Elmiryn caught up to Lethia. The sounds of the officers being subdued behind them echoed through the vents. The noises were loud and alien. The girl had ordered the enthralled cops to give their comrades a struggle, but not to kill them. The redhead wondered why as these people would just as well shoot at them as try to cuff them again, but she didn’t bother arguing. When she made her cousin fit into the small opening, the change hadn’t quite agreed with the girl, judging by the vomit at the corner. Elmiryn was feeling a bit out of sorts herself.
Being made no taller than four inches tended to do that.
But the warrior had expected this given that time after the trouble with Artemis. In that strange sanctuary she had discovered deep within herself, time had stretched to inconceivable lengths. She had practiced a lot altering her form, a fact she hadn’t been able to explain to the others whenever a wild idea struck her.
Gods, I wish I could see the looks on their faces, Elmiryn thought smugly.
Still, she figured it would be good to see after her companion. “You okay, kid?”
“I didn’t expect you to do that quite so easily…” the girl mumbled. She was still clinging her shotgun to her chest, her face drawn.
“It wasn’t that hard. I was just making us smaller. Not making us different or anything.” The warrior spun the pistol in her hand, a cocky grin on her face. Now, making your hand into a tentacle…THAT’S something!
She faltered as a sobering thought struck her.
“I’m totally going to lose my job over this,” Elmiryn muttered.
Lethia stared at her. “That’s what you’re worried about!? I thought you remembered who you are!”
The redhead glanced at her. “I do!” She shrugged one shoulder, an uncomfortable look on her face. “I just so happen to remember other things, too…”
A groan. “I really don’t need you to be fighting an identity crisis right now…”
“Well you should’ve thought about that before you brought us into this world, now shouldn’t you?”
“I wasn’t the one who did this to you!”
Elmiryn sneered. “Ohhh no! You just helped.”
Lethia bared her teeth. “I’m trying to make up for it, okay?”
The woman rolled her eyes. “I’m not trying to pick a fight right now, kid. I have plenty of time to kick your ass later.”
“At least you have your confidence back,” Lethia said wryly.
The woman shuddered. “Ugh! I know, right? Other Me was such a pussy.”
“Somehow, I can’t bring myself to appreciate the irony of that statement.”
“Look, you may have the shotty, but I can pull off a shot with the nine faster. Okay, smartass?”
“I doubt you even know how to use the gun. Doubly so because you’re using stupid slang to refer to our weapons.”
Elmiryn gave her an offended look. “Well fuck you very much! I’ve received in-depth instruction on how to handle this world’s firearms!”
“A Vin Diesel marathon does not count,” Lethia deadpanned.
The woman pouted. “I’ve got better aim than you do!”
Lethia glared at her. “Do not!”
“Ladies and gentlemen, exhibit A,” Elmiryn stuck her finger in her cousin’s face. “The BB gun incident!”
The teenager clicked the back of her tongue. “I was eight years old!”
“My dad still had to wear an eyepatch for a week!” The redhead paused. “Actually, that was pretty awesome.”
In the dark, the woman swore the girl’s cheeks had gone red. “Well I don’t care! You don’t need to be a marksman to use a shotgun!”
Elmiryn snorted. “You can barely handle it.”
“I doubt you could do better!” Lethia’s eyes suddenly went wide. “…That’s what you’re after! You want the shotgun!”
The woman tried and failed to keep her face neutral. “I would have a better grip on it.”
“Ha! Sorry. You missed your chance.”
“That wasn’t even the real me when you offered it,” the warrior pouted.
“No,” Lethia snapped. “Besides, you’d just fire it randomly to see how it feels.”
“I would not.”
“Would n—aargh! Fine. Fine. I don’t want the stupid shotgun anyway. I like the feel of the pistol better. The nightstick, even more.” The warrior patted the long weapon tucked into the seat of her pants.
“You might actually get a chance to use that, since we’re blindsiding our enemies like this.” Lethia stiffened, and she looked at the warrior sharply. “You can restore us, right? To our proper forms?”
“Why? Are you saying you don’t want bigger boobs?”
“Because I can totally do you–I mean it–I mean, uh…woah.” Elmiryn made a face. “I just totally grossed myself out. When I said that, it was a Barney Stinson tic. I didn’t think. But you’re, like, my cousin and stuff–”
Lethia gave her a weary look. “Now that you have your memories back, do you really want to keep pretending that?”
