The world whistled. She’d heard about these moments in stories–the lulls between excitement, those scenes filled only with ellipses, suggesting the unspoken question…
What the fuck would they do now?
Elmiryn went back and forth in her head–quickly laying out the realities and separating them from her desires. Her muddled feelings toward Lethia aside, the girl was now key to a question that begged answering. If Meznik’s power had been booted out of Gamath, where had it gone? How far? Given what she was told about Syria’s situation, the enchantress of Albias had been charged with black magic long before Elmiryn and Nyx had restored the river guardian’s sanity. This being said, the only thing left was that Meznik was somehow in more places than one–orchestrating horrors in simultaneity.
But was it Meznik? The mentioning of a tree by a mentally unstable boy could be utter coincidence, and the fact that Syria had been charged with the same crime as Elmiryn could be completely unrelated as well…
However, coincidences could only go so far, and the warrior felt compelled enough by the evidence to pursue her answers–regardless of the fact that things still remained largely circumstantial. The woman called “Quincy” had left her with a direction…even an idea of how to travel. The redhead didn’t think it was a slip.
She was being baited.
Elmiryn looked between the Moretti brothers, her cerulean eyes darting as she traced their handsome features–shiny with perspiration and marred, she found, by an exhaustion she had not noticed before. The moments drew on. Argos grumbled behind them as Nyx came to hover somewhere near Elmiryn’s right. Her breathing was rough and slow, and now and again she thought she heard the girl murmur incomprehensibly. The Moretti brothers would occasionally break eye contact with her to glance at each other, and now and again they would shift, like they wished to back away, but couldn’t. Their proximity to one another, shoulder to shoulder in some unconscious attempt to draw strength and security, made it hard for Elmiryn to separate them as individuals.
Finally, the warrior let her sword dip and let out a loud scoff. “Can you morons separate yourselves a little and take the sticks out of your asses? You look like you’re posing.”
“We are not!” Paulo snapped, but he and Graz both took steps away from each other with guilty glances. Arduino gave a small eye roll at his brothers reactions.
The woman smirked. “So now what?”
“I don’t know, lia.” The eldest narrowed his eyes. “We have no reason to quarrel with you, ya? So we can just part ways right now.”
“What? Like before? Aren’t you even a little angry that the wizard just stole your bounty?”
Arduino sighed through gritted teeth. He let his rapier drop to his side. Reluctantly his brothers lowered their weapons as well. “That woman can travel at the speed of light.” He said, voice low. “My brothers and I are purists–we do not use magic at all.” The man sheathed his sword and turned away in disgust. He waved his hand in a dismissive manner and brushed roughly past his brothers. “There is no competing with her.”
Paulo and Graz backpedaled, not so keen on turning their backs. They stared at Elmiryn and Nyx with wary eyes. Graziano was the only one who put away his weapon. His younger brother seemed keen on keeping his ready–perhaps rattled at how he had come to lose it before.
Elmiryn frowned. “Hey.” When Arduino didn’t stop, she shouldered her sword and let her free hand rest on her hip. “Hey!” Still nothing.
With a sigh, she stooped down and scooped up a rock. Then, without pause, the warrior chucked it at the man’s head.
It connected with a thud. “Conio!” He shouted. His hands flew to the back of his head as he doubled over.
Graz drew his pistol, his face screwed up in incredulous anger. “Lia, you want to be killed, don’t you!?”
“You won’t shoot that pistol.” Elmiryn stared hard at him. Her smile turned predatory and she began to walk forward. Nyx grabbed at her arm, but the woman pulled away with a jerk, her eyes not leaving the man’s.
“Elle, stop it!” The Ailuran cried.
“You had plenty of opportunities to shoot any one of us, but you didn’t,” Elmiryn said, ignoring her. “You pull that stupid pistol out when you think it’ll make a good show. I’m no expert on firearms, but just looking at it, I can see you hardly use it. That’s because you’re afraid of that thing.”
Graz blinked at her. Elmiryn stopped when the barrel was pressed to her chest. “You won’t shoot that pistol,” she said again, lips curling.
His horse galloped past the caravans and cloaked travelers, giving them wide space. The first opportunity he had, he would part from the merchant road to one with lighter travel. He was late–he had taken longer than he had intended, and he knew Quincy would be displeased.
