Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 20.5

ELMIRYN________________________

Progress translated into the smell of burned flesh, dismembered limbs, and hot ash.  Some of the undead, upon seeing the flames, retreated.  But there were many, many more of them.  These were the ones whose souls and intellect were rotted away and taken over by blood lust.  As the purifying flames blazed away what little semblance of life they had left, the monsters staggered past the wizard, screeching in agony, before they were hacked to pieces by Elmiryn, or torn apart by Sedwick’s watery grip.  The fire billowed forward in an inferno so bright it left all three squinting while, amidst the hot glow, figures writhed and screeched.  The walls were scorched black and the air was filled with thin acrid smoke that made the warrior feel queasy.  She ignored the odor as best she could.

“Hey, are you counting?” Elmiryn shouted at the wizard.  She broke off in a cough.

“It’s a little hard,” Quincy snapped over her shoulder.  Then she added after a moment of thought, “I think I’m up to forty or so.”

“Hmm.” Elmiryn cut through one flame engulfed enemy that came too close to her, then knocked it off to the side with a boot in its flank.  “Sedwick, another one please.” The elemental turned and with a casual swipe of his arm hosed the flaming remains.  The flaming corpses left in Quincy’s wake were turning out to be something of a hazard as they advanced.  The warrior was glad for the chance to use her sword in a way she thought more amusing–the shock of hacking off limbs felt nice–but already she felt the creeping sense of boredom rise up.  After all, with Quincy more or less dispatching most of the monsters, there was hardly anything left for Sedwick or Elmiryn to do but clean up what was left.  The idea of picking up after the wizard made Elmiryn surly.

Ah.  Up ahead, the tunnel was ending!

“Quincy can you up the power or something?” Elmiryn called.  “Let’s get the hell out of this tunnel, the smoke is killing me.”

“Just give me a minute.  This takes concentration.”

Sedwick crushed a struggling monster in his watery arms.  He looked at Quincy’s back. “Quincy?”

“Yes?” Now that the warrior thought about it, the wizard sounded a bit winded.  Just what did it take for those flames to work…?

“How’s this.  If you can focus your fire to clear a line before us, it should be enough to kill any of the undead stuck in our path without any slipping by.  I’ll be right behind you and take care of those on our flanks.  Elmiryn, you’d just have to keep up with us both.  Cut anything that’s somehow still on its feet.”

“I never knew I was such a master of the janitorial arts.  I seem to be doing quite well at it, lately.  But fine,” Elmiryn drew her dagger and twirled her sword around so that the blade rested against her forearm.  “Lead on, oh ye braves!”

Quincy rolled her eyes forward and gripped her arm with her other hand.  One undead soldier reeled back a mighty swing of its rusty double-axe.  The wizard blasted its head off with a giant ball of fire.  The rubies flared on the bands she wore on her fingers and wrist.  “Ready?  Keep up with me now!”  And then the licks of flame, the diffused fury that swallowed and chewed up so many of the nasty creatures before them, focused together into a small orb against the woman’s hand.  It grew hot, almost white, and with a sputter, then a scream, the flame lanced forward what must have been more than six yards.  Those caught on the flanks of this inferno were soon engulfed in the fire as though they’d leapt fully into it.  Those caught in its direct line were all but turned to ash.  Quincy didn’t wait too long after the lance of fire was formed.  With her arm shaking, she charged ahead with Sedwick close behind her, and she blasted away those monsters that would’ve sought to ensnare them.  Elmiryn took after them too, her eyes taking in the sight of the ash covered trail that now dusted her boots.

The tunnel was like a beast’s throat, and with the light and the madness that shifted inside it, the warrior thought for a moment that the walls were actually moving.  The beast of this battle would swallow them whole, back into the darkness that clawed at her back.  An undead soldier grabbed her by the arm, a chain mail hood pulled over its skeletal face.  Her face tightened as she turned to regard the damned thing.  Out of the corner of her eye Sedwick and Quincy were moving on without her.  The black imagination she harbored was gazing balefully at her from the skeleton’s wicked face, where the shadows turned it into a ghastly thing far greater than it was.  Elmiryn recognized the border she was suddenly faced with.  That line between clarity and madness that challenged her so often in the last two weeks.

…But she knew that the tunnel was just a tunnel, and the skeleton was just a mindless creature weak on its own.  She shook the thing off and dispatched it with a hard punch that saw its gaunt face crack, and with a sprint, she was once more in the full glow of Quincy’s light.

“We’re almost there!” Sedwick shouted.

Elmiryn thought about it, even as the lip of the tunnel exit passed over her head and the torch light from the chamber colored her.  Yes, it was wonderful that they would be out of this harmful smoke.  It would also be nice to have room to maneuver.  But given that they were outnumbered, perhaps it was best to find another way to limit their stream of opponents?

The thought came too late.

They broke out of the tunnel in a blast of rage and flames, and the warrior found herself up to the neck in murderous corpses.

NYX____________________________

.

..

….

…..

She wanted to ask questions about this Path, but was certain this would vex Him so she refrained.  It was a little like being under water.  She moved slowly–or seemed to.  There was a delay between her sensory information, as her brain registered a step of her foot before her eyes said it happened.  She saw no color and hundreds of colors.  She saw other worlds like glimmers in the fog.  Towers of metal, beings with hundreds of limbs, strange lands filled with alien plants.

His lizard form was ahead of her and she followed his quick gait with the occasional skip.  His long legs made her feel inferior.  That was understandable.  He was a God.

…And seven feet tall.

Despite her attempt at keeping her confusion quiet, He answered her.  His intuition was keen.

We are Traveling, Lacertli said over his shoulder.  His dark tongue flickered once before he turned his head.

There are channels in the primordial energies that lead from one shard to another, he went on.  We’re following the trail left by your Ghost.  Keep your eyes focused only on the way forward, lest you invite the attention of something dangerous or unwanted.

Sir, what if– the girl started.  She never got to finish.

Lacertli stopped cold, and she with him.  His thick tail thumped on the dark ground.  His reptilian hands tensed.

Abomination! Away with thee! He spat.

Curiosity got the better of her, and the girl peered around her patron–

x

[Pins]And[Needles]

all[along]her[brain]

[a]Woman[?]

[a]twisted[skull]sprouting[with]sparse[branches]

[Trails]of[Willow]Leaves

[eyes]that[wept]blood

x

He shoved her back behind him, hissing.  Fool! Lacertli, spat.  Do not gaze upon it!  But his reprimand was unnecessary.  She felt like her soul were being violated by angry insects–chewing, stabbing, tearing–

GODS, get it out of my head!  She cried, clawing at her face.

She heard a melancholy song on a harp and her body seized up as she recognized it, bloodied fingers stilling on her skin.  It, the creature-woman, spoke to her.

Ooooh…. My little sum of somes is quite a something!  Now my error is known.  Come.  Tell Izma what it was like to break the things she loves…

…..

….

..

.

ELMIRYN________________________

“I’ve got…” Elmiryn sliced her sword through the throat of a Belcliff militia fighter.  He was tall and had little muscle mass.  His skin was gray and green in places.  He tried to grab her with his long arms, but she danced around these to come around his side.  With a strong wrench, the blade of her sword sliced sideways out of the things neck, beheading it.  The undead fell first to his knees, then toppled to the ground.  “30 kills!”

“What you’re doing is entirely juvenile,” Sedwick gurgled as he slithered past her in his water state.

“I have 100.  I think.”  Quincy panted out.  She shook out the hand that wore the magic accessory.  It was looking very pink.

“And yet Quincy, you encourage it,” the elemental sighed.

The wizard shrugged as she stepped back from the clumsy grab of one of the soldiers.  Many of them weren’t very coordinated.  Decayed limbs and all that.

“You can’t be serious.  100 can’t be the exact number,” Elmiryn argued.  She parried one enemy’s attempt at goring her and hacked off its arm.  She had sheathed her dagger in favor of fighting with her sword in the usual fashion.

“You’re right,” the brunette said with a smirk.  “I’m estimating.  I’m pretty sure I have more than that.”

They were in a cleared road where mountains of churned soil and rock towered over machines of steel and copper.  These inventions were like carriages fixed with large shovels at the front.  There were also a few buildings here and there–places where leaders had once coordinated and workers refreshed themselves.  The chamber was a quarter of a mile wide, and from the ceiling hung thick ropes and chains.  On these were lifts.  The dwarfs hadn’t finished rounding out the ceiling yet.  The warrior wondered if it were structurally sound since the work had been left unfinished.

Sedwick and Quincy were capable of much wider damage than Elmiryn.  She felt envious of this.  The elemental was carving out a wide perimeter as he rushed at the enemy in a liquid form.  He swept out their ankles–literally–and the fiends collapsed onto the ground where they crawled, still intent on damage.  Elmiryn stomped several heads in this way.  The elemental took care of most of these as he circled around again.  The wizard, too, was making good use of her fire trinket.  No longer needing to focus the flames, she could blow away one or two of the creatures, or if she pushed it, she swallowed many in a wide blast.

Unlike their predecessors in the tunnel, these undead soldiers retained a level of intelligence.  Given the destruction wrought by Quincy and Sedwick, they attacked more cautiously.  They tried to get Quincy from behind.  Tried to block Sedwick’s path with shields.  They had the presence of mind to help one another.  Work together.  Elmiryn cut at these soldiers.  Their rusted armor gave way to her precision.  She saved the wizard from a crawling undead who looked to slice at her legs, and caught her when the wizard strafed too fast on uneven ground, making her trip.

“Halward help you, wizard, you’re a klutz.”

Shut up, Elmiryn.”

Most of her work was to dispatch those that lingered from the others attacks.  There was plenty going on, she supposed.  Sedwick was the water and Quincy the fire, and she the hungry black hole, picking off what was left.  They were a quarter of the way through the chamber.  The dwarves had said to draw the soldiers to the other side.  Elmiryn wondered how it was the creatures came to be there.  Why it was they were stuck there.  Was limbo boring?  Elmiryn saw her blade cut off the face of a soldier with hollow eyes and a rictus grin, and felt her features flush hot.  The thing hadn’t even been going after her.  It had been going after Quincy, who was hunched over and cradling her arm to her chest.  Sweat dripped from the tip of her nose and she was clawing at the magical jewelry she wore.  The skin was lobster red.

The soldiers surged at the wizard.  One cut her shoulder and she screamed.  Her back arched as she stumbled from her attacker.  Water, moving in a stream around their feet, burst up into the air, then took the form of a man.  Oh.  Sedwick.  No wonder.

Wait.  How much time had passed?  Elmiryn didn’t remember standing at that spot.  One second, they were just approaching a mound of dirt and debris on the right, with a dwarven carriage to their left and back.  The next, both the carriage and the mound were well a ways behind them.  They were halfway through the chamber now.  Elmiryn didn’t remember coming this far.

Quincy threw her trinket to the ground where the redhead saw smoke curl from it.  The thing had been hurting her, and now Quincy had reached its limit.  Or her limit.  Wasn’t it the same?

A gaggle of undead marched past Elmiryn.

Sedwick was saying something, but the dust was louder, and the warrior cocked an ear as she heard the dried blood on the ground tell her the story of the day the winter soldiers came and crushed spring from the hearts of women and children.  The final slaughter had happened here.  The dwarven commoners tried to flee with their dwindling escort, but their attackers had been relentless.  Why?  She started to feel a pins and needles sensation on her hands and feet.  Her head started to hurt.

The woman tried to shake the noises from her head.

“ARRGH!”

Sedwick!! Tai’undu!”

“I’m fine, it just caught me off guard–”

“I didn’t know you could be cut!?”

“I’m an elemental, not invincible.”

The warrior started to feel…

…small and quiet.

“Elmiryn?  Elmiryn!? Where are you??”  Quincy.  With her lobster claw–no, no, no–her hand, she held her rusty sword, and used the pommel to strike enemies in the face and jaw.  The undead were pressing in so close, she couldn’t swing the weapon.  Sedwick was back to back with her, striking at any that came near with his arms turned to whips.  There was a wide cut on the side of his face, and it wept blue water.

Elmiryn watched the scene unfold before her, the pins and needles spreading to her arms and legs.  Her head started to hurt.  She was…alone.  The Belcliff soldiers had completely ignored her in favor of her struggling companions.

Actually, she couldn’t see all this happening because the undead soldiers blocked her view.  They were packed in too close.  That was the truth of it.  She knew it was happening though.  Knew it, without knowing it, without seeing it, because she was…

Feeling it.

Large amounts of dust had gathered around her boots, like the earth was laying a hand over her.

That’s it,” the warrior snapped.  She flipped her sword around so that it rested along her forearm and drew her dagger.  Then Elmiryn pressed into the throng of undead.  Their stench filled her lungs, and she cut at everything she saw.  The smell of them made her sick, but still she pushed forward.  She felt her sword cut into them and the numbness in her pulsed and bowled forward, like the great gaping darkness of the world she had spat in.  She felt her dagger bite into the throat of them and she choked and coughed.

Music.  A jig.  His music.  She was surprised to find that she wasn’t surprised.

Be careful.

No.” The undead still did not acknowledge her.  Not after all the carnage, all the commotion.  All the sweat and pain.  “Bastards, leave them alone!  Look at me!”

“Elmiryn!” Sedwick.  His voice a rough bark over the mob.  There was a blast of water and some of the soldiers were sent flying through the air where they fell on their brethren.  But Sedwick was not Nadi.  He could not command such levels of power.  The undead pressed closer still.  All of a sudden they weren’t so intelligent anymore.  What was happening?

“Elmiryn,” Quincy called out.  “Something’s happening, the soldiers, they aren’t trying to–“

Now, see.  I thought you understood.

Isn’t it terrible to be forgotten?

To be ignored?

“Shut up!”  The more she attacked, the more it hurt.  She cut a shoulder, then her shoulder hurt.  She caved in a skull, her headache threatened to black her out.  And still the undead did not turn her way.

Elmiryn, have you realized yet?

“Meznik…I swear to the gods…”

The undead aren’t fighting.

YOU are.

Isn’t that funny?

Elmiryn threw her head back and screamed.  “SHUT UP!  SHUT UP, YOU FUCKING BASTARD!!

…And the Belcliff soldiers did the same.

Their single cry echoed throughout the chamber.  Silence followed.  Elmiryn trembled as she stopped and stared about her.  The decaying beasts, with their poor armor, and their loveless faces were still.  Quincy stood head and shoulders over them.  She was standing on a rock.  Elmiryn knew this without seeing this.  She felt the wizard’s boots on the damn thing.

Quincy was looking at her with confusion.  The warrior looked down at the ground and saw her boots submerged in dust.  She kicked it off, like she’d found a nasty spider on her.  More dust attracted to her, and gathered about her feet.  It wouldn’t stop.

Elmiryn let out another scream as she brought up her sword and impaled a small soldier in front of her.  Her sword cut through his thin leather and the gambeson underneath.  Her eyes widened.  The numbness tore a hole in her gut.  She turned the sword.  Felt the numbness in her twist.  She fell to her knees and the soldier, still run through with her sword, fell too.  It had never turned around.  The dust stirred, and she spoke through the cracks of the earth, where a rush of mountain air whipped the dust and sand from their rest to cloud the air–

What’s happening!?

You’re losing your definition is what’s happening.

The environment is trying to swallow you up,

Like air trying to fill a space.

Her body was there, still knelt on the ground, but she was out of it.  She was out of it, out of bounds, but still in it.  (“In what?  What the fuck am I in?”)  She saw from the ground, from rocks, from the ceiling, from the air, from the metal, and out of the eyes of the undead (if they had eyes).  She saw from all.  She could even feel the rust on Quincy’s sword.  It had a taste of anger to it.  Not the wizard’s, but from the spirit that had once lived there.

“What’s that music?  Where’s it coming from?” The wizard breathed.  From the warrior’s omnipotent view, she saw her look around, azure eyes in a daze.  Elmiryn tensed, and the walls of the one-story down the road cracked, then caved in on itself.  There was a low rumble and dust fell from the ceiling.

