Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 36.4

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn tore the page out of the dusty tome and giggled. Lethia, with fist in cheek, sighed heavily.

“Having fun?” She asked.

The woman didn’t even look at her. Just tore out another page. “As a matter o’ fact, yes!”

“Sooo…we’re just going to sit here?”

“Yep.”

“While you…tear paper.”

“A-yep.”

Lethia slapped a hand to her armrest. “Elmiryn, come on!

Elmiryn just shrugged and threw the book across the room. “Nope. Not doin’ it kid!”

“You aren’t going to talk to me at all!?

“Not after ya went diggin’ where you shouldna been, no.” The warrior went up to one of the stacks of books sitting on the tables and with a lazy flair, she toppled them over. The loud bang they made when they hit the floor made her giggle.

Lethia sat up straighter in her chair. “Stop that!”

Elmiryn quirked an eyebrow at her. “Or you’ll what?” And with this, she pushed another stack.

The teenager huffed at her and crossed her arms. “You’re such a child!

What Lethia got in response was a loud raspberry and another stack of books toppled over. Then the warrior paused in her playful destruction when her eyes fell on the ink pot sitting next to Nyx’s hand. “Ooooh!”

“What?” Lethia asked nervously, trying to crane her head to see what the woman was looking at. When Elmiryn started for the pot, the enchantress’s voice gained a level of agitation. “Elmiryn, what?

The redhead plucked up the dark vial with a mischievous grin. Her eyes trailed to Quincy, still stuck at the far wall, muttering to herself. “New game!”

“Huh?”

Elmiryn couldn’t contain herself. She half skipped over to the wizard as she undid the cap. “I think Quincy needs a moo-stache, don’chu?”

Lethia rose to her feet, one hand on her mouth. “Oh! Elmiryn, don’t!”

The woman cackled as her finger dipped into the ink. She set the bottle down and leaning in toward the wizard, she traced a long and curly mustache over her lips and onto her cheeks. Just to complete the image, she dabbed a little triangle on Quincy’s chin.

“Elmiryn!”

The warrior rolled her eyes and finally turned to the girl. “What? Why ya gettin’ so upset, huh? I mean, is any of this real, Lethia?”

Lethia pursed her lips.

Elmiryn nodded slowly. “Mmm…that’s what I thought.” She gestured at Quincy’s pouch. “So lessay, I try an’ get my drink back. Wouldn’t work, right?”

“No.”

“You lyin’ t’me?”

Lethia groaned and sat back in her chair. “Forget it. This is a waste of time.”

The redhead wiped the ink from her finger onto her pants. “Great! So let’s cut the shit and wake everyone!”

A sigh. “I can’t.”

Elmiryn scowled and took a step toward the girl. “Why not? I’m not talkin’ to you so what’s the point of this?”

“Has it occurred to you that this isn’t just about you?

The woman sucked at her teeth.

Lethia shook her head. “You’re so self-involved.”

“Ugh!” The warrior clapped hands over her ears. “Yer startin’ to remind me of my cousin again!”

“Well maybe you need to be reminded of her, then? She sounds like she had some sense!”

“Now who’s soundin’ self-involved?”

Lethia’s fists curled and she spoke quickly. “You act so cocksure. Unapologetic. You err boldly. Like…Like your decisions are just a-a-an extension of yourself! Even when you know the way is wrong, you still forge ahead, because you just have to do it. Like a stupid dare! It’s disgusting!”

“You can look in my head all ya want, Lethia Artaud. You haven’t got the first clue about how I work!” Elmiryn shouted. She started to pace. “Rrragh! I can’t believe yer even doin’ this right now!”

“Why not try pulling one of the book stacks onto you? Maybe it’ll hit you then…”

“Fuck. Y’know, you’ve got a real superiority problem. You think you can just trap people into stupid fucking mind games and get them to play along. If you’re askin’ for help, then ask. But this? It’s called coercion, kid!”

Lethia’s pouted at her knees. “I already told you. I have no choice.”

“So ya remove mine? Oh. Wonderful. Didn’ya ever learn that two wrongs don’t make a right!?” Elmiryn went and kicked at a table leg. “Fuck!

“Go ahead Elmiryn. Rage. Yell. Scream. You can even hit me if you like. But this doesn’t end until we talk.”

Elmiryn yelled and overturned the nearest table. The books, the lamps, the papers–they crashed to the floor in a chaotic mess. The woman’s head reeled and a dull pain struck her chest. Wincing, she doubled over and tried to catch her breath.

Lethia’s soft voice floated to her. “You should take it easy…if you aren’t careful you might have a real heart attack. Your heart hasn’t recovered yet.”

“Shut up,” the warrior spat.

Another sigh. “Oh Elmiryn…does the lashing out really make you feel better? Did it ever? You’ve always hated when things didn’t go your way, haven’t you?”

Elmiryn glared at the teenager sidelong. “I feel like I should be laying out on a couch right now. Ya wanna talk about my childhood, too?”

“Would it make you feel better?”

“The only time I lay on a couch is when I’ve got a woman on me, so unless you want to fulfill that role…”

Lethia’s eyes narrowed. “It’s like a tic. Saying things like that so casually. It’s almost like you’re trying to remind everyone that you’re available for sex.”

The redhead shrugged. “Well, when it’s true, why falsely advertise?”

“Why advertise at all? Aren’t you happy with Nyx?”

Elmiryn tensed. “Of course I am.”

“So when you habitually hit on Quincy–”

“I don’t hit on her–”

“Oh so the constant innuendos aren’t–?”

“I just like to get under her skin!”

Lethia snorted and shifted to lean all her weight on the other armrest. “And that’s another thing. You feel defined by the conflicts you have. Is that why Quincy is so attractive? Because she challenges you so much?”

Elmiryn bared her teeth. “No. I like her cuz she shits sunlight, kid.” The woman rocked back onto her bottom with a flop and hugged her chest. “Forget this. I already said m’not talkin’ to ya.”

“You know, that might actually be better. I think I’ve learned all I need from you anyway. You’re such an open book.”

The redhead’s glare turned wary.

Lethia crossed her ankles and started to wiggle her feet. “You’re almost like a stereotype. It’s sad. I don’t know why I thought you could help me. I should’ve just put you to sleep.” She looked up, her green eyes fluttering. “Do you want to go to sleep?” Instead of waiting for a reply, Lethia rambled on. She started to tug nervously at her sleeves as she did so. “You’re loud. Obnoxious. And the most frustrating part is that you’re not stupid! You’re very intelligent! But you get caught up in your own schemes, fighting to convince everyone that this is who you really are! …Even yourself.”

“Not true,” Elmiryn breathed.

The girl spared her a glance. “No?”

“No!”

“So what does your character say next?”

“What?”

Lethia leaned toward the woman, her eyes going wide. “What…do…you…say…next?

Elmiryn’s eyes fluttered as she brought her knees to her chest. A cascade of words tumbled through her mind, but none of them felt right. She was angry, so she should say that Lethia was full of it again, right? But wasn’t that redundant? After all, she’d just gotten through telling the enchantress that she wouldn’t play her game. Of course, she couldn’t agree with the girl…so what was left but to argue against her claims point by point? But wasn’t that the same as playing along?

The redhead opened her mouth, but stopped when she realized she had no idea what to say, or even what not to say.

Lethia gazed at her expectantly as she chewed on one corner of her lip. When the woman didn’t speak for several long moments, the youth sat up with a huff. “Marvelous. I knew you forgot your lines.”

Elmiryn blinked as she watched the girl reach for something on the other side of her chair. “M-My lines?”

“Yes.” Lethia stood with a pop and hurried over. Crouching down, she held out what looked like an unusually white unbound book. “Here. Page thirty.”

The warrior raised an eyebrow, but flipped to that page. She squinted her eyes at the words she saw on the paper. They were strange and came from no quill tip she recognized. “I-I don’t–”

Lethia pointed at a line. “There.”

Elmiryn started reading, because she couldn’t think of anything else to do. “‘Lethia, I know what I am. I’m kick ass, I’m incredibly fuckable, and I’m not going to let myself be held back by you, or anyone else!’” The woman’s frown deepened and her grip tightened on the papers. “‘If you’ve been watching me so much, you’d know that not even the gods can stop–’ All right, seriously, what the fuck is this?”

Lethia gave her a funny look. “It’s our script!”

“Our script?

“Yes!”

Elmiryn squinted one eye at it. “Well it’s horrible! This isn’t me at all!”

“No? You’re sure?” Lethia looked uncomfortable.

“Yes! This,” she shook the script. “Makes me sound like an asshole! I’m not an asshole!”

The girl puckered her face. “Are you really sure?”

“Kid. I am the first to say I’ve got a healthy love for myself, but this shit sounds intolerable. I’m not that bad!” Elmiryn frowned and flipped through the script’s pages. “I mean…I’m not, right?”

“I don’t know…I thought it was pretty spot on!”

“But this writing is so bad. It doesn’t sound genuine at all! I sound so…so…” the woman’s features slackened. “Fake.”

“Oh,” Lethia sounded dejected. Gently, she took the script from the warrior’s hands and set it aside. “Well. I mean. I didn’t write it, but we could try for a different story. Maybe you’ll feel more at home there?”

Elmiryn looked at her, lost. “Lethia, what trick are you pulling? That script…it had everything we both said up until the point where…”

“You forgot your lines?”

The woman’s face tensed. “Y-Yeah. There.”

Lethia shrugged. “We were doing a scene! You were following along pretty well, but I guess you weren’t feeling it any more.”

Elmiryn gazed at her knees. “I guess not.”

“Hey. We can try for something else, you know.”

She didn’t look up. “Like what?”

Lethia sighed. “Mmm…Well, there was that daytime drama we were doing. Remember?”

Elmiryn gripped her head. She started to tremble. “N-No? I…I don’t think so?”

“You’re so odd!” The girl stood and held out her hand. “Come on. I’ll take you there. I think you’ll like it.”

Elmiryn stared at her hand, then into her eyes. “Where?”

“If you’re going to play dumb, than so am I! Now come on!

The possibilities didn’t stack right in the woman’s mind, and she could feel her buzz sputtering out, leaving her blood cold and her sense of humor wilted. Her eyes flickered to the others–Quincy and Hakeem–before settling on Nyx. The girl’s back was to her from here. Even with all the ruckus Elmiryn had made, she hadn’t even stirred from her zombified perusing of the book in front of her.

Nyx…are you in there at all?

Reluctantly, the redhead returned her eyes to the enchantress, who gazed at her with a raised eyebrow.

…Am I?

She took Lethia’s hand, and when she stood, the girl was beaming at her. “There!”

Elmiryn’s brows knitted. “There? What do you mean?”

Lethia put her hands on the woman’s shoulders. “I mean your jacket. I told you faux can work!”

The woman looked down at herself. She had on a black leather jacket and a white v-cut shirt. “This is faux?” she asked uncertainly.

The girl laughed and turned her around. Elmiryn found herself staring into a mirror screwed onto a wall, a warm light shining down on her from above. Her dark denim jeans rooted into loosely tied boots. Lethia was dressed in a sky blue summer dress with a tasseled brown vest and simple dark slippers.

“Yes! Oh my god, you never read the tags.”

The woman watched as her reflection wrinkled its nose. “This is faux!?” she exclaimed.

“Looks like someone is stuck on repeat today.”

“Well fuck, I’m sorry, but this is a damn good jacket for something that’s totally fake.”

“Ugh! Your love for leather is so Cruella Deville.” Lethia covered her face with her hand.

Elmiryn brought the sleeve up to her eyes to better read the price tag. She gave a low whistle. “Jesus. For what they’re asking for this damn thing, I’m surprised these assholes didn’t just call the jacket genuine anyway!” With a grimace, she started to peel it off. “Okay. I’m done!”

Lethia shook her head emphatically. “What are you doing?? We’re going out tonight, and so far you’re only fifty percent James Dean! Look we have all these other things to try!” She gestured at the small stack of clothes they had brought in with them.

Elmiryn fixed Lethia with a wry look before she waltzed down the aisle to the store rep at the dressing room entrance. Lethia followed her with a huff. As the woman handed over her jacket, she said to her cousin, “Lethy, I did the whole drag king thing for like, a week, and that was seven years ago! As far as I recall, I could pull off a so-so Zachary Quinto with a fake nose, but never a James Dean. And you know what? I’m okay with that!” She started to leave the clothing store.

