Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 14.3

HAKEEM_________________________

Hakeem exhaled deeply, and felt the chain on him shift down a portion. He did not look up as he moved his fingers, which reached achingly around the bulge of his numbing palms.

His middle finger managed to curl underneath the rope.

“You realize, of course,” The wizard said, leaning back to look Arduino fully in the face. “That the likelihood of this plan succeeding is not even in the double digit percentage range?”

Hazelnut eyes narrowed at him, and the crossbow in Arduino’s hands raised a fraction. “Quiet, calgato,” he snapped.

Hakeem raised a brow at him. “You want your brothers to rot in a prison for the rest of their lives?”

Arduino did not respond but for the tightening of his neck. Nearby, Argos turned to look at the wizard, but his interest quickly waned, and he rest his head on his paws again. The dog’s shaggy face was drawn in melancholy as he faced the mountain ranges. It had been in a state of depression since the Ailuran (Nyx, they called her) and Paulo left without him. The creature disliked this inaction. So too, Hakeem guessed, did Arduino.

The wizard dug again. “Your youngest brother is ill, cavorting off with a therian of unstable mind. Your second-youngest has ventured off with a woman reputed for her violence and radical behavior. And did you stop to consider that Holzoff’s Tower is the most renowned of all the prisons in the world, topping even the facilities of the Higashi Kingdom?”

The man snorted and turned, walking a few paces toward the opening of the relief. Hakeem took this opportunity to shift his body and arms. Now he had four fingers forced between the ropes. It pinched and burned, but he could work his way to the knot now. He slowly inched them along–his hands, wrists, and forearms straining with the effort.

“And did you know,” Hakeem went on, just as Arduino turned to look at him again, his brows pressed tight. “I imagine there must be at least 200 men on duty in Belcliff alone. Do you know how many are stationed at Holzoff’s Tower?”

“I said quiet!” Arduino barked, spit flying from his mouth. His face had turned a dark color.

Hakeem did not stop. He gazed at his captor with cold eyes. “Arduino, you know that Belcliff’s marshal is a wrathful man that cannot see past his own problems. Do you think he’ll have any mercy when he sends your brothers to death?

The Moretti lashed out with a yell, running forward to bury his foot in Hakeem’s gut. The man grunted and doubled over, his breath rushing past his lips. His abdomen spasmed in pain. As he moved forward, his arms pulled at his hands. It felt as though they were being squeezed off, but when he straightened again, he found the ropes were looser.

Arduino panted over him, his hair now loose from his tail. His fists were clenched, and his face was contorted with fury–but Hakeem saw fear in the man’s eyes.

Without another word, the oldest Moretti turned and went to the resting scultone. He whistled sharply and the beast raised its head, eyes blinking open. The wizard watched as Arduino climbed onto the creature’s back, his crossbow resting in his lap. With a shake of the reins and a guttural yip, the man urged the scultone to rise into a slow amble toward the edge of the relief. Argos rose to his feet, his ears now perked and his weepy eyes wide beneath the shag of his fur. He whined and barked sharply, blocking the scultone’s way.

Arduino hissed at the dog and waved his hand at it. “Shut up, mutt! I have something to do.”

Argos didn’t move. He bowed his head and growled, lips pulling back to reveal his yellow canines. Hakeem could see the fur along his spine raise, too.

The Moretti sent a growl in return. “Either you move, or I run over you. I don’t care either way.”

The dog seemed to consider this ultimatum. His head lifted and dipped as he let his eyes take in the massive scultone with hundreds of teeth and claws nearly the size of Argos’ head. With a snort and a grumble, Argos padded off to the side.

Arduino nodded at him. “Good boy. Now watch this wizard, and wait for me to come back.” Then the man let out another yip, and with one great bound, the draconic beast vaulted over the edge and out of sight. Hakeem listened as the sounds of the traveling scultone grew fainter. Then he pulled at his ropes.

Argos turned and saw this, and within moments, he bowled Hakeem over–his head ramming into the wizard’s side. The dog stood over him, fur tickling his skin, and the animal’s foul breath hot against his face. It bared its teeth and growled low. Hakeem grunted as he looked up at the dog, one arm pinned beneath his body.

He spoke, his voice strained. “Arduino will not be coming back. Not for me, not for you. He’s straying from all your plans.”

Argos snapped his teeth at the man, another growl tearing up his throat. Drool landed on Hakeem’s cheek, but the wizard did not turn away. He stared into the dog’s eyes.

“Arduino is going to betray all of you. He’ll betray you to save his brothers from the marshal. You know this.”

The dog stared at the man. Then he sat back on Hakeem’s legs and looked down at him imperiously. “Explain why I should trust you then,” the dog seemed to be asking.

Hakeem shrugged. “As unlikely as it is that any of you will succeed–there’s also a possibility that Quincy could get hurt. Arduino will try to frame me. He’ll say that I was conspiring to free the enchantresses. Just from me being here with you, just for my absence, just for the commotion that is happening in Belcliff this instant. He’ll try to turn the marshal on me and my companion, and the marshal…I cannot say for sure whether he’ll believe the man, but I’d rather err on the side of caution. …And…I have an interest in the warrior and the therian. I need them to stay alive. This…matters more than the bounty on your mistress or my perceived innocence.” Hakeem said the last words slowly, a frown coming over his face.

He realized he wasn’t just feeding the dog a line. And it wasn’t just Quincy either. He wanted Elmiryn and Nyx to stay alive. He had to know what they knew about the chronicles. He had to know what their future held for them–for it was great, as his divinations had foretold. Not only was it that…it was an event, a force, an element that would likely affect both he and Quincy both.

…And at any rate, the bounty on the Fiamman would make up for all the trouble–and then some.

“Well?” The man challenged. He dared to shift beneath the dog. “If that isn’t enough to convince you, then you tell me how you plan on getting down this mountain! Can your paws do anything to aid you?”

Argos growled at the movement…but after a moment’s consideration…He slowly climbed off the man.

Hakeem sat up with some effort, and let out a sigh. He gestured behind him with a jerk of his head. “Now…if you could help me with these bindings?”

NYX____________________________

Paulo looked at me as the three of us skipped backwards in unison, preparing to escape Karolek’s attack. “Lia,” he said, “Please tell me you have some life-saving Ailuran trick up your sleeve!”

Karolek unhooked another ingot. This too turned into a sharp disc–the glint of its intention like a spark to my fuse.

I looked at the boy, my face bunched with tension. “Oh yes, Paulo. I have a trick–” I turned, pulling Lethia with me as I broke into a sprint. “It’s called running!

Paulo didn’t need telling twice.

We managed a short distance before I looked back in time to see the metal blades whistling toward us. I let out a shout and pushed Lethia aside. The blades changed course mid-air. One struck low, the other higher.

I screamed, a wrenching sound that threatened to turn my throat inside out.  In pain, I fell onto the icy ground. The sensation was so severe that I was rendered paralyzed, not completely sure of what had happened. I saw Lethia skitter to a halt, Paulo reluctantly doing the same. The girl came to my side, pale and trembling, her green eyes flickering to my legs as she gripped me about the shoulder and armpit. My Twin’s claw scraped at the ground, frantic.

“Fottuto!” I heard Paulo spit out as he drew his rapier. He slashed with it, the blade slicing through space with a sharp clang.  Sparks erupted and another metal disc embedded itself into the ground yards away.

Almost numb with the agony now, I forced myself to turn around, shifting onto my side. My left foot was turned at a harrowing angle–the boot sliced in the back. My tendon…was cut.  I let out another sharp cry, my voice turning hoarse.  Tears came to my eyes, blinding me.  My calf spasmed, muscles aching as though they knew something vital was damaged. The side of my thigh also screamed, as though it were being sawed into…I saw my life pool out onto the ground in a dark ooze. The culprits–Karolek’s slim disc blades, were lying not far from my leg–the angle of their trajectory leading them to slice into the ground instead of remaining in my wounds. They were bright and clean. Whimpering, I squirmed, reaching down to grip my leg. Blood came dripping out onto the snow from my boot as well. I could feel more trickling around the skin of my foot. When I looked up, Karolek was walking toward us, calm as ever. Something of his eyes seemed to brighten, and that horrible smile broadened, catching some light.

