They didn’t try for conversation, which was fine, because the woman didn’t feel like talking. Graziano and Paulo stuck to their side of camp, resting from the day’s events it seemed, while Hakeem and Quincy sat against the rock. Argos was sitting, staring toward the tower, his head on his paws. The woman watched the embers float to the dark sky–starless with the cloud cover. One of the scultones sighed and the woman was fit to agree with it. Earlier, the question was raised if someone needed to stand watch for trouble. The blonde pointed out that she had already taken care of any oncoming threats, and when the others came with Syria, all they’d have to do was follow the main path to discover their camp again.
“My suggestion is to stay near the fire and be ready to move,” the woman said.
Then she thought of something.
Quincy drew up her magic bag, and Hakeem glanced at her.
“You need something?” he asked with a mild voice.
Quincy started to rub the sides of the bag, her gaze narrowed. “I want to check the Divinare Cube. Sadly, I used my last angel tear at Belcliff. I think it’d be better suited to this situation.”
“It’s unlikely the cube will tell you anything you wouldn’t already expect.” Hakeem inspected his armor, which he had decided to keep activated in case of trouble. He wiped a snowflake off his shoulder.
Quincy shrugged. “Perhaps you’re right, but I still want to check.”
When she felt points poking her skin, she opened the bag and let a small black stone cube fall into her waiting hand. The woman took one corner of the cube and pushed at it with her thumb. The little pyramid that had been the corner swiveled out, as though on a hinge. Just as she had outside of Tiesmire, the woman turned and twisted the cube until it began to shift on its own. Quincy favored its clear readings and broad divination. There was an angry scorpion demigod on the Indaban continent that would’ve liked to have it back…but it had been worth the trouble for the amazing little cube.
Graziano and Paulo sat forward, watching with curiosity as much as apprehension.
“Oye, what’re you doing?” Graziano asked, his handsome face pulled into a frown.
Quincy glanced up at him. “I’m checking the spiritual state of our environment. I’ve heard Holzoff’s is drenched with unhappy souls. They can tamper with our magic.”
Graziano squinted his eyes, as though he wasn’t sure he could trust her answer. Then he sat back with a grumble. Something about a “bruja maldita”. She had been lying, of course. For all she knew there was no oncoming threat–or atleast nothing they couldn’t easily handle, so the lie could be innocuous, but still–
The cube stopped its assembly. It had changed to form a short straight line with a wide triangle jutting to the right.
Quincy clenched her teeth, her eyes searing.
Thurisaz. The Thorn. It meant danger. It meant betrayal. It meant destructive forces, spiritual possession, and two clear paths to take–retreat or attack.
The wizard wasn’t going to turn back now.
She looked at her husband, and whispered, “Hakeem, we need to move away from camp and position ourselves in a way that we can see the others when they come.”
Hakeem frowned at her. “What did you see?”
The woman held up the magic stone. “Thurisaz. If the others manage to return with Syria, I think something bad will happen.”
“Should we tell Graziano and Paulo?”
“Better to keep quiet. If there’s too much suspicion, then things could end prematurely–and not in our favor. I can only guess that the enchantress is the source of the trouble, so I want to be prepared. She can feel our emotions and thoughts if we’re in sight, but not if we’re out of sight. Let the Morettis lull her into a sense of security. We won’t be able to hide completely, she’ll still be able to sense our presence, but she won’t be able to use her enchantment to harm us, and then we can spring in at the most opportune moment.”
“This could be risky for Paulo. Are you really okay with just…putting him out there like that? We’ve known the Morettis for years.” Hakeem gazed at her hard.
The woman looks at him, annoyed. What was this hesitance all of a sudden? “They aren’t our friends.”
“Neither are Karolek or Jetswick, yet I know you wouldn’t let them risk coming to harm this way.” Hakeem managed to sound bitter.
Quincy blinked at him. Then she sat back and sighed in exasperation. “We can move fast. Plus, I have some tricks to use in case trouble stirs before we can intervene.” She stroked the side of the stone’s face, and it shuddered before shifting back into a normal cube. She dropped it into her bag and it vanished into nothing.
She stood and held out her hand for him. “Let’s go.”
The man gazed up at her for a long time. Then he took her grip. When he was on his feet, he leaned in close, his cheek brushing hers.
He spoke low in his Fanaean language, “Mweze, when this is all over, we will talk.”
Quincy glanced at him from the corner of her eyes. She answered him similarly, “I will speak with you about whatever you’d like for as long as you’d like, bwa-taika…” She let go of his hand and turned, leaving the camp. Graziano and Paulo sat up, the elder sparing her a question, but she didn’t answer, and she knew they wouldn’t press the issue. They knew better.
…Her husband should’ve too.
With her face turned from them all, Quincy’s eyes shone beneath the shadow of her hood. “I will speak with you, but that does not mean I will listen.”
This was it. Did she need answers? Did she need a spiel laid before her, revealing the motives?
No. The crimes committed by this woman were too severe.
Elmiryn slashed horizontally at Syria, but she didn’t put all her power into the stroke. With only the one arm, the woman found her balance was hampered by the snow and her inability to adjust. She couldn’t control broad power strokes unless she wanted to become unbalanced and open to attack. But what a surprise! Syria was quicker than the warrior had expected, leaning back so far, the tip of the blade just managed to graze her beneath the chin. Her left hand, still swollen at the wrist, came rising up underhand, and Elmiryn had just a moment to brace herself when–
Quincy lanced forward from behind. Syria let out a hiss, her eyes flickering to the side as though her mind picked up on the intention. She shifted her body to dodge being impaled and the direction of her left hand was altered.
This change in motion meant everything, for it seemed the world around Elmiryn became muted for a split second, and she felt an immense pressure throughout the front of her body. In the next second, she was sent flying, in a low arc, backward at high speed.
She tumbled and crashed, everything hurting to the point that thought was lost amidst the desire for release. She heard herself screaming. She felt like she had knives in her arms. The fractured bones were likely stabbing her. Perhaps the injury had been exacerbated. Elmiryn finally came to a stop, down slope, face down in the snow. She couldn’t breath in right away. Beneath, her left forearm stung angrily, and there was a strong ache at her left shoulder. Her right shoulder fared no better. Perhaps the tumble had opened up the stab wound?
