Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 15.1

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn stumbled, her eyes watering and coughs tearing up her raw throat. She wasn’t sure, but was there blood on her tongue? The woman wiped at her brow as she trudged back the way she came–away from the site of her incredible battle, which still smoldered in its destruction. Then wraiths rounded the corner of a tradehouse. They had great, shining sharp teeth and eyes as white as scultones. Their mouths were angry maws and their limbs immaterial reaches of ink.

“You!”

A voice…A voice? Was it the wraiths? They sounded so far away, it seemed, Elmiryn thought it a pity to find this most basic mode of expression drowned in the after-roars of her battle. She took her left hand and, with her pinky, dug into her ear…

…Or it could’ve been the fact that her ears were ringing like a bitch.

As she inspected her finger (“Shit, is that blood on there?”) she heard the far away voice call to her again. “You! You, woman, stop now!”

The woman did just this and turned slowly on the spot. Her eyes were dull as she looked at the wraiths as a person regarded an insect they’d just noticed. (“Yeah, I think it was these things that were trying to call me.”) Their forms were smoke and whispers that trailed across her mind.

“Oh…hi,” she said, voice barely heard in her head. She raised her right hand to wave, but felt the pain spider along her breast and shoulder, and with a wince, she lowered it again quickly.

The wraiths appeared fully before her as cobalt reptiles–(“No!”)–toy soldiers–(“No!”)–bad ideas–(“Mmm…okay, I guess that’s what you’d call these things.”) with eyes of fury.

“Down on your knees and put your hands on your head!” One bad idea barked.

The woman snorted. “You want me to do what?

On your knees!”

Elmiryn chuckled. She rubbed at her face and stepped forward, her eyes sweeping over their surroundings, back to the hot destruction that clawed at her back. Her lips began to curl at the ends as she reached for her sword and looked at the bad ideas, dressed up in their chainmail.

“You think I’m weak. That’s…that must be…that’s gotta be what you think. Right? You think you can just crawl into my head and make me misstep? You morons! You…you fucking bastards! Ha! HA!” The woman started to laugh loudly. She drew her sword and brandished it, her humor making the blade tremble in the air. The bad ideas jumped back, spooked, pale faces dripping and running long to show their weakness.

“I’ll kill you!” she cried, between her harsh guffaws. She pulled her sword back, her shoulder protesting but doing little to persuade–

Shots. Sharp thunderclaps that ripped through the space of hushed silence. The ideas ducked in alarm, but Elmiryn just turned her head in curiosity, her weapon paused in the air.

Graziano came down the way, his triple-barreled pistol aimed and smoking. “No, my friends.” He stopped and pointed the gun straight at the guards. He smirked and narrowed his eyes. “Why don’t you get down?”

NYX____________________________

I looked away from Her.

This creature asked so little of me, but it felt like so much. It felt monumentous. Like a boulder, pressed against my back, my voice curdled and and begged for its removal. But claws I’ve had, and fur I’ve had—and not long ago, either. In Toah, I had dressed myself in Her skin, could even admit freely that I enjoyed the sensations, the smells, the strength…the freedom. Only, this way had been lost to me, through the screams of rivers and the tainting dreams of demons that were betrothed to my closest companion’s every word. My Twin had become more abhorrent. More disgusting. More of a disgrace. I could feel her, always, in the back of my mind, setting me on edge, running my mood afoul.

And yet She asked so little of me.

What did this home of hers reveal but torment and fury? I gazed around, a girl haunted in the images of beings twisted in pain, trapped beneath cold rock that concealed them like a beating heart. And where did this poeticism come from, but from MY expression, stolen like money from a till by a heathen who…who…

Who was getting maddeningly better at it with each passing minute. For every sentence she constructed, my wayward sister was fast catching up—pressing and pressing. But until now, she had shown me little more than base desires, so shallow and primitive as to hardly gain a second thought from me, save to curse it to the blackest parts of my mind.

…Yet suddenly, in suggestions, in questions, in sudden requests, she was making a fool of my conceptions. A name? A name? And now…a truce?

And yet She asked so little of me!

I was loathe to the idea, even now, with time’s hand at the back of my neck like a blade. Her claws, dripping with Atalo’s blood, still haunted me in sleep and in waking. The trauma was an endless aftershock that made even the briefest and smallest contact with her a battle. This could all be rationalized, surely. Survival. I pulled at my left boot, pain absent in this ghostly realm, and found that my tendon was indeed completely severed, going so far as to reach the ankle bone. Such incredible force, for such a little blade! I thought, detached, numbed now on an emotional level as much as a physical one. I reached over and pulled and pushed at my foot, face growing long at the sight of my own blood pumping out onto the ground like it were a pump at a well.

Then I paused, and looked at my Twin with such a fury as to dwarf all my previous dances with the emotion.

“What game are you playing, creature?” I snapped.

She looked at me, her furry brow bunching in a pathetic mimicry of human emotion. “What are you talking about?”

“This is your home. You have control over all around us. How do I know you aren’t just making me see things?” I gestured at my left foot with disgust. “How do you know what my ankle looks like right now? Not even I know!”

“This isn’t a trick!” She cried, ears swiveling forward. She rose to her feet and her tail set to lashing again. “What a dimwitted fool you are! Have you no sense!?”

“I have plenty! I have enough to know when you’re just trying to get what you want, and I won’t let you! Not after what’s happened with my arm. Not again!”

“You’d let us die for your hate and stupidity!”

“I’d let us die for everything you’ve done! Everything you’ve taken! I’d let us die just to spare the world your plague!” I screamed this last part.  I paused, heaving, sensation coming to my spirit as anger gnawed at the edges of myself. I forced myself to my feet and turned my back to her, my body teetering as, even in this poor reality, I was at the mercy of her illusions.

“I’d let myself die.” I limped forward a few steps–toward nothing, I realized. Nothing. Beyond our space of dirt and dust and rock existed a sea of absence that I could hardly pierce. I stared into it with baleful eyes. “I’d…I’d let myself die, just for…just for letting this shadow take the form of a monster,” I said, wearily. “Just for letting you…let you. Just for letting you let–” I frowned. Clutched at my head. “Letting you…letting us…letting us let you let me, let…”

“It’s getting harder to think, isn’t it?”

“I’m just…”

“One can hardly expect eloquence when one is bleeding out through a wound so uncommon and barbaric as a nearly severed foot. I’ve only got a bit of you here, with me. You’re still at the helm, sister. So you’ll descend first…then I, cursed to be with you, will follow.” I heard the cat snort. “So you just continue letting us, letting you, letting me perish. Perhaps this is what you always wanted.” When she spoke again, it were as though she were traveling away from me, her voice sending in the opposite direction. “And damn it all, I’ve sullied myself in even thinking, for a moment, that you could look beyond our past. Even at death’s door, you spit in my fur!”

“Me spit on you!?” I whirled around, like an unstable toy. “Every moment since you’ve learned to speak, you’ve spent it cursing me, insulting me, conniving to rip away the little pride I have left! How dare you!” I stalked forward, my body feeling not physical sensation, but the ring of emotion, like a gong of war. “You’d cut me away, as if I were the cancer, as if I were the murderer!!”

