Now I’m certain,” Tristi started, in a voice befitting a dramatic tenor, “That this is in no way a socio-political remark on the capabilities of your gender, race, or species. I’m certain that this will be detrimental in my not contributing to your death entirely by the parameters of this situation.”
“By being a man?” I deadpanned. My eyes were furious lenses, drinking in the champion of luck’s changed hands–the thick wrists, the meaty palms, the short thumbs, the large knuckles–the strong jaw, and pronounced cheekbones. I flinched at the apple that bobbed up and down his throat, and felt like pushing it back in. As long as I’d lived, I had never encountered something so…
Gods, what were the words?
The woman—er, man—pulled out his half-moon glasses from an inside pocket, and put them on with a punctilious air. “…Okay, I confess that the ramifications of this sudden change is still beyond me. However, I’m certain it’ll do something good!” He made a show of pumping a rousing fist. His jacket strained against him as he flexed his bicep. Everything looked too small on him now.
I batted away the sand from my body as I stood up. “The one certain ramification of your base conduct is my vexation.”
Tristi blinked at me as I bent over and twisted around, batting at my legs and bottom. Then he sat back. From the corner of my eyes, I saw him look down at his lap. “And it seems a ramification of your state of undress has commanded a great deal of attention from my anatomy!”
I practically fell over from my mortification. Slapping hands to my bare breasts, I turned and stormed away. “Cajeck!” I screamed over my shoulder. If I’d been a cat, my hackles would have been raised.
There was a loud “Ahh!” behind me, and I heard the man scramble to catch up. “Your discomfort aside, I’ve already got an idea!” He danced to my other side, like a buoy on the ocean. Stupid, considering he could easily outpace me with his long legs. That fact made his behavior all the more irritating. “Listen, listen–I can enter the establishment as a patron! It’d be a harder sell to go in there as a woman. Downright suspicious even–that isn’t to say that a woman couldn’t drink from such debauchery should she wish, I mean, she’s entirely entitled to it every now and again, I say–”
I cut in. “Tristi, your point?”
“–My point being, that given this establishment and its history of patrons, a man is best suited for the task of asking around.”
“They’ll just let you do that? Ask around? I thought you said the spirit that had Farrel was dangerous!”
“A tyrant might be dangerous, but he may still walk marble floors in a crown and robes, may he not? These are spirits, dreamwalker. Not animals.”
I pouted. “That wasn’t what I–”
“MEANwhile, you may make use of your innate abilities to sneak in with me! A champion of the Lizard King ought to find this as child’s play!” These last words became strained and grew a little distant as he ceased hounding my back. Then I heard the tinkle of belts. Tristi grunted behind me. I spared a quick look back at him. I regretted it. The man had stopped some ways away, and unbuttoned his pants. He was in the process of trying to–to…ah…redirect himself, down his pant leg.
I squeezed my eyes shut and turned forward again. “Sweet Aelurus, Tristi, is there no way for you to carry yourself in a less shameful guise?” We began to ascend the steps leading back up to the platform.
“No,” he said, voice a little sigh of relief. I heard his belts tinkle as he buttoned his pants again and caught up. “Not at this moment, no. Not unless I chance upon it with my luck.”
I cut him a look. “So try your luck, then!”
“I’m saving that for later, silly girl! I can’t go using that up with scarcely a care. I’m the champion of Fortuna, yes, but there are limits, y’know.”
“This is so…”
“Distressing? Upsetting? Disgusting? Nyx, my dear little dreamwalker, why do you have such an aversion to my current state?”
“Not your state. Your lunacy maybe, but not your state.” Even as I said this, I started to feel the creeping guilt of a hypocrite. Was I any less mad? Wasn’t I usually host to more than one voice in my head? What a sad thing, that being singular in my thoughts and feelings was a new reality! This made me melancholy, and my ire at Tristi’s heedless behavior dampened.
