What a start. What a nightmarish start. We hadn’t even penetrated the tower yet, and here we were–two of our number severely injured. I wanted to turn around and throw my hands up into the air. I had wanted to help Lethia, but it had never been my intention to actually aid her mistress. Maybe help the girl get free of her pursuers and onto safety. But not this. Only, Elmiryn had changed her mind when she became aware of a possible connection to her quest. I had gone along with it, reserved but silent for I remembered why I had started traveling with the woman to begin with, and the evidence did seem compelling, if circumstantial…
The fact remained. I was not up for this.
The true weight of our task felt so great that I fought to keep my knees from locking me into place. My Twin was a phantom of rumpled temperament, growling and spitting in my head because this agreed with her no more than it did me.
As we crunched through the snow, shifting shadows our company on that dark night, I wondered if it were my end that I was seeking. If this would be the adventure to cut down our lives. I had been with Elmiryn more than two weeks, but the time seemed so much longer considering what we’d already been through. I didn’t want things to end. I looked over my shoulder, hoping an answer lay in the wisps of icy wind and jagged earth that was that crater. Not even my sharp therian eyes could pick out the glow of our camp peeking behind the merciful rock, and with that…I knew that the warrior had been right in choosing to press forward. The cold was a constant drain on us, and the exertion of our encounter with the daesce did nothing to aid our stamina. Holzoff’s Tower could possibly be our final resting place–But it was also warm, and supplied with medicine we could use.
As much as I hated it, we had to keep going.
For my part, I fared well, considering I suffered no great injury, and while the cold was no friend, I was much more resilient than either of my human companions. For what the cold tried to take, my regenerative ability tried to replenish. I knew this wouldn’t last, however. With time, the cold would whittle away all I had, leaving my body to memorize its effects and make it the new standard. If this happened, unless I found a special therian healer, I’d forever be ill and weakened. Considering the direction my life was taking, I could not afford this.
So I did my best to use my daesce hide to cover my exposed skin, where I’d used my tunic to help Lethia. I could see the daesce watching us, curious yet wary from our show of power. I wondered if the hide was still necessary–if we had somehow earned a place in their simple social structure.
We finally came to the tower. The only way up to the bridge, it seemed, was by climbing up the rocks and then grabbing onto the ledge. I didn’t know how the security was at the gate. Lethia seemed to wonder the same thing and made as if to look, venturing further from the bridge’s blind spot, but I grabbed her arm firmly.
“No!” I whispered.
We turned to look at Elmiryn who hissed at us from near the shadows. She pointed with her thumb, beneath the looming stone. I nodded and together, Lethia and I joined her.
“Let’s slip down under here,” the warrior breathed. “I doubt they’ll see us in this dark, but it’s better to find some cover so close to the tower.”
I turned and looked, my eyes narrowing. “In…there?”
The bridge was atleast ten men wide, and my eyes could make out many shapes in the dark. There was a putrid stench wafting from inside, when the wind didn’t blow, and I thought I heard squelching…like meat being chewed. I looked at Elmiryn again. “It’s crawling with the daesce!”
“We’ve already established ourselves as big bad killers, okay? They won’t want to fight us.”
“But I can’t see anything!” Lethia added.
Elmiryn gestured toward me with a tilt of her head. “Nyx, you can see fairly good in the dark, right? Guide us through. There must be a way up onto the bridge from down here.”
I bit my tongue. Hard. But I thrust out my arm and Elmiryn grabbed my elbow, Lethia in turn holding onto her. My eyes turned to the curtain of black that teased the toes of my makeshift boots. My clawed hands twitched and I knew I wouldn’t be able to truly see anything until I had immersed myself into the darkness completely.
“My eyes.” My Twin said.
She spoke with ill temper, and her body lay coiled on my already cumbersome worries. “Let’s share sight a while. It’ll be better. For us both.”
