Quincy felt an ache at her knees as she bent them in a ready position. With her sword held before her, she glanced quickly at those around her. Henriette and some of her comrades were willing to help them in this fight. Sedwick was all ready making the transition from flesh to liquid, his face set into a hard mask. Elmiryn and the undead were quiet behind them.
But that didn’t answer her question as to how to fend off a gang of angry ghosts.
The wizard didn’t know if the redhead’s spirit was still within the Belcliff militia. She didn’t know if destroying them meant hurting the warrior. She did know that she needed Elmiryn alive for multiple reasons, and now Madreg and his turned followers were in the way of her goals.
Time was running short.
Her sword would do no good against the immaterial beings. The enemy were sixty yards away. How did one slice the spiritual will of a spirit in torment, after all? They were less than fifty yards away. Madreg pointed and shouted something unintelligible. They were getting closer still. There was no time left. Damn, this was all supposed to be so straight forward—
Madreg and the mad spirits collected into a single cloud and with a howl they billowed forth.
Quincy’s eyes widened and she abandoned her position. As she fled, she shouted, “Sedwick, to me! Henriette keep them back! Don’t let them hurt Elmiryn or the soldiers! I have an idea!”
Sedwick sprinted after her as Henriette snarled, “What the bloody hell are you doing!?”
“Just trust me!” Quincy snapped. She fixed her burning gaze on Sedwick. “I need a ride, Sedwick. Can you carry me?”
There were cries and a sharp pulse in the air as Henriette and Madreg’s men collided. The wizard turned and ran as some of the ghosts broke from the battle to pursue them, their mouths open in fury. “No time!”
Quincy pushed as hard as she could and found that running was easier without the hindrance of her cloak. A second later she saw a thick stream of water keeping pace with her, and without hesitation, she jumped onto it. Her feet sank in up to the ankle, but she didn’t touch the ground, and she crouched quickly to keep from falling. This was certainly a new experience. Sedwick’s face appeared in the head of the foaming liquid as he cut a path away from the battle. “All right, I’m trusting you. Where to?” he bubbled.
“Go back!” Quincy shouted. “We have to find the dwarves bodies! It’s our only chance!”
Sedwick didn’t hesitate or ask why. His face vanished from the water and the stream that carried her sped up as it wheeled around. Quincy bared her teeth as an involuntary shiver blasted through her. She held her sword before her, knowing it vain, but there was no choice. Together, she and Sedwick charged toward their pursuers, who greeted them with smoky fists.
I gasped, too shocked to bring about any other reaction. I clung to the nearest crenelation and watched as the horizon slowly rose up. Screams came from those below. Tristi cackled as the tower tipped over. I couldn’t stay here. With bared teeth I let go of the crenelation and started to sprint across the roof. The roof floor shifted beneath my feet, sending me sideways. It cracked and slabs fell out of sight. I jumped wildly across the rifts and reached the other side. But by the time I did, the tower’s top was already sailing over. My view of the horizon peaked and steadily started to decline. I had to hang wildly from the crenelations as my feet dangled in the air. I was going to be crushed by the stone, and I doubted I’d make a speedy recovery if my head was caved in.
Then down below me, I saw Tristi hanging in similar fashion on the crenelations.
She shouted something up at me through the din, but I couldn’t make it out. Then she fixed the balls of her feet onto the edges of the next crenelation and without a glance, she leapt to the other building. I was going to have to do the same. With a breath, I got my footing–then the wall facing the street crumbled and the remains of the tower roof fell into it. I slipped for a terrifying moment before my left foot found a place again. I was at a terrifying angle to the ground. The adjacent wall’s collapse brought me a great deal lower, but I was still some ways up. There was no time for perfection. I just had to get out of the path of destruction. With that one left foot, I leapt wildly and fell through the air. Everything blurred to my sight, and I had no idea what I was falling towards. All I could hear was screaming.
Then a cold hand gripped my wrist and I slammed into white marble.
