“For the first time he had felt fear about life, for the first time he had truly understood that when life had sentenced you to suffer, this sentence was neither a pretense nor a threat. How meaningless it was, empty, empty, empty. This hunting for yourself, slyly observing your own tracks — in a circle, of course; this pretending to throw yourself into the stream of life and then at the same time sitting and angling for your yourself and fishing yourself up in some peculiar disguise! If only it would seize him: life, love, passion — so that he wouldn’t be able to invent it, but so that it would invent him…. it was sweet to dream himself so bitterly insignificant.”
–J.P. Jacobsen, from the novel “Niels Lyhne”
Lethia Artaud was in a place of irrefutable oppression. It lined her lungs with every maligned breath, the curse and cultivation of nightmares stirring her spirit to paranoia and incredible self-loathing. The walls shimmered incandescent with a prism of colorful energy that stirred creatures outside the castle keep to hoot and howl and holler. She lay in a bed of silken sheets, her slip of a gown feeling foreign on her skin. She pulled the thick blanket up to her chin and stared up at the ceiling–a swirl of cauldron blacks, candy reds, and bruised purples. The doorway to her small quarters lacked a door. She was not allowed to have any privacy after her last attempt at release. The girl touched her left wrist under the blanket.
She’d have to change the bandage again soon. The wound was beginning to pucker.
In the months since she’d come to this hell, Lethia had seen her friends suffer, find hope, then suffer even more. It was like a vicious cycle, spiraling downward to the inevitable end they were all facing. The guilt she felt kept her from sleeping. She missed Argos so much she laughed at the irony of the fact that he was a dog. The days were a relentless parade of lectures, cleaning, cooking, and studying. In summary, it was almost normal, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The castle keep was lost deep within a dark forest, surrounded by a swarm of monsters and evil spirits. It was a place of nightmares, and the teenager was trapped in it.
Syria gave her a potion to help her rest, and Lethia found she liked the dreamless coma she’d slip into upon drinking the concoctions. Only she didn’t drink her dose that night. Something kept her from it. Maybe the sudden realization that Syria was poisoning her somehow.
She understood that time in the Other Place was different than other dimensions. For Elmiryn and Quincy, Holzoff’s was a week in the past. For Argos, nearly two. Hakeem and Nyx’s “Twin” had been there a month. And Lethia? Eight months. Eight. She’d watched everyone’s journey in real time, and yet she had been there the longest. This paradox was beyond Lethia’s comprehension, but she also understood that the Other Place was not a place to be understood. It was a place to divide, to diverge, and to deny.
“What have I lost then? Besides Argos?” she had asked Syria some time ago. “Everyone else has lost something here…what have I lost?”
“I cannot know that, my dear. Perhaps you did not lose anything?” Her mistress was a mystery, because though she was usually in perfect view and good light, her face always seemed obscured somehow. In all the eight months Lethia had been there, even when up close, she had not seen Syria’s face. It was disturbing–a sign of the corruption that had taken her. Of the mark that now branded her the pet of–
“Lethia.” The young enchantress was snapped out of thoughts to see the very object of her attention standing in the doorway. “Come. Another lesson for you.”
The girl sighed and sat up. “Yes, mistress.” Her words were hollow. She had learned to stop bothering to resist, though her thoughts were still harder to regulate. Syria could hear all, sense all. It was probably why she still insisted on these “lessons” of hers. Lethia had never known true loathing, but the feelings she held toward the woman could only be described as much. Yet even this was not more than the loathing that Lethia felt for herself.
Vicious cycles, and all that.
It didn’t take long to pull on a robe and slippers. Normal amenities were somehow in easy reach in this place. Or maybe they were just an illusion…like her life had been.
When she emerged from her quarters, the teenager entered what was the central study. Here, volumes of old books were stacked on thick slabs of marble. The lighting orbs brought a surreal aura about the space as the cobwebs shifted with personality and the shadows flickered into life. Great thick reams of paper towered up from the floor in teetering heights, each and every one of them scrawled with some esoteric knowledge in a dead language. There was a giant plum-colored sofa chair in the eye of this storm, and Syria sank into it like a butterfly did a flower.
