Elmiryn was sorry. She felt sick with apology. (She felt sick with a lot of things, but chief among these was regret.) Like many times in her life, she hadn’t thought this through. She had trusted her instincts for so long, and they had so often carried her to triumph. All she had wanted was for the others to leave her alone. To hold onto her freedom for just a little longer.
Freedom to see the skies, for the basement would trap her from the stars.
Freedom to run without borders, for the containment circle would seal her in.
Freedom to change her mind, for the others would force her from numbness–
Now, as her wild power slipped from her will, the plants that had sprung up–mutated and made monstrous by a fae power she still barely comprehended–gripped her, held her, and trapped her. But the plants weren’t trying to suffocate her like they were the others. They weren’t wrapping around her neck, squeezing, nor trying to reach deep into her mouth and throat to flower in her lungs. They weren’t trying to unravel her very existence.
She could feel it. The others’ horror. Their desperation.
Elmiryn tried to reign it back. Tried to pull the threads and change the weave of what was happening.
But it wouldn’t change. She tugged and pulled, but the threads had become tangled and taut. Her head ached the harder she tried. The plant threads–glowing translucent lines in her mind’s eye–seemed to pulse tauntingly.
“Fuck,” Elmiryn whispered the word, bleak in its surrender.
Then as the plant vines, thick and rubbery and a putrescent green wrapped about and took her vision, she found herself visited by an entirely new sight. Even with her eyes closed, Elmiryn could sense the pattern of the world and all its weavings…
She could feel the suspended forms of the others, arched and twisted before their struggles were stilled by the green grip of the mutant plants. She could feel the Fake Hakeem (Fake-eem?) and Daedalus pulling at the plants from outside, but they could do nothing. These monstrosities had been created against the laws of time and nature. One moment seeds… the next, hulking giants with mindless murderous intent.
I’ve really done it this time.
Tears welled in Elmiryn’s eyes as a fist of shame and self-disgust clenched in her throat. Was she a coward afraid of the hard road? Was she weak and unable to overthrow her fae nature? Did it matter?
She couldn’t save herself. She couldn’t save anyone.
No, no, no!
From the pit of her stomach, Elmiryn screamed. The sound wrenched her throat raw. Her skin flushed hot. Her muscles ached and burned the more she pushed and pulled against the plant’s embrace. She was distantly aware of the men outside jumping from her primal cry, and she fought for another breath to scream again, only this time it came out more like a banshee screech.
A pulse of energy, like a small fast wave, went out with her piercing voice through the surrounding air’s flowing pattern. In but a moment it was gone, having traveled over the mountains to where she could no longer sense it anymore. It hadn’t really been her intention to send a ripple through the world’s weave, but would someone sense it? It was a dim hope that was fast discarded.
Even if someone did sense it, who would be able to understand it and act on it? Or even act on it in time, for that matter?
When Elmiryn’s cry petered out, she found she had to fight for breath. The plant was squeezing in on her, she realized. Her veins burned in her right bicep. Her left foot started to tingle. She choked on a sob and was very briefly glad that none could see her.
As she fought to take in each humid, musty breath, her mind perked to a ripple in the wind’s flowing weave nearby. It was small and far off at first, perhaps as far as the gates, and coming from the east the woman guessed. More ripples came, faster and faster, and they drew closer, shuddering the air current in their wake, until–
Elmiryn sensed a voice echo around her as though from far off, but the words were calm. Curious, even. It wasn’t correct to say she heard the voice, for it wasn’t actually a sound. It was more like she felt the voice.
A bug? Fat one. Who?
The woman didn’t answer. She didn’t know how. Did the ripples carry some sort of pattern she had somehow missed? The threads moved so fast she couldn’t quite make it out. Was it like the pulse of energy she had just sent out when she screamed? Did she need to make a ripple and send it back?
Uncertain of herself, but desperate, Elmiryn hastily drew up a small pattern of wind and a thread of dust from the ground. To anyone else’s eye, it would have appeared as nothing, but the warrior embedded a desperate message with the dust just before urging the wind eastward as far as she could make it go.
I’m Elmiryn. Can you see me? the message said.
She wasn’t sure if the wind would be swift enough, or if the wind’s pattern was strong enough to even go as far as it needed to. Elmiryn guessed whoever was on the other end of the ripples was very far off.
She felt Quincy had passed out. She thought she heard shouts for an axe, but wasn’t sure the men would act in time to save everyone. She needed to release the others…but she didn’t know how.
The seconds ticked by. Elmiryn felt her hope flicker. Just when she was about to send another message, the ripples returned with a contemplative hum.
Go still!? Elmiryn thought with a growl in her throat. She whipped up the wind and dust, and answered:
If you can see this, then you can fucking tell me what to do!
The ripples returned, smaller, less energetic. Sleepy. Too sleepy.
Angry, the woman shot back: Hey!
The response came even slower this time, punctuated by what felt like a yawn. Out of reach. Go still, fat bug.
Elmiryn ground her teeth. One more message: Tell me how to save them, damn you!
Then a wave came, rumbling the earth, and whipping the winds up around them. The woman felt her skin flush cold.
Struggle kills! the entity snapped. The words echoed–almost vibrated. Go. Still. Or die! Do not care. Just shut up.
This startled Elmiryn into silence. Was her panic making it worse?
