Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Artifacts of Childhood

For the FREE e-book versions of N is for Nyxand The Reflection (re-titled Reflections), please download them at Smashwords.com!

Dramatis personæ:

Nyx – A precocious Ailuran often concerned with being inherently good and all the appearances that go with it.  Usually sullen or in some way melancholy as she often feels misunderstood or unappreciated, even by her family.

Elmiryn – A child born of noble blood.  Though she was made to live by such standards, the girl took after her mother in that she never cared nor believed in the conventions of noble life.  As a result, she can be a little too honest sometimes, is very tomboyish, and has an odd sense of humor.

Quincy – A shy girl, uncoordinated, and easily made to cry.  Never leaves her home unless forced.  She has a fascination with stories and loves hearing tales of heroes and heroines unburdened by the world. She is Hakeem’s quiet shadow.

Hakeem – Quincy’s older friend.  Is rough and tumble and has a quick temper.  He thinks Quincy is weird but finds her strangely attractive.  He dreams of what adult life is like to a great extent, and tries very hard to emulate his father, thus making him more serious than is typical for his age.

ARTIFACTS OF CHILDHOOD

Act I

“The Reflection”

The Manard House knew something of an awakening when summer came around, because the first week of the month brought about a heavy surge of activity with the weeklong Ortian holiday.  The servants bustled putting up fresh curtains, lining the archways with golden wreaths, hanging up sun discs with beveled faces, and sprinkling potpourri along the windowsills. Three days into the special week, Warner was in his study making political arrangements for the new year, Brianna was trying to find some peace in her bedroom, painting, and Elmiryn was being fitted for a new birthday dress in her bedroom.  She found it hard not to fidget.

“Lady Elmiryn, I mean it, I don’t want to poke you.  Please be still.”  Her attendant, Julianna, was a pretty twenty-something with rich caramel colored hair that had streaks of bright gold here and there.  Her freckled nose wrinkled as she pinned up a bunch of baby blue silk.

The girl gave a melancholy sigh.  “Why must we do this now? Can’t we do this next week?”

“You know very well that your seventh birthday will have passed by then!  Don’t you want to look pretty for your party?”

“Don’t I always look pretty?” The girl asked guilelessly.  Her mother told her this so much that she had started to take it as a fact–and as most facts went, it lost its charm on Elmiryn.

She watched as a dust mote floated towards her face.  Her eyes crossed as it came too close for her to follow.  She heard Julianna laugh at her, and the girl gave a happy smile.  She loved making adults laugh.

“Yes, lady Elmiryn. You are very pretty. Now unless you’d like to be a very pretty pincushion you’ll mind my warning and cease your fidgeting!”

The next day, when Elmiryn was making her dolls swan dive off her dresser into a deadly vat of broccoli soup (smuggled in from the kitchens), her mother, Brianna, came into her room, Julianna and two slaves, a Santian and a Fanaean, behind her.

“Elle, we need to decide on a hairstyle for your birthday party…and what is that? Soup? What have we said about bringing food into your room!” The girl’s mother was dressed in a slate gray dress with jeweled shoulders, the cut opening at the front in an hourglass shape to reveal creamy lace. Wrapped about her waist was a glossy forest green ribbon that tied into a rose-shaped buttress in the back. An abalone clip pulled her warm brown hair back, and her ears held matching earrings. The woman’s face broke into her wide smile, and she sat on her daughter’s bed. “Oh, nevermind that. Come here, sweetest!”

Elmiryn would have protested, but Brianna knew that the youth was less likely to resist her request than Julianna’s. The girl pouted, but without an objection, she went to sit next to her mother, whilst Julianna stood off to the side. The slaves, each carrying a silver tray bearing hairdressing accessories, set their burdens onto the dresser. Then they turned in unison, bowed, and quietly left the room. The child attendant sat at the floor of her house mistress, and carefully she reached over and took up the white-bristled silver brush, which had a mirror fixed into the back of its head. The attendant held the mirror-side to the girl and her mother, and Brianna pondered the reflected image.

“What do you think, dear? What style do you wish to see on your birthday?”

“Can’t we just comb my hair?” Elmiryn mumbled, her lip pouting further.

“You know that isn’t an option. Come! Would you like to see braids? A bun? We can put flowers in your hair–now wouldn’t that be just darling?”

“Okay. Whatever you want me to look like, mother.”

Brianna frowned in the reflection. “Oh, Elmiryn! You make this such a chore! Not many little girls your age are given a chance to decide their appearance, you know.”

“She’s right, lady Elmiryn,” Julianna said earnestly. The girl’s eyes fixed on her attendant’s pretty face. “Take another look at the mirror. Pretend it’s magic, and whatever you imagine will appear. Now think of all the things you like–from art, from the stories we tell you, from what you see in the city–and think what would you like to see?”

Elmiryn’s frown deepened, but her lower lip pulled back to a contemplative curve. Her little hands went to the sides of the mirror, and her cerulean eyes lit up with thought. The girl took a deep breath. “I see…”

When the girl trailed off, her mother patted her knee. “Yes, Elle? What do you see?”

“I see branches sprouting out of my head!” Elmiryn giggled out. “And they’ll bloom into pretty red flowers!”

The attendant tried and failed to contain her laugh.

Brianna gave a suffering smile. “That’s…nice, dear. But I’m afraid we’ll have a little trouble growing that within less than a day, let alone getting your father’s approval for such a thing!”

Elmiryn’s pout returned full force. With a heavy sigh, she said, “Fine then. I see a ponytail.” She didn’t even look at the mirror this time.

Julianna gave an enthusiastic nod. “A ponytail is good, milady! Very elegant! Very pretty!”

“If you want flowers, we can make a crown for you, sweetest. But not red, I think. White is more appropriate.”

Elmiryn just let out another sigh.

Then the day of her birthday came. A small ball was held at the Manard estate, and the newly-turned seven-year-old was the center of all the attention. She sat aside her mother whilst Warner sat on Brianna’s left. Their head table was decorated with silver and gold linings and generous amounts of confection. Across the room was a long table weighed down with presents. Elmiryn stared at them longingly.

“Sweetest, your gifts won’t up and walk away,” Her mother murmured to her. “Why don’t you go play with your cousins?”

“Because they’re stinky,” Elmiryn said primly.

Brianna blinked down at her daughter. “Now why do you say that?”

“They play boring games and think they can bully me. Can’t I just open my presents?”

Her mother frowned reprovingly. “Now Elle, you know your cousins love you very much, and they came all this way to celebrate your birthday! Just play with them a while, sweetest, and I promise that the time will pass quickly.”

“But mother—”

“Elmiryn,” Warner said, his eyes managing to cut across at her even as he did not move his head. “Do. As. Your. Mother. Says.”

Elmiryn shot up very straight at her father’s look. The last time he’d looked at her that way, she wasn’t allowed to play outside for a week. “Yes, father!”

With that, the little girl slid from her seat, her puffy baby blue dress hissing with each step she took. Her eyes gave one last longing look toward the presents before they flickered to her four cousins gathered near it. There was Roark and Lydia, asymmetrical twins with pumpkin colored hair and wide slate-gray eyes flecked with gold. Then there was Berian, the dirty blonde with pickle-green eyes with red sauce on his white night shirt. And finally…

“Hi Adara…” the redhead mumbled as she approached her eldest cousin. Adara was nine-years-old and had long wavy brown hair.

“Hullo baby cousin,” Adara said, giving her best adult smile.

Elmiryn resisted the urge to scowl. “What are you playing?” she asked in as neutral a voice as she could manage.

“Family. Roark and Lydia are the babies. Berian is the father. You can be the mother if you’d like.”

At this, the seven-year-old blinked. “What are you going to be?”

“I’m like a director. Have you ever seen a play? I tell everyone what they’re supposed to do.”

“But don’t the father and mother say that?” Berian interjected sullenly. He was just a few weeks younger than Elmiryn, and the girl actually liked him quite a bit. They both liked racing and wrestling, and once, the boy had eaten an earthworm, which the girl still giggled about to this day.

Adara tilted her head back and gazed at him coolly. “How old are you, Berian?”

The boy drew himself up. “Six-and-three-quarters!”

“Well I’m nine-and-a-half, so I know more about Family than you do! That makes me director.

Berian’s shoulders slumped, defeated.

It went without saying that Elmiryn hated Adara. The older girl was bossy, snobby, and vindictive. It didn’t help that once her cousin had snitched on her when the redhead tried to sneak to a party being held at the slave quarters. That was the time Warner had barred her from the outdoors, all thanks to Adara.

Roark and Lydia, who wore matching white and black outfits with silver ribbons, exchanged looks. Elmiryn did not dislike the twins, but they were very much followers and had little to contribute to any game save to just nod their heads. Nothing was duller than two human dolls for playmates.

But Elmiryn wasn’t going to give over the night.

“Well it’s my birthday tonight, and I say, I’m the director,” she declared with chin thrusted out.

This earned her a sharp glare, but the others seemed to perk at the idea. Berian stepped forward quickly, grasping Elmiryn’s shoulder. “Yeah! It’s Elmiryn’s birthday! We have to do what she says!”

Adara huffed. “Well what does she want to do then?”

Elmiryn smiled, showing all teeth. “We can’t play Family without good toys…”

____________________________

Within a few minutes, the children had managed to escape the watchful eyes of their attendants under Elmiryn’s leadership. Giggling at the audacity of their slipping away from supervision, the group followed the birthday girl from room to room, collecting items, before they finally ended in Elmiryn’s bedroom. There, they laid out their prizes on the girl’s bed sheet: a wooden toy horse, a small porcelain doll, a monocle, a pretty pink ribbon, and the silver mirror brush.

Elmiryn handed these out to everyone, but kept the brush for herself. “Okay, now we all have what we need!” She gestured near her toy box. “This is the children’s room,” she pointed toward her large bookcase, “That is father’s study,” she pointed at her small vanity dresser, “And this is mother’s room.” She waved the brush through the air. “Dinner will be ready soon! Everyone has to get ready. I’ll come around so that you can tell me what you want to look like.”

The children went off to their respective spaces, but in a few minutes, they were intermingling and slipping into their make-believe roles with excitement and giggles. Even Adara seemed to forget her earlier power struggle in favor of playing the haughty mother. Berian grumphed and harrumphed a lot, smoking a pretend pipe and squinting at everything through his monocle—a very accurate depiction of his—for his actual father had died years ago. The twins cooed and rolled around, playing with Elmiryn’s toys.

The redhead took to her role of “director” with relish.

“Roark, you have to pretend you’re a doggie. Of course children do that! I did when I was a child! And Berian, put your finger under your nose. There! Now you’ve got a mustache! Adara, look Lydia is crying. Stop being a bad mother and go make her feel better!”

When enough time seemed to have passed, Elmiryn announced it was dinnertime. She came around with her silver brush mirror and held it up to everyone. “Now what do you see yourself wearing tonight?”

Berian announced he was going to wear a cloak of snails. Roark and Lydia decided they too wished to wear a cloak of snails. Berian complained that the twins were copying him, so they changed to wearing diapers and golden crowns with big fat jewels. Adara whined that they were ruining the game. Elmiryn snapped that she wasn’t even trying to be a mother, just a snob. This made the older girl declare that they were all stupid children in real life, and she didn’t want to play with them anymore.

And just like that, the fun was over.

As her cousins left to return to the festivities, Elmiryn stayed behind to hide her stolen “toys” under her bed. A clear voice reached her from the doorway, and the girl froze, her face turning red. Turning, she saw Brianna and Julianna standing there—her mother with her hands on her hips, and her attendant with one hand over her mouth. Standing behind them with downturned heads were her cousins.

Snitches! Elmiryn thought with clenched teeth.

“Sweetest, come here please,” her mother said ominously.

The girl sighed and obeyed. Gripped in her hand was the silver brush.

Brianna raised an eyebrow at her as she reached down and took away the brush. “Elle, what, may I ask, were you doing with all those things?”

“Playing Family?” she mumbled.

“Are these things yours to play Family with?”

“No…”

Brianna just shook her head with a slight smirk. “Sweetest…” With two fingers, she gave the girl a smack on the forehead that stung, and then pointed down the hall wearily. “Just get back to the party before your father sees.”

Elmiryn didn’t need telling twice. She ran, her cousins in tow, back to the guest hall where the partygoers were just settling in for their first serving of dinner. The redhead glared at Adara. “You snitched, didn’t you?”

“Did not!” The older girl snapped back. She pointed at the girl’s face. “It was your mother’s mirror brush that got us caught! She was looking for it to freshen up before dinner was served!”

Elmiryn pouted, but said nothing further. The rest of the evening went well enough, and Warner never heard of her daughter’s antics. That night, the girl received as presents: a new doll house, a rocking horse, many new dresses and accessories, and a young horse, which she excitedly named “Scabby” due to how the filly’s ruddy brown coat reminded her of the scab she had on her left knee (but this was vetoed by her mother and father both, who quickly renamed the animal, “Rose.”)

That night, when Brianna was tucking Elmiryn to bed, she stroked the girl’s hair and said with a smile. “Sweetest, mother has one more present for you. Are you ready?”

Her daughter gave an eager nod, all appearances of sleepiness fleeing her, and her mother laughed. From beneath the bed, she pulled out a slim white box, and held it out to the girl. Elmiryn took it and opened it quickly. She gave a small gasp.

Inside was her mother’s mirror brush.

“I know you liked it, so I wanted you to have it, Elle.”

Elmiryn gave a huge grin, hugging her mother. “Mama, thank you!”

Brianna laughed, hugging her daughter back. “Mother, not Mama…but you are welcome, Elmiryn. I love you very much.” She pulled back, holding the mirror side up to her daughter’s face. “Well? It’s a new year for you! You had fun playing Family with your cousins, didn’t you? And what role did you play? I think I see a very lovely wife in the future!”

The girl just blinked at her mother. “That’s not what I see.”

Her mother gave her a puzzled look. “Oh? Then what do you see?”

Elmiryn smiled at her mother as if she were being silly. “I see me, mother. Just Elmiryn.”

Brianna laughed again, a full and beautiful sound. She thought the girl was just being overly literal to make herself seem more mature. She kissed her daughter goodnight and left her to sleep. Elmiryn settled into her covers with the mirror brush clutched to her chest, more secure than she had ever felt before, because in her heart, she knew she had answered the very question her mother had meant.

What do you see?

I see me, the girl thought with a sleepy smile. Just me.

____________________________

Act II

“The Watch and the Sword”

He scratched at the dried mud on his knee and felt the day’s heat reach its peak.  He was seated on a wicker basket with ashy legs stemming out straight as though daring anyone to walk over them.  His feet were like old man’s feet because he went around barefoot, despite his mother’s nagging to put on shoes.  Hakeem didn’t care.  He liked feeling the soil between his toes.  He wanted tough feet like his father’s. Ba-Kafeel was so powerful that the boy was certain none would dare cross him.

Habari-kuz, Hakeem.”

The boy looked up, his dark eyes meeting clear azure. “Habari, Quincy.”

The little brunette was dressed in a simple cream dress, her fine hair teasing her face as the wind played with it. Gripped in her petite hands was a rusty sword—a gift from her father, which she rarely parted with and which everyone tolerated because she could hardly lift it let alone swing it.  It was also notoriously dull, failing to make an impression even on the softest of wood. She made circles into the dirt with her toes. Quincy used to wear shoes until the village children teased her for her tender feet, and then she did away with them. It was not a little frustrating, waiting for her tender feet to catch up when they walked through the jungle sometimes. Even after a year, she was still tender-footed.

“Play?” the girl mumbled shyly, her eyes on the ground.

Hakeem looked past her to see Tobias poking his head out of their hut down the trail. At the boy’s notice, the man quickly pulled out of sight. He gave a crooked smile. “Play,” he returned with a nod.

In the months since Quincy had first arrived in Kimbia, she had yet to become fluid in Fanaean. She knew enough to communicate basic needs to the villagers, but she could hardly keep a conversation. Luckily for her, Hakeem was interested in learning Common, and so they shared a hybrid of the two languages.

The boy held up a finger and slipped into his family’s hut. Inside, Ma’Nguele was preparing dinner for the day, her face sweating over a large pot of iguana stew. Seated on the ground near the fire was his father, who frowned over scrolls. In his native tongue, he said to them, “Mamu, Babu, I am going into the jungle with Quincy.”

Ba-Kafeel looked up from his work. “You are going into the jungle?”

“Yes, Ba.”

“Wait.” His father stood, his cloth skirt slipping over his powerful thighs. He strode past Ma’Nguele to a small satchel behind her, from which he pulled out a small item. “You remember how I taught you to keep time, yes my son?” He held out his hand, and from it slipped a silver watch on a chain. “I want you both back here by the fifth hour. The suns are deceitful this time of year, and the night has become dangerous with the new jackal threat.”

Hakeem took the watch. “Yes, Babu. We will be back by the fifth hour, then.”

Ba-Kafeel smiled at his son and gave a rub of his curly head. “Have fun, and be safe.”

As the boy turned to leave, he heard his mother call after him, “And if you see any, bring back a bunch of plaintains! We are low.”

“Yes, Mamu,” he said over his shoulder.

Putting the watch chain around his neck, he went to Quincy and jerked his head toward the jungles to the north. “Let’s go,” he said in Common.

Together, the two children traveled through the village, where they passed other children playing. Hakeem waved to some of them, but Quincy just kept her eyes on the ground, her shoulders even hunching at the sight of some of the others. The boy didn’t blame her, but he didn’t think she helped her case by dragging around her rusty sword. The adults laughed about it, stating, “You always know where little Quincy goes for the line her useless sword makes in the dirt!” As much as Hakeem liked the girl, it frustrated him that such silliness followed him around.

As they left the village proper–the musical weave of Fanaean conversation, and the comforting aromas of stewing meats dissipating from around them–the two children breached the cool jungles. They took to a well-known trail, leading up a hill and past a grove of spiny gora-gora bushes, to a small waterfall.

Hakeem checked his watch. It was only one. Taking it off and placing it on the rocks near the treeline, he immediately ran up the steep hill to the top of the waterfall, his face grinning in anticipation of the jump he was about to make. Quincy watched him go with pressed eyebrows, her hands tightening around her sword’s hilt. Once at the top of the waterfall, the gentle stream flowing about his shins, Hakeem gave a wave. “Watch!” he called out.

With a deep breath, the boy took three steps back, and then with a whoop he did a flip off the cliff edge. He landed into the water with a big splash.

After returning to the surface, Hakeem looked to see that Quincy still had not joined him. He frowned. Normally the girl was backstroking in the water by now. “What wrong?” he asked, spitting water from his mouth.

The girl bit her lip and looked up at the top of the waterfall.

Hakeem’s eyebrows rose and he swam to the shore of the little lake. “Go up?” he asked dubiously. Quincy wasn’t afraid of heights, but she was notorious for getting hurt. The last time she had attempted to climb the steep hill, she had slipped and sprained her ankle.

Quincy didn’t respond. She only went to the hill going up to the top of the waterfall. Then with a grunt, she lifted her sword and stabbed it into the soil. Pulling herself up, she managed to pull the sword out, and though she wobbled dangerously, she did it again. Hakeem watched, fascinated, as she slowly made her way up to the top of the waterfall.

Once there, she looked back at him, panting. Then she grinned.

The boy could feel a warm funny feeling blossom in his chest, and with more excitement than was probably warranted, he cheered and clapped his hands.

Quincy jumped off the cliff with a high laugh, brighter and fuller than any he had heard in a long time.

They stayed and played for hours. The tree cover made it hard to see the passing of the suns. Hakeem didn’t think to look at his watch again until it became hard to see his own feet in the darkness.

Tai’undu!” the boy cursed. Dripping wet and shivering from the evening air, he snatched the watch from its place on the dry rocks. “Late!”

“Late?” Quincy returned, frowning. As there were no large predators in the jungles near Kimbia, they were used to being able to play even into the dark. But the girl didn’t know about the jackals that had come to the area.

Hakeem grabbed her hand, his father’s watch clenched in his other fist. “Run!” he said.

Together the two children ran through the jungle, their feet skipping over the rough but familiar terrain. Hakeem could see the lights of their home ahead. He picked up his speed, forgetting that Quincy was clumsy and still very tender-footed.

She cried out, tripping on something unseen in the dark. Hakeem lost his grip on her as she fell, and he skidded to a halt. “Quincy!”

That’s when they heard the beast growl.

Both children froze, their eyes wide as they turned toward the source of the sound, which came from amidst a collection of ferns at the base of a mango tree. Haunting eyes glowed from within the reaches of the leaves.

Hakeem tried to move slowly toward Quincy. “Quiet!” he whispered. “Slow!”