The master enchantress wore a sequined dress, the color of light ink, the fabric cut scandalously down the front so that it resembled a coat of sorts. Her generous bosom was visible, the fabric mysteriously form fitting, and her long graceful legs were displayed. All that kept it together was a golden clasp at the center of her chest, and a slim obsidian belt at her waist. Her feet were bare. They had to be.
No shoe could fit in the tangle of roots that had become Syria’s feet.
Lethia seated herself next to these, her eyes downcast as she folded her hands before her. Listlessly, she took in how her mistress’s flesh transmorphed into live wood from mid-calf down.
“Elmiryn is reflecting on her attack against the Twin,” she heard Syria say.
At this, the girl’s eyes flickered up. She’d been hoping for more clarification on this issue. Now it seemed that moment had finally come. Moments between ‘scenes’ (as Lethia was coming to understand them) was different for them. It had been at least a week since she had seen Elmiryn part with the others to be alone.
Syria held up her hand, and Lethia tried to focus on it, because looking at the woman’s face (or lack thereof) brought about nasty headaches, as though the universe were trying to punish her for seeking what could not be sought. Over Syria’s hand, a white window opened, and the teenager sat up to peer through. When Elmiryn had been hiding inside of her own head after her encounter with Artemis, she’d gained an odd ability to see what shouldn’t have been seen. Lethia was the woman in the window. When the warrior had tried to talk to her, the teenager had tried vainly to respond. But the spell did not work this way. Syria wouldn’t have allowed it even if it did.
In the window, she could see Elmiryn, sitting alone. She was talking to herself, a habit she had picked up when the others slept and she remained awake. Her fae nature was growing stronger, and the things that humans needed were becoming less and less relevant. The fae did not sleep. They did not dream. Their very lives were dreams, populated by their insane and whimsical natures.
Lethia blinked as she saw the warrior throw a rock at the ground. She looked sullen, her cerulean eyes emptied of their usual alacrity and warmth. “What was I thinking…” Elmiryn asked herself.
That’s what I’d like to know… Lethia thought. Having seen everything there was to see about the people she had come to this realm with, she knew and understood the strange circumstances surrounding Nyx and her “Twin” persona. If the Twin, now known as Kali, were to be destroyed, then Nyx would die. If Nyx were destroyed, then Kali would die. While the two personas battled for supremacy within the same body, they were still not strong enough to exist independently of one another. The Other Place, as a spiritual alter-dimension, was capable of sustaining this separation—but for a short period of time. Syria had explained that both sides had already shown signs of decay in their actions. Their time was drawing to a close.
So with so much at stake, why on earth, would Elmiryn try to harm Kali?
As if to answer Lethia’s question, the warrior spoke. “Atalo isn’t my brother. Hell. I don’t even remember what he looks like.” The teenager pressed in closer, her nose touching the magical window so that it tingled. “But god, when that stupid animal said that…when Kali said that…I wanted to…” Elmiryn sat roughly onto the forest floor, her spine slumped in uncharacteristic defeat. With her leg half-bent, she leaned onto it, her arms lax at her sides. “What’s the point?” she sighed. “There…is none, is there?” She didn’t move for a long time, seemingly lost within her own thoughts.
Then suddenly the warrior slammed her fist into the ground and screamed, “Fuck! FUCK!”
What came next broke Lethia’s heart.
Elmiryn started crying. Crying. Real tears streamed down her face, blotching it. Her nose started to run. Her chest heaved with sobs and there was that undeniably broken sound of someone who had had enough. She pulled at the scarf Quincy had lent her till it unwrapped, revealing fully what it had barely managed to cover. The bruises on Elmiryn’s back had darkened considerably, and the long cuts in her skin still looked very raw and painful.
Lethia’s chin crumpled and she looked away. She felt ashamed, like a voyeur seeing something she should not have. She had felt this many times before, but something about this was so much more acute. This was someone’s personal pain, something she knew they would never let themselves show anyone. She even understood the why of it. Elmiryn wasn’t mad about Kali, or Quincy, or even the fact that they still had yet to find Nyx (though that certainly didn’t help)…It was because the warrior had been made to feel something she had never truly felt.