Lethia followed her, practically stepping on her heels. “You know I’m not asking you to dress like a guy! I just need you to–”

“Look like a trendy lesbian,” Elmiryn finished with a sardonic smile.

“Elle, you promised you would try and make this work!”

The woman laughed as she shoved out into the open mall’s thoroughfare. “And why would I need to dress like a character off the L Word to make this work?”

“Because I want to get into Psi Alpha Epsilon, and I really need these girls to like me! Their going to be doing initiations soon. I need to make one last good impression, and you’re the coolest person I know! Having you around cancels out my geek factor!”

“Why do you have to get into a sorority? I didn’t when I went to college!” Elmiryn pulled her aviator sunglasses from her back pocket and put them on.

Her cousin struggled to hold back her long hair in the wind, making her harried gait seem even more frazzled. “But you’re you! I’m me! These people could open up a lot of doors for me! With them, I can get on the path to getting my own counseling practice!”

“Lethia this is your first year in college! Can’t you feel things out a bit more before you jump into things? I feel like you’re trying too hard to control this!”

The redhead rounded the corner of the store to the concrete stairs behind. The parking lot was below. She took to the steps with quick feet, one hand barely skimming the hand rail. Her cousin stopped at the top, her voice turning shrill.

“That is your problem, Elle! You never want to control anything!

Without looking back, the woman waved a hand. “See you at nine baby cousin!”

The drive back home was quick, but it felt like forever the way Elmiryn mulled over the day. Why was Lethia stressing about this so much? She knew it was just nerves, but having her cousin try so hard to change her style had stung. The girl had never cared about such things before. Was Elmiryn really so bad?

The woman lived in a second-rate apartment complex in the area, and as she stepped out of her car to start up the three flights of creaky wooden stairs, her cell phone started to buzz in her pocket. She pulled it out and answered without thinking.

“Hullo?”

“Oh-ho! So now you answer! You must be preoccupied with something to have forgotten to check the caller ID.” It was her mother, Brianna.

Elmiryn winced and stopped, one boot on the first stair. “Mama. Hey. I’ve been meaning to call.”

“Of course you have, sweetie. I have too. That’s why I’ve left five messages on your phone since last week.”

The woman sighed and rubbed her eyes behind her sunglasses. “Well, y’know. Busy.”

“Mm-hmm.”

Resigned to the conversation, Elmiryn leaned against the stair railing. “Sooo…how ya been?”

“Fine. I suppose it was luck that I caught you. I’m flying out to Buenos Aires early tomorrow morning.”

“Oh!” The woman took off her sunglasses slowly. “Was that this week?”

Her mother’s reply was weary. “Yes, Elle.”

“When do you fly out? I can stop by before then.”

“No, dear. You can’t. Your father and I are driving back from your granny’s and by the time we get home it’ll be late and we’ll be going straight to sleep.”

“Granny’s?? What are you doing out there? Don’t you have to pack?”

“Well unlike some people, we can actually plan ahead.”

Elmiryn rolled her eyes and started up the stairs. “Zing.”

Her mother laughed. “Sweetie, I love you. But you’re a little too in the moment!”

“Considering most people my age are either stuck with bad roommates or living with their parents, I thought I was doing pretty good on my own!”

“Never mind that you switched majors five times before finally settling on kinesiology.”

Elmiryn pouted. “You don’t know what it’s like in the system! They make everything sound so good!”

Brianna’s voice was filled with irony. “I’m sure you would’ve managed an excellent winery if only you’d stopped drinking the product.”

Her daughter huffed. “Enology is no laughing matter. I needed a little something to destress!”

“Ah, and who could forget the racetrack management–”

“Hey, there’s a lot more to it than you think–!”

“Bakery science–”

“Did I not bake you a cake for your birthday–!?”

“Adventure recreation–”

“Who doesn’t like zip-lining? I mean, seriously!”

“Elmiryn. I love you. You know that,” The woman tensed as her mother’s voice took on a more serious note. “But I really wanted to talk to you about your plans with Lethia tonight.”

Elmiryn groaned. “Ugh! I should’ve known. Did she call you and whine? She’s getting a wedgie later, you know that, right?”

“Sweetie, this is important to your cousin. I know she can get a little…much, but trust me when I say that it would mean a lot, not just to her but to me as well, if you can support her tonight.”

The woman’s grip on her phone tightened. She took to the second flight of stairs with more energy, leaping up two–sometimes three steps–at a time. “Fine. Tonight I’ll be Lesbian Barbie.”

“Elmiryn, you’re pouting aren’t you? What did I say about that! It’ll give you wrinkles!”

Up the last flight of stairs. Elmiryn spoke through a gritted smile. “Yes. Got it. No pouting. Will support annoying cousin. I’ll even break out my make up–” She added under her breath, “If I can find any of it.”

“Good!” Her mother’s somber tone vanished. “Well, love. I’m off. We took a break at a gas station and your father’s just getting back from the restroom. He always gets cross whenever I’m on the phone in the car. Have fun tonight, okay? And say hello to Izzie for me.”

“I will. Bye mama.”

The woman sighed as the line went dead. As she came up to her apartment door, she pulled out her key and was about to push it into the lock when the door opened suddenly. Startled, the woman took a moment to realize who was in front of her. “Izzie?”

Her girlfriend leaned on the door frame, her gray eyes squinted in mirth. “Hey!”

Izzie was a year older than Elmiryn, but with her baby-face and warm pixie cut hair, one would swear she looked no older than twenty-one. Dressed only in blue cotton short shorts and a green bikini bra, it seemed she had made herself at home for a while now. The redhead had only just given her girlfriend the key to her apartment four days ago and she was still unaccustomed to finding her there all the time. For her, it was the first relationship she’d ever had to reach that stage of commitment.

Elmiryn recovered quickly, her face breaking out into a warm smile as she scooped Izzie up off the floor by the waist. “Hey you! Have you been answering the door like this all day? Do I need to kill any package delivery boys or something?”

Izzie giggled as she squirmed in the woman’s arms. “Ah! What are you doing? Put me down!”

“Not until you answer the question!”

“I’ll never tell!”

“What!? You harlot!” Elmiryn set her girlfriend down but didn’t let her slip away. Instead she started to tickle her bare sides. The brunette started shrieking as she swatted at her. “Now I have to punish you!”

With a playful shove, Izzie got away, and Elmiryn paused only to shut the door behind them before she gave chase.

As their games always led, whether by design or by accident, they ended up in the bedroom, and the redhead tackled her girlfriend to the bed. “Gotcha!”

Izzie laughed beneath her as the woman started laying on her assault of wet kisses. “Elle!” Then her laughter choked out to a soft moan. “Mmm…Elmiryn!

“Yes?” Elmiryn pulled up the bikini and took a pink nipple into her mouth. Izzie tightened up beneath her, her breath hitching.

“You…you’re boss called…you should…you should really give him your cell phone number.”

Elmiryn pulled back from Izzie’s breast with a small pop. “Marquis can suck my left one. I’m not making myself anymore accessible than I need to be.”

“It could be important.”

You’re important!”

Izzie gripped Elmiryn’s head with both hands, forcing her to lift her face. When their eyes met, the brunette struggled to pull her features into a frown. “I’m serious!”

The woman rolled her eyes and moved to sit on the edge of the bed. “Fine. I’ll call him back and see what the hell he wants.”

A groan. “Geez, Elmiryn. I didn’t mean you had to deal with it right now.”

“Well all future thinking is a bit booked at the moment. I have to figure out how I can get ready for Lethia’s stupid sorority outing without failing with a big fat P-H.”

“Mmm…I take it the tag popping expedition crashed and burned?”

Elmiryn tried to rub the tension out of her neck and shoulders with both her hands. “I cut it short. Lethia was driving me crazy. I’d never seen her so high-strung before!”

“She just needs your help. You know you’re like the sister she never had, right?”

“Lucky me.”

The woman heard Izzie shift behind her, and before long her girlfriend had taken up the task of giving her a massage. “Don’t be like that. She loves you!”

“Then why can’t she just accept–” Elmiryn broke off and stood. Izzie blinked up at her, her hands still where they’d been a moment before. “Forget it. Look, I’m going to call Marquis now. He probably wants me to come in for something. I’ll catch you later?”

Her girlfriend deflated, her gaze turning to her lap. “Sure.”

The redhead stood there, uncertain if she should say something more. When nothing struck her, she gave Izzie a kiss on the hair, then left.

 

——————-

 

When she arrived at the college campus a little after nine-o’clock, Elmiryn recalled just how much she hated university parking. After she found a suitable spot for her old Chevy Nova Sudan, she slipped out of the car and tried to follow Lethia’s directions. She got lost, but after asking a few college boys where the Psi Alpha Epsilon house was, she was enthusiastically led to the sorority. She suspected the kids just wanted to piggyback their way into the party, so she shook them off with a firm goodbye and approached the house herself.

The large building wasn’t quite what she imagined–she expected hot red bricks, white greek columns, and a large gold bevelled sign over the door. Instead, the house looked like something found in an upscale suburb with a simple dark green sign on the front lawn that showed the sorority’s greek letters in bold white font.

There were a few girls out front talking with red plastic cups in their hands, and they glanced at her as she approached. The woman fought the urge to tense up and pulled out her cell phone. Calling her cousin, she hovered near the door, unwilling to brave the thick crowd of college-aged girls she spied from the windows.

The girl picked up almost instantly. “Elle!? Where are you?”

Elmiryn grimaced and tugged on her new faux leather jacket. She had picked it up just a little before she arrived. In the end, she had caved, though she still refused the make up. “I’m outside the front door. Where are you?

“Stay there! I’m coming to get you!”

The call ended and Elmiryn pocketed the phone with a sigh. Along with the leather jacket, she’d also purchased a new scarf and skinny light denim jeans. Dangling from her ears were silver diamond earrings her mother had purchased for her years ago, but she hardly ever wore. After getting back home from work (Marquis had wanted to introduce her to a new client she’d be cardio training in the upcoming weeks) Izzie had left the apartment for her own job. Elmiryn was glad for the chance to be alone, but she hated sitting still, thus leading to her reluctant shopping expedition. She felt ridiculous in these clothes.

As a stream of girls went past her to the front door, Elmiryn spied the blonde head of her cousin struggling to get by. “S’cuse me! Sorry!” Lethia approached, breathless but smiling. “Hey! You came!”

Elmiryn managed a smile. “Sure did!”

Her cousin took her hand and started to pull her toward the door. “Come on! Let me introduce you to my sorority sponsor!”

The smile became harder to keep up when Lethia pulled Elmiryn into the building. Inside, the music was loud, and the crowd was even thicker than it had appeared outside. Most there were girls, but there were a few guys too–likely dates. The redhead tried to keep her patience as they slowly fought their way through to the sorority living room. There, Lethia led them to the bookcases near the fireplace, where two girls were chatting.

Elle was only half-paying attention when the introductions were made. She was never very good with parties like this–too much stimulation. Warner, her father, had suggested it was ADHD. She wouldn’t know. His pamphlet on the subject had spontaneously combusted in her bathtub, along with her book of matches.

Lethia’s voice only just managed to squeak through the commotion around them. “This is my cousin, Elmiryn. Elle, this is Nyx. She’s my sponsor!”

The woman turned her head, finally aware she’d let her attention wander. “Oh! Uh, hello–” She started to hold out her hand, but stopped.

The girl Lethia had gestured at was a petite, dark haired beauty with dark rebellious hair and warm eyes. She had on a straw hat fedora and a lavender t-shirt that read, “History on the run.” Her full lips pulled back into a smile as she raised an eyebrow at Elmiryn’s pause.

“Hi,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you, Elmiryn.”

The woman swallowed her surprise and grinned slowly. She took the girl’s hand and shook slowly. “The pleasure’s all mine.”

Nyx turned to look at the girl next to her. Reluctantly, Elmiryn let go of her soft hand and looked too. Taking in the other’s appearance, she recognized that this woman was a little older than the crowd. She must’ve been wearing contacts or something because her eyes were a clear purple. Like Nyx, she had dark hair, though in neater curls, and she was almost as tall as the redhead. The woman thrust out her hand as Nyx started with her introduction.