What would’ve happen if Syria had been able to hit her dead on, with all her power? Would the warrior be alive, let alone conscious?
The cold bit her skin. She wasn’t wearing proper clothing for this sort of climate after all. She was a Fiamman. It had never snowed at the kingdom. She made a note in the future, if there was a future, to invest in heavier winter clothing. Nyx had known a thing or two about the cold, why the hell hadn’t the girl thought about it?
–Oh right, they were poor. And it was sorta (kinda) her fault.
With bared teeth, Elmiryn made to rise. Pain, pain, pain. She gagged and coughed, and dark fluid stained the white snow. Her chest hurt with every breath she took. Broken rib? Internal bleeding? She’d heard of that. Seen it happen atleast once before–a man under her command dying from the shock of it. She groped for her sword and found it, down near her leg, but she didn’t have the strength to lift it up. The woman let herself fall back to the snow and let out a ragged sigh. She heard the sounds of combat ahead, and felt anxious that she was missing it. But as she tried to push up with her right arm again, her shoulder screamed at her, and the woman hissed and let herself fall back again. The warrior still wanted to try and see what was happening, so she struggled to roll onto her back. There, she craned her head back to try and steal a look.
Elmiryn saw the others, their heads atleast, over the slope. The battle was furious and broad–covering a wide area so that she found herself cut off from them. Though she couldn’t see the details of it, there were flashes here and there that told her Syria and Quincy were intensely engaged. Even if she were well, Elmiryn was certain she’d find it near impossible to join the fray and imagined the others faced a similar problem. It was all between the wizard and enchantress now.
The warrior was quite far down the slope, as detailed by the messy trail her body had cut into the snow. The others seemed so far, their faces indefinite to her in the dark night. She counted out the heads. One, two, three…she imagined Paulo and Lethia were lying out of sight, still unconscious, but there should’ve been a fourth. Nyx was missing.
She faded for a moment, wondering about the girl…
Then a cry cut into her thoughts and Elmiryn’s eyes snapped back open and shifted to see a streak of gold flash over the slope. Something tumbled down in a blast of snow to rival her landing. The person slid to a stop just a little before the warrior. Quincy. She grunted and raised herself onto all fours, her eyes immediately turning to gaze up towards the battle. Her limbs were visibly shaking, and her face was drenched in sweat. Her hood had fallen back to reveal that her hair looked…luminescent. The others up ahead finally moved to take her place. One stayed back to watch those unconscious. The redhead guessed it to be Farrel, judging by the light hair.
Elmiryn turned to the woman, who had closed her eyes and was muttering to herself. She grinned jauntily. “Oh my! How nice of you to join me wizard. I was getting a bit lonely.”
The blond opened her eyes turned to regard Elmiryn with a blank face. Her azure eyes were glowing too.
“Fool. If you’re done, then keep out of the way,” The wizard said. Her voice lacked the malice the warrior would’ve expected, but it was strained–like she were pushing a large rock. Quincy pulled her hood back on and shifted into a crouch, her golden blade gripped in her right hand. The thing seemed to pulse at Elmiryn’s gaze. She was waiting for an opportunity to rejoin the battle.
The warrior hissed through breath, trying to keep the spots from clouding her vision and the ice cold feeling from sending her thoughts under. Sweat soaked her hairline and rolled down her neck. “Come now,” she cried. “That’s uncalled for! Just because I beat you before–”
“You didn’t beat me.”
Such a quick response. So the wizard was a sore loser…interesting…
“Okay,” Elmiryn grinned, closing her eyes. Despite her efforts to remain conscious, she felt so sleepy. “But can we be a little nicer to the gimp, huh? I mean, no hard feelings, right?” she breathed, cradling her arm. She was certain the splints were out of place now. Then her eyes snapped back open. “And hey isn’t your arm supposed to be broken like mine?” Elmiryn twisted her head to the side so as to look at Quincy better.
The blond had already looked back to the battle, craning her neck to see what was happening. “Never mind that. You’re attack against Syria was idiotic. You should know better than to announce yourself,” she said this without a glance.
“What can I say?” Elmiryn snickered. “I’ve been a little insane lately.”
The woman opened her eyes and turned her head. Nyx’s shadowed form came tumbling, her breath a trail of fog behind her. She was coming at them from the north, strafing along the slope, whose shifting made it difficult to run in a straight line. She grinned as the girl came near. She had probably gone and jogged a crescent through the snow, to give the battle wide berth.
The girl stumbled next to her, all panicked breath. “Gods, Elmiryn, are you okay!?” she cried. She glanced at Quincy warily, who resumed ignoring them.
Elmiryn winced pulling away. Then she grinned. “Sorry, I got cocky. But you know, Syria can’t get a grasp on my thoughts, maybe I could–”
Nyx took hold of the woman’s face and shook her head. Her eyes were clouded with tears. “Enough is enough, Elle! Cajeck, ni aji üle boeneh? Your left forearm is broken, your left shoulder was just recently dislocated, and you were stabbed by–by–” the girl turned and glared pointedly at Quincy’s back, “By her. Speaking of which, why on earth are you even here!?” she asked the wizard, venom in every word.
Elmiryn pulled at the girl’s front. “Nyx, put it out of your mind. With our run of luck, we can’t be choosy about where help comes from. You said the same about Farrel, didn’t you?”
“But that was different–”
Quincy turned her head slightly. “Therian. Stay with your friend for now. Hakeem, Graziano, and I can manage. The halfling is watching the others, but should one of us fall, you must be prepared to defend them.”
Nyx hissed at her, her teeth bared. “Who are you to give orders!?” But even as she spoke, Quincy was already dashing away.
“It must be exhausting, fighting Syria. She’s good at mind control. I bet they have to fight to keep in control of their minds every single second. Syria told me my thoughts were like smoke. I bet it’s my curse that makes it hard for her to get a handle on me. If I could just get in there…But what can I do when I’m like this…?” she muttered.
A sigh. “We can’t do it all, Elle. You’ve already done so much these past few days.”
