Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 41.3

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn was stumbling over herself. She could claim she was still out of sorts from falling from a great height earlier, and she may even win the argument. But the truth was, she felt fear. A sort of primal, rabbity fear that sent shockwaves from the base of her neck to the ends of her fingertips and her gut. The air crackled, making her hairs stand on end. Colors and light seemed altogether harsher, like bleach on her eyes.

She had trespassed, and Julie and Molly knew it.

Elmiryn could feel their wrath, even as she tripped and fell down the back steps of May’s home. When she scrabbled at the grass and dirt, ripping out clumps in her haste to resume flight, she could feel their presence getting nearer. She knew, too, that they had turned this powerful influence on like a switch to keep her from fighting back when–

Wham.

The woman yelled as she felt the hard heel of a shoe stomp onto her back, pinning her on the ground.

A moment later the screen door banged open, and the wooden steps creaked as one–no, two–people descended.

“Guys what the hell!?” Elmiryn heard May cry out. “Why are you attacking her? And I thought I said no strange tricks where the neighbors can see! Unlike you, I have to live here!”

“Sorry, May,” a familiar voice said. Elmiryn guessed it was Molly. Her visual memory may have been poor, but she still had good auditory memory.

Molly said next, “This geek was warned not to come back here. Soon as I sensed her presence we had to come.”

“And I guess you were just in the neigborhood?”

“No. We nightcrawled.”

“Huh??”

“We teleported,” Molly clarified patiently.

“Is she a threat?” May asked brusquely. Apparently she didn’t need more clarification than that.

“Consider her a virus. Having her here runs the risk of things getting unraveled. We had another one pop up the other day. We’re still trying to decide what to do with him.”

Elmiryn grunted as she tried to crane her head to look at them. “I’d be happy to leave if someone would just point me the way!”

The shoe in her back dug in deeper. “How do we know this isn’t some ploy by Meznik?” Another voice said over her. That would be Julie.

Elmiryn spat through her teeth, “Oh sure. Real clever trick. Send me in unattended, then have me caught immediately. Just think of the damage that would cause! Are you out of your mind!? Of course I’m not here on account of that asshole! I ran away from him, and now I just want to go home!

“But how did you get here if it weren’t for him?” Molly asked. She sounded closer. “You aren’t powerful enough to travel like this on your own!”

“Okay, well…” Elmiryn huffed into the dirt as she tried to wiggle out from under Julie’s foot. Her back throbbed in pain. When this attempt failed, she growled out, “Meznik brought me out to see the universe proper for a lecture! We were out in space a while, but I didn’t like what he was telling me, so I left! A ghost, spirit, thing helped me find my way here! It said this was the quickest way back home!”

“Well we are dimensional neighbors,” Julie murmured to Molly.

“That doesn’t mean her story is true. After all, what about the other one?” Molly returned.

What other one?” Elmiryn asked irately. “It’s just me! I came alone!”

“Can we resume this conversation back inside? Preferably without any violence?” May piped up.

There was a beat as Molly and Julie seemed to consider this.

Soon the boot came off of Elmiryn’s back, and the warrior rose with effort. Once on her feet, she rotated her shoulders with a wince and regarded Julie and Molly with a phosphorous glare. They took her hostility with nary a twitch.

Molly, the shorter brunette with warm brown eyes, was dressed in a grey skirt and blue hooded sweater. She had a much more cherubic face than Elmiryn remembered, and her bobbed hair seemed eerily immaculate and shiny. In fact, everything about her seemed to suggest perfect symmetry. Julie, on the other hand, screamed asymmetry, with her zebra print top askew on her shoulders and her brown canvas pant legs messily stuffed into her biker boots. She was tall and of a brighter palette, with her tanned skin, pumpkin orange hair, and sea green eyes. Her face was more oval shaped and her features more angular, like Elmiryn’s.

Elmiryn sneered at them and spared a mocking bow before shoving past the pair to follow May back into her house. The warrior knew, despite her primal knee jerk attempt, that she could not escape. She recalled what Meznik had told her, not so long ago: this world’s balance was in disarray, and in the power struggle, god-like individuals had taken total control over the reality of certain areas. May’s house was within Molly and Julie’s control apparently, and Elmiryn, now that she could connect the source, could feel their influence humming through the air.

She sat on the couch as the two women entered. They crossed the room to stand before Elmiryn, towering down over her. May, who sat on the recliner near the door, cleared her throat loudly.

“No looming in my house. Take a seat,” she scolded.

Julie pouted at this, but Molly sat on the coffee table without a word. Sighing, her companion followed suit.

“Here’s the problem, Elmiryn,” Molly said, lacing her fingers together and resting them on her crossed legs. “Right now? We’re currently at war. People with abilities similar to ours want to become the new godly rulers of our world. Among the ones causing trouble for us are the astral demons. You are a demon’s pet. I can see it in your essence. Do you see how this makes things complicated for us? You’re a threat, and yet…”

“Pets rarely stray from their owners,” Julie finished. She puckered her lips. “But that isn’t to say that you aren’t still acting under Meznik’s command.”

Molly flipped over a hand. “So forgive us if we don’t take your claims to heart.”

“Don’t you think Meznik would’ve been more subtle in his approach?” Elmiryn snapped. “I obviously didn’t escape your attention!”

“Could be a distraction. Maybe Meznik is trying to hurt us elsewhere while we’re distracted with you?”

“So why sit and talk to me if you think that’s the case?”

Molly slowly shook her head. “Because we’re not sure. We can’t sense Meznik’s presence like we can sense yours. That’s what makes the demons so dangerous. We have no idea when they actually set foot in our World.”

“But you mentioned someone else! Who else is here? Why would Meznik bring them first, then me after?”

Julie and Molly exchanged looks. Elmiryn glared between them. “What? What is it?”

“Well…” Molly started.

“The other one isn’t actually Meznik’s,” Julie said next.

Elmiryn wrinkled her nose. “And what does that mean?”

“It means that the other one actually belongs to Izma. Only he’s not a pet. Not even a toy.”

“He’s a tool,” Molly said with a grim tilt of her mouth.

Elmiryn was about to ask who the person was again when May piped in. “Question! Can someone tell me what astral demons are, and why the hell they’re so scary with their ‘pets’ and ‘toys?'”

