Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 12.1

ELMIRYN________________________

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.”

“There’s three.”

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–”

“Yet.”

“Elle.”

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.”

“There isn’t.”

“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.

QUINCY____________________________

Night.

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.


Back to Chapter 11.4 | Forward to Chapter 12.2

Chapter 12.2

In seeking me, you seek in kind,

The things that blisters need.

Cross not the ends of better things,

With that which sorrow feeds.

NYX____________________________

It seemed to come laboriously, but indeed, an odd sort of harmony was born amid our new group of four.

The following day started early, where Elmiryn made good on her promise to return to our original pace now that we were fed and hydrated–though our last meal left something to be desired.   The twilight world we tromped through–where sleepy meadow was stirred by the thump of small field animals, and jagged crags of rock whistled a mournful tune–made guests of us all in this unfamiliar setting.  We were joined together by our migrant shadows that meshed in the dark of the mountain range we passed, beings apart, but connected in determination.

My eyes were weak, sapien eyes, and all around me I found trickery waiting.  A looming rock seemed like a bear.  A shifting shrub made me flinch in anticipation of an ambush.  A swirl of dust had me believe someone had just fled from sight.  It disconcerted me, and yet I tried with all my might to bite back the envy that curled my fists.  Delighted to have a moment to gloat, my Twin purred at me from her new home–as foreign and mysterious to me as death itself.

Then I looked at Elmiryn, and my pace slowed.  I looked around me again, eyes straining, and while I was certain of some things, I found myself guessing as to the nature of others.  I even had to stop completely when looking at Argos’ galloping form, to convince myself that he was actually a dog…despite my need to personify ‘it’.

…Was this what Elmiryn experienced?  Even remotely? I looked forward again, sprinting to catch up with her bobbing form, my bag of belongings jingling behind me.  What was it like to live life seeing this way at all hours?  …Perhaps even worse?

My hands unclenched, and I know my look must have turned tender.  When I came to Elmiryn’s side, huffing in unison with her, she looked at me and remarked, “You look like someone stole your last cookie!”

I looked at her sideways, one eyebrow tilted.

She gave a breathless laugh.  “Okay…that sounded stupid.  Even to me.”

The ocean was lost to us on a shoe bend that slithered higher.  The trail became much more narrow, and to our right the slope turned to a treacherous wall, and to our left a steep slope.  My ear drums popped, and the tips of my ears and nose went numb.  Running helped keep the cold at bay, and I was surprised that Lethia had managed to keep up to some degree.  She still lagged behind us, and now and again, I would slow down to wait for her, Elmiryn grudgingly doing the same.  Argos remained at Lethia’s side all the while, serving as her support when she slipped, or tripped, or needed to take a breather.

With time, the suns clawed at the highest peaks that bared down on us.  With my lungs stung by the cold air, I thought I saw the light flare, and I did a double-take.  It were as if polished shield or a mirror had caught the sunlight, but when my gaze returned to those high peaks, I saw nothing.  But I was not put at ease.  My neck crawled with a sixth sense.  Even my Twin raised herself from her dark home to peer through my eyes, and they burned from the fierceness of her gaze.

Lethia let out a cry behind us, and my thoughts were taken from me.

Elmiryn and I whirled around, dust and dirt startled around our feet from our abrupt stops.

Lethia and Argos were out of sight, just a phantom cloud drifting in their wake.

I came forward several steps, my eyes wide. “Lethia!?”

There was growling and the sound of scraping and sifting sand.  A moment later Argos appeared from the edge of the trail–or rather, his rump.  He was pulling Lethia back up onto the level ground by her bag, his body bunched, and his fur ruffled, as he dragged the youth to safety.  Lethia looked stunned, and though she tried to assist in Argos’ efforts, her limbs seemed like noodles that flayed uselessly.  Without another word, Elmiryn and I rushed forward to aid in the dog’s efforts, and together with our help, Lethia was back on the trail.  I took her bag off her back, and she lay down, pink-faced and panting.

“What happened?” I panted.

“I don’t know!” Lethia eventually answered, one arm over her eyes.  Her spectacles lay in one hand.  “I was just trying to keep up with you both when…when…”  Her breathing slowed as her voice trailed away.  I looked at Elmiryn, and she looked back at me with eyebrows raised nearly to her hairline.

I looked to Argos’ next, and if there was ever an expression of concern on a dog’s face, Argos had it.  His furry face seemed to droop, and his tongue lolled to the side.  His ears depressed and his brows pressed together as much they could.  His breathing became accompanied with a whine.  I guessed at Lethia’s next words.

The girl sat up, and she had tears in her eyes.  “I don’t remember…”

To my surprise, Elmiryn clapped her on the shoulder.  “Don’t worry about it.  I’m sure it was nothing.”  Then she stood and extended her hand.  “Come on, kid.  Let’s keep moving.”

Lethia sniffled and put on her spectacles.  She frowned up at Elmiryn.  “But where are we going?”

QUINCY____________________________

She pulled her sword out of the devil weed–a plant monster that lived in cliff-sides who pulled travelers over the edge, then fed on their blood.  It was a cancerous looking thing that reminded distantly of cabbage, with a bundle of dark green tentacles as thick as Quincy’s wrists.  A rotten stench and dark blood dripped from its wound and made a thick river in the dirt.

Devil weeds lived and died in their birth places–which were literally holes burrowed into the earth and rock by stubborn roots and acid.  The mountains were riddled with little punches of holes where the monsters had once resided.  Their locations served a strategic purpose, as once a victim was pulled within yards of them, their choices were either to be sucked dry, or a drop to the death.  The determination to survive was strong in many…

…What victims didn’t know was that they had better chances if they let themselves fall.

The woman had dashed from her lofty place, hidden in the light that kissed the tips of the mountains, when she saw the tentacle slithering up the scree slope.  She flashed down just in time to stop the creature from carrying Lethia away.

Taking her weapon, she wiped her sword on her pants, not even the faintest grimace appearing on her face.  In her eyes, the care of her sword was more important.  It was a blade only half a foot longer than her forearm, made of a metal that had a mellow gold tint.  It was her most prized item, and she used it only when absolutely necessary.

She looked up just as Nyx and Elmiryn pulled their new charge to safety.  Gripping one of the monster’s tentacles to keep from falling, she looked down into the valley, then up again.  She sighed.

…Quincy would have to wait till the sunlight reached her place of shade before she could rise up through the rays.  For now, she could hide in the scattered glow.  It was not ideal for her, in the slightest.  Her primary target was kept safe, but now the group would travel on without her…

…And it was not to their favor.

NYX____________________________

We took our first rest in a little nook which guarded us from the winds that howled.  Lethia, looking ill, took a nap, using Argos’s thigh as a pillow.  The dog seemed content to lounge back and close his eyes as well, and I took it as a sign of confidence.  His incredible size still startled me, and his attitude toward Elmiryn was still guarded and borderline aggressive–but I found it to be comforting, that he could trust to close his eyes around us.  It was especially warming, when I took into account…that he was trusting Lethia’s protection to us as well.

