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Chapter 40.4

SYRIA_________________________

Syria’s lip curled, even as the sweat tickled her nose and eyelids. Elmiryn was fading. She was on the cusp of giving in to unconsciousness. The enchantress wouldn’t let her die, of course. Why would she, when the redhead was the only way out of these accursed borderlands? But Syria could make Elmiryn wish she were dead. She could choke the warrior over and over until she gave in. After that? Then maybe death.

On the other hand, it would serve for the meddlesome pest to see her lover slain before her. Syria felt a jagged smile form on her face at the thought.

As she waited for the warrior to succumb, she could feel Elmiryn’s mental presence flicker, as if she had passed an object that broke Syria’s line of sight. This jarred the enchantress, but just as quick as it had happened, Elmiryn’s spirit settled back into place again. Syria hardly had time to think how strange this was before something changed. A new thing, just sitting on the surface of Elmiryn’s consciousness.

…A thing that resonated with Harmony.

Syria recoiled, her face paling as she broke off all contact with the warrior. She was a being outside of Harmony. She was Izma’s pet. She thought Elmiryn was Meznik’s pet, but how could the warrior bear a trace of the gods? Syria retreated, her rootish feet stumbling over themselves in their haste to put distance between her and the offending essence. Her limbs felt weak and uncontrollable. Her stomach started to heave up her throat. The woman felt the cold sweep of fear over her skin and could think of nothing…

Certainly not the magic spell required to hold Elmiryn in her earthly tomb.

ELMIRYN______________________

A breath–dusty and painful.

She coughed sporadically, trying to clear her airways.

The lightheaded confusion that came with being on the brink of unconsciousness veiled her thoughts and prevented her from making sense of time, of position, of impending danger. Then a single driving thought speared through the mist, and Elmiryn remembered one thing above all else:

“Syria!” she gasped. Her dusty eyelids batted open to see the enchantress in question standing some ways away, a look of horror on her face as she regarded Elmiryn as though she were a fire breathing dragon. The redhead was half-buried and leaning sideways in what appeared to be a large mound of dirt. Elmiryn swooned as she tried to raise herself upright and pull herself free. The spots in her eyes made vision difficult. She growled and shook her head, her expression tightening as she bared her teeth in a feral expression. Her hands tensed like claws as they fought to pull her out.

Syria watched, hands held out before her as though to keep the warrior at bay. “Wh-What…what are you?” she breathed shakily.

“Complicated,” Elmiryn grunted as she finally felt her waist and legs begin to free themselves. The redhead growled again, deeper this time. “Angry!”

“You cannot be of the gods,” Syria said, pained. Her cheeks tightened and her chin crumpled as though she were going to break down crying. Tears shone in her eyes. “You are supposed to be like me!

“Turns out we’re not so alike,” Elmiryn panted as she tucked her legs under her, then rocked to her feet. She nearly lost her balance, her arms wheeling, but she regained it with a huff and picked up her sword, which was sticking out of the dirt nearby. “You wanna know how?” she asked Syria.

The enchantress said nothing as Elmiryn twirled her sword once, then prowled forward, her head ducked slightly and her lips drawn.

“Izma feeds off of your sadness,” the redhead barked. “Meznik feeds off of my anger. We feel different things. Are motivated by different things. Hell, even our abilities are different.”

Elmiryn grinned wolfishly and flicked a hand at her head. As she did so, she took the golden strand that was Artemis’s essence, and she rewove it elsewhere. She could feel time stretch and her limbs feel energized. She was just ten paces away from the enchantress now. “You wanna know what I can do, Syria?”

Elmiryn broke off in a sprint, her boot gouging into the dirt as she launched forward, bringing her sword back for a large swing.

Syria reacted instantly, the whites of her eyes becoming very clear as she threw up both hands and called forth a wall of earth between them. But Elmiryn was faster. With Artemis’s power augmenting her, she could feel the ground rumble from the start of Syria’s spell. In reaction, she instinctively jumped, using an extra burst of air to push her higher over the fast rising wall. The shadows of the Umbralands seemed to grow starker as Elmiryn descended on Syria, a victorious shout ripping from her throat as she brought her sword down between the enchantress’s shoulder and her neck. The dark blood came quickly.

The two fell to the ground as Elmiryn crashed atop the other woman, but the redhead leapt back to her feet and was about to deliver a killing blow to her enemy, when off in the distance, she could see the others. In her quickened mental and physical state, Elmiryn could see immediately that something was off. What stuck out to her?

…Izma was down on the ground in front of Nyx.

Eyes widening, Elmiryn spared Syria one last glance before breaking off in another neck breaking sprint, back toward the others.

She should’ve known. Her anger swelled, not at the demons, but at herself. She couldn’t have expected the astral demons to play by their own rules. But if she could get there in time, that wouldn’t matter.

Elmiryn could break rules too.

Somehow in all the maneuvering she and the others had done, the warrior found herself in a position coming at Izma from behind. Dragging forth the pitfalls of light that hatched the Umbralands, Elmiryn directed them before her–behind Izma’s back.

The blood roared in her ears as she felt her wrath and fear come to a head inside of her, almost like an ocean wave reaching its peak in a high storm. She could even feel the lightning in her muscles, the salt in her veins, the chill of the wind on her skin as she leapt through the makeshift gateway back into the Other Place proper.

Things happened quickly after that.

The woman could feel her first foot hit the ground, could feel it slide along the dirt as her other foot swung forward. Her sword cut downward at an angle, just as Izma started to turn her way–head first, then body. Nyx reacted behind her, mouth dropping, hands coming up as if to shield herself. Quincy rose to her feet, her hand raising up Eate’s Son as if she were going to throw it, even as her expression said she wasn’t entirely sure what to make of what was happening before her.

Then Elmiryn felt her sword blade cut into Izma’s arm, the weapon following its arc until it sliced through the limb and struck the demon’s hip, where it stopped. The redhead saw the arm fall as the demon moved away, shrieking like brass instruments, and Elmiryn felt a vicious satisfaction as she scooped the limb up–it made her hand nerves tingle–and kept her body down to avoid the reactionary swipe Izma sent her way with her remaining good arm. Charging past her, Elmiryn plowed past Nyx and Lethia, sending the youths to the dirt.

It wasn’t that she stopped caring about them. To the contrary, this was to save them.

The warrior didn’t stop running until she passed Quincy, then with a scream she pulled Izma’s arm back and threw it up at Meznik in the air.

It would’ve hit the demon in the face had he not caught it like he expected it.

Here!” Elmiryn bellowed. “Syria is defeated! Izma is hurt! This bullshit is over! Tell me where you come from! Now!”

Meznik slowly lowered Izma’s arm. He stared at Elmiryn with his soulless eyes, and somehow things had fallen quiet. Not even Izma, who had been making such a terrible noise not a second ago, made a sound.

Then Meznik descended to the ground. When he was before her, he looked down at Izma’s arm again, then up at Elmiryn.

You want to know where we come from?

“Yes,” Elmiryn bit out.

Meznik held out Izma’s arm, and confused, the warrior took it.

I’m not telling you.

“What–!?”

But the demon cut her off, his voice a deep pounding drum.

I’m not telling you,
Elmiryn,
Because the conditions were
That you kill
Syria.
You did not.

He tilted his head back and folded his hands behind him.

…But
This was impressive.

The crowd of evil spirits around them began to disperse, hesitant at first…then in a sort of panic. They scurried around them, stirring up the dust. The chaos swallowed the warrior and the demon, but somehow they remained impervious.

You have earned
A reward.
So I will tell you
Something else of value.

Elmiryn’s eyes narrowed. “What is that?”

If the woman didn’t know any better, she would’ve said the demon smiled at her.

My goal.

NYX__________________________

It all happened so quickly. I would’ve reacted–maybe helped Elmiryn in her attack of Izma–but I was rooted with surprise. Even the demon was completely blindsided, as if her unintelligible noises weren’t enough of a clue. When Elmiryn cut off the abomination’s arm, I never would have guessed she would have picked it up, then barreled past Lethia and I. As I fell to the ground and watched her go, a million thoughts went through my head:

What is she thinking?

