Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 14.2

NYX____________________________

Across the street we went (me jerking Paulo into a straight cross versus a diagonal one–the fool was going to leave himself in the open longer) toward the marshal tower.  Perhaps it was the time or the commotion earlier, but it seemed the militia was spread thin.  There were no obstacles awaiting us as we slipped past the guards to the side of the building.  We stopped beneath one of the windows, barred and nearly twelve feet from the ground.  It seemed the building’s main floor was raised.

Now what?” Paulo said through grit teeth.

I pointed to the window.  “Give me a boost.”

“What’re you going to do?  Bite through the bars!?”

“Shut up and give me a boost!” I snapped.

“Fine!”

The boy laced his fingers together and crouched low, holding his hands down like a step.  I took a breath, then stepped into his hold, and he grunted as he lifted me up.  His arms shook with the effort, and there was a scary moment when he lurched and I thought we were going to fall.  I stretched and managed to grab onto the window bars, steadying us…but there was another problem.

My Twin was holding me back.

She had Paulo by the shirt, causing the boy to panic as he tried to beat her away uselessly with his shoulder.  In my head, she had come to the fore–hackles raised, and fangs bared.

“This is going to get us killed!” My Twin shrieked.

“I’m doing this with or without you, beast!” I whispered aloud.

“What??” Paulo whispered back, his face bewildered and bunched tight.

My Twin spat at me. “Then do so by your own limbs, but not at the expense of mine!”

“Then give me mine back!” I hissed back.

“Lia, dista’gea ya!  You’ll bring the guards!”

With my free foot, I kicked at my Twin’s arm.  At first she didn’t relinquish her hold, but another blow with the tip of my boot made her let go, and I straightened quickly.  With Paulo’s help, I pulled myself up higher, leaning my weight against the iron bars and sliding my hand up further as I inched like a caterpillar.  When I was high enough, I slipped my sapien arm through the bars, then turned my head as far to the side as I could.  The bars were a tight fit…but not impossible to squeeze through.  I sucked in air and proceeded to push my body through the gap.  The pressure on my rib cage was immense, and the sides of my face scraped painfully by, making my eyes tear up.  When my head was clear, I let out a sigh of relief.  My temples, ears, and cheekbones hated me.

Placing my hand on the small space where the bars curved and embedded into the building facade, I pushed myself up higher and lifted my foot from Paulo’s hands.  Awkwardly, through an odd twist of the leg that made me a little embarrassed, and through lots of shimmying, I managed to get my right leg through the bars as well.  I bent it at the knee and rested my shin against the bar so that my foot dangled in the air beneath me.  Now I was really, really cramped, but with my leg keeping me stable, I could finally use my sapien hand.

Squinting at the window, I tried to see any anomalies–any apparent cracks or thin spots in the glass that I could exploit.  The tall, four-paned window seemed largely in good condition.  New even.

“Nyx, what’re you doing?” Paulo hissed, peering up at me with narrowed eyes.  He kept glancing at the street, licking his lips.

I ignored him.  As I peered closer at the lower left corner, I noticed a hairline fracture at the bottom.  I had to wipe at the glass a few times, just to make sure it wasn’t a streak of dirt or a cobweb.  Then, with my breath held, I gave the window pane a firm rap at the top corner.  Then another where the crack was.  The sound was different.

I looked down at Paulo.  “Have you got a knife or something?”

The boy nodded.  He twisted around as he fished through his pack, then produced a small knife in its holster.  He held it out to me, and I took it by the hilt and pulled it free.  Holding it up, I inspected the blade.  The tip was thin enough, at least.  I took the knife and wedged it into the gap between the glass and the seal, and I looked at Paulo.

“You’re not going to like this…” I breathed, my brows pushing together worriedly. “But no matter what, this glass will shatter, and it won’t be quiet.”

Paulo frowned at me warily.  “Okay…”

“So what I need you to do, is to let the guards see you, even after I’ve slipped in…because they’ll come looking, and if they’re chasing you, they aren’t coming after me or Lethia.”

“You want me to be the distraction.” His voice was deadpan.

“It will only take a minute!” I pleaded.  But when Paulo’s hazelnut eyes turned stormy and his lower lip seemed ready to conquer the upper lip, my patience vanished.  “You wanted to come along with me, remember?  There’s no other way into the building besides the main entrance and these barred windows.  You know that Lethia will not be able to do what I just did, so you’ll have to lure the guards away from their posts.  Understand?

Paulo looked at the ground and nodded sullenly.

I trembled from the rush of anger that had channeled through me.  A taste appeared at the back of my mouth–like cinnamon and sugar.  My head began to hurt again, and I could Her whispering in my head, that something about all this seemed familiar.

But I did not have much time to dwell, even as my eyes ached from some unknown pressure.  I turned back to the knife in my hand.  With a deep breath, I counted to three.  Then I wrenched at the knife.  There was a squeal from the glass and the metal, but I couldn’t get it to move.  My eyes widened and dread washed over me.  I had forgotten…my abilities in my sapien form had become that of an average human’s.

I swallowed and closed my eyes.

In my head I spoke to Her.  “…I…need your help.”

I saw the beast in my mind’s eye, creeping, the muscles beneath her fur like rolls of power that taunted me.  “Now you seek me,” she hissed.  “Now you seek the unwanted one.  Is that right, sister?”

I grit my teeth, hand tightening on the knife.  “Forgive my frustration, sister, but the power you consolidate was once shared!”

“But never your Words!  Never your Life!  Those I had to fight for!  Steal!  Like a beggar!”  She growled.  Her tawny eyes cut holes in my spirit.

I licked my lips slowly.  “…What would…you ask of me?”  Already, the idea of giving her anything made me sick.

The animal sat on its haunches, and I could feel Her weight on me.  I could see her whiskers twitch, her ears flicker forward, her nose flare.  “I want…a name.”

My eyes opened a portion and my eyebrow quirked.  “A name?”

“Yes.” She laid down along her stomach, but kept her head up to gaze at me.  Something of her had become gentle…and this disturbed me.  I had never known Her to be gentle.  “If there is one thing I have learned, sister…is that proper names…good names…are to be given.  While the circumstances that bring this about may still be contrived…it is the best I can hope for, especially from the likes of you.

“…I…” I faltered and opened my eyes in full.  I stared at the ground, then let my gaze climb to the sky, where the gray skies felt like a looming blanket, ready to smother us all.  Why, of all things, would She want a name? Something so simple, so mundane, so…individualistic.

My heart clenched.  To give her a name would give her a foundation upon which she could stand on her own–apart from me.  This would further the wedge between us, the wedge, I could freely admit, I was not keen on closing…but to see it get bigger…?

“I…I’ll think about it…” I whispered aloud.

Paulo looked at me uncertainly.  “Are you doing the crazy talk again, lia?”

“No!” My Twin roared inside me.  “Either you name me, or we both sit here till death.”

“Alright…alright!”  I snarled.  I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them, my gaze furious.  “I’ll name you, beast, but not now.  Later, when I have the time.”

She faded from my mind’s eye, and I was frightened that perhaps my answer still did not satisfy her.  I didn’t want to choose just any name for her.  In Ailuran culture, our names were of great importance.  They often foretold what sort of person we would become.  But did She understand that?

I let go of the breath I had been holding when I saw my Twin’s arm come around to grip the knife’s handle with me.  I nodded and said, “Okay, on the count of three…”

Paulo drew his sword with a nod of his head, and jogged back a few steps away from the building.  It was good thinking on his part.  To jog closer to the street would give the guards a better chance of catching him, but being close to the window (and thereby, close to me) would draw attention to what was really happening.  His placement was good, and I was glad he thought to consider this small detail I had overlooked.  So far, his odd illness didn’t seem to hamper him much.  In fact, as I looked at him again…I realized he looked healthier here in Belcliff.

I started the count, my stomach clenching.  “One…two…three!

Together, my Twin and I pulled down on the knife.  For the briefest of moments, the glass didn’t seem to budge–then it suddenly cracked, and as the blade came up the shards fell away, tinkling like bells.

I frantically punched away the remaining shards on the sides, then pushed my way through.

Inside, I heard Paulo give a shout and take off running.  I heard the guards outside follow him, shouting, “Stop!”

With a wince, I raised myself from the floor, off the glass shards.  I crouched low, felt the floor beneath my feet like a reassuring cradle to my body.  There was no one in the room–there wasn’t even a torch or candle left lit.  But ahead of me, adjacent to the main entrance, was a heavy door that seeped with ruckus.  I could only guess this to be the way to the holding cells.  I tried to think how I could get the door open.  The desk where the attendant likely worked was unlikely to have something I could use, and I didn’t know if my Twin knew anything about using her claws for such a task of finesse such as lock picking.  And what if there was a guard on the other side? I considered knocking on the door–a brazen act, but the quickest (if most dangerous) way to get the door open.  The guard would come, and I could chance a direct confrontation…but that defeated the purpose of avoiding the others.  What chances did I have against this unknown opponent, especially in my weakened state?

But as I pondered, the door opened, and I squealed, jumping back with hands raised as quaking fists.  I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them again, hardly believing what I saw.

“Lethia!?” I exclaimed.

The girl stared at me–or rather, stared at my shoulder–her face deeply flushed, her wheat blond hair frizzy and sticking to her sweaty face.  In her hand she held a wooden club tightly, stained at the end.  The club lowered as recognition flashed across her face.  I noticed the scratches and bruises on her cheeks, nose, and chin; the ugly stains on her clothes; that her glasses were missing.  Her breath came in great heaves, and she pointed behind her with a shaking hand.

“I-I-I…I…” Lethia was stuck in a rut, jaw shuddering open and closed as she tried to force the words out.  I stepped forward, grabbing her by the shoulders.  Past her, at the back of the room, I could see a body lying face down, its feet sticking out of an open jail cell.  Next to it was a large iron object that looked as though it were hinged.  The girl, I surmised, had used her power on the guard, striking him dumb.  Recalling my previous experiences with the young enchantress, the girl had most likely taken something of use from the man–something large and consuming that would take her time to sort out.

But we didn’t have that time.

“It’s okay, Lethia,”  I said gently as I took her hand.  “Come on, we have to hurry!”

The other prisoners wailed.  Nearby a dark haired man with a cataracts begged to be set free.  We ignored him and I shut the door behind us–if only to block the terrible noise.

“I-I fell–fell d-down, and–and–” Lethia went on stammering as we pushed through the main doors, out into the cold street.  “The–The guard thought the mask b-broke my neck, so-so he c-came in and–” I didn’t understand what she was going on about.  I twisted around, and shushed her, my gentility souring under the stress of the situation.  I looked around as we walked, back around the building to where I had first broken in.

“Where is Paulo?” I hissed.

Lethia looked at me, confused.  “Paulo…?”

