Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 37.4

HAKEEM________________________

Hakeem stared into the orb, seeing the scenes play out before him in simultaneity. It was almost too much, and that was saying something, given all he’d seen. He even almost lost count of time, the intervals shuddering as they passed his numb attention. There were so many things to process. A practical part of him–quiet in these emotional moments–whispered that he should be cataloguing this information for later use. The greater part of him, raw and beating like a throbbing bruise, said that his companions needed help.

 

But his powerlessness was a black rain, coating his skin, his soul, his mind, and it told him he could do nothing. He was just a small boy again, watching as terrible power undid the things he treasured most.

 

And Quincy….

 

His mweze.

 

His wife.

 

His shima.

 

His woman of joy.

 

He loved her so, but over and over in his mind’s eye, the horrible image played…

 

Quincy uncorking the vial. Her drinking it. The glass container rolling along the table surface…empty.

 

He struggled to see it from her perspective–to consider how it would be for someone who had lived through the things she had, to feel helpless and at the mercy of a new life she was unprepared in ushering.

 

…But try as he might, Hakeem couldn’t help but notice that all Quincy had gone through…so had he.

 

Why couldn’t she talk to me? he thought with agony. Why…how could she choose to do that?

 

Even the knowledge that the woman may not have been pregnant at all did nothing to change his feelings. It was the fact that she went through with it anyway, in case she was.

 

In his homeland of Fanaea, it was believed a soul entered the moment a man’s seed met his partner’s egg. This was something Hakeem learned in Crysen, because he was far too young to know such things when he was last in his native land. In that Talmorian community, ideas on the subject were such a melting pot that the wizard hadn’t been able to form an opinion. Blocking conception hadn’t been the issue. Stopping it after that happened, however…?

 

The idea killed him.

 

And it cut even deeper that Quincy suggested she had resorted to such tactics before…and with the horrendous implication that she’d needed to because of the pirate Tulki no less.

 

Hakeem had always disliked the man, but now he could say, without a doubt, he loathed him.

 

It was a pity Tulki was dead. The Morettis had collected his bounty years ago. The wizard mourned his lost opportunity for revenge, knowing it was foolish and unproductive. He was man who was firmly grounded. He’d thought he was.

 

…But damn this Lethia Artaud for ever entering his life! Never had Hakeem had to struggle with himself, to struggle with the reality around him.

 

The enchantress’s words echoed back at him, almost mocking now.

 

“You don’t live in belief. You know that life is far beyond anything we can comprehend, and so you adapt. You’ve adapted all your life.”

 

Hakeem bit his tongue, hard, trying to stifle the scream of rage and sorrow in his heart.

 

He didn’t want Tulki’s shadow darkening their present. He didn’t want to feel shut out from the chance of parenthood after all he’d sacrificed. He didn’t want to see his wife suffer under her crushing fears while the life they created together withered and died in her womb with every desperate concoction she choked down. He didn’t want to adapt to this.

 

“There has to be some way…” he whispered, his throat and lips so tight, it was doubtful anyone would have comprehended his meaning.

 

He glared at the scenes before him as they played on, indifferent to his turmoil.

 

Then Hakeem’s mouth slackened, and his eyes drew wide.

 

His thoughts were quick and panicked.

 

These moments I’m seeing…in them, Lethia awakened to her situation, her memories restored, and each time, there was a tell that heralded her restoration. But these moments happened at different times! And Izma was cross-present in certain moments. Didn’t Lethia say that the demon could only appear to one of us at a time?

 

It took him only a moment to gather the significance of this fact.

 

Hakeem’s heart beat a little faster as he let go of the orb and hurried toward the staircase the enchantress had used to retreat from him.

 

If I really saw Izma in more than one place, then that could only mean all of this has already happened! Lethia must have had her memories back this whole time! But why would she lie to me? Except…

 

He scowled, his fists clenching.

 

To protect me.

 

But how would keeping me ignorant protect me?

 

Hakeem braced himself in the doorway and shouted up the staircase, “Lethia! Lethia Artaud, are you there!?”

 

Silence. The man swallowed as his intuition conjured up another possibility.

 

Maybe this lie wasn’t to protect me.

 

“Lethia!”

 

Still no answer came to him. Hakeem felt a sudden strange heat on the side of his face. Confusing this sensation was his sweat turning cold on his skin. The dread squeezed his lungs as he turned his head to see where the strange energy was coming from.

 

Maybe…

 

His eyes widened, and he braced himself against a bright blast as the viewing orb he had abandoned expanded explosively.

 

This lie was to USE me.

 

And then, Hakeem thought nothing at all.

 

ELMIRYN________________________

 

They entered the precinct shoulder to shoulder. Elmiryn wished she could feel more like Bruce Willis. Hell, even Jean-Claude Van Damme. But at the moment she was feeling more like wet toilet paper–weak.

 

The moment the double glass doors swung closed behind them, Elmiryn was acutely aware of a reality shutting her out. She had sensed that things had not felt right, and she also had sensed that somewhere in her had existed an…alternate history, where she was a different person. Stronger. Less considerate. Much more passionate.

 

But as Lethia marched on up to the receptionist, Elmiryn couldn’t help but wish she could go back to having just the one reality–the one where she helped car crash victims walk straight again, where she barely managed to pay her bills on time, where her love life was simple but unsatisfying…

 

Wait, what? She thought distractedly as the receptionist inexplicably buzzed them in.

 

Lethia glanced at her as she pushed her way through the magnetic door, toward the processing offices. “Jedi mind trick,” she said wryly, in answer to Elmiryn’s bewildered look. The woman blinked after her, but didn’t bother correcting her cousin’s assumption regarding her confusion.

 

Look at me, she thought miserably. I’m about to shoot up a bunch of cops, and I’m moping about something so stupid!

 

They were fortunate that the lobby was void of any officers. The processing offices were a different matter.

 

The moment they exited the adjoining hallway, people slowed to a stop and stared. The moment only lasted a second. After all, neither of them were cops, that was plain to see, and they were armed. An officer who had been stepping out of a doorway, papers in their hands, dropped these and drew their firearm.

 

“Drop the weapons!” They stammered out. Their eyes were wide. Alarmed. Elmiryn couldn’t blame them, she couldn’t quite believe she was doing this either, let alone that they’d gotten this far.

 

Lethia’s answer was to simply raise her shotgun and fire at the man.

 

The shot only grazed him, but it chewed up the length of his arm and his shoulder. He shouted in pain and fired back sloppily as he fell.

 

Too frightened to think to scream, Elmiryn fell flat to the floor in an attempt to dodge any bullets. In her haste, the pistol–a 9mm by the looks of it–clattered to the floor.

 

Lethia hurried toward a metal and wood desk that she flipped over. She shouted furiously at the older woman as she took cover. “What are you doing, you idiot!? Get over here!”

 

The other officers began mobilizing and taking aim.

 

Elmiryn gave a start as a stray bullet struck the carpet inches near her. A low whine escaped her lips as she grabbed the pistol by the barrel and hurried next to Lethia. Her hands trembled so fiercely, she had trouble putting her finger back on the trigger.

 

“This is insane!” she screamed as bullets pinged and zinged by them. “Why did I follow you in here!?”

 

Lethia hissed as she rubbed the center of her chest. The recoil of her recent shotgun blast had apparently been more than she could handle. “Gods, I can’t wait for you to drop this whiny persona!”

 

Elmiryn gave her a stung look. “I am not whiny!”

 

Her cousin bared her teeth as she fired blindly over the desk. “Elle, remember that time you beat up Jared Host for stealing my bra?”

 

“Is this really the time for–?” The redhead broke off with a gasp as splinters stung her face. The desk was holding up remarkably well. The woman remembered through the clouds of her hysteria some article she’d read about police offices having reinforced furniture in case of a situation just like this. But given the desk’s modest size and their pinned position, it was only a matter of time before they were overwhelmed.

 

“I’m asking–” Lethia broke off as she dared another wild attack. She continued as if she hadn’t just shot at trained police officers. “–Because that was the fiercest I’d ever seen you…in this life. Right now? I need you to pretend all of these officers stole my bra.”

 

Elmiryn stared at her. “If you’re trying to inspire me, you’re failing. Horribly.”

 

“Fuck you and just shoot someone!” Lethia screamed at her. “Fight or we die! Don’t you want to see Nyx again!?”

 

“But she’s dead!

 

Lethia grabbed Elmiryn’s shoulder and shook her. “Elle, wake up! I’m not brave! I’m not a real fighter! You are! I need you here. The real you! Now!”

 

Elmiryn could only stare at her cousin–stare and think the girl was wild and insane. Perhaps the feeling of wrongness–the sense of not belonging, of not behaving right, of not sounding right–had all been in her head. The reality of their situation was more sobering than a splash of cold water in her face. Elmiryn had made a mistake. She was not a fighter. She was not brave. She didn’t belong anywhere else but in this world–and any minute now, she could be evacuated to an early afterlife.

 

Lethia could see the doubt in her eyes as clearly as if the woman’s skin had turned purple. She shoved at the redhead in some show of disgust…but not just that. Fear. She had made a gamble, and now she had to face the sad result. Death by cop.

 

“I never wanted any of this either…” Lethia murmured, slumping down next to the woman. “I just wanted…I wanted to be a good daughter. I just wanted to help Syria. And somehow that landed me here. I wish I could get rid of this power I have. I wish I could forget how to breathe and just die. But I can’t, because I’ve made a terrible mess of things, and until I can get you all out of it…” she trailed off.

 

Elmiryn reached over and squeezed the girl’s arm. She felt sick with fear.

 

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Lethia choked out. Her voice was barely audible over the barrage of shots.

 

Would they kill them if they surrendered? Even taking into account Lethia’s shooting, Elmiryn didn’t think they killed anyone. The shotgun didn’t have very far range, and the officers were being careful. Then again, she didn’t know anything about situations like this.

 

Her cousin had stopped firing. Possibly to save ammunition. How many shots did she have left? Three? The shots fired at them eased as the officers tried assess this sudden change. The woman glanced at Lethia. She was staring into nothing, hugging the shotgun to her body like it were a teddy bear. How did it come to this? What could the woman do to save them?

 

People can change, Elmiryn thought somberly.

 

She closed her eyes and tried to remember the impossible.

 

She tried to remember being the person she had never been.

 

The minutes stretched on.

 

Someone shouted over them. Elmiryn bared her teeth as hands took her weapon away and shoved her down. A knee dug into her back. She heard Lethia cry out next to her. Still, the woman kept her eyes closed.

 

She heard little whispers in her head.

 

…won’t leave them…chained…can’t fight–

 

…sir, we can’t…to run…

 

…go…made my…flea-biters coming…

 

…Elle, no…

 

…Saelin, you asshole…

 

Someone latched on one pair of cuffs and started pulling her arms behind her to put on the other.

 

Elmiryn managed to turn her head over to Lethia just as they grabbed her other wrist, and saw the girl gazing at her sadly.

 

“Lethy,” the redhead hissed. She fought against the grip that tried to twist her arm and heard the man barking at her to stop resisting. Red faced, she shouted, “Lethy, do a jedi mind trick! Now!

 

The girl’s eyes widened. They had already cuffed her and were jerking her to her feet. “But–”

 

NOW!

 

Lethia’s head snapped up as they focused on something the woman couldn’t see. Elmiryn felt the grip on her wrist relax, felt the knee on her back shift away. The woman started to roll to her feet, but other officers grabbed her by the shoulders and tried to shove her down again.

 

“Carl, what are you doing!?” one of them shouted.

 

Elmiryn heard several shots, all of them deafening. Something warm sprayed her face. The sounds made her flinch every time, and the lapse in concentration should’ve been enough for her opponents to subdue her quickly…

 

…If only each of them hadn’t had a supporting limb shot out.

