Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 16.2

NYX____________________________

In order to explain the loss of my boots to Elmiryn, for she wouldn’t leave the matter alone, we had to retell the events that lead to it.  At first, Paulo and Lethia tried to help–even going so far as to mime some of the parts of the story out.  But the warrior’s eyes took the shade of the bonfire, becoming masked in a hot and disconnected glare as her brow bunched over her gaze.  As soon as I saw this, I knew that their efforts were in vain.  I stepped between them and the woman, a hand raised, and shook my head somberly.  They fell silent and looked at each other in confusion.

I turned on the spot and took a breath.  “Elmiryn…it went like this.”

I didn’t mention the shadow that surged in me, the visions that danced along my skull, the surge of power and the violent polarity of debilitating illness–like I had a migraine, indigestion, blood too thick flooding my heart–or the scent of memories horrid and strong.  I didn’t mention these things…and yet I was certain she was aware of them.  My words were embossed with bewilderment, disgust, and fear.  Elmiryn’s cerulean eyes weeped light from the fire, something only I could see up close.  She wiped these away, concealing the motion with brushing her stray locks back behind her ear.  Then I saw a muscle in her jaw move as she pursed her lips, and nodded.

The woman drew her dagger with a fierce jerk.  Then she took Paulo’s blanket from me and began to cut it up.  She didn’t even hesitate.

The boy wheezed, and I looked at him fearfully, something of the noise bringing memories of my mother ill in bed.  I could see he was straining to keep his back straight, and his breathing was disconcertingly labored.  “That’s mine!” he managed to bite out, taking a step forward.

Graziano began to move forward too, his hand held out as if to grab Elmiryn.  “Yes, Elmiryn, what do you think–”

What, Graziano?” The woman said, turning the dagger his way.  The woman’s voice didn’t raise, nor did her face show anything more to me.  But her eyes were as sharp as her blades.  I remembered those eyes being turned on Sedwick, when he tried to keep my Twin from going with them to the river guardian’s cave.  A tingle shot through me, not unpleasant, but I didn’t understand it.

“Lia…” Graziano said slowly as he stopped and held his hands up.  “Do you really want to do that?  After all that has happened?”

Elmiryn resumed her cutting as though she’d never been interrupted.  “Maybe you should contemplate your own words.  Better yet, ask your little brother what he wants–because that’s all he seems to care for.”  She had a strip cut free.  She handed it to me.  “Ring it out and hold it over the fire, so that it dries a bit.”

“Graziano!” Paulo complained.  But Lethia had a hand on his arm.  As I went to follow Elmiryn’s directions, I saw the girl glance my way.  Her brows knitted together in anxiety, but I saw no condemnation in her eyes.  Then I realized she was looking at my feet.  I stopped and looked too.

They were a rich shade of blue.  And when I wiggled them, I became aware that…I couldn’t feel my feet anymore.  At all.  At first it were just my toes, but everything up to my ankles had turned completely numb.  It was terrifying to consider the degree with which I could ignore certain injuries, given my regenerative abilities.  My natural power had staved off the frost bite for much longer than any other sentient being could stand.  But…it could only go so far.  My right toe was even beginning to tingle, like it were on pins and needles.

Elmiryn began to speak behind me.  “Not only has Nyx recovered something precious to Paulo at risk of her own life, but she’s also saved him twice in the span of an hour.  It’s about time the boy stopped acting like a brat.  He’s not the only one who is suffering.  We all are.  But somehow, we still manage to be decent people.”  I glanced over my hunched shoulders at her.  Elmiryn had another strip of the blanket over her shoulders.  Graziano had his hands down, he was looking at his brother now with a frown.

“So I don’t care if the idiot dislikes it,” Elmiryn said evenly.  “I’m using his things to make Nyx some temporary boots.  This isn’t even adequate repayment considering she needs her feet to be of any use in rescuing the enchantress he needs so fucking badly.”  Her eyes flashed to Paulo.  “I should kill you, just for this disrespect.  Nyx is my ward.  But more importantly, she’s my friend.  You wrong her, then you wrong me.”  Elmiryn stopped in her work, her dagger held up as she raised an eyebrow at the boy.  “Well?  Do you want me to kill you instead?”

I grit my teeth and bowed my head.  “Elmiryn, stop!

Graziano stepped before her, he looked livid.  “That’s enough, Elmiryn.”  But then he turned his angry eyes on Paulo, who shrank in surprise.

“Idi’ute!  Vergance lo no dismé!  El saben no causa ni gunío prolem.  Ni gunío!” The man snapped.

“Pér es mi saben!” The boy snarled back.

“Distagea, ya!

Paulo made a noise from the back of his throat.  He wobbled back to the place he had sat before and slumped down sullenly.  I looked at him with as apologetic a look as I could muster, but the boy refused to look at me.  Graziano turned back to Elmiryn.

He sighed.  “Elmiryn…you speak true.  Please.  Use whatever you need, and on behalf of the Moretti family, accept my apology.”  Then he did something that nearly made me drop the cloth into the fire.

Graziano bowed to her.

Elmiryn tilted her head back, her eyes turning narrow, as though she were considering the apology.  Then she shrugged and gestured my way–to my discomfort.  “I know what I said before, but it really doesn’t piss me off like you think.  I just want the best for Nyx.  Your apology is best directed her way.”

The man straightened, as though confused by this statement.  Then he looked my way, and slowly his look of surprise softened to something I couldn’t name right away.  I looked away, my face flaring.  I heard the crunch of snow as he came closer.  From my peripheral vision, Lethia shifted away to give him room.