The beast roared, the sound coming from all around to hammer me onto my knees. I gasped, shuddering, unable to comprehend the force of loathing that battered into my spirit.

Idiot! Weakling!” She screeched, teeth bared and her furry face bunched. Her tawny eyes held me with murderous contempt. “I hate you! Yes! I loathe you! Yes! But I care more to survive than to let your transgressions drag me into the Lunamare!”

“My only transgression was in allowing you to exist, you disgusting creature!”

“And you had no hand, none whatsoever, in allowing Ekilluous out!?”

“No, of course not, I–” I paused, my face screwing up as I sorted out what She had just said. “Ekilluous? That monstrous form is in no way a part of me. That was always your curse!”

“…Sister.” The beast sounded weary. I hated that she sounded weary. I was weary. I was spent from all the years lost fighting with her.

“I am not your sister,” I snapped acerbically.

A snort. “Nyx, then!” I’d never heard her use my name. I’d never heard her admit, even indirectly, that it WAS my name. My jaw tensed and my scowl turned suspicious.

She sat again, but her head was bowed and her ears pressed flat against her head. Every muscle beneath her fur was coiled as though she were prepared to pounce on me. “Have you considered, even for a moment, that I’ve no more an idea of what is beyond this darkness surrounding us than you do?”

I blinked. I turned and looked over my shoulder, into the sea. Then I gave our surroundings another sweep. It occurred to me, how…reclusive this place felt…

…How trapped.

“I…admit, I haven’t,” I said, now looking at Her with uncertainty. “I’ve had no reason to!”

The beast sighed, looking to the stormy sky.

“…Then I’m afraid you are very, very stupid.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn would have gone to sleep against Graziano’s back were it not for the bumping and gallumphing of the scultone. Still, there were unsettling moments when the world turned sideways, and she’d feel the man claw at her to sit upright on the saddle.

“Conio! Will you snap out of it!?” Graziano snapped, pulling Elmiryn back for the third time.

In truth, the woman didn’t quite get it either. Her wound had been cauterized shut, and she’d suffer no other serious injury. Perhaps it was exhaustion and a bit of dehydration, but did those things make the sky a silver plate she wanted to smash? Did that make the blood in her mouth turn to candy? Did that make them jesters, running comically on a giant ball of a world, struggling to keep from falling off?

The woman groaned and squeezed her eyes shut. Too many paper houses. Too many paper people. She felt like paper. Paper at the mercy of an angry wind.

Elmiryn jabbed Graziano in the side. “Stop,” she bit out.

He looked over at her, the head of the scultone dancing in and out of view as it galloped powerfully over the plains.

“What?” he shouted.

With teeth grit, the woman reached up, like a snake striking out, and had the man around the throat. “Son of a bitch, I said STOP!”

He gurgled, his hazelnut eyes wide as a little spit dribbled out the corner of his mouth. The Moretti pulled at the reins, and the scultone reared back, screeching. Both Elmiryn and Graziano were sent tumbling to the ground.

Elmiryn landed on her back, air leaving her lungs to leave her gasping like a fish. She stared up at the ceiling (“…No, damn it, the sky.”) It didn’t take long before she started to feel the world press down on her. She whimpered and rolled to her side, clutching her head. Any moment now, she was going to throw up, she was certain.

“Lia mas idi’uta al terrano!” Graziano spat over her. He had stumbled to his feet, and was now a shadow that towered into the sky. Elmiryn looked at him with squinted eyes.

“M’sorry,” she mumbled.

“Sorry? Sorry!? You could’ve killed us!”

“Fuck…”

“What’s the matter with you!?”

“The best way I can describe it is…is like a hangover…or somethin’. I dunno. I’unno, I–” Elmiryn retched. She rolled over onto her stomach and pressed her forehead against her arm. “Gods damn it…”

“…Elmiryn?”

She retched again, then again, more violently. The woman raised herself up on her good arm just in time to let the bile splash out onto the ground. She wiped the little she had left on her lips and rolled onto her back. She closed her eyes with a frown, panting.

She heard Graziano kneel next to her. The scultone warbled and Elmiryn heard the creature amble off.

“Oye…lia…did that wizard do something to you?”

Elmiryn shook her head. “Besides stabbing me? Not that I know of.”

“What do you think it is, then?” Graziano asked nervously. The warrior opened her eyes some to see the man looking at her with a wrinkled brow. “I’m at a loss.”

Then the woman smiled humorlessly. “Hey…Graz…do you feel…a pressure at your eyes?”

HAKEEM_________________________

Hakeem stared into the dirt, his hands on his thighs as he flexed them and unflexed them. He thought about counting. Counting all the way back. Counting back to Tiesmire, when Quincy had gotten that look in her eye. He thought about counting back to when he had first seen the warrior and the therian. He thought about counting back to when they’d first arrived at Belcliff to accept the marshal’s bounty. He thought about counting back…and back…and…

Argos barked in his ear.

The man jerked, all muscles tensed and quivering as he looked at the dog with fury. Argos, taller than the man as he kneeled, shrank back, his moist eyes blinking.

Hakeem sighed and he relaxed.

“My quarrel…is not with you.” He shook his head. “It’s not even with your companions.” He scowled darkly and stood.

“I’m not even sure it’s with Quincy.” Hakeem began to march toward Belcliff, his eyes narrowed. They entered the city limits. He resisted the urge to visit the site of Quincy’s battle–for there was no doubt in his mind that she and the Fiamman had been involved. The sound he’d heard…

The pair crossed a small park where statues of famous Legends stood amid evergreens and shrubs. The man eyed the faces, something akin to contempt flaring within him as he clenched his gauntlets. He had trained hard to keep his emotions in check…but damn it all, if Quincy wasn’t like a storm to a lone torch. And these statues of crusaders, of warriors, of heroes. He knew none of them, and yet how they ruled his life! Where was his chance for calm? When would he ever reach a point that the scream of a dying star did not haunt his dreams?

“Tai’undu!” Hakeem cursed suddenly. Argos looked at him sideways.

Quincy’s primary tool as a wizard was her sword.

Tonatiuh.

Hakeem had seen all manner of enchanted weaponry–each with their own cost. Some were magicked to guarantee victory in battle, but did not guarantee you’d survive. Some had to be fed blood from its owner just to stay sharp. Some took your memories for every wound you inflicted. In the case of Quincy’s sword…it sought unification. On the surface, someone unlearned might find this completely innocuous. Some warriors even dreamed of living in complete harmony with their weapons of choice.

But for Quincy, Tonatiuh, the Wicked Blade of the Sun, wanted there to be no degree of separation. It wished to be one with her–to be her heart, and her its mind.

Even small displays of power caused Tonatiuh to come closer to the core of the woman, closer to her soul, closer to her life essence that gave anchor to the physical realm. The explosion he had heard, the great boom that was as death to him, was the sound of energy being released. Quincy had trained years to master the use of the Wicked Blade of the Sun, and her tantamount power was to scatter into the light, a being turned immaterial. …Quincy, as he knew it, was…gone.

The salt of her, the richness of her eyes, were ghosts that made it impossible to steel himself. He felt his fury pulse inside of him like a black heart. Then…like bile up his throat, horrible thoughts came unbidden. Hakeem thought about killing Argos by bashing his head in with his fists; he thought about destroying the marshal’s home while his family were still in it; he thought about choking the life out of Quincy–the light out of her eyes.