 

The officers around her screamed in surprise and agony as they gripped their injured limbs. More noises. More struggle. More shots. Elmiryn couldn’t take it all in. Her focus was on getting free of the tangle, and when she did she rose up in a crouch and a night stick shoved into her face. The woman gave a start, but quickly saw that it was Lethia who was holding out the weapon. The officer that had been handcuffing Lethia was now crouching with them behind their crowded cover of the desk. The officers that had been shot were knocked out.

 

Shouts echoed through the offices.

 

Elmiryn took the night stick from her cousin, and her brow wrinkled in concern as she saw the girl flinch and rub her head.

 

“What’s wrong?” she asked. Aside from this entire situation.

 

“It’s taxing…controlling people,” Lethia panted. She pointed toward a doorway behind them–it was across from the one where the officer she had first shot at emerged from. “Move! There!”

 

Elmiryn nodded tersely.

 

The officers, their strange silent allies, covered them with gunfire as they hurried into the other room. The woman quickly scanned the space and found it was a simple supply closet. When the officers followed them in, shutting the door behind them, it became very cramped.

 

“Well this is less than ideal!” Lethia breathed.

 

The woman twisted the night stick in her hands. “Lethia, we can’t stay in here!”

 

“Well we can’t go back to the lobby.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“I didn’t have time to mention it before, but my power isn’t infinite. The moment I took control of these two, the officers outside, the ones I’d been putting a mental block on… Let’s just say, they’re ‘awake’ now.”

 

Elmiryn blanched. “We’re stuck in here! Pinned!”

 

“Not necessarily.”

 

“Wh-What do you mean?”

 

“I mean our friends here provided me with some information about the building. Namely, that this vent,” she pointed at the back wall, where behind a large box of papers, a vent peeked. Elmiryn would have missed it. “Can put us close to where Meznik is being held.”

 

“I thought that only worked in movies.”

 

“You’re right. That’s why I’m going to need you to do something.”

 

Elmiryn was immediately wary. “What?”

 

Lethia’s face became grim. “I need you to make us skinnier.”

 

The redhead balked. “Not even Jenny Craig can get the kind of results you’re asking for!”

 

“Back there, didn’t you remember something? Anything at all about who you really are?”

 

Elmiryn faltered. “Not…not really.”

 

Lethia sighed.

 

There was movement outside. Everyone stared at the door.

 

“I don’t have it in me to pull a hat trick,” Lethia whispered urgently. “So whatever you need to do to remember your fae power, do it now!”

 

As she said this, the officers squeezed past Elmiryn and set to work getting to the vent. She looked from them to Lethia and back. Then with a shaky sigh, she stooped down and began to take off her shoes.

 

“What are you doing??” Lethia hissed at her.

 

“I’m trying to feel like Bruce Willis, shut up!

 

“What we need isn’t Die Hard! We need more like…like…” Lethia fumbled, trying to come up with an adequate reference.

 

Elmiryn glared at her. “I thought you said I could do whatever I needed to!”

 

“I lied!

 

“You can be such a pain in the–”

 

There was a loud clunk outside. Scuffling. The women exchanged looks.

 

“You don’t think that’s SWAT do you?”

 

Lethia swallowed audibly. “Maybe?”

 

Elmiryn’s voice was fast and strained. She tried to keep her voice low so that those outside couldn’t hear. “What’s this fae power you want me to remember so badly?”

 

“Fairy godmother!” Lethia gasped suddenly.

 

What?”

 

“We don’t need Bruce Willis, we need a fairy godmother! You know! Cinderella!?”

 

“But I can’t–”

 

Try.”

 

“You have to make a wish first, jackass!”

 

“I-wish-my-idiot-cousin-would-make-me-fit-into-that-vent!” Lethia said in a rush.

 

The officers in the room with them were working out the last screw to the ventilation shaft using a multitool they had found somewhere. Elmiryn waved her arms.

 

Shazam! Wish be granted!”

 

The look Lethia gave her made the woman’s throat muscles tickle, but she didn’t know from what. Clearing it, she tried again, this time with more feeling.

 

“SHAZAM!”

 

Her mind flashed with the image of the cops outside in the hallway, preparing to burst into their room, expecting a fatal finish…and suddenly hearing her ridiculous cries.

 

Elmiryn’s throat tickled again, and this time her lips twitched.

 

Lethia palmed her face. “We are going to die,” she moaned morosely.

 

The officers carefully set down the vent cover. The shaft was now open to them…but it was much too small for even Lethia to squeeze through.

 

“No, no, I feel like I’m onto something. Here…” The woman rolled her shoulders and took a breath. Then she threw her arms up into the air and bellowed, “Alla-ka-zoo!

 

“Elmiryn, would you stop–!?”

 

But the girl was cut off as the redhead burst into wild laughter.

 

Lethia stared at her aghast. “You think this is funny?

 

When the woman calmed down enough to speak, it was with an arrogant smirk. Her cousin’s expression cleared and her eyebrows went high.

 

“Kid,” Elmiryn said as she patted Lethia on the cheek. “Right now, everything is funny.” She thumbed at the vent. “Now let’s get you in there!”


Back to Chapter 37.3 | Forward to Chapter 37.5

Chapter 37.1

HAKEEM_________________________

He had just witnessed some of the barest and most personal feelings of three women, one of which was his wife. Enthralled by the ugliness of it all, the man could not close his eyes. Their insecurities unfurled before him like a carpet, and he followed their fears until all lies were bypassed. Love. Hope. Identity. He saw them crack and fissure, watched with horror as they began to fall apart. How could they be so fragile? How could their hearts waver so, after all they had been through? Was this what they fought for? To exist in doubt and shame?

With a will, Hakeem turned his face away.

He heard Lethia’s voice, and it was devoid of the twisted humor that had so violated it. Izma was gone then. The man wasn’t sure if he felt all that much better with the alternative, however.

“I’m sorry…” she whispered.

“Does this satisfy your needs, Lethia Artaud?” He asked quietly. He gazed at the far wall, still trying to resist the macabre curiosity that compelled him to witness the systematic deconstruction of his companions’ minds. “Are you closer to your answers? Do you have what you want after turning Nyx’s love against her? Causing Elmiryn to doubt who she is? Making my wife–” but he broke off here, his voice choking out.

Ringing in his mind were Quincy’s words–over, and over, and over…

“I was Tulki’s concubine. Okay!?”

In all of Hakeem’s years, the only time he had felt so much pain was with the death of his family. Quincy’s words hit him hard and ripped out his soul. All expression felt inadequate for the amount of suffering that washed over him, powerful and suffocating. And the worst part was that his wife had been right. He had known the truth deep down in his heart. In his youth, he had beat his chest against the idea, choosing instead to trick himself into thinking he could keep her safe with a superstition. Even into adulthood, Hakeem liked to think that he had done right by Quincy and kept her safe. But he was just a child then, and a silly man now.

“I’m sorry…” Lethia said again. Louder now.

Like a wolf sensing blood, the man tensed up, his lips pulling back in a snarl. “You’re sorry?

The enchantress said nothing, and Hakeem’s eyes snapped onto her. His gaze burned with his anger, his pain, his regret. Even in the grips of emotion, the man’s heart knew only pure focus.

“If you were truly sorry, girl, you would end this!” He spat. Lethia flinched and looked down at her shoes. Hakeem gestured at the ball of light before him with disgust. “Apologies do nothing for me. Nothing for them. It’s all just empty words. Mean what you say, or keep silent. Your presence is enough of a lie as it is…”

Lethia’s face turned blank, but in the girl’s eyes, the wizard saw his pain reflected. The tension in his shoulders eased, but his gaze remained wary as the youth turned and drifted away, toward the staircase.

“You’re right,” she breathed. “I am a lie.” She rounded out of sight, up the stairs.

Hakeem gazed at the place he saw her last before letting his eyes trail back to the orb of light before him…

NYX____________________________

Stuck in some sort of dream or memory, I watched as Elmiryn approached me.

“I was going to leave.” Her voice was playful, like when she liked to joke and play games with me. I tried to move, feeling my panic rise.

I don’t want to see this!

But try as I might, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even look away. I even tried calling the shadows or changing over to the Somnium. Nothing worked. I was being blocked somehow. Kali was absent in my mind, and it made me feel alone.

Amidst my hysteria, Elmiryn looked at me as if I had just spoken. “I would so leave you!” Her eyes pierced into me. I’d never seen such clarity in Elle’s eyes. The look…scared me. “I’d leave you and let you stew in your own juices. It’s what you deserve, the way you jerk me around.” The person Elle thought I was must have spoken again, because she let out a throaty laugh. “Mmm…yes. I like it when you’re bad.”

As the woman pulled me close and pressed her mouth to my phantom lips, I heard Lethia’s voice echo around me.

“You’re probably wondering what’s happening.”

Then it hit me.

Rage.

If I thought it was bad before when Lethia mentioned my mother, it was a blessing in disguise being held captive like this, then. Words failed me. The only thing that would’ve satisfied my urges was violence. Whether Lethia was aware of this or not, she made no indication.

“I should tell you. This isn’t a memory per se. It isn’t quite an illusion either. Well, as far as what you’re seeing Elmiryn do. You could call this a mosaic of small truths. Everything Elmiryn is doing, she has done at one point or another with the lovers she’s encountered. It was really difficult, picking out the memories strongest in her mind. You know her memory is white-washed. I think I did well, though. Does some of this feel familiar?” I could hear the laughter in Lethia’s voice as Elmiryn guided me to the bed.

Every touch from the warrior I could feel, but I was not here. I was nothing. Just like all the women she had ever fucked and left.

I was nothing.

My anger was culled by my despair as I fell upon the silk sheets. It gave me room to speak. As I felt Elmiryn’s fingers trail down my abdomen to the place between my legs, her eyes fastened onto mine, I could only ask one thing–

Why?

Lethia laughed again, and it made my soul shiver.

“Because. I want to help you.”

How can this possibly–!?

My question cut off as I felt Elmiryn’s fingers slide into me. Whether or not I was aroused by this situation seemed irrelevant. I was feeling what this other person felt. Or maybe what Elmiryn imagined she made them feel. It was so strange–feeling aroused despite my distress. I was just a puppet, doomed to the performance…and gods the shame I felt, knowing that someone else was seeing this. For all I knew, Lethia was putting this show on for everyone. Quincy, Hakeem…Elmiryn. The thought made me want to scream…

So I did, for all the good it did me.

“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be with a woman…” Lethia sighed, as if I hadn’t made a sound. “It’s horrendous being a virgin. I can see why you were so quick to cast yourself at Elmiryn.”

I started talking. Or…thinking I guess. As fast as I could. As much as I could. It helped take my mind off the feelings that started to invade me, against my will.

I didn’t throw myself at her. I’d resisted my feelings for a long time. I wasn’t even sure I loved her until we came to the Other Place! But things sort of–sort of–HAPPENED that way, and it gave me hope! It gave me strength! And I think about her all the time, because she is, and continues to be, the only true motivation I have in my life! I mean, that’s sad, I know–but but but–I mean, it’s just how it is, isn’t it? I can’t help that I’m an abomination–or could I have? I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t KNOW! I just know that I love her! I do! I LOVE ELMIRYN, and you can’t make me feel otherwise! Not with this sham. Not with this LIE! This isn’t Elle! This isn’t her!

“When you say ‘love.’” Lethia twisted the word. “You mean the kind of love you’re feeling right now?”

This is NOT love! This–This is–

Rape. It wasn’t really happening, but this was rape, I was sure of it.

