Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 13.4

ELMIRYN________________________

She took Nyx into her arms, arms reaching along the broad side of the scultone with her opposite leg holding her in place by a strained stirrup.  When Nyx was in her lap, wrapped in Elmiryn’s embrace, Graziano let out a sharp cluck accompanied with a shake of his long reins, and the scultone turned with a low hiss.  Its pointed tongue slithered out to lap at its nostrils as it started up the slope, great claws slicing into the earth like it were butter.  Graziano turned his head, hazelnut eyes lighting on the round metal thing in Nyx’s hands.

“Eh…lia.  Is that what I think it is?” he asked, eyes going wide.

Nyx, pressed back into Elmiryn’s chest, held the item up, then expanded it by pulling at both ends, the smaller piece clamped by her teeth as her sapien hand tugged.  Her Twin let her claw lay tensed and curled in the girl’s lap.  There was the sound of metal sliding and locking into place.  Elmiryn squinted at it, her vision blossoming something beyond her comprehension. “What is it?”

The girl shifted to look at her, sweaty hair teasing against the woman’s skin.  The warrior frowned softly down at the girl, who seemed paler than usual–like paper.  Her gaze shifted from the girl’s eyes to her lips.  “It’s a collapsible telescope,” she heard Nyx say.

The woman thought of crumbled pretty paper.  Fragile.  She wanted to smooth out those lips and make them right again.

“Hey…stay with me.  It’s alright.” Elmiryn whispered to the girl.

The Ailuran was startled enough by this statement to twist around and blink at her, cheek forced to press against Graziano’s sweat blossomed shirt as he leaned over to fire his pistol into the devil weed’s nest.  The creature shrieked, and out of the corner of her eye, Elmiryn saw the monster’s tentacles lash in pain, but her eyes were on the girl.

“Elle…?”

“What’re you doing with that?” Graziano said, forcing the girl’s attention back onto him.  His handsome face was pulled long in surprise.  He kept whipping his head to look over his shoulder as he pressed laterally against the scultone’s rough neck.

“A batreng took it,” Nyx responded with a shaky sigh, hips shifting as the scultone went around the devil weed’s nest.  Elmiryn gripped the saddle, pulling forward to keep better support as the scultone shifted to a steep angle.  The stirrups strained with her movement.  The girl glanced at her from the corner of her eye, and Elmiryn smiled against her ear.  When Nyx continued, it was with a distracted voice.  “I…I cut into its wing and it fell over the edge.  A devil weed was going to destroy the telescope so I came down to get it.”

“Leaping without thinking?” Elmiryn murmured into the girl’s ear.

“It was their father’s…” Nyx mumbled, shifting against the woman’s body.

Elmiryn put her hand over the girl’s and nuzzled her neck.  She breathed in deeply.  Sweat and tree sap.  “Your bleeding heart is too good for them.”  She whispered.

She heard Nyx swallow, and pulled away–but not before laying a small kiss on the girl’s bared shoulder.

The warrior twisted around to look behind them.  Arduino was bringing up their rear, the dark-skinned wizard in front of him.  Hakeem gazed at her stonily, body shifting with the movements of the scultone.  His hands were tied behind him, Arduino keeping one arm wrapped about his midriff–“To keep him from resetting things again,” he had said.

For the last two days, the five of them had coexisted in an uneasy sort of truce.  Even though the girl had rankled her nerves, Elmiryn had to say that her time with Lethia had been a great deal more pleasant.  Graziano was, perhaps, the most casual and amiable of the Morettis.  Never mind that he had been embroiled in conflict with the two women not long before.  He smiled in his handsome, frivolous way, and made light conversation.  It helped in some ways.  On the other hand, Arduino had been a brooding, cranky individual.  When he spoke it was usual to snap something in his native tongue to his brothers, or to grunt out instructions.  Paulo was a mess.  He seemed dazed and tired most of the time, and the others had to watch him to make certain he didn’t drink all the water, or go wandering off a cliff.  When he slept, it was fitfully, mumbling in his sleep.  At one point he woke them all with his screaming.

Nyx…had been occasionally lost in reverie, staring at her Twin’s arm.  Her eyes had cast about their surroundings in mourning, and there were times when she excused herself, muttering under her breath.  She’d close her eyes and begin to teeter, and Elmiryn would be there to hold her.  At her touch, the girl would come back from whatever cerebral precipice she stood on.  She didn’t read, she hardly ate, and she woke quickly, as though she had never truly been asleep.  Sometimes, her Twin probed around blindly, grabbing at things, or making gestures.  When this happened, Nyx went into a silent rage, eyes tearing up and her face going red as she clawed and bit the Twin to silence.  Elmiryn was glad to see that the beast did not fight back any more than just slapping or grabbing–because neither she or Nyx were certain of the girl’s ability to heal from such wounds.  The animal seemed aware of this, but She also seemed to remember her promise to Elmiryn, to respect her sister’s time in the physical world.

Nyx…of the light…hidden in the shadow.

Elmiryn looked forward again as they arrived at the relief.  Paulo backed away as they came up, the scultone screeching in greeting.  The boy stared at Nyx as though she had turned a funny color.  “Lia, are you crazy? What’d you go jumping like that for!?”

Nyx tossed him the telescope as she slid off the back of the scultone, Elmiryn following her.  “A simple ‘thank you’ would suffice,” she snapped on her way past him.

He blinked after her, mouth open.  Graziano, off the scultone, stomped over and punched the boy hard in the shoulder.  “Well go on, damn you!” the man admonished.  “You should be ashamed she even had to save it to begin with!”

Paulo made a feeble attempt to argue, words starting up his throat like chopped bits before he hissed out a sigh.  Elmiryn watched him with arms crossed over her chest and fists clenched.  The boy dragged his feet as he turned and went.  He stopped behind Nyx, who had gone to where she had left her bag sitting near the rock wall, a few yards from the other scultone.  She knelt on the ground, apparently rifling through her bag.

“Ah…”  The boy glanced behind him.  Elmiryn raised an eyebrow, and sucked at her teeth.  Loudly.  Graziano waved for him to go on.  Paulo turned back with shoulders visibly sagged.  “Thank you…for doing that.  You don’t know us, but…this telescope is very important.”

Nyx stood and turned around.  “I didn’t do it because I like you.  Or even for your father.”  She held up her hand.  Elmiryn came forward, spurred by curiosity to see what the girl had in her palm.  Behind, she heard Arduino come up with his scultone.  Graziano spoke to him rapidly in his native tongue, and she could hear them struggle with getting Hakeem down off the beast’s back.

As she neared Paulo and Nyx, she saw that in the girl’s palm was a ring.  “This belonged to my dead brother,” The girl continued.  “I thought about how I’d feel if I were to lose this…it isn’t…it isn’t who he was.  I never tricked myself into thinking this was a piece of him.  I’m not holding him in my palm right now.  …But…But it is a piece of a better time in my life.  I didn’t want to be responsible for you losing a better time in your life.”

Nyx sat down heavily against the wall.   Argos came trotting to sit next to her, panting.  He sat down and placed a heavy paw on her knee.  The Ailuran looked up at Paulo, who had turned his head away. “I’m enough of a blight just existing,” she said quietly.  “I won’t let myself soil life further.”

Elmiryn frowned, eyes on the slim girl with wild dark hair and tawny eyes that gazed up in resignation.  Up, at a boy who was too young and too deep in his own suffering to truly see the depth of her actions.  She was like a performer, crooning to an audience whose backs were turned, and minds elsewhere.  And for what?  What had the girl done?  What had she proved?

“Nyx…you little fool,” the woman thought.

Paulo muttered something, perhaps another thank you, before trudging back to his scultone.  The beast had lifted its head from its sleep, pale eyes blinking as it watched its brothers be given treats by Graziano.  Then it settled back into repose.  Apparently, it wasn’t hungry.

Elmiryn would have liked to have sit with Nyx.  To talk about why her hand still had not come back.  To kiss her brow and sweep her unruly locks back from her face.  To scold her for her brash behavior.  To tease her over the fact that she and Argos had suddenly bonded over the last two days.  The woman wanted to point out, too, that the portrait of her friend had rounded out.  Not a drastic change…but for Elmiryn’s favorite image, it was clear as day, and a pleasant development.

But Nyx’s tawny eyes were still drowning from her sorrow, and her right arm had become the agent of a brutish shadow creature.

Elmiryn would have liked to have sit with Nyx, to discuss these things…

But she had other matters to attend to.

Turning away with face hardened and a downward curl of her lip, the warrior approached Arduino, who had Hakeem pressed against a low rock in an awkward reclining position by the heel of his boot.  He kept a crossbow trained on him, and didn’t turn his head when Elmiryn neared.

The woman admired the wizard’s armor.  It was not complete–his legs had no coverings–but the armor covered his entire upper body.  This told the warrior it was mostly meant as a tool.  The armor had a sleek, even black finish with beveled gold detailing that undulated into complex arrow like designs.  These were just moderate enough to keep Elmiryn from thinking them too gregarious, which would have caused her to scoff the set away as ornamental trash.  The gauntlets were the highlight.  Elmiryn had never seen a pair of gauntlets so well-made, so articulate and accommodating.

“Okay, lia.”  Arduino said.  “Since you’re so keen on it, you can have the honor of taking this calgato’s armor off.”

Elmiryn smirked down at Hakeem, who only stared off into the space above her head.  “This ought to be interesting…”

“Not as much as you’d think.” Graziano said near her.  He came up, holding a short heavy metal chain.  It had whitened in places where moisture bit at the surface, but looked otherwise new.  “Drape this over him.”

Elmiryn took the chain with a raised eyebrow.  “A chain?”

“Chu-so!” Arduino exclaimed softly.  He shook his head, the tip of his crossbow bobbing a little.  “Surely someone like you would know what this is?  What it’s used for?”

“Apparently not?” The woman returned with a shrug.

“It’s cold iron.”

“…You needed iron?  What do you think my sword is made of?  Cheese?”  Elmiryn chortled as she said this, but she knew there was more.  She just liked seeing the bushes Arduino called eyebrows rustle, like they had a cougar waiting to jump out.

Arduino grunted and turned his face away, waving at his younger sibling to continue.  Graziano did so, grinning patiently.  “This iron is special, lia.  It was made from metal taken from a rock that fell from the heavens.  It has a variety of uses, one of which being to unravel magic in physical manifestations.  For instance, most sorcery and–”

“Wizardry.” Elmiryn finished, her smile broadening.  She looked at Hakeem out of the corner of her eye.  The man had not moved, nor had his expression or gaze shifted.  It seemed he had disconnected completely from the situation.  She looked at Graziano.  “So what do I do with it?”

The Moretti gestured with his index finger, tracing a clear line across the wizard’s chest armor. “Just lay it on him, with ends over the shoulders so that it rests on his chest.  Then step back.”

Elmiryn was about to do just this when she paused and looked at Graziano, a dangerous slant to her grin.  “Wait.  Why am I the one doing this again?”

The man laughed unabashedly.  “Because, lia.  Your eyes say you’re too crazy to care, come what may.”  Then he skipped back, wavy hair bobbing as he did so.  He winked at her.  “You’ll recall I said to step back, eh?”

The woman rolled her eyes, but her smile was still in place.  “Yeah.”  She looked at Hakeem and cocked her head to the side.  “I hope you don’t melt or anything.  I have some questions for you.”  Then she tossed the chain across his armor as told, and jumped away.

The sparks made dazzled her.

QUINCY____________________________

Fast boots that echoed through lonely streets.  Homeless eyes cut like knives in the creeping haunts of salvaged garbage and soiled cloth nests, where mumbles for food or drink chased the hem of her cloak.  Stupid air that stung and starved, with shadows cast on her like heavy blankets–stifling and unwanted. Quincy…wasn’t herself.  Knew she wasn’t herself the moment the I’equa Tear turned obsidian.  She was unraveled, unwound, and spurred, losing the self-control she had fought for.  What would Hakeem say?  What would she do, if Hakeem were here?

How odd.  She felt so connected. Horribly, horrifically, terrifyingly in touch, harmonized with all the repugnant impulses that would wield her power like oil to a flame.

Her blade, her precious sword, pulsed in the space that she concealed it–not in something as mundane as a scabbard–but in a place separated and unused by the world and the manner of living that guided and governed.  She felt it call to her.

Morning, morning, morning.

Where were the suns?

The cracks and krakows that came riding on southern gusts were like chisels to her calm.  Stupid Hakeem.  He was the reliable one.  He was the one who stuck to the plan.

“Tai’undu!” The woman cursed, speeding up from a brisk walk to an all-out run.

ELMIRYN________________________

The dark-skinned man let out no sign that he was in discomfort, but Elmiryn was certain the heat from his armor must have been excruciating.  His skin shone with perspiration, and a roll of sweat trailed from his heavy brow, down the side of his broad nose, to where it clung to the edge of his chin.  The armor he wore pulsed a bright white, like it had just been pulled from a blacksmith’s fire, before it dimmed…then vanished.

