Lethia didn’t die, thankfully. Within a few days of severing her own arm, she was up and walking—though she never stayed up for long. She never complained about the pain. Daedalus and Quincy gave her herbal mixes to help with that, but there wasn’t a plant on this world that could eliminate the discomfort entirely. I could see how it kept the enchantress up at night. Oddly enough, this was the most at peace I’d seen the girl since we’d reunited. Lethia always appeared lost in thought, and not in the melancholy way she had been before, but with an almost determined air. Determination for what, I had no idea.
It was thanks to Daedalus that her condition had not worsened. Just as I had expected, the elf had stayed, tending to the enchantress and helping her care for her wound. More than that, though, the two were constantly talking, heads bowed as if they were going over some secret plan. They always fell silent whenever I or one of the others drew near, and it made me suspicious. What were they talking about that they couldn’t share with the rest of us?
I mentioned this to Quincy, but she only brushed me off.
“Daedalus and Lethia are old friends. The elf has been in her life since she was a child.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because he was one of the first people I questioned when I was pursuing Lethia as a bounty. If they want to talk in private, then let them! It may just be that he’s the only one she feels comfortable with confiding in right now,” she said.
I huffed. “Yes, but—”
“Nyx, I cannot entertain your cynicism right now! I need to massage Hakeem to prevent bed sores.”
Hakeem had not awoken since our arrival. Daedalus, humoring Quincy, had gone up to check on the Fanaean, who had taken residence in Lethia’s old room (since the girl had decided she preferred the barn), but he would not wake. He lay there still as a lifeless doll. Stubbornly, Quincy insisted on caring for him.
I pitied Quincy and Hakeem both.
Paulo, who had taken to sleeping outside, under the stars, was quiet and withdrawn. It was the return of the taciturn young man we had first encountered in the Other Place, but with a notable difference. Now, whenever Paulo was in the same room as Lethia, he would stop and do something for her. Sometimes it was small: He would bring her a cup of water; shut a window for her; or bring her whatever food we had cooked that day. Other times it was more. Once I’d seen him freshen up her hay bed. Another time, I saw him fix a leak on the roof of the barn that had been bothering the enchantress.
I didn’t really know what to make of this change. It seemed to happen so suddenly. Lethia didn’t seem all that surprised by it, but to say the two were comfortable around each other would have been overstating the situation. Paulo, after his task for the girl was complete, would practically flee her presence. Lethia, who always watched the boy intently as he worked, never said a word of thanks, nor attempted to speak further with him.
And how did I fare after spending so many days hiding and resting at Syria’s abandoned tower?
I was losing my mind.
If I weren’t in touch with the shadows, I would have believed they were moving. My eyes were always playing tricks on me, making me believe someone (or something) was lurking in the dark when there wasn’t really anything. Other times, I’d fuss over something incessantly—like tying my gambeson for instance. I’d be halfway through my ties before I’d start all over again, thinking I’d skipped one. Quincy happened upon me in Syria’s old room doing this, no doubt seeking help with Hakeem, before she stopped me in bemusement.
“Nyx, stop. You’re just going around in circles!” she chided.
“But I keep missing a tie for some reason!” I whined. “I keep counting them, watching my hands, but the gambeson doesn’t sit right! I don’t understand!”
Quincy crossed her arms and looked at me funny. “How long have you been trying to tie your gambeson?”
The question startled me. I took a moment to think, then mumbled uneasily, “H-How far have the suns traveled from the ten o’ clock position?”
The wizard balked at me. “You’ve been doing this for an hour?”
“It can’t have been that long!” I protested. I started to fumble with my ties again. “I would have noticed!”
Quincy grabbed my wrists and I looked into her face sharply. Her expression was very solemn. “Nyx, you’re an intelligent girl. Surely you’ve noticed that things have not been the same since we’ve returned!”
“What do you mean?” I asked, but I knew exactly what she was talking about.
The wizard rolled her eyes and put her hands on her hips. “You know very well what I mean! The small hallucinations! Our foggy memories! Who does that sound like?”
I could feel my heart hammering in my chest. “Elmiryn,” I breathed.
Quincy nodded grimly. “Yes. Izma and Meznik mentioned that we had been altered in some way, to allow us to see them without losing our minds. At the time, I didn’t understand why they would want us to see them, unless of course they intended…”
“To use us,” I finished, my voice sounding hollow.
