More time passed. The slight shift from dark to utter dark was the only real indication I had of the day passing, but pass it did. One more day in that accursed snow, with these accursed people. I was at my limit. Now that I knew I could leave, I was determined to do so.
Paulo had been gone since the night before when he’d stormed off. Lethia had finally left the campfire. Earlier in the day, she had wandered out into the daesce valley, out of sight, Argos pressed protectively to her side. Quincy and I didn’t stop her, or even said anything to her. I was preoccupied with getting ready for the trek to Syria’s tower. Quincy too, in a way…
“There’s lots of scrap out there, Ailuran,” she said to my back.
I was busy stitching my new daesce cloak from grubby string and thin strips of fraying cloth and did my best to ignore the nettle in the wizard’s voice.
Quincy, persistent as ever, continued her nagging: “A gurney can be easily fashioned for Hakeem, and quickly, if I could just have your help!”
“First of all, human,” I said icily without so much as raising my head. “If you want me to even listen to you, you’ll have to refer to me by my given name. Second, I have already told you my reasons for not doing as you so brusquely ask!”
“Poor reasons!” Quincy spat. “Cold and cruel! This is my husband. I will not leave him in the snow!”
“Then I will leave you both in the snow,” I snapped, finally feeling my patience give. I turned and glared at the brunette with heat in my cheeks. “You think I feel good about leaving Hakeem behind? He saved my life. I will never forget that! The debt that places me in weighs heavily, and Ailurans always repay their debts–!”
“So then help him–!” Quincy started.
I cut her off, my voice rising, along with my ire. “But what you’re asking me to do? It’s unreasonable! Even Lethia says the man is gone. What you have there, Quincy is a husk. The only way I can repay my debt to Hakeem now is to end his half-existence, give him a proper burial, and work hard not to squander the life he so generously helped me to keep! But I’m not! Why? Because you’re still clinging to him! Now is that mercy, or is that in fact the ‘cruelty’ you so keenly sense in me!?”
Quincy stared at me, astonished. In the time we had known each other, I had never spoken to her this way. I could see it in her eyes, the degree to which I had gone out of her expectations. It made me disgusted. With her. With myself. I stood to my feet, throwing my work off to my side of the camp.
“I’m going for a walk,” I announced tightly.
I marched out into the snow–not toward Holzoff’s, but down the lonely trail we had first come when we arrived on this shard. We had quickly found it to be an area of little practical use, save to find some time alone. But maybe it wasn’t so useless, because that was just what I needed right then. Solitude.
Away from the campfire, I could feel the cold grip me, reaching deep past my clothes and my flesh to the bone. It was nearly pitch dark out here. Such was night in the Other Place. A lightless nether world that existed outside of natural law. The oppression of this atmosphere was powerful.
When I lifted my hands, I saw they were black forms, nothing more than shadow. I could feel the darkness around me, thanks to my Champion powers, and it felt almost suffocating. It were as if my whole being were becoming one with them, and as unpleasant as it was, I thought it was appropriate.
I felt black, down to my soul.
“She speaks to him now,” Lacertli’s voice said behind me.
I turned, but slowly. The Lizard King stood further up the trail, his back to our camp. The god had not appeared or spoken directly to me in days. There was a part of me that resented him, but this was a small part. The rest of me knew that, while I was still capable, survival was my job, not anyone else’s.
“You’re talking about Lethia,” I said. My voice sounded tired.
“Yes,” was all I got in response.
“He might hurt her,” I mused, looking down at the ground. I couldn’t see my feet in the snow and darkness.
“Should I go to her, sir?”
“Dost thou need her to be whole and well?”
I shook my head. “…No, sir.”
“Are ye certain?”
Now I looked up at him, confused. “Pardon me asking, but what do you mean? Are you suggesting I do need her somehow?”
Lacertli shrugged. “Have ye been to Syria’s tower before?”
“No. But we are taking a way unfamiliar to Artaud anyways! She pointed me in the direction–”
“Generalities have been the death of many an adventurer, Nyx,” Lacertli said calmly. “Thine supplies art limited and these cold lands art treacherous. At times, depending on Lady Fortuna is unavoidable when surviving. But I would advise against putting one’s entire lot in her whimsical hands.”
My jaw clenched and I started my way back up the snow. “Fine,” I grumbled. “I’ll see about the girl.”
As I neared Lacertli’s shadowy form, he stopped me with a raised hand.
“Thou mistake my musing as a command. The girl faces her own demons. Let her.”
