Well, there’s nothing else to it,” Sedwick said. “We’ll just have to get through these tunnels until we find some light. If you two haven’t noticed, there’s something in the air here.”
“You speak as though it has no effect on you,” Quincy said.
There was a smile in the man’s voice as he replied, “That’s because it doesn’t.” His shadowy form gestured at himself. “You two can see me a little, right?”
“Yes,” Quincy said.
“Yeah,” Elmiryn said next, her voice churlish. Some part of her recognized that there was something ridiculous about being angry over the lack of things she could hurt, and she tried to decide in just what way.
There was the sound of Sedwick turning, and his form bobbed in the dark. “Then follow me. If there are any traps or pits, I’ll be able to take it.”
“Traps?” Elmiryn said frowning. She and Quincy started to walk together, side by side.
“These tunnels, if they are indeed dwarven, likely have some traps about them,” The wizard explained. “This tunnel is clear of tools and debris, meaning it was used as a road to the active tunnels where the mining was done. Sometimes, though, looters would come and try and steal their bounty. The dwarves rigged certain inactive tunnels with traps only they were aware of. With all the digging going on, just collapsing the paths was too risky.”
“We might not have any trouble.”
The woman laughed, feeling some of her ire slip away. “Oh hell, wizard. We may just find ourselves slashing through hordes of giant rats and spiders instead! If the angry midgets don’t find us first, that is.”
“I’m trying to be optimistic,” Quincy snapped. Elmiryn could just imagine the scowl on her face. “…And what kind of mkundu comes up with the idea of giant rats and spiders, anyway?” she mumbled next.
“And angry midgets.”
“They’re dwarves. Are you that ignorant?”
“Heavens no!” The warrior said, feigning indignation. “I had intimate relations with a dwarf once. ‘Intimate’ being the operative word. She was a pretty girl. She was quite sturdy–”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Quincy snapped.
The warrior snickered, but she didn’t press the story. They walked on in silence, feet crunching along the earthy ground. Absently, Elmiryn wondered how deep the tunnels went. How deep they were. What were to happen if the walls shuddered, the ceiling cracked, and all of that rock and sand and soil came toppling down on them? A whole world pressing down on them… Ah but wait, a world? That was stretching it, wasn’t it? Because they were on a shard, a broken impression of what really was. Elmiryn was living in a concept. A reflection, but hardly real.
Why, in this false world, did she thrive then?
The woman quickened her pace, her breath coming harsh through her nostrils as a sweat drop trailed down her temple. She brushed past Sedwick, and the man let out a sound of surprise. “Hey–ah–Elmiryn?”
Not much could be seen from where they were, but there was a dim light warming the cold earth as the tunnel twisted out of sight. Elmiryn swallowed down the lump in her throat as she drew her dagger. The weight of it felt solid and certain in her hands. She swiped at her brow with her arm and behind her came the sounds of Quincy and Sedwick hurrying after her.
“Fiamman, what’s wrong?” Quincy. Her voice was hard, but lacked the usual bite.
Sedwick spoke next. “Elmiryn, can you slow down a moment?”
“I’m fine,” the warrior snarled, gripping her dagger tighter. “I just don’t like these tunnels. I don’t like this quiet.”
The light at the end of the tunnel blossomed and spread, warm reaches blanketing the dark walls and ground. They rounded the bend.
What opened to them was a room as high as their eyes could see, with star like openings where snow filtered through, flakes of it fluttering through a dusty space to cover the tired looking structures below. It was an underground city, filled with robust, basalt structures–as stern as Belcliff’s architecture but bolder and more rugged. It lacked the contemplative statues of gryphons and gargoyles, and instead bared beveled designs of scultones and dwarves within its walls, with towering statues that inspired awe. From the tunnel was a broken path of flagstones that led across a long arched bridge.
“Well this answers our question,” Quincy sighed at Elmiryn’s side. The warrior glanced at her. The wizard’s mouth was skewed to one side, and her narrow brows arched in a critical tilt over her rich azure eyes. She wasn’t quite used to seeing the wizard like this. Her previous incarnation had struck quite the impression. Elmiryn was trying to honor her word and not pester the brunette so much, but she knew it was a schoolyard promise, good only for a time, before events led her to forget again.
