Chapter 36.1

NYX___________________________

The desire to shout Elmiryn down was there, for all of us, I think–but inevitably we found ourselves more concerned with the task before us. Hard to ignore the chance of finally facing down the one who had put us all through hell, after all. My only concern was in how well the warrior could function. I wanted to ask her to give me the gourd, but I could already foresee the clash of wills that would be, and I needed all of that energy for the task before us. It was easy, being brave and saying I wouldn’t let anything happen to Elle back in the blackwood. It was a wee bit harder at the actual threshold of the keep. After all…

If there was one thing the Other Place had proven to me, it was that it had no exhaustible amount of terrible surprises to sling at us. I’m not sure I could ever shake away some of the sights I’d seen here, and I suspected I had many rough nights of sleep in the future. Would this challenge really be the last I’d see? My fears seemed to stack up sometimes, swaying in the cold winds, and I was always stuck in the shadow of them, gulping down my courage–because things always tended to go wrong whenever I tried to do…anything. My lack of a family is probably my best example.

My confidence was like a rollercoaster. One moment I’d be filled with purpose, the next I’d be wringing my hands in doubt. I just wanted to do the right thing, and in such a dark and twisted halfway dimension, that became more and more distorted…especially when we were all walking such fine lines between salvation and destruction. And the horrible part? Half the time that misfortune was wrought by our own hands. Elmiryn’s drinking. My self-made monster.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, we came to the arched entrance of the castle keep. The looming structure, with its worn and mossy stone, its dark crenellations, and its many gazed windows seemed to bare down on us. The large double-door entrance was painted red, and had a smaller inset door to the right. We stopped before this, and exchanged looks.

In a weak attempt to bolster my courage, I tried to be blithe. “D-Do you suppose we knock?” At the looks I received, I resolved never to do that again. Ever.

Hakeem tried to pull it open by the handle. It didn’t budge. “We will have to break it down unless we can find another way in,” he remarked.

“Fuck that,” Elmiryn snapped. The drink was clearly working for her. Maybe I needed to have some.

She stepped up to the door as she took another swig of drink. Her other hand twirled her sword. Quincy crossed her arms and said in the dryest voice possible, “What are you going to do? Belch at it?”

The warrior turned and squinted one eye. “Uh…No. I was going to bust it down.” She turned back, shaking her head. “‘Belch at it’…what a boob!”

Quincy’s face grew red. “I was being sarca–”

“Shh!” I hissed. “Sweet Aelurus, we’re in a very dangerous place right now! Can we save this nonsense for later!?”

Elmiryn spoke, and as she did so, she raised her foot to kick the door. “Then let’s quit stalling and just–”

Before she could kick out, the door swung open with a faint creak. My mouth dropped and I took a step back. Elmiryn didn’t move, her foot still in the air.

“Orrr…that could happen,” she said insipidly.

I took another step back as my body trembled. “This could be a trap!”

Quincy shook her head at me. “You just ran through a field of evil spirits, but you can’t walk through a door?

My hackles rose. “Syria could be on the other side of it with some diabolical plan to turn our minds inside out! She’s done things like that before!”

“Well it isn’t going to be very productive to just sit out here, now is it?” Elmiryn said. She had a jocular smile on her face, but I could see the way her head swayed ever so slightly on her neck as she turned to face the door. If she kept at that gourd, she’d be slurring her words any minute now.

Just as she started to cross the threshold, I jumped forward and ripped the gourd from her hands. She was quick to try and take it back, like I knew she would be, and maybe if she were sober, she would have succeeded, but she wasn’t. It only made me more certain that my bold move was in the right. Elmiryn had made the argument that she needed to keep drinking to stay functional. True, that her hands were looking steady now, but the warrior wouldn’t be able to stop herself from going too far. I had to do something, and that wasn’t going to be talking things out.

“Nyx what the hell!?” she cried.

I didn’t even stop to try and defend my actions. With a look that begged for understanding, I turned and fled through the door. I heard the others follow me, and was glad too, because the antechamber made my skin go cold.

The ceiling swirled in colors, bright and dark, cool and warm. As I stood beneath it, the yellow color on my skin began to rise up like liquid into the air. It floated up to join the colors on the ceiling. I shook my head slowly.

“What sort of sorcery is this?” I breathed.

“It could be a more focused form of energy sorcery,” I heard Quincy murmur behind me. “Though I’ve never seen it exercised on light before…barring Tonatiuh of course.”

I turned to look and there she was with Hakeem, holding a hand out to keep Elmiryn from trying to take the gourd back. The warrior glared at me, her expression speaking of betrayal, and I ducked my gaze.

Gods, she must think I don’t trust her to control herself! Why can’t she see that it isn’t HER I don’t trust, it’s her fae side?

Isn’t that the same thing? Kali responded quietly.

Quincy met my eyes, and leaving Hakeem to ensure Elmiryn didn’t do anything rash, she approached me with her hand held out. “Give the gourd here. I can keep it in my pouch.”

Grateful the source of conflict was being removed, I handed it to her and watched as she quickly slipped it into her magic pouch.

“Just how much can you hold in there?” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of me.

Quincy thought for a moment, then answered. “I think about as much as a two-floor mansion can, from floor to ceiling.”

My eyes went wide. Meanwhile, Elmiryn had stormed off to fume by herself, and Hakeem let her go. The antechamber wasn’t that big, so she didn’t go far.

“Gods, how can it hold so much?” I exclaimed.

“Well, actually, there’s a catch. Wizardry always has a catch. In the case of this pouch, I can only put in items that can fit through the four-inch wide opening. Next…things tend to get lost in there. So it’s best to keep the stock low. The pouch may be able to hold as much as a mansion, but I can only get as much as my arm can reach…”

Uncertain of what to say about all of this, I just nodded slowly. Wizardry was an odd profession–I knew this from my reading–and I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could find themselves practicing such an art. I mean, yes. I understand the appeal of having powers one would normally need to be born with. But wizards were a cutthroat lot, killing each other for their things, tomb raiding sacred sites, and battling magical beings on the off-chance that they may find some sort of treasure. Hakeem and Quincy both seemed very successful at it, given the number of artifacts they possessed. The average wizard only had one powerful artifact, and any number of common magicked items. In their case? From what I saw they were extraordinary, even for such an unusual practice.

We heard a door open and looked up to see Elmiryn pushing her way into the next room. I groaned and hurried after her, the wizards on my heels.

Wonderful. She’s mad, so now she’s going to be reckless about this all.

The next room turned out to be a sort of sitting room, but it was flushed with papers and books. There was a sofa chair, an ornate rug, and some tables, but otherwise the room didn’t have much else.

When we caught up to Elmiryn, I hissed, “Elle, please don’t rush off like that!”

“I heard something,” she replied in a steely tone.

I flinched and rubbed my arm. “Elmiryn, listen. I’m sorry, but I had to take the gourd–”

“Shhhh!” She held a finger to my lips and I stopped. “D’you hear that?”

I frowned, straining my ears. With my Twin back, my hearing had improved, but I heard nothing. I looked to the others and by their expressions they hadn’t heard anything either.

My eyes returned to the woman, my forehead wrinkling. “Elle, there’s nothing–”

“There!” She grabbed my shoulder, squeezing it painfully, and pointed at the empty chair.

Now my look was wary. “The…chair?”

She didn’t seem to hear me. Swaying a little bit, she walked to the chair, her boots clicking on the stone floor before they reached the carpet. With a graceless drop, the woman sat at the foot of the chair and gazed up, smiling.

My heart clenched.

Oh no…

“E-Elmiryn?” I went to her side, and waved my hands in front of her face but she didn’t look at me. She was fixated on something that only she could see.

When I looked to the wizards to ask them what we should do, I choked on my words.

Quincy had floated off to stare at a wall, muttering to herself, whilst Hakeem seemed to just fall asleep on his feet. I looked at them all in horror.

“This was a trap!”

“No. It wasn’t.”

I screamed and turned to see Lethia Artaud standing in a doorway I hadn’t noticed yet. From the way she stepped down to the floor, I assumed she came from a staircase. Clutching at my chest, I stared at her, robbed of words.

In a rush, memories came to me–long and stretched from a route of time that didn’t fit with my other memories. The one that stood out to me was the latest one. The one where I had stood and called Lethia a coward. How I’d threatened to break her bones. The silence felt heavy. There had been many things in my head I’d been keeping at bay, with Kali’s help, so that we could survive the challenges before us. But this one broke forth like a flood, weakening me.

My eyes filled with tears and I ducked my head in shame. “Lethia…”

She didn’t say anything for a long time, leaving the colorful ceiling to echo back Quincy’s dazed mutterings.

“It’s not your fault,” she finally said.

My face crumpled. “It is…It is, and I’m sorry! There’s so many things I regret, Lethia, I can’t even–” My voice cut off as my expression cleared and I blinked away my tears. Something had occurred to me. “Wh-What are you doing here? Where’s Syria?”

Lethia’s oval-shaped face twitched as she looked down at her shoes, then back at me. “You don’t have to worry about her.”

“What? I–I don’t understand. Who cast the Manus Dei?

Lethia wrung her hands, her shoulders coming up around her ears. With tight lips, she mumbled, “I did.”

My eyes went wide. “It was…you?

“That’s what I said.”

“But–”

“I was trying to buy some time. To think.” Her voice had gone tight, and I wasn’t sure if she was angry somehow, or simply fighting back tears.

As such I proceeded with caution. “Lethia, why are you here?”

Her green eyes fastened onto mine, and my heart leapt into my throat. The enchantress had the power to steal people’s thoughts by meeting their gaze. I looked away, feeling a little bad for my reaction, but more afraid of having my head emptied. Then I blinked.

“Wait…”

Slowly, my eyes returned to Lethia’s. “Elmiryn said Syria had lied to you about your eyes. Have you…controlled your power then?”

Lethia thought for a moment. Then she shook her head. “No…not really. I still have wandering amnesia. Any given moment there is something I can’t remember. But for a long time I didn’t have my full power, so it wasn’t so debilitating.”

I frowned at the girl’s tone and took a slow step back. “But your power has…come back?

She nodded once, and her gaze turned glassy. “Yes.”

The silence returned. I breathed hard through my nose, my heart rate going fast. Lethia just stood there, her hands and arms limp at her sides, her head lolled to the right, her face blank. There was something off about all of this, and I could feel Kali pacing inside me as I tried to figure out just what the danger was.

If the Other Place had taken her power, how did she even get it back? Syria clearly had been trying to keep Lethia controlled, and she wouldn’t have made the mistake of arming the girl with the very power that would free her. Lethia had only wanted to get away from this nightmare.

I took notice of the bandages on her arm…

“This isn’t a trap,” Lethia repeated suddenly, making me jump a little.

I raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”

“I said this isn’t a trap.” She reached a hand up and brushed her wavy wheat blonde hair back over her shoulder. “This is…a last chance.”

My back tightened. “Lethia, what is going on? Where is Syria? Why did you cast the Manus Dei?” Then I gasped and took another step back as something finally occurred to me. “You’re working with Syria, aren’t you?”

Lethia shook her head, an almost disappointed smirk on her face. “No…”

Now my confusion had doubled. “Then please explain to me what is happening! Why are the others not responding?”

“I put them in dream states,” the girl said with a shrug. She started to walk forward, and my fists clenched. “I just wanted to talk to you in private.”

“About what? Be straightforward with me, Lethia! Please!

“Straightforward…that’s what you want?” She stopped just a few steps from me and Elmiryn. Her eyes flickered to the warrior, still dreamily focused on whatever it was that Lethia had tricked her mind into seeing. “Okay. I can be straightforward.”

Her green eyes locked onto mine again, and I could see her lower lip quake. “You have to help me decide. Either I choose your side, and risk the chance of Izma killing me, or I choose her side, and risk the chance of you and Elmiryn killing me. Give me your arguments.”

I didn’t know how to react at first. I stood staring at her, waiting for her to explain herself further, but the girl said nothing more. Up close, I could see now that her aloofness was really just an act to contain her numbing fear. Lethia was terrified, and she was asking for my help.

“I can’t…” I shook my head, my look twisting up in incredulity. “What kind of–?” I grabbed my hair and took yet another step back. “Lethia, what is this!? Some sort of sick game?”

“It isn’t a game,” and for the first time since she’d walked into the room, her voice cracked. “This is important. Life or death. But I can’t decide until I hear all the arguments! I’ve already heard Izma’s and now–”

Who is Izma!?” I screamed.

In a flash of recall, I answered my own question.

Ooooh…. My little sum of somes is quite a something!  Now my error is known.  Come.  Tell Izma what it was like to break the things she loves…

The memory came hard and fast, and a residual pain appeared deep inside in a place unreachable–like my soul were being attacked–and I cringed, clutching my sides. When I caught my breath and managed to fight off the nightmare, my gaze crawled back to Lethia, who was staring at me wide-eyed now.

“You know her, Nyx. You know her,” she whispered, and tears pooled into her gaze. “You know she is chaos. You know she is powerful. And she has a hold on me, much as I try to resist it!” Her head tilted to the side and she smiled shakily. “But I managed to convince her…that I was not like Syria or Elmiryn. I am not a pet, or a toy. If I worked with her, it would have to be in my choosing. This gave me just enough time to decide whether to follow through or to try and fight her…but you’ve seen how powerful she is, Nyx!” The girl sobbed and shook her head. “I’m scared. If it were just a matter of dying, then I would gladly die, but it isn’t so simple with her. Defying her and failing…I would suffer. Immensely. Y-You were right. I am a coward.”

Slowly I shook my head and with cautious steps I went to her. “No…No! Lethia, listen to me. You are not a coward!”

“Don’t do that…”

“But Lethia–”

“NO!” The girl shoved me away, her gaze turning wild. “I have to decide, and I have to decide now. Will I fight her, or will I fight you? I need arguments for both sides. Pros and cons. I…” She started wringing her hands again, her eyes trailing the room. “I can’t do it myself.”

“But why not!?” I cried. “You know what I’ll say to you! Izma is evil! She’s an abomination and she’s only going to use you for her own sick goals! And I…I thought we were friends? We fought together! We’ve confided in each other! Or do you really hate us that much??”

Lethia smiled at me brokenly. “I can’t remember.”

My breathing hitched, and my look melted once more into shame. “I…oh no…of course…”

“I can remember that I liked you all, and I can remember certain recent…unpleasant things,” she whispered, her gaze going glassy again. “But I don’t remember…us being together in our world. I don’t know why I liked you, or even how deeply that feeling goes. For all I know, I could’ve just thought you were nice because you shared a piece of bread with me in passing.”

“But even then, you could bring yourself to harm a stranger? The Lethia I knew wouldn’t do that!”

“The Lethia you knew is in the past.” She chuckled derisively. “She’s forgotten. Literally. Izma is terrifying, yes. And she is just using me, I know. But…she has a plan, Nyx. To fix the world. To make it better.”

“And you believe her?”

“Syria did. Maybe I should’ve trusted in her. I didn’t have all the facts before. I didn’t…” she trailed off, and I stared at her, wondering how these things could be coming out of Lethia’s mouth.

Izma had a plan? In most cases, that would be referred to as world domination, if I wasn’t mistaken. Why couldn’t the girl see that? The Lethia I knew had a high moral code, and she not only expected others to behave honorably, but for herself to. The girl before me was almost alien in how she was rationalizing–

…Sweet Aelurus…of course!

I didn’t know why I didn’t see it sooner. Lethia was hyper-rationalizing.

It was a common tactic by those placed under great distress to be able to compute what was happening around them. I’d read it in some book, of course, so my knowledge was limited, but in extreme cases such thinking could lead to decisions that others would find reprehensible. The enchantress was possessed by a moral code, and I had mistakenly conflated that with someone who took things on faith. Lethia wasn’t about blind faith. When she said she believed Syria was innocent of those murders in Albias, it was because the evidence hadn’t added up to guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As an enchanter, Lethia was also a scholar, and her mind functioned heavily on the process of scientific reason. If her amnesia was preventing her from remembering all of the possible arguments for why she should trust and work with us, then in her state of stress, Izma’s arguments for “changing the world” would seem much more appealing.

I had to change this, and I had a feeling I couldn’t just put a vermagus spin on my Words and let the whole matter be done with. If I didn’t want to fight Lethia, which was quickly turning out to be a very dangerous option, I was going to have to convince her it was better to fight Izma.

I rubbed at my face. “My gods, I haven’t debated like this since I was in erduk.”

Lethia took a breath, her shoulders shuddering. Glancing at me, she sidled past Elmiryn to sit in the sofa chair and crossed her legs. When she looked at me again, her expression was somber.

“I’m listening,” she murmured.

QUINCY________________________

“I’m listening.”

Quincy’s eyes narrowed as she took in Lethia, sitting in the sofa chair with her legs crossed. Her gaze crawled back over her shoulder. Her husband was standing near the door, swaying on the spot. Elmiryn was sitting in front of Lethia, grinning and nodding her head like a little girl listening to story time. And Nyx? She was off to the side, leafing through the stacks of papers on the tables, her eyes glazed.

The woman looked back to Lethia as she crossed her arms. “So you want arguments, hmm?”

ELMIRYN_______________________

“What the hell d’ya want me ta say?” Elmiryn snapped. “Izma is bad news. Even Meznik is afraid o’ her. And you wanna jes’ settle on some crackpot plan to fix the world’s boo-boos!? C’mon kid, I thought you were smarter than that!”

Lethia shook her head. “It isn’t that simple, Elmiryn, and you know it. Izma and Meznik are cut from the same cloth. Are you telling me that the things he’s told you hasn’t appealed to you at all?”

Elmiryn’s eyes widened. “The hell? What’re you… No. No. You got into my head…saw things…”

The girl just laughed. “Come on, Elmiryn. Remember what happened last time? We both know that–”

HAKEEM________________________

“–Wouldn’t work.” Lethia finished.

Hakeem nodded, his fists on his hips. He glanced at the others. Quincy murmuring at the wall. Nyx leafing through the papers. Elmiryn sitting on the floor like a little girl. He turned his eyes back on the enchantress.

“Then why talk to me at all, if you know this charade will not work?”

Lethia shrugged. “Because. I may be playing mind games with the others, but you’re…too shrewd. I’ll get bored manipulating everything. I’d like to have at least one unfiltered conversation.”

The man rubbed at his mouth, his eyes returning to his wife. “She’ll see through this, you know. She’s good at picking up lies.”

“That pearl earring of hers doesn’t hurt either,” Lethia said with a wry smile. “I know Quincy is smart. Nyx and Elmiryn will get caught up chasing their own tails trying to sort out the logic. But Quincy? I’ll have to make her believe. And trust me, she’ll want to. Your wife may be attentive, and she may be intelligent, but when you live in reality like she does, you become prey to belief. Like how she chose to believe that her father and uncle were dead. Like how she chose to believe using the Morettis as bait against Syria was the right thing to do. Like how she chose to believe that she needed Tonatiuh to be strong. Did you know? Reality just amounts to all we can touch, smell, see, and hear. The sad fact is…all those senses we rely on is less than one-millionth of reality. The rest is just faith. So you see…I won’t trick Quincy into buying the lie. She’ll do that all by herself.”

Hakeem’s fists tightened and his eyes searched the girl’s face. “And I suppose I don’t have that problem?”

“You don’t live in belief. You know that life is far beyond anything we can comprehend, and so you adapt. You’ve adapted all your life. Like how you became one with the Lycans. It’s just what you do. Perhaps the only reason you haven’t moved on with your life is because of your wife. Because she can’t let things go, and she’s the only thing you can’t let go–”

“Shut up.” Hakeem’s armor flared with power as he stood to his feet. “I thought we weren’t playing any mind games…”

Lethia gazed at him for a long time before shaking her head sadly. “You’re right. Even the truth can’t be trusted.”

Hakeem glared at the floor, his muscles tense beneath his armor. Finally, he bit out, “What is this all for? Why don’t you and your master just kill us all?”

The girl bit her lip and wrung her hands. “I wasn’t lying Hakeem, when I said I cast the Manus Dei. But I borrowed that spell from Syria, and that knowledge is gone. Even with my raw power, I can’t control it like she could. It was just enough to defeat her in a moment of weakness. But you’re all determined to go home. Your mindscapes are…vast. Complicated. I may have the power, but I don’t have the skill to keep you all under and talk to you separately like this.”

“Izma…she’s augmenting your power…” Hakeem said, his eyes widening. “She’s the one really in control, isn’t she? But that still doesn’t tell me why she’s doing this! What is her plan, Lethia?”

Lethia’s voice was raspy when she spoke. “She wants to know more about you all. She wants to see if she can turn some of you. Part of it is out of spite. She wants to anger Lacertli by taking away his new champion. She also wants to steal Meznik’s toy. A power play. But in the case of you and Quincy…it’s curiosity. She recognizes your origins. The kind of triumphs you’ve achieved. The disasters you’ve survived. She thinks it might be useful.” She turned her face away. “And in the end, it all just amuses her. Your death or cooperation don’t really mean anything to her.”

“And you? Do you think she’ll spare you somehow?”

“…No.” The girl’s face crumpled and she shook her head. “I’ll be just like Syria. Just a thing to use and throw away.”

“So why play along?” Hakeem asked angrily. “Why do this to us?”

Lethia closed her eyes and tears slipped down her cheeks. “My mind is so confused, Hakeem. You may think my choice is easy…but it really isn’t. You all have agendas, just like Izma does, and I have to know which side is best to follow. I have to decide where I can do the most good.”

“And how will you decide this with Izma puppeting you!?” the man half-shouted. “Even if you can’t remember why you should trust us, you have got to know that Izma isn’t the answer!”

“Izma…she isn’t…she isn’t in control all the time. Please–” Hakeem started to speak, but Lethia stood, raising her hands. “Please! Let me explain!”

Hakeem crossed his arms, scowling. “Fine. But only because I’m certain I can’t kill you in this…illusion you’ve created.”

Lethia paled, but she moved past Elmiryn, daring a few steps closer. Wringing her hands, she started quickly. “Izma’s game works like this. I am her…screen. The field where she’s conducting everything. Imagine that she’s the controller, boosting my powers. But because she’s boosting my enchantment, she can only appear to one of you at a time. Most of the time, you’ll be speaking to me. I’m not allowed to tell the others what’s happening. She only allowed me to speak to you because she knew you wouldn’t fall for it, and for that she’s particularly interested in you. But the others…what she intends to do is to pick their minds. Peel away the layers. Izma is an astral demon, meaning she can do a lot, but she still isn’t a god. She doesn’t know everything about us, just certain things. While she tries to fill in the blanks, she’ll be evaluating your worth and interest. If she likes what she sees…she’ll convert you. If she doesn’t…” Lethia’s voice trailed, but Hakeem didn’t need her to finish.

He shook his head. “It’s a festival game. Hit the rodent when he peeks out from his hole. How can the others tell her apart from you?”

The girl shrugged helplessly. “Do you even know if I’m here right now? Maybe I’m Izma, just chatting you up. Judging your life.”

The man glared at her sidelong.

Lethia hugged herself and turned her body a quarter away, her chin tucking into her chest. “That’s the game, Hakeem. The others all think they’re only speaking to me, but at any given moment Izma can slip into my consciousness like I were a glove and just take over. If they can see it’s her…well…that’ll be dangerous, but at least they have a chance to fight back. I don’t like this either, but I have to know. I have to know what to do, and the only way I can do that is by talking to you all. One-on-one.”

“Only it’s not,” Hakeem snarled.

Lethia covered her mouth with her hand, her head shaking. He could hear her stifled sobs.

The wizard clenched his fists, then released them. Then with an explosive yell, he struck out, an arc of gravitational power blowing a table apart and sending books and papers into the air. He felt powerless. He didn’t want to feel powerless. He didn’t want to sit waiting for…whatever would happen.

For a long time, he stood panting through clenched teeth, his neck tight. Finally, he hissed, “This isn’t right…this is all just a lie…”

Lethia let out a cold laugh, and Hakeem looked at her sharply.

The girl was gazing at him with dead eyes, and the man shuddered involuntarily.

“Izma…” he whispered, taking a step back.

The demon grinned at him, Lethia’s green eyes glowing from the tainted presence.

“Silly, silly little time keeper. Don’t you know? Hope is just the universe’s way of lying to you. Identity is just your way of lying to yourself. Love is your way of lying to each other. Little Lethia knew this. Perhaps I should show you?”

Hakeem couldn’t help but flinch as the demon held up Lethia’s hand and a ball of light appeared. The orb flew to him faster than he could retreat, and the man’s eyes widened at the scene he saw within the orb’s depths.

Izma’s words gave way to music, and yet the man understood her meaning, as much as it repulsed him to do so.

Hope, identity, and love…look, little time keeper. Watch as these things die one by one…” the demon giggled.

Continue ReadingChapter 36.1

Chapter 36.3

QUINCY_________________________

“If you need a reason to work against Izma, then what about your mistress, then?” Quincy asked. She stood facing down Lethia with arms crossed and feet planted. An inkling in her mind told her that something was amiss, and she wasn’t about to let her guard down.

Call it a hunch…or the magicked pearl earring tugging on my ear. This girl? Up to something. As if my stupefied friends aren’t enough of an indication. Her eyes drifted to the back of Elmiryn’s head. Well. Nyx and Hakeem, anyway.

Lethia frowned and shrugged her shoulders. “What about Syria?”

