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Chapter 34.4

Within a single stage, the Twins stood, both assessing the drama before them as would an audience at the theater. They felt more in sync than ever they had, and yet their thoughts revolved around each other, never touching. Their world felt…wider, somehow. But pulling at them was a force that demanded presence, and with their mindscape torn asunder, neither could leave the conscious realm. As their spirits responded to the situations before them, so did their presence ebb and flow like water, always leaving one sister to face the world even as the other slipped away, lost to the turns of their shared heart.

Elmiryn’s lamentations did not stir Kali, and the feline only huffed at the warrior’s complaints.

ELMIRYN

Argh! Why does my family always do this!?

But Nyx’s sympathy flowed powerful, bringing the light of reality harsh onto her countenance.

NYX

If that’s the case, Elle…then…

And with great force, the girl suddenly remembered the entire reason she chose to be a champion of heaven in the first place.

NYX

Sweet Aelurus! Elmiryn, this is wonderful! Don’t you see? This is a chance for you to restore your family’s honor! You can make amends by restoring Harmony!

Nyx gestured emphatically toward the world view, her face lit with excitement. Her feline counterpart, however, regarded her with trepidation. Their synchronization stumbled, birthing a distance between them. Kali slipped further into the shadow of their mind as her sister drifted toward the light of the world.

She looked at the large cat, still beaming.

NYX

Think about it! Do you remember what Lacertli…

Then abruptly she stopped, her enthusiasm waning.

NYX

Oh. I suppose you wouldn’t.

 

KALI

No…

Nyx thought a moment, then opened her mouth to speak–

LACERTLI

I see thou have come a long way since last we parted, to so eagerly fill your station.

 

ELMIRYN

You!

And then the time for speaking ended, and the girl did the first thing that came to mind…

NYX____________________________

I made Elmiryn sink into the shadows.

Not…not all the way mind you. Just enough so that her legs sunk in, and she couldn’t move. The look on her face I’ll never forget, and I make a point of reminding Elle whenever it strikes me to: Eyes like fat tall eggs, shoulders pinned to her ears, her mouth hung open like a nightie flap.

Then, that delayed look of realization.

Nyx, what the HELL!?

Quincy burst out laughing from behind us.

The reaction to hold the warrior still was immediate, and what had before required the dubious cooperation of my Twin, suddenly came with great ease. The world in my head, that place Kali and I occupied, had flooded with light. I could feel my intention almost as certainly as my hands, and it filled my body until I shook off all remnants of my subconscious. This all happened so fast. Even with Elmiryn shouting out curses, I found my attention more drawn by the fact that Kali and I no longer flickered in and out of the world.

At the thought of my sister, I asked, Are you okay!?

To which she replied, I-I’m fine!

Then came her indignant question, What did you do!?

Nothing! I shot back defensively. On purpose anyway…

Kali, it was my doing.

Which brought my attention back to what started all of this to begin with.

Blinking rapidly, I turned my head to behold Lacertli standing amid the blackwood trees. With Elmiryn’s color-lit body, his presence was struck with her unusual glow in places, but he was far enough away that the trees devoured enough light to leave him partially obscured. This created the unusual effect of making the god’s features shift from his elven avatar to his true lizard form.

With the eyes of Marquis, he held my gaze, but with the sharp teeth and forked tongue of a serpent, he spoke, “I trust that you can accept that and forgive your sister?

My face bunched, confused by how he addressed my Twin, but that quickly turned to surprise when Kali responded.

Y-Yes…I can see that now, master.

I rubbed my brow. “Sir, it confuses me when you speak directly to her like that. I’m not used to others hearing what is in my head!”

Lacertli stepped closer, his features gradually fading from reptilian to elven in totality.

Without the slightest hint of malice, which really just made it worse, he replied, “Nyx, thou really must shake the pretension that all things are about thyself.”

My cheeks colored and I lowered my head. “Y-yes sir.”

Hey!

My gaze flickered to Elmiryn’s livid face.

“Are you going to let me out anytime soon!?” she snapped.

She pushed at the ground, her strong arms bulging from the effort. The way I held her shadow, there was no way she would get free unless I allowed it. I put my hands on my hips and gazed down at her. That wickedness I’d felt before returned to me. My eyes turned hooded at the possibilities in which I could use a situation like this, but now really wasn’t the time.

Clearing my throat, I crouched down and said, “Elle, first you have to promise to behave.”

Elmiryn stared at me as if I were crazy. “What??”

I grabbed the back of Elmiryn’s head and covered her mouth to keep her from spouting out the flood of curses I knew she possessed.

Leaning in, I said with as much gravity as I could, “I’m not joking! This is serious, and I needed to keep you still long enough to get your word! I won’t have a repeat of what happened with Artemis–”

Lacertli interjected behind me. “Oh, I assure thee, I am not like my sister. I have no interest in fornicating with–”

My eyes squeezed shut. “Sir, if I may state, that is not helping!”

“I am the Path, child, the Path.”

Sighing, I fixed my gaze back onto Elmiryn’s. Her cerulean eyes were burning, and her face had turned red beneath my small hand. The only reason she hadn’t knocked me away yet was because she was still trying to pull herself out. I shook my head, my face pained.

“I can’t let you go until you promise not to attack or disrespect Lacertli! I serve him now, Elmiryn, and you’ll have to accept this whether you like it or not!”

The woman stopped struggling abruptly, her eyebrows rising as she searched my face. I could feel her face muscles relax beneath my hand, and the tension in her neck and shoulders eased.

Now that she wasn’t causing a fuss, I had hope that she’d listen. Slowly, I removed my hands, my fingers trailing her cheeks.

“Please, Elle. Do this for me,” I pleaded.

Elmiryn’s nostrils flared as she let out one long hot exhale. Her lips grew thin, and I could see her mind working the situation over.

Then she gave a stiff nod. “I promise,” she muttered.

I let go of the breath I’d been holding. I stood and offered my hand. Still looking displeased, the woman took it, and with one strong pull, she was free of her shadow-trap.

Lacertli, who had taken to observing our exchange whilst leaned up against a tree, gave a slow nod. “Well done,” he murmured.

“Elmiryn,” I swallowed nervously and looked over at the others. Quincy had stopped laughing some time after Lacertli had stepped further into view. Her eyes were wide and she hugged Hakeem close to her body. The Fanaean, meanwhile, seemed almost stoic except for the fact that his fists were balled up and he couldn’t stop blinking. I gestured for them to come closer. They ignored me. “Hakeem, Quincy. This is Lacertli. Lizard King and God of Survival. He…he’s my patron.”

Quincy, wiping at the mud on her clothes, jerked into a curtsy. Hakeem, whom she still clung to, managed an awkward bow.

“I should also mention that he doesn’t stand much on ceremony,” I mumbled.

Lacertli regarded them with a smirk, his hands slipping behind his poncho.

“Lacertli!”

I blinked at the unfamiliar voice, then remembered what we’d been dealing with before my patron’s sudden arrival.

Bronislav had become free of Elmiryn’s trappings at some point during all the commotion, but he seemed in no better shape to take advantage of his freedom. He panted on the ground, his hand gripping his chest as he grimaced at the forest canopy.

“Please, my god! Justice! These agents of chaos seek to ruin me!” the nature spirit moaned.

I opened my mouth, ready to argue my case, but Lacertli beat me to it.

“Bronislav. Thou knowest I cannot honor thy request.”

The spirit’s face fell, what little hope that he still contained flickering out in his haunting eyes. “But…but they go against the Way of our world! They–”

“I believe attempts were made to undo the chaos that surrounds thee, great spirit. Perhaps thou should slay thy pride in favor of a fresh start?”

Bronislav stared. Then with a groan, he sat up. His large head hung low, his grassy hair shading his face. “I will do as my god wishes.”

“Wait, so what are we agreeing to do here?” Quincy asked, her eyes squinting.

“We’re ridding the blackwood of the evil spirits,” I said tiredly.

Elmiryn feigned surprise. “Oh, was that it? I thought we were letting him eat Quincy.”

“Not before I convinced him you’d be an excellent dessert,” the wizard quipped.

“So you do think I’m sweet!”

“Oh, I think you’re many things, Elmiryn. Sweet is not one of them.”

“And while we amuse ourselves with sportive interchange, the situation ripens before us,” Lacertli remarked. “Nyx? Your arm.”

I straightened like a rod and stepped forward, my arm out before me. The Lizard King seemed to take a step toward me, but in a swirl of shadow, he was suddenly on my forearm, in his lizard form. His claws cut into my skin as he crawled his way up to his customary resting place along my shoulders. I shivered as his tail wrapped around my neck.

I feel as though thine hair has gotten longer,” the god grumbled, his lizard head flicking my locks out of his eyes.

“No offense sir, but wouldn’t you know that for certain?”

His tongue flicked my ear and I squealed.

Focus! Thou art within a forest infested with chaotic forces all bent on destroying Harmony! Thou mortal enemy stands at the heart of the evil. Presently, thou stands to correct a grievous insult inflicted long ago by Elmiryn’s ancestor. What will ye do?

