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Chapter 37.5

ELMIRYN________________________

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!”

“Do too!”

“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 too,”

“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?”

 

“Elmiryn–”

 

“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.

 

“Lethy, what?

 

“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…”

 

NYX____________________________

 

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.

 

“Lacertli!”

 

Yes?

 

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.

 

“Then why–”

 

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.

 

Nyx…?

 

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.

 

…And gasped.

 

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!”


Back to Chapter 37.4 | Forward to Chapter 38.1

Chapter 37.4

HAKEEM________________________

Hakeem stared into the orb, seeing the scenes play out before him in simultaneity. It was almost too much, and that was saying something, given all he’d seen. He even almost lost count of time, the intervals shuddering as they passed his numb attention. There were so many things to process. A practical part of him–quiet in these emotional moments–whispered that he should be cataloguing this information for later use. The greater part of him, raw and beating like a throbbing bruise, said that his companions needed help.

 

But his powerlessness was a black rain, coating his skin, his soul, his mind, and it told him he could do nothing. He was just a small boy again, watching as terrible power undid the things he treasured most.

 

And Quincy….

 

His mweze.

 

His wife.

 

His shima.

 

His woman of joy.

 

He loved her so, but over and over in his mind’s eye, the horrible image played…

 

Quincy uncorking the vial. Her drinking it. The glass container rolling along the table surface…empty.

 

He struggled to see it from her perspective–to consider how it would be for someone who had lived through the things she had, to feel helpless and at the mercy of a new life she was unprepared in ushering.

 

…But try as he might, Hakeem couldn’t help but notice that all Quincy had gone through…so had he.

 

Why couldn’t she talk to me? he thought with agony. Why…how could she choose to do that?

 

Even the knowledge that the woman may not have been pregnant at all did nothing to change his feelings. It was the fact that she went through with it anyway, in case she was.

 

In his homeland of Fanaea, it was believed a soul entered the moment a man’s seed met his partner’s egg. This was something Hakeem learned in Crysen, because he was far too young to know such things when he was last in his native land. In that Talmorian community, ideas on the subject were such a melting pot that the wizard hadn’t been able to form an opinion. Blocking conception hadn’t been the issue. Stopping it after that happened, however…?

 

The idea killed him.

 

And it cut even deeper that Quincy suggested she had resorted to such tactics before…and with the horrendous implication that she’d needed to because of the pirate Tulki no less.

 

Hakeem had always disliked the man, but now he could say, without a doubt, he loathed him.

 

It was a pity Tulki was dead. The Morettis had collected his bounty years ago. The wizard mourned his lost opportunity for revenge, knowing it was foolish and unproductive. He was man who was firmly grounded. He’d thought he was.

 

…But damn this Lethia Artaud for ever entering his life! Never had Hakeem had to struggle with himself, to struggle with the reality around him.

 

The enchantress’s words echoed back at him, almost mocking now.

 

“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.”

 

Hakeem bit his tongue, hard, trying to stifle the scream of rage and sorrow in his heart.

 

He didn’t want Tulki’s shadow darkening their present. He didn’t want to feel shut out from the chance of parenthood after all he’d sacrificed. He didn’t want to see his wife suffer under her crushing fears while the life they created together withered and died in her womb with every desperate concoction she choked down. He didn’t want to adapt to this.

 

“There has to be some way…” he whispered, his throat and lips so tight, it was doubtful anyone would have comprehended his meaning.

 

He glared at the scenes before him as they played on, indifferent to his turmoil.

 

Then Hakeem’s mouth slackened, and his eyes drew wide.

 

His thoughts were quick and panicked.

 

These moments I’m seeing…in them, Lethia awakened to her situation, her memories restored, and each time, there was a tell that heralded her restoration. But these moments happened at different times! And Izma was cross-present in certain moments. Didn’t Lethia say that the demon could only appear to one of us at a time?

 

It took him only a moment to gather the significance of this fact.

 

Hakeem’s heart beat a little faster as he let go of the orb and hurried toward the staircase the enchantress had used to retreat from him.

 

If I really saw Izma in more than one place, then that could only mean all of this has already happened! Lethia must have had her memories back this whole time! But why would she lie to me? Except…

 

He scowled, his fists clenching.

 

To protect me.

 

But how would keeping me ignorant protect me?

 

Hakeem braced himself in the doorway and shouted up the staircase, “Lethia! Lethia Artaud, are you there!?”

 

Silence. The man swallowed as his intuition conjured up another possibility.

 

Maybe this lie wasn’t to protect me.

 

“Lethia!”

 

Still no answer came to him. Hakeem felt a sudden strange heat on the side of his face. Confusing this sensation was his sweat turning cold on his skin. The dread squeezed his lungs as he turned his head to see where the strange energy was coming from.

 

Maybe…

 

His eyes widened, and he braced himself against a bright blast as the viewing orb he had abandoned expanded explosively.

 

This lie was to USE me.

 

And then, Hakeem thought nothing at all.

 

ELMIRYN________________________

 

They entered the precinct shoulder to shoulder. Elmiryn wished she could feel more like Bruce Willis. Hell, even Jean-Claude Van Damme. But at the moment she was feeling more like wet toilet paper–weak.

 

The moment the double glass doors swung closed behind them, Elmiryn was acutely aware of a reality shutting her out. She had sensed that things had not felt right, and she also had sensed that somewhere in her had existed an…alternate history, where she was a different person. Stronger. Less considerate. Much more passionate.

 

But as Lethia marched on up to the receptionist, Elmiryn couldn’t help but wish she could go back to having just the one reality–the one where she helped car crash victims walk straight again, where she barely managed to pay her bills on time, where her love life was simple but unsatisfying…

 

Wait, what? She thought distractedly as the receptionist inexplicably buzzed them in.

 

Lethia glanced at her as she pushed her way through the magnetic door, toward the processing offices. “Jedi mind trick,” she said wryly, in answer to Elmiryn’s bewildered look. The woman blinked after her, but didn’t bother correcting her cousin’s assumption regarding her confusion.

 

Look at me, she thought miserably. I’m about to shoot up a bunch of cops, and I’m moping about something so stupid!

 

They were fortunate that the lobby was void of any officers. The processing offices were a different matter.

 

The moment they exited the adjoining hallway, people slowed to a stop and stared. The moment only lasted a second. After all, neither of them were cops, that was plain to see, and they were armed. An officer who had been stepping out of a doorway, papers in their hands, dropped these and drew their firearm.

 

“Drop the weapons!” They stammered out. Their eyes were wide. Alarmed. Elmiryn couldn’t blame them, she couldn’t quite believe she was doing this either, let alone that they’d gotten this far.

 

Lethia’s answer was to simply raise her shotgun and fire at the man.

 

The shot only grazed him, but it chewed up the length of his arm and his shoulder. He shouted in pain and fired back sloppily as he fell.

 

Too frightened to think to scream, Elmiryn fell flat to the floor in an attempt to dodge any bullets. In her haste, the pistol–a 9mm by the looks of it–clattered to the floor.

 

Lethia hurried toward a metal and wood desk that she flipped over. She shouted furiously at the older woman as she took cover. “What are you doing, you idiot!? Get over here!”

 

The other officers began mobilizing and taking aim.

 

Elmiryn gave a start as a stray bullet struck the carpet inches near her. A low whine escaped her lips as she grabbed the pistol by the barrel and hurried next to Lethia. Her hands trembled so fiercely, she had trouble putting her finger back on the trigger.

 

“This is insane!” she screamed as bullets pinged and zinged by them. “Why did I follow you in here!?”

 

Lethia hissed as she rubbed the center of her chest. The recoil of her recent shotgun blast had apparently been more than she could handle. “Gods, I can’t wait for you to drop this whiny persona!”

 

Elmiryn gave her a stung look. “I am not whiny!”

 

Her cousin bared her teeth as she fired blindly over the desk. “Elle, remember that time you beat up Jared Host for stealing my bra?”

 

“Is this really the time for–?” The redhead broke off with a gasp as splinters stung her face. The desk was holding up remarkably well. The woman remembered through the clouds of her hysteria some article she’d read about police offices having reinforced furniture in case of a situation just like this. But given the desk’s modest size and their pinned position, it was only a matter of time before they were overwhelmed.

 

“I’m asking–” Lethia broke off as she dared another wild attack. She continued as if she hadn’t just shot at trained police officers. “–Because that was the fiercest I’d ever seen you…in this life. Right now? I need you to pretend all of these officers stole my bra.”

 

Elmiryn stared at her. “If you’re trying to inspire me, you’re failing. Horribly.”

 

“Fuck you and just shoot someone!” Lethia screamed at her. “Fight or we die! Don’t you want to see Nyx again!?”

 

“But she’s dead!

 

Lethia grabbed Elmiryn’s shoulder and shook her. “Elle, wake up! I’m not brave! I’m not a real fighter! You are! I need you here. The real you! Now!”

