Chapter 43.3

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Laboriously, I made to stand.

As if sensing my intention, the tree’s demon song strengthened, its notes raking down my very spirit. Literally. I could only take a single step before I felt my body shudder, my thoughts fracturing into pieces. Through my blurring vision I could see the edges of my raised hand shiver, the color in my skin pulsing white. It were as though my body was being pulled slowly apart on some tiny, unseen level.

I would have screamed, but the sound seemed to unravel before me, spreading into the air in a chorus of warped voices.

I gripped my head and took another unsteady step forward.

The tree, Izma’s tree, was trying to rip me apart.

Keep…going! came Kali’s strained thought.

My eyes rolled as I fell back to my knees. Blood flooded my eyes.

Kali, I—I can’t….

MOVE!

And I could feel my Twin slip into my arms like a ghost, urging my quivering muscles to move. Somehow, she was shielded from the brunt of the tree’s attack. I did not dwell on this boon. Any more of this, and it wouldn’t matter. The destruction of our body would slay the both of us.

Together, we raised our body from the ground.

Blinking away the blood, we kept our eyes on the tree, on its slim trunk, its light bark, its bright green leaves. How could something that appeared so ordinary be such an instrument of chaos?

Our steps were pained, and it seemed to take an eternity. The demon tree did its best to repel us, sending wave after wave of its evil music to flay our mind and destroy our body. But we resisted. Together, with my Twin, we reached the tree. The stench of its existence was thick in the air—the odor emanating from its rotting fruits reeking like alcohol and blood. It had a distinct tinge of loneliness and despair. Tears stung our eyes.

It’s a trick.

I know.

Grief. It sat heavy in our gut like a rock, and it grew heavier with every passing moment. This was the demon tree’s last defense. It wasn’t as though it didn’t affect us. Our throat choked up, our shoulders sagging. For the first time in months, I felt that deep black sort of sorrow that had almost led me to kill myself. With the almost burning, almost stabbing sensation of the flaying music, it could’ve been too much to bear.

But it wasn’t just me and Kali anymore. Others were depending on us. Paulo, Lethia, Hakeem…not even Quincy could get this close to the tree. It was up to us to get everyone out of here.

We took a deep breath, expanding our diaphragm to increase intake. Spreading our legs, we dug the balls of our feet in and leaned our shoulders forward. With clenched fists, Kali and I released a sharp, screeching roar.

The sound cut like a scythe.

The demon song was abruptly cut short as the tall linden tree creaked, then slowly fell over, leaves and bark blackening to what resembled a charred husk. Released from the relentless assault, my sister and I collapsed to the ground, spent.

In the fog, I could hear the others yelling. Heavy footfalls approached. Hands shook me, and I hissed in pain. My skin, my muscles…everything was trying to heal from the attack the demon tree had unleashed. I hadn’t realized it in all the sensory overload, but the abominable tree had nearly succeeded in stripping the flesh from my bones.

“Don’t touch her! Let her heal!” I heard someone snap. Quincy, perhaps?

“But she has no skin!” That was Paulo.

Leave her! You’ll only do more harm than good. Lethia, where is the gate?”

The enchantress was quick to respond. “It’s here!”

“Are you telling me it’s—”

“Yes, yes! Right here!

“What the hell…” Paulo breathed. “What do we fucking do then? Rip out the gods damned trunk?”

“Do you want to get out of here, or not?” Quincy retorted. Then she ordered next, “Lethia, you must have shovels here, yes? Get them. And bring an axe and rope, too. We’ll need to dig a wide enough circle around the stump and…”

I didn’t get to hear the rest of Quincy’s plan, because I fainted.

When I came to again, it was to find myself once again whole. Sitting up, I realized I had been moved from near the tree, and instead I lay in the hay of the small barn. Carefully, I stood to my feet. In the hay bed next to me, Hakeem lay, still as unresponsive as ever. Outside, I could hear the sound of digging, occasionally punctuated by the sharp cracks of wood. Unsteadily, I made my way back to the others to see that they were working at removing the tree trunk.

I wiped the cold sweat from my forehead as I stopped near the wide circular hole they had dug. It was Paulo and Lethia toiling in the dirt up to their waist. Argos watched them, panting, his nose glistening and his paws dirty. Quincy, axe in hand, chopped at tree roots that anchored further into the ground. By the looks of things, they were nearly done.

It didn’t take much to remember what they were digging for. On this plane, I could not see the gate that Lethia had mentioned, but if I changed over to the Somnium, I could.

Closing my eyes, I took that strange inward journey, and when I returned, it was to find the others presented in their strange interpretations. Quincy was more youthful, just as I’d seen her before. Lethia was once more that strange starry being I had witnessed back in Izma’s trap, but instead of looking faceless and empty, the stars that gleamed inside of her seemed fixed and constant, a translucent sheen over them that suggested skin. She had white eyes and white lips, and I wondered what on earth the universe must’ve thought of her to envision the young enchantress in such a fantastic way. Paulo, in contrast, appeared covered in soot, his face streaked with what appeared to be tears. His chest, however, glowed a hot red, like a burning coal. Argos, meanwhile, simply glowed a bright white, his fur pristine and glossy. None of the others made any notice of my appearance or sudden disappearance into the Somnium. So engrossed were they in their work.

Quincy hacked away the last root, and the two teens climbed out of the hole. Everyone took hold of a rope, even Argos, and together, they hauled the trunk out of its place.

My heart leapt.

The gate!

In the center of the hole, the gateway swirled, but unlike the other passages we had taken, this one was a solid wall of white, not unlike the vast space we had been plunged into when Syria had first sent us here in her madness.

Quickly, I returned from the Somnium. In my brief absence Quincy and Paulo had hurried off to fetch Hakeem. That left me with Argos and Lethia standing at the hole.

The enchantress didn’t appear startled to see me. She looked at me with somewhat glassy eyes and offered a small smile. “Good to see you’re awake. I sensed your return to consciousness.” She turned her face away and stared down into the hole. “Your body needed to devote all its energy to healing, thanks to what Syria’s tree had done.”

I could see the self-loathing flicker on the girl’s features before vanishing. “Stop punishing yourself,” I scolded. “When we return to our dimension, it won’t be easy. We’ll all be wanted by the local government for what we did in Belcliff and Holzoff’s. You need to stay present if we’re going to survive!”

“We can’t run, Nyx,” Lethia replied quietly. “Not like we are. We need to recover.”

“And once we recover?”

She looked at me, and the distance in her eyes chilled me. “I will not run from the things I have to face.”

I wanted to argue that. I needed to. If Lethia Artaud was thinking of turning herself in on some misguided sense of guilt, then she was going to get us all killed. They would torture her, get her to talk, and then every bounty hunter in the world would be after us.

But Quincy and Paulo’s return interrupted any chance I had of getting into it with the enchantress. They came running, Hakeem dragging behind them on a wool blanket.

“What are you waiting for?” Quincy shouted at us. “Jump in, you idiots!”

She was right. Nothing was holding us back but ourselves at this point. I was done with the Other Place.

It was time to go home.

.

..

….

…..

They’re ripped through what is essentially a small hole in the universe.

Flesh contracts, organs stretch, thoughts vanish.

One, two, three, four, five, six.

They each plummet through the empty white, until it squeezes around them, fading to sandy gray, then a gritty brown, until they come to a thick blackness that stops them in a painful slam of shadowy dirt and dark sediment.

She was first. She claws her way up with actual claws, her Twin aiding as the claustrophobia assails them in a dizzying rush. They are starved of breath, gagging on earth until—

…..

….

..

.

We broke through to air, and oh, how sweet it was! We lay there coughing and panting, our eyes gingerly blinking away the dirt. Three details immediately struck me: first, the suns were out, so that meant we had succeeded in returning to the real world; second, there was no snow; and third, we had just come out of the ground from under a tree. How was that possible? I thought we had removed the tree in the Other Place? Did that mean we were not at Syria’s tower, but elsewhere? It certainly wasn’t impossible.

Kali was just behind me in consciousness, her intent tickling the pads of my fingers, until gradually she faded to her special place in our mind. Once again in sole control, I took one last deep breath before clawing at the grass and dirt to pull myself out. I could feel something pushing at the soles of my feet in the ground, and I knew I had to hurry before the others suffocated.

But this proved to be quite the battle. Not only did I feel weak and dizzy, but something just didn’t feel right. I couldn’t stop to try and figure out what was the matter, however, as the moment I freed myself from the dirt, a white hand burst through from the growing sinkhole I had emerged from. I grabbed it, and with all of my strength, pulled.

The others emerged that way, one by one. First was Lethia, who had jumped in shortly after me. Then Quincy, who pulled Hakeem after her. Paulo appeared next, and finally Argos.

When we were all present and accounted for, everyone just collapsed, exhausted on the grass. Since I had been the first one to climb out, I wasn’t nearly as winded, and so I stood glaring up at the linden tree that we had just climbed out from under. The sinkhole at its roots was a dark break in the otherwise lush and healthy grass. The tree itself was a deathly gray, branches devoid of leaves despite the apparent springtime weather.

I stared at it, trying to convince myself that, Yes, of course this was the tree I had just cut down! It’s the same kind as the one before, and there’s even a barn and tower near it. This was Syria’s land!

The buildings in question were not nearly as well kept as they had appeared in the Other Place. They were weather worn and weedy, the barn’s doors hanging off their hinges as if a crowd had battered their way in, and the windows of the tower all smashed and boarded.

How much time has passed that this place seems so abandoned? I wondered.

The dizziness had faded, though the feeling of weakness and wrongness did not. I wondered if all that was needed was sleep. It really did feel as though I’d been awake for weeks. My eyes even burned and ached as though that were the case.

But I could not rest quite yet.

“We…have to decide what we’re going to do,” I made myself say.

“I want to assess our immediate assets and secure the area,” Quincy immediately said. “This place looks…abandoned.” I frowned at her sudden tone of uncertainty. The wizard quickly covered this with a determined look as she knelt by her husband. Hakeem was very pale. “Scavengers may have raided this place, but there may yet be some supplies worth using. Perhaps in the barn or in the pantry? Lethia, is there a cellar?” She asked the enchantress.

Lethia looked at her, startled. “Er…yes? Yes. There is.”

My frown deepened. Did the trip disorient us that severely? Why are we uncertain about obvious details, and having trouble recalling important facts?

“Someone should head to town after,” I suggested. “It’s obvious that time has passed while we were gone. We’ll need to get an update on what has happened in Belcliff since we left. Whoever goes could also get whatever supplies we might still need.”

“What about Paulo?” Lethia asked.

This suggestion didn’t immediately strike me as strange. The two teenagers could hardly stand being near each other, and Paulo leaving even for a short while would certainly alleviate a good portion of the tension in our group. Yet, something in the way the two exchanged glances made me uneasy.

“Yes,” he said, lifting his head a little higher so that he was almost looking down his nose. “I should go. If what you say is true, Nyx, about the bounties, I’m the least likely to stir up trouble.”

I crossed my arms and raised an eyebrow at the young man. “And how’s that? You were seen breaking Lethia out of jail alongside me!”

“She has a point,” Quincy murmured, looking at Paulo out of the corner of her eye.

“Who else are we going to send?” Paulo argued hotly. He thrust a hand at Lethia. “She’s probably got wanted posters floating all around the Sibesona by now!” Next he pointed at Quincy, “And she went back on her bounty contract! Lethia’s head was not a small catch! She’s probably equally notorious! And the other two?” He swept a hand over Argos and Hakeem, causing the dog to growl at him resentfully.

“And what about me?” I asked flatly.

“Yeah. What about you, lia?” he shot back. “I’ve been watching you. You’ve been eager to leave us since the moment you showed up! What’s stopping you from fucking off now that your redheaded lover isn’t around for you to fool around with, eh? Disseme! Tell me!”

My expression darkened when he brought up Elmiryn, and I had to resist curling my hands into fists.

“Out of all of us, I was seen the least, and therefor, I am less likely to be accosted by authorities. Never mind that I’m leaps and bounds better at sneaking than you are, and I think I can manage to get around. As for your suspicions….” I couldn’t help it. My voice dropped an octave, my anger tinging my words in a harsh growl: “You have absolutely no business questioning my character, considering the impressive jackassery you have achieved in the short amount of time that I have known you. If anything, you’re more likely to leave than I am! You have no ties to any of us, whereas I still need to wait for Elmiryn to return. Now who seems the bigger risk to send, I wonder?”

Paulo looked ready to argue some more, his scarred face turning hot and livid, but Quincy cut him off.

“She’s going.”

“She can’t—!”

Quincy stood sharply, her teeth bared and her cheeks tinged pink. “Shut up, boy! I said she’s going!”

“But the vote is split!” Lethia protested, standing now as well.

“This isn’t a democracy,” I replied wryly.

“And this isn’t a dictatorship either,” the girl rebutted. “Neither you or Quincy have fully assumed the role of leadership! That means Paulo and I have equal say!”

Quincy crossed her arms. “Does it, now?”

“Yes!”

Then I had an idea. “Why don’t we let Argos vote?”

The others didn’t seem to know what to think at first. Even Lethia seemed hesitant to agree, and I wondered why. Did she want Paulo to leave that badly that she didn’t want to risk Argos voting against her? It wasn’t a secret that Argos disliked Paulo. It was just as likely he could vote for the boy to go instead of me. One less thing for him to growl at.

But he surprised me when he padded up to me, and with his black eyes meeting mine, he woofed.

I raised my eyebrows and looked at the others. “That’s his vote! Are we agreed, then?”

“He’s just a dog!” Paulo complained, but a dangerous look from Quincy silenced him.

With that mattered settled, we set off to explore the grounds.

Quincy and Paulo took the barn. Lethia, Argos, and I took the tower. My companions were quiet as we approached the tall stone building. I couldn’t blame them. Once, they had called this place home. Now it was just the place they had lived with a homicidal madwoman.

At the front doors, Lethia breathed, “There are five floors. One is a sublevel—the cellar. The main floor is the biggest and is where the kitchen and study are. That’s where we can start. The second floor used to be my room. Third floor was…was Syria’s. The fourth floor was where we did astronomy and enchantment lessons.”

I nodded, uncertain of whether or not I should say anything. I’m sorry was such a trite thing to tell someone after all we had been through. I wasn’t even sure I had it in me to be charitable toward the girl, despite the pity she inspired. For some reason I just couldn’t shake away the resentment in my heart.

Without a word, we broke off to do our search. Me in the kitchen, Argos to the study, and Lethia in the cellar. The kitchen was small, one round table set off against the north wall with just two chairs set adjacent to each other. The cupboards were largely empty, even the plates and cups gone, but I did manage to find a small bag of white rice that had been missed in a far shadowy corner. A quick inspection told me they were still good.

Returning to the foyer, I found Argos sitting and staring up the stairs. He whined as I approached, his tail wagging once, and I patted his head.

When Lethia appeared a short moment later, she appeared faint. I gave her a discerning look, then asked warily, “Are you all right? You don’t look well.”

“I’m fine,” she said, except her voice sounded like a ghost.

I opted not to say anything. “This is all that I found,” I said, hefting up the half-empty rice bag. “It appears Argos hasn’t found anything. Did you find something usable?”

The teenager shrugged. “A few things. Some spare blankets that managed to stay dry. Three jars of pickled onions. A lantern, but no wick or oil.”

I pointed upstairs. “And up there?”

“We might find some more odds and ends, but no food.”

I sighed and rubbed at my face. “I was hoping for more….”

Lethia bit her lip before murmuring, “I’m not sure but…I might have some money hidden in my room. It isn’t much, but it ought to be enough to buy us some food.”

Before I could say anything to this, the girl started up the stairs, and with a glance at Argos, I followed her. The winding staircase reminded me of the keep that Syria had commandeered in the Other Place. My skin broke out in gooseflesh, and I could feel my jaw tighten.

We stopped at the first door we came to on the left, and when Lethia pushed inside. Her room was of medium size. There was a single size bed, but the sheets had been stolen and the mattress slashed. The shelves were bare, and I could see outlines on the western wall where a desk and a dresser appeared to have stood. Going just to the right of the desk spot, Lethia didn’t seem fazed by the emptiness of her room. Her face was a blank mask as she crouched down near the wall, and with her fingernails, she pulled out a cobblestone. It was darker than the others, and hidden behind it was a small pouch.

Lethia straightened as she opened this and poured out its contents. A handful of gold coins, an engraved silver bangle, and a small pair of copper glasses with dark round lenses. I guessed they were the pair that Lethia had worn when she was a child.

Gods…. Syria had cursed Lethia for that long?

I don’t understand, Kali asked in my head. Why do the glasses matter?

I couldn’t quite meet Lethia’s eyes as she held the items out to me.

I’ll spare you the search through our memories, sister. Syria had made it so that Lethia could not look anyone in the eye without emptying their heads of memories.

Oh…yes, I think I remember that being said, now. She must have been very lonely.

Kali’s words weren’t tinged with pity, but sympathy. This stunned me, leaving me inattentive to the words that Lethia had just spoken. I stared at the items in the girl’s hands. Of course, it had long been established that my Twin had her own opinions of things, but rarely did I hear her spare a kind thought for a human, let alone anyone.

“Nyx?”

I snapped my eyes up to find Lethia frowning at me.

“Huh?” I mumbled.

“I said I think there is enough here for one day’s worth of food. I don’t know where we can get money for anything else. Maybe Quincy has some in that magic bag of hers.”

I nodded dumbly, still trying to figure out why Kali would sympathize with Lethia after all we’d been through. I reached as if to take the items out of the girl’s hands, but she pulled them away from me, making me pause with a curious glance.

Lethia’s lips were pressed thin and her eyes had suddenly taken on a determined edge that bewildered me. “You can sell the bangle, but I want you to do something special with the glasses when you go into town.”

My brow tensed and I lowered my hand. “All right. What is it?”

“I want you to find an elven man named Daedalus. He’s a tinkerer in Belcliff and a good friend of mine. Give him these glasses and tell him to return with you in his scrap wagon with his tools.” She paused, but I could see from her furtive look at her shoes that she wanted to continue.

“And?” I prompted.

“Tell him to bring a bottle of wine and some medical supplies.”

I put my hands on my hips, my eyes going a little wide. “Why would we need medical supplies?”

Lethia gave me a critical look, and yet this time she was the one who failed to meet my eyes. “Nyx, Elmiryn is still out there. She’ll need a drink to ease the withdrawals she’ll no doubt be suffering from. There’s no telling what state she’ll be in, either. Wouldn’t it be best to be prepared?”

I nodded slowly, but I was still suspicious. The girl’s logic was sound, but I had a feeling this wasn’t her true reasoning. After all, why would she be so concerned with finding Elmiryn?

So I asked next, “What do you need Daedalus for? We’re in hiding, you know. The less who knows we are here, the better.”

Lethia took my hand and forced the coins and trinkets into my palm. With a sigh, she said, “First of all, we aren’t going anywhere, Nyx. I think we both know that. We still have to find Elmiryn, and Hakeem is still unconscious. Daedalus is not only a tinkerer, he’s also trained as a healer. Plus he has a wagon. I thought that it would be nice if you could return quickly, and then my friend can try to help Hakeem. Who knows? He might even come up with some ideas to make this place more comfortable while we try to rest and heal.”

All fair arguments, of course. Still, that nagging feeling persisted.

“Lethia, if there’s something you need to tell me—” I began.

She cut me off. “We should find the others. The barn isn’t that big. They ought to be done, now.”

She started for the door, and I could only stare after her.

Lethia’s voice came from the staircase as she left the room. She sounded small and distant. “You should leave now while you still have daylight, Nyx.”

Continue ReadingChapter 43.3

Chapter 43.4

NYX__________________________

A quick search of the other floors in the tower proved Lethia had been right. We didn’t find much that we could use at all. Quincy and Paulo managed to find some left over firewood that had been kept dry in a shed, as well as a flask of oil. Other than that and the meager supplies we brought with us, we had nothing.

Before I left for Belcliff like we had agreed, Quincy stopped me outside of the barn.

She pulled out her magic bag and reached her entire arm in. I thought she was finally giving me the low level magic items we had agreed on a while back, but then she extracted a medium sized pouch that jingled. My eyes widened at it.

“Is that…?”

“Gold,” Quincy answered promptly. “About five hundred worth, give or take. This is a fourth of the reward money I received for Lethia.”

“But I don’t need this much!” I protested. I tried to hand the bag back to her, only to have the wizard shove it into my chest firmly.

“Just keep it, Ailuran! I have more gold than I know what to do with. If you don’t want to take the lot of it, just be sure you take enough for a few days worth of supplies. Bribery might also be a good idea. We’ll need to make some connections if we’re going to be left in peace up here.”

“Fine,” I sighed. Then I added, because it seemed relevant and we hadn’t brought it up as a group: “Lethia wanted me to bring back a friend of hers. Some elf named Daedalus.”

Quincy frowned. “Daedalus? Hmm…but is he trustworthy?”

I shrugged. “She seems to think so.”

“Well why does she want him here?”

“She seems to think he can help Hakeem. Maybe even fix things up for us here.”

“Hmm,” Quincy frowned.

I crossed my arms and stepped a little closer, glancing in Lethia’s direction. She was busy cleaning up a one of the empty animal stalls, a focused look on her face. “Quincy, do you remember that weird exchange Paulo and Lethia had before we got here? Something isn’t right.”

She nodded once, glancing at Lethia surreptitiously as well. “Yes. It’s making me uneasy.”

