In seeking me, you seek in kind,
The things that blisters need.
Cross not the ends of better things,
With that which sorrow feeds.
It seemed to come laboriously, but indeed, an odd sort of harmony was born amid our new group of four.
The following day started early, where Elmiryn made good on her promise to return to our original pace now that we were fed and hydrated–though our last meal left something to be desired. The twilight world we tromped through–where sleepy meadow was stirred by the thump of small field animals, and jagged crags of rock whistled a mournful tune–made guests of us all in this unfamiliar setting. We were joined together by our migrant shadows that meshed in the dark of the mountain range we passed, beings apart, but connected in determination.
My eyes were weak, sapien eyes, and all around me I found trickery waiting. A looming rock seemed like a bear. A shifting shrub made me flinch in anticipation of an ambush. A swirl of dust had me believe someone had just fled from sight. It disconcerted me, and yet I tried with all my might to bite back the envy that curled my fists. Delighted to have a moment to gloat, my Twin purred at me from her new home–as foreign and mysterious to me as death itself.
Then I looked at Elmiryn, and my pace slowed. I looked around me again, eyes straining, and while I was certain of some things, I found myself guessing as to the nature of others. I even had to stop completely when looking at Argos’ galloping form, to convince myself that he was actually a dog…despite my need to personify ‘it’.
…Was this what Elmiryn experienced? Even remotely? I looked forward again, sprinting to catch up with her bobbing form, my bag of belongings jingling behind me. What was it like to live life seeing this way at all hours? …Perhaps even worse?
My hands unclenched, and I know my look must have turned tender. When I came to Elmiryn’s side, huffing in unison with her, she looked at me and remarked, “You look like someone stole your last cookie!”
I looked at her sideways, one eyebrow tilted.
She gave a breathless laugh. “Okay…that sounded stupid. Even to me.”
The ocean was lost to us on a shoe bend that slithered higher. The trail became much more narrow, and to our right the slope turned to a treacherous wall, and to our left a steep slope. My ear drums popped, and the tips of my ears and nose went numb. Running helped keep the cold at bay, and I was surprised that Lethia had managed to keep up to some degree. She still lagged behind us, and now and again, I would slow down to wait for her, Elmiryn grudgingly doing the same. Argos remained at Lethia’s side all the while, serving as her support when she slipped, or tripped, or needed to take a breather.
With time, the suns clawed at the highest peaks that bared down on us. With my lungs stung by the cold air, I thought I saw the light flare, and I did a double-take. It were as if polished shield or a mirror had caught the sunlight, but when my gaze returned to those high peaks, I saw nothing. But I was not put at ease. My neck crawled with a sixth sense. Even my Twin raised herself from her dark home to peer through my eyes, and they burned from the fierceness of her gaze.
Lethia let out a cry behind us, and my thoughts were taken from me.
Elmiryn and I whirled around, dust and dirt startled around our feet from our abrupt stops.
Lethia and Argos were out of sight, just a phantom cloud drifting in their wake.
I came forward several steps, my eyes wide. “Lethia!?”
There was growling and the sound of scraping and sifting sand. A moment later Argos appeared from the edge of the trail–or rather, his rump. He was pulling Lethia back up onto the level ground by her bag, his body bunched, and his fur ruffled, as he dragged the youth to safety. Lethia looked stunned, and though she tried to assist in Argos’ efforts, her limbs seemed like noodles that flayed uselessly. Without another word, Elmiryn and I rushed forward to aid in the dog’s efforts, and together with our help, Lethia was back on the trail. I took her bag off her back, and she lay down, pink-faced and panting.
“What happened?” I panted.
“I don’t know!” Lethia eventually answered, one arm over her eyes. Her spectacles lay in one hand. “I was just trying to keep up with you both when…when…” Her breathing slowed as her voice trailed away. I looked at Elmiryn, and she looked back at me with eyebrows raised nearly to her hairline.
I looked to Argos’ next, and if there was ever an expression of concern on a dog’s face, Argos had it. His furry face seemed to droop, and his tongue lolled to the side. His ears depressed and his brows pressed together as much they could. His breathing became accompanied with a whine. I guessed at Lethia’s next words.