The girl said nothing, her eyes fixed on the animal that watched them. Her hands gripped tightly around her sword, and even in the dark, Hakeem could see her tremble.

He touched her arm and tried pulling her up. “Go! Quiet!”

Just as the girl began to get up to her feet, the animal burst forth, knocking both of them to the ground. Hakeem was the one who ended up on his back, and so the beast went to him first, snarling. Quincy screamed, and the boy gave a hoarse yell as he jerked his face away from the jackal’s snapping jaws. He managed to dodge one strike, but in the fraction of a second it took for the jackal to attack, the boy knew he would not be able to fend the animal off again, let alone get free of it.

It was around this time that Quincy hit it in the back of the head with her sword.

The jackal let out a yip, its body going weak just long enough for Hakeem to push it off of him. He scrambled to join Quincy, who was looking at the sword to the jackal and back as if she couldn’t believe what had just happened. The boy was equally impressed, and he stared at the girl with amazement and a strange sort of pride.

Then the jackal’s growls returned, and their attention snapped back to the situation at hand. Hakeem pulled at his friend. “Run! Run!” he shouted, but inwardly he knew the jackal was faster. They were dead. He should’ve listened to his Babu. He should’ve kept his eye on the time…

There was a loud rumble as the earth trembled beneath their feet. Both children stopped, struggling to keep their balance. Within a few seconds it all stopped, and both children looked to see that the jackal was gone, the soil churned and raised where it had once stood.

Tobias stepped out from the cover of trees, his face a displeased white mask in the darkness. “Children, come.”

Ducking their heads, they did as they were told.

Back at the village, both Hakeem and Quincy received lectures from their respective caregivers. The girl was sent to bed without supper and the promise of extra chores in the coming days. The boy was put over his father’s knee and switched.

The next day, Hakeem limped over to Quincy’s hut to find her outside, sullenly skinning potatoes. Lying next to her feet was her rusty sword. Still around his neck was his father’s watch, and Hakeem was very conscious of it. He had five minutes to say what he needed to say before he had to do his own chores.

Habari-kuz, Quincy.”

The girl looked up at him, startled. “H-Habari, Hakeem.”

He smiled at her. “Thank you.”

She blinked at him, “For what?”

Hakeem tapped the back of his head. “Sword.” He pointed at it. “Save me.”

“Oh…that…” She shrugged and said, “I don’t know how I lifted it! I was just so scared the jackal would hurt you!”

The boy didn’t understand her words exactly, but he got the gist of her meaning. His smile widened. “Quincy strong and brave.

Quincy blushed and looked down at her skinned potatoes, but Hakeem could detect the hints of a pleased smile on her lips before he turned to return to his hut.

____________________________

Act III

“N is for Nyx”

Nyx was in the middle of practicing her Common alphabet when Atalo shoved a banana in her ear.

Koen!” she screamed, standing up so fast that her chair was knocked back onto the floor. Mushy banana bits clung to her hair and she tried to bat these away, managing to get her palms and the side of her face covered in sticky slime. “Ugh, you little monster, what’s wrong with you!?”

Atalo, meanwhile was laughing so hard his face was beet-red. Thaddeus was also laughing from his place in the hallway entrance. “He got you good!”

“This isn’t funny!” Nyx shouted, her eyes teary. “Why doesn’t he do these things to you?

Her older brother shrugged. “Because I don’t react to him like you do.”

Nyx bared her teeth and whirled on Atalo, her hands before her like claws. “Well let’s see if he likes this reaction!?”

Atalo screamed, his eyes wide, but he was still smiling as he scrambled to dodge his sister’s violent lunge. They ran around the kitchen table, displacing chairs. Fotini came through the door just as Atalo ran for it. He collided into his mother, and Nyx just managed to slide to a halt. With his new refuge found, the little boy clung to the woman’s leg. Their mother stared at them all, a basket of leeks on her arm.

“Sweet Aelurus, can my house not be the host of chaos every time I step away?”

“It’s like this even when you’re here,” Thaddeus mumbled with a smirk.

“And after dinner, when you’re arrogance comes running like water from your ass, do not ask you’re A-ma to help you wipe it, Thaddeus,” her mother said with a sharp look.

“A-ma! You would poison your own son?”

“Poison? Gods no! I was only referring to your tendency to eat like a pregnant pig.”

Nyx laughed as her mother moved around her, the older woman grunting as she dragged Atalo along. The boy, in his stubborn refusal to let go, had wrapped his legs around hers. Thaddeus just held up his hands and backed into the hall, where he was no doubt going to retire to his room until supper. Fotini glanced at her daughter over her shoulder as she set her basket on the counter.

“Now what was the commotion about?” She gave a weary sigh. “I imagine it has something to do with the slime all over the side of your face?”

Nyx pointed at her little brother, who only stuck his tongue in response. “He smashed a banana into my ear!” A thought occurred to her, and she returned to her place at the table, where her Common alphabet book still lay open. Large chunks of banana were on the pages. The girl’s eyes teared up as she stomped a foot. “He got it on my book!”

Fotini massaged her brow with one hand. “Atalo, apologize.”

“Sorry, Koah.” But the boy’s face was lit with an impish smile as he ran off to his room.

“That’s all you’re going to do?” Nyx whined. “Some of the words on my book are even ruined!”

Fotini looked at the girl over her shoulder. “Really? Which ones?”

The girl sniffled back more tears as she pointed at the page. “These ones! The first letters of the Common alphabet and some of the other vowels too!”

“Vow-els? Are those really so important?”

“This book translates Common to Ailuran, of course it’s important A-ma!”

Fotini closed her eyes with a suffering expression. “All right, all right, my little night shard.” She fished into her apron pocket for some coins, then held them out to the girl. “Here. Why not go buy a new book at the market?”

Nyx scowled. “But they only sell Ailuran books!”

The woman let out a sharp hiss and grabbed the girl’s hand. She forced the coins into her palm. “Nyx, enough. A-ma’s head hurts and she’d like to get started on dinner before the next disaster strikes!”

Nyx’s face crumpled and she slammed her fist onto the table. “This isn’t fair! This book was A-pa’s, and you don’t even care that Atalo ruined it! You never care!”

Fotini stared at her daughter, taken aback. “Nyx! That isn’t–”

But the girl snatched the book off the table and was running out the door.

____________________________

“Well, you can say goodbye to your ears, then.”

Nyx stared at her friend, mortified. “You’re not helping Taila. Why would you say something like that?”

“Because it’s true?” Taila gave an unconcerned shrug.

They were sitting on a rock near Taila’s home, the hum of bees comforting in the mild weather. The suns peered around large white fluffy clouds and the breeze was gentle. There was no erduk that day, and they were all glad for a variety of reasons.

“Maybe…maybe she won’t pinch your ears?” Ampelos said, twirling a long piece of grass between his fingers.

The girl smiled at him gratefully. “Thanks, Amp.”

He looked at Nyx shyly before ducking his gaze with a blush. “M-Maybe she’ll just give you extra chores instead?”

At this, Nyx’s face fell.

Taila threw her arm over the girl’s shoulder. “Aw, c’mon Nyx! Your A-ma tried!” The older girl gestured at her friend’s hand, which still gripped the coins Fotini had forced unto her. “You can get a new book with the money she gave you!”

Nyx scowled and slid off the rock. “You can’t replace this book. It was special…” She looked at her book in one hand—the cover was a dull sea-green, the faded title a tired wine-red that said in Ailuran, “Common Alphabet”—and the coins in her other hand. Baring her teeth, Nyx pulled the coins back, ready to throw them out into the high grass when something shiny out of the corner of her eye caught her attention.

Blinking, she turned her head to see Marq coming down the trails from the northwestern hills, his large pack on his back, jingling with trinkets. As he neared, the girl saw his slim face break into his usual haggard smile. “Kitten! It’s good to see you again!” he said in Ailuran. “Have you been practicing your Common as usual?” this he said in Common.

The girl swallowed and held out her book, tears pricking her eyes again. “Hullo Marq. Yes. I try, but stupid brother got food on alpha-bet book. Made ink bad. Can not read some words anymore…”

The elf frowned. “Must’ve been cheap ink to get so easily fouled up! What did he get on your pages?”

“A…how do you say? Anade?

“Ah. A banana,” the elf chuckled. “Your Atalo I take it.”

“Yes!” Nyx snarled as her friends joined her at her sides, their eyes curious. “He is a cajeck!

“Nyx,” Ampelos whispered. When the girl looked at him, he mumbled, “Maybe ask the elf if he can help?”

Her eyes widened. “Good idea, Amp!” Returning her eyes to Marq, she asked. “Can you fix?”

The elf merchant blinked down at her. “Ah, I don’t know kitten.”

She held out the coins. “I have money!”

The man bit his lip at the outstretched hand. Then he gave a small shrug and said, “Okay. Give it here.”

Nyx handed him the money and book eagerly, turning the latter to the page where the banana had fallen. Marq looked over it shrewdly, scratching at the paper. After a minute, he snapped it shut and handed the item back. “Nope. Nothing I can do.”

Taila hissed at him, not understanding Common but understanding enough to know the merchant’s meaning. “If he can’t fix it, then he should return your coin, Nyx!”

Nyx looked at the elf imploringly. “Marq can no do anything?”

The man rubbed the back of his head, “Uh. No. No, I can’t, Kitten. I’m sorry.” He thumbed eagerly at his backpack. “But I have more books in my backpack if you’d like to see!”

Taila kicked him in the leg, but Nyx was already walking away, her heart sunk.

Nyx pushed her food around her plate at supper, and though Thaddeus, Fotini, and Atalo conversed animatedly, she did not come out of her shell, not even when her little brother moved Thaddeus’s plate of curds beneath his elbow. Quietly, she cleared the table, then retired to her room. Her mother watched her go with a sigh.

Later, Fotini appeared at Nyx’s bedroom entrance. “Little night shard?”

Nyx didn’t answer. She lay on her bed, staring up at the ceiling.

She heard her mother slip past her bead curtain and felt her sit on the bed. “Sweet Aelurus…I didn’t have to deal with such behavior from Thad until he turned fourteen at the latest! But then again, I forget how much more mature you already are when compared to him at eleven, so…” she trailed off. A few moments passed, and the woman took a deep breath. “Nyx.” The name came with a great rush of air, and Fotini shook her head. “I’m sorry I was insensitive about your A-pa’s books. I know they mean a lot to you. I’ve talked to Atalo about it, and he won’t be allowed near any food unless it’s mealtime and I’m there to watch him eat it.” The woman rolled her eyes. “Gods, that I was born such a wild child.”

Nyx rolled onto her side, facing away from her mother. Fotini looked at her, pained. Touching her daughter’s little foot, she said quietly. “Yes, Atalo is wild, but I love him for his antics, as I love you for yours, my little night shard. I love that you love books and that you are so capable of learning so much. I want you to know that I do care for you and the things you find important, but sometimes we must compromise, yes? It’ll be an exercise for the both of us, kitten.”

The girl looked at her mother. Slowly she sat up. “A-ma. I’m sorry I ran away.”

“You were frustrated and hurt, my love,” Fotini said, smiling as she hugged her daughter. “I will try to be a better mother. I will try, so please forgive me when I fail?”

Nyx turned her face into the woman’s neck. “Okay…”

The next day after breakfast, Thaddeus opened the front door, intent on checking a squeaky window from the outside, when he came across something on the front step. Frowning he picked it up and came back inside. “Nyx?” he called.

The girl was practicing her Common handwriting from the good pages of her alphabet book. “Yes?” she said, blinking up at him.

Thaddeus held out a small scroll to her, which was attached to a leather pouch. “This is for you.”

Nyx blinked and took the items from him. Opening the pouch first, she was surprised to find it was filled with the same coins her mother had given her the day before. Turning next to the note, she unfurled it and read the shaky Ailuran,

Dear Nyx,

You’re friend was right. I shouldn’t treat my best customer with such shoddy service. I had no right to take your coin when I couldn’t perform the task you wished of me, so here is a once-in-a-lifetime refund! But you know, I went poring over my personal collection of books, and I realized that maybe all it took was a bit more effort from me. So here is a list of the words ruined in your book, alphabetized, with examples in both Common and Ailuran. You’re lucky, kitten, that there was only one page that saw your brother’s terror! Otherwise, I would have had to give you something else for free…perish the thought!

 

Your Trusty Provider,

Marq

Following this was a short list of words and examples in both languages, as the elf had promised. Nyx was grinning so hard, her face ached.

“What was it?” Thaddeus asked, pulling a chair out next to his sister.

The girl slipped the note into her alphabet book and took up her leather pouch. “Nothing! I’m going shopping!” the girl exclaimed, still smiling.

The soldier watched her go with wide eyes. “Damn, what’s the rush?” Then he sat up straighter in his chair just as his sister ran out the door. “Oh! Hey! You aren’t going to see that filthy elf are y–!” he was cut off as the door slammed shut behind Nyx. Thaddeus let out a hissing breath, his eyes turning onto the note that his sister had slipped into her book. Pulling it close to him, the man opened it, and his eyes were drawn to one thing on the note…

A is for Always, as in, “Nyx will always love her family, and will always be loved in return.”


Back to Six Tales of Arachne | Forward to Chapter 32.1

Six Tales of Arachne

The Willing Fly – Part 1

As told by Lethia Artaud

 

I’m sorry that I’m laughing!  It’s just…I find it strange that you would ask me these things. You see, I was sheltered in a tower for much of my life, and the views I had of the world were all simulated through dreams and thoughts shared between myself and my…um…with Syria.

 

I saw vast mountain ranges, dark forests, seas of sand, sprawling oceans, and lush jungles, all within the safety of my mind. Did my former mistress actually see these things herself? I believe she did, many of them, as her personal accounts and other external sources would attest. But there were some stories she told that were…so fantastic, even my childish mind found it hard to believe.

 

One such story, she told me upon the day of my twelfth “birthday”. These were bittersweet occasions every year, because while it was a joyous time for us to celebrate our fated meeting, it was also a yearly reminder of my shrouded origins. For this reason, I was always caught in a fractious sort of joy, and Syria was not a little frustrated by my antics.

 

So that twelfth year, she said to me, “Lethia Artaud, thou art like the willing fly!”

 

I replied, “Mistress, I don’t understand. How am I a fly?”

 

She patted the seat next to her on the bench, just outside our tower. Behind her, the fragrant jasmine bushes filled my senses. Pouting for some reason I cannot recall, I sat next to Syria, and she smiled at me.

 

“Do you know of the Legend called Arachne?”

 

Frowning, I shook my head.

 

Syria feigned surprise. “Oh! My goodness! My sweet girl still has yet to hear this particular tale, hmm?”

 

I clapped my hands, my pout melting into a grin. “A story! Please tell me! I promise I won’t forget anything you say!”

 

She took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. “You see, once long ago, I was traveling the deep mountains of the north, unknown by all save the dwarfs, and even their knowledge was piece meal at best.”

 

To which I jumped and cried, “The Spider died!?”

 

And then…

 

…No wait. I skipped a part. I’m sorry! Hold on let me just try to um…remember.

 

____________________________

 

The Incident at Gaime

As told by Elmiryn Manard

 

I’m not Nyx.

 

I mean, yeah, I bet you’re thinking, “I know that, idiot. Kind of hard to miss the red hair.” But I feel like I gotta say that, since you’re coming and asking this of me. I mean hell, you wanna know about Arachne? How’s this for a story–

 

A prostitute, a nobleman, and Arachne walk into a tavern—

 

—What? Aw hey, jokes are stories too!

 

Oh fine!

 

 

Uh.

 

Well.

 

O-kay.

 

How about this?

 

When I was very young, Thendril, my former training master, told me a story. Now don’t get me wrong. He wasn’t the coddling, nurturing type. He told me war stories. Really bloody tales about warriors and champions who fought and sacrificed for greater causes. One day, I griped that all the heroes he talked about were men.

 

“Then let me tell you of Arachne,” he said. This made me wonder if he’d taken too many blows to the head—Thendril had such nasty cauliflower ears—because after all, Arachne was always the villain in my parents’ stories. “There’s more than one side to a tale,” my training master assured me.

 

Too often, you hear people bitch and whine about how heroes vanish and no one knows what became of them. Not so, with our little arachnid. Anyone well versed in the history of heavenly champions, and the Legends that rose among them, can tell you where Arachne ended up. That story in Tobias’s book? It’s only one version of a pretty famous event. I mean—it’s a little hard for the world to ignore hundreds of god-appointed champions coming together to kill one mortal. But no one asks where these people came from and who they were before heaven came and shoved a purpose up their butt. In true fashion, no one knows for certain where Arachne came from, either.

 

I’d like to think I’m the exception to that rule.

 

I mean, you have to take into consideration my source. Thendril was a war veteran. Thendril was also older than a corpse’s fart. He was a young man when the halfling clan of Tor began their bloody campaign across Talmor in the year 3500. He was born there, in a Fiamman trading fort called Gaime, but was raised as a native son on foreign soil. The Torians nearly overtook the lands surrounding his home. He was barely fourteen-years-old at the time.

 

The fort had slaves. Fiammans like slaves, I guess. They’re like assorted chocolates to us. Well, Gaime had a pretty exotic bunch of ‘em, because in their midst were Omatts. Have you ever seen an Omatt? They’re ape people—and I’m saying that without irony. They have long grabby tails, wide flat teeth, big lumpy heads, round monkey ears, and long arms. The fort had one in particular, with green eyes and deep violet hair. She was a young girl who refused to speak—ever—even upon threat of beating. After a time, people thought she was simple, and let the matter alone.

 

As Thendril put it, they weren’t close or anything. This isn’t a tale of forbidden romance, or one of those corny buddy stories. His was just the story of an observer, of a boy who cobbled together accounts from those around him. Maybe some of it was rumor, but my old training master didn’t place too much stock in bullshit, so I trusted what he said.

 

This is a long introduction isn’t it? See, I’m not a storyteller like Nyx. Thendril was a good one though. He started like this:

 

On the longest day of summer, the invading Torians could be seen from Gaime’s watchtowers. The men were on edge, because many of them had families back home, and it was said that the halflings could not be defeated. “They’re invincible,” the soldiers whispered furtively. “They say they are blessed by the gods!” And they weren’t exaggerating. Reports kept coming in of Torians being stabbed, only for them to pull the swords free from their bodies with no wound left behind.

 

Well, Thendril’s father, Hetrius, didn’t want to back down, even after the royal courts back at the kingdom had abandoned them. The Torians arrival was estimated to be about some two or three days. He put the slaves to work, bolstering their defenses and forging more weapons. Thendril’s job was to carry messages between the different working parties.  That was when he saw her.

 

The Omatt was sitting under the shade of a table, contemplating the chain that hung limp from her neck collar. Her long tail was curled around her, and her small bony body was slouched—or relaxed, however you’d like to see it.  Naturally, the boy was alarmed. He called out to her, and though her round ears flickered to him, she didn’t look up or make to run away. Confused, Thendril ran to get help, and the Omatt girl was locked up again, chained to a heavy stone wall where she was to remain until she was punished.

 

“Damn strange,” said one of the guards as they walked away. “How’d she get free of her tether? There were no marks on the chains to show they’d been struck, nor any welts on her neck or hands to show that she’d struggled! You think someone set her free?”

 

His companion answered. “Who on Halward’s plane would be dumb enough to do that?”

 

While they wondered this, Thendril instead asked, “Why didn’t she run?”

 

And to this, no one had an answer.

 

The next day, the boy resumed work as usual, only to hear a shout draw his eyes to the top of the fort’s tallest watchtower.

 

Sitting there, with hands on knees and her eyes to the horizon, was the young Omatt girl. The guard beneath her was shouting and waving his hands at those on the ground as he pointed up at her, while his partner tried bravely (or stupidly, however you’d like to see it) to climb atop the sloped roof to retrieve the slave. After the man nearly fell, he gave up his effort, and one of the older Omatt slaves was sent to collect the little renegade.

 

This commotion had been enough to slow down work for the day, and Hetrius did not like this. He was, after all, Fort Commander. With whip in hand, the large man stomped over to where the Omatt girl was being held at the bottom of the watchtower. He ordered her turned around and uncoiled his whip, pulling back for a blow. Then he stopped.

 

“The back of her shirt,” he said, squinting. “It has been torn, and there is blood on it! You there,” he pointed at the soldier holding the girl. “Is this the slave that had escaped yesterday?”

 

“Yes, sir!”

 

“But there are no marks on her back! She should have been punished!”

 

The soldier was about to respond when his thick brain managed to put two and two together. “I…I don’t know what to say sir. I was there when she was whipped myself!”

