Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 42.4

ELMIRYN______________________

Now that she was actually trying to walk straight on it, Elmiryn found she disagreed with the feel of asphalt. It was hard and cold and unnatural. She decided this was not the kind of place she wanted to vomit on all fours, so she made an effort to keep from letting vertigo swing her inebriation into the deep realms of unpleasantness. The challenge was increased, she found, by…well…a great many things.

The glare from the tall glass buildings hurt her eyes. The car exhaust from the rush hour traffic, and the steaming sewer grates created a ripe dizzying smell that was dwarfed only by the slum streets of Fiamma. The city also felt noisy with its car honks and people yelling. Elmiryn actually thought she’d prefer Tiesmire to this ruckus.

Then there was the bizarre wonderland that was Molly and Julie’s territory. There were moving pictures on the giant billboards, each waving to each other and shooing pigeons off of their signs. Mixed in with the ordinary people were cartoon characters made of crayon and objects come to life, like statues and stuffed animals.

Elmiryn even saw a pink elephant squeeze its way into a compact car.

To make matters even worse, her head still ached from the want (or rejection–she couldn’t tell which) of forbidden knowledge. Her thoughts as she tried to make sense of things were wild and varied.

Cars have to go to gas stations, but why isn’t anyone stopping at this one? Isn’t that blue metal box on the sidewalk a ‘gas station’? Why the FUCK is that guy putting paper into it!?

Hakeem, meanwhile, seemed immune from the effects of being in a world not his own. He was alert, his eyes searching their surroundings as if expecting an attack any minute.

“How come ya aren’ havin’ a hard time like me?” Elmiryn muttered resentfully. “Doesn’ this world confuse ya?”

At the question the wizard suddenly chuckled. It was a quick, tight sound.

“Confuse me? Fiamman, I was struck dumb! I could not move or speak for how much pain and fear I felt!” he answered.

Elmiryn blinked at him. “So how’d you get better?”

“That girl. Molly. She seems to have your penchant for…ah…rearranging things that are unseen. It took a few days. She didn’t trust me out right. I’ve only been in my right mind for a little over a day now.”

“I’ve been here before. I wasn’ havin’ this much trouble last time…” Elmiryn said with a pout.

Hakeem nodded, giving her an intent look. “I know. I watched you.”

“Huh?”

He sighed. “It was before Izma sent me here. I was still with you all, but it was during her mind games with Lethia. She made me watch what everyone went through.”

Elmiryn scowled. “Why jes you?”

Hakeem raised an eyebrow at her. “Haven’t you been paying attention to what Molly and Julie have been telling you? The demon used me.”

“Nuh, uh. That don’ explain it, wizard. Ya said Izma made ya watch what everyone went through first. But if she wanted to send ya here and replace ya with a doll all along, why bother?”

He shrugged. “I don’t pretend to know everything. The best I can guess is that this is simply the demon’s way. She likes to watch others suffer.”

Elmiryn crossed her arms. “She wouldn’t have made you watch for nothing. She wanted to get into your head.” The woman’s eyes narrowed. “That’s it, innit? She showed you something so horrible, it made you not want to come back.”

“I’m not afraid,” Hakeem said ominously. “I’ve told you to leave the matter alone.”

“She got to you, wizard. But you know what…?” Elmiryn took a deep breath to say what came next. When this initial preparation fell short, the warrior paused on the sidewalk, hands on hips, and glared down at her boots. She mumbled through stiff lips. “She got to me too.”

Elmiryn looked up at Hakeem to see him standing and watching her with an unreadable expression. She thumbed at her chest.

“Maybe the drink is the only reason I can say it out loud, but Izma got to all of us! I could see as much in the others when we were fighting her. She’s a demon who feeds off of sadness and hopelessness. That’s how she works!”

The redhead flicked a hand. “But you know what? Fuck ‘er. We all survived!”

Hakeem gave a soft snort. “So I should just come back? Forget everything I saw and heard?”

“Uh, yeah. Thas’ bas-ic-ally what I jes said!”

“If you knew the things that I knew…” but the man broke off, turning and walking stiffly down the sidewalk. “Just take my word for it, Elmiryn. It is not so simple!”

Elmiryn stared after him, mouth open as she tried to grasp at the wispy, but very important detail that she suspected was staring her in the face.

What’s with this idiot? Being changed into a child didn’t faze him, but he sees some stuff and falls apart!

Then the warrior’s brows knitted together as she hurried in a haphazard line to catch up with the man.

And the hell does he mean, ‘If I knew what he knew that I…knew…what? …No…’

Elmiryn palmed her face as she fell into step a little after Hakeem.

I’m too drunk for this shit.

The rest of their walk continued in silence. Just when Elmiryn thought she was going to throw up again, Hakeem turned sharply down a narrow alley. Bewildered, she followed him until they took yet another turn, and that’s when she saw it.

This gateway was smaller than the ones that she had encountered, but there was no mistaking its shimmering energy against the alley’s dead end brick wall. She hurried toward it eagerly, but stopped when she realized Hakeem was no longer with her. When Elmiryn looked back, it was to see the man already backpedaling away, his face tense. For a fleeting moment, the redhead had an extreme idea:

If I grab him, maybe I can push him in?

But she discarded this quickly. She was in no shape to be wrestling with someone of Hakeem’s stature. Besides, the man would probably just leap right back the way he’d come.

“Ya really oughta come with me, Hakeem,” Elmiryn said somberly.

“I will return. I promise,” was his stony response.

The warrior cursed. “Yer askin’ a lot o’ me, y’know? If Quincy thinks ya died when I destroy that doll thing, she’ll…” she trailed off meaningfully.

Hakeem turned and started to walk away. “I trust you’ll do the right thing. Take care of my wife while I’m away. She’s more vulnerable than she’d like for people to think.”

Elmiryn sighed and let her shoulders sink as she watched the wizard round the corner out of sight.