The girl sat up, and she had tears in her eyes. “I don’t remember…”
To my surprise, Elmiryn clapped her on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it was nothing.” Then she stood and extended her hand. “Come on, kid. Let’s keep moving.”
Lethia sniffled and put on her spectacles. She frowned up at Elmiryn. “But where are we going?”
She pulled her sword out of the devil weed–a plant monster that lived in cliff-sides who pulled travelers over the edge, then fed on their blood. It was a cancerous looking thing that reminded distantly of cabbage, with a bundle of dark green tentacles as thick as Quincy’s wrists. A rotten stench and dark blood dripped from its wound and made a thick river in the dirt.
Devil weeds lived and died in their birth places–which were literally holes burrowed into the earth and rock by stubborn roots and acid. The mountains were riddled with little punches of holes where the monsters had once resided. Their locations served a strategic purpose, as once a victim was pulled within yards of them, their choices were either to be sucked dry, or a drop to the death. The determination to survive was strong in many…
…What victims didn’t know was that they had better chances if they let themselves fall.
The woman had dashed from her lofty place, hidden in the light that kissed the tips of the mountains, when she saw the tentacle slithering up the scree slope. She flashed down just in time to stop the creature from carrying Lethia away.
Taking her weapon, she wiped her sword on her pants, not even the faintest grimace appearing on her face. In her eyes, the care of her sword was more important. It was a blade only half a foot longer than her forearm, made of a metal that had a mellow gold tint. It was her most prized item, and she used it only when absolutely necessary.
She looked up just as Nyx and Elmiryn pulled their new charge to safety. Gripping one of the monster’s tentacles to keep from falling, she looked down into the valley, then up again. She sighed.
…Quincy would have to wait till the sunlight reached her place of shade before she could rise up through the rays. For now, she could hide in the scattered glow. It was not ideal for her, in the slightest. Her primary target was kept safe, but now the group would travel on without her…
…And it was not to their favor.
We took our first rest in a little nook which guarded us from the winds that howled. Lethia, looking ill, took a nap, using Argos’s thigh as a pillow. The dog seemed content to lounge back and close his eyes as well, and I took it as a sign of confidence. His incredible size still startled me, and his attitude toward Elmiryn was still guarded and borderline aggressive–but I found it to be comforting, that he could trust to close his eyes around us. It was especially warming, when I took into account…that he was trusting Lethia’s protection to us as well.
I found myself striving to honor this trust.
I stood at the opening of our little hideaway–only a few feet wide and so shallow that the light outside lit all the back wall. But it kept us safe from the wind and helped guard from the cold, and I was grateful for it. With darting eyes, I watched every shift of dust, every rustled shrub. While I was glad that Elmiryn had agreed to let Lethia travel with us northward, I was now doubly afraid.
When would danger come?
A pair of arms wrapped around my neck, pulling back harshly. I sucked in air, and my eyes went round, but I moved without thinking. I stomped backward onto the foot of my assailant, then jabbed back with my elbow. Their grip on me slackened, and as I slipped out of their embrace, I turned my body to the side and drove my shoulder into their body with all my might.
My foot still pressed on theirs, and I pressed on it with all my weight. They started to fall backward, and their foot tugged useless beneath mine. Without the ability to adjust for the momentum, they fell–but not without dragging me with them. They gripped onto my tunic, and I crashed down onto their body, twisted, my right arm sandwiched between us as the other scraped useless in the dirt. When it found proper support, I pushed up on my free hand, and looked bewildered into…
Elmiryn’s smiling face.
She started to laugh, the reverberation of her body beneath mine sending waves of heat through me. I sputtered curses, pulling my right arm free. The woman gripped me by the waist as I tried to disentangle myself and stand. Held down, I was left to straddle her, and her smile curled in that hungry way that made me shiver.
“Hey…I didn’t teach you that,” She murmured below me.
“I guess it just comes naturally with you,” I quipped–but the force of my words was dulled by my growing lust, and I balked when I realized how it truly sounded.