 

Hetrius’s jaw thrust forward and his thick veins bulged. He looked like a livid tomato. The commander pulled back his whip with a scream and let it lash out.

 

While the Fort Commander’s reaction wasn’t altogether bizarre, it’s kinda important to add that the Torians were now steering their march toward their home. The few women and children at the fort, aside from the slaves, had fled in the hopes of reaching the town of Akii, whilst the men folk worked to buy them time. The Torians were expected to strike the following day, if not that very night. Tensions were high, and little patience was spared over puzzling the mysteries surrounding annoying young slaves.

 

That night, Thendril stayed up with his father, listening to the leaders as they discussed their options. Morning came without any blood being shed, but the Fiammans awoke to the pants-shitting sight of at least a thousand halflings surrounding their scant hundreds. Hetrius, unrattled, ordered the men to suit up and take their ranks. The armies stared each other down. The Torian leader, bearing the black and gold heraldry of his clan, came riding out onto the field. The Fort Commander rode out to speak with him. Tense moments passed as both forces watched their leaders converse. Finally, Hetrius spat on the ground and rode back at full gallop.

 

“Ready the archers!” he roared.

 

The Torian leader had also ridden back to his line, and his frontline infantry readied their spears. Shouting could be heard on both sides as all prepared for what was most likely going to be a massacre.

 

Then the Omatt girl appeared.

 

She walked out from among the Fiamman ranks, her collar still about her neck, and her chain, once again, trailed limp along her large feet. Both sides seemed to pause, bewildered by the appearance of this little Omatt just standing clear out into the open.

 

Hetrius was the first to recover. “Who let her out!?” he thundered.

 

But she didn’t stop walking, and none went to fetch her. Fluttering about her were the tattered remains of her shirt, barely white and mostly bloody, but there, in the clear morning suns, you could see—

 

The Omatt’s skin was free of all wounds.

 

While the Fiammans gaped at her audacity, and the news of her miraculous healing spread amongst the ranks, the Torians were less impressed. The halfling leader spoke to one of his archers, and the man took aim with his bow.  The silence was so heavy, that you could hear the thwip of the arrow being loosed.

 

But it didn’t hit.

 

Instead, it just hung mid-air, just before the girl’s face, before fading away into dust—then not even dust. Just nothing. As soon as it vanished, the little girl, who could not have been older than nine, charged toward the Torian forces. The men on the other side seemed too stunned to react. Too stunned, or too scared, however you’d like to see it. Then the leader gathered enough of his wits to call the charge.

 

Hetrius, in reaction, also called for his men to charge.

 

But before the forces could meet, the Omatt girl reached the enemy first, and what happened to them was hardly to believe.

 

She undid them.  Just as she had undone the arrow, so did this little freak unleash a wrathful wave of ruthless power.  All the men around her perished, first becoming dust, and then from dust, nothing.  Their fellows, less in number now, were quick to notice this.  Though they still vastly outmanned the Fiammans, the Torians proved to be shit-eating cowards in the face of death. It was the whole invulnerability thing gone to their heads.

 

So what did they do?  They ran, of course!

 

The Fiamman soldiers went out of their minds with joy as their enemy retreated. They threw their helmets into the air, hugged each other, shouted and whistled…but not the Fort Commander and his son. They watched as the Omatt girl stared at the soldiers and their jubilation. Then without a word, she turned and began to walk away, northward, away from Gaime.

 

“What sort of magic was that?” Thendril asked. “I’ve never even heard of anything like it!”

 

His father shook his head. “I’m afraid I do not know.”

 

“She’s walking away. She means to leave for good this time. Why didn’t she just do so before, if her power was so great?”

 

“Perhaps she didn’t feel like it, like all those times she didn’t feel like being chained up anymore?” Thendril didn’t miss his father’s ironic tone.

 

“Should I fetch someone to get her, father?”

 

“No, son,” Hetrius said slowly. He turned his horse and rode back to the fort. “There is no catching a spider in its own web…”

 

And that was that.

 

Now, don’t mistake things. Arachne wasn’t called Arachne until many years later, and though she defeated the halflings at Gaime, the Torians went on to resume their campaign across Talmor. They almost took it all too, were it not for the efforts of a different Legend by the name of Toshihiro, who lead the Talmorian city-states in a rebellion that took the halflings down. And with that, my friends, I end the earliest story I’ve ever heard of Arachne, also known in some regions as the Spider of the West. What was her real name? Why did she become associated with the Western world? Well, you’ll have to ask someone else that question because I’m all storied-out.

 

Unless you’ll let me finish my joke?

 

So a prostitute, a nobleman, and Arachne walk into a tavern…

 

____________________________

 

The Willing Fly – Part 2

As told by Lethia Artaud

 

Would it bother you much if I skipped forward a portion? I’ve always had this problem with longer stories. Even as a child, it was a challenge reading me a bedtime story, because I would forget how it all started and who was in it. It frustrates me to no end, but I am determined to tell you this now, good or bad.

 

Well, at any rate, this was some ways into Syria’s narration, but I’ll try to explain as I go. So. The reason I thought Spider had died–

 

“Don’t close your eyes! Don’t!” Syria cried, as she tried to staunch the flow of blood from the young female Omatt’s head. Dark life matted the Spider’s violet hair, and her round green eyes rolled in their sockets as her eyelids fought a losing battle to stay open.

 

The guardians of Hudisyg, who had defended the sacred dwarven rituals until the pair of women had stolen them, were bearing down the carved out tunnels, their torches warming the darkness with their blood lust. The Spider’s hands fisted her gray robes, her breath coming in frosty clouds before her face. Their only torch sputtered on the ground, where in the sphere of light, the golden handles of a pair of scrolls winked with the fire’s dance.

 

“You didn’t have to take that trap for me,” Syria sniffed, trying to keep her shivering in check. “And you call me the idiot.”

 

The Omatt didn’t respond. In fact, her eyes closed, but she smiled faintly and said, “Web is quiet. Still no flies…” And she went limp, her breath fleeing her.

 

My mistress—I mean—Syria, was torn. She could either defend the Spider, or she could flee. The question was a pressing one, as at that time, she was not at the power she had become famous for.

 

But Syria was always sharp, and so she checked to see the Spider’s pulse.

 

She found none.

 

With her answer, the woman reluctantly lowered the Omatt to the soil, and whispered, “Thank you. If it were not for you, I would not have found the scrolls! This will help many people!” Kissing two fingers, she pressed them to the Spider’s lips before turning and fleeing, away from the shouts that drew closer.

 

Thus why I cried, “The Spider died?”

 

 

Oh! OH!  Wait, wait, wait.

 

I just remembered!

 

Can I say that part I had missed before?

 

Ahem.

 

This was back on the bench, before Syria had begun her story. Remember she mentioned she’d been searching for something in the northern mountains? Well she went on to say, “I was searching for hidden texts regarding dwarven enchantment techniques—rituals that saw whole groups of dwarves impervious to pain. It was a lost art in enchantment, and I wanted to use it to better treat the wounded.

 

“Well my search brought me to a lost city, high up in the frosty bluffs. Investigation revealed to me that it was Hudisyg, the dwarven center for magical arts. It was no easy feat getting there, child, but it was soon revealed that the real challenge was in getting out alive!”

 

I didn’t interrupt, my twelve-year-old body clenched in anticipation.

 

Syria’s eyes were on the blue sky over us. She was always looking up that way, and it wasn’t until I became much older that I wondered if she were waiting for something. She continued, “There were many traps still active in some of the facilities and temples—acid bombs that ate through metal, spikes that shot up through the floor to impale you, great scythes that came out of the walls seeking to cleave you—and those turned out to be the least of my problems. Hudisyg was not abandoned. There were guardians there, dwarven men laced with some dead magic. They were little more than beasts working under a strict spiritual ban, their minds twisted by the power that had no doubt sustained them for an age. They babbled in ancient dwarven, and their clothes were torn and dated. They hunkered around as apes, but in their hands they clenched dwarven weapons. Can you believe, my Lethia, that such creatures would corner your mistress? I could not sense their thoughts, something of their savage natures escaping my notice so that I was caught unawares.

 

“They pressed in, and as they did, I saw how runes glowed all along their skin—runes that, in the heat of the moment, I still recognized as Talmorian in origin. Why would the dwarves carve such things into their body? I didn’t have time to answer, of course, because just then an Omatt dropped behind me and struck me in the back of the head…”

 

 

…Uh.

 

…I–I’m sorry. I s-seem to have…er…lost it, again.

 

 

____________________________

 

The Stone in Bondage

As told by Hakeem

 

The Spider? Ah.

 

I…suppose I can tell you of her.

 

In my home village of Kimbia, we had little to do with Legends save for two men and an Omatt, who appeared one stormy night in a dreadful storm. Quincy does not like that I tell this story, but it is not her story to tell, it is mine. She was living in another part of the world, you see, so she hadn’t come to live with us yet.

 

The men were named Jack and Tobias, and they were servants to the gods Njord and Tellus respectively. And the Omatt? The men never named her in my presence, and as I came to understand it, no one knew who her patron was. She volunteered nothing about the matter. She hardly even spoke, in fact, and when she did, it was with a clipped accent that seemed less like a foreigner, and more like a child still learning the proper tones and cadences for speech. She was older than I was—around fifteen, I heard Tobias say—and she was an Omatt. I’d seen Omatts before. Plenty of them had come to Fanaea to trade and explore the jungles. But her green eyes were rare, and they fixed on me beneath a crop of dark bangs, holding me there like I was caught beneath her power.

 

 

I pressed into my mother’s soft side, still too young a boy to understand that I had to act strong, like my father. Ba-Kafeel was not the leader of our village, by any means, but he was a well-known and well-respected man in the region. Even so, it was strange that these people, these agents of heaven, came to our hut and not our village chieftain’s.  The two men spoke in our native tongue, while the girl just sat there, watching me.

 

“Kafeel. It is good to see you again, my friend!” Jack said as he shook my father’s hand over the fire. He was shorter than Tobias and about level with my father, his warm brown hair overgrown so that it flopped into his clear blue eyes. In hindsight, the family resemblance between he and Quincy was unmistakable. Again, she does not like that I say that, but it is true. “We are heading to Santos, but this storm has delayed us! Not a problem for me you see, but I must think of my companions.” Jack gestured at Tobias and the Omatt.

 

“Perhaps it is a sign of doom?” my father ventured.

 

“Nay! It is the work of that blowhard, Ludovico, son of Santos and Eate’s fatheaded champion.”

 

“Perhaps we should be careful in naming the pantheon in the same breath as our curses…” Tobias muttered.

 

“I will when their novices quit acting as fools!” Jack bit out. He struck his knee, and gesticulated angrily with his other hand. “Do you know that he has sent such storms across the skies that the common folk now believe it is Njord’s doing? What heresy!”

 

“Has he a reason for it?” Ba-Kafeel asked carefully.

 

“Delegation,” Jack said with disgust. “He is using his heavenly power for earthly politics, for heavens sake! How much more reviling can one get?”

 

“It isn’t unheard of, brother,” my father responded with a sardonic smile. “The gods have numerous times been involved in the affairs of man. Your patrons’ protests aside, what makes this any different?”

 

“He’s being paid for it,” Tobias said with a sad shake of his head. “And those who try to flee Santos and its turmoil are captured as slaves, under the commands of his henchmen!”

 

Ba-Kafeel frowned. “That is a grave thing indeed! Surely his patron would cast him down in disgrace for such behavior!”

 

“Aye, one would think. But the gods are veiled in their intentions. We know of our own patrons, but we cannot speak for other gods.” Here Tobias looked at the Omatt, pointedly it seemed, and that was when he noticed her intense focus on me. Blinking, he looked my way. “And Kafeel? Your son? He is up late for a youngling!”

 

Ba-Kafeel looked my way and chuckled. “This is Hakeem. He is suffering from nightmares.”

 

The other men smiled as Ma’Nguele rubbed my back. The Omatt smiled at me, and scooted forward, around the fire. I shrank further into my mother’s folds, ready to cry, when the girl held out her hands. From the dirt floor, the sands drew up as if the grains were individually plucked by invisible hands, floating in the air, and over this, her fingers worked like she were manipulating it all. Then the sands melted together, turning bright and hot, and within an instant, they darkened and cooled into the shape of a small stone doll. With a small gesture, the doll rose to her waiting palm, and this she held out to me, her smile still in place.

 

I took it shyly, my eyes wide with wonder as I looked the stone doll over. It was as though it had been chiseled from a larger rock, with no signs of the sand it had once come from. It was even smooth, and yet chiseled into its base in clean precision was the letters, “X-I-A”. I didn’t know what it meant then, and to this day I still do not. The stone doll had a collar around its neck, from which trailed a chain, and that wrapped around its geometric body to the end of its right leg, where it linked to a large stone. The doll had no features—no face, no genitals, nothing. A faceless slave. Still, its fantastic creation was enough for me to get excited.

 

I looked at Ba-Kafeel and he gave me an expectant look. Blushing, I said, “Thank you,” in my native tongue.

 

The girl said nothing, except to grin wider. She stood to her feet, her long tail raised and curled at the tip, and she turned and left our hut. Neither of her companions moved to stop her. Tobias was even grinning.

 

He said to my father, “Forgive her. She does as she pleases, and likes the weather best when it is fierce.”

 

And so the three Legends remained with us until the morning, when the storm cleared and the skies were blue. I rose early, stone doll in hand, to stand with my father outside of our hut. My brothers and sisters were still too content to remain sleeping—but they didn’t know the wonder I had seen last night, and I was excited to see more.

 

“Thank you, Kafeel,” Tobias said, thumping my father’s shoulder. “For the food and the warm beds, thank you!”

 

My father waved this away. “It is nothing. You have done so much more for me than I can hope to ever repay.” And here he rubbed my head vigorously, like I was the prize.

 

The Omatt stood apart from the men, her eyes on the sky toward the west, where they would be heading. She must have sensed my eyes on her, for she looked my way, and once more she smiled. She gestured for me to come closer, her ape-like tail swaying behind her. With a gulp, I neared, and she crouched down. That was when I heard her speak for the first and last time.

 

“When Santos free, he free.” She pointed at the doll and winked. I could only gaze at her, open mouthed. I didn’t understand her, of course, and it was only until after they left that my father translated for me.

 

We followed the three Legends well outside the village, where there they took off into the sky. Tobias held onto Jack, whilst the Omatt soared into the sky alone, her ascent less like the smooth flight of her companions’, and more like she were pulling and swinging on ropes unseen. She paused, halting in mid-air upside down to look back at my father and me. Grinning wildly, she gave a wave, and flew away.

 

A week later, the chains on my stone doll were gone.

 

I never again met the Omatt, for her adventures took her elsewhere, and soon the names “Arachne” and “Spider of the West” began to float to our little Fanaea. But in the years that came, she came to affect my life in ways I hadn’t imagined—in ways that Quincy hadn’t imagined, for her life soon was every bit a part of mine. And do I hate the Spider for all the pain I went through?

 

…No, I cannot say I share the same loathing that Quincy does, but then again, my wife has many more reasons to hold enmity against the Legend.

 

I will say, however, that upon the destruction of my village in Kimbia, one of the few belongings I was able to find again was that little stone doll. As I plucked it up from the ashes, all blackened with soot, I felt my breath catch.

 

The collar and chain were once more around the doll’s neck.

 

It wasn’t until Quincy and I joined the pirate ship that we learned how the marauders came to find us, and how it was allowed to happen. Once this knowledge became clear, my then future-wife demanded that I throw the stone doll away. I did not, feeling compelled to keep it. Perhaps for a sign. But whether through accident or design, Quincy had lured me off Tulki’s ship, and so it sailed off with my belongings. Among them was the odd little trinket. I do not know what became of it…

 

Now that I mention it, I wonder if it is still under bondage?

 

____________________________

 

The Willing Fly – Part 3

As told by Lethia Artaud

 

Sigh…well, I’ve got it all again…sort of. What if I just returned to when Syria fled from the guardians, then?

 

My former mistress could hear the wild dwarves shouting and hollering in excitement as they came across the Spider’s corpse. She didn’t stop, for fear that some of the guardians still pursued her, but with time it became clear that she was no longer being sought. With scrolls in hand, Syria knew that she could unlock the secrets of the ancient dwarven enchanters, but something held her fast.

 

“I cannot leave her,” she breathed. “I must bury her. It is only right.”

 

With a resolute nod, Syria returned to the dark stone city.

 

There she came upon the frost-covered central square, where the Spider was strung up like she were on a web of her own. Ropes held her spread-eagled between two metal spires, where her battered body was free to bleed out onto the icy stones. All around her were the dwarven guardians, their eyes and runes glowing blue in the dark of the buildings. Syria tried to hide behind a low crumbling wall, but she underestimated the intelligence of her foes, for one on patrol found her, and in short order, she was subdued and brought forth. As an enchantress, her only real defense was in psychic attacks, but again, these dwarves seemed immune to all enchantment.

 

The woman was forced to her knees as one of the guardians came forth with a great sword.

 

Then the Spider spoke, blood dripping from her pale lips, and everyone gave a great start. “All…flies…here. Thanks…idiot,” she said with a quivering smile. Laboriously, she lifted her head and her eyes flew open.

 

“You were bait!” I exclaimed, when Syria first told me this story as a child.

 

The woman broke off, and I shrank beneath her stern gaze.

 

When I was young, I didn’t interrupt much except for when something absolutely shocked me to the core. Now being sheltered, you’d think I’d have been surprised in such a way all the time, but not so. As a youth growing up, because all of my knowledge of the outside world was second-hand and seen through mental simulations, it felt detached. Not unexciting, but certainly not something that made me jump or squeal as though it were happening before me. I was always aware of that meta-existence, where I seemed to hover impervious to everything I witnessed. And so it was with Syria’s stories, as fascinating as they were.

 

Argos, on the other hand…do you know that once, when Syria was telling us of the time she was caught by a pair of cannibals, he went running outside to relieve himself because he was so excited? He didn’t quite make it, the poor dear. Oh, he’ll be embarrassed if he finds out I’ll tell you, but he managed to sprinkle a bit as he scurried out the door. Syria wasn’t all that amused, and Argos’s tail remained firmly tucked between his legs until—

 

Huh?

 

Oh, I’m sorry. I was telling a story?

 

…Um…which story was that again?

 

____________________________

 

The Battle of Hazmes

As told by Paulo Moretti

 

Eh…I’m familiar with Arachne, but what I know of her isn’t so nice. That is what you want, I bet. You want something nice. See, Arachne isn’t too popular with the Santian Kingdom. You have all those crem lias and crem dons who spit just at her mention—and it is quite a sight to see a noble person spit! But why wouldn’t they, when she helped lay to waste their biggest source of income? Even the common folk can’t seem to embrace her entirely. She was wild. Carnal. Pér ya. You want nice? I’ll see what I can do.

 

This story I learned about in my schooling. It took place near my home village of Felico in the year 3509, when my father was a young man. The coastal city of Hazmes was a trading city that made most of its profits from the slave trade. That year, the city’s slaves were rebelling, and certain estadentias—politicians—tried to “help” them by providing them with arms. Now, don’t get me wrong, eh?  I don’t like slavery, but even I could see the baloso move that was. With weapons, the frustrated slaves could act out on their anger and rage. So yes. There were revolts. De reán, me soque, Eate! Even for someone who wanted to stir up trouble, I can’t see how these estadentias could be okay with these slaves hurting so many innocent people.

 

Eh. But they did. The reason for this was that, in creating a scandal over the slave issue, the plotters could discredit the reigning duke, Signor Niccolò Jutien Mercando, who was slated to be the next Chief of Commerce. There were rumors going around that Ludovico, our beloved champion of Eate, was somehow using his godly powers in less than godly ways to aid in the profit making—profits that hurt the lower class, of which my father, at the time, belonged to.

 

But champions came to fight this, and they were the agents of Njord and Tellus. But the real interesting one, was a young Omatt who the poor called Arachne. Did you know? It was the Santians who so named her. No one but those champions she traveled with knew her real name, and it was rarely uttered, if ever.

 

Well, while her fellow champions set about hunting down Ludovico, Arachne was quick to address the problems in the city. First, of course, were the slave riots. Now how could one person, Legend or no, handle such a broad nightmare as this? The slaves made up nearly half of the population of the city, and with arms their disorganization was balanced by their sheer numbers. Noble families were being slaughtered in their homes.

 

As many of you may already know, Arachne is famed for her inseño brand of flight: The Omatt could move through the air as though she were climbing and swinging along threads invisible to the common man. But what people don’t understand is that these “threads”? They were connected to everything, not just the air.  The world was Arachne’s web, and all she had to do was get a good grip on you to undo everything you were.

