Perhaps their sneaking wasn’t really necessary, as the great giants were more focused on battling one another than the little people scurrying off in the background, but Elmiryn figured it was good to err on the side of caution. Quincy had seemed to think so. They found Sedwick on the way over, hunched down in what used to be a cellar, with the rubble about his feet turning muddy from his watery touch. His white eyes lit up to her and Nyx with astonishment.
“Nyx!” he exclaimed, rising carefully. “Where did you come from all of a sudden?”
Nyx didn’t speak right away, and Elmiryn gave her a nudge. The girl seemed to start up again, throat moving in a swallow. “Sedwick,” she said. Her smile was uncertain. The warrior knew the girl harbored some guilt over what had befallen the man. She was eager for her to see how well off he really was.
“With someone like Nadi around, I’d think anyone was well off!” Elmiryn thought with a smirk.
Sedwick reached up an arm, and after a moment’s hesitation Nyx grabbed him close to the crook of his elbow. The man smiled and patted her shoulder. “Well met, Nyx. Well met.” He jerked his head at Elmiryn. “I’ve been having a time taking care of this one!”
Nyx smiled wryly. “Oh? Not too much trouble, I hope.”
“Hey!” Elmiryn snapped. She glared good-naturedly between them. Nyx and Sedwick had a small laugh, and the warrior let a rueful smile slip her lips. “Sedwick, we were going to help Quincy. Do you know what her plan is exactly? I’d hate to come in and ruin things.”
“Plan? She has no plan. None other than getting in close enough to stab that great sunny brute with her sword. That’s it.” He shook his head. “She’s going to get herself killed over this silly obsession.”
The warrior shrugged and said mildly, “In a lot of ways, it’s healthier than my pursuits.” None offered to argue.
Sedwick stooped to pick something up, and when he straightened again, he had Elmiryn’s belt in his hand. “Here, I got this for you. I even found a spare holster for the dagger. Nothing for the pistol, though. I’ve got that here, to keep safe.” Elmiryn took back her belongings with a purred thank you. She would have gone out there without the weapons, but she certainly preferred having them. Sedwick went on speaking as she fastened her belt around her waist. “I was staying back, in case I needed to jump in and get Quincy for a speedy escape. If you two are absolutely set on going in there, well…my only suggestion is to get the beasts’ attention.”
Nyx frowned. “Why? They would kill us!”
But Elmiryn was already seeing Sedwick’s point. She turned to explain it to the girl. “Look at that fight, Nyx. Do you think we could get close without getting crushed? If we have their attention, they’ll stop long enough for us to approach. If they decide to both attack us, well…we’ll deal with that. There was once a story of Diokles and how he battled a giant. The giant was a great big man, but Diokles was quick. The giant began to get frustrated because his stomping wasn’t working. He had to get down low to strike at Diokles with more precision. That was when Diokles was able to reach for a killing blow. Do you see? Force the giant to come to you.”
The girl nodded, but her frown remained in place. “That still doesn’t account for the fact that we’re facing off three huge beasts, not just one.”
Elmiryn grinned. “And hey! Look’it that! There’s you, me, and Quincy! Totally even now!”
Sedwick let out a chuckle. “Woman, you do flirt with death.”
The warrior shrugged. “I’d buy him a drink if I met him.”
“Go on. Before the wizard beats you to the chance! I’ll be here to scoop you all out if things begin to look hopeless.”
“Water gliding on your back, huh? No thanks. We’ll have this handled, Sedwick. Just you watch.”
With that, Elmiryn and Nyx resumed their trek toward the battle. They scurried from cover to cover, and all the while the redhead kept a look out for the wizard.
“Elmiryn,” Nyx said as they went. “Do those dragons…can they communicate? Do they understand Common?”
Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at the question and glanced back at the girl. “I have no idea. Do you mean to strike up a conversation with them, kitten?” She chortled upon saying this.
The girl said nothing, and remained quiet the rest of the way.
Further on they went. They were very close now. So close that the rubble felt scalding hot to the touch. Elmiryn was working up a sweat. Her head was killing her, but she tried to ignore it. Then the warrior spotted the wizard. The wizard peered around a granite wall, her russet brown hair turned dusty. She had her rusty sword out and pressed to her side with the length along her forearm. Snickering, the woman bid Nyx to stop, and took up a small rock. She took a moment to aim, and threw it at the wizard’s head in a small arc.
It connected. Quincy just about jumped out of her skin, her sword whipping around as she searched for the source of the throw.
Elmiryn bit on her lip to keep from laughing. Nyx scolded her. “Oh, Elle, really…” she grumbled.
