Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Tooth and Nail

To purchase the newly revised e-book Tooth and Nail, please click here to visit its Smashwords page! Now available in multiple formats!

After you’re done reading, check out the deleted scenes for this update!  They’re…painful, but sort’ve humorous!

–Illise M.

NYX____________________________

No!” she shouted, scuttling back farther beneath her bed.

“My little night shard, please come out.”

“No!  No, no, no! I don’t want him to see!”

Her mother narrowed her eyes at her. “Nyx, your brother misses you.  I hardly think he’ll care if–”

“No!”

Fotini hissed, a sharp and long sound from the back of her throat.  The young girl squeaked, trying to press harder back into the wall as though it could swallow her into safety.  She bumped her head on the bed in her struggles, and her eyes immediately teared.  Nyx, seven-years-old, covered her head and started to cry, her wails audible even as she tried to smother the sound.  A hand grabbed her by the ankle and she was pulled out from under the bed with one strong tug.

A sigh.  Nyx was gathered up in warmth and soft wool.  She turned her face into her mother’s bosom and clutched at her.  The soothing smell of her filled her lungs.

“My little girl.  My Nyx of the night.  Haven’t you learned yet?  Your struggles hurt you in the end.  Ehna, ehna, shhhh…let A-ma see.”  Fotini took her head and brushed back Nyx’s hair, to see the scratch at the top of her head.

Nyx sniffled.  “Is it gone yet?”

“Yes my darling.”  Fotini kissed her forehead.  “It’s gone.  It was only a scratch after all.”

Just then a small kitten came tumbling through the door way, batting at dust.  At the sight of them, it began to mewl.  Her mother let out a low growl.  “Atalo, you were to wait for us!”  Like lightning, the woman snatched out and caught the kitten by the scruff of the neck.  The kitten went limp as she picked it up and glowered at it.

Nyx snickered even as she wiped away the last of her tears.

Fotini pinched her ear and the girl squealed.  “M’sorry, m’sorry!” she cried, tears cropping up anew.

“Don’t think you’re free, Nyx.  You will run with us tonight.  All of us.  Last month you made me look the fool, disappearing like you did.”  The woman gave Nyx’s ear a tug as she was forced to her feet and led out of the room.

“I don’t know why you’re making such a fuss.” The woman went on to say.  “I, for one, think it looks lovely.”

Nyx whimpered as she was led to the kitchen by the ear.  “I look stupid!

“You do not.  You look beautiful.  There are plenty of other girls that have manes.” The woman paused, releasing the girl after guiding her into a chair. “Oh…well I suppose there aren’t any in Tosmai…” she admitted reluctantly.

“That’s because only boys have manes.  Why do I have to have one?”

Fotini sighed.  “Oh, Sweet Aelurus, this child is so tiresome!  Nyx, leave the matter alone.  At the least, I can assure you, you didn’t get the trait from me.  You must’ve gotten that from your father.”

“I’m going to shave my head,” Nyx mumbled glaring at the table.

“Enough!” The woman snapped. She started to rifle through the cupboards.  “Focus on something else.  Help me decide what’s for dinner tomorrow.”

Nyx sighed and laid her head down, gazing around the kitchen. “Huckleberry bread and white honey,” the girl said.

Fotini smiled patiently.  “That’d be good for dessert…What about dinner?

“Fried vegetables.  And…” Nyx thought for a moment. “Beef,” she said decisively.

The girl hopped up from the chair and stepped over her little brother, who’d taken to rolling on the floor.  She hefted herself up onto the counter with the aid of her mother and pointed at the brown sugar.  “I read somewhere that if you rub the raw beef with brown sugar and let it sit overnight, it tastes good.”

“Where’d you read this?” Fotini asked, frowning.

Nyx blushed.  She’d used her allowance to buy books from an elven merchant that had been coming near the village.  One of the books she’d bought was a cooking book, since her mother was always making her help in the kitchen.  “From one of my classmates,” the girl said hurriedly.

Fotini squinted her eyes in suspicion.  “It’s another one of those elf books, isn’t it?”

Nyx swallowed and bowed her head, instinctually covering her ears.

The woman helped the girl down.  “Nyx, it’s fine that you want to read.  But why can’t it be Ailuran books?  Aren’t they interesting?”

The girl frowned.  “A-pa said they lie.”

Fotini sighed and covered her face with her hand.  “Sweet Aelurus…Alvis…even now your actions haunt us…”

The mother turned and knelt down.  “Nyx, listen to me.  I can understand reading a cooking book.  Your tip was very good.  But please my little nightshard…try and appreciate our culture a bit more.  There’s nothing wrong with reading about your own people.”  The woman stood, her long dark  hair sweeping.  “Now run along and get dressed.  We leave in less than an hour…and no more fussing!

——————————————————-

Nyx carried Atalo in her arms.  He was still in the form of a kitten.  She glowered at him.  “Why don’t you get your ears pinched?  Why is it always me?

As if answering her, her brother pressed his paw against her nose, making her look like a pig.  The girl cuffed him on the head.  “Cajeck!” she snapped.

The cat yowled at her, biting at her purple gambeson with tiny teeth.

“You two behave,” Fotini warned.  Her mother was dressed up in her finest set of clothes–a tanned leather shroud with the hood down, the hide embroidered with black silk thread.  She had on fur boots, and a beaded belt.  Her long dark hair was pulled back with an obsidian clip.

“Aren’t you going to make him shift back?” Nyx asked, still glaring at her little brother, whose drool was soaking the lapel of her gambeson.

Fotini shook her head as she grabbed her large sling bag off the hook.  “It’s far too close to Night.  Remember your lessons?  Shapeshifting too much back and forth can tax your spirit.  It’s safer if he remains as he is.”

“But I read somewhere that if he stays like this too long–”

“Nyx!” Fotini gave her a warning glare.

Nyx sighed as she followed her mother out the front door and down the steps of their daikut.  Outside, there were many people hurrying along the road, anxious and excited.  The evening seemed so electric.  Despite herself, the girl gradually came out of her sullenness.  At the main square, there was much jubilation.  Flag bearers bore the symbol of the nation high over their heads, a full moon and three tear drops falling from it.  She could smell barbecued pork and roasted nuts and felt hungry.

“A-ma, can we get a snack, please?” Nyx asked, tugging on her mother’s sleeve.

“Not now, child.  The procession comes!”  Fotini craned her head, trying to see over the crowd.  The woman gave up, looking frustrated.  “Oooh…I can’t see a thing from here!  But maybe you and Atalo can get up closer.  Just don’t go wandering too far!  I’ll be right here.”  She gave the girl a small push forward at the back.

Nyx slouched, glaring through the forest of bodies down the road leading into the central square.  Sure enough, she could see a large body of people marching toward them in the distance.  The sulk on her face faded a portion as Nyx moved to the front of the crowd.  There, many of her peers from school stood waiting.  They turned and regarded her with varying expressions–most negative.