“Nyx.  I’m sorry for my brother’s behavior.  He’s…” His voice dropped lower so that Paulo couldn’t hear.  “I’m not trying to make excuses, but just understand that with our parents early deaths, Arduino and I have had a hard time raising our brother.  It’s true, we could’ve done better.  He does mean well.  He’s just…an ass, and doesn’t know how to act sometimes.”  I couldn’t help it, I snickered at the last part, and I think Lethia did too.  I heard the smile in Graziano’s voice as he continued.  “Thank you for what you’ve done.  I owe you a proper pair of boots when this is all over.”  The man started to bow, and I turned, grabbing him by the shoulders.

“No!” He looked at me in bewilderment.  I shook my head.  “No, Graziano.  Don’t bow to me.  I’m not a person to bow to.”

I could see Elmiryn give me a look from behind Graziano, but I didn’t care.  To have someone bow to me made me terribly uncomfortable.

“Look I,”  I looked at Paulo and bit my lip.  “I…ah…do need something better to cover my feet.  Their numb now.”  I wiggled them just to test the veracity of that statement, and was frustrated to find that I could not feel a thing.  It felt terrible. “But I do think he meant well.  He let me use his blanket, after all.  But I appreciate the gesture.”  I could see Paulo glance at me from where he sat, but when I looked his way again, he was back to staring at the snow.

Elmiryn measured my foot using a piece of string.  I didn’t feel her hands as she cut the piece a little longer than the length of my foot.  Graziano helped her find what else she needed.  With all of her pieces ready, she set to work.  As my new “boots”, made from wool, pieces of leather, and cotton, were being finished by her, the discussion made the awkward transition back to the matter at hand.

“We need to send someone to get some daesce skins,” Graziano said, tapping his arm.

Elmiryn nodded as she stitched the side of the last boot.  She was quite good with such things, it seemed.

“We can’t send a group of people in there, or else we risk bringing too much attention,” he continued.

The woman nodded again.  She cut the thread with her teeth, then looked at her handiwork.  The boots were…horribly ugly.  All bunched in odd places and looking as though they’d hardly last a week.  But they weren’t meant to, I reminded myself.  As I put them on, I let out a delighted sigh.  It didn’t matter that they were ugly…they were warm.  My feet throbbed, though finer feeling still had yet to return to them.  I sat near the fire, eyeing Elmiryn’s handiwork.

“So who do we send?” Graziano finished.

Elmiryn grinned.  She went to Graziano’s scultone, where she opened the small pouch resting against the side of the beast.  The creature didn’t stir–perhaps accustomed to our presence by that point–and pulled out Hakeem’s pipe.  She tapped the item against her temple with a smirk.  All eyes turned to the wizard, who crossed his arms and stared back guardedly.

HAKEEM_________________________

Hakeem shrugged deeper into his makeshift jacket.  It wasn’t really an act of kindness on Elmiryn’s part when she cut out a piece of the cloth for him.  There were spare scraps from the pieces she’d used for Nyx’s impromptu boots, and she handed it to him with a look that dared him to say anything about it.  He needed to keep warm to be functional.  He needed to keep warm to survive long enough to be useful.  He understood this.

The man stared at his wrist where the smoke of his dragon pipe had bound to him.  It was the first time the item had been used on him.  He…disliked it.  But it was an item of low magic, meant really only for tracking purposes.  A traveler’s tool.  Which was part of the reason Elmiryn could use it without preamble.

Hakeem moved as quietly as he could through the snow, down into the valley where even the moon seemed wary to reach.  He was heading down a slope that steadily grew steeper, the snow here like negative space that was all he had to orient things as to the nature of himself with regards to the world.  Hakeem always thought it amusing how much night could skewer a person’s perspective when it came to the sky, the ground, relative distance, and the moral cup of an individual–the latter phrase being what the man used to call a person’s basic understanding of right and wrong.  Where did such things go when one’s face became a mask?  Where did such things go when one’s understanding was swallowed by the ink of the indefinite?

Snow.  Nearly up to his knees.

Hakeem was used to extreme conditions and could adapt accordingly, and he was also physically fit (a necessity given his line of work), but no amount of mental readiness and physical training could make up for how his body was unaccustomed to fighting to walk through so much dense snow.  This was one of those environmental obstacles that locals had long since become used to, but for anyone outside of such a world, the task was monumental.

A small shiver blasted through him as he reached the first crop of rocks, like earthen teeth cutting up through the pristine ice.  He had already activated his magic armor, the gauntlets reaching out like claws as he steadied himself against a cold rock.  He had to go deeper still.  The screams of the daesce heralded the danger ahead.  Closer now, the tower loomed so high, he couldn’t see the tip anymore.  Hakeem pressed on.

Something coming, behind him.

His body tensed and he turned, fists raised.  White moved in white.  Argos came trotting up next to the man, managing to be quieter than Hakeem had been despite his speed.

“So for help, they sent you?” The man said dryly.  Or more like a watchdog, he thought, no pun intended.  He looked the dog up and down, then turned. “How kind of them.”

Argos growled, and for a moment Hakeem thought the dog was going to bite him.  Then the giant animal sprinted forward and took to the air with a powerful jump.  He collided with another body, a white one, with flashing eyes that seared pale and hot yellow.  They slammed into a rock further down the slope before sliding to the ground, and he saw shadowed claws flailing, snow flying, the beginning of a screech–before it was suddenly silenced.  The bodies grew still and all was quiet.

…Argos raised his head, the dark dripping throat of a daesce in his mouth.

Hakeem straightened and nodded with a half-smile.  “So for help, they sent you,” he said again, with a tone of approval.