“I want to see this finished.” The warrior felt anxiety thrash inside her. She clenched her jaw and glared skyward. “I don’t want to just sit here.” But even as the warrior said this, she knew and understood that she’d be more of a hinderance than a help. It bothered her greatly.
“We will see this finished, one way or another,” Nyx said grimly. “Syria is incredibly powerful. I’ve never even heard of someone capable of using so many different forms of magic, and at such levels! It’s better that you stay safe. When I saw Syria hit you with that attack…” The girl’s voice trailed away. She stroked Elmiryn’s face, her hands shaking. “Och tet boenah üle lunam…”
I thought you had died…
Elmiryn gazed up at her somberly. She had told the girl these things would happen. There would be danger, there would be struggle…possibly even sacrifice. The warrior had made it very clear.
But she knew, given her own scares with Nyx, that this made those moments no easier to handle.
The redhead found the girl’s hand and squeezed it. From her mind, she drew up an Ailuran phrase she had learned from her borrowed memories back at Gamath. It seemed appropriate here.
“Och oeni…” Elmiryn mumbled.
On the mountain ridge to the right. They were just close enough to camp to still be able to make out which of the Morettis was which, but not close enough to see the expressions on their faces, or to hear what they spoke of. Hakeem was crouched, his gauntlet gripping the rock. They had a decent view of the tower. Detail was robbed by mist and darkness, but they could still make out the gate at the end of the bridge. Quincy squinted her eyes as she saw the gate roll up, leaving the tower entrance wide open.
“Hakeem, I think they’re coming,” she said.
Hakeem nodded, his eyes shadowed beneath his furrowed brows. “But…what are they doing?”
Quincy shifted higher up the slope she rested on, her hands pulling her up. She squinted her eyes as she saw the snow and rock surrounding the tower shift, almost as though…
“…It seems the daesce are invading the tower.” She pointed, “But look there. There’s a group moving away from it.” Her voice took on a fascinated note. “Those aren’t daesce. Those are the ones we’re waiting for. The monsters are ignoring them…”
“They have the enchantress…and she’s killing everyone in the tower,” Hakeem breathed. His grip tightened around the rock.
Quincy sighed. “If she’s that powerful…we’ll be in for quite a fight.”
“I believe you…but your voice suggests something else.”
“When I was in Belcliff, I told you about my findings. The files suggested two spellcasters were needed for the damage done to the bodies. Lethia’s hair was found at the site where the bodies were being kept. If Syria is capable of controlling a mob of daesce, and possibly enchanting an entire tower beforehand, then what’s stopping a person from believing she could control Lethia?” As she said this, Quincy reached for her leather pouch with one hand. She pressed it to the rock and began rubbing it. Within a minute, she felt a round object grow beneath her palm. The item she pushed out from the pouch was the Orb of Ilkmar.
“Why do you think the woman controlled her? Maybe the girl went along with everything?”
The wizard shook her head. “Even Gaduman of the East was incapable of such broad mind control. This woman’s power is on a level I’ve never seen before. Enchantment is one of the Unbound Disciplines, what if Syria discovered new lengths in which to use it?”
Hakeem shook his head. “I still don’t see what you’re getting at. Syria’s an enchantress. What happened to those bodies were the work of a master sorcerer and magician. You said it yourself.”
Quincy shook her head. The mystery was still working itself out in her mind, and she didn’t have that answer yet.
They watched as the group grew closer and closer. Finally, they arrived, and the Morettis rose to greet them. …But then something went wrong. The therian girl had collapsed, and the dog, Argos, had turned on Syria. Lethia fell to the ground, on her knees. A newcomer, light-haired and dressed in guard’s armor, stepped away from Syria, visibly appalled. He was shouting. Quincy couldn’t make out what was being said.
Then everything went to hell.
The others were frozen in place, it seemed–for Graziano, the guard, the dog, and Elmiryn were in mid-movement before they suddenly stopped. Lethia rose from her place on the ground, then proceeded to help Paulo undress. She seemed different now, removed from her hysteria. The boy was going along with it, but his movements were far too calm as well. Syria was likely controlling them both.
What came next filled Quincy with wonder, and in a more diminutive sense, revulsion. Paulo was now naked and levitated in the air by Lethia. Syria used sorcery to command flames from the campfire to surround the boy. The wizard didn’t have to guess at what the woman was doing. She was burning symbols into his body. From her place, the wizard thought she saw Syria speaking. It wouldn’t surprise her. Rituals of this sort usually required a spoken rite of some sort. If this was correct, then Syria would draw out the process until the flames had worked down to the deepest tissue–almost to bone, and then she’d castrate the boy and have him gutted.
…This seemed as good a time as any to intervene.
Hakeem seemed keen on this, as he was already over the rocks.
But then Quincy’s eyes lightened and she grabbed him by the elbow.
Her husband stared up at her, surprised. She spoke quickly, “Hakeem, I just realized how this works! Enchantment deals in the mind. When a person dreams or goes unconscious, the mind can delve into a hyper-state that creates a pocket of perceived reality. Depending on the strength of the users mind, and their ability to control their dream state, an individual could–theoretically–make seconds into days. Break this down further, and time can be removed as an obstacle completely.”
Hakeem gestured down to the spectacle below. “Fascinating, Quincy–but don’t you think–”
She jerked his arm and continued on, doggedly. “Listen to me! Think of the magic form of primality. Time magic is the ultimate limitation that controls space and gravity. Remove time, and space is free. A person could then split themselves infinitely, like little ideas acting independently of one another but connected to the same intellect. Taika, Syria is capable of simultaneous thought. She may not be able to control time in the real world, but it wouldn’t matter if she could simulate this in her mind!” Quincy let loose her version of a smile, and the corners of her lips twitched up a fraction. “She managed to fool her own animus, which is the boundary that contains the intellect. Quite a feat, even for an enchantress, to make the mind forget the nature of the world on such a primal level whenever it conveniences her.”
Hakeem’s brows rose high. “…And if given this control, this power, one could use it to their advantage. Like–”
“Mastering different schools of magic,” Quincy said, her brow creased. “In which case then, if Syria managed to use the ability of simultaneous thought with another individual of matching power–”
“Then she could use two magic forms at the same time.” Hakeem looked down below him. “Lethia Artaud must have an incredible amount of raw power for Syria to vicariously cast her magic through her.”
