Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 19.1

Part 3: Blackwood

“We know this apodictic rock beneath our feet. That dogmatic sun above our heads. The world of dreams, the agony of love and the foresight of death. That is all we know. And all we need to know? Challenge that statement.” — Edward Abbey

ELMIRYN________________________

Her lips were against hers and there was the knowing of warmth, the dulcet rings of a world shattered moving them away, moving them apart, moving them, moving them, moving them

The portal–a tentative word, because Elmiryn would have been just as satisfied to call it a wound in the sky–swallowed them whole, white reaches filling her ears with a static roar as all throughout her came the painful sensation of needles.

That was when it started to become too much.

She unraveled at the seams as breath came cutting and choking on panicked laughter, barring out the haphazard delineations that took her attention off to memories of bloody sunsets and cool nights and flowing drinks that fizzed and tickled her–back to the pins and needles and screaming and howling and rippling in and out of what of what of–what could be conceived as a bad idea as the cannon smoke and wet soil fornicated far up her nostrils where her niggling desire for sex contended with the spiky need to survive–back to the pins and needles and screaming where her grip was weakening, and she was ashamed of it, because she wanted Nyx to be with her and nowhere else nowhere else nowhere–else had she ever seen the glass serpents and snarling behemoths with eyes of light that bared metal teeth at her in rage as they spewed black smoke in a train along the sky–BACK to the pins and needles and screaming where she thought she saw phantoms in mist, phantoms in kind, who fell through space just as uncertain as she was of everything

Except–y’know–the fact that they were FALLING.

There was no wind, and therefor no air to speak of.  They seemed to be hurtling through open white space.  Sometimes the edges of her vision would ripple to different colors, like hundreds of little rainbows.

“Nyx!” Elmiryn screamed, her voice small at first before a sonic slingshot sent the words echoing back in a way that made her feel as if she’d taken a right hook in the ear.  Despite the pain in her limited reaches–her shoulder twinging sharply, her forearm making her scream even more–the warrior fought with all her might to keep the girl in her arms.

Nyx was grabbing onto her in kind, her tawny eyes vibrant discs as her terror weaved into the din of static.  “Elmiryn, hold onto me!”

But inertia was the divergent evil that made their separation ever more certain.  The woman felt her friend slip from her arms, and when she tried to grab on with her hands, the forces spinning them as they fell made her injuries too painful to ignore.  Her hands spasmed, and her fingers clawed desperate as Nyx fell away in a gasp.

NYX!” she screamed, legs kicking back as she tried to move herself forward.  But she couldn’t change the direction of her fall.  She couldn’t even go into a spin.

Elmiryn kept soaring on, alone.  She watched until Nyx and the others turned to dark dots against the glaring background.  Then the white swallowed them.

…Then the white swallowed her.

———————–

She was on and on and on until she forgot to remember to forget that she wasn’t seeing things right.  She was lacking in containment, lacking the corporal chains that so many took for granted.  She was floating, weightless, a consciousness lost in a nothing world with nothing to occupy herself with.  How fitting.  In this void, she didn’t know who she was, what she was doing.  She didn’t know how long she’d been drifting when…

Something familiar nestled in her ear.  It sounded distended, like the thump of a full stomach.  It nettled her.  It was…music.  A song.  A jig, with a fiddle and a panpipe.  Had she sung it before…?

…You…are an idiot.

No, truly.  You are a fool.

huhwhat

I’m insulting you.  Quite spiritedly, in honor of this untimely arrival.

This UNWANTED arrival.

What did you REALLY think you’d achieve, coming here?

what did i want to achieve

good question

What?

good question like as in i liked it

only the problem is

i have no answer other than the one i just gave you right now

to the question you didnt even ask

Elle the Idiot. The Twins were right to call you this.

Elle the Idiot, have you lost your boundaries?

Is this why you are speaking out of bounds?

what

You never cease to amaze me.

If you’re to lack Endings, then atleast give me a Beginning.

Start girl.  Go on.

i have no beginnings

You’re being lazy.  I haven’t got all day.

I get no fulfillment from this and it leaves me feeling cross.

i

Yes?

i i

Go on…

I Think I Remember You

…Close.  That was…close.

Except it wasn’t.  At all.

Don’t Begin at every word, you daft human.  Just the first.

Like this right

Yes.  Like that.

It’s as good as it gets at this point.

The entry left you rather disjointed, didn’t it?

Im pretty sure i remember you

I should hope so.  Because it seemed for a while there, you’d forgotten.

Your romp in Albias left me feeling piqued.

What

Piqued.  As in annoyed, vexed, bothered, upset–

Oh okay

Displeased, indignant, disgruntled–

Okay okay i get it

Pissed, livid, ANGRY.

Am I getting through to you?

Is Elle the Idiot reading this?

Make sure to stop at the periods, dear.

Lest you get LOST again.

Ah wait, you already are.

Half crazy, all wrong, no clue.

You sound like a twit.  A real twit right now.  I hate it.

If you don’t get back into boundaries you will spread apart until you are gone.

Do you understand this much?

You will DIE.

That’s perhaps the closest understanding of it.

And I will…

Well.  Let’s just say, I’ll be stuck without supper.

Why

Because you can’t tell my work apart from another, that’s why.

Clearly, I have to violate the deepest reaches of your mind just to get your feeble intellect to recall me.

Destroying your reputation?

Alienating you from everyone you ever cared for?

Making an elemental spirit poison her own river?

No, not enough for the likes of YOU.

Oh yes, Elle.  I don’t mind, I have NO problems when you go chasing off in the wrong direction.

I’ll just adlib, alone on stage, whilst you go gallivanting off to steal someone else’s spotlight…

AGAIN.

I remember you

I remember

I

Rage brought about a fire that shuddered and startled things she had become unaware of.  She felt veins.  Muscles.  The woman–for she was a woman, a human, ALIVE–tried to draw herself together.  She forced boundaries back into place, pulling at them, wrenching them up from nothing.  She still lacked the penultimate markings, the divisors between the background and herself, but what she had was enough.

I remember you!

Meznik!

She wants to say all the usual things:  I hate you, I’m going to kill you.  The feelings are acid, and they don’t feel pleasant or arousing in the usual manner that such things tease and encourage her desire for intimacy.  All she wants is release.  Catharsis.  She wants the anger purged from her, because it is painful the way it swings on her heart and claws under her skin.  But she stops long enough to mull over something.

…You weren’t behind the taint in Albias?

NO.  I wasn’t.  Of course not.

How could you confuse me with something so plebeian?

It makes me ill.

If it wasn’t you then…

Elle the Idiot still hasn’t gathered that I’m not the only one?

Shit…you mean…?

NOW, she gets it…

Feh.  You know what?

It doesn’t matter.

Either way, your still getting intimate with my sword–

…As soon as I figure out how to stab you…

I’m afraid your homicidal wishes will have to wait.

You see, we are now both trespassers.

I am at risk…and so are you.

But more importantly I am at risk.

What the fuck are you going on about?

You are a part of a greater scheme, my precious little fool.

You are mine.

Up until now, we have weaved our own tale.

Yet somehow, you’ve managed to invade someone else’s territory.

You’ve moved out of bounds in more ways than one.

We are now in the court of another player, and if we do not remove ourselves soon, this player will seek to destroy us.

Irregardless of my artistic superiority, my power is HALVED here.

This is not my stage.

Should vengeance come, I cannot stop it.

Fuck you.

I won’t listen.

Your games are your own.

I have my own way, and it cuts right through you–

To what?

Don’t wave that hero archetype in my face, it doesn’t suit you.

I’ve taken away your castles, I’ve taken away your princess, and I’ve taken away your war.

Don’t delude yourself from the truth.

You are a demon’s toy now.

You are MY toy.

All around her was white.  She sees flashes of her ghostly limbs–sometimes just the veins, sometimes just the muscles, sometimes just the bones–but she knows herself to be an entity apart from the nothingness around her.  All she needed was to block out the music, block out the wordless dialogue that trickled in with the notes.  She needed to focus on returning to something fully corporal.  Or something close to it.

Elmiryn, are you listening to me?

The woman grunted, holding up phantom hands, straining the core of herself to solidify, even as she felt the painful needle sensation returning to her.  She tried to see it as a good thing.  If she hurt, then she could feel.  If she could feel, then she was real…and then she could–

–Find Nyx.

I need to find her.

Her mind flickers to vague images, details lost in fuzz and smear.  She knows them in a sense, only because Nyx’s voice is associated with them in some way–calling to them, conversing with them.

The others…

No she comes first…Nyx comes first.

I have to find Nyx.

She feels the angry tension bleed away, to be replaced with a growing anxiety, a growing need to be reunited with her special friend–the girl with the tawny eyes who made her care.  Who made her want.  Who made her…

Nyx?  The Marked Ailuran?

Your poorly spun thread?

Did Elle the Idiot understand when I said we are trespassers?

Did she understand me when I said we are at risk and must leave NOW?

I’m not leaving without her.

And definitely not without killing you.

I’d kill you right now if I could.

You are so dogged.  It’s charming in a way.

That doesn’t make this any less idiotic.

It’s idiotic to want you dead?

No, it’s idiotic to carry on like this when we should be fleeing.

Speaking of all talk and no action, have you come up with an adequate reason for hating me?

You mean besides all the stuff you said before?

Cursing me, destroying my reputation, alienating me from everything, generally being an ass for no reason?

Yes.  Though I protest to the phrasing of that last point–

You’re a fucking ego-maniac and you talk too gods damned much.

How’s THAT?

Then Elmiryn was back–full and whole with blood and organs and weight and color and vulgarity and determination.

…And then she was falling again, too.

Fucking–Gods–Bitch–Cunt–Damn it–SHIT–

NOT AGAIN!

Well, as they say…

An object in motion tends to stay in motion.

You’re solid again, so it’d make sense that you’d just resume your free fall from before, yes?

No.  No it doesn’t fucking make any sense.  I wasn’t falling just a second ago!

And a tricky thing, that Time–especially here.

Why is it that it sounds like you’re right next to me?

Are you falling too?

Of course not.  I–

Hmm.

What?

As you’re being so stubborn, I see no other use in it.

I’m getting a little tired of asking you to explain yourself.

What I’m getting at is…

Your my investment.

My toy–

Stop calling me that!

–I don’t want my toy to break.

She fell and fell.  Elmiryn would  have been afraid of hitting something if only she saw something to hit.  There was no up, no down.  For all she knew, she was flying parallel with the ground.

There was a whistle, like steam escaping a tea-kettle.  The music wrinkled and became lighter.  Less ominous.

Here, give me a moment.  I’ve decided.

The fiddle’s cry and the panpipe’s toot faded to nothing.

…Meznik?

The music fades back in, surrounding her.

Here, open your mouth.

Why?

As she said the word, something large and invisible plopped into her mouth.  It was thick and cold, sticking to her teeth as it gummed along the inside flesh of her cheeks and to the farthest reaches of her tongue.  It tasted harsh and bitter, like when one bit into a grape stem.  She gagged and tried to spit it out–and she managed to rid herself of some of it–but most of the mess slipped further down to the back of her throat, and as it did, it picked up speed, like a marathoner sprinting to the finish.  The slime, the goo, whatever it really was, seemed to have a mind of its own–even after reaching her stomach it kept moving.

It was pressing against the edges of her stomach, seeping through tissue, entering her system, making her blood thick.  The woman screamed, her nerves now stabbing sharply at this invasion from within.  The broken bones of her forearm, the swollen muscle of her shoulder–they shuddered, they swelled, they shifted

The static din vanished along with the horrible pins and needles.  They were replaced with a howling wind.

Her clothes rustled and her hair flew forward.  Elmiryn’s limbs, by gentle suggestion of the air she fell through, drifted upward.  She gasped, her cerulean eyes turning to circles as she realized she was staring at the sky, leaving her to be falling toward–

The warrior slammed into the ground with a muted boom.

Dust and dirt and debris flew into the air before it settled down, slower than when it first rose.  As the soil and rocks and grass fell over her in a thin layer, Elmiryn gulped in air through her mouth.  She felt starved of it–and it was technically true.  Though it hadn’t killed her, she’d just been falling through airless space for what felt like ages.  Her heart was beating fast, making a percussion instrument out of her ribcage.  Around her, she heard the wind gust over the lips of the crater she’d created.  It sounded surprised and grief-stricken.

Elmiryn let loose a weak cough.  Her eyes fluttering.

“I felt…like I just walked backwards into a wall–not like I just fell towards solid ground at top speed,” she thought.  “And I’m not hallucinating.”  Then her eyebrows rose and she glanced sideways.  “Oh, hey, those dashy boundaries are back.  Now I don’t have to fight to sound apart from the background anymore.  That was getting tiring.”

The woman breathed slowly through her nose, then out through her mouth.

“Breathe in, then out.  In, out…” she closed her eyes for a moment before opening them again, her brows furrowing.  Her heartbeat slowed and it no longer fought against the confines of her chest.  “Alright, now slowly…” The woman shifted her elbows, digging them into the dirt.  She pushed herself upright.  “No pain.”  Elmiryn blinked at her arms.  Planting her hands into the wet soil, she pushed herself up onto her feet.

Blinking dust out of her eyes, Elmiryn slowly drank in her new surroundings.

She was in a forest.  All around her were trees of different types.  Oaks, birches, poplars, pines, buckeyes, maples…the interesting thing was that there were no ferns, no bushes, no grass, no great stones, no flowers, or even fallen leaves.  The forest floor was clear save for the occasional tangle of bare roots.  The grass here was a curiously dark shade, an emerald just skimming black–the blades so shiny as to appear waxy.  The sky bestowed partial light, though she doubted the suns were present in this place.  Sometimes she saw gray shapes flash through the white overhead–but she could hardly make sense of the images.  They were too brief and disparate.

Elmiryn looked down at herself.

Either through luck or sheer tenacity, the woman had managed to keep hold of her sword and dagger.  Her quilted doublet was torn and dirty–the fabric crusted with daesce blood and puss.  What once was caramel now was a warm dark mustard, with blotches of dark gray where the monster taint swallowed the fabric so as to appear as scabbed wounds.  She was missing chunks of the doublet from when Nyx had used some of it for first aid purposes.  Her leather pants were cracked and worn out at the knees, and her shoes were scuffed and creased severely near the tips.

The woman grimaced and pulled her top off with a grunt.  She was left bare safe for the wrappings around her breasts.  Even then, her skin was caked with grime and dirt.  Dropping the forsaken clothing to the ground, the woman frowned at her hands, then her arms.

“Meznik…” she breathed.  “What did you give me?”

No answer.  The demon and his music were gone.  Her jaw clenched and she stared as her hands curled to fists.  Her injuries seemed to have all but vanished…yet it left her feeling wrong.  Not violated so much, she decided, as…trespassed.  Disrespected.  The woman spat on the ground and bared her teeth.  Tears came unbidden.  Meznik’s sudden departure was like a prized kill that had slipped away–though she didn’t understand it.  Her chest and abdomen clenched tight, her shoulders knotted.  She hadn’t been able to kill him, what reason would she want him around?

Keep your friends close…and so on.

The woman quickly wiped her vision clear.  What a stupid thing to get upset over.

A sound, something sharp and filled with fury, screamed across the sky.  Elmiryn’s head snapped up to it, but when she scanned above her, she saw nothing but more of the white void she was becoming so familiar with.

Elmiryn took one step, then another.  The ground beneath her seemed to buoy her forward, encouraging her movement.  The woman blinked and crouched to glare at the grass.  They brushed intimately with her boots, running over the edges of her foot and flicking the laces.

Slowly, she grinned.  “Hey now, don’t think I don’t see you down there! Unlike you, I’ve got eyes.” The grass shuddered and leaned away from her boots.  Her grin widened.  “Who on Halward’s Plane would ever dream of perverse plants!  Keep off the grass?” The woman dug her foot into the ground, to happy squeals.  “What happens if the grass doesn’t keep off you?”  She waved.  “Bye lil’ buggers.  Maybe we can have fun later?” The woman winked and walked to where the grass stopped abruptly at the forest line.

Then Elmiryn thought about it for a moment and slowed to a stop.  She rubbed her neck.  “Wait, did I just flirt with grass?”  The woman snickered.  “Gods, I did!”  She resumed her trek through the forest, her boisterous laughter gripping her.  Here, the light was dim and it was hard to make out the roots.  She stumbled in the carelessness of her amusement, roots and uneven terrain snagging her boots and the swing of her legs.  The woman wiped a tear from her eye and straightened.

Up ahead there was a break in the trees.

Elmiryn picked up her pace, her humor dead on the chance that she’d be afforded some insight on her situation.  She reached the break at a jog, light hitting her from all sides.  She was blinded but saw just enough to know that the ground dropped to a sudden cliff just feet away.  The warrior stumbled to a stop, arms raising to cover her face.  When her eyes had adjusted to the light, the woman swallowed and let her arms drop.

Before her was nothing and everything, her foot along the edge of a great and expansive reach of stars and darkness and lights and warmth where dreams did flicker like candles in the wind and worlds not her own buzzed in and out of the window that was her eye.

And Elmiryn knew at once, without knowing how or why she knew, that she was at a window.  A fantastic view that zoomed and froze and burned and darkened.  It could go on and on, and the woman could hardly hope to explain it any better save for to make it far too simple than it truly was.

“It’s a window, and there’s paintings, and colors, and places, and lives seen all at once.”

And that was all there was to it, as far as she could say.

“Yeah, and that’s all there is to it.”

Elmiryn rubbed her chin, her skin flushed and vibrant with the brilliant display of the window.  “I wonder if I can control this?”

There was a snap of a twig.

The warrior jumped back and turned, her hand going to her sword.

A being, no taller than four feet stood near her.  It’s body was of entirely comprised of twigs–not a bundle of them, but long thin lines that bowed and creaked and splintered as it moved to pluck a caterpillar of its leg.  It had one twig for each arm, its torso, shoulders, feet…  Elmiryn had to crouch and squint, to see it straight on as the dark of the forest made the thin creature hard to make out.

That was, it’s body was hard to make out.  Not its eyes, which were stabbed onto two little nubs where the eye stalks dangled and bled.  One eye turned her way.  Than the other.  Both were crooked.

It creaked, like a laden tree branch before giving a slight flourish and a bow.

Elmiryn frowned at it.  Then slowly returned the gesture.