 

Espero. Wait. I know what you’re thinking. But she didn’t kill any of the slaves. Didn’t even take away their weapons. You want to know what Arachne did?

 

She raised an army.

 

Not an angry mass of unwashed thousands acting independently of one another—I’m talking about a unified fighting force that struck down the local government. Arachne could see the anger and misguided terror that hung over Hazmes, and with clever fingers, she undid this. Maybe some would call it a form of enchantment. Me? I call it a damn good bit of politicking, ha! Afterwards, none of the slaves felt out of sorts or as if they were coming out of a spell. The Omatt had simply taken their similar wishes, and bonded them into one single goal.

 

With her at the head of this new army, the random destrucíon ended, and the fight was taken to the duke’s castle overlooking the city.

 

Niccolò came out with his chamberlain and small guard in all his gold and blue finery—you know, que los crem dons pusieron: The soft velvet cap with the big sweeping feather, a quilted half skirt, the puffy shorts, and tasseled shoulder guards made of gold and silver. With all of this cacare on, the duke raised his polished rapier and shouted. “You demonios overstep your station! Ludovico and the king’s men will come, and they will see you all hang!

 

The chamberlain was the only one who survived to translate Arachne’s response. And you want to know what she said?

 

You first.

 

And he was. The Duke of Hazmes, Signor Niccolò Jutien Mercando, was pulled up by his neck by some invisible rope, along with all of his guard, and the peasant army cheered as the nobles’ eyes bulged, and though they struggled, with time they turned still. The former duke’s chamberlain, Signor Corelo Manuel Duras, was tasked with taking a message to the king. An ultimatum, in fact.

 

Either the Santian Kingdom outlawed slavery, or the royal family would be overthrown.

 

An easy decision, yes? Conio, of course not! The royal family was in a compromised position. If they didn’t do as was demanded, they were very likely going to die, but if they did do as they were asked, then they would be losing untold amounts of gold to the Fiamman Kingdom, which, to this day even, still wholly support the slave trade.

 

Today, this situation simply could not happen—Santos’s army has increased tenfold since that century, and they have become a great deal smarter about security. But then? The common folk made up the majority of the kingdom, and they were not hurt by the slave riots at all. In fact, most joined in. Only the nobles had any reason to object—and why not, when their lives were on the line? It was a very bad time to be rich, then.

 

These were all things that had been building up to this moment. The Kingdom of Santos is a good example of what happens when the majority of commoners get fed up with the minority of rulers. Our entire government transformed, shifting more power from the monarchy to the people. This all came at the cost of much blood and loss, and yet I’d like to say that the Santian people are not calgatos. We are good people—passionate maybe, but so were our neighbors to the north, eh?

 

So when the Spider revealed her intention to march on the king, regardless of his response, many defied her. This pissed the lia off, yeah? And in her anger, she destroyed their beloved harbor, before taking to the skies, like a brat throwing a tantrum.

 

Days later, the champions of Tellus and Njord returned, a defeated Ludovico at heel. When they inquired about the Spider, they learned of her antics, and with great displeasure, moved to set her right. In their absence, the people of Hazmes started to clean up their ravaged city. Much pain and damage had been caused, and compassion appeared to chase away all those mal sentiemants.

 

The common folk were unprepared then, when the royal army appeared within sight of the city, ready to assert the King’s power once more. With the bloodlust gone and their weapons in disrepair (those people had no idea how to properly care for a weapon, let alone how to use it) they had no chance. Leaders were sent to beg the generals for forgiveness, but they were denied.

 

“You’ve made your choice, bestiales!” the soldiers barked. “You will all pay for your crimes!”

 

On the day the army was to march on Hazmes, the common folk made one last plea.

 

“Please!” they cried. “It was that damned Arachne! She misled us!”

 

Again they were denied. “Idi’utes! None so lead you when you first began your filthy revolts!”

 

The archers were readied. The horseback soldiers got into a position for a follow-up charge. The generals took a breath, ready to give out the order—

 

And the earth split open to swallow them whole. The wind whipped up just as the archers let loose their arrows, fouling their path so that they fell harmlessly, and the riders and their horses were taken up into the air, their bodies turning for a moment in suspension, like something held them fast—

 

The three heavenly champions appeared, descending onto the battlefield. The Spider’s tail was up and curled at the tip as she smiled at her new prey. With a glance over her shoulder, she once again stirred the courage—or the bloodlust, some might say—of the peasants. Emboldened, the hundreds of thousands of common folk charged forward and attacked the stunned soldiers with anything they had.

 

“Spider, nay!” The champion of Tellus shouted. “Innocent blood may be shed!”

 

“None innocent,” she returned before reducing the soldiers and horses in her invisible web to dust.

 

The battle was long and fierce and horrific, even with the aid of the Legends. Through the whims of the Spider, the champions could not unleash their power as they normally would, and so could not make the battle quick. Many of our people died, but many more were the King’s men. It was a high cost to pay, pér conio, sheer numbers won again!

 

The king finally answered the Legends and the people of Hazmes—yes, he would outlaw slavery.

 

The champion of Njord became quite cross with the Spider. “That was what you had us fighting for? We came here for Ludovico, not political agendas!”

 

The champion of Tellus intervened. “Brother, it was my fault the Spider got such ideas. I merely suggested that in helping the people of Hazmes, we could perhaps help the slaves too. I had no idea this was her intention!”

 

“And when does anyone know what this lunatic is thinking?”

 

A Jose Hartrand-Ines Consuelo, the young historian who eventually wrote all of this cacare down into a book so that I could fall asleep on it many years later, overheard this. But the account stops there. Did the Spider receive any punishment for what she had done? No. In fact, it’s said that she split ways with her fellows to go northward, into the Sibesona. And did the people of Hazmes beg the remaining Legends to stay any longer in the smoldering ruins of their city? Definitely not!

 

I told you, eh?  It’s hard telling a Santian story that’s nice about Arachne.

 

____________________________

 

The Willing Fly – Part 4

As told by Lethia Artaud

 

It…it is difficult to think of Syria, so I suppose that would account as to the reason my memory is shifting so. I hope I am at least in some way coherent?

 

Ah. Well…where were we before this part?

 

The Spider striking Syria. Right.

 

So my former mistress found herself facing down a large gang of these dwarven guardians when suddenly she was knocked to the ground with her eyes bursting with stars and her head throbbing in sharp pain.

 

“Idiot!” her assailant spat over her before she launched herself at the dwarves, her body like a rogue marionette doll, wheeling free through the air without ever touching the ground. Her hands and feet struck hard as she went. It was almost graceful, in a jarring, neck-breaking sort of way, and Syria was too awed to even get up from the floor. The guardians fled, and the Spider returned to my former mistress, helping her up. The woman tried to read the Omatt’s mind, but found herself blocked, just as with the guardians.

 

“Who are you?” she asked, disconcerted. “And…and why did you hit me?”

 

“Because,” The Spider snapped, already walking away.

 

“Because why??”

 

“Because you stupid.”

 

“Wait!”

 

The Omatt sighed and stopped.

 

Syria dared to venture closer, her hand still on the back of her head. “But…who are you?”

 

The Spider looked at her as if she were blowing spit bubbles with crossed eyes. “Spider.”

 

“Spider?”

 

“Idiot. Spider. Not say again.”

 

Syria nodded, eyebrows raised. “Spider. Very well. I am Syria of Albias. May I ask what you are doing out here, Spider?”

 

Here, the Omatt frowned, and turned away. “Spider’s business.”

 

Syria clasped her hands behind her back. “Are we perhaps searching for the same thing?”

 

Spider shrugged. “Spread web. Idiot shook it. Was too early.”

 

“Oh I intruded on something, did I?”

 

“Yes. Busy. Go away,” the Omatt coiled her legs as though she were about to leap into the air in that bizarre form of flight.

 

At this point, Syria confessed to being a bit desperate. She’d been searching for ages for this valuable knowledge, and the guardians were looking to be too formidable for her to handle on her own. So quickly, she blurted out. “I can find a way to stop all pain!”

 

This made the Spider pause, and she turned to fix her green gaze on the enchantress. “No pain–?”

 

WAIT! Wait. Okay. So I just remembered how the story…um…ends. Would it hurt if I said it now? No? Yes?

 

Well I may as well.

 

So—back to Syria and the Spider captured. I just was at the part where the Omatt had woken up.

 

She smiled at everyone up in her bondage, her wounds healing and her cheeks flushing with life. It was as though she were coming back from the dead. Then her eyes darkened and threads of light erupted from the center of her chest.  They coursed out through the air, where they each speared lightning fast into the chests of each of the guardians. Beads of light coursed along the threads, from the dwarves to the Spider. The guardians were utterly paralyzed.

 

“It looked painful for them,” Syria had told me as a child. “Their bodies were rigid, their veins bulging. Their skin started to deteriorate as the light went from their runes.”

 

“What happened when they were all gone?” I whispered, sitting on the edge of the bench.

 

She looked at me, her eyes blinking from the fog of memory. “The Spider freed herself, and said to me, ‘Does it hurt?’

 

“I was confused, naturally, so I asked her, ‘How do you mean?’

 

“She replied, ‘Your tomorrow.’

 

“‘And why would my tomorrow hurt?’

 

“The Spider shrugged at me. ‘Because. You already try to heal it.’ She pointed at the scrolls in my hand before grinning and leaping into the air until she flew out of sight.” Syria frowned at her lap.

 

I blinked at her. “Mistress, what’s wrong?”

 

And she replied…

 

 

…I can’t. I can’t do it.

 

…It—It isn’t that I’ve forgotten. I just…Now I wish I didn’t remember.

 

____________________________

 

Demon Etiquette

As told by Nyx

 

My brother Thaddeus could be an asshat at times. Before he went off to join the military, Thad had a thing where he would try to scare me if he got bored enough.

 

He was bored plenty, I assure you.

 

One night, when I was six, I was in my room, trying to study Common so that I could talk to Marq the merchant elf in his next visit. The elf was one of the few outsiders that came to visit Tosmai, and I was fascinated with the prospect of being able to talk to him. So far, I could say, “Hello,” and “I am the university,” the latter being a very rough translation of, “Och ne erduk,” which actually means, (when translated properly,) “I am a student at school.” With me saying these silly things over and over, it wasn’t hard for Thaddeus to figure out what it was I was doing. Naturally, he had to bother me.

 

“Kooo-ah…” he called spookily from the doorway.

 

I ignored him, a tactic I had learned from my mother when our bickering filled the house.

 

Thaddeus persisted, raking his fingers down the wall. “Koah!

 

I pursed my lips but managed to keep my eyes resolutely on the open page of my book. I heard my brother fully pass through the bead curtain. I could sense him hovering behind me and snapped my book shut with a little growl.

 

I turned to glare up at him. “What do you want, cajeck?

 

“I wanted to warn you,” he said with intense gravity in his tone.

 

“About what?”

 

Thaddeus sat on my bed and lounged back, a smirk firmly in place. “Did you know filling your head with weird ideas gets bad attention?”

 

“A-ma said you can’t bother me when I’m reading.”

 

“Well you’re not reading right now, are you tail sucker?”

 

My lips puckered. I didn’t even hesitate as I turned my head. “A-maaaaa!

 

Thaddeus jumped up, his hands going around my mouth. “Shhh! Cajeck! Do you want the Spider to hear you?”

 

After I shook off my brother’s hands, I looked at him as if he were crazy. “Spiders can’t hear!”

 

“Who says?”

 

“My books! Spiders feel sound, they don’t hear it!”

 

“You can hardly read those things!”

 

A-pa told me, before he left! And there’s pictures—”

 

“Fine, fine. But what if there was a really big spider that could feel what you’re saying now?” He crossed his arms and bore down on me with a malevolent grin. “What if she’s crawling along her great wide web to come get you?”

 

My body bunched and my face betrayed my growing unease. “Stop it. You’re lying. There are no spiders that big. My books—“

 

“Are worth about as much as Atalo’s soiled diapers. I mean, really Koah? What do you need to learn Common for? To speak with that elf beggar who comes rattling through town with his crap?”

 

“He’s not a beggar! He’s the only person that’s ever nice to me! He gives me candy.”

 

Thaddeus slapped a hand to his face. “My sister, doomed to be a monster’s meal all for her sweet tooth. You do know what they say about weird men giving candy to little girls, right?”

 

“Marq isn’t weird.” But even I knew I was being generous at the time.

 

“He doesn’t ask you to do anything, right?” My brother’s face darkened a bit, in that way I’d seen him get when I told him of how I was bullied. “Doesn’t touch you?”

 

I frowned, too naïve to understand his line of questioning. “No. He just tries to sell me things.”

 

“Huh,” Thaddeus said with a nod. The dark look cleared, but his frown remained. With a sigh, the teenager reached over and plucked a book off my desk. It was my book on parlor tricks—the chapter on sleight of hand was bookmarked. “That’s good then. I was afraid she’d have you for sure.”

 

I gave him a confused look. “She?”

 

He spared a mild glance as he looked over the book cover. “The Spider.”

 

“The Spider is a person?”

 

Thaddeus laughed harshly. “Oh. I don’t know about that.

 

“Then what is she?” I couldn’t help it. My brother was always good at leading me on.

 

“Remember how you learned about the Unnamed One in erduk?

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

“Well the Spider is like him, only no one knows who her patron is.”

 

I frowned. “But don’t champions have to say who they serve?”

 

Thaddeus offered a genuine smile. “You’re too smart for your own good, Koah.” He ran his hand through his curly hair and returned to sitting on my bed. Leisurely, he began to flip through the pages of my book. “In any other case, you’d be right. But the Spider is different. She has no name, no god, and no parents. Some people think she ate them.”

 

“She ate her parents?” I cried in horror.

 

“Maybe. Who knows? What you should be worried about are the facts.”

 

“The facts?”

 

“The facts.” Thaddeus leaned in towards me, and I leaned in towards him. He started to whisper with a grave face, “She eats people who stray too far from where they’re meant to be. That includes doing weird stuff, like learning Common to talk to dirty elves.”

 

I pulled back with a scoff—but my body was shivering. “That’s dumb!”

 

My brother shook his head emphatically. “No! It’s true!” He pointed a finger over his shoulder. “You remember Terius, the boy who ate snails and thought he could become one some day if he just sat still long enough? He’s gone! I just got back from going over to his home, and the whole place was covered in cobwebs!”

 

“You’re lying!”

 

“I swear on my life!” Thaddeus insisted.  “There was nothing but thick sheets of sticky silk all over the daikut!

 

“You’re lying, and I’m going to tell A-ma!” I snapped, close to tears and already getting out of my chair.

 

“Don’t! Do you want A-ma to get taken by the Spider!?”

 

I froze, my eyes going wide. “Why would she go after A-ma?”

 

Thaddeus feigned a frustrated sigh and got up to shove me back into my seat. He crouched next to me, tossing my book onto my desk. “Fine. So you don’t want to believe me about Terius. I wanted to spare you this, since you’re such a tail sucker, but if this story will squish the fleas in your brain, then maybe it’s worth it.” My brother cleared his throat and started, “The Spider of the West is a demon, Nyx. She has no home and no loyalty to anybody. Oh sure. For a little while, she worked like all good champions did—helping people, righting wrongs, punishing the wicked…but then her true nature came out, and she took to wandering. She started from the south, in Erminia, where she traveled up through Ginger Weed Country straight to the Ailuran Nation. While she was meditating one night in a forest clearing, three Ailuran boys came across her. They were running away from home, abandoning their families and their duties to find their fortunes with the Albian dwarves in Ulsmel, the northern colony.

 

“Seeing the Spider there, none knew what to do. They’d never seen someone like the Spider before. She was an Omatt. An ape person. You’ve seen a picture of them right? Long grabby tails, long arms, round ears? Right. Anyway, these boys had grown up together, and so they were very close. So close, in fact, that each relied on the other to complement the things they lacked when faced with a challenge. That’s why Alcae, the boy of strength, bravely stepped forward first.

 

“’What are you, little thing? And when you’re done answering, would you please move out of the way?’

 

“’No. Boy rude,’ the Spider said. She didn’t open her eyes or move from her spot. ‘Will not.’

 

“’You are in Ailuran lands, creature! You must answer!’

 

“The Spider’s eyes opened and the air stilled. Her eyes glowed green in the dark. ‘Boy came upon me. Who is he?

 

“’I am Alcae,’” Thaddeus made a show of thumping his chest with his fist. “’And these are my brothers in friendship, Eolus, and Cato.’

 

“’Hmph. Thou art babes. Go away.’

 

“’Babes!?’ Alcae roared and bared his fists. ‘You are a fool to challenge us!’

 

“The Spider’s eyes narrowed. ‘Not challenging. Sparing. Leave, or Spider change her mind.’

 

“’That a fool such as you can barely speak gives me confidence that I can rip off your tail and strangle you with it!’”

 

By this point I was riveted, my knees drawn up to my chest and my face half hidden behind them. My fingers gripped my legs, knuckle-white. My stomach was turning into knots, because I knew what came next would be terrible.

 

Thaddeus went on, relishing in my growing anxiety. “Alcae boldly entered into the clearing, and suddenly the ground lit up with a web of glowing threads. The threads were rooting into the ground, and they all went back to the center of the Spider’s chest where little beads came up from the ground and went along the lines to be absorbed by her body. The boy’s feet stuck to this stuff and he couldn’t get free. As he struggled, he lost his balance and fell over. The threads sprang to life and wrapped around him, holding him down. They got into his chest, and the Spider started pulling his soul out using her web.”

 

I was shivering at this point. “Didn’t his brothers do anything??”

 

“Eolus was going to, but Cato held him back. ‘Wait! You will just meet the same fate as Alcae!’

 

“But Eolus was cocky as much as he was quick. Confident in his speed, he just said, ‘Nay! I must save our brother before the demon has him! She will not be able to catch my quick feet, and I can step around these threads better than any dancer!’ And he went, fighting off his brother’s hands, into the clearing.

 

“At first it seemed he would be right. Eolus quickly and skillfully avoided the many threads of the Spider’s web, and reached his brother in no time at all. But up close, he saw how Alcae was wrapped in the threads. Taking out his knife, Eolus just grinned arrogantly. ‘I was fast and skillful enough to get this far, I can do this equally as good!’”

 

“No!” I murmured.

 

“Yes!” Thaddeus said with a wicked grin. “As soon as Eolus touched the glowing threads, they wrapped about him faster than he could even think, and he fell to the ground next to Alcae. Now two brothers were caught and both were unconscious. Alcae, having been there the longest, was growing smaller, his muscles receding as his skin turned sallow and thin. The only one left was Cato—but the last brother was different from the others.

 

“Instead of solving his problems using his body, Cato used his mind. He was very smart, and very clever. Seeing the Spider’s web, he knew he could not step forward to save his brothers by brute force or speedy skill. So he spoke to the champion instead. ‘Demon. You introduced yourself as Spider.’

 

“’Did not introduce…but did say was Spider,’ the Spider replied.

 

“’May I ask why you are here?’

 

“’I wish it.’

 

“’You are alone in a strange land. Our meeting here seems to show a common need for change.’ The Spider didn’t respond. She just narrowed her eyes.

 

“Smoothly, Cato continued. ’Our purpose was to seek our fortunes in the north, but I see now that we are too young and weak to even survive the perils of our own forests! Please. Accept my apology on behalf of us all and release my brothers. I cannot live without them.’

 

“’Can,’ the Spider replied. ‘Are doing it now.’

 

“’Just as well, I’d rather my brother’s be with me.’

 

“The Spider didn’t speak right away. She looked Cato up and down, her ape tail rising to curl behind her. ‘You say you leaving. What is north?’

 

“‘We heard tales of artifacts and riches that the dwarves were keeping for themselves. We wished to have some. It is said that great powers can be gained from some of these things.’

 

“The Spider thought for a moment, then without a move or even a blink, her glowing threads began to recede, back into her chest. Cato’s brothers were freed, but Alcae was reduced to a frail old man, and Eolus little better. As the Spider rose to walk away, Cato called after her, ‘Wait!’

 

“The Omatt stopped and looked back at him, and the boy pleaded, ‘Please! Restore them! I cannot have my brothers so! I cannot carry them home, and surely the wolves will do away with them should I leave to get help!’

 

“The Spider just smiled. ‘Asked for release. Not restoration. Gave them release.’ She turned and started walking away. ‘Spider is what others wish. Call her demon…then she is one. But Cato give information. Much desired information. Spider will spare him. Should not push luck.’”

 

“And what did Cato do?” I asked tremulously.