The armor was gone.

Replacing it was a black doublet, and underneath, chainmail.  The sleeves came down to Hakeem’s wrists, but the man had on no gloves.

Elmiryn smiled, delighted at this change.  She reached forward and stroked the man’s chest, the gesture suggestive.  “You’re still warm,” she said, eyes twinkling.

The man looked at her for the first time.  “Your excitement ends here, I’m afraid.  There’s nothing else to be had from me.”

The warrior’s eyebrows rose high, and she leaned forward close, eyes not leaving his as she patted his sides.  With his magicked armor gone, or deactivated as it were, the real threat was gone.  She came away, hands holding two leather pouches.  She shook one.  It jingled.  She shook the other.  No great sound came, but the bag clearly held something.  The woman set down the bag that she guessed held coins and opened the other.  Her smile pulsed, like a sail that flared up at some great and sudden wind.  Elmiryn looked to Hakeem and pressed her lips together in a playful pout.

“Such a shame.  I wouldn’t have expected this, looking at you.  But I heard somewhere…”  She pulled out a black lacquered pipe, the sides of which had carvings of a dragon on it.  The warrior’s eyes took a predatory gleam.  “…That smoking gets you killed.”

QUINCY____________________________

The cold buildings threw back the echoes of her feet on the pavement like mockery.  She wasn’t even sure where she was going. There wasn’t enough light for her to flash to the rooftops and survey the disturbance at a distance.  All was dark–all was cold–and then–

All was quiet.

Quincy slowed to a halt, feet planted next to each other in the cold ground as she stared forward, ear cocked.  There were no sounds, no explosions, no shouting, no hooting, just nothing.  She was left with nothing.  Nothing.

“Hakeem.”  The name came up her lips, and she thought her tongue a villainous traitor.  She had better fortitude than that.  People thought she had a mask of indifference, thick maybe, still just a mask–but no.  They were wrong.  What she had was Order, Tranquility, peace of mind.  That wasn’t a mask.  She hid nothing.

Nothing.

She’d sometimes dip her spirit into paints of emotions–some violent, some calm–but it was all just to meet her ends.  Sometimes she needed to intimidate or persuade.  Now, she had no use for emotions.  Yet now, she felt like a child that had spilled paint all over herself…only there would be no tutting mother to clean up the mess.  Quincy had to do it herself.  For Hakeem.

Or there would be nothing.

She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply.  She gave a long exhale, then repeated the process.  She did this until she felt her heart slow, felt the perspiration on her skin turn cold.  She said a phrase in her head, an old mantra.

Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…”

Then she started to walk again.  Slower.

In her mind, when the chaos settled and the familiar quiet filled her, Quincy felt the beginnings of a plan form.  The commotion was easy enough to trace–she’d need only to move to the south of the city, reach a high point, and search the horizon for any dust clouds or plumes of smoke–for an explosion of that magnitude was likely to leave a trace for at least another hour.  Next, with relation to her findings, she would find a safe place to wait and watch.  For that was what she did.

Waited, and watched.

ELMIRYN________________________

“You were at the Cannon’s Punch.”  Elmiryn said, wagging the pipe at him.  “You set that snake on me.  What did it do for you?”

“I don’t know what you mean.” Hakeem said, looking up again, over her head.  His tone suggested he was done humoring her with words.

The woman just shook her head and turned to look over her shoulder.  The others stood nearby, watching the exchange.  Arduino still had his crossbow ready to fire.  Graziano had his pistol drawn, but not aimed.  Paulo, sulky and with eyes that had seemed to take a darker shade, glowered from near his resting scultone, one hand on its side.  Nyx had stood, and had her hand held to her chest.  On her ring finger was her brother’s band.

“Nyx,” Elmiryn started.  She looked at Hakeem and gestured with her chin.  “Have you seen this man before?”

“I think I have,” the girl said.  From her voice, Elmiryn knew she was frowning.

The redhead scratched at the cut on her neck, the one Arduino had given her.  It had scabbed over, but it itched.  She sat back on her rear and curled one leg beneath the other, which remained upright and half-bent.  Arms over her knee, the woman gazed at Hakeem with narrowed eyes.  “So you’re the one who stays behind.  You take my things–” Elmiryn jerks her head to the side, where her bag had been placed near their other belongings.  Her sword, in its scabbard, was propped against the wall.  “–And you come riding along after your friend.  Meaning to meet up.  You’re the one who ties the loose ends while she runs off–all flare and style.  You’re her little shadow who does the menial work.  Am I right so far?”

Hakeem said nothing.  He blinked once, slowly.  It was enough for Elmiryn.

He was a splash of ink, a shadow that knew to keep quiet–but shadows don’t move without their light.  His blink was a tell.  This man was the undercurrent in this partnership–the steady flow that anchored the high and bright actions of his female partner.  A quiet woman.  Both were quiet, but their actions spoke louder than either could hope to conceal by words.  Elmiryn laughed.  Covered her mouth with her scarred hand.  She felt the puckered skin against her sensitive lips and felt like she’d found the seam to herself…just as she found the seam to this curious duo.

Elmiryn looked to the others.  “She’s waiting for him.  I bet it was her idea, to tail us.  They were after Lethia, originally, then all of a sudden we show up and she decides–”  She paused, voice trailing away as she looked at Arduino.  She was about to mention her bounty, but common sense choked her silent.  The man was frowning at her.  She didn’t like the light that came into his eyes.    She continued, without losing another beat.  “–To get us involved.  Somehow, through some wizard’s trick, she made it so that Argos would find us.  She must’ve watched us long enough to know we’d get sucked into this nonsense.  Then when the Morettis showed up, she comes banging in.  Actually, she would’ve been there sooner, before they could even show up.”

“When Lethia fell over the edge!” Nyx exclaimed, eyes going bright. “It must’ve been a devil weed that got her, but that woman stopped it.  Only–”

“We didn’t see her.  What I saw was a weak flare of light, like the sun breaking into my eyes, but I didn’t think anything of it.  We should’ve looked over the edge.”  Elmiryn looked back at Hakeem, her eyes low.  “She tossed us into this crap, thinking we’d be a good distraction for the Morettis.  Maybe she hoped we’d kill them.  She didn’t count on us pushing this further.”  The woman smiled.  That wasn’t what she really thought, but it just occurred to her how dangerous it would be if the Morettis found out about her bounty.  She gave a little sigh of satisfaction and looked at Hakeem, who looked her in the eye now.  He was frowning deeply.

Elmiryn reached forward and patted his cheek.  “I love showing manipulators just how much they’re mistaken.”

“What now, then?”  Arduino said, glaring.  “You’ve got your things.  We’ve got Hakeem.  There’s nothing left to it.  He won’t speak to us, and we need him unharmed–at least until this matter is settled with.”

Elmiryn stood, squaring her shoulders.  “This Quincy person.  She’s got to be in control.  That’s how she’s worked all this time.  She won’t just step aside,”  She glared at Arduino. “And you know it.”

He gazed warily back at her.  “And what would you have us do?”

“Well, we don’t need the scultones tromping around, making a mess of things.”  She looked at Hakeem, eyes taking on an edge.  “But I will tell you what we will need…”

QUINCY____________________________

She had seen the dust cloud in the infantile sky, offset from the darker clouds.  She had to climb to the top of a watchman’s tower, up many flights of stairs, to see it.  Now she was at the edge of Belcliff, shadowed by a thick masonry wall with crenelations that housed spitting demons in its stone.  Quincy’s eyes flitted in search of a suitable place to hide and observe.  She spied a ledge on the third story of a trading outpost–still closed up and dark.  She could climb up and–

There was a cough from the shadows.  The woman froze, head lowering only a centimeter.  Snow crunched as someone came near.  Slowly she turned and exhaled.

Quincy stared across at the woman she recognized to be Elmiryn.  The redhead had stepped out from behind a large column, where the dark cast by the pediment of the building had concealed her.  The woman smiled at her with eyes that swirled a cool madness in the twilight.  The wizard swept back her cloak, heavy cloth gripped in her right hand as her left hand slipped deeper into its warm shadow.  Elmiryn came forward, arms swinging, gaze turned downward as she marched in lazy fashion on the paved ground.

“I’m supposed to say something witty here.”  The woman flashed up a long smile with no teeth, strands of fiery hair coming down from her braid.  “Can you fill in the blank?  It took a lot out of me, rushing here to meet you.  I couldn’t think up a line.”  She placed her hands on her lower back and stretched backwards, looking toward the sky. “Wa-ugh! And look at that sky!  A cold mess up there, huh?  When do you think the suns will show?”  Here, she looked at the wizard sidelong, the edge of her mouth curling up.

“You waste words, Elmiryn,” Quincy said.

She began to walk forward, and the redhead mirrored her movement, eyes shifting to show the woman was not as put out as she had said.  They circled each other, slowly, going a full circle before the question came rising up.

“Where is Hakeem?” Quincy asked, pausing in her step.

Elmiryn smirked at her.  “Now who’s wasting words?”

Quincy rushed forward.  There was a ring that held more force than audible volume.  It trembled the ear drums, making them ache, making their bones rattle and blood pulse with a knowing that spoke of something ancient. The world dimmed and darkened.  In the briefest of moments, too little to call a second, she was certain it had even gone pitch black.  But she wasn’t sure anymore.  Had stopped trying to see in all these years.  Her hand burned momentarily, then she felt herself become one with the energy–felt it solidify–felt the handle weigh and press into her waiting hand.  The golden blade seared to its full length, where the edge rested against Elmiryn’s jugular.  A slice was all that was needed.  But even without moving, Quincy could see the small hiss of steam rise from the swords heated contact.  On the other side of the woman’s neck, she saw that there was another cut there.

“This isn’t a game, Elle,” the wizard said, pulling up the words and stating them in the similar cadence and vulnerability she had first heard it.

The note did not strike.  Quincy wasn’t certain if it was because she failed to remind the woman of whom had first said those words, or if the woman was simply unmoved.

“Careful,” Elmiryn breathed, her cerulean eyes widening.  “You’re getting too familiar with a ghost…and that’s bad luck.”

“Is that what you tell your little friend?” Quincy breathed back with a quirked eyebrow.  She pressed her blade to the woman’s flesh, just enough to get the point across.  Blood seeped down the warm toned skin, and more steam curled from the contact, but the woman did not move.  Did not even wince.

Elmiryn, instead, giggled.  She smiled, showing her teeth for the first time.  “You must think you have us all figured out.  Oh sure, I knew something was there, watching.  Even before we met Lethia.  You played it about as subtle as anyone can, flashing around in the light.”  She stepped forward, terribly close, and the blade slid along her skin.  Elmiryn didn’t blink as she leaned down, braid slipping forward to swing at her side like a dead snake.  Quincy felt something poke her side dangerously.  A dagger.  “You want something from us, is that right?”  Elmiryn breathed.  The wizard could feel her words.

Quincy didn’t back away.  She didn’t want to appear alarmed or perturbed.  Neither case was true, but she certainly was confused.  Was Elmiryn truly ill of mind?

…Or did the dark influence here aid her?

The redhead tutted and backed away.  Quincy made no attempt to engage her again. Her last attempt to threaten seemed to garner no results, and she needed the woman alive–for now.

“Wizards…I don’t get you at all.” The warrior said, shaking her head.  “It’s like you’re marching to a beat no one can hear.”

Elmiryn looked at Quincy and put away her dagger, drawing her sword instead.  She swung it once, then held it up with one hand.  “The suns will not rise for at least another couple of minutes.  They will have enough time to let us know they exist before the clouds take them from us.  Can you last until then?  Will this flimsy light, now and later, be enough for you?”   On her lips still lingered a smile, but her expression had become serious, and her eyes seemed to gain in their distant quality.  “Show me you aren’t all about your toys and tricks.  Make this fun for me.”

Quincy unclasped her cloak and let it slip from her shoulders.  It fell away, letting the wind chill her.  She slid one foot forward and held her sword with both hands, head bowed slightly.

Her azure eyes narrowed.

“Have at me then,” she breathed. “And I’ll show you what I can do.”


Back to Chapter 13.3 | Forward to Chapter 14.1

Chapter 13.3

QUINCY____________________________

The jail had a foul smell to it. It was stale sweat, and vomit, and urine.  They were collected together, like water at the lowest of places, into one odor that reminded vaguely of chicken–perhaps rotting and sitting out in the sunlight. The stone floor had stains to it, and the large room was brightly lit. The jails were just even squares quartered off with thick iron bars–some rusting and flaking. There were no walls separating the cells, no privacy afforded those unfortunate enough to wind up there. So as Quincy followed the guard, the attendant following behind her in a sullen trail, she saw the girl at the far corner of the room.

She stopped in her tracks. “What did you people do?” she demanded.