The stick creature, with its little legs and little arms swinging, moved toward the window as though ready to walk through it.

The redhead called to it.  “Um, s’cuse me!”

The creature paused, grotesque gaze turning her way again.  It grumbled, as though mildly vexed at this interruption.

Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck.  “Ah, sorry.  But I have no idea how to work this window.  Any tips?”

The creature sighed (though she wondered how) and pointed toward it.  It creaked, the sound feeling assertive.

“I’m supposed to…go in?  It’s not a window, then?  It’s a door?”

This was answered with a negative slash of a hand.

“No?”

The creature beckoned for her to follow.  Elmiryn frowned and covered her mouth as she debated this.  Could she trust…whatever this fucking thing was?  And didn’t these things usually ask for favors in return?

But the stick being was already moving toward the window/door/thing and the woman found her only real hope of moving forward relatively unscathed hinged on this frail looking guide.

With a backward glance over her shoulder, the warrior followed it into the mist.

.

..

….

…..

She was moving slow, her eyes casting about her as she caught glimpses of otherworldly things.  Some were beautiful, and some were–

bloodencryptedsecretsofdarkness
withthousandsofrazorsharpteeth
thatpromisedtorapeherafterthe
starsandtheplanetsandtheworlds
inbetweenweredevouredandreduced
tosmokeandsulliedfantasies
justbepatientjustbepatientjustbepatient

She’s pulled free just in time before…there wasn’t really a word for it.  She was just glad she was saved.

The twig creature scolds her, a thin finger wagging as it tells her of the dangers of not moving quickly enough whilst in Travel.  She understands it because while it isn’t the thin near-nothingness she had experienced before, it is still thinner than what she’d just come from.  Meaning was garnered easier without the veils that otherwise forced her mind into ignorance.  They march at a brisk pace toward a glow on the horizon.

They reach it.

It’s a crossroads, and there’s five paths to choose from.  A sign points down the different ways.  The creature said she must start at the last before reaching the first, where her true desire could be found.  It pointed toward what she’d decided was the south-westerly direction.  As the creature kept putting it, this was the Fifth Path.  Then it held out a twigged hand dripping eyes knocking together.

Now I’ll have my compensation, the thing cooed.

…..

….

..

.

Someone rapped on her forehead.

“Elmiryn.”

A deep voice.  Raspy.  Familiar.

The woman frowned and turned her head.

Someone took her by the shoulders and shook her.  “Elmiryn, wake up please.”

She had just had the thought that the voice should not be requesting such things of her as, since she was not asleep.  But this argument died when she noted the fact that she was in fact, lying recumbent, with eyes closed.

Her eyes batted open fully to fix on the face before her.  A pair of pale white eyes fixed onto hers, shining from a wide smooth face.  A slow smile spread her lips.  “…Sedwick?  Hey, is that you?”

Atleast, that’s what she should’ve said.

Except that her voice was gone.

The warrior’s smile died and she shot upright, a hand going to her throat.  “Fuck!” she mouthed, her cerulean eyes snapping wide.

“…Elmiryn what’re you doing here?”  the man asked elbows on his knees as he squatted naked near her.  Apparently, becoming part elemental meant you didn’t give two shits about clothes anymore.

The woman pointed at her throat and opened her mouth with a shrug.

“No, I know about that.  You should be more careful who you ask favors of here.  Some spirits like to use this Place as a way to shorten their travels and not all of them are fair in their demands for compensation.” The man turned his head and sneezed, his form going watery for a moment before he looked back at the woman, his white eyes narrowing. “Do you know where you are?  You’ve come back to Gamath.  Where’s Nyx?  What happened to Reg’Amen?  And why am I speaking to you–” the woman’s look shriveled, and the man hastily corrected himself, “I mean, why are you in this realm?”

The woman blinked.  Then her eyes widened.  She twisted her head around, staring.  They were out in a meadow, sparse trees sprinkled over the hillsides to the west.  She held up her hands, face screwing up as she mouthed, “Well this is just great.  NOW what in the nine hells am I supposed to do?”

“So you don’t know?  About this place?”

Elmiryn shook her head.

Sedwick sighed and held out a hand for her.  Her eyebrow rose as she took it, and the man helped her up.  She couldn’t help it.  Her eyes as she came up (she was passing it after all) fixed on his waist.  She snickered.

He ‘harumphed’ and glared at her.  “Apparently losing your voice hasn’t done anything to make you less of a brute.”  His hands clenched and unclenched as he glanced down at himself, then back up.  She thought his pale cheeks had tinged pink a little, but she couldn’t be sure.  “And for your information, the cold water still has an affect on size.”

Elmiryn raised a hand to her face and flicked her tongue over the stretch of flesh between her middle and ring finger.  Then she pointed at herself, and next at the man’s…length.  She shrugged as if she didn’t know what it was for.  “I don’t care either way, so don’t feel too bad,” she wished she could say.

…But Elmiryn admitted this miming thing was getting to be fun.

Sedwick’s face hardened and he gestured for her to follow him.  “Enough.  You’re in a parallel realm.  A go-between for spirits.  Theoretically, you aren’t in your world anymore, but you aren’t far from it either.”

Elmiryn nodded, her memories returning to her in a rush of whispered voices.  Inwardly she thought,  “Ohh…yeah.  The Other Place.  Syria opened a portal to it.  I’ve peeked into this place before.  So this is what it’s like to be all the way in.” Her eyes turned to stare around her with wonder.  Their surroundings seemed normal enough–things seemed a few shades darker here, and it lacked the usual presence of wildlife–the chirping birds, the dashing squirrels, the shy rabbits, the padding coyotes.  And of course, there was also the unnatural sky and the fuzzy mist that occupied the space the ocean was supposed to.

As they walked, Elmiryn tugged at Sedwick’s elbow and pointed.  The man followed her finger and gave a nod.  “Ah.  Yeah, the Hellas Ocean isn’t a part of this particular shard.”

Elmiryn wrinkled her nose.  Shard?

At her questioning look, he explained.  “This realm, as I said, is just a go-between.  It isn’t a complete universe, just particles and pieces of nearby universes.  Locations pulsing with strong enough energies tend to imprint a ghostly image here.  This image, though a copy, takes on a life of its own.  Perhaps someday, it will truly become a parallel universe…but for now, it’s just a gate.  Here, the Medwin is still present, but not in the way you think.  The essence of the river is here, and it covers this whole region, up until Tiesmire.  That place is spiritually dead, so you won’t be able to get there from this realm.  Are you trying to get somewhere?”

Elmiryn mimed a hissing cat, managing to create the sound with a sharp exhale from the back of her throat.  She held up her hands, tensed like claws.

Sedwick didn’t need much more than that.  “Nyx is here too, then?  What in the nine hells did you two get into?”  He shook his head, “No, no…nevermind.  I don’t want to know.  I’ve spent the last four months helping Nadī clean up this region.  You wouldn’t believe how many angry nature spirits there were–”

Elmiryn frowned, her hand darting to grab the man by the shoulder.  He stared at her with his pale eyes as she fixed him with a look.  “What?  What is it?”

“How much time has passed?” the woman mouthed, making a circle in the air going clockwise.

Sedwick blinked, then he chuckled, a hand reaching up to sweep over his bald head.  “Oh, I’m sorry.  Yes, this realm has a tendency to compress things.  That’s why so many spirits use it for travel.  Not only do they cross greater distances, they pass through time faster as well.  Nadī can explain it to the both of you in a bit.  I was just on my way back to get the other one.”  The man resumed walking and Elmiryn followed him, eyes fluttering.

“Who’s Nadi?” She thought.  “And what ‘other one’ is he–”

They started up a hillock, the tall grass swaying with the wind.  As they crested the slope, Elmiryn saw a familiar cloaked figure sitting on a rock, a rusty sword in their hands.  They were muttering under their breath.

Sedwick started to speak, though Elmiryn tried to say the same name.

“Quincy–”

The wizard gave a start, surprised out of whatever trance or reverie she had been swept up in, and she rose to her feet with a pop.  But her foot stepped on the hem of her cloak and she cried out as she stumbled toward Elmiryn and Sedwick with surprising speed.

The warrior stepped aside, as did the man.  Quincy didn’t right herself as Elmiryn expected.  Instead, inertia carried her right over the slope, where she fell head over heels until she skidded to the bottom.  It looked painful.  Sedwick rubbed the side of his face, where his scar had once been.  “Oh…I…sorry, I thought you’d catch yourself,” he said apologetically.

Elmiryn, even if she’d had her voice, wouldn’t have said a word.  She was too stunned.

Quincy straightened, her azure eyes fixing onto the warrior amidst a burning face.  Her hair was no longer blond.  It was now a russet brown, and the unnatural glow that surrounded her was also gone.  The wizard’s pretty bow lips curved together tightly, and she flipped up her hood with a snap, leaving only her mouth visible.  She reached down and picked the rusty sword off the ground.

“Tai’undu!  Of all the people to meet…” she muttered.

Elmiryn pouted and crossed her arms.  She wanted to shout indignantly at the wizard…

You mean you’re NOT blond!?”


Back to In Good Company | Forward to Chapter 19.2

Chapter 19.2

“I’m digging my way
I’m digging my way to something
I’m digging my way to something better
I’m pushing to stay
I’m pushing to stay with something
I’m pushing to stay with something better
I’m sowing the seeds
I’m sowing the seeds I’ve taken
I’m sowing the seeds I take for granted
This thorn in my side
This thorn in my side is from the tree
This thorn in my side is from the tree I’ve planted
It tears me and I bleed
And I bleed”1

NYX____________________________

Oh look, oh look, oh look…

I could hear a sad song on a harp that made me think of winter.  The music filled me, and my eyes opened, crusted and still leaking tears from the stress of my ordeal.  As I tried to find the source of the sound, more messages came to me, lacking words but not lacking my understanding of them.

I have a something that is somehow somewhere sideways.

Oh dear.

I have a something that is somewhat somewhere sacrilegious.

Ah, me.

I have a something that is someone somewhere slain.

Goodbye, my little sum of some’s.

Then the music was gone.

I blinked and tried to sit up, pushing at the ground.  Over me, I saw dead bare branches, claws against a white sky like wicked god’s hands–making me fear the moment that hold would give and the world as I knew it was lost.

It seemed I was lost already.

Wincing, I managed to push myself upright all the way and gazed around me.  I was in a dark wood, the ground and bark covered in soot and ash.  My heart clenched and I stood to my feet.  “No…” I breathed.  “Why–Why am I here!?”

The Kreut Forest.

My hands rose to tangle in my hair.  “No, gods, how did I get here!?”

Then I heard laughter.  Children’s laughter, coming from all around.  My heart started to thump and with short breath I crouched down, head swiveling to try and see what it was.

I wish I hadn’t.

Dogs–or creatures that looked like dogs, came padding toward me, grotesque and horrific.  Their mouths, instead of parting up and down, parted right and left, splitting their long snouts up to the forehead.  At the end of each slimy jaw was a large fang to create something that resembled mandibles.  Four crusted, lopsided eyes strained to see me as they circled around and around.  They had short black fur, patchy and covered in grime and odd growths like moss or fungi.  Their bodies were muscular and wide at the shoulders and hips, like rottweilers.  And when they opened their mouths, instead of the usual growling and barking–they giggled.  Like small human children playing a game.

I whimpered and started to tremble.  Something warm trickled down my leg, but I was too terrified to be embarrassed.

One of the terrible beasts snapped his mandible-like jaws and screamed before charging at me.  The others followed suit, and I squeezed my eyes shut.

 

ELMIRYN________________________

She felt baffled in the way a theater actor would feel when a colleague on stage suddenly decided to jump off script.  Her cheeks flared and her eyes took on the edge and glint usually found on knives.  This couldn’t be right, as she was certain she had all the details–she’d fought with Quincy, felt her body heat, seen the wizard’s glow cut a swath into her mind forever.  This…could not be Quincy.  Once this thought took hold, Elmiryn’s initial assumption–shaky to begin with–was lost.  As the russet-haired stranger moved to rejoin them, stiff and slow like someone unaccustomed to their body, Elmiryn turned to Sedwick and gesticulated her demand for introductions.

The man blinked at her, his hand rising up to rub the side of his face again.  “You don’t know her?” he said, frowning.

“She knows me.  She has to.” Quincy finally met them at the crest, her breath shallow as she doubled over to pant.

Elmiryn shook her head, the wrinkle on her brow becoming more pronounced as she scowled down at the cloaked head.  “No,” she mouthed at Sedwick.  She pointed at the brunette and held up her hands.  “I don’t know her at all.”

“What is wrong with her?” Quincy asked Sedwick as she straightened.

“She lost her voice to a traveling spirit.  I think it is still on this shard, so we should be able to get it back if we hurry and find Nadī.”  He started walking, the women following suit.

“Oh, I’m not complaining.  But if I may ask, who’s Nadī?”

Sedwick glanced at the wizard over his shoulder.  “The Medwin river guardian.”

Elmiryn frowned and tapped the man’s other shoulder.  “She had a name?” she mouthed, exaggerating the words so that he could lip read.

The man let loose a deep chuckle.  “Elmiryn, did you ever stop to ask her?”

The woman blinked.  That sounded ridiculously reasonable.  Why hadn’t she ever asked?  She pointed at the brunette.  “Still doesn’t change the fact that I don’t know her.”  She didn’t know if he understood her, so she shrugged exaggeratedly for added effect.

Sedwick cleared his throat and slowed to a stop, facing her.  “Ah…Elmiryn, if I may, I recall you having a problem with your memory…  Listen to this woman’s voice.  Doesn’t she sound familiar to you?  It’s just too unlikely that you both ended up here without knowing one another in some way.”

The brunette straightened and pulled back her hood just enough to peer at the warrior with narrowed eyes.  “Elmiryn, enough with this.  We have fought, we have even fought together–you can’t honestly say you don’t remember me?”

Elmiryn crossed her arms and sucked at her teeth.  The woman sounded like Quincy, but…

“Quincy, are you in some way different than what you looked like before coming here?” Sedwick asked the stranger.

Elmiryn glowered and pointed at her head.  “Her hair,” she took a lock of her own and pointed.  “Her fucking hair!  She’s not blond!”  She pouted.

“I am not a doll whose appearance is to be quibbled over,” The other woman snapped, her voice taking on a note of anger.  “I am the wizard known as Quincy and have always been this.  My identity does not ride on the poor ability of your addled mind to recognize and compartmentalize what it sees.”

Elmiryn, suddenly feeling peevish, let a smirk curl onto her face.  “You’re not a doll?  ‘Cos you’re about as cute as one.”  She winked.  “I’ll let your treachery slide if you’ll play dress up with me…”

The brunette’s grip on her sword turned white at the knuckles.  “What did you just say!?”  So much emotion.  So little control.  This could not be Quincy.

“You can understand her?” Sedwick asked, pausing as he turned a quarter of the way around, his hands going to his hips.  He looked between the two women as though at a loss.

“I can lip read in five different languages.” The other woman said, barely taking her eyes off Elmiryn.  She held up a finger.  “Fiamman, you are walking on thin ice.”

Sedwick cut between them, his mouth a downward curved line.  “Stop it, the both of you. Nadī awaits us.”

Elmiryn crossed her arms and looked off to the side.  The brunette snorted next to her.

The issue paused for the time being, the trio set out with Sedwick in the lead, his back straight and his gaze locked forward.  Elmiryn and the stranger trailed side by side, neither one willing to fall behind the other.  It was a muted game of pride, and hardly one to turn down a challenge, the redhead met the stranger’s silent challenge with nary a pause.

They came to a small cliffside, where the trees cleared as the slope climbed upward, ending at the vertical wall of eroded earth and rock.  The cliff extended farther than they could see.  Sedwick stated that Nadī was at the top.  He bid the two women to meet him there, and without further ado, turned into vapor and drifted up and out of sight.

The other woman turned to Elmiryn.  “Youve met him before?  You know that…man?” she asked in a quiet voice, pointing.

Elmiryn nodded once mutely.  “We both got swallowed by the Medwin river guardian,” she mouthed–not really bothering to face Quincy as she said this.

As a result, the wizard was left asking, “What?” while the warrior set into the climb.

She glanced back a second later to see that the brunette was hurrying to catch up.  Her lip curling in amusement, the redhead doubled her efforts, grunting as she pulled up footholds and bare roots.  At the top, she pulled herself up and tried to control her breathing so as to seem unfazed.  She turned and stood at the edge, smirking, her arms crossed over her chest as the other woman looked up at her in surprise.

Elmiryn, containing a laugh, held out her hand.  “Wanna lift?” she said offered mutely.

The brunette ignored the hand, her look souring, and pulled herself up.

The game over, Elmiryn turned with a satisfied grin to see Sedwick waiting for them.  Next to him was a woman–or atleast it seemed as a woman.  She had blue skin and white hair, her eyes a pale iris color.  She was nude, similar to Sedwick.  The warrior squinted, her grin turning a little fixed as she took in the lack of a belly button and nipples.

Elmiryn,” said the white-haired woman.  Her voice was layered, on one level sounding like a soft and gentle mother, on another level sounding like a quiet and trickling river.  “It is good to see you in good health, though I confess this is most irregular.  I hardly would have expected to meet you like this.  Nor would I have expected to see you on the Sibesona at all.  You should be halfway to the Indabe by now!

Elmiryn’s eyes widened, and she pointed as the brunette came up at her side.  “You’re the river guardian!?” She mouthed. “You’re Nadī?”

The blue-skinned beauty batted her eyes, then turned to Sedwick.  The man chuckled.  “She lost her voice to a bad trade.”

“Normally, I’d laugh too, only–y’know.  Still lacking a voice,” the redhead tried to say, her look dry as she pointed at herself.

“I told you, we can get it back Elmiryn.” Sedwick turned to the river guardian.  “Nadī, I know who the spirit is.  I don’t believe he’s moved on yet.”

Nadī nodded, her pearly tresses brushing the sides of her petite face.  “Yes, it’ll be too bothersome to try to speak to her like this.” But she paused and placed a hand on her chest.  “First, this other woman here.  I would not seek to be rude.  Elmiryn and I have already met.  But I have not had the pleasure of meeting you…?

“I am Quincy, bounty hunter and wizard master,” the brunette said, bowing low.  Elmiryn rolled her eyes next to her.