Hakeem’s steps slowed and he held out a hand to Argos, who stopped next to him. The dog peered up at the man uncertainly, his tail giving a tentative wag.

Hakeem looked at Argos with squinted eyes. “Do you feel that?” The dog stared at him blankly.

The wizard turned his head and blinked. He squeezed his eyes shut when he thought he saw one of the statues move. They were nearly out of the park. He thought about going back, but his thoughts were soon flooded with images of burning huts. He could taste ash on his tongue, and spat, grimacing. Somewhere in the distance, he heard someone screaming. Then in another direction, angry shouts and wild hoots.

Hakeem chewed the corner of his lip, biting hard, and tried to focus his thoughts. He tried to resume his counting, but his nose itched at the thought of finding the Fiamman and beating her within an inch of her–

Hakeem turned, still chewing on his lip. A manic look had taken over his eyes as he stalked one way, then another. Argos stared at him, confused. He woofed once–twice–but Hakeem didn’t even look at him. When the man tasted blood from his lip, he wrenched himself back in the direction they had come.

The dog didn’t follow immediately. He barked after the wizard, whines acting as bridges to his sharp calls. Eventually he went after Hakeem, snarling. Hakeem turned, fist pulled back in warning. “Argos, stop!” The dog skidded to a halt some feet away from the man. His lips were pulled back and his eyes seared a question.

“I’m not betraying your trust,” Hakeem said through grit teeth. “But we have to leave the city. There’s something here, floating through the streets. A taint. A curse. Something. It wasn’t here before. Or maybe it was, but not as strong.” The man gestured at himself. “It’s feeding off of my emotions. I imagine the recent battle may have something to do with it as well.” He pointed behind him. “The quickest way back out is the way we’ve come. Then we’ll go around. We’re more likely to find your companions like this anyway–the scultones were too large and conspicuous to take into the city. If need be, we’ll use my magic to catch up to them.”

Argos considered this, then he relaxed, fur settling. He gave a nod and Hakeem returned it. Instead of walking as they had before, the man took to a sprint, the dog easily keeping pace. They had to leave the city before the capacity to choose that option was lost.

It was the wizard’s new belief that the dark influence over Belcliff had made Quincy pierce herself with Tonatiuh’s fang. The warrior, the Fiamman, knew something–was related to this somehow. Had been from the start–before any of them had even been aware of what was going on. Hakeem had to find her. He’d gain their trust by aiding in the rescue of Syria, if need be. The enchantress was involved somehow, too.

Something had to be done.

NYX____________________________

“Why is taking some of my strength so reprehensible to you!?” My Twin snarled. “You took my arm without so much fuss, why this? Now!?”

“Because!” I shouted back. I opened my mouth, then closed it. I was starting to feel…faint. Thin. “Because!” I tried again. I frowned and rubbed at my eye, sighing. “Because…be…because…”

“I suppose our survival can wait while you sort yourself out,” the beast offered drily.

I glared at her. “…B-Because, I thought I’d have your arm for o-only a short time. Not…Not two days! What happens if we…if we…if…if we get stuck again? I may still be in control, but it’ll be…with your fur, and…and your fangs, and you p-p-practically a constant p-presence in my…our…my mind!”

“No more than now?”

I looked away. Tears were in my eyes. The formation of my thoughts came with great effort, and I was beginning to feel…immaterial.

The great feline padded toward me cautiously, her head bowed low. Around us, the shadows seemed to press in. “Nyx…we have no choice. Hate me as much as you’d like, but our time draws short. I fear we may even be too late!”

I looked at Her, my lips thin, my chin crumpled, my heart wrenching in disgust and loathing and fear.

I stretched out a transparent hand to touch her fur…

Heartbeats. Light, invasive, darkness fleeing, and…all image and sound was torn away by a din that heralds change.

How terrible to forget something like that. How much more horrendous to remember it!

…Shapeshifting…the pure agony of it!

My muscles tore and pulled–ligaments snapping and bones shifting painfully beneath skin. Sweat. Blood in my mouth made me incensed and I gurgled out a scream. My chest expanded, filling my large tunic. My gambeson moved with my transformation, thanks to its enchantment. My skin tingled as fur sprouted, and heat swept over me. I wailed, then hissed, then released a bestial scream as my spine reassembled into its new form–my tail forcing its way out of the special opening in the seat of my pants. My feet tore through my boots. I clawed at the dirt, ears sprouting at the top of my head just in time to hear Paulo shouting in shock and surprise (possibly horror.) I gnashed my teeth, the pain in my gums giving way to a feeling of strength.

I opened my eyes.

The world was different. I exhaled, shamefully acknowledging…how much I loved being in this form. It was the one form of the Lunar Hall that I still felt in control–but best of all, I was stronger. As always, eyesight became fuzzy around the edges and color became dull. My whiskers, sprouting from my fleshy chops, quivered from the breeze.

The first one I saw was Paulo. The boy was some inches shorter than me now, and he pressed back into a building, scowling at me apprehensively. It appeared he’d dragged me to safety, behind some sacks of rotted vegetables, where my blood had pooled onto the ground. He’d tried to wrap a handkerchief around my leg to stem the bleeding, but from the looks of it, it had been futile. The boy had his sword drawn, and he held it uncertainly as though he wasn’t sure he needed to turn it on me yet.

I decided to ease his fears.

While I had taken a very humanoid form, my mouth–with its fangs–made speech much more difficult. When I spoke, I had trouble hitting my consonants, and I sounded as though I had a lisp. “Paulo…dun’ be afray.” I touched a clawed hand to my chest. I resisted the urge to smile (that would likely make him panic.) “I’s me…Ny’ks!”

His scowl deepened, but he gave a nod. He turned and pointed down the way. “Lethia, la loca, is fighting Karolek using his own magic!”

My ears turned flat against my head and I twisted around, claws tensing. “She’s wha’!?” I hissed. My tail whipped angrily behind me. “An’ you le’d her!?”

“I didn’t have much of a choice with you bleeding out and me being virtually no match for that giant calgato!” The boy shot back. “And if you haven’t noticed, lia, it’s a little hard to jump into the fray right now!”

He was right.

It was a flurry of metal–sparks flying everywhere, the din it caused awe-inspiring–with blade deflecting blade, and bullet paths warping to miss narrowly by inches. A stray spike flew our way, and the boy and I ducked as it made a crate explode into splinters from the impact. We dared to look again. Karolek and Lethia were standing yards apart, sometimes shifting feet or ducking, but largely remaining in place–their hands orchestrating the chaos in a flurry. The scene was almost too much to follow.

Lethia, through some trick of her power no doubt, had somehow learned how to wield Karolek’s power of sorcery. It took more out of her, this much was clear from where I stood (I could smell the exhaustion on her, even) but she was holding her own, manipulating the metal that flew through the air like she had been doing it for years. I had seen her do it when she stole Paulo’s skill in fencing. I was shocked (and delighted) to see that she could use this same power for certain skills in magic.

But then the girl cried out, and she fell to the ground, hand at her shoulder from a cut no doubt. Karolek pressed forward, his expression triumphant.