“Children, you may as well yield. Resisting me will only bring more unpleasant things!” He said, drawing the massive blade on his back. He held it before him with one hand, dressed in many rings. The weapon was a broad saber, red ribbons tied to the hilt. “Come with me quietly, and you’ll be imprisoned with all your limbs intact.”

Lethia’s eyes narrowed and she straightened. “Do you enjoy hurting others, you vulture!?”

The man laughed. “Hurting others? No, my dear. I enjoy getting what I want. But this end need not see any more violence.” Karolek unhooked four more ingots with his free hand. The man held up the pieces and the metal rose into the air as before…but this time they did not turn into discs. Instead, they melted together, their forms turning into one large amorphous blob that continued to shift and ripple. He kept unhooking ingots until nearly all the ones on his belt were gone.

Paulo came at my side, his free hand pulling at my gambeson. Sweat trailed past his eyes, wide with fear. “Nyx…Lethia…he’s going to–!” The boy’s voice cut off with a choke.

“What’s he doing?” I gasped, feeling more and more faint. I tried to stop the bleeding at my ankle, not certain if an important artery had been sliced, or if my tendon had even been completely severed. With my other hand, I clawed for a grip, preparing to move.

The boy’s voice was a hoarse whisper. “He’s summoning a blade spirit!!

My eyes widened and I fought to push myself up, my vision rippling and my arms shaking. I’d only heard of those things from stories. It was a sorcery spell, one that brought forth an angry spirit to possess metal. But my leg…was not healing. I was losing a lot of blood, it seemed, the way my boot became hot and wet about my ankle and heel. My arms gave out and exhaustion swept over me, heavy like a blanket. My adrenaline was spent. My body was in shock. I tried to force myself again, and felt everything lurch.

The sounds around me…faded, and I became still.

I felt Lethia’s touch leave me.

Above me, like a fly buzzing in my ear, Paulo snapped at her. “Idi’ute! What’re you doing!?”

“…I’m…I’m fighting back.”

I barely heard Lethia’s answer–just as I saw Her running over our mindscape, her talons digging deep–and I vanished completely in the cold, glad to be away from the pain.

HAKEEM_________________________

Argos wiggled in his embrace. Hakeem grunted and let the dog go. They crashed down into the dirt, clouds billowing about them as they went head over heels. The wizard rolled over onto his knees, panting. He looked at the shaggy animal and scowled. “I told you, if you move when I teleport, then you could kill us both!

The man rose to his feet, eyes squinting. He had once again reactivated his armor, and felt glad to feel its heat surrounding him. He clenched his hands, dressed in their fluted gauntlets, and looked back the way they came. The rip in space that Hakeem had created faded from sight, all the way back to the place in the cliffs they had previously been staying. He turned his head and looked through the small mountain pass to the city of Belcliff. The suns peered through a crack in the clouds, letting a shaft of light drape the city.

He gestured for Argos to follow him. “Come on. If I can speak with Quincy, we can avoid anyone getting hurt.” Hakeem walked briskly, the dog beside him. He counted ticks in his head, watching as this curious development unfolded before him like a great blanket. He did not believe in fate, but he believed that chance favored a ready mind. No one could have guessed that a routine bounty would have resulted in something so extreme, so life-threatening, so bizarrely fortuitous as to escape Hakeem’s understanding at the onset. But conversely, so much could be lost–

A haunting scream sledgehammered his thoughts, freezing the man in his steps. Ahead, he thought he saw an explosion of light–clawing past the dark stone buildings–barely lasting ten seconds. Then the spectacle was gone, and all it left behind were rising clouds of dust. Mouth open, Hakeem took a step forward.

That light, it only meant one thing…

“No,” he breathed, shaking his head. He raised his hands to his head, the cold metal of his gauntlets bringing no comfort to the feeling that sprouted within him at an alarming rate. The man shook his head again. “No, no…wikan…Bwa-mweze, wikan songu? You said…you said you’d never do that again…”

Quincy must have pierced herself with her sword.

All within him bunched. The armor about him grew hot. Argos whined next to him, his dark eyes gazing at him uncertainly. The man’s vision clouded as he felt tears trickle down his tense face, and his hands turned to fists against his head.

Argos skittered away with ears flat and tail tucked in as Hakeem fell to his knees.

Mweze, wikan!?” he screamed.

LETHIA_________________________

The girl felt like she had to pee. In fact, she was certain she may have done a bit of that already, but such things became unimportant when staring down a sorcerer the size of the Torreth. “Take Nyx somewhere safe,” the girl said, her voice quivering as the gravity of the situation pressed down on her in full. Her eyes were on Karolek’s knees. Inside, her heart rebelled against her, fighting against her ribs.

Lethia could hear Paulo struggle with the unconscious therian. “You’ve lost it if you think you can do anything!” But even as he said this, the sound of his retreat tickled her ear.

Karolek paused, the shifting metal still hovering before him. He regarded the enchantress with mirth. Lethia started to tremble, but she tilted her head back, raising her gaze to the man’s shoulder.

The sorcerer chuckled. “Little one, what are you doing?”

“I won’t let you do this,” Lethia said. She let go of the club and the weapon fell to the ground.

The man brandished his sword. “And you think you can fight me, with your skills in enchantment? Are you going to make me think the color blue is green? That you’re just a rabbit, and I, just a wolf?

Lethia’s jaw tensed and she thought about Syria, alone in Holzoff’s Tower, and she imagined the enchantress as still refined, still dignified, still unbroken. She thought about Nyx, someone she had known for such a short time, but who was willing to risk life and limb to save her and her mistress both. She thought about Argos, crossbow bolt buried in his shoulder, and his eyes still burning with the desire to fight

The girl’s eyes raised, and they locked onto Karolek’s dark gaze.

The world blew away like sand about her. The sorcerer’s mouth froze just as he opened it to say something else–but it was not that he paused, instead, more that time slowed down. The man, the only thing left, was black and gray, but he broke apart slowly in flickering tiny shapes that separated with susurrations. These little phantom voices narrated things to her, growing louder as the pieces of Karolek’s being came closer to her mind.

Cold blue animus….singing….I loved her, dearly….but they didn’t stop to look…think…run…all it…no, NEVER…breathing in…cairun…inkol…polsech…weary feet that…lanuse co remana…cairun…cairun…NEVER! CHILD, THIS POWER IS…cairun, cairun, inkol polsech…YOU CANNOT CONTROL IT! THE METAL IT…cairun, cairun, inkol polsech, lanuse co remana, cairun, cairun…YOU TEMPT FATE!!

The black and gray shapes quivered, then began to grow, smothering her. Lethia heard herself scream.

“GET OUT OF MY HEAD!”

Lethia flew backwards, her body crashing into the ground and skidding along the dirt. Her back and shoulders pulsed with pain. Vision came back to her eyes, and she gasped, back arching as her mind swirled heavy with things foreign. She heard Karolek roar. Breath coming in choppy gasps, the girl sat up, her wheat blond hair clinging to her sweaty cheeks.

The metal blob solidified into a large ball, a blue halo surrounding it and reflecting off the smooth surface. Then, spikes appeared all over it, and they grew longer. Without warning, the spikes broke off, and began revolving around the orb. They drifted farther out, and a chaotic array of small, razor thin blades appeared on the orb’s surface. These separated from the ball of metal, just as the spikes, and they began to revolve around at a faster speed. Hundreds of these little things appeared before the orb was reduced to a ball that could fit in Lethia’s hand. It blurred in and out of view behind the revolving spikes and tiny blades. The blue halo grew stronger, and the girl thought she saw a pair of eyes staring at her.

This…was a blade spirit.

Karolek pointed his blade at her, his face twisted in dark rage. “Get her!” he shouted.

The blade spirit, with a ghostly moan, shot forward with incredible speed.

Lethia stood to her feet, her green eyes wide, her hands held up before her. The spikes were so close, she could almost feel them–

–Then the blade spirit stopped, spikes and blades shuddering to a halt. The halo of light flickered, and there was a hiss.

Karolek sputtered, slashing with his saber. “What…what did you do!?”