He let out a yell as he urged his horse to go faster. On his back was the large bag he had acquired from the Cannon’s Punch. He’d had to trade horses once, at the expense of a few gold coins–a purely lucky circumstance as he was passing a rancher on the way to Tiesmire to sell his own steeds. The first horse, a strong and beautiful creature, he had acquired through less honorable means. He was pressed for time, and felt it like a knife at his temple as he counted.
–Tick, tick tick–
He figured the gold he left for the owner would be enough. Hakeem had some money left over from the Cannon’s Punch–the tavern owner hadn’t been that shrewd in his haggling of the Fiamman’s belongings.
Aside from his change in horses, Hakeem did not pause in his riding.
He broke from the main road, along the smaller trail that he and Quincy had come by when following their lead to Tiesmire. He kept his eye out for devil weeds. The moonlight was feeble, and the shadows of the cliffs were long and stark. Night time, in its contemplative silences, was something he could greatly appreciate. The flow of persons, their voices over his ears, were lost on the wind and swallowed by the hills and mountains.
Three days without sleep, without food or water. The morning approached, but he knew there would still be some time before the sky turned rosy. It was to his good fortune that Belcliff was not lost deep within the Torreth. As he entered the snowy region, his ears popping at the change in altitude, he saw the looming mountain city on the horizon. Its lights brought warmth to the cold north of the Torreth.
But as he galloped, breath stinging from the cold air–his eyes caught a flash of something great along the mountain tips, to the side. Hakeem turned and tried to see if he could catch whatever it was. A monster perhaps? He scowled. But why so close to a settlement? He turned his eyes forward again. His gaze fell onto the ring on his finger winking in the moonlight, and his jaw tightened. Time was drawing to a close.
The trail widened. Beneath him, his dark thoroughbred snorted, both ears flattened against its head. Not wanting the horse to fail him, Hakeem eased it to a slower trot. His path breathed open to the left into a small frosted valley. To his right, a tall bluff blocked the moonlight. Hakeem slipped into shadow.
Then the earth came alive, dirt and rock bursting, and Hakeem was thrown off his startled horse. As he sailed through the air, he closed his eyes and took a breath…
“What do you want?” Arduino bit out. He stepped forward to land one hand on his brother’s shoulder, the other checking to see if his head was bleeding.
Elmiryn looked at him, eyebrow tilting. “That woman mentioned you guys know of shortcuts to Belcliff.”
The man shook his head. “You wouldn’t be able to take them. They aren’t the sort of trails you can just walk.”
“I don’t care. I have to get there before Lethia and Syria are executed.”
“It’s possible,” Graz began, his expression nervous. He took a small step back and raised his pistol finger shifting off the trigger. “You’d need a special steed–”
“Graz…what’re you doin’, eh?” Paulo looked between his brother and Elmiryn, his face pale and sweat-slicked.
“Graziano, we’re done.” Arduino barked, jerking him to the side by his shirt. “Keep your mouth shut, lest you drag us all into something we can’t handle!”
Graziano knocked his hand away and shouted at him, spit flying from his mouth. “Olsemia! Ya, la poletatrio cos nostaron! Paulo isn’t the only one who’s been affected! If anyone can be accused of dragging us into something we can’t handle it’d be you!” Then the man holstered his pistol. His hazelnut eyes were shiny, and the apple in his throat bobbed as he swallowed and looked to Elmiryn with a furrowed brow. “Before we became bounty hunters, we worked with monsters. We killed them, tamed them, even bred some in a small ranch.”
Paulo wiped at his face and muttered something under his breath. Arduino turned a dark shade, veins popping in his forehead and neck as he bunched like a livid animal. “Graziano…” he warned.
Graz ignored him and pointed over the hill, where he had appeared from. “This way, there are three grayback scultones sleeping against the mountain-side.” He held out his hand. “If you can promise me answers, lia, then I will–”
That was when Arduino hit him. He launched his whole body into the strike, his fist just a blur as it connected with his brother’s jaw. Graziano went down without a sound, but the look of pain on his face said it all. Paulo was startled, and shouted things in his native language so fast, that Elmiryn couldn’t catch any of it. He dropped his rapier and tried to grab his oldest brother from behind, but Arduino threw him to the ground. He turned and kicked at his youngest brother as he scuttled, hair coming out of his tail. “Idi’ute!” he barked as his foot connected with the back of Paulo’s right leg. The boy cringed and covered his head.
