Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 13.3

QUINCY____________________________

The jail had a foul smell to it. It was stale sweat, and vomit, and urine.  They were collected together, like water at the lowest of places, into one odor that reminded vaguely of chicken–perhaps rotting and sitting out in the sunlight. The stone floor had stains to it, and the large room was brightly lit. The jails were just even squares quartered off with thick iron bars–some rusting and flaking. There were no walls separating the cells, no privacy afforded those unfortunate enough to wind up there. So as Quincy followed the guard, the attendant following behind her in a sullen trail, she saw the girl at the far corner of the room.

She stopped in her tracks. “What did you people do?” she demanded.

The guard slowed and looked at her. This man was broader in the head than the last gentleman she had the honor of spending time with.  She doubted it was because of a heightened intelligence. His eyes were baggy and there was a bit of green in one of his nostrils, but otherwise he looked fine. Then Quincy saw the claw marks that stemmed out from beneath his sleeve, up the back of his hand.

“What do you mean?” He asked, voice unusually light. She imagined something deeper for someone as tall.

“I mean that thing on Lethia Artaud’s head.”

The guard turned, scratching at the back of his hand. “Oh, that?”

“We put that on her as a precaution,” The attendant said behind Quincy. She turned to see him looking at her with disgruntled eyes. He looked dead on his feet. “She kept removing her blindfold, so we had to put that mask on her.”

Quincy gestured at the girl. “An iron mask. You couldn’t use a cloth bag. You had to use an iron mask.”

The attendant shrugged. “It wasn’t my call miss, nor this guard’s here.”

“Whose was it?”

“The marshal’s.”

The woman pursed her lips. When they came to Lethia’s cell, the girl was curled up in the far left corner, away from the others housed in the jail. Her beautiful blue dress was wrinkled and stained from the filthy ground. Quincy knew it wasn’t by choice that the girl was huddled and still.  The iron mask she was subjected to was heavy, and one that enclosed about her entire head, leaving only little slits for her to breathe, but not to see. The mask sat at the base of her neck, and Quincy imagined it would’ve been far too uncomfortable, even painful, to try and stand up and move whilst wearing such a thing.

The woman gripped the bars. “Lethia Artaud,” she called.

The girl did not answer. Her hands lay still in her lap, where her flared sleeves lay twisted and abandoned.

Quincy knelt down. “Lethia…I want to talk to you about that night. The night that Syria was taken into custody.”

Still no answer. The woman turned to the guard. “Can you please open the cell?”

The guard looked at the attendant, who shrugged. He took the set of keys from his waist and after a moments search, found the one he was looking for. He slid the cell door back and stepped aside as Quincy entered. The door rattled shut behind her. She came near to Lethia’s side, away from her legs and just out of reach–a precautionary habit–and knelt down.

“Lethia. There must be something you recall.  About that night.”

She heard the girl sniffle behind the mask. She shifted and the heavy item clanked against the cell bars. “Leave me ‘lone,” the girl mumbled.

“Your mistress is a good woman, isn’t she?” Quincy said. She shifted to sit on the floor, and leaned her back against the bars. “She helps people, right?”

The girl remained quiet. Quincy looked at her from the corner of her eye. “Doesn’t it bother you that she’ll be killed by the very people she tried to help?”

Lethia let out a strange noise from behind the mask, and she tried to curl into a tight ball–but the action made her head slip from its prop, and it dipped forward to hit the adjacent bar.  The girl cried out and whimpered through sobs as she pushed with both hands to try and lift her head, which was now pulled down at a harrowing angle.  Quincy jumped forward, taking the mask at both sides and pulling it back up.

Her eyes flashed to the guard.  “Take this thing off.  Now.”

“I can’t–” The man began.

“This girl must weigh less than a hundred and fifteen pounds–something this large and heavy on her is nothing short of barbaric.  You saw didn’t you?  She nearly broke her neck.”

The attendant waved at the guard.  “Damn it.  Go on, do it.  The wizard has that flat voice now, but just try dealing with her when she starts to get angry.”  He pointed through the bars, his eyes narrowing.  “But the mask goes back on when you’re done!  I’m telling you, it was the marshal’s order!”

The guard, grumbling, opened the cell.  He clunked forward, big boots sounding offensive in their approach.  Quincy’s eyes were little blades that fixed onto his, and the man glanced at her with licked lips.  After that, his actions were considerably less brusque.  Taking up an odd fat key, he pushed it into a little hole in the back of the mask at the base.  He turned it twice before there was a click.

“Alright,” Quincy said, rising up into a kneel over the girl.  She held the mask at the front and back.  “Go back out and shut the cell door.”  The guard did just that.

The woman struggled briefly, trying to get her bandaged fingers to fit into the newly opened crack of the mask.  “Lethia,” she breathed.  “I’m going to take the mask off.  I suggest you keep civil–or else it goes back on right away.  Neither of us wants that, alright?”

The girl said nothing.

Quincy pried open the mask, letting her other hand gently pull it away.  Lethia shifted to allow the mask to be pulled away completely.  The woman strained holding it with one hand.  She dropped it onto the ground where it fell with a terrible clunk.  Her gaze returned to the girl, and she saw what the mask had hidden.

Lethia’s oval shaped face was slick with sweat.  There were bruises on the cheeks and forehead, accompanied with dozens of little scratches from the corroded metal.  The young enchantress learned quickly that the iron mask was not only meant to humiliate and block sight–but to restrict movement as well.  The girl’s wheat blond hair lacked body, so that her ears protruded from their curtain more than usual.  Her pink lips were pale and thin, and her nose flared, sucking in the foul air as though it were the best she’d had.

The girl’s green eyes squinted.  They shifted, looking about the ground.  Quincy waited to see what the girl would do.  She tensed briefly when the girl turned her gaze toward her.  But Lethia’s eyes stopped at her chin.

“What do you want?” she rasped.

“I want to hear about the night they found the bodies.  It’s important you tell me all that you remember.”

“You can read what happened in the city records.” Lethia’s head rested against the bar, and she closed her eyes.  “M’tired…”

Quincy gripped her shoulder tightly.  “Lethia.”  Her voice dropped low, almost to a growl.  Her fingers started to curl, and she fought to keep from hurting the girl.  Lethia lifted her head again, face screwing up as she stared at Quincy’s hand.

The woman let go, her hand a claw, and pressed it to her chest.  “Lethia…you’re sensitive to mindscapes–shifts in the atmosphere from emotion and thought.  You must feel what has happened here.  The region of Albias is under some dark force.  Ethically, as people of power, you or I cannot let this continue.”

The girl sighed and sat up straighter.  She swiped at her red nose and tucked a lock of blond hair behind her large ruddy ear.  “I know what you’re talking about…As much as I’m upset with you, I can’t ignore this either.”

Quincy’s brow quirked at the girl’s use of “upset” versus “angry” or something more along the lines of “I hate you,” but she said nothing.  The girl was speaking now.

“What else can I tell you?” Lethia said, gripping her head.  Her hands shook and her eyes glazed, rolling left and right.  “I…I remember studying.  In my room on the third floor.  Syria was going to test me on alchemical mixtures, and how they can be implemented into a holistic regimen.  I heard a pounding downstairs, and shouting, even with all the wind howling outside.”  The girl sighed and pressed the heel of her palm to her brow.  “Argos came bounding up the stairs, telling me I should hide because there was a mob who had broken through the gate.  I told him I couldn’t.  I told him I had to be with my mistress.  So I went down to the foyer and saw her just as she came in from the study.  She scolded me and told me to go back upstairs, but I only pretended to.”

Lethia’s chin crumpled and she curled into a tight ball.  “I only wanted to make sure she was okay!” She squeaked.  Fat tears slipped from the corners of her eyes and she hugged her knees with a white-knuckled grip.  When she resumed, her voice was less mousy, but still shook and cracked now and again.  “I hid in the shadows, just as the stairs turn out of view, and watched as Syria tried to reason with the mob through the door’s sliding window.  One man spat in her face when she offered to help them with their pain.

“They just kept going back and forth like that.  The mob accused her of murder and black magic.  Syria told them that it was she herself who had reported to the marshal that these things were happening.  She tried to warn him that something dark had come to Albias.”

“What things?”

Lethia looked at her, blinking.

“You…didn’t read it?”  She frowned.  “For the last six months, Syria had double the number of cases than usual.  People were having nightmares and sleepwalking.  Belcliff and Dolmensk had become possessed.”

NYX____________________________

I laid back against the rocks, one hand over my face.  I was starting to feel dizzy, and my body felt like thin paper–fragile, weak, and on the verge of tearing.  Argos was a comfort, his large body next to mine.  He smelled a bit–musty fur and the stink of the potion Graziano had poured into his wound–but he was warm, and from him radiated a safeness that Paulo failed to generate.

The boy in question was lying, stomach down with eyes closed, on the back of the resting scultone he had ridden.  Argos and I had both come to the quiet little relief in the mountains riding different scultones–Argos having an understandable aggression toward the youngest Moretti, and me simply not wishing to find myself near him.  Our current place of rest blocked the wind and moonlight from us, giving us cover and respite.  The others had left to camp out the trail they thought Hakeem was most likely to travel by.  “He’s in a hurry–so he’ll take the road least traveled,” Arduino said.

When I heard the explosions in the distance, I sat forward, my eyes opening with some effort.  “I hope they’re okay…” I breathed.

Argos whined next to me.  He pushed up on his front paws and turned his great head, nose flaring as his dark eyes fixed on me with his ears turned gently back.  I looked at him, then smiled.  “We’ll get Lethia.  Don’t worry.”  I sat forward to scratch at his head, when I remembered which arm I was trying to use.  I looked down in a glare.  My Twin was tapping the dirt impatiently.

I hissed a sigh and closed my eyes.  “What is it?” I said in my head.

“Nothing,” She snapped.

I clenched my sapien hand and my expression turned ugly.  “Stupid animal, what do you want!?”

“Lots of things!  But for the last two days you’ve only ignored me! Me! Who saved your worthless arm!” She roared.  My feline counterpart limped around in my head.  My arm was in place of her usual paw, but I was too busy in the physical world to utilize it.  There wasn’t much to do there, anyway, except maybe push around at idle thoughts.

“I want something to eat.”  She eventually snapped.  “Ask the boy if he has something.”

“Fine.” I opened my eyes and turned my head.  “Paulo have you got–” but my breath cut short.  My Twin sat up as well, her hand raising with claws at the ready.  Argos looked at the same time I did, and he was up on his feet, a growl grinding from deep down in his throat.

“Paulo!” I said loudly.

The boy opened his eyes in a sleepy wink and glared at me.  “What is it?” he mumbled.

“Get off of the scultone and come towards us, as slow as possible.”

Paulo’s eyes flew open, and he gently raised himself up.  He tried to turn his head to see, but he was afraid to do it outright. “What’s there?” He hissed.

“I…don’t know.”

And I didn’t.

There were two monkey-like creatures with thick black fur, bright blue faces, and large wings on their back.  They blinked at us with round eyes like coal, lips puckered and nostrils flaring.  Long slim tails wrapped around spears of rock as they leaned over to stare down at us.  Argos was bigger than both the creatures combined–but I wasn’t sure if they possessed magic powers, so I was afraid to provoke them.

Paulo slid off the scultone safely, the large draconic beast not even twitching so much as an eyelid.  Its great chest continued to rise and fall steadily, head rested on its scaly forearms.  The teenager looked up as his feet touched the ground, hand reaching for a rapier that wasn’t there–his weapons were near the scultone’s tail, along with the rest of the Morettis’ belongings.  I could see his body tense up as he finally saw what was over him, and his gaze whipped to the side to his things.

Fottuto!” He cursed.

Then the monkeys jumped, screeching and whooping, lips parting to reveal yellow fangs that rivaled even Argos’s.

QUINCY_________________________

“What happened next?”  Quincy asked, trying to keep the girl going.

Lethia went on.  “The mob broke through.  Syria was bound and gagged and myself with her.  They stormed the tower.”

“That’s unlawful entry.  Discovery in this way would’ve–”

“The marshal allowed it.  He said the mob was acting under his command.”

Quincy’s brow tilted.  “Quite a thing to take responsibility for.  Why would he risk being held accountable for something going wrong?”

Lethia shook her head.  “Politics?  The region was worked up into a fury over the nightmares.  Two children even died from sleepwalking outside at night and being killed by monsters.  Who knows why he allowed for all of that…after what Syria had done for him, you’d think–”

“What did she do?”

Lethia looked toward the woman, brow bunching up in anxiety.  Then she looked at the guard and the attendant who listened nearby.  Quincy glanced at them, then patted the girl’s leg.  “You forget them.  Remember, this is to help Albias.”

The youth nodded and swallowed.  She ducked her head some so that her mouth was partially covered by her arms, but Quincy could hear her as she spoke.  “The marshal…he was once part of the Belcliff militia.  Said there was some conflict with the neighboring dwarven colony shortly before his election to the governing seat.  It ended badly.  The dwarves abandoned the colony, taking their gold with them.  It left Belcliff virtually poor.  You see, the dwarves were the ones who backed the coffers, and in exchange, they had Belcliffs protection and the right to mine in the mountains.  That first year as marshal left him with chronic insomnia and…um…some paranoia.  He was seeking Syria’s counsel for nearly two years until six months ago, when this started.  No one knew.”

“Mmm…” Quincy said, frowning.  She gestured for the girl to go on.  “So when the mob searched the tower, that was when they discovered the bodies stored on three slabs in Syria’s private room of sanctuary.  Correct?”

“Yes…but, I didn’t see what they claimed to have found.  They were babbling and wailing, saying that she was sacrificing men.”  Lethia’s fists clenched, and her swollen red eyes squinted.  “Such vile things to say!  I’ve lived there all my life and never left.  I think I would’ve noticed three corpses in my home!”

“But in the trials, you said you’ve never been in that room before.  Is that true?”

Lethia looked at her, green eyes wide.  “Ah.  Well, yes!  It’s true!  I’ve never been in there.  That was Syria’s room for meditation.  I was never allowed there, not even to clean.”

“During the trial, you were released on the basis that you were mentally unfit, and therefor incapable of committing those murders.  Later, they found evidence of your presence in Syria’s sanctuary, where the men were killed.  A strand of your hair, matched to you from one taken from your room.”  Quincy held up her hand.  “How is that?”

The girl straightened, her face going long.  The look in her eyes was more bewilderment than fear, however.  “What are you suggesting?” she breathed.

Quincy shook her head.  “I’m only telling you what the investigators have found.  Your actions in the past month have caused Belcliff to re-evaluate your innocence, leading them to re-analyze the scene, which in turn, led to the discovery of the strand of hair.  You’ll have to be honest with me…have you ever practiced an art of magic outside the realm of enchantment?”

“N-No!  Of course not!”

“Does Syria practice anything outside the realm of enchantment?”

“I’ve never known her to!”

Quincy sighed and stood.  “Then even I’m at a loss.”  She turned to leave, when Lethia grabbed at her ankle.  The woman looked down at her, brows raised high.

“What’s going to happen to me?” Lethia asked.  Her lip trembled and she looked ready to cry again.  Her eyes focused around Quincy’s waist–lower than necessary.  The girl was clearly ashamed on some level.

The woman answered her.  “The jury was quick with their verdict.  You’ll be put to death, along with your mistress.”  Quincy pulled her leg from the girl’s grip, which had turned tight at her last words.  She stepped through the prison door and did not look back as Lethia began to wail.

She was led back to the foyer by the attendant, the guard staying back to continue his night watch.  The young man looked at her as she fetched her cloak from next to the entrance.

“Miss,” he said. “I understand you were just trying to get on the girl’s good side–but we can’t go bending the rules anymore.” Quincy paused to turn and stare at the attendant.  Her hand twitched.  He couldn’t have been much older than Lethia.  Perhaps a few years.  He tugged at his rash-covered ear as he went to fetch his cloak from the chair behind his desk.

“If you want anything else,” he went on to say. “It’ll have to be conducted under the conditions given to you.  If anyone finds out that we took that mask off, the marshal could very well put a bounty out on you.  He’s done it for less than that.”  He stopped next to her, drawing his cloak about him.

“Okay, Miss?” he looked at her.

Quincy looked him up and down.  She thought about the iron mask, the girl crying behind the metal, and the attendant’s impatient sneer.  The woman flipped up her hood and opened the door, a chill of wind rushing to meet her.

“Understood,” she said.