Who are you? She wanted to ask, but a new voice, one more familiar, caught her attention. It came from within her head, like a thought, but it was clearly not her own. Elmiryn perked up at it. The voice, a girl’s, was indistinct, but getting clearer and clearer. Her headache flared.
I know I’ve gotten up to my own share of trouble in the last year or so– but these people! My gods! Even when convalescing they can’t seem to help allowing some catastrophe to strike!
(Though to be fair, me voluntarily losing an arm was no easy thing to handle.)
I’ll try to be as detailed as possible about this latest drama while everything is still fresh in my mind, but I am not the storyteller Nyx is. I’ve read enough novels, I suppose, to make a decent account of things…
The latest commotion started in the afternoon. I was resting after another trying session of Daedalus’ brand of doctoring (I know his salves and tonics work wonders, but heavens do they reek and burn!) when I heard shouting. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but I recognized it to be Paulo and Elmiryn. When I peeked outside, I was shocked to see that they weren’t just arguing, they were wrestling one another… and not in a sportive sort of way! I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I decided to try and put a stop to it. So I grabbed a rubber mallet amidst the tools and made my way to them.
As I went, I got a sense that things were serious. Elmiryn was cursing and fighting wildly. Her mind was like an angry tangle of snakes vibrating the intellectual cluster so hard it was liable to give me a headache. Paulo looked determined, but I could feel in his aura the worry and fear. Quincy was also there, but she seemed to be only supporting the boy, not a primary actor in whatever was going on. She shared his emotions. Paulo glanced at me as I approached, and right then my target was chosen for me. His power as an enchanter made his awareness too keen for me to avoid. Elle became the only aggressor I could stop. Which was fine, I suppose, because she looked like the one least in control anyway.
Using a technique Syria had taught me (but which I’d not had the confidence to use till now– getting this particular enchantment wrong could lead to a person becoming deaf, blind, or dumb after all) I suppressed portions of Elmiryn’s awareness to the point that she could not easily detect me. But even as wild as she was, the closer I got, the more she suspected something was there. She nearly swiped me in the head at one point!
Paulo and Quincy had the good sense not to give me away. Then WHAM! I hit Elmiryn in the head with the mallet. It was a strong blow, but no worse than a good punch. Elmiryn dropped and I revealed myself to her.
I’d like to say that was the end of the matter. That everyone calmed down and worked out their differences. Gods, I’d have settled for a truce! Of course it wasn’t that simple. When is it ever? Sometimes I wonder if this group would have benefited greatly from a course in conflict resolution. At the mere mention of therapy, my head must duck their rebukes!
The trouble was explained to me. Paulo and Quincy were performing an intervention. The time had come, they said, for Elmiryn to quit her dependence on drinks.
But Elmiryn’s fae nature was not willing.
I could feel unnatural energy pulse through the soil as I tried to reply to something Quincy had said, but my voice came out of my right ear in reverse. My stomach dropped, and all I could see was searing bright colors. The ground cracked open, the unnatural energy rising up, and I felt things grow explosively. Before I knew it, I was entangled by monstrous vines. They gripped us all like giant hands!
They started to suffocate me. Squeezed my still-healing stump for an arm. In my dwindling consciousness, I did the only thing I could think to do– I retreated inward, inducing a dream-like state on myself so as to buy myself time. I didn’t imagine anything elaborate. Just an empty white space where I stood as I last remembered myself– no discernible ground or sky to speak of. It didn’t need to be fancy, I needed only its function.
The interesting thing is, Syria didn’t teach me this. Elmiryn did.
You see, when my mistress had me observing the others in the Other Place, she used her power to reveal Elle had created a kind of… lucid dream that she could access at will. Elmiryn did this to escape her circumstances at first, but there was an unintended effect that she later came to rely on: time moves more quickly in dreams, allowing for more time to think.
Now in my own lucid dream, I fretted over a solution. How could I get Elmiryn to stop this madness? How could I protect myself and the others?
Then Paulo’s ishin stumbled in.
More like BURST in, the fool.
I tell you, Jydel, that boy is as reckless as he is stubborn! How many times have I told him to set aside his powers until he could be trained? His essence nearly overwhelmed me as he barreled into my dream state! Into my bloody mind!
“Lethia, she’s killing us!” he yelled. Oh the headache that caused…
“Not if YOU kill us first! Paulo what are you even doing in my head?” I snapped at him.
He crossed his arms and glowered at me. “My apologies, lia. I thought the situation warranted a little initiative.” He swiped at his nose with his thumb and smirked gallingly. “And anyway, your precious mental barriers were down.”
Instead of rising to his obvious baiting, I took to pacing. “Now that you mention it… If you were so easily able to enter, then that means unconsciousness can’t be far for me. Damn! I thought I’d retreated here sooner.”
“So what shall we do?” Paulo asked. “Maybe we can pay Elmiryn’s mind a visit?”
I scoffed. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Elmiryn’s mind is like an upside down whirlwind of bat dung and angry mongooses vomiting rainbows. If we try to enter into her thoughts, we could lose our minds.”
“Well we can’t stay here! Time is still passing out there, and we’ll die if we take too long!”
“I know that! Just… give me a moment, will you?”
Paulo’s pressuring didn’t help my focus, but he was right. Every minute that passed was another second closer to death in the real world. Give or take. I hadn’t exactly gotten this lucid dreaming down perfectly.
