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Chapter 17.3

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–Illise M.

NYX____________________________

Farrel continued his work as I told him a summarized version of how we ended up at the tower.  I brought up Gamath, but made no attempt to tell the story–it was far too long and it made my chest turn tight to think of Sedwick changed, and Baldwin…dead.  The man’s eyes remained on his work, but I could see his ears visibly tweak in my direction as he pressed the fresh bandages around Lethia’s torso.  I noticed there was an ointment or salve of some sort spread over her wounds before the bandages covered them from sight.  Encouraged by his skill and confidence, I helped him by propping the girl up, and while I went on telling our tale, I glanced at Elmiryn to see how she was doing. The woman had migrated further down the room to closer inspect the sleeping soldier. Then she drifted toward the open cabinets which Farrel had left open prior.

I went on quietly.

“…After Lethia was taken, we saw that there was a a loose but visible connection between what happened in Gamath and what is happening in Belcliff.   It’s like…a looming sort of presence or heavy aura in the air.  One of our companions has been suffering strange dreams about…about…ah…” I faltered and the halfling looked at me with curious eyes. I looked up at Elmiryn again. She was looking closely at bottles, still at the other side of the room. I shrugged one shoulder and laid Lethia down. Farrel was done wrapping the bandage around her torso. “Well, anyway, we decided to help Lethia and her mistress. So far everyone working with us has a reason to want to help them.”

“Sounds like I’m on the right side,” The man chuckled. “A wizard, two monster tamers, an enchantress, a therian, and an ex-soldier? Gods!  Even with the marshal’s men, I get the feeling they’re outmatched!”

“Who says you’re on our side?” Elmiryn said as she came near us, holding three bottles with her right arm.

Farrel looked at her, his grin fading.

The woman looked down at him, her eyebrow quirking. “Well go on, Rabbit. What makes you think you’re with us?”

I looked at her, aghast. “Elle, I thought the matter was settled!”

Elmiryn shook her head. “How do I know he won’t backstab us the first chance he gets?”

“You didn’t have such qualms with Hakeem!

“Well the wizard was different.  We had him trapped and he had the option of fleeing.  He chose not to.  He chose to put himself into unnecessary peril on our behalf.  That’s a level bit more trustworthy than this guard, who I’ve known all but ten minutes and seems more inclined to saving his own skin than putting up a fight.”

“Are you saying I’m at fault for not wanting to harm the ones who showed me mercy?” Farrel said angrily.  He stood up and stared the woman down.

Elmiryn threw the bottles on the bed where they bounced and clinked together.  She smirked at him.  “I’m saying you have a poor concept of fealty.”

“I owe the marshal nothing!  I was a traveler, an honest entrepreneur selling paper imported from Santos.  It had a small harmless charm to it that brought inspiration to any that wrote on it, but I was accused of black magic and put to trial.”  The man rolled his eyes and made a sweeping gesture with his hand.  “They found me innocent of black magic, but decided I still violated the law.  ‘Smuggling contraband and reckless magical exposure,’ they said.  So they confiscated my merchandise and forced me to become a guard.  I’ve only been here three months!  Even after this escape plan of yours is finished, I’ll still be here for another seven months with the daesce snorting at me through the gaps in the barred windows!  What fealty am I supposed to have, woman!?”

Elmiryn shrugged her uninjured shoulder.  “Either way, you’re coming with us now.  See, the girl was supposed to sap the information about the tower from your head, but after her run-in with a daesce, I’ll be lucky if she can tell me what a hungry person is supposed to do with their food.  So I need you to do her job instead.  Do you remember much about this prison?  The layout, the security?”

Farrel frowned and rubbed his forehead.  “I…remember some.  But it’s filled with gaps.  I can tell you about the next three floors, but not beyond that.  I’ve never been up there.  There’s atleast four more floors.”

I interjected pointing at Lethia.  “Wait!  We aren’t going to leave Lethia here, are we?”

Elmiryn shook her head.  “No.  One of you two will have to carry her.  There’s a chance she might be able to tell us whatever the Rabbit can’t.  If she wakes up.  Plus, if what he’s saying is true, we can try and see if she can sap some more information about the upper floors from one of the other guards.”

“Is that wise, pushing her like that?  She passed out the last time she tried such a stunt!” Farrel objected.

Elmiryn gave him a hard look.  “No, she passed out saving your gods damn life when she didn’t fucking have to.  Saving her mistress was her mission, and she would’ve wanted to keep going.  So if something happens to her, I promise there will be no mercy at the tip of my sword.”

Farrel’s exhaled harshly through his nose, his wisterian eyes flashing.

I shook my head and held up my hand.  “At this point, I’m not sure we can afford anymore fighting.  With each other, or these guards!  Which begs the question how we’re supposed to even make it through three floors, let alone seven?  Look at the state we’re in!  Lethia hurt and unconscious, you with an injured arm–”

“You’d be surprised what I can do with one arm,” Elmiryn said, grinning.

I rolled my eyes.  “Your confidence is reassuring, but not by much.  Holzoff’s isn’t a common jailhouse–it’s a prison.  And one of the best, as I’ve heard tell.  I’m amazed we even got in!”

Farrel looked at me, a small line down the middle of his brow.  “Holzoff’s Tower, for a place under constant threat from the monsters outside, is quite a place.  The walls are as thick as four men and reinforced with a steel skeleton.  There are less than seventy prisoners held here, actually, so each floor is rather small.  The stairs wind up, and to reach the next flight you must cross the floor in question.  That’s if you know all the codes for entry.  The lower floors, the ones I have access to, hold two to three prisoners in each of the five cells.  There are five guards on each floor.  Beyond that, I can’t really say.  Some of the others have told me that they keep the special prisoners there–the ones awaiting death and nobles owing outstanding debts.  The top floor is where the prison’s warden stays.  I hear that’s where they’re keeping Syria of Albias as well.”

“Of course,” Elmiryn chuckled dryly.

The man’s eyes lit up.  “But I’ve an idea!  We recently got a message from Belcliff warning us that you would be coming.  No one ever sees these messages directly save for the warden, and he’s always holed up in his office.  Since no one knows what these documents actually look like, I can fabricate an official writ from Belcliff and pretend that two of you are new prisoners that the marshal has sent.  It takes over a day for an escort to arrive at the tower, so you can act as though you hadn’t heard about the prison break threat!  I can make the writ, rouse some of the guards, and dupe them into helping me.  The fact that they think it’s real will make our lie even more authentic!”  He pointed at me.  “You’ll have to play the role as bounty hunter and pretend you were the one who caught your companions.  It has to be you, as you’re the only one who isn’t hurt.  I’ve seen this once before since I’ve started working here.  Bounty hunters have two options–either write up a debriefing regarding the prisoner in question, or earn some extra gold aiding in their escort to Holzoff’s to deliver the debriefing personally.  When I started here, I saw one man brought in such a way.  All we’ll need to do is put your friends in chains and get you something nicer to wear.”

“How far do you think we can carry this ruse?  Up to the top?” Elmiryn asked.  “What happens if you’re guard friends, the ones you’ll get to help us, wise up?”

Farrel shrugged with a sigh.  “After what I’ve done with those guards outside, there’s no way I’ll be able to resume my time in peace here.  I’m in this as much as you are now.  So I’m giving you the best plan I’ve got.”  The man let a crooked smile spread across his lips.  He gestured at our grimy, blood stained appearance up and down.  “Unless you’re trying to tell me that your master plan has gone exactly as expected, I really don’t see how my idea is any worse than what you’ve been through already!”

Elmiryn sucked at her teeth and looked at me.  “He has a point.”

I said nothing, only rubbed at my chin and stared down at the ground.  I was already feeling nervous just at the idea of having to “pretend” to be anything…but I had done it once before.  Prior to receiving my Mark, I had done my share of undercover work for the Ailuran resistance, so in a way, I was familiar with pretending to be what I wasn’t.  But at the time, it wasn’t easy, and given how unfamiliar I was with the particular role I was to play, I was even less comfortable with the idea.  But with luck, the plan would result in no more violence, which was good–because we were hardly in the shape to see any more battle, even with Farrel’s help.

I sighed and pulled off my ruined tunic.  “…Okay.  I’ll need to clean up, too.  Have you any place I can do that?”

Farrel nodded and jerked with his head.  “Yes, let me show you.”  He looked at Elmiryn.  “If you could wait here with your friend while I show Nyx to the wash room?”

The woman nodded and sat down on the bed next to Lethia’s.  She looked at me.  “Will you be alright?”

“Yes,” I said, touching her shoulder as I followed Farrel out the room.  “I’ll be back in a moment.”

The man shut the door behind him as we entered the curved hallway.  He gestured for me to follow him.  Our steps made light sounds on the stone floor, and my body tightened when we came to the first door on the left.  It was closed, but the halfling turned to me with a finger at his lips.  I swallowed and gave him a nod, being careful to shift my weight back so that my footsteps didn’t come down hard.  Not much further down the hall, we came to a door on the right.  He opened it, taking up the nearest torch on the wall and entered first.  I follow him in as he placed the torch into a corner at the the far wall of the wash room.

The center of the room was clear save for a stool and a drain in the center.  As I walked further into the room, I noted how the tiled floor was a small concave where the drain was meant to catch the water.  Beneath the torch against the far wall was a low partition that resembled a counter, only the surface of it was at an angle.  Then, as I came closer, I saw that there were hinges at the back, and Farrel opened this and reached into the dark.  He pulled out a rope, and I realized it was a well.  It took him a minute, and I could see his arms bulging from the effort as he put one foot on the partition and leaned back far, but soon the heavy bucket was out of the well and sloshing water on the ground.

He set the bucket down, then scooped up a ladle that was hanging on the wall, and pointed at the right, where a shelf housed spare towels and fresh underwear–long cotton leggings and plain tanks.

“There’s all you need there to get you started.  I’ll come back and knock on the door three times when I’ve found some armor you can use,” Farrel said, already backpedaling toward the door.

I nodded at him and turned, my clawed hands reaching to undo the bandage around my chest.  I got the knot undone and was done removing two wrappings when my mind whispered that something wasn’t right.  I paused, and tilted my head, then my face grew hot as I made the connection.

The door hadn’t shut yet.

I whipped my head around, claws at the ready and a hiss building up the back of my throat.  My Twin was a hot burn at the back of my eyes.  But I stopped at the sight of Farrel staring at me with wide eyes and a deep scowl.

“I heard them say it, you know.  That you were a Marked therian,” The man gestured at me with his chin.  “I hadn’t got a good look at it till now.  This half hour I think I’ve been trying to focus just on helping your friend, and what you did for me.  But…I know what the symbols on your back mean.  I lived near the Ailuran nation, visited their villages and towns even.  I know what those symbols mean…You…what you’ve done…”  He gripped the door tightly, his eyes shining as he turned his gaze to the ground.  My spine curled and I hugged my body as tightly as I could.  My throat had become so tight I could barely breathe.

I suddenly wished Elmiryn were there.  I wanted to hide in her shadow…and I hated myself for it.

“My mother always told me” The man went on, “That critical moments in life, small but important, are what paint a person’s true quality, not…not the tapestry of life as a whole.  Just choice moments bundled together, like the broken pieces of a beautiful vase.”

Farrel glanced over his shoulder, then slowly let his eyes crawl back to me.  His head was angled so that his brows came low ever his gaze.  It was aggressive, and it made me tense, but I sensed nothing of danger.  Just…just–

“Tell me I won’t regret helping you,” He said in a low voice.  “I’m an honest man, and for all my mother’s words, I know that a person can step with the right foot as much as the left–so tell me I won’t regret helping you!”

I swallowed.  My eyes were blurring and I didn’t want to speak.  I wanted the man to go and leave me alone.  I could feel the lines of my Mark, tingling almost, as though it wanted to remind me just what I really was.

I shook my head slowly.  “I…can’t.  I can’t tell you that.  I am in no such place to guarantee that the path I walk with my companions wouldn’t bring misfortune to you.  So you would be within your rights to not trust me.  To find me disgusting and irredeemable.  You truly would be.  But…” I swallowed and forced myself to stand straight.  Tears leaked down my face but I fought to kept my face from crumpling like paper.  I started trembling from the effort of looking Farrel in the face, and I thought my guts would fall out for the shame and fear.  When I spoke, my voice was taut with the effort of not breaking down into sobs.  “Farrel, you decide for yourself if you want to change your mind.  I received this Mark as punishment because I made horrible decisions, and they haunt me everyday.  I hold no pride, no joy, no peace over what has occurred in my past.  But don’t just think of me–there are others you would be turning on should you decide not to help us.  Others, like the girl you just treated, or the boy outside I told you about who is fighting to keep sane.  I’m…I’m here because I have been cast out from my people, and rightfully so–but with Elmiryn I think I may have found a way to balance out my blighted existence.  And…I will fight any who try to harm my friends, with all my might.  Protecting those I loved was all I ever wanted to do.  Shame me for my mistakes, but you cannot shame me for my intentions!”

I bared my teeth, and my claws bit so deep into my arms that I felt blood trickle down to my elbows, but suddenly I didn’t care.  Suddenly I was angry.  Angry that this man would even consider damning Elmiryn, Lethia, or even Paulo just for the spite of me…and at such a critical time!  I swiped at my face, wanting the tears gone.  If I had to stop him, I would, and we’d just have to figure out another way to the seventh floor of the tower.  I would make it happen.  All at once, Lethia’s determination was mine.

I would make this work.  No matter what.

Farrel closed his eyes and rubbed at his face harshly.  He breathed out a curse and slammed his fist against his temple.  “Öctér!  Okay…alright.  I see your point.  I’m…sorry, for bringing this up now.  It does nothing to help you or me.  Perhaps another time, another day, when we aren’t at threat of losing our lives, I’ll get the full story from you.  For now, know that you can trust in me.”  He smiled weakly, but I saw a staleness in his eyes.  “I’ll be back with your change of clothes.”

After my short speech I felt drained of the energy to speak, so I gave him a silent nod.  Within the next moment, the man shut the door, and I collapsed onto the stool, letting out the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn stared down at Lethia with her elbow digging into her knee from the weight of propping her head.  Her fist started to slide up her cheek so that her eye was forced into a squint, but the woman didn’t move.  It was funny seeing the girl through one squinted, blurry eye.  She looked like a an upside down monster, with a blue pronged head, a white face, and wheat colored tentacles that fanned up along with the body.  As far as monsters went, Elmiryn had to say she liked this one best.  The daesce were horrible nightmares mimicking sentient life, and batrengs were annoying little imps.  Scultones were convenient but far too big to bring around for fun.  But blue pronged monsters with white faces and tentacles?  How nice and simple!  How diverse!  How–

“Wait…” the woman muttered, rubbing at her face as she felt a wave of cold sweep through her.  Her palm came away, cool with sweat, and she frowned down at her lap.  “Blue monsters?  What the fuck’m I talking about?”  She chuckled.  “Why would a blue monster be sitting with me when Lethia is supposed to be in the same spot?”  Her smile faded and she poked the girl in the arm, just to be certain it was an arm.  Just to be certain there was anything there at all–the last fifteen minutes was getting hard to recall, and her mind danced with phantoms playing with scarlet ribbons, but who could make sense of such confusion?

“Hey kid, you with me?”

Elmiryn trailed up Lethia’s arm where her fingers tangled in the girl’s long hair.  “Kid?” she breathed.

When no response came, the woman drew back her hand with a sigh.  She twisted around and eyed the man down the room.  Still quiet, still silent, still missing parts like a machine broken by an inept operator.  She thought about some of the machines she saw in Fiamma–hunks of metal that ran on steam and sometimes magic and sometimes both.  Shiny creations of copper and steel.  This man was not shiny.  Nor was he made of copper or steel.  Yet the woman found no better word to attribute to him other than “broken”.

Elmiryn stood from the bed and crossed the room so that she stood at the end of the guard’s bed.  The man’s face was entirely covered in a bandage.  She was aware that this was not good for the man, would perhaps result in his end, because it made him less of a man, which made the woman’s sense of sympathy for him almost non-existent.  She knew this much and yet felt her conscience turn a blind eye to the logic anyway.  She had known what real men, injured in war, looked like.  Even with her curse, it was something deep and powerful, like a ghostly instinct that failed to fade even given the circumstances.  Her heart knew it so well–the bloody limbs, the deep cuts, the burned flesh.  It was War.  That was the gift her father gave her, and that was the destiny her god pressed upon her, and that was the call that society screamed at her.