Why did she push me?

How in the world did she hurt Izma!?

But these were all silenced as the redhead threw Izma’s arm up to Meznik and demanded her victory.

…So that was it.

She was trying to win.

Even as I watched the growing exchange between Elmiryn and Meznik, I could hear a small sound behind me and turned to see Syria limp through the disintegrating gateway Elmiryn had left behind. Her eyes locked onto mine, her breath coming in low ragged gasps, before she turned and looked over at Izma. The demon in question was on one knee, her good hand clutching her stub of an arm in what seemed to be…shame? Disappointment? It was strange how these abomination’s fixed bone-like features could convey so many different emotions.

Wordless, Syria went to Izma and helped her up. Izma let her. The enchantress started to lead the demon away, and as she did so, she looked back–not at me, but at Lethia. I glanced at the girl. I could see her tensed as if ready to leap up and chase after them, her face red with frustration and her eyes shining with tears. But the girl didn’t move. What would she do, anyway? She was like me, too weak.

I returned my gaze and watched, morbidly fascinated by what the evil pair would do next. But Syria and Izma took only another step before they shimmered and vanished. Just like that…

It was all over.

All this time, I could hear Elmiryn and Meznik speaking behind us. Syria and Izma’s presence close by had stolen my attention away, so I didn’t know just what was said. Before I could tune back into the conversation, a great commotion erupted as the evil spirits that had spectated our battle began to flee. Without Izma here to protect and lead them, their confidence vanished, and they stampeded by, pushing and punching and slashing. I hurried to my feet and dragged Lethia with me. I shouted and she screamed as what appeared to be a giant centipede stormed towards us.

I did the only thing I could think of, which was to push the shadows of the devils away from us. As the laws of the universe made the body inseparable from the shadow, the spirits were forced to go around us in their escape, including the horrible centipede. Lethia and I huddled together until the chaos passed.

…It was not a short wait. Some of the spirits paused in their escape to fight each other. But with time, things finally quieted enough that I could make out Quincy in the dust. Pulling a dazed Lethia after me, we hurried toward her.

Hakeem was still unconscious, and somehow, at some point, Quincy had recovered her lightning staff and had used it to create some sort of field of energy around her. This vanished as we neared, and she rose to greet us, though she still refused to move far from Hakeem.

We both spoke at the same time.

“Where is Elmiryn?” we both asked.

When her question sunk in, so did my dread. “You don’t know where she is?”

Quincy shrugged her free hand and pointed at the last place we’d both seen her–speaking to Meznik. “She was there before these damned spirits stampeded!”

I let go of Lethia and tried to see through the lingering dust clouds if I could catch any sign of Elmiryn. I even resorted to calling for her.

“Elmiryn! Elmiryn!

The seconds grew into minutes.

“She’s gone,” Quincy stated flatly behind me.

“She really left?” I breathed, clenching my hands.

“Nyx.” I didn’t turn. The wizard said my name again, sharper. “Nyx.”

“What?” I snapped, finally turning.

Quincy’s face was tense and her eyes cutting. “We have to think of ourselves. The promise to Stanislav to clear the forest of the evil spirits has been fulfilled. Izma has fled. Meznik has fled. The way out of this infernal dimension is close by. We…have…to…move!

Lethia who looked like a ghost beneath the dirt that covered her tear-stained face, nodded her head faintly. “She’s right, Nyx,” she mumbled.

“But–” and my arguments died before I could even make sense of them.

I felt a part of myself die with them.

Elmiryn had made her choice. Her ambition had always been to get closer to Meznik.

There wasn’t much to salvage anyway. Just a pair of broken wizards, a broken enchantress…and my broken heart.


Back to Chapter 40.3 | Forward to Chapter 41.1

Chapter 40.2

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn wondered if she was really breaking rules. Nyx kept warning her about adding to her debt to Harmony, blah blah blah… It hadn’t even been a week and the warnings already felt wearisome. And had the girl not traversed into Elmiryn’s own subconscious? Was that within her domain as a heavenly champion? As far as the woman was concerned, the gods could do with detailing their boundaries a little better.

“Me and rules don’t get along do they, Cat?” Elmiryn panted as she slid down an embankment of shadows. Running with dead weight over such strange terrain was exhausting enough without the woman’s constant ache of addiction dragging her down. How long had it been exactly since she’d last had a drink?

At this rate, I may as well just find a way to inject liquor into my bloodstream. O’course, that’d be deadly. Ha! Gives buzz kill a new meaning, Elmiryn thought sardonically.

At the bottom of the embankment, she could feel a pressure pushing against her–a veil perhaps? The winds were certainly stronger…angry, even. Was this what separated the different dimensions? She wasn’t even sure she was doing this right. She had just picked a direction and ran, all the while trying to visualize an entryway to Nyx’s mind. The threads of the Umbralands pulsed and shivered. She didn’t know if this was them cooperating, or if it was the universe’s way of saying, “Fuck off!”

“Elmiryn!” she heard Syria cry behind her.

The warrior looked up to see the enchantress at the top of the crest, her dark hair whipping with fury. With a raised hand, Syria blasted out the crest beneath her, sending an avalanche of darkness down on their heads. Elmiryn shouted and put up her fae shield, the solid weave of air and dust straining as they deflected the cascade while she sprinted forward with Kali, out of the way.

The pressure around the woman intensified as she stumbled over the shifting shadows. The ground was turning uneven. She grunted as she fought to keep her grip on Kali, and just when she thought she was going to lose her hold–

She made a breakthrough.

Elmiryn crashed onto what appeared to be moonlit soil, but when she looked up, she saw no light–only pitch darkness. Around her were jagged rocks, where in them glowed the twisted forms of those caught between bestial transformation. Elmiryn stared at these, before remembering her charge. The sound of Syria’s pursuit was gone, as was the whipping wind and the pressure.

“Kali!” She reached over to where Kali had fallen and gripped the feline’s arm, her knees scraping as she crawled closer to her.

But the Twin did not open her eyes.

Elmiryn felt breathless. She pressed a hand to her forehead, then glanced around her, then held Kali’s face. She didn’t understand. This was supposed to work. Nyx’s consciousness was supposed to override Kali’s and allow the feline to breathe again…at least, that was what the warrior had hoped would happen.

“Cat!” She shook Kali. “Wake up!”

Then because she didn’t know what else to do, she started breathing into Kali’s mouth and pressing on her chest as the Fiamman medics during her first year of recruitment had taught her. She kept repeating the process until her panic and fury won out.

Kali!” Elmiryn screamed, slapping the twin in the face. “You wake the fuck up, right now!

But even as she struggled to wake the feline, Elmiryn could sense, through the echoes of the space around her, that Nyx was now falling. She looked up and felt the air grow cold, heard Nyx’s frightened confusion like a trembling whimper in her ear.

Elmiryn tried to speak around the growing lump in her throat. She was certain the girl could hear her. “Nyx… Kitten, I’m sorry!” She shook her head and tangled her hands in the mess that was her ponytail. Her voice raised an octave in her stress, and she fought to keep her breathing even. “This was your life! I shouldn’t have gambled with it!”

The woman didn’t hear Nyx’s voice. Rather, she felt her name in the air with every breath she took.

Elmiryn…

The warrior hung her head, one hand on Kali’s shoulder. “Syria stopped Kali’s breathing. I thought, if I reunited your consciousness, you could help her breathe again! I was trying to save the both of you! I just didn’t expect–”

The woman cut off with a sputter as a voice that was not Nyx’s boomed around her.

Elmiryn? Wh-What are you doing in Nyx’s mind??

Elmiryn stood with a start, her mouth hung open. “Lethia!?”