The guard slowed and looked at her. This man was broader in the head than the last gentleman she had the honor of spending time with.  She doubted it was because of a heightened intelligence. His eyes were baggy and there was a bit of green in one of his nostrils, but otherwise he looked fine. Then Quincy saw the claw marks that stemmed out from beneath his sleeve, up the back of his hand.

“What do you mean?” He asked, voice unusually light. She imagined something deeper for someone as tall.

“I mean that thing on Lethia Artaud’s head.”

The guard turned, scratching at the back of his hand. “Oh, that?”

“We put that on her as a precaution,” The attendant said behind Quincy. She turned to see him looking at her with disgruntled eyes. He looked dead on his feet. “She kept removing her blindfold, so we had to put that mask on her.”

Quincy gestured at the girl. “An iron mask. You couldn’t use a cloth bag. You had to use an iron mask.”

The attendant shrugged. “It wasn’t my call miss, nor this guard’s here.”

“Whose was it?”

“The marshal’s.”

The woman pursed her lips. When they came to Lethia’s cell, the girl was curled up in the far left corner, away from the others housed in the jail. Her beautiful blue dress was wrinkled and stained from the filthy ground. Quincy knew it wasn’t by choice that the girl was huddled and still.  The iron mask she was subjected to was heavy, and one that enclosed about her entire head, leaving only little slits for her to breathe, but not to see. The mask sat at the base of her neck, and Quincy imagined it would’ve been far too uncomfortable, even painful, to try and stand up and move whilst wearing such a thing.

The woman gripped the bars. “Lethia Artaud,” she called.

The girl did not answer. Her hands lay still in her lap, where her flared sleeves lay twisted and abandoned.

Quincy knelt down. “Lethia…I want to talk to you about that night. The night that Syria was taken into custody.”

Still no answer. The woman turned to the guard. “Can you please open the cell?”

The guard looked at the attendant, who shrugged. He took the set of keys from his waist and after a moments search, found the one he was looking for. He slid the cell door back and stepped aside as Quincy entered. The door rattled shut behind her. She came near to Lethia’s side, away from her legs and just out of reach–a precautionary habit–and knelt down.

“Lethia. There must be something you recall.  About that night.”

She heard the girl sniffle behind the mask. She shifted and the heavy item clanked against the cell bars. “Leave me ‘lone,” the girl mumbled.

“Your mistress is a good woman, isn’t she?” Quincy said. She shifted to sit on the floor, and leaned her back against the bars. “She helps people, right?”

The girl remained quiet. Quincy looked at her from the corner of her eye. “Doesn’t it bother you that she’ll be killed by the very people she tried to help?”

Lethia let out a strange noise from behind the mask, and she tried to curl into a tight ball–but the action made her head slip from its prop, and it dipped forward to hit the adjacent bar.  The girl cried out and whimpered through sobs as she pushed with both hands to try and lift her head, which was now pulled down at a harrowing angle.  Quincy jumped forward, taking the mask at both sides and pulling it back up.

Her eyes flashed to the guard.  “Take this thing off.  Now.”

“I can’t–” The man began.

“This girl must weigh less than a hundred and fifteen pounds–something this large and heavy on her is nothing short of barbaric.  You saw didn’t you?  She nearly broke her neck.”

The attendant waved at the guard.  “Damn it.  Go on, do it.  The wizard has that flat voice now, but just try dealing with her when she starts to get angry.”  He pointed through the bars, his eyes narrowing.  “But the mask goes back on when you’re done!  I’m telling you, it was the marshal’s order!”

The guard, grumbling, opened the cell.  He clunked forward, big boots sounding offensive in their approach.  Quincy’s eyes were little blades that fixed onto his, and the man glanced at her with licked lips.  After that, his actions were considerably less brusque.  Taking up an odd fat key, he pushed it into a little hole in the back of the mask at the base.  He turned it twice before there was a click.

“Alright,” Quincy said, rising up into a kneel over the girl.  She held the mask at the front and back.  “Go back out and shut the cell door.”  The guard did just that.

The woman struggled briefly, trying to get her bandaged fingers to fit into the newly opened crack of the mask.  “Lethia,” she breathed.  “I’m going to take the mask off.  I suggest you keep civil–or else it goes back on right away.  Neither of us wants that, alright?”

The girl said nothing.

Quincy pried open the mask, letting her other hand gently pull it away.  Lethia shifted to allow the mask to be pulled away completely.  The woman strained holding it with one hand.  She dropped it onto the ground where it fell with a terrible clunk.  Her gaze returned to the girl, and she saw what the mask had hidden.

Lethia’s oval shaped face was slick with sweat.  There were bruises on the cheeks and forehead, accompanied with dozens of little scratches from the corroded metal.  The young enchantress learned quickly that the iron mask was not only meant to humiliate and block sight–but to restrict movement as well.  The girl’s wheat blond hair lacked body, so that her ears protruded from their curtain more than usual.  Her pink lips were pale and thin, and her nose flared, sucking in the foul air as though it were the best she’d had.

The girl’s green eyes squinted.  They shifted, looking about the ground.  Quincy waited to see what the girl would do.  She tensed briefly when the girl turned her gaze toward her.  But Lethia’s eyes stopped at her chin.

“What do you want?” she rasped.

“I want to hear about the night they found the bodies.  It’s important you tell me all that you remember.”

“You can read what happened in the city records.” Lethia’s head rested against the bar, and she closed her eyes.  “M’tired…”

Quincy gripped her shoulder tightly.  “Lethia.”  Her voice dropped low, almost to a growl.  Her fingers started to curl, and she fought to keep from hurting the girl.  Lethia lifted her head again, face screwing up as she stared at Quincy’s hand.

The woman let go, her hand a claw, and pressed it to her chest.  “Lethia…you’re sensitive to mindscapes–shifts in the atmosphere from emotion and thought.  You must feel what has happened here.  The region of Albias is under some dark force.  Ethically, as people of power, you or I cannot let this continue.”

The girl sighed and sat up straighter.  She swiped at her red nose and tucked a lock of blond hair behind her large ruddy ear.  “I know what you’re talking about…As much as I’m upset with you, I can’t ignore this either.”

Quincy’s brow quirked at the girl’s use of “upset” versus “angry” or something more along the lines of “I hate you,” but she said nothing.  The girl was speaking now.

“What else can I tell you?” Lethia said, gripping her head.  Her hands shook and her eyes glazed, rolling left and right.  “I…I remember studying.  In my room on the third floor.  Syria was going to test me on alchemical mixtures, and how they can be implemented into a holistic regimen.  I heard a pounding downstairs, and shouting, even with all the wind howling outside.”  The girl sighed and pressed the heel of her palm to her brow.  “Argos came bounding up the stairs, telling me I should hide because there was a mob who had broken through the gate.  I told him I couldn’t.  I told him I had to be with my mistress.  So I went down to the foyer and saw her just as she came in from the study.  She scolded me and told me to go back upstairs, but I only pretended to.”

Lethia’s chin crumpled and she curled into a tight ball.  “I only wanted to make sure she was okay!” She squeaked.  Fat tears slipped from the corners of her eyes and she hugged her knees with a white-knuckled grip.  When she resumed, her voice was less mousy, but still shook and cracked now and again.  “I hid in the shadows, just as the stairs turn out of view, and watched as Syria tried to reason with the mob through the door’s sliding window.  One man spat in her face when she offered to help them with their pain.

“They just kept going back and forth like that.  The mob accused her of murder and black magic.  Syria told them that it was she herself who had reported to the marshal that these things were happening.  She tried to warn him that something dark had come to Albias.”

“What things?”

Lethia looked at her, blinking.

“You…didn’t read it?”  She frowned.  “For the last six months, Syria had double the number of cases than usual.  People were having nightmares and sleepwalking.  Belcliff and Dolmensk had become possessed.”

NYX____________________________

I laid back against the rocks, one hand over my face.  I was starting to feel dizzy, and my body felt like thin paper–fragile, weak, and on the verge of tearing.  Argos was a comfort, his large body next to mine.  He smelled a bit–musty fur and the stink of the potion Graziano had poured into his wound–but he was warm, and from him radiated a safeness that Paulo failed to generate.

The boy in question was lying, stomach down with eyes closed, on the back of the resting scultone he had ridden.  Argos and I had both come to the quiet little relief in the mountains riding different scultones–Argos having an understandable aggression toward the youngest Moretti, and me simply not wishing to find myself near him.  Our current place of rest blocked the wind and moonlight from us, giving us cover and respite.  The others had left to camp out the trail they thought Hakeem was most likely to travel by.  “He’s in a hurry–so he’ll take the road least traveled,” Arduino said.

When I heard the explosions in the distance, I sat forward, my eyes opening with some effort.  “I hope they’re okay…” I breathed.

Argos whined next to me.  He pushed up on his front paws and turned his great head, nose flaring as his dark eyes fixed on me with his ears turned gently back.  I looked at him, then smiled.  “We’ll get Lethia.  Don’t worry.”  I sat forward to scratch at his head, when I remembered which arm I was trying to use.  I looked down in a glare.  My Twin was tapping the dirt impatiently.

I hissed a sigh and closed my eyes.  “What is it?” I said in my head.

“Nothing,” She snapped.

I clenched my sapien hand and my expression turned ugly.  “Stupid animal, what do you want!?”

“Lots of things!  But for the last two days you’ve only ignored me! Me! Who saved your worthless arm!” She roared.  My feline counterpart limped around in my head.  My arm was in place of her usual paw, but I was too busy in the physical world to utilize it.  There wasn’t much to do there, anyway, except maybe push around at idle thoughts.

“I want something to eat.”  She eventually snapped.  “Ask the boy if he has something.”

“Fine.” I opened my eyes and turned my head.  “Paulo have you got–” but my breath cut short.  My Twin sat up as well, her hand raising with claws at the ready.  Argos looked at the same time I did, and he was up on his feet, a growl grinding from deep down in his throat.

“Paulo!” I said loudly.

The boy opened his eyes in a sleepy wink and glared at me.  “What is it?” he mumbled.

“Get off of the scultone and come towards us, as slow as possible.”

Paulo’s eyes flew open, and he gently raised himself up.  He tried to turn his head to see, but he was afraid to do it outright. “What’s there?” He hissed.

“I…don’t know.”

And I didn’t.

There were two monkey-like creatures with thick black fur, bright blue faces, and large wings on their back.  They blinked at us with round eyes like coal, lips puckered and nostrils flaring.  Long slim tails wrapped around spears of rock as they leaned over to stare down at us.  Argos was bigger than both the creatures combined–but I wasn’t sure if they possessed magic powers, so I was afraid to provoke them.

Paulo slid off the scultone safely, the large draconic beast not even twitching so much as an eyelid.  Its great chest continued to rise and fall steadily, head rested on its scaly forearms.  The teenager looked up as his feet touched the ground, hand reaching for a rapier that wasn’t there–his weapons were near the scultone’s tail, along with the rest of the Morettis’ belongings.  I could see his body tense up as he finally saw what was over him, and his gaze whipped to the side to his things.

Fottuto!” He cursed.

Then the monkeys jumped, screeching and whooping, lips parting to reveal yellow fangs that rivaled even Argos’s.

QUINCY_________________________

“What happened next?”  Quincy asked, trying to keep the girl going.

Lethia went on.  “The mob broke through.  Syria was bound and gagged and myself with her.  They stormed the tower.”

“That’s unlawful entry.  Discovery in this way would’ve–”

“The marshal allowed it.  He said the mob was acting under his command.”

Quincy’s brow tilted.  “Quite a thing to take responsibility for.  Why would he risk being held accountable for something going wrong?”

Lethia shook her head.  “Politics?  The region was worked up into a fury over the nightmares.  Two children even died from sleepwalking outside at night and being killed by monsters.  Who knows why he allowed for all of that…after what Syria had done for him, you’d think–”

“What did she do?”

Lethia looked toward the woman, brow bunching up in anxiety.  Then she looked at the guard and the attendant who listened nearby.  Quincy glanced at them, then patted the girl’s leg.  “You forget them.  Remember, this is to help Albias.”

The youth nodded and swallowed.  She ducked her head some so that her mouth was partially covered by her arms, but Quincy could hear her as she spoke.  “The marshal…he was once part of the Belcliff militia.  Said there was some conflict with the neighboring dwarven colony shortly before his election to the governing seat.  It ended badly.  The dwarves abandoned the colony, taking their gold with them.  It left Belcliff virtually poor.  You see, the dwarves were the ones who backed the coffers, and in exchange, they had Belcliffs protection and the right to mine in the mountains.  That first year as marshal left him with chronic insomnia and…um…some paranoia.  He was seeking Syria’s counsel for nearly two years until six months ago, when this started.  No one knew.”

“Mmm…” Quincy said, frowning.  She gestured for the girl to go on.  “So when the mob searched the tower, that was when they discovered the bodies stored on three slabs in Syria’s private room of sanctuary.  Correct?”

“Yes…but, I didn’t see what they claimed to have found.  They were babbling and wailing, saying that she was sacrificing men.”  Lethia’s fists clenched, and her swollen red eyes squinted.  “Such vile things to say!  I’ve lived there all my life and never left.  I think I would’ve noticed three corpses in my home!”