“What’s Nyx the Nitwit doing up here?”

Nyx turned and glared at a boy nearest her.  He had dark hair flecked with brown and narrowed hazelnut eyes.  Kilen, Leander’s nephew.  He smelled like fresh cotton and dirt.  The two children stared each other down.  Meanwhile, the adults around them remained oblivious of the blossoming exchange.  People cheered as the marchers drew closer.

“Kilen, you’re an ass,” Nyx said, rolling her eyes.

The boy mimicked her voice. Then he pointed at her and jeered, “Go stick your head into a book, weirdo!  This is for true Ailurans only!”

Nyx smiled at him coolly.  “Then I’ll be sure to let your dollies know you’re coming home early!”

Kilen’s face turned pink as the children around them giggled.  He stomped his foot.  “Stop it!  If you laugh with her, then you aren’t coming to my birthday party!”  The laughter stopped.  The boy flashed his eyes at her victoriously.  “Your father was a freak and so are you!  No Ailuran girl is supposed to have a mane!” He turned to those around them.  “Come on, let’s get away from the freak.  Her evil might rub off on us.”

The children migrated, following the boy as he left to stand near his uncle Leander, who was speaking with Orestes.  Nyx sighed and watched them go with a growing sense of defeat, not even caring that Atalo had pulled the top button off her gambeson.

“Kilen’s got fleas in his brain.”

Nyx blinked and turned.  An older girl with two dark pigtails and amethyst eyes grinned at her.  Behind her stood a slouching boy with flushed cheeks, warm-honey eyes, and curly umber hair.  “Don’t listen to him, ‘kay?  Not everybody hates you.  And not everybody’s a’scared of that cajeck.”  She held out her hand.  “My name’s Taila.”

Nyx hesitated.  She’d seen Taila before around the village.  She was a very tomboyish girl and very strong headed.  She was nine?  Maybe ten?  No…twelve.  Rumor had it that she had a crush on Nyx’s older brother, but the girl didn’t trust such talk.  There was also a rumor that Taila had once tamed a wild unicorn, after all.  Nyx had read enough to know that unicorns had gone extinct more than 200 years ago.  That was just one of the many discrepancies in what was locally known as the “Taila Tales”.  But the girl didn’t like the idea of being impolite, so she moved to greet Taila in similar fashion, but then her brother took to wiggling.  She couldn’t get a hand free to shake with.  “Ah, um…”

Taila giggled and reached over to pet Atalo instead.  Nyx inhaled softly.  She picked up the scent of honey.  “This is your brother Atalo, right?  He takes the same lessons with my little sister.”  The girl pointed over her shoulder.  “And this is Ampelos.  He’s shy.”

“Hi,” Ampelos muttered, staring down at his shoes.  His scent was overpowered by Taila and those around them, even as the girl tried to catch a whiff of him.

Nyx nodded, smiling nervously.  “Um, hi!  Nice to meet you.  My name’s Nyx.”

“We know!” Taila took Ampelos’ hand and waved with her other.  “‘Kay!  We gotta go find his mother.  Talk to you later!”

The sudden departure left Nyx anxious and even more uncertain.  “Uh…”  The two children were gone, and the girl bowed her head with a sigh.  “Yeah…bye…”

She turned and was conscious of how isolated she felt.  Even the adults seemed keen on giving her space.  Nyx shifted Atalo in her arms and wiped at her eyes.  She felt her sleeve come away damp, and this detail seemed enough to send her into all out crying once more, but the people around her began to cheer.  She gave a start, damp eyes blinking away the last tears as she looked forward.

There was a great fanfare, and energetic drums.  Cymbals crashed and people clapped as the Ailuran soldiers returned from their second tour.  In this battalion was–

“Thaddeus!”  Nyx whispered, ducking a little.

Her older brother marched at the end of his row.  He had medium long hair, dark like all of her family, and it was tied back in a low ponytail.  The fourteen-year-old marched with eyes forward.

Nyx turned to find her mother approached, gently pushing to the front of the crowd.  When she was close enough to speak and be heard, the woman was out of breath.

“I saw him, A-ma!” Nyx said, pointing.

“I think I did too!” the woman said, face flushed.  She took Nyx’s hand.  “Come on, they’re going to do a speech and then the men will be released to the families!”

Nyx started to fuss with her hair, brushing it back with sweaty fingers.  “He’s going to laugh at me, I just know it!”

“Child you are so odd! Weren’t you just excited to see him?  Can’t you leave your fears and just be happy that our Thad is home?”

“But–”

“Shh!” Fotini held a finger up to her lips and pulled the girl close by the shoulders.  Together, the three ventured into the gathering crowd near the central platform.  They didn’t need to wait long.  Orestes appeared to the cheers of many.  He raised a hand and smiled.

“My dear people of Tosmai.  Long have we awaited the return of our precious sons…Tonight, they come to us in good health, filled with pride for their service to our nation.  I will not keep you long, for the Eye of Aelurus is upon us as Night draws close, but hear me now, my good people.  These men have sacrificed much, and for some that price was great.  These few have returned to our glorious Mother, shrouded in honor and love.  Let us take a moment to pay our thanks to those who gave their lives so that we may stand here whole and happy tonight.”

Nyx covered Atalo’s head as she bowed her own.  Her little brother, though Changed, seemed to understand the situation enough to sit still beneath her hand.

They remained that way for one full minute before Orestes spoke again, bringing everyone out of their silent prayers.

“Thank you, and thank you to the families of those lost braves.” He gestured behind him where the soldiers had stood, waiting quietly.  “Come forward, my sons.  Your families await you!”

There was a cheer as the soldiers moved to find their beloveds.  Fotini gripped onto her daughter tightly, and Nyx couldn’t help but tighten with fear the way the crowd seemed to smother them in their haste to get by.  She turned to look behind her, feet stumbling as her mother dragged her forward.  The girl knew she could find a space free of the mad hustle if only her mother would let her go, but as she gazed past the villagers, she saw a woman staring toward the stage, tears streaming openly down her face.  She stood alone, and her gaze turned to the sky, her dark hair lifting with the breeze.  Nyx blinked and craned her head as more people came, but within the next instant her view of the woman was gone.

“Thaddeus!”

Nyx turned her head forward again.  Fotini hugged the girl around the shoulders, and Atalo fought in her arms to raise himself up higher to see.  The villagers parted and Thaddeus stepped forward, his broad face smiling fully.  He had tawny eyes, like she and Atalo did, but his were muddier.  But the dimples in his cheeks, his round-tipped nose, his expressive eyebrows, the messy black hair…all the same.

“Hello everyone!” was all he said.

Fotini laughed as she snatched the teenager up in a bone-crushing hug.  Atalo mewled loudly, extending a paw and struggling to push out of Nyx’s arms.  The girl just stared at her brother, shoulders hunched, eyes wide with awe.