“Dispel the chaos and destroy the evil?” My voice was uncertain.

The god’s voice was dry. “An admirable attempt, but perhaps you should say it convincingly this time?

Inwardly, I sighed.

When I looked back to the others, it was to find them all staring at me. Even Elmiryn had retreated to a distance, her colorful arms crossed. Quincy had knelt down next to Hakeem, and I could see they had been whispering to each other. They stopped when my eyes rested on them.

“Neat trick,” Elmiryn said, gesturing vaguely at Lacertli. “The…transformation thing. It’s interesting. Are you just gonna ride along this whole time? Watching us risk our lives?”

My muscles bunched. “Elmiryn–!!”

I suppose I could participate in the events if everyone is interested in becoming struck dumb?

“No!” Quincy stood, shaking her head emphatically. She cleared her throat and gave Elmiryn a pointed glare. “No, my lord! That’s quite all right. I think we can manage.”

Excellent. Bronislav?

The nature spirit raised his head a little higher, his curious little lanter in his hands.

“I believe you can help these braves get started?” Lacertli said with a hiss.

“O-Of course!” Bronislav spared us a severe look before turning and walking out of the small clearing. His shoulders dipped and his head bobbed, his feet cutting a tottery path over the dark soil.

When no one moved to follow him, I started forward, a scowl on my face both for Bronislav’s dubious condition and everyone’s hesitancy. The only reason any of this was happening was because Lacertli was here. If he hadn’t shown up when he did, then Elmiryn would have killed Bronislav, and we’d be lost wandering through the forest without a clear route to our intended destination. If the nature spirit had been of better health, then he would have killed us, and our collective quests would have ended here.

But these things did not happen, and I was left to wonder whether or not Lacertli had planned for any of this. He was the Path. His godly domain included the present, not the future or the past. But how could he have designs on fate and still remain impartial to what could be? Did he really trust in me that much?

It seems I wasn’t the only one wondering these things.

“It was pretty indirect, but I’d say that was an order,” Elmiryn said as she fell into step next to me. She gazed at Lacertli’s small dark head sidelong, one hand on her sword hilt. “I thought you weren’t supposed to give orders to Nyx?”

Oh? What made thee believe that?

“You’re the Path, aren’t you? You aren’t supposed to comment on anything more than what is presently happening, isn’t that right?”

I closed my eyes. Sweet Aelurus, can this woman not keep her mouth shut for a moment?

I find this rather amusing actually, Kali purred back.

Thou wishes for me to disclose only but what is presently true?

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow. “I would, thank you.”

Very well. Thou art like a child throwing a tantrum over situations thou can hardly control–but chance has it that thy rumpus could stir the balance of things just enough that the end game falls to thy favor.

The woman stared. Clearly she hadn’t expected this sort of frankness from Lacertli. While the information felt new to me as well, something about his observation failed to rattle me. Maybe I always had believed Elmiryn was capable of stirring things on such a scale. After all, if she couldn’t, she wouldn’t have caught Lacertli’s attention.

Also, Nyx wishes thy mouth to ‘shut up’, as the phrase goes.

I rubbed at my face.

Or maybe I was just used to his unforgiving frankness.

“Really, Nyx? You want me to shut up?” She sounded amused.

My shoulders tensed and I shot Lacertli a glare. “Sir, I wish you wouldn’t do that!”

The lizard god shrugged. “I was only honoring her request. Such is necessary to foster trust with you mortals, isn’t it?

“…You’re asking me?”

“You’re awfully informal with one another,” Quincy observed, her eyes squinted over her shoulder. It wasn’t her usual squint, though. It was the sort of squint you gave something wild and bewildering–like your eyes wanted to widen them, but your mind made them squint because you were trying to see better to get an understanding. I wasn’t used to seeing the wizard so…anxious.

I just sighed, my stomach knotting as I fed off her emotions. “I already told you. Lacertli doesn’t care for ceremony! The kind of respect he asks for is much simpler.”

“Do what he says, because he said it?” Elmiryn asked, an innocent grin on her face.

I wasn’t fooled, and my stomach knotted further.

I have chosen to inform thee, Elmiryn, that Nyx wishes to gag thee.

“Sir, please stop that!”

And mercifully, he did. Elmiryn seemed to cease her prodding too, perhaps because she didn’t want to push her luck, perhaps to spare me the heart attack, but either way I was grateful. Quincy and Hakeem remained silent, with the brunette looking back at Lacertli now and again as though she couldn’t believe a god was just sitting on my shoulder. I couldn’t blame her. It had taken me a while to get used to it myself. Bronislav, as a leader, was slow and seemed bothered by something. I watched him warily, afraid he’d turn on us and decide to fight us anyway.

As we crossed a dried up river bed, a thought occurred to me.

“Sir, what became of Argos?”

Lacertli’s golden yellow eyes peeered up at me, before falling closed as he rested his head back onto my shoulder. In an almost lazy tone, he hissed out, “Ah. The dog yet lives. He is currently carrying a task out for me elsewhere.

I smiled relieved. “I’m glad to hear he’s okay! Might I ask what he’s doing?”

No. You may not.

“O-oh. All right, then…”

Shortly after this exchange, a commotion happened at the front. Elmiryn and I both tensed up, our bodies moving to our respective combat stances. Quincy and Hakeem had leapt back, clearly alarmed by something. Elmiryn pressed past them, her sword drawn.

“What is it?” She asked.

I came up behind Hakeem, and over his bald head, I saw what the problem was.

Bronislav had collapsed, his large body on all fours as he clutched at his chest. Lying feet from him was his lantern.

“N-No!” He groaned. “I have seen the rise and fall of the tralorians! Seen the death of Ortus! Witnessed the rise and fall of countless kingdoms! I cannot fall here!”

Lacertli hissed from my shoulder, “And yet the scales do tip, Bronislav…

The nature spirit turned his blue-green face towards us, his bright haunting eyes flashing fear and resentment.

“Tisn’t fair…” he breathed.

Fair?” Lacertli replied, something darkening his tone. “What is fair about others having to clean thy messes, oh great nature spirit?” The words weren’t even directed at me, and I flinched.

I don’t understand, Kali said in my head. I thought Lacertli wanted to help Bronislav!

I frowned at this, but said nothing. There was something I couldn’t see, and it had been bothering me from the start. What was I missing?

Bronislav fought to his feet, his long arms swiping through the air to keep balance. “My god, why do you curse me!? Have I not served thee through the millennia!?”

And how cruel it is, that but a few scant seconds is all it takes to ruin one’s worth to Life,” Lacertli spat. “I can smell thy fear from here, dissident weed!

What the Lizard King said next, made me start.

Nyx! Your fate stands at the present path–either slay Bronislav, or see Hakeem perish!

I sputtered, my hands shrugging in helplessness. “But sir, what–!?”

Quincy’s swift response stopped my stuttering right then.

With a flash, her lightning staff was in her hand, and she struck out, striking Bronislav’s hand as he dove for his lantern. The electricity shot through him in a bright flash, and the nature spirit gurgled as he curled in on himself. Elmiryn was next to act as she rushed forward to grab the lantern from the ground.

I stared, my gaze twitching to and fro as my brain made the sorry attempt of catching up to what was happening.

Why must we attack Bronislav? Why is Lacertli saying he has betrayed us? What does this have to do with Hakeem?

Then my mind made the connection just as Kali did.

The lantern!we thought in unison.

Quincy was going to finish the nature spirit off, when a thick vine punched up from the ground, a rock wrapped at its end. This struck the wizard in the face with great force, and she stumbled back, her hand slapping to her mouth where blood flowed. In that same instant, the shrubbery at our feet stirred, and with frightening speed I found my ankles tangled in plants and roots.

“Nyx!”

I looked to Elmiryn, who held up the lantern. “Keep this away from him! He seems to want it bad!”

She tossed the lantern to me, and I caught it, wide eyed, my eyes staring into the strange glow. The light was not being produced by a candle, nor even a collection of fireflies. Peering in closer, I felt my mind tingle, and warmth touched my face. I took a deep breath–

Emerald green jungles surrounded me. I was running, short of breath, but laughing. Singing behind me was a young girl’s voice.

“Where are you? Don’t leave me behind!”

My elation slips away, replaced by exasperation as I hear the girl begin to cry.

“This isn’t funny! I’m serious!”

I stop running long enough to look back. I can see a girl with brown hair and a blue dress hugging what looks like a rusty sword to her chest. Her cheeks are streaked with tears.

“Hakeeeeem!”

I rear back, gasping, the lantern bouncing in my hands as I struggle to keep hold of it.

Nyx! Kali cried out. This is—!!

“Hakeem’s Years!” I finished aloud. “This will restore him to a full grown man!”

Now it all made sense. Bronislav had been dying. He’d been struggling to stay alive against the forces that drained his forest of its life. Then one day he must’ve come across Hakeem’s Years. There was no telling whether or not the nature spirit had consumed some of this energy for himself, but what did matter was that instead of letting nature take its course, Bronislav had selfishly used another’s life to prolong his own. This unnatural existence must have earned Lacertli’s anger, I was sure of it now.