“But in the trials, you said you’ve never been in that room before.  Is that true?”

Lethia looked at her, green eyes wide.  “Ah.  Well, yes!  It’s true!  I’ve never been in there.  That was Syria’s room for meditation.  I was never allowed there, not even to clean.”

“During the trial, you were released on the basis that you were mentally unfit, and therefor incapable of committing those murders.  Later, they found evidence of your presence in Syria’s sanctuary, where the men were killed.  A strand of your hair, matched to you from one taken from your room.”  Quincy held up her hand.  “How is that?”

The girl straightened, her face going long.  The look in her eyes was more bewilderment than fear, however.  “What are you suggesting?” she breathed.

Quincy shook her head.  “I’m only telling you what the investigators have found.  Your actions in the past month have caused Belcliff to re-evaluate your innocence, leading them to re-analyze the scene, which in turn, led to the discovery of the strand of hair.  You’ll have to be honest with me…have you ever practiced an art of magic outside the realm of enchantment?”

“N-No!  Of course not!”

“Does Syria practice anything outside the realm of enchantment?”

“I’ve never known her to!”

Quincy sighed and stood.  “Then even I’m at a loss.”  She turned to leave, when Lethia grabbed at her ankle.  The woman looked down at her, brows raised high.

“What’s going to happen to me?” Lethia asked.  Her lip trembled and she looked ready to cry again.  Her eyes focused around Quincy’s waist–lower than necessary.  The girl was clearly ashamed on some level.

The woman answered her.  “The jury was quick with their verdict.  You’ll be put to death, along with your mistress.”  Quincy pulled her leg from the girl’s grip, which had turned tight at her last words.  She stepped through the prison door and did not look back as Lethia began to wail.

She was led back to the foyer by the attendant, the guard staying back to continue his night watch.  The young man looked at her as she fetched her cloak from next to the entrance.

“Miss,” he said. “I understand you were just trying to get on the girl’s good side–but we can’t go bending the rules anymore.” Quincy paused to turn and stare at the attendant.  Her hand twitched.  He couldn’t have been much older than Lethia.  Perhaps a few years.  He tugged at his rash-covered ear as he went to fetch his cloak from the chair behind his desk.

“If you want anything else,” he went on to say. “It’ll have to be conducted under the conditions given to you.  If anyone finds out that we took that mask off, the marshal could very well put a bounty out on you.  He’s done it for less than that.”  He stopped next to her, drawing his cloak about him.

“Okay, Miss?” he looked at her.

Quincy looked him up and down.  She thought about the iron mask, the girl crying behind the metal, and the attendant’s impatient sneer.  The woman flipped up her hood and opened the door, a chill of wind rushing to meet her.

“Understood,” she said.

NYX____________________________

The winged monkey creatures descended on the Morettis’ things, and Paulo, yelling, kicked at them.  “They’re batrengs!” He yelled at me.  One of the little monsters hopped, wings fluttering, his rapier in its hands.  He grabbed it by the tail and flung it at the rocky wall.  “The stubborn little cretins steal your things!  Help me scare them off!”

The one that had been flung at the wall was up on its feet in no time, and its blue face had turned a violent purple.  Its fur about its head puffed up, where feathers I hadn’t seen fanned out around its jaw.  It screeched and jumped forward, all fangs and claws.

Argos was quicker than I.  He made a great leap, a sharp bark ripping from his throat as he descended on the attacking batreng.  He let out a cry as he landed–his shoulder was still hurt.  I blinked, looking from Paulo to Argos and back.

“Don’t,” I heard Her say.

I took a step forward, trembling.  My legs started to lock as I saw the batreng beneath Argos claw at his legs.  The dog snarled and took the creature around the head by his mouth, one paw on its chest.  It let out such a horrible sound–like a cross between a chicken and a baby trying to scream but whose throat was being constricted.  Then there was a wet crunch, and for my one step forward, I took two back.

Argos had ripped the batreng’s head off.  Its bloody stump of a neck spurted blood from the heart pumping it out, but it quickly dribbled to a pathetic ooze that colored the floor in a dark crimson.  The limbs twitched, and when the dog let the collapsed head drop from his mouth, I saw where his fangs had sliced through the skin.  With the face turned away from me, it no longer looked like a head–just a dark matted thing of feathers and fur.

The batreng’s companion, seeing its brother dead, shrieked and took to the air by jumping off the rock wall and away from Paulo’s snatching hands.  At first I did not understand why the boy was trying to capture the monster still, but then I saw the round metal object gripped in its dark foot.

Paulo stooped to pick up his rapier, his face screwed up in rage.  “No, stop it!  Stop it!”  He pointed, shouting as I was forced to duck from the batreng’s violent course of flight.  My Twin raised her arm and swiped at it as it flew past, and I saw her strike true, cutting into the creature’s wing and down the back of its ribs.  It screamed in that horrible way, before it crashed down to the ground, tumbling for a few feet before it sailed over the edge of the relief and out of sight.

I stared after it, breathing fast, my heart rebelling in my chest.  Paulo cursed loudly as he shoved past me.  “Conio!  He has my father’s telescope, and you just let it go over the edge!!”  He skidded to a halt at the edge and stared down, his overgrown hair blowing in the cold wind, his body bunched in the back, and his fists clenched.  I jogged to his side, and heard Argos’s claws clicking after me on the rock.  We both looked over.

The batreng had been caught–but not by something good.  Dark vines wrapped around its body.  It was slowly being pulled into a dark hole in the side of the slope, where I knew a devil weed was waiting.

Paulo shook, veins appearing in his neck and arms.  “That telescope was my dead father’s…the devil weed’s acid will destroy it.”  I looked at him.

Don’t,” I heard Her say again.

I didn’t listen.

With a conflicted cry and a face that must’ve said something along the lines of, “What am I doing?”  I jumped.  My heart stopped, and my Twin lashed out with her arm, back toward the edge of the relief in the hopes of catching Us.  But when I twisted around, we were too far–so far that I wondered if I had jumped too hard.  On the way down, I saw that Paulo had turned around, hands at his lips, and my ears were visited by the sound of his whistling.  Listlessly, I realized that the boy was going to come down with his scultone–but it was far too late.  As I hit the slope, Her fist slamming into the dirt in a desperate attempt to stop our descent, I looked up at Argos’s barking form.

I glanced down and saw that the batreng was nearly in the devil weed’s hole.  Gritting my teeth, I shifted my feet to direct my slide towards it.  When feet away, I gave a short hop, and went sailing past the plant monster’s hole–which was bigger than I had thought.  I snagged onto one of its trailing vines, halting my descent with a painful jerk.  My Twin grabbed onto the vine too, but as I made to reach for the struggling batreng, She grabbed my arm.

She screamed at me.  “You idiot, you want us to die for that little bastard’s toy!?”

“It’s not for him,” I shot back.

I leaned forward and bit Her arm hard.  She let go of me, and in my head I heard her hiss in rage.  The feeling this caused brought a great sense of nausea and pain in my skull.  I gave my head a vigorous shake, and with glazed eyes focused on the batreng, already in the shadow of the devil weed’s home.

With scrambling legs and one arm, I pulled myself up, much like a frantic worm since She would not help me at all.  Within a minute I reached the devil weed’s home.  I hauled myself up on the edge, panting and with vision tunneling.  When my eyes focused to the change in light, suddenly my idealistic tenacity was lost in a great wave of terror.

A fat creature resembling an unblossomed flower bud with purplish leaves and a beaked mouth was hugging the batreng close to its body.  The little winged imp almost earned my sympathy, the way it was completely wrapped in the devil weed’s vines.  Fleshy tendrils erupted from the plant monster’s mouth, where they burrowed into the back of the batreng’s head, effectively ceasing its struggles.  But the devil weed saw me, thanks to the hundreds of little eyes surrounding its beak, and it gurgled with vines lashing out.

I yelled as my arm was snared by its terrible grip.  My Twin’s arm fought wildly, slashing at everything that it could.  In all my terror, my eyes lit onto the telescope still gripped in the now-dead batreng’s foot.

With teeth bared, I leaned forward quickly, setting my feet before me to better rock back with.  My hand snatched the telescope from the batreng, but as I pushed to lean back, I found I couldn’t.  To my horror I was pulled closer to the devil weed’s gaping beak, where its vampiric tendrils waited to burrow into my skin.

Then the mountain side trembled, and the devil weed–sensitive to these tremors–lessened its grip on me.  I didn’t realize how much I was fighting it, for as soon as it did so, I practically launched backwards, out of the hole.

I crashed down the side of the mountain, pain lighting through me like a flash fire, as dust and dirt clouded my sight.  Then my body slammed into something warm and fleshy, and when I felt like the world stopped spinning, I dared to open my eyes.

I saw great armored legs anchored by large claws in the dirt.  I stretched a hand out, felt the scales beneath my fingertips.  Shifting, I saw that I had fallen against the side of a scultone–but not Paulo’s.  Weakly, I sat up and craned my neck.  Seated on a leather saddle, both Elmiryn and Graziano looked at me.

Elmiryn smiled a crooked smile.

“Guess I can’t leave you alone for long, can I?” she said.

QUINCY_________________________

All was closed up.  All was quiet.

Quincy walked slow through the streets, her face blank as her phantom legs left shadowed impressions in the dirty snow.  Belcliff had many tall stone buildings.  It was strict, almost unfriendly.  Her azure eyes trailed up to the stone creations that leered down at her.  She thought of the gryphon statue she had leaned against earlier that day, its intense cry sent toward the heavens.  Her mind returned to the girl, Lethia Artaud, wailing in the jail.

The talk had been a waste of time.  The girl knew nothing of relevance–of interest, perhaps–but not relevance.  Added on top of that was the girl’s reputation as a severely absent-minded girl, given to fugue.  Whatever information garnered from her was worth less than salt.  It raised questions in Quincy, however–little toys of curiosity for her mind to mull over as the mystery of the dark influence over Albias was halted in its tracks.

Though the case was closed on both Syria and Lethia (prejudicially perhaps, but regardless,) Quincy wondered at the purpose of the supposed ritual killings, and how they were conducted.  She wondered what it was the marshal was hiding, and why he was content to let the region suffer from a power left unattended.

Without knowing, Quincy had wandered to the Merse’s–the only establishment she had found so far that was still open.  It was a small bar located on the southern part of town.  When Hakeem and Quincy had first taken up the marshal’s offer, Hakeem had gone there briefly to enjoy a drink.

Thoughts of her partner made Quincy’s eyes flicker in search upon stepping through the bar’s double doors, her hands rising to pull back at her hood.

The bar was empty, save for an old hag at the back who looked to be asleep at her table.  Behind the bar was a young man with dark chops and a shadowed jaw.  He wiped at the table, eyes on another pair of customers seated at the table nearest to the bar.

These patrons looked up at Quincy’s entrance, and promptly let out a ruckus.

“Aha!   I knew it was you!”  A large man boomed.  He was wearing a leather studded tunic and black fur vest.  He slammed his meaty hand on the table and stood, tromping towards her with a swaying gait.  At his sides swung small metal ingots of various sorts that were punctured at the top, where they were tied to his slim belt.  On his back was a broad saber, and his smiling mouth gleamed with silver teeth.

“Karolek.” Quincy said, stepping back as the man held out his hand.  He was a sorcerer, one that specialized in controlling metal.  Each sausage-sized finger of his hand had at least two rings on it.

Rather than be offended by her silent refusal to shake, the man only laughed and gestured for her to sit at his table.  “Come, come!  It has been so long since we have last seen each other!”

“Not long enough!” A voice squawked from behind the man.  Karolek turned with a roll of his eyes back at his companion–a thin, white-haired man with a goose neck and a funny squashed head.  He wore navy blue and white cream colored robes, a tassled hat atop his balding head, and thick round glasses.  Little hands danced along the handle of his fat mug–which looked to be almost bigger than his skull.  His scruffy face bunched as he jeered at Quincy.  “I dislike you!  Intensely!”  He snapped.

Quincy reached a hand up to rub at her face.  “Hello, Jetswick.”  Jetswick was an alchemist and a veteran bounty hunter.  The rumor in the adventuring community was that the man’s true age was twenty-nine.  It was said that he had breathed in one too many fumes, and had aged faster than a normal human being because of it.

The woman just thought he was crazy.

She considered turning around and walking right back out, but Karolek pressed insistently at the woman’s back, much to her disdain.  His “suggestive” touch was just short of manhandling.  She was forced to march forward and was thrust against the table, incurring a slew of curses from Jetswick, who had to lift his mug of drink to keep it from spilling.

“Sit with us!” Karolek said, his dark-tan face breaking into a grin as he sat down in his chair.  The seat looked hardly comfortable for him, but he leaned back anyway, his long braided dark hair sweeping back to hang towards the floor.