Elmiryn fell silent as an unpleasant feeling washed up from her gut to her tensing throat. She ejected her pistol’s magazine, then slammed it back in with more force than was necessary. When she spoke, her voice was tight.
“I’m not pretending. I really believe it.”
“Believe?” Lethia was staring at her. “Elmiryn, this life Izma gave you–”
“She didn’t give it to me. To us.”
“…What do you mean? I don’t understand.”
“I mean…” Elmiryn sighed roughly. “I mean that Izma may have brought us here. Set the stage so to speak…but we filled in the pages. Us.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just do.”
Lethia shook her head. “But how?”
“I told you, Lethy. I believe.”
“Elmiryn, belief in defiance of reality doesn’t–”
“I also know,” Elmiryn continued hotly. “Because of my experiences with Meznik. These astral demons…Lethia, have you noticed? Aside from creating these scenarios and dropping in certain triggers, they are pretty hands-off, aren’t they?”
Lethia said nothing as she mulled over this.
Elmiryn went on, her voice gentler. “Look. I know some parts of it were lies. I know Izma put things in place to keep us from straying too far from her control. But some of that was real. All of my memories from our world are weak and distant. So I’m going to keep these new happy memories. I’m going to keep the good things, this Other Me found.” She cuffed Lethia on the head, making the teenager wince. “All right, baby cousin?”
“All right!” the teenager ducked away, rubbing her head.
The conversation ended, but Elmiryn thought she heard her companion sniffling in the dark.
The time stretched on as they navigated the vents. Being a smaller size meant they covered less ground. Down below, they could hear the police searching through their precinct. Elmiryn giggled at how baffled they must be, finding only the two enthralled cops in the storage room.
Lethia’s memory of the ventilation led them to their destination. A grate overlooked the holding cells, where offenders were held until they either posted bail, or were transferred to a jail facility. In their miniature size, the two women were capable of squeezing through the vent. Elmiryn felt smug once again for having the foresight to make them that small.
Of course, her cousin had to voice some concerns.
“When we drop down, will you be able to make us large fast enough?” she breathed.
Elmiryn sounded almost offended. “Kid, it took no time at all to shrink us down! Why would it take longer the other way?”
“Oh…I don’t know. Maybe free-falling through the air and the threat of being shot at any time?” She squinted her eyes as she peered through the grate openings. The downward slant of the grill made direct line of sight difficult. “Never mind that we’re…oh.” The girl’s eyes widened at the same time she said this. “Oh, no!”
“What is it?” Elmiryn tried vainly to see what Lethia was apparently seeing. All she could make out was a policeman’s gun belt as he hurried down the hall. There was the sound of metal clanging, and keys jingling. “What’s wrong? What did you see?”
“I should’ve thought of this,” Lethia moaned.
“They’re moving the accused, Elle!”
Elmiryn pursed her lips. Without hesitation, she started squeezing through the vent. “The hell they are!”
The warrior hissed through her teeth as she felt the metal grill squeeze her ribcage. She wasn’t sure she could make it through with her leather jacket, but just as she was about to say, fuck it, and slip out of the sleeves, she was free from the vent. The sudden sensation of falling through air was unsettling, and it made the woman’s mind that much harder to focus. But focus she did, and with her faculties in order, Elmiryn honed in on her pattern and expanded it, like a balloon. She could sense Lethia falling soon after her, and she just managed to get a fix on the girl to do the same.
They both hit the ground with a dull thud, once again their normal sizes. The enchantress, still unaccustomed to the sudden change, could only flop to the side, the shotgun held loosely in her hands as the nausea undid her. But Elmiryn was ready.
She was ready in the way the men at either end of the hallway weren’t.
Bringing up her 9mm, the redhead fired three shots. One to kill the man at the door leading into the precinct. Another to kill the officer escorting a prisoner toward the emergency exit in the back.
…And the final bullet for the prisoner himself.
“You bitch!” Meznik screamed as he fell back against the corner wall just near the doorway. He stared wildly at his bleeding leg. “You shot me!”
“That’s so you won’t get away,” she said with a grin as she pulled a moaning Lethia to her feet.
But her moment of revenge was short lived, because in the blink of an eye, Meznik was standing again, and not just that…uncuffing himself.
