She took Nyx into her arms, arms reaching along the broad side of the scultone with her opposite leg holding her in place by a strained stirrup. When Nyx was in her lap, wrapped in Elmiryn’s embrace, Graziano let out a sharp cluck accompanied with a shake of his long reins, and the scultone turned with a low hiss. Its pointed tongue slithered out to lap at its nostrils as it started up the slope, great claws slicing into the earth like it were butter. Graziano turned his head, hazelnut eyes lighting on the round metal thing in Nyx’s hands.
“Eh…lia. Is that what I think it is?” he asked, eyes going wide.
Nyx, pressed back into Elmiryn’s chest, held the item up, then expanded it by pulling at both ends, the smaller piece clamped by her teeth as her sapien hand tugged. Her Twin let her claw lay tensed and curled in the girl’s lap. There was the sound of metal sliding and locking into place. Elmiryn squinted at it, her vision blossoming something beyond her comprehension. “What is it?”
The girl shifted to look at her, sweaty hair teasing against the woman’s skin. The warrior frowned softly down at the girl, who seemed paler than usual–like paper. Her gaze shifted from the girl’s eyes to her lips. “It’s a collapsible telescope,” she heard Nyx say.
The woman thought of crumbled pretty paper. Fragile. She wanted to smooth out those lips and make them right again.
“Hey…stay with me. It’s alright.” Elmiryn whispered to the girl.
The Ailuran was startled enough by this statement to twist around and blink at her, cheek forced to press against Graziano’s sweat blossomed shirt as he leaned over to fire his pistol into the devil weed’s nest. The creature shrieked, and out of the corner of her eye, Elmiryn saw the monster’s tentacles lash in pain, but her eyes were on the girl.
“What’re you doing with that?” Graziano said, forcing the girl’s attention back onto him. His handsome face was pulled long in surprise. He kept whipping his head to look over his shoulder as he pressed laterally against the scultone’s rough neck.
“A batreng took it,” Nyx responded with a shaky sigh, hips shifting as the scultone went around the devil weed’s nest. Elmiryn gripped the saddle, pulling forward to keep better support as the scultone shifted to a steep angle. The stirrups strained with her movement. The girl glanced at her from the corner of her eye, and Elmiryn smiled against her ear. When Nyx continued, it was with a distracted voice. “I…I cut into its wing and it fell over the edge. A devil weed was going to destroy the telescope so I came down to get it.”
“Leaping without thinking?” Elmiryn murmured into the girl’s ear.
“It was their father’s…” Nyx mumbled, shifting against the woman’s body.
Elmiryn put her hand over the girl’s and nuzzled her neck. She breathed in deeply. Sweat and tree sap. “Your bleeding heart is too good for them.” She whispered.
She heard Nyx swallow, and pulled away–but not before laying a small kiss on the girl’s bared shoulder.
The warrior twisted around to look behind them. Arduino was bringing up their rear, the dark-skinned wizard in front of him. Hakeem gazed at her stonily, body shifting with the movements of the scultone. His hands were tied behind him, Arduino keeping one arm wrapped about his midriff–“To keep him from resetting things again,” he had said.
For the last two days, the five of them had coexisted in an uneasy sort of truce. Even though the girl had rankled her nerves, Elmiryn had to say that her time with Lethia had been a great deal more pleasant. Graziano was, perhaps, the most casual and amiable of the Morettis. Never mind that he had been embroiled in conflict with the two women not long before. He smiled in his handsome, frivolous way, and made light conversation. It helped in some ways. On the other hand, Arduino had been a brooding, cranky individual. When he spoke it was usual to snap something in his native tongue to his brothers, or to grunt out instructions. Paulo was a mess. He seemed dazed and tired most of the time, and the others had to watch him to make certain he didn’t drink all the water, or go wandering off a cliff. When he slept, it was fitfully, mumbling in his sleep. At one point he woke them all with his screaming.