“I’m a bit envious, I’ll admit,” Quincy nodded and let go of him. She held up her reflective orb. “Unfortunately, we’ll be on the wrong end of that power in just a moment.”
Hakeem glanced at her. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to use the Orb of Ilkmar. With just the two of us, we could possibly take down an enchantress–even one capable of mind-controlling so many at once. But an enchantress who’s a master in sorcery, gravitational magic, and gods knows what else? That’s why I had to stop you. I think we’ll be needing a little help.” She kissed the orb. “Maybe this thing will give the others below an idea of what to do…”
And perhaps–the woman wondered quietly as she activated the magic–
“I see, so you see. I hear, so you hear. I know, so you know. Illuminate this for the eyes of the blind. Reveal what is hidden, bring forth what is desired!” Quincy threw the orb into the air and it flashed–
–Maybe the Orb of Ilkmar could reveal to her why it was someone so powerful, allowed herself to be incarcerated for so long?
At a glance, it seemed a bit unfair. Three against one?
…But the enchantress was holding them back. No, more than that, she seemed to be winning.
Quincy was as quick as the light she drew power from, for her attacks were like flashes, and her stabs as powerful and poignant as lightning. Elmiryn meant it when she said she wasn’t surprised the blonde had come. Hakeem was her partner, and if there was gold in it, then she would likely go along with their plans. But more than that, Quincy was driven by some kind of code of honor. When they had fought barely a day earlier, the wizard had believed her to be a part of the evil power surrounding them and had been determined to stop her. Elmiryn wasn’t sure if Quincy was entirely convinced of her innocence, but given the greater threat before them, the matter seemed set aside for the moment.
Syria, after all, proved the greater surprise here.
For a woman who had been in prison with a body bruised and swollen and stiff, she moved like a leopard–fast, graceful, and indifferent to her body’s limitations…and the warrior was reminded of Lethia. The girl had conquered a wall of jagged rock after suffering a possibly near-fatal injury. Was this the true extent of enchantment’s powers? Expanding one’s mind and rising above the mortal coil to defeat challenges with ease? Mind over matter, as they said. She wanted to ask Graziano how it was possible that Syria knew gravitational magic and various forms of sorcery on top of her enchantment. Gravitational magic alone took years to learn, didn’t it? And decades still to master it? So why was Syria able to use it with such ease?
More help would be needed, and not from her.
Elmiryn tugged at her companion’s sleeve. “Hey, Nyx.”
The girl looked at her, blinking.
The warrior pointed up the slope. “You have to help them.”
“What? But what about you?”
“I’m not dead, gods damnit. Let Halward do his part and keep me safe. Your ass needs to get up there.”
The girl shook her head bowing down low. She let out a shuddering breath through her mouth and stroked Elmiryn’s cheek. “No. You need me here. I don’t want you getting hurt anymore than you are. I don’t…” the girl choked back a sob. “I don’t want to go through Gamath again! I can do something to help you this time!”
Elmiryn snatched at the girl’s upper left arm with her right hand. It hurt, and she knew her grip must’ve been painful judging by the look that crossed Nyx’s face. She jerked the girl forward and sat up as best she could. Her mouth crashed against Nyx’s, the girl’s breath was harsh against her cheek. She could feel the cry against her lips, and through her pain nettled an inexhaustible desire.
No longer able to keep the position up, the warrior fell back and turned her face away. “Right now the others need you. Go now…or you’ll regret staying with me more than anything.” This phrase pumped acid through Elmiryn’s veins, and her eyes clouded. Why…did she feel guilty now?
Nyx sat there for a minute, tears silently falling onto Elmiryn’s arm. Then she stood and wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
“Elle…” she said in a querulous voice. But when she spoke again, her voice steeled, and the woman heard hints of a growl in the belly of her words. “I won’t let you down!”
And the girl was gone.
Elmiryn blinked the moisture from her eyes and weak tears dripped to the snow. She took a breath and pushed herself into a sitting position, her vision tunneling away for moment and all her upper body protested.
…It hadn’t been her intention, but now that Nyx was not around to stop her, she could work on trying to stand again.
“But the right to first blood is mine!”
Idiot. Did the Fiamman want to die? …Or was she trying to give Quincy an opening?
The wizard saw Syria’s hand pull back and felt the power surging around it. With little thought, she stabbed forward. Syria shifted and her blade went slicing past its target, but the enchantress had been forced to change the course of her strike, taking away the energy she had built up. The dark-haired woman lashed at Elmiryn, and the warrior was blasted away into the dark of the night, down a slope where she couldn’t be seen. Was she dead?
No time to think of her.
Syria didn’t pause after her attack, and instead turned with a full whirl to send a sickle of gravitational force at Quincy. The woman dodged and pressed forward, stepping in close enough that her left foot slid between Syria’s legs. The wizard stabbed from low at her right hip, cutting up in a diagonal line towards Syria’s right shoulder. The enchantress leaned back, and the sword tip sailed over her shoulder and just missed grazing her tender neck.
She lifted her right knee high to her chest, then shot it back down again, close to the center of her body. Just as it came down along Quincy’s inner thigh, the enchantress hooked it to the right shoved at the wizard’s knee with hers. Simultaneously, she leaned her body forward and to the left where she slammed her fist into the woman’s exposed left side.
The body blow was backed with a gravity force that, coupled with Quincy’s compromised stance, sent the woman flying. Syria’s form and execution were excellent, but the power of the attack came mostly from the magic she used. Though she was clearly ignoring the limitations of her own swollen wrists, that didn’t mean physical strength appeared out of thin air.
So to Quincy’s fortune, she wasn’t sent very far, and rolled back upright, her sword at the ready. Her side throbbed, and she had to focus to get her breathing back on track, but the woman was fine.
Syria didn’t wait for her to counter. The enchantress narrowed her gaze and brought forth more flames, which seemed to funnel from the campfire to roar in a hot cloud about the woman. With a push of her hands, the woman speared the fire forward.