LETHIA________________________

Lethia Artaud could count the number of minds she had read on one hand. In her training with Syria, she had been told that sentient minds were a complicated thing, and even the master enchantress hadn’t done her first full reading until the age of twenty. As such, the most Lethia had been allowed to do were quick scans–the sort of smash and grab procedure she used whenever stealing other people’s memories or abilities. The reason for this was…well…she stole things. It had been involuntary for Lethia. Her power was so great that it cannibalized that of others, snatching and grabbing at information with greedy phantom hands. When it was “clear” Lethia could not control this, Syria stopped allowing for scans, reasoning that perhaps more training was in order. It had shamed the girl to think that she would be behind in her training as an enchantress all because she couldn’t control one of the most basic enchantment techniques.

But like the danger of making eye contact with others, this too turned out to be a lie. Lethia could read minds without stealing something. She’d done it when Izma had manipulated her into playing her game. She could see the heart and soul of those across from her and leave everything she saw right in the mind it belonged to.

So when she held Nyx’s eyes (old habits die hard) she focused her ishin, the essence of her power and a sort of extension of consciousness, and gently pierced the Ailuran’s mindscape. Her progress was tentative and cautious–partly because Nyx’s mind was so complex and fragile, and partly because she could still feel Nyx’s anger towards her. It hurt Lethia’s head, and needless to say, it hurt her heart, but she was doing this to save Nyx’s life. When a person collapsed without explanation and there was a maniacal enchantress out trying to kill people, Lethia thought it was reasonable to guess that dark enchantment was at play.

But before Lethia could find the source of the problem, she came across…

“Elmiryn?” The teenager’s eyes fluttered, and she heard Quincy join at her side. The wizard was being annoyingly distracting, but the enchantress just managed to block her out and asked aloud next, “Wh-What are you doing in Nyx’s mind??”

Lethia!?

Lethia felt her surprise dissipate as she felt Nyx’s desperation press in on her like a giant’s fist. “Elmiryn, gods damn it, are you the reason she can’t breathe right now!?”

Elmiryn’s response was rushed and teeming with emotion: Syria cursed Kali and I thought joining the Twins together would fix that but I fucked it up and–

Lethia slammed her fist into her thigh, her teeth bared with frustration. “I’ll yell at you later, just get out of her head now so I can fix your mess!

The warrior didn’t stay to argue. In a blink she was gone, and Lethia took a breath to calm her professional outrage.

Arrogant! To think she could just mess around with other people’s minds without prior training and not face any consequences! Her fae powers are getting to her head! The enchantress seethed.

Lethia stroked Nyx’s hair, her eyes closing as she sought out that part of the Ailuran’s mind that controlled basic reflexes. “Nyx, you’re going to be okay,” she murmured to the older girl.

As okay as you’ll ever be, Halward help you and your luck! Lethia thought wryly.

…I…can hear you…you know, Nyx replied in her mind, her reddening face screwing up in annoyance.

Lethia blushed just as she reactivated Nyx’s breathing. “S-Sorry.”

It was a painful reminder of why Lethia was still just a journeyman enchantress.

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn tumbled back into the Umbralands as she couldn’t come up with an adequate route straight from Nyx’s mind back to the Real World. She was in a hurry to comply with Lethia’s demand, and she wanted desperately to know if the enchantress was able to save the Ailuran. As simple as she had hoped for their relationship to be, Elmiryn was aware that something more complicated existed between her and the girl, she just didn’t know what. She had wanted to explain this to Nyx after her outburst earlier–to tell her that just because she didn’t think they were an “item” that the Ailuran was still special to her. There was a phrase Elmiryn had heard, but she couldn’t remember if it was from her world or that other one: “I love you but I’m not in love with you,” or…something?

The warrior did a mental face-palm.

Slay me, I’m an idiot.

Of course, nearly losing someone important to one usually resulted in such emotionally convoluted go-arounds as this. It wasn’t as if Elmiryn hadn’t felt such turmoil before. Nearly losing her second-in-command and best friend in the whole world, Saelin, during the Fiamman-Ailuran war had just about punched a cannon’s hole into the redhead’s chest. It was a deep embarrassing secret that the woman wondered, for a very brief time, if she actually loved Saelin, and thus that was the cause of her distress.

But no. It soon became clear that she loved the man as a brother, and with great pains she tried to forget that harrowing second when society’s niggling expectations had nearly got the better of her. It was why she had reacted so strongly to Saelin proposing to her, shortly before her exile from the kingdom. Elmiryn was embarrassed her integrity as a person had nearly been compromised.

Her? …Love a man?

But in the droves of female company she had enjoyed, she had yet to find anyone that truly made her wish to stick around.

Until Nyx.

But did that mean monogamy? Preposterous! After all, didn’t people have their favorite whores to frequent?

Elmiryn paled and stopped as she was trudging her way back up the shadow embankment.

What the fuck is the matter with me? Maybe I need Lethia to shrink my head. This can’t keep up!

The warrior scrabbled up the last stretch of darkness to the top of the crest, the angry winds spurring her forward as if the universe were trying to push her away from the lines she had crossed.

A few steps, and the woman was reminded just why she had been in such a hurry to go the opposite direction not a moment before.

“Your gamble has cost me…” Syria seethed from behind.

Elmiryn drew her sword and whipped around, lashing out with as much fae power as she could to augment her swing. The wind and dust that arced from her blade scythed into the darkness, ineffectual.

The warrior jerked around as she heard Syria’s voice again, closer now. “I have stopped with the games. Now either you take me back…or we both die here!”

Then the shadowy earth exploded beneath the woman’s feet.


Back to Chapter 40.1 | Forward to Break Time

Chapter 39.2

NYX___________________________

This couldn’t go on. We wouldn’t last if Elmiryn and I just pulled our punches against each other. Doing so would drag things out, and that would run us into the ground. We weren’t fresh, like Syria was. The enchantress had a vitality none of us had, because she hadn’t been running around in the wilds on poor sleep and minimal food. When I saw Elle fighting…I knew I was the one who had to grit my teeth and do what had to be done. I had to incapacitate her. So without hesitation, I dislocated my friend’s arm.

I did it out of love, if you can refrain from your eye rolls, but I wasn’t feeling warm and cuddly about it. Just like in our previous battle at Holzoff’s, Syria had to be stopped quickly…before her power overwhelmed us.

As I engaged her once more, trading blows, trying to keep focused and alert in the chance of an opening, a brief thought squeaked by–

If only we could all work together.

But we couldn’t, and it felt…betraying in a way. What was the point in surviving everything we did if in the end we were the cause of our own demise? Our goals were so divergent, our methods selfish and short sighted. The knowledge that we were the only ones holding ourselves back was not a comfort. Instead, it just said this rag tag group of wayward adventurers didn’t want to work together. It hurt my trust.

Lacertli had warned me of such a moment. When my duty to him would have me pitted against my comrades.

It should’ve been harder. Yet once the fight had started, it just felt…natural. Like we were destined to fight, destined to be this way. It saddened me.

Instinct was carrying me a lot of the way. I went at Syria with a small burst of energy, my emotions perhaps fueling my offense more than it should have. I was in the middle of delivering a spinning back kick to Syria’s gut when I thought I saw a blonde blur rushing towards us. When I landed again, my head turned, trying to figure out in my heightened paranoia, whether the person was a threat or not. In the milliseconds in which all of this happened, the possibility that it was Lethia didn’t even strike me.

It didn’t strike me because the teenager hit Syria instead with a long staff. The master enchantress wheeled, a cry tearing from her lips as she fell to her knee, surges of energy coursing once down her body.

I stared at Lethia Artaud in shock, but she didn’t stop to look back at me. She struck Syria again in the face, and when the older woman started to fall back onto the ground, Lethia pointed the staff at her former mistress’s chest and a bolt shot into her.

“She’s my responsibility!” I heard Lethia huff. She spared me a glance before she stepped forward and raised her staff.

That was when a sickle of wind struck Lethia in the back, making her stumble and trip over Syria’s prone body. I snapped my head around to see Quincy some feet away, reaching up to catch her magical boomerang, Eate’s Son. Something of her expression suggested she was feeling faint, but smoldering at the edges was a fury that was unmistakable.

Lethia Artaud!” Quincy shouted, teetering a little as she started to approach us. “Give me what’s mine!”