The wizard raised an eyebrow. “Take into account her imprisonment and subsequent escape from Holzoff’s. Isn’t that enough? Her horrible time as a prisoner–abused and malnourished. Her murder of everyone in the tower–”

“If you’re trying to tell me bad things will happen in Izma’s service, you aren’t digging deep enough then. Nyx has been dismembered in the service of Lacertli. Elmiryn fell prey to Meznik under the neglect of Halward. Misfortune comes to us all, and much of the time it’s really our fault, not our benefactors.”

“Very well. I agree. But I think you’ve got it wrong when you equate Izma to the gods. She is responsible. Do you want to explore the realms of responsibility?”

“If you think it needs to be discussed, then please. Let’s.”

Quincy smirked as she stroked her chin. It had been nearly ten years since she’d had to delve into the difficult mazes that were theistic and philosophical thought. Deep logic boiled everything down to basic concepts, removing such fallacies as emotion and whimsy. It had nothing to do with wrestling established facts. After all, those were concrete. It had everything to do with taming the infinite, however, and as a wizard dabbling in many styles of magic, it was essential to be able to discern for yourself the value of the world and all its mysteries.

But the woman was aware that if Lethia Artaud truly wished only to discuss which side she should choose, then the isolation of their group would hardly have been necessary. Quincy couldn’t say for certain what Lethia’s motives were, but she was moving in concert with Izma, whatever she said, and that made the girl dangerous. Still, if what Quincy had gathered of Izma so far was true, then she had to tread lightly. Simply calling the demon out was likely going to get the woman killed. She needed to know when to strike, and how. It wasn’t as if she knew this creature, if it really was an astral demon, could be slain by conventional means.

Quincy started with a wave of her hand. “To illustrate the difference between Izma and the gods, I’d like to start with two questions. First. What is it to be responsible? Second. What is a god responsible for?”

“Those are deceptively simple,” Lethia said with narrowed eyes. Her hands were threaded together on her lap, but the wizard saw them tighten at the knuckles.

“For the sake of time, I’ll try to simplify.” She cleared her throat. “Now, I won’t muddle with the messy theistic issues you come across when connecting the mortal plane and the heavenly plane. But if we refocus, we can ask ourselves, what is moral agency to the gods?

“Some would say you’re treading on blasphemy, even considering such a thing.”

Quincy shrugged. “Many lay believers have issues with magic users, believing we’re arrogant. I respect our world’s pantheon, but I do not go out of my way for the gods. Our relationship is…standoffish at best.”

“Why is that?” Lethia asked with a tilt of her head.

Ah. She IS trying to worm her way in.

The wizard held up a hand with a strong shake of her head.

“No. That’s not what we’re discussing.” Her voice was firm. She had to keep talking, she had to make Izma show herself. Wiping at her lip with her thumb, Quincy started to pace slowly, her other hand resting across her stomach where it could reach her pouch. “The first question I posed brings up moral agency. When we talk about moral agency, some believe that a rational agent chooses to act in light of principles. Others believe that reason cannot provide us with moral guidance. These people see that it isn’t our self-evaluation that guides us, but the way others judge and influence one another. So how do gods function? Clearly, they don’t seek the validation of one another. If the era of champions taught us anything, it’s that the pantheon is forever pulling in different directions–sometimes even clashing heads–and the only one who seems capable of bringing about any semblance of order is Halward, their king.”

Lethia’s eyes widened. “That is blasphemy! What you’re saying implies that the gods lack both principles and unity.”

“No, of course not. You didn’t let me finish,” Quincy snapped.

The enchantress flinched and seemed to wither in her seat. “I apologize. C-Continue.”

“Thank you. Now. As I’d been trying to tell you, the gods fear their leader, but they hardly fear one another. If anything, they each obsessively pursue their personal goals of governance over the mortal realm. That said they do have principles. How could they not, when their entire existence is tied to the Harmony that fuels their power? Would Kupala have any power left in this world if she allowed Halward’s followers to destroy her forests? Would Aelurus and Artemis have any sway if they allowed Azad, Nitor, and Vires to dominate the sky? And it breaks down further. The virtues they represent, the cultures they helped to grow, the lands they fought to create–these are things they seek to protect and advance. The gods are essentially rulers of reality, only their subjects are the mortals whom rely on them.

“So it’s a combination of both forms of moral agency. They are guided by a purer set of principles than we are–for the nihilistic heathens, they would argue that it’s a narrower set of principles. They are also affected emotionally by the very investments their existence is tied to, and their ambitions are culled by their fear of Halward.”

Quincy glanced at Lethia. The teenager had sat forward and was now leaning on her knees. From the way Elmiryn sat at her feet, the wizard could see the girl’s breath tease the warrior’s bangs. Her brow twitched at the sight, wondering if it were a sign, but she let the observation go. She needed more. That unusual disregard of personal space was not enough to illustrate Izma’s presence.

“Now that I’ve addressed how moral agency functions for the gods, we come to our second question: what is a god responsible for?” Quincy paused and gestured toward the ceiling with both hands. “In a way, I’ve already partially answered this. You can’t examine the moral agency of heaven without examining how this function would operate.”

“So from what you’ve outlined, those would be the elements that define the gods, and their relationship with Halward.”

Quincy snapped her fingers, allowing one eyebrow to arch up. “Yes! The gods, as the governing entities that control and foster the systems that uphold their elements of Harmony, are responsible for their domains. Njord is master of the wind and the virtues tied to this. Atargatis is mistress of the sea and the virtues tied to that, and so on. Next, if the gods hope to remain in Halward’s favor, they must regulate their actions, even with respect to their duties, so as to avoid repercussions.”

“Is fear really enough to encourage moral decision making?”

The brunette sucked at her teeth. “That’s annoying. You’re backtracking.”

“Is it my fault you’re trying to sprint through this like it were a marathon?” Lethia snapped, her lower lip pouting. “What is it, Quincy? Are you expected somewhere? Your companions aren’t leaving any time soon, so just answer my question: is fear an appropriate function of moral agency?”

The wizard spared the girl a suffering look. “In measured portions, yes.”

“So tyrants and despots–”

“It is a simple fact of life that mortals consider the pros and cons of everything, Artaud. It’s not enough to look only at the good things. A person has to consider what consequences they’ll face with a decision, and much of the time, it is fear that keeps a person from committing terrible sins. It could be that they are afraid of being caught, afraid of dying, or perhaps just afraid of what they’ll become, should they cross that line.  Not everyone can stop and look at a situation and simply know what to do, present company being perhaps my best example. The only difference between a normal person and you, Artaud, is that you have a little more pluck than most–a trait that, for once, serves against you.”

The girl’s face twisted into a harsh scowl. “I am afraid, and I know what’s right or wrong! But my principles and my values amount to different things than everyone else, and with my soul outside of the realms of heaven, I have to consider what situation I can make the best of!” Her eyes fluttered and she swallowed. “Or if I can’t make the best of…anything.”

Quincy glanced at her sharply at this. She was certain that this was Lethia–the real Lethia, to be speaking so fatalistically.

She dared to step closer, her expression softening as she tried to catch the girl’s green eyes. “Lethia, this leads into my next point rather well, so I’m glad we took this small detour. You see, in the end, our decisions are our own. It is perhaps the greatest gift of the gods that they allow those on the mortal plane free will to either follow their light or slip into darkness. We are our own salvation. Heaven is only there to guide us, and in the case of an exceptional few, like Nyx, you might even enter contract with the gods. But those are all things us mortals choose for. So you’re right in stating that our mistakes are our own. But don’t you see? Just think. Has Izma given you or your mistress the sort of free will that the gods have? In what ways does the demon operate that makes her so beyond reproach?”

Lethia stared at Quincy, a hand on her chest. Then she turned her face away. The brunette frowned, feeling her chance to win the girl over slip through her fingers.

“So if you believe mortals to be responsible for their own fates, why are you so distant from the gods? Why do you resent them?” the enchantress whispered.

Quincy closed her eyes and ran a hand through her hair. “I don’t…resent them. I just celebrate my mortality. I’ve seen too many people caught up in the designs of heaven to let myself be lost in divine perception.”

“You celebrate your mortality?” Lethia’s voice took on a critical tone.

Quincy’s eyes gained a level of intensity as she paused to stare at the girl. “Now that sounded doubtful…”

“I just…I find it odd that someone with your history would claim to embrace such a mundane station of life!”

My history?”

Lethia frowned. “I didn’t think Tonatiuh was such a distant thing quite yet, but I sensed you might dislike me saying otherwise.”

“You just did.” The wizard’s voice was venom now.

The girl blushed, but a smirk appeared on her face. “Ah. Sorry.”

Quincy clenched her jaw. “Tonatiuh was a mistake. I know that now.”

“What motivated you to join with such a parasite anyway?” At the brunette’s glare, the youth rolled her eyes. “Fine. Don’t answer. We’ll just keep pretending you aren’t being a hypocrite by spinning more useless academe.”

“I took on Tonatiuh’s spirit because I wanted to be strong. Okay?”

“Why did you need to be strong?”

“To do my job.”

“We both know that bounty hunting was an accident for you. Believe it or not, I didn’t need my enchantment to learn that. With a reputation like yours, it was easy to hear the whispers and learn which were true.”

Quincy’s face turned red. “Well since I’m such an open book, you’ll know that my life had been dangerous before I arrived at Crysen. I lived with pirates for years. Do you know what it’s like? Do you know the sort of fear I felt, living with cutthroats as a young girl? Of course you don’t. It’s hell. I had to do things that would make your skin turn just to keep from being sold into prostitution or passed around the crew!”

Lethia’s eyes widened. “Did Hakeem ever find out?”

“No. Yes. I have no idea.” The woman rubbed her face wearily. “I’d like to think that my husband wasn’t so naive, but in the end, I didn’t want to address the issue either. It was easier playing dumb for both of us. Ignorance is bliss.”

“So the rumors about you and Hakeem being taken in by Tulki…” Lethia breathed.

“True.” The word came out an acerbic piece. Against her will, the wizard was beginning to feel ill.

“But your safety… The only one capable of it was–”

“For gods sakes, it was Tulki, Lethia. I was Tulki’s concubine. Okay!?”

“Gods!!”

Quincy snorted. “When I became a teenager, however, I knew my time was about through. I was too old for the good captain’s tastes, and he would soon cast me out. That would’ve been hundreds of times worse than anything that man subjected me to. So I fled with Hakeem to Crysen.” The woman knuckled her eyes. “At the time it was the only thing I could think of.”

“You couldn’t find succor anywhere?”

“Lethia, I think you’ve made it clear that you’ve learned a lot about my companions and me. You know that Elmiryn is turning into a fae. You already knew Nyx was a champion. You know how we came to arrive here. So you must know then, that my father was Njord’s champion, and in his long career, he made many enemies. Those people were always hunting me. I couldn’t risk making it easier for them to find me.” The wizard went to sit on one of the tables, her gaze spacing. “I had to…go to a place where I knew it would be hard to reach me. Somewhere I could get strong and bide my time until I knew I could travel the world unhindered.”

“And that was Crysen?”

“Naturally. Just getting to the city is a test in of itself. You can’t take a ship straight there because of the sea monsters plaguing its waters, and the coastline is teeming with powerful creatures all thirsting for blood. It was a perfect spot to lay low.”

Lethia pressed both hands to her lips, but when Quincy glanced at her, she thought she could see a twinkle in the girl’s eyes, as though she were trying to restrain herself from smiling. Just when she was going to comment on it, the teenager cut in with another question.

“Amazing that two children were able to brave the Kilemare coast and survive.”

Quincy shrugged, frowning at her knees. “We weren’t without our skills. Living with criminals hardens you. But even before Tulki, we knew a thing or two about avoiding wildlife. For a short time when we were children, we lived in the Fanaean jungles alone…”

The wizard anticipated the next question and braced herself for it. She let her hand inch closer to her pouch, the other sitting on the edge of the table to better rise and call her staff. The conversation was coming to a head. Her heart rate was up. It was no accident that Lethia pushed her buttons this way.

That’s it. No more games. I’m not stupid, demon. I can see what you’re doing. Go ahead an ask about Kimbia. Ask about how it was razed to the ground!

“I’m sorry, Quincy. You’ve gone through a lot.” Lethia sat back in her chair, her hand running through her long hair. Her expression appeared troubled.

Uncertainty held Quincy fast, and her body tensed at this new change. There was a clear line of attack and the girl was purposefully stepping back. The relent only made the woman suspicious.

“I thought I was a hypocrite?” she said with a sneer.

Lethia chewed on her lip, then shrugged one shoulder. “You are. But you didn’t just become a hypocrite for nothing. You’ve suffered a lot, and you felt the gods could’ve done something. After all, your father had done so much for them, why would they let his only daughter fall prey to so much misfortune?”

Quincy bristled. “The gods had nothing to do with it!”

“But doesn’t your life fall into their realms of responsibility? Is it really within Harmony to allow a champion’s daughter to become the concubine of a bloodthirsty pirate? Or for her to live in the jungles like a wild animal–?”

Shut up! It was nothing like that!”

Lethia’s eyebrows rose. “But…Quincy, you were sacrificed, don’t you see? Njord needed Jack to focus on his duties to heaven. You were a distraction. By taking you away from your father—”

Quincy punched her thigh. “I wasn’t taken away from my father! He left.”

“Only to handle what he was chosen to do—”

“No, no, no! He left because he couldn’t handle sitting still for too long! I was just a burden to him, and he didn’t want me. He abandoned me, Lethia!”

Lethia flinched. “Y-You don’t really believe that, do you–??”

“Of course I do.” Quincy’s hands were claws now, holding onto her knees because she could feel her control vanishing, breath for breath as the tumult of unwanted memories struck. Days of wishing, days of wanting, days of waiting for Jack—only to be rewarded with a monstrous band of marauders instead. Her life became chaos and misery, and it was only with bloody fingers that Quincy had been able to wrestle any sort of control for herself.

“Jack left to be the hero, like he always did. I was suffocating to him. He wasn’t suited to being a father. I wasn’t suited to being a daughter. When I came to understand that, all I wanted was for him to die so that Hakeem and I could live in peace. You think it was the god’s who shat on our lives for so many years? Let me tell you something girl. None of these things would have happened if Jack had never conceived me to begin with. I was the mistake. I was what brought death to Hakeem’s village. The problem was, I was too young and naïve to understand what a horrendous error I was until it was too late. Now I just…exist, hoping that I can destroy the ones who let me live and suffer.”

“That’s what you exist for?” Lethia’s voice was filled with pity, and her eyes turned big and watery, making the wizard want to gouge them out. “You live for destruction?”

Quincy felt her muscles tighten. When summarized like that, it felt so horrible.

Horrible and wrong.

“N-No…” she said quietly. She started to shake her head slowly, then with more passion. “No! That isn’t it!”

“Then what?”

Quincy stared at her hands, feeling her chest clench with apprehension. When she spoke her voice was faint. “I hoped…I hoped for a family. Any kind. Whether of…of my blood, or someone else’s.” She swallowed. Her throat was tight. “And a home. Some place Hakeem and I could call our own. A place where we could feel safe.” The woman’s eyes narrowed as her eyes burned. “I never thought about it, but I don’t have a home. A real one.”

“But Hakeem loves you, doesn’t he? Isn’t that enough?”

The wizard’s chin tucked in, and her eyes ticked back and forth. A tear slipped down her cheek. “You don’t understand. I could never bring myself to die freely. I’m too stubborn. So if…if I could not kill myself…I had to accept that I was choosing to live. But living is a threat to Hakeem, because I attract bad things. So if I am to exist, it has to be to create something new. Better. A family…I just want a family.

Quincy heard Lethia stand up, but couldn’t bring herself to lift her head.

I’ve never said that out loud… she thought with awe.

“And to have a family, you have to be strong?” the enchantress replied.

The wizard nodded. Footsteps. Lethia was coming closer.

“With strength, you’ll be able to destroy that which would threaten your family. Jack. His enemies.”

“Yes,” Quincy breathed.

“…Your enemies.”

The wizard looked up sharply, and it was to see Lethia standing before her, hands wringing with a nervous expression.

“You must have considered this, Quincy. Your life was not spent just combating the misfortunes brought on by being your father’s daughter. It was a collection of mistakes, wasn’t it? Tonatiuh, bounty hunting, wizardry…what has it earned you but more things to threaten your future children with? If you become pregnant, you’d have to go into hiding. If you adopt, you’d be knowingly choosing a child to take on the same kinds of burdens your father passed onto you. It’s a dark thing to hope for, isn’t it?”

Quincy’s mouth was dry. “But—”

Lethia’s eyes trailed down to the woman’s abdomen. “Even now, a new error comes.” Her eyes flickered back up, and the wizard withered under the cruel edge in them. “Your romp in the forest was without protection, was it not?”

The brunette’s heart skipped a beat, and she hugged her stomach. “Y-Yes. But the likelihood of—”

The girl tsked. “Now you’re just being naïve! Even taking into account your cycle, there is still a fair chance that you’re—”

Quincy jumped to her feet, panic seizing her as her eyes wide. “No! Not here! Not now! I can’t be pregnant!”

Lethia held up her hands. “Quincy! Calm down. Syria had me mix many potions here for many different purposes. I know we have something to abort unwanted beginnings. I can give it to you if you’ll just wait here.”

The girl started to turn and leave, but the woman caught her arm in a tight grip. “Now wait a minute!” When Lethia met her eyes, Quincy took a step closer. “This seems horrendously convenient doesn’t it? What is in that potion, really? Something to make me infertile, perhaps?”

Lethia gave her a stung expression. “If you really don’t trust me, you can watch me mix a new abortive potion now. But…” She looked away and looked back at the woman, visibly pained. “Quincy, you’re more like your father than you think, aren’t you? You don’t like sitting still, and you like the thrill of an adventure. For years you believed your father to be dead. You were at the top of the bounty hunting profession. In that time, why didn’t you stop to start a family and make a home, like you said? Maybe…M-Maybe you don’t really think you can have those things? If that’s the case, isn’t it better to stop lying about it?”

Quincy paled, feeling as though she’d been struck in the chest. Lethia gently pulled herself out of the woman’s grip and left to go up the staircase. The wizard didn’t move to follow her. She just watched, through clouding eyes, until the girl was out of sight. Then she covered her face with her hands and let her misery take her.

Continue ReadingChapter 36.3

Chapter 37.2

QUINCY_______________________

Before her was a small vial. Quincy stared at it, both palms on the table. Her forehead creased as sweat beaded on her skin. Her eyes flickered to Lethia, who stood on the other side. The girl’s expression was somber, her eyes downcast. But why did she look so sad? Surely someone who was willing to put a person through this wouldn’t look so contrite?

Quincy’s eyes narrowed. “This is it?”

Lethia closed her eyes. “Yes.”

“No, I mean… Is this is really what you say it is?”

“When you focus on something for too long, anyone can doubt it.”

“I suppose.” Quincy wiped at her face. “It feels like I’ve been staring at it for ages.”

Lethia opened her eyes again, her expression gaining a hint of wry humor. “That’s because you have.”

The wizard said nothing in response, instead finally picking up the vial. She held the glass up to her eyes and watched as the milky white liquid sloshed inside.

“It looks like an abortive potion…” Quincy murmured. Her eyes flickered to Lethia. “But you could’ve added something to it.”

Lethia gave her a suffering look. “Quincy…I already offered to make the potion in front of you! If you’re still suspicious after choosing to let me get this one, then you’re only letting your fear speak for you, not your common sense!”

“I can change my mind, Artaud. Do you think I’m stupid?”

The teenager covered her face with her hand. “No. I don’t think you’re stupid.”

“Really, because it sounds like you do!”

“Do you put Hakeem through this too?”

At the mention of her husband, Quincy tensed. “Shut up!”

“Quincy, just drink it!”

Her hand tensed around the vial, and the wizard stared at the stopper.

Lethia groaned at her hesitation and leaned forward onto the table with one hand. With a look that spoke of disappointment, the girl shook her head. “You’re not going to do it, are you?”

Quincy glared at her. “I’ve decided. I want to mix the potion myself.”

“Because you think I’m trying to make you infertile?”

“Yes.”

Lethia smiled humorlessly. “Quincy, did you stop to ask yourself why you didn’t think I would try to poison you instead?”

Quincy blinked. That was right. Why hadn’t she thought of that first? Why had she been so focused on her ability to have children?

“You have to consider what it means if you value something more than your own life.” Lethia continued. “But with you, it’s like loving the door and not the room behind it. You’ve held onto the hope that you can start a family of your own, and yet even when you had the chance to, you opted to continue living the dangerous life you led. We have to be real here. Your hopes were false and empty. Like a security blanket for a child. But you’re not a child anymore, Quincy. If you want to make a potion, I can let you make one, but it’s still up to you to accept the truth. This isn’t about whether or not that vial in your hand is bad for you. It’s about your own misconceptions. The ones you’ve got to let go.”

The woman swallowed hard as her eyes clouded with more tears. Her cheeks were already tear-stained from earlier, she wasn’t about to go through that again. Roughly, she wiped the tears away.

With a breath, she removed the stopper from the vial.

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn’s cheeks were hurting from her attempts at keeping her smile up. Lethia was watching her like a hawk now, and it was putting her on edge. She would have loved for a drink, but since that weird moment earlier with Nyx, Elmiryn thought it best not to diminish her ability for good judgement. She tried not to think how close their lips had been, how her body responded to what was happening…

They were sitting on the sofas, Taila having rejoined them, and the conversation had somehow turned on to politics, but the woman was only half paying attention. When she wasn’t woefully comparing her lack hipness to those in the room, she was trying her best not to look at Nyx and Taila sitting adjacent from her, touching hands and laughing together. Lethia sat on Elmiryn’s other side but leaned in close to be heard over the music, making the redhead feel cornered.

Nyx reached over and gave her a small shove in the shoulder. “Well hey, what do you think?”

Startled, Elmiryn looked at her, her eyes fluttering. “About what?”

“About Clinton wanting to overturn his marriage law.”

The woman started to sweat. “Uh…which was that again?”

Nyx grinned as Taila snickered next to her. “The Defense of Marriage Act he signed in ‘96.”

Sensing danger, Elmiryn tried to play it cool. “Oh! Yeah…that. Well…” She paused as she tried to think.

Clinton, Clinton, Clinton…fuck, all I know about him is that he’s married to Hilary and he got a blow job in the oval office! Or…wait. Okay, wait. These guys are all about gay rights, so obviously it has to do with that. So he signed an act against gay marriage in 1996 and now he wants to overturn it? Jesus, I really need to read more about this stuff.

Clearing her throat, Elmiryn said what she thought was safest. “Look. Clinton is a politician. Politicians change positions all the time. If he wants to support gay marriage now, then good for him.”

“He’s only doing this because it’s what Obama wants,” Taila said with a derisive snort.

Nyx looked at her, a stung look on her face. “You don’t think it’s because our movement has gotten stronger?”

Taila patted her knee. “Babe, you know I do. I mean that Clinton is just an opportunist who is only interested in furthering his career. There’s gotta be a pay off in this move somehow.”

“It does feel inauthentic,” Lethia agreed with a nod. “But when it’s about something like marriage rights, where over thirty states have gone out of their way to define it, can we really afford to be picky?”

“But people can change,” Elmiryn said, looking at them all. “Or is it impossible for someone to change their opinion?”

Lethia gave her a pitying look. “We’re talking about a politician, Elle. It’s a little different for them. In all the years Clinton has worked, he’s never been on record supporting same-sex marriage. What is on record, is that he passed DOMA and DADT, which have hurt the gay community for years.”

Elmiryn stared at her cousin, who stared back. Slowly her head turned to look at Nyx and Taila. They were gazing at her curiously. She opened her mouth as though to speak, but didn’t know what to say. Belatedly, she closed her jaw and stared at the untouched beer in her hands, lukewarm and watered down.

“You’re so self-involved.

Lethia’s voice. But when had her cousin ever said that?

People can change. What the hell kind of thing is that to think, that a person can’t? What does it matter what they do? I mean, forgiving a person for what they did is one thing, but do you have to forgive them for a mistake to believe they’ve CHANGED?

Taken by emotion, Elmiryn stood abruptly, her beer sloshing onto her jeans. “Fuck!”

Nyx stood too, her hands held out. “Woah! Oh shoot. You need a towel!”

The redhead wiped vainly at the damp stain with her hand as she set her half-filled cup down. “No, I’m fine.”

“It’s no problem. Let me just get–”

“I’m going to the bathroom anyway,” Elmiryn blurted out as she stumbled past Lethia. They all stared as she went, and she fought very hard to keep the blush from creeping up her neck and into her face.

Hardly thinking, she hurried out the room as fast as the crowd allowed her before she realized she had no idea where the bathrooms even were. After getting directions from one of the partygoers, the woman headed upstairs where she found a line of people waiting to get in. She sighed and leaned against the wall.

When she got tired of listening to the girls next to her talk about how much they loved Nicki Minaj, she took out her phone and sent Izzie a text.

hey. this party sux. miss u

After hitting send, the woman stared at the far wall and tried to sort out the sense of guilt in her stomach. “What happened back there?” She murmured to herself.

“What happened where?”

Elmiryn’s looked sharply to her side to see a tall swarthy man with dark shoulder length hair, gaunt features, and a goatee in need of trimming. He was dressed in bummy clothing–sweats, a grease-stained Captain America t-shirt, and dirty generic sneakers. What really got Elmiryn was his eyes. They were like Izzie’s.

“Uh sorry, were you talking to me?” She asked.

The man shrugged his hands. “I don’t know. Were you talking to me?

Elmiryn rubbed at her neck and turned away. “Naw. Sorry.”

For a while it seemed that was it. Then the man leaned in and breathed, “I’m Nick.”