While he was distracted, Elmiryn stepped forward, punching Arduino in the gut. She followed up, pulling her fist back for a fast backhand across his cheek. The man grunted, hand reaching for his face as he was forced to take a step back from the blow. His hazelnut eyes burned as they fixed on her. “We are done! You won’t take my brothers with you on your suicidal mission!” he shouted.
Elmiryn snapped at him, hair loose about her face as her amusement in the scene gave way to annoyance. It was starting to feel like a bad joke that’d went on too long. “It’s their choice, not yours. I don’t have time to go back and forth with you. Either go along with it or get the fuck out of the way!”
“Who are you to demand such things!?”
Graziano rose to his feet, his shirt and pants dusty and his hands covered in dirt. He shoved at Arduino with both hands, his throat a deep instrument turned crimson as he roared with a frustration that belied his charming appearance, “She is the only one who seems to have any idea why it is Paulo has those nightmares! Why he feels so ill! Why me and you feel so tired and afraid.” He wiped at his face and glared at his brother. He spat blood on the ground and pointed at Arduino. “You’re too thick-headed to admit it, but all this time you’ve been on edge. And it all started when we went to that damn tower!”
“She’s just spouting nonsense, brother!” Arduino cried, gesturing at Elmiryn. His expression turned exasperated…perhaps even sad. Elmiryn felt like the expression didn’t belong on his face. “It’s this life. It’s all these magic users dominating everything. We see them taking so much from us, and it has started to get to the point where all the world seems ruled by their tricks. People like us cannot keep up with them anymore.”
“I don’t believe that.” Graz shook his head, fists clenching. “No. We were doing fine. Maybe we had to step things up a tad, but otherwise we were doing okay. Paulo was really getting the hang of it before all of this–”
“But to keep up with the other hunters, we have to spend more gold. To spend more gold, we have to earn more, and we haven’t. Admit it, Graziano. It’s over.” Arduino’s voice became tired and rough. He wiped at his eyes and bowed his head.
Elmiryn interjected loudly, “Gentlemen, you can discuss your professional future later.” She gestured at herself. “If you want answers, I can offer you some explanation–but the real solutions are at Belcliff. We have less than a week to stop those two women from being killed.”
“What do they have to do with anything?” Arduino asked. “Why would risking our lives, save our lives?”
“Maybe not your life, but Paulo’s.” Nyx spoke now. She gripped her shifted arm (or the Twin’s arm, rather) but there seemed to be no struggle. Elmiryn wondered if, in the time she faced with the Morettis, she had come to some sort of truce with the animal within. “He mentioned dreaming about a tree.” The girl continued. “Well, Elmiryn and I can tell you that it isn’t something unrelated. It’s a part of something huge. Recently, the Medwin’s river guardian had been suffering a delusion of the same sort, believing that a tree was sucking away at the life of her land.” The girl paused, biting her lip as she looked at Elmiryn. She looked back at Paulo, who was helped to his feet by Graz. “Paulo…have…have you heard a song? In your dreams?”
The air felt gracious to him. His eyes fixed to the heavens for a brief second–all that he allowed himself–before he closed his gaze to the inner spaces of his mind. Collected there were moments branded in sense and number. A series. His life a series that ran as far as the hour. But he didn’t need to go back that far. He only needed…
His arms burned. The chainmail sleeves turned bright, as though the metal had returned from a blacksmith’s flame. The wind sucked away.
He fell, continuously–longer than what was possible. Hakeem made certain to keep his eyes closed. The ground had vanished. He slowed, felt the weight of himself no longer pull at his back, but down into his legs as though he were upright. Then he came to rest as though he were seated on the horse again–and he was. He shifted, moved his feet from their stirrups and leaned forward onto the horse’s back.
He pushed up and back, calling on the strength in his arms, in his shoulders, in his torso, and he hopped off the horse. He landed on the ground in a kneel. Still he kept his eyes closed.