Lethia hurried to her feet, her hands gripping the staff tightly. I stared at it, then back at Quincy, and finally I made the connection. “You stole her skill, Lethia!?”

I’d witnessed the girl do this a few times in the past–once with Paulo Moretti, and again with the sorcerer Karolek. Both times it was to save someone she cared about. Now she was trying to kill someone.

How can this be what we’ve become?

Instead of responding to me and Quincy, the teenager pinched her lips till they turned white, and I could see the electricity start to surge up and down the lightning staff. My eyes widened and I hurried to put some distance between us. I could see Quincy react in much the same way, except she took a moment to aim and throw Eate’s Son before she turned and fled.

I heard a crack of thunder just as the wind picked it up. My stomach lurched as I recognized what would come next.

The ground beneath seemed to rise with me as my feet lifted into the churning air. I screamed, but the chaos around me devoured my rising panic. Lethia had shot off a bolt of lightning–my first guess that it was aimed at Syria, but who knew where it actually landed in the mayhem–and Quincy had retaliated with another one of her damned twisters. Yet again, I was caught in the crossfire, and as I flipped in the air, I flashed back to the debilitating pain I’d experienced when my body had smashed into the ground in the Lycan forest. What had unmade me last time was that I hadn’t been able to get a grip fast enough to let the shadows catch me. I couldn’t do that again, it would mean my death for sure this time.

I quelled my hysteria (and shut out Kali’s) and reached out with my champion sense to find a potential exit point. As I plummeted back to the earth, I find my opening and seized it with desperate urgency.

Whoosh.

I shot up into the Umbralands–the curious mirror effect sending me up into the air at the same speed I came down in. I wheeled my arms vainly hoping to catch onto something to keep myself grounded, but no luck. With a shaky sigh, I resigned myself to yet another attempt–only this time I’d catch the edge of the shadows and swing myself to safety. As I came down, I could see Quincy arguing with Lethia. It seemed the girl’s attempt had failed, and now the wizard was preventing Lethia from carrying out her revenge. Elmiryn was just getting to her feet.

Gods this is getting too complicated, even for us!

With a squint of my eyes, I timed my grab so that I caught onto the edge of the shadows and swung out safely to the Real World, once again on my feet. I couldn’t afford the time it would take to go back and forth between worlds, waiting for the energy of my fall to weaken. By the looks of the things, it was all coming to a bursting point.

I groaned and started to rise to my feet. I spared a brief look over my shoulder to see Elmiryn making her way toward us, wheeling her shoulder with a pained look. I felt a pang of guilt, and let my eyes flicker back toward the others arguing over Syria. So much for my high horse.

Look at us. Hurting each other like this…and for what?

Duty, Kali growled in my head. Vendettas. Weakness.

But who is motivated by which? I wondered as I pushed into a light run for Lethia and Quincy.

Kali sighed. Everyone. All three. But I might have an idea…if you’re willing to risk it.

I frowned as she conveyed her thoughts wordlessly. I could sense that she still preferred foregoing words for important ideas.

I’m not sure. Just…give me a moment, I responded.

I said to Lethia as I neared, “You shouldn’t be involved in this! You could get hurt!”

“I have to do this! Syria is my responsibility,” she bit back, and as if to emphasize this, the teenager wrung the staff in her hands, and I could see the electricity charge up and down its length.

Quincy cursed and reached into her magic pouch, where she pulled out a short sword. The hilt was short and the blade flared at the tip, telling me it was one-handed and meant for slashing. She pointed it at the young enchantress, her other hand bringing up Eate’s Son. I was amazed she managed to recover the boomerang in that chaos.

Quincy yelled at Lethia, “Damn your tricks! Stay away, or I’ll make you stay away!”

“What do you care if I kill Syria or not!?” The girl shot back.

“Elmiryn has to do it, and I’m not just saying that because of our vow. It’s the only way to learn about these creatures!”

“You mean those ‘creatures’ that have successfully pitted us against each other?” I interjected sharply. They turned to stare at me. “Now can we stop this nonsense and work together?”

The looks on their faces said it all.

I glared, my jaw tightening. Syria was beginning to stir on the ground. Elmiryn still hadn’t reached us, and with the three of us in the line of fire, she couldn’t use her strange fae powers for a ranged attack. It was now or never.

“So be it,” I snapped, and while Syria’s guard was still down, I willed the shadows to take her.

 

ELMIRYN_______________________

“Nyx, stop, STOP!” Elmiryn shouted.

By the time Elmiryn reached them, however, she knew it was too late. The last of Syria’s body sunk out of sight, as if the ground was liquid.

The warrior crashed into Nyx’s side, shaking her shoulder. “Bring her back!”

Nyx looked at her coolly. “No,” she said, pulling away.

They locked stares, and Elmiryn felt an unsettling twinge in her gut. When Quincy had reset her arm, the woman had tried to heal the injury as fast as she could, but while she had become quite adept at manipulating basic elements, flesh was a different matter entirely. The process was a little painful, and certainly not quick, forcing her to watch as Lethia, Quincy, and Nyx had it out. In that time Syria was out cold, and the opportunity to kill her felt almost cruel in its untimeliness. Now, that opportunity was gone.

“If I can leave the Umbralands, I can get back,” Elmiryn said tightly.

Nyx narrowed her eyes. “What makes you think your challenge will be any easier there?

The warrior’s face tensed in apprehension. “What did you do?”

When the girl didn’t answer right away, Elmiryn advanced on her, her grip tightening on her sword. “Nyx tell me what you–” then the woman broke off, her eyes widening. “No it’s impossible…”

 

SYRIA__________________________

Syria groaned and rolled onto her side. She felt cold. Sluggish and sore. Her limbs were hesitant to follow her commands and it frustrated her. Slowly she sat up and took stock of her surroundings.

Darkness, with varying shades of light. A mirror of the Real World. The Umbralands, then.

She cursed. Trust these childrens’ divergent goals to intersect at just the most critical moment to set her back. Syria struggled to focus on a solution, struggled to think straight even. It had been years since she had found herself in such a vulnerable mental and emotional state. Lethia was the cause of it, and she clearly knew how to exploit it.

Then the woman looked at the girl through the veil and smiled. “Conviction, even in hatred, dearest! Conviction! Well done!” Syria crowed.

As she rose to her rootish feet, she heard a harsh voice speak behind her, making her jump. “Conviction? Let me show you something of conviction, witch…”

Syria turned but saw no one. This unsettled her. As an enchantress, a master at that, she could sense the thoughts of others before they even came into sight. It was almost second nature to feel the echo of animuses as far as ten or twenty miles out. She was always in tune with the intellectual cluster–that network of souls where thoughts hummed as though they traveled down a plucked string.

But she had heard nothing.

Around her came the subtle sound of footsteps and she slowly curled her hands to fists. Her brow tightened as sweat beaded there. Nyx was not with her. Syria could see the girl on the other side, speaking to Elmiryn. Then a thought occurred to her.

But it…cannot be. She cannot be here if Nyx is–!

A spitting hiss speared at Syria from the side, and the woman just managed to lean back in time to avoid a swipe of claws over her head. The enchantress used her gravity magic to help her backflip away a sizeable distance. When she landed, skidding along the ground, she snapped her head up to confirm who the assailant was.

Kali bared her fangs at the woman, her hands and feet shifted to claws. Her feline features seemed to darken as she bowed her head forward.

“You two cannot exist apart!” Syria spat. “It is against nature! You will die!” The wrongness of this offended her academic intellect. Things just didn’t work this way…

The Twin smirked just as a commotion seemed to kick up with Elmiryn and Nyx in the Real World.

“Can you sense a soul that’s split?” she asked.

Syria didn’t respond, her eyes turning to dangerous slits.