He chuckled at her look of bewilderment as he strutted towards her.
“Elmiryn,” Meznik said as he twirled the handcuffs around one finger. “You still have yet to grasp the concept of pattern recognition. And here I was, actually about to promote you from toy, to pet.”
He stopped inches from her, and the woman flinched, gripping Lethia’s shoulders tighter.
The demon’s smile widened. “Your loving hatred just puts a spring in my step…”
Lethia’s limp body was in my arms. I carried her through the dark of the Umbralands, hardly blinking in the face of the monochromatic chaos around me. Though the shadow world shifted in a wild dance, illustrating that somehow I had been removed from a structured plane to a less stable one, still was I able to conjure up a solid path to walk. I stared resolutely forward, hoping to pierce the veil I knew to exist between the Real World and the Somnium.
My patience was rewarded.
As I passed through a gateway of light, I could hear that familiar sigh of the universe as I left the plane of shadows into a new strange domain. This place, draped in the wandering dream of energies far too ancient for me to comprehend, was a glass wonder. All the walls, the ceiling, the floor, were clear and transparent. The room I stood in appeared to be a foyer, and a set of glass steps headed up to a second level. I wasn’t interested in exploring however.
I set Lethia down against a wall without looking at her face, and with the same concentrated effort of keeping my view averted, I straightened.
My voice was loud when I spoke.
I turned and fixed the god with a glare. He stood only feet away, hands folded before him. As he was fully in the light, his guise was not that of Marquis, for once, but of his true reptilian form.
His dark scaly face was unreadable, but something in his eyes felt…intense. I wasn’t sure if he was displeased with me, or the contrary. I couldn’t see how he could possibly be happy with me at the moment. I was doing a fantastic job at slimming my odds of survival.
If only I cared.
“Sir, I find myself suspicious of the guidance we received by you. Even considering their then-present motivations!”
“Thou art asking if I wanted thee to fall into Izma’s trap?” He hissed, his forked tongue slithering past his fangs.
My jaw tightened. “Yes.”
“Then the answer is yes.”
“Why?” My lip curled and I took a step toward him. “Why would you wish that upon me!? Have I not served you well!?”
“Thou hast served me excellently.”
“Art thou angry with me because of my desires, or because of the things I did not do?” He sighed.
I sputtered as my angry words crashed over my tongue. I couldn’t think on his question right away. First, I had to overcome my outrage at Lacertli’s exasperated demeanor. Second, I had to process that I’d been posed a question at all. Once these things happened, I worked on controlling my breathing.
That’s when Kali spoke.
She sounded sleepy. Quiet. The relief I felt at hearing her speak was strange but not unwelcome.
Kali! What happened to you?
I don’t know…I…was there, and then…
“Izma put her to sleep…in a metaphoric sense.” Lacertli answered.
I bristled at what felt like an intrusion on his part. Then I remembered he was a god, and that he probably couldn’t help hearing our thoughts.
This brought me back to the question he asked before.
“I feel like you’re punishing me,” I mumbled. My eyes stung with angry tears. Hurt tears. “Why would you wish for me to go through this? Fine. So I didn’t ask the right questions. But why would you desire for this to happen to me?”
Lacertli tilted his head to the side. His slitted eyes held me in their dark gaze, but I did not shiver. Like many other things, I had become accustomed to this as well.
“You needed to grow stronger,” he said with a shrug.
My mouth dropped. “I needed to be violated by a demon to grow STRONGER??”
“I did not know that was Izma’s intention, and thou should know that it brought me no joy.” I could see his scaly features tighten, and it was with a start that I realized he pitied me.
“Oh it didn’t bring you joy, sir?” I bit out sarcastically. “You didn’t know that Izma planned to take my love and rape me with it?” I pointed at Lethia and screamed, “She said the same thing!”
“Aye,” Lacertli said. He gazed at the girl and his eyes narrowed. “And like this god, ye should know that she is not thy enemy.”
“Well she certainly isn’t my friend,” I spat.
The god only shrugged.
This made me too angry for words again, so I started to pace.
In my head, Kali sounded wary. At first I thought I knew why–
Nyx…we are speaking to a god…
And then it dawned on me.
Sister…I beg you…act with caution!
…Kali was wary of me.