War.

But this thing on the bed, this broken machine, was not a relative of War, and thus was not her kin.  Elmiryn floated nearer, to get a better look at the thing and its rods and shafts, all wrapped up and leaking red oil.  The thing jerked.  The woman’s eyes narrowed and she drew her knife from its sheath.  It was the enemy’s weapon.  What if the guards got it to work again?  What if the weapon was put back together again and turned on her?  On Lethia?  On Nyx?  The woman’s jaw clenched.

She reached down and jabbed the blade into what she recognized to be the main shaft.  The machine shuddered, making a grinding, bubbling noise before its parts turned still and it made no sound.  She pulled the knife away with a jerk and wiped the blade clean on the sheets.  Then she took the blanket and pulled it over the ruined creation.

Then Elmiryn walked back to Lethia’s bed and resumed her seat next to the girl, feeling a little more at ease.  She tried to remember the significance red ribbons, bandaged faces, and blue tentacled monsters had for her.

She tried and tried.

NYX____________________________

A long-sleeved thick cotton weave shirt, dyed ash grey, beneath a long black leather tunic.  There were extensions from the shoulders that tapered down and were tied around my upper arms by slim leather belts.  On the left shoulder, at the back was a gold ring, and at lower right of the tunic, against the back of my right thigh, was another large golden ring.  Farrel slipped a slim rapier through both rings, and it was a menacing weight on my back.  On my forearms were studded bracers, which bothered me because I wasn’t use to the constant press on my muscles, but the man insisted, stating that the costume didn’t seem right without them.  I wore dark leggings beneath heavy wool pants, and menacing leather boots that came up to my knees.  We had to stuff strips of cloth in the tips just to keep my feet from sliding around too much, because the boots were far too large for me.  Still they were an improvement over the makeshift pair that I had been left to use before.

When I asked Farrel where he had gotten the armor and clothes, he smiled humorlessly.  “As you saw, we like to scavenge what we can from the daesce’s bloody claws.  This outfit you’re wearing took two years to put together, apparently.  The sad thing is none of the pieces fit anyone, save for those boots–but the boots belonged to a recently deceased guard who’d been stationed here a long time.  No one wanted to wear them.  You’re lucky.”

Any other time I would’ve disagreed with such a statement, and it certainly didn’t make me pleased to know I was wearing dead men’s clothing, but I couldn’t deny that there was an odd sort of providence in the situation.  Given my run of luck, I certainly wasn’t going to be picky.  It felt good being clean again, anyway.

The two of us returned to find that Elmiryn had fallen asleep in her chair.  I sighed and touched her shoulder.

“Elle.” The woman didn’t respond.  Her head simply fell forward and I became fearful.  I gave her another hard shake.  “Elmiryn?”

“We have smelling salts,” Farrel said, pointing at the collection of bottles next to the bed.  “I was meaning to try it on your other friend once we were ready to go.”

I wanted to believe the woman could wake without much aid–in such a dangerous place with so much still yet to get through, I had to believe that Elmiryn was up to making it through.  Uncertain of what else to try, I leaned down next to Elmiryn’s ear and said her name one more time.

Elmiryn.”

The warrior’s eyes flew open and she turned and looked at me in mild confusion.  Her eyes fluttered as she took in my new outfit, then she reached up and took a lock of my hair between her fingers.  “Nyx?” she breathed.

I nodded, sighing in relief.  I cupped her cheek.  “Yes, Elle.  I’m right here.”

Elmiryn looked me up and down.  Then she pouted her lower lip and raised her eyebrows.  “Not bad!”

I grimaced, “I certainly hope it’s enough!  I’m not sure if I can pull off menacing.”

The woman chuckled.  “Sure you can.”

Farrel sidled past us to reach the bedside table.  “Pardon me.”  He plucked up a bottle filled with small translucent bits, which I then noted to be the smelling salts.  “I hope this works for your friend.  She’s very much out of it.”

Elmiryn and I watched as he uncorked the bottle and held it beneath the girl’s nose.  He waved it slowly back and forth for a moment, then made a disappointed frown.  My heart sank.

As he started to pull away, that’s when Lethia awoke with a cough.

She breathed in deep, her puffy eyelids snapping up to reveal blotchy red eyes.  They teared up, likely from the powerful salts, and rolled about in their sockets before they settled on us.  I was careful not to meet her gaze dead on, but the teenager seemed conscious of this even after just waking.  The girl took a breath.

“…Nyx?  Elmiryn?” she whispered.  I noted something odd about the way she said our names, but given the volume she was speaking in, I couldn’t immediately place it.  Next her eyes flickered to Farrel, and her face drew up in a frown.  “You’re…helping?” she asked.

Farrel nodded.  “Lethia Artaud.  I owe you and your friend.  I want to help you.  This is my wish.”

The girl’s lips pulled into a shaky smile.  “Thank you.”  Then Lethia’s eyes hardened and she pushed up on her elbows.  I moved forward–maybe to help her, maybe to stop her.  At the moment I can’t recall, but Elmiryn stopped me with a hand.  Farrel looked on with a look of intense concern, and though it appalled me at how manipulative it seemed, I was glad to see such an expression on his face.  If I couldn’t convince him to continue helping us, Lethia’s determination despite her pain certainly could.

Within the minute, the girl was sitting on the edge of the bed.  She had a distant look to her, and I wondered how much longer she could continue pushing herself.

Elmiryn stood.  “Are we just about ready?”

Farrel nodded.  “The last thing we need is on the way to the staircase.  We should start moving before the guards down the hall wake up for shift change.”

The warrior and the guard helped Lethia stand, and the enchantress managed to walk on her own–if a bit slowly and shakily.  As a group we exited the room and followed Farrel down the hallway, where he stopped at a door adjacent to the staircase.  He opened it with a key, and inside was a small arms closet, where spare weapons and the like were found.  He slipped in, carrying a torch, and came out a second later holding two pairs of manacles.  Warily he held them out to me.

“Help me put these on your friends…” the man said with a wince.


Back to Chapter 17.2 | Forward to High Walls, Small Gates

Chapter 17.2

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn crunched through the snow as her eyes swept through perceived palaces of gray fortification–little imaginings of architecture that existed as phantoms before her face until vanishing in the truth of spacial cognition.  A person can’t walk through walls.  But a ghost?

A minute of contemplation made her aware to the fact that her eyes were really just seeing the wisps of frost carried on the wind, kissing the juts of rock that climbed and melded with the formation that served as Holzoff’s roots into the world.  The dark of the rocks and shadows and muddied snow shifted with shaggy figures and flashing eyes, that marked her with inquisitive attention.  The warrior mirrored her surroundings, crouching in the filth and shrugging deeper into her daesce hide.  The thing stank something terrible–and the woman wondered if it were necessary anymore–but she kept it anyway.  It aided her mind’s sense of ferocity.  If she could keep it with her when entering the tower, she was certain it would serve a decent mental weapon.  What soldier would want to face an enemy dressed in the skin of their worst nightmare?

But a way up.  She had to focus.

The cold was making her sleepy.  Her adrenaline was running down from her fight with the daesce, and the pain of her left arm was turning into a grinding ache, wearing her down.  The woman saw her breath curl through the air in a cloud before dissipating into the night.  She closed her eyes and bowed her head, ears perking now and again at the sound of claws scratching against rock.

Then she heard screaming.

The woman stood and turned her head, toward the tower gate, or as much as she could see of it down on the ground, and–

Lethia standing on the ledge, her back pressed against the stone.  She looked like she were in hiding, waiting for her moment to jump out, but she had nothing of unraveling fear in her eyes.  Elmiryn blinked and tried to find the source of the sound.  She moved back toward the bridge, and through the veil of darkness, she saw the daesce ripping apart the beast she had just slain.  These were the young ones, the weak ones, the sick ones–the weaklings of the sordid community–who were getting their revenge.  Or getting their first meal in days.  The woman’s jaw tensed as she saw two of the little bastards rip off a limb and proceed to fight over it, bloody tendrils sliding along the ground as it was dragged hurriedly.

Ribbons.

Beautiful, velvet ribbons dancing and trailing through black night air, then wrapping along fur and limb in decoration–how chic!  The daesce were celebrating, hooting, giggling as they took the ribbon, clearly of a cheap pastel, and smeared it.  How rude of them.  Messing up the picture.  But they did it anyway, biting into the desert, tossing up streamers and confetti and–

bits of flesh : bits of blood : bits of fur and yellow piss where one had found the bladder and bowels and : the spine with effort was out out out out out : and then the others were sticking things in in in in in : revenge was semen and spit and defilement–

Elmiryn closed her eyes and turned away, gagging once before she steeled herself and sat hard on the ground.  Her ears perked again as, through the horror that floated across the way, she picked out the sounds of conflict.  Shouts and metal hitting stone as though a weapon had fallen.  The warrior gave her head a shake.  She couldn’t slip into another episode.  The world couldn’t feel too large, nor her too small, because she had to be with Nyx.  The woman strained her eyes, making them ache, ignoring the pain in her arm from her inconsiderate movements in favor of–

“Fuck it, just start somewhere,” the woman muttered to herself.

She went to the stone, noting how it was at something of a slant.  She found one gash in the rock by the weak moonlight, like Nyx had found before, and proceeded to climb–a wounded caterpillar forced to favor her right side for every foot she gained.  The woman grit her teeth and cursed, knowing that whatever was happening on the bridge would be done with before she made it there.  What bothered her was that she didn’t know what the outcome was.  The woman thought about the others at camp as below her chased the sounds of hell, and she wondered if they were having as good a time as she was.

Then Elmiryn nearly fell, because she started to laugh.

HAKEEM_________________________

Quincy was…brighter now.  The shade of honey her long bangs still held had been swallowed in a near platinum blonde, and her skin had a radiance to it that made the camp a tad bit more illuminated.  These were the effects of Tonatiuh’s use.  Hakeem pulled back at the woman’s collar to reveal the skin of her chest, and just over her heart (it took a pointed glare to make Graziano stop trying to get a look) revealed to him the blended scars from all the time Quincy had taken the blade into her soul.  She had done it four times in her life.  The man was glad that the woman, his partner–his wife–had returned from her journey into the light, but the stakes were raised too high now, and she couldn’t afford to gamble her soul again.  If he could, he’d take the blade away and destroy it himself, but it wasn’t that simple.  The sword and the woman were bound together, and by the woman’s changed appearance, now so more than ever.

“Why does she look like that?” Paulo asked warily.

Graziano stood over them.  “Yes, Hakeem.  Have we anything to fear, beyond the usual from you two?  Will the woman…explode?”

The man looked up at the Moretti.  “She isn’t a bomb waiting to go off.  This is just an aftereffect of using her magic.  You have nothing to fear.”

Graziano didn’t seem entirely satisfied with this explanation, but he didn’t press the matter, and went to sit near his brother.

Hakeem returned his attention to his partner, and it was at this point that something hit him.  Hard.  The jubilation truly fled him when it occurred to the man that Quincy shouldn’t be sleeping.  At all.

He seized up and took to shaking the woman.  She could sleep into death, and there’d be nothing he could do about it.  If things were still as he thought they were, then his attempts were futile, but still he tried.  With both hands, the wizard shook his wife with all the strength he had…

What he got in return was a mouthful of knuckles and an old Fanaean curse he hadn’t heard since his mother first washed it from his mouth.

Azure eyes burned a hole in him, bright and angry with the luminescence of a lit sky.  The man sat back–and laughed out in relief.  Then he looked at the hand Quincy used to wipe at her eyes, and frowned, his happiness fading to consternation.

“Your ring!  Where is it?” he asked.

The ring of the Living Death.  He still wore his since the day he had put it on at Tiesmire.  It gave the user the ability to move through the days without sleep, food, or drink.  The tradeoff was that upon its removal, the user slipped into a death-like sleep for the same amount of time the ring was worn.  The worst of it was that all the strength the ring gave, it took away.  So not only did one slip into an unbreakable hibernation, their body still suffered the effects of starvation and dehydration. When pressed with time whilst pursuing a target, the ring was a fantastic tool–but this particular venture of theirs had gone on too long.  For his part, the man didn’t know if he could ever take the ring off again.  This wasn’t a solution, either.  Eventually the power of the ring would turn him into an empty shell, soulless and yet stuck in continued existence.

…But how had Quincy avoided the effects?

“What?” the woman mumbled, frowning at her hand.  Then her look turned sour.  “Tai’undu!”  She sat up and looked at him.  “I’ve lost it!”

“But you were wearing the ring when you pierced yourself, didn’t you?”

“Of course!  But…”  The woman blinked, then held out her arm.  Tonatiuh, which had vanished the moment she fell asleep, was now back in her grip in a flash.  It pulsed with a warm glow, as though sensing it was the focus of attention.

Hakeem scowled.  “It took it, didn’t it?  Your ring of the Living Death?”

“I imagine…” Quincy shook her head, frowning.  “I imagine it was like the third time.”

“What do you mean?”

“The last time I took His fang into my heart, Tonatiuh consumed the staff of lightning I possessed.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this?  I thought you’d traded the item away!”

Quincy tapped her lips, her focus on her weapon.  “When I returned that time, I was restored in full health.  It did it again this time, and I came back with all my injuries healed.  Only it took the ring from me…as payment.”

“Or a tradeoff.” Hakeem said, crossing his arms.  “To restore the energy you used up.  It explains why you do not suffer the usual effects from removing the ring.”

“Perhaps…”

The woman drew her cloak about her as she stifled a yawn.  Her hood came low over her face, leaving only her pink bow lips showing.  “Hakeem, now that we’re together again and you have so rudely rouse me from sleep, do you mind explaining to me in detail why it is you’ve decided to help these people?  I heard the marshal say you were helping the enchantresses and came looking for you along the main trail.  I admit, I’m surprised at how much those claims were true.”  As she said this, her head turned in the direction of Paulo and Graziano, both resting against their scultones, the older Moretti with his loaded pistol in his lap.  He glowered at them over the flames.

Hakeem sighed and looked at Quincy.  “It wasn’t entirely my choice.  The Morettis captured me with the help of the warrior woman.”

“Elmiryn.”

“Yes.”

“And then?”

“And then he found us again when we split up, after Elmiryn defeated you,” Graziano dug.

Quincy grew hot beneath Hakeem’s touch, but her voice remained level.  “She didn’t defeat me.”

Graziano sneered and Paulo managed a weak laugh through his cough.  “You retreated,” the man said.

“Arduino was going to abandon me and the dog on the mountain with no food or warmth,” Hakeem interjected loudly.  “I did meet up with Graziano and Elmiryn, but only after I realized there was foul magic suffocating Belcliff.  From what I learned from the warrior’s items, I concluded that she was involved with it somehow.  She…spoke of bizarre things–”

Crazy things…” Graziano muttered.

“Astral demons and the like.  But at present I still do not know the exact nature of what is going on.  I only know that the enchantresses are the best means to stop this trouble.”

Quincy shifted next to him.  “Hmm…given my recent actions, your prolonged absence, and our accuser, the marshal has seen fit to condemn us both.  Something has him scared.  I think he fears that Syria will reveal his secrets.  Things that could ruin him.  Her apprentice, Lethia, told me that the enchantress had been seeing the marshal secretly for therapy.  This started some two years ago, after the dwarven colonies left Albias due to disagreements with the local city-state.  And there were discrepancies in the case files I viewed for the murders.  The damage done to the bodies required two spellcasters to achieve, and Lethia doesn’t have the skill needed to achieve the level of magic required.  Yet they sentenced her to death as well.  I’m no longer certain either woman is guilty of anything.  There’s something rotten in this region, and my vows compel me to find the answers.”

Compel you?  I didn’t think anything compelled you Quincy save for the sight of riches.”  Graziano sat forward, stroking the neck of his pistol.  “My dearest lia, have you a moral compass in that super nova chest of yours?”

The woman gazed at him coolly.  “That’s quite arrogant of you, Graziano.  Tell me, did your nethers burn when you realized you had left me to face the Torsheks alone whilst you lay passed out at the brothel with gonorrhea?”

Paulo looked at his brother.  “Chuso!  Graz is that true?”

Graziano looked at his brother in alarm.  “I never abandoned her!  I was fourteen years old and my culebre ate my horse!

“Your excuse is your pet dragon ate your horse?” Quincy deadpanned.  “Do you have the mind of a child, Graziano?”

Paulo waved this away with a floppy hand.  His sweaty face broke into a grin.  “No way, brother.  I know you left Quincy to deal with those giant beetles alone.  I’m talking about the gonorrhea.