I couldn’t help it. I moaned in pleasure. My shame and horror multiplied, and when I heard Lethia laugh at my pain, I finally realized that I had let myself get trapped here. I had let myself, because I had trusted in who I had been speaking to, taking for granted that if they had the power to control everyone in such a manner, then I was seeing the truth.

But Lethia Artaud, no matter how empirical she was, would never laugh so boldly at someone else’s pain.

The saddest part was…this realization was too late, and Izma knew it.

Had Lethia ever been there? Maybe she had been, but had been switched out partway through our talk? Or maybe she was still here somehow, just stuck in a parasitic relationship with Izma and unable to speak for herself?

…Maybe she knew what Izma would do and let it happen anyway?

Where is Lethia…? My voice was small. Weak. What would Lacertli say to me, if he could see me now? Some champion I was, duped and at the mercy of some abomination that had turned a friend against me.

“Ha! My little sum of somes is subtracted! Artaud? She lives. What really fascinates me is how you still manage to muster up the compassion when your friend, the weed, leaves you so divided,” Izma purred.

The game is over. You have no reason to hold me here. There is nothing left for me to give you!

“Ah, but Nyx I have every reason! You think that now the curtain has been pulled back, the show ends? But there is still so much to see!”

And while you waste your efforts with sadism, the others will free themselves of you, demon! They will cut you out, cut you apart, and I will watch–

So much for threats. My voice died out in a whimper as Elmiryn took my phantom breast into her mouth, and Izma’s melodious voice danced with amusement.

“My sum of somes. Let us engage in simple addition. Take one pathetic excuse for a creature–”

N-No–

“–Add a reckless beast of debauchery–”

Stop it! Stop! SHUT UP!

“–And you get a sad couple, writhing futilely in their mortal trappings as they go careening into a mind-numbing hole of basic bodily pleasure. It’s a nasty worm, that need you have, Nyx. It has eaten its way to the core of you. I must give credit where credit is due–after all, it was very impressive how much you resisted your urges, even in Volo’s realm. Was it scary, realizing you were more like your mother than you liked?”

I’m…I’m not…like her…

“But of course, how silly of me! Your condemnation of Elmiryn’s rather colored past has absolutely nothing to do with your own insecurities–perish the thought!”

My mother overcame her problem! And in Elmiryn’s case, it was nothing like that! She has control!

“All the better for the warrior, then, to be able to wield her appetites with such precision! Your mother was sloppy in comparison, wasn’t she? And when all was said and done, the only reason she stopped was because she became too weak to keep up with her games. Contracted some disease perhaps?”

That isn’t true…

If I had any control right now, I would’ve curled up into a ball. Instead, Elmiryn was presently half-naked and utilizing that position she’d tried with me in the blackwood. How many women had she done this with? The question was almost compulsive, and I hated myself for it.

“Certainly, though, you’ve considered the possibility that Elmiryn will not be able to keep up with your appetites, dear?”

This conversation felt almost like a carefully designed tactic on Izma’s part. I didn’t want to think about what was happening to me, so I was eager for the distraction. But talking with this demon was dangerous–after all, it had already landed me here. But what else could she do to me? I felt broken enough already.

What do you mean? I asked, like a dumb beast wandering into a hunter’s shot.

“I mean, Elmiryn is but one human. Well…half-human, but we needn’t get picky. Can she really satiate your needs? Haven’t you ever wished to seek out the pleasure of others without care?”

No. I am not like that!

“So repressed! I can feel your shame, feel your self-loathing, so powerful it makes my taste buds tingle! Mmm…but child, I imagine we’d both be more satisfied if you’d just let go.”

Of what? My moral sense!?

“Don’t be stupid. Morals are only illusory concepts that people use to trick themselves into believing they are right. What you need to do, my sum of somes, is to remove this crippling idea that you cannot have the things you want. If you want, then so should you pursue. The truth of whether or not you should have the object of your desire rests only in your success or failure. A simple prospect, yes?”

My spirit recoiled.

No! That’s just selfish indulgence! What can that bring but more suffering?

“Do you think morals and common sense to be the same thing? Goodness, even Lethia Artaud knows the difference! My suggestion does not carry with it a wanton disregard for consequence, little sum. What it carries is an awareness that there are certain paths in life that can be taken with little struggle, others, with more. Even your god, Lacertli, can attest to this, can he not?”

This argument startled me. I hadn’t expected Izma to bring up the Lizard King to support her claim anymore than I had expected her to suddenly become a benevolent being. But the logic twisted around my mind, and as the rushing ecstasy of Elmiryn’s ministrations hit me, so did I understand the demon’s reasoning. If all parties were willing, if all intentions were clear, then what harm was there in having multiple partners? Especially if you knew you would never see them again? Lacertli only cared for Harmony–and even he pressed me to discard notions of right and wrong. Was this how things truly were then? Primitive and empty? Did people really just collide into each other and spiral away? I wasn’t agreeing with this idea. But…

I just thought it strange that I had never let myself see things that way.

Having reached her climax, Elmiryn–this dream version of the woman I said I loved–rolled to the side of the bed and immediately started to dress. The phantom I was embodying gazed at her back, and my heart wrenched as though I was the person she were actually leaving.

Izma’s voice sounded smug around me. “Here is a simpler question, Nyx, as it seems the last has overwhelmed you. Without too much thought, I want you to answer me this: If you knew Elmiryn held no love for you whatsoever, would you lay with her again?”

I didn’t need to think on the answer, for I already knew it. My voice was small. Almost non-existent.

Yes.

Izma chuckled with satisfaction. “Then see what your ‘love’ has enslaved you to.”

My phantom must have spoken again, because Elmiryn turned to look at me over her shoulder.

“Of course I’m leaving,” she said simply. “You were late. I have things to do.” There was a pause. She shrugged at my apparent response. “Honestly? I’ve had better.”

I sat up quickly, as the scene demanded that I did, and Elmiryn looked at me sharply, her hands stilling on her shirt buttons. A cold smile spread her lips and she chuckled. “I’m a bitch, huh? Funny. That was the same thing your sister said after I fucked her. Did you two practice on each other? Because your techniques are much the same!”

My shock mirrored my phantom’s.

Wh-What!?

“Don’t shrill. I just said I’m leaving.” The warrior gathered her coat and blew a kiss as she passed me by. “Goes without saying that I won’t be coming back, darling. Do give my regards to your sweet sister!” As I heard her slip out the door, I heard her mutter, “Stupid cunt.”

The room faded to black. I was lost in a place of darkness, and all I could feel was my heart breaking into a thousand sharp pieces.

This…this isn’thappeningthis can’t be real…

“As I’ve already explained,” Izma sighed. “This is a collection of small truths. Everything Elmiryn has done or said…she has done or said before!”

But how could she be so cold? I’ve…I’ve never seen her so cold!

“Perhaps you do not know your lady love as well as you thought? It stands to reason. How can you know her, if you do not know yourself?”

The darkness around me began to lighten. It became warmer. Like a sun was rising. I found myself shivering on some tiled floor, hugging my knees to my chest, tears streaming down my face. Confused, I looked around me and saw a woman with short cropped brown hair and gray eyes. I stared at her. Her clothes were strange–she had on what looked like a soft green brazier with thin straps and small blue shorts. She smiled at me as she cocked her head to the side.

“Do you want find out what really lies inside you, little sum?” Izma. Her voice was light. Almost normal.

I didn’t answer. I was so afraid and the pain of what I’d gone through still struck deep.

Izma’s avatar stepped aside, and behind her was a red door. She gestured toward it. “Here…Surely, you cannot serve your Lizard King if you are too afraid to know what you are?”

Slowly I stood.

There were lots of things I was afraid of.

I had told Lethia that, as an abomination, I was not deserving of love. But in my dedication to Elmiryn, wasn’t I acting out of some dim hope that someday my feelings could be reciprocated? Ailurans were passionate people, and our hearts got away from us sometimes. We could act on our desires on a subconscious level, and never be fully aware of what was really going on. The truth of this had already led to tragedy once in my life–when my dark rage and pain surfaced to murder Atalo. What if something equally horrible happened if I clung to this notion that Elmiryn could possibly love me back?

Skirting past Izma, I went to the door and turned the handle.


Back to Chapter 36.4 | Forward to Chapter 37.2

Chapter 36.1

NYX___________________________

The desire to shout Elmiryn down was there, for all of us, I think–but inevitably we found ourselves more concerned with the task before us. Hard to ignore the chance of finally facing down the one who had put us all through hell, after all. My only concern was in how well the warrior could function. I wanted to ask her to give me the gourd, but I could already foresee the clash of wills that would be, and I needed all of that energy for the task before us. It was easy, being brave and saying I wouldn’t let anything happen to Elle back in the blackwood. It was a wee bit harder at the actual threshold of the keep. After all…

If there was one thing the Other Place had proven to me, it was that it had no exhaustible amount of terrible surprises to sling at us. I’m not sure I could ever shake away some of the sights I’d seen here, and I suspected I had many rough nights of sleep in the future. Would this challenge really be the last I’d see? My fears seemed to stack up sometimes, swaying in the cold winds, and I was always stuck in the shadow of them, gulping down my courage–because things always tended to go wrong whenever I tried to do…anything. My lack of a family is probably my best example.

My confidence was like a rollercoaster. One moment I’d be filled with purpose, the next I’d be wringing my hands in doubt. I just wanted to do the right thing, and in such a dark and twisted halfway dimension, that became more and more distorted…especially when we were all walking such fine lines between salvation and destruction. And the horrible part? Half the time that misfortune was wrought by our own hands. Elmiryn’s drinking. My self-made monster.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, we came to the arched entrance of the castle keep. The looming structure, with its worn and mossy stone, its dark crenellations, and its many gazed windows seemed to bare down on us. The large double-door entrance was painted red, and had a smaller inset door to the right. We stopped before this, and exchanged looks.

In a weak attempt to bolster my courage, I tried to be blithe. “D-Do you suppose we knock?” At the looks I received, I resolved never to do that again. Ever.

Hakeem tried to pull it open by the handle. It didn’t budge. “We will have to break it down unless we can find another way in,” he remarked.

“Fuck that,” Elmiryn snapped. The drink was clearly working for her. Maybe I needed to have some.

She stepped up to the door as she took another swig of drink. Her other hand twirled her sword. Quincy crossed her arms and said in the dryest voice possible, “What are you going to do? Belch at it?”

The warrior turned and squinted one eye. “Uh…No. I was going to bust it down.” She turned back, shaking her head. “‘Belch at it’…what a boob!”

Quincy’s face grew red. “I was being sarca–”

“Shh!” I hissed. “Sweet Aelurus, we’re in a very dangerous place right now! Can we save this nonsense for later!?”

Elmiryn spoke, and as she did so, she raised her foot to kick the door. “Then let’s quit stalling and just–”

Before she could kick out, the door swung open with a faint creak. My mouth dropped and I took a step back. Elmiryn didn’t move, her foot still in the air.

“Orrr…that could happen,” she said insipidly.

I took another step back as my body trembled. “This could be a trap!”

Quincy shook her head at me. “You just ran through a field of evil spirits, but you can’t walk through a door?

My hackles rose. “Syria could be on the other side of it with some diabolical plan to turn our minds inside out! She’s done things like that before!”

“Well it isn’t going to be very productive to just sit out here, now is it?” Elmiryn said. She had a jocular smile on her face, but I could see the way her head swayed ever so slightly on her neck as she turned to face the door. If she kept at that gourd, she’d be slurring her words any minute now.

Just as she started to cross the threshold, I jumped forward and ripped the gourd from her hands. She was quick to try and take it back, like I knew she would be, and maybe if she were sober, she would have succeeded, but she wasn’t. It only made me more certain that my bold move was in the right. Elmiryn had made the argument that she needed to keep drinking to stay functional. True, that her hands were looking steady now, but the warrior wouldn’t be able to stop herself from going too far. I had to do something, and that wasn’t going to be talking things out.