NYX____________________________

The winged monkey creatures descended on the Morettis’ things, and Paulo, yelling, kicked at them.  “They’re batrengs!” He yelled at me.  One of the little monsters hopped, wings fluttering, his rapier in its hands.  He grabbed it by the tail and flung it at the rocky wall.  “The stubborn little cretins steal your things!  Help me scare them off!”

The one that had been flung at the wall was up on its feet in no time, and its blue face had turned a violent purple.  Its fur about its head puffed up, where feathers I hadn’t seen fanned out around its jaw.  It screeched and jumped forward, all fangs and claws.

Argos was quicker than I.  He made a great leap, a sharp bark ripping from his throat as he descended on the attacking batreng.  He let out a cry as he landed–his shoulder was still hurt.  I blinked, looking from Paulo to Argos and back.

“Don’t,” I heard Her say.

I took a step forward, trembling.  My legs started to lock as I saw the batreng beneath Argos claw at his legs.  The dog snarled and took the creature around the head by his mouth, one paw on its chest.  It let out such a horrible sound–like a cross between a chicken and a baby trying to scream but whose throat was being constricted.  Then there was a wet crunch, and for my one step forward, I took two back.

Argos had ripped the batreng’s head off.  Its bloody stump of a neck spurted blood from the heart pumping it out, but it quickly dribbled to a pathetic ooze that colored the floor in a dark crimson.  The limbs twitched, and when the dog let the collapsed head drop from his mouth, I saw where his fangs had sliced through the skin.  With the face turned away from me, it no longer looked like a head–just a dark matted thing of feathers and fur.

The batreng’s companion, seeing its brother dead, shrieked and took to the air by jumping off the rock wall and away from Paulo’s snatching hands.  At first I did not understand why the boy was trying to capture the monster still, but then I saw the round metal object gripped in its dark foot.

Paulo stooped to pick up his rapier, his face screwed up in rage.  “No, stop it!  Stop it!”  He pointed, shouting as I was forced to duck from the batreng’s violent course of flight.  My Twin raised her arm and swiped at it as it flew past, and I saw her strike true, cutting into the creature’s wing and down the back of its ribs.  It screamed in that horrible way, before it crashed down to the ground, tumbling for a few feet before it sailed over the edge of the relief and out of sight.

I stared after it, breathing fast, my heart rebelling in my chest.  Paulo cursed loudly as he shoved past me.  “Conio!  He has my father’s telescope, and you just let it go over the edge!!”  He skidded to a halt at the edge and stared down, his overgrown hair blowing in the cold wind, his body bunched in the back, and his fists clenched.  I jogged to his side, and heard Argos’s claws clicking after me on the rock.  We both looked over.

The batreng had been caught–but not by something good.  Dark vines wrapped around its body.  It was slowly being pulled into a dark hole in the side of the slope, where I knew a devil weed was waiting.

Paulo shook, veins appearing in his neck and arms.  “That telescope was my dead father’s…the devil weed’s acid will destroy it.”  I looked at him.

Don’t,” I heard Her say again.

I didn’t listen.

With a conflicted cry and a face that must’ve said something along the lines of, “What am I doing?”  I jumped.  My heart stopped, and my Twin lashed out with her arm, back toward the edge of the relief in the hopes of catching Us.  But when I twisted around, we were too far–so far that I wondered if I had jumped too hard.  On the way down, I saw that Paulo had turned around, hands at his lips, and my ears were visited by the sound of his whistling.  Listlessly, I realized that the boy was going to come down with his scultone–but it was far too late.  As I hit the slope, Her fist slamming into the dirt in a desperate attempt to stop our descent, I looked up at Argos’s barking form.

I glanced down and saw that the batreng was nearly in the devil weed’s hole.  Gritting my teeth, I shifted my feet to direct my slide towards it.  When feet away, I gave a short hop, and went sailing past the plant monster’s hole–which was bigger than I had thought.  I snagged onto one of its trailing vines, halting my descent with a painful jerk.  My Twin grabbed onto the vine too, but as I made to reach for the struggling batreng, She grabbed my arm.

She screamed at me.  “You idiot, you want us to die for that little bastard’s toy!?”

“It’s not for him,” I shot back.

I leaned forward and bit Her arm hard.  She let go of me, and in my head I heard her hiss in rage.  The feeling this caused brought a great sense of nausea and pain in my skull.  I gave my head a vigorous shake, and with glazed eyes focused on the batreng, already in the shadow of the devil weed’s home.

With scrambling legs and one arm, I pulled myself up, much like a frantic worm since She would not help me at all.  Within a minute I reached the devil weed’s home.  I hauled myself up on the edge, panting and with vision tunneling.  When my eyes focused to the change in light, suddenly my idealistic tenacity was lost in a great wave of terror.

A fat creature resembling an unblossomed flower bud with purplish leaves and a beaked mouth was hugging the batreng close to its body.  The little winged imp almost earned my sympathy, the way it was completely wrapped in the devil weed’s vines.  Fleshy tendrils erupted from the plant monster’s mouth, where they burrowed into the back of the batreng’s head, effectively ceasing its struggles.  But the devil weed saw me, thanks to the hundreds of little eyes surrounding its beak, and it gurgled with vines lashing out.

I yelled as my arm was snared by its terrible grip.  My Twin’s arm fought wildly, slashing at everything that it could.  In all my terror, my eyes lit onto the telescope still gripped in the now-dead batreng’s foot.

With teeth bared, I leaned forward quickly, setting my feet before me to better rock back with.  My hand snatched the telescope from the batreng, but as I pushed to lean back, I found I couldn’t.  To my horror I was pulled closer to the devil weed’s gaping beak, where its vampiric tendrils waited to burrow into my skin.

Then the mountain side trembled, and the devil weed–sensitive to these tremors–lessened its grip on me.  I didn’t realize how much I was fighting it, for as soon as it did so, I practically launched backwards, out of the hole.

I crashed down the side of the mountain, pain lighting through me like a flash fire, as dust and dirt clouded my sight.  Then my body slammed into something warm and fleshy, and when I felt like the world stopped spinning, I dared to open my eyes.

I saw great armored legs anchored by large claws in the dirt.  I stretched a hand out, felt the scales beneath my fingertips.  Shifting, I saw that I had fallen against the side of a scultone–but not Paulo’s.  Weakly, I sat up and craned my neck.  Seated on a leather saddle, both Elmiryn and Graziano looked at me.

Elmiryn smiled a crooked smile.

“Guess I can’t leave you alone for long, can I?” she said.

QUINCY_________________________

All was closed up.  All was quiet.

Quincy walked slow through the streets, her face blank as her phantom legs left shadowed impressions in the dirty snow.  Belcliff had many tall stone buildings.  It was strict, almost unfriendly.  Her azure eyes trailed up to the stone creations that leered down at her.  She thought of the gryphon statue she had leaned against earlier that day, its intense cry sent toward the heavens.  Her mind returned to the girl, Lethia Artaud, wailing in the jail.

The talk had been a waste of time.  The girl knew nothing of relevance–of interest, perhaps–but not relevance.  Added on top of that was the girl’s reputation as a severely absent-minded girl, given to fugue.  Whatever information garnered from her was worth less than salt.  It raised questions in Quincy, however–little toys of curiosity for her mind to mull over as the mystery of the dark influence over Albias was halted in its tracks.

Though the case was closed on both Syria and Lethia (prejudicially perhaps, but regardless,) Quincy wondered at the purpose of the supposed ritual killings, and how they were conducted.  She wondered what it was the marshal was hiding, and why he was content to let the region suffer from a power left unattended.

Without knowing, Quincy had wandered to the Merse’s–the only establishment she had found so far that was still open.  It was a small bar located on the southern part of town.  When Hakeem and Quincy had first taken up the marshal’s offer, Hakeem had gone there briefly to enjoy a drink.

Thoughts of her partner made Quincy’s eyes flicker in search upon stepping through the bar’s double doors, her hands rising to pull back at her hood.

The bar was empty, save for an old hag at the back who looked to be asleep at her table.  Behind the bar was a young man with dark chops and a shadowed jaw.  He wiped at the table, eyes on another pair of customers seated at the table nearest to the bar.

These patrons looked up at Quincy’s entrance, and promptly let out a ruckus.

“Aha!   I knew it was you!”  A large man boomed.  He was wearing a leather studded tunic and black fur vest.  He slammed his meaty hand on the table and stood, tromping towards her with a swaying gait.  At his sides swung small metal ingots of various sorts that were punctured at the top, where they were tied to his slim belt.  On his back was a broad saber, and his smiling mouth gleamed with silver teeth.

“Karolek.” Quincy said, stepping back as the man held out his hand.  He was a sorcerer, one that specialized in controlling metal.  Each sausage-sized finger of his hand had at least two rings on it.

Rather than be offended by her silent refusal to shake, the man only laughed and gestured for her to sit at his table.  “Come, come!  It has been so long since we have last seen each other!”

“Not long enough!” A voice squawked from behind the man.  Karolek turned with a roll of his eyes back at his companion–a thin, white-haired man with a goose neck and a funny squashed head.  He wore navy blue and white cream colored robes, a tassled hat atop his balding head, and thick round glasses.  Little hands danced along the handle of his fat mug–which looked to be almost bigger than his skull.  His scruffy face bunched as he jeered at Quincy.  “I dislike you!  Intensely!”  He snapped.

Quincy reached a hand up to rub at her face.  “Hello, Jetswick.”  Jetswick was an alchemist and a veteran bounty hunter.  The rumor in the adventuring community was that the man’s true age was twenty-nine.  It was said that he had breathed in one too many fumes, and had aged faster than a normal human being because of it.

The woman just thought he was crazy.

She considered turning around and walking right back out, but Karolek pressed insistently at the woman’s back, much to her disdain.  His “suggestive” touch was just short of manhandling.  She was forced to march forward and was thrust against the table, incurring a slew of curses from Jetswick, who had to lift his mug of drink to keep it from spilling.

“Sit with us!” Karolek said, his dark-tan face breaking into a grin as he sat down in his chair.  The seat looked hardly comfortable for him, but he leaned back anyway, his long braided dark hair sweeping back to hang towards the floor.

Quincy stood, frowning at the man.  She could kill him for laying hands on her, and he knew this…but she had also known him for far too long to let it all end over a bit of drunken zealousness.  In a sense, he was like a respected colleague–and that had its privileges.  Lips pursed, the woman pulled out the last free chair and sat down.  “Hakeem might come…so it couldn’t hurt to kill time,” she thought, as she looked between her new company.

“Do you want anything?” Karolek asked.

“No, I’m fine,” she responded.

“Never a drinker,” the man said, tutting.  He turned to the barkeep.  “Another one for me, then!”

“And me!” Jetswick cried.

Karolek gave him a reproachful glare.  “You’ve had too much, you old fool!  And you’re not even done with the mug in front of you!”

“Quiet, blade biter, or my acid flask might jump from my robes and onto your ugly face!”

“How’ve you both been?” Quincy asked, though the question held little interest to her.  She just didn’t feel like seeing the two men bicker.

“Well,” Jetswick drawled, wiping his mouth after a gulp from his mug.  “With devils like you and your mud man, I’m beginning to consider early retirement.”

Quincy ignored the racial dig at Hakeem and looked at Karolek.  “And you?”

The large man shrugged.  “I arrived late, and so, have reasoned to leave as such.  Aside from being beat out by you…again…I have been well.”

“That’s good to hear…”

“You still flashing around like a fairy?” Jetswick asked, leaning forward with one eye squinted.  “All show and no real bite?”

Quincy leaned to the side, to escape the blast of rum that hit her, but otherwise, only fixed the alchemist with a frosty stare in response.

Karolek chuckled.  “You wizards and your toys…you should take magic more seriously.  Devote yourself completely to it.  Your potential as a magic user is obvious to everyone.”

“Wizardry has its merits.” Quincy returned, eyes flickering towards the man.  “I’ve seen magicians and sorcerers alike kill themselves trying recklessly to attune to a magical item.  You can’t just pick them up and use them.  You have to become one with their energy.  …I will admit, however, that it is a faster form of magic to master than, say, temporal magic.”

Karolek leaned back as the barkeep set his drink before him.  “But your shortcuts carry a price.  Every magical item has its trade off.”

Quincy shook her head.  She crossed her arms over her chest and glanced at the old hag across the room.  She still hadn’t moved.  “Finding the right item is the first step.  Moderation and restraint are the next.”

“Buncha thieves is what you are, you wizards,” Jetswick snarled.  “Always raidin’ one a-nother for magicked goodies and spelunking tombs and ancient hideaways and such…” The old man hiccuped.  His eyes widened behind his thick glasses, making him look like a quivering old cockroach.  “Thieves!  Brigands!  Highwaymen! You plunder other disciplines, thinkin’ yer such hot shtuff, but the matter of it, Quincy, is that you’re just an ordinary human, playin’ with an extraordinary tool…”

“He has a point…crazy as he is,” Karolek said.  He took a deep drink from his mug, then rubbed his chin and smirked.  “Some years ago, I recall you using a rod that called forth lightning.”

“Quite unoriginal.” Jetswick barked.

Karolek nodded in agreement.  “Quite.”

Quincy turned away in her chair, nails scraping painfully along the rim of the seat.  Her jaw tensed and she forced her hand onto the table.  “I was young then,” she said.  “I used whatever I could get my hands on.”  She looked at the sorcerer sideways.  “…And I seem to recall you getting paralyzed by that same ‘unoriginal’ rod.”

“Which reminds me…” Karolek chuckled, hand reaching up to wipe at his eyes.  He grinned as Quincy turned to look at him with a bored expression.  “Do you still have that…that…” his shoulders shook as he tried to keep from laughing out loud.  He tried to open his mouth again, but he just threw his head back and howled.  Jetswick cursed as some of his drink spilled from the table rocking.

“What?” Quincy sighed.  She thought she knew what he was going to say.

“The wand!” He eventually managed, between fits of humor.  “The…The one that–” he couldn’t finish, as he was forced to double over.  He slapped at his knee, then pounded the table, causing Jetswick to jump and spill more of his drink.

“Oafish lout!” The alchemist shrilled, his smooshed gray head turning a shade of purple.  He then proceeded to try and slurp the drink from the table.

Quincy closed her eyes and turned away.  She didn’t know why she allowed herself to become engaged in such a loathsome conversation.

“And as a sorcerer, you find life more fulfilling?” She eventually said, when Karolek’s laughter started to die away.

“Of course!” He bellowed, striking his chest in pride.  “Metal bends at my command, and the spirits of forge and blade answer my call.  The power rests in my hands.  Not in some arcane sword or powered stick…”

“I feel no need to stick my head into your proverbial hurricane of a world, Karolek.”

“I think you do.  I think there are days you wish you could marry yourself to the sunlight and be the beacon in the shadow.”

“Don’t get poetic on me, you jingling tart,” Jetswick hiccuped.  He pulled out a bottle and began pouring its contents into his mug.  “I hate it when you start to get grandiose…”

“What’re you sucking on now?Karolek snapped at him, his meaty bald brows pressing together.

“None of your soddin’ business!” The smaller man snapped.

Karolek waved the man away.  “You know what?  I don’t care enough anyway.”  He picked up his mug and drained it.  With a loud aah, he stood and wiped at his mouth.  “Well I’m off then.”  The sorcerer passed Quincy, metal ingots clinking as he went.

He paused near her and leaned down to murmur, “I see it in your eyes, you know.” The woman turned her head a fraction and met Karolek’s dark gaze.  “You can have so much more, Quincy…if you wanted to.”

“What makes you think I want more?” Quincy returned, brow quirking.

The man bellowed out a laugh and walked away shaking his head.

“Feh,” Jetswick said at the sorcerer’s parting.  “What a graceless twit.”

The woman turned to look at him.  “I meant to ask…haven’t you noticed what’s been happening to this region?”

The man shrugged.  “What? You mean the blackness?  People hurtin’ themselves without knowin’ it? The bad attitudes, the nightmares, the illness?”  Jetswick sipped from his mug, brows rising high.  He wiped roughly at his mouth, then sneered.  “Course I have.”

Quincy scowled at him.  “And you’re content to just leave it this way?”

“Miss, I’m a gods damned alchemist.  I don’t deal in the raw energy you lot do.  Your question was better posed to that fat headed baboon that just lumbered out…but you know why he hasn’t done anything as much as I do.”

“He doesn’t care,” Quincy finished, a note of disapproval in her voice.

“Which brings me to ask,” and here, the man leaned forward, both eyes squinting to slits behind his thick glasses.  “Why do you care?”