We had to reach out to Elmiryn. She was the only one who could make this stop. Could we pull her into my dreamstate? Doubtful. Only enchanters could visit one another’s mind at will. Delving with our ishin into Elmiryn’s consciousness felt like such a gamble, but I was doing a poor job of coming up with alternatives…
“All right,” I sighed, looking at Paulo. “We have to try and connect with Elmiryn. Perhaps if we can combine our ishin–”
Jydel, I tell you, never have I begged the gods for more patience than right then. We were on the brink of dying, for heaven’s sake, we didn’t have time for enchanting lessons! But what could I do? With my dwindling consciousness came less power. I was going to need Paulo’s help.
“Ishin,” I started, “It’s a measurable power unique to enchanters. Think of it like an extension of our consciousness.”
“Oh,” Paulo said. The look on his face suggested he didn’t get it at all and I had to take a very deep breath.
I tried again: “Imagine ishin as an invisible arm extending from your head. When you want to reach into someone else’s head, you extend your ishin. Clearly, you have that basic ability down or we wouldn’t be talking. Now we just need to do that together, but to Elmiryn. Preferably with more care! Or–”
“Or we go crazy?” Paulo finished with a grimace.
I shrugged. “Or we could die. Or we could go into a coma first, and then die. Or we could make her go into a coma, and then die–”
“All right, all right, I get it! Careful is better!” He scratched his head and frowned down at his boots. “Mind, uh… showing me how?”
I nodded. I didn’t want to, but I suddenly felt self-conscious. I’d never actually taught anyone something before. Advised on life matters, maybe, but I’d never fully instructed anyone on anything!
Fighting for aplomb, I beckoned Paulo closer. “Come here.” He did so. I tried to look at anything but his face– his shoulder, his stomach, his boots– “Now hold my hand.”
“You mean your only hand?” he muttered.
Trust Paulo to go picking at old wounds.
I chose to ignore his dig and tried not to flinch when I felt his calloused grip. Even as a figurative sensation, the reactive jolt that went through my spirit was… strong.
I cleared my throat. “Now close your eyes. Feel the thoughts of those around us. Find Elmiryn’s–”
“How can you miss her? She’s practically screaming over there!”
“Well it ought to be easier to focus on her then!” I snapped. I took another breath, and then said as calmly as possible, “Seek out her thoughts. Imagine yourself pulling closer to her. Slowly. Feel my hand and know that I’m with you.”
Jydel, have I ever described entering into another person’s mind before? It can be a messy affair, but doing it with someone else can be even messier.
The best that I can explain it to non-enchanters is that each person’s mind is like a cloud of thoughts. This is their “mindscape.” The thoughts can be understood as images, or sometimes like floating words from a page. Whatever thoughts that has a person’s attention the most will usually be found in the center of this cloud. And then, of course, there are those buried thoughts or memories that a person protects with jealousy. Most do it unconsciously for psychic wounds, like abuse suffered as children, but there are others who have trained to protect areas of their mind from prying. Not that I’ve tried it, but I suspect Quincy and Hakeem to have such protected memories. It’s rare that I can even catch a stray thought from them.
Now the deeper one presses into another person’s consciousness, the more that person’s animus will try to push them back out. I’ve been taught to understand them as matrices that thicken and expand, like a wire mesh that sieves out unwanted visitors.
Note, that is what a normal person’s mind is like. Elmiryn’s mind is far from normal.
I could feel Paulo tense up next to me as our joined ishin crossed the outer barrier of Elle’s mind. It wasn’t pleasant for me either. It was like… diving into scalding hot water. After the initial burn wore off, we then had to dodge a wild array of ideas and memories. They twitched and zoomed about like angry hummingbirds. I avoided these as best I could– paying attention to any one thought too long draws you into it, after all. Unfortunately, Paulo was less disciplined.
“So this is what Elmiryn was like when she was younger…” he murmured, his eyes fixed on something I couldn’t see.
His presence started to drift from me, drawn to an old memory of childhood. I pulled his ishin away from it, and said as stern as I could, “Focus! Ignore these stray thoughts! We need to press in deeper if we want Elmiryn to hear us!”
Paulo at least had the good sense to feel sorry. It thrummed from him to me, and my annoyance shrank. As I write this, Jydel, I must admit that though the boy is naive and clumsy in his enchanting powers, he has a proficiency in it. I am both impressed and a little jealous at his natural talent. With proper training, he could be a force to be reckoned with.
In fact, it was because of Paulo that we noticed the curious white square at all.
“What’s that?” He exclaimed, pointing at the blazing shape near Elmiryn’s core thoughts. “It’s not like the other thoughts.”
“That’s because it’s not a thought,” I replied with delight. “Let’s get closer!”
As we delved deeper to the center of the woman’s mindscape, the expected reaction from her animus started. The strange thing was, the expanding matrices were warped and twisted, allowing for us to slip through their defenses with ease. While it served in our favor, I was worried.
Without proper psychic defenses, anything could pierce into Elmiryn’s brain. I made a note that this had to be mended, and soon. Her mindscape was enough of a mess as it was.
When we neared the white square, I let out a sigh of relief.