Quincy stood, frowning at the man.  She could kill him for laying hands on her, and he knew this…but she had also known him for far too long to let it all end over a bit of drunken zealousness.  In a sense, he was like a respected colleague–and that had its privileges.  Lips pursed, the woman pulled out the last free chair and sat down.  “Hakeem might come…so it couldn’t hurt to kill time,” she thought, as she looked between her new company.

“Do you want anything?” Karolek asked.

“No, I’m fine,” she responded.

“Never a drinker,” the man said, tutting.  He turned to the barkeep.  “Another one for me, then!”

“And me!” Jetswick cried.

Karolek gave him a reproachful glare.  “You’ve had too much, you old fool!  And you’re not even done with the mug in front of you!”

“Quiet, blade biter, or my acid flask might jump from my robes and onto your ugly face!”

“How’ve you both been?” Quincy asked, though the question held little interest to her.  She just didn’t feel like seeing the two men bicker.

“Well,” Jetswick drawled, wiping his mouth after a gulp from his mug.  “With devils like you and your mud man, I’m beginning to consider early retirement.”

Quincy ignored the racial dig at Hakeem and looked at Karolek.  “And you?”

The large man shrugged.  “I arrived late, and so, have reasoned to leave as such.  Aside from being beat out by you…again…I have been well.”

“That’s good to hear…”

“You still flashing around like a fairy?” Jetswick asked, leaning forward with one eye squinted.  “All show and no real bite?”

Quincy leaned to the side, to escape the blast of rum that hit her, but otherwise, only fixed the alchemist with a frosty stare in response.

Karolek chuckled.  “You wizards and your toys…you should take magic more seriously.  Devote yourself completely to it.  Your potential as a magic user is obvious to everyone.”

“Wizardry has its merits.” Quincy returned, eyes flickering towards the man.  “I’ve seen magicians and sorcerers alike kill themselves trying recklessly to attune to a magical item.  You can’t just pick them up and use them.  You have to become one with their energy.  …I will admit, however, that it is a faster form of magic to master than, say, temporal magic.”

Karolek leaned back as the barkeep set his drink before him.  “But your shortcuts carry a price.  Every magical item has its trade off.”

Quincy shook her head.  She crossed her arms over her chest and glanced at the old hag across the room.  She still hadn’t moved.  “Finding the right item is the first step.  Moderation and restraint are the next.”

“Buncha thieves is what you are, you wizards,” Jetswick snarled.  “Always raidin’ one a-nother for magicked goodies and spelunking tombs and ancient hideaways and such…” The old man hiccuped.  His eyes widened behind his thick glasses, making him look like a quivering old cockroach.  “Thieves!  Brigands!  Highwaymen! You plunder other disciplines, thinkin’ yer such hot shtuff, but the matter of it, Quincy, is that you’re just an ordinary human, playin’ with an extraordinary tool…”

“He has a point…crazy as he is,” Karolek said.  He took a deep drink from his mug, then rubbed his chin and smirked.  “Some years ago, I recall you using a rod that called forth lightning.”

“Quite unoriginal.” Jetswick barked.

Karolek nodded in agreement.  “Quite.”

Quincy turned away in her chair, nails scraping painfully along the rim of the seat.  Her jaw tensed and she forced her hand onto the table.  “I was young then,” she said.  “I used whatever I could get my hands on.”  She looked at the sorcerer sideways.  “…And I seem to recall you getting paralyzed by that same ‘unoriginal’ rod.”

“Which reminds me…” Karolek chuckled, hand reaching up to wipe at his eyes.  He grinned as Quincy turned to look at him with a bored expression.  “Do you still have that…that…” his shoulders shook as he tried to keep from laughing out loud.  He tried to open his mouth again, but he just threw his head back and howled.  Jetswick cursed as some of his drink spilled from the table rocking.

“What?” Quincy sighed.  She thought she knew what he was going to say.

“The wand!” He eventually managed, between fits of humor.  “The…The one that–” he couldn’t finish, as he was forced to double over.  He slapped at his knee, then pounded the table, causing Jetswick to jump and spill more of his drink.

“Oafish lout!” The alchemist shrilled, his smooshed gray head turning a shade of purple.  He then proceeded to try and slurp the drink from the table.

Quincy closed her eyes and turned away.  She didn’t know why she allowed herself to become engaged in such a loathsome conversation.

“And as a sorcerer, you find life more fulfilling?” She eventually said, when Karolek’s laughter started to die away.

“Of course!” He bellowed, striking his chest in pride.  “Metal bends at my command, and the spirits of forge and blade answer my call.  The power rests in my hands.  Not in some arcane sword or powered stick…”

“I feel no need to stick my head into your proverbial hurricane of a world, Karolek.”

“I think you do.  I think there are days you wish you could marry yourself to the sunlight and be the beacon in the shadow.”

“Don’t get poetic on me, you jingling tart,” Jetswick hiccuped.  He pulled out a bottle and began pouring its contents into his mug.  “I hate it when you start to get grandiose…”

“What’re you sucking on now?Karolek snapped at him, his meaty bald brows pressing together.

“None of your soddin’ business!” The smaller man snapped.

Karolek waved the man away.  “You know what?  I don’t care enough anyway.”  He picked up his mug and drained it.  With a loud aah, he stood and wiped at his mouth.  “Well I’m off then.”  The sorcerer passed Quincy, metal ingots clinking as he went.

He paused near her and leaned down to murmur, “I see it in your eyes, you know.” The woman turned her head a fraction and met Karolek’s dark gaze.  “You can have so much more, Quincy…if you wanted to.”

“What makes you think I want more?” Quincy returned, brow quirking.

The man bellowed out a laugh and walked away shaking his head.

“Feh,” Jetswick said at the sorcerer’s parting.  “What a graceless twit.”

The woman turned to look at him.  “I meant to ask…haven’t you noticed what’s been happening to this region?”

The man shrugged.  “What? You mean the blackness?  People hurtin’ themselves without knowin’ it? The bad attitudes, the nightmares, the illness?”  Jetswick sipped from his mug, brows rising high.  He wiped roughly at his mouth, then sneered.  “Course I have.”

Quincy scowled at him.  “And you’re content to just leave it this way?”

“Miss, I’m a gods damned alchemist.  I don’t deal in the raw energy you lot do.  Your question was better posed to that fat headed baboon that just lumbered out…but you know why he hasn’t done anything as much as I do.”

“He doesn’t care,” Quincy finished, a note of disapproval in her voice.

“Which brings me to ask,” and here, the man leaned forward, both eyes squinting to slits behind his thick glasses.  “Why do you care?”

Quincy took a deep breath, prepared to list all the moral and professional reasons in a way that she had once recited to her teacher and mentor when asked the same thing.  But something caught her ear.  It was a loud explosion–a horrible force of sound that echoed through the streets and through the shabby walls of the little bar.  She stopped, head tilting to catch the sound better.  Even Jetswick paused mid-drink to turn and listen.

“Hmph…” he finally said.  “Seems there’s a commotion going on somewheres.”  He turned and frowned.  “Say, now that I think on it–isn’t Hakeem usually the first to arrive in the city?”

Quincy was up and out of the bar before the alchemist even finished his sentence.


Back to Chapter 13.2 | Forward to Chapter 13.4

Chapter 13.2

ELMIRYN________________________

The world whistled.  She’d heard about these moments in stories–the lulls between excitement, those scenes filled only with ellipses, suggesting the unspoken question…

What the fuck would they do now?

Elmiryn went back and forth in her head–quickly laying out the realities and separating them from her desires.  Her muddled feelings toward Lethia aside, the girl was now key to a question that begged answering.  If Meznik’s power had been booted out of Gamath, where had it gone?  How far? Given what she was told about Syria’s situation, the enchantress of Albias had been charged with black magic long before Elmiryn and Nyx had restored the river guardian’s sanity.  This being said, the only thing left was that Meznik was somehow in more places than one–orchestrating horrors in simultaneity.

But was it Meznik?  The mentioning of a tree by a mentally unstable boy could be utter coincidence, and the fact that Syria had been charged with the same crime as Elmiryn could be completely unrelated as well…

However, coincidences could only go so far, and the warrior felt compelled enough by the evidence to pursue her answers–regardless of the fact that things still remained largely circumstantial.  The woman called “Quincy” had left her with a direction…even an idea of how to travel.  The redhead didn’t think it was a slip.

She was being baited.

Elmiryn looked between the Moretti brothers, her cerulean eyes darting as she traced their handsome features–shiny with perspiration and marred, she found, by an exhaustion she had not noticed before.  The moments drew on.  Argos grumbled behind them as Nyx came to hover somewhere near Elmiryn’s right.  Her breathing was rough and slow, and now and again she thought she heard the girl murmur incomprehensibly.  The Moretti brothers would occasionally break eye contact with her to glance at each other, and now and again they would shift, like they wished to back away, but couldn’t.  Their proximity to one another, shoulder to shoulder in some unconscious attempt to draw strength and security, made it hard for Elmiryn to separate them as individuals.

Finally, the warrior let her sword dip and let out a loud scoff.  “Can you morons separate yourselves a little and take the sticks out of your asses?  You look like you’re posing.”

“We are not!” Paulo snapped, but he and Graz both took steps away from each other with guilty glances. Arduino gave a small eye roll at his brothers reactions.

The woman smirked.  “So now what?”

“I don’t know, lia.”  The eldest narrowed his eyes.  “We have no reason to quarrel with you, ya?  So we can just part ways right now.”

“What? Like before?  Aren’t you even a little angry that the wizard just stole your bounty?”

Arduino sighed through gritted teeth.  He let his rapier drop to his side.  Reluctantly his brothers lowered their weapons as well.  “That woman can travel at the speed of light.” He said, voice low.  “My brothers and I are purists–we do not use magic at all.”  The man sheathed his sword and turned away in disgust.  He waved his hand in a dismissive manner and brushed roughly past his brothers.  “There is no competing with her.”

Paulo and Graz backpedaled, not so keen on turning their backs.  They stared at Elmiryn and Nyx with wary eyes.  Graziano was the only one who put away his weapon.  His younger brother seemed keen on keeping his ready–perhaps rattled at how he had come to lose it before.

Elmiryn frowned.  “Hey.”  When Arduino didn’t stop, she shouldered her sword and let her free hand rest on her hip.  “Hey!”  Still nothing.

With a sigh, she stooped down and scooped up a rock.  Then, without pause, the warrior chucked it at the man’s head.

It connected with a thud.  “Conio!” He shouted.  His hands flew to the back of his head as he doubled over.

Graz drew his pistol, his face screwed up in incredulous anger.  “Lia, you want to be killed, don’t you!?”

“You won’t shoot that pistol.” Elmiryn stared hard at him.  Her smile turned predatory and she began to walk forward.  Nyx grabbed at her arm, but the woman pulled away with a jerk, her eyes not leaving the man’s.

“Elle, stop it!” The Ailuran cried.

“You had plenty of opportunities to shoot any one of us, but you didn’t,” Elmiryn said, ignoring her.  “You pull that stupid pistol out when you think it’ll make a good show.  I’m no expert on firearms, but just looking at it, I can see you hardly use it.  That’s because you’re afraid of that thing.”

Graz blinked at her.  Elmiryn stopped when the barrel was pressed to her chest. “You won’t shoot that pistol,” she said again, lips curling.

HAKEEM_________________________

His horse galloped past the caravans and cloaked travelers, giving them wide space. The first opportunity he had, he would part from the merchant road to one with lighter travel.  He was late–he had taken longer than he had intended, and he knew Quincy would be displeased.

He let out a yell as he urged his horse to go faster. On his back was the large bag he had acquired from the Cannon’s Punch. He’d had to trade horses once, at the expense of a few gold coins–a purely lucky circumstance as he was passing a rancher on the way to Tiesmire to sell his own steeds. The first horse, a strong and beautiful creature, he had acquired through less honorable means.  He was pressed for time, and felt it like a knife at his temple as he counted.

–Tick, tick tick–

He figured the gold he left for the owner would be enough.  Hakeem had some money left over from the Cannon’s Punch–the tavern owner hadn’t been that shrewd in his haggling of the Fiamman’s belongings.

Aside from his change in horses, Hakeem did not pause in his riding.

He broke from the main road, along the smaller trail that he and Quincy had come by when following their lead to Tiesmire.  He kept his eye out for devil weeds.  The moonlight was feeble, and the shadows of the cliffs were long and stark.  Night time, in its contemplative silences, was something he could greatly appreciate.  The flow of persons, their voices over his ears, were lost on the wind and swallowed by the hills and mountains.

Three days without sleep, without food or water.  The morning approached, but he knew there would still be some time before the sky turned rosy.  It was to his good fortune that Belcliff was not lost deep within the Torreth.  As he entered the snowy region, his ears popping at the change in altitude, he saw the looming mountain city on the horizon. Its lights brought warmth to the cold north of the Torreth.

