.

“There is fortune, in being deemed worthy enough for challenge.”

The warrior looked at her suddenly, her good eye wide open.

Artemis tilted her head to the side, a lock of her curly dark hair slipping forward near her temple.  Her brow tightened.  “I have every reason to kill thee…” she murmured.  The goddess shook her head.  “Thou art not of my blood…and thy mouth runs a fool’s marathon.” The goddess pressed closer, and Elmiryn swallowed reflexively, feeling herself…out of herself.  She was not this person.  Or perhaps, she was not the person she imagined.  Quiet things, quiet ways, quiet realities were surfacing here, and the ignorance she had found shelter behind was crumbling.

“Yet more and more I only wish to see how much farther you would seek to run from me…” Artemis breathed, her lips brushing the woman’s ear.  “I have missed thine offerings…have ye something else to offer perhaps?  It would kill thine ails.  Free thee of the suffering you feel…”

Elmiryn’s breath caught.  She was a mortal.  Artemis was a god.

She had…

“…A song stuck in my head,” she whispered.  Elmiryn looked at the goddess sideways.  “That’s all…I have.  Everything else…is spoken for.

“You would deny me?”

“I would deny you what isn’t yours to take.”

Artemis scowled.  “If you continue this defiance, your soul will come apart, and you will cease to be.  You cannot go against heaven.”

Elmiryn leaned in close, two more tears slipping down her face as she felt a rush of cold go over her.  “I am not of heaven.  I have been torn apart and left in chaos, and I have found my way back, through no help of yours.”  She could feel the fabric of her being shudder, feel the weave strain and pull.  She dared another inch, pressing in so close that her sweaty forehead touched Artemis’s.  Her hairs stood on end from the contact, but if there was anything more to feel, her mortal senses were at their limit.  “I am not of you.  I am not beholden to you.  I just am.

“Your power is a stolen thing.”

“And where did your power come from, Arty?”

Artemis stood, glaring down at the woman.  Then her expression melted into a smile.  “Do you want to know a secret, Elmiryn?”

The warrior blinked and tried to sit up properly.  Her eyes rolled from the effort, and she settled for slumping to the floor.  “Oh.  Sure.”

“I don’t know.”

“…Dunno what?” A weight started to press on the woman’s chest and it became harder to breathe.  Elmiryn’s eyes fell closed to the sight of Artemis’s bare feet.

“Where my power comes from.”

“How’kin ya not know?” Words slurred, but it wasn’t from drink.  The woman pressed a hand to her head and said.  “I’m not…not followin’.”

Artemis’s voice started to move away from her, and when the warrior cracked her eyes open, she saw the goddess back at the window.  “My consciousness lays across worlds.  In many ways, I do not know the whole of myself–just this particular shard.  That isn’t to say I am incomplete.  I am connected with the core of my being in a place far away…but my soul is so large that it cannot reside in a single place.  So here, I rule as the Huntress, whilst elsewhere, I may be a goddess of the sea.  I have dreams of my other selves sometimes—really just flashes past my eyes because I never sleep unless I feel like it.  I am so Vast that I cannot be understood save for My permission, and the veil that holds my soul is thick indeed.  I dream…I dream of my other selves, and yet I know not of who they truly are or from whence they truly came.  So…where does my power come from, you ask?  I am Great, and Knowing, but these things I do not know.  I do not know, and that is my humblest answer.”

“Huh? Whe…nd…ga…” the words failed to form, and Elmiryn forgot what she was trying to say.  She couldn’t feel her face, her left arm, her left leg.  Her head screamed at her, and the parts she could feel tingled. “Nngh…”

She heard the sound of the trap door opening and footsteps along the wood floor.  Artemis’s voice sounded far away.

“What I have just told you would kill an ordinary man.  An extraordinary one would be driven completely insane.  Mortals cannot bear such knowledge…so if you are truly free of the domain of gods, then we shall see if you live tomorrow, let alone remember what I’ve said.” Someone picked her up.  The goddesses’s voice became a whisper in her ear as Elmiryn was carted away.

Live.  For I will treasure this hunt, as you are a prize like no other…

Continue ReadingChapter 28.1

Chapter 28.2

HAKEEM_________________________

They were outside of his borrowed hut, sitting on overturned baskets with their forms hunched toward each other as they conversed in secret.  There were enough bilingual Lycans in the village to warrant caution, and given what he’d just heard, it was not without reason.  Hakeem stared at Quincy to Sedwick and back.  He’d heard and seen a lot of things in his years (or, at the moment, lack thereof), and yet this seemed almost too much.

“Nyx is a champion?” he repeated quietly.

Quincy and Sedwick nodded mutely.

“And Elmiryn is turning into a…fae?”

Again, they nodded.

He rubbed at his face and thought.  After a moment, he leaned back and said, “The timing seems curious.”

Quincy and Sedwick exchanged confused looks.

Taika, what do you mean?” his wife asked.

He shrugged and thumbed over his shoulder at Nyx.  “I mean, doesn’t it seem a bit coincidental that both of these women seem to be ascending the average mortal station at the same time?”

They pondered on this.

“Nyx said she was the champion of Lacertli, the god of natural order.  I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with him,” Sedwick said.

“The Lizard King.” Hakeem scratched at his knee, leaving the dark skin ashy.  His companions stared at him, and he looked at them both, his finger stilling.  “What?”

You know who Lacertli is?” Quincy asked, sounding not a little surprised.

He frowned at her.  “You aren’t the only one who reads, Mweze.”

She blushed and gave him a pout. “I’m not trying to remark on your intelligence!  It just seems that no one knows who this god actually is!”

“Well, as Sedwick said, he’s the god of natural order.  Fanaeans were some of his last followers before the rise of civilization saw them doing away with the old ways.  With the advance of medicine and weapons and complex architecture, a god whose primary domain was survivability in the wild seemed less relevant.  These days, it’s easy to survive so long as you live a quiet life.  Unlike us, most people do.”

“Is there anything else you know about him?”

“Well, he’s also known as the Dreamwalker.  It’s said that survivability comes with wisdom, and wisdom is the ability to be creative and see the truth in things from different angles.  In Fanaean culture, the shadows are said to be the borders of dreams, and controlling these can lead to new realities.”

Quincy nudged Sedwick.  “I thought I saw some strange shadows across the ground when we were fighting Tonatiuh.  I couldn’t make out what they belonged to.  Was that Nyx’s doing?”

The elemental held up his hands.  “I didn’t really see either.”

Hakeem raised an eyebrow. “You two don’t know what her powers are?”

His wife screwed up her mouth.  “There was a massive battle we had not long ago.  So much was going on that it was hard to keep track of.”

The man-boy held out his hands.  “That aside, the things I’ve read about Lacertli were contained within a footnote.  But from that small paragraph, I know that he was seen as arbiter in nature’s harmony.  The fae were creatures who bit their thumbs at harmony, choosing to create their own rules out of whimsy.  If Elmiryn is truly becoming a fae, then he will want to keep a close eye on her.”

“So he chose Nyx as his champion to better position himself against Elmiryn?”

Hakeem held up a finger. “Or the one who cursed Elmiryn.”

“Meznik,” Sedwick said with a frown.

“Possibly.”

“There’s lots of possibilities, but all this conjecture hardly gives us the means to seek out the truth.”  Quincy stood with a rough sigh.  “It wouldn’t hurt to talk to Nyx about her new station.  Maybe learning about one thing will give insight to the other?  I’ve tried asking Elmiryn for answers, and yet I still feel like she isn’t being entirely forthcoming.”

“I feel the same way,” Sedwick said.  “But to be fair, maybe she doesn’t understand it entirely herself?  Her main source of information is the one who caused her misfortune to begin with.  That’s shaky grounds to trust, no matter how you look at it.”

“I hardly think he’s the cause of all of her misfortune…” Quincy muttered.

She squinted her eyes as something caught her attention down the trail.  They widened as her face went slack.  “Speaking of which…”

Hakeem and Sedwick followed her gaze to see a certain redhead being carried into Eidan’s hut.

“You don’t think Artemis…did anything to her, did she?”  Sedwick asked, looking at them all.

“Only if Elmiryn kept her mouth from escaping her,” Hakeem murmured.

They all exchanged grave looks.

Just then, the war horn sounded.  It echoed throughout the village.

Hakeem shook his head.  “Tai’undu…that’s the call for the hunt.  Everyone is going to gather at the northern part of the village.”

“What about Nyx?” Sedwick said, looking into the hut.  “She’s still out.”

Quincy rummaged through her pouch and pulled out a small vial of white smelling salts.  “These should wake her.”

“Maybe we should leave her?” Hakeem said with a frown.

His wife shook her head. “Artemis said that she’d help us leave this shard only if all of us participate in the hunt.  I’ve been given pardon as Eidan requires my assistance.  Elmiryn clearly can’t participate.  Nyx, however, has no valid reason to stay here.”

Sedwick’s brows pressed up to wrinkle his forehead. “She might not see things so reasonably, especially if she hears where Elmiryn is…”

“What if I was the one to wake her?” Hakeem said.

They both looked at him, surprised.

Quincy fidgeted uncomfortably.  “But…Taika.  If she really wanted to, she could blow right past you.”  She gestured weakly at his small form.

Hakeem shook his head. “Not if I reason with her.”

“No offense, but you don’t even know her that well,” Sedwick argued gently.  He crossed his arms.  “She’ll have only one thing on her mind.”

Hakeem nodded.  “I know.  But I’m counting on all those things.”  He jabbed his thumb at himself.  “I’m the most impartial out of all of you, and I have the least reason to want to deceive her.  If she’s really going to be so singleminded, then I can use that logic to turn her determination toward the hunt.”

A group of Lycans rushed past them, streaks of white on their faces and spears in their hands.  They bared their teeth as they passed, growling and howling.  The village became a different thing once the warriors were on the move.  The aggression that had so bubbled near the surface rose for all to see, bearing forth their ferocity.

They watched as the warriors passed.  Then Quincy sighed and tossed Hakeem the salts.  He caught them with one hand.

“I suppose you’d better get to it, Taika.  They’ll be arranging the hunting parties soon.”  She turned to Sedwick.  “Let’s get going.”

Sedwick gave a nod.  “I’ll see you when we get back.  I wanna see how Elmiryn’s doing.”

Hakeem watched as his companions went off to their respective destinations.  When they were no longer visible amidst the surge of Lycans, he looked at the salts in his hand, then the hut.

Gripping the vial, Hakeem pulled back the curtain and peeked inside.  Nyx hadn’t moved since Sedwick had first laid her down, but her chest rose in small increments.  In a way she looked almost peaceful.  It seemed cruel to launch her back into anxiety and struggle.

The wizard sat on the edge of the bed and sighed.  He fingered the vial’s cork a moment before he pulled it out.  Turning, he held the salts under the Ailuran’s nose.

Her eyelids fluttered, and in the next instant she sat up with a loud gulping breath.  She nearly knocked the vial out of Hakeem’s hands, her legs kicking as if resuming their previous struggle.  Hakeem had read that therians reacted strongly to salts because of their sensitive smell.  But given the way she clocked his ear, the texts really understated it, in his opinion.

Nyx looked wildly around her, still gasping and clutching at her chest.  Hakeem jumped away and held out his hands.

“You’re okay,” he said in what he hoped to be a soothing voice.  It occurred to him that he didn’t have much practice in that regard.  “You’re back in my hut.”

“Wh-What? But–I–” Nyx stared at him, then down at her legs.  Her hands bunched the fur blankets in white grips.  “I was…”

“The fight,” Hakeem supplied.

Fear flashed across her face.  “Elle!” she clumsily made to stand.

Hakeem grabbed her by the shoulders, pulling her back to eye level.  “Nyx, listen to me.  She’s fine.  The match ended in a stalemate.  She’s being tended to now.”

Her eyes lit up with relief, and she grabbed him by the shoulders in kind, her grip tight with the release of all her stress.  Then this look slowly melted into a hard determination.  “Well then I’ve got to see her!”

Hakeem shook his head.  “The hunt has started.  As I understand it, you have an obligation to particpate.”

“I promised her I’d always be at her side!” Nyx knocked his hands away and stood.  She managed to step off the bed, before Hakeem danced in her way.

“You have an obligation, Nyx!  Elmiryn used her new fae powers to keep from getting killed, and it has earned Artemis’s fury.  By denying the goddess your promise, you endanger Elmiryn.”  He pointed up at the girl’s face.  “Also, I know what you are.  As a champion of Lacertli, don’t you think you ought to be upholding your patron’s values?  The beast that stalks these forests disrupts Harmony.  He won’t be happy to hear of your negligence.”

Nyx glared down at him, her face twitching.  The real sign of his victory, however, came in the way frustration welled in her gaze.  Common sense and duty were in conflict with the very thing her heart wished for.  He knew the feeling.

Lowering his eyes, he sighed and said, “Nyx, I don’t like saying these things.  But you know they are true.”

They stood silent, the hut curtain stirred by those rushing outside.  Shadows flashed about their ankles where the emerald light laid its mark upon the ground.  The Ailuran’s eyes narrowed, and she wiped furiously to catch the tears before they could fall.  She shifted her weight onto the ball of her right foot, digging it into the soil.  Her hands tensed to claws at her sides as her expression turned tight.  Hakeem braced himself in case she decided to lunge at him…

Finally, Nyx whispered, “I don’t understand you at all.”

Hakeem shrugged one shoulder, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.  He spared a glance over his shoulder before fixing the girl with a sideways gaze.  He said out of the corner of his mouth. “Do you really want to understand?”

The girl’s eyebrows rose high.

The wizard planted his feet beneath his shoulders and crossed his arms.  He felt almost like himself—the dark, broad-shouldered sentinel, spiced with just a little arrogance and a great deal of indifference.  “Understanding…goes both ways, ikati.  I’ve already told you why I show you my generosity…but if you wish to understand me, you would have to earn something else.”

When he didn’t continue, the Ailuran scratched her head, her eyes flickering elsewhere a moment before she looked at him again, almost shyly, and asked, “What’s that?”

“My complete and absolute trust.  As much as I appreciate what you and you’re friends have done to restore Quincy, that still doesn’t speak of who you are as individuals.  In strange ways, I have an idea of what to expect from the Fiamman.  But what can I expect from you?  I have no idea where you come from…though I may have a few guesses as to how you got here.”  His head tilted back and his eyes narrowed a fraction.  “You’re an outcast, aren’t you?  I can think of no other reason an Ailuran may be able to stomach the company of their hated enemy.”

Hakeem could see Nyx’s skin go pale, even in the dim lighting.

He held up a placating hand.  “Stay at ease, Nyx.  I have no right to judge.  I only need to know if you’re past is a distant thing…or a present reality.”  He took a step back toward the curtain, then another.  “I cannot trust those that are led solely by their heads or their hearts.  I am open to understanding you.  Hunt with us tonight, and survive.  If a bridge can be built, than I say we shall build it.  Otherwise, my kindness will remain a distant thing, and you will be left to your confusion.”

With an abrupt turn of his body, he marched out of the hut.  He had said what he could, and now he couldn’t entertain the girl’s plight any longer.  There were other more important things to deal with…

…Which was why Hakeem smirked to hear Nyx hurrying after him.

NYX____________________________

Sweet Aelurus, the positions I find myself in!

All I wanted was to see Elmiryn with my own eyes, to feel her heartbeat, to know that she wasn’t going to wake from a nightmare and not find me there, waiting.  But Hakeem was right.  There were other things to attend to first…like my promise to Artemis.

I felt a chill, thinking of how the goddess may have looked upon seeing Elmiryn use her strange new powers.

Listen to me!  Elmiryn?  Powers?  Gods!

Wasn’t it just a little under a month ago when we first met?  Things were so much simpler then!  These days, I felt like we couldn’t take a step without the threat of powerful beings snapping us in half.  It was enough to drive a person insane, and in the cases of some, we were quite far along that road already.

As I followed Hakeem through the thickening crowds, I finally saw where everyone was gathering.

Clumped together in hunting parties, with many more waiting to be assigned, were powerful Lycan warriors.  Men–and women–of all different shapes and sizes gathered with their traditional weapons.  Many were painted in colored grease paint, the colors of war that marked their tribe.  It seemed like so much for just one beast, but seeing how this creature had hurt these people so, perhaps I just couldn’t fathom the truth of what I was getting into.

I stopped just a little behind Hakeem, who was looking around the area.  I felt timid and vexed by him at the same time.

“Where do I go?” I mumbled.

“Follow me.”  He didn’t look at me, his eyes intent as he searched the crowds.

As he tried to spot whatever it was he was looking for, I did my best to look inconspicuous.  In my favor, the heightened energy served to drown out my presence, as everyone present was more concerned with forming their hunting parties.  For the most part, I went unnoticed, but those that did see me paused to fix me with a curious look.  I mirrored it, but for only an instant.  Prolonged staring was one of the things I was supposed to be avoiding.

Hakeem seemed to see what he wanted, and with a jerk of his head, he led me to a small group of Lycans preparing near the forest’s edge.  There were three of them.  Two men and a woman.  The men milled about near the trees, while the woman sat on a rock sharpening a spear closer toward the village.

The wizard greeted them in their Lycan tongue, then turned to me. “This is Nyx, one of the newcomers.  She needs to be placed.”

The Lycan woman stood and stepped forward.  I was surprised to find that I recognized her.  She was the one who had told me to fetch Elmiryn from the ring after the first round of the fight.  Now that all the hysteria of that time was gone, I took in her whole appearance.

She was not much taller than me—perhaps an inch or so—and had wavy, shoulder-length dark hair.  Her narrow face now had on streaks of green and black paint that made her green eyes seem even brighter.  Her arms were exposed, revealing the lean muscles of her body.  She wore a dark leather vest with a v-neck and a pair of suede pants stopping mid-calf.  Her feet were bare, but around her right ankle was a small strip where a rabbit’s foot dangled.

She looked me up and down, then looked at Hakeem.  In the same thick accent as before, she said, “I am lead while Halian out.  I say she may run with us tonight.” She pulled a sheathed dagger from behind her, and tossed it to Hakeem.  With that, she went back to her place, resuming her spear sharpening without lifting her eyes.  She seemed upset about something and didn’t look like she wanted to be bothered by anything silly.  Like me, for instance.

Hakeem checked the dagger before giving a nod at me.  “So you’re with our party.”

I held up my hands, an anxious look on my face.  “I don’t know what I’m doing!”

“Ailurans don’t hunt in groups?”

“We did, but…not like this.  It was always more for sport, then.”

The man gave me a penetrating look.  Then asked, “And when you left your people?”

I immediately tensed, my shoulders coming up around my ears.  Then I remembered my surroundings and took a deep breath.  My shoulders eased back down.  With difficulty, I answered him.  “It was…for survival.  Even then I…was never very good at it.”

Hakeem waved the issue away.  “We’ll explain the hunting formations to you.  They aren’t all that difficult.” He nodded at each of the Lycans in our group.  “The tall one with the short spiky hair is Makka.  He doesn’t speak any Common, but he doesn’t say much to begin with.  His brother was one of the first to die at the hands of the beast.  The long-haired fellow next to him is Gudahi.  He’s very fluent in Common as he’s often visited Gamath and the Fiamman trading posts for outside goods.  Our leader tonight is Sanuye.”  He beckoned for me to come closer, and I bowed low to hear.  Hakeem leaned in to whisper, “Sanuye is displeased, so just stay close to me, or Gudahi, okay?  He’s a goodnatured man, and will probably take delight in thinking he’s ‘protecting’ an Ailuran.  Don’t take offense if he flirts with you a bit.  He flirts with everyone, and doesn’t mean half the things he says.”  

The last comment made me blink, but I nodded anyway. “Okay.  But why is Sanuye mad?  Do you know?”

Hakeem shrugged.  “My guess is that she’s unhappy with Halian’s absence.”

“Why is he gone?  He didn’t get hurt like Elmiryn did, and he would have healed those wounds by now anyway!”

“Nyx, you didn’t see because you were unconscious.”  Hakeem’s voice dropped even lower, and I frowned as I strained to hear him.  “Halian was going to kill Elmiryn after the final horn was blown.  Artemis had to step in.  That sort of intervention takes its toll on the mortal soul, no matter the species.  The man is just a shivering mute right now.  He’s in Eidan’s hut along with Elmiryn.”

I frowned as I recalled the goddess’s words…

I would gladly take to arms for my children.  But there is no way I can fight without harming them all.

Hakeem turned and called Gudahi over.  The man looked up from his conversation with Makka, then grinned right at me, making me blush and look away.  He sauntered over, Makka in tow.

Gudahi was much taller than his companion, and his long dark hair was silky and had one braided bang.  His face had less war paint then his companions, and rather than taking all the village colors, he only painted on thin lines of white, with dots around his eyes.  The designs made him less fierce, and more…beautiful, I suppose is the best word.  That isn’t to say he was androgynous, but he was clearly the sort that young girls would fawn over without end.

Makka looked a great deal more somber, his chin bold and with a small cleft. His face was a dark mask of black and green with a white X crossing from temple to jaw.  He slouched around Gudahi, but stared intently into my face.  Just as with the other man, I tried to keep from looking at him too long.

Gudahi lightly touched a fist to his breast.  “Hakeem.  Ua-kita!  Look at the present you have brought me!  I’ve always wanted a kitten.”  I tried not to tense at that.  I knew it was just the age-old rivalry at work, and if Hakeem’s words were true, then there was likely going to be some innuendo from this man as well.

He reached over and took a lock of my hair, then traced my jaw with his finger.  My face flinched, but I fought not to move away.  Dominant behavior involved a lot of touching, and from the looks of things, Gudahi was Sanuye’s second in command.  That meant denying him this small contact could be misinterpreted.

…This was all conjecture, of course.  I only had one night’s worth of observation to go off of.  Perhaps there was a line that even dominant Lycans were not meant to cross, giving submissives certain rights?  I didn’t know.

“She’s pretty.  I’ll keep her,” Gudahi announced jovially.  He had a light accent, but his words flowed along more fluently than Sanuye’s.

Hakeem sounded weary, but like me, he kept his shoulders relaxed and his eyes from staring too long into the Lycan’s face.  “Please, Gudahi.  I just wanted to ask you for help in explaining our formations to Nyx.”

The man laughed.  “I can show her a few positions!”

I blushed deeper, and despite my best efforts, my shoulders hitched up half-an-inch.

Formations.” Hakeem corrected firmly.

The Lycan was unfazed.  “Well, when the little prince becomes a big prince, will he promise to leave his shimá for me?”

Hakeem only sighed heavily, his eyes rolling at his feet.

Gudahi laughed and rubbed the wizard’s head.  “Hmmm…I’m a patient hunter.  Very well.  I will do this thing for you, akis.  But I expect a reward!” He took my chin and lifted my gaze, then he winked at me.  “From the both of you!”

Now I wanted to roll my eyes.  This man wasn’t just a flirt…he was a whore.

He clapped his hands together.  “Okay!  First, Nyx, you must understand our purpose.  We are the ta’ia, or the first runners.  Our purpose is to scout ahead, then call to the other parties once we have found our mark.  We do this through a series of howls that tell the others how to position themselves.  Since the beast moves ceaselessly, our job is the hardest.  We have to attack without aid, just to keep the creature still long enough for help to arrive.”

I felt a chill go over my skin.  Somehow I knew it’d be something like this.

Gudahi squatted down and motioned for us to follow him.  We did so, and using his thumb, he began to draw things into the dirt. “Now, here is how our formation works…”

Some minutes passed as things were explained to me.  I was still nervous about it all, but with practice I had a feeling I’d learn it better.  But could we afford that tonight?  Would Sanuye get angry with me if I messed up?

A horn was blown, this one deeper and louder than the one used for the fight.  Gudahi stopped mid-sentence and looked up.  Sanuye was on her feet and approached us, a frown on her face.

“The hunt has begun,” she growled.  “We move now!”

Gudahi patted my shoulder, his eyes fixing onto mine before I turned my gaze downward.  “Now my pet, get into form as I showed you!”

I nodded, falling in behind the man as our group moved into the forest.  Other ta’ia‘s were moving out as well, though they were spread apart to cover more ground.  Our group began to fan out in a wide V-shaped formation, and I did my best to keep my position as I was shown.  Starting with me on the right, the order going left was Gudahi, Hakeem, Sanuye, and Makka.

As we moved out into the forest, the emerald light left us, and the shadows seemed to take us whole.  I stepped carefully over the uneven terrain, my eyes adjusting to the dark but my feet still unaccustomed to the lay of the land.  Now and again, I saw eyes peering at us from the branches, and wondered what aid the nymphs could provide here.  I’d never seen healthy nymphs before, my only experience being with those of the Kreut Forest.

The hunt was very quiet at first, and I recalled my hunt of the pretas, knowing that somehow this uneventfulness could not last.

Sanuye would call for our halt now and again, and like my Lycan companions, I crouched low and put nose to the wind, trying to pick up a scent that could belong to the dark beast.  I sensed nothing.

Soon minutes turned to hours.

I was getting tired from the lack of action.  My nap with Elmiryn was not nearly enough rest for me after all the time that had passed.  When one stopped to think on it, I had been awake nearly three days with hardly any rest.  It was astonishing what fear and adrenaline could do for you.

And it was fear that I felt, when I heard something padding over the ground at a quick pace.

I let out a low hiss, and Gudahi looked my way.  With a stiff nod from me, he turned and called to the others in his native tongue.  All paused and crouched low.  Again, the sound of movement came, closer this time, and I knew the others heard it.

“The beast…” I whispered fearfully.

Gudahi asked Sanuye something in Lycan, and she responded to him tersely in what seemed to be a negative.  The sound grew closer still.  I could make out claws cutting over wood and rock now.  I lifted my nose to the air and tried to catch a scent.  Something entered my senses…

…And my insides turned cold.

Sanuye growled low. “That scent–!”

“It’s familiar,” Gudahi said.  “It…it belongs to…”

Ahead of us, a dark shape appeared, and it charged for us.  It was the size of a very large dog, and its form loped over the earth with grace.

Sanuye bared her teeth and stood, brandishing her spear.  Makka already had his hands shifted to claws, his look fierce.  Hakeem held out his dagger, his body taking on a fighting stance.  Gudahi brandished his own spear as he stood to his feet.

I jumped in front of them all.  “No! Don’t!”

Hakeem stared at me.  “Nyx, what are you doing!?”

“Get out of the way!” Sanuye barked.

“No!  You don’t understand!  The scent is mine!” I screamed.

Everyone stared at me.  Gudahi’s spear tip slowly lowered.  “Artemis ika lena!  She speaks the truth!” his face was long with shock.

I heard the beast slide to a stop behind me, and with eyes closed, I slowly turned.  I breathed in deep through my nose, trying to calm my rambunctious heart.  History saw fit to repeat itself, as the confusion of my life had led me to forget my greatest obstacle yet again…

A dark voice spoke to me.  “Ah.  Nyx.  I could smell your fear from a long ways off.  I just had to come see.”

I opened my eyes and greeted my Twin, my voice reflecting her lack of warmth.

“Hello…sister.”

Continue ReadingChapter 28.2

Chapter 29.3

NYX____________________________

Increasingly, my life was becoming a strange thing.  It felt like a different breed of animal, and I could see my hand on its coarse neck, feeling its pulse, wondering when it would wake from its slumber to devour me.  People like me were not supposed to be extraordinary.  People like me were supposed to fade into dust, to be nothing more than a hated memory.  Now all of a sudden, I had things to fight for, and to my eternal surprise, someone who would fight for me.

There were things greater than I could understand.  Mystical battles between unfathomable beings, spiritual demons, and tyrannical beasts were becoming typical fare.  Amidst these things, the physical pain was always acute, and I was almost grateful for it.  It kept me grounded, kept me from losing touch with reality.  Elmiryn said she couldn’t understand it.  She even shied from it.  For me, it was all I had to know I wasn’t in some bizarre dream.

This surreal outlook was magnified tenfold upon returning from the Somnium.

Back in the place I had been before, I found that Quincy had taken to tending a Lycan whilst waiting for my return.  She looked at me in surprise.  It didn’t take long for that look to quickly melt into ire.

“Ailuran…word of advice.  Warn people before you do your vanishing act,” she snapped, her hands stilling on her patient.

I gave her a frigid glance.  “Thank you.”

I gazed at Elmiryn.  In my mind’s eye, I still saw that white void filled with tumbling kittens and sparrows.  Now all I saw was the warrior’s body, bruised and battered and bereft of her spirit.  I felt the push of unreality threaten my comprehension and turned to leave.

Quincy’s voice stopped me.  “Hey!”

I looked over my shoulder.  The woman was outright glaring at me now.

“Well?” she snapped.

“Well what?” I returned hotly.

“How is Elmiryn?  Did you even find her?”

“She’s fine,” I said, my eyes narrowing.  “But she can’t return to her body because it’s in too much pain.”

Quincy’s brow tightened.  “That…doesn’t sound good.”

The wizard returned her attention to her patient, wetting a cloth with a solution and pressing it to a man’s wounded arm.  “I’ll do what I can for her,” she said somberly.

I hesitated a moment before nodding.  “…Thank you.”

When I exited the medicine hut, I paused to look up at the great tree.  I could not see Artemis from where I stood, but wondered what the goddess was doing.  I didn’t understand what had happened, and it turned my stomach into knots.  I liked having my insides well and ordered…but I couldn’t leave the matter alone.  Just what would I do if it turned out that Elmiryn had been in the wrong?

…Just what would I do if it turned out that Elmiryn had been in the right?