“Idiot! What are you doing?” Quincy hissed. Her face had turned red and her other hand rubbed the spot the rock had struck. “That hurt!”
“Tell that to my nipple,” Elmiryn said as she approached.
“Um, what?” Nyx’s brows burrowed in deep.
The warrior paused, sensing a hidden danger, and her eyebrows went up high. “…Looong story,” she said, her smile fixed in place.
“That’s Tonatiuh there, I’m sure of it. My sword’s been humming since he came.” Quincy said, her gaze still a bit sullen as she held up her rusty sword and pressed it to Elmiryn’s arm. Indeed, the warrior could feel the metal hum.
“Well now you can get him back.” Elmiryn nudged the wizard with her forearm. “And hey wizard, you weren’t the only one who lucked out. I found my ward.”
“I can see that,” Quincy muttered.
“I also found The Rabbit, but he isn’t as interesting.”
Nyx shook her head. “For heavens sake, why can’t you just call the man by his name?”
Elmiryn looked at her critically. “You mean, ‘The Rabbit’?”
She received a sigh in response.
Quincy exhaled harshly through her nose before she spoke. Her voice was tense and shaky. “Elmiryn, it was quite nice of you to come dashing out here with your little friend, but unless you can figure out a way I can join in that fight without being crushed, I’m afraid there isn’t much else to do.” There was a pause, then she added, “And I put out your stove fire too. You were going to burn the house down.”
Elmiryn’s smile turned into a hook. “My! You certainly have a mind for the little things. Did you also happen to dust the tables before you went?”
“If that’s the reaction you’re going to give me, I should have just left the damn fire going–with the grate open, just like you left it–and had some buttered crumpets instead.”
“You’re welcome, Elmiryn.”
“As for your grand plan, I’m in favor of not being crushed by those things.” Elmiryn pulled her jeweled dagger from its holster. “And here’s what I propose to prevent just such a fate.”
“Your dagger?” Nyx said critically.
“I hate that thing,” Quincy said with a pout.
“Oh shut up, it’s perfect for this situation.” Elmiryn gestured over her shoulder with it. “I pull this, and all the sound goes out in the area except whatever noises the holder makes. The beasts are bound to notice that in a hurry. Whoever holds this dagger has the floor, and no one else will be heard.”
The woman started to hand it to Quincy, but Nyx reached over and gently laid a hand on her wrist. “Um–!”
Both women looked at her quizzically. The girl blushed and cleared her throat. “I–I think I might be best suited for this situation.”
Elmiryn smiled and looked at her with head tilted. “Really? Do tell, kitten…”
I’ve experienced all manner of situations at this point. My legs felt weak, but they did not shake. My palms were sweaty, but were relaxed in their hold of the dagger and its sheath. My gaze did not waver. Was I becoming…brave? Where did that timorous whelp go, who so clung to Elmiryn’s leg at the first sign of a threat? I stood, not certain of what it was I was becoming. Just a little bit more, I started to believe in Lacertli’s idea of redemption. I could redeem myself, one deed at a time.
When I pulled the dagger free, my ears started to ring with static. Elmiryn and Quincy tried to say something to me, but just as Elmiryn had said, they were completely silent. They gestured for me to go. I slipped from our hiding spot and approached the battle. The heat came over me in thick waves. I was sweating so much, my new clothes were drenched. I thought about the dragons, and what Elmiryn said they were. Halward’s familiars. Surely, they were capable of some level of discourse? But given their screeching, I wasn’t certain I could achieve an adequate exchange in this realm. I paused for a moment and closed my eyes, quickly going through those cold canyons of my mind until I crested the hill that served as my gateway. The world sighed over me, and when I opened my eyes, I was in the Somnium.
I was a little surprised by what I saw.
The dragons were much the same, except that their forms seemed to have an inner glow. The giant, however…
Whatever he was, in the eyes of the universe, he had the body of a frail and emaciated boy–still large by height standards–but I could see his skin sag around his bones. Though his face was still much the same shape, it was leaner, the teeth rotted, the eyes crusted, the bone missing from his nose, cracks along the edges of his face like he were made of stone. And the sunny glow that I saw in the Real World? Absent here, leaving his body pale and almost a sickly green, save for an ominous glow in the giant’s stomach that matched those of the dragons. There was no use wondering where the first dragon had gone, now.
Disquieted, I stopped in my advance and just watched the desperate looking creature battle the two glorious serpents. The anxiety grew in me, and I looked down at my feet.
