Chapter 20.3

QUINCY____________________________

She had only ever seen a ghost one other time in her life, and she didn’t really care to speak with it to anyone as it was a rather unsavory part of her life to begin with–what with fending off the rough and salty hands of sailors day in and day out, the constant threat of death from both the pirates and pirate hunters alike, and the way the treacherous straits of the Southwestern Seas seized their ship in all of Atargatis’ fury.  It had been on deck aboard that ship, the Kijani Farasi, which translated to the Green Horse, that Quincy laid eyes on a spirit of a young sailor who had perished upon its breast, having taken the wicked punch of a cannon ball.  Or so he had said.

All in attendance were stunned to silence as he merrily rolled the heavy cannon balls along the deck.  Tulki came tearing out of his cabin, his saber drawn, looking about with murder in his eyes.  Quincy and those on duty at the time were nearly flogged, for the rolling of cannonballs was a sign of mutiny, but the ghost, whether out of mischief or mercy, made his presence known by making a cannonball levitate toward the captain, and with a Fanaean curse, dropped it at his feet.  To his credit, Tulki did not show an ounce of fear, but his anger was quelled and he ordered that the damned spirit be ignored.  Spared Tulki’s fury, the crew endured the spirit’s presence, though it never again made itself visible even as it pressed on with its scares and inconveniences.  The first port they came to, a shaman was called, and the ghost was banished for good. Though life returned to normal on the Kijani Farasi, Quincy had been thoroughly impressed by the whole experience.  The ghost, delighted at her foreign nature, targeted her.  For the month spent in that damned spirit’s company, she had been a pariah.

And now there was practically an army of ghosts before her, all staring, all radiating coldness and death.  She’d faced down demi-gods, sea beasts, and mad fae.  But somehow…

Quincy placed a hand on her sword, trembling, and damn it all, Elmiryn reached out to her, and her hand was over hers, and there–there–there was that damned knowing look.  That tilt of the lips.  The warrior knew.  “Easy, wizard,” she snickered out.

“You were the one who was jumpy before, twitching and looking over your shoulder, yet now–!” And the brunette snapped the words down, with a snarl on her lips.

“I didn’t know it was ghosts then,” was all the other woman said.  She turned an appraising eye on the dwarf spirits.  “But now that I know the situation better, I sense we have nothing to fear.  After all, if they had wanted to, couldn’t they have done away with us when we first came?  Besides what can a ghost do to us?”

Quincy shook her head.  “They cannot harm us physically, but they can harm us, Elmiryn.  Count on it.  Ever hear of spiritual possession?  They can also manipulate anything not living–like throwing chairs across rooms.  Do you want to find yourself under a hail of rocks?”

“Nay, missus, we would’na do that.” said the dwarf that had first appeared.  He grasped his hat in both hands and looked into each of their faces.  Quincy swallowed as he locked eyes with her, and she saw the macabre skull flicker into view, soulless sockets piercing their black-hole gaze into her head, before the sight shifted away into smoke.  “In truth, we did not know what to make of ye, and so we were vigilant.  But in seeing your dedication to your comrade, even given the dangers…”

“We could’na sit back an’ jus’ watch,” said another dwarf, a tall one for her race, who had long light hair braided back much like Elmiryn liked to have it.  Unlike some of the women, she was dressed in warrior’s gear and fitted with an axe, which she gripped in one thick fist.  “We can help lay your comrade to rest, equip you with what spoils we have left, and grant you safe passage to the Way you seek so ardently.”

“…For something in return.” Sedwick finished, frowning.

The blacksmith dwarf bowed while the woman just tilted her head back and thrust her jaw forward.  “Tis the way of things, sir,” she said, not in the least bit cowed.

The man sighed and looked to Quincy and Elmiryn.  The wizard glanced at the redhead next to her and she bit back a growl to see her smirking, yet again.

“I don’t like it,” she said lowly.  She leaned in close to speak privately, but she wondered if there was any point to the action.  How good was a ghost’s hearing, anyway…? “I have a feeling their payment will not be easy, and we’ve enough troubles on our own!”

“But didn’t you hear her?” Elmiryn murmured back, leaning in as well.  “They’ll give us the last of their treasures!  Dwarves are clever.  Their most precious of artifacts would have been hidden away from Belcliff’s militia!”

Quincy faltered, her eyes lighting up at the thought of possibly acquiring arcane weaponry.  “It could be just some third-rate armor left and spat on by the pillagers…” she said, trying to quell her own streak of avarice.  For all her tremors, it wasn’t working.

“If riches do not do it for you, what about the promise of our Gate?” Sedwick said.  He gestured vaguely to the North.  “I can sense the Gate, but our way to it may be barred.  Somehow, I doubt these souls would have allowed strange and foreign spirits to run amok in their final resting place.”

“Then how did we get here to begin with?” Quincy muttered.

“It was our forced path, remember?” Sedwick said, looking grim.  “This quest of ours may not be as straightforward as we’d like to make it, ladies.  Someone is orchestrating our journey.”

“Let’s just ask them, for Halward’s sake.  They’re ghosts, what could they possibly want?” Elmiryn said, already straightening.

Quincy opened her mouth, about to hiss, “That’s just what I’m worried about,” when the warrior boomed, “And what would you have from us?”

The blacksmith dwarf took a step forward, and clearing his translucent throat, he said loudly.  “For our services, sir and madames, we would ask for rest.”

“Rest?” Elmiryn returned critically.

She looked to Quincy and Sedwick, but the wizard was already staring, agog.  Her eyes swept over their audience, their vast and numerous audience.  The dwarven spirits filled their little square, surrounding them quite effectively (“They could slay us if they so wished it!”) and they filled the roads as far as her eye could see.  The brunette’s mind quickly did the work in her head.  “Gods…there must be at least a thousand of them.  And there’s likely more!”  She looked to Sedwick, whose brow was also furrowed.  “That’s far too much!”

“But what do they mean?” Elmiryn snapped.  “What do they want from us?”

“Rest,” said the tall woman dwarf.  Her eyes narrowed at Quincy, perhaps weighing her mettle.  The wizard raised her head and squared her shoulders.  “What we want is rest.  As you are giving your friend here.”  She gestured at Graziano.

Elmiryn finally got it, by the lengthening look on her face.  Her eyes went wide and her mouth made a small, “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Quincy grumbled.  “Oh.

NYX____________________________

Death is a weight, I find.  Both real and imagined.  It has pressed on me, in the past.  And there, knelt in the gore, it pressed on me still.

I had shoved, gasping out from underneath the deformed monstrosity I had just slain.  Its heart had slithered from my quivering hands and onto the soil where it lay bleeding and glistening purple and blue.  As I came away from it, the beast began to break apart, skin cracking along its misshapen surface as the individual bodies of the nymphs that it had taken to make it–or what was left of them–came free.  They were like fetuses, robbed of their usual shape and semblance of life.  I had seen a stillbirth once, the winter before my exile, when a neighbor had called on the aid of myself and my mother as midwives.  It horrified me then.  Surrounded by such a sight hundreds of times over…well…it was far worse.

I think I slipped into another state of shock, the gore about me stilling me–even by way of thought–so that all I could do was kneel and gaze with glassy eyes.  Dark blood was in my hair, on my arms, my legs, my hands, my feet, everywhere.  The smell filled my lungs.  Limbs, drained of their life, lay in disarray about me like broken parts, snapped off of toys.  Intestines and hearts and lungs and things came tumbling…almost slithering from the hunk of flesh that was once the monster.  The sound…gods…that awful sound.  The black magic was broken.  The spell that had bound the nymphs together in their hate now saw them undone.  Their vile color shaded me…perhaps in more ways than one.

I was a darker person now.

In my haze, I saw clawed feet step unburdened through the mess.  “Knave, you have done well!” Lacertli’s voice.

Slowly I raised my gaze and stared straight into his slitted, yellow eyes, which were squinted in their mirth. Then I swallowed and stood to my feet.  The desire to weep was a strong one, but with Lacertli’s sobering presence I was able to bring my thoughts out of their squalor and saw that such behavior would be wasted.  There was still more to be done.  This time I did not dwell on things.  Just lifted my head and with lidded eyes said,  “Yes, sir.”  My voice sounded thin.

“Nyx you keep calling me brave.  But here, Koen is going to tell you a secret…are you listening kitten?  The truth of it is…I’m always afraid.”  Her brother smiled, and swept back his long and curly hair.  The autumn wind was making a mess of it.  She could understand why the other girls in the village fawned over him.  Even Taila.

“But how can you stand all those terrible things?  All that blood and…”  She thought back to that time…that terrible day when she saw a battlefield for the first time.  The young girl shivered and hugged herself.

Thaddeus’ hand came to rest on her hair.  “You…don’t,” he said quietly.  “You just don’t think about it, Koah.”

“Aye,” Lacertli went on.  “This god is proud of thee.  But the trials are not yet over.”

“The pretas,” I said with the faintest of nods.  I swallowed but knitted my brows in resolution.  I did not look forward to more violence, but I did look forward to leaving this place and finding Elmiryn.

Elle, just hold on.  I’m coming.

The god nodded.  He held out a hand, gesturing to the shadow of the nearest tree.  “Come, let us return to the shard, where your companion awaits.”

“Is Argos okay, sir?” I asked as I lurched to my feet.  There was something wrong with my stomach, and I put a hand over it to quell the feeling, but it started to push up my throat…

“Aye.” Lacertli said.  “The fool dog was about to leap into battle with thee, but I whisked him away before he could.”  That explained the god’s sudden absence from my shoulder, when all this started.  “He would have been slain in the effort, for sure.  In this next task, however, methinks he will be of great assistance.”

I nodded, the action automatic and lacking the usual undercurrent of understanding.  I opened my mouth to say something, but instead of words, I burped, all of my chest and throat muscles heaving.  Alarmed, I stumbled to the side, feet squelching through the guts and bloodied limbs beneath me.  I wretched again and what little was in my stomach came gushing from my mouth.  I kept retching.  I nearly fell over from the discomfort and nausea that came over my head, but I leaned on my knees and after closing my eyes and breathing shallow breaths I was right again.  Still green, I imagine, but I felt like I could fight off any lingering sickness.

“Art thou finished?” Lacertli said, indifferent to my hunched figure.

Some part of me wanted to curl away from his unforgiving nature, but…it was like the lack of sympathy left me no place to hide.  And without a place to hide, I knew I had to keep on.  Turning, I faced the god and tried to will some color back into my sickly skin.  “Aye, sir,” was all I said.  I didn’t bother to wipe at my mouth as both my arms were covered in blood, so some sick still dripped from my quivering lips.

We moved to the shadows to enter the Umbralands.  I felt a little loopy, for I blurted out, “It is funny, sir.  When I think on it, that battle did not take long.”

Lacertli chuckled, his reptilian grin once again in place.  “‘Twas short, for certain.  It had to be.  If it had been any longer, your luck and guile would not have spared you the fate of having your brains ground ‘tween the beast’s rotted molars.”  I shuddered at the thought as I slipped into the shadow.

QUINCY____________________________

“Well…how bad could that be?” Elmiryn asked with a shrug.  They had once again convened, heads pressed together as they spoke quietly on the matter. “I mean…yes I know there’s a lot of them, but we can figure something out.  Right?  Besides don’t we need this?  Never mind Graziano.  Not that he doesn’t matter, but what if the way to the Gate is blocked?  And what about those treasures?  Quincy still needs something proper for herself.”

Quincy rubbed at her face. “Elmiryn, think.  You are being far too blasé about this and it irks me, because I know you cannot be this much of a dullard.”  She thumbed over her shoulder.  “That’s over a thousand dwarven spirits.  They want rest.  Proper rest, something the Belcliff militia denied them.  Their bodies were likely thrown into an open ditch.  Not even considering the possibility that they may each have their own individual requests as to burial, there is the trouble of sorting out their remains, then finding a new and appropriate resting place for them all.  Think on all that time it would take.  We’d be here for an eternity.”

“Well hold on,” Sedwick said, holding up a hand.  “They came to us as a group, and they seem to have their leaders.  As such, they must have agreed on some communal burial.  They aren’t fools.  They know our limitations, and for us to even consider this bargain, they must know of our time constraints.  I’m certain they can be worked down from whatever lofty wish they have for rest.”

“And they keep saying it like that,” Quincy said, biting her thumb–her thumbnails had been torn off in Belcliff when she was in the dark influences.  “They want rest.  They don’t say burial, they don’t say ceremony.  They say rest…what does that mean to a ghost?  And don’t say ‘peace for the soul’, because that’s equally vague as to the achievement of that end!”

Sedwick frowned at this and thought as well.  Elmiryn, finally, seemed to cool her ardor enough to think a bit too.  None said anything.  There was a cough from behind them, and together the three turned and saw the tall woman dwarf, her arms crossed high on her chest.  “Begging your pardon, but as you have your time, so have we.  A decision must be made.”

“Don’t ghosts have all the time in the world?” Elmiryn said, smirking.

The dwarf looked at her sharply.  “Woman, you would not speak so flippantly if you knew the suffering we bear.”  She looked at Sedwick, then let her eyes rest on Quincy.  She let them sit there a long while.  “We will have your decision now, or we vanish.  For your sincerity, we shall leave thee undisturbed.  We believe thee to be good souls doing honest things.  But trust that things will go hard for you then, with or without our hands in the mess!”

Quincy’s mouth turned down at the corners.  She looked to the others.  The decision was on their faces.  She still wasn’t keen on this.  Her hands were still trembling and she had to stare upwards just to spare herself the sight of all those spirits watching her.  But in the end, she was still in the minority…and it wasn’t without its benefits, surely.  The woman was trying her hardest to gaze away from the dwarven children, still clutching to the stout legs of their parents.  Belcliff had much to answer for.

The wizard let out a long exhale and nodded to the others.  Glances were exchanged as to who would give the final word, and finally Sedwick stepped forward.  Quincy thought it strange that Elmiryn passed on the chance, being the braggart that she was, but perhaps it was for the best, what with the warrior’s last comment souring her in the eyes of their chilling audience.  Sedwick was the spiritual authority in company, anyway.

“Your offer is well met and humbly received.  We accept your terms and request aid in committing our poor soul to his final rest,” He said this with a slight bow.  Quincy took the cue, and gave a small curtsy.  She gave Elmiryn a pointed look and the warrior gave not a curtsy but a bow.  Well, at least she didn’t behave as a complete buffoon.

The two dwarven leaders, for that was clearly what they were, turned and regarded their fellows behind them.  The female dwarf pumped her axe and bellowed as her male colleague next to her did the same.  “Alright you sods, all together now!” she roared as her partner bellowed, “Quickly, as one!”

Then with a strong gale, they all vanished, faces and limbs scattering like startled mist.  All was quiet around them.  Quincy wondered if the dwarves had actually vanished for good, but in the next instant, she felt all her body turn cold and the hairs on her arms and neck raise.  She couldn’t resist the shiver that blasted through her, and to her astonishment a fog appeared before her face.  “Lo, lo!” she exclaimed in Fanean, Good grief!–but she resisted the urge to rub warmth into her arms because Elmiryn wasn’t doing it and she didn’t want the woman to smirk at her like that again.

But the warrior, virtually topless, was having a hard time clenching her muscles tight enough to keep them from shivering.  Every bit of her was bunched, and for all her efforts to appear stoic she still shivered.  She bared her teeth, hissing out fog as she gazed across at Quincy…probably thinking the same way, as her hands turned to fists at her sides in her attempt to keep them there.  Sedwick didn’t seem quite as affected as they, though he did let out a small shake and a, “Brrr…”

Then they all gave a start as they saw Graziano’s body at their side rising, seemingly without aid.  As he floated, body straight and the cloak beneath him fluttering, Quincy thought she could see a flicker beneath him, but she couldn’t be sure.  He drifted peacefully over the grave, then slowly, the ghosts lowered him down.  Elmiryn, Sedwick, and Quincy stood around the edges to watch him as he descended.  The wizard swallowed hard when she saw the dwarven spirits, in their kindness, take her cloak and wrap it about the Moretti’s body, like a full shroud.  Finally, he lay quiet and still at the bottom of the grave.

Within time, the spirits appeared once more about them all, and they doffed their hats, with heads bowed.  Quincy frowned and gazed around at them.  “What are they doing?” she breathed.  But Elmiryn and Sedwick were looking at her expectantly.  “What?” she asked.

Sedwick bowed his head like the ghosts and rubbed at the side of his face.  Elmiryn, with her cerulean eyes gazing sharp over the mouth of their fresh grave, said,  “We’re waiting for you, Quincy.”

“Me?” Now the woman’s shoulders bunched.  “What for?”

“You knew him best,” Elmiryn said simply.  “Can’t you say a few words?”

But Quincy was already shaking her head, her russet brown hair swaying about her face.  “No,” she bit out.  “I can’t.”

The warrior sucked at her teeth as her gaze turned lidded.  There was something heavy in her eyes…was that disappointment?  Then Elmiryn straightened, her hands going behind her back as she placed her feet beneath her shoulders.  “Fine then,” she said, without looking at Quincy.  There was steel in her voice.  “I will speak.”

The warrior’s expression softened and she looked down into the grave.  She started to speak, and it was with a slow and careful speed, like she were trying to word everything just right.  “I met Graziano on a road less traveled, and looking back, I think it appropriate.  That was less than a week ago, but it seemed like so much longer…and I think, with my particular condition, that such individuals who are capable of remaining in my heart and in my mind are all the more valuable to me.  That was this man.”  She paused here, her brow wrinkling.  Then she went on.  “On that day, Nyx, my ward and close companion, had become wary of the way the road cut through the mountains.  Lethia, our new friend and escort, begged us to move forward.  It was Graziano that changed our fate, forcing us forward.  He was a bounty hunter, hired to apprehend Lethia and return her to Belcliff–” there was an increase in the chill in the air, but Elmiryn went on without missing a beat, “But while his work was unpleasant, the young man was anything but.”  And here the woman smirked.  “Of his three brothers, I believe he was the heart and soul that kept them in good spirits.  Through a surprising twist in circumstance, Graziano and his young brother Paulo became our allies, and together we traveled for a time.  He cared for his brother, and it was one night in the dance of a fire’s glow that he related to me the reason for his care.  He had promised his dying father to protect his youngest sibling, and he carried this vow unto death.”

The warrior, turning her eyes to gaze ahead at nothing, drew the pistol from the seat of her pants and held it aloft with bent arm.  She still kept one hand behind her back.  “Yes.  The day I first met him, Graziano was eager to show me his gun, which aside from his brothers, he treasured greatly.  I will take this gun to his brother Paulo, for I believe him to be alive, and the boy will know the extent of his brother’s love.  This I so swear!”

Though they were quiet and subdued, there were, “Hear, hears!” from the dwarves attending.

Elmiryn brought her feet together, one fist over her heart and bowed deeply.  When she straightened again, she was smiling broadly, her eyes on the form down below…and were they a little misty? “Graz, you were damn good for a laugh and braver than most men I’ve met.  Tell Halward he owes me a harem when I get up to heaven, as I’m certain he most surely has one waiting for you!”  She then turned and grabbed a handful of soil, preparing to sprinkle it down onto his form.

Quincy, shaking, couldn’t take it anymore. “Wait!  Gods damn it all, wait!

The woman paused, as though not surprised to hear this sudden outburst, and Elmiryn turned to gaze at her coolly.

“I will speak…” The wizard breathed, perspiration chilling on her nose and forehead.  She gave a glance over her shoulder at the dwarves, all looking at her with equally reserved expressions.  “I will speak.  I must.  I…said I’d do this properly.  So…I…must speak.”

Quincy rubbed at her face and let her hand remain there for a moment.  Then with a shudder, she raised her head high and gazed up at the craggy ceiling of the underground city.  “I met Graziano ten years ago, when I had just turned twenty-years-old.  He was just…a boy then.  Barely twelve…” and here she allowed for a small grin.  “…And he was already trying to flirt with me, the little lahasho…that means horny devil in Fanaean.  I used to call him that all the time.  Lahasho,” she added as an afterthought.  She let herself cross her arms and closed her eyes.  “It was my first time in the Santian Kingdom, and having been in the bounty hunting life for only two years, I was still getting the hang of it.  My husband and I were looking for work when Arduino, Graziano’s older brother, offered to guide us through the Erminian jungles in pursuit of a bounty.  His family worked with monsters, but they had fallen on hard times.  That is how the Morettis began their careers as bounty hunters, and this is how I came to be in young Graziano’s company.

“The two years I lived in Santos, I was good friends with the Morettis, and an even better partner.  I was there that very day that Graziano vowed to look out for Paulo, and later attended their parents funeral.  He was fourteen at the time.  It was that sad year that my own ambitions overcame me, and I betrayed him and his brothers.”  Quincy could feel the hot stares all around her, none worse than those of Elmiryn, who snorted softly.  The wizard tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and let her fingers stay there, rested lightly at the hinge of her jaw.  “You would be right in cursing me.  I was frustrated by the Morettis lack of focus following their parents death, being of an independent and hardened mind myself then.  I was used to being an orphan.  I didn’t understand. All I could think of was gold and precious artifacts.  It was when Graziano failed to back me up in a venture with the local Aikandi that I, in petty fury, cut them out of the very riches that could have seen their family business restored.  What I could not see then, and what I would not let myself see later, was that Graziano, along with his family, were still grieving.  Arduino, though hard working and as crafty as I, did not know how to play the role of father.  He could not bring his brothers together…but I believe Graziano could.  Later, when the boy was approaching manhood, I could see how he kept Arduino from falling into darkness, and how they both worked together to raise Paulo.  My relationship with the Morettis was complicated, to say the least, and Graziano made it clear that he still had not forgiven me for my betrayal all those years ago…but he wasn’t an evil person, and I don’t know if he knew any true amount of hate until the day he died.”

Quincy couldn’t help it.  A small sob came up her throat and she clapped a hand over her mouth and stared down into the grave where she imagined Grazino’s marred face twisting in fury.

Ah, lia…you have done me wrong, you have…

She shook these thoughts from her head, and with small gasp for air, the woman managed to keep from breaking down.  Hot tears spilled from her eyes and she trembled fiercely, and it wasn’t for the cold.  “It is true!  I was a bitch, wasn’t I Graziano?  And the worst of it is, all your family’s misfortune was my doing.  Even unto your death, it was my doing…”  The woman squeezed her eyes shut, for Elmiryn’s face was hardening and her eyes seemed to hold a promise of violence.  Even coming from this warrior, this rival, this uncouth knave, the wizard found her usual defensiveness and arrogance petering out in the gales of her new found sentimentality.  She wished, with not a little shame, that Tonatiuh could make her numb once more.

“You see, Graziano,” Quincy blinked and stared balefully down into the grave.  “I had an idea of the danger that was to come, that night at Holzoff’s.  I even thought to use you and your brother to smoke out Syria, who I suspected of foul play.  I hid safe in the shadows, out of the mind witch’s reach while you and Paulo suffered, and, and–” and finally she gave.  Her knees came out from under her and she bawled and keened, rocking a bit as she covered her burning face in all her shame.  “It’s my fault!” she wailed.  “I was a wily coward.  None of this would’ve happened if–”

“Oh shut it!” Elmiryn barked, and Quincy stared up at her in shock, her sobs quieted to hiccups.  The warrior sneered at her, her eyes cutting.  “Yeah, we get it.  You were a worthless human being.  But this isn’t about you,” Elmiryn gestured over Graziano’s grave.  “You spit things out of your mouth Quincy, but damned if I’ve seen you back up anything you’ve said so far!  You wanted Graz to have a proper burial.  So make your peace with him and let the poor man rest.”

There were murmurs of agreement, and Quincy stared at her, stunned.  Then she wiped at her eyes and bowed her head.  She let it hang there for a time, before she lifted her face and gave a jerk of a nod.  “You’re right.”  She stood to her feet.  “You’re right, Elmiryn.”  The wizard curtsied low, and as she rose, she said, “Graziano, please forgive me for all that I’ve ever done.  I’m…not very good at this.  I don’t know how to make it up to you and your brothers, but I’ll figure out a way.  I will.”

Quincy sought out Elmiryn’s eyes and found them.  The warrior nodded to her, and she held out her fist, which still gripped her handful of soil.  “Go in peace, Graziano Moretti.”  She sprinkled the dirt and it pattered down into the grave.  Then the warrior turned and with shovel in hand proceeded to throw in dirt.  She didn’t do this for a long.  Some of the dwarven spirits in attendance vanished once more and with their ghostly suggestion, the grave was filled in no time.  There was a chipping sound and Elmiryn, Quincy, and Sedwick turned with surprise to find that in the base of the stone statue, those same spirits chiseled in Graziano’s full name, his birth year, 3547, and the current year, 3569.

To this, the wizard’s eyes fluttered.  “How…did they know all those things for certain?  Graziano was twenty-two, it’s true, but he could’ve been born either the year of ’46 or ’48!”

The dwarven warrior woman, with her axe still in hand, gazed up at her with hard eyes.  “We’re ghosts, miss.  Jus’ because we’re stuck here, don’t mean we don’t see those in passin’!”

Quincy’s heart stilled.  “You…spoke to him?”

The ghost nodded her head, and her lips quirked up at the ends.  “Aye, miss.  He came up as soon as he was in the grave.  Seems he was stuck in that body there.  Lemme tell you, he could’na hardly believe you were weepin’ over his poor form!”

“You’re teasing me!” The wizard snapped, seeing the grin expand on the dwarven woman’s face.

“Tis the truth, damn you!  He’s still angry with ye, and I don’ blame him…but he appreciated your sincere apology, and a’fore he left he had one last thing to say.”

Quincy thought she was about to start crying again, and Sedwick moved near, as though prepared to catch her in case her legs grew weak again.  “…What did he say?”

The dwarven woman scrunched up her face as she struggled with her mouth to imitate the bounty hunter’s voice.  Though her accent made this an awkward affair, the tone was unmistakably inspired by Graziano.  “‘Dry up your alligator tears, lia!  You always were too self-involved.  If you want to make things right so bad, then you do what I couldn’t.  You take care of Paulo.  Arduino is a grown man and I don’t think there’s anything to be done with him…but tell him I love him.  Tell them both that.  And tell Ard the picture is in the back of the vanity dresser, back home in Santos.  I’m sorry I hid it from him.‘  And that was it, miss.  He was on.”

Quincy nodded, her head ducking as tears dripped from the end of her ruddy nose.

“Hey.” She looked warily at Elmiryn, who had come to her side, arms crossed and brow furrowed.  The redhead punched her in the arm.  Hard.  “So now you know what you can do,” she said simply.

The wizard gazed at her, quiet.  Then she smiled weakly.  “Yes.  Now I know what I can do.”  She looked at the ghosts about them.  “Thank you, spirits!  Now lead on!  We have much to do!” And there was a cheer.

Continue ReadingChapter 20.3

Chapter 21.1

“…Environment is like the shadow, and life, the body. Without the body, no shadow can exist, and without life, no environment. In the same way, life is shaped by its environment.” — Nichiren Daishonin

NYX____________________________

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Inside her, the violation still wrought havoc, but her limbs were stilled as her patron began to exude an energy that pressed on her on a fearsome level.  She gurgled, her hands still like claws as spine bended her toward the ground.  Her eyes twitched to the side, scared wide, as blood seeped in like tears. It would be a blessing if they scabbed over, for she saw her god turn dark.  Dark like an unending space, pregnant with possibilities.

You will remove thyself, or this God shall remove thee!  Lacertli thundered.  The girl could feel his words and wished herself elsewhere.

Ancient One, let your vermagus speak, she has such a wonderful voice! Izma replied.  I want to hear how she came to meddle in my joy, to stand in the way of my revolution!  Did she know she was a trespasser?

Lacertli wasted no more talk.

He slipped forth, a sigh on the ground, as leaves would skip the earth, before he burst up again in an arc–all fangs and claws and reptilian fury.  Nyx did not dare turn her head to see the battle in full, but she saw the lizard god descend on the creature-woman, who from her peripheral sight was like a cluster of stars and bright jewels.  She shivered as the air crackled and a deep boom resonated through the air. The fog that held secrets of other worlds now pulsed and surged like malicious smoke.  The wondrous images were gone.  The blood was drying on her fingers, and her face itched from the healing wounds.

A ripple went through the ground and she heard the music stop with a violent scream.  Then silence.

Nyx saw clawed feet stop near her.  Her muscles relaxed as the pressure that bound her vanished.  She raised her head, face lax in shock.

Sir…?

Lacertli stooped down, and as he did, he grew larger.  So large, that she was like a small rodent to his massive clawed hand, which scooped her up into its palm.  The girl squeaked as he held her up to his long face.  The lizard god roared, and shadowy golems rose in his likeness.  The edges of his form blurred and the colors that made up his body separated like light through a prism.  Spikes appeared on his tough skin.

Night Child, I have chased the creature off, but she will return.  She will seek thee.  I cannot allow this.  So I must hide you.
The god started to close his right hand, and Nyx panicked.

Sir!  Sir, please wait!!  I don’t understand! She screamed, scuffling along his salty palm.

Night Child, he hissed.  Thou must continue your search.  Remember that the lost can be found again!  Remember the standard you now carry!

She was plunged into darkness as his hand closed around her, squeezing her till she couldn’t breathe.  Then she felt the world sigh over her, and his touch was gone.  She fell backward into nothing.

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QUINCY_________________________

Elmiryn exhaled softly, and Quincy felt a breeze brush back her hair.  She shivered without meaning to.

