Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 25.3

“Dreams aren’t bad, I had turned back
I love the girl
But God only knows it’s
Getting hard to see the sun coming through
I love you…
But what are we going to do?

Picture I’m a dreamer
I’ll take you deeper
Down to the sleepy glow
Time is a low...
Don’t you know?
What are we going to do?”1

NYX____________________________

I could feel the moment cinch up around my neck like a noose, making my breath hitch in my throat.  Rivulets of sensation trailed under my skin, making my hair rise.

I leaned against the door, and some merciful spirit must have passed, because I was able to take another breath. My eyes batted as I saw Elmiryn lean over the edge of the small brass tub, the water sloshing around her curved hips.  Her hair dripped all over the floor, but she didn’t seem to care.  She just smiled at me.  Her breasts pressed up and together against the tub’s side like suggestive pillows.  The slope of her back caught the candlelight, and I could see the top of her soft rump peeking from the water.  There were bruises on her sun-kissed skin, dark and yellowed around the edges.  The marks of her hazardous life.  Tragic, proud badges of survival.  I even found myself wishing I could bear those marks with her.

I managed to raise my gaze.

Elmiryn’s smile turned wolfish.  “Hi,” she said.

I grinned shakily, trying to keep my eyes on hers.  “Hi.”

She tilted her head to the side.  “It feels like it’s been ages, hasn’t it?”

I let out a hysterical giggle as I slid to the floor.  I saw less of her down there, and felt it easier to concentrate.  I let my legs stretch out, feet apart, and blew at my bangs.  “I…yes.  Sweet Aelurus, yes.”

Elmiryn frowned softly at me, but her smile remained in place.  “You okay, Nyx?”

“That’s…” I shook my head, my grin widening. “That’s such a complicated question.”

“How so?”

“Being ‘okay’ can be interpreted any number of ways.  In answering, a person can mean that they are really perfectly comfortable, or it could mean that they are every bit shaken up.  It could mean, ‘I can stuff down my feelings and pretend for now.’  Or it could mean…nothing.  A sort of automatic response to an automatic question.”  I rubbed at my eyes.  “Are you okay?  Am I okay?  Who knows.”

Elmiryn chuckled as she laid her head on her arms.  My eyes fluttered at the sight of her long slim neck exposed.  “I guess, given all that’s happened, that was too simple a question.  It’s like asking a newborn what their life will amount to.”

I pouted at her, letting my lopsided bangs slip forth again.  “I’m hardly a newborn.”

“No.” The woman blinked slowly at me, her smile turning warm.  “Yet I love to call you ‘kitten’.”

“Despite my protests.”

“Which I’ve heard less and less of lately.”  The woman’s lip curled mischievously as she raised her head and tapped her chin.  “Hmm…fancy that!”

“To wit, the Lady Picaroon doth makes off with all hope of protest,” I said wryly.

Elmiryn laughed.  “Ah!  I’m a lady now?”

I displayed my own version of a smirk.  “I refrain from comment.”

The warrior wagged a finger at me.  “You can be quite the tease.”  When we got through giggling, she took a breath and sat up straighter.

Over her hands, which gripped the bath tub, I could see just a flash of her pink nipples at the edge of my vision.  I swallowed and averted my eyes.

“Back to my original question,” she said.  “When I first asked if you were okay, I was asking about this given moment.  With me.  Like this.  Are you…comfortable?

I didn’t even hesitate.  I gave a quick shake of my head.  “No, I’m not.”

I could see Elmiryn’s eyebrows go up high from the corner of my eye.

I felt a clench of panic and looked at her in full, my tongue tripping over itself to explain.  “Ah!  That isn’t to say–I mean–It’s perfectly–ah–okay…not being okay.  So…S-So I’m okay, being…n-not okay with you.  To be okay all the time either means you’re apathetic, unaware, or…dead.” I became aware of her chest again and looked away once more.  My face turned hot.  “Right now, I know, I’m really not dead!”

“Well!  Aren’t you in a curious mood?”  Her voice had that promise of a laugh tucked away in it, making it jump pleasantly in my ears.  Elmiryn’s voice could be many things.  I’d heard the steel in it.  Heard the fear, and the sadness.  But when she was like this–pleasant, happy, content…there was nothing else like it.  I had missed her voice so much…

I bit my lip and twirled a lock of hair around my finger.  “If I’m a little odd, I think I have a reason for it.  I just rode in on a dragon’s back, after all.”

The woman let out a whistle and laid her head on her arms again, effectively removing the sight of her chest. “Lots of thin air up there, then?”

I looked at her, relieved…and a bit disappointed.  “Enough to make you lose your mind.”

“You should join my secret society of loonies, then.”

“Oh?  How many members are there?”

“Including the prospective members?  Uh…just me.  But if you join, you could be my vice.”  She leaned back in her tub, the water sloshing, her smile like a hook that drew me in.  “…President, that is.”

I shook my head and covered my eyes.  “You…You are…” I let out a breathy laugh.

“Beautiful, charming, witty?” Elmiryn said with a wiggle of her eyebrows.  She had picked up the sponge again and resumed her grooming.

I swallowed at the saliva that had collected in my mouth and tried to dislodge the want that constricted my throat.  “You’re all of those things,” I murmured, watching the sponge trail from her wrist up the length of her toned arms and back again.

The warrior paused to glance at me.  She hadn’t expected me to agree with her like that, judging by the way she tugged needlessly at her ear.  Her smile widened, then lessened, like a sail catching wind. “Thanks.”

My wry smile returned in full and I crossed my arms and ankles.  “…You’re also perverse, cocky, and insanely aggressive.”

She pouted, and I had the crazy notion of biting her lip.

“Kitten, you wound me.  Another stroke of your scornful tongue, and I’ll perish!”  She slapped a hand over heart and feigned distress.

I rolled my eyes and sighed melodramatically.  “Then I suppose I’ll have to nurse you back to health.”

“You’d have to take my temperature.  Check my pulse.  Give me medicine.  Speaking of which, what would you prescribe me?”

“Leeches. Lots of leeches,” I said.

I took in my surroundings for the first time.  The wash room seemed to serve a dual purpose for both laundering clothes and bathing.  A mop leaned in the far corner.  There was a drain near the foot of the tub.  A small square mirror hung on the western wall.  Shelves all around held bath salts, hair tonics, sponges, and towels.  A collection of candles was lit on the end of one such shelf, to the west end of the room.  A wicker basket was to my left.  I suspected that was where Elmiryn’s old clothes were.  There was a small window high on the southern wall, and this was opened a crack to allow somewhere for the steam to escape.  A small table was pressed against the eastern wall where I saw the clothes Elmiryn had set out for herself.  Intrigued, I stood, using the cushioned chair on my right to help me stand.  I felt a little light headed and waited for the dots to vanish from my eyes.  I made sure to keep my eyes away from the tub.

Just in time, too, because Elmiryn was reaching for her back with her sponge, which sent her chest up out of the water, and…well…

“Leeches do not sound fun, Nyx.”  Elmiryn poured water over her back, filling the room with the sound.  “Come on, don’t you have something better than leeches? That’s what two-bit healers use in the ghetto.  Surely I’m worth better medicine than that.”

I ran my hand over the frogged coat she had lain out, my back now to her.  Next to it were her other clothes–her shirt, vest, and britches.  Tucked under these were fresh cloth wraps for her chest, a pair of long socks, and a slim pair of underwear.  Her sword, dagger, and belt were off to the side.  On the corner of the table was a heavy cotton towel.  My eyes became hooded.  I swallowed, flashes of her flesh haunting my mind.  “…What about tender loving care, then?”  My eyes flickered up and I stared at my shadow on the white wall.  My heart was in my ears.

Elmiryn let out a low hum, and the splashing of water quieted for a moment.  “I think, then, I’d do whatever it was you asked.”  I heard her take a breath, and when she next spoke, it was to me, and not the opposite wall.  “But you’d have to instruct me, kitten.  I’m not a psychic.”

I wasn’t sure if we were still playing a game anymore.  I decided I didn’t care.  Slowly I turned, my hand taking with it the towel.

She was sitting sideways and looking at me with those architect eyes–taking in every flash of emotion, every move of my body.  It electrified me, sending shivers up and down my spine and limbs.  Gripping the towel before me, I knelt next to the tub and leaned over the edge, my free hand reaching to cup Elmiryn’s face as I came closer.  Her pink lips quirked up into a smile as my nose brushed hers.

“You’re going to get wet…” she breathed.  Her warm breath fluttered over my mouth.  My heart skipped a beat.

I shook my head.  “I’m already wet.”  It was another one of those not-thinking-about-it moments.

The woman let out a surprised laugh, and though my face was flaring red, I laughed too.

Then I silenced us both with a kiss.

I raised myself up, dropping the towel to better hold Elmiryn’s head in my hands.  My fingers tangled in her wet hair, which was made slick from something she’d used on it.  I sucked at her lower lip.  Fulfilling my previous desire, I bit it lightly, and she let out an appreciative sound that echoed in my head.  I laid my hand at the base of her neck and turned my head, my tongue tasting her lips before hers met mine.  She tasted so sweet.  Like plums.

…But there was something sharp there too.  It was a familiar tang.  Alcohol.  She hadn’t had so much that it was overpowering, but I could still taste it there.

Given the course of the moment, I didn’t spend too much time thinking on it.  I think the heat of the steaming bath was doing something to me, because my thoughts became clouded.  I’d known this splendor before.  Felt that tumultuous surge of desire and emotion sweep up over my head, until it felt like I was under water, and all outside matters were muted.

This passion…was a doorway…her doorway.

And I’d walked brazenly through.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn clutched at Nyx’s shoulders, a lost feeling making its way back to her through the thorny hedges of her heart.  Like a beast, it burst across her skin, running rampant, making her sensitive to every touch, every smell, every sound–

Gods. The sound of Nyx talking that way had tested every bit of the redhead’s self control.  It would have to be enough to wait and let the girl lead, because Elmiryn knew there was a hunger creeping behind Nyx’s eyes, but the youth had to reconcile with it herself, not because she’d been forced there.

Nyx’s hands trailed from Elmiryn’s hair, down her neck, where they brushed down the sides of her breasts, making her shiver.  As much as she wished for otherwise, the girl clutched at the woman’s back.  When Nyx pulled Elmiryn closer, however, the woman felt the space between them vanish, and her disappointment was quickly lost.  The Ailuran broke away to lay a trail of sensuous kisses along Elmiryn’s jaw to her ear, where she took the woman’s earlobe between her teeth in a light nibble.  Elmiryn bit back the moan that came up her throat at the feel of the girl’s tongue and her warm breath lighting along her skin.

She took the opportunity to whisper, “Nyx…you’re driving me crazy.”

A small laugh, but the woman caught the tremble in the girl’s voice.  “Craz-ier, oh Madame President?”  Her lips teased Elmiryn’s ear.

Elmiryn nuzzled the girl’s hair, and breathed in deeply.  The girl’s scent was different.  The warrior found herself missing that wild musk, that menagerie scent of forest and animal fur.  Now, the girl smelled of…honey? And jojoba.  The woman murmured into the girl’s thick dark mane.  “So you do want to be my vice…”

Nyx dipped down and laid a wet kiss in the crook of Elmiryn’s neck, making the woman groan.  The girl spoke into her skin.  “ Vice President, Lady Picaroon.  Leave off your roguish nature.”

“But Nyx!” the redhead gasped–both in play and with sincerity.  The girl’s teeth on her skin was disrupting her avenue for composure.  “It is all I have!”

