Elmiryn stared unblinkingly forward. She was vaguely aware of her eyes burning, but she did not dare move. She interlaced her hands before her mouth, and her right brow tilted the slightest degree upwards. Argos gazed back at her from his place across, his nose twitching now and again as the wind rustled his dingy white fur. His great hulking form left a long shadow that draped over the woman like a cool blanket.
Nyx, sitting next to Elmiryn on the grassy hill, gave the woman a nudge with her elbow. “Stop it,” she whispered stiffly.
Elmiryn did not look away. Instead, she murmured back, “Why?”
“Because,” the Ailuran hissed in vexation. “Dogs take stares as a challenge.”
The warrior smirked. “Really? Don’t cats do, too? You guys speak the same language or something?”
Argos puffed, lips flapping. It was not quite a woof but stronger and sharper than a simple sigh. His ears swiveled forward and his lips pulled back to show his canines.
Elmiryn lowered her hands and smiled her broad smile.
Nyx was distracted long enough to sound insulted. “It is not the same.”
“Then how do you know it’s a challenge?”
“Any creature that stares too intently at something comes across as hostile. That’s just universal.”
“Well I’m curious about something. I’m just not sure how to ask it.”
“I’m certain he’ll try to answer whatever you ask…I mean…he communicated with us before, didn’t he? …Sort of?”
Elmiryn shrugged. “I guess it couldn’t hurt.”
Lethia had gone into a thick set of shrubs behind them for her second consecutive bathroom break that morning. “Too much water,” the girl explained with an abashed grin. Elmiryn wished to argue that point–“too much water” was drowning from the inside out, as Baldwin had–but the warrior was certain that Nyx would not take to such a heavy-handed comment, so she refrained.
The woman crossed her arms and leaned forward. “Okay, Argos. Why us?”
The dog cocked his head to one side, then grumbling, looked to Nyx as if she were the more sensible one…Or maybe she was. Elmiryn was trying to speak with a dog, after all.
Nyx shifted where she sat, switching the way her legs crossed as though that would aid with circulation. She scratched at the front of her tunic and gave Elmiryn a squinted look. “Maybe you should ask him something simpler…a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ sort of question.”
The woman shrugged one shoulder. “Okay.” She pointed back at Argos. “Bark once for yes, two for no…Alright? Give a nod of the head if you can do that.”
Argos gave a perfunctory jerk of the head, his large tongue sweeping out to lick his furry chops.
“Alright…Was your intention to get us back to Lethia so that we’d help her?”
One bark. The woman’s lip twitched and her eyes unfocused for a moment. She was reminded of a bear, or a man, or a man-bear, who hunted criminals, but the thought was too fuzzy and the image was so crude in her mind, that it sifted through the net of her consciousness. “Did you recognize us because of the stories spreading around the roads about Gamath?”
One bark again. Elmiryn glanced at Nyx as if to confirm the fact that they were actually getting somewhere. The girl’s eyes were on Argos, her brow furrowed and her lips pinched thin. Satisfied, the woman looked back toward the shaggy dog.
“Have either you or Lethia been in Tiesmire within the past two days?”
Two barks. The warrior sighed. She didn’t think so, but the answer held no good news. There was someone else after them. The woman tried to remember why it was she agreed to traveling with Lethia at all. Then she thought of another question.
“How many bounty hunters are after you? Bark the number.”
Elmiryn blinked at Argos. Then she turned to look over her shoulder. Lethia stood behind them, twisting one of her flared sleeves. “There’s three men, as far as I know. I’m not sure how fast the news has traveled. There…there could be more.” She looked to the ocean, her spectacles sitting low on her nose. Her green eyes were like little jewels that glittered with a naivety that rankled Elmiryn’s nerves.
“Well now that you’ve stopped pissing away our lead, we can keep moving.” Elmiryn stood, one hand on the hilt of her stolen sword. Nyx stood with her. The woman didn’t look, but she was certain the girl was giving her a disapproving glare. Argos trotted past her, but not without a parting growl.