After the strange music had left her head she felt out of sorts.  The brunette wondered a bit if it were all a dream.  The idea was a bit ludicrous.  Elmiryn?  Capable of commanding a mob of undead?  But Quincy knew that was being generous.  Elmiryn wasn’t in complete control.  She was just barely keeping it together.  It had taken the warrior forever just to get the undead to spread out enough that Quincy and Sedwick could reach her.  They could’ve done it themselves, but Elmiryn hadn’t been kidding when she said she felt everything the soldiers did.  The wizard had tested this herself when she twisted the exposed nipple of a Belcliff soldier…and maybe it was a bit of payback for all the grief Elmiryn had brought on her.  The wizard didn’t feel bad.  The soldier’s skin was in better shape than most of his companions.  The skin only tore a little bit.

Upon finding her, Elmiryn was stuck in a crouch with her body stiff as a board.  She stared up at them, only daring to move her eyes.  When Quincy reached down to grab her arm, the ceiling groaned and a small crack fissured along the southern end.  Wide-eyed, the woman let the warrior go.  “Damn…” she breathed.

“Yeah,” Elmiryn snapped.  The wizard heard some of the undead murmur the same.  “I did mention that would happen, didn’t I?”

“How do we move her?” Sedwick mused.  He went to rub the side of his face, then winced when he touched his cut.

The wizard shook her head.  “We don’t.”  She looked at Elmiryn.  “You were able to move the soldiers, you should be able to move yourself.”

“I’m trying,” was the strained reply.

“Where are the dwarves?” Quincy muttered, looking around.  “Why haven’t they come?  They can see this, can’t they?”

“There’s a lot I’m not sure about.  I can’t hazard a guess till we get more information.” Sedwick crouched down in front of Elmiryn and leaned on his legs.  “Elmiryn, how are you doing?”

Her mouth quirked into a smile.  “There’s no real words for it.”  Then the smile vanished and she just stared.  “It…hurts a little.  In a good way.”

Quincy narrowed her eyes at that.  “Elmiryn, just how much are you feeling?”

Cerulean met azure.  “Everything.  Down to the lace of your brazier.”

The wizard’s nose scrunched.  “But I’m not wearing a brazier!”

Elmiryn’s eyes batted. “Oh.”  She let her gaze roll to the soldiers. “…Ohhh.”

Quincy frowned and looked at the dead men.  One of the soldiers?  Really…?

Sedwick waved the revelation away with his hand.  “Aaaand…we’re focusing.”

Both women looked at him, one still confused, the other restraining her laughter.  “Right,” Elmiryn piped.  “Focusing.  I am totally focusing.  I’m focusing so hard, bits of me are turning blue–”

Sedwick ignored the warrior and stood, rubbing his chin.  “I won’t lie.  I’m really worried.  The music that was in the air felt alive.”

“Meznik.”  Elmiryn spat the word out, like venom.  “Remember, don’t try to…uh…remember.  Y’know.  The song.”

“Hard not to think about something you’re thinking about…” Quincy said, rubbing her forehead.  She couldn’t help it.  The melody popped in, unbidden.  Laaa, la, laaa, la laa-di-daa…

A fetid hand struck her across the face.  Quincy staggered.  She gazed at the undead, completely stunned.  She pointed at it, then glared at Elmiryn.  “Did–Did–Did you just–?!”

“If I told you not to think about a bunch of rotting men dressed only in lingerie, would you be able to focus like our dear Sedwick asks?”
Quincy stomped a foot and grabbed the soldier by the nose.  Without thinking she slipped into Fanaean.  “You bastard witch–try something like that again and I’ll make you feel broken a thousand times over!!”  Of course now, she wasn’t thinking about the demon song, just hurting Elmiryn.

…And what a bunch of undead wearing lingerie would look like.

“She’s started babbling.  Thus, I don’t care.” Elmiryn looked at Sedwick, and Quincy was ready to kick her in the face.  That horrible mental image would never leave her– The warrior went on, “Meznik came.  For a bit.  Just to gloat, it sounded like, but…I mentioned this, didn’t I?  He’s worried.  Doesn’t like being here.  He’s…”  The woman frowned.  “He’s guiding me.  Maybe he’s the one forcing our path.”

“What makes you say that?” Sedwick’s voice took on a harsh note.  Quincy shoved the undead away by the face with a sneer and watched the elemental’s expression shift from contemplative calm to a bristling anger.  “He’s put you in danger countless times and killed hundreds of people.  Why change that now?”

“Because he has plans.  He’s always talking about what he does like it’s an art.”  Then Elmiryn’s eyes narrowed.  “Theater backdrops…”

Sedwick looked at Quincy who held up her hands in answer.  “What?” Sedwick crossed his arms.  The muscles in his neck were bunching.

“When I went to confront Nadi for the first time, he told me he ‘shifted some backdrops’ and that was all.  He moved things around.  Made her confused.  That drove her insane.  He never did anything to her directly.

“And?” Quincy said.  “Never mind that you are both quickly associating all of this to this demon, but you still can’t even figure out how to stand up.  Are you telling me you’ve found a connection?  Between this disembodied spirit and the very physical shifts that keep happening when you so much as wiggle your pinky?”

Elmiryn’s smile had a hook to it.  “I’m a mortal.  I still have weight.  My flesh defines me.  They teach us that early on as kids.  The gods and spirits are beings unbound by earthly ties.  But I’m–” She coughed out a laugh.  It sounded false and bitter.  “I’m changing, into something else.  I can feel it now.  I’m sitting on a line–and because of that, I’m pulling at both sides of the blanket, so to speak.”

“Huh?” Quincy said, frowning.  Then her eyes widened.  It was just as the warrior said.  All societies, in one form or other, teach their young their place in the universe.  They were mortals, and their lives were bound by the vessels of flesh as much as they were sustained by the physical environment.  Immortals and spirits knew no such tethers.  Elmiryn, since they had found her, not only had shown signs of a greater stability in this spiritual dimension, but the ability to see what mortals could not.

Quincy knelt down in front of Elmiryn, her azure eyes wide.  Her heart was beating fast. “If what you’re saying is true, then you don’t have much time.  Either your consciousness slips back into your body or you dissipate into this place without a way to come back.”

“Or knowing this place, she’d be ripped apart.  A piece of a soul in a shell of a body whilst the rest of you lives in the bones of these dead.”  Sedwick said grimly.

“I know the dust too,” Elmiryn said, looking between them.  “I know the rock and the buildings and the machines and the stains and the insects and the tiny, tiny, tiny creatures that live on our skin that we can’t see.  Did you know? Dust makes for good conversation.  They know quite a bit!”  Elmiryn paused for a breath, then looked at her hands with just her eyes.  “Hey.  I, um…I can’t feel my arms.”

“I guess we know which way she’s slipping then…” Quincy said with a sigh.

NYX____________________________

I opened my eyes and regretted it.  So much light.  I hissed and turned my face away, eyelids squeezed shut.  I could hear laughing and popping.  Music sounded off in the distance.

I was on cold stone, which bit into my spine as my shoulders and head hung free over an edge.  My legs dangled at the knees.  I clawed at the stone and started to raise myself up.  My eyes slivered open.  Warmth.  Fire.  I frowned and sat up fully.  I held a hand up before the light and opened my eyes further.

All of a sudden I couldn’t breathe.

I was on the hand of Halward, the Star Ruler, who gazed down toward the Earth with stern expression as his other hand pointed skyward.  Torches on long poles blazed all around him, lighting every nook and cranny.  Though it were just a statue, I could just imagine his hair really being blown about the wind, the fair locks teasing his lined forehead as his penetrating stare held me fast.  He was bare chested, his strength for all to see, and I let my eyes travel down his muscled arm to where I sat.  I realized with a start that this statue of Halward was not condemning those on the ground.  He was beckoning them to rise, up to the heavens.

Sweet Aelurus, I thought.  Lacertli didn’t–no–he couldn’t have–

But I turned my head and thought I was going to faint again.  Through Halward’s stone fingers I saw a city.  A city where tall gables pierced the skyline, and red brick domes with golden ribs and star-like crowns dared to mimic the stars of the night.  The paved streets teemed with phantoms, all cheering, all carousing.  Fireworks popped over the heads of the crowd.  The sky was dark, but the city was ablaze, thanks to the tall curved lamps that focused their light downward

From one god’s hand into another.  Lacertli had sent me to the Fiamman Kingdom.

…I was dead.

Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead!

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy rubbed her temples and started pacing.  “Damn, damn, damn…”

Sedwick stared at Elmiryn like she were a strange new plant.  Elmiryn had stopped talking for the last ten minutes.  She stared with glass-like eyes as drool came out of the corner of her mouth.

“You think…she’s still there?” Sedwick murmured, his head tilting to one side.

“She could be anywhere…or everywhere, from what she told us.”  Quincy bit her knuckle.  Then her eyes brightened and a wolfish curl came to her lips.  “But this…this reminds me of something.”

“Really?” Sedwick turned and gazed up at her.  The woman paused and looked down at him, one eyebrow tilted.

“I came across…records, of a slave girl, an Omatt, who had gained the power to control things on the most basic level.  She could make silk from stone and steel from water.”

“Arachne…?” Sedwick breathed.  His brows rose so that his forehead wrinkled severely.

Quincy’s jaw tightened and she turned her back to him.  She glared at the ground.  “It isn’t exactly the same, but there could be an answer in those stories.  Elmiryn has become in tune with everything around us, but she sees herself in everything.  She has to believe that the environment is separate from herself.  Something she can control.  And she can do that if she manipulates the basics.”

“Like…?”

“One of the first things you learn as a spell caster is that Life has many levels, and not all of them can be seen by our eyes.”  Quincy leaned her head back.  “You have to feel it.  Enchanters talk about intellectual clusters.  Matrices of the mind.” She crouched next to Sedwick.  “Did you know that lightning sorcerers can sense energy in brains?  That alchemists can break an item down to nothing?  Not even steam or dust.  Just nothing?” She cut a look across at the man,  “That they can bring it back from nothing?”

He frowned softly at her. “I’ve been learning of the way of spirits, but this is out of my realm of knowledge.”

“There’s one common denominator for the things that make up our world.  If Elmiryn is truly in touch with our environment, then she should be able to feel that and control it.”

Sedwick gestured around them.  The undead had been reduced to husks, just standing quiet.  Even the air had stilled.  “How can we reach her?  Nothing is responding.”

Quincy scooped up a handful of dirt.  She let the large grains filter through her fingers, leaving only a light silky coat over her skin.  “I thought a conversation with the dust she likes so much seemed like a good idea.”

NYX____________________________

I scaled down the statue, around the back, trying to keep the shakes from my limbs, because one slip or misstep could see me undone. I had to scramble up Halward’s arm and make a wild leap to the waistband of his loincloth.  There I spider-climbed to the back of the statue, out of view of those down on the street.  As I looked down, I realized however that there was no where else for me to go.  I bared my teeth, pressing my forehead to the stone.  It took me a full minute to get my bearings and fight the moisture from my eyes.  I turned looked over my shoulder.  Again, I saw no way of climbing down the statue, but a sweep around me showed me another way.  It was a bit of a jump, but I could jump onto one of the torch poles and slide my way down.  The poles were well anchored as far as I could tell.

I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths.  I wasn’t afraid of heights.  I could survive great drops, and some of my favorite places were up high.  But even I could see the danger of falling from such a place.  I looked back to the pole, judged the distance, and with a small grunt I jumped for it.

For a terrifying second I thought I had jumped short.  I fell through the air, my mane of hair lifting and the rags on my body flapping in the wind.  But then I came close enough that I was able to grab onto the pole.  It was polished brass and pulled at my bare skin.  I hissed as I slammed into it.  Then I bettered my grip and started to climb down.

I made it to the base in one piece, and looked around.  I was behind one of Halward’s feet.  I pressed my back to it and peered out to the crowd.  Now that I was closer, I could see them better.

The phantoms were all dressed up in robes, dresses, capes, and feathered hats.  All had colorful masks.  People disguised themselves as reptiles, birds of prey, and caricatures of man.  They laughed and danced about each other, drunk and wily in their merriment.  I shrank further back.

…Among them were solid beings, not phantoms, who towered over the crowd a full five or six feet.  They had long spindly arms and wicked claws that now and again reached down into the throng and plucked up a glowing orb.  These they swallowed, their jaws gaunt and jutting, the fangs small and uneven.  I couldn’t see their faces, for they wore hoods, but they had long bull-like horns where white symbols had been burned into the black bone.

“Gods…” I breathed, then went down onto my knees where I proceeded to press my forehead to the cold ground.  “Oh gods, what am I going to do?”  I squeezed my eyes shut and wished I were on a ship heading east with Elmiryn.  I wished, with not a little shame, that we had kept to ourselves.  That Argos hadn’t found us, that we hadn’t met Lethia, that we hadn’t broke into Holzoff’s and freed a lunatic–

Then I stopped.

My body felt cold and I sat up.  The shadow of Halward’s leg colored my thoughts.  How despicable was I?  After all I had gone through, was I really the sort of person to think such terrible things?  That was something my Twin did–

Only…My Twin wasn’t here.

“I’m just as bad as She is…” I sighed, bowing my head.  “I’m sorry, Lethia.  Wherever you are.  I hope you can’t hear my thoughts.  I’m not sure you’d forgive me for being such a coward…” I wiped the tears that had fallen.  But somehow the desire to cry was just not there.  Within the next instant the tension in my throat was gone and my eyes dry.  I thought about my recent battles and instead, became angry.  “Honestly!  What a kitten I am!  I didn’t survive all of that just to curl up into a ball!” I gave one last swipe of my eyes.

I stopped focusing on the haunting spirits and the unsettling creatures that fed on them, and instead started looking at the buildings and structures that populated the square–for that’s what it was.  The festivities spanned out as far as my eye could see, but it seemed to start here, with people funneling in through what were a set of archways to my right.  I saw a path out by the crenelated parapet of a two-story tower not far from the statue platform.  Though I’d be in the open from point to point, there was one thing I could do.

I could slip into the shadows.

With a deep breath in through my nose, I pressed into the shadow of Halward’s leg.  I emerged into that cold place, the Umbralands, blinking.  The shadows here were weaker, because of the torchlight that flooded down from above.  Thus, in this monochromatic world, the shadows were starker, but the white more prevalent.  My way to the tower was blocked.  But I didn’t feel a resistance from my environment as I had from the Kreut.  Those tall spirits didn’t seem to upset any balance here.  When I willed the shadows to form me a path, they did so without too much suggestion.  The festivities went on as normal.

I hopped down from the platform and sprinted along the black path to the shadows of the tower.  As my form passed, the trail I had created vanished.  Once in the safety of the tower, I knew I needed to slip back.  The divisions created by the intense lighting made travel here limited, and while I could still sort of see the phantoms and the spirits, I could not see them well enough to feel comfortable.  They were like a shifting mob of smudges and crosshatched lines in that hot sea of white.  Damned Fiammans, what was with their obsession of light and fire?

I pressed into the tower’s dark wall and slipped back into the real world.  Or…was this real?  Then it hit me.  Of course I wasn’t in Fiamma.  Not physically anyway.  So the phantoms were…?

But then a firework flared my way, lighting past my shocked expression, and I pressed back into the stone wall with a numbing shock.  The phantoms did not react, though I knew some were looking my way.  I blinked and felt my panic subside.  I took a step toward them and squinted my eyes.  Then I found the answer to my question.

The phantoms were people.  Real people.  But they were not here.  In this shard.  Lacertli had said this world was a reflection of mine.  If that were so, could not mortals be seen in the environment too?  It would explain the indifference to the towering spirits that harvested from them with little hurry.  The humans could not see the creatures, and yet they were a part of the environment.  Still in some way manipulatable.

Now that I knew that my likelihood for discovery was a lot lower, I didn’t feel as nervous.  I looked up the tower wall.  There were precious few places where I could grab a hold, and they were all too high for me.  The wall adjacent, however…

I took several steps back, and with a breath, I rushed up the corner wall, which was built at a slant to cast off rain water.  I made it up six feet before I reached the edge with my hands.  I pulled myself up.  From there I turned and with a small jump I grabbed hold of a bare brick that was left after those surrounding it had eroded.  From there, I reached up and took hold of another, and another, until I made it up to the parapet.  I lifted myself up and through the crenelations, head bowed, panting a little.

“Oooh!!”

I froze.  Slowly my eyes lifted.  A flare of white light from a firework lent me the sight of an abalone gaze winking through half-moon glasses.  Soon after, I was met with a fanged smile from a deltaic face not even three inches from my own.  Something sharp prickled at the back of my head.

I flinched from the deep, honey-dew voice that entered my ear.  There was something unsettling about it.  “The Lady graces me with kin!  I can taste the very nature of you from the air itself!”  The person’s true nature eluded me, such that I couldn’t guess their gender with any sort of confidence.  They sat on the edge of a blade, neither tipping one way or the other.

They bowed low, leather jacket tinkling from the many belt buckles they swept aside.  I had a dim view of their slim form, and saw the breasts that shadowed their chest.  A woman then.  She had glossy copper hair that stopped just at the shoulder blades.  This was pulled into a low ponytail.  Her ears were large and long at the tips, like an elf’s, but that was where the similarity ended, for along the ridges down to her lobes were four other protrusions.  They reminded me of the horned trumpet shells Marquis used to bring to my village to sell, and indeed, her ears did have the quality of trumpets the way they stuck out so.  Her nose was small and the ridge so shallow that it seemed almost beast-like.  The nostrils were practically slits.  I didn’t know what this woman was.

She introduced herself merrily.  “I am Tristi, a humble servant much like yourself.  I answer to Fortuna, the Lady Luck, and bear her standard on my right hand.”  She held this up, and I saw a fingerless glove with a smooth dark oval over the back.  It gleamed like glass in the flashes of the fireworks.  I also noticed she had only four fingers.  Then she lowered this, looking expectant.

Startled, I realized Tristi was waiting for me to introduce myself.  Or rather, to proclaim, as Lacertli would put it.

“I am Nyx, an…adventurer, I…er…suppose.  I–I answer to Lacertli, the…ah, Dreamwalker.”  I felt foolish.  Tristi sounded so sure of her station, and certainly looked the part.  I, on the other hand, was quivering, half-naked, with hair matted from blood and gore, and pale limbs that hardly looked capable of snapping a dry twig in half.

The woman tilted her head back with a loud, “Oh!” She wasn’t afraid of discovery by the giants it seemed.  “So the Lizard King has finally chosen a champion!  Aye, but you are a strange choice!  And your standard?” Tristi asked, her lips tilting.  She was getting increasingly aware of my inexperience and it really started to make me feel like an even bigger idiot.

“What?” I frowned.  She had asked for my standard, but I had thought it only a metaphorical idea.  I knew what they were of course.  Symbols or emblems affiliating one to a particular nation, family, or order.  But I had no flag or badge to display.  “I don’t have–”  But then Tristi, with cold hands, grabbed me by the left shoulder and pulled at the rags left covering my chest, tearing them.  I squeaked and fell away from her, swatting at her hands.  “Stop that!  Let go!”  I scrambled to cover myself–she’d pulled just enough of my clothes that now my breasts were open to the chilly air.

She backed off fast at my protest, but looked unconcerned by my mortification.  She pointed at my chest with a wink.  “Nyx.  Look.  You hold your patron’s standard even if you are not aware of it.”

I blinked and looked where she pointed.  Over the top of my left breast was an image of a lizard, much like the one I’d seen on Marquis before he’d died.  I stared.  I ran my fingers over it.  The skin was smooth–this wasn’t a scar.  It was more like a tattoo, one done with a mild ink to make it almost seem like a birthmark.

Tristi wasn’t as fascinated by this revelation as I was.  She already turned her back to me and walked across the roof to look down at the festivities.  Some of the glow from the streets lit her from below, making her seem a bit sinister.  Not such a stretch.

“You caught me at a fortuitous moment, sister!” The woman crowed.  She held up a hand which held an orb.  “I follow the whims of my mistress, and she has led me here on a task.  Forgive my brusqueness.  I would love to chat more–you are the first champion I’ve met since Njord’s, and it’s been an age–but I have work to do!”  She turned from me and kissed the orb before lightly tossing it to the crowd below.  “If you are truly Lacertli’s champion…”  She looked at me sideways with a maniacal grin.  “Then you’ll be able to keep up.”

Then I heard a keening wail rip through the air, before a blast rocked the tower and sent it careening into the crowd…

QUINCY_________________________

Sedwick was huffing behind her.  “If I’d known this was what you meant–”

“What were you expecting?  For me to pull another trick out of my bag?”

“Frankly?  Yes!

“Just because you’re half-elemental doesn’t make you arbitrary ruler of mystical knowledge.  Kindly shut up and go sit your bare ass on a sharp rock, why don’t you?  I’m busy being useful.”

The man snorted and walked away, hands in the air.  Quincy crouched down, returned to the task at hand.  With her forefinger, she wrote into the dirt:

ELMYREN ARE YOU THERE?

Then she rocked back onto her heels and waited. She’d tried two other messages in about ten different places, and each time was a failure.  This was quickly looking like a dud as well.  After waiting what felt like an eternity, the wizard, now red-faced, erased the message with a violent sweep of her hands.  Then, with the nail of her thumb, she scratched in a new message:

HEY YOU IDIOT. I’M TALKING TO YOU!

She glared at the words for a full minute.  Then Quincy sighed and let her forehead hit her knees.  “Ugh…”  When she lifted her puckered face, she got a surprise.  Her message had been replaced with a new one in slanted cursive:

You spell my name wrong and suddenly I’M the idiot?  It’s E-L-M-I-R-Y-N, you fucking twat.

Quincy’s face turned beat red.  “Tai’undu!  Wikan a-lo kuele pon golj mkundu Fiamman!!”  Fuck!  Why am I stuck with this bastard Fiamman!! The woman erased that message and scribbled back:

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU, I’VE BEEN TRYING TO REACH YOU FOR WHAT MUST’VE BEEN AN HOUR!

The response came back quickly.  Quincy’s words were smoothed away, and all at once Elmiryn’s response came.

I was following a lead.  I think I know where Meznik went.

Quincy grit her teeth.

THAT DOESN’T MATTER NOW.  IF YOU KEEP THIS UP YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO COME BACK.

Relax.  I’m starting to get the hang of this.  I found out a few things–

But the woman’s words were lost in a strong gust of air.  The brunette jumped to her feet.  It wasn’t Elmiryn, she knew this.  The feeling that crept up the back of her neck was…

With a hiss and pop, Henriette appeared, her ghostly face long and her eyes wide.  She sounded out of breath.  “You have to leave!” she panted.  She pointed up the path with her axe.  “Flee, run!

Quincy frowned at her.  “What–?”

Sedwick, who’d taken to pouting down the road, now pointed ahead with pale eyes turned wide.  “Quincy, the dwarves!”

The wizard looked, her teeth bared as she drew her sword.  Henriette cursed next to her and came near.  The ghost felt cold and Quincy flinched from having her so near.  “Madreg and some of the commoners–it happened so suddenly!” she breathed.

A gang of the common dwarves had appeared and were marching toward them and the undead.  Their eyes glowed red and their forms had turned black and smoky.  Madreg was at the head of them.

“We’d been waiting for so long.  When we saw what you had done with the undead, some of us rejoiced.  The fighting was finally done.  But some…lost it.  Some weren’t satisfied.  Some were afraid what it meant.  They wondered if you’d hurt us too.”  Henriette held her axe at the ready.  Sedwick came to join them, his arms turning to watery tentacles.  Around them, dwarven fighters, appeared.

Quincy didn’t bother asking how such wild and open ended conclusions could be drawn from such a dubious situation.  The dwarves had said it themselves.  They were getting closer to an existence of mindless evil.  It didn’t have to make sense when you were losing yourself to time.

“Elmiryn, either you get out of the dust,” Quincy fell back into a fighting stance, her eyes narrowed.  “Or dust you’ll stay, and us to join you, damn it all!”

Continue ReadingChapter 21.1

Chapter 21.2

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy felt an ache at her knees as she bent them in a ready position. With her sword held before her, she glanced quickly at those around her. Henriette and some of her comrades were willing to help them in this fight. Sedwick was all ready making the transition from flesh to liquid, his face set into a hard mask. Elmiryn and the undead were quiet behind them.

But that didn’t answer her question as to how to fend off a gang of angry ghosts.

The wizard didn’t know if the redhead’s spirit was still within the Belcliff militia.  She didn’t know if destroying them meant hurting the warrior.  She did know that she needed Elmiryn alive for multiple reasons, and now Madreg and his turned followers were in the way of her goals.

Time was running short.

Her sword would do no good against the immaterial beings. The enemy were sixty yards away. How did one slice the spiritual will of a spirit in torment, after all? They were less than fifty yards away.  Madreg pointed and shouted something unintelligible.  They were getting closer still. There was no time left.  Damn, this was all supposed to be so straight forward

Madreg and the mad spirits collected into a single cloud and with a howl they billowed forth.

Quincy’s eyes widened and she abandoned her position.  As she fled, she shouted, “Sedwick, to me!  Henriette keep them back!  Don’t let them hurt Elmiryn or the soldiers!  I have an idea!”

Sedwick sprinted after her as Henriette snarled, “What the bloody hell are you doing!?”

“Just trust me!” Quincy snapped.  She fixed her burning gaze on Sedwick. “I need a ride, Sedwick.  Can you carry me?”

“Yes, but–”

There were cries and a sharp pulse in the air as Henriette and Madreg’s men collided.  The wizard turned and ran as some of the ghosts broke from the battle to pursue them, their mouths open in fury.  “No time!”

Quincy pushed as hard as she could and found that running was easier without the hindrance of her cloak.  A second later she saw a thick stream of water keeping pace with her, and without hesitation, she jumped onto it.  Her feet sank in up to the ankle, but she didn’t touch the ground, and she crouched quickly to keep from falling.  This was certainly a new experience.  Sedwick’s face appeared in the head of the foaming liquid as he cut a path away from the battle.  “All right, I’m trusting you.  Where to?” he bubbled.

“Go back!” Quincy shouted.  “We have to find the dwarves bodies!  It’s our only chance!”

Sedwick didn’t hesitate or ask why.  His face vanished from the water and the stream that carried her sped up as it wheeled around.  Quincy bared her teeth as an involuntary shiver blasted through her.  She held her sword before her, knowing it vain, but there was no choice.  Together, she and Sedwick charged toward their pursuers, who greeted them with smoky fists.

NYX____________________________

I gasped, too shocked to bring about any other reaction.  I clung to the nearest crenelation and watched as the horizon slowly rose up.  Screams came from those below.  Tristi cackled as the tower tipped over.  I couldn’t stay here.  With bared teeth I let go of the crenelation and started to sprint across the roof.  The roof floor shifted beneath my feet, sending me sideways.  It cracked and slabs fell out of sight.  I jumped wildly across the rifts and reached the other side.  But by the time I did, the tower’s top was already sailing over.  My view of the horizon peaked and steadily started to decline.  I had to hang wildly from the crenelations as my feet dangled in the air.  I was going to be crushed by the stone, and I doubted I’d make a speedy recovery if my head was caved in.

Then down below me, I saw Tristi hanging in similar fashion on the crenelations.

She shouted something up at me through the din, but I couldn’t make it out.  Then she fixed the balls of her feet onto the edges of the next crenelation and without a glance, she leapt to the other building.  I was going to have to do the same.  With a breath, I got my footing–then the wall facing the street crumbled and the remains of the tower roof fell into it.  I slipped for a terrifying moment before my left foot found a place again.  I was at a terrifying angle to the ground.  The adjacent wall’s collapse brought me a great deal lower, but I was still some ways up.  There was no time for perfection.  I just had to get out of the path of destruction.  With that one left foot, I leapt wildly and fell through the air.  Everything blurred to my sight, and I had no idea what I was falling towards.  All I could hear was screaming.

Then a cold hand gripped my wrist and I slammed into white marble.

Tristi’s alien eyes fixed on me as she laughed and pulled me up.  Now we were on the balcony of a small temple.  The tower seemed so far away, I didn’t know how I made it.  I slumped against the tiles of the slanted roof and slid down into a sit.  I tried to catch my breath.  Didn’t even think to cover my bare chest.  I watched the giants swaying–as if stupefied by the disturbance.  Panic blossomed around their feet.  The Fiammans shoved at each other, and fought to get by.  I saw a young man fall beneath the stampeding crowd and not get up.  Dust clouds rose up into the night air, lit by the Fiamman lamps.  They spread, limiting my view of the chaos.

“You killed them,” I breathed.

Tristi leaned against the roof wall and picked at her teeth with her pinky.  Then she flung something away and sucked at her gums.  Finally she said, “I did not.”

I blinked and looked at her.  “…Excuse me?”

“I mean, I did not.  Kill anyone.  Not a one.”

“You–what?  You did!”

“Did not.”

“You did!

“I did not, little dreamwalker.”

My voice started to rise.  I was feeling spacey and ill.  My skin flushed cold as I struggled to sit up straight.  “You can’t be serious.”  Then I remembered my chest and a hand went to each breast.  I flared red.

Tristi gestured down at the street with a lazy sweep of her hand.  “This hasn’t even happened yet.  I shall not be here upon the moment, and so without a perpetrator how can I be named the culprit?”

“You’re mad,” I breathed, glaring up at her.  “You’re insane.  Of course you’re the culprit!  I saw you do it!  I saw you drop that…that…ball! Whatever that thing was!”  I stood, swaying a little, and gestured with my chin, like Elmiryn would have.  “You just did that!  You did!  You killed and hurt all those people, and for what!?”  Spit flew from my mouth.  I was shouting now.  Red-faced, not from my nude embarrassment, but from my affronted moral sense.  I had just survived some of the worst horrors, and my reward was to witness this? I almost felt like an accomplice.

