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Chapter 38.3

NYX____________________________

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.


Back to Chapter 38.2 | Forward to Chapter 39.1

Chapter 38.2

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy couldn’t connect the moment she had finished drinking the vial to the moment she woke up, confused and disoriented. It had just happened that way, as if Lethia Artaud had simply switched off her memory, leaving a huge gap for the woman to contend with. The wizard sat up, squinting, uncertain as to the source of the horrendous sounds of roaring and squawking and scratching. They echoed in the air, almost taunting her. The damp smell of wet rock and soil tickled her nose. Was she outside? The wizard groaned and called her lightning staff to her, her hand reflexively wrapping around the magic metal before it had even finished materializing. The energy from her recall spell burned her palm a little, and it helped to rouse her from her grogginess.

 

More alert now, Quincy used her staff to push herself to her feet.

 

Where am I? she thought with tensed features as she took in the plant-covered walls and floor. I’m indoors?

 

It was when she saw the strange stone archway fixed in the back of the room that four beasts slammed into the windows, sending tremors along the floor. Quincy jumped, bringing her staff to bear. The creatures were giant monstrosities with insect bodies and black horse heads gnashing their teeth. Their eyes glowed red as they fixed on her, and their long thin hairy legs scrabbled at the edges of the windows. Their ruddy carapace bodies strained against the stone, scraping and cracking as they tried to squeeze themselves inside.

 

Repulsed, the woman aimed her staff and sent a bolt into the beasts’ soft undersides, and they screeched as the energy turned their bodies into boiling slush.

 

When each of the creatures were dispatched, Quincy hurried to shove them out the windows and turned her gaze to the field. Her face turned pale.

 

The evil spirits…they’re converging on the castle keep!

 

The woman checked the room again in vain. She knew she was alone, but this fact only served to worry her.

 

Where was Hakeem? Where were the others?

 

Hurrying out the door and down the dark stairs, the woman slipped and realized that the reason she did was because the steps were covered in blood. On her guard, Quincy held up her staff and continued at a more cautious pace. Down below, the sounds of combat echoed up, louder and louder the more she progressed, until…

 

Lunam!

 

That voice, Quincy thought, picking up her speed. That must be the therian!

 

Sure enough, at the bottom of the steps was the Ailuran, though the wizard wasn’t sure who was present, Nyx or her Twin. The girl had half-shifted, using bestial claws to render her enemies as she struck, slash, and parried. She was fighting tooth and nail, literally, and for every wound she suffered, she gave back in spades. Quincy was so taken aback by this raw show of defiance and strength that she didn’t think to act until the dark lizard on the girl’s shoulders turned his little head and hissed, “Wilt thou watch, or wilt thou act, wayward sparrow?”

 

Lacertli. She’d almost forgotten the god took to using this lizard state as his avatar. His words were very sobering, and the woman steeled her resolve.

 

Quincy shouted loudly so that the therian could hear her over the din. “Ailuran! When I say to, flatten up against the wall!”

 

A brief glance from the girl was all the brunette received in terms of acknowledgement. It would have to do. With a deep breath, the wizard turned a quarter and widened her stance. With her injured hand, the woman was incapable of controlling her staff as she once could, and this fact became all the more apparent now. But for this trick, she would not need a firm grip. Only focus.

 

With the tip of her staff, Quincy made circles in the air. Her animus stirred the power of her weapon, and she started to feel the energy coursing from the core of her body along the staff’s length. It was warm. Almost comforting. Soon a bright electrical ring appeared in the air, and within it, cracks of lightning shot across its diameter.

 

The wizard could feel the static energy tingle over her skin as her staff started to pulse with surges of power.

 

“NOW!” she yelled.

 

The Ailuran flattened up against the wall. Quincy pulled back her staff, and with the electrical ring still in the air, she jammed its center. The spirits that had started to push forward didn’t even have a chance to raise their arms before the lightning magic cracked and boomed outward in a violent tunnel, disintegrating those at the fore, and blasting the ones in the rear back down the stairs.