Then I did away with the questions.  I had faith in her.  I knew the warrior wasn’t perfect, but I knew she wasn’t stupid, either.  There had to be a good reason for her to behave as she did.  Artemis wasn’t smiting her, at any rate, which I thought doubly odd.  If Elmiryn had defied her–truly defied her–then wouldn’t the goddess have seen fit to tear the woman asunder?  The situation was clearly a complicated one, and my exhaustion was making a poor audience of me.

Turning away I started to make my way back to the edge of the village where the hut Hakeem had given us appeared to me as a welcome sight.  But drifting along the village trail, I could not escape the feeling of unreality.  The deconstruction of all the expectations I had ever held for myself seemed complete, but in their place was just this question.  Just what could an abomination like myself do?  What else could I be?  I could bend shadows, could traverse the layers of reality, could command the attention of spirits…but in the end I still had the taint of my family’s death on my splintered soul, my other self still running off in the wilds and harboring nothing but loathing for me.  I was living some other life, and yet I didn’t know what role I was supposed to play.  My footsteps felt heavy with my questions, and for once I did not care for the eyes that turned my way.  I stared at the ground, the low spirit of the village filtering through my strange miasma.

It was about the time when I arrived at my new place of stay and crawled under the fur blankets, that I realized just what was really wrong.

Elmiryn wasn’t there.

———————————–

When I woke, it was to Hakeem’s voice drifting in through the hut curtain.

“Nyx, it is time to wake.”

I whined and turned my face away.  Even in my sudden loneliness, sleep had stolen me in a quick, but restless sleep.  All through the night I was plagued with bad dreams.  I saw a world filled with bloody battlefields, saw the horrible nymph giant attacking my village, saw myself as a little girl being hunted by a pack of pretas…  After each dream I would wake, dazed and confused only to find myself alone.  I wanted to hide away, to return to Elmiryn in her strange pocket of reality…but somehow I knew I had to be reachable to the others.  I couldn’t be ready to help, to act, to contribute if I were gone in some unfathomable domain.  So with a sense of dread, I closed my eyes and slipped into the next black nightmare.

Sleep?  One could say I did that, but rest was another matter entirely…

The low light coming through the spaces of the hut curtain seemed offensive to me.  I could hear the sounds of village life outside, hear foreign voices speaking, hear unfamiliar birds chirping in the trees.  I curled away from it all.

“Nyx.”  Hakeem’s young voice sounded clearer.  He must have poked his head through the entrance.  “Tai’unduikati are you really going to be like this?”

I growled and squeezed my eyes shut harder, feeling my ire rise.

Hakeem sighed, arms slapping at his sides.  I had a brief mental image of him doing this and immediately thought it strange.  The adult Hakeem I had first met wasn’t the type for such expressions.  Then again, it had been established I knew nothing of him.  His voice sounded over me, impatient.  “I just wanted to let you know that breakfast is being served.  Just like last night, if you aren’t there, you aren’t getting any.”  I heard him turn to leave.

At the thought of food, I perked my head up, my eyes squinting.

The wizard paused and looked back at me.  His young face broke into a smirk.  “Too predictable.”

It took a moment for me to get my shoes back on, but with hands shielding my eyes, we emerged outside.  I was surprised to see that the sky had changed to match something akin to day.  Not literally, of course.  There was no sun, not even clouds, and the sky lacked that beautiful blue hue, and was instead just a glaring white.  It was like a bright canvas, waiting for some mode of expression.  Light seemed to flood everywhere, despite the lack of a source, and the village stirred with all the activity one might expect in the morning–chickens were being tended to, rugs being beat, and daily devotion was being offered.  The latter was directed toward the great tree, with Lycans kneeling on the dirt with a fist over their heart, heads bowed, lips murmuring in a sort of prayer.

I blinked at them, then turned away, feeling it was rude to stare at those in worship.  My eyes eventually adjusted as we came to the village center where, just as last night, a station had been set up where people were being served.  This communal service was foreign to me, as back in my home village, people cooked for themselves.  Granted, Tosmai was a much bigger than this settlement, but the Lycans seemed to have a greater sense of unity and brotherhood.  I found myself envious.

The line for food stretched all the way around the great tree, back to the village trail we were emerging from.  Hakeem stood in line, and with a groan, I stood in after him.

“The line is so long,” I groused.  “I may as well have stayed asleep!”

“You do look quite tired,” Hakeem observed.  I had a feeling he was trying to be generous.

My jaw clenched and I glared at the ground.  “I had a rough night.”

“Your friend isn’t all that far, you know.”

I glanced at the wizard sharply, and he looked at me sideways.  “The day is free.  You can visit her whenever you like.”

“Quincy told you about last night?”

“Yes.”

“Where is your wife, anyway?”

“Still asleep.  She was up late tending to the wounded.”  Hakeem shook his head.  “As far as hunts go, this was the worse.  We had less injured, but more dead.  Two Lycans died in the medicine hut upon being returned.”

I bit my lip and turned away.

Hakeem nudged me.  “Ikati.  We would not have reached those men in time.  It wasn’t your fault.”

I clenched my fists.  “Seconds count.  If we hadn’t been distracted by my Twin, then–”

“You never did tell me what that was all about.”

I broke off, startled.  With a swallow, I shrugged.  “It’s…” I sighed. “Complicated.”

“And how many people have you managed to deter with that line?”

I rolled my eyes.  “None.”

“So?”

I rubbed at my face, then gestured for him to come closer.  When he did, I hissed, “All right, all right.  I may as well tell you.  I’ve already told Sanuye–”

“By no gentle means, I imagine.”

My brow tightened.  “No.”  Then my expression relaxed.  “I was…surprised, though.”

The wizard raised an eyebrow at me.  “By her reaction?”

“Well, yes.  But moreso by her decision.”

“Which was…?”

I ran my hand through my hair.  “She wants to help me.”

Hakeem smiled at me wryly.  “Lycans are known to do that from time to time y’know.”

I bit my lip and looked around us.  “I’m…nervous to talk about this around so many.  There’s more Common speakers than I’d first thought, and I’d like to keep my business my own.”

The wizard shrugged his hands.  “Then we shall wait until later.  Perhaps once we get our food?”

“All right.”

We resumed our wait in silence, and I found myself peering at Hakeem in curiosity.  I wondered if his change in demeanor had anything to do with his youthful form, and if so, would he once again be the hard-nosed, taciturn man I’d first met?

My thoughts were cut short as Sedwick joined us.

He held out a hand to the people behind us, “I’m not in line,” before he greeted us.  “Good morning!”

“Morning,” we said simultaneously.

The elemental crossed his arms as he looked at me.  “I missed you last night.  How did things go?”

“I have a few things to tell you…” I said, glancing at Hakeem.  “I was going to fill Hakeem in on a few details too, once we get settled.”

Sedwick nodded.  “That’s fine, I understand.”

A pause.

I gestured awkwardly at the man.  “Sooo…how did your hunt go?”

He shrugged, his mouth screwing up.  “We were fine.  Had to deal with a rogue growth spirit.  The taint going on has been affecting the balance.  The Lycans have been doing a superb job of keeping the situation from getting out of hand, but with time, this monster that is stalking their forest is going to turn everything on its head.”  He rubbed his scar, his brow pressing up.  “I…went to see Elmiryn.”

I smiled sardonically.  “Yes, she looks quite bad, doesn’t she?”

“Nyx, I’m sorry I held you back at the fight, but I had to.  Lycan tradition is something these people take seriously, and if you’d have interfered, there would have been serious–”

I held up a hand, and locked eyes with the man. “You did what you thought was right.  What came after was beyond everyone’s control.”

“So you know about what happened at the end of the fight?”

Hakeem cleared his throat.  “I filled her in on those details.”

I puckered my lips, my nose tickling in displeasure.  “Yes.”

Sedwick looked at me uncomfortably.  “Quincy tells me Elmiryn is still in there somewhere.”

“That’s because I told her that.  I visited Elmiryn using my abilities as a champion.  She’s in a strange little pocket of reality.  Her body is in too much pain for her to return…for her to want to return.”

Sedwick held his chin, the other arm crossing over his chest.  “And you can visit her whenever you like?”

I nodded.  “As far as I know, yes.  So long as the way to her is open, I can.”

In all this time, the line had steadily moved up.  We were closer to the great tree now.

Hakeem frowned up at me, his arms crossing.  “What could close the way?”

I blinked and thought about it a moment.  “I suppose if her body died, or if she ventured too far into the unknown.”  I gave a shudder.  “I’d rather not think on it too hard.”

The conversation, if one could call it that, dried up.  We were served our food, and with me leading, we found a comfortable spot away from any wandering ears.  Sedwick and Hakeem sat at either side of me, bowls of mixed rice, stewed deer meat, and egg in their hands.  I took a few hungry bites of my meal, the words sorting about in my head.  Once I decided on how I wanted to explain things, I set in.  The story of my Twin was nothing new to Sedwick, but nevertheless I had an attentive audience in him.  Hakeem was equally interested, if not, moreso.  He stopped eating as soon as I started, his eyes fastened onto my face–and it was with great discomfort that I recognized that hawkish attention I’d already seen in Quincy.  He was weighing my words, my priorities, my emotions.

Once my tale was done, I gave Sedwick a brief update on my recent encounter with my Twin.  He leaned forward onto his watery legs, his brow furrowed deeply.  Hakeem, meanwhile, was still looking at me.

“So that beast was a part of you…” he murmured.

I looked at him warily.  “Yes.  She is a part of my soul.”

“But she has her own will.”

“Yes.”

He shook his head gravely.  “That is against all laws of nature.”  He held up both hands as if testing the weight of two different things.  “There is mental malady in which a person’s mind becomes so broken that their interactions with the world are similarly broken.  But what you are saying is something else entirely.  Your mind is in tact.  Your soul however…”

“I am against nature.  I am something that isn’t supposed to exist.”

Hakeem frowned at me.  “To have two separate souls in one body is impossible.  Either one of you assimilates the other or you’ll perish.  The tug of war on your body would surely tear it apart in time!”

“I know that!” I snapped.  I closed my eyes and swallowed.  “I know that…” I said more gently.  “Elmiryn and I had a plan.  Well…more of a lead.”

“What kind of lead?”

I opened my mouth, then hesitated.  Hakeem was a bounty hunter.  So was Quincy.  It was true they were working with us now, but what about later?  Could I trust them not to turn on us?

At the prolonged pause, the young wizard held up a hand.  “Ah.  I see.  Do not worry then.”

I felt a pang in my gut.  “Hakeem–”

He looked at me, brows raised.  “Ikati, you have plenty of reasons to feel as you do.  Think nothing of it.”

My mouth closed, but I felt guilty all the same.  Sedwick glanced at me sidelong, and I couldn’t be sure if he was disappointed in me or sympathetic.  Feeling low, I finished my food.

It was about around my last bites that someone descended on me from behind, their weight neatly folding me over my legs.  Sputtering, I tried to look at my assailant.  I heard a voice before I saw a face, and immediately knew who it was.

Ahoj!  My pet I’ve missed you!”

“Get off me Gudahi!” I snapped, beating at him with my shoulders.

The man pulled back, laughing.  I glared at him over my shoulder as Hakeem sighed next to me.  “Ahoj, Gudahi,” he said.

Gudahi settled back onto his feet, Makka just a little behind him.  He bowed his head at me in greeting, and I nodded at him in return before my eyes flickered onto his taller companion.

The handsome man flipped his long dark hair over his shoulder, then winked at me. “Now, now!  I was only playing, little one.”

I looked away from him, remembering Lycan etiquette, but my patience was not very tolerant that morning.  I stood abruptly and looked at Hakeem and Sedwick.  “Thank you for eating with me.  I’m going to check on Elmiryn.”

“I’ll see you tonight, Nyx,” Hakeem said.

Sedwick gave a small wave.  “Tell her I said to get better, fast.  I’m sort of missing her harassment.”

I gave a wry smile.  With a glance at Makka and Gudahi, I left.

HAKEEM_________________________

Hakeem watched the girl leave, then turned to spare a quick glare Gudahi’s way.  “You should not tease her so.  She is in love.”

The Lycan slapped a hand to his heart, a dreamy look on his face.  “With me?  All ready?  Spirits preserve me!”

Despite himself, the wizard smiled.  Turning his eyes to his empty bowl, he said,  “Not this time, I’m afraid.  She loves another.”

Gudahi clicked his tongue as he slid smoothly into Nyx’s spot.  “Damn!  Can’t have them all, I suppose.”

“You really aren’t bothered by her show of power last night?”

“Bothered?” The man looked at the wizard with an amused grin.  “My friend, the goddess I worship currently occupies the central tree of my village, and a beast of unknown origin and shape is ravaging my land.  There are stranger things to consider!”

Hakeem let out a short laugh.  “Ah.  You are right, of course.”

Gudahi leaned over to Sedwick, his smile curling.  “And who is your peculiar friend?”

The elemental held out a hand.  “Sedwick.  I work with Nadi, guardian of the Medwin River.”

The Lycan’s brows rose high.  “Nadi’s personal thrall?  Here?” He turned his head slowly back to Hakeem.  “Let me say again…there are stranger things to consider!”

Hakeem shook his head at the man.  “Are you going to train today?”

Gudahi nodded, his face turning more somber.  “Of course.  We return to the fields to practice forms.”

“I think I’ll be joining you again today.”

“You do not have another session with Eidan?”

Hakeem sighed and stood.  “I think it’s clear that whatever way there is to change myself back to normal cannot be found in a healer’s hut.  As my companions tell it, I have to move forward to find what is lost…”

ELMIRYN________________________

“1023…1024…1025…”

She was counting kittens when Nyx came.  The woman felt her presence like a warm breeze, and she perked up like an excited puppy at the sight of her beloved friend.

Grinning, Elmiryn rushed forward for a hug.  “Nyx!”

The girl was clothed this time around, as there wasn’t a nude Doll for her to occupy.  Her eyes shone as she returned the woman’s grin.  The void rang with her laughter, and the shadows overhead shivered.

“Elle!  Sweet Aelurus, you’re behaving as if I’ve been gone an age!”

The woman laughed, pulling back, strands of her hair falling into her eyes.  “It feels that way!  Did you know I’ve been counting these critters since you left?  It was the only way I could make my thoughts behave.”

Nyx smiled teasingly.  “I heard you just now.  I believe you were at 1025?”

Elmiryn shook her head, her eyes rolling.  “Naw.  I lost count like four times.  I got up to 3000 last time.”

The girl squinted her eyes, her head tilting to the side. “Have…I been gone that long?  Really?”

The woman shrugged.  “I didn’t sleep.  I mean.  I can’t.  I’m not in a body to sleep in, after all.”

“Oh!”  Nyx bit her lip. “I’m sorry you were left alone for so long!  I didn’t even consider that you’d be forced to sit here like that…”

Elmiryn traced a finger over the girl’s cheek.  Nyx’s face shone with something bright, and the warrior wondered if she were really the reason for it.  She took her hand and gently buried it in the girl’s dark locks.  Again, she could feel nothing of it, but a pleasure rose in her.

“I want…” the woman started.  Her eyes settled on Nyx’s tawny gaze, and she stepped closer.  “I want to try and come back.”

Nyx bit her lip and reached up to the woman’s face.  “Only if you think it’ll be safe, Elle.  I want you well.”

“And I want to feel you.  I want to be there.” Elmiryn returned, her eyes burning.  She made no attempt to explain to the girl how hellish it had been, sitting in an empty space with only illusions as company.  She made no attempt to explain how a single night had felt like a year, or how the shadows had rebelled against her too many times to count.  The alien being in her white box never moved, the falling animals never ceased coming, and the ways of light seemed forever on the cusp of defeat.

The warrior stepped back and closed her eyes.  She sought her body, knew the way as intuitively as one knew their own limbs.

The black heavy curtain was thick with pain.  Darkness lapped at the edges of her consciousness and she gasped, struggling to pull away in time before the trappings of mortality found her.

Elmiryn screamed and fell backward, her voice echoing all around them.

Nyx was at her side in an instant, her face drawn long in fear as she held the woman by the shoulders.  “Elle!  Gods!  Are you okay!?”

“Too much,” the woman gasped, clutching at her heart with her right hand. She shook her head frantically.  “I can’t.”

The woman tried to sit up with both her arms but found only her right arm to respond.  Her left lay dead next to her.  She stared at it, a sudden roaring in her ears as she felt herself turn cold.  Her eyes slowly moved to meet Nyx’s.  The Ailuran blinked at her, nonplussed.

“Elle?” she whispered.

The woman moved her tongue against the roof of her mouth, then sucked at her teeth.  With a contemplative frown, she considered her arm.  The feelings of her body were not entirely gone this time, just muted.  The pain became a low buzz in the distant background, and she felt heavier…more real.

The only reason I’m keeping myself together is because I know my pattern.

Elmiryn looked at her companion, a slow smile creeping across her lips.  “…Y’know what, Nyx?  I take that back.  Maybe I can.

Continue ReadingChapter 29.3

Chapter 30.1

HAKEEM_________________________

Tick.

Tick.

Tick.

Hakeem’s eyes were on the dark of the forest, its shadows pregnant with all the possibilities of what became of his wife.  His lips pursed and it was only a thin thread of common sense that kept him from barreling into the woods alone.  When Nyx and Sedwick first fixed him with those eyes, he knew that something had happened to Quincy.  It was an instinct, kicking in from years of worrying and fear.  The brunette had a tendency of getting into trouble, and Hakeem was used to having to chase her, if not bail her out.  But he was in the body of a child, and with the foreign surge of anxiety that frothed inside of him, Hakeem wondered if this time around, he would be his greatest obstacle.

A soft touch on the shoulder made the man-boy’s head snap to the side, a look of deep intensity tightening his youthful features into something akin to a snarl.  Nyx looked down at him in surprise, pulling back as though he were a wild animal about to bite off her hand.

“The others are ready!” she blurted, pointing nervously over her shoulder.

“Good,” Hakeem muttered, returning his stare to the forest.

He felt Nyx drift away from him and was glad for the space.  He wasn’t sure he could manage any level of civility, considering the matter at hand.  Another moment went by where the others murmured quietly behind him.  He felt eyes on his back, but didn’t turn to look.

A few seconds later and a spear was held out in front of him.  Hakeem looked up to see it was Gudahi offering the weapon.  Makka, his usual shadow, was there just a little behind him.  Gudahi looked him in the eyes, but the wizard gazed steadily back into the gaze, forgetting momentarily just what it meant.  Then he remembered himself and looked away.

“Thank you,” he said.

The Lycan clapped him heartily on the shoulder. “We will find her, do not worry.”

“So?” Sedwick said behind them.  “Who leads?”

The wizard was tempted to say, “Me,” but knew that one of the therians would be ideal to take point.  On that note, he gestured at Gudahi.

“You should lead,” he said.  “You know these forests better than anyone in the village.”

The Lycan nodded and looked to the others.  None offered any arguments, and so without another word, they crossed the tree line into the enigmatic woods.  The twisted boughs of the black willows creaked overhead as they went at a light run, the ghostly eyes of a forest creature following their path from the bosom of a magnolia tree in full blossom.  The wizard’s nose flared as the fragrant scent of the flowers wafted to him through the dark.  They fell into V formation, with Nyx and Sedwick at rear, and Hakeem and Makka flanking Gudahi.

The Lycan’s footsteps were light and swift over the uneven forest floor, but Hakeem was used to following Gudahi’s lead by now, and managed to keep pace.  He didn’t hear the others behind him, which didn’t really surprise him.  Sedwick was an elemental and could easily manipulate his form to soften the sound of his footfalls.  Nyx was clearly one who lived on the outskirts of society, and as a therian, had a natural inclination toward dark and natural settings such as this.  Wild landscapes were second nature to Hakeem, and with his time spent at the village, he had become familiar with the local terrain–not as well as Gudahi, but well enough to keep from stumbling like most humans would at this pace.

The firs, oaks, and poplars parallaxed by, just dark cuts in the corner of his eyes.  The shadowy earth, the light mist that shrouded the distance, the teeth of the forest canopy–they encapsulated everything he had ever heard about the dangers of the unknown.  His mother, Nguele, or Ma’Nguele as he was taught to call her, warned of evil spirits that brought misfortune to those foolhardy souls that underestimated nature.

Ya kabur aiju maiti juena adhab.

The flower may yet find the breast.

The trail of arnica petals they followed seemed strangely lit, not in brightness, but in color, their teardrop shapes standing out in the indefinite forest floor.  Owl hoots and distant wolf calls blanketed their surroundings in a loneliness that only served to prick at Hakeem’s tension.  He felt his young body shiver, its bodily control not at the maturity he was used to.  It left him open to thoughts of Quincy lost, hurt…dead.

The trail was excruciatingly long, giving ample room to build upon his fears.

At one point, they passed a clearing the great beast had cleared in one of its vicious attacks, and Hakeem felt his gut churn as his eyes searched the dark for Quincy.  But the trail continued on, and so they went until they came onto a small wetland.  The muddy ground sucked at their boots, flies buzzing in their ears as they came together in a line.  Mangroves, with their gapped, web-like roots, seemed to yawn silently at their plight, their thin trunks swaying.  The trail had ended, and the party exchanged looks.

“This cannot be the beast,” Gudahi said, crouched at the trail’s end.

The reeds rustled as a breeze swept through, chilling Hakeem’s sweat.  He swallowed and wiped at his brow.  He could see Nyx look at him from the corner of his eye and turned his head away.

The long-haired Lycan called Makka over, and they both leaned down toward the ground, sniffing.  They conversed quietly for a moment before Gudahi straightened with narrowed eyes.

“The smell of taint isn’t here,” he said.

“This didn’t seem the beast’s style,” Sedwick agreed.  He crossed his arms and looked around them, his brows bunching.  “My guess is a rogue spirit.”

Gudahi squinted an eye as he tugged on one ear.  “That’s also a problem.”

The elemental frowned at him.  “Why?”

The Lycan shrugged.  “There is no taint.  There is also nothing…”  His eyes flickered to Hakeem’s face.  “Nothing but your wife.”

Nyx crouched down and inspected the trail.  Hakeem could see her nostrils flare as she leaned down for a whiff.  When she straightened, she was also frowning.  “He’s right…but then why would Quincy just leave?”

Gudahi shrugged as he stood to his feet.  “Even a spirit will leave a scent.  Since I sense nothing, then perhaps Quincy came out of here of her own free will?  Maybe to look for more herbs and other reagents?”

Nyx wrinkled her nose at the thought.  “And she left a blatant trail of petals as she went?”

“It doesn’t matter the reason!” Hakeem snapped, throwing his spear down.

Everyone stopped to stare at him.  He glared back at them all.  “All I care about are the facts that will help me find my wife.”  He gestured at the trail.  “You say her scent is the only thing you can sense?  Then we know she has come this way, but that trail ends at this wetland.  We have to pick up a new trail again and keep moving!”

Nyx nodded, her gaze the first to fall away.  “All right, Hakeem.”

She turned, and with eyes turned downward, proceeded to search for clues.  Awkwardly, the other three men followed suit.  Hakeem sighed and took a moment to rub at his face before returning to the task at hand.

The wetland wasn’t very large, perhaps half the size of a typical lake, and the trees, though sparser, still found reach enough that the forest canopy still branched overhead.  A frog croaked somewhere off to his left as a mosquito tried to land on his forearm. He swatted at it as his eyes squinted in the dark.  He tried to make out footprints, smashed plants, or a torn piece of clothing, any sort of sign that someone had been through the area before they had.

He saw nothing.

With time providing no fruit for his labor, the wizard was about to ask the others if they had seen anything when a twig snapped behind them.

Everyone froze.  Nyx’s tawny eyes could be seen peering widely from a set of tall ferns.  Sedwick was crouched near a low rock, his form having turned watery.  Makka and Gudahi had ventured out into the wetlands proper, feet sunk deep in the mud and their flanks brushing through tall grass.  The two men looked at each other, then readied their weapons.

Together, they let out low hoots–an identifying call between their people.  The call was not returned.

Instead, they heard a voice.

“Fuck this chingali forest!”

Hakeem gave a start, his heart doing a somersault. “Mweze?”  He straightened and ventured toward the source.  “Mweze, is that you?”

Quincy emerged from a cluster of tulip trees, twigs and leaves in her hair and an irate look on her face.

“Damn those brats!” she bit out.

Hakeem hesitated, his eyes flickering to the therians.  Sedwick let out a chuckle.  Nyx looked relieved.  Makka’s look of indifference remained unchanging.  Gudahi smiled.

“You see my prince?  She is well and whole,” the Lycan said.  Then his smile turned wry.  “Well…she’s whole at least.”

“Which is more than I can say for those boys when I find them,” Quincy snarled.  She managed to free her clothes from the snatching branches, but her feet tangled and she fell backward, where she landed into the mud with a loud splat.  For a moment, time seemed to hang, uncertain of whether to go forward or to go back.  The brunette blinked, hands raised, her face frozen in horror as she looked down at herself.  As the reality set in, her face contorted as if she wanted to scream, but instead she clamped her jaw tight and let out a high pitched growl.  Hakeem hurried forward to help her out of the mud as the others broke out laughing.

“Are you all right?” He asked as she stood up.  He couldn’t help it–he was grinning, too.

The woman grimaced as she shook the mud from her hands.  “Some children took the flowers we needed, and I came chasing them.  I lost them halfway along and followed the trail of petals, but as you can see, that trail ends.  I was just poking around to see if I could pick up a new trail somewhere nearby.”  She threw up her hands.  “None of this makes any sense!”

Hakeem shook his head at her.  “You should have asked for help!  Running out into the forests is dangerous by yourself!”

“I didn’t think I’d gone far,” Quincy muttered with a shrug.  She looked around at them all.  “Wait…you all came looking for me?”  Her eyes fell on Nyx in particular.

Gudahi threw his hair back and made a show of sticking his nose up into the air. “And help my rival in love?  Nonsense!”

Hakeem knuckled his eyes.  “Gudahi…You’ve been picking up on Fiamman behavior, I see…”

The man grinned, examining his nails at length.  “Who’s to say they didn’t steal it from me?”

“My guess is the children returned to the village.  Can we go back now?” Quincy groused.

Hakeem had to keep from laughing in joy and relief.  “Yes, Mweze.  We can go back now.”

They turned and started to walk, the wizard reaching for his wife’s hand, and she seeking his, when a voice stopped them just before their skin touched.

“No, we can’t go back.”

Everyone turned to gaze at Sedwick.  He was glaring at Quincy.  Hakeem frowned at him over his shoulder, his hand falling back to his side.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

The elemental pointed at the brunette’s face, his face turning dark with anger.  “That thing isn’t Quincy.”

Nyx squinted her eyes.  “But her scent–”

Sedwick gestured at the ground and spoke quickly, “Tell me.  Where are the footprints Quincy just made?”

Hakeem clenched his fists.  “But we just saw her fall into the–”

“It’s gone,” Gudahi breathed, pointing at the spot Quincy had fallen.  “Her footprints, the mark where she fell…all gone!”

Makka already had his spear pointed at Quincy.  He said something gruffly in Lycan, and Hakeem’s wife stared at him blankly as she turned and took a step back.

Nyx let out a hiss, her eyes wide.  She gestured at Hakeem frantically.  “Sedwick’s right!  Hakeem, get away from it!”

Hakeem’s eyes strained to see what the others claimed to, but he wasn’t close enough to make anything out in the dark.  As he felt something slimy and cold warp about his throat, however, he found he didn’t need to.

With a yell, the man-boy struck at his assailant only to find his small reach wasn’t long enough.  He was lifted, choking, and came to see what Sedwick had been trying to warn him about.  Quincy’s form was gone, leaving only a black oily creature with bulky shoulders, a disproportionately slim waist, and no head.  Despite its lacking mouth, the being let out a gurgling chuckle.

Mmm…more meat!” it exclaimed.

Makka let out a yell and stabbed forward with his spear.  The creature let out a grunt as it made to dodge the attack, and without warning, he began to fall.  Hakeem and the monster hit the ground, the wizard on his side, the creature on its back.  When Hakeem sat up, he thought he saw a strange play of light across the ground–then he realized it was Nyx’s doing.  She’d tripped up the monster’s using its shadow.

“He’s slipping from me!” the Ailuran cried, her hands up and her face strained. “Get it! Quick!”

Makka didn’t hesitate.  He stepped forward and thrust into the monster’s chest, digging the spear tip in with a fierce look in his eyes.  Gudahi joined him, driving his spear into the monster’s gut.  The creature screeched, hands gripping the spear shafts as it writhed, but in time, it turned still.  Hakeem clumsily rose to his feet, his body covered in mud, some of it even in his ears and mouth.  The wet ground threatened to take his shoes from his feet and send him over, and he had to struggle to move away from the creature.

Both Lycans removed their spears with wet squelches, panting.

Spitting the mud out, Hakeem grimaced and asked,”Did you kill it?”

Gudahi turned his head to speak when a black ichor splashed into his face.  Screaming the man reared back, hands clawing at himself.  The creature sat up and threw its sludge at Makka, and the warrior tried to block his eyes, only to have the slime enter his open mouth instead.  He gagged, stumbling to his knees, his partner still clawing at his face.

Sedwick let out a yell, his body spinning as his arms turned to watery whips that lashed toward the strange being.  The creature let out a wet scream, its body turning into a ball that rolled away at high speed through the thick brush.

“After it!”  Hakeem yelled, already running.

The creature’s form barreled through a collection of briar bushes, and the wizard let out a shout as the thorny branches tore at his skin and clothes.  Gritting his teeth, he pushed through just in time to see his quarry quickly roll around a large sweetgum tree.  Now that they had moved away from the wetlands, his feet pounded over solid earth.  Hakeem sharply rounded the tree, filled with a sickening need to exact revenge against the monster who brought harm to his wife, only to find himself clotheslined by a black slimy arm.

