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Chapter 39.3

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn rolled her shoulders with a mild wince as she began to approach Hakeem.

Hakeem?” she called.

The man didn’t answer, his dark eyes boring into her as though she were a hated mongrel he had to put down. The woman gripped her sword with both hands and continued to approach with caution.

Hakeem, what the fuck do you think you’re doing hitting us like that?” she asked, unable to keep the edge from her voice.

Still silent, the man widened his stance and began to squat down, bringing his fists up.

Elmiryn stopped, her jaw tightening. “You just hit your wife!

The dust cleared enough that now the redhead could see the others. Nyx had been launched into the crowd of devils around them, as had Lethia. Quincy had been sent off in the direction of the blackwood forest. She stirred, coughing, but when she raised her head and saw her husband, it was as if someone had lit the woman on fire.

Bwa-Taika… Wikan?the wizard said softly as she staggered to her feet. Then again, louder, “Wikan!?

Hakeem, answer us!” Elmiryn barked. “Why did you attack us? Where have you even been?” At his reticence, she found her anger got the better of her. “Well come on then, mud man, what is your fucking problem!?”

She heard Lethia scream, “Get away from him!”

The warrior snapped her eyes over as she saw Lethia shoving her way past the devils. The girl looked pale and she was sporting a limp, her face bearing some scratches. “It’s her, it’s Syria. She’s controlling him!”

Elmiryn snapped her eyes back onto Hakeem and saw his attention had turned elsewhere. She followed his line of vision back to Nyx.

 

NYX___________________________

Having the world tear me apart was nothing new, but I was getting really tired of it by this point. It was no wonder I couldn’t keep a full set of clothes anymore–what with all of these cajeck magic users always blowing things up.

I stared up at what passed for a sky here in the Other Place, and gathered around me was a crowd of cackling devils, their vile countenances split with grins so wide, you’d think they were the masterminds of my own misery. My body had been pockmarked from debris, and I bit back a scream as I felt my flesh quickly work to reject the foreign objects. I could hear Elmiryn shouting, but I was too dazed and my ears ringing too much from the surprise attack to make sense of what she was saying. Quincy and Lethia’s voice soon joined the warrior’s, and I sat up to try and see what was going on. My body protested, as though miffed I’d take its healing for granted, but there was a fight going on, and I had to be aware.

An invisible force blasted my way, morphing the space it carved through, and I wasn’t sure I would have been able to make sense of the situation even if I weren’t out of sorts. As if my confusion wasn’t enough, something punched me into the ground so hard the breath left my lungs and I felt my sternum and ribs crack.

Stunned, I stared up into a dark face, and in my pain I realized it was–

Ha-Hakeem…”

The wizard said nothing, his eyes soulless, their stare hard and cold as he lifted his black gauntlet and gripped it with his other hand. Raising both hands over his head, I could see the gravity magic flowing around his armor, and I knew this blow would kill me. I held up my hand feebly to stop it. With Hakeem’s shadow joining mine, I couldn’t send us into the shadows. His will felt like a wall, blocking me. I was trapped.

Then a fist of the earth rose up and struck Hakeem’s body off of me and into the crowd of devils. A moment later, Elmiryn ran into view, her face drawn.

Are you all right?” she asked in a rush.

When I opened my mouth to respond, I coughed and rolled painfully onto my side. Blood trickled onto the dirt. I whimpered as I clutched at my chest, not even capable of a full out scream. My body was healing again, but without Harmony to steel me, I couldn’t help but succumb to the agony. I could hear Elmiryn kneel at my side, her hand on my head.

How long do you need?” She asked softly.

F-Five!” I managed to squeal out.

I saw her nod through my tears and she stepped over me to re-engage with Hakeem. As I lay there, I looked up and saw Izma gazing down at me with her alien eyes.

It was about this moment that I wished I were in Kali’s place in the Umbralands instead of here. With her in another plane of existence, I didn’t know what she was going through. I only caught the barest hints of echoes, and they were unintelligible feedback.

If I could sense her clearly, I might not have wished as I had.

 

KALI__________________________

I was excited and for once I did not envy my sister her place. We were still connected–but thinly so. This trick, this new ability of ours had been a whisper from Harmony, an idea posited by the mysterious shift in space and time that had occurred at the castle keep. A strength found in the shadows, where the imagination of all present allowed for the impossible to happen. I had been desperate to help Nyx, to help us win that battle for our lives, and the universe granted my wish. I thought, after the light stole away that entry into the present world, that it would be the first and last occurrence. But if the darkness could grant us such freedom, then why, Harmony asked, could the Umbralands not offer the same?

And so there I was, stalking Syria like she were common prey. I could smell her anxiety and reveled in it. This witch had cost us much grief, and for her madness, I was going to rip out her throat and eat it.

Using a small amount of my new champion power, I shifted some shadows, making Syria give a start. While she was distracted, I came up from behind and sliced her behind the knee with my claws. She hissed out in pain, her hand swinging around for a counter–

But I was already gone, slipped back into the shadows and about to lick her blood from my claws when my nose sensed something amiss. Scowling, I brought my claws up to my nostrils and gave another sniff. I bit back a growl. This woman’s blood did not smell right. I couldn’t know for sure, but it had an almost vegetable quality to it.

The enchantress, much to my annoyance, did not favor her other leg, as I had hoped. My plan was to use intimidation tactics to break her concentration, preventing her from utilizing that unnatural control of her mind that allowed her to shut off whatever pain her body suffered. It was a small disappointment. I knew there was a chance that Syria would gather herself enough to fight me.