Lethia looked at her, her glasses pushed back up her nose. She had a soft frown on her face, but her pouting lower lip suggested the girl was holding back tears.
Elmiryn decided to be merciful, at least for the rest of the day, and allowed brisk walking as their pace. The youth and her faithful familiar took the lead, not by the woman’s wish, but by Nyx’s. Her companion gripped her sleeve and held her back, her bold eyebrows knitted together in clear consternation.
She leaned in close to whisper, “Elmiryn, talk to me.”
The woman, hearing the intent in the girl’s voice, gave a guarded smile. “About what?”
Nyx looked at her. It amused the woman and annoyed her at the same time, the way the girl could prod without speaking. “You know what.”
Elmiryn waved the question away. “There isn’t anything to it.”
“There is! At first I thought you were just being tough, like you were with me, but now I’m sensing some real malice in your behavior…it just isn’t LIKE you!”
“You don’t think I can be malicious, Nyx?” The woman turned her head fully, and her tone dropped down low.
The girl, to the woman’s surprise, just gave her a sad look. “I…think you get scared.”
At this, Elmiryn started to laugh, loudly and harshly. Lethia and Argos glanced back at them, startled, but the woman ignored them both. “Scared!” she crowed. “Wow, that has to be the best deduction this side of the Hellas!”
Nyx gave a short sigh and kneaded her brow. “You don’t have to get obnoxious. Just because you aren’t used to dealing with your emotions up front–”
“I deal with my emotions just fine,” Elmiryn returned, her grin a slash on her face.
“Is that why you get jealous when I try to extend my compassion to someone else?”
The woman, to her chagrin, felt her cheeks flare up. “That’s a weird thing to say.”
“Elmiryn, I’m your partner, I’m your friend–but we aren’t on some sequestered little island, cast in the dark of our own personal problems–no matter how you’d like to see it, there are others who deserve help sometimes!”
“You didn’t want to help the people of Gamath either!” Elmiryn shot back. As the words left her mouth, she felt her insides squirm. They didn’t feel right, nor did they taste right. This made the woman bite her tongue.
“That was different!” Nyx hissed. “Everyone there was afraid of me, and no one was in any immediate danger! And as far as not wanting to go into the river guardian’s cave…you’re right, I didn’t want to go…But I did, and I stayed. For you…” Nyx trailed off, and her eyes lit up in a way that Elmiryn hadn’t seen before.
Elmiryn turned to blink at her. It was quite a different thing, she found, to have what was before only inferred, admitted aloud. Nyx had stayed…and it was because of Elmiryn.
The woman’s grin was long and curled. A daring arm draped over Nyx’s shoulders and the warrior dropped down to murmur. “And that is why, I’m fond of you.” Before the girl could register what was happening, Elmiryn moved in for a quick kiss to the cheek. The heat that emanated from the sputtering therian caused a warmth in the woman herself, but their attention was diverted back to the front when Lethia tripped over a rock. When she came up again, using Argos as a prop, her arms were flushed pink and her movements were stiff and jerky.
Elmiryn chuckled and let her arm fall away. The young enchantress must have seen.
“S-Smooth as you think you are,” Nyx stammered, looking at the ground. “I’d still like it if you’d just leave Lethia alone. She’s done us no harm–”
The woman grit her teeth and rubbed at her eye roughly. “Okay…okay. I guess I am in a shitty mood. I’m still hungry, and there isn’t a thing to eat out here because everything has been pinched by travelers.”
“But there’s something else.”
“Elmiryn, has it ever occurred to you that your mission against Meznik is another way for you to lose your humanity? Are you really fine with that? If you don’t want that to happen, then you’ll have to stop closing yourself off…especially with me.”
Elmiryn looked at the the girl with somber eyes. There were times Nyx seemed entirely her age–emotionally clumsy, quick to temper, slow to cool down, timid and uncertain–but another side of her, another dimension, was making itself known. This Nyx was firm, caring, and intuitive. This was the person Atalo knew.