Sedwick gazed across Elmiryn at Quincy. “We’ll move quickly. I think I can sense out the next gate. It’s somewhere to the north.”
And they were on again.
Layers, upon layers. It was as best as I could understand of the new power I had and how I had just used it. The world was just layers upon layers of existence and consciousness.
But where did I live, with my splintered soul and my divided thoughts? What was my home?
I was feeling another moment of collapse looming over me, so even as Lacertli had pressed me to move forward, I sat heavily on the ground and stared at the trees. I remembered them twisted in that strange dimension, but here they were the same lonely, dead things I remembered them to be back in my realm.
…All this talk of realms and dimensions and layers was making my head hurt.
I gripped it, palms pressing at the temples as I touched my forehead to my bent knees. The god, in his form of a lizard, scratched and climbed up the nooks and bends of my body until he was resting on my left shoulder. His claws scratched in places, and I felt the cuts scab over quickly. Lacertli’s tongue flicked against my ear, making me flinch. “Night Child…”
“Sir…” I croaked. I swallowed and felt mucus trail down the back of my throat. The edges of my nostrils felt damp and my eyes started burning. My hands flexed, fingers tangled in my mane of hair. I twitched, thinking of how the dogs, how the pretas, had just recently torn me apart. How an unseen force had essentially laced myself with a god. How I had taken the shadow of a tormented spirit and ripped it apart.
“Nyx, you are falling on old ways. Draw yourself up.”
I hiccuped and felt a hot tear fall down my cheek. “My apologies, sir. I’m…I’ve always been weak in will. I’m a coward.”
The god spat at me. “Your Ghost is right in cursing this. You will find no more pity in me, girl. Thou art more than a coward, though your lack of discipline sees you playing the knave. Arise and cease your tears. There is still work to be done.”
Argos, who had taken to sitting near me, shoved at my elbow with his nose. He panted at me, tail flopping gently on the ground as his dark watery eyes batted amidst his furry face. His great paw, as large as my hand, came up to rest on my knee and he woofed once. I wiped at my nose and blinked away tears as I gazed at him. “Don’t you remember Lethia? You miss her, don’t you? Doesn’t that…doesn’t that make it hard?” I asked through a tense throat.
The lizard shifted on my shoulder. “Vermagus, I have told thee. The dog has lost that connection. He recalls her, but his devotion to her is absent.” Lacertli raised himself and I glanced at him warily. Though I was certain it was just in my mind, the god’s lizard face seemed to be frowning at me. “Nyx, if thou insists on behaving as a knave, then I shall call thee as such. Come Knave! Arise, or you’ll feel the teeth of my displeasure.”
My body bunched at this stern declaration, and I wiped at my eyes as I rose to my feet. “Y-Yes, Lacertli!” It was weird, answering to someone like this. I hadn’t since I left my home. It was true that I had started my relationship with Elmiryn due to being indebted to her, but the woman had never sought such servitude from me, and I was led to behave more casually despite my initial discomfort.
“We will have to track our prey.” Lacertli narrowed his gaze as his tongue tasted the air. “They are honorless. They feel your newly gained power and flee, seeking to consolidate their strength.” I began to walk and the god continued to speak. “You have now seen how even this fractured place may be further pulled apart. On the surface, the deformed and twisted spirits of misery that came to you were, in fact, the spirits of creatures once living. That is the Somnium. The dream of the universe. There, a concept might become literal, and laws may be discarded completely. It also can peel away all falsities and leave only truth, as it did for those souls you freed.”
“It felt more like murder…not that I am trying to correct you, sir. I–I’m just stating how I feel!” I added hurriedly.
The god chuckled. “I understood you.” He swiped a paw over the side of his face, and shook his head. “Those souls were undone, it is true, but they were returned to Life, the proper cycle. They knew nothing of joy here, and you ended their torment. If anything, take solace in that.”
I nodded with a hard swallow, feeling my emotions rile up again. It was still hard for me to think of, but when Lacertli put it the way he did, I couldn’t see anything else to it. The situation was sad, but at least the pain was done.
Argos followed me closely, and my hand rested on his back. I thought, “No wonder Lethia feels so safe with him. His presence is very comforting…even if he could use a wash.” The dog looked up at me, tongue lolling from the side of his mouth as he wagged his tail. I smiled at him shakily.