Nadī gave a slight bow.  “Greetings.  I am sorry to meet under these circumstances.  Sedwick told me some of your troubles…

The other woman straightened.  Her voice sounded stiff, like someone trying to keep their voice level.  “If you can help, I would be grateful.”  Her hands clenched at her sides.

We shall discuss the matter in detail after we seek out the spirit that has taken Elmiryn’s voice.

The air around them turned heady as steam appeared from nothing, then collected into beads of water.  These beads collected into greater orbs that lumped together until the water shifted into an approximately seven foot long square, some four feet wide.  Sedwick and Nadī stepped onto this, but Elmiryn and the Woman-Claiming-To-Be-Quincy remained where they were.

Sedwick gestured for them to get on.  “Let’s go.  We waste time!”

The two women exchanged looks.

“Well, you’re the one who knows them,” the brunette said, gesturing.

Elmiryn sucked at her teeth, but got onto the strange craft, behind Sedwick.  The other woman followed suit, standing behind her.  When the two elementals sat, so did they.  Elmiryn wore leather pants, and so the water did not soak in–but it still shifted beneath her, feeling strange.  Without much warning they took off, flowing away from the cliff where the land rolled downward back to sea level.

Elmiryn tapped Sedwick on the shoulder, and the man had to twist almost completely around to see her mouth.  “I thought she could only flow downhill?” she said carefully.

The man shook his head.  “Haven’t you seen yet?  The bonds that hold spirits in the physical realm are weaker here.  Nadī can go uphill, but it still takes her a great amount of time.  Weeks, at the least.  Nowadays, I just carry her.”

The woman quirked a brow at the word ‘nowadays’.  Sedwick had really adapted to life as an elemental it seemed.  And with someone like ‘Nadī’ to keep him company, she imagined the transition was made a great deal ‘easier’.  She didn’t miss the way his face brightened at the guardians name, or how his cheeks flushed at her attention.  Still…no nipples was just weird

You must find this strange, Elmiryn, judging by the look on your face.  Strange, even to you,” Nadī said, hands held out as she navigated their train of water.  “My form is different here.  In this realm, us spirits have the luxury of choosing our forms.  The physical world sees many limitations on this.  What many fail to understand is that this is a place that resists all forms, all complex energies, and therefor all order. Upon entering here, if one is not prepared, one is picked apart.  This can be on a spiritual level or a physical one…but what is lost can be found, as you shall soon see.

Elmiryn nodded, immediately understanding.  Upon first entering the Other Place, she had been left as a weak and undefined consciousness floating lost in a sea of nothing.  It took great effort to bring herself to any sort of weight–be that in thought or in flesh–and it was with Meznik’s help that she was able to solidify in whole.

“My sword, had a spirit living in it.” The brunette said suddenly, pressing forward so that her voice sounded close to the warrior’s ear.  Elmiryn leaned to the side with a wince.  This was not Quincy…  “Tonatiuh.  I never knew his exact origins, save that he was in some way related to the suns.  He’s gone, and he took his power with him.  Are you telling me it’s possible to get him back?”

…Tonatiuh?” Nadī turned to stare at the brunette.  “I’ve heard of this name.  It is a name drenched in blood.  Whatever would you want him back for?

Elmiryn turned to glance at the woman.  The brunette’s mouth was set in a thin line.  Her eyes seared, bright as the sky.  “Because he is mine,” she said.

Something of her voice made the warrior blink and stare as though seeing her for the first time.  “…Quincy?” she mouthed.

The wizard, the golden ray, the chosen rival, pulled back her hood just enough to lock her azure eyes onto Elmiryn’s cerulean gaze.  “Fiamman, you’re quite slow.  You know that?” Quincy said.

The warrior grinned uncertainly.  “So…you’re really not blond?”

“No.  But I’m starting to suspect you are.”

NYX____________________________

While I had always been wary of dogs since I was young, my paralyzing, almost irrational fear had not come to fruition until a little over a year ago when a trio of hunting dogs had chased me through the forests.  I was a different person then.  But things carried over, I supposed, like a storm passing a kingdom that toiled beneath its dark blanket.

There I was as then.  Nyx was a coward shocked back into infantile weakness–unable to help herself in any capacity.

How shameful!

But as luck would have it, I was spared, and by all people…

Argos.

There was a crash and tumble, snarling and barking.  My eyes creaked open to see the dog had rolled the leader of this wayward pack of creatures, his teeth bared, his fur ruffled and raised along the spine.  Strange to be saved by the very same animal I was cowering from, but in my head I had raised the loyal dog to a state of higher being.  Argos was not an ‘it’, but a ‘he’, and his personification waived all the usual fears I had towards his kind.

As the monsters attention was turned onto Argos, I saw him struggle against their horrible attacks.  His size afforded him a great advantage as he was easily head and shoulders taller than all of them, but he was still outnumbered.  Red stained his white fur.

I will state, abashedly, that the idea of fleeing came to me.  It wasn’t my Twin who had proffered the idea, but me, and I hate that this is so.  For a split second, I considered abandoning Argos.  But then my lip stiffened and my hands flexed to claws against the dirt.  My trembling grew worse, but I stood, the dampness on my pant leg now making me feel very awkward.  I wanted to run, I didn’t want to be there–

–But I couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving Argos.

I took up a rock from the ground, one edge of it round and covered in dry moss, the other side clean and sharp like it had been broken off a larger rock.  With a scream I entered the fray, the rock held in both hands, sharp side pointed away from myself as I bludgeoned the first monster I saw.

I noted a weakness in my limbs that I was not accustomed to.  I had to strain to swing the rock.  But the blows struck true, cutting one beast in his eyes, another his teeth smashed, another his shoulder cut.  But the leader was clearly of a higher mind, for as soon as he was free of Argos, he came at me, his wicked mouth parting to snap over my hand.  I screamed as the monster’s fangs sank into my wrist, slicing through flesh and veins where it pressed intimate with my bones.  He wouldn’t let go.  I dropped the rock in my struggles.

Argos, turning, saw the situation and leaped onto the monster’s back, his jaws clamping over the creature’s neck.  He pinned the thing down, and this took me down with it for it still wouldn’t let go, and he placed a paw on the dog’s head and pulled–like he were trying to rip out his spine.  But the demonic beasts seemed of sturdier make than we gave them credit for, because the damned thing still would not let go of me.

I sobbed and yelled as the other dogs set on Argos and myself.  Fangs and claws dragged across our backs and limbs.  One dog kept trying to clamp his jaws around my neck, much like Argos was doing, but I fended him off with my free hand as best I could.

Then I heard something spit from the back of the throat, and through the violent cluster of clamored bodies I saw a pair of golden eyes meet mine.

Vermagus.  Thou must sacrifice.

“Wha–” I said, voice but a breath.  The eyes were gone, swallowed by the dark bodies that jockeyed for a piece of myself and Argos.  We would die, torn apart by these things.  Another one had locked onto my left shoulder, worrying me.  I was becoming lost in the pain…I was going to die…the blood was getting everywhere…

Thou must sacrifice.  Thou must pay.  Give them the weight they seek.  It is within thine power to do so.

My eyes fluttered, blood now staining the whole of me. My tunic was ripped to shreds.  Argos was suffering an equally brutal fate, his yelps piercing my mind.

Lethia will be so sad to know he’s gone.  I couldn’t save him.”  I was on the ground, trampled upon, blood now in my eyes and coming up from my throat in weakly ejected bile.  My neck was so tight from the agony and horror.  “Elmiryn will be…”  My eyes widened, and I gurgled.  “Elmiryn!

Thou must sacrifice.  Miss nothing of your weight.  They are but chains.  Undo these, and thou art free.

I closed my eyes.  Understanding filled me, but could I do it?

Shifting hurt. It always hurt. Payment to the One for use of her gifts.  Healing was much the same.  A change in the body, radical and fast by the standards of other sentient species. It led me to wonder…was my ability really inherent and unavoidable? Or just a privilege? If the latter was the case, could I renounce what I had? Would that make life easier?

…And could I reverse healing, as I could reverse the manner of my form?

Time to find out.

Baring stained teeth, I thought of my shoulder rotting at the cuff.  I thought of my wrist vanishing, the tissue receding like acid had eaten it away.  I rejected this flesh.  Willed my spirit to sever these.

The pain doubled, turned white and beyond measure.  I was aware that I was screaming again–long and wet squelching noises that rose above the monstrous noises of the dogs.  I felt my left arm fall away.  Then my right hand.

Through blurred vision, I saw the dogs take to these, fighting, delighted at their prize.  Normal predators wouldn’t have ceased their onslaught until their quarry was dead.  But these were spiritual monstrosities, and they seemed quite satisfied to have those pieces of me.  It likely satisfied some terrible spiritual ban.

They dashed away, yipping and fighting amongst one another.  The leader managed to get ahold of the hand while another the arm and they ran off into the woods, the others giving chase.

My breath was choked and uneven, blood and vomit in my throat making me cough as I saw the dogs make off with my body parts.  It was sickening and horrific and I wanted the sight gone, so I closed my eyes.  Argos whined next to me, his body shifting a little on the ground but he seemed equally hurt.

I felt something flicker across my cheek.  My eyes creaked open again.  The demonic beasts were gone.  Now a fiery lizard sat inches from my face. It had blotched skin that alternated between black, brown, and orange.  Its dark tongue flickered as his head twisted to the side so that his golden gaze could fix on me dead on.

When it opened its mouth, it spoke–impossibly, incredibly, it spoke,  “Night Child, Lost Daughter, Thee Lover of Ghosts, thou hast earned sanctuary for thyself and thine companion.  Rest now.

I could hardly argue.

My eyes fell shut once more and they didn’t open again for what felt like a long time.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn chuckled mutely, her eyes over her shoulder, her previous indignation at the situation sloughing away to reveal amusement.  It wasn’t quite right to say that she now believed the Quincy she knew to be the “Quincy” that was before her.  Blond Quincy was cold and calculating with never a hair out of place.  Her mind was hard to rattle, but all the more satisfying when it was.  This Quincy however…she was different.  It was degrees of separation but Elmiryn could see these like a keen observer noting the zipper on a good costume.  This Quincy was not as in control, not as mindful, and certainly not as graceful.  Elmiryn’s frustration seemed to have some root.

The Quincy in her memories looked one way, and therefor behaved one way.  This person, this “Quincy”, looked different, and behaved different.

But once she was able to afford the brunette the name “Quincy” to begin with, Elmiryn was growing to like her for what she was.  It was like getting a wrapped present or a new sparring partner.  Mysteries were begging to be revealed.  Not that she knew much of the wizard in her previous state, but still–it was interesting to her.

Who was this person…really?

The wizard’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Stop leering at me, Fiamman.  Now.”

Elmiryn faced forward again, but her smirk remained.

They had moved away from the wilderness and were now slipping through the streets of Gamath.  Here, the streets were empty, save for the occasional phantom drifting here or there.  These were faint beings of smoke resembling ordinary people.

“These must be sensitives–humans who can sense spirits and lingering emotional energy,” Quincy said quietly.  “They have the potential to become enchanters, but likely will never know of their power, or never seek to develop this.  Some see it as a curse.  Odd.  Gamath has a great number of these here.”

Sedwick replied, “It was after Gamath was restored.  Some of the first here were affected by the lingering spiritual energy brought on by the death and taint.  Most of that is gone now, but the effect carries on.  Things didn’t start picking up until we found the tree–”

Elmiryn sat up straight, her eyes turning sharp.  She grabbed Sedwick by the shoulder, forcing him to turn around.  “What tree?

Nadī turned her head some.  “Sedwick.

Sedwick’s pale eyes gazed at her, his brows bunched up so that they wrinkled his foreahed.  “Ah sorry…we wanted to tell you when you could speak again.  You see, to the south, we found a tree laced with foreign magic.  Much of the spell, whatever it was, had weakened and turned inactive, but it wasn’t until we ripped it out by the roots that the land returned to full health.”

The warrior sat back, her eyes falling to her lap.  “Meznik…” she thought, her face turning dark.

They left the city and entered the southern plains.

After a time of traveling, Nadī pointed.  “There!

At a lone elm sapling, Elmiryn saw the twig creature hopping up and down as it tried to grab at a low branch.  She didn’t even wait for the water craft to stop.  She jumped off, landing on all fours, her eyes flashing as she stalked toward the odd being.

The spirit sensed her approach, its grotesque eyes swiveling one at a time to stare at her before it shrieked and started to run away.

Elmiryn pushed to give chase.  “Hey–!” she tried to shout.

A tendril of water lashed out and caught her by the ankle, tripping her.  The woman fell onto the grass hard.

Nadī came up at her side, her left arm rippling as she retracted the water whip back to form her hand again.  “That is not how we handle things here, Elmiryn.  You should know better.

The warrior grunted as she raised herself up.  She coughed, rubbing her chest.  “Point taken!”

Nadī pointed at the twig creature, who stopped to watch the exchange at a safe distance.  “Spirit!  Hear me!  I lord these lands.  I call on thee to resolve this altercation.  Thou hast dishonored this heroine of Gamath, the very land you pass through.  Your trade was unjust.  I would ask that you return her voice and take a more reasonable payment.

“That is quite unfair!” The twig creature squealed…in Elmiryn’s voice.  It stomped a foot.  “The transaction was made elsewhere, away from Gamath.  Thou cannot compell me!”

I can and I shall, impudent thing!” Nadī boomed, her pretty face turning a darker shade of blue.  “I compell thee.  Thou must return this woman’s voice or face my wrath!

Elmiryn froze, her eyes rolling up to gaze at Nadī warily.  When she said ‘compell’ she thought she heard a hum, a buzz, or some muted static–like something were being activated.  Was there magic in these words?

The twig creature screamed and fell to its thin knees, its body creaking and groaning.  “Ahh!  Okay, okay!  My apologies, fair guardian, I have been compelled!  I would return this voice–” here it panted, its disgusting eyes knocking together as its stick fingers dug into the ground.  “But first I would be promised my new prize!  What would the heroine trade anew?”

Here Nadī looked at her as Sedwick and Quincy joined them.  “Well?” the river guardian asked.  “What would you give, Elmiryn?

The warrior blinked.  She raised herself up so that she was on her knees.  “What do you mean?”

Something.  You must give it something.

“What about her ability to turn to the left?” Sedwick offered with shrug.

Nadī shook her head, scowling.  “No! Heavens no, that’s almost worse than losing her voice.

“Her ability to hit C notes when singing?”

No, that’s not enough…what about her next dream?

Elmiryn made a negative slash with her hand.  “Who on Halward’s Plane would give up something like that!?”

Nadī shrugged.  “It could be a bad dream.  You never know…

“Hmmm,” Quincy said with a nod.  Her lips had a suspicious quirk to them.  “Why not give the Fiamman’s brutishness?”

Elmiryn flipped her off with a caustic smile.

But Nadī rubbed her chin in thought.  “Mmm.” After a moment she said, “No.  That’s too little. We must be fair.”  Then her face brightened and she looked at the twig creature.  “What about the heroine’s ability to wink?

The spirit jumped to its feet dancing.  “Yes, yes!” it giggled in Elmiryn’s voice.

Elmiryn stood to her feet waving her arms, her face drawn hard in incredulity.  “WOAH!  Hey, wait a minute!” She pointed at herself and mouthed at Nadī, “I wink!  I’m a winker!” She pointed at the creature.  “Furthermore what’s that little shit going to do with something like that, hmm!?  He has no eyelids!!

“Her wink!  I want her wink!”  The creature said, coming forward.

Nadī gestured between the spirit and Elmiryn.  “This is the prize he’d like.  I think it’s a fair one.

Elmiryn shook her head and crossed her arms.  She pouted again.

Quincy let out a hiss of breath as she reached a hand to rub at her brow.  “Wikan a-lo kuele pon golj mkundu Fiamman…”

“Elmiryn, we haven’t got much time.  It’s just a wink,” Sedwick said, mirroring her stance.  “Lay out your priorities.  Here and now.  Do you want to continue arguing over this until a year passes by?  Because in this realm that could very well happen!  Time is precious commodity.  Don’t squander it over something you don’t find dreadfully important!”

The warrior bowed her head, rubbing the back of her neck.

“What about Nyx?

Elmiryn winced and closed her eyes.  Her shoulders sagged.

“I want to wink!  With both eyes!”  The spirit cried, clapping its twig hands.

The warrior smiled, but it was fairly close to gritted teeth.  “Well I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can only wink with my right.”  She looked at Nadī.  She held out her hands, silently asking, “How does this work?”

Nadī looked at her amused.  “Will you give this spirit your ability to wink in exchange for him returning your voice?

“Yes,” Elmiryn said, sounding sullen.  Her eyes widened and a hand flew to her throat.  She looked at the others.  “Hey, my voice is–!”

Nadī and Sedwick smiled at her.  “There,” the man said.  “It’s done.”

Before them the twig creature didn’t seem any different.  That was until a flap of flesh appeared out of nowhere to cover the right eye, then it slipped back.

Elmiryn shuddered.  “That’s…not right.”

The twig creature danced away, its body creaking.

Nadī touched Elmiryn’s arm gently, her touch wet and cool.  “Now that you are capable of it, we shall speak.

“Yes.  Thank you for getting my voice back,” Elmiryn said with a nod and a somber frown.  “Because I’ve many questions about this tree you found…”

NYX____________________________

When I awoke again, it was in a cave.  Outside the sky was still light, but there were harsh divides between the shadows and the world outside.  Fire danced across the rock.  Argos was awake and panting next to me, the blood washed from his fur–leaving him looking brighter and cleaner than when I’d met him.  His tongue lolled from his mouth, a great paw resting on my stomach as he lay facing the direction of the back of the cave.  I shifted to look down at myself.  I was similarly cleansed, the blood and grime gone.  The ruined tunic had been discarded, and my bandages appeared as new.

I even had my arm and hand back.

It wasn’t that I was healed that surprised me.  Healing was a natural part of my life, and given the level of danger I usually faced, I was injured often.  I took a grim satisfaction in knowing my tolerance for pain was greater than most.  What did surprise me was the fact that I had been moved at all.  Who had come and found us?

I sat up, slowly, flashes of gore flying past my mind’s eye like bullets.  Tears clouded my vision, and I curled forward, toward my legs, hot tears falling from my eyes.

Argos butted his head against my arm, and I turned and stared at him.

