I heard her, saw her, felt her, and–gods help me–there wasn’t a thing I could do but stare deep into the eyes I had long since said goodbye to. Everything came rushing back to me in a whirlwind of memories. Days spent swimming at the lake. The dramatic schemes launched against our rivals. The moonlit nights where dreams were spent in a willowy exhale. The festivals, the dinners, the market days. The advent of adolescence, and the death of innocence, proper.
The force of emotion surprised me. My thoughts had been so consumed by other things as of late…by other people–that I hardly would have guessed that my affections could…
Taila was one of my only friends back in Tosmai. She defended me countless times, and were it not for her, I would’ve been beaten up a great deal more than I had. She didn’t care what other people said about me. “People talk all the time,” she’d snorted. “Half the time, they don’t know what comes out of their stupid mouths!” She’d lived on the edge of my home village, with her parents. Her mother died around the time Thaddeus did, and just a year later, so did her father. Since she was of age, she had the option of becoming a ward to the Nation–which meant that, while supported by public funds, she had to finish schooling, then take up whatever job the government assigned her. Her other option was that she could stop taking lessons, and just fend for herself. She didn’t even hesitate. “Honey farming has been a part of my family for generations! I’m not going to give that up just to become the Illuminati’s slave,” she’d told me. Money became tight for her, but despite her hardships, she still managed to find time for me. She helped me with my family. In turn, I tried to help in her work, and keep her up to date on our lessons from school.
“Taila…” I reached with both hands toward her. “Taila!” I choked out.
“What? What?” she laughed, hugging me. Electricity shot up and down my body. I squeezed her, as tight as I could, and breathed in that wonderful smell, sweet and intoxicating. Then she held me at arm’s length, amethyst eyes fluttering. She moved her hands to my head. My hair felt stiff beneath her fingers as she tried to stroke it, and her smile waned a fraction as she took a lock, stiff with blood, between her fingers. “Ugh! Nyx, what’s this in your hair?” She spoke to me in our native tongue, and I hardly thought about the transition. I still dreamed in Ailuran, after all.
Taila was dressed in a cream long sleeved top, with long lapels, billowy sleeves, and polished silver cuff links. Over this, a light brown vest–deer hide. Caramel pants that came up high on the waist. For boots, dark leather–a wrap around sort that was popular in the nation. The kind of thing she wore when selling her honey at the market. Her hair was pulled back into two low pigtails, just like she usually wore it, with one lock of hair slipping forth to tickle her right cheek. There were soft parenthetical lines around her mouth. Her smile made these deep, and wrinkles appeared around her eyes. People our age weren’t supposed to know such signs of weather, but she had earned it from all her time spent in the sun, tending to the bees.
It looked fitting on her. Lovely, even.
She shook her head at me, her mouth screwing up as she took in the sight of me. “Cajeck! What’ve you gotten into? What’s happened to your clothes? You’re covered in filth!”
I closed my eyes, tears streaking down my cheeks. This was wonderful…
This was a nightmare.
“I’ve been through a lot,” I muttered.
“I can only imagine!”
“Not really,” I let out a shaky laugh, then let my head drop to my chest.
She’s so good humored.
“And that?” She pointed at the lizard’s mark on my breast.
I shook my head, one hand going to cover the mark. I didn’t want to talk about that. How did one even begin to broach the topic?
“Well…” she gave me a soft flick on my nose, and I looked at her shyly. Taila winked, her smile broad. “Let’s see what we can do for you, hmm?” She walked around my bed, past my towers of books. Papers fluttered like birds about her feet. She took the wooden chair from my desk and set it out in the middle of the floor. “Sit,” she ordered.
I swallowed…and started to walk.
She’s assertive. I can’t help but follow her.
I moved around the end of my bed–past my tower of psychology, past my tower of anatomy. I looked down and saw that Taila had set out a large bowl and pitcher for me. On the desk, were folded towels of varying sizes. I sat heavily in the chair. My friend patted me on the arm and stooped down, her back to me. I glanced at her, then looked away quickly. Taila always wore these…these pants. She had such a graceful shape.
In the next instant, the bowl was in my lap and a towel over my shoulders. With firm hands, she made me lean forward, over the bowl. Soon I felt warm water cascading over my scalp, and I could hardly keep back my sigh of content. Dipping into the cold bay had done little to improve my condition.
