Elmiryn’s mind splintered off into a series of expletives and confused wordless intentions as she shoved Hakeem off of her. In her haste, she used more force than necessary, making the Fanaean do a head-over-heels tumble before he came to a stop. He raised his head, face scratched and dusty as she leapt over him.
“Elmiryn, don’t…” but his words were swallowed by the commotion as the warrior came up on Gudahi from behind.
As all of this had happened, the Lycan man, possessed by anger, seemed set on the utter destruction of Nyx. In his eyes, she was no longer “his pet,” that was clear. She was just the beast, the foul curse that had beset his people for weeks before it had taken everything it possibly could from him. He reached down and held Nyx’s head tightly with both hands. The girl didn’t respond, her eyes still rolled up into her head, her body still contorting and cracking as Kali seeped deeper and deeper into her. The ribs were almost touching now. Quincy seemed strangely conflicted about getting involved, her face tight and sweaty. Elmiryn could not see the Lycan’s face as she neared, but she could imagine the hate and pain there. He meant to snap the girl’s neck. Maybe worse.
The warrior grabbed him around the shoulders and threw him back. He stumbled a few yards and snarled at her. Now she stood between him and his prey, and as Elmiryn locked gazes with Gudahi, she had an unpleasant recollection of her fight with Halian.
“This has to end here,” Gudahi growled. He sounded close to shifting, and indeed, his skin looked pale and sweaty. His muscles bulged. The gentle masculine beauty he had once possessed was lost in the hard etches of his fury.
Elmiryn put her hand on her sword hilt. “You’re right, but this isn’t the way, Gudahi!”
“I was wrong!” He shouted. “I was wrong to think that someone could be innocent of this…this…monstrosity! Even if Nyx becomes whole again, the beast will continue to exist inside of her! It will always be there to strike again!”
“And I will always be there to deal with it,” Elmiryn shouted back. She drew her sword and held it ready. “Gudahi, we all have things we regret, and a lot of those things turn out to be beyond our control. Show some fucking mercy for Nyx and let her be! She’s going to punish herself enough as it is!”
“NO!!” Gudahi screamed. He thumped his hand over his heart, and spit flew from his mouth as he raged on. “Her darkness killed my brother! It killed my friends!” He pointed over her shoulder. “Look at what’s left of Sanuye! Who will answer for that crime? Who will answer for all the others!? How will my people ever know peace if the evil is not destroyed!?”
“And what about your evil?” Elmiryn countered. “Not too long ago, you spoke of Nyx with such fondness. Now all of a fucking sudden she’s something you have to destroy?” The woman snorted. “I took you as a fickle man, but now I know it isn’t just that. You’re just a conniving bastard who likes to have things his way.” The warrior slid her right foot back and fell into a fighting stance. “Well it’s not going to work like that, Gudahi. I’m warning you right here and now. Stay. Back. Or else.”
Out of her peripheral vision, she saw Hakeem limp toward them but stop some feet away. He must’ve hurt himself at some point in the tussle.
“Don’t do this,” the Fanaean said. From the sound of his voice, Elmiryn wasn’t sure who the wizard was addressing.
Behind her, she heard Quincy’s voice, still distant, still strangely uncertain. “Her chest is beginning to close, Elmiryn.”
Gudahi took a step toward her, and when he did, his hands shifted smoothly to furry sharp claws, his teeth suddenly sharp and too large for his mouth. Sounding that much more fierce, the Lycan growled, “I will stop this, even if I have to go through you.”
Elmiryn only narrowed her eyes.
Behind her, Nyx let out a cry.
The sound seemed to ignite Gudahi, for he howled and charged, claws and teeth bared. Elmiryn’s body, for the first time in what seemed to be ages, fell into that comforting zone of instinct. In her bones, in her muscles, in her blood, she knew without thinking the appropriate course of action.
And so with good timing, great power, and great certainty, Elmiryn chopped off Gudahi’s head.
His body toppled forward, skidding gracelessly to a halt at Elmiryn’s boot tip. The stump of his neck gushed rhythmically with blood, then the flow quickly ebbed and turned into an ooze. The claws reverted to hands. Gudahi’s head had rolled a few feet away, the fangs gone, his slackened features still holding some of that animal fury. The Lycan’s blood turned the dirt almost black. Elmiryn stared down at the remains, her heart hardened. The man had made his choice. There was nothing to be sorry for.
Some didn’t seem to agree.
“What have you done?” Hakeem whispered.
Elmiryn didn’t take her eyes off the corpse. “What I had to. Gudahi wasn’t going to stop until Nyx was dead.”
“We could have stopped him. We could have made him see reason!” Hakeem limped into view, his small dark face contorted between what looked like pain and anger. “Do you have any sense!?”
The woman glared at him. “Do you?” She wiped her sword on the dead Lycan’s clothes, then sheathed it. Turning, she knelt down by Nyx. “This wasn’t about us. Gudahi couldn’t see that. He couldn’t see anything. There was nothing else to do about it.”
