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Chapter 44.4

NYX____________________________

Elmiryn rose, her cerulean eyes piercing into mine. She was mostly-naked and barefoot, lacking pants and even her chest wraps. Her sword belt was gone, but gripped tight in her hands were her captain’s sword and Graziano’s pistol. Her hair was loose about her shoulders and filthy, dirt and leaves clumping the red locks so that they looked like matted tendrils.

That wasn’t even the worst of it. Most disturbing of all was the fact that Elmiryn stared at me as if she had no idea who, or what, I was.

Without taking her eyes off me, she growled hoarsely, “Grab it.”

The two daesce moved toward me, grabbing my arms and forcing me down into a kneel. I was too stunned by this to even fight back.

She’s controlling them? But how?

Elmiryn slinked toward me, her eyes flashing with a predatory edge that made my hairs stand on end. I could see her grip on her sword tighten.

Finally, I found my voice, “Elmiryn! I-It’s me!

She stopped cold. Her eyes narrowed, but she didn’t say anything. I could see the indecision darken her face like a storm cloud.

“Elle, it’s Nyx!” I said more firmly. “I’ve traveled with you for months now! Listen to my voice! You know who I am!” It was just as I feared. Elmiryn’s transformation into becoming a fae had progressed to the point that her ability to function in our world had been severely damaged. There was no telling how much she could even process now. Were her senses completely compromised? Had she lost all of her memories? I could only hope that her auditory memory still held.

Long tense moments passed as Elmiryn searched my face, the distress growing increasingly evident as the seconds ticked by. Finally, she barked at the daesce, “Let her go!”

They did so, but reluctantly.

I didn’t rise from my kneeling position. I didn’t entirely trust my legs to work. I stared at the daesce and whispered, “Elmiryn, what have you done? Did you…did you alter them?”

She crouched next to me, her eyes hungrily taking me in. Sweet Aelurus, the woman reeked.

After a long time, she whispered, “Yes.”

“But why?” I blurted, locking my wide eyes on her. “They are monsters! How could you–?” but I broke off when Elmiryn suddenly pulled me to her body. Startled, I started to hug her, but then I realized that hadn’t been her intention. She was fighting to open my backpack.

“Where is it?” she asked gruffly. “The drink! I can smell the drink!

I craned my neck, awkwardly pointing over my shoulder. “I-It’s there–!”

When Elmiryn found her prize, she pulled away from me and stood, ripping the cork off the wine bottle and tipping its contents down her throat. She drank without stopping until the bottle was drained, dropping it on the ground and belching loudly with a look of relief on her face. I just stared at her, agog.

This hadn’t quite been the reunion I’d imagined.

Wiping at her mouth, the wild mania that had haunted the woman’s gaze gradually slipped away, and she sat roughly on the ground in front of me. Her daesce companions wandered off, out of sight. They were clearly bored.
When Elmiryn looked at me, I could already see the effects of the wine taking hold, but in an odd way, she looked so much more composed.

Her head was turned to the side, her hair curtaining half her face. This was one of the few times I’d ever seen shame in the warrior, and it made my heart ache.

“Nyx,” she murmured, looking at me obliquely. “I…” she trailed off and lowered her gaze.

I didn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. I’m sorry? How are you feeling? Does preserving your human side mean anything to you anymore?

When she looked up again, she gestured vaguely in the direction the daesce had wandered off to. “They aren’t important to me, if that’s what you’re thinking. They aren’t pets. I don’t even have full control of them! I just…I needed something to guide me through the land while I was here. The only thing I could manipulate were them.” Her voice sounded rough, and I wondered if it was from lack of use, or because she was feeling upset.

“Because they’re abominations, Elmiryn,” I said harshly. “The daesce are outside of Harmony! Doing things that are not in our natural right, like giving things that are not ours to give, is exactly the kind of behavior that got the Spider of the West into trouble! It’s hubris.

She had the good sense to wince before glaring at me. “I wasn’t trying to flout the gods, all right? I was just trying to survive!”

I deflated, covering my face with my hands. “I know,” I mumbled into my palms. “But I’m scared for you!” I peeked at her over my fingers. “I’m still glad you’re safe.”

She smiled at me humorlessly. “In a manner of speaking.”

“When did you return? What’s it been like?”

Elmiryn sighed heavily. When her silence stretched on, I was about to tell her she didn’t need to tell me anything when she started to speak. I could already hear the lisp entering into her words as the wine started to take effect. Likewise, I could hear the woman fighting it, speaking slowly and carefully, struggling to remain coherent long enough to tell her tale to me.

“I think it’s been a little under a week. I dunno. The days smeared together for me.” The redhead set aside her weapons and drew her knees up into a hug. Her eyes glazed over. “I couldn’t see. When I stumbled out of the portal back to our world, everything just assaulted my senses. I’ve been to another realm, one that wasn’t mine, so…so I know what it feels like to be rejected by the environment. That feeling, Nyx? Of sensing things that I wasn’t supposed to know or understand?” She touched her chest emphatically as she swallowed hard. “I felt that here. I didn’t expect that. I’d been hoping coming home wouldn’t…wouldn’t be quite so bad. The daesce were my way to break through that. Through them, I could sense the world again.

“And before you ask: no. I didn’t make them more intelligent so that they wouldn’t attack me. They ignored me, actually. Just about everything out here ignores me. I can walk right up to a bird and it won’t know I’m there till I touch it. It made hunting easy. Too easy. But once I created a link between the daesce and I, and once I gave them awareness, I could sense the world so much better. Nothing hurts anymore. The wrongness was still there, though. Is still there.” Her voice tightened and I could see her staring around us as if the wilderness itself was preparing to attack her. “I don’t know how to put it into words, Nyx. Everything is just…wrong. I don’t even know when I’m hallucinating anymore. Before I could at least guess that I was, but now it’s like the rest of the world is crazy! Not me! The world has it wrong!”

I listened to her intently, feeling both sad and alarmed at the same time. Before we had been transported to the Other Place, Elmiryn had hallucinated quite badly. Now she was saying it was worse? And the only way she could tell was because she was processing the sensory information the daesce were giving her?

To borrow a phrase from her: That was incredibly fucked up.

“Where are the others?” Elmiryn asked, staring at her knees.

I cleared my throat and shrugged. “They’re safe. We’re all staying at Syria’s tower. It’s been abandoned so we’re hiding there until we can move on.” Then I remembered Paulo and added, “Oh! And Paulo is alive. We found him before we left.”

“Thas’ good,” she said without enthusiasm. “I can finally give ‘im his brother’s gun, then.” Then Elmiryn cleared her throat and asked, “I don’ suppose Hakeem made it out with you all?”

I blinked. “Hakeem? Yes, he’s with us.” Then I added with a grumble, “Mind you, he was unconscious the whole time. It wasn’t easy dragging him all that way.”

Now Elmiryn was frowning. “He still hasn’ woken up?”

I shook my head solemnly. “I’m afraid not.”

“Ah….”

I stood and crossed my arms. “Elmiryn, we’ve got to destroy your familiars.”

She made a face. “Don’t call ’em that!”

“What does it matter what I call them? They can’t exist anymore!”

“Are ya under Lacertli’s command or somethin? They’re still jes’ dumb beasts! What harm are they gonna do?”

“I thought you said they weren’t important to you?” I snapped. “And for your information, I don’t need Lacertli to tell me that their existence is wrong! The daesce weren’t meant to be that intelligent! Imagine if they breed and suddenly all the daesce became that way? It’d be utter chaos!”

Elmiryn rolled her eyes and rose up from the ground. “All right, all right! I’ll take care o’ them now–” she raised an arm, as if preparing to do some strange trick, but I quickly grabbed it and wrenched it back down.

“Don’t!” I hissed. “Your fae powers were what got you into this in the first place! We’ll dispatch them the normal way.”

The woman scoffed. “The ‘normal’ way! As if yer champion powers aren’ weird enough….”

With a shake of my head, I pointed at the ground. “Wait here! I’ll take care of this. Then afterwards, we’ll find a creek or a pond to clean you up in!”

Elmiryn pouted but sat back down.

With a deep breath, I reigned in my frustration and set of after the daesce. They weren’t that hard to follow. From where we had been, I could see their trail clearly in the moonlight, even when they had pierced into the thicket.

As it turned out, they hadn’t gone far. The two monsters were squat down on the ground, their backs to me. They were eating a mountain fox they’d caught, its blood and insides just a dark mess over the grassy dirt. I hadn’t even heard the fox cry out. No sounds of struggle, either. Given their distance, I should have. Were these two so deadly now that they could catch such quick and wily prey as they had without any effort?

They must’ve smelled my scent on the wind, for they both looked in unison over their shoulders at me. My look must have given me away. I should have known. Elmiryn had made these monsters smarter, I should’ve snuck up on them. Their lips peeled back and their hackles rose.

All I could do was deal with the choice I had made. Taking a breath, I let my champion sense expand, feeling the shadows around us. In the Other Place, most times the darkness had been fluid and easy to reach. Here, in our realm, however, they were hard, solid, and distant. I hadn’t attempted to manipulate the shadows since our return, so I hadn’t expected my attainment of control to take so long.

The daesce didn’t even hesitate to strike.

With sharp roaring screams, they charged me. I braced, grim determination on my face. It looked like I was going to have to fight them the old fashioned way–

Then their heads jerked to the side with an audible snap, and they crashed into the dirt, sliding up to my feet. Both were dead. Judging by the funny angle of their heads, the cause were broken necks.

Stunned, I stared down at them.

That’s when I heard Elmiryn approaching from behind me. “Yeeeah…” she sighed. “I figured I coulda let ya do it, but then I’d be sittin’ there for ages twiddlin’ my thumbs. This way’s faster.”

I turned and glared at her.

And we’re supposed to keep this one from violating Harmony? Oh this ought to be fun… Kali grumbled.

ELMIRYN________________________

Nyx was mad at her. Elmiryn could tell as much, despite her inebriation.

Still, the question tumbled from her mouth, because she wanted to hear the girl say it, just to know it was real.

“Are ya mad at me?”

Yes.

“Oh.”