The heat on his arms peaked, reaching a point that scalded him. He flexed his arms and heard the energy that built up unleash in a sharp cry. He heard metal slide over the chainmail sleeves, felt more weight press on his arms–felt his hands become enveloped in warmth. He felt the metal slide to cover his chest, over his doublet. He stood, fists clenched.
Hakeem opened his eyes. His horse galloped off the trail, braying, fleeing from the newcomers–three strangers riding what appeared to be a breed of scultones. There were two of the beasts, two riders on one, another riding alone. They were great reptilian monsters of the draconic family–larger than a full-grown horse, but long and slim at the torso, with gray and mud brown armored skin and broad horned heads. Their long tails thumped behind them, and they screeched into the cold air, revealing hundreds of jagged teeth and a long purplish tongue. Dust billowed about them, large debris riddling the trail where the great scultones had landed. Their eyes glinted at him in flashes of white.
Hakeem raised his fists before him, and they were sheathed in black gauntlets with gold trimmings and studded knuckles. They were fluted and pierced, articulate enough that the man was able to adjust his fingers and rotate his wrist without problem. His arms were covered in similar armor, as was his chest.
“You guys could have mentioned he does that,” said a voice, a woman, though they sounded more amused than upset. He’d heard their voice before.
“He must have reset things,” a man answered her. He knew that voice too. It’d been a while.
Hakeem’s arms hummed with energy as he slid his left foot back and bowed his knees. He pulled his left hand back, palm flat and perpendicular with the earth as his fingers curled at the second knuckle. He took a deep breath.
“Look out!” Said another voice.
Hakeem let out a kai as he struck out in a straight line with his left hand. The air rippled, dust startling into the air as a scar tore into the earth yards long.
–Tick, tick, tick–
“Paulo…have…have you heard a song? In your dreams?”
Upon hearing the question, Elmiryn’s face tightened and she gave Nyx a warning look. Had she forgotten the incident before Gamath so quickly? The girl winced and mouthed with an anxious look, “It’s the only way!”
Paulo paused as he thought. “Yeah,” he mumbled. “I don’t remember how it goes, but–”
“Don’t.” Elmiryn said shaking her head. “Don’t try to remember it. It’s enough that you recall there was a song, you don’t need more than that.”
“Right…” Nyx said, bowing her head.
“So what is it about all of this? I don’t understand.” Paulo said, looking between them. “You say it’ll be for my own good if we save the enchantresses…but aren’t they the ones causing this?”
Elmiryn gave a terse shake of her head. “Not from our experience. So far, we’ve seen this sort of power in other places. Every single time, the same thing was behind it.”
The woman smirked and shrugged. “That…” She looked at Nyx who gazed back at her with somber eyes. “We still have yet to learn,” she finished.
Graziano looked at his older brother. “So, Ard? Are you still going to object?”
“I still have plenty of reasons to…” The man returned, crossing his arms. “This can ruin us. If Belcliff’s marshal finds out we’re involved, we’ll be the ones hunted.”
Elmiryn kneaded her brow. She was becoming tired with all this talk. “Is it better to turn away in defeat? You said it yourself. Your time as bounty hunters is just about over. If that’s the case, you have nothing to lose,” She lifted her head and gestured at Paulo. “…Nothing but your brother’s sanity. Possibly his life.”
Arduino and Graziano looked at each other, lips thin. Paulo let out a loud “Humph,” that caused all to look his way. “Don’t I get any say in this!?” he exclaimed, striking his chest with his fist.
“And what do you want to add, Baby Moretti?” Elmiryn chuckled.
The youth glared at her. “Cosci iolete, lia. I want to know what that girl did to me!” He pointed at his head. “Why me? Why am I being targeted? Did you know she burned my eyebrow off!?”
Nyx gave him a hard look. “So you want vengeance…for your eyebrow.”
Elmiryn bit on her lip to keep from laughing out loud. Trust in Nyx to make a scene interesting again.
Paulo rubbed at his face and shook his head. “No, no…” He sighed and tugged at his overgrown hair. “I…she’s always in my nightmares…her and this weird tree. I lose time, and I wake up weaker, and I keep…” He faltered. His face screwed up and he grit his teeth.
