Violence was a whip crack all throughout me, and I was propelled by the force of it–fangs extended, claws bared, tail lashing, my eyes beholding Karolek’s look of surprise like blood in a cup. I pulled back an arm and punched forward, putting all my body into the swing. Karolek, shifted away, leaving my claws to gouge into his armor, but not break through. Paulo moved to cut him as well, but the sorcerer was fast to deflect the attack with his saber. As the man moved, the blades in the air around us shuddered. I hissed, looking at them with a look of fear. Paulo cursed next to me.
The blades shot toward us, and I held up an arm to shield myself, my Twin roaring in my head.
But the pain did not come.
I looked and saw Lethia up in a kneeling position, one hand held out as she trembled from the strain. I could see blood trickling down from her nose and her eyes were bloodshot, but her look held lightning, and I knew she was not even close to defeat. Emboldened by her righteous fury, so did I strike, one claw lashing out in a wide swipe as Paulo came down low with a cut from his rapier. Again, Karolek blocked Paulo’s swing, which would have brought the large man down to his knees…but my blow he did not escape.
My claws struck true, from near his nose and along the flesh of his cheek, down past the jaw and cutting the high part of his neck. His body traveled away from me, and the path of my hand made my cuts to his neck shallow–too shallow to reach any vital arteries. My attack tore the sorcerer with a fluidity that made me shiver in a horrifying clash of revulsion and delight. I saw the blood spray, the little bits of flesh flying. The smell of Karolek filled my head fast, and my hand was stained with him. My mouth salivated and the fur along my spine went stiff. I looked at him, saw him reel away, roaring–still a strong man for the blow I gave him, but shaken still. He recovered faster than I could anticipate, cutting at us with his saber in a sloppy swing, no less dangerous than a cornered animal. Paulo fell back far, but I ducked beneath his attack, dashing forward to knee the man in the gut, then struck at the back of his knee with the top of my foot (a trick Elmiryn had shown me). The man dropped down into a kneel, and without pause, I gripped Karolek around his neck and beneath his left arm. Even in my new state, Karolek still bested me in size, but I had gained in other things as well.
I grunted, teeth bared and my vision going dark as the scent of the blood, so close now, had my Twin growling.
“Rip out his throat! Tear it! He would have killed us for his arrogant show of power, the fat-headed beast!” she hissed.
The sorcerer struggled against me as I tried to choke him to sleep, my claws biting into him as I fought to keep my hold. I could feel his life trickling past my fingertips. The metal on the ground shuddered like angry beetles, but with Lethia up again and his concentration broken, Karolek could not get the hold he needed to utilize his power properly.
The man elbowed me twice, his elbow burying into my gut and knocking the breath from me. I struggled to hold on, jerking him one way, then another. My ear twisted to the side and I heard others coming toward us, and soon I could smell the oiled metal, the warm smell of leather, the sweat and tobacco. Paulo rushed to meet the new assailants–a brief look proving them to be more militia men. Two of them. But I strained my ears and was certain that more were near.
“Kill him! Idiot!” My Twin snapped within me. I felt something heavy and thick clawing up the inner reaches of my thoughts–and my nose tickled with the smell of wet snow and blood and aspen trees.
“You won’t have another chance!” She screamed–but her voice was wrong. Warped somehow. She paced along our mindscape, eyes like daggers…and against all reason, her words gained appeal. Suddenly I wanted to snap Karolek’s neck. I wanted to feel the life flee him, hear his last breath. The man still tried to beat me away with his arms, and he shifted in furious attempts to stand. I wrenched him back far, forcing him into an awkward bend that stole away his leverage. I screeched in his ear something terrible. I thought about breaking his knees and chewing off his arms. The blood would taste so good, and he’d sit well in my stomach, I thought.
“Yes he would!” My Twin exclaimed, her furry face pulling back into a smile that seemed a hair’s breath away from a grimace.
Then I lifted my head, eyes on Lethia, with her hands held out, looking on the verge of collapse, her oval-shaped face scratched and pale and quivering from her efforts. Through the sweat and strain, she nodded at me, her green eyes on my shoulder. They were filled with such…trust.
