Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 17.1

NYX____________________________

What a start.  What a nightmarish start.  We hadn’t even penetrated the tower yet, and here we were–two of our number severely injured.  I wanted to turn around and throw my hands up into the air.  I had wanted to help Lethia, but it had never been my intention to actually aid her mistress.  Maybe help the girl get free of her pursuers and onto safety.  But not this.  Only, Elmiryn had changed her mind when she became aware of a possible connection to her quest.  I had gone along with it, reserved but silent for I remembered why I had started traveling with the woman to begin with, and the evidence did seem compelling, if circumstantial…

The fact remained.  I was not up for this.

The true weight of our task felt so great that I fought to keep my knees from locking me into place.  My Twin was a phantom of rumpled temperament, growling and spitting in my head because this agreed with her no more than it did me.

As we crunched through the snow, shifting shadows our company on that dark night, I wondered if it were my end that I was seeking.  If this would be the adventure to cut down our lives.  I had been with Elmiryn more than two weeks, but the time seemed so much longer considering what we’d already been through.  I didn’t want things to end.  I looked over my shoulder, hoping an answer lay in the wisps of icy wind and jagged earth that was that crater.  Not even my sharp therian eyes could pick out the glow of our camp peeking behind the merciful rock, and with that…I knew that the warrior had been right in choosing to press forward.  The cold was a constant drain on us, and the exertion of our encounter with the daesce did nothing to aid our stamina.  Holzoff’s Tower could possibly be our final resting place–But it was also warm, and supplied with medicine we could use.

As much as I hated it, we had to keep going.

For my part, I fared well, considering I suffered no great injury, and while the cold was no friend, I was much more resilient than either of my human companions.  For what the cold tried to take, my regenerative ability tried to replenish.  I knew this wouldn’t last, however.  With time, the cold would whittle away all I had, leaving my body to memorize its effects and make it the new standard.  If this happened, unless I found a special therian healer, I’d forever be ill and weakened.  Considering the direction my life was taking, I could not afford this.

So I did my best to use my daesce hide to cover my exposed skin, where I’d used my tunic to help Lethia.  I could see the daesce watching us, curious yet wary from our show of power.  I wondered if the hide was still necessary–if we had somehow earned a place in their simple social structure.

We finally came to the tower.  The only way up to the bridge, it seemed, was by climbing up the rocks and then grabbing onto the ledge.  I didn’t know how the security was at the gate.  Lethia seemed to wonder the same thing and made as if to look, venturing further from the bridge’s blind spot, but I grabbed her arm firmly.

“No!” I whispered.

We turned to look at Elmiryn who hissed at us from near the shadows.  She pointed with her thumb, beneath the looming stone.  I nodded and together, Lethia and I joined her.

“Let’s slip down under here,” the warrior breathed.  “I doubt they’ll see us in this dark, but it’s better to find some cover so close to the tower.”

I turned and looked, my eyes narrowing.  “In…there?

The bridge was atleast ten men wide, and my eyes could make out many shapes in the dark.  There was a putrid stench wafting from inside, when the wind didn’t blow, and I thought I heard squelching…like meat being chewed.  I looked at Elmiryn again.  “It’s crawling with the daesce!”

“We’ve already established ourselves as big bad killers, okay?  They won’t want to fight us.”

“But I can’t see anything!” Lethia added.

Elmiryn gestured toward me with a tilt of her head.  “Nyx, you can see fairly good in the dark, right?  Guide us through.  There must be a way up onto the bridge from down here.”

I bit my tongue.  Hard.  But I thrust out my arm and Elmiryn grabbed my elbow, Lethia in turn holding onto her.  My eyes turned to the curtain of black that teased the toes of my makeshift boots.  My clawed hands twitched and I knew I wouldn’t be able to truly see anything until I had immersed myself into the darkness completely.

“My eyes.”  My Twin said.

She spoke with ill temper, and her body lay coiled on my already cumbersome worries.  “Let’s share sight a while.  It’ll be better.  For us both.”

I said nothing.  Only gave a mental nod of my head.  I had to admit, that having Her be this agreeable was a great deal better with arguing over her for control.  I didn’t dwell on this much.  I didn’t want to ruin this little reprieve, especially when there were such pressing matters at hand.

I closed my eyes and braced myself.  My eyes burned first, and they twitched up and to the side without my command.  Then pain shot up the eyestalks, flowering behind my eyelids and painting the shadows behind them with white waves.  I hissed from the back of my throat, my hand reached up to my face.  I forgot that I had claws and I scratched myself on accident, on the top of my right cheek.  The cut tickled as it sealed shut, and when it did, the pain in my eyes subsided to an ache.  Shaking my head, I opened my eyes, tentatively.

It was better than before, but not much.  The world under the bridge gained in varying shades of gray.  The small flickers of yellow that winked in the dark from the daesce’s eyes were weak too, telling me that not much light was to be had beneath the bridge.  Still, with Elmiryn a warm presence behind me, I started to slide forward.

I felt my foot push at bones and possibly even fecal matter.  The smell made me dizzy, and I wretched so hard at the start that I had to spit out the mouthful of bile that managed to splash onto my tongue.  Being what I was, I had a sensitive nose, but Lethia seemed the worse affected of us all.  We had to stop after two yards because the girl couldn’t stop heaving.  I took my time, picking through the uneven snow and litter, because at one point I found my foot was placed inches from a half-eaten corpse.  I tried curving our progress toward the tower.  I didn’t know what to find that way, but there was no other way up.  There were grunts and the occasional jabbering from the creatures about us.  There were atleast two instances in which we had to stop abruptly because a daesce would suddenly go lumbering across our path, eyes flashing our way briefly before it hurried away, as though realizing we were there.  With each inch we gained I believed Elmiryn more and more that the monsters wanted nothing to do with us after our raw display of power.

Which was good, because I was pretty sure another engagement would kill us.

Bones crunched beneath my feet as we neared the rocks. I turned and looked back at the others.  Elmiryn seemed relatively fine, all things considered.  But Lethia was nowhere in sight.  I frowned and leaned over, and there I found the girl pressed into Elmiryn’s back.  The woman took a moment to make out what I was doing, then turned and with her good hand poked the teenager in the head.  Lethia looked up, her eyes wide, but her back straightened as she took note of the stones before us.  I imagine to her it must’ve looked like a wall of pitch black, but for human beings, Elmiryn and Lethia seemed rather in tune with their instincts.

I turned my eyes back onto the uneven rock that seemed like a rumpled blanket to me.  Elmiryn and Lethia, emboldened by the sight of their way out of that hellhole, broke the chain to come and stand at my sides.  Together, we felt the rock, eyes straining for some answer as to how to climb up.  For the most part, the stone was smooth, but as I reached over to brush some snow away from one, I noted a harsh cut into the stone.  I frowned and ran my fingers over the cut.  I turned to Elmiryn, nudging her.

“Elle,” I breathed.  “I think the daesce managed to chip the rock in some places.  We could use this as foot holds!”

But the woman didn’t seem relieved and I was quick to remember why.

“I’ll have to find a place where the rock comes to a slant, otherwise, you and Lethia are going to have to go up first by yourselves.” I could see her face twist up in the dark, like she hated being left behind for any reason.

“You can’t come with us!?” Lethia hissed, voicing my fear.

The woman shook her head.  “Like I said, lemme find a place where I can try to climb up at a crawl.  If that doesn’t work, you’ll have to find some rope and lower it down for me.”

“This is suicide…” I grumbled to the warrior, but I said this low and with my face turned from Lethia.  I didn’t want to make the girl anymore fearful than she probably already was.

“Don’t say that.” Elmiryn scolded softly.  She gestured at the rock with her chin.  “Go on you two.  Try and start picking your way up there.  Nyx should take the lead.  Knock out the guard so that Lethia can get the information we need.  I’ll be with you soon.”

I only shook my head and gave a half-hearted shrug.  I turned my eyes to the ground, and there they caught sight of something.  Amid the folds of black and gray shadows, with bones wrapped about the handle in a deathly grasp, I reached down and plucked up… “A morningstar?”

Lethia said nothing.  Her back was turned to us and it seemed she was focusing on a point on the wall, and her hand seemed to be patting her thigh rapidly.  I paused at the sight of this, but Elmiryn leaned over me to see what I held, and my original intention was lost.

“You got that from the ground?”

“Yes.”  My brows knitted together as I grasped the blade in my hand.  I turned to Elmiryn with a jerk.  “I’ve got an idea!”

“Oh?”

“Most likely the guards on the bridge are behind gates.  I can lure them out with this!  It must be difficult for these men to receive new arms and supplies given the nature of this place.  With every death, they lose valuable equipment.  If they see this, so near to the gate, they’ll want to retrieve it!”

“That’s a stretch, Nyx.  And at any rate, if they went for it, they’d probably lock the gates behind whoever goes for the weapon just to be safe.”

“But even then, there’ll be someone near the gates ready to let him back in, right?  I can distract the guard outside while Lethia ensorcells the ones covering him!” As I said this, I turned and placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder.  She gasped and whirled around, stumbling back against the wall and the bones on the ground.  I pulled away, as though burned.  “Huh?”

Lethia was breathing fast, and she made a low whine in her throat.  Her hand clutched at her chest and she winced as though in severe pain.  For a moment, I was afraid the skin of her cut had torn apart.  Then the look cleared up, and I saw her head twist to see around her.

Elmiryn sighed, just as I gathered what was going on.  “Well that’s just great.  Her amnesia’s at it again!”

I knelt down next to the girl, placing the morningstar on the ground, and took hold of her shoulders.  The youth’s pale oval face turned my way, and I could see her lips quivering.  “Shh, shhh…Lethia?  Lethia, what do you remember?”

The girl said nothing, only continued to stare at me with those wide  green eyes.  How horrifying it must have been to “awaken” in such a place!  I made sure to avoid locking onto her gaze as I shuffled closer.

“What do you remember?” I insisted, tightening my grip on her shoulders.

Lethia’s eyes narrowed.  I saw her eyes flicker to my lips.

“Lethia…?”

“Eth…eh…eth…” The girl’s speech was low and slurred, like she had to battle with her tongue to move.  She scowled and looked over at Elmiryn.  “Esch…ah-uh…”

My heart sunk.  I turned slowly and looked at Elmiryn, who was looking down at me.  From her shadowed features, I gathered she was scowling.  I looked back at Lethia.  “Do you…understand me?  Lethia?”

The girl blinked slowly.  She tilted her head back and stared up at the looming underside of the bridge.  I pointed up excitedly.  “Yes!  Up!  Do you remember?  We need to go up!”

“Ah!” The girl sighed with excitement, mirroring my action.  “Sss–ia!”

“Sia?  You mean…you mean Syria?

“Ss-ia! Ah!”

“Well,” Elmiryn said, resigned. “She’s a bit fucky now, but atleast she still remembers that much.”  She chuckled darkly. “If that isn’t loyalty, I don’t know what is!”

I stood and turned to the warrior, a worried look on my face.  “I don’t know if I can take her up with me.  She seems to remember something of our task, but she…I don’t think she understands when I speak to her.  There could be a great deal she’s forgotten, and the risk is just–”

I broke off as I saw Elmiryn rubbing her chin with a grin on her lips.

I frowned at her.  “What?”

“Looks like she’s going up with or without you, Nyx!” She snickered.

I whipped around.  Lethia had already started climbing the wall.  She was only a two feet up because she had to grope around both with her hand and her foot to see where the next foothold was, but I stopped myself from pulling her back down when I remembered that this could tear open the girl’s tender cut.  I stared, flabbergasted as Lethia moved with a renewed vigor.

“Her power shifted to block her knowledge of speech,” Elmiryn said behind me, “But it hasn’t stopped her ability to move.  If anything, she probably has forgotten what the implications of her pain means, too.  That’s why she’s able to ignore it and climb so fast.”

I grit my teeth and glanced at the woman over my shoulder.  I didn’t like the note of envy in her voice.  “That isn’t good, Elle!  She could push herself too hard!”

The woman gave me a nudge, “Which is why you should probably get after her then!”

I growled but did just this, taking the morningstar and slipping it down the back of my tunic’s neck and between the bandages I used to wrap my breasts.  It bit into my scarred back uncomfortably, but the weapon didn’t jostle much and I was confident it would stay put.  I started at the first foothold I’d found and started after the girl, using my claws to my advantage to find grip in the otherwise slippery parts along the wall.  I glanced back only a moment to see that Elmiryn had already gone off to find another way up to the top of the bridge.  I looked back up to see Lethia panting up above me, her head resting against the rock.  Her limbs were shaking, and I knew if I didn’t catch up with her soon, she’d fall.

Doubling my efforts, I spidered my way up to the girl, closing the yard between us.  I came up to her side, where she took note of me and decided to wait until I was level with her.  Her face was nearly completely dark gray.  There was less light where we had climbed.

I touched my chest with my free hand.  “I’ll go first,” I said slowly.

I couldn’t tell if what I said registered with the youth, but I gestured for her to follow me anyway.  I climbed up and over her and heard the girl begin to follow.  We were only a few feet from the bottom of the bridge, but we had to climb sideways now to get onto it.  I looked down and watched as Lethia blindly reached around for somewhere to grab hold.  I let out a hiss and snapped my fingers to grab her attention, then pointed at my boot.  The girl looked at my shoe in confusion before I removed it from its foothold, then put it back again.  I pointed at my boot again, which I pulled away once more.  I said as clearly as possible, “Lethia.  Grab there!”