Nyx…had been occasionally lost in reverie, staring at her Twin’s arm. Her eyes had cast about their surroundings in mourning, and there were times when she excused herself, muttering under her breath. She’d close her eyes and begin to teeter, and Elmiryn would be there to hold her. At her touch, the girl would come back from whatever cerebral precipice she stood on. She didn’t read, she hardly ate, and she woke quickly, as though she had never truly been asleep. Sometimes, her Twin probed around blindly, grabbing at things, or making gestures. When this happened, Nyx went into a silent rage, eyes tearing up and her face going red as she clawed and bit the Twin to silence. Elmiryn was glad to see that the beast did not fight back any more than just slapping or grabbing–because neither she or Nyx were certain of the girl’s ability to heal from such wounds. The animal seemed aware of this, but She also seemed to remember her promise to Elmiryn, to respect her sister’s time in the physical world.
Nyx…of the light…hidden in the shadow.
Elmiryn looked forward again as they arrived at the relief. Paulo backed away as they came up, the scultone screeching in greeting. The boy stared at Nyx as though she had turned a funny color. “Lia, are you crazy? What’d you go jumping like that for!?”
Nyx tossed him the telescope as she slid off the back of the scultone, Elmiryn following her. “A simple ‘thank you’ would suffice,” she snapped on her way past him.
He blinked after her, mouth open. Graziano, off the scultone, stomped over and punched the boy hard in the shoulder. “Well go on, damn you!” the man admonished. “You should be ashamed she even had to save it to begin with!”
Paulo made a feeble attempt to argue, words starting up his throat like chopped bits before he hissed out a sigh. Elmiryn watched him with arms crossed over her chest and fists clenched. The boy dragged his feet as he turned and went. He stopped behind Nyx, who had gone to where she had left her bag sitting near the rock wall, a few yards from the other scultone. She knelt on the ground, apparently rifling through her bag.
“Ah…” The boy glanced behind him. Elmiryn raised an eyebrow, and sucked at her teeth. Loudly. Graziano waved for him to go on. Paulo turned back with shoulders visibly sagged. “Thank you…for doing that. You don’t know us, but…this telescope is very important.”
Nyx stood and turned around. “I didn’t do it because I like you. Or even for your father.” She held up her hand. Elmiryn came forward, spurred by curiosity to see what the girl had in her palm. Behind, she heard Arduino come up with his scultone. Graziano spoke to him rapidly in his native tongue, and she could hear them struggle with getting Hakeem down off the beast’s back.
As she neared Paulo and Nyx, she saw that in the girl’s palm was a ring. “This belonged to my dead brother,” The girl continued. “I thought about how I’d feel if I were to lose this…it isn’t…it isn’t who he was. I never tricked myself into thinking this was a piece of him. I’m not holding him in my palm right now. …But…But it is a piece of a better time in my life. I didn’t want to be responsible for you losing a better time in your life.”
Nyx sat down heavily against the wall. Argos came trotting to sit next to her, panting. He sat down and placed a heavy paw on her knee. The Ailuran looked up at Paulo, who had turned his head away. “I’m enough of a blight just existing,” she said quietly. “I won’t let myself soil life further.”
Elmiryn frowned, eyes on the slim girl with wild dark hair and tawny eyes that gazed up in resignation. Up, at a boy who was too young and too deep in his own suffering to truly see the depth of her actions. She was like a performer, crooning to an audience whose backs were turned, and minds elsewhere. And for what? What had the girl done? What had she proved?
“Nyx…you little fool,” the woman thought.
Paulo muttered something, perhaps another thank you, before trudging back to his scultone. The beast had lifted its head from its sleep, pale eyes blinking as it watched its brothers be given treats by Graziano. Then it settled back into repose. Apparently, it wasn’t hungry.
Elmiryn would have liked to have sit with Nyx. To talk about why her hand still had not come back. To kiss her brow and sweep her unruly locks back from her face. To scold her for her brash behavior. To tease her over the fact that she and Argos had suddenly bonded over the last two days. The woman wanted to point out, too, that the portrait of her friend had rounded out. Not a drastic change…but for Elmiryn’s favorite image, it was clear as day, and a pleasant development.
But Nyx’s tawny eyes were still drowning from her sorrow, and her right arm had become the agent of a brutish shadow creature.