“Because,” and here the woman leaned toward me, a sharp smile on her lips.  I flashed the mental image of a wild animal eating a carcass.  “My Lady has willed it.”  She turned and started to walk along the round balcony.  “At any rate, I don’t know why you raise such a fuss.  Being an Ailuran, I’d thought this sight would have pleased you!”

I stood glaring, open-mouthed, then started to follow her. “I take no pleasure in violence, and neither do my people!  We aren’t savages!”  She didn’t answer me.  I growled.  “Tristi, what have those people done? Why would your goddess ask for this!?”

“What have they done?  Aside from their attempts to steal and rape your lands?”  She laughed but still did not turn her head.  We were on the other side of the temple.  Here, she hopped over the railing and slid down the column to the street below.  I followed her as fast as I could, and heard her speaking as I hit the pavement.  “Ah, Nyx!  Quite the progressive you are, to think so kindly of your enemy!”

My hands went to my chest again before I spoke.  “I say let a person be judged by the contents of their character, not the decisions of a corrupt minority.”

Very progressive.  Very!!  Y’know…I really like you!”  And finally Tristi stopped.  People ran, flat-footed, around us.  There was a light steam coming up from the paved streets, and the Fiammans unsettled the vapors, curling it in the hot light.  It made the steam look like spectral claws. “Now I can see why Lacertli chose you.”

This peaked my curiosity, because in many ways I still didn’t understand that reason myself.  But my anger took precedence.  “Why would Lady Fortune do this?  There’s no just reason!”

Tristi gazed at me, her jubilant smile waning.  Then she gripped her right wrist behind her back and started to pace along the pavement slowly.  Her buckles tinkled with each exaggerated step.  “Hmmm…so the dreamwalker deigns to judge things out of her realm, does she?”

Here I seized up.  This was a Legend I was speaking to.  That was the prick I had felt at the back of my head, telling me so.  Unlike me, Tristi clearly had experience.  She’d met the Champion of Njord, for heaven’s sake.  I didn’t want to invite trouble from such a person…but I didn’t want to roll over either.  I was a champion too, wasn’t I?  I decided to put my innate bardic ability to use, in case I somehow failed to word things right.  The emotion flooded my words, and I managed not to stutter, though my voice still quavered. “I do not speak for Him that I serve.  I speak for myself.  I cannot separate my feelings from that which I witness, and my judgment lies in the things my eyes see, which can, unfortunately, not be true.  All I’m asking for is the truth, then.  If this event was justified, then I cannot damn it, but I can say that it is a sad thing it had to happen.  But if you’re asking me to sit aside, tractable and cow-eyed, then you are mistaken!

Tristi’s eyes widened.  She stopped her pacing and her head turned to look at me like it were on a slow turning wheel.  I could see her ears twitch.  “Sharp words, little dreamwalker.  Very sharp.  You’ve a gifted tongue, then?  My, my…now I really do see why Lacertli chose you!”

I swallowed.  This wasn’t quite the reaction I was expecting.  And here I thought I was being rather brave

The woman crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one foot as she appraised me.  Then she smiled again.  “Ah, but you argued your case splendidly!  Very well!  I’ll explain things further, though I fear your cause-and-effect way of thinking will not be satisfied by the answer.”  She turned on her heel and resumed her march.  Surprised, I took after her.

The road we stood on was vastly wide, complete with pedestrian walkways to keep the way clear for horse drawn vehicles.  Fiammans seemed to like to build big things–that is–big and grand things.  They made extensive use of brick, glass, metal, and marble.  There were plenty of round arches and domed buildings, and the streets were flooded with light.  I squinted up into one of the lamps.  Through clear glass the firelight shone brightly downward.  Curved mirror bowls with the centers cut out reflected the enchanted candle light.  As I heard, these never went out, even during high wind and rain.

Around us, the fleeing crowd was thinning.

Tristi spoke to me over her shoulder.  “The Lady is mistaken for chaos, and this vexes her to no end.  She is a master tactician, one that works from moment to moment.”

I couldn’t help myself.  “The definition of tactician is an individual that employs an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end.  How can one do that from moment to moment?  There’s no plan there.”

“But there is!  You confine yourself by your definitions, Nyx.  All that is needed is a penultimate goal, then a lot of little goals.  For instance, my Lady wishes to throw a country into war.  So what does she do?  She kicks a bucket–”

I was already rolling my eyes.  “That’s preposterous–”

“–A bucket that just so happens to be sitting on the edge of an open window, and just at the right moment, it falls onto a visiting viceroy from a neighboring country.  This is Lady Luck, little dreamwalker.  A goddess!  Not a mortal like you or me.  She can achieve fantastic things with little effort!  What happened out there was her will, and you’d do well to remember that.  There’s always two sides of the coin.  While to you, the tower’s collapse was a bloody and tragic thing, the boon of crops the Santian Kingdom received last year was truly beautiful, as was the freeing of the slaves in the city of Caedril last week.  Fortune was behind both of those things.  Her plans are massive and vast, and sometimes we cannot always see to what end she works for.  When she tires of pulling at events by her own hands, she employs this humble servant to do it for her.”

“Wait, if you say it is her feeling and emotion that decides the course of events, then how did all of what we saw play into her plans?”

“The orb holds her will, Nyx.  I dropped it and had no idea of the consequences.  Fortune is a goddess of stark duality.  Either the events work in your favor…or they don’t.”

“So what happened out there…”

“It was chance.  Pure chance.  And while we witness its event here, in this realm, it has yet to occur in that other realm you call home.”

I frowned.  “So you didn’t know that would happen?  At all?”

“No.  I only knew to drop the orb.”

I rubbed at the wrinkle on my forehead.  “Isn’t Lady Luck omnipotent?  Isn’t her influence everywhere?  Why use you?”

“I’m a tool that brings more focus.  Like a magnifying glass that catches the light.  As are you.  As are all other champions on the mortal plane.”

Then that window of opportunity that, at times, alights on us, lit upon me.  Straight into my eyes, it almost seemed.  All of a sudden, I had the opportunity to ask all the questions I’d ever had about Legends, about the fall of the champions, about the pantheon.  Things I couldn’t bring myself to ask Lacertli outright.  Things I couldn’t glean off of Tobias’s book.  And from the new questions and the old, here was the thing that came fighting up my throat: “Tristi, do…we have a choice?”

“In what?”

“In how we serve the gods.”

Tristi slowed to a stop and looked at me.  Her alien eyes, which held many soft colors, narrowed.  “You dance close to blasphemy, little dreamwalker.  Why think such things?”

My own answer surprised me.  “Because…because I think Lacertli wants me to.”

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy drew her sword back, blade faced down, her head bowed.  The dwarven ghosts were just feet away–

Then the woman was in the air.  She’d felt like stilts had sprouted beneath her feet, rocketing her up into the sky before vanishing from beneath her.  She gasped, arms wheeling through the air like she’d find something to grab.  Her legs curled up beneath her.  She started to fall.  Quincy started to scream.  She was really high up…

Down below the ghosts seemed as startled as she was.  Sedwick tore past them, looking like a liquid snake on the ground.

“Sedwick!!” the wizard screamed.

The elemental caught her as she neared the ground, his form lifting as his liquid arms came out of the bubbling water.  He hardly broke speed.  Sedwick righted the woman so that she was sitting on his back.  Now wet from the waist down, the woman blinked water from her eyes.  “Sedwick, remind me to be angry with you later.”

“Sure thing,” he bubbled back.  Awkwardly the woman resumed her crouch and looked behind her.  The ghosts had once more resumed their pursuit.  They looked even angrier than before.  Sedwick spoke up again.  “Where to first?”

Quincy shook her head.  They passed the battle where Henriette and the others still fought with their former comrades.  The wizard tried to move with the man’s amorphous form as it glided over the uneven ground.  She thought she was getting the hang of it.  “Let’s head toward the back of the chamber, like we meant to.  From the main road we should see what we’re looking for.  The Belcliff militia had little reason to move the bodies much farther than that.”

Sedwick, if possible, began to move faster, and Quincy’s hair was brushed far back from the wind.  Speed wasn’t an ability of ghosts, it seemed, as they managed to stay ahead of them.  Some even gave up in favor of returning to the main battle.  Quincy stopped checking over her shoulder at that point.  As they passed the dirt mounds and small outposts, she focused on keeping a lookout.  Then, around a rock pile, she saw something and pointed.  “Sedwick, there!  Do you see that ditch?”

The elemental steered for it, and they stopped at the edge.  The ditch seemed to stretch on for a sixth of a mile.  Quincy stepped off of Sedwick and the man returned to his original form.  Her eyes were wide as she took in the sight.  “Gods…” Hundreds of bodies, filmed in dust, filled the long ditch.  They were strewn over one another in messy piles–children and adults alike.  Limbs were nearly skeletal as the skin hung limp and dark.  Gaunt faces seemed to stare up at her with want.

“Quincy, now what?” Sedwick asked.

The wizard turned away.  As she did so, she saw their original pursuers blasting toward them in dark clouds.  Her muscles bunched. “Watch out!” One ghost, a young male dwarf with a very small beard and long wild hair, leapt toward her.

…Quincy felt him dive into her chest, which sent an icy feeling throughout her, and her vision went white.

NYX____________________________

The air had an affected feeling of calm, like the city itself were suffering a sort of shock.  There were stragglers still.  A woman clung to one of the street lamps, weeping.  Blood trickled down onto her powdered bosom.  I looked at her sideways, my brows pressing up and together.  I forced my eyes back onto my new companion.

Upon saying what I had, I’d needed something else to look at.  Something to stem some of the alarm and emotion that came upon me.  What I got was entirely sobering, and I felt a little more ready to think about my words in detail.

Because I think Lacertli wants me to.

Was that really true?  I thought about the end of my struggles in the Kreut forest, when I had just defeated the last of the pretas.  How I had dared to scream at the god.  Dared to speak to him with such scorn.  He hadn’t punished me.  I thought of his refusal to walk me through each step, and his impatience each time I mewled at him like a kitten.  I knew there were boundaries I could not cross with him, so it wasn’t that he coddled me.  He had his own standards, and if Tristi’s reaction was any indication, they were quite different from those of his fellow gods.

“Odd,” was all Tristi said in response.  I’d almost forgotten I had asked her a question.  She tilted her head far to the side, like I were a person upside down.  “You are very progressive, you know.”

The way she kept saying this was starting to irk me.  “Oh?  Does this still please you, then?”  I could hardly keep the nettles out of my voice.

“Honestly?  Yes.  I find it does.”  She straightened and gave a firm nod, like this was a revelation even for her.  Tristi flashed her fangs at me.  “Then does the little dreamwalker still seek satisfaction from me, or may we resume our jaunt?”

I frowned at her.  She was right, her answer hadn’t satisfied me.  I didn’t like Tristi’s delight over the chaos, yet… “I can’t say why, but I believe you.  I can hardly contest the will of a god, and I can hardly fault you for the obeying of one.”  Never mind what I would have done should it have been Tristi’s will.  It was one thing to follow Lacertli’s orders–quite another thing to instigate trouble myself.

“Onward, then!” Tristi crowed, twisting around once more with a jingle of her coat.  She took to a stride that had me struggling to keep up.

“Ah, wait!  Where are we going?”  Almost immediately following that question, my face screwed up and I hissed to myself, “And why am I following you?

“Out!  Away!  Off of this shard!  I’m done here.  You’re free to come with, of course!”

“That’s very kind of you, but I was looking for some friends of mine.  You haven’t seen them by any chance, have you?”

We descended a wide set of stone steps that led into a large garden.  No…it was called a park.  I’d heard of these, but to see one was strange.  It was a false representation of nature, arranged, and made to fit some human being’s idea of beauty.  In a way, it felt more alien to me than the city.  There were different bushes and ferns about, rosebushes, dogwoods, pepperbushes and the like.  Of trees there were hornbeams, pin oaks, cypress, and more I could not name for certain.  Still the Fiamman lamps were present here, and I scowled, thinking to myself, “It’s a wonder this damn kingdom hasn’t burned to the ground!” Our feet still walked a paved road.

“Friends.  Friends.” The woman pondered my question with hands on her hips.  “Nope, I have seen no Friends,” Tristi gave a shake of her head.

I raised an eyebrow at her.  “Uh…but you don’t know what they look like.”

“This is true.  I do not know what Friends look like,” and here she winked at me, “But I do not hear your description of them, either!”

I batted my eyes, then let out a nervous laugh.  “Oh, right.  My apologies.  Um…well,” and I described Elmiryn, Lethia, Paulo, and even the wizards, Hakeem and Quincy.  I figured if I could find the latter two, it would lead me to the others.  I made a mention of my Twin too, though I wasn’t sure my description would fit:  A big, panther-like cat, with or without a mane.

Tristi shook her head to all of these.  “Mmm…no.  Sorry, little one.  I’m afraid I have seen no one fitting your descriptions.”

My face drew long and I looked down at the passing trail.  Then my head snapped up.  “Oh!  One more!  A halfling male, with blond hair and purple eyes!  He’s my height, and still fairly young.  His name’s Farrel.”

Tristi looked at me sharply.  “Does he have a funny accent?  Cuts his words?”

My heart lifted, and I smiled, nodding emphatically.  “Yes!”

The woman did not return my smile.  “Ah.”

My joy deflated.  “What is it?”

“Did you like this man?”

“Huh?”

“Was he detestable?  Vile?  Did he deprecate the name of your mother by any chance?  Such that you wouldn’t mind, say, forgetting about him forever?”

I scowled at her, stopping.  My hands tensed against my chest.  “Tristi, I’d appreciate it if you’d stop dancing around the answer and just give it to me plainly.  Where is Farrel?”

The woman looked toward the dark sky with a long suffering look.  Then she kicked at the ground and glanced at me sideways.  “He is here, Nyx, and he is alive.  Only…I think a reunion with him may be more trouble than it’s worth…”

My jaw tightened.  “Enough.  Just show me.”

“Are you suuuure?”

“Yes, yes, yes!  How many times do I need to say it?”

“Six more times.  If you’d please.”

I glared at her.  “You really are insane.”  But Tristi kept looking at me, waiting.  I sighed and started.  “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Now will you take me?”

“Certainly!” She cried, with the munificent gesture of spread arms.

I glowered, shifting my hands so that I crossed my arms over my chest.  In the back of my mind, I made a note to find a new shirt.  Fast.  “Why did I have to say it six more times?”

The woman shrugged.  “Why else?  It’s lucky.”

Given the source, I found I had nothing to say to that.

Continue ReadingChapter 21.2

Chapter 21.3

NYX____________________________

If you were to ask my opinion of Tristi right then, it would have been summed up in a number of words:  mercurial, carnal, alien, infuriating, bizarre, and…

Seamless.

And I use that word with not a little reservation.  From one thing to the next, my new companion saw little pause, even when my presence seemed to be the very nature of disruption.  She slithered to whatever task was set before her like an eel into the sea.  She hopped over flights of steps that I stumbled on.  She scaled a wall like it wasn’t even there, and I had to pause and find my footholds.  She slid smooth down a pole that stuttered with my descent.

Seamless.

The woman was beyond my comprehension in ways that I’d really only encountered in Elmiryn at the worst of her delusional episodes.  At first, I was indeed reminded of the redhead.  But that connection was quickly lost upon seeing the focus that came in Tristi’s eyes, the ornate speech she employed, the stark shift of feminine grace to masculine bravado, and the spines that lined her laughter when those poor people were crushed by the tower.  I think Elmiryn would have been insulted to have been compared to such a person, and I’m glad I never told her so, as you shall soon see.  Tristi’s manner was feverish one moment, and chillingly calm the next. The change was lightning fast, and was made all the time.  Hot to cold.  Jovial to solemn.  There was no halfway point.  She was as much a dual creature as her goddess.  Then I thought about what she’d said earlier about Lady Luck.

She is a master tactician, one that works from moment to moment.

It sounded like living on a part by part basis with only a misty goal in mind.  It made me wonder…what long term affect would that have on a person’s psyche?  Was this why Tristi was the way she was?  “Tristi, how long have you been in service to your patron?” I asked her.

We were down a dark alley, between what seemed were two communal buildings where smaller parties were being held.  Their merriment told me they hadn’t heard of the tower’s collapse.  Indeed, the chaotic scene of the square was all but behind us.  The city was alive, and off in the distance I could still hear music and laughter.  What holiday were these people celebrating?  We ducked beneath steam pipes and over water ducts.  It was strange seeing the rats pay us no attention.

Tristi didn’t hesitate in her answer to my question.  “I can’t remember.”

I squinted after her. “You can’t even estimate?  A few months?  A few years?”

The woman laughed, her deep honey voice echoing along the damp brick.  “A few years?”  She looked at me, her alien eyes squinted in mirth, and just shook her head.

I huffed.  “What’s so funny about that?  It’s a fair question I think.  I’m new to this!”

“Did you know of Lacertli’s name prior to becoming his champion?”

My indignation cooled.  “…No.  I didn’t.”

“And did you know that before the old tales of arcane bards, that there were whole clans of such people, the vermagi?

My steps slowed.  I hadn’t told Tristi that word, nor had I even made mention of my abilities.  Yet…she recognized it for what it was.  Knew the name for it.  If that magic had become extinct, than how did she know?  And when I thought about it, she knew about Lacertli, without any further explanation from me.  Did Legends learn of all the gods with time?

“Well I did,” Tristi said, without a hint of bragging.  “I saw the vermagi.  It was quite a thing to see several of them together, all singing a hymn.  I was even around when there were still temples erected in Lacertli’s name.  But those times are gone.”  She looked forward again.  “Lots of things are gone.”

“How…how did you live so long?”

“I am a champion.  Technically I’m still mortal.  I may die by unnatural causes, but if left alone, I could outlive generations.”  She glanced at me.  “The same goes for you, now.”

“And you’ve lived so long that you can’t remember when you first served your goddess!?” I balked.

We scaled a gate leading into a wide alley.  I could see the street from here.  Tristi held up her gloved hand, showing it to me.  “I practice chance magic–that is, magic that uses my aura of luck.  It is a dead practice, as far as I’ve seen for your world, and it has…affects on the user.  It changes you.”

I frowned.  Chance magic?  I’d never heard of it, but given Tristi’s station, it seemed fitting.  I didn’t miss the ‘your world’ comment, either.  I remembered traveling with Lacertli, between the shards, and seeing all those strange places.  Tristi must be from one of those places, I surmised.

The revelation of her vast age had me humbled into silence, and I said no more.  Though her lack of consideration for those hurt had repulsed me, I was glad I hadn’t picked a fight with her.  You just didn’t live that long without having considerable power.

“We’re almost there,” she said to me as we left the dizzying network of alleys, and emerged onto a road overlooking a bay.

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy breathed in harshly, her eyes rolling back into her head as she felt the spirit within her take hold of her limbs.  Images flashed through her head, fast.  The dwarven commoners fleeing the milita men.  The Belcliff soldiers slaughtering them, eyes glassy, mouths frothing.  The wizard choked and felt anguish claw down her insides like a cat on curtains.

Then she bit the inside of her cheek.  Gnashed the flesh till a chunk came loose.

When they came back from their game in the jungle, they had no idea of what was happening.  In a clearing, they found a mass of bodies–all people she’d known–tossed together in a pile, like rags.  The beautiful dark skins she’d always envied were now hacked and slashed to bloody lines.  Through the line of trees, she saw their village of Kimbia in flames.

The blood that came splashing on her tongue was sharp and warm.  Her eyes watered as she crumpled to her knees.  Sedwick was shouting at her, but his voice was cut off.  She was alone.  The spirit in her started to force her hands around her throat.

They had been hiding in the trees, rooted there out of fear and shock, when one of the children they played with came stumbling their way.  Kikon was his name.  He used to pinch Quincy’s skin and call her a dubwana.  “Pale monster.”  Kikon screamed and cried till he was feet away, then he tripped and fell.  He turned his head and met Quincy’s blue eyes in the dark.  Her breath caught.  The marauders grabbed the boy from behind and hauled him away, laughing.  She had to be dragged off by Hakeem as the men raped the boy at the foot of the hill.

More memories from the ghost.  She saw hands that were not hers scrambling along the dirt.  This man had fallen and was fleeing someone.  Their shadow overtook him.  The dwarf turned his head to look up.  Quincy gurgled as the image burned her mind’s eye.  The marshal.  The loathsome man, forgettable in his blend of common features and poor leadership, suddenly had a name.

The marshal’s name was Fafnir.

He pressed a boot to the dwarf’s chest and without a word sunk his sword into him.

Quincy convulsed as the spirit forced her to bend forward.  Her elbows pressed into the dirt, rocks biting her, and he forced her into her hands–constricting her throat till no air could go through.  Saliva dripped from her quivering lips.

They fled deeper into the jungle till they were certain the danger was far behind them.  Together, she and Hakeem lay curled in the high branches of a large kapok tree.  Neither slept.  When they returned to the village later, it was to find the marauders gone and the village completely destroyed.  No one had been spared.

Die, was the wordless demand.  The ghost pressed on her harder.  Her skin started to tear at her back from his forceful power.  She felt so cold.  DIE, came the demand again.  Quincy let herself fall away from the ghost’s sad memories.  She had plenty of her own to wallow in.  Her vision was going dark.

She had found her sword in the ashes, half-buried next to Hakeem’s dead mother.  It was all they had, and she clung to it. They were orphaned now, left to fend alone in the wild.  There had been no aid from the neighboring villages.  There had been no swashbuckling heroes like from Tobias’s stories.  Not even Tobias had come.  Not even her father.  There was just death and the vultures that fed on it.

Quincy started to struggle back.  The ghost tried to lock her muscles, but she ignored its commands.  The ghost’s thoughts and will were drowned out in the storm of her life, and she felt power return to her.  The wizard straightened inch by inch, releasing the pressure on her throat and chest.  She gulped in breath.

“Spirit,” she hissed.  Her face was crimson. “I will not be at your mercy!”  Quincy threw her head back and screamed.  Pushing with her animus as she had been trained, she attacked the ghost.

The cold left her, and the ghost that had entered her body stumbled out into the open.  It looked at her with hate in its eyes before it turned and regarded the ditch filled with corpses.  Its expression changed.  Without a word it turned to smoke and flew down to the bodies, where after a short flight, it entered one.  Around her, other ghosts flitted past in curling wisps, and they too sought their own bodies.  A glance showed her that Sedwick fended for himself some ways away.  It seemed even half-elementals were not as easy to possess as average mortals.  Henriette and her men came running up and stopped alongside Quincy.

“We beat them back, and they fled.  They’ve gone mad, but the damn commoners still don’t know how to fight!” The dwarf woman growled.  “So what was your grand plan, eh?”

The spirit that had possessed her now stood in his decaying body–all hair and lips gone.  He pushed away the bodies around him as some of the ghosts that had joined him also began to rise.  Quincy scowled and picked up her sword.  “My plan was to have a target I could kill.”

Madreg, who had joined his fellows in their new state of death, hollered with a decaying mouth, “We won’t let you betray us! Not again!

A laugh echoed through the air before the dust and dirt on the ground whipped up to blind them.  Quincy winced and shielded her face.  When the wind died down and the sand ceased to sting her hands, the woman dared to lower her arms.  She coughed and covered her mouth, her gaze squinted against the dust that still lingered.  Her face went slack.

The dwarven undead had fallen, flesh completely gone.  They were now just clean bones over a mass of bodies, nothing more.

Behind them, she heard the tramp of many feet.  Quincy turned and saw the Belcliff soldiers approaching them.  Henriette and her men seized up.  “Devils!” she bit out, and hefted up her axe.

Quincy held out an arm.  “No!”  She frowned at the approaching horde.  “Wait a moment…”

She saw a crop of red amongst the shambling bodies.  Without thinking, she smiled.  “Elmiryn!”

The soldiers parted enough for the warrior to come near.  She had a cocky grin on her flushed face, and her eyes were unnaturally dilated, but she seemed in good spirits.  Better than before.  She snickered as she stopped before them.  “So yeah, as I was trying to tell you.  I found out a few things.” At this point Quincy remembered herself.  She rolled her eyes and looked away.  She took to brushing the dirt off her hair and clothes.

“Quincy!”  Sedwick came toward them, eyes on the soldiers that passed, smiling in amazement.  “The Belcliff soldiers are–” he broke off as he spotted Elmiryn.  “You’re back!” he exclaimed.

Elmiryn’s smile jerked up at the corners before waning greatly.  “Mm hmm…yeah.  I’m back,” she murmured.

“What’re you doing with them?” Henriette said, an edge in her voice.  She watched as the soldiers stopped at the edge of the long ditch.

Elmiryn looked at her mildly, “I was going to use them to bury your dead.”

Henriette blustered as the dwarves around her let out negative cries.

“No!”

“Don’t let her!”

“She’s mad, the witch!”

The woman dwarf backed their cries, “We were happy to see these beasts stopped, but we hadn’t a clue this was what you were intendin’.  It’s a vile thing, to let them lay hands on us!”

Quincy stepped between them. Though she could see the use in Elmiryn’s words, she knew it would be hard.  Quietly, she leaned in and whispered to the warrior, “There’s nothing else?  You can’t move the Earth over them?  Maybe move their bodies like you’re doing with the soldiers?”

“I can’t move the dust and dirt anymore–and it was only what was loose, none of the compact soil,” she whispered back.  “I was in the heavier things, like the rocks, but now I’m back again, and my influence is just enough for these soldiers!  The fact that there is still some spirit in them is the only reason I can keep this connection!  Remember all that I said about sitting on a line and pulling at both sides of the blanket?  Well I’m on the other side of the bed now!  It’s this or nothing!”

Quincy sighed and nodded her head.  She had surmised Elmiryn’s last move had taken a lot, and it was good fortune that saw the warrior’s spirit return to her body instead of being permanently evicted.  Still, there was the trouble of convincing their disgruntled audience.  The wizard cleared her throat and turned to the dwarves behind her.  “Henriette, there are many of you.  More than the three of us can handle.  This is the only way we can put your people to rest and in good order!”

“But–”

“Hear us out,” Elmiryn said with hands held up.  Quincy found this unusually diplomatic of her, so she let the woman step around her and speak. The warrior gestured at the soldiers.  “That’s more than a hundred sets of hands at our disposal.  You wanted rest, we can give it to you.  But you won’t find it clinging to your anger and your fears like Madreg did.  Your time runs short and so does ours.  You’re a warrior, Henriette, as am I.  You know these experiences will never leave you–but it’s your choice on how you serve the memories.”

This made Henriette bow her head.  Her men looked at her with deeply furrowed brows.  Finally she looked at the two women sternly.  “We fighters were the most susceptible to our darkness…but we were the most aware of it, too.  When we saw that we too could become like these monsters,” she jerked her head at the undead, “We tried our best to avoid that fate.  But…some, like Madreg, just weren’t prepared for it.”  She ducked her head again, and her ghostly face flickered with the sight of a skull.  She remained quiet for another full minute before she turned to her men, and began to speak in hushed tones with them.  Then Henriette glanced at the women over her shoulder.  “Give us a moment.  We need to speak with the others.  We’ll return with our requirements for burial.”  And with a hiss of smoke, they were gone.

Sedwick nodded approvingly.  “Good.  This ordeal is finally ending.”

Quincy glanced at the warrior out of the corner of her eye.  “That was well said.”

The warrior shrugged one shoulder.  “I had to convince them.  They need to move on, and so do we.”

“How did you handle the Fiamman-Ailuran war?  Do those memories haunt you?  Were you a good Captain to your men?”

Elmiryn batted her cerulean eyes.  She fixed Quincy with a hot stare.  “So you did know.”

“I really am starting to think you’re blond.”

“How did you figure it out?”

“I watched you for almost two days.  You’ve got the arrogance of any other mercenary, but your daily routine is on the militant side.” Quincy smirked.  “Plus, your Captain’s sword sticks out like a sore thumb.”

“Oh.” Elmiryn frowned at her sword’s jeweled pommel.  Sedwick chuckled.

There was a long pause.  Quincy brushed the last bit of dust off her shoulder.  “That said, I know about your bounty.” Elmiryn sucked at her teeth.  The wizard flipped her hair back and placed a hand on her hip.  “I heard about it sometime ago, but I had already taken up the Lethia Artaud case.  I never handle more than one client at a time.  I know I’m a pariah now, as far as bounty hunting goes, but I bet your king would do business with me.  I bet I could earn enough gold to last me a life time.”

“So why don’t you turn me in, if you want it so bad?” Elmiryn said with a raised brow.

Quincy looked at her as if she were stupid.  “And do that from here, how?”  She shrugged.  “No, I have more things on my mind than gold.  That, I have plenty of.  What I really want, I need your help to find.”

Elmiryn said nothing to this.  She rubbed at the back of her neck and glanced at the wizard’s red hand.  Instead she asked,  “Hey…what happened earlier?  With that bracelet you were using?”

The wizard glanced at her hand and turned sheepish.  “I pushed it too far,” she mumbled.  “Wizardry can offer shortcuts to power, but at a price.  I hadn’t trained with that item so I didn’t know what the limit was.  Every time I used it, it took a little breath from my lungs.  And there was no real protection from the heat my hand saw.”

Elmiryn narrowed her eyes.  “You blew things up a lot when you were a kid, didn’t you?”

Quincy’s reddened face was all the answer she seemed to need.  The warrior bit on her lip to keep from giggling, not with a lot of success.

“What was it that you learned whilst you were away?” the brunette asked briskly.

The woman thumbed at the undead.  “Besides this?  I’ll tell you later.”

“How’d you do this–” Quincy mimicked the motion.  “–Anyway?  What are you, the ruler of dust and dead things?”

