Chapter 15.3

So I did a podcast, sort of. It isn’t the entire chapter, I’ll be honest. (This idea was sort of last minute, and I wasn’t even done writing when I started recording, ha ha) so just an FYI.  Click the text or play button and the player will show.  For some, it may take a bit to load.  If it doesn’t, try refreshing the page.  There’s also a download option if you prefer saving it to your computer.
— Illise M.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn sucked at her teeth, her cerulean eyes casting about a dark face creviced with a buried rage that was as aged wine.  Her mind tickled, and she thought she recognized this curious expression.  Had she worn it in the past?  Eyes, mirrors, and eyes on mirrors, reflecting not as they should but as she willed–they had indeed displayed such dark things to her light gaze, and yet the woman hadn’t come to appreciate such human passion as she did right at that moment.  She felt familiar with it, like it were a dream she had enjoyed.  Nyx’s anger, even in her most primal of states, was of a different breed than what Hakeem kept tapped down behind dark eyes.  Hers was an anger anew, sprouting like a bud from a sadness curdled by fear and frustration.  But here…ah, but here

“So in return for your help, you want the information we have?”  Elmiryn scratched at her cheek, her blade still resting against her shoulder.  “That’s it, really?”

The wizard’s face softened to that of a keen barterer.  “…And a portion of the reward Lethia Artaud has promised you, of course.”

Graziano scoffed.  “Es un mal negoste!” He looked at Elmiryn.  “You know we have no stake in your reward–ours is to be cured of the evil that was beset on us.  But this calgato asks too much!”

“Is it too much when you could be able to reset the events of history and travel at the speed of light?” Hakeem stated mildly.  His hands had uncurled from their fists and now rested loosely at the base of his head.  Now he looked less like a prisoner, and more like a companion just coming out of a stretch.

Elmiryn wagged a finger at him.  “Now, now, wizard!  You said it yourself.  You don’t know if your friend is even coming back.”

Hakeem, in less than a minute, was back to the mild-voiced, stoic-faced man he had been up on the mountain.  “Elmiryn, you and your companions are seeking to break into Holzoff’s Tower with little to no plan–”

“–Now I wouldn’t go that far–”

“–And you’re skills, though they are formidable, are ill-equipped for this venture.  You need someone with power.  You need my magic.  I admit that Quincy may not return–but if she does, her cooperation will be absolute.  I know my companion.  She’ll do everything she can to re-materialize.”

“This is stupid.” Graziano muttered, but his pistol lowered.

Elmiryn looked down at Argos.  She bent over and in a faux whisper, asked him, “Do you think it’s a good idea, Argos?”

Argos looked at Hakeem.  He grumbled from the back of his throat, taking a moment to twist around and chew on his flank.  Then he straightened, and with a curt snort, nodded his head.  The warrior returned the nod and straightened.  “Fine, wizard.  We’ll let you come.”

“You’ll listen to the gods damn dog, but not me!? Graziano kicked at the ground.  “Me teshie! I’m telling you, I don’t like this idea, lia!” The man half-shouted.  He waved his pistol threateningly at the wizard.  “I’ve dealt with this man before–he’ll backstab us the first chance he gets!”

Elmiryn stepped toward Hakeem, sheathing her sword.  She smiled and placed her hands high on her hips.  “Mmm…well.  This man may be just as you say, Graz.  But he isn’t stupid.  I defeated Quincy single-handedly, and together we’ve beat him down once already.  If he wants his gold, and if he wants his information, he’ll play nice.”  The woman’s eyes darkened, but her smile didn’t waver.  “Right, Hakeem?”

The man stared into her eyes unflinchingly.  Then he nodded.

“Yes.  Of course.”

Elmiryn clapped her hands and turned around.  “Right!  Let’s get to it!” she said cheerfully.

———————

Deeper, deeper, deeper still.

Were it not for the foresight of Graziano, Elmiryn would’ve froze her ass off.  The cloak he lent her was made from the skin of a creature Elmiryn could not readily identify (it was a dark orange, almost a burnt umber, with dark stripes and odd spots at the edges).  Hakeem was left to withstand the cold, the winds clawing at him unmercifully as they crested a mountain peak.  He gripped onto Argos with one arm, his brow low and tight from the strain of holding the massive dog.  Argos bumped his head against her flank occasionally.  He seemed to loathe riding the scultone, but couldn’t refrain from looking each time they slid down a particularly steep mountain face.  Elmiryn bopped him on the head once when his thrashings knocked her sword handle painfully into her ribs.  She would’ve cursed at him too–her side was still sore from when he had pounced her days ago outside of Tiesmire–but the ride spared her little breath.  Their energy and focus was spent on holding on and bracing against gut-dropping jumps.