“Bruja!” The man mumbled at the woman.  “Now he’ll never leave me alone about it!”

“But for what reason would the marshal want Syria dead?”  Hakeem said, bringing Quincy’s bright eyes back his way.

“I don’t know.  But he’s become unhinged, and I’m afraid our fellow bounty hunters are all too glad to oblige his demands for our heads.  I killed off some of the rabble that were traveling with the marshal on their way here, but the more formidable ones I knew to be in the city were notably absent.  Karolek, Jetswick, Tennim, Winamer, Arduino–I haven’t the slightest idea where they could be, and that isn’t good.  They should’ve been with the marshal’s group.”

“You didn’t see them when you watched in secret?”

“I was following the marshal, trying to see if he’d give anything away while I was one with the light.  But he revealed nothing.”

“So doing just what Arduino is accusing us of could clear our names.  Amusing.”

“Yes.  Possibly.  But I hope you managed to bargain up something nicer to ease this stress?”

Hakeem smirked.  “Of course.  We get a fourth of whatever the warrior receives from the enchantresses, as well as all the information they have on Tobias.”

Quincy nodded.  “Excellent.  Then I approve of this.”

“So glad to have you on board…” Paulo wheezed sardonically.

NYX____________________________

I slowly rose to my feet, knees bent and my claws tensed.  Jowan came nearer, squinting at me.  Then his eyes turned big and he took a step back.  “Great Halward, you’re an Ailuran!”

Two more guards appeared behind him, wielding swords and shields.  Jowan held them back with hand.

I thought about how my performance for the daesce had saved our skins once.  I decided to give it a second try.  In my travels, I had learned that of all the therian races, the Ailurans were probably hated the most next to the Draconians.  Even the Draconians seemed better liked–gods knew why.  But who was I to sit and weigh popular opinion amongst humans when my own kind was liable to throw rocks at me on sight?

Funny, the things one thinks before plunging into danger.

I breathed in all the air I could muster, ready to let out another fierce roar.

Then a blow to the back of my head reminded me, quickly, that not everyone froze at the sight of a bloodstained therian.

I went down, my face knocking into the hard stone floor, scraping at my cheek and pulling my right eyelid down.  My nose hurt, badly–so much that I could hardly see for the tears that came flowing.  Then I was hoisted up a few inches by the collar of my tunic.  I gurgled.  The fabric felt like it were cutting into my throat.

“She’s Marked.”  Freck grunted over me.

Jowan spoke to him.  “Didn’t the messenger bird bring an official warrant for the head of any who tried to break into the tower today?”

“Aye.”

I heard a blade and I started to squirm.  Freck sat on my lower back with all of his weight and pulled my tunic back so hard I heard some of the fabric tearing.  I could hardly breathe, and my neck burned where the collar cut into me, just under the chin.

“Woah!  Are you really–?”

“I’m retiring from this shit job soon, damn it.  I’m going to get something out of this hell hole, even if it means cutting off some kid’s head!”

“Mm…alright.  But I want some coin too–I distracted her after all!”  Through my blurred vision, I saw Jowan look up and smile.  “Oh, Farrel!  You’re alright boy!”

Then I heard a muffled slap and Freck let me go.  I hit the ground gasping, but I didn’t sit and dwell on my pain.  I could hear Elmiryn in my head, urging me to capitalize on this sudden turn around.  “Fights don’t give you second chances!  Move, or die.”

I screamed and scrambled into a charge, knocking Jowan over as I went.  He knocked into one of the guards behind him, and the man fell with the bald guard over his legs, successfully pinning him down.  The second guard jumped back in surprise, but I sensed in his lack of proaction a man unskilled in combat.  I could feel the cartilage in my nose shifting, and the stinging at my throat and the skin of my neck fade away.  I blinked away tears as I disentangled myself from Jowan’s flying fists.  A sixth sense feeling, a heat up my back, inspired me to lean back far, and I saw a blade flash past me, down onto his armor.  The swing was at a poor angle, so it didn’t pierce the armor, but this misstep made the novice guard, who had attacked without much thought, very fearful, and I saw him dance back again with uncertainty in his eyes.  As I leaned forward again, I mustered up all my strength raised both my hands and brought them down on Jowan’s ribs.  This was a thing to be seen, as even with his armor, I heard something snap, and Jowan curled beneath me with a purpling face, hugging his ribs.  I hit him with as hard a right hook as I could muster, and the man was knocked out, blood trickling from his mouth where I imagined his teeth had cut the inside of his lips.  I stood, clumsily and from the corner of my eye, I saw the guard at my left attack again.

I ducked, feeling the blade soar over me.  My eyes flashed his way, and I saw an opening in his armor, at the armpit.  Already I was moving to strike, stepping to the side to better reach his exposed flank, my claws extending as far as I could make them.  I felt them bury into his flesh, felt them drag through his skin and muscle.  As far as I knew, the place I hit him lacked any vital artery, but his pain would not be small.  Sure enough, the man stumbled back with a scream, his hand flying to his new wound as his shield dropped from his grasp.  Unaccustomed to the pain, he did not look as though he would dare rise and attack again.  Still, I knocked him out with a clean kick to the head.

But there was still his partner.

With his legs freed, the other guard was up on his feet, and I could see by the way he held his sword and shield that he had more experience than his partner.  He strafed slowly, crouched low behind his shield with his weapon at the ready.  I mirrored his movements, waiting for him to strike so that I could counter.  The man jabbed toward me, and I leaned away, but didn’t take a step back.  He was testing my resolve and skill.  I saw his eyes, beneath the dark of his nose guard helmet, turn hard with resolution.  He rushed forward, and I tried to evade him, but his kite shield was broader than I thought, or maybe he just moved faster than I thought he could, because, the guard managed to bash into me with it.  I lost my footing and fell backward hard onto the ground.  The soldier moved to jab at me, but I kicked at his left knee as hard as I could.  It didn’t snap the other way–a terrible thing to hope for, I suppose, but he’d hardly die from it, and I was fighting for my life at the time–instead it bent far to the right.  This made the man loose his balance, and he screamed out as his body crashed over mine.  I let out a shout as I slammed my elbow into his head, near the back of his right ear.  The man went limp, and the weight of him was tremendous.  I grunted as I shoved him off me.  My eyes looked to his knee, and I realized that while I hadn’t broken his leg clean in half, I had still broken his kneecap.

I turned, hands raised, ready to engage Freck next when I was met with a shocking sight.

The archer was kneeling next to Lethia, checking her pulse and her breathing with hands that bled at the knuckles.  He looked out of breath, and there was a fresh bruise on the right side of his face.  Next to him lay Freck,  his face bloodied and swollen, his dagger kicked from his hands.  The man looked up at me, and I took a step back.  I bared my teeth at him, feeling a primal intensity burning in me.

“My name is Farrel,” he said, sounding different than when he had spoken before.  In fact, to my astonishment, he sounded like Lethia.  “You’re…Nyx?”  He gestured at the girl in question.  “This girl saved me, even though she didn’t have to.  I’m very grateful.”  He stood and touched a hand to his chest.  The arrows in his quiver clacked behind him as he stepped over Lethia and toward me.  I took another step back, hissing at him, and he froze his face turning wary.  “Please.  My mother was an elf, and I was taught to repay these acts of kindness.  You have nothing to fear from me.”  He turned and went back to the girl, where he scooped the teenager up into his arms with only a mild bit of effort.  He looked at me somberly.  “Yes, I repay my debts. That…and I can’t really stomach such barbarism from my companions.  They were going to slit your throats, even though you spared their lives.”

My mouth fell open, but no sounds came out.

Now that the threats around me were removed, my focus was entirely devoted to the man before me.  Surprising the things one could miss in the heat of the moment.  Like how his eyes were wisterian, a light shade of purple, or how they were larger than the average human being’s; or how his ears stuck out, like Lethia’s, but had a bump at the tips; or how his arms seemed a little long, atleast in terms of human proportions.  Of course, given his revelation regarding his mother, there was no doubt.  The man was a halfling.  This fact comforted me, somewhat.  Partly because I was familiar with the sub-species, perhaps moreso than humans, for they visited my village to trade and I would see them in my forays into the forests.  Partly because I knew they had similar beliefs and sentiments regarding honoring debts.

Partly just because it felt nice meeting someone who wasn’t human…or atleast entirely so.

“Are you going to come with me or not?”  The man asked, bringing me out of my thoughts.  “I’ve got the key to the medicine cabinet on this floor.”

“Um,”  I pointed at myself and Lethia.  I could almost see Elmiryn face-palming in my mind, but I had to ask. “You realize of course that we’re breaking in to your tower?  To save Syria? Your high profile prisoner?

Farrel smiled at me.  “Is this supposed to be worse than the marshal’s idea of ‘community service’?”

I looked at him, bewildered.  “Community service?  You aren’t–that is to say–you didn’t–”

The man shook his head, his face twisted up in derision.  “Volunteer?  Sign up?  Öctér! Why would I want to end up in this hellhole!?  Half the guards here are serving sentences themselves for misdemeanors!”  He started walking toward the door.  “Come on!  Help me shut the gate.”

“Wait!” I said, hurrying after him.  “My friend is still outside!  I can’t leave her out there!”

Farrel paused at the doorway.  “That stretches things, therian.  I am in the debt of both you and this girl for your mercy, but to leave the gate open invites disaster!”

I straightened my back.  The warmth that curled from the doorway was enticing me, but Elmiryn was still clawing her way up the rocks.  I couldn’t abandon her.  “If you really mean what you say, then you’ll honor my request!  For my part, it is what I would ask as repayment!”

The man looked at me, conflicted.  “I…suppose I wouldn’t really be doing you a favor if I left your friend out there, would I?”

My heart lifted.  “No.  You wouldn’t!  So will you leave the gate open?  If you’ve some rope somewhere, I can bring her up faster that way.”

“You’d trust me with your friend’s life?”  He gestured at Lethia with his head.

I looked at him with a somber expression.  “Have I much choice in the matter?”

Farrel glanced over his shoulder, then looked at me again.  He shook his head.  “Not much.”

ELMIRYN________________________

She was only half way up.  The warrior paused for the second time, resting her temple against the rock with a sigh.  At first, she was confused and annoyed by her growing exhaustion.  Then she remembered that she’d been awake for nearly 24 hours, and had been in three very demanding fights with people and creatures of high caliber.  Once she accepted this fact, it didn’t seem so unreasonable to ask for a moment to rest, to close her eyes and…

Something knocked gently against her left side.

The redhead jerked awake, her eyelids burning with desire for sleep.  She leaned back far, head whipping this way and that in search of the offending object, whatever it was, that had touched her.  Then she kept moving.  Kept falling backwards.  Then she was just…falling.

Elmiryn’s stomach dropped and she cried out, her right and swiping wildly through the air when a dark line passed her sight.  She grabbed at it.  Rope.  She stopped with a jerk and bit back the scream that bounded up her throat like an over eager dog.  So much pain in her left arm and shoulder.  The woman blinked and tried to focus her blurry eyes, and above her, she saw Nyx’s wild mane of hair.  She was little more than shadow, but the woman could just imagine the look on her face.

“Sweet Aelurus, are you alright!?” The girl whispered loudly.

The woman chuckled weakly.  Her heart was still doing a marathon in her chest.  “Oh y’know…” she tilted her head to the side.  “Just hangin’ around.”

When Nyx spoke again, her voice turned critical.  “…You were sleeping, weren’t you?”

“Ghosts don’t sleep, Nyx,” Elmiryn said as the girl vanished and began to pull her up.  The woman sighed and held on as best she could.  “We just fade away…”

As she came up near the ledge, Nyx grabbed onto her arm and pulled her the rest of the way.  The woman looked around, noting the four guards lying on the ground.  She knew they were just unconscious–neither Nyx or Lethia had the stomach for killing–but the woman considered offing the men, just in case.  It wasn’t very honorable, but they would pose a threat otherwise.  She considered this…except her thoughts were usurped by a realization.

“Nyx, where’s Lethia?”

The girl was coiling the rope around her arm, a good idea if still time consuming–they could use the rope later.  But at the question, the Ailuran’s face twisted in discomfort, and she turned her eyes downward.  “Um…well, as you might’ve heard, there was a bit of a scuffle up here.  It seems the guards were anticipating us.  I managed to knock out three of the guards, but–” the girl paused, biting her lip.

Elmiryn waited impatiently for her to finish, one hand on her hip.

When Nyx resumed, she was looking at the warrior with imploring eyes.  She started to speak in a hurried voice.  “Oh Elle, please stay calm when I tell you this!  Like I said, I’d knocked out three of the guards…but there were five of them!  The fifth one was the one that Lethia borrowed the information about the tower from, only she took too much and the man couldn’t breathe, so she tried to put him right and she did–only–only–that is to say–she, ah, passed out. I thought I was done for, but then the fifth guard, he woke up and he knew what Lethia did for him so he saved me and her both by knocking out the fourth guard.  So–So Farrel–I mean–That’s the guard’s name–he’s tending to her wounds now!”

Elmiryn already started walking before the girl even finished, and Nyx chased after her.  Her face felt hot and her body was a promise of violence.

“Elle…Elmiryn, wait!” Nyx’s words hit her back like water to glass.  It just slid right off.

The warrior entered through the doorway, and into the foyer, where warm torches made her face dance with shadows.  The room led into a perpendicular hall that curved out of sight at both ends.  The woman had to wait as the girl closed the door behind her, then slipped into a side door she hadn’t noticed.  There was a “clack” and she heard gears turning.  The Ailuran had closed the gate outside.  The guards still outside the bolted door were atleast protected from the daesce if not the cold.

With the girl finished with her task, Elmiryn rounded on Nyx, her eyes sharp.  “What way did they go?  Do you know?”

The girl looked at her with wide eyes.  “I–Yes…they, they went that way, but–”

Elmiryn went down the left hall as Nyx had pointed without waiting to hear her.  If the girl had been so concerned about Lethia all this time, then why, why, why would she leave the youth in the hands of one of the enemy?

The woman drew her sword with her right hand, her expression darkening as she came to the only open doorway.  She stood in the frame, her cerulean eyes flashing, her sword raised–and stopped.  The woman stared.  Then she rubbed at her eyes and looked again with a bewildered frown.

Nyx squeezed past her and stood before her with arms spread wide as if to stop her.  “There, do you see!?  Please don’t try to hurt him–you could bring the other guards if you do!  The others are sleeping further down the hall.”

Lying on a low sick bed in a room cramped with ten more, was Lethia.  At the other end of the room was another man, but he was asleep and lacking an arm and leg.  Next to the enchantress, crouched down onto his knees, appeared to be the guard Nyx had mentioned.  He looked at Elmiryn like a rabbit caught in a predator’s sight.  What did Nyx say his name was?  He had funny looking ears and pretty purple eyes.  They reminded her of flowers.  The kind of flowers she saw rabbits peeking out from underneath.  She half expected him to have buck teeth.  She couldn’t remember his proper name, and he clearly wasn’t human.  But what a pleasant change of pace!  In the Rabbit’s wide hands, he held clean bandages, and on the bedside table next to him was an assortment of bottles filled with things the warrior couldn’t readily name.  She blinked and shouldered her sword, but didn’t put it away.

Elmiryn smiled slowly.

“…Who on Halward’s plane would’ve thought that a rabbit would have the balls to do something like this?”

The Rabbit looked at Nyx in confusion.  “I’m confused…What does she mean?”

The girl sat down on the bed next to him and looked at him wearily.  “I think she thinks you’re a rabbit.”

“Not a rabbit.  Just Rabbit. The Rabbit,” Elmiryn corrected, shutting the door behind her.  “There’s a difference.”

“Oh!  Um…Well, my name’s Farrel.”  He held out his hand and offered a smile.

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at him.  “Is it?”

The man’s hand and smile faltered as he looked at her in confusion.  “…What?

Nyx patted the guard on his arm with a sympathetic expression.  “You have a bit more to do, right?  I might as well explain it to you…”

The warrior snickered.  “Oh sure.  You can try.”


Back to Chapter 17.1 | Back to Chapter 17.3

Chapter 17.1

NYX____________________________

What a start.  What a nightmarish start.  We hadn’t even penetrated the tower yet, and here we were–two of our number severely injured.  I wanted to turn around and throw my hands up into the air.  I had wanted to help Lethia, but it had never been my intention to actually aid her mistress.  Maybe help the girl get free of her pursuers and onto safety.  But not this.  Only, Elmiryn had changed her mind when she became aware of a possible connection to her quest.  I had gone along with it, reserved but silent for I remembered why I had started traveling with the woman to begin with, and the evidence did seem compelling, if circumstantial…

The fact remained.  I was not up for this.