The soil felt hot beneath my new shoes. I wiggled my toes beneath the fabric, and my footprint widened from how my foot shifted. The ground shook terribly, and I stumbled back. Dust and rock met me in a rushing cloud. Lowering my arms from my face, I saw that the giant had slammed the bearded dragon onto the ground. The dragon had its wings pinned beneath it, and the giant was over him with one foot. The bearded dragon’s sibling tried to spare it the killing blow that was sure to come, all claws and beating wings.
But there was no sound.
I hadn’t been sure how close I needed to get for it to work, but sure enough, from the moment the dragon slammed onto the ground to the muted scream that the sunny giant attempted, they quickly saw what had happened. The battle stopped with the giant’s foot still on the bearded dragon’s chest, the other dragon on the giant’s back with its claws dug into his skin and its mouth poised for a bite to the back of the neck.
Now that I had the floor…I didn’t know what to say.
I tapped the blade against my thigh and cleared my throat. “Hello.” Then I cleared my throat again and in a louder voice, with the dagger raised in the air, I shouted, “Spirits, I am here!” The beasts looked my way. I felt fastened to the spot and my mouth went dry. Now I had the shakes. It wasn’t just for them, but for what I was about to say, and who was about to hear it. Conjuring up all the force and sincerity I could, I said, “Hail! I am Nyx, champion of Lacertli, the Dreamwalker, god of natural order. Giant, release the dragon. I wish for peace whilst I speak with you.” And here, I sheathed the dagger, its job done, so that the beasts could speak.
“Champion, I care not a whit for your god. I will not be moved,” the giant bellowed. He had an odd voice–high and riled, but like a deflated balloon that had once been very big.
I tensed. Pathetic as it may be, it had just dawned on me that just because I had a unique voice and a god’s name to throw around, that didn’t mean all present would just roll over for me. When I spoke next, it was from my diaphragm. “Spirit, you will honor my request.”
“I spit on it!” The giant returned. He raised his fist in preparation for a strike.
This time I screamed, everything in me pulling as I pushed out the following words, “CREATURE, IN THE NAME OF THE DREAMWALKER, YOU WILL STOP!” I could feel my animus pulse. My throat tingled. The air around me stirred.
The dragon on its back slipped away just in time, before the giant was blown off its feet in a rush of dust and wind. The dragons, they were well anchored, and turned their electric gaze my way. I gulped.
Nyx had moved just out of range enough that they could talk again. The radius appeared to be something like fifteen feet. The girl would have to get in close, no matter what. Elmiryn felt a little tension in her stomach that she didn’t like. It reminded her of the first time she joined the battle field. Quincy wasted no time in voicing her grievances.
“I can’t believe you gave it to her.”
Elmiryn didn’t look at her. “Stop grumbling.”
“You really believed the nonsense she said, didn’t you?”
“I believe Nyx wouldn’t lie. If she thinks she can do it, than she can.”
“But they’re dragons,” Quincy said, incredulous.
Elmiryn said nothing to this, but kept her eyes on Nyx as she slowly crept toward the battling giants. In her hand was her dagger. “She can do it. With my dagger she can do it.”
They watched as the girl paused, and with a flicker, the warrior became aware that something had changed. She didn’t know what. The colors that comprised Nyx seemed richer, and her form didn’t seem quite so solid, and there was something oddly more distant to the girl’s image than what Elmiryn knew she was seeing.
“Where’d she go!?” Quincy stood, eyes wide as she scanned for Nyx.
Elmiryn looked at her. “You can’t see her?”
“She’s right there!”
Elmiryn pulled the wizard down, “Just get down! She’s there, trust me!”
The warrior returned her attention to Nyx and saw that the girl had moved closer now and was looking down at her shoes. Elmiryn frowned and willed the girl to look up. She just about launched over the wall when the dragon was slammed into the ground so close to the Ailuran. Quincy had to grab her by the back of her pants.
“Hold on, don’t!” She said. The wizard pointed, an astonished smile on her face. “Did you hear when the dragon hit the ground?”
Elmiryn looked at her sharply. “Damn. Your right! I couldn’t hear a thing!”
Quincy nudged her. “There! The beasts are starting to realize the sound is gone! Now is her chance!”
Nyx didn’t speak right away, but when she did, it was with a small voice. “Hello.” The warrior blinked. Was this the amazing approach the girl was going to use? But the girl soon recovered, and she started again. “Hail! I am Nyx, champion of Lacertli, the Dreamwalker, god of natural order.”
Elmiryn sat back, eyes wide even as she heard Nyx go on speaking. There was a burning in her ears and her mind felt like it were on pins and needles. Nyx? A champion? As in…?
