Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 23.5

ELMIRYN________________________

She retreated back to her room.  She stared around her with glassy eyes, her neck thick with tension, her jaw clenched so tight she thought her gums were bleeding.

A moment later, she realized she’d thrown something out the window.  She didn’t know what.  But the window was broken and the length of her arm throbbed as if it had wrenched a muscle.  The wind whistled forlornly around the jagged glass.

Elmiryn’s breath came in knife-like takes of air–sharp and stabbing.  Her throat was so tightly constricted that the phlegm nearly blocked her airway.  She kept clearing her throat till it hurt.  She tried to keep the trembles down, but they seized her whole body like she were caught in cold.  The sweat on her skin felt frigid.  Her head started to hurt from all the hot blood.  Hot, cold, hot, cold.  One second she was all fire and certainty and movement, and the next she was frozen and lost and seized up.  She took the back of her hand and swiped it over her brow.  The warrior unbuckled her sword belt, trying to keep her hands steady.  She let it hit the ground and tripped over it as she drifted to the ivory cloth she spied beneath the remnants of her old life.

She picked up a cotton shirt lucky enough to avoid any stains, and tried to put it on.  She got one hand through a sleeve before she swooned and forgot the task, her eyes instead setting on the wine bottle she had set down next to the bed.  She lurched toward it.

There was a knock on the door.  Elmiryn paused, but hesitantly.  When she looked, she saw it was Sedwick.

The man stood with an uncomfortable expression on his face as he rubbed his cheek.  The cut he’d suffered at the hands of the undead Belcliff soldiers was looking much better.  It was already turning to a scar.  Not quite a therian’s rate of healing, but still miraculously fast over so few hours.  Strangely, he looked more human to her.

“Do you want me to leave you alone?” he asked carefully.  His eyes flickered to the edges of her face, like he were resisting the urge to stare at the disaster that was her bedroom.

“You came up here just to ask me that?” Elmiryn returned with a caustic laugh.  A sharp shiver blasted through her, and she cursed the trembles that still plagued her.  She turned away from him and resumed seeking her prize.  With a snatch, the bottle was in her hands.  The warrior smacked her lips and took a long drink.  The man didn’t interrupt her, but she heard him sigh.  With her unsteady hands, some of the dark wine dribbled out of the side of her mouth and down her neck and chest.  Then, she was sucking at air, and looked at the bottle mournfully.  The drink was finished.

Sedwick spoke even slower.  “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”  His voice gave away that he already had his answer.

Elmiryn turned with some effort, blinking as she felt a wash of warmth.  Ah!  Glorious weight, glorious feeling!  She swore the trembling was fading away.  “I haven’t got a piece of glass against my wrist, if that’s what you mean.” She chuckled darkly as she sat on the bed.

“I figured it was either me or Quincy.  Even she thought it best I come up.”

There was still a whole cask of drink for her to plunder.  Her mind wandered to it.  When she responded, it was with a distracted air.  “So you got the short straw.  Congrats.”  The warrior belched and her eyes watered from the way it burned her nose.  She wiped at her mouth and gave the elemental a half-hearted glare.  “C’mon, really.  Whad’ya want?”

The man still didn’t move.  “I’m worried about you.”

“Well don’t be.” Elmiryn rubbed at her eyes quickly and turned her face away.

Sedwick finally approached her.  She turned her head just enough that she watched from her peripherals his watery legs come and stop at her side.  Then he sat down, and the mattress bounced a little.  This set her off her balance, and the woman tilted toward him before catching herself on his knee.  Touching his leg when it was turned to water felt weird.  Her hand came away dry, but cool.  “Fuck, sorry,” she snickered.  Then she put her hand on his knee and pulled it back quickly.  “Huh.  Interestin’.”

Elmiryn tossed the empty bottle onto the floor and rubbed at her face.  Her hand was steady now.  Trembles gone.  Even the cold was leaving her, but maybe that was just the numbness setting in.

She was…still thirsty.

“Sedwick,” she murmured.

“Hmmm?”

“…Hey.  You…do you remember much?  From my memories?”  Then she chuckled and shook her head.  “Lissen’ta me.  ‘Do you remember MY memories?’  Who on Halward’s plane…” but she trailed off and stared forward at nothing.

Sedwick let out a rumble, like he were clearing his throat.  He scratched at his neck, and fidgeted.  Finally he answered her.  “Your memories were slippery, even then.  I…don’t remember much of it.”

She gave a nod.  She started to speak slowly, for the giddy feeling was invading everything.  “Maybe s’fer the best.”

“Elmiryn, what happened?”

She bowed her head.  “With what?”

“…For heaven’s sake, you can’t be this stubborn.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“Do you really want me to drag it out of you?”

“I’d like to see you try.”

Sedwick let out a huff and leaned on his knees.  He glared at her sideways.  “Am I your friend or not?  Did we not fight together?”

“Ya mean with each other? Or with others?”

The man allowed for a hooked smile.  “Both?”

“Mmm…” Elmiryn looked down at herself and recalled the task she had abandoned before.  Taking the shirt, she pulled on the last sleeve and began to–clumsily–button herself up.  When she was done, she realized she had done it lopsided.  There were two buttons free at the top, and two holes free at the bottom.  “Aw fuck…”  She didn’t bother to fix it.  With the sleeves uncuffed, they flopped around her wrists as she brushed back her hair.  Sedwick’s patience won her over.  “Warner…tha’s his name.  He…well.  Shit.  Jes’ look aroun’!” She gestured around her.  “The asshole did all this.  Wrecked my room, my life–no.  Damnit, no, wait.”  She stopped and rubbed at her right eye with the heel of her palm.  “Sorry.  I act like a kid when I’ve had a little…or a lot…” she giggled.  There was no use pretending the volume of drink she had now.  It was showing beyond all her efforts.  The woman, with head swaying a bit, looked at Sedwick and grinned lopsidedly.  “The Manard family!  In-bred the lot o’ us.  We have silver spoons up our asses, and a poor sense of gravity.”  She lifted up her arm, then let it drop.  “Fer serious sitch-oo-ations, that is.” Elmiryn burped again.

“What’d you and Warner talk about?” Sedwick pressed, his forehead wrinkling as he looked at her.  He was leaning back from her a little.  Then the woman realized she was leaning forward.

“Ah, sorry…sss-orry!  Damn.  Personal space.” She tittered and smacked a hand to her head.  “We–” she inhaled and rolled her eyes open, fixing her gaze on the ceiling.  “We talked…about…how much of an idiot he was.  An’…how much of an idiot I was.  An’ how much of an idiots…an…idiot…ssss…what?” she snickered.

Sedwick stood with another great sigh. “Wonderful.  You’re too drunk to speak coherently.”

“And yer bald,” she returned.  Elmiryn looked at his crotch.  “…Everywhere.

“Elmiryn–your father–”

“Y’know, if you let that shit grow out–”

“Can we stay on topic–?”

“–Oh fuck, never mind, don’ do that, it’ll look like a fucking opossum in a bush, a lil one–”

ELMIRYN.”

The woman looked at him, scandalized at his irascible reaction.  She turned her eyes to the floor and muttered sullenly.  “Shit I’m jes’ tryin’ to help.”

The elemental had both hands covering his face.  When he lowered them, the fingers dragged at his features, giving him a ghastly look, before they snapped back into place and he continued.  “As I was saying…Elmiryn.  Instead of just drowning everything out with your drink.  Why not talk to me?”

“Can you leave me face down in my own vomit with no recky-lection of the previous day?”

“…No, but that’s hardly–”

“I rest my case!” she chirped.  Elmiryn stood swaying to her feet.  “Look, ya wanna know what we gabbed about baldy?  After Warner tried ta shoot me, he went on an’ on an on about how ever’thin’ is m-yyy fault. ‘We lost ever’thin on account a’ YOU.  Yer mother was su’ject-ed to such hu-milly-ation!  My dick isn’ big enough!’ On an’ on.  I had ta twist his nuts just to hear what happened to my mother.  She left him.  Fuckin’, finally. Then!  OH!  I go an’ mention Meznik, an suddenly Warner goes all weak on me, like–”

Sedwick’s face hardened.  “Wait, he knew something about Meznik??”

“–Like dried dog poop, or–or–crumbly cheese, y’know, the s’pensive kind–”

“Elmiryn, MEZNIK?”

“Ah!” She raised a finger and looked at him with an expression of luminescence.  “Y’know what Warner did?”

“I’m waiting for you to tell me,” Sedwick grumbled.

Elmiryn came up real close, pressing the man up against the wall.  Her eyes stared wide into his, and she whispered.  “He sol’ me out.  Like fuckin’ cattle.  A sack o’ damn flour.  ME.  The froot o’ his fuckin’ loins!  This curse, this mis-for-shun, this MADness?  He’s the reason!  Fer it all.  He made a deal wi’ Meznik over stupid dreams, and now we’re all wallowin’ in our own shit.” The woman pulled away, a ghostly version of her rage manifesting itself in her as her body seized up and she glared with bared teeth at the man before her.  She gnashed her teeth a few times thoughtfully, then said off-hand, “I wish I could’ve ripped out his throat, but I couldn’t touch him.”  She laughed mutely, her shoulders shaking as she brushed back the loose strands of hair in her face.  “Why are all the things I need ta kill outta my reach?  Warner.  Meznik.  Fuck, I’m…I’m…” her chin started to crumple and her eyes started to water and Elmiryn looked away.  “Forget this. I’m thirsty.”  She started to leave the room.

All this time, the elemental had stood watching her, transfixed and horrified by the open pain on her face, the rage, the confusion.  It was clear he didn’t know what to do.  But all of a sudden, Sedwick moved with great speed to block the door.  “Are you really going to do this?” he asked.  “Just drown?”

“I’m a swimmer,” the woman snapped.  Then her eyes brightened.  “Oh!  Heey!  You could…ummm…you could clean my room!”  She looked at his feet and grinned.  “Jes’ blast alla this shit outta the window.  Clean the floors and the walls and the sheets.  Would do wonders for the smell.”

Sedwick let loose a weak smile.  “Ah.  Well your father certainly did a number.”

Her grin waned.  “Warner isn’t my father.” Elmiryn said this with a calm she didn’t feel.

“…Okay,” he said.  The man’s pale white eyes blinked several times before averting to the floor.  Elmiryn stepped closer, her breath coming through her mouth and her free hand going up to grab Sedwick’s face.  He looked at her in surprise.  She was pinching his cheeks together so that his mouth smushed.  “Elle, vhat–?”

“Who sez you can say Elle?  Is Elley here?  Is Elle the Idiot right here?” She laughed in his face before throwing an arm around his shoulder.  “I’m Elmiryn.  Elmiryn o’ the House o’ Manard.”  Then her attention turned and she patted the man’s scarred cheek.  “I like this scar.  It looks good on you.”

The man tried to grab her hand.  “Okay, Elmiryn.  Okay.”

“I like it, so don’t get…rid of it.  Y’hear?  Sed.  Hey…Heey.”

Sedwick leaned away from her finally managing to grab her wrist.  “Elmiryn, you’re drunk.”

“An’ reppy-tition will get ya no wheres.  Hey.  Sed.  Sedwick.  Y’know?  Yer…I’m lookin’ at yer face right now but it’s ssssss-super creepy.  Sorry.  Does Nadi go for that?  She hasn’ got nipples, innit weird for you?”

“Elmiryn–”

“Sedwick–”

Elmiryn–”

She giggled.  “Sedwick!”

“You’re drunk,” he said again more firmly.  He shoved her back toward the center of the room.  It was all she could do to keep from falling flat on her face.  The warrior always had a funny way of manipulating her own drunkenness.

“And yer blockin’ th’fuckin’ door.”  Elmiryn swiped at her nose with her feet planted beneath her shoulders.  “Who sez I wanted you up here?  Who invited ya?  Ya aren’t like me.  This is a hu-man matter, now.  Y’know.  Us an’ our messy fuckin’ families.  Our blind, backstabbin’, motherfuckin’–” she paused here.  “Ah…never mind.”

“Fine.  But I’m not letting you waste yourself when we’ve more important matters to deal with!”

The woman glared.  “Get outta the way!”

“No.”

“Move or I move you.”

A snort, and she heard her own dare echoed back at her.  “I’d like to see you try.”

The woman growled and lurched forward, but the next thing she knew, she was flying with a powerful punch of water in her gut.  She crashed back against the headboard of her bed.  Elmiryn rolled onto her side, clutching her gut, and felt nauseous.  Pain spidered all along her upper torso and up into her skull.  For a moment she tried to raise her head.  The vomit came up faster than she could register.  Some of it got onto the corner of the bed, and she dragged herself with weak arms to the edge of the mattress to better send her illness to the floor.  She didn’t stop for a couple of minutes.

“Everything alright up there!?” she heard Quincy shout up the stairs.

“It’s fine!” The man bellowed back.  She saw him out of the corner of her eye look at her with a pained expression.  “I’m sorry, Elmiryn.  I had to.  If you were even half sober…but I don’t think you can ever quite stop there, can you?  You have to be completely smashed, don’t you?” Sedwick said mournfully.  “I don’t know why I bothered pushing you so hard.  Nadi says…spirits tend to feel more, so I–I–”

“Fuck you,” Elmiryn bit out.  She wiped the vomit from her lips and rolled with a groan and a wince to the other side of the bed.  She turned her face into the sweaty sheets.  They smelled even worse now that they were wet.  Her shirt clung to her and she shivered as the broken window whistled again.  The pain still stabbed at the base of her skull and her left shoulder blade.  Old bruises from their recent adventures reminded her of their presence too.  In the face of such discomfort, Elmiryn found her eyes willingly falling shut.

Sedwick cleared his throat.  “I’m sorry about your…about Warner, Elmiryn.”

In her head, she thought, For fuck’s sake, I haven’t got daddy issues, but the nausea made spoken word a treacherous thing, so she kept her mouth shut.  That didn’t stop the torrent of thoughts that followed:

You ass, you gods damned, fucking–oh, Halward help you the moment I can get up, I swear to the gods, Sedwick, I–

…Oh fuck it.

“We–We’ll talk about this more later.  When you’re…um…ready.” There was a pause.  Then Sedwick added, with his voice turned gruff, “Elmiryn, I’m sorry.”

Silence reigned after that.  The warrior didn’t lift her head for a long time.  Time slipped away from her, and her mind reeled.  She felt the whole room shift, and shimmy.  She groaned and clutched at her head.  The glorious weight, the glorious feeling, the glorious expansion of her universe–it all felt so poisoned now.  Elmiryn resumed thinking in her head, trying to get her bearings:

Your saying it too much, Sed.  I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.  Shit, maybe if Warner said it ONCE–well, no.  I still would’ve tried to kill him.  I overuse it too. (gods this bed stinks)  I like the way the Ailurans say it best.  Och oeni.  I can ask Nyx to teach me more. (I miss her)  All I have are bits and pieces.  (Are those the stairs creaking?)  All any of us have are fucking bits and pieces, and we try so hard to find the parts that make us whole.  We look for it in others. (It’s a damn scavenger hunt)  I think our parents are supposed to give us enough to work right.  (I don’t feel right…was there something in that wine?)  A…uh…foundation.  Yeah.  That.  Like a house.  (Sedwick…isn’t a bad guy.)  Only, I’ve got a house of cards.  Thanks, Warner! (…I want some cheese.) Wait, I’m losing my train of thought.  Wasn’t I talking about bits? (And pieces?) And cards? (And homes?) Or was I rambling and babbling and thinking in languages I do not speak and and and

Ooooh…No.  Reign it in.  Need the boundaries.  These.  Let’s put in two..  Let’s put in three… Let’s put in six……  ……Let’s put in six on BOTH ends……. [What about these?] {Or these?}  <Or these?>  “No these.”  “And if I look up and out and see the stranger peering into my life I might–“

“Ah, wait.  WAIT.  I’m going out of bounds.  Hah.  No.  Nooo…I’m not gonna lose it.  Somehow I think things would unravel if I do that.  Ha!  But wouldn’t that get Meznik’s knickers in a twist?  He seems to hate it when I don’t play by his imaginary rules…”

(Oh.  Did I go to sleep?)

