The Sand That Falls

HAKEEM____________________________

His heart was ahead of him–ahead in the sense that he felt it leaving him, over the meadows of singing crickets and swaying blossoms that whistled. He moved as fast as he could, calling on his legs to conquer the ant hills, the sheets of tall grass, the uneven terrain that shifted as he crested the slope.  His lithe form was swallowed in the sweltering embrace of the tropical forest.  As the world sang to him, his ears burned with the warning from the ship captain.

Ya’ good at’cha keepin’ track an’ all, aren’tcha boi?  Den count dis.  You gots an hour, strong, to get ja mweze. I’s tired of dat chile’ games.

An hour. An hour. An hour.

“Tai’undu,” he cursed. “Quincy, wikan tai’undu!

He took a blind leap over an eroded ledge and gave a shout of surprise as he crashed into mud.  He was on all fours, the mud in his mouth, eyes, nose, ears–soaking up his thin cotton pants and staining it.  The flaps of his vest hung heavy, dripping with filth.  He made a clumsy effort to stand, and his bare foot sunk deeper into the mud, up to the knee.  He cursed.  A sinkhole.  He grunted and scraped at the edges of the mud pool, his lean muscles straining with the effort.  He managed to catch the naked root of a tall ginger tree and pulled at it.  With a yell, he was out of the mud, panting.

Though his eyes burst with stars, Hakeem pushed himself to keep going.

The last he saw of Quincy was at the fisherman’s village, speaking with a traveling minstrel.  He’d been busy with an errand for the captain, buying vegetables from farmers, but noted that the girl looked intensely interested.

Swiping the mud from his eyes, the boy burst through a collection of burrflower trees, their fat leaves streaking through the mud on his dark skin.  The mud dried and flaked to a pale brown and left him striped.  Little Savage, the locals called him.  Flitting through the dark of the jungle, he began to believe it.

He was almost a full man, but still so little of life was in his hands.  The few things he possessed, he fought for…Quincy being one.  Though her sentimentality sometimes irked him, Hakeem would sometimes catch himself staring at the sunset, or searching the stars.  …Sometimes he caught himself staring at her.

He had never been shy when it came to the opposite sex.  Since he was much younger, the thought of marriage seemed wondrous to him.  Though the exact details were still treated as a mystery, he had gathered marriage as a mark of status, a happy partnership, a way of having someone else wash your underthings.  To a young boy, it had seemed ideal.  Now it seemed…

Even better.

Living with pirates did much in the way of removing childish ignorance.  He had seen men disembowled for having the wrong ‘look’, seen adults fuck in drunken stupor, seen the elderly beaten to death in blind rage.  His hands had been employed to snatch away jewels from honest workers, and his feet ordered to kick a crying child in the face.  So far, no life had ended because of him, but no life had ever stretched longer from his effort, either.

…None but hers.

As a child, he had considered her a possible candidate for a wife–even though she was ‘too pale’ and ‘spoke funny’.  Now, he thought of no other.  There was no mystery to the union of a man and a woman anymore, and it left him wanting.  Quincy was a good friend, but he didn’t want a sister.  He wanted more.

With the possessive nature of his shipmates rubbing off on him, Hakeem had already attributed the word, “Mine,” to her (behind her back of course).  It was not a threat, so much as a promise to any of the lustful scoundrels that eyed Quincy’s creamy limbs, her feminine curves, her peach bow lips.  “You can’t have her, she’s mine.  Bwa-mweze,” My wife. “I’ll kill the bastard that gets too close!”

They laughed at him. “Oh!  Demi kuhzwala!” Look at the big man!

But they kept away.  Hakeem knew it was a combination of things.  The captain had ordered that neither adolescent be touched, if only to keep the peace.  There was also some awe surrounding their origins, and some were hard pressed to try their luck.  Others were simply superstitious.

A Fanaean virgin’s promise was considered magic in of itself.

Hakeem didn’t believe this, but he let the men carry on thinking what they would.  He wasn’t even a virgin anymore.  It was luck and an instinctual caution that had kept Quincy and him safe for the time being.

…Except now.

Leaning against the young smooth trunk of a palm tree, Hakeem caught his breath.  He willed himself to stay upright but his spine curved in rebellion.  “Quincy!” He shouted hoarsely. “Bwa-mweze!  Quincy!

An irritated voice answered him. “Great job.  You scared away all the song birds.”

Hakeem slipped down the slope of exposed red clay, wincing at the way the rocks and rough edges jammed into the soles of his feet.  He swatted a mosquito from his breast and went to the place he tracked the voice–somewhere behind the tamarind tree.  The forest floor was littered with them, and they made a funny smell.

He rounded the trunk, shoulders bunched and his expression livid.

They had twenty minutes to get back to the ship.

“Quincy, have you lost your gods damned mind?” Hakeem snapped.  His voice cracked.  This incensed him further and he cursed under his breath, kicking at the ground.  Why did that always happen when he was trying to sound tough?

His ferocious entrance ruined, Quincy smirked up at him.  “Bwa-taika, how upset you are!”

The boy stopped, and his entire body flushed red.  He looked at her, mouth open.

The girl laughed, and tucked a russet lock behind her ear.  Azure eyes squinted at him in mirth.  “Of course I know what ‘mweze’ means, stupid.  I’ve lived with you long enough to pick up that much, for heaven’s sake.”  She stood and dusted the clay from the rear of her shorts.  Some of it had even stained the exposed soft under flesh of her butt.

Hakeem couldn’t help but stare.

She caught him, and her smile turned coy.  “Want to get the rest of it, Taika?”

Taika.  Husband.

Stupid girl.  She had no idea what she was doing to him.

He glared at her and turned away.  “That isn’t funny.  C’mon.  We’re late.  The ship is going to sail.”

“I’m not going.”

He stopped mid-step, then turned slowly to look at her.  His eyebrows were raised high and wrinkled his forehead.  “…What was that?”

Quincy had her arms crossed, and her tanned face was set in a frown.  “I said I’m not going.”

Hakeem stared at her as if she’d turned a funny color.  The lust was gone.  Now all he felt was dumbfounded irritation.  “You can’t be serious.”

“I am.”

“Well you can’t stay here!

“I won’t.  I’m going to find another way out.”

How!?”  Hakeem shouted, advancing.  “That ship has been the only thing we’ve had for the past three years!  If it weren’t for them, we’d be–”

“Better off!” Quincy screamed in his face.  She’d always met his dares, and had stepped forward as he came towards her.  Now they stood, toe to toe. “I can’t believe you can even talk about them like they’re our family!  I hate those men!  I hate what they do!  I hate what they make us do!  They’re turning you into one of them, and I can’t take it anymore!  I’d kill them all in their sleep if I could!”

“What’s gotten into you?  What did that mkundu of a minstrel tell you!?” Hakeem grabbed her arm in a rough grip.  “Quincy–”

She punched him in the mouth, with all her might.  Quincy knew how to ball a fist, and even better, how to throw it.  He reared back, his grip on her lost, his hand at his bleeding lip.  “Tai’undu!

Quincy seethed, red-faced. “Don’t you touch me like that.  EVER.

Hakeem wiped at his mouth and let the blood flow, his eyes squinted dangerously.  “Why are you doing this!?  We’ve got less than fifteen minutes to get back there now!”

“Because our time with them is done.”  Quincy swept back her brown hair with an imperious flip, and glared at him with squinted eyes. “Do you really think we can stay with them safely and not expect them to turn on us? …Do you think I can?”

“I wouldn’t let them hurt you,” His voice was a growl. Everything in him bunched, just at the thought.

Quincy’s eyes turned soft. “You don’t understand. I don’t want you to protect me anymore.”

Hakeem snorted, crossed his arms and glared at the treetops. Her words burned him, but he drew up in anger. Stupid girl, silly girl. Swords were not meant for her hands.

“And what kind of life would you have instead?” He said angrily. He still refused to look at her. “You want to be a hero? Have sonnets to your name?” He cursed under his breath and kicked at the ground again. He went to the ginger trees and felt their bright crimson leaves match the feelings that swirled inside. It was true, their life was not a happy one–but it kept them alive, it kept them going. “The champions are dead. People don’t want heroes anymore, Quincy.”

He turned to look at her, his eyes dark. “If you want to leave Tulki and his ship, then at least wait until we arrive somewhere better–a port city with jobs and places where we could live–”

“I’m not interested in playing house anymore than being a hero, Hakeem.”

He sighed and looked at Quincy, head tilted back far so that he looked at her down his nose. “What did you have in mind then?”  Another dare.

Quincy’s eyes shone and she shifted her weight to one foot, her hand at her hip.  A slanted grin blossomed on her pretty lips.  “We can’t stay on Tulki’s ship because he’s going West, and I want to go to Crysen, which is East. It’s on the Kilemare Coast.”

Hakeem frowned. The Kilemare was a notorious coast line, avoided by all with enough sense. It was riddled with dragons, malicious spirits, and other magical creatures. It was also a magical hotspot, and where some of the best practitioners in the world trained. “And what are we supposed to do there?

“Learn. I’m tired of having no control in my life. I want to be independent. I want to be strong.”

Hakeem rubbed his shaved head with both hands, mud flaking off as he did so. He was just getting used to the seafaring life, just beginning to find his place in the crew. He hated those men, held no pride in his work…but what he didn’t want to admit was that he was scared. Scared of being completely uncertain of his future, at the mercy of life and the wiles of Fate.

Quincy saw right through him. “Hakeem…how much worse off could we be? Really?

He let out a rush of breath and let his hands fall to his sides. He gave her a sidelong look. “Okay. Fine. I was getting tired of taking orders from that toothless mkundu Tulki anyway.”

Quincy grinned at him ecstatically and ran forward to give him a hug around the neck. “Bwa-taika, sekaiku!”  My husband, thank you!

With his hands at her waist, he pushed her back gently, far enough that he could look into her eyes. She gazed at him, still smiling, but with a puzzled look in her eyes. “What is it?”

“I’m not…kidding…when I say that, Quincy.” He reached up to hold her chin. “I don’t think we’re too young. Sometimes I’m sure I’ll die tomorrow, but one thing I know for certain…is that I want you there with me.  Always.  As…my wife.”

Her eyes turned lidded. She stood on her toes and brushed her lips against his. His hands flexed on her waist, and his heart was fit to burst in his chest. When Quincy pulled away, her smile was warmer.

“Stupid boy…I wasn’t kidding either.”

Hakeem grinned, forgetting that his lip was still split, that he was covered in dry mud, and that he was supposed to be angry. He grabbed Quincy and lifted her, kissing her full on the lips. When he set her down, she slipped from his arms, laughing, and looked at him over her shoulder with a mischievous grin. He watched as she tied her sword belt around her waist. The thing looked far too thick and brought a masculine quality to her appearance. Hakeem eyed it unfavorably.

Then something occurred to him.

“We now have less than eight minutes to run three miles back to the ship.” And here he crossed his arms, a sardonic grin on his lips.

“…So what’re we going to do about MY things?”

Quincy froze. Her azure eyes flickered to him as a russet strand of hair slipped into her gaze.  Her lips twitched into a nervous smile.

“Whoops…”

Continue ReadingThe Sand That Falls

Chapter 11.2

ELMIRYN____________________________

She could see the dog’s incredible mass quiver beneath its fur with every bone-crushing drop of its paws.   It lifted its head a brief moment, and the wind blew its lips back enough to reveal massive, yellow canines that Elmiryn swore were as long as her middle finger.  Then again, her ability to judge things by sight was hampered, so maybe it wasn’t so bad.  Maybe the ground shaking was just in her head, and the dark eyes weren’t really imagining her as dinner, and maybe it actually liked tea parties, and didn’t chase squirrels, and thought elven history was a good read–

Who was she kidding?  Elmiryn was fucked.

“Nyx,” she turned, only to find her companion…gone.  Alarmed, the woman’s head swiveled around and her eyes found the girl up a pine tree.  She smirked sardonically.

Not that she could blame her…

Then her breath left her.  The sky and earth tumbled.  Pain crashed over her like a wave, and for a moment she could only see dark ripples.  Her back was on the ground, and a great weight pressed on her.  She blinked, fighting to see, and her vision returned to her just in time to see the dog lean down and–

“Ugh, fuck!

The tongue covered the entire right side of her face and left a horrible smelling slime to drip down her neck and chin.  Then came another long lick, and a whine, before the dog barked in her ear.  The sound tore through her head like tissue paper.  Elmiryn wretched once, twice–

Third time’s a charm.

She managed to turn her head just in time to keep the foul sick from flowing over her face and neck.  It wasn’t much.  A mouthful, maybe.  She’d done much of the work the night before.  Groaning, she shifted to keep her shoulder from dipping into the new puddle.

The dog sniffed at her face, tongue testing the vomit that had just managed to get on her cheek.  It was all rather disgusting, and the animal felt like a ton on her, but despite it all…

Elmiryn started to laugh.

The scholarly, tea-loving, earth-quaking dog just wanted to say hello.

“Ger’off, you big mutt,” she managed to say through her chuckles.  Elmiryn shoved it back with both arms.  They were weak, and quaked with the effort.  The dog moved more from suggestion than actual brute force.

“Ouch…” Elmiryn hissed as she sat up.  She touched her side and winced.  She glared at the dog, which had taken to sitting on her shins.  “I think you broke something…and I thought I said to get off!”  She gave it another weak push, and when her legs were free, she made to stand.  Her vision fuzzed again, her skull swirling in pain, and she felt her limbs go cold.  “Gods damn it.”

As the dog took to sniffing at her legs, Elmiryn looked up at Nyx in the tree.  The girl had climbed up in a great hurry, judging by the way she barely clung to the low branch with both arms and legs.  She gestured at her friend.  “Get down you pansy.”

“No,” came the strangled reply.  She couldn’t see the girl’s face, the way she held the branch.  “I hate dogs.”

“Well lucky for you, the dog doesn’t hate you.” Elmiryn leaned down and scratched at the dogs head.  “Isn’t that right you mangy beast?”

The dog whined and licked at the woman’s hand.  She grimaced and wiped her hand on her pants.  “Really, Nyx.  Get the hell down here.  It’s alright.”

No!

The warrior rolled her eyes and knelt next to the dog.  Down on her knee, was it her imagination, or was the dog taller than she was now?  She felt around its neck, her arms making an effort to reach around.  She frowned and sat back when she felt nothing.  “Hmm, no collar.  But then again, you’re not hard to miss, are you?”

Elmiryn, make it go away!

“Quit being a scaredy cat and get down!”

The girl cursed something in her native language.  Elmiryn’s mind still held some of Nyx’s memories, and by that token, portions of her Ailuran vocabulary.  She caught something about an idiot catching a falling anvil…Probably some sort of saying or proverb.

“Alright, well you can stay there while I find this dog’s owner.”

The girl craned her head back, her face pink from the way her blood drained into her cheeks.  “You’re going to what?

The woman patted the dog’s shoulder.  “I bet I can get a reward for returning this dog.  It’s clearly someone’s pet.”

“Elle–”

“So if you want to sit there all morning, by all means–”

“Elmiryn–”

“I mean, after the way other people have treated you, you’d think you could spare a bit of compassion for–”

Nyx let out a frustrated yell.  She banged her head on the tree branch, muttering fast under her breath, before she unwrapped her legs and (with a whimper) let herself fall to the ground.

The dog woofed and stared at her with ears perked, every muscle in its body still.  Nyx eyed it apprehensively.

“It…won’t hurt me?  You won’t let it hurt me?” She took cautious steps toward them, as if expecting her next step to be her last.

Elmiryn smacked the dog on the nose and it gave a surprised yelp.  Ears folded back, it hunched over and stared up at her with a scandalized look.  The woman pointed at Nyx.  “You be nice.  You’ll crush her if you aren’t careful.”

Nyx moaned.  “Elmiryn, that isn’t funny!”

Elmiryn blinked back at her, hand still pointing.  “I wasn’t trying to crack a joke.”

This only made the girl look greener, and it seemed for a moment that illness was going to visit her as it had the woman.  But then the girl took another trembling step forward, then two.  She made certain to keep the warrior between herself and the shaggy dog, her eyes wide.  When she pressed against Elmiryn’s arm, she could feel the girl’s heart beating like a hummingbird’s.

“Sweet Aelurus, why does it have to be so big?”  The girl breathed into Elmiryn’s shoulder.

The woman laughed.  The dog reached Elmiryn’s elbows when it sat.  With Nyx, it reached a little under her bosom.

“Maybe someone experimented on it?  An alchemist or something?” Elmiryn hypothesized as she began to walk.  She kept a hand on the dog, ready to grab at its fur–not the best of restraints, but it was so big and had no collar.  Fortunately the animal seemed content to keep pace with her of its own volition.  “I’ve seen chickens hatched from eggs that casters had magicked–they were the size of a human toddler.”

“Whatever the reason, it seems unusually agreeable, doesn’t it?” Nyx said, her voice flecked with mistrust.

Elmiryn looked down at the dog.  It eyed the camps as they passed, but made no sign of recognition.  Its owner was not there, and none came forward to claim it–though plenty stared.  One minute the monster-looking creature was charging past, the next it was coming back the way it came, two strange women in tow.  The woman winked at an old artisan wrapped in cloths who had been staring too long.  The stranger hurriedly tried to busy herself with her jewelry making.

“I don’t know, Nyx,” Elmiryn replied, looking forward again.  “There have been stranger things in this world than a friendly dog.”

“But one that picks us out of the hundreds of people camping out here?”

The woman shrugged.  Given recent events, the girl’s paranoid musing was not out of place.  She looked down at the dog and cooed.  “Have you got a surprise for us, mangy beast?”

Mangy Beast woofed and danced out of Elmiryn’s touch.  It stopped before the two women and canted a bit, pawing at the air.  It let an anxious bark, tail low but wagging, ears folded back.  Turning its back on them, it stared over its shoulder, tongue lolling.  Elmiryn and Nyx exchanged looks.

“That…isn’t normal, is it?  Could it just be that smart?” The woman said with a shrug.

Nyx shook her head slowly, her eyes on the whining dog.  “I haven’t the slightest idea.”

The dog gave a sharp bark, and with a shaky of its thick mane,  snorted and took off into a run, bits of dirt and grass startled from their homes.  Elmiryn gave a start, one hand extended. “Hey–shit–Hey wait a second!”

She pushed with the ball of her foot and gave chase.

She heard Nyx sputter behind her. “Elmiryn!  Where do you think you’re going?”

“After the dog! Where else?”

There was a groan, and when Elmiryn glanced back, she saw Nyx sprinting to catch up. Her expression was scrunched in what appeared to be agony. Elmiryn felt no better, but she was certain the dog was their way out of sudden poverty.

“But where is IT going!?” Nyx managed to wheeze.

“No idea!” she answered.  She managed a breathless laugh.  “Here, gimme a sec.  Lemme ask the fucking thing.”

“Oh, very funny!”

They moved through a dense collection of camps–a traveling company. Elmiryn leaped over a startled couple on a quilted mauve blanket whilst they were mid-lip-lock, and she waved at them with a grin over her shoulder. They blinked at her in confusion. Nyx ran around them, all apologies.

The dog, once the women were following, seemed to slow down to a pace where they both could keep up. It would sprint forward, then pause to look back at them, ears perked and dark eyes shining from beneath its mane. Elmiryn wiped the sweat from her eyes, her breathing hoarse. Was the dog grinning at them?

She didn’t keep track of how far they went. The time seemed to melt in pain and heat, even with the merciful ocean breeze lighting on their flushed skin. When the traveler camps thinned out, and the Torreth Mountains began to curve away from the ocean into a tight valley parallel with the northern mountains, the dog finally took to a stop. It sat back and panted, eyes unconcerned as they passed over Elmiryn.

The woman fell to her knees, wheezing. The edges of her vision was a blur. “Hey…ya…mangy beast…you wouldn’t be trying to kill us…would you?” She looked behind her, her entire body swinging as though it were on a swivel. “Nyx?”

“I’m down here.”

Elmiryn crawled over the grass on all fours to gaze down the low hill they had just scaled. Nyx was farther down, on her back, spread like a star in the green. Her eyes were closed and her chest rose up and down fast.

The woman managed a weak laugh. “Hey! If it weren’t for all that running we’ve been doing before, I don’t think we would’ve made it this far!”

Nyx scoffed, but didn’t open her eyes. “If you weren’t already in shape, and I wasn’t what I am, we wouldn’t have even made it at all. …Where in the nine hells are we, anyway?”