 

Panting with the adrenaline, the wizard tried to blink sight back to her eyes. The flash of her attack had been bright, and in her haste she made the clumsy mistake of not turning away.

 

“Nyx? Kali? Are you okay?” She reached blindly toward the wall, slipping on the bloody steps.

 

A hand snatched her forearm, gripping it tightly. Quincy winced and turned to look. Through the white of her blindness appeared the Ailuran’s face. A second more, and her vision cleared, allowing her to see some scorch marks healing and scabbing over the girl’s features from the attack.

 

The woman inwardly winced. She needed to find a weapon with more finesse, and soon. It wouldn’t do for her allies to continuously get caught in the crossfire.

 

The wizard was sure this was Nyx. She could tell, despite the slitted feline eyes, because her Twin had a tendency of widening her gaze and baring her teeth when stressed. Nyx on the other hand, placed the burden of her tension on her brow and lips.

 

“You’re awake,” the Ailuran said. The wizard noted an almost disconnected tone in the girl’s voice, not unlike the time Nyx was consumed by her dark urges. Needless to say, it did not put the brunette at ease.

 

Down below, their enemies had retreated…for now. Quincy’s attack had scared the evil spirits, but reinforcements were still storming up the path every second. They didn’t have a lot of time before the fiends regrouped for another wave.

 

“Where are the others? Hakeem?” Quincy asked sharply, pulling herself free from the therian’s grip.

 

“I don’t know. You were the only one here when I broke free of Lethia’s spell.” Again with that dispassionate voice.

 

Quincy could feel her unease grow. “You were the one who dragged me upstairs?”

 

Nyx gazed at her wordlessly for a moment before she turned away and started down the stairs. “Yes.”

 

Quincy grabbed the girl’s arm in alarm. “What are you doing?”

 

The girl ripped free of the woman’s grasp and glared at her. The wizard gave a start. In the few steps the Ailuran had descended down, enough weak light was swathing her face to illuminate the sapien persona Quincy had recognized as Nyx. But on the other side of her face, where the girl’s features were swallowed by the dark of the stairwell, Quincy could see Kali, with her feline nose, her sharp canines, and her cat-like ears.

 

When the Twins spoke, it was as one.

 

What we’re doing, wizard, is surviving. Thou art awake now, and we must take this battle to a more appropriate stage. Or art thou content with bumping elbows in a claustrophobic stairwell until weariness sees us overrun?” Quincy swallowed and shook her head.  Nyx turned and started down the staircase again, Lacertli’s glowing golden eyes piercing into the wizard as she went. “Then let us make haste. I am fain to see this battle done.”

 

The brunette cursed and hurried to undo her magic pouch. Reaching into it, she rummaged around desperately until she felt her hands close on a familiar curve of wood. She sighed in relief as she pulled out Eate’s Son. It was true that she could not wield her lightning staff with the same sure grip she once could, but that did not mean she couldn’t use it. She just needed something else to make up for her lack of martial power.

 

As she hurried down the stairs after Nyx, she found the Ailuran already fighting the spirits in the study. Kali was no longer visible. Quincy tried to focus on the struggle at hand, because a moment’s distraction could mean life or death, but her mind rebelled with wayward thoughts of what she had just seen.

 

Did my father ever speak as this girl just did? Is another persona making itself known? What happened to Nyx that she feels so…cold?

 

Quincy tossed Eate’s Son vertically into the air, making it spin. The artifact produced small scythes of air as it went, cutting into a bipedal pig wielding a giant axe. Its squeal was cut short when it fell to the ground in bloody pieces. When Quincy caught her weapon, she turned to see Nyx maneuvering out the study toward the exit.

 

She cursed, but followed.

 

Whatever the case is, I just hope it doesn’t get us killed!