She stayed there for a long time, just weeping. Then she went silent. The darkness had intensified, signifying that night had come. This shard did not have a sky, nor were the nymphs offering their magic this far from the Lycan village, so Lethia could only assume this was what it meant. With time, Elmiryn raised herself from the ground. She had not fallen asleep at all in that time of stillness. It was becoming less that she didn’t want to, and more that she didn’t need to.
After wiping her face clear, the warrior took some time to fix her hair into the iconic braid that Lethia had become so familiar with. After that, she took the itchy scarf and once more wrapped it around herself. Taking a rock, she marked trees as she went until she came to the stream. There she washed her face and drank some water. Her hands shook visibly. When she was done, she followed her markings to return to the place she had cried, which was not all that far from her companions’ camp. Upon returning to the others, she found they were all asleep, with the exception of Gudahi, who kept watch with a small fire. He did not act surprised or confused by her sudden appearance. Not surprising. As a Lycan, he probably sensed her coming.
What Lethia did not expect, nor Elmiryn too, it seemed, was the man offering the woman a small branch of leaves. They were light green and shaped like tear drops.
The warrior stared at it. Then at the man. “What’s this for?”
Gudahi gestured at his eyes. “To help with the swelling,” he said quietly.
Elmiryn’s face reddened. With a snatch, she took the leaves from him, and for a second she looked as though she were about to throw it into the meager flames. Then she paused. Her body was still tensed, the muscles of her athletic form like coiled springs ready to explode in a burst of energy. Gradually, she relaxed. She lowered the hand holding the leaves and sat down on the other side of the camp fire.
“What do I do?” she muttered.
Gudahi mimed with his hands, his eyes on the flames. “You tear the leaves and crush them in your hands. Then you take your fingertips and lightly dab the juice around your eyelids.”
Lethia watched, fascinated, as Elmiryn began to do as instructed. When she came to the part of dabbing the eyes, she asked, “How do you know this stuff?”
Gudahi smiled wanly. “My sister cries all the time for our dead brother.”
This was met with silence.
Elmiryn carefully set the leaves aside, grimacing as she wiped the sticky leaf juice onto her pants. Lethia didn’t know what they were called, and she wished the warrior were curious enough to ask, but she made a point to remember the look of the leaves in case she ever needed them. Which she suspected she would.
“So did things go to hell while I was away?”
Gudahi shrugged. “Kali was not pleased, but I get the feeling she is used to that. Quincy was her same ornery self. Sanuye was unshakeable as ever. And Hakeem was simply beautiful. Does that answer your question?”
The warrior narrowed her eyes at the man. “Why do you pant after Hakeem like that? He’s a kid.”
“I do not pant after him, as you say. And I wouldn’t dream of touching him as he is now…but I know what he was. Isn’t that enough?”
“It’s still weird.”
“You just dislike it because you dislike me on principle.”
“You’re right. I do dislike you.”
Lethia frowned, though this behavior had become the norm for Elmiryn as of late. The warrior was known for her candor, but also for her inexhaustible sense of humor. Even when angry, she seemed to try and make things a joke. That energy seemed gone now.
“You mustn’t worry,” The man sighed delicately. “Nyx shall be all yours…and I? I shall be alone.” He touched his heart with an exaggerated look of pain. “Oh so alone.”
Elmiryn’s head lolled back and she stared up at the forest canopy. “And not a single fuck was given that day…”
“Ohuff! You are so mean.”
The redhead smirked. “You should see me when I’m on my period.” Lethia snorted into a laugh. So her humor wasn’t all gone. That was reassuring.
Gudahi chuckled as well. “There it is.”
Elmiryn gave him a curious glance. “There what is?”
He looked at her with a kind smile, his fingers idly twirling one of the teardrop leaves. “That part of you that made Nyx fall in love. You bring levity to an otherwise heavy life.”