He fell back onto the ground with a nasty thump.  Dazed, he watched as the creature reached for him, giggling blackly.  “Eee, hee, hee!  A meal!  A meal!  QUITE a meal!”

But the monster froze just as its claw-like hands neared Hakeem’s face.  The creature strained, sounds of frustration gurgling from its stump of a neck.  It couldn’t move.

Nyx stepped around the tree, her hand help up and a wide look in her eyes.

“You won’t have him!” she hissed.  “I have your shadow, you filthy creature, and if you so much as touch him I will end you!”

Sedwick appeared just behind her.  He touched the girl’s shoulder.  “You have it?” The Ailuran nodded mutely, and his lips pursed.  The elemental took a moment to look over his shoulder before returning his eyes to the black creature.  “Gudahi and Makka are still back there.  They’re hurt, but they’ll catch up.  The slime isn’t fatal or even permanent.”

The man stepped closer and extended a hand to Hakeem, who gladly took it.  “This thing is called a pugot,” Sedwick said with a sneer at the creature. “It’s a type of spirit from Talmor that can assume the identity of whomever it tastes, imitating that thing’s voice, movement, and even its smell.  That’s why it was able to fool you and the others, Nyx.”

“What’s it doing here, though?” Nyx asked, her voice sounding tight.

The elemental glanced at her.  “Here, if you’re getting tired, I’ve got it.”

Sedwick raised both arms, and Hakeem watched with interest as the limbs turned clear and watery.  They grew, defying physics as water gushed from the man’s form like he were a tireless font.  The streams of liquid drifted to the pugot, where they wrapped around the creature totally.  Lifting his arms, Sedwick lifted the being bodily into the air.

He looked at Nyx.  “You can let it go, now.”

The girl nodded and with a rushing exhale, let her arms fall to her sides.

Sedwick looked back at the spirit, his eyes squinting as he watched the pugot struggle. “Sometimes foreign spirits come to visit, but I imagine what happened in the North with Syria attracted even more.  With the beast wrecking havoc, this one was drawn here in particular.”

“I want to ask it where Quincy is,” Hakeem said firmly.

The man nodded at him, and he moved the water away from the spirit’s neck so that it could speak.

The first things out of its disgusting neck was, “Fiends!  Monsters!  Brigands!

“Shut up,” Sedwick barked.

Hakeem watched as the elementals watery bind constricted, causing the pugot to gasp.

“Where is my wife?” Hakeem asked, his brow knitted.

The pugot didn’t answer–couldn’t.  Its tense body only trembled, hands clawing in the water.  The wizard laid a hand on Sedwick’s arm, and the elemental eased his bind reluctantly.  The pugot let out a sigh of relief.

Wiiife…” it hissed.  “Mmm…tasty wife, yes.  Tasty fingers.”

Hakeem tensed.  “Where is she?”

The pugot grumbled something unintelligible.  Sedwick growled and tightened his bind again.  The spirit began to squeal.

Ah!  Ah!  Okay!”  It gurgled. “She got away!

Hakeem blinked.  He looked at the others, and they returned his quizzical looks.  Returning his gaze, the wizard crossed his arms.  “What do you mean, ‘she got away?’”

The pugot let out an infuriated shout.  “Urgh!  Human!  DUMB human!  The wife is gone!  Pugot tried to eat her, and she hurt pugot!”

Hakeem let out a relieved laugh, his hands going to his hips.  “She must have used one of her wizardry tricks!”  Then his smile waned.  “But then where is she?”

“Maybe she’s gone back to camp already?” Nyx said uncertainly.

“When was the last time you saw Quincy?” Hakeem demanded, his hands clenching and unclenching.

The pugot gargled angrily.  “Pugot tell you what it know!  Let pugot go!

Hakeem bared his teeth.  “Not until you tell all that you know!”

Pugot knows it will kill you!  It will kill your dreams!  Your tomorrow!  Your–

But they never did get to learn what else the pugot would kill, because a giant pair of jaws the size of Hakeem’s old hut burst through the forest canopy with a great crack and swallowed the spirit whole.

Sedwick let out a shout, his watery arms disintegrating before filling back into normal.  Hakeem stood rooted at the spot, too stunned to react.  Off in the distance, he could hear Gudahi and Makka shouting.  Were they running to help them?  Telling them to run?  Running themselves?  The trees fell over with heartbreaking groans, their roots snapping and snarling out of the earth.  The sky opened up to them, black and indifferent, and Hakeem saw the dark ending Ma’Nguele had warned him of so long ago…

ELMIRYN________________________

In the time since Nyx had left, Elmiryn had turned her arm into a tentacle, a sword, a banana, and a general misconception.  The game got old fast, however, and so the woman endeavored to restore her arm, and was still in the process of doing so when she felt her spine stiffen with an alien feeling.  Her eyes rolled up to the strange being in its white box high above her.

“Hey,” the warrior said, brushing by a frozen kitten.  The small animals may have stopped moving all together, but they hadn’t vanished either.

When the alien being didn’t answer her, the woman’s mouth screwed up, and in the next instant she wasn’t Here, but There, glaring into the alien’s featureless face.

“Hey!  You know something don’t you?  What was that feeling I just had?”

“That would be me.”

Later on, Elmiryn would find it very difficult to explain the level of shock and fear she felt at that moment to anyone–not only because she disliked admitting to such things, but because it was so deep and visceral and debilitating, that the only way a person could understand it would be to experience it.  Trapped in this intense emotion, the woman felt her spirit pulse closer to her body, and she nearly felt herself sucked back into reality until she fought this end savagely.  She was not ready.  She would not go.

“Oh?  Thou wouldn’t miss the tender flesh of thy kitten, so sweet and ready for you?”

As the effects of her shock ebbed, Elmiryn turned slowly.  “Artemis, what are you doing here?” she breathed.

The goddess was dressed in a more Western-styled outfit this time, her animal hide tunic gone, replaced instead with a black leather vest, dark leggings, a heavy green cloak, and grey boots.  Her arms were sleeved in white cotton, a Lycan necklace of teeth, beads, and feathers hanging over her bosom.  Her curly dark hair had been freed to fall about her shoulders, contrasting with the pearly complexion of her face.  Her tiara of branches still adorned her head, and her bow and arrows could still be seen on her back.  Her grey eyes were as sharp as ever, yet they held nothing but mirth as they looked Elmiryn up and down.

“I came to see how you were doing,” the goddess said simply.

The warrior screwed up her face.  “You came to visit me in my head?

Artemis nodded, smiling fully now.  “Yes.”

Elmiryn gestured around her, a sarcastic grin on her face.  “And is this everything you ever imagined?”

The goddess tilted her head left to right, her lower lip pushing up as she regarded the shifting light and shadows, the frozen sea of animals, the strange alien being and her window.  “It’s…interesting,” she said finally.

“Glad you think so.  Now please leave.”

Artemis laughed, the sound echoing through the void and making Elmiryn’s head hurt.

“Thou have survived, and are in such high spirits to boot!  How wonderful,” the goddess chuckled.  “Do you remember the secret I told you, by any chance?”

“The what?”

“Ah, I see.”

Elmiryn made a show of spitting.  “Arty, you’re a real poor guest, y’know?”  She tapped her temple.  “This?”  She made a slash with her arms. “Is not where you’re supposed to be!”

Artemis shrugged.  “Then make me leave, if it so pleases you.”

The warrior bared her teeth as her cerulean eyes cut what she hoped was a menacing look, but the goddess just folded her hands, her right hand displaying her crescent moon tattoo.

Elmiryn held out her hands.  “You want me to try?  Fine.  I’ll try.”

“You’ll try?” Artemis laughed.

The warrior glared.  “I just said I’ll try!”

“You remember what happened the last time you tried to defy me?”

“I heard it landed me here, which really isn’t all so bad in my opinion.”

And within the next instant, Artemis wasn’t in front of Elmiryn anymore, but a hot whisper in her ear.  The woman gasped and tried to turn to see where the goddess had gone, but she saw nothing.

Ah…you put on such a brave show.  But thou should know that I can see into thine heart of hearts.  I can see thy loneliness, see thy fears.  

“Get out!” Elmiryn shouted.  “Leave me be, I want nothing of your world!”

Why not?  My world has the one you so adore…the one who faces a threat she is not yet prepared for.

The warrior froze.  “Nyx?  What’s happened?  Where is she?”

The trap has sprung, Elmiryn.  Now to free thy kitten, thou must find the one who set it in the first place…but thou cannot do that in thy state of detached reality.  You have survived what others could not.  Now put that strength to good use, tackle this inconvenience, and my hunt may then continue.

Elmiryn let her shoulders drop, her eyes squeezing shut as the goddess’s words sunk in.

“So are you going to help me then?” she asked quietly.

A laugh echoed around her.

Would thou even accept my help?

Elmiryn smirked, her spirit already seeking her body.  “No.”

And when she next opened her eyes, it was to find herself back in the medicine hut, screaming with pain.

Continue ReadingChapter 30.1

Six Tales of Arachne

The Willing Fly – Part 1

As told by Lethia Artaud

I’m sorry that I’m laughing!  It’s just…I find it strange that you would ask me these things. You see, I was sheltered in a tower for much of my life, and the views I had of the world were all simulated through dreams and thoughts shared between myself and my…um…with Syria.

I saw vast mountain ranges, dark forests, seas of sand, sprawling oceans, and lush jungles, all within the safety of my mind. Did my former mistress actually see these things herself? I believe she did, many of them, as her personal accounts and other external sources would attest. But there were some stories she told that were…so fantastic, even my childish mind found it hard to believe.

One such story, she told me upon the day of my twelfth “birthday”. These were bittersweet occasions every year, because while it was a joyous time for us to celebrate our fated meeting, it was also a yearly reminder of my shrouded origins. For this reason, I was always caught in a fractious sort of joy, and Syria was not a little frustrated by my antics.

So that twelfth year, she said to me, “Lethia Artaud, thou art like the willing fly!”

I replied, “Mistress, I don’t understand. How am I a fly?”

She patted the seat next to her on the bench, just outside our tower. Behind her, the fragrant jasmine bushes filled my senses. Pouting for some reason I cannot recall, I sat next to Syria, and she smiled at me.

“Do you know of the Legend called Arachne?”

Frowning, I shook my head.

Syria feigned surprise. “Oh! My goodness! My sweet girl still has yet to hear this particular tale, hmm?”

I clapped my hands, my pout melting into a grin. “A story! Please tell me! I promise I won’t forget anything you say!”

She took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. “You see, once long ago, I was traveling the deep mountains of the north, unknown by all save the dwarfs, and even their knowledge was piece meal at best.”

To which I jumped and cried, “The Spider died!?”

And then…

…No wait. I skipped a part. I’m sorry! Hold on let me just try to um…remember.

____________________________

The Incident at Gaime

As told by Elmiryn Manard

I’m not Nyx.

I mean, yeah, I bet you’re thinking, “I know that, idiot. Kind of hard to miss the red hair.” But I feel like I gotta say that, since you’re coming and asking this of me. I mean hell, you wanna know about Arachne? How’s this for a story–

A prostitute, a nobleman, and Arachne walk into a tavern—

—What? Aw hey, jokes are stories too!

Oh fine!

Uh.

Well.

O-kay.

How about this?

When I was very young, Thendril, my former training master, told me a story. Now don’t get me wrong. He wasn’t the coddling, nurturing type. He told me war stories. Really bloody tales about warriors and champions who fought and sacrificed for greater causes. One day, I griped that all the heroes he talked about were men.

“Then let me tell you of Arachne,” he said. This made me wonder if he’d taken too many blows to the head—Thendril had such nasty cauliflower ears—because after all, Arachne was always the villain in my parents’ stories. “There’s more than one side to a tale,” my training master assured me.

Too often, you hear people bitch and whine about how heroes vanish and no one knows what became of them. Not so, with our little arachnid. Anyone well versed in the history of heavenly champions, and the Legends that rose among them, can tell you where Arachne ended up. That story in Tobias’s book? It’s only one version of a pretty famous event. I mean—it’s a little hard for the world to ignore hundreds of god-appointed champions coming together to kill one mortal. But no one asks where these people came from and who they were before heaven came and shoved a purpose up their butt. In true fashion, no one knows for certain where Arachne came from, either.

I’d like to think I’m the exception to that rule.

I mean, you have to take into consideration my source. Thendril was a war veteran. Thendril was also older than a corpse’s fart. He was a young man when the halfling clan of Tor began their bloody campaign across Talmor in the year 3500. He was born there, in a Fiamman trading fort called Gaime, but was raised as a native son on foreign soil. The Torians nearly overtook the lands surrounding his home. He was barely fourteen-years-old at the time.

The fort had slaves. Fiammans like slaves, I guess. They’re like assorted chocolates to us. Well, Gaime had a pretty exotic bunch of ‘em, because in their midst were Omatts. Have you ever seen an Omatt? They’re ape people—and I’m saying that without irony. They have long grabby tails, wide flat teeth, big lumpy heads, round monkey ears, and long arms. The fort had one in particular, with green eyes and deep violet hair. She was a young girl who refused to speak—ever—even upon threat of beating. After a time, people thought she was simple, and let the matter alone.

As Thendril put it, they weren’t close or anything. This isn’t a tale of forbidden romance, or one of those corny buddy stories. His was just the story of an observer, of a boy who cobbled together accounts from those around him. Maybe some of it was rumor, but my old training master didn’t place too much stock in bullshit, so I trusted what he said.

This is a long introduction isn’t it? See, I’m not a storyteller like Nyx. Thendril was a good one though. He started like this:

On the longest day of summer, the invading Torians could be seen from Gaime’s watchtowers. The men were on edge, because many of them had families back home, and it was said that the halflings could not be defeated. “They’re invincible,” the soldiers whispered furtively. “They say they are blessed by the gods!” And they weren’t exaggerating. Reports kept coming in of Torians being stabbed, only for them to pull the swords free from their bodies with no wound left behind.

Well, Thendril’s father, Hetrius, didn’t want to back down, even after the royal courts back at the kingdom had abandoned them. The Torians arrival was estimated to be about some two or three days. He put the slaves to work, bolstering their defenses and forging more weapons. Thendril’s job was to carry messages between the different working parties.  That was when he saw her.

The Omatt was sitting under the shade of a table, contemplating the chain that hung limp from her neck collar. Her long tail was curled around her, and her small bony body was slouched—or relaxed, however you’d like to see it.  Naturally, the boy was alarmed. He called out to her, and though her round ears flickered to him, she didn’t look up or make to run away. Confused, Thendril ran to get help, and the Omatt girl was locked up again, chained to a heavy stone wall where she was to remain until she was punished.

“Damn strange,” said one of the guards as they walked away. “How’d she get free of her tether? There were no marks on the chains to show they’d been struck, nor any welts on her neck or hands to show that she’d struggled! You think someone set her free?”

His companion answered. “Who on Halward’s plane would be dumb enough to do that?”

While they wondered this, Thendril instead asked, “Why didn’t she run?”

And to this, no one had an answer.

The next day, the boy resumed work as usual, only to hear a shout draw his eyes to the top of the fort’s tallest watchtower.

Sitting there, with hands on knees and her eyes to the horizon, was the young Omatt girl. The guard beneath her was shouting and waving his hands at those on the ground as he pointed up at her, while his partner tried bravely (or stupidly, however you’d like to see it) to climb atop the sloped roof to retrieve the slave. After the man nearly fell, he gave up his effort, and one of the older Omatt slaves was sent to collect the little renegade.

This commotion had been enough to slow down work for the day, and Hetrius did not like this. He was, after all, Fort Commander. With whip in hand, the large man stomped over to where the Omatt girl was being held at the bottom of the watchtower. He ordered her turned around and uncoiled his whip, pulling back for a blow. Then he stopped.

“The back of her shirt,” he said, squinting. “It has been torn, and there is blood on it! You there,” he pointed at the soldier holding the girl. “Is this the slave that had escaped yesterday?”

“Yes, sir!”

“But there are no marks on her back! She should have been punished!”

The soldier was about to respond when his thick brain managed to put two and two together. “I…I don’t know what to say sir. I was there when she was whipped myself!”

Hetrius’s jaw thrust forward and his thick veins bulged. He looked like a livid tomato. The commander pulled back his whip with a scream and let it lash out.

While the Fort Commander’s reaction wasn’t altogether bizarre, it’s kinda important to add that the Torians were now steering their march toward their home. The few women and children at the fort, aside from the slaves, had fled in the hopes of reaching the town of Akii, whilst the men folk worked to buy them time. The Torians were expected to strike the following day, if not that very night. Tensions were high, and little patience was spared over puzzling the mysteries surrounding annoying young slaves.

That night, Thendril stayed up with his father, listening to the leaders as they discussed their options. Morning came without any blood being shed, but the Fiammans awoke to the pants-shitting sight of at least a thousand halflings surrounding their scant hundreds. Hetrius, unrattled, ordered the men to suit up and take their ranks. The armies stared each other down. The Torian leader, bearing the black and gold heraldry of his clan, came riding out onto the field. The Fort Commander rode out to speak with him. Tense moments passed as both forces watched their leaders converse. Finally, Hetrius spat on the ground and rode back at full gallop.

“Ready the archers!” he roared.

The Torian leader had also ridden back to his line, and his frontline infantry readied their spears. Shouting could be heard on both sides as all prepared for what was most likely going to be a massacre.

Then the Omatt girl appeared.

She walked out from among the Fiamman ranks, her collar still about her neck, and her chain, once again, trailed limp along her large feet. Both sides seemed to pause, bewildered by the appearance of this little Omatt just standing clear out into the open.

Hetrius was the first to recover. “Who let her out!?” he thundered.

But she didn’t stop walking, and none went to fetch her. Fluttering about her were the tattered remains of her shirt, barely white and mostly bloody, but there, in the clear morning suns, you could see—

The Omatt’s skin was free of all wounds.

While the Fiammans gaped at her audacity, and the news of her miraculous healing spread amongst the ranks, the Torians were less impressed. The halfling leader spoke to one of his archers, and the man took aim with his bow.  The silence was so heavy, that you could hear the thwip of the arrow being loosed.

But it didn’t hit.

Instead, it just hung mid-air, just before the girl’s face, before fading away into dust—then not even dust. Just nothing. As soon as it vanished, the little girl, who could not have been older than nine, charged toward the Torian forces. The men on the other side seemed too stunned to react. Too stunned, or too scared, however you’d like to see it. Then the leader gathered enough of his wits to call the charge.

Hetrius, in reaction, also called for his men to charge.

But before the forces could meet, the Omatt girl reached the enemy first, and what happened to them was hardly to believe.

She undid them.  Just as she had undone the arrow, so did this little freak unleash a wrathful wave of ruthless power.  All the men around her perished, first becoming dust, and then from dust, nothing.  Their fellows, less in number now, were quick to notice this.  Though they still vastly outmanned the Fiammans, the Torians proved to be shit-eating cowards in the face of death. It was the whole invulnerability thing gone to their heads.

So what did they do?  They ran, of course!

The Fiamman soldiers went out of their minds with joy as their enemy retreated. They threw their helmets into the air, hugged each other, shouted and whistled…but not the Fort Commander and his son. They watched as the Omatt girl stared at the soldiers and their jubilation. Then without a word, she turned and began to walk away, northward, away from Gaime.

“What sort of magic was that?” Thendril asked. “I’ve never even heard of anything like it!”

His father shook his head. “I’m afraid I do not know.”

“She’s walking away. She means to leave for good this time. Why didn’t she just do so before, if her power was so great?”

“Perhaps she didn’t feel like it, like all those times she didn’t feel like being chained up anymore?” Thendril didn’t miss his father’s ironic tone.

“Should I fetch someone to get her, father?”

“No, son,” Hetrius said slowly. He turned his horse and rode back to the fort. “There is no catching a spider in its own web…”

And that was that.

Now, don’t mistake things. Arachne wasn’t called Arachne until many years later, and though she defeated the halflings at Gaime, the Torians went on to resume their campaign across Talmor. They almost took it all too, were it not for the efforts of a different Legend by the name of Toshihiro, who lead the Talmorian city-states in a rebellion that took the halflings down. And with that, my friends, I end the earliest story I’ve ever heard of Arachne, also known in some regions as the Spider of the West. What was her real name? Why did she become associated with the Western world? Well, you’ll have to ask someone else that question because I’m all storied-out.

Unless you’ll let me finish my joke?

So a prostitute, a nobleman, and Arachne walk into a tavern…

____________________________

The Willing Fly – Part 2

As told by Lethia Artaud

Would it bother you much if I skipped forward a portion? I’ve always had this problem with longer stories. Even as a child, it was a challenge reading me a bedtime story, because I would forget how it all started and who was in it. It frustrates me to no end, but I am determined to tell you this now, good or bad.

Well, at any rate, this was some ways into Syria’s narration, but I’ll try to explain as I go. So. The reason I thought Spider had died–

“Don’t close your eyes! Don’t!” Syria cried, as she tried to staunch the flow of blood from the young female Omatt’s head. Dark life matted the Spider’s violet hair, and her round green eyes rolled in their sockets as her eyelids fought a losing battle to stay open.

The guardians of Hudisyg, who had defended the sacred dwarven rituals until the pair of women had stolen them, were bearing down the carved out tunnels, their torches warming the darkness with their blood lust. The Spider’s hands fisted her gray robes, her breath coming in frosty clouds before her face. Their only torch sputtered on the ground, where in the sphere of light, the golden handles of a pair of scrolls winked with the fire’s dance.

“You didn’t have to take that trap for me,” Syria sniffed, trying to keep her shivering in check. “And you call me the idiot.”

The Omatt didn’t respond. In fact, her eyes closed, but she smiled faintly and said, “Web is quiet. Still no flies…” And she went limp, her breath fleeing her.

My mistress—I mean—Syria, was torn. She could either defend the Spider, or she could flee. The question was a pressing one, as at that time, she was not at the power she had become famous for.

But Syria was always sharp, and so she checked to see the Spider’s pulse.

She found none.

With her answer, the woman reluctantly lowered the Omatt to the soil, and whispered, “Thank you. If it were not for you, I would not have found the scrolls! This will help many people!” Kissing two fingers, she pressed them to the Spider’s lips before turning and fleeing, away from the shouts that drew closer.

Thus why I cried, “The Spider died?”

Oh! OH!  Wait, wait, wait.

I just remembered!

Can I say that part I had missed before?

Ahem.

This was back on the bench, before Syria had begun her story. Remember she mentioned she’d been searching for something in the northern mountains? Well she went on to say, “I was searching for hidden texts regarding dwarven enchantment techniques—rituals that saw whole groups of dwarves impervious to pain. It was a lost art in enchantment, and I wanted to use it to better treat the wounded.

“Well my search brought me to a lost city, high up in the frosty bluffs. Investigation revealed to me that it was Hudisyg, the dwarven center for magical arts. It was no easy feat getting there, child, but it was soon revealed that the real challenge was in getting out alive!”

I didn’t interrupt, my twelve-year-old body clenched in anticipation.

Syria’s eyes were on the blue sky over us. She was always looking up that way, and it wasn’t until I became much older that I wondered if she were waiting for something. She continued, “There were many traps still active in some of the facilities and temples—acid bombs that ate through metal, spikes that shot up through the floor to impale you, great scythes that came out of the walls seeking to cleave you—and those turned out to be the least of my problems. Hudisyg was not abandoned. There were guardians there, dwarven men laced with some dead magic. They were little more than beasts working under a strict spiritual ban, their minds twisted by the power that had no doubt sustained them for an age. They babbled in ancient dwarven, and their clothes were torn and dated. They hunkered around as apes, but in their hands they clenched dwarven weapons. Can you believe, my Lethia, that such creatures would corner your mistress? I could not sense their thoughts, something of their savage natures escaping my notice so that I was caught unawares.

“They pressed in, and as they did, I saw how runes glowed all along their skin—runes that, in the heat of the moment, I still recognized as Talmorian in origin. Why would the dwarves carve such things into their body? I didn’t have time to answer, of course, because just then an Omatt dropped behind me and struck me in the back of the head…”

…Uh.

…I–I’m sorry. I s-seem to have…er…lost it, again.

____________________________

The Stone in Bondage

As told by Hakeem

The Spider? Ah.

I…suppose I can tell you of her.

In my home village of Kimbia, we had little to do with Legends save for two men and an Omatt, who appeared one stormy night in a dreadful storm. Quincy does not like that I tell this story, but it is not her story to tell, it is mine. She was living in another part of the world, you see, so she hadn’t come to live with us yet.

The men were named Jack and Tobias, and they were servants to the gods Njord and Tellus respectively. And the Omatt? The men never named her in my presence, and as I came to understand it, no one knew who her patron was. She volunteered nothing about the matter. She hardly even spoke, in fact, and when she did, it was with a clipped accent that seemed less like a foreigner, and more like a child still learning the proper tones and cadences for speech. She was older than I was—around fifteen, I heard Tobias say—and she was an Omatt. I’d seen Omatts before. Plenty of them had come to Fanaea to trade and explore the jungles. But her green eyes were rare, and they fixed on me beneath a crop of dark bangs, holding me there like I was caught beneath her power.

I pressed into my mother’s soft side, still too young a boy to understand that I had to act strong, like my father. Ba-Kafeel was not the leader of our village, by any means, but he was a well-known and well-respected man in the region. Even so, it was strange that these people, these agents of heaven, came to our hut and not our village chieftain’s.  The two men spoke in our native tongue, while the girl just sat there, watching me.

“Kafeel. It is good to see you again, my friend!” Jack said as he shook my father’s hand over the fire. He was shorter than Tobias and about level with my father, his warm brown hair overgrown so that it flopped into his clear blue eyes. In hindsight, the family resemblance between he and Quincy was unmistakable. Again, she does not like that I say that, but it is true. “We are heading to Santos, but this storm has delayed us! Not a problem for me you see, but I must think of my companions.” Jack gestured at Tobias and the Omatt.

“Perhaps it is a sign of doom?” my father ventured.

“Nay! It is the work of that blowhard, Ludovico, son of Santos and Eate’s fatheaded champion.”

“Perhaps we should be careful in naming the pantheon in the same breath as our curses…” Tobias muttered.

“I will when their novices quit acting as fools!” Jack bit out. He struck his knee, and gesticulated angrily with his other hand. “Do you know that he has sent such storms across the skies that the common folk now believe it is Njord’s doing? What heresy!”

“Has he a reason for it?” Ba-Kafeel asked carefully.

“Delegation,” Jack said with disgust. “He is using his heavenly power for earthly politics, for heavens sake! How much more reviling can one get?”

“It isn’t unheard of, brother,” my father responded with a sardonic smile. “The gods have numerous times been involved in the affairs of man. Your patrons’ protests aside, what makes this any different?”

“He’s being paid for it,” Tobias said with a sad shake of his head. “And those who try to flee Santos and its turmoil are captured as slaves, under the commands of his henchmen!”

Ba-Kafeel frowned. “That is a grave thing indeed! Surely his patron would cast him down in disgrace for such behavior!”

“Aye, one would think. But the gods are veiled in their intentions. We know of our own patrons, but we cannot speak for other gods.” Here Tobias looked at the Omatt, pointedly it seemed, and that was when he noticed her intense focus on me. Blinking, he looked my way. “And Kafeel? Your son? He is up late for a youngling!”

Ba-Kafeel looked my way and chuckled. “This is Hakeem. He is suffering from nightmares.”

The other men smiled as Ma’Nguele rubbed my back. The Omatt smiled at me, and scooted forward, around the fire. I shrank further into my mother’s folds, ready to cry, when the girl held out her hands. From the dirt floor, the sands drew up as if the grains were individually plucked by invisible hands, floating in the air, and over this, her fingers worked like she were manipulating it all. Then the sands melted together, turning bright and hot, and within an instant, they darkened and cooled into the shape of a small stone doll. With a small gesture, the doll rose to her waiting palm, and this she held out to me, her smile still in place.

I took it shyly, my eyes wide with wonder as I looked the stone doll over. It was as though it had been chiseled from a larger rock, with no signs of the sand it had once come from. It was even smooth, and yet chiseled into its base in clean precision was the letters, “X-I-A”. I didn’t know what it meant then, and to this day I still do not. The stone doll had a collar around its neck, from which trailed a chain, and that wrapped around its geometric body to the end of its right leg, where it linked to a large stone. The doll had no features—no face, no genitals, nothing. A faceless slave. Still, its fantastic creation was enough for me to get excited.

I looked at Ba-Kafeel and he gave me an expectant look. Blushing, I said, “Thank you,” in my native tongue.

The girl said nothing, except to grin wider. She stood to her feet, her long tail raised and curled at the tip, and she turned and left our hut. Neither of her companions moved to stop her. Tobias was even grinning.

He said to my father, “Forgive her. She does as she pleases, and likes the weather best when it is fierce.”

And so the three Legends remained with us until the morning, when the storm cleared and the skies were blue. I rose early, stone doll in hand, to stand with my father outside of our hut. My brothers and sisters were still too content to remain sleeping—but they didn’t know the wonder I had seen last night, and I was excited to see more.

“Thank you, Kafeel,” Tobias said, thumping my father’s shoulder. “For the food and the warm beds, thank you!”

My father waved this away. “It is nothing. You have done so much more for me than I can hope to ever repay.” And here he rubbed my head vigorously, like I was the prize.