Meznik stop this, don’t bring them into it–

They’re in it whether you want them to be or not.

JUST like your kitten.

Why didn’t you petition mercy for her, if you like her so much?

I’m going to enjoy killing you, you fucking, lowlife, pile of–

Boring.

I’m not the one who decided to exert herself in silly endeavors again.

She screamed and felt hands claw at heads, felt spines curve, and throats tense.  Elmiryn, the real one, the body, the vessel down on her knees, let go of her sword to claw at herself and scream up at the ceiling.  The undead around her did the same.  She felt as one tore its ear off completely.  Felt as another pulled back the skin of its scalp.

The dust and dirt and soil had collected about her.  The world was trying to bury her.  It was up to her hips now.

This is actually quite satisfying.

I’m just not sure this feast is worth the danger you’re placing us in.

She exhaled and the air surged, whipping at them with a howl.

…Everything…is reacting to me.

It’s a temporary thing.

A little longer and you won’t even have a body to puppet.

But I can control this, can’t I?

And if I can do that, then maybe I can push it BACK.

He didn’t answer, and Elmiryn felt something rise in her.  The music started to fade away.  She willed her head, just hers, to raise itself.  The undead about them twitched like they wished to do the same but she willed these down.  She shifted and the dirt that had covered her scattered.  She tried to stand but managed just a crouch.  When she attempted to straighten her legs she felt the ceiling overhead strain.  She stopped cold.

“Quincy?  Sedwick?” She called.  There was a small breeze and the undead mumbled her words, but did not chorus as they had before.

“…Elmiryn,” This was Sedwick.  “Do you mind explaining this to us?”

The redhead smirked.  “Aren’t you the expert on the weird and spiritual?”

“How are you controlling them?  Why aren’t they attacking anymore?” Quincy demanded.  Ah, more to the point.  The warrior loved this about the wizard.

“Um.  Well…have you ever heard of those Higashan warriors capable of shaping their physical environment through charisma alone?”

“Yes?”

“…Okay, it’s nothing like that.  But the results look sort’ve the same.”

“Ah.  It explains how they’re all mumbling idiotese at the same time.  It was disconcerting at first.  An army of yous.  Perish the thought…”

“Love you too, Quincy.”

Sedwick interjected with a sigh.  “Elmiryn would you stand up please?  We can’t see you.”

The warrior winced.  “I would, but I’m afraid of killing us all.  So while I figure out how to move less like a duck without bringing the ceiling down, would you two refrain from killing these rotters?  I sort’ve feel everything you do, and it’s not fun.”

There was a long silence.  Elmiryn returned to the task of reining in her commands when…

OW! Fucking, gods damn it, Quincy!  You’re such a bitch!

The wizard chuckled.  “Sorry.  Had to.”

 


Back to Open Hands | Forward to Chapter 21.1

Chapter 20.4

ELMIRYN________________________

The dwarves were of two groups.  There were the civilians, who were led by the blacksmith that had first approached them, then the warriors that had once comprised the volunteer army, led by the woman dwarf.  With the extempore ceremony done with, the blacksmith introduced himself as Madreg.  He was the finest of his craft and through his work had excelled as far as his station could go, making the best weapons and tools for the leaders and upper-clansmen.  The constant contact with the more refined and honor-bound dwarves made a gentleman of him.  His female companion, however, was of a rougher cloth.  Henriette was an orphan girl who had traveled to Albias from the dwarven colonies of the West, a harsh journey that had tempered her into a hard soul before even setting foot inside the Albian colony.  She had been quick to sign on to the militia, and as she put it, she was one of the last to perish at the hands of the marshal’s men.

“Aye,” she growled.  “And I took down ten of them with me, the dogs!”

Elmiryn, Quincy, and Sedwick followed Henriette and Madreg through the city, which turned out to be quite vast.  They were at the head of a long train of dwarven ghosts, all who sang and hooted behind them.

O’ look, ye braves!
The sun has gone.
The heavens blood,
Has rained so long,
So painted our souls
And belayed our song,
O’ braves, assay, assay.

The wicked snag
Of Night’s long smile
Has shrouded us in
Our sad exile.
Take up your arms,
We rise or sile!
O’ braves, assay, assay.

We’ll sow our rest,
With spent of mercy.
Our graves shall
Gleam in red.
But for those tots,
Whose eyes still shine,
We’d do it all again!

Braves, assay, assay, you lot!
Time hath withered,
We miss it not.
Braves, assay, assay, you lot,
For the darkness
Grows heavier still!

“If it were not for the fact that we were on the move from one task to the other, this could almost be mistaken for a wake,” Quincy mused.  Her eyes had a distant look about them and Elmiryn was wary to comment directly on that.  The wizard was clearly still given to sudden passionate outbursts, however silly and selfish, and the warrior wanted to bring her thoughts to other things.  So, she said instead,  “They sure seem in high spirits.” She then hummed to the tune and tried to commit it to memory.  It was better than that cursed melody which had so raped her life and fortune.  Meznik, you won’t take away my love of music, however vile you make it.

“It is a sad song, I think,” Sedwick commented.

“Everything is sad when you feel as though eternity has folded over on you a thousand times, sir,” Madreg said quietly.  It wasn’t accusing or resentful…but his subdued voice made the warrior gaze at him solemnly.  What was it like to be barred from the natural cycle, be that an eternal afterlife or rebirth?  The dwarves had perished but a few years ago, but stuck in limbo, it must have seemed an age.  The blacksmith went on, and Elmiryn came up near him to hear him better over the singing.  “What they sing now is a song before the battle.  A thousand years ago, when our people had a proper kingdom, the rebels sang it before rising up against their noble oppressors,” Madreg explained.  “Though it was that war that reduced our people to colonies sprinkled throughout the world, taking our glory and our power with it, we have taken comfort in its meaning.”

“Speaks to our situation, like,” Henriette added.

The dwarves behind them finished the song for the second time and were starting it over again.  Elmiryn didn’t mind.  It shook her down to the marrow to hear so many spirits singing as one.  “Where are we headed?”

“To where our remains lay open for molestation, no thanks to that bastard marshal!” Henriette snarled.  “It is such a curse to know that of all the things we can move, either as one or as a whole, that we cannot tend to our remains.  We cannot even help our fellows in death, for we perished under the same hands, on the same soil, on the same day.”

“And so, that dark day binds us,” Madreg said with a grim nod. “What we could do for you friend, we cannot do for ourselves.”

Elmiryn nodded and looked over to the others.  She strained her eyes–a bit out of habit, for she had gotten used to seeing illusions before truth whenever she sought to inspect something in detail.  But to her mind she could find nothing amiss in the quiet determination set into Quincy’s face, nor the pensive shadow that came over Sedwick’s.  She nudged the water elemental in the ribs and felt her elbow come away damp.  “What’re you thinking?” she breathed.  Madreg and Henriette tromped on a little ahead as she matched the man’s step.

He glanced at her and folded his hands behind his back.  “You spoke quite well back there,” he said quietly. “I’m certain Graziano appreciated it.”  The wizard, lost in her own thoughts, and no doubt unable to hear due to the din of the dwarves, did not look their way.

Elmiryn shrugged.  “I have been known to suffer a bout of eloquence now and again.  While it was short lived, I grew up in high society for a time.”

“You?  In high society?”

The woman smirked.  “Is that so surprising?”

Sedwick gazed at her.  Then he shook his head slowly.  “Mmm…no.  Not really.  You’ve certainly got the looks of a noble.”

“I’ve met prettier prostitutes.”

The man frowned at her.  “That’s an odd thing to say.”

“Don’t mistake it for insecurity.  I’m just of the opinion that nobility hasn’t got anything special aside from their gold, and that’s a finite thing.”  Elmiryn shrugged one shoulder.  “Even as a kid, I never really was taken by the pomp and performance.”

At this, Sedwick raised a bald eyebrow. “For one who doesn’t care much for performance…”

“What?” the warrior asked, perhaps a bit sharply.  The man was getting a bit too familiar with her and she found she didn’t like it.  You haven’t got me figured out, Sedwick.  You aren’t going to catch me out and get me blubbering like Quincy.

Sedwick turned his face forward.  Then instead of answering her question, he asked, “Back to what we were talking about before.  You spoke very well for Graziano.  Were you made the speaker for your fallen comrades back in–?” the warrior nudged him, her eyes flashing.  She glanced at Quincy, but the wizard had drifted away from them a few feet and was still deep in her own thoughts.

She glared at the blacksmith. “I don’t know how much she knows about me, and I don’t want to make it easy for her!  If she learns where I come from it could be a great big headache!” she hissed.  Then she sighed and looked forward, arms crossing over her chest.  “Anyway, to answer you…Yes, I usually was the speaker for my men.  Away from home, we had to cremate those lost whilst still on the move.  When were lucky enough to find their remains, we committed them to the fire, and I would say a few words.” Her face grew hard.  “I don’t like funerals.  I don’t like the ceremony.  I’ve been through it too many times to find any real comfort in it anymore.  I always found consolation in action,” she reached behind her and patted the pistol in the seat of her pants as if to drive home her point.

“Hrm.  You truly can say that you can’t find any real solace in the idea that Graziano’s remains have been treated with respect, instead of rotting away, forgotten, where beasts and monsters would molest them?”

Elmiryn sighed and rubbed the back of her neck.  “Damn it.  Of course.  I’m not saying funerals aren’t necessary.  But what does that matter if nothing is done to serve the lost one’s life?  Not his death, but his life.  I find that to be more imperative.  So many people get caught up in death that they forget the life that came before it.”  She scowled and glared at the passing ground.  Then she raised her head, eyes narrowed.  “Can we not talk about this?”

Sedwick glanced at her.  Then nodded.  Instead, he gestured forward at Henriette and Madreg’s backs.  “Y’know, I’m thinking perhaps Quincy was right in some ways,” he breathed.

“How do you mean?” Elmiryn asked, though she thought she could chance a guess…

“Why a battle song as a prelude to a burial?”

The warrior decided to play devil’s advocate.  “A mass burial, as brought on by a battle.  It isn’t entirely unrelated.”

The man snorted, his pale eyes narrowing.  “While the ghosts may not be able to handle their own remains, they can certainly push about the soil and earth.  No.  Something is keeping them away from their final resting place.”

“Do you regret our decision?”

The man thought for a moment.   Then he shook his head.  “It’s as Henriette stated.  This is the way of things.  And while it will be hard, I believe the rewards will make up for our troubles.”

“Me too,” Elmiryn said with a nod.  Then she grinned.  “That, and for once, I’d like something I can face head on.”

Sedwick gave a wry smile.  “Tired of dealing with spirits and elementals who rise above the answer of violence on flesh?”

“My sword is thirsty.  It’s like any horse.  I can’t leave it wanting!  I’ve crossed blades with a few, Quincy being one, but those battles were short and without a true ending.  I want a little satisfaction.”  She’d have very much liked to have Meznik’s head in her hands as a way for that, if only she could be sure the bastard had a head…

“Still,” Sedwick said, rubbing the side of his face. “I worry just what we will face.  We could very well be dealing with more of the same.”

“I feel that I’m growing into an expert of the irregular, Sedwick my friend,” she clapped him on the back with a jaunty grin.  “Whatever we face, we’ll have it on its knees!”

The man looked at her funny, and she raised an eyebrow at him.  “What?” she asked.

“A friend, am I?”

Elmiryn rolled her eyes, but her smile remained in place.  “Halward’s breath!  I cannot bring a name to a relationship without people giving me a strange look–”

“And I imagine all have given you a strange look, at one point, or other ,” Quincy interjected.  She had come out of her reverie and was now leaning in to hear them.  “At least I know where I stand with you.  But poor Sedwick!  To not know what to make of you!” The redhead got the sense that the wizard was perhaps using the conversation as a means of distraction.  She didn’t mind.  If it meant she wouldn’t go on blubbering like she had before, then all the better.  For some reason, seeing Quincy cry really bothered her.

“Now, now!  That isn’t fair!” Elmiryn pouted.  “I am not beyond making certain permanent relations.”

“Your mother doesn’t count,” Quincy said, looking at the warrior sideways.

To Elmiryn’s annoyance, she blushed.  Her smile gone, she bit out, “Of course my mother doesn’t count!”

“Ah!  You are a mama’s girl.  You Sibesonans and your mothers, I swear.” Quincy tutted.  “At least it explains your queerness.”

This incited the warrior further and she raised a fist, a curse on her lips when Sedwick said loudly between them. “Ladies, please.  Spare a man the cost of being caught between two harpies!”  Now both women lighted eyes on him, and he faltered.  “Ah…now, I meant that in all good humor!” His shoulders hunched up.

The dwarves’ song carried on, roaring about them…

Braves, assay, assay, you lot!
Time hath withered,
We miss it not.
Braves, assay, assay, you lot,
For the darkness
Grows heavier still!

NYX____________________________

We were back.  But even then, I was having trouble understanding what I was going “back” to.  I suppose I had gained a bit of confidence in my situation–enough at least to risk a few assumptions here and there before I set about asking Lacertli bothersome questions.  I didn’t want to give him any more reason to call me “Knave”.  So upon thinking of the half-world, the Somnium, and the Umbralands, I came to a rough but otherwise satisfying conclusion.

While this shard and this half-world as a whole was but a reflection of my world, it still shared the same Somnium.  The only difference was in the borders, as the Umbralands depicted the same twisted shadows that this shard held.  Light here was just an illusion.  There were no suns.  No moon.  No stars.  But the shadows remained because so long as there was matter, there was an absence of light, and if anything, this shard in its limited recognition of natural law and order, understood that.

I was seeing a correlation with darkness and dreaming, and I began to understand what Lacertli had meant when he called himself the Dreamwalker.  What he meant when he said he couldn’t assume Marq’s form unless he were in shadows.  He was the master of dreams, where the indefinite night could breed wild and fantastic things in the mind.  And it was from my mind that I could circumvent the Umbralands altogether to reach the Somnium.

Survival, as Lacertli described it, was not about base instinct.  It required endurance, wit, and imagination.  All things within the domain of the Dreamwalker.

So the layers seemed to work as follows–The mind was the lowest, and from it one could directly reach the Somnium.  Of course, from the mind, I could reach the Real World as well. (That was term I came up with myself, even though at the time I was using it to refer to the broken half-world)  The Real World, with its physical weight and matter and light and Life, bred the Umbralands.  The Umbralands was but a border that hedged the Somnium.  This upper-most layer was the dream of the universe.  There were only two ways to and from that dimension.  The mind, or the Umbralands…

There were still things I didn’t understand.  Like how broad the Umbralands truly were, why I could connect my dreams with those of the universe, and how the universe could possibly have a dream to begin with.  But being able to orient myself in the ways I traversed these layers made the travel less dizzying.  I had done quite a bit of it in the last few hours or so.

Even as these musings quieted to nothing, there was something about the forest that seemed livened.  The air made my hairs stand on end.  Or they would have if my entire body wasn’t a virtual scab.  The blood was drying and flaking in some places.  My bandages and my pants were stiff from it.  My hair was clumped as the dark blood clotted on the locks of hair, turning my free mane into something resembling gruesome dreadlocks.

Lacertli had once more assumed a place on my shoulder, his tail around my neck, his claws tight on my skin.  As we moved through the trees, I watched with wonder as the shadows seemed to curve and follow us.  Since my battle began with the nymphs, I had not been in the half-world at all.  Upon returning to it, I saw that their defeat had brought about a change in the environment.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it felt…more welcoming somehow.  Argos, trotted next to me, ears perked, his shoulder sometimes bumping my thigh as if determined not to be separated from me again.  Poor fellow.  I had left him alone quite a few times.  Apparently, Lacertli had put him in a tree.  I was still jittery from my recent battle, and so the idea of the cat fetching the dog from the tree had me giggling hysterically.  A stern look from Lacertli silenced me.  He was right of course.  I had to keep it together.  From what I understood, there was but one other obstacle keeping me from finding Elmiryn, and damned if I was going to be kept from her side any longer.  I was tired of all these troubles.