She stirred.  Her head was killing her.  The taste of vomit still lingered in the corners of her mouth.  Elmiryn kept her eyes closed, knowing the fury of light that awaited her.

Sedwick spoke upon seeing her move.  “…Would you like some water?”  He sounded like he were across the room.

Still assailed with her curious thirst, the woman nodded her head mutely.  A moment later, a cool glass was pressed to her shoulder, and she turned with cracked gaze to see it was the wine bottle, filled with water now instead.  It was still dark out, she must not have been out long.  The warm glow that came in through the broken window was merciful on her senses.  She took the bottle, and with an unhappy expression, sipped.  Elmiryn knew it wasn’t what her thirst was asking for, but the disappointment came just the same.

“How long have we been here?” she asked, staring at the sheets.  She couldn’t look at Sedwick at all, now.  She was starting to feel bad for how she behaved.  Her inebriation still dragged at her, but the giddiness was gone.

“It’s been more than an hour since your father left.”  This was Quincy, not Sedwick.  The warrior looked to see the wizard leaning against the door frame.  When did she come up?  How long had she been there?  Sedwick, after giving her the water, had taken up sitting in the chair.  Elmiryn sat up and scooted to the edge of the bed.  She eyed the wizard warily, but the brunette had taken to looking at her bandaged fingers.  “I got bored down there.  Figured a fight with you’d be more interesting, if one should happen,” she said mildly.

“I don’t…want any comments.  About anything you just saw,” Elmiryn muttered.

The wizard shrugged.  “Fine.  I wasn’t planning on killing you anyway.”

“Don’t you mean I would kill you?

Quincy smirked and looked at her.  “You think you could without churning out your insides?”

Elmiryn returned the smirk.  She looked down again.  Her thoughts eventually trailed off to Warner.  He claimed to love her mother, but could a person commit such an act and feel love for anything? Her hand clenched around his imaginary throat.  It made her furious that she kept finding enemies that eluded her.  Her entire life had been about direct conflict, clashing head on with all threats, and driving away opposing forces.  Meznik was out of her reach.  Warner was out of her reach.  Halward was…  With a grimace, she drank some more water.  It felt like sucking down medicine.  Her stomach protested.  Maybe it was the close call with blasphemy.

But then her eyes glazed over, as she recalled something.

I can get you within arms reach…

She shook the thought away and looked guiltily at Quincy, as if afraid the woman could hear her thoughts.  She might actually have to worry about that, if she ever found Lethia.  How did enchantment work, again?

“You guys are free to refresh yourselves.  Help yourselves to…whatever.  I’m sorry.  I’m a shitty host,” and she found she meant it.  Elmiryn had never had true guests over to her home.  Figures that the first time she did, the event would be plagued by spectacle and misery.

She stood to her feet and rubbed at her head.  Her stomach gave a lurch and she grimaced.  Her legs felt cold and trembly. “I think I’ll take a bath or something.  We’ve a tub downstairs.”  She looked down at her self sheepishly.  She was still damp from Sedwick’s swift water punch, even her hair, and the buttons of her shirt were still wrong.  “That is, if Sed hasn’t done the job.”

“Is that nickname going to stick now?” Sedwick mumbled, blushing a little.

She grinned at him as she set the bottle down.  “Well if you’re gonna call me Elle…”

The man blinked, then smiled.

Quincy frowned.  “Oh?  Can I call you Elle, too?”

Elmiryn blew her a kiss.  “Only if you let me call you Muffin!

Sedwick chortled.  Quincy flicked her hand under chin and bit out, “Msagaji!”

“No, no, no.  Elle.  E-lllle!”

“Elmiryn.  Shut up.

And the warrior started to feel better.  At least for now.

She brushed by the wizard with a winning smile, and the other woman just rolled her eyes at her.  She could feel Sedwick’s eyes on her as she went.  She imagined while she’d taken her unintended nap, the man had gone looking for her wine and found it.  It wasn’t something he could do anything with.  She giggled at the idea of Sedwick throwing a white sheet over it and sitting a sign on top that said, “NOPE. NO WINE HERE!”  Elmiryn didn’t resent his behavior.  If she had to deal with someone behaving as she was whilst on the battlefield, then she would be even sterner.  It wasn’t that she’d never gone into a fight less than sober, but what she was doing…Elmiryn saw the recklessness in it.

“What’s wrong with me?” she wondered, smacking her parched mouth with a grimace.  “Why do I feel this way?”

She could feel Sedwick’s wariness as she passed the other room and proceeded down the stairs.  For every ounce of wariness he felt, she felt an anxiety to match it.  But whereas Sedwick prayed for her to keep going, the woman felt her legs fight to turn and go back.

She made it down all the steps and resisted the urge to pause and look back up.  As she started to cross the parlor to the small kitchen in the back, she heard the city clock tower chime twelve times.

She paused and listened to it till it finished.  The festivities would really pick up, now.  Elmiryn entered the kitchen, a small space with a little wooden stove and an assortment of fresh herbs and vegetables.  Pickled meat, condiments, and cooking utensils sat on the shelves.  She took up a bucket (because she had no idea where the servant kept the pitcher, and didn’t feel like looking) and started to fill it up with water at the pump.  That done, she placed the bucket on the stove.  With a few pieces of wood and a bit of flint, she had the stove going.  Knowing it would take a while before she got enough hot water to fill the bath tub, the woman pumped some water over hands and tried to rinse her mouth of the foul taste.  She went back into the parlor and sat in her favorite chair.  Knitting her fingers together, she gazed out the window.  The crowds were quite large this year.  She wished she were there–really there–to enjoy it.

Elmiryn didn’t want to think about him, but she couldn’t help it. Warner.  Her father.  He’d betrayed her even before she was born.  Did he teach her that infernal song?  Meznik’s melody?  Or did it already come in her blood?  Did she eat the fruit of the tree Warner had planted and found herself changed?  She felt a throb in her chest and rubbed at it, a pained expression seizing her features.

There was a creak at the stairs.  She turned her head and saw it was Quincy.  “Sedwick took your suggestion to heart.  He’s cleaning your room,” the wizard said.

The warrior grinned.  “I wasn’t serious…or I might’ve been, but that’s even worse.  He isn’t blasting everything out the window, is he?”

Quincy raised an eyebrow.  “It’d be an improvement.”

“Yes.  It would.”

They chuckled together.  Quincy stood with arms crossed and gazed toward the family portrait.

“You have your mother’s smile,” she said quietly.

Elmiryn looked away, out the window.  “Yeah.”

“And your father’s frown.”

“…Did I not ask for you to keep your comments to yourself?”

“I’m just trying to say…You come from your parents, but are not of them.  Make your own choices.  You’ll do fine.”

“Sedwick told you what I said before, didn’t he?  When the wine was talking for me?”

“Only what was relevant.  The things about Meznik.  I’m sorry about that, by the way.  Just remember what I said, Elmiryn.  Not everyone has a pretty portrait to hang up.”  Quincy pointed at the portrait over the fireplace.  “Sometimes, I wish I had even that much.  I was never even treated to the illusion.”

“Lucky you.” Elmiryn rubbed at her face.  “My family…no, I don’t want to talk about it.”

The wizard just shrugged one shoulder.  “Okay.  I just wanted to say that.  Beyond that, I don’t care.”

“No?” Elmiryn looked at her sideways.

Quincy shook her head, but there was something suspicious about her determination not to look into Elmiryn’s eyes.  “No.”

“There’s a story there, isn’t there, wizard?” she thought.  But she didn’t press.

Elmiryn looked back out the window.  Men and women, girls and boys, all dressed up and having fun.  Perhaps there were families out together, celebrating.  The phantoms paraded past her eyes, and the warrior shrank back into her seat.  She felt cold.  She’d have to check her water and set up another bucket.  She’d need at least three or four big bucketfuls before the tub was full enough.  She flashed a brief mental image of Sedwick blasting out all her ruined things out the ersatz window and smiled, showing all teeth.

“Hey Quincy.”

“What.” The wizard had taken a seat at the end of the stairs.  She’d drawn her sword and was staring at it with distant eyes.

“Can I tell you a secret?”

“So long as it won’t be something I’ll regret.”

Elmiryn chuckled and shook her head.  “No.  I…”  She ducked her head and felt her eyes burn.  She lifted her face again and stared sadly out the window.  “The demon is out there.” She bit her lip and stared at her hands.  The redhead looked up again with a sigh.  “But sometimes I’m afraid he’s in me too.”

Quincy didn’t say anything.

The warrior sat gazing for a while longer at the crowds.  Then they heard an earsplitting screech.  It rattled Elmiryn down to the marrow, and she bolted upright, blinking.  A shadow flashed over the crowds, and she started to rise from her seat, her hands gripping the arm rests with a white-knuckle grip.  “What the hell–?”  She whipped her head to stare at the wizard.

The brunette was sitting straight too, her eyes wide.  “What do you think that was?” Quincy hissed.  She cocked an ear as the sound came again, but softer.  “It doesn’t sound the same as what we heard before.  It’s something else.  It’s–I think–” the wizard didn’t finish.

What came next just about set Elmiryn off.  There were little explosions in her brain, to match the fireworks, the rapturous blossoming of colors.  Like an undercurrent of sewage, too, was her soured inebriation, the alcohol in her system like an inimical army, compromising her coordination and her stamina and her strength.  Knives stabbed through her skull.  But the ache in her chest was gone, and she felt a warmth to combat the cold that swept over her body.  Colors mixed with pain.  Excitement laced with illness.  Heat swirling with cold.

Elmiryn wasn’t seeing things wrong.  She knew it.

Three figures ran past the view of her window.  They were swallowed by the phantoms, so it was like seeing them through milky glass, but she could tell.  They were solid.  They were–

Shit!” Elmiryn slammed against the window pane, her eyes bugging.  She pressed her face to the glass, smushing her features comically.  Her eyes strained as she watched the figures run out of her line of vision.  Muttering fast under her breath, she ran to the door, feet tripping over themselves as her nausea came back almost full force.  Quincy jumped to her feet and tried to grab her. “Don’t you idiot, you don’t know what’s out there!!”

Elmiryn swatted at her.  “Leggo!  I gotta–fuck!” She escaped Quincy’s clutches and ripped open the front door as if tornado winds had blasted her back, but really, it was just her haste, her drunken movements, her wild thrill.  The warrior leapt over the stoop to the street, sweat rolling down her skin in fat drops.  She could see the figures up ahead, and cupped her hands around her mouth.  “Hey!” she bellowed.  The noise around her–the people laughing, the fireworks whistling overhead–it drowned her out.  They couldn’t hear her.

The warrior tried to run after them.  Her vision started to fuzz at the edges.  “HEY!  HEY!”  Nothing.  She ran for a while longer, but knew she was losing them.  She wasn’t as fast as usual because of her little binge.  Panting, the woman slowed.  If she pushed herself any harder she’d collapse.  She leaned onto her knees and watched her quarry grow more and more distant.  Then her eyes widened.  With frantic hands, she patted her chest and felt the whistle beneath her shirt.  Scrambling, she grabbed the string and pulled it out.  With shaking hands, the woman gave one last look at the figures before she put the whistle to her lips and blew as hard as she could.

This has to work.

Just as before, she could hear nothing.  For a moment, she despaired that it was too late.  Then, up ahead, she saw one of the figures come to a wild stop.  They turned and searched for the source of the sound.  Her heart pounding, Elmiryn jogged through the crowd, blowing her whistle all the way.  She cut through the phantoms, her mind singular in its goal.  And that was–

“Nyx!  Nyx! I found you!”

Her vision cleared as the last of the phantoms between them was passed.  Tawny eyes fixed onto her cerulean gaze.  The girl was wearing new clothes, popular among teenage boys in Fiamma.  She looked so good in them.  The warrior was vaguely aware of the people with Nyx, but her attention would not be broken.  There was something to the girl’s eyes, the way her head sat straight on her neck…  Sweat dripped from Elmiryn’s chin, and her knees felt like they were about to give out, and her stomach just about loathed her at this point–but none of that mattered.

The Ailuran’s eyes immediately teared up, and her lip trembled.  “E-Elle?”

The warrior underestimated the amount of pleasure she’d feel just hearing Nyx say her name.  “I found you,” Elmiryn whispered.

And judging by the screech that pierced the air over their heads, she wasn’t the only one.


Back to Chapter 23.4 | Forward to Chapter 24.1

Chapter 23.4

“All of my old friends aren’t so friendly
All of my old haunts are now haunting me”1

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn stood in the hallway, a full wine bottle in hand, and contemplated going downstairs.  She didn’t know what she would do there, but she disliked leaving her companions so unattended in her own home.  But then she thought of the look that would be on Quincy’s face, and she wasn’t so sure she could keep herself from violence, so the woman went back into her room.  It was not with a smile.  To her, it felt much like choosing between being burned alive or torn apart by bears.  In odd turns, she found herself wishing Nyx were there, and at the same time glad that the girl wasn’t.

Back inside, she saw Warner had turned the chair to look out the window adjacent to the left of the door.  Ah.  The window.  That fixture on the wall–like a painting, that she’d once and again found herself glancing out of in that long-ago when she had stayed here in her non-home.  The window, the long thin rectangle cut in the egg-shell wall that bore the image of ambition and audacity and progress like an artist’s vision.  But the image she found, unsettled her.  Maybe it had been the cropped view she had.  The three feet, twelve inch view that belonged to something much larger.  She found it stifling.  She wondered if it were a panorama she hungered for, but Elmiryn (who certainly would have, despite how unseeming it would’ve been) would have poked through the window as best she could to see what the edges of the window attempted to conceal.  Instead, she sat in the plush chair downstairs, and gazed out at the street where she eyed the early morning creepers dusting coke from their noses with their finery wrinkled; the dog that made off down the road with a rat in its mouth; the temple keepers, shaking their heads over the drunk forms lying prone on stoops; the sturdy merchant carts and lofty horse carriages rolling by.  Her bedroom window, on the other hand, held smokestacks, a forest of dark buildings, and a rosy glow that–for all of Fiamma’s professed love of the celestial–hid the stars in their obnoxiousness.  She knew better than most nobles what a starry night really consisted of.

The warrior, after her first week staying at the house, had bought a curtain, and used it to cover her bedroom window, all but forgetting about it in her time there.  Even upon entering her room for the first time in what felt longer than a year, she ignored it, eyes fastened to the one thing she hadn’t expected.  Now Warner had torn at the curtain to allow more light into the room.  The cloth lay crumpled like a murder victim on the floor.  Maybe he was looking for a way to shake the wine-induced stupor from him.  Maybe he hoped the light from the window would dispel the ghostly image of his daughter, and therefor dispel her from his mind forever.