It wasn’t just a square–it was a window. Upon looking inside, Paulo let out a gasp of astonishment. He’d never heard about Elmiryn’s dream realm. Like my own, it was vast in its seeming lack of boundaries–no walls, ground, or ceiling. But that’s where the similarities ended. Elmiryn’s world was a wavering place of shadows–as though light were filtering through rippling water. It was dense with sparrows and black kittens, all falling horizontally in the same direction, but in slow motion.
Elmiryn had disavowed being responsible for the helpless creatures. I struggled to remember if she had ever attempted to make them go away.
“What the hell is this?” Paulo murmured.
“Come on, we need to go in,” I said, feeling breathless.
I tried to enter, but Paulo held me back, his ishin pulsing with alarm. “Woah, are you crazy!?”
“You said it yourself earlier, we haven’t the time!” I pulled at him, but he resisted still. Clearly, I had to show him.
With all the strength I could muster (and I could feel that fading fast) I called into this window. “Elmiryn!”
My voice didn’t echo. Silence followed. My grip on Paulo tightened as I tried to bolster my ishin. I could feel my body in the real world losing its grip.
Paulo started to pull us away, and I didn’t have the strength left to stop him. It was all I could do to keep this mental connection active at all.
Then we heard her:
“Lethia? Lethia Artaud!?”
“I’m here!” I called. My voice was weaker, but I was smiling. Jydel, our salvation was at hand!
Paulo grumbled but followed me in through the window. Once fully inside Elmiryn’s dream realm, the shadows buffeted us like choppy waves.
“Still think this was a good idea?” Paulo snarled. His hands gripped my shoulders tightly as I lost my sense of balance and knocked into him, a particularly rowdy streak of shadow having struck my hip.
“We’ll have to see,” I answered. “Elmiryn? Come and still the shadows please!”
“Done,” Elmiryn said, suddenly right before us.
Paulo and Lethia’s presence in her strange little mindfuck was beyond what she could hope for. Who better to put her back in control of the situation then the two people capable of forcing order on her mind?
“I can’t make it stop,” Elmiryn blurted, suddenly feeling out of breath. “I tried–but the pattern I pulled has gotten all tight and knotted up and–” the shadows around them shivered and started to close in, forcing her to shove them back.
“But how can we help, Elmiryn?” Paulo asked. “We came here to ask you to stop this, but if you aren’t in control, what can we possibly do?”
“I need to relax.” Elmiryn thumped a hand on her chest. “I have to stop feeling like I do! I don’t know if it’ll work, it didn’t explain it to me but–”
“It? What is ‘it’? What told you this?” Lethia interjected.
“I don’t know!” Elmiryn snapped. Her hands wheeled through the air. “It was a, uh, spirit or something!” She stomped her foot and buried her hands in her hair. “All I know is I need to calm the fuck down! Now! My emotions are probably what’s turning everything into a mess!”
“Nevermind following the dubious advice of ‘spirits’,” Lethia even made air quotations with her fingers, “What you’re asking is quite impossible!”
“It is?” Elmiryn and Paulo asked her simultaneously.
Lethia glared at them both in annoyance. “Yes! It took my and Paulo’s ishin combined just to pierce deep enough into your mind to be able to communicate with you! I’m afraid with our consciousness fading, we simply don’t have enough strength to do what you are asking, Elle!”
“Well we have to do something!” Paulo argued. “Or else what are we here for?”
“I’m with Paulo. You maybe don’t know it, but I’m just as trapped as you two are,” Elmiryn added.
“Serves you right for using your fae magic on us,” the boy hissed at her before turning away.
“Enough of that!” Lethia chided. “I need to think!” She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.
Elmiryn sighed, her eyes sweeping over this abstract corner of her mind. “I’ve really messed up.” She felt the rippling shadows flow in around her, and she didn’t stop them as they gathered about her feet and legs.
She needed to stop this… but she couldn’t. They were trapped, because of her.
The shadows built up around her, and other thoughts came. Thoughts of her mother. Thoughts of her father. Thoughts of Nyx.
“I’ve ruined everything.” This she had spoken only in her head, but given where they were, it echoed all about them. Loud. Accusing.
The shadows came up over her head. They carried her up and away, bumping into the helpless forms of the kittens and sparrows.
“The boy is right. I deserve this,” she murmured.
It’s difficult focusing when you are in someone else’s mind–doubly so if you are in a foreign mindscape partially on the power of yet another’s will. Paulo’s growing unease was clouding my ability to assemble coherent ideas. One would come close to me, only to shiver away on concerns of death.
When I heard Elmiryn murmur that she deserved what was happening to her, I didn’t think much of it–self-pity is not uncommon in these situations, particularly for ego-centric types like Elle–but when I finally opened my eyes again to glance at her, I remembered something I had learned long ago.
Dreams are simply mirrors reflecting an individual’s life as-is. A nightmare, however, is a figurative tool used by the animus to catch the attention of the intellect. People have nightmares for many reasons. Though the nightmare may frighten or disturb–this does not mean its only purpose is to warn of immediate or future danger. It could simply be an attempt on the part of the animus to bring about a fundamental change in the intellect. It could also be an attempt by the animus to answer what the intellect cannot.
All this time, we thought we were in Elmiryn’s lucid dream. But what if this was actually Elmiryn’s lucid nightmare?