The true weight of our task felt so great that I fought to keep my knees from locking me into place.  My Twin was a phantom of rumpled temperament, growling and spitting in my head because this agreed with her no more than it did me.

As we crunched through the snow, shifting shadows our company on that dark night, I wondered if it were my end that I was seeking.  If this would be the adventure to cut down our lives.  I had been with Elmiryn more than two weeks, but the time seemed so much longer considering what we’d already been through.  I didn’t want things to end.  I looked over my shoulder, hoping an answer lay in the wisps of icy wind and jagged earth that was that crater.  Not even my sharp therian eyes could pick out the glow of our camp peeking behind the merciful rock, and with that…I knew that the warrior had been right in choosing to press forward.  The cold was a constant drain on us, and the exertion of our encounter with the daesce did nothing to aid our stamina.  Holzoff’s Tower could possibly be our final resting place–But it was also warm, and supplied with medicine we could use.

As much as I hated it, we had to keep going.

For my part, I fared well, considering I suffered no great injury, and while the cold was no friend, I was much more resilient than either of my human companions.  For what the cold tried to take, my regenerative ability tried to replenish.  I knew this wouldn’t last, however.  With time, the cold would whittle away all I had, leaving my body to memorize its effects and make it the new standard.  If this happened, unless I found a special therian healer, I’d forever be ill and weakened.  Considering the direction my life was taking, I could not afford this.

So I did my best to use my daesce hide to cover my exposed skin, where I’d used my tunic to help Lethia.  I could see the daesce watching us, curious yet wary from our show of power.  I wondered if the hide was still necessary–if we had somehow earned a place in their simple social structure.

We finally came to the tower.  The only way up to the bridge, it seemed, was by climbing up the rocks and then grabbing onto the ledge.  I didn’t know how the security was at the gate.  Lethia seemed to wonder the same thing and made as if to look, venturing further from the bridge’s blind spot, but I grabbed her arm firmly.

“No!” I whispered.

We turned to look at Elmiryn who hissed at us from near the shadows.  She pointed with her thumb, beneath the looming stone.  I nodded and together, Lethia and I joined her.

“Let’s slip down under here,” the warrior breathed.  “I doubt they’ll see us in this dark, but it’s better to find some cover so close to the tower.”

I turned and looked, my eyes narrowing.  “In…there?

The bridge was atleast ten men wide, and my eyes could make out many shapes in the dark.  There was a putrid stench wafting from inside, when the wind didn’t blow, and I thought I heard squelching…like meat being chewed.  I looked at Elmiryn again.  “It’s crawling with the daesce!”

“We’ve already established ourselves as big bad killers, okay?  They won’t want to fight us.”

“But I can’t see anything!” Lethia added.

Elmiryn gestured toward me with a tilt of her head.  “Nyx, you can see fairly good in the dark, right?  Guide us through.  There must be a way up onto the bridge from down here.”

I bit my tongue.  Hard.  But I thrust out my arm and Elmiryn grabbed my elbow, Lethia in turn holding onto her.  My eyes turned to the curtain of black that teased the toes of my makeshift boots.  My clawed hands twitched and I knew I wouldn’t be able to truly see anything until I had immersed myself into the darkness completely.

“My eyes.”  My Twin said.

She spoke with ill temper, and her body lay coiled on my already cumbersome worries.  “Let’s share sight a while.  It’ll be better.  For us both.”

I said nothing.  Only gave a mental nod of my head.  I had to admit, that having Her be this agreeable was a great deal better with arguing over her for control.  I didn’t dwell on this much.  I didn’t want to ruin this little reprieve, especially when there were such pressing matters at hand.

I closed my eyes and braced myself.  My eyes burned first, and they twitched up and to the side without my command.  Then pain shot up the eyestalks, flowering behind my eyelids and painting the shadows behind them with white waves.  I hissed from the back of my throat, my hand reached up to my face.  I forgot that I had claws and I scratched myself on accident, on the top of my right cheek.  The cut tickled as it sealed shut, and when it did, the pain in my eyes subsided to an ache.  Shaking my head, I opened my eyes, tentatively.

It was better than before, but not much.  The world under the bridge gained in varying shades of gray.  The small flickers of yellow that winked in the dark from the daesce’s eyes were weak too, telling me that not much light was to be had beneath the bridge.  Still, with Elmiryn a warm presence behind me, I started to slide forward.

I felt my foot push at bones and possibly even fecal matter.  The smell made me dizzy, and I wretched so hard at the start that I had to spit out the mouthful of bile that managed to splash onto my tongue.  Being what I was, I had a sensitive nose, but Lethia seemed the worse affected of us all.  We had to stop after two yards because the girl couldn’t stop heaving.  I took my time, picking through the uneven snow and litter, because at one point I found my foot was placed inches from a half-eaten corpse.  I tried curving our progress toward the tower.  I didn’t know what to find that way, but there was no other way up.  There were grunts and the occasional jabbering from the creatures about us.  There were atleast two instances in which we had to stop abruptly because a daesce would suddenly go lumbering across our path, eyes flashing our way briefly before it hurried away, as though realizing we were there.  With each inch we gained I believed Elmiryn more and more that the monsters wanted nothing to do with us after our raw display of power.

Which was good, because I was pretty sure another engagement would kill us.

Bones crunched beneath my feet as we neared the rocks. I turned and looked back at the others.  Elmiryn seemed relatively fine, all things considered.  But Lethia was nowhere in sight.  I frowned and leaned over, and there I found the girl pressed into Elmiryn’s back.  The woman took a moment to make out what I was doing, then turned and with her good hand poked the teenager in the head.  Lethia looked up, her eyes wide, but her back straightened as she took note of the stones before us.  I imagine to her it must’ve looked like a wall of pitch black, but for human beings, Elmiryn and Lethia seemed rather in tune with their instincts.

I turned my eyes back onto the uneven rock that seemed like a rumpled blanket to me.  Elmiryn and Lethia, emboldened by the sight of their way out of that hellhole, broke the chain to come and stand at my sides.  Together, we felt the rock, eyes straining for some answer as to how to climb up.  For the most part, the stone was smooth, but as I reached over to brush some snow away from one, I noted a harsh cut into the stone.  I frowned and ran my fingers over the cut.  I turned to Elmiryn, nudging her.

“Elle,” I breathed.  “I think the daesce managed to chip the rock in some places.  We could use this as foot holds!”

But the woman didn’t seem relieved and I was quick to remember why.

“I’ll have to find a place where the rock comes to a slant, otherwise, you and Lethia are going to have to go up first by yourselves.” I could see her face twist up in the dark, like she hated being left behind for any reason.

“You can’t come with us!?” Lethia hissed, voicing my fear.

The woman shook her head.  “Like I said, lemme find a place where I can try to climb up at a crawl.  If that doesn’t work, you’ll have to find some rope and lower it down for me.”

“This is suicide…” I grumbled to the warrior, but I said this low and with my face turned from Lethia.  I didn’t want to make the girl anymore fearful than she probably already was.

“Don’t say that.” Elmiryn scolded softly.  She gestured at the rock with her chin.  “Go on you two.  Try and start picking your way up there.  Nyx should take the lead.  Knock out the guard so that Lethia can get the information we need.  I’ll be with you soon.”

I only shook my head and gave a half-hearted shrug.  I turned my eyes to the ground, and there they caught sight of something.  Amid the folds of black and gray shadows, with bones wrapped about the handle in a deathly grasp, I reached down and plucked up… “A morningstar?”

Lethia said nothing.  Her back was turned to us and it seemed she was focusing on a point on the wall, and her hand seemed to be patting her thigh rapidly.  I paused at the sight of this, but Elmiryn leaned over me to see what I held, and my original intention was lost.

“You got that from the ground?”

“Yes.”  My brows knitted together as I grasped the blade in my hand.  I turned to Elmiryn with a jerk.  “I’ve got an idea!”

“Oh?”

“Most likely the guards on the bridge are behind gates.  I can lure them out with this!  It must be difficult for these men to receive new arms and supplies given the nature of this place.  With every death, they lose valuable equipment.  If they see this, so near to the gate, they’ll want to retrieve it!”

“That’s a stretch, Nyx.  And at any rate, if they went for it, they’d probably lock the gates behind whoever goes for the weapon just to be safe.”

“But even then, there’ll be someone near the gates ready to let him back in, right?  I can distract the guard outside while Lethia ensorcells the ones covering him!” As I said this, I turned and placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder.  She gasped and whirled around, stumbling back against the wall and the bones on the ground.  I pulled away, as though burned.  “Huh?”

Lethia was breathing fast, and she made a low whine in her throat.  Her hand clutched at her chest and she winced as though in severe pain.  For a moment, I was afraid the skin of her cut had torn apart.  Then the look cleared up, and I saw her head twist to see around her.

Elmiryn sighed, just as I gathered what was going on.  “Well that’s just great.  Her amnesia’s at it again!”

I knelt down next to the girl, placing the morningstar on the ground, and took hold of her shoulders.  The youth’s pale oval face turned my way, and I could see her lips quivering.  “Shh, shhh…Lethia?  Lethia, what do you remember?”

The girl said nothing, only continued to stare at me with those wide  green eyes.  How horrifying it must have been to “awaken” in such a place!  I made sure to avoid locking onto her gaze as I shuffled closer.

“What do you remember?” I insisted, tightening my grip on her shoulders.

Lethia’s eyes narrowed.  I saw her eyes flicker to my lips.

“Lethia…?”

“Eth…eh…eth…” The girl’s speech was low and slurred, like she had to battle with her tongue to move.  She scowled and looked over at Elmiryn.  “Esch…ah-uh…”

My heart sunk.  I turned slowly and looked at Elmiryn, who was looking down at me.  From her shadowed features, I gathered she was scowling.  I looked back at Lethia.  “Do you…understand me?  Lethia?”

The girl blinked slowly.  She tilted her head back and stared up at the looming underside of the bridge.  I pointed up excitedly.  “Yes!  Up!  Do you remember?  We need to go up!”

“Ah!” The girl sighed with excitement, mirroring my action.  “Sss–ia!”

“Sia?  You mean…you mean Syria?

“Ss-ia! Ah!”

“Well,” Elmiryn said, resigned. “She’s a bit fucky now, but atleast she still remembers that much.”  She chuckled darkly. “If that isn’t loyalty, I don’t know what is!”

I stood and turned to the warrior, a worried look on my face.  “I don’t know if I can take her up with me.  She seems to remember something of our task, but she…I don’t think she understands when I speak to her.  There could be a great deal she’s forgotten, and the risk is just–”

I broke off as I saw Elmiryn rubbing her chin with a grin on her lips.

I frowned at her.  “What?”

“Looks like she’s going up with or without you, Nyx!” She snickered.

I whipped around.  Lethia had already started climbing the wall.  She was only a two feet up because she had to grope around both with her hand and her foot to see where the next foothold was, but I stopped myself from pulling her back down when I remembered that this could tear open the girl’s tender cut.  I stared, flabbergasted as Lethia moved with a renewed vigor.

“Her power shifted to block her knowledge of speech,” Elmiryn said behind me, “But it hasn’t stopped her ability to move.  If anything, she probably has forgotten what the implications of her pain means, too.  That’s why she’s able to ignore it and climb so fast.”

I grit my teeth and glanced at the woman over my shoulder.  I didn’t like the note of envy in her voice.  “That isn’t good, Elle!  She could push herself too hard!”

The woman gave me a nudge, “Which is why you should probably get after her then!”

I growled but did just this, taking the morningstar and slipping it down the back of my tunic’s neck and between the bandages I used to wrap my breasts.  It bit into my scarred back uncomfortably, but the weapon didn’t jostle much and I was confident it would stay put.  I started at the first foothold I’d found and started after the girl, using my claws to my advantage to find grip in the otherwise slippery parts along the wall.  I glanced back only a moment to see that Elmiryn had already gone off to find another way up to the top of the bridge.  I looked back up to see Lethia panting up above me, her head resting against the rock.  Her limbs were shaking, and I knew if I didn’t catch up with her soon, she’d fall.

Doubling my efforts, I spidered my way up to the girl, closing the yard between us.  I came up to her side, where she took note of me and decided to wait until I was level with her.  Her face was nearly completely dark gray.  There was less light where we had climbed.

I touched my chest with my free hand.  “I’ll go first,” I said slowly.

I couldn’t tell if what I said registered with the youth, but I gestured for her to follow me anyway.  I climbed up and over her and heard the girl begin to follow.  We were only a few feet from the bottom of the bridge, but we had to climb sideways now to get onto it.  I looked down and watched as Lethia blindly reached around for somewhere to grab hold.  I let out a hiss and snapped my fingers to grab her attention, then pointed at my boot.  The girl looked at my shoe in confusion before I removed it from its foothold, then put it back again.  I pointed at my boot again, which I pulled away once more.  I said as clearly as possible, “Lethia.  Grab there!”

It hit me that I didn’t know how well the girl could see.  Could she atleast make out my form in the dark?  Even I was having trouble making out what was what.  But the girl seemed to get the gist of my actions and reached in my direction.  It took her a minute before she found the spot my boot had been.  From there, I scooted over, and the girl pulled herself up.  I reached over and aided her as best I could, but the truth of it was that the cuts and breaks in the rocks were slippery with ice and some tended to be narrow so I couldn’t lean over far.

Bit by bit, we sidled over until we came out from beneath the bridge.  Though it was still dark out, the filtered moonlight filtered through the break of clouds was enough to seem like day to me after the overwhelming shadow we suffered.  Once I could reach the side of the bridge’s mold, the climb became much easier.  I hurried up, claws scraping at the edges of the barricade, and I peeked over as much as I dared.

The entrance to the tower was a set of large wooden doors, further blocked off by a heavy steel gate.  I could see a smaller door fixed into the wooden entrance with a view window, but the window was shut.  All was quiet, and from where I was, it seemed I was in the blind spot of the archer windows.

I pulled myself up.

Turning, I saw Lethia struggle to come up, the same way I had, but perhaps I was more agile than I thought, for she seemed to find it impossible.  She gazed up at me with stricken eyes, and I knew she was afraid of falling.  Given the way her hands gripped the rock with white fingertips and her limbs trembled worse than before, I feared this too.  With little pause, I lunged over the barricade.  Just as I was in reach of the girl’s arms, her foot slipped and she started to drop back into the shadow, her daesce skin slipping away from her to reveal her long hair sullied and turned dark with gore.  My breath stopped and I snatched at her desperately.

My right hand caught her wrist, and I felt my body began to fly over the edge when my left hand managed to catch the outer edge of the barricade, and by a twist of my body, my right foot hooked onto the inner edge.  My entire body screamed as each and every muscle pulled from the full weight of Lethia, who dangled free in the air now.  The daesce skin slid off my back and fell to the ground below.  The girl grabbed onto my forearm with her other hand desperately, a scared whimper slipping her throat.

Grunting, I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled back as hard as I could.  Within five minutes, the girl was up and over the ledge, breathing hard and shaking all over.  Her eyes rolled like she were ready to pass out.  I was on the ground, knees half-bent, leaning back on my hands when I saw this.  I jumped forward and shook the girl’s shoulder.  She couldn’t lose consciousness.  I wasn’t sure if I could wake her again if she passed out, and this terrified me.

“Lethia!” I hissed.

The teenager blinked her eyes open again and stared at my hand.  She pulled her legs over the barricade with some struggle, and let them dangle over the ground.  I stood and breathed a sigh of relief.

Turning, I looked at the steel gate.  It presented an immediate problem for me, as I had to make sure the guards would raise it and keep it raised so that Lethia and I could rush in.  I bit my lip and pulled the morningstar out as I puzzled over this new obstacle.  I stared at the weapon in my hands.  Color became dull with my bestial eyes, so the ruddy weave of the hilt looked little different from the stained rusted metal that sprouted from it.  I wasn’t certain, but it seemed to be iron.  I followed up the weapon’s length to the bulbous spiked end.  Then my eyebrows rose.

I turned and gestured mutely for Lethia to follow me.  She did so with a nod, sliding off the bridge barricade and together we ventured near the gate.  There I looked at the girl, and pointed at her eyes with my index and middle finger, then pointed toward the small door in the blocked entrance.  I had to do this twice before Lethia seemed to grasp what it was I was telling her.