Julie grimaced. “May, it would take too long to explain to you. Besides, that knowledge is dangerous. It could draw attention to you!”

“Draw attention to me? Are you kidding? Some alien woman drops in on my greenhouse. Don’t you think I should know what’s at least happening in my backyard, if not my fucking neighborhood?”

“For the last time, I’m not an alien!” Elmiryn griped.

“Demons are intelligent interdimensional monsters whose goal is to pervert reality as we know it to their fucked up needs,” Julie said with a weary sigh.

“They don’t attack directly. Instead, they prefer to use what they call ‘pets, toys, tools, and children’ to carry out their plans,” Molly said next. She picked at her skirt hem, her brow tightening. “Tools are beings that the demon uses for a short period. They are the throw aways. The little pawns the demons abandon once their role is done.”

“Like Nadi!” Elmiryn murmured, sitting up.

Everyone stared at her.

Clearing her throat, she sat back into the couch.

Satisfied that the warrior wouldn’t interrupt again, Molly continued. “A ‘toy’ was what Elmiryn used to be, just a short while ago. Unlike tools, the demons will interact with toys more directly. They’re valued more, but they are still controlled only by manipulation. A curse is mandatory. It binds the toy to their owner.”

“Then there’s pets,” Julie said with a distinct curl of her lip.

Molly gave a curt nod. “Yes. Elmiryn is now a pet. That means that she is no longer manipulated. She knowingly carries out Meznik’s will. He shares more information with her and she is typically to be at his side at all times.”

“But I’m not,” Elmiryn snapped.

“Next,” Julie interjected with a roll of her eyes. “Is the child.”

The word hung in the air, dense with foreboding. Elmiryn leaned forward onto her knees, her eyes gleaming. She’d never heard of ‘tools’ before, but she already had an idea of the demon’s using people in such a way–like Nadi and Lethia. But a ‘child?’ The word carried with it terrible implications and they made the warrior tremble on a minute level.

“A child,” Julie huffed out, as if the word took great effort. “Is basically a demon’s right hand. They aren’t on a ‘need-to-know-basis’ like the pet. They know everything and they have a set of lesser powers to match those of their demon master.”

Molly put a hand on Julie’s shoulder and said to May and Elmiryn. “It’s the final step before a person becomes a demon themselves. We…lost a friend that way to a demon.”

Elmiryn’s mouth fell open. She searched Molly’s face, trying to find something that would suggest the brunette was lying, but she saw nothing. “So…I’m on a track to become a demon? I thought Meznik wanted to turn me into a fae!”

“Not all pet’s advance onto the child state, Elmiryn,” Molly said with a dark expression. “Sometimes they stay pets until they die. Being a demon’s pet can be just as transformative as being a demon’s child. It just means you’re changing into whatever else the demon may desire. In your case? A fae.”

“This sounds way beyond my pay grade,” May said with raised eyebrows.

Elmiryn clenched her fists. “The other person you have. Izma’s tool. Who are they? Where are they? When did they get here?”

“Time works differently between worlds, Elmiryn,” Julie replied with a shrug. “They got here days before you. They’re currently being held back at my place in downtown. We’ve got our people watching them.”

“But who are they!?” Elmiryn shouted. “You keep avoiding that question and I want to know why!”

Molly and Julie exchanged looks again, and the warrior wanted to slap them both.

Finally, Molly said with a nervous tug of her ear. “The person’s from your world, we think. They’re strange because they seem to know they are being used as a tool, and they say they want to work with us. If what they’re saying is true, revealing them to you could ruin that opportunity.”

“If he’s from my world, then he isn’t your problem!” Elmiryn snarled. “You want to be the new gods here? Fine! But you can’t control people from other dimensions and expect the universe is going to be okay with that! My world is my story, and right now you’re keeping things apart that you shouldn’t be! Take me to this person, and after that, you can give me the boot! I’ll be happy to get out of your hair!”

Molly screwed up her mouth.

Julie nudged her with her elbow. “So…?” she jerked her head. “Yay? Nay?”

The brunette scooted to the edge of the coffee table, and her knees touched Elmiryn’s, making the warrior stiffen. Molly’s dark eyes locked gazes with the redhead, and she murmured. “I’m going to read you. Do you know what I mean when I say that?”

Elmiryn swallowed audibly but fought to keep her face stoic. “You’re going to look at my pattern. See my spirit. My history.”

“Yes. This may be uncomfortable. You might feel like you’re coming apart, but I can’t avoid that.”

“If it means you’ll stop suspecting me, then just do it!”

Molly nodded. Then without word or gesture, the pain struck.

It wasn’t a foreign pain. Elmiryn had experienced this before, when her spirit had been torn asunder, when her essence had been scattered in the hungry white of the Other Place. It was a sort of intense tingling, a razoring of her consciousness down to the finest nerves. The redhead went rigid, her mouth opening in a quiet scream as she instinctively fought to strengthen her body and soul’s integrity.

Through the pain, she heard Molly hiss across from her, “Stop fighting me! I’m not done!”

But Elmiryn couldn’t help it. Surely this wannabe goddess from another World was trying to unmake her…?

And then it stopped.

Elmiryn took a loud gasp of air, her body shuddering as she shook off the last vestiges of pins and needles. By her third deep breath the sensation was gone altogether, but the warrior felt weakened and her thirst for a drink burned hotter than ever.

Without saying a word or even thinking on her actions, Elmiryn swayed to her feet and stumbled over to May’s kitchen. Sitting on the counter was the bottle of rum her host had used earlier to pour her a drink. Elmiryn uncorked this and took a long swig.

May let out an indignant sound behind her. “Hey!”

“Leave her. She can’t help it. I’ll buy you a new bottle, May. Promise,” Elmiryn heard Molly say. She sounded winded herself.

“Moll, you okay?” Julie asked.

When Elmiryn felt her fae urges die down inside her, she leaned on the counter and turned with effort to glare across the room at the others.

Molly seemed pale and her eyes were fixed on Elmiryn. “She’s telling the truth. About running from Meznik.”

“Finally saw that, huh?” the warrior harped.

