I was aware that I was at a critical crossroads. Lethia Artaud had revealed herself to be an impressive enchantress on her own, if lacking a bit of experience. With Izma pitting her against us however, that one hurdle was bypassed, leaving her power to be augmented leaps and bounds beyond anything I could imagine. It was hard enough to believe Lethia going toe to toe with a sorcerer like Karolek, but that did happen. It was scary, then, thinking of the heights she could reach now…
No. If the only way to keep from fighting Lethia was to talk to her, then I could not fail. Not that talking was my strong suit. For all my Words and Meaning, there have been plenty of times in the past when I’d stuck my own foot into my mouth. But maybe if I looked at this in an academic light–like a puzzle or a game of logic–then maybe I could succeed.
At any rate, I was going to have to say something soon. Lethia was staring at me expectantly, and I couldn’t just let this silence hang. If it went on too long, I’d look at a loss. I needed to say something soon.
Resigned, I closed my eyes and took a breath.
Emotion has no place when you’re trying to utilize logic, and clearly Lethia was setting aside her overwrought emotions in favor of taking a more empirical approach to her dilemma. It was understandable, after I put aside my own feelings. Fear and sadness distorted everything, and if her chief concern was survival for the greater good, then she couldn’t get caught up in platitudes and the like. Claims like, “Izma is evil!” were useless, then.
I’d been using deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning used general statements to reach a conclusion. Essentially, my thought process had gone this way:
1. All astral demons are evil.
2. Izma is an astral demon.
3. Therefore, Izma is evil.
My first mistake, naturally, was in using the word “evil.” Evil, as a concept, was a natural theistic challenge in the realms of philosophy. If philosophy had trouble defining it, how could an empiricist accept it? In the empirical realm, “evil” does not exist. Just good and bad feelings. So I had to strike that and phrase my argument differently.
1. All astral demons are destructive.
2. Izma is an astral demon.
3. Therefore, Izma is destructive.
But here I stumbled on the same problem. The idea of destruction alone, when stripped of the negative connotations I had brought them in under, failed to prove a drawback. In Lethia’s mind, she had clearly seen an appeal to Izma’s destruction. Perhaps because only with an ending can a new beginning come to light. Thus, the valuation I was trying to place on the word “destruction” was moot. What was a universal concept that could be understood to bring about a “bad feeling” for everyone? Feeling my sinuses ache from my harsh scowl, I pinched the bridge of my nose and tried again.
1. All astral demons go against Harmony.
2. Izma is an astral demon.
3. Therefore, Izma goes against Harmony.
But for this to work, I was now going to have to frame how Harmony was more beneficial than whatever alternative Izma proposed. From what I’d witnessed of Elmiryn, it was chaos, unrestrained and lost within the maze of its own absurdity.
My heart lifted. There! I was onto something! Elmiryn’s condition as a fae was my key in lending credit to my arguments–because in truth, I did not know enough about Izma and her kind to rely on deductive reasoning. It was a gamble, but for the rest I was going to have to use inductive reasoning. This form of thinking is a sort of “bottom-up” logic that was probabilistic; that is, it could only make conclusion that had the probability of being true. What was scary about this reasoning was that it had a chance of leading to false conclusions, and I couldn’t afford that misstep here.
Clearing my throat, I opened my eyes and launched into my argument:
“Okay. All right, Lethia. Consider this. Let’s say, you own a house. You were born in that house. Learned to walk in that house. Had children in that house. You make frequent trips to the outside world, fetching what you need, interacting with others, etcetera. But in the end, you always go home. One day, a woman named Wonder comes and tells you that your home is really a prison, and that you should destroy it. She says that you were not meant to be confined by your home, and that your children deserve to know the freedom of life. You agree, and so you destroy your home, leaving your family to wander through the world.
“But you grew up in that house. You knew and loved that house. It gave you shelter when you needed it. And whatever Wonder said to you, you were never really trapped there. It was better to call it a tether. A way to keep yourself from becoming lost. Only now that tether is gone, and you’re adrift. You do not know how to live in the world at large, and of course, neither do your children.”
Lethia frowned. “Then I would ask Wonder how to live this new life.”
I nodded, smiling. “Yes! So you turn to Wonder and ask her, ‘How do we live?’
“Her response? ‘I don’t know. I don’t care.’”
Lethia’s frown deepened. “How could she not know? She’s been living in the world longer than I would have been!”
I raised a finger. “You’re assuming that the world she lives in has to do with the world outside of your home. But without your home, what ties do you have with the people who lived around you? What business could you possibly need done–with regards to paying for your land, buying supplies to keep the home maintained, and mingling with the community your home tied you into?”
“The home was…the frame?”