“Yeah?” she muttered. “Well the same goes for you!”

Turning back around, the warrior appraised the gateway critically. Then she wagged a finger at it.

“Ya better take me home! I mean it! Or I’ll tell all the other portals jes how teeny ya really are!”

Just for good measure, she gave the gateway a stern glare, before stepping through.

 

LETHIA________________________

The date is unknown. I’m not even sure what time of day it is. Maybe I just won’t bother with that sort of thing for this. It seems a trivial thing to care for in a place that doesn’t follow time.

Before I write anything more, I just want to apologize to the soul whom I must now borrow this journal from. Jydel Anv.

Dear Jydel,

I found your journal near our camp when I was scavenging with my dog companion, Argos. It was wrapped up in cloth in a torn knapsack. Some of the earlier pages were damaged by the damp snow, but some were preserved. I was able to read enough to know that you were forced to become a guard at Holzoff’s, like so many were, and I know you were young. Not even fifteen. It was not fair that you met your fate at the claws of the daesce. I can’t presume to know what your last moments were like, but judging from your last entries, your guardmates were of the unsavory sort, and they must have left you behind at a critical moment for you to fall prey to the monsters. In that regard, I think we can relate to one another. I too know the sting of that kind of betrayal.

Maybe that’s how I should approach this? I’ll just write to you, from now on, Jydel. Pardon the charcoal. It was the only thing I could find to write with.

I wonder if the gods would frown down on me for writing on the pages of a dead man? Oh, but I’m almost certain they despise me anyways for all the taint I’ve been exposed to. Being a demon’s plaything and a mad woman’s prisoner leaves a person less than pure…

I’m sorry. I’ll stop. I’m not ignorant to my own self-pity. I know I should be stronger, and I’ve tried in awkward spurts to be just that, but my strength as of late seems so fleeting. I wanted to help my companions in our most recent struggle, but when the battle was over and I looked back, it really felt that nothing I did could make up for the harm I had caused. The others seemed to agree. Nyx, for instance, loathes me. I can hear it echoing in her thoughts sometimes. She’s been more on guard these days, trying to build walls around her mind. I think it was the revelation that Paulo is also an enchanter that did it. I don’t blame her. Two unstable enchanters must make a person feel paranoid…

My apologies again, Jydel! I’m talking about these people as if you know them.

Nyx is an Ailuran. She’s suffered a lot in her life, and more so these past few weeks. You should know that she’s Marked, but she is not a bad person. Like you, Jydel, she just made mistakes. Honestly, out of this strange group, she is the only one who might understand how I’m feeling right now, but also out of this group, she is the one whom I’ve hurt the most. It’s cruel the way life works sometimes. I wish I could make it up to her…

Quincy is a human wizard. She’s a bounty hunter–or was, I should say. Given her decision to help me sometime ago, I doubt she has much of a career to return to. Bounty hunters going back on their contracts is not a small thing. To be fair, of this group, she is the one who dislikes me the least. She’s more focused on trying to keep her husband alive.

Hakeem is a Fanaean wizard like her but he is in a coma and getting weaker by the day. I won’t bother talking about him much. I don’t think he’ll survive.

Argos is my dog companion, as I mentioned before. As a puppy, he was the subject of an illegal experiment by a satyr, and so grew very large and is very intelligent. I’ve always had an affinity for reading the minds of animals to begin with, so Argos and I, we speak telepathically. Very recently, my friend was apparently the agent of the god Lacertli. I doubt you’ve heard of him. I certainly hadn’t until recently!

Then there’s Paulo. He’s…

Actually I don’t want to write about him. Just know that Paulo is a young human man whom I’ve hurt the same, if not worse, than Nyx. It goes without saying that he dislikes me. Intensely.

I believe that just about covers the basics for you, Jydel. I’m afraid I’m tiring, and fast. I will have to resume this some other time. Nyx and Quincy are returning from their scavenging, and Paulo is once again absent. We’re all doing our part to prepare for the journey to Syria’s tower, where we hope to find our escape from this place. It should be any day now…

————-

Dear Jydel,

I had a nightmare last night. Syria taught me that when an enchanter has nightmares they should be heeded. You see, in enchantment we see nightmares as more than just warnings. They are used as a tool by the animus to communicate with the intellect. What was my nightmare, then?

I dreamt of devouring myself, flesh and bone.

Yes, I know. Sometimes I wish my animus had better communication skills.

————-

jydel,

today was a bad one. i cannot even bring myself to say why. writing this alone takes effort.

i’m not sure i can wait till we get back to do it

————-

Dear Jydel,

Forgive my poor writing yesterday. Have you ever been so depressed you could not sit up, let alone move or speak? That was just such a day. That doesn’t excuse the childish scrawl I gave you, however. This is what happened that brought on such a thing–

I was out scavenging with Argos when I came across Paulo in the snow. Argos and I never travel far, and we usually search to the south. You see, unlike the others, I cannot defend myself adequately, and my companion can only do so much to protect me. The deeper into the valley, the more dangerous it is–as I’m sure you’re aware. Further north is much the same. Thus, why I was surprised to see Paulo. He usually delves deep and far northwest into the valley, but for some reason he had bothered to come around where we were.

To summarize things for you, I promised Paulo something grave in order to convince him to go to Syria’s tower. You see, he didn’t want to go. He was scared, and I understand why. As an untrained enchanter, his thoughts go unchecked, and his power has the curious effect of amplifying his mind. I saw his fears.

When he first visited Syria’s tower so long ago, back when he was hunting me as a bounty, he became afflicted by Izma’s taint. It was worse for his vulnerability as a magic caster. Since he lacked training… Well, you can understand it as a gaping wound having salt rubbed into it. Hard. It was traumatizing to him. He became haunted with visions and a constant pain throughout his body. Who would want to return to the place that started all this after such an experience?

But I offered him something he cannot resist. A chance at closure.

