This couldn’t go on. We wouldn’t last if Elmiryn and I just pulled our punches against each other. Doing so would drag things out, and that would run us into the ground. We weren’t fresh, like Syria was. The enchantress had a vitality none of us had, because she hadn’t been running around in the wilds on poor sleep and minimal food. When I saw Elle fighting…I knew I was the one who had to grit my teeth and do what had to be done. I had to incapacitate her. So without hesitation, I dislocated my friend’s arm.
I did it out of love, if you can refrain from your eye rolls, but I wasn’t feeling warm and cuddly about it. Just like in our previous battle at Holzoff’s, Syria had to be stopped quickly…before her power overwhelmed us.
As I engaged her once more, trading blows, trying to keep focused and alert in the chance of an opening, a brief thought squeaked by–
If only we could all work together.
But we couldn’t, and it felt…betraying in a way. What was the point in surviving everything we did if in the end we were the cause of our own demise? Our goals were so divergent, our methods selfish and short sighted. The knowledge that we were the only ones holding ourselves back was not a comfort. Instead, it just said this rag tag group of wayward adventurers didn’t want to work together. It hurt my trust.
Lacertli had warned me of such a moment. When my duty to him would have me pitted against my comrades.
It should’ve been harder. Yet once the fight had started, it just felt…natural. Like we were destined to fight, destined to be this way. It saddened me.
Instinct was carrying me a lot of the way. I went at Syria with a small burst of energy, my emotions perhaps fueling my offense more than it should have. I was in the middle of delivering a spinning back kick to Syria’s gut when I thought I saw a blonde blur rushing towards us. When I landed again, my head turned, trying to figure out in my heightened paranoia, whether the person was a threat or not. In the milliseconds in which all of this happened, the possibility that it was Lethia didn’t even strike me.
It didn’t strike me because the teenager hit Syria instead with a long staff. The master enchantress wheeled, a cry tearing from her lips as she fell to her knee, surges of energy coursing once down her body.
I stared at Lethia Artaud in shock, but she didn’t stop to look back at me. She struck Syria again in the face, and when the older woman started to fall back onto the ground, Lethia pointed the staff at her former mistress’s chest and a bolt shot into her.
“She’s my responsibility!” I heard Lethia huff. She spared me a glance before she stepped forward and raised her staff.
That was when a sickle of wind struck Lethia in the back, making her stumble and trip over Syria’s prone body. I snapped my head around to see Quincy some feet away, reaching up to catch her magical boomerang, Eate’s Son. Something of her expression suggested she was feeling faint, but smoldering at the edges was a fury that was unmistakable.
“Lethia Artaud!” Quincy shouted, teetering a little as she started to approach us. “Give me what’s mine!”
Lethia hurried to her feet, her hands gripping the staff tightly. I stared at it, then back at Quincy, and finally I made the connection. “You stole her skill, Lethia!?”
I’d witnessed the girl do this a few times in the past–once with Paulo Moretti, and again with the sorcerer Karolek. Both times it was to save someone she cared about. Now she was trying to kill someone.
How can this be what we’ve become?
Instead of responding to me and Quincy, the teenager pinched her lips till they turned white, and I could see the electricity start to surge up and down the lightning staff. My eyes widened and I hurried to put some distance between us. I could see Quincy react in much the same way, except she took a moment to aim and throw Eate’s Son before she turned and fled.
I heard a crack of thunder just as the wind picked it up. My stomach lurched as I recognized what would come next.
The ground beneath seemed to rise with me as my feet lifted into the churning air. I screamed, but the chaos around me devoured my rising panic. Lethia had shot off a bolt of lightning–my first guess that it was aimed at Syria, but who knew where it actually landed in the mayhem–and Quincy had retaliated with another one of her damned twisters. Yet again, I was caught in the crossfire, and as I flipped in the air, I flashed back to the debilitating pain I’d experienced when my body had smashed into the ground in the Lycan forest. What had unmade me last time was that I hadn’t been able to get a grip fast enough to let the shadows catch me. I couldn’t do that again, it would mean my death for sure this time.
I quelled my hysteria (and shut out Kali’s) and reached out with my champion sense to find a potential exit point. As I plummeted back to the earth, I find my opening and seized it with desperate urgency.
I shot up into the Umbralands–the curious mirror effect sending me up into the air at the same speed I came down in. I wheeled my arms vainly hoping to catch onto something to keep myself grounded, but no luck. With a shaky sigh, I resigned myself to yet another attempt–only this time I’d catch the edge of the shadows and swing myself to safety. As I came down, I could see Quincy arguing with Lethia. It seemed the girl’s attempt had failed, and now the wizard was preventing Lethia from carrying out her revenge. Elmiryn was just getting to her feet.