Reluctantly, like a sleepy flower, Elmiryn let loose what she had thought to contain.
“She reminds me of someone,” she whispered, looking at Lethia’s back. Out of the corner of her eye, the warrior saw Nyx looking at her, but did not turn her gaze. “I…don’t remember who. Or maybe she doesn’t remind me of anyone–maybe I’m just imagining it. But something about the way she speaks, her behavior, her attitude…it just reminds me of something. Only, it isn’t anything good. Or happy.”
Elmiryn looked at Nyx. “I bet you were expecting more, right? That I should have more than just a vague memory to get all worked up over? …But that’s what the memory has. These feelings. I remember disliking these traits, but I’m not sure why. Maybe when we spend more time with her, it’ll come to me.”
“I don’t know if that’ll be a good thing…” Nyx returned gravely.
The woman gave a slow nod, eyes narrowing as she watched Lethia. “Neither do I.”
Nyx took her hand and gave it a squeeze. Elmiryn returned it before pulling her hand away.
It was death in certain aspects to the woman she was, to the woman she left behind, to the woman she sought. The wind was a dull whisper that made no impression to her–just a phantom seeking a phantom in kind. She was careful to keep her eyes well-shaded beneath the hood. Her power was such that in the darkest hours of the day, they would lance through the uncertain world and leave no question as to the nature of her person.
She wrapped herself tighter beneath her cloak and nestled in deep against the steep hillside, where rough terrain and exposed rock made her still form less conspicuous. She shifted behind a large slab of rock that jutted upward, anticipating the morning and the future need for direct cover. The rock was her cradle on the slippery slope, and she felt secure.
With her vantage point chosen, Quincy remained focus, even without the light to live in. She had to listen to her quarry’s every word, witness every gesture. These observations were a parade of personal pieces that would have come apart upon a casual observer’s weak attention. Her greatest threat was not misunderstanding, but simply becoming bored. It lead to terrible mistakes, and given the nature of her situation, she could not allow that.
The woman could no more say that she planned this than a common man could schedule his natural death. But like the common man, she anticipated its coming, and was ready for the road ahead. Had the dog not been nearby, her ploy with the Orb of Ilkmar would not have worked, for there would have been nothing to bring the trio together. But now, they were all in one place.
The next step, was to simply watch…and wait.
The girl, Lethia, Quincy’s original target, had set about roasting a meager-sized rabbit that Argos had caught by a stroke of luck. She turned the meat over the little flame with the use of a makeshift spit fashioned out of sticks. She had a happy smile on her oval-shaped face, the glow of the fire dancing across the glass of her special lenses.
“I’ve lived in the tower pretty much all of my life–Syria’s tower, that is,” She told the others without warrant. Throughout the day she had done much of that, as though she just recalled things and had to say them before she forgot again. “It’s very big–once you enter the northern regions, you can see it towering over the valleys.”
Quincy, in a sense, already knew this story. But the young enchantress was offering a dimension she could not have garnered on her own. She shifted closer, careful not to cause even the slightest noise. Argos was keeping watching, pacing around their little camp.
“My parents left me in Syria’s care. I never heard from them again. She’s been my mother, my friend, all these years. She’s taught me so much! Spell structure, mindscaping–”
–Illusions, and even some alchemy. Syria was a powerful enchantress, Quincy knew. She had found the woman admirable, and read much of her work when studying in Crysen. She was a master at just about anything that fell under the domain of mind magic and the manipulation of–
“–Perception. She can create the most beautiful things in a person’s mind…but she says it’s dangerous. That it’s not to be used, even in the context of doing good.”
“Why learn something you’d never use?” Nyx asked. Elmiryn had remained quiet for several hours now. Quincy doubted it was because she didn’t know the subject, and more her prejudice against Lethia herself. The woman assumed it was a disliked based on principle versus something personal.
