Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 18.2

HER________________________

I’m confused–naturally, as I’m only seeing things in a dream state.  You’d think this was natural.  But I fail to understand the reason the smells of the prison have faded to be replaced by…I don’t even know.  But it makes me feel nonplussed.  We’re moving toward a large entrance.  The woman known as Syria stops us, her hand cupping her ear to the door.  “It seems we left some of our fellows still waiting for us.”

The doors open, by no one’s hand it seems, revealing a beautiful garden.  Just as she said, there’s more people outside, but…I question this.  I make my concerns known to my sapien counterpart.  Just an empathic strike void of words, I’m not sure I can adequately describe what I’m feeling anyway–but as I receive Nyx’s dismissal (“Creature, keep quiet,“) I feel a simultaneous stab of pain through me.  Alarmed, I fall silent, shrinking into the cold mists of my world.  It smells of animality and desperation.  My face bunches as I gaze up into a sky that has turned cloudy.  Then all at once…I can see nothing more.

I scream.

Nyx! What treachery is this!  What’s happened!?  Why can’t I see–” my voice is cut short as the ink closes in around me.

A voice echoes from afar, but I recognize it…I know it because I’ve only just heard it…

“Animals should not speak,” the voice says, just as the shadows rise over my head…

ELMIRYN________________________

Syria bowed to the new guests, all smiles, all warmth.  She invited them into her home, but gazed out into the garden with dismay.  “Oh my,” she breathed, a hand at her lips. “The dogs must be hungry!  We must let them in.”

The garden.

Elmiryn’s gaze hardened as her eyes trailed the wave of carefully pruned rosebushes, neat green grass, and tranquil flower beds.  The mountain wind was somewhat nippy, but the woman didn’t feel the need for a cloak.  Their group of five stood aside to allow the dogs in, a pack of mixed breeds, and the animals scurried into the enchantress’ home.  Their claws clicked on the polished floors.  The warrior heard laughter, but the sound echoed with something else.  She started to look over her shoulder when she saw the others moving forward, chatting together like they were old friends.  Farrel flirted with Syria, and the woman flirted back.  Lethia giggled with Nyx.  Elmiryn listened once again to the sounds behind her, and as Syria traveled farther ahead, she heard it.  Clearly.

Screaming.

The warrior moved to catch up with the group, the edges of her vision blurring as they traveled farther away.  When she was within a few feet of them again, the blurring was gone, and so were the screams.  She had to keep up.  She tried to take some pleasure in the scene presented to her by looking up.  The sky was open to them, revealing stars–gods tears, caught in a veil that concealed heaven.  A veil, a screen–

A lie.

Elmiryn cursed under her breath.

Lethia fell into step next to her, looking shy.  She was wearing a blue frilly dress with light pink laces.  Her hair was pulled back with a jade clip.  Hands behind her back, she smiled at Elmiryn and met her eyes.  “So…what do you think of my mistress?”

Elmiryn sighed, turning her gaze to look at the drink in her left hand with dissatisfaction.  “Yes.  She’s very nice.  Pretty.”  Then she did a double-take.

Wait a fucking minute…

“Hey, your eyes–!” Elmiryn started.

“Hmm?” The girl tilted her head to one side.

The woman faltered.  Then she shook her head and turned her face away.  “Never mind.”

Lethia looked forward again, carefree.  “It’s great that so many people were willing to come to celebrate Syria’s birthday.  After all she’s been through, she deserves it!  She has you and the others to thank too, of course,”  The girl’s smile turned somber.  “Thank you, Elmiryn…for helping.  I know…I know I complicated things.  But you saved me.  And my mistress.”

“The last part is what worries me,” the woman muttered, sloshing her drink.

The girl looked at her, blinking.  “…Sorry?”

“Nothing.”  Elmiryn looked up at her.  “You’ve been having fun, it seems.  Have you thought about it much?”

“What?”

“How you got here?”

Lethia’s smile turned uncertain.  “Um…Elmiryn, are you having a good time?”

The woman gazed at her.  They were walking at the same pace.  Left, right, left, right, left…and yet somehow they still managed to be out of sync.  How annoying. “I’m having a great time, kid,”  Elmiryn eventually said.  She pointed at the girl, “Hey, by the way, how did you manage what you did back there…?  In the staircase.”  She elaborated at the teenager’s look of confusion.  “At Holzoff’s, I mean, with those two guards you controlled.”

“Oh!” Lethia’s eyes went wide.  Then she tapped her jaw.  “Ah…lemme see…wow that seems so long ago.  But I can try and tell you,”  She held up both her hands.  “You see, there are two categories people fall into:  believers and skeptics.  Believers are easier to convince that an illusion is true.  Skeptics need a great deal more work and effort before they’ll buy into anything, and more work if you want them to do as you tell them.  Walt was easy to control–he was a bit simple-minded.  The matrix of his animus was very easy for me to infiltrate and thus control.  But Redford wasn’t so easy.  His matrix was much more complicated.  I had to first present him something very innocuous, something that he could easily agree to, before gradually increasing the level of my commands.”

“Ah, that’s why he seemed to keep acting normal, up until the end.”

“Yes!  Usually that control would take weeks to achieve, but I didn’t have time to wait.  I had to shut down his thoughts altogether.”  Lethia’s brows crashed together as she looked off to the side.  “Come to think of it, I can’t remember how the man fared after we escaped Holzoff’s.  Typically…typically a subject would experience a great deal of mental damage given…given what I did…”  The girl’s expression turned anxious and her eyes fogged with her concerns.

Elmiryn gripped her shoulder.  “Lethia, you did what you had to.”  Skepticism at this point was dangerous, especially coming from the young enchantress.  The woman steered her forward, so that they caught up with the others.  “Don’t dwell too much on it right now.  We’ll figure something out.”

“It’s just…odd.  Even for me.  How could I forget that?”  Then the girl paused, thinking over her words, and without warning she burst into a nervous fit of giggles.  “Gosh, what did I just say!

Elmiryn started to chuckle.

How ridiculous this all was!

Farrel, walking arm in arm with Syria, turned to look at them over his shoulder.  His wisterian eyes, sharp and cool at the same time, were like bowls that held liquid curiosity.  His light lips broke apart in a smile.

“What has ya in such a humorous mood?” he asked.  His accent was back.

“You don’t hear that noise behind us?” Elmiryn asked, gesturing behind her.

The halfling frowned at her and Syria looked back at her now too.  The warrior smiled toothily at the enchantress.  “Your dogs seem to be having a good time with your guests…”

HER________________________

……………pi…………………………..ec………………….

……………………………pi…………………………………..

………….pi…………….ec………………….es…………….

……………………..pi…ec…es…………………………….

………………………pieces………………………………..

[It is a cold place.  A thankless, unforgiving place.  A place devoid of all but the basest of understandings.  But she feels a hook in her.  A way to the surface.  A thread that goes up–but it is too weak to return her.  Still.  Not all had been snuffed out.  Not all had been lost.  After all she still had–]

……pieces……………pieces…………….pieces……….

[–Of Expression still quivering in the surreal breeze like cobwebs still clinging to their warm corners.  This place is rank with fear and self-loathing.  In a bizarre way, the Expression brings her pain, because it brings her understanding, but she cannot do away with it.  She needs it.  Still, her understanding still fails to reach the answers she seeks.  How long had she been there?  A minute?  An hour?  A week?  She is a shard, lost within a vast sea of broken unwanted things–things her other self, her other personality had long since locked away.  This dark ocean once surrounded her sanctuary, threatening to swallow her too, and now it finally had her.  Was it possible to come back?]

…pieces…pieces……pieces…pieces……pieces…pieces……pieces…pieces…

[What if you could bring this chaos together? — She wonders.  Would this take away the cold?  Would this end her turmoil?  She cannot rid herself of the pain, but instead, she decides to embrace it, for it is the one thing she has to tell her she’s alive.  Still existing.  She starts to draw together the cobwebs and the whisperings.  The Dark Matter that made up this sea of unwanted things.  Somethings and Nothings that once were.  She brings these things together, joining them.  The darkness swells around her.  A thought occurs to her and she pauses.  What she was doing could bring trouble for her.  It could hurt Nyx.  It could grow and manifest and hurt the others–like Elmiryn.  It could grow and grow.  Could She stop it?  The thread she has to the light is not strong enough to bear her so she needs more to bolster it, but this Dark Matter is nefarious.  Only…she sees the art cobble together, and she sees a new beast, an unrelenting strength, that could be hers.

She stares at the–]

…pieces…pieces……pieces…pieces……pieces…pieces……pieces…pieces…

[–And decides she’d rather live, fractured in pieces with her Twin, than be lost here for eternity.]

ELMIRYN________________________

The woman couldn’t say for certain how far they’d gone.  Things had dimmed to a grayscale, failing to keep her attentive to the happy chatterings that passed through her head.  She started seeing snow in the garden, and felt colder.  Her broken arm ached more and more.  But amidst the blurry indefinite shapes that paraded and caroused in jovial fashion, there was the ever-colorful, ever beautiful art that she had come to know as uniquely belonging to Nyx.  The girl here, in this pretty pretend world, was radiant.  Her smile was broad.  Her hair was no longer in a mane, but in soft, even curls that bounced and teased her porcelain shoulders.  The girl was laughing.  Smiling with Lethia and with Farrel and with Syria.  Up ahead, there was a glow, over the tall hedgerows, and Elmiryn surmised that the dream would soon end.

The woman looked skyward again, and took a deep breath.

If the dream could last a little longer, than why not let it?

They trudged up a hill.  A large tree rested off to the side, disrupting the mountainous skyline.  There was barking in the distance.  Then Argos appeared, bursting through the bushes, leaves in his fur and his ears perked as he set eyes on Lethia.  The teenager squealed, gathering up her dress as she ran forward.

“Argos!”  She cried.

The great big shaggy dog ran to greet her, barking excitedly.  Well behaved, he didn’t jump on her, but when she crouched down to hug him, he froze, jerking out of her embrace to sniff the front of her dress.  At the injury she had so conveniently forgotten about.  Two silhouettes appeared at the top of the hill, backlit by campfire.  One was taller than the other, though that could’ve been because the one on the left was leaning on his knees.

“Oye!  You people look terrible!”  Graziano.

Elmiryn shouted back up at him, glad to hear his voice.  “Yet surprisingly, we’re still fuckable!”