Quincy took a deep breath, prepared to list all the moral and professional reasons in a way that she had once recited to her teacher and mentor when asked the same thing.  But something caught her ear.  It was a loud explosion–a horrible force of sound that echoed through the streets and through the shabby walls of the little bar.  She stopped, head tilting to catch the sound better.  Even Jetswick paused mid-drink to turn and listen.

“Hmph…” he finally said.  “Seems there’s a commotion going on somewheres.”  He turned and frowned.  “Say, now that I think on it–isn’t Hakeem usually the first to arrive in the city?”

Quincy was up and out of the bar before the alchemist even finished his sentence.


Back to Chapter 13.2 | Forward to Chapter 13.4

Chapter 14.1

NYX____________________________

I wanted to beg her not to go.  I wanted to tell her she was being foolish, being reckless, being unrealistic.  She was just an ordinary human being–a skilled warrior, true–but pitted against someone of magic.

“Elle…”

“Yes, Nyx?”

“…Please, be careful.”

The words were stones, pressing on my tongue.

Her cerulean eyes winked with her broad smile.  I turned to look at my shoes, and saw my Twin’s arm hanging by my side, like a dead thing.  Then Elmiryn’s shadow crossed mine, and I saw her shoes step near.  When I looked up I had just enough time to take a breath before she leaned down and kissed me.

My eyes slipped closed…

It was a gentle contact–meant more as a brief message of affection than an invitation for a prolonged activity.  She brushed her hand along my cheek, then started to pull away.  I bit my lip, trying to contain the whine in my throat, and hugged her with my one arm before she could leave my reach.  My eyes squeezed tight as I pressed my face into her shoulder.  I breathed in deep, and her wild smell filled me.  The woman paused, then hugged me around the shoulders and laughed.  The sound was broad and deep.  Like it encompassed so much more than just passing humor.  It had self-assurance, genuine joy…

It made me feel better…but not much.

This would be the first time since Gamath that we’d be separated.  The thought horrified me.  I suddenly wished for the days when it was just the two of us traveling, talking, laughing, even training.  Elmiryn had tried to warn me of these moments, these troubling times.  …And didn’t I ask for this?  Every part of me had demanded action for Lethia–the young girl, the sweet idealist, who had nothing to lose.  I hated the fact that she had nothing to lose… I wanted to help her.  I wanted to have the peace of mind knowing she was okay.  She was not much younger than me, this is true…but at her age, the most she should’ve had to worry about was chores and doing well in her lessons.  Not running from bounty hunters, fighting with rapiers, and risking life and limb just for the chance to be happy.  It wasn’t fair.

…But for the first time in a long time, I realized, whereas Lethia had nothing, I had plenty to lose, now.

I shifted to look Elmiryn in the face, and she brushed her lips against my forehead.  It made me feel warm.  “Kitten…” she breathed.  “There’s no need to worry.”

I was too emotional to bother correcting Elmiryn on her use of that diminutive nickname.  I only shook my head and turned away.  When I stepped back from her, I felt cold.  Immediately the shivers set in.

Graziano chose that moment to interrupt.  His voice was soft, and his eyes apologetic.  “You’ve got to go, Elmiryn.  Quincy will have seen the commotion from earlier.  She will know something has happened to Hakeem.  She won’t come running out like an idiot, but given where the explosions happened, I can guess where she’ll stake out first.”

Elmiryn gazed at me a while longer.  I found I couldn’t even glance her way.  I turned my back and covered my face with my sapien hand.  My Twin’s arm was twitching next to me, and it patted against my thigh.  I didn’t know the reasons for Her convulsions.  She was cross with me and had gone back into her domain.  I had no idea what my Twin was doing, or what she was feeling.  At the moment, I didn’t care.

I heard Elmiryn turn around and walk, her boots scraping along the rocky ground.

“Alright.  Just give me a lift, Graz, and fast.”

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn stood shivering.  She could feel it, down to the core of her soul, that this was going to be a fight to remember.  That this was going to be good. She didn’t often find opponents of the grand sort–mostly rabble and riff-raff, mediocre combatants, and children with blades.  Arduino had been a step above those, but not quite there, mostly because he turned out to be predictable.  He and the countless nameless opponents she had faced had been exciting and exhilarating in their own respect.  Danger was danger after all…

But not like this.

Quincy was a little taller than Nyx, but still a fraction shorter than Elmiryn.  Her golden hair was pulled back in a messy flip, and the tips were colored a curious honey.  She wore a slate gray velveteen jerkin that stopped just before her thighs, the front cut in a V shape that gave her breasts ample room.  Underneath, the white cotton shirt with the draw-string neck had long, billowy sleeves that rooted in black bracers.  A belt of moderate width encircled her waist, playing host to small pouches–one of which looked entirely empty.

A pleased sound tickled the back of Elmiryn’s throat, and she recognized a human being with life, and not just a creature to be ignored.

The wizard had left her a dare.  As the initiator of this confrontation, Elmiryn was hard pressed to refuse this invitation.  To refuse would suggest uncertainty.  Weakness.  That was unacceptable.

The woman’s mind raced, carried by giddy thoughts and a growing lust for action.  What was the best way to attack?  Quincy’s blade was different from Elmiryn’s.  It was shorter, but faster for it, allowing for a wider use of technical maneuvers in close quarters.  Add on the fact that Quincy’s blade was a magical weapon, an enchanted blade, whose only revealed power so far seemed to be that it gave the wizard the ability to draw on natural light for power…and the danger rose astronomically.  The ways in which that power was utilized still had yet to reveal themselves in full.  It was a good thing Elmiryn had acquired her sword again.

She couldn’t believe she had considered, even for a second, to sell it.  She was good with her bow, and certainly good with her dagger, but her sword–her captain’s sword…It was hers.  Truly hers.  She knew and loved its weight, its bite, its grip.  Elmiryn was glad to have it back, especially now.

But still–how to proceed?

“Now listen,” Graziano began as they reached the tip of the mountain. “When you fight Quincy, keep on the lookout.”

“For what?” Elmiryn asked in a grunt.  She felt like she were practically hanging on to Graziano, the way she was forced to grip the edge of the saddle, legs pointing down the slope and straining in their stirrups as the scultone’s body turned nearly vertical.

The Moretti looked at her, eyes squinted.  “Anything. She’s a wizard.  Wizard’s always have tricks up their sleeve.”

The warrior was about to ask for a little more clarification when the scultone went over the ridge and down the steep mountain face in a speed that robbed her of breath.

It was this advice that made Elmiryn cautious, if not wary.

She could try a feint of some sort.  She imagined charging forward, screaming, sword held high before she shifted her weight and struck low instead.  It would come across as intense while being equally deceptive…but it would not do.  Quincy was smart.  Too smart to believe that Elmiryn’s open attack was real.  She was also steadfast.  Even given the harrowing situation with her partner, Hakeem, the blond was amazingly in control.  She would not be intimidated by a passionate initial attack anymore than a rock would.  So Elmiryn tried something different.

She came forward with slow, calm steps, her eyes on Quincy’s as she held her sword before her at an angle.  The wizard didn’t move back as she approached.

When Elmiryn was within striking range, her left foot leading and her knees a little bent, she let the end of her sword cross with the wizard’s, let the blade slide down its length some before she tapped it aside with a quick jerk.

In a simultaneous move, the woman took a sidestep, bringing her right foot forward and shifting her weight so that her body followed with the motion.  Her sword came around Quincy’s so that it was between it and the wizard, tip pointing downward as she swung her right elbow around for a blow to the jaw.  This happened in less than a second.  The warrior had to move fast, or else the wizard would see just what her true intentions were.

Elmiryn managed to execute the attack, but Quincy didn’t let her elbow connect.  She jerked away, effectively dodging the warrior’s swing whilst moving her sword down and under Elmiryn’s so that she held it out at her other side, tip pointed to the ground.  The wizard could deliver a counter attack, slashing up toward Elmiryn’s shoulder or face…Only the warrior was still in an ideal position to block with her sword, and could even deliver a possible fatal counter.

Elmiryn had lain a trap.

Her eyes flashed, and the corners of her mouth turned upward. …But the wizard didn’t take the bait.  Elmiryn’s chest was still left open from her high strike, giving the wizard the opportunity to push her away with her shoulder.  This was the smarter choice.  This was how the redhead knew, she was facing someone worthy.

The redhead did not stumble when Quincy’s shoulder slammed into her right breast, which screamed in pain, but she had to lean back from the force of the blow.  It left her winded.  Quincy used Elmiryn’s body to push herself back to a safer distance, her sword slashing upwards in a fast arc as a parting shot.

Elmiryn grunted as she turned her right shoulder and leaned farther back, her right hand forced to let go of her sword as she did so, lest her arm get cut.  She saw the gilded blade slice past her face, barely inches away.

“That could’ve gone better,” The woman thought.  Now, she was on the defensive.

But the redhead started to smile in full.

Quincy’s eyes flashed as she followed her attack, her arms lowering only somewhat as she turned her sword with a flourish meant to give more power to her swing, not to show off.  The short slash was meant to catch Elmiryn in the face or neck.

Elmiryn brought up her sword in time to stop the blow, her left wrist and forearm strained to keep from relenting.  Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw the metal spark from the collision.  Quincy pulled back fast only to bring her sword around again in an overhead swing to attack Elmiryn at the left side of her head.  The warrior, in the brief time before this, took hold of her sword with both hands and blocked this as well, with a much steadier grip.  Elmiryn decided to turn things around.

She pushed Quincy’s blade away with her whole body, and when she was free, held her sword outward at the side.  She slid her right foot back in a fast crescent along the ground so that her left foot was in the lead.  Quincy, though her balance was rocked backwards from Elmiryn’s forceful push, recovered quickly.  She brought her sword back, pointing forward and the hilt held close to her body for what looked like a mid-level lunge.  Elmiryn was ready.

They both struck at the same time.

The warrior lunged forward with a push from her right foot, her sword slashing wide and her body twisting to lean to the right.  Quincy grunted, eyes flashing at this suicidal cross.  The wizard was forced to duck and lean back from the swing.  This changed the course of her attack, leaving it to slice Elmiryn’s quilted doublet.  The blade managed only to scratch the skin.

As Elmiryn’s sword slashed through the air, she let go of the hilt with her right hand and let her grip with her left hand turn loose, the top of her wrist facing the ground so that her forearm was turned skyward.

As Quincy stepped away, Elmiryn mirrored her movement, letting her now free hand go to her hip, where her dagger waited.  The wizard, oblivious to the warrior’s intentions, brought her sword back and low for an upward slash.  Elmiryn, using the momentum of her slash, turned her swinging sword in her hand, thumb gripping tightly and fingers moving lithely in a move practiced and repeated countless times.  The blade swung around, the hilt twirling in her grip, and when she held it firm again…

Quincy struck out, blade coming up to strike Elmiryn’s left side.

The warrior turned her left arm and blocked the attack with a downward swing from above.  There was a ring and a hiss.  The tip of the gold blade slammed to the ground near Elmiryn’s foot, sparks flying.  It was pinned beneath her forearm.

For the first time since Elmiryn had met her, Quincy looked at her in what could be called astonishment.  The warrior drew her dagger and jabbed forward, towards her opponent’s chest.  With her blade literally pinned to the ground, the only option left for the wizard was to stumble backward.  Elmiryn didn’t press her attack, and instead, watched her opponent go.  She could’ve killed the woman.  Could have ended it.

…But she didn’t want to.

Elmiryn felt euphoric.  Her pleasure was such that a knot had grown in the pit of her stomach, and her throat was tense with the need to moan.  Every inch of her skin tingled, and though the scratches, cuts, and burns stung, it reminded the redhead that she was alive.  She saw nothing of their surroundings–not the buildings, or the shifting sky.  Her eyes seared with gold–tasted the purity of their battle–felt the heat and the fury pulse through her limbs in an orchestra that made her soul sing and her spirit fly.  She wanted it to go on forever.  The world felt just right in this place of singing swords and glittering skin.

Slowly, Elmiryn started to laugh, and her amusement echoed around the empty square.

At a safe distance, some yards away, Quincy stood breathing heavily, her sword held up once again.  The gilded blade seemed to flash in indignation.  The wizard stared with eyes that were wide and brows deeply furrowed.  Her pretty bow lips were quivering ever so slightly.

The redhead straightened, holding both arms up.  Her left hand held her sword hilt the other way, and the blade lay flat along the underside of her forearm.

Elmiryn smiled wickedly.  “Hey wizard, your humanity’s showing!”

Then something happened that made the warrior’s chuckles die away.  Both women stared at the sky, then at each other.

…The clouds had parted just enough to allow a shaft of sunlight to illuminate their battle.

NYX____________________________

“Hey…ah…are you okay?”  Paulo asked.  I looked at him sideways.  The boy seemed keen on establishing a more amicable rapport between us, perhaps because of my suicidal dive for his deceased father’s trinket.  Or maybe he really was just concerned for me.  As much as he rubbed me the wrong way, I could appreciate this effort.  Still my answer was guarded.

“I’ve got a headache.”

An understatement.

My head felt as though it were splitting in two.  My Twin was in severe agitation.  I was glad that she didn’t waste words trying to convince me from my task, but she made her displeasure known in the way her claw curled at my side and refused to help in the simple task of climbing onto Paulo’s scultone.

Our part of the plan was simple.  While Elmiryn and Graziano kept Quincy busy, and possibly most of the militia as well, we would circle with our mount to the north of the city, where we’d then proceed on foot to where Lethia was being held.  I was entirely reliant on Paulo because I had never been to Belcliff.  Originally, Arduino was to go with me, but Paulo had been insistent.  My eyes glazed as I thought back to just before we had left our temporary camp…

“What if the girl did do this to me?  What if she can fix it right away, upon her release?  I’m not going to sit here like an ass!” He had argued.

So Arduino remained with Hakeem as his prisoner, along with Argos.  Argos, through his curious way of communicating through barks, whines, and body language, also made his wish to come along known.  But we could not take him, and explained as much to the dog.

“Argos, I’m sorry,” I had said, kneeling down to look him straight in the eyes.  “We can’t take you.  With you along, there won’t be room on the scultone for Lethia.”

“And anyway,” Arduino added, though he looked at me as he said it.  “The dog can help me watch this stupid calgato here.  He won’t be much use to you, anyway, once you move on to the second part of the plan.”

Argos growled at the Moretti, resentful of being talked over.  I patted his shoulder.  It truly helped my fear of dogs to look at him as a person–a furry person, albeit–but a person all the same.  He seemed to be of a better temperament than Arduino most of the time, anyway.  “Don’t worry, Argos.  I’ll make sure Lethia is safe.  If all goes to plan, you’ll be with her and her mistress by tomorrow.”

I had tried to keep my voice steady as I said that.  I was nervous enough about my own performance in this scheme, but I had even more doubts about the youngest Moretti.  Would he lose control?  Would he hurt Lethia?  My jaw tensed as we descended down the other side of the mountain, toward the black city of Belcliff.

I would not let that happen.

As we passed, I could see forms darting in some of the broader streets, buildings turning glowing eyes on us, and some chimneys even belching smoke.  Belcliff didn’t have a curfew, like Dame or Tiesmire did.  I even thought I saw some of the militia men at the outskirts of the city.  This made me scared.  What if the local law enforcement managed to intercept us?  The scultone’s body blended well enough into the surroundings–but did that matter when we were traveling nearly three times the speed of a horse at full gallop?  Though the suns were still nowhere to be seen, the city was coming alive.  Likely the earlier commotion had expedited this.

We arrived at the plains north of Belcliff without incident.  Paulo and I dismounted from the beast, and the Moretti offered the creature a dead rabbit for its service.  Then the teenager crouched low, next to the creature’s hole of an ear, and made a low yipping sound with his throat.  He patted the scultone’s side three times, deliberately it seemed, then leapt back, pulling me with him.  The scultone, without a sound, closed its eyes and reared back.  Then with a great inhale, it dove into the earth, its snout lost beneath the gray and white ground.  It used its claws, scraping and pushing, digging in further as it pressed on with its head.  Within five minutes it was completely submerged in the earth, the soil churned from its efforts, but no higher than my knees–hardly noticeable in these uneven plains.

Paulo took a stick from the ground and stuck it into the earth, then he took a red scarf from the little bundle on his back, and tied it securely at the tip.  I looked at him doubtfully.

“What if the wind blows this over?”  I asked.

The boy looked at me and shrugged. “Then I’ll whistle really loudly.  The scultones are trained to surface at our call.”

“And if that doesn’t work?”

“Then I suppose we’d be in a lot of trouble.”  He didn’t seem as concerned as I was when he said this, however.  It made me wonder how many times he’d done something like this, how long he and his scultone had ridden together, and how someone as young as him even got into this lifestyle.

