Syria’s lip curled, even as the sweat tickled her nose and eyelids. Elmiryn was fading. She was on the cusp of giving in to unconsciousness. The enchantress wouldn’t let her die, of course. Why would she, when the redhead was the only way out of these accursed borderlands? But Syria could make Elmiryn wish she were dead. She could choke the warrior over and over until she gave in. After that? Then maybe death.
On the other hand, it would serve for the meddlesome pest to see her lover slain before her. Syria felt a jagged smile form on her face at the thought.
As she waited for the warrior to succumb, she could feel Elmiryn’s mental presence flicker, as if she had passed an object that broke Syria’s line of sight. This jarred the enchantress, but just as quick as it had happened, Elmiryn’s spirit settled back into place again. Syria hardly had time to think how strange this was before something changed. A new thing, just sitting on the surface of Elmiryn’s consciousness.
…A thing that resonated with Harmony.
Syria recoiled, her face paling as she broke off all contact with the warrior. She was a being outside of Harmony. She was Izma’s pet. She thought Elmiryn was Meznik’s pet, but how could the warrior bear a trace of the gods? Syria retreated, her rootish feet stumbling over themselves in their haste to put distance between her and the offending essence. Her limbs felt weak and uncontrollable. Her stomach started to heave up her throat. The woman felt the cold sweep of fear over her skin and could think of nothing…
Certainly not the magic spell required to hold Elmiryn in her earthly tomb.
A breath–dusty and painful.
She coughed sporadically, trying to clear her airways.
The lightheaded confusion that came with being on the brink of unconsciousness veiled her thoughts and prevented her from making sense of time, of position, of impending danger. Then a single driving thought speared through the mist, and Elmiryn remembered one thing above all else:
“Syria!” she gasped. Her dusty eyelids batted open to see the enchantress in question standing some ways away, a look of horror on her face as she regarded Elmiryn as though she were a fire breathing dragon. The redhead was half-buried and leaning sideways in what appeared to be a large mound of dirt. Elmiryn swooned as she tried to raise herself upright and pull herself free. The spots in her eyes made vision difficult. She growled and shook her head, her expression tightening as she bared her teeth in a feral expression. Her hands tensed like claws as they fought to pull her out.
Syria watched, hands held out before her as though to keep the warrior at bay. “Wh-What…what are you?” she breathed shakily.
“Complicated,” Elmiryn grunted as she finally felt her waist and legs begin to free themselves. The redhead growled again, deeper this time. “Angry!”
“You cannot be of the gods,” Syria said, pained. Her cheeks tightened and her chin crumpled as though she were going to break down crying. Tears shone in her eyes. “You are supposed to be like me!”
“Turns out we’re not so alike,” Elmiryn panted as she tucked her legs under her, then rocked to her feet. She nearly lost her balance, her arms wheeling, but she regained it with a huff and picked up her sword, which was sticking out of the dirt nearby. “You wanna know how?” she asked Syria.
The enchantress said nothing as Elmiryn twirled her sword once, then prowled forward, her head ducked slightly and her lips drawn.
“Izma feeds off of your sadness,” the redhead barked. “Meznik feeds off of my anger. We feel different things. Are motivated by different things. Hell, even our abilities are different.”
Elmiryn grinned wolfishly and flicked a hand at her head. As she did so, she took the golden strand that was Artemis’s essence, and she rewove it elsewhere. She could feel time stretch and her limbs feel energized. She was just ten paces away from the enchantress now. “You wanna know what I can do, Syria?”
Elmiryn broke off in a sprint, her boot gouging into the dirt as she launched forward, bringing her sword back for a large swing.
Syria reacted instantly, the whites of her eyes becoming very clear as she threw up both hands and called forth a wall of earth between them. But Elmiryn was faster. With Artemis’s power augmenting her, she could feel the ground rumble from the start of Syria’s spell. In reaction, she instinctively jumped, using an extra burst of air to push her higher over the fast rising wall. The shadows of the Umbralands seemed to grow starker as Elmiryn descended on Syria, a victorious shout ripping from her throat as she brought her sword down between the enchantress’s shoulder and her neck. The dark blood came quickly.