Elmiryn turned to look at the dog. “Okay, Mangy Beast. Where are we? Where have you brought us?” She went crawling to it, but even this took a great effort. The grass looked so welcoming. Elmiryn was tempted to pass out on it. “I hope this wasn’t a wild goose chase, because I hear some kingdoms see dogs as a delicacy…” Her ears perked as she neared the animal. The dog did not move, but just watched her with an air of indifference as she came nearer.

“That sound. It’s just like…” Elmiryn, dredging up some last reserve of energy, scrambled forward. Her vision swam, and she made no attempt to stand, but as she came next to the dog, she managed to see through her exhaustion. Her face lit up.

“Nyx! It’s water! The dog led us to the stream!” Not waiting, Elmiryn tumbled down the hill to it–a clear run of water six feet wide. It ran from the Torreth and collected into a muddy pond further on, but the stream was beautiful. The stream was enough. Elmiryn dipped down to take a long drink, the feel of the water like heaven down her throat. When she came up again, she found both Nyx and the Mangy Beast had joined her.

She reached over Nyx to pat the dog on the head. “Good job, boy.  If we could afford it, we’d keep you!”

The dog whined, and turned its great head to face downstream. Elmiryn frowned and followed its line of sight. She saw nothing. “What is it?”

If there was anything of interest, the dog gave no further indication, but allowed Elmiryn and Nyx rest by the water and drink to their hearts content.  The redhead understood the situation exactly in that context, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on why that was.  The three suns crawled over the sky, and though hunger was now another issue, Elmiryn felt a great deal better.  Nyx seemed well, too.

The woman sighed, content.

But as she watched the dog, belly-up, wiggle in the grass, she felt her sense of danger prickle.  With narrowed eyes, she gazed at their surrounding landscape.

There were jagged ledges of exposed terrain, and small shrubs that rustled in dark contrast to the open fields of unchecked grass.  No one, no animal, was in sight.  The fields swept from the ocean wind, and all at once, Elmiryn felt exposed.

“We should get going. This spot isn’t good to dawdle at.”  She stood to her feet, one hand on the hilt of the iron sword.

Nyx sighed and stood with her, hands at the straps of her bag.  “Alright then…”

The dog brushed past Elmiryn’s legs, making her stumble.  It was more like having a bear nudge her in the side.   When she glared at it, annoyed, the dog gave a small growl, then began to trot through the stream, towards the northern cliffs.

“Well there it goes again…” The woman grumbled, arms crossed over her chest.  They followed it, walking briskly.

As they came down a gentle slope that led into the heart of the valley, Nyx touched her elbow.  Elmiryn looked at her and saw anxiety in her eyes.  “You were right Elmiryn.  This is odd.  I don’t think it is a coincidence, what happened in the bar and what’s happening now.”

The woman frowned.  “You don’t think we should follow the dog?  It did lead us to water.”

Nyx shook her head, her brow furrowed deep.  “But that wasn’t the stream the travelers spoke of.  I didn’t even see that one.  This is an isolated area.  The open valley begs for an ambush!”

“Look where the dog is going,” Elmiryn said, gesturing with a tilt of her chin.  “Farther to the north, and out of the open.  If there was some plot to get us, it would’ve happened by now.  I just don’t like sitting and waiting for that to happen, which is why I’d like to get moving.”

“But you admit this is strange?”

Admit it? I think I called it first, kitten.”

“I said not to call me that!”  The girl snapped, walking faster.

Elmiryn smiled and rubbed the back of her neck with a chuckle.  “Damn.  Sorry.”

As they reached the foot of the northern mountains, the dog stopped and barked anxiously at the women, its tail wagging.  Elmiryn jogged, because something in the dog’s behavior suggested impatience.

…Never mind that she was allowing herself to be hurried by a dog.

Nyx didn’t bother speeding up.  She only grumbled something under her breath and trudged along at a sullen speed.

When Elmiryn caught up with the animal, it gave a shake of its fur, then took off again, as fast as it could toward a collection of rocks and exposed earth in the mountain side.  The woman noted how the creature had no intention of waiting anymore.  She sprinted after it, still faint in body, but rejuvenated after her rest at the stream.

As she neared, she saw a jagged crevice in the mountain side that revealed an opening.  It was slim and blended in well with the dark surroundings, but Elmiryn saw it when the dog disappeared into its shadowy depths.  The woman looked behind her to see Nyx still lagging behind.  When the girl looked up and finally took note of her location, Elmiryn gave a wave before slipping in through the narrow entrance.

Light from the outside offered little reprieve once she was within the slim tunnel.  The rocky walls felt smooth, and the ground was slippery with sediment and small stones.  But as Elmiryn delved deeper, she began to see an orange glow dance along the tunnel walls.  One hand on the hilt of her stolen sword, she crouched low and slowly made her way forward.

As Elmiryn rounded the corner, the tunnel widened and opened to a small chamber lit with a single lantern that glowed brighter than it should.  Enchanted?  The dog was there, but the chamber was empty.  Its ears were drooped low on its shaggy head, and it whined when the woman came into view.  Its spine curved to such a degree as to make the woman almost believe it were trying to make itself average-sized.

She scowled and straightened as she entered further.  There was a bed roll and a half-eaten lunch of roasted meat and stewed carrots on a tin plate.  A log had been dragged into the chamber, and draped over it was a cloak and what looked to be a night gown.  Next to it were other curiosities, like odd crystals and vials that were laid out on a small silk blanket on the ground.

Elmiryn squinted at the half-eaten food, then at the whining dog, who was now attempting to conceal its face behind a paw.  Her jaw clenched.

There was a yell.  The woman ducked and saw a frying pan sail over her head.  Her assailant was on the left.  With little thought, she stepped to the side and let loose a right hook.  Her fist buried into soft cloth.  Blinking, she looked at the face of her attacker.

“…You’re just a kid!” She exclaimed, exasperated.  She grabbed the youth by the shoulders as they doubled over, hugging their gut where Elmiryn had punched.  It was a girl, a little taller than Nyx, with long wheat hair and large ears that peeked out from beneath the locks.

Her round, pearly face lifted to face Elmiryn.  It was drawn in shock, pretty pink lips shaped like an “O” as green eyes met blue.

Immediately, the woman felt as though hooks had been jabbed just behind the irises.  They pulled, and her mouth opened as though she wished to scream but the feeling came and left so fast.  It was drowned out by a sickening numbness that rolled over her–that made her fall to her knees.  But her eyes did not leave the girl’s.  Pretty green eyes.  Green.  Green.  Green.  Green…

…Mint green eyes that shone beneath a plumed helmet.  They called to her through the mist and dust, appealing to the true ferocity that demanded victory by the blood of foes.

“Rally the men, Saelin!  We’ll break through their eastern flank!”

Then the moment was gone…Elmiryn slumped to the floor, her face against the ground, eyes burning, her spine on fire, her head feeling as though it were underwater.  The moment was gone, the moment was…the…what?

Where was she?

Continue ReadingChapter 11.2

Chapter 11.3

HAKEEM____________________________

Pieces, disordinate as a smashed pathway leading home.  He saw, he knew, in the rhythm that spoke to him in the lengths of moments that passed between the far away caterwauling and obnoxious humor.  Here.  Seated.  In a chair that held his level of control like a measured cup of fine wine, the man did not move.  Not even as the shadows grew along the plainly furnished room.  Not even as the creaks of shuffling feet outside begged rest.  Then begged wakefulness.  Then begged more rest.

Hakeem rubbed his chin at the display before him, indifferent to all but what he saw.  The world did not weigh on him–did not drag, did not pull.  Things washed away in the darkest reaches of his eyes where the waning candle light could not reach.  Time marched on.  The musty dark curtains soon blocked the morning suns, who laid a weak sliver across his pondering countenance.

He had spent the entire night, eyes fixed to blades, rope, a flask of oil, a grindstone, blankets, a bow and quiver, a change of clothes.  There were small pieces of burnt meat in a wrap, and in the inside of the large bag he had found these items, he’d found bread crumbs.

Pieces, disordinate as a slashed painting.

He was in the last available room at the Cannon’s Punch.  With the items spread out on the stained white bedsheet, the dark-skinned man gave each a dedicated amount of attention.  He was finally at his last.  Carefully, he sat on the edge of his seat so that his knees pressed into the bed cushion, and picked up the long sword with both hands, open palmed, at either end.

It was a Fiamman long sword.  The jeweled pommel and the style of the crescent guard were unique to them.  The blade was military issue, if he recalled correctly from his last visit to the kingdom.  Etched into the guard was a phrase in old tongue that he did not recognize.  He was certain Quincy would know the meaning of it.

Hakeem tested the sword’s weight, lifting his hands, then dropping them softly.  He tilted it one side, than the other.  It was heavier at the hilt, but extremely light by combat standards.  The blade was well cared for, judging by the shine and sharp edge.  He but touched it lightly with his thumb and found himself nicked.  The sword did not like his foreign hands.

Hakeem gave a rumble of approval as he set the blade down again.

The guard was lightly scratched.  The user had found themselves at odds with others quite often.  When the man eyed the hilt, he noted the soft change of the metal’s color towards the end.  This sword was old–so old that even the sweat from the user’s hand had begun to affect the metal.  It was the unavoidable fate of a frequently used sword, no matter how well cared for.  The true interest for Hakeem, however, came in the shape of the stain.

It told Hakeem that the user turned the blade and held it along their arm.

The cross-guard did not prevent this, but it would force the person to hold the flat of the blade against their skin.  Hakeem stood from his chair and took up the blade by the hilt, the way the user would have held it.  The hold, despite the lightness of the blade, required a great amount of wrist strength.  The man turned his head, eyes narrowed as he saw how the blade extended far from his elbow.

The person would have to hold their arm up and out.  What character of person would choose to fight in this way?

The smallest hint of a smirk appeared on Hakeem’s lips.

…The kind that waltzed out of a room filled with hostiles with nary a scratch.

Hakeem went to the center of the room.  He swung his arm back and forth, slowly.  His dark eyes were trained on the sword tip and the light traces it made through the air.  His gaze burned with the after-image from the light that caught the blade.  Hakeem swung his arm faster, letting it travel loosely.  His eyes narrowed at the after-image that now burned his eye.

A tree–devoid of leaves.

When several more swings produced nothing he could recognize, the man decided that the sword was on to him.  It was loyal to its mistress.  He placed his feet beneath his shoulders and smiled fully.  A very good weapon–a shame it wasn’t his.

Hakeem returned to swinging his arm back and forth slowly.  He closed his eyes, eyelids still lit with the bizarre after-image, and focused on the force that went through him as he moved.  With the shock of a blow being absorbed by the reinforcement of his arm, Hakeem realized the potential the blade had for serving as a makeshift shield.  The metal was strong enough for it.  Such a hold required bracers to prevent from accidental injury, but it was indeed possible.  However, he still felt the offensive potential of such a grip.

Testing this theory, Hakeem slid his right foot back.  With the sword held behind him, he let out a sharp kai, then snapped his elbow forward in a wide, high arc.  Intrigued by the results, the man adjusted his grip to hold the blade against the underside of his arm instead, an action that barely took a second, so that the sword faced parallel with the floor.  He swung again, and this time, rotated his wrist forward mid-swing, so that the blade swung free.  It whistled through the air and he imagined the shocked look of his opponent as the sword tip slashed the exposed neck.

He loosened his grip toward the end of the arc, then with a light jump of the hand, turned his hand to hold the hilt the traditional way.  He swung again, the other way.  An unexpected follow-up.  His execution was sloppy, and took too long to switch back to standard sword handling, but he imagined the original owner had mastered that switch years ago.

There was something bloodthirsty about using an offensive item for defensive purposes.

The person was strong, highly trained, and had a taste for danger.  They didn’t mind a gamble, and thrived on their opponents being unprepared or disadvantaged by surprise.

Pieces, disordinate as raindrops to glass…but it began to come together in a single stream–a single picture–a certain path.

“I have garnered more about you from these items, than I ever would have speaking to you,” he thought.

The owner was a self-sufficient person, and very resilient, considering their belongings.  There was nothing of sentimental value, only necessities.  This could have been due to a coldness in the heart–but somehow, he didn’t feel this was the case.

Exhaling, Hakeem straightened and brought his feet together.  He held the sword up to his eyes.  Nice as the single-handed handling was, he imagined another blade was perhaps necessary.  He didn’t see the fighting style being used when the opponent was dancing cautiously out of reach.  It was meant for extreme close combat, when the swing of a long sword could not be executed satisfactorily, if at all.  The man turned and eyed the array of items on the bed.  The other blades were common tools–for skinning game, for woodcutting, for medicinal use–but one blade, six-inches long, glinted at him in the narrow shaft of sunlight that slipped through the curtains of the eastern window.

The dagger was meant for combat use, judging by the point of the blade.  The user could draw it, and while holding the long sword against their arm, could fence with the other.

There weren’t many that would employ such a combat style, least of all in the Fiamman military.  Part of their strength was in their no nonsense fighting and their unity.  There was only one unit Hakeem could think of that would tolerate such an individualistic method.

The dragoons.

Feared the world over, the dragoons were the Fiamman army’s greatest offensive force.  They tackled impossible objectives and were masters of horseback fighting, long range assault, and close-quarter combat.  They were versatile, ruthless, and as he heard it…unruly.  One of the more notorious troops Hakeem had heard of was led by a woman, daughter to a general and an aristocrat.  He could not recall the woman’s name, and this annoyed him.

He vaguely recalled hearing snatches of talk among the well-traveled.  The Fiamman king had put a bounty out on one of their own military leaders, a person of a respectable rank and notorious reputation.  There was no doubt in his mind, now that the evidence was gripped in his hand, that the woman he had seen was that same person.  Fiammans were not known to travel far from their kingdom without good reason.

Taking up the dagger, the man tossed it lightly in the air.  He tested the weight.  A little heavy, for his tastes, but this woman would need something with the mass to back up the force she’d likely use for her offensive maneuvers.  Hakeem turned to the side, tossed the dagger once more, and just as it came down, withdrew his hand at the last second.

The dagger, as though stunned by this betrayal, did not stick neatly into the floorboards, but rather, let its tip smash into the ground like a man’s nose before it hopped up once more to swivel and fall to its side.  Hakeem rubbed his chin and shouldered the Fiamman sword–careful to keep the blade away from his neck.

Swords as loyal as this one was not likely to respond well to macharomancy.

He counted on the dagger to let its guard down more.  The blade was not nearly as old as the sword, and as far as blades went…daggers weren’t the brightest.

Hakeem went to the window and threw the curtains aside with his free hand.  Then he returned to the spot where the dagger had fallen, and knelt down.  He brushed the dagger aside and shifted to allow the sunlight to fall onto the mark in the wood.

The man scowled deeply.

Nauthiz…” he breathed.

A bold line with a light downward slash through the center.  The dagger was not native to Fiamma, though Hakeem could’ve guessed it by the square pommel.  Nauthiz was a runic symbol used in divinations to the far Northwest.

“Your owner…needs something?”  Hakeem frowned.  “Or has she already found it?  Is it not enough?”  He closed his eyes, grumbling.  The after-image of the tree still remained.  Hakeem’s eyes flew open and he straightened.  “Tai’undu!  That woman actually wants…no but that’s impossible!  Why would she possibly want to go there?

Hakeem grabbed the dagger and stood, his body now tense with his new revelation.  He replaced the dagger and sword back on the bed.  Despite not having slept since the day before, the man knew exhaustion would not visit him until this new task was done.  He minded the time.  He and Quincy were under a limit, and there was much more at stake than just reputation.  His new conclusions only brought further questions, and they did nothing to shed light on the strange therian girl.  Who was she?  Why was she with the Fiamman?  What were they really after?

Hakeem set aside his findings.  Perhaps Quincy would be able to interpret them better.  She always caught what he didn’t see.

It was time to seek the bar waitress who had claimed to know one of Gamath’s citizens.  He needed to learn more about the Fiamman woman, as well as her companion, before he could set out.  Hakeem put the items away, save for the bow and quiver, which he shouldered.

Without a backward glance he left the room, bag in hand.

…Hakeem didn’t know if time was on their side anymore.

NYX____________________________

I squinted in the dim tunnel.  My feet slid disconcertingly, and I placed both hands on either wall beside me.  Down below, I heard someone shout, and there was the dull sound of something hitting the ground.  My heart clenched, and I froze.

“Sweet Aelurus, what was that?” I breathed, feeling the blood drain from my face.  I looked back over my shoulder, my first thought being to flee.  But I could not leave Elmiryn.  I took a deep breath and crept forward, trying to comfort myself.  “Elmiryn is alright.  Whatever happened, she must have taken care of it!”

I came to where the tunnel turned into a lit chamber.  Scarcely breathing, I peered around the corner.  My stomach dropped.  Elmiryn was on the floor, mouth open, her eyes rolling in their sockets as she looked around in a clear daze.  I saw the shaggy dog trot to her, whining, its wet nose quivering as it pressed against the woman’s ear.

Then I heard someone whispering.

Creeping out further, my eyes fell on a young girl, with wavy wheat blond hair and large green eyes crouched on the ground feet away, her body turned adjacent to us.  She wore a soft-blue dress with a low v-neck that revealed a white top, laced with black ribbon down the middle.  Her sleeves flared and pooled in her lap.  At the front, the skirt cut open at the waist, where I saw that the girl had on brown shorts and high brown boots.  The girl had her hands at either side of her head, and she looked at Elmiryn with an expression of anguish, rocking back and forth.  I caught snatches of what she said, and my fear grew, along with my befuddlement.

“Slash and parry.  You can’t…you can’t just cut through them.  They aren’t…they live.  They just want…And the men.  What about the men! What about–” The girl sobbed and shook her head.  She squeezed her eyes shut tightly and fat tears leaked out from the corners.  “Saelin!  Watch your back you idiot!”

Trembling I crept out into full view, hands held out before me.  I can’t recall if I meant to show that I wanted no trouble, or if I was trying to be prepared for it.  Either way, I moved forward, feeling my heart ready to leap from my chest.  My eyes fell on the frying pan on the other side of the girl.  The dog glanced at me, ears perked.  I saw its lips twitch and I half expected it to begin growling.

The girl’s eyes popped open, and upon seeing me, she began to scream.  The sound split my skull, and I winced and crouched as though lowering myself could somehow avoid the sound.  The youth scrambled backwards, her flared sleeves and the tail of her dress trailing through the dirt.

I’m sorry!” She shrieked through tears.  She stepped on her skirt more than once, and seemed to go mad in her attempts to flee more quickly.  “I’m sorry–I’m really sorry!  Please don’t hurt me–”

I shook my head, my expression anxious and confused.  “I–I don’t know–I mean, I don’t want to hurt–”

Elmiryn began to speak.  Muttering something.  She started to shift and I went to help her up.

“Elmiryn are you okay!?  What happened?” I asked, eyes flickering back to the young girl.  She had made it to the other side of the chamber, where she pressed her back to the wall.  Her pink face glistened with her tears, and she continued to babble under her breath.

“Where are we?” Elmiryn asked with a great exhalation as she sat upright.  She squinted and frowned as though her head hurt her.

“A cave.  We followed the dog.”  I gestured toward the dog with my hand.  The woman followed my pointing and blinked.

She reached for her sword.  “What on Halward’s plane is that?

I stopped her in alarm.  “No, no!  Stop!  It’s the ‘Mangy Beast’.  Our meal ticket, as you put it before.  We’ve been following it all day!”

“We have?”

“Yes, Elle!  We have!”  I scowled at the woman and took her face in my hands.  “What did that girl do to you?”

“I didn’t do anything!” The girl interjected from her place.  She was hyperventilating.  “I mean I did, I did, I did–but it was such an accident!  A REALLY big one.  M’sorry, M’sorry!!  It’ll go back. It’ll all go back–I don’t know when but it will!”

“What’ll go back?  What in the nine hells are you going on about!?”  I snapped.  My sudden ferocity came riding on my intense horror.  Elmiryn was behaving strangely, more than usual, and the girl’s cries didn’t help.  Elmiryn’s mind was already in such a delicate balance. What if the girl–whatever she had done–had tipped it beyond the point of return?

What did you do?” I screamed, feeling my eyes burn in frustration.

The dog snarled, lips curled back as it leapt before me.  Its hackles were raised and its dark eyes flashed a warning my way.  I didn’t realize it, but I had shifted as though I were about to leap forward.  I settled back quickly, my breath catching in my throat from the aggression the dog radiated.  Elmiryn grabbed my arm.

“Damn…that thing looks like it could eat you,” she murmured with a twitchy grin.

“I gathered that, thank you,” I returned acerbically, my wide eyes on the dog.  The Mangy Beast had settled back already, ears still perked, but its fur had settled and its tail was still.

I looked at Elmiryn out of the corner of my eye, my body trembling worse now.  I imagined I looked like I were in an earthquake.  “Elmiryn, how do you feel?”