“Ah-tch…” She said, pointing at the door.

I nodded.  “Yes.  Watch.”

I pulled her back to where the barricade connected with the tower, and there I bid the girl to stand up on the stone.  I put my fingers on my lips and Lethia mirrored the action, nodding.

I hurried to the other side of the bridge.  My heart was hammering in my chest as I took the morningstar with both hands and held it up like a bat.  I took three deep breaths before I let out a wild swing.  The weapon struck the steel, letting out a dull ‘twang’ that stung my hands.  I looked up to see what Lethia was doing.  She was hiding still, but I could tell she was straining her ears to see when the doors would open.  I turned back to the steel gate, where I saw I had managed a small scratch on the bars, but otherwise nothing.  No noises came from the doors.  I bared my teeth and pulled the morningstar back again, this time spreading my legs and bending my knees.  I swung again, so hard that I felt as though I wrenched my arms out, and when the weapon hit, I could’ve sworn I saw sparks (but this may have been my mind playing tricks on me.)  All of my bones rattled in my body, and I had to straighten out my eyes–such was the force of the hit.

But the sound!

It was loud and sang, shaking the gate.  The spikes of the morningstar had flown off where the weapon had struck, and the shaft was bent now, but I heard shouts from behind the heavy wooden doors, and I knew that this time I had my audience.

Hurriedly, I threw the morningstar in a spot I knew the view window would be able to see, and I jumped up onto the barricade like Lethia, pressing my back against the stone.

I heard the ‘slack’ as the view window was snapped back.  There was a groan.

“Oh no…”

Someone else spoke, but I couldn’t make out what they said.

The person at the door answered them.  “No, no.  It’s…it looks like it’s just a weapon over there.  But that could mean someone upstairs was pulled through the bars again.  …What?  Yes that’s possible!  A few months ago there was this new guy.  He got plucked right up by the daesce.  Nearly skinned him doing so.  We found his body in the morning, out on the bridge, every bone broken.”  The door rattled and my heart jumped as I heard something jingle.

The other person spoke again, and they sounded agitated.

“Of course I’m going out there!  We have three men fitted only with knives, we can’t afford to lose anymore of our arms.  Next supply shipment isn’t for a month!”

The door opened with a groan of its hinges, warm flickering light painting the stone floor.  The man’s voice lowered as he spoke to his companion.  “You just keep an eye out for me, un’erstand?  Get that bow ready.  I been at this a dozen times, I’ll be fine, but you just keep that bow ready.  Un’erstand?  Oi!  Roll up the gate, Jowan!”

“Shiva’s breath, Freck.  Ya sure ya can’ jes wai’ till mornin’?” This was the other person, the one I hadn’t been able to hear well.  His accent sounded northwestern, specifically where independent human-elf colonies resided in the mountains north of the Ailuran nation.  I knew this because the human traders that visited my village spoke the same unusual way.  His enunciation dropped at the end of words, as though he had marbles in his mouth, and was a sort of drawl.  The dialect had no name, but was the result of the human language Common being mixed with the elven language D’Shar.

The gate shuddered, and I could hear the machinations groan behind the stone as it slowly rattled up.  Freck drew his weapon–a long sword by the ring of it.  I looked out of the corner of my eyes, not daring to even turn my head as he came out from beneath the lifted gate.  He looked around warily, then looked up as though expecting to see a body hanging out of the window, or a daesce bearing down on him.  When he saw none of these things, the man scowled.

He was unshaven and of medium height, dressed in combination of reinforced leather and chainmail.  He had on a plated helmet with a nose guard, but no gloves.  I guessed him to be nearing his forties, and by the way he moved, he was experienced.  I started to doubt myself when without warning, I saw Lethia begin to turn the corner, her eyes like shiny discs, and if I’d squinted, I was certain I could’ve seen the archer turning to engage her.  I heard a ‘thwip’ as the arrow was set loose from his fingers.  Did it hit?  Was she going down?

I didn’t know, because I had started to move, ignited like waiting oil by the surprising flame that was the teenager’s audacity.  Freck was just straightening up after picking up the morningstar.  I thought about all the drills I had done with Elmiryn.  Amidst those thoughts, I saw flashes of time spent with my brother Thad.  Playing.  Learning.

Thaddeus showing me how to strike at the throat.

Elmiryn showing me how to flank my opponent.

I pulled my fist back, wrist turned toward the sky with my hand down to my waist, claws biting into my own palm, but I would not set them loose on this man.  He may have been a scoundrel, he may have had a family, but I knew that I was not to bring about his end.  Would not.  Could not.  I struck out in an uppercut, pushing with my back foot as my other foot slid forward.  My body turned at the shoulders as I felt my knuckles slam into the man’s turned jaw.  His head snapped back with such force that the man launched backwards.  He hit the ground with a nasty thud and didn’t rise again, his sword and the morningstar both out of his hands.  I knocked them away with my foot for good measure, trembling from the adrenaline.

I noted that I hadn’t been shot with an arrow yet.

I looked and saw why.

The archer, a younger man with bright blonde hair and no helmet was on his knees, his bow resting loosely in his hands.  He hadn’t drawn another arrow.  The third man, Jowan, who I hadn’t heard nor seen yet, stood slumped against the door frame, his mouth hung open.  He was a large man, almost as big as Karolek, with a pale shaved head and a black eye.  They both wore armor similar to Freck.  Lethia stood before them, hands at her sides, relaxed.  She walked over calmly to the archer, and with gentle hands, tilted his head up from the chin.  The man stared up into her face, his expression vacant before he seized up and his eyes bugged.  He gasped as though he couldn’t breathe.  The man fell over, twitching.

I stared at him, horrified.  “Sweet Aelurus!  Is he…Lethia did you…?”

The girl knelt down next to the archer and rolled him onto his back with some difficulty.  His jaw flapped and I heard dry noises coming from the back of his throat.  She looked back my way, her eyes glassy but her face twisted in anguish.  When she spoke, she surprised me.

She now had the same northwestern accent the man had.

“It weren’t done on purpose!  I was jes’ tryin’ to get back my talk when…when…oh heaven help ‘im!  I thin’ I made ‘im forget how to breathe!!”

“Have you ever tried putting something back into someone’s head!?” I came running over and knelt down with the girl.  I looked over at Jowan in the doorway.  The guard still hadn’t moved out of his frozen stupor.

The girl blinked tears from her eyes and looked down at the archer’s face.  “Ah…um…n-no.  No I can’ say that I have!”

“Well try!”

“But what if I take more!?

“He’ll die if you don’t do something!”

The girl seemed to let this sink in.  Then she straightened her back and took the archer’s face in her hands.  Lethia turned his face and their eyes met.

To me, nothing seemed to happen.  A minute stretched by, and I grew nervous.  What if others came?  What if the daesce came?

Then Lethia broke away, sucking in a huge gulp of air as though she’d been submerged in water.  The archer did the same, his bangs brushing along his forehead as he rolled to his side, coughing and taking breaths.  I looked at the enchantress, beaming.

“You did it!” I cried.

“I did!” Lethia returned.  She flashed a smile before she suddenly keeled over, eyes rolling up into her skull.

My joy vanished and I crawled over the girl to get a look at her face.  “Lethia!?”  I shook her shoulder, then pinched her arm as hard as I could.  She didn’t wake.

I heard a moan from the doorway, and looked up slowly just as Jowan turned his surly gaze my way.  I heard armor clinking and sharp voices in the room behind him, and knew others had come.  At my back, I heard Freck rise as well, grunting.

“Who the fuck…” Jowan panted, “Are you?

“I’m dead,” I wanted to say.

Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.

???_____________________________

At such short notice, it wasn’t so bad.  Almost a hundred militia men and atleast twenty mercenaries, nine of which being skilled with magic, all soldiering together through the snow.  They were making a last push for the day, because there was no way they could reach Holzoff’s that night.  It was, perhaps, their hope that their targets would have no other way to leave the prison other than the road they traveled, but this was ludicrous.  The Moretti’s specialized in training beasts who could halve the average traveler’s journey.  But what else could they do?  So they soldiered on.

The sky turns a violent red as the suns come down beneath the cloud cover to shade the world in their evening glow.

The camp is set and a large bonfire is created from wood brought on a wagon.  The marshal (who probably should be referred to as the Marshal, as no one outside of Belcliff really seems to care enough to refer to the man by his actual name) stands on a crate brought by his attendant and calls for attention.

“Listen to me, all of you!” He booms, fitted with shiny plate armor, clearly never used.  “We march again, before dawn!  The tower is still a great distance away, but the rogues have no alternatives roads to take.  Thus, you should be prepared for a fierce battle!  I say this because it has been brought to my attention that an Ailuran travels with the criminals.  This is yet another danger for us to prepare against, next to the wizard and the enchantress!  As I’ve been told, the two youngest of the Morettis travel with them.  I was asked to spare their lives, but given the circumstances, I’m not certain I can.  They have violated the high laws of Albias, and as arbiter of justice, I cannot stand for this!  So I say, at the first sign of resistance, kill without hesitation!  Those men have chosen their path, and so have we.  We will not falter, men.  Not against these rogues!  I want to remind you all that I will pay a handsome reward to whomever brings me the head of these bastards!  This is a battle of principle.  They destroyed a portion of our city and spat on the honest work of professionals!  Tomorrow, we will show them the errors of their ways!

There’s a roar from the militia men, but the mercenaries remain quiet and unmoved.  It’s silly, really.  This isn’t a war they’re fighting, and the bounty hunters know this.  It’s just another mark, another bounty, another sack of gold, only the marshal is staking his pride on this.

The fire is…so brilliant…reaching to the dying heavens.  And the sunlight, it comes in broken shafts over the fangs of the earth, the mountains, streaking the cold air in such warm brilliance…

It’s enough.

I am siphoned, pulled, burned and scorched into an ambience indescribable to the common mind, for as I flash through the dying light and through the flames of the bonfire, I see His eyes on me and I am headed toward His mouth, which gapes open ready to swallow me whole.

I slip through His flat giant teeth and back into the land of the living.

Tonatiuh, a blade with no master.  I, a woman with no god.  He tries to consume me, and I try to enslave him.  It’s a tiring dance sometimes, but this time I hardly break concentration.

But I’m still burning hot, still stellar and all cosmic atoms shuddering and shifting with limbs as golden as the purest morning light.  I am coiled retribution, I am hell’s infernal flame, I am His terrible glory.

I am the marshal’s great surprise.

Time is slow at first–I’m coming out of light speed after all–and the man moves at a crawl, his head turns slowly to regard me.  His body rocks backward, and I know he will fall.  I consider killing him before he hits the ground, but then my eyes flicker to the men around the camp.  Some young and misguided, some old and stupid.  The bounty hunters, these cold mercenaries.  Some of them I recognize, but none of them I hold any particular respect for.

Not like Jetswick and Karolek.

…Not like Arduino.

I wonder if this makes these men the closest things I’ve had to “friends”.

Then the first second is finally reached and time begins to speed up exponentially.

I take a breath and tighten my grip on Tonatiuh’s hilt.  Arduino’s brothers are young, like some of these men are young.  And some of these men are older, like Arduino is older.  I think of how little mercy the marshal would have shown those boys, how little mercy he would have shown that naive enchantress, still only a teenager.  I think of her head trapped in an iron mask.

The camp has turned into chaos.  The militia men scramble for their blades, frightened and confused.  The bounty hunters, on the other hand, all start forward, already prepared.  The spellcasters are drawing up their spells, and the archers draw their bows.  They know me.  Or heard of me.  They knew this would happen.  But maybe this is why I hold no respect for them.

Because they actually thought they could survive what will come next.

My lip curls and I scream.

I pull at my body, my spirit.  I focus on Tonatiuh, who breathes me in with a satisfied sound, through the tip of His fang.  Time is slow again, and I lash out, my form turned into a line of hot light, a bolt of energy, all power and force ricocheting from body to body.  (Not really–I control where I go, I control when I turn)  I burst through flesh, burn through armor.  I count the strikes as I go–count them in a way that Hakeem would count, by ticks–and I reach a hundred and twenty.  I scream over the marshal who has landed on his rear, his eyes bugged with fear, and his mouth stretched open wide.  I still spare him.  I’ve spared his silly attendant too, the boy, Herman.  I want them to see…I want them to see what I’ve done.

I don’t stop.  I leave the camp.  I can just imagine all the bodies, blasted through and scorched, falling in unison, dead.  The marshal (I decided, he doesn’t deserve to be called “Marshal” in the capitalized sense) and Herman surrounded by a sea of corpses.  I’m flashing along so fast I’m practically flying.  My body gets heavier and I know I’ll pass out if I keep this up.  But I have to keep going. Toward the tower.  I’m moving fast, but not as fast as I did before.  It’s now nighttime.  I seem to be slowing down.  I’m literally working off of fumes now that the sunlight is gone.  I scare a group of batrengs off a rock as I go by, naught but a warm glow, like the embers of a dead fire.  I manage to catch sight of a camp some mile from Holzoff’s tower, along the main road.

This has to be it.

And just in time, too.

I crash near it, into a snow bank, and I sink low, the snow melting and turning to slush at my feet.  I hear shouts.  A dog barking.

The edges of my sight begins to turn black and I stare into the white around me.  I pushed myself too hard, I knew it…but I’m material again.  Tonatiuh didn’t get me, and neither did the suns.  I made it.  I stopped the marshal, and I made it, and…

I’m glad.

I look up and see Hakeem’s dark form at the lip of my little crater.  He smiles wide, and this is the first time I’ve seen him do so in nearly two years.  He’s got beautiful white teeth, lined up neat save for his overbite, which I’m inexplicably fond of.  I manage to smile back at him, my version of the expression anyway, a slight tilt of my lips.  Tonatiuh is gripped in my right hand, and He seems to pulse at my small show of emotion…

“Quincy!  Bwa-mweze, colo shiutsi na dwane!” Hakeem says over me as he slides down to scoop me up beneath my arms.

Quincy!  My wife, don’t scare me like that again!

I close my eyes and allow him to drag me up the snow.  “Chu, chu, taika,” I mumur, letting my head loll back into his chest.  He smells good to me.  Like tobacco and fenugreek seeds.  Sleep is coming fast, and I do not fight it.  With Hakeem near, I feel…like I can afford the rest.  “Imdeto ches? Em-ma aiko no tobate nah kuzzi…”

Silly husband.  Don’t you know?  I’d die only in your arms…

I am swallowed in darkness, and for once, I’m unafraid.


Back to Chapter 16.4 | Forward to Chapter 17.2

Chapter 16.4

ELMIRYN________________________

Parallels. Elmiryn would never admit this, though she had a disconcerting awareness of it.  A leaning of common decency that she had always tucked to the side whenever her father or mother came near, or whenever training with her fellows.  It tickled at the back of her fingertips–feathery brushes that painted her skin flushed and heated.  Bodily functions.  They made her too human sometimes, it seemed.  Parallels. Such neat lines to her as to hold up this little atrocity, this nasty truth that drew up a harsher shade to her being.  Fighting was such a carnal act.  A mosaic of broken images and sounds and smells and tastes all clashing together to make the muddied color a child creates whenever he mixes all of life’s palette.  Maybe that was all it was.  Mud and–  Parallels. The blood and the sting of salt.  Her own voice a grunt ripping at her, while a heavy danger sought to kill her.  How close her end seemed, embedded in the spaces of those crooked fangs like rancid meat.  A body over hers.  Clothes feeling a bit too tight, and she knew she was on the verge of something.  She recalled… Parallels. Tender wrists in her hands, a sort of ache in her that begged release, and a pair of sweet eyes mirroring her desire.  The wind a mercy on their heated skin, breath coming as hisses between parted lips.  Her teeth wanting to leave a mark on the expensive toy that father said she couldn’t have… Parallels. This fucking thing was going to tear at her.  Rip out her throat.  Her heart pounded against her chest, and she was only dimly aware of the pain in her right shoulder and hand.  Was it okay, to feel so apart from the discomfort?  What if that meant she were becoming less alive and more of a ghost?

Paralleled arms holding back the demon ape, who at the moment, didn’t feel altogether so different from her.

The daesce snapped and snarled, body straining and quivering in its fury as it pushed against her hands.  This wouldn’t last long, she knew, but even as she tried to shift her weight to throw the creature from her, the monster beat her to it.  Tired of its contest of strength with Elmiryn, it turned its right shoulder back without warning, and took her left arm in both of its claws, its scissor grip biting into her bracer and elbow.