It hit me that I didn’t know how well the girl could see.  Could she atleast make out my form in the dark?  Even I was having trouble making out what was what.  But the girl seemed to get the gist of my actions and reached in my direction.  It took her a minute before she found the spot my boot had been.  From there, I scooted over, and the girl pulled herself up.  I reached over and aided her as best I could, but the truth of it was that the cuts and breaks in the rocks were slippery with ice and some tended to be narrow so I couldn’t lean over far.

Bit by bit, we sidled over until we came out from beneath the bridge.  Though it was still dark out, the filtered moonlight filtered through the break of clouds was enough to seem like day to me after the overwhelming shadow we suffered.  Once I could reach the side of the bridge’s mold, the climb became much easier.  I hurried up, claws scraping at the edges of the barricade, and I peeked over as much as I dared.

The entrance to the tower was a set of large wooden doors, further blocked off by a heavy steel gate.  I could see a smaller door fixed into the wooden entrance with a view window, but the window was shut.  All was quiet, and from where I was, it seemed I was in the blind spot of the archer windows.

I pulled myself up.

Turning, I saw Lethia struggle to come up, the same way I had, but perhaps I was more agile than I thought, for she seemed to find it impossible.  She gazed up at me with stricken eyes, and I knew she was afraid of falling.  Given the way her hands gripped the rock with white fingertips and her limbs trembled worse than before, I feared this too.  With little pause, I lunged over the barricade.  Just as I was in reach of the girl’s arms, her foot slipped and she started to drop back into the shadow, her daesce skin slipping away from her to reveal her long hair sullied and turned dark with gore.  My breath stopped and I snatched at her desperately.

My right hand caught her wrist, and I felt my body began to fly over the edge when my left hand managed to catch the outer edge of the barricade, and by a twist of my body, my right foot hooked onto the inner edge.  My entire body screamed as each and every muscle pulled from the full weight of Lethia, who dangled free in the air now.  The daesce skin slid off my back and fell to the ground below.  The girl grabbed onto my forearm with her other hand desperately, a scared whimper slipping her throat.

Grunting, I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled back as hard as I could.  Within five minutes, the girl was up and over the ledge, breathing hard and shaking all over.  Her eyes rolled like she were ready to pass out.  I was on the ground, knees half-bent, leaning back on my hands when I saw this.  I jumped forward and shook the girl’s shoulder.  She couldn’t lose consciousness.  I wasn’t sure if I could wake her again if she passed out, and this terrified me.

“Lethia!” I hissed.

The teenager blinked her eyes open again and stared at my hand.  She pulled her legs over the barricade with some struggle, and let them dangle over the ground.  I stood and breathed a sigh of relief.

Turning, I looked at the steel gate.  It presented an immediate problem for me, as I had to make sure the guards would raise it and keep it raised so that Lethia and I could rush in.  I bit my lip and pulled the morningstar out as I puzzled over this new obstacle.  I stared at the weapon in my hands.  Color became dull with my bestial eyes, so the ruddy weave of the hilt looked little different from the stained rusted metal that sprouted from it.  I wasn’t certain, but it seemed to be iron.  I followed up the weapon’s length to the bulbous spiked end.  Then my eyebrows rose.

I turned and gestured mutely for Lethia to follow me.  She did so with a nod, sliding off the bridge barricade and together we ventured near the gate.  There I looked at the girl, and pointed at her eyes with my index and middle finger, then pointed toward the small door in the blocked entrance.  I had to do this twice before Lethia seemed to grasp what it was I was telling her.

“Ah-tch…” She said, pointing at the door.

I nodded.  “Yes.  Watch.”

I pulled her back to where the barricade connected with the tower, and there I bid the girl to stand up on the stone.  I put my fingers on my lips and Lethia mirrored the action, nodding.

I hurried to the other side of the bridge.  My heart was hammering in my chest as I took the morningstar with both hands and held it up like a bat.  I took three deep breaths before I let out a wild swing.  The weapon struck the steel, letting out a dull ‘twang’ that stung my hands.  I looked up to see what Lethia was doing.  She was hiding still, but I could tell she was straining her ears to see when the doors would open.  I turned back to the steel gate, where I saw I had managed a small scratch on the bars, but otherwise nothing.  No noises came from the doors.  I bared my teeth and pulled the morningstar back again, this time spreading my legs and bending my knees.  I swung again, so hard that I felt as though I wrenched my arms out, and when the weapon hit, I could’ve sworn I saw sparks (but this may have been my mind playing tricks on me.)  All of my bones rattled in my body, and I had to straighten out my eyes–such was the force of the hit.

But the sound!

It was loud and sang, shaking the gate.  The spikes of the morningstar had flown off where the weapon had struck, and the shaft was bent now, but I heard shouts from behind the heavy wooden doors, and I knew that this time I had my audience.

Hurriedly, I threw the morningstar in a spot I knew the view window would be able to see, and I jumped up onto the barricade like Lethia, pressing my back against the stone.

I heard the ‘slack’ as the view window was snapped back.  There was a groan.

“Oh no…”

Someone else spoke, but I couldn’t make out what they said.

The person at the door answered them.  “No, no.  It’s…it looks like it’s just a weapon over there.  But that could mean someone upstairs was pulled through the bars again.  …What?  Yes that’s possible!  A few months ago there was this new guy.  He got plucked right up by the daesce.  Nearly skinned him doing so.  We found his body in the morning, out on the bridge, every bone broken.”  The door rattled and my heart jumped as I heard something jingle.

The other person spoke again, and they sounded agitated.

“Of course I’m going out there!  We have three men fitted only with knives, we can’t afford to lose anymore of our arms.  Next supply shipment isn’t for a month!”

The door opened with a groan of its hinges, warm flickering light painting the stone floor.  The man’s voice lowered as he spoke to his companion.  “You just keep an eye out for me, un’erstand?  Get that bow ready.  I been at this a dozen times, I’ll be fine, but you just keep that bow ready.  Un’erstand?  Oi!  Roll up the gate, Jowan!”

“Shiva’s breath, Freck.  Ya sure ya can’ jes wai’ till mornin’?” This was the other person, the one I hadn’t been able to hear well.  His accent sounded northwestern, specifically where independent human-elf colonies resided in the mountains north of the Ailuran nation.  I knew this because the human traders that visited my village spoke the same unusual way.  His enunciation dropped at the end of words, as though he had marbles in his mouth, and was a sort of drawl.  The dialect had no name, but was the result of the human language Common being mixed with the elven language D’Shar.

The gate shuddered, and I could hear the machinations groan behind the stone as it slowly rattled up.  Freck drew his weapon–a long sword by the ring of it.  I looked out of the corner of my eyes, not daring to even turn my head as he came out from beneath the lifted gate.  He looked around warily, then looked up as though expecting to see a body hanging out of the window, or a daesce bearing down on him.  When he saw none of these things, the man scowled.

He was unshaven and of medium height, dressed in combination of reinforced leather and chainmail.  He had on a plated helmet with a nose guard, but no gloves.  I guessed him to be nearing his forties, and by the way he moved, he was experienced.  I started to doubt myself when without warning, I saw Lethia begin to turn the corner, her eyes like shiny discs, and if I’d squinted, I was certain I could’ve seen the archer turning to engage her.  I heard a ‘thwip’ as the arrow was set loose from his fingers.  Did it hit?  Was she going down?

I didn’t know, because I had started to move, ignited like waiting oil by the surprising flame that was the teenager’s audacity.  Freck was just straightening up after picking up the morningstar.  I thought about all the drills I had done with Elmiryn.  Amidst those thoughts, I saw flashes of time spent with my brother Thad.  Playing.  Learning.

Thaddeus showing me how to strike at the throat.

Elmiryn showing me how to flank my opponent.

I pulled my fist back, wrist turned toward the sky with my hand down to my waist, claws biting into my own palm, but I would not set them loose on this man.  He may have been a scoundrel, he may have had a family, but I knew that I was not to bring about his end.  Would not.  Could not.  I struck out in an uppercut, pushing with my back foot as my other foot slid forward.  My body turned at the shoulders as I felt my knuckles slam into the man’s turned jaw.  His head snapped back with such force that the man launched backwards.  He hit the ground with a nasty thud and didn’t rise again, his sword and the morningstar both out of his hands.  I knocked them away with my foot for good measure, trembling from the adrenaline.

I noted that I hadn’t been shot with an arrow yet.

I looked and saw why.

The archer, a younger man with bright blonde hair and no helmet was on his knees, his bow resting loosely in his hands.  He hadn’t drawn another arrow.  The third man, Jowan, who I hadn’t heard nor seen yet, stood slumped against the door frame, his mouth hung open.  He was a large man, almost as big as Karolek, with a pale shaved head and a black eye.  They both wore armor similar to Freck.  Lethia stood before them, hands at her sides, relaxed.  She walked over calmly to the archer, and with gentle hands, tilted his head up from the chin.  The man stared up into her face, his expression vacant before he seized up and his eyes bugged.  He gasped as though he couldn’t breathe.  The man fell over, twitching.

I stared at him, horrified.  “Sweet Aelurus!  Is he…Lethia did you…?”

The girl knelt down next to the archer and rolled him onto his back with some difficulty.  His jaw flapped and I heard dry noises coming from the back of his throat.  She looked back my way, her eyes glassy but her face twisted in anguish.  When she spoke, she surprised me.

She now had the same northwestern accent the man had.

“It weren’t done on purpose!  I was jes’ tryin’ to get back my talk when…when…oh heaven help ‘im!  I thin’ I made ‘im forget how to breathe!!”

“Have you ever tried putting something back into someone’s head!?” I came running over and knelt down with the girl.  I looked over at Jowan in the doorway.  The guard still hadn’t moved out of his frozen stupor.

The girl blinked tears from her eyes and looked down at the archer’s face.  “Ah…um…n-no.  No I can’ say that I have!”

“Well try!”

“But what if I take more!?

“He’ll die if you don’t do something!”

The girl seemed to let this sink in.  Then she straightened her back and took the archer’s face in her hands.  Lethia turned his face and their eyes met.

To me, nothing seemed to happen.  A minute stretched by, and I grew nervous.  What if others came?  What if the daesce came?

Then Lethia broke away, sucking in a huge gulp of air as though she’d been submerged in water.  The archer did the same, his bangs brushing along his forehead as he rolled to his side, coughing and taking breaths.  I looked at the enchantress, beaming.

“You did it!” I cried.

“I did!” Lethia returned.  She flashed a smile before she suddenly keeled over, eyes rolling up into her skull.

My joy vanished and I crawled over the girl to get a look at her face.  “Lethia!?”  I shook her shoulder, then pinched her arm as hard as I could.  She didn’t wake.

I heard a moan from the doorway, and looked up slowly just as Jowan turned his surly gaze my way.  I heard armor clinking and sharp voices in the room behind him, and knew others had come.  At my back, I heard Freck rise as well, grunting.

“Who the fuck…” Jowan panted, “Are you?

“I’m dead,” I wanted to say.

Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.

???_____________________________

At such short notice, it wasn’t so bad.  Almost a hundred militia men and atleast twenty mercenaries, nine of which being skilled with magic, all soldiering together through the snow.  They were making a last push for the day, because there was no way they could reach Holzoff’s that night.  It was, perhaps, their hope that their targets would have no other way to leave the prison other than the road they traveled, but this was ludicrous.  The Moretti’s specialized in training beasts who could halve the average traveler’s journey.  But what else could they do?  So they soldiered on.

The sky turns a violent red as the suns come down beneath the cloud cover to shade the world in their evening glow.

The camp is set and a large bonfire is created from wood brought on a wagon.  The marshal (who probably should be referred to as the Marshal, as no one outside of Belcliff really seems to care enough to refer to the man by his actual name) stands on a crate brought by his attendant and calls for attention.

“Listen to me, all of you!” He booms, fitted with shiny plate armor, clearly never used.  “We march again, before dawn!  The tower is still a great distance away, but the rogues have no alternatives roads to take.  Thus, you should be prepared for a fierce battle!  I say this because it has been brought to my attention that an Ailuran travels with the criminals.  This is yet another danger for us to prepare against, next to the wizard and the enchantress!  As I’ve been told, the two youngest of the Morettis travel with them.  I was asked to spare their lives, but given the circumstances, I’m not certain I can.  They have violated the high laws of Albias, and as arbiter of justice, I cannot stand for this!  So I say, at the first sign of resistance, kill without hesitation!  Those men have chosen their path, and so have we.  We will not falter, men.  Not against these rogues!  I want to remind you all that I will pay a handsome reward to whomever brings me the head of these bastards!  This is a battle of principle.  They destroyed a portion of our city and spat on the honest work of professionals!  Tomorrow, we will show them the errors of their ways!

There’s a roar from the militia men, but the mercenaries remain quiet and unmoved.  It’s silly, really.  This isn’t a war they’re fighting, and the bounty hunters know this.  It’s just another mark, another bounty, another sack of gold, only the marshal is staking his pride on this.

The fire is…so brilliant…reaching to the dying heavens.  And the sunlight, it comes in broken shafts over the fangs of the earth, the mountains, streaking the cold air in such warm brilliance…

It’s enough.

I am siphoned, pulled, burned and scorched into an ambience indescribable to the common mind, for as I flash through the dying light and through the flames of the bonfire, I see His eyes on me and I am headed toward His mouth, which gapes open ready to swallow me whole.

I slip through His flat giant teeth and back into the land of the living.

Tonatiuh, a blade with no master.  I, a woman with no god.  He tries to consume me, and I try to enslave him.  It’s a tiring dance sometimes, but this time I hardly break concentration.

But I’m still burning hot, still stellar and all cosmic atoms shuddering and shifting with limbs as golden as the purest morning light.  I am coiled retribution, I am hell’s infernal flame, I am His terrible glory.

