Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 21.1

“…Environment is like the shadow, and life, the body. Without the body, no shadow can exist, and without life, no environment. In the same way, life is shaped by its environment.” — Nichiren Daishonin

NYX____________________________

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Inside her, the violation still wrought havoc, but her limbs were stilled as her patron began to exude an energy that pressed on her on a fearsome level.  She gurgled, her hands still like claws as spine bended her toward the ground.  Her eyes twitched to the side, scared wide, as blood seeped in like tears. It would be a blessing if they scabbed over, for she saw her god turn dark.  Dark like an unending space, pregnant with possibilities.

You will remove thyself, or this God shall remove thee!  Lacertli thundered.  The girl could feel his words and wished herself elsewhere.

Ancient One, let your vermagus speak, she has such a wonderful voice! Izma replied.  I want to hear how she came to meddle in my joy, to stand in the way of my revolution!  Did she know she was a trespasser?

Lacertli wasted no more talk.

He slipped forth, a sigh on the ground, as leaves would skip the earth, before he burst up again in an arc–all fangs and claws and reptilian fury.  Nyx did not dare turn her head to see the battle in full, but she saw the lizard god descend on the creature-woman, who from her peripheral sight was like a cluster of stars and bright jewels.  She shivered as the air crackled and a deep boom resonated through the air. The fog that held secrets of other worlds now pulsed and surged like malicious smoke.  The wondrous images were gone.  The blood was drying on her fingers, and her face itched from the healing wounds.

A ripple went through the ground and she heard the music stop with a violent scream.  Then silence.

Nyx saw clawed feet stop near her.  Her muscles relaxed as the pressure that bound her vanished.  She raised her head, face lax in shock.

Sir…?

Lacertli stooped down, and as he did, he grew larger.  So large, that she was like a small rodent to his massive clawed hand, which scooped her up into its palm.  The girl squeaked as he held her up to his long face.  The lizard god roared, and shadowy golems rose in his likeness.  The edges of his form blurred and the colors that made up his body separated like light through a prism.  Spikes appeared on his tough skin.

Night Child, I have chased the creature off, but she will return.  She will seek thee.  I cannot allow this.  So I must hide you.
The god started to close his right hand, and Nyx panicked.

Sir!  Sir, please wait!!  I don’t understand! She screamed, scuffling along his salty palm.

Night Child, he hissed.  Thou must continue your search.  Remember that the lost can be found again!  Remember the standard you now carry!

She was plunged into darkness as his hand closed around her, squeezing her till she couldn’t breathe.  Then she felt the world sigh over her, and his touch was gone.  She fell backward into nothing.

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QUINCY_________________________

Elmiryn exhaled softly, and Quincy felt a breeze brush back her hair.  She shivered without meaning to.

After the strange music had left her head she felt out of sorts.  The brunette wondered a bit if it were all a dream.  The idea was a bit ludicrous.  Elmiryn?  Capable of commanding a mob of undead?  But Quincy knew that was being generous.  Elmiryn wasn’t in complete control.  She was just barely keeping it together.  It had taken the warrior forever just to get the undead to spread out enough that Quincy and Sedwick could reach her.  They could’ve done it themselves, but Elmiryn hadn’t been kidding when she said she felt everything the soldiers did.  The wizard had tested this herself when she twisted the exposed nipple of a Belcliff soldier…and maybe it was a bit of payback for all the grief Elmiryn had brought on her.  The wizard didn’t feel bad.  The soldier’s skin was in better shape than most of his companions.  The skin only tore a little bit.

Upon finding her, Elmiryn was stuck in a crouch with her body stiff as a board.  She stared up at them, only daring to move her eyes.  When Quincy reached down to grab her arm, the ceiling groaned and a small crack fissured along the southern end.  Wide-eyed, the woman let the warrior go.  “Damn…” she breathed.

“Yeah,” Elmiryn snapped.  The wizard heard some of the undead murmur the same.  “I did mention that would happen, didn’t I?”

“How do we move her?” Sedwick mused.  He went to rub the side of his face, then winced when he touched his cut.

The wizard shook her head.  “We don’t.”  She looked at Elmiryn.  “You were able to move the soldiers, you should be able to move yourself.”

“I’m trying,” was the strained reply.

“Where are the dwarves?” Quincy muttered, looking around.  “Why haven’t they come?  They can see this, can’t they?”

“There’s a lot I’m not sure about.  I can’t hazard a guess till we get more information.” Sedwick crouched down in front of Elmiryn and leaned on his legs.  “Elmiryn, how are you doing?”

Her mouth quirked into a smile.  “There’s no real words for it.”  Then the smile vanished and she just stared.  “It…hurts a little.  In a good way.”

Quincy narrowed her eyes at that.  “Elmiryn, just how much are you feeling?”

Cerulean met azure.  “Everything.  Down to the lace of your brazier.”

The wizard’s nose scrunched.  “But I’m not wearing a brazier!”

Elmiryn’s eyes batted. “Oh.”  She let her gaze roll to the soldiers. “…Ohhh.”

Quincy frowned and looked at the dead men.  One of the soldiers?  Really…?

Sedwick waved the revelation away with his hand.  “Aaaand…we’re focusing.”

Both women looked at him, one still confused, the other restraining her laughter.  “Right,” Elmiryn piped.  “Focusing.  I am totally focusing.  I’m focusing so hard, bits of me are turning blue–”

Sedwick ignored the warrior and stood, rubbing his chin.  “I won’t lie.  I’m really worried.  The music that was in the air felt alive.”

“Meznik.”  Elmiryn spat the word out, like venom.  “Remember, don’t try to…uh…remember.  Y’know.  The song.”

“Hard not to think about something you’re thinking about…” Quincy said, rubbing her forehead.  She couldn’t help it.  The melody popped in, unbidden.  Laaa, la, laaa, la laa-di-daa…

A fetid hand struck her across the face.  Quincy staggered.  She gazed at the undead, completely stunned.  She pointed at it, then glared at Elmiryn.  “Did–Did–Did you just–?!”

“If I told you not to think about a bunch of rotting men dressed only in lingerie, would you be able to focus like our dear Sedwick asks?”
Quincy stomped a foot and grabbed the soldier by the nose.  Without thinking she slipped into Fanaean.  “You bastard witch–try something like that again and I’ll make you feel broken a thousand times over!!”  Of course now, she wasn’t thinking about the demon song, just hurting Elmiryn.

…And what a bunch of undead wearing lingerie would look like.

“She’s started babbling.  Thus, I don’t care.” Elmiryn looked at Sedwick, and Quincy was ready to kick her in the face.  That horrible mental image would never leave her– The warrior went on, “Meznik came.  For a bit.  Just to gloat, it sounded like, but…I mentioned this, didn’t I?  He’s worried.  Doesn’t like being here.  He’s…”  The woman frowned.  “He’s guiding me.  Maybe he’s the one forcing our path.”

“What makes you say that?” Sedwick’s voice took on a harsh note.  Quincy shoved the undead away by the face with a sneer and watched the elemental’s expression shift from contemplative calm to a bristling anger.  “He’s put you in danger countless times and killed hundreds of people.  Why change that now?”

“Because he has plans.  He’s always talking about what he does like it’s an art.”  Then Elmiryn’s eyes narrowed.  “Theater backdrops…”

Sedwick looked at Quincy who held up her hands in answer.  “What?” Sedwick crossed his arms.  The muscles in his neck were bunching.

“When I went to confront Nadi for the first time, he told me he ‘shifted some backdrops’ and that was all.  He moved things around.  Made her confused.  That drove her insane.  He never did anything to her directly.

“And?” Quincy said.  “Never mind that you are both quickly associating all of this to this demon, but you still can’t even figure out how to stand up.  Are you telling me you’ve found a connection?  Between this disembodied spirit and the very physical shifts that keep happening when you so much as wiggle your pinky?”

Elmiryn’s smile had a hook to it.  “I’m a mortal.  I still have weight.  My flesh defines me.  They teach us that early on as kids.  The gods and spirits are beings unbound by earthly ties.  But I’m–” She coughed out a laugh.  It sounded false and bitter.  “I’m changing, into something else.  I can feel it now.  I’m sitting on a line–and because of that, I’m pulling at both sides of the blanket, so to speak.”

“Huh?” Quincy said, frowning.  Then her eyes widened.  It was just as the warrior said.  All societies, in one form or other, teach their young their place in the universe.  They were mortals, and their lives were bound by the vessels of flesh as much as they were sustained by the physical environment.  Immortals and spirits knew no such tethers.  Elmiryn, since they had found her, not only had shown signs of a greater stability in this spiritual dimension, but the ability to see what mortals could not.

Quincy knelt down in front of Elmiryn, her azure eyes wide.  Her heart was beating fast. “If what you’re saying is true, then you don’t have much time.  Either your consciousness slips back into your body or you dissipate into this place without a way to come back.”