But as he galloped, breath stinging from the cold air–his eyes caught a flash of something great along the  mountain tips, to the side.  Hakeem turned and tried to see if he could catch whatever it was.  A monster perhaps?  He scowled.  But why so close to a settlement?  He turned his eyes forward again.  His gaze fell onto the ring on his finger winking in the moonlight, and his jaw tightened.  Time was drawing to a close.

The trail widened.  Beneath him, his dark thoroughbred snorted, both ears flattened against its head.  Not wanting the horse to fail him, Hakeem eased it to a slower trot.  His path breathed open to the left into a small frosted valley.  To his right, a tall bluff blocked the moonlight.  Hakeem slipped into shadow.

Then the earth came alive, dirt and rock bursting, and Hakeem was thrown off his startled horse.  As he sailed through the air, he closed his eyes and took a breath…

ELMIRYN________________________

“What do you want?” Arduino bit out.  He stepped forward to land one hand on his brother’s shoulder, the other checking to see if his head was bleeding.

Elmiryn looked at him, eyebrow tilting.  “That woman mentioned you guys know of shortcuts to Belcliff.”

The man shook his head.  “You wouldn’t be able to take them.  They aren’t the sort of trails you can just walk.”

“I don’t care.  I have to get there before Lethia and Syria are executed.”

“It’s possible,” Graz began, his expression nervous.  He took a small step back and raised his pistol finger shifting off the trigger.  “You’d need a special steed–”

“Graz…what’re you doin’, eh?” Paulo looked between his brother and Elmiryn, his face pale and sweat-slicked.

“Graziano, we’re done.”  Arduino barked, jerking him to the side by his shirt.  “Keep your mouth shut, lest you drag us all into something we can’t handle!”

Graziano knocked his hand away and shouted at him, spit flying from his mouth.  “Olsemia! Ya, la poletatrio cos nostaron!  Paulo isn’t the only one who’s been affected!  If anyone can be accused of dragging us into something we can’t handle it’d be you!”  Then the man holstered his pistol.  His hazelnut eyes were shiny, and the apple in his throat bobbed as he swallowed and looked to Elmiryn with a furrowed brow.  “Before we became bounty hunters, we worked with monsters.  We killed them, tamed them, even bred some in a small ranch.”

Paulo wiped at his face and muttered something under his breath.  Arduino turned a dark shade, veins popping in his forehead and neck as he bunched like a livid animal.  “Graziano…” he warned.

Graz ignored him and pointed over the hill, where he had appeared from.  “This way, there are three grayback scultones sleeping against the mountain-side.”  He held out his hand.  “If you can promise me answers, lia, then I will–”

That was when Arduino hit him.  He launched his whole body into the strike, his fist just a blur as it connected with his brother’s jaw.  Graziano went down without a sound, but the look of pain on his face said it all.  Paulo was startled, and shouted things in his native language so fast, that Elmiryn couldn’t catch any of it.  He dropped his rapier and tried to grab his oldest brother from behind, but Arduino threw him to the ground.  He turned and kicked at his youngest brother as he scuttled, hair coming out of his tail.  “Idi’ute!” he barked as his foot connected with the back of Paulo’s right leg.  The boy cringed and covered his head.

While he was distracted, Elmiryn stepped forward, punching Arduino in the gut.  She followed up, pulling her fist back for a fast backhand across his cheek.  The man grunted, hand reaching for his face as he was forced to take a step back from the blow.  His hazelnut eyes burned as they fixed on her.  “We are done!  You won’t take my brothers with you on your suicidal mission!” he shouted.

Elmiryn snapped at him, hair loose about her face as her amusement in the scene gave way to annoyance.  It was starting to feel like a bad joke that’d went on too long.  “It’s their choice, not yours.  I don’t have time to go back and forth with you.  Either go along with it or get the fuck out of the way!”

Who are you to demand such things!?

Graziano rose to his feet, his shirt and pants dusty and his hands covered in dirt.  He shoved at Arduino with both hands, his throat a deep instrument turned crimson as he roared with a frustration that belied his charming appearance, “She is the only one who seems to have any idea why it is Paulo has those nightmares! Why he feels so ill!  Why me and you feel so tired and afraid.”  He wiped at his face and glared at his brother.  He spat blood on the ground and pointed at Arduino.  “You’re too thick-headed to admit it, but all this time you’ve been on edge.  And it all started when we went to that damn tower!”

“She’s just spouting nonsense, brother!” Arduino cried, gesturing at Elmiryn.  His expression turned exasperated…perhaps even sad.  Elmiryn felt like the expression didn’t belong on his face.  “It’s this life.  It’s all these magic users dominating everything.  We see them taking so much from us, and it has started to get to the point where all the world seems ruled by their tricks.  People like us cannot keep up with them anymore.”

“I don’t believe that.” Graz shook his head, fists clenching.  “No.  We were doing fine.  Maybe we had to step things up a tad, but otherwise we were doing okay.  Paulo was really getting the hang of it before all of this–”

“But to keep up with the other hunters, we have to spend more gold.  To spend more gold, we have to earn more, and we haven’t.  Admit it, Graziano.  It’s over.”  Arduino’s voice became tired and rough.  He wiped at his eyes and bowed his head.

Elmiryn interjected loudly, “Gentlemen, you can discuss your professional future later.”  She gestured at herself.  “If you want answers, I can offer you some explanation–but the real solutions are at Belcliff.  We have less than a week to stop those two women from being killed.”

“What do they have to do with anything?” Arduino asked.  “Why would risking our lives, save our lives?”

“Maybe not your life, but Paulo’s.”  Nyx spoke now.  She gripped her shifted arm (or the Twin’s arm, rather) but there seemed to be no struggle.  Elmiryn wondered if, in the time she faced with the Morettis, she had come to some sort of truce with the animal within.  “He mentioned dreaming about a tree.” The girl continued.  “Well, Elmiryn and I can tell you that it isn’t something unrelated.  It’s a part of something huge.  Recently, the Medwin’s river guardian had been suffering a delusion of the same sort, believing that a tree was sucking away at the life of her land.” The girl paused, biting her lip as she looked at Elmiryn.  She looked back at Paulo, who was helped to his feet by Graz.  “Paulo…have…have you heard a song?  In your dreams?”

HAKEEM_________________________

The air felt gracious to him.  His eyes fixed to the heavens for a brief second–all that he allowed himself–before he closed his gaze to the inner spaces of his mind.  Collected there were moments branded in sense and number.  A series.  His life a series that ran as far as the hour.  But he didn’t need to go back that far.  He only needed…

Five ticks.

One.

His arms burned.  The chainmail sleeves turned bright, as though the metal had returned from a blacksmith’s flame.  The wind sucked away.

Two.

He fell, continuously–longer than what was possible.  Hakeem made certain to keep his eyes closed.  The ground had vanished.  He slowed, felt the weight of himself no longer pull at his back, but down into his legs as though he were upright.  Then he came to rest as though he were seated on the horse again–and he was.  He shifted, moved his feet from their stirrups and leaned forward onto the horse’s back.

Three.

He pushed up and back, calling on the strength in his arms, in his shoulders, in his torso, and he hopped off the horse.  He landed on the ground in a kneel.  Still he kept his eyes closed.

Four.

The heat on his arms peaked, reaching a point that scalded him.  He flexed his arms and heard the energy that built up unleash in a sharp cry.  He heard metal slide over the chainmail sleeves, felt more weight press on his arms–felt his hands become enveloped in warmth. He felt the metal slide to cover his chest, over his doublet.  He stood, fists clenched.

Five.

Hakeem opened his eyes.  His horse galloped off the trail, braying, fleeing from the newcomers–three strangers riding what appeared to be a breed of scultones.  There were two of the beasts, two riders on one, another riding alone.  They were great reptilian monsters of the draconic family–larger than a full-grown horse, but long and slim at the torso, with gray and mud brown armored skin and broad horned heads.  Their long tails thumped behind them, and they screeched into the cold air, revealing hundreds of jagged teeth and a long purplish tongue.  Dust billowed about them, large debris riddling the trail where the great scultones had landed.  Their eyes glinted at him in flashes of white.

Hakeem raised his fists before him, and they were sheathed in black gauntlets with gold trimmings and studded knuckles.  They were fluted and pierced, articulate enough that the man was able to adjust his fingers and rotate his wrist without problem.  His arms were covered in similar armor, as was his chest.

“You guys could have mentioned he does that,” said a voice, a woman, though they sounded more amused than upset.  He’d heard their voice before.

“He must have reset things,” a man answered her.  He knew that voice too.  It’d been a while.

“He what?

Hakeem’s arms hummed with energy as he slid his left foot back and bowed his knees.  He pulled his left hand back, palm flat and perpendicular with the earth as his fingers curled at the second knuckle.  He took a deep breath.

“Look out!” Said another voice.

Hakeem let out a kai as he struck out in a straight line with his left hand.  The air rippled, dust startling into the air as a scar tore into the earth yards long.

–Tick, tick, tick–

ELMIRYN________________________

“Paulo…have…have you heard a song?  In your dreams?”

Upon hearing the question, Elmiryn’s face tightened and she gave Nyx a warning look.  Had she forgotten the incident before Gamath so quickly?  The girl winced and mouthed with an anxious look, “It’s the only way!”

Paulo paused as he thought.  “Yeah,” he mumbled.  “I don’t remember how it goes, but–”

“Don’t.” Elmiryn said shaking her head.  “Don’t try to remember it.  It’s enough that you recall there was a song, you don’t need more than that.”

“Right…” Nyx said, bowing her head.

“So what is it about all of this?  I don’t understand.” Paulo said, looking between them.  “You say it’ll be for my own good if we save the enchantresses…but aren’t they the ones causing this?”

Elmiryn gave a terse shake of her head.  “Not from our experience.  So far, we’ve seen this sort of power in other places.  Every single time, the same thing was behind it.”

“What ‘thing’?”

The woman smirked and shrugged.  “That…”  She looked at Nyx who gazed back at her with somber eyes.  “We still have yet to learn,” she finished.

Graziano looked at his older brother.  “So, Ard?  Are you still going to object?”

“I still have plenty of reasons to…” The man returned, crossing his arms. “This can ruin us.  If Belcliff’s marshal finds out we’re involved, we’ll be the ones hunted.”

Elmiryn kneaded her brow.  She was becoming tired with all this talk.  “Is it better to turn away in defeat?  You said it yourself.  Your time as bounty hunters is just about over.  If that’s the case, you have nothing to lose,”  She lifted her head and gestured at Paulo. “…Nothing but your brother’s sanity.  Possibly his life.”

Arduino and Graziano looked at each other, lips thin.  Paulo let out a loud “Humph,” that caused all to look his way.  “Don’t I get any say in this!?” he exclaimed, striking his chest with his fist.

“And what do you want to add, Baby Moretti?” Elmiryn chuckled.

The youth glared at her.  “Cosci iolete, lia.  I want to know what that girl did to me!”  He pointed at his head.  “Why me?  Why am I being targeted?  Did you know she burned my eyebrow off!?”

Nyx gave him a hard look.  “So you want vengeance…for your eyebrow.”

Elmiryn bit on her lip to keep from laughing out loud.  Trust in Nyx to make a scene interesting again.

Paulo rubbed at his face and shook his head.  “No, no…”  He sighed and tugged at his overgrown hair.  “I…she’s always in my nightmares…her and this weird tree.  I lose time, and I wake up weaker, and I keep…”  He faltered.  His face screwed up and he grit his teeth.

Arduino touched him lightly on the shoulder.  “Choi…”

“My vision gets fuzzy,” the boy resumed, staring at he ground.  His eyes glazed as he looked down the road, the way Elmiryn and the others had originally been going.  “All save…for a certain direction.  I feel like there’s something in my chest…that…that pulls that way.  If I sit still long enough, it’s like I start to fall asleep, and my whole body tingles, and I can hear that song again–”

“Okay.” Elmiryn said, loudly.  She stepped forward and snapped her fingers in front of Paulo’s eyes.  The boy looked at her like a doll whose head was turned.  She paused and gazed back at him, her eyes fluttering as something occurred to her.  “Is…” She squinted her gaze.  “Is that…how I look like?  When I’m out of it?”

“Sometimes…” Nyx breathed behind her.  Elmiryn looked at her, her throat growing tight.

“So what do you want, Choi?” Graz asked him, hands at his hips and his expression tight.

The boy looked at him.  “I want to go to Belcliff.”

“There.” Elmiryn nodded.  “Even he wants to go.  So you swear to help us?” She said to Graziano.

The man nodded.  “I swear.”

“Okay, but what about Argos?” Nyx said, jerking her head at the dog, who had managed to roll onto his stomach to watch as they talked.

Graziano looked at the dog, who seemed to glower at him through the fur about his eyes.  “That wound on the dog, I can heal it.  The medicine we have for the scultones is potent–meant to seal wounds on armor-like skin.  He’d need just a drop of it to seal his hurt shoulder.  He’ll still limp for a while, though.” Then he added, scratching at his chin. “Actually, I was a tad more concerned about your arm, lia.”  He raised an eyebrow at Nyx.