Elmiryn would have liked to have sit with Nyx, to discuss these things…
But she had other matters to attend to.
Turning away with face hardened and a downward curl of her lip, the warrior approached Arduino, who had Hakeem pressed against a low rock in an awkward reclining position by the heel of his boot. He kept a crossbow trained on him, and didn’t turn his head when Elmiryn neared.
The woman admired the wizard’s armor. It was not complete–his legs had no coverings–but the armor covered his entire upper body. This told the warrior it was mostly meant as a tool. The armor had a sleek, even black finish with beveled gold detailing that undulated into complex arrow like designs. These were just moderate enough to keep Elmiryn from thinking them too gregarious, which would have caused her to scoff the set away as ornamental trash. The gauntlets were the highlight. Elmiryn had never seen a pair of gauntlets so well-made, so articulate and accommodating.
“Okay, lia.” Arduino said. “Since you’re so keen on it, you can have the honor of taking this calgato’s armor off.”
Elmiryn smirked down at Hakeem, who only stared off into the space above her head. “This ought to be interesting…”
“Not as much as you’d think.” Graziano said near her. He came up, holding a short heavy metal chain. It had whitened in places where moisture bit at the surface, but looked otherwise new. “Drape this over him.”
Elmiryn took the chain with a raised eyebrow. “A chain?”
“Chu-so!” Arduino exclaimed softly. He shook his head, the tip of his crossbow bobbing a little. “Surely someone like you would know what this is? What it’s used for?”
“Apparently not?” The woman returned with a shrug.
“It’s cold iron.”
“…You needed iron? What do you think my sword is made of? Cheese?” Elmiryn chortled as she said this, but she knew there was more. She just liked seeing the bushes Arduino called eyebrows rustle, like they had a cougar waiting to jump out.
Arduino grunted and turned his face away, waving at his younger sibling to continue. Graziano did so, grinning patiently. “This iron is special, lia. It was made from metal taken from a rock that fell from the heavens. It has a variety of uses, one of which being to unravel magic in physical manifestations. For instance, most sorcery and–”
“Wizardry.” Elmiryn finished, her smile broadening. She looked at Hakeem out of the corner of her eye. The man had not moved, nor had his expression or gaze shifted. It seemed he had disconnected completely from the situation. She looked at Graziano. “So what do I do with it?”
The Moretti gestured with his index finger, tracing a clear line across the wizard’s chest armor. “Just lay it on him, with ends over the shoulders so that it rests on his chest. Then step back.”
Elmiryn was about to do just this when she paused and looked at Graziano, a dangerous slant to her grin. “Wait. Why am I the one doing this again?”
The man laughed unabashedly. “Because, lia. Your eyes say you’re too crazy to care, come what may.” Then he skipped back, wavy hair bobbing as he did so. He winked at her. “You’ll recall I said to step back, eh?”
The woman rolled her eyes, but her smile was still in place. “Yeah.” She looked at Hakeem and cocked her head to the side. “I hope you don’t melt or anything. I have some questions for you.” Then she tossed the chain across his armor as told, and jumped away.
The sparks made dazzled her.
Fast boots that echoed through lonely streets. Homeless eyes cut like knives in the creeping haunts of salvaged garbage and soiled cloth nests, where mumbles for food or drink chased the hem of her cloak. Stupid air that stung and starved, with shadows cast on her like heavy blankets–stifling and unwanted. Quincy…wasn’t herself. Knew she wasn’t herself the moment the I’equa Tear turned obsidian. She was unraveled, unwound, and spurred, losing the self-control she had fought for. What would Hakeem say? What would she do, if Hakeem were here?
How odd. She felt so connected. Horribly, horrifically, terrifyingly in touch, harmonized with all the repugnant impulses that would wield her power like oil to a flame.
Her blade, her precious sword, pulsed in the space that she concealed it–not in something as mundane as a scabbard–but in a place separated and unused by the world and the manner of living that guided and governed. She felt it call to her.
Morning, morning, morning.
Where were the suns?
The cracks and krakows that came riding on southern gusts were like chisels to her calm. Stupid Hakeem. He was the reliable one. He was the one who stuck to the plan.