Then Taila held a bar of soap under my nose. It was a light golden brown.
“I made this,” she explained. “Just for you. It’s soap made with honey and milk.”
“Thank you,” I said, automatically. Then I realized how insincere I might’ve sounded and murmured, “…Thanks. Really.”
Taila said nothing. Just hummed and worked the soap over my hair.
She also likes to hum. She likes music. They both do.
…Where is she? What am I doing?
My eyes closed. “I’ve been through so much, Taila.”
“You’ve told me.”
“No I haven’t. Not the whole story.”
“…Do you wanna? Tell me, that is.” Her voice went quiet. “I mean…I mean…shoot, Nyx. It’s been a year.”
This isn’t how it would’ve translated in Common, per se, but Ailuran can be slippery that way. She used a phrase, “Grut, netiene och lionedretzch alunar.”
I could’ve easily translated her words to:
Good grief, it’s been so long.
Heaven knows, the time has stretched beyond measure.
Gods, my life has seen and felt every minute’s passing.
Anyone of those could’ve passed for a proper translation, and each one would’ve painted this scene in a different way. But this story, as of this moment, is not in the hands of another. It is in my hands, and I can tell you, dear friend, that Taila was a simple person by nature. “Shoot, Nyx. It’s been a year.” That was Taila. My Taila. I felt safe with her. I could sit with her, literally half-naked, and still feel safe.
Her intent never colored things badly for me.
They make no attempts to conceal things. They are honest. I find it frustrating, how abrasive they can be…but brave, all the same.
“There’s so much, I don’t know where to start,” I said to the dirty water. It was a warm brown. I was squinting my eyes, hoping no soap invaded my sight. “I’ve run into paladins, enchantresses, wizards, and elementals. I’ve had my arm ripped off. Was nearly eaten alive. I am–” but I stopped there. I was about to talk about Lacertli, about my new place in life, only something kept me silent.
“Damn,” she tsked over me, like all I’d said was that a new book of mine had a torn page. “I’m sorry, Nyx.”
“I wanted to spare you,” I rambled on. “I’m sorry…for leaving so abruptly, the way I did. Intruding upon you, the way I did, that one night. You know. When I came for my mother’s things.” I started to choke up. “I’m sorry for troubling you and Ampelos. You should never have been friends with me. I never wanted–”
I felt a light bop on the back of my head. “Cajeck! Stop that!” Her hands left me. All of a sudden I felt cold.
I lifted my eyes and saw Taila was looking at me with tears in her eyes. “Fool. You stupid fool,” she hissed. “You never let me finish telling you what I needed to, that night.”
I stared at her in confusion. “What?”
But then Taila had her hand at the back of my head and was forcing it down again. “Down. We need to rinse.”
I didn’t fight her, but now I was staring bewildered into the dirty water of the bowl.
“Close your eyes,” she said. I did, and I felt her pour the water over my head again.
Wait. You’re straying…this isn’t what I imagined…
She knew better this time. She did not let her eyes wander. Third time’s a charm, and all that…
Behind her, the others followed. She pointed ahead of her. Up this way!
Back to the crossroads. Her crossroads.
There’s only one way we can go, Sedwick said. There’s a barrier on the other roads.
As if to confirm this, Quincy presses her hand down the fourth path, or rather, the second. They were counting backwards, weren’t they? She finds the vision of what lies ahead ripples around the woman’s palm and fingers, and sees something push her back. Quincy retracts her hand with a shake of her head. He’s right, she says.
Elmiryn gestures for them to follow her. I already know. Just follow me.
A ripple blasts through the air, and sends her hair upright. She stops, hand going to her sword. Sedwick and Quincy are similarly posed, eyes turned up, bodies rigid. What was that? Quincy whispers.
A sound, something sharp and filled with fury, screamed about them.
I don’t know, Elmiryn breathes. She didn’t say this, but she recognized the scream. She’d heard it when she’d first arrived in the Other Place. Whatever it was, it was closer now.
After a moment’s wait proved fruitless, they resumed their trek.
…It wasn’t good to dawdle when Traveling.