I am the marshal’s great surprise.

Time is slow at first–I’m coming out of light speed after all–and the man moves at a crawl, his head turns slowly to regard me.  His body rocks backward, and I know he will fall.  I consider killing him before he hits the ground, but then my eyes flicker to the men around the camp.  Some young and misguided, some old and stupid.  The bounty hunters, these cold mercenaries.  Some of them I recognize, but none of them I hold any particular respect for.

Not like Jetswick and Karolek.

…Not like Arduino.

I wonder if this makes these men the closest things I’ve had to “friends”.

Then the first second is finally reached and time begins to speed up exponentially.

I take a breath and tighten my grip on Tonatiuh’s hilt.  Arduino’s brothers are young, like some of these men are young.  And some of these men are older, like Arduino is older.  I think of how little mercy the marshal would have shown those boys, how little mercy he would have shown that naive enchantress, still only a teenager.  I think of her head trapped in an iron mask.

The camp has turned into chaos.  The militia men scramble for their blades, frightened and confused.  The bounty hunters, on the other hand, all start forward, already prepared.  The spellcasters are drawing up their spells, and the archers draw their bows.  They know me.  Or heard of me.  They knew this would happen.  But maybe this is why I hold no respect for them.

Because they actually thought they could survive what will come next.

My lip curls and I scream.

I pull at my body, my spirit.  I focus on Tonatiuh, who breathes me in with a satisfied sound, through the tip of His fang.  Time is slow again, and I lash out, my form turned into a line of hot light, a bolt of energy, all power and force ricocheting from body to body.  (Not really–I control where I go, I control when I turn)  I burst through flesh, burn through armor.  I count the strikes as I go–count them in a way that Hakeem would count, by ticks–and I reach a hundred and twenty.  I scream over the marshal who has landed on his rear, his eyes bugged with fear, and his mouth stretched open wide.  I still spare him.  I’ve spared his silly attendant too, the boy, Herman.  I want them to see…I want them to see what I’ve done.

I don’t stop.  I leave the camp.  I can just imagine all the bodies, blasted through and scorched, falling in unison, dead.  The marshal (I decided, he doesn’t deserve to be called “Marshal” in the capitalized sense) and Herman surrounded by a sea of corpses.  I’m flashing along so fast I’m practically flying.  My body gets heavier and I know I’ll pass out if I keep this up.  But I have to keep going. Toward the tower.  I’m moving fast, but not as fast as I did before.  It’s now nighttime.  I seem to be slowing down.  I’m literally working off of fumes now that the sunlight is gone.  I scare a group of batrengs off a rock as I go by, naught but a warm glow, like the embers of a dead fire.  I manage to catch sight of a camp some mile from Holzoff’s tower, along the main road.

This has to be it.

And just in time, too.

I crash near it, into a snow bank, and I sink low, the snow melting and turning to slush at my feet.  I hear shouts.  A dog barking.

The edges of my sight begins to turn black and I stare into the white around me.  I pushed myself too hard, I knew it…but I’m material again.  Tonatiuh didn’t get me, and neither did the suns.  I made it.  I stopped the marshal, and I made it, and…

I’m glad.

I look up and see Hakeem’s dark form at the lip of my little crater.  He smiles wide, and this is the first time I’ve seen him do so in nearly two years.  He’s got beautiful white teeth, lined up neat save for his overbite, which I’m inexplicably fond of.  I manage to smile back at him, my version of the expression anyway, a slight tilt of my lips.  Tonatiuh is gripped in my right hand, and He seems to pulse at my small show of emotion…

“Quincy!  Bwa-mweze, colo shiutsi na dwane!” Hakeem says over me as he slides down to scoop me up beneath my arms.

Quincy!  My wife, don’t scare me like that again!

I close my eyes and allow him to drag me up the snow.  “Chu, chu, taika,” I mumur, letting my head loll back into his chest.  He smells good to me.  Like tobacco and fenugreek seeds.  Sleep is coming fast, and I do not fight it.  With Hakeem near, I feel…like I can afford the rest.  “Imdeto ches? Em-ma aiko no tobate nah kuzzi…”

Silly husband.  Don’t you know?  I’d die only in your arms…

I am swallowed in darkness, and for once, I’m unafraid.


Back to Chapter 16.4 | Forward to Chapter 17.2

Chapter 17.2

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn crunched through the snow as her eyes swept through perceived palaces of gray fortification–little imaginings of architecture that existed as phantoms before her face until vanishing in the truth of spacial cognition.  A person can’t walk through walls.  But a ghost?

A minute of contemplation made her aware to the fact that her eyes were really just seeing the wisps of frost carried on the wind, kissing the juts of rock that climbed and melded with the formation that served as Holzoff’s roots into the world.  The dark of the rocks and shadows and muddied snow shifted with shaggy figures and flashing eyes, that marked her with inquisitive attention.  The warrior mirrored her surroundings, crouching in the filth and shrugging deeper into her daesce hide.  The thing stank something terrible–and the woman wondered if it were necessary anymore–but she kept it anyway.  It aided her mind’s sense of ferocity.  If she could keep it with her when entering the tower, she was certain it would serve a decent mental weapon.  What soldier would want to face an enemy dressed in the skin of their worst nightmare?

But a way up.  She had to focus.

The cold was making her sleepy.  Her adrenaline was running down from her fight with the daesce, and the pain of her left arm was turning into a grinding ache, wearing her down.  The woman saw her breath curl through the air in a cloud before dissipating into the night.  She closed her eyes and bowed her head, ears perking now and again at the sound of claws scratching against rock.

Then she heard screaming.

The woman stood and turned her head, toward the tower gate, or as much as she could see of it down on the ground, and–

Lethia standing on the ledge, her back pressed against the stone.  She looked like she were in hiding, waiting for her moment to jump out, but she had nothing of unraveling fear in her eyes.  Elmiryn blinked and tried to find the source of the sound.  She moved back toward the bridge, and through the veil of darkness, she saw the daesce ripping apart the beast she had just slain.  These were the young ones, the weak ones, the sick ones–the weaklings of the sordid community–who were getting their revenge.  Or getting their first meal in days.  The woman’s jaw tensed as she saw two of the little bastards rip off a limb and proceed to fight over it, bloody tendrils sliding along the ground as it was dragged hurriedly.

Ribbons.

Beautiful, velvet ribbons dancing and trailing through black night air, then wrapping along fur and limb in decoration–how chic!  The daesce were celebrating, hooting, giggling as they took the ribbon, clearly of a cheap pastel, and smeared it.  How rude of them.  Messing up the picture.  But they did it anyway, biting into the desert, tossing up streamers and confetti and–

bits of flesh : bits of blood : bits of fur and yellow piss where one had found the bladder and bowels and : the spine with effort was out out out out out : and then the others were sticking things in in in in in : revenge was semen and spit and defilement–

Elmiryn closed her eyes and turned away, gagging once before she steeled herself and sat hard on the ground.  Her ears perked again as, through the horror that floated across the way, she picked out the sounds of conflict.  Shouts and metal hitting stone as though a weapon had fallen.  The warrior gave her head a shake.  She couldn’t slip into another episode.  The world couldn’t feel too large, nor her too small, because she had to be with Nyx.  The woman strained her eyes, making them ache, ignoring the pain in her arm from her inconsiderate movements in favor of–

“Fuck it, just start somewhere,” the woman muttered to herself.

She went to the stone, noting how it was at something of a slant.  She found one gash in the rock by the weak moonlight, like Nyx had found before, and proceeded to climb–a wounded caterpillar forced to favor her right side for every foot she gained.  The woman grit her teeth and cursed, knowing that whatever was happening on the bridge would be done with before she made it there.  What bothered her was that she didn’t know what the outcome was.  The woman thought about the others at camp as below her chased the sounds of hell, and she wondered if they were having as good a time as she was.

Then Elmiryn nearly fell, because she started to laugh.

HAKEEM_________________________

Quincy was…brighter now.  The shade of honey her long bangs still held had been swallowed in a near platinum blonde, and her skin had a radiance to it that made the camp a tad bit more illuminated.  These were the effects of Tonatiuh’s use.  Hakeem pulled back at the woman’s collar to reveal the skin of her chest, and just over her heart (it took a pointed glare to make Graziano stop trying to get a look) revealed to him the blended scars from all the time Quincy had taken the blade into her soul.  She had done it four times in her life.  The man was glad that the woman, his partner–his wife–had returned from her journey into the light, but the stakes were raised too high now, and she couldn’t afford to gamble her soul again.  If he could, he’d take the blade away and destroy it himself, but it wasn’t that simple.  The sword and the woman were bound together, and by the woman’s changed appearance, now so more than ever.

“Why does she look like that?” Paulo asked warily.

Graziano stood over them.  “Yes, Hakeem.  Have we anything to fear, beyond the usual from you two?  Will the woman…explode?”

The man looked up at the Moretti.  “She isn’t a bomb waiting to go off.  This is just an aftereffect of using her magic.  You have nothing to fear.”

Graziano didn’t seem entirely satisfied with this explanation, but he didn’t press the matter, and went to sit near his brother.

Hakeem returned his attention to his partner, and it was at this point that something hit him.  Hard.  The jubilation truly fled him when it occurred to the man that Quincy shouldn’t be sleeping.  At all.

He seized up and took to shaking the woman.  She could sleep into death, and there’d be nothing he could do about it.  If things were still as he thought they were, then his attempts were futile, but still he tried.  With both hands, the wizard shook his wife with all the strength he had…

What he got in return was a mouthful of knuckles and an old Fanaean curse he hadn’t heard since his mother first washed it from his mouth.

Azure eyes burned a hole in him, bright and angry with the luminescence of a lit sky.  The man sat back–and laughed out in relief.  Then he looked at the hand Quincy used to wipe at her eyes, and frowned, his happiness fading to consternation.

“Your ring!  Where is it?” he asked.

The ring of the Living Death.  He still wore his since the day he had put it on at Tiesmire.  It gave the user the ability to move through the days without sleep, food, or drink.  The tradeoff was that upon its removal, the user slipped into a death-like sleep for the same amount of time the ring was worn.  The worst of it was that all the strength the ring gave, it took away.  So not only did one slip into an unbreakable hibernation, their body still suffered the effects of starvation and dehydration. When pressed with time whilst pursuing a target, the ring was a fantastic tool–but this particular venture of theirs had gone on too long.  For his part, the man didn’t know if he could ever take the ring off again.  This wasn’t a solution, either.  Eventually the power of the ring would turn him into an empty shell, soulless and yet stuck in continued existence.

…But how had Quincy avoided the effects?

“What?” the woman mumbled, frowning at her hand.  Then her look turned sour.  “Tai’undu!”  She sat up and looked at him.  “I’ve lost it!”

“But you were wearing the ring when you pierced yourself, didn’t you?”

“Of course!  But…”  The woman blinked, then held out her arm.  Tonatiuh, which had vanished the moment she fell asleep, was now back in her grip in a flash.  It pulsed with a warm glow, as though sensing it was the focus of attention.

Hakeem scowled.  “It took it, didn’t it?  Your ring of the Living Death?”

“I imagine…” Quincy shook her head, frowning.  “I imagine it was like the third time.”

“What do you mean?”

“The last time I took His fang into my heart, Tonatiuh consumed the staff of lightning I possessed.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this?  I thought you’d traded the item away!”

Quincy tapped her lips, her focus on her weapon.  “When I returned that time, I was restored in full health.  It did it again this time, and I came back with all my injuries healed.  Only it took the ring from me…as payment.”

“Or a tradeoff.” Hakeem said, crossing his arms.  “To restore the energy you used up.  It explains why you do not suffer the usual effects from removing the ring.”

“Perhaps…”

The woman drew her cloak about her as she stifled a yawn.  Her hood came low over her face, leaving only her pink bow lips showing.  “Hakeem, now that we’re together again and you have so rudely rouse me from sleep, do you mind explaining to me in detail why it is you’ve decided to help these people?  I heard the marshal say you were helping the enchantresses and came looking for you along the main trail.  I admit, I’m surprised at how much those claims were true.”  As she said this, her head turned in the direction of Paulo and Graziano, both resting against their scultones, the older Moretti with his loaded pistol in his lap.  He glowered at them over the flames.

Hakeem sighed and looked at Quincy.  “It wasn’t entirely my choice.  The Morettis captured me with the help of the warrior woman.”

“Elmiryn.”

“Yes.”

“And then?”

“And then he found us again when we split up, after Elmiryn defeated you,” Graziano dug.

Quincy grew hot beneath Hakeem’s touch, but her voice remained level.  “She didn’t defeat me.”

Graziano sneered and Paulo managed a weak laugh through his cough.  “You retreated,” the man said.

“Arduino was going to abandon me and the dog on the mountain with no food or warmth,” Hakeem interjected loudly.  “I did meet up with Graziano and Elmiryn, but only after I realized there was foul magic suffocating Belcliff.  From what I learned from the warrior’s items, I concluded that she was involved with it somehow.  She…spoke of bizarre things–”

Crazy things…” Graziano muttered.

“Astral demons and the like.  But at present I still do not know the exact nature of what is going on.  I only know that the enchantresses are the best means to stop this trouble.”

Quincy shifted next to him.  “Hmm…given my recent actions, your prolonged absence, and our accuser, the marshal has seen fit to condemn us both.  Something has him scared.  I think he fears that Syria will reveal his secrets.  Things that could ruin him.  Her apprentice, Lethia, told me that the enchantress had been seeing the marshal secretly for therapy.  This started some two years ago, after the dwarven colonies left Albias due to disagreements with the local city-state.  And there were discrepancies in the case files I viewed for the murders.  The damage done to the bodies required two spellcasters to achieve, and Lethia doesn’t have the skill needed to achieve the level of magic required.  Yet they sentenced her to death as well.  I’m no longer certain either woman is guilty of anything.  There’s something rotten in this region, and my vows compel me to find the answers.”