My eyes searched wildly for the Fanaean. SInce the conflict had started, he’d been just as confused as I was. Now he was rooted to the spot along with the rest of us.

I pulled the lantern back and screamed. “Hakeem catch!

The wizard looked up just as I threw the object as hard as I could.

Bronislav screamed as he reached toward us, and my eyes widened as the earth exploded, a massive venus fly trap shooting up. Its prickly jaws rose for Hakeem’s Years, and I could see Hakeem watching helplessly on the other side.

That was about the time Elmiryn’s dagger struck the venus fly trap in the side of the head, effectively knocking its jaws away from the lantern.

All sound vanished, and I watched, horrified, as the lantern bounced off the side of the plant’s head, down to the ground. There, it shattered, the glass breaking apart in dozens of little pieces.

But it was just within Hakeem’s reach.

Desperately, I pulled at the fauna that held me in place. I couldn’t sink into the shadows with them in the way. I could see Elmiryn and Quincy doing the same. But the more I tore away, the more seemed to grow back. Hakeem let himself fall over, his arm reaching for the glowing orb on the forest floor. His fingers were just a breath away. Wildly, I looked up just in time to see Bronislav throw his arms up into the air. Like a wave, the fauna surrounding Hakeem and the orb rose up, and I screamed in the silence as the plants took them from sight.

I hadn’t been the only one watching.

At the sight of her husband vanishing, Quincy struck her staff against the ground.

Now I’m certain most of you have never experienced electricity coursing through you, but let me just say here and now that it is a horrible feeling. Everything in you stops as your body seizes in a jerking pain. It’s like losing control of yourself and feeling your faculty for thought or awareness vanish entirely. All you know is a sharp wave of agony, so intense that when it leaves you, your body is reduced to s spent heap. And that’s exactly what I was when Quincy’s attack had passed.

My muscles still twitching, I tried to reorganize my thoughts as I stirred on the ground. My limbs wouldn’t let me raise myself, so I settled for rolling onto my back instead.

I saw Elmiryn lying prone on the forest floor just as I was. Her head and arm twitched on occasion, telling me she was still alive. Bronislav was incapacitated, his body slumped up against a tree as he stared into infinity. I knew he was alive from the way his eyes rolled in disorientation. Quincy, meanwhile, was kneeling on the ground, her hands gripping onto her staff for support as she heaved for breath. The attack clearly took a lot from her. Blood still dripped from her lips from where she’d been struck by the rock. The venus fly trap, and the fauna had all been killed, their remains smoking in the aftermath of the wizard’s attack.

But where was Hakeem?

Willing myself to rise, I forced myself to all fours and turned my head more fully. That’s when I saw him.

Hakeem had been restored to adulthood, his dark body back to its broad muscular form. But it seemed certain…articles did not change with him. My cheeks colored as he pulled Elmiryn’s dagger from the venus fly trap. Going to the warrior, he calmly rolled her to the side so as to replace the blade to its sheathe. Sound returned to us in a rush of air.

Hakeem’s eyes floated toward me, and he offered a mild smirk.

Ikati, you act as though you’ve never seen the male form before!”

I would’ve said something smart in return, but all I could manage was a weak mewl.


Back to Chapter 34.3 | Forward to Chapter 35.1

Chapter 34.3

HAKEEM________________________

When the dark came over them, whole and impenetrable, Hakeem ceased moving. When he looked back behind him, he saw no light. In their home world, this would be impossible—they hadn’t traveled far from the edge of the forest. But this was the Other Place, and it was a half-world, fraught with magic. This was a supernatural darkness.

He opened his mouth to mention this when—

“I can’t see!” That was Nyx. Her voice was tight with sudden panic. She sounded far away.

“Nyx?” Elmiryn. She was behind him.

“Get off my foot, idiot!” Quincy. She was to his right. Perhaps a few steps.

“Stay calm,” he said, reaching toward his wife. His hand swiped through air.

“Elle!?” Nyx again. Her voice traveled and he heard brush being disturbed. “Elle, where’d you—ah!” There was a thud.

Cajeck!” Kali, now. “Stop stumbling around like that!”

“Nyx, you’re going the wrong way!” Elmiryn called. Now she was on Hakeem’s immediate left.

“In case you haven’t noticed, Kali, we can’t see anything. Historically this has never been a good thing!” Nyx snapped.

“Elmiryn, gods damn it, get off my foot!” Quincy snarled.

The warrior’s response was tight with laughter. “Wizard, I’m not even touching you!”

“Then…Then what–?”

ELMIRYN!!” It was Nyx again. Hakeem heard sharp snapping sounds, like threads breaking.

“Nyx!? Nyx!” Hakeem felt Elmiryn shove past him.

The Fanaean covered his face with both his hands, a groan coming up his throat. “Everyone just calm down…

A scuffle. It sounded like snapping wood. Hakeem couldn’t pinpoint the source.

“Nyx? Where the hell—?”

“R-Right here, Elle.” Nyx’s voice was small. “I just…it was moss. Just…uh…moss.”

Kali’s voice was a disgruntled grind. “A Champion of Survival, and she still can’t stand the feel of hanging vegetation.”

“It was scary vegetation! Okay!?”

“Kitten…” Elmiryn’s relief was apparent even amidst layers of exasperation.

Hakeem spoke loudly. “If you women are finished being silly—”

“Hey, midget.” The warrior’s voice steeled. “I don’t care how little you are, I will kick you in the cod piece.”

He cleared his throat, clasping his hands in front of him. “Noted. I just wanted to let you all know that I recognize what’s happening.”

“And what is happening exactly?” Kali asked.

“We’re deep inside a magical edge effect.”

“A…what?”

“Are you familiar with the legend of the blackwood?”

“I am.” That was Elmiryn. Her voice had turned somber. “It was the forest of devils.”

Hakeem smiled in the dark. “Yes. The forest was famous for its ability to separate the color spectrum.”

“Aesutan used it to clothe himself in the ways of the universe.” Elmiryn’s voice was virtually a whisper now.

Hakeem frowned at this as he resumed. Was that a note of realization in her voice? “Yes…Meaning color can be manually manipulated.”

“Someone made a barrier of the color black!” Nyx exclaimed.

“Actually, black is the absence of color, and as color simply makes up the spectrum of light then it’s absence means—”

“We can’t see,” the Ailuran finished. “Fascinating! And…troublesome.”

“Very good, ikati. You’re correct. We should–” Hakeem broke off as his body tensed. Something just occurred to him.

“Hakeem? Is something the matter?”

The Fanaean waved his hands through the dark, trying to feel his way. “Mweze? Are you there? Mweze?

“Oh. Oh no! That’s right, Quincy hasn’t said anything for nearly a minute,” Nyx murmured.

“What’s the problem?” Elmiryn asked. “She does that all the time!”

“Yes, but she does that with a level of menace that usually tells of a desire to hit you. That feeling’s noticeably absent.”

“When you say ‘you’—”

“I’m referring to you, Elmiryn.”

“I…you know, for once I have nothing to say to that.”

Hakeem’s palms grew sweaty as he cupped his hands around his mouth. “Quincy! Quincy!! Bwa-Mweze zi gua-quli!

“Hakeem,”

“We have to find her!” He bit out.

“Hey, hey, little man! Now who’s acting up?”

“No, you don’t understand—”

“What? You going to tell me Quincy is afraid of the dark?”

You don’t understand! Quincy isn’t who she used to be!”

Nyx tried to be placating. “Hakeem, this darkness is impenetrable. Anyone could get lost here.”

“No, there’s something out here.”

“Hakeem—“

MWEZE!! BWA-MWEZE JA NGOLE!!

“Shut up with your monkey gibberish, for fuck’s sake,” Elmiryn snapped.

Nyx’s voice was dry. “Elle, somehow I doubt that’s—“

MWEZE!

Not long after Hakeem cried out did something curl around his feet and pull. With a yell, the man-boy was thrown to his feet, and when he hit the ground, his breath fled from him. Unable to talk, he reached out, his fingers clawing for something to hold onto, but they only raked through soft soil and dead leaves.

“Hakeem?”

He didn’t get a chance to answer. With a force of strength that made him feel as though his leg were being yanked from its socket, Hakeem was dragged away, along the uneven forest floor. Barely any noise was made save that soft rustle of leaves parting around his body like waves. Elmiryn and Nyx would assume he had just rushed off to look for Quincy unless he could say otherwise. And he tried…

And tried.

Something is stopping me! He thought with alarm.

He grit his teeth and shielded his head as best he could, the pain of being dragged reminding him of the time he’d been tortured by desert raiders. They had tried dragging him to death by camel, but the man had made use of a magical charm that lessened the damage he suffered until Quincy could intervene.

Quincy…I’m a fool! Why am I struggling? This thing will lead me right to her!

Hakeem relaxed his body. A less rigid form would suffer less damage. Keeping his breathing fast and shallow, the wizard closed his eyes and waited for the ride to be over. When he felt himself come to a sudden halt, he dared to open his eyes.