“Keep an eye on them, will you? I’m afraid they’re planning something drastic.”

Quincy raised an eyebrow at me. “Oh! That sounds like concern. I was under the impression you wanted nothing to do with them?”

I glared at her. “Lethia is in a dark place right now, and so is Paulo. Someone saved my life when I was in a similar position. I can’t just sit by and let them ruin their lives, regardless of how I feel about them.”

The other woman took a step back, appraising me for a moment. Then she nodded slowly. “I’m starting to understand why Elmiryn is so attached to you, Nyx.”

I had nothing to say to that, so I left.

—————————–

I had our supplies before sunset. So as not to raise suspicion, I only purchased the bare minimum for a few days. It would be too obvious if I bought a wagon full of supplies and headed up to Syria’s tower. People would talk. Left with just one task left to do, I slung my bag of provisions over my shoulder and flipped up the hood of the cloak Quincy lent me.

In the waning light, I followed Lethia’s directions, sticking to the shadows and avoiding the main streets whenever possible, and found myself outside of Daedalus’ shop. The elf had been described to me as a tinkerer, but as I looked up at his gold leaf sign, I realized his profession was that of a jeweler. Stepping through the small wooden door, a bell tinkled overhead.

A plump human woman with paling ginger hair pinned up in a frizzy bun and rosy red cheeks smiled at me pleasantly as I approached. She had a ruby necklace in her hands that she seemed to be inspecting with a lens. The shop was neat and well-organized, shiny baubles and precious trinkets gleaming under glass cases that were magicked to shower them in a bright glow.

Instantly, I wondered what these people did for security. Having lived as a thief for a good year of my life, I knew that if I had come across this place, I might’ve been tempted to steal something in order to sell it for food. There were no guards, and I wasn’t even impressed by the lock they had on their door.

Was there anything to barricade the windows with? I wondered as I glanced to check. Hmm. No latches. How odd! Is Belcliff really that honest a city, or is there something I’m missing?

But before I could really start poking around, the woman asked, “Hello! My name is Beryl. Is there something I could help you with, ma’am?”

I jumped and focused on her again. “Oh! Er, yes. I was hoping the owner was in? Daedalus?”

“Why, yes! He’s upstairs right now. Did you have an appointment with him?” She asked with a wrinkled brow as she consulted an open ledger on the counter.

I waved my hand. “N-No! No appointment. Um…a friend sent me. I was wondering if you could take these to him?” I reached into my pocket and pulled out Lethia’s old glasses.

Beryl paled and her eyes went wide.

“Oh!” She exclaimed, her hands flying to her mouth. “Oh my goodness! Wherever did you get these young lady?”

“Can you please just take these to Daedalus? I’m afraid it’s urgent.” I handed the glasses to her, my face tightening. This was such a risky task. What if these people weren’t as good friends with Lethia as the girl seemed to think? All it would take was for one of them to decide my visit was worth a tip to the authorities.

Grimly, I wondered what I was willing to do to ensure that wouldn’t happen.

But to my relief, Beryl took the glasses and hurried up the stairs in the back. As I waited, I took another look around the store. There were all sorts of things in the glass display cases and on the back shelves, but what gave me a start was seeing the metal statues in the corners of the room, including near the front entrance. The statues were unlike anything I’d ever seen before—tall slim elven men with what appeared to be pistols crossed over their armored chests. They were blank faced but seemed to have glass for eyes.

“Strange,” I murmured.

That was when I spotted the ruby necklace Beryl had left on the counter in her rush. Curious, I went to moved in for a closer look.

Before I even came close, the statues sprang to life in a metallic whir of groaning joints and hissing parts. Their eyes flared red as they pointed the pistols square at me and pulled back the hammers.

For the record, it is very unsettling to hear eight different guns cocked at the same time whilst being aimed at your head.

“Stand down!” a smooth, firm voice said.

I whipped around to see a tall elven man with cropped dark hair peppered gray at the temples coming down the final steps of the stairs. For a jeweler, he wore plain cotton clothes, and his face, though thin, was sagging and wrinkled. His neck was even baggy, as if he’d been heavier at one time of his life, but lost all the weight quickly. His electric blue eyes fastened onto me, and they were hard and appraising.

I tensed, but did nothing save to bow my head.

Daedalus was an elf. Elves were in touch with their spiritual essence as therians were, therefor he could sense the Mark that was on my back. I could see the judgmental edge come to his eyes quickly. I felt a dull ache at that, but a part of me, the part that was tired of the constant discrimination of others, bristled against the shame. I was not here for this man to judge. I was only here because Lethia wanted something from him.

The elf held up the glasses in a trembling hand and demanded harshly, “Where did you get this, Marked One?”

I squared my shoulders and frowned at him. “From a friend of yours.”

“What friend?

“A young blond one,” I said, an edge now creeping into my voice. I was tired. I wanted to go home. I did not feel in the mood for this man’s unkindness or his murderous guard statues.

Daedalus eyes widened as he took in what I’d told him. “There could only be one other person who would have these glasses and be as you say,” he said quietly.

I nodded curtly. “Are you still an ally, or will you turn me away?”

He shook his head slowly. “Her mistress did us great harm….”

“I’m not asking about whether you are still loyal to her mistress,” I replied, struggling to keep my patience. “I am asking if you are still loyal to her. She needs your help. Told me to come find you, give you those, and bring you back with me.”

“To where?”

I sighed. “You know where.”

The elf thought hard on this for what felt like ages. Behind him, Beryl fidgeted nervously. Finally the man nodded. “All right. What does she need?”

A small smile of gratitude appeared on my face. “She asked if you could please ride with me up to the tower in your spare part wagon with your tinker tools, a bottle of wine, and some medical supplies.”

His eyebrows rose. “Medical supplies? Is she hurt?”

I shook my head quickly. “No, but one of our group is. I imagine she believes you can help them.”

“What ails this person?”

“He is in a coma, but he is still clinging to life.”

He pursed his lips. “Well there isn’t much I can do for them, then. I’m an herbal healer, not a magical one. I do not have the ability to treat something of that nature.”

I cleared my throat and added. “There…. There is also one other that we have not found yet. We fear they may be injured upon locating them again, so if we could bring enough supplies to treat someone cut or with broken bones, I’d believe that would suffice.”

Daedalus turned to Beryl. “Close the shop early, Beryl. I’ll be leaving right now.”

—————————–

A short time later and we were on our way back to Syria’s tower. The road was busy heading toward the port city of Reg’Amen, but when we veered off the less beaten path into the mountains, the company thinned and soon we were rumbling along alone with only a lantern and the moon to light the way.

As we rode, I could feel Daedalus’ discomfort sitting next to me on the driver’s seat. I glanced at him now and again, and I could see the sweat on his brow as he fought to avoid looking at me. I didn’t really know what it was like for people to sense my Mark. When I had snuck back to my village to recover some of my family treasures, I had run into my childhood friend Taila. She all but cringed from the sight of me, describing the sensation as some sort of spiritual repulsion. But I had no idea what that really felt like. Marquis acknowledged that he had sensed my Mark too, but he hadn’t displayed any outward signs of discomfort like Taila had.

In a poor attempt at alleviating the tension, I asked, “What year is it?”

The elf blinked, though he still did not look my way. “By Halward’s grace, 3571.”

I stared at him in shock.

3571? That means we’ve been gone over a year!

Then came the question I’d been waiting for.

“What is a Marked Ailuran doing with someone like Lethia Artaud?” Daedalus asked tightly. He cracked the reins, though it was unnecessary. The horse was going as fast as it could already.

I stared ahead as I answered, still dazed by the information I’d just learned. “It was chance. I was travelling with someone else when Lethia’s dog approached us.”

“Argos?” The elven man asked, and I nodded.

“He led us to her, and she begged us to aid her,” I continued. “She wanted to break Syria free. As it turned out, her cause was aligned with me and friend’s, so…we decided to help her.”

Daedalus jaw clenched. “And by the four blasted winds, you succeeded!”

I closed my eyes. “We had no idea it would turn out the way it had!”

“Turn out what way? Horrible? Ha!” The elf snapped, looking at me for the first time just to spare me a brief sharp glare. “Who was this ‘friend’ of yours? What were you two doing, getting involved in matters that had nothing to do with you? Are you a mercenary?”

My lip curled. I could feel my anger rise, despite my inner attempts at calming myself. “No,” I growled out.

“Then who—?”

“Enough!” I interjected loudly. “I am not bringing you along for you to interrogate me! If you want the whole story, ask Lethia! I, for one, am far too tired to suffer reliving my nightmarish ordeal just for a belligerent old elf who probably wouldn’t believe me anyway!” I slouched and glared into the dark of the night. “So just…leave me in peace!

Daedalus harrumphed and cracked the reins again. “Peace, she says! As though this elf will have any peace after tonight….” But he asked nothing more of me.

We arrived in silence at Syria’s tower, the horses nickering as we passed the open gate and pulled to a stop just outside of the barn. From where I hopped down off the driver’s seat, I could hear yelling up in the tower.

“Who is that? What is happening?” Daedalus demanded.

I didn’t even answer him as I ran to the tower and rushed inside.

Quincy had her staff out and was nervously facing down Argos in the study, her voice tersely repeating a warning. The dog’s hackles were raised and he paced agitatedly back and forth. Behind the wizard Lethia and Paulo were practically nose-to-nose screaming at each other. In all the noise, I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying at first. Then I started to pick out the words.

“I cannot let you harm the boy, Argos! Do you understand? He is my responsibility! I can’t help Lethia if you insist on this!”

“We made a deal! You said you’d do it! You even threatened me on it. Now you’re changing your mind? You COWARD!

“Shut up! I have the right to change my mind, lia! You’re the crazy one!”

“What are you all so upset about?” I said loudly, with a bit of vermagus force.

That got everyone’s attention fast. They all stared at me, eyes still lit with intensity.

“A silly altercation,” Quincy said first. “I’m trying to keep this from boiling over. You returned at a good time!”

“Daedalus?” Lethia exclaimed next.

I looked over my shoulder to see the elf staring at the enchantress in amazement. “So it was you!” he breathed.

Lethia hurried forward, brushing past me to hug the tall man. He blinked rapidly before patting her back awkwardly.

“My dear,” he coughed. “It is good to see you are still alive, but I’m afraid I’ll need some kind of an explanation from you!”

Lethia pulled away and held the elf’s shoulders. She smiled grimly. “Yes. Let’s talk outside.” She glared back at Paulo. “I find myself repulsed by the current company!”

With a gesture toward the door, she led Daedalus away to the field. I watched them go until the night swallowed them from sight.

I crossed my arms and looked at Quincy. “So the altercation? What was it about?”

She sighed and fixed Paulo with a withering look. “It appears that Lethia had made a rather grim deal with Paulo…but the boy lost his nerve, thank the gods!”

“I didn’t lose my nerve!” Paulo shot defensively. “I just realized how crazy it all was! I was angry when I said those, those…inseño things! People do all kinds of things when they’re angry!”

“But what?” I snapped, losing my patience. “What did you two make a deal about?”

“Lethia got Paulo to agree to come with us to Syria’s tower if he would…” Quincy paused and shot another dark look at Paulo, and this time the boy had the good sense to hang his head, “If Paulo would cut off one of her arms!

I reeled, my face tightening in disgust. I glared incredulously at Paulo. “You agreed to WHAT?

The teenager grumbled at his boots. “I just said I was angry, didn’t I? Coming back to our world was like coming out of a dream! The things I said in that dimension…I realized that wasn’t me!” Which I could’ve believed if he hadn’t added in a rush of petulance: “And it wasn’t as if I was agreeing to kill her! I wasn’t even going to take her dominant arm!”

I advanced on him, fists clenched so tight my bones ached. “That doesn’t make it any better! When are you going to accept responsibility for—” I broke off, my eyes widening.

“Wait a minute,” I breathed. “Was Lethia upset because you wouldn’t cut off one of her arms?”

Paulo frowned and nodded. “Yes! I’m telling you, that lia is crazy!”

Then it all made sense: Daedalus being here, the request for medical supplies, the odd behavior. Lethia wanted to atone for her mistakes by mutilating herself.

She wanted to do something that extreme, and we just let her out of our sight.

Continue ReadingChapter 43.4

Chapter 44.1

NYX__________________________

“Is there anything Lethia could use to hurt herself with?” I asked in a rush. “An axe, a sword, even a shovel?” I was already backpedaling for the door.

Quincy’s face went long and her eyes wide. “There was a small hatchet in the barn. Lethia saw it when you two came to find us!”

“Damn it!” I snarled as I ran out the door.

Behind me, I could hear Argos running, his paws rapidly thundering over the grassy earth, and in no time, the canine had eclipsed me. Ahead of us was the lit up barn.

It was about halfway there that I heard screaming, and I stumbled in my run, my heart skipping a beat. I almost didn’t want to get there. I almost didn’t want to see. But twisting my guts into knots was the unsettling possibility that Lethia could die from this…and it would be my fault. She had spoken to no else about her unusual requests, and hadn’t Lacertli warned me that something odd was going on between her and Paulo?

I broke into a sprint, clearing the barn doors before skidding to a halt.

Blood. It seemed to be everywhere. There was one large pool of it further toward the back, where I could see a sharp indentation cut into the waist-high partition of a barn stall. It spilled down the side, and it had sprayed onto the walls and stall posts as though someone had swung the weapon hard. The blood trail seemed to circle around in confusion from there. Crimson footprints went all over the place.

Daedalus was pale, his eyes bugged as he ran and clumsily grabbed a coil of rope off of a hook on a post. His entire front was covered in red. He ran back to one of the rear barn stalls, the one that Lethia had been so fastidiously cleaning earlier, and he paid me no attention. I couldn’t see where Argos was until the elven man pushed the dog into view. The canine’s white muzzle was stained with red, and he whined anxiously, his body dropping low to the ground like he was faint.

Lying on the ground near Argos was the bloody hatchet.

My skin went cold as I slowly approached. The barn had gone eerily quiet after the piercing screams I had just heard. Behind me, I heard Quincy and Paulo finally catch up. I didn’t turn to look at them.

It seemed to take ages to clear the stall’s partition.

When I did, what I saw made me feel….

Cold? Sick? Sorry?

The truth was I felt numb.

My horror felt tiny and far off. Inadequate. Like it couldn’t encompass the depth of feelings that coursed through me all at once, making me feel strangely and very suddenly detached. Daedalus was yelling something, and Quincy and Paulo crowded behind me, shouting and cursing, and even Argos seemed beside himself with grief as he rubbed his snout into the dirt and swiped at his ears with his paws.

Lethia lay in a pile of hay, her eyes silently streaming with tears as she stared up at the rafters like she was seeing something bigger and greater beyond our realm. For a surreal moment, it appeared as if she were dead, but then she winced and looked at Daedalus when he took the rope he had grabbed and tied it over the bloody stump her left forearm had become. With shaking fingers, he pressed the top and bottom end of her wound where the blood gushed the most.

The wound was just below the elbow, and I noted faintly that the hacked flesh was uneven. It was about then that everything finally hit me. Lethia hadn’t been able to cut through her arm in one swing. From the looks of it, it had taken three swings in total. Most likely she had become faint partway through, but her commitment to harming herself was disturbingly plain.

Daedalus was barking instructions at Quincy, because she was the only one of us who seemed to have it together enough to assist him.

“I need thread to tie off her radial and ulnar arteries or she will bleed out!” Daedalus seethed at the wizard.

Quincy fumbled for her magic bag. “All right I’m looking, tai’undu, I’m looking!”

“Why would she do this?” Paulo breathed behind us, slowly shaking his head. “She’s out of her mind! Why would she do this?”

“Shut up!” I spat at him.

He jumped and stared at me, taken aback.

“Lethia was grieving and repentant!” I continued angrily. “She was looking for a way to make it up to everyone! Even to you!” I looked at her sadly. “But none of us wanted to listen….”

“We can feel sorry for her later, Nyx!” Quincy sniped.

“Yes! Quite!” Daedalus said sternly. “Ailuran, please retrieve my medical bag from the cart. And hurry! We’ll need to disinfect this wound immediately!” Next he looked at Paulo. “And you, boy! Bring one of the lanterns. If any of you have a blade, put it in the flame and hold it there. We’ll be needing it soon to cauterize these arteries!”

Given our orders, we could only exchange brief grim looks before running off to gather the required supplies.

When I returned I handed the leather medical bag to Quincy, who quickly opened it and pulled out a clear bottle of liquid. Daedalus, who had tied off Lethia’s arteries, grabbed the bottle.

“Hold her!” He barked before he ripped out the cork with his teeth.

We didn’t need telling twice. Paulo took Lethia’s legs. Quincy took her left shoulder, and I took her right. Daedalus, seeing his patient secured, started to pour the liquid liberally over the girl’s arm.

Lethia, who up to this point had been lost in mute shock, suddenly and violently tilted her head back and screamed. She thrashed wildly, her body straining against our collective grip.

I was grateful when Daedalus set the bottle aside, but this relief was short-lived. What he picked up next was the heated knife.

Without a word, he pressed this to Lethia’s wound, at one of the points that he’d been holding before. The flesh sizzled, a small line of steam curling into the air before vanishing from sight.

Just as before, Lethia cried out and writhed, but we held her still again. This time though, she regained her ability to speak, “Gods help me! I had to do it, I had to! Halward! Mercy! PLEASE!

Daedalus cauterized the other artery before loosening the tourniquet and pulling out clean bandage cloth from his healing bag. Without saying a word, the elf grimly dressed Lethia’s wound. I watched, transfixed, as the cloth wound its way around the ugly flesh, concealing it from sight. When that task was finished, the elf stood and said quietly to Quincy, “Keep it elevated,” and like a ghost, he drifted outside.

I gazed after him, concerned, before asking Quincy, “Are you—?”

“I’ve got it,” she said tersely. She couldn’t meet my eyes. I was glad she couldn’t. I wasn’t sure I could meet anyone else’s gaze either.

With a solemn nod, I stood and went after Daedalus. I found the elf standing just outside the barn doors next to his cart. He was leaning on the outer wall, his eyes closed and his head bowed. I paused, wondering if I should intrude on this man’s show of emotion, but he turned and glared at me.

“She tricked me,” he rasped through a tight throat. “She had started telling me about Syria’s domination by a demon. How the woman had been led astray for years without anyone ever knowing anything. Then she said she needed help, and that was why she summoned me here. She asked me to get my medicine bag while she went to check on the patient you had mentioned to me. I was outside when it started.” He snorted and bowed his head again. “She was fast and she didn’t hesitate. Even…even when she had to strike again, the poor child did not stop, and like an old fool I could only gape at her until it was too late!”

“If anyone is to blame, it is me,” I said quietly. “I could’ve put things together, but I…” I trailed off and looked away. None of this was about me, and I felt irritated and ashamed at my reflexive self-pity.

“No, Ailuran. I know Lethia. She knew what she was doing,” Daedalus assured me in a way that was clearly more matter of fact than sympathetic. He was now staring off into the night with a haunted look. “When it was done, she…she whimpered to me that…her flesh was for a blood debt. She feels responsible for what Syria had done. All those people she killed and hurt.” He looked at me sidelong. “She also let slip, before the blood loss made her too weak, that she wanted to show everyone her resolve to make things right. That she had promised to.”

I shook my head earnestly. “We didn’t want this! None of us did!”

“It doesn’t matter what you wanted!” Daedalus retorted angrily. “Don’t you understand? This wasn’t about any of you! All that mattered to Lethia was her need to prove herself!” The elf straightened and narrowed his eyes at me. “How well do you know Lethia Artaud, Marked One? How long have you been in her company that you have managed to fail to understand the central trait that makes her who she is?”

He thrust a finger at the barn and spit flew from his mouth when he barked next, “Lethia is entirely defined by her honor! It is imperative to someone like her that the people she finds important feel they can rely on her! She does this through honesty, sacrifice, and commitment! And I don’t mean the superficial virtues they teach those air headed hooligans in schools, with their happy sing-alongs, but an extreme sort of dedication! It is spiritual for her! It is life and death!

I could believe this. Hindsight revealed so much. Hadn’t Lethia fought to rescue Syria, even when all the odds pointed to her being captured and killed? She’d even fought to go on after suffering a terrible injury. And didn’t the enchantress take extreme offense that time Elmiryn’s teasing had suggested she was of lesser character?

“But what now?” I asked, frowning. “Do…do you think she’ll try to harm herself further?”

Daedalus scowled. “I don’t know. Lethia only managed to tell me a small part of her tale before mutilating herself. Extremely honor-bound or not, for a young girl to be of such a dangerous frame of mind toward herself…that does not suggest an individual capable of refraining from self-harm. With the right trigger, she might try. Humans are volatile that way.”

I nodded slowly, lips pursed and my throat tightening. We were officially on suicide watch, then. Assuming, of course, that Lethia survived her traumatic injury, the girl couldn’t be left alone anymore.

Expectedly, I thought of Marquis and his efforts to keep me from trying to commit suicide. I covered my face with my hand and sighed heavily. Did my friend feel this same immense sort of pressure when he was trying to help me?

Did I have it in me to help like Marquis had?

A ridiculous question, perhaps. But when I turned to walk back into the barn, it was as if a barrier stopped me, and I found myself gazing in with tear-clouded eyes. I couldn’t see Lethia or Quincy behind the partition. Argos was off by himself, staring into a corner, head bowed. Paulo paced slowly, his eyes listlessly taking in the environment before refocusing on the enchantress every time he drew near. This was a place I didn’t fit into.