The woman laughed and grabbed the front of my tunic. I gripped her wrists, meaning to pull her hands away, but then she started to sit up, and with a small jerk, she had me by the lips. The warmth of her, the softness of her lips, the smell that had been lost to me before, came flooding back through proximity. My protests fell away. Elmiryn let herself fall backward, and I followed her, my hair brushing forward in a dark curtain as one hand planted on the ground to steady myself.
Elmiryn’s hand slipped between us and reached around to grip my neck, but not before she brushed my chest intimately–in a way I could not mistake. I pressed forward in answer, my free hand caressing her side.
It was…easy, I found…to forget myself, in the face of such heat. Elmiryn, whether through accident or by design, lead me straight through a doorway that said it was okay to want. Okay to seek. Okay to take. Such was her mastery of seduction, her ascendancy in touch, that I could hardly tell who was the seeker and the sought.
Not when I was on top, begging a dance with her tongue.
But it wasn’t to last.
A sigh and a groan, not on our part, made me look up. Argos was staring at us with what looked like a grin on his face. His ears were perked and he had shifted to face us better. Lethia rubbed at her eyes, scowling.
“What’s…what’re you two doing?” She mumbled. Her green eyes looked our way, but she was careful to avoid eye contact.
If possible, I would have lit on fire, the way I felt my skin burn from my embarrassment. I stood to my feet, taking several steps away from Elmiryn as I stammered, “Nothing Lethia. Elmiryn was just…sparring with me.”
The woman sat up. She licked her lips and chuckled. “Yes. I was.”
While Lethia distracted herself with putting her boots back on, I hissed at my companion. “That was in poor taste, Elle!”
Elmiryn wagged her finger as she stood up, her cheeks a light pink and an insufferable smile on her face. “I beg to differ!”
I gestured at Lethia, who seemed puzzled by something. She kept looking at one boot, than the other. “I don’t want to scar her or something!” I whispered.
“Scar her?” The woman looked back at the enchantress.
Lethia looked at Argos, stricken, and held up her boots. “Argos, do you remember which boot goes where!?”
Elmiryn rolled her eyes back to me. “Oh sure, Nyx. I think I know what you’re talking about.”
I sighed and stepped forward. I pointed at her right boot, then her right foot. “That one goes there.”
The girl gave me a bashful smile. “Thank you!” She started to slip the boot on. Her eyes, behind the shades, flickered to us. “I…know that I must come across as eccentric. How can I remember who you both are, but not why I’m traveling with you? How can I forget something as simple as which boot goes where? It’s all because of my power…y’see it–”
“You told us this before,” I said with a patient smile.
She stared at me, pausing mid-pull. “I did?”
Elmiryn grinned, bowing her head and kneading her brow. “Yeah. You did.”
“Oh…um…did I mention that sometimes when something really upsetting happens, it can cause the energies to suddenly shift?”
“Like startled water?” I offered.
Elmiryn nodded. “Yeah, we gathered that.”
“Oh.” Lethia bit her lip and finished pulling on her boot. She stood to her feet, swinging on her bag. “Okay, so…since everyone seems to understand, I guess we can keep going to…uh…where were we going again?”
“You were going back to save your mistress. We were heading through the mountains to get to Reg’Amen.”
“Should we continue, then? The more ground we cover, the better.”
And we traveled on.
Elmiryn didn’t make us run anymore. Instead, she asked only for a brisk walk. “After what happened before, I’d rather we all be close together. There might be more monsters, the deeper we go into these mountains.”
Lethia paled, her hand flying to her mouth. “You think a monster tried to eat me!?’
The woman shrugged. “Not unless you were hit with a sudden bout of suicidal wishes, tried to off yourself, then just forgot.” Elmiryn snickered at this thought, and looked forward again without another word.
Lethia looked at me, her expression scrunched in confusion. I only rolled my eyes and shrugged. “I don’t know, either,” I mouthed.
We came to a narrow pass that weaved northeastward. The sun filtered in through this space in the mountain range, and we squinted in the face of its light. Elmiryn stopped and so did we, Argos coming to her side, woofing.
“He’s right…” she murmured. “I don’t like the idea of going through there.”