“It’s her Twin,” Elmiryn said, sighing.  “That arm belongs to Her, so Nyx can’t control it.  The cat inside her does.”

The Moretti brothers looked at her as though she were insane.  She giggled at them.  They were right in suspecting that, perhaps, but not in this case.  This put Elmiryn in a good mood, and so struck away the thoughts of glass eyes and doll heads.

She looked at Nyx.  “It seems things are decided.  Will She be okay?”

“Yes I think so.” The girl sighed.  “But she says it’s unfair to deny her some freedom after she saved my arm.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“Not at all!” The Ailuran looked at Elmiryn, offended.  “But I haven’t got a choice.”  Nyx’s face soured as the Twin raised her arm, smugly flicking her thumb over her flexed claws.  “She says she figured out how to push herself in one way, but not the other.”

Elmiryn crossed her arms. “You must be joking.”

“She tricked me.  I was scared and she took advantage of it.  I’m not even sure if what she was telling me was true, about the regeneration.”

The woman stepped forward, cracking her knuckles.  “Tell her, either she gives your arm back, or I break hers.”  Nyx paled.  This caused the warrior to pause, and she rubbed the back of her neck.  “…You won’t feel that, right?  If I do that?”

“Elle,” The girl took a step back.  “P-Please don’t talk to me about breaking limbs in such a casual tone.  Especially if those limbs happen to be attached to my body.”

“What is it?  Don’t you want your arm back?  I thought you hate–”

Of course I hate it!”  Nyx shrilled.  She gestured at the Twin’s arm with hers, her face screwing up.  “It disgusts me!  Why do you think I’ve avoided looking at it so long!?”  The girl then stomped her foot, chin crumpling.  “Sweet Aelurus, what in the nine hells do you want me to do!? I’m TRYING to force her back, but she’s…stuck.  How can I explain something like that to you–a human?  It’s not like shape shifting is a lever I can just push one way, then back!”

Elmiryn nodded, grabbing Nyx’s shoulder.  “Okay.  Okay. Deep breaths.  I got it, alright?  Is she at least willing to cooperate?  I mean, she can’t see, right?”

“She has a dream-like view of the world.  The most reliable thing she has to trust in right now is her sense of touch–which helps–but I have to guide her.  Unless she wants to get hurt she’ll have to listen to–”  The Twin’s clawed hand swiped to the side fast, slapping Nyx on the cheek.  The girl stuttered, rearing her head back in shock.  Then she grabbed her wrist, livid tears in her eyes as her face turned pink.  “That isn’t funny!  Stop laughing!” she screamed.

Elmiryn had to bite her hand to keep from laughing herself.  It was a losing battle.

Arduino spoke dryly behind her.  “These are they ones you want to follow, Graziano?”

“I don’t know, brother,” Graziano returned.  “After the way you just punched me, maybe my need to piss you off was knocked into the place of my common sense?

There was a smack, like someone striking flesh with an open hand.

“Idi’ute!” Arduino snapped.

HAKEEM_________________________

The scultones jumped to the side, their great claws leaving deep gouges in the ground.  The one on the right was now pressed with its back against the cold face of the bluff, the other with their back to the open field.  The two riders from that beast dismounted, and as they came out from the shadow of the bluff, Hakeem saw that it was the Fiamman from the Cannon’s Punch and Arduino Moretti.

He pushed forward to meet them, saw the woman pull out the iron longsword she had stolen, saw Arduino draw his rapier.  The Fiamman had her sword raised high, hilt pulled back against her cheek as Arduino, on her left, whipped his rapier back, prepared for a broad strike. He did not pause to wonder at how the two had joined in union.

Instead, he counted.

His arms burned again.  Three ticks passed in his head as he gave a great leap forward, then dropped down.

One.

The world turned black, cut away like light blocked by curtains.  He slid along the ground, the high snarl of his armor against the rock and dirt loud in his ears.  Arduino side stepped, forced to adjust his approach–but the Fiamman let out a yell as she jabbed down with her sword.  Then…

Two.

They were gone.  Lost in that second.  Instead, the sound of his slide along the earth was dominated by a dull roar.  He felt the air swirl about him.  He rocked forward with his entire body, pushing against he ground with his elbows, and was up on his feet.  When he turned to look over his shoulder…

Three.

The world faded back into focus.  He was in a different place, in a different time–exactly three seconds back.  He saw himself, his past self, run forward as the Fiamman and Arduino moved to engage him.  Turning, he saw the other scultone, its rider still mounted.  Closer now, he could see that it was Graziano Moretti.

Hakeem said nothing as he brought his left hand back, just as before.  He bended his knees and took a breath, pulling in with his diaphragm.

Where’d he go!?

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the others whirl around.  Startled, they made to meet him.  “Graziano,” Arduino bellowed. “LOOK OUT!”

Hakeem roared, putting more force into his push than before, willing all the power he could into the blast that ripped the earth and sent the bluff cracking down its face.  The energy hummed through his arm and out, generating into a traveling wall of soundless force.  Slabs of rock fell, causing the ground to tremble, and the din that came from the destruction was deafening.  Hakeem held his breath and skipped backward as quickly as he could to avoid the great thick cloud that rose to engulf them all.

When he was free of the confusion, he watched, waiting to see what had become of his would-be attackers.

ELMIRYN________________________

“You swore you’d help us.”  Elmiryn warned, wagging a finger at the men.  “No backing out now.”

“Well let’s get going then.  Will she be okay?”  Arduino added, frowning at Nyx.

“She’ll be fine,” the woman said, grabbing the Twin’s arm.  She turned, and without warning, dipped and bit down on the furry forearm.  Hard.  The arm jerked away from her but she pointed at it, glaring.  “Behave!”

“You just bit Her,” Nyx said, stunned.  “That…” Her nose wrinkled.  “That’s so grotesque!  I didn’t feel it at all!  I mean, of course I wouldn’t, but–but–”

“Yes, it’s weird.” Elmiryn said nodding.  She thumbed at the Moretti brothers who had already begun scaling up the slopes.  “We can scratch our heads about it later.  Let’s go.”

The girl gave a slow nod, then muttered something under her breath again.  The warrior suspected she was speaking to her Twin, but she wasn’t sure.  Looking at her closely now, she saw how the girl twitched now and again, as though she were fighting trembling outright.  Perhaps she wasn’t dealing with it as well as the woman had initially thought.

They followed the Morettis up the skree and rock.  Nyx bickered briefly with Her, mouth moving fast as the inward conversation commenced.  Elmiryn paused to watch this for a moment before the girl proceeded to climb–with the aid of her bestial Twin.

At the top, the Morettis waited.  Graz pointed down the other side, which dropped down what seemed as much as a quarter of a mile.  “There they are.”  He slid down, to a small relief where a rope was coiled, its end fixed with a hook that was snagged onto a rock.  At the base of the rock was a bag that spilled with what looked like dead rabbits.

Elmiryn squinted, craning her neck.  All she saw was rock and more rock.  “Where are they?”

Graziano just smiled at her as he took the rope and slid down.  He gave a whistle.  Suddenly, the ground shifted, dirt unsettling to reveal a large armored beast with white eyes and slits for nostrils.  It reared its massive head and let out a low shriek.  Arduino slid down to the relief, and taking up a rabbit, he tossed it to the creature below.  The scultone snatched the morsel without losing its footing, claws buried deep into the ground.   It growled in what appeared to be content.  The ground at either side of it shifted and two others appeared, shaking away the rock and debris.  Arduino cooed at them, smirking as he tossed them their treats.

“Sweet Aelurus…” Nyx breathed, gripping Elmiryn’s arm.

The woman turned to Paulo.  “How far is Belcliff, exactly?”

“From here?  Almost four days.  But our scultones can halve that, because they aren’t restricted to the trails.”

“But you have a problem, lia,” Arduino called as he fished out two more rabbit corpses.  He quirked an eyebrow up at them.  “Quincy will not allow you to simply walk into Belcliff.  She’ll be there, waiting–it’s typical practice for bounty hunters to hang around.  You’ll be lucky if you’ll even make it to the region’s prison, let alone to where Syria is being held.”

“We can handle her.  We have to.”

Arduino chuckled as he tossed the scultones their treats.  “Ah, but if it were only as simple as facing off with her…”

Nyx gripped Elmiryn tighter.  “What do you mean?”

“Quincy doesn’t work alone.  She has a partner.  A dark-skinned man named Hakeem.  He, also, happens to be a wizard.”

Elmiryn sighed.  “Okay…so where is this guy?  Hakeem?”

“He wasn’t with Quincy.” Paulo said.

“Well, I could see that.”

“And he wasn’t up North,” Graziano added below as he scratched the scultone in the middle beneath its chin, where its soft flesh wobbled in pleasure.

“So…” Elmiryn held up her hand.  Her grin had a slant to it.  “Where the hell is he?”

“He’s likely riding to meet Quincy at Belcliff,” Arduino finished.  He dusted off his hands then crossed his arms high over his chest.  “If we want to get by Quincy…we’ll need to deal with Hakeem first.  If they meet…then we’ll be in for some serious trouble.”

HAKEEM_________________________

The cloud swirled.  Hakeem, his breathing deep from his effort, watched with narrowed eyes for any sign of movement.  Then the ground beneath his feet trembled.  He frowned, hands clenching at his sides.

Then a scultone burst from the clouds, dust trailing its sleek form as it speared toward him.  The man tensed, mind briefly going blank as the beast rammed into his torso, scooping him up, then flinging him back.  Hakeem felt the air rush out of his lungs, felt every inch of his body ache.  Were it not for his armor, he would have suffered worse.  But this thought brought little comfort to him as he began to descend back to the ground.  He thought listlessly that he should perhaps count back to the moment before the scultone caught him unawares, but his concentration was lost.  How long ago did that attack happen?  How much longer before he hit the ground?

Too late.

He crashed into the earth and went tumbling for several more yards through the frosted weeds before he slid to a halt.

He faded out of consciousness.

When he came back to, he was turned on his back with a foot planted on his chest.  A dark face swam above him.

“Hold him down, so that he doesn’t pull that stunt again!”  Someone exclaimed.  The Fiamman, he thought.

The person above him spoke.  “Don’t worry, lia.  Hakeem can’t teleport unless it is along those energy blasts he sends–and he won’t be able to reset back to when my scultone hit him.  Not while I’m holding him in place.”

“Well you guys handled that a great deal better than you did the other one, didn’t you?”

“We weren’t prepared then.”  Arduino.  He sounded winded and grumpy.  “So far our only competition was a loopy alchemist and a gung-ho sorcerer who specializes in metal.  Not quite as overwhelming as someone like Quincy.”

“Speak for yourself!” Said the man over him.  Graziano, Hakeem surmised.  “You weren’t cornered by Karolek’s blade spirit!”

Hakeem tried to shift his right arm inconspicuously as they spoke, so as to throw Graziano off of him.  But another boot came down to pin his arm to the ground.  A new form stood over him, this person of shapely form.  The Fiamman.

“I’m really starting to dislike wizards,” she said.  “Can we take that armor off of him?  That’s what’s giving him his power, right?”

“This armor is bound to me.  Try to remove it…and face the consequences,” Hakeem said, his voice gravelly and deep.

The woman knelt down quickly, and Graziano removed his boot as Hakeem was jerked upright by his chest armor.  The face of the Fiamman focused into view as she pressed in close.  Her lip curled upwards into a vicious smile, and her cerulean eyes winked.

“Is that a dare?”  She asked delightedly.


Back to Chapter 13.1 | Forward to Chapter 13.3

Chapter 13.1

QUINCY____________________________

Quincy scratched at the wood of her arm chair.  This fidgeting was uncharacteristic to her, but since she’d flashed into Belcliff with that girl, she hadn’t felt quite right.  Her veins sat heavy, and her eyes seemed swollen in her head.  It wasn’t exhaustion, for she felt like moving…fast.  But to where and to what, Quincy didn’t know.

Certainly, she didn’t want to stay in that cold little room any longer.

The marshal was a strong man, with a voice raked by smoke and an overflow of manliness.  He was leader of the city of Belcliff, and oversaw all judicial matters in accordance with city law.  He rapped his desk, his cobalt gaze looking through the circular window of the short tower, set atop the Belcliff regional jail.  It was a holding place for those awaiting trial, and those waiting to transfer.  She was in his office, where the ceiling rode high and the walls were of the same cold stone that the jails below were.

“There was no other way to it,”  The marshal said, running a quick hand over his peppered black hair.  “The girl was up to no good, trying noisily to get someone to free her mistress.  Looking at her, you wouldn’t know it, but our investigators confirmed her presence at the killings.”  He glanced at Quincy over his shoulder.  “So you shouldn’t feel guilty.”

Quincy’s nail broke against the wood, tearing just low enough to the tender nail bed.  She didn’t wince, but her jaw tightened.  “You confuse things,” She said, bright eyes shifting to the marshal like knives.  She crossed her arms and sat back with crossed legs.  “Your rulings do not weigh on my conscious.  I did my job.”