Right then, everything in this seemingly chaotic place had new meaning. The shadows, the kittens and sparrows, even the endless sense of void… Elmiryn’s human mind was trying to speak to her! Wasn’t it interesting how she seemed to access it at these critical moments? Jydel, I was willing to bet everything that this revelation held the answer we needed…
And bet everything I did, because if I couldn’t get Elmiryn to face what was at the heart of her problems in the next few minutes, we would all be dead.
“Elmiryn, why kittens and sparrows?” I shouted up at her. “Why are they falling slowly through shadows?”
“Why not?” was her despondent reply. The shadows were so thick around her her, I couldn’t see her face.
“It matters because this place was not created in a void! It arose from your subconscious! Your human subconscious! I think it’s rooted in the very fear that’s keeping you from regaining control!”
Paulo leaned in and whispered to me, “Where are you going with this?”
I waved an arm at the small animals falling around us. “It’s weakness, Paulo. Vulnerability. Defeat. Except it’s drawn out to perpetuity. These kittens and sparrows fall, helpless, presumably to their doom, and nothing saves them. Kittens, black kittens. Remind you of anyone?”
“Nyx,” he said. For once, the boy was quick to grasp on to the matter, Jydel!
I nodded. “A symbol for potential loss. She’s afraid of losing Nyx. Or failing to protect her. Or both. I’m afraid I’m less certain about the sparrow. My initial guess was that it stood for Quincy. She was frequently referred to as ‘the fledgeling’ in her youth… But it seems unlikely, even when taking into account the story Nyx shared from that man Tobias. It lacks narrative significance to Elmiryn’s psychological identity–”
“Her family,” Paulo murmured. He looked up at Elmiryn, his eyes wide. “When I got a glimpse into her childhood memory, I saw it. Lethia, sparrows were part of her family crest!”
I grabbed him, excited. “Really? What else did you see in the memory?”
“Her mother. She was in the study. The crest was on the wall above the fireplace.”
“But what was her mother doing, Paulo?”
He put a hand to his head and squeezed his eyes shut. His form wavered. My grip on him tightened. He was starting to fade from consciousness.
“She was…” the boy struggled to get the next words out. “Painting. A tree. And… drinking wine, I think?”
There. It was small, Jydel, but it was something to go on. If the kittens represented what Elmiryn feared losing in the future, then the sparrows stood for what Elmiryn had already lost in the past.
I looked back up at Elmiryn and tried to quell my shock at seeing the shadows had all but condensed around her, till it was like she was in the center of a black hole. Somehow, the direction the animals were falling had suddenly changed.
They had changed to fall toward her.
Hadn’t she always had to fight to keep the shadows from closing in on her in the past? Her fae nature made it possible for her to control the nightmare to some extent, but in doing so, it stopped the message her human subconscious was trying to scream at her. The shadows that she was always fending off? Jydel, those shadows were her guilt and self-loathing.
“Elmiryn!” I cried out. “Your mother always counseled you to hide your true feelings until it was safe to express them! But your father made certain you never would be safe, didn’t he?”
No answer. My body started to tingle all over. Slowly, so very slowly, Paulo and I began to float back up to the window. Our strength was leaving us. I had one shot at breaking through to her before all was lost.
Every word became harder and harder to make.
“So you hid your fear! Your anger! Your sadness! You bottled it up inside, just like your parents taught you to do! You never could rely on anyone! You never could trust anyone! And how did they handle that kind of stress themselves, Elle? How?”
Still no response.
I was feeling sluggish. Elmiryn was growing smaller and smaller from us.
“They drank! All the time! When you saw your father in the Other Place as a drunkard, you felt ashamed! Not just because he was disgracing himself, but because you were face to face with a family practice that you were a part of! And did it work? No! Misfortune still befell them! You couldn’t protect your mother. You couldn’t meet your father’s demands! They became lost! And yet with Nyx, you still try to do the same thing, don’t you? The drinking and the self-denial are one and the same.”
Elmiryn said not a word. My words may have slurred, but I fought to keep going as our ascent to the window began to speed up:
“Elle, that practice will kill you! It could kill all of us! Your parents were wrong! It’s not your fault what happened to them! You can’t stuff your feelings down! You can’t drown them with drinks either! If you’re afraid, that’s okay! If you need help, that’s okay! This is a nightmare, Elle, do you hear me!? A nightmare! It’s time to stop fighting it and let it end–!”
And then we were gone.
Elmiryn felt tired. Tired in a way she hadn’t in a long time. Even being continuously drunk, sleep had escaped her, leaving her to wander about the fields at night. Just like those days spent lost in the wild, with only the daesce for company, her every waking hour had become–
This place was a nightmare. How had she not seen it before?
Yes, of course.
Elmiryn nodded sleepily, feeling herself growing colder, feeling her body in the real world growing fainter.
She thought she had intentionally made this place. But how could she have when she had not even half the control over her fae powers as she did now? No, this place was something her subconscious had dug up. Her human side. But the fae in her had seized it, twisted it, and she had mistakenly assumed it was hers to command. It wasn’t really. Not in the way that counted.
Without realizing it, Elmiryn had managed to pause her own nightmare. It was like a stage play forced to remain in the same scene, the actors stuck in the same places, doing and saying the same things, as if unto infinity. She had done this and turned her nightmare into some kind of twisted refuge.
A place to hide when she was afraid. At a loss. Desperate.
“This is a nightmare, Elle, do you hear me!? A nightmare! It’s time to stop fighting it and let it end–!”