She elbowed Quincy. “Hey, does this mean what I think it means?”
“What does? I can’t hear her, just Tonatiuh.”
“Nyx just said she’s the champion of Lacertli, the Dreamwalker, the…the god of natural order.”
Quincy’s face drew long and she looked at Elmiryn sidelong. “She said what?”
But the exchange was cut short when Elmiryn heard Nyx scream, “CREATURE, IN THE NAME OF THE DREAMWALKER, YOU WILL STOP!” The air swirled about them, and both women were forced to duck and cover their faces from the dust and rock that stung them. Elmiryn could feel it down to her marrow, the way she felt the sound reverberate throughout her, then echo like she were a deep and vast canyon. The hairs on her body stood on end. Her ears rang as if she’d just been caught in a protracted battle, filled with bursting cannons and screaming men.
Slowly, Elmiryn raised her head, dust sifting away. She saw Quincy do the same. Both had their mouths open, and peered cautiously over the wall.
Tonatiuh was blown off his feet.
“She did that with her voice,” Elmiryn breathed.
“I heard a bit of that. Like an echo from somewhere far away.” Quincy swallowed audibly. “What have you been hiding, Elmiryn?”
“I swear I had no idea.” The woman started to smile. “But thinking back on it…”
“What kind of magic is that? Is it a new power she’s gained as a champion?”
Elmiryn just shook her head slowly, then after a moment’s thought, she rose and started to approach. Quincy didn’t follow right away, but soon the warrior heard the wizard trailing behind her. They arrived at the girl’s side just as she began to speak with the dragons, who, by and large, seemed to be attentive to her.
I was trying hard not to panic.
I couldn’t lose my composure with two great big dragons staring me down, but I was worried that I had overdone it with my voice. I really had to ask Lacertli if he could train me in the ancient bardic arts–if he even knew them. I worried that my voice had hurt the others. Surely it was possible if Tonatiuh had been so blown away? The sunny giant did not stir from his place on the ground, where he’d landed. I wondered why the dragons hadn’t been affected. Was it their natures as godly familiars that had spared them?
But that didn’t matter at the moment, for I had their attention, and it was their favor I had to earn.
I bowed low, my eyes on the ground. “Spirits, I am honored in your presence.”
There was a rumble from one, and I dared to glance up to see that the bearded dragon was shifting off of its back to face me properly. I felt Elmiryn and Quincy appear at my sides. I was glad they were okay, but willed them to keep silent.
“Raise thyself, champion.” The voice was deep and bass-like, with a raking hiss that sounded as though breath were being drawn with each word.
Slowly, I straightened.
“Thou hast stunned the giant, and we have precious little time for discourse.” It was the bearded dragon who spoke, though her mouth did not move at all. It was like her thoughts echoed through the air. “I am Praxidice, and my sister is Poena. The noble dragon you had previously met was known as Erinyes, though she is lost to us now.” It blinked its eyes slowly at me. Its sister, Poena, gave her wings a shake and watched me with narrowed eyes.
I swallowed and placed my fist over my heart–over Lacertli’s mark. “We had no quarrel with your ilk, noble Praxidice. I would avenge your sister’s death.”
“You had some among your company that tasted of dark power.”
I clenched. The dragon was speaking of Farrel. “Fair and noble spirit, the halfling was tainted by a greater spirit, who planned to deceive you as to his whereabouts. I can lead you to the fiend’s lair.” I bet Volo didn’t count on me actually utilizing my bardic talents to talk to the dragons. It would be his undoing.
“Very well. That accounts for him, young champion.” But Praxidice fixed her eyes on Elmiryn, and bared her teeth. “But that says nothing of her.”
“Who, me?” I heard Elmiryn say.
I looked at her and let out a cry.
The Somnium reveals things that the eye cannot see. It makes ideas into a reality, does away with false appearances, and reveals that which lingers on a spiritual level. This was the first time I had ever looked at Elmiryn in the Somnium, and I did not like what I saw.
The woman was translucent, not solid, and in her chest I could see a large seed that had sprouted, large and bulbous, that stemmed through her limbs, even up into her head where the trailing roots reached out of her ears and hugged the sides of her face in a spidery reach. Her eyes were black. There was something about her face that did not seem to sit still. When she looked at me, the image smeared and blurred, and I could see the skull beneath her skin. There were two dark bumps on either side of her head, near the hairline, and I saw how the roots seemed to be pushing at her skin, fighting to sprout.
I covered my mouth and stared at her horrified.