We neared the end the wharf. The salt water was drying on my skin, leaving me pruney. My hair still dripped wet. As we passed the docks and the forest of ships, I was able to make out the sign of the whorehouse, which squeaked on a rusted iron post. The Big Brick. It was a broad two-story building, with a balcony fitted with a balustrade whose off-white paint stripped off from the coastal air. The windows were large and square, with wooden shutters that never looked as if they had been opened.
“Nyx?” Tristi prodded lightly. We slowed to a stop before the building.
“What,” I returned, voice as flat as a new metal sheet.
Since meeting him, this was the first time I heard something shy creep into his voice. “Maybe you should call me…Tristan?”
“…Are you asking to be called Tristan, or are you asking me if I want to call you Tristan?”
“I…don’t rightly know.” Tristi flashed his fanged smile at me. “The last time this happened, I didn’t have to worry about semantics. Forgive my fumbling. It’s new, even for me. As I said before,” and here he sighed, “It’s been an age since I’ve had company…”
This sobered me enough to think hard on his question. Slowly, I shook my head, “Well…I see no reason to start calling you anything else now. It’d serve only to confuse me further!” I became aware of a knot releasing itself from between my shoulders. I nodded at the whorehouse, my voice kinder. “It’s odd, isn’t it? Where are all the patrons? The women haloo-ing from the windows? The men stumbling out into the air? It’s so quiet.”
“Yes…” Tristi rubbed his chin. “It seems on its last leg, doesn’t it? This particular wharf is not what it once was. But don’t let appearances fool you!” And here he winked at me.
I frowned softly and looked up at the building once more. Appearances, hmm…?
“Tristi, I can shift through layers–see things from the shadows and beyond. How will you know where I am?”
“Don’t worry,” he said. Then he stepped forward and opened the thin wooden door without prelude. He turned and looked at me, “Are you ready, Nyx?” Smoke curled from around him. I grimaced, but closed my eyes.
My thoughts turned inward, and I traveled through cold canyons. I crested the barriers of my mind and felt the world sigh over me…
The time crept by. Henriette returned–alone–and related her people’s request. The family’s had to be together, with feet pointing eastward, hands crossed upon their chests. When they laid hands on a body, the spirits guided them. It was clear the ditch needed to be dug wider. The woman dwarf suggested using some of the machinery–“They still work,” she asserted. The work began immediately. The ghosts collected their efforts to push stones along the north-western side of the ditch. There, they began the tedious work of chiseling in long-winded names and dates. Over the giant list was a simple quote, stating, “Here lies the innocent, who on the third day of winter, during the year three-thousand five-hundred sixty-seven, were cut down as one. Though gone from the mortal life, their freedom lives on.”
Doreth, of the House of Emev, B. 3557; Ton of the House of Whertep, B. 3532; Jodafer of the House of Roliath, B. 3553…
Elmiryn, of the House of Manard, B. 3544.
She let her eyes wander the names and wondered what it was like to have an ending. She didn’t tell the others her secret. It would frighten them. Repulse the ghosts and undo all they had done.
The truth of the matter was, she wasn’t controlling everything the undead soldiers did.
She hadn’t lied to Quincy when she said the only reason she had any control left was because there was some spirit left in the soldiers. She was imposing her will, to a certain extent, by keeping them on the task she wanted them to. She pushed out the evil corruption that had grown in them. (“Maybe that lingers in the air like a cloud? Maybe it’s my fault Madreg and his men went crazy?”) Elmiryn dug up the Belcliff militia’s good natures, their morals, their basic decency. Some of it was hard to find. Some had very little to begin with. It was cruel in a way, to show them what they had become. She directed their pain and desire for penance into doing right by the dwarves. Most of the men didn’t remember who they were. Without a life to answer to, did goodness for goodness sake hold any meaning?
She felt more like a school teacher then a necromancer. She directed these husks of rotted flesh, a quarter filled with emotion and ethics, and scolded them whenever their minds turned to mischief. They were like impressionable children. Her nose wrinkled.