My Twin, whose presence was so clear as to make me feel as though she were peering with my eyes, let out a war-like scream. Then I realized that I was screaming, too–with Her. Karolek froze, his eyes locking onto me. The triumph on his face evaporated.

Always more apt to violence than I, my Twin prodded at my muscles. “Forward, sister! Attack now!” she hissed.

With Paulo at my side, I did just that.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn was on her feet again, her eyes glassy. Graziano had his hand on her back as he frowned with worry.

“Lia…you look terrible! Like Paulo did just a few days ago!”

She chuckled. “I’m not surprised.” She wiped at her runny nose with her sleeve and gave a sniff, her eyes looking around them. The frosted fields, a palette of gray and white, cracked in her eyes as glass did–bits of dark grass and the shadows of hillocks giving stark contrast in the pale view. They were closer to the northern mountains, the city a dark mass behind them. Graziano had pressed the scultone into full gallop (“The militia already know about us–no use trying to be subtle. They’ll never catch up with their horses, anyhow.”)

“Holzoff is not far from here. We’ll rendezvous with the others and set forth with the second part of our plan.”

Elmiryn nodded, turning her head. She squinted as she saw something black fuzz out of view, then back. This happened again, and the thing, whatever it was, became closer. The woman blinked. And was that something white and shaggy flashing with it?

“Graziano?”

The man looked at her as he prepared to mount the scultone again. “Yes?”

“…Is that our prisoner teleporting toward us, or am I hallucinating again?”


Back to Chapter 14.3 | Forward to Chapter 15.2

Chapter 15.2

NYX____________________________

Violence was a whip crack all throughout me, and I was propelled by the force of it–fangs extended, claws bared, tail lashing, my eyes beholding Karolek’s look of surprise like blood in a cup.  I pulled back an arm and punched forward, putting all my body into the swing.  Karolek, shifted away, leaving my claws to gouge into his armor, but not break through.  Paulo moved to cut him as well, but the sorcerer was fast to deflect the attack with his saber.  As the man moved, the blades in the air around us shuddered.  I hissed, looking at them with a look of fear.  Paulo cursed next to me.

The blades shot toward us, and I held up an arm to shield myself, my Twin roaring in my head.

But the pain did not come.

I looked and saw Lethia up in a kneeling position, one hand held out as she trembled from the strain.  I could see blood trickling down from her nose and her eyes were bloodshot, but her look held lightning, and I knew she was not even close to defeat.  Emboldened by her righteous fury, so did I strike, one claw lashing out in a wide swipe as Paulo came down low with a cut from his rapier.  Again, Karolek blocked Paulo’s swing, which would have brought the large man down to his knees…but my blow he did not escape.

My claws struck true, from near his nose and along the flesh of his cheek, down past the jaw and cutting the high part of his neck.  His body traveled away from me, and the path of my hand made my cuts to his neck shallow–too shallow to reach any vital arteries.  My attack tore the sorcerer with a fluidity that made me shiver in a horrifying clash of revulsion and delight.  I saw the blood spray, the little bits of flesh flying.  The smell of Karolek filled my head fast, and my hand was stained with him.  My mouth salivated and the fur along my spine went stiff.  I looked at him, saw him reel away, roaring–still a strong man for the blow I gave him, but shaken still.  He recovered faster than I could anticipate, cutting at us with his saber in a sloppy swing, no less dangerous than a cornered animal.  Paulo fell back far, but I ducked beneath his attack, dashing forward to knee the man in the gut, then struck at the back of his knee with the top of my foot (a trick Elmiryn had shown me).  The man dropped down into a kneel, and without pause, I gripped Karolek around his neck and beneath his left arm.  Even in my new state, Karolek still bested me in size, but I had gained in other things as well.

I grunted, teeth bared and my vision going dark as the scent of the blood, so close now, had my Twin growling.

“Rip out his throat!  Tear it!  He would have killed us for his arrogant show of power, the fat-headed beast!” she hissed.

The sorcerer struggled against me as I tried to choke him to sleep, my claws biting into him as I fought to keep my hold.  I could feel his life trickling past my fingertips.  The metal on the ground shuddered like angry beetles, but with Lethia up again and his concentration broken, Karolek could not get the hold he needed to utilize his power properly.

The man elbowed me twice, his elbow burying into my gut and knocking the breath from me.  I struggled to hold on, jerking him one way, then another.  My ear twisted to the side and I heard others coming toward us, and soon I could smell the oiled metal, the warm smell of leather, the sweat and tobacco.  Paulo rushed to meet the new assailants–a brief look proving them to be more militia men.  Two of them.  But I strained my ears and was certain that more were near.

“Kill him!  Idiot!” My Twin snapped within me.  I felt something heavy and thick clawing up the inner reaches of my thoughts–and my nose tickled with the smell of wet snow and blood and aspen trees.

“You won’t have another chance!”  She screamed–but her voice was wrong.  Warped somehow.  She paced along our mindscape, eyes like daggers…and against all reason, her words gained appeal.  Suddenly I wanted to snap Karolek’s neck.  I wanted to feel the life flee him, hear his last breath.  The man still tried to beat me away with his arms, and he shifted in furious attempts to stand.  I wrenched him back far, forcing him into an awkward bend that stole away his leverage.  I screeched in his ear something terrible.  I thought about breaking his knees and chewing off his arms.  The blood would taste so good, and he’d sit well in my stomach, I thought.

“Yes he would!”  My Twin exclaimed, her furry face pulling back into a smile that seemed a hair’s breath away from a grimace.

Then I lifted my head, eyes on Lethia, with her hands held out, looking on the verge of collapse, her oval-shaped face scratched and pale and quivering from her efforts.  Through the sweat and strain, she nodded at me, her green eyes on my shoulder.  They were filled with such…trust.

The darkness was filling me, I could feel it.

“Kill him!”  My feline counterpart hissed.  “Kill him!

“And what would this bring us!?”  I said hurriedly in my mind.  “Look around you!  The darkness is coming closer!”

My Twin seemed to pause.  My heart lifted in surprise and hope.  She too had sensed something amiss.  The fact that she was still in control enough to be aware of this fact meant that we could stop this force from swallowing us completely.

“Beast!”  I called.  Then, tentatively, “Sister!

The feline’s ears perked and she raised her head high, looking up.

“I will not kill this man.  But I will not be defeated.  We have to survive–even against this fury.  Do you feel it?”

“What?” she asked.

“That pressure at our eyes!”  I heard metal clash with metal, but could not go to Paulo’s aid.  A minute had not passed yet, but even so, I expected more militia men any second.  “We’ve felt this before!  This evil!  It tormented us in Gamath!  Help me fight it now!  Please, sister!  …Please!!

The feline blinked…

Then nodded.

The violent images, like phantoms in my head, were banished away.

I yelled, my voice turned to gravel as I squeezed  Karolek’s neck with all my might.  The man’s face was dark and seemed swollen.  His eyes rolled to meet mine and a terse breath slipped his teeth before his eyes rolled up into his head and he went slack in my arms.  Panting, I released him.

The wind teased my fur, and I felt it cool the sweat on my skin.  My whiskers quivered as I twitched my nose and turned, inhaling deep, to see Paulo engaged with the two city guards.  He fared better than before, his parries quick and his strikes chipped away at sloppy defenses.  These men were not as experienced as their comrades whom we had faced.  They seemed a bit distracted.