Was she supposed to be sorry? The question came without malice, a simple thing a young child might ask. Is this the appropriate response? She felt buoyed on that heavy, unstable feeling. The wine went straight to her head. It had been so long since she’d had a proper drink. Elmiryn had almost told Nyx, but refrained out of shame, that she had gotten by so long because she’d been eating rotten fruit. Mostly grapes and sour cherries. The fermented juice never sated her thirst, but it did keep the shakiness from her hands. She could just imagine the look of revulsion on Nyx’s face should she impart this one detail of her time lost in the Albian wilds. Perhaps she could tell Nyx still, despite the pity this might lead to. It would make her feel horrible, like a weaker being, like her father even, but at least…

At least it wouldn’t be the look of horror that Nyx would no doubt show should Elmiryn reveal what she was like before she’d figured out to eat the rotten fruit.

But this! It had felt like ages since Elmiryn had felt so good. She wanted to laugh again, and she couldn’t even remember the last time she laughed. It was interesting how something so simple could so define a person. It seemed the warrior had based a great deal of her approach to life on laughter, made it a core part of who she was, and then just like that, the sound was gone, taking with it a healthy chunk of her identity. What was she without the jokes and the giggles to mask everything?

But these were sobering thoughts, and Elmiryn didn’t care much for becoming sober yet.

Nyx led Elmiryn to a mountain spring she had found, then ordered her curtly to strip.

The redhead knew it wasn’t the time for a joke, knew it was perhaps her just dodging the real issue, but she just wanted a reason to hear Nyx laugh so bad (because, let’s face it, Elmiryn could laugh right now without a reason, but then she’d look insane)–

“Nyx, have ya ever had sex while campin’?” the redhead managed to snigger.

The Ailuran paused at the water bank to stare at her. “Huh?”

Elmiryn couldn’t hold it in. She was already leaning on her knees and giggling hard. “It’s ‘in tents!’ Get it?”

Nyx didn’t say anything. She only watched as the older woman collapsed onto her knees, lost in her intense amusement.

“In tents!” she sputtered. After a time, she realized Nyx was still quiet and pushed herself up with her hands. “Do ya get it, Nyx? ‘In tents’? Intense?

“I got it, Elmiryn,” Nyx said flatly.

The warrior’s laughter died swiftly. The girl wasn’t laughing. Not only that, but her voice sounded hard. Cold, even.

“Nyx are…are ya that mad about what I did?” Elmiryn asked with a mild frown.

The girl only shook her head. “We’ll deal with things in time, Elmiryn,” the Ailuran sighed. “Right now, my only concern is cleaning you up and making sure you’re all right!”

The redhead’s frown deepened, but she proceeded to strip naked just the same. The connection she had made through the daesce hadn’t severed her connection to the world, as she had feared, but their utterly primal minds were of no use in processing complex sapien expression anyway. Elmiryn wished desperately that she could understand the look on her friend’s face. Depending on auditory clues alone didn’t help much when the other party was so reticent.

Nyx also undressed, but not all the way, much to the warrior’s disappointment. She guided Elmiryn into the frigid water, silent as the woman shivered and leaned on her. Gripped in her hand was a large bunch of dried moss to act as a scrub.

“All right, Elle. Dunk,” Nyx ordered primly.

Elmiryn stared at her, horrified. “Dunk?”

“Yes! Up to your head, please.”

“But it’s freezing!”

“Oh don’t be a child! It’ll be no better if I splash you! Just dunk into the water, and then we can be done with this faster.”

“Fine,” Elmiryn groused, before letting herself slip down into the water.

Her body seized up as the water reached up over her head, and for a frightening moment, as she looked up and saw the moonlight filtering in through the billowing air bubbles, she thought she could see claws appearing overhead to keep her below the surface…

Elmiryn burst back up, whipping her head back and flailing.

Nyx, alarmed, yelled and grabbed the woman from behind. When this didn’t calm her, the Ailuran dragged them back to the water bank, allowing the Fiamman to lay on the mud and catch her breath.

“Claws,” she gasped. “Halward! He’s angry! I made ‘im angry!”

“Elmiryn, shh! I’m here!”

The woman felt the girl’s hand on her shoulder as she lay on her side, and she clutched at it, staring at the shifting treeline as wolfish silver gaze pierced at her from the dark.

“Nyx,” Elmiryn breathed shakily. “Stay with me.”

“I’ve already promised you that I would.”

“No, I mean–right now. Just stay close.”

Nyx’s hand shifted from her shoulder to plant itself on the mud as the girl leaned over her to peer at the treeline as she did. “Do you…see something?”

That pause. As if whatever it was that Elmiryn was perceiving was automatically suspect. The woman closed her eyes.

It’s just in my head. Artemis can’t appear on the mortal plane without affecting the environment. It’s the entire reason the gods handpicked champions, wasn’t it? To act as their agents on the living world?

When she opened her eyes again, the silver gaze was gone.

“It was nothin’,” Elmiryn breathed. “Forget I said anythin’.”

Nyx brushed back a lock of the woman’s hair, making her turn her head to look up at the girl. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Elmiryn relaxed further. There. That warm golden sound in the girl’s voice, the one that made the warrior feel at peace, was finally leaking through. But…it wasn’t as clear as it had been before. It was like it was struggling to get through something large and thick.

The warrior reached a hand up to touch the girl’s face. “I’m fine.”

Nyx helped her up, and together they returned to the water, where the Ailuran scrubbed away the dirt and grime. She tsked over the woman’s hair, pulling out the leaves and undoing what knots that she could. Ultimately Elmiryn’s nest-like head was going to have to wait for a brush to be truly returned to normal. The woman was fine with this. She didn’t expect to come out of the spring looking like polished royalty. Thankfully, neither did Nyx. Still, it was a definite improvement from before. As she was, the redhead smelled no better or worse than what they usually had when they were constantly on the road.

Nyx nodded with satisfaction as she pulled out yet another knot. They sat on the rocky shore, Elmiryn still drying out, naked between the girl’s legs. If there was one thing that the woman had been surprised by, it was how relaxed Nyx was. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the woman had stank worse than a pig sty, but the Ailuran hadn’t so much as batted an eyelash when the warrior stripped naked. Was her companion just getting more comfortable with her?

Or was it perhaps that she was losing interest?

“Nyx?” Elmiryn said before she even knew what she was doing.

“Hmm?”

“Have ya… Did ya think about me while I was away?”

Elmiryn felt a light touch at her jaw before Nyx turned her head to better see her. The Ailuran kissed her cheek before whispering into her ear. “Since you left, all I ever did was think about you.”

The redhead pouted. She didn’t miss the note of rejection in Nyx’s words. “I didn’ leave cos’ I wanted to, Nyx. I left because I had to!”

Nyx nodded, her nose brushing Elmiryn’s ear. “I know. I wasn’t trying to accuse you.”

“You mean it?”

A pause. “Yes.”

No.

“What can I do?” Elmiryn murmured, closing her eyes. “Tell me what it is that I can do to make you feel better about it all!”

Nyx pulled away, standing abruptly. “Again with the telling!” she snapped. “Why does everyone want me to spell things out for them! What if I don’t have the answers either? What if don’t know what I want?”

Elmiryn turned to sit on her feet, bewildered. “Um. Come again?”

“Do you assume that just because I know all these useless big words that I am somehow better at commuicating than you are?”

“No?”

“Well…then…you’d be correct! Because I’m not better at speaking than you are! And sometimes, even if I know what it is that’s bothering me, what if I’m not ready to talk about it?” Nyx pointed accusingly at the redhead. “How ready were you when you told me you were wanted for black magic by the Fiamman kingdom?”

Elmiryn shrugged, still nonplussed. “I didn’t care?”

“Oh that is bullshit!

“Nyx what point are you trying to make? I don’t understand why you feel so threatened all of a sudden!”

Nyx stomped her foot and yelled. “I don’t feel threatened! I feel angry! There’s a fucking difference!”

Elmiryn threw her hands up into the air, feeling her own ire rise. “Wonderful! So you’re angry! That still doesn’t fucking give me a reason why!” She pointed at herself. “That night I had to tell you about the bounty on my head? I felt horrible! If I had told you what my situation was instead of just keeping it to myself like an idiot, then you might’ve been better prepared for when we had first been attacked! Except I hadn’t done that, so I just…I dunno…dealt with it! It wasn’t as if I could keep ignoring the issue!”

The Ailuran glared at her as she shrugged into her gambeson. “I’m sorry, Elmiryn. Just…let’s just get going. With all the daesce and bounty hunters around, we’d be better off traveling until sunrise.”

The warrior leveled a hard stare at the girl. Did she really think after all that they could just cut so short? Nyx paused to glance nervously at her.

“Elmiryn? Please? I just want to go back!” the girl pleaded.

Slowly, Elmiryn nodded, feeling a large pit form in her stomach. “All right. Let’s get going then.”

Nyx is afraid to talk to me…I can hear it in her voice! But why? What could I have possibly done to make her feel that way?


Back to Chapter 44.3 | Forward to Chapter 44.5

Chapter 44.3

LETHIA________________________

 

Dear Jydel,

 

I’ll have you know that people are fantastically annoying sometimes.

 

Being tended to by Daedalus is fine. But Quincy? Ye gods! I would rather chop off my other arm than have to suffer her prickly bedside manner any longer!

 

Sorry, was that joke too soon?

 

It’s just that I’m so irritated! Everyone has started treating me as though I’m a lunatic about to hop off the nearest cliff. Halward help them, they just don’t understand at all! I mean, if I was really intent on killing myself, I think I would have enough intelligence to go about it more efficiently than just amputating a gods damned limb!

 

But what can I do? I can’t make them see what they don’t want to. And in the end, I didn’t do it for them. It was my own blood pact, paid in flesh. I know what my destiny is now, Jydel.

 

I have to kill Syria.

 

I lay awake in the barn, staring up at the rafters, and it’s all I can think about. And even if I told this to the others? I still do not think they would understand. They would say, “Ah! She must really hate Syria to wish her dead!”

 

That just isn’t true.