“Sleepy,” she replied, dull in voice.  “And still a bit confused.  Did I drink that much last night?”

“We’re a few miles north of Tiesmire.  This girl says she did something to you.”

Elmiryn glanced at me, grumbled something unintelligble, than stood.  Her shoulders sagged, but her eyes flashed as she gazed across the chamber to the girl.  “Like what?” she asked quietly.

The girl looked as though she were about to start screaming again.  Her oval-shaped face drew long and her chest rose and fell rapidly.  With great effort, she began to speak.  “I-I-I t-took your memory.  By accident!  By accident!”  She pointed at her head.  “It’s–It’s just bits and pieces!  I thought you were one of the bad men!  They’ve been chasing me all month!  But then our eyes met–it was such an accident–and I took some of your memory!  I can’t control it!” The girl let out a shuddering sob, her large eyes squinting and letting two more tears leak down her face.  “I mean it!  When Argos came down the tunnel and told me someone was coming, I didn’t have time to grab–”

“Wait, wait,” I interjected.  I closed my eyes in disbelief.  “Did you just say, ‘Argos told me’?  You mean the dog told you?”

I looked as the girl faltered.  “I…I mean…well, yes.  The dog.  My dog.  Argos.  He told me.”

“How?” Elmiryn asked next.  She crossed her arms over her chest.  She seemed like she were about to start laughing.

The girl began to twist her right sleeve.  She looked at us both.  I frowned as I realized something.

The whole time, the youth had avoided looking straight into our eyes.  Rather, she looked at our shoulders, or our shoes.  It made her look as if she were blind.

The girl started to speak, and though her voice was tired and hoarse, she had calmed down enough to stop stuttering.  “I’m a journeyman enchantress.  I’ve trained all my life to master magic of perception and thought.”  She sat up and gestured at Argos, a warm smile blossoming on her still blotchy face.  “The study of animal minds is a path all its own in enchantment.  I don’t specialize in it, but I’ve always had an affinity for it.  Argos is my chosen familiar.  I’ve had him since he was a puppy.”

I stood to my feet, mouth partially open.

The girl paused and her face turned pensive.  She looked towards Elmiryn.  “I saw your memories, Elmiryn.  You’re a Fiamman soldier.  You were following Argos hoping that I’d pay you somehow.  I don’t have much…but…”  The girl shook her head, frowning.  “You’re different. Your memories aren’t right.  They feel like they’re going to break apart if I stop paying attention to them.  It’s unnatural!  Something has happened to you, hasn’t it?”

Elmiryn looked to me.  Her face was blank, but in her eyes I saw her ask me what to do.  I looked at the girl.  With a sigh, I nodded.  She knew enough already.  There was not much to hold back.

“I’m cursed,” Elmiryn said.  The remark seemed far too casual.  I gripped Elmiryn’s arm and the woman’s head bowed a degree.  Her voice grew quieter.  “Things I see seem unreal, and my memories are weak.”

The girl made to stand.  She dusted herself off with quivering hands and straightened.  She gazed at the wall just above us.  “Nyx.  You’re an Ailuran, an outcast from your people.  Elmiryn cares for you, very much.  You try to help her as best you can, don’t you?”

I gave the girl a startled look.  “Um…Yes.  I do.”  I wasn’t sure where this was going.

The blond smiled, one that rivaled Elmiryn’s in width and vibrance.  “I’m so glad!”  The girl bent over and patted her bare knees.  “Argos!”

The dog woofed and with its tail wagging, practically bounded to the girl.  The youth ruffled his fur and cooed.  “I’m sorry I didn’t stop to listen to you!  You were trying to tell me weren’t you?”

She looked up at us again.  “Y’see, I can communicate with him.  He’s a dog, so he doesn’t think in words, even though he understands them.  I have to actually focus on him to get his whole meaning.  When he came down, all I let him tell me was that ‘strong people were coming’, and then I panicked!”  She giggled.  “It’s been a very hard few weeks, so you can imagine how I felt!”

Elmiryn cleared her throat.  “Ah…this is all very interesting…but I feel it’s a little unfair, you knowing our names and us not knowing yours.  Care to enlighten us?”

The girl bit her lip and straightened.  She looked at us both, or rather at our chests, and wrung her hands.  The dog barked, its body hopping up to lightly paw at the girl’s thigh.  This seemed to decide it for her, and she shrugged with a nervous laugh.

“Yes, yes, you’re right of course!  It isn’t as if their magic users…so what’s the harm?  I’m being so rude!”  She spoke to the dog.  I struggled to keep my face straight as Elmiryn had to clamp a hand around her mouth to contain herself.  It felt a little mean, but seeing her talk to it was sort of humorous.

The girl drew herself up, then gave a low bow.  Her wheat colored hair swept forward to conceal her face.  “My name is Lethia Artaud, apprentice to Syria, the Enchantress of Albias.”

I sputtered.  “Syria!?”

Elmiryn turned and frowned at me.  “Who’s she?”

I looked at her excitedly.  “One of the most well-respected magic users in the world!  She’s rivaled only by Gaduman of the East, but he…well…went insane.  I’ve read some of Syria’s work.  Her theories on cognitive matrices in the animus were incredible!”

Lethia blushed and looked at her shoes.  “She wrote that when I was four years old.  I was her subject of study.”

I probably should have guessed this, but I was so surprised that it didn’t occur to me.  I ran my hand through my hair and gave an excited laugh.  “You were?  What was it like when she conducted the simulations?”

“I…can’t remember.”  Lethia gestured vaguely at her head as she went to the log.  Behind it was a pack, which she began to rifle through.  “Syria says that the mark of any true Enchantress is in her memory function.  The inherent magical power can greatly affect how it works.  In my case, it’s completely sporadic…and dangerous.  I can steal others memories, but…”

Lethia froze.  Elmiryn slapped a head to her head and cursed.  Then she went quiet too.  I looked at them both, alarmed.  “What happened, Elle?”

The seconds ticked by.  Neither moved.  Unnerved, I reached out and lightly touched the woman’s back.  “…Elmiryn?”

Elmiryn took in a shuddering breath, as though she’d been underwater for a long time.  She swayed and I steadied her, my expression turning fearful.  She placed a hand on her chest, and looked around with glassy eyes.

Lethia had slumped to her knees.  In her small hands, she held a funny pair of wire lenses.  The round-cut glasses were tinted dark.  She didn’t move right away, but when she did, she put on her glasses with slow, uncertain hands.  They completely concealed her eyes.

When she looked our way, she squealed and fell backward.  “Who–Who’re you two?”

I stared at her, flabbergasted.  “You don’t remember?”

Elmiryn stared at the girl, then at me.  “I’m…missing something, aren’t I?  Is that the Mangy Beast’s owner?”  Then her body tensed, and she went to grab her sword.  “Shit, did you see where the bastard went that tried to hit me with a frying pan!?”  Lethia let out a hysterical shriek.  Argos let out a great heaving sigh.

I groaned.

Oh for heaven’s sake!

Continue ReadingChapter 11.3

Chapter 11.4

NYX____________________________

It took another hour to get the mess sorted.  Lethia was doubly frightened without her stolen knowledge of who we were, and Elmiryn just couldn’t believe that the wailing youth had “the guts” to actually try and cave her head in.  Argos–to my great astonishment–was my biggest aid, for Lethia would listen to no one but him.  The moment I saw this, it became difficult to refer to him as “it” or “the animal” anymore, even if it all sat awkwardly in my mouth.  When Lethia had calmed enough to sit hiccuping on the log, and Elmiryn had put away her sword and quit peeking underneath small slabs of rock (as though her assailant had the power to turn wafer thin), we all sat down for a reasonable talk.

I went on to explain our arrival, and how Lethia had initially taken Elmiryn’s memory after mistaking her for “one of the bad men.”  Again, with Argos’ aid, the matter was cleared up in its entirety, and I sagged visibly in my spot seated across from Lethia’s log.

Elmiryn patted my shoulder, grinning.  “It’s a good thing your memory wasn’t taken, or else we’d all be in serious trouble.”

I shuddered at the thought.

Lethia sniffled and wiped at her swollen red eyes behind her shaded glasses.  “I’m sorry for all this trouble you two.  I guess what I was trying to say, before I…y’know…forgot…was that I have really horrible memory.  It’s because of the power inside me, my mistress says.  That’s why it isn’t the same as when a normal person forgets something.  Every moment of my life, the power shifts, and where it rests in my mind is where it blots out information.”

My brows pushed together in pity.  “So…there’s always something you can’t remember?”

Lethia nodded.  “I mean…I don’t know what it is until I try to remember it, of course, but that’s basically how it works.  Sometimes the power breaks up, and I forget lots of little things.  Other times, it gathers in one place, and I forget a large chunk of my life.  That’s only happened a few times, as I’ve been told.  Those times, I forgot…incredible things.” The girl’s face grew red, even to the tips of her ears, which poked out from her curtain of hair.  “L-Like how to…breathe.  How…to talk.”  She reached beneath her spectacles to wipe at her eyes again.

My hand flew to my mouth.  “Sweet Aelurus, how horrible!”

“If it weren’t for Argos, I wouldn’t have survived this long.”  Lethia gave a weak smile and scratched him behind the ear.  Argos groaned appreciatively, a smile on his furry face.  “He catches all my food, protects me, and finds the safest places to hide.  We weren’t going to stay here long.  He says the bad men will know to look for us near water.  But, he said we could afford it for a little while, since we’re ahead of them.  We lost them in the Witch’s Alley–the mountain pass that leads to Dolmensk.”

“What were you doing all the way up there?” Elmiryn asked brusquely.  Her arms were folded and her expression was guarded.  I gave her a reproachful look.

Lethia looked at her, nonplussed. “Looking for help.  I heard that many adventurers go to Dolmensk to brag and boast…but none of them wanted to listen to me!  Then the bad men chased me out.”

“Wait, wait…who are the ‘bad men’?  Why are they chasing you?”

The girl became interested in her boots.  “Because there’s a bounty on my head,” she mumbled.

I started forward, my mouth dropping. “On you!?  Why?  What for?”  Elmiryn just let out a laugh and turned her face to the side.  Her body shook with her humor.  I gave her a whap on the arm.  “It isn’t funny, Elle!”

Lethia shifted, her face scrunching up with anxiety.  “I…” Her chin crumpled.  She took a shaky breath as a tear slipped from her right eye.  I felt my chest give a great pull as the girl suddenly fell apart again…but this time in grief.  “I’ve been so scared!” She exclaimed, taking large gasps in some floundering attempt to remain in control of her emotions.  “I’ve been so tired of running…Syria’s all I have!  I can’t possibly live without her.  What if one day I forget who I am completely?  What if one day I forget how to breathe??

She gave a shiver, then bowed forward and gripped her head with both hands.  Argos tried to comfort her with a warm lick of his tongue, but the girl appeared inconsolable.

I sighed and went to kneel in front of her.  Gripping Lethia’s hand gently in my own, something solidified for me–an uncertain sympathy that had hovered in the shadows, waiting for the unmistakable connection that would validate all its impressions.  The girl was an unfortunate youth, alone and at the mercy of her own mind.  Given my situation–given Elmiryn’s–I could hold back my compassion no more.  I tried to ignore my fears from before.  Surely, the incident at the tavern had no bearing in this situation?

I leaned forward to look Lethia in the eye.  “Lethia…why is there a bounty on your head?”

The girl sobbed and wiped at her mouth with a trembling hand.  She turned her face away, then said quietly.  “My mistress…was charged with black magic.  The authorities took her away, to Holzoff’s Tower–the prison for our region.  She…She could’ve killed them all.  But she didn’t.  Because she’s good.  She helps people–people like me–people like you!”  She looked at Elmiryn next, and her face seemed to light up with some great hope.  “Syria specializes in memory and brain function.  Certainly she can help solve your problem!”

Elmiryn shrugged one shoulder.  “I doubt that.”

I frowned at her.  “Elle!  What about the river guardian?  Didn’t she tell us to look for answers in other places?  Perhaps this person can help us find it!”

The woman smiled, but it held no warmth.  “And what?  Forget about her other instructions to seek the sage on the Indabe?  And how do you expect to help Syria when she’s incarcerated?  Are we supposed to clear her name like a couple of gob-flapping politicians?  You, a Marked outcast, and me, an ex-soldier wanted for the same fucking crime?”

My face grew hot, and I glared daggers…but she was right.  I looked at Lethia apologetically.  “Lethia…she has a point.  There isn’t much we can do for your mistress.”

The girl frowned, and she gripped my hand back tightly.  “I’ve talked to all the scholars and politicians I could before they put the bounty on me.  They all believe she’s guilty.”

I scowled at her. “So…you want us to–”

“I’ve been looking for adventurers for a reason!  Syria has already lost in the courts.  What want to do, is set her free!

ELMIRYN________________________

“No.”

“Elle.”

“I said no.”

“You aren’t even considering the possible benefits that might come–”

“What I’m considering are the things you seem to have forgotten.  Like, y’know, the snake at the Canon’s Punch, or the fact that have a bounty on my head.”

“I agree with you that it would be too risky to try and do as the girl wants, but for heaven’s sake–she’s just a child!  Maybe we can help her–

“She’s hardly younger than you are, AND she’s a magic user.  Let her sort it out.  Maybe her Mangy Beast can do something for her.”

“I can’t believe how callous you’re being!”

“I thought you’d be happy to see me use my common sense for once.”

“Technically, there was never anything wrong with your common sense.  The issue was always the information your common sense was left to sort out!

“So I’m not crazy, just damaged.”

“Why are you being like this?

“Fuck, y’know what?  I don’t know!”  Elmiryn whirled around, a vicious grin on her face that spoke more of frustration than actual humor.  And this bothered her.  For such things, in her eyes should not bother at all.

…What did it matter that Nyx went and held the girl’s hand?

They had left the chamber and returned to the outside, Elmiryn having made the determination to get as far away from Lethia as possible.  It was nothing against the girl.  She thought Lethia was funny in an ass-backwards sort of way.  And she didn’t want to say it, but something of the youth’s general appearance created such an incredible image in her head that the woman was certain she was reminded of someone, only she didn’t know who.

Immediately upon the suns lighting her skin, Elmiryn felt as though she were watched.  The woman glared upward at the sky, feeling the light betray her somehow.  She gazed skyward, one hand up to shield her eyes.

“Maybe I’m like this because that kid tried to bash my head in?  Maybe because we didn’t get anything for following her mutt all the way back to her little hideout?  Maybe because I’m still hung over, the scar on my hand’s itching me, or I’m as hungry as a starved fat noble?”  The woman shrugged, and a genuine chuckle came up her throat.  She tried to stifle it, but this only seemed to make it worse.  “Or I don’t know.  Hell I don’t know.  I feel like the butt of a cosmic joke at the moment.”

“So you’re laughing at yourself?” Nyx’s lips jerked upwards as she said this, but she pressed them straight.  Elmiryn wasn’t fooled.

The woman placed a hand on her hip and shifted her weight to one foot.  She smiled jauntily.  “It’s a good thing, isn’t it?  Being able to laugh at myself?”  Then she bowed her head.  “Just like there really is a self to laugh at.”

Her companion crossed her arms over her chest, taking one pinky to scratch at her right eyebrow.  “Elle, the force of your personality leaves little question in my mind that there IS an Elmiryn for me–I mean–” the girl blushed and smiled sheepishly.  “For us to…laugh at,” she tried to cover her mouth to hide her smile, but the sound of her deep-throated chuckles soon proved that the humor was infectious.  Within seconds, both women were out of breath.

“We followed a dog–” Elmiryn started, her free hand now gripping her ribs as the other leaned onto her knee.

“For miles it seems–” Nyx continued, red in the face and wiping at the corners of her eyes.

“An’–an’ all we got–!”

“Was a bigger headache!”  Nyx doubled over, shaking even harder.  She started to gasp out something, and Elmiryn, discovering that it was actually becoming increasingly painful to laugh (perhaps the dog really had broken something in there) tried to calm herself.

Nyx finally seemed able to speak when her wave of laughter subsided.  “I can’t…ah gods…ah why–why are we even laughing? It isn’t that funny!”

“Sure it is!”

“Ugh…your queer sense of humor is starting to rub off on me, I think.”

Elmiryn hid her face behind her hand and took deep breaths.  She heard Nyx begin to calm as well.  When the woman lowered her hand, she turned and took a few steps with eyes toward the stream.  Her eyes trailed the glittering water.  “Is it…really bad?” The woman began to say, eyes squinted against the glare of the stream.  “To leave the girl?  Would I have done that…a week ago?”

Nyx sighed behind her.  “You’re going to have to decide, Elmiryn…what kind of woman you want preserved.  You asked me to help keep you from turning into something else.  But…maybe you should ask yourself what you’re afraid of becoming?”

The woman turned her eyes to the ground.  She didn’t want to see what a Nyx-Filled-With-Insight looked like.

“Nyx!  Elmiryn!”

There was the sound of heavy pounding.  Elmiryn turned to see Argos sprinting towards them.  Nyx, unnerved by the sight of the massive dog barreling towards them, hurried to hide behind Elmiryn.  The woman grinned at how fast she moved.  Argos cleared the distance in less than two seconds, sliding to an incredible stop that left great gouges in the grass and dirt next to them.  Nyx squealed a little.

Coming much slower behind him, was Lethia, dressed in a large brown winter coat with shiny silver buttons and a high collar.  Her dark spectacles bounced on the slim bridge of her nose, and she panted as though she’d never ran in her life.

“Oh, please wait…please!

When she caught up to them, she leaned over onto her knees to catch her breath.  Her hair tangled in the breeze, and her pack, now bursting with her belongings, slipped off her shoulder to the ground.

Nyx turned to regard her fully.  “Are you alright?” Her voice was filled with concern.  Elmiryn bit the inside of her cheek.

Lethia raised a hand, signaling she still needed a moment.  When she straightened, she pushed her glasses higher up on her nose and gave a nod.  “I’m fine…I just…”  Her brows pushed together and she bit her lip.  “Um…I know you said you didn’t want to help me free Syria, but is it alright if I still travel with you?  At least for a little while?  You said you were going north, didn’t you?”

Nyx glanced at Elmiryn, who sucked at her teeth.  “Why are you going back north?  Isn’t that where they’ll be looking for you?” The woman said, a note of criticism in her voice.

Lethia drew herself up.  She balled her fists at her sides and glared at Elmiryn.  “I haven’t got a choice.  I can’t live without Syria and they’re going to execute her in a week.  I’ll figure something out on my own.  I’m still an enchantress.”

“Have you ever given thought to the possibility that maybe your mistress really did do those things?  Maybe you should just get on with your life.”

The youth started forward.  She tore her glasses off her face, and both Nyx and Elmiryn gave a start.  Lethia did not look Elmiryn in the eyes, but her gaze still flashed in indignation.  She bore holes into the woman’s shoulder.  “The boys the authorities found were fileted open from the navel to their chins.  Symbols were burned into their bodies, and their genitalia caught off.  Their skin sloughed away when their families tried to prepare them for burial.  I don’t know what sort of magic that is, but MY mistress is a good woman.  She would never do those horrible things.  She took me in when my parents died, and she’s given me everything I have now.  I will never abandon her.”

Lethia’s eyes flickered higher, towards Elmiryn’s nose.  The woman, out of stubborn pride, would not look away, but her back tensed and her hands curled to fists.  The girl continued in a shaky whisper.  “If I concentrate, I can take something specific from a person’s mind.  Just like I can forget how to walk one day, I can make someone else forget the same.  Don’t mistake my loyalty for weakness.  You’re a soldier.  You should know the difference.”

Then Lethia stepped back and placed her glasses back on.

Elmiryn stared at her as though seeing her for the first time.  The girl was trembling from the adrenaline, and Argos took to sitting next to her.  His fur was puffed and his teeth bared as he looked up at Elmiryn.  Nyx gripped the woman’s arm tightly, and she glanced at her companion who eyed her anxiously.

“Um…”  The warrior rubbed the back of her neck.  Then with a sigh, she extended her hand.  “I’m sorry.  You’re right.  You know your mistress better than I do, and you’re a brave girl.”  The woman grinned.  “Really brave.  Or really stupid.  Either way, you seem alright.”

Lethia took her hand.  Her face screwed up.  “…Thanks?”

“Look, if you want to come with us for some of the way, then I guess it couldn’t hurt.  Hell, you’re going that way anyway, it’s not like we could completely avoid the trouble.”

“Oh good!  Thank you so much!”  Lethia clapped her hands together and giggled in relief.  Argos woofed and gave a short wag of his tail.

“But kid, if you’re coming with us, you have to keep up.”