Be wary, Knave,” Lacertli hissed into my ear.  “Not all shadows court thy brilliance.”

I was going to ask him what he meant when up ahead I saw something dark flit through the trees.  My walk slowed, but I didn’t stop.  Off at the corner of my eye, another shadow there and gone.  I laid a hand on Argos’ head and whispered.  “We’re not alone…”

Then I heard it.  That damned giggling.

I stopped cold, my eyes going large as I swept my gaze all around me.  The shadows of the trees, which had shifted to follow our passing now wavered and turned away, like a presence was disrupting the gravity my soul had for these things.  The pretas cooed and laughed like young children, delighted by the sight of me.  They were demons of hunger.  My hand and arm would not sate their gluttony again.

They circled around us, just as sharks in the water.  The circle grew tighter and tighter, and as they neared, I could smell their rank bodies.  Their mandible-like jaws snapped, and their forms were like rottweilers covered in fungus and bold with muscle.  Their paws moved unburdened over the ashen ground, and it was all I could do not to pee my pants again.

“S-Sir?” I trembled out.

Mmm?”  Damn his ease!

“Please, sir.  A word of advice, if you would be so kind?”  I was turning on the spot now, hands clenched at my sides.

Lacertli bowed his head, both eyes closing.  “Surely you do not need me to walk you through this step for step?  You managed to defeat the nymph’s abomination quite well on your own.  But if you insist…” He opened one eye and fixed it on me.  “The pretas will encircle both you and your companion, coming from all sides.  Why not turn this around?

I frowned.  “But sir, how–”

Only all conversation stopped when, the pretas closed in on us as one.

ELMIRYN________________________

They followed a road that led up a small cliff-face.  The city grew small as they ascended, and when they reached the top and the road twisted still further onward, they saw very little of the dead civilization.  Elmiryn could only hear the stale mountain wind whistle through the streets as it clawed up the cliffs to chill the sweat on her back.  The procession of ghosts had dwindled, leaving mostly just warriors and a few brave-looking dwarf commoners.  Young men cut down in their prime.  They carried on singing, but they had ceased the rebel ballad and this time sang a wordless song–a hymn more like.  Elmiryn didn’t like it as much as the other one.

With their backs to the abandoned colony, they approached the mountain wall, where there yawned a wide and jagged tunnel entrance.  The warrior whistled as they crossed into the tunnel’s shadow.  “My!  Now what terrible contraption would have warranted this great big hole?”

“When we’d harvested all the stone we could from this chamber, we had to get more from a nearby source,” Madreg explained.  “The problem was that the machine we had made to do this was far too large for all of our usual tunnels–so we had to find a way to get our contraption through without bringing the world down on our heads.  It was our ancestor’s genius that saw us through.”

“And so explains the great big hole, and the transportation of things in and out of it,” Elmiryn said with a snicker.  Sedwick sighed next to her.  After dodging the heat of both women for his earlier comment, the man had migrated so that the warrior was now the one in the middle.

“I’m growing more and more alarmed over the fact that I seem to immediately get your crude meanings…” Quincy said with a trenchant voice.  The dark was beginning to close about them.  It was getting harder to see things in full detail, but thankfully they still had some light.  The ghosts in their company were a blessing, because they had a luminescent glow to them that lit up their surroundings.  Madreg and Henriette drifted on a ways ahead while the ghosts that remained–a scant fifteen now, as some had just vanished–gathered about them.

Elmiryn turned to look at one over her shoulder, a young dwarf with the starting of a beard and long frizzy hair.  He was the last commoner to stay.  All that remained with him were warriors.  “What is your name?” she asked.

“Físí,” he said, turning his head to look at her sideways.

“I’m Elmiryn,” she said, though she was certain he already knew, having witnessed all that he did.

“Aye.”

The warrior thought this a strange response, and he kept fixing her with that funny look.  “What is it, Físí?”

“Ye aren’t like your lady friend.  Nor your friend of the river.”

Elmiryn’s lips twitched and she thought she could feel Sedwick tighten next to her.  Quietly, she bumped him with her elbow and said to the dwarf.  “Nope!  As they’d put it, I’m something of a rogue.”  She expected Quincy to take this up with little pause, but the wizard was silent, leaving Elmiryn’s jubilant statement to feel flat and contrived.  Sedwick refrained from comment also, and the warrior let her smile fade in the dark.

“Ah, I just wanted to say, miss,” Físí went on.  “That…I’d be careful, for what’s ahead.  As I said, ye aren’t like your lady friend, nor your friend of the river.”  And here he vanished, his voice a lingering hiss of smoke, “Nay, miss, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were like kin to us poor souls!

Elmiryn had little time to think on that, let alone respond to it, when up ahead Henriette and Madreg came running back.  Henriette looked furious, while Madreg looked fearful for the first time since he’d been in their company.

“The damn things are in a tizzy!” the female dwarf snarled, her axe pointed up ahead.  “They’ve passed the barriers we used to block them.  Something has riled them up!”

“Riled what up?” Sedwick asked.

Henriette sobered, her brows pressing up instead of down.  It made her look a great deal more gentle.  “Aye…perhaps we neglected a few things.  The payment is fair, I’ll not deny that, but the dealings…they were…were not.”

“We pressed you when you were most vulnerable,” Madreg added, now looking equally sorry.  “We knew you all to be formidable, and your grief presented an opening for us.  In death…things are slowly lost.  Memories.  Compassion–”

“–And the funny thing is,” Henriette added with a scornful spit.  “Is that the more you lose, the stronger you get!”

Madreg held up his hands.  “At first, it took over a thousand of our ghostly hands just to move a single pebble along the length of a brick.  Now it only takes a hundred of us.  That’s what we mean by ‘strength’.”

Quincy groaned and slapped a hand to her forehead.  “Oh…of course…”

“Aye miss,” Madreg said gravely.  “When all of our memories are gone, and our basic decency with it, we’ll not need more than one ghost to move that pebble.  No, he’ll be able to move his very own corpse by then…but at that point he isn’t a humble grieving spirit anymore, oh no…”

“He’ll have become an undead monster,” Quincy finished with a sigh.

“Aye!  And that’s just what those Belfliff beasts became, those what fell here by our hands.” Henriette let loose a sardonic smile.  “See, apparently, that whole loss of compassion and i-den-ti-ty goes away ‘lot quicker when ye’ve snapped the gold necklace off a dead child’s neck a’fore dyin’!”

“But there it is for you.  We hide nothing else,” Madreg said.  “Coming up to this tunnel at this very moment is a horde of undead creatures, and beyond them lies our remains.  We hadn’t fought them because they have the capacity to turn us into one of them, and we…already lost many of our brave men in this cold afterlife.”  Here he glanced at Henriette sadly.

Henriette drew herself up, her face going hard in the way Elmiryn had seen soldiers do when their honor and skill were in some way cast into doubt.  “My men and I have suffered and given our very lives to see our people protected!  Our eternal existence is at stake, and I won’t be shamed for my caution.  Especially not after losing many of my friends to that evil.  But if you draw those devils to the far edge of the chamber, we shall catch them unawares in one last battle.  It’s all or nothing at this point.”

Sounds started to drift from up ahead in the tunnel, and Elmiryn thought she saw the dance of torchlights on the rock walls.

“And here is where we take our leave.  Remember,” Henriette started before she vanished.  Madreg and the other dwarves vanished too, leaving them in the dark.  “Break through, then draw them as far as you can to the other end of the chamber!

Elmiryn heard Quincy kneel and begin muttering under her breath.  She drew her sword and said, “Damn, they couldn’t give us a torch for our trouble?”

“I have something here,” The wizard said.  There was the sound of items being bounced around in a bag.  “I had forgotten about it–I have far too many odds and ends here, but…tai’undu, where is it…?”  Elmriyn didn’t know what Quincy was fiddling with, as she hadn’t seen the woman with all that much in her pouches.  Then she remembered the drawstring bag that had appeared empty– “Ah-ha!” and without warning a warm glow lit up their surroundings, and the source of this light came from Quincy’s right hand, where flames danced gaily.  She had put on a curious piece of jewelry.  On each finger gleamed a silver ring, and they were studded with what appeared to be rubies.  From the back of these rings, a chain trailed to hook onto a wide wrist bracelet of similar fashion.  The flames didn’t seem to hurt the woman, and she stood with a look of relief on her face.  “There we are!  If those silly dwarves had just been up front about everything, I would have had this out sooner.  Fire does not agree with the undead.”

The sounds were coming closer.  Elmiryn could hear the chink and clamor of armor and weapons.  Despite what Henriette had said, the redhead felt that most of the work would be done right here, where they could more easily meet the flow of enemies.  “What is that thing?” she asked the wizard.

“Just some jewelry,” Quincy said archly as she moved ahead of them, flaming hand held up.  “…From an afrit.” She added next.

“A djinn?” Sedwick exclaimed.  He had changed so that his whole body was once more water, and the light played off of his form in a strange way.

“A long story,” the brunette replied.

“So…you aren’t all that helpless after all.” Elmiryn twirled her sword as she stepped forward a bit, but not next to the wizard.  A little behind her, rather.  Something told her not to stand quite so close to Quincy.  Sedwick did the same, his arms turning to long tentacle-like whips.

The wizard glanced at her.  “Never was.  Never will be.”

The sound of the approaching undead reverberated around them.  Some dust fell from the ceiling as the ground shook from their spirited march.

“Soooo,” Elmiryn said, a smile blossoming on her face.  “Since you aren’t helpless and clearly are equipped with something better suited to this situation, it’s fair to say that I get first dibs on whatever the dwarves have to offer us in the way of equipment?”

Here Quincy turned and stared at the woman as if she were stupid.

Elmiryn giggled.  “Okay, okay.  How’s this?  Whoever kills the most enemies earns the right to first pick?”

The wizard looked forward again, but not before the smirk showed on her face.  “You know you’ll start at a disadvantage, right?  I’m in front, and with this fire I’ll burn most of the beasts that come at us!”

“Yeah, well…”

The way ahead finally birthed the sight of the horrible enemy–brown, sunken faces with lips rotted away and eyes turned milky if not gone all together.  All of them were dressed as Belcliff militia.  They shouted things upon seeing the three of them standing there, but without their tongues they made little sense.  The undead broke out of their march and stampeded towards them.

Elmiryn’s smile broadened as she fell into her fighting stance.  “…I figured I’d give you a head start.  It’s only fair!”

Then Quincy let loose the fire and the warrior’s eyes saw nothing but brilliance.

NYX____________________________

It wasn’t entirely correct to call pretas demons, monsters, or animals.  They were hungry ghosts–a sort of poltergeist–that rode on the waves of frost and chill to devour the Life that had been born in the spring.  During the winter, Ailuran citizens would burn ashes near their doors to keep them at bay.  Newborns, during that time, would have ashes sprinkled on their hair.  As a child, my brother Thaddeus used to scare Atalo and I with horrible tales of humanoids with tear drop heads and tiny throats, who tried vainly to fulfill their hunger.  Folklore said the spirits were made from the greedy and the selfish.  That they were the remnants of an unhappy soul.

…In the end, aren’t all monsters born from discontent and disharmony?  But there you have it.  The pretas were a hell of their own making.

I’m not sure how the beasts I faced came to manifest themselves as perverse Rottweilers covered in predaceous fungi.  Their side-set eyes winked at me, crusted and weeping as they jawed their mouths in their twisted humor.

When they closed in, their determination shown by taut muscles and spread jaws, one managed to bite into my left thigh while another slammed into me from the other side with a jump.  My scream was swallowed as my initial shock collided into another.  I would’ve been toppled to the ground if not for the ironic support provided by the beast on my left.  He refused to let go of my thigh and I leaned over onto his shifting back.  I could feel his fangs working into the muscles of my leg.  I choked back another cry as the confusion mounted.  My fingers buried into dirty fur and moss, with shoots of fungi quivering between them.  My attacker on the right pressed on me again, this time rearing back on his hind legs to fix his mandible jaws onto my shoulder.  Or he tried to.  I shoved at him with all the strength I had, then slammed my elbow into the head of the preta on my left.  It just kept getting worse.  Another beast came at me from behind, his jaws fixing around my right calf.  Now both my legs were being held fast.  If another preta jumped on me, I would go down and all would be lost.

In the chaos, there were some dozen or so beasts around us–and they quarreled with their peers over whom would have the right of tasting our flesh.  I can’t say if that number was exact, but given how crowded this violent meeting was becoming, there were some left only with the option of looking on from a distance.  More still snapped at the heels of our shifting circle of conflict, looking for a way to join into the fray.  Well, not much a fray so much as a massacre.

Blood flowed thick down my thigh and calf where it pooled into my boots.  The horrifying thing was that the pretas were all around me.  Literally.  The pressed on my sides.  Even as my legs gave out under me, I slumped over unto the back of the beasts.  They were claiming everything beneath my waist.  I could feel them biting and tearing.  My body seized up and the pain was getting to be…honestly, how many times can I say, “It was bad?”  I’ve had my achilles tendon sliced through, been penetrated by a spiritual being on an unseen level, had the flesh of my hand burned away to the bone, and lost my limbs in a situation much like this.  I’ve known pain.

…But sweet Aelurus, it was bad.  I was being eaten alive, and I couldn’t pull the same trick I had before.  I couldn’t just “reject” both my legs.

There were one or two who tried to clamor over their peers to get at my upper body but I swatted them away like an animal–palms rigid, fingers like claws.  I let out unintelligible sounds–things between moans and screams.  My eyes rolled in their sockets.  Lacertli, still indifferent to my situation, took to sitting at the nape of my neck as my hunched figure made this the steadiest place for him to rest.

My thoughts were reduced to broken ideas.

Get away.  It hurts.  Nightmare!  Damnit.  My legs!  Help, help, help–

And then…

ARGOS.

He was not so far from me, and through sheer strength had resisted being submerged beneath the attacking pack of devils.  Being the size of a small bear had its advantages, but even that would not last.  His white fur was stained red.  His growls turned to cries of agony.  One of the pretas got him by the throat…

The beasts swarmed over him till he was out of sight.

Gods, it was happening all over again.

I screamed.  Screamed not out of pain, but a livid sort of desperation.  Argos could not fall.  I could not fall.  I put all I had in the sound.  I needed the dog to drag up his will to survive.  It was a primal, basic, mindless drive that made my own voice tremble in my skull and ear drums.  I could feel it down to my feet.

Through the laughter of the pretas–almost smug in their assurance of victory–I heard a growl.  Then, the pretas that had covered Argos were flung away as the dog, with a miraculous surge of strength, bucked them off his body.  He was unrecognizable now beneath the blood and gore–with his shaggy fur damp and dark from his own life staining him.  In the brief second of freedom, he turned his massive head my way, his breath a thick fog, and I could see his dark eyes  shining.  He wasn’t giving up.

Emboldened, I looked down at my attackers, still jostling over the right to devour me.  Between their shifting bodies, I could see the stained ground.  With all the pretas gathered so near, they made an awfully big shadow…

I squeezed my eyes shut and with a yell I willed the darkness beneath us to swallow us whole.  It did, and I felt the breath leave me.  With a rush the ground swallowed us, plunging us into that dark inky world that, until now, had never seemed so beautiful to me.

The Umbralands.

The pretas squealed and cried like frightened children–and to my surprise Argos had been taken over too, and he barked and whined, his massive paws stumbling as he wheeled on the spot.  As I disentangled myself from the now disoriented mass with shaking arms, I shouted at him, “Argos, tear out their throats!”  I put in as much urgency as I could into the Words.  This got him going.  He moved with a bad limp–but considering the damage to his body it was incredible he moved at all.

“The power of inspiration…your voice has moved him even when his body would deny him this,” Lacertli hissed into my ear.  He probably heard my thoughts.

The ground, in this borderland, shifted beneath our feet like an unsteady sea.  The pretas, though spirits, were not accustomed to this place.  Unlike the nymph abomination, I had taken the pretas with me in my journey between realms.  Later reflection lead me to believe that, while I could see these spirits from the Umbralands, that didn’t mean they were a part of it.  It was like looking at something through a window.  I could see them, but they weren’t on the side I was.  Now I had brought the pretas with me to the other side of the window, so to speak, and they didn’t know what to do.