I found myself striving to honor this trust.

I stood at the opening of our little hideaway–only a few feet wide and so shallow that the light outside lit all the back wall.  But it kept us safe from the wind and helped guard from the cold, and I was grateful for it.  With darting eyes, I watched every shift of dust, every rustled shrub.  While I was glad that Elmiryn had agreed to let Lethia travel with us northward, I was now doubly afraid.

When would danger come?

A pair of arms wrapped around my neck, pulling back harshly.  I sucked in air, and my eyes went round, but I moved without thinking.  I stomped backward onto the foot of my assailant, then jabbed back with my elbow.  Their grip on me slackened, and as I slipped out of their embrace, I turned my body to the side and drove my shoulder into their body with all my might.

My foot still pressed on theirs, and I pressed on it with all my weight.  They started to fall backward, and their foot tugged useless beneath mine.  Without the ability to adjust for the momentum, they fell–but not without dragging me with them.  They gripped onto my tunic, and I crashed down onto their body, twisted, my right arm sandwiched between us as the other scraped useless in the dirt.  When it found proper support, I pushed up on my free hand, and looked bewildered into…

Elmiryn’s smiling face.

She started to laugh, the reverberation of her body beneath mine sending waves of heat through me.  I sputtered curses, pulling my right arm free.  The woman gripped me by the waist as I tried to disentangle myself and stand.  Held down, I was left to straddle her, and her smile curled in that hungry way that made me shiver.

“Hey…I didn’t teach you that,”  She murmured below me.

“I guess it just comes naturally with you,” I quipped–but the force of my words was dulled by my growing lust, and I balked when I realized how it truly sounded.

The woman laughed and grabbed the front of my tunic.  I gripped her wrists, meaning to pull her hands away, but then she started to sit up, and with a small jerk, she had me by the lips.  The warmth of her, the softness of her lips, the smell that had been lost to me before, came flooding back through proximity.  My protests fell away.  Elmiryn let herself fall backward, and I followed her, my hair brushing forward in a dark curtain as one hand planted on the ground to steady myself.

Elmiryn’s hand slipped between us and reached around to grip my neck, but not before she brushed my chest intimately–in a way I could not mistake.  I pressed forward in answer, my free hand caressing her side.

It was…easy, I found…to forget myself, in the face of such heat.  Elmiryn, whether through accident or by design, lead me straight through a doorway that said it was okay to want.  Okay to seek.  Okay to take.  Such was her mastery of seduction, her ascendancy in touch, that I could hardly tell who was the seeker and the sought.

Not when I was on top, begging a dance with her tongue.

But it wasn’t to last.

A sigh and a groan, not on our part, made me look up.  Argos was staring at us with what looked like a grin on his face.  His ears were perked and he had shifted to face us better.  Lethia rubbed at her eyes, scowling.

“What’s…what’re you two doing?” She mumbled.  Her green eyes looked our way, but she was careful to avoid eye contact.

If possible, I would have lit on fire, the way I felt my skin burn from my embarrassment.  I stood to my feet, taking several steps away from Elmiryn as I stammered, “Nothing Lethia.  Elmiryn was just…sparring with me.”

The woman sat up.  She licked her lips and chuckled.  “Yes.  I was.”

While Lethia distracted herself with putting her boots back on, I hissed at my companion. “That was in poor taste, Elle!”

Elmiryn wagged her finger as she stood up, her cheeks a light pink and an insufferable smile on her face.  “I beg to differ!”

I gestured at Lethia, who seemed puzzled by something.  She kept looking at one boot, than the other.  “I don’t want to scar her or something!” I whispered.

Scar her?” The woman looked back at the enchantress.

Lethia looked at Argos, stricken, and held up her boots.  “Argos, do you remember which boot goes where!?”

Elmiryn rolled her eyes back to me. “Oh sure, Nyx.  I think I know what you’re talking about.”

I sighed and stepped forward.  I pointed at her right boot, then her right foot.  “That one goes there.”

The girl gave me a bashful smile.  “Thank you!”  She started to slip the boot on.  Her eyes, behind the shades, flickered to us.  “I…know that I must come across as eccentric.  How can I remember who you both are, but not why I’m traveling with you?  How can I forget something as simple as which boot goes where?  It’s all because of my power…y’see it–”

“You told us this before,” I said with a patient smile.

She stared at me, pausing mid-pull.  “I did?”

Elmiryn grinned, bowing her head and kneading her brow.  “Yeah.  You did.”

“Oh…um…did I mention that sometimes when something really upsetting happens, it can cause the energies to suddenly shift?”

“Like startled water?” I offered.

Elmiryn nodded.  “Yeah, we gathered that.”

“Oh.” Lethia bit her lip and finished pulling on her boot.  She stood to her feet, swinging on her bag.  “Okay, so…since everyone seems to understand, I guess we can keep going to…uh…where were we going again?”

You were going back to save your mistress.  We were heading through the mountains to get to Reg’Amen.”

“Oh yeah!”

“Should we continue, then?  The more ground we cover, the better.”

And we traveled on.

Elmiryn didn’t make us run anymore.  Instead, she asked only for a brisk walk.  “After what happened before, I’d rather we all be close together.  There might be more monsters, the deeper we go into these mountains.”

Lethia paled, her hand flying to her mouth.  “You think a monster tried to eat me!?’

The woman shrugged.  “Not unless you were hit with a sudden bout of suicidal wishes, tried to off yourself, then just forgot.”  Elmiryn snickered at this thought, and looked forward again without another word.

Lethia looked at me, her expression scrunched in confusion.  I only rolled my eyes and shrugged.  “I don’t know, either,” I mouthed.

We came to a narrow pass that weaved northeastward.  The sun filtered in through this space in the mountain range, and we squinted in the face of its light.  Elmiryn stopped and so did we, Argos coming to her side, woofing.

“He’s right…” she murmured.  “I don’t like the idea of going through there.”

“What difference does it make?  This is wider than what we were just traveling!” Lethia exclaimed with a puzzled look.

I frowned and stood at Elmiryn’s side.  “She’s right, Lethia…at least the trail had been open before.”  I gestured before us and looked back at her, biting my lip.  “Plus, those holes in the rocks don’t look right.  Dangerous creatures could be waiting here.”

“Or we could get caught in a pincer ambush,” Elmiryn added, drawing her sword. “I thought it was weird that no other travelers were coming this way.  The trail has no footprints…not even from animals.”

“Maybe…maybe we should turn back?” I offered, tugging at Elmiryn’s arm.

The woman scowled at me.  “We can’t, Nyx.  We’ve come too far.  Doubling back would mean losing four days–maybe more.  There’s your condition to think about–”

“I’d rather get to the Indabe in one piece, than take a risk like this!” I glanced at Lethia, who had gone to crouch before Argos. She appeared to be…‘conversing‘ with him. “And there’s her to think about!” I added in a whisper.  “I don’t want her to get hurt!”