“You were right, Karolek.” Lethia said, her voice faint. But her eyes held an edge of ferocity. “I can’t control all of your power–and there are some things I just cannot take from a person. But…”

She waved her hand, and the light of the blades pulsed, then rose and gathered into a wisp above the metal. It swirled, then shaped into a head. The blade spirit opened its mouth and emitted a groan–like gears grinding together–before it vanished completely.

With the host gone, the metal was mundane again. Lethia called to it, her animus–her soul–holding it aloft by sheer will. With a slight nod, the spikes and blades broke their formation, all turning so that they pointed straight at Karolek. The man took a step back, his face turned ashen. Lethia’s eyes narrowed, her hand raised.

“I don’t need all your power to fight you!” she cried.

Then she let her hand drop, and the blades went flying.

NYX____________________________

My eyes opened.

I was back. Back in that place in my head…that alien domain I had visited two days ago, that left me feeling numb and immaterial. Back in that place of cold rock that sometimes pulsed transparent to show me creatures caught between sapien and animal forms. Back in Her home. Skeletons, twisted flesh, mouths open with pain. I sat up and found my Twin sitting next to me as a maned, panther-like feline. Her head was held low, and her tail lashed behind her–back and forth, back and forth–

“We’re dying,” She said. Just as before, her mouth moved to speak, like a person’s. It looked odd to me.

I blinked and stared at her, my breath a fog. “…What?” My head turned and I looked at my leg. My left foot flopped to the side, despite my efforts to have it pointed to the sky like its companion, and my pants were torn at the side. I could see to my thigh, where a dark slash was on my skin. “These cuts…” I breathed.

“They won’t heal. Not as you are. And because they won’t, we’ll bleed to death.”

“But…but…”

“This isn’t like before!” She screamed, making me cringe from her. Her eyes were wide and she pushed up onto her paws to get into my face. Up close I could see her whiskers tremble, and I realized…she was scared. “You passed out because you’re bleeding, and fast. Not because of the pain! You won’t wake up again on your own!”

“How do you know this!?” I shot back in a shrill voice. I scooted farther away from her, my head shaking. “What if you’re just trying to trick me? Like before!?”

“Then you condemn us both!”

I stared at Her. She gazed back at me, the pupils of her tawny eyes wide and dark. I saw myself reflected in them–saw her fear…as my own. I looked away, breathing heavily. “If…If we shift here–NOW–we’ll be left vulnerable. Karolek will kill us!”

My Twin shook her head. “It needn’t take…that long.”

I looked at her in confusion. “What do you mean?”

She bowed her head lower, and her tail turned still. Her ears twisted back, but did not fall flat against her head. She was trying to show herself as docile. I sat forward a little, astonished.

“Borrow my fur and fangs. We’ll be as one in the grace of Aelurus’ crescent of birth. We’ll share the world…for a little while.”


Back to Chapter 14.2 | Forward to Chapter 15.1

Chapter 14.2

NYX____________________________

Across the street we went (me jerking Paulo into a straight cross versus a diagonal one–the fool was going to leave himself in the open longer) toward the marshal tower.  Perhaps it was the time or the commotion earlier, but it seemed the militia was spread thin.  There were no obstacles awaiting us as we slipped past the guards to the side of the building.  We stopped beneath one of the windows, barred and nearly twelve feet from the ground.  It seemed the building’s main floor was raised.

Now what?” Paulo said through grit teeth.

I pointed to the window.  “Give me a boost.”

“What’re you going to do?  Bite through the bars!?”

“Shut up and give me a boost!” I snapped.

“Fine!”

The boy laced his fingers together and crouched low, holding his hands down like a step.  I took a breath, then stepped into his hold, and he grunted as he lifted me up.  His arms shook with the effort, and there was a scary moment when he lurched and I thought we were going to fall.  I stretched and managed to grab onto the window bars, steadying us…but there was another problem.

My Twin was holding me back.

She had Paulo by the shirt, causing the boy to panic as he tried to beat her away uselessly with his shoulder.  In my head, she had come to the fore–hackles raised, and fangs bared.

“This is going to get us killed!” My Twin shrieked.

“I’m doing this with or without you, beast!” I whispered aloud.

“What??” Paulo whispered back, his face bewildered and bunched tight.

My Twin spat at me. “Then do so by your own limbs, but not at the expense of mine!”

“Then give me mine back!” I hissed back.

“Lia, dista’gea ya!  You’ll bring the guards!”

With my free foot, I kicked at my Twin’s arm.  At first she didn’t relinquish her hold, but another blow with the tip of my boot made her let go, and I straightened quickly.  With Paulo’s help, I pulled myself up higher, leaning my weight against the iron bars and sliding my hand up further as I inched like a caterpillar.  When I was high enough, I slipped my sapien arm through the bars, then turned my head as far to the side as I could.  The bars were a tight fit…but not impossible to squeeze through.  I sucked in air and proceeded to push my body through the gap.  The pressure on my rib cage was immense, and the sides of my face scraped painfully by, making my eyes tear up.  When my head was clear, I let out a sigh of relief.  My temples, ears, and cheekbones hated me.

Placing my hand on the small space where the bars curved and embedded into the building facade, I pushed myself up higher and lifted my foot from Paulo’s hands.  Awkwardly, through an odd twist of the leg that made me a little embarrassed, and through lots of shimmying, I managed to get my right leg through the bars as well.  I bent it at the knee and rested my shin against the bar so that my foot dangled in the air beneath me.  Now I was really, really cramped, but with my leg keeping me stable, I could finally use my sapien hand.

Squinting at the window, I tried to see any anomalies–any apparent cracks or thin spots in the glass that I could exploit.  The tall, four-paned window seemed largely in good condition.  New even.

“Nyx, what’re you doing?” Paulo hissed, peering up at me with narrowed eyes.  He kept glancing at the street, licking his lips.

I ignored him.  As I peered closer at the lower left corner, I noticed a hairline fracture at the bottom.  I had to wipe at the glass a few times, just to make sure it wasn’t a streak of dirt or a cobweb.  Then, with my breath held, I gave the window pane a firm rap at the top corner.  Then another where the crack was.  The sound was different.

I looked down at Paulo.  “Have you got a knife or something?”

The boy nodded.  He twisted around as he fished through his pack, then produced a small knife in its holster.  He held it out to me, and I took it by the hilt and pulled it free.  Holding it up, I inspected the blade.  The tip was thin enough, at least.  I took the knife and wedged it into the gap between the glass and the seal, and I looked at Paulo.

“You’re not going to like this…” I breathed, my brows pushing together worriedly. “But no matter what, this glass will shatter, and it won’t be quiet.”

Paulo frowned at me warily.  “Okay…”

“So what I need you to do, is to let the guards see you, even after I’ve slipped in…because they’ll come looking, and if they’re chasing you, they aren’t coming after me or Lethia.”

“You want me to be the distraction.” His voice was deadpan.

“It will only take a minute!” I pleaded.  But when Paulo’s hazelnut eyes turned stormy and his lower lip seemed ready to conquer the upper lip, my patience vanished.  “You wanted to come along with me, remember?  There’s no other way into the building besides the main entrance and these barred windows.  You know that Lethia will not be able to do what I just did, so you’ll have to lure the guards away from their posts.  Understand?

Paulo looked at the ground and nodded sullenly.

I trembled from the rush of anger that had channeled through me.  A taste appeared at the back of my mouth–like cinnamon and sugar.  My head began to hurt again, and I could Her whispering in my head, that something about all this seemed familiar.

But I did not have much time to dwell, even as my eyes ached from some unknown pressure.  I turned back to the knife in my hand.  With a deep breath, I counted to three.  Then I wrenched at the knife.  There was a squeal from the glass and the metal, but I couldn’t get it to move.  My eyes widened and dread washed over me.  I had forgotten…my abilities in my sapien form had become that of an average human’s.

I swallowed and closed my eyes.

In my head I spoke to Her.  “…I…need your help.”

I saw the beast in my mind’s eye, creeping, the muscles beneath her fur like rolls of power that taunted me.  “Now you seek me,” she hissed.  “Now you seek the unwanted one.  Is that right, sister?”

