Laboriously, I made to stand.
As if sensing my intention, the tree’s demon song strengthened, its notes raking down my very spirit. Literally. I could only take a single step before I felt my body shudder, my thoughts fracturing into pieces. Through my blurring vision I could see the edges of my raised hand shiver, the color in my skin pulsing white. It were as though my body was being pulled slowly apart on some tiny, unseen level.
I would have screamed, but the sound seemed to unravel before me, spreading into the air in a chorus of warped voices.
I gripped my head and took another unsteady step forward.
The tree, Izma’s tree, was trying to rip me apart.
Keep…going! came Kali’s strained thought.
My eyes rolled as I fell back to my knees. Blood flooded my eyes.
Kali, I—I can’t….
And I could feel my Twin slip into my arms like a ghost, urging my quivering muscles to move. Somehow, she was shielded from the brunt of the tree’s attack. I did not dwell on this boon. Any more of this, and it wouldn’t matter. The destruction of our body would slay the both of us.
Together, we raised our body from the ground.
Blinking away the blood, we kept our eyes on the tree, on its slim trunk, its light bark, its bright green leaves. How could something that appeared so ordinary be such an instrument of chaos?
Our steps were pained, and it seemed to take an eternity. The demon tree did its best to repel us, sending wave after wave of its evil music to flay our mind and destroy our body. But we resisted. Together, with my Twin, we reached the tree. The stench of its existence was thick in the air—the odor emanating from its rotting fruits reeking like alcohol and blood. It had a distinct tinge of loneliness and despair. Tears stung our eyes.
It’s a trick.
Grief. It sat heavy in our gut like a rock, and it grew heavier with every passing moment. This was the demon tree’s last defense. It wasn’t as though it didn’t affect us. Our throat choked up, our shoulders sagging. For the first time in months, I felt that deep black sort of sorrow that had almost led me to kill myself. With the almost burning, almost stabbing sensation of the flaying music, it could’ve been too much to bear.
But it wasn’t just me and Kali anymore. Others were depending on us. Paulo, Lethia, Hakeem…not even Quincy could get this close to the tree. It was up to us to get everyone out of here.
We took a deep breath, expanding our diaphragm to increase intake. Spreading our legs, we dug the balls of our feet in and leaned our shoulders forward. With clenched fists, Kali and I released a sharp, screeching roar.
The sound cut like a scythe.
The demon song was abruptly cut short as the tall linden tree creaked, then slowly fell over, leaves and bark blackening to what resembled a charred husk. Released from the relentless assault, my sister and I collapsed to the ground, spent.
In the fog, I could hear the others yelling. Heavy footfalls approached. Hands shook me, and I hissed in pain. My skin, my muscles…everything was trying to heal from the attack the demon tree had unleashed. I hadn’t realized it in all the sensory overload, but the abominable tree had nearly succeeded in stripping the flesh from my bones.
“Don’t touch her! Let her heal!” I heard someone snap. Quincy, perhaps?
“But she has no skin—!” That was Paulo.
“Leave her! You’ll only do more harm than good. Lethia, where is the gate?”
The enchantress was quick to respond. “It’s here!”
“Are you telling me it’s—”
“Yes, yes! Right here!”
“What the hell…” Paulo breathed. “What do we fucking do then? Rip out the gods damned trunk?”
“Do you want to get out of here, or not?” Quincy retorted. Then she ordered next, “Lethia, you must have shovels here, yes? Get them. And bring an axe and rope, too. We’ll need to dig a wide enough circle around the stump and…”
I didn’t get to hear the rest of Quincy’s plan, because I fainted.
When I came to again, it was to find myself once again whole. Sitting up, I realized I had been moved from near the tree, and instead I lay in the hay of the small barn. Carefully, I stood to my feet. In the hay bed next to me, Hakeem lay, still as unresponsive as ever. Outside, I could hear the sound of digging, occasionally punctuated by the sharp cracks of wood. Unsteadily, I made my way back to the others to see that they were working at removing the tree trunk.