 

Thaddeus gave a sad shake of his head. “Cato was clever enough to survive the encounter, and even got the Spider to free his brothers, but he was also arrogant, and that one word—demon—cost him his two friends. He had to return home alone to get help, but before his brothers could be attended to, the beasts of the forest did away with them.”

 

“And the Spider?”

 

“She was gone. Probably went farther north. But see, Koah? If you stray from where you’re meant to be, than the Spider will come to get you!”

 

I swallowed hard at the lump in my throat.

 

That night, I tried to sleep, and after hours of fretting, I finally slipped away to nightmares of a strange ape girl with green eyes, sitting on a web of light, while I cowered in the darkness, hoping she wouldn’t see me. The next day, I told my A-ma the story, and she scoffed, rolling her eyes.

 

“Oh for heaven’s sake, can your brother not torment you for one second?”

 

“Was it all a lie, then?” I asked hopefully. At this rate, I was never going to sleep well again.

 

My mother faltered, her hand going to scratch her neck. “Ah…well…no. Some of it is true. Oh! But my little night shard, do not cry. Come here. Shh, ehna ehna.” My mother petted my hair and rocked me as we sat in the kitchen, the early morning light coloring the room a sleepy shade. “The story Thaddeus told you was partially true, yes. There was an encounter by some of our youth long ago with the Spider of the West, but all the boys survived in good health. She was only asking for directions.”

 

“Really?” I sniffled, looking up at her from her bosom.

 

Fotini smiled. “Yes, my child.” She took hold of my face and in her eyes I could see love shining. “Do not listen to your brother. You are not a freak. The Spider will not come after you for wanting to better yourself and expand your horizons!”

 

“Even for learning Common?” I mumbled.

 

“You’re A-pa knew Common. There is nothing wrong with that!”

 

Just then, Thaddeus appeared, dressed and ready for erduk. Toddling after him was Atalo, dressed only in his diaper and waving a wooden sword around. My oldest brother smiled as my mother and I spared him a glare. “Morning!” he chirped as he began his forage for food.

 

My mother spoke as she gently displaced me from her lap. “Now while your brother tells you tales about demons and spiders, perhaps he would’ve found better material in his dear A-ma?”

 

Thaddeus’s apple froze on its way to his mouth.

 

Soon, the sound of him pleading and yelping outside could be heard as my mother swatted his bottom with the broom handle. I watched from the window, Atalo on my lap, a satisfied grin on my face. Sitting on the table next to me was the Common book from last night. My little brother tapped the glass with his wooden sword, and gurgled out, “Thaddy…Ca-jeck.”

 

____________________________

 

The Willing Fly – Part 5

As told by Lethia Artaud

 

…Yes, I suppose you’re free to give me that look. I’ve been a terrible storyteller, and once I finally had the story completely, I refused to tell it. But I gave my word. Good or bad, this is the last of it.

 

If you’ll recall, the last part I had left off at was when Syria was trying to convince the Spider to stay and help her.

 

“No pain?” Spider said, her tail twitching. “Of heart, or body?”

 

Breathless, the woman replied, “There’s a possibility for both. I just…I need to find the magical records that can show me how! This is Hudisyg, the dwarven center of magical research! If there was ever a place where such knowledge was to be found, it’d be here! After all, what else are those guardians guarding?”

 

The Omatt blinked at her. Then she smiled slowly.

 

“Spider’s web trembles,” she breathed, so that Syria could barely hear. “Syria is the trembler. Does Syria dream?”

 

“Yes. All the time. For a better world for all.”

 

The Spider’s smile widened. “Should stop. Dangerous.

 

“And you? Do you dream?”

 

The Omatt laughed harshly. “Can’t. Never sleep. Too busy waiting.”

 

“For what?”

 

“Everything.”

 

And from there is where the rest of the story I’ve already told you happened. They found the scrolls, Spider saved Syria from a trap and seemed fatally injured, but in truth she was just baiting Syria so that my former mistress would bring all the dwarves to one place. I was never told why the Spider desired this, or what she took from those dwarves, but it’s my guess that she found a power other than what Syria had been seeking.

 

Back to my twelfth birthday, after Syria ended her story. She fixed her eyes on me and laid a hand on my hair. “I believe you can see and understand a great many things, child. But I think you choose not to see, sometimes. I think you walk into the hands of the enemy as the Spider did…as I did, like a willing fly. Do not get caught up in what does not work. The Spider’s dissatisfaction with the world was inevitably her downfall. She could not find appreciation in anything, and her values diminished until she was as the dwarven men—driven by some esoteric need that none could fully comprehend.”

 

I furrowed my little brow, and Syria just chuckled at me. “What is it, Lethia dear?”

 

I looked at her. “If getting that power was bad for the Spider, than why was it okay for you?”

 

Syria’s smile gained a shadowed hook as she responded to me.

 

“The difference between me and the Spider is, that I do not get bored. On the contrary, I become deeply involved.”

 

Obsessed, she meant.

 

Looking back now…I think I could have put it together, even at the age of twelve. Maybe then all of us wouldn’t be here, sharing broken stories about a broken Legend. The magic Syria found in Hudisyg…was that the evil she used in Albias?  Syria called me the willing fly because I gave into my aimless passions as a child, but it seems I gave into her lies just as well…

 

____________________________

 

A Hungry Nothing

As told by Quincy

 

…Nothing fills me with such disgust as hearing that creature’s name. I’m almost insulted that you would ask me to speak of it…her.  I’m sure you’d fancy something entertaining, though I fear what I have to say would entertain the sick and disturbed. And I know her true name. I know the name of this evil, this plague that was visited upon Gaia when she came puking and screaming from her mother’s rancid womb. I will not say it. It is a sin, I’m almost certain of that now, to give that damned ape anything befitting a moral sentient creature. The Spider of the West? Arachne? These could easily be used to describe a horrible beast, and she was just that, make no mistake.

 

I have no real story to give. Just broken accounts of what that demon did—to my life, to so many others.

 

I suppose I can begin by stating how we met. You see, there was a short time when Jack let me travel with him after my mother’s death, and one of our last trips was to the Indabe. There, at a little oasis town called Abija, we met up with Tobias and his new adolescent ward, whom they only called, “Spider.” Being older, she was much taller than I, and yet from the looks of her, I guessed I could beat her in an arm wrestling match. She was skinny—unhealthily so—and her green eyes had a cold glint to them that froze my blood.

 

“Quincy, this is Spider. Spider, Quincy,” Tobias gestured between us.

 

“Hello,” I said shyly. I think I was between the ages of five or seven at the time.

 

Instead of replying, the Omatt glared at Tobias.

 

The tall man faltered, scratching at his bushy eyebrow. “Oh! I’m sorry…I should mention that Spider has a special condition that makes speech difficult for her. As a result, her comprehension is fine but she cannot hold a conversation with others. I’ve been trying to help her with…” At my lost look, Tobias trailed off again, his cheeks coloring.

 

Jack just laughed and tousled my hair.  “Fledgeling, what your uncle is trying to say, is that Spider is mute.”

 

I blinked at her. “Oh.”

 

Spider just gazed at me guardedly.

 

We spent that night eating and carousing, my father and my uncle conversing with the locals while I took in all the strange sights and sounds of that foreign land. Only Spider seemed withdrawn, her eyes out on the moonlit sea of sand that surrounded our little haven. Her spine was curled and her tail wrapped around into her lap, where she stroked it gently. Finally, I noticed her reticence and moved to speak to her. “Is something wrong?” I asked.

 

She looked at me sharply, and I jumped. Then I remembered that she couldn’t speak. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I just thought you looked sad. Where are your parents?”

 

I could see her nostrils flare and her round ears twitch but her face otherwise remained passive as she looked away from me. I bit my lip and sat closer to her on the pillow cushions. “Did you lose them? I lost my mother. Birds took her eyes.”

 

Spider looked at me sidelong and I looked down into my lap. “I love father, but I miss mother.”

 

“Miss. Okay. To…Miss,” came the lisping response. She spoke slow and thick like a simpleton would.

 

I looked at the Omatt in surprise. “You spoke!”

 

Spider’s face screwed up and her tail flopped in her grip. “Miss. Mo-ther. Love.

 

I nodded my eyes tearing up. “I did love her! I still do! Do you miss your parents?”

 

Spider shrugged.

 

I bit my lip. From my pocket, I pulled out a small brown and cream quill. “Here,” I said as I handed the item to her. The Omatt scrunched her nose up at it, but I pushed it toward her insistently. “Take it! That was my mother’s. Since you don’t have a mother, we can share. I think she’d like you.”

 

The Spider stared, bewildered by the gift. Then she smiled.

 

The rest of the night went merrily enough, and in a short time after that, we were as sisters.

 

This all sounds nice, right? But trust me when I say that it didn’t last long. In the coming years, my father would venture off for quest after quest, leaving me in the care of the others. Often times Tobias and Spider would go with him, and I would be left in the care of either one or both of them. But one day, word came that Ludovico, the champion of Eate, was abusing his powers for base needs. It was one thing for agents of heaven to oppose each other over their gods’ principles, but it was another thing entirely to use one’s powers to answer the whims of mortals. The direness of the situation demanded that all three of my caretakers go, so I was sent to stay with a friend in the Kingdom of the Sands whilst Jack, Spider, and Tobias addressed the problem on the other side of the world.

 

They later returned…without Spider.

 

“But where is she?” I cried. “She isn’t dead, is she?”

 

“No fledgeling,” Tobias said with a sad smile. “Spider just…needs time to herself. She’ll come around.”

 

But she never did.

 

In just a short year after that, I was sent to live in the Fanaean village of Kimbia, as my father’s work kept him perpetually in the southern hemisphere, and having me in the Kingdom of the Sands no longer became convenient. Our friends there argued that it was unsafe for me to be in Fanaea because of its wild and primitive society. They said I would be safer staying in the well-guarded kingdom, where my father’s enemies could not reach me. This objection was momentarily silenced when Tellus granted a sort of reprieve to Tobias, and he chose to stay with me in the village. Naturally, it wasn’t long before he was called on again, only this time he left in the dead of night without telling me. I had to hear it from Kafeel in the morning that my so-called uncle had gone to take care of something important that required his immediate attention, and he would be back soon.

 

Then the people of Kimbia, along with Hakeem’s family, were all slaughtered, and my caretakers were nowhere in sight. Hakeem and I were the only survivors left of a bloody attack from marauders—all enemies of my father. They searched the jungles for me for days afterwards, moving their camps hither and thither. We barely escaped their notice, but in all our movement, we could not properly gather food or find shelter, and so we were just barely surviving. It was the arrival of the pirate captain, Tulki that saved Hakeem and I, but even that solution was for the short term.

 

But what of the Spider? Yes. What of that despicable beast? I will tell you why it was Tobias left me unguarded in such a hurry, forsaking me in favor of her. I will tell you what my father was doing, hunting her along the Talmorian landscape until he reached her abominable jungle in the Indabe. And I will tell you what that creature did, to earn so much infernal attention.

 

On Talmor, there was once a town called Tabiz on the eastern coast. It was a prosperous farming town, and though they were small, they had many slaves. I have heard speculation that this was perhaps what set Spider off. She hated slavery, but she hated more those who surrendered to it. Perhaps this was why she sat in the middle of Tabiz’s market day. Perhaps this was why she let her overgrown bangs shade her eyes as men and women of different races, genders, and species, happily served their masters under bondage.

 

Perhaps this was why she undid them all, their bodies disintegrating into dark crimson dust before vanishing into nothing at all.

 

In a single sweep of her will, the Spider erased Tabiz and its people—slaves and all—from the face of Gaia. Conversations were cut short, handshakes were not completed, jumping games left undecided, lives were snuffed out because this one mkundu monster just decided she felt like it.

 

And the sick part? She left one old woman alive to tell the world of what had happened. Why the old woman? Because Spider wanted it that way. No other reason. That’s it. There is no moral to this story, no underlying truth. Just tragedy abound in that we were all too blind or too naïve to see.

 

Over the years following her downfall, I came to learn of how her so-called ‘heroics’ were little more than violent, savage excursions to fill her vast need for fulfillment. Through disconnected accounts—A Santian history lesson, an Ailuran fable, an Albian rumor—I gathered that the Spider had travled through the heart of the Sibesona to the far north, where there she found some sort of power. But even this did not satiate her insane demands for death and destruction.

 

That is why I call the Spider a beast, and I say I am glad that she is sealed away. And should she ever be released, I only hope that she rots in hell for all eternity. Since the day I met her, the Omatt had been looking for something to fill the black hole in her heart. Up until the moment she was cast down, it is my opinion that she never truly recovered from her starved life as a slave. It is my opinion, that her evil nature left that demon emaciated and hungry for a great deal of nothing.


Back to Honey & Spice | Forward to Artifacts of Childhood

Honey & Spice

“Don’t get any big ideas

They’re not gonna happen

 

You paint yourself white

And fill up with noise

But there’ll be something missing

 

Now that you’ve found it, it’s gone

Now that you feel it, you don’t

You’ve gone off the rails

 

So don’t get any big ideas

They’re not gonna happen

 

You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking”1

 

____________________________

 

The end of spring meant examinations, and Nyx had to rub the ink off her face from falling asleep on her notes. She’d had that dream again. The one with Taila and the honey soap in her bedroom. She shivered, the unreal memories flushing her body with a pulsing heat. If she had the time, she’d rinse herself clean both in body and in mind with some cold water. But as things stood, Nyx did not have the time, and if her guess was correct, she was, in fact, late.

 

Her hair was in a frizzy ponytail, one leg in her trousers as she searched frantically about the mess of her room for her book on Later History. It was still early morning, the sleepy teu-teu of the grosbeaks outside her window having just started. The fourteen-year-old muttered under her breath as she hopped about, trying to get her other foot in.

 

“On the 4th cycle of the lunar year 906, the Illuminari Pantaleon established trade routes with the halfling settlement, Règlem, creating a new era of agricultural development and…” she trailed off, her tongue finding its way to her cheek as she spied the familiar corner of a mauve book cover beneath a pile of scrolls on the floor.  “There you are!” Pulling on her pants, Nyx went and plucked the book up.

 

Blowing at her bangs, she tossed the text onto her bed and removed her nightshirt.

 

A male voice made an appreciative sound from the doorway, and the girl jumped, her hands bundling her shirt to her chest as she turned to look.

 

She only caught sight of a shadow being pushed down the hallway by her mother.

 

Fotini hissed at the stranger, her face pink.  “Get out!

 

Nyx turned her eyes to the ground, her heart hammering against her chest.  She listened and heard the front door slam shut.  Silence rang for a long drawn out moment before her mother slipped past the beaded curtain of her bedroom doorway. It was times like these that the teenager wondered why Ailurans couldn’t take a leaf out of every other cultures book, and just build doors.

 

“I’m sorry, Nyx.  I…didn’t think you would be awake yet,” Fotini said, her eyes also downturned.

 

The teenager glanced at her, before returning her eyes to the floor.  “I was going to meet Ampelos for an early study session before class.”  She bit her lip, debating her next question. With shoulders hunched, Nyx asked, “Atalo didn’t see, right?”

 

Fotini’s silence felt almost frosty.  The girl swallowed hard as she forced her eyes onto her mother’s face.  Quietly, she said next, “A-ma…why don’t you just choose one?”

 

Something indescribable passed the older woman’s face.  Fotini was still a beautiful woman, but the touches of age were beginning to show in the silver lines of her thick and curly hair. The woman’s eyes batted, lines appearing around them as her brow tensed, then eased.

 

“You’ll be out late again tonight, yes? I’ll have a stew ready for when you’re home,” the woman said.

 

Nyx scowled at her mother’s sidestepping, but simply nodded. “Please make sure that Atalo takes his tonic for the night. That cold still hasn’t left him entirely, and he’s too stubborn to do what he needs to.”

 

“I will, do not worry my little night shard.” Her mother smiled thinly and stepped forward, kissing her daughter’s forehead. “You should hurry, Nyx,” Fotini murmured.  She turned and left the room, the beaded curtain tinkling in her wake. “Don’t keep Ampelos waiting.  He’s such a nice boy.”

 

____________________________

 

The girl walked slowly through her village, her eyes roving over her surroundings.  The daikuts were still dark and quiet, but the village paths were beginning to show signs of life as merchants and craftsmen rose early to prepare for the day.  The sky was a soft rosy blend of hazy white calamine and passionate damask.  The dark mountains guarded the northern skyline as the suns’ rays began to spear up over the forested western lands.  The days had been getting chillier, but that particular morning saw no wind, and the air was cool at best.

 

As such, Nyx felt overdressed in her winter smock. She tugged at the furry collar, the soft deer suede gentle beneath her sweaty fingertips. She felt like she were roasting. She paused in her walk to set down her bag of school materials and to strip the item off. Her cheeks blazed as the act reminded her of her earlier state of undress, and the stranger that had peeped in on her. It hadn’t been the first time that had happened, and it wouldn’t be the last.

 

The girl had always been aware of her mother’s proclivities, but it only seemed to reach her when their home served as the stage. Somehow, those acts of indulgence were things apart from their family.  Apart from her mother.  And yet, the skulking partners seen during the wee hours of the day illuminated a connection that was more disturbing each time she witnessed it.

 

“Sweet Aelurus…it doesn’t feel right!” Nyx thought with a shudder. “Why can’t she just choose a suitor, like Thaddeus says?  Why does she have to keep doing this to us?”

 

The girl stuffed her smock into her bag and resumed her walk at a quicker pace. As she left the village outskirts to the western hills, she caught the scent of incense and roasted almonds long before spying Ampelos sitting atop one particularly grassy knoll. He was leaning back on his hands, his face upturned towards the sky with his eyes closed. Nyx stopped just short of him, feeling her tension mount for reasons inexplicable. One hand gripped her bag strap whilst the other wadded the front of her shirt.

 

She swallowed when Ampelos’s honey-colored eyes opened and turned her way. He must have caught her scent somehow, because she hadn’t made a sound. For some reason, he was always able to sense her presence—an ability that irked her to no end during their childhood games of hide and seek.

 

The teenage boy smiled at her before he looked down at his lap. “Nyx!” He brushed back his curly hair as he reached for his book on Later History. “I thought you’d given up on me.”

 

“That’s funny, because I still can’t believe you haven’t given up on me,” Nyx returned, a nervous smile on her face. She was only half-joking. Ampelos was a priest-in-training. Over the years it was discovered that, while Nyx was very well-read in secular knowledge, her religious knowledge was rudimentary at best. And so, the boy had taken it upon himself to help Nyx gain a more rounded understanding of their faith—beyond what the politicians used for their distortions.

 

Ampelos was a generous person, if quiet and a bit shy. Seven years of familiarity made discourse much easier between them, but even after so much time, the boy still found it hard to look into her face for too long. He had a brilliant mind, regardless, and his affectations seemed to be the very portrait of piety. Nyx couldn’t help but feel uncouth or roguish in his presence, as though there were some sin she couldn’t wash out from her skin. Having seen her mother’s most recent indiscretion, the feeling was intensified.

 

When Nyx didn’t move to sit next to him, Ampelos looked up at her, his brows knitting.  “Nyx? Is something the matter?”

 

At his genuine concern, the girl felt some of her tension ease a bit and took a seat next to her friend.  “No, no. Sorry. I just…had an awkward start today.”

 

“Want to talk about it?”

 

Her response was quick to chase his. “Not really.”

 

Ampelos gave a nod of his head, his smile gentle. His eyes searched her face for that small second before they predictably turned away.  “So…Pantaleon?”

 

Nyx took out her textbook and opened it to the dog-eared page. “He was a member of the Illuminari in 906, during the age of the Sorels and Felix the Great.  He established trade routes with Règlem, and helped birth what became known in Old Ailuran as Zvéri Kenthas—which is…?” she trailed off pointedly.

 

Ampelos blushed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Oh. Uh… Zvéri Kenthas was the agricultural revolution that saw us through the next ten years of famine. The halflings introduced us to old elven techniques, which we adapted for our purposes. Right?”

 

“Right. But here’s the thing…if we hadn’t had made that diplomatic connection, what do you think would have happened?”

 

“We would have died as a society.”

 

Nyx smiled. “You think?”

 

Ampelos blinked at her. “Uh…yes?”

 

The girl giggled and pointed at the third paragraph of her book.  The boy found the same place in his copy, and she began to read.  “’Though the Ailuran Nation gained new skills in agricultural, their dependency on the halfling cartels increased to such an alarming degree, that leaders were faced with either meeting their demands, or finding themselves deprived of the very tools and resources needed to implement the new agricultural practices that kept their people fed.’”