I said nothing. Only gave a mental nod of my head. I had to admit, that having Her be this agreeable was a great deal better with arguing over her for control. I didn’t dwell on this much. I didn’t want to ruin this little reprieve, especially when there were such pressing matters at hand.
I closed my eyes and braced myself. My eyes burned first, and they twitched up and to the side without my command. Then pain shot up the eyestalks, flowering behind my eyelids and painting the shadows behind them with white waves. I hissed from the back of my throat, my hand reached up to my face. I forgot that I had claws and I scratched myself on accident, on the top of my right cheek. The cut tickled as it sealed shut, and when it did, the pain in my eyes subsided to an ache. Shaking my head, I opened my eyes, tentatively.
It was better than before, but not much. The world under the bridge gained in varying shades of gray. The small flickers of yellow that winked in the dark from the daesce’s eyes were weak too, telling me that not much light was to be had beneath the bridge. Still, with Elmiryn a warm presence behind me, I started to slide forward.
I felt my foot push at bones and possibly even fecal matter. The smell made me dizzy, and I wretched so hard at the start that I had to spit out the mouthful of bile that managed to splash onto my tongue. Being what I was, I had a sensitive nose, but Lethia seemed the worse affected of us all. We had to stop after two yards because the girl couldn’t stop heaving. I took my time, picking through the uneven snow and litter, because at one point I found my foot was placed inches from a half-eaten corpse. I tried curving our progress toward the tower. I didn’t know what to find that way, but there was no other way up. There were grunts and the occasional jabbering from the creatures about us. There were atleast two instances in which we had to stop abruptly because a daesce would suddenly go lumbering across our path, eyes flashing our way briefly before it hurried away, as though realizing we were there. With each inch we gained I believed Elmiryn more and more that the monsters wanted nothing to do with us after our raw display of power.
Which was good, because I was pretty sure another engagement would kill us.
Bones crunched beneath my feet as we neared the rocks. I turned and looked back at the others. Elmiryn seemed relatively fine, all things considered. But Lethia was nowhere in sight. I frowned and leaned over, and there I found the girl pressed into Elmiryn’s back. The woman took a moment to make out what I was doing, then turned and with her good hand poked the teenager in the head. Lethia looked up, her eyes wide, but her back straightened as she took note of the stones before us. I imagine to her it must’ve looked like a wall of pitch black, but for human beings, Elmiryn and Lethia seemed rather in tune with their instincts.
I turned my eyes back onto the uneven rock that seemed like a rumpled blanket to me. Elmiryn and Lethia, emboldened by the sight of their way out of that hellhole, broke the chain to come and stand at my sides. Together, we felt the rock, eyes straining for some answer as to how to climb up. For the most part, the stone was smooth, but as I reached over to brush some snow away from one, I noted a harsh cut into the stone. I frowned and ran my fingers over the cut. I turned to Elmiryn, nudging her.
“Elle,” I breathed. “I think the daesce managed to chip the rock in some places. We could use this as foot holds!”
But the woman didn’t seem relieved and I was quick to remember why.
“I’ll have to find a place where the rock comes to a slant, otherwise, you and Lethia are going to have to go up first by yourselves.” I could see her face twist up in the dark, like she hated being left behind for any reason.
“You can’t come with us!?” Lethia hissed, voicing my fear.
The woman shook her head. “Like I said, lemme find a place where I can try to climb up at a crawl. If that doesn’t work, you’ll have to find some rope and lower it down for me.”
“This is suicide…” I grumbled to the warrior, but I said this low and with my face turned from Lethia. I didn’t want to make the girl anymore fearful than she probably already was.
“Don’t say that.” Elmiryn scolded softly. She gestured at the rock with her chin. “Go on you two. Try and start picking your way up there. Nyx should take the lead. Knock out the guard so that Lethia can get the information we need. I’ll be with you soon.”