“This is Taila. She’s my girlfriend.”

Elmiryn shook Taila’s hand with more vigor than was necessary. “Y-Your girlfriend! Wo-ow! Nice to meet you!” Her smile had turned tight.

Lethia gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Surprise! Psi Alpha Epsilon is an LGBTQQIA sorority! I wanted to make you proud!”

The redhead stared at her cousin. “This sorority is a what?

“LGBTQQIA,” Nyx said with a chuckle. “It means lesbian, gay, bi, transgendered, queer, questioning, intersexed, and ally. We’re, uh…’all-inclusive.’

Elmiryn blinked, “Um. That’s…great?” The woman held up her hands and added hurriedly. “No really! That’s awesome! I’m just not really abreast on gay rights and…stuff.” Inwardly she kicked herself, then wondered if mental harakiri would be more fitting.

Nyx squinted one eye and tugged on her ear. “I know, I know! I think the acronym is way too long, but people have been blowing a gasket about feeling left out.”

“I think it’s good that the sorority tries,” Taila said with a shrug. She threw an arm around Nyx’s shoulder and Elmiryn took a sudden interest in their shoes. “A lot of houses say their inclusive, but the prejudice is there.”

Elmiryn frowned and let her gaze crawl back up. “It’s hard to ask people to be open minded about everything, especially when they don’t encounter it every day. Prejudice exists in the gay community too, doesn’t it?”

Nyx sighed. “Sadly, yes.”

“I think it isn’t so bad as long as people keep trying to understand. Isn’t that the important thing? I mean…everyone on this planet needs a way to react to something new and mysterious if they wanna keep from getting overwhelmed. That’s just life.”

Taila wagged a finger. “Exactly!”

Lethia nudged Elmiryn. “Hey, you want a drink?”

“Yeah. That’d be cool.”

“Beer’s fine?”

“Yeah, whatever’s there. I don’t care. Thanks!”

Lethia nodded and left with a small wave. “Be right back! You guys talk.”

“Actually,” Taila pulled away from Nyx and pointed across the room. “I have to head to the bathroom. The line’s killer, and if I wanna get back here before the Second Coming of Christ, I should get a spot while I can!”

Nyx stepped in for a quick kiss before she waved her girlfriend off. “See you in a bit, babe.” Taila winked before vanishing amongst the crowd. The sorority girl turned back to the redhead. “So!”

Elmiryn shrugged her hands with a smile. “So!”

“Lethia is a really nice girl. I think she could be an awesome addition to the sorority.”

“She’s great isn’t she? She’s so…determined.”

Nyx raised her eyebrows. “Oooh…that didn’t sound ironic at all!”

Elmiryn winced and shook her head. “Oh! Fuck! I mean–shit–I’m sorry, I curse. A lot. Uh. No. That’s not how I meant it.” She smirked and scratched her neck delicately. “I mean, I really do think she’s going to take over the world!”

Nyx laughed and leaned back onto the bookcase. “She spoke very highly of you, y’know. You two sound really close.”

“Us? Well, she was like my kid sister when we were growing up. Her mom was my mom’s sister and…y’know. She used to get picked on by other kids. I stuck up for her.”

“Aww! Sounds like you were a knight in shining armor!”

Elmiryn pulled a suffering look. “No way!”

Nyx’s smile shifted to a smirk and she gestured around the room. “Well…what do you think?”

“About your sorority? Uh–” the redhead glanced over her shoulder. “It’s nice. I’m just not used to these things.”

“Wanna know a secret?”

Elmiryn nodded and Nyx gestured for her to come closer. When the woman leaned forward, the younger woman stepped in and whispered, “I hate these parties!”

As she pulled back, the redhead’s ear pulsed with warmth from where Nyx’s breath had tickled her. She said with a grin, “Then why go to these?”

“I have to support my sorority sisters! And anyways, it means a lot to the pledges, like Lethia. It’s our last major function before we decide on initiates.”

“From what Lethia’s told me, Psi Alpha Epsilon is well connected!”

“You can just say Psi Alpha for short. And yes, I suppose we are connected. I mean, what’s a sorority without connections? We’re still younger than most houses on campus, though.”

“So you’re reasons for joining wasn’t some well-calculated move?”

Nyx laughed. “Um. No. I joined because I wanted to belong to something. We really take care of each other, here.”

Elmiryn went to lean on the bookcase next to Nyx, and she felt better with a full view of the room in front of them. “Is it too cliche to want to ask what your major is?”

“Are you kidding? I think life would be easier if we all had it tattooed onto our foreheads!” Elmiryn giggled and Nyx’s smile widened. The redhead felt her breath catch at the sight as the girl continued. “I double major in English and Journalism. Two of the most useless degrees you can get!”

Elmiryn’s smile waned at Nyx’s cynical joke. “Hey, that’s not true! You can do incredible things with those!”

“Sure. I’ll change the world by reporting on the latest Benghazi bombing to apathetic American families in the suburbs.” Just as soon as the words left her mouth, Nyx winced. “I’m sorry. I’ve been busting my back for school all week, and it’s got me a bit bitchier than usual.” She quirked her eyebrows. “What about you? You graduated with a degree, right? Have you had luck with your career?”

“Geez, how much did Lethia say about me?”

“Just enough to get me interested,” Nyx said with a hooked smile.

Elmiryn coughed and tried to fend off her blush. “Okay! Okay. Uh. Yeah. Yes, I do physical training at a health clinic in town. Some of my clients are athletes, but most are patients recovering from serious surgery.”

Nyx’s eyes widened. “Wow! Talk about doing incredible things!”

The woman shrugged and looked away. “It isn’t that big a deal. I’m not even sure I wanna keep doing it, some days.”

“Why’s that?”

“Honestly? I’m not sure. I’ve always had that problem. It’s like I can’t decide on what I want to do. I get…” Elmiryn cycled her hands through the air, her eyes squinted. “I don’t wanna say bored. Stuck, I guess? It’s just, after a while I start to feel restless.”

“I get that.”

Elmiryn glanced at her. “Do you?”

“Sure.” Nyx looked down at her shoes, and her hat brim successfully hid her eyes from sight. “When I hear about what’s going on in our country, I get angry. Sad. It makes me feel trapped. Like I’m not doing enough to help.”

The redhead snapped her fingers excitedly. “There! Yes! That’s how I feel! Like I’m not doing enough!”

Nyx looked up at her again, and her eyes caught Elmiryn’s. The woman wasn’t sure when it had happened, but suddenly her face didn’t seem that far away. Scant inches really. What if she just tipped forward a little…?

The younger woman smiled. “They say life isn’t about the destination. It’s the journey that counts. Sounds like yours will be very rewarding!”

“And what about you?” Elmiryn asked with a tilt of her head. She barely shifted, but when she settled on the bookcase again, she was even closer to Nyx than before. “How’s your journey going? Are you liking the company?”

Nyx’s expression softened, but she didn’t move or look away. “So far my company is everything I could ever ask for.”

“And what about the things you can’t?”

No response. Elmiryn lifted a finger and tilted Nyx’s hat up a small fraction. She was met with no resistance.

What am I doing? She thought as she started to lean in. I don’t talk like this! I don’t act like this!

“Elle!?”

Elmiryn turned to see Lethia standing with two red cups in her hands. Around them, the party-goers seemed engrossed in their conversations, but the woman caught the eye of a few surreptitious looks. A glance at Nyx confirmed it. Everyone around them had been aware of what had nearly happened except for them.

Ho-lee shit.

Lethia thrust her cup at her cousin, and the older woman flinched like it were a knife. “Can I talk to you for a second?”

Elmiryn swallowed. “Uh, sure.” She looked at Nyx. “I’m going to–”

“It’s cool,” Nyx said without meeting her eyes.

Feeling worse and worse by the second, Elmiryn followed Lethia out to the front lawn, away from the others. When they were sufficiently secluded, the girl rounded on her, her eyes burning with fury.

“What the eff, Elle!? You were so about to kiss my sponsor!”

Elmiryn clasped her hands. “Lethia, please. We were just talking!”

“Are we going to have a repeat of the Ting incident? Because I don’t want to have to live through that replay!”

“No! And for the record, Ting seduced me okay!?”

“You still had the option of saying no then, just like you do now! Elle, I like Nyx. I do. But you have to watch out for her!”

Elmiryn blinked in confusion. “I–What? Look out for her?

Lethia nodded her head earnestly. “Yes! I was hoping Taila had changed her, but now I’m not so sure. So just…be careful, okay? She’s got a history of chewing girls up and spitting them out.”

The redhead stared at her in incredulity. “I’m sorry. Did we see the same thing in there?”

Her cousin frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I was the one who–” almost kissed her, she finished inwardly. She placed a hand on her forehead and stared wide eyed at the ground. But why would I do that? What would possess me to do that? I’ve never been that forward! And I have Izzie! Was I really about to throw our relationship away like that on a first meeting?

Lethia sighed. “Maybe this was a mistake. I can tell them you aren’t feeling well. They won’t mind. They only just met you, after all.”

“No,” Elmiryn said with a strong shake of her head. “It’s fine. I’ll be fine. This is important to you, and I wanna be here!”

The girl’s eyebrows knitted. “Are you sure?”

“Totally!”

Lethia bit her lip. Finally she gestured for the woman to follow. “All right…but I’m not leaving you alone anymore! I don’t want to see you getting hurt again!”

Elmiryn threw an arm around her cousin and guided her back to the sorority house. “I won’t. I promise, baby cousin.”

At least, I hope not… she thought with a dark glance up at the building.


Back to Chapter 36.3 | Forward to Chapter 37.1

Chapter 36.3

QUINCY_________________________

“If you need a reason to work against Izma, then what about your mistress, then?” Quincy asked. She stood facing down Lethia with arms crossed and feet planted. An inkling in her mind told her that something was amiss, and she wasn’t about to let her guard down.

Call it a hunch…or the magicked pearl earring tugging on my ear. This girl? Up to something. As if my stupefied friends aren’t enough of an indication. Her eyes drifted to the back of Elmiryn’s head. Well. Nyx and Hakeem, anyway.

Lethia frowned and shrugged her shoulders. “What about Syria?”

The wizard raised an eyebrow. “Take into account her imprisonment and subsequent escape from Holzoff’s. Isn’t that enough? Her horrible time as a prisoner–abused and malnourished. Her murder of everyone in the tower–”

“If you’re trying to tell me bad things will happen in Izma’s service, you aren’t digging deep enough then. Nyx has been dismembered in the service of Lacertli. Elmiryn fell prey to Meznik under the neglect of Halward. Misfortune comes to us all, and much of the time it’s really our fault, not our benefactors.”

“Very well. I agree. But I think you’ve got it wrong when you equate Izma to the gods. She is responsible. Do you want to explore the realms of responsibility?”

“If you think it needs to be discussed, then please. Let’s.”

Quincy smirked as she stroked her chin. It had been nearly ten years since she’d had to delve into the difficult mazes that were theistic and philosophical thought. Deep logic boiled everything down to basic concepts, removing such fallacies as emotion and whimsy. It had nothing to do with wrestling established facts. After all, those were concrete. It had everything to do with taming the infinite, however, and as a wizard dabbling in many styles of magic, it was essential to be able to discern for yourself the value of the world and all its mysteries.

But the woman was aware that if Lethia Artaud truly wished only to discuss which side she should choose, then the isolation of their group would hardly have been necessary. Quincy couldn’t say for certain what Lethia’s motives were, but she was moving in concert with Izma, whatever she said, and that made the girl dangerous. Still, if what Quincy had gathered of Izma so far was true, then she had to tread lightly. Simply calling the demon out was likely going to get the woman killed. She needed to know when to strike, and how. It wasn’t as if she knew this creature, if it really was an astral demon, could be slain by conventional means.

Quincy started with a wave of her hand. “To illustrate the difference between Izma and the gods, I’d like to start with two questions. First. What is it to be responsible? Second. What is a god responsible for?”

“Those are deceptively simple,” Lethia said with narrowed eyes. Her hands were threaded together on her lap, but the wizard saw them tighten at the knuckles.