Lacertli had shifted to my shoulder again, and his claws buried into my skin.  The pretas around me squealed like unhappy children as their limbs flailed and their disgusting heads thrashed.  I was finally allowed to see the damage they had wrought on me.  Large chunks were gone from my thighs and upper calfs.  My rear and my hips also knew a terrible pain.  My pants were ripped and reduced to bloody tatters.  My boots clearly showed the beasts efforts in getting at my ankles and feet.  Thankfully they hadn’t, because at this rate I was going to be left destitute of clothing.  A silly thing to think, perhaps, but I’ve already shown a propensity towards hysterical thinking.

…I may have passed out for a minute or two.  Perhaps longer.  I can’t recall.  Sorry.  I can say without any conceit that my memory is quite exceptional, but this was one of the few times of my life that saw my recollection lacking.  Maybe because I try my best not to think of it?  Would you like to think of the time your legs were half-eaten and you were in a black, cold world, that was on the cusp of the Great Dream, with monstrosities squirming and crying about you?

I came to again, and as I did so, I saw that the pretas were also regaining their senses.  The charm of my initial surprise was quickly wearing off.  My limbs was having trouble responding to my commands, but I rolled over onto my hands and knees.  I shouted at Argos, “Brace yourself!”

The dog, having ripped off one of the pretas legs with his jaws, glanced my way, then crouched down, his ears perked.

The beasts around me were now on their feet, with their heads turned to the side so that their eyes could fix on me.  Argos had taken out two of them, and I could see their prone forms behind their brethren who circled around me.  They were wary now.  A brave one came at me, its jaws ready to bite off my face.  Ignited by this first move, another still took me by the shoulder.  Lacertli bit the latter in his eyes, and the thing drew back with a snarl.  I punched the former in the side of the head.  Then I willed an exit to appear beneath us, a great white hole, and I felt my breath suck out from my chest as I felt a resistance to my command.  We fell through, back to the Real World where we were lightly tossed into the air.  The pretas, unprepared yet again, were left bewildered and staggered about.

I could have remained in the Umbralands, or even shifted over to the Somnium, but the pretas seemed an adaptable bunch, and I feared their true form in the Somnium.  I wanted to keep them disoriented.  While Argos resumed the fight, I tried to shift alone into my own shadow, and I found this much easier.  Moving a whole group took a lot out of me.  Once in the Umbralands, I moved so that when I came back to the Real World I emerged from the dark of a tree instead, well behind my enemies.  I was getting faster about this movement, and I found I enjoyed it, however reviling the purpose was.

With those Argos dispatched, we were down to eleven of the beasts.  Immediate danger wasn’t a pressure on me, so I can be sure of that number.

I leapt back into the fray from my new vantage point.  A preta was slinking behind Argos, who was fending off three of the quicker-witted pretas in front of him.  The rest were still dazed.  I could see the thing’s intent–from behind, the monster could get in close enough to flank the dog and finish the work started on his throat.

“You now know that with effort thou may take others with you between realms.  But dost thou need to take them whole and complete?” Lacertli said quietly on my shoulder.  It was the most he’d given me since this nightmarish battle had started, but it couldn’t have come at a better time.

With a sprint and a jump, I descended on the wily preta, taking him around the neck and bidding the shadow to take us…

But as I fell through the ground and the preta’s body fell in head over heels, I closed the way.

When I stood in the Umbralands, what was left in my hands was a severed torso.  I dropped it quick, trying to steel my mind from thinking about the reality of my situation too much–because through the lens of the Umbralands, I could see that the battle raged on back in the Real World.  The pretas had recovered faster than last time from the shift over, and now Argos was facing the threat of being overcome again, despite ripping out the throat of yet another beast.  With my kill and his, we were down to nine.

I returned to the Real World through a tree.  I didn’t pause much.  With a running front kick, I slammed my heel into the head of a small preta that was looking on from afar.  Argos slammed one of the beasts down beneath his great paws, even as six more around him tried to topple him over.  The preta I had attacked whined and shook the stars from its head, but I took up a rock, and like I had the first time, I used it to bludgeon the creature into silence.  Its life sprayed my face, and I clamped my mouth shut in an attempt to keep the poison out.

I looked to Argos to see him rear back, with his front legs stiff and his paws held close together, before he slammed down onto the preta beneath him.  There was a nasty crack, and I saw the beasts torso deflate as his rib cage collapsed beneath the dog’s great weight.

Only this movement cost him.  His stability was compromised, and I realized his monstrous stomp had exacerbated the limp he had gained.  The pretas, cooing at one another as though realizing the dog’s mistake, shifted so that three of them were on one side.  Then as one, they knocked him over.  He had reached his limit, and I turned sick to think that he could already be dead.  Once on the ground, he didn’t move.

This frightened and repulsed me so much that I screamed, “Get away from him!”  I put my whole body into it–straining my neck muscles, curving my back, clenching my arms and digging the balls of my feet into the ground.  Argos had to be ok, because I couldn’t leave him behind here.  He had to be ok, because I didn’t want to be left alone.  He had to be ok, because he had to be with Lethia again.  I had to believe that he could regain what he’d lost–because if he couldn’t find it…what hope did I have to…

…So I screamed.

To say that the sound was greater than I expected would be an understatement.  The air stirred and the trees rocked.  The ashen ground shifted.  The shadows grew starker.  The pretas recoiled from the dog, their childlike voices letting out frightened whimpers.  They hunched low to the ground and fixed their sideways gaze on me.

They hesitated.  I didn’t.

I launched at the monsters, and they tried to scatter.  With a wild dive, I caught one by the leg, and just as before, I shifted into the shadows, then closed the way behind me.  I had a severed leg in my hand when all was still.  I dropped it with tense hands.  From that dark place, I saw the others flee.

They squealed and cried like children throwing tantrums.

“After them!” Lacertli spat, and I gave chase, leaving Argos for the time being.  I created an exit and charged through the white opening, back into the Real World.  Though I found this to be a bit ruthless, I had to remind myself that the pretas were ghosts who existed to prey on the good and living.  But the damned things were escaping me.  They were pulling on ahead.

Then I saw that the shadows were bending in my direction again.

I let out a fierce yell, outstretched both my arms, and with feet skidding in the dirt, pulled backward on what I hoped were the pretas shadows.

There were screams, pops, and then…nothing.  Just ashes drifting onto more ashes.

I slowed to a stop.  Stillness gave a way for exhaustion to claim me, and I leaned over onto my knees.  I swayed and nearly fell over.  I took several slow, deep breaths.

Lacertli gave a nod of his head.  “Very good knave.  I’m surprised you didn’t think to do that sooner.”

Now that I wasn’t running, punching, kicking, or clawing, I felt the trembles return to me in full.  All of a sudden the world felt heavy on me.  With effort, I straightened and walked back to where Argos lay.  I dropped to my knees next to him, my eyes clouding with tears at the sight of his once white fur now turned a filthy crimson.

Then something came rattling out of my mouth, unbidden.

“Still, sir?” I rasped.  My face drew long, and I knew I was pale from all of my exertions.  “Still, sir?  You call me knave?”  I could feel Lacertli look at me, but I pressed on, feeling a hole in me, and from it squirmed something awful.  Perhaps Nyx was gone, finally snapped from all this, and now her damned Twin could finally have her way.  What did anything matter?  “Still, sir?  You would call me knave?” I stood to my feet, swaying, my arms held out before me as my throat clenched, and I thought fiercely.  No, do not cry. But the tears still came to blur my sight.  I bared my teeth and shook my clenched fists where blood dripped from them.  “Still, sir!? Still, you call me knave!?” and I just kept saying this over and over, perhaps not making sense anymore, but I was worked up into a fine froth now, and was beyond caring.

Finally, Lacertli slipped from my shoulder where he landed on Argos chest before he moved to the ground on the other side.  He looked up at me, and though I flinched, I stood with straight back and glared at him openly.  There was a hole in me, and something awful squirmed from it.  Perhaps Nyx was dead. “Still sir?  With my payment of flesh, and my friend hurt before me, still you would call me a knave!?”

Then the god was not a small lizard anymore.  In the blink of an eye he was the lizard man, standing at his tremendous height, skin turned to scales, and his head long and serpentine.  My redundant rant sputtered to nothing.  I thought for certain he was going to smite me.  But then he bared his teeth at me–or maybe he was smiling–and said, “Nyx.”

“…Yes, sir?”

“Look at thy feet.”

I did, and gasped.  Breaking through the ashen ground were small budding plants.  They fanned out around me, covering the dismal gray in all their bright splendor.  Around us, the trees groaned and murmured as color came to their dry trunks, and overhead, leaves blossomed and cast us into a wondrous shade.  I stood, gobsmacked, hardly recognizing the scene around me.  The Kreut Forest was…

“Things move faster here.  It will take a while yet for this change to take hold in your resident world, but count on it, vermagus.  Through thine efforts, this forest may yet again thrive.”  He smiled at me.  Then he knelt down, and with a slow wave of his hand, Argos sank out of sight, into the ground like a ghost.  Flowers sprang up in his stead.

I gave a start.  “Argos!?” My chin crumpled.  “Sir, is he–!?”

Lacertli fixed his yellow gaze on me.  “Calm yourself, Night Child.  The dog still lives.  Argos has earned respite from me.  You shall see him again soon enough.”

I stared at him as he stood and pointed somewhere off to the side.  I looked in that direction and saw that the air wavered up ahead like something was there.  “Come.  The way is open.  Let us find thy Ghost.”

…It was only after he led me to the strange portal and our forms slipped through it that I realized…

Lacertli didn’t call me a knave anymore.


Back to Chapter 20.3 | Forward to Open Hands

Chapter 20.3

QUINCY____________________________

She had only ever seen a ghost one other time in her life, and she didn’t really care to speak with it to anyone as it was a rather unsavory part of her life to begin with–what with fending off the rough and salty hands of sailors day in and day out, the constant threat of death from both the pirates and pirate hunters alike, and the way the treacherous straits of the Southwestern Seas seized their ship in all of Atargatis’ fury.  It had been on deck aboard that ship, the Kijani Farasi, which translated to the Green Horse, that Quincy laid eyes on a spirit of a young sailor who had perished upon its breast, having taken the wicked punch of a cannon ball.  Or so he had said.

All in attendance were stunned to silence as he merrily rolled the heavy cannon balls along the deck.  Tulki came tearing out of his cabin, his saber drawn, looking about with murder in his eyes.  Quincy and those on duty at the time were nearly flogged, for the rolling of cannonballs was a sign of mutiny, but the ghost, whether out of mischief or mercy, made his presence known by making a cannonball levitate toward the captain, and with a Fanaean curse, dropped it at his feet.  To his credit, Tulki did not show an ounce of fear, but his anger was quelled and he ordered that the damned spirit be ignored.  Spared Tulki’s fury, the crew endured the spirit’s presence, though it never again made itself visible even as it pressed on with its scares and inconveniences.  The first port they came to, a shaman was called, and the ghost was banished for good. Though life returned to normal on the Kijani Farasi, Quincy had been thoroughly impressed by the whole experience.  The ghost, delighted at her foreign nature, targeted her.  For the month spent in that damned spirit’s company, she had been a pariah.

And now there was practically an army of ghosts before her, all staring, all radiating coldness and death.  She’d faced down demi-gods, sea beasts, and mad fae.  But somehow…

Quincy placed a hand on her sword, trembling, and damn it all, Elmiryn reached out to her, and her hand was over hers, and there–there–there was that damned knowing look.  That tilt of the lips.  The warrior knew.  “Easy, wizard,” she snickered out.

“You were the one who was jumpy before, twitching and looking over your shoulder, yet now–!” And the brunette snapped the words down, with a snarl on her lips.

“I didn’t know it was ghosts then,” was all the other woman said.  She turned an appraising eye on the dwarf spirits.  “But now that I know the situation better, I sense we have nothing to fear.  After all, if they had wanted to, couldn’t they have done away with us when we first came?  Besides what can a ghost do to us?”

Quincy shook her head.  “They cannot harm us physically, but they can harm us, Elmiryn.  Count on it.  Ever hear of spiritual possession?  They can also manipulate anything not living–like throwing chairs across rooms.  Do you want to find yourself under a hail of rocks?”

“Nay, missus, we would’na do that.” said the dwarf that had first appeared.  He grasped his hat in both hands and looked into each of their faces.  Quincy swallowed as he locked eyes with her, and she saw the macabre skull flicker into view, soulless sockets piercing their black-hole gaze into her head, before the sight shifted away into smoke.  “In truth, we did not know what to make of ye, and so we were vigilant.  But in seeing your dedication to your comrade, even given the dangers…”

“We could’na sit back an’ jus’ watch,” said another dwarf, a tall one for her race, who had long light hair braided back much like Elmiryn liked to have it.  Unlike some of the women, she was dressed in warrior’s gear and fitted with an axe, which she gripped in one thick fist.  “We can help lay your comrade to rest, equip you with what spoils we have left, and grant you safe passage to the Way you seek so ardently.”

“…For something in return.” Sedwick finished, frowning.

The blacksmith dwarf bowed while the woman just tilted her head back and thrust her jaw forward.  “Tis the way of things, sir,” she said, not in the least bit cowed.

The man sighed and looked to Quincy and Elmiryn.  The wizard glanced at the redhead next to her and she bit back a growl to see her smirking, yet again.

“I don’t like it,” she said lowly.  She leaned in close to speak privately, but she wondered if there was any point to the action.  How good was a ghost’s hearing, anyway…? “I have a feeling their payment will not be easy, and we’ve enough troubles on our own!”

“But didn’t you hear her?” Elmiryn murmured back, leaning in as well.  “They’ll give us the last of their treasures!  Dwarves are clever.  Their most precious of artifacts would have been hidden away from Belcliff’s militia!”

Quincy faltered, her eyes lighting up at the thought of possibly acquiring arcane weaponry.  “It could be just some third-rate armor left and spat on by the pillagers…” she said, trying to quell her own streak of avarice.  For all her tremors, it wasn’t working.

“If riches do not do it for you, what about the promise of our Gate?” Sedwick said.  He gestured vaguely to the North.  “I can sense the Gate, but our way to it may be barred.  Somehow, I doubt these souls would have allowed strange and foreign spirits to run amok in their final resting place.”

“Then how did we get here to begin with?” Quincy muttered.

“It was our forced path, remember?” Sedwick said, looking grim.  “This quest of ours may not be as straightforward as we’d like to make it, ladies.  Someone is orchestrating our journey.”

“Let’s just ask them, for Halward’s sake.  They’re ghosts, what could they possibly want?” Elmiryn said, already straightening.

Quincy opened her mouth, about to hiss, “That’s just what I’m worried about,” when the warrior boomed, “And what would you have from us?”

The blacksmith dwarf took a step forward, and clearing his translucent throat, he said loudly.  “For our services, sir and madames, we would ask for rest.”

“Rest?” Elmiryn returned critically.

She looked to Quincy and Sedwick, but the wizard was already staring, agog.  Her eyes swept over their audience, their vast and numerous audience.  The dwarven spirits filled their little square, surrounding them quite effectively (“They could slay us if they so wished it!”) and they filled the roads as far as her eye could see.  The brunette’s mind quickly did the work in her head.  “Gods…there must be at least a thousand of them.  And there’s likely more!”  She looked to Sedwick, whose brow was also furrowed.  “That’s far too much!”

“But what do they mean?” Elmiryn snapped.  “What do they want from us?”

“Rest,” said the tall woman dwarf.  Her eyes narrowed at Quincy, perhaps weighing her mettle.  The wizard raised her head and squared her shoulders.  “What we want is rest.  As you are giving your friend here.”  She gestured at Graziano.

Elmiryn finally got it, by the lengthening look on her face.  Her eyes went wide and her mouth made a small, “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Quincy grumbled.  “Oh.