The woman blinked, but said nothing. She seemed oddly surprised. Gudahi looked at her when her silence assured no response. “Oh? Surely you must’ve known. I hope you did. Please, say you did! I cannot stand the thought of my pet being cross with me!”
She frowned softly. “I’ve known. I can…hear it. When she spoke to me, it was there.”
“So what is wrong? You should be happy.”
Elmiryn’s frown deepened and she gazed into the fire. After a moment, she whispered, “I wonder if I’m being selfish.” Lethia barely caught it. She bit her lip as Gudahi took a deep breath.
But all he said was, “Ahhhh…I see.”
“I mean, when we met, I had to press her to come with me. And then? She got tossed into all of my crazy, is what. Gamath, Albias, the Other Place…none of this would’ve happened if I’d have just—”
“This is where I’m going to stop you and go to sleep.”
The woman sputtered. Clearly, she wasn’t used to being brushed off, and this made Lethia smirk a little. “What the fuck? I’m opening up, which, if you haven’t noticed, is like finding a midget’s pot of gold up your granny’s snatch—and you’re just going to fucking sleep?”
Gudahi gave her a dry look. “You’re still missing the point.”
“That you’re an insensitive twat?”
“No. That Nyx, despite all she’s gone through, still fought to be by your side.” He raised an eyebrow at the woman. “After all, isn’t she always telling people about how she was, ‘Literally torn apart!’ trying to find you again?” Gudahi managed to mimic the Ailuran in what Lethia thought was an eerily accurate voice. “If you can’t understand the sort of resolve that takes, then perhaps you really aren’t meant for her.”
Elmiryn blinked after the man as he went to sleep. She didn’t move for a time. Then, just as she seemed to come out of her shock, Syria closed the window to the scene. Lethia looked at her mistress in surprise. The way she always sat so silently, the girl almost forgot about her. The woman, with her hair curtaining her face, reclined in her sofa chair and steepled her fingers on the arm rests.
“What have you learned?” her voice was a soft murmur.
Lethia closed her eyes wearily. She hated these sessions. She never knew what the woman’s exact point was. Since coming to the Other Place, it were as though her sense of teaching had taken a turn for the abstruse.
“I have learned…” As such, the girl usually just listed off whatever she could possibly think of. “That Elmiryn can be broken. That she both craves, yet fails to understand Nyx’s love. That she may be incapable of reciprocating that love, no matter how much she wishes to. That she is very fearful, probably more so than anyone she has ever met. She is also lonely beyond words due to her own need to safeguard herself. Artemis is getting to her more than she wants to admit. But her fae nature has given her a power to resist the way of the gods, and thus, she is even more alone than she knows. It eats away at her, in her subconscious, because she can’t put it into words anymore than the people around her can. Elmiryn is alone because she lives outside of the world, and the one person who can reach her is missing from her life.”
Syria let out a pleased murmur, her long black tresses shifting as she tilted her head. “Now why can we understand these things?”
Lethia swallowed hard. With a trembling voice she whispered, “Because we are outside of heaven’s will too.” Only she felt ill as she said this. Maybe that was why she couldn’t see Syria’s face. Maybe that was why Syria insisted on these ‘lessons’. To make Lethia truly free of the gods…
…Even if she didn’t want to be.
“Good. Good, my dear!” Syria leaned forward to stroke Lethia’s hair, but the girl flinched, and her mistress pulled back her hand. The woman sighed. “Ahh…Lethia, my sweet girl…you will understand someday.”
Syria floated to her feet. “I have business to attend to with our host. If you could please see to it that She is fed?”
Lethia paled. She clasped her hands before her and shook her head emphatically. “Mistress! Oh mistress, please! Don’t make me!”
“Come now, what’s with all this?” The enchantress managed to sound mildly vexed.
Lethia sobbed, her eyes clouding with tears. “No! No! Please! Don’t make me go down there! I won’t try and kill myself again, I promise!”
The amount of force in Syria’s voice shook the teenager down to the bone. She froze and looked up slowly. Her mistress bore down on her, and through the black curtain of her hair, the girl could see a shifting, flesh-colored storm of features, searing amongst which glared a single eye. The predictable pain came, slicing through Lethia’s head like a knife. She hissed and groaned, her eyes squeezing shut as she bowed her head.