 

Elmiryn could only stare at her cousin–stare and think the girl was wild and insane. Perhaps the feeling of wrongness–the sense of not belonging, of not behaving right, of not sounding right–had all been in her head. The reality of their situation was more sobering than a splash of cold water in her face. Elmiryn had made a mistake. She was not a fighter. She was not brave. She didn’t belong anywhere else but in this world–and any minute now, she could be evacuated to an early afterlife.

 

Lethia could see the doubt in her eyes as clearly as if the woman’s skin had turned purple. She shoved at the redhead in some show of disgust…but not just that. Fear. She had made a gamble, and now she had to face the sad result. Death by cop.

 

“I never wanted any of this either…” Lethia murmured, slumping down next to the woman. “I just wanted…I wanted to be a good daughter. I just wanted to help Syria. And somehow that landed me here. I wish I could get rid of this power I have. I wish I could forget how to breathe and just die. But I can’t, because I’ve made a terrible mess of things, and until I can get you all out of it…” she trailed off.

 

Elmiryn reached over and squeezed the girl’s arm. She felt sick with fear.

 

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Lethia choked out. Her voice was barely audible over the barrage of shots.

 

Would they kill them if they surrendered? Even taking into account Lethia’s shooting, Elmiryn didn’t think they killed anyone. The shotgun didn’t have very far range, and the officers were being careful. Then again, she didn’t know anything about situations like this.

 

Her cousin had stopped firing. Possibly to save ammunition. How many shots did she have left? Three? The shots fired at them eased as the officers tried assess this sudden change. The woman glanced at Lethia. She was staring into nothing, hugging the shotgun to her body like it were a teddy bear. How did it come to this? What could the woman do to save them?

 

People can change, Elmiryn thought somberly.

 

She closed her eyes and tried to remember the impossible.

 

She tried to remember being the person she had never been.

 

The minutes stretched on.

 

Someone shouted over them. Elmiryn bared her teeth as hands took her weapon away and shoved her down. A knee dug into her back. She heard Lethia cry out next to her. Still, the woman kept her eyes closed.

 

She heard little whispers in her head.

 

…won’t leave them…chained…can’t fight–

 

…sir, we can’t…to run…

 

…go…made my…flea-biters coming…

 

…Elle, no…

 

…Saelin, you asshole…

 

Someone latched on one pair of cuffs and started pulling her arms behind her to put on the other.

 

Elmiryn managed to turn her head over to Lethia just as they grabbed her other wrist, and saw the girl gazing at her sadly.

 

“Lethy,” the redhead hissed. She fought against the grip that tried to twist her arm and heard the man barking at her to stop resisting. Red faced, she shouted, “Lethy, do a jedi mind trick! Now!

 

The girl’s eyes widened. They had already cuffed her and were jerking her to her feet. “But–”

 

NOW!

 

Lethia’s head snapped up as they focused on something the woman couldn’t see. Elmiryn felt the grip on her wrist relax, felt the knee on her back shift away. The woman started to roll to her feet, but other officers grabbed her by the shoulders and tried to shove her down again.

 

“Carl, what are you doing!?” one of them shouted.

 

Elmiryn heard several shots, all of them deafening. Something warm sprayed her face. The sounds made her flinch every time, and the lapse in concentration should’ve been enough for her opponents to subdue her quickly…

 

…If only each of them hadn’t had a supporting limb shot out.

 

The officers around her screamed in surprise and agony as they gripped their injured limbs. More noises. More struggle. More shots. Elmiryn couldn’t take it all in. Her focus was on getting free of the tangle, and when she did she rose up in a crouch and a night stick shoved into her face. The woman gave a start, but quickly saw that it was Lethia who was holding out the weapon. The officer that had been handcuffing Lethia was now crouching with them behind their crowded cover of the desk. The officers that had been shot were knocked out.

 

Shouts echoed through the offices.

 

Elmiryn took the night stick from her cousin, and her brow wrinkled in concern as she saw the girl flinch and rub her head.

 

“What’s wrong?” she asked. Aside from this entire situation.

 

“It’s taxing…controlling people,” Lethia panted. She pointed toward a doorway behind them–it was across from the one where the officer she had first shot at emerged from. “Move! There!”

 

Elmiryn nodded tersely.

 

The officers, their strange silent allies, covered them with gunfire as they hurried into the other room. The woman quickly scanned the space and found it was a simple supply closet. When the officers followed them in, shutting the door behind them, it became very cramped.

 

“Well this is less than ideal!” Lethia breathed.

 

The woman twisted the night stick in her hands. “Lethia, we can’t stay in here!”

 

“Well we can’t go back to the lobby.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“I didn’t have time to mention it before, but my power isn’t infinite. The moment I took control of these two, the officers outside, the ones I’d been putting a mental block on… Let’s just say, they’re ‘awake’ now.”

 

Elmiryn blanched. “We’re stuck in here! Pinned!”

 

“Not necessarily.”

 

“Wh-What do you mean?”

 

“I mean our friends here provided me with some information about the building. Namely, that this vent,” she pointed at the back wall, where behind a large box of papers, a vent peeked. Elmiryn would have missed it. “Can put us close to where Meznik is being held.”

 

“I thought that only worked in movies.”

 

“You’re right. That’s why I’m going to need you to do something.”

 

Elmiryn was immediately wary. “What?”

 

Lethia’s face became grim. “I need you to make us skinnier.”

 

The redhead balked. “Not even Jenny Craig can get the kind of results you’re asking for!”

 

“Back there, didn’t you remember something? Anything at all about who you really are?”

 

Elmiryn faltered. “Not…not really.”

 

Lethia sighed.

 

There was movement outside. Everyone stared at the door.

 

“I don’t have it in me to pull a hat trick,” Lethia whispered urgently. “So whatever you need to do to remember your fae power, do it now!”

 

As she said this, the officers squeezed past Elmiryn and set to work getting to the vent. She looked from them to Lethia and back. Then with a shaky sigh, she stooped down and began to take off her shoes.

 

“What are you doing??” Lethia hissed at her.

 

“I’m trying to feel like Bruce Willis, shut up!

 

“What we need isn’t Die Hard! We need more like…like…” Lethia fumbled, trying to come up with an adequate reference.

 

Elmiryn glared at her. “I thought you said I could do whatever I needed to!”

 

“I lied!

 

“You can be such a pain in the–”

 

There was a loud clunk outside. Scuffling. The women exchanged looks.

 

“You don’t think that’s SWAT do you?”

 

Lethia swallowed audibly. “Maybe?”

 

Elmiryn’s voice was fast and strained. She tried to keep her voice low so that those outside couldn’t hear. “What’s this fae power you want me to remember so badly?”

 

“Fairy godmother!” Lethia gasped suddenly.

 

What?”

 

“We don’t need Bruce Willis, we need a fairy godmother! You know! Cinderella!?”

 

“But I can’t–”

 

Try.”

 

“You have to make a wish first, jackass!”

 

“I-wish-my-idiot-cousin-would-make-me-fit-into-that-vent!” Lethia said in a rush.

 

The officers in the room with them were working out the last screw to the ventilation shaft using a multitool they had found somewhere. Elmiryn waved her arms.

 

Shazam! Wish be granted!”

 

The look Lethia gave her made the woman’s throat muscles tickle, but she didn’t know from what. Clearing it, she tried again, this time with more feeling.

 

“SHAZAM!”

 

Her mind flashed with the image of the cops outside in the hallway, preparing to burst into their room, expecting a fatal finish…and suddenly hearing her ridiculous cries.

 

Elmiryn’s throat tickled again, and this time her lips twitched.

 

Lethia palmed her face. “We are going to die,” she moaned morosely.

 

The officers carefully set down the vent cover. The shaft was now open to them…but it was much too small for even Lethia to squeeze through.

 

“No, no, I feel like I’m onto something. Here…” The woman rolled her shoulders and took a breath. Then she threw her arms up into the air and bellowed, “Alla-ka-zoo!

 

“Elmiryn, would you stop–!?”

 

But the girl was cut off as the redhead burst into wild laughter.

 

Lethia stared at her aghast. “You think this is funny?

 

When the woman calmed down enough to speak, it was with an arrogant smirk. Her cousin’s expression cleared and her eyebrows went high.

 

“Kid,” Elmiryn said as she patted Lethia on the cheek. “Right now, everything is funny.” She thumbed at the vent. “Now let’s get you in there!”


Back to Chapter 37.3 | Forward to Chapter 37.5

Chapter 37.3

“Gimme danger little stranger

And I feel with you at ease

Gimme danger little stranger

And I feel your disease

There’s nothing in my dreams

Just some ugly memories

Kiss me like the ocean breeze

 

Now if you will be my lover

I wish you were insane

But you can’t be my master

I will do you anything

There’s nothing left alive

But a pair of glassy eyes

Raise my feelings one more time”

‘Gimme Danger’ by The Stooges, from the album ‘Raw Power’. Columbia, 1973.

NYX____________________________

 

To say that I was ‘ready’ for whatever it was Izma had to show me, would not have been right. Willing, yes. But not ready. I was just at my wit’s end.