Kali walked backward slowly. “And as I hear it, you don’t read primal minds.” Her form slipped into the densest shadows and out of sight. “And I’m as primal as they come…”

The enchantress pushed into a run, after the Twin, but when she cut with a spinning back kick, she hit nothing. The woman stumbled, and righted herself, her heart hammering. This was something she’d never encountered before. Even now, her intellect railed against her circumstances, but her deeper instincts said she had every cause to be worried. She relied greatly on her ability to sense what a person would do before they even did it. It was why Lethia attacking her was such a danger–the girl was capable of guarding her mind. But here, the woman didn’t even have clear view of her enemy.

Syria ground her teeth. I will not lose to this abomination!

But in the meantime, she felt it necessary to bring in her newest weapon just to even the playing field.

Killing Nyx by proxy had to count for something.

 

ELMIRYN_______________________

Elmiryn grabbed Nyx by the arm and shouted, “You gave her over to Kali!?

Nyx’s face darkened with anger as she grabbed the woman’s wrist, her grip so tight it felt like she were trying to break bone. “Do not grab me like that!”

The redhead ripped her hand away and spat, “And what should I do then? Huh?? You clearly don’t trust me enough to–”

“Trust?” Nyx cut in, baring her teeth. “Elmiryn, what I can trust in you to do is to doggedly pursue your ambitions, self-destructive as they may be!”

“But it’s like you said, we don’t have to fucking fight like this! You can just step aside!”

“You know I can’t! If I did that, then what would be the point of our relationship!?”

What relationship?” Elmiryn snapped without thinking.

Nyx stared at her, those typically warm eyes suddenly going cold. The woman felt a sickening drop of her stomach pull at her chest, leaving a big empty hole. The Ailuran laughed and spread her arms. “You know what? I couldn’t have summed things up better myself.”

Quincy rolled her eyes and sighed. Lethia shook her head and looked away.

Elmiryn swallowed down the reparative binge that fought its way up her throat. Meznik was right. They did talk too much, and now wasn’t the time to repair faults in their dynamic, as much as it hurt them. So the warrior just turned away, fighting to regain the focus she needed to return to the Umbralands. She couldn’t do that looking at Nyx. “We’ll talk about this later.”

“You mean talk about the fact that you’re turning into exactly what you were afraid of?” Nyx scoffed.

Elmiryn turned and glared daggers, but before she could say anything, a muted boom tickled her ears, making her stop. Quincy turned similarly alert, her eyes snapping up to search around them. Lethia stiffened, her eyes going distant as if she were sensing something they were unable to. Nyx seemed aware of the strange noise, but like Elmiryn, didn’t gather the significance.

The girl looked up, then looked at Quincy, then Lethia. “What is it?” she asked.

“Shhh!” The wizard snapped.

Lethia started backing away, her eyes going up.

Elmiryn and Nyx exchanged a nervous glance, then looked up too.

They did so just in time to see a dark figure descending towards them. The warrior put up her fae shield just in time as the person crashed into the ground and sent them flying from a powerful gravitational bomb. Though Elmiryn’s shield absorbed the brunt of the blast, she was still sent sprawling backward onto the ground. Wincing, she raised herself into a crouch and used her powers to remove the dust from her line of vision. Her eyes widened.

The person standing in the crater was Hakeem, and when he turned his head her way, his expression was void of all goodwill.


Back to Chapter 39.1 | Forward to Chapter 39.3

Chapter 34.2

Hey guys. I know this takes you out of the story, but since not enough of you check my other sources for announcements, this is the only way I know to make ALL of you aware of this—when I made Elmiryn and Co. leave the Lycan village, I made a critical error by not stating certain key items leaving with them. These things are needed for the plot, so in this chapter, just be aware that those items will be made available to them, and in my next round of edits, I’ll be sure to change this silly error. You guys are literally getting the rough draft version today, so it’s going to look rather raw. I hope you just remember the circumstances this story is being written under and that, above all, it’s free.

Thanks for your understanding.

–Illise M.

ELMIRYN________________________

“Nyx…uh…Kali…Ny–FUCK! Can you two stop doing that!?”

“We aren’t doing it on purpose, idiot,” Kali–that was definitely Kali–snapped.

“I’m sorry Elle, I–er–we were working on it, but as things stand it’s a little hard to concentrate now.”

“Oh you mean because we’re about to be hurdled into the white void of space at high speeds by an inept cum sucker?”

Nyx had spoken to Elmiryn about her desire to go through with Quincy’s plan, and the warrior had grudgingly agreed. She knew Hakeem must have said something rather persuasive to get the girl to agree to such an idea, but as it stood, it was the most solid plan they had so far. She wasn’t prepared to say this out loud, but Elmiryn wasn’t even sure she could sprout wings and fly.

Heh, if only Saelin could’ve heard me think that. He’d say, “So pigs finally did it, huh?”

Quincy was meditating over Eate’s Son, her magicked boomerang. Elmiryn had yet to actually see it, but apparently the magic little item had the power to create tiny tornadoes. The warrior had seen tornadoes. Out in the Sibesonan heartlands, where the Ailurans and Fiammans fought their war, vast plains of open grassy fields were host to tumultuous weather. Luminous thunder storms would drag in from the west during the summer, and made the air smell like wet dirt and chamomile tea. Powerful cold winds would sweep in from the North during the winter, carrying snowflakes and clouds swollen with moisture that, by the time it fell to the earth, turned to bruising hail. When the warm and cold seasons clashed, it was like the heavens warred with one another, and in that battle the sky would meet the earth in a winding cyclone that tore at the bloody fields without care for human or therian. Everything in a tornado flew. Everything in a tornado was destroyed. A quarter of her men had died to sudden tornadoes interrupting a battle mission.

Elmiryn did not like tornadoes.

Nyx–it was Nyx now–bit her lip and nudged Elmiryn. “Maybe we shouldn’t antagonize the woman controlling the situation.”

The redhead snorted. “Well if we die and I become a ghost, I’ll only wish I had. So why waste the opportunity?”

Quincy brandished her finger at Elmiryn, one eye squinting open. “You know, I have more control over the winds than you think. I could just let a certain inbred get tossed out into the void.”

“Or we could just stop speaking in hypotheticals, and just get on with it,” Hakeem said pointedly.

No one spared any quips to that, and Quincy returned to the meditation of her artifact.

The warrior sighed roughly and rubbed at her face. “Look, I just wanted to ask you Nyx…both of you, I guess, if you still wanted to go through with this.”

“Yes,” the Twins said in unison. Their faces smeared together as one, making her eyes cross.

Elmiryn shook her head with a dubious grin. “Wow, I never thought I’d see the day you’d have to talk me into doing something, and not out of doing something.”

“We haven’t got many options,” Nyx responded, eyeing the boomerang warily.

Kali appeared and gave a shrug, “I don’t see what the issue is. The wizard has lifted you before, hasn’t she, sister?”

“And broke every bone in my body when I came back down…” Nyx muttered with a frown.

“Wow, that’s really comforting.” Elmiryn just stared at the Twins, her hand pulling at the skin of her brow, wrinkling the top. “Before, if it had just been me, I would’ve been all for this. Now? Not so sure!”

“We were supposed to be convincing her, Nyx!” Kali snapped.

“I was just being honest!” Nyx snapped back. The girl gave a sigh of frustration and said to Elmiryn, “Elle, Quincy wouldn’t suggest the idea if she didn’t have all contingencies covered. I’d think our landing would be an important one.”

“About that…” Quincy murmured. Without moving her head, she said, “Bwa-taika, can you use the Aeumani Armor?”

“The ay-yoo-what?” Elmiryin asked.

Hakeem, who stood near the edge of their island, gave a faint shake of his head. “Not as it is, no. It is too much for me in this state. It’d kill me most likely.”

Quincy’s head made the faintest of turns. “But if we changed it somehow…?”

“Yes. Maybe then.”

“We should test it first.”

“Yes, we should.”

“Are you ready? I am done with my preparations.”

“Yes.”

Elmiryn and Nyx/Kali looked back and forth between the couple, bemused looks on their faces.

“What are you wizards talking about?” Elmiryn snapped, annoyed at being left out.

“Aeumani Armor,” Hakeem explained as he approached Quincy, who stood to her feet, reaching for her magic bag. “It is the chainmail shirt that I wore back in Belcliff.”