I tried to sniffle back my tears, but in the end I lunged toward the dog, my arms going around his neck as I wailed loudly.  I tried to make the images, the phantom sensation stop.  But the inhuman laughter of those beasts would not leave me, and I shuddered, fearing the day I’d have to see them again–because I was certain I’d see them again.

…Was this my hell?

I was anathema.  Funny how a wild and near-suicidal mission can make one forget the wrongness seeped into one’s life.  Would I become as those monsters, tainting nature, preying on innocents?

“Thou art not in hell, Lost Daughter.”

I twisted and peered from over Argos’ massive shoulder towards the back of the cave.  Seated there, on a low rock beside the fire, was…

My breath caught in my throat, and I raised myself.  “Marquis?” I whispered.

The man bowed his head and shook it.  Marquis was the merchant elf that once visited my village.  I had bought all my books from him.  He’d…died, less than a year ago, when my own cowardice prevented me from helping him against those that would have killed him.  They had wanted me dead as well, but Marq had sacrificed himself, earning my safe escape.  Gratitude came slowly to me, for at the time, I had wished for death and it was Marq who had kept me from it, when grief over the recent loss of my family would have taken me over the edge.

I was lachrymose once more.

Face crumpling I let my chin fall to my chest.  “Spirit, why do you taunt me?  Why…why must you puppet his image before me?  Hasn’t he earned his rest?”

“His debt was great, young one.” The stranger said.  I thought I saw sharp teeth beneath those pale lips.  He raised his head and leveled a stare at me across the fire–his gaze was a golden yellow, the flesh of his eyes a bright crimson.  “To compensate, I now use his form as my avatar.  Makes for more amiable conversation.”  He stood, cotton shirt rustling, his canvas pants smoothing out.  Bare feet wiggled on the stone, toes poking with thick black talons.  “Thou art in a half-world.  A limbo.  A place where the spirits of your world may travel unburdened.  Previously, I was unable to be so forthcoming with you.  But this Place affords me the means to speak, and you the ability to listen.”

I stood, shivering.  I couldn’t decide how to feel.  Terror wasn’t out of place here.  “Wh-What do you want from me?  Why have you followed me all this time?”

The man circled around the fire, his talons clicking on the rock.

I backed up into the partial light.  Up until that moment, Argos had been watchful, but calm.  Now he stood, as he gave the man a small warning growl.  It seemed to ask the silent question, “What are you doing?  And it better not be bad.”

The man stopped, the fire tracing his form, embers on his shoulder like they’d come from his pale hair.  This was not Marquis.  His eyes turned to slits, and when he opened his mouth, a long forked tongue darted out past large triangular teeth, all the same size.  He tilted his head and leaned forward, a breath hissing from the back of his throat.

“Night Child.  Lost Daughter.  Thee Lover of Ghosts.  Hear me.  I am not the Pathfinder.  I am the path; the way; the bridge.  I am not the Weaver.  I am the art; the design; the creation.  I am the dreamwalker and the harmony of Life, the inexorable cycle, the first inhale, and the last exhale.  I am not death, nor birth, nor light, nor dark.  I am the crucible.  I am the Given.  I am the Taken.  I am sacrifice.  I am survival.  I am Lacertli.” Dust fell from the ceiling as all around me shuddered and trembled.  I cried out, ducking.

He went on without a pause.  “Vermagus, I would have thee take up my standard.  Thou must.  For the evils here have hungered for thee since you first stepped into their domain.”

I shook my head, falling to my knees.  My eyes were wide and damp.  “What…are you saying?  What are you saying really?

Lacertli, draped in the skin of a dead man, leaned forward with a homodont smile, making Argos jerk back with ears flattened and teeth bared.  The spirit’s mask turned macabre, sinking in at the cheeks and eyes, the skin turning sallow as he crossed into the partial light, out of the stark shadows.  “Vermagus, the spirits here hurt and ache and seek a way to release themselves from their pain.  They would have thine Words.  Thine Meaning.  Thine Expression.  They wouldst tear the very fabric of your soul to have the power that rests in you.”  His skin started to crack and fall away, like clay, revealing warm scaly skin underneath.  I sobbed and covered my eyes. I couldn’t see Marquis’ crumble away from me again, even if this wasn’t really him.  But I still heard the spirit, even as Argos shielded me with his body.  “I can save you…can make you stronger…if you promise thine power to me.  Arise!”

There was a giant hiss and Argos snarled, though I felt him tremble against me.

Nyx.  Night Child.  Lost Daughter.  Thee Lover of Ghosts!  I, Lacertli, would have none other as my champion!


Back to Chapter 19.1 | Forward to Chapter 19.3

  1. ‘Bleeding Me’ by Metallica, from the album ‘Load’. Elektra, 1996. []

Chapter 19.3

NYX____________________________

You can just imagine what came next after Lacertli’s statement.

Fainting very nearly happened, skirting the bright and heavy world of realization to remain in the black and misty question of “what if”.  I could’ve screamed and ran–if my legs worked enough that I could even stand.  I also could’ve just said “No,” or even in a wild slip of the tongue said “Yes,” when I meant to say, “No.”  If I hadn’t already done so, peeing my pants might’ve been one of the options too.

But rather than any of these, I just lifted my head, blinked, and stared.  Mouth agape.  Nose running from snot I hadn’t wiped yet.  I suppose it was a form of shut down.  One can only be shocked so many times, physically and emotionally, before a disconnect hits.  I even managed to forget that I had been literally torn apart by atleast a dozen monstrous dogs.  That I had just seen a man shot in the head right in front of me.  That I had been sucked into another realm–

When I told Elmiryn later, she wouldn’t stop teasing me.  “You must’ve been going through one hell of an identity crisis.” she giggled.  “‘Am I a scaredy-cat or a bad ass’?”

To which I replied, “You try facing down a–”

–Oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Upon leaving the cave, Lacertli had changed.  The light outside was like a veil pulled back, and without the shadowy world he had thrived in, he was something else entirely.  Now he stood as a giant lizard man, with a long face and scaly skin, claws instead of hands, and a thick long tail that swept the ground.  A dark tongue flickered out to taste the air.

Argos had gone rigid, but still trembled on a minute level like every part of him were tensed and tired from clenching.  It could’ve been fear, and it wasn’t out of place.  But his weight pressed on me as he no longer sought to shield me so much as use me as his prop.  I grunted, grabbing him around the neck and persuading him with a gentle pull to roll over to my side.  I shuddered out a breath of relief, but the feeling was short lived as Lacertli tilted his head one way, then another, before bowing down with his face peering into mine.

I let out a dry whine, falling backward away from him.  My tawny eyes batted quick, still drying from my tears earlier.

I must have an answer, young one,” he hissed.

My brows twitched and knitted together, my breath raking up my throat through phlegm.  I could’ve fainted, could’ve screamed and ran, could’ve said “No”.  But instead I said–no, blurted

“I’m not worthy!”  My chin started to tremble, but I held my face still, fighting against the new onslaught of grief. “I’m–I’m not worthy of being anyone’s champion!”

Curious.  For one who believes herself of such low station, you hold no qualms in correcting the ethereal.  You would dare to say I’m mistaken?  That I would confuse trash with riches?

I winced and flared red.  “Spirit, my apologies–I–”

I am Lacertli, foolish girl.  I would have thee call me by my chosen name.

“Forgive me!” I blurted, shifting around so that I was on all fours.  It was starting to feel like the right thing to do.  I didn’t know what Lacertli was–or maybe I did, but I couldn’t bring myself to admit it.  Shivering I pressed my forehead to the ground.  “Forgive me.  My confusion makes me clumsy!”

You are frightened is what you are.

I swallowed against the lump in my throat.  “Yes,” I croaked.  “I don’t know why…” I swallowed down a hiccup of tears.  Droplets fell to the ground.  Argos shifted next to me, panting and whining.  “Your interest baffles me.  I am a child of Aelurus.

She has abandoned you.”

I grit my teeth as everything in me flinched from the pain of this statement.  I had always believed this to be true, but it hurt doubly so to have this being tell me so.  “You don’t find me reprehensible?  I have failed.  I have done wrong.”

Thou art indebted is all.  I am giving you the opportunity to pay back to the life that has sustained you.  Blood is on your soul.  Walk my path and you shall be cleansed of it.

“Aelurus may have abandoned me Lacertli, but I have not abandoned Her.”  My hands clenched against the stone, awaiting his wrath.  Surely, there would be retribution in such a statement?

You confuse things.  Taking up one thing does not exclude the other.” Then the lizard sighed.  I heard him step away from me, and dared to lift my head.  He was once more entering the shadows, his form resuming his previous appearance.  “Thou art giving me excuses.  Not answers.  …But I am patient.  I shall wait.  I only wonder if you can afford such a luxury.  Listen, Night Child.  This world hungers for thee.  Will you be able to reunite with your Ghost?  Will you be able to reunite with your Twin?

I frowned softly and looked down to the ground.  Then my eyes turned to wide discs, and I straightened so that I was upright on my knees.

“Wait, what do you mean my Twin!?” I exclaimed.

ELMIRYN________________________

In a copse, sitting on a fallen log where a shying violet hid beneath her left leg.  The woman leaned over to smile at it briefly, and the plant waved a single leaf at her before ducking out of view.

“Elmiryn.  Are you ready, or do you need a moment?”  Sedwick.  Lingering about him like a weak aura was that air of authority he once had, a man used to having control over the toughest of substances.  It wasn’t fair to say he was weak or indecisive now, but she supposed after spending time with someone like Nadī, anyone of that mentality would be muted.  Nadī was, in truth, more than a spiritual guardian.  She was a demigod.  Why else would the Gamath lands depend so much on her well being if not for this reason?  A guardian could technically fall and the lands would remain safe should the conqueror wish it.  But a demigod…?

But this was just guessing on her part.  Elmiryn wondered if it were blasphemous to try and guess at the identity of gods, possibly attributing the word, halved or whole, to something in error.  Then she decided she didn’t care.

“Yeah,” Elmiryn said in answer to Sedwick’s question.  She looked around her.  Quincy was leaning on a tree near her, pulling at her cloak.  She was muttering to herself again, a phrase over and over, but the warrior couldn’t hear what it was.  Sedwick was to her right, arms crossed over his chest as his inhuman gaze fixed on her.  And across from her was Nadī.  “Can you explain what happened in detail, please?” Elmiryn asked the river spirit.

The elemental nodded.  She gestured at Sedwick with a sweeping hand.  “After your departure, Sedwick and I began the process of reversing the damage that had been done to the area.  Thanks to your help, Gamath was once again hospitable…but not 100% safe.  There were angry nymphs, poltergeists, sick nature spirits, wisps, and wayward animals to take care of.

“We had a hell of a time cleaning these things up.” Sedwick added.  “And for a while we really seemed to be making some progress…”

But for some reason we couldn’t rid ourselves of the trouble completely.  We came to a point where no matter how much we did, nothing would change.  It showed at the foundations.  The nymphs and the animals.  The animals were still overly aggressive and would exhibit erratic behavior, leading to their deaths.  The nymphs were much the same.”

“Nadī thought she knew the problem, though.”

Yes.  As you recall, in my madness, I was fixated on a tree.  A perversity of nature.  When it became clear that we were not moving forward, we tried looking for it.

“It took us a while.  But we found it.  A little over a month ago.”

“Where was it?” Elmiryn asked, her back tensing as she leaned forward on her knees.

“It wasn’t in the physical realm.  Your realm.  It was here. In this place.” Sedwick pointed at the ground.  The redhead frowned at the “your realm” comment.  So it wasn’t his realm anymore?  Well it was a fair thing to say, she just found it weird.  Sedwick was still part-human in her eyes.

“What happened?  How did you destroy the thing exactly?” she asked.

Nadī looked at Sedwick, who glanced back at her.  The two turned to Elmiryn.  “The tree was weak.  It was no bigger than an average oak.  Much of its leaves had fallen and turned to dust, and the bark was rotting off.  There were no wards around it, no spirits guarding it, nothing.  The tree felt abandoned.  The spell was already inactive.

“You mentioned that.  A ‘spell’.  What spell was it?  What did it do?”

“We don’t know, Elmiryn.” Sedwick said, rubbing the side of his face.  “The magic was foreign to us.  We’ve never seen anything like it.  Usually long term spells, even in this world, have some sort of anchor.  Usually the animus, or some sort of physical object.  This tree…had nothing.  There was no anchor, and no lingering connection we could tie it to.  So we just ripped it out.”

“You weren’t able to trace it to a person?  To something else in the physical realm?  At all?” Quincy straightened from her tree, her voice perking in interest.  Everyone looked at her, surprised at her interruption.  She’d been stone silent since the trade had occurred with the twig spirit.

Sedwick cleared his throat. “That is to say, we couldn’t find any of the usual anchors.”

“How do you mean?” Elmiryn asked, glancing at Quincy again with a slight frown.  The wizard had started pacing with her head bowed.

“I mean that the magic wasn’t coming from a person.  It wasn’t anchoring in any flesh, or the earth, or the plants…”

It was anchoring itself in the sounds.”  Nadī said, scowling in disgust.  “All around it we could hear the magic, and it tried feebly to taint us once more.  We tore the damned thing out and the magic vanished.  Silence had never sounded sweeter to me.

Quincy halted, her head lifting up with a snap.  “A completely sonic spell?” she shook her head.  “But sound holds no weight or inherent power.  It is just a component of a greater formula, never the foundation of the spell itself.  That, and you can hardly control it!  It travels through space until it peters out, swallowed up by…” she stopped, sucking in breath.

“Until it’s swallowed up by another sound,” Elmiryn finished, closing her eyes.  “Or it echoes, or it enters someone’s mind and stays there in their memories.”

“Life is filled with sounds.  The wind, the animals, the people, the ocean, or even the muted hum of energies,”  Quincy mused.  “These are so prevalent, that a sonic based spell would need a great deal of power to keep it going…and even more to keep it controlled.” Her hands went to her hips and a russet lock of hair slipped forth from beneath her hood.  “It would need someone practically omnipotent.”

Perhaps not omnipotent, but certainly something with a widespread consciousness.  Like a spirit,” Nadī said, closing her eyes.  “This idea alone isn’t new.  I had considered this possibility the moment I had been cured of my mental malady.  But what spirit could possibly enter this realm with such power without my knowing?  What spirit could be capable of this and have reason to wish it?  That is still the mystery…

“Roots.”  Elmiryn said, eyes still closed.

Everyone looked at her.

Roots.” She opened her eyes and gestured at the end of the log she sat on, where the bark twisted into a tendril–once the beginning of a tree root.  “Think about it.  A sapling may be small, but underneath the soil are roots that anchor it–small things, but strong and important.  They keep the tree from falling over when a storm wind wants to knock it down.  They keep the tree fed and growing.”  Elmiryn stood, her jaw tight. “I think Quincy is right.  It can’t be the sound, or even the tree you found that was the foundation of the spell.  If it was, then Nadī would have sensed it before it got as strong as it did.  She would have been able to have sensed the caster.  What we dealt with?  That was just above the surface.  ”

“The tip of an iceberg,” Quincy said with a nod.

Then the magic is still active somewhere…” Nadī sighed.

“Elmiryn, I told you we’ve had an influx of spirits coming through.” Sedwick said, narrowing his eyes.  “These are refugees.  They’re fleeing from something up north, something that is still there.  You were heading up that way.  Now you’re here.  Is there something we should know?  Is it related?  Can we expect trouble again?”

Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck and sighed.  “Maybe.  But…it’s not like you think.”

Nadī and Sedwick glanced at each other.  The redhead felt Quincy’s eyes on her.  “Elmiryn, what are you saying?” the wizard asked, her voice hard.

“I’m saying there could be more than one ‘iceberg’ to worry about,”  She looked at Nadī next.  “The stuff up north isn’t Meznik’s doing.”

“Meznik?” Quincy looked to the others for clarification.

“She believes it was an astral demon who was behind everything,” Sedwick said with a tired shrug.  Elmiryn glowered at him for the note of disbelief in his voice.

But to Elmiryn’s surprise (and delight, she found) Quincy didn’t scoff at the idea.  She just said, “Hmm, yes, Hakeem mentioned this…” and looked to the ground.

Nadī crossed her arms, shifting her weight to one side.  “Elmiryn, why do you believe the trouble to the north isn’t Meznik’s doing?

The woman shrugged.  “Because he told me so.”

All three present snapped their eyes on her, faces turned long.  “He what!?

NYX____________________________

Lacertli was once more dressed in the disguise of a dead man, his body long but graceful as he draped himself along the stone floor.  He spoke, the eerie inhuman voice gone and replaced with Marq’s, “Your Twin, as you have taken to calling Her, is not with you.” He propped his head up on a hand.

My mouth went dry and a cold sweat broke out over my skin.  “What?” I croaked.

He glanced at me with his golden eyes.  “Thou art repeating thyself, which I find tiresome, but I will clarify for thee nevertheless.  This realm is a collection of isolated shards–ghostly impressions of your realm forced onto a raw and basic energy.  Travel to the edges of this place and you will find that the ground falls away to nothing, like a floating island.  Your Twin is not on this shard.  Comb these forests as much as you’d like, and you would never find her.”

“How is that–”

“Girl, this is a place of divided things.  In its natural state it is a place of chaos and disconnection.  The local realms, by the strengths of their spiritual energy alone, has forced a sort of order on this place.  But that does not take away its baser qualities.  Upon entering here, each of your companions were separated, and in kind, each of you were divided, losing something that was inherent to you.”

I glanced at Argos, who had taken to licking and nibbling at the fur on his right shoulder.

“Yes,” Lacertli said, sounding amused.  “Even the dog.  He has lost his raison d’être.”

“You mean…Lethia?”  I reached a hand out to scratch at the dog’s head.  His ears perked my way and he licked at my arm, his stinky breath rushing to me and making me grimace.

“His need to be at her side.  With you, he is content to settle for as a companion.”

I frowned at him.  How could that be?  Somehow the idea of losing something so conceptual was beyond me.

I turned to Lacertli, my heart clenching as a thought occurred to me.  “If She is really gone…what happens if she dies?  Here?

The being shrugged, his eyes on the fire.  “Then thou wouldst be trapped here, your animus gradually unraveling as, already divided, it is unable to resist the punitive powers that would take thee apart.  You will not just die, you will cease to exist, never to return again to the cycle of life.”

I felt ill.  “Do…do you know where my Twin is?”