“For the sake of time, I’ll try to simplify.” She cleared her throat. “Now, I won’t muddle with the messy theistic issues you come across when connecting the mortal plane and the heavenly plane. But if we refocus, we can ask ourselves, what is moral agency to the gods?

“Some would say you’re treading on blasphemy, even considering such a thing.”

Quincy shrugged. “Many lay believers have issues with magic users, believing we’re arrogant. I respect our world’s pantheon, but I do not go out of my way for the gods. Our relationship is…standoffish at best.”

“Why is that?” Lethia asked with a tilt of her head.

Ah. She IS trying to worm her way in.

The wizard held up a hand with a strong shake of her head.

“No. That’s not what we’re discussing.” Her voice was firm. She had to keep talking, she had to make Izma show herself. Wiping at her lip with her thumb, Quincy started to pace slowly, her other hand resting across her stomach where it could reach her pouch. “The first question I posed brings up moral agency. When we talk about moral agency, some believe that a rational agent chooses to act in light of principles. Others believe that reason cannot provide us with moral guidance. These people see that it isn’t our self-evaluation that guides us, but the way others judge and influence one another. So how do gods function? Clearly, they don’t seek the validation of one another. If the era of champions taught us anything, it’s that the pantheon is forever pulling in different directions–sometimes even clashing heads–and the only one who seems capable of bringing about any semblance of order is Halward, their king.”

Lethia’s eyes widened. “That is blasphemy! What you’re saying implies that the gods lack both principles and unity.”

“No, of course not. You didn’t let me finish,” Quincy snapped.

The enchantress flinched and seemed to wither in her seat. “I apologize. C-Continue.”

“Thank you. Now. As I’d been trying to tell you, the gods fear their leader, but they hardly fear one another. If anything, they each obsessively pursue their personal goals of governance over the mortal realm. That said they do have principles. How could they not, when their entire existence is tied to the Harmony that fuels their power? Would Kupala have any power left in this world if she allowed Halward’s followers to destroy her forests? Would Aelurus and Artemis have any sway if they allowed Azad, Nitor, and Vires to dominate the sky? And it breaks down further. The virtues they represent, the cultures they helped to grow, the lands they fought to create–these are things they seek to protect and advance. The gods are essentially rulers of reality, only their subjects are the mortals whom rely on them.

“So it’s a combination of both forms of moral agency. They are guided by a purer set of principles than we are–for the nihilistic heathens, they would argue that it’s a narrower set of principles. They are also affected emotionally by the very investments their existence is tied to, and their ambitions are culled by their fear of Halward.”

Quincy glanced at Lethia. The teenager had sat forward and was now leaning on her knees. From the way Elmiryn sat at her feet, the wizard could see the girl’s breath tease the warrior’s bangs. Her brow twitched at the sight, wondering if it were a sign, but she let the observation go. She needed more. That unusual disregard of personal space was not enough to illustrate Izma’s presence.

“Now that I’ve addressed how moral agency functions for the gods, we come to our second question: what is a god responsible for?” Quincy paused and gestured toward the ceiling with both hands. “In a way, I’ve already partially answered this. You can’t examine the moral agency of heaven without examining how this function would operate.”

“So from what you’ve outlined, those would be the elements that define the gods, and their relationship with Halward.”

Quincy snapped her fingers, allowing one eyebrow to arch up. “Yes! The gods, as the governing entities that control and foster the systems that uphold their elements of Harmony, are responsible for their domains. Njord is master of the wind and the virtues tied to this. Atargatis is mistress of the sea and the virtues tied to that, and so on. Next, if the gods hope to remain in Halward’s favor, they must regulate their actions, even with respect to their duties, so as to avoid repercussions.”

“Is fear really enough to encourage moral decision making?”

The brunette sucked at her teeth. “That’s annoying. You’re backtracking.”

“Is it my fault you’re trying to sprint through this like it were a marathon?” Lethia snapped, her lower lip pouting. “What is it, Quincy? Are you expected somewhere? Your companions aren’t leaving any time soon, so just answer my question: is fear an appropriate function of moral agency?”

The wizard spared the girl a suffering look. “In measured portions, yes.”

“So tyrants and despots–”

“It is a simple fact of life that mortals consider the pros and cons of everything, Artaud. It’s not enough to look only at the good things. A person has to consider what consequences they’ll face with a decision, and much of the time, it is fear that keeps a person from committing terrible sins. It could be that they are afraid of being caught, afraid of dying, or perhaps just afraid of what they’ll become, should they cross that line.  Not everyone can stop and look at a situation and simply know what to do, present company being perhaps my best example. The only difference between a normal person and you, Artaud, is that you have a little more pluck than most–a trait that, for once, serves against you.”

The girl’s face twisted into a harsh scowl. “I am afraid, and I know what’s right or wrong! But my principles and my values amount to different things than everyone else, and with my soul outside of the realms of heaven, I have to consider what situation I can make the best of!” Her eyes fluttered and she swallowed. “Or if I can’t make the best of…anything.”

Quincy glanced at her sharply at this. She was certain that this was Lethia–the real Lethia, to be speaking so fatalistically.

She dared to step closer, her expression softening as she tried to catch the girl’s green eyes. “Lethia, this leads into my next point rather well, so I’m glad we took this small detour. You see, in the end, our decisions are our own. It is perhaps the greatest gift of the gods that they allow those on the mortal plane free will to either follow their light or slip into darkness. We are our own salvation. Heaven is only there to guide us, and in the case of an exceptional few, like Nyx, you might even enter contract with the gods. But those are all things us mortals choose for. So you’re right in stating that our mistakes are our own. But don’t you see? Just think. Has Izma given you or your mistress the sort of free will that the gods have? In what ways does the demon operate that makes her so beyond reproach?”

Lethia stared at Quincy, a hand on her chest. Then she turned her face away. The brunette frowned, feeling her chance to win the girl over slip through her fingers.

“So if you believe mortals to be responsible for their own fates, why are you so distant from the gods? Why do you resent them?” the enchantress whispered.

Quincy closed her eyes and ran a hand through her hair. “I don’t…resent them. I just celebrate my mortality. I’ve seen too many people caught up in the designs of heaven to let myself be lost in divine perception.”

“You celebrate your mortality?” Lethia’s voice took on a critical tone.

Quincy’s eyes gained a level of intensity as she paused to stare at the girl. “Now that sounded doubtful…”

“I just…I find it odd that someone with your history would claim to embrace such a mundane station of life!”

My history?”

Lethia frowned. “I didn’t think Tonatiuh was such a distant thing quite yet, but I sensed you might dislike me saying otherwise.”

“You just did.” The wizard’s voice was venom now.

The girl blushed, but a smirk appeared on her face. “Ah. Sorry.”

Quincy clenched her jaw. “Tonatiuh was a mistake. I know that now.”

“What motivated you to join with such a parasite anyway?” At the brunette’s glare, the youth rolled her eyes. “Fine. Don’t answer. We’ll just keep pretending you aren’t being a hypocrite by spinning more useless academe.”

“I took on Tonatiuh’s spirit because I wanted to be strong. Okay?”

“Why did you need to be strong?”

“To do my job.”

“We both know that bounty hunting was an accident for you. Believe it or not, I didn’t need my enchantment to learn that. With a reputation like yours, it was easy to hear the whispers and learn which were true.”

Quincy’s face turned red. “Well since I’m such an open book, you’ll know that my life had been dangerous before I arrived at Crysen. I lived with pirates for years. Do you know what it’s like? Do you know the sort of fear I felt, living with cutthroats as a young girl? Of course you don’t. It’s hell. I had to do things that would make your skin turn just to keep from being sold into prostitution or passed around the crew!”

Lethia’s eyes widened. “Did Hakeem ever find out?”

“No. Yes. I have no idea.” The woman rubbed her face wearily. “I’d like to think that my husband wasn’t so naive, but in the end, I didn’t want to address the issue either. It was easier playing dumb for both of us. Ignorance is bliss.”

“So the rumors about you and Hakeem being taken in by Tulki…” Lethia breathed.

“True.” The word came out an acerbic piece. Against her will, the wizard was beginning to feel ill.

“But your safety… The only one capable of it was–”

“For gods sakes, it was Tulki, Lethia. I was Tulki’s concubine. Okay!?”

“Gods!!”

Quincy snorted. “When I became a teenager, however, I knew my time was about through. I was too old for the good captain’s tastes, and he would soon cast me out. That would’ve been hundreds of times worse than anything that man subjected me to. So I fled with Hakeem to Crysen.” The woman knuckled her eyes. “At the time it was the only thing I could think of.”

“You couldn’t find succor anywhere?”

“Lethia, I think you’ve made it clear that you’ve learned a lot about my companions and me. You know that Elmiryn is turning into a fae. You already knew Nyx was a champion. You know how we came to arrive here. So you must know then, that my father was Njord’s champion, and in his long career, he made many enemies. Those people were always hunting me. I couldn’t risk making it easier for them to find me.” The wizard went to sit on one of the tables, her gaze spacing. “I had to…go to a place where I knew it would be hard to reach me. Somewhere I could get strong and bide my time until I knew I could travel the world unhindered.”

“And that was Crysen?”

“Naturally. Just getting to the city is a test in of itself. You can’t take a ship straight there because of the sea monsters plaguing its waters, and the coastline is teeming with powerful creatures all thirsting for blood. It was a perfect spot to lay low.”

Lethia pressed both hands to her lips, but when Quincy glanced at her, she thought she could see a twinkle in the girl’s eyes, as though she were trying to restrain herself from smiling. Just when she was going to comment on it, the teenager cut in with another question.

“Amazing that two children were able to brave the Kilemare coast and survive.”

Quincy shrugged, frowning at her knees. “We weren’t without our skills. Living with criminals hardens you. But even before Tulki, we knew a thing or two about avoiding wildlife. For a short time when we were children, we lived in the Fanaean jungles alone…”

The wizard anticipated the next question and braced herself for it. She let her hand inch closer to her pouch, the other sitting on the edge of the table to better rise and call her staff. The conversation was coming to a head. Her heart rate was up. It was no accident that Lethia pushed her buttons this way.

 

That’s it. No more games. I’m not stupid, demon. I can see what you’re doing. Go ahead an ask about Kimbia. Ask about how it was razed to the ground!

 

“I’m sorry, Quincy. You’ve gone through a lot.” Lethia sat back in her chair, her hand running through her long hair. Her expression appeared troubled.

Uncertainty held Quincy fast, and her body tensed at this new change. There was a clear line of attack and the girl was purposefully stepping back. The relent only made the woman suspicious.

 

“I thought I was a hypocrite?” she said with a sneer.

 

Lethia chewed on her lip, then shrugged one shoulder. “You are. But you didn’t just become a hypocrite for nothing. You’ve suffered a lot, and you felt the gods could’ve done something. After all, your father had done so much for them, why would they let his only daughter fall prey to so much misfortune?”

 

Quincy bristled. “The gods had nothing to do with it!”

 

“But doesn’t your life fall into their realms of responsibility? Is it really within Harmony to allow a champion’s daughter to become the concubine of a bloodthirsty pirate? Or for her to live in the jungles like a wild animal–?”

 

Shut up! It was nothing like that!”

 

Lethia’s eyebrows rose. “But…Quincy, you were sacrificed, don’t you see? Njord needed Jack to focus on his duties to heaven. You were a distraction. By taking you away from your father—”

 

Quincy punched her thigh. “I wasn’t taken away from my father! He left.”

 

“Only to handle what he was chosen to do—”

 

“No, no, no! He left because he couldn’t handle sitting still for too long! I was just a burden to him, and he didn’t want me. He abandoned me, Lethia!”

 

Lethia flinched. “Y-You don’t really believe that, do you–??”

 

“Of course I do.” Quincy’s hands were claws now, holding onto her knees because she could feel her control vanishing, breath for breath as the tumult of unwanted memories struck. Days of wishing, days of wanting, days of waiting for Jack—only to be rewarded with a monstrous band of marauders instead. Her life became chaos and misery, and it was only with bloody fingers that Quincy had been able to wrestle any sort of control for herself.