“Or knowing this place, she’d be ripped apart.  A piece of a soul in a shell of a body whilst the rest of you lives in the bones of these dead.”  Sedwick said grimly.

“I know the dust too,” Elmiryn said, looking between them.  “I know the rock and the buildings and the machines and the stains and the insects and the tiny, tiny, tiny creatures that live on our skin that we can’t see.  Did you know? Dust makes for good conversation.  They know quite a bit!”  Elmiryn paused for a breath, then looked at her hands with just her eyes.  “Hey.  I, um…I can’t feel my arms.”

“I guess we know which way she’s slipping then…” Quincy said with a sigh.

NYX____________________________

I opened my eyes and regretted it.  So much light.  I hissed and turned my face away, eyelids squeezed shut.  I could hear laughing and popping.  Music sounded off in the distance.

I was on cold stone, which bit into my spine as my shoulders and head hung free over an edge.  My legs dangled at the knees.  I clawed at the stone and started to raise myself up.  My eyes slivered open.  Warmth.  Fire.  I frowned and sat up fully.  I held a hand up before the light and opened my eyes further.

All of a sudden I couldn’t breathe.

I was on the hand of Halward, the Star Ruler, who gazed down toward the Earth with stern expression as his other hand pointed skyward.  Torches on long poles blazed all around him, lighting every nook and cranny.  Though it were just a statue, I could just imagine his hair really being blown about the wind, the fair locks teasing his lined forehead as his penetrating stare held me fast.  He was bare chested, his strength for all to see, and I let my eyes travel down his muscled arm to where I sat.  I realized with a start that this statue of Halward was not condemning those on the ground.  He was beckoning them to rise, up to the heavens.

Sweet Aelurus, I thought.  Lacertli didn’t–no–he couldn’t have–

But I turned my head and thought I was going to faint again.  Through Halward’s stone fingers I saw a city.  A city where tall gables pierced the skyline, and red brick domes with golden ribs and star-like crowns dared to mimic the stars of the night.  The paved streets teemed with phantoms, all cheering, all carousing.  Fireworks popped over the heads of the crowd.  The sky was dark, but the city was ablaze, thanks to the tall curved lamps that focused their light downward

From one god’s hand into another.  Lacertli had sent me to the Fiamman Kingdom.

…I was dead.

Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead!

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy rubbed her temples and started pacing.  “Damn, damn, damn…”

Sedwick stared at Elmiryn like she were a strange new plant.  Elmiryn had stopped talking for the last ten minutes.  She stared with glass-like eyes as drool came out of the corner of her mouth.

“You think…she’s still there?” Sedwick murmured, his head tilting to one side.

“She could be anywhere…or everywhere, from what she told us.”  Quincy bit her knuckle.  Then her eyes brightened and a wolfish curl came to her lips.  “But this…this reminds me of something.”

“Really?” Sedwick turned and gazed up at her.  The woman paused and looked down at him, one eyebrow tilted.

“I came across…records, of a slave girl, an Omatt, who had gained the power to control things on the most basic level.  She could make silk from stone and steel from water.”

“Arachne…?” Sedwick breathed.  His brows rose so that his forehead wrinkled severely.

Quincy’s jaw tightened and she turned her back to him.  She glared at the ground.  “It isn’t exactly the same, but there could be an answer in those stories.  Elmiryn has become in tune with everything around us, but she sees herself in everything.  She has to believe that the environment is separate from herself.  Something she can control.  And she can do that if she manipulates the basics.”

“Like…?”

“One of the first things you learn as a spell caster is that Life has many levels, and not all of them can be seen by our eyes.”  Quincy leaned her head back.  “You have to feel it.  Enchanters talk about intellectual clusters.  Matrices of the mind.” She crouched next to Sedwick.  “Did you know that lightning sorcerers can sense energy in brains?  That alchemists can break an item down to nothing?  Not even steam or dust.  Just nothing?” She cut a look across at the man,  “That they can bring it back from nothing?”

He frowned softly at her. “I’ve been learning of the way of spirits, but this is out of my realm of knowledge.”

“There’s one common denominator for the things that make up our world.  If Elmiryn is truly in touch with our environment, then she should be able to feel that and control it.”

Sedwick gestured around them.  The undead had been reduced to husks, just standing quiet.  Even the air had stilled.  “How can we reach her?  Nothing is responding.”

Quincy scooped up a handful of dirt.  She let the large grains filter through her fingers, leaving only a light silky coat over her skin.  “I thought a conversation with the dust she likes so much seemed like a good idea.”

NYX____________________________

I scaled down the statue, around the back, trying to keep the shakes from my limbs, because one slip or misstep could see me undone. I had to scramble up Halward’s arm and make a wild leap to the waistband of his loincloth.  There I spider-climbed to the back of the statue, out of view of those down on the street.  As I looked down, I realized however that there was no where else for me to go.  I bared my teeth, pressing my forehead to the stone.  It took me a full minute to get my bearings and fight the moisture from my eyes.  I turned looked over my shoulder.  Again, I saw no way of climbing down the statue, but a sweep around me showed me another way.  It was a bit of a jump, but I could jump onto one of the torch poles and slide my way down.  The poles were well anchored as far as I could tell.

I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths.  I wasn’t afraid of heights.  I could survive great drops, and some of my favorite places were up high.  But even I could see the danger of falling from such a place.  I looked back to the pole, judged the distance, and with a small grunt I jumped for it.

For a terrifying second I thought I had jumped short.  I fell through the air, my mane of hair lifting and the rags on my body flapping in the wind.  But then I came close enough that I was able to grab onto the pole.  It was polished brass and pulled at my bare skin.  I hissed as I slammed into it.  Then I bettered my grip and started to climb down.

I made it to the base in one piece, and looked around.  I was behind one of Halward’s feet.  I pressed my back to it and peered out to the crowd.  Now that I was closer, I could see them better.

The phantoms were all dressed up in robes, dresses, capes, and feathered hats.  All had colorful masks.  People disguised themselves as reptiles, birds of prey, and caricatures of man.  They laughed and danced about each other, drunk and wily in their merriment.  I shrank further back.

…Among them were solid beings, not phantoms, who towered over the crowd a full five or six feet.  They had long spindly arms and wicked claws that now and again reached down into the throng and plucked up a glowing orb.  These they swallowed, their jaws gaunt and jutting, the fangs small and uneven.  I couldn’t see their faces, for they wore hoods, but they had long bull-like horns where white symbols had been burned into the black bone.

“Gods…” I breathed, then went down onto my knees where I proceeded to press my forehead to the cold ground.  “Oh gods, what am I going to do?”  I squeezed my eyes shut and wished I were on a ship heading east with Elmiryn.  I wished, with not a little shame, that we had kept to ourselves.  That Argos hadn’t found us, that we hadn’t met Lethia, that we hadn’t broke into Holzoff’s and freed a lunatic–

Then I stopped.

My body felt cold and I sat up.  The shadow of Halward’s leg colored my thoughts.  How despicable was I?  After all I had gone through, was I really the sort of person to think such terrible things?  That was something my Twin did–

Only…My Twin wasn’t here.

“I’m just as bad as She is…” I sighed, bowing my head.  “I’m sorry, Lethia.  Wherever you are.  I hope you can’t hear my thoughts.  I’m not sure you’d forgive me for being such a coward…” I wiped the tears that had fallen.  But somehow the desire to cry was just not there.  Within the next instant the tension in my throat was gone and my eyes dry.  I thought about my recent battles and instead, became angry.  “Honestly!  What a kitten I am!  I didn’t survive all of that just to curl up into a ball!” I gave one last swipe of my eyes.

I stopped focusing on the haunting spirits and the unsettling creatures that fed on them, and instead started looking at the buildings and structures that populated the square–for that’s what it was.  The festivities spanned out as far as my eye could see, but it seemed to start here, with people funneling in through what were a set of archways to my right.  I saw a path out by the crenelated parapet of a two-story tower not far from the statue platform.  Though I’d be in the open from point to point, there was one thing I could do.

I could slip into the shadows.

With a deep breath in through my nose, I pressed into the shadow of Halward’s leg.  I emerged into that cold place, the Umbralands, blinking.  The shadows here were weaker, because of the torchlight that flooded down from above.  Thus, in this monochromatic world, the shadows were starker, but the white more prevalent.  My way to the tower was blocked.  But I didn’t feel a resistance from my environment as I had from the Kreut.  Those tall spirits didn’t seem to upset any balance here.  When I willed the shadows to form me a path, they did so without too much suggestion.  The festivities went on as normal.