A bit distracted with me.

My thoughts were no longer so clouded, now that me and my Twin worked in harmony to keep control.  I could feel her focus as she fled from snatching shadows.  But the fury…the lust for violence…the pressure at my eyes and the illness in my stomach, they were still there.  I took a step forward, my teeth grinding, my muscles bunching.  Their battle was intoxicating to smell.  My claws ached with the need to bury into warm flesh.

I took a deep breath, sliding one foot back, my tail lashing, my ears flat against my head and my furry face bunched tight–

I roared.

I put my whole body into it, tore at my vocal chords, pushed with my diaphragm, squeezed out every last bit of breath from my lungs.

The militia men stuttered out cries, their faces going pale.  They stepped back, one falling on the ground as Paulo shoved him back from a tense cross of swords.  They pulled at each other, eyes on me always, then fled, their swords abandoned on the ground.  I snarled and gallumphed a few feet after them on all fours.  I let out another deep-throated roar, and I saw them run faster.  One man’s helmet flew off his head, and fell clattering to the ground.

Paulo whooped and turned to look at me with a grin.  His smile faltered some and he took a step back.  “Eh…Lia?”

I knelt down, panting.  I couldn’t relax my muscles.  My fur still remained puffed out.  I bared my teeth and bowed my head, both hands planting themselves on the ground.  A light hand on my shoulder made me whip around and hiss.

Lethia jumped back, her hand flying to her mouth.  She looked at Paulo, then at me again.  “Nyx…are you okay?”

An arrow whizzed past us, nearly hitting Lethia’s head.  The militia men were back, and there were four others with them.  The archer, more than a block away, notched another arrow as his comrades sprinted toward us, out of his line of sight.  I let out a spitting sound from the back of my throat, then rose to my feet.  My toes dug themselves into the dirt as I prepared to dash forward.  But Paulo stepped before me (looking quite nervous about doing so) and held up a shaking hand.  “No, we have to run!”

The archer shot his arrow, and I pulled the boy with me as I jumped to the side, dodging.  He didn’t get a chance to thank me.  One of the militia men reached us and both he and Lethia began to skip backwards, preparing to run all out.  I drew back my palm and slammed it into the man’s chest.  He launched back into his comrade.  The other two militia men were not far behind them.

“Nyx!” Lethia screamed shrilly.

“Comin’!” I said in my awkward speech, and I turned to join the other two, the claws of my feet kicking up dirt.  Together the three of us fled.  At one point, Lethia fell, her eyes lidded as though she were ready to pass out.  I hardly paused as I swept her up over my shoulder and continued running.  Behind us, the militia men grew smaller still.  With all their armor, they could not match our speed, and we lost them in the maze of streets.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn took a step forward as she drew her sword.  She could hear muted booms and they came closer each time the dark individual disappeared and reappeared.  Behind her, Graziano cursed.  He appeared next to her, pistol in hand, and aimed it.  “What in the devil is going on!?” he hissed.

The woman felt the air pulse and shift around her–then in the next instant, she was blown off her feet, Graziano at her side.  The scultone screeched and reared back, its form turning dark against the pale sky.  The two rolled out of harm’s way, clumsily pulling at one another.  When they were up on their feet again, all around them had gone quiet.  The booms and rumbles had stopped.

Then Argos came rushing toward them, barking happily, his tail wagging as he reared back onto his hind legs to look Elmiryn in the eyes.

Elmiryn blinked at him, then smiled slowly.  “Oh…hey, didn’t I go out drinking with you, once?”

The dog went back to all fours, his head tilting to the side as he woofed at her as though to say, “Uh…no.”

The woman scratched her head, frowned at the dog.  Then her eyebrows went high.  “Oh!  Mangy Beast!”

Argos barked, his tail wagging again.

Elmiryn looked at Graziano, who had his pistol aimed.  He had a look of disbelief on his handsome face, his curly hair wild and looking as frazzled as he likely was.  The woman followed his gaze, and realized the source of his astonishment.

Hakeem, the dark-skinned wizard, stood before them, his head lowered as he gazed at them beneath the shadow of his brow.  There was a flash, and in the next instant, his armor was gone, leaving him only with his doublet and chainmail sleeves.  Slowly, he put his hands on his head.

“I’m not looking for trouble,” He said quietly.

“I don’t believe you.” Graziano snapped.

Hakeem closed his eyes.  “The circumstances have changed.”

“Really?  They look the same from where I’m standing.”

“Let me help you free Syria.”

What?

Graziano stepped forward, his mouth open to let loose an insult no doubt, but Elmiryn held up a hand.  Her cerulean eyes held Hakeem fast, tracing his features from head-to-toe.  She felt like she were seeing him for the first time.

“Why the change of heart, wizard?” She asked, shouldering her sword.

The man gestured with his head toward Belcliff.  “I heard your battle with my partner.  She pierced herself with her sword and vanished into the light after swearing she’d never again do such a thing.”

“She’s done that before?”

“Yes.  But I can never be certain of her return.”

“Then what do you want?”

“I want to know what’s going on.”  The man opened his eyes and held Elmiryn’s gaze fiercely.  “An evil hangs over Belcliff, and your battle has stirred the forces there into madness.  People of magic are the first to succumb–leading me to believe that Quincy was not under free will when she pierced herself with her sword.  Since the beginning, you’ve been involved with this somehow.  You claim you helped cure Gamath of a similar curse.  I’d help you do the same here.”

The woman crossed her arms, her lips twisted into a sneer.  “But for what, wizard?”

“…You seek something.  Something great.  I believe we search for the same thing.”

“Oh?  Are you out to kill astral demons too?  I didn’t realize it was such a popular occupation!”

Graziano looked at her with squinted eyes.  “Those aren’t real!  Is that what you’ve been thinking it was the whole time!?”

Hakeem scowled at her.  “I confess, I find that odd as well.  What does a myth have to do with Tobias?”

She squinted one eye.  “Who?”

“Tobias.” His tone gained a level of impatience.

Elmiryn and Graziano looked at each other.  The Moretti shrugged and mouthed, “I don’t know.”

The warrior turned back to Hakeem, eyebrow raised.  “Wizard, I don’t know anyone named Tobias.”

“He’s the one who wrote the chronicles you know so well!  The stories of Earth, Wind, and Fire!” The man looked outright confused now.

“Huh?  …OH!”  Elmiryn tilted her head back and let out a laugh.  “That guy!  Yeah, I never met him personally.  My friend did, though.”

“She…” Hakeem’s eyes widened and his lips parted in surprise.  “That’s impossible!” he spat, suddenly angry.  Graziano cocked his pistol and the man settled quiet, his eyes on the gun’s muzzle.

It was Elmiryn’s turn to look confused.  “Why is that impossible?”

Hakeem looked at her, his sensuous lips pinched thin. “Because Tobias is dead. He’s been dead for nearly eighteen years!

Elmiryn shrugged.  “Well, you’re wrong.  Nyx met the man, and he gave her his book.”

“Where did you meet him?”

“Dame.”

“But…” Hakeem stared at the ground.  “Wikan,  Tobias…igetu ko veda…?”