The two fell to the ground as Elmiryn crashed atop the other woman, but the redhead leapt back to her feet and was about to deliver a killing blow to her enemy, when off in the distance, she could see the others. In her quickened mental and physical state, Elmiryn could see immediately that something was off. What stuck out to her?
…Izma was down on the ground in front of Nyx.
Eyes widening, Elmiryn spared Syria one last glance before breaking off in another neck breaking sprint, back toward the others.
She should’ve known. Her anger swelled, not at the demons, but at herself. She couldn’t have expected the astral demons to play by their own rules. But if she could get there in time, that wouldn’t matter.
Elmiryn could break rules too.
Somehow in all the maneuvering she and the others had done, the warrior found herself in a position coming at Izma from behind. Dragging forth the pitfalls of light that hatched the Umbralands, Elmiryn directed them before her–behind Izma’s back.
The blood roared in her ears as she felt her wrath and fear come to a head inside of her, almost like an ocean wave reaching its peak in a high storm. She could even feel the lightning in her muscles, the salt in her veins, the chill of the wind on her skin as she leapt through the makeshift gateway back into the Other Place proper.
Things happened quickly after that.
The woman could feel her first foot hit the ground, could feel it slide along the dirt as her other foot swung forward. Her sword cut downward at an angle, just as Izma started to turn her way–head first, then body. Nyx reacted behind her, mouth dropping, hands coming up as if to shield herself. Quincy rose to her feet, her hand raising up Eate’s Son as if she were going to throw it, even as her expression said she wasn’t entirely sure what to make of what was happening before her.
Then Elmiryn felt her sword blade cut into Izma’s arm, the weapon following its arc until it sliced through the limb and struck the demon’s hip, where it stopped. The redhead saw the arm fall as the demon moved away, shrieking like brass instruments, and Elmiryn felt a vicious satisfaction as she scooped the limb up–it made her hand nerves tingle–and kept her body down to avoid the reactionary swipe Izma sent her way with her remaining good arm. Charging past her, Elmiryn plowed past Nyx and Lethia, sending the youths to the dirt.
It wasn’t that she stopped caring about them. To the contrary, this was to save them.
The warrior didn’t stop running until she passed Quincy, then with a scream she pulled Izma’s arm back and threw it up at Meznik in the air.
It would’ve hit the demon in the face had he not caught it like he expected it.
“Here!” Elmiryn bellowed. “Syria is defeated! Izma is hurt! This bullshit is over! Tell me where you come from! Now!”
Meznik slowly lowered Izma’s arm. He stared at Elmiryn with his soulless eyes, and somehow things had fallen quiet. Not even Izma, who had been making such a terrible noise not a second ago, made a sound.
Then Meznik descended to the ground. When he was before her, he looked down at Izma’s arm again, then up at Elmiryn.
You want to know where we come from?
“Yes,” Elmiryn bit out.
Meznik held out Izma’s arm, and confused, the warrior took it.
I’m not telling you.
But the demon cut her off, his voice a deep pounding drum.
I’m not telling you,
Because the conditions were
That you kill Syria.
You did not.
He tilted his head back and folded his hands behind him.
This was impressive.
The crowd of evil spirits around them began to disperse, hesitant at first…then in a sort of panic. They scurried around them, stirring up the dust. The chaos swallowed the warrior and the demon, but somehow they remained impervious.
So I will tell you
Something else of value.
Elmiryn’s eyes narrowed. “What is that?”
If the woman didn’t know any better, she would’ve said the demon smiled at her.