“Nyx what the hell!?” she cried.

I didn’t even stop to try and defend my actions. With a look that begged for understanding, I turned and fled through the door. I heard the others follow me, and was glad too, because the antechamber made my skin go cold.

The ceiling swirled in colors, bright and dark, cool and warm. As I stood beneath it, the yellow color on my skin began to rise up like liquid into the air. It floated up to join the colors on the ceiling. I shook my head slowly.

“What sort of sorcery is this?” I breathed.

“It could be a more focused form of energy sorcery,” I heard Quincy murmur behind me. “Though I’ve never seen it exercised on light before…barring Tonatiuh of course.”

I turned to look and there she was with Hakeem, holding a hand out to keep Elmiryn from trying to take the gourd back. The warrior glared at me, her expression speaking of betrayal, and I ducked my gaze.

Gods, she must think I don’t trust her to control herself! Why can’t she see that it isn’t HER I don’t trust, it’s her fae side?

Isn’t that the same thing? Kali responded quietly.

Quincy met my eyes, and leaving Hakeem to ensure Elmiryn didn’t do anything rash, she approached me with her hand held out. “Give the gourd here. I can keep it in my pouch.”

Grateful the source of conflict was being removed, I handed it to her and watched as she quickly slipped it into her magic pouch.

“Just how much can you hold in there?” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of me.

Quincy thought for a moment, then answered. “I think about as much as a two-floor mansion can, from floor to ceiling.”

My eyes went wide. Meanwhile, Elmiryn had stormed off to fume by herself, and Hakeem let her go. The antechamber wasn’t that big, so she didn’t go far.

“Gods, how can it hold so much?” I exclaimed.

“Well, actually, there’s a catch. Wizardry always has a catch. In the case of this pouch, I can only put in items that can fit through the four-inch wide opening. Next…things tend to get lost in there. So it’s best to keep the stock low. The pouch may be able to hold as much as a mansion, but I can only get as much as my arm can reach…”

Uncertain of what to say about all of this, I just nodded slowly. Wizardry was an odd profession–I knew this from my reading–and I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could find themselves practicing such an art. I mean, yes. I understand the appeal of having powers one would normally need to be born with. But wizards were a cutthroat lot, killing each other for their things, tomb raiding sacred sites, and battling magical beings on the off-chance that they may find some sort of treasure. Hakeem and Quincy both seemed very successful at it, given the number of artifacts they possessed. The average wizard only had one powerful artifact, and any number of common magicked items. In their case? From what I saw they were extraordinary, even for such an unusual practice.

We heard a door open and looked up to see Elmiryn pushing her way into the next room. I groaned and hurried after her, the wizards on my heels.

Wonderful. She’s mad, so now she’s going to be reckless about this all.

The next room turned out to be a sort of sitting room, but it was flushed with papers and books. There was a sofa chair, an ornate rug, and some tables, but otherwise the room didn’t have much else.

When we caught up to Elmiryn, I hissed, “Elle, please don’t rush off like that!”

“I heard something,” she replied in a steely tone.

I flinched and rubbed my arm. “Elmiryn, listen. I’m sorry, but I had to take the gourd–”

“Shhhh!” She held a finger to my lips and I stopped. “D’you hear that?”

I frowned, straining my ears. With my Twin back, my hearing had improved, but I heard nothing. I looked to the others and by their expressions they hadn’t heard anything either.

My eyes returned to the woman, my forehead wrinkling. “Elle, there’s nothing–”

“There!” She grabbed my shoulder, squeezing it painfully, and pointed at the empty chair.

Now my look was wary. “The…chair?”

She didn’t seem to hear me. Swaying a little bit, she walked to the chair, her boots clicking on the stone floor before they reached the carpet. With a graceless drop, the woman sat at the foot of the chair and gazed up, smiling.

My heart clenched.

Oh no…

“E-Elmiryn?” I went to her side, and waved my hands in front of her face but she didn’t look at me. She was fixated on something that only she could see.

When I looked to the wizards to ask them what we should do, I choked on my words.

Quincy had floated off to stare at a wall, muttering to herself, whilst Hakeem seemed to just fall asleep on his feet. I looked at them all in horror.

“This was a trap!”

“No. It wasn’t.”

I screamed and turned to see Lethia Artaud standing in a doorway I hadn’t noticed yet. From the way she stepped down to the floor, I assumed she came from a staircase. Clutching at my chest, I stared at her, robbed of words.

In a rush, memories came to me–long and stretched from a route of time that didn’t fit with my other memories. The one that stood out to me was the latest one. The one where I had stood and called Lethia a coward. How I’d threatened to break her bones. The silence felt heavy. There had been many things in my head I’d been keeping at bay, with Kali’s help, so that we could survive the challenges before us. But this one broke forth like a flood, weakening me.

My eyes filled with tears and I ducked my head in shame. “Lethia…”

She didn’t say anything for a long time, leaving the colorful ceiling to echo back Quincy’s dazed mutterings.

“It’s not your fault,” she finally said.

My face crumpled. “It is…It is, and I’m sorry! There’s so many things I regret, Lethia, I can’t even–” My voice cut off as my expression cleared and I blinked away my tears. Something had occurred to me. “Wh-What are you doing here? Where’s Syria?”

Lethia’s oval-shaped face twitched as she looked down at her shoes, then back at me. “You don’t have to worry about her.”

“What? I–I don’t understand. Who cast the Manus Dei?

Lethia wrung her hands, her shoulders coming up around her ears. With tight lips, she mumbled, “I did.”

My eyes went wide. “It was…you?

“That’s what I said.”

“But–”

“I was trying to buy some time. To think.” Her voice had gone tight, and I wasn’t sure if she was angry somehow, or simply fighting back tears.

As such I proceeded with caution. “Lethia, why are you here?”

Her green eyes fastened onto mine, and my heart leapt into my throat. The enchantress had the power to steal people’s thoughts by meeting their gaze. I looked away, feeling a little bad for my reaction, but more afraid of having my head emptied. Then I blinked.

“Wait…”

Slowly, my eyes returned to Lethia’s. “Elmiryn said Syria had lied to you about your eyes. Have you…controlled your power then?”

Lethia thought for a moment. Then she shook her head. “No…not really. I still have wandering amnesia. Any given moment there is something I can’t remember. But for a long time I didn’t have my full power, so it wasn’t so debilitating.”

I frowned at the girl’s tone and took a slow step back. “But your power has…come back?

She nodded once, and her gaze turned glassy. “Yes.”

The silence returned. I breathed hard through my nose, my heart rate going fast. Lethia just stood there, her hands and arms limp at her sides, her head lolled to the right, her face blank. There was something off about all of this, and I could feel Kali pacing inside me as I tried to figure out just what the danger was.

If the Other Place had taken her power, how did she even get it back? Syria clearly had been trying to keep Lethia controlled, and she wouldn’t have made the mistake of arming the girl with the very power that would free her. Lethia had only wanted to get away from this nightmare.

I took notice of the bandages on her arm…

“This isn’t a trap,” Lethia repeated suddenly, making me jump a little.

I raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”

“I said this isn’t a trap.” She reached a hand up and brushed her wavy wheat blonde hair back over her shoulder. “This is…a last chance.”

My back tightened. “Lethia, what is going on? Where is Syria? Why did you cast the Manus Dei?” Then I gasped and took another step back as something finally occurred to me. “You’re working with Syria, aren’t you?”

Lethia shook her head, an almost disappointed smirk on her face. “No…”

Now my confusion had doubled. “Then please explain to me what is happening! Why are the others not responding?”

“I put them in dream states,” the girl said with a shrug. She started to walk forward, and my fists clenched. “I just wanted to talk to you in private.”

“About what? Be straightforward with me, Lethia! Please!

“Straightforward…that’s what you want?” She stopped just a few steps from me and Elmiryn. Her eyes flickered to the warrior, still dreamily focused on whatever it was that Lethia had tricked her mind into seeing. “Okay. I can be straightforward.”

Her green eyes locked onto mine again, and I could see her lower lip quake. “You have to help me decide. Either I choose your side, and risk the chance of Izma killing me, or I choose her side, and risk the chance of you and Elmiryn killing me. Give me your arguments.”

I didn’t know how to react at first. I stood staring at her, waiting for her to explain herself further, but the girl said nothing more. Up close, I could see now that her aloofness was really just an act to contain her numbing fear. Lethia was terrified, and she was asking for my help.

“I can’t…” I shook my head, my look twisting up in incredulity. “What kind of–?” I grabbed my hair and took yet another step back. “Lethia, what is this!? Some sort of sick game?”

“It isn’t a game,” and for the first time since she’d walked into the room, her voice cracked. “This is important. Life or death. But I can’t decide until I hear all the arguments! I’ve already heard Izma’s and now–”

Who is Izma!?” I screamed.

In a flash of recall, I answered my own question.

Ooooh…. My little sum of somes is quite a something!  Now my error is known.  Come.  Tell Izma what it was like to break the things she loves…

The memory came hard and fast, and a residual pain appeared deep inside in a place unreachable–like my soul were being attacked–and I cringed, clutching my sides. When I caught my breath and managed to fight off the nightmare, my gaze crawled back to Lethia, who was staring at me wide-eyed now.

“You know her, Nyx. You know her,” she whispered, and tears pooled into her gaze. “You know she is chaos. You know she is powerful. And she has a hold on me, much as I try to resist it!” Her head tilted to the side and she smiled shakily. “But I managed to convince her…that I was not like Syria or Elmiryn. I am not a pet, or a toy. If I worked with her, it would have to be in my choosing. This gave me just enough time to decide whether to follow through or to try and fight her…but you’ve seen how powerful she is, Nyx!” The girl sobbed and shook her head. “I’m scared. If it were just a matter of dying, then I would gladly die, but it isn’t so simple with her. Defying her and failing…I would suffer. Immensely. Y-You were right. I am a coward.”

Slowly I shook my head and with cautious steps I went to her. “No…No! Lethia, listen to me. You are not a coward!”

“Don’t do that…”

“But Lethia–”

“NO!” The girl shoved me away, her gaze turning wild. “I have to decide, and I have to decide now. Will I fight her, or will I fight you? I need arguments for both sides. Pros and cons. I…” She started wringing her hands again, her eyes trailing the room. “I can’t do it myself.”

“But why not!?” I cried. “You know what I’ll say to you! Izma is evil! She’s an abomination and she’s only going to use you for her own sick goals! And I…I thought we were friends? We fought together! We’ve confided in each other! Or do you really hate us that much??”

Lethia smiled at me brokenly. “I can’t remember.”

My breathing hitched, and my look melted once more into shame. “I…oh no…of course…”

“I can remember that I liked you all, and I can remember certain recent…unpleasant things,” she whispered, her gaze going glassy again. “But I don’t remember…us being together in our world. I don’t know why I liked you, or even how deeply that feeling goes. For all I know, I could’ve just thought you were nice because you shared a piece of bread with me in passing.”

“But even then, you could bring yourself to harm a stranger? The Lethia I knew wouldn’t do that!”

“The Lethia you knew is in the past.” She chuckled derisively. “She’s forgotten. Literally. Izma is terrifying, yes. And she is just using me, I know. But…she has a plan, Nyx. To fix the world. To make it better.”

“And you believe her?”

“Syria did. Maybe I should’ve trusted in her. I didn’t have all the facts before. I didn’t…” she trailed off, and I stared at her, wondering how these things could be coming out of Lethia’s mouth.