Elmiryn.”  Nyx glared at her.

The woman grinned at her in return.

They were getting close enough now that she could see his face.  He was smiling a little, but his eyes were on Farrel and Syria.  Then Elmiryn noticed the gun in his hand.

“I don’t believe it.  You made it,” he said.

“Barely,” she said, glancing at the weapon, then at the man.  “Where’s the wizard?”

“Wasn’t he just behind us–?” Graziano started to look over his shoulder.

Paulo straightened, taking a shuddering breath.  He looked at Syria and grabbed the front of his shirt with both hands.  “Hello…Miss Syria.  I was told…you could help me.  P-Please…”

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at him.  She was half expecting more of his tantrums.  It sounded like he’d rehearsed this in his head.  Or maybe it was Graziano’s doing.

“You have others here,” Syria said suddenly.  Her brusque ignore on Paulo’s request made Elmiryn’s eyebrow quirk.  “More guests.”

Paulo blinked at her.  His eyes had dark circles now, making him seem more haunted than when Elmiryn last saw him.  “Guests?  Oh you mean–”

Nyx let out a choked noise.  She fell to her knees, her expression drawn in blank shock. Elmiryn let go of the mirage she had been holding–and the image of her “wine glass” vanished into nothing.  She was once again wearing a ruined doublet with a broken arm, her hair in a sweaty, tangled braid.  The beautiful garden wavered and fell away.  They were knee-deep in snow, almost to camp.  The warrior knelt by Nyx quickly, her eyes trying to make out what was happening.  Argos came up at her side, snarling–but it wasn’t at her or even the Morettis.

The large animal drew his teeth back, hackles raised as he stared up at Syria.  Lethia tried to pull him back from behind, but it was like trying to move a boulder.

Argos! What’s gotten into you!?”  The teenager looked at Elmiryn who hugged Nyx with one-arm.  The Ailuran was struggling to breath, and she was burning up under the touch. “Elmiryn, what’s going on?  What’s happened to Nyx?”  Lethia’s oval-shaped face now sported a light sheen of sweat and a healthy dose of fear.

The woman looked up at Syria, who gazed down at her from the corner of her eye.  She no longer seemed that beautiful anymore.  She was dressed in rags and there were shadows in her eyes.  Her slight smile had something twisted tucked away in it.  Her injuries didn’t seem to faze her, either.

The warrior smirked.  “Kid,” she said, “Stop and think a moment.  Why can you meet my gaze without emptying my head?  How did you get here to this party?  What day is today?”

“I–I don’t–” the girl’s voice cut short.

Elmiryn looked at her again and saw that a sleepy, blank look had taken over her face.  She sat back and Argos turned to look at his owner, his ferocity dying out with a whine.

“I was hoping,” Syria drawled over them.  “That the animal in Nyx would stay quiet.  I’ve never quite come across a mindscape like hers.  I was very tempted to risk everything in probing further.  Perhaps I should have invested more time investigating how her split personalities work…then maybe she wouldn’t have slipped from me.  It doesn’t matter.  It seems her malady removes her as a concern for the time being.”

Elmiryn closed her eyes.  “The Twin is all about survival.  On top of that, she’s intelligent.  She knows a cage when she sees one, and won’t allow herself to remain trapped.  Now whether or not her sudden rebellion was wise, that’s left up to debate,” the warrior shrugged her good shoulder.

The dark-haired woman looked at her, a wry smile on her lips.  “Your mindscape is quite interesting as well, Elmiryn. It’s just beginning to show signs of deterioration, but nothing of your thoughts gave you away.  I’d thought you were under my thrall.  It’s as though you’re smoke.”

Elmiryn opened her eyes and smirked up at the woman.  “I’m not so easy to manipulate.”

The noble laughed.  “I’ll remember that next time.”

“There won’t be a next time.”

“…You’re right.”

Farrel was staring between the two women.  Argos licked Lethia’s cheek and hand in an attempt to get her to wake.  She didn’t move.

Graziano held up his pistol.  He placed a hand on Paulo’s chest and forced the boy back.  “Elmiryn.  Tell us what’s going on…” he said, voice wary.

“Why are you doing this?”  The warrior asked the enchantress.

Syria looked at Elmiryn, eyebrow raised.  “You’re an inquisitive ghost…aren’t you?”

Farrel stepped away from her.  “I’m…not following any of this…”

“I was trying to wait this out, to see what Syria had planned,”  Elmiryn said nodding at the enchantress.  “Making us believe in her illusions just as much as the guards wasn’t in keeping with someone who was innocent.  But she spared us, unlike those men in the tower.  I wanted to know why.  She could’ve killed us right away and been done with the whole matter.”

Farrel clenched his fists as he looked down at himself as though seeing his armor for the first time.  He glared at Syria, all his affection and humor gone.  “What did you do?”

Syria laughed again, but the sound was dryer–harsher.  “Silly man, I saved you all!”

“What did you do!” He snarled.

She let the daesce into the tower,” Elmiryn spat.  “Those men are all torn apart by now.  What about the prisoners, Syria?  Didn’t you care about them?

The woman shrugged.  “They’re in prison cells.  Unless help doesn’t arrive, I imagine the worst they’ll suffer is starvation…so long as they stay away from the bars.”

“You’re insane!”  Farrel shouted, pink-faced.  He drew his dagger and held it before him, but it was like holding a twig to a raging fire, and the man knew it.

Syria looked at him mildly.  She gestured at Elmiryn.  “I’m no more insane than this woman here.”  She looked at Lethia.  “Up, girl.  There are magic users near, but they won’t be able to interfere.  At any rate, this won’t take very long.”

Lethia stood, a breath rattling from her lips.

Everyone around had stepped away from the enchantress and her apprentice, Argos included.  He whimpered, a last appeal to his owner who stared at Syria like she were the only thing in the world that existed.  Paulo drew his rapier, swallowing loudly.  Elmiryn dragged Nyx back by her clothes.  She lay the girl at her feet, who was still gasping, still lost in her mind.  The woman didn’t know what was wrong with her–but there was not much she could do.  Her eyes were still strained on the dark-haired enchantress, who now gazed skyward.

“I’m not going to indulge you all with a speech.”  She smiled, her expression sad.  “You wouldn’t understand anyway.”

Graziano pointed his gun and Elmiryn saw his finger flex on the trigger, but he didn’t pull.  Sweat rolled into his unblinking gaze.  She made to push into a run, to charge with her blade, screaming.  But her body couldn’t move.  At first she thought she was suffering another episode–but then it occurred to her that such things weren’t supposed to be noticed by the subject in question–and at any rate this was happening differently.  She was still aware of her body, still aware of the size of the world and her place in it, but an invisible force was physically preventing her from moving.  The woman could still move her eyes, and she saw that she was not alone in her entrapment.  Graziano was similarly stuck, as was Farrel, and so she guessed, was Argos.  They were like grave statues.  But then Paulo walked forward, dropping his weapon.  His face now sported the same blank expression Lethia’s did.

Syria held her chin, her face turned away.  She seemed lost in thought.  Paulo stopped before Lethia, and the two faced each other.  The boy removed his shirt, and Lethia crouched down to pull at his pants.  Within a minute, the boy was standing naked in the cold.  His limbs were wiry and he sported an erection (“Quite a feat in this cold!” the woman thought.)  The dark-haired enchantress waved one hand.  The snow crunched and hissed as it shifted to make a flat relief in the slope.  Paulo lay down in the center of the newly cleared snow and Lethia stood over him, both hands held palm up at either side of her.

Syria stood at Paulo’s feet, her eyes shining in the dark.  She gazed at her captive audience.  “Enchantment is not the only form of magic I know.  It was my secret for years.  But you can all still walk away, today, without ever knowing the extent of my power.  You can live long lives, and I can wipe your minds free of the burden of these memories.  For freeing me, this I can offer you.  But I have something I must finish first.  I’m sorry, but this will not be pleasant.”

Then she looked at Paulo again.

Lethia raised her hands.

At first Elmiryn didn’t understand it, but then Paulo began to rise in the air, perfectly horizontal as though he were still lying at his back.  Then there was a roar, and in the next instant, a stream of fire flowed over them.  Syria was taking the fire from the camp and multiplying it.  Elmiryn would have ducked, would have shielded Nyx.  But the woman still couldn’t move.  She couldn’t even blink.  She could only watch with watering eyes as the brilliant fire encircled Paulo.  Then…

Flames licked out, with purpose, over every part of the boy’s body, tracing shapes into his skin.  He didn’t scream.  He didn’t squirm.  It were as though he wanted it, wished for it to happen.

Syria was murmuring, her face a tight scowl as she worked.

Then there was a voice that drifted on the wind.

I see, so you see.  I hear, so you hear.  I know, so you know.  Illuminate this for the eyes of the blind.  Reveal what is hidden, bring forth what is desired!

Syria didn’t even turn her head.  Simply pointed with her arm, and a surge of flames broke away from the ritual to fly back toward camp.  Something flashed overhead, a bright white light.  Elmiryn’s mind felt as though it were electrified.  Thoughts flashed through at miraculous speed.

“Syria’s using Lethia as a puppet.  I’ve never heard of it–I don’t know shit about magic, really–but I guess it’s possible isn’t it?  It’s like she’s possessing the girl.  She has Lethia levitate Paulo while Syria burns those symbols into his body–sacrifice, he’s a sacrifice, a seed–but what’s it all for? Take out Lethia and Syria’s power is halved.  The girl…her eyes.  She never needed those glasses.  Syria had just done something to her, to control her–Lethia must be powerful for Syria to put such a cap on her.  But none of this solves my problem of fucking moving–”

HER________________________

I start to rise forth, all gritty vengeance, the vestiges of a world nameless and unwanted slowly stripping away from my spirit as I spearhead my way into the forefront of this shared intellect.  I’m gripping onto my newfound weapon, the Dark Matter, my force of primal instincts gathered together with these lost thoughts and feelings.  It is a black ribbon, a rope that takes me higher.  It lashes in my grip, but I command it still.  With this, I am the forgotten and unwanted daughter.  But I will have my say.

My return from the darkness brings Nyx to her knees, and I feel the ghostly wave of shock and inertia take hold of our body.  I’m pushing into her consciousness, but I’m not seeking to conquer it.  I feel like the entire world is pressing down on me, squeezing my limbs, gripping my spirit.