I had to be honest with myself. I was still angry at Lethia.

In my chest, I harbored a sick, heavy resentment that, in truth, I didn’t entirely understand. I kept picking the various reasons apart when I had the chance to, like my anger was a scab and I couldn’t just let it heal. One moment, it felt like forgiveness was possible. Then in another, my fury drove me to a distant silence. I even sometimes got confused as to what I was even really mad about. Who was I most upset with? Izma? Lethia? Elmiryn?

And in a sudden rush, I realized that perhaps my pain had been displaced. After all, with Izma gone, and Elmiryn missing, who else could I lash out at?

Except Lethia was fighting for her life, and there I was, debating on whether or not she deserved my anger.

I let out a loud yell of frustration and slammed the heels of my palms into the sides of my head.

Sometimes, I wish I could stop thinking so much!

You and me both, Kali responded wryly.

As I forced myself back into the barn, my sister then asked. Why did Lethia think cutting off her arm was going to make things better?

Didn’t you hear what Daedalus said? It’s because she has a blood debt.

What is that?

We have one ourselves, sister. It’s when a dishonorable death takes place and you were somehow involved in it, intentionally or not. Some people dedicate their whole lives to make up for that. It’s about honor.

Kali snorted. Feh. Honor! It just causes trouble…

My mouth puckered. Not always, Kali.

Really? I wouldn’t care if a human wanted to cut out his own liver and have it for dinner, but if one of the people we need to rely on purposefully mutilates themselves over a silly idea, then I can’t help but be concerned!

I’m not condoning her actions. I just understand why she did them.

Of course you understand. You almost killed us both over the same stupid notion.

I scowled in irritation. I’ll thank you not to go dredging up painful memories for the sake of taking jabs at me!

I was only telling the truth… My twin grumbled, before slipping back into the deeper parts of our mind.

Inside the barn, I hesitated just near the partition that hid Lethia. With a breath, I rounded it and sit down next to her in the hay. She was frightfully pale and sweating badly. Quincy was ladling water into her mouth that Paulo must have fetched when I was lost in my reverie. The boy was gone now. Perhaps to check on Hakeem. Or maybe just to get away from the sight of Lethia. I ground my teeth just at the latter thought. If that were the case, then I was going to have words with the young Moretti.

Which led me to wonder next: what reason did Paulo have to stay here? We were back in our dimension now, and he hated this place, as he often made clear. So what was keeping him around? Why didn’t he just leave, especially given his dislike of Lethia and his resentment of Quincy? Lacertli had hinted at the trouble between Lethia and Paulo, and I’d been too foolish to act on it. But was it really over? Could something else happen, should these two remain in close proximity? Enough grievous damage had been done, what else could possibly go wrong?

But one glance at Quincy gave me my answer. The wizard had taken full responsibility of Paulo. Perhaps over guilt about Graziano’s death. Or was it more? I didn’t understand the details, and I hadn’t asked. I just knew that Quincy, after Hakeem’s needs had been met, would focus on Paulo. It wasn’t motherly, by any means, but more like some nagging older sister who found herself stuck with an insufferable charge. So then what were my ties to Quincy now? We had struck something close to cordial, me and her, but we didn’t have the same goals. Perhaps the only reason she needed to stay here was because of Hakeem?

That made sense. Hakeem was still in a coma, and they were wanted by the local authorities, no doubt. She couldn’t drag an unconscious man across the busy mountain trails and not expect to be seen. And if she couldn’t leave…where could Paulo go? He had a lost look about him, and I realized that for all the time he spent in the Other Place getting older, he was no more emotionally or mentally mature than he had been before. Ironically, in the same way he didn’t have the confidence to come to Syria’s without proper incentive, he wouldn’t have the courage to leave this place on his own.

That meant we were all stuck together.

Not us, Kali reminded me.

I have to wait, I thought back.

For what? Her?

Yes. Her.

Elmiryn was going to come back to our world soon enough, I was sure of it. What I feared was the state I might find her in.

I also feared the things I would feel when I did find her.

“Quincy, go to your husband,” I murmured to her. We were all tired, it was true. I had no desire to stay awake. But someone had to stay with Lethia. Paulo certainly wasn’t an appropriate choice; Argos, though intelligent and loyal, lacked the ability to administer first aid; and Quincy had other things to worry about, like Hakeem, who also needed close care.

The wizard looked at me uncertainly. “She might go into a fever. If she does—”

“I don’t think Daedalus will be going anywhere. If I need help, he’ll be here,” I said.

The brunette seemed to consider this for a few beats before rising. “All right. Make sure you keep the wound elevated, like Daedalus says.” She started for the exit.

“I will.” I focused on Lethia’s face. She appeared to have passed out in the time since I arrived. I was sort of relieved. After all, what do you say to a person who had just cut off one of their limbs?

“And Nyx?”

I looked over my shoulder. Quincy had stopped at the barn doors and the look on her face was unexpectedly grateful. “Thank you.”

I could only nod in response.

When she left, I sighed as I turned to face the unconscious enchantress before me. Gingerly I stroked her sweaty forehead with my thumb.

“It will be a long night,” I whispered.

Continue ReadingChapter 44.1

Chapter 44.2

NYX__________________________

Lethia didn’t die, thankfully. Within a few days of severing her own arm, she was up and walking—though she never stayed up for long. She never complained about the pain. Daedalus and Quincy gave her herbal mixes to help with that, but there wasn’t a plant on this world that could eliminate the discomfort entirely. I could see how it kept the enchantress up at night. Oddly enough, this was the most at peace I’d seen the girl since we’d reunited. Lethia always appeared lost in thought, and not in the melancholy way she had been before, but with an almost determined air. Determination for what, I had no idea.

It was thanks to Daedalus that her condition had not worsened. Just as I had expected, the elf had stayed, tending to the enchantress and helping her care for her wound. More than that, though, the two were constantly talking, heads bowed as if they were going over some secret plan. They always fell silent whenever I or one of the others drew near, and it made me suspicious. What were they talking about that they couldn’t share with the rest of us?

I mentioned this to Quincy, but she only brushed me off.

“Daedalus and Lethia are old friends. The elf has been in her life since she was a child.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because he was one of the first people I questioned when I was pursuing Lethia as a bounty. If they want to talk in private, then let them! It may just be that he’s the only one she feels comfortable with confiding in right now,” she said.

I huffed. “Yes, but—”

“Nyx, I cannot entertain your cynicism right now! I need to massage Hakeem to prevent bed sores.”

Hakeem had not awoken since our arrival. Daedalus, humoring Quincy, had gone up to check on the Fanaean, who had taken residence in Lethia’s old room (since the girl had decided she preferred the barn), but he would not wake. He lay there still as a lifeless doll. Stubbornly, Quincy insisted on caring for him.

I pitied Quincy and Hakeem both.

Paulo, who had taken to sleeping outside, under the stars, was quiet and withdrawn. It was the return of the taciturn young man we had first encountered in the Other Place, but with a notable difference. Now, whenever Paulo was in the same room as Lethia, he would stop and do something for her. Sometimes it was small: He would bring her a cup of water; shut a window for her; or bring her whatever food we had cooked that day. Other times it was more. Once I’d seen him freshen up her hay bed. Another time, I saw him fix a leak on the roof of the barn that had been bothering the enchantress.

I didn’t really know what to make of this change. It seemed to happen so suddenly. Lethia didn’t seem all that surprised by it, but to say the two were comfortable around each other would have been overstating the situation. Paulo, after his task for the girl was complete, would practically flee her presence. Lethia, who always watched the boy intently as he worked, never said a word of thanks, nor attempted to speak further with him.

And how did I fare after spending so many days hiding and resting at Syria’s abandoned tower?

I was losing my mind.

If I weren’t in touch with the shadows, I would have believed they were moving. My eyes were always playing tricks on me, making me believe someone (or something) was lurking in the dark when there wasn’t really anything. Other times, I’d fuss over something incessantly—like tying my gambeson for instance. I’d be halfway through my ties before I’d start all over again, thinking I’d skipped one. Quincy happened upon me in Syria’s old room doing this, no doubt seeking help with Hakeem, before she stopped me in bemusement.

“Nyx, stop. You’re just going around in circles!” she chided.

“But I keep missing a tie for some reason!” I whined. “I keep counting them, watching my hands, but the gambeson doesn’t sit right! I don’t understand!”

Quincy crossed her arms and looked at me funny. “How long have you been trying to tie your gambeson?”

The question startled me. I took a moment to think, then mumbled uneasily, “H-How far have the suns traveled from the ten o’ clock position?”

The wizard balked at me. “You’ve been doing this for an hour?

“It can’t have been that long!” I protested. I started to fumble with my ties again. “I would have noticed!”

Quincy grabbed my wrists and I looked into her face sharply. Her expression was very solemn. “Nyx, you’re an intelligent girl. Surely you’ve noticed that things have not been the same since we’ve returned!”

“What do you mean?” I asked, but I knew exactly what she was talking about.

The wizard rolled her eyes and put her hands on her hips. “You know very well what I mean! The small hallucinations! Our foggy memories! Who does that sound like?”

I could feel my heart hammering in my chest. “Elmiryn,” I breathed.

Quincy nodded grimly. “Yes. Izma and Meznik mentioned that we had been altered in some way, to allow us to see them without losing our minds. At the time, I didn’t understand why they would want us to see them, unless of course they intended…”

“To use us,” I finished, my voice sounding hollow.

She only nodded again.

I buried my face in my hands. “Sweet Aelurus! I thought being a champion meant I would be safe from such influence!”

“You’re still mortal, Nyx. Don’t take your status for granted. And besides,” Quincy crossed her arms and I could see her eyes grow distant as she delved into some deep thought. “This has another side to it.”

“Really? And what’s that?” I muttered miserably.

“Isn’t it obvious? We can see the astral demons, Nyx! If we can see them, that means that we can fight them! They’ve lost one of their safeguards!”

I raised an eyebrow. “We’ve just established this is a double-edged sword, Quincy! We won’t be of much help to anyone let alone ourselves if we start to lose our minds like—” I broke off. I never thought I’d experience what the warrior had to go through, but now that I did, I regretted not being more supportive of her when we’d first met. To have to go through something like this alone…it was really just proof that the redhead had considerable mettle to keep from succumbing to what was obviously a harrowing state of existence.

Then another alarming thought occurred to me. “You don’t think that Izma and Meznik intend to turn us into fae, do you?”

Quincy frowned. “I don’t know. Why would they? Half the point of their war game seemed to be about displaying how creative one was in comparison to the other. Making a person into a fae would be old hat to them.”

I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. “So what now, then?”

“Well, seeing as how our new affliction allows us to witness the demons without trouble, reversing that seems detrimental. At the same time, we’d have to keep it from progressing further, or we won’t be able to function in our own world…” The wizard trailed off, her finger tapping her chin as she gazed through the floor. Finally, she shrugged. “I’ll research what I can. Maybe Lethia knows of something. Meanwhile, we should tell everyone what is happening so that they can be aware of the problem. Until such a time as we can come up with a way to mitigate our condition, we’ll just have to watch each other.”

I swallowed through a tight throat and nodded. “You came up here for something?”

“Oh! Yes. But first,” she gestured at my unlaced gambeson. “Let me help you with that.”

Once I was fully dressed, I went to help Quincy with moving Hakeem off his bed—she wanted to wash his sheets. As we worked, we discussed other ways of lessening the ill of effects of the demons’ influence. One such thing we agreed on—everyone needed to sleep better.

When I really stopped to think about it, I hadn’t slept all that much in the Other Place. Of course, there were moments where I had been unconscious, but the only time I could remember actually sleeping was during our stop at the shard where the Lycan village had been located. There, I had slept for a short time, and I don’t recall dreaming about anything. Yet here I seemed to dream every single night, and they were the worst nightmares. Every time, I awoke screaming, sweat drenched and with fragmented memories of what my consciousness had taken me to in sleep: a sea of nymph corpses that I drowned in; a herd of pretas that tore me apart; my chest ripping open and revealing a black hole—

Elmiryn leaving me.

What most pained me was that when I would descend from Syria’s room, it was usually to find Quincy sitting in the dark of the kitchen, staring at nothing. Or Paulo crouched just outside the barn doors with his head in his hands, his breath hitching. Or Lethia pacing—almost angrily—out along the property fence. Even Argos seemed to struggle with some inner trauma as he obsessively hunted down the gophers and other pests that had taken up residence on the land.

We were all suffering and yet none of us seemed capable of talking to each other.

Worse yet, Elmiryn still had not returned, and I had no idea where she could be. I only waited a day to see if she would turn up in the same manner that we had, out from under the tree’s roots. But after that, I risked a short trip into the wilderness with the wine. I had talked it over with Lethia and Quincy, and they surmised that the warrior, given her fae powers, could have circumvented the gateway we had entered completely and turned up elsewhere nearby.

But by the sixth day, I was turning up nothing, and I feared the worst.

This time, I wanted to go deeper into the wilderness, but not just for a day trip, like I’d been doing. I wanted to go deeper into the wilds, be more thorough in my search. I didn’t know how to approach the others with this wish, though. Even after our shared hardship, there were deep fractures that divided our group, and it hurt our trust and communication. I could anticipate the accusations from Paulo already.

Just to make sure I stayed honest, I told Kali, After three days of searching, turn us around!

She scoffed at me from her mental den. What do you mean, ‘Turn us around’? You aren’t a wagon I can just steer at will!

I sighed with as much patience as I could muster. Kali, what I meant was—hold me accountable to my original plan. I can’t leave the others for too long.

Kali grunted in response, and I took that as her assent.

Next, I needed to talk to the others…preferably one by one. I’m a coward at heart, after all.

The first I spoke to was Argos, because out of us all, I felt sorry that the dog seemed to be so frequently overlooked. The canine was chasing rodents out in the field, as usual. He stopped and listened to what I had to say—all my reasons and my assurances—and simply licked my cheek. I rubbed his head in thanks, thinking wistfully, I wish I could speak to you like Lethia can, and went off to find Daedalus, who was sitting inside the tower at the kitchen table. He was working with a number of various metal parts. No doubt, he’d taken them from his wagon full of spare clock pieces.

“What are you doing?” I asked out of curiosity.

He glanced at me, but didn’t stop polishing a small gear. With much reservation, the elf murmured, “I’m working on a new creation. Was there something you needed?”

The phrase ‘Marked One’ hung there at the end, even if he didn’t say it.

With a resigned sigh, I went about telling him of my intentions. Then I asked if I could take some of his medical supplies with me.

“No,” he said firmly. He set down his work and turned to glare up at me. “Those supplies will only last me until the end of tomorrow, and Lethia’s wound still needs much tending to! If you want to take healing supplies, you’ll have to go into town and get your own!”

I didn’t bother arguing. With dropped shoulders and a lowered gaze, I hurried off to find Quincy upstairs.

The wizard sat at her husband’s bedside, a damp wash cloth in her hand as she dabbed at his head. I winced at the sight of the unconscious Fanaean. His cheeks were sunken in. What really surprised me was that he wasn’t dead yet. A touch at his shoulder still proved he had some living warmth to him.

Quincy looked at me quizzically. I didn’t typically visit unless she asked me to.

“Can I help you, Nyx?” she asked.

I held her eyes, my mouth open to say something, but I suddenly had to look away. There was a pit in my stomach. I was leaving Quincy alone to deal with the others. She already had so much to deal with. Was that fair?

“You’re going to look for Elmiryn,” she stated quietly.

I swallowed and peered at her sidelong before giving a nod.

The brunette took a deep breath and tossed her wash cloth back into its basin at the floor. With both hands she rubbed at her face before standing and crossing her arms.

Quincy met my eyes. “I understand. If it were Hakeem, I would do the same.”

I fidgeted on the spot. “You’ll be all right? With…with everything?”

“Daedalus is a big help. Paulo seems repentant, which is good. Lethia seems to be in a better mood than she’s been in for a while.” She shrugged one shoulder and puckered her lips. “Yes. I think we ought to be fine!”

“Good! That’s good.”

A long pause.

“How long were you going to search till?” she asked next.

“Three days.”

Quincy tilted her head to one side. “You’ll need supplies for Elmiryn, won’t you? I noticed Daedalus’ supplies dwindling.”

I was already backing up toward the door. I still had to speak with Paulo and Lethia, and I was eager to start my search. “I’ll figure something out—”

“Nyx, wait.”

I paused and looked at her curiously.

Quincy already had her coin purse in hand. “You need to buy things, don’t you? You sort of need money for that, right? Here. Take the rest from last time. That should do it.”

I frowned as she approached to press the purse into my hand. There were at least two hundred gold coins left in the purse. Medical supplies were expensive, so I could very much use the money…but this situation was different from before. I wasn’t buying supplies for the group, just for Elmiryn. Was Quincy expecting a sort of trade again?

“What would you like in return?” I asked wearily.

She put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes. “Huh?”

I jingled the purse. “For the coins? What do you want?”

Quincy scowled. “You think I’m bartering with you?”

I blinked at her, taken aback. “You…you mean, you—?”

The wizard only shook her head at me and turned away, insult and hurt evident on her face. “Smart as you are, you can be a little thick headed, can’t you?” she muttered.

I took a step after her. Did I really misunderstand things that badly? “Quincy, hold on—!”

“Just go, Ailuran,” she snapped, picking up her washcloth again. “I suppose you’re not as perceptive as Elmiryn claimed you were.”

That stung. Had Elmiryn sung my praises while I was away? If she had, I already must have gone against every kind thing she said. It doubly hurt because it meant that perhaps the warrior didn’t understand me as much as she thought she did. I seemed to be discovering new lows every day.

Without a word, I sought out the others. Paulo, expectedly, brought up the possibility that I was leaving them for good.

“I’m not going to do that!” I snapped at him.

“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” he argued back. “Even if you really are looking for Elmiryn, you two could just run off together the moment you’re reunited!”

“You want to know how you can trust me?” I snarled.

“Yes! How?”

“By having faith!” I spat. And I left it at that.

Last of all, I went to speak with Lethia.

The girl was in the barn, as she usually was when the suns rose into their noon-time position. It was on Daedalus’ orders. The heat, he had warned, could encourage infection. Stay somewhere cool at all times!

Lethia seemed to like this about as much as I liked getting into trouble.

Still, I was shocked to find her topless, her blouse off with just a brassiere on, doing curls with her right arm by using a filled water bucket. Without turning around, she panted out in clipped phrases, “Nyx…you’re going to…look for Elmiryn. Go ahead! I don’t mind.”

I stared at her, feeling uncomfortable. I even overlooked the fact that she had read my mind again. “Should you be doing that? You’re wounded!”

Lethia barely glanced at me. “I’m fine.”

“Does Daedalus know what you’re up to?”

With what sounded like a huff of annoyance, the enchantress finally turned to glare at me in full. I gave a start. In the few days since Lethia had cut off her arm, I had purposefully avoided the more intimate ways of helping her—like dressing or bathing. Whether it was because of anger or shame, I did not know. But seeing her now, I found myself greatly humbled at the scars Lethia’s brand of honor had done to her.

In addition to her now severed arm, the teenager had the long grey scar running along her chest from the daesce that had attacked her. The old wound was not just superficial—it had also taken out a chunk from the top of her right breast, judging by the uneven nature of her brassiere.

Lethia’s sharp green eyes pierced me when she said, “Nyx, you weren’t interested in caring for me before. Don’t pretend to start now. It’d just be bothersome at this point.”

I winced. That was the second time someone had managed to make me feel horrible in just a few words.

Not that hard, apparently, Kali drawled.

Hush!

“So you didn’t do this to spark sympathy?” I shot back as I gestured at her arm stump. Immediately I regretted that. It sounded awful and petty, even to me.

She raised an eyebrow at me and murmured, “Can it be that you still don’t understand?” She sighed heavily, her lips pursing before she turned away from me. “I was wrong to think we had something in common, then.”

This made me angry in ways I didn’t expect. I stomped to Lethia’s side and hissed, “Why is it that everyone has to understand you? What makes you of such importance that I am somehow lesser for failing to understand your convoluted logic?”

Lethia frowned at me. “What do you want me to say? I’m sorry? Again?

At my furious silence, she leaned in just enough to breathe. “If the only thing you want is to be angry with me, Nyx, then that is your right. I hurt you, I know. I hurt everyone. But I need you to know, I don’t intend to just sit back and live the life of a cripple.” She stepped away, turning to resume her bucket curls. Through quiet grunts, she said with strain: “I also don’t intend to spend all my life begging for forgiveness with words when I can do more through my actions. When you’ve figured out what you’d like me to do, then by all means…tell me. In the meantime, I will do what I feel I must.”

I glared at her, feeling a sickening mix of guilt and anger surge in my throat like hot bile. It is the worst feeling, when your head is going one direction, and your emotions are stampeding off in another.

Stiffly, I turned to leave.

“Good luck, Nyx. I hope you find her,” Lethia called after me.

I paused at the barn doors, but walked briskly away.

The exchange left me rattled, to say the least. The teenage enchantress seemed so much more confident than I’d ever seen her, including when we first met. Add on the fact that she was physically older than before our strange other-dimensional journey, and it was like speaking to an entirely different person.

And what she said made sense. Even in my heightened state of emotion, I could understand.

I just didn’t want to. I felt petulant and resentful that Lethia would treat me so firmly and yet somehow manage to remain sympathetic all at the same time. It felt unfair.