Light. It was weak–so weak that it had barely pierced his eyelids–but it was more than enough after the sort of pitch black world he’d been in. The light was a warm, a pensive sort of gold, and he could see the way the trees breathed it in like it were air.

In and out. In and out.

When he adjusted to the soft glow, Hakeem could make out a tall, hunched figure, stoking what appeared to be fire in a lamp. The being wore only a brown skirt, and had long hair with a beard. Something was off about this, and the man-boy sat up slowly, so as not to attract attention to himself. Then his eyes widened.

A leshy…a being that protects the trees and animals!

“Spirit…” He said as he cautiously stood to his feet. “Whatever wrong we have brought upon your home, please know that we did not mean it. We are lost and simply wish to be on our way.” Hakeem swallowed. “I would be most appreciative if you released my wife.”

“Your wife crushed a budding daisy. The sweet child had only just known the grace of the suns when that fat human squashed it.” The leshy turned, his hair and beard swaying so that they better caught the light. Grass. Long grass, just as Hakeem had thought.

The nature spirit plucked up the lamp off the ground and labored toward Hakeem, his weight shifting onto a wooden cane with each step. Even hunched over, he was easily teen feet tall.

“Spirit, you are tired…” Hakeem said with a frown. “Does it have to do with this darkness around us?”

The leshy laughed as he neared, the sound like a drum. “This is the blackwood. Light is the peculiarity here, man child.”

“You see the way of things,” Hakeem said as he peered up.

The leshy had a long, teardrop-shaped face, with his chin ending in a point and his forehead widening to allow room for his ample brow. His ears were large and pointed, with the lobes hanging long and low. With a hooked nose, bushy eyebrows, and fiery-green eyes, the leshy did not look pleased. Even his cheeks, which were supposed to be blue according to legend, were tinting purple instead.

“I see intruders who have caused a mess,” the leshy growled.

“You…are the keeper of these woods?” Hakeem breathed, his eyes narrowing. “I thought this place was said to be a place of devils?”

As soon as the words left his mouth, the wizard knew he’d spoken ill. The leshy roared, and with a short swipe of his cane, he struck Hakeem along the face with it. The man-boy hit the ground, his head split with the sharp agony of the blow.

Devils!?” the leshy roared, cane raised for another blow. “Does Bronislav the Peaceable sound like the name of a devil to you boy!?”

“No!” Hakeem exclaimed, holding up his hands. He struggled to focus on Bronislav’s faint form. “I was only…confused! I was raised on stories that seem to be untrue. I see that now.”

The rage from the leshy’s face drained. If possible, he hunched even more, his head hanging as he lowered his cane. “It is true. My forest has become the haven for creatures of darkness ever since Nathric’s rise.”

Hakeem rubbed at his face, working his jaw. When he was certain it wasn’t too damaged, he returned to his feet, dusting his legs. Peering up at Bronislav, he said, “But Nathric fell hundreds of years ago…?”

“But his followers did not,” the leshy sighed. He glared upward with contempt. “The God King saw no reason to have Aesutan aid his other subjects of Harmony. Damned rot, that was.”

Hakeem thought a moment. “So…if my companions and I can cure your forest of its infestation, you will free my wife?”

The leshy frowned at him, his grass eyebrows knitting.

“Who said I was in possession of your wife, man child?”

“How can that be?” The wizard’s hands clenched as his chest grew tight. “She was taken in the dark! She was–”

“Hakeem?”

His head snapped around at the voice that came from the dark behind them. A moment later, he saw a slim figure enter the sphere of light. The leshy raised his lamp to illuminate the stranger, and Hakeem let out a cheer.

“Mweze, you’re all right!”

Quincy was covered in mud and looking sour but was otherwise fine. She wiped muck off her shoulder and gave her husband a strange look.

“Of course I am! Why do you keep assuming I’m in trouble lately?”

Hakeem smiled sheepishly, his hand rubbing his bald head. “Perhaps because you keep vanishing, then reappearing covered in muck?”

His wife squinted her eyes at him, her mouth open.

“I don’t like what you’re implying…” she said slowly. When she continued, her tone was snappish. “It was a forest imp, all right? He was standing on my foot because the little bastard was trying to reach my pouch! He almost made off with it before I zapped him…” She grumbled, gripping her magic pouch possessively.

“And the mud?”

Quincy’s face flared. “It’s dark out here, Taika. Don’t you start!”

“This is your wife, man child?” Bronislav asked, pointing a chipped nail.

Hakeem nodded absently. “Yes, she’s–” he did a double-take, “No, wait!”

Too late.

With one great swipe, the leshy grabbed Quincy around the waist, then hefted her over his shoulder as though she weighed no more than a feather. The woman tried to defend herself, but her reaction came late, with her lightning staff flashing in her hands only after the spirit guardian had lain hands on her. Shouting out curses, she tried to strike the leshy in the back with her weapon, ungainly as it were in that position, but the spirit’s grassy hair came to life, and as though she were a child with a toy, it took the staff and held it out of her reach.

Quincy screamed with rage. “GIVE THAT BACK! Damn you, ko galani chudopek! I should’ve killed you when I had the chance!”

Mweze, quiet!” Hakeem snapped, his face pale. He clasped his hands before him, then gave a bow. “Bronislav, please! Do not harm my wife. She did not mean to harm your flowers!”

“But she has!” Bronislav thundered. “I will flay her skin and use her to liven the soil.”

“You wish to strengthen your forest, do you not?” Hakeem said quickly, raising his head. His voice rose. “Then do not attack the unintended symptoms of the problem. Attack the problem itself!”

The wizard straightened, pointing off into the forest. “There is a balance that keeps all nature within Harmony! But a parasite has descended upon your home, sundering whatever peace you had left since Nathric’s downfall!”

Hakeem slammed his fist into his chest three times, shouting. “Bronislav, lay your trust in me, and this threat shall be removed! But my wife cannot be harmed, you must swear it!”

The leshy scowled down at Hakeem, almost looking annoyed by his offer. He looked at his lamp, with its strange fire-less glow, then back at the wizard. His mouth opened to speak–

There was a flash of light, and without warning, the clearing was intensely illuminated.

A twig cracked. Hakeem and the leshy turned in the direction of the sound to see Elmiryn and Nyx standing before them.

Nyx appeared nonplussed, even as she retracted her foot from the black twig she had crushed. Her tawny eyes, still flickering between states, alternated between Hakeem, Bronislav, and Quincy. Standing near her was Elmiryn, and she did not look right.

Striped all along the woman’s skin were…colors.

Candy pinks and bruised purples, sunny oranges and hazardous greens.

As if the giant forest spirit was not even there, the warrior flexed her arms and flashed an arrogant smile.

“I am brilliant!” She announced. She fanned out her hand and look at it at arms length. It was the only part of her body in a solid color–a bloody red. “I could feel traces of light deeper into the trees and ripped them out! Now I look just like my ancestor! Isn’t this fantastic?”

Hakeem closed his eyes and hung his head as he heard Bronislav begin to sputter with rage.

Why…why do I even bother?

ELMIRYN________________________

The ground trembled, the soft soil churning as black vines surfaced. They seemed to strain around a large chunk of earth, raising it, before they succeeded in hurling it through the air. Elmiryn pressed the air and particles before her into an immovable force shield as she pressed Nyx behind her. It wasn’t that she had been unaware of the big spirit or the fact that Quincy was being held captive by it.

It was that she wanted the attention on her.

When the earth struck in an eruption of dirt and rock, the woman’s feet slid along the ground, and she had a sudden epiphany.

“Uh. This isn’t the arktan thing all over again, is it?” She mused with grit teeth. Her shield had lost integrity and she was trying to restore it.

“I think so, Elle!” Nyx breathed behind her.

Black vines sprang forth all around them, thick and tangled and creaking. Elmiryn’s eyes widened as she pulled out her sword. The shield fell away as her concentration on it vanished. Its protection wouldn’t help against a foe that could attack from all sides, and she wasn’t sure she could muster up the energy to maintain something more encompassing.

The kitten’s right! This thing isn’t a normal spirit. It has some sort of power over the forest, just like–

But the warrior’s thoughts were cut short when a vine grabbed her leg and pulled. With a nasty flop, she was thrown to the ground, then hoisted up into the air upside down. Elmiryn’s eyes widened when she saw Nyx fall, then vanish under a swarm of the black plants.

With a sharp roar, the warrior swung her sword, slicing the vine holding her captive. She hit the ground in a painful heap, her body just turning in the air in time to keep from breaking her neck. Feeling old wounds protest, Elmiryn raised herself to all fours, her eyes swerving to where she saw Nyx last.

The girl was gone.

Squinting, the warrior was about to call out for her when something crashing into the side of her stomach and sent her skidding along the ground. Vines sprang forth, holding her in place. The woman struggled to get a grip on her breathing. Pain wracked throughout her as she managed to look up.

The large spirit glared down at her, Quincy still on his shoulder, his other arm raising a long wooden cane.