I looked at him, annoyed. “Then what–”
“How is thy thread and ‘needle’ serving you?” His tone sounded deliberately ironic, and I thought I could see his smirk in the dark.
I glared at him, feeling my cheeks burn. “It serves me just fine!” I bit out out defensively.
My so called ‘thread’, the one I was using to stitch my daesce cloak, was little more than scavenged bits of string and frayed strips of cloth tied together. My ‘needle’ was a small rusty nail whose head I’d bashed into a poor eyelet. The holes in my cloak were a bit stretched as a result. I’d reasoned that so long as the damned thing lasted me to Syria’s, then it wouldn’t matter.
Lacertli just chuckled at me.
I threw my hands up in the air with a loud growl. “What, sir!? What am I missing now?”
“Search the present, Nyx. What is amiss?”
“Elmiryn’s not here,” I spat without thinking. When my cheeks burned hotter, I hurried to add. “I mean that she would have figured something out by now!”
The god crossed his arms and looked me in the eyes. His gaze was glowing a fierce gold. “But what would she have figured out?”
“A way to deal with these people!” I cried out in frustration. “As aggressive as she was, she was still better at dealing with others than I was!”
“Dost thou truly believe this to be true?”
“Of course,” I said with a caustic laugh. “Me and others? Specifically them?” I pointed up toward camp. “It’s a disaster!”
Lacertli shook his head with a small sigh. “As a being who can shape the shadows to her liking, one would think ye’d see the shadows in social interaction as well…”
My brow wrinkled. “Huh?”
With an air of suffering the god covered his face with one hand. “Thou art just putting on a show, Nyx. A shadow play. And the result of thy ham-handed performance makes itself known in the way thy company behaves and treats thee.”
I scowled. “You’re saying Lethia’s depression, Quincy’s denialism, and Paulo’s brooding is my fault? I can’t be held responsible for that!”
“True,” The god lifted his face from his clawed hand and looked at me sideways. “But even animals depend on a natural form of cooperation to survive. Thou true obstacle is not thy company, nor even thy impending journey. No. The obstacle, the thing holding thee back, are thine attempts at appearing self-reliant to cover thy hurt over Elmiryn’s apparent abandonment. It speaks of dependence and this nettles you. Nyx, I am the path. And this is the Present thou art standing in. My advice, as thy patron, is to cease with thy misplaced pride and self-victimization. Go to your comrades, for they are all you have.”
I could feel the invisible hackles rise on my back as I clenched my hands. At first, I thought a hiss was building up in my throat, but when it grew tighter and tighter, I realized it was a sob. My eyes burned.
I turned away, unable to look at Lacertli anymore.
Kali! I thought inwardly. I sought my sister out with a sort of desperation. In the time since our last fight with Syria, my twin had taken to resting deep within our mind. At my sudden presence in her mental sanctuary, she rose, yawning and stretching.
Hmmm? she grumbled. What is it?
Would you like to take control for a while? I asked in a rush.
This took her aback, just like I thought it would.
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. What happened? What did I miss?
Nothing, I shot back. It’s a yes or no question. Do you want control or not?
Kali sat on her haunches and seemed to think a moment, her black ears pinning back.
To my surprise, she slowly shook her head.
No, she said.
Because, she responded sharply. We share our memories, and I can already see you want me to deal with your annoying humans for you. Well I won’t.
With a disdainful snort, she turned her back to me and laid back down on her bed of pleasant thoughts and memories. I will have my time in the world, sister. But it won’t be just to clean up your messes!
Huffing, I opened my eyes.
“Thy plan failed, I see.”
I groaned. I’d thought the god would just vanish now that he’d said his piece.
“Please, what? I have said nothing.”
I looked at him with anguish. “It was…childish of me. To do what I just did. I know that.” My words felt hard to say. I felt equal parts embarrassed and angry. Angry that Kali hadn’t taken up my offer.
“What have I said about trapping thyself within concepts of right and wrong doing? They are illusions of society. That is not my domain. Is being childish detrimental to one’s survival? Perhaps in some scenarios, yes. But this god also recognizes that a child is resilient and resourceful in ways that adults cannot be. Having someone like Kali take over for thee? A messy choice, to be certain, but a choice that might have actually worked compared to thy recent conduct. Pity thy skills for persuasion are as poor in childish pursuits as they are in adult ones…”
I slumped, letting my head fall to my chest. Having a god basically call you both immature and ineffectual was in no way pleasant. “Fine, fine, fine!” I whined. “But regardless, I don’t want to be seen as a child. Not by you or anyone else!”