We passed the marshal’s building and into the alley behind.  There, down a block or so, I saw Paulo, fighting with the two guards.  I cursed, turning to Lethia.  “Stay here!”  Then turning, I ran off to the Moretti’s aid.  My legs pumped and my sapien arm sliced through the air.  In my head, I called to Her.

“Please, help me!”  I begged, my mind turning to the beast as she watched in her abstract domain of transition and subjugation.

“Again?” She snapped.  “Can’t the boy defend himself?”

“Two against one is hardly fair, and at any rate we need him if we wish to escape this!”

The beast snorted, tawny eyes narrowing.  “Very well…”

Her agreement came just in time.

As I came upon the struggle, Paulo was backed closer to a collection of garbage.  He grunted as one of the guards, a slim but wiry looking man, crossed swords with him.  I could see the sweat roll down Paulo’s face as his body was forced backward into a compromised bend–over broken crates and shattered glass.  The other guard, larger than his partner and with brown eyes that glared with ire, came up along the side, his sword pulled back for a strike.

Not knowing what else to do, I jumped, rocking my body back and tucking my legs in.  As I came near, the slim guard crossing with Paulo turned to look at me, a look of surprise coming over his face.  He began to shout out a warning, but it was too late.  I kicked out with my legs, pushing against his bared side with all the might I had.  The man was launched into his comrade, sending them toppling to the ground.  I fell to the earth, some air rushing from my lungs, but I rolled to my feet with teeth bared.  Paulo looked at me, breathless and nodded his thanks.

Together we advanced on the guards, the boy sheathing his rapier and grabbing a crate as he went.  Our opponents were still trying to disentangle themselves on the ground when we came to them.

My Twin grabbed the man on top by the back of his head, then slammed him brutally into his partner.  She pulled him back and did this a second time quickly, then wrenched him away, onto his back next to the other guard.  I grunted, trying to stabilize myself enough for this action.  His shirt ripped from the force of her pull, and the cloth fluttered in her grip with the wind.  She let the cloth go, sitting on the man’s chest, and pulled her hand back, claws extended fully.

My face drew up in horror.

I grabbed her arm.  “Stop it, don’t kill him!” I shouted.

Beneath me, the guard tried to buck me off, as Graziano had done a few days ago.  But this time my knees were set wider apart, giving me better support.  I rocked forward with the motion, descending with the elbow of my sapien arm.  My strike connected against the guard’s forehead, the bone of my elbow smashing against the man’s skull with all the might I could muster.

Next to us, the large guard had rolled onto all fours and was about to take off running it looked like, when Paulo came around and smashed the crate against the man’s back.  The crate shattered, and the guard fell back to the ground with a shout of pain.  Paulo jumped onto his back, his knee digging into the man’s spine, and punched him with all his might at the base of the head.  The man collapsed and went still.

With both our guards unconscious, I looked at Paulo, panting.  “Let’s…get out of here!”

We both stood and turned, and I saw Lethia coming toward us, her newly acquired club held down at her side.  “Lethia!” I exclaimed with a shaky smile.  “I think we’ll be alright for now–let’s hurry and get out of–”  But the girl did not listen to me.  She was focusing on Paulo, her pretty face screwing up in an ugly scowl.  The enchantress turned her body to the side and lifted the club with both hands.

My expression fell, and I held out my hand.  “L-Lethia, what’re you–?”

“Bastard!” The girl screamed, and she charged.  She swung the club at Paulo, wide, forcing me to stumble out of the way.  The boy dodged with a look of incredulity.

“Idi’ute!  What do you think you’re doing!?” He snapped, holding up his hands.

Lethia looked vaguely in his direction, her teeth grit.  “You!  I remember you!  I remember now!  You shot Argos!  You pretended to help me, back in Dolmensk, but all you really wanted was to turn me in for a sack of gold!”  She advanced on him again, and I noticed the certainty of her attack, the control with which she wielded the club.  This skill she must’ve stolen from the guard.

Paulo cursed as he evaded her second attack, and his hand went to his rapier.  “And what about you, eh!?  What about the shit you and your pretero of a mistress did to me?  Eh!?  Lia que ebriga destrucíon!”

“What did you say!?”

“I said you’re a girl who brings destruction!

“How dare you!  You filthy cozener!”

Say that again, witch!

Lethia attacked him again, screaming, and Paulo drew his sword, his handsome face turning dark with anger.  “Stop, stop it!”  I slipped between them forcing the bounty hunter to rear back and the enchantress to slide to a sudden halt.  I gestured wildly with my hand, my eyes wide as I looked between them.  “This isn’t the time for this!”

“You’re quite right!”

I froze, all my muscles turning rigid.  The new voice that floated to us was deep and amused.  All of us turned in the direction Paulo and I had come from to see a large man with deeply tanned skin standing with his arms crossed over his massive chest.  He wore a studded tunic and a black fur vest, thick black boots on his feet and what looked like a massive blade strapped to his back.  He had long dark braided hair, and around his waist hung pieces of metal.  Ingots.  They tingled as he took a step forward, then another.  His smile was what caught my attention, however…

His teeth were all silver.

“Fottuto!”  Paulo cursed.  “Karolek!  What’re you doing here!?”

Lethia looked at him.  “You know this man?”

“Oh, I know him,” the newcomer said, before Paulo could speak.  “I’ve crossed swords with him and his family in the past.  Tell me, little Moretti…where are your brothers now?”

I heard Paulo swallow hard.

Karolek’s smile broadened.  He continued to walk toward us slowly, and together the three of us stepped backwards in unison.  “I knew something was strange when I saw Quincy come into the bar without Hakeem.  Never mind that the woman has never set foot willingly into a bar as far as my memory goes, but to be without the company of her closest companion…?”  The man gestured vaguely to the South.  “Then there were those explosions, and all doubt fled my mind.  Something had gone wrong.”  He wagged a finger at Paulo.  “But I had no idea you and your brothers were behind it!  Why, I wonder?  Is the girl going to pay you more than the marshal?”

I was shivering.  With a voice that trembled, I cried out, “Please!  Leave us be!  We have no quarrel with you!”

Karolek looked at me, his smile never wavering.  He shook his head slowly.  “Ah…but I can’t!  You see, no thanks to those wizards, I haven’t snagged a bounty in months!  To catch you three would surely please the marshal, and with his reward, I’m sure I’ll be set for at least another year before I have to go hunting again!”  He unhooked one of his ingots and held it up before him.  Then he let his hand fall away, and the metal hovered in the air.  There was a hum, and without preamble, the metal morphed and twisted, finally turning into a flat disc…a flat, sharp disc.

“I’m sorry, little ones…” he said.

…But Karolek didn’t sound sorry at all.


Back to Sons and Daughters... | Forward to Chapter 14.3

Sons and Daughters…

“I got a hand
So I got a fist
So I got a plan
It’s the best that I can do
Now we’ll say it’s in God’s hands
But God doesn’t always have the best goddamn plans, does he?”
1

NYX____________________________

In dreams, she made sense of the drips and pieces and parts of emotion that fell on her cheeks–much like a person made sense of a broken vase.  But the question persisted.  Where, where, where…

Where had all the heroes gone?

It was at times such as these that the girl could feel her Other Self pacing.  She had become good at ignoring it–and controlling it when necessary.  But during these moments, these quiet intervals that whispered of fears and haunts and memories filled with blood and gore, the girl could feel Her lurking.  The beast seemed to feed on her unrest.  With a conscious effort, she suppressed the creature and her mindscape turned still.

Nyx turned and twisted under heavy blankets.  The first snow of the winter season had yet to fall, but the nights still nipped at poorly covered appendages like dogs at the heels of cattle.  Hurried by this impatient chill, the youth reached over the edge of her bed, and plucked her wool socks from the floor.  She pulled them on beneath the covers, a shiver blasting through her and sending her hands into clumsy pawing.

Her eyes flickered to the ceiling.

Heavy lumber–like a naked skeleton–loomed at a slant to her sideways gaze.  The circular window over her bed was left uncovered, letting a shaft of moonlight displace the shadows.  Her room was simply furbished, if a bit messy.  Books stacked from the floor in growing towers that threatened to fall, with papers as a sea about their intellectual roots.

The curtain of beads at her bedrooms entryway clattered just as Nyx pulled on her last sock.

“Koah…”

She looked up through mussed hair to see Atalo peering shyly at her from the shadows of the entryway, one hand holding back the curtain.  His eyes were wide and his shoulders hunched as he twisted the hem of his cotton shirt.

“…I didn’t wake you?” he asked, voice just skimming the waters of a whisper.

Nyx sat up and shook her head.  She wiped at her eyes and smiled.  “No.  The cold is to blame.  …Are you alright?” she added, sitting forward.

He scratched at his cheek and glanced behind him.  He looked at her with a soft sigh as he stepped further into her room, the curtain of beads swinging forward to reclaim their place.  Beyond, the hallway loomed black.  Atalo’s face was depressed into a solemn expression.

“A-ma isn’t sleeping well.  I can hear her crying through my walls.  I went to check on her, but she went back to sleep.  I didn’t want to disturb her…”  He rubbed at his arm, tawny eyes turning to the wood floor.  “I’m worried about her.”

Nyx sighed and pulled away at her covers.  She scooted to the edge of her bed and held out her hand.  “Koen, come here.”

The boy obliged, though he took small steps.  He flumped onto the feather stuffed mattress and looked at her sideways.  Nyx put her arm over his bony shoulders and pulled him into an embrace.  He felt cold.  Her hands tangled in his hair.  She closed her eyes and whispered something for the both of them.

“Everything will be alright…”

——————–

Nyx was busy in Tosmai’s village center, copying supply orders made by the Ailuran military.  Her hand was cramping from writing down all the information.  It was late evening.  All had left, save for the village leader, Orestes, who was in his quarters.  Now was her chance.

As a private secretary to Orestes, Nyx was required to dress appropriately.  She wore a white cotton blouse with a black embroidered collar and a forest green suede vest–usually with each polished silver button fastened closed, but with the day drawing to an end, she left her vest open.  On her feet were rich brown boots, made of deerskin, which came high over the ankles.  White leggings could be seen sprouting from them before her thick cotton trousers swallowed them at the knees.  Her long hair was pulled back and tied once with a black ribbon, six inches from the tips, then again, two inches from the tips.  The hair on the sides of her head were braided to the back, where the ends were then twisted into a simple flip.  Her unruly hair alone took an hour out of her morning.  Before, her mother would have to help her.  These days, it was Atalo.

The girl’s brow wrinkled as she tried to finish her work.  She wanted to be done with this task before someone–

“Hello, Nyx!”

The girl looked up with a start, hand slapping over the parchment she had been writing.  She grimaced when she’d realized what she’d done, and lifted her hand, which was now stained with ink.  The copy she had been writing was ruined.

“Oh, uh…sorry…about that…” the newcomer said.