These were stratagems only possible thanks to higher forms of thought granted through Nyx’s Words. But the master enchantress had a weakness, and that was primal minds. If I was going to defeat her, I was going to have to trust in my instincts and relinquish any further complex schemes. From here on out, it would be animal cunning that would see me through.

And that was fine by me.

I delved forth again, cutting and slashing and snarling. Elmiryn had tried teaching Nyx the ways of combat. What she failed to capitalize on was our natural assets–a fault she faced as a human. Just because she fought Ailurans didn’t mean she knew the finer points of how they did battle.

Thaddeus had tried. Nyx’s brother. My brother. He had shown us how to utilize our claws, our agility, our raw power.

I couldn’t help but think of him as I dueled with Syria. I cut her neck and saw him in my memories, pointing out the major artery in the neck to sever. The enchantress kneed me in the stomach, making me think of the time Thad had demonstrated the importance of guarding my center. I grabbed the woman’s leg, and my mind hit me with the sight of my brother illustrating the devastating nature of reversals.

My heart boiled with emotion. Against my will, tears filled my eyes as I moved to drop Syria onto the ground.

But then the woman touched a hand to my temple, and I could hear her laugh, not just in the air, but in my mind.

Ooh…little kitten Kali!” Syria purred, her eyes flashing with glee as I felt my body go lax, allowing her leg to slip from my grasp. “It is true that your mind may be primal, and it is true that you are only half of a spirit, but the magnitude of your pain translates well through the ambiance! It provides a nice entryway.”

I sank to the ground, trying to move, trying to breathe. My body refused me.

Syria’s touch on my temple never went away, and she crouched as I settled in a slumped heap, face to the ground.

Do you remember what I did to you…back at Holzoff’s?” she asked mildly.

I stared at her, my eyes clearing as my tears trailed into my hairline.

Syria’s smile vanished. “I made you sink into the dark. You saved yourself with your hatred, using its raw energy to bring you back to your conscious mind. But without that or Nyx here to save you, do you think you’ll be able to come out of it in time to remind your body how to breathe?

 

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn had fought many men, and she could say, without a shadow of a doubt, that Hakeem had to be one of the most exciting opponents she’d ever faced. Of course, she’d never faced him one on one before. Lethia had joined her in her efforts to subdue the man, and after Quincy had gathered herself, so did she. But even with Elmiryn’s new fae abilities, she didn’t feel quite on par with the raw potential Hakeem could achieve. Syria was dangerous on her own right, but Hakeem didn’t just make use of gravity spells. He could transcend time. Not even the master enchantress had managed that feat in battle. And now, Hakeem had no reason to hold back. He had the upper hand this time. There were no scultones to ambush him, no cold irons to bind him. He wasn’t worried about accidentally killing someone. His intent was clear.

…Or rather, Syria’s intent through him, was clear.

Elmiryn caught Hakeem with the butt of her sword, but yelled in pain and frustration when he vanished and reappeared just slightly to the left and punched her in the cheek.

Those gauntlets hurt.

She went down hard, feeling that molar Nyx had loosened a short while ago pop out in a bloody mess. Hakeem turned away from her as if she were inconsequential, and the redhead tried to rise and stop him, but swooned from sudden dizziness. Fortunately, Quincy was there to stop him from targeting Nyx. Elmiryn watched them fight, spitting her tooth in her hand just as Lethia crashed down next to her, panting so hard she sounded as if she’d come out from a long dive. Quincy was managing to keep Hakeem busy, but with just her ordinary sword and Eate’s Son, she was only able to delay him, not take him out of the fight. In the meantime, the brunette tried reasoning with her husband in his native tongue, but he remained as stony as when he first arrived.

Elle, you’ve got to get after Syria!” Lethia puffed.

Elmiryn cursed and threw her tooth away–she’d have to grow another one later. Now wasn’t the time. She gave the young enchantress a look as she cautiously stood. Spots appeared in her eyes, but she managed not to fall. “I thought you wanted to kill Syria yourself?”

Of course I do,” the girl bit back. “But I can’t get to the Umbralands. You can!”

The redhead slowly shook her head. “But what about Nyx?”

In the future we’ll mention this moment so Nyx can forgive your fantastically thick head, but I think focusing on surviving takes precedence, don’t you?” Lethia shoved Elmiryn, and hissed. “Go! Kill Syria! Or bring her back so that can do it! Just get there, for heaven’s sake!”

Elmiryn nodded stiffly and pointed at Nyx. “You watch out for her, okay?”

Yes, yes, just go!Lethia turned and started to run for the fight. Quincy was currently using her lack of armor to outmaneuver her husband.

And hey!the warrior shouted.

With an impatient look, Lethia stopped and looked over her shoulder.

Elmiryn swallowed. “It isn’t just Nyx I’m worried for…understand?”

The girl said nothing. Only pursed her lips and resumed her run.

The warrior sighed and turned away.

Right then…so just a reverse of last time. Right?

She raised her hands, and with a gesture, she borrowed the shadows around her to make a gate large enough for her to slip through. Without looking over her shoulder, Elmiryn stepped through the dark passageway she had created, and felt the cold envelope her.

Without her maintaining the shadows on the other side, the passageway closed behind her.

That’s when she saw Syria crouched over Kali.

Elmiryn’s brow tensed. Got here just in time, it seems.