My hair was clean. Taila let me dry it, and I did so as quickly as I could. When I was done, she took a slim clear bottle filled with jojoba oil and let several drops fall onto my waiting palms. I smoothed this through my hair, disentangling it with my fingers as it turned silky. Finished, I looked up and saw she was holding a small dripping towel.
“Go ahead and sit in the chair backwards. Get rid of those rags. I wanna get your back,” she said. Her sleeves were rolled up. The front of her shirt was wet. She looked a little flushed and this made me–
“Are…are you sure?” I asked, brow wrinkled. My eyes were on her shoes.
I heard her tut. “Dummy. Turn around.”
I did so without another word, my heart hammering. I tore at the rags, all that was left of my tunic, and throw the pieces to the floor. At this rate, I’d be bereft of all clothing. I leaned forward onto the back of my chair, feeling weird with my legs straddling it. I crossed my arms over the headrest and buried my face in their folds. I couldn’t help it. I flinched when I felt the towel on me. It wasn’t too hot, it was just…
“It’s sad…” Taila whispered. I didn’t ask her to clarify. I didn’t need her to. She was taking her time, caressing my Mark. “I don’t cry for much, you know. I’ve cried for my parents–Aelurus bless them–and I’ve cried for your family too. But I cried when I heard what’d been done to you. I cried when you left.”
My hands clenched. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. “I know. I’m sorry.”
So I did.
I raised my head to rest my chin on my forearms, the skin there damp, and my eyes pink. I sniffled back the runs of my nose and turned my head a little. Taila was…really taking her time it seemed. Not that I minded.
I should mind. I need to.
I squinted my eyes. “Taila, I think I have to go.”
“Stay still, I’m not done with you.”
I told myself to get up. I bunched, like I was going to. Taila’s hands came down on my shoulders, and they pressed till it hurt. “Stay. I won’t let you run out on me, again. You hear?” She leaned over me, the cloth of her shirt brushing my bare skin. “…You hear?” She kissed the side of my head and I jerked, less in thought and more in instinct. As I moved from the back of the chair, it afforded her room to wrap her arms about me, the wet towel still in her hand. Now her head was next to mine.
“Stay, Nyx,” she breathed into my ear. “Please. Just let me–” but her voice broke off in a shudder and I could barely keep my breath in my lungs as she dropped the towel, and her hands roved up, and up, and up, till they were on my breasts. Everything burned. My head rolled back. Taila’s mouth was on my neck and I let out some sort of noise–a sigh? A moan? My gaze flickered to the ceiling of my room as I reached for her, my back arching…
I should care. I need to. I have to.
…this wasn’t real.
I started laughing, but I found nothing funny. It was hysterical, and pathetic, and grotesque, and I didn’t know what I was doing in that scene, at all. I could feel the shadows all around me, feel them expand and contract like lungs. The walls rippled. My friend, much as she may have still cared for me, could never have tolerated my presence as she was now. Lies. All lies. The Mark on my back made me abhorrent to all of my kind. I could still remember the last time I saw Taila, the sight of her curling from me, shuddering as she gazed at me with a mixture of sadness and involuntary disgust.
My laughter grew worse as tears clouded my eyes.
The Taila-of-the-present paused and looked at me curiously, her pretty eyes batting. I stood from the chair, wiping at my eyes, and she moved from me, our bodies bumping gracelessly. Still chuckling, I pointed to my bed. Suddenly she grinned and caught my wrist, pulling me toward it. She knocked over my tower of fiction books as she went–the adventures, the horrors, the fantasies. My eyes went to them, and my smile waned.
Good humored, assertive, mellifluent, and honest…but what makes them different is something simple.
“She listens to me,” I breathed.
Taila frowned at me. “Huh?”
I lifted my eyes from my books and stepped toward her. Her hands go to my waist, pulling me to her, but I do not let her pull me onto the bed all the way. My hands go to her shoulders. “She listens. When I say something, she doesn’t make light of my thoughts. When I don’t say something, she listens even more. In a way, she understands me better than Taila ever did. Elmiryn. I have to find her. Not because I need to, but because I want to!”
Taila’s eyes narrow. “Kiss me,” she orders.
I looked at her, a frown of my own on my face. I always did what she told me.
…But Taila never asked me to do something she knew I wouldn’t do already.