Understanding passed over the woman’s face. “You mean that black armor. The one that gave you gravity magic.”

Hakeem smirked as his wife pulled the large chainmail shirt from her bag like a hat-trick. “It is a spacial-temporal artifact that allows me to transcend the limits of time in small increments, and to break the limits of space…but yes, among other things, it lets me use gravity magic.”

“But if you can’t use it…” Nyx started.

“As a little human…” Kali continued.

“What do you intend to do?” The other finished, frowning at her twin’s word choice.

“Well,” Hakeem started as he took the chainmail in his hands. “This is chainmail. A thick one through four weave. It’s a heavier version than you might find, but flexible compared to other chainmail grades.”

Elmiryn shrugged. “I prefer one through eight with scales, myself. White steel, of course.”

“That isn’t a bad choice,” the man-boy conceded. He traced an edge of his armor and the metal grew hot where his finger trailed, the links melting from the piece at large to fall to the ground in a neat square. He picked it up and it was roughly the size of his palm. “But this? This is ahkpetra. A rare metal found on Talmor, harvested and refined by the nymphs of the Doros Volcano. It is tougher than steel and much more capable of being infused with higher levels of arcane power.”

The woman raised her eyebrows to show she was impressed and gestured at the small piece of chainmail with her chin, “And how is that going to help us with landing?”

Hakeem’s smirk blossomed into a soft smile—something he seemed more apt to doing now that he was in a child’s body—and stepped over to the edge of their island. He turned his back to the void and looked at them all.

Now his smile was a manic grin. “Like this!”

And with that, the wizard back flipped over the edge into the void. Elmiryn’s mouth dropped. Nyx/Kali gave a start, yelling as they clumsily started forward.

“Hakeem!” Elmiryn heard Nyx yell between their quick shifts.

That was when Hakeem suddenly launched back into view, flipping through the air. When he landed safely before Nyx/Kali, who fumbled in their attempts from tripping over him. However, the wizard’s momentum was more than his adolescent legs could handle, and he slammed down onto the ground face down.  The boy grunted, lifting himself up onto his hands.

Quincy burst out laughing.

…That’s when Elmiryn realized the brunette hadn’t shown any signs of fear or alarm.

“You knew!” She snapped accusingly.

“You cared!” Quincy only giggled back. “That is surprising. But Taika, your landing was not! HA! Ha, ha, ha!” She doubled over, clutching her stomach.

Hakeem glowered at her sullenly as he rose to his feet. “Well the effect works at any rate.” Was the warrior imagining things, or were his chocolatey cheeks turning rosy?

“What effect was that? Some goddamn peek-a-boo trick?” Elmiryn argued, still annoyed that she’d been taken in by a joke.

Quincy wiped at her eyes as she went to hug her husband around the shoulders and wipe the dirt from his cheeks. “Elmiryn, you are fantastically short-sighted,” she sighed. The wizard looked at her, azure eyes wide. “When we come down onto those other islands, and you should have no doubt as to whether or not we will, we will be falling at an incredible rate and force.”

Nyx/Kali crossed their arms and rubbed their chins. Then she turned to Elmiryn with wide eyes. “It’s a brake!”

“A brake?” Elmiryn parroted, before her features cleared and she grinned. “Oh! Ohhh! I get it!”

Hakeem nodded, wincing as he checked his knees for scrapes. “I can’t use the full force of my mage armor. However, I can take a piece of the Aeumani to produce a small gravitational force in the direction I choose. It won’t make our landings completely pleasant,” and here he looked at Nyx/Kali, “But at least nothing will be seriously damaged.”

The redhead nodded. “Okay…that sounds reasonable. I guess.” Her eyes moved to Quincy. “You said you were ready?”

The other woman gave a firm nod. “Yes. If you’d all gather close together. Just give me a moment to put Hakeem’s armor away and we’ll do this.”

Hakeem and the Twins stood at either side of Elmiryn. Nyx took the warrior’s right hand suddenly, her face managing to hold for a moment while the edges of her features flickered like a flame.

“Elle, I’m nervous.”

Elmiryn squeezed her hand. “I’m right here. Whatever happens. You won’t lose me.”

The Ailuran smiled up at her, before her face shifted to Kali’s awkwardly blinking into the warrior’s eyes. With a cough, they released hands.

Quincy, done returning Hakeem’s armor to her bag, retrieved Eate’s Son and stood before them all. “Are we all ready?”

“Yes,” they said simultaneously.

The wizard nodded and stepped in close to Hakeem. “Everyone, I know it will be tempting, but don’t hold on to each other. It’ll just lead to injury and confusion.” She took a breath. “Tuck your limbs and heads in. Don’t tighten up. When we land, you want to be as flexible as possible.”

Quincy took another breath deeper this time.

Then another.

With a hup she threw the boomerang, and it whistled through the air, twirling and twirling. They all watched it go. Elmiryn’s heart beat hard against her chest. Her palms grew sweaty and a weak feeling entered her legs as she felt the beginnings of a strong wind touch her skin.

She smiled with excitement a split second before the tornado appeared and launched them all up and away.

——–

Lethia knew something about dreams and nightmares. More than having just studied them, she experienced them, vividly, every night. Syria had trained her to record her visions upon waking, even the bad ones—especially—the bad ones, when she was a teenager. Lethia couldn’t foretell the future or anything like that. She just gained…insights. On things. On people. At least that was what Syria said. Then again, she never said much else on the matter. Just recorded whatever the girl recorded, soothed her tears if it had been a particularly harrowing nightmare, shared in her delight if it was a good dream. Looking back, it was odd that Syria never told her what any of it really meant. At the time, the teenager had just assumed that her mistress had been trying to teach her to think for herself. Now…now

Now a nightmare stood before the girl, live and breathing, its presence so unwholesome and terrifying that Lethia could not move. Could not speak. These basic functions left her, like fair weather friends, as the being known as Izma approached her…one root-like-foot after another…

Her voice, nauseating and yet enchanting, came riding not in words, but in a mysterious music filled with sorrowful violins.

does the dozy daisy wonder,

where her tomorrow has gone?

do not cry, my daisy.

such a pretty little thing.

the haze and the blunder

of thy mistress poses no more consequence

than a wilting plant in thy flower bed.

all that is required…

…is some simple gardening.

Words returned to Lethia’s tongue like spirits from the after life.

“You want me to kill Syria…” the girl whispered, her eyes streaming still with tears.

Izma smiled again, and the girl managed to close her eyes, though she could not escape the terrible sight.

Among other things…yesss…

ELMIRYN________________________

After the third landing, Elmiryn threw her hands up into the air and screamed. “Again!”

“NEVER again,” Nyx/Kali moaned, still lying on their side  on the grass.

Hakeem was a bit unsteady on his feet, but seemed otherwise fine. Like Elmiryn, Quincy seemed more exhilarated than anything else.

“See?” the wizard said. “That wasn’t so bad!”

Elmiryn went to lean over Nyx, her expression critical despite her grin. “Nyx, you do the whole flippy-floppy thing with your champion powers. Why the hell is this any different?”

“Because I never fall so fast and I always know where I’m going to end up!” Nyx snapped. A shift, and in the next second, Kali’s feline face mirrored her sister’s sickened expression.

The warrior rolled her eyes and held out her hand. After a moment, the Twins took it, rising to their feet.

After a series of wind howling, tornado launches, the group had made it to the island that held the keep. It was the largest of all the split land masses and its forest appeared appropriately thick and ominous.

“We’re okay,” Kali growled, staving off Elmiryn’s attempts at holding the Twins up.

Quincy and Hakeem were already heading toward the forest line. The brunette looked at them over her shoulder. “Not that you haven’t heard this a thousand times before, but can you two hurry it up?”

Elmiryn waved at her. “Yes, you impatient hag, just give us a second.”

The wizard made a rude gesture before stopping to linger at the trees with Hakeem. At least they were staying in sight. The last thing they needed was to be split apart now.