 


Back to Chapter 39.2 | Forward to Chapter 40.1

Chapter 39.2

NYX___________________________

This couldn’t go on. We wouldn’t last if Elmiryn and I just pulled our punches against each other. Doing so would drag things out, and that would run us into the ground. We weren’t fresh, like Syria was. The enchantress had a vitality none of us had, because she hadn’t been running around in the wilds on poor sleep and minimal food. When I saw Elle fighting…I knew I was the one who had to grit my teeth and do what had to be done. I had to incapacitate her. So without hesitation, I dislocated my friend’s arm.

I did it out of love, if you can refrain from your eye rolls, but I wasn’t feeling warm and cuddly about it. Just like in our previous battle at Holzoff’s, Syria had to be stopped quickly…before her power overwhelmed us.

As I engaged her once more, trading blows, trying to keep focused and alert in the chance of an opening, a brief thought squeaked by–

If only we could all work together.

But we couldn’t, and it felt…betraying in a way. What was the point in surviving everything we did if in the end we were the cause of our own demise? Our goals were so divergent, our methods selfish and short sighted. The knowledge that we were the only ones holding ourselves back was not a comfort. Instead, it just said this rag tag group of wayward adventurers didn’t want to work together. It hurt my trust.

Lacertli had warned me of such a moment. When my duty to him would have me pitted against my comrades.

It should’ve been harder. Yet once the fight had started, it just felt…natural. Like we were destined to fight, destined to be this way. It saddened me.

Instinct was carrying me a lot of the way. I went at Syria with a small burst of energy, my emotions perhaps fueling my offense more than it should have. I was in the middle of delivering a spinning back kick to Syria’s gut when I thought I saw a blonde blur rushing towards us. When I landed again, my head turned, trying to figure out in my heightened paranoia, whether the person was a threat or not. In the milliseconds in which all of this happened, the possibility that it was Lethia didn’t even strike me.

It didn’t strike me because the teenager hit Syria instead with a long staff. The master enchantress wheeled, a cry tearing from her lips as she fell to her knee, surges of energy coursing once down her body.

I stared at Lethia Artaud in shock, but she didn’t stop to look back at me. She struck Syria again in the face, and when the older woman started to fall back onto the ground, Lethia pointed the staff at her former mistress’s chest and a bolt shot into her.

“She’s my responsibility!” I heard Lethia huff. She spared me a glance before she stepped forward and raised her staff.

That was when a sickle of wind struck Lethia in the back, making her stumble and trip over Syria’s prone body. I snapped my head around to see Quincy some feet away, reaching up to catch her magical boomerang, Eate’s Son. Something of her expression suggested she was feeling faint, but smoldering at the edges was a fury that was unmistakable.

Lethia Artaud!” Quincy shouted, teetering a little as she started to approach us. “Give me what’s mine!”

Lethia hurried to her feet, her hands gripping the staff tightly. I stared at it, then back at Quincy, and finally I made the connection. “You stole her skill, Lethia!?”

I’d witnessed the girl do this a few times in the past–once with Paulo Moretti, and again with the sorcerer Karolek. Both times it was to save someone she cared about. Now she was trying to kill someone.

How can this be what we’ve become?

Instead of responding to me and Quincy, the teenager pinched her lips till they turned white, and I could see the electricity start to surge up and down the lightning staff. My eyes widened and I hurried to put some distance between us. I could see Quincy react in much the same way, except she took a moment to aim and throw Eate’s Son before she turned and fled.

I heard a crack of thunder just as the wind picked it up. My stomach lurched as I recognized what would come next.

The ground beneath seemed to rise with me as my feet lifted into the churning air. I screamed, but the chaos around me devoured my rising panic. Lethia had shot off a bolt of lightning–my first guess that it was aimed at Syria, but who knew where it actually landed in the mayhem–and Quincy had retaliated with another one of her damned twisters. Yet again, I was caught in the crossfire, and as I flipped in the air, I flashed back to the debilitating pain I’d experienced when my body had smashed into the ground in the Lycan forest. What had unmade me last time was that I hadn’t been able to get a grip fast enough to let the shadows catch me. I couldn’t do that again, it would mean my death for sure this time.

I quelled my hysteria (and shut out Kali’s) and reached out with my champion sense to find a potential exit point. As I plummeted back to the earth, I find my opening and seized it with desperate urgency.

Whoosh.

I shot up into the Umbralands–the curious mirror effect sending me up into the air at the same speed I came down in. I wheeled my arms vainly hoping to catch onto something to keep myself grounded, but no luck. With a shaky sigh, I resigned myself to yet another attempt–only this time I’d catch the edge of the shadows and swing myself to safety. As I came down, I could see Quincy arguing with Lethia. It seemed the girl’s attempt had failed, and now the wizard was preventing Lethia from carrying out her revenge. Elmiryn was just getting to her feet.

Gods this is getting too complicated, even for us!

With a squint of my eyes, I timed my grab so that I caught onto the edge of the shadows and swung out safely to the Real World, once again on my feet. I couldn’t afford the time it would take to go back and forth between worlds, waiting for the energy of my fall to weaken. By the looks of the things, it was all coming to a bursting point.

I groaned and started to rise to my feet. I spared a brief look over my shoulder to see Elmiryn making her way toward us, wheeling her shoulder with a pained look. I felt a pang of guilt, and let my eyes flicker back toward the others arguing over Syria. So much for my high horse.

Look at us. Hurting each other like this…and for what?

Duty, Kali growled in my head. Vendettas. Weakness.