Compel you?  I didn’t think anything compelled you Quincy save for the sight of riches.”  Graziano sat forward, stroking the neck of his pistol.  “My dearest lia, have you a moral compass in that super nova chest of yours?”

The woman gazed at him coolly.  “That’s quite arrogant of you, Graziano.  Tell me, did your nethers burn when you realized you had left me to face the Torsheks alone whilst you lay passed out at the brothel with gonorrhea?”

Paulo looked at his brother.  “Chuso!  Graz is that true?”

Graziano looked at his brother in alarm.  “I never abandoned her!  I was fourteen years old and my culebre ate my horse!

“Your excuse is your pet dragon ate your horse?” Quincy deadpanned.  “Do you have the mind of a child, Graziano?”

Paulo waved this away with a floppy hand.  His sweaty face broke into a grin.  “No way, brother.  I know you left Quincy to deal with those giant beetles alone.  I’m talking about the gonorrhea.

“Bruja!” The man mumbled at the woman.  “Now he’ll never leave me alone about it!”

“But for what reason would the marshal want Syria dead?”  Hakeem said, bringing Quincy’s bright eyes back his way.

“I don’t know.  But he’s become unhinged, and I’m afraid our fellow bounty hunters are all too glad to oblige his demands for our heads.  I killed off some of the rabble that were traveling with the marshal on their way here, but the more formidable ones I knew to be in the city were notably absent.  Karolek, Jetswick, Tennim, Winamer, Arduino–I haven’t the slightest idea where they could be, and that isn’t good.  They should’ve been with the marshal’s group.”

“You didn’t see them when you watched in secret?”

“I was following the marshal, trying to see if he’d give anything away while I was one with the light.  But he revealed nothing.”

“So doing just what Arduino is accusing us of could clear our names.  Amusing.”

“Yes.  Possibly.  But I hope you managed to bargain up something nicer to ease this stress?”

Hakeem smirked.  “Of course.  We get a fourth of whatever the warrior receives from the enchantresses, as well as all the information they have on Tobias.”

Quincy nodded.  “Excellent.  Then I approve of this.”

“So glad to have you on board…” Paulo wheezed sardonically.

NYX____________________________

I slowly rose to my feet, knees bent and my claws tensed.  Jowan came nearer, squinting at me.  Then his eyes turned big and he took a step back.  “Great Halward, you’re an Ailuran!”

Two more guards appeared behind him, wielding swords and shields.  Jowan held them back with hand.

I thought about how my performance for the daesce had saved our skins once.  I decided to give it a second try.  In my travels, I had learned that of all the therian races, the Ailurans were probably hated the most next to the Draconians.  Even the Draconians seemed better liked–gods knew why.  But who was I to sit and weigh popular opinion amongst humans when my own kind was liable to throw rocks at me on sight?

Funny, the things one thinks before plunging into danger.

I breathed in all the air I could muster, ready to let out another fierce roar.

Then a blow to the back of my head reminded me, quickly, that not everyone froze at the sight of a bloodstained therian.

I went down, my face knocking into the hard stone floor, scraping at my cheek and pulling my right eyelid down.  My nose hurt, badly–so much that I could hardly see for the tears that came flowing.  Then I was hoisted up a few inches by the collar of my tunic.  I gurgled.  The fabric felt like it were cutting into my throat.

“She’s Marked.”  Freck grunted over me.

Jowan spoke to him.  “Didn’t the messenger bird bring an official warrant for the head of any who tried to break into the tower today?”

“Aye.”

I heard a blade and I started to squirm.  Freck sat on my lower back with all of his weight and pulled my tunic back so hard I heard some of the fabric tearing.  I could hardly breathe, and my neck burned where the collar cut into me, just under the chin.

“Woah!  Are you really–?”

“I’m retiring from this shit job soon, damn it.  I’m going to get something out of this hell hole, even if it means cutting off some kid’s head!”

“Mm…alright.  But I want some coin too–I distracted her after all!”  Through my blurred vision, I saw Jowan look up and smile.  “Oh, Farrel!  You’re alright boy!”

Then I heard a muffled slap and Freck let me go.  I hit the ground gasping, but I didn’t sit and dwell on my pain.  I could hear Elmiryn in my head, urging me to capitalize on this sudden turn around.  “Fights don’t give you second chances!  Move, or die.”

I screamed and scrambled into a charge, knocking Jowan over as I went.  He knocked into one of the guards behind him, and the man fell with the bald guard over his legs, successfully pinning him down.  The second guard jumped back in surprise, but I sensed in his lack of proaction a man unskilled in combat.  I could feel the cartilage in my nose shifting, and the stinging at my throat and the skin of my neck fade away.  I blinked away tears as I disentangled myself from Jowan’s flying fists.  A sixth sense feeling, a heat up my back, inspired me to lean back far, and I saw a blade flash past me, down onto his armor.  The swing was at a poor angle, so it didn’t pierce the armor, but this misstep made the novice guard, who had attacked without much thought, very fearful, and I saw him dance back again with uncertainty in his eyes.  As I leaned forward again, I mustered up all my strength raised both my hands and brought them down on Jowan’s ribs.  This was a thing to be seen, as even with his armor, I heard something snap, and Jowan curled beneath me with a purpling face, hugging his ribs.  I hit him with as hard a right hook as I could muster, and the man was knocked out, blood trickling from his mouth where I imagined his teeth had cut the inside of his lips.  I stood, clumsily and from the corner of my eye, I saw the guard at my left attack again.

I ducked, feeling the blade soar over me.  My eyes flashed his way, and I saw an opening in his armor, at the armpit.  Already I was moving to strike, stepping to the side to better reach his exposed flank, my claws extending as far as I could make them.  I felt them bury into his flesh, felt them drag through his skin and muscle.  As far as I knew, the place I hit him lacked any vital artery, but his pain would not be small.  Sure enough, the man stumbled back with a scream, his hand flying to his new wound as his shield dropped from his grasp.  Unaccustomed to the pain, he did not look as though he would dare rise and attack again.  Still, I knocked him out with a clean kick to the head.

But there was still his partner.

With his legs freed, the other guard was up on his feet, and I could see by the way he held his sword and shield that he had more experience than his partner.  He strafed slowly, crouched low behind his shield with his weapon at the ready.  I mirrored his movements, waiting for him to strike so that I could counter.  The man jabbed toward me, and I leaned away, but didn’t take a step back.  He was testing my resolve and skill.  I saw his eyes, beneath the dark of his nose guard helmet, turn hard with resolution.  He rushed forward, and I tried to evade him, but his kite shield was broader than I thought, or maybe he just moved faster than I thought he could, because, the guard managed to bash into me with it.  I lost my footing and fell backward hard onto the ground.  The soldier moved to jab at me, but I kicked at his left knee as hard as I could.  It didn’t snap the other way–a terrible thing to hope for, I suppose, but he’d hardly die from it, and I was fighting for my life at the time–instead it bent far to the right.  This made the man loose his balance, and he screamed out as his body crashed over mine.  I let out a shout as I slammed my elbow into his head, near the back of his right ear.  The man went limp, and the weight of him was tremendous.  I grunted as I shoved him off me.  My eyes looked to his knee, and I realized that while I hadn’t broken his leg clean in half, I had still broken his kneecap.

I turned, hands raised, ready to engage Freck next when I was met with a shocking sight.

The archer was kneeling next to Lethia, checking her pulse and her breathing with hands that bled at the knuckles.  He looked out of breath, and there was a fresh bruise on the right side of his face.  Next to him lay Freck,  his face bloodied and swollen, his dagger kicked from his hands.  The man looked up at me, and I took a step back.  I bared my teeth at him, feeling a primal intensity burning in me.

“My name is Farrel,” he said, sounding different than when he had spoken before.  In fact, to my astonishment, he sounded like Lethia.  “You’re…Nyx?”  He gestured at the girl in question.  “This girl saved me, even though she didn’t have to.  I’m very grateful.”  He stood and touched a hand to his chest.  The arrows in his quiver clacked behind him as he stepped over Lethia and toward me.  I took another step back, hissing at him, and he froze his face turning wary.  “Please.  My mother was an elf, and I was taught to repay these acts of kindness.  You have nothing to fear from me.”  He turned and went back to the girl, where he scooped the teenager up into his arms with only a mild bit of effort.  He looked at me somberly.  “Yes, I repay my debts. That…and I can’t really stomach such barbarism from my companions.  They were going to slit your throats, even though you spared their lives.”

My mouth fell open, but no sounds came out.

Now that the threats around me were removed, my focus was entirely devoted to the man before me.  Surprising the things one could miss in the heat of the moment.  Like how his eyes were wisterian, a light shade of purple, or how they were larger than the average human being’s; or how his ears stuck out, like Lethia’s, but had a bump at the tips; or how his arms seemed a little long, atleast in terms of human proportions.  Of course, given his revelation regarding his mother, there was no doubt.  The man was a halfling.  This fact comforted me, somewhat.  Partly because I was familiar with the sub-species, perhaps moreso than humans, for they visited my village to trade and I would see them in my forays into the forests.  Partly because I knew they had similar beliefs and sentiments regarding honoring debts.

Partly just because it felt nice meeting someone who wasn’t human…or atleast entirely so.

“Are you going to come with me or not?”  The man asked, bringing me out of my thoughts.  “I’ve got the key to the medicine cabinet on this floor.”

“Um,”  I pointed at myself and Lethia.  I could almost see Elmiryn face-palming in my mind, but I had to ask. “You realize of course that we’re breaking in to your tower?  To save Syria? Your high profile prisoner?

Farrel smiled at me.  “Is this supposed to be worse than the marshal’s idea of ‘community service’?”

I looked at him, bewildered.  “Community service?  You aren’t–that is to say–you didn’t–”

The man shook his head, his face twisted up in derision.  “Volunteer?  Sign up?  Öctér! Why would I want to end up in this hellhole!?  Half the guards here are serving sentences themselves for misdemeanors!”  He started walking toward the door.  “Come on!  Help me shut the gate.”

“Wait!” I said, hurrying after him.  “My friend is still outside!  I can’t leave her out there!”

Farrel paused at the doorway.  “That stretches things, therian.  I am in the debt of both you and this girl for your mercy, but to leave the gate open invites disaster!”

I straightened my back.  The warmth that curled from the doorway was enticing me, but Elmiryn was still clawing her way up the rocks.  I couldn’t abandon her.  “If you really mean what you say, then you’ll honor my request!  For my part, it is what I would ask as repayment!”

The man looked at me, conflicted.  “I…suppose I wouldn’t really be doing you a favor if I left your friend out there, would I?”

My heart lifted.  “No.  You wouldn’t!  So will you leave the gate open?  If you’ve some rope somewhere, I can bring her up faster that way.”

“You’d trust me with your friend’s life?”  He gestured at Lethia with his head.

I looked at him with a somber expression.  “Have I much choice in the matter?”

Farrel glanced over his shoulder, then looked at me again.  He shook his head.  “Not much.”

ELMIRYN________________________

She was only half way up.  The warrior paused for the second time, resting her temple against the rock with a sigh.  At first, she was confused and annoyed by her growing exhaustion.  Then she remembered that she’d been awake for nearly 24 hours, and had been in three very demanding fights with people and creatures of high caliber.  Once she accepted this fact, it didn’t seem so unreasonable to ask for a moment to rest, to close her eyes and…

Something knocked gently against her left side.

The redhead jerked awake, her eyelids burning with desire for sleep.  She leaned back far, head whipping this way and that in search of the offending object, whatever it was, that had touched her.  Then she kept moving.  Kept falling backwards.  Then she was just…falling.

Elmiryn’s stomach dropped and she cried out, her right and swiping wildly through the air when a dark line passed her sight.  She grabbed at it.  Rope.  She stopped with a jerk and bit back the scream that bounded up her throat like an over eager dog.  So much pain in her left arm and shoulder.  The woman blinked and tried to focus her blurry eyes, and above her, she saw Nyx’s wild mane of hair.  She was little more than shadow, but the woman could just imagine the look on her face.

“Sweet Aelurus, are you alright!?” The girl whispered loudly.

The woman chuckled weakly.  Her heart was still doing a marathon in her chest.  “Oh y’know…” she tilted her head to the side.  “Just hangin’ around.”

When Nyx spoke again, her voice turned critical.  “…You were sleeping, weren’t you?”

“Ghosts don’t sleep, Nyx,” Elmiryn said as the girl vanished and began to pull her up.  The woman sighed and held on as best she could.  “We just fade away…”

As she came up near the ledge, Nyx grabbed onto her arm and pulled her the rest of the way.  The woman looked around, noting the four guards lying on the ground.  She knew they were just unconscious–neither Nyx or Lethia had the stomach for killing–but the woman considered offing the men, just in case.  It wasn’t very honorable, but they would pose a threat otherwise.  She considered this…except her thoughts were usurped by a realization.

“Nyx, where’s Lethia?”

The girl was coiling the rope around her arm, a good idea if still time consuming–they could use the rope later.  But at the question, the Ailuran’s face twisted in discomfort, and she turned her eyes downward.  “Um…well, as you might’ve heard, there was a bit of a scuffle up here.  It seems the guards were anticipating us.  I managed to knock out three of the guards, but–” the girl paused, biting her lip.

Elmiryn waited impatiently for her to finish, one hand on her hip.