A boy with a pointy chin, curly umber hair, and warm honey eyes looked down at her apologetically.  He wore a black jacket with gold cuffs, the inner lining a silky velvet, and the collar high and stiff.  A brass button at the top, just above the collar bone, was the only thing bringing the jacket together.  Under that, the boy wore a black vest and white cotton shirt, with black leggings and buckled leather shoes, polished to a gleam.  The traditional attire for a priest-in-training.

Her mind, no longer preoccupied with her work, finally paid mind to the soft smell of roasted almonds and incense that she knew to belong uniquely to the boy.  She smiled at him wearily, pulling the handkerchief from her vest’s pocket.  “Hello, Ampelos…”

“I’m here delivering a message from Urian,” he said, holding up a wax-sealed scroll.  “Is our leader in?”

Nyx nodded and stood gesturing down the large hall.  “Yes.  I believe he’s just reviewing his speech for this year’s harvest festival.” She tossed her handkerchief onto the table–making a point of placing it over the documents she had been reviewing.  “I’ll announce you.”

Together they walked, Nyx in the lead, her deerskin boots softly clicking on the wood panel floors.  The hall was curved in an arch, the ceiling made of baked brick and supported by visible beams of strong oak wood.  The walls were sandy brown, embeveled with Ailuran art that harked back to the earliest of days.  Behind her, Nyx could hear Ampelos fuss with his clothing.  As they neared the double doors leading into Orestes’ office, the girl stopped and turned to look at the boy with an exasperated smile.

“Amp, what’s the matter?”

The boy looked at her, his eyes widening.  He cleared his throat and touched a hand to his collar.  “Huh?  Oh, nothing…just nervous about seeing–”

“You’ve delivered messages to Orestes’ dozens of times.  Is there something else on your mind?”  She crossed her arms and looked up at him with raised eyebrows.

Ampelos blushed.  “I…I was thinking of asking…if you’d like…ah–”  The boy stared at her, face flushed.  Then he let out a loud, frustrated sigh, and looked down at the ground.  “Y’know, th-that isn’t fair.  You didn’t give me a chance to ask you properly.”

Nyx blinked and pulled her hair over her shoulder.  She fussed with the ends and felt her own face turn hot.  “Um.  Ask me what?”

“I was going to ask if you’d like to go with me to the festival.”

The girl winced and turned her head to the side.  She had known Ampelos since she was young.  He had been the only one, besides her friend Taila, who had not shunned her for her dissenting ideas.  But with the years, he had grown differently, and his affections for her had become exceedingly apparent–even if Nyx wasn’t so quick to pick up on his advances.

Guilt twisted her insides and she bit her lip.  Ampelos was shaping into a good man.  He was sweet, intelligent, and had a positivie future ahead of him.

…But she could never see him that way.

“I…I’m sorry, Amp.  I can’t go with you,” she said quietly.

Ampelos looked down at the scroll in his hands, which he turned slowly.  “Oh,” was all he said.

They stood there awkwardly for perhaps another minute before Nyx began to backpedal towards the doors.  “I-I’ll go announce you, now.”

She opened the double doors with sweaty hands.  In her head, she thought she heard Her chuckling–but that was impossible.

“Ampelos, son of Ourias, brings you a message, sir…”

The boy delivered his message quickly, then mumbled his goodbye.  Nyx watched him go, feeling tired and somehow, disappointed with herself.  But she had more important matters to deal with.  With a fresh roll of parchment, the girl set to finish what she’d started.  This copy was sloppier than the first, but it was still legible.  Nyx was more upset about her blouse.  Ink had gotten on the sleeves, and she couldn’t afford to replace it.

With her duties finished, Nyx left the village center, feet lithely coming down the stone steps.  She walked briskly, face forward, her hands gripping her knapsack with a white-knuckled grip.  Pulled over her blouse and vest was a thick smock-frock, to protect from the cold.

Tosmai was the second largest of the six Ailuran villages, which, along with the various forts and farm settlements, comprised the Ailuran nation.  The buildings here were of timber, cement, animal hide, and shingle, with stone foundations and circular design.  ‘Daikut’ as the architectural style was called.  The daikuts wound and wound in a swirl to the heart of the village, where tread earth was conquered by red stone tiles.  To the North, of the square was Tosmai’s center, and Nyx’s place of work.  At the center of the square was a small wooden stage, where leaders spoke to the citizens.  Around the square, bright colored streamers flapped in the wind, and buildings were decorated with strings of copper crescent moons–meant to bring good fortune and good health for the winter.  Smoldering ash left in dishes near doors were meant as wards from hungry ghosts, known as pretas.  They were said to come during the winter, sucking away the joy and love in the lives of the living.  Nyx’s family had a dish of ash near their door as well.

The harvest festival was only three days away.

Nyx walked as though she were returning home, nodding respectfully to those she passed.  Many nodded in return, though the action lacked warmth.  Others coldly ignored her.  The girl was used to it.  Many felt she was trouble to her family, and while her position as Orestes’ Private Secretary earned her some level of respect, there were many who still tutted after her in disapproval.  Orestes’ had done her a great favor in letting her work for him.  He had been fond of her brother Thad, and there were even times she suspected he was interested in A-ma.  He didn’t pamper her, but he was kind.  She lost sleep, knowing that her actions could bring him great harm, politically…but she could not stop.

…Not after what happened three years ago.

Nyx without a backward glance, deviated subtly from her route.  Her detour took her through some of the smaller, more run-down daikuts of the village, to the West.  At last she came to an empty shack behind the village storehouses.  The wind picked up, chilling her through the wool of her smock-frock.  Her nose flared at the scents of wheat and oats from the buildings behind her.

Then, a man came toward her, as though birthed from the darkness.  She hadn’t sensed him, as he was downwind, and he had made no sound.  His face was covered with charcoal and dark paint.  His clothes were similarly dark and unremarkable, but the girl noticed he had no shoes on.  “Have you brought them?” he asked in a low voice.

In answer, Nyx opened her knapsack and pulled out the scrolls of parchment she had been copying the military documents to.  “It’s all there.  I also overheard Orestes’ mentioning the body count from the recent battle in Uktace.  We’ve lost almost 300 hundred soldiers to Fiamma.”

The man hissed out a curse.  “Too many lives lost!”

Nyx nodded gravely.  “And recruitment is down.  They’ll be drafting soon.”

“And they’ll be calling our children to arms.” The man spat.  “We have no more men.  Most have gone to war…or died.

Nyx stepped closer, looking over her shoulder.  “Listen,” She gestured at herself.  “I want to do more.  Copying documents and pulling the wheels off of chariots isn’t enough!”

“…He’s already given you your answer, kitten.  He tried to train you, but you haven’t a stomach for violence.”

Nyx hissed from the back of her throat.  “What use does violence bring us when the ones we harm are of the same spirit!?  I can still be of more use than this!  Let me prove it!”

The man seemed to gaze at her a long time.  Then he nodded.  “Don’t go to bed early tonight.”  And without another word, he left.

Nyx stood there, her breath shaky.  She listened to the world shiver and felt her heart thrum anxiously beneath her breast.  Slowly, she turned and left.  She was careful not to be seen on her way back.

Back at her home, Nyx shed her smock and vest.

Her mother, known as Fotini to those outside the family, was stirring a pot in the kitchen, face lit underneath from the fire of the stove.  Her hand was slim and pale, the bone and veins showing unnervingly underneath.  Nyx bit her lip and set her knapsack on the stone table.  She went to her mother and took the spoon from her.  “A-ma, please sit.  You aren’t feeling well,” she said.

Her mother looked at her.  Her face was a little broader than Nyx’s and Atalo’s, and her chin had a small dimple (which the girl always thought curiously charming).  Streaks of white and gray sprinkled her dark hair, locks feathering about her shoulders.  She was already dressed in her nightgown, and her eyes and nose were a raw red.

Nyx guided her mother to the table with firm but gentle hands.  She felt her throat tighten at how easily her A-ma was persuaded.  The girl remembered days when she feared the pinch of her mother’s fingers about her ears (usually for hiding in Thad’s room when he was off to war, or from stealing the toys from bullies as retribution) but nowadays…

The girl went to the pot, stirring what looked like rabbit stew.  “How was your day, A-ma?”

The older woman sighed and rubbed at her face.  “Tiring.  I wasn’t able to meet my quota today.  The weave-master was furious…”

Nyx bunched, her eyes flashing.  “Did he hit you again?”

Her mother shook her head.  “No.  Orestes’ spoke to him already about that.  But…” the woman’s face crumpled like paper, and suddenly she seemed so much older.  “…I…I can’t…”

Nyx stopped her stirring and crossed the room in three quick strides.  She enveloped her mother in a hug, holding her close to her chest.  “Shh…A-ma, it’s okay.  Orestes’ said he was happy with my work.  We’ll be getting more grain and silver the day before the festival.”

The woman shook her head, muscles quivering.  She felt hot under the girl’s touch.  “My Nyx…My dear, dear Nyx.  It’s more than just pay. Those men out there…they need their armor.  When their leather gives way, the last thing to save them is our weave!  If my work is poor, then another mother could lose her…” The woman couldn’t finish.  She broke into sobs, gripping Nyx all the tighter.

The girl caressed her hair, silent tears slipping down her cheeks.  Her voice was thick when she spoke.  “Shh…A-ma…shh…stop that…”

“What would Thad say?  What would he say?”  her mother wailed.

Nyx stiffened, and her hands turned to claws against her mother’s back.  “Nothing.” She bit out, with more force than she’d meant to.  “He’d say nothing.  He loved you.  He loved all of us.”

There was a sound from the hallway.  Nyx turned her head to see Atalo crouching and peering around the corner.  His eyes shone in the firelight, and the girl could see her brother struggle to keep his lip stiff.  She held out her arm.

Atalo ran over to embrace them.

That night, the stew burned, and they were left with crackers and water for dinner.

——————–

Not much later, whilst reading in bed, Nyx heard a ‘clack’ against her window.  Her breath stopped in her throat, her copy of ‘Mysteries of the Animus Revealed’ falling flat against her lap.  She dog-eared the page she was on, then set the book aside and stood on the mattress, stepping up on the head rest to stare out the circular window.  Nyx saw nothing.  She squinted her eyes and opened the latch, pushing the window out a crack.

“…H-Hullo?”

“Nyx, daughter of Fotini?” a voice whispered.

“Aye, I am she.” Nyx said, heart thumping.  She strained to peer farther out of her little window.  “Who’s there?”

“I bring you a message from the Ipogius.  Travel fast, to the Kreut Forest in the East.  Our company awaits you tonight.”

Tonight!?

“Yes.”  There was a rustle, and Nyx saw a shadow on the ground move in the scattered moonlight.  “Wait!” she hissed.  The shadow paused.  “You can’t mean tonight!”