The dog just snorted.  Hakeem went down to drag the creature some of the way back up the slope.  As he came near it, he was able to make out some of the features in the dark:  the flat face, the jagged fangs, the stained claws.  The man took the dead daesce beneath the arms and began to pull it along.  If he came back the same way, he was certain he could find the corpse again.  Some yards back up the slope, the man let the monster’s corpse fall from his hands.  His nose wrinkled as the ranks smell of the monster’s blood hit him.  Argos came up behind him.  Hakeem gestured at the monster, who lay belly up in the snow.  Its mouth was still open, and now and again the claws twitched.

“Try not to swallow too much of their blood.” He warned his four-legged companion.  “It could make you ill.  They’re spiritually twisted, after all.”

The dog nodded.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Back down the slope, into the heart of hell, it seemed, but Hakeem had to if he was to have the trust of his new wayward companions.  He pierced through unknown spaces that gnawed at him, and he was tense from the waves of revulsion that seeped deep, deep, deep down beneath the skin.  It was the spiritual taint, he knew, and the lingering spirits of the slain–whose blood had stained the earth of this place.  They went parallel with the bridge leading toward the tower, but neither the wizard nor the dog dared go too near to the curtain of black beneath the bridge.

The wails, a chorus, so near now.  Hakeem felt the hailing voices taunting his principles as a man and a human being.  Argos slowed in the snow, and so did he.  Neither were eager to meet their next opponent.  The man thought he felt a snowflake touch the base of his neck, and he reached back to wipe at it, his armor forcing him to twist his torso in a strained effort to reach.  It was at that moment that the man saw…

Slammed.  Launched backward.  He landed on some rocks and winced from the impact that rattled the teeth in his head, but his armor protected him from major harm.  The man grunted, his eyes straining to make sense of the shadowy form over him.  A dark face framed by a white mane of hair, with dark eyes peering from the folds, and a mouth opened as a bellow that reminded of an angry child deafened him.  A daesce.  Hakeem tried to buck the creature off, but it was even larger than the one Argos had felled.  The beast, in the blink of the man’s eye, had its arm drawn back, claws spread in the air.  Its face, so twisted, reached down like a hook to the man’s mind.  It was…truly like a human, despite its horror, for the daesce wore a rictus grin and its eyes seared with triumph…

Hakeem had just enough time to marvel at its speed when Argos tackled it from the side.

The man sat up, and with little pause, he began to count.

Nine ticks.

One.  Two.  Three–

His armor grew hot.  There was a vacuum of air and sound as the world vacated to some Other Place.  All became dark, and he was left alone with the sensation of his power coursing through him.  Cold and hot all at once.  He closed his eyes and relaxed his body–felt the ground fall away.  He was falling now.

Four.  Five.  Six.  Seven–

The unnatural heat of his armor’s power began to reach its peak, feeling painful.  The man’s arm reached back to his neck, just as he had before, with his body twisted.  His feet touched the ground.  It were as though he were liquid fitting into a mold.  He felt the wind again, felt the heat of his armor lessen, blessedly.  He kept his eyes closed, for sound still had not come to him.

Eight.

Hakeem took a breath.

Nine.

The crunch of snow, the low pant that he had missed hearing before.

The man opened his eyes and twisted his body completely around, letting his knees buckle from beneath him so that he dropped quickly to the ground.  A body sailed over him.

“Argos!” The man bit out, but the dog was already moving.  Hakeem rolled from his awkward position on the floor to the balls of his feet and his hands, ready to spring in any direction.  He had reset the recent events, changed the end result of the confrontation so that he had successfully avoided the daesce’s ambush.  The act did in fact change the way of time, but only Hakeem knew of the new changes–for others, they still recalled the events as it had originally happened.  That was the thing about the magic, it affected only him–thus the great danger in its use.  For each time Hakeem used the armor to change the course of his life, he essentially folded time over himself.  When going back only seconds or minutes, the cost of such an incredible power seemed little.  But Hakeem had already lost three years of his life using his armor’s power.  He knew this…

He had counted them away, after all.

But here, the cost, he felt, was more than justified.  Relief washed over him, as he saw Argos had managed to get a hold of the daesce’s shoulder with his mouth.  He started to move forward, for with the monster pinned beneath the massive dog, he could deliver a killing blow, only…

Three white phantoms, out of the corner of his eye, came flashing over the snow from beneath the bridge, yipping and howling, and the man had just enough time to swing his right arm–sending out a single wave of force.  The snow exploded as the space was torn open by unseen magic.  Of the three incoming daesce, it cut the one in the middle clean in half.  The other two were blasted to the sides, the one on the right slamming into a tall but slim rock only feet away, body wrapping around it with such force that blood burst from the creature’s mouth, and there it fell, dead.  The third and last daesce was lucky.  It pinwheeled through the open snow, grunting.

Hakeem didn’t wait for the creature to stop moving.  As soon as he saw the fate of its fellows, he charged after it, his legs pumping furiously through the snow.  As he came near it, the daesce finally came to a stop, and it dazedly tried to stand, its ugly pug face hidden behind its filthy locks of hair.  The wizard screamed as he jumped up into the air, his hands pressed together like a club.  The air around his hands rippled.  As he came down, he slammed his hands on the daesce’s head just as the monster looked up, and felt the skull collapse.

That’s when he became aware of Argos crying out in pain.