Lacertli spread his homodont smile, and it glinted in the firelight.  “Night Child, you think so little of me.  I wonder, if I were to appear to thee in full, would I impress upon thee the nature of my being?  I doubt thou wouldst survive the power of my presence–and I say this without conceit.  I choose to appear in my avatar to spare you from this.  What do you think I am, girl?”

There was something hard in his voice, something that reminded me of my mother when she scolded me for getting lippy.  My shoulders hunched and I stared down at the ground.  When I spoke, it was through a stutter.  “I–I–Ah–I mean,” I winced and bowed a little.  “I don’t…rightly know.  I confess, I haven’t the slightest idea of what protocol is appropriate here.  I wish to call you Spirit, but you say you are not one.  Your name alone feels far too personal, and I worry I am disrespecting you.”

“I would have thee cease your quibbling.  I am Lacertli.  Fret not over the conventions of society–that is not my domain, and I care nothing for the illusions that extend beyond the natural state.  I do not hate these things however.  That said, vermagus, I recognize thine need for proper etiquette.  If thou truly desire it, you may call me Dreamwalker or even sir.”

“Thank you…sir.” I bowed lower, then raised myself, blinking.

“I am an old being,” he continued.  “I have seen the creation of the universe, have seen the rise of sentient beings–and with their rise found my followers dwindle.  But I am humble, and my concern rests not in whether I am known, feared, or loved.  I simply am.  It does not surprise me that you were unaware of my existence.  Most are, in this age.”

I was beside myself.  This was so much to take in, so much for me to deal with, I felt myself on the verge of entering hysterics.  I struggled to keep a grip–aware that it was necessary.  I couldn’t fall apart.

“Lacertli are you…?” my voice trailed away, the word on my tongue but my courage failing to send it out.  It seemed too fantastic to say.

The being laughed.  “Vermagus, you are a transparent thing.  I shall remove thy doubts.  I have hunted with Artemis.  Quarreled with Eate.  Flown with Njord.  Kissed Atargatis.  Lain with Tellus.  Supped with Halward.”  He paused, and something gentle overtook his features.  “I have also run with Aelurus.”

My breath caught, and I fell to my knees again, my countenance lost.

“Night Child, now that you are aware of my nature, what wilt thou do?  I have told you the state of this place and your circumstances.  Walk a path girl.  Any path.  But walk.  This stasis will be thine undoing.”

It was a surprise, the sort of sanctuary such problems presented to my mind.  This was something I could contend with, something that I could handle.  The overwhelming realization of Lacertli’s nature was passed for a moment.

I looked over my shoulder.  “I have to leave this place,” I whispered.  “To reunite with my Twin.  To reunite with Elmiryn.  To get back to my realm.”

“Yes.  But the creatures here wish to keep you.  You can avoid some, but not all.  The obstacles will have to be cleared from your path.”

I thought of the inhuman dogs and curled in on myself.  “H-How?” I stammered.  “I don’t know if I can–” I gripped my shoulder, where my flesh had separated with a sickening pop–once again I was hit with flashes of gore, flashes of horror, and I felt ill.  I wretched from the fear and disgust.

Lacertli spoke, his voice low and taking on a gravelly edge.  “I can help thee, but my assistance comes with a price.  I must have my champion, vermagus.”

I bit my lip and glanced off to the side.  Argos bumped my shoulder with his head and whined in my ear, his tongue lolling.  I ignored him.  A war raged in my head.  Amidst my back and forth thoughts, something nibbled at me.

“I sense a question within you,” Lacertli said.

I looked up through my bangs.  I hesitated one more beat before asking, “Sir, why do you keep calling me vermagus?”

Here Lacertli chuckled, the sound dry and fast.  He looked at me.  “Because thou art one.”

I shook my head, a hand reaching up to rub at my brow.  “No–I–I mean–”  I sighed and tried to word the question right.  I tried again.  “What I meant was, what is a vermagus?”

The being smiled lazily.  “A vermagus is a bit archaic, I confess.  Forgive me, it has been an age since I’ve had to speak personally with any mortal.”  He sat up, his head bowing a little as he let his lips curl at the corners, where they speared into his cheeks and left his face lined and sinister.  “Long ago, a vermagus was the word used to describe those whose voice was laced with the power of their animus.  It was once a well known and practiced magic art.  But vermagi were born, not made, and the pure line was lost.  There had been descendants, but there was none with the ability to utilize the true power of the vermagi.  Their powers were such that they could inspire whole armies or terrify spiritual beings, all by their voice alone.  Today, the legends do not call these people vermagi…” Lacertli flicked his long dark tongue and his smile gained a slant.  “They call them bards.”

My breath had turned short.  Even before Lacertli had said the word, I had thought it.  I had read stories of these ancient people, these bards of the arcane.

…It made me scared.

“Think on it, Night Child.  Your Ghost…she suffers a rare curse, damaging her ability to perceive, does she not?  But is there ever any question upon the nature of your Words?  Upon the nature of your Meaning?  Does she not hear things within thine voice that tell of more than thou wouldst seek to divulge?  Whereas others fail to reach her, you shall always succeed, because it is your power that pierces the veil of her damaged reasoning.”

All this talk was turning my stomach into knots.  I had another question, and since he seemed open to answering them, I wanted to change the subject.  Fast.  “…Sir, may I ask something?”

“Speak, young one.”

“Sir, you say you are the essence of survival…if on the surface it appeared necessary, would you seek to have me abandon my friends?  The people I love?  All just so I can keep living?”

Lacertli sat up, leveling a stare at me.  It had weight–not metaphoric, but literal–and I swallowed, afraid I had offended him.  “I am not survival for survival’s sake.  I am not the essence of self-preservation at the expense of all else.  That is vanity, girl.  Dost thou think me vain?”

I bowed, trembling.  “My apologies Lacertli, I wasn’t trying to imply–!”

He went on with little pause.  “I am the preservation of Life as a whole; of Harmony and the keeping of it.  I propagate the cycle, and this cycle furthers the make and matter that shapes thine world.  I have told thee this.  I am not the Pathfinder.  I am the Path. My role is not to tell thee where to go, but how to go.  I am not a being of the future or the consideration of it.  I am always in the present.  Choose what path you would, and I shall give you the strength and wisdom to survive what comes.  If you were to seek thine friends, I would not stop you.  But if their survival goes against Life, if they create great disharmony, I would have thee collect their debts.”

“I can’t bring myself to kill them…” I murmured.

“The first thing thou must understand, child, is that every mortal has debt.  The simple act of birth places them there, for they borrow from Life to exist.  Upon death, they return all they had borrowed back to Life.  A person, whilst still in mortal existence, can undo their added burdens by restoring Harmony.  If you insist on seeing yourself as beyond salvation, then so be it.  Morality has no place in my domain, just the keeping of balance.  Your Mark signifies but a moment in your past to me, nothing more.  But I would have thee think on thine Ghost, young one.”

I lifted myself and stared at him, lips parted.  “Elmiryn…?”  My hands flexed on the ground.  “She…is at risk?”

“Her circumstances do not factor into my judgment.  Only what she gives and takes away from Harmony.  She takes more and more as she descends into madness.  She is at a dangerous point, vermagus.  In her delusion, she has mistakenly taken an innocent life.”

My gut fell to my soles.  “What??  When!?”

“At Holzoff’s Tower.  She slayed an innocent.  She also allowed the deaths of all those men at the hands of the daesce, despite having the power to stop it.  Those monsters are abominations, negative energies, knots in the Greater Weave, and she allowed the feeding of those beasts.  Beyond right and wrongdoing, this is against the basic principles I represent.  If you truly care for her, then take up my standard.  I can help you alleviate her debt, before her actions bring her to an early end.  Vermagus, what will you choose?  Time grows short.”

My eyes clouded.  I stared down at the ground.

When I lifted my face again, the fog was gone from my eyes and I opened my mouth to speak.

“Lacertli, I will take up your standard. I will be your champion!

ELMIRYN________________________

“Elmiryn you spoke to him?  You spoke to this being, Meznik?” Sedwick stepped forward, his mouth a downward curve.  “Why didn’t you say so!?”

“What does it matter?” the woman returned, standing from her log.  “Unless you can find a way to slay a song, there’s nothing we can do now is there?”

“But what did he say?” Quincy snapped.  “If he was somehow involved in all of this, don’t you think this would’ve been good information to share?”

“He didn’t tell me much, and I didn’t ask him alot as I was a bit busy trying to make myself whole again.” Elmiryn rubbed at her face, then her neck.  The anxiety and anger she felt in Meznik’s presence rushed back to her. “All he told me was that he wasn’t behind Albias and…I believe him.” It made her sick to say this, and the woman spat on the ground.  She took to pacing, her hands resting high on her hips as she glared down.  “He’s vain.  He’s always thinking of himself.  He hasn’t always been forthcoming with information, but whatever he’s told me has been true.”  She paused and took a breath, eyes slipping closed.  “Meznik seems to think my struggle with him is some sort of performance, and he fancies himself as the director, maybe even a fellow actor.  He gets upset whenever my focus isn’t entirely on him.  He even got mad with me for getting involved in Albias.  Said that I ‘wasn’t supposed to’.  Like I was going off script.”

“He sees himself as an artist,” Quincy said.

Elmiryn nodded, lifting her head to gaze at the wizard.  “He wants me to be a certain way.  He’s really concerned with how I think of him, too.  He feeds off of it, I think…” the warrior clenched her jaw and glanced off to the side, eyes low.

The wizard tapped her chin.  “You said he exists in a song?  Could we conjure him if we sang it?”

“No.” Elmiryn said firmly, her eyes flashing.  “If you sing the song it can harm you.  It does nothing to me, probably because Meznik is saving me to do…whatever it is he wants me to do.  But if anyone else sings it, even thinks of it, they go into a death-like state.”

How do you know this?” Nadī asked, her brow gently furrowed.

Elmiryn looked at her.  “Before arriving at Gamath, Nyx thought of the song.  She…passed out, even stopped breathing.  When she woke up, she was perfectly fine.  It isn’t so much just mentioning it as actually recalling the melody or singing the music itself.”

“Is Meznik still here, in this realm?” Sedwick asked.

“I don’t know.  But he said we were in danger.  Both me and him.  If there really is another astral demon in the north, then they don’t get along.”

“And they work the same way?” Quincy asked.  “Music and trees and all that?”

“It was what got me confused in the first place, so I imagine so.”

Nadī held up a hand.  “I think we’ve heard enough.  Unless there is anything else to add, we must now decide on a course of action.

“My priority is finding Nyx.” Elmiryn crossed her arms as though she could not be moved on this.

Sedwick raised a brow at her.  “And after that?”

The woman shrugged.  “Look for a way out of here and handle things as they come.  Unless you two can tell me how to leave now?” The elementals exchanged looks.  Elmiryn smirked. “Lemme guess…not that easy?”

“It’s easy enough for beings like us.” Sedwick said apologetically.

But for you two who are human mortals…” Nadī went on.

“The process could kill you.” The blacksmith finished with a wince.  “You’d be fleeced through the very fabrics of your realm.  Imagine trying to stuff a melting one pound slab of cheese through a needle’s eye.”

The woman grimaced.

Sedwick nodded grimly.  “Exactly.”

“So then what can we do?  Are we stuck here?”

There is one option.

“Returning to Albias?  Where we got sucked in to begin with?” Elmiryn tried.

Quincy was quick to answer this.  “The portal must’ve closed by now.”

Quincy is right,” Nadī said with a shake of her head.  “What I was going to suggest was finding the caster who had opened the portal to begin with.”

“…Syria?”  Elmiryn scowled, her hand going to grip her sword just at the mention of the name.  “What good would that do us?”

“Clearly she knows how to get here.  Make her open a way back.”  Sedwick smirked at her.  “Unless you have a better idea?”

Elmiryn looked at the wizard.  “Well?  You’re the magic user, not me.  What do you think?”

Quincy let out a harsh sigh.  “I think I’ve been very patient in waiting for this discussion to address my situation.”  She turned to Nadī.  “Can we atleast travel safely from these shards you both mentioned?”

“Hell, I did,” the warrior said with a shrug.

Your way left you short of a voice.  I want to get back what I find important.  I’m not keen on losing anything else in this place.”

Here, Elmiryn smirked.  “Oh yeah.  Sure.  When my sword stopped trying to possess me, life just didn’t feel complete anymore.  I totally get why you’d want your homicidal spirit back.”

Quincy glared daggers at her.  “I was talking about my husband.”

Here the woman paused.  “Oh.”  She frowned, but her eyes held a mischievous glint.  “Oooh.

Sedwick was kneading his brow, eyes closed.  “Elmiryn.”

Quincy placed her hands on her hips.  “What, Fiamman?”

Elmiryn smiled, the ends of her mouth curling like a cat.  “It just explains alot.”

“What does?”  Quincy went to Elmiryn, her shoulders bunching like hackles raised.

I’m sensing we’re losing control of this, Sedwick.” Nadī whispered as she went to stand by his side.

The redhead chuckled and gestured at the wizard.  “I mean, y’know it’s just in the way you talk and move.  You’re  like…y’know…”

“Elmiryn!” The man snapped.

elmirynandquincy2.jpg picture by MajikNiNENadī sighed, going to his arm.  “Perhaps we should let them?

“But–”

Only faintly aware of their talk, the warrior stepped toward her rival, nearly face to face, eyes locking as she smiled, showing all teeth.  “Quincy, you’re like a fucking mud man.”

Quincy moved, pulling back her rusty sword with one hand, and so did Elmiryn raising her arm.

When the pain registered and the ringing started to subside, Elmiryn’s mind caught up to the fact that despite her high block, the wizard had still managed to clock her in–

“My ear!” Elmiryn shouted.  She reared back, hands going to the side of her head as the pain stemmed along her jaw and temple as well.  “FUCK! What is with everyone and hitting me in the ear!? Is there a conspiracy to turn me into a fucking cauliflower!?

“Stupid mkundu!” Quincy hissed, pointing with her sword.  “Matokeo mkulima ya utafutaji kwa!”

Elmiryn turned and jeered at her, hands still at her ear.  “Oh, I’m sorry, maybe you should throw in a few more clicks and grunts for me, maybe then I’ll get you!”

Quincy ripped her hood off, her face a deep crimson.  “I said your mother was the farmer’s favorite sheep.”

Elmiryn’s face turned red and she stood drawing her sword.  “Take that back or I kill you now,” she seethed.

The wizard gestured for the woman to come at her.  “I’ll beat you to death with this rusty sword first, you lunatic.”

The redhead crowed up at the sky, but the noise was filled with incredulity, not humor.  She slashed her sword through the air as she jabbed a finger into her chest.  “You impale yourself with a possessed sword and somehow I’m the lunatic?”

“You’d pick a fight with anything just to get a thrill,” The other woman snapped.  “You have no respect for life.”

“I have more respect for it than you do, you emotionally stunted halfwit,” The warrior snarled.  Every part of Elmiryn’s body was coiled, and she slid one foot back as she brandished her sword.  “Wizard– Take.  Back.  What.  You.  Said.

Quincy flicked the underside of her chin with her fingers and went on babbling in Fanaean.  The foreign noise incited the redhead further.  She started forward, intent on chopping off the wizard’s head for her blatant disrespect–but a whip of water lashed out, effectively stopping her in her tracks.  A cursory glance told her that as hands off as Nadī and Sedwick were being, they would not allow for violence.  If it were Sedwick alone, the warrior would have probably just pressed on–but Nadī was the true buffer.  The air tingled as the elemental spirit narrowed her eyes at the warrior, offering a silent warning.  She held domain here.  Elmiryn knew she would fail if she tried to contend with her.

Reluctantly, she stepped back again.  Quincy, who had assumed a stance in anticipation of attack, relaxed.  The warrior couldn’t quell her need to voice her desire however.  “I should’ve fucking killed you back in Belcliff,” she barked, her voice all steel.

Quincy was quick to respond in kind.  “And I should’ve killed you–”

“Well atleast we agree on something–”

“Not likely.  You kidnapped my husband–”

Elmiryn scrunched her face in vexation. “Oh please. You stabbed me in the shoulder–is that fair!?  We never caused Hakeem any great harm!”

“I didn’t know that then!  At any rate, it’s your fault my reputation is ruined.  I’m never going to find work as a bounty hunter again!”

“Did I make you help us at Holzoff’s?  You stole our friend away from us for a sack of gold, then changed your mind just so you and your husband could get more gold.  We, on the other hand, were trying to stop the magical corruption at the roots whilst helping Lethia.  Tell me, which sounds worse?”

“You are not a fucking folk hero!  You didn’t even like Lethia Artaud when you met her!  You’re a madwoman!”  Quincy stomped her foot, but when she spoke again her voice touched a note higher and her eyes were shiny bits of glass. “And for your information, you idiot, I’m a bounty hunter! I was doing my job–”

“Guess what?” Elmiryn held her arms out at either side of her.  “I was doing mine!

Both women stopped, huffing.

Then Elmiryn grinned suddenly.  “…No seriously, take back the comment about my mother.  Or you’re gonna meet the pointy end of my sword.”

Quincy quirked an eyebrow at her, her lips puckered.  “Take back your racist comments and maybe I’ll do that.”

Elmiryn looked put out.  “I was just fucking with you.”

The brunette’s jaw jutted forward as she glared at the woman down her nose.  She was trembling at the shoulders.

The warrior pouted.  “Fine.  I’m sorry.  I won’t say it again.”

The bounty hunter didn’t respond right away.  She exhaled harshly through her nose, hands going to grip her arms with white knuckles.  Her swallow was audible.  “Then…” The woman brushed back her hair with both hands and inhaled. When she spoke, her voice sounded taut.  “Then I apologize as well.”  She looked up at the sky.  Then down at the ground.  Then without warning, Quincy turned on her heel and started to walk away.  Over her shoulder, the wizard said with a terse voice, “But now I’m absolutely certain I can’t travel with you without feeling like killing something.  Rather than tempt fate, I’ll just leave.  Goodbye.”

Elmiryn stared after her.  “Hey, what?” She looked at Sedwick, then Nadī.  “Did I miss something?  I apologized, didn’t I?”

Sedwick just rubbed at his face in exasperation.  “Elmiryn, are you confused about the homicidal tendencies you inspire, or the fact that she’s not going to put up with it?”