“No,” the brunette said firmly. She stood and narrowed her eyes. “It wasn’t that. You didn’t give me a chance to see your recent memories. What I mean is…the gold thread inside of you.”

“Gold thread?” Elmiryn spat. She swayed on her feet and could feel the rum burning inside of her. Damn, how she hated the ease with which she became drunk. Hated and loved it. It was a strange feeling.

“Artemis,” Molly said flatly.

Elmiryn’s face slackened and she turned away. “Oh,” she mumbled. “That.”

Before the others could ask, Molly turned and explained. “Elmiryn has a thread of Artemis’s essence inside of her. It’s literally a part of her. The demons hate the gods, and vice versa. Elmiryn may be a demon’s pet, but her brush with the gods, however that may have happened, gives her the power to escape Meznik. It acts like a signal blocker. So with her here, he can’t know what she’s been up to. A demon would never willingly relinquish control like that.”

Julie put her hands on her hips. “So she’s telling the truth about defying Meznik?”

Molly gave a small shrug. “All the evidence seems to suggest she is!”

The phone rang, making Elmiryn jump. May went and answered it, her expression bemused. “Hello?” There was a series of fast squeaks from the receiver. “Pauline? Hey slow down, I can’t understand you.”

May nodded her head as she listened to ‘Pauline’, a frown appearing on her face. “Uh-huh…uh-huh… Wow. God! Hey hold on a minute, okay?” The bespectacled woman quickly covered the phone’s mouth piece and looked at them all.

“Hate to cut a party short, but a close friend just called me with something I can actually work on, so if we’re done here…?”

“We’ll go,” Molly said. She gestured at Elmiryn. “Come on. You want to meet our other guest and get out of here?”

Elmiryn took a step toward them but stopped. “Who…is the other, uh, person? Again?” She fought to keep hold of her speech but could feel the drowsiness take over her faculties.

Molly and Julie stepped forward to each take hold of Elmiryn’s arms. They smelled like butterscotch and cigarette smoke respectively. May resumed speaking in low urgent tones with her friend on the phone, her back already to them. Gently, the pair escorted the warrior to the door.

As they exited May’s house, Molly said, “He told us his name was Hakeem.”


Back to Chapter 41.2a | Forward to Chapter 42.1

Chapter 41.2a

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn huffed as she ran along the cosmic lane, her eyes on the lookout for anything dangerous. She may have given Meznik the slip, but it would just be a matter of time before the demon found her again. After she had learned what she needed from him, she knew she needed to break away. She would not live as Syria did.

Thanks to the help of a rather strange disembodied entity, Elmiryn found herself running in a direction. She thought she recognized some of the flashes she saw in the Worlds she passed, but she couldn’t be sure. Traveling in the Other Place was not like traveling in the greater reaches of the universe.

To her relief, her journey was uneventful. Its end destination?

“A gate,” Elmiryn breathed, stopping short of the large shimmering passage that would grant her entry into the mortal realm of some world. Did her strange ally lead her straight back home? “One way to find out…”

And with hand outstretched, Elmiryn pressed in through the gate…

Only to find her foot falling through air.

With a shout, the warrior tried to twist around and catch the edge of the gate, but she wasn’t quick enough. She careened through space, a single word flying through her mind:

Shit!

Before she promptly crashed through what felt like cold hide, then slammed onto a bed of green leaves. Elmiryn stared up through a hole of torn plastic at the sky where she could see the gate shimmer once before vanishing from sight. A temporary door? Or maybe it was one of those conditional things–like it only existed if the prick end of some planet bum-fucked some sun. Regardless of the reason, it was gone, and Elmiryn started to wonder if her disembodied ally was really an ally at all. Why did she insist on making strange deals with spirits?

Elmiryn’s winded musing was interrupted by a new voice nearby.

“What the HELL?”

The woman craned her head back just as a shadow fell over her.

Another woman stood over Elmiryn, her dark eyes glaring. She wore a thin white cotton tank top with no bra and blue bloxers, no socks or shoes. Her black hair was buzzed short on the sides, but left long at the top, and her furious gaze was framed by thick black glasses. Then Elmiryn finally noticed the gun in the stranger’s hand. A revolver by the looks of it.

“Who the fuck are you, and why are you in my lettuce bed?” the newcomer demanded.

Elmiryn sat up with a wince. “Believe me, I didn’t want to be in your lettuce bed…”

“Who. Are. You?”

The redhead rolled her eyes shut as she rubbed the pain out of her back. She must have landed on a rock or something.

“I’m a bird. I’m a plane. I’m…really not in the mood for questions,” she groused.

Elmiryn stiffened at the sound of the pistol’s hammer cocking back.

The dark haired woman’s glare had narrowed. “I’m not in the mood for games either. How about you just get up then and we can let the cops decide what to do with you?”

“Cops…” Elmiryn chuckled. “I should tell you, I’m not from around here. I don’t think they’ll know what to do with me!”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m a fucking alien and I’m going to melt your brain with my alien powers. Can you put the gun away, please? I didn’t mean to mess up your stupid lettuce bed!”

Elmiryn stood to her feet with a grunt, the other woman following her warily with her gun. The warrior gave her a look. “What? Are you really gonna shoot me over some vegetables?”

The woman’s frown deepened, but she uncocked her pistol and pointed it skyward. Her eyes traveled the length of Elmiryn’s body. When she returned her gaze, she gave a faint one-shoulder shrug.

“For an alien you sure do like ren-fair clothing,” she remarked.

Elmiryn frowned at her. “Ren-what?”

“Ren-fair. Y’know. Renaissance fair? Does your planet not have that?”

“Renaissance…” the warrior murmured, searching her vocabulary.

Apparently she took too long, because the other woman sighed and said, “Forget it. My name’s May. May Kliff. What about you? Do you at least have names on your planet?”

Elmiryn spared her a grin. “I’m Elmiryn. So what World am I in?”

“World?”

“Yeah like…” the redhead trailed off. With a sigh she rephrased. “I meant to say, where am I?”

“Felmore, California. Also, it’s the year 2013 A.D. and Barack Obama is currently in office. Need any more hints?” May said with an ironic smirk.

“Maybe…” Elmiryn rubbed her head with shaky hands. Not only were her withdrawals back, but her head was hurting her to an unusual degree. “Can I trouble you for a stiff drink? Please?”