 

Syria was my mother. I can no more cease to love her than I could stop breathing. It is just a fact of my reality. But I do not need to love the crimes she has committed, and as her adopted daughter, I see it is my duty to preserve what is left of her legacy. I feel almost rejuvenated, to have such a clear goal in front of me now. Izma’s way was wrong. I couldn’t see that before because I was lost in the labyrinthine logic that no doubt trapped my mistress. What is wrong with intellectuals, that we manage to complicate things that are supposed to be simple? We get so caught up in our ideas that we lose sight of the point, whatever that may be.

 

Nyx does it. She weighs her thoughts on a scale like an alchemist, ticking off pros and cons, arguing one point against another. I think she would have made a stellar scholar. But her passion! It’s strong and highly unreasonable, jerking her this way and that by a storm of feelings. I can see it every time she looks at me. Conflict rages inside of her. The anger tenses her brow and darkens her eyes when her charity is scarce. But when she’s in a lighter mood? I see a strange bout of sympathy bubble up. It’s tiring, that hot and cold attitude. I’d almost prefer it be the anger alone if it meant I knew where I stood with her!

 

Oh, but listen to me complain! I’m sorry Jydel, I can probably guess what you’re thinking. “Complains about the drizzle, but hardly wants the storm. Typical woman!” I suppose I can just shut up and try to find the silver lining to this. Maybe Nyx can finally find it in her heart to forgive me? We’ll see. She left earlier today to search for Elmiryn. I don’t think she’ll be back for a few days. Maybe all she really needed was some time to herself.

 

Sometimes, I feel the same way.

 

At night, I think I hear Paulo outside of the barn, skulking. He’s such a self-conscious boy, Jydel. I think Quincy is aware of this, but Nyx isn’t. I can’t really blame her. It’s not as though Paulo makes it easy for anyone to feel sorry for him, but just imagine being stuck alone for a year in a cold, dark half world with monsters. Then the only company that finds you turns out to be group of judgmental women and a snarling dog.

 

Oh and by the way, your brother is dead. Cheers!

 

Don’t get me wrong. Paulo is still a git, but I can understand why he is one. Does that make sense?

 

Of course not. I suppose that’s what I can expect after living most of my life in a tower with a crazy woman. I end up feeling sorry for assholes. It’s like some weird cosmic joke.

 

If the universe thinks that is funny, it should see what I’m about to do next.

No. Nevermind. Tomorrow. I’ll tell you tomorrow, Jydel. My hand is starting to cramp up and I’m feeling anxious enough for a walk.

 

 

NYX__________________________

The Albian wilderness was no less treacherous now that winter was over. Despite the fact that the only snow could be found on higher altitudes, the daesce still lurked the mountains. I’d learned from Daedalus that Holzoff’s Tower had been indefinitely closed in light of Syria’s dramatic escape. That meant the food source the terrible daesce relied on was now gone. The population of monsters spread, sometimes in large herds, other times alone or in small packs, attacking and devouring whatever they could get their claws on. Families had been destroyed overnight. Travelers were attacked and left mutilated on the roads, hurting trade. This prompted the new leader of Belcliff to hire help in beating the beasts back, exterminating them where possible. Many of these people were bounty hunters waiting for their next real job. It was amazing the devastating effects, both in the community and personally, our group’s past actions had.

 

So traversing into the wilds, I was on guard at all times. There was no telling when a bounty hunter or a daesce could appear.

 

But with so much time to myself, I couldn’t help but brood.

 

Lethia’s words echoed in my head.

 

When you figure out what you want from me, tell me.

 

What do I want? I thought angrily. I want to stop hurting! I’m sick of feeling so much pain!

 

Kali chimed in on my private thoughts. It was her new favorite thing to do, apparently.

 

Perhaps instead of feeling sorry for yourself, you could just talk about it? she offered dryly.

 

I balked at this. What in the four winds are you talking about?

 

Oh you know. When you two-leggers open your mouths and sounds come out? TALKING, Nyx! Sweet Aelurus, I thought you’d be familiar with the concept by now? You do it all the time, after all!

 

But what would we talk about, I mean! I snapped back. Lethia knows what happened! She knows why I’m upset with her!

 

Oh, and I suppose you feel she understands everything you felt and thought given that moment?

 

Yes! She does! Quite literally, as a matter of fact since she– but I broke off, my feet slowing to a stop as I neared a slope that led into a small field between the hills I traveled through.

 

I was about to finish that thought with she was reading my mind the whole time but it occurred to me that in that moment Lethia hadn’t been in control. Izma had. Lethia’s decisions may have led to the situation, but did that mean she was present the entire time?

 

Kali, ever aware of my thoughts, said quietly, We once acted under the best intentions, and our family perished as a result. I don’t think Lethia meant for what happened any more than we meant for our family’s fate. That’s all I will say about that, sister.

My throat grew tight. I didn’t argue her point, but I didn’t dive too deeply into it either. I couldn’t afford this level of reflection if I wanted to stay safe and find Elmiryn before it was too late.

 

That thought firmly in mind, I forged onward.

 

 

LETHIA________________________

 

Dear Jydel,

 

Daedalus sat down to talk about the request I made of him the other day. You remember, right? I’ve kept it a secret from the others for a reason, but perhaps if they learned of my intentions, they would treat me differently.

 

After all, I couldn’t be suicidal if I intended to replace my arm.

 

And here’s the good news: Daedalus thinks he can do it!

 

He showed me some sketches and plans, then a few parts from his wagon that he thinks he can use. A lot of it, he says, will have to be custom made, and he’s missing some rare elements that would be necessary for the arm’s function, but he suspects he can find these things within the next few weeks! I was elated, I tell you!

 

Daedalus may make a living as a jeweler, but he’s always been a tinkerer at heart. I’m sure you can probably see up there in heaven, Jydel, but the elf’s work is amazing! His automated guard statues aren’t even his best work. Apparently, he’s been constructing a ship in his spare time too. He keeps it hidden, for you see, it’s not just any ship, it’s

 

[The ink trails off and smears]

[The writing continues at the bottom of the page, but in a shakier hand]

 

Jydel he’s awake gods I didn’t think it was possible but Hakeem is AWAKE!

 

NYX__________________________

The days came and went. I was losing myself in the Albian wilds, gradually returning to that almost feral way of life I had adopted before I’d met Elmiryn. It was nighttime. Kali hovered close to the surface, peering out of my eyes as we sat hunched in the dark in the shadow of a broad and fragrant blue juniper tree. We were downwind, and I was hoping the strong tree smell would mask our scent from the daesce that had wandered across our path. It wasn’t the largest I’d seen, but it was still big enough to make me pause. Its clawed paws dragged along the dirt as it lumbered along, head bowed, red eyes glaring at nothing. This one was skinny–its mangy white coat thinned enough in places that I could see its dark skin. I sighed. If this beast didn’t leave the area soon, I’d either have to turn around or fight it. I didn’t like either option.

The best part? I was just three days away from the full moon. All I could feel was the primal aggression burning in my limbs, urging me to run. It was part of the reason I had trouble resisting Kali’s will.

Fight it! Scare it off! she snapped at me.

No! I fired back. I don’t need to stir up trouble! Besides, engaging this one might attract others!

What’s the matter with you? You’re a champion of heaven and you’ve fought things twice this size! Just kill it and let’s be on our way!

I clenched my fists and bowed my head as I tried to reign in my frustration. Kali, enough! You know it’s not your turn! If you promise to behave I’ll…I’ll let you have full control for seven days!

That got her attention. I could feel her perk up like I’d just offered her a treat. A full week? You promise?

My heart skipped. What a fool! Just what had I offered without thinking?

In what I hoped felt nonchalant, I replied, Not a full week. Seven days. We’ll switch off.

Kali growled. You’re backpedaling!

I never said a full week!

It’s fucking semantics and you know it!

Regardless, this is the best you’ll get right now! I can’t have you running off and ruining the things I’m working for.

Why can’t you trust anyone? Kali asked, hurt clear in her words.

I faltered. I…I DO trust people! But things are delicate right now, and we both know you have no desire to take charge on those matters. At her sullen reticence, I added imploringly, Oh, sister please don’t be upset with me! I’ve already got enough on my plate, I don’t need to have you resenting me on top of it all!

I could feel her sink away from me, deeper into her realm. My gut clenched. Since we had more or less reconciled our differences, having Kali on my side had been a tremendous relief. I’m not sure I could have gotten through those last days in the Other Place had we still been at odds. But if she decided to quarrel with me again….

When Kali returned to the surface, I tensed in anticipation.

Fine. We’ll switch off for seven days, she grumbled. BUT I want to be able to walk upright.

I faltered at this. She wanted to assume the sapien form? I thought she hated it? Kali, I know we did that in the half-dimension, but what if it doesn’t work here? We’re fully in the realms of the gods once more, so there are more limits!

If I’m not really our animal nature manifested, then that should mean I can exist in the world as you do! Haven’t I done it before?

She had a point. Sort of. My sneaky sister was failing to mention that the only reason she had been able to assume my form in our world was because Meznik’s evil influence had allowed her to.

Still, I mulled over this.

After several moments, I replied, If you can do it, and Lacertli does not object, then I suppose it isn’t a problem…. I didn’t know if Kali purposefully taking control of my sapien form would somehow be an affront to Harmony. That was the tricky thing about being an abomination of nature. When your very existence was wrong, what could you do that was permissible in the first place? I was a champion of heaven–did that give us some kind of temporary pardon?

Thinking of the Lizard King made me anxious all over again. It had been almost a week and I still hadn’t heard from him. Just what did Fortuna ask him to do, and was he all right?

Are you worrying about a god? Kali snapped, annoyed. She was so much more irritable these days, it was exhausting. Focus! We’re still talking!

My expression turned contrite. Sorry…

Just at that moment, I heard a twig snap. Kali fell silent as I went stiff, eyes raising once more. Our inward exchanges were fast–taking mere seconds what would ordinarily take longer to say aloud. But even that discussion had been lengthy. I couldn’t see the daesce anymore. Was it really gone? There were lots of things lurking hidden in the Albian wilds. Many of these creatures were completely harmless. But if our inattentiveness had allowed a beast to get the jump on us….

I breathed in deep.

