Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 16.1

NYX____________________________

It were as though the cold sought to unravel me, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.  We paused only once in our journey to bundle up in the blankets Paulo had brought.  Elmiryn and I, as we had meant to head straight for the port city of Reg’Amen and not the snowy Albias region, had nothing to protect from the harsh cold.  I only had my gambeson, and that was poor cover against the freezing wind.  I missed my old smock-frock, the one I used during the winter before I was Marked.  I had to make due with the blanket I was given, and I huddled close to Lethia for warmth.  Finally, we could see Holzoff’s Tower, like a wicked spire that jutted from the rocky fangs of the Albias mountains.  There were little rows of warm orbs shining all along it–and now and again, I could see a shadow swallow the lights briefly before they were freed to burn clear once more.  I heard howling and a terrible bawling, and my heart chilled within my chest.  I could feel Her stir in her realm, something of this terror reaching the beast even through her dream-like lens.

We were protected from the wind by a rock formation that clawed out of the snow.  Paulo, after the scultone settled opposite the rock like a living barrier to the shadows, went and gathered branches from shrubs down the slope.  After this was done, he arranged the sticks on the snow in a neat row, then he took feathered wood sticks from his pack, a bundle of fifteen or so, kept safe in a leather pouch (“To keep them from getting wet,” he said) along with another bundle of slim normal sticks.  He set down the feathered sticks over the gathered branches, and I realized that he was using them to keep the dry sticks up from the snow.  Then he used flint and steel to set the wood alight.  He blew at the flames when the fire caught on, spreading it and keeping it alive, then began adding the normal sticks carefully.  He was quiet and concentrated as he worked.  Lethia and I shivered together as we watched him.  Within ten minutes, we had a fire going.

We all leaned against the rock.  No words passed between us, just a heavy silence that serenaded with the hollow wind.  My feet were wrapped up in my blanket, but the fabric was already soaked from damp snow, and I couldn’t feel my toes anymore.  I’d lived in the snow before, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before the numbness wouldn’t protect me from the stinging that would come.  Then the feeling of blades stabbing the muscles, and an insufferable burning.  Enough damage, and even my therian body would have the black, disfigured limbs burned into its memory–and as there was no healing such a thing, there was no return from it.  I scooted closer to the fire, and if I had been out of my mind, I would’ve plunged my feet into the flames.  It sounded tempting.

“Thank you…” Lethia whispered from her place behind me.  “…Nyx…thank you.”

“What, no thanks for me?” Paulo snapped.

The both of us turned to glare at him.

“You, Paulo, are a selfish beast, and your rescue hardly makes up for the harrassment I’ve suffered by you and your despicable family!”  The girl bit out.

“You’re welcome, Lethia,” I said, trying to distract her.  I felt a little sorry for the boy.  He’d gotten bad again–he started coughing and regained the distant look in his eyes.  His forehead was damp and his irises drawn small.  I turned and looked at him.  “Paulo will you be alright?”

The Moretti’s head swiveled toward me, and I knew he was looking in the direction of my voice, but not looking at me.  His chapped lips pressed thin, and his face seemed gaunter as he gave a terse shake of his head.  With Lethia’s condition forcing her to avoid my eyes, neither of them looked at me.  It was depressing.

I reached over and touched his boot.  “Graziano will be here, and I’m certain Arduino is fine.  You’ll be helped soon.”

“I don’t understand why this girl won’t do something now,” he spat, turning to look Lethia’s way again.  His nostrils flared as his brows crashed together.  He looked very much like Arduino in one of his dark moods.  “I’m hurting.  I’m hurting.  I want the pain to stop.  I can hardly see anything right now.”  His voice cracked during the last sentence, and he swallowed hard.  Lethia turned her head, scowling but her eyes had softened.

Paulo choked back a sob and slammed his head back against the rock, his hand reaching to claw at his chest.  He went on, his voice strained as he spoke.  “It’s happening now.  I feel it pulling me.  This force.  It tells me to go…” His voice trailed away.

Lethia took a breath and reached over cautiously.  “Go…where?”

Paulo tore away from her, a torrent of curses in his language tumbling from his lips.  The girl cried out, pulling back as though burned.

“YOUR tower!” He screamed, scooting away.  He pointed toward the East.  “Your home!  There!  That way!  It tells me to go back to the place this agony started.  It was your witch of a mistress!  It was your doing!!”

“Paulo, stop it!” I said, twisting around in full.

Lethia struck the rock with the edge of her closed fist.  “Take that back!” she screamed.  “Syria is not a witch!  We didn’t do that to you!”

“Then help me, damn you!”  Paulo shouted.  He gripped his head in his hands and folded over, sobbing.  “Stop it! …Please. This hurts!  I can’t take it!  I’m afraid to go to sleep…I’m afraid I’ll see your shadow…I’m afraid…I’m afraid…” and he went on muttering, rocking back and forth, his shoulders shaking.

I stared at him, at a loss.  In truth, I hadn’t much experience with weeping men.  The male gender, regardless of species, seemed infected with so much bravado.  What could I do?  …But I felt like I had to do something.  I saw my own pain reflected back at me…Elmiryn’s pain reflected back at me.  It disturbed me, and repulsed me in some ways–pain was such a personal thing, it seemed like something you wouldn’t share with just anyone, and to do so was crossing some line of basic decency–but when it came down to it, the agony I was seeing was shared.  Something nasty, putrid, and crippling had touched our lives, and we were spinning out of control.

I crawled over, my body jerking from the cold, and my hands stinging in the snow.  Paulo started to scoot away again, deeper into the shadows around us, but I only moved faster, taking him up in my arms.  I was shivering–from fear of what he would do, from the cold, from my own pain.

…But his arms came around me, and the boy leaned into me.  He buried his face into my stomach and his tears soaked my gambeson, his sobs trembled my body.

I heard Lethia move behind us, and within a moment she was at our side, her brows pressed up and tears in her eyes.

“I…” her voice died away in a fog.  She touched Paulo’s head.  He shrank beneath her touch, but didn’t pull away.  “I’m…I’m scared, Paulo.  I’m not skilled like Syria.  I could…I could make things worse.  I’m…yes, I’m angry with you, but I don’t want to…” she couldn’t finish.

After a few minutes I sat back, one hand on Paulo’s arm, the other at the nape of his neck.  He stared down at his lap, unwilling to look at either of us.  Lethia stared off into the dark, sniffling.

I sighed.  Then smiled uncertainly.  “Um…can we be anguished and forlorn next to the fire?  I am without shoes after all…”

Lethia and Paulo looked toward me, weak laughter coming up their throats.  There was a murmur of agreement and we returned to the warmth.

I stared up at a sky that I knew to hold stars in its dark belly, and wondered when it was I could see Aelurus’ glowing countenance again.  Paulo seemed to regain a sense of himself in these moments, and his demeanor became sullen and closed off.  I was sorry to see his smile and gentleness go, even if it came amid so much pain.  He kept his body turned from us much of the time, sitting a little apart–even shunning the fire’s warmth it seemed, as though he wanted to seem unaffected by the cold.  Lethia and I let him be.  With the squabbling done, I became more preoccupied with keeping warm and listening to the sounds of the tower.  We sat there for a while longer in silence.  I cannot say for certain.  Was it an hour?  A few minutes?  Neither would have surprised me.

Then sounds drifted to us–like rocks crashing and snow crunching.  We all bolted upright.  Paulo stood, breathing hard through his nose, and went for his sword.

“There…is it a daesce?” Lethia whispered.

“What’s a daesce?”  I hissed looking at her.  The name already filled me with dread.

“Remember how we said, when we cooked up this crazy plan, that Holzoff’s Tower was plagued with monsters?” Paulo said over his shoulder.

“Yes?”

“Well…”

The sounds came again, closer.  Paulo muttered something and slid into a fighting stance, his rapier held before him with one hand.  Lethia and I stood, but I pushed the girl behind me.  Whatever came at us, I could shield the girl from it.  I didn’t know if she still had Karolek’s knowledge of metal sorcery, but I didn’t want to take the chance.

The ground started to rumble, and the scultone finally lifted its head, its white eyes glowing in the dark.  Its tail lashed and it screeched, muscles beneath its tough skin bunching.  Something large was charging toward us.  I shouted Paulo’s name and started pushing Lethia back, my heart palpitating wildly.

But the scultone, without warning, lay back down again with a careless attitude.  Paulo made a noise at it, but soon its relaxation became clear.

Within the next moment, another scultone entered the glow of our fire, steam curling from its nostrils.  It warbled, in greeting it seemed, before it bowed down, and we saw the passengers on its back.

Elmiryn!”  I cried, a smile spreading across my face.

The woman’s head turned to me as though it were on a swivel, and her eyes were glassy at first, as though she weren’t looking at me…but then they focused.  Focused…on me.  Elmiryn smiled her broad smile, and I hardly took note of Graziano greeting his brother, of Argos suddenly jumping into the light and running to greet Lethia.

“Nyx,” my companion said as she slid off the scultone’s back with Graziano.  I could see nothing else.  I laughed and ran forward, throwing my arms around her.  Nearly knocked the woman back into the beast, but she just laughed deeply and squeezed me tight, and…I was glad.

Elmiryn was alive.

“You did it!” I said, breathless. I pulled back, falling back onto my heels.  My messy dark bangs were in my eyes and I paused only to swipe them away.  “You–!”

“Kicked Quincy’s ass?” Elmiryn finished, quirking an eyebrow.  “Come on, Nyx.  Give me a lil’ credit.  I know how to handle myself!”

I just shook my head, and with little thought, I reached up onto my toes and kissed her.

There was a surprised cough next to me, and I immediately became self-conscious.  It wasn’t that I was trying to be daring or…or…or even romantic, I suppose.  It just…it seemed appropriate.  It seemed right to greet Elmiryn in this way.  I wanted to.

The woman made no attempt to push me away.  If anything she just held me tighter, picked me up off the ground even, and before I knew it, what was meant to be a quick kiss lengthened to nearly a minute.  It may have gone longer if Paulo hadn’t let out a loud curse.

Elmiryn and I broke away, breathless and pink-faced, to look at the boy.  He pointed toward the scultone with his rapier, his face contorted in surprise and anger.  “De…de quoi!? Graziano, que inseño es isca!?”

The older Moretti closed his eyes and rubbed his temple. “Choi…”

“No, really Graz, what the hell–”

“Look, Choi, just–”

“Have you lost your mind!?”

Will you let me talk!?”  Graziano shouted.  “Conio!  I don’t like this anymore than you do, but…”

Lethia, crouching near the fire with Argos, clung to the dog.  “Who is that…?”

There was the crunch of snow.  Elmiryn and I turned, and my eyes went wide.  I looked at the warrior, mouth agape.  “…Elle?”

Hakeem stepped into the sphere of the fire’s glow, his hands held up, and his expression mild.  “I’m here to help, nothing more,” he said.

Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck.  “Oh yeah…”

“You can’t be serious!” Paulo shouted, swinging his blade.

“That’s what I said!” Graziano said with a dry tone.  He paused and pointed at his brother.  “And stop waving that rapier around!”

Nevermind the fact that Graziano had the same habit with an even worse weapon.

“But who is he?” Lethia said, looking up at all of us.  She looked much younger all of a sudden, hiding in Argos’ fur.  “Who is this man?”

Before anyone could explain, Hakeem spoke.  “My name is Hakeem.  I am a wizard.”

“He’s also Quincy’s partner,” Elmiryn added helpfully.

Lethia’s eyes turned wide as she swallowed hard and looked in the man’s direction.

“Can someone fill me in on the details of your plan?” The wizard asked, his tone still calm and deep, but his volume raised to command all of our attention.  I thought it brusque and inflammatory of him at the time, but in hindsight, we could’ve gone on for hours about why he was allowed to be there.  The time simply wasn’t there.