 

“And then there were the dwarven riots,” Ampelos said, his eyes brightening.

 

Nyx gave a nod. “You see, there isn’t anything wrong with trying to reach out to other societies. The mistakes made in the wake of Pantaleon’s excellent discourse was that his fellows allowed for a situation in which the Ailuran Nation became politically weakened, and tied to dangerous conflict. The agricultural methods the halflings showed us required many things only they could provide, so we became reliant on their trade. When the riots broke out, our livelihood was threatened, and we had to send soldiers in to assist the halfling cartels in suppressing the dwarves in their settlements. And sweet Aelurus, if you think the Fiamman ginger weeds are bad, you should’ve seen the dwarves! Many of them were hardened warriors and skilled crafters, and their weaponry made them a dangerous force to reckon with. A lot of our soldiers died.

 

“Now, most people will argue that we had no choice, and no one’s arguing that our eventual survival wasn’t a good thing, but I think–and don’t put this down as an answer in the exam, or Leander will mark you down–I think it would’ve been safer for our nation to stick to our own methods of survival. We have our own practices for surviving famine, ancient practices that may have been harder on our people—but I think you and I both agree toughness was never an issue for our nation. Agricultural leaders in 906 forsook tried and true methods for expediency and wealth. That’s the point everyone revolves around. Lots of hypotheticals get thrown back and forth, and it gets really confusing. I don’t think there is any one right answer.

 

“You see, interaction between cultures has been historically shown to lead to an increased chance of exchanged ideas, and even sometimes a joining of traditions, like for instance, how we now celebrate the end of Spring with seven days of revelry each year. That’s a practice with elven roots, called Printemps. But it’s important to see that it is a conscious choice by society to accept those kinds of ideas and customs, whenever or wherever they may come from.”

 

“So what is there to learn?” Ampelos wondered, his eyes on his book.

 

The girl quirked an eyebrow at him. “Pardon?”

 

He looked at her, startled.  “Huh? Oh! I was talking to myself, sorry. I…I mean…well, isn’t this what history is for? To teach us about the present and what the future can hold? This sounds like Leander’s attempt at asserting Ailuran superiority again. So what’s the lesson?”

 

Nyx offered a bemused smile. “Amp, the lesson here is easy. When dealing with others, one has to walk the fine line between being taken advantage of, or missing out on good things. The power comes in realizing there’s a choice, and in so choosing, one commits themselves to a path they are a lot more likely to succeed by.”

 

“So did Pantaleon make the right choice?”

 

“Yes, I think so. It was the other leaders who allowed themselves to be misled. But if the trade routes hadn’t been established? I think we still would have survived, despite the harsh conditions. Just remember to make that point when asked, and you’ll get full marks. Throw in some Ailuran patriotism, and Leander will probably just pass you.” At this, the girl rolled her eyes.

 

Ampelos chuckled. “Thanks Nyx.” He gestured at her bag.  “You look like you have more than usual today! Were you going to see Taila after our examinations?”

 

Nyx grinned shyly and patted her bag. “Well I brought my smock today, so that’s why it’s so big, but yes. I was planning on seeing Taila after. Will you be joining me?”

 

“No. I have special training at the temple, and Urian wants me there as early as possible.”

 

“Darn. Well, I’ll tell her you said hello, then.”

 

Ampelos’s smile waned and he fingered the corners of his book. “Gods…It’s still weird, not having her around all the time. I hardly get to see her at all these days.”

 

To this the girl said nothing, her eyes turning down to the book in her lap. Scribbled in the margins were special notes for Taila. The girl’s friend had ended her schooling to take up her family business after her mother became seriously ill. Taila’s father was aging, and he couldn’t take on all the work himself. So she worked every day, from sun up to sun down, and had been for nearly a year. Nyx had started tutoring the older girl when her lessons began to cover material she had missed out on, which had been for four months now.

 

“What you’re doing is a good thing,” Ampelos said suddenly.

 

Nyx looked at him, her eyes wide. “Huh?”

 

He looked at her, an almost sad smile on his face. “For Taila. Helping her with her work and tutoring her.” He looked away. “It’s the kind of care I wish I could show someone I love, if only my priest duties didn’t keep me so busy. I like serving Aelurus, but I like caring for others just as much.”

 

The girl’s face blazed red. Clearing her throat, she turned the page. “Let’s keep at it, Amp. We don’t have much time left before class starts.”

 

____________________________

 

Examinations were done, and Nyx breathed a sigh of relief. As was often the case, she had overestimated the difficulty of the test, and the only challenge she faced was in finding a way to word her answers so that Leander wouldn’t think she was feeding him lines. Which she often was. After being singled out for so many years, the girl decided it was wiser to keep her true opinions to herself regarding the propaganda and skewed history, and just play along.  With the fervor over the Fiamman war, her opinions would even be lethal, in some cases. Leander already did his best to find excuses to punish her, she didn’t want to add oil to the fire.

 

Dashing out of the classroom and away from her navi’s contemptible gaze, she gave Ampelos a parting wave before hurriedly speeding through the arched hallways to the wide brick stoop of the erduk, the village place for learning. She was about to descend the stairs when someone bumped into her harshly, nearly making her tumble headlong down the steps. Her fists clenched. The stoop wasn’t crowded. That had been purposeful.

 

She turned to the offender, her eyes glaring. “Hey!”

 

She immediately regretted looking, for who turned to her was none other than Killen, Leander’s nephew, who just so happened to hate her as much as their navi did, if not more. The boy’s hazelnut eyes fixed on her tightened face, and he just smirked, his gaze searing beneath the wisps of his dark bangs. The girl was seized with bewilderment—never had he looked at her in such a fashion before. It was always glares and snarls and cruel amusement. This was so much more…reserved. Without so much as an insult, the boy turned and continued on his way, toward his hollering fellows.

 

Nyx stared after him, something cold flashing along her skin as she watched her longtime nemesis saunter away.  He was a year older than she was—still younger than Taila, but already growing into the stature of a proud Ailuran male. Her stomach beginning to ache, the girl set her bag down and shakily sought her smock.

 

“Nyx?”

 

The girl paused to turn and see Ampelos standing in the entryway of the erduk, his face once again donning a look of concern. “Weren’t you going to Taila’s? I thought you’d be halfway there by now?”

 

“Oh, well I just caught a chill and was looking for my…uh…smock. It was buried beneath my books. Pretty deep,” the girl said this with a weak smile as she tugged out the item in question.

 

“Oh.”

 

Nyx shouldered the bag, the smock gripped in her other hand. She started sidestepping down the stairs. “I’ll see you later, Amp.”

 

The boy nodded, his concern failing to fade away completely. “I…Goodbye, Nyx.”

 

The girl turned, and with a quick gait, she set off down the village path to Taila’s. She pulled her shoulder strap over her head, so that it crossed her chest, and struggled into her smock. The three suns were now nearing the dusky westward heights that would usher in the night. At this point in the day, Taila and her father should have been baking honey bar soaps to sell on market day.

 

Sure enough, when Nyx came upon her friend’s home, the chimney was trailing with smoke, and she caught that unmistakable sweet scent. Feeling some of her anxieties fall away, the teenager came up to the daikut and knocked on the door. The house was not in the best of shape—its roof needed mending and the stone foundation could have used with reinforcing. Inside were similar stories—of needed repairs and the funds that lacked to achieve them.

 

But when Taila opened the door, Nyx knew these were not the things weighing on her friend’s mind.

 

Taila was fifteen years old and already the very image of a woman. She had full supple breasts, rich tender thighs, and a confident air about her that failed to fade even in the face of real threats. Her amethyst eyes, even now as they held consternation, were large and captivating. In a way much like Ampelos was with her, Nyx found it hard to look into Taila’s eyes for too long. She chose to ignore the implications of that relation.

 

The older girl bopped her on the head.  “Cajeck! Didn’t I tell you could just walk in?”

 

Nyx winced and blushed, rubbing the spot that Taila had given her a thump. It hadn’t hurt, but she felt chided all the same. “Sorry, I just didn’t want to intrude, in case–”

 

“Nyx, from now on, walk in.”

 

“…O-Okay.”

 

“You’re always welcome, and to be frank, it’d be less of a pain if we didn’t come running to the door every time you were here. You come almost every day anyhow. Do you see where I’m coming from? My A-pa says you’re practically a part of this family, so we don’t have to be so formal, y’know?”

 

“Yes. Sorry.”

 

Taila placed her hands on her hips as she gave a slow shake of her head. Nyx’s shoulders hunched around her ears and she stood clutching the bulge beneath her smock that was her bag. Then the older girl grinned.

 

“Geez, Nyx. What am I going to do with you?” She placed a hand at the back of the girl’s neck, pulling her in.

 

Nyx’s breath hitched, feeling that vulnerable place of passivity enter her in a ghostly wave before the contact ended and she heard the door shut behind them. They stood in the small dining room kitchen, simply furnished, the sweet fragrant smell even stronger here than outside. Dried herbs of all sorts hung from the ceiling, creating an almost wild, foresty feel to the space. Taila’s father, Terus, a tall man with eyes an even richer hue than his daughter’s, stood at the table reading over a ledger. He looked up at Nyx and smiled good naturedly. Exhaustion wrinkled about his eyes.

 

“Hello, Nyx. I see my daughter’s put you straight.”

 

The girl burned red and ducked her head. “Y-Yes sir.”

 

“We’ve some biscuits if you’d like some. They’re in the basket over there on the counter.”

 

“I’d love some, thank you sir.”

 

“A-pa, are you okay with the last batch?” Taila asked her father, as Nyx fetched a roll from the basket. She bit into it and tried not to grimace. They were like rocks.

 

“No, you go on, Taila. I was just trying to finish these records before the week’s end.”

 

She gave a nod, and looked to Nyx in turn. As her eyes fell on the half-eaten biscuit, her lips quirked up, and she gestured for the younger girl to follow. Together, they entered the small hallway, where on the left was an open entry way—Taila’s room—and the left, a curtain-closed entryway—her parent’s.  Nyx was careful not to make a sound, lest she disturb Taila’s mother, Jezah, who was no doubt sleeping by this time.

 

Upon entering her friend’s bedroom, the smell of fragrant honey lessened, a musky scent nearly overtaking it. There was a kickball in the corner—dusty now—and a rack of slim gaudily painted clubs for a game called tuetri on the right wall. Clothes were strewn everywhere, the bed unmade, and there was even an old ink spill on the small writing desk next to the bed, the inkpot still having yet to have been turned right side up. Taila cleared her throat, hurriedly trying to pick up some of the clothes on the floor. “Er–Sorry. I didn’t think it was this bad. I had meant to clean up earlier, but—”

 

“It isn’t so bad,” Nyx said earnestly. “You should see my room.”

 

“Maybe later.” Taila deposited her gathered clothes into a small wicker basket near the door, where they spilled over the edges like water would an over-filled bucket. She fixed her eyes on Nyx, her eyebrow quirked. “How’s your biscuit?” Her eyes shined with knowing.

 

Nyx narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “You baked these, didn’t you?”

 

Her friend just giggled and said, “So what are we studying today?”

 

Nyx pursed her lips and shoved her biscuit into her smock’s left pocket, then sat on the bed while Taila sat in her desk chair. The younger girl pulled out her book on Later History. “I just took an exam on this, so I figured we could go over some of it while it’s still fresh in my mind.”

 

Taila wrinkled her nose. “Later History?”

 

“You haven’t studied this yet, right?”

 

“No. I quit lessons way before my navi got there. I think the last thing we covered was…” and here the girl trailed off, her eyes rolling to the ceiling and her head tilting back with a sigh.

 

Nyx’s eyes flickered to her exposed neck, long and tanned and slender…

 

Taila’s head snapped up, making the younger girl jump. “The Heretic Rebellion! Yeah, that was it.”

 

“Sweet Aelurus, really?” Nyx palmed her face. “Taila you should’ve said so! I only focused on language arts so long so that you could get all the advanced rules down!”

 

“Nyx, Later History doesn’t necessarily paint itself out as vital knowledge for me right now.”

 

At this, the younger girl’s face softened.  She looked away. “You’re right.  I’m sorry.”  She bit her lip and glanced up shyly. “How’ve…things been lately?”

 

Taila shrugged one shoulder, her face going blank. “Fine. A-pa and I have been keeping up with the care of the bees pretty good. A-ma’s been doing well. Her fever’s been down, she’s breathing okay, and the thrush seems to have left her tongue. Her skin is even clear of breakouts.” The fifteen-year-old picked her pant leg, where a trail of honey had dried onto the fabric. “So we’re fine.”

 

Nyx nodded, fingering the corners of her book.

 

With a pop, Taila stood and sat next to her, her amethyst eyes bright and intent. “To hell with studying for right now! I’ve been working all day. I just want to hear about how you and Amp have been. Go on, tell me!” the older girl tickled Nyx’s side, eliciting a laugh from her friend.

 

Nyx clapped a hand on her mouth, her eyes wide as she looked toward the doorway. Taila looked too, her eyebrows high. When nothing came of the small disruption, the friends shared a silent giggle.

 

“Well,” Nyx started, grabbing her knees. “Ampelos says hello, first of all. His priest training has been taking up more of his time, so I don’t see him as much as I used to. He even misses erduk some days. Oh, did I mention to you? I study with him in the early mornings when we can. So you’re not the only one.”

 

“I bet he loves that,” Taila said with a smirk.

 

Nyx blushed, not for her friend’s meaning, but for the alluring tilt of her lips.

 

The fourteen-year-old cleared her throat and went on in a mumble. “Atalo’s fine. As fine as that flea-brain could ever be.” Nyx grinned at the floor. “You know he ate a cup of earth worms on a dare last week?”

 

“Disgusting! What the hell for?”

 

“He was trying to impress a girl. Hemalia.”

 

“Diphene’s daughter? Ugh, but she’s such a narcissist! She’d probably marry herself if she could! Can you imagine her trying to service herself? It’d be like one of those Santian paintings, searching for the deeper meaning of self-buggery.” Taila only knew about Santian paintings because Nyx had shared some of her father’s outside books in some of their study sessions.

 

She shoved at Taila’s shoulder. “What a thing to say!”

 

“Oh I can say more, believe me!” The fifteen-year-old chuckled deeply. “So did Atalo’s ploy work? Is the lovely Hemalia all his?”

 

Nyx rolled her eyes. “Apparently he’s taking her to Ebon Lake this weekend.”

 

“The stupid thing was, he got sick from it! I’m half-expecting his mouth to mutate into a giant worm!”

 

“Oh Aelurus bite me, I can just see how they’re first kiss would work out. ‘Oh darling, you can bait my salmon any day!”

 

Nyx feigned horror as Taila snorted, her hand clapping over her nose and mouth. She tried to stifle her laughter and was clearly failing. The younger girl grinned as her friend threw herself back onto the bed. Setting her book aside, she turned her body so that she was leaning further back onto the mattress, one hand planted, one leg tucked beneath her, the other arm draped lazily along her side.

 

Her eyes trailed to Taila’s chest, jumping and quivering with her humor.

 

When the older girl calmed herself down enough to speak, she chortled out, “Gods, what do you think makes people choose the lovers they do?”

 

Nyx’s smile waned as her eyes traced Taila’s features, so lovely and even that she felt abstract and monstrous in comparison. Her mind flashed with images of her recent dream—of wet skin, joined lips, and searching hands. Then her mother’s face popped into the girl’s head, and Nyx shut her eyes with a hiss. Her friend blinked up at her, her smile also fading.

 

“Nyx? What’s up?”

 

The fourteen-year-old turned away, her shoulders sagging. “She did it again, Taila.”

 

The silence that followed seemed to drag on for too long. Then Taila sat up and hugged her from the side. Nuzzling her friend’s ear, she asked quietly, “It’s okay, Nyx. Tell me.”

 

Nyx swallowed, staring up at the ceiling. “I was getting ready to see Ampelos really early this morning. I took off my shirt, and I heard a man’s voice from the hallway. When I turned to look, my mother was shoving someone toward the door. She apologized after, but when I asked why she couldn’t just choose someone she just…” the girl trailed off, her head dropping to her chest.

 

Taila stroked her hair and said nothing.

 

Nyx closed her eyes and tears dropped to her lap. “It’s normal, it’s natural for us to seek a new partner when one leaves us. Even Thaddeus has given up on our A-pa ever coming home. How can she bring so much shame to our home? She isn’t courting, she’s just—sweet Aelurus! There’s just no end to it! I wish she’d at least do it elsewhere, so that Atalo doesn’t have to see it.”

 

“And me either,” the girl added inwardly.

 

Taila’s hand stilled on her hair. “But you’ve seen it, Nyx. You’ve seen more than most could even understand at such a young age, and you haven’t turned into some sort of hedonist.”

 

The girl winced, feeling her stomach turn. “I wish I hadn’t told you those things.” She meant every word.

 

Her friend grabbed her chin, forcing her eyes onto hers. Nyx could feel Taila’s warm breath on her lips. “I’m glad you did. If you hadn’t, you’d be sitting on all of this without anybody to talk to, just letting it all eat at you. And then where would you be?”

 

“Not lying. To you. To me.”

 

Nyx swallowed and said, “I just…I don’t want Atalo to know those things.”

 

“He will someday. And whose to say he hasn’t already?”

 

“He’s eleven. If he must find his way to it, than I’d like it to be in a…healthier way than I.”

 

Taila sat back, her eyes blinking. “Than…You mean you’ve…” she made a vague gesture in the air.

 

“No!” Nyx shook her head frantically, her face flushing red. “No, of course not!”

 

Her friend just smirked at her. “Nyx, it’s fine if you have. Sweet Aelurus, I have.”

 

Nyx felt her chest pull, a sudden deafening roar entering her ears. She stared at Taila, her features going slack, her eyes burning, as she tried to reconcile the information that hit her ears. Her rational mind knew she was being unreasonable. But another part of her felt like screaming, just the same.

 

“With who?” She heard herself ask.

 

Taila shook her head, turning her face with a shy smile.

 

Nyx felt her muscles clench and her bones began to ache. She, the animal inside her, was stirring with her turmoil. The girl swallowed and gave a shake of her head, trying to calm herself with deep, quiet breaths. She was being stupid. Taila was not hers and never would be. Even considering how close they were, it was silly to expect her friend to come running to her with news of her first lay. Virginity was not a hated trait, but not a prized one, either, and the loss of it was nothing exceptional.

 

The girl started talking, her eyes on the floor. “I didn’t know what I was seeing as a child. I’ll be out of erduk soon, free to support my family, and all I can think is that I’ve got to do all that I can for them. That includes making sure Atalo is raised right.

 

Taila pinched her friend’s cheek with a frown. “Have you got fleas in your brain? You’re talking like you’re so old!

 

“I feel old…” Nyx muttered with a frown. She took Taila’s hand from her cheek. She held it, unable to help running her thumb along her friend’s palm—the skin was dry. Rough. Her nose flared and she picked up that signature honey scent that she would forever attribute to her friend.

 

“Nyx, I know you love your family, but our situations are different. You’re talking as though you’ll be through with erduk in a few months, but you’ve got at least two more years. Forget taking on a side job, either. I think you should stick to your lessons. Thaddeus is taking care of your needs, isn’t he? Trust your brother!”

 

“But we only get to see him once a year. What ELSE am I supposed to do when my mother brings her army of suitors through our home? They eat what we have, are a bad influence on my brother, and soil our honor as a family!”

 

“Right,” she said instead, feeling the rift of misunderstanding as acutely as she felt her friend’s hand in hers.

 

Nyx consciously let go, and opened up her book on Later History.

 

“Let’s get to this before we’re both nodding to sleep in our seats,” she said with somber eyes.

 

____________________________

 

Upon arriving home, Nyx found the stew her mother had promised, and served herself the last remaining portions before eating it cold. When she was done, she cleaned up and checked Atalo’s tonic bottle. She found with satisfaction that the amount was less than when she had check it the day before. Taking a piece of charcoal from the counter, she notched another mark along the glass.

 

Her family was asleep, as it was quite late, so Nyx slipped into her room and stripped off her clothes. She was exhausted, her movements sluggish and dazed. She and Taila had succeeded in their studies, though the girl sensed it best to leave off on Later History and focus on Arithmetic, which her friend was doubtless to find much more useful.

 

Sitting in the corner next to her desk was her pitcher and wash basin. Sitting in the basin was a honey bar soap, a gift from Taila. Standing naked, the girl took up the bar and pressed it to her nose, breathing deeply. Her eyes rolled shut, her nipples hardening as a growing warmth in her body challenged the cold of her room. Taking up the pitcher, she poured out some water and crouched down. She splashed herself in places, shivering at the frigid water. Lathering her hands with the soap, she began to bathe, letting the soap glide over her skin.