The Omatt stood apart from the men, her eyes on the sky toward the west, where they would be heading. She must have sensed my eyes on her, for she looked my way, and once more she smiled. She gestured for me to come closer, her ape-like tail swaying behind her. With a gulp, I neared, and she crouched down. That was when I heard her speak for the first and last time.

“When Santos free, he free.” She pointed at the doll and winked. I could only gaze at her, open mouthed. I didn’t understand her, of course, and it was only until after they left that my father translated for me.

We followed the three Legends well outside the village, where there they took off into the sky. Tobias held onto Jack, whilst the Omatt soared into the sky alone, her ascent less like the smooth flight of her companions’, and more like she were pulling and swinging on ropes unseen. She paused, halting in mid-air upside down to look back at my father and me. Grinning wildly, she gave a wave, and flew away.

A week later, the chains on my stone doll were gone.

I never again met the Omatt, for her adventures took her elsewhere, and soon the names “Arachne” and “Spider of the West” began to float to our little Fanaea. But in the years that came, she came to affect my life in ways I hadn’t imagined—in ways that Quincy hadn’t imagined, for her life soon was every bit a part of mine. And do I hate the Spider for all the pain I went through?

…No, I cannot say I share the same loathing that Quincy does, but then again, my wife has many more reasons to hold enmity against the Legend.

I will say, however, that upon the destruction of my village in Kimbia, one of the few belongings I was able to find again was that little stone doll. As I plucked it up from the ashes, all blackened with soot, I felt my breath catch.

The collar and chain were once more around the doll’s neck.

It wasn’t until Quincy and I joined the pirate ship that we learned how the marauders came to find us, and how it was allowed to happen. Once this knowledge became clear, my then future-wife demanded that I throw the stone doll away. I did not, feeling compelled to keep it. Perhaps for a sign. But whether through accident or design, Quincy had lured me off Tulki’s ship, and so it sailed off with my belongings. Among them was the odd little trinket. I do not know what became of it…

Now that I mention it, I wonder if it is still under bondage?

____________________________

The Willing Fly – Part 3

As told by Lethia Artaud

Sigh…well, I’ve got it all again…sort of. What if I just returned to when Syria fled from the guardians, then?

My former mistress could hear the wild dwarves shouting and hollering in excitement as they came across the Spider’s corpse. She didn’t stop, for fear that some of the guardians still pursued her, but with time it became clear that she was no longer being sought. With scrolls in hand, Syria knew that she could unlock the secrets of the ancient dwarven enchanters, but something held her fast.

“I cannot leave her,” she breathed. “I must bury her. It is only right.”

With a resolute nod, Syria returned to the dark stone city.

There she came upon the frost-covered central square, where the Spider was strung up like she were on a web of her own. Ropes held her spread-eagled between two metal spires, where her battered body was free to bleed out onto the icy stones. All around her were the dwarven guardians, their eyes and runes glowing blue in the dark of the buildings. Syria tried to hide behind a low crumbling wall, but she underestimated the intelligence of her foes, for one on patrol found her, and in short order, she was subdued and brought forth. As an enchantress, her only real defense was in psychic attacks, but again, these dwarves seemed immune to all enchantment.

The woman was forced to her knees as one of the guardians came forth with a great sword.

Then the Spider spoke, blood dripping from her pale lips, and everyone gave a great start. “All…flies…here. Thanks…idiot,” she said with a quivering smile. Laboriously, she lifted her head and her eyes flew open.

“You were bait!” I exclaimed, when Syria first told me this story as a child.

The woman broke off, and I shrank beneath her stern gaze.

When I was young, I didn’t interrupt much except for when something absolutely shocked me to the core. Now being sheltered, you’d think I’d have been surprised in such a way all the time, but not so. As a youth growing up, because all of my knowledge of the outside world was second-hand and seen through mental simulations, it felt detached. Not unexciting, but certainly not something that made me jump or squeal as though it were happening before me. I was always aware of that meta-existence, where I seemed to hover impervious to everything I witnessed. And so it was with Syria’s stories, as fascinating as they were.

Argos, on the other hand…do you know that once, when Syria was telling us of the time she was caught by a pair of cannibals, he went running outside to relieve himself because he was so excited? He didn’t quite make it, the poor dear. Oh, he’ll be embarrassed if he finds out I’ll tell you, but he managed to sprinkle a bit as he scurried out the door. Syria wasn’t all that amused, and Argos’s tail remained firmly tucked between his legs until—

Huh?

Oh, I’m sorry. I was telling a story?

…Um…which story was that again?

____________________________

The Battle of Hazmes

As told by Paulo Moretti

Eh…I’m familiar with Arachne, but what I know of her isn’t so nice. That is what you want, I bet. You want something nice. See, Arachne isn’t too popular with the Santian Kingdom. You have all those crem lias and crem dons who spit just at her mention—and it is quite a sight to see a noble person spit! But why wouldn’t they, when she helped lay to waste their biggest source of income? Even the common folk can’t seem to embrace her entirely. She was wild. Carnal. Pér ya. You want nice? I’ll see what I can do.

This story I learned about in my schooling. It took place near my home village of Felico in the year 3509, when my father was a young man. The coastal city of Hazmes was a trading city that made most of its profits from the slave trade. That year, the city’s slaves were rebelling, and certain estadentias—politicians—tried to “help” them by providing them with arms. Now, don’t get me wrong, eh?  I don’t like slavery, but even could see the baloso move that was. With weapons, the frustrated slaves could act out on their anger and rage. So yes. There were revolts. De reán, me soque, Eate! Even for someone who wanted to stir up trouble, I can’t see how these estadentias could be okay with these slaves hurting so many innocent people.

Eh. But they did. The reason for this was that, in creating a scandal over the slave issue, the plotters could discredit the reigning duke, Signor Niccolò Jutien Mercando, who was slated to be the next Chief of Commerce. There were rumors going around that Ludovico, our beloved champion of Eate, was somehow using his godly powers in less than godly ways to aid in the profit making—profits that hurt the lower class, of which my father, at the time, belonged to.

But champions came to fight this, and they were the agents of Njord and Tellus. But the real interesting one, was a young Omatt who the poor called Arachne. Did you know? It was the Santians who so named her. No one but those champions she traveled with knew her real name, and it was rarely uttered, if ever.

Well, while her fellow champions set about hunting down Ludovico, Arachne was quick to address the problems in the city. First, of course, were the slave riots. Now how could one person, Legend or no, handle such a broad nightmare as this? The slaves made up nearly half of the population of the city, and with arms their disorganization was balanced by their sheer numbers. Noble families were being slaughtered in their homes.

As many of you may already know, Arachne is famed for her inseño brand of flight: The Omatt could move through the air as though she were climbing and swinging along threads invisible to the common man. But what people don’t understand is that these “threads”? They were connected to everything, not just the air.  The world was Arachne’s web, and all she had to do was get a good grip on you to undo everything you were.

Espero. Wait. I know what you’re thinking. But she didn’t kill any of the slaves. Didn’t even take away their weapons. You want to know what Arachne did?

She raised an army.

Not an angry mass of unwashed thousands acting independently of one another—I’m talking about a unified fighting force that struck down the local government. Arachne could see the anger and misguided terror that hung over Hazmes, and with clever fingers, she undid this. Maybe some would call it a form of enchantment. Me? I call it a damn good bit of politicking, ha! Afterwards, none of the slaves felt out of sorts or as if they were coming out of a spell. The Omatt had simply taken their similar wishes, and bonded them into one single goal.

With her at the head of this new army, the random destrucíon ended, and the fight was taken to the duke’s castle overlooking the city.

Niccolò came out with his chamberlain and small guard in all his gold and blue finery—you know, que los crem dons pusieron: The soft velvet cap with the big sweeping feather, a quilted half skirt, the puffy shorts, and tasseled shoulder guards made of gold and silver. With all of this cacare on, the duke raised his polished rapier and shouted. “You demonios overstep your station! Ludovico and the king’s men will come, and they will see you all hang!

The chamberlain was the only one who survived to translate Arachne’s response. And you want to know what she said?

You first.

And he was. The Duke of Hazmes, Signor Niccolò Jutien Mercando, was pulled up by his neck by some invisible rope, along with all of his guard, and the peasant army cheered as the nobles’ eyes bulged, and though they struggled, with time they turned still. The former duke’s chamberlain, Signor Corelo Manuel Duras, was tasked with taking a message to the king. An ultimatum, in fact.

Either the Santian Kingdom outlawed slavery, or the royal family would be overthrown.

An easy decision, yes? Conio, of course not! The royal family was in a compromised position. If they didn’t do as was demanded, they were very likely going to die, but if they did do as they were asked, then they would be losing untold amounts of gold to the Fiamman Kingdom, which, to this day even, still wholly support the slave trade.

Today, this situation simply could not happen—Santos’s army has increased tenfold since that century, and they have become a great deal smarter about security. But then? The common folk made up the majority of the kingdom, and they were not hurt by the slave riots at all. In fact, most joined in. Only the nobles had any reason to object—and why not, when their lives were on the line? It was a very bad time to be rich, then.

These were all things that had been building up to this moment. The Kingdom of Santos is a good example of what happens when the majority of commoners get fed up with the minority of rulers. Our entire government transformed, shifting more power from the monarchy to the people. This all came at the cost of much blood and loss, and yet I’d like to say that the Santian people are not calgatos. We are good people—passionate maybe, but so were our neighbors to the north, eh?

So when the Spider revealed her intention to march on the king, regardless of his response, many defied her. This pissed the lia off, yeah? And in her anger, she destroyed their beloved harbor, before taking to the skies, like a brat throwing a tantrum.

Days later, the champions of Tellus and Njord returned, a defeated Ludovico at heel. When they inquired about the Spider, they learned of her antics, and with great displeasure, moved to set her right. In their absence, the people of Hazmes started to clean up their ravaged city. Much pain and damage had been caused, and compassion appeared to chase away all those mal sentiemants.

The common folk were unprepared then, when the royal army appeared within sight of the city, ready to assert the King’s power once more. With the bloodlust gone and their weapons in disrepair (those people had no idea how to properly care for a weapon, let alone how to use it) they had no chance. Leaders were sent to beg the generals for forgiveness, but they were denied.

“You’ve made your choice, bestiales!” the soldiers barked. “You will all pay for your crimes!”

On the day the army was to march on Hazmes, the common folk made one last plea.

“Please!” they cried. “It was that damned Arachne! She misled us!”

Again they were denied. “Idi’utes! None so lead you when you first began your filthy revolts!”

The archers were readied. The horseback soldiers got into a position for a follow-up charge. The generals took a breath, ready to give out the order—

And the earth split open to swallow them whole. The wind whipped up just as the archers let loose their arrows, fouling their path so that they fell harmlessly, and the riders and their horses were taken up into the air, their bodies turning for a moment in suspension, like something held them fast—

The three heavenly champions appeared, descending onto the battlefield. The Spider’s tail was up and curled at the tip as she smiled at her new prey. With a glance over her shoulder, she once again stirred the courage—or the bloodlust, some might say—of the peasants. Emboldened, the hundreds of thousands of common folk charged forward and attacked the stunned soldiers with anything they had.

“Spider, nay!” The champion of Tellus shouted. “Innocent blood may be shed!”

“None innocent,” she returned before reducing the soldiers and horses in her invisible web to dust.

The battle was long and fierce and horrific, even with the aid of the Legends. Through the whims of the Spider, the champions could not unleash their power as they normally would, and so could not make the battle quick. Many of our people died, but many more were the King’s men. It was a high cost to pay, pér conio, sheer numbers won again!

The king finally answered the Legends and the people of Hazmes—yes, he would outlaw slavery.

The champion of Njord became quite cross with the Spider. “That was what you had us fighting for? We came here for Ludovico, not political agendas!”

The champion of Tellus intervened. “Brother, it was my fault the Spider got such ideas. I merely suggested that in helping the people of Hazmes, we could perhaps help the slaves too. I had no idea this was her intention!”

“And when does anyone know what this lunatic is thinking?”

A Jose Hartrand-Ines Consuelo, the young historian who eventually wrote all of this cacare down into a book so that I could fall asleep on it many years later, overheard this. But the account stops there. Did the Spider receive any punishment for what she had done? No. In fact, it’s said that she split ways with her fellows to go northward, into the Sibesona. And did the people of Hazmes beg the remaining Legends to stay any longer in the smoldering ruins of their city? Definitely not!

I told you, eh?  It’s hard telling a Santian story that’s nice about Arachne.

____________________________

The Willing Fly – Part 4

As told by Lethia Artaud

It…it is difficult to think of Syria, so I suppose that would account as to the reason my memory is shifting so. I hope I am at least in some way coherent?

Ah. Well…where were we before this part?

The Spider striking Syria. Right.

So my former mistress found herself facing down a large gang of these dwarven guardians when suddenly she was knocked to the ground with her eyes bursting with stars and her head throbbing in sharp pain.

“Idiot!” her assailant spat over her before she launched herself at the dwarves, her body like a rogue marionette doll, wheeling free through the air without ever touching the ground. Her hands and feet struck hard as she went. It was almost graceful, in a jarring, neck-breaking sort of way, and Syria was too awed to even get up from the floor. The guardians fled, and the Spider returned to my former mistress, helping her up. The woman tried to read the Omatt’s mind, but found herself blocked, just as with the guardians.

“Who are you?” she asked, disconcerted. “And…and why did you hit me?”

“Because,” The Spider snapped, already walking away.

“Because why??”

“Because you stupid.”

“Wait!”

The Omatt sighed and stopped.

Syria dared to venture closer, her hand still on the back of her head. “But…who are you?”

The Spider looked at her as if she were blowing spit bubbles with crossed eyes. “Spider.”

“Spider?”

“Idiot. Spider. Not say again.”

Syria nodded, eyebrows raised. “Spider. Very well. I am Syria of Albias. May I ask what you are doing out here, Spider?”

Here, the Omatt frowned, and turned away. “Spider’s business.”

Syria clasped her hands behind her back. “Are we perhaps searching for the same thing?”

Spider shrugged. “Spread web. Idiot shook it. Was too early.”

“Oh I intruded on something, did I?”

“Yes. Busy. Go away,” the Omatt coiled her legs as though she were about to leap into the air in that bizarre form of flight.

At this point, Syria confessed to being a bit desperate. She’d been searching for ages for this valuable knowledge, and the guardians were looking to be too formidable for her to handle on her own. So quickly, she blurted out. “I can find a way to stop all pain!”

This made the Spider pause, and she turned to fix her green gaze on the enchantress. “No pain–?”

WAIT! Wait. Okay. So I just remembered how the story…um…ends. Would it hurt if I said it now? No? Yes?

Well I may as well.

So—back to Syria and the Spider captured. I just was at the part where the Omatt had woken up.

She smiled at everyone up in her bondage, her wounds healing and her cheeks flushing with life. It was as though she were coming back from the dead. Then her eyes darkened and threads of light erupted from the center of her chest.  They coursed out through the air, where they each speared lightning fast into the chests of each of the guardians. Beads of light coursed along the threads, from the dwarves to the Spider. The guardians were utterly paralyzed.

“It looked painful for them,” Syria had told me as a child. “Their bodies were rigid, their veins bulging. Their skin started to deteriorate as the light went from their runes.”

“What happened when they were all gone?” I whispered, sitting on the edge of the bench.

She looked at me, her eyes blinking from the fog of memory. “The Spider freed herself, and said to me, ‘Does it hurt?’

“I was confused, naturally, so I asked her, ‘How do you mean?’

“She replied, ‘Your tomorrow.’

“‘And why would my tomorrow hurt?’

“The Spider shrugged at me. ‘Because. You already try to heal it.’ She pointed at the scrolls in my hand before grinning and leaping into the air until she flew out of sight.” Syria frowned at her lap.

I blinked at her. “Mistress, what’s wrong?”

And she replied…

…I can’t. I can’t do it.

…It—It isn’t that I’ve forgotten. I just…Now I wish I didn’t remember.

____________________________

Demon Etiquette

As told by Nyx

My brother Thaddeus could be an asshat at times. Before he went off to join the military, Thad had a thing where he would try to scare me if he got bored enough.

He was bored plenty, I assure you.

One night, when I was six, I was in my room, trying to study Common so that I could talk to Marq the merchant elf in his next visit. The elf was one of the few outsiders that came to visit Tosmai, and I was fascinated with the prospect of being able to talk to him. So far, I could say, “Hello,” and “I am the university,” the latter being a very rough translation of, “Och ne erduk,” which actually means, (when translated properly,) “I am a student at school.” With me saying these silly things over and over, it wasn’t hard for Thaddeus to figure out what it was I was doing. Naturally, he had to bother me.

“Kooo-ah…” he called spookily from the doorway.

I ignored him, a tactic I had learned from my mother when our bickering filled the house.

Thaddeus persisted, raking his fingers down the wall. “Koah!

I pursed my lips but managed to keep my eyes resolutely on the open page of my book. I heard my brother fully pass through the bead curtain. I could sense him hovering behind me and snapped my book shut with a little growl.

I turned to glare up at him. “What do you want, cajeck?

“I wanted to warn you,” he said with intense gravity in his tone.

“About what?”

Thaddeus sat on my bed and lounged back, a smirk firmly in place. “Did you know filling your head with weird ideas gets bad attention?”

“A-ma said you can’t bother me when I’m reading.”

“Well you’re not reading right now, are you tail sucker?”

My lips puckered. I didn’t even hesitate as I turned my head. “A-maaaaa!

Thaddeus jumped up, his hands going around my mouth. “Shhh! Cajeck! Do you want the Spider to hear you?”

After I shook off my brother’s hands, I looked at him as if he were crazy. “Spiders can’t hear!”

“Who says?”

“My books! Spiders feel sound, they don’t hear it!”

“You can hardly read those things!”

A-pa told me, before he left! And there’s pictures—”

“Fine, fine. But what if there was a really big spider that could feel what you’re saying now?” He crossed his arms and bore down on me with a malevolent grin. “What if she’s crawling along her great wide web to come get you?”

My body bunched and my face betrayed my growing unease. “Stop it. You’re lying. There are no spiders that big. My books—“

“Are worth about as much as Atalo’s soiled diapers. I mean, really Koah? What do you need to learn Common for? To speak with that elf beggar who comes rattling through town with his crap?”

“He’s not a beggar! He’s the only person that’s ever nice to me! He gives me candy.”

Thaddeus slapped a hand to his face. “My sister, doomed to be a monster’s meal all for her sweet tooth. You do know what they say about weird men giving candy to little girls, right?”

“Marq isn’t weird.” But even I knew I was being generous at the time.

“He doesn’t ask you to do anything, right?” My brother’s face darkened a bit, in that way I’d seen him get when I told him of how I was bullied. “Doesn’t touch you?”

I frowned, too naïve to understand his line of questioning. “No. He just tries to sell me things.”

“Huh,” Thaddeus said with a nod. The dark look cleared, but his frown remained. With a sigh, the teenager reached over and plucked a book off my desk. It was my book on parlor tricks—the chapter on sleight of hand was bookmarked. “That’s good then. I was afraid she’d have you for sure.”

I gave him a confused look. “She?”

He spared a mild glance as he looked over the book cover. “The Spider.”

“The Spider is a person?”

Thaddeus laughed harshly. “Oh. I don’t know about that.

“Then what is she?” I couldn’t help it. My brother was always good at leading me on.

“Remember how you learned about the Unnamed One in erduk?

“Uh-huh.”

“Well the Spider is like him, only no one knows who her patron is.”

I frowned. “But don’t champions have to say who they serve?”

Thaddeus offered a genuine smile. “You’re too smart for your own good, Koah.” He ran his hand through his curly hair and returned to sitting on my bed. Leisurely, he began to flip through the pages of my book. “In any other case, you’d be right. But the Spider is different. She has no name, no god, and no parents. Some people think she ate them.”

“She ate her parents?” I cried in horror.

“Maybe. Who knows? What you should be worried about are the facts.”

“The facts?”

“The facts.” Thaddeus leaned in towards me, and I leaned in towards him. He started to whisper with a grave face, “She eats people who stray too far from where they’re meant to be. That includes doing weird stuff, like learning Common to talk to dirty elves.”

I pulled back with a scoff—but my body was shivering. “That’s dumb!”

My brother shook his head emphatically. “No! It’s true!” He pointed a finger over his shoulder. “You remember Terius, the boy who ate snails and thought he could become one some day if he just sat still long enough? He’s gone! I just got back from going over to his home, and the whole place was covered in cobwebs!”

“You’re lying!”

“I swear on my life!” Thaddeus insisted.  “There was nothing but thick sheets of sticky silk all over the daikut!

“You’re lying, and I’m going to tell A-ma!” I snapped, close to tears and already getting out of my chair.

“Don’t! Do you want A-ma to get taken by the Spider!?”

I froze, my eyes going wide. “Why would she go after A-ma?”

Thaddeus feigned a frustrated sigh and got up to shove me back into my seat. He crouched next to me, tossing my book onto my desk. “Fine. So you don’t want to believe me about Terius. I wanted to spare you this, since you’re such a tail sucker, but if this story will squish the fleas in your brain, then maybe it’s worth it.” My brother cleared his throat and started, “The Spider of the West is a demon, Nyx. She has no home and no loyalty to anybody. Oh sure. For a little while, she worked like all good champions did—helping people, righting wrongs, punishing the wicked…but then her true nature came out, and she took to wandering. She started from the south, in Erminia, where she traveled up through Ginger Weed Country straight to the Ailuran Nation. While she was meditating one night in a forest clearing, three Ailuran boys came across her. They were running away from home, abandoning their families and their duties to find their fortunes with the Albian dwarves in Ulsmel, the northern colony.

“Seeing the Spider there, none knew what to do. They’d never seen someone like the Spider before. She was an Omatt. An ape person. You’ve seen a picture of them right? Long grabby tails, long arms, round ears? Right. Anyway, these boys had grown up together, and so they were very close. So close, in fact, that each relied on the other to complement the things they lacked when faced with a challenge. That’s why Alcae, the boy of strength, bravely stepped forward first.

“’What are you, little thing? And when you’re done answering, would you please move out of the way?’

“’No. Boy rude,’ the Spider said. She didn’t open her eyes or move from her spot. ‘Will not.’

“’You are in Ailuran lands, creature! You must answer!’

“The Spider’s eyes opened and the air stilled. Her eyes glowed green in the dark. ‘Boy came upon me. Who is he?

“’I am Alcae,’” Thaddeus made a show of thumping his chest with his fist. “’And these are my brothers in friendship, Eolus, and Cato.’

“’Hmph. Thou art babes. Go away.’

“’Babes!?’ Alcae roared and bared his fists. ‘You are a fool to challenge us!’

“The Spider’s eyes narrowed. ‘Not challenging. Sparing. Leave, or Spider change her mind.’

“’That a fool such as you can barely speak gives me confidence that I can rip off your tail and strangle you with it!’”

By this point I was riveted, my knees drawn up to my chest and my face half hidden behind them. My fingers gripped my legs, knuckle-white. My stomach was turning into knots, because I knew what came next would be terrible.

Thaddeus went on, relishing in my growing anxiety. “Alcae boldly entered into the clearing, and suddenly the ground lit up with a web of glowing threads. The threads were rooting into the ground, and they all went back to the center of the Spider’s chest where little beads came up from the ground and went along the lines to be absorbed by her body. The boy’s feet stuck to this stuff and he couldn’t get free. As he struggled, he lost his balance and fell over. The threads sprang to life and wrapped around him, holding him down. They got into his chest, and the Spider started pulling his soul out using her web.”

I was shivering at this point. “Didn’t his brothers do anything??”

“Eolus was going to, but Cato held him back. ‘Wait! You will just meet the same fate as Alcae!’

“But Eolus was cocky as much as he was quick. Confident in his speed, he just said, ‘Nay! I must save our brother before the demon has him! She will not be able to catch my quick feet, and I can step around these threads better than any dancer!’ And he went, fighting off his brother’s hands, into the clearing.

“At first it seemed he would be right. Eolus quickly and skillfully avoided the many threads of the Spider’s web, and reached his brother in no time at all. But up close, he saw how Alcae was wrapped in the threads. Taking out his knife, Eolus just grinned arrogantly. ‘I was fast and skillful enough to get this far, I can do this equally as good!’”

“No!” I murmured.

“Yes!” Thaddeus said with a wicked grin. “As soon as Eolus touched the glowing threads, they wrapped about him faster than he could even think, and he fell to the ground next to Alcae. Now two brothers were caught and both were unconscious. Alcae, having been there the longest, was growing smaller, his muscles receding as his skin turned sallow and thin. The only one left was Cato—but the last brother was different from the others.

“Instead of solving his problems using his body, Cato used his mind. He was very smart, and very clever. Seeing the Spider’s web, he knew he could not step forward to save his brothers by brute force or speedy skill. So he spoke to the champion instead. ‘Demon. You introduced yourself as Spider.’

“’Did not introduce…but did say was Spider,’ the Spider replied.

“’May I ask why you are here?’

“’I wish it.’

“’You are alone in a strange land. Our meeting here seems to show a common need for change.’ The Spider didn’t respond. She just narrowed her eyes.

“Smoothly, Cato continued. ’Our purpose was to seek our fortunes in the north, but I see now that we are too young and weak to even survive the perils of our own forests! Please. Accept my apology on behalf of us all and release my brothers. I cannot live without them.’

“’Can,’ the Spider replied. ‘Are doing it now.’

“’Just as well, I’d rather my brother’s be with me.’

“The Spider didn’t speak right away. She looked Cato up and down, her ape tail rising to curl behind her. ‘You say you leaving. What is north?’

“‘We heard tales of artifacts and riches that the dwarves were keeping for themselves. We wished to have some. It is said that great powers can be gained from some of these things.’

“The Spider thought for a moment, then without a move or even a blink, her glowing threads began to recede, back into her chest. Cato’s brothers were freed, but Alcae was reduced to a frail old man, and Eolus little better. As the Spider rose to walk away, Cato called after her, ‘Wait!’

“The Omatt stopped and looked back at him, and the boy pleaded, ‘Please! Restore them! I cannot have my brothers so! I cannot carry them home, and surely the wolves will do away with them should I leave to get help!’

“The Spider just smiled. ‘Asked for release. Not restoration. Gave them release.’ She turned and started walking away. ‘Spider is what others wish. Call her demon…then she is one. But Cato give information. Much desired information. Spider will spare him. Should not push luck.’”

“And what did Cato do?” I asked tremulously.

Thaddeus gave a sad shake of his head. “Cato was clever enough to survive the encounter, and even got the Spider to free his brothers, but he was also arrogant, and that one word—demon—cost him his two friends. He had to return home alone to get help, but before his brothers could be attended to, the beasts of the forest did away with them.”

“And the Spider?”

“She was gone. Probably went farther north. But see, Koah? If you stray from where you’re meant to be, than the Spider will come to get you!”

I swallowed hard at the lump in my throat.

That night, I tried to sleep, and after hours of fretting, I finally slipped away to nightmares of a strange ape girl with green eyes, sitting on a web of light, while I cowered in the darkness, hoping she wouldn’t see me. The next day, I told my A-ma the story, and she scoffed, rolling her eyes.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, can your brother not torment you for one second?”

“Was it all a lie, then?” I asked hopefully. At this rate, I was never going to sleep well again.

My mother faltered, her hand going to scratch her neck. “Ah…well…no. Some of it is true. Oh! But my little night shard, do not cry. Come here. Shh, ehna ehna.” My mother petted my hair and rocked me as we sat in the kitchen, the early morning light coloring the room a sleepy shade. “The story Thaddeus told you was partially true, yes. There was an encounter by some of our youth long ago with the Spider of the West, but all the boys survived in good health. She was only asking for directions.”

“Really?” I sniffled, looking up at her from her bosom.

Fotini smiled. “Yes, my child.” She took hold of my face and in her eyes I could see love shining. “Do not listen to your brother. You are not a freak. The Spider will not come after you for wanting to better yourself and expand your horizons!”

“Even for learning Common?” I mumbled.

“You’re A-pa knew Common. There is nothing wrong with that!”

Just then, Thaddeus appeared, dressed and ready for erduk. Toddling after him was Atalo, dressed only in his diaper and waving a wooden sword around. My oldest brother smiled as my mother and I spared him a glare. “Morning!” he chirped as he began his forage for food.

My mother spoke as she gently displaced me from her lap. “Now while your brother tells you tales about demons and spiders, perhaps he would’ve found better material in his dear A-ma?”

Thaddeus’s apple froze on its way to his mouth.

Soon, the sound of him pleading and yelping outside could be heard as my mother swatted his bottom with the broom handle. I watched from the window, Atalo on my lap, a satisfied grin on my face. Sitting on the table next to me was the Common book from last night. My little brother tapped the glass with his wooden sword, and gurgled out, “Thaddy…Ca-jeck.”

____________________________

The Willing Fly – Part 5

As told by Lethia Artaud

…Yes, I suppose you’re free to give me that look. I’ve been a terrible storyteller, and once I finally had the story completely, I refused to tell it. But I gave my word. Good or bad, this is the last of it.

If you’ll recall, the last part I had left off at was when Syria was trying to convince the Spider to stay and help her.

“No pain?” Spider said, her tail twitching. “Of heart, or body?”

Breathless, the woman replied, “There’s a possibility for both. I just…I need to find the magical records that can show me how! This is Hudisyg, the dwarven center of magical research! If there was ever a place where such knowledge was to be found, it’d be here! After all, what else are those guardians guarding?”

The Omatt blinked at her. Then she smiled slowly.

“Spider’s web trembles,” she breathed, so that Syria could barely hear. “Syria is the trembler. Does Syria dream?”