She only nodded again.
I buried my face in my hands. “Sweet Aelurus! I thought being a champion meant I would be safe from such influence!”
“You’re still mortal, Nyx. Don’t take your status for granted. And besides,” Quincy crossed her arms and I could see her eyes grow distant as she delved into some deep thought. “This has another side to it.”
“Really? And what’s that?” I muttered miserably.
“Isn’t it obvious? We can see the astral demons, Nyx! If we can see them, that means that we can fight them! They’ve lost one of their safeguards!”
I raised an eyebrow. “We’ve just established this is a double-edged sword, Quincy! We won’t be of much help to anyone let alone ourselves if we start to lose our minds like—” I broke off. I never thought I’d experience what the warrior had to go through, but now that I did, I regretted not being more supportive of her when we’d first met. To have to go through something like this alone…it was really just proof that the redhead had considerable mettle to keep from succumbing to what was obviously a harrowing state of existence.
Then another alarming thought occurred to me. “You don’t think that Izma and Meznik intend to turn us into fae, do you?”
Quincy frowned. “I don’t know. Why would they? Half the point of their war game seemed to be about displaying how creative one was in comparison to the other. Making a person into a fae would be old hat to them.”
I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. “So what now, then?”
“Well, seeing as how our new affliction allows us to witness the demons without trouble, reversing that seems detrimental. At the same time, we’d have to keep it from progressing further, or we won’t be able to function in our own world…” The wizard trailed off, her finger tapping her chin as she gazed through the floor. Finally, she shrugged. “I’ll research what I can. Maybe Lethia knows of something. Meanwhile, we should tell everyone what is happening so that they can be aware of the problem. Until such a time as we can come up with a way to mitigate our condition, we’ll just have to watch each other.”
I swallowed through a tight throat and nodded. “You came up here for something?”
“Oh! Yes. But first,” she gestured at my unlaced gambeson. “Let me help you with that.”
Once I was fully dressed, I went to help Quincy with moving Hakeem off his bed—she wanted to wash his sheets. As we worked, we discussed other ways of lessening the ill of effects of the demons’ influence. One such thing we agreed on—everyone needed to sleep better.
When I really stopped to think about it, I hadn’t slept all that much in the Other Place. Of course, there were moments where I had been unconscious, but the only time I could remember actually sleeping was during our stop at the shard where the Lycan village had been located. There, I had slept for a short time, and I don’t recall dreaming about anything. Yet here I seemed to dream every single night, and they were the worst nightmares. Every time, I awoke screaming, sweat drenched and with fragmented memories of what my consciousness had taken me to in sleep: a sea of nymph corpses that I drowned in; a herd of pretas that tore me apart; my chest ripping open and revealing a black hole—
Elmiryn leaving me.
What most pained me was that when I would descend from Syria’s room, it was usually to find Quincy sitting in the dark of the kitchen, staring at nothing. Or Paulo crouched just outside the barn doors with his head in his hands, his breath hitching. Or Lethia pacing—almost angrily—out along the property fence. Even Argos seemed to struggle with some inner trauma as he obsessively hunted down the gophers and other pests that had taken up residence on the land.
We were all suffering and yet none of us seemed capable of talking to each other.
Worse yet, Elmiryn still had not returned, and I had no idea where she could be. I only waited a day to see if she would turn up in the same manner that we had, out from under the tree’s roots. But after that, I risked a short trip into the wilderness with the wine. I had talked it over with Lethia and Quincy, and they surmised that the warrior, given her fae powers, could have circumvented the gateway we had entered completely and turned up elsewhere nearby.
But by the sixth day, I was turning up nothing, and I feared the worst.
This time, I wanted to go deeper into the wilderness, but not just for a day trip, like I’d been doing. I wanted to go deeper into the wilds, be more thorough in my search. I didn’t know how to approach the others with this wish, though. Even after our shared hardship, there were deep fractures that divided our group, and it hurt our trust and communication. I could anticipate the accusations from Paulo already.
Just to make sure I stayed honest, I told Kali, After three days of searching, turn us around!
She scoffed at me from her mental den. What do you mean, ‘Turn us around’? You aren’t a wagon I can just steer at will!
I sighed with as much patience as I could muster. Kali, what I meant was—hold me accountable to my original plan. I can’t leave the others for too long.