We came to the city.  We were not stopped, nor harassed by any of the officials we passed.  The wizard had not warned of our approach.  …Perhaps to save our capture for herself.  But we did not squander this good fortune, and traveled, amain, to where Paulo said the girl was being held.

I thought it horrifically audacious that the marshal would place the regional jail directly beneath his primary office.  Something of it seemed fascist and in poor taste.  But there were two guards stationed at the front doors, and a patrol circling around the building, so we could not venture near.  Paulo’s breath became a little heavy as we surveyed the building from a block away, in an alley that smelled of rotten fish and wet dog.

“This isn’t really part of my skill set, lia.” His voice quavered some.  “So ya got any ideas?”

“Well,” I started, voice equally shaky.  “Luckily for you, I’ve a background drenched in subterfuge.  So don’t worry…or rather, don’t worry about us getting in.”

“…Wh-What do you mean?”

I looked at him, grimacing with the thought of it.  “The real hard part, will be slipping back out with Lethia, completely unnoticed.”

“So…?”

“Given our chances, I’m sort of, pretty, fairly, absolutely certain we will be noticed.”

Paulo turned ashen, his young face gaining a couple of years worth of worry and fear.  “De reán, me soque, Eate!” he exclaimed in a hoarse whisper.

Whilst caught in anxiety, the mind can delineate in odd directions.  In this case, I didn’t know exactly what he said, but I recognized the name he used.  Eate–god of fire and storm–also the herald of heavenly disasters wrought through nature.  I realized that Paulo and his brothers were from the Santos Kingdom on the continent of Erminia, which was south of the Sibesona.  The subjects of the Santos Kingdom worshiped the powerful god, Eate, as their stalwart protector.  I appreciated his prayer.

I added my appeal to Aelurus with closed eyes.

“Pez na och, Aelurus, ia-soltezch…”

Paulo gazed at me, and I turned to gaze back.  We both nodded, eyes reflecting the other’s determination.  That’s when far away, we heard a sound unlike any I had heard before.  It was like a scream–high and forceful–that punched through the thick walls of the buildings and echoed throughout the streets.  Paulo and I gripped our ears and winced.  The guards standing at the doors of the tower gave a start.  They looked at each other.  The men on patrol came running around the building, their plate armor clanging.  I lowered my hands from my ears to see if I could hear them, but since my senses had been dulled, there conversation was lost to me.

The patrol men gave stern nods, then took off running in the direction the alien sound had come from.  The guards at the door were distracted, watching their peers go and talking with one another, expressions tense.

I pulled at Paulo’s arm, body sinking low.  “Now’s our chance!” I hissed.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn turned, body already moving away from Quincy before her eyes had even turned to pinpoint her exact destination.  She disliked how graceless this looked, turning and running from her opponent…but she tried to assure her pride that she wasn’t really running away from the battle, just running from–

There was a sharp ring, like metal that had been struck hard.  Then Elmiryn was flying forward, her back stinging, her spine feeling as though it had become intimate with a knife.  She crashed to to the ground in a nasty skid that chewed up her arms and front, and it was all she could do to hold on to her weapons.  The woman rolled onto her back and saw Quincy over her, her sword raised for a strike.

The wizard had changed.

Her hair, eyes, and skin seemed to glow–almost blinding the warrior–and her sword was a hot ray whose heat was so powerful as to burn simply with its intention.  Elmiryn could feel the energy roll over her, hot and stifling, and her eyes teared as she raised up her sword arm.

The action was useless, and the warrior knew it.

Quincy struck at an inhuman speed, the luminescence of her body flaring.

Within the next instant, Elmiryn realized the sword was in her chest.

It occurred to her, as the pain started to register, that she had never been stabbed with a blade before.  Ever.  She wondered if it was supposed to hurt this much–if it was supposed to burn and sting and ache all at once.  They had called her a silken warrior in Fiamma, had said she was blessed by Halward never to be marred by the horrors of battle.

When her scream stretched on to the sky, she wondered if the bastard of a god would realize his failure.

…But the wizard hadn’t aimed at the warrior’s heart.  The woman had jabbed toward Elmiryn’s right shoulder, well away from the neck and lungs.  She was looking to incapacitate.  Not kill.

Quincy had not completely run her through with the sword, but Elmiryn could feel it sink a little deeper as the wizard pressed in just to get the leverage needed to pull it out.  The blond’s form turned to a shadow over her as the clouds moved over the suns, and her glory started to die with the expenditure of her attack.  As she prepared to extricate her weapon, there was a hiss, and steam curled from the wound.  Elmiryn bit back a cry, body tensing and her muscles twitching from the adrenaline.  The redhead thought she could smell her own burned flesh, and wondered with a shaky grin what she’d taste like as dinner.

Then, before Quincy pulled away with her sword completely, Elmiryn spat on the gilded blade.

There was a flash.

Quincy screamed as she was blasted backward across the square, her arm clipping the corner of a building column on the way.

Elmiryn winced, body trembling as she forced herself to sit up.  Nausea rolled over her in thick waves, and a splash of bile managed to reach her mouth, despite her efforts to suppress it.  The bitter swill swished in her mouth, washing up the flakes and pieces of cold iron she had kept safe between her gums and inner lip.  She leaned over to spit it all out, her hand reaching up to check her wound.  That was when saw, with a great surge of satisfaction, what she’d been waiting for.

Quincy’s gilded sword lay on the ground near her, somehow looking duller without its mistress’s grip to guide it…

“Okay, lia,” Graziano said, as Elmiryn climbed off the scultone at the city limits.  “Have you got enough cold iron in your mouth?  You haven’t swallowed any of it, right?  Because that would be bad.  Really bad.”

“No kidding?  …No.  I haven’t swallowed any of it.  But this stuff is scratching my gums a lot.  When can I use it?”

“You’ll have to wait until Quincy activates her sword’s powers.”

“…You’re kidding, right?”

The man shook his head, his brows pressing together in what appeared to be pity.  “I’m afraid not.  Remember when you used the chain on Hakeem?  The purpose of cold iron is to deactivate the magic.  It doesn’t destroy the item, or completely disenchant it.  It just stops it, and it does this by taking away the energy fueling the magic.”

“But what good will that do me if Quincy can just wipe her blade and use her powers again?  What then?”

Then Graziano smiled.  “Hakeem’s armor works differently from Quincy’s sword.  His armor works with a constant level of energy that cannot be increased nor taken away.  That is why it is an inward form of magic–because it’s primary power affects no one else, but him.  So when you used the iron on him, the energy was locked away, inward.  Quincy’s sword is primarily an OUTward form of magic–its power is not constant, and directly affects her surroundings.  So when the cold iron makes contact with the sword during its use of energy–“

“The power will be released externally too.” Elmiryn said, catching on.  A smile spread on her face.  “The wizard won’t be able to control the blade at all, and its reserve of power will be emptied, making it mundane again.”

Graziano nodded.  “If you wait until the right moment, you can lessen the chance of yourself getting hurt when the sword’s energy explodes.  Most of the damage will be turned on the wizard anyway, as she is the one tapped directly into its power.”

“Great…” Then the woman placed her hand on her hip and smiled sardonically.  “So…are you coming with me?”

The man looked at her as if she were stupid.

Elmiryn chuckled, sheathing her dagger and taking her sword with her left hand.  Blood trickled down, hot and sticky along her doublet–but the heat of Quincy’s sword had cauterized the wound to the point that blood loss was hardly a concern.  Gingerly, the woman stood, her balance awkward as she used her sword momentarily as a crutch.  On her feet, the woman swayed, her flesh turning cold, and she thought for a moment that she’d throw up for real.  Elmiryn fought through the pain and dizziness through sheer will, sweat rolling into her eyes as she stared at Quincy’s prone figure, lying across the way.  She stumbled forward a few steps, her eyes looking down at the gilded sword, then she kicked it behind her, sending it clattering into the shadows of the buildings–though the action was unnecessary.  Quincy was unarmed and stunned.  She was no longer a threat.

It seemed to take ages before Elmiryn reached the wizard.

The blond was lying on her back, her left arm at a funny angle and blood staining her teeth and the inside of her lips.  She stared with glassy eyes toward the gray sky, and Elmiryn wondered for a moment if she were dead, but then the woman gurgled, and more blood dribbled from the corner of her mouth to pool down into her right ear.

Azure eyes rolled to meet cerulean.

Elmiryn knelt down, her legs shaking as they fought to keep steady.  She spoke, her voice a low murmur. “I guess we’re all like used dolls in the end…all glass and wonder and broken bits.”

Quincy’s face twitched as she gazed at Elmiryn with a look akin to repulsion.  “Are you…the rea…reason…this place is so…ha-haunted?

Elmiryn chuckled again, and shook her head.  “I’m a ghost.  But this isn’t my home…”  She reached down and caressed the wizard’s face.  “Hmm…but do you feel haunted, wizard?”

The blond stared at her for a long time.  Then she shook her head.  “I d-don’t need…magic…to know that…that you’re a part…of this corruption.”

The warrior sighed and shrugged her uninjured shoulder.  “Shit, you noticed?  And I was starting to wonder if it was all just in my head.  You feel a pressure at your eyes, right?  Feel like something, somewhere, is not right?”

“I’ll stop you.” The wizard’s voice gained strength when she said this.

Elmiryn waved the woman’s comment away.  With a grunt she stood and turned her back to her, intent on retrieving the magic sword, still left in the shadows.  “You’re hardly in the condition to do anything, Quincy.”  She came near the sword.  The shadow of the building that loomed over her felt cool on her skin, and she smiled.  “Whatever hopes you had for me, you can just kiss those good–”

The sword shuddered and it flared a brilliant gold.  Elmiryn sucked in air, her eyes widening even as the sudden light made her eyes burn.  Then without warning, the sword flew toward her, blade first, and the warrior shouted as she spun out of its way, crashing painfully on the ground onto her injured shoulder.  Stunned, she blinked and rolled over, tears from the shock of the light spilling from the corners of her eyes.

Quincy was kneeling on the ground, panting heavily.  Blood dripped in a long rope from her mouth, and now her nose was bleeding as well.  Her eyes were dull as she looked at Elmiryn, her right arm using her sword as a prop.

Elmiryn struggled to straighten up so that she was on her knees.  Her eyes narrowed.  “Wizard.  It’s over. The suns aren’t out to recharge your sword, and you’re probably bleeding on the inside.  Just yield, already!”

The blond blinked slowly.  “I’ll never…yield…to the likes…of you!” she snarled.

That’s when the wizard took her sword with both hands, face screwing up from moving her injured arm, and with the tip of the blade pressed against her left breast…

She impaled herself.

Elmiryn stared, eyes blinking rapidly.  Was she seeing another illusion?  Was she getting things mixed up in her head again?  Why would a person like Quincy ever–?

The warrior’s thoughts were silenced as Quincy’s body began to glow once more, rays of gold and white swirling from her wound and winding about her body.  The world darkened, and the wind picked up, stirring the heat that emanated from the wizard.  Within seconds, Elmiryn could not even see the woman anymore, and she scrambled back, anticipating what would happen next.

There was a scream–it could’ve been Quincy.  It could’ve been the explosive release of energy.  Where that might have come from, the warrior hadn’t the slightest idea.  She’d thought she’d stripped the sword of its power.  She’d thought she’d stripped Quincy of her power.  But the incredible bang that blasted her ear drums and blew her back against the ground said otherwise.

Elmiryn closed her eyes to the great flare of light that chased the shadows from all around.  Her world became white, and hot, and loud.  She heard the buildings around her crumble, felt the ground tremble, felt the dust and debris fall on her like a fine rain.

Then silence.

When the woman dared to raise her head, she could hardly see, and her ears rang loudly–muting her world.  She crawled, achingly, along the ground, great slabs of stone and rubble all about her.  Her eyes were not able to pierce the clouds of dust that filled the air.  She coughed hoarsely and made to stand.

When the dust settled enough, and the woman shuffled forward, she saw…

Quincy was gone–the only hint of her presence being the black scorch mark on the paved ground.

Elmiryn sighed.

“…Fucking hell…I guess that’s what Graziano meant…when he said wizards always have tricks up their sleeves…”


Back to Chapter 13.4 | Forward to Sons and Daughters...

Chapter 15.2

NYX____________________________

Violence was a whip crack all throughout me, and I was propelled by the force of it–fangs extended, claws bared, tail lashing, my eyes beholding Karolek’s look of surprise like blood in a cup.  I pulled back an arm and punched forward, putting all my body into the swing.  Karolek, shifted away, leaving my claws to gouge into his armor, but not break through.  Paulo moved to cut him as well, but the sorcerer was fast to deflect the attack with his saber.  As the man moved, the blades in the air around us shuddered.  I hissed, looking at them with a look of fear.  Paulo cursed next to me.

The blades shot toward us, and I held up an arm to shield myself, my Twin roaring in my head.

But the pain did not come.

I looked and saw Lethia up in a kneeling position, one hand held out as she trembled from the strain.  I could see blood trickling down from her nose and her eyes were bloodshot, but her look held lightning, and I knew she was not even close to defeat.  Emboldened by her righteous fury, so did I strike, one claw lashing out in a wide swipe as Paulo came down low with a cut from his rapier.  Again, Karolek blocked Paulo’s swing, which would have brought the large man down to his knees…but my blow he did not escape.

My claws struck true, from near his nose and along the flesh of his cheek, down past the jaw and cutting the high part of his neck.  His body traveled away from me, and the path of my hand made my cuts to his neck shallow–too shallow to reach any vital arteries.  My attack tore the sorcerer with a fluidity that made me shiver in a horrifying clash of revulsion and delight.  I saw the blood spray, the little bits of flesh flying.  The smell of Karolek filled my head fast, and my hand was stained with him.  My mouth salivated and the fur along my spine went stiff.  I looked at him, saw him reel away, roaring–still a strong man for the blow I gave him, but shaken still.  He recovered faster than I could anticipate, cutting at us with his saber in a sloppy swing, no less dangerous than a cornered animal.  Paulo fell back far, but I ducked beneath his attack, dashing forward to knee the man in the gut, then struck at the back of his knee with the top of my foot (a trick Elmiryn had shown me).  The man dropped down into a kneel, and without pause, I gripped Karolek around his neck and beneath his left arm.  Even in my new state, Karolek still bested me in size, but I had gained in other things as well.

I grunted, teeth bared and my vision going dark as the scent of the blood, so close now, had my Twin growling.

“Rip out his throat!  Tear it!  He would have killed us for his arrogant show of power, the fat-headed beast!” she hissed.

The sorcerer struggled against me as I tried to choke him to sleep, my claws biting into him as I fought to keep my hold.  I could feel his life trickling past my fingertips.  The metal on the ground shuddered like angry beetles, but with Lethia up again and his concentration broken, Karolek could not get the hold he needed to utilize his power properly.

The man elbowed me twice, his elbow burying into my gut and knocking the breath from me.  I struggled to hold on, jerking him one way, then another.  My ear twisted to the side and I heard others coming toward us, and soon I could smell the oiled metal, the warm smell of leather, the sweat and tobacco.  Paulo rushed to meet the new assailants–a brief look proving them to be more militia men.  Two of them.  But I strained my ears and was certain that more were near.

“Kill him!  Idiot!” My Twin snapped within me.  I felt something heavy and thick clawing up the inner reaches of my thoughts–and my nose tickled with the smell of wet snow and blood and aspen trees.

“You won’t have another chance!”  She screamed–but her voice was wrong.  Warped somehow.  She paced along our mindscape, eyes like daggers…and against all reason, her words gained appeal.  Suddenly I wanted to snap Karolek’s neck.  I wanted to feel the life flee him, hear his last breath.  The man still tried to beat me away with his arms, and he shifted in furious attempts to stand.  I wrenched him back far, forcing him into an awkward bend that stole away his leverage.  I screeched in his ear something terrible.  I thought about breaking his knees and chewing off his arms.  The blood would taste so good, and he’d sit well in my stomach, I thought.

“Yes he would!”  My Twin exclaimed, her furry face pulling back into a smile that seemed a hair’s breath away from a grimace.

Then I lifted my head, eyes on Lethia, with her hands held out, looking on the verge of collapse, her oval-shaped face scratched and pale and quivering from her efforts.  Through the sweat and strain, she nodded at me, her green eyes on my shoulder.  They were filled with such…trust.

The darkness was filling me, I could feel it.

“Kill him!”  My feline counterpart hissed.  “Kill him!