Lethia, sounding drunk herself, had hollered these words mere moments ago. Elmiryn wasn’t quite sure how long ago that was.
Go. Still. Or die! Do not care. Just shut up.
That’s what the strange spirit had said. But that was part of the problem, wasn’t it? She was thinking too much to let things end. To truly go still.
Elmiryn was accustomed to fighting her way through her problems. Sometimes even laughing her way through them. But perhaps Lethia and the strange spirit were right. It wasn’t about not feeling certain things. It was about accepting them. And it wasn’t as if she hadn’t done this before. Hadn’t she stopped fighting Nadi the river guardian all that time ago outside of Gamath? What had allowed her to do that? To see that she had to accept what Nadi was trying to do just to reveal the lies Meznik had contaminated her with?
Stop fighting. Go still.
She needed to change her perspective.
Elmiryn gently touched the ground, flat on her back. When she got over her surprise that there was a ground, she sat up, and the shadows sloughed off of her like dark mud. It was daytime, but all around her was a thick fog. As she gazed down at herself in wonder, she saw that there were mangled lumps in the mud. She picked one of these up and gasped at the feel of twiggy scaled legs and stiff rachises of feathers. A dead sparrow, its eyes clouded white and gray. She set this down in her lap, and with two hands, she carefully picked up another lump. This one was black with matted fur that she tried vainly to wipe clean, her throat clenching.
With gentle hands, she picked up the sparrow and held it up alongside the tiny kitten.
“I wasn’t enough,” she barely managed to murmur, her voice hitching.
A wet sound, like raw meat dropping in porridge, tickled her ear. When Elmiryn turned to look for the cause, her skin went cold.
A kitten struck the dark mud. Then another. Then a sparrow.
She shook her head, tears clouding her eyes. “No.” One struck her on the shoulder. Another bounced off her back.
Elmiryn hugged the two dead animals to her chest and ducked her head as corpses rained down on her. They piled around her, and she curled up, praying for the torment to stop. They came up over her head, then steadily piled on her, pushing her down into the mud.
She couldn’t breathe.
She cried out a single word.
Quincy was as taken aback as everyone else when the monstrous plants erupted from the ground and seized them. Before she could get to her magic bag, the vines gripped her arms and wrenched them back. They squeezed her chest and throat as little green creepers spread across her face. They pried at her lips, and she clenched her jaw shut. The creepers webbed over mouth so thickly, she couldn’t even catch breaths through her teeth. Her lungs screamed, and she felt her head throb from the poor blood flow.
Unable to take it anymore, she wrenched her mouth open and took a desperate gasp of air–
The vines seized the top and bottom of her jaw, wrenching them apart till it hurt, and then the creepers invaded her mouth, her throat, her lungs.
Unconsciousness felt like a sweet mercy.
Then someone was shaking her. Quincy coughed raggedly, spitting out bits of plant and dirt from deep within her throat. Her body ached. Her lips were moist. When she managed to open her eyes, she saw Hakeem gazing down at her, his face ashen.
She tried to reply to him, but only coughed more.
“Just breathe,” he said to her in his native tongue, stroking back her hair.
Quincy finally started to register the sounds of the others coughing and gasping.
After a long moment, she gripped her husband’s hand and rasped, “The plants–?”
“Gone,” Hakeem said, his brow knotting. “They simply… vanished. Back into the ground, where they came from.
Quincy made to sit up. Hakeem pursed his lips as if to show what he thought of this decision, but he helped her anyway. The brunette gazed about her, her eyes blinking in amazement.
The ground had been churned violently beneath their feet. Paulo was on all fours with Daedalus awkwardly reaching down to pat his head. Lethia was still on her back, but was moving–she was trying vainly to fend off Argos and his anxious face-licking. And in the center of the destruction…
“Elmiryn,” Quincy said, her eyes narrowing.
The Fiamman warrior was kneeling in a small pit, her back slouched as she stared down at her hands.
“Elmiryn!” Quincy said louder. Though spots erupted in her vision and her limbs felt cold and shaky, she fought to get to her feet. “How could you–!?”
“Help,” Elmiryn said. Her voice was flat, dispassionate.
Quincy’s tirade petered out as she felt a surge of surprise. “Help?”
The redhead turned to look up at her, and Quincy’s heart wrenched.
Elmiryn’s eyes were red and puffy, and their gaze was far off.
“I am… afraid,” she said slowly. Then she closed her eyes again and said louder, “I need help.”
“Elmiryn we were trying to help you.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I…” Elmiryn trailed off as Lethia sat up. Her eyes closed and she turned her face away again. “Lethia and Paulo helped me to realize… that I’ve been putting off a nightmare.”
“Did you finish it?” Lethia asked, a small cough chasing her words. Argos sat close behind her, casting her in shadow.
“I stopped fighting it.” Elmiryn said with a slow nod. “I let it finish. I saw that… I wasn’t enough.”
“Enough for what?” Quincy asked, daring to take a step forward. Hakeem put a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged him off. She needed to know if this was possible. She needed to know if Elmiryn would cooperate.
Elmiryn let out a shaky breath and stood. One of her feet was bare in the dirt after she lost it in the struggle to get away from Paulo. She wiggled her toes once, then said with head bowed, “I’m not enough to do this alone. I never was. I need help. I’m afraid.” Slowly she turned and held out her arms with wrists touching. “Tie me up. Knock me out. Drag me down there. Do whatever you have to.”