I only shook my head and gave a half-hearted shrug. I turned my eyes to the ground, and there they caught sight of something. Amid the folds of black and gray shadows, with bones wrapped about the handle in a deathly grasp, I reached down and plucked up… “A morningstar?”
Lethia said nothing. Her back was turned to us and it seemed she was focusing on a point on the wall, and her hand seemed to be patting her thigh rapidly. I paused at the sight of this, but Elmiryn leaned over me to see what I held, and my original intention was lost.
“You got that from the ground?”
“Yes.” My brows knitted together as I grasped the blade in my hand. I turned to Elmiryn with a jerk. “I’ve got an idea!”
“Most likely the guards on the bridge are behind gates. I can lure them out with this! It must be difficult for these men to receive new arms and supplies given the nature of this place. With every death, they lose valuable equipment. If they see this, so near to the gate, they’ll want to retrieve it!”
“That’s a stretch, Nyx. And at any rate, if they went for it, they’d probably lock the gates behind whoever goes for the weapon just to be safe.”
“But even then, there’ll be someone near the gates ready to let him back in, right? I can distract the guard outside while Lethia ensorcells the ones covering him!” As I said this, I turned and placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. She gasped and whirled around, stumbling back against the wall and the bones on the ground. I pulled away, as though burned. “Huh?”
Lethia was breathing fast, and she made a low whine in her throat. Her hand clutched at her chest and she winced as though in severe pain. For a moment, I was afraid the skin of her cut had torn apart. Then the look cleared up, and I saw her head twist to see around her.
Elmiryn sighed, just as I gathered what was going on. “Well that’s just great. Her amnesia’s at it again!”
I knelt down next to the girl, placing the morningstar on the ground, and took hold of her shoulders. The youth’s pale oval face turned my way, and I could see her lips quivering. “Shh, shhh…Lethia? Lethia, what do you remember?”
The girl said nothing, only continued to stare at me with those wide green eyes. How horrifying it must have been to “awaken” in such a place! I made sure to avoid locking onto her gaze as I shuffled closer.
“What do you remember?” I insisted, tightening my grip on her shoulders.
Lethia’s eyes narrowed. I saw her eyes flicker to my lips.
“Eth…eh…eth…” The girl’s speech was low and slurred, like she had to battle with her tongue to move. She scowled and looked over at Elmiryn. “Esch…ah-uh…”
My heart sunk. I turned slowly and looked at Elmiryn, who was looking down at me. From her shadowed features, I gathered she was scowling. I looked back at Lethia. “Do you…understand me? Lethia?”
The girl blinked slowly. She tilted her head back and stared up at the looming underside of the bridge. I pointed up excitedly. “Yes! Up! Do you remember? We need to go up!”
“Ah!” The girl sighed with excitement, mirroring my action. “Sss–ia!”
“Sia? You mean…you mean Syria?”
“Well,” Elmiryn said, resigned. “She’s a bit fucky now, but atleast she still remembers that much.” She chuckled darkly. “If that isn’t loyalty, I don’t know what is!”
I stood and turned to the warrior, a worried look on my face. “I don’t know if I can take her up with me. She seems to remember something of our task, but she…I don’t think she understands when I speak to her. There could be a great deal she’s forgotten, and the risk is just–”
I broke off as I saw Elmiryn rubbing her chin with a grin on her lips.
I frowned at her. “What?”
“Looks like she’s going up with or without you, Nyx!” She snickered.
I whipped around. Lethia had already started climbing the wall. She was only a two feet up because she had to grope around both with her hand and her foot to see where the next foothold was, but I stopped myself from pulling her back down when I remembered that this could tear open the girl’s tender cut. I stared, flabbergasted as Lethia moved with a renewed vigor.
“Her power shifted to block her knowledge of speech,” Elmiryn said behind me, “But it hasn’t stopped her ability to move. If anything, she probably has forgotten what the implications of her pain means, too. That’s why she’s able to ignore it and climb so fast.”
