It were as though the cold sought to unravel me, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. We paused only once in our journey to bundle up in the blankets Paulo had brought. Elmiryn and I, as we had meant to head straight for the port city of Reg’Amen and not the snowy Albias region, had nothing to protect from the harsh cold. I only had my gambeson, and that was poor cover against the freezing wind. I missed my old smock-frock, the one I used during the winter before I was Marked. I had to make due with the blanket I was given, and I huddled close to Lethia for warmth. Finally, we could see Holzoff’s Tower, like a wicked spire that jutted from the rocky fangs of the Albias mountains. There were little rows of warm orbs shining all along it–and now and again, I could see a shadow swallow the lights briefly before they were freed to burn clear once more. I heard howling and a terrible bawling, and my heart chilled within my chest. I could feel Her stir in her realm, something of this terror reaching the beast even through her dream-like lens.
We were protected from the wind by a rock formation that clawed out of the snow. Paulo, after the scultone settled opposite the rock like a living barrier to the shadows, went and gathered branches from shrubs down the slope. After this was done, he arranged the sticks on the snow in a neat row, then he took feathered wood sticks from his pack, a bundle of fifteen or so, kept safe in a leather pouch (“To keep them from getting wet,” he said) along with another bundle of slim normal sticks. He set down the feathered sticks over the gathered branches, and I realized that he was using them to keep the dry sticks up from the snow. Then he used flint and steel to set the wood alight. He blew at the flames when the fire caught on, spreading it and keeping it alive, then began adding the normal sticks carefully. He was quiet and concentrated as he worked. Lethia and I shivered together as we watched him. Within ten minutes, we had a fire going.
We all leaned against the rock. No words passed between us, just a heavy silence that serenaded with the hollow wind. My feet were wrapped up in my blanket, but the fabric was already soaked from damp snow, and I couldn’t feel my toes anymore. I’d lived in the snow before, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before the numbness wouldn’t protect me from the stinging that would come. Then the feeling of blades stabbing the muscles, and an insufferable burning. Enough damage, and even my therian body would have the black, disfigured limbs burned into its memory–and as there was no healing such a thing, there was no return from it. I scooted closer to the fire, and if I had been out of my mind, I would’ve plunged my feet into the flames. It sounded tempting.
“Thank you…” Lethia whispered from her place behind me. “…Nyx…thank you.”
“What, no thanks for me?” Paulo snapped.
The both of us turned to glare at him.
“You, Paulo, are a selfish beast, and your rescue hardly makes up for the harrassment I’ve suffered by you and your despicable family!” The girl bit out.
“You’re welcome, Lethia,” I said, trying to distract her. I felt a little sorry for the boy. He’d gotten bad again–he started coughing and regained the distant look in his eyes. His forehead was damp and his irises drawn small. I turned and looked at him. “Paulo will you be alright?”
The Moretti’s head swiveled toward me, and I knew he was looking in the direction of my voice, but not looking at me. His chapped lips pressed thin, and his face seemed gaunter as he gave a terse shake of his head. With Lethia’s condition forcing her to avoid my eyes, neither of them looked at me. It was depressing.
I reached over and touched his boot. “Graziano will be here, and I’m certain Arduino is fine. You’ll be helped soon.”
“I don’t understand why this girl won’t do something now,” he spat, turning to look Lethia’s way again. His nostrils flared as his brows crashed together. He looked very much like Arduino in one of his dark moods. “I’m hurting. I’m hurting. I want the pain to stop. I can hardly see anything right now.” His voice cracked during the last sentence, and he swallowed hard. Lethia turned her head, scowling but her eyes had softened.
Paulo choked back a sob and slammed his head back against the rock, his hand reaching to claw at his chest. He went on, his voice strained as he spoke. “It’s happening now. I feel it pulling me. This force. It tells me to go…” His voice trailed away.
Lethia took a breath and reached over cautiously. “Go…where?”
Paulo tore away from her, a torrent of curses in his language tumbling from his lips. The girl cried out, pulling back as though burned.
“YOUR tower!” He screamed, scooting away. He pointed toward the East. “Your home! There! That way! It tells me to go back to the place this agony started. It was your witch of a mistress! It was your doing!!”
“Paulo, stop it!” I said, twisting around in full.
Lethia struck the rock with the edge of her closed fist. “Take that back!” she screamed. “Syria is not a witch! We didn’t do that to you!”
“Then help me, damn you!” Paulo shouted. He gripped his head in his hands and folded over, sobbing. “Stop it! …Please. This hurts! I can’t take it! I’m afraid to go to sleep…I’m afraid I’ll see your shadow…I’m afraid…I’m afraid…” and he went on muttering, rocking back and forth, his shoulders shaking.