I wiped the cold sweat from my forehead as I stopped near the wide circular hole they had dug. It was Paulo and Lethia toiling in the dirt up to their waist. Argos watched them, panting, his nose glistening and his paws dirty. Quincy, axe in hand, chopped at tree roots that anchored further into the ground. By the looks of things, they were nearly done.
It didn’t take much to remember what they were digging for. On this plane, I could not see the gate that Lethia had mentioned, but if I changed over to the Somnium, I could.
Closing my eyes, I took that strange inward journey, and when I returned, it was to find the others presented in their strange interpretations. Quincy was more youthful, just as I’d seen her before. Lethia was once more that strange starry being I had witnessed back in Izma’s trap, but instead of looking faceless and empty, the stars that gleamed inside of her seemed fixed and constant, a translucent sheen over them that suggested skin. She had white eyes and white lips, and I wondered what on earth the universe must’ve thought of her to envision the young enchantress in such a fantastic way. Paulo, in contrast, appeared covered in soot, his face streaked with what appeared to be tears. His chest, however, glowed a hot red, like a burning coal. Argos, meanwhile, simply glowed a bright white, his fur pristine and glossy. None of the others made any notice of my appearance or sudden disappearance into the Somnium. So engrossed were they in their work.
Quincy hacked away the last root, and the two teens climbed out of the hole. Everyone took hold of a rope, even Argos, and together, they hauled the trunk out of its place.
My heart leapt.
In the center of the hole, the gateway swirled, but unlike the other passages we had taken, this one was a solid wall of white, not unlike the vast space we had been plunged into when Syria had first sent us here in her madness.
Quickly, I returned from the Somnium. In my brief absence Quincy and Paulo had hurried off to fetch Hakeem. That left me with Argos and Lethia standing at the hole.
The enchantress didn’t appear startled to see me. She looked at me with somewhat glassy eyes and offered a small smile. “Good to see you’re awake. I sensed your return to consciousness.” She turned her face away and stared down into the hole. “Your body needed to devote all its energy to healing, thanks to what Syria’s tree had done.”
I could see the self-loathing flicker on the girl’s features before vanishing. “Stop punishing yourself,” I scolded. “When we return to our dimension, it won’t be easy. We’ll all be wanted by the local government for what we did in Belcliff and Holzoff’s. You need to stay present if we’re going to survive!”
“We can’t run, Nyx,” Lethia replied quietly. “Not like we are. We need to recover.”
“And once we recover?”
She looked at me, and the distance in her eyes chilled me. “I will not run from the things I have to face.”
I wanted to argue that. I needed to. If Lethia Artaud was thinking of turning herself in on some misguided sense of guilt, then she was going to get us all killed. They would torture her, get her to talk, and then every bounty hunter in the world would be after us.
But Quincy and Paulo’s return interrupted any chance I had of getting into it with the enchantress. They came running, Hakeem dragging behind them on a wool blanket.
“What are you waiting for?” Quincy shouted at us. “Jump in, you idiots!”
She was right. Nothing was holding us back but ourselves at this point. I was done with the Other Place.
It was time to go home.
They’re ripped through what is essentially a small hole in the universe.
Flesh contracts, organs stretch, thoughts vanish.
One, two, three, four, five, six.
They each plummet through the empty white, until it squeezes around them, fading to sandy gray, then a gritty brown, until they come to a thick blackness that stops them in a painful slam of shadowy dirt and dark sediment.
She was first. She claws her way up with actual claws, her Twin aiding as the claustrophobia assails them in a dizzying rush. They are starved of breath, gagging on earth until—
—We broke through to air, and oh, how sweet it was! We lay there coughing and panting, our eyes gingerly blinking away the dirt. Three details immediately struck me: first, the suns were out, so that meant we had succeeded in returning to the real world; second, there was no snow; and third, we had just come out of the ground from under a tree. How was that possible? I thought we had removed the tree in the Other Place? Did that mean we were not at Syria’s tower, but elsewhere? It certainly wasn’t impossible.