The warrior opened her mouth to say something.  Then she closed it with a snap.  Her hand went to rub at her neck and she smiled at the man sheepishly.

The elemental made a show of rolling his pale eyes as Nadī shook her head next to him.  “That’s what I thought,” he muttered.


Back to Chapter 19.2 | Forward to Chapter 19.4

Chapter 19.4

I was sideways rocked into f r a c t i o n…

I’ve mastered the tricky art of a person launched wayward to action…

ELMIRYN________________________

“I think you should get after her,” Sedwick said, gesturing.

Elmiryn thumbed after Quincy.  “Why don’t you do it?  Aren’t you the one familiar with this place?  And I thought I made people want to kill things.”

“The quarrel started with you and must end with you.” The man said, fixing the woman with a hard look.  “Both of you ended up here the same way.  You both need to find the same person.  Given the nature of your circumstances, splitting up is, kind of…well–”

Stupid.” Nadi finished, deadpan.  “Go on, Elmiryn,” The elemental said–not asked.  “Whatever differences you two have will need to be settled, or at the least, set aside.

The warrior considered being contrarian just for the sake of it.  She sucked at her teeth as she ran the possibilities in her head.

“Fine.  I’ll be right back,” she grumbled through a half-smile.

QUINCY____________________________

She stumbled over her own feet.  Tension and poor blood flow through her limbs left her feeling cold and on the verge of the pins and needles sensation.  All the heat had gone to her head, stuffing her up, clogging her thoughts, crowding her rationality.  Unruly emotions.  Nettling her.  It was like a revolt, a surge of hidden energies attacking her foundations.

Quincy was divided.

Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…She’d been saying that to herself since she’d awoken in this strange place.  She tried to control her breathing, to keep her tone level.  Tried to find comfort in the rhythm.  “Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba… But nothing worked.  The warrior hadn’t helped.  Now Quincy was even worse off than when she started.

Foreign trees expanded about her, and the woman saw shadows creep quick along the edges of time while others remained recumbent.  The world did not sit still.  Light was a restless thing, and it was spread thin, its breath the agent of something that wished for all to splinter.  Light wasn’t supposed to have breath.  Nor were the shadows supposed to move as they did.  All was wrong.  The woman jumped and turned, rattled as she thought she saw something coming up her leg only to realize it was the phantoms of trees brushing by her.

Phantoms.  Ghosts.

Hmm…but do you feel haunted, wizard?

Elmiryn’s voice in her head, taunting her still.

Looked for trouble.  Found it.  All for the possibility of getting…what?  Gold?  Another useless lead in her lifelong search?  A girl’s head trapped in iron, another scar over her breast, grains of time lost for her husband, a hot spray from the sudden headshot–Quincy stumbled again at this micro-thought, this flash and sting on her mind.  Did Graziano mean anything to her?  She kept seeing his corpse in the snow, life staining the white in a spidery cloud along the frigid ice.  She had met him when he was a boy, a little younger than Paulo–

“Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep ju–!!” she tripped on a wrinkle on the ground, stumbling forward once more.  A tower ready to fall.  She tried to right herself, but couldn’t avoid clipping her shoulder on a tree trunk.  When she managed to gain control her feet were at funny angles and her knees knocked together, both arms wrapped around the tree like it were a lifeline.  Her face turned red.  “Fuck.”  She struck a fist against the trunk.  Then again, harder.  “Fuck, fuck!

Her chest tightened and her breath turned thin and fast.  Quincy rubbed at her face with a shaking hand.  “Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…

She heard Elmiryn’s voice chasing her through the trees and bared her teeth, her body locking up.

“Wizard! Hey wizard! Wait, will you?” the warrior called.

Quincy said nothing.  Teeth clenched together as if to contain the river of expletives that wished to pour forth, the brunette simply shoved from the tree and resumed walking, faster this time.

Despite her quickened pace, Elmiryn caught up.  “Quincy, you aren’t being reasonable.”

“Do not talk to me about reason, Fiamman,” the woman snapped over shoulder.  She flipped up her hood, darkness about her face.  For a brief second she felt comfort in the indefinite mask, but then the agitation doubled back at the sound of her unwanted company.

“Fair enough.  I can get unreasonable.  Hell, I like to, sometimes.  It’s fun.  But this is just a bad idea.”

“I see no benefit in being in your company,” The wizard muttered.  Quincy cursed as she slipped a little going down a short sandy slope.

Elmiryn snorted as she jumped over it.  “You don’t see the benefit?  What about the common sense?  We need to find the same person to get out of here.  Syria.  We both have someone we want to find.  Nyx and Hakeem.  And we both have something we probably have to stab.  Meznik and Tonatiuh.  The best bet of achieving any of those is through teamwork.”

Quincy chuckled sardonically, “Teamwork.  Cute.”

“I’m being serious.”

“Thank you for telling me.  It gets hard to see that when it comes to you.”

There was a smile in Elmiryn’s voice when she said, “I find it interesting that most of your knowledge comes from spying on me.  You want to confess something, dear?”

Quincy rounded on the warrior her face tight. “Leave.  Me.  Alone.  I want nothing from you!”

Elmiryn didn’t flinch even as she stopped walking.  She just batted her cerulean eyes and smiled gently.  “Nothing about those chronicles Hakeem kept badgering me about?  Nothing about Tobias?

The brunette narrowed her eyes.  “You aren’t the one who knows anything.  You told Hakeem yourself.”

“Right.  Not me.  Nyx.  Who I’m looking for.”

“I could probably find her myself and suffer less trouble.”

“And Syria?”

“It’s like Sedwick says.  We just need to find her.”

The warrior chuckled.  “But y’know, maybe we won’t have to find Syria at all.  Maybe she’ll decide we’re worth the trouble and come hunting us down one by one.  Even if you find Hakeem…can you take her?  Can you beat her down without your magic?”

The wizard faltered for a fraction of a second.  “Fool.  My magic isn’t the only thing I–”

“Why is it that you keep stumbling around like you don’t know your own limbs?” The redhead asked suddenly.  She looked the brunette up and down, eyes sharp and deconstructing.  The intent shone in her eyes, hitting almost as hard as her words.

Quincy sucked in breath.  Her right hand tightened over her sword handle.  “Disorientation.  That’s all,” She said.  She tried to keep her voice level, but…  “This place it–”

Elmiryn stepped forward, forcing the brunette back a step.  “Tonatiuh took more away than just your flashy power, didn’t he?” she breathed, her smile broadening.  Her eyes were a bit glassy.

The wizard’s lips grew thin as she paled.  “Shut up.”

“How long were you bonded with him?  Two years?  Five?  Ten? What scares you more?  That something is missing, or that everything is still there?”  Quincy shook her head.  She turned and started to walk away.  But this didn’t feel fast enough.  She hopped into a jog.  Elmiryn’s footfalls were right behind her.  “He was like a wall, blocking out the noise.  Made you focused.  Made you strong.  But the wall is gone and now all you’ve got are those tricky feelings–making you confused and weak, right!?  Have you got anything you feel guilty about?  Things you were trying to forget?  Fears, anxieties…desiresDoes the wizard have a heart?”  The warrior was giggling.  Delighted.

“SHUT UP!”  Quincy started running.  Her eyes burned as did her vision.  She went as fast as she could.  She tripped, rocking her body forward, but she didn’t stop.  Just scuttled along the ground on her fingertips, spine curved, knees close to the ground like she were a cat stretching.  She straightened again with a gasp but everything was just streaks and smears–

“Wizard–”

That bitch.  That mkundu.  That lunatic bastard.  Who was she to say…?

Quincy stop!

Elmiryn didn’t know anything.

QUINCY!

The wizard was divided.

Divided, she fell.

.

……

…………

That was, until Elmiryn grabbed her by the back of her cloak.

Quincy yelled, but the sound was cut short as the fabric pulled at her shoulders and neck.  Her eyes bugged out as she stared down at a great white sea of nothingness below her.  One second, there had been an endless stretch of ground, countless trees, a vast promise of space–now she was swinging over oblivion, the ground gone from beneath her, something coming up her legs like it wanted to unravel her down to the bone.  When she craned her head up, she saw that the ground had indeed suddenly stopped.  It was like a floating island.

Elmiryn grunted, on her knees, her shoulders, and arms strained and already gleaming with a sheen of sweat.  Strands of her auburn red hair slipped forth as she started to shift backward, pulling at Quincy’s cloak.  The wizard clawed at the dirt with her free hand, her hood falling away, feet kicking into the soft soil for a hold.  Stubbornly, she gripped her rusty sword.  After several moments of this, she drew herself up over the edge, Elmiryn helping her.  When she was safely on the ground, both women lay back panting, Quincy on her stomach, Elmiryn on her back.

For a while, neither spoke.  The sound of their breathing became a strange rhythm in the air.

Then Elmiryn started to chuckle, hands going to cover her face.  “Halward help you, wizard.  You are heavy.”

Quincy pushed herself onto all fours and glowered.  “I don’t appreciate your insinuation,” she panted.

“You’ve still got shape.  Graceful curves.  Makes me a little curious to see more.”  Elmiryn sat up and wiggled her eyebrows, a smirk on her lips.

Quincy grimaced.  “I appreciate that even less.”

The warrior blinked her eyes at the woman.  Her smirk waned and she blinked again, faster.

The brunette scowled at her.  “…Elmiryn what are you doing?”

The woman pouted and sat up.  “I was trying to wink at you.”

Quincy didn’t know what to say to this so she just stared at the warrior.  Russet locks clung to her sweaty face.  She sat back onto her ankles and looked down at her lap where her sword rested.  “From one thing to the next, hardly missing a beat.  Do you ever think about what you do, Fiamman…?” she breathed.

She felt the redhead’s gaze on her.  “As in…?”

“Everything.  Every moment.  Leading to here and now.”

“Oh.  Like when I stole a kiss from Lunielle, the wash maid, two days before my thirteenth birthday?  And then got her to lay with me within the hour?  And then–”

“That wasn’t what I was talking about,” Quincy interjected, her eyes glaring daggers.

“I know.” The warrior smiled, but had a note of exhaustion to it.  “I know that.”  She sighed and let herself fall back.  “If I think I can, I would move things.  Always.  Without hesitation.” She held up her hands and Quincy narrowed her eyes as she watched the shadows splay across Elmiryn’s eyes like crossed bones.  “I would move what I could and what I can because it makes me feel right.  I guess I’m immature–still fascinated by cause and effect and all that.  I might’ve been a good artist.  Or a craftsmen.” Her voice grew faint. “It has to be mine.  The cause and the effect, I mean.  So long as I see a chance for that, I go for it.  I like feeling like I have some weight.  That the world still responds to me.  It’s been…harder lately.  To get that feeling.  I think I push too hard, looking for it, but I don’t know till after everything’s said and done.  If I think about it, I can sort out everything in my head.  But sometimes it takes too long.  Sometimes, like I said, I just let myself be irrational.  Nyx helps me.  Maybe…fuck…maybe I let myself think out of bounds just because I know she’s there?  I think, ‘Now I don’t have to fight so hard’.  But she’s not here.  She’s not here, and even when I fuck up, I still care.  That’s a good thing…I guess.”  She shifted on the ground so that she could look Quincy more directly in the face.  “Hey…”

Quincy blinked at her.  “Yes?”

“I was being an asshat, wasn’t I?”

The brunette glanced over her shoulder at the nothingness.  She quirked an eyebrow as she looked at Elmiryn with a puckered mouth.  “You did nearly chase me off into the oblivion.”

The warrior chuckled.  “If Nyx were here, she’d have told me that.  ‘Elle, you’re being an asshat.  Stop it.’  And then I’d get to hear her curse, because she hardly ever does, and I would’ve done anything she told me, at that point.  I might grumble, to prove a point.  But fuck me…sometimes…sometimes I forget what my point was.  …Is.  …Was.”  Her humor died away and the wizard thought of Hakeem and the way he’d sigh and bury his face in his hands.  The memory of this gave her the desire to make it up to him somehow.  She waited for it to pass.

It didn’t.

“Anyways–yes and no, Quincy.  I think about what I do some of the time.  Technically, I think about what I do all the time, but maybe not as much as I should given certain situations.  Like now,” Elmiryn finished in a mumble.  Then she added.  “You’ve calmed down a lot.”

“So have you.”  Quincy smirked, but her lips trembled and it was short lived.  “I think it’s the shock at work.”

Elmiryn sat up, her legs bending at the knees.  She gave the wizard a hard look.  “Wizard, you really don’t seem alright.  ‘Shock’ aside.”

Quincy lifted a shaking hand to wipe at her nose, which had started to run.  At least her sinus pressure was gone.  “I don’t feel like me,” she muttered.  She expected there to be more questions, and she was prepared to resist them–though she wondered why she admitted as much as she did to begin with–but Elmiryn just nodded, her face going somber as she looked at the worn-out knees of her pants.

Instead she just said, “How about this.  How about–if you want, we can have another go.  Like in Belcliff.  And it’ll be to the death.  But it has to be after all our goals are met.  We have to work together so that we can fight each other later.”

“What if I don’t want to fight?” The wizard asked, standing.  Elmiryn stood as well.

She grinned and pointed at herself.  “You want to pass up the chance to punch me in the face?”

“But I can do that now and suffer no real repercussion.”

“Okay, what about the chance to play with my dead body?”

Quincy stared at her, wide-eyed.  “Pardon me?”

Elmiryn looked down at herself, then back up.  She blinked a few times.  “You wouldn’t want this prize meat at your disposal?” Her shoulders sagged as her expression turned crestfallen.  “You don’t find me attractive?”

The wizard ruffled her russet hair.  “Argh!  Why do we have to get on the topic of necrophilia for you to understand that I don’t find you attractive!?

“I thought you were playing hard to get?”  Elmiryn blinked.  Once.  Twice.

“I have a husband.”

Elmiryn blinked again.  “You want to know what that translates to me?  Secret rendezvous points and lots of drunken fucking.”

Quincy bared her teeth.  “When can I kill you again?”

“We work together now.  Kill each other later.”  The woman’s eyes fluttered again.

The wizard pinched the bridge of her nose, eyes slipping closed.  If her near-death was any indication, she was going to need help getting through this bizarre spiritual realm.  Her emotions were hard to control, and she admitted silently that the matter would not be fixed with Elmiryn’s absence.  None of this made her any more eager.

“Fine Fiamman, but only if you stop pushing me.  It’s…taxing.  I’m loathe to say it, but…” and here Quincy sighed, letting her hand fall away.  “Tonatiuh’s absence leaves my self-control lacking.  I’m not used to feeling so much.  I won’t be of any use if half the time I’m wanting to cave in your skull.”

“If by pushing, you mean my teasing, then yes.  I’ll stop that.”  The warrior wagged a finger.  “But that won’t mean I’m going to roll over for you just because you’re apt to crying and throwing a fit.  If I’ve got something important on my mind, nicely worded or not, my ass is going to say it.”  Elmiryn shrugged.  “Of course, you’re free to get mad at me.  I’m sort’ve used to it.  I’ll even let you slap me.  On the ass.”  She blinked as she said this.

“Is this your idea of easing off?”

“No, this is just my way of saying I think we’d be great fuck buddies if not a pair of honorable rivals.”

“How about we leave it at honorable rivals?”

“Did I mention I frequently make out with my rivals?”

Quincy, red-faced, turned as if to walk away.

Elmiryn jumped before her, laughing.  “Done!  I’m done!  I had to get that out, I’m sorry.”

Quincy crossed her arms.  She tongued her cheek, her gaze hard.  Elmiryn seemed to struggle to make herself appear as innocuous as possible.  Finally the wizard came to a decision.  “Okay, Elmiryn.  Alright.  We’ll work together for now and settle the rest later.”

“Okay.”  Elmiryn blinked in response, her brow turning wrinkled.

The wizard slapped a hand to her face.  “And for the love of Halward, stop trying to wink at me.  You can’t anymore.  Just get over it!”

“But it feels weird!” The warrior complained rubbing at her eyes with both hands.

“That’s just because you keep thinking about it!”

“What if I pulled my eyelid down with my finger, does that count as a wink?”

Quincy’s mouth screwed up, like it wasn’t certain if it should frown or grin.  “…When can I kill you again?”

ELMIRYN________________________

Back at the copse.

“I’m glad you two worked it out,” Sedwick said as they approached.

Elmiryn shrugged.  “Yeah, sorta.  We’re gonna settle it all later.”

“Once I calmed down, I saw that I wasn’t in the position to refuse what help I can get.  Postponing things sounded like the best option,” Quincy added pragmatically.

Sedwick stared between them.  “And…you’re okay with this?  The both of you?”

The women glanced at each other.  Elmiryn noted that Quincy didn’t pull her hood up again, and though her face was still a bit pink and puffy from her previous agitation, her azure eyes were clearer.  More focused.  She supposed a near-death scare and a gentleman’s agreement was enough to set anyone straight.  As promised, the warrior resisted the urge to tease Quincy further.  Part of the fun was lost in it, too.  Tearing the wizard down when she was at her weakest seemed unsportsmanlike and far too easy.

Both women turned to the man, speaking simultaneously.

“Yeah.  It works for me.”

“It’s reasonable enough.”

“I mean, our situations are definitely…”

“Yes.  It’s odd but…”

“We’re fine with it,” they finished at the same time.

Sedwick rubbed the side of his face.  “Ah…okay?”

“Where’s Nadī?” Quincy asked, stepping away to have a better view of the area.

The man jerked his head.  “She went to clear the Way for you both.  With all the spirits coming in, it might’ve been dangerous for you two to try and pass through.”  He turned and started walking, and both women followed him.

If they were in the physical realm, then they would’ve been heading southwest, but given the nature of the Other Place, Elmiryn wondered what significance such concepts had in the world.  They walked in silence.  The lack of interaction left the warrior wanting, and her eyes roved over their surroundings for anything of interest.  Her eyes fell on something yards away to the right.  A small creature, with a teardrop head, one eye, and a lavender puckered mouth.  It had a sprout of blonde wispy hair, and no arms.  Its skin appeared like a human’s, but seemed shiny like it were hairless and rubbery.  Its feet consisted of two long and thick toes, which it used to pick up rocks and stack them up one atop the other next to trees.  She saw several trees it had already done this for.

“Hullo, little thing!” She called, waving.

The thing jumped, blowing a raspberry as it looked her way with its singular gaze.  Sedwick stopped to see what she was talking to, his attitude unconcerned.  Quincy however, jumped as though she’d heard a bang.