“Not interested, Nick,” she snapped over her shoulder. She wasn’t in the mood for shitty come-ons.

“You’re not…interested? You’re not interested?” The man laughed, causing people to turn and stare. Even the girls in front of Elmiryn stopped blathering long enough to glance over their shoulder.

The woman turned fully to glare at Nick. “What’s your problem?”

Nick slid out of line and started backing up toward the stairs. “My problem, Elmiryn, is that meaningless scenes like these are what get your juices flowing!” He pointed at his face and shouted, “Do you have any idea the sort of trouble I had to go through just to get into this nightmare? Do you know how hungry I am? No. Of course you don’t. You’re starring in your own drama, featuring you and your fantastic ineptitude. Your name doesn’t even fit into this setting! None of theirs do! Has that managed to squeeze into your fat head you self-involved bitch!?”

“Dude, I don’t know what you’re talking about! I’ve never even met you before!” Elmiryn shouted. “Go be crazy somewhere else!”

“I’ll remember that when you come crawling back to me!” Nick seethed as he stumbled down the stairs. “You are my toy, Elmiryn! MINE!”

After Nick left, the people around the woman continued to stare. She said to no one in particular, “I don’t know who that was. He looked like a crack addict.”

“They should call campus security,” One of the girls in front muttered. There was a murmuring of assent.

The redhead put on a brave face and shrugged. Inside, however, she shivered.

How did that guy know my name?

A little while later, and Elmiryn was finally in the bathroom, staring at her reflection in the mirror. She wasn’t sure why she was even in there. The beer on her pants had soaked in enough that the smell was going to linger and there was no longer a need for a towel. Was she scared of being around Nyx? But what did she have to be afraid of? She was with Izzie, right? She was happy…

Right?

“…You self-involved bitch…”

“People can change…” She murmured. Her brow tightened and she struck her palm against the edge of the sink. “People can change!”

Her features slackened and she covered her eyes.

Everyone’s so stupid. They don’t get it. The issue isn’t whether or not people can change…it’s whether or not they change for the BETTER.

She thought of Izzie, and how her girlfriend was now that they had moved in together. The change was subtle, but it may as well have been screamed into her ear with a megaphone. Every day, every hour, minute, second, was weighed by an expectation for more. It was hiding behind Izzie’s words when she teased Elmiryn about how she folded her clothes, or when she rearranged the fridge to make room for her Diet Pepsi, or when she got them new comforters for the bed. It said she wanted Elmiryn’s tomorrow.

Elmiryn only wished she knew what she wanted her tomorrow to be.

Feeling depressed, she opened the bathroom door and stepped past the next person in line, only to bump into someone else. Coming out of her funk, the woman raised her eyes and apologized as the other person did the same. It was Nyx. Elmiryn blushed and rolled her shoulders in an attempt to shake off her embarrassment. “Oh. Hey.”

Nyx tilted her head to the side. “You look thrilled to see me.”

“What? No! That’s not it…I just–” Elmiryn gave a rough sigh. “I don’t feel good. I think I might have to go soon.”

“Aww.” Nyx pouted. It was horrendously cute, and the woman’s blush deepened.

Someone sidled past them in the crowding hallway, and they both stepped to the wall. Elmiryn’s heart quickened as Nyx stepped in closer. She poked the woman in the ribs, making her squirm. “Well hey, I was getting a book for Lethia. Wanna see?”

She should’ve said no. The thought entered her mind instantaneously, her eyes even flickering to the stairs. Ears were everywhere, and if she learned one thing in college, it was that people talked. Somehow, sooner or later, this would get back to Izzie. Her girlfriend. The woman she said she loved.

“Sure,” Elmiryn said with an almost resigned grin.

Something’s got me right now. I don’t know what this is.

Nyx’s smile turned sly and she took the woman’s hand. “Come on, then!”

This is so stupid, on so many levels. This isn’t who I am. What’s wrong with me? Is this what Ting felt, when we first met? …No. She knew what she was doing. She knew her girlfriend was at that party and she brought me anyway. I was the other woman. Me. And now I’m the other woman again. Only this time…I’m choosing to be.

But just as they came to Nyx’s door at the end of the hallway, screaming was heard downstairs, and the both of them turned their heads in confusion. Nyx hurried back the way they had come, Elmiryn following her, and when they got downstairs, she pulled one of the sorority sisters aside and asked what was going on.

“Some guy went crazy! He’s got one of the pledges by the throat with a knife!”

Before Nyx could speak, Elmiryn grabbed the girl by the shoulder. “Which pledge!? Does she have long blonde hair? Green eyes?”

The girl nodded and Nyx covered her mouth with her hands. “Omigod! Lethia!

Elmiryn bared her teeth. “Where are they!?”

The girl pointed mutely outside, and Elmiryn barreled past them both, her heart pounding in her chest. When she managed to shove past the crowd that had gathered, she saw Lethia standing out on the grass, Nick behind her with a knife at her throat. He grinned maniacally when he saw Elmiryn.

There you are!” Grabbing Lethia by the hair, he jerked her head back and pressed his knife in tighter so that the skin bleed. Her cousin cried out. “Now I’ve got your attention!”

“Let her go!” Elmiryn shouted, her hands clenched into fists.

“Not until you listen to me!” Spit flew from Nick’s lips.

Lethia sobbed. “Elle…please! Help me!”

“I’m trying to Lethy, just hang tight!”

“Campus security is on their way!” Nyx. Behind her. Elmiryn didn’t look. All her attention was focused on Nick. On his thin face, his white cracked lips, his foggy eyes. The guy was out of it. What did he really want…?

“I’ll listen to you, Nick,” She breathed, holding up her hands. She dared a step closer. “Okay? I’ll listen to you. Just let Lethia go.”

Nick laughed. “Oh, Elmiryn. This is what you’ve always wanted, wasn’t it? To be the hero? To save the damsel in distress and get the girl in the end? Well it’s not all its cracked up to be, is it? But if you snap out of this, I can promise you a few adventures you’ll just love!

“Look, I don’t know how you know me. I don’t know what you want! Lethia doesn’t need to be involved so just let her go and we can talk it out, okay!?” Elmiryn dared another step closer.

“Why should I let her go? Hmm? Why? Are you afraid to remember what it feels like to be my toy?”

“I’m not your toy. People aren’t things.”

Nick grinned and pointed the knife at her. “Well that works, because you aren’t a person.”

“Fine. I’m not a person. But she is. Let her go.”

He’s got the knife off her throat. Good.

“You’re patronizing me. I hate it when people patronize me.” Nick raised the knife as if to stab Lethia. The girl screamed as she tried to get away.

Elmiryn let out a yell and charged the man, tackling him around his torso. They tumbled down the small incline, and when they stopped the woman was on her back and dizzy. When she tried to rise, Nick jumped on her with his knife, and she only just managed to catch his wrist in time before he stabbed her in the heart. For a skinny drug addict, he was deceptively strong. As they struggled, others came hurrying down the slope. People shouted and screamed.

Nick leaned in real close and hissed, “The things I do for you!”

Elmiryn yelled and wrenched his knife away. The man had been leaning his weight in that direction so his balance was off. Twisting her hips, the woman was able to throw Nick off. When he was down, she took her fist and slammed it into his nose. He yelled in pain and so did she. She’d never punched anyone before.

Holy shit…was this…is this a fight?? I’ve never been in a fight before! Christ, I could’ve DIED!

She sat on the grass, dumbfounded, watching as Nick tried to staunch the bleeding from his face. Nyx, Taila, and Lethia came hurrying down the small slope, but before they reached them, campus security appeared with guns drawn. They yelled at her to put her hands up. Elmiryn stared up at them, cradling her hand. She felt her phone buzz in her pocket. That was Izzie.

She’s going to have to wait for a response… Elmiryn thought miserably as she raised her hands.

When campus security, who were actually city cops on loan, had control of the scene, the redhead was cuffed and pulled aside to be questioned. Nyx and Lethia protested her detainment loudly along with some others, but she cooperated anyway, too dazed to do otherwise.

When the cop speaking to her asked for her name, she said, “Elmiryn.”

Then she frowned.

The cop paused as he waited for her last name. When she didn’t give this, he leaned forward, his pen resting on his clipboard. “Ma’am? Your last name, please?”

She looked at him, her eyes squinted. “Hey…Elmiryn’s a weird name, isn’t it?”

“Ma’am…your last name, please?”

Elmiryn turned to look at Nick, also handcuffed, but sitting in a squad car. He was staring at her steadily from the dark of the backseat, a smile on his face, his eyes glowing eerily in the shadow…

Continue ReadingChapter 37.2

Chapter 37.3

NYX____________________________

To say that I was ‘ready’ for whatever it was Izma had to show me, would not have been right. Willing, yes. But not ready. I was just at my wit’s end.

The light of the room dimmed, and I could feel my hairs stand on end as I started to pull open the red door.

Then Lethia’s hand slammed the door closed again from out of nowhere. I gazed at her wildly, and her green eyes met mine, mirroring my bewilderment. Where had the enchantress come from? Was this another trick? I turned my head and saw Izma glaring, her previous smugness gone.

“You dare–?” she started.

Lethia cut her off. “I do!” But her voice trembled, and I could see her whole body shake as she turned back to me. “Nyx…you have every right to hate me right now. But please believe me when I tell you that going through this door will ruin you!”

I looked her up and down. “…Why?”

“It’s a trick, it’s Izma–”

“No,” I interjected through my grit teeth. “I mean why should I trust you?” Lethia’s expression fell. Somehow her deflation fanned the flames of my anger, and I shoved her, hard. It felt good, to see her nearly fall. To let out some of the wrath I felt toward her. “I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you, Lethia Artaud!”

“I know that! And I’m sorry!” Lethia fell to her knees and clasped her hands. “No more games! I’m done playing! I remember now, Nyx! I remember how you and Elmiryn went out of your way to help me when you could have turned and walked away! You risked your lives to save me and help me in my goals!” She buried her face in her hands.

I mulled over her words as she took a moment to compose herself. When the lights dimmed…that must of been her power shifting, letting her remember.

“I’ve repaid you terribly!” She continued, with her hands curled to fists she pressed them to her chest. “But even if you spurn me, beat me, or kill me, it would be a far better fate than to continue–”

Only she didn’t get to finish, because Izma grabbed her by the head and flung her across the room like a doll. It happened so fast, I barely caught it. Odd, how our group seemed capable of speeches and impassioned declarations whilst under fire. Izma didn’t appreciate our verbosity, clearly. Whatever Lethia had to say, she was going to have to be more economic about it. If she was even conscious.

…And I wasn’t too sure I was willing to keep listening anyway.

I gazed at her crumpled body on the other side of the room, her hair fanned out around her on the white floor, and felt strangely…passive about the scene.

Izma’s cold eyes fell on me, and I turned to face her. Her human disguise was vibrating, as if it would shatter at any moment.

“Well?” she asked, her voice harsher and deeper than it was before. “What are you waiting for?”

She was right. I had nothing to wait for.

I turned back to the door, ready to open it.

“She’s looking…for…you…” Lethia’s voice. It came in broken gasps.

My hand stilled on the doorknob and I turned to gaze over my shoulder.

Lethia’s arms shook as she tried to push herself up. I could see blood dripping from her nose, and I wondered if this was real, or just another illusion.

“She’s looking for you, Nyx!” she said more firmly. “You promised…to be by her side! Always!

My eyes widened.

Izma took a menacing step toward her, but I started forward, cutting her off. Lethia’s eyes brightened as she held out a hand to me. “Nyx! Oh, Nyx! Elmiryn needs–”

My fist slammed into her head so hard it bounced off the wall. Lethia’s body went limp, and I could see the blood pooling from beneath her down turned face. Her hair effectively covered the damage, but I was sure I had felt something break beneath my knuckles. I stood heaving over her, tremors of rage coursing through me.

“Promises? You want to talk to me about promises!?” I spat.

…And I felt a hollow sort of satisfaction–a salve, if you will–for all the cuts and bruises my spirit had suffered at the hands of this girl who, good intentions or not, managed to hurt me so much. The fury that I knew for her was violent and terrifying. But as I heard Izma laughing behind me, I felt that fire die down. It didn’t go away. I wasn’t sure if I could ever stop the wildfire that was inside me now. But without the incessant roar of bloodlust confusing my thoughts, I was able to gather that…

The girl may have played along with Izma’s sick game, but it was under great confusion brought on by her amnesia, and the worst acts I suspected she had been entirely absent for somehow. The parallels this situation had with Atalo’s death–the misguided intentions, the loss of control, the horrible consequences…Lethia Artaud was just like me a few years ago. She was as weak, as naive, and as self-righteous as I was. Faced with these facts, I realized I could not forgive her, because I could not forgive myself.

Izma’s hand touched my shoulder, and immediately a feeling of pins and needles spread down my flesh. Her voice sounded tight with glee.

“Kill her. Kill the weed!” She giggled.

I reached down and grabbed Lethia by the hair. My lip curled as I laid eyes on the girl’s swelling face. At a glance, my guess was she had a broken right cheekbone. The skin was broken and bleeding. Her nose was still bleeding too, but I didn’t think that was from my punch. I pulled back my palm. A swift strike angled upward to the nose could kill her, especially given the force I could put into the blow. It was one of the fatal points Elmiryn had taught me to strike.

My jaw tensed.

Elmiryn…

Kill her,” Izma hissed behind me.

My eyes narrowed. “Would you ask me to kill myself if it pleased you?”

“Why would I want you dead, little sum?”

“Why do you want her dead?” I countered readily. I started to drop my hand, but still held Lethia’s head up with the other. “She has done everything you asked.”

“She has failed me. Tis simple.”

“Is it?” I let go of Lethia’s hair and rocked forward onto both my palms. Given how close I was to the enchantress, the space for this was cramped and awkward, but I was able to move well enough that my upper body weight was sufficiently shifted onto my hands. With a deep breath, I let out a sharp kai and kicked backward with both my legs.

They struck air.

I didn’t actually expect my attack to hit Izma. I just wanted to make a point. I was not going to become the astral demon’s new pet. Whatever hatred I felt towards Lethia, I had to admit to myself that I could not do to the girl what I could not do to myself–and that included killing her.

Grabbing Lethia’s body, I called on the shadows and willed them to swallow us. As we sank into darkness, I could hear Izma screaming in rage.

ELMIRYN________________________

The precinct wasn’t as busy as Elmiryn expected it to be, given the day and the hour. Still, there was a steady hum of activity–of printers squealing, keyboards clacking, chairs creaking, and papers rustling. The air smelled like ink, gun oil, and carpet freshener. Those brought in handcuffs were sullen and quiet, their attitude suggesting a familiarity with the setting. She didn’t like being here. It reminded her of her childhood.

“Thank you for your cooperation, Ms. Manard. It really helped us to clear things up faster. The other witnesses corroborated your statements, so just one more thing and you’re free to go.” Officer Gale undid the handcuffs and offered the woman a seat next to her desk. She’d mentioned her first name, but the woman had already forgotten it. The officer had russet brown hair at shoulder length, and rich azure-blue eyes. She didn’t look that much older than the redhead, but there was definitely some age about her eyes…probably from stress and sun.

Elmiryn rubbed her wrists, glad to be free of the confines. She locked eyes with the cop and grinned. “Hey, no prob. I know how you guys work. I mentioned my dad used to be an officer, remember?”

Gale smiled, and the redhead detected a hint of irony in the expression. “Yes. You did.”

“Oh-ho! You worked with him. I can tell.”

The other woman coughed and sat down in her chair. “That obvious?”

Elmiryn shrugged. “Warner isn’t exactly Mr. Congeniality. Let me tell you, whatever you went through, it was a thousand times worse being his gay daughter growing up. At least you got away from him when you clocked out!”

The other woman laughed. “I was never partnered with him. He was already an investigator by the time I hit the streets. He seemed a good man. Just…strict.”

“That’s a nice way of putting it.”

Gale laughed again as she pulled her clipboard to her. “Well, we’ve got your statement down. We just need you to confirm it with a signature. Your cousin is still filing her charge against the suspect. You’re free to wait for her if you’d like.” She passed the clipboard over with a pen.

Elmiryn signed it quickly, then glanced over her shoulder to the room where she saw Nick had been taken. “Say…D’ya think I could talk to that guy? Nick?”

Officer Gale gazed at her shrewdly. “We don’t normally allow for that.”

“Hey, I’m not pressing charges!”

“But your cousin is, Ms. Manard. You and the suspect had a physical confrontation. We’re not looking to have trouble in our precinct. The paperwork would be a nightmare. Anyway, I think they’re charging him formally now. He’s going to be transferred to a holding cell until he posts bail.”

“I don’t care where I talk to him. What if you were there with me? I just want five minutes.”

Gale puckered her lips in thought and craned her neck over the sea of desks. When she looked back at the redhead, it was with a sideways gaze. “Five minutes? That’s it? You aren’t suddenly going to change your mind about all of this? Because again…the paperwork. It’s a bitch.”

Elmiryn shook her head eagerly. “I’m not changing my testimony. I’ve already signed my statement, right? Soooo…can I see him?”

The officer drummed her fingers on her desk. Then with a sigh, she stood and jerked her head. “All right…Just five minutes! But the moment things start to get out of hand, I’m ending it!”

Elmiryn made a small fist pump. “Yes!” She stood with a pop. “Thank you!”

“Settle down. I’m still not sure this is a great idea.” Officer Gale moved past Elle, and the redhead followed her down the aisle to the interrogation room.

Gale rapped on the door briefly before poking her head in. Elmiryn could hear her speaking with someone, and a second later, she opened the door wider and stepped aside. Elle glanced at her before entering.

A plain clothes officer in a gray suit and dark button up was glaring at her as she entered. He was a tall black man with broad shoulders and slim hips. The light of the room made his close-shaved head shine. Elmiryn gave him a small wave when he didn’t move or speak.

“Uh. Hi,” she said. She glanced at Nick. “Geez, Nick. The way they’re treating you, you’d think you just tried bombing a place!”

Nick was slouched in a chair behind a small table. He smirked at her. “How are you sure that wasn’t what just happened?”

“Five minutes,” Gale said pointedly as she shut the door and leaned on it.

Elmiryn sat in the chair opposite the man. The investigator went to speak with Gale, and the redhead could tell her ‘five minutes’ was going to be more like three. She leaned onto the table with her elbows and narrowed her eyes at Nick.

“Did you get what you wanted?”

The man just chuckled and held up his hands. His wrists were still cuffed. “Elmiryn. Dear. Just look at me. What do you think?”

Elmiryn frowned and was about to point out that he was going to get legally boned when something occurred to her.

“Your face…” She breathed with widening eyes. “You look…different!

Nick’s face was fuller, his lips no longer dry and white rimmed. His eyes were clear and his hair looked almost lush. Like those shampoo commercials she hated so much.

“How do you think that happened?” he asked mildly.

“Water,” she murmured, looking away. “A comb. Maybe some Carmex. Fuck. I don’t know. Does it matter?”

Yes,” Nick hissed, and Elmiryn snapped her gaze back onto him. The man hadn’t raised his voice. Had barely moved even. But something about his presence screamed at her. “I was able to feed. Not the usual portions I enjoy from you, but our encounter gave me some strength, nevertheless. And hasn’t our little chat gotten you thinking?”

“About what?”

“About everything you ignoramus,” he snapped. “Honestly, I’m surprised a toy like you survived so long without me!”

“Why do you keep calling me that?” Elmiryn bit back. She struggled to keep her voice level. She didn’t need their meeting cut short. Weird things had been happening all night, and for whatever reason, she felt Nick was at the heart of it all. “How did you know my name? We’ve never met!”

Nick sat back and stared at her. “Good lord. You really have no idea.”

Elmiryn gave him a suffering look. “Duh! I’ve been saying that this whole time!”

“No. I mean…you have no recollection of anything. At all.” Nick rubbed his chin, his eyes turning distant. “Damn. Damn. Our connection has deteriorated, just as I feared. I was hoping Izma had just been leading you on, but I see it’s more than that now. DAMN, that you were such a fool to imbibe Artemis’s blood! I tried to warn you–!”

Elmiryn reached her limit of patience. “What are you talking about? Who is Artemis!?”

She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up to see the investigator looming over her. “Time’s up.”

“I’m not done!” she protested.

Gale appeared behind the man and placed a hand on his arm. “Hakeem, maybe just another minute–”

“No,” he said firmly, forcing Elmiryn to stand. “This guy is part of an on-going investigation, and we don’t need any more interruptions!” He started to guide the woman toward the door, his colleague trailing behind.

“This is bullshit!” Elmiryn ripped her arm out of the investigator’s grip just as she was forced out the door. She turned to square off with him, but Gale was there, blocking her way, her hands up in a placating manner.

“Hey, hey! Let’s kill it here, girl. If the man says leave, we have to do it!”

Elmiryn started to pace. “I wasn’t done! I need to talk to that Nick guy!”

“Look, he was dinged on some other charges. You’re just going to have to wait!”

The redhead clenched her fists. “If he had warrants out on him, then why would he let himself get caught!? That doesn’t make any sense!”

Gale raised an eyebrow at her. “Let himself get caught?”

Elmiryn opened her mouth to respond when she heard Lethia calling for her.

“Elle!”

The woman didn’t even have time to turn before Lethia crashed into her with a hug. She grunted as she patted her cousin awkwardly on the back.

“H-Hey, Lethy…” She looked up and her eyebrows rose. “And Nyx!”

The sorority sister smiled. “Hey hero!”

Lethia pulled away, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “Oh my GOD, can you believe all this happened?”

Elmiryn shrugged uncomfortably. “Are you guys through?”

“Yeah. I’m totes ready to go home…” Lethia took her hand and started to tug. “Let’s go! You’re done, right?”

Elle glanced at Officer Gale, and the woman gave a nod. “We’re done for now. If we need anything else, we’ll be in touch.”

She felt disappointment settle in her gut. “…Okay.”

Together, the three women left the precinct offices. They made it to the lobby before Elmiryn’s phone started buzzing in her pocket. When she answered, it was Izzie.

Her girlfriend squealed on the other line. “Elle! Christ, are you okay!?”

Elmiryn followed the others as they made it outside. Pausing at the precinct doors, she held up her hand indicating she needed a moment, and stepped aside. “Hey, Izzie. I’m fine.”

“I only just got a chance to call you now. Oh geez. I’m shaking. I can’t even believe…I mean, a guy really pulled a knife on you??”

“Yeah…”

“Holy shit!” Izzie sounded like she was going to cry.

“Hey. Shh…it’s fine! We’re all fine. I totally clocked the guy. My hand’s a little sore, but it’s not swollen or anything. I can still make a fist.”

She heard a laugh. “Baby, you are so–”

Only Elmiryn didn’t get to hear what she was, because a surge of static swallowed Izzie’s words. The woman frowned as she double checked her connection. “Izzie? You there? Hello?”

“I need to see your phone.” The woman turned to the sound of Lethia’s voice behind her.

“Huh–?”

Caught off guard, the woman did nothing as her cousin calmly took her phone from her hands. Then, before she could react, Lethia dropped it onto the concrete and stepped on it with her heel. Hard. There was a loud audible crack, and Elmiryn let out a small cry, her jaw dropping.

“L-Lethy! Lethia, what the fuckin’ fuck, man!” she sputtered.

She dropped to her knees and started picking up the pieces hurriedly, as if being quick would somehow salvage her device.

“Elmiryn–”

“I can’t fucking believe you!”

“Elle–”

“That was, like, a month’s salary! And THEN some!”

HEY!

Elmiryn looked up sharply to see Lethia glaring down at her. “What?” she snapped. Behind her cousin, Nyx was approaching a concerned look on her face.

Lethia spoke through her teeth. “Elmiryn, you need to wake up!”

“From what?

“This isn’t our home, and we need to leave!”

“Why does everyone keep talking in riddles!?”

“Maybe if you didn’t keep your head shoved so firmly up your butt, it wouldn’t feel that way! You just. Have. To. Pay. Attention!

Nyx stopped at Lethia’s side. “Is everything okay?”

Elmiryn stood to her feet, holding the broken pieces of her cell phone. “Oh. I don’t know. Sure. Except my cousin seems to have lost her shit!

Lethia rolled her eyes and walked away.

Nyx stepped in closer as Elmiryn prodded the cell phone bits in her palm glumly. “She wrecked your phone?” the sorority girl asked.

“It’s toast…” Elle sighed. The woman turned to glare after her cousin. She had approached an officer in a kevlar vest at their vehicle and was saying something to them. “I don’t know what got into–” Her voice choked as she saw the officer open their trunk and hand Lethia a shotgun as if they were a librarian handing her a book.

Blinking, Nyx turned and looked too.

The officer loaded a pistol and handed the girl that firearm as well. Lethia smiled at him before she made her way back.

The moment she was within talking distance, she said, “Elmiryn, we’re on something of a time limit and we have a lot to do, so I can’t stop and give you a spiel. So while I appreciate you’re disoriented from being in a reality that is not ours, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to snap the fuck out of it and help me get Meznik out of that precinct. Pronto.” She glanced at Nyx and back. “And you might want to shoot her. For simplification.”

That would simplify things!?” Elmiryn sputtered. “Lethia what are you doing with those guns??

“Lethia, have you lost your mind?” Nyx added next. She was backing away, her face drawn up in horror.

The blonde ignored her and continued to address Elmiryn. “One gun is for you. One for me. Do you want the pistol or the shotgun?”

The redhead shrugged helplessly. Partly because her mind still had yet to make sense of the overarching mystery of the night. Partly because the part of her mind that had broken up her sensory information into manageable bits honestly couldn’t decide between the two weapons.