“If you cannot cease your ways, then I demand suitable payment in place of my request.”

The redhead wrapped her arms around the girl’s shoulders and squeezed.  She was beside herself with joy.  To have Nyx in her arms again, to hear her voice, to feel her warmth, to smell her, taste her…Elmiryn didn’t want to let go.  When next she spoke, the silliness had fled her and all that was left was a warm husky voice.  “Then listen here…what say you to this, kitten?  If you’re the night, then I want to be the stars in your heaven.  I will make this so.”

NYX____________________________

When Elmiryn said that, my hands flexed against her back, fingernails digging in a little bit.  My heart was doing somersaults and I felt a rush of joy come over me.  A big silly grin spread my face and a strong shiver blasted up and down my body.  Then a dark inky cloud billowed into the sunny feeling, and I thought of all the other people she may have said similar too.  And what did it mean really?  My eyes darkened and my smile waned.  I thought of all the lovers that had come and gone in Elmiryn’s life, and felt like hissing and snapping my teeth at their phantom presence.

Elmiryn started to pull back at my long pause. “…Kitten?”

I grabbed at her, fingernails digging harsher into her skin, and took her neck into my mouth.  My teeth bit down hard.  The woman’s arms tightened around me and she let out a gasp, one that turned into a hiss as she inhaled sharply.  I sucked on the skin as hard as I could.  When I pulled back, my teeth raked.  My eyes fluttered as I gazed on the bruise I’d left, and a rush of satisfaction hit me.  I pulled back enough to look into the woman’s face.  “Stand up,” I said.

Elmiryn pulled back and held me by the shoulders.  Her worry wrinkle appeared as her brows pressed together.  “Nyx, what is it?”

My half-mast gaze was tinted with aggression, I knew it.  I didn’t let that stop me.  I pulled away from her completely, sitting back on my heels, and grabbed the towel.  “Stand up,” I repeated more forcefully.

The woman blinked at me, her heated gaze still alight, but a heavy question lurked there too.  Then without a word, she stood.

I swallowed and watched as she rose, the water cascading down the length of her strong legs.  Her body was lined by the glow that came from the candlelight.  I let my eyes take their time, for what was the use in looking away now?  Despite the virility that seemed to possess her, there was no doubting that Elmiryn was a woman, and a beautiful one at that.  The ruddy patch of curls between her legs seemed delicate.  The curve of her hips, the lean build of her legs and arms, the slender slope of her neck was graceful.  Her breasts were generous but not more than desirable.  They were just perfectly sumptuous, making my mouth water all over again.  But she was a warrior, too, amidst all this.  It was in the way she held herself, aware of her body and unashamed of it.  I could see the muscle shift in her powerful thighs and her sculpted abs.

Elmiryn’s cerulean eyes fastened onto mine.  Her face was shadowed with her back to the candlelight.  “What would you have me do?” she murmured.

I swallowed and held up the towel in both hands.  “Step out.  Let me dry you.”

She did so, having to grab my shoulders to keep from slipping.  I dried both her feet, then let my touch creep up.  Elmiryn’s grip tightened on my shoulders and I looked up at her, my eyes fluttering.  That wicked feeling had not left me, and a devilish grin curled my lips as I raised myself from my heels so that I was at waist level.  I let my eyes linger on her, and watched as the question died from her gaze, leaving only her lust.

Her mouth parted, and I heard her exhale slowly.

I murmured, “Listen closely to me, Elle.”  I put in my power of expression.  I let it layer my voice with all of my desire and frustration.  If she heard my jealousy amidst the words?  All the better.  I wanted to please her as much as sting her.

I turned and kissed her right hip, my hands now at her inside thigh with the towel.  Never did my hand touch her skin, but Elmiryn’s hands went from my shoulders to tangle in my hair when I pressed against her sex.  I closed my eyes and circled my tongue along her skin as I caressed her through the fabric.  The movement of my hand was slow–I didn’t want the towel to rub her unpleasantly.  My other hand came up over her left buttock, feeling its supple shape.

The redhead let out a choked sound over me, and I saw her eyes roll shut.  I didn’t want this going too far.  I withdrew with a snap and rose to my feet.

“Our task today, Elle,” I chirped merrily as I wrapped the towel around her shoulders. “Is to get you dressed.”

Elmiryn blinked thickly at me, her mouth hung open, her face red.  “…Wh-What?”

I grabbed her by the back of her neck and pulled her down forcefully.  “You heard me.  The clothes are going on today.”  I started rubbing zealously at her head and hair.  The woman sputtered beneath the fabric.  She tried to grab my hands.  “Now–Hey–Fuck, wait a second!”

“It’s a nice change of pace, isn’t it?” I cooed, letting her come up just enough that she could stand hunched.  I held the ends of the towel, which in turn was wrapped over her neck.  I gave this a tug and she winced.  “From all those conquests of yours that made haste in removing their clothes and yours, I’d say I’m being rather original!”

The warrior grabbed my wrists, a pained expression on her face.  “Come on, kitten.  Be fair!”  I suspected her anxiety was more for my denying her satisfaction than what I had said.

This stirred my wickedness even further.  “But Lady Picaroon, you have guests waiting!”  I gave a strong pull and stepped aside as the woman was sent tumbling into the table behind me.  I still held the towel in my hands.  With a twirl, I snapped the end of it against her bottom.  Elmiryn yelped and spun around to stare at me, her hair still damp and dripping, but the body starting to return to it.  If there was any doubt of my possession by a dark spirit, it will have been cleared by now.  I was just enjoying this too much.  Never had I been in such a position of control.

The warrior didn’t seem to know what to make of the situation.  She opened her mouth, a look of insult on her face, then it melted to bewilderment, then amusement.  She laughed and shook her head slowly.  “Nyx!  Oh…Nyx, you are…”

“Not done,” I said pointedly.  I held the towel up before me and stepped close, wedging my left leg between hers.  I caressed her cheek with the corner of the towel and smiled.  I stood on my toes and planted a chaste kiss on her lips.  She let out a sound as my thigh pressed between her legs, and I held my breath at the way I had pressed into her.  I fell back onto my heels, and with both ends of the towel in hand started to dry Elmiryn from the shoulders downward.  I kept my eyes on her, and she gazed back, her look of question back in place.

Her breath hitched as I squeezed her chest, and I could see her grip on the edge of the table turn white.  I savored the feel of her beneath my hands and massaged her breasts slowly.  Her head came low and our lips almost touched, but I never let her have that kiss, moving my head away every time she came too close.  A curl was on my lips as I felt her breath of frustration.

Finally, I let my hands come down to take take care of what water was left, and that done, I threw the towel over to the wastebasket.  I brushed my lips against hers as I reached around her, my thigh pressing into her again.

Nyx,” she shuddered into my mouth.  I pulled away with my prize held up–her socks and underwear.  I slid down into a crouch and tapped her left foreleg.  With a pout, Elmiryn lifted her foot, and I slipped her sock on.

“Gods, you’re really serious…” she muttered.  I didn’t respond.  I just turned to the next foot, and we did the same.

At last, I held up her underwear.

I smirked up at her.  “I’m disappointed in these.  There’s no flair!  I thought you noble women were supposed to be all about the frills and lace?”

Elmiryn snorted.  “I’m a soldier.  What did you expect?  For my knickers to be a secret weapon of femininity?”

I smiled fully and tapped her left leg again.  With a sigh, she obliged.  Once both legs had slipped through, I started my slow ascent up her legs.  I couldn’t help but squeeze her thighs a little, feeling them all around.  It made for slow progress, but to actually touch Elmiryn’s skin was making me dizzy.  My fingertips tingled and my breath came deep.

Then my hand touched something slick and warm along the inside of her leg.

I looked at the woman sharply.

Her face was red, and she glowered at me.  “What? You thought I’d stay dry as a desert with your hands and mouth all over me?”

I swallowed hard and looked at my hand.  I was being so arrogant about this.  I had lost myself in the lust and the thrill of the moment.  Now, things were starting to get beyond me.  Could I stop it if I wanted to anymore?

…Did I still care?

My eyes fell shut as I leaned in, and with a flick of my tongue, I tasted her.

Elmiryn shuddered violently, and I could hear her hiss at the ceiling.  “Halward help me…fuck…

The taste spread over my tongue, warm and slimy and tangy.  When I let it sit on the tip of my tongue, I picked up something fruity.  I shoved her underwear up the rest of the way, sweeping my tongue over the trail of her desire.  At the edge of the fabric, I stopped and said with a tight voice, “And the rest you’ll have to deal with.”

As I came to my feet, the redhead grabbed me to her and kissed me roughly.  Her hands tightened around my upper arms and her thighs squeezed around my leg possessively.  I met her passion, feeling wild, hungry…intoxicated. Her tongue fought its way into my mouth, and I quarreled with her, making her earn her full entry.

But the woman broke the kiss and we stared at each other, gasping for breath.  My lips throbbed and felt swollen.  Then her eyes narrowed and she panted, “You’ve changed.”  I must’ve looked hurt or something like it, for the woman was quick to smile and add, “I’m not complaining!  I just–I want to make sure this is okay.

“As in not okay?”

“No, as in…as in I don’t want you to regret this later.”

“Regret what, Elle?” I said with a shaky smirk.  “Putting on your clothes?”

The woman laughed and my eyes fell shut briefly at how the sound reverberated through me.  She shook her head, giggling.  “Good.  Because I won’t regret this!  At all!”

I reached behind her and pulled up her britches.  “Let’s get these on, next.”

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn felt the fabric slip on and watched with a frightening swell of love and affection as Nyx buttoned her.  Now and again, her fingers brushed the woman’s abdomen, and she felt her heart give a flutter, her smile broadening each time.  She didn’t know what to do with herself.  Nyx hadn’t been kidding–she really was quite different from all of the redhead’s past lovers.  The Ailuran’s tawny eyes burned into her mind.  Her shock of dark hair was brilliantly defiant, being the very essence of the bureaucratic nightmare.  Elmiryn wanted to tangle her hands in that hair.  The girl’s full lips, the shade of thulian pink (Elmiryn knew, because it was her mother’s favorite color) seemed to invite a kiss.

And if the girl could just…

“Say my name,” Elmiryn breathed.  She swallowed and added, “Please.”

Nyx’s eyes flickered up to her, and suddenly she appeared shy, her uneven bangs curtaining her right eye.  “Elmiryn,” she said quietly.

There!

Weaved into the girl’s sweet voice was a something–golden and bright and warm–and it made the woman feel like laughing.  Her eyes threatened her with tears, but she couldn’t help herself.  “Again.  Nyx, say my name again.” She almost sounded desperate.

The predatory gleam that had possessed the girl’s gaze vanished.  Nyx leaned forward, pressing pleasantly against the woman’s center.  Her hands brushed along her back, and Elmiryn felt the girl wrap her cloth wrap around her chest.  Before she pulled back entirely, she whispered into the woman’s ear, “Elmiryn…”

The warrior’s smile trembled and she let her head fall forward as she felt Nyx’s eyes rest on her face.  A tear slipped down her nose and she giggled.  “Halward…you bastard…help me…” she shuddered.  Then because she knew it was a losing battle, she looked up.  Nyx still held the cloth wraps, but a look of concern was on her face.  Elmiryn let out a short laugh and wiped at her eyes before placing her hands on the girl’s hips.  “I’ve been a mess without you.  You can ask Sedwick.”