Izma had a plan? In most cases, that would be referred to as world domination, if I wasn’t mistaken. Why couldn’t the girl see that? The Lethia I knew had a high moral code, and she not only expected others to behave honorably, but for herself to. The girl before me was almost alien in how she was rationalizing–

…Sweet Aelurus…of course!

I didn’t know why I didn’t see it sooner. Lethia was hyper-rationalizing.

It was a common tactic by those placed under great distress to be able to compute what was happening around them. I’d read it in some book, of course, so my knowledge was limited, but in extreme cases such thinking could lead to decisions that others would find reprehensible. The enchantress was possessed by a moral code, and I had mistakenly conflated that with someone who took things on faith. Lethia wasn’t about blind faith. When she said she believed Syria was innocent of those murders in Albias, it was because the evidence hadn’t added up to guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As an enchanter, Lethia was also a scholar, and her mind functioned heavily on the process of scientific reason. If her amnesia was preventing her from remembering all of the possible arguments for why she should trust and work with us, then in her state of stress, Izma’s arguments for “changing the world” would seem much more appealing.

I had to change this, and I had a feeling I couldn’t just put a vermagus spin on my Words and let the whole matter be done with. If I didn’t want to fight Lethia, which was quickly turning out to be a very dangerous option, I was going to have to convince her it was better to fight Izma.

I rubbed at my face. “My gods, I haven’t debated like this since I was in erduk.”

Lethia took a breath, her shoulders shuddering. Glancing at me, she sidled past Elmiryn to sit in the sofa chair and crossed her legs. When she looked at me again, her expression was somber.

“I’m listening,” she murmured.

QUINCY________________________

“I’m listening.”

Quincy’s eyes narrowed as she took in Lethia, sitting in the sofa chair with her legs crossed. Her gaze crawled back over her shoulder. Her husband was standing near the door, swaying on the spot. Elmiryn was sitting in front of Lethia, grinning and nodding her head like a little girl listening to story time. And Nyx? She was off to the side, leafing through the stacks of papers on the tables, her eyes glazed.

The woman looked back to Lethia as she crossed her arms. “So you want arguments, hmm?”

ELMIRYN_______________________

“What the hell d’ya want me ta say?” Elmiryn snapped. “Izma is bad news. Even Meznik is afraid o’ her. And you wanna jes’ settle on some crackpot plan to fix the world’s boo-boos!? C’mon kid, I thought you were smarter than that!”

Lethia shook her head. “It isn’t that simple, Elmiryn, and you know it. Izma and Meznik are cut from the same cloth. Are you telling me that the things he’s told you hasn’t appealed to you at all?”

Elmiryn’s eyes widened. “The hell? What’re you… No. No. You got into my head…saw things…”

The girl just laughed. “Come on, Elmiryn. Remember what happened last time? We both know that–”

HAKEEM________________________

“–Wouldn’t work.” Lethia finished.

Hakeem nodded, his fists on his hips. He glanced at the others. Quincy murmuring at the wall. Nyx leafing through the papers. Elmiryn sitting on the floor like a little girl. He turned his eyes back on the enchantress.

“Then why talk to me at all, if you know this charade will not work?”

Lethia shrugged. “Because. I may be playing mind games with the others, but you’re…too shrewd. I’ll get bored manipulating everything. I’d like to have at least one unfiltered conversation.”

The man rubbed at his mouth, his eyes returning to his wife. “She’ll see through this, you know. She’s good at picking up lies.”

“That pearl earring of hers doesn’t hurt either,” Lethia said with a wry smile. “I know Quincy is smart. Nyx and Elmiryn will get caught up chasing their own tails trying to sort out the logic. But Quincy? I’ll have to make her believe. And trust me, she’ll want to. Your wife may be attentive, and she may be intelligent, but when you live in reality like she does, you become prey to belief. Like how she chose to believe that her father and uncle were dead. Like how she chose to believe using the Morettis as bait against Syria was the right thing to do. Like how she chose to believe that she needed Tonatiuh to be strong. Did you know? Reality just amounts to all we can touch, smell, see, and hear. The sad fact is…all those senses we rely on is less than one-millionth of reality. The rest is just faith. So you see…I won’t trick Quincy into buying the lie. She’ll do that all by herself.”

Hakeem’s fists tightened and his eyes searched the girl’s face. “And I suppose I don’t have that problem?”

“You don’t live in belief. You know that life is far beyond anything we can comprehend, and so you adapt. You’ve adapted all your life. Like how you became one with the Lycans. It’s just what you do. Perhaps the only reason you haven’t moved on with your life is because of your wife. Because she can’t let things go, and she’s the only thing you can’t let go–”

“Shut up.” Hakeem’s armor flared with power as he stood to his feet. “I thought we weren’t playing any mind games…”

Lethia gazed at him for a long time before shaking her head sadly. “You’re right. Even the truth can’t be trusted.”

Hakeem glared at the floor, his muscles tense beneath his armor. Finally, he bit out, “What is this all for? Why don’t you and your master just kill us all?”

The girl bit her lip and wrung her hands. “I wasn’t lying Hakeem, when I said I cast the Manus Dei. But I borrowed that spell from Syria, and that knowledge is gone. Even with my raw power, I can’t control it like she could. It was just enough to defeat her in a moment of weakness. But you’re all determined to go home. Your mindscapes are…vast. Complicated. I may have the power, but I don’t have the skill to keep you all under and talk to you separately like this.”

“Izma…she’s augmenting your power…” Hakeem said, his eyes widening. “She’s the one really in control, isn’t she? But that still doesn’t tell me why she’s doing this! What is her plan, Lethia?”

Lethia’s voice was raspy when she spoke. “She wants to know more about you all. She wants to see if she can turn some of you. Part of it is out of spite. She wants to anger Lacertli by taking away his new champion. She also wants to steal Meznik’s toy. A power play. But in the case of you and Quincy…it’s curiosity. She recognizes your origins. The kind of triumphs you’ve achieved. The disasters you’ve survived. She thinks it might be useful.” She turned her face away. “And in the end, it all just amuses her. Your death or cooperation don’t really mean anything to her.”

“And you? Do you think she’ll spare you somehow?”

“…No.” The girl’s face crumpled and she shook her head. “I’ll be just like Syria. Just a thing to use and throw away.”

“So why play along?” Hakeem asked angrily. “Why do this to us?”

Lethia closed her eyes and tears slipped down her cheeks. “My mind is so confused, Hakeem. You may think my choice is easy…but it really isn’t. You all have agendas, just like Izma does, and I have to know which side is best to follow. I have to decide where I can do the most good.”

“And how will you decide this with Izma puppeting you!?” the man half-shouted. “Even if you can’t remember why you should trust us, you have got to know that Izma isn’t the answer!”

“Izma…she isn’t…she isn’t in control all the time. Please–” Hakeem started to speak, but Lethia stood, raising her hands. “Please! Let me explain!”

Hakeem crossed his arms, scowling. “Fine. But only because I’m certain I can’t kill you in this…illusion you’ve created.”

Lethia paled, but she moved past Elmiryn, daring a few steps closer. Wringing her hands, she started quickly. “Izma’s game works like this. I am her…screen. The field where she’s conducting everything. Imagine that she’s the controller, boosting my powers. But because she’s boosting my enchantment, she can only appear to one of you at a time. Most of the time, you’ll be speaking to me. I’m not allowed to tell the others what’s happening. She only allowed me to speak to you because she knew you wouldn’t fall for it, and for that she’s particularly interested in you. But the others…what she intends to do is to pick their minds. Peel away the layers. Izma is an astral demon, meaning she can do a lot, but she still isn’t a god. She doesn’t know everything about us, just certain things. While she tries to fill in the blanks, she’ll be evaluating your worth and interest. If she likes what she sees…she’ll convert you. If she doesn’t…” Lethia’s voice trailed, but Hakeem didn’t need her to finish.

He shook his head. “It’s a festival game. Hit the rodent when he peeks out from his hole. How can the others tell her apart from you?”

The girl shrugged helplessly. “Do you even know if I’m here right now? Maybe I’m Izma, just chatting you up. Judging your life.”

The man glared at her sidelong.

Lethia hugged herself and turned her body a quarter away, her chin tucking into her chest. “That’s the game, Hakeem. The others all think they’re only speaking to me, but at any given moment Izma can slip into my consciousness like I were a glove and just take over. If they can see it’s her…well…that’ll be dangerous, but at least they have a chance to fight back. I don’t like this either, but I have to know. I have to know what to do, and the only way I can do that is by talking to you all. One-on-one.”

“Only it’s not,” Hakeem snarled.

Lethia covered her mouth with her hand, her head shaking. He could hear her stifled sobs.

The wizard clenched his fists, then released them. Then with an explosive yell, he struck out, an arc of gravitational power blowing a table apart and sending books and papers into the air. He felt powerless. He didn’t want to feel powerless. He didn’t want to sit waiting for…whatever would happen.

For a long time, he stood panting through clenched teeth, his neck tight. Finally, he hissed, “This isn’t right…this is all just a lie…”

Lethia let out a cold laugh, and Hakeem looked at her sharply.

The girl was gazing at him with dead eyes, and the man shuddered involuntarily.

“Izma…” he whispered, taking a step back.

The demon grinned at him, Lethia’s green eyes glowing from the tainted presence.

“Silly, silly little time keeper. Don’t you know? Hope is just the universe’s way of lying to you. Identity is just your way of lying to yourself. Love is your way of lying to each other. Little Lethia knew this. Perhaps I should show you?”

Hakeem couldn’t help but flinch as the demon held up Lethia’s hand and a ball of light appeared. The orb flew to him faster than he could retreat, and the man’s eyes widened at the scene he saw within the orb’s depths.

Izma’s words gave way to music, and yet the man understood her meaning, as much as it repulsed him to do so.

Hope, identity, and love…look, little time keeper. Watch as these things die one by one…” the demon giggled.


Back to Chapter 35.3 | Forward to Chapter 36.2

Chapter 34.3

HAKEEM________________________

When the dark came over them, whole and impenetrable, Hakeem ceased moving. When he looked back behind him, he saw no light. In their home world, this would be impossible—they hadn’t traveled far from the edge of the forest. But this was the Other Place, and it was a half-world, fraught with magic. This was a supernatural darkness.

He opened his mouth to mention this when—

“I can’t see!” That was Nyx. Her voice was tight with sudden panic. She sounded far away.

“Nyx?” Elmiryn. She was behind him.

“Get off my foot, idiot!” Quincy. She was to his right. Perhaps a few steps.

“Stay calm,” he said, reaching toward his wife. His hand swiped through air.

“Elle!?” Nyx again. Her voice traveled and he heard brush being disturbed. “Elle, where’d you—ah!” There was a thud.

Cajeck!” Kali, now. “Stop stumbling around like that!”

“Nyx, you’re going the wrong way!” Elmiryn called. Now she was on Hakeem’s immediate left.

“In case you haven’t noticed, Kali, we can’t see anything. Historically this has never been a good thing!” Nyx snapped.

“Elmiryn, gods damn it, get off my foot!” Quincy snarled.

The warrior’s response was tight with laughter. “Wizard, I’m not even touching you!”

“Then…Then what–?”

ELMIRYN!!” It was Nyx again. Hakeem heard sharp snapping sounds, like threads breaking.

“Nyx!? Nyx!” Hakeem felt Elmiryn shove past him.

The Fanaean covered his face with both his hands, a groan coming up his throat. “Everyone just calm down…

A scuffle. It sounded like snapping wood. Hakeem couldn’t pinpoint the source.

“Nyx? Where the hell—?”

“R-Right here, Elle.” Nyx’s voice was small. “I just…it was moss. Just…uh…moss.”