Arduino touched him lightly on the shoulder. “Choi…”
“My vision gets fuzzy,” the boy resumed, staring at he ground. His eyes glazed as he looked down the road, the way Elmiryn and the others had originally been going. “All save…for a certain direction. I feel like there’s something in my chest…that…that pulls that way. If I sit still long enough, it’s like I start to fall asleep, and my whole body tingles, and I can hear that song again–”
“Okay.” Elmiryn said, loudly. She stepped forward and snapped her fingers in front of Paulo’s eyes. The boy looked at her like a doll whose head was turned. She paused and gazed back at him, her eyes fluttering as something occurred to her. “Is…” She squinted her gaze. “Is that…how I look like? When I’m out of it?”
“Sometimes…” Nyx breathed behind her. Elmiryn looked at her, her throat growing tight.
“So what do you want, Choi?” Graz asked him, hands at his hips and his expression tight.
The boy looked at him. “I want to go to Belcliff.”
“There.” Elmiryn nodded. “Even he wants to go. So you swear to help us?” She said to Graziano.
The man nodded. “I swear.”
“Okay, but what about Argos?” Nyx said, jerking her head at the dog, who had managed to roll onto his stomach to watch as they talked.
Graziano looked at the dog, who seemed to glower at him through the fur about his eyes. “That wound on the dog, I can heal it. The medicine we have for the scultones is potent–meant to seal wounds on armor-like skin. He’d need just a drop of it to seal his hurt shoulder. He’ll still limp for a while, though.” Then he added, scratching at his chin. “Actually, I was a tad more concerned about your arm, lia.” He raised an eyebrow at Nyx.
“It’s her Twin,” Elmiryn said, sighing. “That arm belongs to Her, so Nyx can’t control it. The cat inside her does.”
The Moretti brothers looked at her as though she were insane. She giggled at them. They were right in suspecting that, perhaps, but not in this case. This put Elmiryn in a good mood, and so struck away the thoughts of glass eyes and doll heads.
She looked at Nyx. “It seems things are decided. Will She be okay?”
“Yes I think so.” The girl sighed. “But she says it’s unfair to deny her some freedom after she saved my arm.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“Not at all!” The Ailuran looked at Elmiryn, offended. “But I haven’t got a choice.” Nyx’s face soured as the Twin raised her arm, smugly flicking her thumb over her flexed claws. “She says she figured out how to push herself in one way, but not the other.”
Elmiryn crossed her arms. “You must be joking.”
“She tricked me. I was scared and she took advantage of it. I’m not even sure if what she was telling me was true, about the regeneration.”
The woman stepped forward, cracking her knuckles. “Tell her, either she gives your arm back, or I break hers.” Nyx paled. This caused the warrior to pause, and she rubbed the back of her neck. “…You won’t feel that, right? If I do that?”
“Elle,” The girl took a step back. “P-Please don’t talk to me about breaking limbs in such a casual tone. Especially if those limbs happen to be attached to my body.”
“What is it? Don’t you want your arm back? I thought you hate–”
“Of course I hate it!” Nyx shrilled. She gestured at the Twin’s arm with hers, her face screwing up. “It disgusts me! Why do you think I’ve avoided looking at it so long!?” The girl then stomped her foot, chin crumpling. “Sweet Aelurus, what in the nine hells do you want me to do!? I’m TRYING to force her back, but she’s…stuck. How can I explain something like that to you–a human? It’s not like shape shifting is a lever I can just push one way, then back!”
Elmiryn nodded, grabbing Nyx’s shoulder. “Okay. Okay. Deep breaths. I got it, alright? Is she at least willing to cooperate? I mean, she can’t see, right?”
“She has a dream-like view of the world. The most reliable thing she has to trust in right now is her sense of touch–which helps–but I have to guide her. Unless she wants to get hurt she’ll have to listen to–” The Twin’s clawed hand swiped to the side fast, slapping Nyx on the cheek. The girl stuttered, rearing her head back in shock. Then she grabbed her wrist, livid tears in her eyes as her face turned pink. “That isn’t funny! Stop laughing!” she screamed.
Elmiryn had to bite her hand to keep from laughing herself. It was a losing battle.
Arduino spoke dryly behind her. “These are they ones you want to follow, Graziano?”
“I don’t know, brother,” Graziano returned. “After the way you just punched me, maybe my need to piss you off was knocked into the place of my common sense?”