Thaddeus was home.

——————————————————-

The forest’s belly was full with them, it seemed.  They crossed the earth with steps that the wood and grass seemed to respond to.  As the population passed the limits of the village into the wild, guards stood watch over those passing.  The Cerrite.  They were criminal hunters, domestic guardians, and enforcers.  As it was the middle of autumn, they worse deer skins for camouflage.

Nyx stared as they passed one, and his milky eyes turned her way.  The Cerrite were specially trained both by warriors and priests alike.  This one had a stony face, smeared with charcoal.  Chosen at birth, these men’ spirits were marked with unbreakable magic that gave them unique abilities.  For instance, they could resist the Change when the full moon came.  They protected the village whilst the populace honored the Blessed Mother each month.  It required a unique strength, as the magic that made this possible could kill anyone who was too weak in spirit to bear it.  The Cerrite were both admired and feared among the community.  It was said that their divine sense of justice was so acute, that they could sense their prey even unto the future.

Nyx ducked behind her mother’s legs as they followed the crowd down the familiar path.  The trees cast shadows over them as the suns slowly pulled back the blanket of their warmth from the sky.

The feeling of being watched didn’t leave her.

There was a designated field, not far from the village.  Here families chose their respective areas for the Change.  Nyx’s family found a place still near the woods, but with a soft patch of ground and high grass.  Fotini dropped her bag with a sigh.  The woman hadn’t always made a habit of bringing a bag with her…but last year, Nyx and Atalo had thought it would be fun to play with the folded clothing whilst in their animal forms.  What resulted was half of their belongings being torn in half from tug of war, the rest being scattered around the forest in a game of chase.  The trouncing that came afterward was forever coined by Thaddeus as, “The Great Kitten Clobber.”  Nyx and Atalo didn’t think it very funny.

Fotini fussed over her eldest son, ruffling his hair in disapproval.  “You need a cut!” she sighed, shaking her head.

Thaddeus ducked away from her, his eyebrow raised.  “A-ma, please!  I’m a soldier, remember?  We don’t have much time to fuss about those sorts of things on the field.”

At the mention of the war, Fotini’s face turned tense.  “Thad, you haven’t been made to fight, have you?  You’re still just scouting, right?”

Thaddeus’ expression turned reserved as he pulled off his shirt.  His limbs were wiry now.  “We’ll talk about it later.  The moon is almost out.” He sat on the grass and proceeded to remove his boots.  As he worked, his eyes flickered to Nyx, who hadn’t budged from her position sitting in a tight ball. “Koah, you okay?”

Nyx shrugged and looked over at Atalo, who was having fun knocking over stalks of grass.  She didn’t want to Change.  She didn’t want her brother to see, and somehow, she had fixed it in her mind that if she refused to prepare for the night, then the transformation simply wouldn’t come.

Atalo came cantering over, his ears perked.  He hid behind a rock, the thing nearly completely concealing him.  He peered at her over it, his ears flattening and his eyes holding a tell-tale shine.  The girl scowled at him.  “Don’t,” she warned.

Her little brother didn’t listen.  He ducked out of sight for a moment before popping over the rock and launching at her, claws extended.  He landed on her shoulder and bit at her ear.  It was quite an impressive jump, for such a little thing, but Nyx wasn’t amused.

She snatched her brother up by the scruff of his neck, and instinctually he went limp.  She hissed at him from the back of her throat, and if she had been in her animal form, her tail would have been lashing angrily.  “I said leave me alone!”  She threw him away, literally.  Her brother skittered along the dirt in a loud yowl.

Fotini’s eyes flashed at her, and Nyx flattened herself on the ground, like a cat who’d heard a loud sound.  “Nyx!” the woman shouted, standing.  She’d already stripped off her shoes and top, leaving her only dressed in her pants.

Thaddeus was already nude.  He didn’t stand, but simply leaned over.  Nyx tried to move out of his reach, but the boy was fast and she was still flat against the ground.  He grabbed her by the back of her neck, pinning her down, and the girl couldn’t resist the relaxation that went through her body, setting her still.  Even in sapien form, the pressure point still worked.

“Koah,” he said over her.  Then he cuffed her hard over the head.  “Be nice!”

Her older brother let her go, and Nyx rolled away from him, baring her teeth.  With each passing second, animal behavior was becoming more and more natural.  Night was turning thick about them, igniting an ancient magic that none present could resist.  Some of the villagers had already shifted.

Nyx let out a spitting sound, her fingers digging into the dirt.  “I just wanna be left alone!”

Fotini went on all fours, glaring at her.  She mirrored Nyx’s bared teeth and her head bowed forward.  The girl recognized the stance.  The woman was going to rush forward and topple her.

“Nyx, if you don’t stop this–”

No!”  but the sound was choked.  Anxiety was bringing about a premature Change.  Nyx let out a cry of pain and curled in on herself.

She heard movement through the grass and lifted her head enough to see Thaddeus and her mother at either side before her.  Their eyes had gone cat, and their teeth were changing to fangs.  Nyx watched, shuddering as she saw their features change smoothly.

“My little nightshard, stop fighting it.  Don’t you see your struggles hurt you in the end?” Fotini breathed gently.

Nyx looked anxiously at Thaddeus.  “B-But I don’t want him to see!”  Her eyes teared up and her face crumpled.  She ducked her head, her body shuddering as she fought to keep her form.  “I look like a freak!” she choked through sobs.

Nyx hugged herself tightly and looked at her brother, pained.  “I missed you!”  she tried to speak, even as the pain grew worse.  “I jes’ wanted–you to–to–think I was–growing into a good girl!” the girl wailed, pressing her forehead to the ground as he hugged herself tighter.  She was trying to keep her ribs from expanding.  “But I’m wrong! And everyone hates me ’cause of it!”

Thaddeus bopped her lightly on the head.  The girl looked up at him in confusion, tears streaming from her eyes.

Her brother smiled at her, just as Atalo came around him, eyes peering curiously.  “Cajeck,” he murmured, ruffling her hair.  “I’m just happy to see you!”

Nyx swallowed hard.  “You…mean it?”

Thaddeus nodded, and together she and Fotini made the girl sit up.  Their faces had gone cat.

“You see, child?” Fotini said gently as she peeled away Nyx’s gambeson.

Thaddeus pulled her legs forward and pulled off her boots.  His fingers had claws.

“Go on, Koah,” Thaddeus said with a smile.  “Stop fighting it, and let the Change happen.  We’ll be with you in a second.”

Nyx didn’t need telling twice.  She relaxed her body, and gasped as she felt the transformation hit her in a rush.  Her mother held her around the torso and guided her back to the ground as the girl’s body seized up, bones and muscles shifting.  The process was faster this time around, as though a great dam had burst.  It felt…euphoric, and the girl sighed as she felt herself fall into a place that was cool and safe…

Then she opened Her eyes.