When Nyx resumed, she was looking at the warrior with imploring eyes.  She started to speak in a hurried voice.  “Oh Elle, please stay calm when I tell you this!  Like I said, I’d knocked out three of the guards…but there were five of them!  The fifth one was the one that Lethia borrowed the information about the tower from, only she took too much and the man couldn’t breathe, so she tried to put him right and she did–only–only–that is to say–she, ah, passed out. I thought I was done for, but then the fifth guard, he woke up and he knew what Lethia did for him so he saved me and her both by knocking out the fourth guard.  So–So Farrel–I mean–That’s the guard’s name–he’s tending to her wounds now!”

Elmiryn already started walking before the girl even finished, and Nyx chased after her.  Her face felt hot and her body was a promise of violence.

“Elle…Elmiryn, wait!” Nyx’s words hit her back like water to glass.  It just slid right off.

The warrior entered through the doorway, and into the foyer, where warm torches made her face dance with shadows.  The room led into a perpendicular hall that curved out of sight at both ends.  The woman had to wait as the girl closed the door behind her, then slipped into a side door she hadn’t noticed.  There was a “clack” and she heard gears turning.  The Ailuran had closed the gate outside.  The guards still outside the bolted door were atleast protected from the daesce if not the cold.

With the girl finished with her task, Elmiryn rounded on Nyx, her eyes sharp.  “What way did they go?  Do you know?”

The girl looked at her with wide eyes.  “I–Yes…they, they went that way, but–”

Elmiryn went down the left hall as Nyx had pointed without waiting to hear her.  If the girl had been so concerned about Lethia all this time, then why, why, why would she leave the youth in the hands of one of the enemy?

The woman drew her sword with her right hand, her expression darkening as she came to the only open doorway.  She stood in the frame, her cerulean eyes flashing, her sword raised–and stopped.  The woman stared.  Then she rubbed at her eyes and looked again with a bewildered frown.

Nyx squeezed past her and stood before her with arms spread wide as if to stop her.  “There, do you see!?  Please don’t try to hurt him–you could bring the other guards if you do!  The others are sleeping further down the hall.”

Lying on a low sick bed in a room cramped with ten more, was Lethia.  At the other end of the room was another man, but he was asleep and lacking an arm and leg.  Next to the enchantress, crouched down onto his knees, appeared to be the guard Nyx had mentioned.  He looked at Elmiryn like a rabbit caught in a predator’s sight.  What did Nyx say his name was?  He had funny looking ears and pretty purple eyes.  They reminded her of flowers.  The kind of flowers she saw rabbits peeking out from underneath.  She half expected him to have buck teeth.  She couldn’t remember his proper name, and he clearly wasn’t human.  But what a pleasant change of pace!  In the Rabbit’s wide hands, he held clean bandages, and on the bedside table next to him was an assortment of bottles filled with things the warrior couldn’t readily name.  She blinked and shouldered her sword, but didn’t put it away.

Elmiryn smiled slowly.

“…Who on Halward’s plane would’ve thought that a rabbit would have the balls to do something like this?”

The Rabbit looked at Nyx in confusion.  “I’m confused…What does she mean?”

The girl sat down on the bed next to him and looked at him wearily.  “I think she thinks you’re a rabbit.”

“Not a rabbit.  Just Rabbit. The Rabbit,” Elmiryn corrected, shutting the door behind her.  “There’s a difference.”

“Oh!  Um…Well, my name’s Farrel.”  He held out his hand and offered a smile.

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at him.  “Is it?”

The man’s hand and smile faltered as he looked at her in confusion.  “…What?

Nyx patted the guard on his arm with a sympathetic expression.  “You have a bit more to do, right?  I might as well explain it to you…”

The warrior snickered.  “Oh sure.  You can try.”


Back to Chapter 17.1 | Back to Chapter 17.3

Chapter 17.3

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NYX____________________________

Farrel continued his work as I told him a summarized version of how we ended up at the tower.  I brought up Gamath, but made no attempt to tell the story–it was far too long and it made my chest turn tight to think of Sedwick changed, and Baldwin…dead.  The man’s eyes remained on his work, but I could see his ears visibly tweak in my direction as he pressed the fresh bandages around Lethia’s torso.  I noticed there was an ointment or salve of some sort spread over her wounds before the bandages covered them from sight.  Encouraged by his skill and confidence, I helped him by propping the girl up, and while I went on telling our tale, I glanced at Elmiryn to see how she was doing. The woman had migrated further down the room to closer inspect the sleeping soldier. Then she drifted toward the open cabinets which Farrel had left open prior.

I went on quietly.

“…After Lethia was taken, we saw that there was a a loose but visible connection between what happened in Gamath and what is happening in Belcliff.   It’s like…a looming sort of presence or heavy aura in the air.  One of our companions has been suffering strange dreams about…about…ah…” I faltered and the halfling looked at me with curious eyes. I looked up at Elmiryn again. She was looking closely at bottles, still at the other side of the room. I shrugged one shoulder and laid Lethia down. Farrel was done wrapping the bandage around her torso. “Well, anyway, we decided to help Lethia and her mistress. So far everyone working with us has a reason to want to help them.”

“Sounds like I’m on the right side,” The man chuckled. “A wizard, two monster tamers, an enchantress, a therian, and an ex-soldier? Gods!  Even with the marshal’s men, I get the feeling they’re outmatched!”

“Who says you’re on our side?” Elmiryn said as she came near us, holding three bottles with her right arm.

Farrel looked at her, his grin fading.

The woman looked down at him, her eyebrow quirking. “Well go on, Rabbit. What makes you think you’re with us?”

I looked at her, aghast. “Elle, I thought the matter was settled!”

Elmiryn shook her head. “How do I know he won’t backstab us the first chance he gets?”

“You didn’t have such qualms with Hakeem!

“Well the wizard was different.  We had him trapped and he had the option of fleeing.  He chose not to.  He chose to put himself into unnecessary peril on our behalf.  That’s a level bit more trustworthy than this guard, who I’ve known all but ten minutes and seems more inclined to saving his own skin than putting up a fight.”

“Are you saying I’m at fault for not wanting to harm the ones who showed me mercy?” Farrel said angrily.  He stood up and stared the woman down.

Elmiryn threw the bottles on the bed where they bounced and clinked together.  She smirked at him.  “I’m saying you have a poor concept of fealty.”

“I owe the marshal nothing!  I was a traveler, an honest entrepreneur selling paper imported from Santos.  It had a small harmless charm to it that brought inspiration to any that wrote on it, but I was accused of black magic and put to trial.”  The man rolled his eyes and made a sweeping gesture with his hand.  “They found me innocent of black magic, but decided I still violated the law.  ‘Smuggling contraband and reckless magical exposure,’ they said.  So they confiscated my merchandise and forced me to become a guard.  I’ve only been here three months!  Even after this escape plan of yours is finished, I’ll still be here for another seven months with the daesce snorting at me through the gaps in the barred windows!  What fealty am I supposed to have, woman!?”

Elmiryn shrugged her uninjured shoulder.  “Either way, you’re coming with us now.  See, the girl was supposed to sap the information about the tower from your head, but after her run-in with a daesce, I’ll be lucky if she can tell me what a hungry person is supposed to do with their food.  So I need you to do her job instead.  Do you remember much about this prison?  The layout, the security?”

Farrel frowned and rubbed his forehead.  “I…remember some.  But it’s filled with gaps.  I can tell you about the next three floors, but not beyond that.  I’ve never been up there.  There’s atleast four more floors.”

I interjected pointing at Lethia.  “Wait!  We aren’t going to leave Lethia here, are we?”

Elmiryn shook her head.  “No.  One of you two will have to carry her.  There’s a chance she might be able to tell us whatever the Rabbit can’t.  If she wakes up.  Plus, if what he’s saying is true, we can try and see if she can sap some more information about the upper floors from one of the other guards.”

“Is that wise, pushing her like that?  She passed out the last time she tried such a stunt!” Farrel objected.

Elmiryn gave him a hard look.  “No, she passed out saving your gods damn life when she didn’t fucking have to.  Saving her mistress was her mission, and she would’ve wanted to keep going.  So if something happens to her, I promise there will be no mercy at the tip of my sword.”

Farrel’s exhaled harshly through his nose, his wisterian eyes flashing.

I shook my head and held up my hand.  “At this point, I’m not sure we can afford anymore fighting.  With each other, or these guards!  Which begs the question how we’re supposed to even make it through three floors, let alone seven?  Look at the state we’re in!  Lethia hurt and unconscious, you with an injured arm–”

“You’d be surprised what I can do with one arm,” Elmiryn said, grinning.

I rolled my eyes.  “Your confidence is reassuring, but not by much.  Holzoff’s isn’t a common jailhouse–it’s a prison.  And one of the best, as I’ve heard tell.  I’m amazed we even got in!”

Farrel looked at me, a small line down the middle of his brow.  “Holzoff’s Tower, for a place under constant threat from the monsters outside, is quite a place.  The walls are as thick as four men and reinforced with a steel skeleton.  There are less than seventy prisoners held here, actually, so each floor is rather small.  The stairs wind up, and to reach the next flight you must cross the floor in question.  That’s if you know all the codes for entry.  The lower floors, the ones I have access to, hold two to three prisoners in each of the five cells.  There are five guards on each floor.  Beyond that, I can’t really say.  Some of the others have told me that they keep the special prisoners there–the ones awaiting death and nobles owing outstanding debts.  The top floor is where the prison’s warden stays.  I hear that’s where they’re keeping Syria of Albias as well.”

“Of course,” Elmiryn chuckled dryly.

The man’s eyes lit up.  “But I’ve an idea!  We recently got a message from Belcliff warning us that you would be coming.  No one ever sees these messages directly save for the warden, and he’s always holed up in his office.  Since no one knows what these documents actually look like, I can fabricate an official writ from Belcliff and pretend that two of you are new prisoners that the marshal has sent.  It takes over a day for an escort to arrive at the tower, so you can act as though you hadn’t heard about the prison break threat!  I can make the writ, rouse some of the guards, and dupe them into helping me.  The fact that they think it’s real will make our lie even more authentic!”  He pointed at me.  “You’ll have to play the role as bounty hunter and pretend you were the one who caught your companions.  It has to be you, as you’re the only one who isn’t hurt.  I’ve seen this once before since I’ve started working here.  Bounty hunters have two options–either write up a debriefing regarding the prisoner in question, or earn some extra gold aiding in their escort to Holzoff’s to deliver the debriefing personally.  When I started here, I saw one man brought in such a way.  All we’ll need to do is put your friends in chains and get you something nicer to wear.”

“How far do you think we can carry this ruse?  Up to the top?” Elmiryn asked.  “What happens if you’re guard friends, the ones you’ll get to help us, wise up?”

Farrel shrugged with a sigh.  “After what I’ve done with those guards outside, there’s no way I’ll be able to resume my time in peace here.  I’m in this as much as you are now.  So I’m giving you the best plan I’ve got.”  The man let a crooked smile spread across his lips.  He gestured at our grimy, blood stained appearance up and down.  “Unless you’re trying to tell me that your master plan has gone exactly as expected, I really don’t see how my idea is any worse than what you’ve been through already!”

Elmiryn sucked at her teeth and looked at me.  “He has a point.”

I said nothing, only rubbed at my chin and stared down at the ground.  I was already feeling nervous just at the idea of having to “pretend” to be anything…but I had done it once before.  Prior to receiving my Mark, I had done my share of undercover work for the Ailuran resistance, so in a way, I was familiar with pretending to be what I wasn’t.  But at the time, it wasn’t easy, and given how unfamiliar I was with the particular role I was to play, I was even less comfortable with the idea.  But with luck, the plan would result in no more violence, which was good–because we were hardly in the shape to see any more battle, even with Farrel’s help.

I sighed and pulled off my ruined tunic.  “…Okay.  I’ll need to clean up, too.  Have you any place I can do that?”

Farrel nodded and jerked with his head.  “Yes, let me show you.”  He looked at Elmiryn.  “If you could wait here with your friend while I show Nyx to the wash room?”

The woman nodded and sat down on the bed next to Lethia’s.  She looked at me.  “Will you be alright?”

“Yes,” I said, touching her shoulder as I followed Farrel out the room.  “I’ll be back in a moment.”

The man shut the door behind him as we entered the curved hallway.  He gestured for me to follow him.  Our steps made light sounds on the stone floor, and my body tightened when we came to the first door on the left.  It was closed, but the halfling turned to me with a finger at his lips.  I swallowed and gave him a nod, being careful to shift my weight back so that my footsteps didn’t come down hard.  Not much further down the hall, we came to a door on the right.  He opened it, taking up the nearest torch on the wall and entered first.  I follow him in as he placed the torch into a corner at the the far wall of the wash room.

The center of the room was clear save for a stool and a drain in the center.  As I walked further into the room, I noted how the tiled floor was a small concave where the drain was meant to catch the water.  Beneath the torch against the far wall was a low partition that resembled a counter, only the surface of it was at an angle.  Then, as I came closer, I saw that there were hinges at the back, and Farrel opened this and reached into the dark.  He pulled out a rope, and I realized it was a well.  It took him a minute, and I could see his arms bulging from the effort as he put one foot on the partition and leaned back far, but soon the heavy bucket was out of the well and sloshing water on the ground.

He set the bucket down, then scooped up a ladle that was hanging on the wall, and pointed at the right, where a shelf housed spare towels and fresh underwear–long cotton leggings and plain tanks.

“There’s all you need there to get you started.  I’ll come back and knock on the door three times when I’ve found some armor you can use,” Farrel said, already backpedaling toward the door.