The warrior didn’t understand what the man said, so she ignored it.  She had a question dancing on her tongue.  “Is that why you and Quincy have been after Nyx and me?  For a fucking fairytale some lonely creep wrote in his spare time?”

Hakeem’s muscles bunched, and his hands shifted to form fists against his head.  “They aren’t fairytales, woman.”  His dark face turned a ruddy shade, and his features tightened to look as though he were one of the stark, angry statues found in Belcliff.  “Those stories are real. And they’re about the people who have taken away any hope Quincy and I had for a normal life!”

Elmiryn’s eyebrows went high.  She recalled her conversation with Nyx, prior to arriving in Tiesmire.  “Those stories…Tobias…he wrote them about…?”

“Himself.  His comrades.  Every inch of it is true…which is why we need to see the book your friend possesses.”

“What for?  What would you do?”

Hakeem’s eyes darkened.  “Have our revenge…”

NYX____________________________

We delved deep into the fields, a little further westward than when we had first entered, but Paulo still managed to spot his marker.  As we ran towards it, he gave a whistle.  The scultone surfaced in a burst of earth and snow.  It screeched and thrashed its head and tail, white eyes on us as we came near.  It seemed unconcerned by my new form–perhaps it could still smell me beneath all the wildness.  I let Lethia back down, and she smiled at me weakly.  The girl eyed the draconic beast with great trepidation.  Paulo gestured at the scultone and held out his hand to her.

“It’ll be a tight fit, but we should be able to ride all right.  I won’t be able to go at full speed though.” He helped Lethia up onto the scultone as he said this.  The girl squealed a little as the monster shifted beneath her.

Next he climbed on.  Paulo looked down at me, his expression tight.  “I…didn’t count on you being so big.  Can you shift back to normal, lia?”

I blinked up at him.  What a good question.

I scratched at my ear and sighed.  Now that we were out of the city, the tension in me had vanished.  My thoughts were unburdened by dark things.  I turned to my Twin and asked uncertainly.  “Can we shift back?”

The beast sighed, and she became heavier on my mind.  I realized what it was I was really asking her.  I was asking her to go back into her lonely, terrifying realm–her home so haunted with anger and fear and sadness.

But to my surprise, she nodded her head.  “Yes.  Together now, sister.  Let’s return you.”

She pulled away from me, taking back her strength, her fur, her fangs and claws.  I let her go…and felt conflicted.  I could not say that I loved her.  I could not say that I could forgive her for all the past problems we’d had.  But…for the first time, since I could remember, we’d been in harmony.  Even if it were only for a moment.  She had also made me aware of something new, something harrowing and vile.  But if this thing were indeed true, then she was innocent of Atalo’s death–or perhaps one could say she were still guilty, but then so would I–for what if there were a Third that lurked in the darkness of our mind?  If we continued to quarrel, splintered as we were, could we hope to keep it from coming forth again, as it had over a year ago?

I didn’t know, and it frightened me.

These thoughts, a confusing flurry that came rushing through me in a gasp of breath, were swallowed in the pain of my transformation back to naked skin and sapien limbs.  Bones and muscles shifted.  When the process was through, I was on the ground, panting.  Paulo was down on the ground again, his hands rough on me as he forced me up.

“Come on, we have to go, I see the militia men coming!” he bit out.

My bare feet, stinging already from the cold, stumbled to keep up with him.  Clumsily, I joined Lethia on the scultone, sitting behind her, my rear spilling over the edge of the saddle–it was going to be an uncomfortable ride.

Paulo came up and took the reins.  He pressed down against the scultones neck and let out two loud hoots.  The scultone screeched and took off, the boy steering it northward.  Lethia and I held on as best as we could.

Our next stop was Holzoff’s Tower.


Back to Chapter 15.1 | Forward to Chapter 15.3

Chapter 15.3

So I did a podcast, sort of. It isn’t the entire chapter, I’ll be honest. (This idea was sort of last minute, and I wasn’t even done writing when I started recording, ha ha) so just an FYI.  Click the text or play button and the player will show.  For some, it may take a bit to load.  If it doesn’t, try refreshing the page.  There’s also a download option, if you prefer saving it to your computer.
— Illise M.

Eikasia Podcast – Chapter 15.3 (beta)

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn sucked at her teeth, her cerulean eyes casting about a dark face creviced with a buried rage that was as aged wine.  Her mind tickled, and she thought she recognized this curious expression.  Had she worn it in the past?  Eyes, mirrors, and eyes on mirrors, reflecting not as they should but as she willed–they had indeed displayed such dark things to her light gaze, and yet the woman hadn’t come to appreciate such human passion as she did right at that moment.  She felt familiar with it, like it were a dream she had enjoyed.  Nyx’s anger, even in her most primal of states, was of a different breed than what Hakeem kept tapped down behind dark eyes.  Hers was an anger anew, sprouting like a bud from a sadness curdled by fear and frustration.  But here…ah, but here

“So in return for your help, you want the information we have?”  Elmiryn scratched at her cheek, her blade still resting against her shoulder.  “That’s it, really?”

The wizard’s face softened to that of a keen barterer.  “…And a portion of the reward Lethia Artaud has promised you, of course.”

Graziano scoffed.  “Es un mal negoste!” He looked at Elmiryn.  “You know we have no stake in your reward–ours is to be cured of the evil that was beset on us.  But this calgato asks too much!”

“Is it too much when you could be able to reset the events of history and travel at the speed of light?” Hakeem stated mildly.  His hands had uncurled from their fists and now rested loosely at the base of his head.  Now he looked less like a prisoner, and more like a companion just coming out of a stretch.

Elmiryn wagged a finger at him.  “Now, now, wizard!  You said it yourself.  You don’t know if your friend is even coming back.”

Hakeem, in less than a minute, was back to the mild-voiced, stoic-faced man he had been up on the mountain.  “Elmiryn, you and your companions are seeking to break into Holzoff’s Tower with little to no plan–”

“–Now I wouldn’t go that far–”

“–And you’re skills, though they are formidable, are ill-equipped for this venture.  You need someone with power.  You need my magic.  I admit that Quincy may not return–but if she does, her cooperation will be absolute.  I know my companion.  She’ll do everything she can to re-materialize.”

“This is stupid.” Graziano muttered, but his pistol lowered.

Elmiryn looked down at Argos.  She bent over and in a faux whisper, asked him, “Do you think it’s a good idea, Argos?”

Argos looked at Hakeem.  He grumbled from the back of his throat, taking a moment to twist around and chew on his flank.  Then he straightened, and with a curt snort, nodded his head.  The warrior returned the nod and straightened.  “Fine, wizard.  We’ll let you come.”

“You’ll listen to the gods damn dog, but not me!? Graziano kicked at the ground.  “Me teshie! I’m telling you, I don’t like this idea, lia!” The man half-shouted.  He waved his pistol threateningly at the wizard.  “I’ve dealt with this man before–he’ll backstab us the first chance he gets!”

Elmiryn stepped toward Hakeem, sheathing her sword.  She smiled and placed her hands high on her hips.  “Mmm…well.  This man may be just as you say, Graz.  But he isn’t stupid.  I defeated Quincy single-handedly, and together we’ve beat him down once already.  If he wants his gold, and if he wants his information, he’ll play nice.”  The woman’s eyes darkened, but her smile didn’t waver.  “Right, Hakeem?”