“Fall through somebody’s greenhouse and ask for a drink? Gotta love America…” May muttered as she turned and walked away.

Elmiryn blinked after her a moment before realizing she was expected to follow.

The two women exited the greenhouse and crossed through a small overgrown backyard to the backdoor of a small white house. May entered through the screen door, and let it shut behind her. Elmiryn hesitated only a beat before entering in after her.

May’s home was small and modest, and while Elmiryn was able to identify some things she saw (“Radio, fridge, phone,”) there were some things she couldn’t. Like the big black box sitting across from the sofa, or the strange metal devices sitting on the counter in the kitchen. As she tried to fill in these blanks, Elmiryn’s headache flared, and she groaned, leaning against the wall for support.

“Hey…you okay?”

Elmiryn felt a cold glass touch her shoulder and opened her eyes to see May holding a glass of what looked to be rum on ice to her. The warrior took it gratefully and swallowed the drink in one go. It burned pleasantly. She pointed at the big black box in the living room.

“I can’t remember what this is,” she mumbled.

May gave her a confused look. “You mean the television?”

“Huh?”

“Geez, either you hit your head really hard, or you’re telling me the truth about that ‘alien’ thing!”

“I’m not an alien,” Elmiryn returned sullenly. “I was just joking around. Don’t call me an alien.” The warrior slid down the wall, staring forlornly into her empty glass. She held it up to May with a pout. “Can I have some more?”

May put her hands on her hips. “I don’t know if you need more! Maybe you’ve got a concussion? I can take you to a hospital and–”

“NO!” Elmiryn slammed her free hand onto the floor and glared up at May. “No hospitals! This isn’t something they can fix!”

“But your head–!”

“It’s just the Universe being angry at me, okay!? I don’t belong in this world, and it’s punishing me for the few things I remember about it!” Elmiryn set her glass down and pressed her palms into the sides of her head. She screamed up at the ceiling. “Hey! HEY! I know what cars are, and planes, and penicilin, and computers, and condoms, and video games! Take THAT Universe! Fuck you!”

May stared down at Elmiryn with eyebrows raised practically to her hairline. “So you’re really not from my world?”

“How else did I fall into your gods damned greenhouse?” Elmiryn snapped. “Did you hear a plane go by or something? I came through a portal!”

“But why did you come here?

“I wasn’t trying to come here! I was trying to get home! I have friends waiting for me!”

May exhaled deeply and tapped her bare foot. She looked over at her phone. “To call or not to call…”

This put Elmiryn on alert. “Call who?” she asked warily.

But May was already walking to the phone, “I’m a freelance problem solver. I deal in really bizarre stuff, but sometimes, when I’m too busy to take on a client’s case, I call these friends of mine over in downtown. They’re better at dealing with inter-dimensional stuff than I am.”

“And who,” Elmiryn started slowly. “Might these two ‘friends’ of yours be?”

May glanced at her, the phone pressed to her ear. “I guess you might have heard of them, huh? They say they’ve got a reputation in other dimensions.”

“But who?” the redhead pressed. “Who are your friends!?”

May opened her mouth to answer but was interrupted when her doorbell rang. Frowning she hung up the phone and went to open the front door. Elmiryn craned her neck to try and see around the woman, but May effectively blocked sight of who stood before her.

Turns out, Elmiryn didn’t need to see to know who it was.

“Julie? Molly?” May exclaimed. “Geez, I was just about to call you!”

And that was when Elmiryn jumped up and ran out the back door.


Back to Chapter 41.2 | Forward to Chapter 41.3

Chapter 41.2

NYX__________________________

Scars. Paulo was covered in strange scars. A mess of lines and shapes on his cinnamon skin. Then I remembered.

Back when this whole mess began, Syria, along with her control of Lethia, had carved those into his skin using fire.

“Paulo,” I repeated when the boy didn’t speak. I looked over at Lethia and Quincy. Lacertli had excused himself in the usual abrupt manner. The enchantress hadn’t emerged from the safety of Argos’s fur, and the wizard had frozen where she was–half crouched over her husband’s body. Something about her stance, even in the dim light, felt rigid.

I looked back at Paulo, and saw that he had approached a few steps. The blanket he shrouded himself with stirred with the wind, and more of his features were revealed. He looked older, in the way that my brother Thaddeus had looked older when he returned from his first season at war.

“You’re…real?” Paulo croaked. “Nyx? That’s you?”

I blinked, bewildered by the question. My voice was slow in answering. “Yes. Yes, Paulo, I’m real. We all are!”

He looked at the others. “Quincy…? That really you?”

Quincy straightened slowly. “It’s me.” Something was off about her voice.

“Have you–Do you know where Graziano is? Arduino? Where is my family?”

Where her husband’s coma had previously failed to crack her brave face, Quincy suddenly crumpled at Paulo’s question. She looked down at her hands, which started to wring together, then looked up again, shoulders hunched. “I don’t know where Arduino is. I–But Paulo, Graziano… He’s dead.”

The news slid off of Paulo’s skin like rain water.

Pulling the blanket off of his head, the boy ventured closer. I was surprised to see that his hair had grown to his shoulders. How much time had passed for him here? “Quincy, where is my family?”

Quincy hurried forward, fighting her way up through the snow. She had her hands held up. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to reassure Paulo or ward him off. “Paulo. Listen to me. Graziano is dead!”

“Where are my brothers, Quincy?” Paulo asked again, but his voice had gone quieter. Colder.

I took a step back as Quincy stopped near me. Up close, I could see the tears in her eyes now. “Graz et moréChoi,” she murmured.

“YOU’RE A FUCKING LIAR!” Paulo bellowed, and he advanced on us, suddenly drawing his rapier.

Without thinking, I leapt in front of Quincy and shouted. “Paulo, stop! Why would we lie to you!?”

Paulo pointed his rapier at Quincy, forcing me to shove the wizard further behind me as I moved to dodge being accidentally slashed in his fury.

Two years!” He snarled. “Two years I was left to rot in this eternal winter with no way of leaving, and Quincy let it happen! This bitch let me and Graziano walk into a trap, so if he’s dead, it’s her fault!”

“That isn’t true–!” I started to argue, but Quincy grabbed my shoulders and flung me aside.