“Well…” Elmiryn looked around at everyone else as though waiting for someone to stop her.  No one did.  She pulled away from me, and stepped closer to Hakeem.  “At this point, we need to get ahold of one of the guards–any one of them.  They’ll have a basic understanding of the prison’s security, and might even have whatever it is we need to get inside–be that a key or a password.  Lethia sucks out that information and both me and Nyx go with her inside.  From there, we play it by ear.  It’s the best we can do considering how sudden this all is.”

Hakeem rubbed his chin, looking at Lethia.  Paulo spat on the ground, stepping in front of the girl.  He still hadn’t put away his sword.

The wizard nodded.  “All things considered, it’s not a bad plan–but there’s more to take into account.  There’s the daesce.  Fortunately for us, it doesn’t seem like they care for this area–lots of deep snow banks and very open, save for this rock that’s giving us cover.” He pointed toward the tower, which we could see around the rock.  “But there, at the tower, the daesce serve as an unintentional ward against unsolicited guests and invaders.  The bridge leading to the tower gate is teeming with the creatures underneath.  It’s one thing to avoid the guards–quite a different thing to avoid the daesce–and you’ll have to if you want to get near the tower at all.”

“I had an idea for that,” Graziano said with a raised hand.

We all turned to him.  He cleared his throat, and suddenly looked uncomfortable.  “You see…all we need is to kill a daesce, then skin it.”

Lethia made a face.  “You aren’t…”

“…Suggesting…” I continued.

Graziano nodded with apologetic eyes.  “Yes.  You’ll have to wear the skins to get by–and we don’t have time to let them dry.  With luck, the daesce will only think you’ve just killed something and go looking for the corpse.  They’re known to be cannibalistic.”

“Or they could tear us apart in a bloodlust,” I deadpanned.

“Or…um…that,” Graziano said with a wince.

Silence followed.  Lethia’s face had gone blank, and I looked at her fearfully.  Was she slipping into a new state of amnesia?  The tip of Paulo’s rapier buried into the snow as he swayed on the spot, a hand on his forehead.  Hakeem stared toward Holzoff’s, with arms crossed over his chest.  Argos licked at his mistress’ hand with a low whine.  Graziano pressed his lips together and stared down at the ground.

Elmiryn looked down at my feet and put her hands on her hips.  “…Nyx, what the fuck happened to your boots?”


Back to Chapter 15.3 | Forward to Chapter 16.2

Chapter 16.2

NYX____________________________

In order to explain the loss of my boots to Elmiryn, for she wouldn’t leave the matter alone, we had to retell the events that lead to it.  At first, Paulo and Lethia tried to help–even going so far as to mime some of the parts of the story out.  But the warrior’s eyes took the shade of the bonfire, becoming masked in a hot and disconnected glare as her brow bunched over her gaze.  As soon as I saw this, I knew that their efforts were in vain.  I stepped between them and the woman, a hand raised, and shook my head somberly.  They fell silent and looked at each other in confusion.

I turned on the spot and took a breath.  “Elmiryn…it went like this.”

I didn’t mention the shadow that surged in me, the visions that danced along my skull, the surge of power and the violent polarity of debilitating illness–like I had a migraine, indigestion, blood too thick flooding my heart–or the scent of memories horrid and strong.  I didn’t mention these things…and yet I was certain she was aware of them.  My words were embossed with bewilderment, disgust, and fear.  Elmiryn’s cerulean eyes weeped light from the fire, something only I could see up close.  She wiped these away, concealing the motion with brushing her stray locks back behind her ear.  Then I saw a muscle in her jaw move as she pursed her lips, and nodded.

The woman drew her dagger with a fierce jerk.  Then she took Paulo’s blanket from me and began to cut it up.  She didn’t even hesitate.

The boy wheezed, and I looked at him fearfully, something of the noise bringing memories of my mother ill in bed.  I could see he was straining to keep his back straight, and his breathing was disconcertingly labored.  “That’s mine!” he managed to bite out, taking a step forward.

Graziano began to move forward too, his hand held out as if to grab Elmiryn.  “Yes, Elmiryn, what do you think–”

What, Graziano?” The woman said, turning the dagger his way.  The woman’s voice didn’t raise, nor did her face show anything more to me.  But her eyes were as sharp as her blades.  I remembered those eyes being turned on Sedwick, when he tried to keep my Twin from going with them to the river guardian’s cave.  A tingle shot through me, not unpleasant, but I didn’t understand it.

“Lia…” Graziano said slowly as he stopped and held his hands up.  “Do you really want to do that?  After all that has happened?”

Elmiryn resumed her cutting as though she’d never been interrupted.  “Maybe you should contemplate your own words.  Better yet, ask your little brother what he wants–because that’s all he seems to care for.”  She had a strip cut free.  She handed it to me.  “Ring it out and hold it over the fire, so that it dries a bit.”

“Graziano!” Paulo complained.  But Lethia had a hand on his arm.  As I went to follow Elmiryn’s directions, I saw the girl glance my way.  Her brows knitted together in anxiety, but I saw no condemnation in her eyes.  Then I realized she was looking at my feet.  I stopped and looked too.

They were a rich shade of blue.  And when I wiggled them, I became aware that…I couldn’t feel my feet anymore.  At all.  At first it were just my toes, but everything up to my ankles had turned completely numb.  It was terrifying to consider the degree with which I could ignore certain injuries, given my regenerative abilities.  My natural power had staved off the frost bite for much longer than any other sentient being could stand.  But…it could only go so far.  My right toe was even beginning to tingle, like it were on pins and needles.

Elmiryn began to speak behind me.  “Not only has Nyx recovered something precious to Paulo at risk of her own life, but she’s also saved him twice in the span of an hour.  It’s about time the boy stopped acting like a brat.  He’s not the only one who is suffering.  We all are.  But somehow, we still manage to be decent people.”  I glanced over my hunched shoulders at her.  Elmiryn had another strip of the blanket over her shoulders.  Graziano had his hands down, he was looking at his brother now with a frown.

“So I don’t care if the idiot dislikes it,” Elmiryn said evenly.  “I’m using his things to make Nyx some temporary boots.  This isn’t even adequate repayment considering she needs her feet to be of any use in rescuing the enchantress he needs so fucking badly.”  Her eyes flashed to Paulo.  “I should kill you, just for this disrespect.  Nyx is my ward.  But more importantly, she’s my friend.  You wrong her, then you wrong me.”  Elmiryn stopped in her work, her dagger held up as she raised an eyebrow at the boy.  “Well?  Do you want me to kill you instead?”

I grit my teeth and bowed my head.  “Elmiryn, stop!

Graziano stepped before her, he looked livid.  “That’s enough, Elmiryn.”  But then he turned his angry eyes on Paulo, who shrank in surprise.

“Idi’ute!  Vergance lo no dismé!  El saben no causa ni gunío prolem.  Ni gunío!” The man snapped.

“Pér es mi saben!” The boy snarled back.

“Distagea, ya!

Paulo made a noise from the back of his throat.  He wobbled back to the place he had sat before and slumped down sullenly.  I looked at him with as apologetic a look as I could muster, but the boy refused to look at me.  Graziano turned back to Elmiryn.

He sighed.  “Elmiryn…you speak true.  Please.  Use whatever you need, and on behalf of the Moretti family, accept my apology.”  Then he did something that nearly made me drop the cloth into the fire.

Graziano bowed to her.

Elmiryn tilted her head back, her eyes turning narrow, as though she were considering the apology.  Then she shrugged and gestured my way–to my discomfort.  “I know what I said before, but it really doesn’t piss me off like you think.  I just want the best for Nyx.  Your apology is best directed her way.”

The man straightened, as though confused by this statement.  Then he looked my way, and slowly his look of surprise softened to something I couldn’t name right away.  I looked away, my face flaring.  I heard the crunch of snow as he came closer.  From my peripheral vision, Lethia shifted away to give him room.

“Nyx.  I’m sorry for my brother’s behavior.  He’s…” His voice dropped lower so that Paulo couldn’t hear.  “I’m not trying to make excuses, but just understand that with our parents early deaths, Arduino and I have had a hard time raising our brother.  It’s true, we could’ve done better.  He does mean well.  He’s just…an ass, and doesn’t know how to act sometimes.”  I couldn’t help it, I snickered at the last part, and I think Lethia did too.  I heard the smile in Graziano’s voice as he continued.  “Thank you for what you’ve done.  I owe you a proper pair of boots when this is all over.”  The man started to bow, and I turned, grabbing him by the shoulders.

“No!” He looked at me in bewilderment.  I shook my head.  “No, Graziano.  Don’t bow to me.  I’m not a person to bow to.”

I could see Elmiryn give me a look from behind Graziano, but I didn’t care.  To have someone bow to me made me terribly uncomfortable.

“Look I,”  I looked at Paulo and bit my lip.  “I…ah…do need something better to cover my feet.  Their numb now.”  I wiggled them just to test the veracity of that statement, and was frustrated to find that I could not feel a thing.  It felt terrible. “But I do think he meant well.  He let me use his blanket, after all.  But I appreciate the gesture.”  I could see Paulo glance at me from where he sat, but when I looked his way again, he was back to staring at the snow.

Elmiryn measured my foot using a piece of string.  I didn’t feel her hands as she cut the piece a little longer than the length of my foot.  Graziano helped her find what else she needed.  With all of her pieces ready, she set to work.  As my new “boots”, made from wool, pieces of leather, and cotton, were being finished by her, the discussion made the awkward transition back to the matter at hand.

“We need to send someone to get some daesce skins,” Graziano said, tapping his arm.

Elmiryn nodded as she stitched the side of the last boot.  She was quite good with such things, it seemed.

“We can’t send a group of people in there, or else we risk bringing too much attention,” he continued.

The woman nodded again.  She cut the thread with her teeth, then looked at her handiwork.  The boots were…horribly ugly.  All bunched in odd places and looking as though they’d hardly last a week.  But they weren’t meant to, I reminded myself.  As I put them on, I let out a delighted sigh.  It didn’t matter that they were ugly…they were warm.  My feet throbbed, though finer feeling still had yet to return to them.  I sat near the fire, eyeing Elmiryn’s handiwork.

“So who do we send?” Graziano finished.

Elmiryn grinned.  She went to Graziano’s scultone, where she opened the small pouch resting against the side of the beast.  The creature didn’t stir–perhaps accustomed to our presence by that point–and pulled out Hakeem’s pipe.  She tapped the item against her temple with a smirk.  All eyes turned to the wizard, who crossed his arms and stared back guardedly.

HAKEEM_________________________

Hakeem shrugged deeper into his makeshift jacket.  It wasn’t really an act of kindness on Elmiryn’s part when she cut out a piece of the cloth for him.  There were spare scraps from the pieces she’d used for Nyx’s impromptu boots, and she handed it to him with a look that dared him to say anything about it.  He needed to keep warm to be functional.  He needed to keep warm to survive long enough to be useful.  He understood this.

The man stared at his wrist where the smoke of his dragon pipe had bound to him.  It was the first time the item had been used on him.  He…disliked it.  But it was an item of low magic, meant really only for tracking purposes.  A traveler’s tool.  Which was part of the reason Elmiryn could use it without preamble.

Hakeem moved as quietly as he could through the snow, down into the valley where even the moon seemed wary to reach.  He was heading down a slope that steadily grew steeper, the snow here like negative space that was all he had to orient things as to the nature of himself with regards to the world.  Hakeem always thought it amusing how much night could skewer a person’s perspective when it came to the sky, the ground, relative distance, and the moral cup of an individual–the latter phrase being what the man used to call a person’s basic understanding of right and wrong.  Where did such things go when one’s face became a mask?  Where did such things go when one’s understanding was swallowed by the ink of the indefinite?

Snow.  Nearly up to his knees.

Hakeem was used to extreme conditions and could adapt accordingly, and he was also physically fit (a necessity given his line of work), but no amount of mental readiness and physical training could make up for how his body was unaccustomed to fighting to walk through so much dense snow.  This was one of those environmental obstacles that locals had long since become used to, but for anyone outside of such a world, the task was monumental.