Kali’s voice was a disgruntled grind. “A Champion of Survival, and she still can’t stand the feel of hanging vegetation.”

“It was scary vegetation! Okay!?”

“Kitten…” Elmiryn’s relief was apparent even amidst layers of exasperation.

Hakeem spoke loudly. “If you women are finished being silly—”

“Hey, midget.” The warrior’s voice steeled. “I don’t care how little you are, I will kick you in the cod piece.”

He cleared his throat, clasping his hands in front of him. “Noted. I just wanted to let you all know that I recognize what’s happening.”

“And what is happening exactly?” Kali asked.

“We’re deep inside a magical edge effect.”

“A…what?”

“Are you familiar with the legend of the blackwood?”

“I am.” That was Elmiryn. Her voice had turned somber. “It was the forest of devils.”

Hakeem smiled in the dark. “Yes. The forest was famous for its ability to separate the color spectrum.”

“Aesutan used it to clothe himself in the ways of the universe.” Elmiryn’s voice was virtually a whisper now.

Hakeem frowned at this as he resumed. Was that a note of realization in her voice? “Yes…Meaning color can be manually manipulated.”

“Someone made a barrier of the color black!” Nyx exclaimed.

“Actually, black is the absence of color, and as color simply makes up the spectrum of light then it’s absence means—”

“We can’t see,” the Ailuran finished. “Fascinating! And…troublesome.”

“Very good, ikati. You’re correct. We should–” Hakeem broke off as his body tensed. Something just occurred to him.

“Hakeem? Is something the matter?”

The Fanaean waved his hands through the dark, trying to feel his way. “Mweze? Are you there? Mweze?

“Oh. Oh no! That’s right, Quincy hasn’t said anything for nearly a minute,” Nyx murmured.

“What’s the problem?” Elmiryn asked. “She does that all the time!”

“Yes, but she does that with a level of menace that usually tells of a desire to hit you. That feeling’s noticeably absent.”

“When you say ‘you’—”

“I’m referring to you, Elmiryn.”

“I…you know, for once I have nothing to say to that.”

Hakeem’s palms grew sweaty as he cupped his hands around his mouth. “Quincy! Quincy!! Bwa-Mweze zi gua-quli!

“Hakeem,”

“We have to find her!” He bit out.

“Hey, hey, little man! Now who’s acting up?”

“No, you don’t understand—”

“What? You going to tell me Quincy is afraid of the dark?”

You don’t understand! Quincy isn’t who she used to be!”

Nyx tried to be placating. “Hakeem, this darkness is impenetrable. Anyone could get lost here.”

“No, there’s something out here.”

“Hakeem—“

MWEZE!! BWA-MWEZE JA NGOLE!!

“Shut up with your monkey gibberish, for fuck’s sake,” Elmiryn snapped.

Nyx’s voice was dry. “Elle, somehow I doubt that’s—“

MWEZE!

Not long after Hakeem cried out did something curl around his feet and pull. With a yell, the man-boy was thrown to his feet, and when he hit the ground, his breath fled from him. Unable to talk, he reached out, his fingers clawing for something to hold onto, but they only raked through soft soil and dead leaves.

“Hakeem?”

He didn’t get a chance to answer. With a force of strength that made him feel as though his leg were being yanked from its socket, Hakeem was dragged away, along the uneven forest floor. Barely any noise was made save that soft rustle of leaves parting around his body like waves. Elmiryn and Nyx would assume he had just rushed off to look for Quincy unless he could say otherwise. And he tried…

And tried.

Something is stopping me! He thought with alarm.

He grit his teeth and shielded his head as best he could, the pain of being dragged reminding him of the time he’d been tortured by desert raiders. They had tried dragging him to death by camel, but the man had made use of a magical charm that lessened the damage he suffered until Quincy could intervene.

Quincy…I’m a fool! Why am I struggling? This thing will lead me right to her!

Hakeem relaxed his body. A less rigid form would suffer less damage. Keeping his breathing fast and shallow, the wizard closed his eyes and waited for the ride to be over. When he felt himself come to a sudden halt, he dared to open his eyes.

Light. It was weak–so weak that it had barely pierced his eyelids–but it was more than enough after the sort of pitch black world he’d been in. The light was a warm, a pensive sort of gold, and he could see the way the trees breathed it in like it were air.

In and out. In and out.

When he adjusted to the soft glow, Hakeem could make out a tall, hunched figure, stoking what appeared to be fire in a lamp. The being wore only a brown skirt, and had long hair with a beard. Something was off about this, and the man-boy sat up slowly, so as not to attract attention to himself. Then his eyes widened.

A leshy…a being that protects the trees and animals!

“Spirit…” He said as he cautiously stood to his feet. “Whatever wrong we have brought upon your home, please know that we did not mean it. We are lost and simply wish to be on our way.” Hakeem swallowed. “I would be most appreciative if you released my wife.”

“Your wife crushed a budding daisy. The sweet child had only just known the grace of the suns when that fat human squashed it.” The leshy turned, his hair and beard swaying so that they better caught the light. Grass. Long grass, just as Hakeem had thought.

The nature spirit plucked up the lamp off the ground and labored toward Hakeem, his weight shifting onto a wooden cane with each step. Even hunched over, he was easily teen feet tall.

“Spirit, you are tired…” Hakeem said with a frown. “Does it have to do with this darkness around us?”

The leshy laughed as he neared, the sound like a drum. “This is the blackwood. Light is the peculiarity here, man child.”

“You see the way of things,” Hakeem said as he peered up.

The leshy had a long, teardrop-shaped face, with his chin ending in a point and his forehead widening to allow room for his ample brow. His ears were large and pointed, with the lobes hanging long and low. With a hooked nose, bushy eyebrows, and fiery-green eyes, the leshy did not look pleased. Even his cheeks, which were supposed to be blue according to legend, were tinting purple instead.

“I see intruders who have caused a mess,” the leshy growled.

“You…are the keeper of these woods?” Hakeem breathed, his eyes narrowing. “I thought this place was said to be a place of devils?”

As soon as the words left his mouth, the wizard knew he’d spoken ill. The leshy roared, and with a short swipe of his cane, he struck Hakeem along the face with it. The man-boy hit the ground, his head split with the sharp agony of the blow.

Devils!?” the leshy roared, cane raised for another blow. “Does Bronislav the Peaceable sound like the name of a devil to you boy!?”

“No!” Hakeem exclaimed, holding up his hands. He struggled to focus on Bronislav’s faint form. “I was only…confused! I was raised on stories that seem to be untrue. I see that now.”

The rage from the leshy’s face drained. If possible, he hunched even more, his head hanging as he lowered his cane. “It is true. My forest has become the haven for creatures of darkness ever since Nathric’s rise.”

Hakeem rubbed at his face, working his jaw. When he was certain it wasn’t too damaged, he returned to his feet, dusting his legs. Peering up at Bronislav, he said, “But Nathric fell hundreds of years ago…?”

“But his followers did not,” the leshy sighed. He glared upward with contempt. “The God King saw no reason to have Aesutan aid his other subjects of Harmony. Damned rot, that was.”

Hakeem thought a moment. “So…if my companions and I can cure your forest of its infestation, you will free my wife?”

The leshy frowned at him, his grass eyebrows knitting.

“Who said I was in possession of your wife, man child?”

“How can that be?” The wizard’s hands clenched as his chest grew tight. “She was taken in the dark! She was–”

“Hakeem?”

His head snapped around at the voice that came from the dark behind them. A moment later, he saw a slim figure enter the sphere of light. The leshy raised his lamp to illuminate the stranger, and Hakeem let out a cheer.

“Mweze, you’re all right!”

Quincy was covered in mud and looking sour but was otherwise fine. She wiped muck off her shoulder and gave her husband a strange look.

“Of course I am! Why do you keep assuming I’m in trouble lately?”

Hakeem smiled sheepishly, his hand rubbing his bald head. “Perhaps because you keep vanishing, then reappearing covered in muck?”

His wife squinted her eyes at him, her mouth open.

“I don’t like what you’re implying…” she said slowly. When she continued, her tone was snappish. “It was a forest imp, all right? He was standing on my foot because the little bastard was trying to reach my pouch! He almost made off with it before I zapped him…” She grumbled, gripping her magic pouch possessively.

“And the mud?”

Quincy’s face flared. “It’s dark out here, Taika. Don’t you start!”

“This is your wife, man child?” Bronislav asked, pointing a chipped nail.

Hakeem nodded absently. “Yes, she’s–” he did a double-take, “No, wait!”

Too late.

With one great swipe, the leshy grabbed Quincy around the waist, then hefted her over his shoulder as though she weighed no more than a feather. The woman tried to defend herself, but her reaction came late, with her lightning staff flashing in her hands only after the spirit guardian had lain hands on her. Shouting out curses, she tried to strike the leshy in the back with her weapon, ungainly as it were in that position, but the spirit’s grassy hair came to life, and as though she were a child with a toy, it took the staff and held it out of her reach.

Quincy screamed with rage. “GIVE THAT BACK! Damn you, ko galani chudopek! I should’ve killed you when I had the chance!”

Mweze, quiet!” Hakeem snapped, his face pale. He clasped his hands before him, then gave a bow. “Bronislav, please! Do not harm my wife. She did not mean to harm your flowers!”

“But she has!” Bronislav thundered. “I will flay her skin and use her to liven the soil.”

“You wish to strengthen your forest, do you not?” Hakeem said quickly, raising his head. His voice rose. “Then do not attack the unintended symptoms of the problem. Attack the problem itself!”

The wizard straightened, pointing off into the forest. “There is a balance that keeps all nature within Harmony! But a parasite has descended upon your home, sundering whatever peace you had left since Nathric’s downfall!”

Hakeem slammed his fist into his chest three times, shouting. “Bronislav, lay your trust in me, and this threat shall be removed! But my wife cannot be harmed, you must swear it!”

The leshy scowled down at Hakeem, almost looking annoyed by his offer. He looked at his lamp, with its strange fire-less glow, then back at the wizard. His mouth opened to speak–

There was a flash of light, and without warning, the clearing was intensely illuminated.

A twig cracked. Hakeem and the leshy turned in the direction of the sound to see Elmiryn and Nyx standing before them.

Nyx appeared nonplussed, even as she retracted her foot from the black twig she had crushed. Her tawny eyes, still flickering between states, alternated between Hakeem, Bronislav, and Quincy. Standing near her was Elmiryn, and she did not look right.

Striped all along the woman’s skin were…colors.

Candy pinks and bruised purples, sunny oranges and hazardous greens.

As if the giant forest spirit was not even there, the warrior flexed her arms and flashed an arrogant smile.

“I am brilliant!” She announced. She fanned out her hand and look at it at arms length. It was the only part of her body in a solid color–a bloody red. “I could feel traces of light deeper into the trees and ripped them out! Now I look just like my ancestor! Isn’t this fantastic?”

Hakeem closed his eyes and hung his head as he heard Bronislav begin to sputter with rage.

Why…why do I even bother?

ELMIRYN________________________

The ground trembled, the soft soil churning as black vines surfaced. They seemed to strain around a large chunk of earth, raising it, before they succeeded in hurling it through the air. Elmiryn pressed the air and particles before her into an immovable force shield as she pressed Nyx behind her. It wasn’t that she had been unaware of the big spirit or the fact that Quincy was being held captive by it.

It was that she wanted the attention on her.

When the earth struck in an eruption of dirt and rock, the woman’s feet slid along the ground, and she had a sudden epiphany.

“Uh. This isn’t the arktan thing all over again, is it?” She mused with grit teeth. Her shield had lost integrity and she was trying to restore it.

“I think so, Elle!” Nyx breathed behind her.