——————————————————-

[Thaddeus immediately started laughing.  As she kicked away the dead skin of her Other Self–those “pants”.]Wow! Nyx has a mane!  Is that what she was fussing about all this time!?”

“Thad, your sister has been agonizing over this for ages.  Please don’t confirm her fears!”

“Okay…but I mean…” [and here he snickered.]Wow.”

[Funny words.  Sapien words.  Words didn’t mean much to Her like this, though somewhere, far away, she thought she could remember some sort of meaning to them.]

[The cat raised herself up and shook her fur out.  The dark tresses fell into her eyes and she gave her head another shake.  Atalo mewled at her, and she answered him.  She was larger than her brother by at least a few pounds and stood an inch and a half taller than him, but when compared to Thaddeus or her mother, she still looked so small.  The girl’s nose flared, taking in the unique scent of her family.  She felt safe.]

[Without much preamble, she pounced on Atalo.  It was time to get him back for all his pestering.  The two wrestled in the dirt as the rest of their family shapeshifted near them.]

[Then the mother raised her head, and she looked right, and Nyx raised herself from her play long enough to meow at her.  Fotini padded near and with mouth slightly parted so that the tips of her canines showed, let out a huff of breath that caressed the kitten’s face, startling the locks of her mane.  This was the silent way of saying hello.  Nyx butted her head beneath her mother’s chin purring.  Atalo pounced on her from behind, gnawing on her hide.  She turned and batted at him with her paw.]

[A shadow fell over her.  The cat turned to see her eldest brother, nearly as big as her mother and with a mane of his own, gazing down at her.  He gave the customary greeting before he buried his face in her neck.  Her spine curved, but her muscles tensed.  She recalled another group of cats her age attacking her and pulling her by the mane once.  Kilin and his companions.  This memory brought up hazy recollections of embarrassment and fear of judgment.  But this was family–he wouldn’t harm her.  Right?]

[Thaddeus let out a sharp snort, growling as he withdrew.  Then with his great paw, he pushed Nyx down by the back.  The kitten hissed, ears drawing back at this physicality.  But what came next startled her.]

[Her older brother started to groom her.  His tongue swept over her mane, which in truth, was messier than his.]

[Atalo sat before her, a curiously sapien expression of smugness on his furry face as he watched his sister mewl in protest.  This didn’t last.  Within the next instant, the younger kitten was caught by his mother, and both Nyx and Atalo glowered at their paws as their elders groomed them.]

[This done, the family played in the grass.  Fotini played chase with her litter, her graceful form loping through the field.  They greeted other families, reacquainting themselves with their individual scents.  As Fotini became intimate with a young tom, her children drifted a bit in boredom.  Some of the other kittens, playing nearby, started to chase Nyx, hissing and yowling.  Atalo tried to defend her only to find himself easily knocked aside.]

[Nyx found herself buried beneath three others, whose bites and scratches were rougher than necessary.  She hissed and tried to swat them away, but their eyes peered at her like she were a mouse in the corner.  She recognized one by the smell of cotton on his skin, and she locked her tawny eyes onto his hazelnut ones.]

[Then Thaddeus stood before her and roared.]

[The kittens startled back, slinking low to the ground as they scuttled away through the tall grass.]

[Nyx purred her thanks, rubbing her body along the length of his leg.]

[The rest of the evening was spent running in the nearby forest and over the field.  They hunted squirrels and gophers.  Nyx managed to catch one of the latter and she devoured it happily.]

[The night ended with the family sleeping in a close huddle, back where they had originally Changed.]

——————————————————-

The soldiers were to return to war in three weeks time.  Until then, Thaddeus was once more a part of the household.  He told funny war stories that delighted Nyx and Atalo, but made her mother stiff and anxious.  The creaks and squeaks of the house were fixed by the teenager with a new set of tools.  As he was older now, he’d even decided to give his siblings some of his old toys and books (…actually, just the latter to Nyx, who was practically dancing around the house–she wasn’t allowed into Thaddeus’ room while he was away and so receiving his books felt like winning at a raffle).  Nyx wasn’t beat up at all in the week as her brother scared away her tormentors by his presence alone.

…There were not so good times too.  One night, Nyx awoke to Fotini and Thaddeus arguing in the kitchen.  She’d sneaked out into the short hallway and peered with wide eyes as Thad demanded to know who the “lecher” was that her mother had been seeing every other night after “the little ones had fallen asleep.”

“Don’t you care about A-pa at all!?” he’d hissed, his hand a fist on the counter. “What if he comes back?  What if he–”

Fotini’s face was pink and she stood from the chair she’d been sitting on. “Child, you talk of things you don’t understand!”

“I’m a man now.  I provide for this family, I think I have a right to–”

“You are still my son, Thaddeus.  Your father has vanished, and let’s face it, he wasn’t around that much to begin with!  He was too busy chasing his ideals, his dreams–”

“Weren’t you the same way once!?”

“His talk fascinated me, and his passion inspired me–but I never lost sight of what was important.  My family!”  The woman stared down her son, and the boy looked away after a moment.  The animal in them was always present, and to stare too long into the eyes of another was considered a challenge.  Thaddeus may have become a man, but he still relented when it came to his mother.

“I have always cared for my family, Thad,” Fotini said quietly.

The boy laughed harshly.  “Really, A-ma?  If you’re so certain that A-pa is never coming back, then atleast find a partner that provides for you.”  The boy slammed his fist into the counter. “I hate the thought that I risk my life for this nation, for my family, only to find out that some boy pretending to be a man comes and reaps the benefits!  The gold I earn is only for you, Nyx, and Atalo!  Not some lecher that vanishes with the suns rising!”

“You cannot shame me on this, Thad.  I may not be the best mother, but I try.  I’m…I feel so alone.  I miss Alvis, truly.  You’re old enough to understand this, yes?  Can’t you be more compassionate for your A-ma?  Whereas other wives have a husband who supports them, I have no one.  You tell me to find someone who will provide?  With more of our men going to war, none are left to stay with the poor abandoned Fotini and her strange, wild children.  I have no one…”  The woman’s last words became thick, and she turned away, covering her face.

The boy bowed his head and rubbed the back of his neck. “You have me, A-ma…”

Nyx blinked away tears, and trying to keep her sniffles silent, she crept back to her room.

You have me too, A-ma…

——————————————————-

Market day.  Atalo carried the list that Fotini had written up, while Nyx carried the basket.  She didn’t want to carry the basket, but after the full moon, she’d been trying her hardest to behave extra good because she felt bad about how much of a fuss she’d made.  Thaddeus, meanwhile, did the haggling.

“How much for the corn, sir?” he asked a merchant.  He glanced down at Atalo, “Hey, A-ma wanted corn, right?”