 

The light of the room dimmed, and I could feel my hairs stand on end as I started to pull open the red door.

 

Then Lethia’s hand slammed the door closed again from out of nowhere. I gazed at her wildly, and her green eyes met mine, mirroring my bewilderment. Where had the enchantress come from? Was this another trick? I turned my head and saw Izma glaring, her previous smugness gone.

 

“You dare–?” she started.

 

Lethia cut her off. “I do!” But her voice trembled, and I could see her whole body shake as she turned back to me. “Nyx…you have every right to hate me right now. But please believe me when I tell you that going through this door will ruin you!”

 

I looked her up and down. “…Why?”

 

“It’s a trick, it’s Izma–”

 

“No,” I interjected through my grit teeth. “I mean why should I trust you?” Lethia’s expression fell. Somehow her deflation fanned the flames of my anger, and I shoved her, hard. It felt good, to see her nearly fall. To let out some of the wrath I felt toward her. “I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you, Lethia Artaud!”

 

“I know that! And I’m sorry!” Lethia fell to her knees and clasped her hands. “No more games! I’m done playing! I remember now, Nyx! I remember how you and Elmiryn went out of your way to help me when you could have turned and walked away! You risked your lives to save me and help me in my goals!” She buried her face in her hands.

 

I mulled over her words as she took a moment to compose herself. When the lights dimmed…that must of been her power shifting, letting her remember.

 

“I’ve repaid you terribly!” She continued, with her hands curled to fists she pressed them to her chest. “But even if you spurn me, beat me, or kill me, it would be a far better fate than to continue–”

 

Only she didn’t get to finish, because Izma grabbed her by the head and flung her across the room like a doll. It happened so fast, I barely caught it. Odd, how our group seemed capable of speeches and impassioned declarations whilst under fire. Izma didn’t appreciate our verbosity, clearly. Whatever Lethia had to say, she was going to have to be more economic about it. If she was even conscious.

 

…And I wasn’t too sure I was willing to keep listening anyway.

 

I gazed at her crumpled body on the other side of the room, her hair fanned out around her on the white floor, and felt strangely…passive about the scene.

 

Izma’s cold eyes fell on me, and I turned to face her. Her human disguise was vibrating, as if it would shatter at any moment.

 

“Well?” she asked, her voice harsher and deeper than it was before. “What are you waiting for?”

 

She was right. I had nothing to wait for.

 

I turned back to the door, ready to open it.

 

“She’s looking…for…you…” Lethia’s voice. It came in broken gasps.

 

My hand stilled on the doorknob and I turned to gaze over my shoulder.

 

Lethia’s arms shook as she tried to push herself up. I could see blood dripping from her nose, and I wondered if this was real, or just another illusion.

 

“She’s looking for you, Nyx!” she said more firmly. “You promised…to be by her side! Always!

 

My eyes widened.

 

Izma took a menacing step toward her, but I started forward, cutting her off. Lethia’s eyes brightened as she held out a hand to me. “Nyx! Oh, Nyx! Elmiryn needs–”

 

My fist slammed into her head so hard it bounced off the wall. Lethia’s body went limp, and I could see the blood pooling from beneath her down turned face. Her hair effectively covered the damage, but I was sure I had felt something break beneath my knuckles. I stood heaving over her, tremors of rage coursing through me.

 

“Promises? You want to talk to me about promises!?” I spat.

 

…And I felt a hollow sort of satisfaction–a salve, if you will–for all the cuts and bruises my spirit had suffered at the hands of this girl who, good intentions or not, managed to hurt me so much. The fury that I knew for her was violent and terrifying. But as I heard Izma laughing behind me, I felt that fire die down. It didn’t go away. I wasn’t sure if I could ever stop the wildfire that was inside me now. But without the incessant roar of bloodlust confusing my thoughts, I was able to gather that…

 

The girl may have played along with Izma’s sick game, but it was under great confusion brought on by her amnesia, and the worst acts I suspected she had been entirely absent for somehow. The parallels this situation had with Atalo’s death–the misguided intentions, the loss of control, the horrible consequences…Lethia Artaud was just like me a few years ago. She was as weak, as naive, and as self-righteous as I was. Faced with these facts, I realized I could not forgive her, because I could not forgive myself.

 

Izma’s hand touched my shoulder, and immediately a feeling of pins and needles spread down my flesh. Her voice sounded tight with glee.

 

“Kill her. Kill the weed!” She giggled.

 

I reached down and grabbed Lethia by the hair. My lip curled as I laid eyes on the girl’s swelling face. At a glance, my guess was she had a broken right cheekbone. The skin was broken and bleeding. Her nose was still bleeding too, but I didn’t think that was from my punch. I pulled back my palm. A swift strike angled upward to the nose could kill her, especially given the force I could put into the blow. It was one of the fatal points Elmiryn had taught me to strike.

 

My jaw tensed.

 

Elmiryn…

 

Kill her,” Izma hissed behind me.

 

My eyes narrowed. “Would you ask me to kill myself if it pleased you?”

 

“Why would I want you dead, little sum?”

 

“Why do you want her dead?” I countered readily. I started to drop my hand, but still held Lethia’s head up with the other. “She has done everything you asked.”

 

“She has failed me. Tis simple.”

 

“Is it?” I let go of Lethia’s hair and rocked forward onto both my palms. Given how close I was to the enchantress, the space for this was cramped and awkward, but I was able to move well enough that my upper body weight was sufficiently shifted onto my hands. With a deep breath, I let out a sharp kai and kicked backward with both my legs.

 

They struck air.

 

I didn’t actually expect my attack to hit Izma. I just wanted to make a point. I was not going to become the astral demon’s new pet. Whatever hatred I felt towards Lethia, I had to admit to myself that I could not do to the girl what I could not do to myself–and that included killing her.

 

Grabbing Lethia’s body, I called on the shadows and willed them to swallow us. As we sank into darkness, I could hear Izma screaming in rage.

 

ELMIRYN________________________

 

The precinct wasn’t as busy as Elmiryn expected it to be, given the day and the hour. Still, there was a steady hum of activity–of printers squealing, keyboards clacking, chairs creaking, and papers rustling. The air smelled like ink, gun oil, and carpet freshener. Those brought in handcuffs were sullen and quiet, their attitude suggesting a familiarity with the setting. She didn’t like being here. It reminded her of her childhood.

 

“Thank you for your cooperation, Ms. Manard. It really helped us to clear things up faster. The other witnesses corroborated your statements, so just one more thing and you’re free to go.” Officer Gale undid the handcuffs and offered the woman a seat next to her desk. She’d mentioned her first name, but the woman had already forgotten it. The officer had russet brown hair at shoulder length, and rich azure-blue eyes. She didn’t look that much older than the redhead, but there was definitely some age about her eyes…probably from stress and sun.

 

Elmiryn rubbed her wrists, glad to be free of the confines. She locked eyes with the cop and grinned. “Hey, no prob. I know how you guys work. I mentioned my dad used to be an officer, remember?”

 

Gale smiled, and the redhead detected a hint of irony in the expression. “Yes. You did.”

 

“Oh-ho! You worked with him. I can tell.”

 

The other woman coughed and sat down in her chair. “That obvious?”

 

Elmiryn shrugged. “Warner isn’t exactly Mr. Congeniality. Let me tell you, whatever you went through, it was a thousand times worse being his gay daughter growing up. At least you got away from him when you clocked out!”

 

The other woman laughed. “I was never partnered with him. He was already an investigator by the time I hit the streets. He seemed a good man. Just…strict.”

 

“That’s a nice way of putting it.”

 

Gale laughed again as she pulled her clipboard to her. “Well, we’ve got your statement down. We just need you to confirm it with a signature. Your cousin is still filing her charge against the suspect. You’re free to wait for her if you’d like.” She passed the clipboard over with a pen.

 

Elmiryn signed it quickly, then glanced over her shoulder to the room where she saw Nick had been taken. “Say…D’ya think I could talk to that guy? Nick?”

 

Officer Gale gazed at her shrewdly. “We don’t normally allow for that.”

 

“Hey, I’m not pressing charges!”

 

“But your cousin is, Ms. Manard. You and the suspect had a physical confrontation. We’re not looking to have trouble in our precinct. The paperwork would be a nightmare. Anyway, I think they’re charging him formally now. He’s going to be transferred to a holding cell until he posts bail.”

 

“I don’t care where I talk to him. What if you were there with me? I just want five minutes.”

 

Gale puckered her lips in thought and craned her neck over the sea of desks. When she looked back at the redhead, it was with a sideways gaze. “Five minutes? That’s it? You aren’t suddenly going to change your mind about all of this? Because again…the paperwork. It’s a bitch.”

 

Elmiryn shook her head eagerly. “I’m not changing my testimony. I’ve already signed my statement, right? Soooo…can I see him?”

 

The officer drummed her fingers on her desk. Then with a sigh, she stood and jerked her head. “All right…Just five minutes! But the moment things start to get out of hand, I’m ending it!”

 

Elmiryn made a small fist pump. “Yes!” She stood with a pop. “Thank you!”