The Ailuran was now silent on the ground, her fur receding, her features calm as though she were asleep. Elmiryn could see her ribs slowly shift beneath her skin as a long and red scar down her torso vanished from tip to tip. Paws became hands and feet. Cat ears receded. Fangs vanished. Finally, bit by bit, her face returned to its original form. Nyx, whole and restored, lay naked on the ground.
“Wasn’t there!?” Hakeem snapped over Elmiryn’s shoulder. “Do you realize the repercussions that will come from having two members of the Lycan tribe dead by our hands? They can easily tell that Sanuye and Gudahi were dispatched by weapons not by claws!”
Elmiryn laughed dryly. “Oh wizard, you should’ve seen what I did back at the village. That bridge was burned way before all of this!”
Hakeem looked at her sharply. “What do you mean by that?”
“May I just remind everyone that Nyx and Kali and the beast have now become one?” Quincy interjected as she approached slowly. She was opening up her magic bag.
Elmiryn glanced up at her as she brushed a sweaty lock of hair from Nyx’s forehead. “What of it?”
The brunette reached in and pulled out a long slim staff. Her eyes were hard. “Perhaps Gudahi was right. What if Nyx is still a threat?”
The warrior’s face darkened and she gripped her sword hilt. “Wizard, don’t even think about it.”
“You’re letting your feelings blind you! We have to at least consider the possibility!”
“You lack the same faith I have! Nyx is whole again, and with Kali’s help, they can either destroy the beast, or suppress it long enough to gain control again. We have to give them a chance!”
Just as these last few words left her mouth, Elmiryn heard Nyx’s voice, so small and frail.
The warrior’s eyes snapped back to the girl’s face just in time to see her fist flying toward it.
Lethia’s mind felt electric. She could feel her animus pulse and buzz, and the air around her seemed to waver a bit as she took a deep breath.
Slowly, she stood from the table. “Syria, I am not your puppet anymore.”
The older woman stared at her, mouth agape, her eyes wide. Then her lips twitched, and without warning, they spread into smile. Lethia blinked at her, taking a step back. Her mind was sensing danger, and she could feel Syria’s power rolling off of her in increased waves. It was like a pressure that squeezed in all around the teenager, and her breath became labored under the stress of it.
“Not my puppet anymore?” Syria chuckled once, twice.
She threw her head back and laughed madly.
Lethia stared at her, deeply disturbed as she realized the depth of her former mistress’s power. So much energy…what a fool she was to think she was this woman’s equal! Syria was a master of the Unbound Disciplines. In her mind was a treasure trove of arcane knowledge. How could Lethia possibly…
The teenager’s eyes widened.
Wait a minute.
Syria stood from her seat, and the light around her seemed to warp, creating an illusion of compressed space. Her gravity magic could even pull at the light.
“Lethia,” The enchantress said as she lifted an arm, palm out. Her head had bowed forward, her hair blocking off her gaze. “You always did take my intentions the wrong way. How sad.”
Lethia felt a powerful punch in her gut, and she was launched up and back into the stone wall, where she then crumpled to the ground, her body seized in pain. She was breathless, and she could feel a sudden fit of nausea come up. Wildly, the girl realized that Syria hadn’t used the whole of her power. Not even half of it. Was she going to try and beat the girl into submission? …Out of “love?” No. The woman had said she would kill her just a moment ago. So what was the woman doing? Why was she holding back?
“I want you to know, that you were like a daughter to me, Lethia,” The enchantress said over her.
Lethia glared at the woman’s unnatural stumps for feet. “Then you are a sick mother, and I curse the day I met you!”
Ghostly hands lifted the girl up into the air, drawing a gasp from her lips as she found herself spreadeagled midair. Syria didn’t raise her head to look up at the girl. “You don’t mean that…” the enchantress whispered.
Tears rolled down Lethia’s face, hot and plenty. As she strained against the gravitational hold on her, she trained her eyes on Syria’s face, waiting for a moment. She steeled her mind and quieted her heart as best she could as she growled out, “You…are a witch.”
The girl felt the pressure around her increase and she wheezed feeling her chest and lungs compress just enough to make her grimace in pain and want of air. A soulless smile spread across her twitching lips as she tried to keep her vision free of her tears. It was getting harder to talk, and for more reasons than just Syria’s power. “I hated every day with you,” Lethia whispered. “You kept me trapped in your tower. I was your play thing, wasn’t I?”
Syria’s hand tightened into a claw and Lethia croaked as the pressure increased even more, causing one of her lower ribs to crack. It became agony just to try to breathe. Her vision lurched as blood trickled from her nostrils. The teenager could only manage small, miniscule gasps. Either she did this now, or she would die here, a failure.
Through sheer will, Lethia forced her eyes open, and with great effort, she focused on Syria’s face. In barely a breath, she managed to gasp out, “I…hate…you…”
Syria’s face lifted, revealing her tear-streaked face, her eyes wide and hurt and disbelieving. Lethia seized onto her gaze and the world stopped, the room vanishing from around them. Color faded to shades of gray. Then slowly…grudgingly…Syria broke apart into a murmuring cloud of tiny flickering shapes. Phantom voices narrated things to her, and as they neared, Lethia heard more and more of her former mistress’s mind.