The wizard turned, his body lurching into a run.  The daesce was free, with its eyes flashing in the dark, steam curling from its hideous mouth, claws snapping together like jaws themselves.  It had kicked the dog away somehow.  There was a dark stain blossoming through the snow between them.  The creature rolled to its feet, blood staining its pale fur from the right shoulder, and the saliva that dripped from its mouth was dark–but the man wasn’t sure if it was Argos’ blood or its own.  He didn’t care.

He roared in fury, drawing the daesce’s attention away from the dog’s still body.  The monster returned his challenge with a scream.   The man drew back his right gauntlet as he came near.

The air rippled around Hakeem’s armored fist…

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn turned the dragon pipe in her hand, a scowl on her face.  The item was an item–a redundant statement but one that meant all the world to her, for as she held it, some sense of immaterialism entered her.  She had seen smoke curl from the chamber of the pipe and move with purpose.  A curiosity to her eyes that beheld a setting comprised of building block pixels, all stacked together in complimentary shades with voices and concepts as their threads.  That smoke, that snake, that thing of ghostly being had trailed through that space she had found herself forgetting about in the face of Nyx’s luminous smile.  The unthinking wisps were at her will–was it an extension then?  Of her will?  Of her desire to know where Hakeem was at all times?

The redhead took a piece of feathered wood that had fallen from the fire, still burning at the tip as the end of the flaming wood curled up and away from the hungry cold snow.  With some tobacco in the pipe, the woman lit the fibrous fillings and took a few puffs.  Smoke curled from her mouth–but she was not alarmed by it, for she knew that the smoke had somehow become a part of her, but it was a bad part, and that it was good to be rid of it. (Though the expulsion of the acrimonious agent would not have been needed had she not desired to see what Hakeem was up to–a need, for a need, for a necessity.  In short, the vicious cycle was unavoidable.)  The smoke danced in the air–seeming to defy the air currents that came crawling around the rock at times–and with a swirl and a sigh, it took the shape of her subject of interest.  The wizard was battling daesce at the moment, as shown by the smoke-man’s struggle against an ape-like monster, no doubt with Argos nearby.  The pipe’s vision was corroborated by the chilling sounds that echoed from the direction of the tower.

The concern about Hakeem’s possible betrayal grew less and less in the face of the man’s actions.  He was taking unnecessary risks–that is, unnecessary if his intention were to turn on them all at the most critical moment.  But the wizard could’ve also been vying for their trust, and it was this simple fact that made Elmiryn’s suspicion a persisting presence.  Hakeem could prove useful to their needs, and she had to admit, she just thought the new alliance was amusing.  But the suspicion was there, and it would not fade easily.

The woman looked over at Graziano, who rested against the side of his scultone, his arms crossed over his chest, eyes closed, and his head tilted forward.  She knew the man was not really asleep.  He was, perhaps, caught between that space of dream and waking that threatened to keep her each time she slipped into repose.  Elmiryn wanted to rest.  But she didn’t want to be lost in the Other Place when the time came for action.

Next to her, Nyx shifted, mumbling.

Elmiryn looked at her, and she strained her eyes to take in the sight of the girl, resting.  Her companion was leaning against her shoulder, a warm body that fended off the cold.  The woman wondered if the girl felt warm near her, and began to feel somewhat guilty–for the warrior wasn’t certain if Nyx was receiving any benefit from the contact.

Elmiryn reached over and brushed a lock from the girl’s forehead, her finger trailing along the skin.

“Elmiryn?”

A young voice.  It took the woman a minute to look away from Nyx, and another to associate sound with name.  “Yes, Lethia?”

The teenager was adjacent to her, on the left, hugging her knees.  This was the first time she had made a sound since Argos had left to keep an eye on Hakeem.  Up until then, she had been engrossed in her own thoughts, a worried look on her face.  Now, she took a light lock of hair between her index and thumb and began rolling it back and forth.  Her green eyes flickered to the sky and her forehead wrinkled as her brows strived to reach her hairline.  “Ah…”  Lethia coughed and shifted, sliding her feet a little more outward so that she hunched over more.  “You and Nyx…you…”

Elmiryn smirked and waited for the girl to continue.  Some tickle of impatience came up within her, and she resisted the urge to make a sarcastic remark.  The youth, for all her naivety, had shown herself to be quite resilient and determined.  At the very least, the woman could respect this.

“I don’t understand your relationship,” Lethia finally said.  She bit her lip and stared down at the snow.  “I mean…that is to say…oh, gods, I hope you don’t think I’m being nosy!”  She rubbed at her brow, which started to furrow.  “I just…”

“You were sheltered.  You don’t know,” Elmiryn finished, her smirk widening.

The teenager looked her way.  “Um…yes.  That.”

“Lethia, there isn’t really much to say.  And whatever I could say, you’d just get more confused.”

“Oh.”

Elmiryn let out a throaty chuckle that blended with a sigh.  She raised an eyebrow at the girl.  “Look…I don’t mind the question.  I think I know what you’re asking, even though you haven’t actually asked me yet.  The answer is…well, I don’t know.”  The woman shrugged her free shoulder.  “Honestly.  What do you want me to tell you?  That I’m really a man?  Would that make it less weird for you?  What if I said I was an Ailuran man?  Would that make it okay for you–?”  But the woman stopped herself short.  Her words were gaining an edge, and it was uncalled for.  The girl was being rather open-minded, all things considered.  She didn’t deserve the aggression.

Lethia still managed to wilt under this subtle barrage, however.  “I apologize.  I wasn’t trying to offend.”

The woman sucked at her teeth.  Now accompanied with the impatience was a sense of guilt.  “Gods damn it…you’re like Nyx.  Not as good at the guilt tripping, but almost.”

“I wasn’t trying to guilt trip you.  If you feel guilty, then it’s because your heart knows your actions are misguided,” Lethia suddenly quipped.