Argos protested of course. It pained me to do that to my friend, but I had to wipe that memory from his head to stop him interfering. He is suspicious now. He keeps asking me why Paulo changed his mind. Oh, how I loathe myself for treating my best friend so poorly! I don’t know what else I could have done. Argos certainly deserves better than me.

I’ve digressed. Back to what happened yesterday–

When Paulo sought me out in the snow, I suppose he was afraid I’d back out on our agreement. He threatened me. His words sent me low, and I had to return to camp early.

It’s sort of funny now, looking back. After the deal we struck, what could Paulo possibly threaten me with?

————-

Dear Jydel,

The day has come! We are leaving this terrible place. We have cloaks with hoods to protect from the chilly winds. We have enough food and firewood that, if properly rationed, should last us at least another five days. We’ll have to hunt for more meat, possibly. Quincy believes she can scrape out some more usable wood from her magical bag in an emergency. Together, we’ve either scavenged or fashioned tools for the trip. The one thing we still greatly lack is proper rope. Whatever ties we could scrounge up have gone to the task of hauling Hakeem’s limp body along in a sort of gurney. I was afraid to say it before, but I agree with Nyx. Trying to carry an unconscious man over the mountains with our poor resources is impractical. But we need Quincy to come with us–to fend off threats if nothing else, and believe me, that is plenty.

She cannot be convinced to see Nyx’s arguments, and Nyx is a vermagus. Have you heard of those, Jydel? Well. I suppose all you need to understand is that if Nyx cannot convince Quincy, the rest of us certainly can’t.

The others are calling me. I have to go now. We’re so close. If we can just get through this, I may find a way to make it up to everyone.


Back to Chapter 42.3 | Forward to Chapter 43.1

Chapter 42.3

NYX__________________________

More time passed. The slight shift from dark to utter dark was the only real indication I had of the day passing, but pass it did. One more day in that accursed snow, with these accursed people. I was at my limit. Now that I knew I could leave, I was determined to do so.

Paulo had been gone since the night before when he’d stormed off. Lethia had finally left the campfire. Earlier in the day, she had wandered out into the daesce valley, out of sight, Argos pressed protectively to her side. Quincy and I didn’t stop her, or even said anything to her. I was preoccupied with getting ready for the trek to Syria’s tower. Quincy too, in a way…

“There’s lots of scrap out there, Ailuran,” she said to my back.

I was busy stitching my new daesce cloak from grubby string and thin strips of fraying cloth and did my best to ignore the nettle in the wizard’s voice.

Quincy, persistent as ever, continued her nagging: “A gurney can be easily fashioned for Hakeem, and quickly, if I could just have your help!”

“First of all, human,” I said icily without so much as raising my head. “If you want me to even listen to you, you’ll have to refer to me by my given name. Second, I have already told you my reasons for not doing as you so brusquely ask!”

“Poor reasons!” Quincy spat. “Cold and cruel! This is my husband. I will not leave him in the snow!”

“Then I will leave you both in the snow,” I snapped, finally feeling my patience give. I turned and glared at the brunette with heat in my cheeks. “You think I feel good about leaving Hakeem behind? He saved my life. I will never forget that! The debt that places me in weighs heavily, and Ailurans always repay their debts–!”

“So then help him–!” Quincy started.

I cut her off, my voice rising, along with my ire. “But what you’re asking me to do? It’s unreasonable! Even Lethia says the man is gone. What you have there, Quincy is a huskThe only way I can repay my debt to Hakeem now is to end his half-existence, give him a proper burial, and work hard not to squander the life he so generously helped me to keep! But I’m not! Why? Because you’re still clinging to him! Now is that mercy, or is that in fact the ‘cruelty’ you so keenly sense in me!?”

Quincy stared at me, astonished. In the time we had known each other, I had never spoken to her this way. I could see it in her eyes, the degree to which I had gone out of her expectations. It made me disgusted. With her. With myself. I stood to my feet, throwing my work off to my side of the camp.

“I’m going for a walk,” I announced tightly.

I marched out into the snow–not toward Holzoff’s, but down the lonely trail we had first come when we arrived on this shard. We had quickly found it to be an area of little practical use, save to find some time alone. But maybe it wasn’t so useless, because that was just what I needed right then. Solitude.

Away from the campfire, I could feel the cold grip me, reaching deep past my clothes and my flesh to the bone. It was nearly pitch dark out here. Such was night in the Other Place. A lightless nether world that existed outside of natural law. The oppression of this atmosphere was powerful.

When I lifted my hands, I saw they were black forms, nothing more than shadow. I could feel the darkness around me, thanks to my Champion powers, and it felt almost suffocating. It were as if my whole being were becoming one with them, and as unpleasant as it was, I thought it was appropriate.

I felt black, down to my soul.

“She speaks to him now,” Lacertli’s voice said behind me.

I turned, but slowly. The Lizard King stood further up the trail, his back to our camp. The god had not appeared or spoken directly to me in days. There was a part of me that resented him, but this was a small part. The rest of me knew that, while I was still capable, survival was my job, not anyone else’s.

“You’re talking about Lethia,” I said. My voice sounded tired.

“Yes,” was all I got in response.

“He might hurt her,” I mused, looking down at the ground. I couldn’t see my feet in the snow and darkness.

“Perhaps.”

“Should I go to her, sir?”

“Dost thou need her to be whole and well?”

I shook my head. “…No, sir.”

“Are ye certain?”

Now I looked up at him, confused. “Pardon me asking, but what do you mean? Are you suggesting I do need her somehow?”

Lacertli shrugged. “Have ye been to Syria’s tower before?”

“No. But we are taking a way unfamiliar to Artaud anyways! She pointed me in the direction–”

“Generalities have been the death of many an adventurer, Nyx,” Lacertli said calmly. “Thine supplies art limited and these cold lands art treacherous. At times, depending on Lady Fortuna is unavoidable when surviving. But I would advise against putting one’s entire lot in her whimsical hands.”