Lethia handed her the pistol and the woman took it weakly. “Fine. I’ll use the shotgun. Your doubt isn’t right for this firepower.”

“Jesus Christ, can you just explain to me–!”

“Elmiryn, what’s your opinion of this Nyx?”

“Th-This Nyx?”

“Yes.”

Elmiryn blinked and turned to look at Nyx. The dark haired sorority sister had backpedaled some feet away and was looking ready to run and get help. From who, the redhead wasn’t sure. All the officers in their vicinity still had yet to even take note of the situation.

“She’s–”

“Not real,” Lethia interjected harshly. “Shoot her. She’ll let Izma know where we are.”

“You can’t be serious…” Nyx whispered. She shook her head slowly, and looked at Elmiryn. “Please tell me you aren’t buying this!”

Elmiryn felt a sweat drop trail down the side of her pulsing temple. “I–I’m not–”

Lethia’s voice was low and fast. “Elmiryn, she’s just a caricature of Nyx. She’s too arrogant. Selfish. For Halward’s sake, she’s unbelievably pretentious! Is this the same girl you care about so much?”

Help!” Nyx screamed suddenly, putting her whole body into the cry. “Someone, please!

“They won’t hear you,” Lethia murmured. Her expression was dark.

“HEY! THEY’RE GOING TO SHOOT ME!”

“This isn’t Izma’s world. She just set up a stage on it. So I was able to gain control of these people. You’re without help.”

Nyx stared around her wildly. No one was moving. No one behaved as if they heard her at all. Slowly, she looked at Elmiryn.

“Please…” she begged, tears streaming down her face. “Don’t!”

Elmiryn frowned at her. “Do you…do you know what Lethia is talking about? Do you know who this Izma is?”

“Elmiryn, I like you! I really do! I know we just met, but please! Don’t do this to me!”

The woman’s frown deepened as she heard her voice in her head.

“What if you regret it? Where will that put us then?”

She didn’t remember ever saying that, but that was definitely her voice. Was it really a memory? Of a different time, a different place, a different person?

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she murmured, gripping the pistol. Her thumb checked the safety. It was off.

Nyx clasped her hands together and fell to her knees. “I can pretend this never happened! I won’t breathe a word, I promise! I’m even sorry that we ever met, but is it really right to punish me for that!? I didn’t ask for this!”

Elmiryn’s brow twitched as she heard Nyx’s voice in her head.

“…And for the record, Elmiryn, I never regret anything when it comes to you!”

Her face pulled long.

Nyx held out a hand to her. “Elle, please!

“I’m sorry.” The woman raised the gun and fired. The sound was loud, and her bones seemed to vibrate from the shock.

“…You don’t make me want to believe,” she breathed in the stillness.

Red spray stained the concrete dark.

Her hand stung from the force of the shot.

The people around them still did not move, as if nothing had happened.

Elmiryn let her hand drop, and as she watched Nyx’s blood pool out onto the ground, she found…she felt nothing. No horror, or glee.

“Do you remember?” Lethia asked quietly.

The woman stared at her cousin and gave a small shake of her head. “Not really.”

“But you know this life is a lie, don’t you?”

Elmiryn gave a stiff nod.

Lethia patted her shoulder. “Then that will have to be enough for now. I wasn’t kidding, Elmiryn. We have a time limit. Izma will try to stop us, and we still have the problem of getting Meznik free.”

“Why do we need him?” Elle’s voice was hollow.

“Believe me. I don’t do this out of any particular joy. But it’s necessary for the moment. A means to an end.”

“Can you…make the people in there not attack us? Like out here?”

Lethia bit her lip and shook her head. “No. I was able to take hold of this group because they were not aware. But the minds of this world are…foreign. I won’t be able to take hold of Izma’s other familiars within the precinct, and the other officers will be on alert. We’ll have to fight our way through.”

“And I’m…good at fighting, aren’t I?” Elmiryn murmured. In her head, she substituted the word ‘fighting’ with ‘killing.’ She could feel it, like an aftertaste riding on the reality of Nyx’s abrupt execution.

Lethia’s voice suggested she was aware of the distinction. “Yes. You are. Very good. That’s why I need you to remember as much as you can.”

The woman took a breath and looked at the girl. “Are you still my cousin?” She hated how vulnerable she sounded.

The blonde hesitated. “I…can be. If you want me to.”

“I do.”

“Then let’s go, cousin.”

Elmiryn clenched her jaw as she raised her pistol. “Let’s rock and roll, then!”

QUINCY_________________________

The light in the room dimmed.

Quincy paused as she glanced around her. Her eyes fell on Lethia.

“What just happened?”

Lethia rubbed her forehead with a wince. Her green eyes batted a few times before they lifted to meet the wizard’s gaze.

Quincy lowered the vial and rested her wrist on the edge of the table. “Are you all right?”

The girl stared at her for a few moments.

When she spoke, it was with a whisper. “I’m fine. Go ahead and drink, Quincy.”

The wizard scowled, and did just that. The drink burned her throat.

Continue ReadingChapter 37.3

Chapter 38.2

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy couldn’t connect the moment she had finished drinking the vial to the moment she woke up, confused and disoriented. It had just happened that way, as if Lethia Artaud had simply switched off her memory, leaving a huge gap for the woman to contend with. The wizard sat up, squinting, uncertain as to the source of the horrendous sounds of roaring and squawking and scratching. They echoed in the air, almost taunting her. The damp smell of wet rock and soil tickled her nose. Was she outside? The wizard groaned and called her lightning staff to her, her hand reflexively wrapping around the magic metal before it had even finished materializing. The energy from her recall spell burned her palm a little, and it helped to rouse her from her grogginess.

More alert now, Quincy used her staff to push herself to her feet.

Where am I? she thought with tensed features as she took in the plant-covered walls and floor. I’m indoors?

It was when she saw the strange stone archway fixed in the back of the room that four beasts slammed into the windows, sending tremors along the floor. Quincy jumped, bringing her staff to bear. The creatures were giant monstrosities with insect bodies and black horse heads gnashing their teeth. Their eyes glowed red as they fixed on her, and their long thin hairy legs scrabbled at the edges of the windows. Their ruddy carapace bodies strained against the stone, scraping and cracking as they tried to squeeze themselves inside.

Repulsed, the woman aimed her staff and sent a bolt into the beasts’ soft undersides, and they screeched as the energy turned their bodies into boiling slush.

When each of the creatures were dispatched, Quincy hurried to shove them out the windows and turned her gaze to the field. Her face turned pale.

The evil spirits…they’re converging on the castle keep!

The woman checked the room again in vain. She knew she was alone, but this fact only served to worry her.

Where was Hakeem? Where were the others?

Hurrying out the door and down the dark stairs, the woman slipped and realized that the reason she did was because the steps were covered in blood. On her guard, Quincy held up her staff and continued at a more cautious pace. Down below, the sounds of combat echoed up, louder and louder the more she progressed, until…

Lunam!

That voice, Quincy thought, picking up her speed. That must be the therian!

Sure enough, at the bottom of the steps was the Ailuran, though the wizard wasn’t sure who was present, Nyx or her Twin. The girl had half-shifted, using bestial claws to render her enemies as she struck, slash, and parried. She was fighting tooth and nail, literally, and for every wound she suffered, she gave back in spades. Quincy was so taken aback by this raw show of defiance and strength that she didn’t think to act until the dark lizard on the girl’s shoulders turned his little head and hissed, “Wilt thou watch, or wilt thou act, wayward sparrow?”

Lacertli. She’d almost forgotten the god took to using this lizard state as his avatar. His words were very sobering, and the woman steeled her resolve.

Quincy shouted loudly so that the therian could hear her over the din. “Ailuran! When I say to, flatten up against the wall!”

A brief glance from the girl was all the brunette received in terms of acknowledgement. It would have to do. With a deep breath, the wizard turned a quarter and widened her stance. With her injured hand, the woman was incapable of controlling her staff as she once could, and this fact became all the more apparent now. But for this trick, she would not need a firm grip. Only focus.

With the tip of her staff, Quincy made circles in the air. Her animus stirred the power of her weapon, and she started to feel the energy coursing from the core of her body along the staff’s length. It was warm. Almost comforting. Soon a bright electrical ring appeared in the air, and within it, cracks of lightning shot across its diameter.

The wizard could feel the static energy tingle over her skin as her staff started to pulse with surges of power.

“NOW!” she yelled.

The Ailuran flattened up against the wall. Quincy pulled back her staff, and with the electrical ring still in the air, she jammed its center. The spirits that had started to push forward didn’t even have a chance to raise their arms before the lightning magic cracked and boomed outward in a violent tunnel, disintegrating those at the fore, and blasting the ones in the rear back down the stairs.

Panting with the adrenaline, the wizard tried to blink sight back to her eyes. The flash of her attack had been bright, and in her haste she made the clumsy mistake of not turning away.

“Nyx? Kali? Are you okay?” She reached blindly toward the wall, slipping on the bloody steps.

A hand snatched her forearm, gripping it tightly. Quincy winced and turned to look. Through the white of her blindness appeared the Ailuran’s face. A second more, and her vision cleared, allowing her to see some scorch marks healing and scabbing over the girl’s features from the attack.

The woman inwardly winced. She needed to find a weapon with more finesse, and soon. It wouldn’t do for her allies to continuously get caught in the crossfire.

The wizard was sure this was Nyx. She could tell, despite the slitted feline eyes, because her Twin had a tendency of widening her gaze and baring her teeth when stressed. Nyx on the other hand, placed the burden of her tension on her brow and lips.

“You’re awake,” the Ailuran said. The wizard noted an almost disconnected tone in the girl’s voice, not unlike the time Nyx was consumed by her dark urges. Needless to say, it did not put the brunette at ease.

Down below, their enemies had retreated…for now. Quincy’s attack had scared the evil spirits, but reinforcements were still storming up the path every second. They didn’t have a lot of time before the fiends regrouped for another wave.

“Where are the others? Hakeem?” Quincy asked sharply, pulling herself free from the therian’s grip.

“I don’t know. You were the only one here when I broke free of Lethia’s spell.” Again with that dispassionate voice.

Quincy could feel her unease grow. “You were the one who dragged me upstairs?”

Nyx gazed at her wordlessly for a moment before she turned away and started down the stairs. “Yes.”

Quincy grabbed the girl’s arm in alarm. “What are you doing?”

The girl ripped free of the woman’s grasp and glared at her. The wizard gave a start. In the few steps the Ailuran had descended down, enough weak light was swathing her face to illuminate the sapien persona Quincy had recognized as Nyx. But on the other side of her face, where the girl’s features were swallowed by the dark of the stairwell, Quincy could see Kali, with her feline nose, her sharp canines, and her cat-like ears.

When the Twins spoke, it was as one.

What we’re doing, wizard, is surviving. Thou art awake now, and we must take this battle to a more appropriate stage. Or art thou content with bumping elbows in a claustrophobic stairwell until weariness sees us overrun?” Quincy swallowed and shook her head.  Nyx turned and started down the staircase again, Lacertli’s glowing golden eyes piercing into the wizard as she went. “Then let us make haste. I am fain to see this battle done.”

The brunette cursed and hurried to undo her magic pouch. Reaching into it, she rummaged around desperately until she felt her hands close on a familiar curve of wood. She sighed in relief as she pulled out Eate’s Son. It was true that she could not wield her lightning staff with the same sure grip she once could, but that did not mean she couldn’t use it. She just needed something else to make up for her lack of martial power.

As she hurried down the stairs after Nyx, she found the Ailuran already fighting the spirits in the study. Kali was no longer visible. Quincy tried to focus on the struggle at hand, because a moment’s distraction could mean life or death, but her mind rebelled with wayward thoughts of what she had just seen.

Did my father ever speak as this girl just did? Is another persona making itself known? What happened to Nyx that she feels so…cold?

Quincy tossed Eate’s Son vertically into the air, making it spin. The artifact produced small scythes of air as it went, cutting into a bipedal pig wielding a giant axe. Its squeal was cut short when it fell to the ground in bloody pieces. When Quincy caught her weapon, she turned to see Nyx maneuvering out the study toward the exit.

She cursed, but followed.

Whatever the case is, I just hope it doesn’t get us killed!

ELMIRYN________________________

The redhead wasn’t concerned for the wizard. Quincy had a lot of firepower down on that field. But Nyx…she had no armor, no weapons. Just because she could heal quickly and had some new tricks didn’t mean she could do anything. The woman was certain that included diving into a frothing mob of evil spirits. Elmiryn needed to get down there, fast. So she took the quickest route she could…

She jumped out the window.

The warrior heard Lethia scream after her as she fell. The wind howled in her ears as she plummeted feet first, the unsettling sensation of free fall sweeping through her. Elmiryn knew she could die from this. She knew she could scatter across the rocky hillside below like a bug on a windshield. She was also aware that she was using imagery inappropriate for her world, but she didn’t care. The moment she had started turning into a fae was the moment she ceased to really be of any world. She didn’t need to follow the rules if she didn’t want to, and it was lucky for her that the Other Place had very few rules to break in the first place.

She could see the elements around her like threads waiting to be pulled.

So she did just that.

With her will, Elmiryn took hold of the air, and the dust, and the rock, and she ripped them up so that they caught her. The landing wasn’t graceful—in fact it skinned her arms and knocked the wind from her lungs—but that wasn’t what was important. What was important was the fact that Elmiryn had created a path of unrelenting gas and matter in mid-air and could now run safely down to the field. The warrior stumbled, forcing herself to keep moving as she looked back to the window she had leapt from. Lethia was there, staring at her in shock.

Meznik was in the next window, his fist in his cheek. He seemed bored again. It occurred to the woman that leaving her cousin alone with her nemesis was probably folly, but quickly following this thought was the realization that the demon had no interest in the girl. Still, she gestured for the enchantress to follow, but didn’t stop to watch if she did. Too many things to deal with. Lethia had proven she could take care of herself. All the woman could do was make it possible for the girl to stick with her. Her priorities may have shifted, but there was one focus that remained paramount above all else.

Elmiryn drew her sword. Hold on, Nyx. I’m coming!

It was difficult, at first, continuously creating a steady path before her whilst maintaining the one behind as she run full tilt into the chaos. It was doubly hard, because running on air and small debris wasn’t exactly familiar, and she had to keep her balance. But Elmiryn did it. She did it because if she didn’t, Nyx would be…

The warrior leapt into the air. She was over the field now and she had a number of options available to her. First, she could take the obvious route and make herself into a giant in a sort of inverse performance of her miniature transformation. Second, she could will a tornado of dust and rock to sweep a path through the crowd of spirits.

But the woman was a warrior first and foremost, and she did what she felt most comfortable with.

As Elmiryn came down toward the ground, she swung her sword, and using her power, she amplified the kinetic energy. The attack carved into the soil, cleaving those below. Taking a page out of Hakeem’s book, the redhead braked her descent with an opposing push of wind. The moment her boots hit the ground she took off running, cutting with her sword whenever an obstacle presented itself.

As she went, she couldn’t help but marvel at how she hadn’t thought to do this before—marry her new fae abilities with her swordplay. It was almost stupidly obvious, in retrospect. How many video games had she played where a character—

Damn it, this isn’t the time to get mixed up on shit like that!

With this harsh admonishment, the warrior focused herself on the task at hand—and that was getting to Nyx as quickly as possible. No longer distracted, the warrior moved and killed more efficiently. One powered swing of her blade sent an arc of energy slicing through a wood demon with horns. Another dispatched a dark cloaked man that stood twelve feet tall.

Soon she found Nyx. If only that would’ve solved everything.

The Ailuran was dangling by her arm as a giant crocodile with shimmering blue scales and diamond teeth fought what looked like a ghost fashioned out of bed sheets for the right to have her. Smaller spirits shouted and frothed beneath them, their hands and tentacles and claws extended as they shouted their insanity. The sheet spirit seemed to grow weary of the quarreling and made a bid for Nyx. What happened next took all but a few seconds. Long slim black limbs shot out from the spirit’s flapping sheets, and they grabbed the girl around her torso. Meanwhile, the crocodile spirit wrenched his head the other way. Blood erupted from Nyx’s shoulder as her arm was ripped off, and her torso rended of its skin. The monsters below cheered in the shower of carnage.

Elmiryn screamed, putting all she could into the overhand swing of her sword. The sheet spirit lost an arm in the arc of raw energy that blasted from the redhead’s blade, and the smaller monsters down below were lost in the periphery of the blast. The crocodile spirit was only rocked, however, as Elmiryn’s attack struck his scales and failed to pierce his hide. He turned to look at her and opened his mouth, showing his long rows of teeth. Stuck in them was Nyx’s arm, still caught between the fangs.

The monster roared and started to charge toward the warrior, his clawed feet gouging into the soil, crushing the heads of his brethren, making the ground shake as he went. Elmiryn braced herself, bringing up her fae shield of dust and air—

But the monster was wrenched back by some unseen force. Both the crocodile and Elmiryn appeared equally bewildered…that was until the beast started to descend into its own shadow. The warrior watched, feeling waves of relief wash over her. The source of her joy was not the demise of the crocodile, who was sliced in half when the shadows beneath him closed with half his torso submerged. No, it was the fact that Nyx was still alive and well to do these things.

But where is she? Elmiryn thought, her smile waning.

When the woman found her lover, the smile vanished entirely.

Nyx looked like road kill, and the woman used this phrase without qualm because even Fiamma had road kill. The Ailuran’s arm was growing back, and though it was clearly a great feat of healing that left Nyx’s previous healing ability in the dust, to Elmiryn it could not heal fast enough. The stub of the arm was a red, raw wound that seemed to bubble with flesh and blood. And this said nothing of the girl’s chest, whose skin and fatty tissue had yet to completely cover her gleaming rib cage. In fact, some of the flesh that had been ripped off had failed to detach, and instead hung dripping at the girl’s waist.

For once, Elmiryn did not have a cute one liner. She could only stare, and wonder if Nyx were really safe at all.

The girl’s gaze was far away as they regarded the warrior in her stunned silence. Then slowly, she lifted her clawed hand and took up her flap of dead flesh.

Thou have arrived, Elmiryn,” Nyx said…only it wasn’t her. It was Kali. Only it wasn’t Kali. It was both of them at the same time…and something else, too. Somehow, the warrior knew that all these statements were true.

With the barest flinch, the Ailuran tore off the dead flesh and cast it aside. Elmiryn, hardened to carnage, did not turn away, but her sensibilities protested just the same, making her feel cold and ill. With the skin gone, the body began to cover the girl’s abdominal muscles.

Nyx turned her head and regarded the sky. “It would seem thou hast come just in time.

Elmiryn frowned and looked up as well. She cursed and raised her sword.

“Izma!”

Continue ReadingChapter 38.2

Chapter 39.1

NYX____________________________

Out there, on that scarred field where malevolent beings had devastated the land with their depravities, all of us stood at a standstill, poised to fight and teetering on the edge of what could very well be a calamitous showdown. The soil beneath my bare feet was dark and muddy, and my toes squished in it, clenching and digging in anticipation. But I could see, in the lightless light of the Other Place, that the moisture that softened the earth beneath me was not water, but blood. In messy patches, it scabbed over the earth. If we weren’t careful, our blood would soon be joining the messy soup at our feet as well.

Elmiryn opened her mouth to speak, and I could tell by her expression that she was set to shoot off a witticism, but a loud boom cut her off and made us seize up like cornered animals. The source of the noise became quickly apparent, even without Quincy calling out and pointing. In a plume of dust and debris, something had blasted its way out of Izma’s tower and was now jettisoning towards us. My eyes squinted, struggling to assess just what the thing was—and then it dawned on me that this was not a thing, but a person.

And when they landed hard at the ground beneath Izma, dust rising from the crater that leveled with their impact, the sick realization of just who Izma’s champion was hit me in full.

“Syria…” I moaned. This would be the one trying to kill me. The one I was supposed to keep Elmiryn from killing. Oh this would be a disaster, I was sure of it.

The master enchantress straightened, her long silky black hair curtaining about her face. She wore a dark sequined dress, cut scandalously down the front, that clung to her voluptuous body. She wore no shoes…for her feet were rootish and wooden, their ends anchoring into the soil. She was a demon’s pet, enslaved to Izma’s mad designs. Was this the sort of transformation that awaited Elmiryn?

Since all this had started, I hadn’t thought of Syria as much as I perhaps should have. I’d been too preoccupied with surviving, with regaining the things I had lost. But now the question came to me…the Other Place was a place of division. Each of us had lost something in coming here. Me, my Twin; Quincy, Tonatiuh; Elmiryn, her physical form; Hakeem, his years; Farrel, his moral direction; Argos, his loyalty. Looking at Lethia, I knew it was the same case with her, though I didn’t know exactly what her sacrifice had been. Surely then, if all of us had suffered such a fate, a dog included, what did the enchantress lose?

When her gaze turned my way, Syria’s face bore a thin smile, and I could see that her eyes were red-ringed and swollen. Had she been…crying?

Lethia made a sound–and I could not tell if she were trying to swallow a sob or muster up the courage to say something. Her face showcased a sort of despair I felt uncomfortably familiar with. It was a look of regret. Of guilt. The anger in me flared.

She was still loyal to Syria this whole time! I thought, before I could stop myself.

Kali snorted at my brashness. IdiotListen!

What the teenager said next dispelled my foolish theory quickly, as my Twin so gently indicated. “I should’ve killed you…” Lethia intoned. “Then this wouldn’t be happening!”

“But you didn’t,” Syria replied, and her voice lacked the smug confidence I had been expecting. If anything, she sounded…disappointed.

“We don’t have to do this. We can just walk away!” I cried, trying to be reasonable, though I knew it was pointless. Syria, in her madness, was intent on following Izma despite nearly being discarded. Elmiryn, in her ambition to kill Meznik, was going to go through with her plan of playing along to the demon’s wishes. We’d all heard the others commands. We all knew there was no recourse, and it was a mistake on my part, to pretend there was. It made me sound weak and scared–which I was, but that was besides the point. Harmony had granted me the strength of presence, and right now, I was destroying whatever progress I’d made in my new image.

Not that it would’ve worked on Elmiryn, anyway.

She carefully moved away from Lethia, and Syria and I moved with her, all of us tensely united in our opposition of one another. The scenario was turning my stomach into knots, and I liked my insides well and ordered. I didn’t like the prospect of having to fight Elmiryn. In my peripheral vision, I saw Lethia move with Quincy. Together they followed our movements—at a cautious distance, but unwilling to stray too far from the upcoming action. Would they interfere? Could they? For all I knew, this would turn into a real battle royale.

Elmiryn, satisfied now that she had both Syria and I well in her view, slid her left foot back and raised her sword hilt to temple level. She had taught me this stance. It was the Ox. In this position, the blade was high and aimed at her opponent’s face or throat, with the weapon slightly angled to allow for blocking. Her weapon was trained on Syria when she did this, but I could see from the slight turn of her body that she was ready to evade me if necessary.

“Nyx,” the warrior said, her eyes still fixed on her target. “You know I’m doing this for you, don’t you?”

I responded with hands held out, beseeching, “Elmiryn, I don’t want to hurt you. Please. Don’t attack her! We can find another way!” I had already chosen my path, there was nothing more to lose in seeing it through. Maybe by some great distant miracle I could at least get the redhead to stand down.

“She’ll kill you if I don’t stop her.” Then Elmiryn raised her voice and asked Syria sharply, “Isn’t that right?”

“I’m afraid your friend speaks the truth, Nyx,” Syria murmured. I could feel her eyes on me, heavy and hungry. I was her way back into Izma’s good graces. The only reason she wasn’t launching at me right that second was because of the warrior baring down on her.

My fists clenched, and I started to tremble. I wished Harmony would come back and steel me. I wished I had clothes to cover my shivering distress. I wished Elmiryn wouldn’t use me as a thin excuse to learn more about Meznik. I wished, I wished, I wished… But these wishes were useless. So I resolved to do the best I could and said instead, “Then I’m sorry, Elle.”

And without a word or a gesture, I willed her shadow to swallow her.

ELMIRYN________________________

The redhead realized what was happening just as she tumbled out of her shadow through to the Umbralands on the other side. She hit the dark ground with a soft thud. Her breath fogged in front of her face and her skin broke out in gooseflesh. Elmiryn straightened with an audible growl and quickly scanned her monochromatic surroundings. She was disappointed she hadn’t thought to anticipate such a move from Nyx.

She decided that using champion powers was a form of cheating, and it sucked, to borrow an otherworldly phrase. As she saw it, it was not a strength gained by the person in question, but a strength given by some unfathomable entity whose fat spirit took up too much cosmic space. But she was not angry with Nyx for flexing her god-given might. After all, the warrior had been given things too, and she had not neglected to use them…

Around her was a perfect mirror of the scene she had just been ejected from. Quincy, Lethia, Izma, and Meznik were all in the same places as before. Even the spirits watching the battle hadn’t moved. But as Elmiryn watched the fight commence without her—Syria lunging at Nyx, the girl dodging her, the mad enchantress striking with a quick reprisal—she knew she was not there. The others were gray and seemed…a touch blurry. The warrior could still see their faces, but their forms seemed fuzzy at the edges. Like she were looking through an unfocused lens.

Elmiryn tried to get her bearings straight. Tried to wrack her brain for a solution to get back into the fight. Syria had pressed her offense, forcing Nyx into the defensive. The warrior could see the girl had advanced exponentially as a fighter since coming to the Other Place, but it was her opinion that Syria was out of her league. If the lightning fast leg swipe that shook the girl’s balance, and the following meteoric uppercut that hit Nyx in the chin was any indication, Elmiryn had very little time to balance the battlefield. Even if all the warrior could do was interrupt Syria’s momentum, she was certain Nyx could regain her footing.