 

ELMIRYN________________________

 

The redhead wasn’t concerned for the wizard. Quincy had a lot of firepower down on that field. But Nyx…she had no armor, no weapons. Just because she could heal quickly and had some new tricks didn’t mean she could do anything. The woman was certain that included diving into a frothing mob of evil spirits. Elmiryn needed to get down there, fast. So she took the quickest route she could…

 

She jumped out the window.

 

The warrior heard Lethia scream after her as she fell. The wind howled in her ears as she plummeted feet first, the unsettling sensation of free fall sweeping through her. Elmiryn knew she could die from this. She knew she could scatter across the rocky hillside below like a bug on a windshield. She was also aware that she was using imagery inappropriate for her world, but she didn’t care. The moment she had started turning into a fae was the moment she ceased to really be of any world. She didn’t need to follow the rules if she didn’t want to, and it was lucky for her that the Other Place had very few rules to break in the first place.

 

She could see the elements around her like threads waiting to be pulled.

 

So she did just that.

 

With her will, Elmiryn took hold of the air, and the dust, and the rock, and she ripped them up so that they caught her. The landing wasn’t graceful—in fact it skinned her arms and knocked the wind from her lungs—but that wasn’t what was important. What was important was the fact that Elmiryn had created a path of unrelenting gas and matter in mid-air and could now run safely down to the field. The warrior stumbled, forcing herself to keep moving as she looked back to the window she had leapt from. Lethia was there, staring at her in shock.

 

Meznik was in the next window, his fist in his cheek. He seemed bored again. It occurred to the woman that leaving her cousin alone with her nemesis was probably folly, but quickly following this thought was the realization that the demon had no interest in the girl. Still, she gestured for the enchantress to follow, but didn’t stop to watch if she did. Too many things to deal with. Lethia had proven she could take care of herself. All the woman could do was make it possible for the girl to stick with her. Her priorities may have shifted, but there was one focus that remained paramount above all else.

 

Elmiryn drew her sword. Hold on, Nyx. I’m coming!

 

It was difficult, at first, continuously creating a steady path before her whilst maintaining the one behind as she run full tilt into the chaos. It was doubly hard, because running on air and small debris wasn’t exactly familiar, and she had to keep her balance. But Elmiryn did it. She did it because if she didn’t, Nyx would be…

 

The warrior leapt into the air. She was over the field now and she had a number of options available to her. First, she could take the obvious route and make herself into a giant in a sort of inverse performance of her miniature transformation. Second, she could will a tornado of dust and rock to sweep a path through the crowd of spirits.

 

But the woman was a warrior first and foremost, and she did what she felt most comfortable with.

 

As Elmiryn came down toward the ground, she swung her sword, and using her power, she amplified the kinetic energy. The attack carved into the soil, cleaving those below. Taking a page out of Hakeem’s book, the redhead braked her descent with an opposing push of wind. The moment her boots hit the ground she took off running, cutting with her sword whenever an obstacle presented itself.

 

As she went, she couldn’t help but marvel at how she hadn’t thought to do this before—marry her new fae abilities with her swordplay. It was almost stupidly obvious, in retrospect. How many video games had she played where a character—

 

Damn it, this isn’t the time to get mixed up on shit like that!

 

With this harsh admonishment, the warrior focused herself on the task at hand—and that was getting to Nyx as quickly as possible. No longer distracted, the warrior moved and killed more efficiently. One powered swing of her blade sent an arc of energy slicing through a wood demon with horns. Another dispatched a dark cloaked man that stood twelve feet tall.

 

Soon she found Nyx. If only that would’ve solved everything.

 

The Ailuran was dangling by her arm as a giant crocodile with shimmering blue scales and diamond teeth fought what looked like a ghost fashioned out of bed sheets for the right to have her. Smaller spirits shouted and frothed beneath them, their hands and tentacles and claws extended as they shouted their insanity. The sheet spirit seemed to grow weary of the quarreling and made a bid for Nyx. What happened next took all but a few seconds. Long slim black limbs shot out from the spirit’s flapping sheets, and they grabbed the girl around her torso. Meanwhile, the crocodile spirit wrenched his head the other way. Blood erupted from Nyx’s shoulder as her arm was ripped off, and her torso rended of its skin. The monsters below cheered in the shower of carnage.