Lethia nodded energetically.  “Yes, ok!”

“How long can you run?”

Nyx gave a groan.  “Oh Elle, no…”

The youth scratched her head.  “Uh…”

Elmiryn looked from the tunnel entrance and back.  The corners of her lips twitched.  “Lemme guess.  You can’t remember?”

“Er, no.  No I can’t.”

“Well let’s hope you can keep up with a soldier and a therian,” she turned and nodded at the dog. “Or maybe Argos can carry you.”

The dog snorted and his dark eyes seemed to glare at Elmiryn from beneath his shaggy brow.

“Have you got any food?” The woman asked, though she already guessed the answer.

“Uh, a little bit left.  Actually, Argos was supposed to go hunting when he brought you two instead.”

Elmiryn, with a smirk, threw her hands up into the air and turned to start walking, just as her stomach gave a loud growl.

“Of course he did!”

Continue ReadingChapter 11.4

Chapter 12.1

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn stared unblinkingly forward. She was vaguely aware of her eyes burning, but she did not dare move. She interlaced her hands before her mouth, and her right brow tilted the slightest degree upwards. Argos gazed back at her from his place across, his nose twitching now and again as the wind rustled his dingy white fur. His great hulking form left a long shadow that draped over the woman like a cool blanket.

Nyx, sitting next to Elmiryn on the grassy hill, gave the woman a nudge with her elbow. “Stop it,” she whispered stiffly.

Elmiryn did not look away. Instead, she murmured back, “Why?”

“Because,” the Ailuran hissed in vexation. “Dogs take stares as a challenge.”

The warrior smirked. “Really? Don’t cats do, too? You guys speak the same language or something?”

Argos puffed, lips flapping. It was not quite a woof but stronger and sharper than a simple sigh. His ears swiveled forward and his lips pulled back to show his canines.

Elmiryn lowered her hands and smiled her broad smile.

Nyx was distracted long enough to sound insulted.  “It is not the same.”

“Then how do you know it’s a challenge?”

“Any creature that stares too intently at something comes across as hostile.  That’s just universal.”

“Well I’m curious about something.  I’m just not sure how to ask it.”

“I’m certain he’ll try to answer whatever you ask…I mean…he communicated with us before, didn’t he?  …Sort of?”

Elmiryn shrugged.  “I guess it couldn’t hurt.”

Lethia had gone into a thick set of shrubs behind them for her second consecutive bathroom break that morning.  “Too much water,” the girl explained with an abashed grin.  Elmiryn wished to argue that point–“too much water” was drowning from the inside out, as Baldwin had–but the warrior was certain that Nyx would not take to such a heavy-handed comment, so she refrained.

The woman crossed her arms and leaned forward.  “Okay, Argos.  Why us?”

The dog cocked his head to one side, then grumbling, looked to Nyx as if she were the more sensible one…Or maybe she was.  Elmiryn was trying to speak with a dog, after all.

Nyx shifted where she sat, switching the way her legs crossed as though that would aid with circulation.  She scratched at the front of her tunic and gave Elmiryn a squinted look.  “Maybe you should ask him something simpler…a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ sort of question.”

The woman shrugged one shoulder.  “Okay.”  She pointed back at Argos.  “Bark once for yes, two for no…Alright?  Give a nod of the head if you can do that.”

Argos gave a perfunctory jerk of the head, his large tongue sweeping out to lick his furry chops.

“Alright…Was your intention to get us back to Lethia so that we’d help her?”

One bark.  The woman’s lip twitched and her eyes unfocused for a moment.  She was reminded of a bear, or a man, or a man-bear, who hunted criminals, but the thought was too fuzzy and the image was so crude in her mind, that it sifted through the net of her consciousness.  “Did you recognize us because of the stories spreading around the roads about Gamath?”

One bark again.  Elmiryn glanced at Nyx as if to confirm the fact that they were actually getting somewhere.  The girl’s eyes were on Argos, her brow furrowed and her lips pinched thin.  Satisfied, the woman looked back toward the shaggy dog.

“Have either you or Lethia been in Tiesmire within the past two days?”

Two barks.  The warrior sighed.  She didn’t think so, but the answer held no good news.  There was someone else after them.  The woman tried to remember why it was she agreed to traveling with Lethia at all.  Then she thought of another question.

“How many bounty hunters are after you?  Bark the number.”

“There’s three.”

Elmiryn blinked at Argos.  Then she turned to look over her shoulder.  Lethia stood behind them, twisting one of her flared sleeves.  “There’s three men, as far as I know.  I’m not sure how fast the news has traveled.  There…there could be more.”  She looked to the ocean, her spectacles sitting low on her nose.  Her green eyes were like little jewels that glittered with a naivety that rankled Elmiryn’s nerves.

“Well now that you’ve stopped pissing away our lead, we can keep moving.”  Elmiryn stood, one hand on the hilt of her stolen sword.  Nyx stood with her.  The woman didn’t look, but she was certain the girl was giving her a disapproving glare.  Argos trotted past her, but not without a parting growl.

Lethia looked at her, her glasses pushed back up her nose.  She had a soft frown on her face, but her pouting lower lip suggested the girl was holding back tears.

Elmiryn decided to be merciful, at least for the rest of the day, and allowed brisk walking as their pace.  The youth and her faithful familiar took the lead, not by the woman’s wish, but by Nyx’s.  Her companion gripped her sleeve and held her back, her bold eyebrows knitted together in clear consternation.

She leaned in close to whisper, “Elmiryn, talk to me.”

The woman, hearing the intent in the girl’s voice, gave a guarded smile.  “About what?”

Nyx looked at her.  It amused the woman and annoyed her at the same time, the way the girl could prod without speaking.  “You know what.”

Elmiryn waved the question away.  “There isn’t anything to it.”

“There is! At first I thought you were just being tough, like you were with me, but now I’m sensing some real malice in your behavior…it just isn’t LIKE you!”

“You don’t think I can be malicious, Nyx?”  The woman turned her head fully, and her tone dropped down low.

The girl, to the woman’s surprise, just gave her a sad look.  “I…think you get scared.”

At this, Elmiryn started to laugh, loudly and harshly.  Lethia and Argos glanced back at them, startled, but the woman ignored them both.  “Scared!” she crowed. “Wow, that has to be the best deduction this side of the Hellas!”

Nyx gave a short sigh and kneaded her brow.  “You don’t have to get obnoxious.  Just because you aren’t used to dealing with your emotions up front–”

“I deal with my emotions just fine,”  Elmiryn returned, her grin a slash on her face.

“Is that why you get jealous when I try to extend my compassion to someone else?”

The woman, to her chagrin, felt her cheeks flare up.  “That’s a weird thing to say.”

“Elmiryn, I’m your partner, I’m your friend–but we aren’t on some sequestered little island, cast in the dark of our own personal problems–no matter how you’d like to see it, there are others who deserve help sometimes!”

“You didn’t want to help the people of Gamath either!”  Elmiryn shot back.  As the words left her mouth, she felt her insides squirm.  They didn’t feel right, nor did they taste right.  This made the woman bite her tongue.

“That was different!”  Nyx hissed.  “Everyone there was afraid of me, and no one was in any immediate danger!  And as far as not wanting to go into the river guardian’s cave…you’re right, I didn’t want to go…But I did, and I stayed. For you…”  Nyx trailed off, and her eyes lit up in a way that Elmiryn hadn’t seen before.

Elmiryn turned to blink at her.  It was quite a different thing, she found, to have what was before only inferred, admitted aloud.  Nyx had stayed…and it was because of Elmiryn.

The woman’s grin was long and curled.  A daring arm draped over Nyx’s shoulders and the warrior dropped down to murmur.  “And that is why, I’m fond of you.”  Before the girl could register what was happening, Elmiryn moved in for a quick kiss to the cheek.  The heat that emanated from the sputtering therian caused a warmth in the woman herself, but their attention was diverted back to the front when Lethia tripped over a rock.  When she came up again, using Argos as a prop, her arms were flushed pink and her movements were stiff and jerky.

Elmiryn chuckled and let her arm fall away.  The young enchantress must have seen.

“S-Smooth as you think you are,” Nyx stammered, looking at the ground.  “I’d still like it if you’d just leave Lethia alone.  She’s done us no harm–”

“Yet.”

“Elle.”

The woman grit her teeth and rubbed at her eye roughly.  “Okay…okay.  I guess I am in a shitty mood.  I’m still hungry, and there isn’t a thing to eat out here because everything has been pinched by travelers.”

“But there’s something else.”

“There isn’t.”

“Elmiryn, has it ever occurred to you that your mission against Meznik is another way for you to lose your humanity?  Are you really fine with that?  If you don’t want that to happen, then you’ll have to stop closing yourself off…especially with me.”

Elmiryn looked at the the girl with somber eyes.  There were times Nyx seemed entirely her age–emotionally clumsy, quick to temper, slow to cool down, timid and uncertain–but another side of her, another dimension, was making itself known. This Nyx was firm, caring, and intuitive.  This was the person Atalo knew.

Reluctantly, like a sleepy flower, Elmiryn let loose what she had thought to contain.

“She reminds me of someone,” she whispered, looking at Lethia’s back.  Out of the corner of her eye, the warrior saw Nyx looking at her, but did not turn her gaze.  “I…don’t remember who.  Or maybe she doesn’t remind me of anyone–maybe I’m just imagining it.  But something about the way she speaks, her behavior, her attitude…it just reminds me of something.  Only, it isn’t anything good.  Or happy.”

Elmiryn looked at Nyx.  “I bet you were expecting more, right?  That I should have more than just a vague memory to get all worked up over? …But that’s what the memory has.  These feelings.  I remember disliking these traits, but I’m not sure why.  Maybe when we spend more time with her, it’ll come to me.”

“I don’t know if that’ll be a good thing…” Nyx returned gravely.

The woman gave a slow nod, eyes narrowing as she watched Lethia.  “Neither do I.”

Nyx took her hand and gave it a squeeze.  Elmiryn returned it before pulling her hand away.

QUINCY____________________________

Night.

It was death in certain aspects to the woman she was, to the woman she left behind, to the woman she sought.  The wind was a dull whisper that made no impression to her–just a phantom seeking a phantom in kind.  She was careful to keep her eyes well-shaded beneath the hood.  Her power was such that in the darkest hours of the day, they would lance through the uncertain world and leave no question as to the nature of her person.

She wrapped herself tighter beneath her cloak and nestled in deep against the steep hillside, where rough terrain and exposed rock made her still form less conspicuous.  She shifted behind a large slab of rock that jutted upward, anticipating the morning and the future need for direct cover.  The rock was her cradle on the slippery slope, and she felt secure.

With her vantage point chosen, Quincy remained focus, even without the light to live in.  She had to listen to her quarry’s every word, witness every gesture.  These observations were a parade of personal pieces that would have come apart upon a casual observer’s weak attention.  Her greatest threat was not misunderstanding, but simply becoming bored.  It lead to terrible mistakes, and given the nature of her situation, she could not allow that.

The woman could no more say that she planned this than a common man could schedule his natural death.  But like the common man, she anticipated its coming, and was ready for the road ahead.  Had the dog not been nearby, her ploy with the Orb of Ilkmar would not have worked, for there would have been nothing to bring the trio together.  But now, they were all in one place.

The next step, was to simply watch…and wait.

The girl, Lethia, Quincy’s original target, had set about roasting a meager-sized rabbit that Argos had caught by a stroke of luck.  She turned the meat over the little flame with the use of a makeshift spit fashioned out of sticks.  She had a happy smile on her oval-shaped face, the glow of the fire dancing across the glass of her special lenses.

“I’ve lived in the tower pretty much all of my life–Syria’s tower, that is,” She told the others without warrant.  Throughout the day she had done much of that, as though she just recalled things and had to say them before she forgot again.  “It’s very big–once you enter the northern regions, you can see it towering over the valleys.”

Quincy, in a sense, already knew this story.  But the young enchantress was offering a dimension she could not have garnered on her own.  She shifted closer, careful not to cause even the slightest noise.  Argos was keeping watching, pacing around their little camp.

“My parents left me in Syria’s care.  I never heard from them again.  She’s been my mother, my friend, all these years.  She’s taught me so much!  Spell structure, mindscaping–”

–Illusions, and even some alchemy.  Syria was a powerful enchantress, Quincy knew.  She had found the woman admirable, and read much of her work when studying in Crysen.  She was a master at just about anything that fell under the domain of mind magic and the manipulation of–

“–Perception.  She can create the most beautiful things in a person’s mind…but she says it’s dangerous.  That it’s not to be used, even in the context of doing good.”

“Why learn something you’d never use?”  Nyx asked.  Elmiryn had remained quiet for several hours now.  Quincy doubted it was because she didn’t know the subject, and more her prejudice against Lethia herself.  The woman assumed it was a disliked based on principle versus something personal.

Lethia paused as she thought about the therian’s question.  “Well,” she began slowly.  “I think…it has to do with control.  My mistress says that knowledge is power, and in wishing to master the mind she had to–”

–Master it in all domains.  Syria followed no particular deity, but her practice tended to touch on the religious.  There was a story, unpublished, that circulated around the magical community.  It stated that once, long ago, Syria had come across a dying soldier.  Depending on where the story was told, the soldier’s loyalties changed, but no matter what army he was said to serve, there were parts that were the same each time.  The base of it was that the soldier begged Syria to let him see his family again–in any way possible.  The woman refused, stating that–

“‘To puppet their love before you in a flicker of shadows, would be to dishonor them in every way.  Sleep now, soldier, and let your heart see the truth.’  And the man died, peaceful, because no spell could ever replicate the bond that had taken root in his heart.”

“That’s beautiful, Lethia.”  Nyx said, her head propped up on her hands and her elbows on her knees.  “Is it a true story?”

Lethia opened her mouth.  Closed it.  Then frowned.  “I don’t seem to remember.”

Elmiryn snorted into a laugh, letting herself lie back onto the blanket that Lethia had lent them both.  “It’s just a story,” she said in a dismissive tone.

The girl flared, just as before, and looked ready to stick her foot in her mouth when Nyx interjected herself seamlessly, steering the conversation to something innocuous and mundane before an argument could break out.

Not that Quincy believed Elmiryn would entertain something so beneath her.  She could trade words all day with Nyx, but not with Lethia.  The woman seemed possessed by some crippled sense of honor.  Lethia was young, younger than Nyx, and had no experience in the world besides her abilities as an enchantress–which were useless in their current situation.  However, she was still a caster, an apprentice from a reputable practitioner, wearing affluent clothing and on a mission that was pure of heart, if completely unrealistic.

This, the woman seemed capable of respecting, even if all else about the girl she regarded with impatience and disapproval.  It left her to share scorching remarks in passing, but to never stop and indulge in a true argument…for what respectable warrior would argue with someone as young and naive as Lethia?  Nyx was of a powerful race, intelligent, durable, if not strong, and…truly seemed to be the woman’s crutch.  Or perhaps that was not the right term.  Her tether?

Quincy rubbed her chin with cold fingers.

Elmiryn, strong-willed and at times capricious, was kept grounded by Nyx.  The therian was her voice of reason, though even the girl’s judgment could be affected by her frustration and fear.  Quincy thought back to that morning, when Nyx had become agitated and unsteady on her feet.  She had been speaking to someone, though no one else was around.  How steady of a mind was she?  Could Elmiryn trust to follow such a person?

A weakness.  How curious to discover it in the proximity of their relationship.  Topple one, and the other falls…literally.  Quincy tucked the observation away for later use.

“Lethia, have you got a beau waiting around for you?”  Surprisingly enough, the question came from Elmiryn, who did not sit up.  Her head was craned back to watch the dancing lights of the northern road a mile toward the ocean.  They had traveled deep inland that day.

Lethia fumbled as she pulled the rabbit away from the fire, nearly dropping it into the dirt.  “N-No.  No, I haven’t…um…’got’ anybody.”  Her face reddened as Nyx helped her slice the meat.  “I didn’t leave the tower much…or…well…at all, actually.”

Nyx looked at her, startled.  “Really!?  But didn’t Syria ever take you into town for supplies?”

The girl handed Nyx a plate.  “A few times…I’ve even been to Lekeid.”

“Gods!  There aren’t many who even get to see its walls!! The Ailuran nation attempted alliances with the elves when they entered war with Fiamma, but they couldn’t find Lekeid.  Our priests could not even scry it!”

Lethia smiled, pleased.  “Syria has many powerful ties.”  But as she pulled out another plate to serve with, her smile died away.  “…But I’ve never traveled alone.  The furthest I’ve gotten on my own, before all this of course, was to the walls surrounding the tower.  There are a lot of dangerous creatures living in the mountains, so I was never allowed to go out by myself.”

Now Elmiryn sat up.  Her cerulean eyes were little bits of glass that held the glow of the fire like an indifferent cup.  Something the girl had said had touched on something, it seemed.

“You say you’ve never left the tower before?”

Lethia looked at her, her face tensing in preparation for a negative remark.  Warily, she answered, “No…everything I ever needed was in my tower.”

“I’m surprised you survived this long, not knowing the land at all.”

“Oh, I knew it, certainly.  One of Syria’s methods of teaching was to create simulations in my mind, to allow me the full scope of other societies and rituals without coming to harm.  She also had me study many maps.  Geography plays a large role in spellcasting, and certainly plays a large role in history.”

“I thought you said your mistress didn’t believe in creating illusions, for good or bad.”

“As she sees it, magic is much like education.  The power they both offer is not evil–the wrong comes from how others would use such power.  But she also tries to avoid speaking of it as ‘good’.  She prefers dispassion and neutrality with regard to these things.”

Elmiryn smiled crookedly and wrapped her arms around one bent knee.  “But you aren’t like that…at all.”

Lethia blushed as she handed the woman her small serving of meat.  “I try.  I can’t let my emotions get the better of me.  It creates ignorance in the pursuit of–”

“I think it’s good,” Elmiryn interjected, not even looking at her food.  Quincy was certain now that something was off–the woman’s stomach had been grumbling all day.  “I think it’s good that you take a stand.  I’ve met other casters who try to approach things the way your mistress says.  With all due respect to Syria, perhaps she really does get it right, but the casters I’ve met were just sadists who didn’t flinch at a child’s scream.”

Lethia and Nyx stared at her.  Neither seemed to know what to make of this sudden statement, and so with an awkward glance between them, they set to eating.  Easier to pass on commenting with a mouth full of food.  Even Argos paused in his pacing to have at his scraps of meat, eyes fixed on the redheaded warrior from his place next to his young mistress.

But Elmiryn wasn’t done. “How old’re you, Lethia?  Exactly?”

Lethia swallowed her food with a grimace.  It looked as though she didn’t chew her piece all the way.  “Um…I turned fifteen, two months ago.”

“Fifteen…ah, good.”  Elmiryn took a large bite out of her meat.  The woman was content to let the topic rest, though the note it stopped on brought bemusement to all, Quincy included.

The fire was put out and the group slept.  Argos kept watch…and Quincy with him, though he didn’t know.  Not once did her eyes droop.  When the suns turned the sky a rose color, and Elmiryn stirred from her bed, the dog took the opportunity for rest, lying at Lethia’s feet with a groan.

With the dog finally asleep, Quincy reached for the bag at her hip.  Once again, it was devoid of any items, but when she took it between her hands and rubbed it, she felt something grow between her palms.  When she felt points poking her skin, she opened the bag and let a small black stone cube fall into her waiting hand.

It was nearly imperceptible, but all along the cube’s surface were painted lines–guides that made sense only to one who knew how to use the item.  Quincy took one corner of the cube, then without much force, pushed at it with her thumb.  The little pyramid that had been the corner swiveled out, as though on a hinge.  She did this with the others, then, with both hands, she twisted the cube at its heart–first a quarter one way, then a full turn around the other way.  The cube shuddered, and without any noise, began to shift and transform in the woman’s palm.  Pieces and shapes of all sorts slid in and out, out and in, twisted, turned, then faded into the sleek black surface that never revealed even the slightest gap between these shifting bits.

Finally, the cube stopped its assembly.  It had changed to form a flat triangular shape, with a square cut at the bottom center base and a bold line that crossed near the top.  Inuksuk.  Impending danger.  Quincy gave a small sigh, and stroked the face of the black stone.  The item shuddered, then shifted back into its original cube form.  She tucked it back into her bag, where it seemed to vanish into thin air.  She looked at Elmiryn, who had roused Nyx from sleep to do sit-ups.

As the rays from the suns chased away the shadows, Quincy raised her head to greet the light, and her eyes rivaled the morning, before she became one with it, lost to any wandering eyes.

…It was almost time.

Continue ReadingChapter 12.1

Chapter 12.2

In seeking me, you seek in kind,

The things that blisters need.