I nodded at him and turned, my clawed hands reaching to undo the bandage around my chest.  I got the knot undone and was done removing two wrappings when my mind whispered that something wasn’t right.  I paused, and tilted my head, then my face grew hot as I made the connection.

The door hadn’t shut yet.

I whipped my head around, claws at the ready and a hiss building up the back of my throat.  My Twin was a hot burn at the back of my eyes.  But I stopped at the sight of Farrel staring at me with wide eyes and a deep scowl.

“I heard them say it, you know.  That you were a Marked therian,” The man gestured at me with his chin.  “I hadn’t got a good look at it till now.  This half hour I think I’ve been trying to focus just on helping your friend, and what you did for me.  But…I know what the symbols on your back mean.  I lived near the Ailuran nation, visited their villages and towns even.  I know what those symbols mean…You…what you’ve done…”  He gripped the door tightly, his eyes shining as he turned his gaze to the ground.  My spine curled and I hugged my body as tightly as I could.  My throat had become so tight I could barely breathe.

I suddenly wished Elmiryn were there.  I wanted to hide in her shadow…and I hated myself for it.

“My mother always told me” The man went on, “That critical moments in life, small but important, are what paint a person’s true quality, not…not the tapestry of life as a whole.  Just choice moments bundled together, like the broken pieces of a beautiful vase.”

Farrel glanced over his shoulder, then slowly let his eyes crawl back to me.  His head was angled so that his brows came low ever his gaze.  It was aggressive, and it made me tense, but I sensed nothing of danger.  Just…just–

“Tell me I won’t regret helping you,” He said in a low voice.  “I’m an honest man, and for all my mother’s words, I know that a person can step with the right foot as much as the left–so tell me I won’t regret helping you!”

I swallowed.  My eyes were blurring and I didn’t want to speak.  I wanted the man to go and leave me alone.  I could feel the lines of my Mark, tingling almost, as though it wanted to remind me just what I really was.

I shook my head slowly.  “I…can’t.  I can’t tell you that.  I am in no such place to guarantee that the path I walk with my companions wouldn’t bring misfortune to you.  So you would be within your rights to not trust me.  To find me disgusting and irredeemable.  You truly would be.  But…” I swallowed and forced myself to stand straight.  Tears leaked down my face but I fought to kept my face from crumpling like paper.  I started trembling from the effort of looking Farrel in the face, and I thought my guts would fall out for the shame and fear.  When I spoke, my voice was taut with the effort of not breaking down into sobs.  “Farrel, you decide for yourself if you want to change your mind.  I received this Mark as punishment because I made horrible decisions, and they haunt me everyday.  I hold no pride, no joy, no peace over what has occurred in my past.  But don’t just think of me–there are others you would be turning on should you decide not to help us.  Others, like the girl you just treated, or the boy outside I told you about who is fighting to keep sane.  I’m…I’m here because I have been cast out from my people, and rightfully so–but with Elmiryn I think I may have found a way to balance out my blighted existence.  And…I will fight any who try to harm my friends, with all my might.  Protecting those I loved was all I ever wanted to do.  Shame me for my mistakes, but you cannot shame me for my intentions!”

I bared my teeth, and my claws bit so deep into my arms that I felt blood trickle down to my elbows, but suddenly I didn’t care.  Suddenly I was angry.  Angry that this man would even consider damning Elmiryn, Lethia, or even Paulo just for the spite of me…and at such a critical time!  I swiped at my face, wanting the tears gone.  If I had to stop him, I would, and we’d just have to figure out another way to the seventh floor of the tower.  I would make it happen.  All at once, Lethia’s determination was mine.

I would make this work.  No matter what.

Farrel closed his eyes and rubbed at his face harshly.  He breathed out a curse and slammed his fist against his temple.  “Öctér!  Okay…alright.  I see your point.  I’m…sorry, for bringing this up now.  It does nothing to help you or me.  Perhaps another time, another day, when we aren’t at threat of losing our lives, I’ll get the full story from you.  For now, know that you can trust in me.”  He smiled weakly, but I saw a staleness in his eyes.  “I’ll be back with your change of clothes.”

After my short speech I felt drained of the energy to speak, so I gave him a silent nod.  Within the next moment, the man shut the door, and I collapsed onto the stool, letting out the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn stared down at Lethia with her elbow digging into her knee from the weight of propping her head.  Her fist started to slide up her cheek so that her eye was forced into a squint, but the woman didn’t move.  It was funny seeing the girl through one squinted, blurry eye.  She looked like a an upside down monster, with a blue pronged head, a white face, and wheat colored tentacles that fanned up along with the body.  As far as monsters went, Elmiryn had to say she liked this one best.  The daesce were horrible nightmares mimicking sentient life, and batrengs were annoying little imps.  Scultones were convenient but far too big to bring around for fun.  But blue pronged monsters with white faces and tentacles?  How nice and simple!  How diverse!  How–

“Wait…” the woman muttered, rubbing at her face as she felt a wave of cold sweep through her.  Her palm came away, cool with sweat, and she frowned down at her lap.  “Blue monsters?  What the fuck’m I talking about?”  She chuckled.  “Why would a blue monster be sitting with me when Lethia is supposed to be in the same spot?”  Her smile faded and she poked the girl in the arm, just to be certain it was an arm.  Just to be certain there was anything there at all–the last fifteen minutes was getting hard to recall, and her mind danced with phantoms playing with scarlet ribbons, but who could make sense of such confusion?

“Hey kid, you with me?”

Elmiryn trailed up Lethia’s arm where her fingers tangled in the girl’s long hair.  “Kid?” she breathed.

When no response came, the woman drew back her hand with a sigh.  She twisted around and eyed the man down the room.  Still quiet, still silent, still missing parts like a machine broken by an inept operator.  She thought about some of the machines she saw in Fiamma–hunks of metal that ran on steam and sometimes magic and sometimes both.  Shiny creations of copper and steel.  This man was not shiny.  Nor was he made of copper or steel.  Yet the woman found no better word to attribute to him other than “broken”.

Elmiryn stood from the bed and crossed the room so that she stood at the end of the guard’s bed.  The man’s face was entirely covered in a bandage.  She was aware that this was not good for the man, would perhaps result in his end, because it made him less of a man, which made the woman’s sense of sympathy for him almost non-existent.  She knew this much and yet felt her conscience turn a blind eye to the logic anyway.  She had known what real men, injured in war, looked like.  Even with her curse, it was something deep and powerful, like a ghostly instinct that failed to fade even given the circumstances.  Her heart knew it so well–the bloody limbs, the deep cuts, the burned flesh.  It was War.  That was the gift her father gave her, and that was the destiny her god pressed upon her, and that was the call that society screamed at her.

War.

But this thing on the bed, this broken machine, was not a relative of War, and thus was not her kin.  Elmiryn floated nearer, to get a better look at the thing and its rods and shafts, all wrapped up and leaking red oil.  The thing jerked.  The woman’s eyes narrowed and she drew her knife from its sheath.  It was the enemy’s weapon.  What if the guards got it to work again?  What if the weapon was put back together again and turned on her?  On Lethia?  On Nyx?  The woman’s jaw clenched.

She reached down and jabbed the blade into what she recognized to be the main shaft.  The machine shuddered, making a grinding, bubbling noise before its parts turned still and it made no sound.  She pulled the knife away with a jerk and wiped the blade clean on the sheets.  Then she took the blanket and pulled it over the ruined creation.

Then Elmiryn walked back to Lethia’s bed and resumed her seat next to the girl, feeling a little more at ease.  She tried to remember the significance red ribbons, bandaged faces, and blue tentacled monsters had for her.

She tried and tried.

NYX____________________________

A long-sleeved thick cotton weave shirt, dyed ash grey, beneath a long black leather tunic.  There were extensions from the shoulders that tapered down and were tied around my upper arms by slim leather belts.  On the left shoulder, at the back was a gold ring, and at lower right of the tunic, against the back of my right thigh, was another large golden ring.  Farrel slipped a slim rapier through both rings, and it was a menacing weight on my back.  On my forearms were studded bracers, which bothered me because I wasn’t use to the constant press on my muscles, but the man insisted, stating that the costume didn’t seem right without them.  I wore dark leggings beneath heavy wool pants, and menacing leather boots that came up to my knees.  We had to stuff strips of cloth in the tips just to keep my feet from sliding around too much, because the boots were far too large for me.  Still they were an improvement over the makeshift pair that I had been left to use before.

When I asked Farrel where he had gotten the armor and clothes, he smiled humorlessly.  “As you saw, we like to scavenge what we can from the daesce’s bloody claws.  This outfit you’re wearing took two years to put together, apparently.  The sad thing is none of the pieces fit anyone, save for those boots–but the boots belonged to a recently deceased guard who’d been stationed here a long time.  No one wanted to wear them.  You’re lucky.”

Any other time I would’ve disagreed with such a statement, and it certainly didn’t make me pleased to know I was wearing dead men’s clothing, but I couldn’t deny that there was an odd sort of providence in the situation.  Given my run of luck, I certainly wasn’t going to be picky.  It felt good being clean again, anyway.

The two of us returned to find that Elmiryn had fallen asleep in her chair.  I sighed and touched her shoulder.

“Elle.” The woman didn’t respond.  Her head simply fell forward and I became fearful.  I gave her another hard shake.  “Elmiryn?”

“We have smelling salts,” Farrel said, pointing at the collection of bottles next to the bed.  “I was meaning to try it on your other friend once we were ready to go.”

I wanted to believe the woman could wake without much aid–in such a dangerous place with so much still yet to get through, I had to believe that Elmiryn was up to making it through.  Uncertain of what else to try, I leaned down next to Elmiryn’s ear and said her name one more time.

Elmiryn.”

The warrior’s eyes flew open and she turned and looked at me in mild confusion.  Her eyes fluttered as she took in my new outfit, then she reached up and took a lock of my hair between her fingers.  “Nyx?” she breathed.

I nodded, sighing in relief.  I cupped her cheek.  “Yes, Elle.  I’m right here.”

Elmiryn looked me up and down.  Then she pouted her lower lip and raised her eyebrows.  “Not bad!”

I grimaced, “I certainly hope it’s enough!  I’m not sure if I can pull off menacing.”

The woman chuckled.  “Sure you can.”

Farrel sidled past us to reach the bedside table.  “Pardon me.”  He plucked up a bottle filled with small translucent bits, which I then noted to be the smelling salts.  “I hope this works for your friend.  She’s very much out of it.”

Elmiryn and I watched as he uncorked the bottle and held it beneath the girl’s nose.  He waved it slowly back and forth for a moment, then made a disappointed frown.  My heart sank.

As he started to pull away, that’s when Lethia awoke with a cough.

She breathed in deep, her puffy eyelids snapping up to reveal blotchy red eyes.  They teared up, likely from the powerful salts, and rolled about in their sockets before they settled on us.  I was careful not to meet her gaze dead on, but the teenager seemed conscious of this even after just waking.  The girl took a breath.

“…Nyx?  Elmiryn?” she whispered.  I noted something odd about the way she said our names, but given the volume she was speaking in, I couldn’t immediately place it.  Next her eyes flickered to Farrel, and her face drew up in a frown.  “You’re…helping?” she asked.

Farrel nodded.  “Lethia Artaud.  I owe you and your friend.  I want to help you.  This is my wish.”

The girl’s lips pulled into a shaky smile.  “Thank you.”  Then Lethia’s eyes hardened and she pushed up on her elbows.  I moved forward–maybe to help her, maybe to stop her.  At the moment I can’t recall, but Elmiryn stopped me with a hand.  Farrel looked on with a look of intense concern, and though it appalled me at how manipulative it seemed, I was glad to see such an expression on his face.  If I couldn’t convince him to continue helping us, Lethia’s determination despite her pain certainly could.

Within the minute, the girl was sitting on the edge of the bed.  She had a distant look to her, and I wondered how much longer she could continue pushing herself.

Elmiryn stood.  “Are we just about ready?”

Farrel nodded.  “The last thing we need is on the way to the staircase.  We should start moving before the guards down the hall wake up for shift change.”

The warrior and the guard helped Lethia stand, and the enchantress managed to walk on her own–if a bit slowly and shakily.  As a group we exited the room and followed Farrel down the hallway, where he stopped at a door adjacent to the staircase.  He opened it with a key, and inside was a small arms closet, where spare weapons and the like were found.  He slipped in, carrying a torch, and came out a second later holding two pairs of manacles.  Warily he held them out to me.

“Help me put these on your friends…” the man said with a wince.


Back to Chapter 17.2 | Forward to High Walls, Small Gates

Chapter 17.4

NYX____________________________

I snapped the heavy manacles over Elmiryn’s wrists and ankles, my brow wrinkled at the idea of having my friends under such bondage.  I was worried about the warrior’s arm, but she made no fuss about it, just turned her arm enough so that her hands were in front of her center.  I held the chain that trailed from the links between their hands, holding it like a leash so that I could appear as though I were leading them along.  Elmiryn regarded the new prop with a thoughtful expression, as though she were considering how she could use it for her own purposes.  Farrel updated Lethia on our plans as he fitted her similarly.  The girl listened and nodded, but her body trembled badly.  I wondered how much of it was due to blood loss, and how much of it was her mental condition reacting to the stress?  Despite my fears I felt a sense of awe and respect begin to emerge at the girl’s inner strength, something I had only ever felt towards Elmiryn, and once long ago, towards my oldest brother Thaddeus.