 

Elmiryn screamed, putting all she could into the overhand swing of her sword. The sheet spirit lost an arm in the arc of raw energy that blasted from the redhead’s blade, and the smaller monsters down below were lost in the periphery of the blast. The crocodile spirit was only rocked, however, as Elmiryn’s attack struck his scales and failed to pierce his hide. He turned to look at her and opened his mouth, showing his long rows of teeth. Stuck in them was Nyx’s arm, still caught between the fangs.

 

The monster roared and started to charge toward the warrior, his clawed feet gouging into the soil, crushing the heads of his brethren, making the ground shake as he went. Elmiryn braced herself, bringing up her fae shield of dust and air—

 

But the monster was wrenched back by some unseen force. Both the crocodile and Elmiryn appeared equally bewildered…that was until the beast started to descend into its own shadow. The warrior watched, feeling waves of relief wash over her. The source of her joy was not the demise of the crocodile, who was sliced in half when the shadows beneath him closed with half his torso submerged. No, it was the fact that Nyx was still alive and well to do these things.

 

But where is she? Elmiryn thought, her smile waning.

 

When the woman found her lover, the smile vanished entirely.

 

Nyx looked like road kill, and the woman used this phrase without qualm because even Fiamma had road kill. The Ailuran’s arm was growing back, and though it was clearly a great feat of healing that left Nyx’s previous healing ability in the dust, to Elmiryn it could not heal fast enough. The stub of the arm was a red, raw wound that seemed to bubble with flesh and blood. And this said nothing of the girl’s chest, whose skin and fatty tissue had yet to completely cover her gleaming rib cage. In fact, some of the flesh that had been ripped off had failed to detach, and instead hung dripping at the girl’s waist.

 

For once, Elmiryn did not have a cute one liner. She could only stare, and wonder if Nyx were really safe at all.

 

The girl’s gaze was far away as they regarded the warrior in her stunned silence. Then slowly, she lifted her clawed hand and took up her flap of dead flesh.

 

Thou have arrived, Elmiryn,” Nyx said…only it wasn’t her. It was Kali. Only it wasn’t Kali. It was both of them at the same time…and something else, too. Somehow, the warrior knew that all these statements were true.

 

With the barest flinch, the Ailuran tore off the dead flesh and cast it aside. Elmiryn, hardened to carnage, did not turn away, but her sensibilities protested just the same, making her feel cold and ill. With the skin gone, the body began to cover the girl’s abdominal muscles.

 

Nyx turned her head and regarded the sky. “It would seem thou hast come just in time.

 

Elmiryn frowned and looked up as well. She cursed and raised her sword.

 

“Izma!”


Back to Chapter 38.1 | Forward to Chapter 38.3

Chapter 38.1

NYX____________________________

I was feeling sick with fear. The tremors worked through me so hard that I could barely get a solid grip on Quincy as I grabbed her around the torso under her arms. Lacertli said nothing, just dug his claws in deeper to keep from slipping. My first instinct was, of course, to flee to the shadows, but this sanctuary was closed to me–I suspected it was because of the monsters that now threatened to storm the keep. They disrupted Harmony enough that the shadows resisted me. Left with no other option, I’d just managed to drag the wizard halfway up the dark staircase when a loud boom rocked the keep, and the clamor of moving bodies followed. The fiends were now pouring in. My terror reached its apex, and my surge of adrenaline was enough to override my shaky grip and allow me to throw Quincy over my unoccupied shoulder. Huffing up the stairs, I went as fast as I could, passing doors, until I reached the topmost room.