Bad thought. The redhead left the matter alone.
So the Belcliff soldiers worked without much need for aid. She kept tabs on them. Felt them tug on the connection she held with them like dogs on leashes. Just a little longer and she could let them all go. She planned on making them jump off a bridge before she left. The undead may believe their actions served toward their penance, but in her eyes they deserved the hungry dark of the Earth…
When Elmiryn heard Quincy ask Sedwick how much time had passed, the man just sighed. The warrior sat on ground and closed her eyes. They were tired from reading all the names. She felt like she needed to read all the names. After all, who was going to come here and remember? Who was going to come here and care? Did the changes they make translate to the real world? Were the rocks and the soil moving of their own accord?
…If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were like kin to us poor souls!
Hours went by. Then she heard a pair of feet crunch toward her over the dirt. They stopped. Elmiryn opened her eyes a sliver. Quincy’s boots were at her side. “Elmiryn.”
“Mmm,” She replied.
“Mmm!” The woman stretched her arms over her head and stood to her feet. She dusted off the seat of her pants and grinned. “I know!”
Quincy scowled at her but said nothing. She turned and marched down the length of the massive grave. Elmiryn glanced behind her at the inscriptions chiseled into the stone.
Físí, of the House of Crag, B. 3544–
Elmiryn lifted her eyes and followed Quincy. They walked the length of the grave until they rounded the end. Sedwick waited for them on the other side. Next to him stood Henriette. The air seemed devoid of that unearthly presence, suggesting that the other ghosts had already moved on. The warrior found herself glad that they could find peace. She had wondered if their attempts would be taken as too crude. But there it was. Henriette was the last to go.
The ghost in question was fainter than usual, and seemed in good spirits. She pointed at the Belcliff soldiers. “And them?”
“Into the dark, where they won’t bother a soul again,” Elmiryn answered. At this, some already began to shuffle away, to the nearest bridge.
Fuck off and die, all of you.
“I’ll see the last of ’em go first, a’fore I move on. But enough o’ that! I must hold up our end of the bargain.” She beckoned for them to follow her.
Together they traveled back into the city proper, where Henriette led them to a staunch building with a flat roof and two stone sentinels posted at either side of the arched entrance. Through the cold passage they entered the building, where Henriette instructed Quincy to push about the sliding pieces of an odd mechanism on the opposite wall. The ground shook as the center of the floor rolled back to reveal stairs leading down into a dark chamber. The ghost pointed at the cold torches near the door. “Strike those on, so that ye may see,” she grunted, then descended ahead of them.
They did as they were told, and Elmiryn wondered just what sort of vast treasures the dwarves were protecting in so simple a place, when the torchlight Sedwick carried illuminated the answers to her question. In a small cold room, where her breath filled with dusty, stale air, Elmiryn laid her eyes on what were no more than a scrabble of items. They were all set on wooden shelves on the far wall, and none were bigger than her sword. She rubbed the back of her neck, nonplussed.
There were knee high black boots with metal plated leg guards and white fur piping up from the insides. A curved jeweled dagger. A simple domed helmet with a thick spine. A small pearl earring. A silver whistle. Wire frames for glasses–but they lacked lenses. Horseshoes. A mallet with intricate engravings that was as long as Elmiryn’s sword. There were many smithy items besides these–hammers, tongs, ingots, and pokers.
“Alright, then,” Henriette stood near the shelves and gestured at them with her hand. “Everything here is enchanted in some way. Madreg made them himself! Go on, take what ye’d like!”
“This is what’s left of your treasure?” Sedwick said, rubbing his bald head. “I was thinking…gold. Jewels.”
“And they don’t look all that outstanding,” Elmiryn added.
“The soldiers carted off the shiny stuff,” Henriette said with a shrug. “Understand, we had other arcane items too, but those were either stolen or destroyed.”
Quincy placed a hand on her hip. “Marshall Fafnir took whatever he could to pay the militia to keep quiet, then kept the rest for himself.”