I stared at him, at a loss. In truth, I hadn’t much experience with weeping men. The male gender, regardless of species, seemed infected with so much bravado. What could I do? …But I felt like I had to do something. I saw my own pain reflected back at me…Elmiryn’s pain reflected back at me. It disturbed me, and repulsed me in some ways–pain was such a personal thing, it seemed like something you wouldn’t share with just anyone, and to do so was crossing some line of basic decency–but when it came down to it, the agony I was seeing was shared. Something nasty, putrid, and crippling had touched our lives, and we were spinning out of control.
I crawled over, my body jerking from the cold, and my hands stinging in the snow. Paulo started to scoot away again, deeper into the shadows around us, but I only moved faster, taking him up in my arms. I was shivering–from fear of what he would do, from the cold, from my own pain.
…But his arms came around me, and the boy leaned into me. He buried his face into my stomach and his tears soaked my gambeson, his sobs trembled my body.
I heard Lethia move behind us, and within a moment she was at our side, her brows pressed up and tears in her eyes.
“I…” her voice died away in a fog. She touched Paulo’s head. He shrank beneath her touch, but didn’t pull away. “I’m…I’m scared, Paulo. I’m not skilled like Syria. I could…I could make things worse. I’m…yes, I’m angry with you, but I don’t want to…” she couldn’t finish.
After a few minutes I sat back, one hand on Paulo’s arm, the other at the nape of his neck. He stared down at his lap, unwilling to look at either of us. Lethia stared off into the dark, sniffling.
I sighed. Then smiled uncertainly. “Um…can we be anguished and forlorn next to the fire? I am without shoes after all…”
Lethia and Paulo looked toward me, weak laughter coming up their throats. There was a murmur of agreement and we returned to the warmth.
I stared up at a sky that I knew to hold stars in its dark belly, and wondered when it was I could see Aelurus’ glowing countenance again. Paulo seemed to regain a sense of himself in these moments, and his demeanor became sullen and closed off. I was sorry to see his smile and gentleness go, even if it came amid so much pain. He kept his body turned from us much of the time, sitting a little apart–even shunning the fire’s warmth it seemed, as though he wanted to seem unaffected by the cold. Lethia and I let him be. With the squabbling done, I became more preoccupied with keeping warm and listening to the sounds of the tower. We sat there for a while longer in silence. I cannot say for certain. Was it an hour? A few minutes? Neither would have surprised me.
Then sounds drifted to us–like rocks crashing and snow crunching. We all bolted upright. Paulo stood, breathing hard through his nose, and went for his sword.
“There…is it a daesce?” Lethia whispered.
“What’s a daesce?” I hissed looking at her. The name already filled me with dread.
“Remember how we said, when we cooked up this crazy plan, that Holzoff’s Tower was plagued with monsters?” Paulo said over his shoulder.
The sounds came again, closer. Paulo muttered something and slid into a fighting stance, his rapier held before him with one hand. Lethia and I stood, but I pushed the girl behind me. Whatever came at us, I could shield the girl from it. I didn’t know if she still had Karolek’s knowledge of metal sorcery, but I didn’t want to take the chance.
The ground started to rumble, and the scultone finally lifted its head, its white eyes glowing in the dark. Its tail lashed and it screeched, muscles beneath its tough skin bunching. Something large was charging toward us. I shouted Paulo’s name and started pushing Lethia back, my heart palpitating wildly.
But the scultone, without warning, lay back down again with a careless attitude. Paulo made a noise at it, but soon its relaxation became clear.
Within the next moment, another scultone entered the glow of our fire, steam curling from its nostrils. It warbled, in greeting it seemed, before it bowed down, and we saw the passengers on its back.
“Elmiryn!” I cried, a smile spreading across my face.
The woman’s head turned to me as though it were on a swivel, and her eyes were glassy at first, as though she weren’t looking at me…but then they focused. Focused…on me. Elmiryn smiled her broad smile, and I hardly took note of Graziano greeting his brother, of Argos suddenly jumping into the light and running to greet Lethia.
“Nyx,” my companion said as she slid off the scultone’s back with Graziano. I could see nothing else. I laughed and ran forward, throwing my arms around her. Nearly knocked the woman back into the beast, but she just laughed deeply and squeezed me tight, and…I was glad.
Elmiryn was alive.
“You did it!” I said, breathless. I pulled back, falling back onto my heels. My messy dark bangs were in my eyes and I paused only to swipe them away. “You–!”
“Kicked Quincy’s ass?” Elmiryn finished, quirking an eyebrow. “Come on, Nyx. Give me a lil’ credit. I know how to handle myself!”