She was still crying, but her face had started to harden back into what could be called the wizard’s usual expression.

“Don’t go speaking about things you don’t know!” she snapped at me.

I glared at her, scandalized. “I’m trying to defend you!”

Quincy hissed at me through her teeth, seemingly oblivious of Paulo’s sword tip pressed into her throat. “I do not deserve nor want your defense! If you want to help, then take Hakeem and the girl up to that campfire before they die of cold!”

I threw my hands up into the air and shrilled, “Fine! Üle lunam? Yibken! I don’t care! You’re on your own!”

I stormed over to Hakeem’s body, which in the slight wind had already started to cover with snow. As I passed Lethia and Argos, I barked, “Argos! Lethia! Stop blubbering and help me!”

Argos whined, but I heard him follow. As I stooped to heft Hakeem up into a sitting position, I muttered darkly, “I’m cold, numb, tired, hungry, spurned–and of all the people I could be stuck with, I have these cajecks!

The dog grumbled at my remarks as he came alongside, but I didn’t apologize. I just hefted Hakeem up (no small feat, let me just say) and put him on Argos’s back. In truth, the dog’s strength was probably comparable to my own, but simple physics made his large frame more capable of carrying Hakeem than I.

As it turned out, Lethia had followed us, and with her help, we kept Hakeem’s body steady on Argos as he made the arduous return to Paulo’s camp. The enchantress seemed to shrink the closer we got to Paulo and Quincy. The boy only had eyes for the wizard however as they spoke in tight, quiet tones back and forth. We passed them without a word.

Finally we reached the camp.

The cold was such that despite the fire being so near, I couldn’t feel its effects until I was a foot or two from its warmth. But even its draw didn’t have me like my old belongings did. Sitting at the edge of what seemed to be a giant horde of scavenged things was my modest little bag of trinkets, and next to that, my old clothes.

I nearly cried at the sight.

Rushing to set down Hakeem, I immediately went to my clothes and started to dress–first my trousers, then my boots, then my undershirt, then my gambeson. Certain other little items, like my stockings and my bandages were still missing. I was also so numb by this point that I knew it would take a while longer before I’d feel the full effect of my newly returned clothes. But I didn’t care.

I had my mother’s gambeson back, and that was all that mattered.

Returning to the fire, I sat across from Lethia and Argos, who had returned to huddling close to the fire. Next to them lay Hakeem on a blanket. I scooted close to the flames, letting my feet soak in the warmth. Looking over at Quincy and Paulo still in the shadowy cold, I could see they wouldn’t be returning any time soon. Well that was fine by me. I wasn’t sure I could take any more melodrama. My patience and goodwill was taxed.

I returned my gaze back to Lethia. “Can you sense the way out from here?”

She looked at me from amid Argo’s furry shoulder, and I could see the red in her puffy eyes.

When she didn’t answer, I scowled. “Lethia? Did you hear me?”

“…Yes,” she responded meekly. She gave a wet sniffle and hid her gaze again.

I clenched my jaw. “Then? Do you know how we can get out of here?”

Again, I got silence. Finally Lethia mumbled, “No.”

“Wonderful,” I sighed.

If Paulo’s change in appearance was any indication, we could be there a very long time…

Gods, to be stuck here for that long with these people!

“Maybe I should just let myself freeze to death,” I muttered next.

 

QUINCY________________________

Quincy swallowed and she could feel Paulo’s rapier tip sink into her skin just enough to bring forth a bead of blood. She found the young man’s eyes, shadowed by his tight brow, and she held them as best she could.

The wizard had been prepared for many things. She had been prepared for another fight, for a timely return home, for her husband to wake from his coma… But somehow, in the hustle that she had found herself swept in since finding Graziano’s body, she hadn’t thought to reunite with Paulo. She had almost taken it for granted that he was also dead. Did she feel sorry for not searching for him harder before? …No. It was clear now that it was meant to be this way. And she hardly had enough reason to strike out searching for the boy on the other shards when they were being accosted by outside forces. He was the last discovery they had to make, the lost thing that had to be found on this path home. Why? She wasn’t sure. But what Quincy did chastise herself for, was not being better prepared for this meeting.

Loathe as she was to admit it, Elmiryn was perhaps better equipped to break the news to Graziano. Quincy, with few to grieve for in her life, didn’t know how to handle such loss. The closest she had to that was when Jack, her father, abandoned her and was never heard from again. But it wasn’t the same. Quincy stared deep into Paulo’s warm eyes and knew it just wasn’t the same.

“I’m sorry you had to hear it from me…of all people,” she said. “But it’s like Nyx told you. What reason would I have to lie?”

Paulo’s mouth curled into a sneer. “Two years gives a person a lot of time to think. I thought about that night, when the others came with Syria. You stayed behind. You knew what was going to happen, and you let us walk right into it!” At these last words, Paulo pressed in deeper with the rapier, forcing Quincy back half a step.

She winced and closed her eyes. “I know. That was wrong of me.”

“Yes! It was! So when you tell me that you have no reason to lie…I don’t believe you! You always have a reason to lie! You are like a snake in the tall grass, waiting to strike!”

Quincy opened her eyes again and felt the tears she had kept at bay slip down her cheeks. “I was a different person then!”

The teenager let out a short caustic laugh, and with his rapier, he flicked at her brown hair. “Yeah. I can see you’ve changed.”

“No, I mean–” Quincy broke off. This wasn’t a time to quibble about the details. Was she really so different just because Tonatiuh’s spirit no longer possessed her? She bowed her head. “I don’t know what else to tell you, except that I’m sorry…”

Paulo didn’t respond, but Quincy could see from her peripherals how the teenager’s sword tip wavered.

When the boy spoke, his voice was choked with emotion. “Do you have his gun?” he asked tightly.

Quincy sighed. “I don’t. Elmiryn does.”

“And where is she?”

“I don’t know. We think she might meet up with us later, once we escape this place.”

Paulo snorted. “Escape? There is no way out!”

Quincy looked at him sharply. “There has to be!”

“If there was, do you think I would’ve stayed here for two years? Alone in the snow?”

The wizard blinked at him. “How did you survive?”