Quincy crossed her arms. “We tried!”
“Quincy–” Lethia started, but the wizard silenced her with a wave of her hand. Setting her eyes back on Elmiryn, Quincy went on: “You weren’t in a mindless fae-driven frenzy when you attacked us, Elmiryn. When you made those things grow. You fought against our help. I want to know that the human part of you will stop fighting us! Otherwise, this will be for nothing!”
“Quincy, dejala. She’s asking for us to help her now!” Paulo argued.
The brunette shot him a withering look. “Like when she accepted your help before?”
“She’s right,” Elmiryn interjected. She looked at Quincy and held up her hands. “You’re right. I wasn’t completely out of control. I fucked up.” She clasped her hands together and pressed them to her forehead. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I want this. I do.” Her face crumpled and Quincy’s heart wrenched again. “I’m tired, but I can’t sleep. I hear voices whispering to me. Everything I see feels like a lie. None of you trust me anymore. The thought of giving up drink and facing all of that scared me, still does, because what will keep me from losing my mind without it?” Then her lips, quivering, fought to spread across her face in a wan smile. “The nightmare showed me… I am not enough to keep the people I care about safe.”
“You were not enough to visit misfortune on your family either!” Paulo interjected hotly.
“And believe it or not, you are not enough of an asshat to completely turn Nyx away,” Lethia added gently.
What did they see in Elmiryn’s head? Quincy wondered as she gazed back and forth at the teens.
Elmiryn closed her eyes and fat tears spilled down her ruddy cheeks. She wiped at them, smearing dirt on her face before shrugging helplessly. “I am afraid, and I am not enough. When I realized that, the pattern I used to make the plants just unknotted itself.” She looked at Quincy and held out her hand. “I know I mean it this time because the plants wouldn’t have gone unless I stopped fighting those two facts.”
Quincy took another step forward, one hand tentatively raising. Her eyes were fastened on Elmiryn’s. “You’re afraid? You are not enough?” she said as one seeking to confirm.
The redhead chuckled, but somewhere in the middle of her weak laugh a small sob broke through and more tears fell. “Ergo, I need some gods damned help!”
With sure steps, Quincy cleared the last remaining distance between them and took Elmiryn’s hand. She looked at the others. Lethia was on her feet. Paulo approached on the redhead’s other side. With a glance at Hakeem, she nodded.
Together, she walked with Elmiryn and Paulo back to the tower. They guided her down the steps to the cellar where the candles kept the space lit.
As they approached the spell circle, Elmiryn spoke:
“I’m not sure what I’ll do or say once my fae-side starts to take over.” She looked at them both, her eyes earnest. “Remember that it isn’t really me. Remember that I want this.”
Quincy patted her shoulder. They were toeing the line of the circle now. “We know, Elle. And we won’t leave you alone down here. Someone will always be with you. We’ll take turns.”
Elmiryn stared down at the line, her brow glistening with sweat. For a harrowing moment, the wizard wondered if she needed to shove her in.
Then the warrior crossed the line. Behind her, Quincy made the necessary hand gestures to complete the ritual spell–tracing in the air a circle, a slash, then naudiz, the rune of need and constraint.
There was a small rush of air. Quincy looked up at the ceiling where she had placed additional protective spells. Just in case Elmiryn, in a frenzy, tried to escape through the floor. It had almost seemed overly cautious before, but now she was relieved she had thought of it.
“I’ll stay with you first,” Quincy said. She looked at Paulo who was gazing at the woman with a look she couldn’t quite identify. Awe? Pity? “Paulo, can you please bring blankets and a pillow–?”
“Not that I won’t appreciate those, but I should warn you… I don’t sleep anymore,” Elmiryn said.
Quincy frowned at the other woman. “When you said that, I thought you meant insomnia?”
Elmiryn shook her head. Even from where she stood, the wizard could see the Fiamman’s body clench up. “I mean I never sleep. And I don’t really feel hot or cold. I think… I think the fae never did either.”
Oh. Thinking of that, now the wizard could better understand Elmiryn’s initial resistance.
Having to be down here, in this cellar all night? Alone?
“I’ll take first night watch then,” Paulo volunteered. He had lingered by the stairs, a warm smile on his face. “Oye, this place is gonna need a table and chairs! Maybe I can bring a deck of cards?”
“I’ll take tomorrow night!” Lethia shouted down the stairs.
“No you won’t!” Quincy shouted up, as Paulo snickered on his way.
“No she most certainly will not,” Daedalus confirmed as he came down the stairs past the boy. The man stopped on the last step and pursed his lips. He folded his hands behind his back and said, “Elmiryn, Quincy and I believe we have a regimen that might help your body quit its drink dependence. Given the severity of your dependence, we have tried to lengthen the usual treatment mortals must go through. If we are being honest, however…” He sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “There is no telling what will happen. Normal individuals may suffer seizures as early as the first day. This can quickly be followed by hallucinations, fever, rapid heartbeat, respiratory complications, and of course, heart complications. I have what we need to get started, but I’m afraid Quincy will have to be the one to begin administering the needed medicines at first. I have no choice but to risk going into town to obtain the remainder of what we need.”