 

“Jack left to be the hero, like he always did. I was suffocating to him. He wasn’t suited to being a father. I wasn’t suited to being a daughter. When I came to understand that, all I wanted was for him to die so that Hakeem and I could live in peace. You think it was the god’s who shat on our lives for so many years? Let me tell you something girl. None of these things would have happened if Jack had never conceived me to begin with. I was the mistake. I was what brought death to Hakeem’s village. The problem was, I was too young and naïve to understand what a horrendous error I was until it was too late. Now I just…exist, hoping that I can destroy the ones who let me live and suffer.”

 

“That’s what you exist for?” Lethia’s voice was filled with pity, and her eyes turned big and watery, making the wizard want to gouge them out. “You live for destruction?”

 

Quincy felt her muscles tighten. When summarized like that, it felt so horrible.

 

Horrible and wrong.

 

“N-No…” she said quietly. She started to shake her head slowly, then with more passion. “No! That isn’t it!”

 

“Then what?”

 

Quincy stared at her hands, feeling her chest clench with apprehension. When she spoke her voice was faint. “I hoped…I hoped for a family. Any kind. Whether of…of my blood, or someone else’s.” She swallowed. Her throat was tight. “And a home. Some place Hakeem and I could call our own. A place where we could feel safe.” The woman’s eyes narrowed as her eyes burned. “I never thought about it, but I don’t have a home. A real one.”

 

“But Hakeem loves you, doesn’t he? Isn’t that enough?”

 

The wizard’s chin tucked in, and her eyes ticked back and forth. A tear slipped down her cheek. “You don’t understand. I could never bring myself to die freely. I’m too stubborn. So if…if I could not kill myself…I had to accept that I was choosing to live. But living is a threat to Hakeem, because I attract bad things. So if I am to exist, it has to be to create something new. Better. A family…I just want a family.

 

Quincy heard Lethia stand up, but couldn’t bring herself to lift her head.

 

I’ve never said that out loud… she thought with awe.

 

“And to have a family, you have to be strong?” the enchantress replied.

 

The wizard nodded. Footsteps. Lethia was coming closer.

 

“With strength, you’ll be able to destroy that which would threaten your family. Jack. His enemies.”

 

“Yes,” Quincy breathed.

 

“…Your enemies.”

 

The wizard looked up sharply, and it was to see Lethia standing before her, hands wringing with a nervous expression.

 

“You must have considered this, Quincy. Your life was not spent just combating the misfortunes brought on by being your father’s daughter. It was a collection of mistakes, wasn’t it? Tonatiuh, bounty hunting, wizardry…what has it earned you but more things to threaten your future children with? If you become pregnant, you’d have to go into hiding. If you adopt, you’d be knowingly choosing a child to take on the same kinds of burdens your father passed onto you. It’s a dark thing to hope for, isn’t it?”

 

Quincy’s mouth was dry. “But—”

 

Lethia’s eyes trailed down to the woman’s abdomen. “Even now, a new error comes.” Her eyes flickered back up, and the wizard withered under the cruel edge in them. “Your romp in the forest was without protection, was it not?”

 

The brunette’s heart skipped a beat, and she hugged her stomach. “Y-Yes. But the likelihood of—”

 

The girl tsked. “Now you’re just being naïve! Even taking into account your cycle, there is still a fair chance that you’re—”

 

Quincy jumped to her feet, panic seizing her as her eyes wide. “No! Not here! Not now! I can’t be pregnant!”

 

Lethia held up her hands. “Quincy! Calm down. Syria had me mix many potions here for many different purposes. I know we have something to abort unwanted beginnings. I can give it to you if you’ll just wait here.”

 

The girl started to turn and leave, but the woman caught her arm in a tight grip. “Now wait a minute!” When Lethia met her eyes, Quincy took a step closer. “This seems horrendously convenient doesn’t it? What is in that potion, really? Something to make me infertile, perhaps?”

 

Lethia gave her a stung expression. “If you really don’t trust me, you can watch me mix a new abortive potion now. But…” She looked away and looked back at the woman, visibly pained. “Quincy, you’re more like your father than you think, aren’t you? You don’t like sitting still, and you like the thrill of an adventure. For years you believed your father to be dead. You were at the top of the bounty hunting profession. In that time, why didn’t you stop to start a family and make a home, like you said? Maybe…M-Maybe you don’t really think you can have those things? If that’s the case, isn’t it better to stop lying about it?”

 

Quincy paled, feeling as though she’d been struck in the chest. Lethia gently pulled herself out of the woman’s grip and left to go up the staircase. The wizard didn’t move to follow her. She just watched, through clouding eyes, until the girl was out of sight. Then she covered her face with her hands and let her misery take her.


Back to Chapter 36.2 | Forward to Chapter 36.4

Chapter 36.2

NYX___________________________

I was aware that I was at a critical crossroads. Lethia Artaud had revealed herself to be an impressive enchantress on her own, if lacking a bit of experience. With Izma pitting her against us however, that one hurdle was bypassed, leaving her power to be augmented leaps and bounds beyond anything I could imagine. It was hard enough to believe Lethia going toe to toe with a sorcerer like Karolek, but that did happen. It was scary, then, thinking of the heights she could reach now…

No. If the only way to keep from fighting Lethia was to talk to her, then I could not fail. Not that talking was my strong suit. For all my Words and Meaning, there have been plenty of times in the past when I’d stuck my own foot into my mouth. But maybe if I looked at this in an academic light–like a puzzle or a game of logic–then maybe I could succeed.

At any rate, I was going to have to say something soon. Lethia was staring at me expectantly, and I couldn’t just let this silence hang. If it went on too long, I’d look at a loss. I needed to say something soon.

Resigned, I closed my eyes and took a breath.

Emotion has no place when you’re trying to utilize logic, and clearly Lethia was setting aside her overwrought emotions in favor of taking a more empirical approach to her dilemma. It was understandable, after I put aside my own feelings. Fear and sadness distorted everything, and if her chief concern was survival for the greater good, then she couldn’t get caught up in platitudes and the like. Claims like, “Izma is evil!” were useless, then.

I’d been using deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning used general statements to reach a conclusion. Essentially, my thought process had gone this way:

1. All astral demons are evil.
2. Izma is an astral demon.
3. Therefore, Izma is evil.

My first mistake, naturally, was in using the word “evil.” Evil, as a concept, was a natural theistic challenge in the realms of philosophy. If philosophy had trouble defining it, how could an empiricist accept it? In the empirical realm, “evil” does not exist. Just good and bad feelings. So I had to strike that and phrase my argument differently.

1. All astral demons are destructive.
2. Izma is an astral demon.
3. Therefore, Izma is destructive.

But here I stumbled on the same problem. The idea of destruction alone, when stripped of the negative connotations I had brought them in under, failed to prove a drawback. In Lethia’s mind, she had clearly seen an appeal to Izma’s destruction. Perhaps because only with an ending can a new beginning come to light. Thus, the valuation I was trying to place on the word “destruction” was moot. What was a universal concept that could be understood to bring about a “bad feeling” for everyone? Feeling my sinuses ache from my harsh scowl, I pinched the bridge of my nose and tried again.

1. All astral demons go against Harmony.
2. Izma is an astral demon.
3. Therefore, Izma goes against Harmony.

But for this to work, I was now going to have to frame how Harmony was more beneficial than whatever alternative Izma proposed. From what I’d witnessed of Elmiryn, it was chaos, unrestrained and lost within the maze of its own absurdity.

My heart lifted. There! I was onto something! Elmiryn’s condition as a fae was my key in lending credit to my arguments–because in truth, I did not know enough about Izma and her kind to rely on deductive reasoning. It was a gamble, but for the rest I was going to have to use inductive reasoning. This form of thinking is a sort of “bottom-up” logic that was probabilistic; that is, it could only make conclusion that had the probability of being true. What was scary about this reasoning was that it had a chance of leading to false conclusions, and I couldn’t afford that misstep here.

Clearing my throat, I opened my eyes and launched into my argument:

“Okay. All right, Lethia. Consider this. Let’s say, you own a house. You were born in that house. Learned to walk in that house. Had children in that house. You make frequent trips to the outside world, fetching what you need, interacting with others, etcetera. But in the end, you always go home. One day, a woman named Wonder comes and tells you that your home is really a prison, and that you should destroy it. She says that you were not meant to be confined by your home, and that your children deserve to know the freedom of life. You agree, and so you destroy your home, leaving your family to wander through the world.

“But you grew up in that house. You knew and loved that house. It gave you shelter when you needed it. And whatever Wonder said to you, you were never really trapped there. It was better to call it a tether. A way to keep yourself from becoming lost. Only now that tether is gone, and you’re adrift. You do not know how to live in the world at large, and of course, neither do your children.”

Lethia frowned. “Then I would ask Wonder how to live this new life.”

I nodded, smiling. “Yes! So you turn to Wonder and ask her, ‘How do we live?’

“Her response? ‘I don’t know. I don’t care.’”

Lethia’s frown deepened. “How could she not know? She’s been living in the world longer than I would have been!”

I raised a finger. “You’re assuming that the world she lives in has to do with the world outside of your home. But without your home, what ties do you have with the people who lived around you? What business could you possibly need done–with regards to paying for your land, buying supplies to keep the home maintained, and mingling with the community your home tied you into?”

“The home was…the frame?”

I nodded eagerly. “Yes! Wonder doesn’t know anything about that. She grew up without boundaries. She is a stranger to the community you once belonged to, and she is a stranger to the lands your home was built in, and she is a stranger to any established form of living. She is, in fact, the antithesis of the orderly existence you once knew. She has no frame, no tether, no bond that holds her to her surroundings.

“And so you struggle. The lands you travel through do not like wanderers, and you are chased out, wherever you go. You are hungry. Tired. Cold and scared. Your children have come to resent you and the decision you have made, because you had raised them to know their home, and now that foundation is lost.”

Lethia leaned back in her chair, her eyes clouded with thought. “Wonder…is chaos, then.”

“Yes.”

“And my home was like the world of the gods.”

“Yes.”

“You’re theorizing that by sacrificing my connection with Harmony, I will be left to drown in the confusion.”

My stomach started to tighten. Lethia’s tone had dropped a level. “Yes…I’ve seen the kind of harm living outside the will of the gods can bring. Elmiryn suffers daily because of it!”

The girl’s eyes were sharp as they fixed on me. I paled, only now realizing my mistake.

Using inductive reasoning, my statement could be read like this:

1. All of the people I have seen associating with astral demons suffer.
2. Therefore, all people suffer when associating with astral demons.

But I’d forgotten one thing.

Syria.

Syria had willingly worked with Izma, and from the look on Lethia’s face, she’d hardly suffered for it.

Oh no…

“So am I to understand that all astral demons make people unhappy? Ergo, living in the realm of the gods makes you happy? Does living under the rule of the gods mean you’re happy, Nyx?”

I winced. “I–No, that’s not what I was trying to assert–”

“Because as far as I’ve observed, your argument doesn’t hold. Syria didn’t suffer with Izma as you think. Just because Elmiryn’s experience was bad, doesn’t mean my experience would be the same. One could make the argument that much of Elmiryn’s suffering comes from the gods.

“Then in what way did Syria benefit from her association with Izma? Being imprisoned? Going insane? Is she better off now?

“No. Those were her failings. It has nothing to do with Izma.”

I clenched my jaw, feeling frustrated. “Lethia, I’m not sure where you’re coming from. So I think we have to make a serious evaluation of how things register on your ‘good-bad’ scale.” Lethia gazed at me passively, her fingers tapping her knuckles. Confused by her attitude, I felt my fire fade away. “What?” I asked nervously.

“Nyx,” she sighed, sitting back. She turned her head and bit her lip. When she looked back at me, it was sidelong. Finally, she just exhaled harshly and shook her head. “No. Never mind. It’s not relevant enough.”

I frowned. “What isn’t relevant enough?”

“Well…” Lethia fixed me with a pitying gaze. “If we’re going to nitpick our valuation of concepts, then perhaps you could explain to me why it is your existence as a Marked Ailuran discredits Izma as a viable alternative from the gods?”

My eyes widened and my breath cut short. Words didn’t come to me for a very long time. I was too shocked. It was like standing on the ground with both feet firmly planted only to be teleported to an alarming height. I felt like I was falling. Fast.