Her window.  THE Window.  The picture of reality that made like an imagined painting, which Elmiryn truly felt, was really just a picture of imagination that made like a realistic painting.  An ersatz painting.  An ersatz window.  The word was something Nyx would later say to her, and Elmiryn would use it much the way she used verisimilitude–one of the few out-of-the-way and scholarly words she knew by heart, and made a point of using whenever dealing with something she thought a falsehood trying to be real.  An idea trying to become a reality.

She would use the word a lot in association with herself.

The view from her home was further limited because of the building next to it, but there were still the dark silhouettes of ambitious peaks scratching at the sky, the small sliver of ocean one could see between the temple observatory and the artisan’s school down the street.  Her father had shed his cloak now, and sat forward with chin in hand and his brow furrowed.  He did not look up as Elmiryn passed behind him.  The sound of her boots unsticking from the floor seemed loud to her ears.  Outside, the festivities were a low roar.

She sat on the bed because her father would not move from the chair, even as she glared at him expectantly.  She considered tipping the chair over–as she was still able to interact with inanimate objects if not living flesh–but she decided not to, for she had no desire to pick on one so low in their station.  It made her sad to think this, she realized, because the subject in question was her father, and when was it not a tragedy when offspring looked to their elders as useless and pitiful?  After a perfunctory inspection, Elmiryn decided she didn’t mind the bed, and though the sheets could’ve used with a wash from all the nights Warner sweat in them (and gods knew what else), she let herself fall back onto the mattress and sighed.  The wine sloshed in the bottle.  She didn’t look at it.

“She left you, didn’t she?” Elmiryn said.  It wasn’t really a question.

Warner said nothing.  His silence was heavy and resentful.  It was the best answer he gave her, and she felt her heart lift.  Her mother was alive…but now there was a new worry.  Where was she, and who was with her?

“I loved your mother,” Warner said finally.  Now it was Elmiryn’s turn to be quiet.

Her father leaned forward onto his knees and sighed.  “I wonder how you must have perished.  You’re lucky, I suppose, though hardly deserving.  The kingdom would have done far worse than death.”

Now the woman blinked at the man.  He really thought she was a ghost, like Henriette, her corpse lying dead and cold somewhere.  Maybe this would make things easier.

“Well…” she started in a low voice.  “Since you aren’t trying to kill me at the moment–”

“I can’t kill a ghost–” he broke in, but she soldiered over his words.

“–I guess I’ll try to answer your question.  You wanted to know why all this happened?”  She blinked up at the hole in the bed canopy.  The slashed cloth leaned toward her with cotton fingers spread.  Elmiryn reached up her free hand and swiped at it.  “I was…bored.”  And she stopped there, unable to come up with the words for what came next.

She heard the chair squeak as Warner shifted in his seat. “That’s all you can say for yourself?” his voice bordered on a rumble.  “You were bored?

“I was bored,” she repeated.  Her brows moved as if to press together, then rose up high and her eyes rolled in their sockets to stare at the headboard.  “I was angry,” she muttered sullenly.  “I wanted…something.  That night, the princess opened the door and let me in.  She wanted something, too.  We both did.  But we were looking for different things.”  Warner said nothing, so she went on, her eyes slipping shut.  “I can’t…I wish I could…remember the look she gave me.  It pulled me in.  Promised me some distraction.  I was really restless after they denied my promotion to Major.  You remember that?”

Of course he remembered.  How could he forget?  Warner bothered to grunt anyway.

Elmiryn opened her eyes and sat up.  She moved the wine bottle to her lap and gazed at Warner sidelong.  “I was mad at you for not getting me the thing I never asked you for.  It sounds stupid.  Foolish.  Like being angry at the moon for not appearing at night.  You ended up having me placed on guard duty because you thought it’d be the answer to my career stonewalling, but…I just wanted to be on the field, with my men.  I loved being a dragoon.  On top of the insult from our superiors, you took me away from everything I knew, everything you ever prepped me for–”

“I thought I also taught you to adapt,” Warner cut in.  “That lesson wasn’t meant just for the battlefield.”  And some of the steel she’d known as a child was back in his voice, and she quieted with a small frown.  Her eyes were once again on his, attentive.  Warner held her gaze for a minute before turning to look back out the window.  The warm glow of the city made his ragged face seem healthier.  “The Commanding General told me himself that you would never command more than a company of soldiers.  He didn’t provide me a reason and didn’t need to.  The fact that he bothered to tell me this in person at our estate was enough.  I don’t know what you did to insult the commanding powers.  Maybe it was your ‘creativity’ in the Nuranian Offensive.  It could’ve been anything, but I knew you had gone as far as you could go, fighting in the army.  If you could not excel with your exploits, then I was going to do all that I could to get you into the direct service of the royal family.  You could’ve been a powerful player in the courts.  It was for you.”  He shook his head slowly, a look of disgust coming over his features.  “And you just threw it all away.”

“It wasn’t my fault,” Elmiryn bit out, her face red and her neck tensed.  Her jaw felt tight, and she gripped the wine bottle like it were a powder grenade.  “I did everything those fuckers asked of me, including you, and–”

“–You cursed the princess.”

“Do I look like a witch to you?  Do you think I am capable of magic that obscure?  Tell me, Warner.  Where have you heard of such a spell?”

He twisted in his chair to glare at her.  “Damn you, girl.  You just told me–”

“I said I was fucking bored. I didn’t say I signed up for some unholy order of pig-diddling necromancers, for god’s sake.  Who on Halward’s plane jumps to such conclusions?  You didn’t let me finish explaining.”

“I thought ghosts were supposed to be repentant?” Warner muttered with an eye-roll to the ceiling.

“It’s also said they can be wrathful, and you’re making it awful hard for me to keep the peace.”  Then she rubbed at her face with one hand and muttered quickly under her breath, “You old fool. You don’t want to hear what I have to say.  You never did.  So why am I trying?”

Warner took a deep breath, the action seeming to set him back in his chair.  His head lolled along the headrest, and he fluttered his eyes, which had taken on a foggy look.  Then he sat up with a shake and asked with closed eyes, “What happened with Princess Cailean?”

“I slept with her,” she snapped into her sweaty palm.

“What happened to her.”  He glared out the window now.

Elmiryn lowered her hand and tongued her cheek.  She looked at the wine bottle she still held.  She wondered idly why she had not taken a drink yet.  Perhaps because she wanted to have some control over what came out of her mouth when she tried to explain her innocence?  Did she really care what her father thought?  Her life with him felt more like the rivalry of a star pupil and a pressing master–each trying to gain the upper hand.  What they had always revolved around, what they had always settled and agreed on, was Brianna and keeping her safe.  Who broke the promise first?  Elmiryn or Warner?  Like the ersatz window, with its limited view, would Warner be able to truly see her Meaning?

…Aw, who cares…

The woman uncorked it and took a long drink, head fully tilted back and eyes closed.  The drink tasted…sweet.  Very sweet.  Sweeter than it should have.  She gulped at it hungrily, all at once feeling parched, and stopped only to take a lungful of breath.

…Afterward everything burned.  How pleasant.

Dazed, the woman looked at her father.  “I had a dream that day, y’know.  The day Cailean was found.  A voice spoke to me from darkness.  The person asked me if I could see them.  Meanwhile, the princess was already in the…state…that the guards later found her.”  She didn’t say ‘covered in slime’, and smiled ruefully at the bottle in her hands, like a person recalling the true extent of their mischief from childhood.  “And I can’t remember anything of how it looks now, and I’m…glad.  I woke up from a dream to start a nightmare.  I thought the world was crumbling out from under my feet.  Literally.  I jumped naked out of a window.  Does that sound sane, let alone self-assured?  I was out of my mind.  I couldn’t have cursed Cailean if a warlock stuck his hand up my ass and puppeted me.”

Warner stood from his chair, his shoulders rolling again, like he were trying to shrug off the story.  “Rubbish,” he spat, without looking at her.

She didn’t miss the higher pitch of his voice.  Elmiryn frowned up at him.  Her head was starting to feel funny.  “What’s rubbish?” she asked in a slow voice.

“Everything.  You’re a damn fool.”

She giggled, without knowing why.  “You wanted a son instead?  Ah, I bet’s that’s it!  You didn’t want a daughter, you wanted a son.  You think he’d keep his hands to himself around Princess Cailean?  That he wouldn’t find himself as an enemy of the kingdom?  Oh, hey.  Did I mention I’m cursed?  Yeah, well I am…” and Elmiryn laughed outright before taking another swig of wine.  It tasted exquisite, and as it went down her throat, her mouth felt dry and begged for more, so she obliged with another mouthful.

“Meznik,” she said with a burp.  The name came tumbling out before she could stop it.  “A demon cursed me, and his name was Meznik.”

Warner turned to look slowly at her.  “Meznik?

“He’s an astral demon.”

“Meznik.”  He said this hard, like he were trying to confirm the name.

Elmiryn looked at her father, the bottle pausing halfway to her lips.  “Yeah, Meznik.”  She let the bottle rest in her lap.  Her eyes were wide, like she couldn’t see all of him.  “Warner…why are you looking at me like that?”

NYX____________________________

I adjusted the doublet so that it didn’t bunch up so much.  The remnants of my guard costume from Holzoff’s lay like dead skin on the ground.  I didn’t spare the rags a second glance as I followed where Tristi and Farrel had gone.  I was in much higher spirits–still frazzled, and a bit anxious, maybe, from Farrel’s molestation–but I felt much more energetic.  I suppose escaping death a lot within a close period of time will do that to you.  Though I had to go through quite a bit to see it, I was also in a much better state of appearance than last I left the Kreut forest.  My hair was clean and I was dressed in new clothes.  Some part of me wondered as to how Tristi came across these things, with ourselves being ghosts to these ghosts, save those sensitive to our presence, but I chose to ignore it.  It felt too good to ruin it with questions.

I came out into the street, head turning this way and that, and my tawny eyes squinted against the glare of the fireworks over head.  We were in a broad thoroughfare, which was partitioned down the middle with a central divider of stone flower beds.  Low buildings here suggested humbler merchants, but no less creative for all their use of streamers and constructs.  The street lamps and the colorful bursts overhead kept catching on the glass and metal, and it was very near to giving me a headache.

I did my best to avoid coming too close to people, but the crowd was far too thick.  Phantoms drifted through me like I wasn’t even there, and I shuddered, not because they did anything to me, but because it was unnerving.  When the throng of festival goers swelled, and I could barely see across the street (for though phantoms these people were, they weren’t invisible) I started to worry.  The renewed vigor I felt started to wane.  Cupping my hands around my mouth, I started calling Tristi’s name as loud as I could.

Still nothing.  Ignoring my discomfort, I barreled through the crowd, my form scything through bizarre masks, waving arms, dancing feet, and jiggling tummies.  The colors started to smear together.  The headache started to hit me full on.  My voice turned hoarse as I set loose into a paroxysm of panicked shouting. “Tristi!  Farrel!  Where are you!?

Then finally I heard Tristi answer me.

“My!  Our champion of survival seems a bit jumpy now, doesn’t she?”

I snapped around, standing on my tiptoes.  “Tristi?”  I shook my head, my expression pained.  “I can’t see you!”

“Then you’re awfully short.”

I sat back on my heels, my annoyance taking a backseat as I pressed forward to where I thought I heard the man’s voice.  I hopped up onto the central divider, and turning my head, I spotted them.  They were not far from me, though they were on the other side of the road, next to a drinking fountain where water spouted out from a pillar fixed with the mold of a lion’s mouth.  Tristi’s copper hair fanned out over his back, his odd coat laid neatly to the side, as he held Farrel by the shoulders.  The halfling had his head under the water and looked like he was struggling.

I blanched as I rushed forward against the current of the aeriform crowd.  “Tristi!! Don’t drown him!”

The champion of luck gave me a sardonic smirk as I neared.  “Sweetest.  I’m not drowning him.  I’m trying to keep him from drowning himself.”

My hands were already at Farrel’s sides as he said this, and I glanced at him, bewildered.  “What?

It only took one strong tug from me to get Farrel out of the water completely–Tristi clearly wasn’t trying very hard–and we crashed onto the street.  The halfling gasped and coughed and stared at the dark sky like a gaping fish.  The fireworks bloomed along his glassy eyes in violets and golds and electric blues.  I could see them cloud up as I hovered over him, my teeth biting my lip.  Within the next instant, his face crumpled and he turned his face from me.

“At first,” Tristi said over us, for he hadn’t moved save to step aside from our tumble.  “I was just trying to clear the boy’s head with a dunk of water.  After the second dunk, he started babbling.  After the third dunk, crying.  Then he just…wouldn’t come up.  I think the horrors of what took place in Volo’s care has caught up with him.”

“And you left him there,” I said, my eyes flashing at him.  Farrel started shaking violently.

“Nay, I did not.  As I said, I was trying to keep him from drowning.”

“No, I mean you left him there.  With Volo.  To be violated.”  My pity overtook my awkward anger over Farrel’s recent behavior.  He just didn’t look like the same person.  I pulled the halfling into my lap, and I murmured over him soft comforting words.  He seemed to honor my trust and kept his hands to himself.  Or maybe his grief was just that deep to turn him catatonic.  I felt my clothes grow damp from the water that still clung to his skin and hair.  “Ehna…ehna…Farrel, shhhh…”  I looked at Tristi again, my mouth a displeased line.  “I don’t know why I didn’t put it all together before.  How else would you have known of Farrel’s whereabouts if you had not left him to his fate?”

“It wasn’t my affair,” Tristi said with a shrug.  He reached down for his coat, the belt buckles tinkling, and his abalone eyes turned half-mast behind his glasses.  “Perhaps thou art correct.  Perhaps, the halfling could not discern the danger, and so entered Volo’s domain under impaired judgment…but that is not my domain.  Thus, I do not care.  I had no business meddling.”

“Damn you!” Farrel spat, raising himself from my embrace to glare properly at the champion.  “Ya let that thing take me!  You let him–” But the man bared his teeth and turned his eyes to the floor.

“What are you complaining about?”  Tristi asked with a hint of scorn.  “Didn’t you have fun?”

Farrel leapt like a viper, and had to be held back by me.  His sad rage seemed to make him forget who he was challenging. “Fuck you!” he roared.  “Joue k’dash avec pétase!”

I added in over his shoulder as I struggled to restrain the halfling’s arms, “Tristi that is far too much!”

“Is it?” he asked lightly as he shrugged into his coat with a grimace.  It was still too small for him in his male state. “You still owe me for winning our little bet.”

I stared at him, disbelieving.  “You’re joking.”

“I’m afraid not.”

“You did nothing.”

“My point exactly!  Are you dead?  You even made it out with your friend alive!”

We survived because of our efforts alone, not because of you!”

“But you also didn’t die because of me, either.  So I win.”

“I’m not paying you,” I snapped acerbically, but even as these words left my mouth I felt a sensation spike up my spine and cloud my skull.  I jerked as I felt a pain in my chest.  Farrel had fallen still again, but looked at me with wrinkled brow.  Confused I stared at the ground.