Quincy bit back a rebuke. She wasn’t sure how well-timed this was, but she supposed Elmiryn was in the containment circle, so it wasn’t as if they were going to scare her off now. It also wasn’t fair to subject her to such rigorous treatment without first informing her.
Clearing her throat, the wizard added, “Our hope is that within the next two to four weeks you might recover. It… It won’t be easy, Elmiryn. But we’ll help you through it. If we succeed, then this will be worth it.”
“If we don’t succeed–” Elmiryn started.
“But if we don’t,” the redhead continued, louder, “Then you have to promise me something.”
Quincy crossed her arms, her brow tensing. “I won’t promise until I hear what it is.”
Don’t you dare…
Elmiryn’s cerulean eyes met hers. “You have to kill me.”
The wizard closed her eyes. Damn it, Elmiryn. “No.”
“You have to, Quincy.”
Quincy shook her head, her eyes still closed.
“Do you honestly think we have two weeks for me to get better? A month? Our time here is running short. Sooner or later, someone will find us and try to hurt us. How are you going to move me? How are you going to get me to cooperate when I’m frothing at the mouth and trying to kill you all?”
“We’re doing this to save you, idiot. How can I agree to this?” Quincy’s voice became hoarse. She opened her eyes again to find Elmiryn was standing at the line, her eyes blazing, her fists clenched. Tears had cut lines through the dirt on her face. The woman was like an open wound as the wizard had never seen before. Quincy said next, almost desperately, “Nyx won’t let us!”
“She’s half the reason I’m asking,” Elmiryn murmured. “If this treatment is going to be as hard as you say, I may not be the same at the end of it. I may be even worse. Letting me out, or even leaving me here, would be a mistake.”
“You’re too hard-headed to let this beat you, Elle,” Quincy hissed back. Her lip quivered. “Don’t put this on me.”
“No one else will do it,” Elmiryn pressed. “It has to be you.”
“Promise me. With Daedalus here as a witness. Promise.”
Quincy jumped as she felt Daedalus hand on her shoulder. She looked at him wildly and was surprised to see his tender gaze.
“Quincy, Elmiryn has made a strong argument. Remaining here even the minimum approximate time has its risks,” he said.
“It’s easy for you to say, elf!” Quincy snapped, brushing his hand away. “You hardly know the woman!”
“She almost killed us mere moments ago. What will she do if the fae in her takes over and she’s nursing hatred for our denying her addiction? Can we risk letting her free or abandoning her when the times comes to flee this place?” His words were gentle, but they felt cold.
“You don’t know her!” Quincy yelled. Tears were clouding her eyes. “She is a crass, foul-mouthed git, but she has helped us! Each and every one of us! She has helped me, and that’s why I cannot possibly kill my–” she broke off and pressed her lips tight.
“You cannot kill your friend,” Daedalus said with an understanding nod.
“Quincy,” Elmiryn called softly.
The wizard looked away, toward the stairs. She wiped the unshed tears from her eyes with her sleeve.
The Fiamman tried again. “Quincy.”
With a rough sigh, Quincy finally looked at Elmiryn.
The other woman was smiling. “Believe it or not, I don’t have many friends. So I’m happy you’re one of them,” she said.
“Then how can you ask me this?” Quincy asked. It almost came out as a whine.
“The same way I can say that the man you think is your husband is not, and that the real Hakeem is alive and somewhere safe.” Elmiryn looked down. “I’m sorry I didn’t say it sooner. I didn’t really know what to do. But now that I’m in here, there’s nothing I can do but warn you before I’m incapable of thinking straight.”
Quincy’s mouth fell open. Her arms, which had been tightly crossed all this time, fell slack at her sides. She looked at Daedalus and found he was busy glaring suspiciously at Elmiryn.
“How do you know this?” Daedalus asked her.
“His pattern,” the redhead replied readily. “I can see the weave of the world. His pattern is not Hakeem’s. In fact, it’s not even human.”
“Elmiryn, you are making a dangerous accusation!” Quincy was shaking. Her skin felt cold, but her fists clenched tight. “If the man above isn’t Hakeem, then who is he? What is he?”
“A golem. It was sent from Izma, I think.”
“To do what? Spy on us?”
Elmiryn shook her head. “Maybe to split us up. Maybe just to hurt you.”
“This is insane,” Quincy huffed. She paced once along the front of the containment circle, then she jabbed a finger at Elmiryn. “I don’t believe it!”
The Fiamman rubbed at her face and groaned. “Look, I figured you wouldn’t! But I had to tell you, do you see? Because I care what happens to you and the others! I need you to be on your guard!”
“So that I can kill if you necessary?” Quincy snapped.
“So that you jackasses don’t get backstabbed!” Elmiryn threw her hands up in the air. “Don’t you get it!? What I’m asking for and what I just told you are coming from the same place– making sure all of you are safe!” She clasped her hands together again. “Do you need me to beg again? Fuck, I’ll get down on my knees if I have to! But you’ve got to understand that what I’m asking is almost like a final wish! I won’t be in my right mind soon! I can already hear the whispers! Just do it! Just promise me while I’m still capable of understanding you!”
Quincy paced again. She felt faint and ill.
When she heard Paulo start to come down the stairs with the pillow and blankets, she felt weary beyond her years.
The words came almost as if on their own.
“All right, Elmiryn. I promise.”