Two souls cannot be in control.  Two souls cannot fit here.

The mind struggles to make a stage for us both.  Within seconds we stand opposite the other, staring each other down–me upright, but with fur and claw, she looking just as she had in Syria’s illusion.

Nyx starts, trembling.  It could be rage or fear or both. “What’re you–”

I cut her off.  We do not have time for the usual dance of words. “Nyx.  You must remember where you are.  Do you really think you’re at Syria’s home?  Do you remember anything of Holzoff’s?  Of how we got there?”

“Of course I do!” she snaps.  “But that doesn’t explain–”

“What’s my name.”

Nyx blinks.  Stares at me as though I’ve suddenly turned into a human (scary thought.)  “What sort of question is that?”

I bare my teeth, my tail lashing behind me.  “You self-important baboon…you forget so easily!?”

“What?  What did I forget?”

“That you would give me a name!  After Holzoff’s Tower, I would’ve raised the issue, and yet you cannot even recall sparing a thought for it!  What happened to all those guards you left behind?  The prisoners?  What happened to Belcliff?  Why is Syria’s tower suddenly a castle instead?”  I’m screaming at her now.  Why is my life tied with this fool?

The girl hugs herself.  Her breaths–imaginary in this place–turn to fog. “How do you know this?  All you see is just a dream to you, how do you know this isn’t just your misinterpretation?”

“Our malady doesn’t quite work that way, sister.”  I spit the word out.  I crouch and point a claw at her, the black ribbon snaking up my arm.  “Whatever you experience, I still feel.  I still sense.  When the prison suddenly vanished, I knew something was wrong–but when I moved to speak to you Syria tried to silence me.”

“So she’s…”

“Not as she seemed.”  I look up at the black overhead that looms over us.  “I imagine something is happening now.”

“Why’s that?”

“Moron.  Because she hasn’t tried to stop me yet.”

Light flares around us, and riding on its hot intensity comes a deep understanding.  Then the stage tears away, unable to hold us both.  I willingly slip back into the subconscious, back to the sanctuary I have made.  Given the look that had crossed Nyx’s face before sight and sound had been torn asunder, I decide that for once, my sister can handle it.  It’s a surprise, and not an unpleasant one.

I don’t really envy her position.

At any rate, I’m always here in case of disaster, and I have the Dark Matter to aid me…

ELMIRYN________________________

Nyx shuddered and rose, her nose and ears bleeding just as the light overhead vanished.  She was heaving breaths, her eyes wild and glassy.  Syria didn’t think it necessary to restrain her, it seemed.  She looked at Paulo, Lethia, then Syria.  She didn’t need long to make a decision about the scene before her.

“No, NO!  We have to stop her!”  Nyx screamed, scrambling to her feet.

The Words echoed in Elmiryn’s head.  There was something spiky about it, that made her body tingle pleasantly.  She had felt tired, despite her determination, her body shuddering on the last stretches of its strength.  But she suddenly felt rejuvenated.  Nyx said they had to stop this, and she was right.  Elmiryn took as much breath as she could, and…

Again, Syria didn’t even move her head.  A slight flick of her hand, and the flames surged forth, reaching angrily.  There was a muted boom.  Snow exploded before them and the ground shook.  A black gauntlet struck away the flames, where they perished in the cold air in a hiss of embers and heat.  Nyx stared, dumbfounded as Hakeem, dressed in his mage armor, stood over her and Elmiryn both.

The warrior grunted, forcing her muscles to move against the invisible force.  When she gained an inch forward, the woman screamed and pushed her body harder.  There was a rush of air around her, and she tumbled into Hakeem’s side.  She was free. The man was still crouching before them, his arm held up as he maintained some sort of gravitational shield against the fire that lashed at the group.  They were literally caught under a bordello of flames.  Snow turned to slush, turning their boots and pants damp.

Panting, the woman winced as her broken arm stabbed with pain.  She looked at Hakeem, “We have to stop this before she kills Paulo!” she shouted over the roar of fire.  She pointed forward with her sword.  “Give me cover, I think I know what to do!”

The man nodded, his face tight with exertion.  “Go now!”

Elmiryn returned the nod, and with a breath, she pushed forward into a run.  Hakeem roared, pushing with all his body as he rocked the shield forward so that it cleared a way for the woman to run through the flames.  As she passed beneath Paulo’s body, she saw Lethia, her face slack and disconnected from the chaos before her–indifferent to the hellish flames that came frighteningly close to scorching her.  With a shout, she slammed her fist into the girl’s mouth.  The teenager’s head snapped back, her eyes rolling back into her head.  Lethia fell backward…unconscious.  The warrior continued her run, legs pumping through the snow.

Behind Elmiryn, there was a crunch.  Without the gravitational force keeping Paulo aloft, his body had crashed down into the snow.  The woman started to wheel around, her gaze flickering to Syria.  From the corner of her eyes, she saw Graziano and Farrel freed of their bonds.  The Moretti moved, his face drawn in horror as he took in his brother’s mutilated body but Hakeem held him back, saying something that was lost in the resulting commotion.  Was the boy even still alive…?

“Your therian friend possesses an ancient magic, it seems.  I thought that art form was dead.  Somehow I missed that,”  Syria sounded more exasperated than angry.  Her arms swung, and her eyes held the flames of the fire she now orchestrated toward Elmiryn.  “Something wrong was bound to happen, it’s been so long since I’ve had to command so much at such levels.  But do you really think you can win?”

…Only, the fire died, sputtering as they fruitlessly stretched through the cold air.  The warrior stopped and watched as the flames literally flickered out to nothing before her face.

Overhead, there was a bright and orange glow.  Elmiryn looked up, her eyes widening.  Were those the suns…?

Like a bolt of lightning, the light condensed together, then flashed down with a crack.  Syria stirred the snow about her feet, sending up a snow wall as she stumbled backward.

Standing in a crater of melted snow, steam curling about her, Quincy pointed her golden blade at Syria–her body glowing with a bright light.  “You thought yourself supreme, and thus underestimated us all.  Perhaps Hakeem and I aren’t enough to stop you.  But these people will not just sit back and let you carry out your sick plans.”  The woman drew back her blade as she fell into a fighting stance.  “Let me be the first to show you the error of your ways!”

Elmiryn laughed and charged forward, her sword poised to strike.

“Somehow I’m not surprised you’re here, wizard!”  She cried.  Syria turned, her eyes widening with surprise as the warrior drew back her blade.  “But the right to first blood is mine!


Back to Chapter 18.1 | Forward to Chapter 18.3

Chapter 18.1

“Where to now, brothers?  The world bows to our sorrow and yet our weary feet still drag with mud.  I call on thine love!  I call on thine courage!  Let us move forward, into the unknown, for nothing is as tragic as those who choose to become strangers of a storm…” –Tobias

NYX____________________________

The door opened.  I half expected the hinges to squeak, but the door swung quietly to reveal a dark room.  It was large, and I gasped at the sight of chains crossing from ceiling to floor, from wall to wall, from corner to corner.  It was one long chain that began and ended at the same place.

Toward the center of the room, my therian eyes made out a person, whose arms were strung up, body wrapped in the heavy bindings.  Their head was covered by some sort of bulky covering, but long hair trailed over the shoulders.  They were dressed in rags, torn and ripped around the thighs leaving their legs bare.

Syria.

There was something off about the room, I knew, for Lethia quickly stepped back, shuddering.

“Can’t…go in,” she whispered, though her expression was anguished.  She wanted nothing more than to enter the room.

“Why can’t you?” Farrel asked, turning to her.

“Cold iron…” Elmiryn said low, scowling at the matrix the long chain created.  “They didn’t want Syria to use her power.  If she goes in, it could interfere with her control over Redford and Walt.”

I turned to Lethia.  “They must have another lock or something here too.  Lethia do you know how to get Syria free?”  I asked.

The girl gave an imperceptible shake of the head.  “No.”

“Redford was the only one we encountered who had any sort of understanding about the upper floors.  That doesn’t mean he knows anything about Syria’s security.  He just brought us the warden’s keys, remember?”  Farrel said, nodding down the hall at the ensorcelled guards.

“It’s alright.  Nyx can handle it.  She’s good at this sort of thing,” Elmiryn said, looking at me.  She said this without any irony, and it really felt like a genuine compliment.

“Go fetch a torch from the warden’s office,” I said as I crept in, eyes on the floor for possible traps or alchemical wards.  I tucked my key into my belt, where the tightly fitted accessory kept it pinned close to my body.  “I can start looking for the lock. My eyes work fine in the dark.”

Farrel and Elmiryn said nothing, but I heard footfalls on the stone floor and assumed the halfling–being in better health–had run down the hall to fetch some light.  I held a hand out and ducked beneath the chains, my eyes wide as I strained to make out the details of my surroundings.  I didn’t know if the cold iron worked on me like it did magical weapons.  I was a spiritual being, but a mortal, and I had shifted completely back to my sapien form so as to not blow my cover.  But as I touched the rough metal, the pads of my fingers tingled, and I shivered like an iciness had entered my bones.  The room didn’t smell like the cells down below…but my nose flared as something acrid hit my senses.  It smelled of fear and oppression.  My nose wrinkled and I had to take a moment to grow accustomed to it.  Since Belcliff, my senses had grown close to their previous caliber–my eyesight, my smell, my hearing–but it fluctuated with every passing moment.  Sometimes I felt like I had back at Toah, capable of smelling things from almost a mile away.  Then I felt…human, with my senses barely extending past a room.  Right now, She was attentive, because as much as she disagreed with our plans (when did She ever agree?) we were nearly through with this mess, and this worked to both our ends.

As I pierced the darkness, my nose finally reaching a level of tolerance that didn’t make my eyes water, I came to a complex cross of chains and was forced to drag along the floor on my belly.  Down on the floor, I had to gather myself again, because the smell was stronger.  I entered a brief sneezing fit, but forced myself to keep moving.

“…Lady Syria?” I said tentatively, now sounding a little stuffed up.  I rose to my feet again and wiped my nose on my sleeve.

The woman didn’t stir before me.  I frowned and ventured nearer, feet stepping over cold lines of metal.  I tried again.  “Lady Syria of Albias?  My name is Nyx.  I’ve come with your apprentice to save you.”