My jaw clenched and I started my way back up the snow. “Fine,” I grumbled. “I’ll see about the girl.”

As I neared Lacertli’s shadowy form, he stopped me with a raised hand.

“Thou mistake my musing as a command. The girl faces her own demons. Let her.”

I looked at him, annoyed. “Then what–”

“How is thy thread and ‘needle’ serving you?” His tone sounded deliberately ironic, and I thought I could see his smirk in the dark.

I glared at him, feeling my cheeks burn. “It serves me just fine!” I bit out out defensively.

My so called ‘thread’, the one I was using to stitch my daesce cloak, was little more than scavenged bits of string and frayed strips of cloth tied together. My ‘needle’ was a small rusty nail whose head I’d bashed into a poor eyelet. The holes in my cloak were a bit stretched as a result. I’d reasoned that so long as the damned thing lasted me to Syria’s, then it wouldn’t matter.

Lacertli just chuckled at me.

I threw my hands up in the air with a loud growl. “What, sir!? What am I missing now?”

“Search the present, Nyx. What is amiss?”

“Elmiryn’s not here,” I spat without thinking. When my cheeks burned hotter, I hurried to add. “I mean that she would have figured something out by now!”

The god crossed his arms and looked me in the eyes. His gaze was glowing a fierce gold. “But what would she have figured out?”

“A way to deal with these people!” I cried out in frustration. “As aggressive as she was, she was still better at dealing with others than I was!”

“Dost thou truly believe this to be true?”

“Of course,” I said with a caustic laugh. “Me and others? Specifically them?” I pointed up toward camp. “It’s a disaster!”

Lacertli shook his head with a small sigh. “As a being who can shape the shadows to her liking, one would think ye’d see the shadows in social interaction as well…”

My brow wrinkled. “Huh?”

With an air of suffering the god covered his face with one hand. “Thou art just putting on a show, Nyx. A shadow play. And the result of thy ham-handed performance makes itself known in the way thy company behaves and treats thee.”

I scowled. “You’re saying Lethia’s depression, Quincy’s denialism, and Paulo’s brooding is my fault? I can’t be held responsible for that!”

“True,” The god lifted his face from his clawed hand and looked at me sideways. “But even animals depend on a natural form of cooperation to survive. Thou true obstacle is not thy company, nor even thy impending journey. No. The obstacle, the thing holding thee back, are thine attempts at appearing self-reliant to cover thy hurt over Elmiryn’s apparent abandonment. It speaks of dependence and this nettles you. Nyx, I am the path. And this is the Present thou art standing in. My advice, as thy patron, is to cease with thy misplaced pride and self-victimization. Go to your comrades, for they are all you have.”

I could feel the invisible hackles rise on my back as I clenched my hands. At first, I thought a hiss was building up in my throat, but when it grew tighter and tighter, I realized it was a sob. My eyes burned.

I turned away, unable to look at Lacertli anymore.

Kali! I thought inwardly. I sought my sister out with a sort of desperation. In the time since our last fight with Syria, my twin had taken to resting deep within our mind. At my sudden presence in her mental sanctuary, she rose, yawning and stretching.

Hmmm? she grumbled. What is it?

Would you like to take control for a while? I asked in a rush.

This took her aback, just like I thought it would.

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. What happened? What did I miss?

Nothing, I shot back. It’s a yes or no question. Do you want control or not?

Kali sat on her haunches and seemed to think a moment, her black ears pinning back.

To my surprise, she slowly shook her head.

No, she said.

What!? Why?

Because, she responded sharply. We share our memories, and I can already see you want me to deal with your annoying humans for you. Well I won’t.

With a disdainful snort, she turned her back to me and laid back down on her bed of pleasant thoughts and memories. I will have my time in the world, sister. But it won’t be just to clean up your messes!

Huffing, I opened my eyes.

“Thy plan failed, I see.”

I groaned. I’d thought the god would just vanish now that he’d said his piece.

“Sir, please…”

“Please, what? I have said nothing.”

I looked at him with anguish. “It was…childish of me. To do what I just did. I know that.” My words felt hard to say. I felt equal parts embarrassed and angry. Angry that Kali hadn’t taken up my offer.

“What have I said about trapping thyself within concepts of right and wrong doing? They are illusions of society. That is not my domain. Is being childish detrimental to one’s survival? Perhaps in some scenarios, yes. But this god also recognizes that a child is resilient and resourceful in ways that adults cannot be. Having someone like Kali take over for thee? A messy choice, to be certain, but a choice that might have actually worked compared to thy recent conduct. Pity thy skills for persuasion are as poor in childish pursuits as they are in adult ones…”

I slumped, letting my head fall to my chest. Having a god basically call you both immature and ineffectual was in no way pleasant. “Fine, fine, fine!” I whined. “But regardless, I don’t want to be seen as a child. Not by you or anyone else!”

“In that case, stop acting like one,” Lacertli snapped. “This isn’t a riddle, Nyx.”

I raised my head, ready to shoot off something defensive when I realized Lacertli was gone.

With a heavy sigh, I turned and looked back toward camp.

“All right then,” I mumbled.

Once I returned from the trail, I stopped next to Quincy, but couldn’t think of what to say right away. She looked up at me with as icy a stare as you could expect from someone who hated you.

Grudgingly, I pointed toward my side of the camp, where my daesce cloak lay. “A needle and thread. So that I can finish my cloak. I’m sure you must have some in that magic bag of yours. Give me those, and I’ll help you make what you need to take Hakeem with us to Syria’s tower.”

Quincy narrowed her eyes at me. “Why the change of heart?”

With one hand on my hip, I wearily pressed my fingers into my closed eyelids. “Quincy…” I lowered my hand and glared at her. “You need help with Hakeem. Argos doesn’t have opposable thumbs, I doubt Paulo would be so eager, and Lethia doesn’t have the strength. That just leaves me. Do I agree with your reasons? No. But it’s what you want, and I’m willing to help you so long as you help me. So will you give me a needle and thread or not?”