A small shiver blasted through him as he reached the first crop of rocks, like earthen teeth cutting up through the pristine ice.  He had already activated his magic armor, the gauntlets reaching out like claws as he steadied himself against a cold rock.  He had to go deeper still.  The screams of the daesce heralded the danger ahead.  Closer now, the tower loomed so high, he couldn’t see the tip anymore.  Hakeem pressed on.

Something coming, behind him.

His body tensed and he turned, fists raised.  White moved in white.  Argos came trotting up next to the man, managing to be quieter than Hakeem had been despite his speed.

“So for help, they sent you?” The man said dryly.  Or more like a watchdog, he thought, no pun intended.  He looked the dog up and down, then turned. “How kind of them.”

Argos growled, and for a moment Hakeem thought the dog was going to bite him.  Then the giant animal sprinted forward and took to the air with a powerful jump.  He collided with another body, a white one, with flashing eyes that seared pale and hot yellow.  They slammed into a rock further down the slope before sliding to the ground, and he saw shadowed claws flailing, snow flying, the beginning of a screech–before it was suddenly silenced.  The bodies grew still and all was quiet.

…Argos raised his head, the dark dripping throat of a daesce in his mouth.

Hakeem straightened and nodded with a half-smile.  “So for help, they sent you,” he said again, with a tone of approval.

The dog just snorted.  Hakeem went down to drag the creature some of the way back up the slope.  As he came near it, he was able to make out some of the features in the dark:  the flat face, the jagged fangs, the stained claws.  The man took the dead daesce beneath the arms and began to pull it along.  If he came back the same way, he was certain he could find the corpse again.  Some yards back up the slope, the man let the monster’s corpse fall from his hands.  His nose wrinkled as the ranks smell of the monster’s blood hit him.  Argos came up behind him.  Hakeem gestured at the monster, who lay belly up in the snow.  Its mouth was still open, and now and again the claws twitched.

“Try not to swallow too much of their blood.” He warned his four-legged companion.  “It could make you ill.  They’re spiritually twisted, after all.”

The dog nodded.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Back down the slope, into the heart of hell, it seemed, but Hakeem had to if he was to have the trust of his new wayward companions.  He pierced through unknown spaces that gnawed at him, and he was tense from the waves of revulsion that seeped deep, deep, deep down beneath the skin.  It was the spiritual taint, he knew, and the lingering spirits of the slain–whose blood had stained the earth of this place.  They went parallel with the bridge leading toward the tower, but neither the wizard nor the dog dared go too near to the curtain of black beneath the bridge.

The wails, a chorus, so near now.  Hakeem felt the hailing voices taunting his principles as a man and a human being.  Argos slowed in the snow, and so did he.  Neither were eager to meet their next opponent.  The man thought he felt a snowflake touch the base of his neck, and he reached back to wipe at it, his armor forcing him to twist his torso in a strained effort to reach.  It was at that moment that the man saw…

Slammed.  Launched backward.  He landed on some rocks and winced from the impact that rattled the teeth in his head, but his armor protected him from major harm.  The man grunted, his eyes straining to make sense of the shadowy form over him.  A dark face framed by a white mane of hair, with dark eyes peering from the folds, and a mouth opened as a bellow that reminded of an angry child deafened him.  A daesce.  Hakeem tried to buck the creature off, but it was even larger than the one Argos had felled.  The beast, in the blink of the man’s eye, had its arm drawn back, claws spread in the air.  Its face, so twisted, reached down like a hook to the man’s mind.  It was…truly like a human, despite its horror, for the daesce wore a rictus grin and its eyes seared with triumph…

Hakeem had just enough time to marvel at its speed when Argos tackled it from the side.

The man sat up, and with little pause, he began to count.

Nine ticks.

One.  Two.  Three–

His armor grew hot.  There was a vacuum of air and sound as the world vacated to some Other Place.  All became dark, and he was left alone with the sensation of his power coursing through him.  Cold and hot all at once.  He closed his eyes and relaxed his body–felt the ground fall away.  He was falling now.

Four.  Five.  Six.  Seven–

The unnatural heat of his armor’s power began to reach its peak, feeling painful.  The man’s arm reached back to his neck, just as he had before, with his body twisted.  His feet touched the ground.  It were as though he were liquid fitting into a mold.  He felt the wind again, felt the heat of his armor lessen, blessedly.  He kept his eyes closed, for sound still had not come to him.

Eight.

Hakeem took a breath.

Nine.

The crunch of snow, the low pant that he had missed hearing before.

The man opened his eyes and twisted his body completely around, letting his knees buckle from beneath him so that he dropped quickly to the ground.  A body sailed over him.

“Argos!” The man bit out, but the dog was already moving.  Hakeem rolled from his awkward position on the floor to the balls of his feet and his hands, ready to spring in any direction.  He had reset the recent events, changed the end result of the confrontation so that he had successfully avoided the daesce’s ambush.  The act did in fact change the way of time, but only Hakeem knew of the new changes–for others, they still recalled the events as it had originally happened.  That was the thing about the magic, it affected only him–thus the great danger in its use.  For each time Hakeem used the armor to change the course of his life, he essentially folded time over himself.  When going back only seconds or minutes, the cost of such an incredible power seemed little.  But Hakeem had already lost three years of his life using his armor’s power.  He knew this…

He had counted them away, after all.

But here, the cost, he felt, was more than justified.  Relief washed over him, as he saw Argos had managed to get a hold of the daesce’s shoulder with his mouth.  He started to move forward, for with the monster pinned beneath the massive dog, he could deliver a killing blow, only…

Three white phantoms, out of the corner of his eye, came flashing over the snow from beneath the bridge, yipping and howling, and the man had just enough time to swing his right arm–sending out a single wave of force.  The snow exploded as the space was torn open by unseen magic.  Of the three incoming daesce, it cut the one in the middle clean in half.  The other two were blasted to the sides, the one on the right slamming into a tall but slim rock only feet away, body wrapping around it with such force that blood burst from the creature’s mouth, and there it fell, dead.  The third and last daesce was lucky.  It pinwheeled through the open snow, grunting.

Hakeem didn’t wait for the creature to stop moving.  As soon as he saw the fate of its fellows, he charged after it, his legs pumping furiously through the snow.  As he came near it, the daesce finally came to a stop, and it dazedly tried to stand, its ugly pug face hidden behind its filthy locks of hair.  The wizard screamed as he jumped up into the air, his hands pressed together like a club.  The air around his hands rippled.  As he came down, he slammed his hands on the daesce’s head just as the monster looked up, and felt the skull collapse.

That’s when he became aware of Argos crying out in pain.

The wizard turned, his body lurching into a run.  The daesce was free, with its eyes flashing in the dark, steam curling from its hideous mouth, claws snapping together like jaws themselves.  It had kicked the dog away somehow.  There was a dark stain blossoming through the snow between them.  The creature rolled to its feet, blood staining its pale fur from the right shoulder, and the saliva that dripped from its mouth was dark–but the man wasn’t sure if it was Argos’ blood or its own.  He didn’t care.

He roared in fury, drawing the daesce’s attention away from the dog’s still body.  The monster returned his challenge with a scream.   The man drew back his right gauntlet as he came near.

The air rippled around Hakeem’s armored fist…

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn turned the dragon pipe in her hand, a scowl on her face.  The item was an item–a redundant statement but one that meant all the world to her, for as she held it, some sense of immaterialism entered her.  She had seen smoke curl from the chamber of the pipe and move with purpose.  A curiosity to her eyes that beheld a setting comprised of building block pixels, all stacked together in complimentary shades with voices and concepts as their threads.  That smoke, that snake, that thing of ghostly being had trailed through that space she had found herself forgetting about in the face of Nyx’s luminous smile.  The unthinking wisps were at her will–was it an extension then?  Of her will?  Of her desire to know where Hakeem was at all times?

The redhead took a piece of feathered wood that had fallen from the fire, still burning at the tip as the end of the flaming wood curled up and away from the hungry cold snow.  With some tobacco in the pipe, the woman lit the fibrous fillings and took a few puffs.  Smoke curled from her mouth–but she was not alarmed by it, for she knew that the smoke had somehow become a part of her, but it was a bad part, and that it was good to be rid of it. (Though the expulsion of the acrimonious agent would not have been needed had she not desired to see what Hakeem was up to–a need, for a need, for a necessity.  In short, the vicious cycle was unavoidable.)  The smoke danced in the air–seeming to defy the air currents that came crawling around the rock at times–and with a swirl and a sigh, it took the shape of her subject of interest.  The wizard was battling daesce at the moment, as shown by the smoke-man’s struggle against an ape-like monster, no doubt with Argos nearby.  The pipe’s vision was corroborated by the chilling sounds that echoed from the direction of the tower.

The concern about Hakeem’s possible betrayal grew less and less in the face of the man’s actions.  He was taking unnecessary risks–that is, unnecessary if his intention were to turn on them all at the most critical moment.  But the wizard could’ve also been vying for their trust, and it was this simple fact that made Elmiryn’s suspicion a persisting presence.  Hakeem could prove useful to their needs, and she had to admit, she just thought the new alliance was amusing.  But the suspicion was there, and it would not fade easily.

The woman looked over at Graziano, who rested against the side of his scultone, his arms crossed over his chest, eyes closed, and his head tilted forward.  She knew the man was not really asleep.  He was, perhaps, caught between that space of dream and waking that threatened to keep her each time she slipped into repose.  Elmiryn wanted to rest.  But she didn’t want to be lost in the Other Place when the time came for action.

Next to her, Nyx shifted, mumbling.

Elmiryn looked at her, and she strained her eyes to take in the sight of the girl, resting.  Her companion was leaning against her shoulder, a warm body that fended off the cold.  The woman wondered if the girl felt warm near her, and began to feel somewhat guilty–for the warrior wasn’t certain if Nyx was receiving any benefit from the contact.

Elmiryn reached over and brushed a lock from the girl’s forehead, her finger trailing along the skin.

“Elmiryn?”

A young voice.  It took the woman a minute to look away from Nyx, and another to associate sound with name.  “Yes, Lethia?”

The teenager was adjacent to her, on the left, hugging her knees.  This was the first time she had made a sound since Argos had left to keep an eye on Hakeem.  Up until then, she had been engrossed in her own thoughts, a worried look on her face.  Now, she took a light lock of hair between her index and thumb and began rolling it back and forth.  Her green eyes flickered to the sky and her forehead wrinkled as her brows strived to reach her hairline.  “Ah…”  Lethia coughed and shifted, sliding her feet a little more outward so that she hunched over more.  “You and Nyx…you…”

Elmiryn smirked and waited for the girl to continue.  Some tickle of impatience came up within her, and she resisted the urge to make a sarcastic remark.  The youth, for all her naivety, had shown herself to be quite resilient and determined.  At the very least, the woman could respect this.

“I don’t understand your relationship,” Lethia finally said.  She bit her lip and stared down at the snow.  “I mean…that is to say…oh, gods, I hope you don’t think I’m being nosy!”  She rubbed at her brow, which started to furrow.  “I just…”

“You were sheltered.  You don’t know,” Elmiryn finished, her smirk widening.

The teenager looked her way.  “Um…yes.  That.”

“Lethia, there isn’t really much to say.  And whatever I could say, you’d just get more confused.”

“Oh.”

Elmiryn let out a throaty chuckle that blended with a sigh.  She raised an eyebrow at the girl.  “Look…I don’t mind the question.  I think I know what you’re asking, even though you haven’t actually asked me yet.  The answer is…well, I don’t know.”  The woman shrugged her free shoulder.  “Honestly.  What do you want me to tell you?  That I’m really a man?  Would that make it less weird for you?  What if I said I was an Ailuran man?  Would that make it okay for you–?”  But the woman stopped herself short.  Her words were gaining an edge, and it was uncalled for.  The girl was being rather open-minded, all things considered.  She didn’t deserve the aggression.