Tristi tutted.  “You are bound by greater things than just your word, powerful as even that may be.”  He looked at his nails at arms length, fingers fanned out and straight.  “You needn’t worry, however.  I don’t want to collect now.  And so here I ask, to change the subject–what will you do now that you have your worthless friend?”

This brought back to me all my motives for saving Farrel, like a host of carrier pigeons dive bombing my head.  Feeling foolish from the way I let these dramas usurp my original motive, I forced the halfling to look at me.  He leaned back, his body going slack as if his latest outburst took all the energy out of him.  He blinked up at me as I began to speak.  The mist was gone from his gaze, leaving them much more lucid than before.  “Farrel…before you fell into Volo’s hands, did you by any chance run into the others?  Elmiryn, Paulo, Lethia, the wizards…anyone?”

His eyes fluttered and he started to shake his head against my shoulder.  “No.  I was with…that…thing the whole time.”

I closed my eyes and sighed.  I found I wasn’t surprised, but the dim hope that had been flickering all this time was gone now.  “Okay.  That’s okay.”

“Nyx what is happening?  Where are we?”

“It’s…difficult to explain.  I’m not sure I’ll do a good job.”

He sat up, groaning.  He left a cold place along my lap and my front, where the water had soaked into my new clothes.  Farrel sat with head bowed, water dripping from the tip of his nose.  Then he turned his head a quarter my way and whispered.  “Please.  I’m sorry I did all ’em things to ya.  But I gotta know.”

So I took a deep breath, and explained what I could.  Farrel nodded his head as he listened to my telling of my recent exploits.  I hesitated upon mentioning Lacertli and my state as a vermagus, but I finally did, toward the end.  My tale was confusing, I feared, because I withheld such important details, but Farrel just kept nodding his head, like my story was a concoction that needed the occasional shake.  Now he looked at me like he were in awe.  “I could hear it in yer voice, like you was holdin’ somethin’ back.  Gods!” He didn’t need anymore proof than my words, which I found odd.  Then again, it was a blasphemous crime to lie about such things, and maybe my bardic trait assisted in my credibility as well?

I then went on to explain the nature of the dimension we were in, the shards, and how the people around us were real, but in the world we came from, which was a separate dimension entirely.  It wasn’t the smoothest of explanations, and I realized with a pang of embarrassment that I should’ve explained the nature of the dimension first, before getting into all that I had gone through to arrive here.  My audience didn’t see the need to interject, at any rate.

Yes, the champion of luck insisted on sitting through my story.  It occurred to me that Tristi hadn’t heard any of this before, and he seemed just as fascinated as Farrel, though without the awe.

“Öctér!” Farrel exclaimed when I was all done.  We three had taken to sitting on the edge of the low fountain.  The halfling had just about dried from his recent drowning attempt, and was staring wistfully into the crowds.  “I can’t believe I’m sitting in the presence of a champion!”

“Not too bright, is he?” Tristi said.  He sat on my left side, fist in his cheek like he were pondering what to do to liven up the day.  The excitement of my story didn’t last long with him, for all his attentiveness.

“Tristi is a champion as well,” I explained to Farrel.  I glanced at the champion of luck.  “More…like a Legend, given all his experience.”

The man did not move from his bored pose, but only glanced sidelong at the halfling on my other side as if he were a mild distraction from his musings.  “I am in no way required to proclaim to one as common as he, but if the lad must know, I am indeed in the service of Lady Fortuna.”

Farrel said nothing, but just looked at me, his eyes wide.  “Nyx…damn.  Back at Holzoff’s.  I would’na said a thin’ to ya if I’d known you were gonna save me.  An’ here you are, a Legend–”

“I’m not,” I interjected, feeling a streak of alarm.  “That’s not what I am!”

He blinked at me in confusion.  “But didn’ ya jes say?”

“That’s different–that’s–”

“If you’re arguing semantics, then I suppose I can back your objections, Nyx.”  Tristi finally broke his thoughtful pose to lean forward and gazed straight at Farrel.  The man in question flinched from the look.  Learning that the person who doesn’t like you is a champion certainly must make one nervous.  “What our kitten is so diffidently trying to make apparent to you is that the demotic understanding of the term, ‘Legend’, is in fact, a great big–now, correct me if I’m skewing things, Nyx–load of horse dung.  A person may be a champion, but not a Legend.  It’s almost much more simpler to think of it this way, as it harks back to the original use of the word–that being an extremely famous or notorious person usually known through historical but unauthenticated tales spread first by word of mouth…” His abalone eyes turned my way, and they held mirth.  “Is that right, sweetest?”

“Don’t call me sweetest…” I mumbled with red cheeks.  I just realized his proximity upon delivering all this, and I leaned far back.

Tristi resumed his thoughtful pose with a small sigh, unaffected by my aversion.  “I suppose I did have plenty of those tales to my name–but the times have changed, and those stories have died, along with the favor for them.  So Nyx…perhaps we are both just untried champions.”

I didn’t know what to say to this.  Tristi’s voice had gone quiet and his eyes stared long into something I could not see–some thorny memory that took all his attention to pick through–and there was Farrel and I, gazing at him with lost looks.

An odd streak of bravery coursed through me as I decided to dominate the stagnation with some action.  “Tristi, you asked me what it was I would do now that Farrel is in my company…well, I suppose I have to keep moving.  I can only think that my friends would do so, if they were able, and I might find what I need to locate them elsewhere.”  I turned to Farrel, all at once, shy again.  “Would you…um…go with me?”

“What choice have I?” The halfling mumbled, his eyes on the ground.  Like Tristi, his thoughts had turned inward–but there was something fresher about the emotion that seized his face.  He was thinking of his time with Volo.

I clenched, as if feeling the taint and horror of those memories in the air around me.  “Farrel, we’ll be okay.”

The halfling made a non-committal noise from the back of his throat, and I became conscious of my clothes, still damp from his wish to drown out the demon’s infliction.

Speaking of which–

I shot to my feet, my face going long and my skin turning ashen.  “What time is it!?”

Both men looked at me, puzzled.  “Pardon?” asked Tristi.

“The time!” I snapped, whirling on them both.  “We have to–”  I growled and grabbed Farrel by the wrist, pulling him up with all my strength.

“H-Hey!  Nyx!” Farrel protested as he stumbled into me.

Tristi was on his feet in a moment, his brow quirked.  “Sweetest, what is it?”

I resisted the urge to look at Farrel like one would look at a lit keg of gunpowder.  “Tristi, you know the way out of this shard, yes?  Can you lead us there?”

“Of course I can,”

Farrel was looking at me with a wide-eyed look.  With my hand on his wrist and him looking at me with appeal in his gaze, I somehow became aware of the fact that he still lacked a shirt.  “Nyx,” he bit out.  “I can hear it in yer voice.  There’s…somethin’ wrong with me, ain’t there?”

I looked at him, pained.  “Farrel…Volo, he–”

But then through the air came a long loud ring, like a bell.  I went rigid.  Farrel did the same.  Tristi looked off to the East.  “The clock tower.  Can’t see it from here.”

“Shh!” I hissed, but it was unnecessary.  Another toll came.  Then another.  There was three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven…

“Twelve chimes,” I croaked.  “It’s midnight.”

Farrel looked at me, and I could feel him trembling.  A shadow of understanding crept over his eyes.

Tristi smiled his fanged smile and rocked back and forth on his heels.  “Ah!  Now the festivities will really pick up!”

We glared daggers at him.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn had the presence of mind to set the bottle on the floor before she rose slowly from her seat.  “Warner…”  Her eyes were harsh, catching the city glow.

Warner started to back away from her.  He had a hand held up and was perspiring profusely.  He started to babble.  The fog of his drunkenness finally seemed to flee him.  “Our bloodline is known for being in tune with spirits, Elmiryn.  Not enchantment.  N-Not something so profane.  Just…an awareness.  An ability to interact.  We were blessed by Halward himself.  Y-Your cousins.  Roark and Lydia?  They were given to strange dreams too.  They–They heard things and saw things.  Spirits like to visit us.  They say we could peek into their world with enough wine in us.  Maybe even see the dead as they passed on, just as I’m speaking to you now.”

He tripped on a broken chair leg and righted himself.  Elmiryn still advanced on him.  She reached down and grabbed the broken remains of her mirror, some three feet long and two feet wide, which had a broken reflective smile from where the glass had once been set whole against the wood.  She pulled this back in preparation for a swing.  Warner’s voice grew more choked.

“I had dreams too, now and again.  One night, just a day before I met your mother, I had a dream.  M-Much like yours.  A voice asked me what I would do for power.  I told him the truth.  I told him I’d do…do anything.  Then he asked me if I could…could see him.  Everything was dark, I couldn’t see–”

“You wouldn’t.  You’ve been blind all your life.  Blind to your wife, blind to your daughter, blind to your weaknesses,” she snarled.  Her entire body was turning red.  Warner’s voice was becoming small and far away.  Through considerable self-restraint, she didn’t lunge.  She wanted to hear all of Warner’s story, instead of jumping to conclusions.  He was getting closer to the door.

“I see it was in poor judgment now!” Warner cried earnestly.  And for the first time since Elmiryn could remember, he looked at her, not as a nuisance or a pawn, but as a daughter.  It made her angrier.  It was too late for that now.

“Warner, you never thought to connect two and two together?”

“Meznik offered me a deal!” He rumbled. “Our family has always worked with the supernatural to achieve their ends.  What do you think this whole festival was started on?  A fairy tale?”

“What was his offer?  What was worth selling me off and sending mother into chaos?  What was worth stripping generations of honor from our name!?”

Warner looked stricken.  The blame he had been compounding on her head was now toppling over on him all at once.  “The throne! He promised crowns on our heads!  He said all I had to do was plant a tree with a few drops of my blood.  Somewhere.  Anywhere.  Then if–if I gave him my firstborn child, if I trained them to be the best warrior they could be, then we would become royalty!  I thought he’d give you strength, wisdom, and speed!  Not shame!”  Then he pointed wildly at her, foam clinging to his whiskery face as he thundered, “Don’t tell me you have never dreamed of power, Elmiryn!  Don’t tell me you have never dreamed of elevating your station!  We are descendants of demi-gods, blessed by Halward himself, and we were to be stuck with a third-rate estate and little sway in the courts!?”  He punched at the air, frenzied, spit flying from his gnashing mouth.  “I did it for us!

Elmiryn didn’t shout or scream.  She just took the broken mirror and swung it.  Unlike her sword, it connected.  It was still of his world, after all.  Warner was swatted to the floor.  The remaining shards cut into his skin, and he screamed, holding his left eye.  Blood seeped through his fingers.  The warrior seethed over him.  “You pig…” she hissed, voice so tight she could hardly say a word.  “You fucking pig…”  She raised the bludgeon again.

Warner didn’t give her a chance to hit him a second time.  No doubt surging with adrenaline, he fought through his pain and half-blindness and crashed through the door.  The woman was after him, yelling senselessly.  Before he could make it down the stairs, she threw the broken mirror at him, and it caught Warner in the back.  He tumbled down the last few steps before picking himself up and limping out the front door.  Elmiryn stood huffing at the top of the stairs, feeling dizzy.

Sedwick and Quincy poked their heads through the entryway from the parlor.  Sedwick cleared his throat.  “Sooo…I trust your reunion went well?”


Back to Chapter 23.3 | Forward to Chapter 23.5

  1. ‘Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood’ by St. Vincent, from the album ‘Actor’. 4AD, 2009. []

Chapter 23.3

ELMIRYN________________________

There was a crash and a curse before Quincy and Sedwick burst through the door.  Elmiryn turned a quarter to stare at them as they stood panting in the space of the doorway.  The wizard was favoring one leg.  She must’ve tripped on the way up.  Both pairs of eyes fixed on the warrior, then on her father, then back.  Jaws went slack.

Friends of yours?” she heard Warner grumble behind her.

Elmiryn jabbed a finger at them.  “Get out!” she barked.

Sedwick gave a small nod and pulled Quincy by the elbow back out.  She felt a flood of gratefulness toward the man.  She didn’t want Quincy to see this exchange.  The wizard was still staring between Elmiryn and Warner as she was led away, and her lips were beginning to curl up.  If she says anything, the warrior thought ominously.

As the door shut behind them, she turned to regard her father.  “You didn’t answer my question.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “Oh?  Well, you never answered mine.”

She wrinkled her nose.  “You didn’t ask one.”

“Mo-nths ag-o…” Warner drew out the words before he burped and pulled his last glove off with his teeth.  He took the time for another swig before resuming, “Months ago.  Months, and months, and months ago…I asked you…‘Why?’

Elmiryn sucked at her teeth and looked away.  Her room was in a state, no thanks to her father.  He’d dipped into her stores, and so empty wine bottles littered her floor like pebbles in a cove.  There were shards of glass along the foot of the walls where he’d thrown them, giving the illusion that the floor had teeth and the two of them were standing in the mouth of a beast.  The white canopy of her bed was torn and hung limp, her dresser was overturned, the bedside stand was smashed to pieces and covered in dried vomit.  Her clothes were thrown about and ripped to shreds–the silk shirts, the wool coats, the cotton velvet jerkins, the chenille tapestry cloak, the shimmering vanilla brocade dress she’d worn once and only once–and along the walls she saw bullet holes whimsically trailing like ants to a picnic.  The room smelled musky.  The floor was sticky.  In the end, it was all just things, but Elmiryn’s mind turned, nettled and incensed by the blatant attack against her, and a beast she’d known to hide in the corners of her wants and her hopes blinked its eyes and grunted that satisfaction was warranted–even from her father.

Warner shifted in her chair, a rough chuckle coming up his throat as he regarded his daughter.  Elmiryn drew herself up and met his eyes, not because she wanted to, but because it was hard to kill habits she’d learned so young.

“You…” Warner wagged the pistol at her.  “You’ve come to haunt me.”

“I’ve come to haunt you? In my home, that I paid for?” Elmiryn towered over her father, her teeth bared.  “You have availed yourself to everything I’ve ever had, why the fuck do you think I’d willingly haunt your ass?”  And the irony of this was not lost on her.  The man, like the people outside, was transparent and phantom-like…but unlike them, he could see her.  Why?

“Don’t get crass with me, Elmiryn,”  Warner stared at her beadily.  “I allowed you to keep this little hovel, because you had to pretend to be common.  And wasn’t it to my benefit in the end?”  He gestured grandly around him, an ugly smile spreading across his gray cracked lips.  “You were very careful in keeping your little hideaway a secret!  So good, in fact, that the royal family has yet to seize it.”

Elmiryn tensed. “They seized our lands?”

“You think they wouldn’t?” he returned.

“We’ve lost the estate…” she said slowly.

“Everything,” he spat.  “No thanks to you.”

“All…of it.”  She felt her mind snow over.  In all the time she had spent away from home, she hadn’t felt much concern for her family because she was confident they would protect themselves.  She knew if the situation were switched, she would take measures to do just that.  To hear otherwise, she found, was unsettling.

“Ha!  Ha, ha, ha, yes!”  Warner’s mouth screwed up as he barked out with laughter.  When his humor continued, it came out in a long dry whine before turning into silent convulsions, of which he bore gracelessly, kicking up his heels, and rolling his head back and forth along the back of the chair.  “All of it!  All of it!” he managed to wheeze through his hysteria.  He kicked at her, chair squeaking forward an inch, though his ghostly foot went through her legs, and she wondered who was really haunting who.  “All of it, because of you! Damn your eyes!”