Lacertli resumed his talk on my shoulder. “Knave. So you now have an idea of the place we entered and how it may affect the realities experienced elsewhere. Leaving the Somnium to return to the world in question can be done in two ways. One, you may pick your way back into your own subconscious. Or, you may pass through the Umbralands, as we had done. That is the place of shadows. It is the boundary between the world and the Somnium. As a dreamwalker and my champion, you may now traverse this barrier. Indeed, you may even alter it.”
The forest seemed to go on for ages. I was pushing from one task to the next, and while Lacertli seemed satisfied by my performance thus far, the idea of somehow becoming his champion left me reeling. Never in my years had I actually seen a Legend in the flesh, though I had heard of them in many tales, most recently being Tobias’ loose adventures of Earth and his companions. Not that I suddenly considered myself a Legend. Usually a reputation was required for that, and I had just begun my new station.
As I crouched, inspecting paw prints, sprays of blood on bark, and that trailing smell of death, a question came.
…Why did Lacertli choose me?
The god murmured guidance on my shoulder as we tracked the pretas and kept lookout for any sign of them or the black nymphs. I knew the nymphs to leave no traces, being one with the tainted forest, but I had a nasty feeling they were very close. I missed Elmiryn’s skill here, for she was a great hunter, so much that even my Twin lacked the awareness and finesse she possessed. I started thinking about that frustrating redhead again, with little power over the emotions that came.
…Where was she? Was she safe? Was she alone? And how was her damaged perception treating her?
“Sir,” I breathed, pausing between a buckeye and an elm. “Can you…feel her? Elmiryn?”
Lacertli’s head turned my way, his reptilian eyes blinking once. “You mean, do I know where she is? How she fares?”
I swallowed. “Yes.”
“Of course I do. But it is not my duty to indulge your flares of emotion, girl,” he said with a terse voice, turning his gaze forward again. “…She fares yet still. Naturally. Else I would not have told thee of her lingering debt.“
“I’m sorry sir…“
“Focus. Wipe your mind clean. Take note of what is around you.”
“Um…” I looked around me, the perplexity bunching my face as I tried to see what Lacertli apparently did. Around me was a circle of something thick and dark that had been spilled onto the dirt. It fanned out, spraying tree roots, and there I saw bits of flesh and bone shards nestled amid the collection of twigs and dust against the base of the trunks. I felt like my lungs were shot.
…I was standing in the middle of a ritual site.
Lacertli’s claws dug painfully into my skin, drawing blood. “I am the Path…as such, I should inform you that in your carelessness you have just walked into a trap.” And here he looked at me with his yellow eyes narrowed and his mouth showing teeth. “…I suggest you hold your breath.”
I shoved at Argos, trying to spare him, my stomach dropping to my soles as a shadow fell over me and a great screeching tore through the air.
“Why do we have anything to fear from these dwarves?” Elmiryn asked as they started to walk. She looked at Quincy. “You know. What happened here?”
The wizard pinched the bridge of her nose. “When I was doing investigation regarding the dark forces in Belcliff, I came across some interesting information.” She gestured before them at the city. “You see, the dwarven colony here was really only a colony by name. The truth of it was that there were hundreds, maybe thousands of dwarves here operating under a loose organization. They backed Belcliff’s coffers, and in return they had exclusive rights to mine under the Albian government.”
“Wait, wait,” Elmiryn said with a raised hand and a crooked smile. “Okay…I already see where this is going. Some disagreement cropped up over money, didn’t it?”
Quincy nodded. “The marshal in power got into it with the dwarven leaders here. The official records state simply that the dwarves had left. Upped and took everything of worth here whilst leaving the rest inaccessible or useless. Belcliff was in a financial crisis because of it.”
“All those dwarves just…vanish?” Sedwick said skeptically.
“Someone got greedy,” Elmiryn said.
The wizard went on. “Those were my thoughts. How does an entire population just disappear? What happened to the gold and jewels? I’m fairly certain the dwarven colonies to the west hadn’t seen an influx in population, nor had any of the other neighboring communities. But then, why was everyone willing to accept this, given the lack of solid evidence? That’s when I learned from Lethia that her mistress had been seeing the marshal for the last few years for problems of mental health.”