There was a smack, like someone striking flesh with an open hand.
“Idi’ute!” Arduino snapped.
The scultones jumped to the side, their great claws leaving deep gouges in the ground. The one on the right was now pressed with its back against the cold face of the bluff, the other with their back to the open field. The two riders from that beast dismounted, and as they came out from the shadow of the bluff, Hakeem saw that it was the Fiamman from the Cannon’s Punch and Arduino Moretti.
He pushed forward to meet them, saw the woman pull out the iron longsword she had stolen, saw Arduino draw his rapier. The Fiamman had her sword raised high, hilt pulled back against her cheek as Arduino, on her left, whipped his rapier back, prepared for a broad strike. He did not pause to wonder at how the two had joined in union.
Instead, he counted.
His arms burned again. Three ticks passed in his head as he gave a great leap forward, then dropped down.
The world turned black, cut away like light blocked by curtains. He slid along the ground, the high snarl of his armor against the rock and dirt loud in his ears. Arduino side stepped, forced to adjust his approach–but the Fiamman let out a yell as she jabbed down with her sword. Then…
They were gone. Lost in that second. Instead, the sound of his slide along the earth was dominated by a dull roar. He felt the air swirl about him. He rocked forward with his entire body, pushing against he ground with his elbows, and was up on his feet. When he turned to look over his shoulder…
The world faded back into focus. He was in a different place, in a different time–exactly three seconds back. He saw himself, his past self, run forward as the Fiamman and Arduino moved to engage him. Turning, he saw the other scultone, its rider still mounted. Closer now, he could see that it was Graziano Moretti.
Hakeem said nothing as he brought his left hand back, just as before. He bended his knees and took a breath, pulling in with his diaphragm.
“Where’d he go!?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the others whirl around. Startled, they made to meet him. “Graziano,” Arduino bellowed. “LOOK OUT!”
Hakeem roared, putting more force into his push than before, willing all the power he could into the blast that ripped the earth and sent the bluff cracking down its face. The energy hummed through his arm and out, generating into a traveling wall of soundless force. Slabs of rock fell, causing the ground to tremble, and the din that came from the destruction was deafening. Hakeem held his breath and skipped backward as quickly as he could to avoid the great thick cloud that rose to engulf them all.
When he was free of the confusion, he watched, waiting to see what had become of his would-be attackers.
“You swore you’d help us.” Elmiryn warned, wagging a finger at the men. “No backing out now.”
“Well let’s get going then. Will she be okay?” Arduino added, frowning at Nyx.
“She’ll be fine,” the woman said, grabbing the Twin’s arm. She turned, and without warning, dipped and bit down on the furry forearm. Hard. The arm jerked away from her but she pointed at it, glaring. “Behave!”
“You just bit Her,” Nyx said, stunned. “That…” Her nose wrinkled. “That’s so grotesque! I didn’t feel it at all! I mean, of course I wouldn’t, but–but–”
“Yes, it’s weird.” Elmiryn said nodding. She thumbed at the Moretti brothers who had already begun scaling up the slopes. “We can scratch our heads about it later. Let’s go.”
The girl gave a slow nod, then muttered something under her breath again. The warrior suspected she was speaking to her Twin, but she wasn’t sure. Looking at her closely now, she saw how the girl twitched now and again, as though she were fighting trembling outright. Perhaps she wasn’t dealing with it as well as the woman had initially thought.
They followed the Morettis up the skree and rock. Nyx bickered briefly with Her, mouth moving fast as the inward conversation commenced. Elmiryn paused to watch this for a moment before the girl proceeded to climb–with the aid of her bestial Twin.
At the top, the Morettis waited. Graz pointed down the other side, which dropped down what seemed as much as a quarter of a mile. “There they are.” He slid down, to a small relief where a rope was coiled, its end fixed with a hook that was snagged onto a rock. At the base of the rock was a bag that spilled with what looked like dead rabbits.
Elmiryn squinted, craning her neck. All she saw was rock and more rock. “Where are they?”