“Tai’undu!” The woman cursed, speeding up from a brisk walk to an all-out run.
The dark-skinned man let out no sign that he was in discomfort, but Elmiryn was certain the heat from his armor must have been excruciating. His skin shone with perspiration, and a roll of sweat trailed from his heavy brow, down the side of his broad nose, to where it clung to the edge of his chin. The armor he wore pulsed a bright white, like it had just been pulled from a blacksmith’s fire, before it dimmed…then vanished.
The armor was gone.
Replacing it was a black doublet, and underneath, chainmail. The sleeves came down to Hakeem’s wrists, but the man had on no gloves.
Elmiryn smiled, delighted at this change. She reached forward and stroked the man’s chest, the gesture suggestive. “You’re still warm,” she said, eyes twinkling.
The man looked at her for the first time. “Your excitement ends here, I’m afraid. There’s nothing else to be had from me.”
The warrior’s eyebrows rose high, and she leaned forward close, eyes not leaving his as she patted his sides. With his magicked armor gone, or deactivated as it were, the real threat was gone. She came away, hands holding two leather pouches. She shook one. It jingled. She shook the other. No great sound came, but the bag clearly held something. The woman set down the bag that she guessed held coins and opened the other. Her smile pulsed, like a sail that flared up at some great and sudden wind. Elmiryn looked to Hakeem and pressed her lips together in a playful pout.
“Such a shame. I wouldn’t have expected this, looking at you. But I heard somewhere…” She pulled out a black lacquered pipe, the sides of which had carvings of a dragon on it. The warrior’s eyes took a predatory gleam. “…That smoking gets you killed.”
The cold buildings threw back the echoes of her feet on the pavement like mockery. She wasn’t even sure where she was going. There wasn’t enough light for her to flash to the rooftops and survey the disturbance at a distance. All was dark–all was cold–and then–
All was quiet.
Quincy slowed to a halt, feet planted next to each other in the cold ground as she stared forward, ear cocked. There were no sounds, no explosions, no shouting, no hooting, just nothing. She was left with nothing. Nothing.
“Hakeem.” The name came up her lips, and she thought her tongue a villainous traitor. She had better fortitude than that. People thought she had a mask of indifference, thick maybe, still just a mask–but no. They were wrong. What she had was Order, Tranquility, peace of mind. That wasn’t a mask. She hid nothing.
She’d sometimes dip her spirit into paints of emotions–some violent, some calm–but it was all just to meet her ends. Sometimes she needed to intimidate or persuade. Now, she had no use for emotions. Yet now, she felt like a child that had spilled paint all over herself…only there would be no tutting mother to clean up the mess. Quincy had to do it herself. For Hakeem.
Or there would be nothing.
She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. She gave a long exhale, then repeated the process. She did this until she felt her heart slow, felt the perspiration on her skin turn cold. She said a phrase in her head, an old mantra.
“Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…”
Then she started to walk again. Slower.
In her mind, when the chaos settled and the familiar quiet filled her, Quincy felt the beginnings of a plan form. The commotion was easy enough to trace–she’d need only to move to the south of the city, reach a high point, and search the horizon for any dust clouds or plumes of smoke–for an explosion of that magnitude was likely to leave a trace for at least another hour. Next, with relation to her findings, she would find a safe place to wait and watch. For that was what she did.
Waited, and watched.
“You were at the Cannon’s Punch.” Elmiryn said, wagging the pipe at him. “You set that snake on me. What did it do for you?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Hakeem said, looking up again, over her head. His tone suggested he was done humoring her with words.
The woman just shook her head and turned to look over her shoulder. The others stood nearby, watching the exchange. Arduino still had his crossbow ready to fire. Graziano had his pistol drawn, but not aimed. Paulo, sulky and with eyes that had seemed to take a darker shade, glowered from near his resting scultone, one hand on its side. Nyx had stood, and had her hand held to her chest. On her ring finger was her brother’s band.
“Nyx,” Elmiryn started. She looked at Hakeem and gestured with her chin. “Have you seen this man before?”