Elmiryn shook her head slowly.  “The charge…the charge was on my head solely.  You and mother had…pristine reputations in the courts.  Connections.  And if those didn’t work, why didn’t you just take what you could and…I don’t understand–” then her expression turned pained.  “Mother, she–”  then her face screwed up in anger.  Her nostrils flared, her brows knitted, her lip curled.  She raised her sword, like she meant to cut Warner in half.  “You idiot! What’d you do?  What’d you say!? You could’ve escaped their wrath, but instead you’ve sent mother to the streets in your stupidity!”

“Damn your eyes, damn your eyes, DAMN your eyes! You haven’t the right to have your mother’s eyes, for all your damned talk!”  Warner lurched to his feet and threw his bottle to the floor.  “I’ve always protected her!  I’ve always kept her safe from the noble bloodhounds!  But I am not a miracle worker! Nothing could have staved the king’s rage from your heinous actions!”

Elmiryn screamed and swung the sword down.  Warner flinched back into the chair, his hands going to cover his face.  The sword went through him harmlessly–but embedded itself into the chair’s back a full three inches.  With her foot on the arm rest, she pulled the blade out, stumbling back a few steps.  Strands of her hair feathered about her livid face as she shouted, “What was I supposed to do!?  It wasn’t my fault!”

Warner didn’t answer right away.  He clutched at the stitch in his chest, his eyes wild, as he caught his breath.  Then he cut her a look of pure loathing and barked, “You should’ve turned yourself in and hoped for a quick death!”

She snorted and rolled her eyes.  “That would’ve done nothing for us!”

“Nothing for us?”  Warner spat at her. “They accused us of aiding in your escape!  We went through weeks of examination, being violated in the worst ways, until the King decided to strip us of all we had.  We have NOTHING now.”

Elmiryn took a step back with a grimace.  She stood panting, her eyes darting from one side of her father’s face to the other.

Warner scoot to the edge of his seat, and his eyes narrowed.  “The disgrace was unimaginable.  You have stained our entire family! ”  The sag of his chin wobbled.  The lines of his face seemed more pronounced.  Elmiryn let her eyes trail from the hair growing in his ears to the large blackheads in his aquiline nose.  His nostrils were as wide and as white as she imagined hers were.  The parenthical lines about his mouth were deep, and his eyes had gotten baggy and dark.  The hollow of his cheeks seemed ruddy, like he’d been rubbing at them, and his small ears were dry and flaking.

While others strove for the approval of their parents, Elmiryn found herself struggling to survive the expectations of just one of them.  Perhaps, in her youth, she had greatly resented the man, and even gazing upon him now stirred no great sense of charity or compassion in her save the sort one spared an idiot mired in his own misfortune.  His blood ran through hers.  She had taken on his family’s fiery hair, their long legs, their small almond-shaped eyes.  She’d learned his steely voice, his self-possessed air.  She’d grown to accept his cold parenting, and with time, was even grateful he’d pushed her so hard.  But her respect for him waned as her father sat before her in such disgrace.

Elmiryn didn’t know what to do.

She felt guilt rear its head in her and tried to quell it.  It was not for her liaison with the princess, nor even for her decision to run from the authorities that fateful day.  It was the irrational sort of guilt a child may feel upon learning the physical pain they caused at birth.  She wished, without words and without reason, that her family–yes, even her father–had not been left to suffer so in her absence.  It was appalling and ugly to see her progenitor living in such a squalid state.  It made her feel his filth, made her feel his shame, made her taste his wretched outlook as if it were a genetic trait tainting her from the inside out.  She wanted this not to be.  To un-be.  To never have been, so that she could still hold her father in the cold respect she had come to, and to think of her mother in comfort with great affection.  She wanted the burden removed from her honor as a daughter.

She refrained from talking about her family with others for the same reason she wished to keep Quincy out of her affairs.  Nothing jilted her more than her family.  Even thinking of her mother brought about a mild sense of discomfort, for then Elmiryn began to worry, and the woman rarely worried about anything.  She would’ve said it was not in her nature to worry if she didn’t know the sort of anxiety that came upon thinking about Brianna.  Warner, on the other hand, jilted her in other ways.  He stirred up rage, and sometimes that ghostly feeling of fear, like when one walks close to a high ledge and senses the height.  He loomed over her military career, pulling strings to get her the right promotions, and she’d always felt his presence even in her personal life–like his eyes peered from the back of hers, and his shadow was what brought the night that led to her escapades.  She’d heard rumors.  Whisperings of a past hidden beneath medals and marriage.

“My!  Well the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…”

Were they not of the same fiery blood?

Her earliest memory of Warner was a memory of a memory.  She recalled herself telling Saelin, her former lieutenant, of a time when she was a small child:  “Warner never let me sit on his lap, y’know.  He didn’t have a lot of patience for me.  But there was one day when my mother was lounging against him, and I was curled up in her lap, and that’s the closest I’d ever been to the man.  I had my arms around her waist as far as I could reach, and he had his arms around her shoulders, and I remember the both of us scowling at each other like we were trying to say, ‘I was here first!'”

The redhead looked into her father’s eyes and shook her head.  “…You’re a mess without her,” she whispered.

Her father blinked and sat up straighter, his shoulders rolling back as if he were trying to shrug off any sign of weakness.  “Come again?”

“Mother,” Elmiryn clarified.  Her lip curled a little.  She started to feel the anger trickle away, bit by bit, as a strange hybrid of pity and disgust settled in her heart the more she held Warner’s gaze.  “You’re a mess without her around.  So where is she?”

The man didn’t seem to know what to say.  He looked down at the floor, then the ceiling, then out the window.  Finally, he grumbled, “She was distraught, she–”

She heard the familiar diatribe and interjected firmly. “Where is she?”

He pursed his lips and wouldn’t meet her eyes.  “Brianna is dead.”

This just annoyed the woman, and she tsked at him like he were a child.  “Warner.  You’re lying.  Where is mother.”  She even leaned over, head tilted to the side, to force his eyes onto hers.

He glared at her sidelong, eyes dull and far away.  “Brianna is dead,” he said again.

She straightened, brandishing the sword.  “Warner.”

“She’s dead.  She’s dead.”

“Stop saying that.”

“She’s dead.”

“She isn’t.”

“She’s dead!”

“For fuck’s sake–”

“Brianna.  Is.  Dead.”

The woman flared up again.  “Then why do you keep saying it like you’re trying to convince yourself!?”  Warner gazed at her, his face impassive.  After a long staring match, Elmiryn sighed and sheathed her sword.  Warner didn’t relax but fixed his eyes on the sword as if not trusting it to really be put away completely.  The woman scratched at her eyebrow with her pinky and asked, “Did you drink everything?”

He seemed taken aback by the question.  “What?”

“The wine.” Elmiryn grinned, and started speaking slowly, even going so far as to mime with her hands. “Did…you…drink…all…my…fucking…wine?”

“Don’t you dare talk to me that way, or–”  The man snapped.  But his indignation waned when he found there was nothing he could do to back up his threat.  He slumped in his chair, and sucked at his teeth just as Elmiryn did.  She frowned at this familiar habit and made a note to stop doing it in the future.  “…No.  There’s one cask left in the other room across the hall.”  He gestured with his chin.  Halward, how much of his nature was hidden in her?

“Good!”  She said the word forcefully, as if she were telling her thoughts to die a painful death.  She turned and proceeded out of the room.  “I’m not going to ask why you bothered bringing it up here.  I’m just happy I don’t have to resume this reunion under pain of sobriety…”

NYX____________________________

I felt the flames consume me, inside and out, and I suppose it was much like dying.  But the there was a sigh over me, and the pain and heat vanished, and I was falling and falling and falling…but it was with a feeling of elation in my heart, for I knew that my plan had worked.  Volo’s dream, his everlasting nightmare, ended upon the moment of entering the flames of hell…and beyond that?

Freedom.  Freedom, that was, for myself and Farrel.  That limit of imagination was our exit.  But my head hurt from all the stress of the ordeal, and I was still feeling ill in my stomach, doubly so for the weight that pressed on it.

Then my eyes snapped open because I became aware of the fact that Farrel was sitting on me with his hands on my breasts.

And the only thing he said upon witnessing my eyes open was, “Damn!  You’re awake!

He was bare chested, but wearing pants–heaven knows where he got them–and it was a small blessing in a horrifying scenario.  My mouth fell open and I felt heat rush up and down my body.  We seemed to be in some filthy back road, the pavement beneath my hands and elbows cracked and rocky, a brown puddle not far from us smelling putrid–likely the contents of a chamber pot dumped from the above window–and there were ghostly rats fleecing through the discards of a butcher shop not far ahead.

I could’ve taken any number of reactions here.  I could’ve whimpered and begged for Farrel to get off.  I could’ve pushed at him and bucked like a wild animal.  I could’ve screamed for help.  I could’ve slapped at him and called him a cur.  I could’ve done all of those things. But none satisfied my affronted morals more than taking his wrists, pulling them outward so that the weight he’d shifted onto his hands was unsupported, and slamming my head into his.

Sparring with Elmiryn had taught me a few things, and one was that I seemed to have a particularly thick skull.

His nose spurted blood as the man shouted out and rolled off of me.  But I still wasn’t done.  My skin still tingled with the feeling of his unwanted hands, and after the flurry of Ailuran curses flashed through my head, my next thought was, “How far did he go?”

But as I rose to my feet, I saw that my tattered pants were still on, and nothing felt out of place as I stood over the elf with raised fists. “Üle kinzcht nedret! Och lunama!” I shouted with a red face.  Ailuran for, “You miscreant!  I’ll kill you!”

…I want to take this moment to state again, for the record, that I find violence to be execrable.  But you tell me what the appropriate reaction would have been in this situation?  I honestly can’t tell you now if I’d meant what I’d said, but given my anger, it felt very satisfying to say it.  I didn’t survive all that I did just to be pawed at by a drugged up halfling.

Farrel scuttled away from me, his back hitting a wall.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” he squealed.  “They just looked so nice!  I–I didn’t think you’d wake!”

“Just because I’m unconscious, that doesn’t give you the right to touch me!  Ever!”  I felt the need to cuff him on the head, and did so, but then I had an awkward flash to my time spent with Atalo.  Whenever he did something that greatly annoyed me, I did what my brother Thaddeus would do to me, and bopped him on the head.  I didn’t like drawing parallels there, and so I kicked Farrel in an attempt to smother my own discomfort.  “I don’t care if your brain is addled and your moral understanding is handicapped.  Understand this–touch me and you’ll regret it!”

“Noted, noted!” Farrel whimpered, and he pulled his legs to him.  He seemed to have flashbacks of his own, recalling the time I smashed his delicates.

“I also got that point!  And would like to add to it!” I heard Tristi exclaim from the alleyway opening.  I turned my head and saw him standing there, a large bag over his shoulder.  He tutted and shook his head.  “I told him to behave while I was gone.  He was supposed to have dressed himself by now, with what I gave him.  Sorry, sweetest.  Had I known he’d have done this, I would’ve taken him with me!”

“Tristi.” The name fell flat from my lips and I fixed him with a hard look.  “Where are we?  How did you find us?”

He approached us, his body moving in that seamless way, even as he stepped over a large broken crate.  But his eyes were on Farrel. “You were outside the brothel, spat out there by the building it seemed.  I had a sneaking suspicion Volo didn’t let you live willingly, so I stole you both away.  We’re near the Oristel Square–the place we first met.”  He tossed the bag to me, and I caught it with a look of surprise.  The contents felt soft inside.  “Clothes.” Tristi said simply, before reaching down and grabbing Farrel by the hair with his gloved hand.  The halfling squealed, his eyes rolling in his head as he struggled against the champion of luck’s four-fingered grip.

My delight over Tristi’s gift was immediately lost in my alarm.  “Tristi–wait!”

The champion’s glove began to glow, and he smiled that terrifying smile as he lifted Farrel up with one arm so that their eyes met.  He was at least a full three inches taller than Farrel, and the halfling, upon seeing what he was dealing with, went limp, his eyes wide and watery like a rabbit’s.

“Your luck has run out, friend.  What would chance do with thee?” Tristi murmured.  “Maybe you’ll be crushed into a bloody ball, or turned into a rat for met to gut, or perhaps your manhood will rot off–to the betterment of your nature?”

I dropped the bag of clothes to grab Tristi’s arm.  “Stop it!  Stop it! This isn’t what I want!”  My hairs stood on end as I saw the symbols flashing around us.  The chance magic was starting.

Tristi still didn’t look at me.  “Ah, but maybe it is what I want.  Didn’t I tell you this man was not worth the trouble?”

I looked at Farrel, and he looked at me pleading.  “He can’t help it!” I cried.

“Oh?  Are you going to tell me the witch’s smoke made him do it?”

I shook my head emphatically.  “No!” Then, in a quirky recall, decided to say it eight more times for total of nine–it was lucky after all, right?  “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!”  I reached at the arm that held Farrel up and gave it a wrench.  Tristi, more by suggestion than force, let Farrel go, and we both fell to the ground on our bottoms.  There was a muted ring as the chance magic, with its glow and its flashing symbols, vanished from the air around us.  The champion of luck, meanwhile, looked down at me with a look of delight.  “You…” he wagged a finger at me.  “Are a strange one!  A strange one indeed, to show mercy to a man you’d just threatened to kill!”

“I was angry,” I panted, looking at Farrel.  “But you see, Tristi, Farrel can’t help it.  My friends and I came here against our wills, and this strange world has divided us–not only from each other, but divided us, as people, and so we’ve lost something important to ourselves.  I have lost my animal counterpart, my Twin.  And Farrel…he lost his moral compass.  He can’t discern right from wrong.”

“What?” Farrel panted, rubbing his scalp.  “That doesn’t make any sense.  I feel fine.”

I pointed at him.  “You wouldn’t if you were whole again.  You’d feel like a wretch–and rightly so!  But…” and here I bit my lip, my eyes flickering up at Tristi, who quirked an eyebrow at me.  I resumed, though in a quieter voice.  “I think there’s still good in you.  I’ll just have to…watch you, and help you understand what’s what.”  Then my eyes narrowed and I covered my chest up on realizing where the halfling was looking.  “Even if that means a few painful reminders!”

The man blanched, his eyes snapping back up to mine.  His nose was still bleeding and staining everything.

Tristi cleared his throat. “Ah, Nyx?  The clothes.”

I perked up. “Oh!  Right!”  I twisted around and grabbed the bag to me.  Opening the canvas flap, I sighed in relief.  Inside were white stockings, dark black strap shoes, a black velvet doublet with silver trimmings and jeweled buttons, and brocade paneled black shorts with open slashes that would allow for it to fan out around the hip and upper thigh.  Tristi–bless him–even included some new underthings for me.  Aside from the tattered remains of the trousers, my unmentionables were quite…soiled.  I stood, doublet in hand, ready to pull on my new accouterments when I realized that, while I was already bare up top, I wasn’t keen on baring my most delicate self to these men.  I spared them an impatient look, doublet held before me like a new shield.

Tristi took the hint.  Farrel didn’t.

“That’s not fair!” he whined.  “You got to see me naked!”