Paulo glared at her before looking away. He sheathed his rapier and the tension melted from Quincy’s shoulders. “At first,” the boy started, but then he broke off, growling.

He turned and looked up the hill to the campfire. He tried again, this time with a stronger voice. “At first I looked. Tried to find any sign of the others. The supplies we had left were all still there, but I had to hide them, because these…these ghost people would come. I think they were scavenging the old prison tower. I tried leaving this place when it became clear that no one was around, but then I found out that there is nothing else beyond this place! It’s just an island floating in nothing.

Quincy rubbed her arms, trying to fend off the cold. The numbness was creeping up her legs. “Were you always in winter here?”

Paulo swallowed audibly. “Yes.” He pinched his blanket tight around him and glared at her again. “I was alone here, in the cold, with no way out.”

“Paulo, if we could’ve come here sooner, we would have!”

The boy just shook his head. The motion felt weary and resentful. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Now we’re all stuck here.”

“But how did you survive? You still haven’t said,Quincy pressed. If the boy was right about being stuck out here, then she wanted to know what resources they had to work with.

“I did what I could! I hunted what little game came my way. Scavenged for tools out in the daesce valley. Right now I’m collecting daesce hide to make warmer clothes. The dog…Argos. When he came, my luck really turned. He helped with food and fending off the daesce.” Paulo jerked his head behind him. “He saved my life.”

Quincy pursed her lips. She reached toward him. “Paulo, we’ll find a way–”

“Don’t touch me!” He snapped, swatting away her hand. He pulled his blanket back over his head, shrouding his face in darkness. The whites of his eyes seemed to burn from the shadows and Quincy felt her head ache inexplicably. “Just because I’m not trying to kill you right now doesn’t mean I won’t try later! I haven’t forgiven you for what you’ve done!”

With a sweep, Paulo turned and marched back up the hill.

Quincy gazed after him, her shoulders sagging.

“Fair enough…” she murmured.


Back to Chapter 41.1 | Forward to The Spectre

Chapter 41.1

ELMIRYN______________________

When they had Traveled the In Between to a platform that hovered just above the various existences—just so much gaseous splendor and chaos—he asked:

 

Do you regret coming?

She thought about it, the glow of dying stars in her eyes.

 

“No.”

 

Then she thought about it again.

 

“Yes?”

 

She shrugged, crossing her arms defensively. “Maybe…”

 

She confuses you.

 

Elmiryn tilted her head back and took a deep breath. Then she gave a twitch of a nod. “Yes.”

 

She weakens you.

Now she scowled. “No.”

 

Meznik shook his head. He stood at her side, surveying everything beneath them like a collector did his baubles.

 

You aren’t focusing.

Your body followed me here

But your mind wanders.

What’s the point

If you aren’t going

To pay attention?

 

“What else do you want from me?” Elmiryn snapped. “I wanted answers. I’m playing your game. I’m here. It isn’t as if you’ve been the most helpful along the way!”

 

Meznik folded his hands behind his back and tilted his head to the side as he regarded her.

 

True.

He looked away.

 

It’s also true

That you bent the rules

To your liking.

 

“…Are you sore because I used Artemis’s essence?”

 

Sore?

No.

Exasperated?

Quite.

Clever as it was

To use a god’s essence

To repel Syria

You do not

Understand

The full repercussions

Of such a risk.

 

“It worked didn’t it?”

 

But not without

Its costs

Of which

I’m sure you will be feeling

The full effects of

Very, very soon.

 

Elmiryn spat and watched the spit fall into the web of existence with a soured expression.

 

“If I didn’t use Artemis’s power, I wouldn’t have gotten to Izma,” she argued.

 

Meznik let out a short snort.

 

You got to Izma

Because she got careless.

She always had a problem

With arrogance.

 

Elmiryn squinted an eye at him. “Well if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black…”

 

We’re all just cookware

In the end.

 

“It was more than just speed and strength that let me hurt her. Admit it! I figured out what makes you demons so invulnerable!” Meznik only glanced at her. Annoyed, Elmiryn pressed in closer, her teeth bared. “Emotion! It all has to do with how we feel when we confront you, doesn’t it!? Izma needs us to feel despair, to feel hopeless and depressed! It’s why she tried to break our wills whereas you always seemed to try to incite us!”

 

Meznik sighed.

 

Clever ghost.

You figured out

That hope and confidence

Is the anti-thesis of

Izma’s power.

But I wonder…

While you struggle

To stop feeling the emotions

That are so a part of you

Can you even guess

What the anti-thesis of

My power is?

 

Elmiryn opened her mouth, ready to spit out an insult when she faltered, the fury backing up in her throat like bile. She swallowed with difficulty, her hands clenching, then took a step back. Meznik was right. She didn’t know what emotion she needed to feel to finally fight him. And even if she did, how could she let go of her hatred for him, when it came to her so naturally? So powerfully?

 

It was like a giant wave that blocked out the sun as it towered over her, and when it crashed atop her…she drowned in it.

 

With a tight neck, she growled. “Are you going to tell me what we’re doing here, or am I going to be treated to another mind game?”

 

No more games.

I promised answers.

“So talk.”

 

The demon chuckled, a deep effervescent sound of cellos.

 

Talk!

As if everything

Can be summarily explained

In just a few minutes.

 

Elmiryn rolled her eyes. “I don’t care how long it takes so long as you start!”

 

Very well.

Meznik swept his hand over the view before them, and said—

 

Can you see the patterns

Before you?

 

She turned and squinted an eye at him. “The patterns?” She looked back down below. “Meznik, we’re too far for me to see—”

 

Then you aren’t really looking

You can’t expect

Me to give you everything

Without discerning some things

For yourself.

You’re a pet now.

Not a toy.

So act like it.

 

Elmiryn’s scowl deepened and she searched deeper, trying to see what her dubious company was attempting to point out. Her eyes traced the luminous colorful clouds in the infinite black, the burning pin points of stars feeding life and taking it away. Intellectually, she knew there were worlds down there. She also knew that in this great expanse were invisible barriers, preventing certain realities from meshing together.

 

There like a sliver between her world and some other one was The Other Place, a gray-green jagged line that streaked through a hot orange sea. Nyx was down there. She would be okay. She had to be. She was on the path home after all.