Gods this is getting too complicated, even for us!
With a squint of my eyes, I timed my grab so that I caught onto the edge of the shadows and swung out safely to the Real World, once again on my feet. I couldn’t afford the time it would take to go back and forth between worlds, waiting for the energy of my fall to weaken. By the looks of the things, it was all coming to a bursting point.
I groaned and started to rise to my feet. I spared a brief look over my shoulder to see Elmiryn making her way toward us, wheeling her shoulder with a pained look. I felt a pang of guilt, and let my eyes flicker back toward the others arguing over Syria. So much for my high horse.
Look at us. Hurting each other like this…and for what?
Duty, Kali growled in my head. Vendettas. Weakness.
But who is motivated by which? I wondered as I pushed into a light run for Lethia and Quincy.
Kali sighed. Everyone. All three. But I might have an idea…if you’re willing to risk it.
I frowned as she conveyed her thoughts wordlessly. I could sense that she still preferred foregoing words for important ideas.
I’m not sure. Just…give me a moment, I responded.
I said to Lethia as I neared, “You shouldn’t be involved in this! You could get hurt!”
“I have to do this! Syria is my responsibility,” she bit back, and as if to emphasize this, the teenager wrung the staff in her hands, and I could see the electricity charge up and down its length.
Quincy cursed and reached into her magic pouch, where she pulled out a short sword. The hilt was short and the blade flared at the tip, telling me it was one-handed and meant for slashing. She pointed it at the young enchantress, her other hand bringing up Eate’s Son. I was amazed she managed to recover the boomerang in that chaos.
Quincy yelled at Lethia, “Damn your tricks! Stay away, or I’ll make you stay away!”
“What do you care if I kill Syria or not!?” The girl shot back.
“Elmiryn has to do it, and I’m not just saying that because of our vow. It’s the only way to learn about these creatures!”
“You mean those ‘creatures’ that have successfully pitted us against each other?” I interjected sharply. They turned to stare at me. “Now can we stop this nonsense and work together?”
The looks on their faces said it all.
I glared, my jaw tightening. Syria was beginning to stir on the ground. Elmiryn still hadn’t reached us, and with the three of us in the line of fire, she couldn’t use her strange fae powers for a ranged attack. It was now or never.
“So be it,” I snapped, and while Syria’s guard was still down, I willed the shadows to take her.
“Nyx, stop, STOP!” Elmiryn shouted.
By the time Elmiryn reached them, however, she knew it was too late. The last of Syria’s body sunk out of sight, as if the ground was liquid.
The warrior crashed into Nyx’s side, shaking her shoulder. “Bring her back!”
Nyx looked at her coolly. “No,” she said, pulling away.
They locked stares, and Elmiryn felt an unsettling twinge in her gut. When Quincy had reset her arm, the woman had tried to heal the injury as fast as she could, but while she had become quite adept at manipulating basic elements, flesh was a different matter entirely. The process was a little painful, and certainly not quick, forcing her to watch as Lethia, Quincy, and Nyx had it out. In that time Syria was out cold, and the opportunity to kill her felt almost cruel in its untimeliness. Now, that opportunity was gone.
“If I can leave the Umbralands, I can get back,” Elmiryn said tightly.
Nyx narrowed her eyes. “What makes you think your challenge will be any easier there?”
The warrior’s face tensed in apprehension. “What did you do?”
When the girl didn’t answer right away, Elmiryn advanced on her, her grip tightening on her sword. “Nyx tell me what you–” then the woman broke off, her eyes widening. “No it’s impossible…”
Syria groaned and rolled onto her side. She felt cold. Sluggish and sore. Her limbs were hesitant to follow her commands and it frustrated her. Slowly she sat up and took stock of her surroundings.
Darkness, with varying shades of light. A mirror of the Real World. The Umbralands, then.
She cursed. Trust these childrens’ divergent goals to intersect at just the most critical moment to set her back. Syria struggled to focus on a solution, struggled to think straight even. It had been years since she had found herself in such a vulnerable mental and emotional state. Lethia was the cause of it, and she clearly knew how to exploit it.
Then the woman looked at the girl through the veil and smiled. “Conviction, even in hatred, dearest! Conviction! Well done!” Syria crowed.
As she rose to her rootish feet, she heard a harsh voice speak behind her, making her jump. “Conviction? Let me show you something of conviction, witch…”
Syria turned but saw no one. This unsettled her. As an enchantress, a master at that, she could sense the thoughts of others before they even came into sight. It was almost second nature to feel the echo of animuses as far as ten or twenty miles out. She was always in tune with the intellectual cluster–that network of souls where thoughts hummed as though they traveled down a plucked string.