Lethia still managed to wilt under this subtle barrage, however.  “I apologize.  I wasn’t trying to offend.”

The woman sucked at her teeth.  Now accompanied with the impatience was a sense of guilt.  “Gods damn it…you’re like Nyx.  Not as good at the guilt tripping, but almost.”

“I wasn’t trying to guilt trip you.  If you feel guilty, then it’s because your heart knows your actions are misguided,” Lethia suddenly quipped.

Elmiryn looked at her with eyebrows raised.

Lethia turned her face away, her oval-shaped face a ruddy shade. Even the tips of her ears, which peeked through her curtain of hair, managed to gain a pink tinge.  “I don’t think it’s fair for people to construct the nature of my motivations.  I have no ulterior motives, and as far as I can tell, my will is good.”  She said this through tight lips, but the woman could see her body trembling a little.  “It isn’t fair.”

Elmiryn tilted her head to one side.  Her ear brushed against Nyx’s mane of hair, and her smirk shifted closer to a kind smile.  “Do people do that often?”

The enchantress gave a mute nod.

“I’m not sure the reason, really.  Perhaps because of who my mistress is.  Maybe because I don’t know what’s become of my parents.  I think…I think people assume I’m angry.”

“You?  Angry over something so petty?”

“I don’t know if it’s petty…”

Elmiryn gestured at the girl with her chin.  “But Syria’s taken good care of you, hasn’t she?  You said it yourself.”

Lethia nodded emphatically.  “Oh my goodness, yes!  I…but I do wonder what’s become of them.  My real family.  All I have of them is a surname.  Artaud.  I know in some kingdoms, the only humans who have surnames are those of good-standing, but not in all places.  They could be peasants, merchants, warriors for all I know…”

“But you’re not angry that they’ve never checked up on you?”

The girl looked at her with a crooked smile. “Now when you put it that way, it sounds like I should, shouldn’t I?  But…no.  Not really.  Maybe they fell on hard times?  Maybe they were…ashamed?  Or maybe they really didn’t love me.  But none of that matters, because I had Syria.  Have.”  Lethia scowled as she corrected herself.  “I have Syria.”

Elmiryn puckered her lips in thought.  Then she leaned back against the rock and emptied the pipe into the snow.  Smoothing some ice over the smoldering tobacco, the woman glanced at the teenager from the corner of her eye.  “But people like to make assumptions with you.  Because of who you are, and where you come from, and what you do, and you dislike this.  Did Syria teach you to be so forthcoming, or what?”

Lethia slowly shook her head.  “No.  It’s just my personal feeling.  I guess it’s all relative, but I’m not a sponge that soaks up all that Syria teaches me.  I’m…more like a cup, that is filled up to a certain point, but otherwise retains the nature of its being.  The cup doesn’t become softer, larger, or more precious just because it is filled.  You can overflow it, maybe, or leave it empty, but the integrity of the cup is maintained.  My integrity as a person is maintained, despite what I’m given.  People don’t understand that.”  The girl scooped up a small handful of snow and flung it sullenly out into the darkness.  “I love Syria because she gave me the means to be a good person, but she isn’t why I’m a good person.  In the end, that was my choice.”

“No offense, but don’t you still depend on her a great deal?  Because of your mental…um…thing?”

The girl shrugged.  “I see that differently.  It isn’t something I can help, but with time, I can learn to deal with it on my own.”

“…Aren’t you doing that already?”

Lethia blinked and looked Elmiryn’s way.  A slow smile crept over her face.  “I guess so!” she said with a small laugh.

Elmiryn nodded.  The little worm of impatience was gone.

“To answer your earlier question,” the woman went on to say.  “I…care about Nyx a lot.  Does that involve desire?  To be blunt, sure.  Yes.  I won’t speak for her, you’d have to ask Nyx yourself, but…I just care for her.  She’s become a good friend.  I can’t say it any other way.”  She looked at the Ailuran in question. “My interest in women has been around since as long as I can remember, and I never bothered hiding it.  You see, in Fiamma, we have a legend about a demigod with flaming red hair that was a champion in battle.  His name was Diokles, and he was said to come from the loins of Halward himself.  He enjoyed battle, almost as much as he enjoyed beauty.  He lay with whomever he desired, despite age, gender, or standing.”  Elmiryn rolled her eyes and looked at Lethia with a sardonic grin.  “It was all just symbolism on the part of the scholars.  They always try to make heroes out as having a light and dark side.  Anyway…long story short, there’s a belief in Fiamma that those with ruddy hair and light eyes are inclined toward violence and beauty without discretion.  This is why I was allowed to become a soldier, because of how I looked.  Love between same sexes are frowned upon, usually, in all forms–but people tend to let it be if a redhead is involved, even if it makes them uncomfortable.  I always thought it was a load of horse shit, but it made my life easier.  I wasn’t given much trouble for wanting the things I did.  And…that’s how it’s been for me anyway.”  The woman looked back at Nyx and brushed the side of the girl’s face with her hand.  The girl felt warm under her touch.  Elmiryn’s grin widened as a sense of relief washed over her.  She, a ghost, a being of smoke, could make the girl feel warm.

Elmiryn’s voice became soft as she continued.  She wasn’t sure if Lethia was still listening, but she didn’t care.  “If you’re looking for me to say the ‘L’ word, I’ll just get annoyed.  I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that, and I’m not sure I’d recognize it if I did.  I just want what I want.  And for a long time, I never wanted anyone to stick around.  But I want Nyx with me.  Not…just because of my curse…or my quest.  No.  Not just because of that.  I just…want her with me.”

In her peripheral vision, the warrior could see Lethia give a slight nod.  But the woman didn’t turn to look.  Instead, she strained her eyes to take in the sight of Nyx, resting.

HAKEEM_________________________

Hakeem came trudging up the slope.  His chin was cut, and his left shoulder blade was bruised, he knew, from falling on the rock when the daesce tried to ambush him.  But he still managed to carry one daesce corpse (the smaller one, the one Argos had killed first) over his right shoulder, while his other hand dragged another corpse through the snow.  The wizard stopped as soon as he recognized the giant rock formation that the camp was hidden behind.

“Hail!”  He called, panting.  “I’ve returned.  Now someone come help me with these.”

The light that danced beyond the rock shifted with shadows, and a moment later, he saw Elmiryn and Graziano come out into view.

The Moretti had his pistol drawn.  “Hakeem?”

“Yes,” The wizard said, raising his free hand.  “Come help me.  These are heavy.”

Elmiryn came toward him, but Graziano didn’t move.  It seemed he needed the wizard to come into the light before he rested at ease.  Not unreasonable, the man supposed.  The woman came toward him, arms swinging a little as she fixed him with a grin.  “Wizard!  You’re alive!  You know you made quite a racket, didn’t you?”

“It couldn’t be helped,” Hakeem said with a shrug.

The woman laughed.  She took hold of the other corpse with both hands beneath the armpits, and lifted the daesce up with aid from her right knee.  When she had the corpse over her shoulder, they proceeded together back toward camp.  Hakeem saw that now, along with Graziano, there was Paulo, Lethia, and Nyx.

The enchantress came forward, her face long.  “Where’s Argos?” she demanded.

The man blinked.  “I’m sorry–”

Lethia’s eyes teared up, and her chin crumpled.  “You left him–?!”

Hakeem looked at her with a frown, annoyed at being cut off.  “Girl, you didn’t let me finish.”

“Watch your tone,” Elmiryn said, her voice hard.

The wizard looked at her, then shook his head.  “But she misunderstands.  Look, over there,” and Hakeem pointed back the way they came.  Something white and furry displaced the pristine white snow.  It had no eyes, no mouth, no head–

That was because it was Argos’ backside.

The dog was dragging a daesce corpse backward by his mouth.  As though sensing he had an audience, he let the body fall, head turning as his tail wagged.  He let out a happy bark as he laid eyes on his mistress.

Lethia squealed, pushing past them all to reunite with her four-legged companion.  Nyx let out a sigh of relief, and Elmiryn and Graziano laughed a little.  Hakeem shook his head after the teenager.  “What a silly girl,” he muttered.

But the corner of his lips twitched suspiciously.


Back to Chapter 16.1 | Forward to Chapter 16.3

Chapter 16.3

NYX____________________________

When Elmiryn and Hakeem came near with the bodies of the daesce, I was able to withstand the scent of blood rather well.  I could feel Her peeking through my eyes, her presence pulsing with tension as she sought to decide for herself whether there was a threat.  She saw the creatures were dead, and relaxed a degree–pressing less on my spirit–but her tension was still present, for now she knew what the monsters looked and smelled like, and she would not be at ease until the whole affair was done.  Not that I could blame her.

The real difficulty came when all of the corpses were brought into the sphere of our camp and skinned.  Graziano worked with Elmiryn to make the work quick.

“Even if it is sloppy, just get the skin free.  We don’t have time to be perfectionists,” The Moretti said.

The sound of the flesh being torn was so wet and…and…disgusting.  Red stained the snow, blossoming like deadly flowers in the winking light.  My skin started to burn, and I clutched my stomach as it did flips.  Lethia reached out to me, but I just jerked away, shaking my head.  The act made me feel…less.  Less of a rational being.  More of a beast.  The girl was trying to extend her compassion, but my ire was on the rise, and I could not accept such gestures.  It seemed the temporary peace I had made with my Twin had brought back some of less admirable qualities along with my strengths.

“N-No,” I managed to bite out at the girl, who looked hurt.  I turned my back to her and stepped toward the edge of our camp.  The shadows would conceal the true extent of my discomfort.  “Just…Just leave me be.  It’s the blood.  It…puts…puts me on edge!”  But even the little distance I traveled left me missing the fire’s warmth.  I wrapped my arms around myself and tried to focus on the darkness.  Near the tower, the daesce seemed to be stirred into a frenzy.  Did they know their fellows were gone?  Would our ruse even work?  I gripped my head with my fingertips biting into my scalp.  If I could’ve, I would have ripped such thoughts away.  But they crawled and cackled, stirring both myself and my sister onto the brink of hysterics.  I tried to deepen my breathing.

I could feel Her claws in my soul, cutting me, I could hear her growl, sense the anxiety that fueled her.

“Lia,” I heard Graziano ask behind me.  “You won’t…change, will you?”

I didn’t answer him.  Couldn’t.  My mouth opened only to let out a sharp exhale.  Only fifteen minutes had gone by since they had started skinning the daesce.  Were they nearly done?  I couldn’t even turn to look, for fear of what the sight would do to me.

“Indomitable.”

That was Elmiryn’s voice.  I turned my head slightly, my hands sliding down to cup my cheeks.

“Impossible to defeat,” she said.

I turned around all the way, my eyes lighting onto the scene that I had been struggling to ignore.  Two daesce were skinned already, their coats lying near the fire, crimson side up.  Graziano was busy on the last daesce.  Elmiryn, crouched near Paulo’s scultone, finished wiping her weapons and gave the draconic beast a pat on the head.  The creature’s head lifted, white eyes following her as she came my way, its nostrils flaring to take in her scent.  I blinked at her as I saw her shadowed smile.

“That’s what you are, Nyx.  Indomitable.” she murmured to me, as she came within feet of my person.  The campfire turned her body into a silhouette.  “Don’t you forget.”

“You’re just trying to make me feel better.”  I gulped and looked down at the boots she made me.  I gave my toes a wiggle.  Feeling was returning to me–the nice thing about regenerative abilities was that it worked fast.  “I don’t feel that way.  Especially not now.  I feel…like I’m going to break apart.  Everything in me is pulling.”

“Is it your Twin?  Can you speak with her?”

“She’s on edge.  It’s like she’s forgotten the words she’s learned.  I mean, for all her intelligence, there’s still that side of her.  The idea of those monsters and all that blood it just–” I cut myself off, feeling a lump rise in my throat.  My joints were outright hurting now.