Space, I thought. I need some space. Some time to think.

I was hating what I was feeling. Who I was turning into. It was like watching myself in the mirror turn ugly and dark, like a hag, and feeling powerless to stop it. I wasn’t powerless, of course. But it wouldn’t be enough to pretend I wasn’t angry and hurt. The charade would be shallow and short-lived. If I really wanted to move on from the devastation I’d faced in the Other Place, I was going to have to reach in deep and purge myself of all the ill feelings that so led me astray.

I was going to have to overcome myself, if I wanted to any sort of peace.

Continue ReadingChapter 44.2

Chapter 44.3

LETHIA________________________

Dear Jydel,

I’ll have you know that people are fantastically annoying sometimes.

Being tended to by Daedalus is fine. But Quincy? Ye gods! I would rather chop off my other arm than have to suffer her prickly bedside manner any longer!

Sorry, was that joke too soon?

It’s just that I’m so irritated! Everyone has started treating me as though I’m a lunatic about to hop off the nearest cliff. Halward help them, they just don’t understand at all! I mean, if I was really intent on killing myself, I think I would have enough intelligence to go about it more efficiently than just amputating a gods damned limb!

But what can I do? I can’t make them see what they don’t want to. And in the end, I didn’t do it for them. It was my own blood pact, paid in flesh. I know what my destiny is now, Jydel.

I have to kill Syria.

I lay awake in the barn, staring up at the rafters, and it’s all I can think about. And even if I told this to the others? I still do not think they would understand. They would say, “Ah! She must really hate Syria to wish her dead!”

That just isn’t true.

Syria was my mother. I can no more cease to love her than I could stop breathing. It is just a fact of my reality. But I do not need to love the crimes she has committed, and as her adopted daughter, I see it is my duty to preserve what is left of her legacy. I feel almost rejuvenated, to have such a clear goal in front of me now. Izma’s way was wrong. I couldn’t see that before because I was lost in the labyrinthine logic that no doubt trapped my mistress. What is wrong with intellectuals, that we manage to complicate things that are supposed to be simple? We get so caught up in our ideas that we lose sight of the point, whatever that may be.

Nyx does it. She weighs her thoughts on a scale like an alchemist, ticking off pros and cons, arguing one point against another. I think she would have made a stellar scholar. But her passion! It’s strong and highly unreasonable, jerking her this way and that by a storm of feelings. I can see it every time she looks at me. Conflict rages inside of her. The anger tenses her brow and darkens her eyes when her charity is scarce. But when she’s in a lighter mood? I see a strange bout of sympathy bubble up. It’s tiring, that hot and cold attitude. I’d almost prefer it be the anger alone if it meant I knew where I stood with her!

Oh, but listen to me complain! I’m sorry Jydel, I can probably guess what you’re thinking. “Complains about the drizzle, but hardly wants the storm. Typical woman!” I suppose I can just shut up and try to find the silver lining to this. Maybe Nyx can finally find it in her heart to forgive me? We’ll see. She left earlier today to search for Elmiryn. I don’t think she’ll be back for a few days. Maybe all she really needed was some time to herself.

Sometimes, I feel the same way.

At night, I think I hear Paulo outside of the barn, skulking. He’s such a self-conscious boy, Jydel. I think Quincy is aware of this, but Nyx isn’t. I can’t really blame her. It’s not as though Paulo makes it easy for anyone to feel sorry for him, but just imagine being stuck alone for a year in a cold, dark half world with monsters. Then the only company that finds you turns out to be group of judgmental women and a snarling dog.

Oh and by the way, your brother is dead. Cheers!

Don’t get me wrong. Paulo is still a git, but I can understand why he is one. Does that make sense?

Of course not. I suppose that’s what I can expect after living most of my life in a tower with a crazy woman. I end up feeling sorry for assholes. It’s like some weird cosmic joke.

If the universe thinks that is funny, it should see what I’m about to do next.

No. Nevermind. Tomorrow. I’ll tell you tomorrow, Jydel. My hand is starting to cramp up and I’m feeling anxious enough for a walk.

NYX__________________________

The Albian wilderness was no less treacherous now that winter was over. Despite the fact that the only snow could be found on higher altitudes, the daesce still lurked the mountains. I’d learned from Daedalus that Holzoff’s Tower had been indefinitely closed in light of Syria’s dramatic escape. That meant the food source the terrible daesce relied on was now gone. The population of monsters spread, sometimes in large herds, other times alone or in small packs, attacking and devouring whatever they could get their claws on. Families had been destroyed overnight. Travelers were attacked and left mutilated on the roads, hurting trade. This prompted the new leader of Belcliff to hire help in beating the beasts back, exterminating them where possible. Many of these people were bounty hunters waiting for their next real job. It was amazing the devastating effects, both in the community and personally, our group’s past actions had.

So traversing into the wilds, I was on guard at all times. There was no telling when a bounty hunter or a daesce could appear.

But with so much time to myself, I couldn’t help but brood.

Lethia’s words echoed in my head.

When you figure out what you want from me, tell me.

What do I want? I thought angrily. I want to stop hurting! I’m sick of feeling so much pain!

Kali chimed in on my private thoughts. It was her new favorite thing to do, apparently.

Perhaps instead of feeling sorry for yourself, you could just talk about it? she offered dryly.

I balked at this. What in the four winds are you talking about?

Oh you know. When you two-leggers open your mouths and sounds come out? TALKING, Nyx! Sweet Aelurus, I thought you’d be familiar with the concept by now? You do it all the time, after all!

But what would we talk about, I mean! I snapped back. Lethia knows what happened! She knows why I’m upset with her!

Oh, and I suppose you feel she understands everything you felt and thought given that moment?

Yes! She does! Quite literally, as a matter of fact since she– but I broke off, my feet slowing to a stop as I neared a slope that led into a small field between the hills I traveled through.

I was about to finish that thought with she was reading my mind the whole time but it occurred to me that in that moment Lethia hadn’t been in control. Izma had. Lethia’s decisions may have led to the situation, but did that mean she was present the entire time?

Kali, ever aware of my thoughts, said quietly, We once acted under the best intentions, and our family perished as a result. I don’t think Lethia meant for what happened any more than we meant for our family’s fate. That’s all I will say about that, sister.

My throat grew tight. I didn’t argue her point, but I didn’t dive too deeply into it either. I couldn’t afford this level of reflection if I wanted to stay safe and find Elmiryn before it was too late.

That thought firmly in mind, I forged onward.

LETHIA________________________

Dear Jydel,

Daedalus sat down to talk about the request I made of him the other day. You remember, right? I’ve kept it a secret from the others for a reason, but perhaps if they learned of my intentions, they would treat me differently.

After all, I couldn’t be suicidal if I intended to replace my arm.

And here’s the good news: Daedalus thinks he can do it!

He showed me some sketches and plans, then a few parts from his wagon that he thinks he can use. A lot of it, he says, will have to be custom made, and he’s missing some rare elements that would be necessary for the arm’s function, but he suspects he can find these things within the next few weeks! I was elated, I tell you!

Daedalus may make a living as a jeweler, but he’s always been a tinkerer at heart. I’m sure you can probably see up there in heaven, Jydel, but the elf’s work is amazing! His automated guard statues aren’t even his best work. Apparently, he’s been constructing a ship in his spare time too. He keeps it hidden, for you see, it’s not just any ship, it’s

[The ink trails off and smears]

[The writing continues at the bottom of the page, but in a shakier hand]

Jydel he’s awake gods I didn’t think it was possible but Hakeem is AWAKE!

NYX__________________________

The days came and went. I was losing myself in the Albian wilds, gradually returning to that almost feral way of life I had adopted before I’d met Elmiryn. It was nighttime. Kali hovered close to the surface, peering out of my eyes as we sat hunched in the dark in the shadow of a broad and fragrant blue juniper tree. We were downwind, and I was hoping the strong tree smell would mask our scent from the daesce that had wandered across our path. It wasn’t the largest I’d seen, but it was still big enough to make me pause. Its clawed paws dragged along the dirt as it lumbered along, head bowed, red eyes glaring at nothing. This one was skinny–its mangy white coat thinned enough in places that I could see its dark skin. I sighed. If this beast didn’t leave the area soon, I’d either have to turn around or fight it. I didn’t like either option.

The best part? I was just three days away from the full moon. All I could feel was the primal aggression burning in my limbs, urging me to run. It was part of the reason I had trouble resisting Kali’s will.

Fight it! Scare it off! she snapped at me.

No! I fired back. I don’t need to stir up trouble! Besides, engaging this one might attract others!

What’s the matter with you? You’re a champion of heaven and you’ve fought things twice this size! Just kill it and let’s be on our way!

I clenched my fists and bowed my head as I tried to reign in my frustration. Kali, enough! You know it’s not your turn! If you promise to behave I’ll…I’ll let you have full control for seven days!

That got her attention. I could feel her perk up like I’d just offered her a treat. A full week? You promise?

My heart skipped. What a fool! Just what had I offered without thinking?

In what I hoped felt nonchalant, I replied, Not a full week. Seven days. We’ll switch off.

Kali growled. You’re backpedaling!

I never said a full week!

It’s fucking semantics and you know it!

Regardless, this is the best you’ll get right now! I can’t have you running off and ruining the things I’m working for.

Why can’t you trust anyone? Kali asked, hurt clear in her words.

I faltered. I…I DO trust people! But things are delicate right now, and we both know you have no desire to take charge on those matters. At her sullen reticence, I added imploringly, Oh, sister please don’t be upset with me! I’ve already got enough on my plate, I don’t need to have you resenting me on top of it all!

I could feel her sink away from me, deeper into her realm. My gut clenched. Since we had more or less reconciled our differences, having Kali on my side had been a tremendous relief. I’m not sure I could have gotten through those last days in the Other Place had we still been at odds. But if she decided to quarrel with me again….

When Kali returned to the surface, I tensed in anticipation.

Fine. We’ll switch off for seven days, she grumbled. BUT I want to be able to walk upright.

I faltered at this. She wanted to assume the sapien form? I thought she hated it? Kali, I know we did that in the half-dimension, but what if it doesn’t work here? We’re fully in the realms of the gods once more, so there are more limits!

If I’m not really our animal nature manifested, then that should mean I can exist in the world as you do! Haven’t I done it before?

She had a point. Sort of. My sneaky sister was failing to mention that the only reason she had been able to assume my form in our world was because Meznik’s evil influence had allowed her to.

Still, I mulled over this.

After several moments, I replied, If you can do it, and Lacertli does not object, then I suppose it isn’t a problem…. I didn’t know if Kali purposefully taking control of my sapien form would somehow be an affront to Harmony. That was the tricky thing about being an abomination of nature. When your very existence was wrong, what could you do that was permissible in the first place? I was a champion of heaven–did that give us some kind of temporary pardon?

Thinking of the Lizard King made me anxious all over again. It had been almost a week and I still hadn’t heard from him. Just what did Fortuna ask him to do, and was he all right?

Are you worrying about a god? Kali snapped, annoyed. She was so much more irritable these days, it was exhausting. Focus! We’re still talking!

My expression turned contrite. Sorry…

Just at that moment, I heard a twig snap. Kali fell silent as I went stiff, eyes raising once more. Our inward exchanges were fast–taking mere seconds what would ordinarily take longer to say aloud. But even that discussion had been lengthy. I couldn’t see the daesce anymore. Was it really gone? There were lots of things lurking hidden in the Albian wilds. Many of these creatures were completely harmless. But if our inattentiveness had allowed a beast to get the jump on us….

I breathed in deep.

I could sense the damp soil, the juniper trees, the frost that clung to the rocks. The stench of the daesce was like an ugly streak in the air, making my nose wrinkle. I couldn’t hear the beast anymore, and the smell hadn’t grown any stronger. Perhaps it really had moved on?

I crept out of the shadows, cautiously straightening.

That’s when the daesce hit me from behind, screeching wildly. My face went into the dirt when it grabbed the back of my head and tried to crush my skull. My hands clawed at the ground in a panic as I tried to get the leverage needed to throw the monster off of me.

Rage built up, burning my muscles, slicing my lungs as desperate breaths cut up my throat in sharp whines. I loathed these creatures with every fiber of my being. Loathed their violence. Loathed their hedonism. Loathed our similarities.

With a roar I grabbed its supporting arm and wrenched, twisting my whole body. Without anything to bear its weight, it rolled with me, leaving us in a tangled mess, but at least it wasn’t on top of me anymore. With a few sharp elbow strikes and wild punches, I found myself scrabbling to my knees and leaping on the monster’s head. It’s rancid fangs bit down onto my hand when I tried to grab it under its chin. I screamed, but simply took hold of its entire lower jaw, my other hand firmly gripping the matted fur on the back of its head. With a sharp wrench, I snapped the thing’s neck, and it collapsed to the ground, dead.

Rolling away from the twitching body, I lay there, catching my breath. My peace was short lived.

Nearby, I could hear more daesce coming. It was by no means a herd–from the whoops and screeches, it sounded like two or three at most–but I had no idea how strong they were, and if this one was any indication, I didn’t want to be caught out-numbered, godly champion or no. Cursing, I fled in the opposite direction of the beasts, deeper into the thick underbrush and low broad trees.

Try as I might, the daesce were closing in. I could hear them crashing through behind me, trampling over everything in wild abandon.

In my desperation, I made the mistake of looking over my shoulder as I ran. That led me to charging straight over a low cliff. I wheeled my arms as I fell through the air, a shout ripping out of my mouth before I crashed and tumbled, head over heels, down the sandy slope to the hard earth down below.

Ye gods!

I stared up at the sky, pain assailing my entire body, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of deja vu at the situation.

Get up! What are you doing reminiscing for? They’re coming! Kali roared.

I jerked back up, my eyes wide. She was right. Sliding down the cliff’s steep slope was one of the daesce, a short but muscular brute that looked ready to eat my face. His companion soon appeared, leaping off the cliff with a wild hoot and a slavering mouth. He hit the ground hard, the vibration moving up my feet, and straightened with an almost knowing grin. He was taller, with unusually long arms and a misshapen face.

I backed away from them, and if I had been in my feline form, my hackles would have been raised. The two daesce circled me slowly, their red eyes taking in my petite form. I wondered at their hesitance. This wasn’t normal behavior for the monsters at all. They were ‘attack first, think never’ type creatures. But these two? They were assessing me, their eyes holding an intelligence that shouldn’t have been there.

Kali didn’t like it either. She didn’t say anything, but I suddenly felt the urge to growl deep within my throat.

I could kill these daesce with my vermagus abilities…but wouldn’t that just attract more? I didn’t have time to fight these beasts endlessly.

That’s when a third figure burst over the cliff, landing just behind the two daesce.

I froze, my eyes widening. “E-Elle?”

Continue ReadingChapter 44.3

Chapter 44.4

NYX____________________________

Elmiryn rose, her cerulean eyes piercing into mine. She was mostly-naked and barefoot, lacking pants and even her chest wraps. Her sword belt was gone, but gripped tight in her hands were her captain’s sword and Graziano’s pistol. Her hair was loose about her shoulders and filthy, dirt and leaves clumping the red locks so that they looked like matted tendrils.

That wasn’t even the worst of it. Most disturbing of all was the fact that Elmiryn stared at me as if she had no idea who, or what, I was.

Without taking her eyes off me, she growled hoarsely, “Grab it.”

The two daesce moved toward me, grabbing my arms and forcing me down into a kneel. I was too stunned by this to even fight back.

She’s controlling them? But how?

Elmiryn slinked toward me, her eyes flashing with a predatory edge that made my hairs stand on end. I could see her grip on her sword tighten.

Finally, I found my voice, “Elmiryn! I-It’s me!

She stopped cold. Her eyes narrowed, but she didn’t say anything. I could see the indecision darken her face like a storm cloud.

“Elle, it’s Nyx!” I said more firmly. “I’ve traveled with you for months now! Listen to my voice! You know who I am!” It was just as I feared. Elmiryn’s transformation into becoming a fae had progressed to the point that her ability to function in our world had been severely damaged. There was no telling how much she could even process now. Were her senses completely compromised? Had she lost all of her memories? I could only hope that her auditory memory still held.

Long tense moments passed as Elmiryn searched my face, the distress growing increasingly evident as the seconds ticked by. Finally, she barked at the daesce, “Let her go!”

They did so, but reluctantly.

I didn’t rise from my kneeling position. I didn’t entirely trust my legs to work. I stared at the daesce and whispered, “Elmiryn, what have you done? Did you…did you alter them?”

She crouched next to me, her eyes hungrily taking me in. Sweet Aelurus, the woman reeked.

After a long time, she whispered, “Yes.”

“But why?” I blurted, locking my wide eyes on her. “They are monsters! How could you–?” but I broke off when Elmiryn suddenly pulled me to her body. Startled, I started to hug her, but then I realized that hadn’t been her intention. She was fighting to open my backpack.

“Where is it?” she asked gruffly. “The drink! I can smell the drink!

I craned my neck, awkwardly pointing over my shoulder. “I-It’s there–!”

When Elmiryn found her prize, she pulled away from me and stood, ripping the cork off the wine bottle and tipping its contents down her throat. She drank without stopping until the bottle was drained, dropping it on the ground and belching loudly with a look of relief on her face. I just stared at her, agog.

This hadn’t quite been the reunion I’d imagined.

Wiping at her mouth, the wild mania that had haunted the woman’s gaze gradually slipped away, and she sat roughly on the ground in front of me. Her daesce companions wandered off, out of sight. They were clearly bored.
When Elmiryn looked at me, I could already see the effects of the wine taking hold, but in an odd way, she looked so much more composed.

Her head was turned to the side, her hair curtaining half her face. This was one of the few times I’d ever seen shame in the warrior, and it made my heart ache.

“Nyx,” she murmured, looking at me obliquely. “I…” she trailed off and lowered her gaze.

I didn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. I’m sorry? How are you feeling? Does preserving your human side mean anything to you anymore?

When she looked up again, she gestured vaguely in the direction the daesce had wandered off to. “They aren’t important to me, if that’s what you’re thinking. They aren’t pets. I don’t even have full control of them! I just…I needed something to guide me through the land while I was here. The only thing I could manipulate were them.” Her voice sounded rough, and I wondered if it was from lack of use, or because she was feeling upset.

“Because they’re abominations, Elmiryn,” I said harshly. “The daesce are outside of Harmony! Doing things that are not in our natural right, like giving things that are not ours to give, is exactly the kind of behavior that got the Spider of the West into trouble! It’s hubris.

She had the good sense to wince before glaring at me. “I wasn’t trying to flout the gods, all right? I was just trying to survive!”

I deflated, covering my face with my hands. “I know,” I mumbled into my palms. “But I’m scared for you!” I peeked at her over my fingers. “I’m still glad you’re safe.”

She smiled at me humorlessly. “In a manner of speaking.”

“When did you return? What’s it been like?”

Elmiryn sighed heavily. When her silence stretched on, I was about to tell her she didn’t need to tell me anything when she started to speak. I could already hear the lisp entering into her words as the wine started to take effect. Likewise, I could hear the woman fighting it, speaking slowly and carefully, struggling to remain coherent long enough to tell her tale to me.

“I think it’s been a little under a week. I dunno. The days smeared together for me.” The redhead set aside her weapons and drew her knees up into a hug. Her eyes glazed over. “I couldn’t see. When I stumbled out of the portal back to our world, everything just assaulted my senses. I’ve been to another realm, one that wasn’t mine, so…so I know what it feels like to be rejected by the environment. That feeling, Nyx? Of sensing things that I wasn’t supposed to know or understand?” She touched her chest emphatically as she swallowed hard. “I felt that here. I didn’t expect that. I’d been hoping coming home wouldn’t…wouldn’t be quite so bad. The daesce were my way to break through that. Through them, I could sense the world again.

“And before you ask: no. I didn’t make them more intelligent so that they wouldn’t attack me. They ignored me, actually. Just about everything out here ignores me. I can walk right up to a bird and it won’t know I’m there till I touch it. It made hunting easy. Too easy. But once I created a link between the daesce and I, and once I gave them awareness, I could sense the world so much better. Nothing hurts anymore. The wrongness was still there, though. Is still there.” Her voice tightened and I could see her staring around us as if the wilderness itself was preparing to attack her. “I don’t know how to put it into words, Nyx. Everything is just…wrong. I don’t even know when I’m hallucinating anymore. Before I could at least guess that I was, but now it’s like the rest of the world is crazy! Not me! The world has it wrong!”

I listened to her intently, feeling both sad and alarmed at the same time. Before we had been transported to the Other Place, Elmiryn had hallucinated quite badly. Now she was saying it was worse? And the only way she could tell was because she was processing the sensory information the daesce were giving her?

To borrow a phrase from her: That was incredibly fucked up.

“Where are the others?” Elmiryn asked, staring at her knees.

I cleared my throat and shrugged. “They’re safe. We’re all staying at Syria’s tower. It’s been abandoned so we’re hiding there until we can move on.” Then I remembered Paulo and added, “Oh! And Paulo is alive. We found him before we left.”

“Thas’ good,” she said without enthusiasm. “I can finally give ‘im his brother’s gun, then.” Then Elmiryn cleared her throat and asked, “I don’ suppose Hakeem made it out with you all?”

I blinked. “Hakeem? Yes, he’s with us.” Then I added with a grumble, “Mind you, he was unconscious the whole time. It wasn’t easy dragging him all that way.”