“Yes, Koen!” he said, excited that he was in some way a part of the process.

Nyx resisted the urge to yawn.

“One silver each,” the merchant said.

The girl frowned, coming out of her dull stupor.  She knew for a fact that Fotini purchased corn from this man at three copper.

“Okay,” Thaddeus said, picking up the corn off the top.  He didn’t even bother to inspect them closely.

Nyx couldn’t help it.  She tugged on his sleeve.  “Koen…” she breathed, glaring at the merchant, who stared back at her.

“Not now, Nyx,” the boy said, squinting at an ear of corn that was clearly lacking in kernels, but he added it to the basket anyway.

Nyx gazed at him as though he were an idiot.  “Thad.”

“Those don’t look good…” Atalo said, scrunching up his nose.

Thaddeus shrugged.  “What’s the big deal?  You guys are just kids, relax and let me handle things.”

Nyx crossed her arms and pouted.  “I did this by myself for a year and I’ve done better than you have in an hour!

“Yeah!” Atalo cried, crumpling A-ma’s paper by accident.  The boy disliked being left out.

The teenager sighed and glared at his two younger siblings.  “Hey, who’s the oldest here?  Raise your hand.”  Nyx and Atalo exchanged looks as Thaddeus raised his hand, which held another funny-looking ear of corn.  “Okay…who did A-ma ask to get the vegetables?  Raise your hand.”  He lowered his hand only to raise it again.

Nyx sucked at her teeth and looked at Atalo.  “Who’s got half a brain?  Raise your hand,” she said whilst nudging her little brother.  Both children raised their hand and glared at their elder.  Actually, Atalo raised two.

Thaddeus turned red in the face, gripping the ear of corn like it were a rock he was preparing to throw.

“These are no good!  They’re shriveled and stuff.  And you’re paying too much!” Nyx explained fast, her courage failing at her brother’s expression.

“Those are excellent ears of corn.  I don’t sell bad food!” the merchant snapped, rising from his seat.

“Nyx, you’ve insulted the man,” Thaddeus said, narrowing his eyes.  “Apologize.”

Nyx scowled.  “But he’s a liar.  A-ma paid three copper for the corn last time, not a silver piece each!

Thaddeus turned and fixed the man with a stare.  “Is this true?”

The merchant faltered.  It was one thing to shout down a seven-year-old.  Quite a different thing to shout at a recently returned soldier.  He’d be vilified forever, and there were customers watching.

He held up his hands, like a man who’d just been assualted with tears and sob stories.  “Okay!  Okay! I’ll give you these for five copper each.”

Thaddeus grabbed him by the front of his shirt and jabbed the tip of the ear of corn under the merchant’s chin.  “Make it one,” he hissed.

The merchant nodded, though it looked more like he were trembling.  “One copper each is good!  Very good!”

Thaddeus let the man go, glaring for a second more just to drive the point home.  Then he turned to Nyx.  He grinned, the expression a mixture of embarassment, gratitude, and apology.  “Go on, Koah.  Pick the best you see!”

Nyx smiled, thrusting the basket into his hands.  “Hold this!” she giggled.

——————————————————-

Night time.  New moon.

Thaddeus peeked his head into Nyx’s bedroom.

“Koah,” he breathed.  “Are you ready?”

Nyx sprang upright in her bed, fully dressed.  “Yes!” she whispered as she slid to the floor.

Her brother pressed a finger to her lips and gestured for the girl to follow him.  As she went into the hallway, she saw Atalo leaning against the wall, his eyes slipping shut.  The boy wasn’t used to staying up this late.  Quite frankly, neither was she, but she’d been so excited she could hardly wait.  She went to her little brother and took him gently by the shoulders.

“C’mon, Atalo!” she said quietly.

Together the three siblings backpedaled, eyes on their mother’s doorway at the end of the hall.  Thaddeus took exaggerated steps, as though he were tiptoeing over giant barrels.  Nyx and Atalo tried to keep from giggling too loud as they mimicked him.  Within a few seconds, they were in the cool night air and dashing through the sleeping village, laughter still caught in their throats like a bird in a net.

They entered the forest.

There, Thaddeus led them at a carefuller pace, his eyes scanning the trees for dangers.  An owl hooted not far away.  The teenager stopped, holding out a hand to his siblings.  Then he cupped his hands and returned the call.

Then another teenage boy appeared, out from behind a poplar.  Nyx couldn’t make out his features.  With the new moon upon them, even their therian eyes struggled in the dark of the forest.  What the girl could make out was that he had puffy, dark hair and was dressed much lighter than any of them.

“Myrk!” Thaddeus cried jubilantly, holding out a hand.  The boy approached and shook it, then he looked at Nyx and Atalo, who huddled together at his attention.

The boy crouched down slowly and held out a hand to Nyx.  “Hello, Nyx.  Thaddeus has told me alot about you!  My name’s Myrk.”

Nyx blinked and took the teenager’s hand.  Her hand was swallowed in his rough grip, but he shook her arm gently.  “Nice to meet you.”

The teenager nodded, then turned to Atalo next.  He thumped his chest and he gave a shadowy smile.  “And the mighty Atalo, we meet at last!” He put out his hand and the boy shook it eagerly.

As Myrk straightened, Thaddeus clapped him on the shoulder.  “Myrk comes from the capital!  We met when our battalions unified in a charge against the Fiamman army!”

Nyx looked at her brother, the shy smile on her face falling away.  “Wait!  You said you didn’t fight while you were away!”

Thaddeus faltered, looking at the ground.  Myrk glanced at him with a somber face.

“Thad?  You…lied to A-ma?”  Nyx bunched the end of her smock, her eyes turning wide.

The older brother shook his head.  “I never said I didn’t fight.” Then he turned and stalked forward, leaving Myrk with the two children.

The teenager cleared his throat.  “Ah…” he jerked his head.  “Come on, you two, let’s get going!”

Together the four traveled until they came to Ebon Lake.

Nyx exhaled softly, feeling her breath like it were an extension of herself in the night.  But it would be a while longer before the true cold descended, and all warmth turned to chill in the world.  She rubbed at her arms, shivering in the wind, but smiled as she saw Atalo run forward, yelling after Thaddeus, who had proceeded to take off his clothes.

When her older brother had invited her along on the night time adventure, she’d turn down the opportunity for a swim, preferring simply to be in the company of her siblings.  Myrk, she was happy to find, was rather amiable and easy to be around.  He laughed and talked casually, like he’d been acquainted with them all since birth.  The girl looked skyward, and her smile waned as she took note of the starry sky.

“Nyx!”

The girl’s eyes snapped forward, and she saw that Thaddeus was calling her over.  He was down to just his underpants, his wrists pinned beneath his underarms as he hunched in the face of the cold.  Atalo had stripped down too and was hopping up and down, beating his bare chest like an ape.