 

“Settle down. I’m still not sure this is a great idea.” Officer Gale moved past Elle, and the redhead followed her down the aisle to the interrogation room.

 

Gale rapped on the door briefly before poking her head in. Elmiryn could hear her speaking with someone, and a second later, she opened the door wider and stepped aside. Elle glanced at her before entering.

 

A plain clothes officer in a gray suit and dark button up was glaring at her as she entered. He was a tall black man with broad shoulders and slim hips. The light of the room made his close-shaved head shine. Elmiryn gave him a small wave when he didn’t move or speak.

 

“Uh. Hi,” she said. She glanced at Nick. “Geez, Nick. The way they’re treating you, you’d think you just tried bombing a place!”

 

Nick was slouched in a chair behind a small table. He smirked at her. “How are you sure that wasn’t what just happened?”

 

“Five minutes,” Gale said pointedly as she shut the door and leaned on it.

 

Elmiryn sat in the chair opposite the man. The investigator went to speak with Gale, and the redhead could tell her ‘five minutes’ was going to be more like three. She leaned onto the table with her elbows and narrowed her eyes at Nick.

 

“Did you get what you wanted?”

 

The man just chuckled and held up his hands. His wrists were still cuffed. “Elmiryn. Dear. Just look at me. What do you think?”

 

Elmiryn frowned and was about to point out that he was going to get legally boned when something occurred to her.

 

“Your face…” She breathed with widening eyes. “You look…different!

 

Nick’s face was fuller, his lips no longer dry and white rimmed. His eyes were clear and his hair looked almost lush. Like those shampoo commercials she hated so much.

 

“How do you think that happened?” he asked mildly.

 

“Water,” she murmured, looking away. “A comb. Maybe some Carmex. Fuck. I don’t know. Does it matter?”

 

Yes,” Nick hissed, and Elmiryn snapped her gaze back onto him. The man hadn’t raised his voice. Had barely moved even. But something about his presence screamed at her. “I was able to feed. Not the usual portions I enjoy from you, but our encounter gave me some strength, nevertheless. And hasn’t our little chat gotten you thinking?”

 

“About what?”

 

“About everything you ignoramus,” he snapped. “Honestly, I’m surprised a toy like you survived so long without me!”

 

“Why do you keep calling me that?” Elmiryn bit back. She struggled to keep her voice level. She didn’t need their meeting cut short. Weird things had been happening all night, and for whatever reason, she felt Nick was at the heart of it all. “How did you know my name? We’ve never met!”

 

Nick sat back and stared at her. “Good lord. You really have no idea.”

 

Elmiryn gave him a suffering look. “Duh! I’ve been saying that this whole time!”

 

“No. I mean…you have no recollection of anything. At all.” Nick rubbed his chin, his eyes turning distant. “Damn. Damn. Our connection has deteriorated, just as I feared. I was hoping Izma had just been leading you on, but I see it’s more than that now. DAMN, that you were such a fool to imbibe Artemis’s blood! I tried to warn you–!”

 

Elmiryn reached her limit of patience. “What are you talking about? Who is Artemis!?”

 

She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up to see the investigator looming over her. “Time’s up.”

 

“I’m not done!” she protested.

 

Gale appeared behind the man and placed a hand on his arm. “Hakeem, maybe just another minute–”

 

“No,” he said firmly, forcing Elmiryn to stand. “This guy is part of an on-going investigation, and we don’t need any more interruptions!” He started to guide the woman toward the door, his colleague trailing behind.

 

“This is bullshit!” Elmiryn ripped her arm out of the investigator’s grip just as she was forced out the door. She turned to square off with him, but Gale was there, blocking her way, her hands up in a placating manner.

 

“Hey, hey! Let’s kill it here, girl. If the man says leave, we have to do it!”

 

Elmiryn started to pace. “I wasn’t done! I need to talk to that Nick guy!”

 

“Look, he was dinged on some other charges. You’re just going to have to wait!”

 

The redhead clenched her fists. “If he had warrants out on him, then why would he let himself get caught!? That doesn’t make any sense!”

 

Gale raised an eyebrow at her. “Let himself get caught?”

 

Elmiryn opened her mouth to respond when she heard Lethia calling for her.

 

“Elle!”

 

The woman didn’t even have time to turn before Lethia crashed into her with a hug. She grunted as she patted her cousin awkwardly on the back.

 

“H-Hey, Lethy…” She looked up and her eyebrows rose. “And Nyx!”

 

The sorority sister smiled. “Hey hero!”

 

Lethia pulled away, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “Oh my GOD, can you believe all this happened?”

 

Elmiryn shrugged uncomfortably. “Are you guys through?”

 

“Yeah. I’m totes ready to go home…” Lethia took her hand and started to tug. “Let’s go! You’re done, right?”

 

Elle glanced at Officer Gale, and the woman gave a nod. “We’re done for now. If we need anything else, we’ll be in touch.”

 

She felt disappointment settle in her gut. “…Okay.”

 

Together, the three women left the precinct offices. They made it to the lobby before Elmiryn’s phone started buzzing in her pocket. When she answered, it was Izzie.

 

Her girlfriend squealed on the other line. “Elle! Christ, are you okay!?”

 

Elmiryn followed the others as they made it outside. Pausing at the precinct doors, she held up her hand indicating she needed a moment, and stepped aside. “Hey, Izzie. I’m fine.”

 

“I only just got a chance to call you now. Oh geez. I’m shaking. I can’t even believe…I mean, a guy really pulled a knife on you??”

 

“Yeah…”

 

“Holy shit!” Izzie sounded like she was going to cry.

 

“Hey. Shh…it’s fine! We’re all fine. I totally clocked the guy. My hand’s a little sore, but it’s not swollen or anything. I can still make a fist.”

 

She heard a laugh. “Baby, you are so–”

 

Only Elmiryn didn’t get to hear what she was, because a surge of static swallowed Izzie’s words. The woman frowned as she double checked her connection. “Izzie? You there? Hello?”

 

“I need to see your phone.” The woman turned to the sound of Lethia’s voice behind her.

 

“Huh–?”

 

Caught off guard, the woman did nothing as her cousin calmly took her phone from her hands. Then, before she could react, Lethia dropped it onto the concrete and stepped on it with her heel. Hard. There was a loud audible crack, and Elmiryn let out a small cry, her jaw dropping.

 

“L-Lethy! Lethia, what the fuckin’ fuck, man!” she sputtered.

 

She dropped to her knees and started picking up the pieces hurriedly, as if being quick would somehow salvage her device.

 

“Elmiryn–”

 

“I can’t fucking believe you!”

 

“Elle–”

 

“That was, like, a month’s salary! And THEN some!”

 

HEY!

 

Elmiryn looked up sharply to see Lethia glaring down at her. “What?” she snapped. Behind her cousin, Nyx was approaching a concerned look on her face.

 

Lethia spoke through her teeth. “Elmiryn, you need to wake up!”

 

“From what?

 

“This isn’t our home, and we need to leave!”

 

“Why does everyone keep talking in riddles!?”

 

“Maybe if you didn’t keep your head shoved so firmly up your butt, it wouldn’t feel that way! You just. Have. To. Pay. Attention!

 

Nyx stopped at Lethia’s side. “Is everything okay?”

 

Elmiryn stood to her feet, holding the broken pieces of her cell phone. “Oh. I don’t know. Sure. Except my cousin seems to have lost her shit!

 

Lethia rolled her eyes and walked away.

 

Nyx stepped in closer as Elmiryn prodded the cell phone bits in her palm glumly. “She wrecked your phone?” the sorority girl asked.

 

“It’s toast…” Elle sighed. The woman turned to glare after her cousin. She had approached an officer in a kevlar vest at their vehicle and was saying something to them. “I don’t know what got into–” Her voice choked as she saw the officer open their trunk and hand Lethia a shotgun as if they were a librarian handing her a book.

 

Blinking, Nyx turned and looked too.

 

The officer loaded a pistol and handed the girl that firearm as well. Lethia smiled at him before she made her way back.

 

The moment she was within talking distance, she said, “Elmiryn, we’re on something of a time limit and we have a lot to do, so I can’t stop and give you a spiel. So while I appreciate you’re disoriented from being in a reality that is not ours, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to snap the fuck out of it and help me get Meznik out of that precinct. Pronto.” She glanced at Nyx and back. “And you might want to shoot her. For simplification.”

 

That would simplify things!?” Elmiryn sputtered. “Lethia what are you doing with those guns??

 

“Lethia, have you lost your mind?” Nyx added next. She was backing away, her face drawn up in horror.

 

The blonde ignored her and continued to address Elmiryn. “One gun is for you. One for me. Do you want the pistol or the shotgun?”

 

The redhead shrugged helplessly. Partly because her mind still had yet to make sense of the overarching mystery of the night. Partly because the part of her mind that had broken up her sensory information into manageable bits honestly couldn’t decide between the two weapons.

 

Lethia handed her the pistol and the woman took it weakly. “Fine. I’ll use the shotgun. Your doubt isn’t right for this firepower.”