Elmiryn barked out a laugh.  When she calmed herself, she shook her head, “No.  I doubt I’ll be able to do something like this again.  Wouldn’t really care to, either.”

“But how?” Sedwick now.  He stepped a little closer, arms crossed over his chest.

The redhead thought for a moment, her eyes wandering around them.  Then she started.  “There was…a hole in this place.  In the air.  Don’t ask me what that means, honestly.  It’s the best explanation I got.  When I started to get pulled through, I felt a film of power on everything.  The dust, the rock, the soldiers.  It was everywhere.  It gave me something to hold on to.  My spirit is on pretty shaky ground as it is, and whatever Meznik did to me reacted to the influence that still lingered here.  It was like this pull, on the inside, and I was the fish getting reeled in.”  She tapped her boot on the ground.  “When I saw what was happening I scrambled all that I had to help.  It was a good thing there weren’t many rogue dwarves.  I dunno what we would’ve done then.  When it was finished, I felt tired.  I felt myself fall out of the environment and back into my body, like nothing had happened.”  She rubbed her head, eyes going a little glassy.  “Well not entirely nothing.  My head hurts, and I feel like I was shaken out of sleep.”

Quincy gave her a shrewd look before walking off to better appreciate the undead, all standing at attention.  She shook her head.  “Dear gods…”

“Oh hey, Quincy!”  Elmiryn.

The wizard looked at her with wary eyes.  “What is it?”

“I believe you were at some 100 kills?  Go ahead and count the undead.  Once their duty is done, I’ll dispatch them all.  That’ll put me square at 155 kills, not counting the dwarves I took care of!” The warrior beamed.

Quincy glared at her, slack-jawed.

NYX____________________________

We crossed the street, musty with hay and fallen vegetable leaves from imports, and hopped down the fifteen foot retaining wall to the wharf below.  The wooden walkway went on to the left, but to the right there were steps that led it down to the beach below.

Tristi walked, with arms held out, along the ropes that were tied to the bollards.  I watched her out of the corner of my eye, brow wrinkled.  She stopped on one of the posts and pointed up ahead.  “Your friend is up there, past the docks.  Sailors go there for some fun.  That’s a nice way of putting it.  The mean way of putting it also happens to be the truth, which is, I shall finally state, without further posturing, at all, is a whorehouse, so thick with hallucinogens, mind-altering substances, and subversive activity, you’d think you’d fallen into a pit of hell.”

I looked to where she was pointing.  Where the walkway spanned into the docks leading out into the bay, there was a great collection of skiffs, dinghys, gigs, and rafts.  Further on were larger boats–schooners, barges and the like.  It was past these that I saw a major building–built on a high pier.

“Okay,” I said with a nod.  I turned to her.

But I found Tristi wasn’t there.

I turned my head to see her walking back the way we’d came.  My jaw dropped.  “Where are you going!?”

She glanced at me, unconcerned.  “I told you.  Off this shard.  My business is done here.”

I ran up to her, hands turning to claws on my chest.  “You’re just going to leave me here!?  What about my friend?  You said it’d be more trouble than it’s worth trying to get him.  I mean–a whorehouse–yes, that’s vile–but what real obstacle is there?”

Tristi sighed and stopped.  She wheeled around and looked at me with eyes strained wide in a show of barely restrained exasperation.  “Because, dreamwalker, he is in the grips of a spirit.  A very powerful spirit.  And he won’t be relinquished without a fight!  But that isn’t my problem!”  Then her expression changed to that of a suffering mother, telling her child goodbye.  She even patted me on the head for full effect.  “Nyx!  Sweet, sweet little Nyx!  I really liked you!  But I would not deign to soil your reputable efforts.  I’m a cad!  Really!  I am!” She gave a flourishing bow, the buckles of her long coat tinkling.  “So I bid you farewell!”  Then she spun around and started, literally, marching away.

I blinked after her.  Then my gaze darkened.  “Oh, fine.  Fine.  I can do this myself.”  I turned and started to huff away, my grimy hair bouncing with each stomp.  “I bet you would’ve gotten me killed anyway–”

Tristi was at my side in an instant, her fiendish smile in place.  I startled away from her, and my feet slowed to a stop.  Carefully she lifted her glasses and fixed me with her naked stare.  “A bet!  Oooh, I like the way you think, Nyx.”  She straightened and held up her hand.  The smooth oval on the back of her glove began to glow a light yellow, and her smile broadened.  “Let’s say we do as these spirits do, eh?  What are you willing to wager?”

I shook my head, peddling back.  “No, no!  I–I have nothing!  When I said that, it was just a figure of speech.”

“Nevertheless, I heard it, and the meaning was quite clear.  You give yourself away vermagus.  Perhaps you should learn to cap your Meaning next time?”  She took off her glasses and stepped toward me.  “Now.  Your wager.”

“But I have nothing!” I pleaded.  “Please, just be on your way!  I can do this myself.”

“And I do not doubt that, but I’m afraid my honor is on the line.  You see, Fortuna would have me meet all bets within my power.  It is one of her tenets, and a condition of my servitude.  I cannot refuse and neither can you–so! If you cannot offer a prize, I shall then ask for a favor, to be specified at the time I wish to collect.  If you win, well…” she tapped her chin, “I suppose I can guarantee you an honorable burial?”  She gave a weak shrug.

I turned pale.  “Tristi, no, please–”  Why didn’t I just let this lunatic go when I had the chance?

She held up her gloved hand.  The oval on the back began to glow a light orange.  “Witness the first step in my process of NOT being the cause of your death!”

It was the first time I’d ever heard someone word something that way, and I can’t say it reassured me.  “Tristi–!!”

The glove turned bright, and symbols flashed past the oval jewel.  I recognized none of them, but I felt the hairs on my skin rise, and I shrank further back until I bumped into a bollard.  The air turned charged, and I turned my face away as the symbols stopped flashing and settled on one, which rose off the glass and floated in the air.  There was a high ring, and I forgot my modesty in favor of covering my ears.  The symbol duplicated, surrounding Tristi in a sphere, before there was a great flash.  I turned away, and through sheer clumsiness I managed to slip off the bollard, the rope tripped me, and I fell into the water.

I drifted for a moment, stunned.  The force of hitting the water made one of my boots loose.  I heard another splash and saw Tristi’s form swimming towards me.  She grabbed me by the waist and started swimming to the surface.  When we came up, I gasped in the air, and quickly disentangled myself from her hands (which were unscrupulously upon me) and swam for the beach at the far end.  The boot that was loose fell away, to the water’s depths.  I didn’t bother going after it.  Within a moment we both washed up on the beach.

My rags were dripping wet.  I sat on my bottom and pulled off the remaining boot and flung it away.  They were too big for me anyway.  Then my eyes cut an acidic look Tristi’s way.  “For someone who practices a magic based on luck, you certainly seem to bring me quite a bit of misfortune!”

A very deep chuckle answered me.  I blinked.  Did that come from her?

Tristi raised herself to her hands and knees and looked at me.  All of a sudden that question of gender I had written off came roaring back.  Her cheekbones were more pronounced, her shoulders broader, her chest flat

My mouth felt dry.  “Tristi…were you turned into…a man?

Continue ReadingChapter 21.3

Chapter 22.2

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn tongued the new cut on her lip, one hand on her stomach.  It was starting to ache.  She smirked at the brunette seated next to her.  “Feel better, love?” she asked.

Quincy ignored her, brow furrowed, cheeks still pink and a bruise blooming on her jaw.  The warrior probably would have let her get away with the first hit, if she hadn’t struck Elmiryn in the mouth, too.  After that, she’d felt retaliation was necessary. She didn’t feel angry, though, really.  She was aware that perhaps she’d gone too far.  She’d promised Quincy she’d leave her be, after all.  A schoolyard promise, but still…

Sedwick was in the process of picking something for himself.  The wizard had already had her pick, being decidedly faster than Elmiryn.  As the water elemental made his choice, the brunette had left the small room and gone upstairs.  There she’d taken out a piece of chalk from her magic pouch and was doing a sort of ritual with the boots she’d picked from the shelf.  Both women were seated against the wall adjacent to the stairs, cross legged, the wizard sitting forward to keep from touching the cut on her back.  She had dressed it with the help of Sedwick, using cloths found in a supply shed.

Quincy wore the pearl earring Elmiryn had seen.  When the redhead asked if she was certain it didn’t have a hex that would rot her ear off, the wizard just flicked the underside of her chin and snapped out something in Fanaean at the warrior.  By default, the warrior decided anything foreign that Quincy said to her was likely something along the lines of, “Bitch,” or “Idiot.”

Elmiryn had pushed the jeweled dagger into her belt where it pressed into her hip.  She needed a holster for it, but that’d have to do for now.  The whistle she wore around her neck, looping a thin strip of cloth through the ring at the end of it.  The cloth she’d torn from her chest wraps.  With Quincy muttering things beneath her breath next to her, the warrior took to inspecting the item again.  She gave it another soft blow.  The wizard nudged her with a glare.

“What?” Elmiryn chuckled out.

“Knock that off!” Quincy snapped.

“What, this?” The warrior held up the whistle.

“Yes!  I’m trying to concentrate!”

“I can’t hear it.  Why can’t I hear it?”

“Why would you need to?”

Elmiryn blinked at this.  “…Good point!”  She gestured at Quincy’s boots with her chin. “What’re you doing anyway?”

Quincy sighed and looked back at the boots.  Now around the circle, she had drawn four odd symbols.  “I’m trying to divine its uses.  Henriette doesn’t know what it does, and I’m not putting them on till I’m certain.  If I don’t like them, I’m getting something else.”

“You put the earring on without a problem.”

“It was open to having an owner,” the wizard returned simply.  “I’m more surprised you were able to use that dagger without much preparation!”

Elmiryn shrugged, looking at it.  “Maybe it isn’t all that powerful.”

“Maybe you’re changed nature has something to do with it.”  The redhead cut the woman next to her a razor sharp look, which the brunette received coolly.  “Wizardry isn’t a game.  People think all you do is pick an item up and use it.  While that could be the case for low-level items, carelessness can lead to you getting your eyes burned out of their sockets.”

“Lucky me, I guess.”

“Let’s see if you still say that once we’re back in our world.”

Elmiryn narrowed her eyes at her.  “What do you mean?”

Quincy sighed and rolled her eyes to her.  “You haven’t even thought about that?”

“I don’t see what I’m missing.”

“If you’re so much better here, and if you’ve been changed, then how do you think you’ll feel when you’re home? Better…or worse than before?”

Elmiryn clenched her hands to fists.  She crossed her arms and leaned her head against the wall.  “We’ll see,” she murmured. “After all, you said that might not be the case.  Maybe I just ‘lost’ something.  Your words, not mine.”

“Don’t pout, for heaven’s sake.  I just wanted to make you aware of a point.”  Quincy fixed her eyes on her, brow wrinkled.  She seemed to forget her task for the moment.  “Elmiryn, what did you learn while you were away?  What did you find?”

The warrior closed her eyes for second, then opened them again.  “The number five.”

“And that means…?”  The brunette shrugged her mouth and held up a hand.

“Your name.  ‘Quincy’.  Isn’t that a boy’s name?”

Quincy’s voice soured.  “Elmiryn, get on with it.  What about the number five?”

“I once had someone in my command with that name.  He said he was the fifth son.  Five.  That’s what your name means.  It means ‘the fifth’.  You are number five.”  Elmiryn sat forward with a snap, her brow dipping low as she stared a hole into the opposite wall.  “Before I found you, I met that twig spirit.  He was the one who showed me how to travel in this world.  We came to a crossroads that split five ways, and he said to take the last road before I could reach the first.  Then I found you.  You were the fifth.”

Quincy leaned forward too, her eyes bright.

Elmiryn went on, fiddling with her whistle.  “Finding Graziano was my fourth.  My next path will reveal someone else…maybe something else.  The twig spirit said the last path was my true desire.  Since it knew this, I don’t think Meznik is the one who created this…I think…I did.”

“You?  You made the paths?”

“If you don’t know yourself, this place feeds on your…your divisions.  The Other Place reacted to my animus, my goals.  My fears.  I was torn apart, body and soul, floating in nothing, but when I brought myself together again, I unknowingly carved the pathways leading to the shards.  Five.  Like the five elements that make us.  Air, fire, water, earth, and infinity.” She counted them off her fingers, then held up her hand, fingers spread.  “If you had been torn apart like me–if you had been changed, been lost, been pieced together like me–then you’d have created five paths too.  Spirits are singular in thought, and thrive in their elements.  Their goals and feelings are simple, but intense.  They carve out straightforward roads for themselves in this chaos world.”  She paused, and wiped at her mouth.  Then she placed a hand on the side of her head and shook it.  “But I didn’t…I couldn’t…I didn’t know…”

“How can we use this information?” Quincy mused.

“When I followed Meznik’s trail, guess what I found?”  The other woman waited for her to continue.  The warrior smiled suddenly.  “I found five paths.  A crossroads, like mine.”

“Meaning…Meaning that–”

“Meznik came here, and he was upset.  He said this wasn’t his territory.  Maybe he was torn apart because of that?  Maybe his consciousness created those crossroads he has to travel now?” Elmiryn stopped and rubbed her face.  She breathed in deep and exhaled slowly.  She said into her hands, “Or they could have been there for a long time.  Maybe he’d been here before.  He may not have always been on bad terms with the other astral demon.”  Then she dropped her hands and smirked at Quincy.  “When I arrived at his crossroads, that was about the time you tried to contact me.  A part of me was still with you all.  When I lost contact with you, I just kept on.  Meznik’s first path was closed.  So I went down the second path.”  The woman started to chuckle.  “I stood at the threshold of the Window and looked in.  Went down the third and did the same.  Then the fourth.”

“What did you see?” Quincy breathed.

Elmiryn leaned in, her smile taking on an edge.  “Trees.  In different places of the world–OUR world.  Fucking trees.  Like Nadi had to destroy.  All thriving.  All singing.  And you wanna know what they sang about?”  Again, the wizard just waited for the warrior to continue.  The redhead did so with a low voice.  “Revolution.”

NYX____________________________

I suppose to other people I come across as devoutly religious.  I never really gave it any thought.  Religion was so a part of my culture that sometimes I wasn’t even aware of its presence.  It was embedded into our practices, our traditions, our outlooks.  Sexuality is a natural part of nature, and being creatures of nature, we do not shy away from it.  I remember once hearing of a fertility temple in one of the outer villages of the Ailuran Nation.  Phallic statues.  Ritualistic sex.  But the fertility temple was changed into a chaste temple, honoring the family.  Public view on sex, done outside of the goal of procreation, was once a thing behind closed doors, I’d heard.  It was population spikes that changed that.  It costs to feed so many mouths, you see.  But we’re spiritual creatures, and we feel passion acutely.  If we could not fornicate for one reason, then we’d find another reason, and so long as we avoided excess, we said none could fault us.  Sometimes I wonder if my people were really any different from the Fiammans.  Societal needs still shaped religious doctrine, after all.

suppose to other people I come across as devoutly religious.  I have my beliefs.  I still follow my goddess, though she may scorn me, and I still struggle with my spirit, that it might one day find damnation, and in finding it, be punished for no more than just the things done in my past, and not my present.

Amusing.  What I have to hope for, is to be allowed punishment.  I was anathema, wasn’t I?  A thing outside of nature, with her Twin?  For a while it seemed entirely likely that I’d be locked out of the life cycle completely.  Lacertli gave me a way to ensure that doesn’t happen.  He gave me a way to right my debts against harmony.

Speaking of harmony, I have my feelings regarding flagrant sex and hallucinogenic stupors, and they are not very kind.  Such things diminish the spirit, and rot the mind.  This creates imbalance and chaos.  This was abhorrent to me.

As we pressed into the mysterious labyrinth that was the hallways of the whorehouse, Tristi was curiously stoic about the various scenes we passed.  At the start of our journey, with a flip of a coin (“And just a little luck,” he whispered,) and we took the left path, which tunneled a lime and yellow on the walls before the paint bruised purple, then angry red.  I knew our way was twisting, even as we walked, but my feet did not slip.  I swallowed, my heart leaping into my throat every time we looked into a room.  We were descending deeper into this hell, and the visions of the Somnium were intensifying.

What was this really?  If I weren’t in the Somnium, if I weren’t in this mirror-world dimension, then would the first hallway we traveled down stopped after only a few doors?  Would we have been staring into a wall?  Somehow, we’d passed through some sort of gateway–crossing a barrier between the reality and the living consciousness of our environment.  It didn’t matter that this was physically impossible.  What mattered was what that vile establishment had created–the years of memories and fantasies and emotions that coated the walls and the floors and the ceilings which smashed without boundaries

There was no plan.  We should have had a better plan.  But at the time, all we could think to do was look in.

None of the doors were locked.  I wished every time, but they were always free to open for anyone to waltz in…or join in, I suppose.  Not that I was interested.

…I wasn’t.  Really.

There was one room we came across where the walls were a pristine white, the floors covered in a large rippling canvas, the ceiling domed and splattered with a red material.  Initially I thought it was blood, until I took note of the little imp with greenish skin and just one ear (the other gnawed off) taking up tomatoes and throwing it at a naked man at the other side of the room.  He had a good arm, that thing, and when the tomatoes struck at high speeds, the man moaned.  We left at about around the time the man came all over himself.  I saw it as the door swung shut and tried to banish it from my memory.

“I’d say to each his own, but somehow I think that’d become hackneyed, here…” Tristi muttered.

We traveled on. I wanted to ask my companion how he came to press the veil–to cross that barrier between the Real World and the Somnium.  I had somehow gotten the impression that I was the only one capable of such a feat…but the champion of luck had promised to accompany me in my search, did he not?  Surely, he could not have discovered Farrel’s whereabouts without somehow coming here on his own.  That said, he’d already known how to enter this bizarre pocket of reality.  One thing I noticed, though, was that Tristi’s glasses were higher up on his nose, and when he wanted to look at something, he tilted his head back to look through the crescent moon lenses.  Maybe they afforded him some special sight?  That didn’t explain how he could hear me.  But since having him there helped me, I found no reason to question that just right then.  There were more pressing matters to deal with.

During our search, one door I opened revealed to me a giant bed room, befitting that of a noble, with its plush couches, coffered ceiling, and satin sheets.  The bed was massive and circular, with a headboard as tall as the ceiling.  The overall color scheme was light bone with rich taupe, accented here and there by gold trimmings and wine-colored fabrics.  The floor was white marble, the Talmorian carpets the last sign of status my harrowed mind could pick out before it filtered in the taut, handsome bodies, slick with oil.  The indiscriminate hands, the soft murmurs, the glazed looks.  I told Elmiryn about this scene in particular, through much stammering, and she just bopped me lightly on the head.  “The first thing you noticed was the decor?  Are you fucking serious?” Looking back, this reaction wasn’t far from my own.  But then I thought about it more.

For an orgy, those people were really quiet.

There were the soft cries of pleasure, yes, and now and again, I could hear the heady mumblings of the participants egging each other on.  I was more aware of the sound of the Fiamman lamps flickering than the twenty or so people fornicating in various imaginative positions.  None were hurried.  None were rough.  And then I came up with a reason for my glossing over the scene.  It makes me a bit uncomfortable but my theory is this…

Whenever there was a full moon, my village moved as one to a safe place in the forests.  There, we all stripped, and stood open to one another.  Human beings find this alien and strange.  The idea of families being naked together makes them disgusted.  But in nature, there is no guile in emotion.  Only in intent.  Being naked before others, even men, wasn’t a new thing for me.  It was always the intent that colored it.  The amount of importance one placed on certain aspects of the situation could tip things one way or another.  I remember my oldest brother, Thaddeus, sporting full erections plenty of times, not because he was aroused so much, as just a natural occurrence of his body.  He’d complain about it.  I wrestled with my little brother, Atalo, shortly before shifting–our bodies covered in mud, and our voices filled with laughter.  It was innocent.  Safe.  My mother was a different matter.  She was quite open about her interest in the opposite sex and didn’t hesitate to display as much, even with her young about her.  I’ve already mentioned how she brought strange men home with her.  It was outstandingly casual.

These people were so casual.

I shut the door with a snap when I realized I was staring.  Reacting to the–

“Hmm?  Not there, then?” Tristi asked, looking at me.  He was further up the hall.  We’d split up to speed up the process.

“No,” I said.  I tried to will away the knot in the pit of my stomach.  The warmth between my legs.

To the next door.  Here, I opened up to a room filled with a vast network of ropes, not unlike that seen with Syria’s chains.  At this center of this confusing tangle was a woman suspended by the torso, wrists, and ankles.  Her skin was raw where the rope held her, her head covered in a black cloth bag.  At the far wall of this room sat three figures.  Their bodies were disproportionate, with legs shorter than their torsos, and arms far too thin.  They wore plain white masks and dark robes, and from the hoods came long dark bones, like those tall giants I had seen before.  Something of this really startled me and I shut the door.

“I tried asking where your friend was, but these people just ignore you,” Tristi said with a sigh.

“They can’t hear us,” I said with a dry mouth.

“Why’s that?”

I didn’t answer her.  I felt an understanding creep up in me, but I was repulsed by it.  I didn’t want to devote my whole attention to it.  Couldn’t.  I just went and opened another door.

The rest of the sights were equally as mortifying as the last, but some were just…disturbing.  In one particular instance, I opened the door to a small dungeon-like room, where one man stood, fully clothed but barefoot on a blood slicked floor, his back to us, but his right arm jerking before him as he looked down at his feet.  I only caught a glimpse of it–just a crimson red pile of something on the floor.  Then suddenly, Tristi’s four-fingered hand flew before my eyes and gently pulled my head back.  He shut the door without a word and moved on.  My eyes fluttered, and I stared into the painted wood, breath short, a cold sweat over my skin.

Words failed me.  I retched and a small splash of vomit hit the back of my tongue, but I swallowed it down again.  I hadn’t eaten for some time, so there wasn’t much to eject.

Now I refused to look into any of the doors.  “Go on, tell me if he’s there.”

“Oh come now, dreamwalker–”

“Tristi, I will not–

“You repressed little thing you–”

“You can’t tell me this doesn’t–”

“Some of it.  A bit.  I’ve seen worse, really.” But Tristi, bless him, didn’t make me look.

We must have looked into a hundred rooms.  This hallway branched off into another hallway, then another, and another…they never seemed to end.  I don’t know how much time went by.  It may not have been long.  We didn’t linger at any of the doors we opened.  But I needed a rest.  I sat on the floor and had the edge of my right palm pressed against my eye, knees drawn up, my chin a wadded ball.  I still had nothing to cover myself up with and it made me feel like a heathen.

My companion stood over me, his abalone eyes shining in the blue light that now swathed us.  It reminded me of my adventure in Gamath, where the slime on the river guardian’s cave walls shone with different colors.   “Dreamwalker.” The voice over me was even.  Perhaps indifferent.

“I need a moment,” I said, voice just above a whisper.

Tristi didn’t argue, nor did he prod.  He just sat down next to me, body looking too long as his lanky legs stretched out before him.  He rubbed his forehead.

“Tristi, what’s the worst you’ve seen?  Ever?” I mumbled, looking at him sideways.  I pressed my hand next to my temple.  My other arm was pressed between my lap and my chest.

“A bad question.  Open-ended.  That’s not what you want to know, sweetest.”

My ears gave a twitch at ‘sweetest’, but I ignored it.  “I feel like I’ve seen the worst.”

“You feel like you’ve displayed the worst.”

I frowned at him.  “Excuse me?”

Tristi, who had pressed his head back into the wall, rolled it my way, eyebrows high.  “Nyx, you are a repressed little thing.  Stop drawing parallels with extremes.  You aren’t those people in the rooms…and even if you were?  There are far worse fates.”

My hands turned to two balled fists.  “These people are agents of lust.  They are driven by their carnality.  I am not like them.”

“Your assertions only outline the depth of your insecurity,” the champion of luck calmly returned.  “…But you’re right.  You’re not like them.”

“Thank you,” I snapped out, turning my face away.

Tristi went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “What you are, Nyx, is the opposite.  You do not let yourself want, not because you feel for yourself, but for the people around you.”  I heard the ring of a coin being flipped high.  “Let this coin tell me I’m a liar.  I call for the crown.”

I rounded on him.  “I can tell you what luck couldn’t tell a halfwit, and that is this–you know nothing.”

“Wrong.” Tristi caught the coin and slapped it to the back of his hand.  He held a small bronze pence to me.  Fiamman mint, displaying the crown.  “What I don’t know, is why someone of your nature, so liberal in many realms of thinking, would leave herself so chained by linear thought?”

I swallowed and glared forward.

Tristi tapped his lap and fidgeted next to me.  “I’m going on ahead.  I want to get this over with, I’ve other matters to deal with.”  He didn’t sound harsh or cold when saying this.  Just honest.  It still hurt.  I was falling on old ways again, as Lacertli would put it.  I needed to drag myself out of this.

I rubbed at my eyes and heard his boots clicking down the hall.

After a time, I made myself stand.  I was suffering from chills.  Goosebumps flashed over my skin as I went to the door nearest me.  I knew we hadn’t checked it yet.  After so many tries, I doubted that there was anything to be found in these myopic sex scenes.  But for some reason, I went ahead and opened the door.

I wasn’t greeted with a dungeon, or a noble’s bedroom, or a clean whitewashed room.

I was met with my old room in Tosmai.  The door that led out to the hallway displayed darkness.  The window over my bed was similarly dark.  The towers of books were all just where I had left them.  There, in the corner, was my tower of science.  There, next to my desk, my tower of history.  There, next to my bed, my tower of fiction…

I walked in, conscious of something.  I glanced at the door.  Never had we fully entered any of the rooms, nor had we ever closed the door behind us.

I heard a cough and looked around.  My throat clenched tight and the tears came faster than I could’ve hoped to stop them.

“Nyx…” a woman said.

I flinched and stepped back, gaze turned to the ground.  This was a bad idea.  I couldn’t do this.

“Stop,” she commanded.

My feet froze.  My wide eyes were clouded, my breath shuddering.  A hand lifted my face up.  I met amethyst eyes.  I could smell the honey off her skin.

“Taila,” I whispered.

The door closed behind me.

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy frowned at her knees.  “You aren’t telling me everything.”

Elmiryn blinked at her.  “S’cuse me?”

“I’m saying you’re leaving something out,” The wizard flicked the earring she wore.  “You wanna know what this does?  It lets my mind know what’s truly relevant.  What’s important about the things you’re saying.  But it’s only taking pieces of what you’re telling me.  Meznik’s crossroads, the trees that you saw…but not how you found them.  Peeked in?  Elmiryn, you really just peeked in? You didn’t try to cut the trees down?”  The wizard wanted to add, “You figured out all that about the creation of the crossroads, about how this alternate dimension reacts to a conflicted mind, about the greater meanings behind the phenomenon of fives by yourself?  All this while ‘being one’ with the fucking rocks, and dead people, and dusty air?  You figured this out, devoid of all evidence?”  But she refrained.

Elmiryn sucked at her teeth.  She shrugged one shoulder, her smile turned crooked.  “Okay.  So I went down the third path.  I tried to destroy it–the tree, I mean–but I just felt the song all around me.  Trying to dominate me.  That song, over and over in my head.  I swore I used to hear it as a child, but maybe that was a lie?”

Quincy felt the music creep back into her head, and willed it out.  Hard not to think about, what you’re trying to think about… “How did you try to destroy it?”

“This’ll sound weird…”

“Elmiryn, go on.”

“No…”

“Tell me.”

The warrior glared at her.  “I tried…to bite it.  In half.”

Quincy’s eyebrows went high.

Elmiryn snorted.  “I told you it’d sound weird.  I wasn’t in the same form as I am now.  I didn’t have legs and arms.  I didn’t have a face.  I was just…there.  And I tried to scythe through it, with my spirit, but I couldn’t.  What happened instead was…” Her voice trailed off and her eyes turned misty.  This reaction bewildered the wizard.

“…Elmiryn?”

“I tasted it.  The tree sap.  The bark, the leaves, everything.  But really, the tree sap.  And you know where I’d tasted it before?”

Quincy’s face settled into a grim stone.  “When Meznik changed you.  He gave you tree sap!”

The warrior nodded, perhaps a little too eagerly, because she sat back with a shuddering inhale and jumped to her feet.  She went to the stairs and looked down the stairs.  Then she laughed, and pointed at Sedwick.  “Look!  It’s the human cannon ball!  That helmet looks fetching!”  She started to go down the steps.  “Here, lemme polish you, baldy–”

Quincy stood and grabbed her by the arm.  “Hey!  But the trees!  Where did you see them?  And what about the fifth road?  And the first?”

Elmiryn glared at her.  She jerked her arm away and snapped.  “I don’t know exactly where they are.  The one down the second path was in a jungle, the third up in snowy mountains, and the fourth on a cliff overlooking a green sea.  The first road was probably the tree Nadi and Sedwick killed.  I couldn’t get to the fifth.”

“Why not?”

The warrior looked at her as if she were stupid. “Because I had to stop to help you and Sedwick.”

Quincy didn’t try to grab her again.  Elmiryn went down the stairs and engaged Sedwick and Henriette.  The brunette just watched the woman.  She started to go back to her place at the wall when the toe of her right boot smeared the line of her divination circle and knocked over a boot.  She felt a rush of air, like it had been released, and she cursed.  She sat again, and took up her chalk.  She set to work, doing the spell over again.  But even as she redrew the circle, she couldn’t stop thinking about Elmiryn’s words.