Cross not the ends of better things,

With that which sorrow feeds.

NYX____________________________

It seemed to come laboriously, but indeed, an odd sort of harmony was born amid our new group of four.

The following day started early, where Elmiryn made good on her promise to return to our original pace now that we were fed and hydrated–though our last meal left something to be desired.   The twilight world we tromped through–where sleepy meadow was stirred by the thump of small field animals, and jagged crags of rock whistled a mournful tune–made guests of us all in this unfamiliar setting.  We were joined together by our migrant shadows that meshed in the dark of the mountain range we passed, beings apart, but connected in determination.

My eyes were weak, sapien eyes, and all around me I found trickery waiting.  A looming rock seemed like a bear.  A shifting shrub made me flinch in anticipation of an ambush.  A swirl of dust had me believe someone had just fled from sight.  It disconcerted me, and yet I tried with all my might to bite back the envy that curled my fists.  Delighted to have a moment to gloat, my Twin purred at me from her new home–as foreign and mysterious to me as death itself.

Then I looked at Elmiryn, and my pace slowed.  I looked around me again, eyes straining, and while I was certain of some things, I found myself guessing as to the nature of others.  I even had to stop completely when looking at Argos’ galloping form, to convince myself that he was actually a dog…despite my need to personify ‘it’.

…Was this what Elmiryn experienced?  Even remotely? I looked forward again, sprinting to catch up with her bobbing form, my bag of belongings jingling behind me.  What was it like to live life seeing this way at all hours?  …Perhaps even worse?

My hands unclenched, and I know my look must have turned tender.  When I came to Elmiryn’s side, huffing in unison with her, she looked at me and remarked, “You look like someone stole your last cookie!”

I looked at her sideways, one eyebrow tilted.

She gave a breathless laugh.  “Okay…that sounded stupid.  Even to me.”

The ocean was lost to us on a shoe bend that slithered higher.  The trail became much more narrow, and to our right the slope turned to a treacherous wall, and to our left a steep slope.  My ear drums popped, and the tips of my ears and nose went numb.  Running helped keep the cold at bay, and I was surprised that Lethia had managed to keep up to some degree.  She still lagged behind us, and now and again, I would slow down to wait for her, Elmiryn grudgingly doing the same.  Argos remained at Lethia’s side all the while, serving as her support when she slipped, or tripped, or needed to take a breather.

With time, the suns clawed at the highest peaks that bared down on us.  With my lungs stung by the cold air, I thought I saw the light flare, and I did a double-take.  It were as if polished shield or a mirror had caught the sunlight, but when my gaze returned to those high peaks, I saw nothing.  But I was not put at ease.  My neck crawled with a sixth sense.  Even my Twin raised herself from her dark home to peer through my eyes, and they burned from the fierceness of her gaze.

Lethia let out a cry behind us, and my thoughts were taken from me.

Elmiryn and I whirled around, dust and dirt startled around our feet from our abrupt stops.

Lethia and Argos were out of sight, just a phantom cloud drifting in their wake.

I came forward several steps, my eyes wide. “Lethia!?”

There was growling and the sound of scraping and sifting sand.  A moment later Argos appeared from the edge of the trail–or rather, his rump.  He was pulling Lethia back up onto the level ground by her bag, his body bunched, and his fur ruffled, as he dragged the youth to safety.  Lethia looked stunned, and though she tried to assist in Argos’ efforts, her limbs seemed like noodles that flayed uselessly.  Without another word, Elmiryn and I rushed forward to aid in the dog’s efforts, and together with our help, Lethia was back on the trail.  I took her bag off her back, and she lay down, pink-faced and panting.

“What happened?” I panted.

“I don’t know!” Lethia eventually answered, one arm over her eyes.  Her spectacles lay in one hand.  “I was just trying to keep up with you both when…when…”  Her breathing slowed as her voice trailed away.  I looked at Elmiryn, and she looked back at me with eyebrows raised nearly to her hairline.

I looked to Argos’ next, and if there was ever an expression of concern on a dog’s face, Argos had it.  His furry face seemed to droop, and his tongue lolled to the side.  His ears depressed and his brows pressed together as much they could.  His breathing became accompanied with a whine.  I guessed at Lethia’s next words.

The girl sat up, and she had tears in her eyes.  “I don’t remember…”

To my surprise, Elmiryn clapped her on the shoulder.  “Don’t worry about it.  I’m sure it was nothing.”  Then she stood and extended her hand.  “Come on, kid.  Let’s keep moving.”

Lethia sniffled and put on her spectacles.  She frowned up at Elmiryn.  “But where are we going?”

QUINCY____________________________

She pulled her sword out of the devil weed–a plant monster that lived in cliff-sides who pulled travelers over the edge, then fed on their blood.  It was a cancerous looking thing that reminded distantly of cabbage, with a bundle of dark green tentacles as thick as Quincy’s wrists.  A rotten stench and dark blood dripped from its wound and made a thick river in the dirt.

Devil weeds lived and died in their birth places–which were literally holes burrowed into the earth and rock by stubborn roots and acid.  The mountains were riddled with little punches of holes where the monsters had once resided.  Their locations served a strategic purpose, as once a victim was pulled within yards of them, their choices were either to be sucked dry, or a drop to the death.  The determination to survive was strong in many…

…What victims didn’t know was that they had better chances if they let themselves fall.

The woman had dashed from her lofty place, hidden in the light that kissed the tips of the mountains, when she saw the tentacle slithering up the scree slope.  She flashed down just in time to stop the creature from carrying Lethia away.

Taking her weapon, she wiped her sword on her pants, not even the faintest grimace appearing on her face.  In her eyes, the care of her sword was more important.  It was a blade only half a foot longer than her forearm, made of a metal that had a mellow gold tint.  It was her most prized item, and she used it only when absolutely necessary.

She looked up just as Nyx and Elmiryn pulled their new charge to safety.  Gripping one of the monster’s tentacles to keep from falling, she looked down into the valley, then up again.  She sighed.

…Quincy would have to wait till the sunlight reached her place of shade before she could rise up through the rays.  For now, she could hide in the scattered glow.  It was not ideal for her, in the slightest.  Her primary target was kept safe, but now the group would travel on without her…

…And it was not to their favor.

NYX____________________________

We took our first rest in a little nook which guarded us from the winds that howled.  Lethia, looking ill, took a nap, using Argos’s thigh as a pillow.  The dog seemed content to lounge back and close his eyes as well, and I took it as a sign of confidence.  His incredible size still startled me, and his attitude toward Elmiryn was still guarded and borderline aggressive–but I found it to be comforting, that he could trust to close his eyes around us.  It was especially warming, when I took into account…that he was trusting Lethia’s protection to us as well.

I found myself striving to honor this trust.

I stood at the opening of our little hideaway–only a few feet wide and so shallow that the light outside lit all the back wall.  But it kept us safe from the wind and helped guard from the cold, and I was grateful for it.  With darting eyes, I watched every shift of dust, every rustled shrub.  While I was glad that Elmiryn had agreed to let Lethia travel with us northward, I was now doubly afraid.

When would danger come?

A pair of arms wrapped around my neck, pulling back harshly.  I sucked in air, and my eyes went round, but I moved without thinking.  I stomped backward onto the foot of my assailant, then jabbed back with my elbow.  Their grip on me slackened, and as I slipped out of their embrace, I turned my body to the side and drove my shoulder into their body with all my might.

My foot still pressed on theirs, and I pressed on it with all my weight.  They started to fall backward, and their foot tugged useless beneath mine.  Without the ability to adjust for the momentum, they fell–but not without dragging me with them.  They gripped onto my tunic, and I crashed down onto their body, twisted, my right arm sandwiched between us as the other scraped useless in the dirt.  When it found proper support, I pushed up on my free hand, and looked bewildered into…

Elmiryn’s smiling face.

She started to laugh, the reverberation of her body beneath mine sending waves of heat through me.  I sputtered curses, pulling my right arm free.  The woman gripped me by the waist as I tried to disentangle myself and stand.  Held down, I was left to straddle her, and her smile curled in that hungry way that made me shiver.

“Hey…I didn’t teach you that,”  She murmured below me.

“I guess it just comes naturally with you,” I quipped–but the force of my words was dulled by my growing lust, and I balked when I realized how it truly sounded.

The woman laughed and grabbed the front of my tunic.  I gripped her wrists, meaning to pull her hands away, but then she started to sit up, and with a small jerk, she had me by the lips.  The warmth of her, the softness of her lips, the smell that had been lost to me before, came flooding back through proximity.  My protests fell away.  Elmiryn let herself fall backward, and I followed her, my hair brushing forward in a dark curtain as one hand planted on the ground to steady myself.

Elmiryn’s hand slipped between us and reached around to grip my neck, but not before she brushed my chest intimately–in a way I could not mistake.  I pressed forward in answer, my free hand caressing her side.

It was…easy, I found…to forget myself, in the face of such heat.  Elmiryn, whether through accident or by design, lead me straight through a doorway that said it was okay to want.  Okay to seek.  Okay to take.  Such was her mastery of seduction, her ascendancy in touch, that I could hardly tell who was the seeker and the sought.

Not when I was on top, begging a dance with her tongue.

But it wasn’t to last.

A sigh and a groan, not on our part, made me look up.  Argos was staring at us with what looked like a grin on his face.  His ears were perked and he had shifted to face us better.  Lethia rubbed at her eyes, scowling.

“What’s…what’re you two doing?” She mumbled.  Her green eyes looked our way, but she was careful to avoid eye contact.

If possible, I would have lit on fire, the way I felt my skin burn from my embarrassment.  I stood to my feet, taking several steps away from Elmiryn as I stammered, “Nothing Lethia.  Elmiryn was just…sparring with me.”

The woman sat up.  She licked her lips and chuckled.  “Yes.  I was.”

While Lethia distracted herself with putting her boots back on, I hissed at my companion. “That was in poor taste, Elle!”

Elmiryn wagged her finger as she stood up, her cheeks a light pink and an insufferable smile on her face.  “I beg to differ!”

I gestured at Lethia, who seemed puzzled by something.  She kept looking at one boot, than the other.  “I don’t want to scar her or something!” I whispered.

Scar her?” The woman looked back at the enchantress.

Lethia looked at Argos, stricken, and held up her boots.  “Argos, do you remember which boot goes where!?”

Elmiryn rolled her eyes back to me. “Oh sure, Nyx.  I think I know what you’re talking about.”

I sighed and stepped forward.  I pointed at her right boot, then her right foot.  “That one goes there.”

The girl gave me a bashful smile.  “Thank you!”  She started to slip the boot on.  Her eyes, behind the shades, flickered to us.  “I…know that I must come across as eccentric.  How can I remember who you both are, but not why I’m traveling with you?  How can I forget something as simple as which boot goes where?  It’s all because of my power…y’see it–”

“You told us this before,” I said with a patient smile.

She stared at me, pausing mid-pull.  “I did?”

Elmiryn grinned, bowing her head and kneading her brow.  “Yeah.  You did.”

“Oh…um…did I mention that sometimes when something really upsetting happens, it can cause the energies to suddenly shift?”

“Like startled water?” I offered.

Elmiryn nodded.  “Yeah, we gathered that.”

“Oh.” Lethia bit her lip and finished pulling on her boot.  She stood to her feet, swinging on her bag.  “Okay, so…since everyone seems to understand, I guess we can keep going to…uh…where were we going again?”

You were going back to save your mistress.  We were heading through the mountains to get to Reg’Amen.”

“Oh yeah!”

“Should we continue, then?  The more ground we cover, the better.”

And we traveled on.

Elmiryn didn’t make us run anymore.  Instead, she asked only for a brisk walk.  “After what happened before, I’d rather we all be close together.  There might be more monsters, the deeper we go into these mountains.”

Lethia paled, her hand flying to her mouth.  “You think a monster tried to eat me!?’

The woman shrugged.  “Not unless you were hit with a sudden bout of suicidal wishes, tried to off yourself, then just forgot.”  Elmiryn snickered at this thought, and looked forward again without another word.

Lethia looked at me, her expression scrunched in confusion.  I only rolled my eyes and shrugged.  “I don’t know, either,” I mouthed.

We came to a narrow pass that weaved northeastward.  The sun filtered in through this space in the mountain range, and we squinted in the face of its light.  Elmiryn stopped and so did we, Argos coming to her side, woofing.

“He’s right…” she murmured.  “I don’t like the idea of going through there.”

“What difference does it make?  This is wider than what we were just traveling!” Lethia exclaimed with a puzzled look.

I frowned and stood at Elmiryn’s side.  “She’s right, Lethia…at least the trail had been open before.”  I gestured before us and looked back at her, biting my lip.  “Plus, those holes in the rocks don’t look right.  Dangerous creatures could be waiting here.”

“Or we could get caught in a pincer ambush,” Elmiryn added, drawing her sword. “I thought it was weird that no other travelers were coming this way.  The trail has no footprints…not even from animals.”

“Maybe…maybe we should turn back?” I offered, tugging at Elmiryn’s arm.

The woman scowled at me.  “We can’t, Nyx.  We’ve come too far.  Doubling back would mean losing four days–maybe more.  There’s your condition to think about–”

“I’d rather get to the Indabe in one piece, than take a risk like this!” I glanced at Lethia, who had gone to crouch before Argos. She appeared to be…‘conversing‘ with him. “And there’s her to think about!” I added in a whisper.  “I don’t want her to get hurt!”

“She won’t get hurt.” Elmiryn held her fist over her heart.  She smirked at me. “I promise.”

I shook my head and crossed my arms.  “I don’t like this.”

“You knew the risks when you insisted on Lethia coming with us–this is the hand we’re dealt, Nyx!  There is a possibility we could get through safely!”  Now she had her full blown predator’s smile on.

My eyes widened and I wagged my finger slowly at her.  “You do realize what’s at stake here, right?”

The woman pressed her lips together in a vain effort to cease her smile, as if she realized she had just given herself away.  I gripped her shoulder tightly, even pulling her down some so that she gazed level into my eyes.  “Elle,” I said slowly.  “This isn’t a game.  We can’t afford to gamble our lives or anyone else’s… You might think this is interesting–you might even think this is fun–but I think we should head back.  Take the long way along the coast, with the other travelers.  It’s for the best.”

At first, she just stared at me blankly.  Then to my surprise she pouted at me. “Gods damn it, Nyx.  You and your fucking words…” Elmiryn let out a loud, frustrated sigh, swiped at her ear, then called to Lethia and Argos, who still seemed engrossed in some exchange.  “Hey!  C’mon, kid.  We’re heading back.”

Lethia looked at us, open-mouthed, and Argos head popped up like a toy.  “Heading back?” the girl echoed, her brows knitting together.

Elmiryn nodded, jerking her head back the way we came.  I could see the muscle in her jaw tense.  “Yeah.  This isn’t safe.”

“But–”

“Come on, Lethia,” I said, taking her hand.  “It’ll be better this way.”

“But–!”

“Let’s go.”

“But–But–” Lethia tore her hand away and skipped backward several feet.  Her eyes already shone with tears.  “No!  We can’t go back!”

Elmiryn and I exchanged looks.  She gestured at Lethia, eyebrows raised, as if to say, “Well?”

I sighed and looked back at the girl.  “Lethia, we’re all alone out here.  This is dangerous.  Besides being attacked by bounty hunters or vagabonds, we could run into a dangerous monster.”

The girl shook her head, chin crumpling.  “No!  No, no, please!  We can’t go back!  And you can’t just leave me out here!  I have to go forward!  I have to save Syria!”

“Lethia you can–”

“I told you!  I told you her execution is in a week!  If we backtrack, I won’t make it in time!  I have barely enough time as it is! So please!”  The girl bounced on the balls of her feet, her bag rattling behind her.  “We…can’t go back…please…please don’t leave me alone…”

I closed my eyes and sighed.  I felt Elmiryn clap my shoulder.  “So…forward it is?”

A sharp sound echoed through the mountains.  It was a loud bang, and when I looked around, crouched, I saw that a crater in the dirt smoked near my foot.  The shape of it suggested whatever it was came from the west.  I looked up to where Elmiryn and Lethia already stared, and my gut fell to my soles.

A bronzed man with dark wavy hair and hazelnut eyes winked from his place up on a high headwall, his flintlock pistol pointed at us.  He wore a brown loose shirt tucked into black trousers.  His wide, silver buckled belt held the holster for his pistol on the right, and a rapier on his left hip.  His handsome face broke into a dimpled smile, showing large, straight teeth.

“I personally recommend moving forward!” he shouted.

Continue ReadingChapter 12.2

Chapter 12.3

ELMIRYN________________________

Lethia trembled, her spectacles having slid down her nose to reveal the frosty fear that had gripped her pretty green eyes.  Little drops of anxiety clung to her eyelashes, clumping them together in a pitiable image.  She gripped the straps of her pack and sidled closer to Argos–not Elmiryn or Nyx.  The warrior did not take this as an insult.  The young enchantress truly felt safe around her familiar–and given his size, the woman would too.

But as it stood, Elmiryn didn’t feel threatened yet.  She had started to warm up to the idea of excitement, and while the situation wasn’t necessarily ideal, beggars couldn’t be choosers.  With one hand shielding her eyes from the approaching sunlight, Elmiryn squinted up at the newcomer.  “What is that thing you’re holding?” she asked.

“I’d say it’s my way of reasoning,” the man answered.  He put his free hand on his hip. “Others, however, call it a pistol.”

The woman’s brows went up high.  “A pistol?  I’ve heard about those things!  Like mini-cannons, right?  What enchantment have you got to make it fire straight?”

“Elmiryn,” Nyx’s voice, small as a mouse.  “Is this really appropriate?

The woman glanced at her, disappointed.  She really was curious.  “I guess not.”

“Oh no, I don’t mind answering,” the man said, his smile pulling a little wider.  Elmiryn picked up on the way he spoke from the back of the tongue, with strong emphasis on his r’s.  She recognized the accent from some slippery recollection, but an origin still eluded her.  The man hopped down and slid several yards on the dirt and rock before he stopped himself on clumped bit of earth and weed.  He held the gun up so that they could all see its side, and Elmiryn leaned in a little, squinting.

The pistol had a beautiful ivory stock, engraved in an undulating design that made Elmiryn think of oil in water.  The three-barrels were brass, also adorned with a design–this one more robust and with a greater focus in motion–like flowering clubs.  Elmiryn blinked as she saw the metal shift, a smear of warm paint against a dark cool background.  A mini-cannon, a cannon, of oil–a pistol.  A pistol?  Elmiryn squeezed her eyes shut.  When she opened them again, the paint–the metal–was still.

Yes, yes, a real pistol.

She heard the young man speaking and tuned in.  His words didn’t have the same grip as Nyx’s, she noted with a smirk.  “–allow for three shots without reloading.  Quite nice, eh?  It has no enchantments–but I had an elven blacksmith do the work.  Its precision is unparalleled.  An ordinary pistol of this size couldn’t fire as far.  It even beats some rifles!”

He beamed at her, rocking a little on his heels.  From his behavior alone, she knew he was still young–a man, by the standards of age, but still without a wife and without a steady home to call his own.  She let her eyes flicker briefly down to his knees–not that she were actually interested in them, but because she wanted to see just how far the man was using her peripheral sight.

Some three yards.

With his pistol gripped incorrectly and the barrels aiming at the sky, she could try and lunge forward, even though he was on slightly higher ground.

But she didn’t, because she knew, the man was only taking this risk because…

“Graz, you moron–what’re you doing?”

He had partners.

The new voice came from behind them.  Elmiryn turned to look, along with Lethia and Nyx, to see a newcomer sliding down from some hiding place higher up the rock wall.  He seemed older and shabbier, with faint wrinkles about the eyes and mouth.  His hair was the same dark wavy length, but in the back was a ponytail tied with a black tie, like a sailor’s.  The man had a stronger chin, shadowed with stubble, but the same hazelnut eyes.  His expression was beyond annoyed, turning his dry lips into a nasty slash.

“Elmiryn…th-these men. They were the ones who chased me before!” Lethia hissed quickly.

“This was supposed to be an ambush, and here you are, chatting them up!” The older man snapped gruffly to his partner.  He too had a rapier, drawn, but no pistol.  He wasted no time closing the distance between himself and Nyx, who backpedaled into Elmiryn.  The woman put her arm around the girl’s shoulders.

“They were going to leave, I couldn’t let them.” The younger man shrugged, putting away his gun.  “Anyway, the woman asked an excellent question.  It’d be rude to ignore it!”

The man grit his teeth.  His accent was stronger than his companion’s.  Elmiryn had to focus more to catch all that he said.  “Be wise!” He pointed the tip of his sword at Nyx, scowling.  “I don’t want any more mistakes!

