I was worried. Elmiryn was essentially naked, left unprotected from the weather. She said the cold didn’t affect her. Mind you, it was the summer season, but up in the mountains, nighttime could still carry with it a bit of a chill. I insisted we head to Belcliff so that I could sneak into town and buy her something suitable, but the woman just waved me off.
“It’s just one of those things that don’t bother me anymore, Nyx,” she said with a shrug.
Just like that, as if the environment didn’t matter. Then came the proof. I didn’t so much as see her shiver. Even as we found ourselves in the glare of the suns for much of a day’s travel, she didn’t even get sunburn. It was one of the numerous unsettling changes that I’d observed in Elmiryn. Hunting was a cruel joke now. Birds and small animals didn’t seem to notice when the redhead walked right up to them to kill them for dinner. By the second night, I’d also realized the woman didn’t sleep. I woke up three separate times to find her sitting there awake and alert, and each time the moon in the sky had moved significantly from its last position. But she didn’t betray any sign of exhaustion. Not physically anyway. Mentally, I could see the woman was haggard. Since cutting off her tether with the daesce, her ability to process her surroundings deteriorated. Just about the only thing she reacted to with any sort of normalcy was in conversation.
Since that was the case, I figured I should keep talking to her. I avoided talking about my experiences in Izma’s mind game, and even about the time I spent with the others at Holzoff’s. It was just stalling the inevitable. I’d have to tell Elmiryn eventually. She even gave me looks that said, I know what you’re doing. You aren’t fooling me, but for some reason she never called me out. I was thankful for the space. Instead I related personal stories from my childhood, as well as folktales I had read. It wasn’t until our last day of travel that I told Elmiryn about how I made it back to our world.
“So the tree that had been at Syria’s was demonic…” she mused after I’d finished explaining how I’d fought the cursed linden tree at Syria’s tower.
“Do you think all the trees the demons planted behave the same? Quincy and Lethia were watching the whole thing, right? Did they observe anything useful while you fought the tree?”
I frowned. That was a good question. “I…don’t know!”
Elmiryn stared at me. “No one stopped to ask?”
“We were a bit disoriented, thank you very much!” She held up her hands, a look of suffering on her face. I winced. I might have let my vermagus power slip a bit there, and the redhead had already proven quite sensitive to it. “Sorry,” I mumbled.
“I’m just surprised, Nyx,” she stated. “Quincy and Lethia both are the types to stop and solve a puzzle just because someone put it in front of them. It’s like catnip for academics. ‘Where? Why? How?’ But what you’re saying sounds a bit out of character for them!”
“I really mean it when I say we were out of sorts, Elle. Things were…different. They still are.”
“How so?” She batted her eyes at me, bemused at my grave expression.
“Elmiryn, I think— Well, Quincy and I both believe that the astral demons must have done something to us.” I looked at her nervously. “I think they might have altered us.”
The words took a few seconds to sink in. Elmiryn’s steps slowed and her stare turned large and unblinking. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” she breathed tremulously.
I shrugged helplessly. “If what you think I’m saying is that we’re cursed, no! That’s not what I’m saying. The truth of the matter is that Quincy and I only suspect that the demons have done something to us. It may not be so bad as a curse. Maybe they just made it so that we could see them without us going insane.”
“But why would they do that?” she asked heatedly.
“I have no idea!”
“They might have turned you and the others into tools,” Elmiryn hissed, her eyes ticking back and forth furiously.
I squinted my eyes. “Pardon?”
She looked at me, a ravenous look in her gaze that made me take an involuntary step back. The warrior still looked very much like a wild woman. “When I escaped Meznik, I made an accidental detour through another world. In this other place, I spoke to two women, our speculums, and—”
Elmiryn took a deep breath through her nose as if she had to reign in her patience at my interruption and I crossed my arms, for once feeling unapologetic. “Elmiryn, you’re going to have to explain if you want me to follow along!”
So she did. She told me about Molly and Julie, our ‘speculums’ from another neighboring universe, and she also told me what secrets they had shared with her. Apparently, Meznik and Izma weren’t just a menace in our world, but across all universes. It all made me dizzy. I was still having trouble comprehending the demons as a danger in our world, let alone that there were more than one they wreaked havoc in.
“So you believe that the demons are trying to make us into tools to use against each other?” I asked slowly.
Elmiryn nodded her head eagerly and resumed walking. I hurried after her. “Yes! It might also explain why you and the others were all bickering with each other so badly.”
“Elle, I think that had more to do with the fact that we just don’t like each other.”
She didn’t respond to that, and I sighed. Perhaps I needed to finally apprise her of the thorny developments that had arisen with our strange group.
“Elmiryn, the situation with the others is…complicated, to say the least,” I said wearily. “I just want to prepare you for what you’re about to see.”
She raised an eyebrow. “And what am I about to see, Nyx?”
I took a deep breath before starting. “Hakeem is a withered husk. I’m not sure how Quincy has managed to keep him alive for so long, but she has. I suppose I’ve grown used to it, having seen it happen before my eyes, but it might be startling for you, to see him like that when your last memory of him is completely different.”