The thought was sobering, and I had to fight to collect myself again. I tried to find something to anchor myself with. In the past, this had been Elmiryn. She had been my focus in all things. And yet now…
I couldn’t help but compare our recent experiences with assault. The Fiamman hadn’t been very clear on the details with me about what Artemis had done to her, but what I gathered was that she had come close to my fate…only to fight back in the end, and prevent it.
Only I hadn’t fought back. If anything, I bent over backwards to let it happen.
I’d only just put it to words now, but I knew I had believed this since that terrible moment. I let it happen. I could not bring myself to be angry at Izma, then, if I did not even try that hard to fight back. It was why I didn’t attack her in that white room. Why I had even considered her offer of discovering what she had on the other side of the red door.
In the Ailuran Nation, and particularly my home village of Toah, we had known this darkness from time to time. Women, and in rarer cases men, would come stumbling home, skin caked in blood, clothes ripped, hair tousled, but healed from any wounds before they even got through the door. We Ailurans never took for granted our healing ability. Just because a body was mended, did not mean that the soul was. Healers would warn parents to keep an eye on their children after an assault, because of the havoc such a trauma could bring. Justice was usually carried out by the family against the perpetrator, with the village leader’s blessing.
This was, of course, only when a victim had the courage to speak out.
There was one girl in particular that I recalled from my youth. We were just entering adulthood when the news spread that little Hema had been despoiled by some ruffian in the night. And not just once, but numerous times. We weren’t friends, but I felt pity for the girl. She seemed…off. Oh, she didn’t appear different. She even carried on with a lot of the same activities as before. Then one day, in class, a boy tried to borrow a quill from Hema, and she just broke down crying. Wailing, even. No one knew what to say. Even Leander, my forceful navi, couldn’t bring himself to chastise the girl.
Was I in the same sort of shock? Would I break down suddenly? I didn’t feel like it. I was angry. Not scared. Not sad. Just angry. Angry at Lethia for losing her memory. Angry at Lacertli for embodying his tenets. Angry at Elmiryn for being the unattainable object of my affection.
I was angry that I knew I had no real reason to be angry at any of them.
It wasn’t fair. None of it was.
Lacertli’s voice was calm when he spoke. “Thou hast slipped away from Izma and now hide in this fragile hideaway…what wilt thou do?”
“Throw a rock?” I muttered sullenly.
“You could. But I thought perhaps you would use your god-given powers a little more intuitively.” His voice was wry when he said this.
“I’m already in the Somnium…maybe there’s a way out of this illusion Lethia has trapped us in–?” As I said this, I turned my head to glare in the girl’s direction.
In all the time that I carried the girl, not once could I bring myself to look at her. But now, I could not look away. The Somnium was the universe’s dream…an interpretation of the truth in all things. What did this mean? What could this possibly mean?
Lethia’s face was healed from the wounds Izma and I had inflicted on her. She was older too, in the way that her body seemed freed of the ungainliness of a human teenage body. Her hair seemed paler and longer, and it twinkled faintly with what looked like stars. Her neck was a deep shade of blue, but her hands were a bright and warm gold.
Most bizarre was that she was devoid of all clothing and sexless, and fading out from her torso to her thighs and upper arms was a gateway.
I knew this because as I stepped closer to get a better look, the view within Lethia’s body shifted. It wasn’t until I was looming over her that I recognized where the gateway led.
With a deep breath, I dived through.
…And my eyes opened to find that I was back in Syria’s study. I turned wildly in my place near the tables of books. One thing quickly became apparent.
The only other person there with me was Quincy.
Lethia was gone from her chair, and Elmiryn gone from her place at the foot of it. Hakeem was nowhere in sight. I found myself thankful of Izma’s absence. A loud hiss made my head snap around. Lacertli, in his small lizard form, waddled out from behind a stack of papers. I exhaled harshly at the sight of him, but held my arm out for him to climb just the same.
He climbed onto my shoulders without a word.
That done, I steeled myself and approached Quincy.
The wizard was sitting at one of the tables, an empty vial before her. She stared into space and made no indication of even being aware of my presence. I confirmed this when she didn’t blink as my hands waved past her eyes.
“Wonderful…” I muttered.
That was when the room shook, and I heard a commotion outside. Like lots of angry voices, only these were terrible, twisted people to make such a racket as I heard. These were…
My face went ashen as the reality made itself fully apparent.
“The devils in the field…” I moaned. “Izma must’ve summoned them!”