I started to let myself drop down into a crouch, for the effort of keeping upright was turning painful, especially in my spine, but Elmiryn caught me in a hug before I could go far.  I gasped a bit, before the folds of her clothes muted me.  Her arms were about my head and shoulders so that my face pressed into her chest.  My knees were half bent, and I know the woman was holding most of my weight.  I breathed in sharply, hands raising in the air as I made out what just happened.  Then I let them rest gingerly on her hips, and breathed in again…slower.  Elmiryn still smelled like the forests.  A tightness in my throat lessened and I straightened so that my head came up from the woman’s chest (a fact that had my face turn hot) and my cheek was pressed against her collarbone.

The woman’s voice was a warm echo in my head.  “Then I’ll just hold you together, alright?”  She gave my shoulders a shake.  “I’m right here.  I’ll be with you all the way.”

I nodded, my eyes misting.  My body was still aching, but I took a deep breath and steeled myself.  My Twin paused in her pacing to lift her head, waiting.  Listening.

“Are going to be okay?  Wearing the skin?  You should probably take off your mother’s gambeson.  The blood will stain it badly.”  Then the woman laughed.  “But the funny thing?  You won’t be cold.  Those daesce skins are thick and the blood is still–”

I bunched beneath Elmiryn’s touch.  My Twin snarled.  The woman stopped herself short as I lifted my head to glare at her.  She looked at me, chagrined.

“Ah.  That…was pretty fucking tactless, wasn’t it?” She said with a crooked smile.

I tried to keep my stern expression, but in truth, Elmiryn’s sincere gaff and the look on her face was enough to make me laugh, if a bit nervously.  I took a shaky step back from her, missing her warmth but knowing I couldn’t cling to her always.  And that scent…of fresh soil and morning dew.  Tree sap and oil.  Elmiryn filled my senses, and I focused on these things.  The daesce skins were still apparent to me, but now, I didn’t feel alone in my struggle.

“Oye, Choi.  Appor un rami ayí.”  Graziano pointed to where Paulo had retrieved the branches from before.  The boy went trudging off, and I saw Graziano rubbing snow over his hands to wash away the blood.  “Elmiryn,” he called.

The woman turned her head, hands on her hips.  “Yeah?”

“Do you think putting salt on these hides will help absorb the fluid?”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Hakeem said from his place at the corner of the rock.  He stood apart from the group and up until then had been on the lookout for any incoming danger.  “Sprinkling the purest salt on these hides will do nothing for us now.  Those hides are freshly skinned.  The salt would need atleast three days to absorb the blood and fluids, and even then, you need atleast two and a half pounds for each hide.  Have you got that much salt lying around, Graziano?”

The Moretti glared at the wizard, but said nothing.

Elmiryn shrugged.  “You sent Paulo to get sticks, right?  Look, we’ll just hold the hides over the fire for a while each.  You said the hides didn’t need to be perfect, so who cares if they get a bit singed.”

Graziano scratched his head, looking frustrated.  “But we’d have to hold each of them over the fire for atleast half an hour each!  That’s precious time lost!”

“You think it matters that we have lots of time to go running around in Holzoff’s Tower?  What we need to be is efficient and fast.  So long as the suns aren’t over that horizon, we’ll be fine.  But we won’t be fine if we can’t reach the tower at all, and the smell of those hides increases the chance of this whole plan being shot down at the start.  Taking some time off to try and prevent that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.”

“I agree,” Hakeem said with a nod.

“Okay.”  Graziano shrugged and scratched the back of his neck.  “Ahuh, okay.”

Paulo returned with the branches.  They weren’t especially thick, so someone still had to hold part of the hide with one hand, but the heat and the wind still did something to dry up the blood and fluids.  They were still damp in their centers, and the blood and grease congealed together in a slimy gush, but it wasn’t as bad as before.

Elmiryn handed Lethia the smallest hide, and me the second-largest.  She took the largest for herself.  Me and the enchantress exchanged looks of disgust.  The hides smelled terrible.

“Take off whatever you don’t want to get ruined,” Elmiryn said as she draped the hide over her shoulders with little pause.  She took something up from the ground–a vial filled with yellow liquid.  She uncorked it and splashed some of it on her hands.  I could smell it from where I stood, and my stomach gave a nasty pull.

“Oh, Elmiryn, no!” I protested, but it was too late.

The warrior spread the liquid on her hands, then began spreading it all over.  I felt ill as she finished and held the vial out to me.  “Here, put this on.  One of the daesce had a full bladder and I managed to save some of the urine.  It’ll help mask our scent more.”

I took the bottle gingerly but didn’t do anything.  I saw Lethia retch next to me.

“I advise doing it,” Hakeem said behind us.  We all turned to look at him.  The man, now that his work was done for the moment, looked at us all with a deep frown.  “You’ll be delving deeper into the daesce’s territory.  Argos and myself only managed to survive because we didn’t stray beyond the outskirts.  There’ll be many more daesce closer to the tower.  More of them, and bigger too.  That’s because the tower provides the best food source for the monsters, and so the stronger ones are naturally found there.”

“And what happens if we’re discovered?  Will you help us?”  Lethia asked, her brow wrinkling.

Hakeem looked at her with stony eyes.  “I cannot help you, as I’m not going with you.  Your plan does not allow for it.  My only suggestion should defeat seem inevitable is to kill yourself and hope that the daesce do not violate your corpse.”

The girl flinched as though the man had struck her.  Her lips turned white as she pressed them together, and she stared at the hide in her hands.  The wizard’s words were harsh…but true.  Still I resented his insensitivity.  Lethia wasn’t a warrior, just a girl loyal to her mistress.  If he cared so little of our affairs it seemed much more considerate to keep quiet–he was supposed to be under chains after all.  I still didn’t understand what he was doing free.  The only conclusion I could draw was that Elmiryn must have struck some sort of deal with the wizard, for Graziano’s dislike of the man made it unlikely that he was Hakeem’s liberator.  And what of Arduino?  Where was he if the prisoner he was watching was with us? But I had no time to stew on such things.

I sighed, and with one hand draped the hide over me.  I had already removed my gambeson and I didn’t care much what happened to the tunic–it was too big for me anyway.  Next, I stared at the vial in my hands.

Grimacing, I splashed some of the daesce urine onto my right palm, just as Elmiryn did, and proceeded to apply it all over.  I avoided my face, however.  The smell was enough to make my throat and body muscles tight again, I wasn’t going to smother myself with it.  I turned to Lethia, who stood quiet near the fire.

“Here,” I said, taking her hand.  “Remember…this is for Syria.”

“…For…For Syria,” Lethia repeated in a small voice.  She looked sick as I pulled the animal hide over her, and I was sorry to muss her pretty hair with something so foul.  The girl gingerly went on to apply the liquid.

As she did this, Elmiryn turned to me.  “Okay, Nyx.  It’ll be our job to make sure Lethia stays safe until she finds a guard.  Then maybe she can borrow some of that man’s fighting skills along with his knowledge of the tower.  I’m going to need you to stay tough for me.  Can you do that?”

I nodded once with a stiff neck.

The warrior smiled.  “Good.  Any locked doors we face too, we’ll need you to handle.”

“Has she got any lockpicks?” Graziano asked.

I shook my head and held up my hand.  “No.  My Twin and I have all we need.  If there is anything my claws can’t handle, then a lockpick wouldn’t do any better.”

The man nodded, though he gave me a frown at the mention of my Twin.

Elmiryn drew her sword and looked at Hakeem and the Morettis.  “And what will you three do while we’re in there?”

Paulo scratched at his ear.  He was leaning back against the side of his scultone, and he looked half-awake.  “S’there anything we can do?”

“I suppose all we can do is keep a lookout for incoming threats, and just be ready for a quick getaway,” Graziano said with a shrug.  “Then there’s…” his voice trailed away, and he looked Hakeem’s way with narrowed eyes.  “Hakeem.  My brother.  What did you do to him?”

The man sighed as though he’d been hoping to avoid this.  He closed his eyes and shook his head.  “Your brother is unharmed, Graziano.  But…”

“But what, calgato?  What did you do!?

The wizard glared at him.  “I did nothing.  It was Arduino’s choice to go.  He abandoned me up on that mountain, and if it weren’t for the enchantress’ dog, I’d still be up there.  Freezing to death.”

“That makes no sense, why would my brother–?”

“Are you calling me a liar, Graziano Moretti.”

“I call you that and more!”

“If Argos was there,” Lethia said loudly, stopping all voices.  Her look of discomfort beneath the shadow of the animal hide had not left her, but her green eyes flashed with something I couldn’t name.  “Then he will tell me the truth.  If he freed Hakeem, then surely he had a reason!”

“Then go on, Lethia.  Ask Argos.” Elmiryn said, gesturing at the dog.  “But hurry up.  Fuck, I can’t believe that the matter is being brought up now, at such a critical time!  You didn’t care before!” she added to Graziano.

“I was completely thrown off by everything!  I didn’t think to ask!” he returned.

“You didn’t think to ask about your brother?

“Neither did you!”

“Why would I–?” But Elmiryn stopped herself, raising both hands.  Her smile was fixed and I knew it was just a degree away from a snarl.  “Never mind.  Forget it.”

Lethia ignored the exchange and went to Argos, who yawned from his place next to the fire.  The girl took the dog’s heads gently into her hands and gazed into his eyes.  “Argos, is what Hakeem saying true?  Did Arduino leave you both up there on his own?”  The dog grumbled, licking his chops.  Lethia blinked.  “But…did he say why?

Argos shook his head and looked at Graziano with drawn back ears.  He whimpered a little from the back of his throat.  Lethia looked at the man too, and the Moretti in question coiled up beneath their gaze.

“Well,” he breathed.  “What did the…dog tell you?”

Lethia bit her lip and looked down at the snow.  “Argos says that Arduino abandoned us all.  Hakeem never did anything to harm the man.  He threatened Argos when he tried to stop your brother from going, and he looked really scared…he…he isn’t completely sure, but it seems like he’s betrayed our trust.”

Graziano shook his head, his face bunching.  “No…there must be some explanation for it.”

“He’s scared for his family,” Elmiryn said with an impatient sigh.  “He never was keen on this whole plan of ours.  I’m not surprised he’s done this.”

“Arduino is a good man!” Graziano snapped.

The woman gazed at him coolly.  “Arduino is a coward who’s content to give up without considering what that would mean for others.  For you and Paulo.  If you believe in him so much, then by all means, keep your flame of hope alive.  But Argos has no reason to lie to you when he says that Arduino still lives and that the wizard did nothing to force his departure, so don’t go stirring up trouble with Hakeem unless you want to jeopardize all our lives!”

Graziano looked like he wanted to argue, but he only let out a frustrated growl and turned his back to us.  The strain of this adventure was plain to see in the young man.  When we had first met him, Graz had seemed upbeat and carefree.  Now he looked so tired and had none of the jovial attitude that made me enjoy his company.  He was becoming more like his older brother with each passing minute.

Elmiryn shouldered her sword.  “Now that that’s finally taken care of, I believe we have an enchantress to save?”

————————————-

A valley?  A ridge?  A tear in the earth, or a blasted hole, one where the snow turned to fire and the wind was a fang on our sensibilities?  I admit, that aside from Syria I didn’t know much of the Albias region.  I was much more fond of reading about Elven and Dwarven culture, and of distant lands where the world was emerald and the earth turned livid to swallow those that tread on it.  But how could any book or scroll possibly describe the way the snow turned…to rust? Gray bones could be found scattered in crooks between the rocks, and sometimes half-buried in the snow. I knew my eyesight was back to its original caliber when I could see the stains on the cragged rocks that bore us down into the black world.  Then there were the noises, curling like claws from the shadows to cut me.  Howls, and shrieks, and cackles.  Hoots and bellows that held a twinge of sentient likeness–like there was some barbaric thought behind the otherwise chaotic din.  Sometimes I’d hear the sprinkling of snow, like a foot had kicked up a little in movement, but when I went to look there was never anything there.  None of the shadows seemed to want to sit still, either.  I was certain that the black impression of a rock became smaller the second time I looked.