Then the touch came, and Lethia felt drops of something wet fall onto the back of her neck. Her head raised a fraction. Her ears perked to the sound of hitched breathing—like when someone was trying their hardest to keep their tears in check.
“Lethia, you are precious to me. Can’t you see that? I have gone to great lengths to keep you safe! You are…you are everything to me, despite how things may appear. Just as Nyx has shown her resolve for Elmiryn, so is my resolve for you! And I won’t give up! I won’t. But I cannot protect you if you fail to heed my words. This is just for the one time, Lethia. Feed her, and I swear I will find a suitable cohort to take that duty. In the meantime, this must be done!”
Lethia closed her eyes. There were moments like these when Syria seemed almost like her old self. But that person was dead and gone, much like the Lethia of yesteryear.
“Yes, mistress,” was all that she could say.
Dressed in her old traveling clothes, the girl carried a picnic basket weighed down with raw meat. The blood dripped through the wicker. Not for the last time, she wished Argos were with her.
Lethia hated leaving the keep. One good reason was for the horde of terrible creatures that seemed to cavort about the castle keep’s grounds. They were in a perpetual party, celebrating their master’s rise to power. Not Syria. The girl’s mistress was just a pawn, and the woman had even admitted as such. No, the spirits and demons that came here all worshipped the ruler of the keep. Just at the thought, the girl shivered in revulsion.
Just stepping down the keep’s path was like trying to wade through a garish orgy. Lethia covered her mouth and nose with a handkerchief, her old brown traveling boots stepping gingerly over rivers of blood, alcohol, and rotting food. She thought she felt Syria’s eyes watching from a window in the keep, but when she turned to look, she saw no one. She was effectively alone. Thankfully, the spirits didn’t pay her any mind. It was as though a silent word from their master had been all that was needed to give the girl safe passage through their cabal.
Another reason Lethia hated leaving the keep was because of the woods that surrounded it. The blackwood. As she left the throes of the party, she came upon the edge of the strange forest and swallowed hard. Here, the trees seemed to be voids of color, their forms simple black shapes in a sea of colorful spectrums. Lethia shivered as she passed them, for they hummed whenever she ventured too near, and coldness entered her bones.
Doing her best to travel carefully so as not to touch any of the trees, or run into the wandering spirits that had somehow drifted from the endless party, Lethia made her way deep into the blackwood until the keep was a small sight on the horizon. As she made her way through a clearing of hummocks, she came to the mouth of a large den. The stench there was thick with death and blood. Lethia gagged behind her handkerchief, her body trembling.
Slowly, she lowered her hand from her face, and she managed to call out.
A willowy voice spoke into her ear, “You’re late.”
Lethia dropped the basket and screamed. In her haste to get away, she tripped and fell, scraping her knee. Her breath caught as a shadow fell over her. With tears in her eyes, the girl looked up.
Nyx stood there, head cocked to the side. But this was not the Nyx Lethia had once known. This Nyx was covered in black fur, except for her face. She had pointy black ears on either side of her head, and her wild mane of hair seemed longer. Her eyes were cold cat eyes, her nose pink and heart shaped, her upper lip thin and split. Beneath those lips peeked sharp fangs. Her features were stained and dirty. Her legs were long and thick, with her toes ending in sharp claws, and her foot extending to a hock like an animal’s. Her hands were furry, clawed, and padded, the digits stouter than when the Ailuran was in her sapien form. Swinging behind her was a long thick tail. And yet, though shocking, these details weren’t what made Nyx so frightening.
No, it had more to do with the gaping chest cavity that displayed an impossibly empty void.
Lethia flinched away as black ooze from an exposed rib dripped near her boot, sizzling the soil where it fell.
Beyond Nyx’s horrific appearance, there was her intimidating aura—which was eerily similar to her naturally put upon state of existence, save for the underlying sense of darkness, hatred, and murderous intent. With a sulky expression, Nyx held out her hand.