But when I caught my breath again, and the feeling of spiraling left me, I accepted then that of course Lethia knew about my Mark. I wasn’t exactly dressed for the occasion, but even before that, when I was Izma’s pet monster…she must’ve…seen

“That’s quite a question!” I managed with a hollow laugh.

She shook her head, her eyes narrowed a little. “Why are you so surprised?”

“I…Look, there’s lots of things that are coming back to me slowly, okay? I wasn’t exactly myself.” I don’t know why I felt so defensive. Did I resent her for reminding me just how many horrible things happened whilst I was possessed by my dark anger? Was it because I didn’t like to acknowledge my Mark? I hugged my arms and glowered at the ground. “Anyway, I thought you wanted an answer to your question?”

“And I’m still waiting.” Her tone wasn’t snarky. Just…cold. Matter of fact. She was entering into a frame of mind that seemed invariably untouchable. This was Lethia in the grips of her thought processes. It was eerily reminiscent of Hakeem when the man was at his most pensive.

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to find a way around this, trying to find the logic to get me through…but damn! Of all the impossible things for me to detach myself from, Lethia chose this!

I only sighed inwardly. Wait, what am I saying? Of course Lethia chooses this line of questioning. It’s the most obvious counterpoint a person could bring up.

“Lethia, it’s complicated. I’m not sure I’m the best subject to address, but I’ll try.” I rubbed my brow and it was only with effort that I managed to keep my voice from dropping to a mumble. “There are laws. Checks and balances. They’re what keep Harmony in flow. What preserves life from taint. I…broke one of those laws. Long ago. I’m working off that debt now. That’s how Harmony works. No matter what, you always give back to the life that sustains you.”

Lethia leaned onto one of the armrests, her finger trailing her lower lip in thought. “By serving Lacertli, the Lizard King,” she breathed.

I managed to nod my head. “Yes.” It was strange to think that not long ago I was a normal mortal, just waiting for my turn to die. Now all of a sudden, I had purpose. Yet somehow, in that moment, it felt too big a burden for me, and thinking of it made me feel tired.

“So what happened to your family… Symbology is beyond me, Nyx, but I think I gathered a few things from what I saw of your Mark’s design–”

“You don’t have to guess,” I bit out, my tone bitter. “I’ll just tell you.” I took a breath, then another. I had to go to one of the tables and lean on it for support. With a shudder the sobs came, but they were silent, and soon I couldn’t see. Swallowing through a tight throat, I hissed out, “I loved my family. But sometimes even the best intentions can fall apart. They died. Because of me. All of them!”

“All?” Lethia’s voice was a whisper. When I looked at her, my eyes blinking free of tears, I could see she was looking at me with sadness.

“My mother, my brothers…they’re dead because of me,” I said finally. “I was fourteen when my older brother Thaddeus died at war. My little brother, Atalo, died four years later at my own claws because my rage got the better of me during a fever. My mother died of grief shortly afterwards as a result. I tried to defy the Illuminati, the governance that steered my entire nation, but in doing so I gambled away everything. I didn’t realize that my own arrogance was the biggest threat to my family’s lives!”

Lethia blinked at me. “Nyx…” her voice was gentle, like an adult speaking to a child. “You said your brother died at war. How is that your fault?”

“He wouldn’t have gone if I had just left.”

“Left?”

I wiped at my eyes with my palm, sniffling back snot. “I was…I was going to travel the world. Get away from everything. Doing so would have forced Thaddeus to stay home. My mother’s health was not what it used to be, and neither of us wanted to put that burden on Atalo.”

The enchantress frowned. “But that would have been as good as abandoning your family!”

“That’s what I should have done,” I said tightly. My skin started to feel hot and tight. I could feel my joints aching. “I shouldn’t have gotten it into my head that I could possibly change anything! My father saw that, he–”

“Your father?”

I gave a start, my mouth falling open. I stared at Lethia, at a loss. Why had I mentioned my father? What had possessed me to do that?

Sister, I think we should cease this now! Kali hissed inside my head.

My brows twitched into an obstinate frown. I can’t stop. I have to get through to Lethia! I argued back.

You say that, but all I feel is–

Only she was cut off as Lethia pressed me again. “Nyx, what do you mean when you say ‘your father saw that.’ What did he see?”

My mouth was dry. I shoved away from the table I leaned on and started to pace. “He was different from most of my kind. He tried to get the others in our village to see that the capital was just a puppet of the cartel party that was the Illuminati. He tried to warn the Ailuran people of their collusion, their conspiracies. Some listened. Most didn’t. I guess he became frustrated and decided he needed to travel the world. To gain more knowledge. He…never came back.”

“What was his name?”

I gritted my teeth. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Nyx?”

It doesn’t matter!” I screamed with my hands balled into fists. “He didn’t matter! He wasn’t there! I can’t get angry at a thing that never existed for me because he was a non-entity, an empty notion, just a word that hovered in the fucking corner whenever my mother had too much to drink! Pining after him was for Thaddeus to do, but I was too busy trying to tear my family apart! Okay!? That had nothing to do with the gods, nothing to do with greater schemes, it was just–A. THING. THAT. HAPPENED. They died! I lived! And my father?” I laughed harshly. “He was never there–” I stopped short, gulping in air with wide eyes.

The silence dragged on.

I stared at Lethia, surprised and ashamed at myself. I buried my face in my hands and shuddered out, “I’m sorry. I’m…that isn’t even what I really…I–I don’t know why I–”

This is too much…it’s too soon to confront, Kali said quietly. She felt distant somehow, and the feeling made me feel alone.

I wiped at my face and hugged myself, my shoulders hunched around my ears. “I’m sorry, Lethia. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I’m whole again, and all the different parts of me aren’t quite…settled yet. That goes for the dark parts, too.” I looked at her morosely. “My father’s name was Alvis. He left my home when I was young–at a time when I was barely able to form lasting memories. He’s just a ghost in my head. The most important influence he ever left for me was his books. It’s…maybe that’s where all the trouble started.” I shook my head. “Maybe you’re right. It would have been abandoning my family if I had left home at fourteen, but today they would be alive, wouldn’t they? Only…I can’t wish for those things. I have my path. I know the way I have to walk. The only way I can make amends for my mistakes is by going forward.”

“With Elmiryn,” Lethia said quietly.

At the mention of Elmiryn’s name, I smiled and looked down at the woman, who still hadn’t moved from her place at the girl’s feet.

The girl frowned as her eyes flickered from Elle and me. “You love her.”

My cheeks colored, but I held her gaze as I nodded my head. “I do.”

This response just made the enchantress blink. “Do you think she’ll love you the way you love her?”

My eyebrows went high. My gaze went to my feet, before they made their way back to Lethia’s inquisitive eyes. “I love the way Elmiryn is. I accept that…maybe she won’t ever love me that way. I’m okay with that.” I shrugged, rubbing my arm. “I’m not really fit for that sort of thing anyway.”

“You’re not fit for being loved?”

“I still have a long way to go before my debt to Harmony is even repaid, Lethia. I can’t…I’m not like other people.”

The girl’s eyebrows crashed together, and she stared at her hands. “You have a blood debt. Like…Like I do. Am I not fit for love?”

I gave her a gentle look. “No. We aren’t the same. You’re better than I am. You know…you always have a choice, Lethia. I know it may not feel that way, but I can help you. If you’ll let me.”

“And who helped you, when you were down?”

My eyes burned again, but I managed to keep my tears in check this time. “An elf. His name was Marquis. He encouraged me to live when no one else would have. He’s a big reason I’m here today.”

“And do you owe Elmiryn the same way?”

My eyes narrowed at Lethia’s questions. They were feeling only tangentially related to the original topic we’d been focusing on. More and more, her questions were getting personal, and not just personal but…specific. I got the sense that she was looking for something.

Slowly, I answered her question. “Elmiryn was also there for me in a way many could not bring themselves to be. She helped me become stronger…more confident even, if you can believe that.”

Lethia smiled wanly. “I can.”

There was a brief lull before she set in with another startling question. “So I suppose her extensive past with other women doesn’t bother you? Like how your mother’s promiscuity didn’t bother you?”

My face turned red with rage and I advanced on the girl, my teeth bared. “How did you know that? Did you look inside my head? Did you!?” My voice rose into a shout. “Where do you get off asking me something like that!? That is none of your business!

“Y-You’re the one who brought up Elmiryn to begin with! When I brought up your mother, I was just trying to make a point! If you want me to understand how you value Harmony, I have to understand your ties to it! It seems those are rooted to the people in your life. But I don’t understand what makes them so important! Can’t you humor me?” The girl’s voice was strained and apologetic.

Between us was Elmiryn on the ground. I stood behind the woman, huffing, my hackles raised and my hands tensed like claws. Lethia’s bright green eyes searched my face, her own skin turned pale as she pressed back into her chair in a panic.

“Do not ask me about my mother anymore,” I growled.

The girl held up her hands and nodded frantically.

I stood glaring at her, my body aching again with the heat of my fury. Strangely, it was Kali who calmed me down.

NYX! What are you doing!? Attacking her is unwise, I can smell her power in the air! Her voice was tiny in my mind. At first I didn’t heed her, but she kept trying until finally that distance between us seemed to lessen. Think for a moment and stay calm! Why would Lethia be asking us these things? Instead of becoming angry about it, perhaps we should understand her true motivations!

My Twin being reasonable was so rare that I was able to wrestle myself under control to ponder this. With effort I took a step back, willing my muscles to ease. I could feel my heart rate under my chest–fast and hard.

Closing my eyes, I ran my hands through my hair and turned away. I needed a moment to fully calm down. To gather my wits.

Why is Lethia doing this? I thought. My back still felt tight, and with a groan, I crouched down and leaned onto my knees. Her questions are almost…cruel.

But now that I had sufficiently reined in my anger, I couldn’t help but think about her question.

“So I suppose her extensive past with other women doesn’t bother you? Like how your mother’s promiscuity didn’t bother you?”

“I hate it…” I whispered, pressing my palms into my eyes. “I hate it so much it makes me sick.”

And when I finally looked up, Lethia was standing there, looking down at me. I gasped. When did she move? I didn’t hear her! Her eyes were glassy, and her hand was reaching toward my face. I stared at her, too taken aback to react.

“If you hate it, Nyx,” Lethia said. Her features became shadowed as she leaned forward. “Then maybe your father had it right? Maybe the real answer is to just leave?”

Kali hissed inside my head. Something’s not right! This scent is all wrong!

But Lethia’s fingers touched my face, and the room fell away. I felt my body turn weightless, and soon I wasn’t there anymore. My body was gone. I was just a spirit floating through the air. It wasn’t darkness or light that consumed me. It was…sound. Loud and terrifying, all around me. I couldn’t make sense of it. I screamed, trying to find a way out. When I finally thought I’d discovered my escape, the colors appeared, like electric lines just shifting and flashing in and out of view. Then the chaos became order, and without warning I found myself seeing an entirely unfamiliar room, warm-colored and exotically styled with bright colored tapestries lining the walls and a silky violet bed at its heart. Standing there, in sharp noble attire, was–

Elmiryn.

My heart, if it was even still there, leapt into my mouth. Her back was to me, and she was gazing at a watch in her hand. She seemed lost in thought. Foreboding gripped me.

What is this!? What’s going on!?

The woman turned her head, straight at me it seemed, and smiled her full-toothed smile.

“Oh, there you are…” She purred.


Back to Chapter 36.1 | Forward to Chapter 36.3

Chapter 36.1

NYX___________________________

The desire to shout Elmiryn down was there, for all of us, I think–but inevitably we found ourselves more concerned with the task before us. Hard to ignore the chance of finally facing down the one who had put us all through hell, after all. My only concern was in how well the warrior could function. I wanted to ask her to give me the gourd, but I could already foresee the clash of wills that would be, and I needed all of that energy for the task before us. It was easy, being brave and saying I wouldn’t let anything happen to Elle back in the blackwood. It was a wee bit harder at the actual threshold of the keep. After all…

If there was one thing the Other Place had proven to me, it was that it had no exhaustible amount of terrible surprises to sling at us. I’m not sure I could ever shake away some of the sights I’d seen here, and I suspected I had many rough nights of sleep in the future. Would this challenge really be the last I’d see? My fears seemed to stack up sometimes, swaying in the cold winds, and I was always stuck in the shadow of them, gulping down my courage–because things always tended to go wrong whenever I tried to do…anything. My lack of a family is probably my best example.