I looked over my shoulder at Lethia who watched with both hands over her mouth.  A single tear had leaked out of one eye, and trailed down the back of her hand to the floor.  A panicking thought entered my mind–what if Lethia’s emotions broke her concentration, and she lost control of the guards?  I turned and began to move forward, more recklessly.  I had only cleared some six feet–the matrix of chains was thick–another four feet and I’d have reached Syria.

“Please excuse me, ma’am, but I’m going to look for–” my voice cut short as I came close.  Even with my nose, which had turned congested from the dust, I could smell her unwashed body, rank and stale.  What’s more was the sight that hit me, to go along with this new sensory information.  I froze, one leg hovering over a diagonal chain, my hands gripping two chain-lines over my head.

Covering the woman’s head was a horrible iron mask that blocked all sight of Syria’s face, leaving only slits for eyes and a pitiful grid for her mouth.  It was likely cold iron as well.  The item looked heavy, so much so that her entire body pulled forward from the weight, where it rested against her chest.  I could hear her breathing, but I noted something off about it–like she were taking long draws, but exhaling in short bursts.

“Sweet Aelurus…!”  I took hold of the woman’s mask and slowly pulled it back so that her head was up.  I heard a sound behind the metal, like a sigh.  Or a death rattle.

Behind me I heard Farrel come near, and soon his light swathed us in a warm fierce glow.  The illumination brought to my attention the wounds on the woman’s feet–bloody and purpling, with frayed flesh at the toes.  Rats had chewed at her.  There was a drain beneath her, and the stone around it had an orange rust color.  I saw trails of dried blood that came down the inside of her thighs, the paths flaked and broken in some places.  Her wrists, which were swollen, bruised, and crusted with dried blood, were bound by thick manacles.  These looped onto the chains, forcing her arms up.  What was bizarre was that these chains didn’t end at the manacles, but continued down to snake tightly around her shoulders, torso, and hips.  Around her hips,  I noted the fabric was stained–not blood.  Puss, maybe.  She must’ve developed pressure sores, but they had not yet reached the stage where they burst and bled.  Did that mean that the guards did come into the room, and moved her now and again?  I stared, openly appalled.

Had the guards…ever come into this room?

“Have you found the lock yet?” he asked me, breathing heavy.  He was looking at me, not at Syria.  I wanted to grab his face and scream at him.  What sort of prison was this?  Even for people who weren’t guards by choice, was this really how they treated prisoners?

I swallowed hard, and felt my chest tighten with something…familiar.  This horror, this cold, this open pain was familiar to me.

…My Mark started to burn and itch.  I bowed my head, my breath fast and shallow.  Inside, I could feel Her.  She wasn’t raging, she wasn’t screaming.  She was…frozen, seized, like I was.  My clothes started to feel tight, and my skin burned, like it were about to rip.  My joints hurt and I had to lower Syria’s head some, as my arms couldn’t hold the weight up so high.

Farrel took a small step away from me.  “…Nyx?”

I shook my head, my teeth bared.  “What is this?  Why would they…leave her like this?”

Through my curtain of hair, I saw out of the corner of my eye Farrel move, as though to look at Syria more properly.  Was this common to him?  My shoulders bunched at the thought, and I felt a fury rise in me to rival what I had felt in the staircase.  This was the person who had judged me so?  But I heard him let out a shaky breath, and I tried to let this sound serve as the release of my anger.  Maybe…Farrel had just been focused more on the task at hand than what was around him?  His senses weren’t as sharp as mine.  Elmiryn had done it atleast once before, when fighting the daesce.  Maybe Syria, at a glance, was just like all the other prisoners.

When he spoke, his voice was genuinely frightened…and appalled.  “Is she…”

“No, she’s alive.  She’s breathing anyway.”  My voice was tight, on the verge of a growl.  I lifted my head slowly, my eyes resting on the part of the mask where I guessed Syria’s eyes to be resting behind.  “Something’s not right, but we have to hurry.  When she’s well, she can tell us herself what happened…if she wants to.”

That, and I was desperate to leave.  Holzoff’s Tower would haunt me in my sleep, and I wasn’t keen on drawing out the nightmare.

“Her mask.  Do you see any locks for the mask?”  I looked at its front, but saw nothing.

Farrel appeared behind Syria, searching the back of the mask with a frown.  “I see no keyhole.  I don’t understand.”  But his eyes lit onto something behind her.  “Here, against her spine!  Here’s the lock holding the ends of the chain!”

“Then I suppose we’ll take care of that first.  I don’t know how much time we have to devote to puzzling out the mask.”  I spoke to the front of the mask, where I hoped Syria could hear me.  Or was conscious to hear me.  My face was pained.  “My apologies miss, but with the mask on you can still move with our help.  But you won’t be able to leave until we get the chains off.”  I looked at Farrel again.  “Which key do you suppose we need?”

“…I don’t know.  The keyhole is wide, but it seems like…” the man ducked down as he inspected the lock more closely.  “Nyx.  I think you’ll have to look yourself, my eyes can’t make this out.”

“Hold her head then and hand me the torch.”

We exchanged the torch as Farrel held up Syria’s head.  He shifted as I came around to the woman’s back to inspect the lock myself.  Crouching down I saw a large padlock, long in length but divided into four equal parts, hanging down Syria’s back.  I took the lock with my free hand and lifted it so that I could squint into the keyhole, my other hand bringing the torch as close as I dared.  Inside the wide hole, I made out a series of cuts meant for specific keys.  “We have to unlock this in order.  Have you still got the key Lethia gave you?”

I took out my key from my belt.  I bit my lip and pushed it into the keyhole.  I recalled Lethia’s instructions, and instead of turning to the left, I turned it to the right.

What hit me was like a giant cosmic spike.  It struck at my solar plexus, then spread to the rest of my body.  I let out a small scream and fell back into the chains.  Farrel looked at me in alarm.

“What happened!?” he exclaimed.

I couldn’t breathe right away.  I tried to sit up, tried to speak, but my body wouldn’t listen to me.  The torch in my hands had fallen to the floor, embers scattering across the stone but it remained lit.

“Nyx!”  I heard Elmiryn’s voice echo across the room.

Breathe filled my lungs, and when I exhaled, it was with a whimper.  Tears leaked from the corners of my eyes and I sat up, trembling.  My nerves felt on fire and my muscles felt like they couldn’t sit still.  With twitching features, I looked up at Farrel. “I did…something…wrong,” I managed to whisper.  “They have a charm on these locks that punishes you if you mess up.”

“Ya need ta’ hurry!” Lethia cried out, still with Farrel’s accent.  Her eyes were vacant, and I could see her clutching her head.  She was fighting to stay in control of the guards.

“The other guards.  They’re here.  They’re banging at the doors…” Elmiryn said, looking down the hall.  She was holding Lethia around the shoulders, offering the girl a body to lean against.  Her expression was blank.

I gave a shake, trying to gather myself.  Then I scooted closer, my face set in a rigid scowl.  I didn’t bother picking up the torch. My limbs still felt jittery and I didn’t want to accidentally set something on fire.

“I have to use this key first…I’m pretty sure,” I mused aloud.  “Mine was the one that went into the last keyhole.”

“But why did you get hit with that…whatever it was?” Farrel said, sounding confused.

My eyes turned sharp as I answered him,  “This is going backwards.  Even though I was the last key for the door, technically, one could say I’m the first key here.  So it’s like we’re working in the opposite way.  Lethia made a fuss about which direction I should turn the key.  That means I need to turn…”

I pushed the key in and turned to the left instead.  The first part of the lock clicked and fell off.  Three more.

“Farrel, give me your key and go get the other two.  I’ll hold her head up with my arm.”  I rose and wrapped my arm around the front of Syria’s mask, my body pressing against hers.  It felt a bit invasive, but it was the only way I could keep her head from falling.  Farrel gave me his key and did as I asked.  I put the key in-between my teeth and watched the man go.  The others gave him the key without much verbal exchange, and he came rushing back, tangling in the chains now and again.  He handed me Lethia’s key first and wordlessly I took it, placing it into the keyhole.  I closed my eyes and tried to remember which direction the girl had turned.

I had turned to the right the first time.  The second time I had turned to the left.  Lethia had turned to the left the first time.  So I had to turn to the…

Right.  The lock clicked and fell away.  I took Farrel’s key and placed it into the keyhole.  It was an “on-off” pattern.  I turned to the left.  The lock clicked and fell away again.  Farrel handed me the last key.  I pushed it into the lock and turned to the right.  Same as before.  The lock fell away, the ends of the chains were free.

But Syria was still bound.  I looked around the room at the chains, which threaded through metal loops in the ceiling and on the floor and on the walls.  Even though the lock was gone, the chains still held up, taut, and I knew we had to pull at them to get the woman free.  I grabbed at the chains to Syria’s left, using my free arm.

“Help me!  Even if I unlock the manacles, we have to loosen the chains around her body first.  They are completely wrapped around her!”

The man did as I asked and together we pulled.  Farrel had to travel around the room, freeing up some of the links that were stuck and rusted in place.  He grunted as the chains reluctantly stuttered through the loops, dust and iron flakes falling to the floor.  I just needed my one arm thanks to my natural strength, but I strained, pulling with all my body.  The chain came, groaning and chinking angrily.  Finally, we had enough slack that the woman was allowed to slink to the floor.  This change in her environment, in her state of life, seemed dramatic enough to startle the woman to higher animation.  She said something behind the mask, but I couldn’t understand her, and her hands clutched at the air like claws.  Without my telling him too, the man loosened the chains around the woman, just enough that, when we worked together, we were able to lift her up and pull her free.  All around us, the chains shuddered, as though aware of losing their prisoner.  We laid Syria along the floor, and I saw how the fabric hardly moved, as though dirt and grime had frozen the material in the same position permanently.  She shifted under our touch, like she wanted to rise up, like she wanted to start crawling away, pitifully, but we held her still.

“Her manacles,” Farrel said, holding her gently but firmly.

“Hurry up!”  Elmiryn barked through the door.

“We’re working on it!”  I snapped back.  I squinted at the manacles, then cursed in my native tongue.

Farrel looked at me, a wild look in his eyes.  The pounding in the hall was becoming louder.  “What’s wrong!?”

I held out my right hand and took a measured breath.  My Twin was eager in answering my request, because my hand began to shift so suddenly I grunted and tried to keep it from spreading up my arm.  Within the minute, I had furry hand, set with claws.  I extended my pinky claw and began picking at the first manacle.