I hopped down from the platform and sprinted along the black path to the shadows of the tower.  As my form passed, the trail I had created vanished.  Once in the safety of the tower, I knew I needed to slip back.  The divisions created by the intense lighting made travel here limited, and while I could still sort of see the phantoms and the spirits, I could not see them well enough to feel comfortable.  They were like a shifting mob of smudges and crosshatched lines in that hot sea of white.  Damned Fiammans, what was with their obsession of light and fire?

I pressed into the tower’s dark wall and slipped back into the real world.  Or…was this real?  Then it hit me.  Of course I wasn’t in Fiamma.  Not physically anyway.  So the phantoms were…?

But then a firework flared my way, lighting past my shocked expression, and I pressed back into the stone wall with a numbing shock.  The phantoms did not react, though I knew some were looking my way.  I blinked and felt my panic subside.  I took a step toward them and squinted my eyes.  Then I found the answer to my question.

The phantoms were people.  Real people.  But they were not here.  In this shard.  Lacertli had said this world was a reflection of mine.  If that were so, could not mortals be seen in the environment too?  It would explain the indifference to the towering spirits that harvested from them with little hurry.  The humans could not see the creatures, and yet they were a part of the environment.  Still in some way manipulatable.

Now that I knew that my likelihood for discovery was a lot lower, I didn’t feel as nervous.  I looked up the tower wall.  There were precious few places where I could grab a hold, and they were all too high for me.  The wall adjacent, however…

I took several steps back, and with a breath, I rushed up the corner wall, which was built at a slant to cast off rain water.  I made it up six feet before I reached the edge with my hands.  I pulled myself up.  From there I turned and with a small jump I grabbed hold of a bare brick that was left after those surrounding it had eroded.  From there, I reached up and took hold of another, and another, until I made it up to the parapet.  I lifted myself up and through the crenelations, head bowed, panting a little.

“Oooh!!”

I froze.  Slowly my eyes lifted.  A flare of white light from a firework lent me the sight of an abalone gaze winking through half-moon glasses.  Soon after, I was met with a fanged smile from a deltaic face not even three inches from my own.  Something sharp prickled at the back of my head.

I flinched from the deep, honey-dew voice that entered my ear.  There was something unsettling about it.  “The Lady graces me with kin!  I can taste the very nature of you from the air itself!”  The person’s true nature eluded me, such that I couldn’t guess their gender with any sort of confidence.  They sat on the edge of a blade, neither tipping one way or the other.

They bowed low, leather jacket tinkling from the many belt buckles they swept aside.  I had a dim view of their slim form, and saw the breasts that shadowed their chest.  A woman then.  She had glossy copper hair that stopped just at the shoulder blades.  This was pulled into a low ponytail.  Her ears were large and long at the tips, like an elf’s, but that was where the similarity ended, for along the ridges down to her lobes were four other protrusions.  They reminded me of the horned trumpet shells Marquis used to bring to my village to sell, and indeed, her ears did have the quality of trumpets the way they stuck out so.  Her nose was small and the ridge so shallow that it seemed almost beast-like.  The nostrils were practically slits.  I didn’t know what this woman was.

She introduced herself merrily.  “I am Tristi, a humble servant much like yourself.  I answer to Fortuna, the Lady Luck, and bear her standard on my right hand.”  She held this up, and I saw a fingerless glove with a smooth dark oval over the back.  It gleamed like glass in the flashes of the fireworks.  I also noticed she had only four fingers.  Then she lowered this, looking expectant.

Startled, I realized Tristi was waiting for me to introduce myself.  Or rather, to proclaim, as Lacertli would put it.

“I am Nyx, an…adventurer, I…er…suppose.  I–I answer to Lacertli, the…ah, Dreamwalker.”  I felt foolish.  Tristi sounded so sure of her station, and certainly looked the part.  I, on the other hand, was quivering, half-naked, with hair matted from blood and gore, and pale limbs that hardly looked capable of snapping a dry twig in half.

The woman tilted her head back with a loud, “Oh!” She wasn’t afraid of discovery by the giants it seemed.  “So the Lizard King has finally chosen a champion!  Aye, but you are a strange choice!  And your standard?” Tristi asked, her lips tilting.  She was getting increasingly aware of my inexperience and it really started to make me feel like an even bigger idiot.

“What?” I frowned.  She had asked for my standard, but I had thought it only a metaphorical idea.  I knew what they were of course.  Symbols or emblems affiliating one to a particular nation, family, or order.  But I had no flag or badge to display.  “I don’t have–”  But then Tristi, with cold hands, grabbed me by the left shoulder and pulled at the rags left covering my chest, tearing them.  I squeaked and fell away from her, swatting at her hands.  “Stop that!  Let go!”  I scrambled to cover myself–she’d pulled just enough of my clothes that now my breasts were open to the chilly air.

She backed off fast at my protest, but looked unconcerned by my mortification.  She pointed at my chest with a wink.  “Nyx.  Look.  You hold your patron’s standard even if you are not aware of it.”

I blinked and looked where she pointed.  Over the top of my left breast was an image of a lizard, much like the one I’d seen on Marquis before he’d died.  I stared.  I ran my fingers over it.  The skin was smooth–this wasn’t a scar.  It was more like a tattoo, one done with a mild ink to make it almost seem like a birthmark.

Tristi wasn’t as fascinated by this revelation as I was.  She already turned her back to me and walked across the roof to look down at the festivities.  Some of the glow from the streets lit her from below, making her seem a bit sinister.  Not such a stretch.

“You caught me at a fortuitous moment, sister!” The woman crowed.  She held up a hand which held an orb.  “I follow the whims of my mistress, and she has led me here on a task.  Forgive my brusqueness.  I would love to chat more–you are the first champion I’ve met since Njord’s, and it’s been an age–but I have work to do!”  She turned from me and kissed the orb before lightly tossing it to the crowd below.  “If you are truly Lacertli’s champion…”  She looked at me sideways with a maniacal grin.  “Then you’ll be able to keep up.”

Then I heard a keening wail rip through the air, before a blast rocked the tower and sent it careening into the crowd…

QUINCY_________________________

Sedwick was huffing behind her.  “If I’d known this was what you meant–”

“What were you expecting?  For me to pull another trick out of my bag?”

“Frankly?  Yes!

“Just because you’re half-elemental doesn’t make you arbitrary ruler of mystical knowledge.  Kindly shut up and go sit your bare ass on a sharp rock, why don’t you?  I’m busy being useful.”

The man snorted and walked away, hands in the air.  Quincy crouched down, returned to the task at hand.  With her forefinger, she wrote into the dirt:

ELMYREN ARE YOU THERE?

Then she rocked back onto her heels and waited. She’d tried two other messages in about ten different places, and each time was a failure.  This was quickly looking like a dud as well.  After waiting what felt like an eternity, the wizard, now red-faced, erased the message with a violent sweep of her hands.  Then, with the nail of her thumb, she scratched in a new message:

HEY YOU IDIOT. I’M TALKING TO YOU!

She glared at the words for a full minute.  Then Quincy sighed and let her forehead hit her knees.  “Ugh…”  When she lifted her puckered face, she got a surprise.  Her message had been replaced with a new one in slanted cursive:

You spell my name wrong and suddenly I’M the idiot?  It’s E-L-M-I-R-Y-N, you fucking twat.

Quincy’s face turned beat red.  “Tai’undu!  Wikan a-lo kuele pon golj mkundu Fiamman!!”  Fuck!  Why am I stuck with this bastard Fiamman!! The woman erased that message and scribbled back:

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU, I’VE BEEN TRYING TO REACH YOU FOR WHAT MUST’VE BEEN AN HOUR!

The response came back quickly.  Quincy’s words were smoothed away, and all at once Elmiryn’s response came.

I was following a lead.  I think I know where Meznik went.

Quincy grit her teeth.

THAT DOESN’T MATTER NOW.  IF YOU KEEP THIS UP YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO COME BACK.

Relax.  I’m starting to get the hang of this.  I found out a few things–

But the woman’s words were lost in a strong gust of air.  The brunette jumped to her feet.  It wasn’t Elmiryn, she knew this.  The feeling that crept up the back of her neck was…

With a hiss and pop, Henriette appeared, her ghostly face long and her eyes wide.  She sounded out of breath.  “You have to leave!” she panted.  She pointed up the path with her axe.  “Flee, run!

Quincy frowned at her.  “What–?”

Sedwick, who’d taken to pouting down the road, now pointed ahead with pale eyes turned wide.  “Quincy, the dwarves!”

The wizard looked, her teeth bared as she drew her sword.  Henriette cursed next to her and came near.  The ghost felt cold and Quincy flinched from having her so near.  “Madreg and some of the commoners–it happened so suddenly!” she breathed.

A gang of the common dwarves had appeared and were marching toward them and the undead.  Their eyes glowed red and their forms had turned black and smoky.  Madreg was at the head of them.