Black vines sprang forth all around them, thick and tangled and creaking. Elmiryn’s eyes widened as she pulled out her sword. The shield fell away as her concentration on it vanished. Its protection wouldn’t help against a foe that could attack from all sides, and she wasn’t sure she could muster up the energy to maintain something more encompassing.

The kitten’s right! This thing isn’t a normal spirit. It has some sort of power over the forest, just like–

But the warrior’s thoughts were cut short when a vine grabbed her leg and pulled. With a nasty flop, she was thrown to the ground, then hoisted up into the air upside down. Elmiryn’s eyes widened when she saw Nyx fall, then vanish under a swarm of the black plants.

With a sharp roar, the warrior swung her sword, slicing the vine holding her captive. She hit the ground in a painful heap, her body just turning in the air in time to keep from breaking her neck. Feeling old wounds protest, Elmiryn raised herself to all fours, her eyes swerving to where she saw Nyx last.

The girl was gone.

Squinting, the warrior was about to call out for her when something crashing into the side of her stomach and sent her skidding along the ground. Vines sprang forth, holding her in place. The woman struggled to get a grip on her breathing. Pain wracked throughout her as she managed to look up.

The large spirit glared down at her, Quincy still on his shoulder, his other arm raising a long wooden cane.

His green eyes held fury as he bared long teeth at her.

“That I could repay the insult brought upon my home so long ago…I see now that this is providence!” the spirit roared. “Halward, I, Bronislav the Peaceable, thank thee for this offering, and know that I take it with great pleasure!

The spirit swung his staff down…

…And missed.

Elmiryn could feel the heavy tip of the cane brush by her hair, where if it had found its mark she was certain it would have crushed her skull. The spirit was not a little surprised at this, but he did not dwell on the why of it as he brought his cane up for another swing. Down it came, whistling with all the force he put behind the blow–

Only to miss yet again.

Bronislav glared at his cane. “What trickery–!?”

Then without warning, he jerked to the side and fell. Elmiryn stared. The spirit hadn’t just tipped over…something had swiped his legs out from under him, whilst something invisible struck him in the upper body. Quincy let out a surprised squawk as she hit the ground just behind the spirit.

Her eyes flickered up to see Hakeem his wife up with a displeased look on his face.

“Well?” He said, glaring at her. “Do you need us to free you as well?”

Elmiryn didn’t need telling twice. With the spirit incapacitated, his black vines hung lifeless and still. She had to get the upper hand. With some difficulty, the woman managed to free herself just as Bronislav began to stir.

Using her fae power, the warrior brought down another wall of air and dust, but this time she pressed it down as hard as she could.

“How DARE you!” Bronislav raged.

Elmiryn grit her teeth, struggling to keep the magical field intact. Cracks grew along the threads of magic, her weave straining under the pressure.

Then the woman just about had it, and kicked the spirit in the head as hard as she could.

Bronislav’s head snapped to the side, and when he shook his eyes straight, it was to see Elmiryn’s sword pointed at his face.

“I am no god’s offering,” She snarled. “I’ve killed plenty with this sword. But I think you’ll be a first!”

“Elmiryn!”

The woman jerked to see Nyx pulling herself out of the ground as though she had just jumped down into a hole. But all that was there beneath her when the girl had finished was her shadow.

She tripped the spirit in that shadow place! Elmiryn realized. She must’ve signaled Hakeem somehow!

Nyx’s face flickered with feline features, but no matter what the look of determination was the same.

“You can’t kill him!” she cried out.

The warrior raised an eyebrow at her. “Why not? He would’ve killed us!”

“He wouldn’t have, if you had treated his home with some modicum of respect!” Hakeem snapped. He gestured at her. “How did you take the light as you did? You realize that the blackwood relies on light, no matter how scant, to survive, don’t you!? That is why it is a black forest! The trees devour all the light!”

Quincy pointed at Bronislav, “Hakeem was just about to make a peaceful deal with this being before you showed up in all your huff and puff!”

Elmiryn scowled. “Huff and puff? He attacked me first! All I did was draw his attention!”

“Ha!” Everyone turned to look down at the captive spirit. His face was twisted with contempt. “Just like your clan, to abuse the powers given to you!”

“You mean humans?” Elmiryn asked with squinted eyes.

“Your family,” Bronislav spat. “Just like Aesutan before you, so do you come and bring destruction. Well I demand an end, do you hear!?” The spirit’s face became lined and weary as he turned his head. “I am tired of this universe’s neglect.”

Elmiryn’s sword lowered, but she kept the force field up, in case Bronislav tried to spring at them.

“Aesutan hurt you?”

“He abandoned him,” Hakeem said quietly. “When Nathric fell, the devils fled into the blackwood to escape the return of light. Its been a safe haven for evil spirits ever since.”

“But the legends say this place was their home to begin with!” Elmiryn said, her eyes widening.

Hakeem shook his head. “No, Elmiryn. The legends spoke false. Look at this creature. Have you never heard of his kind? He is a leshy, a high being–”

“A spirit guardian,” The warrior breathed. She sheathed her sword, her brow wrinkled as she looked Bronislav up and down. “His control over the environment reminded me of Nadi…but…he’s weaker! We shouldn’t have won so easily!”

“My strength is devoured by vermin like you,” Bronislav intoned, his peculiar eyes fixing on her sideways. “If I were half what I once was, then you would have been slain! Do not doubt this!”

“I don’t…” Elmiryn muttered, walking away. Her head hung low and her hands found her hips.

Stopping near the tree line, she heard Nyx follow and looked back. The girl was wringing her hands. Her form was less shifty than it was before–perhaps her and her Twin were getting a grip on their body.

“You’re upset about what they said…about Aesutan,” Nyx said quietly so the others couldn’t hear.

The Ailuran stepped in close, hugging the woman’s arm. Elmiryn’s tension eased at the feel of the girl’s bare skin on hers, her breasts soft and inviting. But even as she felt the stirrings of arousal, these things could not compete with her distress.

“He was my hero, Nyx,” Elmiryn murmured, fingering the jewel on her sword’s pommel. “But I know what the others are saying is true. Aesutan must have known that Bronislav needed his help, but he just took what he needed and left!”

“M-Maybe it wasn’t in his power to–”

“No!” Elmiryn bit out, her tension returning. “It was always in his power! He just took the easy way out and left a big fucking mess for me to find later!” She kicked at the dirt. “Argh! Why does my family always do this!?”

“If that’s the case, Elle…then…” Nyx’s eyes brightened and she gave a little jump.

Elmiryn’s eyes returned to her companion’s breasts, her desire suddenly surging.

The Ailuran’s voice only just managed to reach her. “Sweet Aelurus! Elmiryn, this is wonderful! Don’t you see? This is a chance for you to restore your family’s honor! You can make amends by restoring Harmony!

I see thou have come a long way since last we parted, to so eagerly fill your station,” a new voice hissed.

Nyx’s eyes widened and her head snapped to look into the trees. Elmiryn, confused at the new voice, looked as well. Her face reddened.

You!” She bit out.


Back to Break Time | Forward to Chapter 34.4

Chapter 34.1

QUINCY_________________________

Time was given for Nyx to recover.

…Or was it Kali?

Quincy watched, fascinated as the girl alternated between states almost like the ghosts had back at the dwarven settlement. One second, the Ailuran’s face was perfectly sapien, with round pupils, a round nose, and ears on the side of her head. With just a turn of her head, her features would smear, blending to suddenly become feline: slitted pupils, a small, pink, heart-shaped nose that trailed down to a slim split upper lip. Then of course there were those ears. They just managed to poke out of the girl’s mane of hair, but they were visible, and in Quincy’s opinion, they looked almost silly. Like the costumes she’d seen people don on during the Aesutian Festival.

The girl was naked and covered in filth, but she didn’t seem aware of it. Only of Elmiryn, who held her closely, murmuring to her as she stroked the girl’s hair. Nyx’s face was quite emotional–not surprising considering what she’d gone through. Kali, on the other hand, seemed remarkably placid, and when her countenance appeared in the flash-flash-flashings of the Twins’ faces, she fixed Elmiryn with a tepid look that was not hostile, nor particularly warm. The Fiamman didn’t seem overly concerned with her lover’s fluctuating states. In fact, she couldn’t stop grinning.

Quincy sighed melodramatically as she reached for her magic pouch. When she gave the warrior her scarf to use as a makeshift chest wrap, she didn’t think there was anything left to use. But perhaps there was something to cover the Ailuran with. An extra cloak or a tunic…heavens, even a tea cozy was better than nothing. It always irritated her how therians exposed themselves so regularly. It wasn’t a matter of shyness—Quincy had seen it all both as a bounty hunter and a wizard’s apprentice. It was more the lack of consideration that irked her. Fine if the beast people wished to parade their delicate bits through the wilds to each other. But when in the company of others, wasn’t that a bit much?

Quincy’s arm sunk deep into her magic pouch, and she scowled as she rummaged through the infinite space of contents.

“Blast it all…I need to organize this stupid thing,” she muttered.

“Look!” Hakeem exclaimed.

Elmiryn and Nyx/Kali looked up from their intimate reunion, and Quincy paused in her search to look to where her husband was pointing.

Leading off into the surrounding forest, they saw an aurora light up the sky–a phenomena the wizard had only seen in the most Northern of regions.

Quincy squinted her eyes and took a step closer, her arm slipping out of her pouch.

No wait, she thought. This light is different. It’s got oranges, blues, and greens in it. The movement of the pattern spirals and is shifting far too quickly. What could…?

The woman’s eyes widened.

“Get in the cave..” she whispered. With fumbling fingers she re-fastened her pouch to her belt.

Elmiryn stood instantly, raising Nyx/Kali with her.

“What is it?” the warrior demanded.

Hakeem, always never too far from her conclusions, turn and bolted for the cave, his little feet crushing bones and animal skulls.

“No time! Move!” he shouted.

Quincy followed him, and with a deft scoop of her lover, Elmiryn was quick on her heels. They made it just under the lip of the cave when a thunder reached them, so loud and strong that Quincy could feel it in her teeth. The ground lit up for a moment, and there was a high squeal in the air. The woman pulled Elmiryn back even further as the warrior watched in a stunned sort of fascination. They had to get farther back or—

SKREEEEEE

A bright green curtain of light lanced through the ground like a cleaver. The earth cracked and split in an explosion of dust and rock. Everyone was thrown to the ground. For a moment, Quincy was afraid the cave would collapse on them, but it held. When the quaking ground quieted to a dull rumble, the woman dared to raise her head.

Her gut dropped.

Their little spit of land was floating away from the rest of the ground. She dared to stand to her feet and go to the edge of the cave and looked up to see that more chunks of earth were parting in a similar fashion.

“We’re floating away. The Manus Dei have vanished.”

“The what?” Elmiryn asked. Nyx/Kali was no longer in her arms. The warrior’s cerulean eyes took in everything, and that little wrinkle Quincy had learned meant genuine worry appeared on the redhead’s brow. “Quincy, what the fuck is happening?”

“Someone just cast a very powerful spell,” She replied with a sigh. “It’s a rare sorcerer’s spell. It requires deep training that allows the user to control elements at the most basic level. In this case, it’s sorcery based in the element of air and energy. It’s hard enough for a sorcerer to master one element, but to master two? I think I’ve only read of three people in history capable of something like this.”

“So this spell just cut us off from our way forward,” Elmiryn said slowly.

Quincy gave a stiff nod. “This was cast for a reason. Maybe the reason wasn’t us, but somehow I doubt that. Nyx was placed too conveniently for us to find. She was supposed to kill us, but perhaps the one orchestrating all of this didn’t count on Kali agreeing to go so far to help. So they went through with a back up plan.”

Elmiryn snorted. “Keep us stranded.”