I could sense the damp soil, the juniper trees, the frost that clung to the rocks. The stench of the daesce was like an ugly streak in the air, making my nose wrinkle. I couldn’t hear the beast anymore, and the smell hadn’t grown any stronger. Perhaps it really had moved on?

I crept out of the shadows, cautiously straightening.

That’s when the daesce hit me from behind, screeching wildly. My face went into the dirt when it grabbed the back of my head and tried to crush my skull. My hands clawed at the ground in a panic as I tried to get the leverage needed to throw the monster off of me.

Rage built up, burning my muscles, slicing my lungs as desperate breaths cut up my throat in sharp whines. I loathed these creatures with every fiber of my being. Loathed their violence. Loathed their hedonism. Loathed our similarities.

With a roar I grabbed its supporting arm and wrenched, twisting my whole body. Without anything to bear its weight, it rolled with me, leaving us in a tangled mess, but at least it wasn’t on top of me anymore. With a few sharp elbow strikes and wild punches, I found myself scrabbling to my knees and leaping on the monster’s head. It’s rancid fangs bit down onto my hand when I tried to grab it under its chin. I screamed, but simply took hold of its entire lower jaw, my other hand firmly gripping the matted fur on the back of its head. With a sharp wrench, I snapped the thing’s neck, and it collapsed to the ground, dead.

Rolling away from the twitching body, I lay there, catching my breath. My peace was short lived.

Nearby, I could hear more daesce coming. It was by no means a herd–from the whoops and screeches, it sounded like two or three at most–but I had no idea how strong they were, and if this one was any indication, I didn’t want to be caught out-numbered, godly champion or no. Cursing, I fled in the opposite direction of the beasts, deeper into the thick underbrush and low broad trees.

Try as I might, the daesce were closing in. I could hear them crashing through behind me, trampling over everything in wild abandon.

In my desperation, I made the mistake of looking over my shoulder as I ran. That led me to charging straight over a low cliff. I wheeled my arms as I fell through the air, a shout ripping out of my mouth before I crashed and tumbled, head over heels, down the sandy slope to the hard earth down below.

Ye gods!

I stared up at the sky, pain assailing my entire body, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of deja vu at the situation.

Get up! What are you doing reminiscing for? They’re coming! Kali roared.

I jerked back up, my eyes wide. She was right. Sliding down the cliff’s steep slope was one of the daesce, a short but muscular brute that looked ready to eat my face. His companion soon appeared, leaping off the cliff with a wild hoot and a slavering mouth. He hit the ground hard, the vibration moving up my feet, and straightened with an almost knowing grin. He was taller, with unusually long arms and a misshapen face.

I backed away from them, and if I had been in my feline form, my hackles would have been raised. The two daesce circled me slowly, their red eyes taking in my petite form. I wondered at their hesitance. This wasn’t normal behavior for the monsters at all. They were ‘attack first, think never’ type creatures. But these two? They were assessing me, their eyes holding an intelligence that shouldn’t have been there.

Kali didn’t like it either. She didn’t say anything, but I suddenly felt the urge to growl deep within my throat.

I could kill these daesce with my vermagus abilities…but wouldn’t that just attract more? I didn’t have time to fight these beasts endlessly.

That’s when a third figure burst over the cliff, landing just behind the two daesce.

I froze, my eyes widening. “E-Elle?”


Back to Chapter 44.2 | Forward to Chapter 44.4

Chapter 44.2

NYX__________________________ 

Lethia didn’t die, thankfully. Within a few days of severing her own arm, she was up and walking—though she never stayed up for long. She never complained about the pain. Daedalus and Quincy gave her herbal mixes to help with that, but there wasn’t a plant on this world that could eliminate the discomfort entirely. I could see how it kept the enchantress up at night. Oddly enough, this was the most at peace I’d seen the girl since we’d reunited. Lethia always appeared lost in thought, and not in the melancholy way she had been before, but with an almost determined air. Determination for what, I had no idea.

 

It was thanks to Daedalus that her condition had not worsened. Just as I had expected, the elf had stayed, tending to the enchantress and helping her care for her wound. More than that, though, the two were constantly talking, heads bowed as if they were going over some secret plan. They always fell silent whenever I or one of the others drew near, and it made me suspicious. What were they talking about that they couldn’t share with the rest of us?

 

I mentioned this to Quincy, but she only brushed me off.

 

“Daedalus and Lethia are old friends. The elf has been in her life since she was a child.”

 

“How do you know that?”

 

“Because he was one of the first people I questioned when I was pursuing Lethia as a bounty. If they want to talk in private, then let them! It may just be that he’s the only one she feels comfortable with confiding in right now,” she said.

 

I huffed. “Yes, but—”

 

“Nyx, I cannot entertain your cynicism right now! I need to massage Hakeem to prevent bed sores.”

 

Hakeem had not awoken since our arrival. Daedalus, humoring Quincy, had gone up to check on the Fanaean, who had taken residence in Lethia’s old room (since the girl had decided she preferred the barn), but he would not wake. He lay there still as a lifeless doll. Stubbornly, Quincy insisted on caring for him.

 

I pitied Quincy and Hakeem both.

 

Paulo, who had taken to sleeping outside, under the stars, was quiet and withdrawn. It was the return of the taciturn young man we had first encountered in the Other Place, but with a notable difference. Now, whenever Paulo was in the same room as Lethia, he would stop and do something for her. Sometimes it was small: He would bring her a cup of water; shut a window for her; or bring her whatever food we had cooked that day. Other times it was more. Once I’d seen him freshen up her hay bed. Another time, I saw him fix a leak on the roof of the barn that had been bothering the enchantress.

 

I didn’t really know what to make of this change. It seemed to happen so suddenly. Lethia didn’t seem all that surprised by it, but to say the two were comfortable around each other would have been overstating the situation. Paulo, after his task for the girl was complete, would practically flee her presence. Lethia, who always watched the boy intently as he worked, never said a word of thanks, nor attempted to speak further with him.

 

And how did I fare after spending so many days hiding and resting at Syria’s abandoned tower?

 

I was losing my mind.

 

If I weren’t in touch with the shadows, I would have believed they were moving. My eyes were always playing tricks on me, making me believe someone (or something) was lurking in the dark when there wasn’t really anything. Other times, I’d fuss over something incessantly—like tying my gambeson for instance. I’d be halfway through my ties before I’d start all over again, thinking I’d skipped one. Quincy happened upon me in Syria’s old room doing this, no doubt seeking help with Hakeem, before she stopped me in bemusement.

 

“Nyx, stop. You’re just going around in circles!” she chided.

 

“But I keep missing a tie for some reason!” I whined. “I keep counting them, watching my hands, but the gambeson doesn’t sit right! I don’t understand!”

 

Quincy crossed her arms and looked at me funny. “How long have you been trying to tie your gambeson?”

 

The question startled me. I took a moment to think, then mumbled uneasily, “H-How far have the suns traveled from the ten o’ clock position?”

 

The wizard balked at me. “You’ve been doing this for an hour?

 

“It can’t have been that long!” I protested. I started to fumble with my ties again. “I would have noticed!”

 

Quincy grabbed my wrists and I looked into her face sharply. Her expression was very solemn. “Nyx, you’re an intelligent girl. Surely you’ve noticed that things have not been the same since we’ve returned!”

 

“What do you mean?” I asked, but I knew exactly what she was talking about.

 

The wizard rolled her eyes and put her hands on her hips. “You know very well what I mean! The small hallucinations! Our foggy memories! Who does that sound like?”

 

I could feel my heart hammering in my chest. “Elmiryn,” I breathed.

 

Quincy nodded grimly. “Yes. Izma and Meznik mentioned that we had been altered in some way, to allow us to see them without losing our minds. At the time, I didn’t understand why they would want us to see them, unless of course they intended…”

 

“To use us,” I finished, my voice sounding hollow.

 

She only nodded again.

 

I buried my face in my hands. “Sweet Aelurus! I thought being a champion meant I would be safe from such influence!”

 

“You’re still mortal, Nyx. Don’t take your status for granted. And besides,” Quincy crossed her arms and I could see her eyes grow distant as she delved into some deep thought. “This has another side to it.”

 

“Really? And what’s that?” I muttered miserably.

 

“Isn’t it obvious? We can see the astral demons, Nyx! If we can see them, that means that we can fight them! They’ve lost one of their safeguards!”

 

I raised an eyebrow. “We’ve just established this is a double-edged sword, Quincy! We won’t be of much help to anyone let alone ourselves if we start to lose our minds like—” I broke off. I never thought I’d experience what the warrior had to go through, but now that I did, I regretted not being more supportive of her when we’d first met. To have to go through something like this alone…it was really just proof that the redhead had considerable mettle to keep from succumbing to what was obviously a harrowing state of existence.

 

Then another alarming thought occurred to me. “You don’t think that Izma and Meznik intend to turn us into fae, do you?”

 

Quincy frowned. “I don’t know. Why would they? Half the point of their war game seemed to be about displaying how creative one was in comparison to the other. Making a person into a fae would be old hat to them.”

 

I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. “So what now, then?”

 

“Well, seeing as how our new affliction allows us to witness the demons without trouble, reversing that seems detrimental. At the same time, we’d have to keep it from progressing further, or we won’t be able to function in our own world…” The wizard trailed off, her finger tapping her chin as she gazed through the floor. Finally, she shrugged. “I’ll research what I can. Maybe Lethia knows of something. Meanwhile, we should tell everyone what is happening so that they can be aware of the problem. Until such a time as we can come up with a way to mitigate our condition, we’ll just have to watch each other.”

 

I swallowed through a tight throat and nodded. “You came up here for something?”

 

“Oh! Yes. But first,” she gestured at my unlaced gambeson. “Let me help you with that.”

 

Once I was fully dressed, I went to help Quincy with moving Hakeem off his bed—she wanted to wash his sheets. As we worked, we discussed other ways of lessening the ill of effects of the demons’ influence. One such thing we agreed on—everyone needed to sleep better.