Tristi’s alien eyes fixed on me as she laughed and pulled me up. Now we were on the balcony of a small temple. The tower seemed so far away, I didn’t know how I made it. I slumped against the tiles of the slanted roof and slid down into a sit. I tried to catch my breath. Didn’t even think to cover my bare chest. I watched the giants swaying–as if stupefied by the disturbance. Panic blossomed around their feet. The Fiammans shoved at each other, and fought to get by. I saw a young man fall beneath the stampeding crowd and not get up. Dust clouds rose up into the night air, lit by the Fiamman lamps. They spread, limiting my view of the chaos.
“You killed them,” I breathed.
Tristi leaned against the roof wall and picked at her teeth with her pinky. Then she flung something away and sucked at her gums. Finally she said, “I did not.”
I blinked and looked at her. “…Excuse me?”
“I mean, I did not. Kill anyone. Not a one.”
“You–what? You did!”
“I did not, little dreamwalker.”
My voice started to rise. I was feeling spacey and ill. My skin flushed cold as I struggled to sit up straight. “You can’t be serious.” Then I remembered my chest and a hand went to each breast. I flared red.
Tristi gestured down at the street with a lazy sweep of her hand. “This hasn’t even happened yet. I shall not be here upon the moment, and so without a perpetrator how can I be named the culprit?”
“You’re mad,” I breathed, glaring up at her. “You’re insane. Of course you’re the culprit! I saw you do it! I saw you drop that…that…ball! Whatever that thing was!” I stood, swaying a little, and gestured with my chin, like Elmiryn would have. “You just did that! You did! You killed and hurt all those people, and for what!?” Spit flew from my mouth. I was shouting now. Red-faced, not from my nude embarrassment, but from my affronted moral sense. I had just survived some of the worst horrors, and my reward was to witness this? I almost felt like an accomplice.
“Because,” and here the woman leaned toward me, a sharp smile on her lips. I flashed the mental image of a wild animal eating a carcass. “My Lady has willed it.” She turned and started to walk along the round balcony. “At any rate, I don’t know why you raise such a fuss. Being an Ailuran, I’d thought this sight would have pleased you!”
I stood glaring, open-mouthed, then started to follow her. “I take no pleasure in violence, and neither do my people! We aren’t savages!” She didn’t answer me. I growled. “Tristi, what have those people done? Why would your goddess ask for this!?”
“What have they done? Aside from their attempts to steal and rape your lands?” She laughed but still did not turn her head. We were on the other side of the temple. Here, she hopped over the railing and slid down the column to the street below. I followed her as fast as I could, and heard her speaking as I hit the pavement. “Ah, Nyx! Quite the progressive you are, to think so kindly of your enemy!”
My hands went to my chest again before I spoke. “I say let a person be judged by the contents of their character, not the decisions of a corrupt minority.”
“Very progressive. Very!! Y’know…I really like you!” And finally Tristi stopped. People ran, flat-footed, around us. There was a light steam coming up from the paved streets, and the Fiammans unsettled the vapors, curling it in the hot light. It made the steam look like spectral claws. “Now I can see why Lacertli chose you.”
This peaked my curiosity, because in many ways I still didn’t understand that reason myself. But my anger took precedence. “Why would Lady Fortune do this? There’s no just reason!”
Tristi gazed at me, her jubilant smile waning. Then she gripped her right wrist behind her back and started to pace along the pavement slowly. Her buckles tinkled with each exaggerated step. “Hmmm…so the dreamwalker deigns to judge things out of her realm, does she?”
Here I seized up. This was a Legend I was speaking to. That was the prick I had felt at the back of my head, telling me so. Unlike me, Tristi clearly had experience. She’d met the Champion of Njord, for heaven’s sake. I didn’t want to invite trouble from such a person…but I didn’t want to roll over either. I was a champion too, wasn’t I? I decided to put my innate bardic ability to use, in case I somehow failed to word things right. The emotion flooded my words, and I managed not to stutter, though my voice still quavered. “I do not speak for Him that I serve. I speak for myself. I cannot separate my feelings from that which I witness, and my judgment lies in the things my eyes see, which can, unfortunately, not be true. All I’m asking for is the truth, then. If this event was justified, then I cannot damn it, but I can say that it is a sad thing it had to happen. But if you’re asking me to sit aside, tractable and cow-eyed, then you are mistaken!”