The girl’s eyes fluttered and she looked at the cloth in her hands.

Elmiryn squeezed the girl.  “Tell me.  What happened to you after we were separated?”  She heard the girl swallow loudly, and without a word, Nyx resumed wrapping the cloth around Elmiryn’s chest.  The warrior frowned and grabbed at her hands.  The girl didn’t put a fight.  “Nyx, stop.  What happened?”

Nyx’s tawny eyes began to water, but her chin did not tremble and the tears did not fall.  “It was a nightmare.  All I could think of was being with you again.”

Elmiryn cupped her face, stroking her cheek.  “Tell me.”

The girl did.  She recounted her arrival at the Kreut Forest to her trials therein.  She told of Lacertli and Argos, and of how she came to arrive in the Fiamman shard, having been sent there to escape a creature who called herself Izma.  She went on to tell of her experiences with Tristi, how she’d saved Farrel from Volo, and their mad race to escape the golden dragons that inevitably lead to her and Nyx’s reunion.

“There.  That’s everything.”

“So Tristi is a legend, huh?” Elmiryn only commented on this because she was still processing everything else.

“Yes.  So now I hope you see why I didn’t want you picking a fight with her–I mean–him. Tristi is a Legend, like the ones in the stories.”  Nyx rubbed at her temples, as if just the thought of the strange champion made her weary.

“A Legend, like you…” Elmiryn said slowly.  They had finished wrapping her chest and the girl was in the process of buttoning up her shirt.

Nyx shook her head, her eyes wide.  “That’s not the same!  I haven’t been in His service that long.”

“And…what. Does Lacertli own you now?”  The woman’s voice was hard.  She tried to ease the tension from her face, but she knew the girl could see her anger.  “He cornered you.  He manipulated your need.  If he’s so fucking powerful, why use a girl like you to–”

The Ailuran’s gaze steeled and she stepped away, leaving the warrior feeling cold.  “He saved me.  He’s given me a chance at something better.”

The warrior finished buttoning herself and started tucking the fabric in.  A sneer was on her lips. “Sure.  You just need to play his mortal meat shield while he inspects the dirt beneath his claws.”

Nyx’s voice lanced into her head.  “Stop.”  Her shoulders were up around her ears and her eyes were wide.  She breathed hard through her nose and glared at the woman, but her eyes held fear, not anger.  “Stop it.  It’s blasphemy to talk that way.  I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Elmiryn’s jaw clenched and she stared at the girl hard.  Finally, she let out the breath she’d been holding and rubbed hard at her face with one hand.  “I should’ve been there.  You were hurting and I should’ve been there.  You’re my ward.  My responsibility.  This wouldn’t have happened if…” her voice trailed away.

NYX____________________________

I’m not sure what I was expecting Elmiryn’s reaction to be.  I imagine it would’ve been worse if I’d told her I’d agreed to be Lacertli’s champion mostly for her sake.  I’d left out Tristi and Farrel’s indiscretions as well.  I was very careful to pay attention to the level of sincerity in my words, lest my innate power give me away.

The woman sat up with a great breath and looked at me.  “There’s no way back from your contract with Him, is there?”  There was a note of resignation in her voice.

I shook my head.  “Not until he releases me…or I die.”  I tried for a smile, but it was wan.  “And look!  I’m not dead.”

“You’ve pointed this out before,” The woman said, a shadow of her smirk back in place.  She glanced off to the side and rubbed at her neck.

I came close and touched her arm, my voice gentle.  “I fear we’ve taken too long here, Elle.  We should get moving.  I told Praxidice we’d leave within the hour.”

“It seems we’re always running…” The woman muttered to herself.  She looked at me, then flashed a smile.  “Yes.  Alright.”  The warrior paused to regard me.  She flicked my chin and tilted her head to the side.  “Nyx…Godly favor or no, danger will find us.”

The statement was asinine, and I could see that she knew it from the way her smile took on a wry edge.  But I took her hand and kissed her palm, pressing it to my heart.  “I know.  But we’ll make it through this together… Trust me.”

Elmiryn nodded, a satisfied look coming over her face.  “Go on.  I…need a second.”  Her smile turned wolfish again.  “I’m still recovering from your tender loving care.”

My cheeks flared, but I smiled.  “Alright.  I’ll be grabbing something to eat then.”

“Go ahead.”

ELMIRYN________________________

As the girl left the room, the warrior stared at the door.  She ran a hand through her damp hair and let out a shaky laugh. “Dear gods!”

Then the familiar music came.

It would appear

That your little thread

Is truly a golden rope.

“Good feeling…gone.” Elmiryn said, rolling her eyes.  She turned and plucked up her vest.

Oh come, come.

I haven’t even said anything snarky yet.

“I don’t want to hear your lies right now.”  She quickly pulled her vest on and buttoned it up.

And I don’t want to hear your

Awful human voice.

Speak to me the proper way, please.

Elmiryn tongued her cheek as she stooped for her boots.  She went to the chair next to the door and sat down, loosening the laces.  Her fingers were steady as she went.  The shakes had stopped after her splash of brandy.  She could feel the anxiety start to claw its way back, however, and Meznik’s presence didn’t help.

There.

Happy?

Yes, actually.

Your outburst about Lacertli

Was very filling.

I suspect I won’t need to feed for a few days.

I’m so glad I could be of service.

Would you like a sword for your gullet?

Now there really isn’t any need for veiled threats.

Their beneath you.

You don’t usually come chirping

Unless you’ve got some ulterior motive.

So what do you want?

I just wanted to let you know

How pleased I am with you lately.

You’re really coming into your own.

Is that so?

Me, the attention stealer?

The nitwit, the ninny?

I thought you hated me?

We’ve been over this.

Just because I get a little frustrated with my toys

Doesn’t necessarily mean I hate them.

You’ve…got more than one toy?

Oh, ho.

I’ll never tell.

Elmiryn glared at the ceiling as she finished the last knot on her boots.  She stood and went to the table and grabbed her sword belt.  She quickly put it on, slipping her weapons into their holds, then went to the tub grabbing the edge.  She took a breath, then lifted it.  The woman watched as the water gushed out and bubbled down the drain.  That done, she set the tub on the floor and went for her coat.

Meznik,

Did I ever mention you’re an asshole

And that I still plan on killing you?

Perhaps.

It’s just that I get so bored,

Watching you play at humanity.

It’s like a little boy

Trying on his mother’s clothes.

It doesn’t suit you.

And being a fae is so much better?

What’s not to like?

Didn’t I tell you?

The fae were alive before the gods were.

The woman shook her head as she straightened out her collar.  She had traveled to the other side of the room and was looking at her reflection in the mirror.  The glass was clearing of the steam, but the edges were still foggy.  Her eyes held a storm.

You’re lying.

When have I ever lied to you?

How conceited!

To believe that your world and its pathetic pantheon

Is the center of everything!

First to see the rising sun!

First to see the flowing tide!

First to know of death and life!

How utterly conceited!

I get your point.

My gods,

You really like to lay it on thick, don’t you?

Is this half-way dimension not a testament

To the things that can be born out of the chaotic elements?

Of course there are things older than the gods.

Meznik how old are you?

How would you know any of this?

The music trilled like laughter and took on a sing-song quality.

I’ll…never…tell.

Elmiryn’s expression turned into an ugly scowl as she took a bit of string and tied back her hair.  It was still wet and made her coat feel damp, but she didn’t mind.  She didn’t have time to brush it, but hopefully the tonic she’d used would keep it from getting too unwieldy.  Not that beauty mattered much where she was going.

Your games are so annoying.

Don’t you have another life to ruin?

Not at the moment, no.

Not when I get to see Nyx dance to the reaper’s song.

She left quite a nice mark on you, I see.

Better hope it isn’t a death curse.

Elmiryn leaned in toward the mirror and pulled back her collar.  Sure enough, there was a hickey at the crook of her neck on the right side.  The woman ran her fingers over it.  It felt tender when she pressed.  “Gods damn, Nyx…” she breathed.  But she was grinning.

As they say,

It’s always the quiet ones…

Or is that only for homicidal lunatics?

I think it’s the latter.

Either way,

It’d be a shame to lose one such as her,

To someone as indifferent as a god.

The warrior pulled away from the mirror, her hands clenching to fists as she gazed down at her boots.

I don’t know anything about this ‘Lacertli’.

I’ve never even fucking heard of him.

Is he really part of the pantheon?

Oh my, yes.

One of the oldest.

I don’t give a fuck how old he is.

If Nyx dies because of him,

I’ll kill him.

Empty threats.

You aren’t strong enough.

After all,

You can’t see me yet, can you?

Do we really owe the gods our lives

To fling ourselves into servitude,

And thank them for it?

It’s all a matter of how you see things.

I may have made a deal with your father,

But in the end,

I had to choose whether or not you were truly fit for my plans.

Not only did you fit,

You were my exact ideological match.

You gazed at the stars and saw the attainable,

While others only saw limits.

You hungered for celestial glory

While others scrabbled for the dirt.

You promised Nyx the heavens.

I can help you keep your word.

The warrior leaned against the wall, her eyes fluttering.

I was just…speaking out of passion.

It wasn’t meant to be taken literally.

No?

Your effervescent hatred bubbles not only for me,

But for the silent god that has loomed over your life.

Halward, the Star Ruler.

Have you not wondered

If such a being were conquerable?

When we spoke back at the crossroads,

I had told you:

We can conquer the gods.

The way for this is easy.

I’ll even put it in words you can understand:

You just have to fucking listen to me.

Elmiryn’s jaw clenched.  She waited, but Meznik said no more.

Glad for the silence, she looked around the room, and her eyes fell on the topmost shelf where a tin bucket sat, shrouded in the dark from the candlelight.  There were so many things pressing down on her, now that Nyx’s comfort was gone.  Her head started to hurt.  Her chest to throb and ache.  The woman grunted as she jumped up, knocking the bucket over.  Its contents fell into the tub with a loud clatter.  The woman winced and looked to the door.  No one came.

Quickly, she reached down and plucked up the empty flask bottle.  It was dusty and empty, made of pewter.  Etched into its sides were flowing designs of thorny vines and blooming roses.

Elmiryn thought about the brandy outside and wondered how much more time she’d have to fill the flask up without anyone seeing.

All the while, Meznik’s words echoed in her head, and she could the feel the tremble creep back into her hands.  She tucked the flask into the inside pocket of her coat, and with a furtive glance around the room, she left to join the others.


Back to Chapter 25.2 | Forward to Chapter 26.1

  1. ‘Every Planet We Reach Is Dead’ by Gorillaz, from the album ‘Demon Days’. Parlophone, 2005. []

Chapter 25.2

ELMIRYN________________________

Doorways carved from conflict led to new ways of thinking.

She was fretting over the ideas of freedom in the face of the materialist reality, where the senses were just the slaves of perception, and emotion was but an aftertaste of sensation.  It was philosophical conjecture that had marooned on the shores of her mind, a castaway of a noble education.  Idealism versus materialism. Materialism believed that there was an objective world that existed outside of the mind and spirit, not only known through senses, but through tools and science as well.  Idealism believed the opposite, and stated that nothing existed outside of the mind.

The first time she’d heard of the concepts at the age of seventeen, she remembered feeling the sunlight and savoring it.  She’d only stopped dozing when her instructor had used a burning home as an example for that day’s lesson.