 

“Jesus Christ, can you just explain to me–!”

 

“Elmiryn, what’s your opinion of this Nyx?”

 

“Th-This Nyx?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Elmiryn blinked and turned to look at Nyx. The dark haired sorority sister had backpedaled some feet away and was looking ready to run and get help. From who, the redhead wasn’t sure. All the officers in their vicinity still had yet to even take note of the situation.

 

“She’s–”

 

“Not real,” Lethia interjected harshly. “Shoot her. She’ll let Izma know where we are.”

 

“You can’t be serious…” Nyx whispered. She shook her head slowly, and looked at Elmiryn. “Please tell me you aren’t buying this!”

 

Elmiryn felt a sweat drop trail down the side of her pulsing temple. “I–I’m not–”

 

Lethia’s voice was low and fast. “Elmiryn, she’s just a caricature of Nyx. She’s too arrogant. Selfish. For Halward’s sake, she’s unbelievably pretentious! Is this the same girl you care about so much?”

 

Help!” Nyx screamed suddenly, putting her whole body into the cry. “Someone, please!

 

“They won’t hear you,” Lethia murmured. Her expression was dark.

 

“HEY! THEY’RE GOING TO SHOOT ME!”

 

“This isn’t Izma’s world. She just set up a stage on it. So I was able to gain control of these people. You’re without help.”

 

Nyx stared around her wildly. No one was moving. No one behaved as if they heard her at all. Slowly, she looked at Elmiryn.

 

“Please…” she begged, tears streaming down her face. “Don’t!”

 

Elmiryn frowned at her. “Do you…do you know what Lethia is talking about? Do you know who this Izma is?”

 

“Elmiryn, I like you! I really do! I know we just met, but please! Don’t do this to me!”

 

The woman’s frown deepened as she heard her voice in her head.

 

“What if you regret it? Where will that put us then?”

 

She didn’t remember ever saying that, but that was definitely her voice. Was it really a memory? Of a different time, a different place, a different person?

 

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she murmured, gripping the pistol. Her thumb checked the safety. It was off.

 

Nyx clasped her hands together and fell to her knees. “I can pretend this never happened! I won’t breathe a word, I promise! I’m even sorry that we ever met, but is it really right to punish me for that!? I didn’t ask for this!”

 

Elmiryn’s brow twitched as she heard Nyx’s voice in her head.

 

“…And for the record, Elmiryn, I never regret anything when it comes to you!”

 

Her face pulled long.

 

Nyx held out a hand to her. “Elle, please!

 

“I’m sorry.” The woman raised the gun and fired. The sound was loud, and her bones seemed to vibrate from the shock.

 

“…You don’t make me want to believe,” she breathed in the stillness.

 

Red spray stained the concrete dark.

 

Her hand stung from the force of the shot.

 

The people around them still did not move, as if nothing had happened.

 

Elmiryn let her hand drop, and as she watched Nyx’s blood pool out onto the ground, she found…she felt nothing. No horror, or glee.

 

“Do you remember?” Lethia asked quietly.

 

The woman stared at her cousin and gave a small shake of her head. “Not really.”

 

“But you know this life is a lie, don’t you?”

 

Elmiryn gave a stiff nod.

 

Lethia patted her shoulder. “Then that will have to be enough for now. I wasn’t kidding, Elmiryn. We have a time limit. Izma will try to stop us, and we still have the problem of getting Meznik free.”

 

“Why do we need him?” Elle’s voice was hollow.

 

“Believe me. I don’t do this out of any particular joy. But it’s necessary for the moment. A means to an end.”

 

“Can you…make the people in there not attack us? Like out here?”

 

Lethia bit her lip and shook her head. “No. I was able to take hold of this group because they were not aware. But the minds of this world are…foreign. I won’t be able to take hold of Izma’s other familiars within the precinct, and the other officers will be on alert. We’ll have to fight our way through.”

 

“And I’m…good at fighting, aren’t I?” Elmiryn murmured. In her head, she substituted the word ‘fighting’ with ‘killing.’ She could feel it, like an aftertaste riding on the reality of Nyx’s abrupt execution.

 

Lethia’s voice suggested she was aware of the distinction. “Yes. You are. Very good. That’s why I need you to remember as much as you can.”

 

The woman took a breath and looked at the girl. “Are you still my cousin?” She hated how vulnerable she sounded.

 

The blonde hesitated. “I…can be. If you want me to.”

 

“I do.”

 

“Then let’s go, cousin.”

 

Elmiryn clenched her jaw as she raised her pistol. “Let’s rock and roll, then!”

 

QUINCY_________________________

 

The light in the room dimmed.

 

Quincy paused as she glanced around her. Her eyes fell on Lethia.

 

“What just happened?”

 

Lethia rubbed her forehead with a wince. Her green eyes batted a few times before they lifted to meet the wizard’s gaze.

 

Quincy lowered the vial and rested her wrist on the edge of the table. “Are you all right?”

 

The girl stared at her for a few moments.

 

When she spoke, it was with a whisper. “I’m fine. Go ahead and drink, Quincy.”

 

The wizard scowled, and did just that. The drink burned her throat.


Back to Breaktime | Forward to Chapter 37.4

Chapter 37.2

QUINCY_______________________

Before her was a small vial. Quincy stared at it, both palms on the table. Her forehead creased as sweat beaded on her skin. Her eyes flickered to Lethia, who stood on the other side. The girl’s expression was somber, her eyes downcast. But why did she look so sad? Surely someone who was willing to put a person through this wouldn’t look so contrite?

Quincy’s eyes narrowed. “This is it?”

Lethia closed her eyes. “Yes.”

“No, I mean… Is this is really what you say it is?”

“When you focus on something for too long, anyone can doubt it.”

“I suppose.” Quincy wiped at her face. “It feels like I’ve been staring at it for ages.”

Lethia opened her eyes again, her expression gaining a hint of wry humor. “That’s because you have.”

The wizard said nothing in response, instead finally picking up the vial. She held the glass up to her eyes and watched as the milky white liquid sloshed inside.

“It looks like an abortive potion…” Quincy murmured. Her eyes flickered to Lethia. “But you could’ve added something to it.”

Lethia gave her a suffering look. “Quincy…I already offered to make the potion in front of you! If you’re still suspicious after choosing to let me get this one, then you’re only letting your fear speak for you, not your common sense!”

“I can change my mind, Artaud. Do you think I’m stupid?”

The teenager covered her face with her hand. “No. I don’t think you’re stupid.”

“Really, because it sounds like you do!”

“Do you put Hakeem through this too?”

At the mention of her husband, Quincy tensed. “Shut up!”

“Quincy, just drink it!”

Her hand tensed around the vial, and the wizard stared at the stopper.

Lethia groaned at her hesitation and leaned forward onto the table with one hand. With a look that spoke of disappointment, the girl shook her head. “You’re not going to do it, are you?”

Quincy glared at her. “I’ve decided. I want to mix the potion myself.”

“Because you think I’m trying to make you infertile?”

“Yes.”

Lethia smiled humorlessly. “Quincy, did you stop to ask yourself why you didn’t think I would try to poison you instead?”

Quincy blinked. That was right. Why hadn’t she thought of that first? Why had she been so focused on her ability to have children?

“You have to consider what it means if you value something more than your own life.” Lethia continued. “But with you, it’s like loving the door and not the room behind it. You’ve held onto the hope that you can start a family of your own, and yet even when you had the chance to, you opted to continue living the dangerous life you led. We have to be real here. Your hopes were false and empty. Like a security blanket for a child. But you’re not a child anymore, Quincy. If you want to make a potion, I can let you make one, but it’s still up to you to accept the truth. This isn’t about whether or not that vial in your hand is bad for you. It’s about your own misconceptions. The ones you’ve got to let go.”

The woman swallowed hard as her eyes clouded with more tears. Her cheeks were already tear-stained from earlier, she wasn’t about to go through that again. Roughly, she wiped the tears away.

With a breath, she removed the stopper from the vial.

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn’s cheeks were hurting from her attempts at keeping her smile up. Lethia was watching her like a hawk now, and it was putting her on edge. She would have loved for a drink, but since that weird moment earlier with Nyx, Elmiryn thought it best not to diminish her ability for good judgement. She tried not to think how close their lips had been, how her body responded to what was happening…

They were sitting on the sofas, Taila having rejoined them, and the conversation had somehow turned on to politics, but the woman was only half paying attention. When she wasn’t woefully comparing her lack hipness to those in the room, she was trying her best not to look at Nyx and Taila sitting adjacent from her, touching hands and laughing together. Lethia sat on Elmiryn’s other side but leaned in close to be heard over the music, making the redhead feel cornered.

Nyx reached over and gave her a small shove in the shoulder. “Well hey, what do you think?”

Startled, Elmiryn looked at her, her eyes fluttering. “About what?”

“About Clinton wanting to overturn his marriage law.”

The woman started to sweat. “Uh…which was that again?”