They came to a relief, where the snow had compacted hard.  Graziano pulled at his scultone, bringing it to stop.  He slid off and patted the beast’s side, looking at them all.

“Let’s rest,” he panted.  His breath was a fog.

“Where are the others, exactly?” Elmiryn asked as she jumped down.

Graziano pointed toward the horizon.  “Still a ways away.  Their heading there by a different route than us.  Paulo knows where he’s going.  We probably won’t see them till late evening.”

“It’ll be too dark then…”

“Considering the nature of our plan, lia, I wouldn’t fret much about it being nighttime.  There’s much more to consider.”

“I guess.”  Argos bumped Elmiryn’s side, and the woman blinked and looked down at him.  The dog peered at her, brows pressed up, but his lips were pulled back far to make him look like he were smiling…and maybe he was?  The woman chuckled and scratched his head.  She didn’t need to bend down to do so.

“Lia, is your friend really up to the task of breaking into Holzoff’s?  After all is said and done, it comes down to her.  We won’t be able to catch the commanding guard of Syria’s floor, so Nyx will have to lockpick her way in.” Graziano said before he took a drink from his flask, which he seemed to pull out from inside his cloak.

Elmiryn’s brows went high and she gestured at the item.  The man blinked and passed it to her, without the cap.  She took a swig–cider and rum, warm, perhaps because he’d kept it close to his body the whole time.  The woman sighed in satisfaction and handed the flask back, somewhat reluctantly.  Just a little for the cold, she told herself.

She answered the man’s question with strong conviction.  “Nyx has been in these situations before.  She’s strong and capable, even if she doesn’t realize it.”

“Eh?  Well…” and here Graziano placed a hand on his pistol, his fingers tracing the ivory stock.  “Un otrie sin casé, no posque funcío.  A tool has no purpose without a hand to use it.”

“She’ll do what needs to be done.”  Elmiryn patted Argos head, and he whined as he looked up at her, pink tongue panting.  “She cares about Lethia.  And when she cares…I mean, really cares–she fights.”  The woman smiled slowly.  It occurred to her, that for all the annoyance this caused her…she was proud to say this.  She was even more proud, knowing the tawny-eyed girl was her partner.  “That’s…my Nyx,” she finished quietly.

Argos licked her hand once, as though to let her know he understood, then laid down at her feet.  Graziano just shrugged and took to stroking the scultone along its thick neck.  His head was turned slightly however.  He was keeping an eye on Hakeem.  The wizard in question was standing some feet away, staring toward the East, where the wind whipped at them from.

They were quite high still, even after coming down from the tallest mountain tips.  Elmiryn tried to guess, by the popping of her ears, their elevation.  The most she could say was, “High as hell,” because when her mind tried to recall how low Belcliff had seemed at the mountain peak, she found herself doubting the gray, indefinite memory.  This put her in a sour mood, and she ventured as near to the edge of the cliff as she dared, trying to see how much farther they had to go.  Down below, some twenty yards, she saw something displace the serenity of the snow, and she realized she was looking at a long furry creature, with a round snout, small round ears, and thick long whiskers.  It paused and peered up at her, its bulbous-tipped tail wiggling like a worm.  The woman crouched and frowned.  It looked like it had a dead baby batreng in its mouth.

The creature turned and slinked away in disinterest, further down the slope.  Elmiryn found she could no longer pick it out again with her eyes.

“The creatures here pride themselves in being things unseen.”  The woman turned and eyed Hakeem, who had moved to stand a little ways from her.  He gazed over the edge, a contemplative look on his face.  “The creature you just saw, the Albian mongoose, is an animal, not a monster–but it’s clever and can prey on magical creatures just the same.  Even the monsters that would otherwise seem easy to spot manage some level of inconspicuousness.  The batrengs learn to fly only when necessary and avoid the snow, so that their dark bodies blend into the shadows and the rock.  Devil weeds burn themselves a home in odd places, snatching at unsuspecting creatures.   But those creatures aren’t the best at concealment out here.”

Elmiryn took the bait, leaning onto her knees.  “Oh?  And what is?”

Hakeem looked at her.  “Daesce.  They are monsters that look like primeapes.  They have long white hair and small dark faces.  Their shorter than us by maybe 5-10 inches, but are stocky with muscle.” He took his thumbs and index fingers and made hooks.  “Instead of hands, they have two large claws that they use to grip into the hard snow and dirt, much like Graziano’s scultone.  They move silently, and for creatures their size, they are wickedly fast.”