What if they (the students) had walked through the door of a burning building?  They could feel the heat, see the brilliance of the fires, smell the smoke…but was it all really there?  Was the environment and the dangers therein illusions of the mind?  The objective world was a thing of sense, but reports had come of individuals capable of ignoring such physical tethers through sheer willpower.  Magic, too, was always reshaping the environment–was that part of the material world, then?  Or was it further proof that their world was just a projection from their animus, and they could shape it to their will if only they could find such control?

Elmiryn remembered feeling intrigued, though her only question had been–

“And what about death?  When you die, do you vanish, or does the world cease to exist?”

Her instructor–she had forgotten his name now–only chuckled and said, “Well I suppose it depends on how strongly you believe your own perceptions?”

The next day, her instructor had been dishonorably removed and replaced by another man, who went on talking about Halward’s supremacy like he were reading from a script, and the redhead had resumed her adolescent apathy towards her studies with zeal.

Imageless memories blurred into her present and confused her momentarily.  Elmiryn gave her head a shake and her mind cleared enough to take in the scope of her situation.

She and Sedwick had gone to the first place they thought they could help–A half-timbered house that billowed smoke and flames with a woman screaming hysterically outside.  Kind folk tried to take her to safety, but she fought them, screaming, “My family!  My family is in there, dear gods, please!!

Elmiryn was deep in the reaches of that very home, aware on some level that it’d been dangerous and foolish, but it had drawn her there.  She could hear Sedwick shouting at her further away as he sent his water into the raging flames.

She…had hardly thought about it this time.

She’d just approached the inferno and pushed the flames aside with a thought, moving through the destroyed facade, a feeling like a fresh breeze greeting her before the notion was swallowed in the fury of the fires.

The ruined buildings around them were solid, real, and stark.  The gutted giants of mortar and metal were stained hot by the fury of great big beasts, creatures who had been too enthralled by their larger-than-life dramas to stop and take notice of the little skulls they crushed beneath a deadly step.  They had weight.  They were mammoths of life.  Did might make right, here?  Was their spirit stronger than the collective belief?  Could she withstand such a reality?  The bricks crumbled, the glass cracked, and Elmiryn could see the dusty hands of a child reach out of the rubble through the flames down the hallway.  Adjacent to the hallway was an open archway that led into what looked to be the study.  A young boy lay face down there.

Elmiryn stared up to the sky where once a person’s bedroom could be found, but whose contents now lay crushed and flaming beneath a chunk of meteorite.  The husband of the woman outside lay charred two steps away from her, his pale eyes, and blackened face turned toward the redhead’s ankles, as if any second he’d rise from death and chew them off.  Elmiryn knew it was the father because he was large and bore the remains of a white sash around his waist–a traditional mark of the head of a noble household.  Her father had once worn the same.

The air wavered from the heat, and her lungs would have been burning from the smoke…if she hadn’t been preventing the smoke from entering her lungs to begin with.  This effort was making her right eye’s vision snow out in a tunnel, whilst her left eye throbbed from taking up the slack of its twin.  She imagined this was what Nyx must have felt that time she’d lost half her sight.  A tingling had gone down her arm, and she realized that her right hand was going numb.

Meznik’s music was in her ear.

You needn’t push yourself out so far.

You see?  You’re taxing your spirit so much

That your body is being affected.

As I’m sure you’re aware,

I don’t agree with your current course,

But given your bullheadedness

And my inability to stop you at the moment,

I’ll just have to humor you.

Try this instead.

A simple suggestion will do.

The currents, the threads, the waves–

–However you’d like to call them–

They will leave you in peace if you focus.

The smoke has a special taste to it.

Repel it with a thought, and you’ll not be plagued.

She did as he said, and her vision slowly returned to her eye and her hand regained some of its feeling, but Elmiryn was trying hard not to think on the fact that she was doing it again, least of all that she was accepting Meznik’s guidance on the matter.

His musical voice was hidden from Sedwick, it seemed, for the man was more concerned with catching up.  A clear path swathed through the flames behind him.  Finally, his curses seemed to break through to her as he neared. “A damn, cocky-headed fool is what you are!” he snarled.  “What were you thinking running in that way!?”

She turned to regard him, her face somber, her hands clenched in front of her to hide their trembles.  “I wasn’t thinking,” she said honestly.

Passion was a doorway.  Her doorway.

Elmiryn turned to gaze at the young boy lying just out of her reach.  This time she couldn’t brush the flames aside because these fires were stronger, the weave that made them being more tightly knitted together.  She couldn’t undo them without harm to herself.  It was like touching molten metal.  Pain was spidering along her skull and down her neck, where it nestled between her shoulders in a tight knot.

You feel it, don’t you?

The backdrops of our stage.

She frowned and responded in kind, not moving as she felt Sedwick’s water spray the back of her shirt in his attempts to keep the heat at bay.

I can push and pull the flames and smoke.

I can raise the dust and stir the air.

But you won’t tell me how to undo the flames?

The music of his voice made the sound of laughter.

We mustn’t rush the process, now shall we?

Or do you wish to shed your human vestige here and now?

People are dying.

People who had no say, no warning, no way of defending themselves.

This isn’t right.

Chivalrous, are we?

You say people are dying.

I ask you, what are ‘people’

But roaches to be crushed?

You should be honored.

You are not one of them.

You are a demon’s precious toy.

“Elmiryn, look alive will you?  I think the house is going to collapse soon!”  Sedwick.

Elmiryn’s face softened as she looked at him, and she jerked her head over her shoulder.  “There’s a boy over there.  He might still be alive.”

“Then let’s handle this with care, or we won’t be of any help to anyone!” He said, his voice a low growl.  The man was upset.  The redhead could see though, in the lines of his face, that it was concern.  She’d scared him.

Elmiryn gave a nod and a grin.  “After you, Sed!”

Sedwick’s jaw tightened, but he moved quickly to where the flames rose high and blocked the way forward.  With arms raised, water came blasting from his fists and in short time the flames were extinguished with a loud hiss.  As soon as a way was clear, Elmiryn ran forward and knelt down by the boy.  Overhead, she heard the ceiling crack.  She didn’t spare time to look, but tried to touch the boy’s face.  Her hand went through him.

He was alive then.  Offhand, she wondered if, since she could not interact with the living, she could interact with the dead.

…But she wasn’t going to wait to find out.

Standing, she felt the weaves of dust beneath him–she was familiar with that pattern of reality now–and tried to beckon them to rise.  They didn’t budge, and she tried to force it.  Her breath grew short and her eyes fluttered as a sharp pain spiked through her, striking down from the top of her head to the tips of her toes.  When she swooned, Sedwick gripped her by the shoulders and kept her up.  “Elle!?” She fended him off as she heard Meznik speak.

Don’t get cocky.

Just because you can pull a few tricks,

Doesn’t mean you’ve mastered the art.

It’s one thing to redirect inanimate energy.

Another thing entirely to deal with living matter.

Life has weight.

Sedwick gave a wave of his arm, and water swept out of the air to slip under the boy, effectively cocooning him.  Without any further gesture, the boy was carted toward the exit with Sedwick close behind.  Elmiryn felt disappointed her tactic hadn’t worked…and then decided it was for the best.  She ran to catch up, mindful of the debris that began to fall in earnest.  The heat around them seemed to double now that she was paying more attention to them.  Sweat dripped from her chin, and she swore her hair was soaked to the tips.

They were out of the building.

There, they were greeted by the sight of the mother clutching at her son.  Her hysteria had taken on a hint of bewilderment as she stared at the place where Sedwick’s water had bore the youth safely from the flames.  Those around her managed to pry the boy from her hands long enough to try to get him conscious again.  Elmiryn turned away just as the boy’s eyes opened and he entered a coughing fit.  There was an ominous crack, and the building they had just escaped had its northern wall collapse entirely, bringing what remained of the second floor down to the ground.  The mother’s joy at seeing her son was silenced with numb shock.

Elmiryn sat on her hands and took a breath, one free of smoke and supernatural influence.

Sedwick loomed over her, arms crossed, an expectant scowl on his face.

“I won’t talk to you if you look down on me like that,” she said.  The man grunted but knelt down on one knee.  He sought her eyes, and with a flash of annoyance, Elmiryn met his gaze.

“Tell me what you did,” he demanded.

“I thought that was obvious.  I’ve just walked out of a burning building.”

Sedwick punched the ground, and Elmiryn gazed at him with brow raised.  “DON’T!” he snapped, his face quivering.  “No witticisms, no deflection, no pretense Elmiryn!  I want to know what’s really going on!”

The redhead’s lips tightened, almost in defiance.

Why not just tell him?

Tell him you are becoming a fae.

Tell him you are not bound by the same laws they are anymore.

Tell him about the dreams that feed me,

Or the lies that feed you,

Or the truths that undermine us both.

Elmiryn spoke slow, not to insult Sedwick, but because she wanted to give herself plenty of time to change her mind.  “I am seeing myself in everything and nothing.” She swallowed and repeated herself at the man’s lost look.  “I am seeing myself in everything and nothing.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I’m feeling more than I used to, and I can push things.  Pull things.”  Her hands clutched a fistful of dirt and she held it up.  The man’s gaze turned curious to see the way they trembled, but there was no use hiding it anymore.  “Everything has a pattern.  Having my soul ejected from my body was like a crash course in learning that lesson.  The only reason I’m keeping myself together is because I know my pattern.”

Sedwick blinked slowly at her.  “There was something else, wasn’t there?  When your spirit left us?  You saw something else!”

Elmiryn opened her palm and the dirt she held shifted up into the air in uneven clumps before collecting into a tight, perfect sphere that hovered over her hand. The man, if possible, turned even paler than usual.  “I told you I hadn’t found Meznik, and that was true,” she said.  “Instead, I found some of his inspiration–oozing like sap from the trees–and it told me how he does some of the things he does.”  Her face turned hard.  “It told me how I could do those things.”

“His power is a tainted thing!  Did you not just get through warning Quincy away from such a fate!?”  Sedwick rose to his feet, with a loud curse.  “You are impossible!”

Elmiryn made no attempt to apologize, nor did she feel the need to defend herself.  Instead she just watched the man pace back and forth.

“Hypocrite.”  The warrior turned and saw Quincy standing not too far away, a long metal rod over her shoulders and a glower on her heart-shaped face.  “I heard it all, and I say you’re a gods damned hypocrite.”

“I don’t contest that,” Elmiryn said with a shrug.  The orb of dirt crumbled, and she let it fall away.

“How can you be so nonchalant!?  You just brushed aside fire!” Sedwick shouted, his pale eyes like big polished pearls.  “Do you forget the things that creature has done using such powers!?”

The warrior didn’t like the man’s implications, and was quick to respond. “My goal is to kill Meznik, not save the fucking world.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he’s still completely out of our reach.  How do you expect to end his tyranny if we refuse the paths that lead straight to him?”  Elmiryn jabbed a finger into her breast, a hard look in her eyes.  “Who’s the one who cured Nadi of her madness?  Who’s the one who got the clues as to the whereabouts of his other trees?  Who’s the only one who can survive Meznik’s song?  I’m different, Sedwick.  That bastard’s curse is changing me, but he wants this.  He wants me to be able to see him one day.  If he wants to risk being run through once that day comes, then that’s fine by me.  But for now?  I have to play along.  I have no real choice.”

“There is always a choice,” Sedwick ground out.

“Not when he’s turning me into one of the fae, there isn’t.” Elmiryn was on her feet and feeling horrible for it, as if the whole of the last two hours were pressing down on her right then, but she remained standing to gaze levelly into the man’s eyes.  Even as she clenched her fists they shook, and she said again loudly,  “I am turning into a fae…”  The word sounded horrible to her ears.