Kali was just behind me in consciousness, her intent tickling the pads of my fingers, until gradually she faded to her special place in our mind. Once again in sole control, I took one last deep breath before clawing at the grass and dirt to pull myself out. I could feel something pushing at the soles of my feet in the ground, and I knew I had to hurry before the others suffocated.
But this proved to be quite the battle. Not only did I feel weak and dizzy, but something just didn’t feel right. I couldn’t stop to try and figure out what was the matter, however, as the moment I freed myself from the dirt, a white hand burst through from the growing sinkhole I had emerged from. I grabbed it, and with all of my strength, pulled.
The others emerged that way, one by one. First was Lethia, who had jumped in shortly after me. Then Quincy, who pulled Hakeem after her. Paulo appeared next, and finally Argos.
When we were all present and accounted for, everyone just collapsed, exhausted on the grass. Since I had been the first one to climb out, I wasn’t nearly as winded, and so I stood glaring up at the linden tree that we had just climbed out from under. The sinkhole at its roots was a dark break in the otherwise lush and healthy grass. The tree itself was a deathly gray, branches devoid of leaves despite the apparent springtime weather.
I stared at it, trying to convince myself that, Yes, of course this was the tree I had just cut down! It’s the same kind as the one before, and there’s even a barn and tower near it. This was Syria’s land!
The buildings in question were not nearly as well kept as they had appeared in the Other Place. They were weather worn and weedy, the barn’s doors hanging off their hinges as if a crowd had battered their way in, and the windows of the tower all smashed and boarded.
How much time has passed that this place seems so abandoned? I wondered.
The dizziness had faded, though the feeling of weakness and wrongness did not. I wondered if all that was needed was sleep. It really did feel as though I’d been awake for weeks. My eyes even burned and ached as though that were the case.
But I could not rest quite yet.
“We…have to decide what we’re going to do,” I made myself say.
“I want to assess our immediate assets and secure the area,” Quincy immediately said. “This place looks…abandoned.” I frowned at her sudden tone of uncertainty. The wizard quickly covered this with a determined look as she knelt by her husband. Hakeem was very pale. “Scavengers may have raided this place, but there may yet be some supplies worth using. Perhaps in the barn or in the pantry? Lethia, is there a cellar?” She asked the enchantress.
Lethia looked at her, startled. “Er…yes? Yes. There is.”
My frown deepened. Did the trip disorient us that severely? Why are we uncertain about obvious details, and having trouble recalling important facts?
“Someone should head to town after,” I suggested. “It’s obvious that time has passed while we were gone. We’ll need to get an update on what has happened in Belcliff since we left. Whoever goes could also get whatever supplies we might still need.”
“What about Paulo?” Lethia asked.
This suggestion didn’t immediately strike me as strange. The two teenagers could hardly stand being near each other, and Paulo leaving even for a short while would certainly alleviate a good portion of the tension in our group. Yet, something in the way the two exchanged glances made me uneasy.
“Yes,” he said, lifting his head a little higher so that he was almost looking down his nose. “I should go. If what you say is true, Nyx, about the bounties, I’m the least likely to stir up trouble.”
I crossed my arms and raised an eyebrow at the young man. “And how’s that? You were seen breaking Lethia out of jail alongside me!”
“She has a point,” Quincy murmured, looking at Paulo out of the corner of her eye.
“Who else are we going to send?” Paulo argued hotly. He thrust a hand at Lethia. “She’s probably got wanted posters floating all around the Sibesona by now!” Next he pointed at Quincy, “And she went back on her bounty contract! Lethia’s head was not a small catch! She’s probably equally notorious! And the other two?” He swept a hand over Argos and Hakeem, causing the dog to growl at him resentfully.
“And what about me?” I asked flatly.
“Yeah. What about you, lia?” he shot back. “I’ve been watching you. You’ve been eager to leave us since the moment you showed up! What’s stopping you from fucking off now that your redheaded lover isn’t around for you to fool around with, eh? Disseme! Tell me!”