“Yes. All the time. For a better world for all.”

The Spider’s smile widened. “Should stop. Dangerous.

“And you? Do you dream?”

The Omatt laughed harshly. “Can’t. Never sleep. Too busy waiting.”

“For what?”

“Everything.”

And from there is where the rest of the story I’ve already told you happened. They found the scrolls, Spider saved Syria from a trap and seemed fatally injured, but in truth she was just baiting Syria so that my former mistress would bring all the dwarves to one place. I was never told why the Spider desired this, or what she took from those dwarves, but it’s my guess that she found a power other than what Syria had been seeking.

Back to my twelfth birthday, after Syria ended her story. She fixed her eyes on me and laid a hand on my hair. “I believe you can see and understand a great many things, child. But I think you choose not to see, sometimes. I think you walk into the hands of the enemy as the Spider did…as I did, like a willing fly. Do not get caught up in what does not work. The Spider’s dissatisfaction with the world was inevitably her downfall. She could not find appreciation in anything, and her values diminished until she was as the dwarven men—driven by some esoteric need that none could fully comprehend.”

I furrowed my little brow, and Syria just chuckled at me. “What is it, Lethia dear?”

I looked at her. “If getting that power was bad for the Spider, than why was it okay for you?”

Syria’s smile gained a shadowed hook as she responded to me.

“The difference between me and the Spider is, that I do not get bored. On the contrary, I become deeply involved.”

Obsessed, she meant.

Looking back now…I think I could have put it together, even at the age of twelve. Maybe then all of us wouldn’t be here, sharing broken stories about a broken Legend. The magic Syria found in Hudisyg…was that the evil she used in Albias?  Syria called me the willing fly because I gave into my aimless passions as a child, but it seems I gave into her lies just as well…

____________________________

A Hungry Nothing

As told by Quincy

…Nothing fills me with such disgust as hearing that creature’s name. I’m almost insulted that you would ask me to speak of it…her.  I’m sure you’d fancy something entertaining, though I fear what I have to say would entertain the sick and disturbed. And I know her true name. I know the name of this evil, this plague that was visited upon Gaia when she came puking and screaming from her mother’s rancid womb. I will not say it. It is a sin, I’m almost certain of that now, to give that damned ape anything befitting a moral sentient creature. The Spider of the West? Arachne? These could easily be used to describe a horrible beast, and she was just that, make no mistake.

I have no real story to give. Just broken accounts of what that demon did—to my life, to so many others.

I suppose I can begin by stating how we met. You see, there was a short time when Jack let me travel with him after my mother’s death, and one of our last trips was to the Indabe. There, at a little oasis town called Abija, we met up with Tobias and his new adolescent ward, whom they only called, “Spider.” Being older, she was much taller than I, and yet from the looks of her, I guessed I could beat her in an arm wrestling match. She was skinny—unhealthily so—and her green eyes had a cold glint to them that froze my blood.

“Quincy, this is Spider. Spider, Quincy,” Tobias gestured between us.

“Hello,” I said shyly. I think I was between the ages of five or seven at the time.

Instead of replying, the Omatt glared at Tobias.

The tall man faltered, scratching at his bushy eyebrow. “Oh! I’m sorry…I should mention that Spider has a special condition that makes speech difficult for her. As a result, her comprehension is fine but she cannot hold a conversation with others. I’ve been trying to help her with…” At my lost look, Tobias trailed off again, his cheeks coloring.

Jack just laughed and tousled my hair.  “Fledgeling, what your uncle is trying to say, is that Spider is mute.”

I blinked at her. “Oh.”

Spider just gazed at me guardedly.

We spent that night eating and carousing, my father and my uncle conversing with the locals while I took in all the strange sights and sounds of that foreign land. Only Spider seemed withdrawn, her eyes out on the moonlit sea of sand that surrounded our little haven. Her spine was curled and her tail wrapped around into her lap, where she stroked it gently. Finally, I noticed her reticence and moved to speak to her. “Is something wrong?” I asked.

She looked at me sharply, and I jumped. Then I remembered that she couldn’t speak. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I just thought you looked sad. Where are your parents?”

I could see her nostrils flare and her round ears twitch but her face otherwise remained passive as she looked away from me. I bit my lip and sat closer to her on the pillow cushions. “Did you lose them? I lost my mother. Birds took her eyes.”

Spider looked at me sidelong and I looked down into my lap. “I love father, but I miss mother.”

“Miss. Okay. To…Miss,” came the lisping response. She spoke slow and thick like a simpleton would.

I looked at the Omatt in surprise. “You spoke!”

Spider’s face screwed up and her tail flopped in her grip. “Miss. Mo-ther. Love.

I nodded my eyes tearing up. “I did love her! I still do! Do you miss your parents?”

Spider shrugged.

I bit my lip. From my pocket, I pulled out a small brown and cream quill. “Here,” I said as I handed the item to her. The Omatt scrunched her nose up at it, but I pushed it toward her insistently. “Take it! That was my mother’s. Since you don’t have a mother, we can share. I think she’d like you.”

The Spider stared, bewildered by the gift. Then she smiled.

The rest of the night went merrily enough, and in a short time after that, we were as sisters.

This all sounds nice, right? But trust me when I say that it didn’t last long. In the coming years, my father would venture off for quest after quest, leaving me in the care of the others. Often times Tobias and Spider would go with him, and I would be left in the care of either one or both of them. But one day, word came that Ludovico, the champion of Eate, was abusing his powers for base needs. It was one thing for agents of heaven to oppose each other over their gods’ principles, but it was another thing entirely to use one’s powers to answer the whims of mortals. The direness of the situation demanded that all three of my caretakers go, so I was sent to stay with a friend in the Kingdom of the Sands whilst Jack, Spider, and Tobias addressed the problem on the other side of the world.

They later returned…without Spider.

“But where is she?” I cried. “She isn’t dead, is she?”

“No fledgeling,” Tobias said with a sad smile. “Spider just…needs time to herself. She’ll come around.”

But she never did.

In just a short year after that, I was sent to live in the Fanaean village of Kimbia, as my father’s work kept him perpetually in the southern hemisphere, and having me in the Kingdom of the Sands no longer became convenient. Our friends there argued that it was unsafe for me to be in Fanaea because of its wild and primitive society. They said I would be safer staying in the well-guarded kingdom, where my father’s enemies could not reach me. This objection was momentarily silenced when Tellus granted a sort of reprieve to Tobias, and he chose to stay with me in the village. Naturally, it wasn’t long before he was called on again, only this time he left in the dead of night without telling me. I had to hear it from Kafeel in the morning that my so-called uncle had gone to take care of something important that required his immediate attention, and he would be back soon.

Then the people of Kimbia, along with Hakeem’s family, were all slaughtered, and my caretakers were nowhere in sight. Hakeem and I were the only survivors left of a bloody attack from marauders—all enemies of my father. They searched the jungles for me for days afterwards, moving their camps hither and thither. We barely escaped their notice, but in all our movement, we could not properly gather food or find shelter, and so we were just barely surviving. It was the arrival of the pirate captain, Tulki that saved Hakeem and I, but even that solution was for the short term.

But what of the Spider? Yes. What of that despicable beast? I will tell you why it was Tobias left me unguarded in such a hurry, forsaking me in favor of her. I will tell you what my father was doing, hunting her along the Talmorian landscape until he reached her abominable jungle in the Indabe. And I will tell you what that creature did, to earn so much infernal attention.

On Talmor, there was once a town called Tabiz on the eastern coast. It was a prosperous farming town, and though they were small, they had many slaves. I have heard speculation that this was perhaps what set Spider off. She hated slavery, but she hated more those who surrendered to it. Perhaps this was why she sat in the middle of Tabiz’s market day. Perhaps this was why she let her overgrown bangs shade her eyes as men and women of different races, genders, and species, happily served their masters under bondage.

Perhaps this was why she undid them all, their bodies disintegrating into dark crimson dust before vanishing into nothing at all.

In a single sweep of her will, the Spider erased Tabiz and its people—slaves and all—from the face of Gaia. Conversations were cut short, handshakes were not completed, jumping games left undecided, lives were snuffed out because this one mkundu monster just decided she felt like it.

And the sick part? She left one old woman alive to tell the world of what had happened. Why the old woman? Because Spider wanted it that way. No other reason. That’s it. There is no moral to this story, no underlying truth. Just tragedy abound in that we were all too blind or too naïve to see.

Over the years following her downfall, I came to learn of how her so-called ‘heroics’ were little more than violent, savage excursions to fill her vast need for fulfillment. Through disconnected accounts—A Santian history lesson, an Ailuran fable, an Albian rumor—I gathered that the Spider had travled through the heart of the Sibesona to the far north, where there she found some sort of power. But even this did not satiate her insane demands for death and destruction.

That is why I call the Spider a beast, and I say I am glad that she is sealed away. And should she ever be released, I only hope that she rots in hell for all eternity. Since the day I met her, the Omatt had been looking for something to fill the black hole in her heart. Up until the moment she was cast down, it is my opinion that she never truly recovered from her starved life as a slave. It is my opinion, that her evil nature left that demon emaciated and hungry for a great deal of nothing.

Continue ReadingSix Tales of Arachne

Artifacts of Childhood

For the FREE e-book versions of N is for Nyx and The Reflection (re-titled Reflections), please download them at Smashwords.com!

Dramatis personæ:

Nyx – A precocious Ailuran often concerned with being inherently good and all the appearances that go with it.  Usually sullen or in some way melancholy as she often feels misunderstood or unappreciated, even by her family.

Elmiryn – A child born of noble blood.  Though she was made to live by such standards, the girl took after her mother in that she never cared nor believed in the conventions of noble life.  As a result, she can be a little too honest sometimes, is very tomboyish, and has an odd sense of humor.

Quincy – A shy girl, uncoordinated, and easily made to cry.  Never leaves her home unless forced.  She has a fascination with stories and loves hearing tales of heroes and heroines unburdened by the world. She is Hakeem’s quiet shadow.

Hakeem – Quincy’s older friend.  Is rough and tumble and has a quick temper.  He thinks Quincy is weird but finds her strangely attractive.  He dreams of what adult life is like to a great extent, and tries very hard to emulate his father, thus making him more serious than is typical for his age.

ARTIFACTS OF CHILDHOOD

Act I

“The Reflection”

The Manard House knew something of an awakening when summer came around, because the first week of the month brought about a heavy surge of activity with the weeklong Ortian holiday.  The servants bustled putting up fresh curtains, lining the archways with golden wreaths, hanging up sun discs with beveled faces, and sprinkling potpourri along the windowsills. Three days into the special week, Warner was in his study making political arrangements for the new year, Brianna was trying to find some peace in her bedroom, painting, and Elmiryn was being fitted for a new birthday dress in her bedroom.  She found it hard not to fidget.

“Lady Elmiryn, I mean it, I don’t want to poke you.  Please be still.”  Her attendant, Julianna, was a pretty twenty-something with rich caramel colored hair that had streaks of bright gold here and there.  Her freckled nose wrinkled as she pinned up a bunch of baby blue silk.

The girl gave a melancholy sigh.  “Why must we do this now? Can’t we do this next week?”

“You know very well that your seventh birthday will have passed by then!  Don’t you want to look pretty for your party?”

“Don’t I always look pretty?” The girl asked guilelessly.  Her mother told her this so much that she had started to take it as a fact–and as most facts went, it lost its charm on Elmiryn.

She watched as a dust mote floated towards her face.  Her eyes crossed as it came too close for her to follow.  She heard Julianna laugh at her, and the girl gave a happy smile.  She loved making adults laugh.

“Yes, lady Elmiryn. You are very pretty. Now unless you’d like to be a very pretty pincushion you’ll mind my warning and cease your fidgeting!”

The next day, when Elmiryn was making her dolls swan dive off her dresser into a deadly vat of broccoli soup (smuggled in from the kitchens), her mother, Brianna, came into her room, Julianna and two slaves, a Santian and a Fanaean, behind her.

“Elle, we need to decide on a hairstyle for your birthday party…and what is that? Soup? What have we said about bringing food into your room!” The girl’s mother was dressed in a slate gray dress with jeweled shoulders, the cut opening at the front in an hourglass shape to reveal creamy lace. Wrapped about her waist was a glossy forest green ribbon that tied into a rose-shaped buttress in the back. An abalone clip pulled her warm brown hair back, and her ears held matching earrings. The woman’s face broke into her wide smile, and she sat on her daughter’s bed. “Oh, nevermind that. Come here, sweetest!”

Elmiryn would have protested, but Brianna knew that the youth was less likely to resist her request than Julianna’s. The girl pouted, but without an objection, she went to sit next to her mother, whilst Julianna stood off to the side. The slaves, each carrying a silver tray bearing hairdressing accessories, set their burdens onto the dresser. Then they turned in unison, bowed, and quietly left the room. The child attendant sat at the floor of her house mistress, and carefully she reached over and took up the white-bristled silver brush, which had a mirror fixed into the back of its head. The attendant held the mirror-side to the girl and her mother, and Brianna pondered the reflected image.

“What do you think, dear? What style do you wish to see on your birthday?”

“Can’t we just comb my hair?” Elmiryn mumbled, her lip pouting further.

“You know that isn’t an option. Come! Would you like to see braids? A bun? We can put flowers in your hair–now wouldn’t that be just darling?”

“Okay. Whatever you want me to look like, mother.”

Brianna frowned in the reflection. “Oh, Elmiryn! You make this such a chore! Not many little girls your age are given a chance to decide their appearance, you know.”

“She’s right, lady Elmiryn,” Julianna said earnestly. The girl’s eyes fixed on her attendant’s pretty face. “Take another look at the mirror. Pretend it’s magic, and whatever you imagine will appear. Now think of all the things you like–from art, from the stories we tell you, from what you see in the city–and think what would you like to see?”

Elmiryn’s frown deepened, but her lower lip pulled back to a contemplative curve. Her little hands went to the sides of the mirror, and her cerulean eyes lit up with thought. The girl took a deep breath. “I see…”

When the girl trailed off, her mother patted her knee. “Yes, Elle? What do you see?”

“I see branches sprouting out of my head!” Elmiryn giggled out. “And they’ll bloom into pretty red flowers!”

The attendant tried and failed to contain her laugh.

Brianna gave a suffering smile. “That’s…nice, dear. But I’m afraid we’ll have a little trouble growing that within less than a day, let alone getting your father’s approval for such a thing!”

Elmiryn’s pout returned full force. With a heavy sigh, she said, “Fine then. I see a ponytail.” She didn’t even look at the mirror this time.

Julianna gave an enthusiastic nod. “A ponytail is good, milady! Very elegant! Very pretty!”

“If you want flowers, we can make a crown for you, sweetest. But not red, I think. White is more appropriate.”

Elmiryn just let out another sigh.

Then the day of her birthday came. A small ball was held at the Manard estate, and the newly-turned seven-year-old was the center of all the attention. She sat aside her mother whilst Warner sat on Brianna’s left. Their head table was decorated with silver and gold linings and generous amounts of confection. Across the room was a long table weighed down with presents. Elmiryn stared at them longingly.

“Sweetest, your gifts won’t up and walk away,” Her mother murmured to her. “Why don’t you go play with your cousins?”

“Because they’re stinky,” Elmiryn said primly.

Brianna blinked down at her daughter. “Now why do you say that?”

“They play boring games and think they can bully me. Can’t I just open my presents?”

Her mother frowned reprovingly. “Now Elle, you know your cousins love you very much, and they came all this way to celebrate your birthday! Just play with them a while, sweetest, and I promise that the time will pass quickly.”

“But mother—”

“Elmiryn,” Warner said, his eyes managing to cut across at her even as he did not move his head. “Do. As. Your. Mother. Says.”

Elmiryn shot up very straight at her father’s look. The last time he’d looked at her that way, she wasn’t allowed to play outside for a week. “Yes, father!”

With that, the little girl slid from her seat, her puffy baby blue dress hissing with each step she took. Her eyes gave one last longing look toward the presents before they flickered to her four cousins gathered near it. There was Roark and Lydia, asymmetrical twins with pumpkin colored hair and wide slate-gray eyes flecked with gold. Then there was Berian, the dirty blonde with pickle-green eyes with red sauce on his white night shirt. And finally…

“Hi Adara…” the redhead mumbled as she approached her eldest cousin. Adara was nine-years-old and had long wavy brown hair.

“Hullo baby cousin,” Adara said, giving her best adult smile.

Elmiryn resisted the urge to scowl. “What are you playing?” she asked in as neutral a voice as she could manage.

“Family. Roark and Lydia are the babies. Berian is the father. You can be the mother if you’d like.”

At this, the seven-year-old blinked. “What are you going to be?”

“I’m like a director. Have you ever seen a play? I tell everyone what they’re supposed to do.”

“But don’t the father and mother say that?” Berian interjected sullenly. He was just a few weeks younger than Elmiryn, and the girl actually liked him quite a bit. They both liked racing and wrestling, and once, the boy had eaten an earthworm, which the girl still giggled about to this day.

Adara tilted her head back and gazed at him coolly. “How old are you, Berian?”

The boy drew himself up. “Six-and-three-quarters!”

“Well I’m nine-and-a-half, so I know more about Family than you do! That makes me director.

Berian’s shoulders slumped, defeated.

It went without saying that Elmiryn hated Adara. The older girl was bossy, snobby, and vindictive. It didn’t help that once her cousin had snitched on her when the redhead tried to sneak to a party being held at the slave quarters. That was the time Warner had barred her from the outdoors, all thanks to Adara.

Roark and Lydia, who wore matching white and black outfits with silver ribbons, exchanged looks. Elmiryn did not dislike the twins, but they were very much followers and had little to contribute to any game save to just nod their heads. Nothing was duller than two human dolls for playmates.

But Elmiryn wasn’t going to give over the night.

“Well it’s my birthday tonight, and I say, I’m the director,” she declared with chin thrusted out.

This earned her a sharp glare, but the others seemed to perk at the idea. Berian stepped forward quickly, grasping Elmiryn’s shoulder. “Yeah! It’s Elmiryn’s birthday! We have to do what she says!”

Adara huffed. “Well what does she want to do then?”

Elmiryn smiled, showing all teeth. “We can’t play Family without good toys…”

____________________________

Within a few minutes, the children had managed to escape the watchful eyes of their attendants under Elmiryn’s leadership. Giggling at the audacity of their slipping away from supervision, the group followed the birthday girl from room to room, collecting items, before they finally ended in Elmiryn’s bedroom. There, they laid out their prizes on the girl’s bed sheet: a wooden toy horse, a small porcelain doll, a monocle, a pretty pink ribbon, and the silver mirror brush.

Elmiryn handed these out to everyone, but kept the brush for herself. “Okay, now we all have what we need!” She gestured near her toy box. “This is the children’s room,” she pointed toward her large bookcase, “That is father’s study,” she pointed at her small vanity dresser, “And this is mother’s room.” She waved the brush through the air. “Dinner will be ready soon! Everyone has to get ready. I’ll come around so that you can tell me what you want to look like.”

The children went off to their respective spaces, but in a few minutes, they were intermingling and slipping into their make-believe roles with excitement and giggles. Even Adara seemed to forget her earlier power struggle in favor of playing the haughty mother. Berian grumphed and harrumphed a lot, smoking a pretend pipe and squinting at everything through his monocle—-a very accurate depiction of his grandfather—-for his actual father had died years ago in the Ailuran war. The twins cooed and rolled around, playing with Elmiryn’s toys.

The redhead took to her role of “director” with relish.

“Roark, you have to pretend you’re a doggie. Of course children do that! I did when I was a child! And Berian, put your finger under your nose. There! Now you’ve got a mustache! Adara, look Lydia is crying. Stop being a bad mother and go make her feel better!”

When enough time seemed to have passed, Elmiryn announced it was dinnertime. She came around with her silver brush mirror and held it up to everyone. “Now what do you see yourself wearing tonight?”

Berian announced he was going to wear a cloak of snails. Roark and Lydia decided they too wished to wear a cloak of snails. Berian complained that the twins were copying him, so they changed to wearing diapers and golden crowns with big fat jewels. Adara whined that they were ruining the game. Elmiryn snapped that she wasn’t even trying to be a mother, just a snob. This made the older girl declare that they were all stupid children in real life, and she didn’t want to play with them anymore.

And just like that, the fun was over.

As her cousins left to return to the festivities, Elmiryn stayed behind to hide her stolen “toys” under her bed. A clear voice reached her from the doorway, and the girl froze, her face turning red. Turning, she saw Brianna and Julianna standing there—her mother with her hands on her hips, and her attendant with one hand over her mouth. Standing behind them with downturned heads were her cousins.

Snitches! Elmiryn thought with clenched teeth.

“Sweetest, come here please,” her mother said ominously.

The girl sighed and obeyed. Gripped in her hand was the silver brush.

Brianna raised an eyebrow at her as she reached down and took away the brush. “Elle, what, may I ask, were you doing with all those things?”

“Playing Family?” she mumbled.

“Are these things yours to play Family with?”

“No…”

Brianna just shook her head with a slight smirk. “Sweetest…” With two fingers, she gave the girl a smack on the forehead that stung, and then pointed down the hall wearily. “Just get back to the party before your father sees.”

Elmiryn didn’t need telling twice. She ran, her cousins in tow, back to the guest hall where the partygoers were just settling in for their first serving of dinner. The redhead glared at Adara. “You snitched, didn’t you?”

“Did not!” The older girl snapped back. She pointed at the girl’s face. “It was your mother’s mirror brush that got us caught! She was looking for it to freshen up before dinner was served!”

Elmiryn pouted, but said nothing further. The rest of the evening went well enough, and Warner never heard of her daughter’s antics. That night, the girl received as presents: a new doll house, a rocking horse, many new dresses and accessories, and a young horse, which she excitedly named “Scabby” due to how the filly’s ruddy brown coat reminded her of the scab she had on her left knee (but this was vetoed by her mother and father both, who quickly renamed the animal, “Rose.”)

That night, when Brianna was tucking Elmiryn to bed, she stroked the girl’s hair and said with a smile. “Sweetest, mother has one more present for you. Are you ready?”

Her daughter gave an eager nod, all appearances of sleepiness fleeing her, and her mother laughed. From beneath the bed, she pulled out a slim white box, and held it out to the girl. Elmiryn took it and opened it quickly. She gave a small gasp.

Inside was her mother’s mirror brush.

“I know you liked it, so I wanted you to have it, Elle.”

Elmiryn gave a huge grin, hugging her mother. “Mama, thank you!”

Brianna laughed, hugging her daughter back. “Mother, not Mama…but you are welcome, Elmiryn. I love you very much.” She pulled back, holding the mirror side up to her daughter’s face. “Well? It’s a new year for you! You had fun playing Family with your cousins, didn’t you? And what role did you play? I think I see a very lovely wife in the future!”

The girl just blinked at her mother. “That’s not what I see.”

Her mother gave her a puzzled look. “Oh? Then what do you see?”

Elmiryn smiled at her mother as if she were being silly. “I see me, mother. Just Elmiryn.”

Brianna laughed again, a full and beautiful sound. She thought the girl was just being overly literal to make herself seem more mature. She kissed her daughter goodnight and left her to sleep. Elmiryn settled into her covers with the mirror brush clutched to her chest, more secure than she had ever felt before, because in her heart, she knew she had answered the very question her mother had meant.

What do you see?

I see me, the girl thought with a sleepy smile. Just me.

____________________________

Act II

“The Watch and the Sword”

He scratched at the dried mud on his knee and felt the day’s heat reach its peak.  He was seated on a wicker basket with ashy legs stemming out straight as though daring anyone to walk over them.  His feet were like old man’s feet because he went around barefoot, despite his mother’s nagging to put on shoes.  Hakeem didn’t care.  He liked feeling the soil between his toes.  He wanted tough feet like his father’s. Ba-Kafeel was so powerful that the boy was certain none would dare cross him.

Habari-kuz, Hakeem.”

The boy looked up, his dark eyes meeting clear azure. “Habari, Quincy.”

The little brunette was dressed in a simple cream dress, her fine hair teasing her face as the wind played with it. Gripped in her petite hands was a rusty sword—a gift from her father, which she rarely parted with and which everyone tolerated because she could hardly lift it let alone swing it.  It was also notoriously dull, failing to make an impression even on the softest of wood. She made circles into the dirt with her toes. Quincy used to wear shoes until the village children teased her for her tender feet, and then she did away with them. It was not a little frustrating, waiting for her tender feet to catch up when they walked through the jungle sometimes. Even after a year, she was still tender-footed.

“Play?” the girl mumbled shyly, her eyes on the ground.

Hakeem looked past her to see Tobias poking his head out of their hut down the trail. At the boy’s notice, the man quickly pulled out of sight. He gave a crooked smile. “Play,” he returned with a nod.

In the months since Quincy had first arrived in Kimbia, she had yet to become fluid in Fanaean. She knew enough to communicate basic needs to the villagers, but she could hardly keep a conversation. Luckily for her, Hakeem was interested in learning Common, and so they shared a hybrid of the two languages.

The boy held up a finger and slipped into his family’s hut. Inside, Ma’Nguele was preparing dinner for the day, her face sweating over a large pot of iguana stew. Seated on the ground near the fire was his father, who frowned over scrolls. In his native tongue, he said to them, “MamuBabu, I am going into the jungle with Quincy.”

Ba-Kafeel looked up from his work. “You are going into the jungle?”

“Yes, Ba.”

“Wait.” His father stood, his cloth skirt slipping over his powerful thighs. He strode past Ma’Nguele to a small satchel behind her, from which he pulled out a small item. “You remember how I taught you to keep time, yes my son?” He held out his hand, and from it slipped a silver watch on a chain. “I want you both back here by the fifth hour. The suns are deceitful this time of year, and the night has become dangerous with the new jackal threat.”

Hakeem took the watch. “Yes, Babu. We will be back by the fifth hour, then.”

Ba-Kafeel smiled at his son and gave a rub of his curly head. “Have fun, and be safe.”

As the boy turned to leave, he heard his mother call after him, “And if you see any, bring back a bunch of plaintains! We are low.”

“Yes, Mamu,” he said over his shoulder.

Putting the watch chain around his neck, he went to Quincy and jerked his head toward the jungles to the north. “Let’s go,” he said in Common.

Together, the two children traveled through the village, where they passed other children playing. Hakeem waved to some of them, but Quincy just kept her eyes on the ground, her shoulders even hunching at the sight of some of the others. The boy didn’t blame her, but he didn’t think she helped her case by dragging around her rusty sword. The adults laughed about it, stating, “You always know where little Quincy goes for the line her useless sword makes in the dirt!” As much as Hakeem liked the girl, it frustrated him that such silliness followed him around.

As they left the village proper–the musical weave of Fanaean conversation, and the comforting aromas of stewing meats dissipating from around them–the two children breached the cool jungles. They took to a well-known trail, leading up a hill and past a grove of spiny gora-gora bushes, to a small waterfall.

Hakeem checked his watch. It was only one. Taking it off and placing it on the rocks near the treeline, he immediately ran up the steep hill to the top of the waterfall, his face grinning in anticipation of the jump he was about to make. Quincy watched him go with pressed eyebrows, her hands tightening around her sword’s hilt. Once at the top of the waterfall, the gentle stream flowing about his shins, Hakeem gave a wave. “Watch!” he called out.

With a deep breath, the boy took three steps back, and then with a whoop he did a flip off the cliff edge. He landed into the water with a big splash.

After returning to the surface, Hakeem looked to see that Quincy still had not joined him. He frowned. Normally the girl was backstroking in the water by now. “What wrong?” he asked, spitting water from his mouth.

The girl bit her lip and looked up at the top of the waterfall.

Hakeem’s eyebrows rose and he swam to the shore of the little lake. “Go up?” he asked dubiously. Quincy wasn’t afraid of heights, but she was notorious for getting hurt. The last time she had attempted to climb the steep hill, she had slipped and sprained her ankle.

Quincy didn’t respond. She only went to the hill going up to the top of the waterfall. Then with a grunt, she lifted her sword and stabbed it into the soil. Pulling herself up, she managed to pull the sword out, and though she wobbled dangerously, she did it again. Hakeem watched, fascinated, as she slowly made her way up to the top of the waterfall.

Once there, she looked back at him, panting. Then she grinned.

The boy could feel a warm funny feeling blossom in his chest, and with more excitement than was probably warranted, he cheered and clapped his hands.

Quincy jumped off the cliff with a high laugh, brighter and fuller than any he had heard in a long time.

They stayed and played for hours. The tree cover made it hard to see the passing of the suns. Hakeem didn’t think to look at his watch again until it became hard to see his own feet in the darkness.

Tai’undu!” the boy cursed. Dripping wet and shivering from the evening air, he snatched the watch from its place on the dry rocks. “Late!”

“Late?” Quincy returned, frowning. As there were no large predators in the jungles near Kimbia, they were used to being able to play even into the dark. But the girl didn’t know about the jackals that had come to the area.

Hakeem grabbed her hand, his father’s watch clenched in his other fist. “Run!” he said.

Together the two children ran through the jungle, their feet skipping over the rough but familiar terrain. Hakeem could see the lights of their home ahead. He picked up his speed, forgetting that Quincy was clumsy and still very tender-footed.

She cried out, tripping on something unseen in the dark. Hakeem lost his grip on her as she fell, and he skidded to a halt. “Quincy!”

That’s when they heard the beast growl.

Both children froze, their eyes wide as they turned toward the source of the sound, which came from amidst a collection of ferns at the base of a mango tree. Haunting eyes glowed from within the reaches of the leaves.