I grit my teeth and glanced at the woman over my shoulder. I didn’t like the note of envy in her voice. “That isn’t good, Elle! She could push herself too hard!”
The woman gave me a nudge, “Which is why you should probably get after her then!”
I growled but did just this, taking the morningstar and slipping it down the back of my tunic’s neck and between the bandages I used to wrap my breasts. It bit into my scarred back uncomfortably, but the weapon didn’t jostle much and I was confident it would stay put. I started at the first foothold I’d found and started after the girl, using my claws to my advantage to find grip in the otherwise slippery parts along the wall. I glanced back only a moment to see that Elmiryn had already gone off to find another way up to the top of the bridge. I looked back up to see Lethia panting up above me, her head resting against the rock. Her limbs were shaking, and I knew if I didn’t catch up with her soon, she’d fall.
Doubling my efforts, I spidered my way up to the girl, closing the yard between us. I came up to her side, where she took note of me and decided to wait until I was level with her. Her face was nearly completely dark gray. There was less light where we had climbed.
I touched my chest with my free hand. “I’ll go first,” I said slowly.
I couldn’t tell if what I said registered with the youth, but I gestured for her to follow me anyway. I climbed up and over her and heard the girl begin to follow. We were only a few feet from the bottom of the bridge, but we had to climb sideways now to get onto it. I looked down and watched as Lethia blindly reached around for somewhere to grab hold. I let out a hiss and snapped my fingers to grab her attention, then pointed at my boot. The girl looked at my shoe in confusion before I removed it from its foothold, then put it back again. I pointed at my boot again, which I pulled away once more. I said as clearly as possible, “Lethia. Grab there!”
It hit me that I didn’t know how well the girl could see. Could she atleast make out my form in the dark? Even I was having trouble making out what was what. But the girl seemed to get the gist of my actions and reached in my direction. It took her a minute before she found the spot my boot had been. From there, I scooted over, and the girl pulled herself up. I reached over and aided her as best I could, but the truth of it was that the cuts and breaks in the rocks were slippery with ice and some tended to be narrow so I couldn’t lean over far.
Bit by bit, we sidled over until we came out from beneath the bridge. Though it was still dark out, the filtered moonlight filtered through the break of clouds was enough to seem like day to me after the overwhelming shadow we suffered. Once I could reach the side of the bridge’s mold, the climb became much easier. I hurried up, claws scraping at the edges of the barricade, and I peeked over as much as I dared.
The entrance to the tower was a set of large wooden doors, further blocked off by a heavy steel gate. I could see a smaller door fixed into the wooden entrance with a view window, but the window was shut. All was quiet, and from where I was, it seemed I was in the blind spot of the archer windows.
I pulled myself up.
Turning, I saw Lethia struggle to come up, the same way I had, but perhaps I was more agile than I thought, for she seemed to find it impossible. She gazed up at me with stricken eyes, and I knew she was afraid of falling. Given the way her hands gripped the rock with white fingertips and her limbs trembled worse than before, I feared this too. With little pause, I lunged over the barricade. Just as I was in reach of the girl’s arms, her foot slipped and she started to drop back into the shadow, her daesce skin slipping away from her to reveal her long hair sullied and turned dark with gore. My breath stopped and I snatched at her desperately.
My right hand caught her wrist, and I felt my body began to fly over the edge when my left hand managed to catch the outer edge of the barricade, and by a twist of my body, my right foot hooked onto the inner edge. My entire body screamed as each and every muscle pulled from the full weight of Lethia, who dangled free in the air now. The daesce skin slid off my back and fell to the ground below. The girl grabbed onto my forearm with her other hand desperately, a scared whimper slipping her throat.
Grunting, I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled back as hard as I could. Within five minutes, the girl was up and over the ledge, breathing hard and shaking all over. Her eyes rolled like she were ready to pass out. I was on the ground, knees half-bent, leaning back on my hands when I saw this. I jumped forward and shook the girl’s shoulder. She couldn’t lose consciousness. I wasn’t sure if I could wake her again if she passed out, and this terrified me.