Kali grunted in response, and I took that as her assent.
Next, I needed to talk to the others…preferably one by one. I’m a coward at heart, after all.
The first I spoke to was Argos, because out of us all, I felt sorry that the dog seemed to be so frequently overlooked. The canine was chasing rodents out in the field, as usual. He stopped and listened to what I had to say—all my reasons and my assurances—and simply licked my cheek. I rubbed his head in thanks, thinking wistfully, I wish I could speak to you like Lethia can, and went off to find Daedalus, who was sitting inside the tower at the kitchen table. He was working with a number of various metal parts. No doubt, he’d taken them from his wagon full of spare clock pieces.
“What are you doing?” I asked out of curiosity.
He glanced at me, but didn’t stop polishing a small gear. With much reservation, the elf murmured, “I’m working on a new creation. Was there something you needed?”
The phrase ‘Marked One’ hung there at the end, even if he didn’t say it.
With a resigned sigh, I went about telling him of my intentions. Then I asked if I could take some of his medical supplies with me.
“No,” he said firmly. He set down his work and turned to glare up at me. “Those supplies will only last me until the end of tomorrow, and Lethia’s wound still needs much tending to! If you want to take healing supplies, you’ll have to go into town and get your own!”
I didn’t bother arguing. With dropped shoulders and a lowered gaze, I hurried off to find Quincy upstairs.
The wizard sat at her husband’s bedside, a damp wash cloth in her hand as she dabbed at his head. I winced at the sight of the unconscious Fanaean. His cheeks were sunken in. What really surprised me was that he wasn’t dead yet. A touch at his shoulder still proved he had some living warmth to him.
Quincy looked at me quizzically. I didn’t typically visit unless she asked me to.
“Can I help you, Nyx?” she asked.
I held her eyes, my mouth open to say something, but I suddenly had to look away. There was a pit in my stomach. I was leaving Quincy alone to deal with the others. She already had so much to deal with. Was that fair?
“You’re going to look for Elmiryn,” she stated quietly.
I swallowed and peered at her sidelong before giving a nod.
The brunette took a deep breath and tossed her wash cloth back into its basin at the floor. With both hands she rubbed at her face before standing and crossing her arms.
Quincy met my eyes. “I understand. If it were Hakeem, I would do the same.”
I fidgeted on the spot. “You’ll be all right? With…with everything?”
“Daedalus is a big help. Paulo seems repentant, which is good. Lethia seems to be in a better mood than she’s been in for a while.” She shrugged one shoulder and puckered her lips. “Yes. I think we ought to be fine!”
“Good! That’s good.”
A long pause.
“How long were you going to search till?” she asked next.
Quincy tilted her head to one side. “You’ll need supplies for Elmiryn, won’t you? I noticed Daedalus’ supplies dwindling.”
I was already backing up toward the door. I still had to speak with Paulo and Lethia, and I was eager to start my search. “I’ll figure something out—”
I paused and looked at her curiously.
Quincy already had her coin purse in hand. “You need to buy things, don’t you? You sort of need money for that, right? Here. Take the rest from last time. That should do it.”
I frowned as she approached to press the purse into my hand. There were at least two hundred gold coins left in the purse. Medical supplies were expensive, so I could very much use the money…but this situation was different from before. I wasn’t buying supplies for the group, just for Elmiryn. Was Quincy expecting a sort of trade again?
“What would you like in return?” I asked wearily.
She put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes. “Huh?”
I jingled the purse. “For the coins? What do you want?”
Quincy scowled. “You think I’m bartering with you?”
I blinked at her, taken aback. “You…you mean, you—?”
The wizard only shook her head at me and turned away, insult and hurt evident on her face. “Smart as you are, you can be a little thick headed, can’t you?” she muttered.
I took a step after her. Did I really misunderstand things that badly? “Quincy, hold on—!”
“Just go, Ailuran,” she snapped, picking up her washcloth again. “I suppose you’re not as perceptive as Elmiryn claimed you were.”
That stung. Had Elmiryn sung my praises while I was away? If she had, I already must have gone against every kind thing she said. It doubly hurt because it meant that perhaps the warrior didn’t understand me as much as she thought she did. I seemed to be discovering new lows every day.
Without a word, I sought out the others. Paulo, expectedly, brought up the possibility that I was leaving them for good.