“Yes.  Tonight.  But if your dedication wanes, then by all means, resume your recumbency daughter of Fotini.”

Nyx cursed.  The shadow was gone.

——————–

She slipped from her home and out of Tosmai.  She avoided the main road, taking to the wilderness with all but the stars as her guide.  She knew she arrived at the Kreut Forest when the trees grew tall and the underbrush thick.  Here, the forest was black from the work of dwarves in the overshadowing mountains, and it was said that the forest was enchanted–host to wily fairfolk and a home to many spirits.  The frosted earth snarled beneath her feet.  She came to a clearing, and paused, her nose quivering as she sensed others.

The beast inside her snarled, and Nyx grit her teeth as she banished it to the dark.

Shadows moved around her, and she with them–body turning to find that she was surrounded.  Her mother had always said, she was a child for the dark.  Now she was one with it.

“Nyx.  You’ve come, and quickly, too.  This is good.”  A man stepped before her.  He was a head taller than her, and his voice was so deep, it rumbled in her ears like a bear’s.

Nyx bowed, her breath short.  “Myrk.  You honor me with this chance.”

A heavy hand landed on her shoulder, and she let out a squeak as she nearly toppled over.  “Nyx, the formality isn’t required.  We are the Ipogi!  Not the government.  I fought with your brother, Thad.  You are as my own, kitten.”

Nyx straightened.  “Th-thank you, Myrk…”

The man’s shadowed face nodded.  She couldn’t make out the details of his clothes.  Somehow the darkness of the Kreut forest was harder to pierce, even for her Ailuran’s eyes.  The most she could gather was that he was wearing a smock and fitted pants.

“Will you let me go deeper?” She asked, face tightening in anticipation.

“You know that I must test you, first.”

“What would you have me do?”

“Farther north of here, there’s an abandoned dwarven settlement.  There’s a two-story tradehouse there.  You have to sneak into the settlement, break into the building, and get the red ribbon without anyone seeing or hearing you,”  The man said.

Her voice was a fog.  “Where will the ribbon be?”

“On the second floor.”

“…That’s all you’ll tell me?”

Chuckles around her.  When Myrk spoke, she could hear the smile in his voice.  “There will be many times when the most you’ll know is what village your target is in.  Be happy I give you this much.”

Her hands clenched and she squared her shoulders.  “…When is my time done?”

“Kitten…you already know…that both for this test and any missions you may be given afterward…”

The other shadows moved away, off into the inky world.  Only the man remained.  If she focused, she thought she could see the fire of his spirit, glowing deep in his eyes.

He spoke again, and this time, she heard no smile.

“…Your time is done when you’re caught.”

——————–

Three days later.

The villagers crowded Tosmai’s central square.  It was the day of the harvest festival.  An emissary had been sent by the Illuminati of Himitahl, the nation’s capital.

The emissary, a tall man dressed in navy blue embroidered robes, raised both hands and boomed out.  “Sons and daughters of Aelurus.  Cast your attention this way!  I bring important news from your great elders.”

Nyx frowned as she came up near the stage.  The crowd pressed in, forcing her into intimacy with those around her.  A sea of heads and shoulders afforded her a limited view of the messenger, whose jade stone eyes swept over his audience.

“The Fiamman devils proceed to tramp upon our lands,” he roared, spit flying from his pale lips.  “They rape these sacred forests and swallow herds of cattle with little thought.  They press and they press…but the children of the moon remain strong.  In all the years, they have not taken a settlement, nor have they ever been close in damaging our great spirit as a nation!  At this very moment, our brothers fight for the good of us all, and the Fiammans quell at the might of Ekilluos!  It is a vicious struggle, one filled with its share of tragedy and torment…but there is glory and honor as well.”  He gestured grandly, with arms spread out as though inviting an embrace.  His eyes narrowed.  “Now!  Children of Aelurus!  Now has come the time to show your commitment to your elders, to your kin, and to your goddess!”

Another man came near him, holding a large scroll.  He unfurled it and held it up high for all to see.  The messenger gestured at it with one hand.  “Here!” he cried, “Is a list of positions that require those of able body and mind!  You need not be a warrior to aid in this war!  You too, can stop the Fiamman menace from their unholy crusade!”

Nyx felt something press into her back.  She stiffened, and turned her head just slightly.

“You’ll apply for the position as Permanent Secretary with the Senate.  Today.”  A deep voice murmured.

Nyx looked forward again, but her eyes were glazed.  She swallowed and whispered.  “My reputation precedes me.  If Leander finds out–”

“He won’t.”

Whatever was pressed into her back slid down to fit into her open palm.  She gripped it in her sweaty hand.  It was a small roll of paper.

“My family–”

“Will be fine.  Go.”

She turned her head.  The faces of many were turned up, to the messenger, who had gone on quoting scripture.  Her messenger was gone.  She placed the note in her pocket, her finger brushing against the red ribbon she kept there.

“‘And the Mother looked upon her children with a face filled with glory.  She held out her hands–hands of great creation–and She bade the brave to take on greater vitality in the name of Her and the Powers That Are and Always Shall Be. ‘Hark!  The light it calls! Draw up your pride, and remind thine ghosts who is master!’

——————–

She folded her last shirt and placed it carefully in her pack, amid her other belongings.  Atalo sat on the bed, feet kicking, but his face long.  “How long will you be gone?” He whispered.

Nyx glanced at him and swallowed.  “I’m not sure.  If I’m chosen, then I won’t be returning right away.”  And by that, she meant, she could remain there for the rest of the year.  “If that happens, I’ll send you and A-ma money and food.  I’ll be earning gold, not silver.  You’ll be able to afford so much more.”

The boy scowled at his knees.  “I don’t want gold.  I want you to stay with us, Koah.”

Nyx bit her lip, her eyes burning.  She reached over and touched his shoulder.

“I…I know, Koen.  …Please, take care of A-ma for me, will you?”

——————–

At the Senate building, in Himitahl.

“I’m surprised to see you here,”  Said Svette, Chancellor under the Illuminati.  He stared at the scroll of names in his hands, then looked back at Nyx.  His bald eyebrows pressed together.  “I’m really surprised to see you here,” He exclaimed again.  “As I recall, you had quite the reputation for running that mouth of yours in Tosmai!”

Nyx looked him in the eyes.  Svette was a slim faced Ailuran with a pinched nose and coral-colored eyes that appeared too close together.  To her misfortune, he was one of Leander’s closest companions…and Leander, as her old teacher, hated her.

The girl fought to hold the Chancellor’s stare–his focused, prejudicial stare–even as she felt the heat creep up her neck, felt her heart beat so fast it were as though it were trembling.  She resisted the urge to curl her back and dip her head in submission.  Her Other Self felt threatened.  She could feel the beast clawing at the surface.  She was almost certain Svette could smell the animal beneath her skin.

But she fought it, cursing her inner demon and pushing Her away.  Nyx drew herself up as tall as she could, taking a deep breath so as to make herself look larger.  She thought of Atalo and her mother.  Her heart calmed a fraction, and the beast became muted.

“My conduct in the past is irrelevant,” she said, voice flat and hard.  “The pain in my family, in my heart now, is what matters.  Those human swine have hurt me and mine enough already.  My mother is struck ill with grief, and my Atalo is too young to take to arms.  I myself am no fighter.  This is the only way I know to contribute.”

“You do have top marks in dictation and writing.  Orestes’ also speaks highly of you,”  Svette said, looking down with pursed lips.  “Our witnesses agree, you are an intelligent girl…if a bit misguided.”  The man turned to the elders at the back of the room, who sat shadowed behind a long polished oak table.  “Wise ones…is the child fit to serve?”

The phantoms beyond the table leaned over to one another, conferring.  Then the one in the center sat forward.  Beetle-black eyes and a craggy face hidden beneath an olive-brown beard shifted into the light.  The elder gave a nod.

“Daughter of Fotini, sister to the warrior-hero Thaddeus…We would have you as our Permanent Secretary.”

Nyx straightened her neck as much as she could and gazed toward the ceiling.  She felt like her heart was trying to punch its way out of her body.  “Yes, great one!”

“This is an honor for one so young… Please tend to the public accounts, and mind the expenditures of our divisions.  There will be three aids under your guidance.  Leave behind the poisons of your past.  As a daughter of Aelurus, your future depends on it…”

Yes, great one!

——————–

Nyx was in a daze.  She sat on the bed of her new daikut–a small building meant only for a single occupant–but it was freshly built.  The girl could tell from the fresh smell of the wood, and the way the bricks still held the scent of the ash from the oven that baked them.  Her bed was soft, and the sheets clean.  The wood furniture was recently polished.

…The girl wished she were home.

Next to her on the bed were her new clothes–given to her by the Illuminati.  Her new uniform.  A dress.  She was to wear a dress. A white one, with gold laces and a silky blue scarf.  Only women of high-station had the luxury of dresses.

“Sweet Aelurus, what have I gotten myself into…?” she moaned, burying her face into her hands.

It wasn’t the work she was scared of.  She could handle the record-keeping, divisional supervision, and even having people working under her.  Nyx was used to handling things of varying complexity all-at-once.  She did it for years at her home, since her mother’s health had begun to decline.  She wouldn’t have to speak much with those in other offices, and she would never have to speak with the public.

But…she hated Himitahl.  The temple was too large and unfamiliar.  Even the food seemed to taste differently.  Nyx shuddered at the thought of her first full moon there.  The village felt more like an overgrown town, and the mentality of the capital disagreed with her on a deep and fundamental level.  Tosmai had its fair share of propaganda and overt military displays…but here, it was worse.  So much worse.

…And what would happen if she were caught?

Nyx lifted her face to stare at the small note that sat atop her new dress, the one she had received the day of the harvest festival.  She recognized the messy scrawl as Myrk’s.

“Let the night come early.  Track the needs of the pretas.  Meanwhile, your eyes must be keen and quick.  Find the Names of the Damned before the suns swallow us all.”

The girl burned the paper in her small stove, and sat staring at a wall for the rest of the night.

——————–

The first week was exhausting, and the girl hardly slept.  She didn’t realize how much standing, approving, disapproving, and reporting she would have to do.  The tedious correspondence alone made Nyx want to scream.  Her aids, she realized, were a terrible obstacle in her espionage efforts.

They were three young men–only a little older than she–who were unhappy answering to a young girl, but earnest in their work.  She mixed their names up on a daily basis.  Nyx couldn’t be bothered to get to know them.  Her mental capacities were taken up just doing her job well enough so that she could do her real job.  Hours dragged on longer than necessary, because she had to memorize information without writing it down.  She could not afford to write anything down.  It was enough risk carrying the package the Ipogi had given her, she could do nothing else that may lead to her discovery.

At the end of the week, she received a message to meet an agent of the Ipogius outside of Himitahl.  In the dark, they met, and she told him all she could remember.  He said nothing, only handed her a small package, then left.  It made the girl feel cold to know that even her peers felt distant in her new surroundings.