“We’d been waiting for so long.  When we saw what you had done with the undead, some of us rejoiced.  The fighting was finally done.  But some…lost it.  Some weren’t satisfied.  Some were afraid what it meant.  They wondered if you’d hurt us too.”  Henriette held her axe at the ready.  Sedwick came to join them, his arms turning to watery tentacles.  Around them, dwarven fighters, appeared.

Quincy didn’t bother asking how such wild and open ended conclusions could be drawn from such a dubious situation.  The dwarves had said it themselves.  They were getting closer to an existence of mindless evil.  It didn’t have to make sense when you were losing yourself to time.

“Elmiryn, either you get out of the dust,” Quincy fell back into a fighting stance, her eyes narrowed.  “Or dust you’ll stay, and us to join you, damn it all!”


Back to Chapter 20.5 | Forward to Chapter 21.2

Chapter 21.2

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy felt an ache at her knees as she bent them in a ready position. With her sword held before her, she glanced quickly at those around her. Henriette and some of her comrades were willing to help them in this fight. Sedwick was all ready making the transition from flesh to liquid, his face set into a hard mask. Elmiryn and the undead were quiet behind them.

But that didn’t answer her question as to how to fend off a gang of angry ghosts.

The wizard didn’t know if the redhead’s spirit was still within the Belcliff militia.  She didn’t know if destroying them meant hurting the warrior.  She did know that she needed Elmiryn alive for multiple reasons, and now Madreg and his turned followers were in the way of her goals.

Time was running short.

Her sword would do no good against the immaterial beings. The enemy were sixty yards away. How did one slice the spiritual will of a spirit in torment, after all? They were less than fifty yards away.  Madreg pointed and shouted something unintelligible.  They were getting closer still. There was no time left.  Damn, this was all supposed to be so straight forward

Madreg and the mad spirits collected into a single cloud and with a howl they billowed forth.

Quincy’s eyes widened and she abandoned her position.  As she fled, she shouted, “Sedwick, to me!  Henriette keep them back!  Don’t let them hurt Elmiryn or the soldiers!  I have an idea!”

Sedwick sprinted after her as Henriette snarled, “What the bloody hell are you doing!?”

“Just trust me!” Quincy snapped.  She fixed her burning gaze on Sedwick. “I need a ride, Sedwick.  Can you carry me?”

“Yes, but–”

There were cries and a sharp pulse in the air as Henriette and Madreg’s men collided.  The wizard turned and ran as some of the ghosts broke from the battle to pursue them, their mouths open in fury.  “No time!”

Quincy pushed as hard as she could and found that running was easier without the hindrance of her cloak.  A second later she saw a thick stream of water keeping pace with her, and without hesitation, she jumped onto it.  Her feet sank in up to the ankle, but she didn’t touch the ground, and she crouched quickly to keep from falling.  This was certainly a new experience.  Sedwick’s face appeared in the head of the foaming liquid as he cut a path away from the battle.  “All right, I’m trusting you.  Where to?” he bubbled.

“Go back!” Quincy shouted.  “We have to find the dwarves bodies!  It’s our only chance!”

Sedwick didn’t hesitate or ask why.  His face vanished from the water and the stream that carried her sped up as it wheeled around.  Quincy bared her teeth as an involuntary shiver blasted through her.  She held her sword before her, knowing it vain, but there was no choice.  Together, she and Sedwick charged toward their pursuers, who greeted them with smoky fists.

NYX____________________________

I gasped, too shocked to bring about any other reaction.  I clung to the nearest crenelation and watched as the horizon slowly rose up.  Screams came from those below.  Tristi cackled as the tower tipped over.  I couldn’t stay here.  With bared teeth I let go of the crenelation and started to sprint across the roof.  The roof floor shifted beneath my feet, sending me sideways.  It cracked and slabs fell out of sight.  I jumped wildly across the rifts and reached the other side.  But by the time I did, the tower’s top was already sailing over.  My view of the horizon peaked and steadily started to decline.  I had to hang wildly from the crenelations as my feet dangled in the air.  I was going to be crushed by the stone, and I doubted I’d make a speedy recovery if my head was caved in.

Then down below me, I saw Tristi hanging in similar fashion on the crenelations.

She shouted something up at me through the din, but I couldn’t make it out.  Then she fixed the balls of her feet onto the edges of the next crenelation and without a glance, she leapt to the other building.  I was going to have to do the same.  With a breath, I got my footing–then the wall facing the street crumbled and the remains of the tower roof fell into it.  I slipped for a terrifying moment before my left foot found a place again.  I was at a terrifying angle to the ground.  The adjacent wall’s collapse brought me a great deal lower, but I was still some ways up.  There was no time for perfection.  I just had to get out of the path of destruction.  With that one left foot, I leapt wildly and fell through the air.  Everything blurred to my sight, and I had no idea what I was falling towards.  All I could hear was screaming.

Then a cold hand gripped my wrist and I slammed into white marble.

Tristi’s alien eyes fixed on me as she laughed and pulled me up.  Now we were on the balcony of a small temple.  The tower seemed so far away, I didn’t know how I made it.  I slumped against the tiles of the slanted roof and slid down into a sit.  I tried to catch my breath.  Didn’t even think to cover my bare chest.  I watched the giants swaying–as if stupefied by the disturbance.  Panic blossomed around their feet.  The Fiammans shoved at each other, and fought to get by.  I saw a young man fall beneath the stampeding crowd and not get up.  Dust clouds rose up into the night air, lit by the Fiamman lamps.  They spread, limiting my view of the chaos.

“You killed them,” I breathed.

Tristi leaned against the roof wall and picked at her teeth with her pinky.  Then she flung something away and sucked at her gums.  Finally she said, “I did not.”

I blinked and looked at her.  “…Excuse me?”

“I mean, I did not.  Kill anyone.  Not a one.”

“You–what?  You did!”

“Did not.”

“You did!

“I did not, little dreamwalker.”

My voice started to rise.  I was feeling spacey and ill.  My skin flushed cold as I struggled to sit up straight.  “You can’t be serious.”  Then I remembered my chest and a hand went to each breast.  I flared red.

Tristi gestured down at the street with a lazy sweep of her hand.  “This hasn’t even happened yet.  I shall not be here upon the moment, and so without a perpetrator how can I be named the culprit?”

“You’re mad,” I breathed, glaring up at her.  “You’re insane.  Of course you’re the culprit!  I saw you do it!  I saw you drop that…that…ball! Whatever that thing was!”  I stood, swaying a little, and gestured with my chin, like Elmiryn would have.  “You just did that!  You did!  You killed and hurt all those people, and for what!?”  Spit flew from my mouth.  I was shouting now.  Red-faced, not from my nude embarrassment, but from my affronted moral sense.  I had just survived some of the worst horrors, and my reward was to witness this? I almost felt like an accomplice.

“Because,” and here the woman leaned toward me, a sharp smile on her lips.  I flashed the mental image of a wild animal eating a carcass.  “My Lady has willed it.”  She turned and started to walk along the round balcony.  “At any rate, I don’t know why you raise such a fuss.  Being an Ailuran, I’d thought this sight would have pleased you!”

I stood glaring, open-mouthed, then started to follow her. “I take no pleasure in violence, and neither do my people!  We aren’t savages!”  She didn’t answer me.  I growled.  “Tristi, what have those people done? Why would your goddess ask for this!?”

“What have they done?  Aside from their attempts to steal and rape your lands?”  She laughed but still did not turn her head.  We were on the other side of the temple.  Here, she hopped over the railing and slid down the column to the street below.  I followed her as fast as I could, and heard her speaking as I hit the pavement.  “Ah, Nyx!  Quite the progressive you are, to think so kindly of your enemy!”

My hands went to my chest again before I spoke.  “I say let a person be judged by the contents of their character, not the decisions of a corrupt minority.”

Very progressive.  Very!!  Y’know…I really like you!”  And finally Tristi stopped.  People ran, flat-footed, around us.  There was a light steam coming up from the paved streets, and the Fiammans unsettled the vapors, curling it in the hot light.  It made the steam look like spectral claws. “Now I can see why Lacertli chose you.”

This peaked my curiosity, because in many ways I still didn’t understand that reason myself.  But my anger took precedence.  “Why would Lady Fortune do this?  There’s no just reason!”

Tristi gazed at me, her jubilant smile waning.  Then she gripped her right wrist behind her back and started to pace along the pavement slowly.  Her buckles tinkled with each exaggerated step.  “Hmmm…so the dreamwalker deigns to judge things out of her realm, does she?”