Graziano just smiled at her as he took the rope and slid down. He gave a whistle. Suddenly, the ground shifted, dirt unsettling to reveal a large armored beast with white eyes and slits for nostrils. It reared its massive head and let out a low shriek. Arduino slid down to the relief, and taking up a rabbit, he tossed it to the creature below. The scultone snatched the morsel without losing its footing, claws buried deep into the ground. It growled in what appeared to be content. The ground at either side of it shifted and two others appeared, shaking away the rock and debris. Arduino cooed at them, smirking as he tossed them their treats.
“Sweet Aelurus…” Nyx breathed, gripping Elmiryn’s arm.
The woman turned to Paulo. “How far is Belcliff, exactly?”
“From here? Almost four days. But our scultones can halve that, because they aren’t restricted to the trails.”
“But you have a problem, lia,” Arduino called as he fished out two more rabbit corpses. He quirked an eyebrow up at them. “Quincy will not allow you to simply walk into Belcliff. She’ll be there, waiting–it’s typical practice for bounty hunters to hang around. You’ll be lucky if you’ll even make it to the region’s prison, let alone to where Syria is being held.”
“We can handle her. We have to.”
Arduino chuckled as he tossed the scultones their treats. “Ah, but if it were only as simple as facing off with her…”
Nyx gripped Elmiryn tighter. “What do you mean?”
“Quincy doesn’t work alone. She has a partner. A dark-skinned man named Hakeem. He, also, happens to be a wizard.”
Elmiryn sighed. “Okay…so where is this guy? Hakeem?”
“He wasn’t with Quincy.” Paulo said.
“Well, I could see that.”
“And he wasn’t up North,” Graziano added below as he scratched the scultone in the middle beneath its chin, where its soft flesh wobbled in pleasure.
“So…” Elmiryn held up her hand. Her grin had a slant to it. “Where the hell is he?”
“He’s likely riding to meet Quincy at Belcliff,” Arduino finished. He dusted off his hands then crossed his arms high over his chest. “If we want to get by Quincy…we’ll need to deal with Hakeem first. If they meet…then we’ll be in for some serious trouble.”
The cloud swirled. Hakeem, his breathing deep from his effort, watched with narrowed eyes for any sign of movement. Then the ground beneath his feet trembled. He frowned, hands clenching at his sides.
Then a scultone burst from the clouds, dust trailing its sleek form as it speared toward him. The man tensed, mind briefly going blank as the beast rammed into his torso, scooping him up, then flinging him back. Hakeem felt the air rush out of his lungs, felt every inch of his body ache. Were it not for his armor, he would have suffered worse. But this thought brought little comfort to him as he began to descend back to the ground. He thought listlessly that he should perhaps count back to the moment before the scultone caught him unawares, but his concentration was lost. How long ago did that attack happen? How much longer before he hit the ground?
He crashed into the earth and went tumbling for several more yards through the frosted weeds before he slid to a halt.
He faded out of consciousness.
When he came back to, he was turned on his back with a foot planted on his chest. A dark face swam above him.
“Hold him down, so that he doesn’t pull that stunt again!” Someone exclaimed. The Fiamman, he thought.
The person above him spoke. “Don’t worry, lia. Hakeem can’t teleport unless it is along those energy blasts he sends–and he won’t be able to reset back to when my scultone hit him. Not while I’m holding him in place.”
“Well you guys handled that a great deal better than you did the other one, didn’t you?”
“We weren’t prepared then.” Arduino. He sounded winded and grumpy. “So far our only competition was a loopy alchemist and a gung-ho sorcerer who specializes in metal. Not quite as overwhelming as someone like Quincy.”
“Speak for yourself!” Said the man over him. Graziano, Hakeem surmised. “You weren’t cornered by Karolek’s blade spirit!”
Hakeem tried to shift his right arm inconspicuously as they spoke, so as to throw Graziano off of him. But another boot came down to pin his arm to the ground. A new form stood over him, this person of shapely form. The Fiamman.
“I’m really starting to dislike wizards,” she said. “Can we take that armor off of him? That’s what’s giving him his power, right?”
“This armor is bound to me. Try to remove it…and face the consequences,” Hakeem said, his voice gravelly and deep.
The woman knelt down quickly, and Graziano removed his boot as Hakeem was jerked upright by his chest armor. The face of the Fiamman focused into view as she pressed in close. Her lip curled upwards into a vicious smile, and her cerulean eyes winked.
“Is that a dare?” She asked delightedly.