NYX____________________________

Death is a weight, I find.  Both real and imagined.  It has pressed on me, in the past.  And there, knelt in the gore, it pressed on me still.

I had shoved, gasping out from underneath the deformed monstrosity I had just slain.  Its heart had slithered from my quivering hands and onto the soil where it lay bleeding and glistening purple and blue.  As I came away from it, the beast began to break apart, skin cracking along its misshapen surface as the individual bodies of the nymphs that it had taken to make it–or what was left of them–came free.  They were like fetuses, robbed of their usual shape and semblance of life.  I had seen a stillbirth once, the winter before my exile, when a neighbor had called on the aid of myself and my mother as midwives.  It horrified me then.  Surrounded by such a sight hundreds of times over…well…it was far worse.

I think I slipped into another state of shock, the gore about me stilling me–even by way of thought–so that all I could do was kneel and gaze with glassy eyes.  Dark blood was in my hair, on my arms, my legs, my hands, my feet, everywhere.  The smell filled my lungs.  Limbs, drained of their life, lay in disarray about me like broken parts, snapped off of toys.  Intestines and hearts and lungs and things came tumbling…almost slithering from the hunk of flesh that was once the monster.  The sound…gods…that awful sound.  The black magic was broken.  The spell that had bound the nymphs together in their hate now saw them undone.  Their vile color shaded me…perhaps in more ways than one.

I was a darker person now.

In my haze, I saw clawed feet step unburdened through the mess.  “Knave, you have done well!” Lacertli’s voice.

Slowly I raised my gaze and stared straight into his slitted, yellow eyes, which were squinted in their mirth. Then I swallowed and stood to my feet.  The desire to weep was a strong one, but with Lacertli’s sobering presence I was able to bring my thoughts out of their squalor and saw that such behavior would be wasted.  There was still more to be done.  This time I did not dwell on things.  Just lifted my head and with lidded eyes said,  “Yes, sir.”  My voice sounded thin.

“Nyx you keep calling me brave.  But here, Koen is going to tell you a secret…are you listening kitten?  The truth of it is…I’m always afraid.”  Her brother smiled, and swept back his long and curly hair.  The autumn wind was making a mess of it.  She could understand why the other girls in the village fawned over him.  Even Taila.

“But how can you stand all those terrible things?  All that blood and…”  She thought back to that time…that terrible day when she saw a battlefield for the first time.  The young girl shivered and hugged herself.

Thaddeus’ hand came to rest on her hair.  “You…don’t,” he said quietly.  “You just don’t think about it, Koah.”

“Aye,” Lacertli went on.  “This god is proud of thee.  But the trials are not yet over.”

“The pretas,” I said with the faintest of nods.  I swallowed but knitted my brows in resolution.  I did not look forward to more violence, but I did look forward to leaving this place and finding Elmiryn.

Elle, just hold on.  I’m coming.

The god nodded.  He held out a hand, gesturing to the shadow of the nearest tree.  “Come, let us return to the shard, where your companion awaits.”

“Is Argos okay, sir?” I asked as I lurched to my feet.  There was something wrong with my stomach, and I put a hand over it to quell the feeling, but it started to push up my throat…

“Aye.” Lacertli said.  “The fool dog was about to leap into battle with thee, but I whisked him away before he could.”  That explained the god’s sudden absence from my shoulder, when all this started.  “He would have been slain in the effort, for sure.  In this next task, however, methinks he will be of great assistance.”

I nodded, the action automatic and lacking the usual undercurrent of understanding.  I opened my mouth to say something, but instead of words, I burped, all of my chest and throat muscles heaving.  Alarmed, I stumbled to the side, feet squelching through the guts and bloodied limbs beneath me.  I wretched again and what little was in my stomach came gushing from my mouth.  I kept retching.  I nearly fell over from the discomfort and nausea that came over my head, but I leaned on my knees and after closing my eyes and breathing shallow breaths I was right again.  Still green, I imagine, but I felt like I could fight off any lingering sickness.

“Art thou finished?” Lacertli said, indifferent to my hunched figure.

Some part of me wanted to curl away from his unforgiving nature, but…it was like the lack of sympathy left me no place to hide.  And without a place to hide, I knew I had to keep on.  Turning, I faced the god and tried to will some color back into my sickly skin.  “Aye, sir,” was all I said.  I didn’t bother to wipe at my mouth as both my arms were covered in blood, so some sick still dripped from my quivering lips.

We moved to the shadows to enter the Umbralands.  I felt a little loopy, for I blurted out, “It is funny, sir.  When I think on it, that battle did not take long.”

Lacertli chuckled, his reptilian grin once again in place.  “‘Twas short, for certain.  It had to be.  If it had been any longer, your luck and guile would not have spared you the fate of having your brains ground ‘tween the beast’s rotted molars.”  I shuddered at the thought as I slipped into the shadow.

QUINCY____________________________

“Well…how bad could that be?” Elmiryn asked with a shrug.  They had once again convened, heads pressed together as they spoke quietly on the matter. “I mean…yes I know there’s a lot of them, but we can figure something out.  Right?  Besides don’t we need this?  Never mind Graziano.  Not that he doesn’t matter, but what if the way to the Gate is blocked?  And what about those treasures?  Quincy still needs something proper for herself.”

Quincy rubbed at her face. “Elmiryn, think.  You are being far too blasé about this and it irks me, because I know you cannot be this much of a dullard.”  She thumbed over her shoulder.  “That’s over a thousand dwarven spirits.  They want rest.  Proper rest, something the Belcliff militia denied them.  Their bodies were likely thrown into an open ditch.  Not even considering the possibility that they may each have their own individual requests as to burial, there is the trouble of sorting out their remains, then finding a new and appropriate resting place for them all.  Think on all that time it would take.  We’d be here for an eternity.”

“Well hold on,” Sedwick said, holding up a hand.  “They came to us as a group, and they seem to have their leaders.  As such, they must have agreed on some communal burial.  They aren’t fools.  They know our limitations, and for us to even consider this bargain, they must know of our time constraints.  I’m certain they can be worked down from whatever lofty wish they have for rest.”

“And they keep saying it like that,” Quincy said, biting her thumb–her thumbnails had been torn off in Belcliff when she was in the dark influences.  “They want rest.  They don’t say burial, they don’t say ceremony.  They say rest…what does that mean to a ghost?  And don’t say ‘peace for the soul’, because that’s equally vague as to the achievement of that end!”

Sedwick frowned at this and thought as well.  Elmiryn, finally, seemed to cool her ardor enough to think a bit too.  None said anything.  There was a cough from behind them, and together the three turned and saw the tall woman dwarf, her arms crossed high on her chest.  “Begging your pardon, but as you have your time, so have we.  A decision must be made.”

“Don’t ghosts have all the time in the world?” Elmiryn said, smirking.

The dwarf looked at her sharply.  “Woman, you would not speak so flippantly if you knew the suffering we bear.”  She looked at Sedwick, then let her eyes rest on Quincy.  She let them sit there a long while.  “We will have your decision now, or we vanish.  For your sincerity, we shall leave thee undisturbed.  We believe thee to be good souls doing honest things.  But trust that things will go hard for you then, with or without our hands in the mess!”

Quincy’s mouth turned down at the corners.  She looked to the others.  The decision was on their faces.  She still wasn’t keen on this.  Her hands were still trembling and she had to stare upwards just to spare herself the sight of all those spirits watching her.  But in the end, she was still in the minority…and it wasn’t without its benefits, surely.  The woman was trying her hardest to gaze away from the dwarven children, still clutching to the stout legs of their parents.  Belcliff had much to answer for.

The wizard let out a long exhale and nodded to the others.  Glances were exchanged as to who would give the final word, and finally Sedwick stepped forward.  Quincy thought it strange that Elmiryn passed on the chance, being the braggart that she was, but perhaps it was for the best, what with the warrior’s last comment souring her in the eyes of their chilling audience.  Sedwick was the spiritual authority in company, anyway.

“Your offer is well met and humbly received.  We accept your terms and request aid in committing our poor soul to his final rest,” He said this with a slight bow.  Quincy took the cue, and gave a small curtsy.  She gave Elmiryn a pointed look and the warrior gave not a curtsy but a bow.  Well, at least she didn’t behave as a complete buffoon.

The two dwarven leaders, for that was clearly what they were, turned and regarded their fellows behind them.  The female dwarf pumped her axe and bellowed as her male colleague next to her did the same.  “Alright you sods, all together now!” she roared as her partner bellowed, “Quickly, as one!”

Then with a strong gale, they all vanished, faces and limbs scattering like startled mist.  All was quiet around them.  Quincy wondered if the dwarves had actually vanished for good, but in the next instant, she felt all her body turn cold and the hairs on her arms and neck raise.  She couldn’t resist the shiver that blasted through her, and to her astonishment a fog appeared before her face.  “Lo, lo!” she exclaimed in Fanean, Good grief!–but she resisted the urge to rub warmth into her arms because Elmiryn wasn’t doing it and she didn’t want the woman to smirk at her like that again.

But the warrior, virtually topless, was having a hard time clenching her muscles tight enough to keep them from shivering.  Every bit of her was bunched, and for all her efforts to appear stoic she still shivered.  She bared her teeth, hissing out fog as she gazed across at Quincy…probably thinking the same way, as her hands turned to fists at her sides in her attempt to keep them there.  Sedwick didn’t seem quite as affected as they, though he did let out a small shake and a, “Brrr…”

Then they all gave a start as they saw Graziano’s body at their side rising, seemingly without aid.  As he floated, body straight and the cloak beneath him fluttering, Quincy thought she could see a flicker beneath him, but she couldn’t be sure.  He drifted peacefully over the grave, then slowly, the ghosts lowered him down.  Elmiryn, Sedwick, and Quincy stood around the edges to watch him as he descended.  The wizard swallowed hard when she saw the dwarven spirits, in their kindness, take her cloak and wrap it about the Moretti’s body, like a full shroud.  Finally, he lay quiet and still at the bottom of the grave.

Within time, the spirits appeared once more about them all, and they doffed their hats, with heads bowed.  Quincy frowned and gazed around at them.  “What are they doing?” she breathed.  But Elmiryn and Sedwick were looking at her expectantly.  “What?” she asked.

Sedwick bowed his head like the ghosts and rubbed at the side of his face.  Elmiryn, with her cerulean eyes gazing sharp over the mouth of their fresh grave, said,  “We’re waiting for you, Quincy.”

“Me?” Now the woman’s shoulders bunched.  “What for?”

“You knew him best,” Elmiryn said simply.  “Can’t you say a few words?”

But Quincy was already shaking her head, her russet brown hair swaying about her face.  “No,” she bit out.  “I can’t.”

The warrior sucked at her teeth as her gaze turned lidded.  There was something heavy in her eyes…was that disappointment?  Then Elmiryn straightened, her hands going behind her back as she placed her feet beneath her shoulders.  “Fine then,” she said, without looking at Quincy.  There was steel in her voice.  “I will speak.”

The warrior’s expression softened and she looked down into the grave.  She started to speak, and it was with a slow and careful speed, like she were trying to word everything just right.  “I met Graziano on a road less traveled, and looking back, I think it appropriate.  That was less than a week ago, but it seemed like so much longer…and I think, with my particular condition, that such individuals who are capable of remaining in my heart and in my mind are all the more valuable to me.  That was this man.”  She paused here, her brow wrinkling.  Then she went on.  “On that day, Nyx, my ward and close companion, had become wary of the way the road cut through the mountains.  Lethia, our new friend and escort, begged us to move forward.  It was Graziano that changed our fate, forcing us forward.  He was a bounty hunter, hired to apprehend Lethia and return her to Belcliff–” there was an increase in the chill in the air, but Elmiryn went on without missing a beat, “But while his work was unpleasant, the young man was anything but.”  And here the woman smirked.  “Of his three brothers, I believe he was the heart and soul that kept them in good spirits.  Through a surprising twist in circumstance, Graziano and his young brother Paulo became our allies, and together we traveled for a time.  He cared for his brother, and it was one night in the dance of a fire’s glow that he related to me the reason for his care.  He had promised his dying father to protect his youngest sibling, and he carried this vow unto death.”

The warrior, turning her eyes to gaze ahead at nothing, drew the pistol from the seat of her pants and held it aloft with bent arm.  She still kept one hand behind her back.  “Yes.  The day I first met him, Graziano was eager to show me his gun, which aside from his brothers, he treasured greatly.  I will take this gun to his brother Paulo, for I believe him to be alive, and the boy will know the extent of his brother’s love.  This I so swear!”

Though they were quiet and subdued, there were, “Hear, hears!” from the dwarves attending.

Elmiryn brought her feet together, one fist over her heart and bowed deeply.  When she straightened again, she was smiling broadly, her eyes on the form down below…and were they a little misty? “Graz, you were damn good for a laugh and braver than most men I’ve met.  Tell Halward he owes me a harem when I get up to heaven, as I’m certain he most surely has one waiting for you!”  She then turned and grabbed a handful of soil, preparing to sprinkle it down onto his form.

Quincy, shaking, couldn’t take it anymore. “Wait!  Gods damn it all, wait!

The woman paused, as though not surprised to hear this sudden outburst, and Elmiryn turned to gaze at her coolly.

“I will speak…” The wizard breathed, perspiration chilling on her nose and forehead.  She gave a glance over her shoulder at the dwarves, all looking at her with equally reserved expressions.  “I will speak.  I must.  I…said I’d do this properly.  So…I…must speak.”

Quincy rubbed at her face and let her hand remain there for a moment.  Then with a shudder, she raised her head high and gazed up at the craggy ceiling of the underground city.  “I met Graziano ten years ago, when I had just turned twenty-years-old.  He was just…a boy then.  Barely twelve…” and here she allowed for a small grin.  “…And he was already trying to flirt with me, the little lahasho…that means horny devil in Fanaean.  I used to call him that all the time.  Lahasho,” she added as an afterthought.  She let herself cross her arms and closed her eyes.  “It was my first time in the Santian Kingdom, and having been in the bounty hunting life for only two years, I was still getting the hang of it.  My husband and I were looking for work when Arduino, Graziano’s older brother, offered to guide us through the Erminian jungles in pursuit of a bounty.  His family worked with monsters, but they had fallen on hard times.  That is how the Morettis began their careers as bounty hunters, and this is how I came to be in young Graziano’s company.

“The two years I lived in Santos, I was good friends with the Morettis, and an even better partner.  I was there that very day that Graziano vowed to look out for Paulo, and later attended their parents funeral.  He was fourteen at the time.  It was that sad year that my own ambitions overcame me, and I betrayed him and his brothers.”  Quincy could feel the hot stares all around her, none worse than those of Elmiryn, who snorted softly.  The wizard tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and let her fingers stay there, rested lightly at the hinge of her jaw.  “You would be right in cursing me.  I was frustrated by the Morettis lack of focus following their parents death, being of an independent and hardened mind myself then.  I was used to being an orphan.  I didn’t understand. All I could think of was gold and precious artifacts.  It was when Graziano failed to back me up in a venture with the local Aikandi that I, in petty fury, cut them out of the very riches that could have seen their family business restored.  What I could not see then, and what I would not let myself see later, was that Graziano, along with his family, were still grieving.  Arduino, though hard working and as crafty as I, did not know how to play the role of father.  He could not bring his brothers together…but I believe Graziano could.  Later, when the boy was approaching manhood, I could see how he kept Arduino from falling into darkness, and how they both worked together to raise Paulo.  My relationship with the Morettis was complicated, to say the least, and Graziano made it clear that he still had not forgiven me for my betrayal all those years ago…but he wasn’t an evil person, and I don’t know if he knew any true amount of hate until the day he died.”

Quincy couldn’t help it.  A small sob came up her throat and she clapped a hand over her mouth and stared down into the grave where she imagined Grazino’s marred face twisting in fury.