Syria had stumps of roots for feet, but judging by the way she moved, Elmiryn couldn’t say for certain it was a real hindrance. Her fluidity of movement even rivaled Nyx, who the woman knew to be naturally quick and dexterous. Quincy was twisting her staff in her hands, clearly eager to do something as she eyed the demons that stood apart from them all, quietly observing. Lethia’s focus was more on the fight, though now and again, her eyes flickered to Meznik on the ground, or Izma in the air. The demons themselves showed no desire to participate in the fight, as Elmiryn expected. They were passive creatures who liked to pit people against each other. Even if the warrior were foolhardy enough to attack them, she was certain it would come to nothing…and it would ruin a perfectly good opportunity in the meantime.

“Kill Izma’s pet. And as a reward, I’ll tell you where we come from!”

How could she resist? It wasn’t as if she had many clues to work off of now. She wished the others would understand. She wished NYX would understand. She couldn’t get close enough to Meznik until he trusted her. She couldn’t kill him until she knew what his weaknesses were.

She couldn’t even fight him because her hateful attention made him stronger.

But Elmiryn didn’t think killing Meznik would be much of a victory if Nyx died. So killing Syria was beneficial, really. She wasn’t putting anything on the line.

She wasn’t.

Really.

When the seconds ticked by and Syria kicked Nyx in the stomach with such force that it was a certainty something had broken, Elmiryn realized with great self-admonishment that she’d been looking for answers in the wrong place. There was nothing she could use on the other side to help bring her back, and every second she wasted was a chance for Nyx to die. She looked around her quickly–at the stark shadows and the harsh lines of light. Then an idea came to her.

Shadows here are solid, like walls. Light is the opposite. So if I do THIS…

Elmiryn raised a hand and focused the light around her to coalesce around her fist. Then with it, she drew an opening and felt the cold air rush past her, as if a vacuum had been created.

Nyx should’ve realized, she thought as she jumped through the passage of light. Color is a form of light, and I can control that. So her Umbralands can’t hold me.

The woman couldn’t help but spare a brief smirk as she returned to the normal realm. Her smugness was short lived when she saw Syria encase Nyx in a gravitational field just over the ground–likely so that the girl couldn’t use her shadow power to escape. The enchantress raised a fist, and the air seemed to cyclone around it, whipping the dust and dirt around them into a frenzy. Her eyes glowed faintly from some deep power drawn up by her anima. She was going to try and deliver a killing blow, no doubt.

Elmiryn reprimanded herself as she charged Syria from behind, bringing her sword back for a swing. For fuck’s sake, I can pat myself on the back later!

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy could appreciate that the Ailuran was getting beat up by Syria, but she was a champion and frighteningly resilient, if her being ripped apart not long ago illustrated. The wizard had seen that much. Seen the blood spray into the air, Nyx’s body divide itself as the spirits took their prizes. She had survived that, and without much fuss. No, the wizard was more preoccupied with the demons that were currently in their company. The ringleaders of their misfortune. The sowers of all this destruction.

They’ve done something to HakeemI can feel it! She thought, trembling on a minute level with fury.

But a primal instinct tickled her from deep within, telling her that these beings were untouchable. This animal intuition was further backed by her sixth sense for magical energies, which she had trained and cultivated during her training as a wizard. The intellectual clusters–those bindings that fed energy through animas and minds–was warped. She could do nothing against them, much as she’d like to. At least for the moment.

Nyx had explained to them, in their exchange of stories not long ago, what she had gone through before arriving in the Fiamman shard. She mentioned Izma. Her otherness. How her alien nature was too much for her to comprehend.

And yet now, we can gaze on them freely. Is it some sort of power they activate? Some ward or barrier they use as a precaution?

Quincy would have kept on puzzling over the mystery of the astral demons if Lethia hadn’t cried out. The wizard snapped her gaze over in time to see the teenager rush forward just at the same moment Elmiryn somehow returned from the shadowy prison Nyx had cast her in. From the corner of her eye, she could see Meznik regard Lethia with a frigid sort of attention.

Moving quickly, Quincy caught up with the girl and wrenched her back by the arm. Lethia stumbled, her arms wheeling as she caught her balance. She cast an infuriated stare at the woman.

“What are you doing!?” She shrilled. “Nyx–”

“Is being helped by Elmiryn,” Quincy interjected. “Don’t go jumping in without thinking! You could just make matters worse!”

“You don’t actually mean to sit by and watch, do you!?”

The wizard sneered at her. “Why not? It’s what you’ve been doing this entire time!”

The girl’s lips pinched shut at this, but she turned her eyes back to the fight. Her body was still tensed as if ready to rush in at any second. Quincy rolled her eyes behind her back. If the little fool was so dead set on getting herself killed, then she wasn’t going to stress herself by trying to stop her further.

Her original train of thought already disrupted, the brunette found her eyes reluctantly turning to the battle at hand. Just as she had expected, Elmiryn had succeeded in intervening, but by the looks of it, only just. Quincy pursed her lips as she watched the warrior interpose herself between Syria and Nyx through a lancing hybrid attack of her fae power and her sword. With the master enchantress’s concentration broken, Nyx crashed to the ground.

An all encompassing gravity spell was hard to maintain no doubt, even for Syria, Quincy mused.

Lacertli was gone from the Ailuran’s shoulder, no doubt to watch the fight’s proceedings from the ethereal realm. Thoughts of the god got Quincy thinking about goals and allegiances as she watched the fight move further up the field, forcing some of the surrounding spirits to scramble out of the way.

Her eyes narrowed as certain promises nagged her.

The right moment, Elmiryn. I just need the right moment! Hang on!

The warrior in question was locked in with Syria now, and she pressed the enchantress away from her lover. Nyx, meanwhile, struggled to her feet, her face tensed and dirt clinging to her sweaty skin. She appeared winded, her left arm hugging her chest.

Did Syria try crushing her with the gravity spell? Quincy wondered.

Elmiryn and Syria began trading explosive blows–the master enchantress sending blasts of force at the warrior, while the redhead returned with a barrage of air and dust from her twirling sword. Quincy thought it stupid at first until Syria let out a curse and lost a costly second swiping dirt from her eyes. Elmiryn capitalized, but the manner in which she did so made the wizard start.

The earth about Syria’s rooty feet suddenly rose and gripped her ankles like hands. The enchantress only had enough time to look down before the soil ripped her legs out from under her, sending her whipping forward. No cry slipped her lips. She didn’t wheel her arms in a panic. instead, her hands instantly shot up, palms faced outward and fingers splayed, and she was halted in mid-air. Quincy couldn’t see the magic Syria was casting, but she could feel the gravitational forces in the air tensing as a foreign aura redirected a portion of the network. That was all magic was in the end–even primal magic. Networks. Patterns. Weaves. Creating an effect meant altering the existing state of life, and Syria did so with such grace and command that Elmiryn’s fae tricks seemed vulgar and clumsy in comparison.

Speaking of the warrior, Syria’s recovery hardly seemed to phase her. She started to go in for an attack, her sword held aloft and a sharp gleam in her eye–

–That was, until Nyx came out of nowhere and grabbed the woman by her right arm and pulled. Elmiryn managed to keep her balance, but when her body turned to adjust to her companion’s pull, the Ailuran did something that made Quincy laugh without thinking.

In one fluid movement, Nyx grabbed onto Elmiryn’s neck–and still holding her arm–the girl leapt up and tucked her body. She was not a heavy person, but her dead weight forced the warrior to bend forward. The moment this happened, Nyx wrapped her right leg around Elmiryn’s head, forced her right arm straight, and extended her hips with a snap. The warrior let out a strangled yell.

Quincy covered her astonished grin as she watched Nyx release the Fiamman to avoid having her skull crushed by one of Syria’s tree feet. Elmiryn stumbled off to the side, her left hand gripping her sword as her right arm hung limp.

Nyx just caught Elmiryn in a flying arm bar and dislocated her arm. That was…unexpected!

Of course, now the Ailuran had Syria to deal with on her own again. The girl rolled away from Syria, but the enchantress followed her doggedly, and the moment Nyx stopped in a crouch, the other woman sent a kick toward her face. The girl blocked this with her forearms and rose to her feet. Syria followed up with yet another kick, but instead of jumping out of the way like a scared girl as she had been before, the Ailuran raised her leg at the knee and used her shin to block the blow. Quincy winced as she saw the impact. She knew from experience that the only reason Syria wasn’t using elaborate magic spells was because she was using small scale casting to augment her martial arts. Add on to the fact that the lower half of her legs were made of solid wood and you were looking at fractured bones.

But to Quincy’s surprise, Nyx took the hit with just the barest of grimaces, her legs moving fast to intercept Syria’s other kicks. The wizard was in awe of how quickly the enchantress could move with such heavy appendages, but looking at her one would think she was even stronger than before. The exchange drew out as both women started to compete for the upper hand. Quincy realized that the battle was not for who could land the deadliest blow, but to see who would lose their balance first. Indeed, the more she watched Syria try to stomp Nyx’s feet, or Nyx to swipe out Syria’s legs, the more apparent it became that this was a battle of finesse.

Quincy frowned. She wondered why it was that the enchantress saw fit to challenge Nyx in a style of fighting that the girl clearly excelled at. Was it to make Izma pleased by illustrating how Syria was superior in whatever form of battle that she found herself in?

Quincy looked Elmiryn’s way. The warrior was trying unsuccessfully to reset her arm. Apparently her fae abilities did not extend to such an injury. Sighing, the brunette started to march toward her, staff out.

If there’s ever a moment to enter into things, it’s now!

At Quincy’s approach, Elmiryn snarled at her. “Stay out of it, wizard!”

“No,” she snapped back. She crouched down to inspect the exact nature of the injury. “We took an oath to help one another in our goals, right? Well this counts.”

“You’re just doing this because you can’t think of another way to find out where Hakeem’s gone,” Elmiryn grumbled, her eyes fixed on Nyx.

Quincy leaned her staff against her shoulder and started to roll up her sleeves. “Yeah, well…someone’s got to keep Nyx off you.”

Lethia’s voice cut in from behind. “Quincy, if you’re going to get involved too, then I can’t sit by and watch. This is my fault. I have to make things right. That means the demons can’t have their way!”

Elmiryn looked up sharply. “Lethia what are you saying?”

The wizard hadn’t even realized the girl had followed her. She blinked and looked up over her shoulder. Lethia’s eyes locked onto hers, and she felt something sharp stab just behind her irises and pull. As the numbness rolled over her, making her fall backward onto the ground in a stupor, Quincy heard Lethia say as she confidently removed her lightning staff–

“Excuse me while I borrow this…”

Quincy struggled for breath as the warrior’s face swam over her, her hand clutching the collar of the wizard’s shirt.

“Lethia Artaud, you get your ass back here!” Elmiryn shouted. “You give this woman back her skill! You hear me? …Lethia! LETHIA!

Quincy groaned and touched her head. “Wha…what? What happened? Elmiryn what are you talking about?”

The redhead looked at her with a grimace, then helped her sit up. “Lethia ‘borrowed’ your skill in using that lightning staff. She’s going to try and stop me from killing Syria—the gods know why!

Quincy blinked at her thickly. “…I—I had a lightning staff?”

Elmiryn spared her an impatient glare. “Wizard I haven’t got the time to deal with your goofy stupor, so just pop in my dislocated arm before I rip it off and beat you with it!”

Continue ReadingChapter 39.1

Chapter 40.1

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn once had a pet cat of sorts. He was an old fat tabby that hunted on her family’s estate, killing rodents and the like. As a child, she had loved chasing him around the yard, and sometimes she snuck a treat to feed him. The tabby didn’t have a name and wasn’t particularly fond of petting, but in odd turns, the surly creature always seemed to be close by her. If she looked out the window, he was there, sleeping in the plants. If she looked up a tree, he was peering down at her with his green slitted eyes. If she woke in the night, the cat was there, sitting on her dresser and watching her sleep.

Then Warner shot the cat around the time of Elmiryn’s seventh birthday, and the animal was replaced with a yippy little terrier that the girl hated.

The image of her father standing over the tabby’s corpse was something that she would remember for a long time, and though the cat had been nowhere near her thoughts lately, the moment of its death came rushing back to the warrior as she took in the sight of Syria standing over Kali.

Elmiryn was not fond of Kali for a variety of reasons, but despite her feelings, a great sense of outrage came over her.

When she charged Syria, she did it with sword up and yelling. There was no use in being stealthy. Syria may not have been able to read her mind, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t sense her presence.

Syria moved away from Kali, and the cat did not rise, her eyes staring fearfully into the dark. Elmiryn slowed her charge until she had successfully maneuvered herself between the enchantress and the feline.

“Kali,” Elmiryn said, not taking her eyes off of her opponent.

No response.

Frowning, the woman dared to move back slowly until she could glance down at Kali. The Twin’s mouth moved, and her throat muscles tensed, but her bulging eyes turned to Elmiryn, and the warrior finally understood what was happening.

“Let her breath,” Elmiryn hissed at Syria, her grip on her sword tightening.

Syria cocked her head to one side. “But why? Will you stop attacking me if I do?”

Elmiryn took a step forward. “Kali is not the one you were ordered to kill!”

Syria’s brow wrinkled and she gave a small chuckle. “She is connected to Nyx, is she not? If one twin dies, the other will soon follow. Nyx’s incomplete soul will be devoured by this dimension, and she cannot escape to our world in her weakened state. I have won.”

The warrior’s jaw tightened. “I can unravel Kali. I can unravel her, save her essence, and put her back into Nyx–no more separate consciousness or any of that bullshit!”

Syria smiled. “But you won’t. You aren’t the Spider. You cannot work with the patterns of others, and attempting to do so could kill them.” She craned her head to look at Kali. “Oh! It appears she’s passed out. Impressive. She managed to beat her childhood record of two minutes.”

Elmiryn nearly turned her back on Syria right then, but her years of training beat out her emotion, and she managed to keep her eyes focused forward. The enchantress glanced at the fight that was taking place in the Real World, and she made a small appreciative sound.

“You’re in a bind aren’t you?” Syria murmured. “You want to keep fighting, but killing me won’t mean that Kali will breathe again. I’ve turned off that part of her brain. You can’t take Kali back to Lethia either, because Kali only exists apart from Nyx in the shadows. Attempting to bring her into the light will only result in her vanishing, and without access to her, the Twins’ fate would be sealed. It’s a paradox, of course, that she could’ve done this to begin with. But that’s what this dimension allows for. Division, even if it has to break the rules to do it.”

“Division…” Elmiryn murmured. She dared a glance at Kali as her mind began to turn, cobbling together a plan. Slowly, the warrior returned to Kali’s side and crouched down. As she did so, she spoke, “And you? The Other Place divides things. It must have taken something from you.”

Syria laughed, but the sound was cold. Her eyes now turned up to Izma. “My joy. But that was something Izma arranged for.”

Elmiryn sheathed her sword and grabbed Kali’s arms, pulling her into a sitting position. The feline’s head lolled disconcertingly. “Arranged for? How do you mean? What could the demon want that for?”

“She didn’t want it,” Syria snapped. “She wanted it gone.” This made Elmiryn freeze mid-grab with her arms around Kali’s torso just as Syria turned to look at her.

“What are you doing…?” The enchantress asked slowly.

Elmiryn finished hefting Kali over her shoulder, her eyes fluttering as she looked at Syria to Izma, then Meznik. “She didn’t like your joy, huh?” she mused aloud.

“Elmiryn–”

“You know, Meznik feeds off of my hatred? But he and Izma are different aren’t they? Even though they’re both astral demons, they’re different, and that means they want different things.” Elmiryn flashed Syria a grin. “You don’t have hatred in you. I could see it then at Holzoff’s, and I can see it now. That isn’t what makes Izma want you.”

Syria’s only response was to raise her hands, and with their rise followed the earth before her, the soil and dirt churning into a wall before it blasted outward toward Elmiryn. In all this time, the enchantress had focused on using mostly gravity magic, and the warrior was surprised to see her resort to an elemental approach. But with her fae shield up and her feet kicking her up into the air, where the resulting dust held her, the woman ran, as fast as she could.

Nyx had once explained to the warrior how the Umbralands was the barrier between her mind and the Somnium. The Ailuran had once visited Elmiryn in her mind, could she do the same?

“Cat, there are so many things that can go wrong with this, but the one thing I really hope for is that you can heal that pea-sized brain of yours in time!” Elmiryn huffed.

Behind her, Syria screamed.

QUINCY________________________

In all her life, there was no one Quincy trusted more than Hakeem. She would wake from nightmares to find he was always there, his deep voice a bulwark to any resurgent demons that wished to wreak havoc with her heart. Even in the detached brilliance that was Tonatiuh’s power, her affection for him was something she could not quell. It seemed in those burning, golden days of distance, he was waiting for her to return to him. Patient. Ever patient. And it pained her to admit that Hakeem had adopted a stony disposition because of how emotionally vacant she had become. Her taika had known a greater source of self-restraint since he was a child, but there had always been a passion in his actions, and she had brought him to bury these things for her selfish pursuit of power.

Quincy wondered if she could ever forgive herself that.

Syria was an enchantress. She read minds–saw the hidden truth of people. The wizard was almost certain that Hakeem’s cold and ruthless assault on them was another ploy–another tactic to hurt her with.

…And she hated that she saw it that way. She hated that her mind, even in emotional turmoil, could not stop seeing the angles to victory. This was Hakeem. Not a monster or a rival. This was personal, and yet Quincy wondered if her failure was not in feeling pain, but not feeling enough of it.

Hakeem certainly wasn’t holding back, but Quincy was certain this wasn’t him exercising his ultimate power. Her husband’s armor, like all wizarding artifacts, had drawbacks for its uses–but should one be willing to make those sacrifices, the Aeumani Armor could achieve terrifying things. Ripping a hole in space and time, or leveling a mountain with gravitational force, was theoretically possible, but doing so would kill Hakeem in the process. This was why Hakeem had always been circumspect in what capacity he used his magic armor. What Quincy was observing in this fight, however, was still less of the usual power input. Oh it was certainly still dangerous, and the others were no doubt believing this was Hakeem when he was free of restraint, but Quincy gathered that Syria’s total control of him whilst still functioning herself must’ve lowered what both were capable of.

…It was an effect Quincy had seen once before long ago, with the Spider. Arachne. Controlling others may have been a terrifying concept, but doing so was hubris. A mortal mind could only handle so much in simultaneity, no matter how powerful they were.

Quincy just didn’t know how to capitalize on such information.

It had been a few minutes since Elmiryn had vanished, and Quincy had no idea where she’d gone. Nyx didn’t seem to know, but then again she’d been incapacitated to the point of not being able to crawl, so this didn’t surprise the woman. Lethia on the other hand gave off the air of being unconcerned–making Quincy believe that she had something to do with Elmiryn suddenly leaving the fight. But with Hakeem once again in pursuit of Nyx, the brunette’s suppositions were low on her priority list for the time being.

Taika!” she cried, as she threw Eate’s Son Hakeem’s way. The resulting cyclone swept the man up and away from Nyx, who had healed enough that she could at least limp away, her balance stumbling as the edges of the winds buffeted her pale form.

While the man was up in the air, Lethia aimed Quincy’s lightning staff at him, and before Quincy could tell her not to, a bolt of energy lanced through Hakeem, leaving the arc of warped space and time he’d just created unused as he tumbled helpless through the air.

“Hakeem!” Quincy yelled as she caught Eate’s Son and threw it again. She took off running, watching as the magical boomerang scythed through the air in high speed toward her husband. The tight arc she had aimed her weapon in reached its apex just as Hakeem neared impact. The resulting effect was a wide gust of twisting air–too wide and weak to be a full tornado, and yet strong enough to affect the trajectory of her husband, whose heavy armored body slowed and swung at the ground at an angle, lessening his impact.

Quincy caught Eate’s Son, its return so quick it stung her hand painfully, and she hurried to Hakeem’s side, one hand checking his pulse, the other holding her sword’s pommel up in case she needed to knock him out with it. Lethia approached, but stopped a few feet off, her chest heaving as she glared at Hakeem’s prone body. She aimed Quincy’s staff at the man’s chest, ready to fire off another bolt.

Quincy was relieved to find her husband’s pulse, but she didn’t spend long rejoicing as she turned to criticize the young enchantress. “You little fool! What do you think you’re doing, blasting off like that?”

“Hakeem isn’t in there anymore, Quincy,” Lethia said without looking at her. “It’s his body, but–”

“And I’m supposed to take the word of an amnesiac?” Quincy snapped.

“You did before!” The girl shot back.

Nyx’s voice floated to them, making them look up. “What matters is whether or not he’ll keep attacking,” she panted, still cradling her chest as she neared. The Ailuran looked like a fresh corpse the way blood and dirt seemed to exaggerate the paleness of her skin. But she looked more or less healed now, and Quincy was relieved. It was getting tiresome trying to keep her husband from single-mindedly smashing the girl’s head in with only unpredictable tornadoes and an ordinary sword to hold him at bay.

Quincy lowered her sword as she gazed at Hakeem again. “I think…he may be done. He must’ve hit his head on the landing.”

“Syria isn’t done with him yet…” Lethia murmured ominously. Quincy could see her staff tip crackling with static as the youth squeezed it with her hands.

“Then I will kill her before she can do more harm!” The brunette snarled.

Nyx let out a cry, making both women turn to look at her.

“Now what?” Quincy groused.

Honestly, how much more time does this girl need to sort herself out?

Nyx looked at them with eyes wide. She had both hands at either side of her head.

“I–I don’t know!” she stammered. “I just felt–”

But the Ailuran’s voice cut off with a dry rasp as she grabbed her throat with both hands. She looked at the others in alarm, and it took them too long to realize that she couldn’t breathe. Just when Quincy thought the girl would take a gasp, Nyx’s eyes rolled into the back of her head and she collapsed.

The wizard jumped to her feet, shouting at the same time that Lethia cast aside her staff to go to Nyx’s side.

Up above, Meznik chuckled in his alien music voice:

Fraying, fraying, little thread…

Izma joined in, matching his sick sing-song:

The sum is totaled…and thou art dead!

Continue ReadingChapter 40.1

Chapter 41.2

NYX__________________________

Scars. Paulo was covered in strange scars. A mess of lines and shapes on his cinnamon skin. Then I remembered.

Back when this whole mess began, Syria, along with her control of Lethia, had carved those into his skin using fire.

“Paulo,” I repeated when the boy didn’t speak. I looked over at Lethia and Quincy. Lacertli had excused himself in the usual abrupt manner. The enchantress hadn’t emerged from the safety of Argos’s fur, and the wizard had frozen where she was–half crouched over her husband’s body. Something about her stance, even in the dim light, felt rigid.

I looked back at Paulo, and saw that he had approached a few steps. The blanket he shrouded himself with stirred with the wind, and more of his features were revealed. He looked older, in the way that my brother Thaddeus had looked older when he returned from his first season at war.

“You’re…real?” Paulo croaked. “Nyx? That’s you?”

I blinked, bewildered by the question. My voice was slow in answering. “Yes. Yes, Paulo, I’m real. We all are!”

He looked at the others. “Quincy…? That really you?”

Quincy straightened slowly. “It’s me.” Something was off about her voice.

“Have you–Do you know where Graziano is? Arduino? Where is my family?”

Where her husband’s coma had previously failed to crack her brave face, Quincy suddenly crumpled at Paulo’s question. She looked down at her hands, which started to wring together, then looked up again, shoulders hunched. “I don’t know where Arduino is. I–But Paulo, Graziano… He’s dead.”

The news slid off of Paulo’s skin like rain water.

Pulling the blanket off of his head, the boy ventured closer. I was surprised to see that his hair had grown to his shoulders. How much time had passed for him here? “Quincy, where is my family?”

Quincy hurried forward, fighting her way up through the snow. She had her hands held up. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to reassure Paulo or ward him off. “Paulo. Listen to me. Graziano is dead!”

“Where are my brothers, Quincy?” Paulo asked again, but his voice had gone quieter. Colder.

I took a step back as Quincy stopped near me. Up close, I could see the tears in her eyes now. “Graz et moréChoi,” shemurmured.

“YOU’RE A FUCKING LIAR!” Paulo bellowed, and he advanced on us, suddenly drawing his rapier.

Without thinking, I leapt in front of Quincy and shouted. “Paulo, stop! Why would we lie to you!?”

Paulo pointed his rapier at Quincy, forcing me to shove the wizard further behind me as I moved to dodge being accidentally slashed in his fury.

Two years!” He snarled. “Two years I was left to rot in this eternal winter with no way of leaving, and Quincy let it happen! This bitch let me and Graziano walk into a trap, so if he’s dead, it’s her fault!”

“That isn’t true–!” I started to argue, but Quincy grabbed my shoulders and flung me aside.

She was still crying, but her face had started to harden back into what could be called the wizard’s usual expression.

“Don’t go speaking about things you don’t know!” she snapped at me.

I glared at her, scandalized. “I’m trying to defend you!”

Quincy hissed at me through her teeth, seemingly oblivious of Paulo’s sword tip pressed into her throat. “I do not deserve nor want your defense! If you want to help, then take Hakeem and the girl up to that campfire before they die of cold!”

I threw my hands up into the air and shrilled, “Fine! Üle lunam? Yibken! I don’t care! You’re on your own!”