 

When I really stopped to think about it, I hadn’t slept all that much in the Other Place. Of course, there were moments where I had been unconscious, but the only time I could remember actually sleeping was during our stop at the shard where the Lycan village had been located. There, I had slept for a short time, and I don’t recall dreaming about anything. Yet here I seemed to dream every single night, and they were the worst nightmares. Every time, I awoke screaming, sweat drenched and with fragmented memories of what my consciousness had taken me to in sleep: a sea of nymph corpses that I drowned in; a herd of pretas that tore me apart; my chest ripping open and revealing a black hole—

 

Elmiryn leaving me.

 

What most pained me was that when I would descend from Syria’s room, it was usually to find Quincy sitting in the dark of the kitchen, staring at nothing. Or Paulo crouched just outside the barn doors with his head in his hands, his breath hitching. Or Lethia pacing—almost angrily—out along the property fence. Even Argos seemed to struggle with some inner trauma as he obsessively hunted down the gophers and other pests that had taken up residence on the land.

 

We were all suffering and yet none of us seemed capable of talking to each other.

 

Worse yet, Elmiryn still had not returned, and I had no idea where she could be. I only waited a day to see if she would turn up in the same manner that we had, out from under the tree’s roots. But after that, I risked a short trip into the wilderness with the wine. I had talked it over with Lethia and Quincy, and they surmised that the warrior, given her fae powers, could have circumvented the gateway we had entered completely and turned up elsewhere nearby.

 

But by the sixth day, I was turning up nothing, and I feared the worst.

 

This time, I wanted to go deeper into the wilderness, but not just for a day trip, like I’d been doing. I wanted to go deeper into the wilds, be more thorough in my search. I didn’t know how to approach the others with this wish, though. Even after our shared hardship, there were deep fractures that divided our group, and it hurt our trust and communication. I could anticipate the accusations from Paulo already.

 

Just to make sure I stayed honest, I told Kali, After three days of searching, turn us around!

 

She scoffed at me from her mental den. What do you mean, ‘Turn us around’? You aren’t a wagon I can just steer at will!

 

I sighed with as much patience as I could muster. Kali, what I meant was—hold me accountable to my original plan. I can’t leave the others for too long.

 

Kali grunted in response, and I took that as her assent.

 

Next, I needed to talk to the others…preferably one by one. I’m a coward at heart, after all.

 

The first I spoke to was Argos, because out of us all, I felt sorry that the dog seemed to be so frequently overlooked. The canine was chasing rodents out in the field, as usual. He stopped and listened to what I had to say—all my reasons and my assurances—and simply licked my cheek. I rubbed his head in thanks, thinking wistfully, I wish I could speak to you like Lethia can, and went off to find Daedalus, who was sitting inside the tower at the kitchen table. He was working with a number of various metal parts. No doubt, he’d taken them from his wagon full of spare clock pieces.

 

“What are you doing?” I asked out of curiosity.

 

He glanced at me, but didn’t stop polishing a small gear. With much reservation, the elf murmured, “I’m working on a new creation. Was there something you needed?”

 

The phrase ‘Marked One’ hung there at the end, even if he didn’t say it.

 

With a resigned sigh, I went about telling him of my intentions. Then I asked if I could take some of his medical supplies with me.

 

“No,” he said firmly. He set down his work and turned to glare up at me. “Those supplies will only last me until the end of tomorrow, and Lethia’s wound still needs much tending to! If you want to take healing supplies, you’ll have to go into town and get your own!”

 

I didn’t bother arguing. With dropped shoulders and a lowered gaze, I hurried off to find Quincy upstairs.

 

The wizard sat at her husband’s bedside, a damp wash cloth in her hand as she dabbed at his head. I winced at the sight of the unconscious Fanaean. His cheeks were sunken in. What really surprised me was that he wasn’t dead yet. A touch at his shoulder still proved he had some living warmth to him.

 

Quincy looked at me quizzically. I didn’t typically visit unless she asked me to.

 

“Can I help you, Nyx?” she asked.

 

I held her eyes, my mouth open to say something, but I suddenly had to look away. There was a pit in my stomach. I was leaving Quincy alone to deal with the others. She already had so much to deal with. Was that fair?

 

“You’re going to look for Elmiryn,” she stated quietly.

 

I swallowed and peered at her sidelong before giving a nod.

 

The brunette took a deep breath and tossed her wash cloth back into its basin at the floor. With both hands she rubbed at her face before standing and crossing her arms.

 

Quincy met my eyes. “I understand. If it were Hakeem, I would do the same.”

 

I fidgeted on the spot. “You’ll be all right? With…with everything?”

 

“Daedalus is a big help. Paulo seems repentant, which is good. Lethia seems to be in a better mood than she’s been in for a while.” She shrugged one shoulder and puckered her lips. “Yes. I think we ought to be fine!”

 

“Good! That’s good.”

 

A long pause.

 

“How long were you going to search till?” she asked next.

 

“Three days.”

 

Quincy tilted her head to one side. “You’ll need supplies for Elmiryn, won’t you? I noticed Daedalus’ supplies dwindling.”

 

I was already backing up toward the door. I still had to speak with Paulo and Lethia, and I was eager to start my search. “I’ll figure something out—”

 

“Nyx, wait.”

 

I paused and looked at her curiously.

 

Quincy already had her coin purse in hand. “You need to buy things, don’t you? You sort of need money for that, right? Here. Take the rest from last time. That should do it.”

 

I frowned as she approached to press the purse into my hand. There were at least two hundred gold coins left in the purse. Medical supplies were expensive, so I could very much use the money…but this situation was different from before. I wasn’t buying supplies for the group, just for Elmiryn. Was Quincy expecting a sort of trade again?

 

“What would you like in return?” I asked wearily.

 

She put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes. “Huh?”

 

I jingled the purse. “For the coins? What do you want?”

 

Quincy scowled. “You think I’m bartering with you?”

 

I blinked at her, taken aback. “You…you mean, you—?”

 

The wizard only shook her head at me and turned away, insult and hurt evident on her face. “Smart as you are, you can be a little thick headed, can’t you?” she muttered.

 

I took a step after her. Did I really misunderstand things that badly? “Quincy, hold on—!”

 

“Just go, Ailuran,” she snapped, picking up her washcloth again. “I suppose you’re not as perceptive as Elmiryn claimed you were.”

 

That stung. Had Elmiryn sung my praises while I was away? If she had, I already must have gone against every kind thing she said. It doubly hurt because it meant that perhaps the warrior didn’t understand me as much as she thought she did. I seemed to be discovering new lows every day.

 

Without a word, I sought out the others. Paulo, expectedly, brought up the possibility that I was leaving them for good.

 

“I’m not going to do that!” I snapped at him.

 

“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” he argued back. “Even if you really are looking for Elmiryn, you two could just run off together the moment you’re reunited!”

 

“You want to know how you can trust me?” I snarled.

 

“Yes! How?”

 

“By having faith!” I spat. And I left it at that.

 

Last of all, I went to speak with Lethia.

 

The girl was in the barn, as she usually was when the suns rose into their noon-time position. It was on Daedalus’ orders. The heat, he had warned, could encourage infection. Stay somewhere cool at all times!

 

Lethia seemed to like this about as much as I liked getting into trouble.

 

Still, I was shocked to find her topless, her blouse off with just a brassiere on, doing curls with her right arm by using a filled water bucket. Without turning around, she panted out in clipped phrases, “Nyx…you’re going to…look for Elmiryn. Go ahead! I don’t mind.”

 

I stared at her, feeling uncomfortable. I even overlooked the fact that she had read my mind again. “Should you be doing that? You’re wounded!”

 

Lethia barely glanced at me. “I’m fine.”

 

“Does Daedalus know what you’re up to?”

 

With what sounded like a huff of annoyance, the enchantress finally turned to glare at me in full. I gave a start. In the few days since Lethia had cut off her arm, I had purposefully avoided the more intimate ways of helping her—like dressing or bathing. Whether it was because of anger or shame, I did not know. But seeing her now, I found myself greatly humbled at the scars Lethia’s brand of honor had done to her.

 

In addition to her now severed arm, the teenager had the long grey scar running along her chest from the daesce that had attacked her. The old wound was not just superficial—it had also taken out a chunk from the top of her right breast, judging by the uneven nature of her brassiere.

 

Lethia’s sharp green eyes pierced me when she said, “Nyx, you weren’t interested in caring for me before. Don’t pretend to start now. It’d just be bothersome at this point.”

 

I winced. That was the second time someone had managed to make me feel horrible in just a few words.

 

Not that hard, apparently, Kali drawled.

 

Hush!

 

“So you didn’t do this to spark sympathy?” I shot back as I gestured at her arm stump. Immediately I regretted that. It sounded awful and petty, even to me.

 

She raised an eyebrow at me and murmured, “Can it be that you still don’t understand?” She sighed heavily, her lips pursing before she turned away from me. “I was wrong to think we had something in common, then.”

 

This made me angry in ways I didn’t expect. I stomped to Lethia’s side and hissed, “Why is it that everyone has to understand you? What makes you of such importance that I am somehow lesser for failing to understand your convoluted logic?”

 

Lethia frowned at me. “What do you want me to say? I’m sorry? Again?

 

At my furious silence, she leaned in just enough to breathe. “If the only thing you want is to be angry with me, Nyx, then that is your right. I hurt you, I know. I hurt everyone. But I need you to know, I don’t intend to just sit back and live the life of a cripple.” She stepped away, turning to resume her bucket curls. Through quiet grunts, she said with strain: “I also don’t intend to spend all my life begging for forgiveness with words when I can do more through my actions. When you’ve figured out what you’d like me to do, then by all means…tell me. In the meantime, I will do what I feel I must.”

 

I glared at her, feeling a sickening mix of guilt and anger surge in my throat like hot bile. It is the worst feeling, when your head is going one direction, and your emotions are stampeding off in another.

 

Stiffly, I turned to leave.

 

“Good luck, Nyx. I hope you find her,” Lethia called after me.

 

I paused at the barn doors, but walked briskly away.

 

The exchange left me rattled, to say the least. The teenage enchantress seemed so much more confident than I’d ever seen her, including when we first met. Add on the fact that she was physically older than before our strange other-dimensional journey, and it was like speaking to an entirely different person.

 

And what she said made sense. Even in my heightened state of emotion, I could understand.