“Syria of Albias…she’s a powerful enchantress. If she was able to open a portal to this realm, why not have the power to ensorcell an entire region into believing a lie?” Sedwick said.
Elmiryn snorted. “So what happened then? The marshal turned on her. Wouldn’t he have been afraid of her revealing his secrets?”
“For whatever reason, she chose not to,” Quincy said with a shrug. “I imagine the marshal feared the connection he had with her, after she was found to have those mutilated men in her home. From there it was a lot of double crossing and self-preservation.”
They were nearly across the bridge now. Elmiryn took a moment to look over the edge. She was met with a gaping abyss. She stared.
“Elmiryn?” Sedwick. She decided she disliked his change in demeanor, however slight.
The woman didn’t move in answer to his voice, but instead leaned over, her elbow digging into the harsh stone, her shoulder hunching up to her ear. Her eyes narrowed and she willed the darkness to stir. It bowled inward, then toward her, like it were reaching…
Elmiryn hacked up phlegm from deep in her throat, then leaned farther still over the edge, like daring gravity to grab her and pull her over. She let the spit trail from her mouth in a viscous rope that swayed like a pendulum from the weight of its bubbly end.
“Charming. You are the picture of a lady.” Quincy. It was bitchy and stuck-up, but Elmiryn preferred this to the ex-blacksmith’s unbridled sympathy.
The spit dropped, sailing into the darkness. Elmiryn stared after it, her eyes empty, before she offered a smile to match. She straightened and joined the man and the other woman. “I spat in the great big wound. Lessee if the world appreciates it,” she said jauntily.
Her companions shook their heads at her, but nothing else was said. They cleared the bridge and were now in the midst of the city. The buildings were low, unlike Belcliff’s towering buildings, or even Tiesmire’s messy stacks of architecture. The stones were cut wide and blocky, save for the arches that ribbed the road, some broken, others casting blurred shadows on their faces as they passed. The road was in disrepair–suffering from cracks and loose flagstones. Elmiryn eyed the openings of the buildings as she passed, and her eyes lighted on one.
She slowed to a stop and called to the others, who glanced at her. “Hey, there’s something in one of these!”
The warrior turned and went to the plain gray building in question and poked her head through the open entryway. Inside was cold and empty, but on the walls were empty racks, like the sorts that displayed weapons. In the corner to the right was a knocked over stand. She ventured in further, toward the counter and peered over. Behind this were strewn tools and things, and she suspected the back had a small forge. This was once a smithy.
“What’d you find? It’s risky dawdling,” Quincy said behind her.
Elmiryn hopped over the counter and peered into the back room. A forge and an anvil. Tools hung on the walls, and there was ore spilled over the floor. She pointed at the wizard. “You need a weapon.”
The wizard scowled at her in the dim light as Sedwick appeared in the doorway, the light filtering through his water legs. “I do not.” The brunette hefted up her rusty sword. “I have this.”
Elmiryn looked at her as if she were stupid.
Quincy huffed, brandishing her blade. “And you don’t think this place has been picked clean by looters?”
“At best you can bruise someone with that, but it’s hardly lethal. It’d probably break with a full force swing. You need something proper.”
“I’m not getting rid of it.” The woman snapped, storming back outside.
Sedwick hurried out of her way, blinking. He turned his pale gaze Elmiryn’s way. “Do you see anything?” he asked.
Elmiryn ventured further into the back room, which was more spacious than the front in terms of square feet, but much more crowded by barrels of ore and dampers and other such smithy tools that were beyond the woman. “No,” she said. She smiled crookedly as she reached down and snatched up a few belts. “But here’s a few holsters for the ninny. If she wants to keep that stupid thing, she can at least keep her hands free. I can probably lend her my dagger too.”
The woman left the building with Sedwick to find Quincy sulking on a low rock. Elmiryn threw the belts at her feet. “There, sourpuss. You can keep the damn sword, but now you’ve got something to put it in, seeing as how you can’t ‘poof’ it away anymore.”
“I never ‘poofed’ it away,” Quincy grumbled. But she leaned down and took up the belts, checking the holsters on them. “It was more like a ‘flash’.”