Elmiryn gave me a dubious smile before even that faded away. “Nyx…what’s the matter?” It didn’t occur to me at the time, but later reflection had me puzzling over how the woman could see me in the Somnium. Quincy was oblivious to my presence, after all. It didn’t take me long to draw up a theory. The seed in the warrior was doing something to her…changing her.
“Her aura tastes of murder and madness, champion. We sense something greater amiss. Would you ask us to turn a blind eye?” This was not Praxidice, but Poena, I suspected. This dragon had a lighter voice, but it was harsher and verged on outright hissing.
I swallowed and reached a hand out to Elmiryn. The woman took mine, and I could feel her warmth, feel her flesh. I closed my eyes and said, with perspicacity, “My patron tells me that all beings under the gods are born with a certain amount of debt. Some have more than others. I too, have great debt, spirits. I…care for this woman deeply, and I take her as my responsibility as she takes me as hers, and I would see no harm come to her. If that is not just, than perhaps I do not wish to be just. I only wish to be in harmony.” My head bowed, and after a moment’s breath, I raised it again. My mouth was thin. “Spirits, I offer you my strength and the head of one you have sought long, and in exchange I would see that none of my companions be harmed.”
“You ask us to go against our nature.” This was Praxidice.
I looked at them, and something rose from inside me–something alien and different. Something that wasn’t me. “Nature is ever changing. It asks for sacrifice to see one’s will done. What wouldst thou sacrifice to see thine greatest enemies felled?” My voice was steely. The air felt charged from it. I took a deep breath, suddenly starved for it, and my eyes fluttered.
Elmiryn squeezed my hand. “Nyx, what’s going on with you…?” She was looking at me, that little wrinkle back in her brow. I looked at her, and with a gentle hand, I reached up and brushed my thumb over her worry line. I said nothing, but my expression was grim.
The dragons didn’t have long to think on it, for Tonatiuh was stirring once more. I could feel Quincy tense up next to me. The brunette muttered Fanaean curses.
“Champion…vermagus…Were you any other creature, my sister and I would snap up your company and seek our vengeance alone, but if you can aid us and promise peace until your departure, than so shall we spare you and yours our wrath.”
I bowed, “On my word, Praxidice, we will honor your trust.” And I felt something claw up my spine and into my skull. I shivered a little.
“And your word is no small thing, as we have seen. But come, let us cease this talk, for the time for battle is nigh!”
The ground rumbled as Tonatiuh rose to his feet and screamed into the air, his fists pounding his chest. I squeezed my eyes shut and went inward. It was time to leave the Somnium and its sights. I ran through the canyons of my subconscious, wondering how time worked in this somnambulant in-between. When I was on the other side, I opened my eyes and found myself back in the Real World. Tonatiuh was once again the burly giant he had been, and the dragons no longer glowed. Best of all, Elmiryn didn’t look so nightmarish. I handed back her dagger and said, “Elle, go back and hide! You aren’t well!”
Quincy jerked, staring at me with eyes popped. “Damn! Where did you come from!?”
Elmiryn crowed into the air, “Oh-HO! Now you’re telling me to stay behind?” She shook her head as she put the item away. “Not a chance!” And with that, Elmiryn drew her sword.
The ground gave another rumble as Tonatiuh slammed both his fists down. We fought to stay on our feet. Quincy instinctively had grabbed onto my shoulder to keep from falling, and her gaze was intense. Fearful…but hungry too. “Sorry to burst your collective bubble, but I think the option for running is gone now!”
Tonatiuh screamed at us, the sound rivaling my own. He pointed a finger my way, and bit out, “I shall eat your heart!!” Then his gaze flickered to the side, and fixed on Quincy. Without lips or eyebrows, it was very difficult to discern the emotion that came over his face. It appeared like shock, but could’ve been confused with relief as well. Then Tonatiuh’s body started shaking, and a sharp, rippling sound reached us.
…He was laughing.
“Ah! Quincy! Baghun knt ant alan!” It wasn’t Fanaean, nor Indaban, nor Santian. My guess was that it was Talmas, the common language of Talmor. It seemed my guess of Tonatiuh’s origins had some weight. The great giant laughed and slapped his stomach. “Come! We shall see who is master now!”
Quincy was red in the face when she pointed at Tonatiuh with her sword. “I will have you, damned spirit! You are mine!”
Poena screeched. No longer in the Somnium, I could not understand the dragons as I had before, but the meaning was clear. They would have their vengeance before Quincy’s agenda was met, no exceptions. They struck forth, kicking up hot rubble, and their wings stirred the dust high above our heads. Straggling behind them, the three of us followed.
The battle began.