“She won’t get hurt.” Elmiryn held her fist over her heart.  She smirked at me. “I promise.”

I shook my head and crossed my arms.  “I don’t like this.”

“You knew the risks when you insisted on Lethia coming with us–this is the hand we’re dealt, Nyx!  There is a possibility we could get through safely!”  Now she had her full blown predator’s smile on.

My eyes widened and I wagged my finger slowly at her.  “You do realize what’s at stake here, right?”

The woman pressed her lips together in a vain effort to cease her smile, as if she realized she had just given herself away.  I gripped her shoulder tightly, even pulling her down some so that she gazed level into my eyes.  “Elle,” I said slowly.  “This isn’t a game.  We can’t afford to gamble our lives or anyone else’s… You might think this is interesting–you might even think this is fun–but I think we should head back.  Take the long way along the coast, with the other travelers.  It’s for the best.”

At first, she just stared at me blankly.  Then to my surprise she pouted at me. “Gods damn it, Nyx.  You and your fucking words…” Elmiryn let out a loud, frustrated sigh, swiped at her ear, then called to Lethia and Argos, who still seemed engrossed in some exchange.  “Hey!  C’mon, kid.  We’re heading back.”

Lethia looked at us, open-mouthed, and Argos head popped up like a toy.  “Heading back?” the girl echoed, her brows knitting together.

Elmiryn nodded, jerking her head back the way we came.  I could see the muscle in her jaw tense.  “Yeah.  This isn’t safe.”

“But–”

“Come on, Lethia,” I said, taking her hand.  “It’ll be better this way.”

“But–!”

“Let’s go.”

“But–But–” Lethia tore her hand away and skipped backward several feet.  Her eyes already shone with tears.  “No!  We can’t go back!”

Elmiryn and I exchanged looks.  She gestured at Lethia, eyebrows raised, as if to say, “Well?”

I sighed and looked back at the girl.  “Lethia, we’re all alone out here.  This is dangerous.  Besides being attacked by bounty hunters or vagabonds, we could run into a dangerous monster.”

The girl shook her head, chin crumpling.  “No!  No, no, please!  We can’t go back!  And you can’t just leave me out here!  I have to go forward!  I have to save Syria!”

“Lethia you can–”

“I told you!  I told you her execution is in a week!  If we backtrack, I won’t make it in time!  I have barely enough time as it is! So please!”  The girl bounced on the balls of her feet, her bag rattling behind her.  “We…can’t go back…please…please don’t leave me alone…”

I closed my eyes and sighed.  I felt Elmiryn clap my shoulder.  “So…forward it is?”

A sharp sound echoed through the mountains.  It was a loud bang, and when I looked around, crouched, I saw that a crater in the dirt smoked near my foot.  The shape of it suggested whatever it was came from the west.  I looked up to where Elmiryn and Lethia already stared, and my gut fell to my soles.

A bronzed man with dark wavy hair and hazelnut eyes winked from his place up on a high headwall, his flintlock pistol pointed at us.  He wore a brown loose shirt tucked into black trousers.  His wide, silver buckled belt held the holster for his pistol on the right, and a rapier on his left hip.  His handsome face broke into a dimpled smile, showing large, straight teeth.

“I personally recommend moving forward!” he shouted.


Back to Chapter 12.1 | Forward to Chapter 12.3

Chapter 12.3

ELMIRYN________________________

Lethia trembled, her spectacles having slid down her nose to reveal the frosty fear that had gripped her pretty green eyes.  Little drops of anxiety clung to her eyelashes, clumping them together in a pitiable image.  She gripped the straps of her pack and sidled closer to Argos–not Elmiryn or Nyx.  The warrior did not take this as an insult.  The young enchantress truly felt safe around her familiar–and given his size, the woman would too.

But as it stood, Elmiryn didn’t feel threatened yet.  She had started to warm up to the idea of excitement, and while the situation wasn’t necessarily ideal, beggars couldn’t be choosers.  With one hand shielding her eyes from the approaching sunlight, Elmiryn squinted up at the newcomer.  “What is that thing you’re holding?” she asked.

“I’d say it’s my way of reasoning,” the man answered.  He put his free hand on his hip. “Others, however, call it a pistol.”

The woman’s brows went up high.  “A pistol?  I’ve heard about those things!  Like mini-cannons, right?  What enchantment have you got to make it fire straight?”

“Elmiryn,” Nyx’s voice, small as a mouse.  “Is this really appropriate?

The woman glanced at her, disappointed.  She really was curious.  “I guess not.”

“Oh no, I don’t mind answering,” the man said, his smile pulling a little wider.  Elmiryn picked up on the way he spoke from the back of the tongue, with strong emphasis on his r’s.  She recognized the accent from some slippery recollection, but an origin still eluded her.  The man hopped down and slid several yards on the dirt and rock before he stopped himself on clumped bit of earth and weed.  He held the gun up so that they could all see its side, and Elmiryn leaned in a little, squinting.

The pistol had a beautiful ivory stock, engraved in an undulating design that made Elmiryn think of oil in water.  The three-barrels were brass, also adorned with a design–this one more robust and with a greater focus in motion–like flowering clubs.  Elmiryn blinked as she saw the metal shift, a smear of warm paint against a dark cool background.  A mini-cannon, a cannon, of oil–a pistol.  A pistol?  Elmiryn squeezed her eyes shut.  When she opened them again, the paint–the metal–was still.

Yes, yes, a real pistol.

She heard the young man speaking and tuned in.  His words didn’t have the same grip as Nyx’s, she noted with a smirk.  “–allow for three shots without reloading.  Quite nice, eh?  It has no enchantments–but I had an elven blacksmith do the work.  Its precision is unparalleled.  An ordinary pistol of this size couldn’t fire as far.  It even beats some rifles!”

He beamed at her, rocking a little on his heels.  From his behavior alone, she knew he was still young–a man, by the standards of age, but still without a wife and without a steady home to call his own.  She let her eyes flicker briefly down to his knees–not that she were actually interested in them, but because she wanted to see just how far the man was using her peripheral sight.

Some three yards.

With his pistol gripped incorrectly and the barrels aiming at the sky, she could try and lunge forward, even though he was on slightly higher ground.

But she didn’t, because she knew, the man was only taking this risk because…

“Graz, you moron–what’re you doing?”

He had partners.

The new voice came from behind them.  Elmiryn turned to look, along with Lethia and Nyx, to see a newcomer sliding down from some hiding place higher up the rock wall.  He seemed older and shabbier, with faint wrinkles about the eyes and mouth.  His hair was the same dark wavy length, but in the back was a ponytail tied with a black tie, like a sailor’s.  The man had a stronger chin, shadowed with stubble, but the same hazelnut eyes.  His expression was beyond annoyed, turning his dry lips into a nasty slash.

“Elmiryn…th-these men. They were the ones who chased me before!” Lethia hissed quickly.