Elmiryn looked at her with eyebrows raised.

Lethia turned her face away, her oval-shaped face a ruddy shade. Even the tips of her ears, which peeked through her curtain of hair, managed to gain a pink tinge.  “I don’t think it’s fair for people to construct the nature of my motivations.  I have no ulterior motives, and as far as I can tell, my will is good.”  She said this through tight lips, but the woman could see her body trembling a little.  “It isn’t fair.”

Elmiryn tilted her head to one side.  Her ear brushed against Nyx’s mane of hair, and her smirk shifted closer to a kind smile.  “Do people do that often?”

The enchantress gave a mute nod.

“I’m not sure the reason, really.  Perhaps because of who my mistress is.  Maybe because I don’t know what’s become of my parents.  I think…I think people assume I’m angry.”

“You?  Angry over something so petty?”

“I don’t know if it’s petty…”

Elmiryn gestured at the girl with her chin.  “But Syria’s taken good care of you, hasn’t she?  You said it yourself.”

Lethia nodded emphatically.  “Oh my goodness, yes!  I…but I do wonder what’s become of them.  My real family.  All I have of them is a surname.  Artaud.  I know in some kingdoms, the only humans who have surnames are those of good-standing, but not in all places.  They could be peasants, merchants, warriors for all I know…”

“But you’re not angry that they’ve never checked up on you?”

The girl looked at her with a crooked smile. “Now when you put it that way, it sounds like I should, shouldn’t I?  But…no.  Not really.  Maybe they fell on hard times?  Maybe they were…ashamed?  Or maybe they really didn’t love me.  But none of that matters, because I had Syria.  Have.”  Lethia scowled as she corrected herself.  “I have Syria.”

Elmiryn puckered her lips in thought.  Then she leaned back against the rock and emptied the pipe into the snow.  Smoothing some ice over the smoldering tobacco, the woman glanced at the teenager from the corner of her eye.  “But people like to make assumptions with you.  Because of who you are, and where you come from, and what you do, and you dislike this.  Did Syria teach you to be so forthcoming, or what?”

Lethia slowly shook her head.  “No.  It’s just my personal feeling.  I guess it’s all relative, but I’m not a sponge that soaks up all that Syria teaches me.  I’m…more like a cup, that is filled up to a certain point, but otherwise retains the nature of its being.  The cup doesn’t become softer, larger, or more precious just because it is filled.  You can overflow it, maybe, or leave it empty, but the integrity of the cup is maintained.  My integrity as a person is maintained, despite what I’m given.  People don’t understand that.”  The girl scooped up a small handful of snow and flung it sullenly out into the darkness.  “I love Syria because she gave me the means to be a good person, but she isn’t why I’m a good person.  In the end, that was my choice.”

“No offense, but don’t you still depend on her a great deal?  Because of your mental…um…thing?”

The girl shrugged.  “I see that differently.  It isn’t something I can help, but with time, I can learn to deal with it on my own.”

“…Aren’t you doing that already?”

Lethia blinked and looked Elmiryn’s way.  A slow smile crept over her face.  “I guess so!” she said with a small laugh.

Elmiryn nodded.  The little worm of impatience was gone.

“To answer your earlier question,” the woman went on to say.  “I…care about Nyx a lot.  Does that involve desire?  To be blunt, sure.  Yes.  I won’t speak for her, you’d have to ask Nyx yourself, but…I just care for her.  She’s become a good friend.  I can’t say it any other way.”  She looked at the Ailuran in question. “My interest in women has been around since as long as I can remember, and I never bothered hiding it.  You see, in Fiamma, we have a legend about a demigod with flaming red hair that was a champion in battle.  His name was Diokles, and he was said to come from the loins of Halward himself.  He enjoyed battle, almost as much as he enjoyed beauty.  He lay with whomever he desired, despite age, gender, or standing.”  Elmiryn rolled her eyes and looked at Lethia with a sardonic grin.  “It was all just symbolism on the part of the scholars.  They always try to make heroes out as having a light and dark side.  Anyway…long story short, there’s a belief in Fiamma that those with ruddy hair and light eyes are inclined toward violence and beauty without discretion.  This is why I was allowed to become a soldier, because of how I looked.  Love between same sexes are frowned upon, usually, in all forms–but people tend to let it be if a redhead is involved, even if it makes them uncomfortable.  I always thought it was a load of horse shit, but it made my life easier.  I wasn’t given much trouble for wanting the things I did.  And…that’s how it’s been for me anyway.”  The woman looked back at Nyx and brushed the side of the girl’s face with her hand.  The girl felt warm under her touch.  Elmiryn’s grin widened as a sense of relief washed over her.  She, a ghost, a being of smoke, could make the girl feel warm.

Elmiryn’s voice became soft as she continued.  She wasn’t sure if Lethia was still listening, but she didn’t care.  “If you’re looking for me to say the ‘L’ word, I’ll just get annoyed.  I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that, and I’m not sure I’d recognize it if I did.  I just want what I want.  And for a long time, I never wanted anyone to stick around.  But I want Nyx with me.  Not…just because of my curse…or my quest.  No.  Not just because of that.  I just…want her with me.”

In her peripheral vision, the warrior could see Lethia give a slight nod.  But the woman didn’t turn to look.  Instead, she strained her eyes to take in the sight of Nyx, resting.