“Oh. Pardon me. You ‘flashed’. Not ‘poofed’.” Elmiryn grinned at the wizard as Sedwick spared a chuckle. “Tell me. Which sounds less fairy-like?”
“I told you I can beat you to death with this,” Quincy threatened, wagging the sword’s tip at her as though it were a finger.
“You are quite the violent one! But I don’t take to swords being waved my way, so have a care and redirect that thing, huh?” Elmiryn warned, though she didn’t really care. The wizard was just barking like a dog at the end of a leash, much like Elmiryn was like a cat batting at still water. Neither intended to go all the way, so the exchange ended there.
Quincy had her sword sheathed, finally, and they were on, only now Elmiryn was trying to see into every building she could.
“I doubt you’ll find anything,” Sedwick said with a soft exhale. “You’re slowing us down.”
Elmiryn stopped, her hands resting on one of the doorways. “Oh…I won’t find anything, huh?” She faltered, the joke she had lined up slipping into the ether. “I’m not sure…if I’m seeing this right.” Her voice turned subdued. This was enough to inspire a response in kind.
“What is it…?” Quincy said quietly coming up from behind. She tried to peer over the warrior’s shoulder. Sedwick came next.
Inside, through the broken roof, lay Graziano’s dead body, sprawled out on the mess of stones. He had crashed there, his limbs in a disarray and his corpse covered in dust and ash. Though his face was turned down, a small spray of blood could be seen where it had smashed into the edge of a broken slab of concrete. His right arm twisted unnaturally behind him, out of sight, and his rapier pointed into the air, still in its holster on his hip. His gun lay off in the shadows.
“It’s…I mean, is it?” Elmiryn said, frowning.
Quincy shoved past her, but the warrior said nothing. Her eyes were still on the corpse, trying to make sense of it.
“Of course it is. Don’t be a twit.” The wizard’s voice wavered a bit, even as she tried to sound harsh.
“I just,” The warrior stepped forward as well, standing next to the woman. “It gets hard, y’know? For me to make sense of things sometimes. I wasn’t sure if this was one of those times.”
“He was there. He was there like all of us. He got sucked in.”
“I know that, I just wasn’t sure.”
“Who is he?” Sedwick asked.
“Graziano Moretti. He was a bounty hunter.” Quincy covered her face with a hand. “He was…” her voice trailed away.
Elmiryn crouched down and picked up the pistol. She held it closer to the light and ran her hand over the ivory stock. Stared down at the triple barrel. Cocked the gun and aimed it. Released the hammer, and sat heavily on the floor. “He looks like a doll. A broken doll,” she muttered. She glanced at Quincy.
“He’s not one,” the woman bit out. “He was an idiot.”
The warrior’s jaw clenched and she glared at the ground. “You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. He’ll turn into a ghost–”
“And you’re a real authority, huh?” Quincy snapped, her face turning red. “A ghost should know a thing or two, is that it, Elmiryn?” Sedwick went to touch her shoulder, but the wizard swatted at him. “Don’t touch me!” She stomped to Graziano’s body and pointed, her spine-bending as she shouted with all the force in her lungs at the redhead. “Go on! Ghosts should be able to talk to each other. You ask him why he didn’t listen to me. Why he couldn’t think rationally when we had victory in our hands! Ask him!”
Elmiryn just looked up at her through her eyelashes, her brows knitted but the ire failing to appear. She tried to remember similar scenes in her life, but all she could draw up were the sounds. Phantom voices echoed in her head, and she felt her shoulders sag, knowing this moment of her life would soon be the same.
Sir, Lake was just a boy, I have to find a bit of him–
Just a bit. Just a small bit, sir. For his mother.
Lieutenant Saelin, we can’t stay.
But Captain, just a bit. Anything, sir, please–
Get it together, gods damn it, you won’t find so much as a finger so just let it alone.
“Let it alone…” The warrior mumbled.
Quincy stomped her foot, her eyes shining with unshed tears. “No! I won’t! I’ll curse him into a wisp for you and then you can ask this idiot why he didn’t listen to me–!” She broke off, breathing harsh, lip quivering, her russet hair falling about her face.
Elmiryn just rubbed her brow and stared at the gun in her lap.
After a while, she stood, pushing the gun into the back of her pants. “We should bury him,” Elmiryn said.
She was met with no arguments.