Nyx grinned as Taila snickered next to her. “The Defense of Marriage Act he signed in ‘96.”

Sensing danger, Elmiryn tried to play it cool. “Oh! Yeah…that. Well…” She paused as she tried to think.

Clinton, Clinton, Clinton…fuck, all I know about him is that he’s married to Hilary and he got a blow job in the oval office! Or…wait. Okay, wait. These guys are all about gay rights, so obviously it has to do with that. So he signed an act against gay marriage in 1996 and now he wants to overturn it? Jesus, I really need to read more about this stuff.

Clearing her throat, Elmiryn said what she thought was safest. “Look. Clinton is a politician. Politicians change positions all the time. If he wants to support gay marriage now, then good for him.”

“He’s only doing this because it’s what Obama wants,” Taila said with a derisive snort.

Nyx looked at her, a stung look on her face. “You don’t think it’s because our movement has gotten stronger?”

Taila patted her knee. “Babe, you know I do. I mean that Clinton is just an opportunist who is only interested in furthering his career. There’s gotta be a pay off in this move somehow.”

“It does feel inauthentic,” Lethia agreed with a nod. “But when it’s about something like marriage rights, where over thirty states have gone out of their way to define it, can we really afford to be picky?”

“But people can change,” Elmiryn said, looking at them all. “Or is it impossible for someone to change their opinion?”

Lethia gave her a pitying look. “We’re talking about a politician, Elle. It’s a little different for them. In all the years Clinton has worked, he’s never been on record supporting same-sex marriage. What is on record, is that he passed DOMA and DADT, which have hurt the gay community for years.”

Elmiryn stared at her cousin, who stared back. Slowly her head turned to look at Nyx and Taila. They were gazing at her curiously. She opened her mouth as though to speak, but didn’t know what to say. Belatedly, she closed her jaw and stared at the untouched beer in her hands, lukewarm and watered down.

“You’re so self-involved.

Lethia’s voice. But when had her cousin ever said that?

People can change. What the hell kind of thing is that to think, that a person can’t? What does it matter what they do? I mean, forgiving a person for what they did is one thing, but do you have to forgive them for a mistake to believe they’ve CHANGED?

Taken by emotion, Elmiryn stood abruptly, her beer sloshing onto her jeans. “Fuck!”

Nyx stood too, her hands held out. “Woah! Oh shoot. You need a towel!”

The redhead wiped vainly at the damp stain with her hand as she set her half-filled cup down. “No, I’m fine.”

“It’s no problem. Let me just get–”

“I’m going to the bathroom anyway,” Elmiryn blurted out as she stumbled past Lethia. They all stared as she went, and she fought very hard to keep the blush from creeping up her neck and into her face.

Hardly thinking, she hurried out the room as fast as the crowd allowed her before she realized she had no idea where the bathrooms even were. After getting directions from one of the partygoers, the woman headed upstairs where she found a line of people waiting to get in. She sighed and leaned against the wall.

When she got tired of listening to the girls next to her talk about how much they loved Nicki Minaj, she took out her phone and sent Izzie a text.

hey. this party sux. miss u

After hitting send, the woman stared at the far wall and tried to sort out the sense of guilt in her stomach. “What happened back there?” She murmured to herself.

“What happened where?”

Elmiryn’s looked sharply to her side to see a tall swarthy man with dark shoulder length hair, gaunt features, and a goatee in need of trimming. He was dressed in bummy clothing–sweats, a grease-stained Captain America t-shirt, and dirty generic sneakers. What really got Elmiryn was his eyes. They were like Izzie’s.

“Uh sorry, were you talking to me?” She asked.

The man shrugged his hands. “I don’t know. Were you talking to me?

Elmiryn rubbed at her neck and turned away. “Naw. Sorry.”

For a while it seemed that was it. Then the man leaned in and breathed, “I’m Nick.”

“Not interested, Nick,” she snapped over her shoulder. She wasn’t in the mood for shitty come-ons.

“You’re not…interested? You’re not interested?” The man laughed, causing people to turn and stare. Even the girls in front of Elmiryn stopped blathering long enough to glance over their shoulder.

The woman turned fully to glare at Nick. “What’s your problem?”

Nick slid out of line and started backing up toward the stairs. “My problem, Elmiryn, is that meaningless scenes like these are what get your juices flowing!” He pointed at his face and shouted, “Do you have any idea the sort of trouble I had to go through just to get into this nightmare? Do you know how hungry I am? No. Of course you don’t. You’re starring in your own drama, featuring you and your fantastic ineptitude. Your name doesn’t even fit into this setting! None of theirs do! Has that managed to squeeze into your fat head you self-involved bitch!?”

“Dude, I don’t know what you’re talking about! I’ve never even met you before!” Elmiryn shouted. “Go be crazy somewhere else!”

“I’ll remember that when you come crawling back to me!” Nick seethed as he stumbled down the stairs. “You are my toy, Elmiryn! MINE!”

After Nick left, the people around the woman continued to stare. She said to no one in particular, “I don’t know who that was. He looked like a crack addict.”

“They should call campus security,” One of the girls in front muttered. There was a murmuring of assent.

The redhead put on a brave face and shrugged. Inside, however, she shivered.

How did that guy know my name?

A little while later, and Elmiryn was finally in the bathroom, staring at her reflection in the mirror. She wasn’t sure why she was even in there. The beer on her pants had soaked in enough that the smell was going to linger and there was no longer a need for a towel. Was she scared of being around Nyx? But what did she have to be afraid of? She was with Izzie, right? She was happy…

Right?

“…You self-involved bitch…”

“People can change…” She murmured. Her brow tightened and she struck her palm against the edge of the sink. “People can change!”

Her features slackened and she covered her eyes.

Everyone’s so stupid. They don’t get it. The issue isn’t whether or not people can change…it’s whether or not they change for the BETTER.

She thought of Izzie, and how her girlfriend was now that they had moved in together. The change was subtle, but it may as well have been screamed into her ear with a megaphone. Every day, every hour, minute, second, was weighed by an expectation for more. It was hiding behind Izzie’s words when she teased Elmiryn about how she folded her clothes, or when she rearranged the fridge to make room for her Diet Pepsi, or when she got them new comforters for the bed. It said she wanted Elmiryn’s tomorrow.

Elmiryn only wished she knew what she wanted her tomorrow to be.

Feeling depressed, she opened the bathroom door and stepped past the next person in line, only to bump into someone else. Coming out of her funk, the woman raised her eyes and apologized as the other person did the same. It was Nyx. Elmiryn blushed and rolled her shoulders in an attempt to shake off her embarrassment. “Oh. Hey.”

Nyx tilted her head to the side. “You look thrilled to see me.”

“What? No! That’s not it…I just–” Elmiryn gave a rough sigh. “I don’t feel good. I think I might have to go soon.”

“Aww.” Nyx pouted. It was horrendously cute, and the woman’s blush deepened.

Someone sidled past them in the crowding hallway, and they both stepped to the wall. Elmiryn’s heart quickened as Nyx stepped in closer. She poked the woman in the ribs, making her squirm. “Well hey, I was getting a book for Lethia. Wanna see?”

She should’ve said no. The thought entered her mind instantaneously, her eyes even flickering to the stairs. Ears were everywhere, and if she learned one thing in college, it was that people talked. Somehow, sooner or later, this would get back to Izzie. Her girlfriend. The woman she said she loved.

“Sure,” Elmiryn said with an almost resigned grin.

Something’s got me right now. I don’t know what this is.

Nyx’s smile turned sly and she took the woman’s hand. “Come on, then!”

This is so stupid, on so many levels. This isn’t who I am. What’s wrong with me? Is this what Ting felt, when we first met? …No. She knew what she was doing. She knew her girlfriend was at that party and she brought me anyway. I was the other woman. Me. And now I’m the other woman again. Only this time…I’m choosing to be.

But just as they came to Nyx’s door at the end of the hallway, screaming was heard downstairs, and the both of them turned their heads in confusion. Nyx hurried back the way they had come, Elmiryn following her, and when they got downstairs, she pulled one of the sorority sisters aside and asked what was going on.

“Some guy went crazy! He’s got one of the pledges by the throat with a knife!”

Before Nyx could speak, Elmiryn grabbed the girl by the shoulder. “Which pledge!? Does she have long blonde hair? Green eyes?”

The girl nodded and Nyx covered her mouth with her hands. “Omigod! Lethia!

Elmiryn bared her teeth. “Where are they!?”

The girl pointed mutely outside, and Elmiryn barreled past them both, her heart pounding in her chest. When she managed to shove past the crowd that had gathered, she saw Lethia standing out on the grass, Nick behind her with a knife at her throat. He grinned maniacally when he saw Elmiryn.

There you are!” Grabbing Lethia by the hair, he jerked her head back and pressed his knife in tighter so that the skin bleed. Her cousin cried out. “Now I’ve got your attention!”

“Let her go!” Elmiryn shouted, her hands clenched into fists.

“Not until you listen to me!” Spit flew from Nick’s lips.

Lethia sobbed. “Elle…please! Help me!”