“Lethia!” I hissed.
The teenager blinked her eyes open again and stared at my hand. She pulled her legs over the barricade with some struggle, and let them dangle over the ground. I stood and breathed a sigh of relief.
Turning, I looked at the steel gate. It presented an immediate problem for me, as I had to make sure the guards would raise it and keep it raised so that Lethia and I could rush in. I bit my lip and pulled the morningstar out as I puzzled over this new obstacle. I stared at the weapon in my hands. Color became dull with my bestial eyes, so the ruddy weave of the hilt looked little different from the stained rusted metal that sprouted from it. I wasn’t certain, but it seemed to be iron. I followed up the weapon’s length to the bulbous spiked end. Then my eyebrows rose.
I turned and gestured mutely for Lethia to follow me. She did so with a nod, sliding off the bridge barricade and together we ventured near the gate. There I looked at the girl, and pointed at her eyes with my index and middle finger, then pointed toward the small door in the blocked entrance. I had to do this twice before Lethia seemed to grasp what it was I was telling her.
“Ah-tch…” She said, pointing at the door.
I nodded. “Yes. Watch.”
I pulled her back to where the barricade connected with the tower, and there I bid the girl to stand up on the stone. I put my fingers on my lips and Lethia mirrored the action, nodding.
I hurried to the other side of the bridge. My heart was hammering in my chest as I took the morningstar with both hands and held it up like a bat. I took three deep breaths before I let out a wild swing. The weapon struck the steel, letting out a dull ‘twang’ that stung my hands. I looked up to see what Lethia was doing. She was hiding still, but I could tell she was straining her ears to see when the doors would open. I turned back to the steel gate, where I saw I had managed a small scratch on the bars, but otherwise nothing. No noises came from the doors. I bared my teeth and pulled the morningstar back again, this time spreading my legs and bending my knees. I swung again, so hard that I felt as though I wrenched my arms out, and when the weapon hit, I could’ve sworn I saw sparks (but this may have been my mind playing tricks on me.) All of my bones rattled in my body, and I had to straighten out my eyes–such was the force of the hit.
But the sound!
It was loud and sang, shaking the gate. The spikes of the morningstar had flown off where the weapon had struck, and the shaft was bent now, but I heard shouts from behind the heavy wooden doors, and I knew that this time I had my audience.
Hurriedly, I threw the morningstar in a spot I knew the view window would be able to see, and I jumped up onto the barricade like Lethia, pressing my back against the stone.
I heard the ‘slack’ as the view window was snapped back. There was a groan.
Someone else spoke, but I couldn’t make out what they said.
The person at the door answered them. “No, no. It’s…it looks like it’s just a weapon over there. But that could mean someone upstairs was pulled through the bars again. …What? Yes that’s possible! A few months ago there was this new guy. He got plucked right up by the daesce. Nearly skinned him doing so. We found his body in the morning, out on the bridge, every bone broken.” The door rattled and my heart jumped as I heard something jingle.
The other person spoke again, and they sounded agitated.
“Of course I’m going out there! We have three men fitted only with knives, we can’t afford to lose anymore of our arms. Next supply shipment isn’t for a month!”
The door opened with a groan of its hinges, warm flickering light painting the stone floor. The man’s voice lowered as he spoke to his companion. “You just keep an eye out for me, un’erstand? Get that bow ready. I been at this a dozen times, I’ll be fine, but you just keep that bow ready. Un’erstand? Oi! Roll up the gate, Jowan!”