I stormed over to Hakeem’s body, which in the slight wind had already started to cover with snow. As I passed Lethia and Argos, I barked, “Argos! Lethia! Stop blubbering and help me!”

Argos whined, but I heard him follow. As I stooped to heft Hakeem up into a sitting position, I muttered darkly, “I’m cold, numb, tired, hungry, spurned–and of all the people I could be stuck with, I have these cajecks!

The dog grumbled at my remarks as he came alongside, but I didn’t apologize. I just hefted Hakeem up (no small feat, let me just say) and put him on Argos’s back. In truth, the dog’s strength was probably comparable to my own, but simple physics made his large frame more capable of carrying Hakeem than I.

As it turned out, Lethia had followed us, and with her help, we kept Hakeem’s body steady on Argos as he made the arduous return to Paulo’s camp. The enchantress seemed to shrink the closer we got to Paulo and Quincy. The boy only had eyes for the wizard however as they spoke in tight, quiet tones back and forth. We passed them without a word.

Finally we reached the camp.

The cold was such that despite the fire being so near, I couldn’t feel its effects until I was a foot or two from its warmth. But even its draw didn’t have me like my old belongings did. Sitting at the edge of what seemed to be a giant horde of scavenged things was my modest little bag of trinkets, and next to that, my old clothes.

I nearly cried at the sight.

Rushing to set down Hakeem, I immediately went to my clothes and started to dress–first my trousers, then my boots, then my undershirt, then my gambeson. Certain other little items, like my stockings and my bandages were still missing. I was also so numb by this point that I knew it would take a while longer before I’d feel the full effect of my newly returned clothes. But I didn’t care.

I had my mother’s gambeson back, and that was all that mattered.

Returning to the fire, I sat across from Lethia and Argos, who had returned to huddling close to the fire. Next to them lay Hakeem on a blanket. I scooted close to the flames, letting my feet soak in the warmth. Looking over at Quincy and Paulo still in the shadowy cold, I could see they wouldn’t be returning any time soon. Well that was fine by me. I wasn’t sure I could take any more melodrama. My patience and goodwill was taxed.

I returned my gaze back to Lethia. “Can you sense the way out from here?”

She looked at me from amid Argo’s furry shoulder, and I could see the red in her puffy eyes.

When she didn’t answer, I scowled. “Lethia? Did you hear me?”

“…Yes,” she responded meekly. She gave a wet sniffle and hid her gaze again.

I clenched my jaw. “Then? Do you know how we can get out of here?”

Again, I got silence. Finally Lethia mumbled, “No.”

“Wonderful,” I sighed.

If Paulo’s change in appearance was any indication, we could be there a very long time…

Gods, to be stuck here for that long with these people!

“Maybe I should just let myself freeze to death,” I muttered next.

QUINCY________________________

Quincy swallowed and she could feel Paulo’s rapier tip sink into her skin just enough to bring forth a bead of blood. She found the young man’s eyes, shadowed by his tight brow, and she held them as best she could.

The wizard had been prepared for many things. She had been prepared for another fight, for a timely return home, for her husband to wake from his coma… But somehow, in the hustle that she had found herself swept in since finding Graziano’s body, she hadn’t thought to reunite with Paulo. She had almost taken it for granted that he was also dead. Did she feel sorry for not searching for him harder before? …No. It was clear now that it was meant to be this way. And she hardly had enough reason to strike out searching for the boy on the other shards when they were being accosted by outside forces. He was the last discovery they had to make, the lost thing that had to be found on this path home. Why? She wasn’t sure. But what Quincy did chastise herself for, was not being better prepared for this meeting.

Loathe as she was to admit it, Elmiryn was perhaps better equipped to break the news to Graziano. Quincy, with few to grieve for in her life, didn’t know how to handle such loss. The closest she had to that was when Jack, her father, abandoned her and was never heard from again. But it wasn’t the same. Quincy stared deep into Paulo’s warm eyes and knew it just wasn’t the same.

“I’m sorry you had to hear it from me…of all people,” she said. “But it’s like Nyx told you. What reason would I have to lie?”

Paulo’s mouth curled into a sneer. “Two years gives a person a lot of time to think. I thought about that night, when the others came with Syria. You stayed behind. You knew what was going to happen, and you let us walk right into it!” At these last words, Paulo pressed in deeper with the rapier, forcing Quincy back half a step.

She winced and closed her eyes. “I know. That was wrong of me.”

“Yes! It was! So when you tell me that you have no reason to lie…I don’t believe you! You always have a reason to lie! You are like a snake in the tall grass, waiting to strike!”

Quincy opened her eyes again and felt the tears she had kept at bay slip down her cheeks. “I was a different person then!”

The teenager let out a short caustic laugh, and with his rapier, he flicked at her brown hair. “Yeah. I can see you’ve changed.”

“No, I mean–” Quincy broke off. This wasn’t a time to quibble about the details. Was she really so different just because Tonatiuh’s spirit no longer possessed her? She bowed her head. “I don’t know what else to tell you, except that I’m sorry…”

Paulo didn’t respond, but Quincy could see from her peripherals how the teenager’s sword tip wavered.

When the boy spoke, his voice was choked with emotion. “Do you have his gun?” he asked tightly.

Quincy sighed. “I don’t. Elmiryn does.”

“And where is she?”

“I don’t know. We think she might meet up with us later, once we escape this place.”

Paulo snorted. “Escape? There is no way out!”

Quincy looked at him sharply. “There has to be!”

“If there was, do you think I would’ve stayed here for two years? Alone in the snow?”

The wizard blinked at him. “How did you survive?”

Paulo glared at her before looking away. He sheathed his rapier and the tension melted from Quincy’s shoulders. “At first,” the boy started, but then he broke off, growling.

He turned and looked up the hill to the campfire. He tried again, this time with a stronger voice. “At first I looked. Tried to find any sign of the others. The supplies we had left were all still there, but I had to hide them, because these…these ghost people would come. I think they were scavenging the old prison tower. I tried leaving this place when it became clear that no one was around, but then I found out that there is nothing else beyond this place! It’s just an island floating in nothing.

Quincy rubbed her arms, trying to fend off the cold. The numbness was creeping up her legs. “Were you always in winter here?”

Paulo swallowed audibly. “Yes.” He pinched his blanket tight around him and glared at her again. “I was alone here, in the cold, with no way out.”

“Paulo, if we could’ve come here sooner, we would have!”

The boy just shook his head. The motion felt weary and resentful. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Now we’re all stuck here.”

“But how did you survive? You still haven’t said,” Quincy pressed. If the boy was right about being stuck out here, then she wanted to know what resources they had to work with.

“I did what I could! I hunted what little game came my way. Scavenged for tools out in the daesce valley. Right now I’m collecting daesce hide to make warmer clothes. The dog…Argos. When he came, my luck really turned. He helped with food and fending off the daesce.” Paulo jerked his head behind him. “He saved my life.”

Quincy pursed her lips. She reached toward him. “Paulo, we’ll find a way–”

“Don’t touch me!” He snapped, swatting away her hand. He pulled his blanket back over his head, shrouding his face in darkness. The whites of his eyes seemed to burn from the shadows and Quincy felt her head ache inexplicably. “Just because I’m not trying to kill you right now doesn’t mean I won’t try later! I haven’t forgiven you for what you’ve done!”

With a sweep, Paulo turned and marched back up the hill.

Quincy gazed after him, her shoulders sagging.

“Fair enough…” she murmured.

Continue ReadingChapter 41.2

Chapter 46.3

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn was sorry. She felt sick with apology. (She felt sick with a lot of things, but chief among these was regret.) Like many times in her life, she hadn’t thought this through. She had trusted her instincts for so long, and they had so often carried her to triumph. All she had wanted was for the others to leave her alone. To hold onto her freedom for just a little longer.

Freedom to see the skies, for the basement would trap her from the stars.

Freedom to run without borders, for the containment circle would seal her in.

Freedom to change her mind, for the others would force her from numbness–

Now, as her wild power slipped from her will, the plants that had sprung up–mutated and made monstrous by a fae power she still barely comprehended–gripped her, held her, and trapped her. But the plants weren’t trying to suffocate her like they were the others. They weren’t wrapping around her neck, squeezing, nor trying to reach deep into her mouth and throat to flower in her lungs. They weren’t trying to unravel her very existence.

She could feel it. The others’ horror. Their desperation.

Elmiryn tried to reign it back. Tried to pull the threads and change the weave of what was happening.

But it wouldn’t change. She tugged and pulled, but the threads had become tangled and taut. Her head ached the harder she tried. The plant threads–glowing translucent lines in her mind’s eye–seemed to pulse tauntingly.

“Fuck,” Elmiryn whispered the word, bleak in its surrender.

Then as the plant vines, thick and rubbery and a putrescent green wrapped about and took her vision, she found herself visited by an entirely new sight. Even with her eyes closed, Elmiryn could sense the pattern of the world and all its weavings…

She could feel the suspended forms of the others, arched and twisted before their struggles were stilled by the green grip of the mutant plants. She could feel the Fake Hakeem (Fake-eem?) and Daedalus pulling at the plants from outside, but they could do nothing. These monstrosities had been created against the laws of time and nature. One moment seeds… the next, hulking giants with mindless murderous intent.

I’ve really done it this time.

Tears welled in Elmiryn’s eyes as a fist of shame and self-disgust clenched in her throat. Was she a coward afraid of the hard road? Was she weak and unable to overthrow her fae nature? Did it matter?

She couldn’t save herself. She couldn’t save anyone.

No, no, no!

From the pit of her stomach, Elmiryn screamed. The sound wrenched her throat raw. Her skin flushed hot. Her muscles ached and burned the more she pushed and pulled against the plant’s embrace. She was distantly aware of the men outside jumping from her primal cry, and she fought for another breath to scream again, only this time it came out more like a banshee screech.

A pulse of energy, like a small fast wave, went out with her piercing voice through the surrounding air’s flowing pattern. In but a moment it was gone, having traveled over the mountains to where she could no longer sense it anymore. It hadn’t really been her intention to send a ripple through the world’s weave, but would someone sense it? It was a dim hope that was fast discarded.

Even if someone did sense it, who would be able to understand it and act on it? Or even act on it in time, for that matter?

When Elmiryn’s cry petered out, she found she had to fight for breath. The plant was squeezing in on her, she realized. Her veins burned in her right bicep. Her left foot started to tingle. She choked on a sob and was very briefly glad that none could see her.

As she fought to take in each humid, musty breath, her mind perked to a ripple in the wind’s flowing weave nearby. It was small and far off at first, perhaps as far as the gates, and coming from the east the woman guessed. More ripples came, faster and faster, and they drew closer, shuddering the air current in their wake, until–

Elmiryn sensed a voice echo around her as though from far off, but the words were calm. Curious, even. It wasn’t correct to say she heard the voice, for it wasn’t actually a sound. It was more like she felt the voice.

A bug? Fat one. Who?

The woman didn’t answer. She didn’t know how. Did the ripples carry some sort of pattern she had somehow missed? The threads moved so fast she couldn’t quite make it out. Was it like the pulse of energy she had just sent out when she screamed? Did she need to make a ripple and send it back?

Uncertain of herself, but desperate, Elmiryn hastily drew up a small pattern of wind and a thread of dust from the ground. To anyone else’s eye, it would have appeared as nothing, but the warrior embedded a desperate message with the dust just before urging the wind eastward as far as she could make it go.

I’m Elmiryn. Can you see me? the message said.

She wasn’t sure if the wind would be swift enough, or if the wind’s pattern was strong enough to even go as far as it needed to. Elmiryn guessed whoever was on the other end of the ripples was very far off.

She felt Quincy had passed out. She thought she heard shouts for an axe, but wasn’t sure the men would act in time to save everyone. She needed to release the others…but she didn’t know how.

The seconds ticked by. Elmiryn felt her hope flicker. Just when she was about to send another message, the ripples returned with a contemplative hum.

Go still.

Go still!? Elmiryn thought with a growl in her throat. She whipped up the wind and dust, and answered:

If you can see this, then you can fucking tell me what to do!

The ripples returned, smaller, less energetic. Sleepy. Too sleepy.

Angry, the woman shot back: Hey!

The response came even slower this time, punctuated by what felt like a yawn. Out of reach. Go still, fat bug.

Elmiryn ground her teeth. One more message: Tell me how to save them, damn you!

Then a wave came, rumbling the earth, and whipping the winds up around them. The woman felt her skin flush cold.

Struggle kills! the entity snapped. The words echoed–almost vibratedGo. Still. Or die! Do not care. Just shut up.

This startled Elmiryn into silence. Was her panic making it worse?

Who are you? She wanted to ask, but a new voice, one more familiar, caught her attention. It came from within her head, like a thought, but it was clearly not her own. Elmiryn perked up at it. The voice, a girl’s, was indistinct, but getting clearer and clearer. Her headache flared.

Lethia Artaud…?

LETHIA________________________

Dear Jydel,

I know I’ve gotten up to my own share of trouble in the last year or so– but these people! My gods! Even when convalescing they can’t seem to help allowing some catastrophe to strike!

(Though to be fair, me voluntarily losing an arm was no easy thing to handle.)

I’ll try to be as detailed as possible about this latest drama while everything is still fresh in my mind, but I am not the storyteller Nyx is. I’ve read enough novels, I suppose, to make a decent account of things…

The latest commotion started in the afternoon. I was resting after another trying session of Daedalus’ brand of doctoring (I know his salves and tonics work wonders, but heavens do they reek and burn!) when I heard shouting. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but I recognized it to be Paulo and Elmiryn. When I peeked outside, I was shocked to see that they weren’t just arguing, they were wrestling one another… and not in a sportive sort of way! I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I decided to try and put a stop to it. So I grabbed a rubber mallet amidst the tools and made my way to them.

As I went, I got a sense that things were serious. Elmiryn was cursing and fighting wildly. Her mind was like an angry tangle of snakes vibrating the intellectual cluster so hard it was liable to give me a headache. Paulo looked determined, but I could feel in his aura the worry and fear. Quincy was also there, but she seemed to be only supporting the boy, not a primary actor in whatever was going on. She shared his emotions. Paulo glanced at me as I approached, and right then my target was chosen for me. His power as an enchanter made his awareness too keen for me to avoid. Elle became the only aggressor I could stop. Which was fine, I suppose, because she looked like the one least in control anyway.

Using a technique Syria had taught me (but which I’d not had the confidence to use till now– getting this particular enchantment wrong could lead to a person becoming deaf, blind, or dumb after all) I suppressed portions of Elmiryn’s awareness to the point that she could not easily detect me. But even as wild as she was, the closer I got, the more she suspected something was there. She nearly swiped me in the head at one point!

Paulo and Quincy had the good sense not to give me away. Then WHAM! I hit Elmiryn in the head with the mallet. It was a strong blow, but no worse than a good punch. Elmiryn dropped and I revealed myself to her.

I’d like to say that was the end of the matter. That everyone calmed down and worked out their differences. Gods, I’d have settled for a truce! Of course it wasn’t that simple. When is it ever? Sometimes I wonder if this group would have benefited greatly from a course in conflict resolution. At the mere mention of therapy, my head must duck their rebukes!

The trouble was explained to me. Paulo and Quincy were performing an intervention. The time had come, they said, for Elmiryn to quit her dependence on drinks.

But Elmiryn’s fae nature was not willing.

I could feel unnatural energy pulse through the soil as I tried to reply to something Quincy had said, but my voice came out of my right ear in reverse. My stomach dropped, and all I could see was searing bright colors. The ground cracked open, the unnatural energy rising up, and I felt things grow explosively. Before I knew it, I was entangled by monstrous vines. They gripped us all like giant hands!

They started to suffocate me. Squeezed my still-healing stump for an arm. In my dwindling consciousness, I did the only thing I could think to do– I retreated inward, inducing a dream-like state on myself so as to buy myself time. I didn’t imagine anything elaborate. Just an empty white space where I stood as I last remembered myself– no discernible ground or sky to speak of. It didn’t need to be fancy, I needed only its function.

The interesting thing is, Syria didn’t teach me this. Elmiryn did.

You see, when my mistress had me observing the others in the Other Place, she used her power to reveal Elle had created a kind of… lucid dream that she could access at will. Elmiryn did this to escape her circumstances at first, but there was an unintended effect that she later came to rely on: time moves more quickly in dreams, allowing for more time to think.

Now in my own lucid dream, I fretted over a solution. How could I get Elmiryn to stop this madness? How could I protect myself and the others?

Then Paulo’s ishin stumbled in.

More like BURST in, the fool.

I tell you, Jydel, that boy is as reckless as he is stubborn! How many times have I told him to set aside his powers until he could be trained? His essence nearly overwhelmed me as he barreled into my dream state! Into my bloody mind!

“Lethia, she’s killing us!” he yelled. Oh the headache that caused…

“Not if YOU kill us first! Paulo what are you even doing in my head?” I snapped at him.

He crossed his arms and glowered at me. “My apologies, lia. I thought the situation warranted a little initiative.” He swiped at his nose with his thumb and smirked gallingly. “And anyway, your precious mental barriers were down.”

Instead of rising to his obvious baiting, I took to pacing. “Now that you mention it… If you were so easily able to enter, then that means unconsciousness can’t be far for me. Damn! I thought I’d retreated here sooner.”

“So what shall we do?” Paulo asked. “Maybe we can pay Elmiryn’s mind a visit?”

I scoffed. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Elmiryn’s mind is like an upside down whirlwind of bat dung and angry mongooses vomiting rainbows. If we try to enter into her thoughts, we could lose our minds.”

“Well we can’t stay here! Time is still passing out there, and we’ll die if we take too long!”

“I know that! Just… give me a moment, will you?”

Paulo’s pressuring didn’t help my focus, but he was right. Every minute that passed was another second closer to death in the real world. Give or take. I hadn’t exactly gotten this lucid dreaming down perfectly.

We had to reach out to Elmiryn. She was the only one who could make this stop. Could we pull her into my dreamstate? Doubtful. Only enchanters could visit one another’s mind at will. Delving with our ishin into Elmiryn’s consciousness felt like such a gamble, but I was doing a poor job of coming up with alternatives…

“All right,” I sighed, looking at Paulo. “We have to try and connect with Elmiryn. Perhaps if we can combine our ishin–”

“Our what?

Jydel, I tell you, never have I begged the gods for more patience than right then. We were on the brink of dying, for heaven’s sake, we didn’t have time for enchanting lessons! But what could I do? With my dwindling consciousness came less power. I was going to need Paulo’s help.

Ishin,” I started, “It’s a measurable power unique to enchanters. Think of it like an extension of our consciousness.”

“Oh,” Paulo said. The look on his face suggested he didn’t get it at all and I had to take a very deep breath.

I tried again: “Imagine ishin as an invisible arm extending from your head. When you want to reach into someone else’s head, you extend your ishin. Clearly, you have that basic ability down or we wouldn’t be talking. Now we just need to do that together, but to Elmiryn. Preferably with more care! Or–”

“Or we go crazy?” Paulo finished with a grimace.

I shrugged. “Or we could die. Or we could go into a coma first, and then die. Or we could make her go into a coma, and then die–”

“All right, all right, I get it! Careful is better!” He scratched his head and frowned down at his boots. “Mind, uh… showing me how?”

I nodded. I didn’t want to, but I suddenly felt self-conscious. I’d never actually taught anyone something before. Advised on life matters, maybe, but I’d never fully instructed anyone on anything!

Fighting for aplomb, I beckoned Paulo closer. “Come here.” He did so. I tried to look at anything but his face– his shoulder, his stomach, his boots– “Now hold my hand.”

“You mean your only hand?” he muttered.

Trust Paulo to go picking at old wounds.

I chose to ignore his dig and tried not to flinch when I felt his calloused grip. Even as a figurative sensation, the reactive jolt that went through my spirit was… strong.

I cleared my throat. “Now close your eyes. Feel the thoughts of those around us. Find Elmiryn’s–”

“How can you miss her? She’s practically screaming over there!”

“Well it ought to be easier to focus on her then!” I snapped. I took another breath, and then said as calmly as possible, “Seek out her thoughts. Imagine yourself pulling closer to her. Slowly. Feel my hand and know that I’m with you.”

Jydel, have I ever described entering into another person’s mind before? It can be a messy affair, but doing it with someone else can be even messier.

The best that I can explain it to non-enchanters is that each person’s mind is like a cloud of thoughts. This is their “mindscape.” The thoughts can be understood as images, or sometimes like floating words from a page. Whatever thoughts that has a person’s attention the most will usually be found in the center of this cloud. And then, of course, there are those buried thoughts or memories that a person protects with jealousy. Most do it unconsciously for psychic wounds, like abuse suffered as children, but there are others who have trained to protect areas of their mind from prying. Not that I’ve tried it, but I suspect Quincy and Hakeem to have such protected memories. It’s rare that I can even catch a stray thought from them.

Now the deeper one presses into another person’s consciousness, the more that person’s animus will try to push them back out. I’ve been taught to understand them as matrices that thicken and expand, like a wire mesh that sieves out unwanted visitors.

Note, that is what a normal person’s mind is like. Elmiryn’s mind is far from normal.

I could feel Paulo tense up next to me as our joined ishin crossed the outer barrier of Elle’s mind. It wasn’t pleasant for me either. It was like… diving into scalding hot water. After the initial burn wore off, we then had to dodge a wild array of ideas and memories. They twitched and zoomed about like angry hummingbirds. I avoided these as best I could– paying attention to any one thought too long draws you into it, after all. Unfortunately, Paulo was less disciplined.

“So this is what Elmiryn was like when she was younger…” he murmured, his eyes fixed on something I couldn’t see.

His presence started to drift from me, drawn to an old memory of childhood. I pulled his ishin away from it, and said as stern as I could, “Focus! Ignore these stray thoughts! We need to press in deeper if we want Elmiryn to hear us!”

Paulo at least had the good sense to feel sorry. It thrummed from him to me, and my annoyance shrank. As I write this, Jydel, I must admit that though the boy is naive and clumsy in his enchanting powers, he has a proficiency in it. I am both impressed and a little jealous at his natural talent. With proper training, he could be a force to be reckoned with.

In fact, it was because of Paulo that we noticed the curious white square at all.

“What’s that?” He exclaimed, pointing at the blazing shape near Elmiryn’s core thoughts. “It’s not like the other thoughts.”

“That’s because it’s not a thought,” I replied with delight. “Let’s get closer!”

As we delved deeper to the center of the woman’s mindscape, the expected reaction from her animus started. The strange thing was, the expanding matrices were warped and twisted, allowing for us to slip through their defenses with ease. While it served in our favor, I was worried.

Without proper psychic defenses, anything could pierce into Elmiryn’s brain. I made a note that this had to be mended, and soon. Her mindscape was enough of a mess as it was.

When we neared the white square, I let out a sigh of relief.

It wasn’t just a square–it was a window. Upon looking inside, Paulo let out a gasp of astonishment. He’d never heard about Elmiryn’s dream realm. Like my own, it was vast in its seeming lack of boundaries–no walls, ground, or ceiling. But that’s where the similarities ended. Elmiryn’s world was a wavering place of shadows–as though light were filtering through rippling water. It was dense with sparrows and black kittens, all falling horizontally in the same direction, but in slow motion.

Elmiryn had disavowed being responsible for the helpless creatures. I struggled to remember if she had ever attempted to make them go away.

“What the hell is this?” Paulo murmured.

“Come on, we need to go in,” I said, feeling breathless.

I tried to enter, but Paulo held me back, his ishin pulsing with alarm. “Woah, are you crazy!?”

“You said it yourself earlier, we haven’t the time!” I pulled at him, but he resisted still. Clearly, I had to show him.

With all the strength I could muster (and I could feel that fading fast) I called into this window. “Elmiryn!”

My voice didn’t echo. Silence followed. My grip on Paulo tightened as I tried to bolster my ishin. I could feel my body in the real world losing its grip.

Paulo started to pull us away, and I didn’t have the strength left to stop him. It was all I could do to keep this mental connection active at all.

Then we heard her:

“Lethia? Lethia Artaud!?”

“I’m here!” I called. My voice was weaker, but I was smiling. Jydel, our salvation was at hand!

Paulo grumbled but followed me in through the window. Once fully inside Elmiryn’s dream realm, the shadows buffeted us like choppy waves.

“Still think this was a good idea?” Paulo snarled. His hands gripped my shoulders tightly as I lost my sense of balance and knocked into him, a particularly rowdy streak of shadow having struck my hip.

“We’ll have to see,” I answered. “Elmiryn? Come and still the shadows please!”

“Done,” Elmiryn said, suddenly right before us.

ELMIRYN______________________

Paulo and Lethia’s presence in her strange little mindfuck was beyond what she could hope for. Who better to put her back in control of the situation then the two people capable of forcing order on her mind?

“I can’t make it stop,” Elmiryn blurted, suddenly feeling out of breath. “I tried–but the pattern I pulled has gotten all tight and knotted up and–” the shadows around them shivered and started to close in, forcing her to shove them back.

“But how can we help, Elmiryn?” Paulo asked. “We came here to ask you to stop this, but if you aren’t in control, what can we possibly do?”

“I need to relax.” Elmiryn thumped a hand on her chest. “I have to stop feeling like I do! I don’t know if it’ll work, it didn’t explain it to me but–”

“It? What is ‘it’? What told you this?” Lethia interjected.

“I don’t know!” Elmiryn snapped. Her hands wheeled through the air. “It was a, uh, spirit or something!” She stomped her foot and buried her hands in her hair. “All I know is I need to calm the fuck down! Now! My emotions are probably what’s turning everything into a mess!”

