Since I was young, I was certain that there was something inherently wrong with me. I became preoccupied with the image of goodness. Then when adolescence came, this obsession sloughed away, replaced instead with a bitter cynicism about morality. I knew society and community to be good things, in theory. It was just such a pity that I disagreed with mine so much. I learned that Ailuran values, while at their core, did indeed possess a sort of nobility and purity, I soon saw they became skewed the moment others tried to limit it. What my people failed to see, and what my government exploited, is that life is fantastically varied. What would be good and just in one situation didn’t necessarily apply well in another situation. But like myself in younger years, Ailuran society was satisfied in drawing harsh lines of righteousness.
As a dissenter, I had to hide my views. So I learned to adapt. Became good at lying. It’s no wonder I was such an adept spy.
In my teenage years, I told myself that I was no longer possessed by some need to exemplify some backwards idea of goodness. And yet, I still worried that something in myself was not right. Like the day Taila, Ampelos, and I played Get the Ginger. It was a simple, but silly game of cat and mouse named to adapt to anti-Fiamman sentiment at the time. It was essentially an inverse of the game of Tag. Instead of the ‘it’ person chasing others, everyone chased them. Naturally, that day, I was ‘it.’ But Taila said the game was boring, and with all of us nearing that age when such games were left behind forever, eleven or so, we agreed. So we raised the stakes.
“If we catch you, we tie you up and tickle you without mercy!” she announced gleefully.
I was allowed a rare moment of confidence at these words, because by that age, I was already adept at many roguish skills, including the art of escaping bondage. “Fine!” I agreed.
Well, we had our game, and with time, I was caught out in a tall field. Taila was always faster than I was in a dead run.
Ampelos handed her the rope, and with their combined efforts they contained my struggles and tied me up. Then Taila, without words and grinning wickedly, started to tickle me. All over.
At first it tickled. Of course it did. But then…then I became aware of her hands. I could’ve gotten myself free and defended myself. But I found I didn’t want to. I LIKED how her hands felt. But this is strange, I thought. Some part of me knew that none of this would mean much unless I was confined as I was. The ropes HEIGHTENED the experience.
Inevitably, I thought of Thaddeus, and how he denounced the Fiammans for what he called, “perverse past times in the bed room.” I started shivering, and the good feelings became mixed with fear and shame. I burned hot, my face turning into the dirt. And as if her hands weren’t doing enough to me, Taila was suddenly forced to lay over me laterally, down in the tall grass, because her father was looking for her and she was avoiding chores. I was hardly aware of Ampelos, who also hid at our friend’s desperate request. All I could think about was her body over mine, how my hands and feet were still tied, and how much I was at her mercy.
When Taila’s father had gone, I finally freed myself, surprising my friends with my hidden skill, and announced shortly that I was going home. They were baffled. They didn’t understand why I was so suddenly so upset…so mortified.
That day I learned several things. First, I finally realized I was in love with Taila.
And next, I learned I had the potential for being a sexual deviant. A fetishist, as it were.
I stopped practicing rope escape, because self-bondage started to arouse me, reminding me of that errant day in the field. I even avoided Taila for a while, for which I later apologized. With time, I put the experience behind me. For most, such an innocent, unassuming moment would not have been traumatic. But I was far more familiar with the ideas of sex then I should’ve been by that age, no thanks to my mother. Plus, Thaddeus’s loathing of what HE thought was a purely Fiamman occurrence fueled in me the fear that I was, for lack of better words, BAD on the inside. For a brief time, I became obsessed again with the appearance of being good.
Of course, honey soap would soon come to mean the same sort of thing to me as ropes would, try as I might to resist my urges.
In the end, what I’m trying to convey here, is that I could not escape myself. I could not NOT be what I was: A troublemaker, a pervert, and a social deviant. You can quibble whether this was a result of nature or nurture or both, but in the end, the only thing I’m concerned with is my considerable OTHERNESS. As a child, I wrestled with abstract ideas. Concepts like good and evil. As an adolescent, my struggles instead turned to simple realities: my home life, my romantic preferences, and my strange sexual turn ons. And now, as an adult, I find my battles are neither abstract, nor quite constructive. For instance, my life as one half of a spiritual whole with Kali could certainly be seen as ‘abstract,’ but it was a certainty that everyone I knew, my Twin included, had accepted. Nadi had once put it in such simple terms—
“You are a girl who inhabits the same body as a cat…”
And what followed this description was equally simple:
“…And this is an aberration of nature, as decided by the gods in heaven.”
‘You are this, and this is wrong.’
So succinct. Words from a nature guardian—basically a demi-god here on the mortal plane. If she didn’t know about Harmony, I didn’t know who did.