 

I just didn’t want to. I felt petulant and resentful that Lethia would treat me so firmly and yet somehow manage to remain sympathetic all at the same time. It felt unfair.

 

Space, I thought. I need some space. Some time to think.

 

I was hating what I was feeling. Who I was turning into. It was like watching myself in the mirror turn ugly and dark, like a hag, and feeling powerless to stop it. I wasn’t powerless, of course. But it wouldn’t be enough to pretend I wasn’t angry and hurt. The charade would be shallow and short-lived. If I really wanted to move on from the devastation I’d faced in the Other Place, I was going to have to reach in deep and purge myself of all the ill feelings that so led me astray.

 

I was going to have to overcome myself, if I wanted to any sort of peace.


Back to Chapter 44.1 | Forward to Chapter 44.3

Chapter 44.1

NYX__________________________

“Is there anything Lethia could use to hurt herself with?” I asked in a rush. “An axe, a sword, even a shovel?” I was already backpedaling for the door.

 

Quincy’s face went long and her eyes wide. “There was a small hatchet in the barn. Lethia saw it when you two came to find us!”

 

“Damn it!” I snarled as I ran out the door.

 

Behind me, I could hear Argos running, his paws rapidly thundering over the grassy earth, and in no time, the canine had eclipsed me. Ahead of us was the lit up barn.

 

It was about halfway there that I heard screaming, and I stumbled in my run, my heart skipping a beat. I almost didn’t want to get there. I almost didn’t want to see. But twisting my guts into knots was the unsettling possibility that Lethia could die from this…and it would be my fault. She had spoken to no else about her unusual requests, and hadn’t Lacertli warned me that something odd was going on between her and Paulo?

 

I broke into a sprint, clearing the barn doors before skidding to a halt.

 

Blood. It seemed to be everywhere. There was one large pool of it further toward the back, where I could see a sharp indentation cut into the waist-high partition of a barn stall. It spilled down the side, and it had sprayed onto the walls and stall posts as though someone had swung the weapon hard. The blood trail seemed to circle around in confusion from there. Crimson footprints went all over the place.

 

Daedalus was pale, his eyes bugged as he ran and clumsily grabbed a coil of rope off of a hook on a post. His entire front was covered in red. He ran back to one of the rear barn stalls, the one that Lethia had been so fastidiously cleaning earlier, and he paid me no attention. I couldn’t see where Argos was until the elven man pushed the dog into view. The canine’s white muzzle was stained with red, and he whined anxiously, his body dropping low to the ground like he was faint.

 

Lying on the ground near Argos was the bloody hatchet.

 

My skin went cold as I slowly approached. The barn had gone eerily quiet after the piercing screams I had just heard. Behind me, I heard Quincy and Paulo finally catch up. I didn’t turn to look at them.

 

It seemed to take ages to clear the stall’s partition.

 

When I did, what I saw made me feel….

 

Cold? Sick? Sorry?

 

The truth was I felt numb.

 

My horror felt tiny and far off. Inadequate. Like it couldn’t encompass the depth of feelings that coursed through me all at once, making me feel strangely and very suddenly detached. Daedalus was yelling something, and Quincy and Paulo crowded behind me, shouting and cursing, and even Argos seemed beside himself with grief as he rubbed his snout into the dirt and swiped at his ears with his paws.

 

Lethia lay in a pile of hay, her eyes silently streaming with tears as she stared up at the rafters like she was seeing something bigger and greater beyond our realm. For a surreal moment, it appeared as if she were dead, but then she winced and looked at Daedalus when he took the rope he had grabbed and tied it over the bloody stump her left forearm had become. With shaking fingers, he pressed the top and bottom end of her wound where the blood gushed the most.

 

The wound was just below the elbow, and I noted faintly that the hacked flesh was uneven. It was about then that everything finally hit me. Lethia hadn’t been able to cut through her arm in one swing. From the looks of it, it had taken three swings in total. Most likely she had become faint partway through, but her commitment to harming herself was disturbingly plain.

 

Daedalus was barking instructions at Quincy, because she was the only one of us who seemed to have it together enough to assist him.

 

“I need thread to tie off her radial and ulnar arteries or she will bleed out!” Daedalus seethed at the wizard.

 

Quincy fumbled for her magic bag. “All right I’m looking, tai’undu, I’m looking!”

 

“Why would she do this?” Paulo breathed behind us, slowly shaking his head. “She’s out of her mind! Why would she do this?”

 

“Shut up!” I spat at him.

 

He jumped and stared at me, taken aback.

 

“Lethia was grieving and repentant!” I continued angrily. “She was looking for a way to make it up to everyone! Even to you!” I looked at her sadly. “But none of us wanted to listen….”

 

“We can feel sorry for her later, Nyx!” Quincy sniped.

 

“Yes! Quite!” Daedalus said sternly. “Ailuran, please retrieve my medical bag from the cart. And hurry! We’ll need to disinfect this wound immediately!” Next he looked at Paulo. “And you, boy! Bring one of the lanterns. If any of you have a blade, put it in the flame and hold it there. We’ll be needing it soon to cauterize these arteries!”

 

Given our orders, we could only exchange brief grim looks before running off to gather the required supplies.

 

When I returned I handed the leather medical bag to Quincy, who quickly opened it and pulled out a clear bottle of liquid. Daedalus, who had tied off Lethia’s arteries, grabbed the bottle.

 

“Hold her!” He barked before he ripped out the cork with his teeth.

 

We didn’t need telling twice. Paulo took Lethia’s legs. Quincy took her left shoulder, and I took her right. Daedalus, seeing his patient secured, started to pour the liquid liberally over the girl’s arm.

 

Lethia, who up to this point had been lost in mute shock, suddenly and violently tilted her head back and screamed. She thrashed wildly, her body straining against our collective grip.

 

I was grateful when Daedalus set the bottle aside, but this relief was short-lived. What he picked up next was the heated knife.

 

Without a word, he pressed this to Lethia’s wound, at one of the points that he’d been holding before. The flesh sizzled, a small line of steam curling into the air before vanishing from sight.

 

Just as before, Lethia cried out and writhed, but we held her still again. This time though, she regained her ability to speak, “Gods help me! I had to do it, I had to! Halward! Mercy! PLEASE!

 

Daedalus cauterized the other artery before loosening the tourniquet and pulling out clean bandage cloth from his healing bag. Without saying a word, the elf grimly dressed Lethia’s wound. I watched, transfixed, as the cloth wound its way around the ugly flesh, concealing it from sight. When that task was finished, the elf stood and said quietly to Quincy, “Keep it elevated,” and like a ghost, he drifted outside.

 

I gazed after him, concerned, before asking Quincy, “Are you—?”

 

“I’ve got it,” she said tersely. She couldn’t meet my eyes. I was glad she couldn’t. I wasn’t sure I could meet anyone else’s gaze either.

 

With a solemn nod, I stood and went after Daedalus. I found the elf standing just outside the barn doors next to his cart. He was leaning on the outer wall, his eyes closed and his head bowed. I paused, wondering if I should intrude on this man’s show of emotion, but he turned and glared at me.

 

“She tricked me,” he rasped through a tight throat. “She had started telling me about Syria’s domination by a demon. How the woman had been led astray for years without anyone ever knowing anything. Then she said she needed help, and that was why she summoned me here. She asked me to get my medicine bag while she went to check on the patient you had mentioned to me. I was outside when it started.” He snorted and bowed his head again. “She was fast and she didn’t hesitate. Even…even when she had to strike again, the poor child did not stop, and like an old fool I could only gape at her until it was too late!”

 

“If anyone is to blame, it is me,” I said quietly. “I could’ve put things together, but I…” I trailed off and looked away. None of this was about me, and I felt irritated and ashamed at my reflexive self-pity.

 

“No, Ailuran. I know Lethia. She knew what she was doing,” Daedalus assured me in a way that was clearly more matter of fact than sympathetic. He was now staring off into the night with a haunted look. “When it was done, she…she whimpered to me that…her flesh was for a blood debt. She feels responsible for what Syria had done. All those people she killed and hurt.” He looked at me sidelong. “She also let slip, before the blood loss made her too weak, that she wanted to show everyone her resolve to make things right. That she had promised to.”

 

I shook my head earnestly. “We didn’t want this! None of us did!”

 

“It doesn’t matter what you wanted!” Daedalus retorted angrily. “Don’t you understand? This wasn’t about any of you! All that mattered to Lethia was her need to prove herself!” The elf straightened and narrowed his eyes at me. “How well do you know Lethia Artaud, Marked One? How long have you been in her company that you have managed to fail to understand the central trait that makes her who she is?”

 

He thrust a finger at the barn and spit flew from his mouth when he barked next, “Lethia is entirely defined by her honor! It is imperative to someone like her that the people she finds important feel they can rely on her! She does this through honesty, sacrifice, and commitment! And I don’t mean the superficial virtues they teach those air headed hooligans in schools, with their happy sing-alongs, but an extreme sort of dedication! It is spiritual for her! It is life and death!

 

I could believe this. Hindsight revealed so much. Hadn’t Lethia fought to rescue Syria, even when all the odds pointed to her being captured and killed? She’d even fought to go on after suffering a terrible injury. And didn’t the enchantress take extreme offense that time Elmiryn’s teasing had suggested she was of lesser character?

 

“But what now?” I asked, frowning. “Do…do you think she’ll try to harm herself further?”

 

Daedalus scowled. “I don’t know. Lethia only managed to tell me a small part of her tale before mutilating herself. Extremely honor-bound or not, for a young girl to be of such a dangerous frame of mind toward herself…that does not suggest an individual capable of refraining from self-harm. With the right trigger, she might try. Humans are volatile that way.”

 

I nodded slowly, lips pursed and my throat tightening. We were officially on suicide watch, then. Assuming, of course, that Lethia survived her traumatic injury, the girl couldn’t be left alone anymore.

 

Expectedly, I thought of Marquis and his efforts to keep me from trying to commit suicide. I covered my face with my hand and sighed heavily. Did my friend feel this same immense sort of pressure when he was trying to help me?

 

Did I have it in me to help like Marquis had?