I didn’t have time to explain it to Farrel.  There must’ve been one more set of keys, besides the four that we had.  As the halfling had explained it, Lethia had only worked with Redford’s knowledge, and so she hadn’t known to look for anything else in the warden’s room.  Perhaps one could say we should’ve just looked.  But the noises in the hall were growing fiercer, and I knew I had to have Syria free before we could face the threat that came for us.  So I worked, with beaded sweat, trying to get a feel for the lock’s mechanics.

It was no where near as complicated as I was expecting.  My pinky’s claw was slim enough that I could turn it in the lock, and I could feel the pin inside the lock and pushed it in with the flat of my claw, twisting my finger almost painfully–the mechanism was dusty and I thought I felt wax.  The wax was supposed to stuff up the lock and make it harder to pick.  Only the key would be able to work through it.  It was a small detail, but fortunately my claw was much sturdier than a thin metal wire.  The manacle was off, and I set onto the other one.  This one was freed faster because I had figured out the lock’s design.

Finally, Syria was completely free of the chains.

But now there was the final struggle.  The iron mask.  The last horrible bond that kept Syria trapped, in the truest sense, because we couldn’t find the keyhole.  I couldn’t lockpick what wasn’t there.

Nearly twenty minutes had gone by.  For a group not having a solid understanding of the security here, we were making alright progress.  It was a great deal of luck, I knew, but I wasn’t going to spit on it.  Redford and Walt were probably a big reason the guards hadn’t entered the hallway yet.  But a glance told me that Lethia was now really struggling to keep her hold on them.  I felt it.  Our time was drawing to a close.

I felt around the mask desperately, one hand sapien, the other a bestial claw.  Farrel watched me, his face strained.  We had all been pushed, farther than we imagined we could’ve gone.  It was incredible, how much the desire for survival could win out over exhaustion and pain.  Elmiryn and Lethia were a testament to that.  I wanted to be worthy of standing next to them.  Even as a twisted monster, a being that no longer fit into the natural design of life, spiritually maimed, I wanted to be with these people.  I wanted to be someone they could look to, in times of need.  What else could I hope for in life, besides eternal damnation?

My eyes flew open as I felt something around the edges of the mask.  Buttons.  There were buttons on the edges of the mask.  I bit my lip and tried to feel them out.  There were eight in total, all against the back of Sryia’s neck.

I didn’t haven anything to go off of.  What order did I need to push the buttons in?  How were they ordered?  What if I got it wrong, but instead of just hurting me, it hurt Syria too?

Then the woman began to tap the ground.  Her hand shook, like it hurt to bend her swollen wrists, but as I watched her tappings, I realized she was trying to tell me the order of the buttons.  I didn’t question how she knew.

“Which side is where the buttons start?” I asked her.

Syria lifted her right hand.  So it was the right side.  Then she tapped the floor three times with her fingers.  Third button. I reached for it, feeling it out, then pressed.  Five taps.  Fifth button.  I pressed this too.  Eight total.  Three, five, six, nine, five, three, one, four.  I knew 3569 to be the year, as far as humans, dwarves, and elves were concerned.  They used a different calendar than Ailurans and Lycans.  Whereas they centered their calendar around seasons, we based ours around full moons.  In our language we called our calendar, Lunenn, and the human calendar, Verenn.  The humans called it Thomin’s calendar, after the one who supposedly created it.  The Thomin’s calendar had four months, each spanning the approximate length of the seasons.  New year was at the start of spring.  The five and three were probably the 53rd day, but the last numbers confused me.  A one and a four?  Maybe the one was a stand-in for zero, meaning date in question was during the fourth and final month?  I didn’t know the significance of the number.  I only kept track of the Lunenn, and that was because I had to.  If it were a famous birthday, a holiday, or a commemorative day, then I was unaware of it.  But it had some importance to the warden…possibly even Syria herself.

Regardless of the reason, the numbers were right.  There was a thunk as the mask literally split open at the back.  Syria tried to lift herself from the mask, her face still hidden behind her hair, and she took a deep and desperate breath of air.  Her hair was matted and smelled sweaty.  I took the woman beneath her right shoulder, Farrel the left.  Together, we carefully helped the woman sit up.  I blinked at her, feeling a little in awe.  Finally.  Finally.

Even from malnourishment and abuse, I noted a refined beauty about Syria that made me think of royalty.  Though her lips were dry and pale, I could see they were much like Elmiryn’s in that they seemed the sort to curl whenever amusement struck.  Her nose was petite and her brow gentle and sloping.  She had a fine, rounded jaw, with small ears that connected at the lobes, whereas Lethia’s were left disconnected and seemed to stick out more.  Her face was gaunt, and when she turned her smoldering dark eyes on me, I held my breath.

“You came…with my Lethia?” she breathed, voice rasping.

“Yes, but there are others coming, and we have to hurry.”

Syria smiled at me shakily.  Then she bowed her head, her black hair slipping forward to shield her face from me.  “You shouldn’t have come,” she breathed.

I frowned at her.

I looked at Farrel, who nodded once and turned to the woman.  “Pardon me, ma’am, but I’m going to need to pick you up,” he said.

Syria looked at him, dazed it seemed.  Then gave a slight nod.

The halfling scooped her up into his arms, carefully.  We left the room, stepping over the chains like they were corpses.

“Mistress…” Lethia sobbed as we came through the door.  She was fighting so hard, I could see it–her face had turned a deep red, and she was relying on Elmiryn to keep her upright.  Tears leaked down her face, and the girl held out a hand slowly, like she weren’t sure what she was seeing was real.

The woman seemed to take a moment before she recognized the girl.  “Lethia?”  She reached a hand out, her beautiful face crumpling, revealing the laugh lines around her eyes.  “My dear sweet girl!”

The girl nodded her head emphatically, more fat tears streaking down her swollen face.  She knelt before the woman, and bowed her head.

The enchantress stared forward, tears in her eyes as well.  “Lethia.  Gather yourself.  The struggle is not yet won.”  Her voice seemed stronger now.  It made something warm blossom in my chest to hear it.

Lethia rose again to her feet, Elmiryn helping her by pulling her up with her good arm.  She looked at Syria, her cerulean eyes casting about this new face.  Her architect’s eyes.  Then she let loose a thin smile.  I thought this curiously reserved of her, and I watched her shrewdly.  Her gaze was glassy, despite her attempt at expression.  “Syria,” she said, voice upbeat like she were meeting the enchantress at a ball.  “My name is Elmiryn, of Fiamma.  I hate to ask it, but is there something you can do to help the situation?”

Syria gazed at her, and I recognized something of Elmiryn’s calculating stare in the enchantress eyes.  Neither seemed to know what to make of the other.

“I’m still coming out of the affects of the cold iron…But with Lethia’s help I think we can walk out of here fine.”  She looked at Lethia.  “My dear, would you please have your friends open the door?”  She gestured down the hall at Redford and Walt with shaking hands.  The men in question were bracing the door with all their weight, sweat lining their faces.

Lethia looked to them.  She didn’t wave her hands, or say a magic word.  Redford merely stepped back, pressing up against the wall, and Walt opened the door.

He was bowled over.  Some seven or eight men came tumbling through the doorway with what sounded like more following in the staircase.  The ones in the lead were equipped with bows, and they stopped at a certain point before us, kneeling, and drew their weapons.  The rest of the men appeared behind them, faces tight and furious–or was that fear?  Most of these men weren’t real fighters, after all.  But then the commotion stopped.  The men just stared at us, and we all stared back.

I had fallen into a fighting stance, one leg drawn back, my hands held up and clenched into tight fists.  Farrel and Elmiryn had positioned themselves similarly.

The tension was broken when Syria began to speak.

“My!  Our guests have arrived!”  She gave a soft clap of her hands, smiling at the mob of guards.  She looked at Lethia.  “My girl!  Please show our guests in!”

Lethia gestured down the hallway, her smile now matching Syria’s.  “Yes, this way please!”  She chirped.

The guards before us began to follow her–the archers dropping their bows and arrows, the swordsmen dropping their blades.  I went to shut the door to Syria’s room–just in case the cold iron broke their spell.  Then I turned and watched in amazement as a train of men passed us by without a glance, Redford and Walt now with them.  They all crowded into the warden’s room.  Some of the men couldn’t fit.  This didn’t seem to be a problem though.

“Isn’t the gallery lovely?” Lethia said to those still in the hall.  She gestured at the blank walls.  “Beautiful portraits done by the best in the land.”

The men seemed to see something we didn’t.  They rubbed their chins and murmured appreciatively at nothing.  Elmiryn started giggling, but I shushed her.

“Let’s check on the other guests now, hmm?” Syria said.

We left the hallway, back down the staircase to the sixth floor.  There a guard had remained to watch the prisoners.  He jumped to his feet when he saw us, his expression spooked.  He must’ve thought we had been apprehended peacefully, because there had been no sounds of struggle.  He had his hand on his sword, but didn’t draw it.  Syria spoke to him, her voice soothing.

“Sir, please don’t hold yourself back.  Have some of the turkey.  Have some of the wine.  This is a party!”

The guard stared at her blankly, then nodded, a vacant smile spreading across his face.  He moved to the nearest wall and proceeded to mime out serving himself a plate of food.

We descended further down.  The staircase seemed darker than usual.  Pitch black it seemed.  As we entered, the shadows swallowed us…and I felt warm.

“Oh dear.  Please watch your step, everyone.  I wouldn’t want anyone getting hurt.  We’re almost to the study now.”

When we emerged from the staircase, we encountered more guests, and they turned to look at us with surprise.  Wine glasses were gripped in their hands.  I smelled tobacco and incense.

Syria greeted them all.  “Jerry!  How’ve you been my boy?  Tell me news of your mother.  Is she well?  Luis, you rascal, don’t go spreading rumors!  Angelo, the mutton is quite good isn’t it?  Yes…yes I had the room remodeled.  Much more spacious this way.  I wanted to hang up my new self-portrait.  The artist was this beautiful lad from Gerl.  The artistry there will astound you!  Yes we should all go together one day.  Have some more wine, Wilson, don’t be a prude.  It’s my birthday, isn’t it?  I can do as I please!  And it pleases me to have so many guests, so many beautiful people having a good time!”