“And what would this bring us!?”  I said hurriedly in my mind.  “Look around you!  The darkness is coming closer!”

My Twin seemed to pause.  My heart lifted in surprise and hope.  She too had sensed something amiss.  The fact that she was still in control enough to be aware of this fact meant that we could stop this force from swallowing us completely.

“Beast!”  I called.  Then, tentatively, “Sister!

The feline’s ears perked and she raised her head high, looking up.

“I will not kill this man.  But I will not be defeated.  We have to survive–even against this fury.  Do you feel it?”

“What?” she asked.

“That pressure at our eyes!”  I heard metal clash with metal, but could not go to Paulo’s aid.  A minute had not passed yet, but even so, I expected more militia men any second.  “We’ve felt this before!  This evil!  It tormented us in Gamath!  Help me fight it now!  Please, sister!  …Please!!

The feline blinked…

Then nodded.

The violent images, like phantoms in my head, were banished away.

I yelled, my voice turned to gravel as I squeezed  Karolek’s neck with all my might.  The man’s face was dark and seemed swollen.  His eyes rolled to meet mine and a terse breath slipped his teeth before his eyes rolled up into his head and he went slack in my arms.  Panting, I released him.

The wind teased my fur, and I felt it cool the sweat on my skin.  My whiskers quivered as I twitched my nose and turned, inhaling deep, to see Paulo engaged with the two city guards.  He fared better than before, his parries quick and his strikes chipped away at sloppy defenses.  These men were not as experienced as their comrades whom we had faced.  They seemed a bit distracted.

A bit distracted with me.

My thoughts were no longer so clouded, now that me and my Twin worked in harmony to keep control.  I could feel her focus as she fled from snatching shadows.  But the fury…the lust for violence…the pressure at my eyes and the illness in my stomach, they were still there.  I took a step forward, my teeth grinding, my muscles bunching.  Their battle was intoxicating to smell.  My claws ached with the need to bury into warm flesh.

I took a deep breath, sliding one foot back, my tail lashing, my ears flat against my head and my furry face bunched tight–

I roared.

I put my whole body into it, tore at my vocal chords, pushed with my diaphragm, squeezed out every last bit of breath from my lungs.

The militia men stuttered out cries, their faces going pale.  They stepped back, one falling on the ground as Paulo shoved him back from a tense cross of swords.  They pulled at each other, eyes on me always, then fled, their swords abandoned on the ground.  I snarled and gallumphed a few feet after them on all fours.  I let out another deep-throated roar, and I saw them run faster.  One man’s helmet flew off his head, and fell clattering to the ground.

Paulo whooped and turned to look at me with a grin.  His smile faltered some and he took a step back.  “Eh…Lia?”

I knelt down, panting.  I couldn’t relax my muscles.  My fur still remained puffed out.  I bared my teeth and bowed my head, both hands planting themselves on the ground.  A light hand on my shoulder made me whip around and hiss.

Lethia jumped back, her hand flying to her mouth.  She looked at Paulo, then at me again.  “Nyx…are you okay?”

An arrow whizzed past us, nearly hitting Lethia’s head.  The militia men were back, and there were four others with them.  The archer, more than a block away, notched another arrow as his comrades sprinted toward us, out of his line of sight.  I let out a spitting sound from the back of my throat, then rose to my feet.  My toes dug themselves into the dirt as I prepared to dash forward.  But Paulo stepped before me (looking quite nervous about doing so) and held up a shaking hand.  “No, we have to run!”

The archer shot his arrow, and I pulled the boy with me as I jumped to the side, dodging.  He didn’t get a chance to thank me.  One of the militia men reached us and both he and Lethia began to skip backwards, preparing to run all out.  I drew back my palm and slammed it into the man’s chest.  He launched back into his comrade.  The other two militia men were not far behind them.

“Nyx!” Lethia screamed shrilly.

“Comin’!” I said in my awkward speech, and I turned to join the other two, the claws of my feet kicking up dirt.  Together the three of us fled.  At one point, Lethia fell, her eyes lidded as though she were ready to pass out.  I hardly paused as I swept her up over my shoulder and continued running.  Behind us, the militia men grew smaller still.  With all their armor, they could not match our speed, and we lost them in the maze of streets.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn took a step forward as she drew her sword.  She could hear muted booms and they came closer each time the dark individual disappeared and reappeared.  Behind her, Graziano cursed.  He appeared next to her, pistol in hand, and aimed it.  “What in the devil is going on!?” he hissed.

The woman felt the air pulse and shift around her–then in the next instant, she was blown off her feet, Graziano at her side.  The scultone screeched and reared back, its form turning dark against the pale sky.  The two rolled out of harm’s way, clumsily pulling at one another.  When they were up on their feet again, all around them had gone quiet.  The booms and rumbles had stopped.

Then Argos came rushing toward them, barking happily, his tail wagging as he reared back onto his hind legs to look Elmiryn in the eyes.

Elmiryn blinked at him, then smiled slowly.  “Oh…hey, didn’t I go out drinking with you, once?”

The dog went back to all fours, his head tilting to the side as he woofed at her as though to say, “Uh…no.”

The woman scratched her head, frowned at the dog.  Then her eyebrows went high.  “Oh!  Mangy Beast!”

Argos barked, his tail wagging again.

Elmiryn looked at Graziano, who had his pistol aimed.  He had a look of disbelief on his handsome face, his curly hair wild and looking as frazzled as he likely was.  The woman followed his gaze, and realized the source of his astonishment.

Hakeem, the dark-skinned wizard, stood before them, his head lowered as he gazed at them beneath the shadow of his brow.  There was a flash, and in the next instant, his armor was gone, leaving him only with his doublet and chainmail sleeves.  Slowly, he put his hands on his head.

“I’m not looking for trouble,” He said quietly.

“I don’t believe you.” Graziano snapped.

Hakeem closed his eyes.  “The circumstances have changed.”

“Really?  They look the same from where I’m standing.”

“Let me help you free Syria.”

What?

Graziano stepped forward, his mouth open to let loose an insult no doubt, but Elmiryn held up a hand.  Her cerulean eyes held Hakeem fast, tracing his features from head-to-toe.  She felt like she were seeing him for the first time.

“Why the change of heart, wizard?” She asked, shouldering her sword.

The man gestured with his head toward Belcliff.  “I heard your battle with my partner.  She pierced herself with her sword and vanished into the light after swearing she’d never again do such a thing.”

“She’s done that before?”

“Yes.  But I can never be certain of her return.”

“Then what do you want?”

“I want to know what’s going on.”  The man opened his eyes and held Elmiryn’s gaze fiercely.  “An evil hangs over Belcliff, and your battle has stirred the forces there into madness.  People of magic are the first to succumb–leading me to believe that Quincy was not under free will when she pierced herself with her sword.  Since the beginning, you’ve been involved with this somehow.  You claim you helped cure Gamath of a similar curse.  I’d help you do the same here.”

The woman crossed her arms, her lips twisted into a sneer.  “But for what, wizard?”

“…You seek something.  Something great.  I believe we search for the same thing.”

“Oh?  Are you out to kill astral demons too?  I didn’t realize it was such a popular occupation!”

Graziano looked at her with squinted eyes.  “Those aren’t real!  Is that what you’ve been thinking it was the whole time!?”

Hakeem scowled at her.  “I confess, I find that odd as well.  What does a myth have to do with Tobias?”

She squinted one eye.  “Who?”

“Tobias.” His tone gained a level of impatience.

Elmiryn and Graziano looked at each other.  The Moretti shrugged and mouthed, “I don’t know.”

The warrior turned back to Hakeem, eyebrow raised.  “Wizard, I don’t know anyone named Tobias.”

“He’s the one who wrote the chronicles you know so well!  The stories of Earth, Wind, and Fire!” The man looked outright confused now.

“Huh?  …OH!”  Elmiryn tilted her head back and let out a laugh.  “That guy!  Yeah, I never met him personally.  My friend did, though.”

“She…” Hakeem’s eyes widened and his lips parted in surprise.  “That’s impossible!” he spat, suddenly angry.  Graziano cocked his pistol and the man settled quiet, his eyes on the gun’s muzzle.

It was Elmiryn’s turn to look confused.  “Why is that impossible?”

Hakeem looked at her, his sensuous lips pinched thin. “Because Tobias is dead. He’s been dead for nearly eighteen years!

Elmiryn shrugged.  “Well, you’re wrong.  Nyx met the man, and he gave her his book.”

“Where did you meet him?”

“Dame.”

“But…” Hakeem stared at the ground.  “Wikan,  Tobias…igetu ko veda…?”

The warrior didn’t understand what the man said, so she ignored it.  She had a question dancing on her tongue.  “Is that why you and Quincy have been after Nyx and me?  For a fucking fairytale some lonely creep wrote in his spare time?”

Hakeem’s muscles bunched, and his hands shifted to form fists against his head.  “They aren’t fairytales, woman.”  His dark face turned a ruddy shade, and his features tightened to look as though he were one of the stark, angry statues found in Belcliff.  “Those stories are real. And they’re about the people who have taken away any hope Quincy and I had for a normal life!”

Elmiryn’s eyebrows went high.  She recalled her conversation with Nyx, prior to arriving in Tiesmire.  “Those stories…Tobias…he wrote them about…?”

“Himself.  His comrades.  Every inch of it is true…which is why we need to see the book your friend possesses.”

“What for?  What would you do?”

Hakeem’s eyes darkened.  “Have our revenge…”

NYX____________________________

We delved deep into the fields, a little further westward than when we had first entered, but Paulo still managed to spot his marker.  As we ran towards it, he gave a whistle.  The scultone surfaced in a burst of earth and snow.  It screeched and thrashed its head and tail, white eyes on us as we came near.  It seemed unconcerned by my new form–perhaps it could still smell me beneath all the wildness.  I let Lethia back down, and she smiled at me weakly.  The girl eyed the draconic beast with great trepidation.  Paulo gestured at the scultone and held out his hand to her.

“It’ll be a tight fit, but we should be able to ride all right.  I won’t be able to go at full speed though.” He helped Lethia up onto the scultone as he said this.  The girl squealed a little as the monster shifted beneath her.

Next he climbed on.  Paulo looked down at me, his expression tight.  “I…didn’t count on you being so big.  Can you shift back to normal, lia?”

I blinked up at him.  What a good question.

I scratched at my ear and sighed.  Now that we were out of the city, the tension in me had vanished.  My thoughts were unburdened by dark things.  I turned to my Twin and asked uncertainly.  “Can we shift back?”

The beast sighed, and she became heavier on my mind.  I realized what it was I was really asking her.  I was asking her to go back into her lonely, terrifying realm–her home so haunted with anger and fear and sadness.

But to my surprise, she nodded her head.  “Yes.  Together now, sister.  Let’s return you.”

She pulled away from me, taking back her strength, her fur, her fangs and claws.  I let her go…and felt conflicted.  I could not say that I loved her.  I could not say that I could forgive her for all the past problems we’d had.  But…for the first time, since I could remember, we’d been in harmony.  Even if it were only for a moment.  She had also made me aware of something new, something harrowing and vile.  But if this thing were indeed true, then she was innocent of Atalo’s death–or perhaps one could say she were still guilty, but then so would I–for what if there were a Third that lurked in the darkness of our mind?  If we continued to quarrel, splintered as we were, could we hope to keep it from coming forth again, as it had over a year ago?

I didn’t know, and it frightened me.

These thoughts, a confusing flurry that came rushing through me in a gasp of breath, were swallowed in the pain of my transformation back to naked skin and sapien limbs.  Bones and muscles shifted.  When the process was through, I was on the ground, panting.  Paulo was down on the ground again, his hands rough on me as he forced me up.

“Come on, we have to go, I see the militia men coming!” he bit out.

My bare feet, stinging already from the cold, stumbled to keep up with him.  Clumsily, I joined Lethia on the scultone, sitting behind her, my rear spilling over the edge of the saddle–it was going to be an uncomfortable ride.

Paulo came up and took the reins.  He pressed down against the scultones neck and let out two loud hoots.  The scultone screeched and took off, the boy steering it northward.  Lethia and I held on as best as we could.

Our next stop was Holzoff’s Tower.


Back to Chapter 15.1 | Forward to Chapter 15.3

In Good Company

????__________________________

He was the only one with a collar.  It had a silver plate on it where a name was stamped–“Five”–and the body of the collar was made of genuine dragon hide leather.  The satyr had said it was a gift in confidence from his client.  The puppy didn’t understand the implication of it, naturally.  Just that the others didn’t have a collar and he did and that was that.  He DID note that he had grown bigger than all of his siblings, and he took advantage of this when he could.  It was nice being big.

The puppy at the bottom of the dog pile felt his brothers and sisters roll and nip at him and he nipped back, a tumble of comforting smells and warmth found amidst the cold of the cellar.  He was with his mother and his siblings and it didn’t matter that bars fell over them in shadows.  Such things were beyond his animal mind, his young and spirited attention.  It was play-time.  Then it would be nap-time.  Then it would feeding-time, then play-time, then nap-time.  Such was Life.

His mother was a beautiful dog with long shimmering white hair and a large brown wet nose speckled pink around the edges.  She was grooming one of his siblings, trapping the puppy beneath her wide paw as her purple tongue swept over short fur.  A lantern next to the cage was all the light they had.  The cage was in a cramped room of damp stone.  It smelled of alcohol and spice and old wood.  A rat squeaked from the corner and he forgot his game long enough to canter to the bars and woof at it.  Across from the cage was a staircase leading Up.

The door at the top of the stairs opened, showering the light from the UpWorld.  The old satyr’s silhouette was there, as always.

“Mmm…Number 5?  Come on now, Number 5,” his old voice croaked, the sound like crickets under water.  The man hobbled down the stairs, nearly taking a full minute.  The stub and clack of his cane and his hooves made the puppies and their mother stop and sit up.  The man was a graying satyr with short horns and large round glasses.  Behind him flicked a short brown tail.  He wriggled his nose as he appraised the cage full of dogs.  “Dotti, old man Polichus needs Number 5 now.  You be good, you be a very good girl.”

Dotti, the puppy’s mother, growled at the satyr.  The young dog didn’t understand everything the man was saying, but he knew that he was ‘Number 5’.  He also knew that when his mother growled that way, it meant get behind her.  So he did, his rump against the bars in the back of the cage.

Polichus sighed, his olive colored eyes glowering from baggy, moled lids.

“Dotti…” the man’s voice was low.  Tired.

Then in a flash, he jabbed at the mother with his cane through the bars, knocking her hard against the cage.  Dotti snarled and cried out, scattering her pups as they tried to avoid being crushed be her.  Then the mother fell silent and still, her body slumping.  Polichus sniffed delicately and jerked his cane back.  From the blunt tip, a long needle dripped.  There was a click and it shot back, out of sight.

Polichus pulled a key from his vest’s pocket and unlocked the cage door.  “Stupid bitch.  It’s the same thing every week.  She fights, then I knock her out.  Aren’t these things capable of pattern recognition?”  He opened the door with a squeak and poked his head in, one finger shoving his glasses up his nose.  “Oh well.  C’mon Number 5.  You’ll be capable of it soon enough.”

The puppy growled and barked at the satyr, dodging.  His brothers and sisters were hyper with anxiety.  They yipped and tried to lick and nip the satyrs hand.  The man shooed them away.  “No, no, not you!  Number 5!”  He plucked him up with his gnarled hand and pulled back quickly, locking the cage door.  “There, finally!”

Polichus raised the little dog to his face and glowered.  “Troublesome!  That’s what this is!  The moment you’re old enough, Dotti goes!  Hmm?  You must be good for the old man when she does, my little Number 5.”  The dog bared his teeth, but the man just rapped his nose, making him squeak. “None of that!”

Then they were going Up, and the young dog fell quiet, his tail between his legs and his body shivering.  He didn’t like going Up.  He didn’t like it at all.

LETHIA_________________________

Her quill froze over the paper, and the nine-year-old stared forward, her green eyes blinking.  “Ummm…”

Below her paper was a bit of parchment where a question had been written in beautiful calligraphy. “Name three reasons a subject has nightmares.”

Lethia Artaud bit her lip and swung her feet under the table.  “Um, um, um…”  Her brow wrinkled and she sat back in her chair.  She squeezed her eyes shut and made the sound again, louder, as though this could bring the answer to her.  “Ummm–!!

“My sweet girl, you’re making quite a bit of noise for someone who should be studying!”