Quincy appeared at the woman’s side with a frown on her face and azure eyes narrowed.  “What nonsense are you on about?  How can that be?”

Elmiryn let out a harsh laugh.  “I’m toying with the natural laws as we know it.  Is that not enough for you?”

“That can be some obscure form of magic…sorcery or some such.”

“Not when I can see color and emotion as something I could unravel.  Something I can eat.”  Elmiryn made the motion of pulling delicately at something in the air, then popping it into her mouth.

Sedwick rubbed at his face and said into the palm of his hand, “By the gods and all that is holy, the madness that haunts your life, woman…”

The redhead sighed and looked at her boots.  “I…there’s something else.”  She coughed and looked toward the sky.  “The wine,” she said after a long pause.  “I’ve…been suffering since last I had it.”  She swallowed at her dry throat and held up her hands.  It pained her, to show this weakness, but even she could not deny that this could no longer stay hidden.  “My hands won’t stop shaking…and the nausea and headaches seem to come in waves.”

“Fae can’t have wine…” Quincy breathed.  There was a look of fascination on her face.  “It’s their spiritual ban to be denied one of the basic pleasures lest they become lost in their vices.  They say the first taste makes them as bad as a long-time drunk.”

“How can this be?” Sedwick said, still sounding skeptical.  “The fae are high spirits, and powerful.  Only beings like Nadi can compel them!”

“Can’t you just tell?” Quincy gestured at Elmiryn.

“I’m not a bloodhound for the spirit world, thank you.”

“I don’t care if you don’t believe me,” Elmiryn snapped.  “I told you what there was to tell you, and that’s all!”

Liar.

You’re leaving out the best part.

Sedwick looked at Quincy.  The wizard brushed her pearl earring.  “Everything she’s said so far, my earring deemed vitally important.  I believe her.”

The warrior crossed her arms.  “Now, are we still calling my integrity into question, or can we go do some real good?”

The elemental pursed his lips. “So you’re suffering from withdrawal, and you still want to go into the line of danger?”

“I don’t recall needing your permission for that.”

Quincy shook her head.  “Elmiryn…the people here are taking care of things.  And if you want my professional opinion–“

“I don’t, but I have a feeling you’ll give it anyway–“

“You shouldn’t take risks with this.  You don’t know what the long term affects are, and you could be upsetting natural balances.”

“Are you telling me I can’t use this ability at all?”

“Can you name for certain what it is you do?

Elmiryn said nothing, but looked away and sucked at her teeth instead.

Quincy gave a satisfied nod.  “Exactly.  We can experiment later.  Run some tests.  I know a few alchemical tricks that can hopefully contain whatever it is you do.”  Elmiryn started to protest, but Quincy cut her off.  “We’re not trying to insult you.  We’re trying to help you understand.  Using an alien power without proper supervision could lead to trouble.  If this is another Tonatiuh…” she trailed off, her throat moving visibly.

Sedwick gave a jerk of his head.  “Come on.  Let’s go back to your home and rest.  You look like you need it.”

The warrior swiped at her nose and glared at her companions.

People.

Aren’t they such a bother?

Elmiryn let out the breath she’d been holding and rubbed at the back of her neck.  She’d gotten the impression that Quincy had just wanted to poke at her like a scholar who had found a new breed of animal, but Sedwick was looking at her with sympathetic eyes again.  This time, she didn’t bunch up and grit her teeth.  The ex-blacksmith had also seen his own people suffer.  He understood what it felt like.

She turned and let her eyes roam over surroundings, still searching for a reason to stay, to help.  But as she watched the Fiamman citizens in their fight for their homes, she knew…she was just a ghost here.

Without a word, the woman turned and began walking the way back to her home.  Quincy and Sedwick came alongside and Elmiryn felt a smile tweak her lips despite her frustrations.  After a time, she glanced at the wizard.

“New staff?” she asked mildly.

Quincy glanced at her.  “Sort of.”

Elmiryn frowned and leaned in close, her eyes fixed around the top of the brunette’s head.  The wizard leaned away from her, a scandalized look on her face.  “What?” she snapped.

The smile that had fought to surface appeared on the redhead’s face in full.

“…Wizard, some of your hair is standing on end.”

NYX____________________________

I was seeing things through the Somnium.  All was as depressing as when I first came here.

I sat on the bollard, back hunched, the water behind me a gurgling, hissing thing that made me think of mythical beasts and nightmares.  Praxidice gripped the platform edge, her claws gouged into the wood, her tail wrapped about the thick columns whose roots were swallowed up by the bay.  With her wings folded against her back, she was looking quite slim.  Before us sat The Big Brick.  The noble dragon’s head craned to me, and I looked at her.  I slid to my feet and gave the faintest of nods.

Praxidice let out a hiss, and faster than I’d seen her move, she charged toward the building.  It was perhaps an optical illusion, and I rubbed my eyes just to be sure, but the beast broke down the door and slipped in without trouble.  There was a commotion as the patrons inside reacted to the entrance exploding, but I doubted if they knew the true reason…

…Then again, I thought I heard the bartender screaming.

With a start, I ran after Praxidice.  Please understand, I didn’t want to go inside…but I had to.  I had to see this finish.  So many nightmares had been born in this place, I needed to know that the beasts of such imaginings would never again haunt me in life.

Inside, the tables were overturned, great claw marks gouged into the wood.  The patrons seemed shaken but okay.  The bartender, just as I’d suspected, was quite hysterical.

“Didn’t you all see!?” He screamed.  “The dragon!  There was a great big dragon!!

I didn’t stay to watch.  I went down the familiar hallway, and it stretched farther than when I’d first come with Tristi.  At the end, I was confronted with the colored hallways twisting in defiance of natural law.  I heard Praxidice screeching off to my right and went that way.  All the doors were open, and I could hear a great howling coming from each.  These were like pockets of Volo’s subconscious, and yet they seemed entirely aware of what his higher mind was going through.  They stopped their vile games and tore at their surroundings.  Tore at each other.  Two such creatures fell out into the hall, one having the face like female genitalia, the other with a mouth as big and as menacing as a shark’s.  As they wrestled on the floor, I leapt over them and kept going.

The shadows of Volo’s mind grew thicker the deeper in I went.  Thicker…but not stronger.

With a push, I willed for a way to his intimate chambers to be revealed.  As I went, it seemed nothing happened.  Then I rounded a corner, and there I was, facing the large hall where the floors were rumpled cashmere, and on either side of the aisle, couches and pillows waited like a hungry sea.  The people that had once lounged here were gone.

I hurried through, my heart doing a marathon in my chest.  Up ahead, I could hear Volo sobbing.

I came to the concrete chamber, and there I saw the naked backside of Volo curled up before the towering figure that was Praxidice.  Volo was still his crooked, angular, revolting self, only he was like a tiny child in comparison to the noble dragon.  In fact, as I neared, he looked even smaller than me.

He heard my approach and turned, his lips quivering and snot running from his nose.  Tears streamed from his black crusted eyes.  “The seekers have found me…” he said in a quavering voice.

“You deserved to be found, after all that you’ve done.” I was feeling apprehensive.  Did I really want to see this?

Volo looked at me sadly.  For a mad moment, I thought he was going to apologize.

Then he said, “I should’ve raped you when I had the chance.”

At that moment, Praxidice lashed out, and Volo’s horned head was crushed beneath her powerful jaws in an explosion of dark ichor.  I turned my face away as she had her meal.  It didn’t take long.  I heard her shifting toward me, and I looked up just in time to see Praxidice’s wing come round to sweep me close.  I could feel a breeze pick up, and that breeze became a powerful wind.  I covered my ears and let out a shout as all around us, things seemed to be coming apart.

When the din quieted, Praxidice pulled back her wing.  I lifted my head and blinked at our surroundings.  We were back in the front room of the whorehouse.  The dragon craned her head down and said to me, “Champion, the deed is done.  I am willing to take you away from here.  Where would you like to go?”

I looked at her carefully.  “Can you take me to Elmiryn?”

The dragon’s eyes narrowed, but she nodded.  “Aye, I can.”

In the same fashion as before, Praxidice slipped through the door without trouble, and I followed her.  I climbed up her offered back, and with arms clutched around her neck, I tried to conjure up my courage for the coming flight.

ELMIRYN________________________

Once home, Sedwick gestured for her to come upstairs.  “I want you to see.  It was the best I could do with eight arms.”

“Eight arms?”

“It’s an elemental thing.”

“Ah.”

Quincy stayed down stairs and announced she was helping herself to some tea.  She sounded exhausted and looked as if she could use it.  Elmiryn followed Sedwick up the stairs to her room, where he stood in front of the door like an anxious wife.  The mental image made Elmiryn grin, and she momentarily forgot about the wine that seemed to call her from across the hall…

“I hope it’s alright.  I know you aren’t going to stay here, but I thought you might like a place to rest should you wish to before we leave,” he said.

The woman shrugged.  “Sure!”

Sedwick opened the door.  Elmiryn’s brows went up high and she whistled.

The room still had the musty scent to it, but it wasn’t as bad as before.  The walls were clear of their stains, and the vomit had been swept up, leaving only a clean patch of wet carpet from where Sedwick had dealt with it.  The clothes were gone from the floor, and so was the broken furniture.  Elmiryn looked out the window, then at the man.  He held up his hands.

“It was the easiest route!” he said.

Elmiryn tried to keep her laughter tamped down, but in the end she was letting out loud and raucous peals that the man suffered with a sheepish grin.  Still chuckling, she stepped inside.  She glanced toward her closet and her smile turned wider.  “Hey!  You sorted out the clothes!”

Sedwick gave a nod.  “Not all of them.  The rest of the undamaged garments I tossed in the corner of the closet, but I pulled out these in case you wanted to change.”

The warrior looked down at herself.  “Good thinking!”  She snapped her fingers, “Speaking of which, I’d like a bath before we leave.”

The man frowned.  “You’d better hurry.  Nyx will be back soon, and I get the feeling staying too long will only invite trouble!”

Elmiryn pulled out her forest green gentleman’s coat with gold and black trim.  It had twelve ornamental braid loops on the front with gold buttons, otherwise known as frogs.  The shoulders were sharp, the coat was long, and the collar low-key.  She pulled out a pair of black britches, a cotton shirt, and a brown vest.

Then a mischievous glint came into her eye, and she asked,  “I don’t suppose you know where my underthings are, do you?”

The man’s red face had been priceless.

With her clothes in arms, Elmiryn started down the stairs.  She nodded to Quincy on her way to the kitchen, and the wizard returned the gesture.  Sedwick joined Quincy on the sofa and they began conversing about something mundane.  It was the first time they’d been able to rest like this in a while, and the warrior wanted to take advantage of it.

She went through the door to the back where, across from the servant’s room, was the wash room.  In the center of the little space sat Elmiryn’s brass tub, and she sighed at the sight of it.  Setting her clothes down, she went back into the kitchen and filled up another bucket of water.

Then an idea struck her.

Elmiryn peered out the door to where Sedwick and Quincy still talked.  Neither looked her way.  Rubbing her shaking hands, she reached up to the top cupboard and pulled out a small bottle of brandy.  She unscrewed the top and gave it a sniff.  The woman took a deeper breath, her eyes falling shut.  She looked at the door again.  “Just a splash, then…” she murmured, before taking a sip.