“Nevermind following the dubious advice of ‘spirits’,” Lethia even made air quotations with her fingers, “What you’re asking is quite impossible!”

“It is?” Elmiryn and Paulo asked her simultaneously.

Lethia glared at them both in annoyance. “Yes! It took my and Paulo’s ishin combined just to pierce deep enough into your mind to be able to communicate with you! I’m afraid with our consciousness fading, we simply don’t have enough strength to do what you are asking, Elle!”

“Well we have to do something!” Paulo argued. “Or else what are we here for?”

“I’m with Paulo. You maybe don’t know it, but I’m just as trapped as you two are,” Elmiryn added.

“Serves you right for using your fae magic on us,” the boy hissed at her before turning away.

“Enough of that!” Lethia chided. “I need to think!” She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.

Elmiryn sighed, her eyes sweeping over this abstract corner of her mind. “I’ve really messed up.” She felt the rippling shadows flow in around her, and she didn’t stop them as they gathered about her feet and legs.

She needed to stop this… but she couldn’t. They were trapped, because of her.

The shadows built up around her, and other thoughts came. Thoughts of her mother. Thoughts of her father. Thoughts of Nyx.

I’ve ruined everything.” This she had spoken only in her head, but given where they were, it echoed all about them. Loud. Accusing.

The shadows came up over her head. They carried her up and away, bumping into the helpless forms of the kittens and sparrows.

“The boy is right. I deserve this,” she murmured.

LETHIA________________________

It’s difficult focusing when you are in someone else’s mind–doubly so if you are in a foreign mindscape partially on the power of yet another’s will. Paulo’s growing unease was clouding my ability to assemble coherent ideas. One would come close to me, only to shiver away on concerns of death.

When I heard Elmiryn murmur that she deserved what was happening to her, I didn’t think much of it–self-pity is not uncommon in these situations, particularly for ego-centric types like Elle–but when I finally opened my eyes again to glance at her, I remembered something I had learned long ago.

Dreams are simply mirrors reflecting an individual’s life as-is.  A nightmare, however, is a figurative tool used by the animus to catch the attention of the intellect. People have nightmares for many reasons. Though the nightmare may frighten or disturb–this does not mean its only purpose is to warn of immediate or future danger. It could simply be an attempt on the part of the animus to bring about a fundamental change in the intellect.  It could also be an attempt by the animus to answer what the intellect cannot.

All this time, we thought we were in Elmiryn’s lucid dream. But what if this was actually Elmiryn’s lucid nightmare?

Right then, everything in this seemingly chaotic place had new meaning. The shadows, the kittens and sparrows, even the endless sense of void… Elmiryn’s human mind was trying to speak to her! Wasn’t it interesting how she seemed to access it at these critical moments? Jydel, I was willing to bet everything that this revelation held the answer we needed…

And bet everything I did, because if I couldn’t get Elmiryn to face what was at the heart of her problems in the next few minutes, we would all be dead.

“Elmiryn, why kittens and sparrows?” I shouted up at her. “Why are they falling slowly through shadows?”

“Why not?” was her despondent reply. The shadows were so thick around her her, I couldn’t see her face.

“It matters because this place was not created in a void! It arose from your subconscious! Your human subconscious! I think it’s rooted in the very fear that’s keeping you from regaining control!”

Paulo leaned in and whispered to me, “Where are you going with this?”

I waved an arm at the small animals falling around us. “It’s weakness, Paulo. Vulnerability. Defeat. Except it’s drawn out to perpetuity. These kittens and sparrows fall, helpless, presumably to their doom, and nothing saves them. Kittens, black kittens. Remind you of anyone?”

“Nyx,” he said. For once, the boy was quick to grasp on to the matter, Jydel!

I nodded. “A symbol for potential loss. She’s afraid of losing Nyx. Or failing to protect her. Or both. I’m afraid I’m less certain about the sparrow. My initial guess was that it stood for Quincy. She was frequently referred to as ‘the fledgeling’ in her youth… But it seems unlikely, even when taking into account the story Nyx shared from that man Tobias. It lacks narrative significance to Elmiryn’s psychological identity–”

“Her family,” Paulo murmured. He looked up at Elmiryn, his eyes wide. “When I got a glimpse into her childhood memory, I saw it. Lethia, sparrows were part of her family crest!”

I grabbed him, excited. “Really? What else did you see in the memory?”

“Her mother. She was in the study. The crest was on the wall above the fireplace.”

“But what was her mother doing, Paulo?”

He put a hand to his head and squeezed his eyes shut. His form wavered. My grip on him tightened. He was starting to fade from consciousness.

“She was…” the boy struggled to get the next words out. “Painting. A tree. And… drinking wine, I think?”

There. It was small, Jydel, but it was something to go on. If the kittens represented what Elmiryn feared losing in the future, then the sparrows stood for what Elmiryn had already lost in the past.

I looked back up at Elmiryn and tried to quell my shock at seeing the shadows had all but condensed around her, till it was like she was in the center of a black hole. Somehow, the direction the animals were falling had suddenly changed.

They had changed to fall toward her.

Hadn’t she always had to fight to keep the shadows from closing in on her in the past? Her fae nature made it possible for her to control the nightmare to some extent, but in doing so, it stopped the message her human subconscious was trying to scream at her. The shadows that she was always fending off? Jydel, those shadows were her guilt and self-loathing.

“Elmiryn!” I cried out. “Your mother always counseled you to hide your true feelings until it was safe to express them! But your father made certain you never would be safe, didn’t he?”

No answer. My body started to tingle all over. Slowly, so very slowly, Paulo and I began to float back up to the window. Our strength was leaving us. I had one shot at breaking through to her before all was lost.

Every word became harder and harder to make.

“So you hid your fear! Your anger! Your sadness! You bottled it up inside, just like your parents taught you to do! You never could rely on anyone! You never could trust anyone! And how did they handle that kind of stress themselves, Elle? How?”

Still no response.

I was feeling sluggish. Elmiryn was growing smaller and smaller from us.

“They drank! All the time! When you saw your father in the Other Place as a drunkard, you felt ashamed! Not just because he was disgracing himself, but because you were face to face with a family practice that you were a part of! And did it work? No! Misfortune still befell them! You couldn’t protect your mother. You couldn’t meet your father’s demands! They became lost! And yet with Nyx, you still try to do the same thing, don’t you? The drinking and the self-denial are one and the same.”

Elmiryn said not a word. My words may have slurred, but I fought to keep going as our ascent to the window began to speed up:

“Elle, that practice will kill you! It could kill all of us! Your parents were wrong! It’s not your fault what happened to them! You can’t stuff your feelings down! You can’t drown them with drinks either! If you’re afraid, that’s okay! If you need help, that’s okay! This is a nightmare, Elle, do you hear me!? A nightmare! It’s time to stop fighting it and let it end–!

And then we were gone.

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn felt tired. Tired in a way she hadn’t in a long time. Even being continuously drunk, sleep had escaped her, leaving her to wander about the fields at night. Just like those days spent lost in the wild, with only the daesce for company, her every waking hour had become–

A nightmare.

Yes.

This place was a nightmare. How had she not seen it before?

Yes, of course.

Elmiryn nodded sleepily, feeling herself growing colder, feeling her body in the real world growing fainter.

She thought she had intentionally made this place. But how could she have when she had not even half the control over her fae powers as she did now? No, this place was something her subconscious had dug up. Her human side. But the fae in her had seized it, twisted it, and she had mistakenly assumed it was hers to command. It wasn’t really. Not in the way that counted.

Without realizing it, Elmiryn had managed to pause her own nightmare. It was like a stage play forced to remain in the same scene, the actors stuck in the same places, doing and saying the same things, as if unto infinity. She had done this and turned her nightmare into some kind of twisted refuge.

A place to hide when she was afraid. At a loss. Desperate.

“This is a nightmare, Elle, do you hear me!? A nightmareIt’s time to stop fighting it and let it end–!

Lethia, sounding drunk herself, had hollered these words mere moments ago. Elmiryn wasn’t quite sure how long ago that was.

Go. Still. Or die! Do not care. Just shut up.

That’s what the strange spirit had said. But that was part of the problem, wasn’t it? She was thinking too much to let things end. To truly go still.

Elmiryn was accustomed to fighting her way through her problems. Sometimes even laughing her way through them. But perhaps Lethia and the strange spirit were right. It wasn’t about not feeling certain things. It was about accepting them. And it wasn’t as if she hadn’t done this before. Hadn’t she stopped fighting Nadi the river guardian all that time ago outside of Gamath? What had allowed her to do that? To see that she had to accept what Nadi was trying to do just to reveal the lies Meznik had contaminated her with?

Stop fighting. Go still.

She needed to change her perspective.

Elmiryn gently touched the ground, flat on her back. When she got over her surprise that there was a ground, she sat up, and the shadows sloughed off of her like dark mud. It was daytime, but all around her was a thick fog. As she gazed down at herself in wonder, she saw that there were mangled lumps in the mud. She picked one of these up and gasped at the feel of twiggy scaled legs and stiff rachises of feathers. A dead sparrow, its eyes clouded white and gray. She set this down in her lap, and with two hands, she carefully picked up another lump. This one was black with matted fur that she tried vainly to wipe clean, her throat clenching.

With gentle hands, she picked up the sparrow and held it up alongside the tiny kitten.

“I wasn’t enough,” she barely managed to murmur, her voice hitching.

A wet sound, like raw meat dropping in porridge, tickled her ear. When Elmiryn turned to look for the cause, her skin went cold.

A kitten struck the dark mud. Then another. Then a sparrow.

She shook her head, tears clouding her eyes. “No.” One struck her on the shoulder. Another bounced off her back.

Elmiryn hugged the two dead animals to her chest and ducked her head as corpses rained down on her. They piled around her, and she curled up, praying for the torment to stop. They came up over her head, then steadily piled on her, pushing her down into the mud.

She couldn’t breathe.

She cried out a single word.

QUINCY________________________

Quincy was as taken aback as everyone else when the monstrous plants erupted from the ground and seized them. Before she could get to her magic bag, the vines gripped her arms and wrenched them back. They squeezed her chest and throat as little green creepers spread across her face. They pried at her lips, and she clenched her jaw shut. The creepers webbed over mouth so thickly, she couldn’t even catch breaths through her teeth. Her lungs screamed, and she felt her head throb from the poor blood flow.

Unable to take it anymore, she wrenched her mouth open and took a desperate gasp of air–

The vines seized the top and bottom of her jaw, wrenching them apart till it hurt, and then the creepers invaded her mouth, her throat, her lungs.

Unconsciousness felt like a sweet mercy.

Then someone was shaking her. Quincy coughed raggedly, spitting out bits of plant and dirt from deep within her throat. Her body ached. Her lips were moist. When she managed to open her eyes, she saw Hakeem gazing down at her, his face ashen.

Mweze! Breathe!”

She tried to reply to him, but only coughed more.

“Just breathe,” he said to her in his native tongue, stroking back her hair.

Quincy finally started to register the sounds of the others coughing and gasping.

After a long moment, she gripped her husband’s hand and rasped, “The plants–?”

“Gone,” Hakeem said, his brow knotting. “They simply… vanished. Back into the ground, where they came from.

Quincy made to sit up. Hakeem pursed his lips as if to show what he thought of this decision, but he helped her anyway. The brunette gazed about her, her eyes blinking in amazement.

The ground had been churned violently beneath their feet. Paulo was on all fours with Daedalus awkwardly reaching down to pat his head. Lethia was still on her back, but was moving–she was trying vainly to fend off Argos and his anxious face-licking. And in the center of the destruction…

“Elmiryn,” Quincy said, her eyes narrowing.

The Fiamman warrior was kneeling in a small pit, her back slouched as she stared down at her hands.

“Elmiryn!” Quincy said louder. Though spots erupted in her vision and her limbs felt cold and shaky, she fought to get to her feet. “How could you–!?”

“Help,” Elmiryn said. Her voice was flat, dispassionate.

Quincy’s tirade petered out as she felt a surge of surprise. “Help?”

The redhead turned to look up at her, and Quincy’s heart wrenched.

Elmiryn’s eyes were red and puffy, and their gaze was far off.

“I am… afraid,” she said slowly. Then she closed her eyes again and said louder, “I need help.”

“Elmiryn we were trying to help you.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I…” Elmiryn trailed off as Lethia sat up. Her eyes closed and she turned her face away again. “Lethia and Paulo helped me to realize… that I’ve been putting off a nightmare.”

“Did you finish it?” Lethia asked, a small cough chasing her words. Argos sat close behind her, casting her in shadow.

“I stopped fighting it.” Elmiryn said with a slow nod. “I let it finish. I saw that… I wasn’t enough.”

“Enough for what?” Quincy asked, daring to take a step forward. Hakeem put a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged him off. She needed to know if this was possible. She needed to know if Elmiryn would cooperate.

Elmiryn let out a shaky breath and stood. One of her feet was bare in the dirt after she lost it in the struggle to get away from Paulo. She wiggled her toes once, then said with head bowed, “I’m not enough to do this alone. I never was. I need help. I’m afraid.” Slowly she turned and held out her arms with wrists touching. “Tie me up. Knock me out. Drag me down there. Do whatever you have to.”

Quincy crossed her arms. “We tried!

“Quincy–” Lethia started, but the wizard silenced her with a wave of her hand. Setting her eyes back on Elmiryn, Quincy went on: “You weren’t in a mindless fae-driven frenzy when you attacked us, Elmiryn. When you made those things grow. You fought against our help. I want to know that the human part of you will stop fighting us! Otherwise, this will be for nothing!”

“Quincy, dejala. She’s asking for us to help her now!” Paulo argued.

The brunette shot him a withering look. “Like when she accepted your help before?”

“But–”

“She’s right,” Elmiryn interjected. She looked at Quincy and held up her hands. “You’re right. I wasn’t completely out of control. I fucked up.” She clasped her hands together and pressed them to her forehead. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I want this. I do.” Her face crumpled and Quincy’s heart wrenched again. “I’m tired, but I can’t sleep. I hear voices whispering to me. Everything I see feels like a lie. None of you trust me anymore. The thought of giving up drink and facing all of that scared me, still does, because what will keep me from losing my mind without it?” Then her lips, quivering, fought to spread across her face in a wan smile. “The nightmare showed me… I am not enough to keep the people I care about safe.”

“You were not enough to visit misfortune on your family either!” Paulo interjected hotly.

“And believe it or not, you are not enough of an asshat to completely turn Nyx away,” Lethia added gently.

What did they see in Elmiryn’s head? Quincy wondered as she gazed back and forth at the teens.

Elmiryn closed her eyes and fat tears spilled down her ruddy cheeks. She wiped at them, smearing dirt on her face before shrugging helplessly. “I am afraid, and I am not enough. When I realized that, the pattern I used to make the plants just unknotted itself.” She looked at Quincy and held out her hand. “I know I mean it this time because the plants wouldn’t have gone unless I stopped fighting those two facts.”

Quincy took another step forward, one hand tentatively raising. Her eyes were fastened on Elmiryn’s. “You’re afraid? You are not enough?” she said as one seeking to confirm.

The redhead chuckled, but somewhere in the middle of her weak laugh a small sob broke through and more tears fell. “Ergo, I need some gods damned help!”

With sure steps, Quincy cleared the last remaining distance between them and took Elmiryn’s hand. She looked at the others. Lethia was on her feet. Paulo approached on the redhead’s other side. With a glance at Hakeem, she nodded.

Together, she walked with Elmiryn and Paulo back to the tower. They guided her down the steps to the cellar where the candles kept the space lit.

As they approached the spell circle, Elmiryn spoke:

“I’m not sure what I’ll do or say once my fae-side starts to take over.” She looked at them both, her eyes earnest. “Remember that it isn’t really me. Remember that I want this.”

Quincy patted her shoulder. They were toeing the line of the circle now. “We know, Elle. And we won’t leave you alone down here. Someone will always be with you. We’ll take turns.”

Elmiryn stared down at the line, her brow glistening with sweat. For a harrowing moment, the wizard wondered if she needed to shove her in.

Then the warrior crossed the line. Behind her, Quincy made the necessary hand gestures to complete the ritual spell–tracing in the air a circle, a slash, then naudiz, the rune of need and constraint.

There was a small rush of air. Quincy looked up at the ceiling where she had placed additional protective spells. Just in case Elmiryn, in a frenzy, tried to escape through the floor. It had almost seemed overly cautious before, but now she was relieved she had thought of it.

“I’ll stay with you first,” Quincy said. She looked at Paulo who was gazing at the woman with a look she couldn’t quite identify. Awe? Pity? “Paulo, can you please bring blankets and a pillow–?”

“Not that I won’t appreciate those, but I should warn you… I don’t sleep anymore,” Elmiryn said.

Quincy frowned at the other woman. “When you said that, I thought you meant insomnia?”

Elmiryn shook her head. Even from where she stood, the wizard could see the Fiamman’s body clench up. “I mean I never sleep. And I don’t really feel hot or cold. I think… I think the fae never did either.”

Oh. Thinking of that, now the wizard could better understand Elmiryn’s initial resistance.

Having to be down here, in this cellar all night? Alone?

“I’ll take first night watch then,” Paulo volunteered. He had lingered by the stairs, a warm smile on his face. “Oye, this place is gonna need a table and chairs! Maybe I can bring a deck of cards?”

“I’ll take tomorrow night!” Lethia shouted down the stairs.

“No you won’t!” Quincy shouted up, as Paulo snickered on his way.

“No she most certainly will not,” Daedalus confirmed as he came down the stairs past the boy. The man stopped on the last step and pursed his lips. He folded his hands behind his back and said, “Elmiryn, Quincy and I believe we have a regimen that might help your body quit its drink dependence. Given the severity of your dependence, we have tried to lengthen the usual treatment mortals must go through. If we are being honest, however…” He sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “There is no telling what will happen. Normal individuals may suffer seizures as early as the first day. This can quickly be followed by hallucinations, fever, rapid heartbeat, respiratory complications, and of course, heart complications. I have what we need to get started, but I’m afraid Quincy will have to be the one to begin administering the needed medicines at first. I have no choice but to risk going into town to obtain the remainder of what we need.”

Quincy bit back a rebuke. She wasn’t sure how well-timed this was, but she supposed Elmiryn was in the containment circle, so it wasn’t as if they were going to scare her off now. It also wasn’t fair to subject her to such rigorous treatment without first informing her.

Clearing her throat, the wizard added, “Our hope is that within the next two to four weeks you might recover. It… It won’t be easy, Elmiryn. But we’ll help you through it. If we succeed, then this will be worth it.”

“If we don’t succeed–” Elmiryn started.

“We will.”

“But if we don’t,” the redhead continued, louder, “Then you have to promise me something.”

Quincy crossed her arms, her brow tensing. “I won’t promise until I hear what it is.”

Don’t you dare…

Elmiryn’s cerulean eyes met hers. “You have to kill me.”

The wizard closed her eyes. Damn it, Elmiryn. “No.”

“You have to, Quincy.”

Quincy shook her head, her eyes still closed.

“Do you honestly think we have two weeks for me to get better? A month? Our time here is running short. Sooner or later, someone will find us and try to hurt us. How are you going to move me? How are you going to get me to cooperate when I’m frothing at the mouth and trying to kill you all?”

“We’re doing this to save you, idiot. How can I agree to this?” Quincy’s voice became hoarse. She opened her eyes again to find Elmiryn was standing at the line, her eyes blazing, her fists clenched. Tears had cut lines through the dirt on her face. The woman was like an open wound as the wizard had never seen before. Quincy said next, almost desperately, “Nyx won’t let us!”

“She’s half the reason I’m asking,” Elmiryn murmured. “If this treatment is going to be as hard as you say, I may not be the same at the end of it. I may be even worse. Letting me out, or even leaving me here, would be a mistake.”

“You’re too hard-headed to let this beat you, Elle,” Quincy hissed back. Her lip quivered. “Don’t put this on me.”

“No one else will do it,” Elmiryn pressed. “It has to be you.”

Damn you!”

“Promise me. With Daedalus here as a witness. Promise.”

Quincy jumped as she felt Daedalus hand on her shoulder. She looked at him wildly and was surprised to see his tender gaze.

“Quincy, Elmiryn has made a strong argument. Remaining here even the minimum approximate time has its risks,” he said.

“It’s easy for you to say, elf!” Quincy snapped, brushing his hand away. “You hardly know the woman!”

“She almost killed us mere moments ago. What will she do if the fae in her takes over and she’s nursing hatred for our denying her addiction? Can we risk letting her free or abandoning her when the times comes to flee this place?” His words were gentle, but they felt cold.

“You don’t know her!” Quincy yelled. Tears were clouding her eyes. “She is a crass, foul-mouthed git, but she has helped us! Each and every one of us! She has helped me, and that’s why I cannot possibly kill my–” she broke off and pressed her lips tight.

“You cannot kill your friend,” Daedalus said with an understanding nod.

“Quincy,” Elmiryn called softly.

The wizard looked away, toward the stairs. She wiped the unshed tears from her eyes with her sleeve.

The Fiamman tried again. “Quincy.”

With a rough sigh, Quincy finally looked at Elmiryn.

The other woman was smiling. “Believe it or not, I don’t have many friends. So I’m happy you’re one of them,” she said.

“Then how can you ask me this?” Quincy asked. It almost came out as a whine.

“The same way I can say that the man you think is your husband is not, and that the real Hakeem is alive and somewhere safe.” Elmiryn looked down. “I’m sorry I didn’t say it sooner. I didn’t really know what to do. But now that I’m in here, there’s nothing I can do but warn you before I’m incapable of thinking straight.”

Quincy’s mouth fell open. Her arms, which had been tightly crossed all this time, fell slack at her sides. She looked at Daedalus and found he was busy glaring suspiciously at Elmiryn.

“How do you know this?” Daedalus asked her.

“His pattern,” the redhead replied readily. “I can see the weave of the world. His pattern is not Hakeem’s. In fact, it’s not even human.”

“Elmiryn, you are making a dangerous accusation!” Quincy was shaking. Her skin felt cold, but her fists clenched tight. “If the man above isn’t Hakeem, then who is he? What is he?”

“A golem. It was sent from Izma, I think.”

“To do what? Spy on us?”

Elmiryn shook her head. “Maybe to split us up. Maybe just to hurt you.”

“This is insane,” Quincy huffed. She paced once along the front of the containment circle, then she jabbed a finger at Elmiryn. “I don’t believe it!”

The Fiamman rubbed at her face and groaned. “Look, I figured you wouldn’t! But I had to tell you, do you see? Because I care what happens to you and the others! I need you to be on your guard!”

“So that I can kill if you necessary?” Quincy snapped.

“So that you jackasses don’t get backstabbed!” Elmiryn threw her hands up in the air. “Don’t you get it!? What I’m asking for and what I just told you are coming from the same place– making sure all of you are safe!” She clasped her hands together again. “Do you need me to beg again? Fuck, I’ll get down on my knees if I have to! But you’ve got to understand that what I’m asking is almost like a final wish! I won’t be in my right mind soon! I can already hear the whispers! Just do it! Just promise me while I’m still capable of understanding you!”

Quincy paced again. She felt faint and ill.

When she heard Paulo start to come down the stairs with the pillow and blankets, she felt weary beyond her years.

The words came almost as if on their own.

“All right, Elmiryn. I promise.”

Continue ReadingChapter 46.3

Chapter 47.1

NYX____________________________

Resuming the precautionary measures agreed upon with the others, I was avoiding the main roads, cutting through untamed terrain. I pushed myself as hard and as fast as I could go, but the bag of supplies I carried had fragile items. I was just clumsy enough to spill down a rocky cliff face at this pace, so I had to go on safer, but longer, routes through the low valley. There was the danger of finding wandering daesce the further north I went, but it was a risk I had to take–both for the supplies and for the harrowing news I needed to deliver.

The champion of Njord was in the region. Jack. Quincy’s father.

Who could say why we had failed to hear this until now? I supposed if I were a powerful and legendary agent of a major deity, I would also strive to keep a low profile so as to do my work undisturbed. But like anyone of such stature, his presence had become known to certain circles. Bounty hunters were one of those circles, apparently, but they were exactly the sort of people we had been avoiding all this time.

Oh, what sorry luck that we couldn’t have known sooner!

I needed to hurry back and tell everyone. We needed to flee this place. We couldn’t stay here. If Tobias’ accounts were anything to go by, Jack’s power was immense. We were in no shape to defend ourselves against such a being. His legendary moniker, “Wind,” was appropriate. He could blow away whole armies with just his breath if any of the stories were to be believed.

This is what I thought of as I raced through a copse of trees. My limbs shook with fatigue from not having slowed down for a little over three hours.

My foot hit a root. I stumbled, and fell to a knee, skinning it.

I tried to catch my breath.

Kali’s voice buzzed with frustration in my head: Don’t be a fool! Get up!

“I just need a moment,” I gasped.

We don’t have a moment! We need to get back and tell the others!

“I’m trying!” I whined.

A growl. Then let me take the lead! I’m long overdue my turn in the world!

My face screwed up. “What makes you think you’ll do any better?”

Perhaps you’re right… Very well. We’ll transform into Eikadi.

My eyes widened. “Now? But–”

We’ll have enough energy to get there, and when we revert, I shall be in control. Is this acceptable or not?

My lips thinned. Could we hold the form long enough to get to the tower? We were weak, running on little sleep. I had already pushed our body hard, trying to make up time for using the longer way.

We can do it, Kali insisted.

I sighed. “Very well.”

The change came in a flash of pain, and it didn’t end until my cries had shifted to a primal scream that echoed long into the mountains.

