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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”