Quincy straightened and held out her sword.
As the flames neared, there was an inhuman scream as the fires that surged forth vanished and flickered, the cooled air rushing about Quincy in a startled gasp. Her sword was engorged on the light and glowed hot. She drew back Tonatiuh’s fang and let out a breath–
Within a millisecond she was a blast of light, pulled through space in a hot sear through the dark. She was raw energy, traveling at a high speed, and she rocketed toward Syria–but she met resistance. A gravitational field. How could this be? The world warped, and her form bent. Unlike before, when she had taken Tonatiuh into her heart, Quincy was still in a humanoid form. Perhaps because of this, she was denser, and of course, she wasn’t moving at the true speed of light. This would explain how the field was redirecting her, so that she saw Syria beneath her, like she were looking through curved glass. Within the next second, the wizard was headed for the snowy ground, unable to stop, she had just enough time to flip herself around, feet first–
The snow exploded and slushed about her boots as the energy left Quincy. The force of the landing sent her down onto a knee, and pain shot up from her soles. She looked up just in time to see Syria swing overhand toward her. She jumped backward, and the enchantress slammed her gravitational hammer into the ground. The force rattled the ground. Quincy pressed forward, blade drawn back at the hip. She couldn’t flash forward again, but her weapon still held power. With a slash, a long lance of hot light blasted forth towards Syria’s body, atleast four yards long, melting the snow it carved into. Syria slid away, the snow shifting about her feet to pull her yards back. She raised a hand and snow drifted up from the ground, collecting into hundreds of icicles at around her head. She then pushed her hand out, and the icicles shot forth, whizzing.
Quincy shifted to the left, putting her companions further behind her. Lifting her sword toward the sky so that the light shot up like a beacon, the woman closed her eyes and squeezed the hilt of her sword. She felt the light, felt its heat and power, and imagined it as glass at the hands of her animus–her soul. She broke it.
The light shaft shortened to stop just two feet above Quincy’s head. It flashed and hundreds of rays cut forward. She could see through the individual paths of light, see the icicles just as they were within three feet of her–The rays sliced into the icicles, cutting them up, melting them, leaving the wizard only to be sprayed with water and small ice chunks. She could hear more snow collected, more icicles. Syria was going to keep blasting her until the woman missed one. She wouldn’t let this turn into a fire fight–there, Syria would have the advantage. Quincy’s power was limited as her sword drew from light and the suns still hadn’t risen yet, but the enchantress could draw infinitely from their surroundings with her sorcery.
Quincy opened her eyes, swinging her blade to the side. At the back of her mind, she could feel Syria fishing–trying to worm her way in, trying to anticipate what she would do next. But the woman had been trained in protecting herself from such intrusions, and she steeled the barriers of her mindscape.
“You have no home in my mind, witch!” she called as she lurched forward into a charge. The rays of light swirled and pulsed around her, obliterating the hail of icicles as they came. But the rays were dying off each second. Quincy knew the battle had become too complicated, too dangerous for the others to try and join in, but what could she do? The enchantress had attacked her with high power. The wizard had to respond similarly or be killed. This was most likely what Syria wanted–to fight them one at a time. Without a foothold to control the minds of those around her and so many things seeking to break her attention, her best bet was to isolate them in battle.
Quincy cursed herself. How could she have played into the woman’s plans so easily?
Syria didn’t run from her as Quincy came close, and this caused the woman pause. She cut at her front, but she knew the blade would not reach, just slash near the mark. It was to test the older woman’s resolve. Syria didn’t move. Didn’t even act to defend herself. She seemed to wait for Quincy to come and deliver the final blow. But the wizard didn’t take the bait. She stared the enchantress down.
“Syria, what is this all for?” she asked quietly.
The enchantress gave her a pitying smile. “Freedom.”
Then Quincy took in a breath and noticed the damp, humid smell. She blinked and with squinted eyes saw the vapor that flew about her, highlighted by the last of the dying rays. She cursed, stepping back, but it was too late. Syria bowed her head, and within the next instant, the wizard was encased in ice that seemed to thicken exponentially. Her eyes watered, and her skin stung from the cold. She tried to twist, but her spine, hips, and shoulders ground painfully into the ice. Her eyes stared through inches of translucent white. The woman tried to suck in breath, but only managed to expand her chest a quarter of an inch before limitation stopped her.
“Tai’undu!” Quincy thought. She saw Syria move away towards the others, who rose to engage her. If she did nothing, she could suffocate in seconds–there was no new air flowing in and restriction kept her from even recycling her breath. She had to get out, and quickly, but her sword had used up the last of the power it had drawn from the fire.
Quincy, however, came up with a wild idea.
She drew in breaths, quick and short. She consciously conjured up memories of the smoldering remains of huts and charred flesh. Of gusty winds that buffeted her. Of a certain young enchantress with her head trapped beneath iron. Of manacles on her wrists while a shadow stood over her, seagulls squawking overhead. Of sea salt and blood on her tongue. Of tall, tall men with tall, tall tales of heroes and villains and gods. Of standing in a swaying field, a heavy sword in her tiny hands, watching as a cloaked figure grew farther and farther away… “You have more than that, lazy beast,” she thought, tightening her grip around Tonatiuh’s hilt. “Pathetic, worthless scrap metal.” Suddenly it wasn’t that hard to feel angry. She strained against the ice, felt her muscles press and twist painfully. It fueled her fury. “I’ll cast you into the sea, where you can rust away in Atargatis’ dark belly! Cursed weapon!!”
The weapon grew hot beneath her touch, scalding her. Fire seemed to erupt in her chest, and her skin flushed with heat. Sweat rolled down her tight face, and Quincy groaned.
“That’s it,” she panted against the ice. “I’m feeding you. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Take my anger! It’s yours!”
Tonatiuh flashed, blinding her. She felt herself blasted backward, through crumbled ice and water where she sailed through the air. She felt like she flew a long time. Then she crashed and tumbled into the snow. Dizziness and a relentless heat boiling inside her made movement an impossibility. Than through sheer effort, the woman raised herself with a grunt. She looked up the slope she had tumbled down, craning her head to see the battle resume without her. She took deep, slow breaths. Beneath her cloak, she was trembling, but she banished this weak show of constitution by repeating a mantra her old master had taught her, to reign in her emotions when they had slipped away from her.