The crossroads were like a keyhole, Quincy decided.  Better to call it that, as a crossroads suggested a divergence of intent.  This was a singular, if convoluted, way forward.  Elmiryn had unconsciously asked for a way to unlock what she’d needed.  This dimension, impressionable by anything strong enough to shape it, reacted to her request.  Thus the five paths.  She was like the key, unlocking the things that she needed.

…How much power did one need to command those chaotic energies?

“This doesn’t mean that Elmiryn orchestrated what happened to us.  No one did,” Quincy thought.  “But she found a means to find us, because we had things she needed to achieve her ends.  When she found me, she found two allies, and a great deal of information to get her started.  With Graziano, she discovered further things about herself, and now she has new tools at her disposal.  She mentioned elements.  There certainly seems to be a correlation.  First she encountered the strength of water, in Nadi.  Then we arrived here, inside the earth.  What will be the next element?  Is there some sort of order I’m missing…?”

The woman screwed up her mouth.  “Upon acquiring everything she needs, she’ll be able to find what she wants down the last path.  Her true desire.  I wonder what that is?  Meznik, maybe?” The wizard chewed her lip as she drew another four symbols around the circle.

“She said that if I’d been torn apart like she had, then perhaps I’d have made a crossroads too.  But I don’t think that’s true.  I think the only reason she had the ability to make those five paths was because of the changes that Meznik did to her.  She says he thinks like he’s an artist.  Artists create things, change things, manipulate materials to exact a final product.  Elmiryn, for a little while there, was able to control the dust and the undead.  She could have brought the ceiling down if she hadn’t reigned herself in.”  The woman rubbed her brow in frustration.  “Listen to me, I’m drawing connections without enough evidence.  Master Saerth would have scolded me.  I need to know more about Meznik’s abilities.  I need the full story from Elmiryn about Gamath.  About how she became cursed.  About her life before that.”

Quincy held out her arms and muttered a short incantation.  The dust from the chalk swirled about the boots in a soft cyclone.  “But I think it’s safe to assume that whatever Meznik can do, Elmiryn is learning.  Her very nature has changed…is still changing.  That’s the real significance of Meznik having crossroads of his own.  There’s a direct connection between the two of them now.  I bet if we could get more information about Elmiryn’s new nature and how her pathways work, then we can understand this astral demon and discover what he wants to achieve.”  The wizard’s hands clenched as she settled her arms back onto her lap.  “…He got mad that we came here.  Elmiryn suggested that the crossroads weren’t recently created, but perhaps made long ago?  It’d explain the trees.  If this was where his spell originated, then we could end it all here and now!”

Quincy held her hand over the boots and closed her eyes.

“Stop being so stubborn…” she murmured at the boots.  “Lend me your power and I’ll give you a purpose.”

She felt a pin prick of warmth in her mind.  Then it blossomed and spread, carrying with it wordless understandings.  The woman smiled slowly.

Sedwick and Elmiryn stood over her.  “You ready?”  The man now held the silver mallet.

Quincy took off her boots and squinted up at them.  “Hold on.  I found out what these things can do, and it’s nice, but I forgot one important detail.  Something I can’t figure out with a spell.”

“Which is?” Elmiryn asked, her lips smirking lightly.

The wizard struggled to pull on one of the enchanted boots and felt a light tingle of energy sweep through her.  “I can’t wear these if they don’t fit right, now can I?”

But they did, and so they left the chamber.

Henriette led them through the city, which felt devoid of everything now.  Just as Sedwick had predicted upon their arrival, the gateway was to the north.  Quincy felt a rush go through her at the sign of the gate.  “Your people…did they know of this dimension, Henriette?”

The gate was a massive creation up on a small platform, set against the mountain wall, with great gears and grinding wheels that rolled two fifty foot slabs of rock.  Chiseled into the rock was something in the dead dwarven language, Humi.  A series of life-sized dwarf statues stood at attention leading up the stone steps.

The warrior shrugged at Quincy’s question.  “I know a great many things about my people, but not everything.”  She pointed.  “This’ll take everything I have to open the stone doors by my self.  It’s on a timer, so ye’ll have to run through.  I’ll be gone before I see you go.”

“And the undead?  I have them jumping off a bridge right now.  I bet it’ll be really satisfying to see them go!”

The dwarf waved that away.  “I’m tired,” was all she said.

Elmiryn nodded.  “This is goodbye, then.”

Henriette looked at her, then smiled.  “Aye!”

Sedwick bowed at her.  “You’re a credit to your people, Henriette.”

The dwarven warrior just pshawed him.  “None o’ that!  Jes’ get on, already!”

Quincy smirked.  “Thank you.”

Henriette looked at her, her stern eyes narrowed.  She wagged a finger at the wizard.  “You mind yourself!”  She pointed next at Elmiryn.  “And keep your promises!”

“Count on it,” Elmiryn said.

Without further comment, the ghost vanished with a hiss and a pop.  Somewhere, they heard a loud crank, then a click.  The gears and the wheels began to turn.  With a great rumble, the doors began to slide apart.  Quincy couldn’t see the actual portal.  All she saw was the rock wall behind the doors.  Sedwick and Elmiryn, on the other hand, sighed in relief.  It was mildly frustrating, being left out of the loop that way, but given what she’d have to sacrifice to see as Elmiryn did, perhaps it was for the best.

In short time, the doors were completely open.

“Onward and forward,” Quincy breathed.  She glanced at Elmiryn. “This’ll be your third path.”

The warrior grinned.  “Fuck it.  Three’s my lucky number anyways!”

Sedwick looked at them, confused. “What’re you two talking about?”

The women exchanged looks.  Then Elmiryn looked at him with a snicker and patted him on the shoulder.  “Sorry.  We’ll explain it to you on the other side.”  The man looked put out by this, but there wasn’t time to address that.  The doors were sliding shut again.

Together, they stepped through the wall, and once more, they Traveled through the chaos.

Continue ReadingChapter 22.2

Chapter 24.3

QUINCY_________________________

It was time.  Finally–Quincy hadn’t realized how starved she’d been until now.

Tonatiuh was within her grasp.

It was true that he was nearly five times her size, a solid mass of muscle, and had scorching skin that rivaled the suns, but the wizard had handled such cases before.  She was more worried about getting caught in the crossfire.  One beast, plus two beasts, equaled Quincy dead between three.

As they ran, Nyx vanished from her peripheral vision.  When the wizard went to look, she saw that the Ailuran was gone entirely.  Elmiryn had looked as well but seemed less taken aback.  Or maybe she could spare little time to think about that, seeing as how she barely kept pace with Quincy.  The idiot’s inebriation took a great deal out of her.  In the back of her mind, the brunette agreed with Nyx that the warrior ought to have sat this one out.  But Elmiryn didn’t even entertain the notion, and if Quincy were in her place, neither would she.

That wasn’t to say she didn’t have her own difficulties to deal with.  There was still the cut on her shoulder that threatened to rip open every time Quincy jerked her arm too much.  There was also the red stinging of her hand from when she’d overdone it with the fire bracelet, not to mention the throbbing of her jaw and the mild headache it induced from when Elmiryn had punched her. (“Wait, she’s punched me in the head before hasn’t she?  Gods, it’s bad when you can’t keep track…”)  She grit her teeth and fought through the encroaching pain.

Tonatiuh was within her grasp.

Quincy could see the spirit, his great big body gleaming, the muscles shifting and coiling beneath his skin as he fought to keep the dragons from tearing into him.  It took all of his attention from her, which was in her favor.

As the story went, her blade came to host Tonatiuh when a nameless hero had pierced him with it.  She didn’t get much more than that–not why the hero felt the need to attack the spirit, where it happened, nor even where Tonatiuh had been stabbed.  But it seemed a simple enough task of trial and error.  Keep stabbing, hope something happens.  Keep stabbing, hope something happens.  Keep stabbing…

As the dust cleared enough that Quincy could see all three giants up ahead, the immensity of what she was getting into came in full light.  Tonatiuh stomped his feet, and her teeth rattled in her head.  One of the dragons’ screeched, and she thought she went deaf.  Tonatiuh struck with fists blazing bright, and she thought her retinas had been reduced to a cinder.  The dragons’ stirred the wind, and the woman found it hard to resist the currents.

She bumped into Elmiryn during one such moment and took the opportunity to scream, “Either they come to us, or we go to them!

“What?” the redhead bellowed back. The din of the battle was swallowing up their words.

Quincy didn’t have time to answer.  When she was close enough that the reality of being crushed was very much real, the wizard ducked around the swishing tail of the bearded dragon and closed in.  She felt the long tail whip over her, could swear she felt the scales skim her shoulder blades.  Her fingers spidered along the earth, feeling its heat as she scuttled on all fours.  The wizard hissed as the dragon stomped its foot and sent hot rocks and dust into her face.  Her vision clouded and she wiped hurriedly at her eyes, because she could not afford to be blind so close.  When her head lifted again, she saw the dragon’s foot descending towards her.

The woman yelled and rolled out of the way.  Her shoulder protested this greatly.  With a wince, she was once again on her feet in a readied crouch.  The dragon had ceased moving, at least for the moment.  Heart thumping, the wizard used its heel to leap up onto its rump.  At the peak of its height, the serpentine beast reached three stories.  Down on all fours, its long neck still had it reaching two stories.  From the ground to its lower back, Quincy had to fight up more than thirteen feet.  Its scales offered good footholds and she managed to hold on even as the beast started to shift and move.

Elmiryn kept running, her mind clearly set on some other plan.  As Quincy climbed further up the dragon’s back, she began to wonder if she should have tried for something else.  In summary, her current path sounded like folly.  “Jump up onto the dragon’s back, climb to its shoulder, then leap onto Tonatiuh like a Fury.”  Yes.  That sounded stupid even to her now.  As if to confirm the veracity of her feelings, the dragon was slammed in the chest by Tonatiuh.  The great serpent reared back, nearly standing up straight, and while Quincy clung to spinal fins halfway up, she felt like she really would be crushed.  To her fortune the bearded dragon slid its clawed hind foot back, its wings tilted forward, and with bunched muscles, it pushed Tonatiuh back with claws dragging along his skin.  The sunny giant screamed, claw marks on his chest.  Quincy cried out as the dragon landed on all fours again, its jaws snapping.  She felt as though all her bones had threatened to bounce right out of her skin.

The dragon beat its wings, stirring up the air so that Quincy’s hair was sent whipping, and the wizard turned her face into the creature’s back.  She lost her breath as the dragon pushed up, great wings beating even faster, and she felt gravity shift.  Her feet dangled free in the air.  “Oh gods, what was I thinking?” she thought as the vertigo seized her.  She dared to look.  They hadn’t gone high.  In fact, the creature had just used its wings to gain more lift on its jump.  It was kicking and whipping out its tail.  It caught Tonatiuh in his flat face, cutting his cheek and jaw.  Again, the giant screamed.  She could see the other dragon, rear up for a strike of its own.  This was the slimmer beast, with shinier scales and a gaze like blades.  The bearded serpent she rode scored a massive wallop into the spirit’s chest with its tail before it started to descend, one that Quincy was certain would have broken something, but the giant was quick to retaliate.  He grabbed the bearded dragon by the tail and before either Quincy or the serpent could react, Tonatiuh swung them onto the ground onto the other dragon, who was flattened with a growl.

Quincy screamed as she felt her shoulder rip open beneath the bandage.  The blood felt hot and was soaking through her wrappings.  The pain throughout her was one moment a throb, the next more like an all-encompassing stab.  She swooned, eyes rolling as she tried to better her hold on the dragon’s back.  The bearded dragon had landed on its side, but the wizard found its spinal fins a poor support to rest on.  The hand that gripped the fin was bleeding from the sharp edge.  Tonatiuh pinned both dragons down by their necks, using his right hand and knee.  In his left hand he gripped a steaming piece of meteorite, and this he raised in preparation for a strike.  She was concealed beneath the bearded dragon’s wing, the shadow over her large.

Once more Tonatiuh loomed over his next victims.  He was a devourer.  A parasitic agent that hungered without end.  Quincy knew how he worked, knew what it was he sought.  He was the very nature of a star.  Consuming, consuming, consuming…he’d eat these two beasts, and the power within them would become his own.  She knew this, from all the things he’d ever taken from her.  If he succeeded in killing the dragons, then all was lost.

As if to spare them, the sky started to rain…With weapons.  Quincy was nearly beheaded by a double axe.  This sparked upon hitting the scales, but the dragon’s hide was formidable.  Quincy, however, knew no such fortitude.  Wild eyed, she dodged next a sheathed short sword, a billy club, and a wide assortment of knives.  She was pelted by heavy metal objects at high speeds along her back and legs.  “Tai’undu, what is this!?” she shouted, wincing as a naked blade cut her hip.  Tonatiuh fared no better.  While the arsenal fell about her in an apathetic fashion, the naked blades and the heavy bludgeons seemed to seek him out, turning impossibly in the air to strike into his flesh.

“This, my dear, is a distraction, an interruption, a diversion,” said a deep tenor voice.  “I gave my magic a spin, and this heavenly fury you see is the result.”

The woman tried to look for the source, still wincing and squinty-eyed from the barrage.  What her eyes fell on made her seize up.  “Oh not you…”

The hail of larger weapons had ended.  The sky was clearing of the assault, and the man stood like he were impervious to the trickle of darts and bladed stars that now fell.  Tristi leaned on the dragon’s side with one hand, his deltaic face tilted to the side.  He flashed his fanged smile and said, “Hello little fledgeling.”

ELMIRYN________________________

Even as she gripped her sword, even as her brazen words echoed through her head, even as she felt the heat of the rubble stem up through her soles to the pit of her stomach in that pleasurable way–she knew she could not get in close.  Even with her injuries, Quincy was in a better state than Elmiryn.  The woman’s head was splitting apart at this point, and her stomach was lurching something fierce.  Her tongue felt parched.  She didn’t say them, didn’t even think them, but the words haunted the edges of her, pulsing like a heart in the dark–

Thirst Thirst Thirst Thirst Thirst

She heard him speak to her through the music in her head as she scrabbled over the destruction, her eyes vainly searching for some way she could join in the battle.

It was a bad idea.

She wasn’t surprised to hear him.  Still her lip curled downward and she muttered, “What was?”

The wine.

He was being unusually taciturn, and for some reason this annoyed her.  “You don’t think I couldn’t figure that out?”

Given your performance history,

I don’t think you could figure out

Which end shit is supposed to come out of.

That said,

I probably should have explained things to you.

You may have recognized

That you are different.

Well let me expand on that.

You are VERY different.

“Not quite human anymore, you mean,” the redhead spat.

No.  More like, “Not quite fae yet.”

She slowed, her heart thumping.  “…The fae?”

What did you think I was doing to you?

Turning you into a garbanzo bean?

“The things I can see that Quincy can’t…” She swallowed and felt her throat tighten.

Yes.  And the wine.

The fae cannot drink for a reason.

“Why didn’t you–DAMN it!  Why didn’t you tell me all this before!?”

You’re my toy.

That doesn’t mean I have to play with you all the time.

And I certainly don’t have to play by your rules.

Elmiryn felt a surge of illness overcome her, and she stumbled to the nearest broken column she could see.  She sat heavily on the uneven cement, and stared ahead with glassy eyes, her face green.  A big piece of meteorite, the size of her torso, flamed and crackled just a ways before her.  The flames licked the bottom of her field of vision, giving an infernal light to the battle before her.  Praxidice, the bearded dragon, had leapt up with wings beating, and had scored some powerful blows against Tonatiuh.  Poena, who had been turned away with a strong punch to the head by the giant, was now making to capitalize on this latest development.  But the advantage turned when Tonatiuh countered by grabbing Praxidice by the tail and slamming her into her sister.  Elmiryn saw Quincy still clinging to the dragon.

Quincy has a better head on her shoulders than you do.

Given her obsessions, that’s saying something.

The warrior rose again with labored breath.  The edges of her vision rippled as sweat dripped from her chin.  She scowled and closed her eyes.  She’d learned a lot of things.  Things she couldn’t tell Sedwick or Quincy.  She knew, in a tired sort of relief, that she could impart these things to Nyx when the time was right, but for the moment, these secrets were hers.  Things learned whilst her consciousness was free of her body.

Elmiryn responded to Meznik through the music.

Can’t you tell me what it is you want?

Why did you make that deal with my father?

What were you looking for?

She says to herself that she feels too ill and exhausted to muster up the usual hatred and fight in her words.  And even if she weren’t, what would be the point?  She can’t hurt Meznik.  But even she can taste the resignation in the back of her throat.  Meznik responds, and there’s a trill in the music, like he’s chuckling.

What a stupid question.

I wanted my toy.

Are you tiring of this, already?

What of the things we discussed?

Don’t change the subject.

Achieving dreams.

Rising above your station.

Getting back at those that abandoned you in hell.

I already told you, I can get you in arms reach of Him.

STOP it!

I’m not your toy!

I want a real answer.

Where is that effervescent hatred I love so much?

That bullheaded drive?

What is this exhaustion that I’m feeling from you?

His music wilted.  As the fight just didn’t seem to be in her this time around, so it seemed to flee him.  When next he spoke, it was with a subdued voice.

Moron.  Pay attention to what’s around you.

You’d better not die over this silly promise.

Remember, you don’t need any of the others to get out of here.

You just need me.

The demon that ruined my life.

A real bode of confidence.

There is a strange freedom in being so hated.

Furthermore, demons conjure up infernal beings of hell.

I thought you people didn’t believe in men with bifurcated tails?

…Men with what?

Never mind.

Just pay attention, or your head’s going to be crushed.

Elmiryn’s eyes opened, just in time to see a mace smash the meteor in front of her.  The woman jumped to her feet and looked up.  The sky was raining with all sorts of weapons, big and small.  She gave shout as she parried a falling sword with her own.  There was no cover close by, but the warrior figured it was better to run for it than stay and be bombarded.  She ran for the nearest building with an overhang, eyes on the sky, her sword slashing out whenever she thought the deadly end of a blade was sure to hit her.  She couldn’t deflect it all.  The woman bared her teeth as her body was pelted.  Once a sai had hit her in the middle of the back so hard, she actually fell to the ground and thought her back was broken.  She wretched but found there wasn’t much in her stomach to spit up.  With a push, she was able to pick herself up again and resume moving.  The rain of weapons stopped before Elmiryn could reach her cover.  She stood with cuts on her arms and torso, and her shirt ripped in places. Her breath came harsh and uneven.  Meznik was gone from her head.

She looked down at the weapons around her, and her eyes brightened at the sight of one…

QUINCY_________________________

Hello little fledgeling…

“Don’t you dare call me that,” Quincy snarled at Tristi.  Or tried to.  The struggle of the dragon choked the fierceness from her words as she fought to stay on.

Tristi stepped away from the stamping feet and thrashing wings to regard her.  “Why not?  It is what your caregivers called you.”

“And they’re gone, aren’t they?”  She had to shout to make sure her words were heard.

Tristi chuckled and wagged a finger at her.  Somehow, he didn’t seem to raise his voice anymore than normal.  “Y’know, I had bet Jack that I’d find you first.  He wasn’t really in the mind for bets–nothing like his old self, the poor fellow.  But the words left his lips, ‘I bet you…’ and you know what my tenets demand.  Ah, sweet, sweet little bird.  Do you know what agony your disappearance caused?”

“Tristi this is hardly the time for this,” Quincy bit out.  Her throat was tight and her breathing short.  She honestly couldn’t tell if it was the commotion happening or what the champion had said.

The man inspected the ends of his copper ponytail.  “Ah, Quincy.  I get the feeling you do not like me.”

“The last time I saw you, you’d turned me into a bird.”

“A hawk chick, to be specific.  I thought it was a compliment.  Tobias didn’t seem to think so, if you remember.  He hit me in the mouth.  Hard.  I think that was his specialty.  Hitting things like a rock.  He certainly had the head of one.  Come to think of it, he hit me with that too.”  Tristi feigned a shudder.  “Scary man, when angry!”

“Cute.  Can we not talk about this now?”

Tristi did not leave, even as Tonatiuh roared in frustration from the weapons that seemed to resume hitting him.  They no longer fell from the sky, but jumped up from the ground.  Tristi also did not go when the dragons beat their wings, and Quincy wasn’t sure if they were trying to protect themselves or to use the distraction to gain their freedom. The champion of luck gave a nod.  “I had this sneaking suspicion that it would be to my good fortune to follow Nyx.  When that meteorite fell and hit the dragon, I thought I was mistaken.  But here I have found you.  Will wonders never cease?”

Quincy went to snap something at him, but the man had vanished.  She gave a shake of her head.  “Damn him.”

Though the dragon’s struggled, the great giant just managed to keep his hold, and as if realizing what his distraction would cost him, Tonatiuh once more raised his bludgeon for a blow.  “Tāʾsīn!!” he screamed. Die!!

His hand came down, and this time there wasn’t a massive voice to blow him off his feet.

…No this time, his own shadow started to play tricks on him.  Quincy didn’t recall there ever being a shadow to begin with, since Tonatiuh’s radiance choked it from the face of the earth.  Yet now, from the bottom of her vision something dark had appeared, and just before he could crush in the head of his first victim, the shadow jerked, and his arm followed.  Quincy was certain she’d seen the shadow move first.  She sat up and watched, brows knitted together.  The flying weapons had stopped.  Tonatiuh grunted, his face bunching in bewilderment as he looked down at his feet.

Quincy’s eyes turned wide.  What was that small shadow flitting across the ground?  She looked up.  There was nothing in the sky.  Tonatiuh seemed to have an idea.

“Little witch!” He rumbled.  He tried to stomp at the shadow but found his own dark outline was beat back in the chest, and so his body followed suit like a puppet.  Every time Tonatiuh’s shadow was moved, so was Tonatiuh.  The shadow’s left knee was knocked to the side, thus knocking his aside, compromising his posture. Then his shadow was struck in the left shoulder, and for a moment it looked as though he would fall.  Alas, the giant righted himself using the slim dragon’s neck as his anchor.  At that moment, there was a short thwip and the giant’s head snapped back with a howl.  Quincy heard laughter and turned her head.

Elmiryn stood at a distance, sword sheathed and bow in hand.  She must have found it from the rain of weapons that had fallen from the sky.  She drew another arrow from the quiver she had strapped to her back.  She grinned and said, “Gods I love shooting people in the eye…”

Tonatiuh ripped the arrow out.  Quincy was sprayed with blood.  The spirit let out another howl.  His mouth gnashed as his right eye bled down his face and into the spaces of his teeth.  Then, without warning, his left fist flashed up to punch him in the face.  Quincy could see his shadow do this a fraction of a second before he did.  Then his other fist came around, this one still gripping the arrow so it left a little cut on his chin.  The giant stumbled back, off of the dragons and Elmiryn shot him again, this time in the center of the throat.  He did not howl, but instead let out a wet gurgle.  This arrow he tore out as well.

Quincy’s stomach gave a twist as she saw the blood from his neck and eye begin to stain nearly his whole front.  If he died before she could get to him–

The dragons, now freed, rose with a vengeance.  Unprepared, the wizard was nearly thrown off before she once again found her footholds on the bearded dragon’s back.

Tonatiuh’s face was tight and almost orange with rage.  He curled in on himself, and his body trembled.  Rapidly, his body began to grow brighter.  The dragons were advancing on him, and Quincy’s eyes widened.  “Wait, wait! Don’t go near him!”

To her surprise, the bearded dragon slowed to a stop and craned its long neck to look at her.  Its sister, however…

The heat around them grew immense.  The wizard knew this heat.  Knew what it meant.  How many times had she used this power against others?  She screamed at the dragon, “Get down!” The beast looked at the sunny giant.  This seemed to validate Quincy’s advice, for the beast got down and raised its wings to shield the woman.  Through the spaces of the wings, the brunette could see Tonatiuh snap upright with arms and head thrown back.  His mouth was open in a silent scream.

Then the light came.

Continue ReadingChapter 24.3

Chapter 24.4

NYX____________________________

Bound by my word and fueled by a desire to survive with all that I had regained, I fell into my shadow.  In the cloud and dust, where light was obscured, it was easier to do, and this time I didn’t have a bewildered passenger in my arms.  The shadows here were drawn to me, and I moved over that cold and slippery ground with an ease that was growing each time I came here.

In the Umbralands, I learned that creating a shadow is hard when you’re making it from nothing.  As I neared the commotion, my gut fell.  By the looks of things, it would be harder still.  Tonatiuh was so bright that his own shadow was swallowed up.  The light encompassed him.

What could I do?  The darkness shrank away from him, and his luminescence was so strong as to repel me.  I started to feel helpless as I watched Quincy and Elmiryn charge off without me.  The wizard pulled a bold move and climbed atop Praxidice’s back.  In little time, I lost sight of Elle.  Things were getting away from me, fast.

Then I felt like a cajeck.  Was I not in control of the shadows?  Could I not shift them as I wished?  I’d made shadows in the midst of light before, and I could do it again.  With two hands and my mind honed in on my task, I set about digging up a shadow for Tonatiuh.  I had to lean back with all of my body as natural law fought with all its strength to keep me from achieving my goal.  It was doubly hard because my target kept moving.  I could feel the sweat bead on my brow and I grit my teeth as I pulled.

To my relief, a shadow started to appear, and it grew darker and darker.

Yet the battle had taken a dire turn.  Tonatiuh’s brute strength was easily overwhelming the dragons.  Both were pinned down.  I was beginning to see how their sister could fall so quickly after being struck by the spirit’s meteor.  I could see Quincy holding on for dear life as Praxidice thrashed and fought to regain freedom.  I could not see Elle anywhere nearby.  I struggled with the shadow I had made, trying to make it stronger.  It still wasn’t enough for me to work with.  I could feel it in the way it seemed to slip about Tonatiuh’s form like an unfastened sheet.  If I didn’t do something, Tonatiuh was going to kill the dragons.

As my panic mounted and I thought my hold on the shadow would give, something incredible happened.

It started to rain…with weapons.  Big, heavy, deadly weapons that just came from the sky.  It was quite…lucky, and I had a sneaking suspicion of who to thank.

All around me I could see and feel the shadows of the falling blades and bludgeons.  I eased my grip on Tonatiuh’s shadow and started launching the weapons at the spirit.  My aim wasn’t perfect because the items fell so quickly, and many of the blades left only flesh wounds because they didn’t strike at the right angle.  Regardless, with each successive strike, I felt the resistance in Tonatiuh’s shadow lessen.  It was like the light wavered and I was able to darken his shadow further.  With a wave of relief, I saw that I now had something that adhered quite nicely to the spirit’s form, and it didn’t require as much work from me to keep it visible.

As the shadow was attached to the spirit, the next thing was to will it to do as I pleased.  In my favor, there was enough harmony in the environment that I had reign over the Umbralands and its components.  It took a good push from me, but the shadow followed my commands, if grudgingly.

First, I made Tonatiuh miss his strike against Poena when he brought down the meteorite.  Next, I nearly made him fall when I jerked his shadow’s knee, then his shoulder.  Out of nowhere, Elmiryn appeared, and she capitalized on the situation by landing a shot in Tonatiuh’s eye with the bow and arrow she’d found.  After he pulled the arrow out, I took his fists and made him hit himself.  Quincy seemed to be having a time of it, since the dragons doubled their efforts to break free.  I wondered how she’d managed to hold on so long.  She was given a reprieve when the spirit’s fury finally saw him releasing the dragons in favor of trying to stomp me.  I hadn’t realized that I was visible to him in any way, and I grew alarmed to see my own created shadow hurtling at me, but I dodged his attack.  If there’s one thing I’m good at–it’s running away.  His fury was interrupted when Elmiryn landed another shot in his throat.

It really felt like we were wearing him down.  Winning.

Then Tonatiuh did something I didn’t expect, but perhaps I should have.  The dragons didn’t seem to expect it either, and it was only due to a warning from Quincy that Praxidice stopped and took cover.  Me?

…I was far too close.

With a silent scream, Tonatiuh let out a blast of light–a flare so strong that I lost my hold on his shadow and my own.

I was launched out of the Umbralands and fell onto the half-world with a nasty thump.  The wind was knocked from me, and the heat blistered my skin.  If Tonatiuh came any closer, I was certain I’d die.  But that fate was not to be mine.

There was a petrifying screech.  I could feel the clothes about me ignite into little flames, and I thought in that detached way, “Can I not keep one outfit in any of this!?”  With all that I had, I fought to roll away from the heat.  The flames were snuffed out, but still the heat scalded me, and I cried at the touch of hot rubble to my bare skin and stockinged legs.  Daring had me squinting sidelong at the source of all this brilliance.  My stomach dropped and all my thoughts of certain victory with it.

The brilliance faded.  Silence rang through the air.

…Poena was lost.

The great dragon stood immortalized in my memories forever.  Her wings, half-spread, appeared as ruined sails–tattered and blasted through.  Her beautiful scales had lost their luster and instead were dull and charred.  They fell like old tiles from her hide.  Poena swayed, first one way, then another.  I could not see her front, but after she keeled over onto her side and the dust cleared, I could see all the good her tough scales had done her.  Her face and chest and forearms had been reduced to blood and pulp–the skin and natural armor blasted away by Tonatiuh’s burst of power.  I was reminded of the time Quincy had kidnapped Lethia, and the flesh had been blasted from my hand from the wizard’s stellar exit.

The sunny giant let out a disgusting chortle as the wound in his neck bubbled.  I could hear Praxidice cry out in fury and agony.  Her sisters were lost to her.  She was alone now against this great foe.  With little effort, he hefted Poena’s body and tossed it into the air.  I could feel the ground begin to tremble as the orphaned dragon moved forth, but it was too late.  Tonatiuh’s mouth parted, and impossibly, Poena was swallowed whole.  The sound of bones crunching, of skin and flesh being torn, made me feel ill.