Quincy pursed her lips and looked down at Hakeem. After days without proper food, the man did not look so good. He was turning pale and he’d lost an unhealthy amount of weight.

“Stitch cloaks for the rest of us too, and I’ll toss in one of my lesser magicked items,” the wizard said primly.

My mouth dropped. “That’d take me even longer to finish! Another two days at the least! What are you going to do about Hakeem in the meantime!?”

“I’ve been mixing in well chewed bits of food with his water. It isn’t a lot, but it’s giving his body enough nutrients to last a few more days. Once I get back to our world, I can find an alchemist who can help to sustain him!”

At my skeptical look, the wizard gave a harsh sigh. “All right! I’ll give you two lesser magicked items! Does that work for you!?”

I shrugged my hands. “What am I going to do with magicked items? I’m not a wizard!”

“The keyword you’re missing is that they are lesser, meaning you don’t need any particular skill to use them! I have several items to choose from, and some of them can be very useful. Do we have a deal?”

I stuck out my hand after a second of thought. “Deal.”

Quincy turned away, but in that fleeting moment when we shook hands, I could see her features ease to something akin to relief. She turned to look at her hip and pulled her magic bag from her belt. Reaching in, she searched for a few minutes before producing the needle and thread. It was the same ones she’d used to make Hakeem his makeshift clothing in the blackwood.

Taking these, I eagerly sat down to begin work on my cloak. She meanwhile, searched her bag again, promising to produce the magicked items for me to choose from.

As our camp fell to a quiet that could be ranked as the least tense since we’d gotten there, we heard someone approaching. Both of us stood, ready to fight. Normally the others announced themselves before coming to camp, so if it was a daesce, we were going to have to fight it off.

But when Lethia, Paulo, and Argos entered into the camp light, we visibly relaxed.

Lethia trailed after Paulo, her head bowed. Argos was at her side, as usual, yet he seemed on edge. Paulo walked a little head of them, his head raised in what looked almost like defiance. The runed scars on his skin seemed a shade darker as he glared at Quincy and I.

“I’ve changed my mind,” he said stiffly. “I’ll go with you to Syria’s tower.” Then he went to his side of the camp and sat harshly onto the icy ground, ripping his hood up over his head before fixing a glare into the fire.

Lethia meekly sat down adjacent to him. Argos, to my surprise, came to me.

“Hullo, you,” I said, not a little bemused. Much as I disliked his owner, I liked the dog just fine.

He whined and gave my cheek a soft lick.

Leaning in, I whispered. “How did Lethia manage to convince him, Argos?”

Argos growled and turned to look back at the teenagers. My eyebrows rose and I looked at them too.

I thought about my conversation with Lacertli, and as embarrassed as it had me feel, I realized something.

As the god explained to me, even animals depended on a natural form of cooperation to survive. Did I need Lethia to be whole and well for this cooperation to work? Well enough, at least, to lead us to Syria’s. Did I need Paulo’s compliance for this cooperation to work? Obviously, but his cooperation was desired in the first place because he knew these lands now better than any of us. So that took care of their relations with me.

But did their relations with each other threaten the survival of our group? And if so, in what way?

…And what in gods name could I do about it?


Back to Chapter 42.2 | Forward to Chapter 42.4

Chapter 42.2

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn knew now that it was her burgeoning fae nature that made her so aware of the alcohol coursing through her system. It was hot and warm and in her veins, becoming her blood, choking her brain in a fog of caprice that didn’t allow her to appreciate the bizarre circumstances of her situation. The sky rolled overhead as Molly and Julie carried her out of May’s house and over the gravel path leading to the street. The moment Elmiryn’s boots scraped the sidewalk, she could feel her alcoholic blood leap and turn. She didn’t even blink.

The world just changed.

Gone were the small homes, replaced instead with tall metal and brick buildings, the streets bloated with people and cars. Elmiryn’s eyes fluttered as she let her eyes take in this sudden and drastic change of scenery. Then she started giggling.

“Ladies, I think I’m gonna be sick!” she chortled merrily.

“Hold it,” Julie snapped on her right. She was the one who smelled like cigarettes, Elmiryn realized.

“We’re almost there,” Molly sighed on the left.

The warrior tilted her head back and blinked. Swimming through the clouds were crimson and golden fishes with shimmering scales and long pearly fins. “Sky fishes,” she breathed.

Her escorts looked up simultaneously as they gently pierced through a group of gangly teenage punks.

“Yeah,” Julie said. “They show up on Tuesdays.”

Elmiryn stared at the side of the other redhead’s face. “Thought ya’d tell me I was seein’ things?”

“What? Your world doesn’t have sky fishes?”

It took the warrior a few seconds to realize Julie was being wry. By the time she did, the moment to respond had passed and the unusual pair were guiding Elmiryn through a dark doorway that fed into a narrow hall and up a creaky set of stairs. Plastered on the graffiti walls were fliers and posters, detailing the latest shows and performances. Elmiryn recognized Julie’s face on many of them.

As they approached the third floor, the warrior had become disinterested in actually walking and laughed as the two women struggled to hold her up.

“Jesus, does she always get like this when she drinks?” Julie complained.

Molly shook her head and let Elmiryn go. The redhead collapsed to the stairs, giggling.

“This is pointless,” the brunette huffed. Looking at the walls, she stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled.

Elmiryn pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes as she lay there lost in her mirth. Then she started to feel small, cold hands lift her up. Startled, she raised her head and looked down at her body to see the black and fluorescent people from the posters on the walls had emerged from their paper dwellings to lift her up on behalf of Molly and Julie. Stunned, the warrior looked up at the pair in question and she saw them smirking down at her.

“Look at her! I bet she still thinks she’s hallucinating!” Julie snickered.

“Uh, hey–” Elmiryn tried to move, but felt her muscles lock up. Molly’s hand was fanned open over her.