HAKEEM_________________________

Hakeem came trudging up the slope.  His chin was cut, and his left shoulder blade was bruised, he knew, from falling on the rock when the daesce tried to ambush him.  But he still managed to carry one daesce corpse (the smaller one, the one Argos had killed first) over his right shoulder, while his other hand dragged another corpse through the snow.  The wizard stopped as soon as he recognized the giant rock formation that the camp was hidden behind.

“Hail!”  He called, panting.  “I’ve returned.  Now someone come help me with these.”

The light that danced beyond the rock shifted with shadows, and a moment later, he saw Elmiryn and Graziano come out into view.

The Moretti had his pistol drawn.  “Hakeem?”

“Yes,” The wizard said, raising his free hand.  “Come help me.  These are heavy.”

Elmiryn came toward him, but Graziano didn’t move.  It seemed he needed the wizard to come into the light before he rested at ease.  Not unreasonable, the man supposed.  The woman came toward him, arms swinging a little as she fixed him with a grin.  “Wizard!  You’re alive!  You know you made quite a racket, didn’t you?”

“It couldn’t be helped,” Hakeem said with a shrug.

The woman laughed.  She took hold of the other corpse with both hands beneath the armpits, and lifted the daesce up with aid from her right knee.  When she had the corpse over her shoulder, they proceeded together back toward camp.  Hakeem saw that now, along with Graziano, there was Paulo, Lethia, and Nyx.

The enchantress came forward, her face long.  “Where’s Argos?” she demanded.

The man blinked.  “I’m sorry–”

Lethia’s eyes teared up, and her chin crumpled.  “You left him–?!”

Hakeem looked at her with a frown, annoyed at being cut off.  “Girl, you didn’t let me finish.”

“Watch your tone,” Elmiryn said, her voice hard.

The wizard looked at her, then shook his head.  “But she misunderstands.  Look, over there,” and Hakeem pointed back the way they came.  Something white and furry displaced the pristine white snow.  It had no eyes, no mouth, no head–

That was because it was Argos’ backside.

The dog was dragging a daesce corpse backward by his mouth.  As though sensing he had an audience, he let the body fall, head turning as his tail wagged.  He let out a happy bark as he laid eyes on his mistress.

Lethia squealed, pushing past them all to reunite with her four-legged companion.  Nyx let out a sigh of relief, and Elmiryn and Graziano laughed a little.  Hakeem shook his head after the teenager.  “What a silly girl,” he muttered.

But the corner of his lips twitched suspiciously.


Back to Chapter 16.1 | Forward to Chapter 16.3

Chapter 16.1

NYX____________________________

It were as though the cold sought to unravel me, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.  We paused only once in our journey to bundle up in the blankets Paulo had brought.  Elmiryn and I, as we had meant to head straight for the port city of Reg’Amen and not the snowy Albias region, had nothing to protect from the harsh cold.  I only had my gambeson, and that was poor cover against the freezing wind.  I missed my old smock-frock, the one I used during the winter before I was Marked.  I had to make due with the blanket I was given, and I huddled close to Lethia for warmth.  Finally, we could see Holzoff’s Tower, like a wicked spire that jutted from the rocky fangs of the Albias mountains.  There were little rows of warm orbs shining all along it–and now and again, I could see a shadow swallow the lights briefly before they were freed to burn clear once more.  I heard howling and a terrible bawling, and my heart chilled within my chest.  I could feel Her stir in her realm, something of this terror reaching the beast even through her dream-like lens.

We were protected from the wind by a rock formation that clawed out of the snow.  Paulo, after the scultone settled opposite the rock like a living barrier to the shadows, went and gathered branches from shrubs down the slope.  After this was done, he arranged the sticks on the snow in a neat row, then he took feathered wood sticks from his pack, a bundle of fifteen or so, kept safe in a leather pouch (“To keep them from getting wet,” he said) along with another bundle of slim normal sticks.  He set down the feathered sticks over the gathered branches, and I realized that he was using them to keep the dry sticks up from the snow.  Then he used flint and steel to set the wood alight.  He blew at the flames when the fire caught on, spreading it and keeping it alive, then began adding the normal sticks carefully.  He was quiet and concentrated as he worked.  Lethia and I shivered together as we watched him.  Within ten minutes, we had a fire going.

We all leaned against the rock.  No words passed between us, just a heavy silence that serenaded with the hollow wind.  My feet were wrapped up in my blanket, but the fabric was already soaked from damp snow, and I couldn’t feel my toes anymore.  I’d lived in the snow before, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before the numbness wouldn’t protect me from the stinging that would come.  Then the feeling of blades stabbing the muscles, and an insufferable burning.  Enough damage, and even my therian body would have the black, disfigured limbs burned into its memory–and as there was no healing such a thing, there was no return from it.  I scooted closer to the fire, and if I had been out of my mind, I would’ve plunged my feet into the flames.  It sounded tempting.

“Thank you…” Lethia whispered from her place behind me.  “…Nyx…thank you.”

“What, no thanks for me?” Paulo snapped.

The both of us turned to glare at him.

“You, Paulo, are a selfish beast, and your rescue hardly makes up for the harrassment I’ve suffered by you and your despicable family!”  The girl bit out.

“You’re welcome, Lethia,” I said, trying to distract her.  I felt a little sorry for the boy.  He’d gotten bad again–he started coughing and regained the distant look in his eyes.  His forehead was damp and his irises drawn small.  I turned and looked at him.  “Paulo will you be alright?”

The Moretti’s head swiveled toward me, and I knew he was looking in the direction of my voice, but not looking at me.  His chapped lips pressed thin, and his face seemed gaunter as he gave a terse shake of his head.  With Lethia’s condition forcing her to avoid my eyes, neither of them looked at me.  It was depressing.