Everything in her pulled, and she felt the warmth spread over her tongue, then settle in her stomach.  She resisted taking a longer drink, and quickly replaced the cap.  She put the bottle back in its place in the cupboard, as if removing it from direct sight would help.  Elmiryn smacked her lips and an almost delirious smile spread across her face.  She turned to the bucket of water, and another idea came.

Once more looking to the door, the warrior tried to get a feel for the water’s pattern.  It was like air in that it was fluid and whimsical, but it was also heavier and thicker.  It would take ages to heat up the tub bucket by bucket.  But if she could speed up the process somehow?

Stir the pattern.

The element of excitement will cause heat.

Elmiryn closed her eyes and willed the basest aspects of the water to movement.  When her eyes opened, the bucket was steaming.

With a smug grin, she took the bucket to the tub.

NYX____________________________

We landed some ways from the sight of the great battle.  As I climbed off her back, Praxidice spoke.

“Your companion rests in that home there,” she gestured with her head at a two-story home with a red door and a stained glass window over it, which depicted a rose.  “I will be expecting your departure soon.  You have my gratitude for your aid, but your company brings about trouble.”

I gave a nervous bow.  “We’ll be gone within the hour!”  I straightened and backpedaled away.

The dragon gazed at me quietly for a moment, before saying, “You and your friends are on a twisting path, one that leads to unimaginable danger.”

This amused me in a dark sort of way, and I paused to bow once more.  “Then it is a good thing, Praxidice, that my god and I are good at surviving.”

The beast said nothing, and she took off, her great wings whipping the air into a torrent, and I watched her go with a look of awe.  As she became a golden dot in the sky, I slipped back out of the Somnium, and turned to the house that the dragon had gestured to.  For some reason, I was nervous.  Once in front of the door, I tugged at my clothes and knocked.

There was movement inside.  Within the next instant, the door was open, and I was face to face with–

“Oh!  I should’ve known that was all the commotion outside.”  Quincy stood at the door, a metal staff held before her as she looked me up and down.  Her eyes appeared red and swollen, and there was a roughness to her appearance that distanced her from the cold-voiced, blonde haired wizard I had remembered her to be.  Still, she had clearly recovered from her previous shock to be able to stand before me as she was.

I stared at her, mouth open.  Then, stupidly, I asked, “Is…Elmiryn here?”

The wizard gave a wry smile and stepped aside.  “She was puttering around in the back last I saw her.”

I hesitated a moment before entering.  Inside, I blinked.  The home was clearly belonging to one of the upper class.  What really caught my eye was the portrait hanging over the fireplace.  “Sweet Aelurus!  Is that…!?”

Sedwick stood from the sofa he’d been sitting on.  “Elmiryn’s family,” he finished with a grin.

“Hello again, Sedwick.”  Even as I said this, my eyes were still on the portrait.  Elmiryn had her mother’s smile.  It was clear where she got her beauty from.

“We’re waiting for Elmiryn.  She said it was fine to help ourselves, so we’ve some fresh tea here.  I imagine she has some food in the kitchen, as well.”  My stomach, as if on cue, gave a loud rumble.  I laid a hand on it as I blushed.  Sedwick laughed and pointed.  “The kitchen is just there.”

I smiled my thanks, and with a furtive glance at Quincy, I hurried through the parlor and entered the kitchen.  Inside, there was pickled pork, fresh herbs and vegetables.  I eyed the meat hungrily.  I could eat things raw when I was spiritually whole, but without my Twin with me, I wondered if my constitution could handle it.  I preferred my food cooked, anyway.  Except fish.  I could eat raw fish all day.

…Sorry.  I’m getting distracted.

Anyway–I started unscrewing one of the jars of pickled meat when I heard someone singing through the back door.  My ear tweaked, and I recognized it.  That was Elmiryn.  Slowly, I set the jar down and began to move toward the sound.  It’d been sometime since I’d heard her sing, and I found I missed it.  It came from behind a slim wooden door, and I pressed my ear to the surface and closed my eyes.

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

I didn’t know the song, but there was something haunting about it that had me pull back with a frown.  I opened the door and poked my head in.

Elmiryn was sitting in a small tub, sponge in hand, with one leg lifted in the air as she wrung water over it.  Her hair was wet, her skin glistening, and her breasts–

She stopped singing abruptly and snapped her eyes on me.  I let out a squeak and pulled back, but didn’t close the door all the way. “Oh gods!” I breathed, shaking.  I leaned in and said through the crack, “I–I’m so sorry, Elle!  I had no idea!  They didn’t tell me you were…”

“Naked?” she offered.  I could hear the smile in her voice and felt my skin flare red.

I gripped the doorknob tightly.  My breath was labored and my heart was turning my ribs into an instrument again.  After everything I’d been through, somehow this had been the greatest shock.  I was frozen in place, uncertain of what to do.

Elmiryn’s voice floated to me.  “Well…we could just sit here with you breathing heavily at the door whilst I finish my bath…OR, you could do one of two things.”  I heard water trickling on the other side and swallowed audibly.  “First,” Elmiryn went on.  “You could shut the door and walk away.”  My palms were turning sweaty and I was trembling all over.  “Or…” and her voice took on a mild tone.  “You could just come inside.”

I pressed my head against the door, trying to will some sense of calm into me.  Then I realized that there wouldn’t be any calm until I made a choice.

Walk a path girl.  Any path.  But walk.

I ran a hand through my hair and let out a breath.

…Then I walked in and shut the door behind me.


Back to Chapter 25.1 | Forward to Chapter 25.3

Chapter 25.1

“But now, alas! the place seems changed;
Thou art no longer here:
Part of the sunshine of the scene
With thee did disappear.

Though thoughts, deep-rooted in my heart,
Like pine-trees dark and high,
Subdue the light of noon, and breathe
A low and ceaseless sigh;

This memory brightens o’er the past,
As when the sun, concealed
Behind some cloud that near us hangs
Shines on a distant field.”

— Excerpt of “A Gleam of Sunshine” By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

ELMIRYN________________________

Their surroundings smoldered, and her ears rang, the call of the void filling her head on an almost maddening level.  The warrior rubbed at her ears as if hoping to chase the sound out, but she knew it was no use.  She’d been near enough explosions and cannon blasts to know that it would take time for that to leave her.  What a stubborn guest, that hollow sound, to invade her thoughts so.  A flickering of affection warmed her chest, and Elmiryn was taken back to battles long since past.  In the static ring, she thought she could hear Saelin calling to her.  What advice could he give her, here?  Now?  Such a stubborn, stubborn guest, this sound.

And such a stubborn, stubborn host, was she.

There was something to the bullheaded almost masochistic nature of people that Elmiryn had always found appealing.  It was the addiction peeking just at the edges of masks that beguiled her into thinking that everything would be just fine after this one thing was taken care of.  As a child, she recalled the almost ghoulish delight at the self-destructive natures that undid adults.  Now an adult herself, that delight had quieted, especially given her recent problems, but still the fascination lingered.  It was what made Nyx enthralling.  What had made Lethia inspiring.  What had made Graziano so amusing.

Now she had (literally) seen that hungry beast of passion swallow Quincy whole.  Yet, that seducing promise that everything would be okay after this one thing was taken care of, rang hollow–like the void Elmiryn heard ringing in her ears.  If the wizard plunged that sword into her heart, it could be the ultimate end.  Elmiryn could see it.  Had even tasted it when her spirit was cast from her body and the world was hers to feel.  If only she could defuse this situation with one good pull of thread, like she’d done to the dust and the air.

But that weave was a great deal more complicated than she’d previously encountered, and it irked her that Meznik could handle it, if only he were inclined to.

“Quincy.” Elmiryn’s voice was soft.  She held her sword off to the side and stretched a hand out.  “Give us the sword.”

“It’s mine,” the wizard said.  Her voice was low and chilled.  A ghostly reminder of who she’d once been when Tonatiuh’s spirit had been inside her, taking all the warmth of her soul and leaving her a cold husk.  But then Quincy’s azure eyes snapped open as Praxidice’s heavy steps crunched near, and they flared with feeling.

Hard to keep indifferent when a giant beast of legend came your way.

The dragon rumbled, its eyes narrowed as it towered over the woman.  It let out a hot breath that fluttered the wizard’s hair.  Elmiryn heard that serpentine voice waft its way into her ears, just as she had heard before.  She looked at Nyx, but the girl showed no signs of hearing this time.

Praxidice’s voice hissed from afar, “I honor our agreement only on the condition that you and your fellows cause me no trouble.  That peace is currently being threatened.”  The last word became an ominous growl.

Though she could not hear, the wizard seemed to understand the dragon’s meaning.  She did not lower the sword even as the beast bared its teeth at her.  “It’s mine,” she said again, her obstinacy giving her voice fire.

“Why kill yourself?  Why now?” Nyx asked.  There was something hard about the way the Ailuran said this.

Elmiryn answered her.  “She’s not trying to kill herself, though she could very well die a fool’s death.” The warrior glared at the brunette in question.  “She wants to take Tonatiuh’s spirit into her heart.”

The Ailuran balked.  “That’s lunacy!”

“You would know everything about it, Ailuran, I’m sure.  So spare me.” Quincy’s eyes cut at the girl before flickering to the dragon again.  “I have to do this.”

“You do not,” a gruff voice said.

Elmiryn saw Sedwick come near.  The warrior sighed a little in relief.  The man was okay.  She said to him, “Sedwick, she’s out of her mind.”

“My mind is here and it is well ordered, thank you.” Quincy snapped.  Her breath sounded short.  The wizard had been eerily calm upon her deliverance from death, or perhaps it had been relief in finally having her sword back–but that relief was fast fading, and Elmiryn could see her resolve waver as clear as ripples on water.  If Quincy had no doubt, the sword would have found a place in her heart already.  Yet she hesitated, trying to bring back her nerve.

There was still a chance to talk her out of it.

“I know what I’m doing,” Quincy said, almost to herself, and Elmiryn could see her grip on her sword turn white-knuckled.

“So then why haven’t you done it yet?” Nyx asked coolly.

Elmiryn glanced at the girl, a little surprised at the lack of sympathy.  Then again, Nyx hadn’t been given many reasons to like the wizard.

“Tonatiuh is an unstable spirit, Quincy,” the warrior started.  “Taking him into your heart is like…” she trailed off, unsure of what to say.

“Inviting a fox into your hen house,” Sedwick finished helpfully.  He slowly began to approach Quincy.  “Please.  Give it here.  We’ll take care of it.”  The wizard watched his approach with growing trepidation on her face.  Then at the last moment she sprung away, and the dragon hissed loudly, wings spreading back as it snapped at her in warning.  She backpedaled until a low wall of rubble knocked the backs of her knees.

Quincy shook her head emphatically, her locks of hair clinging to the sides of her sweaty face and neck.  “You don’t know the trouble I went through for this sword!” she screamed.  “It is mine!  Mine! It was all I had when my home was destroyed.  I’ve fought all manners of creatures and men to keep it in my hands so that one day I could kill the men who gave it to me.  The sword is not complete until Tonatiuh is inside it, and in turn, I am not complete until he is inside me.  I am nothing without this!”  Her voice broached on hysterical, just like back in Gamath.  Tears were shining in her eyes.

Elmiryn threw her hands up into the air and turned away.  “Well…fuck.  I’ll give you this.  For once I don’t know what to say.”  The woman spat at the ground and put away her sword. “Fine.  Run yourself through.  If that’s all you’ve got, then you really aren’t worth my time.”  She gestured for Nyx to follow.  “Come on, Nyx.  Let’s see if we can do something to help the city.” The girl started to follow her, and her tawny eyes flashed with knowing.

