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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
…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–”
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.”
“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!”
“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.”
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!”
“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.
“We don’t need Bruce Willis, we need a fairy godmother! You know! Cinderella!?”
“But I can’t–”
“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.
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!”