His green eyes held fury as he bared long teeth at her.

“That I could repay the insult brought upon my home so long ago…I see now that this is providence!” the spirit roared. “Halward, I, Bronislav the Peaceable, thank thee for this offering, and know that I take it with great pleasure!

The spirit swung his staff down…

…And missed.

Elmiryn could feel the heavy tip of the cane brush by her hair, where if it had found its mark she was certain it would have crushed her skull. The spirit was not a little surprised at this, but he did not dwell on the why of it as he brought his cane up for another swing. Down it came, whistling with all the force he put behind the blow–

Only to miss yet again.

Bronislav glared at his cane. “What trickery–!?”

Then without warning, he jerked to the side and fell. Elmiryn stared. The spirit hadn’t just tipped over…something had swiped his legs out from under him, whilst something invisible struck him in the upper body. Quincy let out a surprised squawk as she hit the ground just behind the spirit.

Her eyes flickered up to see Hakeem his wife up with a displeased look on his face.

“Well?” He said, glaring at her. “Do you need us to free you as well?”

Elmiryn didn’t need telling twice. With the spirit incapacitated, his black vines hung lifeless and still. She had to get the upper hand. With some difficulty, the woman managed to free herself just as Bronislav began to stir.

Using her fae power, the warrior brought down another wall of air and dust, but this time she pressed it down as hard as she could.

“How DARE you!” Bronislav raged.

Elmiryn grit her teeth, struggling to keep the magical field intact. Cracks grew along the threads of magic, her weave straining under the pressure.

Then the woman just about had it, and kicked the spirit in the head as hard as she could.

Bronislav’s head snapped to the side, and when he shook his eyes straight, it was to see Elmiryn’s sword pointed at his face.

“I am no god’s offering,” She snarled. “I’ve killed plenty with this sword. But I think you’ll be a first!”

“Elmiryn!”

The woman jerked to see Nyx pulling herself out of the ground as though she had just jumped down into a hole. But all that was there beneath her when the girl had finished was her shadow.

She tripped the spirit in that shadow place! Elmiryn realized. She must’ve signaled Hakeem somehow!

Nyx’s face flickered with feline features, but no matter what the look of determination was the same.

“You can’t kill him!” she cried out.

The warrior raised an eyebrow at her. “Why not? He would’ve killed us!”

“He wouldn’t have, if you had treated his home with some modicum of respect!” Hakeem snapped. He gestured at her. “How did you take the light as you did? You realize that the blackwood relies on light, no matter how scant, to survive, don’t you!? That is why it is a black forest! The trees devour all the light!”

Quincy pointed at Bronislav, “Hakeem was just about to make a peaceful deal with this being before you showed up in all your huff and puff!”

Elmiryn scowled. “Huff and puff? He attacked me first! All I did was draw his attention!”

“Ha!” Everyone turned to look down at the captive spirit. His face was twisted with contempt. “Just like your clan, to abuse the powers given to you!”

“You mean humans?” Elmiryn asked with squinted eyes.

“Your family,” Bronislav spat. “Just like Aesutan before you, so do you come and bring destruction. Well I demand an end, do you hear!?” The spirit’s face became lined and weary as he turned his head. “I am tired of this universe’s neglect.”

Elmiryn’s sword lowered, but she kept the force field up, in case Bronislav tried to spring at them.

“Aesutan hurt you?”

“He abandoned him,” Hakeem said quietly. “When Nathric fell, the devils fled into the blackwood to escape the return of light. Its been a safe haven for evil spirits ever since.”

“But the legends say this place was their home to begin with!” Elmiryn said, her eyes widening.

Hakeem shook his head. “No, Elmiryn. The legends spoke false. Look at this creature. Have you never heard of his kind? He is a leshy, a high being–”

“A spirit guardian,” The warrior breathed. She sheathed her sword, her brow wrinkled as she looked Bronislav up and down. “His control over the environment reminded me of Nadi…but…he’s weaker! We shouldn’t have won so easily!”

“My strength is devoured by vermin like you,” Bronislav intoned, his peculiar eyes fixing on her sideways. “If I were half what I once was, then you would have been slain! Do not doubt this!”

“I don’t…” Elmiryn muttered, walking away. Her head hung low and her hands found her hips.

Stopping near the tree line, she heard Nyx follow and looked back. The girl was wringing her hands. Her form was less shifty than it was before–perhaps her and her Twin were getting a grip on their body.

“You’re upset about what they said…about Aesutan,” Nyx said quietly so the others couldn’t hear.

The Ailuran stepped in close, hugging the woman’s arm. Elmiryn’s tension eased at the feel of the girl’s bare skin on hers, her breasts soft and inviting. But even as she felt the stirrings of arousal, these things could not compete with her distress.

“He was my hero, Nyx,” Elmiryn murmured, fingering the jewel on her sword’s pommel. “But I know what the others are saying is true. Aesutan must have known that Bronislav needed his help, but he just took what he needed and left!”

“M-Maybe it wasn’t in his power to–”

“No!” Elmiryn bit out, her tension returning. “It was always in his power! He just took the easy way out and left a big fucking mess for me to find later!” She kicked at the dirt. “Argh! Why does my family always do this!?”

“If that’s the case, Elle…then…” Nyx’s eyes brightened and she gave a little jump.

Elmiryn’s eyes returned to her companion’s breasts, her desire suddenly surging.

The Ailuran’s voice only just managed to reach her. “Sweet Aelurus! Elmiryn, this is wonderful! Don’t you see? This is a chance for you to restore your family’s honor! You can make amends by restoring Harmony!

I see thou have come a long way since last we parted, to so eagerly fill your station,” a new voice hissed.

Nyx’s eyes widened and her head snapped to look into the trees. Elmiryn, confused at the new voice, looked as well. Her face reddened.

You!” She bit out.


Back to Break Time | Forward to Chapter 34.4

Chapter 34.2

Hey guys. I know this takes you out of the story, but since not enough of you check my other sources for announcements, this is the only way I know to make ALL of you aware of this—when I made Elmiryn and Co. leave the Lycan village, I made a critical error by not stating certain key items leaving with them. These things are needed for the plot, so in this chapter, just be aware that those items will be made available to them, and in my next round of edits, I’ll be sure to change this silly error. You guys are literally getting the rough draft version today, so it’s going to look rather raw. I hope you just remember the circumstances this story is being written under and that, above all, it’s free.

Thanks for your understanding.

–Illise M.

ELMIRYN________________________

“Nyx…uh…Kali…Ny–FUCK! Can you two stop doing that!?”

“We aren’t doing it on purpose, idiot,” Kali–that was definitely Kali–snapped.

“I’m sorry Elle, I–er–we were working on it, but as things stand it’s a little hard to concentrate now.”

“Oh you mean because we’re about to be hurdled into the white void of space at high speeds by an inept cum sucker?”

Nyx had spoken to Elmiryn about her desire to go through with Quincy’s plan, and the warrior had grudgingly agreed. She knew Hakeem must have said something rather persuasive to get the girl to agree to such an idea, but as it stood, it was the most solid plan they had so far. She wasn’t prepared to say this out loud, but Elmiryn wasn’t even sure she could sprout wings and fly.

Heh, if only Saelin could’ve heard me think that. He’d say, “So pigs finally did it, huh?”

Quincy was meditating over Eate’s Son, her magicked boomerang. Elmiryn had yet to actually see it, but apparently the magic little item had the power to create tiny tornadoes. The warrior had seen tornadoes. Out in the Sibesonan heartlands, where the Ailurans and Fiammans fought their war, vast plains of open grassy fields were host to tumultuous weather. Luminous thunder storms would drag in from the west during the summer, and made the air smell like wet dirt and chamomile tea. Powerful cold winds would sweep in from the North during the winter, carrying snowflakes and clouds swollen with moisture that, by the time it fell to the earth, turned to bruising hail. When the warm and cold seasons clashed, it was like the heavens warred with one another, and in that battle the sky would meet the earth in a winding cyclone that tore at the bloody fields without care for human or therian. Everything in a tornado flew. Everything in a tornado was destroyed. A quarter of her men had died to sudden tornadoes interrupting a battle mission.

Elmiryn did not like tornadoes.

Nyx–it was Nyx now–bit her lip and nudged Elmiryn. “Maybe we shouldn’t antagonize the woman controlling the situation.”

The redhead snorted. “Well if we die and I become a ghost, I’ll only wish I had. So why waste the opportunity?”

Quincy brandished her finger at Elmiryn, one eye squinting open. “You know, I have more control over the winds than you think. I could just let a certain inbred get tossed out into the void.”

“Or we could just stop speaking in hypotheticals, and just get on with it,” Hakeem said pointedly.

No one spared any quips to that, and Quincy returned to the meditation of her artifact.

The warrior sighed roughly and rubbed at her face. “Look, I just wanted to ask you Nyx…both of you, I guess, if you still wanted to go through with this.”

“Yes,” the Twins said in unison. Their faces smeared together as one, making her eyes cross.