Then it gave a great pull, its thick leg sliding up her chest to keep her body down as a stab of sharp pain hit her shoulder then down her forearm.  The side of her left neck went numb and tingled.

To the warrior’s credit, she did not scream, but she could not contain her yell of pain. If her arm wasn’t broken, it was, at the least, severely dislocated.  The blood that seeped from the monster’s clutches looked no more gentle.  Her vision went black and for all her fighting, the dark swallowed her…and were it not for the beast’s rough actions, she may have stayed that way, leaving herself open to an easy kill.  The daesce took her forearm in its mouth, the press of its jaws so strong it hurt.  The thing pulled at her arm, sending more waves of pain through her, and this roused her out of her unconsciousness.  When she reoriented herself, she was certain the daesce’s fangs would break through the leather of her bracer.  There was no concern of ghostly disconnection now.  She was utterly in tune with the excruciating sensations, aligning her once more with the mortal life.  She would’ve been screaming outright if the monster’s weight wasn’t so tremendous as to make breathing a labor.  The daesce shifted so that its elbow pressed on her cheek, and her cries were sent into the creature’s fur.  The smell of the monster was horrid.

The daesce yanked backward hard and she gurgled, vision turning fuzzy then black again, for a moment.  She fought to stay conscious.  If she didn’t, the damn thing was literally going to rip her arm out of its socket.  She felt the leather of her bracer break and some of the daesce’s fangs bite into her.  Any harder and the bracer would give, allowing the creature to snap her forearm like a twig.

Now the parallels were broken, like her arm probably was, and Elmiryn was marginally glad that her depravity didn’t crawl so far.  She saw no pleasure in this anymore.  Now she just wanted the fucking thing dead.

Struggling, the woman twisted her right arm and tried to worm her hand behind her.  The daesce had pressed her almost two inches into the snow with all their struggles.  She scraped frantically with her fingers.  If Nyx wasn’t helping, then there was likely something wrong with Lethia.  Seriously wrong.  She twisted her body and managed to scrape the pommel of her dagger with the tips of her fingers. “Is the kid okay?” The warrior thought distantly to herself.

The daesce shifted its elbows from Elmiryn’s face and pulled back hard once more.  This lifted her body up from the snow, and though a scream tore up her throat, the warrior still had the presence of mind to draw her dagger.

She didn’t hesitate in her strike.

The first blow was directed at the daesce’s neck, and the blade sunk in to the hilt.  The daesce let go of her, a bubbly exhale slipping past its horrid fangs.  She pulled the knife out and with a yell, blood spurting over her.  She felt the dark liquid enter her mouth, like some nasty agent bringing to mind chemical acid and a sense of violation.  She shut her lips and pressed the back of her tongue to the roof of her mouth to keep what little there was from going down her throat.  She then slashed at the daesce’s black pug face, cutting across both eyes, and turned her face from the warm spray that hit her.  The monster reared back, ugly sounds coming from its cut throat.  It slashed wildly with its claws making Elmiryn squirm to dodge and block.  It caught the woman on her left brow and her collar bone.  Poisonous blood sat on her tongue and she spat it out.  Elmiryn winced and pushed back into the snow with her shoulders, giving her leverage as she kneed the monster in the side, then stabbed into the other.  As the beast fell over, the blade dragged, letting more of its life flood out onto the snow.  The daesce still lashed out, but it was weaker now, and it could not bring itself to sit up.  The pain Elmiryn felt was nauseating, and the blackness crept along the edges of her vision again, but she rolled over onto her knees and with dagger raised, stabbed into the beasts chest repeatedly till it stopped moving.

The rusted snow about them was splashed a shade darker, and she was covered in hot blood–disgusting but it did its part in fending off the cold.  Her daesce hide was somewhere nearby along with her sword.  She’d have to look for those.  But first…

She cleaned the blade on the snow, then sheathed her dagger and cradled her left arm to her chest.  The woman turned her eyes in the direction of Nyx and Lethia.  The girl was crying over the enchantress, hands pressed to her chest which was almost completely stained dark.  Cursing, the woman crawled away from the daesce corpse to where the snow was a shade lighter (all the snow there looked so dirty.)  She took some in her right hand and washed her bare skin with it.  The fabric had soaked the monster blood in, but her face and hands could be freed of it, and if she wanted to help Lethia, she’d have to get rid of the poisonous stains.  When this work was done, she folded over so that her chest and upper thighs pinched her left arm between, keeping it from flopping around, and with her now free right hand, she pulled a vial out from her boot.  Putting the vial gingerly between her teeth, she straightened and took hold of her left arm again as she crawled to the two girls.  Her forearm was stabbing with sharp pain, and her shoulder sent waves of agony washing through her thoughts.  The warrior’s breath was labored and her face dripping with snow making her features turn numb.

“Move.” Elmiryn bit out as she came up behind Nyx.  She stopped next to Lethia’s body, hissing as she saw the injuries.  The girl appeared to have been cut badly along the chest.  The worst of it seemed to be along the breast, where amid the blood she could make out how deep the wound went, going so far as to reach the fat and intricate blood vessels.  While the rest of the cut looked bad, it wasn’t as severe, but that wasn’t to say that blood loss wasn’t a threat.

“Press the skin together as best you can!” The warrior told Nyx as she uncorked the vial with her teeth, her left arm pinched in the crook of her right arm, which she had to press close to her body just to be able to hold the damaged limb up.  The translucent silver liquid in the vial sloshed a little, and the woman jerked back with a scowl.

Nyx scowled at it.  “Wh-What–”

“Shh!” The woman snapped, holding the vial delicately now that it was open.  “Down there, press the edge of the wound as close together as you can and keep going up as I pour this, okay?  Don’t let it touch you.”

The girl did as she was told.  Then with a deep breath, Elmiryn lowered the vial over the bottom of end of Lethia’s wound…and tipped it, just enough for a trickle to come out.

There was a hiss as the skin bubbled.  Lethia’s back arched and her eyes flew open, sending some of the liquid to go trailing down her stomach, where it sizzled the skin.  Her arms flailed, like the muscles spasmed, and a stray hand nearly knocked the vial away.

“Put your knees on her shoulders, gods damn it, and grab her arms!!” Elmiryn barked as she leaned back far.

Nyx flinched and followed her order, but her eyes were incredulous.  “Elmiryn is that the monster liquid that Graziano uses on the scultones!?”

“Yes.” Elmiryn poured some more of the liquid, and the silver bondage mingled with the blood, turning it dark…but the skin closed.  Lethia was conscious again, gibbering. The woman spoke over her.  “I stole some of it after they used it on Argos.  I’ve been carrying this vial around in my boot ever since, just for a moment like this.”

“But that was meant only to be used on hard tough skin like the scultones!  They didn’t even use so much for Argos’ wound!  You don’t know what this could do to her, Elle!!  Shouldn’t we atleast sew her up first or–”

“This is all we have, and she needs this wound closed up now.”

“But–”

“This is called field medicine, Nyx.  Nothing about it is ‘gentle’ or entirely ‘safe’.  You want Lethia to survive?  Then she’ll have to live with the scars.”

“It isn’t just scars I’m concerned about, gods damn it, it’s–”

Lethia’s screams reached a peak, silencing both women.  Elmiryn had reached the girl’s breast, the most difficult part.  The rest of the cut had been more or less sealed.  The skin was raw and puffy, and had a twinge of gray to it.  There were small gaps along the wound as the warrior couldn’t use too much of the liquid, and Lethia’s squirmings made the liquid trickle out to burn the surrounding skin in whimsical lines that reminded her of glass windows on a rainy day.

“The fact that she has the energy to scream and fight us so much shows that she hasn’t lost so much blood for it to be fatal yet,” Elmiryn said, wincing as she wiped at her brow.  Her left arm was killing her.  “But we’re not done.”  She looked at her companion.  “…I don’t like this either, y’know.”  And she found she meant it.  Lethia was to be under their protection.  The girl had trusted them, and her blood stained the snow.  Elmiryn felt something gnawing on her heart but tried to keep focused.  The girl was not lost yet.

Nyx’s chin crumpled and her lips pressed together.  There were tears in her eyes, but she made no other sound or motion other than to press the edges of Lethia’s wound close together and to settle more securely on the youth’s shoulders.  “Aelurus, ia-moa, nich Lethia lunam…” she whispered, but her prayer turned inward and the woman heard nothing more.

Elmiryn held the bottle near, swallowing as Lethia stared at her with wild eyes, her pale face sprayed with her own blood.  “No, no, no!! Don’t!  Stop, please stop!!” she wailed.

The warrior gazed her way for a moment before she tipped the last of the liquid out, emptying the long vial.

Lethia threw her head back and howled, the sound wrought with pain and an unnameable animal emotion.  If the daesce had any desire to challenge them again, the girl’s scream surely would have put an end to it.

The skin knitted back together, but the shape of the girl’s breast was clearly never going to be what it once was.  The scar was wide and seemed dented in.  The rest of the wound had become a dark gray, marring the youth’s marble body.  Elmiryn bowed her head and sighed.  She sat back and so did Nyx.  Lethia writhed between them, her head lolling now and again.  She was caught in fever, it seemed.

“We have to go back,” Nyx rasped, her eyes now freely weeping tears.

“No.”  Elmiryn breathed.

Her companion stared at her as though she were mad.

“What do you mean…’no’?”

Elmiryn shook her head but couldn’t look at the girl.  Her Words held some sense to them, and the compassion that laced her voice was like a barrage to the warrior’s judgement.  She knew they could not return…and it hurt to defy such feelings.  “You did good, pressing at her wound like that, Nyx.  Any other person would’ve thought the cause lost, but the injury wasn’t as severe as it looked.  It would’ve killed her, if you hadn’t done anything, because then Lethia would have kept bleeding freely.  But…we can’t go back.”

“Elmiryn look at her!” Nyx half-shouted.  “Are you seeing this!?”

The woman grit her teeth, knowing what the girl had really meant by ‘seeing’.  “Yes,” she intoned.  “I am seeing this.  And we still can’t go back.”

“She’ll die.”

“Lethia wouldn’t want us to quit.  She’s…strong.  In a way I hadn’t seen before.  She can do this, Nyx.”

“She’s just a girl.”

“Going backward is no safer than going forward, y’know.  In fact, it may be harder.”

Bullshit!” Nyx stood to her feet, trembling in fury.  She pointed at Lethia.  “She is not a tool for you to use!  She isn’t your lackey.  She’s a young girl who’s life is at risk and we can’t force her forward into peril just for the sake of your fucking quest!”

Elmiryn stood, her ire raising.  “I never saw Lethia as a tool, or a lackey.  You dishonor her by trying to hold her back!”

“What, from certain death!?”

No!! From carrying out her ultimate wish!  To save her mistress!  Fuck, you know I was against this idea in the beginning, and fine, I wanted to find out the connection these people had with Meznik, but it’s gone beyond that now!”

“I don’t believe you!” Nyx shrilled, her clawed fists curling at her sides.  There was something behind her words–something desperate.

Elmiryn looked at the girl down her nose.  Her companion shrunk beneath this gaze, the fury draining from her face as she took a step back.

“And I don’t believe you.” Elmiryn snapped.  “Your Words tell me the truth.  Didn’t I tell you, I can hear your true Meaning?  You know that isn’t how I feel.”  The woman sighed and tilted her head back.  “There could be some medicine in the tower.  Maybe some herbs to lower her fever and to help her body from the effects of the blood loss.  We can’t go back.  Not only would it dishonor her, it could kill her.”

Lethia sighed at their feet.  Both women crouched quickly, eyes wide as they took in the sight of the enchantress’ eyes fluttering to stare at them.  She took a deep breath and reached a hand out to Nyx.

“…up…” she whispered.

“Lethia, we probably shouldn’t move you–”

Up.”

“I think it’d be okay,” Elmiryn said to Nyx.  “The bond works upon contact, so as long as she doesn’t twist her body or something, she should be fine.”

Nyx sighed and took Lethia’s hand.

“Move slow, though,” Elmiryn warned.

Nyx said nothing to acknowledge her, but helped Lethia upright, and she did so slowly.  Lethia’s eyes rolled a little in her head, but she managed to focus on the Ailuran.  Then she looked down at her chest.  A low, choked sound squelched from deep in her throat, as though she were trying to cry through a slosh of bile.  She reached toward the gray scar with a trembling hand, but Elmiryn caught her arm.

“Don’t.  Just leave it be for now.  If it works like it did for Argos, then it should be fine within a few minutes.”

“Huh…” Lethia sighed, wincing.  Her eyes lit onto Elmiryn’s left arm.  “What happened to…?”  Her voice floated between scratchy and phlegmy.

The woman looked at her arm and grinned.  “I killed the daesce that got you, but not without it fucking me up.”  The woman shrugged her right shoulder.  “I’ll live,” Her grin widened.  “So will you.”

“Huh,” the girl said again.  She swallowed and leaned against Nyx, but winced and let out a small cry when she moved her torso too much.  The Ailuran hugged her gingerly.  “What did you…use?  On me?” the youth asked her.

Nyx glanced at Elmiryn before answering.  “A bonding liquid Graziano had.  It’s…strong.”

“It hurt.” Lethia’s brows pressed together in a tight bunch over tearing eyes.  “It still hurts…so much!”

“Can you keep going?” Elmiryn asked, frowning.

Lethia didn’t answer her, just stared ahead blankly.  Then her eyes slipped shut.  “I need a–” she winced, a hiss slipping her teeth.  Nyx’s face turned stricken and she looked at the redhead.  The woman just shook her head.  The enchantress continued after her eyes rolled back open, “I need…a moment.  Can I have my daesce hide?  I’m…cold.

Nyx nodded and pulled the hide over the girl’s upper body.  She looked at Elmiryn as Lethia settled into her arms.  “We have to dress her wound to keep the skin from breaking.  We have nothing sterile.  But…we can change the wrappings once we’re in the tower.  For now, we can use my tunic.  Those are cleaner than the wraps on my hands.”

“I can use your wraps.  The cuts I have aren’t so bad, so I can treat them in the tower. First, set Lethia down.  You’ll need my help with her, but I have to set my shoulder back in.  You know how to do that, right?”

“Yes, Atalo did it twice when he was a boy and I had to pop it back in.  I’ve popped back my own arm before, too.  Just let me set Lethia down.”  Nyx let the girl lie back, her eyes on her face.  Then her brows pressed together.  “Is it okay to let her sleep like that?”

“With that pain?  She isn’t sleeping.”

“No’sleepin’,” Lethia affirmed in a mumbled voice.  “Feel like vomitin’.”

“You’ll be okay,” Elmiryn said to her as Nyx came near.

The girl took the woman’s arm and looked at her.  “Are you ready?  Just relax.”

The warrior stared ahead, her right hand gently resting on the top of her lap.  She let her knees touch the ground and tried to relax her muscles.  Nyx took her wrist and elbow and rotated the arm outward slowly.  Elmiryn bit her tongue at how her shoulder hurt from the slight movement.  She closed her eyes and hummed gently to herself to distract from what she felt.

“Y’know,” Nyx breathed in a flat, disconnected tone, as she rotated the arm slowly back toward the body.  “When you shot me with the arrow the night we met?  My shoulder dislocated then.  Popping it in yourself hurts much worse than–” as the girl rotated the arm back outward, the joint suddenly slipped back into place.  Elmiryn grit her teeth and would’ve rocked forward had Nyx not held her upright.  “Still!  Stay still!”

The redhead’s face flashed cold and everything from her left hand’s fingers to the top of her head tingled.  “Damn!” the woman hissed, opening her eyes and taking her left arm with her right.

Nyx nodded at her as she unwrapped her hands.  “You’ve never dislocated your shoulder before?”

“Or been stabbed with a sword,” The redhead added, panting as she tried to keep the spit up that burned her from coming all the way up her throat.  “But that changed today too.”

The girl gripped the woman’s left forearm tightly as she started to make the sling.  “Quincy stabbed you!?”

Elmiryn’s eyes bugged and she jerked back.  “Ouch, OUCH! Fucking hell, Nyx, did I mention I think my forearm’s fractured!?”

Nyx let go as though shocked, her eyes wide with alarm.  “Oh!  Oh my goodness, I’m sorry!”  Elmiryn gave the girl a reproving stare, but then, Nyx’s face shifted to mirror it.  “Elle!  Why didn’t you tell me about your arm?!  We need a splint for it!”