She closed her eyes and muttered this to herself over and over, quickly. “Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…”
Tonatiuh was laughing in her head, even as she struggled to fight down the unwanted memories. Then Quincy heard a voice.
“Oh my! How nice of you to join me wizard. I was getting a bit lonely.”
“How do you figure Tulki managed it, Graz?”
“Capturing those Lycans?”
“Pure silver, likely. Some other alchemy trick, who knows.”
“I figured you did, hermano. You know so much about this crazy stuff.”
“Choi, that’s only because your ass of an older brother won’t bother keeping up with the new ways.”
“If Ard were around I bet you wouldn’t talk so fresh, eh?”
“Yah, yah–c’mere perrico, lemme show you what he’d do if he were around!”
“Ow, ow! Distagea, distagea hermano, merci!”
Paulo’s body was covered in rune-shaped burns, the skin blistered and in some cases peeling some of the superficial layers of skin away. Some of the runes were weeping blood and puss, staining the snow. The smell of burned flesh was nauseating. There was a weak pulse at his neck. Graziano held the boy’s face, his hazelnut eyes shocked wide and his entire body trembling.
“Choi?” he whispered. He avoided the hollow of his cheek, because there on each side, mirroring runes had been burned in. Symbols that looked like they belonged to an ancient language. He didn’t recognize them. There were too many to count. All he saw was pain and horror, and while he half-wished his brother would regain consciousness, he feared the suffering he’d find if he did. The man tore at his wavy hair, his body tensing as something indescribable built up in him. He thought of his older brother, Arduino, and what he would do. What he would say. His brother had been the surrogate father to them both, but this time Graziano had thought he’d known better, he’d thought…
“Pardona me,” He sobbed, rocking back and forth. He scraped at the skin around his neck and tore at his shirt, trying to find release from the pain and desperation that gripped him. “Pardona me, Choi! Yo no sabea!”
“Oye, Choi! Look at you! Big bounty hunter now! That was quite daring of you, swinging down on the rope the way you did.”
“Tulki was going to shoot you, Graziano. You smell funny, pér familia is everything!”
“Ha! I love you too, idi’ute…”
A light touch at his shoulder. Graziano jumped and turned to stare wild-eyed at Hakeem. The dark-skinned man was gazing intensely toward the battle. “Graziano, forgive me, but I think trouble is turning its eye on us.”
The Moretti blinked and looked in the direction the wizard was staring. Quincy was trapped in a rock of ice, and Syria walked toward them calmly, her expression blank. The man grabbed onto the hilt of his rapier, but paused and looked at his brother in anguish. “But my brother–”
“Go,” said the halfling man. He held a hand over Paulo and gave Graziano a nod. Argos brushed up next to him, panting. “I just have my dagger with me, and I’m not much good with close-range combat, but I’ll watch him and try to keep him safe as best I can.”
Graziano clenched his jaw and nodded once. Then he looked at Hakeem, and together they both rose. The Moretti drew his sword and held it before him with quaking hands. He tried to steel himself, but rage and anguish were devils that sought to overthrow him.
“Why have you done this!?” He screamed, advancing slowly. Hakeem kept pace on his left, his fists held up. “Paulo is just a boy!”
Syria stopped and blinked at him. Then she looked to the ground. “I will answer you, Moretti, because your pain is so vast, it warrants some response…though I doubt you’ll like my answer anymore than you’ll understand it.” The woman took a breath and raised her head. “Paulo is fertile. He is young and vivacious. He had everything she needed, and I must deliver him to her.”
“To who!?” he raged. He slashed his sword through the air. “For what!?”
“To the one who speaks to me always. I fought her for years, but I found I could do this no more. My own struggles were futile in the end. If it were not me, then it would be others still. Like my Lethia. The one who speaks to me seeks to break down boundaries.” Syria turned her face toward Holzoff’s. “My last rebellion was in allowing myself to be taken away. If structured bodies could stop me, as a virus, then perhaps the world had merit in its incarnation? But…my darling girl showed me how such things could be conquered through pure and basic principle. Unabashed loyalty. Love. Then I realized there were purer things then the insecure practices so many abide by. These crippled societies, these hungry kingdoms, these prejudicial communities…I have seen and touched the dreams and minds of so many. You would not believe the horrors that breed in sentient minds. Belcliff’s marshal saw me for years over guilt for what he did to the Albian dwarves. He murdered them all, you know. Kept it quiet. With my help, he kept it quiet. Yet he feared I’d reveal this, even as he begged me to help him with his pain. Do you see the broken madness in this? What’s wrong then, in opening the flood gates, and returning the world to its baser qualities?”
Syria’s chin crumpled and she took a breath. “I tried to keep Lethia safe. I didn’t want her to know about what was really happening. But her subconscious always remembered the rituals. The blood. Her nightmares were so powerful, they flooded the minds of all in Albias.” Suddenly, a crooked smile spread across her face, and she looked at Graziano and Hakeem again. Tears trickled from her eyes into her frozen smile. “But despite this all, I’m glad an end can finally be reached!”
“You’re insane,” Hakeem said, he pulled a fist back, and the space around it rippled.
Syria cackled and raised her arms. Wind swept up around them, whipping up snow. Graziano took a step back as he saw the snow collect together, then hardened into thousands of icicles. They slashed at his skin, and the Moretti shouted as he tried to shield his face and neck.
He looked at the wizard, “Hakeem, do something gods damn it!”
The man in question raised his fist in the air. There was a muted rush and Graziano felt an invisible force brush past all of his body. The wind and icicles stopped. He lowered his arms and saw that Hakeem had created a sort of barrier around them. Outside, the wind still whirled sharp ice. Syria’s lip curled and she made a beckoning motion with her hands.
Both Hakeem and Graziano fell as they snow they stood on shifted, like a carpet had been pulled beneath them. The snow shifted again, and the next thing they knew, they were sliding towards Syria at high speed. Hakeem had other plans, however.