The girl’s eyes flew open and she slouched in her seat.  Outside her bedroom door stood Syria, her mistress, her pretty face free of the usual make-up and her hair pulled up into a messy bun.  She had a broom in her hands and small spectacles on the end of her nose.  She tucked one strand behind her ears before placing a hand on her hip.  “Well?” she said, her eyebrow raised in criticism.

Lethia blushed and looked back at her paper.  “I’m sorry mistress!”

Syria came to stand next to her, one hand resting on the back of the girl’s chair.  “What are you stuck on?”

“I just started on nightmares.”

“Mmm…” the woman leaned down, her eyes narrowing as she read through the narrow scope of her glasses.  “We went over this last night.”

Lethia’s blush turned worse and she fixed her eyes on the edge of the table.  “I know…” she mumbled.

Syria smiled gently and stroked the girl’s wheat blonde hair. “Don’t worry, dear.  Just look at your notes.  Where are they?”

The girl frowned as she tried to recall.  Her feet swung back and forth a few more times.  Then her eyes brightened.  “On the new scroll you gave me!”

“Which is most likely to be…?”

“On the shelf!” Lethia said, a proud smile spreading across her face for remembering.

Syria nodded and patted her head.  “There you are.”  She turned and walked toward the door.  “I’ll be cleaning in the kitchen if you need my help.  Try and do your best!”

“Yes, mistress!” Lethia cried as she slipped from her chair to receive the scroll from its mentioned place.  The scroll was a small one, but with four ornate handles made of polished cherry wood, with large discs that was a mix of both copper and wood.  Stamped into the copper, the words “Nightmares, Dreams, and Imaginings,” could be seen.  The girl pulled this from the shelf and rolled the parchment open, rolling the other end so as to take up the slack.  The parchment was mostly bare as Syria hadn’t finished her lectures.  But when she was done, Lethia was supposed to have a complete scroll of notes.

The girl read to herself out loud, slowly, as the words and the sentence structures were hard for her to say.  “Many confuse dreams with nightmares.  Dreams are simply mirrors reflecting an indy…indy-vid-ual’s life as-is.  A nightmare, however, is a fig…fig…” Lethia let out a frustrated sigh as she struggled with the word.  She started to migrate back to her chair as she sounded it out.  “Fig-yur-ra-tive tool used by the animus to catch the attention of the inty–intill–urgh…in-tel-lect.  People have nightmares for many reasons.  Though the nightmare may frighten or disturb–this does not mean its only purpose is to warn of immediate or future danger.  It could simply be an attempt on the part of the animus to bring about a fundy…fundy-mental change in the intellect.  It could also be an attempt by the animus’ to answer what the in-tel-lect cannot.”

The girl set the scroll down and picked up her quill, a dark feather from a wild turkey making whimsical shapes through the air.  She had garnered two reasons for nightmares from that paragraph, and copied the notes word for word.  “Bringing about a fundamental change in the intellect, and attempting to answer what the intellect cannot.”  In many ways, the concepts still eluded her, but Syria had said that recognition was the first step in learning, so Lethia didn’t fret over implicit understanding.  She was more concerned about making ink blots on her paper, and also wondered what the final reason for nightmares were.

The nine-year-old brushed the tip of her quill over the ridge of her large ear.  Her feet swung under the table.  Her attention started to wander, eyes sweeping about her small room.

The stone room had a wooden ceiling as above Lethia’s room was Syria’s.  Heavy rafters bowed over her with steel reinforcements.  The girl’s room overlooked the East, with a window that opened to afford her a beautiful view of the distant ocean.  Her bed was a warm wood frame with a tall headrest that resembled a rising sun.  At the foot of her bed was a chest where her toys were kept.  The bed and chest were adjacent to the door and window.  On the wall to the right of it, towards the far wall, were the shelves where her notes and books were kept.  Further down the wall, on the other side of the window, was her wardrobe where her dresses and coats and shoes could be found.  Across from her bed, just out of the doorway’s direct path, was her work desk.  Over this another shelf had been put up, holding yet more books.

The minutes stretched by, and Lethia felt herself clench up in frustration.

Taking her paper, the girl hopped off her chair and left her room, entering the winding staircase outside.  Her shoes pattered down the stone steps as she carefully descended to the bottom floor, where things were quiet.  Lethia frowned, her green eyes fluttering as she stood in the foyer, glancing left then right.  To her right, through the arched entryway was the den.  To her left, the kitchen.  Syria had said she’d be in the latter, so the youth tiptoed that way.

“Mistress Syria?” she called, beginning to feel nervous.

The girl stepped through the entryway, into the small kitchen, where herbs tied with twine hung drying over the counter.  Yesterday’s pick from the garden.  The pots were cold and the windows covered with simple curtains.  Sitting at the table with her head in her hands was Syria.  Black locks feathered out between her tense fingers.  Her glasses were on the table.  With the sunlight blocked, the back of the kitchen looked…dark.  Impenetrable.  Lethia couldn’t make out the woman’s face.

“But I’ve already planted it…” she heard the woman murmur.  “I’ve already planted it…wasn’t that enough?  You’re condemning her to–”

Lethia froze on the spot, holding the paper close to her like it were a shield from the disturbing sight.  “Mistress?”

Syria shifted, her hands relaxing some and moving to cover only her face.  She sat back in her chair and let out a shuddering sigh.  When she dropped her hands, a tired smile was on her face, dark eyes squinted as she took in the sight of the girl.

“Hmmm?  Yes, child?” she said, like she’d just been sleeping.

Lethia looked at the windows.  “Why did you close the curtains?”

The woman chuckled, a deep throaty sound.  She stood from her seat, smoothing out her teal cotton dress with one hand as she reached and grabbed the broom with the other.  “Just another migraine, dear.”

Lethia frowned.  “You’ve been having those alot lately!”  The girl opened her mouth to say something else, but she shut it with a snap and looked at the ground.

Syria came closer and leaned down, a soft hand touching the side of the girl’s face.  “Hmm?  Lethia, what is it, dear?”

Lethia rolled the weight on her foot to her ankle and back again.  “It’s just…that you said Isleen the Indomitable had lots of migraines before she died from a brain fever…”

The woman’s smile turned wry.  “Now I’m certain that wasn’t what I said!”

The girl pouted and looked at her shoes.  “But I remembered right!” she mumbled.

Syria placed a finger beneath her chin, forcing the child to look up.  Her look was chiding.  “Don’t mumble, dear.  And stop looking so sullen.  I wasn’t saying you remembered incorrectly–I’m saying you misunderstood me.”

“Yes, mistress.” Lethia said, struggling to wrestle her expression to something neutral.  She didn’t like displeasing Syria.

“Now what was it you needed help with?”

The girl held up her paper.  “I need one more reason for nightmares.”

Syria squinted at the paper.  Then she clicked her tongue.  “Give me a moment Lethia dear.  I can hardly see.”

She took the paper and went to the window near the table.  With a quick swipe, she threw back the small curtain and frowned at Lethia’s answers.  The youth bit her lip and rolled her weight onto her ankle again.

Syria glanced at her with a smile.  “Ah, my dear,” she sighed, the words warm and pulsing with affection.  Lethia ducked her head a little, but a grin spread her lips–though she wasn’t entirely sure what her mistress was smiling about per se.  The enchantress held the paper out to her pupil, shaking her head.  “You are so odd!  You have everything except the most famous reason of all!”

Lethia blinked, her green eyes squinting as Syria shifted to the side, allowing for more light to filter in through the window.  With the light in her eyes, the girl couldn’t see Syria’s face anymore–she was just a silhouette, lined hot by the glare, but no less striking for the loss of her features.

“Nightmares are most commonly known as warnings against impending dangers,” the enchantress said, a smile in her voice.

NUMBER FIVE__________________________

He urinated on the third shock.

He had been in the UpWorld for six hours.  He knew it to be this because Polichus had taught him to read a clock, and the clock said so.  Clocks had Numbers and Lines.  These were easier than the other things the man tried to teach him because the meaning for the numbers and the lines were unchanging and could easily be illustrated.  Pictures were still his primary form of thought–though he sometimes thought of letters as images alone–floating in a white sea.

Polichus gave him Special Water that tasted like dust and bacon.  The Special Water made him feel funny.  Polichus said the Special Water was important for the dog to understand the UpWorld.  The puppy still didn’t get a lot of things.  The UpWorld consisted of lots of bookcases sagging with books and papers and scrolls of parchment that seemed to spill out onto the flagstone floor.  There was a table across the room that held menacing tools and bizarre looking bottles and instruments.  The puppy knew that those things were for the satyr’s Work.  He never knew the man not to be Working.  An entryway led into a sort of living room, of which he’d been carried through many times, but had never actually been left much time in.  Next to the entry way, was a door that led to a place he’d never been before.  The door to his Home and his mother and siblings was in the living room.

Polichus sighed, setting down his wand.  He reached for the towel on the floor with a gloved hand.  “It’s a good thing we’re not on the kitchen table…”  The satyr started to mop up the piss, the puppy shivering and unable to make his legs move.  The man shoved him to the side, making the dog roll over onto its back in its weakness.  “Move over!”  Then he paused noting the semi-catatonic state the puppy was in.  The satyr cursed, throwing the towel onto the table.  “At this rate, I’ll have worked through another one…” he muttered.

He stood from his seat and with a stub and clack moved to the door behind them.  “Stay there, Number 5.  Old man Polichus is going to give you something to make you feel better…”

The puppy let out the tiniest whine, his limbs twitching as he struggled to regain control of his muscles.  There was a small rope on his collar tied to a metal rung on the table.  Just above his head was a thick card whose corner kept poking him.  It was one of The Cards.  Polichus had been quizzing him with those.  He would show a card and ask the puppy which was Bad and which was Good.  The greater reasoning behind the test still eluded him, but the puppy understood enough to know that if he didn’t choose correctly, he would be shocked with the wand.  If he got it right, he received a treat.

He had yet to get it right.

The dog, though still quivering, felt control return to him.  He flopped and twisted until he was on his paws again.  He sniffed the cards, then growled at them.  One was a picture of a short dwarf with a crown on his head.  Beneath it were the words, “King Brice.”  Another card near it depicted a mean-looking human with a hood over his head and a knife pointed at the viewer.  Beneath this picture was the word, “Enemy.”  He knew what they said because Polichus kept pointing at them and saying them over and over.  The dog couldn’t read, but thanks to the Special Water, he finally understood that the Squiggles meant things.

The puppy swiped at them, knocking them off the table.  He hated The Cards and their Squiggles.

He looked to the door where Polichus had vanished through.  With perked ears, he could hear the old satyr sifting through things.  There was the chink and clink of bottles and ceramics.  The dog snorted.

He wasn’t going to wait.

He went to the metal rung and began to gnaw at the rope.  It was a simple enough knot.  The dog managed to get a tooth beneath one of the threads and pulled, snarling under his breath.

There was a crash, and the puppy froze.  “Gods damnit!” Polichus voice.  He’d broken something…which meant he’d take a long time cleaning it up.

The dog finished pulling at the rope until it came from.  He gave a shake of his fur and panted happily.  Trotting to the edge of the table, the puppy jumped down onto the chair Polichus had been using.  When he jumped down onto the floor, he tumbled, yipping.  Despite his size, he was still only five weeks old, and he lacked good coordination.  There was another crash from the behind the door.

“Number 5!?” Polichus cawed.

Now trembling in fear, the dog ran as fast as he could to the living room.  Whimpering, he went to the door that led Home and scratched at the wood.  But he heard the stub and clack of Polichus hooves and cane and he dropped to the floor, his ears drawing back and his tail tucking between his legs.  He thought of his mother and how he would hide behind her body.  When he hid behind her, he couldn’t see Polichus.  The puppy didn’t want to see the satyr, but his mother wasn’t around.  He went for the next best thing–a large high back chair near the fireplace.

Stumbling over his own paws, the dog went to hide.

He heard Polichus enter the room.  The satyr seemed to be on the verge of panic.  “Number 5?  Come now, little pup, old man Polichus has just the thing to make up for those nasty shocks!”  The man went around the room, grunting.  He was likely trying to look around the furniture.  The puppy trembled, certain he was going to be found again.  Something Inside was hurting and he didn’t know why.

There was a scratching behind him.  The puppy’s ears twitched to it, but his attention was dominated by the slow approach of Polichus who was working his way around the room.

“Number 5…” the man snarled, rage suddenly tainting his words.  “You worthless mongrel–after all I put into you I won’t let you–!!”

The man was cut off by a screech.  The puppy dropped to the ground, his head and ears tweaking toward the fireplace.  There was a scritching and scratching, like claws along brick.  Soot tumbled down the chimney.

Then without warning a horrible looking monster tumbled down onto the ashes.  It hopped up, on its hands and feet, wings shaking the ash and soot from the feathers.  Black eyes blinked amidst a blue face.

Polichus shouted, his cane dropping and his hands going to his head.  “I forgot to close the damper last night!” he croaked.

The batreng bared its teeth, its voice like a marble rolling along thin wood as it contemplated its situation.  Then a noise came at the windows, rattling them and sending shadows along the floors.  Polichus cursed.  More of them, outside–they were calling to their fellow, who screeched and hooted back at them.

Then the Batreng’s eyes turned the puppy’s way.  The young dog backed into the chair, a whimper building in his throat.  The batreng hopped up once, sending soot and ash into the puppy’s eyes, and before he knew it, the monkey monster had him by the collar and was hefting him up, and he squelched at the pressure on his windpipe.  His claws skimmed the floor.

“Number 5!”  Polichus.  There was the scrape as the man picked up his cane from the floor.

The puppy’s eyes teared and carried away the ash that had blinded him.  His vision was still blurred, but now he could open his eyes somewhat.  He felt the impish creature jerk him up, so that his paws no longer touched the floor, and for a moment he was granted a feeling of weightlessness as he found himself staring parallel with the uneven ceiling.  Then the ceiling was falling away from him just as he started to feel gravity’s grips on him, his fur ruffling, the sound of wings beating the air, and the dog wheezed, his neck giving a painful twinge as he swatted against the batreng’s leg.

Polichus’ stick narrowly missed him.  The man was having a fit as the batreng flew, across the room, the puppy in its grip.

“Get back here, get back here you little demon!” he squawked.

The puppy pedaled his paws in the air, and with the motions of flying swinging him side to side, the dog could hardly twist around to bite at the batreng that held him captive.  The creature whooped, sounding like a crone, as it called to its brothers through the windows.  With a whoosh the monster evaded Polichus’ cane swipes and entered the study that the puppy had originally fled from.  The young dog whined, its eyes clear enough now to see that the stupid imp was landing much too fast amidst the table filled with odd glasses and sharp instruments–

The dog cried out as its hindleg was cut on a menacing star-like cutting tool.  The batreng, fascinated with the shiny things–started to shift through the items, eventually settling on a polished blunted tool that the puppy had once seen Polichus use to crush minerals for his potions.

The satyr in question came hobbling into the study, his weak knees knocking together as he gripped onto the entryway for support.  “Beast!  Cretin!  Out with you!”  he brandished his cane at the batreng, who just screeched back at him, its tail lashing and knocking over bottles.  “Beast!  You filthy beast!”  The old man lurched forward.  For all the strength that remained in his arms, his legs were his undoing.  The batreng dodged him easily, wings batting at the air in slow, unconcerned flaps.  The puppy let out another squelch, blood dripping from its hind leg as the batreng flew across the other end of the room to the high circular window.

Polichus face drew long as he slammed into the corner of the instrument table.  His cane fell from his hands as his legs stuttered beneath him, hooves scraping along the floor through broken glass and spilled potions.  “No!  Please!” He bleated, not ironically.  His right hoof caught on a snag on the floor and he fell to his knees, glass cutting into him.  He peered around his work table, his glasses having slid far down his nose.  The batreng narrowed its black eyes at him, its lips spreading to bare teeth in what could be interpreted as a fiendish smile.

The impish monster then raised the blunt instrument, cawing and hooting with triumph, before he swung it at the window.  The glass shattered, the falling shards catching sunlight and ringing onto the floor like a song that heralded freedom.  The puppy didn’t understand.  The puppy was finding it hard to stay conscious, after all.

Polichus screamed as the batreng flew out, and in his place, his brothers clammered about the open window, cutting themselves on the jagged edges as they fluttered in, excited and eager by the sight of all the shiny things that they could snatch and break…

LETHIA_________________________

The girl was in a panic.  She was still in her thin cotton dress, her long wheat blonde hair drawn up in a sweaty tail, house shoes still on her feet.  Her mistress had said they would have a trip to Belcliff today if she managed to finish her assignments, but she hadn’t.  She had the list of questions Syria had written her, so she set about starting.  But she was near to tears.  Trips outside of their small home were special.  Lethia had missed out on a chance like this only once before, and she’d cried herself to sleep thinking she’d have to wait ages to see the world outside.  The simulations Syria created for the sake of their lessons were in no way as satisfying as actually seeing it all in the flesh.