“Whatever the reason, we’ve nothing left but these items.” Henriette pointed at each. “I know they look like a rabble of trinkets, but don’t let’im fool ye! Some can pack quite a punch!!”
The wizard started forth, making as if to point one out, but the warrior cut her off. “Ah, ah, ah! We had a deal, didn’t we, Quincy? Whoever killed the most, has first pick! Technically, that’s me.”
At this Quincy soured but acquiesced without a word. Elmiryn looked at Sedwick. “You mind?”
The man shrugged. “I’m not all that interested, so have at it.”
The warrior nodded. “Henriette, can you help me out here? What’s the most useful item I could grab?”
The woman dwarf looked at her uncomfortably. “Er. Well you see, I dunno.”
Elmiryn stared at her. “What do you mean, ‘you dunno’?”
“I mean, Madreg knew better than I what these things did!”
“Henriette, can you at least tell us if they’re safe to the touch?” Quincy asked. “That they won’t explode on us if we pick them up? Turn us into goo? Drive us mad?”
“They won’t,” Henriette said with a stern face. No one moved. After a moment, the woman seemed to falter under the scrutiny. “Ah…I…at least I don’t think so…”
Elmiryn jerked her head toward the shelves. “So! Quincy! Wanna go first?”
I was some sort of fool. What was I expecting when I crossed the threshold of that awful building? Courting? A ball party? Too much rouge and garish outfits? The Somnium revealed no underlying glamor to this scene. It was equally abhorrent in the Real World, I was certain.
The tables were squeaky, some even lacking chairs, and the ceiling was riddled with such cobwebs that it was a wonder if these people knew what a broom was at all. The haze in the room was quite thick, and as soon as I took in breath, I gagged and covered my mouth with my hand, opting instead for the length of my arm to provide me some modest cover of my chest. There was but a corner of the room that seemed to have any design with regards to style–and this was a pathetic attempt, at that. It was at the far corner of the room, past the few tired old sailors sucking in mind-altering smoke, their hairy hands occupied with mugs of grog. The entryway to this space was curtained with a cheap sheer cloth that had been torn. Past the entryway, the floor switched to sofa cushion and was piled with stained pillows of faded color. Writhing bodies could be seen under the hot lamp. To the right of this was the beginning of a hallway, lit with candelabras, where I saw many close, shut doors painted with numbers.
But some people didn’t wait for their privacy.
To my immediate left, near the door, a young woman was on her back on a table, her feet in the air, her plain cotton dress torn open at the front so that her sweaty chest could be seen by all, her brows pressed together in…ecstasy? Pain? I couldn’t tell. Meanwhile, a large man fucked her slowly, buttocks clenching as he thrust in, then pulled back, and over again. His face tilted toward the ceiling, mouth open, eyes closed. When my eyes fell on them I felt ill and ashamed. I looked away, glaring at the ground. “Disgusting. That’s what this place is!” I hissed.
And surging through the fog were smoky beings who flitted here to there aimlessly. They set me on edge, but they ignored us, never venturing far from the sailors breathing in the fumes of the pot that billowed this nasty agent into the air. One middle-aged harlot sat on a sailor’s lap, bony fingers combing through the customer’s wiry gray hair. I noted other companions, simply dressed, hugging the walls near the far end of the bar, waiting for the customers that wouldn’t come. They were stooped and looked emaciated to me. How much of this was true in the Real World? How much of this was the Somnium’s twist in perception?
I wanted to run back out the door.
Tristi, on the other hand, seemed completely unfazed. “Ah!” he breathed. “They have witch’s smoke! Must’ve been imported from Talmor. Maybe I’ll have some before we go.”
I cut a look at him, and tried my best not to look at those making out in the corner, or the couple openly having sex on my other side. “You’d pay for such things?” Then I remembered that he couldn’t hear me.
Tristi walked to the bar, where a man with an eggplant nose sat dozing with a fist in his cheek. I followed the champion and listened in as he engaged the bartender.