“I think I have,” the girl said. From her voice, Elmiryn knew she was frowning.
The redhead scratched at the cut on her neck, the one Arduino had given her. It had scabbed over, but it itched. She sat back on her rear and curled one leg beneath the other, which remained upright and half-bent. Arms over her knee, the woman gazed at Hakeem with narrowed eyes. “So you’re the one who stays behind. You take my things–” Elmiryn jerks her head to the side, where her bag had been placed near their other belongings. Her sword, in its scabbard, was propped against the wall. “–And you come riding along after your friend. Meaning to meet up. You’re the one who ties the loose ends while she runs off–all flare and style. You’re her little shadow who does the menial work. Am I right so far?”
Hakeem said nothing. He blinked once, slowly. It was enough for Elmiryn.
He was a splash of ink, a shadow that knew to keep quiet–but shadows don’t move without their light. His blink was a tell. This man was the undercurrent in this partnership–the steady flow that anchored the high and bright actions of his female partner. A quiet woman. Both were quiet, but their actions spoke louder than either could hope to conceal by words. Elmiryn laughed. Covered her mouth with her scarred hand. She felt the puckered skin against her sensitive lips and felt like she’d found the seam to herself…just as she found the seam to this curious duo.
Elmiryn looked to the others. “She’s waiting for him. I bet it was her idea, to tail us. They were after Lethia, originally, then all of a sudden we show up and she decides–” She paused, voice trailing away as she looked at Arduino. She was about to mention her bounty, but common sense choked her silent. The man was frowning at her. She didn’t like the light that came into his eyes. She continued, without losing another beat. “–To get us involved. Somehow, through some wizard’s trick, she made it so that Argos would find us. She must’ve watched us long enough to know we’d get sucked into this nonsense. Then when the Morettis showed up, she comes banging in. Actually, she would’ve been there sooner, before they could even show up.”
“When Lethia fell over the edge!” Nyx exclaimed, eyes going bright. “It must’ve been a devil weed that got her, but that woman stopped it. Only–”
“We didn’t see her. What I saw was a weak flare of light, like the sun breaking into my eyes, but I didn’t think anything of it. We should’ve looked over the edge.” Elmiryn looked back at Hakeem, her eyes low. “She tossed us into this crap, thinking we’d be a good distraction for the Morettis. Maybe she hoped we’d kill them. She didn’t count on us pushing this further.” The woman smiled. That wasn’t what she really thought, but it just occurred to her how dangerous it would be if the Morettis found out about her bounty. She gave a little sigh of satisfaction and looked at Hakeem, who looked her in the eye now. He was frowning deeply.
Elmiryn reached forward and patted his cheek. “I love showing manipulators just how much they’re mistaken.”
“What now, then?” Arduino said, glaring. “You’ve got your things. We’ve got Hakeem. There’s nothing left to it. He won’t speak to us, and we need him unharmed–at least until this matter is settled with.”
Elmiryn stood, squaring her shoulders. “This Quincy person. She’s got to be in control. That’s how she’s worked all this time. She won’t just step aside,” She glared at Arduino. “And you know it.”
He gazed warily back at her. “And what would you have us do?”
“Well, we don’t need the scultones tromping around, making a mess of things.” She looked at Hakeem, eyes taking on an edge. “But I will tell you what we will need…”
She had seen the dust cloud in the infantile sky, offset from the darker clouds. She had to climb to the top of a watchman’s tower, up many flights of stairs, to see it. Now she was at the edge of Belcliff, shadowed by a thick masonry wall with crenelations that housed spitting demons in its stone. Quincy’s eyes flitted in search of a suitable place to hide and observe. She spied a ledge on the third story of a trading outpost–still closed up and dark. She could climb up and–
There was a cough from the shadows. The woman froze, head lowering only a centimeter. Snow crunched as someone came near. Slowly she turned and exhaled.
Quincy stared across at the woman she recognized to be Elmiryn. The redhead had stepped out from behind a large column, where the dark cast by the pediment of the building had concealed her. The woman smiled at her with eyes that swirled a cool madness in the twilight. The wizard swept back her cloak, heavy cloth gripped in her right hand as her left hand slipped deeper into its warm shadow. Elmiryn came forward, arms swinging, gaze turned downward as she marched in lazy fashion on the paved ground.
