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.
Argh! Why does my family always do this!?
But Nyx’s sympathy flowed powerful, bringing the light of reality harsh onto her countenance.
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.
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.
Think about it! Do you remember what Lacertli…
Then abruptly she stopped, her enthusiasm waning.
Oh. I suppose you wouldn’t.
Nyx thought a moment, then opened her mouth to speak–
I see thou have come a long way since last we parted, to so eagerly fill your station.
And then the time for speaking ended, and the girl did the first thing that came to mind…
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.