“This was supposed to be an ambush, and here you are, chatting them up!” The older man snapped gruffly to his partner.  He too had a rapier, drawn, but no pistol.  He wasted no time closing the distance between himself and Nyx, who backpedaled into Elmiryn.  The woman put her arm around the girl’s shoulders.

“They were going to leave, I couldn’t let them.” The younger man shrugged, putting away his gun.  “Anyway, the woman asked an excellent question.  It’d be rude to ignore it!”

The man grit his teeth.  His accent was stronger than his companion’s.  Elmiryn had to focus more to catch all that he said.  “Be wise!” He pointed the tip of his sword at Nyx, scowling.  “I don’t want any more mistakes!

‘Graz’ sighed and drew his rapier as well.  He gave Elmiryn an apologetic smile as he stepped forward to point his weapon at her.  “Sorry, my love.  But my brother speaks the truth.  Our meeting was not chance.  It was to an end!”

Elmiryn covered her hand with her mouth.  Her throat tensed and she tried to bit her lower lip to keep from giggling.  Nyx jabbed her in the side and looked at her, her bold eyebrows knitted together.  She gave a stern shake of the head. This only made Elmiryn snort so bad it hurt her nose.  She doubled over a little to try and calm down, forcing Nyx to do the same.

“Hey now, sweet lia!  Don’t cry!”  Graz lifted the tip of his rapier.  He looked at his brother with conflicted eyes.  “Arduino, this is all a bit strong, don’t you think?”

“Shut up!” The man snapped.  His eyes darted to the right.  “Where’s Paulo?”

“Look…there he is.  Oye!  Choi!”

A bit further up the road, a dust trail fluttered down the slope.  A slim young man, closer to Lethia’s age, approached.  He held up a large crossbow carved from dark wood with a unique shoulder stock that seemed custom made just for him.  The weapon was loaded, fixed with a gleaming bolt.  At his left side was a rapier.

The newcomer’s chubby face was sweaty, and it looked as though his left eyebrow had been singed off, but other than these things, he was as handsome as the other two men.  He seemed winded and his grip on the crossbow was shaky.  He too, had dark wavy hair–but his was loose, and outgrown.  He sniffed, to clear his nose, then let his eyes, the same hazelnut as the other two men, flicker to the one named Arduino.

“Ard, what about the extras?” The youth asked, his voice a rasp that Elmiryn hardly caught.

“That’s what we were going to see to, Choi.”  The eldest forced Nyx to look his way again, the tip of his rapier beneath her chin.  Elmiryn let the girl slip from under her arm, and straightened completely, her eyes on Arduino.

The man dropped his voice low, the steadiness of his tone suggesting experience, but as Elmiryn searched his eyes, she was certain the rest of him was just a facade.  Something was wrong.  This man was filled with fear.

“Doc’est, lia?  What’re you and your lady-friend going to do?”  He looked at Elmiryn.  “This girl has nothing to do with you, and we can all go on with our lives…so long as you don’t get in our way.”

Argos snarled, his hackles raising.  He seemed conflicted on who to focus on, with Graz to Lethia’s back, Arduino before them, and Paulo on their left.  He seemed to settle on looking between Paulo and Arduino, his lips curled back to show his fearsome canines.

Elmiryn glanced at him, then back at the man.  “The Mangy Beast doesn’t much like that offer.”

Arduino chuckled.  “Well what can you expect?  A smart animal is still just that–an animal.  What does he know?  Does he have any idea that you’re all surrounded by the Moretti brothers, the best bounty hunters Erminia has ever produced?  The odds are not in your favor, lia.”

“The best bounty hunters let a girl barely turned fifteen slip away from them?” Elmiryn smirked.  “Somehow, I’m not impressed.”

Nyx let out a short hiss as the man pressed the tip of his rapier against her neck.  “Let’s watch our tongues, eh?”

The woman shrugged.  “I was starting to warm up to the idea of a bit of excitement.  Maybe we should fight you, just because?  My friend could use with the opportunity to practice what she’s learned.  I bet you’ll love meeting her Twin.”

Nyx clenched her fists and her eyes shifted to look at her with the utmost incredulity.  “Elmiryn–!”  Arduino pressed in again, and her words cut off with a wince.

Elmiryn pursed her lips and looked at Lethia who seemed to be pleading as well as she could without speaking.  She looked back at Nyx, whose brow now glistened with sweat.  The humor in her became subdued.  There was a difference between fighting and protecting…but when one was forced to choose who to protect…?

The woman held up her hands.  Her nose itched with anger, and her jaw became tight, but the situation seemed beyond her.  “Sorry, kid.  We agreed to let you travel with us–that didn’t mean I had to put my neck on the line for you.  Or rather, Nyx’s.”

What!?

This came from Nyx and Lethia both.  Elmiryn looked at Nyx, frowning.  “Look it’s either one or the other.  You want to start a fight after having your throat slit like a pig?”

“Lia, you made an excellent choice.  Now take your friend and back away, back the way you came like you were going to.”

Elmiryn reached for Nyx slow and pulled her back, hands tight on her shoulders as the orchestra of movement began.  Arduino and Graz shifted to take their places, Graz facing Lethia as his brother watched Elmiryn and Nyx move backwards.  Paulo moved in, his crossbow now fixed on Argos.

“We can’t just let them take her.” Nyx whispered.

“I thought you didn’t want to fight.” Elmiryn replied.

“Not the way you were going to!  I mean…of course I didn’t want to fight, but I didn’t want Lethia taken, either!  We could’ve done something.

“Like what?”

Nyx growled and clenched her fists.  Lethia had started crying and Argos was a mass of hostility before her.  Paulo hefted up his crossbow as though preparing for a shot.  He glared at the dog.  “Stupid mutt…” He wheezed.  “Don’t you know your owner will leave you covered in death?  I should shoot you, to save you the horror.”

Elmiryn froze, scowling.

Graz turned his head a little to look at him.  “Paulo, shut up.”

“No really!  Dogs are supposed to have better perception.  If this one’s so smart, why can’t he see that this girl and her mistress bring nothing but death and nightmares?”

Arduino glanced at him.  “Enough, Choi.  Say no more.” He looked back at Elmiryn.  “Keep moving!”

Paulo’s grip on the crossbow turned shaky.  His voice cracked and his finger twitched on the trigger.  His gaze turned to glass.  “I haven’t…haven’t slept well since we visited their gods damned tower…  What a stupid animal!  Does he think being buried underneath a tree will justify his life!?  I won’t let that happen to me!!”  The crossbow fired.  The boy blinked, looking at his crossbow as though it had betrayed him.  Argos let out a low growl and limped back against Lethia, who stumbled under his weight.  A bolt stuck out of his left shoulder blade, and his white fur became stained in crimson.

“Argos!?” Lethia screamed, hugging him as he fell back onto the ground.

Graz ripped the crossbow from his brother’s hands, his face tight with shock and indignation.  “Idi’ute!  What do you think you’re doing!?