She…the time is nigh…will not…but…g…learning under…Lethia can’t mean…all this time…r…HOW DARE…hurting…must stop…a…depravity…begin anew…revolution…YOU…v…am I strong enough to…Izma will surely kill…i…she hates me?…HAVE NO POWER…must save the world…t…I did this all for her…Spider helped me…I am a liar…y…love…CHILD, I CANNOT ALLOW YOU…death…fate…is this the way?…GET…all these years…dwarven secrets…afraid…can’t stop…gra…YOUR…she has to understand…WILL…madness…evil…sacrifices in the name of…vity…OUT…gravity…OF…gravity…MY…gravity…HEAD!!
Lethia screamed as she pulled the knowledge into her mind—the great and subtle complications of primal magic expanding like a balloon in her mindscape. She could feel her animus throb, and her head felt as though it were splitting into two. So much information…so many years…years? No. Seconds. Syria had cheated time by piercing deep into her own subconscious to train her other powers. Gravitational magic. But Lethia had a unique talent. She didn’t need years of training, or even to delve into her subconscious to gain such skill.
She just needed to make eye contact.
The teenager squeezed her eyes shut, and with a push of gravitational force, she broke free of Syria’s prison to land gracelessly on the floor. A room appeared around them once more, warm and bright and familiar. She wheezed, her nose still dripping with blood so that it stained her lips and chin. She could hear Syria’s labored breathing near her and guessed the woman had suffered a bit of a shock as well.
“You…were always very clever…” Syria gasped out.
Lethia’s eyes rolled before she managed to focus on the older woman some feet away from her. The enchantress was doubled over onto her knees, her face once more hidden behind her hair. “I didn’t know you had the guile to trick my emotions like that. To let you into my mind so easily, as though I were just an apprentice again. You were always so honest and noble. But still…at the foremost you were clever. It’s what I get for underestimating you.” Syria straightened, her feet shuffling as she tried to keep her balance. “But this ends now. Goodbye, Lethia.” The woman raised a hand.
Lethia smiled drunkenly at her.
Syria paused, her hand still in the air. She cocked her head to the side. “Something isn’t right…” she whispered.
They were not in the castle keep. They were once more in their old tower, in the study, where the pair had spent many days pouring over books and going over lessons. Sunlight filtered in through the cased windows, highlighting the dust in the air. The fireplace crackled as a pot of cider bubbled over it. Throughout the tower, Argos’s barking echoed and bounced off the stone walls. The stairs creaked. Claws clacked on wood, then soon, stone.
The girl let out a dark chuckle as she clumsily rose to her feet. “Syria…since your incarceration, there were two words I yearned to say to you.”
Lethia didn’t flinch as Argos flew past her in a blur of white. The enchantress, clearly startled, managed to flick a hand at the dog. Nothing happened. He bowled right into Syria, smashing her into the wall of books behind her.
The walls wavered. The sunlight faded. Soon the wooden floor beneath them became stone.
They had never left the keep. There had never been any Argos. Only Lethia’s power, which had been disguised as her faithful companion to keep the enchantress distracted long enough to incapacitate her. Hugging her chest with a ginger touch, Lethia shuffled forward, her face pale as she looked down at Syria’s still form on the floor. Just as in the illusion, she had smashed into the wall. Blood trickled from her hairline, and one of her tree-like horns had snapped.
Lethia knew how to kill her quickly. With just a quick squeeze, she could crush Syria’s head in a vice of gravitation force. Or like a bullet, she could punch through the woman’s heart and lungs with precise shots. The teenager raised her hand. It shook. Her chin crumpled and her hand dipped down a fraction. Then she raised it again. Her eyes clouded with tears.
Finally, Lethia let her hand fall to her side.
“I can’t do it…” she whispered.
and that we will have to fix
Lethia turned with a great start, her feet tripping over themselves as she took in the new comer.
A strange creature stood before her, both fantastic and horrific at the same time, and the teenager could feel her courage flee her. The thing looked sentient, but like no being the girl had ever heard of or laid eyes on. It had no skin, for the creature’s teeth, jagged and misshapen in a curling rictus grin, was as one with the rest of its face. Some flesh did seem to be a part of it, however, as Lethia noted with a growing sense of illness, the muscle and sinew about its neck. Though it had two eye sockets, one was void of anything, while the other seemed higher up on the forehead and caught behind small spikes, where it bled each time it turned in its place. Sprouting from the creature’s cranium was a small forest of branches, all cascading with vine-like tendrils that eerily resembled those of a willow. It’s skeletal body was draped in a translucent cloak of light, color, and stars.
Lethia fell to her knees. From her exploration of Syria’s mind, she knew this…thing. She knew its name, and its power, and she feared it more than she had feared her mistress.
“You’re…You’re Izma…” Lethia’s voice quavered as it slipped past her trembling lips. “The one…who turned Syria into what…what she is now.”
Impossibly, the thing’s hideous grin widened.
and you are Lethia
the weed of which I warned Syria of
but I wonder wonder wonder…
which witch was truly the weed?