I just shook my head, and with little thought, I reached up onto my toes and kissed her.
There was a surprised cough next to me, and I immediately became self-conscious. It wasn’t that I was trying to be daring or…or…or even romantic, I suppose. It just…it seemed appropriate. It seemed right to greet Elmiryn in this way. I wanted to.
The woman made no attempt to push me away. If anything she just held me tighter, picked me up off the ground even, and before I knew it, what was meant to be a quick kiss lengthened to nearly a minute. It may have gone longer if Paulo hadn’t let out a loud curse.
Elmiryn and I broke away, breathless and pink-faced, to look at the boy. He pointed toward the scultone with his rapier, his face contorted in surprise and anger. “De…de quoi!? Graziano, que inseño es isca!?”
The older Moretti closed his eyes and rubbed his temple. “Choi…”
“No, really Graz, what the hell–”
“Look, Choi, just–”
“Have you lost your mind!?”
“Will you let me talk!?” Graziano shouted. “Conio! I don’t like this anymore than you do, but…”
Lethia, crouching near the fire with Argos, clung to the dog. “Who is that…?”
There was the crunch of snow. Elmiryn and I turned, and my eyes went wide. I looked at the warrior, mouth agape. “…Elle?”
Hakeem stepped into the sphere of the fire’s glow, his hands held up, and his expression mild. “I’m here to help, nothing more,” he said.
Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck. “Oh yeah…”
“You can’t be serious!” Paulo shouted, swinging his blade.
“That’s what I said!” Graziano said with a dry tone. He paused and pointed at his brother. “And stop waving that rapier around!”
Nevermind the fact that Graziano had the same habit with an even worse weapon.
“But who is he?” Lethia said, looking up at all of us. She looked much younger all of a sudden, hiding in Argos’ fur. “Who is this man?”
Before anyone could explain, Hakeem spoke. “My name is Hakeem. I am a wizard.”
“He’s also Quincy’s partner,” Elmiryn added helpfully.
Lethia’s eyes turned wide as she swallowed hard and looked in the man’s direction.
“Can someone fill me in on the details of your plan?” The wizard asked, his tone still calm and deep, but his volume raised to command all of our attention. I thought it brusque and inflammatory of him at the time, but in hindsight, we could’ve gone on for hours about why he was allowed to be there. The time simply wasn’t there.
“Well…” Elmiryn looked around at everyone else as though waiting for someone to stop her. No one did. She pulled away from me, and stepped closer to Hakeem. “At this point, we need to get ahold of one of the guards–any one of them. They’ll have a basic understanding of the prison’s security, and might even have whatever it is we need to get inside–be that a key or a password. Lethia sucks out that information and both me and Nyx go with her inside. From there, we play it by ear. It’s the best we can do considering how sudden this all is.”
Hakeem rubbed his chin, looking at Lethia. Paulo spat on the ground, stepping in front of the girl. He still hadn’t put away his sword.
The wizard nodded. “All things considered, it’s not a bad plan–but there’s more to take into account. There’s the daesce. Fortunately for us, it doesn’t seem like they care for this area–lots of deep snow banks and very open, save for this rock that’s giving us cover.” He pointed toward the tower, which we could see around the rock. “But there, at the tower, the daesce serve as an unintentional ward against unsolicited guests and invaders. The bridge leading to the tower gate is teeming with the creatures underneath. It’s one thing to avoid the guards–quite a different thing to avoid the daesce–and you’ll have to if you want to get near the tower at all.”
“I had an idea for that,” Graziano said with a raised hand.
We all turned to him. He cleared his throat, and suddenly looked uncomfortable. “You see…all we need is to kill a daesce, then skin it.”
Lethia made a face. “You aren’t…”
“…Suggesting…” I continued.
Graziano nodded with apologetic eyes. “Yes. You’ll have to wear the skins to get by–and we don’t have time to let them dry. With luck, the daesce will only think you’ve just killed something and go looking for the corpse. They’re known to be cannibalistic.”
“Or they could tear us apart in a bloodlust,” I deadpanned.
“Or…um…that,” Graziano said with a wince.
Silence followed. Lethia’s face had gone blank, and I looked at her fearfully. Was she slipping into a new state of amnesia? The tip of Paulo’s rapier buried into the snow as he swayed on the spot, a hand on his forehead. Hakeem stared toward Holzoff’s, with arms crossed over his chest. Argos licked at his mistress’ hand with a low whine. Graziano pressed his lips together and stared down at the ground.
Elmiryn looked down at my feet and put her hands on her hips. “…Nyx, what the fuck happened to your boots?”