Lethia paused as she thought about the therian’s question. “Well,” she began slowly. “I think…it has to do with control. My mistress says that knowledge is power, and in wishing to master the mind she had to–”
–Master it in all domains. Syria followed no particular deity, but her practice tended to touch on the religious. There was a story, unpublished, that circulated around the magical community. It stated that once, long ago, Syria had come across a dying soldier. Depending on where the story was told, the soldier’s loyalties changed, but no matter what army he was said to serve, there were parts that were the same each time. The base of it was that the soldier begged Syria to let him see his family again–in any way possible. The woman refused, stating that–
“‘To puppet their love before you in a flicker of shadows, would be to dishonor them in every way. Sleep now, soldier, and let your heart see the truth.’ And the man died, peaceful, because no spell could ever replicate the bond that had taken root in his heart.”
“That’s beautiful, Lethia.” Nyx said, her head propped up on her hands and her elbows on her knees. “Is it a true story?”
Lethia opened her mouth. Closed it. Then frowned. “I don’t seem to remember.”
Elmiryn snorted into a laugh, letting herself lie back onto the blanket that Lethia had lent them both. “It’s just a story,” she said in a dismissive tone.
The girl flared, just as before, and looked ready to stick her foot in her mouth when Nyx interjected herself seamlessly, steering the conversation to something innocuous and mundane before an argument could break out.
Not that Quincy believed Elmiryn would entertain something so beneath her. She could trade words all day with Nyx, but not with Lethia. The woman seemed possessed by some crippled sense of honor. Lethia was young, younger than Nyx, and had no experience in the world besides her abilities as an enchantress–which were useless in their current situation. However, she was still a caster, an apprentice from a reputable practitioner, wearing affluent clothing and on a mission that was pure of heart, if completely unrealistic.
This, the woman seemed capable of respecting, even if all else about the girl she regarded with impatience and disapproval. It left her to share scorching remarks in passing, but to never stop and indulge in a true argument…for what respectable warrior would argue with someone as young and naive as Lethia? Nyx was of a powerful race, intelligent, durable, if not strong, and…truly seemed to be the woman’s crutch. Or perhaps that was not the right term. Her tether?
Quincy rubbed her chin with cold fingers.
Elmiryn, strong-willed and at times capricious, was kept grounded by Nyx. The therian was her voice of reason, though even the girl’s judgment could be affected by her frustration and fear. Quincy thought back to that morning, when Nyx had become agitated and unsteady on her feet. She had been speaking to someone, though no one else was around. How steady of a mind was she? Could Elmiryn trust to follow such a person?
A weakness. How curious to discover it in the proximity of their relationship. Topple one, and the other falls…literally. Quincy tucked the observation away for later use.
“Lethia, have you got a beau waiting around for you?” Surprisingly enough, the question came from Elmiryn, who did not sit up. Her head was craned back to watch the dancing lights of the northern road a mile toward the ocean. They had traveled deep inland that day.
Lethia fumbled as she pulled the rabbit away from the fire, nearly dropping it into the dirt. “N-No. No, I haven’t…um…’got’ anybody.” Her face reddened as Nyx helped her slice the meat. “I didn’t leave the tower much…or…well…at all, actually.”
Nyx looked at her, startled. “Really!? But didn’t Syria ever take you into town for supplies?”
The girl handed Nyx a plate. “A few times…I’ve even been to Lekeid.”
“Gods! There aren’t many who even get to see its walls!! The Ailuran nation attempted alliances with the elves when they entered war with Fiamma, but they couldn’t find Lekeid. Our priests could not even scry it!”
Lethia smiled, pleased. “Syria has many powerful ties.” But as she pulled out another plate to serve with, her smile died away. “…But I’ve never traveled alone. The furthest I’ve gotten on my own, before all this of course, was to the walls surrounding the tower. There are a lot of dangerous creatures living in the mountains, so I was never allowed to go out by myself.”