I grit my teeth, hand tightening on the knife.  “Forgive my frustration, sister, but the power you consolidate was once shared!”

“But never your Words!  Never your Life!  Those I had to fight for!  Steal!  Like a beggar!”  She growled.  Her tawny eyes cut holes in my spirit.

I licked my lips slowly.  “…What would…you ask of me?”  Already, the idea of giving her anything made me sick.

The animal sat on its haunches, and I could feel Her weight on me.  I could see her whiskers twitch, her ears flicker forward, her nose flare.  “I want…a name.”

My eyes opened a portion and my eyebrow quirked.  “A name?”

“Yes.” She laid down along her stomach, but kept her head up to gaze at me.  Something of her had become gentle…and this disturbed me.  I had never known Her to be gentle.  “If there is one thing I have learned, sister…is that proper names…good names…are to be given.  While the circumstances that bring this about may still be contrived…it is the best I can hope for, especially from the likes of you.

“…I…” I faltered and opened my eyes in full.  I stared at the ground, then let my gaze climb to the sky, where the gray skies felt like a looming blanket, ready to smother us all.  Why, of all things, would She want a name? Something so simple, so mundane, so…individualistic.

My heart clenched.  To give her a name would give her a foundation upon which she could stand on her own–apart from me.  This would further the wedge between us, the wedge, I could freely admit, I was not keen on closing…but to see it get bigger…?

“I…I’ll think about it…” I whispered aloud.

Paulo looked at me uncertainly.  “Are you doing the crazy talk again, lia?”

“No!” My Twin roared inside me.  “Either you name me, or we both sit here till death.”

“Alright…alright!”  I snarled.  I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them, my gaze furious.  “I’ll name you, beast, but not now.  Later, when I have the time.”

She faded from my mind’s eye, and I was frightened that perhaps my answer still did not satisfy her.  I didn’t want to choose just any name for her.  In Ailuran culture, our names were of great importance.  They often foretold what sort of person we would become.  But did She understand that?

I let go of the breath I had been holding when I saw my Twin’s arm come around to grip the knife’s handle with me.  I nodded and said, “Okay, on the count of three…”

Paulo drew his sword with a nod of his head, and jogged back a few steps away from the building.  It was good thinking on his part.  To jog closer to the street would give the guards a better chance of catching him, but being close to the window (and thereby, close to me) would draw attention to what was really happening.  His placement was good, and I was glad he thought to consider this small detail I had overlooked.  So far, his odd illness didn’t seem to hamper him much.  In fact, as I looked at him again…I realized he looked healthier here in Belcliff.

I started the count, my stomach clenching.  “One…two…three!

Together, my Twin and I pulled down on the knife.  For the briefest of moments, the glass didn’t seem to budge–then it suddenly cracked, and as the blade came up the shards fell away, tinkling like bells.

I frantically punched away the remaining shards on the sides, then pushed my way through.

Inside, I heard Paulo give a shout and take off running.  I heard the guards outside follow him, shouting, “Stop!”

With a wince, I raised myself from the floor, off the glass shards.  I crouched low, felt the floor beneath my feet like a reassuring cradle to my body.  There was no one in the room–there wasn’t even a torch or candle left lit.  But ahead of me, adjacent to the main entrance, was a heavy door that seeped with ruckus.  I could only guess this to be the way to the holding cells.  I tried to think how I could get the door open.  The desk where the attendant likely worked was unlikely to have something I could use, and I didn’t know if my Twin knew anything about using her claws for such a task of finesse such as lock picking.  And what if there was a guard on the other side? I considered knocking on the door–a brazen act, but the quickest (if most dangerous) way to get the door open.  The guard would come, and I could chance a direct confrontation…but that defeated the purpose of avoiding the others.  What chances did I have against this unknown opponent, especially in my weakened state?

But as I pondered, the door opened, and I squealed, jumping back with hands raised as quaking fists.  I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them again, hardly believing what I saw.

“Lethia!?” I exclaimed.

The girl stared at me–or rather, stared at my shoulder–her face deeply flushed, her wheat blond hair frizzy and sticking to her sweaty face.  In her hand she held a wooden club tightly, stained at the end.  The club lowered as recognition flashed across her face.  I noticed the scratches and bruises on her cheeks, nose, and chin; the ugly stains on her clothes; that her glasses were missing.  Her breath came in great heaves, and she pointed behind her with a shaking hand.

“I-I-I…I…” Lethia was stuck in a rut, jaw shuddering open and closed as she tried to force the words out.  I stepped forward, grabbing her by the shoulders.  Past her, at the back of the room, I could see a body lying face down, its feet sticking out of an open jail cell.  Next to it was a large iron object that looked as though it were hinged.  The girl, I surmised, had used her power on the guard, striking him dumb.  Recalling my previous experiences with the young enchantress, the girl had most likely taken something of use from the man–something large and consuming that would take her time to sort out.

But we didn’t have that time.

“It’s okay, Lethia,”  I said gently as I took her hand.  “Come on, we have to hurry!”

The other prisoners wailed.  Nearby a dark haired man with a cataracts begged to be set free.  We ignored him and I shut the door behind us–if only to block the terrible noise.

“I-I fell–fell d-down, and–and–” Lethia went on stammering as we pushed through the main doors, out into the cold street.  “The–The guard thought the mask b-broke my neck, so-so he c-came in and–” I didn’t understand what she was going on about.  I twisted around, and shushed her, my gentility souring under the stress of the situation.  I looked around as we walked, back around the building to where I had first broken in.

“Where is Paulo?” I hissed.

Lethia looked at me, confused.  “Paulo…?”

We passed the marshal’s building and into the alley behind.  There, down a block or so, I saw Paulo, fighting with the two guards.  I cursed, turning to Lethia.  “Stay here!”  Then turning, I ran off to the Moretti’s aid.  My legs pumped and my sapien arm sliced through the air.  In my head, I called to Her.

“Please, help me!”  I begged, my mind turning to the beast as she watched in her abstract domain of transition and subjugation.

“Again?” She snapped.  “Can’t the boy defend himself?”

“Two against one is hardly fair, and at any rate we need him if we wish to escape this!”

The beast snorted, tawny eyes narrowing.  “Very well…”

Her agreement came just in time.

As I came upon the struggle, Paulo was backed closer to a collection of garbage.  He grunted as one of the guards, a slim but wiry looking man, crossed swords with him.  I could see the sweat roll down Paulo’s face as his body was forced backward into a compromised bend–over broken crates and shattered glass.  The other guard, larger than his partner and with brown eyes that glared with ire, came up along the side, his sword pulled back for a strike.

Not knowing what else to do, I jumped, rocking my body back and tucking my legs in.  As I came near, the slim guard crossing with Paulo turned to look at me, a look of surprise coming over his face.  He began to shout out a warning, but it was too late.  I kicked out with my legs, pushing against his bared side with all the might I had.  The man was launched into his comrade, sending them toppling to the ground.  I fell to the earth, some air rushing from my lungs, but I rolled to my feet with teeth bared.  Paulo looked at me, breathless and nodded his thanks.

Together we advanced on the guards, the boy sheathing his rapier and grabbing a crate as he went.  Our opponents were still trying to disentangle themselves on the ground when we came to them.

My Twin grabbed the man on top by the back of his head, then slammed him brutally into his partner.  She pulled him back and did this a second time quickly, then wrenched him away, onto his back next to the other guard.  I grunted, trying to stabilize myself enough for this action.  His shirt ripped from the force of her pull, and the cloth fluttered in her grip with the wind.  She let the cloth go, sitting on the man’s chest, and pulled her hand back, claws extended fully.

My face drew up in horror.

I grabbed her arm.  “Stop it, don’t kill him!” I shouted.

Beneath me, the guard tried to buck me off, as Graziano had done a few days ago.  But this time my knees were set wider apart, giving me better support.  I rocked forward with the motion, descending with the elbow of my sapien arm.  My strike connected against the guard’s forehead, the bone of my elbow smashing against the man’s skull with all the might I could muster.

Next to us, the large guard had rolled onto all fours and was about to take off running it looked like, when Paulo came around and smashed the crate against the man’s back.  The crate shattered, and the guard fell back to the ground with a shout of pain.  Paulo jumped onto his back, his knee digging into the man’s spine, and punched him with all his might at the base of the head.  The man collapsed and went still.