The man pursed his lips and nodded.  “That you did.  How do you wish your payment to be made?  We can do it in any manner you wish.”

“Gold.”

“That will be fine.”  The marshal stepped to his desk, his militant boots managing to sound as such on the hard stone floor.  Taking his quill from the ink pot, he pulled a slip from his drawer and scrawled something quickly.  His attendant, a teenage boy who had been standing quiet and unseen near the doorway, hurried forward and took the note from the marshal with a bow.  Quincy frowned at the rash she saw on his right ear lobe–it was red and swollen, skin peeling, as though nails had raked across it more than once.

“Herman,” the marshal said. “Take her to the city coffers and show them this slip.”

The boy raised himself up, hands folding behind his back.  “Yes sir.”

“If there is nothing else, miss Quincy, I bid you good day.”  The marshal turned away from her, gaze returning to the window.

Quincy stood, and followed the attendant out.

———–

Belcliff.  It had long shadows and longer nights–with clouds so thick overhead as to paint powerful illusions in the mind.  She could feel the cold bite her through her cloak, felt the light snow come toward her almost in a frigid sort of anticipation that made her wonder why she was mad enough to sit outside so high–stuck up on a temple’s facade like a gargoyle.  She eyed the passing bodies below and thought of beetles that scuttled through salt.  Quincy scratched at the stone ledge she crouched on, using her other hand now, because her right hand had already broken four nails.

The buildings of the city were guarded by snow draped creatures, stone beasts and agents of heaven entrapped in an artisan’s vision.  Next to her was a gryphon, its eagle head screeching to the sky.  Quincy shifted her eyes from the city below to lean against the creation, her eyes flickering up to look through the space of its open beak crying out silently.

“Where is he?” she breathed.  Her words were a fog.

Hakeem had yet to arrive in the city, and the day was already drawing to a close.  She thought about leaving for the trails, to watch for him there. But something about watching from there seemed a level more anxious than watching from the city, and so Quincy didn’t move.  Things would work out, as they always did.  She would never admit this aloud, but Hakeem was the reliable one.

The time slipped by.  In her fast, disconnected existence, its escape was not counted meticulously, as her partner could do.  For her, what seemed ages was just a passing second, and what was a passing second seemed ages.  Quincy was frustrated with this uneven take of reality.  She could lose days without eating or sleeping, and could zero in on a task without losing an ounce of focus, but the moment she was left to drift in idle, things became impossible.

She missed the suns, the graceful rays that afforded her a place of warmth–away from the stony stares of stone sentinels and black beetles.  The air seemed thin, and her breath, usually deep and calm, was short and labored.  Quincy stopped her scratching at the rough stone and sucked at her finger in distraction.  She paused when she tasted blood and pulled her hand back to stare at her thumb.  It now bled from the edge of the nail, where it had torn.

The woman scowled and stood, the wind moaning low at her audacious block of its current.  Her cloak lifted as the breeze pulled at it, but with one hand on the screeching gryphon, the woman held steady.  She reached for her pouch, not bothering to untie it from her hip, but instead, rubbed it as it pressed to her thigh.  A small item grew from her ministrations, and loosening the opening, she pulled out a teardrop of glass, no bigger than her thumb, and held it up toward the sky.

She gave it a shake and squinted her eyes as, in the clear glass, what looked like silver liquid appeared.  It swirled as she gave it one more vigorous shake, but it did not change.  Quincy pressed her lips together and began to put the little glass away, when something happened.  The silver swirl changed.  It pulsed red once, twice, then…

Bringing it up with a jerk, the woman’s eyes grew wide.

The teardrop had turned completely black, as though it had become obsidian.  Quincy cursed.  She placed the glass on the stone ledge and crushed it with her heel.

“…What is going on?”  She hissed.

————–

Quincy appeared at the marshal’s, the tips of her fingers wrapped in little bandages to stop the bleeding.  The young attendant from before stared at her from his desk before the stairs leading up to the marshal’s office.  Adjacent to him was the door leading to the jail cells.  She could hear shouting on the other side.

“Miss?  May I help you?” he asked, quill in hand.

“I was wondering if I could see the documents regarding the investigation of the convicted enchantress, Syria.”

The attendant’s mouth parted as he frowned with squinted eyes at her.  “Under what authority?”

“I represent no one.  I wish to see them for my own edification.”

“My apologies, miss.  But those documents are sealed.  They are not open to the public.”

“But the case is closed.”

“Indeed, yes.  But it goes against city law to allow a civilian to review judicial information.”

“Leaving no one to contest it, I understand.  But I have no wish to challenge the ruling.  I only wish to see the accounts of the scene of the crime.”

“But for what?”

“Haven’t you noticed it?”

“…Um…noticed what, miss?”

Quincy leaned forward onto his desk, her voice dropping low as she held up her right hand.  The young attendant’s eyes flickered to her bandaged fingers, as his hand went up to his right ear to tug at it.  “There’s something wrong here.” She hissed.  “Belcliff’s only magical professional has been shipped off to prison, leaving no one of the proper vocation to assess the damage done to the region.  You think black magic just goes away because the caster gets locked behind bars?” Part of her knew that it was the dark influences at work, making her so aggressive, but if it worked to her end, she didn’t bother stopping it…which another part of her noted was probably a problem as well, but she had no time to consider such trivial things.

“That kind of evil stays, it lingers, it’s like a festering disease that can warp living things the longer it is left alone.  The rash you have on your ear lobe from rubbing it too much?  You think that it’s a coincidence?  Like my breaking my nails from scratching at whatever it is I sit on is a coincidence?  Did you know that dark energy can manifest itself through impulsive, obsessive habits–usually of a self-destructive nature?”

The young attendant blinked at her, his mouth jawing like a fish.  “Uh…um…” He stopped pulling at his ear, wincing, and stared at his hand as though it had a life of its own.

“I am a long-time practicing wizard with a backed knowledge of the Unbound Disciplines.”  Quincy snapped.  She leaned in closer.  “So if your prepubescent ass has to go trouncing up the fucking stairs to ask your boss if I can see your precious documents, then I suggest you do so.”

The attendant, pressed back as far as he could in his chair, gave a loud swallow.  He nodded his head jerkily.  “Y-Yes, miss.  I’ll…I’ll speak to him r-right away!”

—————-

The back room of the town hall was, to Quincy, a hole in the wall.  She glanced up at the hand that hovered near her borrowed desk, and her gaze flickered up to the guard that belonged to it.  He was a tall man with a crooked nose and no eyebrows.  His gray eyes fixed onto her, and her azure eyes narrowed in turn.

“Need you be so close?” she snapped.  Her left hand clenched against the armrest of her chair, fingers scraping down the wood.  She grit her teeth and through sheer will kept from scratching the wood again.

The man shrugged and took a small step back.

She sighed and looked back at the parchment she held.  After some arm twisting, the marshal had finally agreed to allow Quincy access to the investigation records.  Viewing them, she realized why he had been so hesitant.

The more she read, the more it sounded like the investigators had no idea what was going on.  They were meticulous in their note taking, she gave them that.  They listed everything from drawings of the scene as discovered, to measured dimensions, to entire pages dedicated to describing the state of the bodies found–which covered alchemical tests.  But as far as conclusions went…well, the men were not magic users.  It was a useless endeavor.

The most they could gather was that something horrible happened and that three citizens of Belcliff were dead.  The victims were all men varying in age and species–one was an adolescent second generation human of Ko’Keil descent from a respectable merchant family; the second an aged elf that dabbled in politics–lineage unknown–who was guessed to be over two hundred years of age; and the third victim, a poor but well loved Avian therian that did odd jobs about the city.

Besides their gender, they shared nothing in common.  She was even hesitant to say there was a pattern.  Their vastly different backgrounds and social status seemed like picking particulars at first, but when reading on about the mutilation, Quincy found many inconsistencies in the level of “work” done, or organs…removed.

And when she thought about it, the word “mutilation” was a shaky term to use.  While correct in the sense that the victims were defiled and violated, it was misleading because the things done were too…precise…to say that the perpetrator sought only to damage or transform.  Indeed the cuts were almost clinical in nature.  One clean cut, from the naval to the chin, with rib cages split open and genitalia cleanly removed?  The neatness of these otherwise horrendous acts were one of the few things the victims shared in common.  Even the symbols burned into their flesh were each of a different nature.

Artists sketched out what they could before the skin started to peel and fall away.  Once this started to happen, further study of the bodies was halted, and their remains returned to the surviving relatives at the marshal’s order.  The only one who had no family was the elderly elf man, but his corpse rotted too quickly for the artists to record all of his markings.

Quincy frowned and kneaded her brow.  She could feel a knot tying between her shoulders, and blood flowed poorly up her neck.  She winced and gave her shoulders a roll as she thought.  The symbols were largely unfamiliar, though some of them reminded her of markings she saw in various ruins on Talmor, Faenea, and the Indabe.  The real puzzler rested with the therian.  All therians had the ability to regenerate, being creatures of spiritual force and transformation.  Granted, Lycans and Ailurans had perhaps the fastest rate of healing compared to all, but there was no level of difference in the Avian’s wounds.  As the investigators wrote it, it were as if the body had been burned with the markings all at once…which was impossible in that situation.  Perhaps a gravity spell and a bit of elemental sorcery could achieve what the investigators concluded–but that was two forms of magic of a very high level.  Even an individual who had mastered multiple schools of magic could only cast one form at a time.  It was a two-man job.

However…even with the Lethia girl as an accomplice, the young enchantress still didn’t have the power needed to achieve either spell…considering she never even studied beyond her declared field of magic.

The flickering candle light made it hard to read the investigators’ scrawls, and in annoyance, the woman held up her finger and flicked it.  The candles in the room flickered and sputtered out.  Quincy’s finger glowed at the tip, instead, lighting the parchment much better.

The guard blinked and pointed, his face looking ghastly from the focused light.  Quincy finally noticed that his nose was red and blistered.  “Did you jes–?”

“Yes.  Now be quiet.”

Quincy held her lit finger up to a particular sentence, toward the bottom, and scowled.

“Miss, I was told you were looking into some ‘bad aura’ you said was hovering over the region.”  The guard was leaning forward, his eyes like heavy stones on her.  “I can read through the paper.  You’re focusing an awful bit on matters that seem a bit unrelated.”

“You’re well-read for a lackey,” Quincy said in an even voice.  She spared him only a glance.  As she expected, his nose flared at the off-hand remark.  “Tell me, what do you know about magic to say that what I’m reading is not a matter of complete and utter importance?”

“I read a lot miss.”

“Oh?” Quincy set down the parchment and made lazy swirls through the air with her glowing fingertip.  She tried to make one of the symbols the artists’ drew–a swirl with a line through it.  The after image she traced burned behind her eyelids when she blinked.  “Did you know there was once a case in the city-state of Gulley, where a boy was drained of blood, then skinned, and eaten by a militaristic cult?”

The man said nothing.  The woman held her hand up to better light his face, which was tense and white.  Her eyes narrowed.  “They were conducting a ritual to the god Juventus, trying to earn invulnerability before going into battle.  The boys ages and places of origin, things seemingly unrelated to war, was of great importance, because Juventus was said to have been born among the halfling clan of Tor, who resided in the far south.  This clan nearly overtook the Talmor continent in a single vicious campaign.  The magic they enacted could only be stopped by killing all possible sacrifices for the ritual, and rendering them unusable.”

The man pursed his lips and his shoulders bunched up a half-inch.  “And did someone do that?”

“Yes.  Someone did.”  She turned away from him and picked up the parchment.  “So if you still think you know what I should be looking at, by all means…”

The man didn’t speak again.

——————–

The door opened.  The young attendant came in.  Quincy looked up at him, not squinting as the light of the room changed.  He shook his head, exasperated.  “Miss, it’s been six hours.  Have you got what you need?”

The woman looked at the desk, covered in parchment.  She tapped her lip and nodded slowly.  “Yes…I think so…”

“Thank the gods!”  The attendant turned and smacked the soldier on the arm.  The man had fallen asleep leaning against the wall.  He jerked awake, eyes blinking wide.  “Oh…” he yawned, “Gods damn, is my shift over?”

“Do I look like I’m going to relieve you?” The attendant tugged at his right ear harshly, dark bags under his eyes.  Quincy glanced at him with a quirked eyebrow as she gathered up her cloak, draping it over her arm.

She came out from behind the desk, eyes bright with an alacrity that the other two did not match.  They stared at her, as though offended by her lack of exhaustion.

“I’d like to speak with the young enchantress,” Quincy said, looking between them.

Now?

The woman gazed at them both with cool eyes.  “Unless you’d like me to go wake the marshal, who is likely asleep in his warm, comfy mansion?”

The look of acidic hatred was all the answer she needed.


Back to Cold Burns | Forward to Chapter 13.2