“Stay still. You’re in a time out,” the brunette said with a grin.

The small poster people, no taller than a foot, wordlessly carried Elmiryn the rest of the way. Paralyzed, the redhead could do nothing to get up or stop them. Honestly, she thought the situation was amusing, but she couldn’t help but struggle instinctually against the spell that bound her.

Finally, they stopped at a door near  the middle of the third floor hallway. Julie produced a key and unlocked the door, pushing it open. The poster people paraded Elmiryn inside and dropped her on the floor without ceremony.

“Thank you,” Molly said politely as they marched back out the door. Julie closed it behind them.

Elmiryn found Molly had released her, and gratefully she sat up. “That was fun! So you guys make stuff come to life or somethin’?”

“Whatever we want to happen, we can make happen,” Julie said. She crossed the room from the door to a beat up plaid couch next to the window overlooking the street. She crossed her legs and said next, “It’s easier to do stuff within our territory, but it’s much harder if we leave it. The more universal laws we break, the harder the task tends to be.”

Molly vanished down a hallway as Elmiryn stood to her feet. The warrior looked around her.

This was supposed to be Julie’s home. For a woman who was essentially a demi-god, Julie didn’t live extravagantly. Her furniture was beat up and cheap, dirty disposable plates on the coffee table from what looked like a pizza night. The walls had a smattering of more concert posters as well as rock memorabilia and counter culture art. Elmiryn thought she could smell coffee in the air, mixed with the musty smell of sweaty socks.

“Nice place,” the warrior said, just managing to keep the smirk off her face.

Julie shrugged. “It works.”

Elmiryn shook her head, and went to lean on the wall near the door. Her head felt fuzzy and her limbs heavy. She was ready for some sleep, but closing her eyes made her feel a little ill. The vertigo from the drink was kicking in.

Fae are such lightweights… the woman thought disapprovingly.

Then Molly’s voice caused Elmiryn to look up. “Elmiryn. Here’s Hakeem.”

The redhead raised her eyes in time to see a dark skinned man with wide shoulders and a close shaved head step out from around Molly near the hallway. He was dressed in gray sweats and a white t-shirt. He had no shoes. Elmiryn stiffened and moved away from the wall. Her eyebrows rose high.

“Hakeem?” she said uncertainly.

Hakeem’s warm eyes fixed on her gaze. “Yes, Elmiryn.”

Elmiryn’s mouth hung open as she tried to find the words to say. When none came, she snapped her mouth shut and pointed at the wizard.

The man raised an eyebrow at her. When her silence persisted, he glanced at Molly and Julie, then focused back on Elmiryn with a frown. “…Fiamman, do you have something you’d like to say?” he asked archly.

“No,” Elmiryn said finally. “I thought pointin’ at ya was about as good as it gets right now.” She shrugged her hands. “The fuck are ya doin’ here, wizard? Ya know yer wife thinks your back home?”

The redhead slapped a hand to her forehead. “Shit! If yer really here, then who the hell is back there!?”

“A doll,” Molly said, behind Hakeem. The petite brunette went to sit with Julie at the couch. “Elmiryn, do you remember your last visit here?”

“Sorta?”

“You ran into people that resembled those you knew back in your home world. Those were Izma’s dolls. Soulless animatons that carry out the demon’s will.”

“So that means–”

“The thing that is back home is not real,” Hakeem said. From where she stood, the woman could see his neck muscles tighten as he clenched his fists. “It is not living. It has no soul. No conscious that is its own.”

“So the Hakeem that attacked us was a demon’s doll,” Elmiryn murmured.

Hakeem approached Elmiryn with pressed hands. “Elmiryn, I know my wife. She would not give up on me. No doubt Izma has tried to use the doll to try and hurt her. I need you to go back and destroy it!”

“Of course!” Elmiryn said with a snort. Then her eyes narrowed. “Hey hold on a minute. Are you saying–?”

“I can’t go back with you,” Hakeem said tightly, looking away.

Elmiryn batted her eyes rapidly. “But this isn’ yer world, wizard…” she said slowly.

“I told you that Hakeem said he wanted to help us,” Molly said with a shrug.

The redhead glared at her. “That don’ fuckin’ matter! This isn’ his world! What’s he gonna do here that’s so much more ‘portant than goin’ back to his wife!?”

“I just can’t,” Hakeem said crossing his arms. He glared. “It’s none of your business.”

Elmiryn returned his heated stare, her eyes searching. “What was it? Did Izma actually get inta yer head? Screw with yer confidence? You afraid, Hakeem?”

Hakeem’s lips pursed. “I’ll take you to the gate that will take you straight home. You won’t have to return to the Other Place. The others will meet you there, I’m sure.”

“But ya can’t be sure,” Elmiryn spat.

The man turned and went back into the hallway. “My decision is made, Elmiryn. Let me get my shoes. The gate is just a short walk from here.”

Elmiryn glared at Julie and Molly as the man vanished around the corner. “You really gonna let this happen!?”

“We’ve never had access to a demon’s tool before,” Julie crossed her arms and gazed at Elmiryn coolly. “Meznik may not be a threat to us anymore, but Izma is. We can make an exception for Hakeem being here.”

“And anyway, we aren’t forcing him,” Molly added calmly. “As you heard, it’s Hakeem’s decision to be here.”

“Yeah. It jes don’ make any sense…” Elmiryn grumbled.


Back to Chapter 42.1 | Forward to Chapter 42.3

Chapter 42.1

NYX__________________________

That first night out in the Albian snow passed with little event. Whatever Quincy said to Paulo, they seemed to agree to set it aside until we could escape the Other Place. But after the following day came and went, then the one after that, and the one after that… The prospect of escape seemed to dwindle away. Paulo’s resignation started to feel infectious, and his avoidance of us understandable. Lethia was quick to succumb to her melancholy. As Lacertli’s champion, I felt duty-bound to keep trying. It helped that I was also desperate to find a way to escape my company. Lethia’s moping alone made the cold that much more unbearable. Quincy fought alongside me, searching the snowdrifts and attempting spells, but her presence was grating, and her frustration over our plight was palpable.