With both our guards unconscious, I looked at Paulo, panting.  “Let’s…get out of here!”

We both stood and turned, and I saw Lethia coming toward us, her newly acquired club held down at her side.  “Lethia!” I exclaimed with a shaky smile.  “I think we’ll be alright for now–let’s hurry and get out of–”  But the girl did not listen to me.  She was focusing on Paulo, her pretty face screwing up in an ugly scowl.  The enchantress turned her body to the side and lifted the club with both hands.

My expression fell, and I held out my hand.  “L-Lethia, what’re you–?”

“Bastard!” The girl screamed, and she charged.  She swung the club at Paulo, wide, forcing me to stumble out of the way.  The boy dodged with a look of incredulity.

“Idi’ute!  What do you think you’re doing!?” He snapped, holding up his hands.

Lethia looked vaguely in his direction, her teeth grit.  “You!  I remember you!  I remember now!  You shot Argos!  You pretended to help me, back in Dolmensk, but all you really wanted was to turn me in for a sack of gold!”  She advanced on him again, and I noticed the certainty of her attack, the control with which she wielded the club.  This skill she must’ve stolen from the guard.

Paulo cursed as he evaded her second attack, and his hand went to his rapier.  “And what about you, eh!?  What about the shit you and your pretero of a mistress did to me?  Eh!?  Lia que ebriga destrucíon!”

“What did you say!?”

“I said you’re a girl who brings destruction!

“How dare you!  You filthy cozener!”

Say that again, witch!

Lethia attacked him again, screaming, and Paulo drew his sword, his handsome face turning dark with anger.  “Stop, stop it!”  I slipped between them forcing the bounty hunter to rear back and the enchantress to slide to a sudden halt.  I gestured wildly with my hand, my eyes wide as I looked between them.  “This isn’t the time for this!”

“You’re quite right!”

I froze, all my muscles turning rigid.  The new voice that floated to us was deep and amused.  All of us turned in the direction Paulo and I had come from to see a large man with deeply tanned skin standing with his arms crossed over his massive chest.  He wore a studded tunic and a black fur vest, thick black boots on his feet and what looked like a massive blade strapped to his back.  He had long dark braided hair, and around his waist hung pieces of metal.  Ingots.  They tingled as he took a step forward, then another.  His smile was what caught my attention, however…

His teeth were all silver.

“Fottuto!”  Paulo cursed.  “Karolek!  What’re you doing here!?”

Lethia looked at him.  “You know this man?”

“Oh, I know him,” the newcomer said, before Paulo could speak.  “I’ve crossed swords with him and his family in the past.  Tell me, little Moretti…where are your brothers now?”

I heard Paulo swallow hard.

Karolek’s smile broadened.  He continued to walk toward us slowly, and together the three of us stepped backwards in unison.  “I knew something was strange when I saw Quincy come into the bar without Hakeem.  Never mind that the woman has never set foot willingly into a bar as far as my memory goes, but to be without the company of her closest companion…?”  The man gestured vaguely to the South.  “Then there were those explosions, and all doubt fled my mind.  Something had gone wrong.”  He wagged a finger at Paulo.  “But I had no idea you and your brothers were behind it!  Why, I wonder?  Is the girl going to pay you more than the marshal?”

I was shivering.  With a voice that trembled, I cried out, “Please!  Leave us be!  We have no quarrel with you!”

Karolek looked at me, his smile never wavering.  He shook his head slowly.  “Ah…but I can’t!  You see, no thanks to those wizards, I haven’t snagged a bounty in months!  To catch you three would surely please the marshal, and with his reward, I’m sure I’ll be set for at least another year before I have to go hunting again!”  He unhooked one of his ingots and held it up before him.  Then he let his hand fall away, and the metal hovered in the air.  There was a hum, and without preamble, the metal morphed and twisted, finally turning into a flat disc…a flat, sharp disc.

“I’m sorry, little ones…” he said.

…But Karolek didn’t sound sorry at all.


Back to Sons and Daughters... | Forward to Chapter 14.3

Chapter 14.1

NYX____________________________

I wanted to beg her not to go.  I wanted to tell her she was being foolish, being reckless, being unrealistic.  She was just an ordinary human being–a skilled warrior, true–but pitted against someone of magic.

“Elle…”

“Yes, Nyx?”

“…Please, be careful.”

The words were stones, pressing on my tongue.

Her cerulean eyes winked with her broad smile.  I turned to look at my shoes, and saw my Twin’s arm hanging by my side, like a dead thing.  Then Elmiryn’s shadow crossed mine, and I saw her shoes step near.  When I looked up I had just enough time to take a breath before she leaned down and kissed me.

My eyes slipped closed…

It was a gentle contact–meant more as a brief message of affection than an invitation for a prolonged activity.  She brushed her hand along my cheek, then started to pull away.  I bit my lip, trying to contain the whine in my throat, and hugged her with my one arm before she could leave my reach.  My eyes squeezed tight as I pressed my face into her shoulder.  I breathed in deep, and her wild smell filled me.  The woman paused, then hugged me around the shoulders and laughed.  The sound was broad and deep.  Like it encompassed so much more than just passing humor.  It had self-assurance, genuine joy…

It made me feel better…but not much.

This would be the first time since Gamath that we’d be separated.  The thought horrified me.  I suddenly wished for the days when it was just the two of us traveling, talking, laughing, even training.  Elmiryn had tried to warn me of these moments, these troubling times.  …And didn’t I ask for this?  Every part of me had demanded action for Lethia–the young girl, the sweet idealist, who had nothing to lose.  I hated the fact that she had nothing to lose… I wanted to help her.  I wanted to have the peace of mind knowing she was okay.  She was not much younger than me, this is true…but at her age, the most she should’ve had to worry about was chores and doing well in her lessons.  Not running from bounty hunters, fighting with rapiers, and risking life and limb just for the chance to be happy.  It wasn’t fair.

…But for the first time in a long time, I realized, whereas Lethia had nothing, I had plenty to lose, now.

I shifted to look Elmiryn in the face, and she brushed her lips against my forehead.  It made me feel warm.  “Kitten…” she breathed.  “There’s no need to worry.”

I was too emotional to bother correcting Elmiryn on her use of that diminutive nickname.  I only shook my head and turned away.  When I stepped back from her, I felt cold.  Immediately the shivers set in.

Graziano chose that moment to interrupt.  His voice was soft, and his eyes apologetic.  “You’ve got to go, Elmiryn.  Quincy will have seen the commotion from earlier.  She will know something has happened to Hakeem.  She won’t come running out like an idiot, but given where the explosions happened, I can guess where she’ll stake out first.”

Elmiryn gazed at me a while longer.  I found I couldn’t even glance her way.  I turned my back and covered my face with my sapien hand.  My Twin’s arm was twitching next to me, and it patted against my thigh.  I didn’t know the reasons for Her convulsions.  She was cross with me and had gone back into her domain.  I had no idea what my Twin was doing, or what she was feeling.  At the moment, I didn’t care.

I heard Elmiryn turn around and walk, her boots scraping along the rocky ground.

“Alright.  Just give me a lift, Graz, and fast.”

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn stood shivering.  She could feel it, down to the core of her soul, that this was going to be a fight to remember.  That this was going to be good. She didn’t often find opponents of the grand sort–mostly rabble and riff-raff, mediocre combatants, and children with blades.  Arduino had been a step above those, but not quite there, mostly because he turned out to be predictable.  He and the countless nameless opponents she had faced had been exciting and exhilarating in their own respect.  Danger was danger after all…

But not like this.

Quincy was a little taller than Nyx, but still a fraction shorter than Elmiryn.  Her golden hair was pulled back in a messy flip, and the tips were colored a curious honey.  She wore a slate gray velveteen jerkin that stopped just before her thighs, the front cut in a V shape that gave her breasts ample room.  Underneath, the white cotton shirt with the draw-string neck had long, billowy sleeves that rooted in black bracers.  A belt of moderate width encircled her waist, playing host to small pouches–one of which looked entirely empty.