But she had heard nothing.
Around her came the subtle sound of footsteps and she slowly curled her hands to fists. Her brow tightened as sweat beaded there. Nyx was not with her. Syria could see the girl on the other side, speaking to Elmiryn. Then a thought occurred to her.
But it…cannot be. She cannot be here if Nyx is–!
A spitting hiss speared at Syria from the side, and the woman just managed to lean back in time to avoid a swipe of claws over her head. The enchantress used her gravity magic to help her backflip away a sizeable distance. When she landed, skidding along the ground, she snapped her head up to confirm who the assailant was.
Kali bared her fangs at the woman, her hands and feet shifted to claws. Her feline features seemed to darken as she bowed her head forward.
“You two cannot exist apart!” Syria spat. “It is against nature! You will die!” The wrongness of this offended her academic intellect. Things just didn’t work this way…
The Twin smirked just as a commotion seemed to kick up with Elmiryn and Nyx in the Real World.
“Can you sense a soul that’s split?” she asked.
Syria didn’t respond, her eyes turning to dangerous slits.
Kali walked backward slowly. “And as I hear it, you don’t read primal minds.” Her form slipped into the densest shadows and out of sight. “And I’m as primal as they come…”
The enchantress pushed into a run, after the Twin, but when she cut with a spinning back kick, she hit nothing. The woman stumbled, and righted herself, her heart hammering. This was something she’d never encountered before. Even now, her intellect railed against her circumstances, but her deeper instincts said she had every cause to be worried. She relied greatly on her ability to sense what a person would do before they even did it. It was why Lethia attacking her was such a danger–the girl was capable of guarding her mind. But here, the woman didn’t even have clear view of her enemy.
Syria ground her teeth. I will not lose to this abomination!
But in the meantime, she felt it necessary to bring in her newest weapon just to even the playing field.
Killing Nyx by proxy had to count for something.
Elmiryn grabbed Nyx by the arm and shouted, “You gave her over to Kali!?”
Nyx’s face darkened with anger as she grabbed the woman’s wrist, her grip so tight it felt like she were trying to break bone. “Do not grab me like that!”
The redhead ripped her hand away and spat, “And what should I do then? Huh?? You clearly don’t trust me enough to–”
“Trust?” Nyx cut in, baring her teeth. “Elmiryn, what I can trust in you to do is to doggedly pursue your ambitions, self-destructive as they may be!”
“But it’s like you said, we don’t have to fucking fight like this! You can just step aside!”
“You know I can’t! If I did that, then what would be the point of our relationship!?”
“What relationship?” Elmiryn snapped without thinking.
Nyx stared at her, those typically warm eyes suddenly going cold. The woman felt a sickening drop of her stomach pull at her chest, leaving a big empty hole. The Ailuran laughed and spread her arms. “You know what? I couldn’t have summed things up better myself.”
Quincy rolled her eyes and sighed. Lethia shook her head and looked away.
Elmiryn swallowed down the reparative binge that fought its way up her throat. Meznik was right. They did talk too much, and now wasn’t the time to repair faults in their dynamic, as much as it hurt them. So the warrior just turned away, fighting to regain the focus she needed to return to the Umbralands. She couldn’t do that looking at Nyx. “We’ll talk about this later.”
“You mean talk about the fact that you’re turning into exactly what you were afraid of?” Nyx scoffed.
Elmiryn turned and glared daggers, but before she could say anything, a muted boom tickled her ears, making her stop. Quincy turned similarly alert, her eyes snapping up to search around them. Lethia stiffened, her eyes going distant as if she were sensing something they were unable to. Nyx seemed aware of the strange noise, but like Elmiryn, didn’t gather the significance.
The girl looked up, then looked at Quincy, then Lethia. “What is it?” she asked.
“Shhh!” The wizard snapped.
Lethia started backing away, her eyes going up.
Elmiryn and Nyx exchanged a nervous glance, then looked up too.
They did so just in time to see a dark figure descending towards them. The warrior put up her fae shield just in time as the person crashed into the ground and sent them flying from a powerful gravitational bomb. Though Elmiryn’s shield absorbed the brunt of the blast, she was still sent sprawling backward onto the ground. Wincing, she raised herself into a crouch and used her powers to remove the dust from her line of vision. Her eyes widened.
The person standing in the crater was Hakeem, and when he turned his head her way, his expression was void of all goodwill.