My expression darkened when he brought up Elmiryn, and I had to resist curling my hands into fists.
“Out of all of us, I was seen the least, and therefor, I am less likely to be accosted by authorities. Never mind that I’m leaps and bounds better at sneaking than you are, and I think I can manage to get around. As for your suspicions….” I couldn’t help it. My voice dropped an octave, my anger tinging my words in a harsh growl: “You have absolutely no business questioning my character, considering the impressive jackassery you have achieved in the short amount of time that I have known you. If anything, you’re more likely to leave than I am! You have no ties to any of us, whereas I still need to wait for Elmiryn to return. Now who seems the bigger risk to send, I wonder?”
Paulo looked ready to argue some more, his scarred face turning hot and livid, but Quincy cut him off.
Quincy stood sharply, her teeth bared and her cheeks tinged pink. “Shut up, boy! I said she’s going!”
“But the vote is split!” Lethia protested, standing now as well.
“This isn’t a democracy,” I replied wryly.
“And this isn’t a dictatorship either,” the girl rebutted. “Neither you or Quincy have fully assumed the role of leadership! That means Paulo and I have equal say!”
Quincy crossed her arms. “Does it, now?”
Then I had an idea. “Why don’t we let Argos vote?”
The others didn’t seem to know what to think at first. Even Lethia seemed hesitant to agree, and I wondered why. Did she want Paulo to leave that badly that she didn’t want to risk Argos voting against her? It wasn’t a secret that Argos disliked Paulo. It was just as likely he could vote for the boy to go instead of me. One less thing for him to growl at.
But he surprised me when he padded up to me, and with his black eyes meeting mine, he woofed.
I raised my eyebrows and looked at the others. “That’s his vote! Are we agreed, then?”
“He’s just a dog!” Paulo complained, but a dangerous look from Quincy silenced him.
With that mattered settled, we set off to explore the grounds.
Quincy and Paulo took the barn. Lethia, Argos, and I took the tower. My companions were quiet as we approached the tall stone building. I couldn’t blame them. Once, they had called this place home. Now it was just the place they had lived with a homicidal madwoman.
At the front doors, Lethia breathed, “There are five floors. One is a sublevel—the cellar. The main floor is the biggest and is where the kitchen and study are. That’s where we can start. The second floor used to be my room. Third floor was…was Syria’s. The fourth floor was where we did astronomy and enchantment lessons.”
I nodded, uncertain of whether or not I should say anything. I’m sorry was such a trite thing to tell someone after all we had been through. I wasn’t even sure I had it in me to be charitable toward the girl, despite the pity she inspired. For some reason I just couldn’t shake away the resentment in my heart.
Without a word, we broke off to do our search. Me in the kitchen, Argos to the study, and Lethia in the cellar. The kitchen was small, one round table set off against the north wall with just two chairs set adjacent to each other. The cupboards were largely empty, even the plates and cups gone, but I did manage to find a small bag of white rice that had been missed in a far shadowy corner. A quick inspection told me they were still good.
Returning to the foyer, I found Argos sitting and staring up the stairs. He whined as I approached, his tail wagging once, and I patted his head.
When Lethia appeared a short moment later, she appeared faint. I gave her a discerning look, then asked warily, “Are you all right? You don’t look well.”
“I’m fine,” she said, except her voice sounded like a ghost.
I opted not to say anything. “This is all that I found,” I said, hefting up the half-empty rice bag. “It appears Argos hasn’t found anything. Did you find something usable?”
The teenager shrugged. “A few things. Some spare blankets that managed to stay dry. Three jars of pickled onions. A lantern, but no wick or oil.”
I pointed upstairs. “And up there?”
“We might find some more odds and ends, but no food.”
I sighed and rubbed at my face. “I was hoping for more….”
Lethia bit her lip before murmuring, “I’m not sure but…I might have some money hidden in my room. It isn’t much, but it ought to be enough to buy us some food.”
Before I could say anything to this, the girl started up the stairs, and with a glance at Argos, I followed her. The winding staircase reminded me of the keep that Syria had commandeered in the Other Place. My skin broke out in gooseflesh, and I could feel my jaw tighten.