The champion of luck pulled him up by the neck and spared a charming smile my way.  “Go on, sweetest.  Dress yourself.  I’ll see about straightening out this fellow in the meantime.”

“Tristi don’t hurt him…much.” The last part I added in a mumble.  Farrel certainly was making it hard to stick up for him, dysfunctions or no.  I wondered if I would’ve been this tolerant of violence a month ago.  My experiences in the last few weeks had really forced me to reevaluate the necessity of brute force, though I still wasn’t a fan of it, and never would be.

But these musings fell away as they rounded out of sight, and I began to pull on the clothing with a great squeal of delight.  “Thank the gods!


Back to Chapter 23.2 | Forward to Chapter 23.4

Chapter 23.2

NYX____________________________

Farrel’s head was tucked between his arms as he curled in on himself.  I could see his body was coiled and taut, quivering on a minute level.  His hands were pink and bleeding at the fingertips, and they dug into his scalp.  His blond hair sprouted from between his fingers, the bright strands stained from his blood.  My eyes took in the sight of him, and my alarm was beyond measure.  My mouth fell open and my shoulders hunched about me as I extended one hand to his side.  As soon as my touch graced him, he sprang up like a snapped trap, and scuttled away on all fours, scraping his knee on the concrete so that a glaring scratch appeared there.  His wisterian gaze met me, and I could see spittle clinging to the bristles of his unshaven face.

Then an eerie smile spread across his lips.  “Nyx,” he grunted.  His eyes were swollen and red.  His pupils were wide and dark.

“Yes,” I replied.  I didn’t take my eyes off him, but spoke to the spirit, who still loomed behind me. “Volo, what did you…do to him?”

“Nothing,” the spirit said.  “Or, at least, nothing that wasn’t done to him already.”  I finally broke eye contact with the halfling to look up at the spirit.  Volo gave a twitch of a shrug.  More of his skin sheddings snowed down to the floor around him.  “He was that way when I found him,” he grumbled sullenly.  I couldn’t tell if he felt annoyed that I was implying things were his fault, or if he was disappointed that things weren’t his fault.

What way?” I pressed, a whine coming into my voice.

“Nyx!”  Farrel cried, laughing tightly.  I looked at him and choked.  He had stood up, arms spread apart, his light gaze fixed on me with hunger.  For a traveling merchant, he was quite fit.  He may have lost weight here, too.  His diamond shaped face seemed gaunter.  “M’so glad ya came!  This place is horrendous fer company!”  He put a strong affectation on the last word.  The halfling was sporting a full erection.

I rose to my feet and checked to make sure I was covering myself fully.  I should’ve asked Tristi for his coat.  “Farrel, don’t do anything rash!”  I hated how breathless I sounded.  It was the fear, the feeling of being like a piece of meat in front of a hungry animal.

The man chuckled.  “Kitten!  Lyub, allon!”  He gave a little bounce–to which other parts of himself gave a bounce–and I started to feel sick from this turn of events.  “I’ve risen, an’ I’m hungry fer somethin’ exotic…” he smacked his lips, and approached with wide steps, his hips thrust forward like his penis were leading him.  “C’mon…was fratricide the only thin’ they pegged ya for, or did’ja have somethin’ tucked in that list o’ sins?  Here,” he gave another little bounce, “I’ve the pen to add another!”

My mind did another one of those strange turns at critical moments, and I envisioned Elmiryn laughing hysterically at Farrel’s bawdy lines.  I may have found it amusing myself, in a sardonic sort of way, if I wasn’t currently facing the threat of possible molestation…or worse.

I gave an emphatic shake of my head.  “No!  You were an honorable man!  You were–”

“Denied my freedom.”  He jabbed a finger into his breast and sneered at me.  He pointed up at Volo. “I was chained until I met this spirit!”

I looked at Volo in incredulity.  He was not exactly the picture of deliverance.

The spirit gave another twitch of a shrug.  “As I said, he came that way.  Seemed to be missing his moral compass.  So you see, I wasn’t keeping him hostage.  He was staying because he wanted to.”

When I turned to look at Farrel again, I jumped, for he had closed the distance between us.  The halfling didn’t let me back away.  He grabbed my arm–painfully–and pulled me to him, his penis poking me in the stomach, his hand reaching down to grab my buttock–and that was about as far as he got.  I panicked and kicked him, as hard as I could, between the legs, then shoved at him.  The halfling let go of me immediately, his face turning pink, then purple.  I backed off, practically hyperventilating.  Just in time, too, because he vomited onto the spot I’d just been standing.  I’d never been touched that way before, never came in contact with–that, before.  My knees grew weak and I plopped onto the ground, clutching my stomach, as it’d started to hurt.  Farrel had fallen to the ground as well, his forehead pressed to the concrete, curses muttered under his breath.

Volo tsked over us.  “Poor halfling.  Having your delicates smashed does not go well with your smoke, I see.”

I glanced at the spirit sharply.  “Smoke?”

“Aye.  He’s had witch’s smoke.  Seemed to be the only way he could let loose with me.”

I felt a shiver of revulsion.  It was of course to be expected, but the thought of Farrel being trespassed by this disgusting creature was more than I’d care to think about…especially since I’d nearly suffered the same fate.

…But if Farrel needed witch’s smoke to welcome Volo’s twisted sense of ‘hospitality’, then that meant he wasn’t entirely here of his own volition.  His decisions were impaired, his movements feverish, his eyes affected.  Did losing your moral compass mean you lost your morals entirely? Or just the ability to distinguish right from wrong?  I heard Lacertli in my head, hissing.  “Upon entering here, each of your companions were separated, and in kind, each of you were divided, losing something that was inherent to you.”

I had to believe that there was still something to save in Farrel.  It was perhaps a selfish motive, for I didn’t want all that I had suffered in my search for him to come to nothing.  I needed a noble excuse to mute the shame I felt for letting Volo so close to me.  I needed Farrel to be an ideal.  But logic wasn’t far from my hastened thoughts.  Despite Volo’s supposed innocence in Farrel’s impairment, and the halfling’s apparent willingness to be in such company, I sensed something greater hidden beneath it all.  For wasn’t Tristi and I willing enough to enter Volo’s domain?  Why the lack of interest in us?  Or even concern?  Whatever the intention, I had left myself open to the spirit, and he had refrained, despite his claim that he could, “Crush me like a bug.”  What was he hiding?  What did Farrel have, that we didn’t?

…And why was Volo giving him up so easy now?

“Volo…” I started in a slow voice. “Why did you let Farrel stay here?”

The spirit looked at me. “I was waiting for the Aesutian Festival,” he said simply.

ELMIRYN________________________

The noise overhead had turned the company quiet, and the warrior was getting bored.  Elmiryn was very glad when they’d arrived at their destination.

Her old neighborhood (strange to use it in that possessive way–her neighborhood?  She’d hardly spent a year there) was the liveliest they’d come across.  Sparklers dazzled overhead, as garishly dressed nobles and commoners alike, danced to powerful drums.  Elmiryn’s home (again, something she felt strange thinking) was a tall concrete construction–finely detailed and pleasant to the eye.  The walls were clean, free of creeping vines, bird droppings, mold, and dirty snail paths.  Her chest swelled a bit as Quincy and Sedwick looked up at the dentils just below the cornices, the large clean paneled windows, the rosebushes flowering beneath them, the clean steps that led up to the bright red door, enshrined by slim white pilasters, and the rectangular stained window over it, which displayed a rose.

“Elegant,” Quincy said, her eyebrow quirking.

Sedwick gave a slow nod.  “It’s a beautiful building.”

The warrior bounded up the steps, and once at the door, she hopped up and took the long silver key she knew to be sitting at the top of the pilaster.  With a cheeky grin over her shoulder, she inserted the key and unlocked the door.  When she opened it, she let out a sigh.  The redhead stepped into the foyer, and placed her hands on her hips.  “It’s nice to be back,” she said to no one in particular.  Before her was the staircase leading to the second floor.  To her right, the small dining area.  To her left, the parlor.  She could hear no bustling off in the back where the small servants quarter was, and didn’t expect there to be, but when she stayed here, she usually had an attendant to cook and clean.

Inside, the home was dark, but the warrior could still make out the carved and gilded sofa chair with gold and red floral cushions.  She used to sit there and stare out the window after a long night of fun, or just after a disagreement with her family, or–as was the last occasion–before she was to report to the royal castle for her new security position with the princess.  It took some time to make her eyes shift elsewhere, but she managed to take in the rest of the room.

There was the fireplace, cool and gated.  The mantelpiece overhead, draped in a tasseled runner.  On it, a silver figurine of a soldier, a fragment from a cannon that had exploded and nearly killed her, silver candle holders lacking candles.  Over the mantelpiece, a large family portrait, placed there by the insistence of her mother, (“Mother, with all due respect–” “I can hear the cheek in your voice already,” “–We never posed for this picture.  It’s a lie.” “But isn’t it a nice one?”)  There was the ornate rug over the dark hardwood floor, imported from Santos, the Fiamman lamps in each corner, with vine-like details on the poles.  There was the lowboy at the end of the high back sofa, and at the center of the parlor was a low table where a mixed arrangement of fresh flowers sat in a porcelain vase.  The idea was that this was to be cleared on the occasion of guests and tea, but Elmiryn never had guests of that sort, so the tea set remained untouched in the dining room cabinet.  The writing desk, off in the far corner, was made of stained cherry wood with brass handles, bracket feet, and had many letter cabinets.  They were empty, and always had been…

“Are you going to invite us in?” Sedwick asked outside.

Elmiryn glanced at him sharply.  She slipped the key into her chest wrappings, along with the slip of paper she still kept from the dwarven colony, then turned and motioned for them to enter.  “Come in, come in, sorry.  Just got…I dunno, caught up.”

“It’s elegant,” Quincy repeated, eyes squinting in the dark. “But I’m sure I’d appreciate it more if I could see.

“Here let me get the lamps and candles on.” Elmiryn set off to the dining room where she knew a set of matches were kept in the bottom drawer.  Getting a chair from the table, she crossed the foyer into the parlor and went to the nearest lamp.  She stood on the chair, and after checking to see if the magic still made the metal warm, she struck on a match and put it to the center of the curved bowl.  The magic caught on, causing the fire to leap into life.  It crackled merrily as she stepped down and repeated the process.  Soon the first floor was entirely lit, and small details Elmiryn had forgotten came to light–like the wooden dormers that held up the shelf on the far wall, or the heart-shaped stain that had appeared on the ceiling as a result of her antics upstairs.

Quincy crossed her arms and appraised the room anew.  “You didn’t decorate this,” she stated.

The warrior felt annoyed for some reason, but found she couldn’t lie.  “No.  This was my mother’s work.”

“She has good tastes,” Sedwick said with a nod.  Quincy had a smirk on her face, and it annoyed Elmiryn further.  The brunette’s eye turned to the portrait, and she froze, a look of delight coming over her face.  “That’s…your family?” Her voice was tight with glee.

Elmiryn rubbed the back of her tensed neck.  “You two want something to drink?” she asked instead.

“I’m fine, thank you,” Quincy replied.  Sedwick thought about it, but also shook his head.  “No, but that’s kind of you.”

The wizard went and took a seat in the sofa chair, her eyes still on the portrait.

That did it.  “Don’t sit there,” Elmiryn snapped.  Then, upon the looks she received, added with a stiff smile, “…Please.”

Quincy held up her hands, a full grin on her face as she stood to her feet.  Sedwick seemed to beg for peace with his eyes as he stood off to the side, one hand over his mouth and the other across his chest.

The silence was almost palpable.

Elmiryn started to feel foolish, and she disliked this, for while she knew herself to be given to tomfoolery now and again, rare was it that she ever really felt it a reflection upon her worth as a person.  Now, however, she wished she’d paid more attention in her lessons of etiquette, if only to wipe the insufferable look off of Quincy’s face at her finer fumblings.  She’d never really entertained guests here.  All the ‘entertaining’ had been up in her bedroom.  “I’m going to get something for myself.  My drinks are upstairs, so I’ll be back in a second.”  She turned and went up the stairs–two at a time–and arrived at the small hallway.  To her left was the guest room, which was used more like a storage room, though there was an extra bed should the need come.  To her right was her bedroom door, left ajar.

What made her heartbeat quicken was that a light was coming from the latter.

Elmiryn crept towards her room, but not before pulling her sword out.  Her brow knit together as she came closer and closer…

A creak.

The warrior winced, cursing herself for not remembering that creaky floorboard was there.

A sharp voice floated to her.  “Who’s there?”

Elmiryn’s eyes widened.  She felt a coldness flush over her skin and slowly, she straightened.  She went to the door and pushed it open, her sword down at her side.

Cerulean met gray.

NYX____________________________

“I’ve just decided.  I don’t want him anymore,” Volo sighed, shuffling to go sit against the wall, away from the light.  He scratched at the base of his horns, then around his crotch, and jerked his grotesque head back the way we came.  “Take the fool and be off.”

My hands flexed at my sides, and I stared at the spirit.

Farrel moaned and his head flopped to the side to stare at me.  Tears streamed from his eyes.  “Nyx!” he whined.  “Öctér!  You hit me so hard!!  Why’d you do that!?”

“What do you want in return?” I asked Volo.  A part of me was screaming to take Farrel and run…and yet another part of me was screaming to leave Farrel, and run.  Either way, I wanted to flee.  But there was still that greater part of me that was desperate for this to have a positive ending, and I knew that neither could come from just running away.

“I would be gifted with the sight of both your fleeing backs.  Now begone, or I’ll have you suffer my newest whim,” the spirit snapped.

Farrel hiccuped.  He’d started crying.  The witch’s smoke really changed him into such a vile little ninny.  “N-Nyx!  It hurts!”

“Shush!” I snapped, my eyes still on Volo.  “Spirit, I feel there is something amiss.”

Volo took a peeling of skin from his shoulder and ate it.  His other hand still hadn’t left his crotch.  It was over his sex now.  “Vermagus, for the last time, leave.”

“Not until you undo whatever it is you’ve done to Farrel,” I shouted.  The ferocity in my voice was just a mask, however.  I was getting scared.  Volo was looking at me in a way I didn’t like.

My emotion must have come through, no thanks to my bardic trait, for the spirit actually laughed at me.  He started…stroking himself.  My spine curled and I took a step away from him toward Farrel.  Blindly, I gathered the halfling into my arms, and he kept sobbing over and over.  “It hurts, it hurts, I just wanted to have some fun, oh why, oh why, you’re so mean–!”

“Every year, during the time of the festival, three great seekers awaken,” Volo said as he stood to his feet, body cracking and snapping as his crooked self straightened.  Suddenly, he was pressed, with his shoulders digging into the domed ceiling, his body elongated to show his true height.  He even started to fill out–the bones vanished beneath a sudden growth of fat and muscle.  Biceps flexed as Volo started to press up at the ceiling, and giant drops of saliva fell from his mouth as he thundered down at us in a voice that was terribly more fearsome than he had previoulsy uttered, “These seekers are not of heaven, but are favored by the gods all the same, and so have been made stronger by their graces.  They eat only those evil spirits that plague the living.  There are many such beings in so licentious a kingdom, but truth be told, I am the worst, and so they shall seek me above all others upon the twelfth hour.