The man stared into her eyes unflinchingly.  Then he nodded.

“Yes.  Of course.”

Elmiryn clapped her hands and turned around.  “Right!  Let’s get to it!” she said cheerfully.

———————

Deeper, deeper, deeper still.

Were it not for the foresight of Graziano, Elmiryn would’ve froze her ass off.  The cloak he lent her was made from the skin of a creature Elmiryn could not readily identify (it was a dark orange, almost a burnt umber, with dark stripes and odd spots at the edges).  Hakeem was left to withstand the cold, the winds clawing at him unmercifully as they crested a mountain peak.  He gripped onto Argos with one arm, his brow low and tight from the strain of holding the massive dog.  Argos bumped his head against her flank occasionally.  He seemed to loathe riding the scultone, but couldn’t refrain from looking each time they slid down a particularly steep mountain face.  Elmiryn bopped him on the head once when his thrashings knocked her sword handle painfully into her ribs.  She would’ve cursed at him too–her side was still sore from when he had pounced her days ago outside of Tiesmire–but the ride spared her little breath.  Their energy and focus was spent on holding on and bracing against gut-dropping jumps.

They came to a relief, where the snow had compacted hard.  Graziano pulled at his scultone, bringing it to stop.  He slid off and patted the beast’s side, looking at them all.

“Let’s rest,” he panted.  His breath was a fog.

“Where are the others, exactly?” Elmiryn asked as she jumped down.

Graziano pointed toward the horizon.  “Still a ways away.  Their heading there by a different route than us.  Paulo knows where he’s going.  We probably won’t see them till late evening.”

“It’ll be too dark then…”

“Considering the nature of our plan, lia, I wouldn’t fret much about it being nighttime.  There’s much more to consider.”

“I guess.”  Argos bumped Elmiryn’s side, and the woman blinked and looked down at him.  The dog peered at her, brows pressed up, but his lips were pulled back far to make him look like he were smiling…and maybe he was?  The woman chuckled and scratched his head.  She didn’t need to bend down to do so.

“Lia, is your friend really up to the task of breaking into Holzoff’s?  After all is said and done, it comes down to her.  We won’t be able to catch the commanding guard of Syria’s floor, so Nyx will have to lockpick her way in.” Graziano said before he took a drink from his flask, which he seemed to pull out from inside his cloak.

Elmiryn’s brows went high and she gestured at the item.  The man blinked and passed it to her, without the cap.  She took a swig–cider and rum, warm, perhaps because he’d kept it close to his body the whole time.  The woman sighed in satisfaction and handed the flask back, somewhat reluctantly.  Just a little for the cold, she told herself.

She answered the man’s question with strong conviction.  “Nyx has been in these situations before.  She’s strong and capable, even if she doesn’t realize it.”

“Eh?  Well…” and here Graziano placed a hand on his pistol, his fingers tracing the ivory stock.  “Un otrie sin casé, no posque funcío.  A tool has no purpose without a hand to use it.”

“She’ll do what needs to be done.”  Elmiryn patted Argos head, and he whined as he looked up at her, pink tongue panting.  “She cares about Lethia.  And when she cares…I mean, really cares–she fights.”  The woman smiled slowly.  It occurred to her, that for all the annoyance this caused her…she was proud to say this.  She was even more proud, knowing the tawny-eyed girl was her partner.  “That’s…my Nyx,” she finished quietly.

Argos licked her hand once, as though to let her know he understood, then laid down at her feet.  Graziano just shrugged and took to stroking the scultone along its thick neck.  His head was turned slightly however.  He was keeping an eye on Hakeem.  The wizard in question was standing some feet away, staring toward the East, where the wind whipped at them from.

They were quite high still, even after coming down from the tallest mountain tips.  Elmiryn tried to guess, by the popping of her ears, their elevation.  The most she could say was, “High as hell,” because when her mind tried to recall how low Belcliff had seemed at the mountain peak, she found herself doubting the gray, indefinite memory.  This put her in a sour mood, and she ventured as near to the edge of the cliff as she dared, trying to see how much farther they had to go.  Down below, some twenty yards, she saw something displace the serenity of the snow, and she realized she was looking at a long furry creature, with a round snout, small round ears, and thick long whiskers.  It paused and peered up at her, its bulbous-tipped tail wiggling like a worm.  The woman crouched and frowned.  It looked like it had a dead baby batreng in its mouth.

The creature turned and slinked away in disinterest, further down the slope.  Elmiryn found she could no longer pick it out again with her eyes.

“The creatures here pride themselves in being things unseen.”  The woman turned and eyed Hakeem, who had moved to stand a little ways from her.  He gazed over the edge, a contemplative look on his face.  “The creature you just saw, the Albian mongoose, is an animal, not a monster–but it’s clever and can prey on magical creatures just the same.  Even the monsters that would otherwise seem easy to spot manage some level of inconspicuousness.  The batrengs learn to fly only when necessary and avoid the snow, so that their dark bodies blend into the shadows and the rock.  Devil weeds burn themselves a home in odd places, snatching at unsuspecting creatures.   But those creatures aren’t the best at concealment out here.”

Elmiryn took the bait, leaning onto her knees.  “Oh?  And what is?”

Hakeem looked at her.  “Daesce.  They are monsters that look like primeapes.  They have long white hair and small dark faces.  Their shorter than us by maybe 5-10 inches, but are stocky with muscle.” He took his thumbs and index fingers and made hooks.  “Instead of hands, they have two large claws that they use to grip into the hard snow and dirt, much like Graziano’s scultone.  They move silently, and for creatures their size, they are wickedly fast.”

“And what do they do?

“They’re humanoid monsters–so they are given less to following instinct and more to cruel impulse.  They’ll kill you when they’ve already eaten, and they’ll destroy any man-made item they can get their claws on.”  Hakeem tilted his head back to scratch at his throat.  “…I’ve even heard they’ll rape their victims–irregardless of gender or age.  Again, they’re humanoids.  There’s some twisted mockery to be had, on a cosmic level.  Only the gods know why they let such things exist.”

“How lovely.”  Elmiryn shook her head, a grin on her lips.  “Well, it didn’t come from Halward.  He’s more the sort of god that’d limit your chances for survival by engulfing you in fire–not rape-death by demon monkey-people up on a cold mountain.  Maybe we’ll get lucky and manage to avoid those things.” The woman straightened, and as she turned, she saw Hakeem, chin to chest, a smirk on his lips.  She frowned, paused, and placed a hand on her hip.

“What?” She asked, curious.

Hakeem looked at her out of the corner of his eye.  “The guards at Holzoff’s Tower have a high mortality rate.  Atleast one man is killed or severely wounded each week.  But it’s not because of their prisoners.  There’s a reason that prison is so famous.  They may have a great number of guards, and even a complex series of barricades and checkpoints…but the fact of the matter is, prisoners don’t want to escape.  They don’t want to be torn apart by the daesce, who swarm over the tower like locusts.  But what’s truly fascinating is that, you’d never know so many were there, because they’re so good at hiding.  So good at blending in.  And what’s out of sight, is out of mind, and therefor–”

“–Most dangerous.” Elmiryn finished with a frown.  She made a scoffing noise from the back of her throat, her arms crossing high over her chest.  “Are you telling me that the guards are so stupid, they don’t see a bunch of monsters who are practically all around them?”