With Poena’s tail still dangling from between his teeth, the monster dodged Praxidice’s charge with a speed he previously did not possess.  The dragon, being so large and moving so fast, could not change direction very quickly.  Like a bird, Tonatiuh tilted his head back and gobbled the rest of his meal.  The corpse vanished into his belly as if it occupied little space.  I swallowed at the lump in my throat.  Was it my imagination, or was the giant even taller and brighter now?  The cuts on his body started to heal so rapidly that I doubted my regeneration was so quick.  The hole in his throat sealed, and his eye, with a nasty pop, grew back.  He let out a booming laugh that chilled me.  “I will consume you all!” he bellowed.

There was a thwip, and an arrow struck the giant in the side of the neck.  Four more quickly followed.  Two joined the arrow in his throat, and two struck his left side and his left shoulder respectively.  The giant coughed and gurgled as he tore the arrows from deep in his throat.  Blood gushed and spurted before bubbling to a low stream.  With rage in his eyes, he turned, and I could see Elmiryn approaching, another arrow readied.  She was within shouting distance of me now, and seemed unaware of my presence.  I could see the smile on her face as she said loudly, “Did I give you permission to talk?”

Trust Elmiryn to antagonize the giant that had just consumed a dragon whole.

Tonatiuh’s body started to glow again in that ominous way, but Praxidice would not be denied a second time.  With a half-flying jump, she descended on the spirit with claws slashing.  Like a feral cat, she wrapped herself around the spirit’s body and did not let herself touch the ground–not that hard a feat.  In all this time, the sunny giant had grown imperceptibly, and the dragon was about the size of a large dog to him now.

This didn’t stop Praxidice, however.  Her hind legs kicked at his back.  Her fangs buried deep into his shoulder.  I could almost feel the disregard for her own safety, and of course, that of Quincy’s.  Tonatiuh struggled to get a good grip on the dragon, and finally his hands closed around her neck.  Elmiryn had been firing arrows all this time, and the giant was beginning to look like a pin cushion.  Still, none of her attacks seemed as effective as when she’d hit his throat, and for that, she no longer had a clear shot.  Tonatiuh remained impervious.

I stumbled to my feet, some plan half-forming in my head, when something flitted by me in a jangle of metal.  I did a double take.  “Tristi!” I cried.  There was a mixture of relief…and dread.

I could see the symbols flashing around his body as he sprinted toward Tonatiuh, a lance in one hand, and his gloved fist glowing.  “Spirit!” He bellowed.

The giant bent his legs, squeezed Praxidice’s neck so that her violent slashings quieted.  In a booming voice, he said to Tristi,  “I am not a common spirit!  I am the lost son!  The rightful heir!  I.  Am.  Tonatiuh!”  Rather than throw Praxidice, as I’d expected him too, Tonatiuh surprised me yet again.  He jumped.  High up into the air, so high as to leave the wind screaming about us.  I was cast down, and so was Elmiryn.  Over the din, I turned and saw her lock eyes with me.

Tristi did not fall.  Did not even falter.

The sphere of symbols about him turned blue, and they all changed to one shape–a crown and a star.  With an almost tribal yell, the champion of luck was lost in a flash, and a small smoking crater was left in his wake.  I didn’t see him up in the sky, but I did see Tonatiuh twist in the air so that the dragon was now beneath him.    Seeing what happened after he had eaten Poena, I knew we’d have no hope then.  I hurried to Elmiryn, half-crawling, half-running.  “Elmiryn, are you alright?”

“Quincy…Praxidice…” The woman’s eyes were on the sky, and I could see the tension in her face.  “They’ll die.”

In the back of my mind, as the seconds grew to a crawl, I wondered how Farrel was doing.  If he had run away by now, I wouldn’t have blamed him.  I suppose I would have wanted to as well, a few weeks ago.  Now, the feeling was absent.  I wouldn’t go anywhere until my promise was done and Elmiryn was okay.  Even given this horrible sight, I was going to stay.

We watched Tonatiuh’s jump reach its peak.  His body began to glow, and I realized he wasn’t going to just fall, he was going to blast back to the ground.

Then the blue light that I had previously seen around Tristi appeared in the sky in a mammoth sized sweep, and it scythed toward them.  It sounded like crackling thunder, and my hairs stood on end to see such power.  The blue light vanished as quickly as it came, and the giant’s glow faded as he and the dragon started to fall…but not before Praxidice kicked him away, revealing just what had happened.

Tonatiuh’s arms had been cut off.

Praxidice, so petite in comparison to that sunny brute Tonatiuh, let out a victorious cry as her wings unfurled and she took to the air like a fish to the sea.  The way her body arced through the air was so beautiful.  My hope started to lift and I grabbed Elmiryn’s arm.  “Elle!  Look!  She’s okay!”

When the warrior didn’t say anything, I looked at her and saw that the tension hadn’t gone from her face.  “Yeah.  Praxidice is.  But Quincy’s in serious trouble unless the dragon catches her.”

I looked.  Indeed, in the dark sky, I could see a small figure falling.

“Come now…we must have faith in our briny-headed lass, shouldn’t we?”

We both jumped and turned to see Tristi standing there, hair mussed and a crooked smile on his face.  His clothes were smoldering and his shirt torn at the front to reveal his sweaty chest.  He would have looked handsome, in a roguish way, if one were into that sort of thing.  He pointed at the sky as he shouldered the lance–or what was once a lance.  The weapon’s blade had been charred and warped.  “Look there,” he said. “And you’ll see the fledgeling is learning to fly!”

Elmiryn turned to look right away, but I was frowning at Tristi.  Something about what he said was tickling my mind, but before I could make the connection, the warrior started shaking me.  “Nyx, Nyx! Look!  I can’t believe it!!” She laughed, and I turned to see what it was that had her so excited.

My jaw fell.

QUINCY_________________________

…As far as deaths go, I didn’t quite expect this.  Maybe Master Saerth would think this is funny.

She held on, not so much because she wanted to, but because the force of Tonatiuh’s leap was such that Quincy was flattened against the dragon’s hunched back.  She had managed to climb higher after the dragon’s release, and had even been set to jump down onto Tonatiuh upon the dragon’s attack, but the creature seemed to all but forget that the wizard was even there, and the danger of being tossed to the ground became too great a threat.  Now even that option was lost to her.  Quincy felt her breath squeeze from her lungs, and the air she tried to suck in was cold and thin.

Hakeem.  I’m sorry.  I’ve finally gone too far.  Graziano, I failed you.  I really am scum.

She saw a crackle of blue energy in the sky.  Her eyes rolled to stare at it through her wild mane of hair.

I wouldn’t have made this mistake before.  I wouldn’t have been so helpless.  Elmiryn was right.  I’m nothing without my trinkets.  Without the light inside me, I’m just lost in the dark.

Quincy’s body started to lift as Tonatiuh’s jump reached its speak and gravity began to hail them back.  Tonatiuh’s body began to glow.

What…could I have done different?  Does it even matter now?

Then the woman’s eyes hardened, and with her sword still gripped in her hand, she kicked away from the dragon’s back, flipping once before she started to fall on her own.  Her jerkin, now stained from the blood of her wounded shoulder, flapped at the back as she fell.  Blood trailed from her left palm where she had been gripping the dragon’s spine, and she saw the crimson droplets lift in the air as if ascending to something greater.  Quincy realized her tears were joining them.

No.  I will be the master of my fate.

As her eyes slipped shut and she waited for that fatal landing, a crash of thunder and a flare of blue through her eyelids had her eyes snapped wide open again.  A great wave of blue light sliced through the air, flashing through Tonatiuh and the dragon.  She could feel the shock wave through the air.

The dragon let out a screech before kicking the giant away.

She was still close enough that she could hear Tonatiuh’s strangled cry–a pitiful bleat in comparison to his fearsome screams.  There was that wet, gut-turning sound as his arms cut just after the elbows.  Blue blood flowed through the air.  Tonatiuh started to tumble toward the earth.  The winged serpent started to circle in the air, and Quincy knew it intended to dive toward the sunny giant.

The wizard let herself flip over once so that she faced the rising ground, and tried to level herself out in the wind so that she did not spin.  This served to slow her descent some, but Tonatiuh fell with great speed, his body tumbling.

Quincy, with eyes narrowed to the wind, pressed her legs together and her arms to her sides.  Tilting forward, she angled herself toward Tonatiuh’s form.  The speed with which she now fell made her stomach lurch unpleasantly.  Tonatiuh finally managed to fall steady with his back to the ground, and his soulless eyes fixed onto her.  At first it looked as though she were aiming too high, so she tried to adjust.  That was when she saw the dragon appear below her, its broad wings tilted back as if she meant to catch the woman.

Quincy looked down once, and in that instant, her mind was set.

She touched down onto the serpent’s back, and as soon as she felt her gravity anchor…

…She started to run along the beast’s back.

A scream tore past her lips as she gripped her sword with both hands, tip pointed toward the sky.  The dragon’s body shifted beneath her, and Quincy knew she’d have to jump before she lost her footing.

It was perfect.  The dragon had flown them in close enough and Tonatiuh was right where she wanted him.

With all the strength she could manage, the woman jumped off of the dragon’s shoulder.  The creature’s head twisted to the side as she flew past, and it let out a short screech as if it hadn’t expected the woman to do that.

“Tonatiuh, you are mine!” she screamed as she turned her rusty sword and brought the blade to bear.  Given her descent, it appeared she would fall on his gut, piercing him there.

…Only Tonatiuh flipped once in the air, and Quincy felt her heart stop.  That nightmarish fate that had loomed over her each time she had taken the corrupted spirit into her heart now came rising up to greet her faster than she could react.

Tonatiuh’s flat teeth parted, and he swallowed Quincy whole.

All she saw and felt was darkness.

ELMIRYN________________________

That couldn’t be right.

Elmiryn rubbed at her eyes, and looked again.  “Where’s Quincy…” she breathed.

Nyx’s voice was small.  “You saw what happened.”

“No, I didn’t.  I mean…I…” she shook her head with a frown.  “That can’t be right.”

“Quincy was devoured,” Tristi said.  His voice was low and flat, and the crooked smile he’d been wearing was gone from his face.  He pulled at Nyx’s shoulder.  “Come, sweetest.  Let’s away.  Their impact will be quite a thing!  I fear…” and he faltered.  “This battle.  It is lost.”

The warrior started shaking her head.  “No…”

“Elmiryn, I think Tristi is right, we should run!” Nyx started to pull her arm.  “Atleast to avoid the impact!  It only makes sense!”

“To who!?” Elmiryn shouted.  She didn’t know why she felt so angry.  Because Tonatiuh killed Quincy first?  Because the spirit had wrought so much destruction on her people and was about to get away with it?  Because Tonatiuh was a braggart who was going to have his way?  The woman drew her sword and wiped the sweat from her eyes.  “I will not show this creature my back!”  Elmiryn started looking at the ground. Her mind started buzzing with thoughts–

–it wasn’t as strong as before–it was just a taste of that previous power–what were the trade-offs?–

Tristi said to Nyx.  “Stay or go, it is your choice.  I have made mine.”  There was the crunch of rubble as he left.

–the currents–the threads–the individual grains–robbed of their purpose–

Nyx came near and her voice was tight.  “Elle–”

Elmiryn’s eyes turned to fasten onto Nyx’s.  There came the sound of Praxidice’s wings beating, of Tonatiuh’s ferocious scream.  Their time was up.  “Nyx, do you trust me?”  The girl opened her mouth to answer, her wild hair dancing about her anxious face.  If the last thing Elmiryn saw were those pretty tawny eyes looking at her like that…

But it was too late.

Elmiryn grabbed the girl to her and the world howled around them.

Nyx hugged her around the torso as the tremors rattled their bones.  The woman gazed forward, unblinking, as the dust surged in whorls of cement grey and earthworm browns.  She felt no wind.  Elmiryn wiped away the blood that had dripped from her nose.  Nyx, no doubt confused by the lack of wind, raised her head to look at her.  Her eyes widened.

“Your pupils…they’re so wide, your eyes look black!” Nyx whispered.

The warrior opened her mouth to say something, but felt a new fit of nausea punch its way up her mouth.  She turned away, pressing the back of her hand to her mouth.  Words were dangerous.  Music teased its way into her thoughts.

Making a barrier from dust and air?

I must say, I’ve never quite heard of that.

A combination of gaseous and physical particles…

Yes, I suppose in theory that would work.

You seem to have a knack for this.

Elmiryn shook away Meznik’s melodic voice and turned to Nyx.  The girl stared at her a moment longer before her attention was taken up by the commotion of their larger neighbors.  The dust had cleared enough that Tonatiuh and Praxidice could be seen once more.

There was a new and deeper crater off-center from the original impact site.  The weapons that had littered the ground had been either destroyed or buried from the force of the impact.  As for the beast that had created it all…

Tonatiuh raised himself off the ground and was now of a terrifying height.  Praxidice soared about in the air, and the dragon seemed as much at a loss as they were.

“I can’t…make anything that big,” Elmiryn muttered.  She paused on the word ‘make’ because she really had no idea what to call it.  She never thought she’d be able to command the basic elements again after the dwarven colony.  Ah, well.  Desperate times, and all that…

Tonatiuh’s bloody stumps began to heal and grow.  Within a few seconds he once again had two full arms.  He threw his head back and crowed,  “Ana alm-tesurh!!  Halward, wetsh wana akl atfalk!”

“What the hell is he cackling about?” Elmiryn muttered.

Nyx shook her head.  “I don’t know Talmas…But if I had to guess, he’s probably cursing the god king.”

Elmiryn slashed at the air with her sword. “And yet Halward would see us crushed by this bastard…there’s no point shouting at him.  The fucker’s deaf to anything outside of heaven.”  Nyx gave her a hard look, and the woman shrugged.  “What?  He’s not your god.”  The woman tightened her grip on her hilt and started to march forward.

Nyx sputtered after her.  “Wh-Where are you going!?”

The woman shrugged.  “Where else?”  She pointed up at Tonatiuh, who had taken to trying to snatch Praxidice out of the air.  When he jumped, the ground rumbled.  The serpent was roughly the length of his forearm now…

“Elmiryn, no!”  The girl jumped in front of her.  “You will not!  I won’t let you!”

The warrior sighed.  “Nyx, I’ll be fine.  He doesn’t even notice us down here anymore.  We’re like ants to him.”  She didn’t add that she had a secret weapon of sorts.  Best to save that for later, when there was proper time to explain.

“Just my point!” the girl screamed shrilly.  “This battle is done, there’s nothing else we can do!”

A loud sound boomed through the air, cutting their conversation short.

Tonatiuh was gripping his stomach a look of pain on his round, flat face.  He opened his mouth and the sound came again, deep and rippling.  Elmiryn’s brow raised.  “Is he…burping?”

Then the spirit did something unmistakable.  He wretched, and rather than liquid…corpses came.

First Poena.  Then the bloody chunks of her sister, Erinyes, followed.

With the expulsion of their remains, Tonatiuh inexplicably began to shrink.  He continued to wretch, a horrible sound, and still more things came.  Hundreds of pounds of gold and rubies, as well as a tree, a hoard of skeletons (“Is one of those Quincy’s?”), smaller chunks of meteorite, and what appeared to be a small mound of weapons.

Tonatiuh was now back to his original size.

Elmiryn turned to Nyx.  “Let’s go!” and took off running.

Praxidice was quick to move in as well.  With a low rumble, the dragon slammed into the giant from the side.  Tonatiuh was still suffering from his strange convulsions and went flying like a doll through the air.  He crashed into the buildings at the edge of the clearing with Praxidice atop him, and as Elmiryn neared, she could see the ribbons of blue blood that streaked the ground.  She slowed to a stop and heard Nyx join her side.  With pressed lips, the woman put away her sword.

“Finally, you’ll give this up?” Nyx said, panting a little.

The warrior shook her head.  “I’ll wait to see if something goes wrong…but we should let Praxidice have her revenge.  She’s lost more than any of us.  It’s her right.”

She could hear Meznik’s music swell into her mind again.

Refusing the spotlight?

Don’t look now, but I’m starting to regain my faith in you.

Elmiryn said nothing, and Nyx was similarly quiet as they watched Tonatiuh’s struggles quiet beneath Praxidice’s rending fangs and claws.  Just as it seemed that life would flee him for good, something odd happened…

Tonatiuh’s body quickly expanded to the shape of a ball, like a spring contraption, effectively knocking the dragon off of him.  Elmiryn had her sword out in a flash and was rushing forward.  “Damn, what now!?” she cursed.  She could hear Nyx following close behind.

What came next startled her even more.

The sunny giant, or the sunny ball, she should say, had collapsed.  It were as if a vacuum had appeared in Tonatiuh’s gut, and now he lay groaning and bleating as something from the inside pulled at his flesh and bones, making him look emaciated.  His bloody loose flesh retracted…but not because he was healing.

Elmiryn slowed to a stop for a second time, her eyebrows raised high.  Nyx went further a few steps, and the woman could see the shock on her face.  “Dear gods, he’s…vanishing into himself!”

Tonatiuh barely had strength to cry out.  His large flat face stared up at the sky, his teeth cracked and his eyes turning to stones.  The glow fled his body completely.  Then, bit by bit, he began to collapse, bones snapping and crunching and skin tearing and receding into the mysterious vacuum that had appeared in his gut.

With a roar, a flare came…and the giant was gone.

In his place stood Quincy, her eyes closed as she breathed slow through her nose.  Elmiryn swallowed, her eyes wide as she tried to make sense of the sight.  In the wizard’s hands was her sword, but no longer was it rusted.  The blade was a hot gold, like a ray of sunlight.  Elmiryn started to smile as she jogged to meet the wizard, but that smile vanished as she neared.

Quincy had turned the blade and pointed it at her heart.

Continue ReadingChapter 24.4

Chapter 25.1

“But now, alas! the place seems changed;
Thou art no longer here:
Part of the sunshine of the scene
With thee did disappear.

Though thoughts, deep-rooted in my heart,
Like pine-trees dark and high,
Subdue the light of noon, and breathe
A low and ceaseless sigh;

This memory brightens o’er the past,
As when the sun, concealed
Behind some cloud that near us hangs
Shines on a distant field.”

— Excerpt of “A Gleam of Sunshine” By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

ELMIRYN________________________

Their surroundings smoldered, and her ears rang, the call of the void filling her head on an almost maddening level.  The warrior rubbed at her ears as if hoping to chase the sound out, but she knew it was no use.  She’d been near enough explosions and cannon blasts to know that it would take time for that to leave her.  What a stubborn guest, that hollow sound, to invade her thoughts so.  A flickering of affection warmed her chest, and Elmiryn was taken back to battles long since past.  In the static ring, she thought she could hear Saelin calling to her.  What advice could he give her, here?  Now?  Such a stubborn, stubborn guest, this sound.

And such a stubborn, stubborn host, was she.

There was something to the bullheaded almost masochistic nature of people that Elmiryn had always found appealing.  It was the addiction peeking just at the edges of masks that beguiled her into thinking that everything would be just fine after this one thing was taken care of.  As a child, she recalled the almost ghoulish delight at the self-destructive natures that undid adults.  Now an adult herself, that delight had quieted, especially given her recent problems, but still the fascination lingered.  It was what made Nyx enthralling.  What had made Lethia inspiring.  What had made Graziano so amusing.

Now she had (literally) seen that hungry beast of passion swallow Quincy whole.  Yet, that seducing promise that everything would be okay after this one thing was taken care of, rang hollow–like the void Elmiryn heard ringing in her ears.  If the wizard plunged that sword into her heart, it could be the ultimate end.  Elmiryn could see it.  Had even tasted it when her spirit was cast from her body and the world was hers to feel.  If only she could defuse this situation with one good pull of thread, like she’d done to the dust and the air.

But that weave was a great deal more complicated than she’d previously encountered, and it irked her that Meznik could handle it, if only he were inclined to.

“Quincy.” Elmiryn’s voice was soft.  She held her sword off to the side and stretched a hand out.  “Give us the sword.”

“It’s mine,” the wizard said.  Her voice was low and chilled.  A ghostly reminder of who she’d once been when Tonatiuh’s spirit had been inside her, taking all the warmth of her soul and leaving her a cold husk.  But then Quincy’s azure eyes snapped open as Praxidice’s heavy steps crunched near, and they flared with feeling.

Hard to keep indifferent when a giant beast of legend came your way.

The dragon rumbled, its eyes narrowed as it towered over the woman.  It let out a hot breath that fluttered the wizard’s hair.  Elmiryn heard that serpentine voice waft its way into her ears, just as she had heard before.  She looked at Nyx, but the girl showed no signs of hearing this time.

Praxidice’s voice hissed from afar, “I honor our agreement only on the condition that you and your fellows cause me no trouble.  That peace is currently being threatened.”  The last word became an ominous growl.

Though she could not hear, the wizard seemed to understand the dragon’s meaning.  She did not lower the sword even as the beast bared its teeth at her.  “It’s mine,” she said again, her obstinacy giving her voice fire.

“Why kill yourself?  Why now?” Nyx asked.  There was something hard about the way the Ailuran said this.

Elmiryn answered her.  “She’s not trying to kill herself, though she could very well die a fool’s death.” The warrior glared at the brunette in question.  “She wants to take Tonatiuh’s spirit into her heart.”

The Ailuran balked.  “That’s lunacy!”

“You would know everything about it, Ailuran, I’m sure.  So spare me.” Quincy’s eyes cut at the girl before flickering to the dragon again.  “I have to do this.”

“You do not,” a gruff voice said.

Elmiryn saw Sedwick come near.  The warrior sighed a little in relief.  The man was okay.  She said to him, “Sedwick, she’s out of her mind.”

“My mind is here and it is well ordered, thank you.” Quincy snapped.  Her breath sounded short.  The wizard had been eerily calm upon her deliverance from death, or perhaps it had been relief in finally having her sword back–but that relief was fast fading, and Elmiryn could see her resolve waver as clear as ripples on water.  If Quincy had no doubt, the sword would have found a place in her heart already.  Yet she hesitated, trying to bring back her nerve.

There was still a chance to talk her out of it.

“I know what I’m doing,” Quincy said, almost to herself, and Elmiryn could see her grip on her sword turn white-knuckled.

“So then why haven’t you done it yet?” Nyx asked coolly.

Elmiryn glanced at the girl, a little surprised at the lack of sympathy.  Then again, Nyx hadn’t been given many reasons to like the wizard.

“Tonatiuh is an unstable spirit, Quincy,” the warrior started.  “Taking him into your heart is like…” she trailed off, unsure of what to say.

“Inviting a fox into your hen house,” Sedwick finished helpfully.  He slowly began to approach Quincy.  “Please.  Give it here.  We’ll take care of it.”  The wizard watched his approach with growing trepidation on her face.  Then at the last moment she sprung away, and the dragon hissed loudly, wings spreading back as it snapped at her in warning.  She backpedaled until a low wall of rubble knocked the backs of her knees.

Quincy shook her head emphatically, her locks of hair clinging to the sides of her sweaty face and neck.  “You don’t know the trouble I went through for this sword!” she screamed.  “It is mine!  Mine! It was all I had when my home was destroyed.  I’ve fought all manners of creatures and men to keep it in my hands so that one day I could kill the men who gave it to me.  The sword is not complete until Tonatiuh is inside it, and in turn, I am not complete until he is inside me.  I am nothing without this!”  Her voice broached on hysterical, just like back in Gamath.  Tears were shining in her eyes.

Elmiryn threw her hands up into the air and turned away.  “Well…fuck.  I’ll give you this.  For once I don’t know what to say.”  The woman spat at the ground and put away her sword. “Fine.  Run yourself through.  If that’s all you’ve got, then you really aren’t worth my time.”  She gestured for Nyx to follow.  “Come on, Nyx.  Let’s see if we can do something to help the city.” The girl started to follow her, and her tawny eyes flashed with knowing.

Elmiryn kept walking, her ears perked for that moment when–

“Why walk now?” Quincy shouted.  Her voice was hoarse.  Even insulted.  “Why turn and flee when your tongue is still weighed by our oath!?

She’d expected the wizard’s ego to take offense at her words, but her response had taken things too far.  They called Elmiryn’s honor into question, and she didn’t take kindly to it.

With a tight neck, she turned to send a searing gaze Quincy’s way. “Because, you dolt.  I cannot help you in your goals if you would seek to undo them yourself.”  Elmiryn gestured at the mountain of gold and corpses that Tonatiuh had regurgitated.  She tried to keep her hands steady because they had started shaking.  “You will be a gods damned queen of light, shining your attention on all the wrong things.  Your hallmark will be gold and death, and none will weep for your dogheart, least of all me.

“You were supposed to be so much more.  Someone with honor, and skill, and intelligence!  What about your promise to Graziano’s spirit?  What about your goal of finding your husband?  You want this so bad?”  Elmiryn pointed at a grinning skull near her feet, a ruby in its mouth and gold coins scattered about it.  “Then just pierce your heart now, and expect my sword to join your pain and stop this madness from ever happening again.  Praxidice will happily feast on your remains, Paulo will be lost to the four winds, and your husband will walk the earth with a hole in his fucking chest because you, Quincy, could not be completed by anything save the hungry fang of a mad spirit!”

Elmiryn took a breath, a rush of release easing the muscles in her back.  She swallowed at the fist in her throat and was reminded of her thirst.  “I can’t walk in step with something so ass backwards.  I’m backwards enough on my own.”  She turned her body a quarter so that she didn’t face the wizard anymore.  She clenched her fists to keep her hands still.  The shakes had reached their peak.

Nyx touched her bicep, giving it a squeeze, before she turned and went back.  Elmiryn didn’t look, but heard the girl speak.  “Quincy…Praxidice is the guardian of this place, and her sisters are lost.  Give her Tonatiuh.  He will be your end if you don’t.”  The coldness and derision had left the Ailuran’s voice.  All that could be heard was reason and a gentle beseeching of peace.

Her words lingered in the air, edging out the void that had nestled in Elmiryn’s ears.

Everyone seemed suspended, caught in the indecision for what appeared to be ages.

Then there was the sharp sound of a blade cutting into soil.  The redhead looked up.

Quincy was weeping silently, tears streaking down her blotchy face as she backed away from Tonatiuh’s blade, which she had sunk into the rubble before Praxidice. She took one step back, then another.  It was like the brunette had to fight her body every bit of the way, for she curled as if physically pained.

She was saying over and over under her breath, “Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…” Her voice trembled.

The dragon regarded her for a beat before dropping her head low.  Her slitted nostrils flared and she snorted at the hilt.  Then with a twist of her neck, the beast took the golden blade between her fangs.  Praxidice’s neck muscles bunched and her head shook as she tried to crush the sword between her jaws.  The blade flashed, and the warrior thought she heard a distant scream just before the dragon succeeded.  The metal broke apart and crumbled to sand, turning dark as obsidian as it fell.  The hilt, purposeless, lay absent in the dirt.

The air felt lighter.  Elmiryn took a deep breath as did Nyx.  “A shard of the original sun god is lost…” the warrior murmured.  All turned to her, and she explained.  “When Nathric tore Ortus apart, he consumed his pieces.  When the last three pieces were saved, it was assumed that Praxidice and her sisters had taken in the natures of the other four.  But there were only three dragons, and if Nathric, the shadow king, was made full by but one shard of a god…why wouldn’t the dragons?”

“Tonatiuh was a shard of Ortus…” Nyx breathed.

Sedwick shook his head.  “A shard of a shard.  No doubt, Nathric’s remains were scattered by his followers.  If Tonatiuh were complete, he would’ve been in the sky to wage war with his brothers.  Maybe he had found the other pieces of himself and was close to being whole.  Maybe the dragons didn’t take a full seventh of Ortus, but just a sixteenth.  It would explain how Tonatiuh was so strong against them, yet still not strong enough to go to heaven.” He looked at Quincy.  “He needed more.  He had to possess something just to exist fully in our world, like that sword…Like you.” His pale eyes were apologetic.

Quincy’s voice was hollow.  “It doesn’t matter.  None of it matters now.”  She sat on the ground and looked ill, a sentiment that Elmiryn could sympathize with but for different reasons.  The wizard trembled visibly and looked like a small child.  “Oh my gods…what did I just do?” the wizard breathed.

The warrior looked at the tips of her boots.  Her cotton shirt fluttered in the hot breeze.  The acrid scent of things burning sent her thoughts downward.

The dragon, who seemed to sit dwelling on Tonatiuh’s remains, turned and moved toward the remains of her sisters.  She nudged their bloody flesh with her snout and a low whine came up from deep inside her.

“She needs time…” Nyx breathed. She looked at Elmiryn as the woman turned on the spot, taking in the destruction.  “Elmiryn, how do you feel?”

“The battle is done,” the warrior muttered.  “The aftermath…it…this feels like a battlefield.” She shook her head and remembered the rush of exhilaration she’d felt in the past from walking the city streets.  The wine-stained images, the oil slick portraits, the soft crayon memories were white washed in the face of her curse.  But her heart still turned with the fondness she had for the backwards city and its bullheaded, self-destructive, masochistic people. “This is Malvene.  A city.  Home for so many, and once…it was home to me.  This…they were never supposed to know something like this,” Elmiryn finished.  She looked at Sedwick.  “Help me put out these fires, Sedwick.  They’re spreading to the other buildings.”  Her voice took on a note of authority.

The elemental nodded with a resolute look on his face.  “Lead the way.”

Elmiryn turned to Nyx.  “You had business with Praxidice, right?”