The darkness was filling me, I could feel it.
“Kill him!” My feline counterpart hissed. “Kill him!”
“And what would this bring us!?” I said hurriedly in my mind. “Look around you! The darkness is coming closer!”
My Twin seemed to pause. My heart lifted in surprise and hope. She too had sensed something amiss. The fact that she was still in control enough to be aware of this fact meant that we could stop this force from swallowing us completely.
“Beast!” I called. Then, tentatively, “Sister!”
The feline’s ears perked and she raised her head high, looking up.
“I will not kill this man. But I will not be defeated. We have to survive–even against this fury. Do you feel it?”
“What?” she asked.
“That pressure at our eyes!” I heard metal clash with metal, but could not go to Paulo’s aid. A minute had not passed yet, but even so, I expected more militia men any second. “We’ve felt this before! This evil! It tormented us in Gamath! Help me fight it now! Please, sister! …Please!!”
The feline blinked…
The violent images, like phantoms in my head, were banished away.
I yelled, my voice turned to gravel as I squeezed Karolek’s neck with all my might. The man’s face was dark and seemed swollen. His eyes rolled to meet mine and a terse breath slipped his teeth before his eyes rolled up into his head and he went slack in my arms. Panting, I released him.
The wind teased my fur, and I felt it cool the sweat on my skin. My whiskers quivered as I twitched my nose and turned, inhaling deep, to see Paulo engaged with the two city guards. He fared better than before, his parries quick and his strikes chipped away at sloppy defenses. These men were not as experienced as their comrades whom we had faced. They seemed a bit distracted.
A bit distracted with me.
My thoughts were no longer so clouded, now that me and my Twin worked in harmony to keep control. I could feel her focus as she fled from snatching shadows. But the fury…the lust for violence…the pressure at my eyes and the illness in my stomach, they were still there. I took a step forward, my teeth grinding, my muscles bunching. Their battle was intoxicating to smell. My claws ached with the need to bury into warm flesh.
I took a deep breath, sliding one foot back, my tail lashing, my ears flat against my head and my furry face bunched tight–
I put my whole body into it, tore at my vocal chords, pushed with my diaphragm, squeezed out every last bit of breath from my lungs.
The militia men stuttered out cries, their faces going pale. They stepped back, one falling on the ground as Paulo shoved him back from a tense cross of swords. They pulled at each other, eyes on me always, then fled, their swords abandoned on the ground. I snarled and gallumphed a few feet after them on all fours. I let out another deep-throated roar, and I saw them run faster. One man’s helmet flew off his head, and fell clattering to the ground.
Paulo whooped and turned to look at me with a grin. His smile faltered some and he took a step back. “Eh…Lia?”
I knelt down, panting. I couldn’t relax my muscles. My fur still remained puffed out. I bared my teeth and bowed my head, both hands planting themselves on the ground. A light hand on my shoulder made me whip around and hiss.
Lethia jumped back, her hand flying to her mouth. She looked at Paulo, then at me again. “Nyx…are you okay?”
An arrow whizzed past us, nearly hitting Lethia’s head. The militia men were back, and there were four others with them. The archer, more than a block away, notched another arrow as his comrades sprinted toward us, out of his line of sight. I let out a spitting sound from the back of my throat, then rose to my feet. My toes dug themselves into the dirt as I prepared to dash forward. But Paulo stepped before me (looking quite nervous about doing so) and held up a shaking hand. “No, we have to run!”
The archer shot his arrow, and I pulled the boy with me as I jumped to the side, dodging. He didn’t get a chance to thank me. One of the militia men reached us and both he and Lethia began to skip backwards, preparing to run all out. I drew back my palm and slammed it into the man’s chest. He launched back into his comrade. The other two militia men were not far behind them.
“Nyx!” Lethia screamed shrilly.