Elmiryn drew her sword as she took a step forward.  Her mind pulsed, her eyes burned.  She considered the possibility of resuming her backwards walk, but her knees locked into place just at the mere suggestion.  Was she just imagining it?  Was she just chasing shadows?

Arduino stared at her as she took another step forward.  “Lia?” His tone wavered.  “You should be leaving.”

The woman looked briefly to Nyx.  There was no lie or trickery that danced in her eyes.  She had a companion, one to back her, one to fight with her…for her, and Elmiryn felt stronger.  Nyx looked at her with eyes shining.  “You heard right, didn’t you?” Elmiryn whispered.

Nyx looked at the men, then back.  She gave a nod.  “I heard.”

If there were ever moments of uncertainty where she could scrape by on slim observances…then she wagered this was one of them.

Elmiryn pointed her sword at Arduino and began to walk forward slowly.  Her boots were a steady crunch on the earth, and she delighted in the sound of advancement.  “I’m sorry, but there’s been a change in plans.” Elmiryn’s lip twitched.  “Just to be clear…Your brother’s a bit weak-minded isn’t he?”

Arduino frowned at her.  “What?”

“Sorry.  Maybe that’s a rude way of saying it.  I mean, is he a sensitive? Prone to chills in old houses?  Maybe because he’s young.  You don’t know what it is.  You don’t know what’s wrong with him.”  The woman chuckled. “That’s why you’re so tense.  You want this job done, but your brother isn’t feeling right.  Maybe you aren’t feeling right.”

Elmiryn tilted her head to the side and let her eyes flicker to Graz and Paulo.  The older brother had his sibling around the shoulders, his teeth grit as he stared at her.  “You just call it black magic, like they do, but the realm of influence isn’t here, it’s at Syria’s tower… But after leaving that place, Paulo still is sick.  It’s like he’s carrying something.  It isn’t a curse–not an ordinary one–not one that can be magicked away by typical means.  I bet he’s dying, and he doesn’t even know it.”

Arduino spat on the ground and took a step forward, his rapier held up.  “You have ten seconds to vanish, or we’ll shoot you!”  But his eyes were wide, and his rapier shaking.

Elmiryn stopped and shook her head in mock pity.  “Did you know?  There’s a sickness spreading through the world right now.  It drifts, suckling at people and places like a baby–taking away their hope and their energy and any sense of decency.  We saw it at Gamath.  I didn’t know it had gone so far North–but if what I’ve heard from your brother is true…then I can’t let you take Lethia away.”

Arduino’s gaze darkened.  A muscle in his jaw pulsed and he brought his rapier up before him as he slid back into a fighting stance.  Lethia looked at her, her face still bunched with worry as her hands tangled in Argos’ fur, but a shaky smile appeared on her lips.

Elmiryn resumed her walk, but moved slower than before.  She was now within striking range.  Arduino’s face was smearing, and between the spaces of moments, she had to scrape just to remember that the man from two moments ago was still indeed standing before her.  Not some copy.  Not some joke.  Not some shadow that intended to drag her away to the place of Unbeing.  “You think your brother will survive, if you let Syria die?”  The woman giggled.  “If you take her apprentice to get imprisoned?  Shit…” The woman’s smile turned wolf-like, and she began to laugh outright. “You think any of you can survive singing a demon’s song?”

“Graziano, shoot her!” Arduino shouted, taking a step back as Elmiryn set into a hysterical fit.

Graz looked at her, then back at his older brother.  “But Ard, what if she’s right?  Paulo has been looking ill.  That healer didn’t do anything for him!”

“Shut up!  Shut up and shoot her!”

She charged forward.  When her body was half-bent, when the ball of her right foot was planted solidly into the dirt, when her left leg was turned just in the way needed to pull the most power possible from the push–her head snapped up, and she roared as the distance closed between them, like a lion’s mouth.

Too late!” she screamed.

Both hands gripped the hilt of her stolen iron sword–a weapon she was unaccustomed to, as it were heavier than her other blade, but she made do with what she had.  She brought the sword back.  She barked out a laugh as she slid to stop before Arduino and swung forward.

NYX____________________________

I had no idea what else to do, but to follow.  I was a little behind Elmiryn–I figured she would need space to swing that blade of hers, and I also wanted to see what she would do.  I needed a lead, because I had never initiated a fight before.  Survived some maybe, but never started them.

With Arduino engaged, I decided to go for Graz, who still had his brother’s crossbow in one hand.  I moved as fast as I could, pushing with all my might against the earth.  The distance was closed before I finished inhaling, and I rammed as hard as I could into the man’s body.  We both sailed through the air, and I could hear the breath flee from his lips in a ghostly rasp.  When we crashed to the ground, I scrambled upright before he could gain sense enough to grab at me.  To my dismay, he still gripped onto his rapier, but the crossbow was lost to him.  I didn’t see where it fell, as my next concern was to incapacitate the man beneath me.

Amid the adrenaline and electrifying fear was a sense of shame.  Graz did not seem the sort of person who deserved my fist–he was something of a buffoon, but his eyes lacked the bite his eldest brother had.  But I could not focus on such things.  Behind me, the clash of battle was like a fire that screamed for action.

I placed my left hand around the man’s throat and leaned forward to shift my knee over his sword arm, effectively pinning it down with my weight.  Then with a grimace I pulled my hand back and punched him.  It hurt, even though I refrained from using all my strength, the way I had with Elmiryn.  This mercy proved to be my error.  Graz was stronger than I gave him credit for, and he recovered quickly from my punch to give one right back.  My head snapped the other way, and he bucked beneath me, sending my petite form toppling off him.  He jumped up to his feet, his body proving his incredible resilience.

There was a swish, and when I looked up into his face, it was along the blade of his rapier.  He panted and scowled down at me, his lip bleeding from where I struck him.

My eyes flickered to the side as a commotion caught my attention.  I saw Lethia grappling with Paulo, her pack abandoned on the ground.  She had one hand on his chin, the other pulling at the back of his neck.  He looked ready to draw his rapier, the weapon halfway out, but he seized up, with eyes turned to bloodshot circles that would later haunt me in sleep.  He fell to the ground next to Argos, mouth slack, eyes staring into nothing.  If Paulo’s chest weren’t rising and falling, I would have thought him dead.

Lethia pulled his rapier from its holster, and brought it up in a menacing swish as she turned with eyes on Graz.  Her pupils were dilated, and her face blank.

Then I noticed that she wasn’t wearing her glasses.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn felt, more than saw, her blade miss.  It tore through the air, not affording her any satisfying crash of metal or vicious thud of flesh.  In truth, she was at a disadvantage.  Arduino was a skilled fencer–the woman could tell by his quick reflexes, the ability to shift and parry without losing his footing.  His weapon afforded him the speed and agility her stolen iron sword took away.