Lethia’s legs swung hard under her table, as though the excited fidgeting would make her brain work faster.

“Name three reasons a subject has nightmares.”

The girl bit her lip and rubbed her brow.  With her fresh piece of paper, she set to writing… “Subjects have nightmares for three reasons.  1)  As warnings against danger;  2)  To answer a question the intellect can’t;  3) To–” Lethia paused, her eyes widening.  She lifted her quill before the ink started to feather and tried to resist the urge to beat her head.  Syria said that hurting herself would not make problems easier.

The woman was perhaps right–but the girl didn’t know any other way to get out her frustrations.

“Lethia, dear?”

The nine-year-old jumped with a whimper.  She looked to the doorway and saw Syria there, in her heavy winter cloak and a fine burgundy dress with a cream blouse.  A small wicker basket was held in her hands.  The enchantress frowned at the girl, her arching brows nearly meeting.  “Child, did I not say to get ready?  We waste daylight!”

Lethia’s chin crumpled and she set her quill down.  “I know, mistress.  I’m sorry, mistress.”  She swallowed the lump in her throat and bowed her head.  Her face turned hot as tears blurred her vision.  “I didn’t…I didn’t…finish…” the girl couldn’t go on.  She let out a small sob before she bit her lip and tried to swallow it down.

The woman sighed and swept into the small room, her clothes swishing as she switched her basket to one arm and looked over the girl’s shoulder.  She blinked, and an exasperated smile spread over her rubious lips.  She stroked the girl’s hair.

“Lethia.”

The girl sniffed and looked up.  She tried not to slouch, even though she really wanted to.  “Yes, mistress?”

The woman’s smile broadened and she pointed at the girl’s paper.  “Child, you’ve already finished your assignment.  And you did an excellent job, I might add!”

Lethia stared up at her, then she wiped at her face and beamed.  “Really!?”

Syria laughed, the sound deep and warm.  “Yes, yes!  This is why we’re going out today!”  The woman set her basket onto the desk and floated to the wardrobe.  “Now that’s straightened out…what would my dearest like to wear today?”

NUMBER FIVE__________________________

The batreng landed on a cliff face not far from Polichus’ cottage, grumbling as it fingered the puppy’s collar.  The satyr’s home was nestled down in a small valley, and swirling over it was a swarm of the flying imps, all cawing all hooting all screeching.  They could’ve come for the magical fumes that Polichus polluted the air with, or perhaps–through some twisted form of word-of-mouth, the monsters (with their limited intelligence) had heard of the shiny things the satyr kept so poorly guarded.  But these possibilities were beyond the puppy who had much more pressing matters to deal with.

The batreng set the dog down, the wide pad of its thumb scraping over the silver plate of his collar.  The pup, dizzy and panting, tried to writhe out of the creature’s grip, but the batreng just screeched at him and wrestled him still.

At one point the monster leaned down to bite at the puppy’s collar, and the dog cried out as it felt its fangs scrape against his neck.  Before the batreng pulled away, the dog managed to twist around and bite him on the shoulder.  The batreng jerked back with a shriek, the blunt tool that it had stolen from Polichus rising in the air for a strike–

But the instrument caught the light, drawing the attention of its fellows.

Another batreng swooped down at top speed, knocking into the first.  They tumbled over the puppy, off the cliff face, hooting and shrieking as their wings beat at each other.  The dog lay there shivering, its watery eyes peering over the cliff to see its captor go.  Then he whined.

His peace was not to last.

A shadow fell over him, and the dog tensed up just before yet another flying imp grabbed him around the middle.  This one seemed smarter than the puppy’s previous captor.  Rather than tempt his brethren with his new prize, the imp flew into the air, warbling as it traveled away from the growing chaos that befell Polichus.  It soared over the mountains and hills, and the puppy trembled in its hands, deciding it was perhaps a better idea not to try and fight his captor at such an altitude.  If he hadn’t already emptied his bladder, he would’ve done so now.

A city came within sight.

LETHIA_________________________

She held Syria’s hand as she looked around the local jeweler’s.  They had stopped there for an errand, but Lethia didn’t know what.  She didn’t mind, she liked looking at the jewelry.  There were diamonds, pearls, rubies, garnets, sapphires…such pretty things.  Such bright and precious metals.  The nine-year-old gazed through the cases in wonder, her breath fogging up the glass.

“Hello Beryl,” Syria said to the woman behind the counter.  “I was wondering if I could speak with Daedalus a moment?  Is he in?”

“Yes, Lady Syria,” the round, gingery woman said.  She bowed slightly.  “Allow me to get him for you.  It’ll be just a moment!”

Syria smiled pleasantly as Lethia glanced at her.

“Mistress, may I ask a question?” The girl said.

The woman nodded at her.  “You may, dear.”

“Where do these jewels come from?”

“From the dwarves, dear.”

The girl frowned.  “But I’ve never seen any in town!”

Syria pressed a finger to her lips as Daedalus came through the door.  He was a tall elf with long, smooth ears, short-cropped black hair, and electric blue eyes.  He had the faintest lines about his mouth and eyes, and his throat was beginning to sag.  He bowed deeply. “Lady Syria!  How nice to see you!  I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing you in my shop.  What can I do for you today?”

Syria curtsied with a slight bow of her head.  “Greetings Daedalus!  It pleases me to see you in good health.  Your shop is delightful.”

“Thank you, Lady.”

“I come to you today in the hopes that you may fulfill a need of mine?”

The man nodded, his hands folding behind his back.  Beryl, his assistant, sidled past him, bowing.  “Yes?” the man said, his eyes appraising. “What would you ask of this elf?  I would meet your request to the best of my ability.”

Syria smiled.  “Thank you, sir.  I was wondering if you could fashion a pair of wire frame glasses…” then the woman placed a gentle hand on Lethia’s shoulder, making her look up in surprise.  “For my apprentice if you’d please.”

Daedalus nodded, looking at the girl.  Lethia blushed and looked down at the floor.  “Mmm…well, we’d need to get some measurements–but that will only take a moment.  Bring her around the counter.  Let’s see how we can make this work.”

Lethia felt Syria press her shoulder gently.  “Come, dear.”

As they turned to go around the counter, the nine-year-old glanced out the front windows to the streets outside.  The roads had been cleared of the snow, leaving clear pathways for citizens to walk.  People went by, bundled up.  They kept to themselves.  Belcliff wasn’t very boisterous–even Lethia knew this at her age.  She was just about to look away, the sight failing to hold her attention, when a large shadow crossed the street toward the building.  The girl paused, her eyes widening.

Lethia had spent a great deal of time looking out her window back home at the tower, and she could recognize the local birds by shadow alone without trouble.  That was not a bird.  That was a–

“Mistress!” the girl said, tugging on the woman’s hand.

Syria glanced down at her as she steered the girl through the doorway leading to the back of the store.  “Yes, dear?”

“Outside just now!  I saw something!”

“Oh?”  They followed Daedalus past the messy desk which held records and designs and notes.  Together they went up the winding stairs to the second floor, where the man’s work station was located.  The sturdy table was brimming with various tools and spools of metal, boxes of jewels and various crafting materials organized by type and color.  Over the desk, a large window filtered in light from outside.  The elf sat down in his cushioned chair, and it groaned beneath his weight.  He pulled on a pair of magnifying goggles, carefully pulling it behind his long ears where the contraption rested on his forehead.

The man gestured for Lethia to come near and Syria urged her forward.  The youth bit her lip, wishing to press the matter further, but being overly persistent about something usually made Syria cross.

As soon as she was before him, he took a measuring tape and held it before her eyes.  It took her a moment before she realized the man was measuring the width of her head.  “Hmm,” he said before taking the tape and wrapping it all the way around.  He nodded, turning to his materials.  “Let me see, here…”

As the man scribbled on a scrap of paper, the girl’s ears perked to the sound of chittering.  She frowned and glanced at the window.  “Mistress…” she said slowly.

“Shh…” the woman said behind her.

Lethia’s frown deepened as she heard something whimper.  The girl went around the desk, to the right, standing on her tiptoes as she tried to peer out the window along the building’s ledge.  Her eyes bugged.  “Mistress Syria!” she cried loudly.

Both adults looked at her, startled.  Syria crossed her arms, her eyes narrowing.  “Child, what has gotten into you!?”

The girl pointed frantically at the window, hopping on the spot.  “Outside!  There’s a batreng and it’s killing a puppy!

“What?”  Daedalus stood as Syria came closer.  They leaned over the work table as far as they could go, heads craning to look out the window–but Lethia was already running for the staircase.

Her mistress turned, dark eyes blinking.  “Lethia?”

The nine-year-old ran as fast as her legs could take her, bounding down the steep staircase two at a time and slamming into the wall.  Beryl cried out in surprise, throwing papers up into the air as Lethia pushed past her through the door.  “Pardon me, ma’am!” the girl cried over her shoulder as she pushed through the front door out into the snowy street.

She squinted her green eyes against the glare of the white world, cringing as she slogged clumsily through the growing snow bank on the side of the road.  Before she even stopped moving, Lethia twisted around to look up the building face.  Sure enough, there was a batreng there, pawing and grumbling at the collar of a large puppy.  Within that instant, the collar came away, and a silver plate glinted on it–likely the prize it had truly been seeking all this time.  The batreng warbled at it, pleased.

…The puppy wasn’t moving.

Clenching her fists, the girl squeezed her eyes shut.

All around shut out quiet as she reached with things unseen to the intellect of the batreng.  It pulsed with bright images of food, and treasure, and violence.  The girl could see the thoughts of Beryl and Daedalus–but not Syria.  The woman kept her mind protected at all times.

With a psychic spear of thoughts (“Go away!  Leave it alone!  Shoo!”), the girl attacked the batreng’s mind.  Her thoughts were puissant white words, searing through the dark sea that bore them through the static dark space of their world.  It lanced through the batreng’s mind, and the imp’s thoughts faded, turning smoky and lost.  She heard as it fell to the snow.  Her heart dropped.  She had only meant to scare the monster away–did the puppy get knocked down too?

Then she felt a hot presence scalding her from the front.  Her power was forcefully pushed back, causing a dull ache in her head.  The girl withdrew the rest of the way, shuddering.  Her eyes snapped open, and there stood Syria, her eyes narrow slits, arms crossed high over her chest.

The girl bowed immediately, trembling.  “M’sorry mistress!  The puppy needed help!”

Syria’s voice was hard.  “You risked tainting the greater intellectual cluster.  You risked harming your own mind.  You weren’t dealing with a sentient–you were dealing with a monster.  Nevermind that I haven’t trained you in dealing with the matrices of normal animals.”

Lethia swallowed hard.  She dared to raise her gaze enough to stare at Syria’s knees.

The woman sighed and brought the girl upright by the shoulders.  The child looked into her mistress face with wide eyes.  Syria gazed at her, stoic.  “Well?  You risked so much for this poor thing, you may as well take to it!”

Lethia blinked up at her.  Then her mouth set into a somber line, and she gave a nod.  Together they went to the snow bank where the batreng had fallen.  Daedalus had already slit its throat, his dagger in his hand.  The creature’s blue face was a navy blue, like it’d been choking.  Neither of its hands held the collar.  It must have fallen from its grip as it fell.  The nine-year-old paled at the sight of the monster corpse, but the elf was quick to stuff it into the burlap sack he had brought from inside.

“Damn these things!” the elf panted as though he’d run from the second floor all the way down.  “There’s more of them this year!  And they keep coming to my shop of ‘shiny things’!”  He stood and went around to the alley to dispose of it properly.

With the harrowing sight taken away, the girl turned next to Beryl who had just come from the building.  She knelt carefully in the snow, gathering up her dress as she inspected the puppy that lay still.  Lethia knelt by it, gathering her dress up in similar fashion.  Her eyes started to burn.

“Did it die…?” she breathed.

“No, child,” Syria said over her.  She was frowning.  “I can…hear it.”

The girl turned and frowned at her.  “…Mistress?”

The enchantress looked to Beryl, her eyes suddenly wide and sharp.  “Beryl, dear, might we borrow a blanket of some sort?”

“Gods, of course!”  The woman rose to her feet with a small grunt, her round body hurrying to the door.  “Halward help the poor creature!  It’ll need more than a blanket,” the woman muttered as she went through the doorway.

Lethia’s lip trembled as she scooted closer–her empathy leading her to forget to care about whether or not her dress touched the dirty snow.  She reached forward and touched a hand to the puppy’s hind leg, where blood and puss crusted in the soft fur.  The dog’s ears perked, and it turned its head to fix one watery eye on the girl, but it took no other action other than to settle its head back down and closed its eyes.

Beryl came back with a wool scarf.  Her chubby cheeks pink.  “I hope this’ll do!  It was all I could find.”

Lethia took it from the woman’s hands eagerly.  “Thank you!”

The woman looked at her, eyebrows raised high.  She looked at Syria as though to ask silently if it were okay for the child to handle the task, and the enchantress only held up a lax finger.

The nine-year-old, oblivious, pinched her tongue between her lips as she gathered the puppy up into a bundle with the wool scarf.  The dog whimpered some, but its eyes slipped shut.  They took it inside.  Once there, Daedalus checked the dog’s hind leg.

“Flesh wound,” he said, wiping at the fur with a wet cloth.  “I’ll wrap it, to keep it clean once I wipe away this dirt, but once you’re home you’ll have to remove it.  I’m spreading some medicine over it–to prevent fever, so there shouldn’t be any trouble.”

At the mention of taking the puppy home, Lethia turned and gazed at Syria imploringly.  The woman arched an eyebrow at her.  “My dear, of course we’re taking it home.  You chose to save it.  It is now your responsibility.  But do not think I’m forgetting about what you attempted!  We’ll discuss your punishment once this matter is dealt with in full.”

Lethia had started to grin, but at Syria’s last words, she tried to smother her joy with not a lot of success.

They were taking a puppy home…

—————-

The next few days, the girl cared for the puppy as best she could.  There were no trained animal doctors in the region as there was no great amount of livestock, and as such all owners were expected to treat their own.  This didn’t seem a problem as Syria owned a book on animals that covered a wide variety of species.  Though the information wasn’t very specific, there was enough there about dogs that they were able to figure out a proper diet for the puppy.  They tried to feed the puppy a mixture of milk, and ground up meat.  They kept it warm and checked its wound.

Still, it didn’t seem to get stronger.  It didn’t play, it didn’t even move its head.  It refused food and refused drink.

Lethia lay in her bed on the third night, weeping.  The dog lay in a makeshift bed on the floor near her.  “Puppy…puppy, what’s wrong?” she whispered in a dry whine.  “Why won’t you let me help?”

The dog didn’t move or make a sound.  The girl curled into a ball and after a while, she fell asleep.

…Whilst in repose she came across a way of sound that begged her to dance, so she did.

Her feet touched upon stars, skimming belts of light as though she were a weightless feather soaring on the currents of the wind.  She was–she was–she was–

Free.

Then, suddenly her parents were there–faceless beautiful voiceless loving lifeless golems that kept ahead of her always in the dark plum skies–their definitions were the offspring of expectations threaded carefully through the eyes of children’s hopes and dreams.  Speaking was not allowed here, so she uttered not a cry or a greeting to the phantoms that drifted at a fixed distance before her.  She would not speak, would not speak.  Would not dare to ask, “Why are you here?  Why do you have me chasing you?”  The girl only wished the way of sound went faster, and tried to move along the stars and belts of light so as to catch up with her faceless beautiful voiceless loving lifeless parents–but ah the wicked reaches of space and time left the tips of her hopeful branches still all too short.  Her parents were gone.

The girl wept tears of sticky yellow sap, and her feet burrowed into the stars and the belts of light as she ceased her fervent dancing, swallowing the way of sound so as to end the path forever more.

Lethia Artaud rooted herself in the heavens and her world turned dark.

Then she woke up, gasping.

Lethia swallowed, mouth dry, blinking away tears as she stared down at her hands half-curled in her lap, the heavy blanket over her legs feeling too stifling.  She kicked it away and moved to sit at the edge of her bed.  The puppy still hadn’t moved from its place.  The girl carefully slid to the floor and leaned down over the small dog, her breath bated as she tried to focus in the clandestine darkness.