Now Elmiryn was frowning. “He still hasn’ woken up?”

I shook my head solemnly. “I’m afraid not.”

“Ah….”

I stood and crossed my arms. “Elmiryn, we’ve got to destroy your familiars.”

She made a face. “Don’t call ’em that!”

“What does it matter what I call them? They can’t exist anymore!”

“Are ya under Lacertli’s command or somethin? They’re still jes’ dumb beasts! What harm are they gonna do?”

“I thought you said they weren’t important to you?” I snapped. “And for your information, I don’t need Lacertli to tell me that their existence is wrong! The daesce weren’t meant to be that intelligent! Imagine if they breed and suddenly all the daesce became that way? It’d be utter chaos!”

Elmiryn rolled her eyes and rose up from the ground. “All right, all right! I’ll take care o’ them now–” she raised an arm, as if preparing to do some strange trick, but I quickly grabbed it and wrenched it back down.

“Don’t!” I hissed. “Your fae powers were what got you into this in the first place! We’ll dispatch them the normal way.”

The woman scoffed. “The ‘normal’ way! As if yer champion powers aren’ weird enough….”

With a shake of my head, I pointed at the ground. “Wait here! I’ll take care of this. Then afterwards, we’ll find a creek or a pond to clean you up in!”

Elmiryn pouted but sat back down.

With a deep breath, I reigned in my frustration and set of after the daesce. They weren’t that hard to follow. From where we had been, I could see their trail clearly in the moonlight, even when they had pierced into the thicket.

As it turned out, they hadn’t gone far. The two monsters were squat down on the ground, their backs to me. They were eating a mountain fox they’d caught, its blood and insides just a dark mess over the grassy dirt. I hadn’t even heard the fox cry out. No sounds of struggle, either. Given their distance, I should have. Were these two so deadly now that they could catch such quick and wily prey as they had without any effort?

They must’ve smelled my scent on the wind, for they both looked in unison over their shoulders at me. My look must have given me away. I should have known. Elmiryn had made these monsters smarter, I should’ve snuck up on them. Their lips peeled back and their hackles rose.

All I could do was deal with the choice I had made. Taking a breath, I let my champion sense expand, feeling the shadows around us. In the Other Place, most times the darkness had been fluid and easy to reach. Here, in our realm, however, they were hard, solid, and distant. I hadn’t attempted to manipulate the shadows since our return, so I hadn’t expected my attainment of control to take so long.

The daesce didn’t even hesitate to strike.

With sharp roaring screams, they charged me. I braced, grim determination on my face. It looked like I was going to have to fight them the old fashioned way–

Then their heads jerked to the side with an audible snap, and they crashed into the dirt, sliding up to my feet. Both were dead. Judging by the funny angle of their heads, the cause were broken necks.

Stunned, I stared down at them.

That’s when I heard Elmiryn approaching from behind me. “Yeeeah…” she sighed. “I figured I coulda let ya do it, but then I’d be sittin’ there for ages twiddlin’ my thumbs. This way’s faster.”

I turned and glared at her.

And we’re supposed to keep this one from violating Harmony? Oh this ought to be fun… Kali grumbled.

ELMIRYN________________________

Nyx was mad at her. Elmiryn could tell as much, despite her inebriation.

Still, the question tumbled from her mouth, because she wanted to hear the girl say it, just to know it was real.

“Are ya mad at me?”

Yes.

“Oh.”

Was she supposed to be sorry? The question came without malice, a simple thing a young child might ask. Is this the appropriate response? She felt buoyed on that heavy, unstable feeling. The wine went straight to her head. It had been so long since she’d had a proper drink. Elmiryn had almost told Nyx, but refrained out of shame, that she had gotten by so long because she’d been eating rotten fruit. Mostly grapes and sour cherries. The fermented juice never sated her thirst, but it did keep the shakiness from her hands. She could just imagine the look of revulsion on Nyx’s face should she impart this one detail of her time lost in the Albian wilds. Perhaps she could tell Nyx still, despite the pity this might lead to. It would make her feel horrible, like a weaker being, like her father even, but at least…

At least it wouldn’t be the look of horror that Nyx would no doubt show should Elmiryn reveal what she was like before she’d figured out to eat the rotten fruit.

But this! It had felt like ages since Elmiryn had felt so good. She wanted to laugh again, and she couldn’t even remember the last time she laughed. It was interesting how something so simple could so define a person. It seemed the warrior had based a great deal of her approach to life on laughter, made it a core part of who she was, and then just like that, the sound was gone, taking with it a healthy chunk of her identity. What was she without the jokes and the giggles to mask everything?

But these were sobering thoughts, and Elmiryn didn’t care much for becoming sober yet.

Nyx led Elmiryn to a mountain spring she had found, then ordered her curtly to strip.

The redheadknew it wasn’t the time for a joke, knew it was perhaps her just dodging the real issue, but she just wanted a reason to hear Nyx laugh so bad (because, let’s face it, Elmiryn could laugh right now without a reason, but then she’d look insane)–

“Nyx, have ya ever had sex while campin’?” the redhead managed to snigger.

The Ailuran paused at the water bank to stare at her. “Huh?”

Elmiryn couldn’t hold it in. She was already leaning on her knees and giggling hard. “It’s ‘in tents!’ Get it?”

Nyx didn’t say anything. She only watched as the older woman collapsed onto her knees, lost in her intense amusement.

“In tents!” she sputtered. After a time, she realized Nyx was still quiet and pushed herself up with her hands. “Do ya get it, Nyx? ‘In tents’? Intense?

“I got it, Elmiryn,” Nyx said flatly.

The warrior’s laughter died swiftly. The girl wasn’t laughing. Not only that, but her voice sounded hard. Cold, even.

“Nyx are…are ya that mad about what I did?” Elmiryn asked with a mild frown.

The girl only shook her head. “We’ll deal with things in time, Elmiryn,” the Ailuran sighed. “Right now, my only concern is cleaning you up and making sure you’re all right!”

The redhead’s frown deepened, but she proceeded to strip naked just the same. The connection she had made through the daesce hadn’t severed her connection to the world, as she had feared, but their utterly primal minds were of no use in processing complex sapien expression anyway. Elmiryn wished desperately that she could understand the look on her friend’s face. Depending on auditory clues alone didn’t help much when the other party was so reticent.

Nyx also undressed, but not all the way, much to the warrior’s disappointment. She guided Elmiryn into the frigid water, silent as the woman shivered and leaned on her. Gripped in her hand was a large bunch of dried moss to act as a scrub.

“All right, Elle. Dunk,” Nyx ordered primly.

Elmiryn stared at her, horrified. “Dunk?”

“Yes! Up to your head, please.”

“But it’s freezing!”

“Oh don’t be a child! It’ll be no better if I splash you! Just dunk into the water, and then we can be done with this faster.”

“Fine,” Elmiryn groused, before letting herself slip down into the water.

Her body seized up as the water reached up over her head, and for a frightening moment, as she looked up and saw the moonlight filtering in through the billowing air bubbles, she thought she could see claws appearing overhead to keep her below the surface…

Elmiryn burst back up, whipping her head back and flailing.

Nyx, alarmed, yelled and grabbed the woman from behind. When this didn’t calm her, the Ailuran dragged them back to the water bank, allowing the Fiamman to lay on the mud and catch her breath.

“Claws,” she gasped. “Halward! He’s angry! I made ‘im angry!”

“Elmiryn, shh! I’m here!”

The woman felt the girl’s hand on her shoulder as she lay on her side, and she clutched at it, staring at the shifting treeline as wolfish silver gaze pierced at her from the dark.

“Nyx,” Elmiryn breathed shakily. “Stay with me.”

“I’ve already promised you that I would.”

“No, I mean–right now. Just stay close.”

Nyx’s hand shifted from her shoulder to plant itself on the mud as the girl leaned over her to peer at the treeline as she did. “Do you…see something?”

That pause. As if whatever it was that Elmiryn was perceiving was automatically suspect. The woman closed her eyes.

It’s just in my head. Artemis can’t appear on the mortal plane without affecting the environment. It’s the entire reason the gods handpicked champions, wasn’t it? To act as their agents on the living world?

When she opened her eyes again, the silver gaze was gone.

“It was nothin’,” Elmiryn breathed. “Forget I said anythin’.”

Nyx brushed back a lock of the woman’s hair, making her turn her head to look up at the girl. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Elmiryn relaxed further. There. That warm golden sound in the girl’s voice, the one that made the warrior feel at peace, was finally leaking through. But…it wasn’t as clear as it had been before. It was like it was struggling to get through something large and thick.

The warrior reached a hand up to touch the girl’s face. “I’m fine.”

Nyx helped her up, and together they returned to the water, where the Ailuran scrubbed away the dirt and grime. She tsked over the woman’s hair, pulling out the leaves and undoing what knots that she could. Ultimately Elmiryn’s nest-like head was going to have to wait for a brush to be truly returned to normal. The woman was fine with this. She didn’t expect to come out of the spring looking like polished royalty. Thankfully, neither did Nyx. Still, it was a definite improvement from before. As she was, the redhead smelled no better or worse than what they usually had when they were constantly on the road.

Nyx nodded with satisfaction as she pulled out yet another knot. They sat on the rocky shore, Elmiryn still drying out, naked between the girl’s legs. If there was one thing that the woman had been surprised by, it was how relaxed Nyx was. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the woman had stank worse than a pig sty, but the Ailuran hadn’t so much as batted an eyelash when the warrior stripped naked. Was her companion just getting more comfortable with her?

Or was it perhaps that she was losing interest?

“Nyx?” Elmiryn said before she even knew what she was doing.

“Hmm?”

“Have ya… Did ya think about me while I was away?”

Elmiryn felt a light touch at her jaw before Nyx turned her head to better see her. The Ailuran kissed her cheek before whispering into her ear. “Since you left, all I ever did was think about you.”

The redhead pouted. She didn’t miss the note of rejection in Nyx’s words. “I didn’ leave cos’ I wanted to, Nyx. I left because I had to!”

Nyx nodded, her nose brushing Elmiryn’s ear. “I know. I wasn’t trying to accuse you.”

“You mean it?”

A pause. “Yes.”

No.

“What can I do?” Elmiryn murmured, closing her eyes. “Tell me what it is that I can do to make you feel better about it all!”

Nyx pulled away, standing abruptly. “Again with the telling!” she snapped. “Why does everyone want me to spell things out for them! What if I don’t have the answers either? What if don’t know what I want?”

Elmiryn turned to sit on her feet, bewildered. “Um. Come again?”

“Do you assume that just because I know all these useless big words that I am somehow better at commuicating than you are?”

“No?”

“Well…then…you’d be correct! Because I’m not better at speaking than you are! And sometimes, even if I know what it is that’s bothering me, what if I’m not ready to talk about it?” Nyx pointed accusingly at the redhead. “How ready were you when you told me you were wanted for black magic by the Fiamman kingdom?”

Elmiryn shrugged, still nonplussed. “I didn’t care?”

“Oh that is bullshit!

“Nyx what point are you trying to make? I don’t understand why you feel so threatened all of a sudden!”

Nyx stomped her foot and yelled. “I don’t feel threatened! I feel angry! There’s a fucking difference!”

Elmiryn threw her hands up into the air, feeling her own ire rise. “Wonderful! So you’re angry! That still doesn’t fucking give me a reason why!” She pointed at herself. “That night I had to tell you about the bounty on my head? I felt horrible! If I had told you what my situation was instead of just keeping it to myself like an idiot, then you might’ve been better prepared for when we had first been attacked! Except I hadn’t done that, so I just…I dunno…dealt with it! It wasn’t as if I could keep ignoring the issue!”

The Ailuran glared at her as she shrugged into her gambeson. “I’m sorry, Elmiryn. Just…let’s just get going. With all the daesce and bounty hunters around, we’d be better off traveling until sunrise.”

The warrior leveled a hard stare at the girl. Did she really think after all that they could just cut so short? Nyx paused to glance nervously at her.

“Elmiryn? Please? I just want to go back!” the girl pleaded.

Slowly, Elmiryn nodded, feeling a large pit form in her stomach. “All right. Let’s get going then.”

Nyx is afraid to talk to me…I can hear it in her voice! But why? What could I have possibly done to make her feel that way?

Continue ReadingChapter 44.4

Chapter 44.5

NYX____________________________

I was worried. Elmiryn was essentially naked, left unprotected from the weather. She said the cold didn’t affect her. Mind you, it was the summer season, but up in the mountains, nighttime could still carry with it a bit of a chill. I insisted we head to Belcliff so that I could sneak into town and buy her something suitable, but the woman just waved me off.

“It’s just one of those things that don’t bother me anymore, Nyx,” she said with a shrug.

Just like that, as if the environment didn’t matter. Then came the proof. I didn’t so much as see her shiver. Even as we found ourselves in the glare of the suns for much of a day’s travel, she didn’t even get sunburn. It was one of the numerous unsettling changes that I’d observed in Elmiryn. Hunting was a cruel joke now. Birds and small animals didn’t seem to notice when the redhead walked right up to them to kill them for dinner. By the second night, I’d also realized the woman didn’t sleep. I woke up three separate times to find her sitting there awake and alert, and each time the moon in the sky had moved significantly from its last position. But she didn’t betray any sign of exhaustion. Not physically anyway. Mentally, I could see the woman was haggard. Since cutting off her tether with the daesce, her ability to process her surroundings deteriorated. Just about the only thing she reacted to with any sort of normalcy was in conversation.

Since that was the case, I figured I should keep talking to her. I avoided talking about my experiences in Izma’s mind game, and even about the time I spent with the others at Holzoff’s. It was just stalling the inevitable. I’d have to tell Elmiryn eventually. She even gave me looks that said, I know what you’re doing. You aren’t fooling me, but for some reason she never called me out. I was thankful for the space. Instead I related personal stories from my childhood, as well as folktales I had read. It wasn’t until our last day of travel that I told Elmiryn about how I made it back to our world.

“So the tree that had been at Syria’s was demonic…” she mused after I’d finished explaining how I’d fought the cursed linden tree at Syria’s tower.

“Yes.”

“Do you think all the trees the demons planted behave the same? Quincy and Lethia were watching the whole thing, right? Did they observe anything useful while you fought the tree?”

I frowned. That was a good question. “I…don’t know!”

Elmiryn stared at me. “No one stopped to ask?”

“We were a bit disoriented, thank you very much!” She held up her hands, a look of suffering on her face. I winced. I might have let my vermagus power slip a bit there, and the redhead had already proven quite sensitive to it. “Sorry,” I mumbled.

“I’m just surprised, Nyx,” she stated. “Quincy and Lethia both are the types to stop and solve a puzzle just because someone put it in front of them. It’s like catnip for academics. ‘Where? Why? How?’ But what you’re saying sounds a bit out of character for them!”

“I really mean it when I say we were out of sorts, Elle. Things were…different. They still are.”

“How so?” She batted her eyes at me, bemused at my grave expression.

“Elmiryn, I think— Well, Quincy and I both believe that the astral demons must have done something to us.” I looked at her nervously. “I think they might have altered us.”

The words took a few seconds to sink in. Elmiryn’s steps slowed and her stare turned large and unblinking. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” she breathed tremulously.

I shrugged helplessly. “If what you think I’m saying is that we’re cursed, no! That’s not what I’m saying. The truth of the matter is that Quincy and I only suspect that the demons have done something to us. It may not be so bad as a curse. Maybe they just made it so that we could see them without us going insane.”

“But why would they do that?” she asked heatedly.

“I have no idea!”

“They might have turned you and the others into tools,” Elmiryn hissed, her eyes ticking back and forth furiously.

I squinted my eyes. “Pardon?”

She looked at me, a ravenous look in her gaze that made me take an involuntary step back. The warrior still looked very much like a wild woman. “When I escaped Meznik, I made an accidental detour through another world. In this other place, I spoke to two women, our speculums, and—”

“Speculums?”

Elmiryn took a deep breath through her nose as if she had to reign in her patience at my interruption and I crossed my arms, for once feeling unapologetic. “Elmiryn, you’re going to have to explain if you want me to follow along!”

So she did. She told me about Molly and Julie, our ‘speculums’ from another neighboring universe, and she also told me what secrets they had shared with her. Apparently, Meznik and Izma weren’t just a menace in our world, but across all universes. It all made me dizzy. I was still having trouble comprehending the demons as a danger in our world, let alone that there were more than one they wreaked havoc in.

“So you believe that the demons are trying to make us into tools to use against each other?” I asked slowly.

Elmiryn nodded her head eagerly and resumed walking. I hurried after her. “Yes! It might also explain why you and the others were all bickering with each other so badly.”

“Elle, I think that had more to do with the fact that we just don’t like each other.”

She didn’t respond to that, and I sighed. Perhaps I needed to finally apprise her of the thorny developments that had arisen with our strange group.

“Elmiryn, the situation with the others is…complicated, to say the least,” I said wearily. “I just want to prepare you for what you’re about to see.”

She raised an eyebrow. “And what am I about to see, Nyx?”

I took a deep breath before starting. “Hakeem is a withered husk. I’m not sure how Quincy has managed to keep him alive for so long, but she has. I suppose I’ve grown used to it, having seen it happen before my eyes, but it might be startling for you, to see him like that when your last memory of him is completely different.”

“You’re forgetting that my memory doesn’t work that way anymore,” Elmiryn reminded me gently.

A hand flew to my mouth as my cheeks reddened. “Oh! Of course! I’m sorry, Elle,”

“No, no. Don’t worry about it. Just go on. What else should I ‘brace’ myself for?” And she said it just that way too, emphasizing ‘brace’ as if she could conjure quotation marks into the air by her will alone.

Oh, she had no idea what we had been up to! But I wanted to let her down gently.

“Well, Paulo, as I’ve said before, is older. He’s still an insensitive hooligan, but now on top of that, we’ve learned he’s an untrained enchanter.”

“Oh!” the woman cried with a sarcastic grin. “Well isn’t that lovely!”

I nodded grimly. “I think Quincy has helped Paulo learn some basic techniques she had encountered in Crysen. They’re supposed to help him reign in his abilities, and protect his mind from the residual spirit energy surrounding the tower.”

“And how long will that last him?”

“Quincy says we need to find an enchanting master to train Paulo within the next two months, or the boy is at risk of either going insane, dying of brain fever, or turning all our brains to mush.”

“Marvelous. Anything else about our ragtag adventuring company?”

“Lethia, she—” My voice broke off, and I just stared ahead, blank faced. How do you break this sort of news to someone? It seemed Elmiryn wasn’t the only one who needed to approach this announcement gently. Trying to say it aloud brought back that bloody night in full detail, and with it, all the strong and conflicted emotions that threatened to undo me. And if I felt this way, how would the redhead feel? Before Elmiryn left with Meznik, I had sensed a kind of connection between her and the journeyman enchantress that hadn’t been there before. Would she be terribly upset, or would it slide off of her like rainwater down a blade?

“Nyx, what happened with Lethia?” she asked. “What happened?”

I cursed under my breath. Sweet Aelurus, I wish I didn’t have to do this!

“Elle,” I started quietly. “Lethia cut off her left arm.”

Whereas before Elmiryn had come to a gradual stop, now she just stopped altogether, her face going slack. “She what?

“Her left arm is gone.”

“She lost her fucking arm?

“Just above the elbow. She…she cut it an angle, so we were able to pull the skin closed over the wound—”

“Who did it?” she barked, advancing on me. Her expression had turned sharp and heated. “Who did that to her?”

I retreated from her, alarmed. “I—I just—I just said it! Lethia cut off her arm! She did it to herself!”

She glared. “That can’t be true! Why would someone do something like that? How? A person has to train hard and have the right weapon to cut off a limb in one go! And with one arm no less! What did she use, anyway? I seriously doubt you had a weighted and sharpened weapon just lying around!”

I felt ill when I whispered, “She didn’t do it one go. It took three tries.”

Elmiryn reeled. Burying both hands into her hair. She walked a slow, sloppy circle. When she stopped, her entire body seemed to clench and she turned a violent red. “That’s impossible!” she spat.

Now I started to get heated. “Are you calling me a liar?”

The anger in my voice seemed enough to get the woman to calm down a little. She still paced in front of me, her fists clenched. “No! No. Of course not, Nyx. I just can’t believe… No, I refuse to believe… I mean, why would someone do that? And again, how?

I threw my hands up in exasperation. “Those are the same things we asked!”

“But Lethia is alive, right? I mean, you’ve been talking to me this whole time like Lethia was still alive when you left. Right?

I rubbed at my face, feeling exhausted. “Yes, Elle. Lethia is alive. Aside from intense pain from her wound, she was perfectly fine. In fact, she was doing bicep curls with a water bucket last I spoke to her!”

The warrior’s jaw dropped. “Bicep curls?”

I just nodded mutely.

She shook her head and started marching at a faster clip. Cresting over a hill, Syria’s tower started to rise in the distance.

I barely heard Elmiryn mutter as I fought to keep up with her long strides, “I’ve got to see this for myself!”

——

The first thing Elmiryn did when we entered the tower grounds was ask where Lethia was. When I told her, she took off, running toward the barn.

“W-Wait!” I sputtered at her retreating back. “You still don’t have any clothes!

She didn’t so much as pause at this. Resigned, I sprinted after her.