The second week fell into a smoother rhythm as Nyx became accustomed to the pace of her work.  The third week even started to feel routine.  At the end of each week, she reported to an agent of the Ipogi.  At the end of each week, she sent a letter home to her family.  Her first full moon was spent alone, away from the other villagers.  It seemed even the beast disliked Himitahl.

It wasn’t until nearly a month went by that Nyx had every inch of the Senate building memorized–atleast, the areas she could access.  There was one hall she was barred from, unsurprisingly, as it was the way to the Chamber of the Elders.  But it was unneeded.

Shortly after the end of her first month as Permanent Secretary, her moment had come.

“A bulk order on weapons and armor?  Has recruitment improved?”  Nyx said one afternoon, holding up a leaf of parchment.

One of her aids glanced at her distractedly from his desk.  “No, miss.  The Illuminati passed an order last night.  Each village is to produce 200 sons and daughters by the end of the week.”

“…Each village?”  In her mind, the girl knew this to be disproportionate.  At this rate, the Illuminati would be asking not only for the able-bodied…but the very young…perhaps even the old.  She sat back, her lips and fingertips tingling, her skin feeling cold.  She stared forward, over the sea of papers, and wondered if the elders were really just “defending the nation”, if they were even just pursuing land and possible mineral deposits.

That evening, when she went to turn in her reports to Colec, the Cabinet Secretary, she saw the man sign his name at the bottom of a scroll, where other illegible signatures could be seen.  He looked up at her, his long sunflower hair tied back into a tail.  He stood, his robes rustling as he did so.  “Ah, Nyx.  Your timing is impeccable.  The Senate requires your signature here.”  He pushed the parchment across his desk.

“What is this for?” She asked, as she took the quill Colec handed her.

“The authorization for the draft list.”

Nyx froze.  Her eyes rolled up to stare the man in the face.  “…They…require…our signatures for this?”  The quill tip lowered to the parchment.  Sweat broke out over her skin.

“The Illuminati aren’t so much asking our permission,” he explained, “As asking the divisions if it’s possible.  You’ve been keeping meticulous records over the last month, yes?  Do you think we can afford this influx of troops?  If you look, it details the estimated number of new soldiers and the funds needed to equip and transport them.”

Nyx’s mouth felt dry.  Could she stall?  Could she flat-out refuse?  Her hand twitched on the parchment as she looked down and speedily read the document.  She felt sick as she gave a nod of her head.

“…Yes, sir.  We do.”

“Excellent.”

The girl fought to keep her hand steady as she signed the document.  “…Has…the draft list been completed?”

“Quite speedily, yes.”  Colec reached over and took the scroll from her, rolling it up.  “Excellent, madame.  Yours was the last signature needed.”  He came out from behind his desk, boots clicking on the tiled floor.  He patted her shoulder, a large smile on his face.  “Might I say, that your work here has been incredible.  Especially given your age.  You would do Thaddeus proud.”

Nyx heard the man leave the room.  She stared forward, eyes burning.  Her fists clenched to the point of drawing blood…

She had to do something.  Soon.

——————–

Night time.  New moon.  In a storage closet.  Through guile, the girl had managed to hide there well after her work had finished.

The Senate building was empty, save for the guards patrolling the hallways.

The package Nyx had received from the Ipogi contact contained all that she needed.  She was now dressed in a one-piece cotton suit, dyed black, with simple black shoes, and wore a black mask that concealed half of her face.  Tied around her waist was a belt of dark cloth, where a small knife hung holstered on her right hip, and a leather pouch on the other.  The pouch contained a vial of sleeping drought, a vial of poison, a vial of acid, a roll of string, and a simple lockpick.  She didn’t plan on using the knife to fight, but it could still serve as a useful tool.  As for the poison…

Nyx prayed to Aelurus that it wouldn’t be necessary.

When all outside her door turned quiet, the girl dared to emerge.  She knew the patrol routes, knew when the guards shifts ended.  But most importantly, she knew where the draft list was.

Nyx moved with purpose, her slim form a wraith in the dancing torch light.  She needed to get to the sub-level, where the room of records contained all the original government records.  The problem was, there was a guard stationed there at all times.  Fortunately, she knew the guard liked to have tea during his break.

She slipped into the building’s kitchen, to the rear of the Senate, an off-shoot that was purposefully built with a high ceiling to make it less stuffy for the servants who made lunch for the officials each day.  Nyx had come in the room only once, but she remembered one thing, common in Ailuran architecture…

Bare rafters.

It was a simple matter of getting onto the counter and running up the wall, where she was able to grab onto one.  Safely straddling the heavy rafter, the girl took out her string and began to unroll it.  Nyx was over the table that held the herbs and spices.  The guard, when he came, would eventually come directly beneath her to steep his tea.

Sure enough, within the hour, the guard appeared, his leather armor griping as he fished out a teacup for himself.  Nyx watched as he heated a kettle full of water till it squealed.  Then he came beneath her.  The man, carefully picked his tea leaves, placing them in the strainer, which he then dipped into the water-filled teacup.  He even added a small amount of spice with it.  These simple tasks done, he gave a cough and turned his back  to the cup, leaning back against the table with a bored expression.

Overhead, Nyx carefully lowered her length of string until it was over the unattended cup.  Then taking her vial of sleeping potion, she carefully let the liquid trickle down the length string.  She let a few drops fall into the drink, then quickly reeled the string back.

The guard turned around after a time and took the strainer out.  Then he added sugar, stirred it, and drank the tea.  Nyx watched the man drink and held her breath.  With time, he drained the cup, then turned and left the kitchen.

The girl waited an extra moment before letting herself drop down.  The hall was clear, as she knew it would be, and she proceeded with hastened steps to the stairs leading to the sub-level.  Down below, she found the guard, asleep in his chair.

Nyx ignored him, knowing that he did not have the key, and went to the heavy steel door.  She eyed the intimidating lock and immediately knew that her lockpick would be of no use.  Instead, she pulled out her vial of acid.  The vial was different from the others, as it was not contained in glass.  Instead it was held in a special metal that kept the acid from eating its way out.  She guessed the acid had been harvested from a foreign monster.  Gingerly, she opened the vial, then carefully poured the dangerous liquid into the keyhole.  Some dribbled down the side, and she cursed as she avoided it.  The metal hissed and bubbled.  The keyhole expanded, and Nyx could see it eat away at the mechanics.

She tried opening the door, but panicked when it didn’t open.  She bit her lip and crouched down to peer into the keyhole.  The torchlight was poor, even with her good vision, but she could still make out some of what was inside.  The acid seemed more or less gone, having drained away from the keyhole.  Nyx took her lockpick and jammed it at what she guessed to be the piece keeping the door stuck.  It moved less than a centimeter.  The next fifteen minutes were spent stressfully scraping at the hunk of metal until it tumbled out of the keyhole and clattered to the floor.  Nyx froze at the noise, and looked at the guard.

The man was still fast asleep.

With a sigh, she pushed her way through the door.

The room beyond was dark–too dark for her to look for the draft list.  The girl came back out to grab the torch from its place and carried it back into the room.  She gawked at what was illuminated.

Inside the room of records, the girl found herself in a sea of musty parchments and scrolls.  There were dozens of aisles, categorized by division and year.  She was careful to keep the torch away from the documents–there were birth and family records there too.  Nyx didn’t want to accidentally wipe out a family’s history.

With a bit of perusing, she came to discover what she was looking for.  Sitting fresh, atop older scrolls attributed to military actions and orders, was the draft list.  She recognized it by its size–a mammoth collection of names nearly twenty feet long.  Nyx took it in her hands, a sense of awe coming over her.  So many lives, so many Ailurans to send to early deaths.  With the list, the Ipogius could warn the families, could thwart the military’s drafting efforts by showing the people just how much their leaders were really asking of them, there were even some Ipogi members who were soldiers, who could confuse the military of where the draftees lived–

“Hey!”

Nyx’s heart froze.  She whirled around.  A guard stared at her through the spaces of the bookshelves from the door way, dumbfounded.  She’d taken too long.  Thinking quickly, she backed away, to the center of the room, and dropped the torch.  The girl hurried away from the reach of its glow.  The guard ran forward, hand reaching to draw his sword…but even an Ailuran’s eyes needed time to adjust in new light.  When he reached the torch, he squinted, head swiveling about the room.

The girl cursed to find her way blocked.  This was her mishap.  She’d lost precious time fighting with the door and looking for the draft list.

She knew she had seconds before the guard’s eyes adjusted to the dark.  To her advantage, the mustiness of the room was so pervasive as to conceal her scent from immediate detection.  But there was no other way.  She’d have to knock out the guard–for if she didn’t, he’d warn the whole building…and then she’d never get away.  The beast inside thought of claws and violence.  Her joints and muscles ached, and heat swept over her–amidst her cold fear.  Once again, Nyx suppressed Her.

Carefully, the girl drew her knife and set the draft list on the ground.  She could not even entertain the thought of killing, but the blade handle was thick and heavy, and when struck against a weak point, made for a passable blunt weapon.  Nyx’s mind flashed with memories of Thad, shortly before he died.

“…Tell me, kitten.  Where are a warrior’s weakest points?”

“The top of the head, the temple, the eyes, the nose, and uh….”

“The throat.”

“Right.”

“Notice where they all are?”

“The head.”

“Yes.  Good.  Most of the time, these places will be protected in war–but outside of the battlefield, most people prefer not to go running around with helmets on all the time.  They’re uncomfortable.  So your best bet in an average fight, is to attack these points.  Atleast…if you want the battle to end quickly.”

The guard turned, so that his back was to her.  This was her chance.  Nyx sprinted, her throat tight with fear and a desire to scream.  With a hop she went toward a bookcase, then pushed up with the ball of her foot against a shelf. Her body launched up and forward, over the man, as she raised both arms high and gripped the knife with both hands.  The guard turned, his eyes widening, his sword swinging low to strike up…

Nyx felt the hilt of the knife crack against the top of the man’s skull.  He went down without a sound, his body falling over the torch on the ground.  The girl tumbled over him, panting.  She turned and noted with horror that the flames lapped at his sides.  Panicking, she rolled the man off the torch and patted the fire out with her hands.  Her skin stung and blistered, but Nyx was glad to see the flames go out.  She didn’t want the man hurt anymore than he was.

Her threat removed, the girl stood and swayed on the spot, the room shifting unnervingly.  She had to pause and catch her breath, her body shaking, the sweat drenching her skin.  When the stars left her eyes, the girl stumbled back to retrieve the draft list, then ran out of the room.  The guard outside was still asleep.  She tiptoed past him, then bounded up the stairs to the main floor.

Nyx was off schedule.  She didn’t know where she was in terms of time, and therefor, didn’t know where the other guards were.  Irrational fear set into her, and for a mad moment she thought about running out the front doors.  But guards were stationed outside.  She may have escaped one by sheer luck, she doubted she could do it again.