“What difference does it make? This is wider than what we were just traveling!” Lethia exclaimed with a puzzled look.
I frowned and stood at Elmiryn’s side. “She’s right, Lethia…at least the trail had been open before.” I gestured before us and looked back at her, biting my lip. “Plus, those holes in the rocks don’t look right. Dangerous creatures could be waiting here.”
“Or we could get caught in a pincer ambush,” Elmiryn added, drawing her sword. “I thought it was weird that no other travelers were coming this way. The trail has no footprints…not even from animals.”
“Maybe…maybe we should turn back?” I offered, tugging at Elmiryn’s arm.
The woman scowled at me. “We can’t, Nyx. We’ve come too far. Doubling back would mean losing four days–maybe more. There’s your condition to think about–”
“I’d rather get to the Indabe in one piece, than take a risk like this!” I glanced at Lethia, who had gone to crouch before Argos. She appeared to be…‘conversing‘ with him. “And there’s her to think about!” I added in a whisper. “I don’t want her to get hurt!”
“She won’t get hurt.” Elmiryn held her fist over her heart. She smirked at me. “I promise.”
I shook my head and crossed my arms. “I don’t like this.”
“You knew the risks when you insisted on Lethia coming with us–this is the hand we’re dealt, Nyx! There is a possibility we could get through safely!” Now she had her full blown predator’s smile on.
My eyes widened and I wagged my finger slowly at her. “You do realize what’s at stake here, right?”
The woman pressed her lips together in a vain effort to cease her smile, as if she realized she had just given herself away. I gripped her shoulder tightly, even pulling her down some so that she gazed level into my eyes. “Elle,” I said slowly. “This isn’t a game. We can’t afford to gamble our lives or anyone else’s… You might think this is interesting–you might even think this is fun–but I think we should head back. Take the long way along the coast, with the other travelers. It’s for the best.”
At first, she just stared at me blankly. Then to my surprise she pouted at me. “Gods damn it, Nyx. You and your fucking words…” Elmiryn let out a loud, frustrated sigh, swiped at her ear, then called to Lethia and Argos, who still seemed engrossed in some exchange. “Hey! C’mon, kid. We’re heading back.”
Lethia looked at us, open-mouthed, and Argos head popped up like a toy. “Heading back?” the girl echoed, her brows knitting together.
Elmiryn nodded, jerking her head back the way we came. I could see the muscle in her jaw tense. “Yeah. This isn’t safe.”
“Come on, Lethia,” I said, taking her hand. “It’ll be better this way.”
“But–But–” Lethia tore her hand away and skipped backward several feet. Her eyes already shone with tears. “No! We can’t go back!”
Elmiryn and I exchanged looks. She gestured at Lethia, eyebrows raised, as if to say, “Well?”
I sighed and looked back at the girl. “Lethia, we’re all alone out here. This is dangerous. Besides being attacked by bounty hunters or vagabonds, we could run into a dangerous monster.”
The girl shook her head, chin crumpling. “No! No, no, please! We can’t go back! And you can’t just leave me out here! I have to go forward! I have to save Syria!”
“Lethia you can–”
“I told you! I told you her execution is in a week! If we backtrack, I won’t make it in time! I have barely enough time as it is! So please!” The girl bounced on the balls of her feet, her bag rattling behind her. “We…can’t go back…please…please don’t leave me alone…”
I closed my eyes and sighed. I felt Elmiryn clap my shoulder. “So…forward it is?”
A sharp sound echoed through the mountains. It was a loud bang, and when I looked around, crouched, I saw that a crater in the dirt smoked near my foot. The shape of it suggested whatever it was came from the west. I looked up to where Elmiryn and Lethia already stared, and my gut fell to my soles.
A bronzed man with dark wavy hair and hazelnut eyes winked from his place up on a high headwall, his flintlock pistol pointed at us. He wore a brown loose shirt tucked into black trousers. His wide, silver buckled belt held the holster for his pistol on the right, and a rapier on his left hip. His handsome face broke into a dimpled smile, showing large, straight teeth.
“I personally recommend moving forward!” he shouted.