I reached over and touched his boot.  “Graziano will be here, and I’m certain Arduino is fine.  You’ll be helped soon.”

“I don’t understand why this girl won’t do something now,” he spat, turning to look Lethia’s way again.  His nostrils flared as his brows crashed together.  He looked very much like Arduino in one of his dark moods.  “I’m hurting.  I’m hurting.  I want the pain to stop.  I can hardly see anything right now.”  His voice cracked during the last sentence, and he swallowed hard.  Lethia turned her head, scowling but her eyes had softened.

Paulo choked back a sob and slammed his head back against the rock, his hand reaching to claw at his chest.  He went on, his voice strained as he spoke.  “It’s happening now.  I feel it pulling me.  This force.  It tells me to go…” His voice trailed away.

Lethia took a breath and reached over cautiously.  “Go…where?”

Paulo tore away from her, a torrent of curses in his language tumbling from his lips.  The girl cried out, pulling back as though burned.

“YOUR tower!” He screamed, scooting away.  He pointed toward the East.  “Your home!  There!  That way!  It tells me to go back to the place this agony started.  It was your witch of a mistress!  It was your doing!!”

“Paulo, stop it!” I said, twisting around in full.

Lethia struck the rock with the edge of her closed fist.  “Take that back!” she screamed.  “Syria is not a witch!  We didn’t do that to you!”

“Then help me, damn you!”  Paulo shouted.  He gripped his head in his hands and folded over, sobbing.  “Stop it! …Please. This hurts!  I can’t take it!  I’m afraid to go to sleep…I’m afraid I’ll see your shadow…I’m afraid…I’m afraid…” and he went on muttering, rocking back and forth, his shoulders shaking.

I stared at him, at a loss.  In truth, I hadn’t much experience with weeping men.  The male gender, regardless of species, seemed infected with so much bravado.  What could I do?  …But I felt like I had to do something.  I saw my own pain reflected back at me…Elmiryn’s pain reflected back at me.  It disturbed me, and repulsed me in some ways–pain was such a personal thing, it seemed like something you wouldn’t share with just anyone, and to do so was crossing some line of basic decency–but when it came down to it, the agony I was seeing was shared.  Something nasty, putrid, and crippling had touched our lives, and we were spinning out of control.

I crawled over, my body jerking from the cold, and my hands stinging in the snow.  Paulo started to scoot away again, deeper into the shadows around us, but I only moved faster, taking him up in my arms.  I was shivering–from fear of what he would do, from the cold, from my own pain.

…But his arms came around me, and the boy leaned into me.  He buried his face into my stomach and his tears soaked my gambeson, his sobs trembled my body.

I heard Lethia move behind us, and within a moment she was at our side, her brows pressed up and tears in her eyes.

“I…” her voice died away in a fog.  She touched Paulo’s head.  He shrank beneath her touch, but didn’t pull away.  “I’m…I’m scared, Paulo.  I’m not skilled like Syria.  I could…I could make things worse.  I’m…yes, I’m angry with you, but I don’t want to…” she couldn’t finish.

After a few minutes I sat back, one hand on Paulo’s arm, the other at the nape of his neck.  He stared down at his lap, unwilling to look at either of us.  Lethia stared off into the dark, sniffling.

I sighed.  Then smiled uncertainly.  “Um…can we be anguished and forlorn next to the fire?  I am without shoes after all…”

Lethia and Paulo looked toward me, weak laughter coming up their throats.  There was a murmur of agreement and we returned to the warmth.

I stared up at a sky that I knew to hold stars in its dark belly, and wondered when it was I could see Aelurus’ glowing countenance again.  Paulo seemed to regain a sense of himself in these moments, and his demeanor became sullen and closed off.  I was sorry to see his smile and gentleness go, even if it came amid so much pain.  He kept his body turned from us much of the time, sitting a little apart–even shunning the fire’s warmth it seemed, as though he wanted to seem unaffected by the cold.  Lethia and I let him be.  With the squabbling done, I became more preoccupied with keeping warm and listening to the sounds of the tower.  We sat there for a while longer in silence.  I cannot say for certain.  Was it an hour?  A few minutes?  Neither would have surprised me.

Then sounds drifted to us–like rocks crashing and snow crunching.  We all bolted upright.  Paulo stood, breathing hard through his nose, and went for his sword.

“There…is it a daesce?” Lethia whispered.

“What’s a daesce?”  I hissed looking at her.  The name already filled me with dread.

“Remember how we said, when we cooked up this crazy plan, that Holzoff’s Tower was plagued with monsters?” Paulo said over his shoulder.

“Yes?”

“Well…”

The sounds came again, closer.  Paulo muttered something and slid into a fighting stance, his rapier held before him with one hand.  Lethia and I stood, but I pushed the girl behind me.  Whatever came at us, I could shield the girl from it.  I didn’t know if she still had Karolek’s knowledge of metal sorcery, but I didn’t want to take the chance.

The ground started to rumble, and the scultone finally lifted its head, its white eyes glowing in the dark.  Its tail lashed and it screeched, muscles beneath its tough skin bunching.  Something large was charging toward us.  I shouted Paulo’s name and started pushing Lethia back, my heart palpitating wildly.

But the scultone, without warning, lay back down again with a careless attitude.  Paulo made a noise at it, but soon its relaxation became clear.

Within the next moment, another scultone entered the glow of our fire, steam curling from its nostrils.  It warbled, in greeting it seemed, before it bowed down, and we saw the passengers on its back.

Elmiryn!”  I cried, a smile spreading across my face.