But who is motivated by which? I wondered as I pushed into a light run for Lethia and Quincy.

Kali sighed. Everyone. All three. But I might have an idea…if you’re willing to risk it.

I frowned as she conveyed her thoughts wordlessly. I could sense that she still preferred foregoing words for important ideas.

I’m not sure. Just…give me a moment, I responded.

I said to Lethia as I neared, “You shouldn’t be involved in this! You could get hurt!”

“I have to do this! Syria is my responsibility,” she bit back, and as if to emphasize this, the teenager wrung the staff in her hands, and I could see the electricity charge up and down its length.

Quincy cursed and reached into her magic pouch, where she pulled out a short sword. The hilt was short and the blade flared at the tip, telling me it was one-handed and meant for slashing. She pointed it at the young enchantress, her other hand bringing up Eate’s Son. I was amazed she managed to recover the boomerang in that chaos.

Quincy yelled at Lethia, “Damn your tricks! Stay away, or I’ll make you stay away!”

“What do you care if I kill Syria or not!?” The girl shot back.

“Elmiryn has to do it, and I’m not just saying that because of our vow. It’s the only way to learn about these creatures!”

“You mean those ‘creatures’ that have successfully pitted us against each other?” I interjected sharply. They turned to stare at me. “Now can we stop this nonsense and work together?”

The looks on their faces said it all.

I glared, my jaw tightening. Syria was beginning to stir on the ground. Elmiryn still hadn’t reached us, and with the three of us in the line of fire, she couldn’t use her strange fae powers for a ranged attack. It was now or never.

“So be it,” I snapped, and while Syria’s guard was still down, I willed the shadows to take her.

 

ELMIRYN_______________________

“Nyx, stop, STOP!” Elmiryn shouted.

By the time Elmiryn reached them, however, she knew it was too late. The last of Syria’s body sunk out of sight, as if the ground was liquid.

The warrior crashed into Nyx’s side, shaking her shoulder. “Bring her back!”

Nyx looked at her coolly. “No,” she said, pulling away.

They locked stares, and Elmiryn felt an unsettling twinge in her gut. When Quincy had reset her arm, the woman had tried to heal the injury as fast as she could, but while she had become quite adept at manipulating basic elements, flesh was a different matter entirely. The process was a little painful, and certainly not quick, forcing her to watch as Lethia, Quincy, and Nyx had it out. In that time Syria was out cold, and the opportunity to kill her felt almost cruel in its untimeliness. Now, that opportunity was gone.

“If I can leave the Umbralands, I can get back,” Elmiryn said tightly.

Nyx narrowed her eyes. “What makes you think your challenge will be any easier there?

The warrior’s face tensed in apprehension. “What did you do?”

When the girl didn’t answer right away, Elmiryn advanced on her, her grip tightening on her sword. “Nyx tell me what you–” then the woman broke off, her eyes widening. “No it’s impossible…”

 

SYRIA__________________________

Syria groaned and rolled onto her side. She felt cold. Sluggish and sore. Her limbs were hesitant to follow her commands and it frustrated her. Slowly she sat up and took stock of her surroundings.

Darkness, with varying shades of light. A mirror of the Real World. The Umbralands, then.

She cursed. Trust these childrens’ divergent goals to intersect at just the most critical moment to set her back. Syria struggled to focus on a solution, struggled to think straight even. It had been years since she had found herself in such a vulnerable mental and emotional state. Lethia was the cause of it, and she clearly knew how to exploit it.

Then the woman looked at the girl through the veil and smiled. “Conviction, even in hatred, dearest! Conviction! Well done!” Syria crowed.

As she rose to her rootish feet, she heard a harsh voice speak behind her, making her jump. “Conviction? Let me show you something of conviction, witch…”

Syria turned but saw no one. This unsettled her. As an enchantress, a master at that, she could sense the thoughts of others before they even came into sight. It was almost second nature to feel the echo of animuses as far as ten or twenty miles out. She was always in tune with the intellectual cluster–that network of souls where thoughts hummed as though they traveled down a plucked string.

But she had heard nothing.

Around her came the subtle sound of footsteps and she slowly curled her hands to fists. Her brow tightened as sweat beaded there. Nyx was not with her. Syria could see the girl on the other side, speaking to Elmiryn. Then a thought occurred to her.

But it…cannot be. She cannot be here if Nyx is–!

A spitting hiss speared at Syria from the side, and the woman just managed to lean back in time to avoid a swipe of claws over her head. The enchantress used her gravity magic to help her backflip away a sizeable distance. When she landed, skidding along the ground, she snapped her head up to confirm who the assailant was.

Kali bared her fangs at the woman, her hands and feet shifted to claws. Her feline features seemed to darken as she bowed her head forward.

“You two cannot exist apart!” Syria spat. “It is against nature! You will die!” The wrongness of this offended her academic intellect. Things just didn’t work this way…

The Twin smirked just as a commotion seemed to kick up with Elmiryn and Nyx in the Real World.

“Can you sense a soul that’s split?” she asked.

Syria didn’t respond, her eyes turning to dangerous slits.

Kali walked backward slowly. “And as I hear it, you don’t read primal minds.” Her form slipped into the densest shadows and out of sight. “And I’m as primal as they come…”

The enchantress pushed into a run, after the Twin, but when she cut with a spinning back kick, she hit nothing. The woman stumbled, and righted herself, her heart hammering. This was something she’d never encountered before. Even now, her intellect railed against her circumstances, but her deeper instincts said she had every cause to be worried. She relied greatly on her ability to sense what a person would do before they even did it. It was why Lethia attacking her was such a danger–the girl was capable of guarding her mind. But here, the woman didn’t even have clear view of her enemy.