Nyx nodded, looking not at all thrilled at the prospect of separating again.  “I promised her a spirit she’s been wanting for a long time.”  The Ailuran looked at Praxidice, and gave a start.  Elmiryn followed her gaze.

The dragon was eating her sisters’ remains.  The crunch of bones and the unpleasant ‘squelch’ of flesh filled the air.

“She’s becoming one with them.  Taking their power,” Sedwick readily explained.

Elmiryn looked around, and sure enough, through the pillars of smoke that curled up from the burning city, she could see the shadowy giants she had spied when first arriving at the shard.  She gave a nod.  “If she doesn’t, then others will come and take what is left.  That would be dangerous.”

Nyx gave a slow nod, though she was clearly sickened by the idea.  “I’ll go check on Farrel then, until Praxidice is…done.”

Elmiryn touched her shoulder, then her hair, and offered a smile.

The girl looked at her softly.  “Will you be okay?” Nyx asked.  “You don’t look well.”

The warrior just smiled wider in response.  Her eyes flickered to Quincy, who had not moved in all this time, tears still falling from her eyes as she stared wide-eyed at the black pile that was once her sword.  Elmiryn gestured for Sedwick to follow her and gave Nyx a jaunty two-finger salute before turning away.  The smile wiped from her face as soon as Nyx couldn’t see.  The man fell into step next to her.  “You sure you’ll be alright?” he asked quietly.

Elmiryn smacked her dry mouth and gave him a sidelong glance.  “This’ll sound weird, and I’d prefer not to think on how you’ll provide it…but do you think you could give me some water?

NYX____________________________

I watched Elmiryn go with my lip between my teeth.  This was her home, her people that had suffered.  I knew how I’d feel if such were the case for me.  With the battle done with, there was nothing left to do but deal with the aftermath.  The same rang true for all of us.

A look at Quincy told me the wizard was in a sort of shock over what had just happened.  While I knew it had been necessary to persuade her, it made me uncomfortable to know that my bardic ability could bring about such results.

Yes.  I had in fact used my power on the wizard.  I was certain she could see it, being trained in the art of magic herself, but there was no guile in my words.  Were it not for everyone else’s pleas, it may not have worked at all.  If it were up to me alone, the effort would have been lost, I’m sure.  I mean–I just didn’t understand, and surely Quincy would have seen that.  Felt it.  How could anyone place so much value on such a dangerous item?  It was alien to me.  I kept trinkets myself, and especially knew the importance of keeping such a thing when it once belonged to a deceased loved one, but when that item sought to destroy you and everyone around you?  Was it still worth keeping then?  Aside from my discomfort over being associated with such pain, I could not conjure up the sympathy for the woman’s plight.

I turned next to Halward’s remaining familiar.

Praxidice chewed her sisters’ remains slowly, her wings sagged and her head bowed low.  Was this how noble beasts mourned?  I turned away, an uncomfortable feeling claw its way up my spine and into my gut.

I had to find Farrel.

At first it was hard for me to get my bearings because the landscape had been changed.  The new crater overlapped the old.  In the distance, through the smoke that crowded the air, I could see the Halward statue.  Using that as my reference, I reoriented myself and started in the direction that I guessed Farrel to be.  I went far, certain he would have fled to a safer distance.  I prayed that he did.  Tonatiuh’s second impact surely would have killed him if he hadn’t.

“Farrel!” I called, cupping my hands around my mouth.  “Farrel, can you hear me!?”

No answer.  I sighed and tried to pick him out from the desolate surroundings.  “Where are you…?” I breathed.

I searched and searched…but there was no sign of him.  “He really did run away,” I thought.  The feelings associated with this realization were mixed.

I was relieved.  While the simple fact that I hadn’t encountered his corpse either meant he was buried under rubble or perhaps even blown apart to bloody pieces, I chose to believe he was alive.  But then if that were truly the case, I was angry at him.  After all, hadn’t I risked my neck to free him of Volo?  Hidden amidst these feelings was also concern.  Farrel’s twisted sense of judgment could be his undoing in a strange dimension like this.  I felt betrayed, too.  Still vivid in my mind was the memory of a man just trying to do the right thing in a tough situation.

And lastly…I was ashamed.  I felt Farrel’s actions mirrored my character from just a year ago.  I could understand his decision, and for all my feelings, I could empathize with it, as I could not with Quincy.  Did that make him bad?  And if so, what did that say about me?

I felt the pain of being anathema all over again, only I wasn’t given time to dwell.

The sound of wings in the air had me looking up with a start.  Praxidice swooped down to land before me, and her churning of the wind sent dust into my eyes and my hair whipped about my face.  I shielded myself until the air settled once more, and the dragon peered at me, something about her gaze even more electric than when I had first met her.  Her scales had become pristine once more, and glittered a mirror-like gold.  My hairs stood on end to feel such undiluted power.  She was one with her sisters, now.

I nodded once at her.  “To Volo, then,” I murmured.

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy couldn’t feel her feet or her hands.  Her head lolled to the side and the tears fell from her glassy eyes.  The obsidian pile of dust before her reminded her of the I’equa tear she had crushed back in Belcliff.  There was a myth about the clear divining stones, stating that they were the products of angels.  The stones reacted to the spiritual environment, revealing any number of things–from damaged intellectual clusters, tainted spiritual landscapes, and abnormal levels of energy.  When an I’equa tear turned black, it meant insidious magic was in the air.

To see her golden blade turned so evil a color made her heart still in her chest.

“You were mine…” she whispered.

She heard the tinkle of metal buckles and the crunch of boots over the dirt.  “These things come and go, little one,” Tristi’s voice said behind her.

Quincy responded without turning her head. “That sword had been with me since I could remember.”

“Isn’t it nice to be freed of such a burden?” Tristi sat next to her cross legged. “I still recall you, a teeny girl, dragging the rusty blade behind you through the jungle.”  He chuckled.  “It was your favorite prop to play with after Hakeem helped you get over your fear of–”

“Are we reminiscing now?” Quincy asked, her voice regaining some hardness.  She glared at Tristi as she wiped at her eyes.  “I’m not a total fool.  Tonatiuh was not a loved one, and memories of him are filled with struggle.  Pain.”

“Then why mourn him?”

“I’m not mourning him.” Quincy looked at the obsidian pile.  “I mourn the things I could’ve achieved with him.”

Tristi chuckled.  “You mean an early death?”

“A victory.  A peace.  Tonatiuh kept my heart still when it was going to leap out of my mouth, and he kept me focused when weakness sought to distract me.  You saw all that raw power.  He took on three powerful dragons and would have won, if only he’d thought about the sword in my hand…”

The champion of luck tilted his head back and sighed.  “Ahhh….to know such ignorance!  Tonatiuh has kept your spirit dormant for quite a while for your heady heart to be so easily charmed!”

Quincy cut him a look.  “What?”

“How old are you now, exactly?”

The wizard paused, ashamed that she needed to think about it.  “I’m…thirty.  I think.”

“An odd thing to hold in doubt, isn’t it fledgeling?”

“Nitwit.  I was never told when I was born, so of course I cannot know the exact number.”

Tristi looked at her, his face somber.  “My apologies.  Jack never told you?”

“Why would he?  He wasn’t present at my birthing.  He wasn’t even there when mother died.”  Quincy felt her tears come up again and grit her teeth, a rush of anger seizing her.  “He came just after the birds took her eyes, and then he whisked me away.”

Tristi cleared his throat and stretched his legs out.  “Ah…well.  I was just trying to point out to you, through your cloud of delusion, the way misguided idealism is ill fitted for one your age.  Your emotions leap away from you, and you let logic lie forgotten.  I’d expect this of an adolescent, not of you.”

Quincy felt insulted–so much so that she wanted to say something in retaliation.  Something nasty.  Something cruel.  But the words failed to come to her, so she sat there glaring at the champion with eyes holding all the wishes of spontaneous combustion.  Tristi chuckled at her.  “Come now!  There’s nothing to be ashamed of!  Did Tonatiuh not steel your heart from all feeling?  Well let those freed emotions rip you apart, and with haste!  I’ve a feeling you’ve years of joy and agony to catch up on.”

Joy.  Agony.

How stupid.

Quincy glared at the mountain of riches before her.  Such meaningless things, mingled with such macabre prizes.  The wizard had no idea whose corpses lay before her, and she didn’t want to.  She looked at the weapons next.  The arsenal that Tristi had rained upon them all was either buried from the impact or destroyed entirely.  What lay before Quincy now were the weapons that Tonatiuh had kept inside him.  Much of it seemed mundane and unrecognizable.  That was until–

“Oh my gods!” Quincy’s eyes widened as she jumped to her feet and hurried toward a long staff she saw protruding from the mouth of a skull.  “My lightning staff!  The one that Master Saerth gave me!” She pulled it out of the skull’s mouth and gazed at it in wonder.  “Tonatiuh consumed this years ago!  I had no idea it was still intact!” She squeezed the staff too hard and there was a great zap that sent the woman to her butt.  Little flashes of energy crawled along the ground before vanishing from sight.

Face twitching, Quincy dropped the staff.  “I…I f-forgot ab…ab-about that,” she stammered out.

Tristi burst out laughing. “Your hair is on end!”

The wizard, blushing, tried to smooth her hair with jerky hands, but let out a cry when she was shocked with static more than once.  She turned her head, and her task was forgotten in a startled laugh.  “And here!” She crawled over the other trinkets and plucked up a large wooden boomerang.  It was painted in faded yellow, with blue stripes at the ends and a lined green triangle at its center.  “My old boomerang!  This is Eate’s Son!  It can conjure up small tornadoes!”  Quincy searched the ground, her eyes excited.  “There must be more!”

The wizard let out a shout and dropped the boomerang.  Stumbling to her feet, she next went and picked up a small wand.  “My Wand of Beasts!”  She looked at Tristi ominously.  “I should use this to turn you into a toad.”

“Having seen you knocked on your sweet bottom, I think I have nothing to fear,” Tristi teased.

Quincy glared at him as she tried to smooth her hair down again.  When this still proved a losing battle, the woman abandoned the effort and went instead for her leather pouch.  Carefully she slipped the wand in, and the item vanished into the magic bag’s vast depths.  Next she returned to the boomerang and did the same.  She stooped and picked up the staff again, this time holding it carefully.  She leaned it against her shoulder and drew the bag closed.  As she did so, she saw something glinting next to her foot.  Quincy’s breath caught.

Slowly, she stooped down and picked up her Ring of Living Death.

“And what delicious little item is that?” Tristi asked.

Quincy opened her bag again slowly and dropped the ring inside.  “A small piece of a nightmare,” she whispered.

“Mmm…yes.  Nightmares.  It was like the one I’d had naught but a fortnight ago, where I dreamt I was a man.  How prophetic!”

The brunette’s hands slowed as she tied the bag to her belt.  Slowly, her eyes fastened on Tristi.  “That…makes no sense.  You are a man.”

Tristi nodded good-naturedly.  “Yes.  Currently.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I was the contrary before.”

“You were a woman?”

“Don’t you remember my chance magic?”

“Yes of course I do, but I don’t see the use in having your gender change!”

Tristi let out a haughty laugh.  “Ha!  Shows what you know, little bird.  Chance magic is not about suiting my every need.  It’s about utilizing my fortune, and that is an element of chaos for good or bad.  I cannot control it.  If I were to will my magic to turn my opponent into a crying babe, I’d just as soon see my head turned into a potted plant!  Anything could happen!”

Quincy shook her head, her nose wrinkled.  The idea of chance magic was alien to their world, and in all her years reading about the various arcane schools, the concept was equally bewildering and abhorrent.  “So your gender change was a case of…misfortune?”

“Hardly.  Whilst in the male form I can piss upright, have people take me seriously the first time, and feel ridiculously empowered by my genitals.”  The wizard stared at him.  Tristi added as an after thought, “Oh, and there’s certain chance spells available to me in the male form.  My stunt with the lance being one of them.  It’s also easier to touch on certain direct outcomes versus when I’m a woman.  Now when I’m asexual I can–”

Quincy cut him off, visibly repulsed.  “Ah, no…no thank you, Tristi, I…yes, I get the point.”  She shook her head.  “If I may ask, as this has always been a mystery to me, but…what are you?”

Tristi raised an eyebrow as he stood to his feet, his jacket tinkling with his movements.  “What am I?”

“Yes.  What are you?”

“A man.  I just said.”

The wizard bared her teeth.  “No!  I mean what is your species?

Tristi looked at her mischievously as he stooped over and grabbed a handful of the obsidian sand.  “Now why would you need to know a thing like that for?”

Quincy frowned as she watched the man pocket the sand and dust his hands.  “Call it curiosity…” she said slowly.  “I…Tristi, why are you taking that sand?”

He gave her a mild look.  “Can I not?”

“Can’t you ever give a straightforward answer?”

Tristi’s smile took on an edge and the wizard gripped the staff before her, feeling her heartbeat quicken.  “We all must have our mysteries.”

The wizard bit her tongue and looked away.  When she composed herself enough to speak, she growled out.  “Tristi, you are a fool.”

“And thou art a lovely virago, but let’s not let these things overtake us.  Come, come!” He clapped his hands together and gestured at himself.  “You have yet to ask me of your father!”

“What about him?  He’s dead, and that’s all I care about.”

Tristi gave her a weird look.  “Fledgeling, where did you hear this?”

Quincy’s sweat chilled as she regarded the man with a wary turn of her head.  “It was happening all over.  Hundreds of Legends, gone!  Champions dead!  People rising up to hunt them all down!  Amidst it all, I’d heard that a man of the winds had been taken in the South Seas.  Are you telling me I’m wrong to think–?”

The champion of luck shook his head, his fanged smile in place.  “No, no, silly bird!  There was but one champion taken that matches what you say, and it was Ludovico, champion of Eate!  God of storms!”  The man rubbed his chin, his eyes looking up in a wistful way.  “I hadn’t been there, but I’d felt the ripple of fortune from clear across the world.  Such a bad turn of luck to see one so powerful go down.”

Quincy felt ill all over again.  “Tristi, if Jack is alive, where is he?”

“You have to understand, we weren’t all killed.  Some of us were too smart, too powerful–”

“Tristi–”

“Those of us whose patrons mastered the foundations of our world knew even greater favor–”

“Where is he–”

“Fortuna had a hand in it of course, but Lacertli may have–”

Quincy slammed the end of the staff into the ground, sending lightning jutting up into the sky in a hot spear of white light.  The ground surged with static and flares of electricity.  Then all quieted.  The wizard leaned against the pole, panting, her hair about her eyes as she stared wildly at the champion.  “Where…is…my father?” she hissed.

Tristi gazed passively at the wizard.  The firelight caught his half-moon glasses and concealed his eyes.  His ridged ears gave a twitch and he tilted his head, as if hearing something very faint.  He let out a small grunt, then pulled a coin from his pocket.  He flipped it in the air, and the coin rang as it rose, then fell.  Tristi caught it in his gloved hand and slapped it to the back of his other.  “Call it.  The crown or the scales?” he said.

Quincy narrowed her eyes at him.  Then she whispered, “The crown.”

Slowly, Tristi pulled his hand away.  He looked at her and flashed a predatory smile.

“Jack toils in the heart of the Hellas, fighting the sea beasts of Atargatis.  The treacherousness that has sailors fearful comes from his protracted battle.  He is not the man he once was, little bird.” Tristi tilted his head to the side, his smile twitched once.  “…And though you haven’t asked, Tobias travels to the Far East, to speak with the Queen of the Sands.”  He took a step back, and bowed.  The back of his glove began to glow, and yellow symbols flashed through the air, surrounding him in a sphere.  Quincy squinted, taking a wary step back.  “Now, I fear, I have fulfilled Fortuna’s wishes.  My job here is done.  Goodbye little fledgeling.  Do give Nyx my warmest regards?”  The man looked up and winked once before he flared out of sight–the lights gone with him.

Quincy stared, swaying a little on the spot.  “All these years…they’d both been alive.”  Her expression turned pained.  “Tonatiuh is gone now…”  Then she looked at the staff in her hands, and her azure eyes glinted.

“He’s gone,” she growled.  “And He isn’t coming back.”

She started after Elmiryn and Sedwick, her metal staff over her shoulders.  Her steps were clumsy, and she slipped on the sandy rocks and loose dust, her toes snagging the edges of raised ground and hard edges.  Quincy kept moving, and didn’t look back at the pile of black dust that spread with the wind.  There were other matters to deal with now.  Tristi had been right, there was no use in mourning what could have been.  Her heart was like a rabbit’s beneath her chest, and the brunette felt it beat beneath her jerkin.

I’ve a feeling you’ve years of joy and agony to catch up on.

Joy.  Agony.

How…stupid.

Quincy’s brow wrinkled and she slowed as something occurred to her.

“Wait…what did Tristi mean when he said he’d fulfilled Fortuna’s wishes?

Continue ReadingChapter 25.1

Chapter 26.1

NYX____________________________

Iwas feeling lightheaded upon leaving Elmiryn in the wash room, and entered the kitchen with a hunger so vast that even I was startled by it.  A quick search produced strips of cured beef in a small barrel tucked into the corner of the room.  I wanted to eat all of it, and could have, but there wasn’t any time for it.  Finding a small canvas bag, I put some of the dried meat into it, along with a wedge of cheddar cheese.  I found a roll of twine on the counter and pulled out a small length of it, cutting it with a cooking knife.  Using that piece, I tied the bag closed.  That done, I cut a much longer piece of twine, and used it to make an impromptu strap.  I pulled the twine over my head, the length of it crossing my chest to where the bag sat against my hip.

Next, I grabbed a handful of beef strips.  Glancing around me one last time, I returned to the parlor.

Quincy and Sedwick sat sipping their tea in silence, side by side on the sofa.  The man appeared to be meditating, the wizard staring off into space with a haunted look.  They both looked up as I approached.  I became shy at the attention and sat on the floor near the center table, my shoulders hunched.

Sedwick stood.  “Here, Nyx.  Sit here.”

It was a gentlemanly gesture, but it made me uncomfortable.  “No thank you.  I prefer the floor.”

The man gazed at me a moment, apparently uncertain, but then he sat down without another word.  Quincy took a long draw on her tea as she gazed at me over the rim of her teacup.  It put me on edge.  I pulled my knees to my chest, hugging them, and tore out a large bite of beef.  I chewed it slowly.

I avoided making eye contact.  Sedwick cleared his throat and shifted on the couch.  I wanted to pour myself some tea, but felt too self-conscious.  The silence was to the point that we could hear the distant voices of those struggling to save their homes from the fires.  I hoped they weren’t spreading anymore than they had, but it felt like a futile wish.

I swallowed the food in my mouth and took another bite.  My eyes took in my surroundings, but my thoughts were elsewhere.

My mind still turned over what I had just done, and there were excited trembles blasting through me as I remembered each moment.

Elmiryn was right.  I had changed.  But was that so weird?  I had been in dark places, and the source of my hope and determination was once again in my company.  Whatever fears, whatever barriers of intimacy, were all gone now.  I could feel it.  Even given how close we’d been before, a line had just been crossed.

And…I wanted to do more.  Elmiryn’s facilitation made me braver, made me less concerned about my sexuality and the effects it may bring.

After feeling the shape of her under my hands, after tasting her desire on the tip of my tongue, there was no use in dancing around it.

wanted her.  I wanted Elmiryn.

Not an altogether new concept, but to admit this was freeing.

Yet I had refrained in the wash room, aware that giving in to my impulses would be folly.  There were things to be done, and the time simply wasn’t there.  I didn’t want my first experience to be a rushed affair.  I also didn’t want to be just another easy conquest.  The idea repulsed me.

But it felt good to forget, just for a second, that I was some spiritual abomination outside of the natural order.  Lacertli may have provided a way to salvation, but the sting of being something so wrong was still acute to me.  Elmiryn dulled that pain.

My ears tweaked as I heard the warrior in question finally emerge from the wash room.  She began doing something in the kitchen, and I had to resist the urge to turn and look.  I didn’t want to appear over eager at her return.  Actually, I felt nervous.  The wash room had become a sort of special sanctuary for my forwardness.  Out here, though, I felt timid again.  This was all still new to me, for all my show of confidence.

Within a moment she came into the parlor room–dressed, clean, and looking re-energized.  I felt the tightness ease away from my body as I looked up at her.  Elmiryn looked very charming in her new clothes.

She gave me an amused smile as she crossed her arms high on her chest.  “Kitten, what are you doing on the floor?”

I swallowed the beef I had in my mouth and said, “Oh, you know.  Just subverting sedentary convention.  That’s all.”

Elmiryn giggled and I even heard Sedwick chortle.  I smiled, feeling warm.

“Shall we then?” Quincy said, setting her tea cup aside and standing.

I nodded and stood.  Then I gave a start and turned to Elmiryn.  “I should tell you.  Farrel’s gone.”

She arched an eyebrow at me.  “Gone gone?”

I looked down at my shoes, suddenly ashamed.  “Gone.  I couldn’t find him…alive or dead.”

Elmiryn reached out and patted my shoulder.  “Don’t worry, Nyx.  I’m sure the Rabbit’ll turn up.”

“Ah, speaking of which!” Quincy exclaimed as she looked at me.

I looked at her, wary.  It was true that I hadn’t had many encounters with the wizard, but what I had seen was forever burned into my mind–literally.  She’d blasted away the flesh of my hand once, after all.  To see her exclaiming in such a fashion, a very mundane and unmemorable thing to do, somehow seemed extraordinary to me.  The Quincy I remembered was cold, monotone, and seamless.  This was the opposite.  Did Tonatiuh really change her so much?

“Tristi’s also gone,” she said.  “And he wanted to send you his regards.”

“I’m sure he did…” I muttered.  Why had he hurried me up the entire time if he could have left whenever he wanted to?  I had a feeling I’d never understand the champion of luck, and I couldn’t say that I’d miss him too much.

“I have a few questions I’d like to ask you about him later, if that’s all right?”

“That’s…fine.”  It actually wasn’t, but I could see no reason to refuse.

We started to leave the house, but Elmiryn paused at the door to gaze back at everything.  I stood near her, and took in her expression–wistful…perhaps sad.  Eventually her eyes rested on something in the parlor, and I didn’t have to guess what it was.  I turned to gaze at the portrait with her.  Sedwick and Quincy waited outside, on the lookout for trouble.

I let the back of my hand brush the warrior’s.  She looked at me, and the fact that she didn’t smile had me worried.  Was it possible that her family could’ve been affected by the destructive battle with Tonatiuh?  “What’s wrong, Elle?”

“I don’t know where my family is.  I don’t know…if I still have a family.”

“The meteor, the fires…” I trailed off, unable to finish.

Elmiryn already was shaking her head.  “I don’t think my mother’s in Malvene.  She hates this city during this time of year.”

I felt a sense of foreboding about it, but I asked anyway.  “And your father…?”

The warrior’s face darkened in a way I hadn’t seen before.  “The asshole had better be alive.  We have unfinished business.”

I blinked, taken aback.  She looked at me for a moment, then grinned, the darkness fleeing her face.  “Sorry.”  She jerked her head toward the others.  “Come on.  I’m sure you’d like to hear our side of the story now.”

I swallowed and nodded.  Elmiryn could be a little mercurial at times, but that was by far the most extreme I’d seen.

As we followed Sedwick’s lead to the shard’s gateway, they each in turn explained what had happened since arriving in that dimension.  They got about as far as their conversation with Nadi before it devolved into bantering and bickering.

“Of course, this ginger-headed idiot had to open her foul mouth and speak ill of my husband,” Quincy said, with a disdainful tilt of her nose.

“You weren’t exactly being very kind yourself, if I recall…” Sedwick muttered. “You both gave as much as you got.”

Elmiryn just snickered.  “The difference being that I could handle it.  The wizard, on the other hand, turned into a hysterical chicken shit and tried to off herself–”

The wizard shot her a look.  “Shut up, Elmiryn, that isn’t how it went and you know it.”

The warrior crossed her arms, smirking.  “You ran off a cliff.”

“Well, given the company…”

“Ungrateful!  That’s what you are!  And after all those times I’ve saved your life…”

What?”  Quincy and Sedwick said this together.

“Quincy.  Come on.  You must remember how I caught you at the cliff.  Or the time I decapitated that soldier about to bite into your neck.  Or the time you nearly fell and got swarmed by the undead–”

“That’s just stretching it!  We were all watching each other’s backs—

“And what about those rogue ghosts that were going to tear you apart?”

“I could’ve handled them!”

“Oh, and did I mention?  There was a fly about to buzz into your open mouth.  I swatted it out of the way just in the nick of time,”  Elmiryn mimed doing just that, making Quincy startle back.  “Surely, it would have lodged into your throat, causing you to panic, and then–knowing your dramatic personality and naturally clumsy nature–would’ve resulted in the greatest cluster fuck this side of the Hellas.  No really.  True story.”

We all slowed to a stop to stare at her.

When Sedwick let out a rumble of a laugh, I smiled uncertainly.  Quincy looked ready to blow, the way her face turned red.  Elmiryn just kept batting her eyes, body posed in the most pretentious I’d ever seen–head thrown back, chest puffed out, hands high on her hips.

Then, without warning, a smile spread on the wizard’s face, and she put a hand over her mouth as her shoulders began to shake.

Elmiryn grinned as she nudged her.  “Hm?  Hmmm? See!  I told you!”

“We should spread the word then,” Sedwick started.  “Hamlets the world over will sing their praises of Elmiryn the Good.”

The warrior’s nose wrinkled.  “That’s not a proper name for a hero!  You could easily call a prostitute that.”

“Well I’ll be sure to let everyone know then.”  Quincy’s face wasn’t red anymore, but her cheeks were still tinged pink, and there was a light in her eyes that hadn’t been there in the previous hour.  She fixed the warrior with a smirk.

Elmiryn opened her mouth, a mischievous expression on her face when she paused and looked at me.  I blinked at her, confused.  Clearing her throat, the redhead shrugged and said, “Take care in what rumors you spread.  People may start thinking you’re a regular connoisseur of the world’s oldest profession.”

Quincy glanced at me, before returning her eyes on the warrior.  Her smirk had turned into a full predatory smile.  “Oh, all I have to do is say the right things to the right people.”

Elmiryn didn’t look amused anymore.  I felt nettled and frowned at them both.

Then Sedwick jumped in, his expression trying to convey a warning without words.  “Elle!”  He said loudly.  My ears tweaked to hear him use her nickname.  “If Elmiryn the Good wouldn’t suit you, than what would?”

The woman batted her eyes at him, and we all looked at her.

A slow chuckle came up her throat and she rubbed the back of her neck.

“Maybe…” she started slowly.  She shrugged and looked up.  “Elle, the Friendly Ghost?”

My eyes fluttered.

I tried to hide the smile that started to show by biting my lip, but I knew it was a losing battle.  “Um…I’m certain that’s already being used.”

Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck again, and I could see a sense of relief pass her features.  “Really?” she giggled.

Behind me, Quincy and Sedwick chuckled.  In truth, I was glad to have the tension vanish.  The banter continued, and it was more of the same.

“Shall we call you, Quincy the Klutzy?”

“Here’s a suggestion:  How do you like Elmiryn the Crippled?  Or what about, Elmiryn the Lifeless?

We went at a brisk pace, down avenues and alleys, piercing the shadows of tall buildings swathed in stellar splendor, and passed smaller structures colored in the fiery passion of Fiamma.  With the current company being so swept up in their talk, I found my thoughts began to trail.

It was strange seeing the way Elmiryn, Sedwick, and Quincy got along.  It was a complicated dynamic, I could already tell.  Elmiryn had clearly taken to her usual provocations, but it was different from how she’d behaved with me.  Now I saw that her teasing in the past had been very mild in comparison to what she and Quincy slung at each other.  It was sharp, nettling, and at times, bordered on cruel.  I was certain, given the prides these two had, that tails must have been stepped on often.  But seeing how Elmiryn laughed at Quincy’s hostile responses, I saw how much she enjoyed the interaction.

It made my hackles rise.

Quincy, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have any interest other than to find Elmiryn’s weaknesses and poke at them.  The wizard had a temper, it was easy to see, but she was also stubborn and resilient.  For every quip that landed home, the woman was back with a dozen to match.  Though she feigned contempt for Elmiryn’s antics, I could see that she was into the verbal sparring as much as Elmiryn was, though I suspected it was just to find a way to best the warrior psychologically.  She struck me as the type that liked to pick things apart.  A sort of scientific mind, if you will.  But when the wizard found her prize…?  What then?

I certainly wasn’t going to facilitate their silly games.  To have Quincy look at me as if I were some sort of tool to use against Elmiryn already had me wishing I could slap her.

Sedwick seemed to fit into the group as a long-suffering mediator.  He cut in when either woman crossed a line, and he kept things as light as he could by redirecting the conversation.  Much of the time, though, he kept out of it.  A wise decision, I thought.

Eventually, after Sedwick announced our imminent arrival to the gateway, Elmiryn turned to me.

“Gods damn, I just realized.  We were supposed to be telling you what we’ve been through this whole time.”

I gave her a strained smile.  “You were.”

The redhead looked at me with feigned uncertainty. “Did we mention this was a long story?”

“About three times, now.”

“It’s a really long story,” they all said simultaneously, wry smiles on their faces.

“But it’ll have to wait,” Sedwick said.

We followed the man over a retaining wall into a narrow road.  This far out, the buildings weren’t as collected together.  Elmiryn had muttered something about “round-assed nobles” and I suspected this was where some of the richer ilk resided.  Honestly, I’d heard of homes being this large in books and by word of mouth, but it never really strikes you until you see it, does it?  I looked across a vast front yard, gated of course, where a massive four-story mansion with large windows and a circular tower managed to cast a long enough shadow to reach us so far away.  I couldn’t imagine anyone living in something so large.  It just seemed so…excessive.