I nodded eagerly. “Yes! Wonder doesn’t know anything about that. She grew up without boundaries. She is a stranger to the community you once belonged to, and she is a stranger to the lands your home was built in, and she is a stranger to any established form of living. She is, in fact, the antithesis of the orderly existence you once knew. She has no frame, no tether, no bond that holds her to her surroundings.
“And so you struggle. The lands you travel through do not like wanderers, and you are chased out, wherever you go. You are hungry. Tired. Cold and scared. Your children have come to resent you and the decision you have made, because you had raised them to know their home, and now that foundation is lost.”
Lethia leaned back in her chair, her eyes clouded with thought. “Wonder…is chaos, then.”
“And my home was like the world of the gods.”
“You’re theorizing that by sacrificing my connection with Harmony, I will be left to drown in the confusion.”
My stomach started to tighten. Lethia’s tone had dropped a level. “Yes…I’ve seen the kind of harm living outside the will of the gods can bring. Elmiryn suffers daily because of it!”
The girl’s eyes were sharp as they fixed on me. I paled, only now realizing my mistake.
Using inductive reasoning, my statement could be read like this:
1. All of the people I have seen associating with astral demons suffer.
2. Therefore, all people suffer when associating with astral demons.
But I’d forgotten one thing.
Syria had willingly worked with Izma, and from the look on Lethia’s face, she’d hardly suffered for it.
“So am I to understand that all astral demons make people unhappy? Ergo, living in the realm of the gods makes you happy? Does living under the rule of the gods mean you’re happy, Nyx?”
I winced. “I–No, that’s not what I was trying to assert–”
“Because as far as I’ve observed, your argument doesn’t hold. Syria didn’t suffer with Izma as you think. Just because Elmiryn’s experience was bad, doesn’t mean my experience would be the same. One could make the argument that much of Elmiryn’s suffering comes from the gods.”
“Then in what way did Syria benefit from her association with Izma? Being imprisoned? Going insane? Is she better off now?”
“No. Those were her failings. It has nothing to do with Izma.”
I clenched my jaw, feeling frustrated. “Lethia, I’m not sure where you’re coming from. So I think we have to make a serious evaluation of how things register on your ‘good-bad’ scale.” Lethia gazed at me passively, her fingers tapping her knuckles. Confused by her attitude, I felt my fire fade away. “What?” I asked nervously.
“Nyx,” she sighed, sitting back. She turned her head and bit her lip. When she looked back at me, it was sidelong. Finally, she just exhaled harshly and shook her head. “No. Never mind. It’s not relevant enough.”
I frowned. “What isn’t relevant enough?”
“Well…” Lethia fixed me with a pitying gaze. “If we’re going to nitpick our valuation of concepts, then perhaps you could explain to me why it is your existence as a Marked Ailuran discredits Izma as a viable alternative from the gods?”
My eyes widened and my breath cut short. Words didn’t come to me for a very long time. I was too shocked. It was like standing on the ground with both feet firmly planted only to be teleported to an alarming height. I felt like I was falling. Fast.
But when I caught my breath again, and the feeling of spiraling left me, I accepted then that of course Lethia knew about my Mark. I wasn’t exactly dressed for the occasion, but even before that, when I was Izma’s pet monster…she must’ve…seen…
“That’s quite a question!” I managed with a hollow laugh.
She shook her head, her eyes narrowed a little. “Why are you so surprised?”
“I…Look, there’s lots of things that are coming back to me slowly, okay? I wasn’t exactly myself.” I don’t know why I felt so defensive. Did I resent her for reminding me just how many horrible things happened whilst I was possessed by my dark anger? Was it because I didn’t like to acknowledge my Mark? I hugged my arms and glowered at the ground. “Anyway, I thought you wanted an answer to your question?”
“And I’m still waiting.” Her tone wasn’t snarky. Just…cold. Matter of fact. She was entering into a frame of mind that seemed invariably untouchable. This was Lethia in the grips of her thought processes. It was eerily reminiscent of Hakeem when the man was at his most pensive.
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to find a way around this, trying to find the logic to get me through…but damn! Of all the impossible things for me to detach myself from, Lethia chose this!
I only sighed inwardly. Wait, what am I saying? Of course Lethia chooses this line of questioning. It’s the most obvious counterpoint a person could bring up.
“Lethia, it’s complicated. I’m not sure I’m the best subject to address, but I’ll try.” I rubbed my brow and it was only with effort that I managed to keep my voice from dropping to a mumble. “There are laws. Checks and balances. They’re what keep Harmony in flow. What preserves life from taint. I…broke one of those laws. Long ago. I’m working off that debt now. That’s how Harmony works. No matter what, you always give back to the life that sustains you.”
Lethia leaned onto one of the armrests, her finger trailing her lower lip in thought. “By serving Lacertli, the Lizard King,” she breathed.