It all happened so quickly. I would’ve reacted–maybe helped Elmiryn in her attack of Izma–but I was rooted with surprise. Even the demon was completely blindsided, as if her unintelligible noises weren’t enough of a clue. When Elmiryn cut off the abomination’s arm, I never would have guessed she would have picked it up, then barreled past Lethia and I. As I fell to the ground and watched her go, a million thoughts went through my head:
What is she thinking?
Why did she push me?
How in the world did she hurt Izma!?
But these were all silenced as the redhead threw Izma’s arm up to Meznik and demanded her victory.
…So that was it.
She was trying to win.
Even as I watched the growing exchange between Elmiryn and Meznik, I could hear a small sound behind me and turned to see Syria limp through the disintegrating gateway Elmiryn had left behind. Her eyes locked onto mine, her breath coming in low ragged gasps, before she turned and looked over at Izma. The demon in question was on one knee, her good hand clutching her stub of an arm in what seemed to be…shame? Disappointment? It was strange how these abomination’s fixed bone-like features could convey so many different emotions.
Wordless, Syria went to Izma and helped her up. Izma let her. The enchantress started to lead the demon away, and as she did so, she looked back–not at me, but at Lethia. I glanced at the girl. I could see her tensed as if ready to leap up and chase after them, her face red with frustration and her eyes shining with tears. But the girl didn’t move. What would she do, anyway? She was like me, too weak.
I returned my gaze and watched, morbidly fascinated by what the evil pair would do next. But Syria and Izma took only another step before they shimmered and vanished. Just like that…
It was all over.
All this time, I could hear Elmiryn and Meznik speaking behind us. Syria and Izma’s presence close by had stolen my attention away, so I didn’t know just what was said. Before I could tune back into the conversation, a great commotion erupted as the evil spirits that had spectated our battle began to flee. Without Izma here to protect and lead them, their confidence vanished, and they stampeded by, pushing and punching and slashing. I hurried to my feet and dragged Lethia with me. I shouted and she screamed as what appeared to be a giant centipede stormed towards us.
I did the only thing I could think of, which was to push the shadows of the devils away from us. As the laws of the universe made the body inseparable from the shadow, the spirits were forced to go around us in their escape, including the horrible centipede. Lethia and I huddled together until the chaos passed.
…It was not a short wait. Some of the spirits paused in their escape to fight each other. But with time, things finally quieted enough that I could make out Quincy in the dust. Pulling a dazed Lethia after me, we hurried toward her.
Hakeem was still unconscious, and somehow, at some point, Quincy had recovered her lightning staff and had used it to create some sort of field of energy around her. This vanished as we neared, and she rose to greet us, though she still refused to move far from Hakeem.
We both spoke at the same time.
“Where is Elmiryn?” we both asked.
When her question sunk in, so did my dread. “You don’t know where she is?”
Quincy shrugged her free hand and pointed at the last place we’d both seen her–speaking to Meznik. “She was there before these damned spirits stampeded!”
I let go of Lethia and tried to see through the lingering dust clouds if I could catch any sign of Elmiryn. I even resorted to calling for her.
The seconds grew into minutes.
“She’s gone,” Quincy stated flatly behind me.
“She really left?” I breathed, clenching my hands.
“Nyx.” I didn’t turn. The wizard said my name again, sharper. “Nyx.”
“What?” I snapped, finally turning.
Quincy’s face was tense and her eyes cutting. “We have to think of ourselves. The promise to Stanislav to clear the forest of the evil spirits has been fulfilled. Izma has fled. Meznik has fled. The way out of this infernal dimension is close by. We…have…to…move!”
Lethia who looked like a ghost beneath the dirt that covered her tear-stained face, nodded her head faintly. “She’s right, Nyx,” she mumbled.
“But–” and my arguments died before I could even make sense of them.
I felt a part of myself die with them.
Elmiryn had made her choice. Her ambition had always been to get closer to Meznik.
There wasn’t much to salvage anyway. Just a pair of broken wizards, a broken enchantress…and my broken heart.