“Exactly.”

Quincy’s eyes roved the islands below, above, and around them. When she spotted what looked like a castle keep on a hill overlooking a dense wood, the woman grabbed the warrior and pointed excitedly. “There!”

Elmiryn squinted and peered where the woman was pointing. The keep was just a level higher than they were, but it was the furthest from them than all the islands, and the harsh glare of the Other World’s nothing space made distinction a trial on the eyes.

Finally, the warrior seemed to spot it. “Yeah. Yeah! I see it!”

But then Elmiryn’s worry wrinkle appeared again. “I don’t know how to make wings yet.”

Quincy stared at Elmiryn as though she were insane. Which she probably was.

Giving a quick shake of her head, the wizard opted to skip on commenting and said instead, “I have a way we can get there.”

The warrior looked at her, one eyebrow raised. “Oh?”

HAKEEM________________________

“Fuck that.”

“It’s our only viable option right now!”

“The hell it is! If you guys would just give me a second, I could figure out how to sprout wings and–”

Tai’undu, Elmiryn! For the last time, you can’t just use your fae abilities whenever!”

“Why not!? It’s gotten me this far!”

“Like where? Stuck on this despondent little clod of dirt with your schizophrenic girlfriend, a bruised up face, and an itchy scarf for a shirt!?”

Bite me, Quincy.”

“Hey, need I remind you that I gave you that itchy scarf.”

“You want this stupid thing so badly? Fuck it. Here. You can have it back.”

Kwa upendo wa miungu, mkundu msgaji! Put it back on! I don’t want to see your sweaty tits! In fact, I’m not even sure I want this scarf back anymore, after you’ve soiled it.”

“Shove it up your ass. Nyx and I are not moving until we find a better plan.”

Quincy threw her hands up in the air. “FINE! Stay here and starve to death. Or wait until something comes and kills you! Even better!”

Elmiryn made a rude gesture with her middle finger and stormed off to sit with Nyx…or was it Kali? Either way, the Ailuran seemed to be still too weak and dazed to be of any considerable use in this situation.

Hakeem sighed. It was up to him.

Counting the amount of time it took to calm his wife down, the man-turned-boy walked up to his wife who stood glaring out of the mouth of the cave, her features partially lit by the non-light outside.

“She’s an idiot,” The woman snarled before he could even say anything.

“She’s stubborn,” The man-boy conceded.

He ran a hand over his shaved head and puckered his lips as he worded his next sentence.

“Elmiryn is a risk taker,” He finally decided to say.

Quincy snorted. “Reckless.”

The Fanaean nodded. “She’ll do anything if she thinks she might have a chance at succeeding, however slim the odds.”

“She gets a rush out of it.”

Hakeem looked up at his wife as he closed in on his point. “So why isn’t she taking this risk now?”

Quincy looked at him sharply, then glanced surreptitiously over her shoulder at Elmiryn. He did the same.

Elmiryn was kneeling before Nyx, holding her head between her hands, her eyes searching the girl’s face rapidly as the Ailuran’s features continued to shift and change. Her lips were moving imperceptibly, and both Nyx and Kali responded to her in equally quiet tones. The girl, the Twins he should say, looked weak. Beneath the dry blood and caked mud on their skin, they were deathly pale. Almost green. What had they gone through to get the beast under control? What had happened inside of them to lead to their sudden ability to both be in control simultaneously?

Quincy sighed. “That answer, Taika, is easy…” she muttered reluctantly. “She has an anchor that is keeping her frustratingly grounded for once.”

Hakeem nodded, satisfied. “So would the answer not lie in the anchor that keeps our friend from taking flight?”

His wife looked at him sidelong, then with a scowl and a wave of her hand, she said, “Be my guest.”

Hakeem reached over and gave a squeeze of her hand. Just before he turned to leave, he thought he saw Quincy’s lips turn up at the corners.

One minute, twelve seconds. Not bad.

The man-boy approached Elmiryn slowly. His heart still swirled with conflict over the warrior’s unflinching murder of Gudahi, his friend. But was it really murder? The woman had stood her ground, and she had warned them all to stay back. The Lycans weren’t accustomed to taking orders from outsiders, so their brash actions could be understood as a simple flaw in hierarchical thinking. To Gudahi, Sanuye was Alpha. The female Lycan had decided to attack, and Gudahi, with all of his well-masked pain and rage toward the beast that had harmed his people, eagerly followed.

It was all a tragedy no doubt.

But Hakeem put these things away. He began to focus on his counting again, and he felt a comfort among the facets of time.

“Elmiryn, may I speak to Nyx and Kali?” he asked.

The woman squinted up at him. “What for?”

But Nyx–it was her face this time–touched Elmiryn’s shoulder and gave a small nod. “Elle, it’s okay. I’ll be fine.”

The warrior almost looked like she doubted this, and the wizard feared she would take her stubbornness to a new level and refuse to go. Thankfully, however, Elmiryn stood and pointed toward the other side of the cave.

“I’m going to be right over there…okay you two?” With that, the woman walked away, sparing Hakeem a warning glare.

The man-boy only gave her a nod of thanks, and went to sit next to the Ailuran—her features showed Kali now. Her nakedness did not bother the man in the slightest, anymore than Elmiryn’s did. On the one hand, as a man (though trapped as he was in an adolescent body) he thought Nyx’s body appealing, even with all the blood and the mud caking her skin. But it was almost a mechanical response to beauty—and the girl, whether she knew it or not, had a very unique beauty to her. Beyond his appreciation, the mind felt no desire. Quincy was enough for him, and in his mind, he could see no one else as even remotely desirable.

As if his ease allowed the girl to remain relaxed, Nyx—who was now showing—did not make attempts to cover herself in any way. She simply gazed at him curiously and waited for him to speak.

He looked at her as he leaned fully back against the rocky wall. “Ikati. This may be a complicated question to answer, but how are you?”

The girl blinked, her face shifting a moment to feline before returning again in the blink of an eye. “I’m fine. We’re fine. I…I think.”

“The beast?”

Nyx bit her lip, then her features shifted and Kali appeared. The feline released her lip from her fangs and let her eyelids drop low. “It is taken care of,” she said in her customary rough voice.

Hakeem cocked his head to the side. “How so?”

Kali started. “The beast was just–”

But Nyx finished. “–Spiritual energy. The remnants of our animus that me and Kali did not control.”

“So what did you do with it?” Hakeem pressed. He had to be sure the threat was truly gone.

Nyx looked him in the eye, and suddenly her round pupils turned slitted.

“We tore the beast apart and weaved its energy into us,” Kali growled.

Hakeem’s eyes widened. “All that darkness? Wouldn’t it take you over?”

The feline shook her head. “You don’t understand…the monster you saw in the forest was not our darkness alone.”

This made him frown. “What do you mean?”

A shift. Nyx’s face appeared. “She means that when we saw that giant creature before, it was augmented by some other power. Magnified, you could even say.”

Hakeem’s frown eased. “So when we found you…”

“That augmentation had been removed. It was just me and the dark energy inside me.”

“That power must have come from somewhere. From Syria, perhaps? But why would she take away your added power? The beast was near invincible!”

Nyx’s face grew sad. “Because the monster could not speak. You’re right. It was Syria who gave my dark shard its extra power. But she took it away when it assimilated me because she wanted me coherent enough to harm Elmiryn.”

“She didn’t want you to just kill us. She wanted you to break us psychologically…destroy our group’s cohesion,” Hakeem said slowly.

Shift. Kali was back, and her angry face replaced Nyx’s look of remorse. “Yes. And that witch will pay! Her and the little one!”

Shift. Nyx shook her head, alarmed. “No! Not Lethia! It isn’t her fault!”

Shift. Kali snarled, her eyes narrowing. “She let this happen! She should be held accountable!”

Shift. Nyx, her face now contorted in frustration. “It isn’t that simple! What could she possibly have done!?”

Shift. Kali punched the ground. “More than let you sit sucking at dry bones for all this time!”

Hakeem grabbed the feline’s shoulder, and she looked at him sharply. He gazed back at her hard.

“Kali, be careful. I know you and Nyx have said that you have dealt with the beast, but its energy is a part of you now. All that rage and anger is now in your hearts. It is good that you can finally reconcile with it, but do not let it escape you. Either of you. Or we may again see its black ways return.”

Kali’s slitted gaze bored into him. Then she turned her eyes away and nodded stiffly.

Hakeem made a mental note: When it comes to eye contact, Ailurans behave similarly to Lycans. Fixed eye contact means challenge. Averting one’s gaze means to concede.Remember never to concede with Kali. Unlike Nyx, the feline persona is more apt to violence and should be kept from believing she’s in command.

Another shift and Nyx was back, looking at Hakeem with a grateful smile. Still, she held a wary glint in her eye. “Hakeem, you didn’t come to tell us that. What did you need?”

The man-boy crossed his arms and looked to the cave. “Ikati, you mentioned that Lethia was with Syria. Is she in that keep Quincy saw?”

Nyx nodded, her features flickering but remaining intact.

Hakeem continued, “You know as well as I do that the Manus Dei were summoned for a reason—to stop us, or at least, slow us down. Why do you think that is?”

“So that Syria could escape with Lethia?” Nyx said uncertainly.

He shook his head. “They must have a quick exit that wouldn’t require all of this. Think. What reason would Syria need to have lots of time for.”

Nyx thought hard, and when her features flickered to Kali’s, the man-boy saw the feline thinking hard on this too.

“Syria is trying to slow us down…because she’s trying to cast another spell?” Kali tried slowly.

Hakeem nodded. “Yes. Syria must be casting something—something that would require a long ritual that cannot be interrupted.”

“And anything she wants to cast would be bad for us, right?” Kali said, scowling.

“Right.”

“You humans and your…” but the feline’s grumble was cut off as Nyx shifted into view.

“Hakeem…” she said slowly. Her tawny eyes looked over him carefully, their lids low. “You want me to convince Elmiryn to go through with Quincy’s plan don’t you?”

The man-boy nodded. “Time is of the essence, and whatever reality-bending trick Elmiryn has up her sleeve won’t come quickly enough for us to stop Syria. We are so close, Ikati. If we defeat Syria, we can go home, and then this whole nightmare will be over.”

“We might go home,” the girl said shrewdly, her eyes narrowing. “And there’s still the matter of Paulo—I know he’s a prat, but he doesn’t deserve to be left in this dimension.”

Hakeem held up a pacifying hand. “Okay. You’re correct. There are still important things to deal with, and Syria may not be our answer. But what better leads have you to go on at the moment?”

Nyx frowned and looked down at her crossed legs. Her features shifted now and again. Hakeem counted the time.

Five…four…three…two…

Nyx sighed. “I don’t like Quincy’s plan anymore than Elmiryn does, but I see your point.”

Hakeem smiled. “I’m glad you do.”

“But tell me something first.”

The wizard’s smile turned bemused. “All right. What would you like me to tell you?”

“What does ikati mean?”

Hakeem laughed, a full genuine sound. It surprised him, but pleasantly so. Still chuckling, he stood. He looked down at Nyx–Kali–The Twins, and they both pouted up at him.

“In my language,” Hakeem chuckled. “It means, ‘cat’.”

The Twins’ expressions lightened.

“Oh!” One of them said. He didn’t know who, as their faces had been in mid-shift when they spoke.

Hakeem walked away to stand at Quincy’s side again. Elmiryn passed him, sparing him a curious glance as she went to rejoin Nyx.

He couldn’t stop grinning. ‘Cat’ wasn’t the literal translation for the word, but he figured the Twins would not appreciate his new nickname for them.

Because in Fanaean, what ikati really meant was, “silly puss.”


Back to Chapter 33.3 | Forward to Chapter 34.2