“And we’d use what as a splint?  There’s nothing out here!” The woman groused, squinting as she tried to see if the girl’s squeeze had made her arm crooked or something.

“There’s bones we can use, for heaven’s sake!”

“I–” Elmiryn paused, blinking up at her.  “There is?”  She looked around.  Her eyes saw walls of black night with stones and rocks like earthy fingers coming through the stained snow.  The bridge they traveled parallel along was a disruption to the dark horizon.  And there may have even been glowing wisps of interests (“No, the daesce–their eyes catch the weak light,”) but she saw no bones.  “I don’t see it.”

Nyx sighed as she stood and went back the way they had come.  She stooped down to pick something up from the snow, and there, when Elmiryn strained her eyes, she thought she saw spindly objects, like pale spiky plants, amidst the snow.  The girl stepped on one end of the bone and pulled, snapping off the bulky head.  She then repeated this for the other side, leaving only a straight piece.  Nyx returned, a long femur in her petite hand, still furry and clawed.

She crouched down next to Elmiryn and looked at her.  She pointed at the woman’s right sleeve with the bone she held.

“Can I cut a piece off to use for padding?  Your doublet looks thick.  I won’t use much, just enough to pad your arm in the right places,” She said.  The woman nodded.  “Then let me get your dagger for a moment.”

The girl reached around and took the blade from its sheath and set down the bone.  She carefully cut off the sleeve up to the elbow.  Then she placed the piece around the woman’s arm and began to wrap the arm using the long bandage.  After she had wrapped the arm once, she pressed the bone to Elmiryn’s forearm.  The girl’s hands, though no longer sapien in nature, were no less adroit, and the woman felt no more discomfort than what she already did.  She watched, mildly fascinated as Nyx proceeded to make the arm sling.  First she looped the long bandage around the woman’s wrist, then around her neck, then close to the elbow.  After looping it once more, the Ailuran tied the bandage behind the woman’s neck.

Elmiryn looked at Nyx’s other bandage, which she used for her other arm.  “You can use that for Lethia.”

The girl nodded, already taking off her tunic.  The shivers immediately set in, but Nyx’s face was hard with concentration as she cut out a large square from her tunic, nearly all the back.  Then she gestured for the woman to follow her.  “Come help me put this on her.  Just prop her up with your body so that I can get around her torso easier.”

The two women scooted back toward Lethia, this time with Elmiryn near the girl’s head and Nyx at her side.  Her companion gently shook Lethia’s shoulder as her other hand pulled off the hide.

“Lethia,” The girl said, a hint of uneasiness in her voice.  “We have to lift you up.  We’re going to bandage your wound, okay?”

The girl’s eyes opened a fraction, showing the whites.  Her lips and throat moved as she made an indeterminate sound.  Elmiryn and Nyx exchanged looks before they moved to lift the girl.  With the Ailuran’s aid, the warrior was able to hold Lethia up in a sitting position, her right arm looping beneath her left arm pit and across the enchantress’s shoulders.  Nyx pressed the folded cloth to the girl’s wound.  The large piece she cut managed to cover most of the wound, leaving only the stray lines where the silver bonding liquid had burned the girl’s skin exposed.  Elmiryn noted the pink tinge to Nyx’s cheeks as she wrapped the bandage around the girl’s naked torso.  The front of her dress was so severely cut that the Ailuran didn’t have to tear it much to be able to reach around.  The warrior sucked at her teeth, suddenly disliking the idea of how intimate Nyx’s first aid was with the girl, but the impracticality of this sentiment was not lost on her, so she tried to ignore it.

All of their work, though it felt as though it took forever, was finally done.

Nyx sat back after tying the end of the bandage.  She wiped at her brow and looked at Elmiryn.

“Well?” she prompted, gesturing at Lethia who was now staring sleepily at the sky.  “How would you like to proceed, given the state we’re in?”

Elmiryn looked down at Lethia and gave her shoulders a terse shake with her right arm.  The girl’s eyes widened a degree but still appeared lidded.  (“Elle, be gentle!” Nyx snapped.)  The youth appeared paler, and her eyes held a hint of delirium.  She hissed out a breath before swallowing hard, and looked at Elmiryn with a frown.

“Now?” she whispered.

The woman nodded.

The girl’s lips pressed together and she moved to sit up.  Her face screwed up in pain and she grit her teeth.  Elmiryn helped her as best she could with her free hand.  She bit back a grunt when the teenager bumped her left arm.  Nyx came forward and pulled the girl away from her so that the woman could stand up herself.  It took almost a whole minute for all three to stand together.

Lethia touched the bandage on her chest, and from where Elmiryn stood, she could see the way the front of the dress exposed the enchantress’ skin stained with red.  The woman crouched briefly to pick up the girl’s daesce hide, and when she stood, she draped it over the girl’s shoulders.  Lethia smiled her thanks, but her lips quivered.

With a deep breath, the youth looked forward, and Elmiryn and Nyx followed her gaze.  The tower was less than a quarter of a mile away now.  Resolution flashed across the teenager’s face and she took a step forward.  She swayed a little but fended off Nyx’s attempt to help.  She took another step, steadier.  Then another.  Elmiryn smiled after the girl in approval.

“She’s strong,” she whispered with a smile to Nyx.  Lethia was two yards away from them.

Nyx looked at her sideways.  “She’s stubborn.  Like someone else I know.”  But amidst the worry and exhaustion in her voice, there was a sense of relief.

Elmiryn touched her companion’s shoulder.  “I know…you’re scared for her.  But this isn’t your choice.  You can’t shield her, Nyx.  And if anything happens to her…it won’t be your fault…”

The girl looked away, her head tilting forward some so that her wild bangs shielded her tawny eyes.  “It isn’t just Lethia I’m worried about, y’know,” she mumbled.

The woman felt her chest tighten a little.  She let her hand trail from the girl’s shoulder down to brush her knuckles against the tender side of the girl’s wrist.  “…I know,” she breathed.

“Hey!”  Lethia’s trembling voice floated back to them.  And the two looked to see that she had traveled quite a ways by herself.  Her voice sounded tight and raspy, but her eyes were sharper.

“Why am I the only one walking?” the enchantress asked, her lip pouting.


Back to Chapter 16.3 | Forward to Chapter 17.1

Chapter 16.3

NYX____________________________

When Elmiryn and Hakeem came near with the bodies of the daesce, I was able to withstand the scent of blood rather well.  I could feel Her peeking through my eyes, her presence pulsing with tension as she sought to decide for herself whether there was a threat.  She saw the creatures were dead, and relaxed a degree–pressing less on my spirit–but her tension was still present, for now she knew what the monsters looked and smelled like, and she would not be at ease until the whole affair was done.  Not that I could blame her.

The real difficulty came when all of the corpses were brought into the sphere of our camp and skinned.  Graziano worked with Elmiryn to make the work quick.

“Even if it is sloppy, just get the skin free.  We don’t have time to be perfectionists,” The Moretti said.

The sound of the flesh being torn was so wet and…and…disgusting.  Red stained the snow, blossoming like deadly flowers in the winking light.  My skin started to burn, and I clutched my stomach as it did flips.  Lethia reached out to me, but I just jerked away, shaking my head.  The act made me feel…less.  Less of a rational being.  More of a beast.  The girl was trying to extend her compassion, but my ire was on the rise, and I could not accept such gestures.  It seemed the temporary peace I had made with my Twin had brought back some of less admirable qualities along with my strengths.

“N-No,” I managed to bite out at the girl, who looked hurt.  I turned my back to her and stepped toward the edge of our camp.  The shadows would conceal the true extent of my discomfort.  “Just…Just leave me be.  It’s the blood.  It…puts…puts me on edge!”  But even the little distance I traveled left me missing the fire’s warmth.  I wrapped my arms around myself and tried to focus on the darkness.  Near the tower, the daesce seemed to be stirred into a frenzy.  Did they know their fellows were gone?  Would our ruse even work?  I gripped my head with my fingertips biting into my scalp.  If I could’ve, I would have ripped such thoughts away.  But they crawled and cackled, stirring both myself and my sister onto the brink of hysterics.  I tried to deepen my breathing.

I could feel Her claws in my soul, cutting me, I could hear her growl, sense the anxiety that fueled her.

“Lia,” I heard Graziano ask behind me.  “You won’t…change, will you?”

I didn’t answer him.  Couldn’t.  My mouth opened only to let out a sharp exhale.  Only fifteen minutes had gone by since they had started skinning the daesce.  Were they nearly done?  I couldn’t even turn to look, for fear of what the sight would do to me.

“Indomitable.”

That was Elmiryn’s voice.  I turned my head slightly, my hands sliding down to cup my cheeks.

“Impossible to defeat,” she said.

I turned around all the way, my eyes lighting onto the scene that I had been struggling to ignore.  Two daesce were skinned already, their coats lying near the fire, crimson side up.  Graziano was busy on the last daesce.  Elmiryn, crouched near Paulo’s scultone, finished wiping her weapons and gave the draconic beast a pat on the head.  The creature’s head lifted, white eyes following her as she came my way, its nostrils flaring to take in her scent.  I blinked at her as I saw her shadowed smile.

“That’s what you are, Nyx.  Indomitable.” she murmured to me, as she came within feet of my person.  The campfire turned her body into a silhouette.  “Don’t you forget.”

“You’re just trying to make me feel better.”  I gulped and looked down at the boots she made me.  I gave my toes a wiggle.  Feeling was returning to me–the nice thing about regenerative abilities was that it worked fast.  “I don’t feel that way.  Especially not now.  I feel…like I’m going to break apart.  Everything in me is pulling.”

“Is it your Twin?  Can you speak with her?”

“She’s on edge.  It’s like she’s forgotten the words she’s learned.  I mean, for all her intelligence, there’s still that side of her.  The idea of those monsters and all that blood it just–” I cut myself off, feeling a lump rise in my throat.  My joints were outright hurting now.

I started to let myself drop down into a crouch, for the effort of keeping upright was turning painful, especially in my spine, but Elmiryn caught me in a hug before I could go far.  I gasped a bit, before the folds of her clothes muted me.  Her arms were about my head and shoulders so that my face pressed into her chest.  My knees were half bent, and I know the woman was holding most of my weight.  I breathed in sharply, hands raising in the air as I made out what just happened.  Then I let them rest gingerly on her hips, and breathed in again…slower.  Elmiryn still smelled like the forests.  A tightness in my throat lessened and I straightened so that my head came up from the woman’s chest (a fact that had my face turn hot) and my cheek was pressed against her collarbone.

The woman’s voice was a warm echo in my head.  “Then I’ll just hold you together, alright?”  She gave my shoulders a shake.  “I’m right here.  I’ll be with you all the way.”

I nodded, my eyes misting.  My body was still aching, but I took a deep breath and steeled myself.  My Twin paused in her pacing to lift her head, waiting.  Listening.

“Are going to be okay?  Wearing the skin?  You should probably take off your mother’s gambeson.  The blood will stain it badly.”  Then the woman laughed.  “But the funny thing?  You won’t be cold.  Those daesce skins are thick and the blood is still–”

I bunched beneath Elmiryn’s touch.  My Twin snarled.  The woman stopped herself short as I lifted my head to glare at her.  She looked at me, chagrined.

“Ah.  That…was pretty fucking tactless, wasn’t it?” She said with a crooked smile.

I tried to keep my stern expression, but in truth, Elmiryn’s sincere gaff and the look on her face was enough to make me laugh, if a bit nervously.  I took a shaky step back from her, missing her warmth but knowing I couldn’t cling to her always.  And that scent…of fresh soil and morning dew.  Tree sap and oil.  Elmiryn filled my senses, and I focused on these things.  The daesce skins were still apparent to me, but now, I didn’t feel alone in my struggle.

“Oye, Choi.  Appor un rami ayí.”  Graziano pointed to where Paulo had retrieved the branches from before.  The boy went trudging off, and I saw Graziano rubbing snow over his hands to wash away the blood.  “Elmiryn,” he called.

The woman turned her head, hands on her hips.  “Yeah?”

“Do you think putting salt on these hides will help absorb the fluid?”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Hakeem said from his place at the corner of the rock.  He stood apart from the group and up until then had been on the lookout for any incoming danger.  “Sprinkling the purest salt on these hides will do nothing for us now.  Those hides are freshly skinned.  The salt would need atleast three days to absorb the blood and fluids, and even then, you need atleast two and a half pounds for each hide.  Have you got that much salt lying around, Graziano?”

The Moretti glared at the wizard, but said nothing.

Elmiryn shrugged.  “You sent Paulo to get sticks, right?  Look, we’ll just hold the hides over the fire for a while each.  You said the hides didn’t need to be perfect, so who cares if they get a bit singed.”

Graziano scratched his head, looking frustrated.  “But we’d have to hold each of them over the fire for atleast half an hour each!  That’s precious time lost!”

“You think it matters that we have lots of time to go running around in Holzoff’s Tower?  What we need to be is efficient and fast.  So long as the suns aren’t over that horizon, we’ll be fine.  But we won’t be fine if we can’t reach the tower at all, and the smell of those hides increases the chance of this whole plan being shot down at the start.  Taking some time off to try and prevent that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.”

“I agree,” Hakeem said with a nod.

“Okay.”  Graziano shrugged and scratched the back of his neck.  “Ahuh, okay.”

Paulo returned with the branches.  They weren’t especially thick, so someone still had to hold part of the hide with one hand, but the heat and the wind still did something to dry up the blood and fluids.  They were still damp in their centers, and the blood and grease congealed together in a slimy gush, but it wasn’t as bad as before.

Elmiryn handed Lethia the smallest hide, and me the second-largest.  She took the largest for herself.  Me and the enchantress exchanged looks of disgust.  The hides smelled terrible.

“Take off whatever you don’t want to get ruined,” Elmiryn said as she draped the hide over her shoulders with little pause.  She took something up from the ground–a vial filled with yellow liquid.  She uncorked it and splashed some of it on her hands.  I could smell it from where I stood, and my stomach gave a nasty pull.

“Oh, Elmiryn, no!” I protested, but it was too late.

The warrior spread the liquid on her hands, then began spreading it all over.  I felt ill as she finished and held the vial out to me.  “Here, put this on.  One of the daesce had a full bladder and I managed to save some of the urine.  It’ll help mask our scent more.”

I took the bottle gingerly but didn’t do anything.  I saw Lethia retch next to me.

“I advise doing it,” Hakeem said behind us.  We all turned to look at him.  The man, now that his work was done for the moment, looked at us all with a deep frown.  “You’ll be delving deeper into the daesce’s territory.  Argos and myself only managed to survive because we didn’t stray beyond the outskirts.  There’ll be many more daesce closer to the tower.  More of them, and bigger too.  That’s because the tower provides the best food source for the monsters, and so the stronger ones are naturally found there.”

“And what happens if we’re discovered?  Will you help us?”  Lethia asked, her brow wrinkling.

Hakeem looked at her with stony eyes.  “I cannot help you, as I’m not going with you.  Your plan does not allow for it.  My only suggestion should defeat seem inevitable is to kill yourself and hope that the daesce do not violate your corpse.”

The girl flinched as though the man had struck her.  Her lips turned white as she pressed them together, and she stared at the hide in her hands.  The wizard’s words were harsh…but true.  Still I resented his insensitivity.  Lethia wasn’t a warrior, just a girl loyal to her mistress.  If he cared so little of our affairs it seemed much more considerate to keep quiet–he was supposed to be under chains after all.  I still didn’t understand what he was doing free.  The only conclusion I could draw was that Elmiryn must have struck some sort of deal with the wizard, for Graziano’s dislike of the man made it unlikely that he was Hakeem’s liberator.  And what of Arduino?  Where was he if the prisoner he was watching was with us? But I had no time to stew on such things.

I sighed, and with one hand draped the hide over me.  I had already removed my gambeson and I didn’t care much what happened to the tunic–it was too big for me anyway.  Next, I stared at the vial in my hands.

Grimacing, I splashed some of the daesce urine onto my right palm, just as Elmiryn did, and proceeded to apply it all over.  I avoided my face, however.  The smell was enough to make my throat and body muscles tight again, I wasn’t going to smother myself with it.  I turned to Lethia, who stood quiet near the fire.

“Here,” I said, taking her hand.  “Remember…this is for Syria.”

“…For…For Syria,” Lethia repeated in a small voice.  She looked sick as I pulled the animal hide over her, and I was sorry to muss her pretty hair with something so foul.  The girl gingerly went on to apply the liquid.