 

This was not Syria’s bedroom as I had expected. I didn’t know what it was. Warm bloody light shafted into the room and diffused softly into the dark corners by way of the open windows. The walls were covered in vines, the floor in roots. Swallowed in the plant life were a few sparse pieces of furniture—a desk there, a chair here—and at the back of the room, a large stone archway was fixed into the wall. There were no runes or magical symbols that I could see on the structure. I also could not see the source of the plants, but these were not my primary concern.

 

The monsters were making their way up the stairs. I couldn’t take them all…

 

Or could I?

 

I stared wildly around me as I set the wizard down.

 

The room was wide, and aside from the two or three recognizable pieces of furniture under the plants, there was nothing preventing the monsters from flanking me. I didn’t have enough to barricade the door, and anyway, I didn’t have the time. I considered trying to get Quincy to wake, but if my jostling her before hadn’t done the trick, then I was sure that slapping her around, while admittedly satisfying, would not work.

 

…But if I fought the beasts in the stairway, I could take them on one at a time without the risk of being flanked. You could even argue that having the upper ground gave me something of an advantage. Of course, there was the chance that flying spirits could squeeze in through the windows behind me, or perhaps the fiends in the stairwell would just overwhelm me through sheer force and number. But a choke point, especially one as narrow as the stairwell, would do me many favors against this number of enemies. I just had to keep fighting and not stop.

 

“Sir, any thoughts on my plan?” I was sure the god could see my intentions.

 

Lacertli’s tongue flicked my cheek. “Aye. Thy twin must assist thee from the shadows.

 

Kali perked at the sound of her name, but our confusion was shared. “What do you mean, sir?” I asked.

 

I mean just what I mean. She is more present than she knows.”

 

And as doubtful as it was that he would elaborate, our time was up for talk. I could hear the beasts rounding the last bend of the stairwell. I had to stop them before they got too close to Quincy, who was entirely vulnerable while she was still lost in Lethia’s illusion.

 

Going back down into the dark of the unlit stairwell, I let the pain of shifting my hands to claws slip in, and bared my teeth. I was terrified…but strangely eager. I never did understand Elmiryn’s need for violence as a means of release. Not until now. Maybe undoing my knot of darkness and weaving it through the rest of me completed my transformation from a pacifist to a warrior. Whatever the case, I had learned much in my time in the Other Place, and if there was one thing I was certain of, it was that I would survive above all else.

 

This determination fueled me. With time even my fear was edged out in favor of a sort of wrathful defiance against death. As such, I didn’t think about Izma when I ripped off the face of a red-skinned demon with four eyes. I didn’t think about Elmiryn when I punched my fist through a fat spirit’s chest and pushed him down the steps onto his evil brethren. I didn’t think about Lethia when I parried a dark knight’s mace into the skull of a child-like monster.

 

The bodies piled up, making advancement difficult for the beasts. I pressed forward, over these, because I knew I couldn’t let up until they were either all dead, or called a retreat. The latter seemed unlikely. These monsters weren’t organized, and with the fall of their nasty cohorts, they seemed to believe their chance would come when I would slip and make a mistake.

 

They weren’t far off.

 

You see, slaughtering things in a confined space leaves a horrendous mess, and given the focused area of carnage, where else would the blood go? The steps became slippery in gore, and even me, with my sure feet, slipped over the stone. I gasped and my arms went out to catch my balance. I managed this, but in doing so, I had left myself open, and here, three familiar hands seized the moment.

 

Just as before, I felt as though fire erupted across my skin, and I screamed in pain. Then I was jerked to the side and slammed into the wall. Once, twice, three times. My brow bled and my eyes rolled, but in my agony, I managed to turn my face to the source of my undoing.

 

It was the three Tall Men from the field. Their bloody eyes blinked in unison as they fixed me with their unnatural smiles.

 

In a fluid sentence, they each chirped out a word. “Hello-again-tasty-trickster! It-is-time-to-die-We-think! Shall-we-peel-your-skin-and-boil-you? Or-perhaps-saw-you-up-and-eat-you-raw?”