A pleased sound tickled the back of Elmiryn’s throat, and she recognized a human being with life, and not just a creature to be ignored.

The wizard had left her a dare.  As the initiator of this confrontation, Elmiryn was hard pressed to refuse this invitation.  To refuse would suggest uncertainty.  Weakness.  That was unacceptable.

The woman’s mind raced, carried by giddy thoughts and a growing lust for action.  What was the best way to attack?  Quincy’s blade was different from Elmiryn’s.  It was shorter, but faster for it, allowing for a wider use of technical maneuvers in close quarters.  Add on the fact that Quincy’s blade was a magical weapon, an enchanted blade, whose only revealed power so far seemed to be that it gave the wizard the ability to draw on natural light for power…and the danger rose astronomically.  The ways in which that power was utilized still had yet to reveal themselves in full.  It was a good thing Elmiryn had acquired her sword again.

She couldn’t believe she had considered, even for a second, to sell it.  She was good with her bow, and certainly good with her dagger, but her sword–her captain’s sword…It was hers.  Truly hers.  She knew and loved its weight, its bite, its grip.  Elmiryn was glad to have it back, especially now.

But still–how to proceed?

“Now listen,” Graziano began as they reached the tip of the mountain. “When you fight Quincy, keep on the lookout.”

“For what?” Elmiryn asked in a grunt.  She felt like she were practically hanging on to Graziano, the way she was forced to grip the edge of the saddle, legs pointing down the slope and straining in their stirrups as the scultone’s body turned nearly vertical.

The Moretti looked at her, eyes squinted.  “Anything. She’s a wizard.  Wizard’s always have tricks up their sleeve.”

The warrior was about to ask for a little more clarification when the scultone went over the ridge and down the steep mountain face in a speed that robbed her of breath.

It was this advice that made Elmiryn cautious, if not wary.

She could try a feint of some sort.  She imagined charging forward, screaming, sword held high before she shifted her weight and struck low instead.  It would come across as intense while being equally deceptive…but it would not do.  Quincy was smart.  Too smart to believe that Elmiryn’s open attack was real.  She was also steadfast.  Even given the harrowing situation with her partner, Hakeem, the blond was amazingly in control.  She would not be intimidated by a passionate initial attack anymore than a rock would.  So Elmiryn tried something different.

She came forward with slow, calm steps, her eyes on Quincy’s as she held her sword before her at an angle.  The wizard didn’t move back as she approached.

When Elmiryn was within striking range, her left foot leading and her knees a little bent, she let the end of her sword cross with the wizard’s, let the blade slide down its length some before she tapped it aside with a quick jerk.

In a simultaneous move, the woman took a sidestep, bringing her right foot forward and shifting her weight so that her body followed with the motion.  Her sword came around Quincy’s so that it was between it and the wizard, tip pointing downward as she swung her right elbow around for a blow to the jaw.  This happened in less than a second.  The warrior had to move fast, or else the wizard would see just what her true intentions were.

Elmiryn managed to execute the attack, but Quincy didn’t let her elbow connect.  She jerked away, effectively dodging the warrior’s swing whilst moving her sword down and under Elmiryn’s so that she held it out at her other side, tip pointed to the ground.  The wizard could deliver a counter attack, slashing up toward Elmiryn’s shoulder or face…Only the warrior was still in an ideal position to block with her sword, and could even deliver a possible fatal counter.

Elmiryn had lain a trap.

Her eyes flashed, and the corners of her mouth turned upward. …But the wizard didn’t take the bait.  Elmiryn’s chest was still left open from her high strike, giving the wizard the opportunity to push her away with her shoulder.  This was the smarter choice.  This was how the redhead knew, she was facing someone worthy.

The redhead did not stumble when Quincy’s shoulder slammed into her right breast, which screamed in pain, but she had to lean back from the force of the blow.  It left her winded.  Quincy used Elmiryn’s body to push herself back to a safer distance, her sword slashing upwards in a fast arc as a parting shot.

Elmiryn grunted as she turned her right shoulder and leaned farther back, her right hand forced to let go of her sword as she did so, lest her arm get cut.  She saw the gilded blade slice past her face, barely inches away.

“That could’ve gone better,” The woman thought.  Now, she was on the defensive.

But the redhead started to smile in full.

Quincy’s eyes flashed as she followed her attack, her arms lowering only somewhat as she turned her sword with a flourish meant to give more power to her swing, not to show off.  The short slash was meant to catch Elmiryn in the face or neck.

Elmiryn brought up her sword in time to stop the blow, her left wrist and forearm strained to keep from relenting.  Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw the metal spark from the collision.  Quincy pulled back fast only to bring her sword around again in an overhead swing to attack Elmiryn at the left side of her head.  The warrior, in the brief time before this, took hold of her sword with both hands and blocked this as well, with a much steadier grip.  Elmiryn decided to turn things around.

She pushed Quincy’s blade away with her whole body, and when she was free, held her sword outward at the side.  She slid her right foot back in a fast crescent along the ground so that her left foot was in the lead.  Quincy, though her balance was rocked backwards from Elmiryn’s forceful push, recovered quickly.  She brought her sword back, pointing forward and the hilt held close to her body for what looked like a mid-level lunge.  Elmiryn was ready.

They both struck at the same time.

The warrior lunged forward with a push from her right foot, her sword slashing wide and her body twisting to lean to the right.  Quincy grunted, eyes flashing at this suicidal cross.  The wizard was forced to duck and lean back from the swing.  This changed the course of her attack, leaving it to slice Elmiryn’s quilted doublet.  The blade managed only to scratch the skin.

As Elmiryn’s sword slashed through the air, she let go of the hilt with her right hand and let her grip with her left hand turn loose, the top of her wrist facing the ground so that her forearm was turned skyward.

As Quincy stepped away, Elmiryn mirrored her movement, letting her now free hand go to her hip, where her dagger waited.  The wizard, oblivious to the warrior’s intentions, brought her sword back and low for an upward slash.  Elmiryn, using the momentum of her slash, turned her swinging sword in her hand, thumb gripping tightly and fingers moving lithely in a move practiced and repeated countless times.  The blade swung around, the hilt twirling in her grip, and when she held it firm again…

Quincy struck out, blade coming up to strike Elmiryn’s left side.

The warrior turned her left arm and blocked the attack with a downward swing from above.  There was a ring and a hiss.  The tip of the gold blade slammed to the ground near Elmiryn’s foot, sparks flying.  It was pinned beneath her forearm.

For the first time since Elmiryn had met her, Quincy looked at her in what could be called astonishment.  The warrior drew her dagger and jabbed forward, towards her opponent’s chest.  With her blade literally pinned to the ground, the only option left for the wizard was to stumble backward.  Elmiryn didn’t press her attack, and instead, watched her opponent go.  She could’ve killed the woman.  Could have ended it.

…But she didn’t want to.

Elmiryn felt euphoric.  Her pleasure was such that a knot had grown in the pit of her stomach, and her throat was tense with the need to moan.  Every inch of her skin tingled, and though the scratches, cuts, and burns stung, it reminded the redhead that she was alive.  She saw nothing of their surroundings–not the buildings, or the shifting sky.  Her eyes seared with gold–tasted the purity of their battle–felt the heat and the fury pulse through her limbs in an orchestra that made her soul sing and her spirit fly.  She wanted it to go on forever.  The world felt just right in this place of singing swords and glittering skin.

Slowly, Elmiryn started to laugh, and her amusement echoed around the empty square.

At a safe distance, some yards away, Quincy stood breathing heavily, her sword held up once again.  The gilded blade seemed to flash in indignation.  The wizard stared with eyes that were wide and brows deeply furrowed.  Her pretty bow lips were quivering ever so slightly.

The redhead straightened, holding both arms up.  Her left hand held her sword hilt the other way, and the blade lay flat along the underside of her forearm.

Elmiryn smiled wickedly.  “Hey wizard, your humanity’s showing!”

Then something happened that made the warrior’s chuckles die away.  Both women stared at the sky, then at each other.

…The clouds had parted just enough to allow a shaft of sunlight to illuminate their battle.