“Shiva’s breath, Freck. Ya sure ya can’ jes wai’ till mornin’?” This was the other person, the one I hadn’t been able to hear well. His accent sounded northwestern, specifically where independent human-elf colonies resided in the mountains north of the Ailuran nation. I knew this because the human traders that visited my village spoke the same unusual way. His enunciation dropped at the end of words, as though he had marbles in his mouth, and was a sort of drawl. The dialect had no name, but was the result of the human language Common being mixed with the elven language D’Shar.
The gate shuddered, and I could hear the machinations groan behind the stone as it slowly rattled up. Freck drew his weapon–a long sword by the ring of it. I looked out of the corner of my eyes, not daring to even turn my head as he came out from beneath the lifted gate. He looked around warily, then looked up as though expecting to see a body hanging out of the window, or a daesce bearing down on him. When he saw none of these things, the man scowled.
He was unshaven and of medium height, dressed in combination of reinforced leather and chainmail. He had on a plated helmet with a nose guard, but no gloves. I guessed him to be nearing his forties, and by the way he moved, he was experienced. I started to doubt myself when without warning, I saw Lethia begin to turn the corner, her eyes like shiny discs, and if I’d squinted, I was certain I could’ve seen the archer turning to engage her. I heard a ‘thwip’ as the arrow was set loose from his fingers. Did it hit? Was she going down?
I didn’t know, because I had started to move, ignited like waiting oil by the surprising flame that was the teenager’s audacity. Freck was just straightening up after picking up the morningstar. I thought about all the drills I had done with Elmiryn. Amidst those thoughts, I saw flashes of time spent with my brother Thad. Playing. Learning.
Thaddeus showing me how to strike at the throat.
Elmiryn showing me how to flank my opponent.
I pulled my fist back, wrist turned toward the sky with my hand down to my waist, claws biting into my own palm, but I would not set them loose on this man. He may have been a scoundrel, he may have had a family, but I knew that I was not to bring about his end. Would not. Could not. I struck out in an uppercut, pushing with my back foot as my other foot slid forward. My body turned at the shoulders as I felt my knuckles slam into the man’s turned jaw. His head snapped back with such force that the man launched backwards. He hit the ground with a nasty thud and didn’t rise again, his sword and the morningstar both out of his hands. I knocked them away with my foot for good measure, trembling from the adrenaline.
I noted that I hadn’t been shot with an arrow yet.
I looked and saw why.
The archer, a younger man with bright blonde hair and no helmet was on his knees, his bow resting loosely in his hands. He hadn’t drawn another arrow. The third man, Jowan, who I hadn’t heard nor seen yet, stood slumped against the door frame, his mouth hung open. He was a large man, almost as big as Karolek, with a pale shaved head and a black eye. They both wore armor similar to Freck. Lethia stood before them, hands at her sides, relaxed. She walked over calmly to the archer, and with gentle hands, tilted his head up from the chin. The man stared up into her face, his expression vacant before he seized up and his eyes bugged. He gasped as though he couldn’t breathe. The man fell over, twitching.
I stared at him, horrified. “Sweet Aelurus! Is he…Lethia did you…?”
The girl knelt down next to the archer and rolled him onto his back with some difficulty. His jaw flapped and I heard dry noises coming from the back of his throat. She looked back my way, her eyes glassy but her face twisted in anguish. When she spoke, she surprised me.
She now had the same northwestern accent the man had.
“It weren’t done on purpose! I was jes’ tryin’ to get back my talk when…when…oh heaven help ‘im! I thin’ I made ‘im forget how to breathe!!”
“Have you ever tried putting something back into someone’s head!?” I came running over and knelt down with the girl. I looked over at Jowan in the doorway. The guard still hadn’t moved out of his frozen stupor.
The girl blinked tears from her eyes and looked down at the archer’s face. “Ah…um…n-no. No I can’ say that I have!”
“But what if I take more!?”
“He’ll die if you don’t do something!”
The girl seemed to let this sink in. Then she straightened her back and took the archer’s face in her hands. Lethia turned his face and their eyes met.