Hakeem shook his head, a patient expression on his face.  “No.  I’m telling you that this is the way of Albias.”  He took his hand and held it straight with palm-edge down, making as though he were indicating something in the air.  “From Dolmensk, to Belcliff, to Holzoff’s–the state of mind of each of these places is that there is danger, all around.”  Here Hakeem began to walk away.

“But they never know where it’s going to come from next…” he finished.

???_____________________________

The marshal was in a rage.

“This was our notary building!He seethed, gesturing at the blasted edifice that once was considered some of the best architecture found in the city.  (That wasn’t saying much, considering how foul-looking the city was.  You’d have expect a gargoyle to snatch you into the shadows.) The pavement of the courtyard was churned and turned to dust, and the integrity of the surrounding buildings were called into question.  Columns had been knocked out, gigantic cracks trailing through walls, the dirt and dust conquering the once “well-crafted” stone.  Hallmarks of art, wealthy businesses, a functioning channel of traffic–all lost.

Such a stupid, petty thing to fuss over.  Atleast no one had died.

“Who did this!?”  The marshal screamed, his shoulders about his purple ears as his fists trembled at his sides.  The militia shrank away, their armor like bells sounding the retreat.  Eventually the marshal’s assistant, Herman, was shoved in front of him.  The boy looked ready to piss his pants.

The marshal narrowed his cobalt eyes at him.  “Well, Herman?  Have your mousy ears picked up anything even remotely useful?”

The boy stammered, his brown eyes wide.  He looked as though he wanted to be anywhere but there.  “I–I–I–um–”

“Marshal!”

….?

The man turned scowling, but his expression let up when he saw who was running toward them.  “Arduino…?”

The eldest Moretti was sweat-drenched, his hair freed of its bond to dance wild with the wind.  (He once had his hair cropped short.  He looked better with it like that.)  The man nodded and bowed slightly.  “Ah…signore.  I’ve finally found you.”  He straightened, hand on his heart and his other hand behind his back.  “I’ve been all about the city.  I come with information.”

The marshal straightened, his eyes turning sharp.  “Oh?  What information do you have for me, Arduino?”

“Marshal, there is a plot underway to free the enchantresses.”  The marshal’s face tightened, but before he could say anything the Moretti continued.  “The battle that took place here–it was only a distraction to allow certain individuals to free Lethia Artaud.  They mean to free Syria next.  I imagine they must be on their way there now.”

“That’s ludicrous!  They won’t even make it to the prison, let alone get inside of it!  Syria will not be going anywhere.”  All bluster and bravado.  Doesn’t even stop to fact-check.  It’s only mildly surprising.  The marshal’s reputation was spotless, and he was known to be a level-headed leader…but now…?

Arduino’s face turned grave.  He braced his shoulders and took a step forward.  “See, that’s just the issue, signore.  My brothers are with these individuals–misguided–and I’d not have them harmed!”

The marshal looked at Arduino as though he’d grown a second head.  “Your brothers are–?”

“Marshal, my brother Paulo has fallen ill, and my family have been persuaded to think that the enchantresses are the only ones who can help him.” Arduino bowed low.  “I apologize, signore.  But I would’ve stopped them if I could.  I came to you under great peril!”

“From what?”

Arduino straightened. “I had to escape the wizard you hired…Hakeem.  It is he and Quincy who are behind this.”

Lies.

“That’s preposterous!”  So the marshal has some level of rationale left.

“Ask around.  I imagine all of the guards must have seen the flash of light, must have felt the heat sweep over them.  Marshal, these wizards are greedy.  They heard about the reward Lethia Artaud was promising and decided to kill two birds with one stone.  Holzoff’s Tower is impressive, but hardly impregnable.  They’ll have Syria free, and they’ll have made fools of us all!!”

A good idea, maybe.  But still lies.

The marshal shook his head slowly in disbelief.  “But I’ve commissioned those two before!  Their integrity was never under question!”

“Ah…Actually, sir…”  Here Herman spoke up.  His entire body was trembling, and he tugged at his rash-covered ear again.  At this rate, it was going to fall off.  “I’m–I’m afraid there’s something you ought to know.”

The man’s eyes darkened.  “What, Herman.”

“You see….ha….ha, ha…” he tried to laugh, and the sound was just a nervous squeak.  It died with a choked sound when the marshal’s only response was a stony glare.  The boy continued with a cough.  “You see, the woman, Quincy, she came in after receiving her gold, asking to see the case documents regarding Syria’s trial.  I…I told her that was against regulations, but she…she…sh-she threatened me, sir!  Threatened me!”  Herman began to blubber pathetically.  “I didn’t want to, but she made me, and–and–maybe, maybe what she saw made her do this?  Maybe–”

The boy may have been intimidated at the time, but he was hardly at knife-point.  He had gone up the stairs, then come back down, gushing with assurances that the marshal had given the go-ahead.  …But apparently, he had never spoken to the marshal.  Perhaps because he knew the marshal would say no, and he was afraid.  Now he was lying to the man, trying to cover his own ass.  His previous actions would’ve become known soon enough, but Arduino had given him an out.  The boy wasn’t stupid.  A gods damned brat, maybe, but not stupid.

The marshal looked between Arduino and Herman.  “Your claims are outstanding!  You’re asking me to hunt down two powerful wizards under circumstantial evidence. What proof can either of you give me that what your saying is true?” But his eyes were nearly bugged.  Herman’s news had rattled him.

“Sir, sir!

All in the ruined courtyard turned to see two young militia men running towards them.  One had lost his helmet.  Both were pink-faced and dripping with sweat.  The one still wearing his helmet spoke, his words punctuated by gasps.  “Sir!” He panted, “We’ve come to inform you–the new prisoner, the enchantress–two youth have taken her.  She’s gone, sir!”

The marshal’s face, if possible, turned darker.

He screamed at his men, “Sound a high alert!!  Send a messenger bird to Holzoff’s Tower and gather all the men!  We’re going after them!”  He turned, his cobalt eyes now like razors as he looked at Arduino.  “You.  Gather the bounty hunters in the area.  All of them.  Tell them I’ll give each 500 silver pieces just for showing.  Then, another thousand gold to whomever brings me the head of any of these criminals!”

“And my brothers?”

The marshal’s lips grew thin.  Then he stepped forward and said tightly, “They shall be spared.  But if they cause us trouble, Arduino, I’m sorry.”  The man stalked away, Herman trailing after him like a puppy.

“Eh…eh, de quoi?  De quoi!?”  Arduino shouted after the marshal, red faced.  “They are the only family I have left!!  You’d take them away from me!?”

The marshal snapped over his shoulder, but didn’t pause or slow down.  “Just do as I tell you if you want to see your brothers alive, Arduino!”

Not quite the ending Arduino had hoped.  His crestfallen face says it all.  Stupid man–there was a time when he could out-maneuver you, when he was always a step ahead.  The Morettis used to be a name feared and respected throughout the Sibesona.  Now their legacy has petered out in illness and desperation.  The man should’ve looked at the facts, and the fact of it was, the marshal was a vengeful, paranoid bastard…

…But I’m still around to do something about it.


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