Elmiryn shook her head with a dubious grin. “Wow, I never thought I’d see the day you’d have to talk me into doing something, and not out of doing something.”

“We haven’t got many options,” Nyx responded, eyeing the boomerang warily.

Kali appeared and gave a shrug, “I don’t see what the issue is. The wizard has lifted you before, hasn’t she, sister?”

“And broke every bone in my body when I came back down…” Nyx muttered with a frown.

“Wow, that’s really comforting.” Elmiryn just stared at the Twins, her hand pulling at the skin of her brow, wrinkling the top. “Before, if it had just been me, I would’ve been all for this. Now? Not so sure!”

“We were supposed to be convincing her, Nyx!” Kali snapped.

“I was just being honest!” Nyx snapped back. The girl gave a sigh of frustration and said to Elmiryn, “Elle, Quincy wouldn’t suggest the idea if she didn’t have all contingencies covered. I’d think our landing would be an important one.”

“About that…” Quincy murmured. Without moving her head, she said, “Bwa-taika, can you use the Aeumani Armor?”

“The ay-yoo-what?” Elmiryin asked.

Hakeem, who stood near the edge of their island, gave a faint shake of his head. “Not as it is, no. It is too much for me in this state. It’d kill me most likely.”

Quincy’s head made the faintest of turns. “But if we changed it somehow…?”

“Yes. Maybe then.”

“We should test it first.”

“Yes, we should.”

“Are you ready? I am done with my preparations.”

“Yes.”

Elmiryn and Nyx/Kali looked back and forth between the couple, bemused looks on their faces.

“What are you wizards talking about?” Elmiryn snapped, annoyed at being left out.

“Aeumani Armor,” Hakeem explained as he approached Quincy, who stood to her feet, reaching for her magic bag. “It is the chainmail shirt that I wore back in Belcliff.”

Understanding passed over the woman’s face. “You mean that black armor. The one that gave you gravity magic.”

Hakeem smirked as his wife pulled the large chainmail shirt from her bag like a hat-trick. “It is a spacial-temporal artifact that allows me to transcend the limits of time in small increments, and to break the limits of space…but yes, among other things, it lets me use gravity magic.”

“But if you can’t use it…” Nyx started.

“As a little human…” Kali continued.

“What do you intend to do?” The other finished, frowning at her twin’s word choice.

“Well,” Hakeem started as he took the chainmail in his hands. “This is chainmail. A thick one through four weave. It’s a heavier version than you might find, but flexible compared to other chainmail grades.”

Elmiryn shrugged. “I prefer one through eight with scales, myself. White steel, of course.”

“That isn’t a bad choice,” the man-boy conceded. He traced an edge of his armor and the metal grew hot where his finger trailed, the links melting from the piece at large to fall to the ground in a neat square. He picked it up and it was roughly the size of his palm. “But this? This is ahkpetra. A rare metal found on Talmor, harvested and refined by the nymphs of the Doros Volcano. It is tougher than steel and much more capable of being infused with higher levels of arcane power.”

The woman raised her eyebrows to show she was impressed and gestured at the small piece of chainmail with her chin, “And how is that going to help us with landing?”

Hakeem’s smirk blossomed into a soft smile—something he seemed more apt to doing now that he was in a child’s body—and stepped over to the edge of their island. He turned his back to the void and looked at them all.

Now his smile was a manic grin. “Like this!”

And with that, the wizard back flipped over the edge into the void. Elmiryn’s mouth dropped. Nyx/Kali gave a start, yelling as they clumsily started forward.

“Hakeem!” Elmiryn heard Nyx yell between their quick shifts.

That was when Hakeem suddenly launched back into view, flipping through the air. When he landed safely before Nyx/Kali, who fumbled in their attempts from tripping over him. However, the wizard’s momentum was more than his adolescent legs could handle, and he slammed down onto the ground face down.  The boy grunted, lifting himself up onto his hands.

Quincy burst out laughing.

…That’s when Elmiryn realized the brunette hadn’t shown any signs of fear or alarm.

“You knew!” She snapped accusingly.

“You cared!” Quincy only giggled back. “That is surprising. But Taika, your landing was not! HA! Ha, ha, ha!” She doubled over, clutching her stomach.

Hakeem glowered at her sullenly as he rose to his feet. “Well the effect works at any rate.” Was the warrior imagining things, or were his chocolatey cheeks turning rosy?

“What effect was that? Some goddamn peek-a-boo trick?” Elmiryn argued, still annoyed that she’d been taken in by a joke.

Quincy wiped at her eyes as she went to hug her husband around the shoulders and wipe the dirt from his cheeks. “Elmiryn, you are fantastically short-sighted,” she sighed. The wizard looked at her, azure eyes wide. “When we come down onto those other islands, and you should have no doubt as to whether or not we will, we will be falling at an incredible rate and force.”

Nyx/Kali crossed their arms and rubbed their chins. Then she turned to Elmiryn with wide eyes. “It’s a brake!”

“A brake?” Elmiryn parroted, before her features cleared and she grinned. “Oh! Ohhh! I get it!”

Hakeem nodded, wincing as he checked his knees for scrapes. “I can’t use the full force of my mage armor. However, I can take a piece of the Aeumani to produce a small gravitational force in the direction I choose. It won’t make our landings completely pleasant,” and here he looked at Nyx/Kali, “But at least nothing will be seriously damaged.”

The redhead nodded. “Okay…that sounds reasonable. I guess.” Her eyes moved to Quincy. “You said you were ready?”

The other woman gave a firm nod. “Yes. If you’d all gather close together. Just give me a moment to put Hakeem’s armor away and we’ll do this.”

Hakeem and the Twins stood at either side of Elmiryn. Nyx took the warrior’s right hand suddenly, her face managing to hold for a moment while the edges of her features flickered like a flame.

“Elle, I’m nervous.”

Elmiryn squeezed her hand. “I’m right here. Whatever happens. You won’t lose me.”

The Ailuran smiled up at her, before her face shifted to Kali’s awkwardly blinking into the warrior’s eyes. With a cough, they released hands.

Quincy, done returning Hakeem’s armor to her bag, retrieved Eate’s Son and stood before them all. “Are we all ready?”

“Yes,” they said simultaneously.

The wizard nodded and stepped in close to Hakeem. “Everyone, I know it will be tempting, but don’t hold on to each other. It’ll just lead to injury and confusion.” She took a breath. “Tuck your limbs and heads in. Don’t tighten up. When we land, you want to be as flexible as possible.”

Quincy took another breath deeper this time.

Then another.

With a hup she threw the boomerang, and it whistled through the air, twirling and twirling. They all watched it go. Elmiryn’s heart beat hard against her chest. Her palms grew sweaty and a weak feeling entered her legs as she felt the beginnings of a strong wind touch her skin.

She smiled with excitement a split second before the tornado appeared and launched them all up and away.

——–

Lethia knew something about dreams and nightmares. More than having just studied them, she experienced them, vividly, every night. Syria had trained her to record her visions upon waking, even the bad ones—especially—the bad ones, when she was a teenager. Lethia couldn’t foretell the future or anything like that. She just gained…insights. On things. On people. At least that was what Syria said. Then again, she never said much else on the matter. Just recorded whatever the girl recorded, soothed her tears if it had been a particularly harrowing nightmare, shared in her delight if it was a good dream. Looking back, it was odd that Syria never told her what any of it really meant. At the time, the teenager had just assumed that her mistress had been trying to teach her to think for herself. Now…now

Now a nightmare stood before the girl, live and breathing, its presence so unwholesome and terrifying that Lethia could not move. Could not speak. These basic functions left her, like fair weather friends, as the being known as Izma approached her…one root-like-foot after another…

Her voice, nauseating and yet enchanting, came riding not in words, but in a mysterious music filled with sorrowful violins.

does the dozy daisy wonder,

where her tomorrow has gone?

do not cry, my daisy.

such a pretty little thing.

the haze and the blunder

of thy mistress poses no more consequence

than a wilting plant in thy flower bed.

all that is required…

…is some simple gardening.

Words returned to Lethia’s tongue like spirits from the after life.

“You want me to kill Syria…” the girl whispered, her eyes streaming still with tears.

Izma smiled again, and the girl managed to close her eyes, though she could not escape the terrible sight.

Among other things…yesss…

ELMIRYN________________________

After the third landing, Elmiryn threw her hands up into the air and screamed. “Again!”

“NEVER again,” Nyx/Kali moaned, still lying on their side  on the grass.

Hakeem was a bit unsteady on his feet, but seemed otherwise fine. Like Elmiryn, Quincy seemed more exhilarated than anything else.

“See?” the wizard said. “That wasn’t so bad!”

Elmiryn went to lean over Nyx, her expression critical despite her grin. “Nyx, you do the whole flippy-floppy thing with your champion powers. Why the hell is this any different?”

“Because I never fall so fast and I always know where I’m going to end up!” Nyx snapped. A shift, and in the next second, Kali’s feline face mirrored her sister’s sickened expression.

The warrior rolled her eyes and held out her hand. After a moment, the Twins took it, rising to their feet.