Where the main road curled about these mammoths of architecture, we strayed, coming up against the tall black iron-wrought gate for the grounds before us.  The bars were thick and close together, and there were wicked spikes at the top to discourage climbing.  Sedwick pointed through the bars.  “Our way off this shard is there.”

Quincy scowled.  “Well that’s inconvenient.”

I peered around the bars to get a look at the lock.

I grinned.  “Have any of you got a pin?”

No one had one, but Quincy managed to produce a hook knife which I recognized to be used in clay shaping.  I shook off my confusion as to why she would have something like this (she’d pulled it out of a pouch I’d thought empty) and set to work.  Five minutes later, we were walking through the gate.

“These people spend tons of gold just to make their homes feel safe, and here you come along to undo it with barely any effort,” Elmiryn murmured, an almost proud smile on her face.

“That lock was pathetic.  It’s obvious the owner just wanted to show off and look richer than he is without actually putting the money down to defend his claim.”  I shrugged.  “Of course, it’s entirely possible that there are guards patrolling the grounds.  Maybe some attack dogs.  Magical wards.  Who knows?  We aren’t actually breaking into his home…”

“But, attack dogs aside, they wouldn’t be a problem for you if we were, right?”

I bit my lip to hide my smile.  Pride comes before a fall, and all that…

The courtyard of the mansion was arrayed in a circular design, with waist-high rose-bushes and swaying willows.  The breeze picked up, and I inhaled that scent of destruction, of ash and dust.  Even this far out, the aftermath of that terrible struggle with Tonatiuh could be felt.

I glanced at the others, and found equally pensive looks on their faces.  Quincy looked upset, even.

At the center of the courtyard was a marble fountain.  Sedwick slowed to a stop before this, his head tilted back.  Elmiryn’s head was tilted back as well, her eyes focusing on something I couldn’t see.  All I could make out was that the air seemed to ripple before us.  The gateway.

The hairs on my skin stood on end.

And how did Elmiryn feel, leaving Fiamma for the second time with no clue as to when she’d return?

She looked at me, her eyes searching my features, for what I didn’t know.  Then her face broke into a grin.  “Let’s go, Nyx.”

I nodded, wishing I knew what she’d found.  “Lead on, Elle.”

Without another word, without even so much as a look back, Elmiryn stepped through the gateway, and we followed her.

.

..

….

…..

Nyx wasn’t used to Traveling the way the others were used to it.  She had only done it once before, and even she was aware it was in a very unorthodox fashion.  Her eyes wander into the spectral mist, catching glimpses of beautiful people and wondrous places.  Her steps start to slow, and she lets out a breath…

Then Quincy has her by the arm and starts to force her along.

We can’t stop, the wizard says.  And it’s dangerous to look into worlds that aren’t ours, so just keep your eyes looking ahead, unless you want to bring the attention of something dangerous.

But that’s fun!  Elmiryn exclaims.

Sedwick grumbles for them all to keep silent, and the request is honored.

Nyx rips her arm out of Quincy’s grasp with a glare, and moves to join Elmiryn in the front.

With time, they came to a crossroads.  This was strange to the Ailuran, because she hadn’t realized the In-Between space was capable of such structure.

After a moment of reorientation, Elmiryn pointed down one of the roads.

Here, she says.  This is our fourth path.

Without another word, they travel on, till the mist and chaos thinned to nothing.

…..

….

..

.

QUINCY_________________________

She took in a breath as the last of the Road gave way to grassy plain.  The mist cleared.

They stood blinking in the darkness atop a tall hill.  Overhead, there were no stars.  No moon.  Not even a cloud, as much as she could see.  The wind was strong here, and swept her russet locks into a wild dance.  She shivered and hugged herself, missing her cloak.  Her jerkin was a poor cover.

Elmiryn and Nyx stood apart, hand in hand.  Sedwick stood near, his brow furrowed.

“I think I know where we are,” he said lowly.

Quincy turned on the spot, taking in their surroundings.  They had landed on the edge of a vast hilly plain, where further off, the wizard thought she saw the sandy shores of a beach.  Behind them lay the edges of a dense forest that also stretched on as far as she could see.  With numerous societies occupying the Sibesonan continent, there were only two forests that could be as large and as untouched as this one, and only one of those was so close to the ocean.

“Yes,” Quincy said. “I think I recognize this area as well.”

The wind came again, this time nearly threatening to bowl them over.  Everyone braced against it, hands and arms shielding faces from the sting of the wind.

The wizard’s heart gave a twist, and she clenched her teeth.  She hated winds like this.  They always tricked her into believing that Jack was coming.  As the champion of Njord, he’d had command of the winds, and his arrivals were always blustery at best.  Older now, Quincy was certain that her father needn’t have arrived on such explosive winds, but Jack was a show-off by nature, and loved flaunting his power even when unnecessary.

Arrogant git, she thought with curled lip.

The wind died down.

With hands tight around her lightning staff, the woman turned and motioned for Elmiryn and Nyx to come near.  As they approached, Quincy crouched.  They did the same.

She asked in a low voice, “Do you two know where we are?”

Nyx shook her head, but Elmiryn nodded, a solemn look over face.  “We’re far south of Gamath.  I’ve passed this area before, but never ventured into it.”

“Then you know the precarious situation we’re in?” Quincy glanced at Nyx pointedly.

“Would someone like to clue me in?” The girl hissed, clearly vexed by their reticence.

Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck.  “Nyx…you must know about this continent front to back from your reading.  Tell me, who resides in the southeastern lands of the Sibesona?”

The girl didn’t even need to think about it.  Her face blanched.  “Oh no…” she moaned.

Elmiryn nodded.  “Lycans.

“As I’m sure you all know, therians are spiritual beings,” Sedwick said, drawing their attention.  He had crouched behind them, as well, his eyes narrowed at the forest. “That means, unlike some of the humans we’ve encountered, they’ll be able to sense us.  Touch us.”

“How can that be?” Elmiryn asked.

Quincy swept her hair back with a sigh. “Unlike other therians who appoint shamans, priests, and healers to take care of the deeper matters of the spirit world, Lycans train all their young in the ways of communicating and interacting with the spirits.  They also practice primitivism, believing that some of the newer technologies, like guns, and even swords, diminish their connection with the land.  Because of their staunch devotion, they hold the favor of some benevolent beings.  Powerful beings.  Forest nymphs, air spirits, earth trolls…”

“It’s why the Fiamman kingdom hasn’t tried edging them out yet,” Elmiryn said.  “They have greater numbers than the Ailuran Nation, and they have powerful magic on their side.  Their knowledge of the land would’ve put the king’s army at a great disadvantage.”

“So we were the easier target?” Nyx asked, her brow furrowed.

The warrior shrugged, unapologetic.  “Yes.”  She looked to Sedwick next. “Is it true that Lycans hunt spirits?  That they can kill and eat them?”

Quincy puckered her lips and looked at the man too.  Sedwick scratched at his scar.  “It’s true that they can kill spirits, but I doubt they eat them.  I’ve only interacted with them a little since becoming an elemental, and most of everything else I know is hearsay from the spirits traveling.  They’re a secretive lot.”

“Well, what do we do here?  What are we searching for?” the wizard said.

Elmiryn tilted her head back and took a deep breath.  “This is the fourth path.  Air.”  She looked at Quincy, then Nyx.  “Go on.  What does air represent in our world?”

Nyx looked up in thought.  The brunette frowned, but turned her eyes down to think as well.

She thought of the way dandelions flew with the breeze, the way a first breath after a long dive restored vitality, the way the world was shifted by the phantom hands of gusts…

She thought of Jack, holding her as a child, doing cartwheels through the sky.  She thought of how they cut through clouds, startled birds, and tore through the skies at high speeds with nothing to stop them.  Jack’s laughter mingling with hers.  The wind roaring.  Knowing that they could stay up in the sky for as long as they wanted, and often did.

“Wizard?”

Quincy hadn’t realized she’d closed her eyes, but judging by everyone’s looks, she’d been silent for sometime.

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at her.  “Well?  I thought you knew a bit about this sort of thing?  Or are you a two-bit hack who just pretends to know?”

The wizard narrowed her eyes and rubbed at her staff vigorously, making her hand tingle from the trade in energy.  Then, without a word, she reached over and tapped Elmiryn’s hand.

Zap.

The woman gave a jerk and let loose a sharp curse.  “You shocked me!” she exclaimed.

“I didn’t think anything could shock you, given your appalling history.”  The wizard held up her hand as the warrior started with her retort. “You want to know about the significance of air?  Well I can tell you.  I’m certain, given that we’re following your spiritual path, that the western symbolism applies here.  It’s simple.  Air signifies freedom.  Change.”

“Powerful inner strength,” Nyx added.

Sedwick nodded, rubbing his chin.  “We’re in one of the last remaining untouched resources of the Sibesona.  No industrialism, no destructive magic users, nothing outside of nature.  Dense forests for miles around, with clear and hilly plains to the far south.  The air here is clean and pure, rivaling those of the mountains…”

Nyx bit her lip and looked to the forest.  “And the Lycans.  They are shapeshifters.  Spiritually powerful.  They are the guardians of this free place and exhibit that same innate fortitude.”

Elmiryn stood suddenly, and they all looked at her.

“So instead of avoiding the Lycans, we should be finding them,” she said.

“That’s assuming they haven’t already found you,” a new voice answered.

Elmiryn stiffened and slowly turned, one hand going to her sword.  Quincy cursed, jumping to her feet with staff held at the ready.  Sedwick and Nyx did much the same.

Standing behind them were ten men, all dressed in a similar grassy camouflage blanket that shadowed their faces and stretched down to brush their ankles.  Their bodies were painted with a strange dark grease.  They lacked in clothes save for simple cloths to conceal their manhoods.  Each was equipped with two spears–one long, one short.  One for throwing, the other for fighting.  Their forms seemed to waver at the edges, and their color seemed dull…but these were not phantoms.  These men were very solid, and none looked pleased.

One of them stepped forward and pulled the blanket from his head, revealing a short crop of black hair and coal gray eyes.  He had a gentle slope to his jaw and a large aquiline nose.  His brow was bunched as he jerked his head toward the forest.

“Let’s go tkelechog, before death finds you as well.”

Continue ReadingChapter 26.1

Chapter 26.2

QUINCY_________________________

It was hard, not wondering if Tonatiuh would have helped her spot the Lycans.  A mixture of feelings squirmed in her chest like worms.  She had walked away from the sword without looking back.  Was that brave?

…Or had she just been too afraid?

Though the temptation of power was still fresh in her mind, she still heard Nyx’s voice like a bright pulse in her dark thoughts.  It had illuminated Elmiryn and Sedwick’s pleas like a bright star.

…But what had really done it, was how the Ailuran’s piercing voice had cut to the woman’s innermost doubts.

Tonatiuh was a parasitoid–a being that fed on its host to the point of ultimate death.  Saerth, her wizard master from Crysen, had warned her of the dangers of prolonged contact.

“It is better to leave some things alone, Quincy…” he had said.

Finally, after years of use, the spirit was gone.  The wizard wondered if there was a hole in her soul where Tonatiuh had lived.  She wondered if a soul could repair itself.

Somehow, everything seemed more frightening, knowing now that her greatest strength was lost.  Elmiryn had challenged her to find a strength beyond her magic.    Quincy fought to dredge up that strength now.

They moved in a group, surrounded by their Lycan escorts.  The grass at their feet came up to their ankles, but no higher.  It hissed and shushed beneath their feet.  They went down the hill they had stood upon, struggling to keep their footing.  It was very steep.  Dips and holes were like traps to make them fall.  The men around them stepped around these with deft steps, unfazed by the steep decline.

Quincy wanted to appear calm.  She wrestled her features into one of apathy and walked with as steady a step she could manage, head held high.  She wanted to think, that if one were not privy to the situation, they wouldn’t suspect her as a prisoner.  And maybe they weren’t?  Though their lives had been threatened, they were not under bonds and their weapons had not been taken.  And as Elmiryn had said, wasn’t this what they wanted?  To find the Lycans and seek whatever wisdom or aid they could bestow?

And what lost thing, if each shard were to hold such a thing, had fallen here?

Once clear of the steep hills, the fourteen of them–the Lycans and their small group of four–moved at a quick gait.  As they entered the dark of the forest, a heaviness seemed to press on them all.  Quincy wondered if it were mortal magic or a strong spiritual presence.  Whatever the source, it felt like a thick cloak over her shoulders.  It didn’t feel malignant or foreboding.  It was just…there.

The darkness seemed denser here as well.  Details were swallowed in shadow, leaving only vague forms.  The wizard tried to recognize the trees they passed, tried to get an understanding of where they were going, but it was in vain.  The shadows about them were all similarly dendroid in shape and size, leaving nothing distinctive for her to pick out.  They did not walk a road.  There were no markings on the trees or the ground that she could see.  The Lycans just seemed to know the way.

Quincy took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the fresh scents of their surroundings–tree sap, damp soil…but also the sweat from the men around them.  One could practically smell their hostility.

From what the wizard had seen before the dark of the forest diminished everything in her eyes, Nyx seemed a veritable bundle of agitation.  She was in front with Elmiryn, who of course, appeared amused by the entire ordeal.  Sedwick, on the wizard’s left, was doing a good job of appearing unassuming, Quincy thought.

She had dealt with Lycans in the past, and she had found their staunchness could be used against them…but never had she faced so many of them at once, and caught unaware, no less.  Any chance at guile was lost with such a disadvantage.

Then Elmiryn started chuckling.

This didn’t incite any sort of reaction from their guards, and yet Quincy felt a great deal of dread flood into her chest.  The warrior’s laughter appeared mild at first before it began to gain in strength, piercing the thick silence about them in a way that almost felt blasphemous.  The wizard saw Nyx turn to look at her, and thought she was going to quiet the woman, but then Elmiryn giggled out, “Guard dogs!”

Quincy didn’t understand the joke, but then, to her surprise, Nyx returned the giggle.  It sounded hysterical compared to Elmiryn, but within a moment, the girl was also clutching her sides, and the forest echoed from their peals of laughter.

“Dragons, giant spirits, undead, demons–!” Nyx gasped between her fits of humor.

“–Guard dogs!” Elmiryn repeated breathlessly, her laughter having turned into silent convulsions.  By the sounds of it, something was supposed to come before that, but the warrior seemed incapable of more than a few words at a time, leaving her meaning clipped.

Quincy still didn’t get it, but she didn’t need to.  Her eyes were finally starting to adjust to the dark, and she could see the looks the guards were now giving them.

Sedwick beat her to it.  “Quiet, the both of you!” he rumbled.

Nyx shut up quickly, her hysterical humor lighting out in the sea of her fear.  With bowed head, she mumbled an apology.  Elmiryn, with effort, calmed down, and they resumed their walk in silence.

With time, the wizard saw a glow up ahead…but not a campfire glow, or the burn of torches.  This light was a soft green.  She squinted her eyes and murmured, “What is that?”

“Dryads,” Sedwick murmured back.

The woman frowned, wanting to ask more, but a look from one of the Lycans silenced them.

As they neared, the sounds of people talking came their way.  Quincy could see what looked like huts, and the forms of villagers flitting between them.

The men paused as something small leapt from the dark bushes to block their path.  Nyx gave a great start, inciting the wizard to jump herself.  What she saw made her roll her eyes.

“For heavens sakes, it’s just a scout,” she snapped.

The scout was, in fact, a small wolf, with light fur and glowing eyes.  It peered at them all, ears perked forward, mouth panting, tail low.

The leader knelt down and spoke to it in a strange growling language that Quincy had only heard once before. Maicoh.  The language of the wolves.

When the man finished speaking, the wolf turned and bolted toward the village.

The dark haired leader stood, and for a moment, he seemed to look her way.  Quincy scowled at him.  With a silent jerk of his head, they resumed their jaunt.  Elmiryn glanced back at the wizard with arched eyebrow.  So she’d noticed too.

The smell of cooking food wafted toward them.  The sounds of village life were everywhere–children laughing, the sound of stone being pounded, hens clucking.  Quincy’s eyes had to adjust as they entered the clearing where the village resided.  The green light came from the trees.  The bark, the leaves, even the soil it was grounded into.  Dryad magic?  Was that what Sedwick had meant?

She squinted around at the huts–made of animal hide and thick lumber.  Waxing crescents were painted on the sides of the huts in what appeared to be a dripping blue paint.  Some of the taller huts had high ropes strung between them, where small metal and glass pieces were hung.  Outside, older women weaved baskets, mended weapons, and cooked food.  The younger women pounded herbs and grain in mortars with big pestles, and tended to the children.  Children played a strange game with brightly colored beads on a sort of diagram scratched into the dirt.  The men did a lot of heavy work–carrying water and materials to the women, and repairing their homes.

There was still no road to speak of, but the array of huts and the trampled grass alluded to a trail, and this they followed.

The Lycan folk, aside from their primitive garb of animal hide and beaded hair…seemed very much normal.  Other therians exhibited beast-like qualities.  Nyx, for instance, had very feline eyes.  These people, however, were deceptively human-like.  What gave them away were their unusual gazes.  No human had naturally yellow eyes.

Lycans peered curiously from doorways as they passed, and children hopped and skipped around them, trying to peer past their escorts to stare at Quincy and the others.  Some of the villagers hurried ahead of them, calling excitedly in their Lycan tongue.

They rounded a close cluster of huts which opened up onto a wide area.  A great large tree, as thick as a house and nearly five stories high, sprouted up the center of the area.  A large house had been built amidst its branches.  Quincy frowned, thinking this odd for the Lycans to have centered their settlement on, though she hardly believed this to be their only village.  Surrounding the tree was a large group of people, and they all whispered as they came near.  Trailing down from the tree house was a simple rope.

The Lycan folk cleared as their escorts finally reached the tree.

The leader of their escort pointed at the rope.  “Go up,” he ordered.

Elmiryn glanced around at them, and with a shrug, she started to climb.  Following her went Nyx, then Sedwick, and finally Quincy.

The climb took little time, and as they crawled up into the circular opening of the building’s floor, Quincy immediately understood its purpose.  There was a great circular hole in the ceiling where the branches parted and allowed for an unlimited view of the sky.  An observation platform.  Of course.  While the Lycans could see the stars from down below, to get an unlimited view of the heavens (and of their surroundings) required some height.  The house was equipped with astronomy tools, charts and measuring instruments, all of which could be found on a table against the wall.  This aside, this seemed to be the building’s only room, and it was largely empty.

That was, except for the one standing within it.

A tall woman with pale skin and silver eyes peered at them from a low window on the far side of the room.  Unlike the other Lycans, she was solid, like they were, indicating that she was fully within their dimension.  She had curly dark hair pinned back in a low bun and a tiara of branches on her head.  Like the leader below, her nose was aquiline in nature, but with a smaller tip and a lower nose bridge.  She wore an animal hide tunic with twine tied about her waist, much like the villagers, except that hers was cut in a low V at the front, showing a loose white garb beneath.  Strung across her back was a bow and a quiver of arrows.  On the back of her right hand, a crescent had been tattooed in black ink.  Her feet were bare.

She gestured for them to come near.

Elmiryn started to take a step, but then Nyx grabbed her arm and jerked her back.  When the warrior looked at her in confusion, the girl did not return her gaze.  Her eyes were on the woman, her body trembling worse than before.

Behind them, their male escorts began to climb up into the tree house.

The silver-eyed woman appeared amused by Nyx’s reaction.  She sat on the windowsill and smirked.  “What wouldst thy patron say, to see thee trembling so, little one?”

Nyx swallowed audibly and fell to her knees.  She pulled at Elmiryn. “Down!” she hissed.  “Elle, get down!

Elmiryn resisted, squinting at the silver-eyed woman.  “What?  Why?  What is…” but then her voice trailed away.  She looked sharply from Nyx to the woman and back.

Quincy’s eyes started to widen.  She looked to Sedwick, “Is that–?” but she cut herself off when she realized the man wasn’t there.  She twisted her head around, alarmed, then looked down near her feet.  Sedwick was down on his knees, his head pressed to the floor.  Startled, the woman’s mouth fell open.  She tried to say something…anything.

She wanted to appear calm.

…But who could remain calm in this situation?

The wizard fell to her knees but did not bow her head.  She didn’t want to miss a thing.

“Who are you?” Elmiryn asked, her voice guarded.  She was still on her feet, but now her fists were balled up at her sides.

The silver-eyed woman looked at her mildly.  “Me?”  She let out a throaty chuckle. “The Lycans call me Mother…but you can call me Artemis.”

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn blinked slowly.

“Artemis?” she echoed.

“Artemis,” the woman said with a nod.

“You’re trying to tell me you’re the Artemis?  The Goddess of the Hunt?  Mother wolf? Are you joking?”  This managed to illicit a growl from one of the Lycan men behind them, but Elmiryn didn’t care.

Gods were supposed to be out of reach.  Other-wordly.  Omnipotent.  This woman looked so…ordinary.  Except for maybe her eyes.  Her eyes were stark and shrewd.

‘Artemis’ crossed her arms, her wry smirk still in place.  “And thou art the Elmiryn Manard, daughter of Warner and Brianna Manard.  Thou were once captain of a company of dragoons, loved and respected by her men.  So much so that they forswore their king to help thee escape.  Your best friend was your Lieutenant Saelin, who shared in your queerness and tolerated your controversial nature.  He once asked you to marry him, out of convenience, and you gave him a black eye.  It was the first and last time you had ever truly been angry with him.  It was also the last time you’d seen him.  Though you knew you could not accept his offer, you regret your reaction.”

Elmiryn bowed her head, her shoulders bunching.  Unbidden, the memory came wafting in, carrying Saelin’s voice as if she were just then hearing it.

Sir…Elmiryn.  We’re both different.  You know that.  Why not…why can’t we just…get married?  That way our families will stop badgering us, and we can live our lives as we see fit!  I…um…Elmiryn?  ….Sir?

“Your first love was at the age of seven, and it was with a Higashan acrobat girl whom you had helped run away from home.  That experience really shaped you.  Though not picky about your partners, you tend to be attracted to the strange, the exotic, and the foreign,” here, the woman’s silver eyes cut to Nyx, who pressed her head to the floor.  The girl’s hands and the back of her exposed neck flushed pink.  The woman resumed.  “Whether out of habit or true belief, thou have on occasion presented offerings to my altar.  Your last offering was a fox you’d shot on a new moon night at 500 strides.  You bragged so much, you got into a fight with another commanding officer.  He’d called you a liar and drew sword whilst your back was turned.  You cut his stomach open, letting his entrails tumble over your new boots, which you had to toss away.  It was the last time you’d ever sought my blessing.”

The woman sucked at her teeth and looked off to the side.  When she looked back at Artemis, she muttered, “I liked those boots…”

“I assure thee, their ruining was not my doing,” Artemis chortled.  She shrugged.  “I liked the fox.  I was sorry to see your devotion wane.”

“You didn’t feel all that close to me.  None of your kind did.  After awhile, it felt more like I was talking to myself.”

“And do you not fear the retribution I could bring?  You have a lot of cheek, for a mortal.”

“Yeah?  Well you look really fucking plain for a god.”

…It happened faster than Elmiryn could even compute.

One moment, she was standing and looking Artemis in the eye–knowing that a god of wolf people would likely interpret that as a challenge–and the next moment, she was up in the air by her throat, her feet not even skimming the floor.  When had the goddess moved?  Were those claws digging into Elmiryn’s neck?

The warrior’s eyes rolled down to meet the goddess’s, and Artemis regarded her coolly. “Cease behaving like an insolent pup, and I’ll not treat thee as such.  I am not your chief god.  Your quarrels with Halward are not my concern. Understood?

The building shook and Elmiryn felt the hairs on her skin stand on end.  She gave the best nod she could, which turned out to be a slight twitch of her head.

Artemis dropped her.

The warrior crumpled to the floor, her body shaking.  Her throat throbbed.  She coughed, red in the face, as she shifted to her hands and knees.

The goddess took a moment to gaze at them all, allowing the weight of the situation to settle in.  Yes, she was a god.  Yes, she could fuck them up if she wanted to.

…But she wasn’t.

“If we’re to talk of concerns, I have a few I’d like to share with you all,” Artemis said.  “Please.  Will you all rise and join me at the window?”

She turned and walked back across the room, and one by one, the others followed.  Elmiryn was the last to rise.  She stared at the floor, her coughing having quieted to heavy breathing.  She felt like hitting something.  She hated feeling vulnerable.

She wanted a drink.

Nyx paused to help her up.  As she took the warrior’s arm, she leaned in and whispered, “Elle, my gods, are you okay?”

“M’fine…” the woman mumbled as they both straightened.

“Your hands are shaking.”

The warrior cursed and clenched her fists.  “It’s nothing,” she snapped.  Then with a wince, she said more gently.  “Just…a little shaken up is all.”

“In the future, can we avoid insulting gods?”

“Duly noted,” the woman muttered.

They joined the others at the window.  They all gathered around Artemis, who had taken to sitting on the windowsill again.

The goddess pointed out at the spanning forests around them.  “These forests are sacred.  Not just to me, but to any spirit or creature that values life and harmony.  My children protect this land from evil, both spiritual and mortal.  With my blessing and with the aid of countless spirits, we have turned away a great many threats.  But a new taint has entered our lives, and with each passing night, we lose more and more of my children to this wickedness.”  She nodded to each of them in turn.  “It is my understanding that each of you are pursuing a way back to your world.”

“Among other things,” Elmiryn said.  Her voice was still a little rough.

Artemis nodded, a teasing smile appearing on her face.  “As I’ve heard, you lot have been causing quite the stir with the traveling spirits.  They’ve been saying all sorts of things.”  The others must have looked alarmed for the goddess’s smile widened, and she added, “Don’t worry.  They’re good things…mostly.

She shifted so that her back leaned against the windowsill, one leg half bent on the ledge, the other tucked against the wall.  “Given all of your experiences, you must know by now that, to proceed, one must overcome obstacles.  To seek help, one must help in return.  It is no different here, braves.”

“You want our help in slaying this new evil,” Quincy said, her arms crossing.

Artemis gave another nod.  “Tonight my children drink to their fallen brothers.  Then when the darkness is at its thickest yet, we hunt.  I would ask that each of you join us.”

“What is this threat?  What would we be facing?” The wizard asked next.

The goddess sighed.  “We cannot be certain. It is fast.  Strong. Filled with hate and rage.  It can turn my children against each other, and it causes the trees and the plants to wane and wither as it passes.  As for how it looks, I cannot tell you.  My children have never survived an encounter with it.”

And yet you keep sending them out to die in your stead. Elmiryn thought darkly.

Artemis looked at her, and the warrior seized up, expecting another attack.  How could she be so stupid?  Of course the goddess would hear her thoughts.

But the deity’s eyes only held sadness.  “I would gladly take to arms for my children.  But there is no way I can fight without harming them all.”

The warrior looked away.

Clearing his throat, Sedwick said, “It’d be our honor to help.”

“Splendid.” The goddess stood and said something in Lycan to the men waiting at the back of the room.  One by one they descended back down to the village below.  The only one who remained was the male leader.  He asked Artemis something, and the goddess gestured vaguely as she responded.  He nodded, and started down the tree as well.

Artemis looked back at them.  “Anything you will need, my people can provide you.  Rest.  Prepare.  Tonight, you will need it.”

The goddess turned away from them, looking out at the forests.  It seemed their cue to leave.  They returned to the floor opening and descended down the rope.  First Quincy, then Sedwick, then Nyx.  Elmiryn paused, crouched on the floor.  She looked at Artemis with squinted eyes.

“I didn’t realize the gods had such a close relationship with mortals.”

Artemis barely turned her head.  “Not all gods like to sit up in heaven.  You would do well to remember that.”

Elmiryn pursed her lips and nodded.  She started down the rope.

As she descended, the woman heard a commotion going on below.  Frowning, she paused to look down.

A group of children had surrounded Quincy, all jumping and cheering.  They pulled on her arms and clapped their hands, chanting a single word over and over.

“Shimá!  Shimá!  Shimá!”

Curious, the warrior doubled her pace, jumping down the rest of the way as soon as it was safe.  She found Nyx and Sedwick in the crowd that had gathered, and asked, “What are they saying?”

They gave her equally confused looks.  “We don’t know,” Nyx said.  “There was already a crowd here waiting for us as we came down.”

The people around them started to point, smiles on their faces.  The three of them craned their heads to see who was coming through the crowd.

“Can you see who it is?” Nyx asked Elmiryn.

The warrior frowned as the people parted, letting something through.  “Not a fucking thing.”

The last of the villagers stepped aside, and they were finally able to see who was coming.

Nyx’s jaw dropped.  “Oh…my…gods…”

Elmiryn let out a surprised laugh.

Sedwick looked at them both, still confused.  “I’m sorry…do you two know that little boy?”

For the one who had come through the crowd, standing at no more than a full grown man’s chest, was a black boy, with dark brooding eyes and a close-shaved head.  He wore animal hide clothes, just like the villagers.

Quincy stared at him, the blood draining from her face.  “Ha…Hakeem?

The boy nodded.  In a voice that still had yet to deepen, he said, “Habari, bwa-mweze.”

That was about the time that Quincy fainted, the children around her letting out cries of alarm as they tried to catch her without being crushed.  Hakeem rushed forward, moving with a certainty that belied his small form.  Some adults followed close behind.

Nyx and Sedwick stood speechless.

…Elmiryn, on the other hand, couldn’t stop laughing.

Continue ReadingChapter 26.2