“Koah, come on!  Swim!”

She shook her head mutely, sitting on the ground as if to illustrate that she could not be persuaded.

Thaddeus gave her an exasperated smile, then turned to Myrk.  “She gets like this sometimes, especially around new people,” he explained in a low voice.

“She doesn’t like the water?” Myrk asked.  Then without waiting for an answer, he turned and shouted the question to her.  “You don’t like the water?”

“Nyx loves the water,” Thaddeus said, smirking.

“Once our A-ma thought that Nyx had died!” Atalo chirped, leaping in front of Myrk.

“She had swum to the bottom of the lake and decided to see how long she could hold her breath,” Thaddeus elaborated with a laugh.

“How long was she under for?” Myrk asked.

“Two minutes!” Nyx called, unable to contain her pride.

The teenager laughed and clapped.  “By the gods, that’s pretty good!”

The girl drew up her legs and smiled into her knees.

Thaddeus smacked Myrk’s arm.  “Hey, let’s hurry up and jump in, before it gets any colder.”

“Okay.”

The boys counted to three, then sprinted into the water, screaming.  Atalo made it as far as his ankles before he turned around and sprinted back the way he’d come, shivering.  He crashed down next to Nyx, or rather into her, his teeth chattering loudly.

“It’s too cold!” he whined.

Nyx hugged him around the shoulders with a lopsided smile.  “Cajeck…you don’t need to pretend to be a tough guy just because Thaddeus is here.  You’ll be big and strong someday too!”

The girl helped her little brother back into his clothes.  Then the two entertained themselves by making grass boats and seeing which sailed out the farthest.  Nyx’s beat Atalo’s two times in a row, and the boy was frustrated to tears.  Feeling bad for him, the girl secretly punched a hole in her leaf, and when they raced again, hers sank after floating out no more than an inch on the water.  Atalo screamed and jumped wildly at his “victory”.

Finally, after the siblings cheered their brother on in a water wrestling match against Myrk (their brother won) the four decided it was time to head home.  Nyx and Atalo sat together while the teenagers dressed, and the girl could hardly keep her eyes open.  When she decided she’d just close them for “a second”, Thaddeus was already shaking her awake, fully clothed and his hair dripping.

“Come on Koah, I’ll carry you home.”  Then Thaddeus gathered her up in his arms, and this was the last thing the girl remembered before she awoke in her bed the next morning.

——————————————————-

Nyx ran as fast as she could.  It was the last day of the month, and Marq, the elf merchant, was sure to be at the outskirts of town.

She’d saved and saved since his last visit, and now had a hundred copper, worth exactly one silver coin.  It wasn’t enough for a large book, but a slim volume perhaps.  Or maybe a strange trinket, like the ball and chain that whistled through the air when she spun it.  (Her mother had asked what she was doing with that “tea strainer”–but the girl was certain it was far more special than that.  It looked too interesting.)

Out of breath and pink-faced, the girl came to a slow stop just past the border flags that marked the village’s perimeter.  She looked right, then left.

“Marq?” she said.

“Over here!” A voice said in Common.

The girl turned and her face split into a grin as she saw an elf emerge from the shade of the local grain shed.  He was a tall elven man with short, pale lilac hair, dressed in a worn out poncho, beige canvas pants, and leather shoes.  His ears were two inches long at the tips and pointy.  He had a soft cleft chin, short slashes for eyebrows, and a pinched nose.  He grinned lopsidedly.

“Hullo there, kitten!” he chirped.  He gestured for her to come near, and the girl did so with a skip.

“Why are you hiding?” she asked, her words stiff and over-enunciated as she struggled with the sounds.  She was still working on getting rid of her accent.

“Oh, uh…” the man grinned, looking embarrassed.  “There’s some people…who really want what I have.”  He turned to pick up his large bag, and the girl thought she heard the man mutter something about “thugs” and “gold”.

Opening the flap, he knelt down and pulled out some books.  “Yer lookin’ for more books, eh?  Here I have some new ones that should be easy for ya to read!  By the by, did I tell ya your Common has improved a bunch since we last saw each other?  Yer gettin’ better every time I see you, kitten!”

Nyx beamed and leaned over to examine the titles.

The Life and Times of Edmund the Eerie; Alchemy in Daily Life; So You Want To Be A Demon Hunter?; Bauble Art and You; Arcane Couture – Magical Fashion for Magical People; Penelope’s Guide to Cherry Popping, etc….

The girl reached for Penelope’s Guide to Cherry Popping, her thought being, “I like cherries!”

When Marq saw what she was going for however, he let out a sound akin to a dog being turned inside out.  “Aaaa-ah’m sorry little one!” he smoothly swiped the book away, tucking it deep within his bag.  His face had gotten sweaty and he tugged at his ear hard.  “That…that book isn’t quite for you.”

“Is hard read?” Nyx said, frowning in disappointment.

“Let’s jes’ say…that it’d be hard for me, for you, for ever’one with half a’ ounce of moral grain ta read…” Marq said, his voice cracking a little.

The girl gave him a weird look.

Aware that the man was just trying to change the subject, the youth was a hard sell on Marq’s suggestion in place of Penelope’s Guide.  With long slim fingers, he picked up Alchemy in Daily Life and handed it to her.  It was a small book with barely over a hundred pages.  Each page seemed to consist of a short recipe for various potions.  It would be easy to hide, as she didn’t have a bag to put the book in–and she was certain her mother wouldn’t approve of her having it.  Thaddeus even less.

“This is a good book!” Then Marq seemed to think about it.  Then he added, “Good so long as you’re good.  Yer good, right kitten?  You won’t use it fer anything bad will ya?”  His brows crashed together.  “Please tell me ya won’t.  I don’t need anyone else trying ta kill me!”

The girl glanced off to the side.  Then she looked back at the elf.  “Ah…No?”

The man seemed to think about it.  Then he shrugged.  “Alright!  That’s fifty copper!”

Nyx frowned shrewdly at him.  “Thirtyfive!  Three-Five!”

Marq tutted.  “Come now, you just got a good deal!”

“Fine.” The girl stood up and made as if to go.

“Hold on, lil’ one!”

Nyx smiled slowly and turned around.  “Yes, Marq?” she asked, voice full of honey.

The elf glowered at her as he held out the book and an open hand.  “Yer gettin’ far too crafty for your own good, kid.  I’ll sell it to ya for forty, and not a coin less!”

The girl thought about it a moment, then nodded.  “M’kay!”

She fished the coin bag out and counted forty copper pieces into the elf’s narrow palm.  He handed her the book and gestured at the rest.

“No more for this month?” he asked.

She shook her head, then gave the man a wave.  “Bye, Marq!”

The man chuckled.  “Yeah…bye kitten!”