“In that case, stop acting like one,” Lacertli snapped. “This isn’t a riddle, Nyx.”
I raised my head, ready to shoot off something defensive when I realized Lacertli was gone.
With a heavy sigh, I turned and looked back toward camp.
“All right then,” I mumbled.
Once I returned from the trail, I stopped next to Quincy, but couldn’t think of what to say right away. She looked up at me with as icy a stare as you could expect from someone who hated you.
Grudgingly, I pointed toward my side of the camp, where my daesce cloak lay. “A needle and thread. So that I can finish my cloak. I’m sure you must have some in that magic bag of yours. Give me those, and I’ll help you make what you need to take Hakeem with us to Syria’s tower.”
Quincy narrowed her eyes at me. “Why the change of heart?”
With one hand on my hip, I wearily pressed my fingers into my closed eyelids. “Quincy…” I lowered my hand and glared at her. “You need help with Hakeem. Argos doesn’t have opposable thumbs, I doubt Paulo would be so eager, and Lethia doesn’t have the strength. That just leaves me. Do I agree with your reasons? No. But it’s what you want, and I’m willing to help you so long as you help me. So will you give me a needle and thread or not?”
Quincy pursed her lips and looked down at Hakeem. After days without proper food, the man did not look so good. He was turning pale and he’d lost an unhealthy amount of weight.
“Stitch cloaks for the rest of us too, and I’ll toss in one of my lesser magicked items,” the wizard said primly.
My mouth dropped. “That’d take me even longer to finish! Another two days at the least! What are you going to do about Hakeem in the meantime!?”
“I’ve been mixing in well chewed bits of food with his water. It isn’t a lot, but it’s giving his body enough nutrients to last a few more days. Once I get back to our world, I can find an alchemist who can help to sustain him!”
At my skeptical look, the wizard gave a harsh sigh. “All right! I’ll give you two lesser magicked items! Does that work for you!?”
I shrugged my hands. “What am I going to do with magicked items? I’m not a wizard!”
“The keyword you’re missing is that they are lesser, meaning you don’t need any particular skill to use them! I have several items to choose from, and some of them can be very useful. Do we have a deal?”
I stuck out my hand after a second of thought. “Deal.”
Quincy turned away, but in that fleeting moment when we shook hands, I could see her features ease to something akin to relief. She turned to look at her hip and pulled her magic bag from her belt. Reaching in, she searched for a few minutes before producing the needle and thread. It was the same ones she’d used to make Hakeem his makeshift clothing in the blackwood.
Taking these, I eagerly sat down to begin work on my cloak. She meanwhile, searched her bag again, promising to produce the magicked items for me to choose from.
As our camp fell to a quiet that could be ranked as the least tense since we’d gotten there, we heard someone approaching. Both of us stood, ready to fight. Normally the others announced themselves before coming to camp, so if it was a daesce, we were going to have to fight it off.
But when Lethia, Paulo, and Argos entered into the camp light, we visibly relaxed.
Lethia trailed after Paulo, her head bowed. Argos was at her side, as usual, yet he seemed on edge. Paulo walked a little head of them, his head raised in what looked almost like defiance. The runed scars on his skin seemed a shade darker as he glared at Quincy and I.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said stiffly. “I’ll go with you to Syria’s tower.” Then he went to his side of the camp and sat harshly onto the icy ground, ripping his hood up over his head before fixing a glare into the fire.
Lethia meekly sat down adjacent to him. Argos, to my surprise, came to me.
“Hullo, you,” I said, not a little bemused. Much as I disliked his owner, I liked the dog just fine.
He whined and gave my cheek a soft lick.
Leaning in, I whispered. “How did Lethia manage to convince him, Argos?”
Argos growled and turned to look back at the teenagers. My eyebrows rose and I looked at them too.
I thought about my conversation with Lacertli, and as embarrassed as it had me feel, I realized something.
As the god explained to me, even animals depended on a natural form of cooperation to survive. Did I need Lethia to be whole and well for this cooperation to work? Well enough, at least, to lead us to Syria’s. Did I need Paulo’s compliance for this cooperation to work? Obviously, but his cooperation was desired in the first place because he knew these lands now better than any of us. So that took care of their relations with me.
But did their relations with each other threaten the survival of our group? And if so, in what way?
…And what in gods name could I do about it?