Syria ground her teeth. I will not lose to this abomination!

But in the meantime, she felt it necessary to bring in her newest weapon just to even the playing field.

Killing Nyx by proxy had to count for something.

 

ELMIRYN_______________________

Elmiryn grabbed Nyx by the arm and shouted, “You gave her over to Kali!?

Nyx’s face darkened with anger as she grabbed the woman’s wrist, her grip so tight it felt like she were trying to break bone. “Do not grab me like that!”

The redhead ripped her hand away and spat, “And what should I do then? Huh?? You clearly don’t trust me enough to–”

“Trust?” Nyx cut in, baring her teeth. “Elmiryn, what I can trust in you to do is to doggedly pursue your ambitions, self-destructive as they may be!”

“But it’s like you said, we don’t have to fucking fight like this! You can just step aside!”

“You know I can’t! If I did that, then what would be the point of our relationship!?”

What relationship?” Elmiryn snapped without thinking.

Nyx stared at her, those typically warm eyes suddenly going cold. The woman felt a sickening drop of her stomach pull at her chest, leaving a big empty hole. The Ailuran laughed and spread her arms. “You know what? I couldn’t have summed things up better myself.”

Quincy rolled her eyes and sighed. Lethia shook her head and looked away.

Elmiryn swallowed down the reparative binge that fought its way up her throat. Meznik was right. They did talk too much, and now wasn’t the time to repair faults in their dynamic, as much as it hurt them. So the warrior just turned away, fighting to regain the focus she needed to return to the Umbralands. She couldn’t do that looking at Nyx. “We’ll talk about this later.”

“You mean talk about the fact that you’re turning into exactly what you were afraid of?” Nyx scoffed.

Elmiryn turned and glared daggers, but before she could say anything, a muted boom tickled her ears, making her stop. Quincy turned similarly alert, her eyes snapping up to search around them. Lethia stiffened, her eyes going distant as if she were sensing something they were unable to. Nyx seemed aware of the strange noise, but like Elmiryn, didn’t gather the significance.

The girl looked up, then looked at Quincy, then Lethia. “What is it?” she asked.

“Shhh!” The wizard snapped.

Lethia started backing away, her eyes going up.

Elmiryn and Nyx exchanged a nervous glance, then looked up too.

They did so just in time to see a dark figure descending towards them. The warrior put up her fae shield just in time as the person crashed into the ground and sent them flying from a powerful gravitational bomb. Though Elmiryn’s shield absorbed the brunt of the blast, she was still sent sprawling backward onto the ground. Wincing, she raised herself into a crouch and used her powers to remove the dust from her line of vision. Her eyes widened.

The person standing in the crater was Hakeem, and when he turned his head her way, his expression was void of all goodwill.


Back to Chapter 39.1 | Forward to Chapter 39.3

Chapter 39.1

NYX____________________________

Out there, on that scarred field where malevolent beings had devastated the land with their depravities, all of us stood at a standstill, poised to fight and teetering on the edge of what could very well be a calamitous showdown. The soil beneath my bare feet was dark and muddy, and my toes squished in it, clenching and digging in anticipation. But I could see, in the lightless light of the Other Place, that the moisture that softened the earth beneath me was not water, but blood. In messy patches, it scabbed over the earth. If we weren’t careful, our blood would soon be joining the messy soup at our feet as well.

Elmiryn opened her mouth to speak, and I could tell by her expression that she was set to shoot off a witticism, but a loud boom cut her off and made us seize up like cornered animals. The source of the noise became quickly apparent, even without Quincy calling out and pointing. In a plume of dust and debris, something had blasted its way out of Izma’s tower and was now jettisoning towards us. My eyes squinted, struggling to assess just what the thing was—and then it dawned on me that this was not a thing, but a person.

And when they landed hard at the ground beneath Izma, dust rising from the crater that leveled with their impact, the sick realization of just who Izma’s champion was hit me in full.

“Syria…” I moaned. This would be the one trying to kill me. The one I was supposed to keep Elmiryn from killing. Oh this would be a disaster, I was sure of it.

The master enchantress straightened, her long silky black hair curtaining about her face. She wore a dark sequined dress, cut scandalously down the front, that clung to her voluptuous body. She wore no shoes…for her feet were rootish and wooden, their ends anchoring into the soil. She was a demon’s pet, enslaved to Izma’s mad designs. Was this the sort of transformation that awaited Elmiryn?

Since all this had started, I hadn’t thought of Syria as much as I perhaps should have. I’d been too preoccupied with surviving, with regaining the things I had lost. But now the question came to me…the Other Place was a place of division. Each of us had lost something in coming here. Me, my Twin; Quincy, Tonatiuh; Elmiryn, her physical form; Hakeem, his years; Farrel, his moral direction; Argos, his loyalty. Looking at Lethia, I knew it was the same case with her, though I didn’t know exactly what her sacrifice had been. Surely then, if all of us had suffered such a fate, a dog included, what did the enchantress lose?

When her gaze turned my way, Syria’s face bore a thin smile, and I could see that her eyes were red-ringed and swollen. Had she been…crying?

Lethia made a sound–and I could not tell if she were trying to swallow a sob or muster up the courage to say something. Her face showcased a sort of despair I felt uncomfortably familiar with. It was a look of regret. Of guilt. The anger in me flared.