Farrel pulled out the slip of paper he had tucked inside his belt.  “I’ve got the writ here.  It lacks the watermark, but no one ever checks that, as far as I’ve seen.  It’s just our luck that the seal from Belcliff’s offices are easy to carve out of wax with a blade.”  He held it out for us to see.  I leaned forward and squinted my eyes at it.  I was holding Lethia by the shoulders and the girl leaned against me with a sleepy look on her face, but she looked too.  Over the fold of the paper, keeping it closed, was a seal of red wax.  On it, I saw what seemed to be a large government building, with a flock of birds over it.  The amount of detail Farrel put into the red wax was impressive and I let out a fascinated sigh.

“No one will tell the difference?” Elmiryn asked turning her head as though it were something abstract.

The halfling shook his head.  “The guards here are simple folk.  As far as I know, none are sharp enough to pick up on a detail like that.  I managed to smooth out the blade strokes with a dying flame.”

“Wait!” I said, looking between Farrel and Lethia.  “You both sound different.  Farrel, your companions might notice if you don’t sound like your usual self.”

The man tugged at his ear.  “Öctér!  You’re right!”  He looked at Lethia.  “Well…I suppose I’ll just…have to fake my own accent?”  He scrunched his nose.  “How odd!”

Elmiryn straightened and jerked her head down the hall.  “We need to get moving.”

I frowned at Farrel as yet another thought occurred to me.  “And what explanation do you have for your missing guards? Won’t the others be suspicious if they don’t see the men that they’re supposed to trade shifts with?”

Farrel shook his head, but his face tightened. “Don’t worry about that.  I have an excuse lined up that they won’t much look into.” He beckoned us to follow him. “C’mon, we’ve been taking too long!”

I shared a glance with Elmiryn.  Then I turned to look at Lethia.  “Do you want me to carry you?”

The girl turned and smiled at me.  “You won’t seem so tough carrying a thing like me, now won’t you?”  Her voice still had the northwestern accent, and it was like a wrinkle my mind kept tripping over.  Lethia pulled away from me.  “I’ll be fine.”

I picked up Elmiryn’s sword, which we had to remove from her or else she wasn’t very convincing as a prisoner.  I handed it to Farrel, who tied the strap across his chest.  Together we walked back down the hall to the first door on the left.  Farrel gestured for us to take a step back.  He looked at me, his expression tight with anxiety.

“Are you ready?” He asked me.  “These two don’t need to do much besides keep quiet.  But you’ll really have to sell this to the guards…can you do that?”

“Just…open the door,” I said, my expression equally tense.  All of this stalling was driving me insane.  I wanted to be brave, like Lethia and Elmiryn were brave, but I couldn’t do that if things continued to be dragged out.  I had to jump into things.  I had to turn my brain off–for once.

Farrel said nothing.  Just pursed his lips tightly and turned.  With a deep breath through his nose, the man opened the door.  He stepped through and knocked on the wall.  Inside the room it was dark, but I could make out atleast two bunk beds from where I stood.

“Hey, I need atleast two of you to come with me.  We’ve got an escort.” The halfling tried to sound like his old self, but it didn’t quite match his northwestern accent.  When nothing happened, he stepped further into the room and shook two men awake.  “Oi!  Walt!  Tyson!  Get up!  I said we have an escort!”

The men stirred awake, grumbling.  One sat up, and I could see a crop of messy black hair.  “Eh? Why don’ the others take care o’ it?”

“Several Daesce managed ta’ slip ‘neath th’gate ‘fore it closed after our new prisoners came in.  They’re takin’ care of it now.  I had ta’ close the gate and the door so tha’ they wouldn’ get into the tower.”

The guards cursed but they rose and started putting on their gear. Within ten minutes their white pajamas were lost beneath leather armor.  They emerged from the sleeping quarters quietly, eyes squinting in the torchlight.  The two men, Walt and Tyson, were of average height.  One had overgrown black hair that fell into his gray eyes, the other had closely cut brown hair and a small dimpled chin and brown eyes.  They were only equipped with six-inch knives, sheathed on their belts, and I recalled what I had overhead outside the gate.  I was glad to see this was true.  I was certain Elmiryn saw this too.  If we had to, we could overwhelm these men.

I drew myself up as they stared me and my companions up and down.  I even mirrored the action, my lip curling in feigned disgust.  It concealed the grimace which battled to take over my features.  I tried to think of all the strong and overbearing people I knew in my life–how they had behaved, how they moved, how they spoke.

Fortunately Farrel did most of the talking for me.

“This bounty hunter just came in with these two prisoners.  I asked ‘er about it, but she says she hadn’t heard about the trouble in Belcliff.  It was too recent ah’guess.  The marshal couldn’ spare any militia men for the escort, so she was by herself,” Farrel explained to them as he handed over his forged documents.

The two guards squinted at the wax seal, then looked up within the second.  I felt my heart lift, and Farrel’s face eased a bit.  The men had no idea the seal was fake.  None of the guards would open the letter, either, until we reached the warden.  I wondered if Farrel bothered with faking a letter at all.

“So who’re you?” The black-haired guard asked.  I still didn’t who was Tyson and who was Walt.

I pulled the first name I could think of.  “My name is Quincy.”

“You’re Quincy, the bounty hunter?”  they sounded skeptical.

I blinked and looked at Farrel.  His eyes stared back at me wide, and I realized if I looked at him too long the guards would know I was looking to him for a cue.  I snapped my eyes back to the men, my heart pounding in my chest.  Through some miracle, I took my fear and used it to twist my features into one of annoyance.  “I didn’t come here to meet your expectations.  I came here to give my report to the warden and nothing else.”  I looked at Farrel again, but this time I bared my teeth.  “Tell your men to quit wasting my time!”

The guards exchanged looks, then held up their hands.  “Our apologies, ma’am,” the brown-haired guard said.   “We were just confused that’s all.  You look different than what we would’a expected.”

Farrel rolled his eyes.  “That learns ya both.  Rumors ain’ to be takin’ serious.”  He still sounded off to me, but his friends didn’t seem to think it out of place.

They came forward, one hand on their weapons, the other held out.

“We’ll take your prisoners from here, miss,” the dark-haired man said.

I handed him Elmiryn’s chain, my jaw muscles clenching.  Then I gave Lethia’s chain to the brown-haired guard.

Farrel started walking down the hall and together we followed him.  The guards trailed behind me, and every now and again I heard the men jerk the chain hard.  I resisted the urge to look over my shoulder and tell them to stop.  If I showed too much compassion, they would become suspicious.  But each time I heard one jerk the chain, I could practically hear Elmiryn wincing in pain from her injured arm, or Lethia falling to her knees.  My eyes burned with the desire to cry, but I bit the inside of my cheek and kept moving.  Farrel didn’t look back either.

We made it to the end of the hallway.  At the door to the staircase, Farrel took out a key from his pocket and turned it in the keyhole.  There was a satisfying click as the door unlocked.  He opened the door and proceeded up the staircase.  The staircase was narrow and dark.  The steps seemed high, even to me, and my thighs burned as I worked to climb higher.  I didn’t realize how much heavier I was now that I was dressed in full armor.  The guards fell behind us with Lethia and Elmiryn.

When the sound of their climbing grew distant, I turned and called down the staircase.  “For the girl, you’ll have to pick her up.  She’s injured and weak and can’t be pushed too hard.”

Farrel hissed at me from ahead, and I turned to look at him.  His expression was angry and incredulous. “What’re you doing?  You sound too much like you care about them!” He mouthed.

I winced and turned my head as I called down the staircase again.  “And just to be clear, if anything happens to either of those women, you’ll answer to my blade!  I don’t get paid if they die before their execution date!”  I tried to sound as cold and menacing as possible.  My voice trembled a little toward the end of my remark, and I couldn’t see the guards expression as they hadn’t caught up yet.  I prayed to Aelurus they didn’t suspect anything.

“Don’t touch me!” I heard Lethia snap.

I heard a scuffle, and the girl cried out.

I bared my teeth and shouted, “Did you hear me–!?”

Within the next moment they appeared, Elmiryn grinning behind her guard, who looked annoyed, and Lethia hanging over the shoulder of the brown-haired guard, her butt to me.  She was wriggling, her face screwed up in outrage.

“Let me go!”  She half-shouted.

The guard holding her looked at me, not appearing in the least bit strained.  “We heard you, ma’am.  Don’t worry.”  But there was a chilly indifference in his voice that made me anxious.

I turned my face away before this emotion could betray me and followed Farrel further up the stairs.  It seemed we just needed one more go around up the steps before we reached the entrance to the second floor.  We had climbed a total of forty steps to get there.  The ache in my legs confirmed this.

Adjacent to the door, there was a metal box set into the wall at the right.  Farrel opened this to reveal a grid of nine large buttons, each with a geometric shape.  He pushed these in an order I couldn’t follow, then closed the box.  Next he turned to the door and rapped on it three times softly before pausing and pounding on it hard, once.

“Name?” a voice said through the wood.

“Farrel, here.”

There was a click and the door opened.  A guard stared at him through the doorway.  “I didn’t think you had second floor duty this week.”

The halfling stepped aside, and the guard turned his eyes on me and the others behind me.  His eyebrows went high.  Farrel held up the forged writ.  “I’m takin’em up.  Walt and Tyson are just helpin’ out.  They aren’t on duty yet.  Regulations says an on-duty guard gotta go with, but the others are busy handling a Daesce break in.”

The guard cursed as he looked at the writ closely.  “Damn…again?”  He sighed and stepped back.  “Alright, then.  On you go.”

Not many questions asked.  Was this the famous Holzoff’s Tower?  The men here looked so tired and scared and jaded.  But as Farrel put it, most were forced into working here.  The only way I could justify the prison’s fame was for its isolation out in the harsh cold mountains, and for its unwelcome plague of vicious monsters.  I glanced at Farrel as we crossed the walkway, slim and narrow, with my line of sight jarred by the passing bars and the stark faces that stared through them.  Farrel was doing a good job of pretending not to know me–and in a sense this wasn’t entirely a lie.  He didn’t know me.  We had known each other for barely an hour and a half.  I could understand his fears–regarding me.

Unbidden, my mind returned to the days not all that long ago when I hardly knew Elmiryn.  I hadn’t known where the woman came from, what she was truly working toward, what she was possibly running from.  I feared she was a criminal, a cut throat, a lunatic.  The really odd thing was, atleast two of those assessments were true–but not like I thought.  The warrior was wanted by her kingdom for black magic, yet she was innocent of it.  And while she sometimes behaved like a lunatic, I knew there was a bizarre sanity in how she tried to cope with her curse…even if I could feel the stableness in her corroding away.  But Elmiryn was not a cut throat.  She was ruthless sometimes, perhaps, but she was honorable, in her own unique way.

…Would Farrel have these revelations about me?  If he even hung around that long?

Crossing the second floor was like drifting through a tier in hell.  The air was fetid and hot for the cramped bodies and lack of good air circulation.  There were huddles of prisoners, all men from what I saw, draped in dirty blankets and trying to get comfortable on patches of hay.  The room was mostly quiet, save for some coughing.  I noted how some of the prisoners were sporting bruises and cuts.  One was relieving himself in a corner, where I saw a drain.  The lack of privacy repulsed me.  Judging from the prisoners who were injured or battered in some way, I surmised that the guards beat whoever made too much of a fuss.  Thankfully, the sight was gone from us within the minute.  Again we took to the stairs.  Another forty steps.  Then again we came to another metal box, where Farrel punched in the code needed before someone spoke through the door.  Identities were verified.  We were granted passage and made our way quietly.  The third floor was just as the one before it.  Along the way my face grew numb and cold.  This was all so surreal in how routine it was beginning to appear…and it made things all the more terrible for me.

But at the fourth floor, we came to our first break in the pattern.  We had crossed the room as usual.  The guards there sized us up but otherwise didn’t move from their places, and the prisoners were, as before, quiet.

Farrel held up his note for the guard who blocked our way to the staircase leading up to the fifth floor.  “One of you will have to help us go up,” he said.  “I was the guard to receive Miss Quincy so I have to proceed.”

“You don’t have the authority to go up,” said the man.  He wore a helmet, and I found that I didn’t care enough anymore to get the details of his face.  The men here were beginning to blend together for me.  “Why didn’t Jowan or Freck come up?  They’ve got clearance.”

“There was a daesce break-in downstairs.  It couldn’t be helped.”

“I don’t recall the warden telling us we were to be expecting new prisoners.  Wouldn’t the marshal have told him so in the letter we got today?”

Farrel scowled at him, but I could see him start to sweat.  “Damn it, you want us to go all the way back!?”

“Yeh.”  The man said, squaring his shoulders and stepping closer so that he got in the halfling’s face.  “I do.”

“Get out of the way,” I spat, putting some beastliness into my words.

But the guard didn’t seem impressed.  He looked my way.  “All do respect, Miss, but the prison runs under strict protocol.  Farrel here doesn’t have the authority, and quite frankly neither do y–”

I took a step forward, one hand clenched, the other flashing up to grab at the hilt of the sword that pressed at my back.  I heard a clatter as the other men in the room reacted.  I bared my teeth.  Inside me, She reared her head, eyes peering intently through mine.  She was putting lightning and fury into my voice.  I didn’t deny her.  I welcomed whatever boost in ferocity she could spare.  There was only one way to go–up, forward, onward–and to turn back meant failure.  But more than that, danger.  The men downstairs had likely risen, maybe they were even coming after us, impeded only by Holzoff’s own procedures?  This understanding, meted out in words and measured assumptions, riled something unseen and beyond definition.  It came from nowhere, but was a presence that took little time in commanding my actions.

Could I call it…fear?