To me, nothing seemed to happen. A minute stretched by, and I grew nervous. What if others came? What if the daesce came?
Then Lethia broke away, sucking in a huge gulp of air as though she’d been submerged in water. The archer did the same, his bangs brushing along his forehead as he rolled to his side, coughing and taking breaths. I looked at the enchantress, beaming.
“You did it!” I cried.
“I did!” Lethia returned. She flashed a smile before she suddenly keeled over, eyes rolling up into her skull.
My joy vanished and I crawled over the girl to get a look at her face. “Lethia!?” I shook her shoulder, then pinched her arm as hard as I could. She didn’t wake.
I heard a moan from the doorway, and looked up slowly just as Jowan turned his surly gaze my way. I heard armor clinking and sharp voices in the room behind him, and knew others had come. At my back, I heard Freck rise as well, grunting.
“Who the fuck…” Jowan panted, “Are you?”
“I’m dead,” I wanted to say.
Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.
At such short notice, it wasn’t so bad. Almost a hundred militia men and atleast twenty mercenaries, nine of which being skilled with magic, all soldiering together through the snow. They were making a last push for the day, because there was no way they could reach Holzoff’s that night. It was, perhaps, their hope that their targets would have no other way to leave the prison other than the road they traveled, but this was ludicrous. The Moretti’s specialized in training beasts who could halve the average traveler’s journey. But what else could they do? So they soldiered on.
The sky turns a violent red as the suns come down beneath the cloud cover to shade the world in their evening glow.
The camp is set and a large bonfire is created from wood brought on a wagon. The marshal (who probably should be referred to as the Marshal, as no one outside of Belcliff really seems to care enough to refer to the man by his actual name) stands on a crate brought by his attendant and calls for attention.
“Listen to me, all of you!” He booms, fitted with shiny plate armor, clearly never used. “We march again, before dawn! The tower is still a great distance away, but the rogues have no alternatives roads to take. Thus, you should be prepared for a fierce battle! I say this because it has been brought to my attention that an Ailuran travels with the criminals. This is yet another danger for us to prepare against, next to the wizard and the enchantress! As I’ve been told, the two youngest of the Morettis travel with them. I was asked to spare their lives, but given the circumstances, I’m not certain I can. They have violated the high laws of Albias, and as arbiter of justice, I cannot stand for this! So I say, at the first sign of resistance, kill without hesitation! Those men have chosen their path, and so have we. We will not falter, men. Not against these rogues! I want to remind you all that I will pay a handsome reward to whomever brings me the head of these bastards! This is a battle of principle. They destroyed a portion of our city and spat on the honest work of professionals! Tomorrow, we will show them the errors of their ways!”
There’s a roar from the militia men, but the mercenaries remain quiet and unmoved. It’s silly, really. This isn’t a war they’re fighting, and the bounty hunters know this. It’s just another mark, another bounty, another sack of gold, only the marshal is staking his pride on this.
The fire is…so brilliant…reaching to the dying heavens. And the sunlight, it comes in broken shafts over the fangs of the earth, the mountains, streaking the cold air in such warm brilliance…
I am siphoned, pulled, burned and scorched into an ambience indescribable to the common mind, for as I flash through the dying light and through the flames of the bonfire, I see His eyes on me and I am headed toward His mouth, which gapes open ready to swallow me whole.
I slip through His flat giant teeth and back into the land of the living.
Tonatiuh, a blade with no master. I, a woman with no god. He tries to consume me, and I try to enslave him. It’s a tiring dance sometimes, but this time I hardly break concentration.
But I’m still burning hot, still stellar and all cosmic atoms shuddering and shifting with limbs as golden as the purest morning light. I am coiled retribution, I am hell’s infernal flame, I am His terrible glory.
I am the marshal’s great surprise.