Striking both arms against the ground, the wizard knocked both himself and Graziano upright with a strong gravitational blast. The Moretti stumbled, unprepared for this sudden change in position, but the wizard charged forward, and in the next instant, he was throwing punches, his attacks backed with gravitational force. The wind around them died as the enchantress couldn’t keep the magic going. But Syria, for her ragged appearance, dodged the man’s advances. There was a critical misstep, and Hakeem was sent spinning to the ground from a blow to the shoulder.
Graziano didn’t pause in taking Hakeem’s place. He jabbed at her stomach, but the woman shifted away. The man followed up quickly with a slash to the face, but this too Syria dodged. She mirrored his footwork, tracing a perilous dance through the snow. With each stroke that missed, Graziano’s rage grew. It pulsed within him, tearing away at his control. His attacks grew wilder, leaving him open. Syria struck him in the chest, knocking the wind out of him, and he was launched backward to the ground.
Gasping, he stared up at the sky.
“Capturing Lethia Artaud…This is the last bounty before we go back home to Erminia, right?”
“…I don’t want to go back, hermano.”
“It’s alot more fun, being out here with you and Ard.”
The man growled and scrambled to his feet. Hakeem was back to fighting Syria one-on-one, but this time, Graziano didn’t wait. He pressed forward, his blade swinging at Syria’s head. The tip of his sword nearly hit the wizard’s neck, and the man strafed away from him, his eyes cutting. Graziano ignored him. The only thing that mattered was killing Syria.
Their fight gained a rhythm. Syria was forced to travel backwards, her black hair a swaying curtain as she dodged both fist and blade. She tried to shift the snow beneath their feet, but both men recovered quickly each time. Graziano became dimly aware of Quincy’s joining the battle. The blond didn’t say a word. For a time, she followed the battle fine, but the attacks soon clashed and the rhythm was lost. Syria took advantage of this.
With a stomp of her foot, the ground rolled like a wave, going outward from the enchantress in a growing circle. The three of them were forced backward.
Quincy shouted at Hakeem, “Give us some paths!”
The man nodded, and with a swing of his gauntlet, he sent a roll of force at Syria. The woman jumped away, but the man didn’t appear too concerned. The air seemed warped there. He punched both arms out from his sides, yelling from his gut. Another wave of force blasted from his fists. As he did this, Quincy attacked Syria, keeping her busy.
Despite her talk of teamwork, the woman seemed to be doing alot of the fighting herself. The Moretti recognized this to be her impatient professionalism–the old “If you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself,” at work.
He spat at the ground, his grip tightening around his sword.
…And what about him? What about his family’s right to battle?
Hakeem called to Graziano, “Moretti! When the time is right, jump into my pathways and try to keep still! We can flank her in ways she can’t follow! If you can, back her into the pathways. They’re a condensation of space, and it could disorient anyone unprepared for it.”
The man gave an imperceptible nod. Hakeem leapt through one of his pathways, flashing to the end of it. There, he let out a kai and sent another wave of force slicing through the snow. Another pathway.
From the corner of his eye, Graziano saw someone jogging toward them in the snow. He glanced and saw it to be Nyx, her expression taut with apprehension. She stopped near him, watching as Quincy fought against the enchantress.
The man grabbed her by the shoulder and pointed with his rapier. “Quincy’s just keeping her occupied. We have to help her or Syria will just overwhelm her in the end!”
The girl swallowed and nodded. As they ran forward, Graziano pointed at the pathway before them, where view of the battle was warped like a fish lens, “Watch out for these. I know they’re hard to see right away, but if you go through them it can be dangerous. Here’s an opening, come on!”
They passed through, the air between the separate pathways charged with static energy that made his hair stand on end. As they neared the fight, Syria had drawn back her arm and was about to lash at Quincy’s head. The wizard had just missed with a downward stroke and her body tensed to dodge the blow. She wouldn’t make it. Graziano yelled and lunged at Syria, forcing the woman’s attention on him. The enchantress fell back, and instead of lashing out at Quincy, sent her attack at the Moretti instead. A swing of her arm and the man felt a sickle of force strike him from his left shoulder down to his right hip. The blow did not knock him down, but he was forced to stumble back several steps.
Nyx, a little wiser it seemed, flanked the enchantress, taking the time to go around to the woman’s side and strike with a kick to the back of the knee. Syria went down, and the therian moved to knee the woman in the face, but as she lifted her leg, the enchantress jerked her head back. The snow beneath Nyx shifted, and the girl gave a surprised yelp as she fell backward. Quincy slashed down to cut at Syria’s head. Their opponent rolled backward and slammed her fists into the ground. The force of the blow, much like Hakeem’s move, launched her to her feet in an instant.
“Therian help me!” Quincy shouted as she pressed forward. Nyx wheezed but was back on her feet and following suit. Graziano watched as they fought the enchantress back more and more. The Ailuran had what the Moretti didn’t–control. Her speed and agility made each attack seem part of a greater whole, an interwoven series that allowed little pause on the part of the defender. Graziano had always known Quincy to be the adaptable fighter. She fed off of the girl’s rhythm, using it to her advantage to offer the power that Nyx’s technical skill lacked.
Did the enchantress know what they were doing? Was the relentless onslaught so much that she couldn’t change it, even if she did? Whatever the reason, the outcome was the same.
With a unified kick to the chest, Quincy and Nyx sent Syria flying backward into Hakeem’s pathway. …But she went in the wrong way.
From where he stood, it was like the woman’s body was warped to be no wider than three inches, and no shorter than seven feet. There was a choked gasp from Syria, and then she fell back, out of the pathway. Hakeem, jogging up to join Quincy and Nyx, waved his arms, and the pathway vanished, leaving Graziano’s view of Syria clear.
The woman fell to her knees, gasping for breath. Her eyes were wide and her arms limp at her sides. Was it over, was it done?
Graziano sheathed his sword…then drew his pistol. The ivory stock fit his palm so nicely. He walked forward with slow steps, his face blank.
He could hear Quincy speaking to the others. “…must close the ritual somehow. The magic is still active, but it’s deteriorating, leaving the required objectives less definite. That’s even more dangerous. The last thing Syria needed for this to be complete was–” the wizard cut off as the Moretti appeared next to her.