“Isn’t this wonderful, Nyx?  We’re all finally safe!  And it’s Syria’s birthday!”  Lethia held my hand.

I smiled at her.  We passed through the study.  The ceiling was high, and there was a fire going in the fireplace.  Large windows were closed off with red curtains.  But I felt like I was…forgetting something.  Still I smiled.  “Yes…this is nice, Lethia.”

She squeezed my hand once before skipping ahead, her blue frilly dress bouncing with each step.

“I’ve been to many parties, and this one is by far the best,” Farrel said to my left.  He wore a plain black robe, with a cream double-quilted vest beneath.

Syria laughed, a tinkling sound.  She slapped at the man’s chest, her heeled boots kicking in the air.  “Oh but how silly of you!  Don’t you recall the celebration we had last year?”

Our group murmured in agreement.  “Yes, yes!  The party from last year!”

Syria’s home was spacious and grand.  I felt close to tears for seeing such a beautiful place.  The enchantress was walking again, now that Farrel had decided to stop his little game and had set her down.  She looked my way and the smile on her face faded some.  I looked away, embarrassed.  I heard her fall into step next to me as Farrel went to walk with Lethia.  She patted my shoulder, leaning in close.  “Nyx, you’ve fought hard.  Some rest is well deserved.”

“I don’t…know if I should be here,” I returned, feeling my throat tighten.  My eyes fell to the black marble floor, which danced from the Fiamman lamps that lit the hallway.  “It’s hard to explain to you.”

The woman rubbed my shoulder, leaving me to feel warm despite my guilt.  “Don’t be silly,” she scolded.  “I know the pain you have suffered–your spirit burns with it–but know that in my home, you are an honored and welcome guest, and I’d have you joining in the merriment!”

“Nyx…”

Syria quietly slipped ahead as I turned and saw Elmiryn, wearing an emerald dress.  It was a simple cut, but of a beautiful fabric that danced in the warm light.  Her hair was pulled back into a high ponytail, the locks twisting in tight ringlets.  Her eyes seemed brighter somehow, and I gazed back with wonder.  She brushed my side with her arm and smiled at me.  “Remember that I’m here…okay?”

I smiled at her, openly, and hugged her from the side, managing to grab her right arm in my embrace too.  She hissed and I looked at her confused.  “What is it?” I asked, pulling back.

She blinked at me, like I was some bizarre surprise.  Then she smiled again, but slowly.

“Nothing, Nyx.  Don’t worry about it.  I’ll be here when you wake up.”


Back to Chapter 17.4 | Forward to Chapter 18.2

Chapter 17.4

NYX____________________________

I snapped the heavy manacles over Elmiryn’s wrists and ankles, my brow wrinkled at the idea of having my friends under such bondage.  I was worried about the warrior’s arm, but she made no fuss about it, just turned her arm enough so that her hands were in front of her center.  I held the chain that trailed from the links between their hands, holding it like a leash so that I could appear as though I were leading them along.  Elmiryn regarded the new prop with a thoughtful expression, as though she were considering how she could use it for her own purposes.  Farrel updated Lethia on our plans as he fitted her similarly.  The girl listened and nodded, but her body trembled badly.  I wondered how much of it was due to blood loss, and how much of it was her mental condition reacting to the stress?  Despite my fears I felt a sense of awe and respect begin to emerge at the girl’s inner strength, something I had only ever felt towards Elmiryn, and once long ago, towards my oldest brother Thaddeus.

Farrel pulled out the slip of paper he had tucked inside his belt.  “I’ve got the writ here.  It lacks the watermark, but no one ever checks that, as far as I’ve seen.  It’s just our luck that the seal from Belcliff’s offices are easy to carve out of wax with a blade.”  He held it out for us to see.  I leaned forward and squinted my eyes at it.  I was holding Lethia by the shoulders and the girl leaned against me with a sleepy look on her face, but she looked too.  Over the fold of the paper, keeping it closed, was a seal of red wax.  On it, I saw what seemed to be a large government building, with a flock of birds over it.  The amount of detail Farrel put into the red wax was impressive and I let out a fascinated sigh.

“No one will tell the difference?” Elmiryn asked turning her head as though it were something abstract.

The halfling shook his head.  “The guards here are simple folk.  As far as I know, none are sharp enough to pick up on a detail like that.  I managed to smooth out the blade strokes with a dying flame.”

“Wait!” I said, looking between Farrel and Lethia.  “You both sound different.  Farrel, your companions might notice if you don’t sound like your usual self.”

The man tugged at his ear.  “Öctér!  You’re right!”  He looked at Lethia.  “Well…I suppose I’ll just…have to fake my own accent?”  He scrunched his nose.  “How odd!”

Elmiryn straightened and jerked her head down the hall.  “We need to get moving.”

I frowned at Farrel as yet another thought occurred to me.  “And what explanation do you have for your missing guards? Won’t the others be suspicious if they don’t see the men that they’re supposed to trade shifts with?”

Farrel shook his head, but his face tightened. “Don’t worry about that.  I have an excuse lined up that they won’t much look into.” He beckoned us to follow him. “C’mon, we’ve been taking too long!”

I shared a glance with Elmiryn.  Then I turned to look at Lethia.  “Do you want me to carry you?”

The girl turned and smiled at me.  “You won’t seem so tough carrying a thing like me, now won’t you?”  Her voice still had the northwestern accent, and it was like a wrinkle my mind kept tripping over.  Lethia pulled away from me.  “I’ll be fine.”

I picked up Elmiryn’s sword, which we had to remove from her or else she wasn’t very convincing as a prisoner.  I handed it to Farrel, who tied the strap across his chest.  Together we walked back down the hall to the first door on the left.  Farrel gestured for us to take a step back.  He looked at me, his expression tight with anxiety.

“Are you ready?” He asked me.  “These two don’t need to do much besides keep quiet.  But you’ll really have to sell this to the guards…can you do that?”

“Just…open the door,” I said, my expression equally tense.  All of this stalling was driving me insane.  I wanted to be brave, like Lethia and Elmiryn were brave, but I couldn’t do that if things continued to be dragged out.  I had to jump into things.  I had to turn my brain off–for once.

Farrel said nothing.  Just pursed his lips tightly and turned.  With a deep breath through his nose, the man opened the door.  He stepped through and knocked on the wall.  Inside the room it was dark, but I could make out atleast two bunk beds from where I stood.

“Hey, I need atleast two of you to come with me.  We’ve got an escort.” The halfling tried to sound like his old self, but it didn’t quite match his northwestern accent.  When nothing happened, he stepped further into the room and shook two men awake.  “Oi!  Walt!  Tyson!  Get up!  I said we have an escort!”

The men stirred awake, grumbling.  One sat up, and I could see a crop of messy black hair.  “Eh? Why don’ the others take care o’ it?”

“Several Daesce managed ta’ slip ‘neath th’gate ‘fore it closed after our new prisoners came in.  They’re takin’ care of it now.  I had ta’ close the gate and the door so tha’ they wouldn’ get into the tower.”

The guards cursed but they rose and started putting on their gear. Within ten minutes their white pajamas were lost beneath leather armor.  They emerged from the sleeping quarters quietly, eyes squinting in the torchlight.  The two men, Walt and Tyson, were of average height.  One had overgrown black hair that fell into his gray eyes, the other had closely cut brown hair and a small dimpled chin and brown eyes.  They were only equipped with six-inch knives, sheathed on their belts, and I recalled what I had overhead outside the gate.  I was glad to see this was true.  I was certain Elmiryn saw this too.  If we had to, we could overwhelm these men.

I drew myself up as they stared me and my companions up and down.  I even mirrored the action, my lip curling in feigned disgust.  It concealed the grimace which battled to take over my features.  I tried to think of all the strong and overbearing people I knew in my life–how they had behaved, how they moved, how they spoke.

Fortunately Farrel did most of the talking for me.

“This bounty hunter just came in with these two prisoners.  I asked ‘er about it, but she says she hadn’t heard about the trouble in Belcliff.  It was too recent ah’guess.  The marshal couldn’ spare any militia men for the escort, so she was by herself,” Farrel explained to them as he handed over his forged documents.

The two guards squinted at the wax seal, then looked up within the second.  I felt my heart lift, and Farrel’s face eased a bit.  The men had no idea the seal was fake.  None of the guards would open the letter, either, until we reached the warden.  I wondered if Farrel bothered with faking a letter at all.

“So who’re you?” The black-haired guard asked.  I still didn’t who was Tyson and who was Walt.

I pulled the first name I could think of.  “My name is Quincy.”

“You’re Quincy, the bounty hunter?”  they sounded skeptical.

I blinked and looked at Farrel.  His eyes stared back at me wide, and I realized if I looked at him too long the guards would know I was looking to him for a cue.  I snapped my eyes back to the men, my heart pounding in my chest.  Through some miracle, I took my fear and used it to twist my features into one of annoyance.  “I didn’t come here to meet your expectations.  I came here to give my report to the warden and nothing else.”  I looked at Farrel again, but this time I bared my teeth.  “Tell your men to quit wasting my time!”

The guards exchanged looks, then held up their hands.  “Our apologies, ma’am,” the brown-haired guard said.   “We were just confused that’s all.  You look different than what we would’a expected.”

Farrel rolled his eyes.  “That learns ya both.  Rumors ain’ to be takin’ serious.”  He still sounded off to me, but his friends didn’t seem to think it out of place.

They came forward, one hand on their weapons, the other held out.

“We’ll take your prisoners from here, miss,” the dark-haired man said.

I handed him Elmiryn’s chain, my jaw muscles clenching.  Then I gave Lethia’s chain to the brown-haired guard.

Farrel started walking down the hall and together we followed him.  The guards trailed behind me, and every now and again I heard the men jerk the chain hard.  I resisted the urge to look over my shoulder and tell them to stop.  If I showed too much compassion, they would become suspicious.  But each time I heard one jerk the chain, I could practically hear Elmiryn wincing in pain from her injured arm, or Lethia falling to her knees.  My eyes burned with the desire to cry, but I bit the inside of my cheek and kept moving.  Farrel didn’t look back either.

We made it to the end of the hallway.  At the door to the staircase, Farrel took out a key from his pocket and turned it in the keyhole.  There was a satisfying click as the door unlocked.  He opened the door and proceeded up the staircase.  The staircase was narrow and dark.  The steps seemed high, even to me, and my thighs burned as I worked to climb higher.  I didn’t realize how much heavier I was now that I was dressed in full armor.  The guards fell behind us with Lethia and Elmiryn.