I could hear a roar in my head and something struck one of the Tall Men in the face. Interestingly, their unison seemed to be such that this strike affected them all, and they each loosened their grip on me. I fell to the steps, and though I was glad to be free of their burning touch, I knew I had to press my advantage, so I ripped out an uppercut at one of the devil’s throats, feeling my claws carve through his burning flesh…

And in the darkness of the stairwell, I thought I saw something strike one of the other men in the gut.

The Tall Men clutched at their throats and abdomens. I watched as dark fluid gushed from their wounds.

Get ready, more are coming! Kali shouted in my head.

I didn’t react right away, too stunned at the realization that those phantom attacks had been done by my twin. Somehow she had found a way to break the barrier that prevented us from both being present at the same time.

 

…Or maybe there was no barrier? The shadows were still not mine to command, but with the steady deaths of these villains, the veil that shut me out grew thinner. I thought of Lacertli, and how his form changed when in the darkness. Was that the same idea at work here? With Kali and I occupying the same body, did the darkness open up some way for my Twin to make her presence known in a way she couldn’t before?

The monsters below tore past the Tall Men, discarding them like refuse in their haste to get to me. Again with that tenacity, that single-minded belief that I would eventually fall if they just kept coming at me. I had to focus again. These were questions for later, when I wasn’t fighting horror after horror. After all…

 

I said I would survive, and I’d meant it.

 

ELMIRYN________________________

 

The issue for Elmiryn was less that Meznik had healed himself, and more that she had been the cause of it. In her experiences with the astral demon, she had known him to feed off of her in some way. For some reason, she had never fully grasped that it was her emotion that so gave him strength–and not just that–but her attention. And yet, how could she cut away his strength and still defeat him if she wasn’t paying attention to him? Meznik certainly wasn’t going to leave her alone if she ignored him, and there was no way she could forget all the things he had done in the first place.

 

She couldn’t help it.

 

Elmiryn sulked.

 

All the way through their escape–where she charged a policeman with her fae shield and smashed his head open with the nightstick, where Lethia finally traded the shotgun for the 9mm and winged a woman coming out to join the firefight, where Meznik casually touched a man’s head and boiled his flesh clean off–the redhead’s face was fixed in a perpetual frown. As they started to peel out in a stolen squad car, she’d finally had it.

 

“This is too fucking easy!” Elmiryn snapped, as she sped out of the back parking lot and out into the road. The squeal of sirens weren’t far behind them.

 

Lethia glared at her in incredulity. “Elle, we just killed a lot of people and are now leading a chase away from a team of very angry police officers!” The girl’s face was hard when she said this, showing just what she thought about that. “I’m not sure what difficulty setting you would like this set at, but right now, I think your preference is a bit irrelevant!”

 

“You talk too much,” Meznik muttered from the back seat. He was digging into his ear with his index finger. “You easily could’ve said that in three words. Maybe two.”

 

Lethia turned her glare on him. “And you’re a cur! Why’d I bother talking Elle into saving you?”

 

“Because you need me?” The demon shrugged. After the excitement in the back parking lot was done, he seemed almost bored. “How else are you going to find the way back to your home world?”

 

Elmiryn looked into the rearview mirror at him. She knew they needed to get away. She knew they needed to get back to their world. But she also felt desperate for a way to find Meznik’s weakness, and right now, taking him out of the only place that seemed to suggest any danger for him seemed counterproductive in that goal.

 

“Where are we going?” she asked in irritation. “I’m hitting the limits of this engine, and I can’t make a turn without flipping us unless I know when the fuck I’m doing it!”

 

“Head to the freeway,” Meznik sighed, letting his head loll back onto the headrest. “There’s a gateway there that will let us Travel.”

 

Elmiryn couldn’t think of a good excuse to go against this that wouldn’t result in them getting killed, so she nodded her head tersely instead. The squad car was built for chases, that much was clear. The woman only wished she had the skill to handle it.