NYX____________________________

“Hey…ah…are you okay?”  Paulo asked.  I looked at him sideways.  The boy seemed keen on establishing a more amicable rapport between us, perhaps because of my suicidal dive for his deceased father’s trinket.  Or maybe he really was just concerned for me.  As much as he rubbed me the wrong way, I could appreciate this effort.  Still my answer was guarded.

“I’ve got a headache.”

An understatement.

My head felt as though it were splitting in two.  My Twin was in severe agitation.  I was glad that she didn’t waste words trying to convince me from my task, but she made her displeasure known in the way her claw curled at my side and refused to help in the simple task of climbing onto Paulo’s scultone.

Our part of the plan was simple.  While Elmiryn and Graziano kept Quincy busy, and possibly most of the militia as well, we would circle with our mount to the north of the city, where we’d then proceed on foot to where Lethia was being held.  I was entirely reliant on Paulo because I had never been to Belcliff.  Originally, Arduino was to go with me, but Paulo had been insistent.  My eyes glazed as I thought back to just before we had left our temporary camp…

“What if the girl did do this to me?  What if she can fix it right away, upon her release?  I’m not going to sit here like an ass!” He had argued.

So Arduino remained with Hakeem as his prisoner, along with Argos.  Argos, through his curious way of communicating through barks, whines, and body language, also made his wish to come along known.  But we could not take him, and explained as much to the dog.

“Argos, I’m sorry,” I had said, kneeling down to look him straight in the eyes.  “We can’t take you.  With you along, there won’t be room on the scultone for Lethia.”

“And anyway,” Arduino added, though he looked at me as he said it.  “The dog can help me watch this stupid calgato here.  He won’t be much use to you, anyway, once you move on to the second part of the plan.”

Argos growled at the Moretti, resentful of being talked over.  I patted his shoulder.  It truly helped my fear of dogs to look at him as a person–a furry person, albeit–but a person all the same.  He seemed to be of a better temperament than Arduino most of the time, anyway.  “Don’t worry, Argos.  I’ll make sure Lethia is safe.  If all goes to plan, you’ll be with her and her mistress by tomorrow.”

I had tried to keep my voice steady as I said that.  I was nervous enough about my own performance in this scheme, but I had even more doubts about the youngest Moretti.  Would he lose control?  Would he hurt Lethia?  My jaw tensed as we descended down the other side of the mountain, toward the black city of Belcliff.

I would not let that happen.

As we passed, I could see forms darting in some of the broader streets, buildings turning glowing eyes on us, and some chimneys even belching smoke.  Belcliff didn’t have a curfew, like Dame or Tiesmire did.  I even thought I saw some of the militia men at the outskirts of the city.  This made me scared.  What if the local law enforcement managed to intercept us?  The scultone’s body blended well enough into the surroundings–but did that matter when we were traveling nearly three times the speed of a horse at full gallop?  Though the suns were still nowhere to be seen, the city was coming alive.  Likely the earlier commotion had expedited this.

We arrived at the plains north of Belcliff without incident.  Paulo and I dismounted from the beast, and the Moretti offered the creature a dead rabbit for its service.  Then the teenager crouched low, next to the creature’s hole of an ear, and made a low yipping sound with his throat.  He patted the scultone’s side three times, deliberately it seemed, then leapt back, pulling me with him.  The scultone, without a sound, closed its eyes and reared back.  Then with a great inhale, it dove into the earth, its snout lost beneath the gray and white ground.  It used its claws, scraping and pushing, digging in further as it pressed on with its head.  Within five minutes it was completely submerged in the earth, the soil churned from its efforts, but no higher than my knees–hardly noticeable in these uneven plains.

Paulo took a stick from the ground and stuck it into the earth, then he took a red scarf from the little bundle on his back, and tied it securely at the tip.  I looked at him doubtfully.

“What if the wind blows this over?”  I asked.

The boy looked at me and shrugged. “Then I’ll whistle really loudly.  The scultones are trained to surface at our call.”

“And if that doesn’t work?”

“Then I suppose we’d be in a lot of trouble.”  He didn’t seem as concerned as I was when he said this, however.  It made me wonder how many times he’d done something like this, how long he and his scultone had ridden together, and how someone as young as him even got into this lifestyle.

We came to the city.  We were not stopped, nor harassed by any of the officials we passed.  The wizard had not warned of our approach.  …Perhaps to save our capture for herself.  But we did not squander this good fortune, and traveled, amain, to where Paulo said the girl was being held.

I thought it horrifically audacious that the marshal would place the regional jail directly beneath his primary office.  Something of it seemed fascist and in poor taste.  But there were two guards stationed at the front doors, and a patrol circling around the building, so we could not venture near.  Paulo’s breath became a little heavy as we surveyed the building from a block away, in an alley that smelled of rotten fish and wet dog.

“This isn’t really part of my skill set, lia.” His voice quavered some.  “So ya got any ideas?”

“Well,” I started, voice equally shaky.  “Luckily for you, I’ve a background drenched in subterfuge.  So don’t worry…or rather, don’t worry about us getting in.”

“…Wh-What do you mean?”

I looked at him, grimacing with the thought of it.  “The real hard part, will be slipping back out with Lethia, completely unnoticed.”

“So…?”

“Given our chances, I’m sort of, pretty, fairly, absolutely certain we will be noticed.”

Paulo turned ashen, his young face gaining a couple of years worth of worry and fear.  “De reán, me soque, Eate!” he exclaimed in a hoarse whisper.

Whilst caught in anxiety, the mind can delineate in odd directions.  In this case, I didn’t know exactly what he said, but I recognized the name he used.  Eate–god of fire and storm–also the herald of heavenly disasters wrought through nature.  I realized that Paulo and his brothers were from the Santos Kingdom on the continent of Erminia, which was south of the Sibesona.  The subjects of the Santos Kingdom worshiped the powerful god, Eate, as their stalwart protector.  I appreciated his prayer.

I added my appeal to Aelurus with closed eyes.

“Pez na och, Aelurus, ia-soltezch…”

Paulo gazed at me, and I turned to gaze back.  We both nodded, eyes reflecting the other’s determination.  That’s when far away, we heard a sound unlike any I had heard before.  It was like a scream–high and forceful–that punched through the thick walls of the buildings and echoed throughout the streets.  Paulo and I gripped our ears and winced.  The guards standing at the doors of the tower gave a start.  They looked at each other.  The men on patrol came running around the building, their plate armor clanging.  I lowered my hands from my ears to see if I could hear them, but since my senses had been dulled, there conversation was lost to me.

The patrol men gave stern nods, then took off running in the direction the alien sound had come from.  The guards at the door were distracted, watching their peers go and talking with one another, expressions tense.

I pulled at Paulo’s arm, body sinking low.  “Now’s our chance!” I hissed.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn turned, body already moving away from Quincy before her eyes had even turned to pinpoint her exact destination.  She disliked how graceless this looked, turning and running from her opponent…but she tried to assure her pride that she wasn’t really running away from the battle, just running from–

There was a sharp ring, like metal that had been struck hard.  Then Elmiryn was flying forward, her back stinging, her spine feeling as though it had become intimate with a knife.  She crashed to to the ground in a nasty skid that chewed up her arms and front, and it was all she could do to hold on to her weapons.  The woman rolled onto her back and saw Quincy over her, her sword raised for a strike.

The wizard had changed.

Her hair, eyes, and skin seemed to glow–almost blinding the warrior–and her sword was a hot ray whose heat was so powerful as to burn simply with its intention.  Elmiryn could feel the energy roll over her, hot and stifling, and her eyes teared as she raised up her sword arm.

The action was useless, and the warrior knew it.

Quincy struck at an inhuman speed, the luminescence of her body flaring.

Within the next instant, Elmiryn realized the sword was in her chest.

It occurred to her, as the pain started to register, that she had never been stabbed with a blade before.  Ever.  She wondered if it was supposed to hurt this much–if it was supposed to burn and sting and ache all at once.  They had called her a silken warrior in Fiamma, had said she was blessed by Halward never to be marred by the horrors of battle.

When her scream stretched on to the sky, she wondered if the bastard of a god would realize his failure.

…But the wizard hadn’t aimed at the warrior’s heart.  The woman had jabbed toward Elmiryn’s right shoulder, well away from the neck and lungs.  She was looking to incapacitate.  Not kill.