I managed to nod my head. “Yes.” It was strange to think that not long ago I was a normal mortal, just waiting for my turn to die. Now all of a sudden, I had purpose. Yet somehow, in that moment, it felt too big a burden for me, and thinking of it made me feel tired.
“So what happened to your family… Symbology is beyond me, Nyx, but I think I gathered a few things from what I saw of your Mark’s design–”
“You don’t have to guess,” I bit out, my tone bitter. “I’ll just tell you.” I took a breath, then another. I had to go to one of the tables and lean on it for support. With a shudder the sobs came, but they were silent, and soon I couldn’t see. Swallowing through a tight throat, I hissed out, “I loved my family. But sometimes even the best intentions can fall apart. They died. Because of me. All of them!”
“All?” Lethia’s voice was a whisper. When I looked at her, my eyes blinking free of tears, I could see she was looking at me with sadness.
“My mother, my brothers…they’re dead because of me,” I said finally. “I was fourteen when my older brother Thaddeus died at war. My little brother, Atalo, died four years later at my own claws because my rage got the better of me during a fever. My mother died of grief shortly afterwards as a result. I tried to defy the Illuminati, the governance that steered my entire nation, but in doing so I gambled away everything. I didn’t realize that my own arrogance was the biggest threat to my family’s lives!”
Lethia blinked at me. “Nyx…” her voice was gentle, like an adult speaking to a child. “You said your brother died at war. How is that your fault?”
“He wouldn’t have gone if I had just left.”
I wiped at my eyes with my palm, sniffling back snot. “I was…I was going to travel the world. Get away from everything. Doing so would have forced Thaddeus to stay home. My mother’s health was not what it used to be, and neither of us wanted to put that burden on Atalo.”
The enchantress frowned. “But that would have been as good as abandoning your family!”
“That’s what I should have done,” I said tightly. My skin started to feel hot and tight. I could feel my joints aching. “I shouldn’t have gotten it into my head that I could possibly change anything! My father saw that, he–”
I gave a start, my mouth falling open. I stared at Lethia, at a loss. Why had I mentioned my father? What had possessed me to do that?
Sister, I think we should cease this now! Kali hissed inside my head.
My brows twitched into an obstinate frown. I can’t stop. I have to get through to Lethia! I argued back.
You say that, but all I feel is–
Only she was cut off as Lethia pressed me again. “Nyx, what do you mean when you say ‘your father saw that.’ What did he see?”
My mouth was dry. I shoved away from the table I leaned on and started to pace. “He was different from most of my kind. He tried to get the others in our village to see that the capital was just a puppet of the cartel party that was the Illuminati. He tried to warn the Ailuran people of their collusion, their conspiracies. Some listened. Most didn’t. I guess he became frustrated and decided he needed to travel the world. To gain more knowledge. He…never came back.”
“What was his name?”
I gritted my teeth. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t matter!” I screamed with my hands balled into fists. “He didn’t matter! He wasn’t there! I can’t get angry at a thing that never existed for me because he was a non-entity, an empty notion, just a word that hovered in the fucking corner whenever my mother had too much to drink! Pining after him was for Thaddeus to do, but I was too busy trying to tear my family apart! Okay!? That had nothing to do with the gods, nothing to do with greater schemes, it was just–A. THING. THAT. HAPPENED. They died! I lived! And my father?” I laughed harshly. “He was never there–” I stopped short, gulping in air with wide eyes.
The silence dragged on.
I stared at Lethia, surprised and ashamed at myself. I buried my face in my hands and shuddered out, “I’m sorry. I’m…that isn’t even what I really…I–I don’t know why I–”
This is too much…it’s too soon to confront, Kali said quietly. She felt distant somehow, and the feeling made me feel alone.
I wiped at my face and hugged myself, my shoulders hunched around my ears. “I’m sorry, Lethia. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I’m whole again, and all the different parts of me aren’t quite…settled yet. That goes for the dark parts, too.” I looked at her morosely. “My father’s name was Alvis. He left my home when I was young–at a time when I was barely able to form lasting memories. He’s just a ghost in my head. The most important influence he ever left for me was his books. It’s…maybe that’s where all the trouble started.” I shook my head. “Maybe you’re right. It would have been abandoning my family if I had left home at fourteen, but today they would be alive, wouldn’t they? Only…I can’t wish for those things. I have my path. I know the way I have to walk. The only way I can make amends for my mistakes is by going forward.”
“With Elmiryn,” Lethia said quietly.
At the mention of Elmiryn’s name, I smiled and looked down at the woman, who still hadn’t moved from her place at the girl’s feet.
The girl frowned as her eyes flickered from Elle and me. “You love her.”
My cheeks colored, but I held her gaze as I nodded my head. “I do.”
This response just made the enchantress blink. “Do you think she’ll love you the way you love her?”