“No,” I whispered.
Her eyes went wide. “What?”
“No,” I say, firmer. I forcefully removed her hands from my waist and shoved her away from me, before backing up into the wall.
Taila sat up again, a foreign look coming over her eyes. Suddenly, she wasn’t so attractive anymore. “Nyx, what–”
“First of all, spirit,” I hissed, “Taila never wanted me that way, no matter how much I longed for her too! Second, even if she did, she would never force me in such a lewd manner. And third…” My cheeks flare, but I smile, suddenly feeling giddy. “My heart has found another!”
The False Taila just looked at me, rock still, her face gone blank. Then she sat up and spoke–only the voice that entered my ears was not like Taila’s anymore. It sounded like some warped version of a man’s. It was deep and dry, but layered with a high squeak. The impostor fixed me with a bored look. “Mmm. Yet for all your insights, you still played along. Clearly, our fetishes take time to leave us,” the spirit murmured, crossing its legs. The amethyst eyes were gone in a blink, replaced with a void black. It gave a melancholy sigh and looked down at its lap “Ah, vermagus. You did tease me so. It’s been quite a bit of time since I’ve last lain eyes on your kind…your clan brought a unique flavor to the experience…”
I looked to the ground, my curious jubilation withering. “You crawled into my head. Saw my…most personal thoughts…”
“It’s what I do, stupid thing,” the spirit shrugged. “I see and I exploit. I do not beat around this sad little fact.”
“But you could’ve used something more…recent.”
“I felt more turmoil over this chimera than did I over your latest fancies. Redheads? Quite the leap, vermagus. Yet still too fresh for me to twist and demean you by.”
I glared. “You are a foul thing.”
“Aye. Perhaps.” The skin about its eyes began to dry and shrivel, the veins turning a stark blue through the skin. I grimaced as the things eyelids began to pucker.
I narrowed my eyes. “I started to wonder as we went through those halls, looking into all of those nasty rooms. All those people…it was all just you, wasn’t it? This entire place is just you and the atrocities you can think up, isn’t it? One big trap. Why didn’t you pull us in? Why didn’t you try to ensnare us at the start?”
The spirit shrugged again. For a creature of lust, it certainly seemed dispassionate. The clothes about its shoulders started to rot and fall away, revealing the way its shoulders–once fine and beautiful–now turned disproportionate and sickly. “You would have seen through my attempts. Better to twist your perception and let you begin the illusion yourself. It creates a stronger belief. You chose to play along, remember?”
I said nothing to this, my lips pursed and my hands tensed to claws. It was true. I had let the spirit play with my memories, my fantasies, if only to pretend for a moment that things could have been different between me and Taila. To pretend, for a moment, that I could apologize to her and be forgiven. But I found my heart was no longer in it, as much as my body…reacted…to all that had happened.
We are a passionate people, indeed.
“How many times did you touch yourself to such thoughts, vermagus? You, who proclaim love for another?” The spirit sent me a leer, its face cracking as its first true smile spread across its face. I saw the last of Taila’s visage fall like bits of dead leaves to the ground. What was revealed was a sharp face with mottled pale skin. The chin thrust forward, the cheeks sunk in. The neck started to crack and pop as it elongated, earning an impossible kink as it went. “Speak true, vermagus. Speak true for this spirit, ah yessss…”
Fury overtook me and I pulled at the shadows, making the room turn small around us. The bed cracked down the middle as it shrunk beneath the spirit. I put all the power into my voice as I could, hunched over and red in the face. “Blasted creature, to twist my heart and make a game of it—I damn you! Where is he! Where is Farrel?”
The door opened. Tristi peeked his head into the tiny space, as if looking innocently for the powder room. He flashed his fanged smile. “Ah! You finally got it!”
I looked at him, startled. The spirit glanced at him lazily. Tristi started to enter the room with a great deal of squeezing. The room, in its reduced state, seemed too small to contain all three of us now. Even I was crouching a little bit to keep my head from the ceiling. The champion of luck looked right ridiculous.
I shot him a withering look. “You knew this whole time, didn’t you?”
He winked at me. “Of course I did.”
“I thought you came along to help me.”