Tristi’s eyes widened. She stopped her pacing and her head turned to look at me like it were on a slow turning wheel. I could see her ears twitch. “Sharp words, little dreamwalker. Very sharp. You’ve a gifted tongue, then? My, my…now I really do see why Lacertli chose you!”
I swallowed. This wasn’t quite the reaction I was expecting. And here I thought I was being rather brave…
The woman crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one foot as she appraised me. Then she smiled again. “Ah, but you argued your case splendidly! Very well! I’ll explain things further, though I fear your cause-and-effect way of thinking will not be satisfied by the answer.” She turned on her heel and resumed her march. Surprised, I took after her.
The road we stood on was vastly wide, complete with pedestrian walkways to keep the way clear for horse drawn vehicles. Fiammans seemed to like to build big things–that is–big and grand things. They made extensive use of brick, glass, metal, and marble. There were plenty of round arches and domed buildings, and the streets were flooded with light. I squinted up into one of the lamps. Through clear glass the firelight shone brightly downward. Curved mirror bowls with the centers cut out reflected the enchanted candle light. As I heard, these never went out, even during high wind and rain.
Around us, the fleeing crowd was thinning.
Tristi spoke to me over her shoulder. “The Lady is mistaken for chaos, and this vexes her to no end. She is a master tactician, one that works from moment to moment.”
I couldn’t help myself. “The definition of tactician is an individual that employs an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end. How can one do that from moment to moment? There’s no plan there.”
“But there is! You confine yourself by your definitions, Nyx. All that is needed is a penultimate goal, then a lot of little goals. For instance, my Lady wishes to throw a country into war. So what does she do? She kicks a bucket–”
I was already rolling my eyes. “That’s preposterous–”
“–A bucket that just so happens to be sitting on the edge of an open window, and just at the right moment, it falls onto a visiting viceroy from a neighboring country. This is Lady Luck, little dreamwalker. A goddess! Not a mortal like you or me. She can achieve fantastic things with little effort! What happened out there was her will, and you’d do well to remember that. There’s always two sides of the coin. While to you, the tower’s collapse was a bloody and tragic thing, the boon of crops the Santian Kingdom received last year was truly beautiful, as was the freeing of the slaves in the city of Caedril last week. Fortune was behind both of those things. Her plans are massive and vast, and sometimes we cannot always see to what end she works for. When she tires of pulling at events by her own hands, she employs this humble servant to do it for her.”
“Wait, if you say it is her feeling and emotion that decides the course of events, then how did all of what we saw play into her plans?”
“The orb holds her will, Nyx. I dropped it and had no idea of the consequences. Fortune is a goddess of stark duality. Either the events work in your favor…or they don’t.”
“So what happened out there…”
“It was chance. Pure chance. And while we witness its event here, in this realm, it has yet to occur in that other realm you call home.”
I frowned. “So you didn’t know that would happen? At all?”
“No. I only knew to drop the orb.”
I rubbed at the wrinkle on my forehead. “Isn’t Lady Luck omnipotent? Isn’t her influence everywhere? Why use you?”
“I’m a tool that brings more focus. Like a magnifying glass that catches the light. As are you. As are all other champions on the mortal plane.”
Then that window of opportunity that, at times, alights on us, lit upon me. Straight into my eyes, it almost seemed. All of a sudden, I had the opportunity to ask all the questions I’d ever had about Legends, about the fall of the champions, about the pantheon. Things I couldn’t bring myself to ask Lacertli outright. Things I couldn’t glean off of Tobias’s book. And from the new questions and the old, here was the thing that came fighting up my throat: “Tristi, do…we have a choice?”
“In how we serve the gods.”