 

Elmiryn rubbed her forehead, feeling the light sheen of sweat beneath her fingers. She was about to tell Meznik she couldn’t see anything but a mess of life when her eyes widened as her mind finally made the connection.

 

“A braid,” she breathed. She looked at Meznik excitedly. “A braid! It’s all one!”

 

A braid…

A debatable description.

Nevertheless it hits on to the point

I wanted you to see.

Everything

Is

Related.

 

He gestured for her to follow and she did. They started to descend a translucent staircase that hadn’t been there a moment ago. With every step they took, the stars beneath them became dramatically closer, until Elmiryn was afraid they would burn up. She never felt any heat, however, even as they stopped at the point one star came so close as to match the size of a castle.

 

Meznik’s voice was a soft hum when he spoke.

 

Do you recall

The Speculums

We met?

 

Elmiryn nodded. “Yeah. Those two freaks. The ones who led us to the Exit back on Earth.”

 

Do you know

Why

I call them

Your Speculums?

 

She shook her head. “You never told me.”

 

Because they are

Pieces of you

Rearranged

Repurposed

And refined.

 

“Refined?”

 

They are you and Nyx

Near the end stages

Of power.

I described them

As demigods

I believe.

You share similarities

In personality

In appearance

Even in ability.

 

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow and put a hand on her hips. “So which was suppose to be me, and which was Nyx?”

 

Meznik shrugged.

 

It is true

They are reflections

But they are not perfect

Carbon copies.

As I said

They are rearranged.

 

This made the warrior screw up her mouth. “So who is most like me, and who is most like Nyx?”

 

Meznik spared a whistling sigh.

 

The brunette

The one called Molly

You’ll recall that she

Was the quieter of the two?

 

“Also the shorter one,” Elmiryn remarked. Meznik turned, apparently giving her a look. She shrugged her hands. “What? It’s true!”

 

The ‘shorter one’

As you’d describe her

Is YOUR Speculum.

She most resembles

Your qualities.

 

The redhead scoffed. “She looks nothing like me!”

 

She

Like you

Has the ability to see

And reweave the patterns

Of life.

She

Also like you

Has a more aggressive approach

Compared to her companion.

 

“So the tall redhead? The one with green eyes?”

 

Julie.

“Yes, her.”

 

Nyx’s Speculum.

Like your feline friend

She is an agent

Of things far greater

Than she

Rather than

The vehicle itself.

Her unique ability

Started with her voice

But since her spiritual growth

This has expanded to include

All sound.

 

“She was a musician,” Elmiryn recalled, rubbing her chin. “She had a guitar with her when she spoke to us, didn’t she? So she’s a vermagus?”

 

That is not the term used there

But if in your world

Yes.

She would be.

Now do you see

The connections between realities

More clearly?

The one thing you must remember

Is that the universe is alive

And it cannot help

But allow for these

Relations between worlds.

Like a writer or artist

With a distinctive style

A singular thread

Can be connected to everything.

That is why Speculums exist.

That is why what is called

English in one world

Is called Common in yours.

Why politics,

Chemistry,

Biology,

Sociology,

Theology,

Warfare,

And even architecture

Share similarities.

Depending on what world

Is next to which

You will always find

A common thread

That binds adjacent worlds

Together.

Similarly

There is a thinner thread

That winds through the Universe

That binds them all.

This is meta-reality.

This is how the essence of life

Is passed on

No matter the shape

It takes.

 

“So everything is connected. All realities share something, be it large or small.”

 

That thin thread

I mentioned?

It is the gods.

 

Startled, Elmiryn’s eyes pierced the side of Meznik’s twisted face. “…What?”

 

The gods.

They exist

In multiple realms

Like a body

Lying over borderlines

But like the realities they occupy

They are different and similar by degrees

In each realm.

This is why

They can only dream

Of who they are

In another world

Without ever fully comprehending

The enormity of their existence.

This is why Artemis

Does not know

The true depth

Of herself.

 

Elmiryn felt a dull ache in her sinus and her forehead wrinkled as she scowled at her boots. “That…that sounds…”

 

Familiar?

It is because

Artemis shared this with you.

The truth nearly killed you

Actually.

But you are a pet now.

These things

Should be well within

Even your challenged mind’s

Ability to process.

 

The woman wiped at her forehead, feeling the cold sweat slick her palm. Shakily she asked, “So what? What does that all matter? Why do you care?”

 

Because you dolt.

If the universe is alive

And its dreams create

A thread of continuity

In the gods

Then what would happen

If one were to change

The universe’s mind?

Say…

By subverting the power

Of those gods?

“Change…change the universe’s mind? That’s your big fucking plan?”

 

You speak

As if this were a simple matter.

I assure you.

It is not.

Case in point—

How often

Do YOU

Change your mind?

 

Elmiryn frowned. “It…depends.”

 

I’ll make it easier for you.

How often

Do you change your mind

For something

You believe in?

 

Her scowl deepened. “Never.”

 

Now would you not say

That if changing

The universe’s mind

Would result

In the complete

Reconstruction

Of not just one reality

But META-reality

As we know it…

Would you not say,

This is something

Monumental?

 

“Yes. I would.”

 

And would you not say

That such a process of change

Is not unlike a WAR

Going on inside of you?

 

“…Yes.”

 

So mark my words

Elle the Idiot.

We?

Are at war.

And I mean to win it.

“But to what end?” Elmiryn asked with tightened jaw. “What is the point of changing it all? What would you even change it to? Is that what Izma is after too? To—To change this meta-reality bullshit?”

 

Meznik’s stiff features shifted to allow for a chilling smile.

 

NYX__________________________

 

We tried reviving Hakeem repeatedly. Quincy even found another strong smelling agent similar to the smelling salts in her deep magical bag. Nothing worked. To her credit, the wizard didn’t lose hope. On the contrary, she became more determined.

 

“You, Ailuran. You have natural strength don’t you? Help me lift him!” she ordered.

 

“You could try a hand at asking nicely,” I muttered, even as I hefted up one side and she the other.