I knew I’d go mad if  I stayed there any longer.

My Twin seemed to be find it hard not to panic at every given moment, causing jolts of pain through my head and chest.  But I could feel her thoughts, feel her sentiments.  She was aware that shifting could make us known to the daesce, and leave us vulnerable.  Still, her eyes burned the back of my retinas in their intensity, for she fought to clear the foggy lens with which she saw the world.  She wanted to know what was going on.  She growled at me, only with a hint of hostility.  My Twin resented this venture, but the action was a request for caution.

However cautious one could be, delving into Hell itself.

Even in the dark, Elmiryn, Lethia, and I could make out the place of Hakeem and Argos’ struggle when we passed it.  The man was right.  He didn’t have to go so far to find his monsters.  I thought of what he said–about the weaker daesce being banished to the outskirts of this terrain, how the stronger ones could be found closer to the tower, and I nearly stopped and turned around.  Lethia had started hiccuping, her body trembling so bad now that the fur of the daesce hide nearly slipped off at one point.

Elmiryn snapped at her.

“Get a grip!” I heard her hiss.

Lethia put her hands on her face, trying to smother her hiccups, but I was certain she was crying too.  The warrior sighed and took the girl by her shoulders.

“Hey…listen.  I know you’re scared.  Don’t worry, no matter what happens, we’ll be okay…alright?”  Elmiryn, her face shadowed beneath the lip of the animal hide, patted the girl’s cheek.  I found the scene to be strange.  It wasn’t that I thought the woman was incapable of being kind or comforting–but there was a sisterly sense to her behavior that I knew to be absent in all the times Elmiryn had ever tried to comfort me.  It was a nice thing to see, in all this ugliness.

Lethia gave a strong nod as Elmiryn pulled away.  I couldn’t see her face either, and her hiccups were still present, but I could hear the girl take deep breaths in an effort to suppress them.

From Hakeem’s spot (now serving as my landmark) we must’ve traveled some hundred meters in.  I couldn’t even tell where our camp was anymore, the way we dipped down in elevation so that the horizon seemed to rise like a tide.  Ahead of us, Holzoff’s Tower was an unkind giant that loomed over us, black weathered stone with its tip lost in the night mist that coated the sky.

And then…

Something snorted like a cross between a dog and a pig.  I saw a white shape gallumph on all fours from one rock to another.  My head snapped that away, my hands grabbing at Elmiryn and Lethia.  They both looked at me, then looked around us.

Again.

A phantom shadow dashing over the stained snow.  Yellow-white-orange–glowing eyes burning in the dark.  A reach around a mound of black rock–not a hand but claws.  Elmiryn gestured for us to keep walking, her sword held before her.  I pushed Lethia forward as the girls knees had locked and it sounded like she was holding her breath.  Over the stained snow, which turned steep beneath our feet.  Elmiryn hopped down where the ground suddenly cut away into a small drop, and she turned adjusting the hide on her head with her free hand.  She gestured at me and Lethia with a sense of haste.

Lethia bit her lip and jumped.  She landed, her boots grinding into the hard-pacted snow.  Next was my turn.  I looked around me, and to my horror, I realized we had an audience.

Sixteen pairs of eyes, pressing on me.

I gulped as my body started to tremble as Lethia’s had before.  All in me started to pull, and I hissed as I hugged my ribs.  They were expanding.  My bones had started to hurt.  I shook my head and snapped at Her.

“What’re you doing?  Stop it!  This isn’t the time!!”

The creature still could not form together words.  She spat at me, tail lashing, and I felt her force my eyes to meet the gazes that scorched in the night.  I shut my eyes and assured her, with a trembling resolve, that we would be okay.  She didn’t believe it.  …But she contained herself, pulling back her influence so that my limbs were freed of some of their pain.  Relieved, I wiped at my face, and with a short intake of breath, I jumped.

The ground seemed to come up to meet me much too quickly.  When my feet hit the ground, I must’ve touched onto slick ice, because they flew out from under me, and I tumbled over, losing my daesce hide and landing square into a small pile of broken, gnawed bones, which snapped and scattered from me.

The din that hit us easily beat out anything we had previously heard.

There were shouts, hoarse shouts like an angry mob.  Barking.  It was like these beasts had no conception of how to communicate, really, other than to push out whatever emotion they may have been feeling.  And what they were feeling at that moment…was something violent.

“Nyx!” Elmiryn bit out, amidst the noise.

“Oh gods…” I barely heard Lethia whimper.

All around us, the daesce jumped and howled, climbing up to sit atop the rocks and snow like they were judges bearing down us.  Three daesce, slim but gnashing their teeth, came charging at us, their flat faces bunched as their ferocious mouths snapped at us.  One swiped its claws at Lethia’s boot while another came swinging with its arms, its claws slamming into the hard-ice like it were butter.  I scrambled backwards,  the daesce skin pulled over me like it were some pathetic shield, my eyes wide with horror.

Elmiryn snarled, swinging her sword first at the beast that came near her, then at the one that sought to cut me, then swiping down to cut the daesce that sought to harm Lethia.

It screamed, pulling back with a limp.  The warrior kept screaming, putting her whole body into it.  She tore at her voice, making it hoarse and wild.  The daesce danced back to echo her scream back at her–and I realized…

…The daesce were mimicking her.

The woman paused to take a breath and looked down at me.  I saw her cerulean eyes flash in the shadow.

“Nyx…” she whispered.  “Shift your throat!  Impress these bastards, and they’ll leave us alone!  This is just a show of strength!”

“Wh-What?” Lethia stammered next to her.

“Shh!”

I swallowed, my throat tight.  I squeezed my eyes shut and mentally snatched at my Twin, who yowled as my ghostly grip pulled at her fur.

I implored her, fighting back terrified tears. “You see?  Do you see what’s happening?  Lend me your voice and claws!  Please!”

She didn’t need telling twice.  In fact, her eagerness hurt me, tearing up my vocal chords and my trachea so that I squeaked out in agony, blood coughing up my throat because I hadn’t been prepared for the force of the change.  My hands hurt as the joints dislocated and the bones elongated, claws replacing the mundane nails I had.  The skin on the back of my hands burned as fur sprouted.  I could feel the change beginning to crawl up my arms, and from my throat up to my head and shoulders.  I pushed Her back.

“Enough!” I thought.

Then the pain in my throat ebbed away, but the blood was still on my tongue.  As I moved to roll onto all fours, the daesce before me seemed to take my actions as a sign of weakness and struck out.  I saw it’s movements from the corner of my eye, and I panicked, for I knew that if it made me bleed, then the daesce would know we weren’t one of them and attack.  I moved my leg with a jerk, and the monster’s claw sliced into the snow, missing me by centimeters, but the creature wasn’t done.  It reared back a scream building from deep within its chest.

Then my Twin regained just enough of her Expression to rouse me out of my terrified stupor.

NOW!” She screeched.

I yelled, the sound a pitch lower than what was typical of my voice, and I hefted my body up with my left leg and my left elbow.  Then, pulling at all the strength my right side could muster, I kicked the daesce in the side.  The poor leverage and my sapien legs was not enough to send the monster flying away from me.  But at the least, the beast was knocked to the ground.  I would have preferred Elmiryn to have intervened, and resented her lack of involvement at the time, but later reflection made me realize that none of the other daesce had moved.  Because it was my fight.  The warrior was right.  It had been a show of strength.  Elmiryn had already proven herself, and by her fighting for Lethia, the girl’s safety had also been earned.  But not mine

Before the beast could rise up, I moved to my feet, fumbling a little in the snow.  In a crouch, I coiled my body, taking in all the breath my lungs could harbor.  Then, as the daesce, back on its feet, started to charge me, I lunged forward with both hands and roared.

The sound came out like rumble at first before I strained my throat to rise higher, turning the sound into a wicked shriek that sound hauntingly familiar to the daesce.  The monster I faced skittered in the snow, claws scraping to stop itself as it gibbered.  It’s black face turned to me, nose twitching, before it slinked back slowly.  I growled, the sound much more bestial than I ever could have managed had my throat been sapien.  I felt Elmiryn’s hand at my back and I moved to straighten, pulling my daesce hide back on as I did so.

“Good job!” she whispered.  “Look!  They’re moving back, all of them.”

And sure enough, the creatures retreated from our sight, backs curled and eyes turned over their shoulders as they went.  Soon, we seemed to be left alone.  Elmiryn gestured for us to move forward, and we all started together, the tension in the air lessened now that we had turned away a gang of the beasts.  I didn’t shift my throat or hands back, just in case.

“That was…easy!” Lethia breathed, her voice a fog in the air.

Then a claw swiped out from the shadows, catching the girl in the chest and sending an arc of crimson through the air.  I shrieked, my hands flying to my face in surprise.  The girl stumbled back a few steps, the hide slipping from her head to show free her face, turned slack, with her green eyes wide and glistening.  Then she let out a shaky sigh as she turned and fell face forward onto the ground.  When I crashed down onto my knees next to Lethia’s body, the hard ice cut at them, sending jolts of pain along my thighs.  The enchantress laid face down in the snow, her daesce hide having slipped off her so that they lay about her ankles.  I turned her over, panicking as I saw the blood gushing from her wound, which trailed from the bottom left of her rib cage up in a diagonal cut that ended around the top of her left breast, cutting into the pale fat.  I pulled at her clothes with my hands before pressing at the wound, sobbing, fighting the conflicting emotions and sensations I felt at having so much fresh blood over my hands and filling my senses.

I could hear Elmiryn give a shout, and the crunch of snow moving closer to me made me turn around.

A thick, muscular daesce with fangs that seemed too large for its mouth roared as it came at the warrior with both arms swinging, its movements naught but blurs to me, even after I cleared the tears from my eyes.  There were patches of fur missing along its body, and discolored scars could be seen trailing all over its skin.  It made its fellows look so young and weak.  There could’ve been any number of reasons we encountered this caliber of creature.  Perhaps it had tired of climbing the tower.  But the best logical reason I could think up at the time was, “It took my roar as a challenge.

When the thing stood on its hind legs, it came up only to Elmiryn’s chest, but the daesce was nearly double the woman’s width and terrifyingly fast.  The monster cut the woman’s forearm in an upward slash.  Her arm was protected by the bracer, but the impact still knocked her arm so hard that her sword was sent tumbling away, and with a low ram from its head, the beast had her on the ground and was on her stomach.  My heart clenched in my chest, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave Lethia bleeding out into the snow, no matter how much of her life I felt slipping through my fingers.

The daesce dipped down to bite at the redhead’s neck, but Elmiryn held it back with both her arms.  I could hardly see her face behind the curtain of white hair, but I could see her arms shaking with the effort of holding the monster back.

Then the woman gasped out, “Hey, Nyx!

I didn’t answer her verbally.  I only shifted my body more so that I could better see the scene unfolding before me.

Elmiryn went on, even as the daesce’s claws bit into the snow in search of leverage.  It gained an inch but still didn’t have its prize.

“In retrospect,” she managed to chuckle, “I think maybe you did a little too good a job impressing these guys!

I didn’t think it was funny.  At all.


Back to Chapter 16.2 | Forward to Chapter 16.4

Chapter 16.4

ELMIRYN________________________

Parallels. Elmiryn would never admit this, though she had a disconcerting awareness of it.  A leaning of common decency that she had always tucked to the side whenever her father or mother came near, or whenever training with her fellows.  It tickled at the back of her fingertips–feathery brushes that painted her skin flushed and heated.  Bodily functions.  They made her too human sometimes, it seemed.  Parallels. Such neat lines to her as to hold up this little atrocity, this nasty truth that drew up a harsher shade to her being.  Fighting was such a carnal act.  A mosaic of broken images and sounds and smells and tastes all clashing together to make the muddied color a child creates whenever he mixes all of life’s palette.  Maybe that was all it was.  Mud and–  Parallels. The blood and the sting of salt.  Her own voice a grunt ripping at her, while a heavy danger sought to kill her.  How close her end seemed, embedded in the spaces of those crooked fangs like rancid meat.  A body over hers.  Clothes feeling a bit too tight, and she knew she was on the verge of something.  She recalled… Parallels. Tender wrists in her hands, a sort of ache in her that begged release, and a pair of sweet eyes mirroring her desire.  The wind a mercy on their heated skin, breath coming as hisses between parted lips.  Her teeth wanting to leave a mark on the expensive toy that father said she couldn’t have… Parallels. This fucking thing was going to tear at her.  Rip out her throat.  Her heart pounded against her chest, and she was only dimly aware of the pain in her right shoulder and hand.  Was it okay, to feel so apart from the discomfort?  What if that meant she were becoming less alive and more of a ghost?