Tristi slowed to a stop and looked at me. Her alien eyes, which held many soft colors, narrowed. “You dance close to blasphemy, little dreamwalker. Why think such things?”
My own answer surprised me. “Because…because I think Lacertli wants me to.”
Quincy drew her sword back, blade faced down, her head bowed. The dwarven ghosts were just feet away–
Then the woman was in the air. She’d felt like stilts had sprouted beneath her feet, rocketing her up into the sky before vanishing from beneath her. She gasped, arms wheeling through the air like she’d find something to grab. Her legs curled up beneath her. She started to fall. Quincy started to scream. She was really high up…
Down below the ghosts seemed as startled as she was. Sedwick tore past them, looking like a liquid snake on the ground.
“Sedwick!!” the wizard screamed.
The elemental caught her as she neared the ground, his form lifting as his liquid arms came out of the bubbling water. He hardly broke speed. Sedwick righted the woman so that she was sitting on his back. Now wet from the waist down, the woman blinked water from her eyes. “Sedwick, remind me to be angry with you later.”
“Sure thing,” he bubbled back. Awkwardly the woman resumed her crouch and looked behind her. The ghosts had once more resumed their pursuit. They looked even angrier than before. Sedwick spoke up again. “Where to first?”
Quincy shook her head. They passed the battle where Henriette and the others still fought with their former comrades. The wizard tried to move with the man’s amorphous form as it glided over the uneven ground. She thought she was getting the hang of it. “Let’s head toward the back of the chamber, like we meant to. From the main road we should see what we’re looking for. The Belcliff militia had little reason to move the bodies much farther than that.”
Sedwick, if possible, began to move faster, and Quincy’s hair was brushed far back from the wind. Speed wasn’t an ability of ghosts, it seemed, as they managed to stay ahead of them. Some even gave up in favor of returning to the main battle. Quincy stopped checking over her shoulder at that point. As they passed the dirt mounds and small outposts, she focused on keeping a lookout. Then, around a rock pile, she saw something and pointed. “Sedwick, there! Do you see that ditch?”
The elemental steered for it, and they stopped at the edge. The ditch seemed to stretch on for a sixth of a mile. Quincy stepped off of Sedwick and the man returned to his original form. Her eyes were wide as she took in the sight. “Gods…” Hundreds of bodies, filmed in dust, filled the long ditch. They were strewn over one another in messy piles–children and adults alike. Limbs were nearly skeletal as the skin hung limp and dark. Gaunt faces seemed to stare up at her with want.
“Quincy, now what?” Sedwick asked.
The wizard turned away. As she did so, she saw their original pursuers blasting toward them in dark clouds. Her muscles bunched. “Watch out!” One ghost, a young male dwarf with a very small beard and long wild hair, leapt toward her.
…Quincy felt him dive into her chest, which sent an icy feeling throughout her, and her vision went white.
The air had an affected feeling of calm, like the city itself were suffering a sort of shock. There were stragglers still. A woman clung to one of the street lamps, weeping. Blood trickled down onto her powdered bosom. I looked at her sideways, my brows pressing up and together. I forced my eyes back onto my new companion.
Upon saying what I had, I’d needed something else to look at. Something to stem some of the alarm and emotion that came upon me. What I got was entirely sobering, and I felt a little more ready to think about my words in detail.
Because I think Lacertli wants me to.
Was that really true? I thought about the end of my struggles in the Kreut forest, when I had just defeated the last of the pretas. How I had dared to scream at the god. Dared to speak to him with such scorn. He hadn’t punished me. I thought of his refusal to walk me through each step, and his impatience each time I mewled at him like a kitten. I knew there were boundaries I could not cross with him, so it wasn’t that he coddled me. He had his own standards, and if Tristi’s reaction was any indication, they were quite different from those of his fellow gods.
“Odd,” was all Tristi said in response. I’d almost forgotten I had asked her a question. She tilted her head far to the side, like I were a person upside down. “You are very progressive, you know.”
The way she kept saying this was starting to irk me. “Oh? Does this still please you, then?” I could hardly keep the nettles out of my voice.