The redhead looked at Nyx and bit her lip. “Hey…both of you…listen to me…”

The Twins turned their faces to her and the warrior sighed. “I’m getting…a feeling…in my gut. This will be serious. I just want you to know that no one else matters. Nyx, and you Kali, are my priority. Everything else is secondary.”

“Everything?” That was Nyx. Her solemn expression seemed to hiding a serious question there, but the warrior was confused as to the nature of it.

“Of course,” she said, declining a comment.

The woman rubbed the Twins’ arm, awkward in that she couldn’t hold Nyx without holding Kali, who was clearly uncomfortable with the intimacy. This frustrated her, and the woman had to occupy her hands by gripping her sword belt. She felt stupid, like how her former military leaders did when they assessed the battle field in their shiny, untested armor.

Elmiryn waited for the Twins to fall in step with her before walking together to the wizards at the forest line.

As one they entered, and everything went black.


Back to Chapter 34.1 | Forward to Break Time

Chapter 33.2

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn’s mind splintered off into a series of expletives and confused wordless intentions as she shoved Hakeem off of her. In her haste, she used more force than necessary, making the Fanaean do a head-over-heels tumble before he came to a stop. He raised his head, face scratched and dusty as she leapt over him.

“Elmiryn, don’t…” but his words were swallowed by the commotion as the warrior came up on Gudahi from behind.

As all of this had happened, the Lycan man, possessed by anger, seemed set on the utter destruction of Nyx. In his eyes, she was no longer “his pet,” that was clear. She was just the beast, the foul curse that had beset his people for weeks before it had taken everything it possibly could from him. He reached down and held Nyx’s head tightly with both hands. The girl didn’t respond, her eyes still rolled up into her head, her body still contorting and cracking as Kali seeped deeper and deeper into her. The ribs were almost touching now. Quincy seemed strangely conflicted about getting involved, her face tight and sweaty. Elmiryn could not see the Lycan’s face as she neared, but she could imagine the hate and pain there. He meant to snap the girl’s neck. Maybe worse.

The warrior grabbed him around the shoulders and threw him back. He stumbled a few yards and snarled at her. Now she stood between him and his prey, and as Elmiryn locked gazes with Gudahi, she had an unpleasant recollection of her fight with Halian.

“This has to end here,” Gudahi growled. He sounded close to shifting, and indeed, his skin looked pale and sweaty. His muscles bulged. The gentle masculine beauty he had once possessed was lost in the hard etches of his fury.

Elmiryn put her hand on her sword hilt. “You’re right, but this isn’t the way, Gudahi!”

“I was wrong!” He shouted. “I was wrong to think that someone could be innocent of this…this…monstrosity! Even if Nyx becomes whole again, the beast will continue to exist inside of her! It will always be there to strike again!

“And I will always be there to deal with it,” Elmiryn shouted back. She drew her sword and held it ready. “Gudahi, we all have things we regret, and a lot of those things turn out to be beyond our control. Show some fucking mercy for Nyx and let her be! She’s going to punish herself enough as it is!”

“NO!!” Gudahi screamed. He thumped his hand over his heart, and spit flew from his mouth as he raged on. “Her darkness killed my brother! It killed my friends!” He pointed over her shoulder. “Look at what’s left of Sanuye! Who will answer for that crime? Who will answer for all the others!? How will my people ever know peace if the evil is not destroyed!?”

“And what about your evil?” Elmiryn countered. “Not too long ago, you spoke of Nyx with such fondness. Now all of a fucking sudden she’s something you have to destroy?” The woman snorted. “I took you as a fickle man, but now I know it isn’t just that. You’re just a conniving bastard who likes to have things his way.” The warrior slid her right foot back and fell into a fighting stance. “Well it’s not going to work like that, Gudahi. I’m warning you right here and now. Stay. Back. Or else.”

Out of her peripheral vision, she saw Hakeem limp toward them but stop some feet away. He must’ve hurt himself at some point in the tussle.

“Don’t do this,” the Fanaean said. From the sound of his voice, Elmiryn wasn’t sure who the wizard was addressing.

Behind her, she heard Quincy’s voice, still distant, still strangely uncertain. “Her chest is beginning to close, Elmiryn.”

Gudahi took a step toward her, and when he did, his hands shifted smoothly to furry sharp claws, his teeth suddenly sharp and too large for his mouth. Sounding that much more fierce, the Lycan growled, “I will stop this, even if I have to go through you.”

Elmiryn only narrowed her eyes.

Behind her, Nyx let out a cry.

The sound seemed to ignite Gudahi, for he howled and charged, claws and teeth bared. Elmiryn’s body, for the first time in what seemed to be ages, fell into that comforting zone of instinct. In her bones, in her muscles, in her blood, she knew without thinking the appropriate course of action.

And so with good timing, great power, and great certainty, Elmiryn chopped off Gudahi’s head.

His body toppled forward, skidding gracelessly to a halt at Elmiryn’s boot tip. The stump of his neck gushed rhythmically with blood, then the flow quickly ebbed and turned into an ooze. The claws reverted to hands. Gudahi’s head had rolled a few feet away, the fangs gone, his slackened features still holding some of that animal fury. The Lycan’s blood turned the dirt almost black. Elmiryn stared down at the remains, her heart hardened. The man had made his choice. There was nothing to be sorry for.

Some didn’t seem to agree.

“What have you done?” Hakeem whispered.

Elmiryn didn’t take her eyes off the corpse. “What I had to. Gudahi wasn’t going to stop until Nyx was dead.”

“We could have stopped him. We could have made him see reason!” Hakeem limped into view, his small dark face contorted between what looked like pain and anger. “Do you have any sense!?”

The woman glared at him. “Do you?” She wiped her sword on the dead Lycan’s clothes, then sheathed it. Turning, she knelt down by Nyx. “This wasn’t about us. Gudahi couldn’t see that. He couldn’t see anything. There was nothing else to do about it.”

The Ailuran was now silent on the ground, her fur receding, her features calm as though she were asleep. Elmiryn could see her ribs slowly shift beneath her skin as a long and red scar down her torso vanished from tip to tip. Paws became hands and feet. Cat ears receded. Fangs vanished. Finally, bit by bit, her face returned to its original form. Nyx, whole and restored, lay naked on the ground.

“Wasn’t there!?” Hakeem snapped over Elmiryn’s shoulder. “Do you realize the repercussions that will come from having two members of the Lycan tribe dead by our hands? They can easily tell that Sanuye and Gudahi were dispatched by weapons not by claws!”

Elmiryn laughed dryly. “Oh wizard, you should’ve seen what I did back at the village. That bridge was burned way before all of this!”

Hakeem looked at her sharply. “What do you mean by that?”

“May I just remind everyone that Nyx and Kali and the beast have now become one?” Quincy interjected as she approached slowly. She was opening up her magic bag.

Elmiryn glanced up at her as she brushed a sweaty lock of hair from Nyx’s forehead. “What of it?”

The brunette reached in and pulled out a long slim staff. Her eyes were hard. “Perhaps Gudahi was right. What if Nyx is still a threat?”

The warrior’s face darkened and she gripped her sword hilt. “Wizard, don’t even think about it.”

“You’re letting your feelings blind you! We have to at least consider the possibility!”

“You lack the same faith I have! Nyx is whole again, and with Kali’s help, they can either destroy the beast, or suppress it long enough to gain control again. We have to give them a chance!”

Just as these last few words left her mouth, Elmiryn heard Nyx’s voice, so small and frail.

“Elle?”

The warrior’s eyes snapped back to the girl’s face just in time to see her fist flying toward it.

LETHIA_________________________

Lethia’s mind felt electric. She could feel her animus pulse and buzz, and the air around her seemed to waver a bit as she took a deep breath.

Slowly, she stood from the table. “Syria, I am not your puppet anymore.”

The older woman stared at her, mouth agape, her eyes wide. Then her lips twitched, and without warning, they spread into smile. Lethia blinked at her, taking a step back. Her mind was sensing danger, and she could feel Syria’s power rolling off of her in increased waves. It was like a pressure that squeezed in all around the teenager, and her breath became labored under the stress of it.