My confidence was like a rollercoaster. One moment I’d be filled with purpose, the next I’d be wringing my hands in doubt. I just wanted to do the right thing, and in such a dark and twisted halfway dimension, that became more and more distorted…especially when we were all walking such fine lines between salvation and destruction. And the horrible part? Half the time that misfortune was wrought by our own hands. Elmiryn’s drinking. My self-made monster.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, we came to the arched entrance of the castle keep. The looming structure, with its worn and mossy stone, its dark crenellations, and its many gazed windows seemed to bare down on us. The large double-door entrance was painted red, and had a smaller inset door to the right. We stopped before this, and exchanged looks.

In a weak attempt to bolster my courage, I tried to be blithe. “D-Do you suppose we knock?” At the looks I received, I resolved never to do that again. Ever.

Hakeem tried to pull it open by the handle. It didn’t budge. “We will have to break it down unless we can find another way in,” he remarked.

“Fuck that,” Elmiryn snapped. The drink was clearly working for her. Maybe I needed to have some.

She stepped up to the door as she took another swig of drink. Her other hand twirled her sword. Quincy crossed her arms and said in the dryest voice possible, “What are you going to do? Belch at it?”

The warrior turned and squinted one eye. “Uh…No. I was going to bust it down.” She turned back, shaking her head. “‘Belch at it’…what a boob!”

Quincy’s face grew red. “I was being sarca–”

“Shh!” I hissed. “Sweet Aelurus, we’re in a very dangerous place right now! Can we save this nonsense for later!?”

Elmiryn spoke, and as she did so, she raised her foot to kick the door. “Then let’s quit stalling and just–”

Before she could kick out, the door swung open with a faint creak. My mouth dropped and I took a step back. Elmiryn didn’t move, her foot still in the air.

“Orrr…that could happen,” she said insipidly.

I took another step back as my body trembled. “This could be a trap!”

Quincy shook her head at me. “You just ran through a field of evil spirits, but you can’t walk through a door?

My hackles rose. “Syria could be on the other side of it with some diabolical plan to turn our minds inside out! She’s done things like that before!”

“Well it isn’t going to be very productive to just sit out here, now is it?” Elmiryn said. She had a jocular smile on her face, but I could see the way her head swayed ever so slightly on her neck as she turned to face the door. If she kept at that gourd, she’d be slurring her words any minute now.

Just as she started to cross the threshold, I jumped forward and ripped the gourd from her hands. She was quick to try and take it back, like I knew she would be, and maybe if she were sober, she would have succeeded, but she wasn’t. It only made me more certain that my bold move was in the right. Elmiryn had made the argument that she needed to keep drinking to stay functional. True, that her hands were looking steady now, but the warrior wouldn’t be able to stop herself from going too far. I had to do something, and that wasn’t going to be talking things out.

“Nyx what the hell!?” she cried.

I didn’t even stop to try and defend my actions. With a look that begged for understanding, I turned and fled through the door. I heard the others follow me, and was glad too, because the antechamber made my skin go cold.

The ceiling swirled in colors, bright and dark, cool and warm. As I stood beneath it, the yellow color on my skin began to rise up like liquid into the air. It floated up to join the colors on the ceiling. I shook my head slowly.

“What sort of sorcery is this?” I breathed.

“It could be a more focused form of energy sorcery,” I heard Quincy murmur behind me. “Though I’ve never seen it exercised on light before…barring Tonatiuh of course.”

I turned to look and there she was with Hakeem, holding a hand out to keep Elmiryn from trying to take the gourd back. The warrior glared at me, her expression speaking of betrayal, and I ducked my gaze.

Gods, she must think I don’t trust her to control herself! Why can’t she see that it isn’t HER I don’t trust, it’s her fae side?

Isn’t that the same thing? Kali responded quietly.

Quincy met my eyes, and leaving Hakeem to ensure Elmiryn didn’t do anything rash, she approached me with her hand held out. “Give the gourd here. I can keep it in my pouch.”

Grateful the source of conflict was being removed, I handed it to her and watched as she quickly slipped it into her magic pouch.

“Just how much can you hold in there?” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of me.

Quincy thought for a moment, then answered. “I think about as much as a two-floor mansion can, from floor to ceiling.”

My eyes went wide. Meanwhile, Elmiryn had stormed off to fume by herself, and Hakeem let her go. The antechamber wasn’t that big, so she didn’t go far.

“Gods, how can it hold so much?” I exclaimed.

“Well, actually, there’s a catch. Wizardry always has a catch. In the case of this pouch, I can only put in items that can fit through the four-inch wide opening. Next…things tend to get lost in there. So it’s best to keep the stock low. The pouch may be able to hold as much as a mansion, but I can only get as much as my arm can reach…”

Uncertain of what to say about all of this, I just nodded slowly. Wizardry was an odd profession–I knew this from my reading–and I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could find themselves practicing such an art. I mean, yes. I understand the appeal of having powers one would normally need to be born with. But wizards were a cutthroat lot, killing each other for their things, tomb raiding sacred sites, and battling magical beings on the off-chance that they may find some sort of treasure. Hakeem and Quincy both seemed very successful at it, given the number of artifacts they possessed. The average wizard only had one powerful artifact, and any number of common magicked items. In their case? From what I saw they were extraordinary, even for such an unusual practice.

We heard a door open and looked up to see Elmiryn pushing her way into the next room. I groaned and hurried after her, the wizards on my heels.

Wonderful. She’s mad, so now she’s going to be reckless about this all.

The next room turned out to be a sort of sitting room, but it was flushed with papers and books. There was a sofa chair, an ornate rug, and some tables, but otherwise the room didn’t have much else.

When we caught up to Elmiryn, I hissed, “Elle, please don’t rush off like that!”

“I heard something,” she replied in a steely tone.

I flinched and rubbed my arm. “Elmiryn, listen. I’m sorry, but I had to take the gourd–”

“Shhhh!” She held a finger to my lips and I stopped. “D’you hear that?”

I frowned, straining my ears. With my Twin back, my hearing had improved, but I heard nothing. I looked to the others and by their expressions they hadn’t heard anything either.

My eyes returned to the woman, my forehead wrinkling. “Elle, there’s nothing–”

“There!” She grabbed my shoulder, squeezing it painfully, and pointed at the empty chair.

Now my look was wary. “The…chair?”

She didn’t seem to hear me. Swaying a little bit, she walked to the chair, her boots clicking on the stone floor before they reached the carpet. With a graceless drop, the woman sat at the foot of the chair and gazed up, smiling.

My heart clenched.

Oh no…

“E-Elmiryn?” I went to her side, and waved my hands in front of her face but she didn’t look at me. She was fixated on something that only she could see.

When I looked to the wizards to ask them what we should do, I choked on my words.

Quincy had floated off to stare at a wall, muttering to herself, whilst Hakeem seemed to just fall asleep on his feet. I looked at them all in horror.

“This was a trap!”

“No. It wasn’t.”

I screamed and turned to see Lethia Artaud standing in a doorway I hadn’t noticed yet. From the way she stepped down to the floor, I assumed she came from a staircase. Clutching at my chest, I stared at her, robbed of words.

In a rush, memories came to me–long and stretched from a route of time that didn’t fit with my other memories. The one that stood out to me was the latest one. The one where I had stood and called Lethia a coward. How I’d threatened to break her bones. The silence felt heavy. There had been many things in my head I’d been keeping at bay, with Kali’s help, so that we could survive the challenges before us. But this one broke forth like a flood, weakening me.

My eyes filled with tears and I ducked my head in shame. “Lethia…”

She didn’t say anything for a long time, leaving the colorful ceiling to echo back Quincy’s dazed mutterings.

“It’s not your fault,” she finally said.

My face crumpled. “It is…It is, and I’m sorry! There’s so many things I regret, Lethia, I can’t even–” My voice cut off as my expression cleared and I blinked away my tears. Something had occurred to me. “Wh-What are you doing here? Where’s Syria?”

Lethia’s oval-shaped face twitched as she looked down at her shoes, then back at me. “You don’t have to worry about her.”

“What? I–I don’t understand. Who cast the Manus Dei?

Lethia wrung her hands, her shoulders coming up around her ears. With tight lips, she mumbled, “I did.”

My eyes went wide. “It was…you?

“That’s what I said.”

“But–”

“I was trying to buy some time. To think.” Her voice had gone tight, and I wasn’t sure if she was angry somehow, or simply fighting back tears.

As such I proceeded with caution. “Lethia, why are you here?”

Her green eyes fastened onto mine, and my heart leapt into my throat. The enchantress had the power to steal people’s thoughts by meeting their gaze. I looked away, feeling a little bad for my reaction, but more afraid of having my head emptied. Then I blinked.

“Wait…”

Slowly, my eyes returned to Lethia’s. “Elmiryn said Syria had lied to you about your eyes. Have you…controlled your power then?”

Lethia thought for a moment. Then she shook her head. “No…not really. I still have wandering amnesia. Any given moment there is something I can’t remember. But for a long time I didn’t have my full power, so it wasn’t so debilitating.”

I frowned at the girl’s tone and took a slow step back. “But your power has…come back?

She nodded once, and her gaze turned glassy. “Yes.”

The silence returned. I breathed hard through my nose, my heart rate going fast. Lethia just stood there, her hands and arms limp at her sides, her head lolled to the right, her face blank. There was something off about all of this, and I could feel Kali pacing inside me as I tried to figure out just what the danger was.

If the Other Place had taken her power, how did she even get it back? Syria clearly had been trying to keep Lethia controlled, and she wouldn’t have made the mistake of arming the girl with the very power that would free her. Lethia had only wanted to get away from this nightmare.

I took notice of the bandages on her arm…

“This isn’t a trap,” Lethia repeated suddenly, making me jump a little.

I raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”

“I said this isn’t a trap.” She reached a hand up and brushed her wavy wheat blonde hair back over her shoulder. “This is…a last chance.”

My back tightened. “Lethia, what is going on? Where is Syria? Why did you cast the Manus Dei?” Then I gasped and took another step back as something finally occurred to me. “You’re working with Syria, aren’t you?”

Lethia shook her head, an almost disappointed smirk on her face. “No…”

Now my confusion had doubled. “Then please explain to me what is happening! Why are the others not responding?”

“I put them in dream states,” the girl said with a shrug. She started to walk forward, and my fists clenched. “I just wanted to talk to you in private.”

“About what? Be straightforward with me, Lethia! Please!

“Straightforward…that’s what you want?” She stopped just a few steps from me and Elmiryn. Her eyes flickered to the warrior, still dreamily focused on whatever it was that Lethia had tricked her mind into seeing. “Okay. I can be straightforward.”

Her green eyes locked onto mine again, and I could see her lower lip quake. “You have to help me decide. Either I choose your side, and risk the chance of Izma killing me, or I choose her side, and risk the chance of you and Elmiryn killing me. Give me your arguments.”

I didn’t know how to react at first. I stood staring at her, waiting for her to explain herself further, but the girl said nothing more. Up close, I could see now that her aloofness was really just an act to contain her numbing fear. Lethia was terrified, and she was asking for my help.

“I can’t…” I shook my head, my look twisting up in incredulity. “What kind of–?” I grabbed my hair and took yet another step back. “Lethia, what is this!? Some sort of sick game?”

“It isn’t a game,” and for the first time since she’d walked into the room, her voice cracked. “This is important. Life or death. But I can’t decide until I hear all the arguments! I’ve already heard Izma’s and now–”

Who is Izma!?” I screamed.

In a flash of recall, I answered my own question.

Ooooh…. My little sum of somes is quite a something!  Now my error is known.  Come.  Tell Izma what it was like to break the things she loves…

The memory came hard and fast, and a residual pain appeared deep inside in a place unreachable–like my soul were being attacked–and I cringed, clutching my sides. When I caught my breath and managed to fight off the nightmare, my gaze crawled back to Lethia, who was staring at me wide-eyed now.