Here I seized up.  This was a Legend I was speaking to.  That was the prick I had felt at the back of my head, telling me so.  Unlike me, Tristi clearly had experience.  She’d met the Champion of Njord, for heaven’s sake.  I didn’t want to invite trouble from such a person…but I didn’t want to roll over either.  I was a champion too, wasn’t I?  I decided to put my innate bardic ability to use, in case I somehow failed to word things right.  The emotion flooded my words, and I managed not to stutter, though my voice still quavered. “I do not speak for Him that I serve.  I speak for myself.  I cannot separate my feelings from that which I witness, and my judgment lies in the things my eyes see, which can, unfortunately, not be true.  All I’m asking for is the truth, then.  If this event was justified, then I cannot damn it, but I can say that it is a sad thing it had to happen.  But if you’re asking me to sit aside, tractable and cow-eyed, then you are mistaken!

Tristi’s eyes widened.  She stopped her pacing and her head turned to look at me like it were on a slow turning wheel.  I could see her ears twitch.  “Sharp words, little dreamwalker.  Very sharp.  You’ve a gifted tongue, then?  My, my…now I really do see why Lacertli chose you!”

I swallowed.  This wasn’t quite the reaction I was expecting.  And here I thought I was being rather brave

The woman crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one foot as she appraised me.  Then she smiled again.  “Ah, but you argued your case splendidly!  Very well!  I’ll explain things further, though I fear your cause-and-effect way of thinking will not be satisfied by the answer.”  She turned on her heel and resumed her march.  Surprised, I took after her.

The road we stood on was vastly wide, complete with pedestrian walkways to keep the way clear for horse drawn vehicles.  Fiammans seemed to like to build big things–that is–big and grand things.  They made extensive use of brick, glass, metal, and marble.  There were plenty of round arches and domed buildings, and the streets were flooded with light.  I squinted up into one of the lamps.  Through clear glass the firelight shone brightly downward.  Curved mirror bowls with the centers cut out reflected the enchanted candle light.  As I heard, these never went out, even during high wind and rain.

Around us, the fleeing crowd was thinning.

Tristi spoke to me over her shoulder.  “The Lady is mistaken for chaos, and this vexes her to no end.  She is a master tactician, one that works from moment to moment.”

I couldn’t help myself.  “The definition of tactician is an individual that employs an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end.  How can one do that from moment to moment?  There’s no plan there.”

“But there is!  You confine yourself by your definitions, Nyx.  All that is needed is a penultimate goal, then a lot of little goals.  For instance, my Lady wishes to throw a country into war.  So what does she do?  She kicks a bucket–”

I was already rolling my eyes.  “That’s preposterous–”

“–A bucket that just so happens to be sitting on the edge of an open window, and just at the right moment, it falls onto a visiting viceroy from a neighboring country.  This is Lady Luck, little dreamwalker.  A goddess!  Not a mortal like you or me.  She can achieve fantastic things with little effort!  What happened out there was her will, and you’d do well to remember that.  There’s always two sides of the coin.  While to you, the tower’s collapse was a bloody and tragic thing, the boon of crops the Santian Kingdom received last year was truly beautiful, as was the freeing of the slaves in the city of Caedril last week.  Fortune was behind both of those things.  Her plans are massive and vast, and sometimes we cannot always see to what end she works for.  When she tires of pulling at events by her own hands, she employs this humble servant to do it for her.”

“Wait, if you say it is her feeling and emotion that decides the course of events, then how did all of what we saw play into her plans?”

“The orb holds her will, Nyx.  I dropped it and had no idea of the consequences.  Fortune is a goddess of stark duality.  Either the events work in your favor…or they don’t.”

“So what happened out there…”

“It was chance.  Pure chance.  And while we witness its event here, in this realm, it has yet to occur in that other realm you call home.”

I frowned.  “So you didn’t know that would happen?  At all?”

“No.  I only knew to drop the orb.”

I rubbed at the wrinkle on my forehead.  “Isn’t Lady Luck omnipotent?  Isn’t her influence everywhere?  Why use you?”

“I’m a tool that brings more focus.  Like a magnifying glass that catches the light.  As are you.  As are all other champions on the mortal plane.”

Then that window of opportunity that, at times, alights on us, lit upon me.  Straight into my eyes, it almost seemed.  All of a sudden, I had the opportunity to ask all the questions I’d ever had about Legends, about the fall of the champions, about the pantheon.  Things I couldn’t bring myself to ask Lacertli outright.  Things I couldn’t glean off of Tobias’s book.  And from the new questions and the old, here was the thing that came fighting up my throat: “Tristi, do…we have a choice?”

“In what?”

“In how we serve the gods.”

Tristi slowed to a stop and looked at me.  Her alien eyes, which held many soft colors, narrowed.  “You dance close to blasphemy, little dreamwalker.  Why think such things?”

My own answer surprised me.  “Because…because I think Lacertli wants me to.”

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy drew her sword back, blade faced down, her head bowed.  The dwarven ghosts were just feet away–

Then the woman was in the air.  She’d felt like stilts had sprouted beneath her feet, rocketing her up into the sky before vanishing from beneath her.  She gasped, arms wheeling through the air like she’d find something to grab.  Her legs curled up beneath her.  She started to fall.  Quincy started to scream.  She was really high up…

Down below the ghosts seemed as startled as she was.  Sedwick tore past them, looking like a liquid snake on the ground.

“Sedwick!!” the wizard screamed.

The elemental caught her as she neared the ground, his form lifting as his liquid arms came out of the bubbling water.  He hardly broke speed.  Sedwick righted the woman so that she was sitting on his back.  Now wet from the waist down, the woman blinked water from her eyes.  “Sedwick, remind me to be angry with you later.”

“Sure thing,” he bubbled back.  Awkwardly the woman resumed her crouch and looked behind her.  The ghosts had once more resumed their pursuit.  They looked even angrier than before.  Sedwick spoke up again.  “Where to first?”

Quincy shook her head.  They passed the battle where Henriette and the others still fought with their former comrades.  The wizard tried to move with the man’s amorphous form as it glided over the uneven ground.  She thought she was getting the hang of it.  “Let’s head toward the back of the chamber, like we meant to.  From the main road we should see what we’re looking for.  The Belcliff militia had little reason to move the bodies much farther than that.”

Sedwick, if possible, began to move faster, and Quincy’s hair was brushed far back from the wind.  Speed wasn’t an ability of ghosts, it seemed, as they managed to stay ahead of them.  Some even gave up in favor of returning to the main battle.  Quincy stopped checking over her shoulder at that point.  As they passed the dirt mounds and small outposts, she focused on keeping a lookout.  Then, around a rock pile, she saw something and pointed.  “Sedwick, there!  Do you see that ditch?”

The elemental steered for it, and they stopped at the edge.  The ditch seemed to stretch on for a sixth of a mile.  Quincy stepped off of Sedwick and the man returned to his original form.  Her eyes were wide as she took in the sight.  “Gods…” Hundreds of bodies, filmed in dust, filled the long ditch.  They were strewn over one another in messy piles–children and adults alike.  Limbs were nearly skeletal as the skin hung limp and dark.  Gaunt faces seemed to stare up at her with want.

“Quincy, now what?” Sedwick asked.

The wizard turned away.  As she did so, she saw their original pursuers blasting toward them in dark clouds.  Her muscles bunched. “Watch out!” One ghost, a young male dwarf with a very small beard and long wild hair, leapt toward her.

…Quincy felt him dive into her chest, which sent an icy feeling throughout her, and her vision went white.

NYX____________________________

The air had an affected feeling of calm, like the city itself were suffering a sort of shock.  There were stragglers still.  A woman clung to one of the street lamps, weeping.  Blood trickled down onto her powdered bosom.  I looked at her sideways, my brows pressing up and together.  I forced my eyes back onto my new companion.

Upon saying what I had, I’d needed something else to look at.  Something to stem some of the alarm and emotion that came upon me.  What I got was entirely sobering, and I felt a little more ready to think about my words in detail.

Because I think Lacertli wants me to.

Was that really true?  I thought about the end of my struggles in the Kreut forest, when I had just defeated the last of the pretas.  How I had dared to scream at the god.  Dared to speak to him with such scorn.  He hadn’t punished me.  I thought of his refusal to walk me through each step, and his impatience each time I mewled at him like a kitten.  I knew there were boundaries I could not cross with him, so it wasn’t that he coddled me.  He had his own standards, and if Tristi’s reaction was any indication, they were quite different from those of his fellow gods.

“Odd,” was all Tristi said in response.  I’d almost forgotten I had asked her a question.  She tilted her head far to the side, like I were a person upside down.  “You are very progressive, you know.”

The way she kept saying this was starting to irk me.  “Oh?  Does this still please you, then?”  I could hardly keep the nettles out of my voice.

“Honestly?  Yes.  I find it does.”  She straightened and gave a firm nod, like this was a revelation even for her.  Tristi flashed her fangs at me.  “Then does the little dreamwalker still seek satisfaction from me, or may we resume our jaunt?”