When I caught up, it was to find the two women halted inside, as if in suspension. Lethia was lying in her barnstall-turned-bedroom. Elmiryn stared at her as if she were someone she had completely and utterly been unexpected to see. Then it struck me that perhaps the warrior didn’t recognize the girl. She hadn’t recognized me, after all, and I’d traveled with her longest out of our group. Why would this be any different?

Lethia seemed equally bemused by the sight of the warrior. Her lack of clothing didn’t appear to fluster her, though. This was just another strange thing to me, until I also remembered that while the young enchantress no longer had the curse that led her to sapping other people’s memories, she still had the unfortunate condition of being absent-minded.

I was about to jump in and re-introduce the two of them when Lethia recovered from whatever spell she had been under.

“Elmiryn! Welcome back! That is—it is you, isn’t it?” She let loose a nervous laugh and struggled to her feet. Since she only had one arm to balance herself, this looked much harder. I didn’t quite get what a blessing it was to have both arms until then. Brushing straw from her hair, Lethia forced a smile. “Ah, of course it is. What am I saying? I suppose I must look pretty grotesque to you. I trust Nyx explained things?” She glanced at me, and I shrugged, not making eye contact. I wasn’t feeling particularly angry toward her, but just…awkward. Like I was the fool walking back into a room after attempting some grand exit in the wrong direction. Guilt might have been a part of it, too. Maybe.

At Elmiryn’s lengthening silence, I could see Lethia’s false cheer wither and fall away. “Elmiryn, it’s Lethia,” she murmured. Then she sighed roughly and squeezed her eyes shut. “Lethy.

My eyebrows rose. Lethy? A nasty, tight feeling appeared in my chest.

Even after that helpful prod, the Fiamman did not move. Did not speak. It was like she was hoping she was hallucinating. Hoping that it was just her mind playing tricks on her. But when the warrior dropped her eyes, she knew. I knew she knew, because her eyes teared up and her jaw clenched. This might sound odd, but seeing my companion so emotionally turned around by Lethia’s dramatic injury made me feel a little better about myself. Elmiryn looked sad, and horrified, but I could see she was angry too. The dichotomy of her actions was almost a literal translation of what I’d felt the night Lethia had mutilated herself.

The warrior stomped up to the enchantress, her face now red, her eyes blazing, her breath coming hard through her flared nostrils—then she hugged the girl, gently about the shoulders, her eyes squeezing shut to allow two fat tears to stream down her face. Lethia took this without resistance, her face going blank, and her arms still at her sides.

When the woman pulled away to hold her at arms length, I could see her grip dig into the girl’s shoulders.

“You fucking idiot!” Elmiryn spat. She even shook the girl a little, eliciting a light wince from the enchantress.

That was when Lethia shrugged the woman off, her expression hardening. “Don’t tell me you’re like the others! I thought you, of all people, would understand!”

Elmiryn sucked at her teeth sharply, turning to lean on a stall partition. When she looked at the blonde sidelong, it was with a weary expression. “No. I get why you did it. But there are other ways now. No one lives by those old laws anymore!”

“Old laws?” I asked, frowning.

The two women looked at me, as if just remembering I was there. The nasty feeling intensified.

“I’m surprised you didn’t read about it, Nyx,” Elmiryn said, blinking at me. “Back when Fiamma was nothing but warring tribes, there used to be an old law that said great dishonor demanded great personal sacrifice in order to atone.”

Lethia explained next, “During that time, Fiammans didn’t have much in the way of substantial personal effects. They barely had clothes, they shared housing, and even their tools for agriculture were used on a communal basis.”

The enchantress raised an eyebrow at Elmiryn, who picked it up smoothly, “The popular thing to do, then, was to sacrifice children. Usually a first born.”

Lethia smiled wanly. “But in the instance that the offender had no children, they were then expected to sever a limb.”

I crossed my arms and glared. That natural back and forth…where had that come from? “Lethia, you aren’t a Fiamman!”

“In terms of nationality? You’re right, Nyx. I’m an Albian. But my ancestry is obviously Fiamman. When thinking of ways to purify myself, I preferred to follow my roots in this instance, given that everything I knew in Albias was related to the taint my former mistress forced upon me.”

My mouth opened to argue, but I had to snap it shut again. There Lethia went again, sounding so reasonable about things that, by all means, gave her leave not to be.

“That still doesn’t make it the smartest decision,” Elmiryn grumbled, kicking half-heartedly at the partition. She glared down at her feet as she did so, and I wondered if she was avoiding having to look at the girl again.

Lethia rolled her eyes and sat back down on her hay bed. I could see she was pale and a grimace was becoming evident, even as the girl tried to hide it.

Gently, I said to Elmiryn. “We should let her rest.” Then I turned and looked pointedly at the enchantress. “You will rest, right? No more exercising?”

Lethia sighed as she gingerly lay back down. “Daedalus found me out and threatened to put laxative in my food unless I stopped.”

“Good,” I said shortly.

The girl scowled but didn’t respond.

I gestured for Elmiryn to follow. “Let’s go, Elle.”

“Nyx?” Lethia called as we started to leave.

I paused near the barn doors and turned back. “Yes?”

“Hakeem is awake.”

Though I’d heard her perfectly, I didn’t comprehend this right away. When the information managed to filter through my thick head, my hands flew to my mouth.

“He’s…he’s awake?” I stammered.

Lethia grunted as she sat up to peer around her stall partition. “Oh yes! Hakeem woke up from his coma about a day ago.”

“And he’s normal?” Elmiryn asked, her voice tight.

I looked at her, confused by her tone.

Lethia shrugged. “He seemed normal to me. He was sitting up and talking without a problem. No memory loss, no slurring speech, and he moved just fine!”

“Where is he?”

“Up in the tower, most likely,” I answered. “But that can come later. Let me get you settled in first. In case you’ve forgotten, you’re still half-naked!”

She looked like she wanted to argue this, for some reason, when she gave a grudging nod. “All right,” she muttered.

Continue ReadingChapter 44.5

Chapter 45.1

NYX____________________________

I prepared a quick bath for Elmiryn. Lethia lent her some extra clothes Daedalus had apparently purchased for her on one of his trips back to town–of everyone, the enchantress was closest to Elmiryn’s build–and within the hour the Fiamman was looking closer to her old self again in a creamy blouse and dark trousers. Her hair was still a wild nest, but she was fed up with all the grooming. I was too, quite frankly. Scissors were starting to look like the only solution to the mess, but just the mention of the idea sent the warrior into a boiling froth. I would have left her to take care of it by that point, except the moment I attempted to storm away, Elmiryn tried to eat a bar of soap.

“But it smells like oatmeal! Isn’t this oatmeal? I’m hungry!” she angrily complained.

After all of that, I helped my companion corral her hair into something resembling a ponytail, and together we ran up the stairs of the tower to see Hakeem. To my relief, the Fanaean was still awake, and he smiled at me as we approached the bed. Quincy sat next to him, and at first she barely glanced at us, but when her eyes set on Elmiryn’s face, she did a double take.

She popped up from her chair, her eyes going wide, “Elmiryn?”

Elmiryn squinted her eyes and pointed at her. “Quincy?” As the wizard laughed and came around the bed to greet her, the redhead leaned toward me and muttered out of the corner of her mouth. “That is her, right?”

“Right,” I whispered back, just as Quincy held out her hand.

“I half expected you to be smeared on some mountainside after coming out of a wrong portal!” Quincy chortled.

“No, no. I never use the wrong holes,” Elmiryn said with a poor attempt at a straight face.

“Are you sure?” Quincy and I asked in unison. We looked at each other, startled. The brunette’s expression became neutral, the warmth she had shown for Elmiryn cooling as her eyes met mine. My shoulders slumped and I looked down at my shoes.

You’re feeling guilty again, Kali informed me.

My jaw clenched. Hush!

Only I didn’t need Kali telling me. Now, seeing how much more amiable Elmiryn was with the others despite her compromised mind, I knew that if I wanted to have a better experience in this group, I was going to have to start with myself.

“Nyx! It is good to see you. The others tell me you ran off to find this one,” Hakeem exclaimed from the bed. He pointed at Elmiryn, his eyebrows rising. “Are you sure you found the right woman?”

The redhead only bared a stiff smile in response. I gave her a small nudge and replied, “No, no. This is Elmiryn, I’m sure of it! Who else can manage to make me fret even more after finding them?”

Hakeem laughed, as did Quincy.

“Of course! I’m just a nuisance,” the warrior said with a shrug, but she still seemed out of sorts and it was making me nervous.

The married couple didn’t seem fazed. Quincy quickly returned to Hakeem’s side, and the Fanaean seemed glad to have her close again, his eyes fixing on her in a disarmingly eager fashion. I blushed a little, feeling all of a sudden like we were intruding.

I coughed and said, “We’ll be off to let you gather your strength, Hakeem.”

He glanced at me and smiled sweetly. “Thank you, Nyx! I’m sure I’ll be joining you and the others downstairs soon. It’ll be nice to talk again.”

I blinked, unsure how to process this saccharine behavior coming from the usually serious man. “Oh…all—all right! Take care then.” When I turned to leave, Elmiryn didn’t go with me. She stayed by Hakeem’s bedside, arms crossed, just scowling.

I tugged at her arm. “Elmiryn, let’s go!” I hissed.

Quincy and Hakeem watched her curiously when her hovering didn’t stop.

“Do you need something?” Asked the brunette archly, while her husband patted her hand.

Elmiryn took her time responding. When she did, it was to say with off-color cheer, “I’m looking forward to seeing Hakeem with us again.”

This earned bemused smiles, and the woman finally allowed me to drag her away.

“What was that?” I whispered heatedly as we descended the stairs. “You were behaving oddly!”

“Don’t I always?” Elmiryn replied mildly.

At the tower foyer I cut her off before she could exit outside. “What I mean was that you were behaving suspiciously! It’s as if you resent Hakeem or something! What’s he possibly done to offend you?”

“I don’t resent Hakeem, and he hasn’t offended me,” Elmiryn said with a solemn expression.

“Then what is it?”

She looked furtively over her shoulder before herding me outside. When we were some ways from the tower entrance, she pointed over her shoulder and hissed, “That? Is not Hakeem.”

I stared at her. “What are you talking about?”

“I mean just what I said. That person we spoke to? I don’t know who or what he is, but that was not the same Hakeem we know!”

“How can that be? Quincy seems convinced!”

“Of course she is! A distraught wife cares for her husband, clinging to him—your words not mine—and suddenly, miraculously, he’s awake!” She threw her hands into the air and looked up in mock worship. “Praise be to the gods!” Elmiryn let her arms fall back to her sides with a slap, “Who on Halward’s plane would be in their right mind to stop and question such a wonderful boon as that?”

I put my hands on my hips and shifted my weight to one foot. “How do you know this isn’t a hallucination of yours?”

“You really want to know?”

I huffed. “I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t!”

Elmiryn gestured around us. “I see the threads in everything. It’s a crazy mess of patterns and colors, energy just fading in and out, weaving and dodging and—look it’s confusing. I don’t entirely get it. But I’ve learned a few patterns. Life? There’s lots of different ways life manifests itself in our world, but the one thing I see living things sharing in common is a kind of thread. Bright, warm, thick. It contains their soul, no matter how simple or complex.” She pointed at the tower again, her voice dropping so low I had to lean in close. “That thing up there? No special thread. That means no soul. That thing is some kind of fucking golem, and now I’ve got to find a way to kill it without getting Quincy after me!”

My eyes were wide. “That can’t be! Things like that can’t exist!”

She arched an eyebrow. “Don’t believe me? Go into that weird dream place you told me about. The one where you can see the universe’s interpretation of everything. Tell me what you see then!”

I pulled away, frowning. Could it be true? Perhaps Hakeem’s behavior had seem out of character to me—a little more gregarious than I remembered—but did that mean he was some demonic construct hell bent on hurting us? It sounded so farfetched. We were back in the realm of the gods. Our gods. Such things weren’t supposed to be possible in their world.

“We’ll see,” I responded as I heard someone coming up the grass behind me. “But please, Elle. I beg of you! Don’t do anything rash without talking to me first!”

Elmiryn didn’t respond save to shake her head. I didn’t know what that meant. No, she wouldn’t talk to me? Or just that she thought I was wasting her time with my caution? Inwardly I heaved a sigh. I had a nasty feeling this was going to turn out badly.

When I turned around, Paulo was standing there. He had the hoodie of his cloak pulled down–which was rare, even in the warm weather–and the runed scars on his chiseled face made him look mean and predatory. Instinctively I tensed, but he had eyes only for Elmiryn.

The warrior stared back at him curiously, and I leaned in to breathe at her, “It’s Paulo.”

Her eyebrows. She looked at me, then back at him. “Damn!”

Paulo crossed his arms and fixed the woman with a guarded look. “Quincy told me about how you both buried my brother. You spoke for him.”

“I did.”

The teenager nodded jerkily, his eyes going to his boots. “Thank you.”

Elmiryn took a deep breath, her eyes closing shut. She reached behind her and pulled out Graziano’s pistol from her belt.

“I suppose Quincy told you I had this to give?” she said quietly.

Paulo’s went very still as his eyes fell on the ornate pistol. With its engraved ivory stock and unique triple barrels, it was unquestionably his brother’s.

“That… I didn’t think you’d bring me that,” Paulo rasped.

Elmiryn held the pistol to the boy, handle first. He gazed at it warily, like it were a viper, before he took the gun.

“Before you try and use that, you should have Quincy look at it,” Elmiryn warned.

Paulo batted his eyes at her. “Why?”

Even I was curious enough to chime in. “Did you sense something, Elle?”

She glanced at me, then looked back at Paulo. “I…I think it’s cursed. I just don’t know how.”

“Cursed?” Paulo repeated with a frown. “But how can you tell?”

“Like Nyx asked, I sensed something.”

“But how?” he pressed stubbornly.

“Just trust her,” I said firmly, before Elmiryn could snap at him. The boy looked at me sharply, and I elaborated with measured calm, “She can see things most can’t. Even if she doesn’t always understand what she sees, it might do to have Quincy’s second opinion!”

Paulo’s face soured, but he nodded.

I gestured out at the field. “You’ve been walking the grounds, right? Have you seen Argos? We didn’t see him when we came in.”

The teenager rolled his eyes as he walked around us toward the tower. “That stupid mutt has started spending more time with Daedalus. I think he and Lethia had a fight or something. The elf and the dog ought to be just behind the tower.”

———————

Daedalus and Argos were indeed behind the tower standing at the elf’s spare part wagon. The man was using the dropped tailgate like a work table, parts and tools spread out on an oilskin. Meanwhile, Argos sat in the wagon bed, attentive to the man’s work. At least he wasn’t chasing gophers anymore.

As we approached, Daedalus folded the oilskin over, concealing his work. He glared at us and remarked, “Is your friend in need of medical aid?”

I looked at Elmiryn, startled. “Um…no?”

He waved us away. “Then begone! I must work in private.”

I pursed my lips and gestured at the elf. “Elmiryn, this is Daedalus. Lethia has known him since she was a child, and he’s since been helping us by getting supplies and providing healing.” Then I added. “Hello Argos.” The dog barked hello, his furry face split in a grin.

“Bah! Healing.” Daedalus spat. “So far, all I’ve done is keep a stubborn girl from accidentally killing herself and smuggled ladies underthings and grain from town.”

Elmiryn nodded at the elf’s makeshift workspace. “You’re pretty busy for a guy who just mules around things.”

“I’m fixing up doors and lantern posts. Hardly essential. I stay because Lethia is headstrong and seems to think there is no consequence for using her enchantment abilities to suppress her own pain.” He clicked his tongue irritably.

Elmiryn grinned. “Did she try bicep curls again?”

Daedalus just clicked his tongue, harder this time.

“So Lethia can really suppress her own pain?” I asked in wonder. It would explain how she could pull off her little stunt with the water bucket and not pass out.

The man gave a terse shake of his head. “That child? Are you mad?” He snorted and glared at the back of the barn. “She thinks she can, just because she read about it in a book, but I know that Syria never would have taught her such a trick until she was nearly complete with her training.” He crossed his arms. “Mark my words. If it weren’t for my continued presence, Lethia Artaud would be passed out in the dirt from trying to lift him!” He thumbed at Argos, who grumbled resentfully.

Elmiryn snickered and I grinned. It was an amusing thought, in a grim way.

But the grin vanished from my face at the thought of the girl actually dying, all because she was pushing herself too hard. Daedalus’ concern wasn’t empty. Just because Lethia could suppress her pain didn’t mean she should. Pain was there to tell us our limits. If she ignored those, she would die.

She’s prepared to die, Kali voiced the thought as it arrived.

My throat tightened as I turned to Elmiryn. “Elle, now that we’ve caught you up with everyone, will you be all right to look around for a bit on your own? Or you could wait for me in my room in the tower. It’s just…. I need to do something alone.”

Her eyes searched my face, her brow tensing but not quite forming a frown. She gave a slight nod. “I’ll be all right.”

I smiled thinly and lifted my hand as if to touch her arm. When my hand touched her, my stomach clenched, and I pulled away, trying to pass it off as a casual pat when it clearly wasn’t.

“Take care, Elmiryn.” I said as I walked away.

When I was out of earshot I cursed under my breath.

That sounded too much like a goodbye.

———————

The afternoon was waning, and the crimson pine grosbeak that had taken to resting in the dead linden tree outside of the barn was sleepily chirping for its unseen compatriots. The sky was turning warm, the suns inching closer to the evening angle. They made my shadow long–stretching deep enough into the barn that it hit the back wall even as I stood at the entrance. I hesitated, feeling my body tense. If Lethia was asleep, she wouldn’t have seen that.

“Who’s there? Paulo, is that you?”

I rolled my eyes shut. Of course.

“It’s me, Lethia,” I said wearily as I stepped further inside.

When I stopped at her stall, I leaned on the partition and lifted my hand in greeting. The enchantress was resting in her hay bed, just as we left her. She gazed up at me bemusedly as she set aside what looked like a leather journal and a charcoal pencil.

“Oh! I wasn’t expecting to see you again today.”

I scratched my cheek. “I wasn’t expecting to be here either.” Then my tongue stopped. I didn’t know what else to say.

What was I even intending on doing here, again?

Lethia shrugged a little. “Can I…help you?”

I stared down at her. “Help me?” I repeated after a long moment.

“I just meant there’s a reason you’re here, right?”

“Y-Yes.”

“And that reason is…?” she trailed off expectantly.

I glared at her, irritated. “Am I bothering you? Did I interrupt something?”

Lethia blinked at me. “Nyx, that isn’t–”

“You said I should tell you what it is that you could do to help make amends, right?”

“Well, yes–”

“Then is this a bad time? Because I feel–” and I broke off with a huff, pushing away from the stall to pace in front of it. I pressed the heels of my palms into my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t come for a fight. I really didn’t.”

I heard Lethia get up and stopped my back and forth to glare at the dirt.

“Nyx?”

I looked at her reluctantly. Lethia looked worried, but I could see the reservation in her, like she wasn’t sure she should trust that I wouldn’t hurt her.

I wasn’t sure either.

“I want you to listen,” I bit out. “I think…I’ve realized…” I growled and pinched the bridge of my nose. “I feel like no one understands what I’m feeling, all right? I hate it. I hate being misunderstood. I learned all those fancy words so that I could convey deeper thoughts, and it seems like they just made it worse. Now even I get confused about the exact reasons why I feel the way I do. But I figure I have an idea. I mean, I have ideas. Isn’t that what we all are in reality? Just a collection of ideas? Ideas can contradict, can’t they?”

Lethia nodded, but I got the impression it was more out of politeness than true understanding. I buried my hands in my hair and tugged hard. “I feel so much anger toward you, Lethia! Do you see? I feel sick with it! But then there’s this other part that still remembers what a good person you are, and it tries to reconcile what happened between us, but it just can’t.”

The girl closed her eyes. “You mean that time with Izma.”

“Yes!” I snarled. I jabbed a finger at the teenager’s face. “She hurt me! You hurt me! Taunting me with my feelings till I felt empty inside! There are many things I doubt in this world, Lethia, but my feelings for Elmiryn had been one of the first things in my life that I felt entirely certain of! Now? I feel horrible about it all!” I turned my face away, my fists clenching. “When I found Elmiryn out in the wilderness days ago, I couldn’t…I just I couldn’t open up. I’ve been struggling to feel like things are normal, but they aren’t, and I wonder if my feelings had ever been true at all now? What if I was just led by lust like how my mother lusted after every man in our village? That’s my legacy, isn’t it?”

Lethia was staring at me wide eyed now. “Nyx that’s absurd!”

I laughed bitterly. “Is it?”

She shook her head at me. “Yes! Quite frankly, I’m disappointed that someone as smart as you would allow yourself to get caught up with such an idea! Are you your mother, Nyx? What possible reason do you have to–”

Lethia broke off when she saw the look on my face. Drawn. Pale.

“You…. You really don’t know, do you?” I whispered, feeling the tears burn my eyes.

The girl started to say something, then faltered. Finally, she murmured. “No. Izma took complete control after your outburst about your father. I wasn’t there for any of it.”

All this time I’ve been punishing her, treating her poorly…

I sat on the ground, right there and then. My vision clouded. I heard Lethia kneel in front of me.

“Nyx, tell me. Tell me what happened.”

I shook my head, gripping it, pulling my knees up to curl into a ball. “No, I don’t want to!” My voice was small. Child-like.

I’d avoided thinking about that horrible moment all this time. I didn’t want to dredge up the painful details, and I especially didn’t want to tell someone else. It was almost like going through the whole thing again.