Quincy had not completely run her through with the sword, but Elmiryn could feel it sink a little deeper as the wizard pressed in just to get the leverage needed to pull it out.  The blond’s form turned to a shadow over her as the clouds moved over the suns, and her glory started to die with the expenditure of her attack.  As she prepared to extricate her weapon, there was a hiss, and steam curled from the wound.  Elmiryn bit back a cry, body tensing and her muscles twitching from the adrenaline.  The redhead thought she could smell her own burned flesh, and wondered with a shaky grin what she’d taste like as dinner.

Then, before Quincy pulled away with her sword completely, Elmiryn spat on the gilded blade.

There was a flash.

Quincy screamed as she was blasted backward across the square, her arm clipping the corner of a building column on the way.

Elmiryn winced, body trembling as she forced herself to sit up.  Nausea rolled over her in thick waves, and a splash of bile managed to reach her mouth, despite her efforts to suppress it.  The bitter swill swished in her mouth, washing up the flakes and pieces of cold iron she had kept safe between her gums and inner lip.  She leaned over to spit it all out, her hand reaching up to check her wound.  That was when saw, with a great surge of satisfaction, what she’d been waiting for.

Quincy’s gilded sword lay on the ground near her, somehow looking duller without its mistress’s grip to guide it…

“Okay, lia,” Graziano said, as Elmiryn climbed off the scultone at the city limits.  “Have you got enough cold iron in your mouth?  You haven’t swallowed any of it, right?  Because that would be bad.  Really bad.”

“No kidding?  …No.  I haven’t swallowed any of it.  But this stuff is scratching my gums a lot.  When can I use it?”

“You’ll have to wait until Quincy activates her sword’s powers.”

“…You’re kidding, right?”

The man shook his head, his brows pressing together in what appeared to be pity.  “I’m afraid not.  Remember when you used the chain on Hakeem?  The purpose of cold iron is to deactivate the magic.  It doesn’t destroy the item, or completely disenchant it.  It just stops it, and it does this by taking away the energy fueling the magic.”

“But what good will that do me if Quincy can just wipe her blade and use her powers again?  What then?”

Then Graziano smiled.  “Hakeem’s armor works differently from Quincy’s sword.  His armor works with a constant level of energy that cannot be increased nor taken away.  That is why it is an inward form of magic–because it’s primary power affects no one else, but him.  So when you used the iron on him, the energy was locked away, inward.  Quincy’s sword is primarily an OUTward form of magic–its power is not constant, and directly affects her surroundings.  So when the cold iron makes contact with the sword during its use of energy–“

“The power will be released externally too.” Elmiryn said, catching on.  A smile spread on her face.  “The wizard won’t be able to control the blade at all, and its reserve of power will be emptied, making it mundane again.”

Graziano nodded.  “If you wait until the right moment, you can lessen the chance of yourself getting hurt when the sword’s energy explodes.  Most of the damage will be turned on the wizard anyway, as she is the one tapped directly into its power.”

“Great…” Then the woman placed her hand on her hip and smiled sardonically.  “So…are you coming with me?”

The man looked at her as if she were stupid.

Elmiryn chuckled, sheathing her dagger and taking her sword with her left hand.  Blood trickled down, hot and sticky along her doublet–but the heat of Quincy’s sword had cauterized the wound to the point that blood loss was hardly a concern.  Gingerly, the woman stood, her balance awkward as she used her sword momentarily as a crutch.  On her feet, the woman swayed, her flesh turning cold, and she thought for a moment that she’d throw up for real.  Elmiryn fought through the pain and dizziness through sheer will, sweat rolling into her eyes as she stared at Quincy’s prone figure, lying across the way.  She stumbled forward a few steps, her eyes looking down at the gilded sword, then she kicked it behind her, sending it clattering into the shadows of the buildings–though the action was unnecessary.  Quincy was unarmed and stunned.  She was no longer a threat.

It seemed to take ages before Elmiryn reached the wizard.

The blond was lying on her back, her left arm at a funny angle and blood staining her teeth and the inside of her lips.  She stared with glassy eyes toward the gray sky, and Elmiryn wondered for a moment if she were dead, but then the woman gurgled, and more blood dribbled from the corner of her mouth to pool down into her right ear.

Azure eyes rolled to meet cerulean.

Elmiryn knelt down, her legs shaking as they fought to keep steady.  She spoke, her voice a low murmur. “I guess we’re all like used dolls in the end…all glass and wonder and broken bits.”

Quincy’s face twitched as she gazed at Elmiryn with a look akin to repulsion.  “Are you…the rea…reason…this place is so…ha-haunted?

Elmiryn chuckled again, and shook her head.  “I’m a ghost.  But this isn’t my home…”  She reached down and caressed the wizard’s face.  “Hmm…but do you feel haunted, wizard?”

The blond stared at her for a long time.  Then she shook her head.  “I d-don’t need…magic…to know that…that you’re a part…of this corruption.”

The warrior sighed and shrugged her uninjured shoulder.  “Shit, you noticed?  And I was starting to wonder if it was all just in my head.  You feel a pressure at your eyes, right?  Feel like something, somewhere, is not right?”

“I’ll stop you.” The wizard’s voice gained strength when she said this.

Elmiryn waved the woman’s comment away.  With a grunt she stood and turned her back to her, intent on retrieving the magic sword, still left in the shadows.  “You’re hardly in the condition to do anything, Quincy.”  She came near the sword.  The shadow of the building that loomed over her felt cool on her skin, and she smiled.  “Whatever hopes you had for me, you can just kiss those good–”

The sword shuddered and it flared a brilliant gold.  Elmiryn sucked in air, her eyes widening even as the sudden light made her eyes burn.  Then without warning, the sword flew toward her, blade first, and the warrior shouted as she spun out of its way, crashing painfully on the ground onto her injured shoulder.  Stunned, she blinked and rolled over, tears from the shock of the light spilling from the corners of her eyes.

Quincy was kneeling on the ground, panting heavily.  Blood dripped in a long rope from her mouth, and now her nose was bleeding as well.  Her eyes were dull as she looked at Elmiryn, her right arm using her sword as a prop.

Elmiryn struggled to straighten up so that she was on her knees.  Her eyes narrowed.  “Wizard.  It’s over. The suns aren’t out to recharge your sword, and you’re probably bleeding on the inside.  Just yield, already!”

The blond blinked slowly.  “I’ll never…yield…to the likes…of you!” she snarled.

That’s when the wizard took her sword with both hands, face screwing up from moving her injured arm, and with the tip of the blade pressed against her left breast…

She impaled herself.

Elmiryn stared, eyes blinking rapidly.  Was she seeing another illusion?  Was she getting things mixed up in her head again?  Why would a person like Quincy ever–?

The warrior’s thoughts were silenced as Quincy’s body began to glow once more, rays of gold and white swirling from her wound and winding about her body.  The world darkened, and the wind picked up, stirring the heat that emanated from the wizard.  Within seconds, Elmiryn could not even see the woman anymore, and she scrambled back, anticipating what would happen next.

There was a scream–it could’ve been Quincy.  It could’ve been the explosive release of energy.  Where that might have come from, the warrior hadn’t the slightest idea.  She’d thought she’d stripped the sword of its power.  She’d thought she’d stripped Quincy of her power.  But the incredible bang that blasted her ear drums and blew her back against the ground said otherwise.

Elmiryn closed her eyes to the great flare of light that chased the shadows from all around.  Her world became white, and hot, and loud.  She heard the buildings around her crumble, felt the ground tremble, felt the dust and debris fall on her like a fine rain.

Then silence.

When the woman dared to raise her head, she could hardly see, and her ears rang loudly–muting her world.  She crawled, achingly, along the ground, great slabs of stone and rubble all about her.  Her eyes were not able to pierce the clouds of dust that filled the air.  She coughed hoarsely and made to stand.

When the dust settled enough, and the woman shuffled forward, she saw…

Quincy was gone–the only hint of her presence being the black scorch mark on the paved ground.

Elmiryn sighed.

“…Fucking hell…I guess that’s what Graziano meant…when he said wizards always have tricks up their sleeves…”


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