The moment Nadi said that to me had been one of the lowest moments of my life. Not as low as losing my entire family and being branded a criminal and outcast by my people, of course, but dispiriting nevertheless. It was on par with learning I was a pervert who liked being tied up. It was on par with Volo, the very manifestation of evil sexuality, EXPLICITLY STATING I was a pervert who liked being tied up.
Now please keep these experiences, and the tender age I had some of these revelations, in mind. Obviously, they shaped how I viewed myself, but less obviously, they also made me a lot less apt at self-discovery. Learning new things about who I was and what I was capable of frightened me, because I was sure some sort of evil would make itself known. It was part of the reason I fought Kali so hard. Why learning I was a vermagus had been a sickening and trying affair.
Being Lacertli’s champion meant that I was bound to discover new depths in myself. How far my compassion, courage, and patience went.
How black my anger, hatred, and fear could be.
In Izma’s tower…when I was fighting those monsters in the stairwell…I discovered something about myself again. I had surrendered to something. Completely and utterly.
My actions had been guided with fury and determination. I was determined not to die. The problem with determinations is that such things can do nothing about certainties, and it was certain that if I didn’t step up my focus, I was going to be overwhelmed. There were just too many foes to let raw emotion dictate how I fought. Extending my time was the best option for survival. It gave room for help to come. To do that, I had to gain such control that I wouldn’t make a mistake. Kali was in agreement.
So we surrendered to our power.
This wasn’t as complicated as it sounds. We simply yielded to whatever the universe had to offer, let our minds quiet of those vicious susurrations that brought unhappy recollections and deadly distraction. There was still a lot I didn’t know about how our abilities worked, both as a champion and as a vermagus. But one of the mysteries cleared the moment we let go. And then, Kali and I, we could feel it.
I had been afraid, when I first encountered that old ancient power, that it was the start of yet another personality to contend with in my head. It frightened me, and I pushed it away. But when I finally let it flow through me, free and uninhibited, I could see that the power I had felt was not some new dimension of myself. It was Harmony. My thoughts and my motivations were still there. They were just honed and sharpened.
As for my emotions…they were numbed. Not removed. Just numbed. Quieted. The best part? The only real side effect appeared to be antiquated speech.
So when I looked up into the sky with Elmiryn and saw Izma there, I was not possessed. I was present. It was all me. I was just…elevated, to a different state of being. The station of a champion became me. Saturated my skin. Everything I felt about what I had gone through had been converted and redirected into energy and strength I could use.
Izma was yet again in that curious human avatar, dressed in her simple yet strange attire, only she was hovering in the air, her eyes aglow and her hair whipping in the phantom air. I didn’t know what it was about this particular guise that she felt suited her. It was spriteful and beautiful to be sure. Perhaps it was the incongruity that she sought? Certainly, her radiating power was disturbing, coming from such an alluring persona.
“Little sum of somes…” she said slowly. “You disappoint me with these crass displays of blood and futility.” The demon’s face, a pretty lie that felt mocking, tensed and bared its teeth.
I folded my arms just as the new pink skin of my chest, from where the spirits had torn me apart, finished knitting together. It DID hurt, but…I was learning something from Izma’s games. Namely, that half the battle lied in what the other side believed. You could change the course of belief through presence. And presently? After having the innermost barriers of my heart penetrated, the truth of the matter was that I felt I had little in the way of things to lose. It was easy to take my belief and cloak myself in it. Harmony did the rest and quieted my doubt. Izma would be a hard sell, but she was not a mind reader. Why else would she need enchanters like Syria and Lethia, then? She had no foothold in my mind on her own. So I would make her believe what I wanted.
And that was that I possessed a cold determination to see her undone.
Lacertli’s tongue tickled my skin, his presence over my shoulders sudden and mystical. His abrupt appearance didn’t startle me, but with my skin so raw and new, his tongue may as well have cracked a whip over my body. I managed to conceal my discomfort, and said instead with an air of apathy, “Thy displeasure is worth nothing, Izma.”
“It is worth something and more, silly thing,” Izma retorted. Her frigid glowing eyes trailed to Elmiryn. The anger on her face melted to something sly. Suddenly, her speech changed, catching me off guard. “D’aww, baby! Are you leaving me? But didn’t we have fun together in our own little world?”
Not even Harmony could stop me from the shock I felt here, so sharp and deeply reaching it were as though some god (I couldn’t tell you which) had plunged their fist down my throat and pulled all my intestines out through my mouth.