After a series of wind howling, tornado launches, the group had made it to the island that held the keep. It was the largest of all the split land masses and its forest appeared appropriately thick and ominous.

“We’re okay,” Kali growled, staving off Elmiryn’s attempts at holding the Twins up.

Quincy and Hakeem were already heading toward the forest line. The brunette looked at them over her shoulder. “Not that you haven’t heard this a thousand times before, but can you two hurry it up?”

Elmiryn waved at her. “Yes, you impatient hag, just give us a second.”

The wizard made a rude gesture before stopping to linger at the trees with Hakeem. At least they were staying in sight. The last thing they needed was to be split apart now.

The redhead looked at Nyx and bit her lip. “Hey…both of you…listen to me…”

The Twins turned their faces to her and the warrior sighed. “I’m getting…a feeling…in my gut. This will be serious. I just want you to know that no one else matters. Nyx, and you Kali, are my priority. Everything else is secondary.”

“Everything?” That was Nyx. Her solemn expression seemed to hiding a serious question there, but the warrior was confused as to the nature of it.

“Of course,” she said, declining a comment.

The woman rubbed the Twins’ arm, awkward in that she couldn’t hold Nyx without holding Kali, who was clearly uncomfortable with the intimacy. This frustrated her, and the woman had to occupy her hands by gripping her sword belt. She felt stupid, like how her former military leaders did when they assessed the battle field in their shiny, untested armor.

Elmiryn waited for the Twins to fall in step with her before walking together to the wizards at the forest line.

As one they entered, and everything went black.


Back to Chapter 34.1 | Forward to Break Time

Chapter 34.1

QUINCY_________________________

Time was given for Nyx to recover.

…Or was it Kali?

Quincy watched, fascinated as the girl alternated between states almost like the ghosts had back at the dwarven settlement. One second, the Ailuran’s face was perfectly sapien, with round pupils, a round nose, and ears on the side of her head. With just a turn of her head, her features would smear, blending to suddenly become feline: slitted pupils, a small, pink, heart-shaped nose that trailed down to a slim split upper lip. Then of course there were those ears. They just managed to poke out of the girl’s mane of hair, but they were visible, and in Quincy’s opinion, they looked almost silly. Like the costumes she’d seen people don on during the Aesutian Festival.

The girl was naked and covered in filth, but she didn’t seem aware of it. Only of Elmiryn, who held her closely, murmuring to her as she stroked the girl’s hair. Nyx’s face was quite emotional–not surprising considering what she’d gone through. Kali, on the other hand, seemed remarkably placid, and when her countenance appeared in the flash-flash-flashings of the Twins’ faces, she fixed Elmiryn with a tepid look that was not hostile, nor particularly warm. The Fiamman didn’t seem overly concerned with her lover’s fluctuating states. In fact, she couldn’t stop grinning.

Quincy sighed melodramatically as she reached for her magic pouch. When she gave the warrior her scarf to use as a makeshift chest wrap, she didn’t think there was anything left to use. But perhaps there was something to cover the Ailuran with. An extra cloak or a tunic…heavens, even a tea cozy was better than nothing. It always irritated her how therians exposed themselves so regularly. It wasn’t a matter of shyness—Quincy had seen it all both as a bounty hunter and a wizard’s apprentice. It was more the lack of consideration that irked her. Fine if the beast people wished to parade their delicate bits through the wilds to each other. But when in the company of others, wasn’t that a bit much?

Quincy’s arm sunk deep into her magic pouch, and she scowled as she rummaged through the infinite space of contents.

“Blast it all…I need to organize this stupid thing,” she muttered.

“Look!” Hakeem exclaimed.

Elmiryn and Nyx/Kali looked up from their intimate reunion, and Quincy paused in her search to look to where her husband was pointing.

Leading off into the surrounding forest, they saw an aurora light up the sky–a phenomena the wizard had only seen in the most Northern of regions.

Quincy squinted her eyes and took a step closer, her arm slipping out of her pouch.

No wait, she thought. This light is different. It’s got oranges, blues, and greens in it. The movement of the pattern spirals and is shifting far too quickly. What could…?

The woman’s eyes widened.

“Get in the cave..” she whispered. With fumbling fingers she re-fastened her pouch to her belt.

Elmiryn stood instantly, raising Nyx/Kali with her.

“What is it?” the warrior demanded.

Hakeem, always never too far from her conclusions, turn and bolted for the cave, his little feet crushing bones and animal skulls.

“No time! Move!” he shouted.

Quincy followed him, and with a deft scoop of her lover, Elmiryn was quick on her heels. They made it just under the lip of the cave when a thunder reached them, so loud and strong that Quincy could feel it in her teeth. The ground lit up for a moment, and there was a high squeal in the air. The woman pulled Elmiryn back even further as the warrior watched in a stunned sort of fascination. They had to get farther back or—

SKREEEEEE

A bright green curtain of light lanced through the ground like a cleaver. The earth cracked and split in an explosion of dust and rock. Everyone was thrown to the ground. For a moment, Quincy was afraid the cave would collapse on them, but it held. When the quaking ground quieted to a dull rumble, the woman dared to raise her head.

Her gut dropped.

Their little spit of land was floating away from the rest of the ground. She dared to stand to her feet and go to the edge of the cave and looked up to see that more chunks of earth were parting in a similar fashion.

“We’re floating away. The Manus Dei have vanished.”

“The what?” Elmiryn asked. Nyx/Kali was no longer in her arms. The warrior’s cerulean eyes took in everything, and that little wrinkle Quincy had learned meant genuine worry appeared on the redhead’s brow. “Quincy, what the fuck is happening?”

“Someone just cast a very powerful spell,” She replied with a sigh. “It’s a rare sorcerer’s spell. It requires deep training that allows the user to control elements at the most basic level. In this case, it’s sorcery based in the element of air and energy. It’s hard enough for a sorcerer to master one element, but to master two? I think I’ve only read of three people in history capable of something like this.”

“So this spell just cut us off from our way forward,” Elmiryn said slowly.

Quincy gave a stiff nod. “This was cast for a reason. Maybe the reason wasn’t us, but somehow I doubt that. Nyx was placed too conveniently for us to find. She was supposed to kill us, but perhaps the one orchestrating all of this didn’t count on Kali agreeing to go so far to help. So they went through with a back up plan.”

Elmiryn snorted. “Keep us stranded.”

“Exactly.”

Quincy’s eyes roved the islands below, above, and around them. When she spotted what looked like a castle keep on a hill overlooking a dense wood, the woman grabbed the warrior and pointed excitedly. “There!”

Elmiryn squinted and peered where the woman was pointing. The keep was just a level higher than they were, but it was the furthest from them than all the islands, and the harsh glare of the Other World’s nothing space made distinction a trial on the eyes.

Finally, the warrior seemed to spot it. “Yeah. Yeah! I see it!”

But then Elmiryn’s worry wrinkle appeared again. “I don’t know how to make wings yet.”

Quincy stared at Elmiryn as though she were insane. Which she probably was.

Giving a quick shake of her head, the wizard opted to skip on commenting and said instead, “I have a way we can get there.”

The warrior looked at her, one eyebrow raised. “Oh?”

HAKEEM________________________

“Fuck that.”

“It’s our only viable option right now!”

“The hell it is! If you guys would just give me a second, I could figure out how to sprout wings and–”

Tai’undu, Elmiryn! For the last time, you can’t just use your fae abilities whenever!”

“Why not!? It’s gotten me this far!”

“Like where? Stuck on this despondent little clod of dirt with your schizophrenic girlfriend, a bruised up face, and an itchy scarf for a shirt!?”

Bite me, Quincy.”

“Hey, need I remind you that I gave you that itchy scarf.”

“You want this stupid thing so badly? Fuck it. Here. You can have it back.”

Kwa upendo wa miungu, mkundu msgaji! Put it back on! I don’t want to see your sweaty tits! In fact, I’m not even sure I want this scarf back anymore, after you’ve soiled it.”

“Shove it up your ass. Nyx and I are not moving until we find a better plan.”

Quincy threw her hands up in the air. “FINE! Stay here and starve to death. Or wait until something comes and kills you! Even better!”

Elmiryn made a rude gesture with her middle finger and stormed off to sit with Nyx…or was it Kali? Either way, the Ailuran seemed to be still too weak and dazed to be of any considerable use in this situation.

Hakeem sighed. It was up to him.

Counting the amount of time it took to calm his wife down, the man-turned-boy walked up to his wife who stood glaring out of the mouth of the cave, her features partially lit by the non-light outside.

“She’s an idiot,” The woman snarled before he could even say anything.

“She’s stubborn,” The man-boy conceded.

He ran a hand over his shaved head and puckered his lips as he worded his next sentence.

“Elmiryn is a risk taker,” He finally decided to say.

Quincy snorted. “Reckless.”

The Fanaean nodded. “She’ll do anything if she thinks she might have a chance at succeeding, however slim the odds.”

“She gets a rush out of it.”

Hakeem looked up at his wife as he closed in on his point. “So why isn’t she taking this risk now?”