“I’m supposed to say something witty here.” The woman flashed up a long smile with no teeth, strands of fiery hair coming down from her braid. “Can you fill in the blank? It took a lot out of me, rushing here to meet you. I couldn’t think up a line.” She placed her hands on her lower back and stretched backwards, looking toward the sky. “Wa-ugh! And look at that sky! A cold mess up there, huh? When do you think the suns will show?” Here, she looked at the wizard sidelong, the edge of her mouth curling up.
“You waste words, Elmiryn,” Quincy said.
She began to walk forward, and the redhead mirrored her movement, eyes shifting to show the woman was not as put out as she had said. They circled each other, slowly, going a full circle before the question came rising up.
“Where is Hakeem?” Quincy asked, pausing in her step.
Elmiryn smirked at her. “Now who’s wasting words?”
Quincy rushed forward. There was a ring that held more force than audible volume. It trembled the ear drums, making them ache, making their bones rattle and blood pulse with a knowing that spoke of something ancient. The world dimmed and darkened. In the briefest of moments, too little to call a second, she was certain it had even gone pitch black. But she wasn’t sure anymore. Had stopped trying to see in all these years. Her hand burned momentarily, then she felt herself become one with the energy–felt it solidify–felt the handle weigh and press into her waiting hand. The golden blade seared to its full length, where the edge rested against Elmiryn’s jugular. A slice was all that was needed. But even without moving, Quincy could see the small hiss of steam rise from the swords heated contact. On the other side of the woman’s neck, she saw that there was another cut there.
“This isn’t a game, Elle,” the wizard said, pulling up the words and stating them in the similar cadence and vulnerability she had first heard it.
The note did not strike. Quincy wasn’t certain if it was because she failed to remind the woman of whom had first said those words, or if the woman was simply unmoved.
“Careful,” Elmiryn breathed, her cerulean eyes widening. “You’re getting too familiar with a ghost…and that’s bad luck.”
“Is that what you tell your little friend?” Quincy breathed back with a quirked eyebrow. She pressed her blade to the woman’s flesh, just enough to get the point across. Blood seeped down the warm toned skin, and more steam curled from the contact, but the woman did not move. Did not even wince.
Elmiryn, instead, giggled. She smiled, showing her teeth for the first time. “You must think you have us all figured out. Oh sure, I knew something was there, watching. Even before we met Lethia. You played it about as subtle as anyone can, flashing around in the light.” She stepped forward, terribly close, and the blade slid along her skin. Elmiryn didn’t blink as she leaned down, braid slipping forward to swing at her side like a dead snake. Quincy felt something poke her side dangerously. A dagger. “You want something from us, is that right?” Elmiryn breathed. The wizard could feel her words.
Quincy didn’t back away. She didn’t want to appear alarmed or perturbed. Neither case was true, but she certainly was confused. Was Elmiryn truly ill of mind?
…Or did the dark influence here aid her?
The redhead tutted and backed away. Quincy made no attempt to engage her again. Her last attempt to threaten seemed to garner no results, and she needed the woman alive–for now.
“Wizards…I don’t get you at all.” The warrior said, shaking her head. “It’s like you’re marching to a beat no one can hear.”
Elmiryn looked at Quincy and put away her dagger, drawing her sword instead. She swung it once, then held it up with one hand. “The suns will not rise for at least another couple of minutes. They will have enough time to let us know they exist before the clouds take them from us. Can you last until then? Will this flimsy light, now and later, be enough for you?” On her lips still lingered a smile, but her expression had become serious, and her eyes seemed to gain in their distant quality. “Show me you aren’t all about your toys and tricks. Make this fun for me.”
Quincy unclasped her cloak and let it slip from her shoulders. It fell away, letting the wind chill her. She slid one foot forward and held her sword with both hands, head bowed slightly.
Her azure eyes narrowed.
“Have at me then,” she breathed. “And I’ll show you what I can do.”