My mask fell. Briefly. But it fell. I looked at Elmiryn sharply and was just in time to catch the flash of discomfort on her face. This look was quickly masked with a wry smile as the woman blew the demon a kiss. “Izzie, you couldn’t have PAID me to stay with you.”
My gods, this familiarity! The connotations were unmistakable. Elmiryn and Izma had… But clearly, it had been nothing like my experience. I was certain Elle would react much more explosively if that were the case. Or was she lying? But why lie? Pride didn’t seem to justify that enough, so it couldn’t be that. I could feel that I was missing something vitally important and it frustrated me.
Liars. We were all just liars putting on a performance for each other. The idea made me sick, but I wrestled back the sense of surprise and betrayal and resumed my ruse.
Stoic. I had to be stoic. Things would be explained later…hopefully.
Harmony was a cool wave, soothing away the sudden onslaught of emotions.
Izma smirked at Elmiryn, and her cold eyes turned to something behind us. Cautiously, I turned to look. This time, I was determined to maintain my role.
With the appearance of Izma the evil spirits around us seemed to withdraw—waiting on the word of their master. With the fighting essentially coming to a dead halt, Quincy approached us with her face slicked with sweat and her clear eyes dulled and wavering. Further behind her, I was mildly surprised to see Lethia hurrying toward us, with what looked like a tall slim man with dark hair and swarthy skin. Like Izma, he was also dressed in strange clothes—but these looked baggy and unkempt.
“And the wizard, the weed, and the interloper joins us. Wonderful,” Izma sighed, moving to delicately massage her brow as though fending off a headache.
The strange man chuckled. “Izma, you flatter me.”
Her nose wrinkled. “And you annoy me.”
He shrugged his hands. “But dearest, did you really think I could just sit by while you tried to steal away my favorite toy?”
“Your toy came to ME, if you’ll recall.”
“Only because your pet carried her off.”
“My pet has been disciplined, I assure you. I can’t be held accountable for everything.”
“Yes, but there is one thing you are NOT aware of—”
I was struggling to follow along without betraying my deepening sense of confusion, only to find I didn’t have to fight long.
Quincy raised her staff and a crack of lighting speared down to scorch the earth near her feet.
“ENOUGH!” She bellowed. She whipped her head as she looked back and forth between Izma and the man.
Finally, she pointed at the stranger. “Who are you!?”
He smiled and held up his hands. “Now, now…I’m just an observer here!”
Elmiryn, who was anxiously twirling her sword in her hand, bared her teeth at the wizard. “Quincy, I’ll explain LATER…”
My eyes narrowed. “Elmiryn, thou knowest something?”
She gave me an irritated look. “Yes, I KNOWEST something, but I was hoping to LEARNEST a little more. Slim chance of that now!”
“My husband is still missing, and now a strange man is talking to the one Nyx just called IZMA. Of course I was going to say something!” Quincy barked.
The man looked up at Izma with suffering. “You let them ramble too much. It stalls the action!”
She placed a hand on her hip. “Well since you’re here, why not lend an editorial hand?”
“I would, but that would defeat the entire purpose of our relationship.”
“Ah, I suppose so.”
And just like that, I knew who the man was. It was sudden, like being plunged into cold water.
So sudden in fact, that even my connection with Harmony was lost, and this time I could not get it back. The emotions, the mortal limits, the frightening realities resurfaced.
Thus when I voiced my findings, I sounded like me again—a coward.
“Meznik… That’s, Sweet Aelurus, that’s Meznik!” I gaped at him. I gaped at this being that, for a good long time, I had not fully believed to be real. More recently he had become a spectre I had accepted as existing if only because I could not explain our recent circumstances any other way. I gaped at this DEMON who had led to so much death and corruption, who was now here before us, being conversationally waggish.
And Elmiryn had known.
I glared at her, not wanting to believe that the two were somehow in concert, but the look on her face…I could see her begging with her eyes for understanding. I couldn’t speak anymore. I could only gape and wonder how any of this could be possible. If the familiarity between Elmiryn and Izma had been all, then I probably could’ve capitulated to the circumstances at hand and just admitted that I didn’t have all the facts. But this…
Quincy didn’t seem to know what to make of the news either. Surely she understood the gravity of who Meznik was by now. She backed away slowly, her staff up as she shiftily tried to size up the demon in human disguise. Hard to do when pincered by two of the despicable creatures.
Meznik palmed his face. “NOW they get it…” His sarcasm incensed me.
Then my eyes fell on Lethia. Unlike Quincy, she didn’t seem in the least bit surprised about any of this.
I hissed at her. “You knew about this too? Why didn’t you tell me Meznik was near!?”
The girl only bit her lip and lowered her eyes.