Nyx walked back the way she’d come, calmer now.  She flipped through the pages as she walked.  Not all the words she understood, but her father had left her a large tome which he’d once used to translate Common into Ailuran.  She read from it every day.

One recipe caught her eye.

“One batreng tooth, pinch of floor dust, one therian nail, pinch of sea salt…”  The girl’s eyes brightened.  “I have all these!” she held up her hand and giggled.  “I even have five of one of them!”

“Oh really?  I have five of those too.”  Kilen’s voice.

Nyx looked up just in time to see his fist fly into her face.  The girl fell onto her rear, blood splattering the page of her book.  Leander’s nephew stood over her, smirking.  Behind him were two other boys, nameless in Nyx’s mind, but whom she recognized as members of Kilen’s gang of friends.  They were in a less traveled part of the village, where spare parts for building repairs were kept.  Nyx liked to cut through here, to save time and avoid trouble.  But it seemed her secrete route was finally discovered.

The boy snatched the book from her hands, smacking her hard in the forehead with its spine.  “Nyx the Nitwit, at it again!”  the children laughed.

Nyx glared up at him, even as tears clouded her eyes.  “Kilen that’s mine, I paid for it!”

“From that shady elf that gets chased away every month?  You’re pathetic!”  He kicked her in the leg, hard.

The girl cried, eyes closing in pain.  She heard ripping.  Then through her tears and the glare of the suns, she saw Kilen tearing out page after page…

“No!” she screamed, her heart wrenching as she launched at the boy.  His cronies intercepted her, both tall for their age, and shoved her back down.  But the girl saw movement in the corner of her eye.

In the next instant, a piece of lumber sailed over Nyx and hit both boys in the chest.  Both stumbled back, knocking into Kilen.  The assailant…?

Nyx stared agape as Taila, holding the wood like it were a sports bat, hissed at the three younger children.  Kilen glared at her, daring to take one step forward.  “Taila, go away!  This is none of your business!”

“Shut up, runt, or I’ll knock your face in!  Both my mother and my father fought for the army, so don’t think I can’t kick your ass!” the girl snarled.

Kilen didn’t need much more than that.  He was one of the many believers of the Taila Tales.  Dropping the book, he turned and ran, his friends quickly following him.

Nyx flinched as Taila turned her fierce gaze on the girl.  She decided the girl was scary…and sort’ve…

Awesome.

“Cajeck,” the older girl said.  She held out a hand.  “Have you got fleas in your brain?”

Nyx took Taila’s hand, and with more pull than was necessary, Nyx was on her feet.  She turned her head and saw that Ampelos was nearby, trembling, draped in towels as though he’d used them for hiding.

“Don’t come this way anymore,” Taila said, jabbing a finger into Nyx’s shoulder.  “Your brother can’t keep you safe all the time!  It was just luck that we ran into you at all!”

Nyx bowed her head.  “Sorry,” she mumbled.  Blood still dripped from her mouth.  She glanced at her shirt, then groaned.  Some of her blood had stained the fabric, and she was certain to be quizzed about it once she returned home.

“Here.”

The girl blinked as a short-sleeved shirt, a little sweaty, but still smelling of honey, was thrust under nose.  She looked up and her face flared to see that Taila was shirtless.  Ampelos quickly threw a towel at her, making a dry, panicked sound, but Taila didn’t even look at him.  As she wrapped herself with the towel, she nodded at Nyx’s shirt.  “Go on!  You’ve got blood all over that one.”

Nyx blushed.  “But…”

Taila raised an eyebrow at her.

Mutely, the girl did as she was told.  When she was done, Ampelos was holding her book out to her, the torn pages stacked ontop.

“H-Here,” he said, head ducked.  “I think I got all of ’em…”

Nyx’s face crumpled as she saw the book.  She hid her face behind it to try and hide the tears that fell.

Then without warning, she felt someone hug her.  The girl looked up with a start to see Taila looking down at her sadly, her breath a warm flutter over her forehead.  “Don’t worry, Nyx.  We’ll get back at them.  I promise!” the girl said.

Nyx seized up, feeling her skin grow hot. “But I…I don’t–”

“You have to fight back!” the girl said, giving Nyx a shake.  “You can’t let them just get away with this.  It isn’t fair!

Nyx sniffled, her brows pressing together.  Taila was something of an outsider herself.  Her family was poor, and scraped by through honey farming.  It was true that both parents had served in the Ailuran military, and she seemed to recall Thaddeus mentioning that it was Taila’s parents that had backed up their father when speaking at the village council meetings.

But the girl saw a vast difference in herself and Taila.  While the older girl had managed a level of respect through her extraordinary reputation as a strong and capable person; Nyx, on the other hand, was considered a freak and a subverter waiting to happen.

Taila stepped back and grabbed Ampelos, who turned redder by the second.  “Look, why don’t you come with us for a swim at Ebon Lake?  Maybe you’ll feel better then?”

“I have to get home.  My mother’s waiting for me.”  Nyx found herself sorry to say this.

Taila shrugged one shoulder.  “Then next week!”  This was a statement, not a question.

Nyx scratched her head and smiled.  “Um…okay!”

“‘Kay, bye!” and the older girl strode away, Ampelos close behind.

“Bye,” Nyx breathed, waving.  She glanced at her bloody shirt, then tossed it away.  If she were lucky, her mother wouldn’t notice she was wearing a shirt two sizes too big…

——————————————————-

“Why are you wearing a shirt two sizes too big?” Fotini demanded, her body blocking the hallway leading to Nyx’s room like she were some sort of gate keeper.  Atalo peered at his sister from between her legs, eyes curious.

Nyx slouched before her mother, feeling on the verge of tears again.  “I…was attacked…again…” the girl bowed her head.  “Kilen.  It was Kilen.”

Fotini growled, her fingers curling like claws.  “That’s it, I’m speaking to his parents now!”

When Nyx had come home, Fotini had been handling a situation with Atalo, who seemed to think butter was excellent lubricant to make his toy carts go faster.  Thaddeus had followed the girl in after fixing a squeaky window in Fotini’s room from outside.  Now everyone gathered in the kitchen for what seemed to be yet another episode of family drama.

Fotini grabbed her cloak from the hook on the far wall.  “That boy is always picking on you!  I’ve spoken to Leander, but it seems these people need someone to make them care–”

Wait A-ma.”  Thaddeus blocked her way.  He gestured at Nyx, “She has to learn how to defend herself.  You can speak to Kilen’s parents all you want–but Nyx needs to face this head on.  I mean, you said it yourself, talking it out before didn’t work.”

Fotini scowled.  “This is just a squabble between children!  It hardly requires us to draw arms!”

“Even children need to know what it means to fight.”  Thaddeus drew himself up, and he swallowed audibly.  “I did.”

The silence that fell over the room was like a hammer.  Atalo hugged Nyx around the waist, trembling a little.  Nyx hugged him back, her body tense as she waited for her mother’s reaction.