‘Graz’ sighed and drew his rapier as well.  He gave Elmiryn an apologetic smile as he stepped forward to point his weapon at her.  “Sorry, my love.  But my brother speaks the truth.  Our meeting was not chance.  It was to an end!”

Elmiryn covered her hand with her mouth.  Her throat tensed and she tried to bit her lower lip to keep from giggling.  Nyx jabbed her in the side and looked at her, her bold eyebrows knitted together.  She gave a stern shake of the head. This only made Elmiryn snort so bad it hurt her nose.  She doubled over a little to try and calm down, forcing Nyx to do the same.

“Hey now, sweet lia!  Don’t cry!”  Graz lifted the tip of his rapier.  He looked at his brother with conflicted eyes.  “Arduino, this is all a bit strong, don’t you think?”

“Shut up!” The man snapped.  His eyes darted to the right.  “Where’s Paulo?”

“Look…there he is.  Oye!  Choi!”

A bit further up the road, a dust trail fluttered down the slope.  A slim young man, closer to Lethia’s age, approached.  He held up a large crossbow carved from dark wood with a unique shoulder stock that seemed custom made just for him.  The weapon was loaded, fixed with a gleaming bolt.  At his left side was a rapier.

The newcomer’s chubby face was sweaty, and it looked as though his left eyebrow had been singed off, but other than these things, he was as handsome as the other two men.  He seemed winded and his grip on the crossbow was shaky.  He too, had dark wavy hair–but his was loose, and outgrown.  He sniffed, to clear his nose, then let his eyes, the same hazelnut as the other two men, flicker to the one named Arduino.

“Ard, what about the extras?” The youth asked, his voice a rasp that Elmiryn hardly caught.

“That’s what we were going to see to, Choi.”  The eldest forced Nyx to look his way again, the tip of his rapier beneath her chin.  Elmiryn let the girl slip from under her arm, and straightened completely, her eyes on Arduino.

The man dropped his voice low, the steadiness of his tone suggesting experience, but as Elmiryn searched his eyes, she was certain the rest of him was just a facade.  Something was wrong.  This man was filled with fear.

“Doc’est, lia?  What’re you and your lady-friend going to do?”  He looked at Elmiryn.  “This girl has nothing to do with you, and we can all go on with our lives…so long as you don’t get in our way.”

Argos snarled, his hackles raising.  He seemed conflicted on who to focus on, with Graz to Lethia’s back, Arduino before them, and Paulo on their left.  He seemed to settle on looking between Paulo and Arduino, his lips curled back to show his fearsome canines.

Elmiryn glanced at him, then back at the man.  “The Mangy Beast doesn’t much like that offer.”

Arduino chuckled.  “Well what can you expect?  A smart animal is still just that–an animal.  What does he know?  Does he have any idea that you’re all surrounded by the Moretti brothers, the best bounty hunters Erminia has ever produced?  The odds are not in your favor, lia.”

“The best bounty hunters let a girl barely turned fifteen slip away from them?” Elmiryn smirked.  “Somehow, I’m not impressed.”

Nyx let out a short hiss as the man pressed the tip of his rapier against her neck.  “Let’s watch our tongues, eh?”

The woman shrugged.  “I was starting to warm up to the idea of a bit of excitement.  Maybe we should fight you, just because?  My friend could use with the opportunity to practice what she’s learned.  I bet you’ll love meeting her Twin.”

Nyx clenched her fists and her eyes shifted to look at her with the utmost incredulity.  “Elmiryn–!”  Arduino pressed in again, and her words cut off with a wince.

Elmiryn pursed her lips and looked at Lethia who seemed to be pleading as well as she could without speaking.  She looked back at Nyx, whose brow now glistened with sweat.  The humor in her became subdued.  There was a difference between fighting and protecting…but when one was forced to choose who to protect…?

The woman held up her hands.  Her nose itched with anger, and her jaw became tight, but the situation seemed beyond her.  “Sorry, kid.  We agreed to let you travel with us–that didn’t mean I had to put my neck on the line for you.  Or rather, Nyx’s.”

What!?

This came from Nyx and Lethia both.  Elmiryn looked at Nyx, frowning.  “Look it’s either one or the other.  You want to start a fight after having your throat slit like a pig?”

“Lia, you made an excellent choice.  Now take your friend and back away, back the way you came like you were going to.”

Elmiryn reached for Nyx slow and pulled her back, hands tight on her shoulders as the orchestra of movement began.  Arduino and Graz shifted to take their places, Graz facing Lethia as his brother watched Elmiryn and Nyx move backwards.  Paulo moved in, his crossbow now fixed on Argos.

“We can’t just let them take her.” Nyx whispered.

“I thought you didn’t want to fight.” Elmiryn replied.

“Not the way you were going to!  I mean…of course I didn’t want to fight, but I didn’t want Lethia taken, either!  We could’ve done something.

“Like what?”

Nyx growled and clenched her fists.  Lethia had started crying and Argos was a mass of hostility before her.  Paulo hefted up his crossbow as though preparing for a shot.  He glared at the dog.  “Stupid mutt…” He wheezed.  “Don’t you know your owner will leave you covered in death?  I should shoot you, to save you the horror.”

Elmiryn froze, scowling.

Graz turned his head a little to look at him.  “Paulo, shut up.”

“No really!  Dogs are supposed to have better perception.  If this one’s so smart, why can’t he see that this girl and her mistress bring nothing but death and nightmares?”

Arduino glanced at him.  “Enough, Choi.  Say no more.” He looked back at Elmiryn.  “Keep moving!”

Paulo’s grip on the crossbow turned shaky.  His voice cracked and his finger twitched on the trigger.  His gaze turned to glass.  “I haven’t…haven’t slept well since we visited their gods damned tower…  What a stupid animal!  Does he think being buried underneath a tree will justify his life!?  I won’t let that happen to me!!”  The crossbow fired.  The boy blinked, looking at his crossbow as though it had betrayed him.  Argos let out a low growl and limped back against Lethia, who stumbled under his weight.  A bolt stuck out of his left shoulder blade, and his white fur became stained in crimson.

“Argos!?” Lethia screamed, hugging him as he fell back onto the ground.

Graz ripped the crossbow from his brother’s hands, his face tight with shock and indignation.  “Idi’ute!  What do you think you’re doing!?

Elmiryn drew her sword as she took a step forward.  Her mind pulsed, her eyes burned.  She considered the possibility of resuming her backwards walk, but her knees locked into place just at the mere suggestion.  Was she just imagining it?  Was she just chasing shadows?

Arduino stared at her as she took another step forward.  “Lia?” His tone wavered.  “You should be leaving.”

The woman looked briefly to Nyx.  There was no lie or trickery that danced in her eyes.  She had a companion, one to back her, one to fight with her…for her, and Elmiryn felt stronger.  Nyx looked at her with eyes shining.  “You heard right, didn’t you?” Elmiryn whispered.

Nyx looked at the men, then back.  She gave a nod.  “I heard.”

If there were ever moments of uncertainty where she could scrape by on slim observances…then she wagered this was one of them.

Elmiryn pointed her sword at Arduino and began to walk forward slowly.  Her boots were a steady crunch on the earth, and she delighted in the sound of advancement.  “I’m sorry, but there’s been a change in plans.” Elmiryn’s lip twitched.  “Just to be clear…Your brother’s a bit weak-minded isn’t he?”

Arduino frowned at her.  “What?”

“Sorry.  Maybe that’s a rude way of saying it.  I mean, is he a sensitive? Prone to chills in old houses?  Maybe because he’s young.  You don’t know what it is.  You don’t know what’s wrong with him.”  The woman chuckled. “That’s why you’re so tense.  You want this job done, but your brother isn’t feeling right.  Maybe you aren’t feeling right.”

Elmiryn tilted her head to the side and let her eyes flicker to Graz and Paulo.  The older brother had his sibling around the shoulders, his teeth grit as he stared at her.  “You just call it black magic, like they do, but the realm of influence isn’t here, it’s at Syria’s tower… But after leaving that place, Paulo still is sick.  It’s like he’s carrying something.  It isn’t a curse–not an ordinary one–not one that can be magicked away by typical means.  I bet he’s dying, and he doesn’t even know it.”

Arduino spat on the ground and took a step forward, his rapier held up.  “You have ten seconds to vanish, or we’ll shoot you!”  But his eyes were wide, and his rapier shaking.

Elmiryn stopped and shook her head in mock pity.  “Did you know?  There’s a sickness spreading through the world right now.  It drifts, suckling at people and places like a baby–taking away their hope and their energy and any sense of decency.  We saw it at Gamath.  I didn’t know it had gone so far North–but if what I’ve heard from your brother is true…then I can’t let you take Lethia away.”

Arduino’s gaze darkened.  A muscle in his jaw pulsed and he brought his rapier up before him as he slid back into a fighting stance.  Lethia looked at her, her face still bunched with worry as her hands tangled in Argos’ fur, but a shaky smile appeared on her lips.

Elmiryn resumed her walk, but moved slower than before.  She was now within striking range.  Arduino’s face was smearing, and between the spaces of moments, she had to scrape just to remember that the man from two moments ago was still indeed standing before her.  Not some copy.  Not some joke.  Not some shadow that intended to drag her away to the place of Unbeing.  “You think your brother will survive, if you let Syria die?”  The woman giggled.  “If you take her apprentice to get imprisoned?  Shit…” The woman’s smile turned wolf-like, and she began to laugh outright. “You think any of you can survive singing a demon’s song?”

“Graziano, shoot her!” Arduino shouted, taking a step back as Elmiryn set into a hysterical fit.

Graz looked at her, then back at his older brother.  “But Ard, what if she’s right?  Paulo has been looking ill.  That healer didn’t do anything for him!”

“Shut up!  Shut up and shoot her!”

She charged forward.  When her body was half-bent, when the ball of her right foot was planted solidly into the dirt, when her left leg was turned just in the way needed to pull the most power possible from the push–her head snapped up, and she roared as the distance closed between them, like a lion’s mouth.

Too late!” she screamed.

Both hands gripped the hilt of her stolen iron sword–a weapon she was unaccustomed to, as it were heavier than her other blade, but she made do with what she had.  She brought the sword back.  She barked out a laugh as she slid to stop before Arduino and swung forward.

NYX____________________________

I had no idea what else to do, but to follow.  I was a little behind Elmiryn–I figured she would need space to swing that blade of hers, and I also wanted to see what she would do.  I needed a lead, because I had never initiated a fight before.  Survived some maybe, but never started them.

With Arduino engaged, I decided to go for Graz, who still had his brother’s crossbow in one hand.  I moved as fast as I could, pushing with all my might against the earth.  The distance was closed before I finished inhaling, and I rammed as hard as I could into the man’s body.  We both sailed through the air, and I could hear the breath flee from his lips in a ghostly rasp.  When we crashed to the ground, I scrambled upright before he could gain sense enough to grab at me.  To my dismay, he still gripped onto his rapier, but the crossbow was lost to him.  I didn’t see where it fell, as my next concern was to incapacitate the man beneath me.

Amid the adrenaline and electrifying fear was a sense of shame.  Graz did not seem the sort of person who deserved my fist–he was something of a buffoon, but his eyes lacked the bite his eldest brother had.  But I could not focus on such things.  Behind me, the clash of battle was like a fire that screamed for action.

I placed my left hand around the man’s throat and leaned forward to shift my knee over his sword arm, effectively pinning it down with my weight.  Then with a grimace I pulled my hand back and punched him.  It hurt, even though I refrained from using all my strength, the way I had with Elmiryn.  This mercy proved to be my error.  Graz was stronger than I gave him credit for, and he recovered quickly from my punch to give one right back.  My head snapped the other way, and he bucked beneath me, sending my petite form toppling off him.  He jumped up to his feet, his body proving his incredible resilience.

There was a swish, and when I looked up into his face, it was along the blade of his rapier.  He panted and scowled down at me, his lip bleeding from where I struck him.

My eyes flickered to the side as a commotion caught my attention.  I saw Lethia grappling with Paulo, her pack abandoned on the ground.  She had one hand on his chin, the other pulling at the back of his neck.  He looked ready to draw his rapier, the weapon halfway out, but he seized up, with eyes turned to bloodshot circles that would later haunt me in sleep.  He fell to the ground next to Argos, mouth slack, eyes staring into nothing.  If Paulo’s chest weren’t rising and falling, I would have thought him dead.

Lethia pulled his rapier from its holster, and brought it up in a menacing swish as she turned with eyes on Graz.  Her pupils were dilated, and her face blank.

Then I noticed that she wasn’t wearing her glasses.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn felt, more than saw, her blade miss.  It tore through the air, not affording her any satisfying crash of metal or vicious thud of flesh.  In truth, she was at a disadvantage.  Arduino was a skilled fencer–the woman could tell by his quick reflexes, the ability to shift and parry without losing his footing.  His weapon afforded him the speed and agility her stolen iron sword took away.

As he side-stepped her initial attack, he struck out with a slash of his rapier, cutting it across the skin of her throat.  She reared back just in time to avoid anything more than a flesh wound.  Blood trickled down, tickling her skin.  Arduino’s motives were clear.  He would incapacitate her as quickly as possible–even if it meant killing her.

That suited Elmiryn just fine.

“I have to overpower him,” she thought, as she pressed forward again, this time only knocking aside his rapier so as not to leave herself completely open.  He shifted again to the right, and brought his rapier up, so that her attack did not press through his defense.   “His rapier can’t cross with my sword, and whereas he needs to hit me in precise targets to kill me, I just need to cut him bad enough and we’re done.”

Elmiryn danced back and pointed her longsword to the ground, her eyes on Arduino’s eyes as they circled each other.  All else fell away.  It was just her and her opponent, engaged in a ritual that Elmiryn knew well.  First was the testing–the dance forward, the dance back–but the warrior was beginning to sense a pattern in the flurry of metal.

He would thrust low, then slash high, toward her head.  Other times, he would swipe at her sword, than lunge forward toward her leading shoulder.  Strike once, then follow up.  Strike once, then follow up.  He was good on variation, and sometimes the exact beat of his movement would quicken or slow down–but Elmiryn could feel it.  In the shock of her limbs after a strike, from the cry of her iron sword nestling in her ear.  One, two.  One, two.  One, two.

The woman smiled fully.

She let her sword point toward the ground, leaving her face and chest open to strike.  Arduino’s eyes narrowed at this.  The tip of his rapier bobbed in the air as he bent his knees and readied his arm, his brow furrowed over his hazelnut eyes.  Sweat rolled into his gaze, just as sweat rolled into Elmiryn’s.  The man did not blink, nor did she.

Then he thrust, a guttural shout lending more power to his attack toward her heart.

One…

The moment he began to move, Elmiryn pushed down on the butt of her hilt with the heel of her right hand, sending the blade arcing up to strike away Arduino’s course.  The man recovered, and with the momentum, slashed towards Elmiryn’s eyes.

Two…

Elmiryn pulled the sword in close to her body, to absorb the shock of her block.  The rapier rang against her iron sword.  But before Arduino could pull away, Elmiryn took a large step forward, her blade singing against the rapier as it slid down, then pushed outward against the rapier with all her might.  Closer to the hilt, this was harder to do, but the weight of her weapon, and the comprised stance Arduino was left in, caused the man to stumble to the side.

Elmiryn, now less than two feet away from her opponent, brought her knee up for a ruthless blow to the ribs, which sent the man to the ground.  The warrior, slid her right foot back, tracing a crescent moon in the earth, and with her left foot now pointing at Arduino, Elmiryn hefted the hilt up and back, so that the flat of the sword was parallel to the side of her face, tip pointed slightly downward.

Arduino moved to lift up his rapier to block, but his eyes knew, as she knew, that he was done for.

Smiling, the warrior thrust her sword downward with all her might…

NYX____________________________

Lethia brandished the rapier, her face pink, her eyes swollen.  “Argos didn’t do anything…but you hurt him.  He just wanted me safe.” Her voice was a chilling monotone.

Graz held up his weapon, but his eyes were on Paulo.  He forgot me entirely.  “What did you do to my brother!?” he shouted, voice cracking with panic.  “What’s wrong with him!?”

The enchantress’s only answer was to strike at him.  Her body moved with a grace that belied her petite form, and even I was made to forget where I was for a moment.  Their fight moved away from me, making me squint in the dust that stirred from their complex changes in position and stance.  The youth lunged and parried as though she had fought for years, her eyes ablaze with a righteous anger I had only seen once in her company.

You hurt Argos!” She shouted as she caught Graz on the arm.  The man hissed and stumbled back to a safe distance where he checked the severity of his wound.

As he did so, Lethia held back and waited, letting the tip of her rapier point to the sky.  Even in anger, she was held by some sense of honor.

I looked away to see Elmiryn pointing her sword down toward the ground, leaving herself open, and Arduino glaring at her as though he didn’t trust this opportunity.  Somehow, this fight had moved on without my aid.  But there were two others unaccounted for.

Argos was still down on the ground, but was attempting to gnaw off the bolt.  I crawled to him.  “Argos!” I murmured.  “No!  Don’t do that, you might make it worse!” The dog grumbled and looked at me, his body shaking as he craned his neck.  I reached for him, scratching him through the mess of his white fur.  His hot breath fluttered over my face–not a delightful scent, but I was glad to see he was alright.  “Leave it in and try to stay still.  No one will harm you…I promise!  When this is over, Elmiryn and I will try and take care of your wound…”

The dog whined and licked at my hand.  I gave an awkward smile and scratched the back of his ear.  I looked over my shoulder, suddenly aware that it was perhaps unwise to have my back to the battle, so I started to crawl so as to sit on the other side of Argos.  That was when my eyes fell on Paulo.

He was beginning to move again, fingers scraping useless in the dirt, and his left foot twitched occasionally.  I scooted over and rolled him so that he lay on his back completely.  His mouth moved just a little, and I thought he wished to speak, so I leaned down, frowning.  “…What is it?” I breathed.

He whispered something, and I leaned in closer, so that my ear nearly touched his lips.

“…An axe…for the tree…” he exhaled.

Then there was a blinding flash of light.

Continue ReadingChapter 12.3

Chapter 12.4

“With your feet in the air and your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head will collapse
But there’s nothing in it
And you’ll ask yourself–

Where is my mind…?
Where is my mind…?
Where is my mind…?1

NYX____________________________

I find it frustrating to say, that possibly the most incredible moments ever experienced in my life can either be condensed into a single sentence starting with something as transpicuous as, “I’m on a quest,” to sudden effulgent bursts of power, barely lasting a blink of an eye.  The saddest part was that the true nature of this brilliant display was concealed in the poor scope of my perception–just a hot burn in my memory that left me rattled, but no more the wiser.

It’s a good thing I’m not a scribe.  Describing that would be horrid

But as it happens, I can at least talk about the ripples of this astounding moment–for its effects were great, as others would attest.

My head snapped up when it happened, my sixth sense tickling again, but there was no true warning for what came next.  A great flash blinded me, and I held up my hand, wincing as the fierce glow lanced through my sight.  I heard shouting from the others, felt heat roll over me as some great release of energy spread over the area.  Dust kicked up and stung my hand and face.

When I opened my eyes again, I still suffered from poor sight. Blinking, I waited for my vision to clear.  In the white haze, I saw Elmiryn down, one arm up to shield her eyes, her iron sword stuck in the ground near Arduino’s chest. The man, too, looked out of it, and gave a vigorous shake of the head as he squeezed his eyes shut.

By this time I could see well enough to take note that someone completely new had entered into our little scuffle.  I shifted into a crouch, legs curled beneath me, my teeth bared and my eyes wide.  The nature of this person immediately told me they were different from the Moretti brothers.  The warm-toned men were not spell casters of any sort–just human beings who made do with their skills.

But not this person.

She was a woman, wearing a gray hooded cloak, who stood with Lethia held close to her body–a luminescent glow all about her that made my eyes water to look at.  A long golden lock of hair came down from the shadow of her hood–and it struck me as bizarre, because the ends were a darker honey that lightened to a brighter yellow as it went up. She held what looked like a gilded blade to Lethia’s throat. The youth stood frozen, her eyes staring glassy toward the sky like she couldn’t see anything at all.

Graz was on the ground behind them both, his arms over his head and his rapier lost a few yards from him. Arduino sat up and blinked his eyes open. When he made sense of what was before him, his face grew red and a vein appeared in his forehead. “Quincy!” he roared, struggling to his feet.  He slashed his weapon to the side in a violent sweep, spit flying from his mouth. “Dist’agea, ya! You haven’t got the claim for this!”