“Comin’!” I said in my awkward speech, and I turned to join the other two, the claws of my feet kicking up dirt. Together the three of us fled. At one point, Lethia fell, her eyes lidded as though she were ready to pass out. I hardly paused as I swept her up over my shoulder and continued running. Behind us, the militia men grew smaller still. With all their armor, they could not match our speed, and we lost them in the maze of streets.
Elmiryn took a step forward as she drew her sword. She could hear muted booms and they came closer each time the dark individual disappeared and reappeared. Behind her, Graziano cursed. He appeared next to her, pistol in hand, and aimed it. “What in the devil is going on!?” he hissed.
The woman felt the air pulse and shift around her–then in the next instant, she was blown off her feet, Graziano at her side. The scultone screeched and reared back, its form turning dark against the pale sky. The two rolled out of harm’s way, clumsily pulling at one another. When they were up on their feet again, all around them had gone quiet. The booms and rumbles had stopped.
Then Argos came rushing toward them, barking happily, his tail wagging as he reared back onto his hind legs to look Elmiryn in the eyes.
Elmiryn blinked at him, then smiled slowly. “Oh…hey, didn’t I go out drinking with you, once?”
The dog went back to all fours, his head tilting to the side as he woofed at her as though to say, “Uh…no.”
The woman scratched her head, frowned at the dog. Then her eyebrows went high. “Oh! Mangy Beast!”
Argos barked, his tail wagging again.
Elmiryn looked at Graziano, who had his pistol aimed. He had a look of disbelief on his handsome face, his curly hair wild and looking as frazzled as he likely was. The woman followed his gaze, and realized the source of his astonishment.
Hakeem, the dark-skinned wizard, stood before them, his head lowered as he gazed at them beneath the shadow of his brow. There was a flash, and in the next instant, his armor was gone, leaving him only with his doublet and chainmail sleeves. Slowly, he put his hands on his head.
“I’m not looking for trouble,” He said quietly.
“I don’t believe you.” Graziano snapped.
Hakeem closed his eyes. “The circumstances have changed.”
“Really? They look the same from where I’m standing.”
“Let me help you free Syria.”
Graziano stepped forward, his mouth open to let loose an insult no doubt, but Elmiryn held up a hand. Her cerulean eyes held Hakeem fast, tracing his features from head-to-toe. She felt like she were seeing him for the first time.
“Why the change of heart, wizard?” She asked, shouldering her sword.
The man gestured with his head toward Belcliff. “I heard your battle with my partner. She pierced herself with her sword and vanished into the light after swearing she’d never again do such a thing.”
“She’s done that before?”
“Yes. But I can never be certain of her return.”
“Then what do you want?”
“I want to know what’s going on.” The man opened his eyes and held Elmiryn’s gaze fiercely. “An evil hangs over Belcliff, and your battle has stirred the forces there into madness. People of magic are the first to succumb–leading me to believe that Quincy was not under free will when she pierced herself with her sword. Since the beginning, you’ve been involved with this somehow. You claim you helped cure Gamath of a similar curse. I’d help you do the same here.”
The woman crossed her arms, her lips twisted into a sneer. “But for what, wizard?”
“…You seek something. Something great. I believe we search for the same thing.”
“Oh? Are you out to kill astral demons too? I didn’t realize it was such a popular occupation!”
Graziano looked at her with squinted eyes. “Those aren’t real! Is that what you’ve been thinking it was the whole time!?”
Hakeem scowled at her. “I confess, I find that odd as well. What does a myth have to do with Tobias?”
She squinted one eye. “Who?”
“Tobias.” His tone gained a level of impatience.
Elmiryn and Graziano looked at each other. The Moretti shrugged and mouthed, “I don’t know.”
The warrior turned back to Hakeem, eyebrow raised. “Wizard, I don’t know anyone named Tobias.”
“He’s the one who wrote the chronicles you know so well! The stories of Earth, Wind, and Fire!” The man looked outright confused now.
“Huh? …OH!” Elmiryn tilted her head back and let out a laugh. “That guy! Yeah, I never met him personally. My friend did, though.”
“She…” Hakeem’s eyes widened and his lips parted in surprise. “That’s impossible!” he spat, suddenly angry. Graziano cocked his pistol and the man settled quiet, his eyes on the gun’s muzzle.