Paralleled arms holding back the demon ape, who at the moment, didn’t feel altogether so different from her.

The daesce snapped and snarled, body straining and quivering in its fury as it pushed against her hands.  This wouldn’t last long, she knew, but even as she tried to shift her weight to throw the creature from her, the monster beat her to it.  Tired of its contest of strength with Elmiryn, it turned its right shoulder back without warning, and took her left arm in both of its claws, its scissor grip biting into her bracer and elbow.

Then it gave a great pull, its thick leg sliding up her chest to keep her body down as a stab of sharp pain hit her shoulder then down her forearm.  The side of her left neck went numb and tingled.

To the warrior’s credit, she did not scream, but she could not contain her yell of pain. If her arm wasn’t broken, it was, at the least, severely dislocated.  The blood that seeped from the monster’s clutches looked no more gentle.  Her vision went black and for all her fighting, the dark swallowed her…and were it not for the beast’s rough actions, she may have stayed that way, leaving herself open to an easy kill.  The daesce took her forearm in its mouth, the press of its jaws so strong it hurt.  The thing pulled at her arm, sending more waves of pain through her, and this roused her out of her unconsciousness.  When she reoriented herself, she was certain the daesce’s fangs would break through the leather of her bracer.  There was no concern of ghostly disconnection now.  She was utterly in tune with the excruciating sensations, aligning her once more with the mortal life.  She would’ve been screaming outright if the monster’s weight wasn’t so tremendous as to make breathing a labor.  The daesce shifted so that its elbow pressed on her cheek, and her cries were sent into the creature’s fur.  The smell of the monster was horrid.

The daesce yanked backward hard and she gurgled, vision turning fuzzy then black again, for a moment.  She fought to stay conscious.  If she didn’t, the damn thing was literally going to rip her arm out of its socket.  She felt the leather of her bracer break and some of the daesce’s fangs bite into her.  Any harder and the bracer would give, allowing the creature to snap her forearm like a twig.

Now the parallels were broken, like her arm probably was, and Elmiryn was marginally glad that her depravity didn’t crawl so far.  She saw no pleasure in this anymore.  Now she just wanted the fucking thing dead.

Struggling, the woman twisted her right arm and tried to worm her hand behind her.  The daesce had pressed her almost two inches into the snow with all their struggles.  She scraped frantically with her fingers.  If Nyx wasn’t helping, then there was likely something wrong with Lethia.  Seriously wrong.  She twisted her body and managed to scrape the pommel of her dagger with the tips of her fingers. “Is the kid okay?” The warrior thought distantly to herself.

The daesce shifted its elbows from Elmiryn’s face and pulled back hard once more.  This lifted her body up from the snow, and though a scream tore up her throat, the warrior still had the presence of mind to draw her dagger.

She didn’t hesitate in her strike.

The first blow was directed at the daesce’s neck, and the blade sunk in to the hilt.  The daesce let go of her, a bubbly exhale slipping past its horrid fangs.  She pulled the knife out and with a yell, blood spurting over her.  She felt the dark liquid enter her mouth, like some nasty agent bringing to mind chemical acid and a sense of violation.  She shut her lips and pressed the back of her tongue to the roof of her mouth to keep what little there was from going down her throat.  She then slashed at the daesce’s black pug face, cutting across both eyes, and turned her face from the warm spray that hit her.  The monster reared back, ugly sounds coming from its cut throat.  It slashed wildly with its claws making Elmiryn squirm to dodge and block.  It caught the woman on her left brow and her collar bone.  Poisonous blood sat on her tongue and she spat it out.  Elmiryn winced and pushed back into the snow with her shoulders, giving her leverage as she kneed the monster in the side, then stabbed into the other.  As the beast fell over, the blade dragged, letting more of its life flood out onto the snow.  The daesce still lashed out, but it was weaker now, and it could not bring itself to sit up.  The pain Elmiryn felt was nauseating, and the blackness crept along the edges of her vision again, but she rolled over onto her knees and with dagger raised, stabbed into the beasts chest repeatedly till it stopped moving.

The rusted snow about them was splashed a shade darker, and she was covered in hot blood–disgusting but it did its part in fending off the cold.  Her daesce hide was somewhere nearby along with her sword.  She’d have to look for those.  But first…

She cleaned the blade on the snow, then sheathed her dagger and cradled her left arm to her chest.  The woman turned her eyes in the direction of Nyx and Lethia.  The girl was crying over the enchantress, hands pressed to her chest which was almost completely stained dark.  Cursing, the woman crawled away from the daesce corpse to where the snow was a shade lighter (all the snow there looked so dirty.)  She took some in her right hand and washed her bare skin with it.  The fabric had soaked the monster blood in, but her face and hands could be freed of it, and if she wanted to help Lethia, she’d have to get rid of the poisonous stains.  When this work was done, she folded over so that her chest and upper thighs pinched her left arm between, keeping it from flopping around, and with her now free right hand, she pulled a vial out from her boot.  Putting the vial gingerly between her teeth, she straightened and took hold of her left arm again as she crawled to the two girls.  Her forearm was stabbing with sharp pain, and her shoulder sent waves of agony washing through her thoughts.  The warrior’s breath was labored and her face dripping with snow making her features turn numb.

“Move.” Elmiryn bit out as she came up behind Nyx.  She stopped next to Lethia’s body, hissing as she saw the injuries.  The girl appeared to have been cut badly along the chest.  The worst of it seemed to be along the breast, where amid the blood she could make out how deep the wound went, going so far as to reach the fat and intricate blood vessels.  While the rest of the cut looked bad, it wasn’t as severe, but that wasn’t to say that blood loss wasn’t a threat.

“Press the skin together as best you can!” The warrior told Nyx as she uncorked the vial with her teeth, her left arm pinched in the crook of her right arm, which she had to press close to her body just to be able to hold the damaged limb up.  The translucent silver liquid in the vial sloshed a little, and the woman jerked back with a scowl.

Nyx scowled at it.  “Wh-What–”

“Shh!” The woman snapped, holding the vial delicately now that it was open.  “Down there, press the edge of the wound as close together as you can and keep going up as I pour this, okay?  Don’t let it touch you.”

The girl did as she was told.  Then with a deep breath, Elmiryn lowered the vial over the bottom of end of Lethia’s wound…and tipped it, just enough for a trickle to come out.

There was a hiss as the skin bubbled.  Lethia’s back arched and her eyes flew open, sending some of the liquid to go trailing down her stomach, where it sizzled the skin.  Her arms flailed, like the muscles spasmed, and a stray hand nearly knocked the vial away.

“Put your knees on her shoulders, gods damn it, and grab her arms!!” Elmiryn barked as she leaned back far.

Nyx flinched and followed her order, but her eyes were incredulous.  “Elmiryn is that the monster liquid that Graziano uses on the scultones!?”

“Yes.” Elmiryn poured some more of the liquid, and the silver bondage mingled with the blood, turning it dark…but the skin closed.  Lethia was conscious again, gibbering. The woman spoke over her.  “I stole some of it after they used it on Argos.  I’ve been carrying this vial around in my boot ever since, just for a moment like this.”

“But that was meant only to be used on hard tough skin like the scultones!  They didn’t even use so much for Argos’ wound!  You don’t know what this could do to her, Elle!!  Shouldn’t we atleast sew her up first or–”

“This is all we have, and she needs this wound closed up now.”

“But–”

“This is called field medicine, Nyx.  Nothing about it is ‘gentle’ or entirely ‘safe’.  You want Lethia to survive?  Then she’ll have to live with the scars.”

“It isn’t just scars I’m concerned about, gods damn it, it’s–”

Lethia’s screams reached a peak, silencing both women.  Elmiryn had reached the girl’s breast, the most difficult part.  The rest of the cut had been more or less sealed.  The skin was raw and puffy, and had a twinge of gray to it.  There were small gaps along the wound as the warrior couldn’t use too much of the liquid, and Lethia’s squirmings made the liquid trickle out to burn the surrounding skin in whimsical lines that reminded her of glass windows on a rainy day.

“The fact that she has the energy to scream and fight us so much shows that she hasn’t lost so much blood for it to be fatal yet,” Elmiryn said, wincing as she wiped at her brow.  Her left arm was killing her.  “But we’re not done.”  She looked at her companion.  “…I don’t like this either, y’know.”  And she found she meant it.  Lethia was to be under their protection.  The girl had trusted them, and her blood stained the snow.  Elmiryn felt something gnawing on her heart but tried to keep focused.  The girl was not lost yet.

Nyx’s chin crumpled and her lips pressed together.  There were tears in her eyes, but she made no other sound or motion other than to press the edges of Lethia’s wound close together and to settle more securely on the youth’s shoulders.  “Aelurus, ia-moa, nich Lethia lunam…” she whispered, but her prayer turned inward and the woman heard nothing more.

Elmiryn held the bottle near, swallowing as Lethia stared at her with wild eyes, her pale face sprayed with her own blood.  “No, no, no!! Don’t!  Stop, please stop!!” she wailed.

The warrior gazed her way for a moment before she tipped the last of the liquid out, emptying the long vial.

Lethia threw her head back and howled, the sound wrought with pain and an unnameable animal emotion.  If the daesce had any desire to challenge them again, the girl’s scream surely would have put an end to it.

The skin knitted back together, but the shape of the girl’s breast was clearly never going to be what it once was.  The scar was wide and seemed dented in.  The rest of the wound had become a dark gray, marring the youth’s marble body.  Elmiryn bowed her head and sighed.  She sat back and so did Nyx.  Lethia writhed between them, her head lolling now and again.  She was caught in fever, it seemed.

“We have to go back,” Nyx rasped, her eyes now freely weeping tears.

“No.”  Elmiryn breathed.

Her companion stared at her as though she were mad.

“What do you mean…’no’?”

Elmiryn shook her head but couldn’t look at the girl.  Her Words held some sense to them, and the compassion that laced her voice was like a barrage to the warrior’s judgement.  She knew they could not return…and it hurt to defy such feelings.  “You did good, pressing at her wound like that, Nyx.  Any other person would’ve thought the cause lost, but the injury wasn’t as severe as it looked.  It would’ve killed her, if you hadn’t done anything, because then Lethia would have kept bleeding freely.  But…we can’t go back.”

“Elmiryn look at her!” Nyx half-shouted.  “Are you seeing this!?”

The woman grit her teeth, knowing what the girl had really meant by ‘seeing’.  “Yes,” she intoned.  “I am seeing this.  And we still can’t go back.”

“She’ll die.”

“Lethia wouldn’t want us to quit.  She’s…strong.  In a way I hadn’t seen before.  She can do this, Nyx.”

“She’s just a girl.”

“Going backward is no safer than going forward, y’know.  In fact, it may be harder.”

Bullshit!” Nyx stood to her feet, trembling in fury.  She pointed at Lethia.  “She is not a tool for you to use!  She isn’t your lackey.  She’s a young girl who’s life is at risk and we can’t force her forward into peril just for the sake of your fucking quest!”

Elmiryn stood, her ire raising.  “I never saw Lethia as a tool, or a lackey.  You dishonor her by trying to hold her back!”

“What, from certain death!?”