As he side-stepped her initial attack, he struck out with a slash of his rapier, cutting it across the skin of her throat.  She reared back just in time to avoid anything more than a flesh wound.  Blood trickled down, tickling her skin.  Arduino’s motives were clear.  He would incapacitate her as quickly as possible–even if it meant killing her.

That suited Elmiryn just fine.

“I have to overpower him,” she thought, as she pressed forward again, this time only knocking aside his rapier so as not to leave herself completely open.  He shifted again to the right, and brought his rapier up, so that her attack did not press through his defense.   “His rapier can’t cross with my sword, and whereas he needs to hit me in precise targets to kill me, I just need to cut him bad enough and we’re done.”

Elmiryn danced back and pointed her longsword to the ground, her eyes on Arduino’s eyes as they circled each other.  All else fell away.  It was just her and her opponent, engaged in a ritual that Elmiryn knew well.  First was the testing–the dance forward, the dance back–but the warrior was beginning to sense a pattern in the flurry of metal.

He would thrust low, then slash high, toward her head.  Other times, he would swipe at her sword, than lunge forward toward her leading shoulder.  Strike once, then follow up.  Strike once, then follow up.  He was good on variation, and sometimes the exact beat of his movement would quicken or slow down–but Elmiryn could feel it.  In the shock of her limbs after a strike, from the cry of her iron sword nestling in her ear.  One, two.  One, two.  One, two.

The woman smiled fully.

She let her sword point toward the ground, leaving her face and chest open to strike.  Arduino’s eyes narrowed at this.  The tip of his rapier bobbed in the air as he bent his knees and readied his arm, his brow furrowed over his hazelnut eyes.  Sweat rolled into his gaze, just as sweat rolled into Elmiryn’s.  The man did not blink, nor did she.

Then he thrust, a guttural shout lending more power to his attack toward her heart.

One…

The moment he began to move, Elmiryn pushed down on the butt of her hilt with the heel of her right hand, sending the blade arcing up to strike away Arduino’s course.  The man recovered, and with the momentum, slashed towards Elmiryn’s eyes.

Two…

Elmiryn pulled the sword in close to her body, to absorb the shock of her block.  The rapier rang against her iron sword.  But before Arduino could pull away, Elmiryn took a large step forward, her blade singing against the rapier as it slid down, then pushed outward against the rapier with all her might.  Closer to the hilt, this was harder to do, but the weight of her weapon, and the comprised stance Arduino was left in, caused the man to stumble to the side.

Elmiryn, now less than two feet away from her opponent, brought her knee up for a ruthless blow to the ribs, which sent the man to the ground.  The warrior, slid her right foot back, tracing a crescent moon in the earth, and with her left foot now pointing at Arduino, Elmiryn hefted the hilt up and back, so that the flat of the sword was parallel to the side of her face, tip pointed slightly downward.

Arduino moved to lift up his rapier to block, but his eyes knew, as she knew, that he was done for.

Smiling, the warrior thrust her sword downward with all her might…

NYX____________________________

Lethia brandished the rapier, her face pink, her eyes swollen.  “Argos didn’t do anything…but you hurt him.  He just wanted me safe.” Her voice was a chilling monotone.

Graz held up his weapon, but his eyes were on Paulo.  He forgot me entirely.  “What did you do to my brother!?” he shouted, voice cracking with panic.  “What’s wrong with him!?”

The enchantress’s only answer was to strike at him.  Her body moved with a grace that belied her petite form, and even I was made to forget where I was for a moment.  Their fight moved away from me, making me squint in the dust that stirred from their complex changes in position and stance.  The youth lunged and parried as though she had fought for years, her eyes ablaze with a righteous anger I had only seen once in her company.

You hurt Argos!” She shouted as she caught Graz on the arm.  The man hissed and stumbled back to a safe distance where he checked the severity of his wound.

As he did so, Lethia held back and waited, letting the tip of her rapier point to the sky.  Even in anger, she was held by some sense of honor.

I looked away to see Elmiryn pointing her sword down toward the ground, leaving herself open, and Arduino glaring at her as though he didn’t trust this opportunity.  Somehow, this fight had moved on without my aid.  But there were two others unaccounted for.

Argos was still down on the ground, but was attempting to gnaw off the bolt.  I crawled to him.  “Argos!” I murmured.  “No!  Don’t do that, you might make it worse!” The dog grumbled and looked at me, his body shaking as he craned his neck.  I reached for him, scratching him through the mess of his white fur.  His hot breath fluttered over my face–not a delightful scent, but I was glad to see he was alright.  “Leave it in and try to stay still.  No one will harm you…I promise!  When this is over, Elmiryn and I will try and take care of your wound…”

The dog whined and licked at my hand.  I gave an awkward smile and scratched the back of his ear.  I looked over my shoulder, suddenly aware that it was perhaps unwise to have my back to the battle, so I started to crawl so as to sit on the other side of Argos.  That was when my eyes fell on Paulo.

He was beginning to move again, fingers scraping useless in the dirt, and his left foot twitched occasionally.  I scooted over and rolled him so that he lay on his back completely.  His mouth moved just a little, and I thought he wished to speak, so I leaned down, frowning.  “…What is it?” I breathed.

He whispered something, and I leaned in closer, so that my ear nearly touched his lips.

“…An axe…for the tree…” he exhaled.

Then there was a blinding flash of light.


Back to Chapter 12.2 | Forward to Chapter 12.4

Chapter 12.4

“With your feet in the air and your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head will collapse
But there’s nothing in it
And you’ll ask yourself–

Where is my mind…?
Where is my mind…?
Where is my mind…?1

NYX____________________________

I find it frustrating to say, that possibly the most incredible moments ever experienced in my life can either be condensed into a single sentence starting with something as transpicuous as, “I’m on a quest,” to sudden effulgent bursts of power, barely lasting a blink of an eye.  The saddest part was that the true nature of this brilliant display was concealed in the poor scope of my perception–just a hot burn in my memory that left me rattled, but no more the wiser.

It’s a good thing I’m not a scribe.  Describing that would be horrid

But as it happens, I can at least talk about the ripples of this astounding moment–for its effects were great, as others would attest.

My head snapped up when it happened, my sixth sense tickling again, but there was no true warning for what came next.  A great flash blinded me, and I held up my hand, wincing as the fierce glow lanced through my sight.  I heard shouting from the others, felt heat roll over me as some great release of energy spread over the area.  Dust kicked up and stung my hand and face.

When I opened my eyes again, I still suffered from poor sight. Blinking, I waited for my vision to clear.  In the white haze, I saw Elmiryn down, one arm up to shield her eyes, her iron sword stuck in the ground near Arduino’s chest. The man, too, looked out of it, and gave a vigorous shake of the head as he squeezed his eyes shut.

By this time I could see well enough to take note that someone completely new had entered into our little scuffle.  I shifted into a crouch, legs curled beneath me, my teeth bared and my eyes wide.  The nature of this person immediately told me they were different from the Moretti brothers.  The warm-toned men were not spell casters of any sort–just human beings who made do with their skills.