Hakeem tried to move slowly toward Quincy. “Quiet!” he whispered. “Slow!”

The girl said nothing, her eyes fixed on the animal that watched them. Her hands gripped tightly around her sword, and even in the dark, Hakeem could see her tremble.

He touched her arm and tried pulling her up. “Go! Quiet!”

Just as the girl began to get up to her feet, the animal burst forth, knocking both of them to the ground. Hakeem was the one who ended up on his back, and so the beast went to him first, snarling. Quincy screamed, and the boy gave a hoarse yell as he jerked his face away from the jackal’s snapping jaws. He managed to dodge one strike, but in the fraction of a second it took for the jackal to attack, the boy knew he would not be able to fend the animal off again, let alone get free of it.

It was around this time that Quincy hit it in the back of the head with her sword.

The jackal let out a yip, its body going weak just long enough for Hakeem to push it off of him. He scrambled to join Quincy, who was looking at the sword to the jackal and back as if she couldn’t believe what had just happened. The boy was equally impressed, and he stared at the girl with amazement and a strange sort of pride.

Then the jackal’s growls returned, and their attention snapped back to the situation at hand. Hakeem pulled at his friend. “Run! Run!” he shouted, but inwardly he knew the jackal was faster. They were dead. He should’ve listened to his Babu. He should’ve kept his eye on the time…

There was a loud rumble as the earth trembled beneath their feet. Both children stopped, struggling to keep their balance. Within a few seconds it all stopped, and both children looked to see that the jackal was gone, the soil churned and raised where it had once stood.

Tobias stepped out from the cover of trees, his face a displeased white mask in the darkness. “Children, come.”

Ducking their heads, they did as they were told.

Back at the village, both Hakeem and Quincy received lectures from their respective caregivers. The girl was sent to bed without supper and the promise of extra chores in the coming days. The boy was put over his father’s knee and switched.

The next day, Hakeem limped over to Quincy’s hut to find her outside, sullenly skinning potatoes. Lying next to her feet was her rusty sword. Still around his neck was his father’s watch, and Hakeem was very conscious of it. He had five minutes to say what he needed to say before he had to do his own chores.

Habari-kuz, Quincy.”

The girl looked up at him, startled. “H-Habari, Hakeem.”

He smiled at her. “Thank you.”

She blinked at him, “For what?”

Hakeem tapped the back of his head. “Sword.” He pointed at it. “Save me.”

“Oh…that…” She shrugged and said, “I don’t know how I lifted it! I was just so scared the jackal would hurt you!”

The boy didn’t understand her words exactly, but he got the gist of her meaning. His smile widened. “Quincy strong and brave.

Quincy blushed and looked down at her skinned potatoes, but Hakeem could detect the hints of a pleased smile on her lips before he turned to return to his hut.

____________________________

Act III

“N is for Nyx”

Nyx was in the middle of practicing her Common alphabet when Atalo shoved a banana in her ear.

Koen!” she screamed, standing up so fast that her chair was knocked back onto the floor. Mushy banana bits clung to her hair and she tried to bat these away, managing to get her palms and the side of her face covered in sticky slime. “Ugh, you little monster, what’s wrong with you!?”

Atalo, meanwhile was laughing so hard his face was beet-red. Thaddeus was also laughing from his place in the hallway entrance. “He got you good!”

“This isn’t funny!” Nyx shouted, her eyes teary. “Why doesn’t he do these things to you?

Her older brother shrugged. “Because I don’t react to him like you do.”

Nyx bared her teeth and whirled on Atalo, her hands before her like claws. “Well let’s see if he likes this reaction!?”

Atalo screamed, his eyes wide, but he was still smiling as he scrambled to dodge his sister’s violent lunge. They ran around the kitchen table, displacing chairs. Fotini came through the door just as Atalo ran for it. He collided into his mother, and Nyx just managed to slide to a halt. With his new refuge found, the little boy clung to the woman’s leg. Their mother stared at them all, a basket of leeks on her arm.

“Sweet Aelurus, can my house not be the host of chaos every time I step away?”

“It’s like this even when you’re here,” Thaddeus mumbled with a smirk.

“And after dinner, when you’re arrogance comes running like water from your ass, do not ask you’re A-ma to help you wipe it, Thaddeus,” her mother said with a sharp look.

“A-ma! You would poison your own son?”

“Poison? Gods no! I was only referring to your tendency to eat like a pregnant pig.”

Nyx laughed as her mother moved around her, the older woman grunting as she dragged Atalo along. The boy, in his stubborn refusal to let go, had wrapped his legs around hers. Thaddeus just held up his hands and backed into the hall, where he was no doubt going to retire to his room until supper. Fotini glanced at her daughter over her shoulder as she set her basket on the counter.

“Now what was the commotion about?” She gave a weary sigh. “I imagine it has something to do with the slime all over the side of your face?”

Nyx pointed at her little brother, who only stuck his tongue in response. “He smashed a banana into my ear!” A thought occurred to her, and she returned to her place at the table, where her Common alphabet book still lay open. Large chunks of banana were on the pages. The girl’s eyes teared up as she stomped a foot. “He got it on my book!”

Fotini massaged her brow with one hand. “Atalo, apologize.”

“Sorry, Koah.” But the boy’s face was lit with an impish smile as he ran off to his room.

“That’s all you’re going to do?” Nyx whined. “Some of the words on my book are even ruined!”

Fotini looked at the girl over her shoulder. “Really? Which ones?”

The girl sniffled back more tears as she pointed at the page. “These ones! The first letters of the Common alphabet and some of the other vowels too!”

“Vow-els? Are those really so important?”

“This book translates Common to Ailuran, of course it’s important A-ma!”

Fotini closed her eyes with a suffering expression. “All right, all right, my little night shard.” She fished into her apron pocket for some coins, then held them out to the girl. “Here. Why not go buy a new book at the market?”

Nyx scowled. “But they only sell Ailuran books!”

The woman let out a sharp hiss and grabbed the girl’s hand. She forced the coins into her palm. “Nyx, enough. A-ma’s head hurts and she’d like to get started on dinner before the next disaster strikes!”

Nyx’s face crumpled and she slammed her fist onto the table. “This isn’t fair! This book was A-pa’s, and you don’t even care that Atalo ruined it! You never care!”

Fotini stared at her daughter, taken aback. “Nyx! That isn’t–”

But the girl snatched the book off the table and was running out the door.

____________________________

“Well, you can say goodbye to your ears, then.”

Nyx stared at her friend, mortified. “You’re not helping Taila. Why would you say something like that?”

“Because it’s true?” Taila gave an unconcerned shrug.

They were sitting on a rock near Taila’s home, the hum of bees comforting in the mild weather. The suns peered around large white fluffy clouds and the breeze was gentle. There was no erduk that day, and they were all glad for a variety of reasons.

“Maybe…maybe she won’t pinch your ears?” Ampelos said, twirling a long piece of grass between his fingers.

The girl smiled at him gratefully. “Thanks, Amp.”

He looked at Nyx shyly before ducking his gaze with a blush. “M-Maybe she’ll just give you extra chores instead?”

At this, Nyx’s face fell.

Taila threw her arm over the girl’s shoulder. “Aw, c’mon Nyx! Your A-ma tried!” The older girl gestured at her friend’s hand, which still gripped the coins Fotini had forced unto her. “You can get a new book with the money she gave you!”

Nyx scowled and slid off the rock. “You can’t replace this book. It was special…” She looked at her book in one hand—the cover was a dull sea-green, the faded title a tired wine-red that said in Ailuran, “Common Alphabet”—and the coins in her other hand. Baring her teeth, Nyx pulled the coins back, ready to throw them out into the high grass when something shiny out of the corner of her eye caught her attention.

Blinking, she turned her head to see Marq coming down the trails from the northwestern hills, his large pack on his back, jingling with trinkets. As he neared, the girl saw his slim face break into his usual haggard smile. “Kitten! It’s good to see you again!” he said in Ailuran. “Have you been practicing your Common as usual?” this he said in Common.

The girl swallowed and held out her book, tears pricking her eyes again. “Hullo Marq. Yes. I try, but stupid brother got food on alpha-bet book. Made ink bad. Can not read some words anymore…”

The elf frowned. “Must’ve been cheap ink to get so easily fouled up! What did he get on your pages?”

“A…how do you say? Anade?

“Ah. A banana,” the elf chuckled. “Your Atalo I take it.”

“Yes!” Nyx snarled as her friends joined her at her sides, their eyes curious. “He is a cajeck!

“Nyx,” Ampelos whispered. When the girl looked at him, he mumbled, “Maybe ask the elf if he can help?”

Her eyes widened. “Good idea, Amp!” Returning her eyes to Marq, she asked. “Can you fix?”

The elf merchant blinked down at her. “Ah, I don’t know kitten.”

She held out the coins. “I have money!”

The man bit his lip at the outstretched hand. Then he gave a small shrug and said, “Okay. Give it here.”

Nyx handed him the money and book eagerly, turning the latter to the page where the banana had fallen. Marq looked over it shrewdly, scratching at the paper. After a minute, he snapped it shut and handed the item back. “Nope. Nothing I can do.”

Taila hissed at him, not understanding Common but understanding enough to know the merchant’s meaning. “If he can’t fix it, then he should return your coin, Nyx!”

Nyx looked at the elf imploringly. “Marq can no do anything?”

The man rubbed the back of his head, “Uh. No. No, I can’t, Kitten. I’m sorry.” He thumbed eagerly at his backpack. “But I have more books in my backpack if you’d like to see!”

Taila kicked him in the leg, but Nyx was already walking away, her heart sunk.

Nyx pushed her food around her plate at supper, and though Thaddeus, Fotini, and Atalo conversed animatedly, she did not come out of her shell, not even when her little brother moved Thaddeus’s plate of curds beneath his elbow. Quietly, she cleared the table, then retired to her room. Her mother watched her go with a sigh.

Later, Fotini appeared at Nyx’s bedroom entrance. “Little night shard?”

Nyx didn’t answer. She lay on her bed, staring up at the ceiling.

She heard her mother slip past her bead curtain and felt her sit on the bed. “Sweet Aelurus…I didn’t have to deal with such behavior from Thad until he turned fourteen at the latest! But then again, I forget how much more mature you already are when compared to him at eleven, so…” she trailed off. A few moments passed, and the woman took a deep breath. “Nyx.” The name came with a great rush of air, and Fotini shook her head. “I’m sorry I was insensitive about your A-pa’s books. I know they mean a lot to you. I’ve talked to Atalo about it, and he won’t be allowed near any food unless it’s mealtime and I’m there to watch him eat it.” The woman rolled her eyes. “Gods, that I was born such a wild child.”

Nyx rolled onto her side, facing away from her mother. Fotini looked at her, pained. Touching her daughter’s little foot, she said quietly. “Yes, Atalo is wild, but I love him for his antics, as I love you for yours, my little night shard. I love that you love books and that you are so capable of learning so much. I want you to know that I do care for you and the things you find important, but sometimes we must compromise, yes? It’ll be an exercise for the both of us, kitten.”

The girl looked at her mother. Slowly she sat up. “A-ma. I’m sorry I ran away.”

“You were frustrated and hurt, my love,” Fotini said, smiling as she hugged her daughter. “I will try to be a better mother. I will try, so please forgive me when I fail?”

Nyx turned her face into the woman’s neck. “Okay…”

The next day after breakfast, Thaddeus opened the front door, intent on checking a squeaky window from the outside, when he came across something on the front step. Frowning he picked it up and came back inside. “Nyx?” he called.

The girl was practicing her Common handwriting from the good pages of her alphabet book. “Yes?” she said, blinking up at him.

Thaddeus held out a small scroll to her, which was attached to a leather pouch. “This is for you.”

Nyx blinked and took the items from him. Opening the pouch first, she was surprised to find it was filled with the same coins her mother had given her the day before. Turning next to the note, she unfurled it and read the shaky Ailuran,

Dear Nyx,

You’re friend was right. I shouldn’t treat my best customer with such shoddy service. I had no right to take your coin when I couldn’t perform the task you wished of me, so here is a once-in-a-lifetime refund! But you know, I went poring over my personal collection of books, and I realized that maybe all it took was a bit more effort from me. So here is a list of the words ruined in your book, alphabetized, with examples in both Common and Ailuran. You’re lucky, kitten, that there was only one page that saw your brother’s terror! Otherwise, I would have had to give you something else for free…perish the thought!

Your Trusty Provider,

Marq

Following this was a short list of words and examples in both languages, as the elf had promised. Nyx was grinning so hard, her face ached.

“What was it?” Thaddeus asked, pulling a chair out next to his sister.

The girl slipped the note into her alphabet book and took up her leather pouch. “Nothing! I’m going shopping!” the girl exclaimed, still smiling.

The soldier watched her go with wide eyes. “Damn, what’s the rush?” Then he sat up straighter in his chair just as his sister ran out the door. “Oh! Hey! You aren’t going to see that filthy elf are y–!” he was cut off as the door slammed shut behind Nyx. Thaddeus let out a hissing breath, his eyes turning onto the note that his sister had slipped into her book. Pulling it close to him, the man opened it, and his eyes were drawn to one thing on the note…

A is for Always, as in, “Nyx will always love her family, and will always be loved in return.”

Continue ReadingArtifacts of Childhood

Chapter 34.1

QUINCY_________________________

Time was given for Nyx to recover.

…Or was it Kali?

Quincy watched, fascinated as the girl alternated between states almost like the ghosts had back at the dwarven settlement. One second, the Ailuran’s face was perfectly sapien, with round pupils, a round nose, and ears on the side of her head. With just a turn of her head, her features would smear, blending to suddenly become feline: slitted pupils, a small, pink, heart-shaped nose that trailed down to a slim split upper lip. Then of course there were those ears. They just managed to poke out of the girl’s mane of hair, but they were visible, and in Quincy’s opinion, they looked almost silly. Like the costumes she’d seen people don on during the Aesutian Festival.

The girl was naked and covered in filth, but she didn’t seem aware of it. Only of Elmiryn, who held her closely, murmuring to her as she stroked the girl’s hair. Nyx’s face was quite emotional–not surprising considering what she’d gone through. Kali, on the other hand, seemed remarkably placid, and when her countenance appeared in the flash-flash-flashings of the Twins’ faces, she fixed Elmiryn with a tepid look that was not hostile, nor particularly warm. The Fiamman didn’t seem overly concerned with her lover’s fluctuating states. In fact, she couldn’t stop grinning.

Quincy sighed melodramatically as she reached for her magic pouch. When she gave the warrior her scarf to use as a makeshift chest wrap, she didn’t think there was anything left to use. But perhaps there was something to cover the Ailuran with. An extra cloak or a tunic…heavens, even a tea cozy was better than nothing. It always irritated her how therians exposed themselves so regularly. It wasn’t a matter of shyness—Quincy had seen it all both as a bounty hunter and a wizard’s apprentice. It was more the lack of consideration that irked her. Fine if the beast people wished to parade their delicate bits through the wilds to each other. But when in the company of others, wasn’t that a bit much?

Quincy’s arm sunk deep into her magic pouch, and she scowled as she rummaged through the infinite space of contents.

“Blast it all…I need to organize this stupid thing,” she muttered.

“Look!” Hakeem exclaimed.

Elmiryn and Nyx/Kali looked up from their intimate reunion, and Quincy paused in her search to look to where her husband was pointing.

Leading off into the surrounding forest, they saw an aurora light up the sky–a phenomena the wizard had only seen in the most Northern of regions.

Quincy squinted her eyes and took a step closer, her arm slipping out of her pouch.

No wait, she thought. This light is different. It’s got oranges, blues, and greens in it. The movement of the pattern spirals and is shifting far too quickly. What could…?

The woman’s eyes widened.

“Get in the cave..” she whispered. With fumbling fingers she re-fastened her pouch to her belt.

Elmiryn stood instantly, raising Nyx/Kali with her.

“What is it?” the warrior demanded.

Hakeem, always never too far from her conclusions, turn and bolted for the cave, his little feet crushing bones and animal skulls.

“No time! Move!” he shouted.

Quincy followed him, and with a deft scoop of her lover, Elmiryn was quick on her heels. They made it just under the lip of the cave when a thunder reached them, so loud and strong that Quincy could feel it in her teeth. The ground lit up for a moment, and there was a high squeal in the air. The woman pulled Elmiryn back even further as the warrior watched in a stunned sort of fascination. They had to get farther back or—

SKREEEEEE

A bright green curtain of light lanced through the ground like a cleaver. The earth cracked and split in an explosion of dust and rock. Everyone was thrown to the ground. For a moment, Quincy was afraid the cave would collapse on them, but it held. When the quaking ground quieted to a dull rumble, the woman dared to raise her head.

Her gut dropped.

Their little spit of land was floating away from the rest of the ground. She dared to stand to her feet and go to the edge of the cave and looked up to see that more chunks of earth were parting in a similar fashion.

“We’re floating away. The Manus Dei have vanished.”

“The what?” Elmiryn asked. Nyx/Kali was no longer in her arms. The warrior’s cerulean eyes took in everything, and that little wrinkle Quincy had learned meant genuine worry appeared on the redhead’s brow. “Quincy, what the fuck is happening?”

“Someone just cast a very powerful spell,” She replied with a sigh. “It’s a rare sorcerer’s spell. It requires deep training that allows the user to control elements at the most basic level. In this case, it’s sorcery based in the element of air and energy. It’s hard enough for a sorcerer to master one element, but to master two? I think I’ve only read of three people in history capable of something like this.”

“So this spell just cut us off from our way forward,” Elmiryn said slowly.

Quincy gave a stiff nod. “This was cast for a reason. Maybe the reason wasn’t us, but somehow I doubt that. Nyx was placed too conveniently for us to find. She was supposed to kill us, but perhaps the one orchestrating all of this didn’t count on Kali agreeing to go so far to help. So they went through with a back up plan.”

Elmiryn snorted. “Keep us stranded.”

“Exactly.”

Quincy’s eyes roved the islands below, above, and around them. When she spotted what looked like a castle keep on a hill overlooking a dense wood, the woman grabbed the warrior and pointed excitedly. “There!”

Elmiryn squinted and peered where the woman was pointing. The keep was just a level higher than they were, but it was the furthest from them than all the islands, and the harsh glare of the Other World’s nothing space made distinction a trial on the eyes.

Finally, the warrior seemed to spot it. “Yeah. Yeah! I see it!”

But then Elmiryn’s worry wrinkle appeared again. “I don’t know how to make wings yet.”

Quincy stared at Elmiryn as though she were insane. Which she probably was.

Giving a quick shake of her head, the wizard opted to skip on commenting and said instead, “I have a way we can get there.”

The warrior looked at her, one eyebrow raised. “Oh?”

HAKEEM________________________

“Fuck that.”

“It’s our only viable option right now!”

“The hell it is! If you guys would just give me a second, I could figure out how to sprout wings and–”

Tai’undu, Elmiryn! For the last time, you can’t just use your fae abilities whenever!”

“Why not!? It’s gotten me this far!”

“Like where? Stuck on this despondent little clod of dirt with your schizophrenic girlfriend, a bruised up face, and an itchy scarf for a shirt!?”

Bite me, Quincy.”

“Hey, need I remind you that I gave you that itchy scarf.”

“You want this stupid thing so badly? Fuck it. Here. You can have it back.”

Kwa upendo wa miungu, mkundu msgaji! Put it back on! I don’t want to see your sweaty tits! In fact, I’m not even sure I want this scarf back anymore, after you’ve soiled it.”

“Shove it up your ass. Nyx and I are not moving until we find a better plan.”

Quincy threw her hands up in the air. “FINE! Stay here and starve to death. Or wait until something comes and kills you! Even better!”

Elmiryn made a rude gesture with her middle finger and stormed off to sit with Nyx…or was it Kali? Either way, the Ailuran seemed to be still too weak and dazed to be of any considerable use in this situation.

Hakeem sighed. It was up to him.

Counting the amount of time it took to calm his wife down, the man-turned-boy walked up to his wife who stood glaring out of the mouth of the cave, her features partially lit by the non-light outside.

“She’s an idiot,” The woman snarled before he could even say anything.

“She’s stubborn,” The man-boy conceded.

He ran a hand over his shaved head and puckered his lips as he worded his next sentence.

“Elmiryn is a risk taker,” He finally decided to say.

Quincy snorted. “Reckless.”

The Fanaean nodded. “She’ll do anything if she thinks she might have a chance at succeeding, however slim the odds.”

“She gets a rush out of it.”

Hakeem looked up at his wife as he closed in on his point. “So why isn’t she taking this risk now?”

Quincy looked at him sharply, then glanced surreptitiously over her shoulder at Elmiryn. He did the same.

Elmiryn was kneeling before Nyx, holding her head between her hands, her eyes searching the girl’s face rapidly as the Ailuran’s features continued to shift and change. Her lips were moving imperceptibly, and both Nyx and Kali responded to her in equally quiet tones. The girl, the Twins he should say, looked weak. Beneath the dry blood and caked mud on their skin, they were deathly pale. Almost green. What had they gone through to get the beast under control? What had happened inside of them to lead to their sudden ability to both be in control simultaneously?

Quincy sighed. “That answer, Taika, is easy…” she muttered reluctantly. “She has an anchor that is keeping her frustratingly grounded for once.”

Hakeem nodded, satisfied. “So would the answer not lie in the anchor that keeps our friend from taking flight?”

His wife looked at him sidelong, then with a scowl and a wave of her hand, she said, “Be my guest.”

Hakeem reached over and gave a squeeze of her hand. Just before he turned to leave, he thought he saw Quincy’s lips turn up at the corners.

One minute, twelve seconds. Not bad.

The man-boy approached Elmiryn slowly. His heart still swirled with conflict over the warrior’s unflinching murder of Gudahi, his friend. But was it really murder? The woman had stood her ground, and she had warned them all to stay back. The Lycans weren’t accustomed to taking orders from outsiders, so their brash actions could be understood as a simple flaw in hierarchical thinking. To Gudahi, Sanuye was Alpha. The female Lycan had decided to attack, and Gudahi, with all of his well-masked pain and rage toward the beast that had harmed his people, eagerly followed.

It was all a tragedy no doubt.

But Hakeem put these things away. He began to focus on his counting again, and he felt a comfort among the facets of time.

“Elmiryn, may I speak to Nyx and Kali?” he asked.

The woman squinted up at him. “What for?”

But Nyx–it was her face this time–touched Elmiryn’s shoulder and gave a small nod. “Elle, it’s okay. I’ll be fine.”

The warrior almost looked like she doubted this, and the wizard feared she would take her stubbornness to a new level and refuse to go. Thankfully, however, Elmiryn stood and pointed toward the other side of the cave.

“I’m going to be right over there…okay you two?” With that, the woman walked away, sparing Hakeem a warning glare.

The man-boy only gave her a nod of thanks, and went to sit next to the Ailuran—her features showed Kali now. Her nakedness did not bother the man in the slightest, anymore than Elmiryn’s did. On the one hand, as a man (though trapped as he was in an adolescent body) he thought Nyx’s body appealing, even with all the blood and the mud caking her skin. But it was almost a mechanical response to beauty—and the girl, whether she knew it or not, had a very unique beauty to her. Beyond his appreciation, the mind felt no desire. Quincy was enough for him, and in his mind, he could see no one else as even remotely desirable.

As if his ease allowed the girl to remain relaxed, Nyx—who was now showing—did not make attempts to cover herself in any way. She simply gazed at him curiously and waited for him to speak.

He looked at her as he leaned fully back against the rocky wall. “Ikati. This may be a complicated question to answer, but how are you?”

The girl blinked, her face shifting a moment to feline before returning again in the blink of an eye. “I’m fine. We’re fine. I…I think.”

“The beast?”

Nyx bit her lip, then her features shifted and Kali appeared. The feline released her lip from her fangs and let her eyelids drop low. “It is taken care of,” she said in her customary rough voice.

Hakeem cocked his head to the side. “How so?”

Kali started. “The beast was just–”

But Nyx finished. “–Spiritual energy. The remnants of our animus that me and Kali did not control.”

“So what did you do with it?” Hakeem pressed. He had to be sure the threat was truly gone.

Nyx looked him in the eye, and suddenly her round pupils turned slitted.

“We tore the beast apart and weaved its energy into us,” Kali growled.

Hakeem’s eyes widened. “All that darkness? Wouldn’t it take you over?”

The feline shook her head. “You don’t understand…the monster you saw in the forest was not our darkness alone.”

This made him frown. “What do you mean?”

A shift. Nyx’s face appeared. “She means that when we saw that giant creature before, it was augmented by some other power. Magnified, you could even say.”

Hakeem’s frown eased. “So when we found you…”

“That augmentation had been removed. It was just me and the dark energy inside me.”

“That power must have come from somewhere. From Syria, perhaps? But why would she take away your added power? The beast was near invincible!”

Nyx’s face grew sad. “Because the monster could not speak. You’re right. It was Syria who gave my dark shard its extra power. But she took it away when it assimilated me because she wanted me coherent enough to harm Elmiryn.”

“She didn’t want you to just kill us. She wanted you to break us psychologically…destroy our group’s cohesion,” Hakeem said slowly.

Shift. Kali was back, and her angry face replaced Nyx’s look of remorse. “Yes. And that witch will pay! Her and the little one!”

Shift. Nyx shook her head, alarmed. “No! Not Lethia! It isn’t her fault!”

Shift. Kali snarled, her eyes narrowing. “She let this happen! She should be held accountable!”

Shift. Nyx, her face now contorted in frustration. “It isn’t that simple! What could she possibly have done!?”

Shift. Kali punched the ground. “More than let you sit sucking at dry bones for all this time!”

Hakeem grabbed the feline’s shoulder, and she looked at him sharply. He gazed back at her hard.

“Kali, be careful. I know you and Nyx have said that you have dealt with the beast, but its energy is a part of you now. All that rage and anger is now in your hearts. It is good that you can finally reconcile with it, but do not let it escape you. Either of you. Or we may again see its black ways return.”

Kali’s slitted gaze bored into him. Then she turned her eyes away and nodded stiffly.

Hakeem made a mental note: When it comes to eye contact, Ailurans behave similarly to Lycans. Fixed eye contact means challenge. Averting one’s gaze means to concede.Remember never to concede with Kali. Unlike Nyx, the feline persona is more apt to violence and should be kept from believing she’s in command.

Another shift and Nyx was back, looking at Hakeem with a grateful smile. Still, she held a wary glint in her eye. “Hakeem, you didn’t come to tell us that. What did you need?”

The man-boy crossed his arms and looked to the cave. “Ikati, you mentioned that Lethia was with Syria. Is she in that keep Quincy saw?”

Nyx nodded, her features flickering but remaining intact.

Hakeem continued, “You know as well as I do that the Manus Dei were summoned for a reason—to stop us, or at least, slow us down. Why do you think that is?”

“So that Syria could escape with Lethia?” Nyx said uncertainly.

He shook his head. “They must have a quick exit that wouldn’t require all of this. Think. What reason would Syria need to have lots of time for.”

Nyx thought hard, and when her features flickered to Kali’s, the man-boy saw the feline thinking hard on this too.

“Syria is trying to slow us down…because she’s trying to cast another spell?” Kali tried slowly.

Hakeem nodded. “Yes. Syria must be casting something—something that would require a long ritual that cannot be interrupted.”

“And anything she wants to cast would be bad for us, right?” Kali said, scowling.

“Right.”

“You humans and your…” but the feline’s grumble was cut off as Nyx shifted into view.

“Hakeem…” she said slowly. Her tawny eyes looked over him carefully, their lids low. “You want me to convince Elmiryn to go through with Quincy’s plan don’t you?”

The man-boy nodded. “Time is of the essence, and whatever reality-bending trick Elmiryn has up her sleeve won’t come quickly enough for us to stop Syria. We are so closeIkati. If we defeat Syria, we can go home, and then this whole nightmare will be over.”

“We might go home,” the girl said shrewdly, her eyes narrowing. “And there’s still the matter of Paulo—I know he’s a prat, but he doesn’t deserve to be left in this dimension.”

Hakeem held up a pacifying hand. “Okay. You’re correct. There are still important things to deal with, and Syria may not be our answer. But what better leads have you to go on at the moment?”

Nyx frowned and looked down at her crossed legs. Her features shifted now and again. Hakeem counted the time.

Five…four…three…two…

Nyx sighed. “I don’t like Quincy’s plan anymore than Elmiryn does, but I see your point.”

Hakeem smiled. “I’m glad you do.”

“But tell me something first.”

The wizard’s smile turned bemused. “All right. What would you like me to tell you?”

“What does ikati mean?”

Hakeem laughed, a full genuine sound. It surprised him, but pleasantly so. Still chuckling, he stood. He looked down at Nyx–Kali–The Twins, and they both pouted up at him.

“In my language,” Hakeem chuckled. “It means, ‘cat’.”

The Twins’ expressions lightened.

“Oh!” One of them said. He didn’t know who, as their faces had been in mid-shift when they spoke.

Hakeem walked away to stand at Quincy’s side again. Elmiryn passed him, sparing him a curious glance as she went to rejoin Nyx.

He couldn’t stop grinning. ‘Cat’ wasn’t the literal translation for the word, but he figured the Twins would not appreciate his new nickname for them.

Because in Fanaean, what ikati really meant was, “silly puss.”

Continue ReadingChapter 34.1

Chapter 34.3

HAKEEM________________________

When the dark came over them, whole and impenetrable, Hakeem ceased moving. When he looked back behind him, he saw no light. In their home world, this would be impossible—they hadn’t traveled far from the edge of the forest. But this was the Other Place, and it was a half-world, fraught with magic. This was a supernatural darkness.