“You’re forgetting that my memory doesn’t work that way anymore,” Elmiryn reminded me gently.
A hand flew to my mouth as my cheeks reddened. “Oh! Of course! I’m sorry, Elle,”
“No, no. Don’t worry about it. Just go on. What else should I ‘brace’ myself for?” And she said it just that way too, emphasizing ‘brace’ as if she could conjure quotation marks into the air by her will alone.
Oh, she had no idea what we had been up to! But I wanted to let her down gently.
“Well, Paulo, as I’ve said before, is older. He’s still an insensitive hooligan, but now on top of that, we’ve learned he’s an untrained enchanter.”
“Oh!” the woman cried with a sarcastic grin. “Well isn’t that lovely!”
I nodded grimly. “I think Quincy has helped Paulo learn some basic techniques she had encountered in Crysen. They’re supposed to help him reign in his abilities, and protect his mind from the residual spirit energy surrounding the tower.”
“And how long will that last him?”
“Quincy says we need to find an enchanting master to train Paulo within the next two months, or the boy is at risk of either going insane, dying of brain fever, or turning all our brains to mush.”
“Marvelous. Anything else about our ragtag adventuring company?”
“Lethia, she—” My voice broke off, and I just stared ahead, blank faced. How do you break this sort of news to someone? It seemed Elmiryn wasn’t the only one who needed to approach this announcement gently. Trying to say it aloud brought back that bloody night in full detail, and with it, all the strong and conflicted emotions that threatened to undo me. And if I felt this way, how would the redhead feel? Before Elmiryn left with Meznik, I had sensed a kind of connection between her and the journeyman enchantress that hadn’t been there before. Would she be terribly upset, or would it slide off of her like rainwater down a blade?
“Nyx, what happened with Lethia?” she asked. “What happened?”
I cursed under my breath. Sweet Aelurus, I wish I didn’t have to do this!
“Elle,” I started quietly. “Lethia cut off her left arm.”
Whereas before Elmiryn had come to a gradual stop, now she just stopped altogether, her face going slack. “She what?”
“Her left arm is gone.”
“She lost her fucking arm?”
“Just above the elbow. She…she cut it an angle, so we were able to pull the skin closed over the wound—”
“Who did it?” she barked, advancing on me. Her expression had turned sharp and heated. “Who did that to her?”
I retreated from her, alarmed. “I—I just—I just said it! Lethia cut off her arm! She did it to herself!”
She glared. “That can’t be true! Why would someone do something like that? How? A person has to train hard and have the right weapon to cut off a limb in one go! And with one arm no less! What did she use, anyway? I seriously doubt you had a weighted and sharpened weapon just lying around!”
I felt ill when I whispered, “She didn’t do it one go. It took three tries.”
Elmiryn reeled. Burying both hands into her hair. She walked a slow, sloppy circle. When she stopped, her entire body seemed to clench and she turned a violent red. “That’s impossible!” she spat.
Now I started to get heated. “Are you calling me a liar?”
The anger in my voice seemed enough to get the woman to calm down a little. She still paced in front of me, her fists clenched. “No! No. Of course not, Nyx. I just can’t believe… No, I refuse to believe… I mean, why would someone do that? And again, how?”
I threw my hands up in exasperation. “Those are the same things we asked!”
“But Lethia is alive, right? I mean, you’ve been talking to me this whole time like Lethia was still alive when you left. Right?”
I rubbed at my face, feeling exhausted. “Yes, Elle. Lethia is alive. Aside from intense pain from her wound, she was perfectly fine. In fact, she was doing bicep curls with a water bucket last I spoke to her!”
The warrior’s jaw dropped. “Bicep curls?”
I just nodded mutely.
She shook her head and started marching at a faster clip. Cresting over a hill, Syria’s tower started to rise in the distance.
I barely heard Elmiryn mutter as I fought to keep up with her long strides, “I’ve got to see this for myself!”
The first thing Elmiryn did when we entered the tower grounds was ask where Lethia was. When I told her, she took off, running toward the barn.
“W-Wait!” I sputtered at her retreating back. “You still don’t have any clothes!”
She didn’t so much as pause at this. Resigned, I sprinted after her.
When I caught up, it was to find the two women halted inside, as if in suspension. Lethia was lying in her barnstall-turned-bedroom. Elmiryn stared at her as if she were someone she had completely and utterly been unexpected to see. Then it struck me that perhaps the warrior didn’t recognize the girl. She hadn’t recognized me, after all, and I’d traveled with her longest out of our group. Why would this be any different?
Lethia seemed equally bemused by the sight of the warrior. Her lack of clothing didn’t appear to fluster her, though. This was just another strange thing to me, until I also remembered that while the young enchantress no longer had the curse that led her to sapping other people’s memories, she still had the unfortunate condition of being absent-minded.
I was about to jump in and re-introduce the two of them when Lethia recovered from whatever spell she had been under.