It was Elmiryn’s turn to look confused. “Why is that impossible?”
Hakeem looked at her, his sensuous lips pinched thin. “Because Tobias is dead. He’s been dead for nearly eighteen years!”
Elmiryn shrugged. “Well, you’re wrong. Nyx met the man, and he gave her his book.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“But…” Hakeem stared at the ground. “Wikan, Tobias…igetu ko veda…?”
The warrior didn’t understand what the man said, so she ignored it. She had a question dancing on her tongue. “Is that why you and Quincy have been after Nyx and me? For a fucking fairytale some lonely creep wrote in his spare time?”
Hakeem’s muscles bunched, and his hands shifted to form fists against his head. “They aren’t fairytales, woman.” His dark face turned a ruddy shade, and his features tightened to look as though he were one of the stark, angry statues found in Belcliff. “Those stories are real. And they’re about the people who have taken away any hope Quincy and I had for a normal life!”
Elmiryn’s eyebrows went high. She recalled her conversation with Nyx, prior to arriving in Tiesmire. “Those stories…Tobias…he wrote them about…?”
“Himself. His comrades. Every inch of it is true…which is why we need to see the book your friend possesses.”
“What for? What would you do?”
Hakeem’s eyes darkened. “Have our revenge…”
We delved deep into the fields, a little further westward than when we had first entered, but Paulo still managed to spot his marker. As we ran towards it, he gave a whistle. The scultone surfaced in a burst of earth and snow. It screeched and thrashed its head and tail, white eyes on us as we came near. It seemed unconcerned by my new form–perhaps it could still smell me beneath all the wildness. I let Lethia back down, and she smiled at me weakly. The girl eyed the draconic beast with great trepidation. Paulo gestured at the scultone and held out his hand to her.
“It’ll be a tight fit, but we should be able to ride all right. I won’t be able to go at full speed though.” He helped Lethia up onto the scultone as he said this. The girl squealed a little as the monster shifted beneath her.
Next he climbed on. Paulo looked down at me, his expression tight. “I…didn’t count on you being so big. Can you shift back to normal, lia?”
I blinked up at him. What a good question.
I scratched at my ear and sighed. Now that we were out of the city, the tension in me had vanished. My thoughts were unburdened by dark things. I turned to my Twin and asked uncertainly. “Can we shift back?”
The beast sighed, and she became heavier on my mind. I realized what it was I was really asking her. I was asking her to go back into her lonely, terrifying realm–her home so haunted with anger and fear and sadness.
But to my surprise, she nodded her head. “Yes. Together now, sister. Let’s return you.”
She pulled away from me, taking back her strength, her fur, her fangs and claws. I let her go…and felt conflicted. I could not say that I loved her. I could not say that I could forgive her for all the past problems we’d had. But…for the first time, since I could remember, we’d been in harmony. Even if it were only for a moment. She had also made me aware of something new, something harrowing and vile. But if this thing were indeed true, then she was innocent of Atalo’s death–or perhaps one could say she were still guilty, but then so would I–for what if there were a Third that lurked in the darkness of our mind? If we continued to quarrel, splintered as we were, could we hope to keep it from coming forth again, as it had over a year ago?
I didn’t know, and it frightened me.
These thoughts, a confusing flurry that came rushing through me in a gasp of breath, were swallowed in the pain of my transformation back to naked skin and sapien limbs. Bones and muscles shifted. When the process was through, I was on the ground, panting. Paulo was down on the ground again, his hands rough on me as he forced me up.
“Come on, we have to go, I see the militia men coming!” he bit out.
My bare feet, stinging already from the cold, stumbled to keep up with him. Clumsily, I joined Lethia on the scultone, sitting behind her, my rear spilling over the edge of the saddle–it was going to be an uncomfortable ride.
Paulo came up and took the reins. He pressed down against the scultones neck and let out two loud hoots. The scultone screeched and took off, the boy steering it northward. Lethia and I held on as best as we could.
Our next stop was Holzoff’s Tower.