“What’s there?” she asked the warrior in a voice skimming a whisper.

Elmiryn pointed, her throat tightening as she tried to keep the laugh from coming up.  “There.  Right over there.  You see that little one-eyed spirit?”

Sedwick pulled her arm down.  “Don’t point!” he snapped.  “It might take offense.”

“I don’t see it!” Quincy said, vexed.

The being seemed to consider them for a moment.  Then it gave a perfunctory bow and resumed its work.

The woman rubbed the back of her neck.  “What is it doing?”

Sedwick resumed walking.  “It’s just a lesser spirit acting under a spiritual ban.  It seems to be trying to help the trees, somehow.”

“If it’s a lesser spirit, then why’d you make such a big deal about me pointing at it?”

“Because lesser spirits can become greater spirits.  At any rate, it’s just common politeness.”

“I didn’t see it…” Quincy muttered.

Elmiryn looked at her with a grin.  “It wasn’t that big a deal.”  She paused, then turned and squinted at the wizard over her shoulder.  “Hey, come to think of it, you went charging for that cliff earlier.  Did you see where you were going at all?”

Quincy shook her head, a severe frown coming over her face.  “I was distraught, I admit, but I think I would’ve noticed that. One second I was running, the next I was falling.”

“What’s this about a cliff?” Sedwick asked, glancing back.

“Nothing,” Elmiryn and Quincy said.  The man’s expression soured at their refusal to impart the story, but within the next instant they had arrived at their destination and the opportunity was lost.

Nadī stood, arms spread wide as, within the face of the mountain before her, a Window stood.  Elmiryn’s face drew long as she gazed in wonder.  This was even bigger than the one she’d previously entered, and it seemed a level bit more coherent too.  She saw odd contraptions rattle by, creatures she knew not the names to, and colors that had no place in her world.  Off in the distance, she saw the silhouettes of beings traveling, and guessed them to be spirits.

The trees about them had thinned once more, sparing a more open view of their surroundings, which was overrun by tall grass and shrubbery.  Daisies swayed, leaves waving in a friendly hello.  Elmiryn took her eyes away from the marvel of the Window and smiled, waving back at them.  “Hello!” she said.

Quincy had fallen back and appeared to draw into herself.  Elmiryn didn’t know why.  She seemed unconcerned, or possibly unaware, of the great Window.  Instead her eyes were on the meadow grass about her, her breath turned clipped as said grass started to bend in her direction, tangling and weaving into a thick blanket that stopped her from walking forward.  The blades roved over her legs and the woman looked to Elmiryn and Sedwick for help, her hands held up like she were afraid the grass would touch them.  “I can’t move!” she exclaimed.

Elmiryn bit her lip to keep from grinning.  Sedwick brushed by her and went to the brunette, his movements relaxed.  The grass seemed to part from him, but in a manner that the warrior saw more as a sign of respect versus fear or revulsion.  He lifted a hand.  Blowing softly across his palm, a light mist of water appeared, coating the tall grass.  A small sigh was heard, and the grass around the woman relaxed, releasing their hold of the wizard.

“There,” Sedwick said.  His voice held a smile to it.  “Don’t mind them.  Sometimes, they get a little too friendly.  I bet they just find you interesting.  You have a lot residual energy about you.  Nadī tells me that’s common among wizards.”

“I like them,” Elmiryn said, reaching down to brush her hand through the sea of swaying meadow.  A chorus of giggles met her and she smiled.

The environment usually gains a sort of cognizance around these Paths,” Nadī said as she came near.  The grass parted for her, much as they did Sedwick. “Something about the raw energy makes these things animated.  It isn’t possession so much as…spiritual evolution.

“Agnitio?” Quincy asked, staring at the grass.

Elmiryn squinted.  “What?”

“It is higher thought, empathy, emotion.  People confuse it with life, but that’s not what it is.  A plant has life.  Studies have shown that they do have a simple animus.  But they lack awareness.  That is agnitio.”

Elmiryn eyes glazed, a gentle curve took her lips and a warmth spread through her as words echoed through her head, devoid of images but powerful all the same.  “Nyx told me a story once about the Spider of the West.  She had figured out how to give agnitio without the gods.  Is that the same thing?”

Quincy grabbed the warrior’s shoulder.  Her hand felt sweaty.  Elmiryn quirked an eyebrow as the wizard stepped near, her brows knitted together.  “What story?”

“The Wind and the Web,” Elmiryn said with a shrug.  “From that book Tobias gave Nyx.”

Quincy’s mouth grew thin.  She looked to Nadī.  “How do we travel?  We need to get back to Albias.”

“I thought you said there was nothing there?”  The warrior said.

The other woman glanced at her.  “I said the portal wasn’t there.  I didn’t say we wouldn’t find something of interest.  Right now that’s our best lead to finding Syria, and possibly the others.”

Nadī motioned for them to follow her before she turned with a sweep of her long beautiful hair.  She stopped feet away from the Window.  “You’ll pass through here and continue along the Path.  I’ve cleared the way of all spirits, but you’ll need to hurry.  Some of the greater beings dislike being barred and are pushing at my barricades as we speak.”  She gestured toward Sedwick.  “As I cannot leave my domain, Sedwick will accompany you for as long as necessary.  He will guide you through this realm and help in any way he can.

“I’m not going anywhere with you until you put that thing away.” Elmiryn pointed at Sedwick’s penis unabashedly.

The man scowled at her.  “You didn’t have a problem with it before!”

“I see it this way.  This shard is like your house.  You want to go romping around naked in your house?  Fine.  But when we leave here and find Nyx?  I am not going to do it with a cock out next to me.  Sends the wrong signals, if you know what I mean.”

“No.  I don’t,” Sedwick said flatly, but everything from the waist down turned watery and clear.  “There?” He said, arms crossed.  “Happy?”

“Thank you.”  Elmiryn smirked.  “…Anyways, I don’t know why you’re pouting.  There wasn’t that much to put away–”

The man’s face turned pink.  “Elmiryn–!”

“Where are we supposed to go?” Quincy asked the river guardian, sparing a scornful glance their way.

Nadī blushed, her cheeks turning a deeper blue.  “My apologies, Quincy.  I forget myself.  As you and Elmiryn are human mortals, there are aspects of this realm that may remain hidden to you, as you are not of the spiritual level to be aware of such things.  Likewise, you may see things that are not there. Before you stands a sort of Way, a Path, an Opening.  Stepping through this will set you on the abstract highways that connect the shards. These were carved out by powerful spirits long ago, whose very natures are mysteries even to me.

Elmiryn frowned as Nadī explained this.  She raised a hand, bringing attention her way. “Okay.  Okay…wait.  You just said I’m not supposed to see this thing?  This giant fucking Window right dead in front of me?  Are you joking?”

Everyone blinked, exchanging looks.  Nadī’s expression in particular turned worrisome.  For some reason this bothered the warrior.  “Elmiryn,” the elemental said slowly.  “You…see this?

The warrior swiped at her nose and crossed her arms over her chest.  A light frown fell over her eyes as she gave a perfunctory nod. “Yeah!  It’s a little hard to miss!”

Nadī looked at Sedwick.  “Was there something odd about her when you found her, Sedwick?

The man had a blank look, his mouth a little open.  “Ahh…” he rubbed the side of his face.  “No.  I didn’t see anything.”

“What does it matter?” Elmiryn said with a shrug.

“Elmiryn, you have problems with your perception,” Sedwick said.  He gestured to her and the wizard.  “Between you and Quincy, it’d be reasonable to guess that you would be the one to have more trouble discerning these surroundings.  Now that I think on it, it has been the other way around.  In fact, you’ve been pretty good on keeping a straight head here, even given your recent encounters.  But from what I can recall from our shared memories all those months ago…you were prone to confusing things even on the smallest level.  Only you’ve been very lucid here.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” But Elmiryn’s chest was clenching.

Quincy looked at the warrior sidelong.  “Fiamman…even I’m getting the implications here.”

Nadī gazed at Elmiryn grimly.  “Did Meznik do something to you, Elmiryn?

The warrior swallowed hard.  “He…gave me something.  I was having trouble pulling my body back out of the nothingness.  He gave me something and it made me–”  but she stopped short as a cold swept over her skin.

Sedwick bowed his head, his face turning hard.  “It’s made you less human,” he said quietly.

Nadī stepped near him and gently placed a hand on his back, her expression remorseful.  Elmiryn swallowed through a tight throat, feeling surges of anger as she played her conversation with the demon through her head.  She pressed her knuckles into her eyes and tried to contain the shiver of revulsion that went through her.  When she dropped her hand, her knuckles came away damp.

There was an awkward cough.  Quincy spoke.  “It might be a bit extreme to put it that way.  Maybe she just lost something, like I did?  We might be able to get it back.”

Yes!” the elemental gushed, “This may well be the case! In any case, I’m sorry to be so brusque, but you all must go.  I feel my barricades slipping,”

Elmiryn rubbed at her face.  When she looked up again, she wore a fixed smile.  “Alright.” She looked to Sedwick.  “Ready?”  Her cerulean eyes pierced into him.

The man gazed at Nadī, his brows pressed together.  “I’ll be back soon.”  He ran a hand over his bald head and gave a resolute nod.  “Ladies, let’s go.”

The river guardian stepped back as Elmiryn and Quincy faced the Window with Sedwick in front.  When he walked in, they followed.

.

..

….

…..

The second time there, she found she wasn’t as taken in as she was previously.  Her wizard companion, however, seems a bit overwhelmed by the fascinating sights.  Elmiryn pulls her along by the arm.  You don’t want to dawdle, she says.  Believe me.

Sedwick is ahead of them, moving briskly, his arms swinging back and forth and sometimes wavering like his body craved to be as water.  She wondered if it were possible to discover other realms by Traveling like this.  She thought it had been suggested before.

There was a familiar glow on the horizon.

Much like before, they followed the Way in the direction of this light.  But she recalled something the twig spirit had said to her. At the strange crossroads, it had said she must start at the last before reaching the first, where her true desire could be found.  If she were returning from Gamath, where she had first wound up, then she needed to go to the next path…

The air grows thick.  Her nose wrinkles as she catches a whiff of something strong and repulsive.  Do you smell that? Quincy asks.  It’s like brimstone…

Up ahead Sedwick shouts at them to hurry.  He sounds agitated.

She starts to run, dragging the wizard with her.  The air is becoming hazy and it burns her eyes.  She starts to cough.

Some part of her knew better.  Looking over her shoulder was like begging for the unknown to become known, and that was like an invitation.  Maybe it wasn’t aware of them.  Maybe all they had to do was hurry on by it, whatever it was.  She looked over shoulder anyway.

That was when the smoke spirit fixed its fiery eyes on her and the woman cursed.

Run, run! She screams as she sprints.  Up ahead, through the haze, the light was growing nearer.

They make it.  It’s the crossroads again, with its five paths.  But the spirit is still right behind them.  There is a looming hiss that reminds of burning wood.  Smoke swirls about her legs and pulls them out from under her.  She loses her grip on the wizard as the being pulls her toward it, its smoke swallowing her.  Suffocating her.

She hears running water.  Sedwick shouts as he cuts a swath through the smoke, his body nearly all water, whipping and lashing and spraying.  He has a fluidity he lacked in his human life.  She admires this as he pulls her free, his hands wet on her skin.  He’s shouting that there’s only one way they can go, and it goes down.

She’s still coughing and wheezing when he literally throws her forward, to the only Way that was open.  As she falls, Sedwick and Quincy are right behind.

…..

….

..

.

Elmiryn groaned and batted her eyes open.  All around her was dark.  “What…?”

“We made it.” Sedwick further ahead of her.  He sounded a little winded.  “I just managed to close the Way behind us, but…” his voice turned angry.  “Elmiryn, why did you look at it!?”

The warrior winced and sat up.  “Oh you mean the big–”

“Yes, that–” Quincy sliced in from somewhere to the right.

“It was a being of vengeance.  Probably born from a forest being burned down for development.  We would’ve been fine if you hadn’t have looked at it,” Sedwick finished, his tone on the verge of being livid.

Elmiryn strained her eyes in the dark and her nose flared to the smell of soil and rock.  There was also the scent of some strong gas swirling about the stale air.  She coughed and felt like smoke was still in her lungs.  The woman wheezed and leaned back, tilting her head.  She coughed again into the air.

“Where are we?  This isn’t Albias,” There’s a rustle as Quincy stands and shakes out her cloak.

Sedwick lets out a short exhale through his nose.  “The other Ways were blocked,”  His voice turned gravelly.  “I don’t like this.  Our path was being guided.”

“Forced sounds more appropriate,” Quincy said.  The crunch of boots along the ground.  “…Well, clearly we’re underground somewhere.”

“Why the hell would we end up underground?” Elmiryn said with a scratchy voice.  “The nearest shards would all be from the Sibesona, right?  What place on the Sibesona would be underground?”

The other two said nothing for a moment.  Then Quincy cursed.  “Tai’undu!”

The warrior crawled around, her hands groping blindly in the dark.  “What, wizard?”

“Quincy?  Do you know?” Sedwick said quickly.

“I just had an idea,” The brunette admitted reluctantly.  “It’s most likely the answer, but I can’t be certain until we explore further…and it might be dangerous to.”

“Well what the fuck’re we supposed to do?  Sit on our asses till a solution goes crawling by?” Elmiryn found the wall–made of rock, and used it as her support as she stood up from her knees.  “Out with it, Quincy.  Where are we?”

“I’m getting to that, you crass idiot,” The wizard snapped.  She took a deep breath to calm herself.  When she spoke again, she was calmer, but also sounded tired.  “I believe we’re in the abandoned dwarf colony of Albias.  And given what I know…it is most likely teeming with angry spirits.”

Elmiryn blinked.  Then she shook her head emphatically.  “Fuck that.  Quincy, you’re fired.  Sedwick!” The warrior snapped her fingers and pointed at the shadow adjacent to her. “I just found out that I could be not-quite-human, so I really need to kill something.  Nothing more human than that, right?  Tell me we’ll face something I can actually stab!

“Elmiryn,” Sedwick sighed, “We’re most likely in the abandoned dwarf colony of Albias which is filled with very unstabbable angry spirits.”

“…Sedwick, you’re fired.”


Back to Chapter 19.3 | Forward to Chapter 19.5

Chapter 19.5

NYX____________________________

Cataclysm.  Noun.  A large-scale and violent event in the natural world.

Hrmph.

You can’t find this in those dusty old tomes scholars paw over, nor the scrolls bandied about by intellectuals or historians.  You don’t know weight, you don’t know energy, you don’t know raw feeling until you feel the sensation of shrinking and expanding all at once.  Pores tearing open.  A vibration felt down to the marrow.  And I don’t know if one can call it pain.  That’s the strange part.

It was more like an awakening.

I had hardly stated my choice when all of this hit me.  It was an unseen force, pushing and pulling at me.  I gasped, not able to breath, and felt invisible hands lift me up from my insides.  Argos cantered back, his ears drawn against his head and his tail tucked.  He started to bark anxiously at me, but he sounded far away.  Every inch of me was flushed and sweating profusely.

Then the pressure and the energy was gone.  I fell to the ground in a crumple and my eyes rolled into the back of my head.

When I came to, I had not been moved like last time.  Argos had lain out next to me and jerked up, his ears perked as I groaned and touched a hand to my head.  Whining, he lounged across my chest and started licking at my face eagerly.  Even when he tried not to put all of his weight over me, he still squeezed some of the air from my lungs.

And sweet Aelurus, he needed a wash!

“Argos, stop it, stop!  You’re going to make me sick!” I said weakly, pushing at him.

That was when I saw Lacertli in the form of the fiery lizard appear on the dog’s head.  Argos turned still, conscious of the fact that throwing this creature off of him was probably a horrible mistake.  The god’s tongue flicked, and he turned his head to the side to fix its yellow gaze on me.  “Ah.  Nyx.  Thou hast risen,” Lacertli said. You are of sturdy make to be conscious so soon!  Others like you either remained recumbent for weeks or died outright.  But this is fitting.  You must be strong to represent me.

“Lacertli?” I blinked at him.  My voice sounded reedy.  “What happened?”

Mm…it is hard to explain to you.  The best a mortal like yourself may understand it is that a contract has just been sealed.  Thou art now my champion.  A level of my power and a certain control over my domain hath been bestowed to thee.

I rubbed my forehead, then stared at my hand.  I clenched my fist.  “I feel so heavy.”

The lizard let out a brief hiss as it nodded.  “Aye.  Your animus has been laced with my being, and this gives you a greater spiritual weight.  You are still your petite size, in terms of matter–but walk into a crowded room, and all that laid eyes on you would know the ethereal presence of you.  We are connected now, you and I.

I moved to sit up, and Argos shifted back, still conscious of Lacertli on his head so that he tried not to disturb him at all.  If I’d been of a mind to take note of it, I would’ve found it comical.  “Sir, why are you a lizard?” I asked, scratching Argos under the chin.  I seemed locked in an eternal series of questions.  I was trying to understand this phenomenal event, even down to the mundane details–things that I could’ve figured out if I had tried.  But everything felt so beyond me that I was afraid to make such assumptions.

It is my chosen standard,” Lacertli replied. “This humble creature embodies the principles that I find paramount.

“Um…no, I’m sorry.  What I meant was, why are you currently in that form?”

Take care in wording your queries and anything else that takes flight from thine mouth, vermagus.  For your kind, speech is a potent thing, and in this place, a being’s word can be as good as currency.”  He swiped his arm against the side of his face where he brushed off a small parasite crawling over his rough skin. This lizard is one of my avatars.  The elf merchant is but one of my skins, and I can only assume it when in the shadows of dreams.  In this form, however, I may accompany thee, anywhere. It shall be my usual relation with thee once we have left this realm.

“That’ll be odd, having a god on my shoulder,” I mumbled with dubiety. “What if something happens to you, sir?”

Lacertli shrugged, his eyes slipping closed.  It was an unusual mannerism to see on this little lizard body.  “It is but an avatar.  I can make another.  You will find that, unless I care to occupy it, this creature will be like any other of its kind…but perhaps a bit smarter.  Much like your companion here.”  The god careful leaned over to peer into one of Argos’ eyes.  “Thank you.  You may set me down now.