Quincy looked at him sharply, then glanced surreptitiously over her shoulder at Elmiryn. He did the same.

Elmiryn was kneeling before Nyx, holding her head between her hands, her eyes searching the girl’s face rapidly as the Ailuran’s features continued to shift and change. Her lips were moving imperceptibly, and both Nyx and Kali responded to her in equally quiet tones. The girl, the Twins he should say, looked weak. Beneath the dry blood and caked mud on their skin, they were deathly pale. Almost green. What had they gone through to get the beast under control? What had happened inside of them to lead to their sudden ability to both be in control simultaneously?

Quincy sighed. “That answer, Taika, is easy…” she muttered reluctantly. “She has an anchor that is keeping her frustratingly grounded for once.”

Hakeem nodded, satisfied. “So would the answer not lie in the anchor that keeps our friend from taking flight?”

His wife looked at him sidelong, then with a scowl and a wave of her hand, she said, “Be my guest.”

Hakeem reached over and gave a squeeze of her hand. Just before he turned to leave, he thought he saw Quincy’s lips turn up at the corners.

One minute, twelve seconds. Not bad.

The man-boy approached Elmiryn slowly. His heart still swirled with conflict over the warrior’s unflinching murder of Gudahi, his friend. But was it really murder? The woman had stood her ground, and she had warned them all to stay back. The Lycans weren’t accustomed to taking orders from outsiders, so their brash actions could be understood as a simple flaw in hierarchical thinking. To Gudahi, Sanuye was Alpha. The female Lycan had decided to attack, and Gudahi, with all of his well-masked pain and rage toward the beast that had harmed his people, eagerly followed.

It was all a tragedy no doubt.

But Hakeem put these things away. He began to focus on his counting again, and he felt a comfort among the facets of time.

“Elmiryn, may I speak to Nyx and Kali?” he asked.

The woman squinted up at him. “What for?”

But Nyx–it was her face this time–touched Elmiryn’s shoulder and gave a small nod. “Elle, it’s okay. I’ll be fine.”

The warrior almost looked like she doubted this, and the wizard feared she would take her stubbornness to a new level and refuse to go. Thankfully, however, Elmiryn stood and pointed toward the other side of the cave.

“I’m going to be right over there…okay you two?” With that, the woman walked away, sparing Hakeem a warning glare.

The man-boy only gave her a nod of thanks, and went to sit next to the Ailuran—her features showed Kali now. Her nakedness did not bother the man in the slightest, anymore than Elmiryn’s did. On the one hand, as a man (though trapped as he was in an adolescent body) he thought Nyx’s body appealing, even with all the blood and the mud caking her skin. But it was almost a mechanical response to beauty—and the girl, whether she knew it or not, had a very unique beauty to her. Beyond his appreciation, the mind felt no desire. Quincy was enough for him, and in his mind, he could see no one else as even remotely desirable.

As if his ease allowed the girl to remain relaxed, Nyx—who was now showing—did not make attempts to cover herself in any way. She simply gazed at him curiously and waited for him to speak.

He looked at her as he leaned fully back against the rocky wall. “Ikati. This may be a complicated question to answer, but how are you?”

The girl blinked, her face shifting a moment to feline before returning again in the blink of an eye. “I’m fine. We’re fine. I…I think.”

“The beast?”

Nyx bit her lip, then her features shifted and Kali appeared. The feline released her lip from her fangs and let her eyelids drop low. “It is taken care of,” she said in her customary rough voice.

Hakeem cocked his head to the side. “How so?”

Kali started. “The beast was just–”

But Nyx finished. “–Spiritual energy. The remnants of our animus that me and Kali did not control.”

“So what did you do with it?” Hakeem pressed. He had to be sure the threat was truly gone.

Nyx looked him in the eye, and suddenly her round pupils turned slitted.

“We tore the beast apart and weaved its energy into us,” Kali growled.

Hakeem’s eyes widened. “All that darkness? Wouldn’t it take you over?”

The feline shook her head. “You don’t understand…the monster you saw in the forest was not our darkness alone.”

This made him frown. “What do you mean?”

A shift. Nyx’s face appeared. “She means that when we saw that giant creature before, it was augmented by some other power. Magnified, you could even say.”

Hakeem’s frown eased. “So when we found you…”

“That augmentation had been removed. It was just me and the dark energy inside me.”

“That power must have come from somewhere. From Syria, perhaps? But why would she take away your added power? The beast was near invincible!”

Nyx’s face grew sad. “Because the monster could not speak. You’re right. It was Syria who gave my dark shard its extra power. But she took it away when it assimilated me because she wanted me coherent enough to harm Elmiryn.”

“She didn’t want you to just kill us. She wanted you to break us psychologically…destroy our group’s cohesion,” Hakeem said slowly.

Shift. Kali was back, and her angry face replaced Nyx’s look of remorse. “Yes. And that witch will pay! Her and the little one!”

Shift. Nyx shook her head, alarmed. “No! Not Lethia! It isn’t her fault!”

Shift. Kali snarled, her eyes narrowing. “She let this happen! She should be held accountable!”

Shift. Nyx, her face now contorted in frustration. “It isn’t that simple! What could she possibly have done!?”

Shift. Kali punched the ground. “More than let you sit sucking at dry bones for all this time!”

Hakeem grabbed the feline’s shoulder, and she looked at him sharply. He gazed back at her hard.

“Kali, be careful. I know you and Nyx have said that you have dealt with the beast, but its energy is a part of you now. All that rage and anger is now in your hearts. It is good that you can finally reconcile with it, but do not let it escape you. Either of you. Or we may again see its black ways return.”

Kali’s slitted gaze bored into him. Then she turned her eyes away and nodded stiffly.

Hakeem made a mental note: When it comes to eye contact, Ailurans behave similarly to Lycans. Fixed eye contact means challenge. Averting one’s gaze means to concede.Remember never to concede with Kali. Unlike Nyx, the feline persona is more apt to violence and should be kept from believing she’s in command.

Another shift and Nyx was back, looking at Hakeem with a grateful smile. Still, she held a wary glint in her eye. “Hakeem, you didn’t come to tell us that. What did you need?”

The man-boy crossed his arms and looked to the cave. “Ikati, you mentioned that Lethia was with Syria. Is she in that keep Quincy saw?”

Nyx nodded, her features flickering but remaining intact.

Hakeem continued, “You know as well as I do that the Manus Dei were summoned for a reason—to stop us, or at least, slow us down. Why do you think that is?”

“So that Syria could escape with Lethia?” Nyx said uncertainly.

He shook his head. “They must have a quick exit that wouldn’t require all of this. Think. What reason would Syria need to have lots of time for.”

Nyx thought hard, and when her features flickered to Kali’s, the man-boy saw the feline thinking hard on this too.

“Syria is trying to slow us down…because she’s trying to cast another spell?” Kali tried slowly.

Hakeem nodded. “Yes. Syria must be casting something—something that would require a long ritual that cannot be interrupted.”

“And anything she wants to cast would be bad for us, right?” Kali said, scowling.

“Right.”

“You humans and your…” but the feline’s grumble was cut off as Nyx shifted into view.

“Hakeem…” she said slowly. Her tawny eyes looked over him carefully, their lids low. “You want me to convince Elmiryn to go through with Quincy’s plan don’t you?”

The man-boy nodded. “Time is of the essence, and whatever reality-bending trick Elmiryn has up her sleeve won’t come quickly enough for us to stop Syria. We are so close, Ikati. If we defeat Syria, we can go home, and then this whole nightmare will be over.”

“We might go home,” the girl said shrewdly, her eyes narrowing. “And there’s still the matter of Paulo—I know he’s a prat, but he doesn’t deserve to be left in this dimension.”

Hakeem held up a pacifying hand. “Okay. You’re correct. There are still important things to deal with, and Syria may not be our answer. But what better leads have you to go on at the moment?”

Nyx frowned and looked down at her crossed legs. Her features shifted now and again. Hakeem counted the time.

Five…four…three…two…

Nyx sighed. “I don’t like Quincy’s plan anymore than Elmiryn does, but I see your point.”

Hakeem smiled. “I’m glad you do.”

“But tell me something first.”

The wizard’s smile turned bemused. “All right. What would you like me to tell you?”

“What does ikati mean?”

Hakeem laughed, a full genuine sound. It surprised him, but pleasantly so. Still chuckling, he stood. He looked down at Nyx–Kali–The Twins, and they both pouted up at him.

“In my language,” Hakeem chuckled. “It means, ‘cat’.”

The Twins’ expressions lightened.

“Oh!” One of them said. He didn’t know who, as their faces had been in mid-shift when they spoke.

Hakeem walked away to stand at Quincy’s side again. Elmiryn passed him, sparing him a curious glance as she went to rejoin Nyx.

He couldn’t stop grinning. ‘Cat’ wasn’t the literal translation for the word, but he figured the Twins would not appreciate his new nickname for them.

Because in Fanaean, what ikati really meant was, “silly puss.”


Back to Chapter 33.3 | Forward to Chapter 34.2