“And what do they do?

“They’re humanoid monsters–so they are given less to following instinct and more to cruel impulse.  They’ll kill you when they’ve already eaten, and they’ll destroy any man-made item they can get their claws on.”  Hakeem tilted his head back to scratch at his throat.  “…I’ve even heard they’ll rape their victims–irregardless of gender or age.  Again, they’re humanoids.  There’s some twisted mockery to be had, on a cosmic level.  Only the gods know why they let such things exist.”

“How lovely.”  Elmiryn shook her head, a grin on her lips.  “Well, it didn’t come from Halward.  He’s more the sort of god that’d limit your chances for survival by engulfing you in fire–not rape-death by demon monkey-people up on a cold mountain.  Maybe we’ll get lucky and manage to avoid those things.” The woman straightened, and as she turned, she saw Hakeem, chin to chest, a smirk on his lips.  She frowned, paused, and placed a hand on her hip.

“What?” She asked, curious.

Hakeem looked at her out of the corner of his eye.  “The guards at Holzoff’s Tower have a high mortality rate.  Atleast one man is killed or severely wounded each week.  But it’s not because of their prisoners.  There’s a reason that prison is so famous.  They may have a great number of guards, and even a complex series of barricades and checkpoints…but the fact of the matter is, prisoners don’t want to escape.  They don’t want to be torn apart by the daesce, who swarm over the tower like locusts.  But what’s truly fascinating is that, you’d never know so many were there, because they’re so good at hiding.  So good at blending in.  And what’s out of sight, is out of mind, and therefor–”

“–Most dangerous.” Elmiryn finished with a frown.  She made a scoffing noise from the back of her throat, her arms crossing high over her chest.  “Are you telling me that the guards are so stupid, they don’t see a bunch of monsters who are practically all around them?”

Hakeem shook his head, a patient expression on his face.  “No.  I’m telling you that this is the way of Albias.”  He took his hand and held it straight with palm-edge down, making as though he were indicating something in the air.  “From Dolmensk, to Belcliff, to Holzoff’s–the state of mind of each of these places is that there is danger, all around.”  Here Hakeem began to walk away.

“But they never know where it’s going to come from next…” he finished.

???_____________________________

The marshal was in a rage.

“This was our notary building!” He seethed, gesturing at the blasted edifice that once was considered some of the best architecture found in the city.  (That wasn’t saying much, considering how foul-looking the city was.  You’d have expect a gargoyle to snatch you into the shadows.) The pavement of the courtyard was churned and turned to dust, and the integrity of the surrounding buildings were called into question.  Columns had been knocked out, gigantic cracks trailing through walls, the dirt and dust conquering the once “well-crafted” stone.  Hallmarks of art, wealthy businesses, a functioning channel of traffic–all lost.

Such a stupid, petty thing to fuss over.  Atleast no one had died.

“Who did this!?”  The marshal screamed, his shoulders about his purple ears as his fists trembled at his sides.  The militia shrank away, their armor like bells sounding the retreat.  Eventually the marshal’s assistant, Herman, was shoved in front of him.  The boy looked ready to piss his pants.

The marshal narrowed his cobalt eyes at him.  “Well, Herman?  Have your mousy ears picked up anything even remotely useful?”

The boy stammered, his brown eyes wide.  He looked as though he wanted to be anywhere but there.  “I–I–I–um–”

“Marshal!”

….?

The man turned scowling, but his expression let up when he saw who was running toward them.  “Arduino…?”

The eldest Moretti was sweat-drenched, his hair freed of its bond to dance wild with the wind.  (He once had his hair cropped short.  He looked better with it like that.)  The man nodded and bowed slightly.  “Ah…signore.  I’ve finally found you.”  He straightened, hand on his heart and his other hand behind his back.  “I’ve been all about the city.  I come with information.”

The marshal straightened, his eyes turning sharp.  “Oh?  What information do you have for me, Arduino?”

“Marshal, there is a plot underway to free the enchantresses.”  The marshal’s face tightened, but before he could say anything the Moretti continued.  “The battle that took place here–it was only a distraction to allow certain individuals to free Lethia Artaud.  They mean to free Syria next.  I imagine they must be on their way there now.”

“That’s ludicrous!  They won’t even make it to the prison, let alone get inside of it!  Syria will not be going anywhere.”  All bluster and bravado.  Doesn’t even stop to fact-check.  It’s only mildly surprising.  The marshal’s reputation was spotless, and he was known to be a level-headed leader…but now…?