When the sound of their climbing grew distant, I turned and called down the staircase.  “For the girl, you’ll have to pick her up.  She’s injured and weak and can’t be pushed too hard.”

Farrel hissed at me from ahead, and I turned to look at him.  His expression was angry and incredulous. “What’re you doing?  You sound too much like you care about them!” He mouthed.

I winced and turned my head as I called down the staircase again.  “And just to be clear, if anything happens to either of those women, you’ll answer to my blade!  I don’t get paid if they die before their execution date!”  I tried to sound as cold and menacing as possible.  My voice trembled a little toward the end of my remark, and I couldn’t see the guards expression as they hadn’t caught up yet.  I prayed to Aelurus they didn’t suspect anything.

“Don’t touch me!” I heard Lethia snap.

I heard a scuffle, and the girl cried out.

I bared my teeth and shouted, “Did you hear me–!?”

Within the next moment they appeared, Elmiryn grinning behind her guard, who looked annoyed, and Lethia hanging over the shoulder of the brown-haired guard, her butt to me.  She was wriggling, her face screwed up in outrage.

“Let me go!”  She half-shouted.

The guard holding her looked at me, not appearing in the least bit strained.  “We heard you, ma’am.  Don’t worry.”  But there was a chilly indifference in his voice that made me anxious.

I turned my face away before this emotion could betray me and followed Farrel further up the stairs.  It seemed we just needed one more go around up the steps before we reached the entrance to the second floor.  We had climbed a total of forty steps to get there.  The ache in my legs confirmed this.

Adjacent to the door, there was a metal box set into the wall at the right.  Farrel opened this to reveal a grid of nine large buttons, each with a geometric shape.  He pushed these in an order I couldn’t follow, then closed the box.  Next he turned to the door and rapped on it three times softly before pausing and pounding on it hard, once.

“Name?” a voice said through the wood.

“Farrel, here.”

There was a click and the door opened.  A guard stared at him through the doorway.  “I didn’t think you had second floor duty this week.”

The halfling stepped aside, and the guard turned his eyes on me and the others behind me.  His eyebrows went high.  Farrel held up the forged writ.  “I’m takin’em up.  Walt and Tyson are just helpin’ out.  They aren’t on duty yet.  Regulations says an on-duty guard gotta go with, but the others are busy handling a Daesce break in.”

The guard cursed as he looked at the writ closely.  “Damn…again?”  He sighed and stepped back.  “Alright, then.  On you go.”

Not many questions asked.  Was this the famous Holzoff’s Tower?  The men here looked so tired and scared and jaded.  But as Farrel put it, most were forced into working here.  The only way I could justify the prison’s fame was for its isolation out in the harsh cold mountains, and for its unwelcome plague of vicious monsters.  I glanced at Farrel as we crossed the walkway, slim and narrow, with my line of sight jarred by the passing bars and the stark faces that stared through them.  Farrel was doing a good job of pretending not to know me–and in a sense this wasn’t entirely a lie.  He didn’t know me.  We had known each other for barely an hour and a half.  I could understand his fears–regarding me.

Unbidden, my mind returned to the days not all that long ago when I hardly knew Elmiryn.  I hadn’t known where the woman came from, what she was truly working toward, what she was possibly running from.  I feared she was a criminal, a cut throat, a lunatic.  The really odd thing was, atleast two of those assessments were true–but not like I thought.  The warrior was wanted by her kingdom for black magic, yet she was innocent of it.  And while she sometimes behaved like a lunatic, I knew there was a bizarre sanity in how she tried to cope with her curse…even if I could feel the stableness in her corroding away.  But Elmiryn was not a cut throat.  She was ruthless sometimes, perhaps, but she was honorable, in her own unique way.

…Would Farrel have these revelations about me?  If he even hung around that long?

Crossing the second floor was like drifting through a tier in hell.  The air was fetid and hot for the cramped bodies and lack of good air circulation.  There were huddles of prisoners, all men from what I saw, draped in dirty blankets and trying to get comfortable on patches of hay.  The room was mostly quiet, save for some coughing.  I noted how some of the prisoners were sporting bruises and cuts.  One was relieving himself in a corner, where I saw a drain.  The lack of privacy repulsed me.  Judging from the prisoners who were injured or battered in some way, I surmised that the guards beat whoever made too much of a fuss.  Thankfully, the sight was gone from us within the minute.  Again we took to the stairs.  Another forty steps.  Then again we came to another metal box, where Farrel punched in the code needed before someone spoke through the door.  Identities were verified.  We were granted passage and made our way quietly.  The third floor was just as the one before it.  Along the way my face grew numb and cold.  This was all so surreal in how routine it was beginning to appear…and it made things all the more terrible for me.

But at the fourth floor, we came to our first break in the pattern.  We had crossed the room as usual.  The guards there sized us up but otherwise didn’t move from their places, and the prisoners were, as before, quiet.

Farrel held up his note for the guard who blocked our way to the staircase leading up to the fifth floor.  “One of you will have to help us go up,” he said.  “I was the guard to receive Miss Quincy so I have to proceed.”

“You don’t have the authority to go up,” said the man.  He wore a helmet, and I found that I didn’t care enough anymore to get the details of his face.  The men here were beginning to blend together for me.  “Why didn’t Jowan or Freck come up?  They’ve got clearance.”

“There was a daesce break-in downstairs.  It couldn’t be helped.”

“I don’t recall the warden telling us we were to be expecting new prisoners.  Wouldn’t the marshal have told him so in the letter we got today?”

Farrel scowled at him, but I could see him start to sweat.  “Damn it, you want us to go all the way back!?”

“Yeh.”  The man said, squaring his shoulders and stepping closer so that he got in the halfling’s face.  “I do.”

“Get out of the way,” I spat, putting some beastliness into my words.

But the guard didn’t seem impressed.  He looked my way.  “All do respect, Miss, but the prison runs under strict protocol.  Farrel here doesn’t have the authority, and quite frankly neither do y–”

I took a step forward, one hand clenched, the other flashing up to grab at the hilt of the sword that pressed at my back.  I heard a clatter as the other men in the room reacted.  I bared my teeth.  Inside me, She reared her head, eyes peering intently through mine.  She was putting lightning and fury into my voice.  I didn’t deny her.  I welcomed whatever boost in ferocity she could spare.  There was only one way to go–up, forward, onward–and to turn back meant failure.  But more than that, danger.  The men downstairs had likely risen, maybe they were even coming after us, impeded only by Holzoff’s own procedures?  This understanding, meted out in words and measured assumptions, riled something unseen and beyond definition.  It came from nowhere, but was a presence that took little time in commanding my actions.

Could I call it…fear?

I wanted to run, but I knew I couldn’t–not in the moral sense either.  This wasn’t about letting down my friends.  What bothered me was that I didn’t have the literal option to run.  The door behind us leading to the third floor had been locked, and we were in a limited space filled with enemies and strangers.  It was a fear–I suppose I can call it this–that called beyond logic and morality.  I was starting to hurt again.  I felt my rib cage expand, felt my teeth ache, felt my joints burn.  My instincts flared, nettled by the circumstances.

I felt like a cornered animal.

Yes.  A form of fear.  Better known as a need to survive.

Fool,” I spat, sounding very much like a cat.  “You will move out of the way, or I’ll cut you where you stand!  The marshal personally charged me with getting these prisoners to the warden as soon as possible–not even the slightest bit of delay.  They were charged with destroying a quarter of the city of Belcliff using their black magic, and so they can’t be doddled about just because you haven’t the right asshat to salute you.”  Then, in a stroke of madness, I snarled.  “Look at the letter if you need the proof.  Look at what the marshal wrote for the warden, then explain to the warden why YOU impeded the top priority of the man who’s paying you all your pathetic stipend!”

Farrel stared at me with wild eyes.

I looked back at him, my eyes sharp, my breath short.  His expression said it all.  The halfling hadn’t faked a proper looking letter.  Or maybe he hadn’t written anything to back up my claim.  I was gambling our whole plan.  Had I lost my mind?

The guard blinked at me, clearly taken aback.  He stepped away from Farrel, then bowed his head.  “…Ma’am…to break the seal and open the letter prior to the warden’s review would be–”

“Against protocol,” I snapped.  I took my hand off my hilt and took another step forward, backing the man into the door.  Either it was because of my threat or something in my demeanor, but I was scaring the man.  …And deep down, I felt a sense of pleasure. “So?” I pressed.

The guard looked between us, stricken.  Then he turned around and opened the door.  “…I’ll see you up myself.  My name’s Redford, ma’am.  I apologize again.”

Before we went through the door, Farrel waited for me to come up to his side, and that’s when he hissed from the side of his mouth.  “Your eyes.”

I didn’t need much more than that to understand his meaning.  My eyes must’ve gone cat again.  I raised my hand to my face and saw that, while they hadn’t sprouted fur, my nails had still turned to claws.  The brazen fire in me was gone, replaced with panic.  We entered the staircase, away from the audience in the room.  There I squeezed my eyes shut and willed everything back to their rightful places.  Pain shot through my head as I felt my eyes return to their sapien origin.  My hands too.  The change was fast, but I felt it this time.  I felt it because I made it happen.  And what of the times when I hadn’t felt the change?  The curse of my Mark was to bring pain to any slight shift from my sapien to bestial forms.  It didn’t matter the extent of the transformation.

I thought to raise the issue in my mind with my Twin, but she bristled just at the suggestion.  I sensed in her a confusion to match mine, and a resentment that I would be so quick to blame her.  I hadn’t written her off as innocent yet–such animalistic outbursts were in her domain after all–but not long ago it had been brought to my attention that things were perhaps not so simple as “My Fault–Her Fault”.

But that wasn’t the time to think of it.

I glanced over my shoulder at Elmiryn.  The woman smiled openly at me behind her guard, but by then we had entered the staircase and neither Walt nor Tyson saw her face.  I looked forward again so that they wouldn’t notice.  I didn’t like the look on Elmiryn’s face.  Like she were in some way impressed.  I just felt like a bully, strong-arming these men to get my way.  It wasn’t in my nature, this attitude, this bristling charade.  If it weren’t for my experience dealing with such people, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to behave.  If it weren’t for my Twin, I wouldn’t have the fierceness or bravado needed to make my act convincing.