 

A ridiculous question, perhaps. But when I turned to walk back into the barn, it was as if a barrier stopped me, and I found myself gazing in with tear-clouded eyes. I couldn’t see Lethia or Quincy behind the partition. Argos was off by himself, staring into a corner, head bowed. Paulo paced slowly, his eyes listlessly taking in the environment before refocusing on the enchantress every time he drew near. This was a place I didn’t fit into.

 

I had to be honest with myself. I was still angry at Lethia.

 

In my chest, I harbored a sick, heavy resentment that, in truth, I didn’t entirely understand. I kept picking the various reasons apart when I had the chance to, like my anger was a scab and I couldn’t just let it heal. One moment, it felt like forgiveness was possible. Then in another, my fury drove me to a distant silence. I even sometimes got confused as to what I was even really mad about. Who was I most upset with? Izma? Lethia? Elmiryn?

 

And in a sudden rush, I realized that perhaps my pain had been displaced. After all, with Izma gone, and Elmiryn missing, who else could I lash out at?

 

Except Lethia was fighting for her life, and there I was, debating on whether or not she deserved my anger.

 

I let out a loud yell of frustration and slammed the heels of my palms into the sides of my head.

 

Sometimes, I wish I could stop thinking so much!

 

You and me both, Kali responded wryly.

 

As I forced myself back into the barn, my sister then asked. Why did Lethia think cutting off her arm was going to make things better?

 

Didn’t you hear what Daedalus said? It’s because she has a blood debt.

 

What is that?

 

We have one ourselves, sister. It’s when a dishonorable death takes place and you were somehow involved in it, intentionally or not. Some people dedicate their whole lives to make up for that. It’s about honor.

 

Kali snorted. Feh. Honor! It just causes trouble…

 

My mouth puckered. Not always, Kali.

 

Really? I wouldn’t care if a human wanted to cut out his own liver and have it for dinner, but if one of the people we need to rely on purposefully mutilates themselves over a silly idea, then I can’t help but be concerned!

 

I’m not condoning her actions. I just understand why she did them.

 

Of course you understand. You almost killed us both over the same stupid notion.

 

I scowled in irritation. I’ll thank you not to go dredging up painful memories for the sake of taking jabs at me!

 

I was only telling the truth… My twin grumbled, before slipping back into the deeper parts of our mind.

 

Inside the barn, I hesitated just near the partition that hid Lethia. With a breath, I rounded it and sit down next to her in the hay. She was frightfully pale and sweating badly. Quincy was ladling water into her mouth that Paulo must have fetched when I was lost in my reverie. The boy was gone now. Perhaps to check on Hakeem. Or maybe just to get away from the sight of Lethia. I ground my teeth just at the latter thought. If that were the case, then I was going to have words with the young Moretti.

 

Which led me to wonder next: what reason did Paulo have to stay here? We were back in our dimension now, and he hated this place, as he often made clear. So what was keeping him around? Why didn’t he just leave, especially given his dislike of Lethia and his resentment of Quincy? Lacertli had hinted at the trouble between Lethia and Paulo, and I’d been too foolish to act on it. But was it really over? Could something else happen, should these two remain in close proximity? Enough grievous damage had been done, what else could possibly go wrong?

 

But one glance at Quincy gave me my answer. The wizard had taken full responsibility of Paulo. Perhaps over guilt about Graziano’s death. Or was it more? I didn’t understand the details, and I hadn’t asked. I just knew that Quincy, after Hakeem’s needs had been met, would focus on Paulo. It wasn’t motherly, by any means, but more like some nagging older sister who found herself stuck with an insufferable charge. So then what were my ties to Quincy now? We had struck something close to cordial, me and her, but we didn’t have the same goals. Perhaps the only reason she needed to stay here was because of Hakeem?

 

That made sense. Hakeem was still in a coma, and they were wanted by the local authorities, no doubt. She couldn’t drag an unconscious man across the busy mountain trails and not expect to be seen. And if she couldn’t leave…where could Paulo go? He had a lost look about him, and I realized that for all the time he spent in the Other Place getting older, he was no more emotionally or mentally mature than he had been before. Ironically, in the same way he didn’t have the confidence to come to Syria’s without proper incentive, he wouldn’t have the courage to leave this place on his own.

 

That meant we were all stuck together.

 

Not us, Kali reminded me.

 

I have to wait, I thought back.

 

For what? Her?

 

Yes. Her.

 

Elmiryn was going to come back to our world soon enough, I was sure of it. What I feared was the state I might find her in.

 

I also feared the things I would feel when I did find her.

 

“Quincy, go to your husband,” I murmured to her. We were all tired, it was true. I had no desire to stay awake. But someone had to stay with Lethia. Paulo certainly wasn’t an appropriate choice; Argos, though intelligent and loyal, lacked the ability to administer first aid; and Quincy had other things to worry about, like Hakeem, who also needed close care.

 

The wizard looked at me uncertainly. “She might go into a fever. If she does—”

 

“I don’t think Daedalus will be going anywhere. If I need help, he’ll be here,” I said.

 

The brunette seemed to consider this for a few beats before rising. “All right. Make sure you keep the wound elevated, like Daedalus says.” She started for the exit.

 

“I will.” I focused on Lethia’s face. She appeared to have passed out in the time since I arrived. I was sort of relieved. After all, what do you say to a person who had just cut off one of their limbs?

 

“And Nyx?”

 

I looked over my shoulder. Quincy had stopped at the barn doors and the look on her face was unexpectedly grateful. “Thank you.”

 

I could only nod in response.

 

When she left, I sighed as I turned to face the unconscious enchantress before me. Gingerly I stroked her sweaty forehead with my thumb.

 

“It will be a long night,” I whispered.


Back to Chapter 43.4 | Forward to Chapter 44.2

Chapter 43.4

NYX__________________________

A quick search of the other floors in the tower proved Lethia had been right. We didn’t find much that we could use at all. Quincy and Paulo managed to find some left over firewood that had been kept dry in a shed, as well as a flask of oil. Other than that and the meager supplies we brought with us, we had nothing.

 

Before I left for Belcliff like we had agreed, Quincy stopped me outside of the barn.

 

She pulled out her magic bag and reached her entire arm in. I thought she was finally giving me the low level magic items we had agreed on a while back, but then she extracted a medium sized pouch that jingled. My eyes widened at it.

 

“Is that…?”

 

“Gold,” Quincy answered promptly. “About five hundred worth, give or take. This is a fourth of the reward money I received for Lethia.”

 

“But I don’t need this much!” I protested. I tried to hand the bag back to her, only to have the wizard shove it into my chest firmly.

 

“Just keep it, Ailuran! I have more gold than I know what to do with. If you don’t want to take the lot of it, just be sure you take enough for a few days worth of supplies. Bribery might also be a good idea. We’ll need to make some connections if we’re going to be left in peace up here.”

 

“Fine,” I sighed. Then I added, because it seemed relevant and we hadn’t brought it up as a group: “Lethia wanted me to bring back a friend of hers. Some elf named Daedalus.”

 

Quincy frowned. “Daedalus? Hmm…but is he trustworthy?”

 

I shrugged. “She seems to think so.”

 

“Well why does she want him here?”

 

“She seems to think he can help Hakeem. Maybe even fix things up for us here.”

 

“Hmm,” Quincy frowned.

 

I crossed my arms and stepped a little closer, glancing in Lethia’s direction. She was busy cleaning up a one of the empty animal stalls, a focused look on her face. “Quincy, do you remember that weird exchange Paulo and Lethia had before we got here? Something isn’t right.”

 

She nodded once, glancing at Lethia surreptitiously as well. “Yes. It’s making me uneasy.”

 

“Keep an eye on them, will you? I’m afraid they’re planning something drastic.”

 

Quincy raised an eyebrow at me. “Oh! That sounds like concern. I was under the impression you wanted nothing to do with them?”

 

I glared at her. “Lethia is in a dark place right now, and so is Paulo. Someone saved my life when I was in a similar position. I can’t just sit by and let them ruin their lives, regardless of how I feel about them.”

 

The other woman took a step back, appraising me for a moment. Then she nodded slowly. “I’m starting to understand why Elmiryn is so attached to you, Nyx.”

 

I had nothing to say to that, so I left.

 

—————————–

 

I had our supplies before sunset. So as not to raise suspicion, I only purchased the bare minimum for a few days. It would be too obvious if I bought a wagon full of supplies and headed up to Syria’s tower. People would talk. Left with just one task left to do, I slung my bag of provisions over my shoulder and flipped up the hood of the cloak Quincy lent me.

 

In the waning light, I followed Lethia’s directions, sticking to the shadows and avoiding the main streets whenever possible, and found myself outside of Daedalus’ shop. The elf had been described to me as a tinkerer, but as I looked up at his gold leaf sign, I realized his profession was that of a jeweler. Stepping through the small wooden door, a bell tinkled overhead.

 

A plump human woman with paling ginger hair pinned up in a frizzy bun and rosy red cheeks smiled at me pleasantly as I approached. She had a ruby necklace in her hands that she seemed to be inspecting with a lens. The shop was neat and well-organized, shiny baubles and precious trinkets gleaming under glass cases that were magicked to shower them in a bright glow.

 

Instantly, I wondered what these people did for security. Having lived as a thief for a good year of my life, I knew that if I had come across this place, I might’ve been tempted to steal something in order to sell it for food. There were no guards, and I wasn’t even impressed by the lock they had on their door.

 

Was there anything to barricade the windows with? I wondered as I glanced to check. Hmm. No latches. How odd! Is Belcliff really that honest a city, or is there something I’m missing?

 

But before I could really start poking around, the woman asked, “Hello! My name is Beryl. Is there something I could help you with, ma’am?”

 

I jumped and focused on her again. “Oh! Er, yes. I was hoping the owner was in? Daedalus?”

 

“Why, yes! He’s upstairs right now. Did you have an appointment with him?” She asked with a wrinkled brow as she consulted an open ledger on the counter.

 

I waved my hand. “N-No! No appointment. Um…a friend sent me. I was wondering if you could take these to him?” I reached into my pocket and pulled out Lethia’s old glasses.

 

Beryl paled and her eyes went wide.