No!! From carrying out her ultimate wish!  To save her mistress!  Fuck, you know I was against this idea in the beginning, and fine, I wanted to find out the connection these people had with Meznik, but it’s gone beyond that now!”

“I don’t believe you!” Nyx shrilled, her clawed fists curling at her sides.  There was something behind her words–something desperate.

Elmiryn looked at the girl down her nose.  Her companion shrunk beneath this gaze, the fury draining from her face as she took a step back.

“And I don’t believe you.” Elmiryn snapped.  “Your Words tell me the truth.  Didn’t I tell you, I can hear your true Meaning?  You know that isn’t how I feel.”  The woman sighed and tilted her head back.  “There could be some medicine in the tower.  Maybe some herbs to lower her fever and to help her body from the effects of the blood loss.  We can’t go back.  Not only would it dishonor her, it could kill her.”

Lethia sighed at their feet.  Both women crouched quickly, eyes wide as they took in the sight of the enchantress’ eyes fluttering to stare at them.  She took a deep breath and reached a hand out to Nyx.

“…up…” she whispered.

“Lethia, we probably shouldn’t move you–”

Up.”

“I think it’d be okay,” Elmiryn said to Nyx.  “The bond works upon contact, so as long as she doesn’t twist her body or something, she should be fine.”

Nyx sighed and took Lethia’s hand.

“Move slow, though,” Elmiryn warned.

Nyx said nothing to acknowledge her, but helped Lethia upright, and she did so slowly.  Lethia’s eyes rolled a little in her head, but she managed to focus on the Ailuran.  Then she looked down at her chest.  A low, choked sound squelched from deep in her throat, as though she were trying to cry through a slosh of bile.  She reached toward the gray scar with a trembling hand, but Elmiryn caught her arm.

“Don’t.  Just leave it be for now.  If it works like it did for Argos, then it should be fine within a few minutes.”

“Huh…” Lethia sighed, wincing.  Her eyes lit onto Elmiryn’s left arm.  “What happened to…?”  Her voice floated between scratchy and phlegmy.

The woman looked at her arm and grinned.  “I killed the daesce that got you, but not without it fucking me up.”  The woman shrugged her right shoulder.  “I’ll live,” Her grin widened.  “So will you.”

“Huh,” the girl said again.  She swallowed and leaned against Nyx, but winced and let out a small cry when she moved her torso too much.  The Ailuran hugged her gingerly.  “What did you…use?  On me?” the youth asked her.

Nyx glanced at Elmiryn before answering.  “A bonding liquid Graziano had.  It’s…strong.”

“It hurt.” Lethia’s brows pressed together in a tight bunch over tearing eyes.  “It still hurts…so much!”

“Can you keep going?” Elmiryn asked, frowning.

Lethia didn’t answer her, just stared ahead blankly.  Then her eyes slipped shut.  “I need a–” she winced, a hiss slipping her teeth.  Nyx’s face turned stricken and she looked at the redhead.  The woman just shook her head.  The enchantress continued after her eyes rolled back open, “I need…a moment.  Can I have my daesce hide?  I’m…cold.

Nyx nodded and pulled the hide over the girl’s upper body.  She looked at Elmiryn as Lethia settled into her arms.  “We have to dress her wound to keep the skin from breaking.  We have nothing sterile.  But…we can change the wrappings once we’re in the tower.  For now, we can use my tunic.  Those are cleaner than the wraps on my hands.”

“I can use your wraps.  The cuts I have aren’t so bad, so I can treat them in the tower. First, set Lethia down.  You’ll need my help with her, but I have to set my shoulder back in.  You know how to do that, right?”

“Yes, Atalo did it twice when he was a boy and I had to pop it back in.  I’ve popped back my own arm before, too.  Just let me set Lethia down.”  Nyx let the girl lie back, her eyes on her face.  Then her brows pressed together.  “Is it okay to let her sleep like that?”

“With that pain?  She isn’t sleeping.”

“No’sleepin’,” Lethia affirmed in a mumbled voice.  “Feel like vomitin’.”

“You’ll be okay,” Elmiryn said to her as Nyx came near.

The girl took the woman’s arm and looked at her.  “Are you ready?  Just relax.”

The warrior stared ahead, her right hand gently resting on the top of her lap.  She let her knees touch the ground and tried to relax her muscles.  Nyx took her wrist and elbow and rotated the arm outward slowly.  Elmiryn bit her tongue at how her shoulder hurt from the slight movement.  She closed her eyes and hummed gently to herself to distract from what she felt.

“Y’know,” Nyx breathed in a flat, disconnected tone, as she rotated the arm slowly back toward the body.  “When you shot me with the arrow the night we met?  My shoulder dislocated then.  Popping it in yourself hurts much worse than–” as the girl rotated the arm back outward, the joint suddenly slipped back into place.  Elmiryn grit her teeth and would’ve rocked forward had Nyx not held her upright.  “Still!  Stay still!”

The redhead’s face flashed cold and everything from her left hand’s fingers to the top of her head tingled.  “Damn!” the woman hissed, opening her eyes and taking her left arm with her right.

Nyx nodded at her as she unwrapped her hands.  “You’ve never dislocated your shoulder before?”

“Or been stabbed with a sword,” The redhead added, panting as she tried to keep the spit up that burned her from coming all the way up her throat.  “But that changed today too.”

The girl gripped the woman’s left forearm tightly as she started to make the sling.  “Quincy stabbed you!?”

Elmiryn’s eyes bugged and she jerked back.  “Ouch, OUCH! Fucking hell, Nyx, did I mention I think my forearm’s fractured!?”

Nyx let go as though shocked, her eyes wide with alarm.  “Oh!  Oh my goodness, I’m sorry!”  Elmiryn gave the girl a reproving stare, but then, Nyx’s face shifted to mirror it.  “Elle!  Why didn’t you tell me about your arm?!  We need a splint for it!”

“And we’d use what as a splint?  There’s nothing out here!” The woman groused, squinting as she tried to see if the girl’s squeeze had made her arm crooked or something.

“There’s bones we can use, for heaven’s sake!”

“I–” Elmiryn paused, blinking up at her.  “There is?”  She looked around.  Her eyes saw walls of black night with stones and rocks like earthy fingers coming through the stained snow.  The bridge they traveled parallel along was a disruption to the dark horizon.  And there may have even been glowing wisps of interests (“No, the daesce–their eyes catch the weak light,”) but she saw no bones.  “I don’t see it.”

Nyx sighed as she stood and went back the way they had come.  She stooped down to pick something up from the snow, and there, when Elmiryn strained her eyes, she thought she saw spindly objects, like pale spiky plants, amidst the snow.  The girl stepped on one end of the bone and pulled, snapping off the bulky head.  She then repeated this for the other side, leaving only a straight piece.  Nyx returned, a long femur in her petite hand, still furry and clawed.

She crouched down next to Elmiryn and looked at her.  She pointed at the woman’s right sleeve with the bone she held.

“Can I cut a piece off to use for padding?  Your doublet looks thick.  I won’t use much, just enough to pad your arm in the right places,” She said.  The woman nodded.  “Then let me get your dagger for a moment.”

The girl reached around and took the blade from its sheath and set down the bone.  She carefully cut off the sleeve up to the elbow.  Then she placed the piece around the woman’s arm and began to wrap the arm using the long bandage.  After she had wrapped the arm once, she pressed the bone to Elmiryn’s forearm.  The girl’s hands, though no longer sapien in nature, were no less adroit, and the woman felt no more discomfort than what she already did.  She watched, mildly fascinated as Nyx proceeded to make the arm sling.  First she looped the long bandage around the woman’s wrist, then around her neck, then close to the elbow.  After looping it once more, the Ailuran tied the bandage behind the woman’s neck.

Elmiryn looked at Nyx’s other bandage, which she used for her other arm.  “You can use that for Lethia.”

The girl nodded, already taking off her tunic.  The shivers immediately set in, but Nyx’s face was hard with concentration as she cut out a large square from her tunic, nearly all the back.  Then she gestured for the woman to follow her.  “Come help me put this on her.  Just prop her up with your body so that I can get around her torso easier.”

The two women scooted back toward Lethia, this time with Elmiryn near the girl’s head and Nyx at her side.  Her companion gently shook Lethia’s shoulder as her other hand pulled off the hide.

“Lethia,” The girl said, a hint of uneasiness in her voice.  “We have to lift you up.  We’re going to bandage your wound, okay?”

The girl’s eyes opened a fraction, showing the whites.  Her lips and throat moved as she made an indeterminate sound.  Elmiryn and Nyx exchanged looks before they moved to lift the girl.  With the Ailuran’s aid, the warrior was able to hold Lethia up in a sitting position, her right arm looping beneath her left arm pit and across the enchantress’s shoulders.  Nyx pressed the folded cloth to the girl’s wound.  The large piece she cut managed to cover most of the wound, leaving only the stray lines where the silver bonding liquid had burned the girl’s skin exposed.  Elmiryn noted the pink tinge to Nyx’s cheeks as she wrapped the bandage around the girl’s naked torso.  The front of her dress was so severely cut that the Ailuran didn’t have to tear it much to be able to reach around.  The warrior sucked at her teeth, suddenly disliking the idea of how intimate Nyx’s first aid was with the girl, but the impracticality of this sentiment was not lost on her, so she tried to ignore it.

All of their work, though it felt as though it took forever, was finally done.

Nyx sat back after tying the end of the bandage.  She wiped at her brow and looked at Elmiryn.

“Well?” she prompted, gesturing at Lethia who was now staring sleepily at the sky.  “How would you like to proceed, given the state we’re in?”

Elmiryn looked down at Lethia and gave her shoulders a terse shake with her right arm.  The girl’s eyes widened a degree but still appeared lidded.  (“Elle, be gentle!” Nyx snapped.)  The youth appeared paler, and her eyes held a hint of delirium.  She hissed out a breath before swallowing hard, and looked at Elmiryn with a frown.

“Now?” she whispered.

The woman nodded.

The girl’s lips pressed together and she moved to sit up.  Her face screwed up in pain and she grit her teeth.  Elmiryn helped her as best she could with her free hand.  She bit back a grunt when the teenager bumped her left arm.  Nyx came forward and pulled the girl away from her so that the woman could stand up herself.  It took almost a whole minute for all three to stand together.

Lethia touched the bandage on her chest, and from where Elmiryn stood, she could see the way the front of the dress exposed the enchantress’ skin stained with red.  The woman crouched briefly to pick up the girl’s daesce hide, and when she stood, she draped it over the girl’s shoulders.  Lethia smiled her thanks, but her lips quivered.

With a deep breath, the youth looked forward, and Elmiryn and Nyx followed her gaze.  The tower was less than a quarter of a mile away now.  Resolution flashed across the teenager’s face and she took a step forward.  She swayed a little but fended off Nyx’s attempt to help.  She took another step, steadier.  Then another.  Elmiryn smiled after the girl in approval.

“She’s strong,” she whispered with a smile to Nyx.  Lethia was two yards away from them.

Nyx looked at her sideways.  “She’s stubborn.  Like someone else I know.”  But amidst the worry and exhaustion in her voice, there was a sense of relief.

Elmiryn touched her companion’s shoulder.  “I know…you’re scared for her.  But this isn’t your choice.  You can’t shield her, Nyx.  And if anything happens to her…it won’t be your fault…”

The girl looked away, her head tilting forward some so that her wild bangs shielded her tawny eyes.  “It isn’t just Lethia I’m worried about, y’know,” she mumbled.

The woman felt her chest tighten a little.  She let her hand trail from the girl’s shoulder down to brush her knuckles against the tender side of the girl’s wrist.  “…I know,” she breathed.

“Hey!”  Lethia’s trembling voice floated back to them.  And the two looked to see that she had traveled quite a ways by herself.  Her voice sounded tight and raspy, but her eyes were sharper.

“Why am I the only one walking?” the enchantress asked, her lip pouting.


Back to Chapter 16.3 | Forward to Chapter 17.1