 

Her eyes closed, her mind wandering inevitably to that torturous dream, where Taila’s hands cleansed her body without hesitation, massaging her breasts, squeezing her thighs, trailing up her back, touching that place between her legs that so pulsed with need…

 

Nyx came, hardly aware of what was happening. She knelt, her soapy hand between her legs, her eyes fluttering as the waves of pleasure and the head rush she felt both sobered her and exhilarated her.  Then she removed her hand and stared at it, as though it were a thing—alien and grotesque to her. The teenager’s eyes clouded with tears, and she tried to swallow down the lump in her throat.

 

When she was done crying, it took longer to rinse the soap off because it had dried onto her skin.

 

____________________________

 

The next week passed with little event. Atalo overcame his cold, and it even seemed he had succeeded in wooing the young Hemalia as his sweetheart. Her mother had not seen any suitors, or at least, none that Nyx had witnessed, and the household felt content. In just another month, Thaddeus would be returning to them, and Nyx would get to talk to him about her intention of finding a job outside of her studies. Ampelos was quite busy that week, but the girl managed to meet with him a few times for study sessions.  Taila reported no change in her mother, and she and her father seemed to be handling the workload of the beekeeping just fine. Nyx came to help them on market day with Atalo, and though their sales were only just acceptable, Taila’s father was optimistic that next week’s visit from the halfling merchants would yield more gold.

 

On the last day of the weekend, Nyx was prepping for dinner when her mother came in from gardening outside, her face flushed and a dreamy smile on her lips.  Her daughter paused in her chopping of mustard greens to quirk an eyebrow at her.

 

“A-ma? How are the radishes? Are they ready to harvest yet?”

 

Fotini looked at Nyx, blinking. “No. Not yet.” She took off the white handkerchief on her head, her dirty gloves wringing it as she sat at the table.  She stared into space, oblivious to the fact that she was sullying the clean fabric.

 

At this, Nyx abandoned her task for the moment and sat with her mother at the table. She reached over and grabbed a gloved hand. “A-ma? What’s wrong?”

 

The woman just laughed in response, her eyes focusing on the teenager’s face. “Nothing! Everything is wonderful!”  She gave a little sigh. “I just…Nyx, have you been with a boy, yet?”

 

Nyx pulled back, her face burning at her mother’s lack of tact. “N-No. I haven’t.” She stood quickly and returned to her mustard greens, the knife gripped in her hand tightly.

 

“What about a girl then? At least once?”

 

The girl winced, her shoulders coming up around her ears. “A-ma, please don’t.”

 

“Well it’s all right if you have! I’ve done it once or twice—“

 

STOP it!” Nyx slammed the knife down onto the cutting board.  She turned and glared at her mother. “You never wanted to talk to me about these things before, so why now? What’s gotten into you all of a sudden!?”

 

Fotini flushed pink and looked down at the table. “I’ve just been thinking. You’re right.  I haven’t talked to you about these things, and I should have. I suppose, I just assumed, giving your hunger for reading, that maybe you would have…” the woman let out a rough sigh. “No. That’s a lie. I didn’t want to talk to you about these things. That’s all. I haven’t the slightest idea what to do about Atalo, either.”

 

“He’s only eleven. I think you’ve got a few more years before amorousness becomes a real concern,” Nyx said harshly. “Unless unrestraint runs through the family…” she muttered next.

 

Her mother rose to her feet, her pink face turning a blotchy red. “Little night shard, I may be getting older, but do no think I cannot thrash you when foolishness takes you!”

 

Nyx felt herself seize, her ears aching with the memory of her mother’s wrathful pinch. But she was not a child anymore. Swallowing, the girl settled for ducking her gaze, but went on to say, “A-ma, I love you, but I don’t love some of the things you do. I’m not so young that I don’t know what it all means now.”

 

“And what does it mean?” Fotini challenged heatedly, stepping closer. “What does it mean but that your mother is a lonely woman seeking some respite from our struggles?”

 

“Our struggles come when your suitors eat and drink our money! When they laugh and take their jollies from you without any commitment, casting us further down into shame!” Nyx snapped back.

 

Fotini backhanded her.

 

The blow was hard, and the girl was sent back into the counter, her head snapping fully to the side. Her eyes batted, her mouth open as her cheek stung and throbbed.

 

“What’s going on?”

 

Fotini and Nyx turned to see Atalo staring from the hallway, shirtless and barefoot. Both women seemed too startled and ashamed to speak. Then Nyx turned and resumed chopping the mustard greens with great zeal, her teeth bared. “Nothing. Go get dressed, Atalo. We’re seeing Taila again today.”

 

She heard her brother give an excited whoop before the sound of his bare feet echoed back to her.

 

“Nyx…I–”

 

“Mother, can you please start skinning the potatoes? Dinner will be ready twice as fast with your help.” Nyx just managed to keep the irony out of her voice at her last words.

 

There was a long pause.

 

“Yes, all right,” Fotini said with a heavy sigh.

 

____________________________

 

“Are you mad at her?”

 

Nyx looked at Taila as they strolled to Ebon Lake, towels over their shoulders and their feet bare. After market day, Terus allowed his daughter one afternoon of rest, and they both decided to celebrate with a swim.

 

“Yes,” Nyx said in response. “…No. I don’t know. I think I understand, kind of. What my A-ma is going through, I mean.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

The girl smiled humorlessly as she watched Atalo running through the trees up ahead. “She’s lonely.”

 

“Lonely? But she’s going through so many—” the fifteen-year-old cut off with a cough and turned her face. “Sorry. I shouldn’t comment. I guess I just don’t understand.”

 

Nyx looked at her sideways. “No,” she agreed. “It’s okay. I guess you wouldn’t.”

 

Taila gave her a sharp look. “Oh don’t put it like that! You make it sound as if I don’t know what it means to be unhappy!”

 

The younger girl opened her mouth, her cheeks tinging pink, before she snapped it shut. She took a moment to breathe in deeply, then muttered, “Well, now we’ve both stuck our foots in it.” Her face softened. “I’m sorry.”

 

Her friend sighed and took her hand. “I’m sorry, too.” She traced her thumb over Nyx’s knuckles, making the girl’s heartbeat quicken.

 

“Hey you two!” Atalo shouted up ahead. Both girls looked to him, and he beat his bare chest. “I’ll race you to the water!”

 

Taila laughed, taking off after the boy. “You’ll regret those words, lil’ flea!”

 

Nyx smiled as she watched her friend chase after her brother, then she followed. The rest of the day was pleasant. Atalo decided to cover himself in mud to look like a monster, and his sister, annoyed, wrestled him into the water to clean it off. Taila came to his rescue by tackling Nyx into the lake. Beneath the surface, they spun around each other, the water erupting in bubbles, and Nyx knew the secret joy of feeling the other girl’s firm body against hers. They had berries from the forest and bread Nyx had baked the night before for lunch. They exchanged funny stories and had swimming races around the lake. Then it was time for home.

 

Nyx and Atalo said goodbye to Taila along the village path and returned home. As they approached their daikut however, the teenager immediately noticed that something was wrong. It was dark inside. A-ma hadn’t mentioned leaving for any reason that night.

 

“Stay here,” Nyx ordered her brother firmly.

 

“Huh?” he squinted at her, but she was already up the path to their home, her feet ascending the steps until she found herself staring into the grain of the front door. She put her ear to it, squinting. She couldn’t hear anything.

 

The girl closed her eyes and took a breath. Quietly she opened the door and slipped inside, glancing back only briefly to make sure that Atalo was following her instructions. He hadn’t moved. Once inside, she shut the door behind her and strained her ears again.

 

And then she heard it.

 

The labored breathing.

 

That small squeak of the bed.

 

She stood frozen, staring down into the dark mouth of the hallway as though it were a beast waiting to swallow her. She thought to turn and leave. Knew that was perhaps best. But a cold memory, distant and fuzzy, perhaps because of her conscious neglect of it, returned to her.

 

She recalled her mother in the forest, for once sitting atop her partner. Her generous breasts had been free in the air, her hair loose about her alabaster shoulders. And the look on her face—such release! Such ecstasy! That had been the last time Nyx had seen her mother in such a fashion. She was ten years old. A snapped twig beneath her little foot had ended the magic, and her mother reacted as one angry…and ashamed.

 

It was this experience, coupled with Ampelos’s spiritual guidance, that the girl began to see her mother’s behavior for what it was.

 

Unhealthy. Excessive. Grotesquely selfish.

 

But that look—the one Fotini wore on her face as she moved her body against her male partner—it was like a hook in Nyx’s mouth, breathing a little objection to the call for piety. Did her mother have it on her face now? Was she on top, in control, well aware of the pleasure as much as the pain she was causing?

 

Nyx entered the cool dark of the hallway, and the sounds became clearer. She tried to swallow, but found her mouth dry. Her body shook, a betraying wetness present between her legs. Slowly, she peered into the room.

 

A man she couldn’t recognize right away was thrusting into Fotini, who was on her stomach with her hips raised. He was young, judging by his physique, and he was much more aggressive than any of the partners Nyx had seen her mother with in the past. The teenager recognized a need to cry as she saw the stranger shove her mother’s pretty face into the mattress, but the tears didn’t come. She could hardly breathe even. She just stared, her stomach turning angrily in her stomach.

 

Then it happened. The man looked back. He must have caught her scent. And Nyx saw who it was.

 

“Killen…” she said, feeling the nausea come up.

 

Fotini twisted around, effectively moving him off her. Her eyes were wide and her body flushing pink as she locked eyes with Nyx. “Gods! Nyx, I didn’t—I didn’t think you’d—”

 

“So this is what got into you earlier,” Nyx hissed, trembling. The tears started to come easily now.

 

“Well, actually, I was in your mother right now,” the teenage boy corrected with a lazy smirk.

 

Shut up!” Nyx screamed.

 

Killen just laughed. Her mother gathered the blanket to her body while the boy got dressed unhurriedly. “Nyx,” Fotini began.

 

The girl didn’t let her continue. “Mother he is just a little under half your age. And let’s not forget how much he beat me as a child! How could you!? Are you so possessed that you cannot keep your appetites contained for the sake of your family??” She held up her hands. “Oh, no. Wait. Of course you aren’t! You only think of yourself!

 

“Nyx, that’s not true!”

 

“Then why did you bring someone here again after what happened last time!?”

 

“Oh about that,” Killen said, raising a lax finger. He had his pants on, his boots in his other hand and his shirt over his muscled shoulder. “That was me.”

 

Nyx felt the color drain from her face.

 

The teenager went on, his eyes roving up and down her body, a cruel smile on his lips. “I must say very nice! If you’d like a go Nyx, I have no qualms with indulging the desires of a degenerate. After all, the apple must not fall far from the tree, eh?”

 

Fotini just closed her eyes, her chin crumpling. The girl stared at her rival—now her most hated enemy—and whispered, “Get out.”

 

Killen raised an eyebrow, then ducked down to peer into Fotini’s face. The woman looked away, her shoulders hunching around her ears, much as Nyx would do. “Is that what you want, my dear?” When no response came, the boy straightened with a chuckle. “All right. I’ll take my leave of this cesspit then.”

 

He bumped past Nyx, and as he went, he whispered. “Offer still stands, Nyx the Nitwit.”

 

The girl leaned away from him, but before she did, her hand moved imperceptibly between them. Killen took no note. Within a moment, she heard the front door shut, and thought of Atalo outside. She turned on her heel and started for the door.

 

“Nyx!” Fotini called after her.

 

The teenager stopped and looked back to see Fotini standing at her bedroom doorway, the bedsheets draped around her like a sad gown. Her hair was mussed and her face already tear-stained. “Where are you going?” she asked quietly. She sounded so fragile all of a sudden.

 

“Away,” Nyx answered hollowly.  “It isn’t safe for me and Atalo here anymore.”

 

“When will you be back?”

 

Nyx didn’t answer. She turned and left without further protest. Outside, the teenager took her little brother roughly by the hand, and at his protests, she said, “A-ma needs to be alone.” Even the new bulge in her left pants pocket did little to calm her nerves. They walked and walked until…

 

They stood outside Taila’s house.

 

Just as before, Nyx sensed something wrong.  With great foreboding, she went up to knock on the door, but then stopped, remembering Taila’s words.  Slowly, she opened it, and beckoned for Atalo to follow.

 

Inside, she heard crying.

 

“Stay here, Atalo,” Nyx said.

 

“Again?” he whined.

 

She gave her brother a look, and he muttered sullenly, but took a seat at the dining room table.

 

Nyx went down the hall and found the sound was coming from Taila’s parents room.  Clearing her throat, she said, “Hello?”

 

The curtain pulled back, and there stood her friend, her damp hair turned frizzy, her eyes red and puffy from crying. Behind her, in the simple bedroom, knelt Terus, his eyes on Jezah, who lay still with eyes closed on the bed. Her skin was pale as death.

 

“She’s gone,” Taila said needlessly. Her spine bent as her face contorted with her grief. “Sweet Aelurus, Nyx, my mother is gone!

 

Nyx felt the tears cloud her eyes for what seemed the millionth time that night, and hugged her friend tightly. Taila shook in her arms, and she held on fiercely, her personal pain ebbing for the moment in the face of her friend’s need. She glanced down the hall and saw Atalo staring at them, his eyes also shiny with tears. She gestured for the boy to come over, and he ran, hugging them both.

 

“I’m sorry, Taila,” Nyx breathed. “I’m so sorry…”

 

____________________________

 

When Taila’s father left to find the village funerary master, and they were all sitting in Taila’s bedroom, the older girl asked her friend, “You came over for a reason. Did something happen, Nyx?”

 

She was already shaking her head. “No, it’s nothing. I just wanted to—“

 

“Nyx, tell me.”

 

Nyx gazed somberly at her.  She turned to Atalo and said, “Atalo, why don’t you go take Taila’s ball and play with it in the kitchen? Be careful not to break anything.” Her brother pouted, but did as she asked. When he was well out of sight, she said, “I walked in on her this time.”

 

“Walked in on her? You mean she was–”

 

“Yes.”

 

“But so soon after what happened last time?”

 

“And guess who it was she was with?” Taila frowned and gave a shrug. Nyx closed her eyes and swallowed through a tightening throat. “Killen.” She whispered.

 

At first, the older girl said nothing. She just stared, her mouth hung open. Then her face grew red. She stood with a stomp and started to pace. “That bastard.” She kicked the wall. “That bastard!

 

“Taila, don’t. There’s nothing we can do. Thaddeus will be able to handle it once he gets here. We just need to hold on.”

 

“And what about your mother? What are you supposed to do in a home where you don’t even feel safe anymore? Where your kin place their own needs over their family’s!?” Taila shook her head. “It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that my mother is dead before seeing her family grow, and it isn’t fair that yours seems to think it’s okay to kill the one she’s got with her vices!”

 

Nyx grit her teeth. “Taila, stop. This isn’t helping!” She stood. “Once your father comes back, I think…I think we’re going to go. We can’t stay here when your family has so much to deal with. We’d be intruding.”

 

Her friend stopped long enough to stare at Nyx. “No.”

 

“Taila…”

 

“No. You’re staying. A-pa won’t mind. But I can’t be alone with him. He…this’ll ruin him, Nyx. He loved my A-ma, and I don’t know if I can handle all of this alone. You can borrow my clothes, and you can stay here as long as you’d like. So you’ll stay. You can’t go back home after what happened there. Your mother needs help, but the kind she needs won’t come from you! Let her seek guidance at the temple or something!”

 

Nyx just nodded slowly, her eyes spacing out from the weight of the night’s events. “Yeah…yes, you’re right.”

 

Taila’s father returned with the funerary master and Urian, the village temple priest, in tow. They said some prayers, of which Nyx and Atalo joined (with curious looks from Urian) and then plans were made with regards to Taila’s mother’s last wishes and how the funeral rites would be fulfilled, and when. This was talk left to the adults, so Taila, Nyx, and Atalo were excused to go to bed.

 

It was very late. Taila’s bed was a little bigger than Nyx’s, but it was squeaky and lacked a proper frame. Nyx offered to sleep on the floor, and the older girl refused, stating, “We’ll all fit just fine, Nyx. Don’t worry so much.”

 

Together they climbed under the sheets, Nyx on the left, lying on her side, Taila on the right, lying on her back, and Atalo sandwiched between them, facing his sister. The boy fell asleep almost immediately, and Nyx gazed at him with a strange combination of love and envy. Despite her exhaustion, both in mind and in body, she felt no closer to sleep. Taila was similarly awake, her eyes staring up at the ceiling. Nyx couldn’t tell in the low light if her friend was crying. Then she heard a wet sniffle and had her answer.

 

“The last thing I said to my mother was, ‘What would you like for breakfast tomorrow?’ Not, ‘I love you’, just…’What would you like?’ How could it be something so…mundane like that? She didn’t even answer me. She was…she was still breathing then. And then my A-pa came and said she wasn’t anymore. I was thinking of surprising her with something sweet–” she broke off with a sob, her head turning away.

 

Nyx reached over and touched her friend’s arm. She thought to say something, but found herself stuck. She could only think of all the things she couldn’t do or say—the affections that would have translated into soft caresses and gentle kisses, an almost fervent hope that proximity could squash whatever pain or sadness existed between them.

 

Taila turned her head back, taking Nyx’s hand in hers. She kissed it, then pressed it to her chest.  “Nyx, I love you. Thank you for being here. I know it wasn’t happy reasons that brought you here, but…thank you.”

 

“I’ll always be here, Taila.”

 

“And if you wanted more, I would give it to you. I would give you everything.” Then the girl stiffened. “…Gods, listen to me! She’s grieving over her mother, and I’m getting excited! I’m scum!

 

Nyx pulled back her hand hurriedly, and as she did so, her palm brushed her brother’s shoulder. He stirred.  She gave a start, her eyes falling onto his face. He didn’t open his eyes, his features still relaxed. Gently, she laid her hand on his arm.

 

“When dealing with others, there’s always a choice…but do I know of all the options yet?

 

____________________________

 

Sleep came, though it was fitful, and Nyx later awoke to a dimly lit bedroom. The girl batted her eyes. It was still early, judging by the rosy sky, and Atalo was next to her. Taila, however, was gone. This made the girl sit up. Rubbing her eyes, she slipped out of the bed. The nightshirt Taila had lent was too big, so that it brushed well past her knees. She tiptoed into the hallway and dared to peek into the other bedroom. Taila’s mother was still as they had left her the night before, Terus curled up against her. It was custom for the surviving wife or husband to spend one last night in this way. But Taila was nowhere in sight.

 

Frowning, Nyx went out into the kitchen only to find the same case there. Outside, where the bee nests and small garden was kept, she found nothing. Then a thought entered the girl’s mind that chilled her blood.

 

“Oh, Taila no…”

 

Without even bothering to put on her clothes or fetch some shoes, Nyx ran. She ran through the village, past the rousing merchants and craftsmen, past the sleepy daikuts to the one place she knew her friend would go after last night.

 

Nyx found Taila sitting on a fence, one of her tuetri clubs over her shoulders as she stared at Killen’s daikut. She approached her, panting.

 

“Taila, don’t do this,” she managed to get out, before leaning on the fence to catch her breath.

 

The older girl didn’t even turn her head. “You need to get more active, Nyx. It wasn’t all that long a run from my house to Killen’s, was it?”

 

“Taila, don’t do this!”

 

“And why not?” Taila asked, her jaw tight as she frowned at her friend. “Why shouldn’t this shit-box get just what he’s been asking for all these years?”

 

“Because this is wrong,” Nyx said firmly. “Because this will bring no small amount of trouble for you and your father. Because this will do nothing to help me or Atalo!” She stepped closer, taking Taila’s face in her hands. Reluctantly, her friend met her gaze, and Nyx saw the tears in her eyes. “You aren’t doing this for me, I can see it in your eyes. I don’t want this, Taila. I…I care for you too much to let you do something like this!” She took her friend’s wrists and gently pulled. “Come on. Before someone sees us out here. Your A-pa needs you back home.”

 

The older girl slowly slid off the fence and with one last dark look over her shoulder, followed Nyx back to her home. Taila began making breakfast just as the funerary master arrived with his attendant and work bag. Nyx changed and left, promising Atalo she’d bring back some of his clothes before they left for erduk.

 

When she arrived at her home, the suns were over the horizon, their light painting the sky a richer gold. Nyx felt her stomach turn again beneath her smock, but with a staying hand and Atalo in her thoughts, she marched up to the door and went inside.