Elmiryn kept walking, her ears perked for that moment when–

“Why walk now?” Quincy shouted.  Her voice was hoarse.  Even insulted.  “Why turn and flee when your tongue is still weighed by our oath!?

She’d expected the wizard’s ego to take offense at her words, but her response had taken things too far.  They called Elmiryn’s honor into question, and she didn’t take kindly to it.

With a tight neck, she turned to send a searing gaze Quincy’s way. “Because, you dolt.  I cannot help you in your goals if you would seek to undo them yourself.”  Elmiryn gestured at the mountain of gold and corpses that Tonatiuh had regurgitated.  She tried to keep her hands steady because they had started shaking.  “You will be a gods damned queen of light, shining your attention on all the wrong things.  Your hallmark will be gold and death, and none will weep for your dogheart, least of all me.

“You were supposed to be so much more.  Someone with honor, and skill, and intelligence!  What about your promise to Graziano’s spirit?  What about your goal of finding your husband?  You want this so bad?”  Elmiryn pointed at a grinning skull near her feet, a ruby in its mouth and gold coins scattered about it.  “Then just pierce your heart now, and expect my sword to join your pain and stop this madness from ever happening again.  Praxidice will happily feast on your remains, Paulo will be lost to the four winds, and your husband will walk the earth with a hole in his fucking chest because you, Quincy, could not be completed by anything save the hungry fang of a mad spirit!”

Elmiryn took a breath, a rush of release easing the muscles in her back.  She swallowed at the fist in her throat and was reminded of her thirst.  “I can’t walk in step with something so ass backwards.  I’m backwards enough on my own.”  She turned her body a quarter so that she didn’t face the wizard anymore.  She clenched her fists to keep her hands still.  The shakes had reached their peak.

Nyx touched her bicep, giving it a squeeze, before she turned and went back.  Elmiryn didn’t look, but heard the girl speak.  “Quincy…Praxidice is the guardian of this place, and her sisters are lost.  Give her Tonatiuh.  He will be your end if you don’t.”  The coldness and derision had left the Ailuran’s voice.  All that could be heard was reason and a gentle beseeching of peace.

Her words lingered in the air, edging out the void that had nestled in Elmiryn’s ears.

Everyone seemed suspended, caught in the indecision for what appeared to be ages.

Then there was the sharp sound of a blade cutting into soil.  The redhead looked up.

Quincy was weeping silently, tears streaking down her blotchy face as she backed away from Tonatiuh’s blade, which she had sunk into the rubble before Praxidice. She took one step back, then another.  It was like the brunette had to fight her body every bit of the way, for she curled as if physically pained.

She was saying over and over under her breath, “Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…Her voice trembled.

The dragon regarded her for a beat before dropping her head low.  Her slitted nostrils flared and she snorted at the hilt.  Then with a twist of her neck, the beast took the golden blade between her fangs.  Praxidice’s neck muscles bunched and her head shook as she tried to crush the sword between her jaws.  The blade flashed, and the warrior thought she heard a distant scream just before the dragon succeeded.  The metal broke apart and crumbled to sand, turning dark as obsidian as it fell.  The hilt, purposeless, lay absent in the dirt.

The air felt lighter.  Elmiryn took a deep breath as did Nyx.  “A shard of the original sun god is lost…” the warrior murmured.  All turned to her, and she explained.  “When Nathric tore Ortus apart, he consumed his pieces.  When the last three pieces were saved, it was assumed that Praxidice and her sisters had taken in the natures of the other four.  But there were only three dragons, and if Nathric, the shadow king, was made full by but one shard of a god…why wouldn’t the dragons?”

“Tonatiuh was a shard of Ortus…” Nyx breathed.

Sedwick shook his head.  “A shard of a shard.  No doubt, Nathric’s remains were scattered by his followers.  If Tonatiuh were complete, he would’ve been in the sky to wage war with his brothers.  Maybe he had found the other pieces of himself and was close to being whole.  Maybe the dragons didn’t take a full seventh of Ortus, but just a sixteenth.  It would explain how Tonatiuh was so strong against them, yet still not strong enough to go to heaven.” He looked at Quincy.  “He needed more.  He had to possess something just to exist fully in our world, like that sword…Like you.” His pale eyes were apologetic.

Quincy’s voice was hollow.  “It doesn’t matter.  None of it matters now.”  She sat on the ground and looked ill, a sentiment that Elmiryn could sympathize with but for different reasons.  The wizard trembled visibly and looked like a small child.  “Oh my gods…what did I just do?” the wizard breathed.

The warrior looked at the tips of her boots.  Her cotton shirt fluttered in the hot breeze.  The acrid scent of things burning sent her thoughts downward.

The dragon, who seemed to sit dwelling on Tonatiuh’s remains, turned and moved toward the remains of her sisters.  She nudged their bloody flesh with her snout and a low whine came up from deep inside her.

“She needs time…” Nyx breathed. She looked at Elmiryn as the woman turned on the spot, taking in the destruction.  “Elmiryn, how do you feel?”

“The battle is done,” the warrior muttered.  “The aftermath…it…this feels like a battlefield.” She shook her head and remembered the rush of exhilaration she’d felt in the past from walking the city streets.  The wine-stained images, the oil slick portraits, the soft crayon memories were white washed in the face of her curse.  But her heart still turned with the fondness she had for the backwards city and its bullheaded, self-destructive, masochistic people. “This is Malvene.  A city.  Home for so many, and once…it was home to me.  This…they were never supposed to know something like this,” Elmiryn finished.  She looked at Sedwick.  “Help me put out these fires, Sedwick.  They’re spreading to the other buildings.”  Her voice took on a note of authority.

The elemental nodded with a resolute look on his face.  “Lead the way.”

Elmiryn turned to Nyx.  “You had business with Praxidice, right?”

Nyx nodded, looking not at all thrilled at the prospect of separating again.  “I promised her a spirit she’s been wanting for a long time.”  The Ailuran looked at Praxidice, and gave a start.  Elmiryn followed her gaze.

The dragon was eating her sisters’ remains.  The crunch of bones and the unpleasant ‘squelch’ of flesh filled the air.

“She’s becoming one with them.  Taking their power,” Sedwick readily explained.

Elmiryn looked around, and sure enough, through the pillars of smoke that curled up from the burning city, she could see the shadowy giants she had spied when first arriving at the shard.  She gave a nod.  “If she doesn’t, then others will come and take what is left.  That would be dangerous.”

Nyx gave a slow nod, though she was clearly sickened by the idea.  “I’ll go check on Farrel then, until Praxidice is…done.”

Elmiryn touched her shoulder, then her hair, and offered a smile.

The girl looked at her softly.  “Will you be okay?” Nyx asked.  “You don’t look well.”

The warrior just smiled wider in response.  Her eyes flickered to Quincy, who had not moved in all this time, tears still falling from her eyes as she stared wide-eyed at the black pile that was once her sword.  Elmiryn gestured for Sedwick to follow her and gave Nyx a jaunty two-finger salute before turning away.  The smile wiped from her face as soon as Nyx couldn’t see.  The man fell into step next to her.  “You sure you’ll be alright?” he asked quietly.

Elmiryn smacked her dry mouth and gave him a sidelong glance.  “This’ll sound weird, and I’d prefer not to think on how you’ll provide it…but do you think you could give me some water?

NYX____________________________

I watched Elmiryn go with my lip between my teeth.  This was her home, her people that had suffered.  I knew how I’d feel if such were the case for me.  With the battle done with, there was nothing left to do but deal with the aftermath.  The same rang true for all of us.

A look at Quincy told me the wizard was in a sort of shock over what had just happened.  While I knew it had been necessary to persuade her, it made me uncomfortable to know that my bardic ability could bring about such results.

Yes.  I had in fact used my power on the wizard.  I was certain she could see it, being trained in the art of magic herself, but there was no guile in my words.  Were it not for everyone else’s pleas, it may not have worked at all.  If it were up to me alone, the effort would have been lost, I’m sure.  I mean–I just didn’t understand, and surely Quincy would have seen that.  Felt it.  How could anyone place so much value on such a dangerous item?  It was alien to me.  I kept trinkets myself, and especially knew the importance of keeping such a thing when it once belonged to a deceased loved one, but when that item sought to destroy you and everyone around you?  Was it still worth keeping then?  Aside from my discomfort over being associated with such pain, I could not conjure up the sympathy for the woman’s plight.

I turned next to Halward’s remaining familiar.

Praxidice chewed her sisters’ remains slowly, her wings sagged and her head bowed low.  Was this how noble beasts mourned?  I turned away, an uncomfortable feeling claw its way up my spine and into my gut.

I had to find Farrel.

At first it was hard for me to get my bearings because the landscape had been changed.  The new crater overlapped the old.  In the distance, through the smoke that crowded the air, I could see the Halward statue.  Using that as my reference, I reoriented myself and started in the direction that I guessed Farrel to be.  I went far, certain he would have fled to a safer distance.  I prayed that he did.  Tonatiuh’s second impact surely would have killed him if he hadn’t.

“Farrel!” I called, cupping my hands around my mouth.  “Farrel, can you hear me!?”

No answer.  I sighed and tried to pick him out from the desolate surroundings.  “Where are you…?” I breathed.

I searched and searched…but there was no sign of him.  “He really did run away,” I thought.  The feelings associated with this realization were mixed.

I was relieved.  While the simple fact that I hadn’t encountered his corpse either meant he was buried under rubble or perhaps even blown apart to bloody pieces, I chose to believe he was alive.  But then if that were truly the case, I was angry at him.  After all, hadn’t I risked my neck to free him of Volo?  Hidden amidst these feelings was also concern.  Farrel’s twisted sense of judgment could be his undoing in a strange dimension like this.  I felt betrayed, too.  Still vivid in my mind was the memory of a man just trying to do the right thing in a tough situation.

And lastly…I was ashamed.  I felt Farrel’s actions mirrored my character from just a year ago.  I could understand his decision, and for all my feelings, I could empathize with it, as I could not with Quincy.  Did that make him bad?  And if so, what did that say about me?

I felt the pain of being anathema all over again, only I wasn’t given time to dwell.

The sound of wings in the air had me looking up with a start.  Praxidice swooped down to land before me, and her churning of the wind sent dust into my eyes and my hair whipped about my face.  I shielded myself until the air settled once more, and the dragon peered at me, something about her gaze even more electric than when I had first met her.  Her scales had become pristine once more, and glittered a mirror-like gold.  My hairs stood on end to feel such undiluted power.  She was one with her sisters, now.

I nodded once at her.  “To Volo, then,” I murmured.

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy couldn’t feel her feet or her hands.  Her head lolled to the side and the tears fell from her glassy eyes.  The obsidian pile of dust before her reminded her of the I’equa tear she had crushed back in Belcliff.  There was a myth about the clear divining stones, stating that they were the products of angels.  The stones reacted to the spiritual environment, revealing any number of things–from damaged intellectual clusters, tainted spiritual landscapes, and abnormal levels of energy.  When an I’equa tear turned black, it meant insidious magic was in the air.

To see her golden blade turned so evil a color made her heart still in her chest.

“You were mine…” she whispered.

She heard the tinkle of metal buckles and the crunch of boots over the dirt.  “These things come and go, little one,” Tristi’s voice said behind her.