But not this person.

She was a woman, wearing a gray hooded cloak, who stood with Lethia held close to her body–a luminescent glow all about her that made my eyes water to look at.  A long golden lock of hair came down from the shadow of her hood–and it struck me as bizarre, because the ends were a darker honey that lightened to a brighter yellow as it went up. She held what looked like a gilded blade to Lethia’s throat. The youth stood frozen, her eyes staring glassy toward the sky like she couldn’t see anything at all.

Graz was on the ground behind them both, his arms over his head and his rapier lost a few yards from him. Arduino sat up and blinked his eyes open. When he made sense of what was before him, his face grew red and a vein appeared in his forehead. “Quincy!” he roared, struggling to his feet.  He slashed his weapon to the side in a violent sweep, spit flying from his mouth. “Dist’agea, ya! You haven’t got the claim for this!”

The figure looked at him, then smirked faintly. “Arduino. That’s unkind of you to say. Didn’t I save your life, once?”

He pointed his rapier her way in answer. “You are a foul vulture! I should’ve killed you last time!”

“But you didn’t,” the woman returned. She jerked her sword against Lethia’s neck, forcing the girl to tilt her head back. “Drop the rapier,” She murmured into the youth’s ear.

Lethia did as she was told. I could see how she strained to look into the woman’s face–but perhaps her strange ability required direct line of sight, or perfect vision.  The woman did not buckle or seize up. Instead, she turned her head just enough for me to guess she was looking my way.

“You.  Ailuran. Bring the girl’s things.”

I didn’t move right away.  I sat shivering and my eyes shifted to Elmiryn, who had moved into a crouch like me, her eyes turned to slits.  Her lips moved, as though she were speaking to herself, but I could not make out what she said.  Graz finally sat up, and even managed to draw and aim his pistol, but his mouth was open, and I could see the open fear on his face. Argos growled and started to move, his limbs shifting, but I held him down.

“Shh…” I whispered, stroking his fur.  “Shh…Argos, no.”

“You have no right.” Arduino took a small step forward, but stopped just far enough away for me to see that he was maintaining a certain distance for a reason.  His face glistened, and though his arm had turned steady, his eyes gave him away.  “You haven’t got the claim, lia.  We do.”

The woman didn’t even turn her head.  “Belcliff’s marshal was fed up waiting for you.  He put out a bulletin every which way he could, asking for all available mercenaries in the area to find Syria’s apprentice.  The claim is no longer closed.  You took far too long.”

Arduino’s arm lowered a degree.  He blinked at her.  “He…de quoi?”

“Elwe nuoa, oliano me’cher solimein.  ‘The way of the starved, is the poor butcher’s plight.’  If it were not me, it would have been someone else.”  The woman pressed her blade up, eliciting a choked gasp from Lethia.  “You and your family haven’t been at your best for a long time, Arduino.  I’m sorry.  But this is how it has to be.”

Paulo began to stir.  He rasped and stretched out his arms, his eyes blinking as he shifted onto his belly.  He pushed himself onto his knees and gaped, face half covered in dirt.  “…Quincy?”  His hand went to his hip only to find his rapier gone.  His watery eyes next shifted to his oldest brother.  “Ard…wh-wh-what’s happened?”

“Bring me her things, Ailuran.” The woman insisted, her soft, flat tone, turning hard.

I jumped into action, ignoring Paulo for the moment to keep my eyes on the one the Morettis called, ‘Quincy’.  I reached for Lethia’s large pack and her lenses, and put her glasses between my teeth.  The bag was so large I needed two hands to hold it.  Shaking, I stood and stepped over Argos’ panting body. The dog whined, but I did not glance at him.

As I came forward, the heat seemed to roll over me in thick waves, and I felt my hairs stand on end–not from fear or anxiety–but because something MADE them.  I stopped feet away from them, alarmed at what I felt.  I doubted how safe it was to venture closer, so I held out Lethia’s things as far as I could.

“Take your belongings,” Quincy said to the girl. Her voice was devoid of any passion–like this was all routine somehow. When Lethia took her things from my hands, they curled to fists and fell limp at my sides.  I took one step back.

“Put on your glasses,”  The woman ordered next.

Lethia did so. Her nostrils flared and I saw her throat swallow. The woman turned to me and looked me up and down. “Take another step back, you.”

I did so, taking one large step. I didn’t care to stand so close to the woman–the energy that rolled off of her made me feel overwhelmed.

Quincy turned to Arduino. “You were in over your head. A purist like you would never have managed a bounty like this. Perhaps you should stick to monster extermination?”

“Bitch…This isn’t over!” The man seethed. I noticed he made no attempt to get close to her either.

The woman shrugged. “Then I’ll see you at Belcliff.  But even if you take one of your shortcuts–do you think you’ll even arrive in time to see the girl die with her mistress?”

Then the heat in the air, that dampened all brows and made slush of our thoughts, retreated in a sudden void of space that was quickly filled with cold.  My body broke out in goosebumps, but the energy that I could feel buzzing about me was gone.  The area around us…darkened.  I do not know how else to describe it.  It were as if the three suns dimmed, and the shadows became darker.  Then I cried out, and my eyes widened–though they screamed to do so–for Quincy and Lethia had become brighter.  Their forms turned pale, all color and definition leaving them.  I saw Lethia struggle, her mouth opening for a scream as though she were in extreme agony.

I pushed forward, my hand held out–and I could feel my flesh burst, feel the blisters and the layers peel away as I tried to get close…

Then the light about them flared.  I was stunned, and crashed down into the dirt.  All around us was silence.  Then my vision turned dark, and I felt as though I were being pulled backward–to a place as frigid as ice.  For a moment, I felt coherence slip through my teeth, and my memories felt as though they were bleeding from my pores.  Aidan’s face, roaring water, Elmiryn in the rain…

Then…

Rock.  Cool, smooth rock that pulsed now and again with grotesque phantoms–skeletons, bodies without skin, beings caught between animal and sapien forms.  I was lying on the ground, and I shifted to look up at the sky to find it was a gray and black swill that churned as the fear pulsed within me.  I pushed myself to my feet.  I felt weightless–immaterial.  Then I heard something echo from afar.

“Damn it…DAMN IT!”  Arduino shouting.

“Nyx!” Elmiryn.  The fear wasn’t immediately apparent, but the tenseness in her voice gave her away.  I recalled the time she killed the deer and wanted to assure her I was fine–even though I doubted the veracity of such a statement.

“Look at her hand!  Is she still alive?”  Paulo, confused.

“She’s a therian, brother.” Graz now.  His smooth and upbeat tone was deflated.  “She’ll heal.  Any moment now.”

My right hand… felt as though it had been skinned, then boiled.  I looked down at it, and my face pulled in horror at the charred flesh–the bits that hung loose from apparently being fried back by some force.  I could feel the pain, but in that place, wherever it was, I was able to resume thought beyond it.  I tried to reason why this was and felt myself separated from the necessary tools of knowledge.  It was like reaching for something with eyes closed, and having your hand dip into something that made you numb.