She was still loyal to Syria this whole time! I thought, before I could stop myself.

Kali snorted at my brashness. Idiot. Listen!

What the teenager said next dispelled my foolish theory quickly, as my Twin so gently indicated. “I should’ve killed you…” Lethia intoned. “Then this wouldn’t be happening!”

“But you didn’t,” Syria replied, and her voice lacked the smug confidence I had been expecting. If anything, she sounded…disappointed.

“We don’t have to do this. We can just walk away!” I cried, trying to be reasonable, though I knew it was pointless. Syria, in her madness, was intent on following Izma despite nearly being discarded. Elmiryn, in her ambition to kill Meznik, was going to go through with her plan of playing along to the demon’s wishes. We’d all heard the others commands. We all knew there was no recourse, and it was a mistake on my part, to pretend there was. It made me sound weak and scared–which I was, but that was besides the point. Harmony had granted me the strength of presence, and right now, I was destroying whatever progress I’d made in my new image.

Not that it would’ve worked on Elmiryn, anyway.

She carefully moved away from Lethia, and Syria and I moved with her, all of us tensely united in our opposition of one another. The scenario was turning my stomach into knots, and I liked my insides well and ordered. I didn’t like the prospect of having to fight Elmiryn. In my peripheral vision, I saw Lethia move with Quincy. Together they followed our movements—at a cautious distance, but unwilling to stray too far from the upcoming action. Would they interfere? Could they? For all I knew, this would turn into a real battle royale.

Elmiryn, satisfied now that she had both Syria and I well in her view, slid her left foot back and raised her sword hilt to temple level. She had taught me this stance. It was the Ox. In this position, the blade was high and aimed at her opponent’s face or throat, with the weapon slightly angled to allow for blocking. Her weapon was trained on Syria when she did this, but I could see from the slight turn of her body that she was ready to evade me if necessary.

“Nyx,” the warrior said, her eyes still fixed on her target. “You know I’m doing this for you, don’t you?”

I responded with hands held out, beseeching, “Elmiryn, I don’t want to hurt you. Please. Don’t attack her! We can find another way!” I had already chosen my path, there was nothing more to lose in seeing it through. Maybe by some great distant miracle I could at least get the redhead to stand down.

“She’ll kill you if I don’t stop her.” Then Elmiryn raised her voice and asked Syria sharply, “Isn’t that right?”

“I’m afraid your friend speaks the truth, Nyx,” Syria murmured. I could feel her eyes on me, heavy and hungry. I was her way back into Izma’s good graces. The only reason she wasn’t launching at me right that second was because of the warrior baring down on her.

My fists clenched, and I started to tremble. I wished Harmony would come back and steel me. I wished I had clothes to cover my shivering distress. I wished Elmiryn wouldn’t use me as a thin excuse to learn more about Meznik. I wished, I wished, I wished… But these wishes were useless. So I resolved to do the best I could and said instead, “Then I’m sorry, Elle.”

And without a word or a gesture, I willed her shadow to swallow her.

 

ELMIRYN________________________ 

The redhead realized what was happening just as she tumbled out of her shadow through to the Umbralands on the other side. She hit the dark ground with a soft thud. Her breath fogged in front of her face and her skin broke out in gooseflesh. Elmiryn straightened with an audible growl and quickly scanned her monochromatic surroundings. She was disappointed she hadn’t thought to anticipate such a move from Nyx.

She decided that using champion powers was a form of cheating, and it sucked, to borrow an otherworldly phrase. As she saw it, it was not a strength gained by the person in question, but a strength given by some unfathomable entity whose fat spirit took up too much cosmic space. But she was not angry with Nyx for flexing her god-given might. After all, the warrior had been given things too, and she had not neglected to use them…

Around her was a perfect mirror of the scene she had just been ejected from. Quincy, Lethia, Izma, and Meznik were all in the same places as before. Even the spirits watching the battle hadn’t moved. But as Elmiryn watched the fight commence without her—Syria lunging at Nyx, the girl dodging her, the mad enchantress striking with a quick reprisal—she knew she was not there. The others were gray and seemed…a touch blurry. The warrior could still see their faces, but their forms seemed fuzzy at the edges. Like she were looking through an unfocused lens.

Elmiryn tried to get her bearings straight. Tried to wrack her brain for a solution to get back into the fight. Syria had pressed her offense, forcing Nyx into the defensive. The warrior could see the girl had advanced exponentially as a fighter since coming to the Other Place, but it was her opinion that Syria was out of her league. If the lightning fast leg swipe that shook the girl’s balance, and the following meteoric uppercut that hit Nyx in the chin was any indication, Elmiryn had very little time to balance the battlefield. Even if all the warrior could do was interrupt Syria’s momentum, she was certain Nyx could regain her footing.

Syria had stumps of roots for feet, but judging by the way she moved, Elmiryn couldn’t say for certain it was a real hindrance. Her fluidity of movement even rivaled Nyx, who the woman knew to be naturally quick and dexterous. Quincy was twisting her staff in her hands, clearly eager to do something as she eyed the demons that stood apart from them all, quietly observing. Lethia’s focus was more on the fight, though now and again, her eyes flickered to Meznik on the ground, or Izma in the air. The demons themselves showed no desire to participate in the fight, as Elmiryn expected. They were passive creatures who liked to pit people against each other. Even if the warrior were foolhardy enough to attack them, she was certain it would come to nothing…and it would ruin a perfectly good opportunity in the meantime.