The girl fumbled to recall her original plan.  It was all she had to go by.  Feet making the faintest of sounds thanks to her soft soles, Nyx ran to her office.  She’d left it unlocked when she pretended to leave for home, and never had she been happier to see the cramped little room.  She took the key from beneath the rug and locked the door on her side.  Placing it in her pouch, she went to the window behind her desk and opened it.  Outside, the path beneath her window was clear of any patrolling guards–but she didn’t know for how long.  Nyx slipped out to the ground, shutting the window as she went.

Her last obstacle was the Senate wall, which went around the perimeter of the building.  It was fifteen feet high.  Nyx took a deep breath, touching the ground with her free hand and bending her knees.  Then she pushed into a full run, at first running parallel with the wall, before curving towards it.  With a great jump, she ran up the stone, her legs pumping furiously as they fueled her ascent.  Then with a grunt, the girl twisted and grabbed onto the ledge with her one free arm, her legs swinging wildly beneath her from the abrupt stop.  She thought she heard something rip, and her shoulder blade screamed in pain.  Grimacing, the girl pulled herself up and over, adrenaline fueling her.  She landed clumsily on the other side.

Then Nyx ran.

Later, snow drifted down in dreamy fashion through the dark, making her damp and numb.  She was hidden in the shadow of a statue of the Unnamed One, in a small court far from the Senate.  Her lungs were on fire, her limbs like ghosts to her as the white of the world coated her bit by bit.   Nyx knew she was to report immediately to the Ipogi.  She knew it would be foolish to try and read the list then.  The snow could even damage the scroll.

…But she had to know.

Nyx pulled her mask from her face with clawing fingers and opened the scroll, rolling it at the two ends until she came to the list for Tosmai.  Quickly her eyes ran down the list.  She saw childhood peers, schoolmates, honest, gentle workers, husbands, even wives, all flash past her gaze in a blur of memories and ink.  Then the girl stopped, her grip turning knuckle-white.

27.  Atalo, son of Fotini:  INFANTRY

Nyx closed the scroll slowly, her face a numb mask.  She leaned back against the cold stone and stared at the dark sky, the length of the statue that loomed over her a grotesque, alien thing to her sight.  Tears clouded her vision.  The girl let the scroll fall from her hands to clasp her mouth.  She sucked in one gasp of air, through dry fingers, then another.  Suddenly she couldn’t breathe.  Sobs wracked her body.  She couldn’t breathe

It wasn’t fair.  It wasn’t fair.  At his age, the most Atalo should’ve had to worry about were chores and doing well in his lessons.  Not fighting for his life against trained soldiers, fighting for the greed of indifferent leaders, fighting for the chance to be happy.  It wasn’t fair.

Nyx felt hands on her and screamed, her body trembling so bad she could hardly keep her limbs in control.

It was her contact from the Ipogius.  His face was concealed as always, but his eyes held fury.  “Cajeck!”  He snapped, shaking her roughly.  “Don’t you know they’re looking for you!?  Come on!  We have to run.”

Run.

The word echoed in her head as her nameless comrade dragged her through the streets of Himitahl.  He would take her to a hideout, he said, atleast until the morning.  After that, she had to go back to work as usual.  Otherwise, they would know.

Run.

But Nyx didn’t want to go back.  She didn’t want to spend another minute poring over financial records and fiscal reports–dry bureaucratic drivel that did nothing to show the struggle experienced on the battle field, nothing to show the cost of burying a soldier whose remains were so mangled he was hardly recognizable, nothing to alleviate the pain and horror experienced by those fighting and those praying for their safety.  She didn’t want to sign any more death warrants…didn’t want to pretend to be a part of the process anymore.  Couldn’t.

All she wanted to do was go home…

…Go home, and save her little brother from the madness of hungry ghosts.


Back to Chapter 14.1 | Forward to Chapter 14.2

  1. ‘Dear Sons And Daughters Of Hungry Ghosts’ by Wolf Parade, from the album ‘Apologies To The Queen Mary’. Sub Pop, 2005. []

Chapter 14.1

NYX____________________________

I wanted to beg her not to go.  I wanted to tell her she was being foolish, being reckless, being unrealistic.  She was just an ordinary human being–a skilled warrior, true–but pitted against someone of magic.

“Elle…”

“Yes, Nyx?”

“…Please, be careful.”

The words were stones, pressing on my tongue.

Her cerulean eyes winked with her broad smile.  I turned to look at my shoes, and saw my Twin’s arm hanging by my side, like a dead thing.  Then Elmiryn’s shadow crossed mine, and I saw her shoes step near.  When I looked up I had just enough time to take a breath before she leaned down and kissed me.

My eyes slipped closed…

It was a gentle contact–meant more as a brief message of affection than an invitation for a prolonged activity.  She brushed her hand along my cheek, then started to pull away.  I bit my lip, trying to contain the whine in my throat, and hugged her with my one arm before she could leave my reach.  My eyes squeezed tight as I pressed my face into her shoulder.  I breathed in deep, and her wild smell filled me.  The woman paused, then hugged me around the shoulders and laughed.  The sound was broad and deep.  Like it encompassed so much more than just passing humor.  It had self-assurance, genuine joy…

It made me feel better…but not much.

This would be the first time since Gamath that we’d be separated.  The thought horrified me.  I suddenly wished for the days when it was just the two of us traveling, talking, laughing, even training.  Elmiryn had tried to warn me of these moments, these troubling times.  …And didn’t I ask for this?  Every part of me had demanded action for Lethia–the young girl, the sweet idealist, who had nothing to lose.  I hated the fact that she had nothing to lose… I wanted to help her.  I wanted to have the peace of mind knowing she was okay.  She was not much younger than me, this is true…but at her age, the most she should’ve had to worry about was chores and doing well in her lessons.  Not running from bounty hunters, fighting with rapiers, and risking life and limb just for the chance to be happy.  It wasn’t fair.

…But for the first time in a long time, I realized, whereas Lethia had nothing, I had plenty to lose, now.

I shifted to look Elmiryn in the face, and she brushed her lips against my forehead.  It made me feel warm.  “Kitten…” she breathed.  “There’s no need to worry.”

I was too emotional to bother correcting Elmiryn on her use of that diminutive nickname.  I only shook my head and turned away.  When I stepped back from her, I felt cold.  Immediately the shivers set in.

Graziano chose that moment to interrupt.  His voice was soft, and his eyes apologetic.  “You’ve got to go, Elmiryn.  Quincy will have seen the commotion from earlier.  She will know something has happened to Hakeem.  She won’t come running out like an idiot, but given where the explosions happened, I can guess where she’ll stake out first.”

Elmiryn gazed at me a while longer.  I found I couldn’t even glance her way.  I turned my back and covered my face with my sapien hand.  My Twin’s arm was twitching next to me, and it patted against my thigh.  I didn’t know the reasons for Her convulsions.  She was cross with me and had gone back into her domain.  I had no idea what my Twin was doing, or what she was feeling.  At the moment, I didn’t care.

I heard Elmiryn turn around and walk, her boots scraping along the rocky ground.

“Alright.  Just give me a lift, Graz, and fast.”

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn stood shivering.  She could feel it, down to the core of her soul, that this was going to be a fight to remember.  That this was going to be good. She didn’t often find opponents of the grand sort–mostly rabble and riff-raff, mediocre combatants, and children with blades.  Arduino had been a step above those, but not quite there, mostly because he turned out to be predictable.  He and the countless nameless opponents she had faced had been exciting and exhilarating in their own respect.  Danger was danger after all…

But not like this.

Quincy was a little taller than Nyx, but still a fraction shorter than Elmiryn.  Her golden hair was pulled back in a messy flip, and the tips were colored a curious honey.  She wore a slate gray velveteen jerkin that stopped just before her thighs, the front cut in a V shape that gave her breasts ample room.  Underneath, the white cotton shirt with the draw-string neck had long, billowy sleeves that rooted in black bracers.  A belt of moderate width encircled her waist, playing host to small pouches–one of which looked entirely empty.

A pleased sound tickled the back of Elmiryn’s throat, and she recognized a human being with life, and not just a creature to be ignored.

The wizard had left her a dare.  As the initiator of this confrontation, Elmiryn was hard pressed to refuse this invitation.  To refuse would suggest uncertainty.  Weakness.  That was unacceptable.

The woman’s mind raced, carried by giddy thoughts and a growing lust for action.  What was the best way to attack?  Quincy’s blade was different from Elmiryn’s.  It was shorter, but faster for it, allowing for a wider use of technical maneuvers in close quarters.  Add on the fact that Quincy’s blade was a magical weapon, an enchanted blade, whose only revealed power so far seemed to be that it gave the wizard the ability to draw on natural light for power…and the danger rose astronomically.  The ways in which that power was utilized still had yet to reveal themselves in full.  It was a good thing Elmiryn had acquired her sword again.

She couldn’t believe she had considered, even for a second, to sell it.  She was good with her bow, and certainly good with her dagger, but her sword–her captain’s sword…It was hers.  Truly hers.  She knew and loved its weight, its bite, its grip.  Elmiryn was glad to have it back, especially now.

But still–how to proceed?

“Now listen,” Graziano began as they reached the tip of the mountain. “When you fight Quincy, keep on the lookout.”

“For what?” Elmiryn asked in a grunt.  She felt like she were practically hanging on to Graziano, the way she was forced to grip the edge of the saddle, legs pointing down the slope and straining in their stirrups as the scultone’s body turned nearly vertical.

The Moretti looked at her, eyes squinted.  “Anything. She’s a wizard.  Wizard’s always have tricks up their sleeve.”

The warrior was about to ask for a little more clarification when the scultone went over the ridge and down the steep mountain face in a speed that robbed her of breath.

It was this advice that made Elmiryn cautious, if not wary.

She could try a feint of some sort.  She imagined charging forward, screaming, sword held high before she shifted her weight and struck low instead.  It would come across as intense while being equally deceptive…but it would not do.  Quincy was smart.  Too smart to believe that Elmiryn’s open attack was real.  She was also steadfast.  Even given the harrowing situation with her partner, Hakeem, the blond was amazingly in control.  She would not be intimidated by a passionate initial attack anymore than a rock would.  So Elmiryn tried something different.

She came forward with slow, calm steps, her eyes on Quincy’s as she held her sword before her at an angle.  The wizard didn’t move back as she approached.

When Elmiryn was within striking range, her left foot leading and her knees a little bent, she let the end of her sword cross with the wizard’s, let the blade slide down its length some before she tapped it aside with a quick jerk.

In a simultaneous move, the woman took a sidestep, bringing her right foot forward and shifting her weight so that her body followed with the motion.  Her sword came around Quincy’s so that it was between it and the wizard, tip pointing downward as she swung her right elbow around for a blow to the jaw.  This happened in less than a second.  The warrior had to move fast, or else the wizard would see just what her true intentions were.