 

For example, when they followed the first signs for the freeway, the cops had nearly managed to swipe them. Elmiryn felt as though her old self handled her newfound knowledge clumsily when she realized her mistake in trying to drive over a grassy divide. The car bumped and groaned, and an enemy squad car rammed them from behind, giving them just enough of a bump to get out of the soft soil and back onto the asphalt.

 

During this recovery, Elmiryn became painfully aware that the acceleration was in no way comparable to a sports car. Even as they roared onward, following the final signs for the freeway, she saw another squad car coming up fast on their left. When the car got closer, Elmiryn could see that it was Izma’s familiars–Officer Gale, or rather Quincy, and the “detective” Hakeem.

 

“Shit they’re going to ram us!” Elmiryn shouted, bracing for the impact.

 

But a brown convertible sports car–an old mustang by the looks of it–swerved onto the road. It came up alongside Quincy and Hakeem’s vehicle, and a petite woman with dark brown hair leaned out of the passenger window and extended a gun. Izma’s familiars reacted with shock, but it was too late. The stranger peppered the other car with shots before they could safely veer out of the way. Elmiryn watched, in the frantic back and forth from the road to her rearview mirror, as their enemy’s car collided with another pursuing squad car.

 

“Dear gods!” Lethia exclaimed. She was twisted in her seat, her eyes wide as she watched all of this happen.

 

Meznik still hadn’t bothered to sit up. He, in fact, seemed to have fallen asleep.

 

When the mustang sped forward in a burst of horsepower, the warrior tensed and barked at Lethia, “Lethy! The gun!”

 

But when they neared, the brunette with the gun simply shouted, “Follow us to the gate!” The warrior couldn’t see the driver, and she didn’t get another chance to. With their superior speed, the sports car pulled ahead of them.

 

Elmiryn stared after them, her mouth hung open. The sight of a police car advancing on them however reminded her of the direness of their situation, and she just managed to get on the entrance ramp for the freeway before she missed it entirely. After that, she saw it. The gateway.

 

This one was much like the other Openings she had come across in her travels of the Other Place, but this one was…larger. More imposing. She supposed it had to be. This was the way into an actual world, not just a shard in a halfway dimension.

 

The brown mustang vanished into its depths at high speed.

 

The woman’s heart raced, and for the first time since they acquired Meznik, she grinned. “Here it comes!”

 

Elmiryn pressed the gas pedal to the floor. They passed through the gate in a single breath, and the world vanished…

 

.

..

….

…..

They came to a gradual stop along the Path. Elmiryn wasn’t quite as used to the sudden change in speed–it had been a while after all–and everything here seemed to move slower. Or maybe the world they came from moved too quickly?

 

We need to get out of the car, Meznik said.

 

Why? Elmiryn asked.

 

Because those two women are coming toward us, and this car is disintegrating you dolt.

 

And when the redhead looked, she found that the very seat she sat on was doing just as Meznik said, so she hurried out of the car. Lethia, was already outside and on the driver’s side, or what was left of it, her expression wary as the passengers of the mustang approached. Meznik stretched unconcernedly behind them. Their squad car vanished from sight.

 

The two strangers, both women as the demon had mentioned, were of different height, one short and one tall. The short one was the brunette with the gun. The tall one was a redhead, like Elmiryn, but her hair was a lighter shade and pulled back into a ponytail. She also seemed to have an electric guitar strapped to her back.

 

This is the second time we’ve had to escort you out, the brunette said with displeasure.

 

At first Elmiryn thought she was speaking to her, but she quickly saw that the girl was addressing the demon behind her. The warrior stared at Meznik as he shrugged in response.

 

It was an emergency, he said simply.

 

You’re not welcome! The other redhead snapped. Do it again and we kill you! Izma gives us enough to deal with!

 

You know how to kill him? Elmiryn asked sharply.

 

Since they had approached, neither of the women had even glanced at Lethia or Elle. But now they looked at them both with sudden discomfort.

 

The tall woman pursed her lips. What’s your name?