But I’d been holding on to this for close to weeks now, and it was eating me alive. I thought having Elmiryn back would make it better. If the last few days were any indication, I was about to feel a lot worse. Could I bury it down inside forever? When would the feeling of violation and shame go away? I could talk to Kali about it–but even given our new kinship, she was hardly a great conversation partner. Who else could I talk to? When?

Lethia bit her lip before saying softly, “If you aren’t ready, then you aren’t ready. I just want you to know that I’m always–”

“Izma showed me Elmiryn!” I blurted, looking up at the enchantress.

She stared at me in shock, and I mirrored her expression. I hadn’t expected to speak. I was teetering over the edge, but I could have just as likely clammed up and said nothing. Pulling me the other way, though, had been the idea that this was like any difficult thing a person faced. You did it one step at a time.

Lethia winced as she gingerly moved to sit on her bottom. When she was settled across from me, she pulled her knees up to her chest like I did and wrapped her one arm around them.

“And what was Elmiryn doing when you saw her?” she asked mildly, like she was aware I was ready to jump up and run out of there at the first loud noise.

One step at a time, one step at a time, one step at a time–

“Waiting.” I croaked. Then inwardly berated myself.

One step at a time, cajeck, not one word at a time!

“Take your time, Nyx,” Lethia reassured me.

I took a deep shuddering breath. After a long moment passed, I said next. “It was a simulation. Izma said…said it was a collection of Elmiryn’s memories, tweaked and reconstructed into one moment. So it wasn’t really her, and it wasn’t even a real memory, but…”

“It still felt real,” Lethia supplied when my silence stretched on.

I nodded mutely.

“So she was waiting. What was she waiting for?”

I swallowed at the rock in my throat. “A noble woman.” My jaw clenched. “For the purposes of that exercise, Izma saw it fit to put me in her position, so that Elmiryn spoke to me as if I was this other person.”

And I told her the rest. It took a long time. At one point, I couldn’t speak, I was crying so hard that Lethia let me lay in her hay bed. I felt guilty, taking a one-armed girl’s place of rest, but she insisted, and I was so distraught I didn’t have the strength to argue.

When I finished, I felt spent. My head had somehow found its way to Lethia’s lap, and she stroked my hair. Toward the end, she’d been crying too.

“Oh Nyx!” she whispered, anguish evident on her face. “What a horrible thing to have gone through!”

I covered my face with my hands. “But you didn’t know! And I treated you horribly!”

“You had every right to be angry! Heavens, you still have the right! Aware or not, I should have known that Izma would cross such lines when I agreed to help her!”

I sat up and shrugged. “What difference does it make? Izma told me the truth. I would let Elmiryn use me if it meant I felt wanted. She doesn’t love me now, imagine when she finally gets tired of me, or finds someone else? I’d still roll over for her if I could be with her, even just for that moment. I’d let anyone do that–”

“You would not, Nyx!” Lethia argued hotly.

I shook my head and stared morosely at my lap. My eyes felt raw and swollen, my nose still running with snot.

Lethia grabbed my hand and squeezed it, craning around so that she was looking up into my face. “You have got to stop thinking this way!” Then she bit her lip and said more apprehensively, “I know you told me to never speak to you about your mother, and I’m sorry I came across my knowledge of her in the way that I did, but you have to understand–you two are nothing alike! Your mother was a good woman who had difficulty facing the fact that she was getting old and the man she loved had left her! Her behavior was an addiction born out of a poor ability to cope! But you? You’re a resilient, practical, and self-aware young woman who has been through hell and back!”

“What are you talking about? I’m none of those things! I throw tantrums like a child, and I get confused by my constant second guessing! And I’m only resilient if you’re referring to my healing ability!”

“Dear gods, your cognitive distortions are immense! Are you opening your legs for every person who walks by? Of course not!”

I raised an eyebrow at her and mumbled wryly, “Who would I open my legs to? Daedalus looks down on me, Paulo and Quincy dislike me, Hakeem has been in a coma up until now, and I’m fairly certain you aren’t interested!”

Lethia actually thought about that before snickering out, “There’s always Argos!”

I gave her a horrified look. “Lethia!”

“Listen, my point is that you aren’t a naturally promiscuous person. Your sentiment that you would be with Elmiryn under any circumstances, no matter how she treated you, is simply due to the fact that your feelings for her are coupled with your fears of losing her–and I stress the word sentiment because you can’t actually know what you would do should Elmiryn abuse you in such a way until she does so! Now, pardon my frankness–”

“You want me to pardon just this one instance?”

“But you haven’t had relations with Elmiryn since you’ve found her, have you?”

I blushed, suddenly becoming interested in picking the hay out of my hair.

Lethia nodded knowingly. “Exactly. Not that your trauma is something to celebrate, but it goes completely against your assertions about yourself! All that said, I’d be more concerned about finding a way to overcome the apprehension you feel around Elmiryn instead of finding ways to villify yourself!”

When she was done, I stared at her hard, then remarked. “How much would that have cost if I had been some villager seeking guided healing?”

“A hundred gold,” Lethia said readily. She shrugged one shoulder at my smirk. “What? You think just because I was a journeyman, Syria didn’t give me patients to tend?”

My eyes narrowed in suspicion as a thought occurred to me. “If you charged a hundred, what did she charge?”

The girl pouted. “You realize Syria took on many charity cases, right?”

“Right. I’ll remember to admire the magnanimity of a lunatic later. Lethia, what did she charge?

“Five thousand!” She snapped. At my astonished look, she looked away. “Give or take,” she mumbled.

“Who can afford so much?” I sputtered. “People could live for years off of that!”

“Politicians, nobles, royalty…. Syria was famous after all! She tended to very important people!”

I shook my head in disbelief. “Sweet Aelurus!”

Lethia glanced at me sideways. “Did I ever mention that I visited Lekeid?”

My eyes went wide. “No! I thought you spent most of your time here at the tower?”

Lethia grinned shyly. “I’ve traveled on three occasions. Nothing beyond the Sibesonan continent, but–”

And Lethia told me of her travels, relating of a short-lived romance with an elven noble in Lekeid, and the time she got to play with Cailean, the Fiamman princess. It wasn’t that listening to her talk took the pain away. It lurked deep inside, waiting for that quiet moment when it could assail my heart again. Lethia’s kind voice kept it at bay, and for the first time in weeks, I felt almost normal again.

Continue ReadingChapter 45.1

Chapter 45.2

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn wanted to preoccupy herself with something, and given that everyone else seemed otherwise indisposed, she chose to bother Paulo, who also seemed adrift in the final hours of the day. It also helped that she’d had some more wine since arriving, of course.

“Stop laughing, lia! I mean it!” he snarled.

“How’m I s’posed to stop laughin’ when ya keep making that face?” The redhead guffawed, using the table to support herself.

“Pie and women! They are related!”

“Sure.”

“I’m serious!”

“As in women make the pies, or come with them?”

“Huh?”

Elmiryn descended into another raucous peal of laughter.

“S-So is it safe to–safe t’say ya haven’t had much pie, Paulo?”

“I…what?”

His naivety even elicited a chortle from Quincy, who was busy making dinner.

“It was a stupid game,” Paulo huffed, glaring as he slouched against the wall.

They were in the kitchen inside the tower and the evening was waning into night. They had already lit the lamps. Quincy toiled away at chopping up the remaining vegetables to add to the leftover stew from the previous night. Daedalus was in the study with Argos. He’d started up the fireplace to give him light as he read a book. All the warm illumination made the tower feel less…inhospitable. Elmiryn could understand why Lethia wouldn’t have minded growing up here as a child.

That didn’t mean she felt at home.

“Let’s start over,” she said once her humor finally subsided. “Farm.”

“I don’t want to do it anymore,” Paulo muttered sullenly.

“Come on! Farm!

The teenager let out a long sigh of suffering. Quincy glanced over her shoulder at him, sweat on her brow from the heat of her cooking.

“You may as well indulge her, Paulo. She won’t leave you alone,” she remarked.

When Paulo looked at the warrior as if to confirm this, Elmiryn nodded gravely.

He bared his teeth and slouched further. “Pigs!”

Her answer was quick. “Mud.”

“Rain.”

“Ocean.”

“Fish.”

“Eggs.”

“Birds.”

“Dinosaurs–” As soon as the word left her mouth, Elmiryn broke off with hiss, gripping her head. The pain didn’t go away with time, but instead, intensified, causing her to collapse onto the floor.

“Elmiryn?” she heard Paulo say, his voice tight and loud. Too loud. It echoed and ricocheted in her mind, making it into mush.

She yelled, curling up into a ball, squeezing her eyes shut to the flickering shadows on the walls. Those were just windows for the spirits to lean in and laugh at her, the demon’s pet who was astray.

Too fast. Everything was unraveling too fast.

“Elle? What’s happened?” That was Nyx. When had she shown up? Her voice was like a wave, washing away the confusion, cleansing Elmiryn of the madness that started to break through her drunken shield.

The warrior felt a warm hand on her arm. Cautiously, she peered from between her arms to see Nyx knelt beside her, her face tense with worry.

“She had another episode, by the looks of it,” Quincy sighed. She hovered nearby, frowning.

“No,” Elmiryn croaked, sitting up with a wince. Though the intense pain was gone, her head still throbbed. “I said something I shouldn’t have. Something that doesn’t belong. That doesn’t fit.”

“What do you mean?” Nyx asked, frowning.

Lethia, who had been watching from the foyer, stepped forward quickly. “Actually, she can’t say.”

Everyone turned to look at the enchantress. She shrugged. “Elmiryn has been to other dimensions. Trying to speak of things outside of this realm leads to the universe harshly correcting you.”

“And how do you know this?” Paulo scoffed.

Lethia put her hand on her hip as she shot him a sharp look. “Obviously because I’ve suffered the same! I’ve been to the same dimension Elmiryn has, and before that, Syria made certain to educate me. I was to go with her in her multidimensional journey with Izma.”

“You never mentioned this!” Quincy said, sounding annoyed.

The enchantress glared at her. “We haven’t exactly been very talkative with each other, now have we?”

“It doesn’t matter!” Nyx snapped.

Quincy turned her ire on her. “And why not?”

“Because we wouldn’t be able to talk much about things anyway!” Elmiryn spat. “Didn’t Lethia just tell you? Look at me, Quincy. Imagine the damage we’d suffer if we let slip one too many things that our world does not permit!”

The wizard pursed her lips as if to hold back any further arguments, though she clearly had plenty to spare.

“Can you stand?” Nyx asked gently.

Elmiryn looked at her, feeling hopeful. It was an odd sensation, and one she couldn’t recall experiencing with such intensity toward the girl. This realization quickly chased her hope, and strangled it. Why did the warrior need to feel hopeful with Nyx? Did she fear something had been permanently lost between them?

“Yeah,” Elmiryn grunted, trying to mask her conflict. She fought to her feet, pulling away from Nyx as she did so.

Then the warrior had another idea.

Rubbing her head, she asked, “Kitten, can I lay up in yer room for a while?”

For once, the warrior’s ulterior motive wasn’t in the gutter, but the Ailuran seemed to think so. Her companion’s face flashed a deep pink, but more than that, she went rock still, her body tightening as if expecting a punch. She didn’t open her mouth to speak, and her eyes glazed over.

All of this in just a few seconds, but Elmiryn was so taken aback by this that she stammered out (and never in her memory could she recall ever doing that) “I jes–jes’ meant to rest!” And then, with a noticeable sting in her heart, she added under her breath so that the others wouldn’t hear, “I’ll sleep in the barn, if that’s what ya want.”

Nyx recovered–in a sense. It looked like it took effort, but the tension eased from her shoulders, and the stiffness left her posture. Almost apologetically, she mumbled back (though by now the others had hurriedly distracted themselves) “We can talk about your sleeping arrangements later.”

Elmiryn was sure the girl meant for this to make her feel better, but it didn’t. It made her feel worse.

She didn’t bother to correct me. She isn’t just shy to talk, she’s uncomfortable with me entirely. What in the fucking hell is going on?

“All right, Nyx,” was all the woman said in response.

“In the meantime, Elle, feel free to rest in my room. I can bring you a bowl of stew once it’s ready.”

Elmiryn nodded as she shuffled off for the stairs, a light frown on her face and a heavy feeling in her gut.

Was it something I said? Was it something I did? I’d say it was because I was off with Meznik for a while, but somehow I don’t think that’s the issue! Not completely anyway.

The warrior glanced over her shoulder just before she rounded the stairwell. Nyx and Lethia were standing side by side, murmuring to each other. That in of itself didn’t seem so odd. She had been somewhat aware of tension between the two, but apparently that had been cleared up. It wasn’t until the enchantress reached over and patted Nyx’s arm in a sympathetic manner that Elmiryn paused, her eyes narrowing.

Does Lethia know what’s going on? she wondered. Then she felt a flare of irritation when she recalled that the two girls had been sitting in the barn for what was several hours, just talking.

Nyx feels like she confide in Lethia but not me? Haven’t I earned that trust?

Elmiryn ground her teeth a little before willing herself to resume marching up the stairs.

But she didn’t go up to the topmost bedroom, like she said she would. As soon as she reached the first bedroom door in the stairwell, she stepped up to it. Quincy and Hakeem’s room. It was closed, so she placed her ear to the wood. Inside, she heard no sounds, but that didn’t mean anything. The room also faced the setting suns, so she couldn’t trust if the soft glow coming beneath the crack was just dying sunlight or a lit candle.

Taking hold of the door, Elmiryn turned the handle slowly. No sound. She pushed it gently, carefully. The hinges creaked, making her wince, but otherwise the sound did not carry. Daring another half-inch, she peered in through the open crack. There were no candles lit. The golem posing as Hakeem lay flat on the bed.

With a brief glance over her shoulder, Elmiryn slipped into the room and shut the door.

Stepping quietly, she stopped next to the bed and peered down at the lifeless construct. It was dormant, playing at sleep. She let her second sense bleed through her eyes, and though it made her head ache, she could see the lack of spiritual glow in its body. The threads that weaved this thing into existence were not natural threads. But how could she make the others see this?

“You’re a knot,” Elmiryn whispered over the golem. “Just one big knot in the universe’s weave.”

The thing stirred. The warrior tensed and took a step back.

Now was not the time. She couldn’t destroy it now. The others didn’t understand. Quincy would turn murderous. That sort of chaos would split their group apart, and they needed to stay together. Elmiryn could see as much in just a day. Who else would believe what they went through? Who else would protect and shield them from the consequences of that fateful day when Syria escaped? Everyone was tired and nursing wounds, both visible and hidden. Even if their unity was tenuous, it would have to hold for now, because the alternative was far worse.

Yet even as she thought these things, the warrior also knew that this fake Hakeem was a threat to their recovery as a group as well. What devious plan was Izma playing out here? The golem was like a bomb whose fuse was gradually running down. Elmiryn could not destroy it prematurely, but she couldn’t wait either.

“I’m going to unravel this knot, Izma,” the warrior hissed low as she slowly retreated, back toward the door. “I’ll find a way!”

Just as Elmiryn turned the doorknob, she heard a voice murmur behind her, making her hair stand on end–for just a touch of music lay behind each word–“You’re certainly welcome to try, little pet.

“What did you say?” Elmiryn snarled whirling around with her hand grasping for her sword–but that was gone, left carelessly in the foyer after she had changed earlier. Her heart jumped into her throat.

The golem stirred and sat up. Groggily it said, “What? Who’s there?”

But the woman had already turned and fled, slamming the door behind her.

NYX____________________________

Three more days passed.

Now that Lethia and I were on good terms again, it felt hard not to gravitate to the barn. I didn’t always feel like talking, and I think she understood my need to be in the company of someone who actually understood how I felt. Sometimes we did talk. I told her more about my childhood–the challenges I faced, the people I loved, the awkward dilemmas I suffered through. In turn, she shared much the same. As Lethia told me about her upbringing with Syria, I realized, sorrowfully, that Daedalus had been right. I had claimed to know Lethia Artaud far too quickly.

The enchantress was very principled, and had an earnest love of order. When she revealed to me her intent to kill Syria, I was surprised at first. But then I could see, in the bright and wistful way the girl spoke of her surrogate mother, that she still loved her. For Lethia, her desire for honor and her sense of love…there was no separation. They were one and the same.

I was humbled that she could make such a hard choice about someone she cared about. It made me doubt my own dedication to Elmiryn again. After all, I was a champion, and she was now a demon’s pet. Was there something more I could be doing to bring her back to Harmony? Was I being too lenient?

Naturally my concerns slipped into more personal issues. Why did I feel so put off by her when she was all I could think about for weeks? Why did I crave her presence, yet feel deeply uncomfortable by it at the same time? All I could think about was her walking away forever, and yet she was so caring and considerate of me…

“You’re doing it again!” Lethia snapped, annoyed.

I looked at her, startled out of my reverie. As was becoming custom, I was sitting with the girl in the barn. I sat on a low stool while she brushed my hair with a wooden comb Daedalus had given her.

The enchantress wagged the comb at me. “I am telling you, Nyx! You have to stop anticipating the worst!”

“Are you telling me this as my therapist?” I grumbled resentfully. “Did you read my mind again?”

“I’ll have you know, your thoughts are plain as day on your face,” Lethia shot back. “And of course I’m not speaking to you as your therapist. That was quite unfair of you to say! You know what I would say if you were some patient I was detached from?”

I looked at her wearily. “What?”

She glared. “I would say, ‘Love is about communication, and you need to open up to Elmiryn in order for her to understand how you feel.’ You want to know what I say to you as a friend? Stop the nonsense and just talk to her! It’s the only way you’ll know for sure!”

A whine escaped my lips as I kicked at the dirt on the ground. “I’m pretty sure she doesn’t even want to try and discuss what our relationship is! Do you know how it all started? One day, Elmiryn was hallucinating so bad that she thought she could take the meaning of my words just by the force of a kiss alone!”

Lethia sighed and shook her head, “It figures….”

“So you see? From the start, there was never any real discussion of an ‘us’ so much as just…companionship. Giving and taking. That seemed welcome enough,” I laughed bitterly. “Oh we got close to putting a name to what was happening. But we both made excuses, and I thought it was fine because….”

“Because?”

“Because I was afraid I’d scare her away,” I muttered miserably.

“All right. Things started out uncertainly between the two of you and it just…kept evolving without much discussion, correct?”

“Completely correct.”

“Then may I ask why it is that you insisted on waiting for Elmiryn to determine the nature of the relationship?”

I looked at her in anguish. “Oh, now you are treating me like a patient!”

“I’m serious, Nyx! Why does Elle have to be the one to say what is and isn’t going on between you two? Clearly you have feelings for her and you are invested! It’s not enough that Elmiryn just fools around with you. What if we travel to a city with a brothel and she decides she wants to roll around with someone for two bits a night?”

I shrugged morosely. “It’s her right. It’s not like I control her.”

Lethia groaned, slapping a hand to her forehead. “What am I going to do with you?”

“You know it’s more complicated than that,” I whispered, my shoulders hunching. “Why are you acting like that isn’t the case?”

Lethia went to kneel before me, her bright green eyes locking onto mine. “I know it’s hard for you. And I know why. But I need you to remember that wasn’t Elmiryn! Every time you give in to your fears with her, you are letting Izma win!”

I looked away. “I have to go back to town. We need more supplies.”

“You can’t keep putting it off.”

“It was one thing telling you the truth, Lethia. It’s another thing entirely to tell Elmiryn!”

Lethia lowered her gaze. “True enough. But it needs to happen. And soon. I don’t see your relationship surviving much longer otherwise.”

I squeezed her shoulder before standing to leave. She hadn’t finished combing my hair, but our discussion suddenly made me eager to leave.

Lethia is right. If I leave things as they are, then we’ll grow apart.

I looked up at the evening sky, taking a deep breath. It was no good, I felt like I was suffocating still.

Maybe that’s what needs to happen. Maybe Elmiryn and I are too broken to be together. Maybe us growing apart would be for the best.

Continue ReadingChapter 45.2

Chapter 45.3

“I’m cornered in fire so break out the secrets
I hope you know that you were worth it all along
I’m tired, you’re angry, and everyone looks blurry
I love you, I’m leaving; so long

Hey, little one
I’m so scared of what this could have been
I know that today I lost my only friend
My little one

The places I took you, they seem so fucking empty
I have trouble going anywhere at all
Especially my own bedroom
And it stays awake to haunt me
So passed out, blackout, drunk in another bathroom stall

Hey, little one
I’m so scared of what this could have been
I know that today I lost my only friend”1

NYX____________________________

If I thought I’d be able to leave for Belcliff that day without something stopping me, I was wrong. Standing at the gates with a royal blue bottle was Elmiryn. She leaned against the bars with blank eyes, her unkempt hair loose about her shoulders. I was surprised to see her. Halfway to the gate I slowed, a knot growing in my stomach. In the past few days, we had barely spoken to each other. It was my fault. I avoided her, too afraid of where a conversation between us would lead if I let it go on long enough. Her frustration was almost palpable.

The last we had spoken was yesterday morning. I was coming out of the kitchen just as she was entering the tower from outside. We stopped in the foyer and just stared at each other, the moment stretching far beyond anything comfortable. She had reeked of alcohol. I wanted to believe that it had more to do with her powerful fae addiction, but somehow that felt like a feeble thing to hope for. Resentment smoldered in her eyes, embers of it dancing with her dark madness. Before Elmiryn had held on to some semblance of functionality. In our time apart, that had disintegrated into a rolling mess of stinging paranoia and outlandish humor. Even without our relationship problems, it was hard to speak to her like this.