Now Elmiryn sat up. Her cerulean eyes were little bits of glass that held the glow of the fire like an indifferent cup. Something the girl had said had touched on something, it seemed.
“You say you’ve never left the tower before?”
Lethia looked at her, her face tensing in preparation for a negative remark. Warily, she answered, “No…everything I ever needed was in my tower.”
“I’m surprised you survived this long, not knowing the land at all.”
“Oh, I knew it, certainly. One of Syria’s methods of teaching was to create simulations in my mind, to allow me the full scope of other societies and rituals without coming to harm. She also had me study many maps. Geography plays a large role in spellcasting, and certainly plays a large role in history.”
“I thought you said your mistress didn’t believe in creating illusions, for good or bad.”
“As she sees it, magic is much like education. The power they both offer is not evil–the wrong comes from how others would use such power. But she also tries to avoid speaking of it as ‘good’. She prefers dispassion and neutrality with regard to these things.”
Elmiryn smiled crookedly and wrapped her arms around one bent knee. “But you aren’t like that…at all.”
Lethia blushed as she handed the woman her small serving of meat. “I try. I can’t let my emotions get the better of me. It creates ignorance in the pursuit of–”
“I think it’s good,” Elmiryn interjected, not even looking at her food. Quincy was certain now that something was off–the woman’s stomach had been grumbling all day. “I think it’s good that you take a stand. I’ve met other casters who try to approach things the way your mistress says. With all due respect to Syria, perhaps she really does get it right, but the casters I’ve met were just sadists who didn’t flinch at a child’s scream.”
Lethia and Nyx stared at her. Neither seemed to know what to make of this sudden statement, and so with an awkward glance between them, they set to eating. Easier to pass on commenting with a mouth full of food. Even Argos paused in his pacing to have at his scraps of meat, eyes fixed on the redheaded warrior from his place next to his young mistress.
But Elmiryn wasn’t done. “How old’re you, Lethia? Exactly?”
Lethia swallowed her food with a grimace. It looked as though she didn’t chew her piece all the way. “Um…I turned fifteen, two months ago.”
“Fifteen…ah, good.” Elmiryn took a large bite out of her meat. The woman was content to let the topic rest, though the note it stopped on brought bemusement to all, Quincy included.
The fire was put out and the group slept. Argos kept watch…and Quincy with him, though he didn’t know. Not once did her eyes droop. When the suns turned the sky a rose color, and Elmiryn stirred from her bed, the dog took the opportunity for rest, lying at Lethia’s feet with a groan.
With the dog finally asleep, Quincy reached for the bag at her hip. Once again, it was devoid of any items, but when she took it between her hands and rubbed it, she felt something grow between her palms. When she felt points poking her skin, she opened the bag and let a small black stone cube fall into her waiting hand.
It was nearly imperceptible, but all along the cube’s surface were painted lines–guides that made sense only to one who knew how to use the item. Quincy took one corner of the cube, then without much force, pushed at it with her thumb. The little pyramid that had been the corner swiveled out, as though on a hinge. She did this with the others, then, with both hands, she twisted the cube at its heart–first a quarter one way, then a full turn around the other way. The cube shuddered, and without any noise, began to shift and transform in the woman’s palm. Pieces and shapes of all sorts slid in and out, out and in, twisted, turned, then faded into the sleek black surface that never revealed even the slightest gap between these shifting bits.
Finally, the cube stopped its assembly. It had changed to form a flat triangular shape, with a square cut at the bottom center base and a bold line that crossed near the top. Inuksuk. Impending danger. Quincy gave a small sigh, and stroked the face of the black stone. The item shuddered, then shifted back into its original cube form. She tucked it back into her bag, where it seemed to vanish into thin air. She looked at Elmiryn, who had roused Nyx from sleep to do sit-ups.
As the rays from the suns chased away the shadows, Quincy raised her head to greet the light, and her eyes rivaled the morning, before she became one with it, lost to any wandering eyes.
…It was almost time.