My eyebrows went high. My gaze went to my feet, before they made their way back to Lethia’s inquisitive eyes. “I love the way Elmiryn is. I accept that…maybe she won’t ever love me that way. I’m okay with that.” I shrugged, rubbing my arm. “I’m not really fit for that sort of thing anyway.”
“You’re not fit for being loved?”
“I still have a long way to go before my debt to Harmony is even repaid, Lethia. I can’t…I’m not like other people.”
The girl’s eyebrows crashed together, and she stared at her hands. “You have a blood debt. Like…Like I do. Am I not fit for love?”
I gave her a gentle look. “No. We aren’t the same. You’re better than I am. You know…you always have a choice, Lethia. I know it may not feel that way, but I can help you. If you’ll let me.”
“And who helped you, when you were down?”
My eyes burned again, but I managed to keep my tears in check this time. “An elf. His name was Marquis. He encouraged me to live when no one else would have. He’s a big reason I’m here today.”
“And do you owe Elmiryn the same way?”
My eyes narrowed at Lethia’s questions. They were feeling only tangentially related to the original topic we’d been focusing on. More and more, her questions were getting personal, and not just personal but…specific. I got the sense that she was looking for something.
Slowly, I answered her question. “Elmiryn was also there for me in a way many could not bring themselves to be. She helped me become stronger…more confident even, if you can believe that.”
Lethia smiled wanly. “I can.”
There was a brief lull before she set in with another startling question. “So I suppose her extensive past with other women doesn’t bother you? Like how your mother’s promiscuity didn’t bother you?”
My face turned red with rage and I advanced on the girl, my teeth bared. “How did you know that? Did you look inside my head? Did you!?” My voice rose into a shout. “Where do you get off asking me something like that!? That is none of your business!”
“Y-You’re the one who brought up Elmiryn to begin with! When I brought up your mother, I was just trying to make a point! If you want me to understand how you value Harmony, I have to understand your ties to it! It seems those are rooted to the people in your life. But I don’t understand what makes them so important! Can’t you humor me?” The girl’s voice was strained and apologetic.
Between us was Elmiryn on the ground. I stood behind the woman, huffing, my hackles raised and my hands tensed like claws. Lethia’s bright green eyes searched my face, her own skin turned pale as she pressed back into her chair in a panic.
“Do not ask me about my mother anymore,” I growled.
The girl held up her hands and nodded frantically.
I stood glaring at her, my body aching again with the heat of my fury. Strangely, it was Kali who calmed me down.
NYX! What are you doing!? Attacking her is unwise, I can smell her power in the air! Her voice was tiny in my mind. At first I didn’t heed her, but she kept trying until finally that distance between us seemed to lessen. Think for a moment and stay calm! Why would Lethia be asking us these things? Instead of becoming angry about it, perhaps we should understand her true motivations!
My Twin being reasonable was so rare that I was able to wrestle myself under control to ponder this. With effort I took a step back, willing my muscles to ease. I could feel my heart rate under my chest–fast and hard.
Closing my eyes, I ran my hands through my hair and turned away. I needed a moment to fully calm down. To gather my wits.
Why is Lethia doing this? I thought. My back still felt tight, and with a groan, I crouched down and leaned onto my knees. Her questions are almost…cruel.
But now that I had sufficiently reined in my anger, I couldn’t help but think about her question.
“So I suppose her extensive past with other women doesn’t bother you? Like how your mother’s promiscuity didn’t bother you?”
“I hate it…” I whispered, pressing my palms into my eyes. “I hate it so much it makes me sick.”
And when I finally looked up, Lethia was standing there, looking down at me. I gasped. When did she move? I didn’t hear her! Her eyes were glassy, and her hand was reaching toward my face. I stared at her, too taken aback to react.
“If you hate it, Nyx,” Lethia said. Her features became shadowed as she leaned forward. “Then maybe your father had it right? Maybe the real answer is to just leave?”
Kali hissed inside my head. Something’s not right! This scent is all wrong!
But Lethia’s fingers touched my face, and the room fell away. I felt my body turn weightless, and soon I wasn’t there anymore. My body was gone. I was just a spirit floating through the air. It wasn’t darkness or light that consumed me. It was…sound. Loud and terrifying, all around me. I couldn’t make sense of it. I screamed, trying to find a way out. When I finally thought I’d discovered my escape, the colors appeared, like electric lines just shifting and flashing in and out of view. Then the chaos became order, and without warning I found myself seeing an entirely unfamiliar room, warm-colored and exotically styled with bright colored tapestries lining the walls and a silky violet bed at its heart. Standing there, in sharp noble attire, was–
My heart, if it was even still there, leapt into my mouth. Her back was to me, and she was gazing at a watch in her hand. She seemed lost in thought. Foreboding gripped me.
What is this!? What’s going on!?
The woman turned her head, straight at me it seemed, and smiled her full-toothed smile.
“Oh, there you are…” She purred.