Chunks of concrete began to rain down on us as Volo pushed up so hard that the ceiling began to crack and collapse.  I screamed and dragged Farrel away, who seemed to sober up upon witnessing the danger we were in.  He grabbed me by the waist and started to push toward the arched hallway, his voice shouting something, but my ears couldn’t hear him over the destruction and the sound of Volo booming out over us.  “I have lain with the halfling, and have filled him with my essence like a newborn–and it was my plan to send him out into the world at just the right moment, so that the seekers would hunt him in my stead, so that I may slip their notice until the festival had passed, thus eluding that ultimate fate.  But would it not be better to lay my seed in you as well, and see you torn asunder with the boy?  It would double my chances of deceiving the seekers, and you would not plague me anymore.

We made it to the cashmere floor, and it tripped us, and tripped us, and I realized with horror that it was grabbing us.  I held onto Farrel and we fell through our shadows, him screaming at my side, and we were in the Umbralands–the world turned completely dark, for there was no true light here–and I wondered if it were safe to slip into the Real World, but I found that the shadows were like walls to me and denied me an exit.  We sloughed through as fast as we could, and I wrestled with our surroundings, screaming and howling with Farrel holding onto me and gibbering, and I felt the darkness break like stones beneath my hands until finally–light broke through–and a new path was made, one that brought us respite from the livened floors and the traitorous shadows, and there we fled onward, all the while with Volo on our heels, shouting, “Yes, let me rape your sweet form, little one.  Come now, vermagus.  Let your voice scream out in agony and despair!  I shall drink it all in, for nothing is as great as the hole in me!  I have hungered since the dawn of time for fulfillment, and you will know my sorrow!  Aye!  You will echo for a millenia in my curs-ed heart!

We came to the great hall, which we had first passed on our way to Farrel.

The lost souls that had lounged and hummed in complacence were now in a frenzy, and the shadows grew thicker, and I knew I could not break open a path anymore.  “Damn!” I shouted, arms still encircled around Farrel as I begged for a way back into the Somnium.  We fell through the ink, and into the colorful nightmare that was Volo’s domain.  I missed the world’s sigh in my ear.

These void people were clawing at us, screaming.  The floor seemed to sink with the weight of everyone piling over us, and before I knew it, the ground sucked away with a muted howl, and hot jets of air seared my skin as we fell.  The wind picked up, the bodies swirled around us.  I got an elbow in the stomach, a foot in my spine, an ass in my ear, everything confused, everything over and under and over and toppled and twisted and turned–Then the bodies began to spread, carried by powerful hot winds, and suddenly I saw that we were spinning, and spinning, and as the vortex’s center opened, I saw the leaping fires and surging molten rock down below.  Was it hell?  Or was it just Volo’s imagination?  Several rough hands gripped us, and I cried as they pulled at my hair, my legs swinging free as we spun and spun.  Farrel had lost his grip on me (though it was no small feat that he’d managed to hang on for so long) and was just a little ways below.

Nyx!” He screamed, his bloodied face turned up to me.  “What’s happening!?”

Overhead, at the vortex’s opening, Volo looked down at us.  He reached down with his massive hand, a wicked smile on his face.  “Come, vermagus.  Your only other option is damnation!

I looked up at him wildly.  All around us, the empty souls howled at us, faces filled with hate, eyes as dark as Volo’s.  My vision rippled with the heat.  This was Volo’s dream, his nightmare, his torment.  To live without fulfillment, to suffer in loneliness, to find himself further alienated every time he tried to find a connection.  He was a being that sought to undo Harmony, and yet, he was still a part of the cycle.  A thing that prevented Life from ever being complete, and in turn, Life prevented him from ever undoing existence.  He feared the day he’d be sent to hell, for he still hadn’t seen his only wish come true.  Looking up into those revolting eyes, I knew he never would.  I hated the parallels between us.

I wanted desperately for my nature to be understood.  I did not want to be alien.  I did not want to be anathema.

But I decided I wasn’t afraid of endings.

…I decided, it’d be nice to have one at all.

So Volo was taken aback when I smiled up at him.  He was flabbergasted when I kicked at the arms that held Farrel–then at Farrel himself when he tried to hold on to those that had let him go.   “My gods, Nyx, what’re you–!?” The halfling screamed as he fell through the vortex and I watched as the fires consumed him.  Volo seemed to catch on.  He leaned down, poking his massive head into the whirling mass of bodies, and tried to grab at me.

Nyx, you are MINE!” he thundered.  His voice held rage and agony.

I bit at the arm that held my hair, my body twisting and writhing and kicking at anything that tried to hold me, and soon I had shaken off all restraints.  Soon I was falling.

Soon, I was feeling the flames of Volo’s hell.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn’s sword jumped back up and her face turned red.

“Warner…” she seethed. “What are you doing here?”  She started trembling.  She told her body to stop that, because she never trembled, and if he saw her trembling than he wouldn’t take her seriously.  It was always just a fight to get him to take her seriously.

“Warner!” she bellowed.  She advanced on him, all rage and fury.  She overturned a chair in her path and kicked away the forest of wine bottles at her feet.

A haggard looking man, with an angular face and hard gray eyes blinked at her like he were trying to focus.  In his gloved hand, he held a half-empty wine bottle.  In his other a small pistol.  He wore a soldier’s dress uniform, but it was in poor shape.  The gray pants were no longer pleated and neat, the wool coat was stained and torn with some golden buttons missing.  He only wore a white glove on one hand, the one with the bottle, and it was dingy.  His shoes were unlaced and also needed a shine.  His bright red hair was frizzy and flopped onto his lined forehead, and since she’d last seen him, more strands had turned a platinum blond.  He didn’t have his blue cloak anymore.  Also absent, she noticed, were the medals he once wore proudly on his breast.

The warrior pressed the sword tip beneath the man’s sagging chin. “Father–”

There was a bang.

The warrior gave a start and stumbled backward.  She stared down at her stomach.  Nothing.  She looked at the wall opposite of her.  A bullet hole smoked in the wall.  Down below, she heard her companions cry out, and soon following came the sound of feet stomping up the stairs.

Warner gave a harrumph and took a long chug from the wine bottle.  When he was finished, he wiped at his mouth with the back of his sleeve and muttered, “Was worth a try…”


Back to Chapter 23.1 | Forward to Chapter 23.3

Chapter 23.1

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn wrung the water from her hair.  Her face muscles were starting to hurt from smiling so much, but she couldn’t help it.  “My subconscious is brilliant.

“What’s so brilliant about coming back to the kingdom that wants you dead?” Quincy muttered, beating sand from her bottom.  She winced and twisted around to check on her wounded shoulder.

“Knowing Elmiryn?  I imagine she must get some sort of kick out of all this.” Sedwick turned to her, his mouth a slash.  “Isn’t that right?”

The redhead gave a shrug, her smile firmly in place.

“Well,” Quincy finished her vain attempt at sand removal, and crossed her arms with a great sigh. “So each of our pathways brings us a step closer to our goal.  This place holds something we need.  What are we looking for, then?  How do we begin?”

Sedwick pointed to the East.  “I can sense the Gate from here. It’s that way.”

“I don’t want to just leave,” Elmiryn contended.

Quincy nodded in agreement.  “There’s something else we need to do first.”

Sedwick raised a hand, mild exasperation on his face.  “Um, fine.  But first, care to enlighten me as to what you two were discussing in my absence?  Please?

“Aww, I think we hurt his feelings,” Elmiryn snickered.  She threw an arm around his shoulders as they went up the stairs to the dock platform.  “Y’see, when I was floating around back at the dwarven settlement, I came across a few things…” and soon he was appraised.

“This is getting strange, even by my standards,” the man said with a dubious shake of his head.

Elmiryn was already walking toward the stairs leading up to the wharf.  “I think I know where we are,” she breathed, eyes fixing on the building at the far end of the piers.  Quincy and Sedwick followed her up the steps just as her boots hit the wooden platform.  She gave an ecstatic nod.  “Ah!  Yes!”

“Which city?” Quincy asked.  She had a grumpy look on her heart-shaped face, and a pinky in her ear.

Elmiryn turned to her.  “I recognize that building there.  That’s The Big Brick.  It’s a low-end whore house.  Went there once–never again.”

“Contracted something nasty, did you?” the wizard cut in.

The warrior just smiled at her. “If disgust is a disease, I had it bad.”  Without another word, she turned and jogged down the wharf, passing the bollards and boat masts with the increasing pleasure of a creature freed onto its natural habitat.  It wasn’t long before Elmiryn rounded the stairs that led up to the main streets, and she let out another loud laugh.  “Ah, yes!!

Quincy’s voice floated up to her back.  “What, damn you?  What are you so pleased about?”

Elmiryn turned her head to see her companions coming up the steps.  She jerked her head.  “We’re in the city of Malvene.  I own a place not far from here!  We can get our bearings there.”

NYX____________________________

“Alright, I’ve let you have your time.  Now I must deny your request and return to my feeding.” The spirit stood from the bed, and the room about us expanded, and as it did so, it changed.  Layers from the walls peeled and fluttered in a wind I couldn’t feel, like sheaths of paper.  They thickened and darkened to curtains.  My bed grew–the headboard rising and rising till it reached the ceiling.  The ceiling, too, changed to something else, as the bare rafters retracted and the slant leveled out.  Coffers appeared into the wood, which melted to white plaster.  My desk slithered and shifted, like it were an animal, and became a low couch.  My books turned to pillows.  My chair, another couch.  Fiamman lamps sprouted from the floor like plants.

…Our surroundings had changed to the nobleman’s bedroom I’d seen before.

I gave a start as I felt the shadows slip from my grasp like silk through my cosmic hands.  One moment it seemed I had absolute power over the scene, the next it was ripped away from me.  My eyes went to the spirit as it stood, and I saw with a slackened jaw that he grew, like the room did, towering over both Tristi and myself.  It stooped, with arms elongating to the point that they brushed the floor.  The rest of its clothing fell away, leaving him to stand naked before us.  It was a disgusting sight.  He was like an emaciated old man, and his twisted body made him all the more wicked to my eyes.

I stood shuddering, feeling myself foolish for ever believing that I had power here.

It turned his dark gaze on me, its horns now curling high above his head.  They were black as well, with white symbols etched into them.  I’d seen them before, on the giants I’d seen in the crowds.  Were they in some way related?  It pointed to the door.  “Leave,” it said, its warped voice once again dripping in melancholy.

I blinked up at it.

…That was it?

“Leave?” I repeated.

The spirit frowned at me with its nose wrinkled, and turned to look at Tristi.  “You.  Take her and begone,” it spat.

Tristi shrugged his shoulders and looked my way.  “Nyx, our business is done.  You’ve tried your best.”

I stared from Tristi to the spirit and back.

I balled my fists and shook my head.  “No.” I pointed up at the spirit and tried to keep my hand from quivering.  “I will not leave without Farrel.”

The spirit blinked at me.  It bowed down, spine cracking as it snapped and twisted its neck to stare level into my eyes.  I resisted the urge to cringe and duck away.  For all my attempts at stoic bravery, I shook like a leaf.  “Your discretion did so little for you, I’m afraid,” the creature sighed.  “It took me a moment, but I recognize that symbol on your breast now.”  The spirit reached a knobby hand toward me.  This time I couldn’t fight it.  I flinched back, tripping on pillows.  I managed to right myself before I fell, but now my act of bravado was lost in my whining breath, my curved spine, my ashen face.  The spirit ceased its advance and fixed me with a droopy look.

…What kind of creature was this?  What was wrong with it?  Certainly, this wasn’t what I would have envisioned for a creature of lust.

“You are Lacertli’s champion.  Only one such as you could shift the shadows of my dreams.” The spirit straightened with a great sigh.  “But you are not he, and thus, cannot command me.  Weigh your options, vermagus.  Consider that I could crush you and your friend with nary a thought.”  It didn’t say this with much conviction.  Perhaps that was what revitalized my courage.

Tristi cleared his throat pointedly, and jerked his head toward the door.  “Nyx…let’s away.”

I spared a moment to shoot him a look, then looked back up at the spirit.  “…What is your name?” I asked.

The spirit narrowed its eyes at me.  It wrung its hands like an anxious wife, and muttered, “Volo.”

I gave a nod.  “I am Nyx…Champion of Lacertli.” I felt proud of myself for saying this with only one squeak.  “I will speak the truth to you, Volo.  I cannot turn away until Farrel is back in my company.  He may know things I need to know, and he could be of great help to me.  This is my path, and I will survive to see my will done.”

Volo’s expression drew long at me.  Tristi hid his face behind his gloved hand.

The only sound to be heard was the flickering of the Fiamman lamps.  I eased my breathing, my hands once more moving to cover myself.  The nobel’s room, now devoid of its writhing orgy, seemed very much empty.  With just the three of us standing there, even this massive spirit who had to crane its head to keep from bumping the ceiling, it felt…empty.

I looked at Volo, fighting my revulsion.  From his long, dry feet, up his shifty legs, along his sunken stomach and glaring ribs, I felt…

Pity.

Volo twitched his kinked nose and his eyebrows tensed, then relaxed, then tensed again.  He reached up a hand and scratched at the base of his horns.  Then he puckered his lips and spoke.  “So be it.  Follow me.”

He turned, and into the shadowed archway he lumbered, hands still dragging about his feet, his head lolling between his boney shoulders.  I hesitated for a moment, watching him go–the shift of his prominent spine, the trail of dust and flakes he seemed to leave in his wake (his skin shedding, I later realized).  I swallowed the lump in my throat and started to follow him.

Tristi, in just two large leaps was there before me.  One clawed handing holding his glasses in place as his other planted itself on my collarbone.  “Nyx,” he said firmly.  “Ah, Nyx, Nyx, Nyx…Nay, do not go, you would be a fool to go deeper into his world!”

I frowned and brushed his hand away.  “I have to.”

“False!  Incorrect!  Negative!  You don’t have to.”  He gave me a small shove and my frown turned downright incendiary.

“Tristi.  Move.”

“Nyx, you’re laying too much on the line for this.”

I glared.  My lips pursed and my hands balled to fists.  “How did you know where Farrel was, Tristi?”

“Fine.  I confess, I was here when he came.”

“You’ve been lying to me this whole time…”

“That was a lie, yes.  A white lie.  A sweet, baby lie–”

“A lie is a lie!  Damn you.  Damn you!  Did you lie about the tower collapse too!?”

Tristi’s eyes narrowed.  “I said the truth then.”

I bared my teeth at him.  “Tell me the truth now.  You aren’t the reason Farrel’s here?”

A muscle moved in Tristi’s jaw, and his thin nostrils flared.  I saw his pupils dilate, making his abalone eyes dark.  Without a word, the champion of luck slipped by me.  As I followed him with my eyes across the wide room, I could see the door he opened now led back to the original short hallway.  I turned forward again and gazed at the floor.  I heard the door shut.

“I can do this,” I breathed to myself.

With that, I followed Volo deeper into his lair.

ELMIRYN________________________

It was all golden and burning insofar that she could feel her veins pulse like it were lined with the brilliance of a drunken night, unaware of itself, and roaring.  She felt like her memories were a treasure discovered deep in cold soil, and with dusty hands she scrabbled for those precious recollections that had once attempted to slip from her into the hungry maw of the earth.  Corpses buried.  Things lost.  Emotions ensured a sad sort of freedom.  But Elmiryn was a tyrant, and she would keep her memories and emotions locked in her heart and her head, and nowhere else.