The woman’s head turned to me as though it were on a swivel, and her eyes were glassy at first, as though she weren’t looking at me…but then they focused.  Focused…on me.  Elmiryn smiled her broad smile, and I hardly took note of Graziano greeting his brother, of Argos suddenly jumping into the light and running to greet Lethia.

“Nyx,” my companion said as she slid off the scultone’s back with Graziano.  I could see nothing else.  I laughed and ran forward, throwing my arms around her.  Nearly knocked the woman back into the beast, but she just laughed deeply and squeezed me tight, and…I was glad.

Elmiryn was alive.

“You did it!” I said, breathless. I pulled back, falling back onto my heels.  My messy dark bangs were in my eyes and I paused only to swipe them away.  “You–!”

“Kicked Quincy’s ass?” Elmiryn finished, quirking an eyebrow.  “Come on, Nyx.  Give me a lil’ credit.  I know how to handle myself!”

I just shook my head, and with little thought, I reached up onto my toes and kissed her.

There was a surprised cough next to me, and I immediately became self-conscious.  It wasn’t that I was trying to be daring or…or…or even romantic, I suppose.  It just…it seemed appropriate.  It seemed right to greet Elmiryn in this way.  I wanted to.

The woman made no attempt to push me away.  If anything she just held me tighter, picked me up off the ground even, and before I knew it, what was meant to be a quick kiss lengthened to nearly a minute.  It may have gone longer if Paulo hadn’t let out a loud curse.

Elmiryn and I broke away, breathless and pink-faced, to look at the boy.  He pointed toward the scultone with his rapier, his face contorted in surprise and anger.  “De…de quoi!? Graziano, que inseño es isca!?”

The older Moretti closed his eyes and rubbed his temple. “Choi…”

“No, really Graz, what the hell–”

“Look, Choi, just–”

“Have you lost your mind!?”

Will you let me talk!?”  Graziano shouted.  “Conio!  I don’t like this anymore than you do, but…”

Lethia, crouching near the fire with Argos, clung to the dog.  “Who is that…?”

There was the crunch of snow.  Elmiryn and I turned, and my eyes went wide.  I looked at the warrior, mouth agape.  “…Elle?”

Hakeem stepped into the sphere of the fire’s glow, his hands held up, and his expression mild.  “I’m here to help, nothing more,” he said.

Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck.  “Oh yeah…”

“You can’t be serious!” Paulo shouted, swinging his blade.

“That’s what I said!” Graziano said with a dry tone.  He paused and pointed at his brother.  “And stop waving that rapier around!”

Nevermind the fact that Graziano had the same habit with an even worse weapon.

“But who is he?” Lethia said, looking up at all of us.  She looked much younger all of a sudden, hiding in Argos’ fur.  “Who is this man?”

Before anyone could explain, Hakeem spoke.  “My name is Hakeem.  I am a wizard.”

“He’s also Quincy’s partner,” Elmiryn added helpfully.

Lethia’s eyes turned wide as she swallowed hard and looked in the man’s direction.

“Can someone fill me in on the details of your plan?” The wizard asked, his tone still calm and deep, but his volume raised to command all of our attention.  I thought it brusque and inflammatory of him at the time, but in hindsight, we could’ve gone on for hours about why he was allowed to be there.  The time simply wasn’t there.

“Well…” Elmiryn looked around at everyone else as though waiting for someone to stop her.  No one did.  She pulled away from me, and stepped closer to Hakeem.  “At this point, we need to get ahold of one of the guards–any one of them.  They’ll have a basic understanding of the prison’s security, and might even have whatever it is we need to get inside–be that a key or a password.  Lethia sucks out that information and both me and Nyx go with her inside.  From there, we play it by ear.  It’s the best we can do considering how sudden this all is.”

Hakeem rubbed his chin, looking at Lethia.  Paulo spat on the ground, stepping in front of the girl.  He still hadn’t put away his sword.

The wizard nodded.  “All things considered, it’s not a bad plan–but there’s more to take into account.  There’s the daesce.  Fortunately for us, it doesn’t seem like they care for this area–lots of deep snow banks and very open, save for this rock that’s giving us cover.” He pointed toward the tower, which we could see around the rock.  “But there, at the tower, the daesce serve as an unintentional ward against unsolicited guests and invaders.  The bridge leading to the tower gate is teeming with the creatures underneath.  It’s one thing to avoid the guards–quite a different thing to avoid the daesce–and you’ll have to if you want to get near the tower at all.”

“I had an idea for that,” Graziano said with a raised hand.

We all turned to him.  He cleared his throat, and suddenly looked uncomfortable.  “You see…all we need is to kill a daesce, then skin it.”

Lethia made a face.  “You aren’t…”

“…Suggesting…” I continued.

Graziano nodded with apologetic eyes.  “Yes.  You’ll have to wear the skins to get by–and we don’t have time to let them dry.  With luck, the daesce will only think you’ve just killed something and go looking for the corpse.  They’re known to be cannibalistic.”

“Or they could tear us apart in a bloodlust,” I deadpanned.

“Or…um…that,” Graziano said with a wince.

Silence followed.  Lethia’s face had gone blank, and I looked at her fearfully.  Was she slipping into a new state of amnesia?  The tip of Paulo’s rapier buried into the snow as he swayed on the spot, a hand on his forehead.  Hakeem stared toward Holzoff’s, with arms crossed over his chest.  Argos licked at his mistress’ hand with a low whine.  Graziano pressed his lips together and stared down at the ground.

Elmiryn looked down at my feet and put her hands on her hips.  “…Nyx, what the fuck happened to your boots?”


Back to Chapter 15.3 | Forward to Chapter 16.2