The brunette was driven by her need to save Hakeem, who remained in a coma. The wizard man lay wrapped in daesce skins near the fire where we fed him small amounts of clean snow in a feeble attempt to keep him hydrated. If he didn’t wake soon, it wouldn’t matter. He’d die of starvation. Quincy clung to a sort of stubborn hope over Hakeem’s survival, and I found myself envious of her dedication to her spouse. My chest felt devoid of those feelings, and I missed them.

When I found a moment to myself, I would sit and wonder where Elmiryn had gone, why she hadn’t found us yet, why I expected different from her. The Other Place gave me no stars to count–the stars that Elmiryn had promised me in her arrogance. I wished she were there with me, but my feelings were clouded with complications.

As if the rest of my life were any less complicated.

Lacertli did not speak to me much in those days. Sometimes I could see golden eyes blinking at me from the shadows, but my patron remained silent. I knew what he expected of me. Survival. For that, I knew I had graduated from his terse guidance. I was restless without it, but I tried to stay in the present, as he would’ve wanted. I just wish the present didn’t feel as suffocating as it did.

Why couldn’t anyone see that what we needed to do was to move camp? When I suggested this tactic, I was met with heavy resistance. The excuses ranged from Hakeem’s coma, to the treacherousness of the mountains, to the lack of resources away from Holzoff’s. Still, I felt it was entirely possible that Paulo could have missed something in his time searching here. The Albian mountains seemed to specialize in the hidden, and maybe something had changed? It felt appropriate that the Other Place would change with time.

On the fourth night, I trudged my way back up the snowy hill from the daesce valley. It was a horrible, treacherous place, but if we were lucky, sometimes we could find salvageable supplies. The daesce weren’t good for a food source–eating their tainted flesh would make us sick–but they were good for their hides, and their teeth and claws could be used to fashion tools and traps. These were things Paulo showed us in our first days on the shard. In the long frozen time that he had spent in that frigid place, he had grown into a strong and capable survivalist. Gone was the whiny teenage boy I had met, though his surliness lingered, dark like charcoal in the magicked flames that had scarred him.

Now and again, I’d catch him glaring after Lethia. For the most part, the pair avoided each other, but now and again, Paulo would spare a barbed comment. The enchantress took his withering animosity, and I could see the penance in her face. I did not feel sorry for her. Intellectually I knew my hatred for the girl was misguided, but it was like a compulsion that kept spinning me in circles. Sometimes I hated being so self-aware. The only way I could separate the nature of my persistent anger from that of Paulo’s was in believing this: While I was certain that Lethia’s part in Paulo’s disfigurement was completely coerced, I could not say the same for the fate I suffered under the girl’s powers and Izma’s will.

The more I lingered on this reasoning, the more suspicious I became.

So when I made my way back to our humble camp, I focused on Lethia and said, “Artaud, it’s been five days and four nights. As the only one of us who could sense the Gates, you said you’d find a new way out. Why haven’t you found something yet?”

She didn’t respond. Argos, his loyalty to his owner regained, stayed faithfully by her side as she stared into the campfire, waiting for the flames to wane before she added more wood. That was the most use she had been to us. In her sleeplessness, Lethia tended the flames that kept us alive while we toiled for an escape. This didn’t foster a great deal of gratitude in me, however. It was a far easier job staying near the warmth of the campfire then risking your life out in the dark cold where the monsters lurked.

Grinding my teeth, I crossed the distance between us in large strides and loomed over her. “Don’t ignore me, Lethia!”

“Nice to see you managing your newfound malice, Nyx,” Quincy said behind me. I turned to see her trudging through the snow, a dark look on her face. “Harassing the girl won’t make her any more productive,” the wizard finished. She must’ve finished her usual rounds, checking her magical wards and performing divination. At this point, I was prepared to say her efforts were worth about as much as Lethia’s.

“She isn’t being productive at all!” I growled in response. My scorching eyes turned back on Lethia, who still refused to look up.

“And I suppose acting bratty is better?”

My glare turned back on the wizard. “I’m only stating the truth.”

Quincy held up her hands and sidled past me, her eyes already on Hakeem wrapped up in daesce furs on Lethia’s other side. I pursed my lips and took a seat on the other side of the fire, across from them both. Paulo was absent from the camp and would not return for a few more hours, I guessed. That boy seemed to lose himself in the Albian wilds. I didn’t blame him, though. With us for company, who would want to stick around much? At least half of us were the reason Paulo had been trapped here to begin with.

Then Lethia mumbled something.

It was the first I’d heard her speak in days since arriving, and even Argos perked his head up in what seemed surprise.

Quincy paused in her hydration of Hakeem to turn and stare at the enchantress next to her. “Did you say something, Artaud?”

Lethia paled in the firelight and I could see her visibly shrink into herself, as if she were hoping Argos’s fur could just swallow her out of sight. I rose to my knees to better be seen over the licking flames of the campfire.

“Lethia, what did you say?” I demanded.

She looked at me, like a whipped child. Her eyes were ruddy and raw, her nose a deep pink.

“…North,” Lethia rasped.

“North?” I frowned and looked at Quincy, who shrugged at me. I turned a glare back on Lethia. “What is north?”

The girl bit her lip as if to keep the words from coming out. My eyes slowly widened. “Do you mean you’ve sensed a way out of here!?”

Again, another moment of silence.

“Well, answer!” Quincy barked.

Lethia looked between us meekly. “I may have.”

“What do you mean, ‘may have?'” I pressed.

“If what I sense is truly a gate… Then…”

Paulo’s booming voice cut her off, and like a snail, she retreated into her shell.