Then the answer came to me in a low rumble.

“See why I should handle dangerous situations?”  It was Her.

She sat yards away, content in the image of a great panther-like beast with a short and scruffy mane–a pathetic resemblance to my hair.  I glared at her, my inhuman hand curling to a claw.  The pieces fell together.

She had slithered out of her home, to drag me behind the invisible line that dictated control of our physical body.  It explained why I was aware of my physical pain, but not controlled by it.

“Yes that’s right,” She grumbled in a surly tone.  “The one sense we share is the sense of touch, and whenever you hurt, I hurt.  Have you forgotten so soon?  It wasn’t long ago when you were trapped in this head instead of me.”  My feline counterpart bared her fangs–stark white teeth against black fur.  Her tail lashed and her slitted eyes narrowed.  My twin spat at me slinking forward, and this time I saw her mouth move as she spoke.  It was physically impossible for her to speak like a sapien creature, but in this place…she made it so.

“You can’t handle anything.”  She snapped.  “At least when I was in control, I kept us safe–”

I stepped back as she neared, but as I did so, I felt my form tense, felt myself become heavier.  I gasped and my knees buckled beneath me.  My vision rippled, and for a moment, I thought I could see pairs of boots standing around me, with one tanned hand cradling my face…

I pushed this away.  The pain in my hand–it was pulling me as though a hook were fixed into it.  I could feel it tugging, begging me to wake.

“N-Nevermind…that now!” I struggled to rasp.  The pain did not become greater…but the words were harder to pull together.  I felt myself fighting to keep focus.

“Ey…is she talking?”  Graz.

“Shh!”

“She’s a therian right?  Why isn’t she–?”

“I said shut up!” Elmiryn snapped.

I swallowed, and this simultaneously made me feel like throwing up.  The pain pressed in more as I tried to remain sitting up long enough to stare into Her eyes.  She stopped mere inches away, and her breath was hot against my face.  “Wh-Why are you…keep…keeping me–US–from…healing?” I gasped.

My twin licked her chops, and her tail stilled.  She let out a great exhale.  “That’s the thing…I’m not.”

“Nyx…” I could feel Elmiryn’s hand at my back.  The heavy chains of physical existence grew tighter about me, and I felt my form become fuzzy in my agony.  “Hey…Nyx?”

I stared at Her as I vainly tried to cradle my hand to my chest in an effort to stop the pain.  “You….You aren’t trying to stop me?”

The creature’s lip curled in an uncharacteristically sapien show of emotion, as her ears fell flat against her head.  “Why in the nine hells would I want to do that?”

I swallowed again, instinctively this time.  I felt myself fade, then return, and I swooned when this happened.  It wasn’t fun shifting back and forth between the real world and…wherever this was.  “You…h-have an…idea?  Of how to fix this?  Doesn’t this drive you insane?” I gasped out.

“Idea? What idea?  Nyx?”  Elmiryn–she was pulling me into her arms.

I hissed and literally fought from being pulled back into complete consciousness.

My Twin placed a paw on my arm.  This anchored me, and I looked at her with hooded eyes.  She was smiling a little, I could tell.  “Remember what happened before, when something put my eye in your head?” She purred.

My eyes narrowed.  “Yes…”

“I think I know how to control it…but you have to let me through.”

I jerked back.  “Why should I!?”

“Because you rejected the ability to regenerate, and now it’s come entirely in my realm of…’existence’.”

“I didn’t reject anything!”

“…Are you sure?”

“I…”

“Nyx!” Elmiryn, calling to me.

I gripped my head in my hand and turned my face away.  “…I couldn’t have done that…I don’t have that choice…”

My Twin let out a sharp scream that made me cringe away from her.  “Then what do you call what happened between us!?”

NYX!

My eyes widened, but it felt as though I had just opened them.  Suddenly the black, ghost-like world was gone–SHE was gone.  I was once again caught under the full weight of life, the pain that was my immediate reality, now my master.  I screamed and held up my hand, tears leaking from my eyes as I writhed in Elmiryn’s arms.  The woman was knelt on the ground, with her arms around my upper back in an uncomfortable embrace that likely came about from urgency and confusion.

When I started to really thrash and howl, however, the woman lowered me closer to the ground and took to caressing my hair.  “Come on, Nyx.  Relax.  Relax.  It’ll happen.  Watch.  Your hand will heal and the pain will be gone…”

But it wouldn’t.  I stared at my hand, and the disgusting, gut-pulling sight was enough to send me into another fit of wails, never mind the terrible pain.  The Moretti brothers were still there, as I distantly noted by the way they stared in silent awe at the display before them.  My eyes turned to Elmiryn, whose stony face failed to meet the fear in her eyes.  My gaze shifted to the sky and how blue it was.

Then I felt her pacing along the unseen line, panting, and I knew what to do.

I closed my eyes and relaxed my hand.  I fought through the pain to bring all focus to its existence.  I wanted Her to have a clear path to enter from…but not to anything else.  She hesitated a moment, as though she didn’t trust this sudden surrender, then she sprinted forward, and I felt my arm shiver.

I was brought from one agony to another.  I felt the muscles of my forearm pull, felt the bones twist, felt the cartilage shift, and my skin tickle as fur grew thick over the surface.  It lasted less than a minute, as it wasn’t a full transformation, but it felt like ages still.

My eyes opened–I hadn’t even realized I had closed them.  I sat up, and Elmiryn pulled away a little to give me room to do so.  I turned and looked at my hand.  It flexed and raised itself, uncertain at first, before it turned open-palmed.  My face turned somber.

I couldn’t feel it–after all, it wasn’t mine anymore–but at least…I knew that my arm, my sapien arm, would come back to me, healed.  But when would I get my arm back?

Elmiryn let out a sigh, and smiled at me.  “That…was really weird, Nyx.”

I looked at her, my eyebrow quirking upward at this banal remark.  “It’s Her arm.  Not mine.”  At this, She let her arm rest in my lap…already, I could see the potential for this to get confusing.

“Why didn’t you heal?”

“…She says it’s because it’s Hers now.  That ability.”

“When the hell did that happen?”

I shrugged, feeling exhausted.  “Maybe when my senses dulled to that of a humans? …Or I don’t know.  Is this what humans sense?”  I gave her a quizzical squint.

Elmiryn frowned at me, though she still had a small grin on her lips.  “Nyx…uh…” She paused to suck at her teeth, then glanced to her left, where the Moretti Brothers had gathered, once again armed in full–Paulo having to borrow his brother Graz’s sword.  The warrior glanced back at me with an exasperated sigh.  “Look, we need to talk about this…but later.”

The woman stood, swinging her blade up.  She smiled.

Much later.”


Back to Chapter 12.3 | Forward to Cold Burns

  1. ‘Where Is My Mind?’ by The Pixies, from the album ‘Surfer Rosa’. 4AD, 1988. []