 

She found her mother sitting at the kitchen table, an untouched tea cup in her hand. She was dressed now, in a long dark gown, and her eyes were a craggy red, the eyelids puffier than even Taila’s had been.  She stood upon seeing Nyx, tears startling down her cheeks as her chin quivered.

 

“Nyx you’re back!” she breathed.

 

“Atalo and I need clothes and our school things,” Nyx said guardedly, her eyes turned away.

 

“Can you spare a moment? To…to talk?”

 

The teenager sighed. She looked at Fotini, her brows pressed up and together. “Mother, you need help. That’s all there is to say. You need to see Urian at the temple and find some way to…to deal with this.”

 

“Yes, I know that now. I was so afraid I’d lost you both…”

 

“You weren’t going to lose us…” Nyx mumbled. She crossed her arms and scuffed her shoe on the floor. “I just wanted you to see what Thad and I have been trying to tell you all this time.” Then with great pain, she added, “Maybe you had to be with Killen to see that.”

 

Fotini flinched as though struck. “I—it wasn’t…” she let out a harsh sigh, a shaky hand going to rub at her mouth as she hugged herself with her other arm.  “Nyx, I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t…I didn’t know who he was! It’s been years since I’ve seen that despicable boy!”

 

“That doesn’t make it any better,” Nyx said with a deep scowl.

 

“No, it doesn’t.” Fotini took a tentative step forward, then another. When Nyx didn’t move away, her mother enveloped her in a hug. “I’m sorry, Nyx. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

 

The teenager reached carefully around her mother’s waist and squeezed, her face turning into the older woman’s collar bone. “A-ma…promise me you’ll see Urian. I won’t mention any of this to Thaddeus when he comes, but promise me, or I’ll go to the temple myself!”

 

“I promise. I’ll do it Nyx, just…come home. I don’t like an empty house.”

 

“I know, A-ma. We’ll…I’ll think about it.”

 

“Okay. That’s okay.” The woman pulled back with a quivering smile, more tears slipping from her eyes. She turned her face toward the window, and with a wistful look, said, “I was just sitting there, and I was thinking…Your father is never coming home.”

 

The statement was so sudden that Nyx only batted her eyes.

 

Fotini looked at her daughter, wiping at her cheeks. “You’re so much like him, it frustrates and delights me at the same time. I don’t know what to say to you because of it. Alvis was…always a complicated man.” The woman chuckled. “I try to garden, like he once did. He had a beautiful spice garden you know, and we were never in short supply of herbs and new ingredients to use. The spices are all gone now. Our personal crops would yield more if I had a better mind for it.” She sighed, her smile waning. “I’m not very good at growing things.”

 

Nyx bit her lip, then touched her mother’s arm. “You do fine, A-ma.” When no further response came, she turned with the intention to get her and Atalo’s things, but then she stopped when she remembered something important. “A-ma, I thought you should know,” she paused and took a breath. “Taila’s mother died last night.”

 

“Oh gods!” The woman looked at her in genuine surprise, her hand at her throat. “How is Taila and her father doing?”

 

“As well as can be expected. I think they’re going to bury her soon.”

 

“I’ll be sure to do something for them, then.”

 

Nyx gave a nod and retrieved the items she sought, then left with a final hug from her mother. She ran all the way back to Taila’s. Being on the opposite side of the village from the erduk meant that she and Atalo had to hustle to make it in time for their day’s lessons. They stood in the kitchen with Taila for goodbyes.

 

“I wish I could stay here with you, Taila.”

 

“It’s okay, Nyx. I know how Leander gets with you. Just be sure to put a tack on Killen’s seat for me.”

 

“I’m sure that would go over well.”

 

Their laughter was weak and short-lived. It was hard keeping up the normal exchange when so many things about their lives were different now.

 

Nyx ruffled her brother’s hair. “I think I’m going to let Atalo go back home, just so that my mother doesn’t do anything rash, but I’ll come back here after erduk, okay? Do you want me to tell Ampelos?”

 

Taila nodded. “Yes. He should know. I’d do it myself but,” she thumbed weakly over her shoulder.

 

“It’s okay.” Nyx loitered, knowing she and her brother needed to hurry, but something kept her rooted. Chewing her lip she looked at her friend, who gazed back at her inquisitively. She considered hugging the older girl. Maybe even being so bold as to kiss her on the cheek.

 

The power comes in realizing there’s a choice, and in so choosing, one commits themselves to a path they are a lot more likely to succeed by.

 

She thought of her mother, her eyes on the garden outside their daikut, lamenting the lack of spices in her life since A-pa had disappeared.

 

Nyx turned and guided Atalo to the door. “See you tonight, then…”

 

“Yeah, see you Nyx.”

 

“Bye Taila!” Atalo cried.

 

Taila’s smile widened for a moment. “Bye lil’ flea.”

 

Nyx and Atalo arrived to erduk just in time. As Nyx went to her usual seat in Leander’s room, she paused to whisper into Ampelos’s ear to speak with her during their lunch break. He blushed a deep red and nodded. The girl felt Killen’s eyes on her, and rather than ignore him, she turned and stared at him. The teenage boy, who had been leaning onto his desk, straightened up, his smirk dying on his lips as he frowned. Nyx smiled at him slowly, her hand patting the bulge in her pocket from the night before.

 

The boy’s face fell, and he searched his pants. When he didn’t find what he was looking for, his eyes widened and he stared, open mouthed. The girl took a seat and tried to keep her body from shivering too much. With her leverage, she felt safe, at least for the time being.

 

“You’d think after seven years, Killen would learn to quit bumping into me. He’s really got to learn to read history, the cajeck.”


Back to Chapter 30.3 | Forward to Six Tales of Arachne

  1. ‘Nude’ by Radiohead, from the album ‘In Rainbows’. Self-released, 2007. []

Open Hands

Just an FYI, this is a bonus update earned from Eikasia’s facebook fans! This one is unusual because, unlike its predecessors, it is a direct “add on” to the main storyline.  This scene takes place between Chapters 9 & 10, and will likely be slipped into the chronological order of the final draft.

— Illise M.

NYX____________________________

I was getting into a foul mood.  Not so out of line, as I was now very familiar with the local ant population.  Face-plants into the ground tend to make discourse with insects much easier.  I had Elmiryn to thank for that.

The walnut tree murmured over us, and I could feel the sweat roll between the shallow valley of my breasts. The wind whistled about us, and its intimate touch made my damp skin sticky.  I gazed at my hand.  It looked like a livid creature tensed against the dark ridged bark of the tree.  Her shadow swallowed me from behind.

I turned to squint at her over my shoulder and Elmiryn smiled at me with long warm lips.  She had straight, white teeth.  For all of her wiliness, the warrior was a big fan of routines, and part of her daily checklist was dental hygiene.  A few small cloths, some herbs, some fine string, and water.  Remarkably simple.  I found myself envious.  I had an overbite, and what was understood to be “white” by society at large, could not be attributed to my shade of smile.  It was no wonder the warrior smiled so much.  She had something to show off, and so long as I stood by her, there would always be someone to admire it.

Today Elmiryn didn’t wear a braid or a ponytail.  It was rare that I ever saw her with her hair down and loose, and I took in the sight of her long, fiery locks trailing over her strong arms.  She held out her hand and said, “All right, here, let me talk to you a bit.  I think you did all right, but let me explain in detail.”

I sighed and turned in full, placing my bandaged hand in hers, but not before noting that scar in her palm.  It was a prize earned a little before our adventure in Gamath.  Elmiryn, the braggart, had made to catch an arrow with her hand.  She did it, but not without the arrowhead slicing her.  My tawny eyes flickered to meet her cerulean ones and I knew that if this journey kept up, that would not be the last of her spoils.  I felt a little guilty.  Being an Ailuran meant I didn’t suffer the same damage as a human did.  Then again, my Mark was all the scarring I’d ever need.

“So do you get it, Nyx?” Elmiryn held out her hands, palms up as we resumed our positions in our little sparring area.  “A person can do damage not just with their hands and feet, but with every other part of their body as well, provided they are well positioned, strike the right places, and use good timing.”  She wrapped her arms about her head and hunched so that her shoulders came up near her ears and her spine curved at the top.  This made her just a little shorter than me.  Through her arms, she said, “See, when you do this, it looks like you’re just cowering.  Keep your legs coiled under you, with your feet planted beneath your shoulders diagonally from your opponent. Dig the balls of your feet in.  You always want to have that back leg to support you.  When you come rising up, you’ll be steady on your feet.  Go on.  Make like you’re going to hit me.”

I did, and I thought I saw where she was going.  My grumpy mood seemed to breed something of a wickedness in me, for I let loose a slow right hook, like I was trying to catch her in the ear. I did it on purpose as this was a pet peeve for her.  I hadn’t been aware of it that time I struck her in the side of the head, just out of Dame, but Elmiryn has a fear of developing what is called a ‘cauliflower ear’.  That’s when strikes to the ear causes it to swell up and look…well…like a cauliflower.  I wouldn’t call the warrior vain, but rather, unwilling to lose her charms.

“Oh, you’re cute, kitten,” Elmiryn said as her eyes squinted at my smirking face.  “Very cute.  But look,”  She shifted forward a step, then threw herself to the left where her forearms knocked into the inside of my arm, effectively knocking it away.  “If you move in close, then ram the inside of the arm, not only do you avoid a blow, but you leave your opponent to this–” and here she rose slowly, and swung her elbows up as if to catch me in the nose and chin.  “If, for some reason, you are dealing with an opponent that is wearing a helmet or face guard, you can at least use this opportunity to push him away from you.”  She then demonstrated how, instead of rising up, I could continue to press forward, using my forearms and elbows as battering rams on the stomach and ribs.  She straightened, then stepped back.  I stepped back too, and allowed myself a moment to indulge in a slouch.

I missed being able to sleep in during the mornings.  Elmiryn was an early bird, damn all my luck.  We’d been at this since just after dawn.

She ran her fingers through her hair once and my surly attitude turned to bashfulness.  Her hair was mostly straight, but I suspected this was the weight of it pulling it down that way, for at the ends the locks curled lightly.  The fine hairs about her ears made bright ringlets against her sun-kissed skin.  I had the thought of curling them around my fingers…

“Okay, Nyx.”  My eyes snapped back onto Elmiryn’s.  “You’re right handed, yes?  Assume the starting position.  Put your right arm up and make sure it covers your temple, and let your right hand rest at the base of your head.  It’s like you’re making a pillow from your arm.  Now your left hand should come around and hold your right arm about the upper forearm, not too close to the wrist, but up there.  Hold it at almost a right angle.  There you go.  See how the left arm protects your nose?  Now since the side of your face is exposed, you’ll want to shift your body so that it favors the right.  That’s the main arm you’ll be putting all your force into anyway.”

Now I was in the right pose.  I held the position, bending my knees as I looked up at Elmiryn for what to do next.  She started with a smirk, “So you saw how a hooked punch works.  What about this…?” I bared my teeth and braced myself.  The redhead had a thing for throwing completely new situations my way after a few rudimentary lessons.  Thankfully, she came at me slow, and she was aiming for the top of my head with her elbow.  Her other arm was blocking her upper chest.  I thought about the possible counters she could execute, then struck.

As I had nothing to block with my forearms, I settled on striking first, moving forward to catch the warrior on her exposed ribs, then shifting my body up as I moved my right forearm to receive her elbow, then brought my left elbow up to catch the woman in the right cheekbone.  I moved as slow as she did and settled for a soft touch.  We fell still that way.  Her long lips curled into that infamous smile, and I became conscious of our proximity.  Blushing, I skipped backward.

A leer to her gaze now, the woman began to dress down my performance…Elmiryn nod–what?  Pardon?  …Oh for heaven’s sake, there was no pun intended!  Do I look like the sort of person who would resort to puns?  Sweet Aelurus…

ANYway–

Elmiryn nodded at me.  “That was good.  You were confident in using your arms both as a shield and as weapons.  I especially liked the last touch there, with the final strike.  You’d have to be very quick to get that last move, as most people would instinctively flinch back or move to protect the face if someone got in too close.  It’s like a dance.  For every one beat counter, anything following that has to be an immediate two beat.”  She illustrated this by clapping loudly once, then snapping in two short claps afterward.  “It’s always great when a counter takes the heat off you and lets you slip away.  It’s even better when you can use it to turn the fight to your favor!”

“You know much about formal dancing?” I asked, my brow quirking at Elmiryn’s mention of beats and rhythms.  She made it all sound like choreography for a moment.

The warrior crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one foot.  “Oh?  You thought the most I knew were country jigs?  Raunchy peasant stomps?”

I sniffed and turned my head.  “I know a few jigs myself.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Raunchy stomps, though, as you’d put it…”

Elmiryn placed the back of her hand on her brow and feigned despair.  “How low you must think of me!”

“So you do know ballroom dances?”

“Of course I do!” The woman shook her head, her auburn tresses swaying gently with her lament.  “Yes…I’d been to my fair share of balls.  But the bastards always made me wear a dress, even when I was a Dragoon Captain–!”

“No!” I said, pretending to be appalled.

“Oh, yes! And get this,” and here she leaned forward with a furtive glance to either side, as though fearing what the squirrels and the chickadees would think.  I leaned in too, ear cocked, and she whispered to me.  “…They made me dance with men!

I squealed, hands going to my mouth as I fixed Elmiryn with the most astounded look I could manage.  Actually, it wasn’t that hard.  The idea of Elmiryn letting a man touch her was shocking.  “Oh, Elle, no!  You couldn’t have!”  I was only half-joking.  That was the sad part.  I really couldn’t see it, but then again, she did come from nobility, and such things were expected of people her…

…Gods, it’s always odd when I think of it, but Elmiryn is a noble.

“I did!” She straightened and laid a dainty hand on her chest, where she then looked off into the distance with a pained expression.  If it weren’t for the fact that she was only wearing her chest wraps, I would’ve found myself believing she were still a maiden.  She could look quite innocent when she wanted to.  “I soldiered through it, and for all my troubles suffocating in clouds of cologne, having my toes stomped on, and knowing the horror of men far too old standing at attention–” I did a double-take on that one.  “–It was worth it!  You want to know why, Nyx?”

“Why?” I asked with an open smile.

She held out her hand, “Because now I get to show you the thrill of those dances!”

I stared at her, now flaring red.  “Oh!”  I took a step back and shook my head.  My smile was gone.  “Oh no, no, no!  I can’t–!”

“Please kitten?” She said, pouting at me, “Do I lack the stateliness of a prince?”  Then Elmiryn dipped low into a bow and looked up at me through her eyelashes.  With her fiery hair spilling forward, I think my head was ready to pop from all the blood and heat that clouded my brain.  She took my flabbergasted behavior to mean a yes, and without another word, took my hand, pulled me to her by the waist, and smiled merrily down at me.  “There.  Better!”

Ever the graceful one, I set into my usual sputtering.  “E-Elle, now really–!”

“Don’t think we’re taking a total break from our training this morning.  You’ll see how this is related.  Just follow my lead okay?”

“Elmiryn, I don’t–!”

“Take one step back with your left foot as I step forward with my right.”  She stepped forward, as she suggested she would, and I mirrored her…belatedly that is.  We stumbled, but Elmiryn’s hand firmly pulled me back to her and she gave me a stern look.  “Hey, are you paying attention?”

“Of course I am, but–”

“Okay, we’ll try again.  Just relax Nyx, and for the love of the gods, quit squeezing the life out of my hand!  Relax your fingers and lightly press your palm into mine.  There you go.  Think of it like this, you want to receive your partner with open hands, not crush them in your attempts to make a fist.”

I was startled enough to forget my situation for a second.  I looked into her eyes and I could see myself reflected in them.  With a swallow I relaxed my hand.  My tunic was already rather sweaty.  I had to keep it on due to that inconvenience with my Mark and Elmiryn’s curse.  With the dancing, I found myself soaking it anew.  Elmiryn hummed out a song–not Meznik’s, of course–but a waltz.

“One, two, three…and step!” I mirrored her step as she moved forward.  Then again, and again…in a rhythm, in time with her humming.  I wasn’t lying when I said I knew a few jigs–not all of my life was spent miserable and in exile.  So while this dance was very different for me, I found myself quickly finding the way of it.  Elmiryn never pushed me or pulled me, but her body “suggested” my next move, and by anticipating the steps, I kept it up.

Elmiryn hummed something jocose and light.  I could feel the music flood into me, and I wanted the song to stay with me forever.

We slowed to a stop, hips together, foreheads together, lips–

“I thought you said we weren’t taking a break,” I breathed.  My eyes were half-closed.

She gave a light shrug.  “I said we weren’t taking a total break.”

I bit my lower lip in a failed attempt to keep my smile down.  Then said, “So this is a partial break?”

“Mm hmm.  You were getting grumpy.  To the point where you didn’t want to play with me anymore.”

“Play?”

Elmiryn chuckled.  “You know what I mean.”

I did.  “If you’re referring to the cat and mouse games you like to instigate, then perhaps I have an inkling of what you mean.”  I said this with all the perspicacity in the world.  I looked away, jaw relaxed, and my eyes hooded–cat body language.  I may have had rocky relations with my animal counterpart, but the mannerisms of a cat were still well a part of my life, both in fur and in skin.

Elmiryn pressed her hand against the small of my back, squeezing me to her.  I let out a choppy exhale.  She still held my right hand aloft as my left flexed against her bare shoulder.

…Wait, how did I get into this position again?

“But you like my games…don’t you?” Elmiryn murmured, pressing in so close that her lips brushed my ear.  My eyes slipped shut and I turned my face so that my cheek brushed hers.  I breathed in the scent of her hair.  There was that wild smell–all the scents of untamed nature and freedom that made my heart feel like it was doing a marathon in my chest.

My skin was flushed and hot.  And there was that ache…It reminded me of being on the verge of shifting.  Maybe that was being drastic, but I did not like the idea of being swept up into the situation.  I needed to get my head back into the moment.  I was determined not to become just another conquest.  When I spoke, I did it with as firm a voice as I could manage.  “Elle, you said this was related to your lesson.  Show me how.”

Elmiryn pulled back enough to gaze at me, her eyes holding something of the sunlight in them.  My eyes fluttered at her. 

“Steady you dolt…you forget, there is an unwilling third party to this unscrupulous scene!” Ah, my Twin.  Never one to miss an opportunity for an insult.

The redhead grinned.  That was before she stepped back and slid her right foot forward, so that her hip brushed against my left side.  Suddenly, her right leg was crossing behind me, and with a strong twist of her shoulders, I was sent to the ground.  She could have been rough, but Elmiryn made sure my descent was slow.  With her well-positioned leg, my stability was compromised, so I could do nothing as I tumbled over her thigh.  The warrior held onto me as I touched the ground, and all the while she didn’t let go of my waist or hand.

She smiled at me, showing all teeth.

“You can do damage with more than just your hands and your feet.  You have to cease thinking of your limbs independently.  As isolated parts.  They’re attached to the same body, they work as a unit.  Be conscious of everything.  You take power from the earth when you block a hit, and you can spend that power through your fists when you throw a punch, but that energy has to travel to get from point to point, doesn’t it?  Can’t it exit from more than one place?  Must a successive hit mean a bruise or a cut?  Here you are.  Using my shoulders, legs, and torso in harmony, I got you on the ground, and now…”  Elmiryn tilted her head to one side. “And now, Nyx, I can do what I want with you.”

I blinked at her.  The woman’s smile turned gentle as she seemed to consider something.  Then she leaned down and kissed me.  She tasted like peppermint.  My eyes closed and my hand squeezed hard around hers as Elmiryn moved her lips against mine.  My hand went to her shoulder and I thought of pushing her back.  What a rogue!  Had she thought to do that the whole time?

Only I didn’t push her away.  My hand went to touch her cheek, then to brush back her hair, which was like a halo around me.  The warrior pulled back with a quiet smack to grin at me.  I blushed and let my hand fall back onto the grass.  I looked off to the side, with a “Humph.”

My hand lay open and relaxed as she laced hers between my fingers.

The woman kissed my neck and I shivered at her moist lips on my skin.  After that, Elmiryn spoke close to my ear.  “Nyx, listen to me.  You can do so much with your body as a whole.  Everything has to move in harmony.  Every inch of you plays a part in a successful move.  Including,” she tapped my head, “This,” and then she trailed her finger down to my left breast, over my heart, “And that.”  Her voice was a husky murmur now.  “You’ve already got more than half of what you need to become a great warrior.” She unlaced her hand from mine and used it to turn my head so that I faced her.

“So I want you to know…you’d beat me with open hands every time.”


Back to Chapter 20.4 | Forward to Chapter 20.5

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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