“Puppy?” she breathed, thinking of her dream.  No…her nightmare.  She thought of her lessons on the subject and pressed even closer, pressing her forehead to the dog’s.  “…Tell me what’s wrong.”

Syria had said that the girl had taken a great risk in stunning the batreng.  She had said that such enchantment required special training, for monsters were even more difficult and dangerous to read than animals.  …But if Lethia could see and affect the batreng’s mind–what challenge did a puppy’s mind present?

Nevermind that she’d knocked it out versus shooing it away.

Lethia’s eyes slipped shut.

It took a moment, but in her mind’s eye, she saw the glow of the puppy’s thoughts.  This alone wasn’t very shocking.  Each animal, however simple-minded, was capable of some form of thought.  What made Lethia gasp and draw back was that–

The puppy was thinking of words.  Human language.

The girl swallowed and closed her eyes again.

The puppy’s thoughts were a cloud, much like most minds were.  As such, she knew the most pressing or currently focused thoughts were near the center of the cluster.  Gently, so as to not harm his mindscape, the girl probed gently into the cloud, using low amounts of her power–what Syria called “ishin”.  Ishin was measurable, but invisible to the human eye.  It was not incorrect to call it a sixth sense, but this implied that it was a passive trait that could not be actively utilized.  As an enchantress, Lethia had to learn early what ishin was, and how to turn it into a tool she could utilize whenever she wanted to.  She didn’t have much experience piercing other mindscapes on her own, so the girl moved forth slowly.

As she did, she marveled at what she saw.

On the glow of the puppy’s outer thoughts, the girl garnished finer understandings of what the images meant.  What truly awed her was that the images of words weren’t just disconnected memories of odd symbols.  They had understanding, they had definition…much of it being incorrect or overly-simplistic (“Squiggles?  Does he mean words?  …UpWorld? What?”) but they meant something to the dog.

There were more images than words, of course.  There were thoughts of his siblings, thoughts of a dark place that looked like a cellar, thoughts of a cage, thoughts of food and sleep and play.  Thoughts of a large dog–likely his mother.  She got a name from the latter–Dotti.

Lethia stopped her advancement as a large dark phrase hovered before her, like a wall blocking her path.

Polichus.

It was a name, she knew from the manner of its use–and there were images too–an old satyr living alone in the frosty region of the Torreth.  It was also a name drenched in loathing.  All around it pulsed negative emotions.

Polichus, bad.  Polichus, hurt.  Polichus, bad.  Polichus, hurt.

Swallowing, Lethia went around this thought.  She’d have to tell her mistress about this person.  He didn’t sound like a good man at all.

Finally she came to the center of the cluster, and the nine-year-old felt a pressure on her head.  Going in this deeply often caused the mindscape to resist against the foreign intellect.  The matrices of the puppy’s animus were closing in around Lethia, and she took a deep breath.

Vibrating and buzzing and pulsing were the puppy’s most pressing thoughts and concerns and desires.  Lethia was surprised to find many of them were the word-images she encountered before.  Towering above the other thoughts were the words:  Home, Pain, and Family.  Surrounding these were smaller images, like flies around fruit, zipping and flashing in and out of sight, fuzzy at the edges and sometimes transparent.  Lethia focused on the puppy’s concern with Pain, and bared her teeth as she tried to hold onto her connection long enough to see something useful in all the confusing mess that surrounded the thought.

There.  His neck and throat.  The puppy was finding it painful to swallow.  Of course!

Lethia withdrew, the ghostly images flashing by her in a rush as the puppy’s mind shut her out completely.  She felt something snag on her, but she couldn’t stop.  Being engrossed in another mind took effort, and her ishin still wasn’t strong enough to stay connected that long.

The girl opened her eyes, feeling excited.  She considered waiting till morning, but she figured as there was a life at stake, her mistress wouldn’t get too upset over her intrusion.

She was partially right.

“My dear, you have gotten quite audacious these past few days!  Never have you been this impetuous.  This whole matter vexes me!” Syria cried as they traveled down to the kitchen.  The woman slammed and banged things as she gathered what she needed.  She was barefoot and dressed in her sleeping gown, hair messy and pinned back, her face a bit ghoulish from the poor light and the shock of suddenly being roused from deep sleep.  Lethia had told her of the puppy’s problem, and her mistress seemed to know just what was needed, though she didn’t impart this to her apprentice.  The woman was too busy ranting.  “Did I not tell you that training was needed when dealing with mindscapes that aren’t sentient?!  Yet you deliberately disobeyed me!”  The enchantress slammed the mortar and pestle onto the counter next to the astragalus root, sphinx bezoar, and white chalk. “Clearly your new chores and writing assignments haven’t been enough for you!  Perhaps I’ll have you clean the cow’s stable as well?”

Lethia paled.  She bowed deep with hands at her sides.  “M-Mistress!  I’ll never do it again!  I–” but the girl paused and bit her lip.

Syria stopped, crossing her arms.  “What, child?” she asked flatly, her baggy eyes narrowing.

Lethia raised herself enough to blink at Syria’s knees.  “The puppy thinks…in words.  I saw a name in his head.  Polichus.  I think…I think he was the puppy’s owner.” The girl waited to hear Syria’s reaction.

“Go on,” the woman said, her voice reserved.

Lethia resumed in a rush.  “Polichus is an old satyr who lives in the area.  The puppy hates him, mistress.  He hurt him.  And he’s got the puppy’s family still–locked in a cellar in a cage!”  The girl’s fists clenched.  “It isn’t right!”

Syria said nothing for a moment.  Then she shook her head and returned her attention to the items on the counter.  “Very well…we shall see about this satyr.  I promise you nothing, however.  We may even be required by the marshal to return the dog to its owner.”

“But he hurt him!” Lethia cried, straightening.  Her little body trembled.  She wouldn’t let the puppy go back to that terrible man.

“Do not shout at me, girl.” Syria said, pausing with an air of danger as she turned her head just so.

Lethia quailed, bowing again.  “My apologies, mistress…” the girl mumbled.

Syria sighed as she chopped up the astragalus root.  “My dear…focus on helping your little friend first.  These things will come in time.”

————————–

A week later.  In her bedroom.  On the floor between the bed and her work desk.

Lethia watched in delight as the puppy carefully chewed up the ground meat.  They had to shave away the fur around its neck–something it greatly protested–but after Syria had applied the salve she had made, the dog immediately started to show improvement.  It was still experiencing discomfort, but now the dog was eating again, and the nine-year-old couldn’t be happier.

“It’s good isn’t it, puppy?” the youth giggled as she gently scratched its back.

The dog gazed up at her with eyes blinking.  Then it thought:  Good?  Food!  GOOD food!

Lethia’s hand froze against the puppy’s back.  Her green eyes widened.  “…Puppy?” she breathed.

The puppy perked its ears, its tail wagging.  Girl?

The girl shivered, touching her head, then her large ears, then her mouth.  “I–but I’m not–my ishin isn’t–”

The dog resumed its meal, small jaws taking up pieces of the ground up meat.  GirlSquigglesNumber 5 hate Squiggles.  But Number 5 love Girl.  …But Number 5 HUNGRY.  Stop Squiggles now.  Good food!

Lethia’s young mind thought of several possible actions.  She could panic.  She could panic and start crying.  She could panic and start crying and run to find Syria.  OR…

The girl started laughing, her face turning red.  “I can hear you!  And you understand me!”  Lethia jumped to her feet, her hands clapping as she hopped up and down.  “I can talk to animals!”  The girl paused, a frown coming over her features.  “Wait…you call yourself ‘Number 5’?”  She scrunched up her nose.  “That’s a stinky name!  Let me get the mythology book from downstairs.  We’ll pick something better for you!”

As the girl fled the room, the puppy grumbled after her.

Girl…LOUD.

Lethia jumped down the stairs, her entire body shocked and jittering with excitement.  Syria was in her sanctuary, meditating.  As she entered the foyer, she tried to contain her bubbling giggles.

But her concern didn’t seem to matter.  The woman emerged from the room, her cheeks flushed, and her eyes bright.  Syria brushed a stray lock behind her ear as she fixed her eyes on Lethia.  “Child, what are you up to?”

The girl froze, feeling oddly guilty.  “I was getting a book…” she said, pointing.

“Did you finish your assignments?”

“Yes!”

“And your chores?”

“Yes!  I swept and mopped and did the dishes.”

“…And the stable?”

Lethia looked down at her shoes.  “I was feeding the puppy.”

Syria pursed her lips, one hand resting on her hip.  “Very well.  But afterwards you take care of that stable!”

The girls shoulders sagged.  “Yes, mistress…”

The woman drifted to the door, her brows knitting.  “And don’t slouch!”  She beckoned for Lethia to come near.  “Here…is the puppy still eating?  Will he be okay?  You really ought to choose a name for him, dear.”

Lethia pouted.

Syria went on, oblivious. “Come with me a moment, we’ve a visitor at the gates.  I sensed their approach just now.”

Lethia perked up at this, her eyebrows going high.  It was always exciting when someone from the outside came to their tower, but the youth knew all of Syria’s patients and none were scheduled to make an appearance now.  The enchantress pulled on her heavy cloak and when the youth came near, she plucked the girl’s cloak off the hook and did the same for her.  Together they went outside, trudging through the snow hand in hand.

Surrounding their tower were high walls meant to keep out most animals and monsters.  Syria’s power was such that she needed only the power of her mind to sense the presence of a visitor at the outer gates.

As they neared, they saw a familiar elf waving at them from the other side.

“Hail, Daedalus!”  Syria called.

“Hail my Lady!”  He held up a package.  “I have finally finished them.  I hoped you received my messenger pigeon?”

“Yes, yes, I’ve been expecting you.  Please allow me to open this.”  Syria pulled a lever at the side of the gate and the mechanism shuddered and creaked as the gates pushed through the snow, swinging inward.  Daedalus bowed and stepped through.

“Hullo, Lethia.  How’re you this fine day?”

The girl blushed and curtsied.  “Very well, sir!  Thank you for asking!”

Syria smiled and placed a hand on her shoulder as the gates swung close again.  She gestured toward the tower.  “Please sir, this way.  I’ll make you some tea.”

“Thank you, Lady Syria.  I would be very grateful,” the man said with another slight bow.

Once back at the tower, Syria made the tea as promised.  They were in the kitchen, Lethia sitting at one end of the table as Daedalus did the other.  Normally she was to tend to any additional needs of guests, but the man was content to wait for his tea in peace.  The enchantress handed Daedalus a cup, and the man accepted it gratefully.  She took another, smaller cup, and served Lethia some as well.  The girl accepted it with a grin and a quiet, “Thank you!”

The elf closed his eyes as he tasted the drink.  Ginger with lemon and honey.  “Mmm!”  He set the cup down and nodded with a broad smile.  “I see you are quite talented!  Tea making is sullied by the crass.  There are few left today who understand the art of it!”

Syria bowed her head.  “I am honored you would think me worthy.  You must have sampled some of the best teas in the world.  Lekeid is quite famous for it.”

Daedalus chuckled.  “Yes, the Higashans, try as they might, still cannot match the Elven ways,” he pulled the package on the table to his lap.  It was a box covered in parcel paper and bound with twine.  “So, onto the business of those glasses you had me make for you.”  The man stood and presented the package to Syria, who took it with both hands.  “I hope they are to your specifications.  The lenses were what took the most time–I had to scrap a pair and start over as they weren’t good enough.”

Syria unwrapped the package carefully.  Lethia craned her neck, the steam from her tea curling around her face.

The woman pulled from the box a pair of glasses with dark, round lenses.  Lethia couldn’t see her face as the woman spoke.  “Ah…good.  I was getting worried.”

Daedalus frowned, tilting his head to the side.  “Worried?  Whatever for?”

Syria turned and drifted to Lethia.  Carefully, she leaned down and held up the glasses.  “Oh, you see…my dearest Lethia has a condition.  It’s quite unfortunate.  We’re still working on a solution.”

Lethia blinked, a small frown coming over her face.  She took the glasses from the woman and slowly put them on.

“Remember, dear?” the enchantress said to the girl, tilting her head to one side.  Her eyes were wide and dark. “You have a condition.  You can’t look directly into other people’s eyes or you’ll steal their thoughts!”

The nine-year-old started to feel a crawling sensation along her skull.  Her eye stalks started to hurt, and sound began to feel like it filtered through thick cotton.

Lethia nodded, feeling numb.  “Oh…yes, I remember now…”

SYRIA__________________________

The satyr was dead.

She had known this after Lethia had first mentioned the man.  Upon returning to bed, she’d swept through the region, combing the the greater intellectual cluster to discover his thoughts were still present but feeble.  By the time help would arrive, he’d perish from his injuries.  Still, the woman sent a messenger bird as soon as she could to the local authorities.

The records stated that he was killed by a swarm of batrengs that had invaded his home. Syria felt there was something greater at work.  She didn’t know the cause for the population spike, but told Marshal Sanders of the trouble and requested that a team be sent to handle the beasts.  The colony was likely near the satyr’s home.

She liked Marshal Sanders, but he was set to leave office soon.  There was a soldier from the militia campaigning for the future position.  He was a brash and greedy man.  What was his name again…?

Daedalus had been right–there were too many of the monsters lately.  She’d recently had to chase a gaggle of them off herself.  The puppy had nearly re-injured his neck barking at them all.  He’d always hold a hatred for them, it seemed, as she was sure he would always hate satyrs for as long as he lived.  Lethia had been the first kind person to him.  Syria saw his idolization of the girl begin, much like Lethia’s had begun years ago toward the woman.

Ah, but she had to ask Marshal Sanders what became of the dogs.  It seemed the satyr, Polichus, had been using them for alchemical research.  He didn’t have a permit for it, and as such his work was illegal.  Much of what he did was morally reprehensible, but Syria confessed a curiosity over his findings.  It certainly seemed to have an affect on his primary subject, “Number 5”, newly named “Argos” by her apprentice.  The dog was exhibiting unnaturally rapid growth and development, and his ability to comprehend and learn complex concepts were astounding.  But Syria’s interest was purely for sport–as she concerned herself with sentient minds, not animal minds.  Lethia seemed to have quite an affinity for it, but she would have to learn such things elsewhere when she got older.

Polichus’ research was burned and the dogs he kept–spared from the wrath of the batrengs by their entrapment in the cellar–were to be given away.  The mother had been quite over protective, she recalled the Marshal telling her in his last letter.  “I fear,” he wrote, “We may have to put her down.  It’s quite sad.”

But Argos seemed to forget the plight of its...his family as he grew closer to Lethia.  The days had gone by, and though she lacked the connection the two shared, she sometimes caught whispers of their conversations.  (“They’re not squiggles, they’re words.  And my name’s Lethia.  LE-THI-A.“)  Syria wasn’t much for pets, but she confessed a sort of affection growing at the sight of Argos and Lethia studying together–an absurdity not lost on the woman.  When the enchantress asked her apprentice what the dog thought of their tower, the girl giggled and said, “He calls it Home now!”

…But after last week, she had to make sure Argos wasn’t in the room during tests.  The dog, in an attempt to help the girl at a hard question, had tried projecting the answers to her.  Lethia hadn’t asked him to, the woman knew the girl’s integrity was far greater than that, but Syria wasn’t beyond chasing the dog away with a broom–intelligent or not.  Now he always cowered whenever she did the cleaning.

These were the things Syria thought of as she sat alone in the darkness.

She was in her sanctuary, a room beneath the spiral staircase with the entrance adjacent to the kitchen entryway.  The location didn’t seem very ideal–but in truth it was fixed in a position of power, lined up perfectly with the constellation of Seer, the goddess of sight and mind.  Sweat rolled down her neck, and her eyes rolled beneath their closed lids as she pressed the boundaries of her ishin outward.  Lethia was still young, so she couldn’t do this and wouldn’t be able to for years to come.  But Syria was a master, and could cast about a net of awareness that told her of all the goings on in her land.

Currently, Lethia was playing with Argos.  The woman’s hand turned to a claw on her knee.  They were playing around her linden tree.  She had planted it exactly nine years ago, away from the tower and just to the side of the stables.  That was when she’d first adopted Lethia into her life.

…She hated the thing.

The tree grows.  It feeds.  The girl grows…and she blossoms.  Keep her tended and pruned and she’ll not overrun you.

Syria swallowed as the wordless melody carried forth these thoughts.  Her eyes opened to slits in the dark, and she stared at the light coming in from beneath the door.  “My dearest Lethia…will be isolated after what I’ve done,” a tear fell from her eye as a pained smile spread her lips.  “But I will let her keep this strange new friend.  That way…she’ll always have someone to keep her company…in the dark.


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