The figure looked at him, then smirked faintly. “Arduino. That’s unkind of you to say. Didn’t I save your life, once?”

He pointed his rapier her way in answer. “You are a foul vulture! I should’ve killed you last time!”

“But you didn’t,” the woman returned. She jerked her sword against Lethia’s neck, forcing the girl to tilt her head back. “Drop the rapier,” She murmured into the youth’s ear.

Lethia did as she was told. I could see how she strained to look into the woman’s face–but perhaps her strange ability required direct line of sight, or perfect vision.  The woman did not buckle or seize up. Instead, she turned her head just enough for me to guess she was looking my way.

“You.  Ailuran. Bring the girl’s things.”

I didn’t move right away.  I sat shivering and my eyes shifted to Elmiryn, who had moved into a crouch like me, her eyes turned to slits.  Her lips moved, as though she were speaking to herself, but I could not make out what she said.  Graz finally sat up, and even managed to draw and aim his pistol, but his mouth was open, and I could see the open fear on his face. Argos growled and started to move, his limbs shifting, but I held him down.

“Shh…” I whispered, stroking his fur.  “Shh…Argos, no.”

“You have no right.” Arduino took a small step forward, but stopped just far enough away for me to see that he was maintaining a certain distance for a reason.  His face glistened, and though his arm had turned steady, his eyes gave him away.  “You haven’t got the claim, lia.  We do.”

The woman didn’t even turn her head.  “Belcliff’s marshal was fed up waiting for you.  He put out a bulletin every which way he could, asking for all available mercenaries in the area to find Syria’s apprentice.  The claim is no longer closed.  You took far too long.”

Arduino’s arm lowered a degree.  He blinked at her.  “He…de quoi?”

“Elwe nuoa, oliano me’cher solimein.  ‘The way of the starved, is the poor butcher’s plight.’  If it were not me, it would have been someone else.”  The woman pressed her blade up, eliciting a choked gasp from Lethia.  “You and your family haven’t been at your best for a long time, Arduino.  I’m sorry.  But this is how it has to be.”

Paulo began to stir.  He rasped and stretched out his arms, his eyes blinking as he shifted onto his belly.  He pushed himself onto his knees and gaped, face half covered in dirt.  “…Quincy?”  His hand went to his hip only to find his rapier gone.  His watery eyes next shifted to his oldest brother.  “Ard…wh-wh-what’s happened?”

“Bring me her things, Ailuran.” The woman insisted, her soft, flat tone, turning hard.

I jumped into action, ignoring Paulo for the moment to keep my eyes on the one the Morettis called, ‘Quincy’.  I reached for Lethia’s large pack and her lenses, and put her glasses between my teeth.  The bag was so large I needed two hands to hold it.  Shaking, I stood and stepped over Argos’ panting body. The dog whined, but I did not glance at him.

As I came forward, the heat seemed to roll over me in thick waves, and I felt my hairs stand on end–not from fear or anxiety–but because something MADE them.  I stopped feet away from them, alarmed at what I felt.  I doubted how safe it was to venture closer, so I held out Lethia’s things as far as I could.

“Take your belongings,” Quincy said to the girl. Her voice was devoid of any passion–like this was all routine somehow. When Lethia took her things from my hands, they curled to fists and fell limp at my sides.  I took one step back.

“Put on your glasses,”  The woman ordered next.

Lethia did so. Her nostrils flared and I saw her throat swallow. The woman turned to me and looked me up and down. “Take another step back, you.”

I did so, taking one large step. I didn’t care to stand so close to the woman–the energy that rolled off of her made me feel overwhelmed.

Quincy turned to Arduino. “You were in over your head. A purist like you would never have managed a bounty like this. Perhaps you should stick to monster extermination?”

“Bitch…This isn’t over!” The man seethed. I noticed he made no attempt to get close to her either.

The woman shrugged. “Then I’ll see you at Belcliff.  But even if you take one of your shortcuts–do you think you’ll even arrive in time to see the girl die with her mistress?”

Then the heat in the air, that dampened all brows and made slush of our thoughts, retreated in a sudden void of space that was quickly filled with cold.  My body broke out in goosebumps, but the energy that I could feel buzzing about me was gone.  The area around us…darkened.  I do not know how else to describe it.  It were as if the three suns dimmed, and the shadows became darker.  Then I cried out, and my eyes widened–though they screamed to do so–for Quincy and Lethia had become brighter.  Their forms turned pale, all color and definition leaving them.  I saw Lethia struggle, her mouth opening for a scream as though she were in extreme agony.

I pushed forward, my hand held out–and I could feel my flesh burst, feel the blisters and the layers peel away as I tried to get close…

Then the light about them flared.  I was stunned, and crashed down into the dirt.  All around us was silence.  Then my vision turned dark, and I felt as though I were being pulled backward–to a place as frigid as ice.  For a moment, I felt coherence slip through my teeth, and my memories felt as though they were bleeding from my pores.  Aidan’s face, roaring water, Elmiryn in the rain…

Then…

Rock.  Cool, smooth rock that pulsed now and again with grotesque phantoms–skeletons, bodies without skin, beings caught between animal and sapien forms.  I was lying on the ground, and I shifted to look up at the sky to find it was a gray and black swill that churned as the fear pulsed within me.  I pushed myself to my feet.  I felt weightless–immaterial.  Then I heard something echo from afar.

“Damn it…DAMN IT!”  Arduino shouting.

“Nyx!” Elmiryn.  The fear wasn’t immediately apparent, but the tenseness in her voice gave her away.  I recalled the time she killed the deer and wanted to assure her I was fine–even though I doubted the veracity of such a statement.

“Look at her hand!  Is she still alive?”  Paulo, confused.

“She’s a therian, brother.” Graz now.  His smooth and upbeat tone was deflated.  “She’ll heal.  Any moment now.”

My right hand… felt as though it had been skinned, then boiled.  I looked down at it, and my face pulled in horror at the charred flesh–the bits that hung loose from apparently being fried back by some force.  I could feel the pain, but in that place, wherever it was, I was able to resume thought beyond it.  I tried to reason why this was and felt myself separated from the necessary tools of knowledge.  It was like reaching for something with eyes closed, and having your hand dip into something that made you numb.

Then the answer came to me in a low rumble.

“See why should handle dangerous situations?”  It was Her.

She sat yards away, content in the image of a great panther-like beast with a short and scruffy mane–a pathetic resemblance to my hair.  I glared at her, my inhuman hand curling to a claw.  The pieces fell together.

She had slithered out of her home, to drag me behind the invisible line that dictated control of our physical body.  It explained why I was aware of my physical pain, but not controlled by it.

“Yes that’s right,” She grumbled in a surly tone.  “The one sense we share is the sense of touch, and whenever you hurt, I hurt.  Have you forgotten so soon?  It wasn’t long ago when you were trapped in this head instead of me.”  My feline counterpart bared her fangs–stark white teeth against black fur.  Her tail lashed and her slitted eyes narrowed.  My twin spat at me slinking forward, and this time I saw her mouth move as she spoke.  It was physically impossible for her to speak like a sapien creature, but in this place…she made it so.

“You can’t handle anything.”  She snapped.  “At least when I was in control, I kept us safe–”

I stepped back as she neared, but as I did so, I felt my form tense, felt myself become heavier.  I gasped and my knees buckled beneath me.  My vision rippled, and for a moment, I thought I could see pairs of boots standing around me, with one tanned hand cradling my face…

I pushed this away.  The pain in my hand–it was pulling me as though a hook were fixed into it.  I could feel it tugging, begging me to wake.

“N-Nevermind…that now!” I struggled to rasp.  The pain did not become greater…but the words were harder to pull together.  I felt myself fighting to keep focus.

“Ey…is she talking?”  Graz.

“Shh!”

“She’s a therian right?  Why isn’t she–?”

“I said shut up!” Elmiryn snapped.

I swallowed, and this simultaneously made me feel like throwing up.  The pain pressed in more as I tried to remain sitting up long enough to stare into Her eyes.  She stopped mere inches away, and her breath was hot against my face.  “Wh-Why are you…keep…keeping me–US–from…healing?” I gasped.

My twin licked her chops, and her tail stilled.  She let out a great exhale.  “That’s the thing…I’m not.”

“Nyx…” I could feel Elmiryn’s hand at my back.  The heavy chains of physical existence grew tighter about me, and I felt my form become fuzzy in my agony.  “Hey…Nyx?”

I stared at Her as I vainly tried to cradle my hand to my chest in an effort to stop the pain.  “You….You aren’t trying to stop me?”

The creature’s lip curled in an uncharacteristically sapien show of emotion, as her ears fell flat against her head.  “Why in the nine hells would I want to do that?”

I swallowed again, instinctively this time.  I felt myself fade, then return, and I swooned when this happened.  It wasn’t fun shifting back and forth between the real world and…wherever this was.  “You…h-have an…idea?  Of how to fix this?  Doesn’t this drive you insane?” I gasped out.

“Idea? What idea?  Nyx?”  Elmiryn–she was pulling me into her arms.

I hissed and literally fought from being pulled back into complete consciousness.

My Twin placed a paw on my arm.  This anchored me, and I looked at her with hooded eyes.  She was smiling a little, I could tell.  “Remember what happened before, when something put my eye in your head?” She purred.

My eyes narrowed.  “Yes…”

“I think I know how to control it…but you have to let me through.”

I jerked back.  “Why should I!?”

“Because you rejected the ability to regenerate, and now it’s come entirely in my realm of…’existence’.”

“I didn’t reject anything!”

“…Are you sure?”

“I…”

“Nyx!” Elmiryn, calling to me.

I gripped my head in my hand and turned my face away.  “…I couldn’t have done that…I don’t have that choice…”

My Twin let out a sharp scream that made me cringe away from her.  “Then what do you call what happened between us!?”

NYX!

My eyes widened, but it felt as though I had just opened them.  Suddenly the black, ghost-like world was gone–SHE was gone.  I was once again caught under the full weight of life, the pain that was my immediate reality, now my master.  I screamed and held up my hand, tears leaking from my eyes as I writhed in Elmiryn’s arms.  The woman was knelt on the ground, with her arms around my upper back in an uncomfortable embrace that likely came about from urgency and confusion.

When I started to really thrash and howl, however, the woman lowered me closer to the ground and took to caressing my hair.  “Come on, Nyx.  Relax.  Relax.  It’ll happen.  Watch.  Your hand will heal and the pain will be gone…”

But it wouldn’t.  I stared at my hand, and the disgusting, gut-pulling sight was enough to send me into another fit of wails, never mind the terrible pain.  The Moretti brothers were still there, as I distantly noted by the way they stared in silent awe at the display before them.  My eyes turned to Elmiryn, whose stony face failed to meet the fear in her eyes.  My gaze shifted to the sky and how blue it was.

Then I felt her pacing along the unseen line, panting, and I knew what to do.

I closed my eyes and relaxed my hand.  I fought through the pain to bring all focus to its existence.  I wanted Her to have a clear path to enter from…but not to anything else.  She hesitated a moment, as though she didn’t trust this sudden surrender, then she sprinted forward, and I felt my arm shiver.

I was brought from one agony to another.  I felt the muscles of my forearm pull, felt the bones twist, felt the cartilage shift, and my skin tickle as fur grew thick over the surface.  It lasted less than a minute, as it wasn’t a full transformation, but it felt like ages still.

My eyes opened–I hadn’t even realized I had closed them.  I sat up, and Elmiryn pulled away a little to give me room to do so.  I turned and looked at my hand.  It flexed and raised itself, uncertain at first, before it turned open-palmed.  My face turned somber.

I couldn’t feel it–after all, it wasn’t mine anymore–but at least…I knew that my arm, my sapien arm, would come back to me, healed.  But when would I get my arm back?

Elmiryn let out a sigh, and smiled at me.  “That…was really weird, Nyx.”

I looked at her, my eyebrow quirking upward at this banal remark.  “It’s Her arm.  Not mine.”  At this, She let her arm rest in my lap…already, I could see the potential for this to get confusing.

“Why didn’t you heal?”

“…She says it’s because it’s Hers now.  That ability.”

“When the hell did that happen?”

I shrugged, feeling exhausted.  “Maybe when my senses dulled to that of a humans? …Or I don’t know.  Is this what humans sense?”  I gave her a quizzical squint.

Elmiryn frowned at me, though she still had a small grin on her lips.  “Nyx…uh…” She paused to suck at her teeth, then glanced to her left, where the Moretti Brothers had gathered, once again armed in full–Paulo having to borrow his brother Graz’s sword.  The warrior glanced back at me with an exasperated sigh.  “Look, we need to talk about this…but later.”

The woman stood, swinging her blade up.  She smiled.

Much later.”


‘Where Is My Mind?’ by The Pixies, from the album ‘Surfer Rosa’. 4AD, 1988. []

Continue ReadingChapter 12.4

Cold Burns

ARGOS__________________________

He sighed and tilted his head back, watery eyes fixed to the jagged horizon. He sat outside the local hostel, a squatted pile of architecture, fashioned from mud cement and baked brick, that nested an unpleasant scent in his sensitive nose from the damp atmosphere. Across the road, which was churned and sloshed with ice and mud from merchant carts and caravan marches, was a one-story building built from redwood lumber.  Icicles hung from the eaves of the gray tiled roof. Through the open shutter windows, the rough guffaws of drunken men made his lip curl. It was not their humor that put him on edge–it was the slim degree between fun and danger that caused the friction to his nerves. She had said to wait, so he’d wait–even though he’d told her that it would be better if he had gone in with her.  But she was insistent.

“No, Argos.  You’ll put everyone on edge!  I’m just across the way, so don’t worry about me, okay?  I’ll be back within the hour.”

The dog’s eyes shifted and he let out a great long exhale.  The three suns had crawled along the sky, but not quite far.  An hour had not passed yet, though he felt it near.  He shifted on his haunch, lifting his large paws one at a time to gnaw away the frost that formed between his toes.  His thick fur kept him warm, and he was used to the cold–but he couldn’t run as well if his paws were frozen.

Satisfied that both paws were freed of their frigid adornments, Argos’s dark gaze shifted once more to the building across the way.  It had no sign.  Many of the places here didn’t.  They tended to get destroyed within a night.  Dolmensk was little more than a cultivated camp filled with rough adventurers and shady brigands seeking respite from their “work”.

He thought about trumbling in, unannounced.  But Lethia had said to wait…

So Argos waited.

LETHIA_________________________

She was seated at a planked wooden table, so poorly slapped together that she lost a fritter through one of the great gaps.  Her lip pouted at this loss as she eyed its descent to the sticky floor.  She sighed and sat back in her squeaky chair.  She adjusted the spectacles on her nose and gave the older man across from her as confident an expression as she could manage.  Adults tended to respond better to someone who sounded like they knew what they were talking about.

“So, as I was saying, sir…there’ll be a sizable payment for your help.  I can offer some of my possessions as collateral, and you would later receive your money in whatever fashion you wish.” The girl smiled after saying this, feeling pleased with herself.  For a moment, she thought she sounded like–

“What can you offer as collateral, little one?”  The man asked, scratching at the blister on the corner of his mouth.  He had a swarthy face and red eyes with funny yellow blossoms on the whites.  His shirt was possibly white once, but sweat and dirt had stained it a foul sort of tan.

At the man’s question, Lethia faltered.

“Umm…I have a number of alchemical items, as well as valuable casting tools that, in the right market, are quite–”

“You haven’t got anything.” The man said, bored.  He stood, taking up his tricorn hat from the table.

Lethia stood, stammering.  “N-No!  Wait!  Please, I’m sure we can work something out!”

The man paused, his hat hovering near his head.  He turned, his gaze now a leer.  “Well, miss…there’s always your natural assets to consider.”

The girl moved back, her face turning repulsed.  “I’m just a girl!”

The man crossed his arm, looking her up and down as he licked his purple lips.  “I know, miss…but just to be sure, you’ve never been with no one, eh?”

“Shove off.”

A young man came between them, his head tilted back so that he looked down the length of the his nose at the other man.  He had dark wavy hair that was swept back, and bronze skin.  This appeared somewhat comical as the youth was at least five inches shorter than the brute.  But his hand gripped the handle of a rapier, and Lethia blushed at the strength that tightened his back.

The thug reared back, his horrible eyes turning to circles.  “Oh…Paulo…hey…sorry.  Sh-She with you?  I-I didn’t know.” He put on his hat and backed away, both hands up.  “Sorry.  It won’t happen again.  You tell your brothers I said ‘lo.” He leaned over to the side and bowed awkwardly at Lethia.  “My deepest apologies, miss.”  Then he turned and fled out the door, knocking a drunkard over in his haste.

Laughter followed him.  The young man turned around, an amused smile on his face.  The girl’s heart skipped a beat.  “Ha!  Did you see that snake run?”

Lethia smiled at him nervously.  “Yes…You had such an affect on him!  Are you well known around here?”

“Yeah, you could say that.  Me and my brothers have a bit of a reputation.  People know not to mess with us.”

“And you came to my rescue!  Goodness, I’m lucky!”  Lethia giggled, and tucked a strand behind her ear.

The young man tutted, his eyes squinted in mirth.  “No.  I wouldn’t say this is luck…”  He gave a low bow.  “My name is Paulo, as you might have heard.”

“Lethia,” the girl said, giggling again. The girl offered for the young man to sit, and he did so, his smile broadening.  “I’ve…been asking around.  I really could use with some help–only…well, I keep running into men like the one you just scared off!”

“You need help?”  Paulo quirked an eyebrow and leaned forward.  His hand concealed some of his mouth as he rubbed at his chin with his ring and pinky finger.  “…With what, lia?”

ARGOS__________________________

Argos yawned, bored at having to watch the unwashed denizens tumble back and forth through the icy road.  He licked away the icicles that clung to his muzzle and was about to shift again to pass some gas, when his ears perked to two male voices down the way.  They were low murmurs, and he would have otherwise ignored them, but certain key words caught his attention.

“…he comes out with Syria’s apprentice, we’ll head out right away, alright?  You make sure to keep your hands to yourself and your mouth shut.  Understand?”

Argos turned his head, dark eyes blinking.  He saw two men not far off, a set of crates separating him from them.  He couldn’t smell them, they were downwind.  Both were armed with rapiers, the younger looking one also equipped with a pistol, which he kept one hand on at all times.  The young one kicked at the ice on the ground, though the action held little conviction.

“Dist’agea, ya!” He said with mild exasperation.  But there was laughter in his voice. “Me teshié! I am not some idi’ute, y’know!  This isn’t the first quarry I’ve snatched!”

The older one, the one with meaner eyes and his hair pulled into a short tail in the back, smirked at him.  “Oh? Last time, that girl with the jablongos certainly did a number on you.”

At this, his brother scratched at his jaw and shrugged. “Ah well…what can I say?  I love my lias…”

“Tch…just make sure this lia has eyes only for Paulo.  Between the two of you, the world’s women would be doomed.”

The younger man turned and looked directly at Argos.  His large smile lessened, and he turned back to his brother, thumbing over his shoulder.  “Ey…it was good we found that mongrel, ya?  I would’ve hate picking through this pit of a village town.”

“Certainly hard to miss, isn’t he?  Even with the white fur?”

“What do you think happened to him?”

“Who knows?  Not even the marshal had an answer.”

“Think we can make some coin off of him, after the lia is locked up?  Maybe we can pawn him off to some research guild.”  Argos tensed up, but tried to keep the growl from slipping his lips.  They didn’t know he understood what they were saying.

The older one shook his head, waving the thought away.  “One thing at a time, brother.”  He slapped lightly at the young one’s shoulder with the back of his hand, his eyes alighting on the bar doorway.  “Eh.  Look.  Here they come.”

Argos smelled them before the man saw them, thanks to a breeze that lifted up from the East.  Lethia was on Paulo’s arm, giggling, her cheeks pink.  The boy looked close to her age, perhaps older, with her large pack on his other shoulder and a large smile on his face.  He reared back at their scent, then pushed forward into a trot, a woof coming up his throat as his nose flared.  The girl smiled at him and knelt to say hello properly, but the young man took a large step back, his smile wiping away.  Argos stared at him, then looked back at Lethia.  He could smell it between them…

The girl held him at either side of his head, lightly scratching behind his ears.  “Argos,” she breathed. “I’ve found some people to help us!”

The dog bumped his nose against her chin, whining.  When their eyes locked, he felt something tickle at the base of his neck and around his sinus.  He spoke to her, in the only way he knew how.  Images, feelings, simple thoughts that echoed and skipped between them.

Bad Men.

That pistol aimed at…

[you like him?]

…the both of US!

They know, they know,

[you LIKE him?]

they know about

mistress Syria!

Talk

[but…why?]

about “quarry”.

Just down the way.