 

Our first step was halting, and for a moment I wondered if Quincy would be able to bear her husband’s weight. Hakeem’s Aeumani Armor still had yet to return to its dormant, chainmail state. The added weight to the man’s frame made him a greater challenge to carry. I wished Lethia could help, but given the girl’s slight body and her depressed state, I knew better than to ask. Instead, she led us up the field, back toward the tower, where a small trail lead to the edge of this particular shard. The land cut off in a jagged edge, dropping off into the strange empty nothing that was the Other Place’s hallmark.

 

Lethia stopped at the edge as Quincy and I dragged behind her. I was tired, but not like the wizard, whose human strength was taxed with the burden of her husband. As we neared, panting and stumbling, the young enchantress turned to us both and pointed half-heartedly outward.

 

“It is here,” Lethia said in a feeble voice.

 

Then without another word, she stepped through. Quincy and I exchanged a brief glance over Hakeem’s hung head, and taking a moment to better our grip, we followed.

.

..

….

…..

 

The way was heavy. Cold. It stung them, and Nyx thought Quincy would lose her grip. It makes her try to pull more of the weight, but the wizard snaps at her to keep the balance between them, lest they tumble from their Path and into some strange dimension. Chagrined, the Ailuran listens.

 

They come to a crossroads. Quincy knows these well enough to recognize the ways they have gone.

 

This was supposed to be the final path, Quincy puffed between gasps.

 

What? Nyx asks.

 

The wizard gives her a rueful look. We shouldn’t talk while Traveling, she says. I’ll explain on the other side.

 

And with Lethia leading them down the final path, they make it there.

 

…..

….

..

.

Snow. In a way it answered why it had been so cold, even while Traveling. Coming back here, I felt both feelings of relief and a dragging sense of exhaustion.

 

We had come full circle. We were right back in Northern Albias. Surely the escape from this maddening half-world was near.

 

Judging by the curve of the road, we were close to Holzoff’s Tower. Lethia paused in her trek up the slushy hill to peer at us. Quincy had started to set Hakeem down on his back, and I followed.

 

“I need a break,” she panted.

 

“We can’t stay still long. The cold will drain us more than moving,” I warned. Then I added dryly, “I would also like to remind you that I’m still naked and my feet are already numb.”

 

Quincy waved me off as she put her hands on her hips and paced around in a tight circle a few times.

 

After a short glance at Lethia proved she wasn’t going to come out of her shell, I decided to pick up the conversation that had been cut short in Travel. “So explain about the paths again? Elmiryn mentioned it back in Fiamma, but I can’t recall all the details. It was…confusing, to say the least.”

 

The wizard looked at me, her azure eyes dulled by exhaustion and stress. She still sounded winded when she spoke. “Elmiryn said these paths were hers. She found something at the end of each, and each was attuned to an element. Air, fire, water, earth, and infinity. The first path—well, the ‘fifth’ she claims—had her find me. That was water. Then on her fourth path, she found Graziano. Earth. Her third? She found you, and the element was fire. Her second was—“

 

“Lethia?” I ventured, looking over at the enchantress.

 

“Yes, I think so,” Quincy affirmed. “I would argue that was air—given the openness of the Lycan lands and the way we had to travel to reach Izma. But the last path, Elmiryn told me, was supposed to reveal her true desire. Whatever that is, it must be associated to the element of infinity.”

 

“But if we followed her paths, then are we going to find her? How is the element of infinity tied here? It doesn’t make any sense!” I huffed as I kicked at the snow.

 

Quincy shook her head. “Ailuran, who is missing from our group?”

 

I shrugged, sullen. “Elmiryn?”

 

“So why would her secrets be revealed to us? As I see it, when she made off with Meznik, she must have come ahead of us, and let’s face it, that demon probably doesn’t take to walking let alone existing in a natural state. If the final element is infinity, then even if the secrets were right underneath us, without the right powers we have no way of accessing such a thing!”

 

“I might be able to see,” I muttered, thinking of the Somnium. But I couldn’t leave the others. Just as I was at risk of freezing to death, so were Quincy, Hakeem, and Lethia, who were hardly dressed for such cold temperatures.

 

Another minute passed and Quincy let out a foggy breath. “All right. Let’s go.”

 

I glanced up trail as we each took Hakeem under the arms. “Do you think our camp is still there? From before?”

 

“Only one way of finding out!” Quincy huffed.

 

Lethia, seeing us pick up, swayed around and resumed her unsteady march up the hill.

 

After much fighting up the way, the path finally began to level, and just up ahead on the dark rocks and white snow, I thought I could see a warm light flickering.

 

“Is that a campfire?” I panted excitedly. The numbness had crawled up my hips. I imagined the only thing keeping the frostbite at bay was my accelerated healing.

 

“Looks it!” Quincy responded, once more short of breath.

 

Then something came running around the bend, crashing through the unbroken snow. I nearly dropped Hakeem as an unpleasant shock pulled down my gut.

 

Of course. We were near Holzoff’s. That meant daesce.

 

“Lethia! Get back!” I screamed.

 

The enchantress certainly seemed to rouse out of her trance-like state, but it wasn’t to react as I expected her to. No, instead of running and screaming, she dropped to her knees and let out what sounded like a cry and a laugh. It was only when I abandoned my burden (Quincy cursing at me as I did so) and charged up the hill that I saw what was bounding toward us.

 

“Argos!” I laughed, feeling a warm, happy feeling for the first time in what seemed like forever.

 

The dog went straight to Lethia, whimpering with his tail tucked between his legs and his body hunched low to the ground. Even in his attempts to look small, the dog only managed to look like a giant white mass of fur that was still taller than Lethia on her knees. The enchantress latched onto him immediately, her face burying into the dog’s thick neck as she wailed loudly like a child.

 

“I needed him to take care of one more matter, if you’ll recall,” Lacertli’s voice said behind me.

 

I turned, only somewhat surprised at my patron’s sudden appearance. Such was his way and I was finally getting used to it. He stood in his usual guise of Marquis, his bare feet wriggling their taloned toes idly in the snow.

 

“What task, sir?” I asked.

 

With a lazy arm he pointed up the hill.

 

There, standing with a blanket over their head and body was a figure. I squinted at them, approaching slowly. Reluctantly, the person lifted their head and pulled back the lip of the blanket. My eyes widened in horror.

 

“P-Paulo…?” I breathed.


Back to Chapter 40.4 | Forward to Chapter 41.2