I frowned at her.  She was right, her answer hadn’t satisfied me.  I didn’t like Tristi’s delight over the chaos, yet… “I can’t say why, but I believe you.  I can hardly contest the will of a god, and I can hardly fault you for the obeying of one.”  Never mind what I would have done should it have been Tristi’s will.  It was one thing to follow Lacertli’s orders–quite another thing to instigate trouble myself.

“Onward, then!” Tristi crowed, twisting around once more with a jingle of her coat.  She took to a stride that had me struggling to keep up.

“Ah, wait!  Where are we going?”  Almost immediately following that question, my face screwed up and I hissed to myself, “And why am I following you?

“Out!  Away!  Off of this shard!  I’m done here.  You’re free to come with, of course!”

“That’s very kind of you, but I was looking for some friends of mine.  You haven’t seen them by any chance, have you?”

We descended a wide set of stone steps that led into a large garden.  No…it was called a park.  I’d heard of these, but to see one was strange.  It was a false representation of nature, arranged, and made to fit some human being’s idea of beauty.  In a way, it felt more alien to me than the city.  There were different bushes and ferns about, rosebushes, dogwoods, pepperbushes and the like.  Of trees there were hornbeams, pin oaks, cypress, and more I could not name for certain.  Still the Fiamman lamps were present here, and I scowled, thinking to myself, “It’s a wonder this damn kingdom hasn’t burned to the ground!” Our feet still walked a paved road.

“Friends.  Friends.” The woman pondered my question with hands on her hips.  “Nope, I have seen no Friends,” Tristi gave a shake of her head.

I raised an eyebrow at her.  “Uh…but you don’t know what they look like.”

“This is true.  I do not know what Friends look like,” and here she winked at me, “But I do not hear your description of them, either!”

I batted my eyes, then let out a nervous laugh.  “Oh, right.  My apologies.  Um…well,” and I described Elmiryn, Lethia, Paulo, and even the wizards, Hakeem and Quincy.  I figured if I could find the latter two, it would lead me to the others.  I made a mention of my Twin too, though I wasn’t sure my description would fit:  A big, panther-like cat, with or without a mane.

Tristi shook her head to all of these.  “Mmm…no.  Sorry, little one.  I’m afraid I have seen no one fitting your descriptions.”

My face drew long and I looked down at the passing trail.  Then my head snapped up.  “Oh!  One more!  A halfling male, with blond hair and purple eyes!  He’s my height, and still fairly young.  His name’s Farrel.”

Tristi looked at me sharply.  “Does he have a funny accent?  Cuts his words?”

My heart lifted, and I smiled, nodding emphatically.  “Yes!”

The woman did not return my smile.  “Ah.”

My joy deflated.  “What is it?”

“Did you like this man?”

“Huh?”

“Was he detestable?  Vile?  Did he deprecate the name of your mother by any chance?  Such that you wouldn’t mind, say, forgetting about him forever?”

I scowled at her, stopping.  My hands tensed against my chest.  “Tristi, I’d appreciate it if you’d stop dancing around the answer and just give it to me plainly.  Where is Farrel?”

The woman looked toward the dark sky with a long suffering look.  Then she kicked at the ground and glanced at me sideways.  “He is here, Nyx, and he is alive.  Only…I think a reunion with him may be more trouble than it’s worth…”

My jaw tightened.  “Enough.  Just show me.”

“Are you suuuure?”

“Yes, yes, yes!  How many times do I need to say it?”

“Six more times.  If you’d please.”

I glared at her.  “You really are insane.”  But Tristi kept looking at me, waiting.  I sighed and started.  “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Now will you take me?”

“Certainly!” She cried, with the munificent gesture of spread arms.

I glowered, shifting my hands so that I crossed my arms over my chest.  In the back of my mind, I made a note to find a new shirt.  Fast.  “Why did I have to say it six more times?”

The woman shrugged.  “Why else?  It’s lucky.”

Given the source, I found I had nothing to say to that.


Back to Chapter 21.1 | Forward to Chapter 21.3

Chapter 21.3

NYX____________________________

If you were to ask my opinion of Tristi right then, it would have been summed up in a number of words:  mercurial, carnal, alien, infuriating, bizarre, and…

Seamless.

And I use that word with not a little reservation.  From one thing to the next, my new companion saw little pause, even when my presence seemed to be the very nature of disruption.  She slithered to whatever task was set before her like an eel into the sea.  She hopped over flights of steps that I stumbled on.  She scaled a wall like it wasn’t even there, and I had to pause and find my footholds.  She slid smooth down a pole that stuttered with my descent.

Seamless.

The woman was beyond my comprehension in ways that I’d really only encountered in Elmiryn at the worst of her delusional episodes.  At first, I was indeed reminded of the redhead.  But that connection was quickly lost upon seeing the focus that came in Tristi’s eyes, the ornate speech she employed, the stark shift of feminine grace to masculine bravado, and the spines that lined her laughter when those poor people were crushed by the tower.  I think Elmiryn would have been insulted to have been compared to such a person, and I’m glad I never told her so, as you shall soon see.  Tristi’s manner was feverish one moment, and chillingly calm the next. The change was lightning fast, and was made all the time.  Hot to cold.  Jovial to solemn.  There was no halfway point.  She was as much a dual creature as her goddess.  Then I thought about what she’d said earlier about Lady Luck.

She is a master tactician, one that works from moment to moment.

It sounded like living on a part by part basis with only a misty goal in mind.  It made me wonder…what long term affect would that have on a person’s psyche?  Was this why Tristi was the way she was?  “Tristi, how long have you been in service to your patron?” I asked her.

We were down a dark alley, between what seemed were two communal buildings where smaller parties were being held.  Their merriment told me they hadn’t heard of the tower’s collapse.  Indeed, the chaotic scene of the square was all but behind us.  The city was alive, and off in the distance I could still hear music and laughter.  What holiday were these people celebrating?  We ducked beneath steam pipes and over water ducts.  It was strange seeing the rats pay us no attention.

Tristi didn’t hesitate in her answer to my question.  “I can’t remember.”

I squinted after her. “You can’t even estimate?  A few months?  A few years?”

The woman laughed, her deep honey voice echoing along the damp brick.  “A few years?”  She looked at me, her alien eyes squinted in mirth, and just shook her head.

I huffed.  “What’s so funny about that?  It’s a fair question I think.  I’m new to this!”

“Did you know of Lacertli’s name prior to becoming his champion?”

My indignation cooled.  “…No.  I didn’t.”

“And did you know that before the old tales of arcane bards, that there were whole clans of such people, the vermagi?

My steps slowed.  I hadn’t told Tristi that word, nor had I even made mention of my abilities.  Yet…she recognized it for what it was.  Knew the name for it.  If that magic had become extinct, than how did she know?  And when I thought about it, she knew about Lacertli, without any further explanation from me.  Did Legends learn of all the gods with time?

“Well I did,” Tristi said, without a hint of bragging.  “I saw the vermagi.  It was quite a thing to see several of them together, all singing a hymn.  I was even around when there were still temples erected in Lacertli’s name.  But those times are gone.”  She looked forward again.  “Lots of things are gone.”

“How…how did you live so long?”

“I am a champion.  Technically I’m still mortal.  I may die by unnatural causes, but if left alone, I could outlive generations.”  She glanced at me.  “The same goes for you, now.”

“And you’ve lived so long that you can’t remember when you first served your goddess!?” I balked.

We scaled a gate leading into a wide alley.  I could see the street from here.  Tristi held up her gloved hand, showing it to me.  “I practice chance magic–that is, magic that uses my aura of luck.  It is a dead practice, as far as I’ve seen for your world, and it has…affects on the user.  It changes you.”

I frowned.  Chance magic?  I’d never heard of it, but given Tristi’s station, it seemed fitting.  I didn’t miss the ‘your world’ comment, either.  I remembered traveling with Lacertli, between the shards, and seeing all those strange places.  Tristi must be from one of those places, I surmised.

The revelation of her vast age had me humbled into silence, and I said no more.  Though her lack of consideration for those hurt had repulsed me, I was glad I hadn’t picked a fight with her.  You just didn’t live that long without having considerable power.

“We’re almost there,” she said to me as we left the dizzying network of alleys, and emerged onto a road overlooking a bay.

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy breathed in harshly, her eyes rolling back into her head as she felt the spirit within her take hold of her limbs.  Images flashed through her head, fast.  The dwarven commoners fleeing the milita men.  The Belcliff soldiers slaughtering them, eyes glassy, mouths frothing.  The wizard choked and felt anguish claw down her insides like a cat on curtains.

Then she bit the inside of her cheek.  Gnashed the flesh till a chunk came loose.

When they came back from their game in the jungle, they had no idea of what was happening.  In a clearing, they found a mass of bodies–all people she’d known–tossed together in a pile, like rags.  The beautiful dark skins she’d always envied were now hacked and slashed to bloody lines.  Through the line of trees, she saw their village of Kimbia in flames.