The champion of luck tutted and shook his head. He finally managed to close the door behind him, then leaned on the wall. “Now, now, sweetest. My duty was to not contribute to your death! That was all!”
I slammed my fist into the ceiling, and dust sprinkled down. “That does me nothing! You may as well have sat outside!”
Tristi blinked at me, then rubbed his chin. “Ah! You are right! I could have! Damn, why didn’t I think to?” I wanted to throw one of my fake books at him. He shrugged, a slash of a smile on his deltaic face. “Ah well! I’m fond of you, dreamwalker, and I’m impatient. I wanted to know immediately whether or not you’d die or succeed in your task, so that I might quickly collect my prize!”
“Have I been forgotten?” The spirit sighed, raising a lazy hand. “Am I refuse in this farcical gathering?” Black horns were sprouting from the sides of its head now.
I opened my mouth to yell at him when something tickled my ear. I drew up, but cursed as I bumped my head on the ceiling. In the future, I’d really have to think more carefully about how to shift the shadows–especially if they were bearing me in a metaphorical dream. Rubbing my head, I heard the noise again, and my tawny eyes went wide. “Did you hear that?” I breathed.
The spirit and Tristi looked at me funny. “Hear what?” the man eventually asked.
“Shhhhh!” I cocked an ear and heard it again. “There! It…sounds like it’s coming from outside!”
“Vermagus, are you going mad? Might I resume my psychological picking of you?” the spirit droned. “There was this scene with ropes I found intriguing…”
I frowned at it, turning a hot red, then looked at Tristi who shook his head slowly at me. He gave me a funny look and pointed at his ears. “Sweetest, look at the size of my trumpets. I think I’d hear whatever it is you’re hearing…and did I just hear right? Ropes?”
I ignored him as best I could. As uncomfortable as this was becoming, a niggling feeling came over me. Something was pulling at me… “But it’s so clear!” I breathed. “All around us is so quiet, and yet you can’t hear it?”
“But what, dreamwalker?”
“A whistle!” I cried, looking at Tristi. “I’m hearing…a whistle!”
Elmiryn wondered if she’d done this to herself. Unconsciously of course. It sounded funny enough. Confusing enough. Hell, if she could, she’d be more than happy to play a joke on herself. It’d be a riot.
…Of course, she’d need to kick her own ass, later.
Upon crossing the gateway, they fell some twenty feet into cold, salty water. Elmiryn came up, coughing and flailing before she got her bearings enough to see where the shore was. When she did, she nearly stopped swimming all together. Quincy tore past her, gasping. Sedwick was nowhere to be seen.
“Get a move on!” the wizard had shouted, mid-breast stroke.
Elmiryn fell in with her, and soon they arrived on the sandy beach. The warrior, on all fours, lifted her head. Her eyes trailed over their new surroundings. The sky, for the first time since they’d arrived in the Other Place, was dark. There were boats at the docks. An old building on the pier. Quietly, she took up her whistle and cleared it of water as best she could. At first, it just sputtered and spat. But her tenacity was eventually rewarded with a smooth passing of her breath–for she still couldn’t hear the trinket. But her companion’s light flinch next to her was all the indication she needed as to whether or not it could be heard. She blew on the whistle three long times, as hard as she could.
“Elmiryn, do you know what that thing does?” the wizard asked, eyes narrowed. “You aren’t giving me a brain tumor, or something, are you?”
The warrior didn’t look at her. Just let her whistle fall against her chest.
Quincy sat on her haunches and watched her, frowning. Sedwick appeared from the water, his body clear liquid–explaining why they couldn’t see him–and he trudged calmly their way. He stopped in front of them, looking from redhead to brunette and back. As the man’s body turned to flesh from the chest up, he crouched down.
“Elmiryn, what is it?” he asked, placing a hand on her shoulder. His bald eyebrows were bunched and pressed up, making his forehead wrinkly. “You’ve this look on you. It makes me worried.”
She looked up at him. What could she say? What was the right emotion for this occasion?
…Elmiryn smiled, showing all teeth.
“Sedwick,” she murmured. “I’m home.” She jumped to her feet with a hoot and punched a fist in the air. “We’re in the fucking Fiamman kingdom!!”
“Tai’undu.” Quincy face-palmed. “I’m worried now, too!”