“Honestly? Yes. I find it does.” She straightened and gave a firm nod, like this was a revelation even for her. Tristi flashed her fangs at me. “Then does the little dreamwalker still seek satisfaction from me, or may we resume our jaunt?”
I frowned at her. She was right, her answer hadn’t satisfied me. I didn’t like Tristi’s delight over the chaos, yet… “I can’t say why, but I believe you. I can hardly contest the will of a god, and I can hardly fault you for the obeying of one.” Never mind what I would have done should it have been Tristi’s will. It was one thing to follow Lacertli’s orders–quite another thing to instigate trouble myself.
“Onward, then!” Tristi crowed, twisting around once more with a jingle of her coat. She took to a stride that had me struggling to keep up.
“Ah, wait! Where are we going?” Almost immediately following that question, my face screwed up and I hissed to myself, “And why am I following you?”
“Out! Away! Off of this shard! I’m done here. You’re free to come with, of course!”
“That’s very kind of you, but I was looking for some friends of mine. You haven’t seen them by any chance, have you?”
We descended a wide set of stone steps that led into a large garden. No…it was called a park. I’d heard of these, but to see one was strange. It was a false representation of nature, arranged, and made to fit some human being’s idea of beauty. In a way, it felt more alien to me than the city. There were different bushes and ferns about, rosebushes, dogwoods, pepperbushes and the like. Of trees there were hornbeams, pin oaks, cypress, and more I could not name for certain. Still the Fiamman lamps were present here, and I scowled, thinking to myself, “It’s a wonder this damn kingdom hasn’t burned to the ground!” Our feet still walked a paved road.
“Friends. Friends.” The woman pondered my question with hands on her hips. “Nope, I have seen no Friends,” Tristi gave a shake of her head.
I raised an eyebrow at her. “Uh…but you don’t know what they look like.”
“This is true. I do not know what Friends look like,” and here she winked at me, “But I do not hear your description of them, either!”
I batted my eyes, then let out a nervous laugh. “Oh, right. My apologies. Um…well,” and I described Elmiryn, Lethia, Paulo, and even the wizards, Hakeem and Quincy. I figured if I could find the latter two, it would lead me to the others. I made a mention of my Twin too, though I wasn’t sure my description would fit: A big, panther-like cat, with or without a mane.
Tristi shook her head to all of these. “Mmm…no. Sorry, little one. I’m afraid I have seen no one fitting your descriptions.”
My face drew long and I looked down at the passing trail. Then my head snapped up. “Oh! One more! A halfling male, with blond hair and purple eyes! He’s my height, and still fairly young. His name’s Farrel.”
Tristi looked at me sharply. “Does he have a funny accent? Cuts his words?”
My heart lifted, and I smiled, nodding emphatically. “Yes!”
The woman did not return my smile. “Ah.”
My joy deflated. “What is it?”
“Did you like this man?”
“Was he detestable? Vile? Did he deprecate the name of your mother by any chance? Such that you wouldn’t mind, say, forgetting about him forever?”
I scowled at her, stopping. My hands tensed against my chest. “Tristi, I’d appreciate it if you’d stop dancing around the answer and just give it to me plainly. Where is Farrel?”
The woman looked toward the dark sky with a long suffering look. Then she kicked at the ground and glanced at me sideways. “He is here, Nyx, and he is alive. Only…I think a reunion with him may be more trouble than it’s worth…”
My jaw tightened. “Enough. Just show me.”
“Are you suuuure?”
“Yes, yes, yes! How many times do I need to say it?”
“Six more times. If you’d please.”
I glared at her. “You really are insane.” But Tristi kept looking at me, waiting. I sighed and started. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Now will you take me?”
“Certainly!” She cried, with the munificent gesture of spread arms.
I glowered, shifting my hands so that I crossed my arms over my chest. In the back of my mind, I made a note to find a new shirt. Fast. “Why did I have to say it six more times?”
The woman shrugged. “Why else? It’s lucky.”
Given the source, I found I had nothing to say to that.