The blood that came splashing on her tongue was sharp and warm.  Her eyes watered as she crumpled to her knees.  Sedwick was shouting at her, but his voice was cut off.  She was alone.  The spirit in her started to force her hands around her throat.

They had been hiding in the trees, rooted there out of fear and shock, when one of the children they played with came stumbling their way.  Kikon was his name.  He used to pinch Quincy’s skin and call her a dubwana.  “Pale monster.”  Kikon screamed and cried till he was feet away, then he tripped and fell.  He turned his head and met Quincy’s blue eyes in the dark.  Her breath caught.  The marauders grabbed the boy from behind and hauled him away, laughing.  She had to be dragged off by Hakeem as the men raped the boy at the foot of the hill.

More memories from the ghost.  She saw hands that were not hers scrambling along the dirt.  This man had fallen and was fleeing someone.  Their shadow overtook him.  The dwarf turned his head to look up.  Quincy gurgled as the image burned her mind’s eye.  The marshal.  The loathsome man, forgettable in his blend of common features and poor leadership, suddenly had a name.

The marshal’s name was Fafnir.

He pressed a boot to the dwarf’s chest and without a word sunk his sword into him.

Quincy convulsed as the spirit forced her to bend forward.  Her elbows pressed into the dirt, rocks biting her, and he forced her into her hands–constricting her throat till no air could go through.  Saliva dripped from her quivering lips.

They fled deeper into the jungle till they were certain the danger was far behind them.  Together, she and Hakeem lay curled in the high branches of a large kapok tree.  Neither slept.  When they returned to the village later, it was to find the marauders gone and the village completely destroyed.  No one had been spared.

Die, was the wordless demand.  The ghost pressed on her harder.  Her skin started to tear at her back from his forceful power.  She felt so cold.  DIE, came the demand again.  Quincy let herself fall away from the ghost’s sad memories.  She had plenty of her own to wallow in.  Her vision was going dark.

She had found her sword in the ashes, half-buried next to Hakeem’s dead mother.  It was all they had, and she clung to it. They were orphaned now, left to fend alone in the wild.  There had been no aid from the neighboring villages.  There had been no swashbuckling heroes like from Tobias’s stories.  Not even Tobias had come.  Not even her father.  There was just death and the vultures that fed on it.

Quincy started to struggle back.  The ghost tried to lock her muscles, but she ignored its commands.  The ghost’s thoughts and will were drowned out in the storm of her life, and she felt power return to her.  The wizard straightened inch by inch, releasing the pressure on her throat and chest.  She gulped in breath.

“Spirit,” she hissed.  Her face was crimson. “I will not be at your mercy!”  Quincy threw her head back and screamed.  Pushing with her animus as she had been trained, she attacked the ghost.

The cold left her, and the ghost that had entered her body stumbled out into the open.  It looked at her with hate in its eyes before it turned and regarded the ditch filled with corpses.  Its expression changed.  Without a word it turned to smoke and flew down to the bodies, where after a short flight, it entered one.  Around her, other ghosts flitted past in curling wisps, and they too sought their own bodies.  A glance showed her that Sedwick fended for himself some ways away.  It seemed even half-elementals were not as easy to possess as average mortals.  Henriette and her men came running up and stopped alongside Quincy.

“We beat them back, and they fled.  They’ve gone mad, but the damn commoners still don’t know how to fight!” The dwarf woman growled.  “So what was your grand plan, eh?”

The spirit that had possessed her now stood in his decaying body–all hair and lips gone.  He pushed away the bodies around him as some of the ghosts that had joined him also began to rise.  Quincy scowled and picked up her sword.  “My plan was to have a target I could kill.”

Madreg, who had joined his fellows in their new state of death, hollered with a decaying mouth, “We won’t let you betray us! Not again!

A laugh echoed through the air before the dust and dirt on the ground whipped up to blind them.  Quincy winced and shielded her face.  When the wind died down and the sand ceased to sting her hands, the woman dared to lower her arms.  She coughed and covered her mouth, her gaze squinted against the dust that still lingered.  Her face went slack.

The dwarven undead had fallen, flesh completely gone.  They were now just clean bones over a mass of bodies, nothing more.

Behind them, she heard the tramp of many feet.  Quincy turned and saw the Belcliff soldiers approaching them.  Henriette and her men seized up.  “Devils!” she bit out, and hefted up her axe.

Quincy held out an arm.  “No!”  She frowned at the approaching horde.  “Wait a moment…”

She saw a crop of red amongst the shambling bodies.  Without thinking, she smiled.  “Elmiryn!”

The soldiers parted enough for the warrior to come near.  She had a cocky grin on her flushed face, and her eyes were unnaturally dilated, but she seemed in good spirits.  Better than before.  She snickered as she stopped before them.  “So yeah, as I was trying to tell you.  I found out a few things.” At this point Quincy remembered herself.  She rolled her eyes and looked away.  She took to brushing the dirt off her hair and clothes.

“Quincy!”  Sedwick came toward them, eyes on the soldiers that passed, smiling in amazement.  “The Belcliff soldiers are–” he broke off as he spotted Elmiryn.  “You’re back!” he exclaimed.

Elmiryn’s smile jerked up at the corners before waning greatly.  “Mm hmm…yeah.  I’m back,” she murmured.

“What’re you doing with them?” Henriette said, an edge in her voice.  She watched as the soldiers stopped at the edge of the long ditch.

Elmiryn looked at her mildly, “I was going to use them to bury your dead.”

Henriette blustered as the dwarves around her let out negative cries.

“No!”

“Don’t let her!”

“She’s mad, the witch!”

The woman dwarf backed their cries, “We were happy to see these beasts stopped, but we hadn’t a clue this was what you were intendin’.  It’s a vile thing, to let them lay hands on us!”

Quincy stepped between them. Though she could see the use in Elmiryn’s words, she knew it would be hard.  Quietly, she leaned in and whispered to the warrior, “There’s nothing else?  You can’t move the Earth over them?  Maybe move their bodies like you’re doing with the soldiers?”

“I can’t move the dust and dirt anymore–and it was only what was loose, none of the compact soil,” she whispered back.  “I was in the heavier things, like the rocks, but now I’m back again, and my influence is just enough for these soldiers!  The fact that there is still some spirit in them is the only reason I can keep this connection!  Remember all that I said about sitting on a line and pulling at both sides of the blanket?  Well I’m on the other side of the bed now!  It’s this or nothing!”

Quincy sighed and nodded her head.  She had surmised Elmiryn’s last move had taken a lot, and it was good fortune that saw the warrior’s spirit return to her body instead of being permanently evicted.  Still, there was the trouble of convincing their disgruntled audience.  The wizard cleared her throat and turned to the dwarves behind her.  “Henriette, there are many of you.  More than the three of us can handle.  This is the only way we can put your people to rest and in good order!”

“But–”

“Hear us out,” Elmiryn said with hands held up.  Quincy found this unusually diplomatic of her, so she let the woman step around her and speak. The warrior gestured at the soldiers.  “That’s more than a hundred sets of hands at our disposal.  You wanted rest, we can give it to you.  But you won’t find it clinging to your anger and your fears like Madreg did.  Your time runs short and so does ours.  You’re a warrior, Henriette, as am I.  You know these experiences will never leave you–but it’s your choice on how you serve the memories.”

This made Henriette bow her head.  Her men looked at her with deeply furrowed brows.  Finally she looked at the two women sternly.  “We fighters were the most susceptible to our darkness…but we were the most aware of it, too.  When we saw that we too could become like these monsters,” she jerked her head at the undead, “We tried our best to avoid that fate.  But…some, like Madreg, just weren’t prepared for it.”  She ducked her head again, and her ghostly face flickered with the sight of a skull.  She remained quiet for another full minute before she turned to her men, and began to speak in hushed tones with them.  Then Henriette glanced at the women over her shoulder.  “Give us a moment.  We need to speak with the others.  We’ll return with our requirements for burial.”  And with a hiss of smoke, they were gone.

Sedwick nodded approvingly.  “Good.  This ordeal is finally ending.”

Quincy glanced at the warrior out of the corner of her eye.  “That was well said.”

The warrior shrugged one shoulder.  “I had to convince them.  They need to move on, and so do we.”

“How did you handle the Fiamman-Ailuran war?  Do those memories haunt you?  Were you a good Captain to your men?”

Elmiryn batted her cerulean eyes.  She fixed Quincy with a hot stare.  “So you did know.”

“I really am starting to think you’re blond.”

“How did you figure it out?”

“I watched you for almost two days.  You’ve got the arrogance of any other mercenary, but your daily routine is on the militant side.” Quincy smirked.  “Plus, your Captain’s sword sticks out like a sore thumb.”

“Oh.” Elmiryn frowned at her sword’s jeweled pommel.  Sedwick chuckled.