 

What’s YOURS? Elmiryn shot back. Who the fuck are you people?

 

You should know by now that Travel is not a time for conversation. The brunette bit out. This was a final warning. That’s all.

 

She turned to her friend. Let’s go Julie.

 

The women turned to leave. Elmiryn watched as they did, and was surprised to find their car hadn’t disintegrated as theirs did.

 

Hey! Why’s your car still here and ours is gone? What do you know about Meznik!? HEY!

 

We should keep moving, Meznik said. He seemed to be in better spirits after that exchange.

 

This annoyed the woman. Why? she snapped. So that you can vanish the moment we get back?

 

He sighed with suffering. If I promise to explain away some of your boundless confusion, will you shut up?

 

Elmiryn opened her mouth to argue just as the women drove away in their car, but Lethia cut her off.

 

That girl was right! We shouldn’t talk and Travel. It attracts bad things. Let’s just go, okay?

 

Sullen, Elmiryn listened to her cousin, and the three Traveled under Meznik’s guidance, until…

…..

….

..

.

 

They emerged in a room covered in vines and roots.

 

Elmiryn felt odd, and when she looked down, she saw why. She was wearing the clothes and gear she had been before Lethia had appeared. The enchantress was also once more dressed in the clothing she had been before. The woman clenched her fists and glared at Meznik.

 

“Ok. We’re done Travelling. Now explain.”

 

He laughed. “Now?”

 

The demon was the only one who seemed unchanged by the journey. He was still in his bummy clothes, his face still human-like, his voice not yet a song.

 

The woman clenched her jaw. “Abridged version. Let’s go. What the fuck was all that back there?”

 

Meznik sighed and rolled his eyes. “The reason we lost the car, guns, and your clothing was to maintain continuity. Cross-world pollution gives the universe a headache, and to put it simply, you two were a walking migraine.”

 

“But I liked that jacket…” Elmiryn pouted.

 

“As for the women who so kindly helped us, they are…hmm, how to put this…” the demon trailed off, his index finger looping in the air. “Young gods?”

 

Gods?” Lethia interjected.

 

“The new movers and shakers, if you will. I know they didn’t look like much, but the tall reddy is capable of making your head explode with a glance, and the short brunette has a penchant for being aware of, well…everything–which was probably how she found us so quickly to begin with. We had some past altercations, when I was doing work in their world, but no more. I’m done with them. That world is currently going through some major changes in management, and it’s a messy process. Territories have been divided among the upstarts, and we just so happened to be running around in the area of those two lovely ladies. Molly and Julie. I don’t think it was an accident on Izma’s part either. They are your Speculums. You, Elmiryn, and Nyx’s.”

 

The woman squinted her eyes. “Our what?”

 

“You asked for the abridged version, and I’m giving it to you, so don’t expect to understand something so vastly complicated in less than a minute. Just know this: For every world, there is another world different from it only by degrees. You will see similarities in cultures, similarities in wildlife, similarities even in individual lives. This is because the seeds that start these existences come from related sources.”

 

Elmiryn’s face relaxed. “The fae?”

 

Meznik only shrugged his hands.

 

Lethia, who had drifted over to one of the open windows, gasped.

 

The warrior hurried to her side and peered out as well. “What is it?”

 

Down in the field below, she could see Quincy fighting with her staff.

 

“The wizard?”

 

But Lethia shook her head. “No, no! I let the wizard go. What I mean is–There! Look there!” She pointed frantically and Elmiryn craned her head to see.

 

Further out in the field, the warrior saw a greater commotion as the monsters and evil spirits practically stampeded over each other to get to something. Their direction kept changing, first one way, then another. This was all happening very far away, and the woman couldn’t make out the reason for this chaos at this distance.

 

And then she saw the small dark shape running up a reptilian monster’s spine, seconds before they swan dived off into the mob that frothed around them.

 

Her heart stopped.

 

“Nyx! Nyx!” Elmiryn screamed.


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