“You know her, Nyx. You know her,” she whispered, and tears pooled into her gaze. “You know she is chaos. You know she is powerful. And she has a hold on me, much as I try to resist it!” Her head tilted to the side and she smiled shakily. “But I managed to convince her…that I was not like Syria or Elmiryn. I am not a pet, or a toy. If I worked with her, it would have to be in my choosing. This gave me just enough time to decide whether to follow through or to try and fight her…but you’ve seen how powerful she is, Nyx!” The girl sobbed and shook her head. “I’m scared. If it were just a matter of dying, then I would gladly die, but it isn’t so simple with her. Defying her and failing…I would suffer. Immensely. Y-You were right. I am a coward.”

Slowly I shook my head and with cautious steps I went to her. “No…No! Lethia, listen to me. You are not a coward!”

“Don’t do that…”

“But Lethia–”

“NO!” The girl shoved me away, her gaze turning wild. “I have to decide, and I have to decide now. Will I fight her, or will I fight you? I need arguments for both sides. Pros and cons. I…” She started wringing her hands again, her eyes trailing the room. “I can’t do it myself.”

“But why not!?” I cried. “You know what I’ll say to you! Izma is evil! She’s an abomination and she’s only going to use you for her own sick goals! And I…I thought we were friends? We fought together! We’ve confided in each other! Or do you really hate us that much??”

Lethia smiled at me brokenly. “I can’t remember.”

My breathing hitched, and my look melted once more into shame. “I…oh no…of course…”

“I can remember that I liked you all, and I can remember certain recent…unpleasant things,” she whispered, her gaze going glassy again. “But I don’t remember…us being together in our world. I don’t know why I liked you, or even how deeply that feeling goes. For all I know, I could’ve just thought you were nice because you shared a piece of bread with me in passing.”

“But even then, you could bring yourself to harm a stranger? The Lethia I knew wouldn’t do that!”

“The Lethia you knew is in the past.” She chuckled derisively. “She’s forgotten. Literally. Izma is terrifying, yes. And she is just using me, I know. But…she has a plan, Nyx. To fix the world. To make it better.”

“And you believe her?”

“Syria did. Maybe I should’ve trusted in her. I didn’t have all the facts before. I didn’t…” she trailed off, and I stared at her, wondering how these things could be coming out of Lethia’s mouth.

Izma had a plan? In most cases, that would be referred to as world domination, if I wasn’t mistaken. Why couldn’t the girl see that? The Lethia I knew had a high moral code, and she not only expected others to behave honorably, but for herself to. The girl before me was almost alien in how she was rationalizing–

…Sweet Aelurus…of course!

I didn’t know why I didn’t see it sooner. Lethia was hyper-rationalizing.

It was a common tactic by those placed under great distress to be able to compute what was happening around them. I’d read it in some book, of course, so my knowledge was limited, but in extreme cases such thinking could lead to decisions that others would find reprehensible. The enchantress was possessed by a moral code, and I had mistakenly conflated that with someone who took things on faith. Lethia wasn’t about blind faith. When she said she believed Syria was innocent of those murders in Albias, it was because the evidence hadn’t added up to guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As an enchanter, Lethia was also a scholar, and her mind functioned heavily on the process of scientific reason. If her amnesia was preventing her from remembering all of the possible arguments for why she should trust and work with us, then in her state of stress, Izma’s arguments for “changing the world” would seem much more appealing.

I had to change this, and I had a feeling I couldn’t just put a vermagus spin on my Words and let the whole matter be done with. If I didn’t want to fight Lethia, which was quickly turning out to be a very dangerous option, I was going to have to convince her it was better to fight Izma.

I rubbed at my face. “My gods, I haven’t debated like this since I was in erduk.”

Lethia took a breath, her shoulders shuddering. Glancing at me, she sidled past Elmiryn to sit in the sofa chair and crossed her legs. When she looked at me again, her expression was somber.

“I’m listening,” she murmured.

QUINCY________________________

“I’m listening.”

Quincy’s eyes narrowed as she took in Lethia, sitting in the sofa chair with her legs crossed. Her gaze crawled back over her shoulder. Her husband was standing near the door, swaying on the spot. Elmiryn was sitting in front of Lethia, grinning and nodding her head like a little girl listening to story time. And Nyx? She was off to the side, leafing through the stacks of papers on the tables, her eyes glazed.

The woman looked back to Lethia as she crossed her arms. “So you want arguments, hmm?”

ELMIRYN_______________________

“What the hell d’ya want me ta say?” Elmiryn snapped. “Izma is bad news. Even Meznik is afraid o’ her. And you wanna jes’ settle on some crackpot plan to fix the world’s boo-boos!? C’mon kid, I thought you were smarter than that!”

Lethia shook her head. “It isn’t that simple, Elmiryn, and you know it. Izma and Meznik are cut from the same cloth. Are you telling me that the things he’s told you hasn’t appealed to you at all?”

Elmiryn’s eyes widened. “The hell? What’re you… No. No. You got into my head…saw things…”

The girl just laughed. “Come on, Elmiryn. Remember what happened last time? We both know that–”

HAKEEM________________________

“–Wouldn’t work.” Lethia finished.

Hakeem nodded, his fists on his hips. He glanced at the others. Quincy murmuring at the wall. Nyx leafing through the papers. Elmiryn sitting on the floor like a little girl. He turned his eyes back on the enchantress.

“Then why talk to me at all, if you know this charade will not work?”

Lethia shrugged. “Because. I may be playing mind games with the others, but you’re…too shrewd. I’ll get bored manipulating everything. I’d like to have at least one unfiltered conversation.”

The man rubbed at his mouth, his eyes returning to his wife. “She’ll see through this, you know. She’s good at picking up lies.”

“That pearl earring of hers doesn’t hurt either,” Lethia said with a wry smile. “I know Quincy is smart. Nyx and Elmiryn will get caught up chasing their own tails trying to sort out the logic. But Quincy? I’ll have to make her believe. And trust me, she’ll want to. Your wife may be attentive, and she may be intelligent, but when you live in reality like she does, you become prey to belief. Like how she chose to believe that her father and uncle were dead. Like how she chose to believe using the Morettis as bait against Syria was the right thing to do. Like how she chose to believe that she needed Tonatiuh to be strong. Did you know? Reality just amounts to all we can touch, smell, see, and hear. The sad fact is…all those senses we rely on is less than one-millionth of reality. The rest is just faith. So you see…I won’t trick Quincy into buying the lie. She’ll do that all by herself.”

Hakeem’s fists tightened and his eyes searched the girl’s face. “And I suppose I don’t have that problem?”

“You don’t live in belief. You know that life is far beyond anything we can comprehend, and so you adapt. You’ve adapted all your life. Like how you became one with the Lycans. It’s just what you do. Perhaps the only reason you haven’t moved on with your life is because of your wife. Because she can’t let things go, and she’s the only thing you can’t let go–”

“Shut up.” Hakeem’s armor flared with power as he stood to his feet. “I thought we weren’t playing any mind games…”

Lethia gazed at him for a long time before shaking her head sadly. “You’re right. Even the truth can’t be trusted.”

Hakeem glared at the floor, his muscles tense beneath his armor. Finally, he bit out, “What is this all for? Why don’t you and your master just kill us all?”

The girl bit her lip and wrung her hands. “I wasn’t lying Hakeem, when I said I cast the Manus Dei. But I borrowed that spell from Syria, and that knowledge is gone. Even with my raw power, I can’t control it like she could. It was just enough to defeat her in a moment of weakness. But you’re all determined to go home. Your mindscapes are…vast. Complicated. I may have the power, but I don’t have the skill to keep you all under and talk to you separately like this.”

“Izma…she’s augmenting your power…” Hakeem said, his eyes widening. “She’s the one really in control, isn’t she? But that still doesn’t tell me why she’s doing this! What is her plan, Lethia?”

Lethia’s voice was raspy when she spoke. “She wants to know more about you all. She wants to see if she can turn some of you. Part of it is out of spite. She wants to anger Lacertli by taking away his new champion. She also wants to steal Meznik’s toy. A power play. But in the case of you and Quincy…it’s curiosity. She recognizes your origins. The kind of triumphs you’ve achieved. The disasters you’ve survived. She thinks it might be useful.” She turned her face away. “And in the end, it all just amuses her. Your death or cooperation don’t really mean anything to her.”

“And you? Do you think she’ll spare you somehow?”

“…No.” The girl’s face crumpled and she shook her head. “I’ll be just like Syria. Just a thing to use and throw away.”

“So why play along?” Hakeem asked angrily. “Why do this to us?”

Lethia closed her eyes and tears slipped down her cheeks. “My mind is so confused, Hakeem. You may think my choice is easy…but it really isn’t. You all have agendas, just like Izma does, and I have to know which side is best to follow. I have to decide where I can do the most good.”

“And how will you decide this with Izma puppeting you!?” the man half-shouted. “Even if you can’t remember why you should trust us, you have got to know that Izma isn’t the answer!”

“Izma…she isn’t…she isn’t in control all the time. Please–” Hakeem started to speak, but Lethia stood, raising her hands. “Please! Let me explain!”

Hakeem crossed his arms, scowling. “Fine. But only because I’m certain I can’t kill you in this…illusion you’ve created.”

Lethia paled, but she moved past Elmiryn, daring a few steps closer. Wringing her hands, she started quickly. “Izma’s game works like this. I am her…screen. The field where she’s conducting everything. Imagine that she’s the controller, boosting my powers. But because she’s boosting my enchantment, she can only appear to one of you at a time. Most of the time, you’ll be speaking to me. I’m not allowed to tell the others what’s happening. She only allowed me to speak to you because she knew you wouldn’t fall for it, and for that she’s particularly interested in you. But the others…what she intends to do is to pick their minds. Peel away the layers. Izma is an astral demon, meaning she can do a lot, but she still isn’t a god. She doesn’t know everything about us, just certain things. While she tries to fill in the blanks, she’ll be evaluating your worth and interest. If she likes what she sees…she’ll convert you. If she doesn’t…” Lethia’s voice trailed, but Hakeem didn’t need her to finish.

He shook his head. “It’s a festival game. Hit the rodent when he peeks out from his hole. How can the others tell her apart from you?”

The girl shrugged helplessly. “Do you even know if I’m here right now? Maybe I’m Izma, just chatting you up. Judging your life.”

The man glared at her sidelong.

Lethia hugged herself and turned her body a quarter away, her chin tucking into her chest. “That’s the game, Hakeem. The others all think they’re only speaking to me, but at any given moment Izma can slip into my consciousness like I were a glove and just take over. If they can see it’s her…well…that’ll be dangerous, but at least they have a chance to fight back. I don’t like this either, but I have to know. I have to know what to do, and the only way I can do that is by talking to you all. One-on-one.”

“Only it’s not,” Hakeem snarled.

Lethia covered her mouth with her hand, her head shaking. He could hear her stifled sobs.

The wizard clenched his fists, then released them. Then with an explosive yell, he struck out, an arc of gravitational power blowing a table apart and sending books and papers into the air. He felt powerless. He didn’t want to feel powerless. He didn’t want to sit waiting for…whatever would happen.

For a long time, he stood panting through clenched teeth, his neck tight. Finally, he hissed, “This isn’t right…this is all just a lie…”

Lethia let out a cold laugh, and Hakeem looked at her sharply.

The girl was gazing at him with dead eyes, and the man shuddered involuntarily.

“Izma…” he whispered, taking a step back.

The demon grinned at him, Lethia’s green eyes glowing from the tainted presence.

“Silly, silly little time keeper. Don’t you know? Hope is just the universe’s way of lying to you. Identity is just your way of lying to yourself. Love is your way of lying to each other. Little Lethia knew this. Perhaps I should show you?”

Hakeem couldn’t help but flinch as the demon held up Lethia’s hand and a ball of light appeared. The orb flew to him faster than he could retreat, and the man’s eyes widened at the scene he saw within the orb’s depths.

Izma’s words gave way to music, and yet the man understood her meaning, as much as it repulsed him to do so.

Hope, identity, and love…look, little time keeper. Watch as these things die one by one…” the demon giggled.


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