Ah, lia…you have done me wrong, you have…

She shook these thoughts from her head, and with small gasp for air, the woman managed to keep from breaking down.  Hot tears spilled from her eyes and she trembled fiercely, and it wasn’t for the cold.  “It is true!  I was a bitch, wasn’t I Graziano?  And the worst of it is, all your family’s misfortune was my doing.  Even unto your death, it was my doing…”  The woman squeezed her eyes shut, for Elmiryn’s face was hardening and her eyes seemed to hold a promise of violence.  Even coming from this warrior, this rival, this uncouth knave, the wizard found her usual defensiveness and arrogance petering out in the gales of her new found sentimentality.  She wished, with not a little shame, that Tonatiuh could make her numb once more.

“You see, Graziano,” Quincy blinked and stared balefully down into the grave.  “I had an idea of the danger that was to come, that night at Holzoff’s.  I even thought to use you and your brother to smoke out Syria, who I suspected of foul play.  I hid safe in the shadows, out of the mind witch’s reach while you and Paulo suffered, and, and–” and finally she gave.  Her knees came out from under her and she bawled and keened, rocking a bit as she covered her burning face in all her shame.  “It’s my fault!” she wailed.  “I was a wily coward.  None of this would’ve happened if–”

“Oh shut it!” Elmiryn barked, and Quincy stared up at her in shock, her sobs quieted to hiccups.  The warrior sneered at her, her eyes cutting.  “Yeah, we get it.  You were a worthless human being.  But this isn’t about you,” Elmiryn gestured over Graziano’s grave.  “You spit things out of your mouth Quincy, but damned if I’ve seen you back up anything you’ve said so far!  You wanted Graz to have a proper burial.  So make your peace with him and let the poor man rest.”

There were murmurs of agreement, and Quincy stared at her, stunned.  Then she wiped at her eyes and bowed her head.  She let it hang there for a time, before she lifted her face and gave a jerk of a nod.  “You’re right.”  She stood to her feet.  “You’re right, Elmiryn.”  The wizard curtsied low, and as she rose, she said, “Graziano, please forgive me for all that I’ve ever done.  I’m…not very good at this.  I don’t know how to make it up to you and your brothers, but I’ll figure out a way.  I will.”

Quincy sought out Elmiryn’s eyes and found them.  The warrior nodded to her, and she held out her fist, which still gripped her handful of soil.  “Go in peace, Graziano Moretti.”  She sprinkled the dirt and it pattered down into the grave.  Then the warrior turned and with shovel in hand proceeded to throw in dirt.  She didn’t do this for a long.  Some of the dwarven spirits in attendance vanished once more and with their ghostly suggestion, the grave was filled in no time.  There was a chipping sound and Elmiryn, Quincy, and Sedwick turned with surprise to find that in the base of the stone statue, those same spirits chiseled in Graziano’s full name, his birth year, 3547, and the current year, 3569.

To this, the wizard’s eyes fluttered.  “How…did they know all those things for certain?  Graziano was twenty-two, it’s true, but he could’ve been born either the year of ’46 or ’48!”

The dwarven warrior woman, with her axe still in hand, gazed up at her with hard eyes.  “We’re ghosts, miss.  Jus’ because we’re stuck here, don’t mean we don’t see those in passin’!”

Quincy’s heart stilled.  “You…spoke to him?”

The ghost nodded her head, and her lips quirked up at the ends.  “Aye, miss.  He came up as soon as he was in the grave.  Seems he was stuck in that body there.  Lemme tell you, he could’na hardly believe you were weepin’ over his poor form!”

“You’re teasing me!” The wizard snapped, seeing the grin expand on the dwarven woman’s face.

“Tis the truth, damn you!  He’s still angry with ye, and I don’ blame him…but he appreciated your sincere apology, and a’fore he left he had one last thing to say.”

Quincy thought she was about to start crying again, and Sedwick moved near, as though prepared to catch her in case her legs grew weak again.  “…What did he say?”

The dwarven woman scrunched up her face as she struggled with her mouth to imitate the bounty hunter’s voice.  Though her accent made this an awkward affair, the tone was unmistakably inspired by Graziano.  “‘Dry up your alligator tears, lia!  You always were too self-involved.  If you want to make things right so bad, then you do what I couldn’t.  You take care of Paulo.  Arduino is a grown man and I don’t think there’s anything to be done with him…but tell him I love him.  Tell them both that.  And tell Ard the picture is in the back of the vanity dresser, back home in Santos.  I’m sorry I hid it from him.‘  And that was it, miss.  He was on.”

Quincy nodded, her head ducking as tears dripped from the end of her ruddy nose.

“Hey.” She looked warily at Elmiryn, who had come to her side, arms crossed and brow furrowed.  The redhead punched her in the arm.  Hard.  “So now you know what you can do,” she said simply.

The wizard gazed at her, quiet.  Then she smiled weakly.  “Yes.  Now I know what I can do.”  She looked at the ghosts about them.  “Thank you, spirits!  Now lead on!  We have much to do!” And there was a cheer.


Back to Chapter 20.2 | Forward to Chapter 20.4

Chapter 20.2

NYX____________________________

They’re vicious things, those black nymphs.  They can be as big as small children.  They have sallow colored skin that scabs and peels like they’re sunburned.  They’re mostly bald, with thinning dark hair, and they have large black eyes that roll madly about in their fervor.  Their teeth are jagged and crooked, with bits of wood and moss in them, and they are stained and rotted.

They hate everything.  Every living creature, every growing plant, every sunrise and sunset.  They feed off the dead trees, gnawing on the stiff dry bark so that you can see their teeth marks gouged into the wood.  They stalk any and all outsiders of their black forest and after they’ve accumulated enough gall, they begin to pelt their victim with any and all objects they can throw.  If they’re daring, they may even try to jump on your back and bite something off.  They sabotage tools and vehicles, burn clothes, and defecate on your food.  If they hate life, they hate civilization even more, and they want nothing of it in their forest.

…There was once a time when I dwelled here, in the Kreut.  It was…just after my banishment and all of my family were dead.  I was alone in that forest, mourning.  I shed my clothes and laid on the ash covered soil.  I writhed in the desolation, and I think the black nymphs took a liking to me.  And by that I mean…well I’m not sure.  Typically, black nymphs seek to drive anyone from their home, and in the beginning they did this with zeal.  But in my grief I thought I deserved it, so I took their punishment without complaint.  I think this confused them.  Startled them, even.

As the months stretched by, the evil creatures came to watch me in large gangs–black eyes winking up in the trees at night.  They’d whisper and grunt to each other.  They’d pelt me with objects when they felt like it.  Sometimes, they kept me from sleeping, shrieking in my ear or biting my limbs just as sleep (or unconsciousness) sought to claim me.  They tormented my Twin when we’d Change.  There was no doubt–they hated me and wanted me dead.  But it was with pleasure that I felt them plot my demise.  They giggled at my pain and sadness.  I think they found me special, and so their cruelty reflected this.

Those terrible creatures are the only things I hate as much as dogs and violence.  And if my memories of my time in the Kreut forest were stronger and clearer, then I imagine I’d hate them even more.

They’re vicious things, those black nymphs.

And they descended on me.  I knew it to be them, from the small voices that shrieked and hooted.  In the confusion, I managed to pick out my own name in the devilish chant that could be heard.  Nyx…Nyx…Nyx… It frothed in the horror.  It sent great shivers of revulsion through me that these filthy things would hold my name in their black hearts after all this time, but perhaps it was fitting, given my past.

Sharp teeth clamped onto me, and I noted Lacertli’s weight was absent from my shoulder, but I had little time to dwell on that.  Was Argos free of this?  I thought I could hear him howling and barking in the din.  He sounded far away.  I felt far away.

…This was really happening.

The pain came from all around.  I felt pieces of myself tear.  I was going to be ripped apart again, but this time I wouldn’t be able to walk away.  These things would not be satisfied with a small prize.  They would devour me whole if they could…

Away.  I had to get away.

Inward I went, through the unseen passage that led me to Her usual place in my mind–now empty–but I pressed onward, and as I dragged myself (it seems one of the evil things was close to gnawing off my right foot) somehow the pain I felt dimmed.  I imagined myself free of their bonds and my body started to heal.  I paused to allow the process to complete.  Gaping wounds closed.  I wretched and vomited up bloody bile.  The whole of me was covered in gore and other things I care not to name.  Then I was up off the ground (“When had I fallen?”) and was moving again.

I was once more forging through the labyrinth of my mind, following cold lonely trails through a landscape of a whistling canyon and cool rock beds, where beings caught between transformations pulsed in the rock.  I ran, my legs scything through the air and my boots pounding.  I was feeling a pull at my back even as the pain faded.  Reality was trying to draw me out of my subconscious, but I fought against its phantom grip and fought to clear the hill that seemed to hedge my mind until–

–A breath over me.  The pressure and the pull was gone.  I stood at the top of the sandy crest and nearly fell backward in my fright.

Standing before me was a giant creature with a hunched back and writhing skin.  It turned my way at my gasp and let out a roar.

…No, wait.

I squinted my eyes and saw with a start that the giant was actually hundreds of black nymphs all writhing together, clawing each other, biting one another’s limbs.  Black blood seeped down their bodies and I turned sick at the sight of some being burrowed into, intestines and other organs falling free to dangle by their fleshy attachments.  The nymphs were trying to become one…literally.

The giant’s head, already a bloody mass of corpses and half-dead nymphs turned to me, parting its misshapen mouth to scream.

“Someone has taught them black magic.  They have enacted a spell that brings them together as one.” Lacertli’s voice.  I jumped and turned to see the god was right next to me, once again in the guise of Marquis, his fierce eyes upon my face. “The spell has yet to complete.  The body is not yet whole.  Get at the abomination’s heart, before its skin turns to steel, and you will have defeated this threat.”  And then the god glanced to the side, his form fading. He quirked an eyebrow before he vanished.  “…And you should probably duck.”

I blinked and looked forward again just in time to see the mammoth sized clump of earth launch toward me.  My body tensed, intent on jumping, ducking, whatever–but it was too late.  It slammed into me, and sweet Aelurus, I thought my very soul had been ejected from my body.  There was pain throughout, down to the bone, and when I slammed down the crest I had just cleared, I felt that agony doubled.

Consciousness came slow.  Half-out of my mind, I thought the world was falling on me.  Was that what Elmiryn imagined, when she whispered that the world was too small?  I managed to shimmy halfway out from underneath the great clod of earth, but gaped in horror as the disgusting monster bared down on me, with frothing eyes squelching and popping fresh from the nymphs’ heads.  These things, like plant stems, snaked and slithered through the mess of the monster’s throat, and the eyeballs collected together on its misshapen face.  It opened its maw at me again and screamed.

…Or maybe I was the one doing the screaming.

ELMIRYN________________________

They returned to the smithy, because Elmiryn thought she saw a wheelbarrow somewhere there.  They indeed found a wheelbarrow and also a rusty shovel, short on the shaft but lacking any compromising cracks or splints along the wood.  With gentle hands, they took Graziano’s body, already stiffening, and laid him out in the barrow’s bed.  They wheeled him out of the building–a scribe house, what with the stray pages baring neat scrawls of history and literature and such.  The woman scooped one up and glanced it over on her way out.  At the top of the frayed paper, she read:

….Ohrek and Stedif broke through the swarm of tunnel worms, their slime and blood and excrement staining their cloth and boots.  They were merry in their slaying, for their prize was within sight…

It sounded interesting, so the warrior folded the page and tucked it down the front of her wrappings.  She hurried to rejoin the others.

The sound of the wheelbarrow squeaking and bumping over the flagstones left everyone quiet.  None looked at the body.  Not even Elmiryn cared to gaze upon Graziano’s corpse more than she needed to.  His eyes were half-open and staring at nothing.  She wondered, though, if the man would have been livid to discover himself being transported in such a graceless way.  This only made her a little sorry.  Elmiryn had liked Graziano’s company.  He was funny, and brave…even if he was a bit of a fool, like Quincy had said.  Were they ill words if they were the truth?  The warrior had been even less charitable to Baldwin back at Gamath, a boy she hardly knew, so she supposed she was being a bit of a hypocrite.  Perhaps the wizard had all the right to call Graziano things.  She knew him far longer than the warrior had.

…Aw, who cares.

Elmiryn looked up from her staring contest with the ground (“I lose,”) to find that the road opened up ahead.  One of the large statues towered there in the middle of a square.  It was all dark, and the face had eroded, leaving it featureless.  The stone that had once been the nose and the eyes and such had fallen to the ground below, wrecking the circular road about the statue’s feet.  She pointed, “Maybe we can bury him over there?”

“We’ll have to find a place where the flagstones are coming away, somewhere the soil is free,” Sedwick said through a grunt.  He was given charge of pushing the wheelbarrow, and he forced the thing through a wide pothole.

“A hard thing to find in this stony place,” Quincy muttered.  She gripped the shovel in her right hand.

“We’ll figure something out.  If it has to be a soldier’s service, then so be it.”

“A soldier’s service?” The wizard turned and gazed at Elmiryn with squinted eyes.

The warrior cursed her slip.  There was still the bounty on her head, and though Quincy claimed she could never find work as a bounty hunter again, a king’s ransom would likely change her mind… She gestured around them at the deserted shops and homes.  “There’s plenty of wood here.  Good for a pyre.  That’s what I meant.”  She tried to sound casual.

“No.” Quincy said firmly, perhaps with a note of bite in it–but then again, in her emotional teetering, she always seemed to have a level of bite in her.  “The Morettis come from the Santian kingdom, who believe in rest in the soil.  I would not do otherwise.”

Elmiryn’s eyebrows rose high.  “Are you suggesting that the fire is not good enough for him?”

The wizard glanced at her.  Then she pursed her lips.  “I’m sorry.  I know cremation is preferred in your kingdom.  It was not a reflection on you or your origins.  But…I feel honor bound.  If the task dragged on and you or Sedwick felt the need to move on without me, I would understand.  But I would stay to get the job done, whatever the danger.”

“…She says this as I grunt against the wheelbarrow carrying the deceased’s body.” Sedwick growled out, struggling once more to keep the wheelbarrow moving forward.  “Somehow, I feel my involvement in this is being under-appreciated…”

“You would put yourself at risk for someone you had spoken so critically of?” Elmiryn asked the wizard, ignoring the blacksmith’s grumbling.  She thumbed over her shoulder as her mouth took on a cruel tilt.  “Not even ten minutes ago–”

“I know what I said.” Quincy said, her eyes flashing.  “I say a lot of things.  Count on this being one of the important ones.  Graziano will be buried properly and in unhurried fashion because it is all the comfort I can give him considering–” Quincy stopped with clenched teeth as she turned her face away.

Sedwick gave Elmiryn a sharp glare and the warrior threw her hands up, exasperated.  “It’s alright Quincy,” the man said turning to her.  “I understand where you’re coming from.  Together we’ll do this right.”

“I wasn’t trying to…for fuck’s sake, never mind,” the redhead grumbled, crossing her arms and glaring off to the side.  It made her cross that Quincy was forgiven her outbursts, but the truth, however bluntly stated, was not tolerated.  She had been to many funerals, most for comrades, and she knew this to be true in each case.  A bit of irrationality was fine, but if you came in swinging with the facts, somehow you were the more evil for it.

“I think I see a spot.” Sedwick said, nodding up ahead.  “There.  The stone that fell off that statue broke through the concrete.  We should be able to get to the dirt underneath if we clear the debris.”

The warrior swiped at her nose, feeling it itch in her irritation, and she gazed forward with lidded eyes.  As her eyes swept around, she thought she saw something off to the side of the road, but when she looked again, nothing was there.  Still the feeling of being watched came over her, and she nudged Sedwick with her elbow.  “Hey.  Can you go on ahead and move that rock with your water powers?  I’ll push the wheelbarrow.”

Sedwick stopped and set the wheelbarrow down gently and Elmiryn moved to take his place.  The man, with a wavering form, turned clear as his body became entirely water and he lost his human shape, falling to the ground in a collected puddle.  In this form, he slithered ahead of them, his body a long thin stream like a snake.  He moved quicker in this way, and within the minute he was at the great chunk of stone, pushing at it in his watery form.  It didn’t budge at first, but as Sedwick became less human in shape and more like Nadī in her amorphous form, he managed to get under the edge of the rock.  This gave him more leverage, and within the minute, the great rock tumbled away.  Sedwick retracted his arms, looking so much like geysers, and he returned to flesh as Elmiryn and Quincy came up.