Time is slow at first–I’m coming out of light speed after all–and the man moves at a crawl, his head turns slowly to regard me. His body rocks backward, and I know he will fall. I consider killing him before he hits the ground, but then my eyes flicker to the men around the camp. Some young and misguided, some old and stupid. The bounty hunters, these cold mercenaries. Some of them I recognize, but none of them I hold any particular respect for.
Not like Jetswick and Karolek.
…Not like Arduino.
I wonder if this makes these men the closest things I’ve had to “friends”.
Then the first second is finally reached and time begins to speed up exponentially.
I take a breath and tighten my grip on Tonatiuh’s hilt. Arduino’s brothers are young, like some of these men are young. And some of these men are older, like Arduino is older. I think of how little mercy the marshal would have shown those boys, how little mercy he would have shown that naive enchantress, still only a teenager. I think of her head trapped in an iron mask.
The camp has turned into chaos. The militia men scramble for their blades, frightened and confused. The bounty hunters, on the other hand, all start forward, already prepared. The spellcasters are drawing up their spells, and the archers draw their bows. They know me. Or heard of me. They knew this would happen. But maybe this is why I hold no respect for them.
Because they actually thought they could survive what will come next.
My lip curls and I scream.
I pull at my body, my spirit. I focus on Tonatiuh, who breathes me in with a satisfied sound, through the tip of His fang. Time is slow again, and I lash out, my form turned into a line of hot light, a bolt of energy, all power and force ricocheting from body to body. (Not really–I control where I go, I control when I turn) I burst through flesh, burn through armor. I count the strikes as I go–count them in a way that Hakeem would count, by ticks–and I reach a hundred and twenty. I scream over the marshal who has landed on his rear, his eyes bugged with fear, and his mouth stretched open wide. I still spare him. I’ve spared his silly attendant too, the boy, Herman. I want them to see…I want them to see what I’ve done.
I don’t stop. I leave the camp. I can just imagine all the bodies, blasted through and scorched, falling in unison, dead. The marshal (I decided, he doesn’t deserve to be called “Marshal” in the capitalized sense) and Herman surrounded by a sea of corpses. I’m flashing along so fast I’m practically flying. My body gets heavier and I know I’ll pass out if I keep this up. But I have to keep going. Toward the tower. I’m moving fast, but not as fast as I did before. It’s now nighttime. I seem to be slowing down. I’m literally working off of fumes now that the sunlight is gone. I scare a group of batrengs off a rock as I go by, naught but a warm glow, like the embers of a dead fire. I manage to catch sight of a camp some mile from Holzoff’s tower, along the main road.
This has to be it.
And just in time, too.
I crash near it, into a snow bank, and I sink low, the snow melting and turning to slush at my feet. I hear shouts. A dog barking.
The edges of my sight begins to turn black and I stare into the white around me. I pushed myself too hard, I knew it…but I’m material again. Tonatiuh didn’t get me, and neither did the suns. I made it. I stopped the marshal, and I made it, and…
I look up and see Hakeem’s dark form at the lip of my little crater. He smiles wide, and this is the first time I’ve seen him do so in nearly two years. He’s got beautiful white teeth, lined up neat save for his overbite, which I’m inexplicably fond of. I manage to smile back at him, my version of the expression anyway, a slight tilt of my lips. Tonatiuh is gripped in my right hand, and He seems to pulse at my small show of emotion…
“Quincy! Bwa-mweze, colo shiutsi na dwane!” Hakeem says over me as he slides down to scoop me up beneath my arms.
Quincy! My wife, don’t scare me like that again!
I close my eyes and allow him to drag me up the snow. “Chu, chu, taika,” I mumur, letting my head loll back into his chest. He smells good to me. Like tobacco and fenugreek seeds. Sleep is coming fast, and I do not fight it. With Hakeem near, I feel…like I can afford the rest. “Imdeto ches? Em-ma aiko no tobate nah kuzzi…”
Silly husband. Don’t you know? I’d die only in your arms…
I am swallowed in darkness, and for once, I’m unafraid.