He opened his mouth to mention this when—

“I can’t see!” That was Nyx. Her voice was tight with sudden panic. She sounded far away.

“Nyx?” Elmiryn. She was behind him.

“Get off my foot, idiot!” Quincy. She was to his right. Perhaps a few steps.

“Stay calm,” he said, reaching toward his wife. His hand swiped through air.

“Elle!?” Nyx again. Her voice traveled and he heard brush being disturbed. “Elle, where’d you—ah!” There was a thud.

Cajeck!” Kali, now. “Stop stumbling around like that!”

“Nyx, you’re going the wrong way!” Elmiryn called. Now she was on Hakeem’s immediate left.

“In case you haven’t noticed, Kali, we can’t see anything. Historically this has never been a good thing!” Nyx snapped.

“Elmiryn, gods damn it, get off my foot!” Quincy snarled.

The warrior’s response was tight with laughter. “Wizard, I’m not even touching you!”

“Then…Then what–?”

ELMIRYN!!” It was Nyx again. Hakeem heard sharp snapping sounds, like threads breaking.

“Nyx!? Nyx!” Hakeem felt Elmiryn shove past him.

The Fanaean covered his face with both his hands, a groan coming up his throat. “Everyone just calm down…

A scuffle. It sounded like snapping wood. Hakeem couldn’t pinpoint the source.

“Nyx? Where the hell—?”

“R-Right here, Elle.” Nyx’s voice was small. “I just…it was moss. Just…uh…moss.”

Kali’s voice was a disgruntled grind. “A Champion of Survival, and she still can’t stand the feel of hanging vegetation.”

“It was scary vegetation! Okay!?”

“Kitten…” Elmiryn’s relief was apparent even amidst layers of exasperation.

Hakeem spoke loudly. “If you women are finished being silly—”

“Hey, midget.” The warrior’s voice steeled. “I don’t care how little you are, I will kick you in the cod piece.”

He cleared his throat, clasping his hands in front of him. “Noted. I just wanted to let you all know that I recognize what’s happening.”

“And what is happening exactly?” Kali asked.

“We’re deep inside a magical edge effect.”

“A…what?”

“Are you familiar with the legend of the blackwood?”

“I am.” That was Elmiryn. Her voice had turned somber. “It was the forest of devils.”

Hakeem smiled in the dark. “Yes. The forest was famous for its ability to separate the color spectrum.”

“Aesutan used it to clothe himself in the ways of the universe.” Elmiryn’s voice was virtually a whisper now.

Hakeem frowned at this as he resumed. Was that a note of realization in her voice? “Yes…Meaning color can be manually manipulated.”

“Someone made a barrier of the color black!” Nyx exclaimed.

“Actually, black is the absence of color, and as color simply makes up the spectrum of light then it’s absence means—”

“We can’t see,” the Ailuran finished. “Fascinating! And…troublesome.”

“Very good, ikati. You’re correct. We should–” Hakeem broke off as his body tensed. Something just occurred to him.

“Hakeem? Is something the matter?”

The Fanaean waved his hands through the dark, trying to feel his way. “Mweze? Are you there? Mweze?

“Oh. Oh no! That’s right, Quincy hasn’t said anything for nearly a minute,” Nyx murmured.

“What’s the problem?” Elmiryn asked. “She does that all the time!”

“Yes, but she does that with a level of menace that usually tells of a desire to hit you. That feeling’s noticeably absent.”

“When you say ‘you’—”

“I’m referring to you, Elmiryn.”

“I…you know, for once I have nothing to say to that.”

Hakeem’s palms grew sweaty as he cupped his hands around his mouth. “Quincy! Quincy!! Bwa-Mweze zi gua-quli!

“Hakeem,”

“We have to find her!” He bit out.

“Hey, hey, little man! Now who’s acting up?”

“No, you don’t understand—”

“What? You going to tell me Quincy is afraid of the dark?”

You don’t understand! Quincy isn’t who she used to be!”

Nyx tried to be placating. “Hakeem, this darkness is impenetrable. Anyone could get lost here.”

“No, there’s something out here.”

“Hakeem—“

MWEZE!! BWA-MWEZE JA NGOLE!!

“Shut up with your monkey gibberish, for fuck’s sake,” Elmiryn snapped.

Nyx’s voice was dry. “Elle, somehow I doubt that’s—“

MWEZE!

Not long after Hakeem cried out did something curl around his feet and pull. With a yell, the man-boy was thrown to his feet, and when he hit the ground, his breath fled from him. Unable to talk, he reached out, his fingers clawing for something to hold onto, but they only raked through soft soil and dead leaves.

“Hakeem?”

He didn’t get a chance to answer. With a force of strength that made him feel as though his leg were being yanked from its socket, Hakeem was dragged away, along the uneven forest floor. Barely any noise was made save that soft rustle of leaves parting around his body like waves. Elmiryn and Nyx would assume he had just rushed off to look for Quincy unless he could say otherwise. And he tried…

And tried.

Something is stopping me! He thought with alarm.

He grit his teeth and shielded his head as best he could, the pain of being dragged reminding him of the time he’d been tortured by desert raiders. They had tried dragging him to death by camel, but the man had made use of a magical charm that lessened the damage he suffered until Quincy could intervene.

Quincy…I’m a fool! Why am I struggling? This thing will lead me right to her!

Hakeem relaxed his body. A less rigid form would suffer less damage. Keeping his breathing fast and shallow, the wizard closed his eyes and waited for the ride to be over. When he felt himself come to a sudden halt, he dared to open his eyes.

Light. It was weak–so weak that it had barely pierced his eyelids–but it was more than enough after the sort of pitch black world he’d been in. The light was a warm, a pensive sort of gold, and he could see the way the trees breathed it in like it were air.

In and out. In and out.

When he adjusted to the soft glow, Hakeem could make out a tall, hunched figure, stoking what appeared to be fire in a lamp. The being wore only a brown skirt, and had long hair with a beard. Something was off about this, and the man-boy sat up slowly, so as not to attract attention to himself. Then his eyes widened.

A leshy…a being that protects the trees and animals!

“Spirit…” He said as he cautiously stood to his feet. “Whatever wrong we have brought upon your home, please know that we did not mean it. We are lost and simply wish to be on our way.” Hakeem swallowed. “I would be most appreciative if you released my wife.”

“Your wife crushed a budding daisy. The sweet child had only just known the grace of the suns when that fat human squashed it.” The leshy turned, his hair and beard swaying so that they better caught the light. Grass. Long grass, just as Hakeem had thought.

The nature spirit plucked up the lamp off the ground and labored toward Hakeem, his weight shifting onto a wooden cane with each step. Even hunched over, he was easily teen feet tall.

“Spirit, you are tired…” Hakeem said with a frown. “Does it have to do with this darkness around us?”

The leshy laughed as he neared, the sound like a drum. “This is the blackwood. Light is the peculiarity here, man child.”

“You see the way of things,” Hakeem said as he peered up.

The leshy had a long, teardrop-shaped face, with his chin ending in a point and his forehead widening to allow room for his ample brow. His ears were large and pointed, with the lobes hanging long and low. With a hooked nose, bushy eyebrows, and fiery-green eyes, the leshy did not look pleased. Even his cheeks, which were supposed to be blue according to legend, were tinting purple instead.

“I see intruders who have caused a mess,” the leshy growled.

“You…are the keeper of these woods?” Hakeem breathed, his eyes narrowing. “I thought this place was said to be a place of devils?”

As soon as the words left his mouth, the wizard knew he’d spoken ill. The leshy roared, and with a short swipe of his cane, he struck Hakeem along the face with it. The man-boy hit the ground, his head split with the sharp agony of the blow.

Devils!?” the leshy roared, cane raised for another blow. “Does Bronislav the Peaceable sound like the name of a devil to you boy!?”

“No!” Hakeem exclaimed, holding up his hands. He struggled to focus on Bronislav’s faint form. “I was only…confused! I was raised on stories that seem to be untrue. I see that now.”

The rage from the leshy’s face drained. If possible, he hunched even more, his head hanging as he lowered his cane. “It is true. My forest has become the haven for creatures of darkness ever since Nathric’s rise.”

Hakeem rubbed at his face, working his jaw. When he was certain it wasn’t too damaged, he returned to his feet, dusting his legs. Peering up at Bronislav, he said, “But Nathric fell hundreds of years ago…?”

“But his followers did not,” the leshy sighed. He glared upward with contempt. “The God King saw no reason to have Aesutan aid his other subjects of Harmony. Damned rot, that was.”

Hakeem thought a moment. “So…if my companions and I can cure your forest of its infestation, you will free my wife?”

The leshy frowned at him, his grass eyebrows knitting.

“Who said I was in possession of your wife, man child?”

“How can that be?” The wizard’s hands clenched as his chest grew tight. “She was taken in the dark! She was–”

“Hakeem?”

His head snapped around at the voice that came from the dark behind them. A moment later, he saw a slim figure enter the sphere of light. The leshy raised his lamp to illuminate the stranger, and Hakeem let out a cheer.

“Mweze, you’re all right!”

Quincy was covered in mud and looking sour but was otherwise fine. She wiped muck off her shoulder and gave her husband a strange look.

“Of course I am! Why do you keep assuming I’m in trouble lately?”

Hakeem smiled sheepishly, his hand rubbing his bald head. “Perhaps because you keep vanishing, then reappearing covered in muck?”

His wife squinted her eyes at him, her mouth open.

“I don’t like what you’re implying…” she said slowly. When she continued, her tone was snappish. “It was a forest imp, all right? He was standing on my foot because the little bastard was trying to reach my pouch! He almost made off with it before I zapped him…” She grumbled, gripping her magic pouch possessively.

“And the mud?”

Quincy’s face flared. “It’s dark out here, Taika. Don’t you start!”

“This is your wife, man child?” Bronislav asked, pointing a chipped nail.

Hakeem nodded absently. “Yes, she’s–” he did a double-take, “No, wait!”

Too late.

With one great swipe, the leshy grabbed Quincy around the waist, then hefted her over his shoulder as though she weighed no more than a feather. The woman tried to defend herself, but her reaction came late, with her lightning staff flashing in her hands only after the spirit guardian had lain hands on her. Shouting out curses, she tried to strike the leshy in the back with her weapon, ungainly as it were in that position, but the spirit’s grassy hair came to life, and as though she were a child with a toy, it took the staff and held it out of her reach.

Quincy screamed with rage. “GIVE THAT BACK! Damn you, ko galani chudopek! I should’ve killed you when I had the chance!”

Mwezequiet!” Hakeem snapped, his face pale. He clasped his hands before him, then gave a bow. “Bronislav, please! Do not harm my wife. She did not mean to harm your flowers!”

“But she has!” Bronislav thundered. “I will flay her skin and use her to liven the soil.”

“You wish to strengthen your forest, do you not?” Hakeem said quickly, raising his head. His voice rose. “Then do not attack the unintended symptoms of the problem. Attack the problem itself!”

The wizard straightened, pointing off into the forest. “There is a balance that keeps all nature within Harmony! But a parasite has descended upon your home, sundering whatever peace you had left since Nathric’s downfall!”

Hakeem slammed his fist into his chest three times, shouting. “Bronislav, lay your trust in me, and this threat shall be removed! But my wife cannot be harmed, you must swear it!”

The leshy scowled down at Hakeem, almost looking annoyed by his offer. He looked at his lamp, with its strange fire-less glow, then back at the wizard. His mouth opened to speak–

There was a flash of light, and without warning, the clearing was intensely illuminated.

A twig cracked. Hakeem and the leshy turned in the direction of the sound to see Elmiryn and Nyx standing before them.

Nyx appeared nonplussed, even as she retracted her foot from the black twig she had crushed. Her tawny eyes, still flickering between states, alternated between Hakeem, Bronislav, and Quincy. Standing near her was Elmiryn, and she did not look right.

Striped all along the woman’s skin were…colors.

Candy pinks and bruised purples, sunny oranges and hazardous greens.

As if the giant forest spirit was not even there, the warrior flexed her arms and flashed an arrogant smile.

“I am brilliant!” She announced. She fanned out her hand and look at it at arms length. It was the only part of her body in a solid color–a bloody red. “I could feel traces of light deeper into the trees and ripped them out! Now I look just like my ancestor! Isn’t this fantastic?”

Hakeem closed his eyes and hung his head as he heard Bronislav begin to sputter with rage.

Why…why do I even bother?

ELMIRYN________________________

The ground trembled, the soft soil churning as black vines surfaced. They seemed to strain around a large chunk of earth, raising it, before they succeeded in hurling it through the air. Elmiryn pressed the air and particles before her into an immovable force shield as she pressed Nyx behind her. It wasn’t that she had been unaware of the big spirit or the fact that Quincy was being held captive by it.

It was that she wanted the attention on her.

When the earth struck in an eruption of dirt and rock, the woman’s feet slid along the ground, and she had a sudden epiphany.

“Uh. This isn’t the arktan thing all over again, is it?” She mused with grit teeth. Her shield had lost integrity and she was trying to restore it.

“I think so, Elle!” Nyx breathed behind her.

Black vines sprang forth all around them, thick and tangled and creaking. Elmiryn’s eyes widened as she pulled out her sword. The shield fell away as her concentration on it vanished. Its protection wouldn’t help against a foe that could attack from all sides, and she wasn’t sure she could muster up the energy to maintain something more encompassing.

The kitten’s right! This thing isn’t a normal spirit. It has some sort of power over the forest, just like–

But the warrior’s thoughts were cut short when a vine grabbed her leg and pulled. With a nasty flop, she was thrown to the ground, then hoisted up into the air upside down. Elmiryn’s eyes widened when she saw Nyx fall, then vanish under a swarm of the black plants.

With a sharp roar, the warrior swung her sword, slicing the vine holding her captive. She hit the ground in a painful heap, her body just turning in the air in time to keep from breaking her neck. Feeling old wounds protest, Elmiryn raised herself to all fours, her eyes swerving to where she saw Nyx last.

The girl was gone.

Squinting, the warrior was about to call out for her when something crashing into the side of her stomach and sent her skidding along the ground. Vines sprang forth, holding her in place. The woman struggled to get a grip on her breathing. Pain wracked throughout her as she managed to look up.

The large spirit glared down at her, Quincy still on his shoulder, his other arm raising a long wooden cane.

His green eyes held fury as he bared long teeth at her.

“That I could repay the insult brought upon my home so long ago…I see now that this is providence!” the spirit roared. “Halward, I, Bronislav the Peaceable, thank thee for this offering, and know that I take it with great pleasure!

The spirit swung his staff down…

…And missed.

Elmiryn could feel the heavy tip of the cane brush by her hair, where if it had found its mark she was certain it would have crushed her skull. The spirit was not a little surprised at this, but he did not dwell on the why of it as he brought his cane up for another swing. Down it came, whistling with all the force he put behind the blow–

Only to miss yet again.

Bronislav glared at his cane. “What trickery–!?”

Then without warning, he jerked to the side and fell. Elmiryn stared. The spirit hadn’t just tipped over…something had swiped his legs out from under him, whilst something invisible struck him in the upper body. Quincy let out a surprised squawk as she hit the ground just behind the spirit.

Her eyes flickered up to see Hakeem his wife up with a displeased look on his face.

“Well?” He said, glaring at her. “Do you need us to free you as well?”

Elmiryn didn’t need telling twice. With the spirit incapacitated, his black vines hung lifeless and still. She had to get the upper hand. With some difficulty, the woman managed to free herself just as Bronislav began to stir.

Using her fae power, the warrior brought down another wall of air and dust, but this time she pressed it down as hard as she could.

“How DARE you!” Bronislav raged.

Elmiryn grit her teeth, struggling to keep the magical field intact. Cracks grew along the threads of magic, her weave straining under the pressure.

Then the woman just about had it, and kicked the spirit in the head as hard as she could.

Bronislav’s head snapped to the side, and when he shook his eyes straight, it was to see Elmiryn’s sword pointed at his face.

“I am no god’s offering,” She snarled. “I’ve killed plenty with this sword. But I think you’ll be a first!”

“Elmiryn!”

The woman jerked to see Nyx pulling herself out of the ground as though she had just jumped down into a hole. But all that was there beneath her when the girl had finished was her shadow.

She tripped the spirit in that shadow place! Elmiryn realized. She must’ve signaled Hakeem somehow!

Nyx’s face flickered with feline features, but no matter what the look of determination was the same.

“You can’t kill him!” she cried out.

The warrior raised an eyebrow at her. “Why not? He would’ve killed us!”

“He wouldn’t have, if you had treated his home with some modicum of respect!” Hakeem snapped. He gestured at her. “How did you take the light as you did? You realize that the blackwood relies on light, no matter how scant, to survive, don’t you!? That is why it is a black forest! The trees devour all the light!”

Quincy pointed at Bronislav, “Hakeem was just about to make a peaceful deal with this being before you showed up in all your huff and puff!”

Elmiryn scowled. “Huff and puff? He attacked me first! All I did was draw his attention!”

“Ha!” Everyone turned to look down at the captive spirit. His face was twisted with contempt. “Just like your clan, to abuse the powers given to you!”

“You mean humans?” Elmiryn asked with squinted eyes.

“Your family,” Bronislav spat. “Just like Aesutan before you, so do you come and bring destruction. Well I demand an end, do you hear!?” The spirit’s face became lined and weary as he turned his head. “I am tired of this universe’s neglect.”

Elmiryn’s sword lowered, but she kept the force field up, in case Bronislav tried to spring at them.

“Aesutan hurt you?”

“He abandoned him,” Hakeem said quietly. “When Nathric fell, the devils fled into the blackwood to escape the return of light. Its been a safe haven for evil spirits ever since.”

“But the legends say this place was their home to begin with!” Elmiryn said, her eyes widening.

Hakeem shook his head. “No, Elmiryn. The legends spoke false. Look at this creature. Have you never heard of his kind? He is a leshy, a high being–”

“A spirit guardian,” The warrior breathed. She sheathed her sword, her brow wrinkled as she looked Bronislav up and down. “His control over the environment reminded me of Nadi…but…he’s weaker! We shouldn’t have won so easily!”

“My strength is devoured by vermin like you,” Bronislav intoned, his peculiar eyes fixing on her sideways. “If I were half what I once was, then you would have been slain! Do not doubt this!”

“I don’t…” Elmiryn muttered, walking away. Her head hung low and her hands found her hips.

Stopping near the tree line, she heard Nyx follow and looked back. The girl was wringing her hands. Her form was less shifty than it was before–perhaps her and her Twin were getting a grip on their body.

“You’re upset about what they said…about Aesutan,” Nyx said quietly so the others couldn’t hear.

The Ailuran stepped in close, hugging the woman’s arm. Elmiryn’s tension eased at the feel of the girl’s bare skin on hers, her breasts soft and inviting. But even as she felt the stirrings of arousal, these things could not compete with her distress.

“He was my hero, Nyx,” Elmiryn murmured, fingering the jewel on her sword’s pommel. “But I know what the others are saying is true. Aesutan must have known that Bronislav needed his help, but he just took what he needed and left!”

“M-Maybe it wasn’t in his power to–”

“No!” Elmiryn bit out, her tension returning. “It was always in his power! He just took the easy way out and left a big fucking mess for me to find later!” She kicked at the dirt. “Argh! Why does my family always do this!?”

“If that’s the case, Elle…then…” Nyx’s eyes brightened and she gave a little jump.

Elmiryn’s eyes returned to her companion’s breasts, her desire suddenly surging.

The Ailuran’s voice only just managed to reach her. “Sweet Aelurus! Elmiryn, this is wonderful! Don’t you see? This is a chance for you to restore your family’s honor! You can make amends by restoring Harmony!

I see thou have come a long way since last we parted, to so eagerly fill your station,” a new voice hissed.

Nyx’s eyes widened and her head snapped to look into the trees. Elmiryn, confused at the new voice, looked as well. Her face reddened.

You!” She bit out.

Continue ReadingChapter 34.3

Chapter 36.1

NYX___________________________

The desire to shout Elmiryn down was there, for all of us, I think–but inevitably we found ourselves more concerned with the task before us. Hard to ignore the chance of finally facing down the one who had put us all through hell, after all. My only concern was in how well the warrior could function. I wanted to ask her to give me the gourd, but I could already foresee the clash of wills that would be, and I needed all of that energy for the task before us. It was easy, being brave and saying I wouldn’t let anything happen to Elle back in the blackwood. It was a wee bit harder at the actual threshold of the keep. After all…

If there was one thing the Other Place had proven to me, it was that it had no exhaustible amount of terrible surprises to sling at us. I’m not sure I could ever shake away some of the sights I’d seen here, and I suspected I had many rough nights of sleep in the future. Would this challenge really be the last I’d see? My fears seemed to stack up sometimes, swaying in the cold winds, and I was always stuck in the shadow of them, gulping down my courage–because things always tended to go wrong whenever I tried to do…anything. My lack of a family is probably my best example.

My confidence was like a rollercoaster. One moment I’d be filled with purpose, the next I’d be wringing my hands in doubt. I just wanted to do the right thing, and in such a dark and twisted halfway dimension, that became more and more distorted…especially when we were all walking such fine lines between salvation and destruction. And the horrible part? Half the time that misfortune was wrought by our own hands. Elmiryn’s drinking. My self-made monster.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, we came to the arched entrance of the castle keep. The looming structure, with its worn and mossy stone, its dark crenellations, and its many gazed windows seemed to bare down on us. The large double-door entrance was painted red, and had a smaller inset door to the right. We stopped before this, and exchanged looks.

In a weak attempt to bolster my courage, I tried to be blithe. “D-Do you suppose we knock?” At the looks I received, I resolved never to do that again. Ever.

Hakeem tried to pull it open by the handle. It didn’t budge. “We will have to break it down unless we can find another way in,” he remarked.

“Fuck that,” Elmiryn snapped. The drink was clearly working for her. Maybe I needed to have some.

She stepped up to the door as she took another swig of drink. Her other hand twirled her sword. Quincy crossed her arms and said in the dryest voice possible, “What are you going to do? Belch at it?”

The warrior turned and squinted one eye. “Uh…No. I was going to bust it down.” She turned back, shaking her head. “‘Belch at it’…what a boob!”

Quincy’s face grew red. “I was being sarca–”

“Shh!” I hissed. “Sweet Aelurus, we’re in a very dangerous place right now! Can we save this nonsense for later!?”

Elmiryn spoke, and as she did so, she raised her foot to kick the door. “Then let’s quit stalling and just–”

Before she could kick out, the door swung open with a faint creak. My mouth dropped and I took a step back. Elmiryn didn’t move, her foot still in the air.

“Orrr…that could happen,” she said insipidly.

I took another step back as my body trembled. “This could be a trap!”

Quincy shook her head at me. “You just ran through a field of evil spirits, but you can’t walk through a door?

My hackles rose. “Syria could be on the other side of it with some diabolical plan to turn our minds inside out! She’s done things like that before!”

“Well it isn’t going to be very productive to just sit out here, now is it?” Elmiryn said. She had a jocular smile on her face, but I could see the way her head swayed ever so slightly on her neck as she turned to face the door. If she kept at that gourd, she’d be slurring her words any minute now.

Just as she started to cross the threshold, I jumped forward and ripped the gourd from her hands. She was quick to try and take it back, like I knew she would be, and maybe if she were sober, she would have succeeded, but she wasn’t. It only made me more certain that my bold move was in the right. Elmiryn had made the argument that she needed to keep drinking to stay functional. True, that her hands were looking steady now, but the warrior wouldn’t be able to stop herself from going too far. I had to do something, and that wasn’t going to be talking things out.

“Nyx what the hell!?” she cried.

I didn’t even stop to try and defend my actions. With a look that begged for understanding, I turned and fled through the door. I heard the others follow me, and was glad too, because the antechamber made my skin go cold.

The ceiling swirled in colors, bright and dark, cool and warm. As I stood beneath it, the yellow color on my skin began to rise up like liquid into the air. It floated up to join the colors on the ceiling. I shook my head slowly.

“What sort of sorcery is this?” I breathed.

“It could be a more focused form of energy sorcery,” I heard Quincy murmur behind me. “Though I’ve never seen it exercised on light before…barring Tonatiuh of course.”

I turned to look and there she was with Hakeem, holding a hand out to keep Elmiryn from trying to take the gourd back. The warrior glared at me, her expression speaking of betrayal, and I ducked my gaze.

Gods, she must think I don’t trust her to control herself! Why can’t she see that it isn’t HER I don’t trust, it’s her fae side?

Isn’t that the same thing? Kali responded quietly.

Quincy met my eyes, and leaving Hakeem to ensure Elmiryn didn’t do anything rash, she approached me with her hand held out. “Give the gourd here. I can keep it in my pouch.”

Grateful the source of conflict was being removed, I handed it to her and watched as she quickly slipped it into her magic pouch.

“Just how much can you hold in there?” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of me.

Quincy thought for a moment, then answered. “I think about as much as a two-floor mansion can, from floor to ceiling.”

My eyes went wide. Meanwhile, Elmiryn had stormed off to fume by herself, and Hakeem let her go. The antechamber wasn’t that big, so she didn’t go far.

“Gods, how can it hold so much?” I exclaimed.

“Well, actually, there’s a catch. Wizardry always has a catch. In the case of this pouch, I can only put in items that can fit through the four-inch wide opening. Next…things tend to get lost in there. So it’s best to keep the stock low. The pouch may be able to hold as much as a mansion, but I can only get as much as my arm can reach…”

Uncertain of what to say about all of this, I just nodded slowly. Wizardry was an odd profession–I knew this from my reading–and I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could find themselves practicing such an art. I mean, yes. I understand the appeal of having powers one would normally need to be born with. But wizards were a cutthroat lot, killing each other for their things, tomb raiding sacred sites, and battling magical beings on the off-chance that they may find some sort of treasure. Hakeem and Quincy both seemed very successful at it, given the number of artifacts they possessed. The average wizard only had one powerful artifact, and any number of common magicked items. In their case? From what I saw they were extraordinary, even for such an unusual practice.

We heard a door open and looked up to see Elmiryn pushing her way into the next room. I groaned and hurried after her, the wizards on my heels.

Wonderful. She’s mad, so now she’s going to be reckless about this all.

The next room turned out to be a sort of sitting room, but it was flushed with papers and books. There was a sofa chair, an ornate rug, and some tables, but otherwise the room didn’t have much else.

When we caught up to Elmiryn, I hissed, “Elle, please don’t rush off like that!”

“I heard something,” she replied in a steely tone.

I flinched and rubbed my arm. “Elmiryn, listen. I’m sorry, but I had to take the gourd–”

“Shhhh!” She held a finger to my lips and I stopped. “D’you hear that?”

I frowned, straining my ears. With my Twin back, my hearing had improved, but I heard nothing. I looked to the others and by their expressions they hadn’t heard anything either.

My eyes returned to the woman, my forehead wrinkling. “Elle, there’s nothing–”

“There!” She grabbed my shoulder, squeezing it painfully, and pointed at the empty chair.

Now my look was wary. “The…chair?”

She didn’t seem to hear me. Swaying a little bit, she walked to the chair, her boots clicking on the stone floor before they reached the carpet. With a graceless drop, the woman sat at the foot of the chair and gazed up, smiling.

My heart clenched.

Oh no…

“E-Elmiryn?” I went to her side, and waved my hands in front of her face but she didn’t look at me. She was fixated on something that only she could see.

When I looked to the wizards to ask them what we should do, I choked on my words.

Quincy had floated off to stare at a wall, muttering to herself, whilst Hakeem seemed to just fall asleep on his feet. I looked at them all in horror.

“This was a trap!”

“No. It wasn’t.”

I screamed and turned to see Lethia Artaud standing in a doorway I hadn’t noticed yet. From the way she stepped down to the floor, I assumed she came from a staircase. Clutching at my chest, I stared at her, robbed of words.

In a rush, memories came to me–long and stretched from a route of time that didn’t fit with my other memories. The one that stood out to me was the latest one. The one where I had stood and called Lethia a coward. How I’d threatened to break her bones. The silence felt heavy. There had been many things in my head I’d been keeping at bay, with Kali’s help, so that we could survive the challenges before us. But this one broke forth like a flood, weakening me.

My eyes filled with tears and I ducked my head in shame. “Lethia…”

She didn’t say anything for a long time, leaving the colorful ceiling to echo back Quincy’s dazed mutterings.

“It’s not your fault,” she finally said.

My face crumpled. “It is…It is, and I’m sorry! There’s so many things I regret, Lethia, I can’t even–” My voice cut off as my expression cleared and I blinked away my tears. Something had occurred to me. “Wh-What are you doing here? Where’s Syria?”

Lethia’s oval-shaped face twitched as she looked down at her shoes, then back at me. “You don’t have to worry about her.”

“What? I–I don’t understand. Who cast the Manus Dei?

Lethia wrung her hands, her shoulders coming up around her ears. With tight lips, she mumbled, “I did.”

My eyes went wide. “It was…you?

“That’s what I said.”

“But–”

“I was trying to buy some time. To think.” Her voice had gone tight, and I wasn’t sure if she was angry somehow, or simply fighting back tears.

As such I proceeded with caution. “Lethia, why are you here?”

Her green eyes fastened onto mine, and my heart leapt into my throat. The enchantress had the power to steal people’s thoughts by meeting their gaze. I looked away, feeling a little bad for my reaction, but more afraid of having my head emptied. Then I blinked.