“Pardon me, sir.” He pointed to the wall behind the bar, where crude lithographs were displaying various sex positions and their costs. “I’d like service 3…and a bit of 2.” Fillatio, and ‘a bit of’ what the couple were doing in the corner.
“In private?” the bartender asked sleepily.
I wondered at how Tristi could interact with the man. He didn’t seem all there, and technically, were we not in another dimension? The bartender was likely helping himself to the stock. Was he alone? I answered my own question when I saw, off in the corner toward the front of the main room, the mountain of muscle that I soon recognized as the hired security. He had a hand on a billy club and seemed completely sober. He frowned strangely at the bartender as Tristi gave a nod.
“In private.” He glanced at the two fucking near the door. “Very private.”
“Blond, brunette, reddy–”
“Aye. That’ll be one gold and three bronze pence.”
Tristi fished this out. He slapped the gold coin onto the counter, then counted out the bronze pieces. He dropped only two. I looked at him in confusion. I knew the champion could count, so why did he leave short change? The bartender started to slide the coins to him without question when Tristi stopped his hand. “Ah, wait! I’ve counted wrong!” He made a great show of taking back all the pieces, gushing with apologies, letting his wrist go limp and his head loll to the side in a way that now seemed awkward in his male state. He counted the coins again, fangs flashing, and this time left but three bronze pieces. The gold I saw him slip away, in a sleight of hand, up his glove.
The bartender frowned at the change. “Still short,” he grunted.
Tristi shook his head, holding out his hands. “Wrong! I’ve already given you the gold piece.”
“You did not!”
“I assure you, I have! Never once did my hands leave your sight, sir.”
“Liar!” The bartender looked to the mercenary in the corner. “He’s trying to swindle me, Errol!”
The hired mercenary sneered at him. “Oh shaddup, Doyle. No one’s tryin’ to swindle you…daffy old man, talkin’ to himself again…”
Ah. So we were phantoms to these phantoms were we? The bartender’s intoxication seemed to leave him open to ‘seeing’ things.
The man in question, under his cloud of malaise, frowned. Then he looked sullenly at Tristi. “Apologies…” he mumbled, taking the bronze pieces. He handed her a key. “Down the hall, third door on the left.”
Tristi took the key, then leaned in. “Say…has anything strange happened lately? Bumps in the night? Bad brew? Foreigners?” he slid across the gold piece he had withheld.
“That sir, I can tell ye!” The bartender said with a smooth swipe of the coin. His eyes, polished umber glass, twinkled as he leaned in. I rolled my eyes. What an acid-addled fool. “Had a rumble from the sea floor the other day. Sent the waves knocking at the columns and was a frightful quake!” He nodded in the direction of the wharf. “The bay spat up a weird one on the beach. Halfling. He comes in, shivering and half-dead. Said he’d been cast about in the water for a time. Lips all chapped from the salt. Purple eyes a craggy red. The Boss was in that day. Took a shine to him. He brings the lad to his special room. Haven’t seen him since.”
Tristi frowned. “And would that special room be upstairs?”
The man’s look turned to a leer. “No, lad. Tis down below, in the pit of hell itself!” Then he cackled and turned to put away the coin.
Something about this chilled my skin. Tristi thanked the man and proceeded down the hallway…but instead of entering the room he’d been told, the champion of luck kept walking on. I wasn’t sure where he was going, but followed him just the same. The walk lasted several minutes. I was beyond bewildered. Surely, the hallway could’ve been cleared in thirty seconds? When we came to the perpendicular hall at the end of the stretch, I gasped.
The hallway stretched on, and on, as far as my eyes could see, where it branched in impossible directions to the north, south, east, west, up, and down. It defied all physics. Gaudy colors painted the halls that warped and twisted down and out of sight. The building was in no way this big. Finally, the Somnium had revealed to me this place’s true nature. I shivered as I saw a dark liquid oozing from the open door of one room down the way. A purple tentacle flopped through the open doorway of another. I heard bizarre tongues, people moaning…people screaming.