“I’m not going to do that!” I snapped at him.
“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” he argued back. “Even if you really are looking for Elmiryn, you two could just run off together the moment you’re reunited!”
“You want to know how you can trust me?” I snarled.
“By having faith!” I spat. And I left it at that.
Last of all, I went to speak with Lethia.
The girl was in the barn, as she usually was when the suns rose into their noon-time position. It was on Daedalus’ orders. The heat, he had warned, could encourage infection. Stay somewhere cool at all times!
Lethia seemed to like this about as much as I liked getting into trouble.
Still, I was shocked to find her topless, her blouse off with just a brassiere on, doing curls with her right arm by using a filled water bucket. Without turning around, she panted out in clipped phrases, “Nyx…you’re going to…look for Elmiryn. Go ahead! I don’t mind.”
I stared at her, feeling uncomfortable. I even overlooked the fact that she had read my mind again. “Should you be doing that? You’re wounded!”
Lethia barely glanced at me. “I’m fine.”
“Does Daedalus know what you’re up to?”
With what sounded like a huff of annoyance, the enchantress finally turned to glare at me in full. I gave a start. In the few days since Lethia had cut off her arm, I had purposefully avoided the more intimate ways of helping her—like dressing or bathing. Whether it was because of anger or shame, I did not know. But seeing her now, I found myself greatly humbled at the scars Lethia’s brand of honor had done to her.
In addition to her now severed arm, the teenager had the long grey scar running along her chest from the daesce that had attacked her. The old wound was not just superficial—it had also taken out a chunk from the top of her right breast, judging by the uneven nature of her brassiere.
Lethia’s sharp green eyes pierced me when she said, “Nyx, you weren’t interested in caring for me before. Don’t pretend to start now. It’d just be bothersome at this point.”
I winced. That was the second time someone had managed to make me feel horrible in just a few words.
Not that hard, apparently, Kali drawled.
“So you didn’t do this to spark sympathy?” I shot back as I gestured at her arm stump. Immediately I regretted that. It sounded awful and petty, even to me.
She raised an eyebrow at me and murmured, “Can it be that you still don’t understand?” She sighed heavily, her lips pursing before she turned away from me. “I was wrong to think we had something in common, then.”
This made me angry in ways I didn’t expect. I stomped to Lethia’s side and hissed, “Why is it that everyone has to understand you? What makes you of such importance that I am somehow lesser for failing to understand your convoluted logic?”
Lethia frowned at me. “What do you want me to say? I’m sorry? Again?”
At my furious silence, she leaned in just enough to breathe. “If the only thing you want is to be angry with me, Nyx, then that is your right. I hurt you, I know. I hurt everyone. But I need you to know, I don’t intend to just sit back and live the life of a cripple.” She stepped away, turning to resume her bucket curls. Through quiet grunts, she said with strain: “I also don’t intend to spend all my life begging for forgiveness with words when I can do more through my actions. When you’ve figured out what you’d like me to do, then by all means…tell me. In the meantime, I will do what I feel I must.”
I glared at her, feeling a sickening mix of guilt and anger surge in my throat like hot bile. It is the worst feeling, when your head is going one direction, and your emotions are stampeding off in another.
Stiffly, I turned to leave.
“Good luck, Nyx. I hope you find her,” Lethia called after me.
I paused at the barn doors, but walked briskly away.
The exchange left me rattled, to say the least. The teenage enchantress seemed so much more confident than I’d ever seen her, including when we first met. Add on the fact that she was physically older than before our strange other-dimensional journey, and it was like speaking to an entirely different person.
And what she said made sense. Even in my heightened state of emotion, I could understand.
I just didn’t want to. I felt petulant and resentful that Lethia would treat me so firmly and yet somehow manage to remain sympathetic all at the same time. It felt unfair.
Space, I thought. I need some space. Some time to think.
I was hating what I was feeling. Who I was turning into. It was like watching myself in the mirror turn ugly and dark, like a hag, and feeling powerless to stop it. I wasn’t powerless, of course. But it wouldn’t be enough to pretend I wasn’t angry and hurt. The charade would be shallow and short-lived. If I really wanted to move on from the devastation I’d faced in the Other Place, I was going to have to reach in deep and purge myself of all the ill feelings that so led me astray.
I was going to have to overcome myself, if I wanted to any sort of peace.