“Kill Izma’s pet. And as a reward, I’ll tell you where we come from!”

How could she resist? It wasn’t as if she had many clues to work off of now. She wished the others would understand. She wished NYX would understand. She couldn’t get close enough to Meznik until he trusted her. She couldn’t kill him until she knew what his weaknesses were.

She couldn’t even fight him because her hateful attention made him stronger.

But Elmiryn didn’t think killing Meznik would be much of a victory if Nyx died. So killing Syria was beneficial, really. She wasn’t putting anything on the line.

She wasn’t.

Really.

When the seconds ticked by and Syria kicked Nyx in the stomach with such force that it was a certainty something had broken, Elmiryn realized with great self-admonishment that she’d been looking for answers in the wrong place. There was nothing she could use on the other side to help bring her back, and every second she wasted was a chance for Nyx to die. She looked around her quickly–at the stark shadows and the harsh lines of light. Then an idea came to her.

Shadows here are solid, like walls. Light is the opposite. So if I do THIS…

Elmiryn raised a hand and focused the light around her to coalesce around her fist. Then with it, she drew an opening and felt the cold air rush past her, as if a vacuum had been created.

Nyx should’ve realized, she thought as she jumped through the passage of light. Color is a form of light, and I can control that. So her Umbralands can’t hold me.

The woman couldn’t help but spare a brief smirk as she returned to the normal realm. Her smugness was short lived when she saw Syria encase Nyx in a gravitational field just over the ground–likely so that the girl couldn’t use her shadow power to escape. The enchantress raised a fist, and the air seemed to cyclone around it, whipping the dust and dirt around them into a frenzy. Her eyes glowed faintly from some deep power drawn up by her anima. She was going to try and deliver a killing blow, no doubt.

Elmiryn reprimanded herself as she charged Syria from behind, bringing her sword back for a swing. For fuck’s sake, I can pat myself on the back later!

 

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy could appreciate that the Ailuran was getting beat up by Syria, but she was a champion and frighteningly resilient, if her being ripped apart not long ago illustrated. The wizard had seen that much. Seen the blood spray into the air, Nyx’s body divide itself as the spirits took their prizes. She had survived that, and without much fuss. No, the wizard was more preoccupied with the demons that were currently in their company. The ringleaders of their misfortune. The sowers of all this destruction.

They’ve done something to HakeemI can feel it! She thought, trembling on a minute level with fury.

But a primal instinct tickled her from deep within, telling her that these beings were untouchable. This animal intuition was further backed by her sixth sense for magical energies, which she had trained and cultivated during her training as a wizard. The intellectual clusters–those bindings that fed energy through animas and minds–was warped. She could do nothing against them, much as she’d like to. At least for the moment.

Nyx had explained to them, in their exchange of stories not long ago, what she had gone through before arriving in the Fiamman shard. She mentioned Izma. Her otherness. How her alien nature was too much for her to comprehend.

And yet now, we can gaze on them freely. Is it some sort of power they activate? Some ward or barrier they use as a precaution?

Quincy would have kept on puzzling over the mystery of the astral demons if Lethia hadn’t cried out. The wizard snapped her gaze over in time to see the teenager rush forward just at the same moment Elmiryn somehow returned from the shadowy prison Nyx had cast her in. From the corner of her eye, she could see Meznik regard Lethia with a frigid sort of attention.

Moving quickly, Quincy caught up with the girl and wrenched her back by the arm. Lethia stumbled, her arms wheeling as she caught her balance. She cast an infuriated stare at the woman.

“What are you doing!?” She shrilled. “Nyx–”

“Is being helped by Elmiryn,” Quincy interjected. “Don’t go jumping in without thinking! You could just make matters worse!”

“You don’t actually mean to sit by and watch, do you!?”

The wizard sneered at her. “Why not? It’s what you’ve been doing this entire time!”

The girl’s lips pinched shut at this, but she turned her eyes back to the fight. Her body was still tensed as if ready to rush in at any second. Quincy rolled her eyes behind her back. If the little fool was so dead set on getting herself killed, then she wasn’t going to stress herself by trying to stop her further.

Her original train of thought already disrupted, the brunette found her eyes reluctantly turning to the battle at hand. Just as she had expected, Elmiryn had succeeded in intervening, but by the looks of it, only just. Quincy pursed her lips as she watched the warrior interpose herself between Syria and Nyx through a lancing hybrid attack of her fae power and her sword. With the master enchantress’s concentration broken, Nyx crashed to the ground.

An all encompassing gravity spell was hard to maintain no doubt, even for Syria, Quincy mused.

Lacertli was gone from the Ailuran’s shoulder, no doubt to watch the fight’s proceedings from the ethereal realm. Thoughts of the god got Quincy thinking about goals and allegiances as she watched the fight move further up the field, forcing some of the surrounding spirits to scramble out of the way.

Her eyes narrowed as certain promises nagged her.

The right moment, Elmiryn. I just need the right moment! Hang on!

The warrior in question was locked in with Syria now, and she pressed the enchantress away from her lover. Nyx, meanwhile, struggled to her feet, her face tensed and dirt clinging to her sweaty skin. She appeared winded, her left arm hugging her chest.

Did Syria try crushing her with the gravity spell? Quincy wondered.

Elmiryn and Syria began trading explosive blows–the master enchantress sending blasts of force at the warrior, while the redhead returned with a barrage of air and dust from her twirling sword. Quincy thought it stupid at first until Syria let out a curse and lost a costly second swiping dirt from her eyes. Elmiryn capitalized, but the manner in which she did so made the wizard start.