“I’m trying to Lethy, just hang tight!”

“Campus security is on their way!” Nyx. Behind her. Elmiryn didn’t look. All her attention was focused on Nick. On his thin face, his white cracked lips, his foggy eyes. The guy was out of it. What did he really want…?

“I’ll listen to you, Nick,” She breathed, holding up her hands. She dared a step closer. “Okay? I’ll listen to you. Just let Lethia go.”

Nick laughed. “Oh, Elmiryn. This is what you’ve always wanted, wasn’t it? To be the hero? To save the damsel in distress and get the girl in the end? Well it’s not all its cracked up to be, is it? But if you snap out of this, I can promise you a few adventures you’ll just love!

“Look, I don’t know how you know me. I don’t know what you want! Lethia doesn’t need to be involved so just let her go and we can talk it out, okay!?” Elmiryn dared another step closer.

“Why should I let her go? Hmm? Why? Are you afraid to remember what it feels like to be my toy?”

“I’m not your toy. People aren’t things.”

Nick grinned and pointed the knife at her. “Well that works, because you aren’t a person.”

“Fine. I’m not a person. But she is. Let her go.”

He’s got the knife off her throat. Good.

“You’re patronizing me. I hate it when people patronize me.” Nick raised the knife as if to stab Lethia. The girl screamed as she tried to get away.

Elmiryn let out a yell and charged the man, tackling him around his torso. They tumbled down the small incline, and when they stopped the woman was on her back and dizzy. When she tried to rise, Nick jumped on her with his knife, and she only just managed to catch his wrist in time before he stabbed her in the heart. For a skinny drug addict, he was deceptively strong. As they struggled, others came hurrying down the slope. People shouted and screamed.

Nick leaned in real close and hissed, “The things I do for you!”

Elmiryn yelled and wrenched his knife away. The man had been leaning his weight in that direction so his balance was off. Twisting her hips, the woman was able to throw Nick off. When he was down, she took her fist and slammed it into his nose. He yelled in pain and so did she. She’d never punched anyone before.

Holy shit…was this…is this a fight?? I’ve never been in a fight before! Christ, I could’ve DIED!

She sat on the grass, dumbfounded, watching as Nick tried to staunch the bleeding from his face. Nyx, Taila, and Lethia came hurrying down the small slope, but before they reached them, campus security appeared with guns drawn. They yelled at her to put her hands up. Elmiryn stared up at them, cradling her hand. She felt her phone buzz in her pocket. That was Izzie.

She’s going to have to wait for a response… Elmiryn thought miserably as she raised her hands.

When campus security, who were actually city cops on loan, had control of the scene, the redhead was cuffed and pulled aside to be questioned. Nyx and Lethia protested her detainment loudly along with some others, but she cooperated anyway, too dazed to do otherwise.

When the cop speaking to her asked for her name, she said, “Elmiryn.”

Then she frowned.

The cop paused as he waited for her last name. When she didn’t give this, he leaned forward, his pen resting on his clipboard. “Ma’am? Your last name, please?”

She looked at him, her eyes squinted. “Hey…Elmiryn’s a weird name, isn’t it?”

“Ma’am…your last name, please?”

Elmiryn turned to look at Nick, also handcuffed, but sitting in a squad car. He was staring at her steadily from the dark of the backseat, a smile on his face, his eyes glowing eerily in the shadow…


Back to Chapter 37.1 | Forward to Breaktime: Distractions

Chapter 37.1

HAKEEM_________________________

He had just witnessed some of the barest and most personal feelings of three women, one of which was his wife. Enthralled by the ugliness of it all, the man could not close his eyes. Their insecurities unfurled before him like a carpet, and he followed their fears until all lies were bypassed. Love. Hope. Identity. He saw them crack and fissure, watched with horror as they began to fall apart. How could they be so fragile? How could their hearts waver so, after all they had been through? Was this what they fought for? To exist in doubt and shame?

With a will, Hakeem turned his face away.

He heard Lethia’s voice, and it was devoid of the twisted humor that had so violated it. Izma was gone then. The man wasn’t sure if he felt all that much better with the alternative, however.

“I’m sorry…” she whispered.

“Does this satisfy your needs, Lethia Artaud?” He asked quietly. He gazed at the far wall, still trying to resist the macabre curiosity that compelled him to witness the systematic deconstruction of his companions’ minds. “Are you closer to your answers? Do you have what you want after turning Nyx’s love against her? Causing Elmiryn to doubt who she is? Making my wife–” but he broke off here, his voice choking out.

Ringing in his mind were Quincy’s words–over, and over, and over…

“I was Tulki’s concubine. Okay!?”

In all of Hakeem’s years, the only time he had felt so much pain was with the death of his family. Quincy’s words hit him hard and ripped out his soul. All expression felt inadequate for the amount of suffering that washed over him, powerful and suffocating. And the worst part was that his wife had been right. He had known the truth deep down in his heart. In his youth, he had beat his chest against the idea, choosing instead to trick himself into thinking he could keep her safe with a superstition. Even into adulthood, Hakeem liked to think that he had done right by Quincy and kept her safe. But he was just a child then, and a silly man now.

“I’m sorry…” Lethia said again. Louder now.

Like a wolf sensing blood, the man tensed up, his lips pulling back in a snarl. “You’re sorry?

The enchantress said nothing, and Hakeem’s eyes snapped onto her. His gaze burned with his anger, his pain, his regret. Even in the grips of emotion, the man’s heart knew only pure focus.

“If you were truly sorry, girl, you would end this!” He spat. Lethia flinched and looked down at her shoes. Hakeem gestured at the ball of light before him with disgust. “Apologies do nothing for me. Nothing for them. It’s all just empty words. Mean what you say, or keep silent. Your presence is enough of a lie as it is…”

Lethia’s face turned blank, but in the girl’s eyes, the wizard saw his pain reflected. The tension in his shoulders eased, but his gaze remained wary as the youth turned and drifted away, toward the staircase.

“You’re right,” she breathed. “I am a lie.” She rounded out of sight, up the stairs.

Hakeem gazed at the place he saw her last before letting his eyes trail back to the orb of light before him…

NYX____________________________

Stuck in some sort of dream or memory, I watched as Elmiryn approached me.

“I was going to leave.” Her voice was playful, like when she liked to joke and play games with me. I tried to move, feeling my panic rise.

I don’t want to see this!

But try as I might, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even look away. I even tried calling the shadows or changing over to the Somnium. Nothing worked. I was being blocked somehow. Kali was absent in my mind, and it made me feel alone.

Amidst my hysteria, Elmiryn looked at me as if I had just spoken. “I would so leave you!” Her eyes pierced into me. I’d never seen such clarity in Elle’s eyes. The look…scared me. “I’d leave you and let you stew in your own juices. It’s what you deserve, the way you jerk me around.” The person Elle thought I was must have spoken again, because she let out a throaty laugh. “Mmm…yes. I like it when you’re bad.”

As the woman pulled me close and pressed her mouth to my phantom lips, I heard Lethia’s voice echo around me.

“You’re probably wondering what’s happening.”

Then it hit me.

Rage.

If I thought it was bad before when Lethia mentioned my mother, it was a blessing in disguise being held captive like this, then. Words failed me. The only thing that would’ve satisfied my urges was violence. Whether Lethia was aware of this or not, she made no indication.

“I should tell you. This isn’t a memory per se. It isn’t quite an illusion either. Well, as far as what you’re seeing Elmiryn do. You could call this a mosaic of small truths. Everything Elmiryn is doing, she has done at one point or another with the lovers she’s encountered. It was really difficult, picking out the memories strongest in her mind. You know her memory is white-washed. I think I did well, though. Does some of this feel familiar?” I could hear the laughter in Lethia’s voice as Elmiryn guided me to the bed.

Every touch from the warrior I could feel, but I was not here. I was nothing. Just like all the women she had ever fucked and left.

I was nothing.

My anger was culled by my despair as I fell upon the silk sheets. It gave me room to speak. As I felt Elmiryn’s fingers trail down my abdomen to the place between my legs, her eyes fastened onto mine, I could only ask one thing–

Why?

Lethia laughed again, and it made my soul shiver.

“Because. I want to help you.”

How can this possibly–!?

My question cut off as I felt Elmiryn’s fingers slide into me. Whether or not I was aroused by this situation seemed irrelevant. I was feeling what this other person felt. Or maybe what Elmiryn imagined she made them feel. It was so strange–feeling aroused despite my distress. I was just a puppet, doomed to the performance…and gods the shame I felt, knowing that someone else was seeing this. For all I knew, Lethia was putting this show on for everyone. Quincy, Hakeem…Elmiryn. The thought made me want to scream…

So I did, for all the good it did me.

“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be with a woman…” Lethia sighed, as if I hadn’t made a sound. “It’s horrendous being a virgin. I can see why you were so quick to cast yourself at Elmiryn.”

I started talking. Or…thinking I guess. As fast as I could. As much as I could. It helped take my mind off the feelings that started to invade me, against my will.