“Wait…”

Slowly, my eyes returned to Lethia’s. “Elmiryn said Syria had lied to you about your eyes. Have you…controlled your power then?”

Lethia thought for a moment. Then she shook her head. “No…not really. I still have wandering amnesia. Any given moment there is something I can’t remember. But for a long time I didn’t have my full power, so it wasn’t so debilitating.”

I frowned at the girl’s tone and took a slow step back. “But your power has…come back?

She nodded once, and her gaze turned glassy. “Yes.”

The silence returned. I breathed hard through my nose, my heart rate going fast. Lethia just stood there, her hands and arms limp at her sides, her head lolled to the right, her face blank. There was something off about all of this, and I could feel Kali pacing inside me as I tried to figure out just what the danger was.

If the Other Place had taken her power, how did she even get it back? Syria clearly had been trying to keep Lethia controlled, and she wouldn’t have made the mistake of arming the girl with the very power that would free her. Lethia had only wanted to get away from this nightmare.

I took notice of the bandages on her arm…

“This isn’t a trap,” Lethia repeated suddenly, making me jump a little.

I raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”

“I said this isn’t a trap.” She reached a hand up and brushed her wavy wheat blonde hair back over her shoulder. “This is…a last chance.”

My back tightened. “Lethia, what is going on? Where is Syria? Why did you cast the Manus Dei?” Then I gasped and took another step back as something finally occurred to me. “You’re working with Syria, aren’t you?”

Lethia shook her head, an almost disappointed smirk on her face. “No…”

Now my confusion had doubled. “Then please explain to me what is happening! Why are the others not responding?”

“I put them in dream states,” the girl said with a shrug. She started to walk forward, and my fists clenched. “I just wanted to talk to you in private.”

“About what? Be straightforward with me, Lethia! Please!

“Straightforward…that’s what you want?” She stopped just a few steps from me and Elmiryn. Her eyes flickered to the warrior, still dreamily focused on whatever it was that Lethia had tricked her mind into seeing. “Okay. I can be straightforward.”

Her green eyes locked onto mine again, and I could see her lower lip quake. “You have to help me decide. Either I choose your side, and risk the chance of Izma killing me, or I choose her side, and risk the chance of you and Elmiryn killing me. Give me your arguments.”

I didn’t know how to react at first. I stood staring at her, waiting for her to explain herself further, but the girl said nothing more. Up close, I could see now that her aloofness was really just an act to contain her numbing fear. Lethia was terrified, and she was asking for my help.

“I can’t…” I shook my head, my look twisting up in incredulity. “What kind of–?” I grabbed my hair and took yet another step back. “Lethia, what is this!? Some sort of sick game?”

“It isn’t a game,” and for the first time since she’d walked into the room, her voice cracked. “This is important. Life or death. But I can’t decide until I hear all the arguments! I’ve already heard Izma’s and now–”

Who is Izma!?” I screamed.

In a flash of recall, I answered my own question.

Ooooh…. My little sum of somes is quite a something!  Now my error is known.  Come.  Tell Izma what it was like to break the things she loves…

The memory came hard and fast, and a residual pain appeared deep inside in a place unreachable–like my soul were being attacked–and I cringed, clutching my sides. When I caught my breath and managed to fight off the nightmare, my gaze crawled back to Lethia, who was staring at me wide-eyed now.

“You know her, Nyx. You know her,” she whispered, and tears pooled into her gaze. “You know she is chaos. You know she is powerful. And she has a hold on me, much as I try to resist it!” Her head tilted to the side and she smiled shakily. “But I managed to convince her…that I was not like Syria or Elmiryn. I am not a pet, or a toy. If I worked with her, it would have to be in my choosing. This gave me just enough time to decide whether to follow through or to try and fight her…but you’ve seen how powerful she is, Nyx!” The girl sobbed and shook her head. “I’m scared. If it were just a matter of dying, then I would gladly die, but it isn’t so simple with her. Defying her and failing…I would suffer. Immensely. Y-You were right. I am a coward.”

Slowly I shook my head and with cautious steps I went to her. “No…No! Lethia, listen to me. You are not a coward!”

“Don’t do that…”

“But Lethia–”

“NO!” The girl shoved me away, her gaze turning wild. “I have to decide, and I have to decide now. Will I fight her, or will I fight you? I need arguments for both sides. Pros and cons. I…” She started wringing her hands again, her eyes trailing the room. “I can’t do it myself.”

“But why not!?” I cried. “You know what I’ll say to you! Izma is evil! She’s an abomination and she’s only going to use you for her own sick goals! And I…I thought we were friends? We fought together! We’ve confided in each other! Or do you really hate us that much??”

Lethia smiled at me brokenly. “I can’t remember.”

My breathing hitched, and my look melted once more into shame. “I…oh no…of course…”

“I can remember that I liked you all, and I can remember certain recent…unpleasant things,” she whispered, her gaze going glassy again. “But I don’t remember…us being together in our world. I don’t know why I liked you, or even how deeply that feeling goes. For all I know, I could’ve just thought you were nice because you shared a piece of bread with me in passing.”

“But even then, you could bring yourself to harm a stranger? The Lethia I knew wouldn’t do that!”

“The Lethia you knew is in the past.” She chuckled derisively. “She’s forgotten. Literally. Izma is terrifying, yes. And she is just using me, I know. But…she has a plan, Nyx. To fix the world. To make it better.”

“And you believe her?”

“Syria did. Maybe I should’ve trusted in her. I didn’t have all the facts before. I didn’t…” she trailed off, and I stared at her, wondering how these things could be coming out of Lethia’s mouth.

Izma had a plan? In most cases, that would be referred to as world domination, if I wasn’t mistaken. Why couldn’t the girl see that? The Lethia I knew had a high moral code, and she not only expected others to behave honorably, but for herself to. The girl before me was almost alien in how she was rationalizing–

…Sweet Aelurus…of course!

I didn’t know why I didn’t see it sooner. Lethia was hyper-rationalizing.

It was a common tactic by those placed under great distress to be able to compute what was happening around them. I’d read it in some book, of course, so my knowledge was limited, but in extreme cases such thinking could lead to decisions that others would find reprehensible. The enchantress was possessed by a moral code, and I had mistakenly conflated that with someone who took things on faith. Lethia wasn’t about blind faith. When she said she believed Syria was innocent of those murders in Albias, it was because the evidence hadn’t added up to guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As an enchanter, Lethia was also a scholar, and her mind functioned heavily on the process of scientific reason. If her amnesia was preventing her from remembering all of the possible arguments for why she should trust and work with us, then in her state of stress, Izma’s arguments for “changing the world” would seem much more appealing.

I had to change this, and I had a feeling I couldn’t just put a vermagus spin on my Words and let the whole matter be done with. If I didn’t want to fight Lethia, which was quickly turning out to be a very dangerous option, I was going to have to convince her it was better to fight Izma.

I rubbed at my face. “My gods, I haven’t debated like this since I was in erduk.”

Lethia took a breath, her shoulders shuddering. Glancing at me, she sidled past Elmiryn to sit in the sofa chair and crossed her legs. When she looked at me again, her expression was somber.

“I’m listening,” she murmured.

QUINCY________________________

“I’m listening.”

Quincy’s eyes narrowed as she took in Lethia, sitting in the sofa chair with her legs crossed. Her gaze crawled back over her shoulder. Her husband was standing near the door, swaying on the spot. Elmiryn was sitting in front of Lethia, grinning and nodding her head like a little girl listening to story time. And Nyx? She was off to the side, leafing through the stacks of papers on the tables, her eyes glazed.

The woman looked back to Lethia as she crossed her arms. “So you want arguments, hmm?”

ELMIRYN_______________________

“What the hell d’ya want me ta say?” Elmiryn snapped. “Izma is bad news. Even Meznik is afraid o’ her. And you wanna jes’ settle on some crackpot plan to fix the world’s boo-boos!? C’mon kid, I thought you were smarter than that!”

Lethia shook her head. “It isn’t that simple, Elmiryn, and you know it. Izma and Meznik are cut from the same cloth. Are you telling me that the things he’s told you hasn’t appealed to you at all?”

Elmiryn’s eyes widened. “The hell? What’re you… No. No. You got into my head…saw things…”

The girl just laughed. “Come on, Elmiryn. Remember what happened last time? We both know that–”

HAKEEM________________________

“–Wouldn’t work.” Lethia finished.

Hakeem nodded, his fists on his hips. He glanced at the others. Quincy murmuring at the wall. Nyx leafing through the papers. Elmiryn sitting on the floor like a little girl. He turned his eyes back on the enchantress.

“Then why talk to me at all, if you know this charade will not work?”

Lethia shrugged. “Because. I may be playing mind games with the others, but you’re…too shrewd. I’ll get bored manipulating everything. I’d like to have at least one unfiltered conversation.”

The man rubbed at his mouth, his eyes returning to his wife. “She’ll see through this, you know. She’s good at picking up lies.”

“That pearl earring of hers doesn’t hurt either,” Lethia said with a wry smile. “I know Quincy is smart. Nyx and Elmiryn will get caught up chasing their own tails trying to sort out the logic. But Quincy? I’ll have to make her believe. And trust me, she’ll want to. Your wife may be attentive, and she may be intelligent, but when you live in reality like she does, you become prey to belief. Like how she chose to believe that her father and uncle were dead. Like how she chose to believe using the Morettis as bait against Syria was the right thing to do. Like how she chose to believe that she needed Tonatiuh to be strong. Did you know? Reality just amounts to all we can touch, smell, see, and hear. The sad fact is…all those senses we rely on is less than one-millionth of reality. The rest is just faith. So you see…I won’t trick Quincy into buying the lie. She’ll do that all by herself.”

Hakeem’s fists tightened and his eyes searched the girl’s face. “And I suppose I don’t have that problem?”

“You don’t live in belief. You know that life is far beyond anything we can comprehend, and so you adapt. You’ve adapted all your life. Like how you became one with the Lycans. It’s just what you do. Perhaps the only reason you haven’t moved on with your life is because of your wife. Because she can’t let things go, and she’s the only thing you can’t let go–”

“Shut up.” Hakeem’s armor flared with power as he stood to his feet. “I thought we weren’t playing any mind games…”

Lethia gazed at him for a long time before shaking her head sadly. “You’re right. Even the truth can’t be trusted.”

Hakeem glared at the floor, his muscles tense beneath his armor. Finally, he bit out, “What is this all for? Why don’t you and your master just kill us all?”

The girl bit her lip and wrung her hands. “I wasn’t lying Hakeem, when I said I cast the Manus Dei. But I borrowed that spell from Syria, and that knowledge is gone. Even with my raw power, I can’t control it like she could. It was just enough to defeat her in a moment of weakness. But you’re all determined to go home. Your mindscapes are…vast. Complicated. I may have the power, but I don’t have the skill to keep you all under and talk to you separately like this.”

“Izma…she’s augmenting your power…” Hakeem said, his eyes widening. “She’s the one really in control, isn’t she? But that still doesn’t tell me why she’s doing this! What is her plan, Lethia?”

Lethia’s voice was raspy when she spoke. “She wants to know more about you all. She wants to see if she can turn some of you. Part of it is out of spite. She wants to anger Lacertli by taking away his new champion. She also wants to steal Meznik’s toy. A power play. But in the case of you and Quincy…it’s curiosity. She recognizes your origins. The kind of triumphs you’ve achieved. The disasters you’ve survived. She thinks it might be useful.” She turned her face away. “And in the end, it all just amuses her. Your death or cooperation don’t really mean anything to her.”

“And you? Do you think she’ll spare you somehow?”

“…No.” The girl’s face crumpled and she shook her head. “I’ll be just like Syria. Just a thing to use and throw away.”

“So why play along?” Hakeem asked angrily. “Why do this to us?”

Lethia closed her eyes and tears slipped down her cheeks. “My mind is so confused, Hakeem. You may think my choice is easy…but it really isn’t. You all have agendas, just like Izma does, and I have to know which side is best to follow. I have to decide where I can do the most good.”

“And how will you decide this with Izma puppeting you!?” the man half-shouted. “Even if you can’t remember why you should trust us, you have got to know that Izma isn’t the answer!”

“Izma…she isn’t…she isn’t in control all the time. Please–” Hakeem started to speak, but Lethia stood, raising her hands. “Please! Let me explain!”

Hakeem crossed his arms, scowling. “Fine. But only because I’m certain I can’t kill you in this…illusion you’ve created.”

Lethia paled, but she moved past Elmiryn, daring a few steps closer. Wringing her hands, she started quickly. “Izma’s game works like this. I am her…screen. The field where she’s conducting everything. Imagine that she’s the controller, boosting my powers. But because she’s boosting my enchantment, she can only appear to one of you at a time. Most of the time, you’ll be speaking to me. I’m not allowed to tell the others what’s happening. She only allowed me to speak to you because she knew you wouldn’t fall for it, and for that she’s particularly interested in you. But the others…what she intends to do is to pick their minds. Peel away the layers. Izma is an astral demon, meaning she can do a lot, but she still isn’t a god. She doesn’t know everything about us, just certain things. While she tries to fill in the blanks, she’ll be evaluating your worth and interest. If she likes what she sees…she’ll convert you. If she doesn’t…” Lethia’s voice trailed, but Hakeem didn’t need her to finish.

He shook his head. “It’s a festival game. Hit the rodent when he peeks out from his hole. How can the others tell her apart from you?”

The girl shrugged helplessly. “Do you even know if I’m here right now? Maybe I’m Izma, just chatting you up. Judging your life.”

The man glared at her sidelong.

Lethia hugged herself and turned her body a quarter away, her chin tucking into her chest. “That’s the game, Hakeem. The others all think they’re only speaking to me, but at any given moment Izma can slip into my consciousness like I were a glove and just take over. If they can see it’s her…well…that’ll be dangerous, but at least they have a chance to fight back. I don’t like this either, but I have to know. I have to know what to do, and the only way I can do that is by talking to you all. One-on-one.”

“Only it’s not,” Hakeem snarled.

Lethia covered her mouth with her hand, her head shaking. He could hear her stifled sobs.

The wizard clenched his fists, then released them. Then with an explosive yell, he struck out, an arc of gravitational power blowing a table apart and sending books and papers into the air. He felt powerless. He didn’t want to feel powerless. He didn’t want to sit waiting for…whatever would happen.

For a long time, he stood panting through clenched teeth, his neck tight. Finally, he hissed, “This isn’t right…this is all just a lie…”

Lethia let out a cold laugh, and Hakeem looked at her sharply.

The girl was gazing at him with dead eyes, and the man shuddered involuntarily.

“Izma…” he whispered, taking a step back.

The demon grinned at him, Lethia’s green eyes glowing from the tainted presence.

“Silly, silly little time keeper. Don’t you know? Hope is just the universe’s way of lying to you. Identity is just your way of lying to yourself. Love is your way of lying to each other. Little Lethia knew this. Perhaps I should show you?”

Hakeem couldn’t help but flinch as the demon held up Lethia’s hand and a ball of light appeared. The orb flew to him faster than he could retreat, and the man’s eyes widened at the scene he saw within the orb’s depths.

Izma’s words gave way to music, and yet the man understood her meaning, as much as it repulsed him to do so.

Hope, identity, and love…look, little time keeper. Watch as these things die one by one…” the demon giggled.

Continue ReadingChapter 36.1

Chapter 37.1

HAKEEM_________________________

He had just witnessed some of the barest and most personal feelings of three women, one of which was his wife. Enthralled by the ugliness of it all, the man could not close his eyes. Their insecurities unfurled before him like a carpet, and he followed their fears until all lies were bypassed. Love. Hope. Identity. He saw them crack and fissure, watched with horror as they began to fall apart. How could they be so fragile? How could their hearts waver so, after all they had been through? Was this what they fought for? To exist in doubt and shame?

With a will, Hakeem turned his face away.

He heard Lethia’s voice, and it was devoid of the twisted humor that had so violated it. Izma was gone then. The man wasn’t sure if he felt all that much better with the alternative, however.

“I’m sorry…” she whispered.

“Does this satisfy your needs, Lethia Artaud?” He asked quietly. He gazed at the far wall, still trying to resist the macabre curiosity that compelled him to witness the systematic deconstruction of his companions’ minds. “Are you closer to your answers? Do you have what you want after turning Nyx’s love against her? Causing Elmiryn to doubt who she is? Making my wife–” but he broke off here, his voice choking out.

Ringing in his mind were Quincy’s words–over, and over, and over…

“I was Tulki’s concubine. Okay!?”

In all of Hakeem’s years, the only time he had felt so much pain was with the death of his family. Quincy’s words hit him hard and ripped out his soul. All expression felt inadequate for the amount of suffering that washed over him, powerful and suffocating. And the worst part was that his wife had been right. He had known the truth deep down in his heart. In his youth, he had beat his chest against the idea, choosing instead to trick himself into thinking he could keep her safe with a superstition. Even into adulthood, Hakeem liked to think that he had done right by Quincy and kept her safe. But he was just a child then, and a silly man now.

“I’m sorry…” Lethia said again. Louder now.

Like a wolf sensing blood, the man tensed up, his lips pulling back in a snarl. “You’re sorry?

The enchantress said nothing, and Hakeem’s eyes snapped onto her. His gaze burned with his anger, his pain, his regret. Even in the grips of emotion, the man’s heart knew only pure focus.

“If you were truly sorry, girl, you would end this!” He spat. Lethia flinched and looked down at her shoes. Hakeem gestured at the ball of light before him with disgust. “Apologies do nothing for me. Nothing for them. It’s all just empty words. Mean what you say, or keep silent. Your presence is enough of a lie as it is…”

Lethia’s face turned blank, but in the girl’s eyes, the wizard saw his pain reflected. The tension in his shoulders eased, but his gaze remained wary as the youth turned and drifted away, toward the staircase.

“You’re right,” she breathed. “I am a lie.” She rounded out of sight, up the stairs.

Hakeem gazed at the place he saw her last before letting his eyes trail back to the orb of light before him…

NYX____________________________

Stuck in some sort of dream or memory, I watched as Elmiryn approached me.

“I was going to leave.” Her voice was playful, like when she liked to joke and play games with me. I tried to move, feeling my panic rise.

I don’t want to see this!

But try as I might, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even look away. I even tried calling the shadows or changing over to the Somnium. Nothing worked. I was being blocked somehow. Kali was absent in my mind, and it made me feel alone.

Amidst my hysteria, Elmiryn looked at me as if I had just spoken. “I would so leave you!” Her eyes pierced into me. I’d never seen such clarity in Elle’s eyes. The look…scared me. “I’d leave you and let you stew in your own juices. It’s what you deserve, the way you jerk me around.” The person Elle thought I was must have spoken again, because she let out a throaty laugh. “Mmm…yes. I like it when you’re bad.”

As the woman pulled me close and pressed her mouth to my phantom lips, I heard Lethia’s voice echo around me.

“You’re probably wondering what’s happening.”

Then it hit me.

Rage.

If I thought it was bad before when Lethia mentioned my mother, it was a blessing in disguise being held captive like this, then. Words failed me. The only thing that would’ve satisfied my urges was violence. Whether Lethia was aware of this or not, she made no indication.

“I should tell you. This isn’t a memory per se. It isn’t quite an illusion either. Well, as far as what you’re seeing Elmiryn do. You could call this a mosaic of small truths. Everything Elmiryn is doing, she has done at one point or another with the lovers she’s encountered. It was really difficult, picking out the memories strongest in her mind. You know her memory is white-washed. I think I did well, though. Does some of this feel familiar?” I could hear the laughter in Lethia’s voice as Elmiryn guided me to the bed.

Every touch from the warrior I could feel, but I was not here. I was nothing. Just like all the women she had ever fucked and left.

I was nothing.

My anger was culled by my despair as I fell upon the silk sheets. It gave me room to speak. As I felt Elmiryn’s fingers trail down my abdomen to the place between my legs, her eyes fastened onto mine, I could only ask one thing–

Why?

Lethia laughed again, and it made my soul shiver.

“Because. I want to help you.”

How can this possibly–!?

My question cut off as I felt Elmiryn’s fingers slide into me. Whether or not I was aroused by this situation seemed irrelevant. I was feeling what this other person felt. Or maybe what Elmiryn imagined she made them feel. It was so strange–feeling aroused despite my distress. I was just a puppet, doomed to the performance…and gods the shame I felt, knowing that someone else was seeing this. For all I knew, Lethia was putting this show on for everyone. Quincy, Hakeem…Elmiryn. The thought made me want to scream…

So I did, for all the good it did me.

“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be with a woman…” Lethia sighed, as if I hadn’t made a sound. “It’s horrendous being a virgin. I can see why you were so quick to cast yourself at Elmiryn.”

I started talking. Or…thinking I guess. As fast as I could. As much as I could. It helped take my mind off the feelings that started to invade me, against my will.

I didn’t throw myself at her. I’d resisted my feelings for a long time. I wasn’t even sure I loved her until we came to the Other Place! But things sort of–sort of–HAPPENED that way, and it gave me hope! It gave me strength! And I think about her all the time, because she is, and continues to be, the only true motivation I have in my life! I mean, that’s sad, I know–but but but–I mean, it’s just how it is, isn’t it? I can’t help that I’m an abomination–or could I have? I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t KNOW! I just know that I love her! I do! I LOVE ELMIRYN, and you can’t make me feel otherwise! Not with this sham. Not with this LIE! This isn’t Elle! This isn’t her!

“When you say ‘love.’” Lethia twisted the word. “You mean the kind of love you’re feeling right now?”

This is NOT love! This–This is–

Rape. It wasn’t really happening, but this was rape, I was sure of it.

I couldn’t help it. I moaned in pleasure. My shame and horror multiplied, and when I heard Lethia laugh at my pain, I finally realized that I had let myself get trapped here. I had let myself, because I had trusted in who I had been speaking to, taking for granted that if they had the power to control everyone in such a manner, then I was seeing the truth.

But Lethia Artaud, no matter how empirical she was, would never laugh so boldly at someone else’s pain.

The saddest part was…this realization was too late, and Izma knew it.

Had Lethia ever been there? Maybe she had been, but had been switched out partway through our talk? Or maybe she was still here somehow, just stuck in a parasitic relationship with Izma and unable to speak for herself?

…Maybe she knew what Izma would do and let it happen anyway?

Where is Lethia…? My voice was small. Weak. What would Lacertli say to me, if he could see me now? Some champion I was, duped and at the mercy of some abomination that had turned a friend against me.

“Ha! My little sum of somes is subtracted! Artaud? She lives. What really fascinates me is how you still manage to muster up the compassion when your friend, the weed, leaves you so divided,” Izma purred.

The game is over. You have no reason to hold me here. There is nothing left for me to give you!

“Ah, but Nyx I have every reason! You think that now the curtain has been pulled back, the show ends? But there is still so much to see!”

And while you waste your efforts with sadism, the others will free themselves of you, demon! They will cut you out, cut you apart, and I will watch–

So much for threats. My voice died out in a whimper as Elmiryn took my phantom breast into her mouth, and Izma’s melodious voice danced with amusement.

“My sum of somes. Let us engage in simple addition. Take one pathetic excuse for a creature–”

N-No–

“–Add a reckless beast of debauchery–”

Stop it! Stop! SHUT UP!

“–And you get a sad couple, writhing futilely in their mortal trappings as they go careening into a mind-numbing hole of basic bodily pleasure. It’s a nasty worm, that need you have, Nyx. It has eaten its way to the core of you. I must give credit where credit is due–after all, it was very impressive how much you resisted your urges, even in Volo’s realm. Was it scary, realizing you were more like your mother than you liked?”

I’m…I’m not…like her…

“But of course, how silly of me! Your condemnation of Elmiryn’s rather colored past has absolutely nothing to do with your own insecurities–perish the thought!”

My mother overcame her problem! And in Elmiryn’s case, it was nothing like that! She has control!

“All the better for the warrior, then, to be able to wield her appetites with such precision! Your mother was sloppy in comparison, wasn’t she? And when all was said and done, the only reason she stopped was because she became too weak to keep up with her games. Contracted some disease perhaps?”

That isn’t true…

If I had any control right now, I would’ve curled up into a ball. Instead, Elmiryn was presently half-naked and utilizing that position she’d tried with me in the blackwood. How many women had she done this with? The question was almost compulsive, and I hated myself for it.

“Certainly, though, you’ve considered the possibility that Elmiryn will not be able to keep up with your appetites, dear?”

This conversation felt almost like a carefully designed tactic on Izma’s part. I didn’t want to think about what was happening to me, so I was eager for the distraction. But talking with this demon was dangerous–after all, it had already landed me here. But what else could she do to me? I felt broken enough already.

What do you mean? I asked, like a dumb beast wandering into a hunter’s shot.

“I mean, Elmiryn is but one human. Well…half-human, but we needn’t get picky. Can she really satiate your needs? Haven’t you ever wished to seek out the pleasure of others without care?”

No. I am not like that!

“So repressed! I can feel your shame, feel your self-loathing, so powerful it makes my taste buds tingle! Mmm…but child, I imagine we’d both be more satisfied if you’d just let go.”

Of what? My moral sense!?

“Don’t be stupid. Morals are only illusory concepts that people use to trick themselves into believing they are right. What you need to do, my sum of somes, is to remove this crippling idea that you cannot have the things you want. If you want, then so should you pursue. The truth of whether or not you should have the object of your desire rests only in your success or failure. A simple prospect, yes?”

My spirit recoiled.

No! That’s just selfish indulgence! What can that bring but more suffering?

“Do you think morals and common sense to be the same thing? Goodness, even Lethia Artaud knows the difference! My suggestion does not carry with it a wanton disregard for consequence, little sum. What it carries is an awareness that there are certain paths in life that can be taken with little struggle, others, with more. Even your god, Lacertli, can attest to this, can he not?”

This argument startled me. I hadn’t expected Izma to bring up the Lizard King to support her claim anymore than I had expected her to suddenly become a benevolent being. But the logic twisted around my mind, and as the rushing ecstasy of Elmiryn’s ministrations hit me, so did I understand the demon’s reasoning. If all parties were willing, if all intentions were clear, then what harm was there in having multiple partners? Especially if you knew you would never see them again? Lacertli only cared for Harmony–and even he pressed me to discard notions of right and wrong. Was this how things truly were then? Primitive and empty? Did people really just collide into each other and spiral away? I wasn’t agreeing with this idea. But…

I just thought it strange that I had never let myself see things that way.

Having reached her climax, Elmiryn–this dream version of the woman I said I loved–rolled to the side of the bed and immediately started to dress. The phantom I was embodying gazed at her back, and my heart wrenched as though I was the person she were actually leaving.

Izma’s voice sounded smug around me. “Here is a simpler question, Nyx, as it seems the last has overwhelmed you. Without too much thought, I want you to answer me this: If you knew Elmiryn held no love for you whatsoever, would you lay with her again?”

I didn’t need to think on the answer, for I already knew it. My voice was small. Almost non-existent.

Yes.

Izma chuckled with satisfaction. “Then see what your ‘love’ has enslaved you to.”

My phantom must have spoken again, because Elmiryn turned to look at me over her shoulder.

“Of course I’m leaving,” she said simply. “You were late. I have things to do.” There was a pause. She shrugged at my apparent response. “Honestly? I’ve had better.”

I sat up quickly, as the scene demanded that I did, and Elmiryn looked at me sharply, her hands stilling on her shirt buttons. A cold smile spread her lips and she chuckled. “I’m a bitch, huh? Funny. That was the same thing your sister said after I fucked her. Did you two practice on each other? Because your techniques are much the same!”

My shock mirrored my phantom’s.

Wh-What!?

“Don’t shrill. I just said I’m leaving.” The warrior gathered her coat and blew a kiss as she passed me by. “Goes without saying that I won’t be coming back, darling. Do give my regards to your sweet sister!” As I heard her slip out the door, I heard her mutter, “Stupid cunt.”

The room faded to black. I was lost in a place of darkness, and all I could feel was my heart breaking into a thousand sharp pieces.

This…this isn’thappeningthis can’t be real…

“As I’ve already explained,” Izma sighed. “This is a collection of small truths. Everything Elmiryn has done or said…she has done or said before!”

But how could she be so cold? I’ve…I’ve never seen her so cold!

“Perhaps you do not know your lady love as well as you thought? It stands to reason. How can you know her, if you do not know yourself?”

The darkness around me began to lighten. It became warmer. Like a sun was rising. I found myself shivering on some tiled floor, hugging my knees to my chest, tears streaming down my face. Confused, I looked around me and saw a woman with short cropped brown hair and gray eyes. I stared at her. Her clothes were strange–she had on what looked like a soft green brazier with thin straps and small blue shorts. She smiled at me as she cocked her head to the side.

“Do you want find out what really lies inside you, little sum?” Izma. Her voice was light. Almost normal.

I didn’t answer. I was so afraid and the pain of what I’d gone through still struck deep.

Izma’s avatar stepped aside, and behind her was a red door. She gestured toward it. “Here…Surely, you cannot serve your Lizard King if you are too afraid to know what you are?”

Slowly I stood.

There were lots of things I was afraid of.

I had told Lethia that, as an abomination, I was not deserving of love. But in my dedication to Elmiryn, wasn’t I acting out of some dim hope that someday my feelings could be reciprocated? Ailurans were passionate people, and our hearts got away from us sometimes. We could act on our desires on a subconscious level, and never be fully aware of what was really going on. The truth of this had already led to tragedy once in my life–when my dark rage and pain surfaced to murder Atalo. What if something equally horrible happened if I clung to this notion that Elmiryn could possibly love me back?

Skirting past Izma, I went to the door and turned the handle.

Continue ReadingChapter 37.1