As she did this, Elmiryn turned to me.  “Okay, Nyx.  It’ll be our job to make sure Lethia stays safe until she finds a guard.  Then maybe she can borrow some of that man’s fighting skills along with his knowledge of the tower.  I’m going to need you to stay tough for me.  Can you do that?”

I nodded once with a stiff neck.

The warrior smiled.  “Good.  Any locked doors we face too, we’ll need you to handle.”

“Has she got any lockpicks?” Graziano asked.

I shook my head and held up my hand.  “No.  My Twin and I have all we need.  If there is anything my claws can’t handle, then a lockpick wouldn’t do any better.”

The man nodded, though he gave me a frown at the mention of my Twin.

Elmiryn drew her sword and looked at Hakeem and the Morettis.  “And what will you three do while we’re in there?”

Paulo scratched at his ear.  He was leaning back against the side of his scultone, and he looked half-awake.  “S’there anything we can do?”

“I suppose all we can do is keep a lookout for incoming threats, and just be ready for a quick getaway,” Graziano said with a shrug.  “Then there’s…” his voice trailed away, and he looked Hakeem’s way with narrowed eyes.  “Hakeem.  My brother.  What did you do to him?”

The man sighed as though he’d been hoping to avoid this.  He closed his eyes and shook his head.  “Your brother is unharmed, Graziano.  But…”

“But what, calgato?  What did you do!?

The wizard glared at him.  “I did nothing.  It was Arduino’s choice to go.  He abandoned me up on that mountain, and if it weren’t for the enchantress’ dog, I’d still be up there.  Freezing to death.”

“That makes no sense, why would my brother–?”

“Are you calling me a liar, Graziano Moretti.”

“I call you that and more!”

“If Argos was there,” Lethia said loudly, stopping all voices.  Her look of discomfort beneath the shadow of the animal hide had not left her, but her green eyes flashed with something I couldn’t name.  “Then he will tell me the truth.  If he freed Hakeem, then surely he had a reason!”

“Then go on, Lethia.  Ask Argos.” Elmiryn said, gesturing at the dog.  “But hurry up.  Fuck, I can’t believe that the matter is being brought up now, at such a critical time!  You didn’t care before!” she added to Graziano.

“I was completely thrown off by everything!  I didn’t think to ask!” he returned.

“You didn’t think to ask about your brother?

“Neither did you!”

“Why would I–?” But Elmiryn stopped herself, raising both hands.  Her smile was fixed and I knew it was just a degree away from a snarl.  “Never mind.  Forget it.”

Lethia ignored the exchange and went to Argos, who yawned from his place next to the fire.  The girl took the dog’s heads gently into her hands and gazed into his eyes.  “Argos, is what Hakeem saying true?  Did Arduino leave you both up there on his own?”  The dog grumbled, licking his chops.  Lethia blinked.  “But…did he say why?

Argos shook his head and looked at Graziano with drawn back ears.  He whimpered a little from the back of his throat.  Lethia looked at the man too, and the Moretti in question coiled up beneath their gaze.

“Well,” he breathed.  “What did the…dog tell you?”

Lethia bit her lip and looked down at the snow.  “Argos says that Arduino abandoned us all.  Hakeem never did anything to harm the man.  He threatened Argos when he tried to stop your brother from going, and he looked really scared…he…he isn’t completely sure, but it seems like he’s betrayed our trust.”

Graziano shook his head, his face bunching.  “No…there must be some explanation for it.”

“He’s scared for his family,” Elmiryn said with an impatient sigh.  “He never was keen on this whole plan of ours.  I’m not surprised he’s done this.”

“Arduino is a good man!” Graziano snapped.

The woman gazed at him coolly.  “Arduino is a coward who’s content to give up without considering what that would mean for others.  For you and Paulo.  If you believe in him so much, then by all means, keep your flame of hope alive.  But Argos has no reason to lie to you when he says that Arduino still lives and that the wizard did nothing to force his departure, so don’t go stirring up trouble with Hakeem unless you want to jeopardize all our lives!”

Graziano looked like he wanted to argue, but he only let out a frustrated growl and turned his back to us.  The strain of this adventure was plain to see in the young man.  When we had first met him, Graz had seemed upbeat and carefree.  Now he looked so tired and had none of the jovial attitude that made me enjoy his company.  He was becoming more like his older brother with each passing minute.

Elmiryn shouldered her sword.  “Now that that’s finally taken care of, I believe we have an enchantress to save?”

————————————-

A valley?  A ridge?  A tear in the earth, or a blasted hole, one where the snow turned to fire and the wind was a fang on our sensibilities?  I admit, that aside from Syria I didn’t know much of the Albias region.  I was much more fond of reading about Elven and Dwarven culture, and of distant lands where the world was emerald and the earth turned livid to swallow those that tread on it.  But how could any book or scroll possibly describe the way the snow turned…to rust? Gray bones could be found scattered in crooks between the rocks, and sometimes half-buried in the snow. I knew my eyesight was back to its original caliber when I could see the stains on the cragged rocks that bore us down into the black world.  Then there were the noises, curling like claws from the shadows to cut me.  Howls, and shrieks, and cackles.  Hoots and bellows that held a twinge of sentient likeness–like there was some barbaric thought behind the otherwise chaotic din.  Sometimes I’d hear the sprinkling of snow, like a foot had kicked up a little in movement, but when I went to look there was never anything there.  None of the shadows seemed to want to sit still, either.  I was certain that the black impression of a rock became smaller the second time I looked.

I knew I’d go mad if  I stayed there any longer.

My Twin seemed to be find it hard not to panic at every given moment, causing jolts of pain through my head and chest.  But I could feel her thoughts, feel her sentiments.  She was aware that shifting could make us known to the daesce, and leave us vulnerable.  Still, her eyes burned the back of my retinas in their intensity, for she fought to clear the foggy lens with which she saw the world.  She wanted to know what was going on.  She growled at me, only with a hint of hostility.  My Twin resented this venture, but the action was a request for caution.

However cautious one could be, delving into Hell itself.

Even in the dark, Elmiryn, Lethia, and I could make out the place of Hakeem and Argos’ struggle when we passed it.  The man was right.  He didn’t have to go so far to find his monsters.  I thought of what he said–about the weaker daesce being banished to the outskirts of this terrain, how the stronger ones could be found closer to the tower, and I nearly stopped and turned around.  Lethia had started hiccuping, her body trembling so bad now that the fur of the daesce hide nearly slipped off at one point.

Elmiryn snapped at her.

“Get a grip!” I heard her hiss.

Lethia put her hands on her face, trying to smother her hiccups, but I was certain she was crying too.  The warrior sighed and took the girl by her shoulders.

“Hey…listen.  I know you’re scared.  Don’t worry, no matter what happens, we’ll be okay…alright?”  Elmiryn, her face shadowed beneath the lip of the animal hide, patted the girl’s cheek.  I found the scene to be strange.  It wasn’t that I thought the woman was incapable of being kind or comforting–but there was a sisterly sense to her behavior that I knew to be absent in all the times Elmiryn had ever tried to comfort me.  It was a nice thing to see, in all this ugliness.

Lethia gave a strong nod as Elmiryn pulled away.  I couldn’t see her face either, and her hiccups were still present, but I could hear the girl take deep breaths in an effort to suppress them.

From Hakeem’s spot (now serving as my landmark) we must’ve traveled some hundred meters in.  I couldn’t even tell where our camp was anymore, the way we dipped down in elevation so that the horizon seemed to rise like a tide.  Ahead of us, Holzoff’s Tower was an unkind giant that loomed over us, black weathered stone with its tip lost in the night mist that coated the sky.

And then…

Something snorted like a cross between a dog and a pig.  I saw a white shape gallumph on all fours from one rock to another.  My head snapped that away, my hands grabbing at Elmiryn and Lethia.  They both looked at me, then looked around us.

Again.

A phantom shadow dashing over the stained snow.  Yellow-white-orange–glowing eyes burning in the dark.  A reach around a mound of black rock–not a hand but claws.  Elmiryn gestured for us to keep walking, her sword held before her.  I pushed Lethia forward as the girls knees had locked and it sounded like she was holding her breath.  Over the stained snow, which turned steep beneath our feet.  Elmiryn hopped down where the ground suddenly cut away into a small drop, and she turned adjusting the hide on her head with her free hand.  She gestured at me and Lethia with a sense of haste.

Lethia bit her lip and jumped.  She landed, her boots grinding into the hard-pacted snow.  Next was my turn.  I looked around me, and to my horror, I realized we had an audience.

Sixteen pairs of eyes, pressing on me.

I gulped as my body started to tremble as Lethia’s had before.  All in me started to pull, and I hissed as I hugged my ribs.  They were expanding.  My bones had started to hurt.  I shook my head and snapped at Her.

“What’re you doing?  Stop it!  This isn’t the time!!”

The creature still could not form together words.  She spat at me, tail lashing, and I felt her force my eyes to meet the gazes that scorched in the night.  I shut my eyes and assured her, with a trembling resolve, that we would be okay.  She didn’t believe it.  …But she contained herself, pulling back her influence so that my limbs were freed of some of their pain.  Relieved, I wiped at my face, and with a short intake of breath, I jumped.

The ground seemed to come up to meet me much too quickly.  When my feet hit the ground, I must’ve touched onto slick ice, because they flew out from under me, and I tumbled over, losing my daesce hide and landing square into a small pile of broken, gnawed bones, which snapped and scattered from me.

The din that hit us easily beat out anything we had previously heard.

There were shouts, hoarse shouts like an angry mob.  Barking.  It was like these beasts had no conception of how to communicate, really, other than to push out whatever emotion they may have been feeling.  And what they were feeling at that moment…was something violent.

“Nyx!” Elmiryn bit out, amidst the noise.

“Oh gods…” I barely heard Lethia whimper.

All around us, the daesce jumped and howled, climbing up to sit atop the rocks and snow like they were judges bearing down us.  Three daesce, slim but gnashing their teeth, came charging at us, their flat faces bunched as their ferocious mouths snapped at us.  One swiped its claws at Lethia’s boot while another came swinging with its arms, its claws slamming into the hard-ice like it were butter.  I scrambled backwards,  the daesce skin pulled over me like it were some pathetic shield, my eyes wide with horror.

Elmiryn snarled, swinging her sword first at the beast that came near her, then at the one that sought to cut me, then swiping down to cut the daesce that sought to harm Lethia.

It screamed, pulling back with a limp.  The warrior kept screaming, putting her whole body into it.  She tore at her voice, making it hoarse and wild.  The daesce danced back to echo her scream back at her–and I realized…

…The daesce were mimicking her.

The woman paused to take a breath and looked down at me.  I saw her cerulean eyes flash in the shadow.

“Nyx…” she whispered.  “Shift your throat!  Impress these bastards, and they’ll leave us alone!  This is just a show of strength!”

“Wh-What?” Lethia stammered next to her.

“Shh!”

I swallowed, my throat tight.  I squeezed my eyes shut and mentally snatched at my Twin, who yowled as my ghostly grip pulled at her fur.

I implored her, fighting back terrified tears. “You see?  Do you see what’s happening?  Lend me your voice and claws!  Please!”

She didn’t need telling twice.  In fact, her eagerness hurt me, tearing up my vocal chords and my trachea so that I squeaked out in agony, blood coughing up my throat because I hadn’t been prepared for the force of the change.  My hands hurt as the joints dislocated and the bones elongated, claws replacing the mundane nails I had.  The skin on the back of my hands burned as fur sprouted.  I could feel the change beginning to crawl up my arms, and from my throat up to my head and shoulders.  I pushed Her back.

“Enough!” I thought.

Then the pain in my throat ebbed away, but the blood was still on my tongue.  As I moved to roll onto all fours, the daesce before me seemed to take my actions as a sign of weakness and struck out.  I saw it’s movements from the corner of my eye, and I panicked, for I knew that if it made me bleed, then the daesce would know we weren’t one of them and attack.  I moved my leg with a jerk, and the monster’s claw sliced into the snow, missing me by centimeters, but the creature wasn’t done.  It reared back a scream building from deep within its chest.

Then my Twin regained just enough of her Expression to rouse me out of my terrified stupor.

NOW!” She screeched.

I yelled, the sound a pitch lower than what was typical of my voice, and I hefted my body up with my left leg and my left elbow.  Then, pulling at all the strength my right side could muster, I kicked the daesce in the side.  The poor leverage and my sapien legs was not enough to send the monster flying away from me.  But at the least, the beast was knocked to the ground.  I would have preferred Elmiryn to have intervened, and resented her lack of involvement at the time, but later reflection made me realize that none of the other daesce had moved.  Because it was my fight.  The warrior was right.  It had been a show of strength.  Elmiryn had already proven herself, and by her fighting for Lethia, the girl’s safety had also been earned.  But not mine

Before the beast could rise up, I moved to my feet, fumbling a little in the snow.  In a crouch, I coiled my body, taking in all the breath my lungs could harbor.  Then, as the daesce, back on its feet, started to charge me, I lunged forward with both hands and roared.

The sound came out like rumble at first before I strained my throat to rise higher, turning the sound into a wicked shriek that sound hauntingly familiar to the daesce.  The monster I faced skittered in the snow, claws scraping to stop itself as it gibbered.  It’s black face turned to me, nose twitching, before it slinked back slowly.  I growled, the sound much more bestial than I ever could have managed had my throat been sapien.  I felt Elmiryn’s hand at my back and I moved to straighten, pulling my daesce hide back on as I did so.

“Good job!” she whispered.  “Look!  They’re moving back, all of them.”

And sure enough, the creatures retreated from our sight, backs curled and eyes turned over their shoulders as they went.  Soon, we seemed to be left alone.  Elmiryn gestured for us to move forward, and we all started together, the tension in the air lessened now that we had turned away a gang of the beasts.  I didn’t shift my throat or hands back, just in case.

“That was…easy!” Lethia breathed, her voice a fog in the air.

Then a claw swiped out from the shadows, catching the girl in the chest and sending an arc of crimson through the air.  I shrieked, my hands flying to my face in surprise.  The girl stumbled back a few steps, the hide slipping from her head to show free her face, turned slack, with her green eyes wide and glistening.  Then she let out a shaky sigh as she turned and fell face forward onto the ground.  When I crashed down onto my knees next to Lethia’s body, the hard ice cut at them, sending jolts of pain along my thighs.  The enchantress laid face down in the snow, her daesce hide having slipped off her so that they lay about her ankles.  I turned her over, panicking as I saw the blood gushing from her wound, which trailed from the bottom left of her rib cage up in a diagonal cut that ended around the top of her left breast, cutting into the pale fat.  I pulled at her clothes with my hands before pressing at the wound, sobbing, fighting the conflicting emotions and sensations I felt at having so much fresh blood over my hands and filling my senses.

I could hear Elmiryn give a shout, and the crunch of snow moving closer to me made me turn around.

A thick, muscular daesce with fangs that seemed too large for its mouth roared as it came at the warrior with both arms swinging, its movements naught but blurs to me, even after I cleared the tears from my eyes.  There were patches of fur missing along its body, and discolored scars could be seen trailing all over its skin.  It made its fellows look so young and weak.  There could’ve been any number of reasons we encountered this caliber of creature.  Perhaps it had tired of climbing the tower.  But the best logical reason I could think up at the time was, “It took my roar as a challenge.

When the thing stood on its hind legs, it came up only to Elmiryn’s chest, but the daesce was nearly double the woman’s width and terrifyingly fast.  The monster cut the woman’s forearm in an upward slash.  Her arm was protected by the bracer, but the impact still knocked her arm so hard that her sword was sent tumbling away, and with a low ram from its head, the beast had her on the ground and was on her stomach.  My heart clenched in my chest, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave Lethia bleeding out into the snow, no matter how much of her life I felt slipping through my fingers.

The daesce dipped down to bite at the redhead’s neck, but Elmiryn held it back with both her arms.  I could hardly see her face behind the curtain of white hair, but I could see her arms shaking with the effort of holding the monster back.

Then the woman gasped out, “Hey, Nyx!

I didn’t answer her verbally.  I only shifted my body more so that I could better see the scene unfolding before me.

Elmiryn went on, even as the daesce’s claws bit into the snow in search of leverage.  It gained an inch but still didn’t have its prize.

“In retrospect,” she managed to chuckle, “I think maybe you did a little too good a job impressing these guys!

I didn’t think it was funny.  At all.


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