Tristi pushed his half-moon glasses farther up his slim nose and sighed. His eyes focused on the same places mine did. Then he looked directly at me. Could he have seen me all this time? How?
“Nyx,” he said, with his hands on his hips. “Are you perhaps regretting your heroic condition now?”
“No, no, Elmiryn,” The wizard said with a dry smile. “Go on. Pick.”
The warrior rubbed the back of her neck. “Hah…damn. Fine.”
She stepped forward and her eyes trailed over the choices. She let her hand hover, teasing, contemplative of the contact that could birth any number of horrific possibilities. Horrific. Why did it always have to be horrific? Why couldn’t it accidentally cure diseases, or accidentally make you rich, or accidentally make your sex life perfect?
Elmiryn stooped down to the third to last shelf where the whistle shone in the torchlight. It looked just polished. She gently picked it up.
She didn’t die, didn’t break out in boils. So far, so good.
She put the mouthpiece to her lips and gave it a soft blow. She heard nothing. She looked at the others. “Anything?” she asked.
“Any what?” Sedwick asked. “It made no sound.”
“None at all?”
Quincy rolled her eyes. “You can’t just expect a magical item to leap up and–”
Elmiryn blew again, harder. Still she heard nothing, but for some reason, the others reacted.
Quincy flinched and slapped her hands to her ears, and Sedwick did the same, his body rippling to water. Henriette popped out of sight before flashing back again, waving her arms. “Enough, enough!” she shouted, her skull showing through her ghostly visage.
“Sorry,” Elmiryn said with a grin.
“I can’t remember the specifics, but that whistle can only be heard by certain individuals…only I don’t know who.” Henriette rubbed her brow and frowned at it.
Elmiryn stared at the item intently. She ran her fingers over the shape of it. She picked up a sense of safety. Of trust. After a moment, she tossed it up into the air and caught it. “I’ll keep this.” Next, she picked up the dagger on the middle shelf.
“Getting greedy, aren’t we?” Quincy snapped.
“You can take what you can carry,” Henriette said with a shrug. “It will serve no one else otherwise.”
“But why does she–”
Elmiryn pulled the dagger from the sheath. Her ears perked to the sudden static that hit her. The redhead turned to look at the others. “Hey what happened? Did you guys hear–?” her voice cut short.
Quincy had a hand on her throat, her azure eyes wide. Sedwick looked bewildered. His mouth started moving but no sound came. Not even the sound of the torch cracking could be heard. “Weird…” Elmiryn breathed. “Can you guys hear me okay?”
They all nodded. Quincy furiously signaled for the woman to sheathe the dagger. The warrior did so, and as soon as the blade clicked all the way in, the sound came back.
“–the dagger back in, or–” Quincy stopped. “Oh.”
“It muted everything!” Sedwick exclaimed.
“Aye. Everything but the noises she made,” Henriette said, thumbing at Elmiryn.
“Fat lot of good that’d do her,” Quincy said. “Elmiryn moves like a–”
The warrior quirked an eyebrow and pulled the dagger from the sheath. Quincy fell silent, and seemed to sputter off, her face turning red as her heart-shaped face screwed up with wrath. Sedwick looked between them warily. After a minute of dancing from the wizard’s attempts at taking the item away, Elmiryn sheathed the blade again.
Quincy’s voice came back. “–an ignorant, inbred, fucking harpy, and I’ll–”
Elmiryn unsheathed the dagger. She watched as Quincy nearly went purple. Sedwick tried to say something, a plea of sorts, at the redhead. Giggling, the woman sheathed the dagger.
“–tear out your fucking–”
“–plague on the common intellect–”
“–you back surfing, cream-filled tart–”
Elmiryn could hardly breathe. After a moment, she managed to crow, “I think I’ve made my choices!”
…Then Quincy socked her in the stomach.