Arduino’s face turned grave.  He braced his shoulders and took a step forward.  “See, that’s just the issue, signore.  My brothers are with these individuals–misguided–and I’d not have them harmed!”

The marshal looked at Arduino as though he’d grown a second head.  “Your brothers are–?”

“Marshal, my brother Paulo has fallen ill, and my family have been persuaded to think that the enchantresses are the only ones who can help him.” Arduino bowed low.  “I apologize, signore.  But I would’ve stopped them if I could.  I came to you under great peril!”

“From what?”

Arduino straightened. “I had to escape the wizard you hired…Hakeem.  It is he and Quincy who are behind this.”

Lies.

“That’s preposterous!”  So the marshal has some level of rationale left.

“Ask around.  I imagine all of the guards must have seen the flash of light, must have felt the heat sweep over them.  Marshal, these wizards are greedy.  They heard about the reward Lethia Artaud was promising and decided to kill two birds with one stone.  Holzoff’s Tower is impressive, but hardly impregnable.  They’ll have Syria free, and they’ll have made fools of us all!!”

A good idea, maybe.  But still lies.

The marshal shook his head slowly in disbelief.  “But I’ve commissioned those two before!  Their integrity was never under question!”

“Ah…Actually, sir…”  Here Herman spoke up.  His entire body was trembling, and he tugged at his rash-covered ear again.  At this rate, it was going to fall off.  “I’m–I’m afraid there’s something you ought to know.”

The man’s eyes darkened.  “What, Herman.”

“You see….ha….ha, ha…” he tried to laugh, and the sound was just a nervous squeak.  It died with a choked sound when the marshal’s only response was a stony glare.  The boy continued with a cough.  “You see, the woman, Quincy, she came in after receiving her gold, asking to see the case documents regarding Syria’s trial.  I…I told her that was against regulations, but she…she…sh-she threatened me, sir!  Threatened me!”  Herman began to blubber pathetically.  “I didn’t want to, but she made me, and–and–maybe, maybe what she saw made her do this?  Maybe–”

The boy may have been intimidated at the time, but he was hardly at knife-point.  He had gone up the stairs, then come back down, gushing with assurances that the marshal had given the go-ahead.  …But apparently, he had never spoken to the marshal.  Perhaps because he knew the marshal would say no, and he was afraid.  Now he was lying to the man, trying to cover his own ass.  His previous actions would’ve become known soon enough, but Arduino had given him an out.  The boy wasn’t stupid.  A gods damned brat, maybe, but not stupid.

The marshal looked between Arduino and Herman.  “Your claims are outstanding!  You’re asking me to hunt down two powerful wizards under circumstantial evidence. What proof can either of you give me that what your saying is true?” But his eyes were nearly bugged.  Herman’s news had rattled him.

“Sir, sir!

All in the ruined courtyard turned to see two young militia men running towards them.  One had lost his helmet.  Both were pink-faced and dripping with sweat.  The one still wearing his helmet spoke, his words punctuated by gasps.  “Sir!” He panted, “We’ve come to inform you–the new prisoner, the enchantress–two youth have taken her.  She’s gone, sir!”

The marshal’s face, if possible, turned darker.

He screamed at his men, “Sound a high alert!!  Send a messenger bird to Holzoff’s Tower and gather all the men!  We’re going after them!”  He turned, his cobalt eyes now like razors as he looked at Arduino.  “You.  Gather the bounty hunters in the area.  All of them.  Tell them I’ll give each 500 silver pieces just for showing.  Then, another thousand gold to whomever brings me the head of any of these criminals!”

“And my brothers?”

The marshal’s lips grew thin.  Then he stepped forward and said tightly, “They shall be spared.  But if they cause us trouble, Arduino, I’m sorry.”  The man stalked away, Herman trailing after him like a puppy.

“Eh…eh, de quoi?  De quoi!?”  Arduino shouted after the marshal, red faced.  “They are the only family I have left!!  You’d take them away from me!?”

The marshal snapped over his shoulder, but didn’t pause or slow down.  “Just do as I tell you if you want to see your brothers alive, Arduino!”

Not quite the ending Arduino had hoped.  His crestfallen face says it all.  Stupid man–there was a time when he could out-maneuver you, when he was always a step ahead.  The Morettis used to be a name feared and respected throughout the Sibesona.  Now their legacy has petered out in illness and desperation.  The man should’ve looked at the facts, and the fact of it was, the marshal was a vengeful, paranoid bastard…

…But I’m still around to do something about it.

 

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