The dog panted, his tail wagging, and lowered himself to the ground, laying his head down on the stone.  Lacertli clambered off of him and onto my lap.  His claws made me wince, but mostly because I wasn’t used to it.  “Come now,” He hissed.  “We’ve work to do!

I took the hint and held my hand to him, carefully, he climbed on.  I raised him to my shoulder, hunching a little, and he slithered to the other side.  His smooth belly felt cold against me.  Taking his long tail, he wrapped it around my throat–not tight, but firmly enough to give him anchor.

“Sir, how am I going to get off this shard?” I asked as I rose.

The lizard hissed at me.  “It is as I said before.  There is a way, but the obstacles must be cleared from your path.  They not only bar your leave, but the usual manner of Travel here.  As my champion, your first task is to rectify this.

“By killing them?  How does one go about killing spirits?”  I couldn’t help but sound skeptical.

Lacertli nipped me on the shoulder and I flinched.  “Did that hurt?” he asked.

I looked at him, scandalized.  “Yes!  Yes, sir, it did!”

Then the same will work on these spirits,” he snapped. They are as I–beings tied closely to the physical realm.  You can strike their flesh.  They are not ghosts.  So cease your doubts.

“Y-Yes sir…”  I turned and looked out over the desolate forest.  “I won’t have to go far, will I…?  To find those dogs, I mean.”

Nay,” Lacertli said, his voice quiet as he raised his head to see farther.  “And they are not the only things to be found in this forest.  But thou art a champion now.  The occasion must be marked.  Proclaim.

“Um…Sorry?” I twisted my head to gaze at the god.  I was afraid he’d bite my ear next for my uncertainty.

Proclaim to this sickened forest your new station.  Use the power within you.”

I frowned anxiously.  “I don’t know how to do that!”

You’re doing it now.  All that is needed is a bit more conviction.

I didn’t know what else to say, so I just sighed and walked forward several paces.  Argos padded after me, his tongue lolling.  I scratched at my head.  “How should I word it…?”

Your name is a good start.” The god offered dryly.

I blushed and gave him a resentful glare, only to remember who it was I was glaring at, and had the expression replaced immediately with alarm.  “Of course, sir!  My apologies.”  I bowed my head and let out another breath.  When I raised it again I took a deep inhalation from my diaphragm and shouted as loud as I could.  “I am Nyx, the–” I stopped short, my expression faltering.

What is it?” Lacertli asked with a sigh.

I scratched my head.  “That didn’t sound like a good start…” I mumbled.  I could feel my stomach cramp up and shivers set in.  It was like giving a report in front of Leander.  Thinking of my old Navi didn’t help, of course.

I didn’t choose you because you were a poet, girl.

“Apologies…” I kneaded my brow.  One might wonder why it was I was so particular about this.  What more was there to say?

I am Nyx, champion of Lacertli! Like a hello and a goodbye–hardly leaving room for chatter.  But I couldn’t do that.  It didn’t feel right.  And there was, of course, the hidden fear that if I said something wrong, like–I am Nyx, champion of Lacertli…and I will defeat you all! I could very well find myself up to the ears in spiritual reckoning.

I wanted to say something that felt…true to me.  Lacertli said I needed to proclaim, to mark the occasion, and if it was to be marked by my Words then it had to be right.  I needed it to sound right.  I cast about my thoughts and memories, looking for something, anything, to draw inspiration from.  My eyes slipped closed.  The indefinite security, the darkness, the inward sea found behind my eyelids spared me the sharper twinges of panic that blocked my expression.  I tried to think of something that made me feel…

Warm.

…I thought of Gamath, when the rains had returned and Elmiryn and I came in from the downpour.  I remembered firelight–the heat of those flames rivaled by the heat that overcame me.  The warrior so close to me.  My hands so close to her.  The redhead, mumbling her quiet insanities…Which felt unfair to say.  Terribly unfair to say.  Because I understood her.  It made me nervous then, but now it only made me feel…warm.  Not in a way that made one think of wellness or illness, good or bad, light or dark–just a reality set in between.  An understanding.  A kinship.  And maybe that explained our relationship, despite our differences?

“Haven’t you ever felt like your insides were cold?” Elmiryn said suddenly, like a machine startled to life.  ”As if the heat of the world can’t penetrate the shallow layers of your skin?”

“Yes,” I thought.

We were a madness in kind.

Fresh tears clung to my eyelashes and a lump appeared in my throat, but I raised my head.  I spoke, letting my feelings guide me.  “Spirits!  Hear me…”  I took a step forward and clenched my fists.  “Hear me! I am Nyx!  Daughter of Fotini!  Sister to the warrior hero Thaddeus!  I have come here, not of my own volition, but I will leave here of it!  I am Marked.  I am scourge to the living as you are, but I will leave here.  I have always been of the night and the shadows and the darkness.  I know your pain!  I know it and I share in it, spirits–!”  I sobbed and wiped at my eyes.  “If you…you hurt…if you ache.  If you know anger.  Come to me.  And I will relieve you of it!”  I bared my teeth.  I tried to steel myself and ended up screaming, my hands slashing through the air in my fierceness.  “I am Nyx, the champion of Lacertli, and I will take your debts!  I will give you passage onto something better!  Spirits, hear me!  Come and find your peace!

My voice echoed through the forest.

I fell to my knees, breath shuddering past my lips.

Lacertli looked at me.  “Mmm…that was good, Vermagus. The occasion is well marked.

“Thank you, Lacertli,” I whispered.  I panted and leaned over onto my knees.

Argos came near, his wet nose against my ear when he snorted softly.  When I was down on my knees and hunched over, he easily towered over me, even when sitting.  I looked at him and pet his fur.  “Was that good, Argos?” I asked, smiling shakily.  The expression was short lived.  “Gods, but what am I going to do about those dogs when they come?  …I hate dogs.”

Argos let out a growl, his dark eyes blinking at me.

I looked at him, nonplussed.

“Huh?” Then my face drew long and I shook my head.  “Oh, no, no, no!  I’m sorry!  I don’t hate you!”  Then I paused and scrunched my nose up.  “Sweet Aelurus, I’m falling over myself to apologize to a–!”  Argos let out a loud growl and shifted to turn his back to me.  I slapped a hand to my head.  “Ah!  No!  That–Argos, that isn’t to say you aren’t worth apologizing to–!

Vermagus.  Pay attention,” Lacertli hissed on my shoulder.

I jerked and gazed at the god on my shoulder.  There was something sharp of his voice.  It was the same weight that had been leveled at me before, and it set me rigid.  “Yes, sir?” I breathed.

He gestured with his snout off to the left, and my eyes turned that way.  My breath caught.  Shifting through the gray trees was a figure.  It shambled along the ground, like it were on crippled limbs.  I couldn’t make out its head, the thing was so misshapen.  As it neared, clearing the mist and the assailing ash that seemed to float and drift aimless in this place, I saw it was a gray thing–like the trees about us.  Its legs were short, but the flesh about its hips bulged, wrinkled and suffered from cellulite.  Disformed feet could be seen at the ends of these grotesque things, like its legs had been stuffed in like accordions.  Its stomach was like a round pale ball, barely quivering like it were so dense that it could hardly consider it.  Its arms were not symmetrical–for the left was skinny and had four elbows where it bent, and the right was a thick stick that stubbed into the dirt.  Its head, like its feet, seemed stuffed into its neck, and large dark eyes with long lashes fluttered at me as it came near.

Nyx and LacertliI resisted the urge to run.  Lacertli didn’t seem set with any alarm.  Argos stood and growled, but I set a hand on his snout, gently quieting him.  My eyes remained on the strange creature.

It stopped yards away.  Then, laboriously….it laid itself onto the ground face down.

I stared at it.  “Sir…what is it doing?”

It supplicates,” The being hissed on my shoulder.  His tail tightened a little on my throat as he turned and raised himself to gaze off in a different direction.  I followed his eyes and saw, with a start, that more were coming.

They were of different shapes and sizes.  Most were gray, naked creatures like the one that lay before me, but still others had coats of black fur.  Hard shells, and scaly skin.  Some seemed made of stone.

Each came, and without words, they knelt, or if they couldn’t, laid themselves before me.  I guessed them to be at about a hundred.

I was flabbergasted.  My heart pounded at this show and I took a step back.  Lacertli spat at me, making me jump.  “Nay!  Thou hast promised them peace under my name!  I would have thee keep your promise. Steel your resolve.

“B-But how, sir?  What am I supposed to…?”

Listen, and I shall tell thee.”  Lacertli shifted on my shoulder, pressing forward so that he hung by his tail practically.  Paws against my right breast he gestured with his snout at the crowd of spirits.  “Look inward, as when thou spoke with thine Twin.

I nodded and closed my eyes.  Turning inward was jarring.  It illustrated, in a way that words couldn’t, the gravity of my Twin’s absence.  Because in truth…I felt no different.  I still felt like me, still felt like everything that was ever mine was in my possession.  But that was the problem wasn’t it?  We were disjointed, disconnected, continually at odds.  That sort of intuition was lost to me.  We truly were like two beings apart, but now literally so.

My mindscape felt smaller, even as I pushed, peering with my inner eye to where Her sanctuary was supposed to be.  Nothing.

Lacertli’s voice was in my head, and it hardly startled me.  Now that we were “joined” his presence already felt at home in my head.

“Do not waste time seeking out thine Twin.  I have stated that she is not here.  Instead, follow me.  Your first lesson as my champion is to learn the ways of the Dreamwalker.”

I was scared.  Naturally.  “What–”

“Listen. Follow me.  Deep.  To the places where your memories lurk.  Where dreams are born.  Here is the misty place that will give you entry to the shadows.”

I pressed, down into myself.  I followed Lacertli’s voice, like it were leading me through a vast labyrinth.  Going into one’s head, as I’ve understood it, was never a literal thing for most.  Even my race of therians knew it was just metaphorical in nature–the idea of going “inside” and facing down their bestial self.  But I have stood in the dead soil that was Her world.  Saw the lonely canyons that my Twin stalked, where ghosts pulsed in the rock from memories of painful transformations and heartbreak.  There was weight and feeling in that secret place.  And it was all in my head.

…Putting it that way, I didn’t sound much better than Elmiryn, did I?

Irregardless, I followed Lacertli into this scary world–My world, as of yet explored, because the emotions here were like noxious gases trying to choke the life from me.  I couldn’t breathe.  I clutched at my throat as I stumbled, following the god’s disembodied voice through a gray and black valley that whistled gloomily.

“Nearly there.”

And as we crested a sandy slope, I felt something come over me.  A breath.  And with that, a pressure I hadn’t been aware of was gone, like the universe expanded, and before me was the very scene I knew myself to be present at in the real world.  But…

The trees were crooked, twisting to unnatural dimensions.  The sky was pulsing blood red.  Strangely, the trees lacked shadows.  And all those poor spirits, bedraggled and rueful and miserable in appearance were not the monstrosities that they were in the real world.  “Nymphs,” I whispered.  My voice choking as I took them all in.  “Ailurans.  Elves.  Deers, foxes, rabbits, bears…ah gods, what had they become!?”

And then there was Lacertli, once more in the guise of Marquis, his sharp eyes lighting my way.  He gazed at the spirits, whose forms trailed with smoke, and whose shadows clawed at the ground despite their owners stillness, their white eyes screaming.  “They are trapped.  Each of them came here, and in some way perished here.  The misery and the evil of this place have twisted them, leaving them as beasts and horrors to wander lonely and shunned by the natural world.  All they wish is to be returned to that which they have been cast out of.  They wish for release…”  The god pointed with a clawed hand as he crouched.  I crouched with him, squinting my eyes as I followed his gaze.  “There, Nyx.  What chains them are these shadows, who howl and screech in silence.  They have anchored them to the physical world, tying them to the Kreut forest.”  He looked at me, his eyes turned to slits.  “A being cannot exist without shadow.  Destroy these abominations and the spirits they are tied to shall be freed.  They will be unraveled, down to their basest of energies and returned to Life.”

I turned and stared at him.  Slaying shadows?

He closed his eyes and held up a hand.  “Before you ask.  What you must do is reach down and grab the shadows.  Separate them from their hosts.  They will fight you, and it will be a violent process, but you are a dreamwalker now.  The line between the shadows and light, real and imagined, is yours to command.  The shadows may be taken up like any other object, should you wish it.”  He jerked his head.  “Forward, Night Child.  The spirits await thee.”

I swallowed hard.  Wondered briefly what Argos would think of all this commotion–or if any of this would manifest itself in the real world at all.  I moved forward, eyes wide, to the first spirit.  It was an elf woman, with her forehead pressed to the dirt.  I couldn’t see her face.  Just the black phantom that gnashed its black teeth my way, its blank eyes narrowed in hate.

Had she a family in life?  Was she a merchant, an artist, a beggar?

I trembled, but my jaw set tight.  I reached down and grabbed her squirming shadow.

It felt like a strong cold stream of air were being blown against my hands.  The thing seemed weightless, but as I squeezed my hands, I found that my grip stopped at about an inch.  There was a low moan as the shadow looked at me in fear.  With all my body I pulled backward, my eyes squeezed shut and my teeth bared.  I heard the elf spirit scream.  Startled, I opened my eyes again to see the spirit reared back, her pale face drawn long as she screamed open into the air, her eyes glazed in an intense pain.  I let out a gasp, startled at how the shadow literally lifted from the ground, like a thin blanket.  It looked pinned at the elf’s knees.  The shadow batted at me, and I nearly lost my grip of it, but with a hoarse yell I wrapped my arms around it and wrenched back.

The shadow came free, blasting apart in a hiss and a rush of cold air.  The elf woman was gone.  I lay panting on my back where I had fallen, propped up on my elbows.  I looked to Lacertli, who watched me with his fist in his cheek.  “That was one.  Now the others.” He said, pointing with a lax finger.

I frowned, but took a breath and wiped the sweat from my brow.

The work was long and terrible.  The first had turned out to be easy.  The shadows came away one at a time, and some were stronger than others.  One was so strong as to punch me in the mouth and leave me bleeding.  Some of the spirits too, either driven mad by the pain of being essentially ripped apart, tried to fend me off.  But I freed them.  One by one, I freed them, and when the work was done, I thought I was ready to pass out.

I stared glassy-eyed to the forest around me.  All was quiet.  The spirits were all gone.  I let my eyes slip shut.

“Nyx,” Lacertli said over me.  I looked up at him.  His eyes glowed in the darkness, piercing into me.  He gestured with his arm and said, “Look.”

I frowned and stood to my feet, limbs shaking.  I looked around me.  “I don’t see.”

The god snorted.  “Then you aren’t paying attention.  What is different, young one?”

I blinked at him, and looked again.  My eyes widened.  “The trees…are straight.  They were crooked before, but now they’ve straightened.  And they have shadows now.”

“Aye.  The shadows that plagued those poor souls once belonged to these trees.  They fled their homes in search of life, and in doing so carried the taint of the forest to those mortals.  Now that the shadows are returned, balance in this part of the forest is returned.  But there is still work to be done.  Come, let us return.”  He walked, bare feet leaving reptilian prints along the dirt.  He went to the nearest tree, and without a backward glance at me, vanished in its shadow.  I stared after him.

“Lacertli?” I breathed.

I looked over my shoulder, then hurried forward to where he had disappeared.  But I stopped and stared at the bark.  Hesitatingly I reached forward.  My arm went through the tree.  It felt cold.  I pulled it back with a jerk.  I looked over my shoulder one more time.  Then with a deep breath, I stepped through.

I was in a black world.  A place of shifting white lines, like it were a chalk illustration on a black rock.  I covered my mouth with both hands to contain my shout of surprise.  Ahead of me stood Lacertli.  He gestured silently for me to follow him, and I did.  The ground shifted beneath us and for a moment I had trouble keeping my balance.  Then we came to a wall, and he stepped through this.  Unlike last time, I followed him quickly.  I didn’t want to linger in that strange place.

…And we were back.  I blinked as my eyes adjusted to the partial light, and I stared down at my feet, which still felt cold.  They were in the shadow of a tree–one with it.  Up to my shins they were gray and transparent.  I cried out and jumped to the side.  My feet turned solid again, smoke trailing back the way they’d come as though the shadows loathed to be separated.

Then I was knocked to the ground.

Argos was over me, whining and woofing as he licked at my face.  Gasping, I shoved at him with both of my hands.  “Argos, no!  Okay!  Yes, I’m back!  Get off!”  He climbed off me, his tail still wagging.  Scuttling out from behind one of his great paws was Lacertli, once more like a lizard.

That, vermagus,” he said, “Is the way of the dreamwalker.  What you have just done was travel into the subconscious, and from the subconscious, used the shadows to reemerge into this realm.

“Sir,” I said, as I pet Argos on the head. “Did we just…vanish? I thought we were in the same place the whole time, but appearing out of the shadows as we did, and Argos’ reaction, leads me to think that we had actually disappeared.”

Aye.  You had traversed from your subconscious into that of the world’s.  Doing so lead you to vanish from where you stood.

“The world has a subconscious?”

The god chuckled.  “Girl, the universe is a living thing, as much as you are.  Of course it has a subconscious.  How else might this realm exist?

My brow wrinkled.  Was that all we were?  Dreams within dreams?  “I don’t understand, sir.”

And that is fine.  You need only understand how to use this method of Travel.  Come.  We’ve still work to do.  If you hadn’t noticed, not all the spirits answered your call.  But now that you have returned the shadows to their rightful places, they are at your full command. You will need that when facing the black nymphs and the pretas.

I shivered, standing.  “The pretas…”  I swallowed hard.  “You mean those dogs, don’t you?”

What other things would I speak of?

“It’s just…in my culture, pretas were like…humanoids.  But with tiny throats.”

And I suppose all Ailurans are cute kittens with black fur and orange eyes?

I blushed but I couldn’t help but pout too.  I may not have found it as interesting as other cultures, but I thought myself to be well read in the matters of my people.  Apparently, they had a few things wrong.  “So the dogs are pretas,”  I pressed, feeling a bit stubborn.

Aye.”  The lizard chuckled, and he looked at me with a homodont grin.  It looked unnatural.  “Ah, forgive me.  Your recent victory leaves me in good humor.  What is it you Ailurans say?  …Oh yes,” His grin, if possible, broadened.  It made me flinch.  “Draw up your pride, Night Child!  For it is time to remind these ghosts who is master…”


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