The patch of ground revealed was wide and like a misshapen oval, with flagstone shattered beneath it.  When they cleared these, there were still foundations of concrete to work through, but Sedwick again, proved useful, using his watery form to squeeze into the cracks in a way neither of his companions could’ve hope to.  The slabs were up and away, and they were met with soil.  They kept working, sweat beading on their skin as they expanded this patch to a suitable burial spot, one that Graziano could fit into.

“Is this really okay?” Elmiryn said, glancing around for the umpteenth time.  She kept thinking she saw something out of the corner of her eye, but when she looked there was nothing.  Perhaps her mind wasn’t all that much better in the Other Place.  “Maybe we would have had an easier time of it back in the tunnels?”

“Some of those tunnels are derelict.  Digging into them without any proper knowledge could very well see us buried with Graziano.”  Quincy hefted up the shovel and struck into the free soil.  “This is our best bet.  We may still be interrupted here, but at least we have a chance of finishing.”

For a short while it was just Quincy digging at the dirt, her breath rough as she kicked at the shovel’s head and sunk it in deep.  Then Sedwick turned his arms to water and he scythed at the dirt, taking away big clumps.  Then Elmiryn got bored and took up a rock, and though of all of them she did the least, she felt better being involved somehow.  Eventually, Sedwick had to stop with the water as it was making quite bit of mud, and both Elmiryn and Quincy found themselves up to their shoulders in the hole.

“This seems good.  I doubt we have to worry about flood or animals ruining the grave, right?” Quincy panted.  She had dirt on her face and all over her clothes.  Elmiryn as well.  “Yer taller than I am.  Stand straight and lessee if the grave comes to your ears.”

“I’m only taller by an inch or so.  How tall’re you?” Elmiryn returned.

The brunette leaned on her shovel, her face screwing up. “Must you make even a simple question difficult?

The warrior’s eyes narrowed.  “I’m not interested in being used to measure how deep a grave is.  I fill them up, not dig ’em out.”

“Ladies, I think your work is done.” Sedwick said over them.  “Let me help you both up.”

Quincy went for Sedwick’s hand while Elmiryn struggled out of the hole on her own.  She scraped her palms a bit but straightened, her gaze lidded as she turned to regard the others.

“So now…” The warrior turned and looked down at Graziano, with his limbs hanging over the edge of the wheelbarrow.  “Our Moretti.”

The warrior went to take up his limbs, and Sedwick moved to help her, but Quincy grabbed his arm and held a hand out to Elmiryn.  “Wait!”

“What?”  Elmiryn said, frowning at her.  She looked over her shoulder and back at the wizard.  “We’ve found him a good resting place!  We risk danger staying here!”

“I said I’d not just bury him,  but bury him right.” Quincy stepped forward, her bow-shaped lips puckered and her angled brows knitted.  She took up a pouch on her side, empty, and rubbed it with both hands.  After a moment, she loosened the pouch and turned it over her hand, and out slipped a handkerchief.  Another shake and a small vial of water fell out after it.  Elmiryn’s brows rose high.

“That’s useful,” she commented.

The wizard ignored her.  She took the vial and uncorked it, where she placed the handkerchief over the mouth and turned it over quickly.  With the newly dampened cloth, she knelt by the wheelbarrow and wiped at Graziano’s face.  The warrior noted the shake of her hand as she did this, but said nothing.  Quincy closed his mouth and wiped the blood from his lips.  She closed his eyes too.  There was nothing to be done of the bashed in nose, nor the cuts and bruising.  Still, with his mouth and eyes closed and the blood gone, the handsome young fellow that Elmiryn knew Graziano to be was apparent, even in death.

Quincy stood and with lips still puckered, she undid the clasp of her cloak.  With a sweep, she took it from her shoulders and snapped it out into the air, where the heavy cloth fell at full length alongside their makeshift grave.  Elmiryn stepped back, her eyes narrowed as she took in the brunette without her most prominent piece of clothing.  She knew she had seen the wizard without the cloak on at least once before, but that moment was lost in a blaze of heat and metal and blood.  No, now that image was gone from her head, and instead was this different person, shedding her cloak not for violence but…

Sedwick took Graziano beneath the arms and Quincy around his legs, and on a three count, they had him up and on the cloak.  Elmiryn stepped forward as a sudden thought occurred to her.  “Shit.  Unless we want to commit him gracelessly, we need to find someway to lower him in.  That grave is nearly six feet deep and too narrow for anyone to go down and receive him.”

Quincy frowned, looking stricken.  “And he’s dead weight,” she added cheerlessly.  “It’s one thing carrying him from the wheelbarrow, but…”

“I could turn to water and lower him that way, but it’d muddy the grave and that’d sully the poor man’s corpse,” Sedwick said.  He rubbed the side of his face.  “We could…”

There was a ‘harrumph’ from behind them.  Everyone jumped and turned.

A stout dwarven ghost, wearing a smithy’s garb of a dark apron, a knitted cap, and thick gloves, swept off his hat and bowed low to them.  Behind him, appearing more and more by the second, were men, women, and children.  All dwarves.  All as transparent as mist.  All watching them.  The first dwarf straightened some, his expression solemn even as it wavered from the likeness of flesh to macabre skull and back. “Pardon our intrusion,” he said in a deep bass-like voice. “But we think we can help.”

NYX____________________________

The abomination gripped me about the head–the head–and pulled.  Perhaps if I had not shimmied out from beneath the boulder of earth as I had, with arms pushing even after its sweaty, disgusting fist closed about me, then I would have been pulled in two and that would have been the end of my story.  Lacertli would have been quite disappointed.  And Elmiryn…

But to my good fortune, I was out just enough that the worst I suffered was perhaps a damaged spine and neck.  I speak of these things so lightly only because of what could have happened instead, which makes me shudder still to this day.  But at the time, make no mistake, my limbs and my nerves did not take to the horrific damage that came to me.

In this fashion, with the amalgamated beast’s clutching me about my petite head, I was flung up and away, stunned.  I think I blacked out mid-air.  The collision back unto the earth was what brought me back I think, considering the dust was still settling when I opened my eyes.  It was Lacertli’s sharp voice that had me up as I felt my spine right itself and my newly broken arm (I must have fell on it wrong) knit together.  “Up, Knave!  The beast comes!” he hissed.

Though I could feel my regeneration at work, my limbs still were quite twitchy.  Becoming a champion of a deity makes one more hardy, that was easy to see.  I looked and to my humiliation noted that my crotch felt wet again.  I suppose my bladder was not quite as empty as I had thought.  For its supposed benefits, my new station in life didn’t do much for my pride.

There was no time for self-pity, however, as I saw the great abomination charging toward me with its gray shifting skin, its misshapen head with its hundreds of little eyes.  Every stomp of its terrible feet shook the earth, and I did the only thing I could think of…

I forced myself to my feet, back still hurting, neck twinging in sharp pain, and with my vision blurring, I ran.

Lacertli stepped out from behind a tree ahead of me–a teleportation trick handy to gods, no doubt.  I found I resented his ease as he frowned lazily at me.  “Knave, what on earth are you doing?” he sighed.

“Surviving, sir!” I panted as I sprinted past him. “Begging thy pardon, but I believe this to be one of your tenets!” I couldn’t hold back my cheek.  I was the one running for my life, and yet he seemed unaffected by this danger.  A little help would’ve been nice.  But then again, Lacertli was a god, so I should count my lucky stars he didn’t turn me into a toad or something.

Behind me, I could hear the monster, its voice splintering into hundreds of little screams.  It was gaining on me, damn it all.

Then I remembered.  I could step through shadows.

My breath ragged I went diving into the narrow shadow of a twisted tree, and cold swept over me.  I tumbled, head over heels, and skidded gracelessly along the black ground.  With a groan, I straightened myself.

Just as before, all around me was black with shifting white lines.  A mimicry of the place I had just departed.  I thought I could make out the same twisted trees about me.  Except I was no longer in the Somnium.  I was in the Umbralands.

I turned and squealed as I saw the giant monster lumbering towards me.  It looked as a glaring white scribble against the black world.  I started to move backward, but like last time, the ground shifted beneath me and I fell.  The beast was so near.  I covered my head as it loomed over me, one foot raised.

…Then nothing.

I blinked and raised my head, coming out of my fetal position.  The monster was running on without me.  I blinked after it.  It didn’t see me at all.  Then I stood.  I took one step, then another.  Suddenly I was running after the thing.  This was hard to do in this dimension, so I tried to see some sort of exit like the last time I was here.

Just at the thought, I saw my chance appear in the form of a wall up ahead.  Lacertli had said I could shift the boundaries between the two dimensions.  Was this what he meant?  Could I create shadows where there otherwise were none?

I sprinted through this new passage, the pain in my back all but gone now and a new gleam in my eye.  I had an idea…

With a rush of air I was back in the Somnium, the dream of the world, and felt a sigh pass over me–like a mother glad to see her child.  Somehow, this thought emboldened me further, and I charged full tilt after the monstrosity, which had stopped and now tore trees up from their roots in rage.  I saw the shadows…felt them.  They were cold things.  Slippery, like the dark things I had taken hold of not long ago, when freeing those poor spirits.  I narrowed my eyes and pressed deeper, my gaze piercing into the beast’s chest where I knew my target lay.  As Lacertli had warned, the beast’s skin was smoothing, the grotesque tangle of limbs fusing to become one.  If the nymphs’ black spell completed, I doubted I could win this battle, let alone survive it.  But then the thing turned, and there I saw that the front of its chest had failed to close all the way.  Funny the things you fail to see when out of your mind with terror.  But my heart lifted.  I could still see the shadow of its heart.

I yelled in the way I imagined Elmiryn would have, charging in like this.  The beast, having spotted me, took its great arms and slammed them into the earth.  It opened its disgusting maw, and slime gushed forth, black and steaming.  Just as I came within its range, I gave a small jump up into the air, and the beast took one great step forward and raised both its arms again.  I closed my eyes as I fell, tucking into a cannonball, knowing that if this didn’t work the monster would bash my brains in.

…But with a ‘whoosh’ I was through the beast’s shadow.

Back in the Umbralands, I opened my eyes to find the monster over me, his chest bared.  I grimaced, but pressed forth, into it.  My hands clawed through gore and flesh to wrap around my bloody prize.

As I crossed back into the Somnium, I didn’t hear the sigh of the world.  Just the nightmarish howl of a monster whose heart was being torn out of his chest.


Back to Chapter 20.1 | Forward to Chapter 20.3

Chapter 20.1

ELMIRYN________________________

Well, there’s nothing else to it,” Sedwick said.  “We’ll just have to get through these tunnels until we find some light.  If you two haven’t noticed, there’s something in the air here.”

“You speak as though it has no effect on you,” Quincy said.

There was a smile in the man’s voice as he replied, “That’s because it doesn’t.”  His shadowy form gestured at himself.  “You two can see me a little, right?”

“Yes,” Quincy said.

“Yeah,” Elmiryn said next, her voice churlish.  Some part of her recognized that there was something ridiculous about being angry over the lack of things she could hurt, and she tried to decide in just what way.

There was the sound of Sedwick turning, and his form bobbed in the dark.  “Then follow me.  If there are any traps or pits, I’ll be able to take it.”

“Traps?” Elmiryn said frowning.  She and Quincy started to walk together, side by side.

“These tunnels, if they are indeed dwarven, likely have some traps about them,” The wizard explained.  “This tunnel is clear of tools and debris, meaning it was used as a road to the active tunnels where the mining was done.  Sometimes, though, looters would come and try and steal their bounty.  The dwarves rigged certain inactive tunnels with traps only they were aware of.  With all the digging going on, just collapsing the paths was too risky.”

“Oh.  Fun.”

“We might not have any trouble.”

The woman laughed, feeling some of her ire slip away.  “Oh hell, wizard.  We may just find ourselves slashing through hordes of giant rats and spiders instead!  If the angry midgets don’t find us first, that is.”

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” Quincy snapped.  Elmiryn could just imagine the scowl on her face.  “…And what kind of mkundu comes up with the idea of giant rats and spiders, anyway?” she mumbled next.

“And angry midgets.”

“They’re dwarves.  Are you that ignorant?”

“Heavens no!” The warrior said, feigning indignation.  “I had intimate relations with a dwarf once.  ‘Intimate’ being the operative word.  She was a pretty girl.  She was quite sturdy–”

“I don’t want to hear it,” Quincy snapped.

The warrior snickered, but she didn’t press the story.  They walked on in silence, feet crunching along the earthy ground.  Absently, Elmiryn wondered how deep the tunnels went.  How deep they were.  What were to happen if the walls shuddered, the ceiling cracked, and all of that rock and sand and soil came toppling down on them?  A whole world pressing down on them… Ah but wait, a world?  That was stretching it, wasn’t it?  Because they were on a shard, a broken impression of what really was.  Elmiryn was living in a concept.  A reflection, but hardly real.

Why, in this false world, did she thrive then?

The woman quickened her pace, her breath coming harsh through her nostrils as a sweat drop trailed down her temple.  She brushed past Sedwick, and the man let out a sound of surprise.  “Hey–ah–Elmiryn?”

Not much could be seen from where they were, but there was a dim light warming the cold earth as the tunnel twisted out of sight.  Elmiryn swallowed down the lump in her throat as she drew her dagger.  The weight of it felt solid and certain in her hands.  She swiped at her brow with her arm and behind her came the sounds of Quincy and Sedwick hurrying after her.

“Fiamman, what’s wrong?” Quincy.  Her voice was hard, but lacked the usual bite.

Sedwick spoke next.  “Elmiryn, can you slow down a moment?”

“I’m fine,” the warrior snarled, gripping her dagger tighter.  “I just don’t like these tunnels.  I don’t like this quiet.”

The light at the end of the tunnel blossomed and spread, warm reaches blanketing the dark walls and ground.  They rounded the bend.

What opened to them was a room as high as their eyes could see, with star like openings where snow filtered through, flakes of it fluttering through a dusty space to cover the tired looking structures below.  It was an underground city, filled with robust, basalt structures–as stern as Belcliff’s architecture but bolder and more rugged.  It lacked the contemplative statues of gryphons and gargoyles, and instead bared beveled designs of scultones and dwarves within its walls, with towering statues that inspired awe.  From the tunnel was a broken path of flagstones that led across a long arched bridge.

“Well this answers our question,” Quincy sighed at Elmiryn’s side.  The warrior glanced at her.  The wizard’s mouth was skewed to one side, and her narrow brows arched in a critical tilt over her rich azure eyes.  She wasn’t quite used to seeing the wizard like this.  Her previous incarnation had struck quite the impression.  Elmiryn was trying to honor her word and not pester the brunette so much, but she knew it was a schoolyard promise, good only for a time, before events led her to forget again.

Sedwick gazed across Elmiryn at Quincy.  “We’ll move quickly.  I think I can sense out the next gate.  It’s somewhere to the north.”

And they were on again.

NYX____________________________

Layers, upon layers.  It was as best as I could understand of the new power I had and how I had just used it.  The world was just layers upon layers of existence and consciousness.

But where did I live, with my splintered soul and my divided thoughts?  What was my home?

I was feeling another moment of collapse looming over me, so even as Lacertli had pressed me to move forward, I sat heavily on the ground and stared at the trees.  I remembered them twisted in that strange dimension, but here they were the same lonely, dead things I remembered them to be back in my realm.

…All this talk of realms and dimensions and layers was making my head hurt.

I gripped it, palms pressing at the temples as I touched my forehead to my bent knees.  The god, in his form of a lizard, scratched and climbed up the nooks and bends of my body until he was resting on my left shoulder.  His claws scratched in places, and I felt the cuts scab over quickly.  Lacertli’s tongue flicked against my ear, making me flinch.  “Night Child…

“Sir…” I croaked.  I swallowed and felt mucus trail down the back of my throat.  The edges of my nostrils felt damp and my eyes started burning.  My hands flexed, fingers tangled in my mane of hair.  I twitched, thinking of how the dogs, how the pretas, had just recently torn me apart.  How an unseen force had essentially laced myself with a god.  How I had taken the shadow of a tormented spirit and ripped it apart.