Look, look, look–

down the road,

they look just like

[why do you like him?]

This Boy.

Lethia’s hands stilled in his fur, their touch sliding down to lightly rest against his chest.  The dog sighed and tilted his head to the side.  When crouched, the girl actually came a little shorter than he did, but she seemed to sink in on herself, losing an inch as her eyes misted and her lips bunched and quivered.

“Wha…”

No. No. No.

Shhhhh….

They can’t know!

They think I’m a normal dog.

Just.

Play.

Along.

Lethia nodded and turned to look at Paulo’s knees.  “Can I see my pack for a moment?  I want to put on some cream.  The cold, it’s horrible.”

“Oh.  Sure.”  Paulo shrugged off her bag and set it down next to her.  “Um…is…is your dog friendly?”

Argos growled pointedly.

Lethia laughed, though the sound grated on the ears.  “He’s just…y’know.  Protective.” She opened the flap, her green eyes shifting to Argos from the side as she reached in with trembling hands and rifled through her belongings.  There was the clink and chink of some of her alchemy tools and dining pieces.  She soon pulled out a small, circular tin case.  Next she took up her waterskin which hung at the side of her bag by a leather tie, and dashed water over her hands.

“What’re you doing?” Paulo asked over her.

Lethia glanced up at his chest, her glasses having slid down her nose to leave her eyes exposed. “The cream I have is actually a thick paste–an odd elven mix.  I have to use water to activate it.  Keeps from spilling in my bag.”  She opened the tin case and scooped out a small amount of what looked like soft white clay into her right palm.  The girl then closed the tin, gingerly, trying to keep the paste in her hand from smearing, then put the little item away.  When her hand came back out of the bag, it looked as though it were still holding something.

The boy didn’t notice.  Argos guessed from the quizzical look on Paulo’s face that the boy knew nothing of feminine toiletries.  The young man just gave a confused smile and looked to where his brothers were, waving them over.  “My brothers were waiting for me outside.  They’re just down there.  Let me introduce you.”

Lethia looked Argos in the eyes, her breathing quiet, but fast and shallow.  “Now?” she breathed.

The dog gave a jerk of a nod.

LETHIA_________________________

Lethia took the match she had concealed and struck it against the rough of her bag strap.  The match lit with a spit of fire.  She then rose to her feet, twisting her body to face Paulo in full, her hand which held the incendia–a white clay used in starting controlled fires–offered up, open palm, as she brought the match to it–all of this done in one fluid movement.  The clay ignited into gray and white flames, just a fireball held in her hand, which was kept safe by the water she had doused over her skin.  Lethia was careful to make sure her long wheat locks were no where near her hand when she inhaled, and with all the force her lungs could manage, she blew at the flames.

Paulo’s face drew blank, and he reached for his rapier reflexively, but his countenance was lost behind the curtain of white fire.  He screamed and jerked back.  Lethia’s heart hammered against her chest, but she didn’t stop to see if he was okay.  Taking up her bag, she pushed into a run.

As this went on, the girl saw her dog out of the corner of her eye–saw him barrel into two men, who had been approaching them.  They shouted and she heard metal ringing.  As she fled down the road, feet sloshing through the dirty ice, past the new onlookers who stood in her way, she heard screaming, and she faltered in her run to look back over her shoulder.  Argos was on top of one man, young, whose arm seemed pinned between himself and the dog.  The dog also had the other man, the older looking one who had tried to crawl away to his lost sword, by his boot.  He was pulling and tugging, white fur ruffled as he worried his catch now and again.

Lethia stumbled to a stop, even as she saw Paulo, eyes unfocused, bits of his hair and one eyebrow smoldering, turn and begin to tumble in her direction.  He looked dazed, but livid, and the ring of his rapier made the girl take a large step back.  But she couldn’t let Argos get hurt.  She couldn’t leave him behind.  “Argos!” She screamed, hands clasped to her chest, body doubling as she put everything she had into her call.  “Argos, stop it! Come on!”

The dog let go, his head popping up as he looked her way.  Then with a booming bark, the dog reared back and pounded his paws into the back of the young man beneath him.  The unfortunate fellow let out a great “Oof!” before his head fell against the icy ground, still.  The dog bounded off of him, and next trounced on the older man, who had once again sought to retrieve his lost weapon.

Then the dog turned and with great reaching bounds came running to Lethia, whose attention had returned to Paulo.  When the boy was close enough, he brandished his rapier and snarled.  “You could’ve killed me!”

Lethia’s face grew hot.  She screeched at Paulo, her hands clenched to tight fists.  “How dare you!  After the way you tried to betray me, losing an eyebrow was the least that–”

But her words were cut short when Argos rammed into Paulo from behind, his head dipped low to better scoop his body up when his legs flew out from underneath him.  The young man shouted as he tumbled over the dog, and Argos slowed to bark at Lethia.

The girl quickly obliged, but not without one last glance over her shoulder.

ARGOS__________________________

Bursting through the little crowd that had gathered to watch, the pair veered off the main road to take to the alleys–through dripping pathways, iron gates, and garbage.  Away from the buildings of timber and brick, with black smokestacks and churned roads of ice where chickens roamed, and the destitute slept against crates and barrels.

Evening came and the village town of Dolmensk was well behind them.

Lethia gazed back at it, her lenses held delicately in her hands as her green eyes traced the outlines of the shadowed buildings with mixed feelings.  “Where are we going now, Argos?  Who will help us?  We have less than three weeks before…” she stopped, her voice made into a ghost of fog that drifted off with the wind.  The dog woofed, and Lethia knelt by him, startled out of whatever reverie she’d slipped into.  Her eyes fixed to his.

Tiesmire.

By Witch’s Alley.

Dangerous, but fast.

Bad if we take the merchant road.

Worse if we stay.

The girl nodded, shivering as the flashes of thoughts flew through her brain.  “Okay.”  She stood and buttoned up her winter coat.  She adjusted her collar to better conceal her face from the wind, fingers numb and clumsy.  Then she scratched Argos behind the ear and smiled as she put her glasses in her pocket.  “It’s a good thing I have incendia.”  She started to walk, toward the almost snow-covered road that dipped down into a narrow pass between two great bluffs.  “I haven’t used any of it yet–so we should be good for a long while.  Right, Argos?”

The dog remained quiet.  Lethia looked back at him, confused.  “Argos?”

Argos sighed and trotted to catch up with her, then bumped the girl in the side.  He looked up at her, and she smiled at him again.

“Looks like it’s just you and me, Argos.”

His mind flashed to Paulo, smiling.  To Lethia, smiling back.

The dog grumbled.

Yes…For now…

Continue ReadingCold Burns

Chapter 13.1

QUINCY____________________________

Quincy scratched at the wood of her arm chair.  This fidgeting was uncharacteristic to her, but since she’d flashed into Belcliff with that girl, she hadn’t felt quite right.  Her veins sat heavy, and her eyes seemed swollen in her head.  It wasn’t exhaustion, for she felt like moving…fast.  But to where and to what, Quincy didn’t know.

Certainly, she didn’t want to stay in that cold little room any longer.

The marshal was a strong man, with a voice raked by smoke and an overflow of manliness.  He was leader of the city of Belcliff, and oversaw all judicial matters in accordance with city law.  He rapped his desk, his cobalt gaze looking through the circular window of the short tower, set atop the Belcliff regional jail.  It was a holding place for those awaiting trial, and those waiting to transfer.  She was in his office, where the ceiling rode high and the walls were of the same cold stone that the jails below were.

“There was no other way to it,”  The marshal said, running a quick hand over his peppered black hair.  “The girl was up to no good, trying noisily to get someone to free her mistress.  Looking at her, you wouldn’t know it, but our investigators confirmed her presence at the killings.”  He glanced at Quincy over his shoulder.  “So you shouldn’t feel guilty.”

Quincy’s nail broke against the wood, tearing just low enough to the tender nail bed.  She didn’t wince, but her jaw tightened.  “You confuse things,” She said, bright eyes shifting to the marshal like knives.  She crossed her arms and sat back with crossed legs.  “Your rulings do not weigh on my conscious.  I did my job.”

The man pursed his lips and nodded.  “That you did.  How do you wish your payment to be made?  We can do it in any manner you wish.”

“Gold.”

“That will be fine.”  The marshal stepped to his desk, his militant boots managing to sound as such on the hard stone floor.  Taking his quill from the ink pot, he pulled a slip from his drawer and scrawled something quickly.  His attendant, a teenage boy who had been standing quiet and unseen near the doorway, hurried forward and took the note from the marshal with a bow.  Quincy frowned at the rash she saw on his right ear lobe–it was red and swollen, skin peeling, as though nails had raked across it more than once.

“Herman,” the marshal said. “Take her to the city coffers and show them this slip.”

The boy raised himself up, hands folding behind his back.  “Yes sir.”

“If there is nothing else, miss Quincy, I bid you good day.”  The marshal turned away from her, gaze returning to the window.

Quincy stood, and followed the attendant out.

———–

Belcliff.  It had long shadows and longer nights–with clouds so thick overhead as to paint powerful illusions in the mind.  She could feel the cold bite her through her cloak, felt the light snow come toward her almost in a frigid sort of anticipation that made her wonder why she was mad enough to sit outside so high–stuck up on a temple’s facade like a gargoyle.  She eyed the passing bodies below and thought of beetles that scuttled through salt.  Quincy scratched at the stone ledge she crouched on, using her other hand now, because her right hand had already broken four nails.

The buildings of the city were guarded by snow draped creatures, stone beasts and agents of heaven entrapped in an artisan’s vision.  Next to her was a gryphon, its eagle head screeching to the sky.  Quincy shifted her eyes from the city below to lean against the creation, her eyes flickering up to look through the space of its open beak crying out silently.

“Where is he?” she breathed.  Her words were a fog.

Hakeem had yet to arrive in the city, and the day was already drawing to a close.  She thought about leaving for the trails, to watch for him there. But something about watching from there seemed a level more anxious than watching from the city, and so Quincy didn’t move.  Things would work out, as they always did.  She would never admit this aloud, but Hakeem was the reliable one.

The time slipped by.  In her fast, disconnected existence, its escape was not counted meticulously, as her partner could do.  For her, what seemed ages was just a passing second, and what was a passing second seemed ages.  Quincy was frustrated with this uneven take of reality.  She could lose days without eating or sleeping, and could zero in on a task without losing an ounce of focus, but the moment she was left to drift in idle, things became impossible.

She missed the suns, the graceful rays that afforded her a place of warmth–away from the stony stares of stone sentinels and black beetles.  The air seemed thin, and her breath, usually deep and calm, was short and labored.  Quincy stopped her scratching at the rough stone and sucked at her finger in distraction.  She paused when she tasted blood and pulled her hand back to stare at her thumb.  It now bled from the edge of the nail, where it had torn.

The woman scowled and stood, the wind moaning low at her audacious block of its current.  Her cloak lifted as the breeze pulled at it, but with one hand on the screeching gryphon, the woman held steady.  She reached for her pouch, not bothering to untie it from her hip, but instead, rubbed it as it pressed to her thigh.  A small item grew from her ministrations, and loosening the opening, she pulled out a teardrop of glass, no bigger than her thumb, and held it up toward the sky.

She gave it a shake and squinted her eyes as, in the clear glass, what looked like silver liquid appeared.  It swirled as she gave it one more vigorous shake, but it did not change.  Quincy pressed her lips together and began to put the little glass away, when something happened.  The silver swirl changed.  It pulsed red once, twice, then…

Bringing it up with a jerk, the woman’s eyes grew wide.

The teardrop had turned completely black, as though it had become obsidian.  Quincy cursed.  She placed the glass on the stone ledge and crushed it with her heel.

“…What is going on?”  She hissed.

————–

Quincy appeared at the marshal’s, the tips of her fingers wrapped in little bandages to stop the bleeding.  The young attendant from before stared at her from his desk before the stairs leading up to the marshal’s office.  Adjacent to him was the door leading to the jail cells.  She could hear shouting on the other side.

“Miss?  May I help you?” he asked, quill in hand.

“I was wondering if I could see the documents regarding the investigation of the convicted enchantress, Syria.”

The attendant’s mouth parted as he frowned with squinted eyes at her.  “Under what authority?”

“I represent no one.  I wish to see them for my own edification.”

“My apologies, miss.  But those documents are sealed.  They are not open to the public.”

“But the case is closed.”

“Indeed, yes.  But it goes against city law to allow a civilian to review judicial information.”

“Leaving no one to contest it, I understand.  But I have no wish to challenge the ruling.  I only wish to see the accounts of the scene of the crime.”

“But for what?”

“Haven’t you noticed it?”

“…Um…noticed what, miss?”

Quincy leaned forward onto his desk, her voice dropping low as she held up her right hand.  The young attendant’s eyes flickered to her bandaged fingers, as his hand went up to his right ear to tug at it.  “There’s something wrong here.” She hissed.  “Belcliff’s only magical professional has been shipped off to prison, leaving no one of the proper vocation to assess the damage done to the region.  You think black magic just goes away because the caster gets locked behind bars?” Part of her knew that it was the dark influences at work, making her so aggressive, but if it worked to her end, she didn’t bother stopping it…which another part of her noted was probably a problem as well, but she had no time to consider such trivial things.

“That kind of evil stays, it lingers, it’s like a festering disease that can warp living things the longer it is left alone.  The rash you have on your ear lobe from rubbing it too much?  You think that it’s a coincidence?  Like my breaking my nails from scratching at whatever it is I sit on is a coincidence?  Did you know that dark energy can manifest itself through impulsive, obsessive habits–usually of a self-destructive nature?”

The young attendant blinked at her, his mouth jawing like a fish.  “Uh…um…” He stopped pulling at his ear, wincing, and stared at his hand as though it had a life of its own.

“I am a long-time practicing wizard with a backed knowledge of the Unbound Disciplines.”  Quincy snapped.  She leaned in closer.  “So if your prepubescent ass has to go trouncing up the fucking stairs to ask your boss if I can see your precious documents, then I suggest you do so.”

The attendant, pressed back as far as he could in his chair, gave a loud swallow.  He nodded his head jerkily.  “Y-Yes, miss.  I’ll…I’ll speak to him r-right away!”

—————-

The back room of the town hall was, to Quincy, a hole in the wall.  She glanced up at the hand that hovered near her borrowed desk, and her gaze flickered up to the guard that belonged to it.  He was a tall man with a crooked nose and no eyebrows.  His gray eyes fixed onto her, and her azure eyes narrowed in turn.

“Need you be so close?” she snapped.  Her left hand clenched against the armrest of her chair, fingers scraping down the wood.  She grit her teeth and through sheer will kept from scratching the wood again.

The man shrugged and took a small step back.

She sighed and looked back at the parchment she held.  After some arm twisting, the marshal had finally agreed to allow Quincy access to the investigation records.  Viewing them, she realized why he had been so hesitant.

The more she read, the more it sounded like the investigators had no idea what was going on.  They were meticulous in their note taking, she gave them that.  They listed everything from drawings of the scene as discovered, to measured dimensions, to entire pages dedicated to describing the state of the bodies found–which covered alchemical tests.  But as far as conclusions went…well, the men were not magic users.  It was a useless endeavor.

The most they could gather was that something horrible happened and that three citizens of Belcliff were dead.  The victims were all men varying in age and species–one was an adolescent second generation human of Ko’Keil descent from a respectable merchant family; the second an aged elf that dabbled in politics–lineage unknown–who was guessed to be over two hundred years of age; and the third victim, a poor but well loved Avian therian that did odd jobs about the city.

Besides their gender, they shared nothing in common.  She was even hesitant to say there was a pattern.  Their vastly different backgrounds and social status seemed like picking particulars at first, but when reading on about the mutilation, Quincy found many inconsistencies in the level of “work” done, or organs…removed.

And when she thought about it, the word “mutilation” was a shaky term to use.  While correct in the sense that the victims were defiled and violated, it was misleading because the things done were too…precise…to say that the perpetrator sought only to damage or transform.  Indeed the cuts were almost clinical in nature.  One clean cut, from the naval to the chin, with rib cages split open and genitalia cleanly removed?  The neatness of these otherwise horrendous acts were one of the few things the victims shared in common.  Even the symbols burned into their flesh were each of a different nature.

Artists sketched out what they could before the skin started to peel and fall away.  Once this started to happen, further study of the bodies was halted, and their remains returned to the surviving relatives at the marshal’s order.  The only one who had no family was the elderly elf man, but his corpse rotted too quickly for the artists to record all of his markings.

Quincy frowned and kneaded her brow.  She could feel a knot tying between her shoulders, and blood flowed poorly up her neck.  She winced and gave her shoulders a roll as she thought.  The symbols were largely unfamiliar, though some of them reminded her of markings she saw in various ruins on Talmor, Faenea, and the Indabe.  The real puzzler rested with the therian.  All therians had the ability to regenerate, being creatures of spiritual force and transformation.  Granted, Lycans and Ailurans had perhaps the fastest rate of healing compared to all, but there was no level of difference in the Avian’s wounds.  As the investigators wrote it, it were as if the body had been burned with the markings all at once…which was impossible in that situation.  Perhaps a gravity spell and a bit of elemental sorcery could achieve what the investigators concluded–but that was two forms of magic of a very high level.  Even an individual who had mastered multiple schools of magic could only cast one form at a time.  It was a two-man job.

However…even with the Lethia girl as an accomplice, the young enchantress still didn’t have the power needed to achieve either spell…considering she never even studied beyond her declared field of magic.

The flickering candle light made it hard to read the investigators’ scrawls, and in annoyance, the woman held up her finger and flicked it.  The candles in the room flickered and sputtered out.  Quincy’s finger glowed at the tip, instead, lighting the parchment much better.

The guard blinked and pointed, his face looking ghastly from the focused light.  Quincy finally noticed that his nose was red and blistered.  “Did you jes–?”

“Yes.  Now be quiet.”

Quincy held her lit finger up to a particular sentence, toward the bottom, and scowled.

“Miss, I was told you were looking into some ‘bad aura’ you said was hovering over the region.”  The guard was leaning forward, his eyes like heavy stones on her.  “I can read through the paper.  You’re focusing an awful bit on matters that seem a bit unrelated.”

“You’re well-read for a lackey,” Quincy said in an even voice.  She spared him only a glance.  As she expected, his nose flared at the off-hand remark.  “Tell me, what do you know about magic to say that what I’m reading is not a matter of complete and utter importance?”

“I read a lot miss.”

“Oh?” Quincy set down the parchment and made lazy swirls through the air with her glowing fingertip.  She tried to make one of the symbols the artists’ drew–a swirl with a line through it.  The after image she traced burned behind her eyelids when she blinked.  “Did you know there was once a case in the city-state of Gulley, where a boy was drained of blood, then skinned, and eaten by a militaristic cult?”

The man said nothing.  The woman held her hand up to better light his face, which was tense and white.  Her eyes narrowed.  “They were conducting a ritual to the god Juventus, trying to earn invulnerability before going into battle.  The boys ages and places of origin, things seemingly unrelated to war, was of great importance, because Juventus was said to have been born among the halfling clan of Tor, who resided in the far south.  This clan nearly overtook the Talmor continent in a single vicious campaign.  The magic they enacted could only be stopped by killing all possible sacrifices for the ritual, and rendering them unusable.”

The man pursed his lips and his shoulders bunched up a half-inch.  “And did someone do that?”

“Yes.  Someone did.”  She turned away from him and picked up the parchment.  “So if you still think you know what I should be looking at, by all means…”

The man didn’t speak again.

——————–

The door opened.  The young attendant came in.  Quincy looked up at him, not squinting as the light of the room changed.  He shook his head, exasperated.  “Miss, it’s been six hours.  Have you got what you need?”

The woman looked at the desk, covered in parchment.  She tapped her lip and nodded slowly.  “Yes…I think so…”

“Thank the gods!”  The attendant turned and smacked the soldier on the arm.  The man had fallen asleep leaning against the wall.  He jerked awake, eyes blinking wide.  “Oh…” he yawned, “Gods damn, is my shift over?”

“Do I look like I’m going to relieve you?” The attendant tugged at his right ear harshly, dark bags under his eyes.  Quincy glanced at him with a quirked eyebrow as she gathered up her cloak, draping it over her arm.

She came out from behind the desk, eyes bright with an alacrity that the other two did not match.  They stared at her, as though offended by her lack of exhaustion.

“I’d like to speak with the young enchantress,” Quincy said, looking between them.

Now?

The woman gazed at them both with cool eyes.  “Unless you’d like me to go wake the marshal, who is likely asleep in his warm, comfy mansion?”

The look of acidic hatred was all the answer she needed.

Continue ReadingChapter 13.1