Quincy responded without turning her head. “That sword had been with me since I could remember.”

“Isn’t it nice to be freed of such a burden?” Tristi sat next to her cross legged. “I still recall you, a teeny girl, dragging the rusty blade behind you through the jungle.”  He chuckled.  “It was your favorite prop to play with after Hakeem helped you get over your fear of–”

“Are we reminiscing now?” Quincy asked, her voice regaining some hardness.  She glared at Tristi as she wiped at her eyes.  “I’m not a total fool.  Tonatiuh was not a loved one, and memories of him are filled with struggle.  Pain.”

“Then why mourn him?”

“I’m not mourning him.” Quincy looked at the obsidian pile.  “I mourn the things I could’ve achieved with him.”

Tristi chuckled.  “You mean an early death?”

“A victory.  A peace.  Tonatiuh kept my heart still when it was going to leap out of my mouth, and he kept me focused when weakness sought to distract me.  You saw all that raw power.  He took on three powerful dragons and would have won, if only he’d thought about the sword in my hand…”

The champion of luck tilted his head back and sighed.  “Ahhh….to know such ignorance!  Tonatiuh has kept your spirit dormant for quite a while for your heady heart to be so easily charmed!”

Quincy cut him a look.  “What?”

“How old are you now, exactly?”

The wizard paused, ashamed that she needed to think about it.  “I’m…thirty.  I think.”

“An odd thing to hold in doubt, isn’t it fledgeling?”

“Nitwit.  I was never told when I was born, so of course I cannot know the exact number.”

Tristi looked at her, his face somber.  “My apologies.  Jack never told you?”

“Why would he?  He wasn’t present at my birthing.  He wasn’t even there when mother died.”  Quincy felt her tears come up again and grit her teeth, a rush of anger seizing her.  “He came just after the birds took her eyes, and then he whisked me away.”

Tristi cleared his throat and stretched his legs out.  “Ah…well.  I was just trying to point out to you, through your cloud of delusion, the way misguided idealism is ill fitted for one your age.  Your emotions leap away from you, and you let logic lie forgotten.  I’d expect this of an adolescent, not of you.”

Quincy felt insulted–so much so that she wanted to say something in retaliation.  Something nasty.  Something cruel.  But the words failed to come to her, so she sat there glaring at the champion with eyes holding all the wishes of spontaneous combustion.  Tristi chuckled at her.  “Come now!  There’s nothing to be ashamed of!  Did Tonatiuh not steel your heart from all feeling?  Well let those freed emotions rip you apart, and with haste!  I’ve a feeling you’ve years of joy and agony to catch up on.”

Joy.  Agony.

How stupid.

Quincy glared at the mountain of riches before her.  Such meaningless things, mingled with such macabre prizes.  The wizard had no idea whose corpses lay before her, and she didn’t want to.  She looked at the weapons next.  The arsenal that Tristi had rained upon them all was either buried from the impact or destroyed entirely.  What lay before Quincy now were the weapons that Tonatiuh had kept inside him.  Much of it seemed mundane and unrecognizable.  That was until–

“Oh my gods!” Quincy’s eyes widened as she jumped to her feet and hurried toward a long staff she saw protruding from the mouth of a skull.  “My lightning staff!  The one that Master Saerth gave me!” She pulled it out of the skull’s mouth and gazed at it in wonder.  “Tonatiuh consumed this years ago!  I had no idea it was still intact!” She squeezed the staff too hard and there was a great zap that sent the woman to her butt.  Little flashes of energy crawled along the ground before vanishing from sight.

Face twitching, Quincy dropped the staff.  “I…I f-forgot ab…ab-about that,” she stammered out.

Tristi burst out laughing. “Your hair is on end!”

The wizard, blushing, tried to smooth her hair with jerky hands, but let out a cry when she was shocked with static more than once.  She turned her head, and her task was forgotten in a startled laugh.  “And here!” She crawled over the other trinkets and plucked up a large wooden boomerang.  It was painted in faded yellow, with blue stripes at the ends and a lined green triangle at its center.  “My old boomerang!  This is Eate’s Son!  It can conjure up small tornadoes!”  Quincy searched the ground, her eyes excited.  “There must be more!”

The wizard let out a shout and dropped the boomerang.  Stumbling to her feet, she next went and picked up a small wand.  “My Wand of Beasts!”  She looked at Tristi ominously.  “I should use this to turn you into a toad.”

“Having seen you knocked on your sweet bottom, I think I have nothing to fear,” Tristi teased.

Quincy glared at him as she tried to smooth her hair down again.  When this still proved a losing battle, the woman abandoned the effort and went instead for her leather pouch.  Carefully she slipped the wand in, and the item vanished into the magic bag’s vast depths.  Next she returned to the boomerang and did the same.  She stooped and picked up the staff again, this time holding it carefully.  She leaned it against her shoulder and drew the bag closed.  As she did so, she saw something glinting next to her foot.  Quincy’s breath caught.

Slowly, she stooped down and picked up her Ring of Living Death.

“And what delicious little item is that?” Tristi asked.

Quincy opened her bag again slowly and dropped the ring inside.  “A small piece of a nightmare,” she whispered.

“Mmm…yes.  Nightmares.  It was like the one I’d had naught but a fortnight ago, where I dreamt I was a man.  How prophetic!”

The brunette’s hands slowed as she tied the bag to her belt.  Slowly, her eyes fastened on Tristi.  “That…makes no sense.  You are a man.”

Tristi nodded good-naturedly.  “Yes.  Currently.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I was the contrary before.”

“You were a woman?”

“Don’t you remember my chance magic?”

“Yes of course I do, but I don’t see the use in having your gender change!”

Tristi let out a haughty laugh.  “Ha!  Shows what you know, little bird.  Chance magic is not about suiting my every need.  It’s about utilizing my fortune, and that is an element of chaos for good or bad.  I cannot control it.  If I were to will my magic to turn my opponent into a crying babe, I’d just as soon see my head turned into a potted plant!  Anything could happen!”

Quincy shook her head, her nose wrinkled.  The idea of chance magic was alien to their world, and in all her years reading about the various arcane schools, the concept was equally bewildering and abhorrent.  “So your gender change was a case of…misfortune?”

“Hardly.  Whilst in the male form I can piss upright, have people take me seriously the first time, and feel ridiculously empowered by my genitals.”  The wizard stared at him.  Tristi added as an after thought, “Oh, and there’s certain chance spells available to me in the male form.  My stunt with the lance being one of them.  It’s also easier to touch on certain direct outcomes versus when I’m a woman.  Now when I’m asexual I can–”

Quincy cut him off, visibly repulsed.  “Ah, no…no thank you, Tristi, I…yes, I get the point.”  She shook her head.  “If I may ask, as this has always been a mystery to me, but…what are you?”

Tristi raised an eyebrow as he stood to his feet, his jacket tinkling with his movements.  “What am I?”

“Yes.  What are you?”

“A man.  I just said.”

The wizard bared her teeth.  “No!  I mean what is your species?

Tristi looked at her mischievously as he stooped over and grabbed a handful of the obsidian sand.  “Now why would you need to know a thing like that for?”

Quincy frowned as she watched the man pocket the sand and dust his hands.  “Call it curiosity…” she said slowly.  “I…Tristi, why are you taking that sand?”

He gave her a mild look.  “Can I not?”

“Can’t you ever give a straightforward answer?”

Tristi’s smile took on an edge and the wizard gripped the staff before her, feeling her heartbeat quicken.  “We all must have our mysteries.”

The wizard bit her tongue and looked away.  When she composed herself enough to speak, she growled out.  “Tristi, you are a fool.”

“And thou art a lovely virago, but let’s not let these things overtake us.  Come, come!” He clapped his hands together and gestured at himself.  “You have yet to ask me of your father!”

“What about him?  He’s dead, and that’s all I care about.”

Tristi gave her a weird look.  “Fledgeling, where did you hear this?”

Quincy’s sweat chilled as she regarded the man with a wary turn of her head.  “It was happening all over.  Hundreds of Legends, gone!  Champions dead!  People rising up to hunt them all down!  Amidst it all, I’d heard that a man of the winds had been taken in the South Seas.  Are you telling me I’m wrong to think–?”

The champion of luck shook his head, his fanged smile in place.  “No, no, silly bird!  There was but one champion taken that matches what you say, and it was Ludovico, champion of Eate!  God of storms!”  The man rubbed his chin, his eyes looking up in a wistful way.  “I hadn’t been there, but I’d felt the ripple of fortune from clear across the world.  Such a bad turn of luck to see one so powerful go down.”

Quincy felt ill all over again.  “Tristi, if Jack is alive, where is he?”

“You have to understand, we weren’t all killed.  Some of us were too smart, too powerful–”

“Tristi–”

“Those of us whose patrons mastered the foundations of our world knew even greater favor–”

“Where is he–”

“Fortuna had a hand in it of course, but Lacertli may have–”

Quincy slammed the end of the staff into the ground, sending lightning jutting up into the sky in a hot spear of white light.  The ground surged with static and flares of electricity.  Then all quieted.  The wizard leaned against the pole, panting, her hair about her eyes as she stared wildly at the champion.  “Where…is…my father?” she hissed.

Tristi gazed passively at the wizard.  The firelight caught his half-moon glasses and concealed his eyes.  His ridged ears gave a twitch and he tilted his head, as if hearing something very faint.  He let out a small grunt, then pulled a coin from his pocket.  He flipped it in the air, and the coin rang as it rose, then fell.  Tristi caught it in his gloved hand and slapped it to the back of his other.  “Call it.  The crown or the scales?” he said.

Quincy narrowed her eyes at him.  Then she whispered, “The crown.”

Slowly, Tristi pulled his hand away.  He looked at her and flashed a predatory smile.

“Jack toils in the heart of the Hellas, fighting the sea beasts of Atargatis.  The treacherousness that has sailors fearful comes from his protracted battle.  He is not the man he once was, little bird.” Tristi tilted his head to the side, his smile twitched once.  “…And though you haven’t asked, Tobias travels to the Far East, to speak with the Queen of the Sands.”  He took a step back, and bowed.  The back of his glove began to glow, and yellow symbols flashed through the air, surrounding him in a sphere.  Quincy squinted, taking a wary step back.  “Now, I fear, I have fulfilled Fortuna’s wishes.  My job here is done.  Goodbye little fledgeling.  Do give Nyx my warmest regards?”  The man looked up and winked once before he flared out of sight–the lights gone with him.

Quincy stared, swaying a little on the spot.  “All these years…they’d both been alive.”  Her expression turned pained.  “Tonatiuh is gone now…”  Then she looked at the staff in her hands, and her azure eyes glinted.

“He’s gone,” she growled.  “And He isn’t coming back.”

She started after Elmiryn and Sedwick, her metal staff over her shoulders.  Her steps were clumsy, and she slipped on the sandy rocks and loose dust, her toes snagging the edges of raised ground and hard edges.  Quincy kept moving, and didn’t look back at the pile of black dust that spread with the wind.  There were other matters to deal with now.  Tristi had been right, there was no use in mourning what could have been.  Her heart was like a rabbit’s beneath her chest, and the brunette felt it beat beneath her jerkin.

I’ve a feeling you’ve years of joy and agony to catch up on.

Joy.  Agony.

How…stupid.

Quincy’s brow wrinkled and she slowed as something occurred to her.

“Wait…what did Tristi mean when he said he’d fulfilled Fortuna’s wishes?


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