“I have dinner!” Paulo said as he came up with what looked like two thin rabbits gripped in one hand. “Finally, my snares worked!” This was the most upbeat I’d ever seen him. He had a crooked grin and a slight spring in his step, even.

“Lethia may have sensed a way out,” I said quickly.

This made the boy freeze, and his victorious smirk faded from his face. He turned and gazed at Lethia intensely. “Is this true?”

As I stated before, Paulo and Lethia had avoided addressing one another. It wasn’t the accounts we told him of what had happened to us since coming to the Other Place, or even something the two teens had spoken of together. They mostly just pretended the other didn’t exist, a peculiar social dance that both amazed and unsettled me. I would have thought, of all people, that Paulo would be angriest with Lethia for her part in his mutilation and his brother’s death. Instead, he was simply coldly indifferent to her presence, even his occasional harsh comments, usually shot off when the girl was in his way somehow, seemed hesitant. It were as if he hoped his refusal to acknowledge her would make her go away.

Now, seeing the two lock eyes felt like almost as big an event as Lethia talking after days of silence.

“I don’t want to say for certain,” the girl mumbled, breaking eye contact first.

“I don’t care how you say it, just say it!” He snapped.

“The north!” Lethia spat, suddenly glaring up at him. “I sense something to the north, all right?”

At this the boy, took a step back, his eyes widening. “You’re mistaken,” he murmured. “You have to be!”

“You’ve felt it, too! I know you have!”

“But it can’t be there!”

“Believe me, I don’t want it to be there, but–”

“Where!?” I shouted. “Sweet Aelurus, you two keep speaking in circles!”

“Syria’s tower!” Lethia cried out at me. “I sense that a gate may lie somewhere in the direction of Syria’s tower.

Silence fell over us all.

Then Quincy snarled, “You knew this whole time, didn’t you?” She looked at Paulo next. “Both of you!”

But my eyes lingered on Paulo as something gnawed at me. “Lethia said you sensed it, too… But how could you?”

Paulo’s face hardened and I could see a dangerous look in his eyes, but I didn’t care. I rose to my feet slowly, taking his measure, thinking to myself, I could expect Lethia to be too weak to want to face her old home, but Paulo has no excuse!

“He’s an enchanter, like me,” Lethia said quietly.

Paulo was quick to close the distance between them and slap her. Argos rose, snapping and snarling, but with his companion retreating into his side, he could not act as he wished to.

So Quincy did it for him.

She punched the boy straight in the face. To his credit, Paulo did not fall, though he stumbled back a few steps in the snow.

“So long as we travel together,” the wizard seethed, “I will not suffer such conduct from you! Your brothers raised you better than that!”

“It’s just too bad you broke up my family, isn’t it?” Paulo returned hotly. He spat on the snow and crimson stained the white.

This cooled Quincy’s ire, but I could see her stance had not relaxed. She stood strong between Paulo and Lethia, and said, “I should’ve seen it… You were always sensitive to changes in the air.”

“I’m not an enchanter,” Paulo hissed. He pointed angrily at Lethia. “She’s lying!”

“Then why can you sense the same things she does?” I questioned. Then my eyes widened. “Gods… This whole time, you’ve been reading each other! That’s why you never spoke to one another! You could already hear what the other was thinking!”

Lethia flinched as if I’d threatened her. Paulo’s cold fury gained some heat as I could see his warm skin flush hot.

“Lies!” he shouted.

But it made so much sense. The pair’s odd behavior was tense, to be certain, but their refusal to address the other’s presence spoke of something deeper. A sort of fear? What did it feel like to have another enchanter around anyway? They were so busy building walls around their minds that neither stopped to really think of the true implications of the situation. The danger of it even.

I had read accounts, in my voracious reading as a youth, of enchanters going insane when not properly trained. Complications with the function of the mind and brain was inevitable, but to have a young enchanter lose control in their ignorance not only had risks for them, but for the people around them too. Had Paulo heard our thoughts without meaning to? Was that the real reason he avoided our company?

Quincy tutted at the boy’s protests. “Stop denying it! You’re an enchanter whether you like it or not! It’s bad enough you’re a late bloomer, but now we have to find you an enchanting master before you melt your brain in your obstinacy!”

“I’m not an enchanter,” Paulo argued stubbornly. He threw the rabbits down. “And I’m not going to Syria’s tower! I’m never going to that cursed place!”

He turned and stormed off, back toward the daesce valley. Quincy started to follow him.

“Paulo! Paulo!” she called.

“Leave him,” I said wearily.

I sat back onto the snow and buried my face in my hands. Paulo an enchanter. Lethia lying to us about sensing the gate. Clearly I had not done a good enough job of being focused on the present. I was too wrapped up in my frustration and loneliness. I could practically feel Lacertli’s stern eyes on me from heaven for my failure.

“He’ll get himself killed,” Quincy murmured, returning to Hakeem.

“He’s survived this long without us, I’m sure he’ll be fine,” I replied with a sigh.

My eyes flickered to Lethia, who still hadn’t emerged from the folds of Argos’s fur. The dog licked anxiously at the exposed skin of her neck, trying to offer her comfort.

I rubbed my chin. “We should leave as soon as possible. With or without Paulo.”

“I’m not leaving him,” Quincy said without looking up. She was once again trying to feed Hakeem clean snow.

“Then stay here,” I snapped. “I am tired of this Other Place and I won’t remain trapped by it any longer!”

“Ailuran don’t talk to me of exhaustion,” Quincy uttered ominously, her head turning just enough to let her eyes cut across at me.

“Paulo will come,” Lethia mumbled.

We both looked at her in surprise. Sniffling, she emerged from Argos’s side enough to glance at us both meekly.

I crossed my arms. “And what will persuade him to come so quickly?”

The young enchantress tucked a lock of wavy hair behind her ear and bit her lip.

“Me,” she said with a weak shrug.


Back to Chapter 41.3 | Forward to Chapter 42.2