“Un otrie sin casé, no posque funcío,” Graziano whispered, silent tears trailing down his cheeks. “A tool has no purpose without a hand to use it…” he lifted his pistol.
In a rare show of expression, Quincy’s eyes widened, and she made as if to grab the man’s hand. “No, Graziano don’t!”
The man managed to squeeze off three shots in rapid succession before the wizard grabbed his wrist. He didn’t just want the woman dead. He wanted her to suffer…
One shot entered Syria’s right shoulder.
The other two stopped in mid-air just before they could. These would’ve struck her in the forehead and throat. The woman’s eyes flickered back to life, and they moved to meet Graziano’s horrified gaze. She offered him a thin smile, her eyes clouded with tears.
Dimly, he thought about his father.
“Papa, don’t worry, Arduino and I can take care of Paulo just fine.”
Then the hovering bullets shot forth at him. One pierced his heart, the other the middle of his forehead.
Graziano fell, and when he hit the ground, he didn’t think about anything anymore…
The warrior made a last push up the slope, her breath ragged. She teetered backward for a scary moment before she managed to right herself. Doubled over, she tried to catch her breath. Then she heard three gunshots, and her head snapped up.
Ahead of her, far away, Graziano fell to the ground, limp. To the side, Farrel had stood to his feet, one hand clenched like a punch he was considering throwing. Quincy stared down at Graziano’s body like she couldn’t compute it. Nyx fell to her knees, also in a sort of disbelief. Hakeem pulled the both of them back harshly, leaving Elmiryn with a clear view of Syria. Blossoming in her right shoulder was a blood stain, from a gunshot wound it looked like, but this didn’t seem to phase her. Her head was tilted back, and the enchantress whispered something into the air.
Elmiryn stumbled forward as quickly as she could. “Nyx!” she shouted.
The girl turned and saw her. She ran to the woman, arms held out. Nyx was in hysterics as she took the woman a little too roughly by the shoulders. “Elmiryn, she killed him! She killed Graziano!”
The warrior winced at the harsh contact, but turned her eyes to Quincy. The wizard was staring at Paulo. Elmiryn followed her gaze, and her brows crashed together. “Oh fuck…”
Farrel stood staring down at the boy’s body with horror, his face under lit by the white glow that shone from the burned in runes on the boy’s body. Argos stood near Lethia, as though shielding her with his body, his hackles raised and teeth bared.
The air around them grew thick. Elmiryn grabbed Nyx’s hand and squeezed it. “Stay close to me, something’s happening.”
“Should we run?” Nyx asked quickly, her voice taut with fear.
Overhead, a white mist had appeared, and it shifted in the sky, like milk being stirred. Drops of water and light pieces of snow began floating upward, toward the sky. With each passing second, the mist grew wider until it were a dense liquid disc that occupied all the sky overhead. A powerful hum began to reverberate all around them. Elmiryn started to feel the hair on her skin rise, and her blood felt thick in her body. She clenched her jaw and began to pull Nyx back toward camp. There, the scultones stood watching, their white eyes glowing in the dark as they flared their nostrils and took in the scene.
“Oh gods…” Nyx whimpered, squeezing Elmiryn’s hand.
Quincy and Hakeem jogged toward them. Elmiryn slowed to a stop and gazed at them hard. The man spoke, out of breath. “We can’t get near Syria–there’s something preventing us from getting near.”
“Graziano, the fool…” Quincy muttered, staring blankly upward. “The ritual needed a sacrifice to be completed. Because we had interrupted Syria’s process, the magic had started to deteriorate, leaving that requirement open to be interpreted by the power in question. Graziano’s life and blood were enough to substitute for Paulo’s…but the reaction will be different than whatever Syria expected. Not even she can control it now–however she doesn’t seem to mind.”
“But what the fuck is happening?” Elmiryn snapped.
Quincy sighed. “Nothing good.”
The warrior started to run, dragging Nyx with her. “Then why are we just sitting around talking about it!?”
She started to feel lighter. Her feet sunk less and less into the snow. When her next step barely skimmed the ground, Elmiryn shouted and tumbled forward on purpose, back to the ground. Her hand still held Nyx’s, and when she turned, she saw the girl was in the air, floating, her legs kicking wildly.
“Elmiryn!” The girl screamed in a panic.
A little behind them, Quincy and Hakeem were holding hands as well (oh, they were a couple?) and were floating up, but they’re expressions were less surprised. They looked at her with somber expressions.
“Elmiryn. We aren’t running, because we already know it’s too late,” Hakeem said, his brows together.
Elmiryn started to feel her body lift as well. She looked to Farrel. The man was clutching both Lethia and Paulo around their upper arms. Argos was writhing and snarling near Lethia’s feet. Farrel looked wildly at her, and she thought she heard him shout over the growing hum, “What’s goin’ on!?”
The warrior craned her neck to see Syria already floating near the mysterious liquid overhead. Her expression seemed peaceful as her body was swallowed whole. When she was out of sight, the liquid rippled, and the redhead’s eyes widened as she saw a myriad of colors flash in the white. She thought she could make out objects between the ripples–mountains, rivers, people–
Syria had opened up a gateway.
Elmiryn’s tension sloughed away. As she drifted up, ever closer to the liquid, she pulled Nyx to her and held the girl around the torso.
“Nyx…” she breathed, her eyes shining with wonder. “I think I know where this goes.”
The girl seemed beyond speech. She was trembling and hugging the woman tightly, so that it hurt, but the warrior was beyond caring.
She laughed and threw her head back, the momentum twisting them both around so that they slipped into the liquid feet first. Upon touching it, she felt as though her nerves were on pins and needles. Nyx was staring at her, hyperventilating. She opened her mouth, trying to say something but nothing came out. Hakeem and Quincy were already halfway in. The warrior couldn’t even see Farrel and the others anymore.
“I’m going to tear this evil out by the roots,” Elmiryn said between laughs shortly before her head was swallowed by the oblivion.
And the torrent of unknowing that howled around them, pushed and pulled, wanting and puzzling and tasting to make sense of their particle existences.
…Because in the Other Place, definition had to be destroyed before it could be discovered again…