“Elmiryn! Welcome back! That is—it is you, isn’t it?” She let loose a nervous laugh and struggled to her feet. Since she only had one arm to balance herself, this looked much harder. I didn’t quite get what a blessing it was to have both arms until then. Brushing straw from her hair, Lethia forced a smile. “Ah, of course it is. What am I saying? I suppose I must look pretty grotesque to you. I trust Nyx explained things?” She glanced at me, and I shrugged, not making eye contact. I wasn’t feeling particularly angry toward her, but just…awkward. Like I was the fool walking back into a room after attempting some grand exit in the wrong direction. Guilt might have been a part of it, too. Maybe.
At Elmiryn’s lengthening silence, I could see Lethia’s false cheer wither and fall away. “Elmiryn, it’s Lethia,” she murmured. Then she sighed roughly and squeezed her eyes shut. “Lethy.”
My eyebrows rose. Lethy? A nasty, tight feeling appeared in my chest.
Even after that helpful prod, the Fiamman did not move. Did not speak. It was like she was hoping she was hallucinating. Hoping that it was just her mind playing tricks on her. But when the warrior dropped her eyes, she knew. I knew she knew, because her eyes teared up and her jaw clenched. This might sound odd, but seeing my companion so emotionally turned around by Lethia’s dramatic injury made me feel a little better about myself. Elmiryn looked sad, and horrified, but I could see she was angry too. The dichotomy of her actions was almost a literal translation of what I’d felt the night Lethia had mutilated herself.
The warrior stomped up to the enchantress, her face now red, her eyes blazing, her breath coming hard through her flared nostrils—then she hugged the girl, gently about the shoulders, her eyes squeezing shut to allow two fat tears to stream down her face. Lethia took this without resistance, her face going blank, and her arms still at her sides.
When the woman pulled away to hold her at arms length, I could see her grip dig into the girl’s shoulders.
“You fucking idiot!” Elmiryn spat. She even shook the girl a little, eliciting a light wince from the enchantress.
That was when Lethia shrugged the woman off, her expression hardening. “Don’t tell me you’re like the others! I thought you, of all people, would understand!”
Elmiryn sucked at her teeth sharply, turning to lean on a stall partition. When she looked at the blonde sidelong, it was with a weary expression. “No. I get why you did it. But there are other ways now. No one lives by those old laws anymore!”
“Old laws?” I asked, frowning.
The two women looked at me, as if just remembering I was there. The nasty feeling intensified.
“I’m surprised you didn’t read about it, Nyx,” Elmiryn said, blinking at me. “Back when Fiamma was nothing but warring tribes, there used to be an old law that said great dishonor demanded great personal sacrifice in order to atone.”
Lethia explained next, “During that time, Fiammans didn’t have much in the way of substantial personal effects. They barely had clothes, they shared housing, and even their tools for agriculture were used on a communal basis.”
The enchantress raised an eyebrow at Elmiryn, who picked it up smoothly, “The popular thing to do, then, was to sacrifice children. Usually a first born.”
Lethia smiled wanly. “But in the instance that the offender had no children, they were then expected to sever a limb.”
I crossed my arms and glared. That natural back and forth…where had that come from? “Lethia, you aren’t a Fiamman!”
“In terms of nationality? You’re right, Nyx. I’m an Albian. But my ancestry is obviously Fiamman. When thinking of ways to purify myself, I preferred to follow my roots in this instance, given that everything I knew in Albias was related to the taint my former mistress forced upon me.”
My mouth opened to argue, but I had to snap it shut again. There Lethia went again, sounding so reasonable about things that, by all means, gave her leave not to be.
“That still doesn’t make it the smartest decision,” Elmiryn grumbled, kicking half-heartedly at the partition. She glared down at her feet as she did so, and I wondered if she was avoiding having to look at the girl again.
Lethia rolled her eyes and sat back down on her hay bed. I could see she was pale and a grimace was becoming evident, even as the girl tried to hide it.
Gently, I said to Elmiryn. “We should let her rest.” Then I turned and looked pointedly at the enchantress. “You will rest, right? No more exercising?”
Lethia sighed as she gingerly lay back down. “Daedalus found me out and threatened to put laxative in my food unless I stopped.”
“Good,” I said shortly.
The girl scowled but didn’t respond.
I gestured for Elmiryn to follow. “Let’s go, Elle.”
“Nyx?” Lethia called as we started to leave.
I paused near the barn doors and turned back. “Yes?”
“Hakeem is awake.”
Though I’d heard her perfectly, I didn’t comprehend this right away. When the information managed to filter through my thick head, my hands flew to my mouth.
“He’s…he’s awake?” I stammered.
Lethia grunted as she sat up to peer around her stall partition. “Oh yes! Hakeem woke up from his coma about a day ago.”
“And he’s normal?” Elmiryn asked, her voice tight.
I looked at her, confused by her tone.
Lethia shrugged. “He seemed normal to me. He was sitting up and talking without a problem. No memory loss, no slurring speech, and he moved just fine!”
“Where is he?”
“Up in the tower, most likely,” I answered. “But that can come later. Let me get you settled in first. In case you’ve forgotten, you’re still half-naked!”
She looked like she wanted to argue this, for some reason, when she gave a grudging nod. “All right,” she muttered.