We stopped at the first door we came to on the left, and when Lethia pushed inside. Her room was of medium size. There was a single size bed, but the sheets had been stolen and the mattress slashed. The shelves were bare, and I could see outlines on the western wall where a desk and a dresser appeared to have stood. Going just to the right of the desk spot, Lethia didn’t seem fazed by the emptiness of her room. Her face was a blank mask as she crouched down near the wall, and with her fingernails, she pulled out a cobblestone. It was darker than the others, and hidden behind it was a small pouch.
Lethia straightened as she opened this and poured out its contents. A handful of gold coins, an engraved silver bangle, and a small pair of copper glasses with dark round lenses. I guessed they were the pair that Lethia had worn when she was a child.
Gods…. Syria had cursed Lethia for that long?
I don’t understand, Kali asked in my head. Why do the glasses matter?
I couldn’t quite meet Lethia’s eyes as she held the items out to me.
I’ll spare you the search through our memories, sister. Syria had made it so that Lethia could not look anyone in the eye without emptying their heads of memories.
Oh…yes, I think I remember that being said, now. She must have been very lonely.
Kali’s words weren’t tinged with pity, but sympathy. This stunned me, leaving me inattentive to the words that Lethia had just spoken. I stared at the items in the girl’s hands. Of course, it had long been established that my Twin had her own opinions of things, but rarely did I hear her spare a kind thought for a human, let alone anyone.
I snapped my eyes up to find Lethia frowning at me.
“Huh?” I mumbled.
“I said I think there is enough here for one day’s worth of food. I don’t know where we can get money for anything else. Maybe Quincy has some in that magic bag of hers.”
I nodded dumbly, still trying to figure out why Kali would sympathize with Lethia after all we’d been through. I reached as if to take the items out of the girl’s hands, but she pulled them away from me, making me pause with a curious glance.
Lethia’s lips were pressed thin and her eyes had suddenly taken on a determined edge that bewildered me. “You can sell the bangle, but I want you to do something special with the glasses when you go into town.”
My brow tensed and I lowered my hand. “All right. What is it?”
“I want you to find an elven man named Daedalus. He’s a tinkerer in Belcliff and a good friend of mine. Give him these glasses and tell him to return with you in his scrap wagon with his tools.” She paused, but I could see from her furtive look at her shoes that she wanted to continue.
“And?” I prompted.
“Tell him to bring a bottle of wine and some medical supplies.”
I put my hands on my hips, my eyes going a little wide. “Why would we need medical supplies?”
Lethia gave me a critical look, and yet this time she was the one who failed to meet my eyes. “Nyx, Elmiryn is still out there. She’ll need a drink to ease the withdrawals she’ll no doubt be suffering from. There’s no telling what state she’ll be in, either. Wouldn’t it be best to be prepared?”
I nodded slowly, but I was still suspicious. The girl’s logic was sound, but I had a feeling this wasn’t her true reasoning. After all, why would she be so concerned with finding Elmiryn?
So I asked next, “What do you need Daedalus for? We’re in hiding, you know. The less who knows we are here, the better.”
Lethia took my hand and forced the coins and trinkets into my palm. With a sigh, she said, “First of all, we aren’t going anywhere, Nyx. I think we both know that. We still have to find Elmiryn, and Hakeem is still unconscious. Daedalus is not only a tinkerer, he’s also trained as a healer. Plus he has a wagon. I thought that it would be nice if you could return quickly, and then my friend can try to help Hakeem. Who knows? He might even come up with some ideas to make this place more comfortable while we try to rest and heal.”
All fair arguments, of course. Still, that nagging feeling persisted.
“Lethia, if there’s something you need to tell me—” I began.
She cut me off. “We should find the others. The barn isn’t that big. They ought to be done, now.”
She started for the door, and I could only stare after her.
Lethia’s voice came from the staircase as she left the room. She sounded small and distant. “You should leave now while you still have daylight, Nyx.”