Elmiryn managed to execute the attack, but Quincy didn’t let her elbow connect.  She jerked away, effectively dodging the warrior’s swing whilst moving her sword down and under Elmiryn’s so that she held it out at her other side, tip pointed to the ground.  The wizard could deliver a counter attack, slashing up toward Elmiryn’s shoulder or face…Only the warrior was still in an ideal position to block with her sword, and could even deliver a possible fatal counter.

Elmiryn had lain a trap.

Her eyes flashed, and the corners of her mouth turned upward. …But the wizard didn’t take the bait.  Elmiryn’s chest was still left open from her high strike, giving the wizard the opportunity to push her away with her shoulder.  This was the smarter choice.  This was how the redhead knew, she was facing someone worthy.

The redhead did not stumble when Quincy’s shoulder slammed into her right breast, which screamed in pain, but she had to lean back from the force of the blow.  It left her winded.  Quincy used Elmiryn’s body to push herself back to a safer distance, her sword slashing upwards in a fast arc as a parting shot.

Elmiryn grunted as she turned her right shoulder and leaned farther back, her right hand forced to let go of her sword as she did so, lest her arm get cut.  She saw the gilded blade slice past her face, barely inches away.

“That could’ve gone better,” The woman thought.  Now, she was on the defensive.

But the redhead started to smile in full.

Quincy’s eyes flashed as she followed her attack, her arms lowering only somewhat as she turned her sword with a flourish meant to give more power to her swing, not to show off.  The short slash was meant to catch Elmiryn in the face or neck.

Elmiryn brought up her sword in time to stop the blow, her left wrist and forearm strained to keep from relenting.  Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw the metal spark from the collision.  Quincy pulled back fast only to bring her sword around again in an overhead swing to attack Elmiryn at the left side of her head.  The warrior, in the brief time before this, took hold of her sword with both hands and blocked this as well, with a much steadier grip.  Elmiryn decided to turn things around.

She pushed Quincy’s blade away with her whole body, and when she was free, held her sword outward at the side.  She slid her right foot back in a fast crescent along the ground so that her left foot was in the lead.  Quincy, though her balance was rocked backwards from Elmiryn’s forceful push, recovered quickly.  She brought her sword back, pointing forward and the hilt held close to her body for what looked like a mid-level lunge.  Elmiryn was ready.

They both struck at the same time.

The warrior lunged forward with a push from her right foot, her sword slashing wide and her body twisting to lean to the right.  Quincy grunted, eyes flashing at this suicidal cross.  The wizard was forced to duck and lean back from the swing.  This changed the course of her attack, leaving it to slice Elmiryn’s quilted doublet.  The blade managed only to scratch the skin.

As Elmiryn’s sword slashed through the air, she let go of the hilt with her right hand and let her grip with her left hand turn loose, the top of her wrist facing the ground so that her forearm was turned skyward.

As Quincy stepped away, Elmiryn mirrored her movement, letting her now free hand go to her hip, where her dagger waited.  The wizard, oblivious to the warrior’s intentions, brought her sword back and low for an upward slash.  Elmiryn, using the momentum of her slash, turned her swinging sword in her hand, thumb gripping tightly and fingers moving lithely in a move practiced and repeated countless times.  The blade swung around, the hilt twirling in her grip, and when she held it firm again…

Quincy struck out, blade coming up to strike Elmiryn’s left side.

The warrior turned her left arm and blocked the attack with a downward swing from above.  There was a ring and a hiss.  The tip of the gold blade slammed to the ground near Elmiryn’s foot, sparks flying.  It was pinned beneath her forearm.

For the first time since Elmiryn had met her, Quincy looked at her in what could be called astonishment.  The warrior drew her dagger and jabbed forward, towards her opponent’s chest.  With her blade literally pinned to the ground, the only option left for the wizard was to stumble backward.  Elmiryn didn’t press her attack, and instead, watched her opponent go.  She could’ve killed the woman.  Could have ended it.

…But she didn’t want to.

Elmiryn felt euphoric.  Her pleasure was such that a knot had grown in the pit of her stomach, and her throat was tense with the need to moan.  Every inch of her skin tingled, and though the scratches, cuts, and burns stung, it reminded the redhead that she was alive.  She saw nothing of their surroundings–not the buildings, or the shifting sky.  Her eyes seared with gold–tasted the purity of their battle–felt the heat and the fury pulse through her limbs in an orchestra that made her soul sing and her spirit fly.  She wanted it to go on forever.  The world felt just right in this place of singing swords and glittering skin.

Slowly, Elmiryn started to laugh, and her amusement echoed around the empty square.

At a safe distance, some yards away, Quincy stood breathing heavily, her sword held up once again.  The gilded blade seemed to flash in indignation.  The wizard stared with eyes that were wide and brows deeply furrowed.  Her pretty bow lips were quivering ever so slightly.

The redhead straightened, holding both arms up.  Her left hand held her sword hilt the other way, and the blade lay flat along the underside of her forearm.

Elmiryn smiled wickedly.  “Hey wizard, your humanity’s showing!”

Then something happened that made the warrior’s chuckles die away.  Both women stared at the sky, then at each other.

…The clouds had parted just enough to allow a shaft of sunlight to illuminate their battle.

NYX____________________________

“Hey…ah…are you okay?”  Paulo asked.  I looked at him sideways.  The boy seemed keen on establishing a more amicable rapport between us, perhaps because of my suicidal dive for his deceased father’s trinket.  Or maybe he really was just concerned for me.  As much as he rubbed me the wrong way, I could appreciate this effort.  Still my answer was guarded.

“I’ve got a headache.”

An understatement.

My head felt as though it were splitting in two.  My Twin was in severe agitation.  I was glad that she didn’t waste words trying to convince me from my task, but she made her displeasure known in the way her claw curled at my side and refused to help in the simple task of climbing onto Paulo’s scultone.

Our part of the plan was simple.  While Elmiryn and Graziano kept Quincy busy, and possibly most of the militia as well, we would circle with our mount to the north of the city, where we’d then proceed on foot to where Lethia was being held.  I was entirely reliant on Paulo because I had never been to Belcliff.  Originally, Arduino was to go with me, but Paulo had been insistent.  My eyes glazed as I thought back to just before we had left our temporary camp…

“What if the girl did do this to me?  What if she can fix it right away, upon her release?  I’m not going to sit here like an ass!” He had argued.

So Arduino remained with Hakeem as his prisoner, along with Argos.  Argos, through his curious way of communicating through barks, whines, and body language, also made his wish to come along known.  But we could not take him, and explained as much to the dog.

“Argos, I’m sorry,” I had said, kneeling down to look him straight in the eyes.  “We can’t take you.  With you along, there won’t be room on the scultone for Lethia.”

“And anyway,” Arduino added, though he looked at me as he said it.  “The dog can help me watch this stupid calgato here.  He won’t be much use to you, anyway, once you move on to the second part of the plan.”

Argos growled at the Moretti, resentful of being talked over.  I patted his shoulder.  It truly helped my fear of dogs to look at him as a person–a furry person, albeit–but a person all the same.  He seemed to be of a better temperament than Arduino most of the time, anyway.  “Don’t worry, Argos.  I’ll make sure Lethia is safe.  If all goes to plan, you’ll be with her and her mistress by tomorrow.”

I had tried to keep my voice steady as I said that.  I was nervous enough about my own performance in this scheme, but I had even more doubts about the youngest Moretti.  Would he lose control?  Would he hurt Lethia?  My jaw tensed as we descended down the other side of the mountain, toward the black city of Belcliff.

I would not let that happen.

As we passed, I could see forms darting in some of the broader streets, buildings turning glowing eyes on us, and some chimneys even belching smoke.  Belcliff didn’t have a curfew, like Dame or Tiesmire did.  I even thought I saw some of the militia men at the outskirts of the city.  This made me scared.  What if the local law enforcement managed to intercept us?  The scultone’s body blended well enough into the surroundings–but did that matter when we were traveling nearly three times the speed of a horse at full gallop?  Though the suns were still nowhere to be seen, the city was coming alive.  Likely the earlier commotion had expedited this.

We arrived at the plains north of Belcliff without incident.  Paulo and I dismounted from the beast, and the Moretti offered the creature a dead rabbit for its service.  Then the teenager crouched low, next to the creature’s hole of an ear, and made a low yipping sound with his throat.  He patted the scultone’s side three times, deliberately it seemed, then leapt back, pulling me with him.  The scultone, without a sound, closed its eyes and reared back.  Then with a great inhale, it dove into the earth, its snout lost beneath the gray and white ground.  It used its claws, scraping and pushing, digging in further as it pressed on with its head.  Within five minutes it was completely submerged in the earth, the soil churned from its efforts, but no higher than my knees–hardly noticeable in these uneven plains.

Paulo took a stick from the ground and stuck it into the earth, then he took a red scarf from the little bundle on his back, and tied it securely at the tip.  I looked at him doubtfully.

“What if the wind blows this over?”  I asked.

The boy looked at me and shrugged. “Then I’ll whistle really loudly.  The scultones are trained to surface at our call.”

“And if that doesn’t work?”

“Then I suppose we’d be in a lot of trouble.”  He didn’t seem as concerned as I was when he said this, however.  It made me wonder how many times he’d done something like this, how long he and his scultone had ridden together, and how someone as young as him even got into this lifestyle.

We came to the city.  We were not stopped, nor harassed by any of the officials we passed.  The wizard had not warned of our approach.  …Perhaps to save our capture for herself.  But we did not squander this good fortune, and traveled, amain, to where Paulo said the girl was being held.

I thought it horrifically audacious that the marshal would place the regional jail directly beneath his primary office.  Something of it seemed fascist and in poor taste.  But there were two guards stationed at the front doors, and a patrol circling around the building, so we could not venture near.  Paulo’s breath became a little heavy as we surveyed the building from a block away, in an alley that smelled of rotten fish and wet dog.

“This isn’t really part of my skill set, lia.” His voice quavered some.  “So ya got any ideas?”

“Well,” I started, voice equally shaky.  “Luckily for you, I’ve a background drenched in subterfuge.  So don’t worry…or rather, don’t worry about us getting in.”

“…Wh-What do you mean?”

I looked at him, grimacing with the thought of it.  “The real hard part, will be slipping back out with Lethia, completely unnoticed.”

“So…?”

“Given our chances, I’m sort of, pretty, fairly, absolutely certain we will be noticed.”

Paulo turned ashen, his young face gaining a couple of years worth of worry and fear.  “De reán, me soque, Eate!” he exclaimed in a hoarse whisper.