 

“Oh!” She exclaimed, her hands flying to her mouth. “Oh my goodness! Wherever did you get these young lady?”

 

“Can you please just take these to Daedalus? I’m afraid it’s urgent.” I handed the glasses to her, my face tightening. This was such a risky task. What if these people weren’t as good friends with Lethia as the girl seemed to think? All it would take was for one of them to decide my visit was worth a tip to the authorities.

 

Grimly, I wondered what I was willing to do to ensure that wouldn’t happen.

 

But to my relief, Beryl took the glasses and hurried up the stairs in the back. As I waited, I took another look around the store. There were all sorts of things in the glass display cases and on the back shelves, but what gave me a start was seeing the metal statues in the corners of the room, including near the front entrance. The statues were unlike anything I’d ever seen before—tall slim elven men with what appeared to be pistols crossed over their armored chests. They were blank faced but seemed to have glass for eyes.

 

“Strange,” I murmured.

 

That was when I spotted the ruby necklace Beryl had left on the counter in her rush. Curious, I went to moved in for a closer look.

 

Before I even came close, the statues sprang to life in a metallic whir of groaning joints and hissing parts. Their eyes flared red as they pointed the pistols square at me and pulled back the hammers.

 

For the record, it is very unsettling to hear eight different guns cocked at the same time whilst being aimed at your head.

 

“Stand down!” a smooth, firm voice said.

 

I whipped around to see a tall elven man with cropped dark hair peppered gray at the temples coming down the final steps of the stairs. For a jeweler, he wore plain cotton clothes, and his face, though thin, was sagging and wrinkled. His neck was even baggy, as if he’d been heavier at one time of his life, but lost all the weight quickly. His electric blue eyes fastened onto me, and they were hard and appraising.

 

I tensed, but did nothing save to bow my head.

 

Daedalus was an elf. Elves were in touch with their spiritual essence as therians were, therefor he could sense the Mark that was on my back. I could see the judgmental edge come to his eyes quickly. I felt a dull ache at that, but a part of me, the part that was tired of the constant discrimination of others, bristled against the shame. I was not here for this man to judge. I was only here because Lethia wanted something from him.

 

The elf held up the glasses in a trembling hand and demanded harshly, “Where did you get this, Marked One?”

 

I squared my shoulders and frowned at him. “From a friend of yours.”

 

“What friend?

 

“A young blond one,” I said, an edge now creeping into my voice. I was tired. I wanted to go home. I did not feel in the mood for this man’s unkindness or his murderous guard statues.

 

Daedalus eyes widened as he took in what I’d told him. “There could only be one other person who would have these glasses and be as you say,” he said quietly.

 

I nodded curtly. “Are you still an ally, or will you turn me away?”

 

He shook his head slowly. “Her mistress did us great harm….”

 

“I’m not asking about whether you are still loyal to her mistress,” I replied, struggling to keep my patience. “I am asking if you are still loyal to her. She needs your help. Told me to come find you, give you those, and bring you back with me.”

 

“To where?”

 

I sighed. “You know where.”

 

The elf thought hard on this for what felt like ages. Behind him, Beryl fidgeted nervously. Finally the man nodded. “All right. What does she need?”

 

A small smile of gratitude appeared on my face. “She asked if you could please ride with me up to the tower in your spare part wagon with your tinker tools, a bottle of wine, and some medical supplies.”

 

His eyebrows rose. “Medical supplies? Is she hurt?”

 

I shook my head quickly. “No, but one of our group is. I imagine she believes you can help them.”

 

“What ails this person?”

 

“He is in a coma, but he is still clinging to life.”

 

He pursed his lips. “Well there isn’t much I can do for them, then. I’m an herbal healer, not a magical one. I do not have the ability to treat something of that nature.”

 

I cleared my throat and added. “There…. There is also one other that we have not found yet. We fear they may be injured upon locating them again, so if we could bring enough supplies to treat someone cut or with broken bones, I’d believe that would suffice.”

 

Daedalus turned to Beryl. “Close the shop early, Beryl. I’ll be leaving right now.”

 

—————————–

 

A short time later and we were on our way back to Syria’s tower. The road was busy heading toward the port city of Reg’Amen, but when we veered off the less beaten path into the mountains, the company thinned and soon we were rumbling along alone with only a lantern and the moon to light the way.

 

As we rode, I could feel Daedalus’ discomfort sitting next to me on the driver’s seat. I glanced at him now and again, and I could see the sweat on his brow as he fought to avoid looking at me. I didn’t really know what it was like for people to sense my Mark. When I had snuck back to my village to recover some of my family treasures, I had run into my childhood friend Taila. She all but cringed from the sight of me, describing the sensation as some sort of spiritual repulsion. But I had no idea what that really felt like. Marquis acknowledged that he had sensed my Mark too, but he hadn’t displayed any outward signs of discomfort like Taila had.

 

In a poor attempt at alleviating the tension, I asked, “What year is it?”

 

The elf blinked, though he still did not look my way. “By Halward’s grace, 3571.”

 

I stared at him in shock.

 

3571? That means we’ve been gone over a year!

 

Then came the question I’d been waiting for.

 

“What is a Marked Ailuran doing with someone like Lethia Artaud?” Daedalus asked tightly. He cracked the reins, though it was unnecessary. The horse was going as fast as it could already.

 

I stared ahead as I answered, still dazed by the information I’d just learned. “It was chance. I was travelling with someone else when Lethia’s dog approached us.”

 

“Argos?” The elven man asked, and I nodded.

 

“He led us to her, and she begged us to aid her,” I continued. “She wanted to break Syria free. As it turned out, her cause was aligned with me and friend’s, so…we decided to help her.”

 

Daedalus jaw clenched. “And by the four blasted winds, you succeeded!”

 

I closed my eyes. “We had no idea it would turn out the way it had!”

 

“Turn out what way? Horrible? Ha!” The elf snapped, looking at me for the first time just to spare me a brief sharp glare. “Who was this ‘friend’ of yours? What were you two doing, getting involved in matters that had nothing to do with you? Are you a mercenary?”

 

My lip curled. I could feel my anger rise, despite my inner attempts at calming myself. “No,” I growled out.

 

“Then who—?”

 

“Enough!” I interjected loudly. “I am not bringing you along for you to interrogate me! If you want the whole story, ask Lethia! I, for one, am far too tired to suffer reliving my nightmarish ordeal just for a belligerent old elf who probably wouldn’t believe me anyway!” I slouched and glared into the dark of the night. “So just…leave me in peace!

Daedalus harrumphed and cracked the reins again. “Peace, she says! As though this elf will have any peace after tonight….” But he asked nothing more of me.

 

We arrived in silence at Syria’s tower, the horses nickering as we passed the open gate and pulled to a stop just outside of the barn. From where I hopped down off the driver’s seat, I could hear yelling up in the tower.

 

“Who is that? What is happening?” Daedalus demanded.

 

I didn’t even answer him as I ran to the tower and rushed inside.

 

Quincy had her staff out and was nervously facing down Argos in the study, her voice tersely repeating a warning. The dog’s hackles were raised and he paced agitatedly back and forth. Behind the wizard Lethia and Paulo were practically nose-to-nose screaming at each other. In all the noise, I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying at first. Then I started to pick out the words.

 

“I cannot let you harm the boy, Argos! Do you understand? He is my responsibility! I can’t help Lethia if you insist on this!”

 

“We made a deal! You said you’d do it! You even threatened me on it. Now you’re changing your mind? You COWARD!

 

“Shut up! I have the right to change my mind, lia! You’re the crazy one!”

 

“What are you all so upset about?” I said loudly, with a bit of vermagus force.

 

That got everyone’s attention fast. They all stared at me, eyes still lit with intensity.

 

“A silly altercation,” Quincy said first. “I’m trying to keep this from boiling over. You returned at a good time!”

 

“Daedalus?” Lethia exclaimed next.

 

I looked over my shoulder to see the elf staring at the enchantress in amazement. “So it was you!” he breathed.

 

Lethia hurried forward, brushing past me to hug the tall man. He blinked rapidly before patting her back awkwardly.

 

“My dear,” he coughed. “It is good to see you are still alive, but I’m afraid I’ll need some kind of an explanation from you!”

 

Lethia pulled away and held the elf’s shoulders. She smiled grimly. “Yes. Let’s talk outside.” She glared back at Paulo. “I find myself repulsed by the current company!”

 

With a gesture toward the door, she led Daedalus away to the field. I watched them go until the night swallowed them from sight.

 

I crossed my arms and looked at Quincy. “So the altercation? What was it about?”

 

She sighed and fixed Paulo with a withering look. “It appears that Lethia had made a rather grim deal with Paulo…but the boy lost his nerve, thank the gods!”

 

“I didn’t lose my nerve!” Paulo shot defensively. “I just realized how crazy it all was! I was angry when I said those, those…inseño things! People do all kinds of things when they’re angry!”

 

“But what?” I snapped, losing my patience. “What did you two make a deal about?”

 

“Lethia got Paulo to agree to come with us to Syria’s tower if he would…” Quincy paused and shot another dark look at Paulo, and this time the boy had the good sense to hang his head, “If Paulo would cut off one of her arms!

 

I reeled, my face tightening in disgust. I glared incredulously at Paulo. “You agreed to WHAT?

 

The teenager grumbled at his boots. “I just said I was angry, didn’t I? Coming back to our world was like coming out of a dream! The things I said in that dimension…I realized that wasn’t me!” Which I could’ve believed if he hadn’t added in a rush of petulance: “And it wasn’t as if I was agreeing to kill her! I wasn’t even going to take her dominant arm!”

 

I advanced on him, fists clenched so tight my bones ached. “That doesn’t make it any better! When are you going to accept responsibility for—” I broke off, my eyes widening.

 

“Wait a minute,” I breathed. “Was Lethia upset because you wouldn’t cut off one of her arms?”

 

Paulo frowned and nodded. “Yes! I’m telling you, that lia is crazy!”

 

Then it all made sense: Daedalus being here, the request for medical supplies, the odd behavior. Lethia wanted to atone for her mistakes by mutilating herself.

 

She wanted to do something that extreme, and we just let her out of our sight.


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