The streets were muggy, the sky like a dark cap that pushed and pressed on the light.  The brilliance of the city fought back the dark with little sign of fatigue.  There was much carousing, and sometimes they’d pass streets that were clearly in the heat of the celebrations, and others still that echoed, as if haunted from the merriment.  The phantoms about them swelled and ebbed.  Masked youth.  Laughing and running and skipping and dancing.  They’d seen this before on the shard mirroring Gamath, so they didn’t trouble themselves over ghost-like forms.

Still, Sedwick didn’t seem to know what to make of all the goings on, and he looked around him with his brow bunched, then eased, then bunched again.  Quincy’s interest seemed annoyingly passive.

“What are they doing?” Sedwick asked.  “I grew up in Gamath, so I don’t know about the customs of other places.”

“It’s the Aesutian Festival,” Elmiryn and Quincy said at the same time.  They glanced at each other, and the warrior resumed by herself, a humored curl to her lip.  “Every year, the Fiamman Kingdom celebrates the First Hero Aesutan, who defeated Nathric in a show of wit and strength.”

The brunette started in almost immediately.  “The legend behind the festival is this– There once was a spirit king named Nathric, who was a shadow that loved the night.  Fed up with daylight cutting short his fun, the spirit king reached up into the heavens, and tore Halward’s son Ortus from the sky.”

Elmiryn picked it up next, her arms crossing as she cut the wizard a look.  “He tore the immortal into seven pieces, and each piece became a new baby, glowing and bright.  You can never really kill an immortal, after all.  That first night, the spirit king ate one baby.  He reached for another but couldn’t bring himself to consume it.  Fuck.  You’d be full too, eating a seventh of an immortal.  So Nathric thunders, ‘I will wait until tomorrow, and eat another!’, so he does.”

The half-timbered buildings, with their warm exposed framing and creamy plaster, looked as though they had dozens of slanted teeth.  The quatrefoil windows whistled with the evening’s breeze further on.  The columns of a postal building seemed to bend in the corner of her eye.  The red-brick domes, with their gold ribbing, and star-like crowns, rose high.  All the while, the Fiamman lamps lit the streets hot, for the kingdom knew nothing of darkness and slept always in light.

Feeling content, Elmiryn continued.  “Aesutan was the son of king Koledus, ancient ancestor of the royal family, who governed the Fiamman clans.  Back then, we were just humble farmers scraping by along the southern coasts.  Without the sun, the Fiamman’s livelihood was jeopardized.  So, at the age of fifteen, Aesutan was visited by Halward, and he was pressed to find Nathric and restore order.  You don’t argue with a god, so the boy gathered up his father’s sword and cloak, and set out to find the evil spirit king–”

Quincy cut in. “It’s said that Aesutan was the first Legend to ever grace the world.  Halward’s example inspired his fellow gods to take up the trend, and soon the earth was swarming with them–”

“Can I tell my story or not?” Elmiryn snapped.  She held her hand out to the wizard as if begging cooperation to be placed there. The wizard gave a haughty sniff of her nose, but said nothing more.  The warrior went on, smirking, “Aesutan searched and searched until the equivalent of a day had passed.  By then, Nathric had made enough room to consume yet another baby, and he did.  There were only five left.  At a loss, Aesutan visited the Lycan tribes, to pay homage to Artemis at her temple.  As a favored subject in Halward’s heaven, the goddess of the hunt was sympathetic, and she appeared to the boy.  She gave him a mask resembling the wolves of her people, and counseled that he drink deep of their wine.  He did, and the night went on long.  A true Fiamman, the teenager was a damn good merrymaker.  The wine went straight to his head, and he shed his clothes, donned the mask, and lay with the Lycans in a wild orgy before darkness took him.  He awoke in a separate world.  I guess…this world.  The Other Place.  He dressed himself in the colors that went through the air like streamers, because all he had with him in that strange place was his wolf’s mask and his sword.  The smell of the therians masked his human scent.  He traveled with red across his chest and neck, and blue around his sex, and orange and purple around his arms and legs, and he walked like this for yet another day.  Nathric ate his third baby.  There were only four left.”

They entered a courtyard with a gazebo in the center.  Shrubs lined their path.  They crossed through the gazebo, and over the buildings, she thought she saw the tip of the great Halward statue in the Oristel Square.  Not much longer now and they’d be in the old neighborhood she’d once frequented.

…It was odd, but why weren’t there fireworks going off over the statue?  As memory served her (which was a sadly shaken thing) Oristel Square was the rowdiest spot to be in during the festival.

Elmiryn said none of this, but just threw an arm over Sedwick’s shoulder and puppeted a monster with her hand.  “Then, Aesutan found the spirit of the dragon, Smok. The dragon said to him, ‘Boy! I would feed you to my young!’ and he attacked.  There was a great battle, but the Fiamman son was quick and nimble, and he managed to slay Smok with a powerful thrust into his soft underbelly.” She feigned a stab, and Sedwick gave a rough chuckle at her antics.  “In Smok’s nest, he found three eggs.  He placed them into the dragon’s stomach, using it like a knapsack, and continued his search.  Another day went by.  Nathric ate another baby.  There were just three left.”

She paused to breath in deep.  Damn her curse, to make her forget such a beautiful city.  Elmiryn loved Malvene.  She preferred it to her family’s estate.  The street beneath her echoed up her bones a sort of code, and it unlocked in her something she’d thought she’d lost.  Ghosts, faint impressions lacking in color and with little defining lines, made a shadowy play in her head.  These were what was left of her memories, walking the city at night and looking for satisfaction.  For fun.  For drink.  For company.

“On the start of the third day, Aesutan finally arrived at his destination.  He came to a forest, dense and dark–a black wood–and found a party underway.  It was filled with humanoid beasts and ugly spirits, all dancing and drinking.  They were celebrating the darkness, welcoming the End of Days, and they were paying homage to Nathric.  Making sure his mask was in place, Aesutan covered himself in the blackness of the wood, and passed through the party.  None stopped him.  He did not look human.  Did not smell human.  He sneaked by the loyal guardians who protected Nathric’s burrow, and slipped inside.  There, Nathric slept, the three golden babes near him.  They did not cry, did not make a sound.  The immortals just watched as Aesutan crept in, and with one eye on the spirit king, switched the babes with the dragon eggs he carried.  Just to make the ruse more authentic, he took their urine, and rubbed it over the egg shells.  Then, with a little of the black on his skin, he painted faces onto the eggs.  With the babes in the dragon stomach, Aesutan crept back out, where he slipped by the evil lessers and back the way he had come.  Halward opened a way for him, and the boy returned home.  He hid the immortals in his village and waited for his plan to take effect.”

“I always thought the bit with the eggs was silly,” Quincy muttered.

Elmiryn gave her a strained smile before resuming.  “Meanwhile, the day was approaching its end, and the spirit king awoke.  He was hung over from his drinking and could not see well.  He smelled the immortal babes on the eggs and thought nothing of it.  Hungry, he ate one.  And so it went, that with the next two days, Nathric ate the dragon eggs.  Another week went by in darkness, and the spirit king thought the battle was won.  But then he felt his stomach give a turn.”  Elmiryn clutched her stomach with both hands, feigning a look of alarm.  “He felt it again.  And again.  Suddenly, the discomfort turned to pain, and within moments, Nathric was howling.”  She winced with an ooh, and ahh, and Sedwick laughed again at her antics.  Quincy just rolled her eyes at her.

The woman held up a hand, her other still on her stomach.  “His lessers didn’t know what to do.  ‘Get them out of me, get them out of me!’ he howled.  Then, with a roar, the three dragon hatchlings burst from his stomach–” Elmiryn pretended something had punched its way out of her, and she howled and squealed, falling even to her knees for dramatic effect.

“Oh, Elmiryn, enough!” Quincy snapped.  But her lips were twitching.

The warrior ignored her, “The dragons had eaten their way out.  They were golden, with red eyes, their bodies glowing from the power they had inherited.  Nathric was not immortal, and so he perished.  The spirit king’s attendants fled, for the beasts had acquired the taste for evil spirit flesh, and from that day forth, they ate nothing else.  They came to be known as Praxidice, Erinyes, and Poena.  The dragon hatchlings left the burrow and expanded their wings for the first time.  Upon taking flight, they crossed the Other World into ours, and from the sight of the three golden dragons in the sky, Aesutan knew that he could now take the immortal sons from hiding without danger.”  Elmiryn held her hands up to the sky, a full smile on her face.

“What happened next?” Sedwick asked, his crooked smile in place.

The warrior hopped up.  “He took the babies to Halward’s temple, and there, the Star Ruler claimed his progeny.  ‘Aye, they will each have a place in the heavens.’  And he named them Nitor, Vires, and Azad.  He took his sons up into the sky, and that, as the legends go, is how we got the three suns.” She giggled.  “Oh, hey.  Did I mention that Aesutan was a redhead?  In that moment, Halward blessed Aesutan as his own son, and so his demigod line started, and many heroes were born from it.”

“Lemme guess,” Quincy grumbled.  “You’re a descendant of Aesutan?”

“More accurately, a descendant of Diokles.  A distant cousin.  Twice removed.  Doesn’t matter though.  A blessing is a blessing.”

“I think it’s a fascinating story,” Sedwick said diplomatically.

Elmiryn shrugged.  “I’ve heard it so many fucking times, I know it by heart.”

He chuckled.  “We can see that.”

An impatient sigh from the wizard.  “Are we close to your ‘place’ yet?”

“A few more blocks.”

“What happened to the other four babes that Nathric had swallowed?  Immortals don’t die easy, right?  So what became of them?” Sedwick asked.

Before anyone could answer, they heard a scream tear through the air.  All three stopped, eyes wide, heads craned up to the sky.

“It’s…closer now,” Elmiryn breathed.

“Was that a person?”  Quincy asked, her nose scrunched.

Sedwick shook his head.  “It didn’t sound human.”

“Maybe it’s the golden dragons,” Elmiryn giggled.  For some reason, the idea struck her as incredibly humorous, and she couldn’t stop for a long time.  The others didn’t laugh, but just stared at her in disquiet.

NYX____________________________

I was thinking of death by the time the doorways parted for us, the thick smell of bodily fluids and charcoal nestling far enough up my nose to make me want to gag.  We were now in a sort of hall, where a single aisle cut through, and on either side were more couches and pillows.  Cashmere floors felt funny beneath my bare feet as I tread in Volo’s shadow, his sagging backside an unholy precedent over my little form.  It made me slow my steps in the hopes of distance.  The ceiling rippled black.  Torches coughed and snarled as the tall arched doors shut behind us, and the company of the room seemed to pulse like slugs disturbed in their recumbent states.  There were dozens of people here.

I thought about death as the floor that was a blanket that was a bed, snapped, and made me stumble, like it were trying to catch me in its amoral embrace.  Death.  The stinking, sapping, hungry nature of it.  The way it suckled at vitality till nothing was left.  Like gluttony.  Like lust.

These lost souls, for I came to understand them as this, hummed without stopping.  Their forms shifted in unison with my passing.  The air throbbed with their voices, like a starved growl, seeking my trailing shame.  It was a long thing behind me, as long as I could envision it, and it rattled with embarrassing fantasies, hopeless wants, and the pain of love unrequited.

I had thought about death as the company passed us by like a hot summer night, voices still humming, eyes still fixed up on me, Volo’s backside still a terrible precedent before me.

…I was done thinking about death, or thought so, when thoughts of my mother came to my mind.

I had thought about my mother’s pallor, in the nights that followed Thaddeus’s departures.  I thought about how I’d press my palms–dusty from crawling on the floor–to her round cheeks.  She’d let out a sharp puff across my face, strong enough to flutter my bangs, and I’d smile at her silent greeting, before Atalo kicked me sharp in the back in his fits of sleep.  I remember over the years as those cheeks turned slim beneath my touch, her breath, softer and softer against my skin.

The ribbed hallway descended in a slope that I was certain would have made me slip under normal circumstances, but physics here were nigh non existent.  Like a skewered idea, I slipped through the lens of Volo’s dream.  I felt the breath recede in my lungs, thinned by this spirit’s power.  His animus was stifling me.  I wasn’t even sure I was in the Somnium anymore.  But was it even possible to enter a spirit’s mind entirely?  I could just hear Lacertli now.

I am the Path, and as such, it is my duty to inform you that you are stepping into a trap.

I thought about my mother, and the nature of her, a thing that concealed itself like the darkness that wagged from the corners.  These were dense, and shied away from my attentions.  They grew long in the corners of my eyes, and an irrational fear came over me about blinking.  Surely, my heart whispered, surely then, the shadows would seek to overthrow, thee.

…And the otherness from which my heart spoke turned me fearful too.

“And really…who the fuck gets Legends anyway?  When a god picks them to be their champion, it’s as if they become…I dunno.  Alien. They don’t think like a person of the earth would anymore–they think in terms of heaven.”

“Is that what’ll happen to me, Elle?” I thought, my eyes on Volo’s cracked heels flitting in and out of view.  “Is that what happened to Tristi?”

I was thinking of my mother when the hallway curved, straight down, and we tread its curvature with our feet still gracing cashmere floors that tripped me.  The entryway flowered and the warmth that had colored us was swallowed in a cool, silver light.  The room we approached–for I could peek through Volo’s crooked legs–was entirely of concrete, with drips coming from the domed ceiling.  A single opening in the center was the source of the light, and it came down in an eerie halo.

My mother–in the moonlight, two men atop her–and me, a child, hiding in the trees after a full moon, still naked, and just watching.  Scared.  Fascinated.

I did not know the true nature of my mother.  She was a mother.  A thing, a noun.  She was misty-eyed when she thought she was alone, and full of exasperation and awkward love when she was aware of myself and my brothers.  She glared at the younger women, something tight about her lips, and her gaze would cast our way.  Her eyes were heavier during those moments.  I learned to make myself scarce when she was like this.  Poor Atalo never understood that.  Never understood why she became so cross, then so depressed later.

But soon her passions waned, and her heavy gazes lightened, and her misty-eyes became a regularity.  As I became a young woman, her envy had shriveled to nothing so I never had that fury turned my way.  Instead, I suddenly became the one with the broom in my hand, mind weighted by the need to survive tomorrow.  My turn to be passionate, to be beautiful–to be jealous and slowly dying–was never to be had.  That legacy, passed from mother to daughter, was lost.  I pressed my palms to my mother’s cheeks and felt her fade under my touch, and I felt sad, because I still had yet to understand her nature.  I needed more time under her bed, more time watching her from the trees, more time inching near her doorway at night.

I may have been her ultimate ending, but really, death had been a slow thing, for all the time it took to weaken my dear mother Fotini.

I wanted desperately for my nature to be understood.  I did not want to be alien.  I did not want to be anathema.

I thought about death and my mother and myself, before Volo stopped before the circular room and turned to me.  The cashmere floor was turning hard under my tired feet.  I could see it taper off toward the bare concrete, reaching vainly as its cloth ended just short of the silver light.

“He sleeps,” the spirit intoned, one hand extended toward the center of the room where the light flooded most.

Shaking, I stepped around the giant, his dark eyes and wicked face peering down at me, and I looked.  I let out a cry and ran toward the ashen huddle on the ground.

Farrel!


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