I wanted to run, but I knew I couldn’t–not in the moral sense either.  This wasn’t about letting down my friends.  What bothered me was that I didn’t have the literal option to run.  The door behind us leading to the third floor had been locked, and we were in a limited space filled with enemies and strangers.  It was a fear–I suppose I can call it this–that called beyond logic and morality.  I was starting to hurt again.  I felt my rib cage expand, felt my teeth ache, felt my joints burn.  My instincts flared, nettled by the circumstances.

I felt like a cornered animal.

Yes.  A form of fear.  Better known as a need to survive.

Fool,” I spat, sounding very much like a cat.  “You will move out of the way, or I’ll cut you where you stand!  The marshal personally charged me with getting these prisoners to the warden as soon as possible–not even the slightest bit of delay.  They were charged with destroying a quarter of the city of Belcliff using their black magic, and so they can’t be doddled about just because you haven’t the right asshat to salute you.”  Then, in a stroke of madness, I snarled.  “Look at the letter if you need the proof.  Look at what the marshal wrote for the warden, then explain to the warden why YOU impeded the top priority of the man who’s paying you all your pathetic stipend!”

Farrel stared at me with wild eyes.

I looked back at him, my eyes sharp, my breath short.  His expression said it all.  The halfling hadn’t faked a proper looking letter.  Or maybe he hadn’t written anything to back up my claim.  I was gambling our whole plan.  Had I lost my mind?

The guard blinked at me, clearly taken aback.  He stepped away from Farrel, then bowed his head.  “…Ma’am…to break the seal and open the letter prior to the warden’s review would be–”

“Against protocol,” I snapped.  I took my hand off my hilt and took another step forward, backing the man into the door.  Either it was because of my threat or something in my demeanor, but I was scaring the man.  …And deep down, I felt a sense of pleasure. “So?” I pressed.

The guard looked between us, stricken.  Then he turned around and opened the door.  “…I’ll see you up myself.  My name’s Redford, ma’am.  I apologize again.”

Before we went through the door, Farrel waited for me to come up to his side, and that’s when he hissed from the side of his mouth.  “Your eyes.”

I didn’t need much more than that to understand his meaning.  My eyes must’ve gone cat again.  I raised my hand to my face and saw that, while they hadn’t sprouted fur, my nails had still turned to claws.  The brazen fire in me was gone, replaced with panic.  We entered the staircase, away from the audience in the room.  There I squeezed my eyes shut and willed everything back to their rightful places.  Pain shot through my head as I felt my eyes return to their sapien origin.  My hands too.  The change was fast, but I felt it this time.  I felt it because I made it happen.  And what of the times when I hadn’t felt the change?  The curse of my Mark was to bring pain to any slight shift from my sapien to bestial forms.  It didn’t matter the extent of the transformation.

I thought to raise the issue in my mind with my Twin, but she bristled just at the suggestion.  I sensed in her a confusion to match mine, and a resentment that I would be so quick to blame her.  I hadn’t written her off as innocent yet–such animalistic outbursts were in her domain after all–but not long ago it had been brought to my attention that things were perhaps not so simple as “My Fault–Her Fault”.

But that wasn’t the time to think of it.

I glanced over my shoulder at Elmiryn.  The woman smiled openly at me behind her guard, but by then we had entered the staircase and neither Walt nor Tyson saw her face.  I looked forward again so that they wouldn’t notice.  I didn’t like the look on Elmiryn’s face.  Like she were in some way impressed.  I just felt like a bully, strong-arming these men to get my way.  It wasn’t in my nature, this attitude, this bristling charade.  If it weren’t for my experience dealing with such people, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to behave.  If it weren’t for my Twin, I wouldn’t have the fierceness or bravado needed to make my act convincing.

…Right?

Being of such a hardy-make, it was easier for me to recover from arduous climbs like the flights of stairs we had passed.  Just the few minutes spent bickering with Redford the guard was enough for the burn in my thighs and calfs to stop.  Farrel seemed to be doing as well as I was, though that was hardly a surprise–for a paper merchant, he seemed incredibly in shape.  But the others?

Behind me, I could hear the guard carrying Lethia panting behind Elmiryn.  Elmiryn herself seemed a bit winded, and the guard holding her chains was beginning to get impatient.

“C’mon you!” he snapped, when the woman started to lag again.

I glanced over my shoulder, a flicker of concern crossing my face.  I couldn’t help it.  The woman was injured, and I knew for a fact that she hadn’t slept for more than a day.  She seemed to only make it this far because of her sudden spikes of energy, but as I saw outside of the tower, she was crashing harder now.  When would her body collapse?

Elmiryn tried to pick up her pace by skipping a step, but her leg was weak as it gave out under her, and she fell.  She managed to turn her body just enough that she fell on her good arm, but the injured arm still pulled in a way that her impromptu brace did not spare her the pain.  She rolled over to her side, growling with a bunched expression, eyes closed and her cheeks turning a deep red.  I turned fully, my mask falling, and I was about to call her name when–

The guard kicked her.  He pulled his foot back and kicked her broken arm.

Elmiryn let out a strangled scream, her body curling like an animal whose exposed nerves had been poked with a hot stick.

I grabbed the man from behind, hardly thinking.  I hooked my right arm around the front of his neck from the left side, then grabbed his left wrist with my free hand, forcing him into a backward bend.  I was…beside myself with anger.  My first instinct had been to stop the man, to restrain him as Elmiryn had shown me in the days passed.

“Bastard.  Didn’t I warn you…!?” I hissed.

I heard Redford say something behind me, saw the guard carrying Lethia bend his knees and shift the girl in his arms as though he meant to get involved somehow.  The girl in question was trying to twist her body around to get a look at what was happening.  Her expression was twisted in perplexity and she seemed to forget her compromised position for a moment.  Elmiryn’s eyes peered up at me like white sickles, and her breath had turned harsh.  She still cradled her left arm.  Her lips moved gently, and I realized she was trying to tell me something.

Then Farrel’s hand came down on my shoulder like a gavel.  “Quincy!

The word was loaded with so many things.  Surprise, appeal for peace, a furious warning.  I released the man and stood, my head bowed.  Locks of my hair clung to my face, where hot tears had fallen.  I tried to cover this by rubbing my hand over my face as though in frustration…it wasn’t that hard to fake.

Farrel passed me on the stairs.  I raised my eyes to look and saw that he helped Elmiryn to her feet.  He pulled the chains from the guard’s hands and gestured behind him.  “Go on, Tyson.  You should’ve known better.”

The guard at my feet stared up at Farrel.  “You’re siding with her?

“He isn’t the only one,” Redford snapped from behind me.  I looked at the man to see him sneering at Tyson.  “You’re a real fool.  The warden’ll be hearing about you.  Now get back to your post before you slow us down even more!”

Tyson looked as though he wanted to punch him.  But he turned and went back down the stairs, out of sight.

“He won’t cause any trouble.  Unlike him, I’m a real guard.  I’ve worked here for years.  The wardnen’ll listen to what I have to say.”  Redford turned without glancing back again.  “That’s done.  Just a bit more, now.”

Our pace slowed as Elmiryn, for all her toughness, seemed to reach her limit.  She looked ill, and she held her broken forearm close to her hunched body.

We reached the fifth floor.  This floor was different from the others as it had more floor space.  That was because the cells were set against the circular walls.  They were like metal closets, less than four feet wide.  This allowed eight prisoners on the floor.  These were the high profile prisoners, Farrel had mentioned.  I couldn’t see any of them, because the little windows set into the cell doors were closed.  I would’ve thought them empty if I hadn’t heard a man howling in one of them.  The sixth floor was the same, only with a small difference.

Redford took out a key and unlocked the door leading to the final staircase.

Or it seemed he was  opening it to the final staircase.

Before us was a giant stone slab with a confusing array of carved lines.  They reminded me of the puzzles I used to solve as a child, where the solver was to figure out what lines connected to what symbols.  This was, of course, much grander, and I was surprised to see it.  So far, Holzoff’s Tower had used more mundane manners of security–this was more reminiscent of the arcane.

Sure enough, Redford traced his fingers along the lines in a fast and confusing order.  To me, there wasn’t any thought to it.  But the way the man started at a certain point, then traced out some unnameable shape suggested otherwise.  And where his finger passed, the stone glowed white, until a complete and closed shape shined at our marveling faces.  There was a groan, and the stone slid to the side, into some partition that seemed unlikely to me–but this was magic.  Perhaps part of the spell, made the stone collapse into small spaces?

It didn’t matter.  We were past it.  We were heading to the final floor.  But I wasn’t quite at ease yet.  There was still Walt and Redford to deal with.  And how was security on this floor?  How many guards would we have to fight through, and how in the nine hells would we get out of the tower once Syria was safely in our custody?

We came to the door leading to the seventh floor.  There was no box here–no great and magical stone barrier.  Just a door, and Redford had the key to unlock it.  He did so, no sense of anxiety spurring him onward.  I tensed, waiting for some cue, waiting for some sign that would tell me what it was I needed to do and when.  Were we going to attack?  Or were we going to fake this through to the end?

But we stepped through the doorway, into a wide hall.  At the end of the hall was a large heavy door that was likely the way into the Warden’s office.  But halfway down the hall, to the right, was a menacing looking entrance, that reminded me of the cells down below.  The difference here was in the four locks at the edge of the door, and the large wooden bar that suggested the door open outward.

I turned to look at Farrel, who raised his eyebrows at me.  Elmiryn’s face looked blank, but her eyes were bright, as though the sight of our goal was enough to rejuvenate her.  I clenched my fists and turned to look at Redford.  I moved forward, intending to knock him out from behind when–

“Thank you, Walt.  You can set me down now.”

I froze.  I looked over my shoulder with a slow incredulity, and saw Walt the guard set Lethia down without a fuss.  His expression was blank.  The girl patted his shoulder.  Next she looked in my direction, but her green eyes were on the floor.  “Redford.  Please get the keys from the warden’s room.  Knock the man out, if you need to, but don’t kill him.”

Redford said nothing.  Didn’t even turn his head.  Just continued walking down the hall to the warden’s room as if nothing had happened.  When he went through the door, we heard a brief inquiry from someone we couldn’t see, before the door shut and all sounds were cut off.  Whatever happened next, we heard nothing.

I stared, open mouthed.  “Lethia, are you–?”

“Not now. Concentrating,” Lethia muttered.

Farrel looked at her, then at me.  He seemed equally surprised.

Elmiryn bumped him hard with her shoulder.  “Hey, damn it.  Am I supposed to keep wearing these or what?”

The halfling fumbled for the keys to the chains and mumbled an apology.  The woman looked at me and winked.  “See?  The kid pulled through for us.  I didn’t want to say anything, but she’s been in control ever since Walt tried to pick her up.”

“How did you know?” Farrel asked her, frowning.

Elmiryn shrugged her uninjured shoulder.  “She stopped fighting him.  That, and Redford gave things up too easily.  I dunno how she got Redford to yield, but she must’ve made eye contact with Walt when he tried to throw her over his shoulder.”

“So my act was–?”

“Still necessary.  Lethia just helped.” Elmiryn affirmed, now free of her bonds.  Farrel returned her weapon to her, and went to free Lethia next.  The warrior came to my side and brushed back my hair.  “You did great, Nyx.”

The door opened again and Redford emerged a key ring jangling four keys at his side.  When I looked around him, I saw a leg sprawled out on the floor.  The warden, hopefully just knocked out as Lethia had instructed.  The ensorcelled guard ignored the rest of us, brushing past to stop before Lethia, who received him warmly.  It was a bit ridiculous, but even when dealing with a man she was mind-controlling the girl treated him kind.

“Thank you, Redford!”  She said as she took the keys from him.

Farrel finished removing the chains from her ankles.  “What’re you going to do with them?” he asked.

Lethia didn’t look at the halfling.  Just pointed behind her.  “Walt.  Redford.  Please watch the door.  I think your friends may be coming soon, and I’d prefer it if we weren’t interrupted.”

Without a word, both men went to do as they were told.  Elmiryn shook her head, a grin on her face.  “Enchantment!  It’s THE way to deal with pesky men!”

Despite myself I grinned.

Lethia held up the keys.  “One for each of us.  We need to turn the keys at the same time.”

She came closer and unhooked the keys from the hoop.  The one she handed to me was small and a warm honey colored metal.  “That one goes into the last hole.  Turn it to the right.”

I frowned at her.  “The right?  But it’s a key.  Doesn’t it turn to the left?”

Lethia didn’t answer me.  At first I was annoyed, but then it occurred to me that mind-controlling two men at the same time was likely very taxing on her, and she could spare little time to talk.  She handed keys to Elmiryn and Farrel.  Both were differently shaped then mine.

“Yours is the first.  Turn to the left,” she said to Elmiryn.  And to Farrel, “Yours is the second.  Turn to the right.”

She held up her own key.  “I’m the third keyhole, and I turn to the left.  We’ll turn on three.”

Lethia didn’t wait for us.  She went to the heavy door and placed her key into the third keyhole.  The three of us exchanged looks.  Then Elmiryn followed suit, using her good arm to reach for the first keyhole.  Farrel went next, placing his key into the appropriate place.  I was last.

My eyes were on Lethia, who seemed different somehow.  It didn’t help that she still had the odd accent she had stolen from Farrel, but something of her was subdued.  Likely because she was using her power to keep Walt and Redford under control, but there was something else.  The girl’s face was blank and pale, save for the scratches and light bruises she had received in the day, both from Belcliff’s jail and our dangerous trek through daesce territory.  Her green eyes were like glass, but tears collected at the corners, and I saw her lips were set into a tight line.

She was going to see her mistress again.

Did this fact afford her with the sudden spiritual strength needed to overcome her fatigue and injuries?

I moved forward and placed my key into the final keyhole.

Lethia began counting.

“One…two…three!


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