Whilst caught in anxiety, the mind can delineate in odd directions.  In this case, I didn’t know exactly what he said, but I recognized the name he used.  Eate–god of fire and storm–also the herald of heavenly disasters wrought through nature.  I realized that Paulo and his brothers were from the Santos Kingdom on the continent of Erminia, which was south of the Sibesona.  The subjects of the Santos Kingdom worshiped the powerful god, Eate, as their stalwart protector.  I appreciated his prayer.

I added my appeal to Aelurus with closed eyes.

“Pez na och, Aelurus, ia-soltezch…”

Paulo gazed at me, and I turned to gaze back.  We both nodded, eyes reflecting the other’s determination.  That’s when far away, we heard a sound unlike any I had heard before.  It was like a scream–high and forceful–that punched through the thick walls of the buildings and echoed throughout the streets.  Paulo and I gripped our ears and winced.  The guards standing at the doors of the tower gave a start.  They looked at each other.  The men on patrol came running around the building, their plate armor clanging.  I lowered my hands from my ears to see if I could hear them, but since my senses had been dulled, there conversation was lost to me.

The patrol men gave stern nods, then took off running in the direction the alien sound had come from.  The guards at the door were distracted, watching their peers go and talking with one another, expressions tense.

I pulled at Paulo’s arm, body sinking low.  “Now’s our chance!” I hissed.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn turned, body already moving away from Quincy before her eyes had even turned to pinpoint her exact destination.  She disliked how graceless this looked, turning and running from her opponent…but she tried to assure her pride that she wasn’t really running away from the battle, just running from–

There was a sharp ring, like metal that had been struck hard.  Then Elmiryn was flying forward, her back stinging, her spine feeling as though it had become intimate with a knife.  She crashed to to the ground in a nasty skid that chewed up her arms and front, and it was all she could do to hold on to her weapons.  The woman rolled onto her back and saw Quincy over her, her sword raised for a strike.

The wizard had changed.

Her hair, eyes, and skin seemed to glow–almost blinding the warrior–and her sword was a hot ray whose heat was so powerful as to burn simply with its intention.  Elmiryn could feel the energy roll over her, hot and stifling, and her eyes teared as she raised up her sword arm.

The action was useless, and the warrior knew it.

Quincy struck at an inhuman speed, the luminescence of her body flaring.

Within the next instant, Elmiryn realized the sword was in her chest.

It occurred to her, as the pain started to register, that she had never been stabbed with a blade before.  Ever.  She wondered if it was supposed to hurt this much–if it was supposed to burn and sting and ache all at once.  They had called her a silken warrior in Fiamma, had said she was blessed by Halward never to be marred by the horrors of battle.

When her scream stretched on to the sky, she wondered if the bastard of a god would realize his failure.

…But the wizard hadn’t aimed at the warrior’s heart.  The woman had jabbed toward Elmiryn’s right shoulder, well away from the neck and lungs.  She was looking to incapacitate.  Not kill.

Quincy had not completely run her through with the sword, but Elmiryn could feel it sink a little deeper as the wizard pressed in just to get the leverage needed to pull it out.  The blond’s form turned to a shadow over her as the clouds moved over the suns, and her glory started to die with the expenditure of her attack.  As she prepared to extricate her weapon, there was a hiss, and steam curled from the wound.  Elmiryn bit back a cry, body tensing and her muscles twitching from the adrenaline.  The redhead thought she could smell her own burned flesh, and wondered with a shaky grin what she’d taste like as dinner.

Then, before Quincy pulled away with her sword completely, Elmiryn spat on the gilded blade.

There was a flash.

Quincy screamed as she was blasted backward across the square, her arm clipping the corner of a building column on the way.

Elmiryn winced, body trembling as she forced herself to sit up.  Nausea rolled over her in thick waves, and a splash of bile managed to reach her mouth, despite her efforts to suppress it.  The bitter swill swished in her mouth, washing up the flakes and pieces of cold iron she had kept safe between her gums and inner lip.  She leaned over to spit it all out, her hand reaching up to check her wound.  That was when saw, with a great surge of satisfaction, what she’d been waiting for.

Quincy’s gilded sword lay on the ground near her, somehow looking duller without its mistress’s grip to guide it…

“Okay, lia,” Graziano said, as Elmiryn climbed off the scultone at the city limits.  “Have you got enough cold iron in your mouth?  You haven’t swallowed any of it, right?  Because that would be bad.  Really bad.”

“No kidding?  …No.  I haven’t swallowed any of it.  But this stuff is scratching my gums a lot.  When can I use it?”

“You’ll have to wait until Quincy activates her sword’s powers.”

“…You’re kidding, right?”

The man shook his head, his brows pressing together in what appeared to be pity.  “I’m afraid not.  Remember when you used the chain on Hakeem?  The purpose of cold iron is to deactivate the magic.  It doesn’t destroy the item, or completely disenchant it.  It just stops it, and it does this by taking away the energy fueling the magic.”

“But what good will that do me if Quincy can just wipe her blade and use her powers again?  What then?”

Then Graziano smiled.  “Hakeem’s armor works differently from Quincy’s sword.  His armor works with a constant level of energy that cannot be increased nor taken away.  That is why it is an inward form of magic–because it’s primary power affects no one else, but him.  So when you used the iron on him, the energy was locked away, inward.  Quincy’s sword is primarily an OUTward form of magic–its power is not constant, and directly affects her surroundings.  So when the cold iron makes contact with the sword during its use of energy–“

“The power will be released externally too.” Elmiryn said, catching on.  A smile spread on her face.  “The wizard won’t be able to control the blade at all, and its reserve of power will be emptied, making it mundane again.”

Graziano nodded.  “If you wait until the right moment, you can lessen the chance of yourself getting hurt when the sword’s energy explodes.  Most of the damage will be turned on the wizard anyway, as she is the one tapped directly into its power.”

“Great…” Then the woman placed her hand on her hip and smiled sardonically.  “So…are you coming with me?”

The man looked at her as if she were stupid.

Elmiryn chuckled, sheathing her dagger and taking her sword with her left hand.  Blood trickled down, hot and sticky along her doublet–but the heat of Quincy’s sword had cauterized the wound to the point that blood loss was hardly a concern.  Gingerly, the woman stood, her balance awkward as she used her sword momentarily as a crutch.  On her feet, the woman swayed, her flesh turning cold, and she thought for a moment that she’d throw up for real.  Elmiryn fought through the pain and dizziness through sheer will, sweat rolling into her eyes as she stared at Quincy’s prone figure, lying across the way.  She stumbled forward a few steps, her eyes looking down at the gilded sword, then she kicked it behind her, sending it clattering into the shadows of the buildings–though the action was unnecessary.  Quincy was unarmed and stunned.  She was no longer a threat.

It seemed to take ages before Elmiryn reached the wizard.

The blond was lying on her back, her left arm at a funny angle and blood staining her teeth and the inside of her lips.  She stared with glassy eyes toward the gray sky, and Elmiryn wondered for a moment if she were dead, but then the woman gurgled, and more blood dribbled from the corner of her mouth to pool down into her right ear.

Azure eyes rolled to meet cerulean.

Elmiryn knelt down, her legs shaking as they fought to keep steady.  She spoke, her voice a low murmur. “I guess we’re all like used dolls in the end…all glass and wonder and broken bits.”

Quincy’s face twitched as she gazed at Elmiryn with a look akin to repulsion.  “Are you…the rea…reason…this place is so…ha-haunted?

Elmiryn chuckled again, and shook her head.  “I’m a ghost.  But this isn’t my home…”  She reached down and caressed the wizard’s face.  “Hmm…but do you feel haunted, wizard?”

The blond stared at her for a long time.  Then she shook her head.  “I d-don’t need…magic…to know that…that you’re a part…of this corruption.”

The warrior sighed and shrugged her uninjured shoulder.  “Shit, you noticed?  And I was starting to wonder if it was all just in my head.  You feel a pressure at your eyes, right?  Feel like something, somewhere, is not right?”

“I’ll stop you.” The wizard’s voice gained strength when she said this.

Elmiryn waved the woman’s comment away.  With a grunt she stood and turned her back to her, intent on retrieving the magic sword, still left in the shadows.  “You’re hardly in the condition to do anything, Quincy.”  She came near the sword.  The shadow of the building that loomed over her felt cool on her skin, and she smiled.  “Whatever hopes you had for me, you can just kiss those good–”

The sword shuddered and it flared a brilliant gold.  Elmiryn sucked in air, her eyes widening even as the sudden light made her eyes burn.  Then without warning, the sword flew toward her, blade first, and the warrior shouted as she spun out of its way, crashing painfully on the ground onto her injured shoulder.  Stunned, she blinked and rolled over, tears from the shock of the light spilling from the corners of her eyes.

Quincy was kneeling on the ground, panting heavily.  Blood dripped in a long rope from her mouth, and now her nose was bleeding as well.  Her eyes were dull as she looked at Elmiryn, her right arm using her sword as a prop.

Elmiryn struggled to straighten up so that she was on her knees.  Her eyes narrowed.  “Wizard.  It’s over. The suns aren’t out to recharge your sword, and you’re probably bleeding on the inside.  Just yield, already!”

The blond blinked slowly.  “I’ll never…yield…to the likes…of you!” she snarled.

That’s when the wizard took her sword with both hands, face screwing up from moving her injured arm, and with the tip of the blade pressed against her left breast…

She impaled herself.

Elmiryn stared, eyes blinking rapidly.  Was she seeing another illusion?  Was she getting things mixed up in her head again?  Why would a person like Quincy ever–?

The warrior’s thoughts were silenced as Quincy’s body began to glow once more, rays of gold and white swirling from her wound and winding about her body.  The world darkened, and the wind picked up, stirring the heat that emanated from the wizard.  Within seconds, Elmiryn could not even see the woman anymore, and she scrambled back, anticipating what would happen next.

There was a scream–it could’ve been Quincy.  It could’ve been the explosive release of energy.  Where that might have come from, the warrior hadn’t the slightest idea.  She’d thought she’d stripped the sword of its power.  She’d thought she’d stripped Quincy of her power.  But the incredible bang that blasted her ear drums and blew her back against the ground said otherwise.

Elmiryn closed her eyes to the great flare of light that chased the shadows from all around.  Her world became white, and hot, and loud.  She heard the buildings around her crumble, felt the ground tremble, felt the dust and debris fall on her like a fine rain.

Then silence.

When the woman dared to raise her head, she could hardly see, and her ears rang loudly–muting her world.  She crawled, achingly, along the ground, great slabs of stone and rubble all about her.  Her eyes were not able to pierce the clouds of dust that filled the air.  She coughed hoarsely and made to stand.

When the dust settled enough, and the woman shuffled forward, she saw…

Quincy was gone–the only hint of her presence being the black scorch mark on the paved ground.

Elmiryn sighed.

“…Fucking hell…I guess that’s what Graziano meant…when he said wizards always have tricks up their sleeves…”


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