“Lethia…the food, please?”
The teenager swallowed hard and blindly reached for the picnic basket. After missing twice, she managed to catch the handle and dragged it closer to her. With a deep breath, she held the basket out to Nyx, and flinched when the Ailuran took it.
Peering with squinted eyes, she watched sidelong as Nyx went to eat. She crouched some feet away, her back to the girl, and when she began her meal, it were as if her whole body was involved in the process of feeding. It was a loud and disgusting process. All sense of courtesy and etiquette were forgotten for a sort of rabid hunger that even animals would be embarrassed to display, Lethia was sure of it. (“Argos would, at any rate!”) The girl tried not to imagine what meat Nyx was eating with little success.
As she thought, Nyx spoke without turning around. “You need to change your bandage.” Her voice was flat and apathetic. Lethia detected a note of scorn hidden within it.
Nervously, she rubbed the bandage on her wrist. “Uh, yes. Y-yes, I was meaning to, but—”
“Did you go down or across?”
Lethia jerked with the straightforwardness of the question. Quietly she whispered, “Across.”
Nyx snorted, tossing a bone over her shoulder. “You did it wrong.”
Inexplicably, the enchantress felt offended. “I cut in pretty deep,” she snapped. “I went unconscious.”
“But you’re not dead,” Nyx pointed out.
“Not for lack of trying, okay?”
The Ailuran stopped eating, her head slowly craning to peer at Lethia. The girl’s blood froze, and she hurried to her feet. Nyx slowly ripped the head off of whatever it was she was eating—it looked sickeningly like a fetus—and just chewed her food for a while. The way she kept looking at Lethia was making the girl ill.
Finally, Nyx asked around the food in her mouth, “If you want to die so bad, then why are you scared?”
She swallowed her food and paused in her meal to stare a while longer. Then she whispered. “Lethia, you’re a coward.”
The teenager flinched again, this time her face crumpling for a new onslaught of tears.
“You want to know why you’re a coward?”
Lethia shook her head, her hands going to her ears. “No…please…”
“You’re a coward, because you can’t hold yourself accountable. Oh yes. You cry. I can smell the tears on you. But you secretly wish for people to forget you had anything to do with all the bad things that has happened since Holzoff’s.”
“You stay curled up in a ball, hoping that the Syria you once loved will return. You hold everyone else accountable for lofty morals no one even understands anymore, and yet you don’t follow through. Even in hating yourself, you can’t destroy yourself completely.”
“Does it make you feel better? Saying that Syria is holding you up in that keep against your will, while she grooms me into her new pet monster?”
Lethia shook her head wildly, the tears dripping from her chin as she pressed her palms harder into her ears. “NO! Stop it, please!”
Nyx just laughed, and it sounded just like the old Nyx, except…it wasn’t. It was black. It was cold and hollow and empty. A shadow of her former self. Just like Elmiryn was. Just like Syria was. Just like Lethia was. “You don’t know dedication. Responsibility. Honor. You don’t have the resolve, for it, and so you are a coward, Lethia Artaud, and I have no desire to feast on a coward’s flesh…so if you were looking for some sort of ‘accident of nature’ to happen here, you will be sorely disappointed. I’m not going to relieve you of the pain you deserve.” Nyx turned her head away and took another bite of her meal. “Now get out of here before I break your arms.”
Lethia was only all to eager to comply. She ran through the blackwood, bursting through prisms of taffy orange and hard candy pink. Her clothes snagged on darkness—the infinite ink trying to undo her in her mad escape. She stumbled and tripped and fell. She cried and cried until she could barely breathe. The spirits, in their deviancy, laughed at her as she passed. And as she entered through the keep’s doors and fled to her room, she thought only one thing as she collapsed onto her bed.
Hope is just the universe’s way of lying to you. Identity is just your way of lying to yourself. Love is our way of lying to each other.
So if there’s nothing to do about any of this, do I do nothing? Isn’t that ‘nothing’ something in of itself?
Lethia listened to the mad laughter of the monsters outside, wondering if she already had her answer.