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy sat in the kitchen, her head in her hands. The hour was late, and the space was dark. From the study, a fire could be heard crackling, light trailing in through the entryway. She didn’t bother lighting a candle. The dark was a nice veil to the anxiety etched across her face.

“…I can say that the man you think is your husband is not, and that the real Hakeem is alive and somewhere safe.”

Over and over, the words repeated in her head.

She didn’t want to believe it… and yet, the doubt was enough. Hakeem’s gaze now made her wary, his touch made her tense.

Tears pricked at her eyes, but she fought against them. If she let so much as one drop, she’d break down into a sobbing mess. She had felt proud of the fact that since returning to their realm, she had held it together. Her young heart, now freed from Tonatiuh’s parasitic leeching, reacted strongly and without restraint. But here, the pressing needs of their group had steeled her nerves and kept her from giving in to the rage and depression that so pushed on the inside.

That, and having Hakeem back.

But now this one comfort was lost. In the wake of Elmiryn’s epic intervention, she had to sit very still, in the dark, to keep from cracking.

Especially if she was going to be in the proper state of mind to break the news to Nyx.

Lethia couldn’t do it because, despite her protests, her weak body hadn’t even managed to stay up long past sunset. Paulo was busy keeping watch on Elmiryn. Daedalus had gone to town for much-needed medicines. And Hakeem…

Quincy’s hands curled to fists against her temples.

The door banged open. Quincy jumped, her eyes snapping to large circles as she took in the very massive shadow now cutting a swathe through the light that fell against the opposite wall.

Her breath caught, and she eyed her lightning staff, which had been sitting propped against the table. It hadn’t gone far from her since that afternoon.

Slowly, Quincy picked up her chair and attempted to set it further back as quietly as she could. It made the tiniest thud against the hard floor, making her wince. Her sweaty hand reached for her weapon–

There was a growl, closer now. Quincy froze, sweat trailing down the side of her nose. Her head was facing the cooking pit, opposite the entryway. Slowly, she turned.

A giant black cat person stood in the entryway, one large bag slung over their shoulder. The firelight from the study lit their tawny eyes.

Quincy relaxed, though just a little. “Nyx!”

Another growl, lower this time. Ears pinned as the cat person set the large bag down onto the floor, musical tinkling coming from its contents.

Quincy’s brow tensed. “Nyx?”

She received a spitting hiss, fangs showing. The tawny eyes glowered.

Then the woman finally understood. Her lips thinned. “Kali.

Kali made no more utterances, her body slouching as it turned and stumbled back the way it came, out of sight. Quincy, startled, followed after the Ailuran to the chill outside. 

There she found Kali had collapsed on the ground, writhing as she underwent her transformation back to her sapien form. Quincy grimaced, but her eyes did not leave the girl. Perhaps it was morbid fascination, but seeing her bones morph, twist, and snap to new shapes and dimensions–skin, muscles, and sinew tearing with wet ferocity–was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. Not many humans got to live to see an Ailuran shapeshift. 

Fewer still got to see a Marked Ailuran suffer their transformation. It would never cease to arrest the woman’s attention.

My gods… The agony! How do the twins endure this every time?

When the transformation completed, Kali lay on her back, her face glistening as she stared up at the stars, panting.

Quincy leaned on the doorway, the cool night air chilling the sweat on her face. “Would you like water, or…?”

“No,” Kali said. She grimaced as she raised herself up into a sit. Her back slouched as she scowled at Quincy. “I need to know something.”

“What?”

“Please explain to me…” Her gaze narrowed and she pointed at the churned crater not far behind her. “What in the nine hells happened?”

Quincy’s eyes slipped shut as she hung her head. “That’s why I waited up for you.” She gestured for Kali to follow her. “Come inside. Sit. This isn’t easy for me to say.”


After a bit more coaxing, Quincy had a cup of water in front of the Ailuran. They sat across from each other in the kitchen, two small candles washing them in scant light on the table between them. Their shadows danced largely on the walls.

Kali drummed her fingers loudly on the table, a tight fist tucked under her chin as she glowered with obvious impatience. Quincy shifted uncomfortably under that searing tawny gaze as she tried to find the words to say. Moments ago she’d had it all planned out, but it was funny how that crumbled away at the precipice of the telling.

There isn’t any way to ease the sting of this, Quincy finally thought with a sigh. I just… need to out with it.

“Elmiryn’s currently in the basement in a containment ring.” Quincy’s hands clenched in her lap as she tried to keep a steady gaze with Kali. “She’s agreed to let us help her break her addiction to alcohol.”

The news had an immediate effect.

Kali’s face, which had been tensed in a soft scowl that suggested irritability and exhaustion, suddenly went as smooth as a river stone. Her tucked fist slowly unclenched and laid itself flat on the table.

With exaggerated slowness, Kali murmured, “Elmiryn… agreed?

Quincy blinked for the first time. She hoped the sweat she felt breaking on her brow wasn’t so noticeable in the weak candlelight. 

“Let me clarify…” she licked her lips and pushed a finger into one side of the table. “She agreed.” She lifted her hand and pushed her finger into the other side of the table. “Then violently disagreed…” She returned her finger to its original place. “And then agreed again.”

Kali’s cheek twitched just as her hand flexed, then relaxed against the table. “She’s just going to… stay… in that freezing cellar?” Her words were clipped, and her lips quivered like she was holding something back.

Quincy swallowed nervously.

Nyx… Kali is barely keeping her sister’s emotions from spilling out.

“It was the only space big enough for us to do the alchemy spell. Elmiryn isn’t affected by the cold and she doesn’t sleep,” Quincy said, her eyes tensing with sympathy. “But we made sure she has blankets and pillows. Paulo talked about bringing hay down to her. He’s with her now, on the first watch.”

A muscle moved in Kali’s jaw. “First watch?” she half-growled.

I wonder how much of what I’m seeing is Kali’s reaction or Nyx’s…?

“She’ll never be alone,” Quincy went on. “We’re going to take turns, staying down there with her. Not just to keep her company, but also in case… in case of health complications.” 

Quincy turned over her hand, her brow knotting tight. “Daedalus believes Elmiryn will manage with what tonics he gave her for tonight, but he made an emergency trip back to Belcliff for medicines she’ll be needing later. With luck, he should be back after sunrise.”

Now Kali was speaking through clenched teeth, her face quivering from… restraint? Rage?

“And just how long… were you people… going to keep her down there for?” Her nostrils flared as her breathing became shorter and shorter.

Quincy took a steadying breath, her eyes growing.

“Kali…” She paused, wondering if what she would say next would improve or worsen the situation. “Nyx

Kali actually hissed, her mouth twisting into a harsh sneer that bared fangs– real fangs.

Quincy snapped back into her chair, her heart jumping in her chest.

Right. Never, ever, try to speak directly to Nyx when Kali is in control.

“I’m sorry,” Quincy said quickly, her hands going up. “That was rude of me, you’re right. You’re here, Kali, and I should speak to you. I only meant–”

“You only meant to stick your nose in our head,” Kali spat with narrowed eyes. “As if you could possibly understand us!” She thrust a thumb at herself. “It is my face you see. Speak to me. So long as I’m in control, what goes on in our shared mind is none of your concern until I say otherwise! Do you understand me, human?

Quincy pursed her lips. “Completely…” She crossed her arms and added coolly, “Ailuran.”

Kali snorted. “I’m going to ask one more time. Just how long is Elmiryn meant to be down there?”

“As long as it takes.” Quincy heaved a sigh and rubbed a sweaty temple. “Which… could be weeks.”

Kali’s brow tightened. “Weeks?”

Quincy nodded once. “Yes. Weeks.”

Kali’s breathing stuttered suddenly, her gaze dropping to the table. Her eyes ticked back and forth, lips moving with indistinct mutterings. Quincy watched, bewildered, as the Ailuran flinched, one hand going to her head.

“I know!” she snapped.

Quincy’s eyebrow arched, and she opened her mouth to respond, but she quickly swallowed her words when Kali went on, still not looking at her, expression flashing from stark fear to tense anger and back.

“Idiot!” Kali snarled at the table. Her eyes were unfocused. “What do you want me to do about it? I said I know that, I– Rrgh, just calm down! I can’t think!”

She isn’t accustomed to being in the lead like Nyx is. Hopefully she’ll get better at it. Seeing her like this… Quincy grimaced. It’s disconcerting to watch!

Quincy cleared her throat loudly. “Kali.”

Kali looked at her sharply, her lips thin as a single curly lock fell into her gaze.

Quincy threaded her hands together and rested them on the table. “Elmiryn needs to get over her fae addiction while there is still human left in her. She still has a chance to overcome this… but it will not be easy, and she will need time.”

“We don’t have time,” Kali huffed, her shoulders rising like hackles.

Now Quincy frowned, her mind tickling with a sense of danger. “Kali, what is going on? What do you and Nyx know?”

Kali exhaled harshly, her mouth turning down at the corners. “We are not safe here. In Belcliff, we ran into Karolek–”

Quincy’s eyebrows shot up. “The metal sorcerer?”

“Yes.” Kali looked at her solemnly. 

“And when you got away from him, you ensured you weren’t followed?”

“Of course!” Kali pouted, as if the question itself was insulting. “But before we parted ways, Karolek told Nyx…” She took a breath and said with a shake of her head. “Quincy, he told Nyx that your father is in Albias.”

Quincy sat back, her face going slack.

“My…father?” her voice sounded small.

She felt cold and faint. Her breath came with struggle, cutting in jagged, uneven takes.

She laughed without warning. “You don’t mean–”

It couldn’t possibly–!

“I mean Jack, Quincy. The man known as Wind.” Kali’s forehead wrinkled with worry. “Karolek couldn’t tell us for sure what he’s doing in the region, but apparently Jack’s been retracing the effects of our experiences in the Other Place for the last year or so. That journey has led him here. Now.”

“That is not good news.” Quincy’s voice was just a shaky whisper. The muscles in her neck corded as every part of her screamed to run. Run into the night and not look back. “We are in no shape to face him!”

Another snort from Kali. “An understatement. He could kill us all.” Her gaze turned lidded. “Well. Almost all of us. It’s hard to say what he would do once he realizes he’s finally found his fledgeling.”

Quincy leaned onto the table and dropped her face into her hands. “If he even recognizes me. It’s been years.”

“Can we move Elmiryn? Is that an option?”

Quincy lifted her face from her hands enough to see Kali over her fingers. Into her palms, she intoned, “No. That is not an option.” She buried her eyes back behind the shields of her hands. “Elmiryn’s fae nature is awakening, and it is ravenous. Releasing her before she is free of her addiction would invite our destruction… and possibly hers as well.”

“So we’re stuck here.” Kali’s voice was flat.

Quincy only nodded. She’d delivered the news. She wanted to drop the burden of the day. The weariness had penetrated her bones, casting shadows under her eyes. Sleep was needed.

Jack is coming. Jack will find me.

Quincy’s body started to coil.

Jack will find me and kill everyone

Quincy lifted her head and jabbed a finger at the bag near the entryway. “What did you bring for us, Kali?”

Focus on something smaller. The supplies.

Kali seemed taken aback by the question. She looked askance at Quincy. “New things to liven the meals. At least, Nyx hoped they would.” Her expression tightened as she looked at the bag with sudden worry. “Actually… We bought some drinks.” She looked at Quincy with what could almost be called apology. “Nyx thought Elmiryn would need it.”

Quincy waved a hand, sitting up. An idea was coming to her… “No one could have predicted what happened today.”

Kali rubbed her chin. “Hmm… Nyx says the wine could be used for cooking. The sake and absinthe we could dump–”

“Wait.” Quincy held a hand up, her eyes sharp. “Just… wait. Let’s not waste a perfectly good drink.”

Now Kali looked at her with one eye squinted. “Quincy, Elmiryn can sniff out a drink like a hound. We cannot keep any of it if she means to quit alcohol!”

Obviously,” Quincy snapped. She pointed at herself. “But in twenty-four hours I’ve nearly been suffocated to death, informed my long-lost-hated-father is about to complicate my life, and–” she dropped her voice to a hot whisper, “–apparently my husband is not my husband at all!”

Kali’s eyes widened. “Elmiryn told you?”

A caustic laugh. “Oh my, did she ever!” She swiped her hair back with a rough hand. “I suppose it’s no surprise that you and Nyx knew! Of course you two knew!”

“We weren’t sure–”

Shut up. Just… shut up. I don’t want to hear excuses!” Who else had known? Lethia? Paulo? Daedalus? Hell, Argos?

Was it really true? Had she been clinging to a lie this whole time? Was she that big a fool?

Quincy leaned back, her nose tweaked and her scowl fierce. “If I feel I need a nightcap just to drag myself to sleep in these wee hours, then I’ll help myself to the spirits my gold purchased!”

She threw her hands up and laughed bitterly. “I’ve been mustering on for fucking days–cooking and cleaning like some common servant–all while bearing the weight of teenage hormones, elven crankiness, unwashed lunacy, and whatever the blazes has been going on with your gods’ damned twin! I’m entitled to one bloody drink!

Quincy slammed her hands into the table and stood, her chair scraping back loudly across the floor. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try and lose consciousness for a few hours before I have to start mothering everyone again.”

Kali glared but didn’t move to stop Quincy. She only watched as the wizard went to the large bag, rummaged for one of the drink bottles, then stalked out the entryway and out into the night.

As Quincy ripped the stopper from the bottle, she felt a lump form in her throat, but she swallowed it down with a quick swig. She’d grabbed the sake, by the taste of it.

Hakeem isn’t here.

She succumbed to the fact. She didn’t want to, but she believed it. What reason did Elmiryn have to lie? Knowing her love was “somewhere safe” did little to ease her despair.

Hakeem isn’t here and Jack is coming.

Quincy took another swig, then headed for the barn. She’d find a haystack of her own to sleep in. Tears stung her eyes… and she let them fall because there was one burden she couldn’t get out from under, still.

Hakeem isn’t here, Jack is coming, and I…

She sobbed, pausing at the corner of the barn to lean against the weathered wood.

I may have to kill my friend. I may have to kill Elmiryn.

Quincy took a longer guzzle from the sake–ignoring the harsh burn as the liquid wound its way to her stomach.

Gods have mercy on me. Gods have mercy on us all.

KALI___________________________

I didn’t get up from my seat.

We should rest, I thought. A frown still marred my features, like a smoldering fire.

Just a word. A quick one— Nyx. The emotional fool.

I closed my eyes with suffering as I felt my sister’s cloying desperation and guilt.

I tried again. We should rest. You’ll be of a better mind–

She already knows we’re here, Nyx cut in. Waiting till morning will only hurt her!

My lip curled back to bare fangs. This isn’t fair. This is MY time–!

Please. Please! Don’t make me hurt her anymore than I already have. Nyx’s voice sounded tinny in my head.

I sighed. Five minutes. No more.

Oh, thank you! Thank you, sister!

My nose tweaked to the side as I stood.

Don’t thank me yet…

I made my way to the cellar, my steps feeling heavy as I descended down the stairs. My nose wrinkled as the dank stench of the underground space reached me. It wasn’t just that, though. There was a rancid sweat that permeated the air.

The lantern light bloomed into view, and passing over the final steps, I rounded through the entryway into the cellar proper.

Paulo turned in his seat to look at me, at first looking bored, before his eyes widened with surprise. He was sitting at a small makeshift table using an old wagon spoke and strapped pieces of old lumber. In front of him was a moldy book on enchanting that he’d no doubt scrounged from the corner of the study.

He hurried to his feet. “Nyx!”

“Kali,” I snapped. This was going to be very annoying to deal with, I could already tell. “I’m here to let Nyx speak with the Fiamman. Briefly.”

Paulo ran a hand through his hair, as we both looked to the rear of the cellar.

Curled up in a ball lay Elmiryn, her back to the entryway. She was resting on a modest stack of hay and a dark blanket, a pillow squeezed tight under her head. Her fiery red locks weaved in tight, chaotic knots behind her. Her exposed neck gleamed with a sheen of sweat.

“Speak with her?” Paulo mumbled with a shake of his head. “More like at her. Ever since Quincy gave her medicine for her fever, she’s been huddled there, not moving.”

I crossed my arms. “Nevertheless, my sister wishes to try. Give us the room.”

Paulo crossed his arms and arched an eyebrow at me. I rolled my eyes.

Please?” The word fell from my mouth, flat and heavy.

Paulo held up his hands. As he passed us, he paused to say, “Do not cross the containment line. She’s already tried escaping once.” He peered over his shoulder at Elmiryn. “If she starts gasping or convulsing, scream for help. Quincy and I will be down as quick as we can.”

His eyes returned to my face. “But no matter what, do not try to handle her on your own.”

We’ve missed terrible things… Nyx whispered with dread.

I only gave a terse nod of my head. I just wanted to get this over with. This place… it felt thick with sickness and desperation.

I waited until Paulo’s footsteps faded to the floor above. Then I closed my eyes, preparing to slip back into the depths of our shared consciousness to give room for Nyx to regain control. I could feel my sister rushing forward, eager to speak.

“Kali…” Elmiryn croaked. Her voice sounded weak and phlegmy.

I froze. Nyx halted her advance. My eyes eased open.

After a long moment, I murmured, “Yes?”

“I’ve never treated you fairly, have I?”

My chin lowered a little as my shoulders tensed. “That’s a stupid question.”

“I suppose it is…” The woman rose slowly, one arm propping her up from her hay bed. She still didn’t turn around. “Nyx is giving you a chance to be in control… But you’re still letting her speak with me. Why?”

My lip curled. What was this? Some stupid human game? This wasn’t a mystery! “Because she begged me to. Obviously.”

Elmiryn’s head lowered. “It means that much to her, huh?”

My patience was running thin. This was between Elmiryn and my sister. I just wanted to go to sleep. “You have five minutes with her,” I said brusquely. “And then I’ll be on my way.”

“Just five? Will you let Nyx come back again?”

My jaw clenched. “Maybe. If I feel like it.”

Elmiryn gave the slightest nod. “Thank you.” 

I could feel my cheeks burn. I didn’t like this sudden sincerity from the woman. “Don’t waste our time with a heart attack,” I snapped. “That would be annoying.”

Elmiryn chuckled dryly as I hastily retreated into the sanctuary of my mind. 

“Sure thing,” I heard the woman say.

NYX____________________________

I slipped to the forefront of our mind, the dream-like vision giving way to clear sight.

My expression softened as I beheld Elmiryn’s pitiful form.

“Hullo, Nyx,” she murmured, no doubt sensing my presence. It seemed the containment circle didn’t stop her strange ability to sense others life energies.

“Hello, Elle,” I said softly.

Elmiryn finally turned her body, her gaze lifting to meet mine.

Neither of us said anything for what felt like ages. I struggled to think of something worthwhile to start with.

Should I congratulate her for this bold step to reclaiming her health? Or apologize for her misfortune? Could I ask for her version of events? Perhaps it would be better to start off with a simple mention of the supplies we’d managed to acquire?

But Elmiryn beat me to it.

“I never wanted you to see me like this,” she said. Her gaze slipped down to my boots. “It was my job to care for you…” She turned her face away. “Now I can’t do anything for anyone.”

I took a little step forward. “You just need time!” I said earnestly. “Healing is necessary. You can’t be ashamed of that.”

“Like you needed healing?” Her eyes slid sideways to me meaningfully. “For your heart?”

I crossed my arms over my stomach as my chin fell to my chest. “I… I suppose.”

“And do you still need healing?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

Did I need more time? It was Kali’s turn to experience the world, and I had lagged terribly in giving her this freedom. Her five-minute allowance was strict but understandable. Could I say what I needed to say now? Should I? Elmiryn was a wreck of a being. Her unwashed body clouded the air. Her voice was like a miserable swamp, slimy, and slow.

And her eyes… gods, her eyes!

How they pierced into me, pitifully dark and yet sharp with an unnatural hunger. They wanted so much from me. Some of it I could probably give her. The rest… I wasn’t so sure about.

“I don’t want to give you more excuses, Elle,” I said carefully. “But if I’m being honest, I don’t know that the truth I’ve been holding back is something you should hear right now.”

“This may be the last time I’m capable of hearing it, Nyx,” Elmiryn whispered. To my alarm, her eyes seemed to gain a strange rosy glow.

I bit my lip and hugged my stomach tighter. I was starting to feel ill. What should I do? Surely this wasn’t the time to be talking about this?

It will never feel like the right time, so just out with it, Kali said. Though her words were harsh, her voice was soft. Sympathetic. Furthermore, the woman has a point. If she loses her mind or dies from this effort, you won’t have another chance.

My throat tightened and my chin crumpled. Tears quickly flooded my eyes, and I couldn’t see anymore.

“It’s hard,” I sobbed.

I know, Kali murmured.

“I know,” Elmiryn replied.

Wiping hastily at my eyes, I tried to stiffen my lip, but it wouldn’t still. 

I could say it. I could. I just needed to force it out. I just needed–

“Izma raped me,” I gasped.

There. The first step taken. Better yet, without all the hemming and hawing that I’d stumbled through when trying to tell Lethia. I’d just said it, and the damn thing was out. But there was still more.

Before Elmiryn could respond, I barreled on, frantic to reach the end. “Izma did. She raped me, and, and sh-she used your face whilst doing it!”

And the whole thing was finally laid bare. Every terrible inch of it.

“I’m so sorry!” I moaned. “But every time I saw you… I… I could only think of Izma! I could only feel her violating me, again and again!”

I buried my face in my hands and turned away, shivering.

The cellar rang with silence.

“That’s why you couldn’t face me…?” Elmiryn’s voice was faint with shock. “That’s why you… You couldn’t talk to me anymore?”

I nodded but didn’t uncover my face. Maybe if I just hid here behind my hands, I could wait out this horrible moment. I just couldn’t bear to see the look on Elmiryn’s face. My body burned with shame. I felt weak. Filthy.

Another long stretch of silence came. Our time must have been running short, but Kali didn’t insist. I could feel her hovering close, but she said nothing, and I felt no ire from her.

It was selfish and awful, but I had to ask. No, beg

Kali, please, could we have more time? If this is truly the last time Elmiryn will be lucid enough to speak, then–

“I’ll kill her,” Elmiryn hissed.

Something in her voice startled me. It… rang with something, more than just venom. A humming energy.

I lowered my hands to my mouth and looked over my shoulder at her, my body tight with apprehension.

Elmiryn was on her feet. She was barefoot, her soles black. Her gaze was glassy and unfocused.

“I’ll kill Izma, Nyx,” Elmiryn said, stronger this time. “I’ll cut off her head and give it to you. For all the hurt she’s caused you–no! Us!

Elmiryn’s fists clenched and she bared her teeth. The glow in her eyes became stronger, burning a strange pink light. “She has to die! I can make her pay!” 

Her lips twisted into a crazed smile. “Just… let me out.”

I turned and took a step back toward the staircase, my eyes widening.

Elmiryn held her hand out and approached the containment line. Her dirty matted hair started to rise again in that dreamy, underwater fashion. “All you have to do is let me out! Let me do this for you! Let me kill Izma!”

Fresh tears came to me as I shook my head slowly. “No…”

“Do it, Nyx! Please!” Elmiryn’s outstretched hand began to curl like a claw. “I can find her! I can unmake her! Just let me out! A quick drink and I’ll be on my way!”

A quick drink…

I sobbed. “Elmiryn, this isn’t you! I’m sorry! I’m sorry I was too late!”

Elmiryn’s face morphed into a dark mask of rage. The hay behind her began to stir. The blanket and pillow toppled to the floor as the straws rose and began to whirl around Elmiryn. 

“Let me out! Let me out! LET ME OUT!” she screeched.

My stomach clenched with fear… but it wasn’t nearly as powerful as the wrenching agony in my heart. This was my fault. I’d allowed this to happen. 

“I can’t!” I wept as I turned and fled up the stairs. “I’m sorry, Elmiryn, but I can’t!

Behind me, I heard the woman scream. The sound tore through walls, sending dust raining down on me.

I tripped and fell on the final step leading into the foyer, landing hard on my hands and knees. Paulo had been waiting, leaning against the archway. He came to my side quickly, his face tense.

“I was afraid she’d do this,” he murmured. “I’m sorry, lia. I should have warned you better. I guess I’d hoped you’d get through to her.”

I was crying so hard words were difficult to form. When I found the strength to look at him, I managed to gasp out, “She’s gone. I can’t reach her. Sh-she’s gone!”

“Nyx, you must be strong,” Paulo said firmly. “This is only the start of her withdrawals. She’ll get worse before she gets better. But she’s still in there somewhere. You have to believe it!”

With effort, I reigned in my body-wracked sobs. I nodded once jerkily. Paulo gave me a kind smile, then helped me to my feet.

“I’ll be trading with Kali, now,” I said trying, and failing, to keep my voice steady. “If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask her.” I wasn’t just saying this either. Through a wordless understanding, my sister was conveying her willingness to help… even if she may be prickly about doing it.

“All right, Nyx. Rest. We all want Elmiryn to recover,” Paulo said gently.

I touched his shoulder, my expression sad but grateful. The boy was growing, and he was stepping up to help. I couldn’t put into words the relief I felt knowing I wouldn’t have to face this alone. The others had already done so much for Elmiryn. For me.

As I let myself fall back into the colder reaches of my mind, I felt Kali… caress me in passing.

You may speak with Elmiryn again when you are ready, sister. Your Meaning may reach her, yet.

I closed my eyes as the sweet cradle of darkness enveloped me.

All I could do was hope.

Continue ReadingChapter 47.1