There was a long pause.  Quincy brushed the last bit of dust off her shoulder.  “That said, I know about your bounty.” Elmiryn sucked at her teeth.  The wizard flipped her hair back and placed a hand on her hip.  “I heard about it sometime ago, but I had already taken up the Lethia Artaud case.  I never handle more than one client at a time.  I know I’m a pariah now, as far as bounty hunting goes, but I bet your king would do business with me.  I bet I could earn enough gold to last me a life time.”

“So why don’t you turn me in, if you want it so bad?” Elmiryn said with a raised brow.

Quincy looked at her as if she were stupid.  “And do that from here, how?”  She shrugged.  “No, I have more things on my mind than gold.  That, I have plenty of.  What I really want, I need your help to find.”

Elmiryn said nothing to this.  She rubbed at the back of her neck and glanced at the wizard’s red hand.  Instead she asked,  “Hey…what happened earlier?  With that bracelet you were using?”

The wizard glanced at her hand and turned sheepish.  “I pushed it too far,” she mumbled.  “Wizardry can offer shortcuts to power, but at a price.  I hadn’t trained with that item so I didn’t know what the limit was.  Every time I used it, it took a little breath from my lungs.  And there was no real protection from the heat my hand saw.”

Elmiryn narrowed her eyes.  “You blew things up a lot when you were a kid, didn’t you?”

Quincy’s reddened face was all the answer she seemed to need.  The warrior bit on her lip to keep from giggling, not with a lot of success.

“What was it that you learned whilst you were away?” the brunette asked briskly.

The woman thumbed at the undead.  “Besides this?  I’ll tell you later.”

“How’d you do this–” Quincy mimicked the motion.  “–Anyway?  What are you, the ruler of dust and dead things?”

Elmiryn barked out a laugh.  When she calmed herself, she shook her head, “No.  I doubt I’ll be able to do something like this again.  Wouldn’t really care to, either.”

“But how?” Sedwick now.  He stepped a little closer, arms crossed over his chest.

The redhead thought for a moment, her eyes wandering around them.  Then she started.  “There was…a hole in this place.  In the air.  Don’t ask me what that means, honestly.  It’s the best explanation I got.  When I started to get pulled through, I felt a film of power on everything.  The dust, the rock, the soldiers.  It was everywhere.  It gave me something to hold on to.  My spirit is on pretty shaky ground as it is, and whatever Meznik did to me reacted to the influence that still lingered here.  It was like this pull, on the inside, and I was the fish getting reeled in.”  She tapped her boot on the ground.  “When I saw what was happening I scrambled all that I had to help.  It was a good thing there weren’t many rogue dwarves.  I dunno what we would’ve done then.  When it was finished, I felt tired.  I felt myself fall out of the environment and back into my body, like nothing had happened.”  She rubbed her head, eyes going a little glassy.  “Well not entirely nothing.  My head hurts, and I feel like I was shaken out of sleep.”

Quincy gave her a shrewd look before walking off to better appreciate the undead, all standing at attention.  She shook her head.  “Dear gods…”

“Oh hey, Quincy!”  Elmiryn.

The wizard looked at her with wary eyes.  “What is it?”

“I believe you were at some 100 kills?  Go ahead and count the undead.  Once their duty is done, I’ll dispatch them all.  That’ll put me square at 155 kills, not counting the dwarves I took care of!” The warrior beamed.

Quincy glared at her, slack-jawed.

NYX____________________________

We crossed the street, musty with hay and fallen vegetable leaves from imports, and hopped down the fifteen foot retaining wall to the wharf below.  The wooden walkway went on to the left, but to the right there were steps that led it down to the beach below.

Tristi walked, with arms held out, along the ropes that were tied to the bollards.  I watched her out of the corner of my eye, brow wrinkled.  She stopped on one of the posts and pointed up ahead.  “Your friend is up there, past the docks.  Sailors go there for some fun.  That’s a nice way of putting it.  The mean way of putting it also happens to be the truth, which is, I shall finally state, without further posturing, at all, is a whorehouse, so thick with hallucinogens, mind-altering substances, and subversive activity, you’d think you’d fallen into a pit of hell.”

I looked to where she was pointing.  Where the walkway spanned into the docks leading out into the bay, there was a great collection of skiffs, dinghys, gigs, and rafts.  Further on were larger boats–schooners, barges and the like.  It was past these that I saw a major building–built on a high pier.

“Okay,” I said with a nod.  I turned to her.

But I found Tristi wasn’t there.

I turned my head to see her walking back the way we’d came.  My jaw dropped.  “Where are you going!?”

She glanced at me, unconcerned.  “I told you.  Off this shard.  My business is done here.”

I ran up to her, hands turning to claws on my chest.  “You’re just going to leave me here!?  What about my friend?  You said it’d be more trouble than it’s worth trying to get him.  I mean–a whorehouse–yes, that’s vile–but what real obstacle is there?”

Tristi sighed and stopped.  She wheeled around and looked at me with eyes strained wide in a show of barely restrained exasperation.  “Because, dreamwalker, he is in the grips of a spirit.  A very powerful spirit.  And he won’t be relinquished without a fight!  But that isn’t my problem!”  Then her expression changed to that of a suffering mother, telling her child goodbye.  She even patted me on the head for full effect.  “Nyx!  Sweet, sweet little Nyx!  I really liked you!  But I would not deign to soil your reputable efforts.  I’m a cad!  Really!  I am!” She gave a flourishing bow, the buckles of her long coat tinkling.  “So I bid you farewell!”  Then she spun around and started, literally, marching away.

I blinked after her.  Then my gaze darkened.  “Oh, fine.  Fine.  I can do this myself.”  I turned and started to huff away, my grimy hair bouncing with each stomp.  “I bet you would’ve gotten me killed anyway–”

Tristi was at my side in an instant, her fiendish smile in place.  I startled away from her, and my feet slowed to a stop.  Carefully she lifted her glasses and fixed me with her naked stare.  “A bet!  Oooh, I like the way you think, Nyx.”  She straightened and held up her hand.  The smooth oval on the back of her glove began to glow a light yellow, and her smile broadened.  “Let’s say we do as these spirits do, eh?  What are you willing to wager?”

I shook my head, peddling back.  “No, no!  I–I have nothing!  When I said that, it was just a figure of speech.”

“Nevertheless, I heard it, and the meaning was quite clear.  You give yourself away vermagus.  Perhaps you should learn to cap your Meaning next time?”  She took off her glasses and stepped toward me.  “Now.  Your wager.”

“But I have nothing!” I pleaded.  “Please, just be on your way!  I can do this myself.”

“And I do not doubt that, but I’m afraid my honor is on the line.  You see, Fortuna would have me meet all bets within my power.  It is one of her tenets, and a condition of my servitude.  I cannot refuse and neither can you–so! If you cannot offer a prize, I shall then ask for a favor, to be specified at the time I wish to collect.  If you win, well…” she tapped her chin, “I suppose I can guarantee you an honorable burial?”  She gave a weak shrug.

I turned pale.  “Tristi, no, please–”  Why didn’t I just let this lunatic go when I had the chance?

She held up her gloved hand.  The oval on the back began to glow a light orange.  “Witness the first step in my process of NOT being the cause of your death!”

It was the first time I’d ever heard someone word something that way, and I can’t say it reassured me.  “Tristi–!!”

The glove turned bright, and symbols flashed past the oval jewel.  I recognized none of them, but I felt the hairs on my skin rise, and I shrank further back until I bumped into a bollard.  The air turned charged, and I turned my face away as the symbols stopped flashing and settled on one, which rose off the glass and floated in the air.  There was a high ring, and I forgot my modesty in favor of covering my ears.  The symbol duplicated, surrounding Tristi in a sphere, before there was a great flash.  I turned away, and through sheer clumsiness I managed to slip off the bollard, the rope tripped me, and I fell into the water.

I drifted for a moment, stunned.  The force of hitting the water made one of my boots loose.  I heard another splash and saw Tristi’s form swimming towards me.  She grabbed me by the waist and started swimming to the surface.  When we came up, I gasped in the air, and quickly disentangled myself from her hands (which were unscrupulously upon me) and swam for the beach at the far end.  The boot that was loose fell away, to the water’s depths.  I didn’t bother going after it.  Within a moment we both washed up on the beach.

My rags were dripping wet.  I sat on my bottom and pulled off the remaining boot and flung it away.  They were too big for me anyway.  Then my eyes cut an acidic look Tristi’s way.  “For someone who practices a magic based on luck, you certainly seem to bring me quite a bit of misfortune!”

A very deep chuckle answered me.  I blinked.  Did that come from her?

Tristi raised herself to her hands and knees and looked at me.  All of a sudden that question of gender I had written off came roaring back.  Her cheekbones were more pronounced, her shoulders broader, her chest flat

My mouth felt dry.  “Tristi…were you turned into…a man?


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