…Right?

Being of such a hardy-make, it was easier for me to recover from arduous climbs like the flights of stairs we had passed.  Just the few minutes spent bickering with Redford the guard was enough for the burn in my thighs and calfs to stop.  Farrel seemed to be doing as well as I was, though that was hardly a surprise–for a paper merchant, he seemed incredibly in shape.  But the others?

Behind me, I could hear the guard carrying Lethia panting behind Elmiryn.  Elmiryn herself seemed a bit winded, and the guard holding her chains was beginning to get impatient.

“C’mon you!” he snapped, when the woman started to lag again.

I glanced over my shoulder, a flicker of concern crossing my face.  I couldn’t help it.  The woman was injured, and I knew for a fact that she hadn’t slept for more than a day.  She seemed to only make it this far because of her sudden spikes of energy, but as I saw outside of the tower, she was crashing harder now.  When would her body collapse?

Elmiryn tried to pick up her pace by skipping a step, but her leg was weak as it gave out under her, and she fell.  She managed to turn her body just enough that she fell on her good arm, but the injured arm still pulled in a way that her impromptu brace did not spare her the pain.  She rolled over to her side, growling with a bunched expression, eyes closed and her cheeks turning a deep red.  I turned fully, my mask falling, and I was about to call her name when–

The guard kicked her.  He pulled his foot back and kicked her broken arm.

Elmiryn let out a strangled scream, her body curling like an animal whose exposed nerves had been poked with a hot stick.

I grabbed the man from behind, hardly thinking.  I hooked my right arm around the front of his neck from the left side, then grabbed his left wrist with my free hand, forcing him into a backward bend.  I was…beside myself with anger.  My first instinct had been to stop the man, to restrain him as Elmiryn had shown me in the days passed.

“Bastard.  Didn’t I warn you…!?” I hissed.

I heard Redford say something behind me, saw the guard carrying Lethia bend his knees and shift the girl in his arms as though he meant to get involved somehow.  The girl in question was trying to twist her body around to get a look at what was happening.  Her expression was twisted in perplexity and she seemed to forget her compromised position for a moment.  Elmiryn’s eyes peered up at me like white sickles, and her breath had turned harsh.  She still cradled her left arm.  Her lips moved gently, and I realized she was trying to tell me something.

Then Farrel’s hand came down on my shoulder like a gavel.  “Quincy!

The word was loaded with so many things.  Surprise, appeal for peace, a furious warning.  I released the man and stood, my head bowed.  Locks of my hair clung to my face, where hot tears had fallen.  I tried to cover this by rubbing my hand over my face as though in frustration…it wasn’t that hard to fake.

Farrel passed me on the stairs.  I raised my eyes to look and saw that he helped Elmiryn to her feet.  He pulled the chains from the guard’s hands and gestured behind him.  “Go on, Tyson.  You should’ve known better.”

The guard at my feet stared up at Farrel.  “You’re siding with her?

“He isn’t the only one,” Redford snapped from behind me.  I looked at the man to see him sneering at Tyson.  “You’re a real fool.  The warden’ll be hearing about you.  Now get back to your post before you slow us down even more!”

Tyson looked as though he wanted to punch him.  But he turned and went back down the stairs, out of sight.

“He won’t cause any trouble.  Unlike him, I’m a real guard.  I’ve worked here for years.  The wardnen’ll listen to what I have to say.”  Redford turned without glancing back again.  “That’s done.  Just a bit more, now.”

Our pace slowed as Elmiryn, for all her toughness, seemed to reach her limit.  She looked ill, and she held her broken forearm close to her hunched body.

We reached the fifth floor.  This floor was different from the others as it had more floor space.  That was because the cells were set against the circular walls.  They were like metal closets, less than four feet wide.  This allowed eight prisoners on the floor.  These were the high profile prisoners, Farrel had mentioned.  I couldn’t see any of them, because the little windows set into the cell doors were closed.  I would’ve thought them empty if I hadn’t heard a man howling in one of them.  The sixth floor was the same, only with a small difference.

Redford took out a key and unlocked the door leading to the final staircase.

Or it seemed he was  opening it to the final staircase.

Before us was a giant stone slab with a confusing array of carved lines.  They reminded me of the puzzles I used to solve as a child, where the solver was to figure out what lines connected to what symbols.  This was, of course, much grander, and I was surprised to see it.  So far, Holzoff’s Tower had used more mundane manners of security–this was more reminiscent of the arcane.

Sure enough, Redford traced his fingers along the lines in a fast and confusing order.  To me, there wasn’t any thought to it.  But the way the man started at a certain point, then traced out some unnameable shape suggested otherwise.  And where his finger passed, the stone glowed white, until a complete and closed shape shined at our marveling faces.  There was a groan, and the stone slid to the side, into some partition that seemed unlikely to me–but this was magic.  Perhaps part of the spell, made the stone collapse into small spaces?

It didn’t matter.  We were past it.  We were heading to the final floor.  But I wasn’t quite at ease yet.  There was still Walt and Redford to deal with.  And how was security on this floor?  How many guards would we have to fight through, and how in the nine hells would we get out of the tower once Syria was safely in our custody?

We came to the door leading to the seventh floor.  There was no box here–no great and magical stone barrier.  Just a door, and Redford had the key to unlock it.  He did so, no sense of anxiety spurring him onward.  I tensed, waiting for some cue, waiting for some sign that would tell me what it was I needed to do and when.  Were we going to attack?  Or were we going to fake this through to the end?

But we stepped through the doorway, into a wide hall.  At the end of the hall was a large heavy door that was likely the way into the Warden’s office.  But halfway down the hall, to the right, was a menacing looking entrance, that reminded me of the cells down below.  The difference here was in the four locks at the edge of the door, and the large wooden bar that suggested the door open outward.

I turned to look at Farrel, who raised his eyebrows at me.  Elmiryn’s face looked blank, but her eyes were bright, as though the sight of our goal was enough to rejuvenate her.  I clenched my fists and turned to look at Redford.  I moved forward, intending to knock him out from behind when–

“Thank you, Walt.  You can set me down now.”

I froze.  I looked over my shoulder with a slow incredulity, and saw Walt the guard set Lethia down without a fuss.  His expression was blank.  The girl patted his shoulder.  Next she looked in my direction, but her green eyes were on the floor.  “Redford.  Please get the keys from the warden’s room.  Knock the man out, if you need to, but don’t kill him.”

Redford said nothing.  Didn’t even turn his head.  Just continued walking down the hall to the warden’s room as if nothing had happened.  When he went through the door, we heard a brief inquiry from someone we couldn’t see, before the door shut and all sounds were cut off.  Whatever happened next, we heard nothing.

I stared, open mouthed.  “Lethia, are you–?”

“Not now. Concentrating,” Lethia muttered.

Farrel looked at her, then at me.  He seemed equally surprised.

Elmiryn bumped him hard with her shoulder.  “Hey, damn it.  Am I supposed to keep wearing these or what?”

The halfling fumbled for the keys to the chains and mumbled an apology.  The woman looked at me and winked.  “See?  The kid pulled through for us.  I didn’t want to say anything, but she’s been in control ever since Walt tried to pick her up.”

“How did you know?” Farrel asked her, frowning.

Elmiryn shrugged her uninjured shoulder.  “She stopped fighting him.  That, and Redford gave things up too easily.  I dunno how she got Redford to yield, but she must’ve made eye contact with Walt when he tried to throw her over his shoulder.”

“So my act was–?”

“Still necessary.  Lethia just helped.” Elmiryn affirmed, now free of her bonds.  Farrel returned her weapon to her, and went to free Lethia next.  The warrior came to my side and brushed back my hair.  “You did great, Nyx.”

The door opened again and Redford emerged a key ring jangling four keys at his side.  When I looked around him, I saw a leg sprawled out on the floor.  The warden, hopefully just knocked out as Lethia had instructed.  The ensorcelled guard ignored the rest of us, brushing past to stop before Lethia, who received him warmly.  It was a bit ridiculous, but even when dealing with a man she was mind-controlling the girl treated him kind.

“Thank you, Redford!”  She said as she took the keys from him.

Farrel finished removing the chains from her ankles.  “What’re you going to do with them?” he asked.

Lethia didn’t look at the halfling.  Just pointed behind her.  “Walt.  Redford.  Please watch the door.  I think your friends may be coming soon, and I’d prefer it if we weren’t interrupted.”

Without a word, both men went to do as they were told.  Elmiryn shook her head, a grin on her face.  “Enchantment!  It’s THE way to deal with pesky men!”

Despite myself I grinned.

Lethia held up the keys.  “One for each of us.  We need to turn the keys at the same time.”

She came closer and unhooked the keys from the hoop.  The one she handed to me was small and a warm honey colored metal.  “That one goes into the last hole.  Turn it to the right.”

I frowned at her.  “The right?  But it’s a key.  Doesn’t it turn to the left?”

Lethia didn’t answer me.  At first I was annoyed, but then it occurred to me that mind-controlling two men at the same time was likely very taxing on her, and she could spare little time to talk.  She handed keys to Elmiryn and Farrel.  Both were differently shaped then mine.

“Yours is the first.  Turn to the left,” she said to Elmiryn.  And to Farrel, “Yours is the second.  Turn to the right.”

She held up her own key.  “I’m the third keyhole, and I turn to the left.  We’ll turn on three.”

Lethia didn’t wait for us.  She went to the heavy door and placed her key into the third keyhole.  The three of us exchanged looks.  Then Elmiryn followed suit, using her good arm to reach for the first keyhole.  Farrel went next, placing his key into the appropriate place.  I was last.

My eyes were on Lethia, who seemed different somehow.  It didn’t help that she still had the odd accent she had stolen from Farrel, but something of her was subdued.  Likely because she was using her power to keep Walt and Redford under control, but there was something else.  The girl’s face was blank and pale, save for the scratches and light bruises she had received in the day, both from Belcliff’s jail and our dangerous trek through daesce territory.  Her green eyes were like glass, but tears collected at the corners, and I saw her lips were set into a tight line.

She was going to see her mistress again.

Did this fact afford her with the sudden spiritual strength needed to overcome her fatigue and injuries?

I moved forward and placed my key into the final keyhole.

Lethia began counting.

“One…two…three!


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