I didn’t throw myself at her. I’d resisted my feelings for a long time. I wasn’t even sure I loved her until we came to the Other Place! But things sort of–sort of–HAPPENED that way, and it gave me hope! It gave me strength! And I think about her all the time, because she is, and continues to be, the only true motivation I have in my life! I mean, that’s sad, I know–but but but–I mean, it’s just how it is, isn’t it? I can’t help that I’m an abomination–or could I have? I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t KNOW! I just know that I love her! I do! I LOVE ELMIRYN, and you can’t make me feel otherwise! Not with this sham. Not with this LIE! This isn’t Elle! This isn’t her!

“When you say ‘love.’” Lethia twisted the word. “You mean the kind of love you’re feeling right now?”

This is NOT love! This–This is–

Rape. It wasn’t really happening, but this was rape, I was sure of it.

I couldn’t help it. I moaned in pleasure. My shame and horror multiplied, and when I heard Lethia laugh at my pain, I finally realized that I had let myself get trapped here. I had let myself, because I had trusted in who I had been speaking to, taking for granted that if they had the power to control everyone in such a manner, then I was seeing the truth.

But Lethia Artaud, no matter how empirical she was, would never laugh so boldly at someone else’s pain.

The saddest part was…this realization was too late, and Izma knew it.

Had Lethia ever been there? Maybe she had been, but had been switched out partway through our talk? Or maybe she was still here somehow, just stuck in a parasitic relationship with Izma and unable to speak for herself?

…Maybe she knew what Izma would do and let it happen anyway?

Where is Lethia…? My voice was small. Weak. What would Lacertli say to me, if he could see me now? Some champion I was, duped and at the mercy of some abomination that had turned a friend against me.

“Ha! My little sum of somes is subtracted! Artaud? She lives. What really fascinates me is how you still manage to muster up the compassion when your friend, the weed, leaves you so divided,” Izma purred.

The game is over. You have no reason to hold me here. There is nothing left for me to give you!

“Ah, but Nyx I have every reason! You think that now the curtain has been pulled back, the show ends? But there is still so much to see!”

And while you waste your efforts with sadism, the others will free themselves of you, demon! They will cut you out, cut you apart, and I will watch–

So much for threats. My voice died out in a whimper as Elmiryn took my phantom breast into her mouth, and Izma’s melodious voice danced with amusement.

“My sum of somes. Let us engage in simple addition. Take one pathetic excuse for a creature–”

N-No–

“–Add a reckless beast of debauchery–”

Stop it! Stop! SHUT UP!

“–And you get a sad couple, writhing futilely in their mortal trappings as they go careening into a mind-numbing hole of basic bodily pleasure. It’s a nasty worm, that need you have, Nyx. It has eaten its way to the core of you. I must give credit where credit is due–after all, it was very impressive how much you resisted your urges, even in Volo’s realm. Was it scary, realizing you were more like your mother than you liked?”

I’m…I’m not…like her…

“But of course, how silly of me! Your condemnation of Elmiryn’s rather colored past has absolutely nothing to do with your own insecurities–perish the thought!”

My mother overcame her problem! And in Elmiryn’s case, it was nothing like that! She has control!

“All the better for the warrior, then, to be able to wield her appetites with such precision! Your mother was sloppy in comparison, wasn’t she? And when all was said and done, the only reason she stopped was because she became too weak to keep up with her games. Contracted some disease perhaps?”

That isn’t true…

If I had any control right now, I would’ve curled up into a ball. Instead, Elmiryn was presently half-naked and utilizing that position she’d tried with me in the blackwood. How many women had she done this with? The question was almost compulsive, and I hated myself for it.

“Certainly, though, you’ve considered the possibility that Elmiryn will not be able to keep up with your appetites, dear?”

This conversation felt almost like a carefully designed tactic on Izma’s part. I didn’t want to think about what was happening to me, so I was eager for the distraction. But talking with this demon was dangerous–after all, it had already landed me here. But what else could she do to me? I felt broken enough already.

What do you mean? I asked, like a dumb beast wandering into a hunter’s shot.

“I mean, Elmiryn is but one human. Well…half-human, but we needn’t get picky. Can she really satiate your needs? Haven’t you ever wished to seek out the pleasure of others without care?”

No. I am not like that!

“So repressed! I can feel your shame, feel your self-loathing, so powerful it makes my taste buds tingle! Mmm…but child, I imagine we’d both be more satisfied if you’d just let go.”

Of what? My moral sense!?

“Don’t be stupid. Morals are only illusory concepts that people use to trick themselves into believing they are right. What you need to do, my sum of somes, is to remove this crippling idea that you cannot have the things you want. If you want, then so should you pursue. The truth of whether or not you should have the object of your desire rests only in your success or failure. A simple prospect, yes?”

My spirit recoiled.

No! That’s just selfish indulgence! What can that bring but more suffering?

“Do you think morals and common sense to be the same thing? Goodness, even Lethia Artaud knows the difference! My suggestion does not carry with it a wanton disregard for consequence, little sum. What it carries is an awareness that there are certain paths in life that can be taken with little struggle, others, with more. Even your god, Lacertli, can attest to this, can he not?”

This argument startled me. I hadn’t expected Izma to bring up the Lizard King to support her claim anymore than I had expected her to suddenly become a benevolent being. But the logic twisted around my mind, and as the rushing ecstasy of Elmiryn’s ministrations hit me, so did I understand the demon’s reasoning. If all parties were willing, if all intentions were clear, then what harm was there in having multiple partners? Especially if you knew you would never see them again? Lacertli only cared for Harmony–and even he pressed me to discard notions of right and wrong. Was this how things truly were then? Primitive and empty? Did people really just collide into each other and spiral away? I wasn’t agreeing with this idea. But…

I just thought it strange that I had never let myself see things that way.

Having reached her climax, Elmiryn–this dream version of the woman I said I loved–rolled to the side of the bed and immediately started to dress. The phantom I was embodying gazed at her back, and my heart wrenched as though I was the person she were actually leaving.

Izma’s voice sounded smug around me. “Here is a simpler question, Nyx, as it seems the last has overwhelmed you. Without too much thought, I want you to answer me this: If you knew Elmiryn held no love for you whatsoever, would you lay with her again?”

I didn’t need to think on the answer, for I already knew it. My voice was small. Almost non-existent.

Yes.

Izma chuckled with satisfaction. “Then see what your ‘love’ has enslaved you to.”

My phantom must have spoken again, because Elmiryn turned to look at me over her shoulder.

“Of course I’m leaving,” she said simply. “You were late. I have things to do.” There was a pause. She shrugged at my apparent response. “Honestly? I’ve had better.”

I sat up quickly, as the scene demanded that I did, and Elmiryn looked at me sharply, her hands stilling on her shirt buttons. A cold smile spread her lips and she chuckled. “I’m a bitch, huh? Funny. That was the same thing your sister said after I fucked her. Did you two practice on each other? Because your techniques are much the same!”

My shock mirrored my phantom’s.

Wh-What!?

“Don’t shrill. I just said I’m leaving.” The warrior gathered her coat and blew a kiss as she passed me by. “Goes without saying that I won’t be coming back, darling. Do give my regards to your sweet sister!” As I heard her slip out the door, I heard her mutter, “Stupid cunt.”

The room faded to black. I was lost in a place of darkness, and all I could feel was my heart breaking into a thousand sharp pieces.

This…this isn’thappeningthis can’t be real…

“As I’ve already explained,” Izma sighed. “This is a collection of small truths. Everything Elmiryn has done or said…she has done or said before!”

But how could she be so cold? I’ve…I’ve never seen her so cold!

“Perhaps you do not know your lady love as well as you thought? It stands to reason. How can you know her, if you do not know yourself?”

The darkness around me began to lighten. It became warmer. Like a sun was rising. I found myself shivering on some tiled floor, hugging my knees to my chest, tears streaming down my face. Confused, I looked around me and saw a woman with short cropped brown hair and gray eyes. I stared at her. Her clothes were strange–she had on what looked like a soft green brazier with thin straps and small blue shorts. She smiled at me as she cocked her head to the side.

“Do you want find out what really lies inside you, little sum?” Izma. Her voice was light. Almost normal.

I didn’t answer. I was so afraid and the pain of what I’d gone through still struck deep.

Izma’s avatar stepped aside, and behind her was a red door. She gestured toward it. “Here…Surely, you cannot serve your Lizard King if you are too afraid to know what you are?”

Slowly I stood.

There were lots of things I was afraid of.

I had told Lethia that, as an abomination, I was not deserving of love. But in my dedication to Elmiryn, wasn’t I acting out of some dim hope that someday my feelings could be reciprocated? Ailurans were passionate people, and our hearts got away from us sometimes. We could act on our desires on a subconscious level, and never be fully aware of what was really going on. The truth of this had already led to tragedy once in my life–when my dark rage and pain surfaced to murder Atalo. What if something equally horrible happened if I clung to this notion that Elmiryn could possibly love me back?

Skirting past Izma, I went to the door and turned the handle.


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