“Don’t yell at her. It wasn’t her fault,” Elmiryn snapped.
“I’m not yelling at her, I’m accusing her of exactly what she did,” I bit back with clenched fists.
“Well she did it with good reason, all right?”
“OH! And I suppose—”
“Right, I’m not sitting through a lover’s spat,” Meznik interjected loudly. “Izma, you really do have a problem with letting things run off.” Izma ‘hmphed’ here, but he continued with a step forward, hand held toward Elmiryn. “Now, as I was TRYING to inform you, the reason matters between us have changed is because my toy has been promoted.”
Elmiryn did a double take. “Come again?”
Meznik shrugged. “You’re my pet now. Congratulations.”
Her face reddened. “What the fuck? I thought you didn’t think I was ‘pet’ material?”
He shrugged his mouth and glanced off to the side. “I changed my mind. It happens.”
Even Izma seemed taken aback. “Doing that within the markings of my territory…now that IS bold.” Her eyes narrowed to slits and her skin started to crack, shafts of light breaking through. “Well then, Meznik. Shall we compare the efficacy of our choices, then?”
Meznik grinned, just as his skin began to darken and peel. Lethia gave a gasp and hurried away from him, toward Elmiryn, who strived to push the girl behind her. The brief moment of intimacy between them confused me, but I did not have time to dwell, for Meznik cried out, “Yes! I would love that, Izma my dear.”
Izma’s face had cracked and fallen away, and when I went to look—
Pins and needles, all along my brain. It hurt. My head lanced with agony, and I turned away…shouting…
…Only, something was different this time.
Though it pained me to do so, I forced myself to look at Izma’s true form.
“I can see her!” I breathed, horrified and amazed at the same time.
Once before, I had gazed at Izma directly, and this had reduced me to a feral screaming creature wrapped up in fear. Now, though the feelings of fear and repulsion were still present, I did not find myself turned mindless by it. On the contrary, I could clearly control myself, and was able to drink in the details of Izma’s horrible appearance.
She seemed made of some harsh, dry material—like bone, but this could not be, for her exterior yielded to movement despite its hard appearance. The demon’s teeth were fierce and gruesome and perpetually bared without the presence of lips. Though I noted the inorganic appearance of her face, I could see muscles in Izma’s neck. One of her eye sockets were empty, while the other was higher up on her face, the eyeball therein trapped behind sharp spines. I grew nauseated as the thing wept blood. Izma’s hair seemed to comprise of long willow vines that cascaded from small branches sprouting from her head. Her body, bony and deceptively frail looking, was cloaked in what appeared to be light and stardust.
When I turned my head, I saw that Meznik was similar, but different.
Whereas Izma’s body was pale and ashy, Meznik was dark like a burned corpse. His teeth were not sharp, but flat and brutish, making me think of beasts who crushed small hard prey with their mouths. His face was devoid of natural flesh, as Izma’s was, but its composition seemed to suggest flesh. That said, Meznik did have lips, and he did have a nose…but they seemed chiseled from some dark shimmering stone, the lines and angles far too sharp and harsh to be natural. His long chin and rounded cheeks pulled his black lips high so that what passed for gums could just be seen. The effect was an eerie smile, showcasing those large menacing teeth—all molars, I realized—and their subtle suggestion of crushing power. Unlike Izma, whose neck was short, slim, and muscled, Meznik’s neck was devoid of any semblance of flesh, and was left only with a long hulking spinal column. However, his body, though dark, was as skeletal and frail looking as Izma’s, and he too, was cloaked in light and stardust.
Lacertli, who had remained dead silent at the one time I was certain he would say something, finally spoke up in a low growl. “Nyx, thy truest test thus far has come—”
Simultaneously as he spoke, Meznik addressed Elmiryn—but his words were no longer words as just insidious music filling the air.
Elmiryn, I promised you some excitement
Well here it is—
And as he spoke, so did Izma, in the same unnatural way. To whom she was addressing, I was not certain, for she seemed to sing out to the sky.
It seems we are challenged, pet
End the doubt—
Lacertli continued to speak, and I was having trouble focusing. So much was happening at once and I wanted to catch all of it—“You have suffered. Now show them it was not for nothing—”
Elmiryn, to my shock, slowly began to drift toward Meznik, her face slack with a sort of childlike wonder. Lethia tried to hold onto her only to be firmly shaken off. The demon said to her:
Kill Izma’s pet
And as a reward
I’ll tell you where we come from!
Izma, to the sky:
Bring me the head
Of Lacertli’s champion
And I shall forget thy failures!
And finally, Lacertli to me:
“Whatever happens, you must NOT let Elmiryn succeed.”