The earth about Syria’s rooty feet suddenly rose and gripped her ankles like hands. The enchantress only had enough time to look down before the soil ripped her legs out from under her, sending her whipping forward. No cry slipped her lips. She didn’t wheel her arms in a panic. instead, her hands instantly shot up, palms faced outward and fingers splayed, and she was halted in mid-air. Quincy couldn’t see the magic Syria was casting, but she could feel the gravitational forces in the air tensing as a foreign aura redirected a portion of the network. That was all magic was in the end–even primal magic. Networks. Patterns. Weaves. Creating an effect meant altering the existing state of life, and Syria did so with such grace and command that Elmiryn’s fae tricks seemed vulgar and clumsy in comparison.

Speaking of the warrior, Syria’s recovery hardly seemed to phase her. She started to go in for an attack, her sword held aloft and a sharp gleam in her eye–

–That was, until Nyx came out of nowhere and grabbed the woman by her right arm and pulled. Elmiryn managed to keep her balance, but when her body turned to adjust to her companion’s pull, the Ailuran did something that made Quincy laugh without thinking.

In one fluid movement, Nyx grabbed onto Elmiryn’s neck–and still holding her arm–the girl leapt up and tucked her body. She was not a heavy person, but her dead weight forced the warrior to bend forward. The moment this happened, Nyx wrapped her right leg around Elmiryn’s head, forced her right arm straight, and extended her hips with a snap. The warrior let out a strangled yell.

Quincy covered her astonished grin as she watched Nyx release the Fiamman to avoid having her skull crushed by one of Syria’s tree feet. Elmiryn stumbled off to the side, her left hand gripping her sword as her right arm hung limp.

Nyx just caught Elmiryn in a flying arm bar and dislocated her arm. That was…unexpected!

Of course, now the Ailuran had Syria to deal with on her own again. The girl rolled away from Syria, but the enchantress followed her doggedly, and the moment Nyx stopped in a crouch, the other woman sent a kick toward her face. The girl blocked this with her forearms and rose to her feet. Syria followed up with yet another kick, but instead of jumping out of the way like a scared girl as she had been before, the Ailuran raised her leg at the knee and used her shin to block the blow. Quincy winced as she saw the impact. She knew from experience that the only reason Syria wasn’t using elaborate magic spells was because she was using small scale casting to augment her martial arts. Add on to the fact that the lower half of her legs were made of solid wood and you were looking at fractured bones.

But to Quincy’s surprise, Nyx took the hit with just the barest of grimaces, her legs moving fast to intercept Syria’s other kicks. The wizard was in awe of how quickly the enchantress could move with such heavy appendages, but looking at her one would think she was even stronger than before. The exchange drew out as both women started to compete for the upper hand. Quincy realized that the battle was not for who could land the deadliest blow, but to see who would lose their balance first. Indeed, the more she watched Syria try to stomp Nyx’s feet, or Nyx to swipe out Syria’s legs, the more apparent it became that this was a battle of finesse.

Quincy frowned. She wondered why it was that the enchantress saw fit to challenge Nyx in a style of fighting that the girl clearly excelled at. Was it to make Izma pleased by illustrating how Syria was superior in whatever form of battle that she found herself in?

Quincy looked Elmiryn’s way. The warrior was trying unsuccessfully to reset her arm. Apparently her fae abilities did not extend to such an injury. Sighing, the brunette started to march toward her, staff out.

If there’s ever a moment to enter into things, it’s now!

At Quincy’s approach, Elmiryn snarled at her. “Stay out of it, wizard!”

“No,” she snapped back. She crouched down to inspect the exact nature of the injury. “We took an oath to help one another in our goals, right? Well this counts.”

“You’re just doing this because you can’t think of another way to find out where Hakeem’s gone,” Elmiryn grumbled, her eyes fixed on Nyx.

Quincy leaned her staff against her shoulder and started to roll up her sleeves. “Yeah, well…someone’s got to keep Nyx off you.”

Lethia’s voice cut in from behind. “Quincy, if you’re going to get involved too, then I can’t sit by and watch. This is my fault. I have to make things right. That means the demons can’t have their way!”

Elmiryn looked up sharply. “Lethia what are you saying?”

The wizard hadn’t even realized the girl had followed her. She blinked and looked up over her shoulder. Lethia’s eyes locked onto hers, and she felt something sharp stab just behind her irises and pull. As the numbness rolled over her, making her fall backward onto the ground in a stupor, Quincy heard Lethia say as she confidently removed her lightning staff–

“Excuse me while I borrow this…”

Quincy struggled for breath as the warrior’s face swam over her, her hand clutching the collar of the wizard’s shirt.

“Lethia Artaud, you get your ass back here!” Elmiryn shouted. “You give this woman back her skill! You hear me? …Lethia! LETHIA!

Quincy groaned and touched her head. “Wha…what? What happened? Elmiryn what are you talking about?”

The redhead looked at her with a grimace, then helped her sit up. “Lethia ‘borrowed’ your skill in using that lightning staff. She’s going to try and stop me from killing Syria—the gods know why!

Quincy blinked at her thickly. “…I—I had a lightning staff?”

Elmiryn spared her an impatient glare. “Wizard I haven’t got the time to deal with your goofy stupor, so just pop in my dislocated arm before I rip it off and beat you with it!”


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