“Not my puppet anymore?” Syria chuckled once, twice.

She threw her head back and laughed madly.

Lethia stared at her, deeply disturbed as she realized the depth of her former mistress’s power. So much energy…what a fool she was to think she was this woman’s equal! Syria was a master of the Unbound Disciplines. In her mind was a treasure trove of arcane knowledge. How could Lethia possibly…

The teenager’s eyes widened.

Wait a minute.

Syria stood from her seat, and the light around her seemed to warp, creating an illusion of compressed space. Her gravity magic could even pull at the light.

“Lethia,” The enchantress said as she lifted an arm, palm out. Her head had bowed forward, her hair blocking off her gaze. “You always did take my intentions the wrong way. How sad.”

Lethia felt a powerful punch in her gut, and she was launched up and back into the stone wall, where she then crumpled to the ground, her body seized in pain. She was breathless, and she could feel a sudden fit of nausea come up. Wildly, the girl realized that Syria hadn’t used the whole of her power. Not even half of it. Was she going to try and beat the girl into submission? …Out of “love?” No. The woman had said she would kill her just a moment ago. So what was the woman doing? Why was she holding back?

“I want you to know, that you were like a daughter to me, Lethia,” The enchantress said over her.

Lethia glared at the woman’s unnatural stumps for feet. “Then you are a sick mother, and I curse the day I met you!”

Ghostly hands lifted the girl up into the air, drawing a gasp from her lips as she found herself spreadeagled midair. Syria didn’t raise her head to look up at the girl. “You don’t mean that…” the enchantress whispered.

Tears rolled down Lethia’s face, hot and plenty. As she strained against the gravitational hold on her, she trained her eyes on Syria’s face, waiting for a moment. She steeled her mind and quieted her heart as best she could as she growled out, “You…are a witch.”

The girl felt the pressure around her increase and she wheezed feeling her chest and lungs compress just enough to make her grimace in pain and want of air. A soulless smile spread across her twitching lips as she tried to keep her vision free of her tears. It was getting harder to talk, and for more reasons than just Syria’s power. “I hated every day with you,” Lethia whispered. “You kept me trapped in your tower. I was your play thing, wasn’t I?”

Syria’s hand tightened into a claw and Lethia croaked as the pressure increased even more, causing one of her lower ribs to crack. It became agony just to try to breathe. Her vision lurched as blood trickled from her nostrils. The teenager could only manage small, miniscule gasps. Either she did this now, or she would die here, a failure.

Through sheer will, Lethia forced her eyes open, and with great effort, she focused on Syria’s face. In barely a breath, she managed to gasp out, “I…hate…you…”

Syria’s face lifted, revealing her tear-streaked face, her eyes wide and hurt and disbelieving. Lethia seized onto her gaze and the world stopped, the room vanishing from around them. Color faded to shades of gray. Then slowly…grudgingly…Syria broke apart into a murmuring cloud of tiny flickering shapes. Phantom voices narrated things to her, and as they neared, Lethia heard more and more of her former mistress’s mind.

She…the time is nigh…will not…but…g…learning under…Lethia can’t mean…all this time…r…HOW DARE…hurting…must stop…a…depravity…begin anew…revolution…YOU…v…am I strong enough to…Izma will surely kill…i…she hates me?…HAVE NO POWER…must save the world…t…I did this all for her…Spider helped me…I am a liar…y…love…CHILD, I CANNOT ALLOW YOU…death…fate…is this the way?…GET…all these years…dwarven secrets…afraid…can’t stop…gra…YOUR…she has to understand…WILL…madness…evil…sacrifices in the name of…vity…OUT…gravity…OF…gravity…MY…gravity…HEAD!!

GRAVITY

Lethia screamed as she pulled the knowledge into her mind—the great and subtle complications of primal magic expanding like a balloon in her mindscape. She could feel her animus throb, and her head felt as though it were splitting into two. So much information…so many years…years? No. Seconds. Syria had cheated time by piercing deep into her own subconscious to train her other powers. Gravitational magic. But Lethia had a unique talent. She didn’t need years of training, or even to delve into her subconscious to gain such skill.

She just needed to make eye contact.

The teenager squeezed her eyes shut, and with a push of gravitational force, she broke free of Syria’s prison to land gracelessly on the floor. A room appeared around them once more, warm and bright and familiar. She wheezed, her nose still dripping with blood so that it stained her lips and chin. She could hear Syria’s labored breathing near her and guessed the woman had suffered a bit of a shock as well.

“You…were always very clever…” Syria gasped out.

Lethia’s eyes rolled before she managed to focus on the older woman some feet away from her. The enchantress was doubled over onto her knees, her face once more hidden behind her hair. “I didn’t know you had the guile to trick my emotions like that. To let you into my mind so easily, as though I were just an apprentice again. You were always so honest and noble. But still…at the foremost you were clever. It’s what I get for underestimating you.” Syria straightened, her feet shuffling as she tried to keep her balance. “But this ends now. Goodbye, Lethia.” The woman raised a hand.

Lethia smiled drunkenly at her.

Syria paused, her hand still in the air. She cocked her head to the side. “Something isn’t right…” she whispered.

They were not in the castle keep. They were once more in their old tower, in the study, where the pair had spent many days pouring over books and going over lessons. Sunlight filtered in through the cased windows, highlighting the dust in the air. The fireplace crackled as a pot of cider bubbled over it. Throughout the tower, Argos’s barking echoed and bounced off the stone walls. The stairs creaked. Claws clacked on wood, then soon, stone.

The girl let out a dark chuckle as she clumsily rose to her feet. “Syria…since your incarceration, there were two words I yearned to say to you.”

Lethia didn’t flinch as Argos flew past her in a blur of white. The enchantress, clearly startled, managed to flick a hand at the dog. Nothing happened. He bowled right into Syria, smashing her into the wall of books behind her.

“…Welcome home.”

The walls wavered. The sunlight faded. Soon the wooden floor beneath them became stone.

They had never left the keep. There had never been any Argos. Only Lethia’s power, which had been disguised as her faithful companion to keep the enchantress distracted long enough to incapacitate her. Hugging her chest with a ginger touch, Lethia shuffled forward, her face pale as she looked down at Syria’s still form on the floor. Just as in the illusion, she had smashed into the wall. Blood trickled from her hairline, and one of her tree-like horns had snapped.

Lethia knew how to kill her quickly. With just a quick squeeze, she could crush Syria’s head in a vice of gravitation force. Or like a bullet, she could punch through the woman’s heart and lungs with precise shots. The teenager raised her hand. It shook. Her chin crumpled and her hand dipped down a fraction. Then she raised it again. Her eyes clouded with tears.

Finally, Lethia let her hand fall to her side.

“I can’t do it…” she whispered.

and that we will have to fix

Lethia turned with a great start, her feet tripping over themselves as she took in the new comer.

A strange creature stood before her, both fantastic and horrific at the same time, and the teenager could feel her courage flee her. The thing looked sentient, but like no being the girl had ever heard of or laid eyes on. It had no skin, for the creature’s teeth, jagged and misshapen in a curling rictus grin, was as one with the rest of its face. Some flesh did seem to be a part of it, however, as Lethia noted with a growing sense of illness, the muscle and sinew about its neck. Though it had two eye sockets, one was void of anything, while the other seemed higher up on the forehead and caught behind small spikes, where it bled each time it turned in its place. Sprouting from the creature’s cranium was a small forest of branches, all cascading with vine-like tendrils that eerily resembled those of a willow. It’s skeletal body was draped in a translucent cloak of light, color, and stars.

Lethia fell to her knees. From her exploration of Syria’s mind, she knew this…thing. She knew its name, and its power, and she feared it more than she had feared her mistress.

“You’re…You’re Izma…” Lethia’s voice quavered as it slipped past her trembling lips. “The one…who turned Syria into what…what she is now.”

Impossibly, the thing’s hideous grin widened.

and you are Lethia

the weed of which I warned Syria of

but I wonder wonder wonder…

which witch was truly the weed?


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