Nyx, you are falling on old ways.  Draw yourself up.

I hiccuped and felt a hot tear fall down my cheek.  “My apologies, sir.  I’m…I’ve always been weak in will.  I’m a coward.”

The god spat at me.  “Your Ghost is right in cursing this.  You will find no more pity in me, girl.   Thou art more than a coward, though your lack of discipline sees you playing the knave.  Arise and cease your tears.  There is still work to be done.

Argos, who had taken to sitting near me, shoved at my elbow with his nose.  He panted at me, tail flopping gently on the ground as his dark watery eyes batted amidst his furry face.  His great paw, as large as my hand, came up to rest on my knee and he woofed once.  I wiped at my nose and blinked away tears as I gazed at him.  “Don’t you remember Lethia?  You miss her, don’t you?  Doesn’t that…doesn’t that make it hard?”  I asked through a tense throat.

The lizard shifted on my shoulder. “Vermagus, I have told thee.  The dog has lost that connection.  He recalls her, but his devotion to her is absent.”  Lacertli raised himself and I glanced at him warily.  Though I was certain it was just in my mind, the god’s lizard face seemed to be frowning at me.  “Nyx, if thou insists on behaving as a knave, then I shall call thee as such.  Come Knave!  Arise, or you’ll feel the teeth of my displeasure.”

My body bunched at this stern declaration, and I wiped at my eyes as I rose to my feet.  “Y-Yes, Lacertli!” It was weird, answering to someone like this.  I hadn’t since I left my home.  It was true that I had started my relationship with Elmiryn due to being indebted to her, but the woman had never sought such servitude from me, and I was led to behave more casually despite my initial discomfort.

We will have to track our prey.”  Lacertli narrowed his gaze as his tongue tasted the air.  “They are honorless.  They feel your newly gained power and flee, seeking to consolidate their strength.” I began to walk and the god continued to speak.  “You have now seen how even this fractured place may be further pulled apart.  On the surface, the deformed and twisted spirits of misery that came to you were, in fact, the spirits of creatures once living.  That is the Somnium.  The dream of the universe.  There, a concept might become literal, and laws may be discarded completely.  It also can peel away all falsities and leave only truth, as it did for those souls you freed.”

“It felt more like murder…not that I am trying to correct you, sir.  I–I’m just stating how I feel!” I added hurriedly.

The god chuckled.  “I understood you.”  He swiped a paw over the side of his face, and shook his head.  “Those souls were undone, it is true, but they were returned to Life, the proper cycle.  They knew nothing of joy here, and you ended their torment.  If anything, take solace in that.

I nodded with a hard swallow, feeling my emotions rile up again.  It was still hard for me to think of, but when Lacertli put it the way he did, I couldn’t see anything else to it.  The situation was sad, but at least the pain was done.

Argos followed me closely, and my hand rested on his back.  I thought, “No wonder Lethia feels so safe with him.  His presence is very comforting…even if he could use a wash.”  The dog looked up at me, tongue lolling from the side of his mouth as he wagged his tail.  I smiled at him shakily.

Lacertli resumed his talk on my shoulder.  “Knave.  So you now have an idea of the place we entered and how it may affect the realities experienced elsewhere.  Leaving the Somnium to return to the world in question can be done in two ways. One, you may pick your way back into your own subconscious.  Or, you may pass through the Umbralands, as we had done.  That is the place of shadows.  It is the boundary between the world and the Somnium.  As a dreamwalker and my champion, you may now traverse this barrier. Indeed, you may even alter it.

The forest seemed to go on for ages.  I was pushing from one task to the next, and while Lacertli seemed satisfied by my performance thus far, the idea of somehow becoming his champion left me reeling.  Never in my years had I actually seen a Legend in the flesh, though I had heard of them in many tales, most recently being Tobias’ loose adventures of Earth and his companions.  Not that I suddenly considered myself a Legend.  Usually a reputation was required for that, and I had just begun my new station.

As I crouched, inspecting paw prints, sprays of blood on bark, and that trailing smell of death, a question came.

…Why did Lacertli choose me?

The god murmured guidance on my shoulder as we tracked the pretas and kept lookout for any sign of them or the black nymphs.  I knew the nymphs to leave no traces, being one with the tainted forest, but I had a nasty feeling they were very close.  I missed Elmiryn’s skill here, for she was a great hunter, so much that even my Twin lacked the awareness and finesse she possessed.  I started thinking about that frustrating redhead again, with little power over the emotions that came.

…Where was she?  Was she safe?  Was she alone?  And how was her damaged perception treating her?

“Sir,” I breathed, pausing between a buckeye and an elm.  “Can you…feel her?  Elmiryn?”

Lacertli’s head turned my way, his reptilian eyes blinking once.  “You mean, do I know where she is?  How she fares?

I swallowed.  “Yes.”

Of course I do.  But it is not my duty to indulge your flares of emotion, girl,” he said with a terse voice, turning his gaze forward again.  “…She fares yet still.  Naturally.  Else I would not have told thee of her lingering debt.

“I’m sorry sir…

“Focus.  Wipe your mind clean.  Take note of what is around you.

“Um…” I looked around me, the perplexity bunching my face as I tried to see what Lacertli apparently did.  Around me was a circle of something thick and dark that had been spilled onto the dirt.  It fanned out, spraying tree roots, and there I saw bits of flesh and bone shards nestled amid the collection of twigs and dust against the base of the trunks.  I felt like my lungs were shot.

…I was standing in the middle of a ritual site.

Lacertli’s claws dug painfully into my skin, drawing blood.  “I am the Path…as such, I should inform you that in your carelessness you have just walked into a trap.” And here he looked at me with his yellow eyes narrowed and his mouth showing teeth.  “…I suggest you hold your breath.

I shoved at Argos, trying to spare him, my stomach dropping to my soles as a shadow fell over me and a great screeching tore through the air.

ELMIRYN________________________

“Why do we have anything to fear from these dwarves?” Elmiryn asked as they started to walk.  She looked at Quincy.  “You know.  What happened here?”

The wizard pinched the bridge of her nose.  “When I was doing investigation regarding the dark forces in Belcliff, I came across some interesting information.”  She gestured before them at the city.  “You see, the dwarven colony here was really only a colony by name.  The truth of it was that there were hundreds, maybe thousands of dwarves here operating under a loose organization.  They backed Belcliff’s coffers, and in return they had exclusive rights to mine under the Albian government.”

“Wait, wait,” Elmiryn said with a raised hand and a crooked smile.  “Okay…I already see where this is going.  Some disagreement cropped up over money, didn’t it?”

Quincy nodded.  “The marshal in power got into it with the dwarven leaders here.  The official records state simply that the dwarves had left.  Upped and took everything of worth here whilst leaving the rest inaccessible or useless.  Belcliff was in a financial crisis because of it.”

“All those dwarves just…vanish?” Sedwick said skeptically.

“Someone got greedy,” Elmiryn said.

The wizard went on.  “Those were my thoughts.  How does an entire population just disappear?  What happened to the gold and jewels?  I’m fairly certain the dwarven colonies to the west hadn’t seen an influx in population, nor had any of the other neighboring communities.  But then, why was everyone willing to accept this, given the lack of solid evidence?  That’s when I learned from Lethia that her mistress had been seeing the marshal for the last few years for problems of mental health.”

“Syria of Albias…she’s a powerful enchantress.  If she was able to open a portal to this realm, why not have the power to ensorcell an entire region into believing a lie?”  Sedwick said.

Elmiryn snorted.  “So what happened then?  The marshal turned on her.  Wouldn’t he have been afraid of her revealing his secrets?”

“For whatever reason, she chose not to,” Quincy said with a shrug.  “I imagine the marshal feared the connection he had with her, after she was found to have those mutilated men in her home.  From there it was a lot of double crossing and self-preservation.”

They were nearly across the bridge now.  Elmiryn took a moment to look over the edge.  She was met with a gaping abyss.  She stared.

“Elmiryn?”  Sedwick.  She decided she disliked his change in demeanor, however slight.

The woman didn’t move in answer to his voice, but instead leaned over, her elbow digging into the harsh stone, her shoulder hunching up to her ear.  Her eyes narrowed and she willed the darkness to stir.  It bowled inward, then toward her, like it were reaching…

Elmiryn.

Elmiryn hacked up phlegm from deep in her throat, then leaned farther still over the edge, like daring gravity to grab her and pull her over.  She let the spit trail from her mouth in a viscous rope that swayed like a pendulum from the weight of its bubbly end.

“Charming.  You are the picture of a lady.” Quincy.  It was bitchy and stuck-up, but Elmiryn preferred this to the ex-blacksmith’s unbridled sympathy.

The spit dropped, sailing into the darkness.  Elmiryn stared after it, her eyes empty, before she offered a smile to match.  She straightened and joined the man and the other woman.  “I spat in the great big wound.  Lessee if the world appreciates it,” she said jauntily.

Her companions shook their heads at her, but nothing else was said.  They cleared the bridge and were now in the midst of the city.  The buildings were low, unlike Belcliff’s towering buildings, or even Tiesmire’s messy stacks of architecture.  The stones were cut wide and blocky, save for the arches that ribbed the road, some broken, others casting blurred shadows on their faces as they passed.  The road was in disrepair–suffering from cracks and loose flagstones.  Elmiryn eyed the openings of the buildings as she passed, and her eyes lighted on one.

She slowed to a stop and called to the others, who glanced at her.  “Hey, there’s something in one of these!”

The warrior turned and went to the plain gray building in question and poked her head through the open entryway.  Inside was cold and empty, but on the walls were empty racks, like the sorts that displayed weapons.  In the corner to the right was a knocked over stand.  She ventured in further, toward the counter and peered over.  Behind this were strewn tools and things, and she suspected the back had a small forge.  This was once a smithy.

“What’d you find?  It’s risky dawdling,” Quincy said behind her.

Elmiryn hopped over the counter and peered into the back room.  A forge and an anvil.  Tools hung on the walls, and there was ore spilled over the floor.  She pointed at the wizard.  “You need a weapon.”

The wizard scowled at her in the dim light as Sedwick appeared in the doorway, the light filtering through his water legs.  “I do not.” The brunette hefted up her rusty sword.  “I have this.”

Elmiryn looked at her as if she were stupid.

Quincy huffed, brandishing her blade.  “And you don’t think this place has been picked clean by looters?”

“At best you can bruise someone with that, but it’s hardly lethal.  It’d probably break with a full force swing.  You need something proper.

“I’m not getting rid of it.” The woman snapped, storming back outside.

Sedwick hurried out of her way, blinking.  He turned his pale gaze Elmiryn’s way. “Do you see anything?” he asked.

Elmiryn ventured further into the back room, which was more spacious than the front in terms of square feet, but much more crowded by barrels of ore and dampers and other such smithy tools that were beyond the woman.  “No,” she said.  She smiled crookedly as she reached down and snatched up a few belts.  “But here’s a few holsters for the ninny.  If she wants to keep that stupid thing, she can at least keep her hands free.  I can probably lend her my dagger too.”

The woman left the building with Sedwick to find Quincy sulking on a low rock.  Elmiryn threw the belts at her feet.  “There, sourpuss.  You can keep the damn sword, but now you’ve got something to put it in, seeing as how you can’t ‘poof’ it away anymore.”

“I never ‘poofed’ it away,” Quincy grumbled.  But she leaned down and took up the belts, checking the holsters on them.  “It was more like a ‘flash’.”

“Oh.  Pardon me.  You ‘flashed’.  Not ‘poofed’.”  Elmiryn grinned at the wizard as Sedwick spared a chuckle. “Tell me.  Which sounds less fairy-like?”

“I told you I can beat you to death with this,” Quincy threatened, wagging the sword’s tip at her as though it were a finger.

“You are quite the violent one!  But I don’t take to swords being waved my way, so have a care and redirect that thing, huh?” Elmiryn warned, though she didn’t really care.  The wizard was just barking like a dog at the end of a leash, much like Elmiryn was like a cat batting at still water.  Neither intended to go all the way, so the exchange ended there.

Quincy had her sword sheathed, finally, and they were on, only now Elmiryn was trying to see into every building she could.

“I doubt you’ll find anything,” Sedwick said with a soft exhale.  “You’re slowing us down.”

Elmiryn stopped, her hands resting on one of the doorways.  “Oh…I won’t find anything, huh?” She faltered, the joke she had lined up slipping into the ether.  “I’m not sure…if I’m seeing this right.”  Her voice turned subdued.  This was enough to inspire a response in kind.

“What is it…?” Quincy said quietly coming up from behind.  She tried to peer over the warrior’s shoulder.  Sedwick came next.

Inside, through the broken roof, lay Graziano’s dead body, sprawled out on the mess of stones.  He had crashed there, his limbs in a disarray and his corpse covered in dust and ash.  Though his face was turned down, a small spray of blood could be seen where it had smashed into the edge of a broken slab of concrete.  His right arm twisted unnaturally behind him, out of sight, and his rapier pointed into the air, still in its holster on his hip.  His gun lay off in the shadows.

“It’s…I mean, is it?” Elmiryn said, frowning.

Quincy shoved past her, but the warrior said nothing.  Her eyes were still on the corpse, trying to make sense of it.

“Of course it is.  Don’t be a twit.” The wizard’s voice wavered a bit, even as she tried to sound harsh.

“I just,” The warrior stepped forward as well, standing next to the woman.  “It gets hard, y’know?  For me to make sense of things sometimes.  I wasn’t sure if this was one of those times.”

“He was there.  He was there like all of us.  He got sucked in.”

“I know that, I just wasn’t sure.”

“Who is he?” Sedwick asked.

“Graziano Moretti.  He was a bounty hunter.”  Quincy covered her face with a hand.  “He was…” her voice trailed away.

Elmiryn crouched down and picked up the pistol.  She held it closer to the light and ran her hand over the ivory stock.  Stared down at the triple barrel.  Cocked the gun and aimed it.  Released the hammer, and sat heavily on the floor.  “He looks like a doll.  A broken doll,” she muttered.  She glanced at Quincy.

“He’s not one,” the woman bit out.  “He was an idiot.”

The warrior’s jaw clenched and she glared at the ground.  “You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.  He’ll turn into a ghost–”

“And you’re a real authority, huh?” Quincy snapped, her face turning red.  “A ghost should know a thing or two, is that it, Elmiryn?”  Sedwick went to touch her shoulder, but the wizard swatted at him.  “Don’t touch me!”  She stomped to Graziano’s body and pointed, her spine-bending as she shouted with all the force in her lungs at the redhead.  “Go on!  Ghosts should be able to talk to each other.  You ask him why he didn’t listen to me.  Why he couldn’t think rationally when we had victory in our hands!  Ask him!

Elmiryn just looked up at her through her eyelashes, her brows knitted but the ire failing to appear.  She tried to remember similar scenes in her life, but all she could draw up were the sounds.  Phantom voices echoed in her head, and she felt her shoulders sag, knowing this moment of her life would soon be the same.

Sir, Lake was just a boy, I have to find a bit of him–

Lieutenant.

Just a bit.  Just a small bit, sir.  For his mother.

Lieutenant Saelin, we can’t stay.

But Captain, just a bit.  Anything, sir, please–

Get it together, gods damn it, you won’t find so much as a finger so just let it alone.

“Let it alone…” The warrior mumbled.

Quincy stomped her foot, her eyes shining with unshed tears.  “No!  I won’t!  I’ll curse him into a wisp for you and then you can ask this idiot why he didn’t listen to me–!”  She broke off, breathing harsh, lip quivering, her russet hair falling about her face.

Elmiryn just rubbed her brow and stared at the gun in her lap.

After a while, she stood, pushing the gun into the back of her pants.  “We should bury him,” Elmiryn said.

She was met with no arguments.


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