“Have I disappeared for you too?” she asked in a murmur.

I stared at her, trying to assemble a response. The best I could come up with was, “I don’t know what you mean.”

Elmiryn chuckled dryly. As she turned to enter the stairs down to the cellar, no doubt to get more drink, I could hear her say, “Believe it or not, that’s still an answer.”

Now as I approached her at the gate, her eyes sharpened and rested on me. I slowed to a stop before her, that familiar stink of inebriation tickling my sensitive nose.

“Hello Elmiryn,” I greeted warily. “How are you feeling today?”

She took a moment to take a swig from her bottle before saying with a shrug, “Like nothing.”

I heaved a heavy sigh as my hands found my hips and my gaze fell to the ground. “I take it you needed to speak with me?” I said to my boots.

“Whatever gave you that idea?” I heard her mumble sarcastically.

I glanced at her with a pained expression. “I know I’ve been treating you poorly–”

She laughed. “Ah. Here we go.”

“–And I’m sorry. I know it isn’t fair to you.”

Elmiryn offered a pursed smile. “Fairness? Nyx, I feel like I’ve been tossed into a game in which no one’s explained to me the rules. That’s not just unfair, it’s fucking crazy.”

My eyes squeezed shut. “I know.”

“Do you? Because far as I can see, the only one who seems to hold your attention these days is Lethia.” She spat the name out, making me shoot her a sharp look.

“Please!” I returned with an exasperated laugh. “As if you two acting like sisters when you treated her like just a nuisance not long ago isn’t bizarre–!” I bit back the rest of my words, my mouth wrestling itself closed even as the words fought to erupt from my throat. “Don’t make this about her. This is about us. It’s… It’s not even your fault, it’s me–”

“That is horseshit!” Elmiryn spat, and I flinched.

My eyes met hers. Her pupils were drawn to pinpricks, the cerulean color faded to an almost icy shade. In her lean face, I could see the quivering tension that barely held her anger in check.

“Don’t lie to me,” she hissed. “Not when I’ve been fending off the paint the gods dumped on this ugly world. Not when I’m fighting to keep from unspooling at everyone’s feet. Don’t you fucking lie to me with such weak lines! ‘It’s me, not you?’ You’ve got to be joking!”

I swallowed at the lump in my throat. “Elmiryn, I… I’m trying. I’m trying to get to a point where I can really say what I need to, but–”

“Trying to get where? What secret place do I have to wait for you to make it to before you open your fucking mouth? What did I do to deserve being shut out?” She was half-screaming now. Her hair seemed to writhe and wriggle, taking on more volume as she gesticulated wildly at me. I’d never seen her so out of control, and it killed me.

“Nothing,” I choked out. I could feel the tears pricking my eyes. The alarm at how swiftly my friend, the woman I had cared so deeply for, crumbled apart before me was making me practically nauseous. “You didn’t do anything!”

“So talk to me then!” She shouted, finally pushing off of the gate to advance on me. I backpedaled as she pressed in. “Help me see! Help me understand! I wander around at night staring at the place where I can see your soul’s thread, and all I can hear are the ghosts in the wind telling me to join them! Your voice is gone from my life, and I have no idea why! So what’s stopping me from joining the voices, Nyx? Why fucking shouldn’t I!?”

“I’ll tell you the reason!” I sobbed, circling around her. If I could just get to the gate… “But not now! Please, Elmiryn, not now! Not like this! I know I have no right to, but I must ask you to wait!”

“Wait!?” she screamed, her voice fraying. Either she was unaware of what I was doing, or didn’t care. “Do you think I can just keep treading paint until the will of the gods drowns me in their colors? Look at my hands!” She held one up and I could see it tremble badly. “I’m drinking myself to death just trying to stay afloat in this world, and in a few hours I’m going to be on all fours, puking up the art of heaven again! I am unwelcome here, and no one else even comprehends what I’m going through! Do you give a shit at all!?”

“Of course I do!” I protested with anguish. My feet stilled, and for a moment I forgot what I’d been trying to do. “Elmiryn, please try to understand that I still care for you!”

Then it happened. A loud metallic wrenching sound behind me. I whirled around to see the gate doors had been mangled and wrenched aside, like a pair of giant invisible hands had crushed them in a strong grip. I looked at Elmiryn, stunned.

Her eyes had become dilated and her face drawn. Her hair was suspended in the air, in a floaty dreamy manner, almost as if she were underwater. There was a static energy in the air, and my nausea doubled, forcing a powerful gag reflex from me.

This was unnatural power. Tainted magic.

Then her eyes returned to normal, her hair fell limp to her shoulders, and the energy choking the air vanished. For some reason, my ears rang. Elmiryn stumbled away from me, half-raising her bottle as if to drink from it, only to let it fall sloshing at her side again. Just before she turned to walk away, tears fell from her eyes.

Stonily, she said, “I can’t tell what you really mean anymore.”

Nyx, what are you doing? Talk to her! Kali urged in my head.

I didn’t respond. I could only watch, stunned by what had just happened, as Elmiryn shrank to a small figure in the distance.

Nyx! My Twin prodded again.

“Kali, you have to understand…” I murmured aloud.

Understand what? You’re letting your cowardice get the better of you! Can’t you see that she needs you? She is falling prey to her curse!

I turned and started down the road, my eyes clouding with fresh tears. “Sister…didn’t you hear her?” I sobbed.

What do you mean? Irritation saturated Kali’s words.

“She says she can’t hear my Meaning anymore. What use would talking to her do if the words I’d give her, she wouldn’t comprehend?”

So how do you intend to fix that?

I shook my head, feeling my heart wrench. “I still have no idea. I just know it’s my fault I let it get this bad.”

But I didn’t have time to wallow. I really did need to get those supplies. Night was the safest time to venture into Belcliff, when less of its citizens were roaming the streets, and I could find a less scrupulous trader willing to unload his shady stock. Daedalus couldn’t return to town for a long time. His wagon full of sundries and clothes would draw unwanted attention to our newfound hideout. Aside from Paulo, I was the only person free and able-bodied to achieve this errand of resupply. The boy had gone last time. Now it was my turn. I needed to do this. I needed to leave.

Even so, my attempts at pragmatism sounded fake, even to me.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn felt as though a great stone was in her chest. Nothing seemed to matter anymore. She drank the wine down to the last drop, then threw the bottle down onto the ground and stomped on it. It smashed musically, giving her fleeting satisfaction. She needed more. She also needed to hydrate.

There was nothing easy about being perpetually drunk. The effects on her body was finally catching up to her. The drink robbed her of so much. Maybe that was why she had felt worn down enough to lash out. She hadn’t meant her meeting with Nyx to go that way. Elmiryn missed her. Wanted the girl to feel she could speak to her. Instead, she had blown up on her friend. Used her power to crush the gate, even. Which of course begged the question…

Could she cross the line? Could she really hurt Nyx?

Elmiryn wanted to say that she never could, but now she wasn’t so sure. After all, how could she tell where that moral line was when she didn’t believe in the world around her?

She went to the open wound in the field, where she knew the world bled water with the help of a torture device, and pumped out a bucketful to drink. After she had her fill, Elmiryn splashed her face and neck, then turned her eyes to the abandoned demon’s nest–what everyone else still understood to be Syria’s tower. Thanks to her effort to commit sound to memory and her ability to see the weave of the world, the Fiamman was still aware of what the others understood things as. But behind the intention of the gods, she saw another interpretation. With more time passing, this separate view felt more real. More truthful.

And in this new truth, she could feel Nyx’s love for her drowning in something hideous.

I certainly didn’t make things better by scaring her like that, she thought with a surge of thirsty anguish.

The heartfelt pain made her cravings worse. She was fairly certain the only thing left to drink was some cooking wine that Quincy was trying to hide from her–but along with Elmiryn’s ability to see the weave of the world, she could also sniff out the alcohol like a hound.

Leaving the water bleeder behind, Elmiryn staggered to her feet and made for the demon’s nest. Her shadow sliced through the foyer and onto the first stone steps of the staircase as she stood in the tower entrance. Then a sudden pressure appeared in the center of her chest. It intensified quickly, and as it did so, the warrior found it difficult to breathe. Dizziness swept over her, leaving her cold as she fell to a knee, gasping with increasing desperation. Her jaw began to ache, as did her shoulders and back. It was like her body was seizing up, even as Elmiryn tried to will her muscles to relax.

Instead, the woman vomited up much of the water she had drunk just a moment before.

“What in the heavens?” she heard Daedalus say somewhere nearby. She was too disoriented to pinpoint his voice. Groaning, she rolled onto her back, away from the water she had purged. A few sharp footsteps later, and Daedalus appeared over Elmiryn, scowling. At least, she was pretty sure it was the elf.

She reached a hand up and gasped out, “Some… Something’s wrong!”

The elf knelt down, his expression hardening. “Well, that’s obvious! Can you tell me what you’re feeling?”

Elmiryn swallowed and gestured at her chest. “Trouble breathing… Weight… Weight on my chest!”

Daedalus leaned down and pressed a pointed ear to the woman’s chest. After a short beat, he hissed through his teeth. “Damn! Don’t you move, I’ll be right back.”

“Of course…” Elmiryn wheezed. She tried to grin. “I’m… s-so comfortable… here.”

The elf hurried toward the staircase, his footfalls echoing away.

The redhead squeezed her eyes shut and tried to sit up, only to feel she had no strengths in her arms.

Voices echoed down the stairwell and soon Daedalus reappeared along with Quincy. The woman was pretty sure it was the brunette anyway. They knelt on either side of Elmiryn, with the wizard helping the warrior to sit up as the elf opened a medium-sized wooden chest he’d brought from Hakeem’s room.

“Fiamman, you’re having a heart attack,” the elf informed her gravely. He plucked out a small vial from a compartment in the chest, and pulled out the stopper. Holding the vial up close to her lips, he instructed tensely, “Do not move, please. Too much of this will kill you.”

Refraining from the urge to make another wisecrack, Elmiryn kept still and opened her mouth as the elf carefully allowed three fat drops to fall onto her tongue. The woman grimaced as she swallowed. It tasted like chalk and bitter plant root. Quincy held a cup of water to her lips that the redhead had failed to see before, and she took a tentative swallow before turning her face away.

The wizard allowed for Elmiryn to lay back down as the pressure in her chest continued. It seemed to go on forever.

Then the pressure started to ease, and breathing became easier. The aches in her jaw and back lingered but were not nearly as painful. The woman sighed and eyed the pair that was still at her sides.

“I don’t suppose I could trouble someone for a drink?” she asked with a weak grin.

Quincy and Daedalus exchanged a dark look before grabbing Elmiryn’s arms and lifting her up.

“Elmiryn, you’re going to kill yourself at this rate,” Quincy grunted as the two guided the warrior into the study and onto a cushioned chair.

“You worry too much,” she replied without conviction.

“I only have so much digitalis tincture,” Daedalus said with crossed arms and sharp eyes. “I can give you another small dose later, but I’d only be treating the symptoms.”

“So treat the symptoms then!” Elmiryn snapped, glaring up at him.

The elf snorted, “I’m not your personal healer, woman! And at any rate, the tincture is just a stopgap! There is no guarantee it will ensure the continued function of your heart!”

“So what do you suggest?” Quincy asked the elf curiously.

“That the Fiamman stop drinking, of course!”

Elmiryn tensed at the suggestion. “If I stop drinking outright, I actually have a higher risk of dying, elf.”

“Then we start you on a healing regiment to scale the consumption back.”

Quincy sighed and rubbed at her brow. “The problem, Daedalus, is that Elmiryn’s addiction isn’t of the natural sort. It’s a fae addiction.”

The elf stared at the brunette. “That’s ridiculous. She’s human!”

Elmiryn sank in her chair, her eyes rolling shut. “That’s news to me.”

Quincy frowned down at Elmiryn as she said to Daedalus, “It’s true. I believe Lethia apprised you of the demons we’re fighting, did she not?”

Daedalus actually chortled. “What utter nonsense!” He looked between the two of them, his smile fading. “But it really cannot be! What you’re saying is that this woman,” he thrust a shaking finger at the redhead, “Is somehow a fae? That she was changed by one of those demons? How could the gods allow such a thing to even exist in our world!?”

“I’m still part fae, thank you,” Elmiryn groused.

Quincy gave her a look. “You don’t even know how much of you is still human anymore, Elmiryn.”

“Then break out the ruler, wizard. Frankly, I could give a shit how human I am,” Elmiryn intoned.

What does it matter if Nyx wants nothing to do with me?

“Oh this is a fine time to revert to being a brat!” Quincy scolded.

Elmiryn rolled her eyes and made a jerking masturbatory motion with her hand, eliciting a sound of disgust from the other woman.

Daedalus turned away and started to pace a short line along the floor. One hand covered his mouth as his brows knitted. “This is… this is very grave indeed. My people remember the fae perhaps better than any other species in this world, but such an unholy transformation brings about its own hurdles!”

Quincy went to him and put an arm around his shoulders, halting his pacing. She steered him slowly toward the foyer as her voice dropped to a murmur, but Elmiryn still caught what she said: “Daedalus, I realize she’s a difficult patient, but Elmiryn didn’t ask to be turned into a fae. She deserves our help.”

The elf grunted in response but said nothing in response.

Quincy continued to speak, and the pair migrated into the kitchen. Elmiryn was no longer able to make out their words. She slumped in her chair, staring at the charred logs in the fireplace. She felt much like the logs did. Brittle. Black. Like a thing to be discarded, all used up and spent. She had been aware for a while now that she had lost her edge. She doubted she could do a set of push-ups with ease (20 of them) let alone a full routine (100 reps total). The shame and disgust this instilled in her left an unpleasant aftertaste in her mouth. Or perhaps that was from her vomiting.

All her life, Elmiryn had been an instrument of war. Her body was trained and disciplined, her entire being honed to the purpose of being a living weapon. Now, while far from being helpless, she was… average. Soon to be less than average, if this degradation kept up. Could she hope to protect anyone if the need arose? Could she even protect herself?

Spurred to her feet by a sudden fit of anxiety, Elmiryn shook off a wave of dizziness, then snuck to the door. Quincy and Daedalus were still murmuring to each other in the kitchen. Neither paid her any mind as she slipped outside.

She walked around the tower to the back, where she found Paulo chopping firewood. He was without his cloak, his shirt off and tucked into the back of his trousers, allowing for a rare display of his body markings. Unlike Elmiryn, the boy had a soldier’s body– lean and strong. Perhaps peak efficiency even. (He must be training when he slips away…) He paused to strike the ax into the ground and pull his shirt out. He wiped his face as she approached him.

“Elmiryn,” he said, his eyes flickering from her face to his boots and back again. With some fumbling, he unfolded his shirt and pulled it hastily over his head. “I, ah, didn’t hear you coming.”

“I get that a lot these days,” she said, briefly amused by his shyness. “Which is bizarre considering I can barely walk straight anymore.”

He grunted as he pulled the ax back out of the ground. “True.” He quirked an eyebrow at her as he placed another log on the cutting block. “Now that you mention it, I’m surprised to see you without a bottle in your hand, lia.” There was a jeer in his words.

Elmiryn didn’t take the bait. She’d never say this to the boy, but he reminded her of a scared new recruit from the Ailuran-Fiamman war. He was not so different from some young boy, probably from the poor districts, determined to mask his fear and weakness by lashing out. After all, hadn’t she just snuck up on him? It really hadn’t been her intention, but Paulo had been taken off guard. He was no doubt back here because at this time of day, no one else was. Chopping wood was a good release of tension, but doing it with a heavy cloak and a thick cotton shirt on? She’d take those off too if she were in his position. But the boy was self-conscious of his body’s scars. They were nasty reminders of how he’d been at the mercy of Syria… mutilated under her power. She understood how his scars would be a touchy subject with him.

Yes, Elmiryn could forgive a bit of snarkiness and ill temper in the boy’s case. At least he hadn’t crushed an iron gate with his will alone.

Then again, there was that time the other night at dinner when he gave everyone a migraine headache because Argos had eaten his bread roll when he hadn’t been looking.

Fucking enchanters.

“I was on my way to get another bottle when I was interrupted,” Elmiryn said with a wry grin.

Paulo chopped the wood on the block and reached for another piece. He glanced at her as he stooped down. “We’ll run out soon, you know.” The snark was gone from him. He was scowling at her. With concern, maybe? She couldn’t tell.

Elmiryn crossed her arms, trying to mask how her hands shook. “I know.”

“What does Nyx have to say about it? Is she getting you more to drink? She must have left for town already.”

At the girl’s mention, Elmiryn felt her shoulders clench. “She doesn’t talk to me much these days.”

Now the boy stopped, the ax raised in the air as he fixed Elmiryn with a look of surprise. “No? Why the hell not? I thought you two were practically engaged!”

This made her laugh, bitterly.

Paulo set the ax down against the chopping block and wiped his brow with the back of his hand again. “Elmiryn, Nyx cares about you. Very much so… You know this, yes? I mean, you must. How can you not?”

Now it was her turn to sneer. She feigned shock with a hand over her heart. “My gods! Paulo, I never knew!”

He rolled his eyes at her as he stepped closer, his hands resting on his hips as he tried to catch his breath. “Don’t be thick, lia. I’m just trying to–”

“Just trying to what?” Elmiryn interjected through her teeth. She advanced on him, making him take a step back. “Piss me off? Don’t pretend to know about me and Nyx. Up until a few weeks ago, you couldn’t have cared less about us!”

Paulo lowered his gaze, his hands raising up in a show of relent. “You’re right. I’m… sorry. But you did right by me and my family when you buried my brother. When… when you brought me his gun. The bond you and Nyx shared was obviously strong. It seemed good for you. I guess I just wanted to help you too.”

Elmiryn sighed roughly and covered her face with her hand. She backed away, turning her back to Paulo as she did so. “No. Don’t apologize. I was being an asshole. I know you meant well.”

There was a long beat of silence.

Then Elmiryn heard Paulo pick up the ax. Swish. Thud. She heard two more pieces of wood fall to the ground.

“She doesn’t talk to me anymore,” Elmiryn muttered to the sky.

There was another beat of silence before Paulo resumed his work.

Swish. Thud.

“No offense, lia, but you aren’t making yourself that approachable, eh? What with your drinking, and… ah…”

Elmiryn chuckled and looked over her shoulder, “You mean my glamorous body odor and irresistible hair?”

Paulo snickered and shrugged as if to say, Pretty much!

She turned her gaze back out toward the field, wherein the distance she could just make out the perimeter fence. She couldn’t quite see the gate from here, but she could still envision its mangled shape. She’d have to get Quincy to help her fix it later.

“Elmiryn, it seems to me that if you want Nyx to feel comfortable with speaking to you again, you should make it easier for her too,” Paulo said behind her. When she didn’t say anything to this, he went on. “You’ve got to stop drinking, lia. And if I’m going to be completely honest with you, that stuff makes you crazy. You’ll be better off without it.”

Elmiryn snorted derisively at first. What did Paulo know about her condition? Of all of them, he probably understood it the least. He had no idea what a ‘fae addiction’ really meant or even the kinds of things she was trying to inoculate herself from. The visions. The Whispers. The reality of a world that didn’t want her there anymore.

Regardless, the simplicity of his suggestion still managed to arrest her thoughts.

Just. Stop. Drinking.

Yes it would be hard. Painful. Perhaps even deadly…

But she had been focused only on all the reasons NOT to try. What about all those reasons that said the effort would be worthwhile?

She could become strong again. In control again. Maybe if she could stop her dependence on drink, she could learn to control her fae abilities to the point that she didn’t feel overwhelmed anymore? The others would take her more seriously. It had been so long since Elmiryn had felt free of automatic skepticism and lack of faith, that she’d almost forgotten what it was like for people to stop and heed her words with respect.

She could show Nyx that she had some Meaning too.

More than that, she could show Nyx that she’d do anything to get her to look at her that way again.

I’ve been blaming her for not reaching out to me, but what the fuck have I done to reach out to her? What am I? A child? Elmiryn reprimanded herself. When… when did I let myself forget my promises to her?

“You’re right,” she said at last. She turned to see Paulo stop again.

He rested the ax on his shoulder and asked, “So you’ll do it? You’ll stop?”

Elmiryn nodded jerkily. Even as she did so, she could feel a panic tightening her stomach. Niggling doubts almost immediately started to protest–

Too hard.

Too risky.

Unnecessary.

“Yes,” she said through a tight throat. She looked at him. “But my body might start to act on its own. I’m part fae, so that side of me could try to go back to drinking itself to death. I’ll be mindless. Desperate.” Elmiryn fixed Paulo with a grave look, her lips thin and pale. “Paulo, other than Quincy, you are the only person who can help control me until Nyx gets back. Will you help me?”

Paulo drew himself up. He went to her, almost eagerly, with a hand extended. “Elmiryn, whatever you need, I will do it. You helped the Moretti family. It is time we helped you.”

Elmiryn could feel the blood draining from her face. The boy’s extended hand felt threatening. Dangerous.

She took it in a tight grip and croaked out, “I’ll need it.”


‘Little One’ by Highly Suspect, from the album ‘The Boy Who Died Wolf’. 300 Entertainment, 2016. []

Continue ReadingChapter 45.3