“You’ve killed…?”

“You can’t say you didn’t expect this…” the teenager said slowly to his mother.  “It’s war.  I’m old enough now, and we’re losing men.  I was much more useful in battle than I ever was as a scout!”

“You’re far too young…to take lives…to risk your own…” Fotini’s voice was a shaky whisper.  From where they stood, Nyx and Atalo could see that their mother was fighting to contain her tears.  “You’re a boy.  You’re my son!”

“Who happens to be a soldier!”  Thaddeus thumped his chest with one fist.  “I’m proud to serve my nation!  I don’t want any of you falling into danger!  I’ll fight to see this won’t happen!”

This proud exclamation seemed enough to make Fotini verklempt.  Her son guided her into a chair, where the girl could now see silent tears falling.

Thaddeus pointed at Nyx, fire in his eyes.  “And I won’t let my little sister get beaten by thugs!  Koah, I’m going to teach you what I know!”

Nyx’s face tensed with apprehension.  She didn’t know if she liked this idea…

Atalo raised his hand, jumping.  “And me too!?”

Thaddeus laughed. “And you too, Koen.”

——————————————————-

Her mother was making cake from scratch for the first time using a recipe Janus, their neighbor, had given her.  There was a taut feeling of peppiness as everyone seemed determined not to think of the coming days.  Soon Thaddeus was to return to the battlefield.  When Nyx had asked where he was going, the teenager just chuckled and said, “Far, far away, Koah.  But you don’t have to worry about that.”

Nyx chewed off her thumbnail.  She was in her room, feeling the need to be alone, and decided she felt like giving the recipe from the alchemy book a try.  She’d already raided the cupboard for the other ingredients.  The sea salt was easy.  What took more time was the tooth.  She finally found a small bag of them at the bottom shelf, behind the large jars of herbs.  She knew her brother Thaddeus had bought them a year ago because of a rumor he’d heard which said that if you snorted ground up batreng teeth and red peppers on a crescent moon, it’d make you stronger.  What’d happened instead was the boy was sent straight to the village healer.  Somehow, the bag of teeth hadn’t been tossed away.  At her mother’s inquiry, the girl had explained that she was looking for sweets, then fled.  The floor dust was easy.  She had plenty in her room alone.

Using a mortar and pestle, the girl ground up her ingredients into a fine powder.  It was harder than it looked.

“Stupid tooth…” the girl grunted, smashing the pestle into the mortar.

“Hey, Nyx,”

The girl turned to see Thaddeus in the doorway.  “Yes?” she asked nervously.

“Let that alone for a minute.  Come outside with me, I wanna show you how to throw a punch.”

“I thought A-ma said she didn’t want us doing that!?” the girl stood, gripping the pestle in both hands anxiously.

Thaddeus sighed and marched into the room.  He stooped down and grabbed the mortar.  “What is this?” he asked.

Nyx swallowed.  “Um…”

The boy held up a hand.  “Wait, if it’s something weird from those elven books, like cleaning powder or something, then I don’t want to know.”  He started to pull his sister along.  “Let’s go.”

Nyx tried to grab the mortar.  “Koen, wait!”

The teenager held it over her head.  “Forget it, Nyx!  You aren’t getting out of this!” he shoved her toward the door and set the mortar onto the table.  “Look, it’s safe here.  A-ma,” he said, turning next to their mother.  “Don’t touch this thing here, alright?”

Fotini didn’t turn around as she was busy trying to figure out the measurement for sugar from the messily scrawled recipe.  “Uhn….” she said, holding up a hand.

Nyx, surprisingly, wasn’t reassured.  “A-ma, don’t–” but she was out the door at her brother’s insistence.  Or rather, his manhandling.

The seven-year-old wondered if she could use his training to knock him in his thick head, atleast once.

“Why doesn’t anyone listen to me when they need to…?” she thought.

Two hours later, they were back inside.  Nyx sat at the kitchen table, her face sullen.  Thaddeus looked far more pleased however.  “She can punch straight now!” he announced.

Fotini pursed her lips.  “Wonderful.”

“Yeah, wonderful,” Nyx muttered.

Thaddeus thumped her on the back.  “Cheer up, Koah, you’ll get it.”

The girl glared at him, wiping sweaty bangs from her forehead.

“Cake!” Atalo came running down the hallway, barefoot.  He pulled at his mother’s dress.  “Cake, A-ma!  You said the cake’d be ready!”

Fotini sighed.  “Sweet Aelurus…” gently, she displaced her son.  “Atalo, just give me a moment will you?  A-ma is tired from stirring and figuring out Janus’ terrible handwriting.”

“Stepping over him must be pretty tiring too,” Thaddeus added with a smirk at the boy.

Nyx allowed a small grin to spread her face–but this small look of ease vanished when she saw that her mortar was empty.  She grabbed it and tipped it over, sending over a small speck of powder to the table.  “A-ma, where’s my–”

There was a muted ‘crack’.  Nyx squealed as something gunky and soft hit her in the ear and side of the face.  Thaddeus cursed, knocking his chair over.  Atalo screamed and fell to the floor, covering his head.  Fotini stared blankly at the pan she gripped with her mitts, the oven open behind her.  Her eyes slowly rolled to Nyx, and the girl slunk out of her chair to duck behind the table.  She covered her ears with her hands.

The entire kitchen was covered in…cake.

“A-ma!” she said weakly.  “I tried to tell you!  I tried to tell you and Thad both, but no one ever listens to me!”

“What was it?” her mother hissed.  She stood frozen, but her face tightened and grew pink at the cheeks.  “What book did you read this time?”

Thaddeus turned slowly and stared at her.  “Nyx…!” he seethed.  He scooped a glob of frosting from his nose.

Nyx’s voice trembled. “A-Alchemy!  Easy stuff!  It was just a powder mix to make pellets you could step on and hear them snap and crack!  For fun.  That’s it!

“Snap and crack!?” Fotini threw the pan down, where it hit the floor with a loud ‘clang’.  The woman thrust her arms out at either side of her.  “The cake exploded Nyx!”

“It…it must’ve been a’cause you b-baked it!” Nyx ducked down so that only her eyes could be seen over the table.  “Please don’t pinch my ears!

“I think you earned a little more than that…” Thaddeus growled, moving to grab her.  Nyx screamed and tried to get away.  Their struggles shoved the table over to the far wall, and there was much kicking and grabbing.

“Atalo!” Fotini cried.

Brother and sister froze–Thaddeus trying to grab a hold of Nyx around the back of the neck, and the girl on her back with her foot against his face.

Both turned to see Atalo had climbed onto the cabinet and was now reaching for the cake on the ceiling with a long wooden spoon.  He stopped and blinked at them all, his head covered with bits of frosting.

“But it’s cake,” he said with an unconcerned smile.

——————————————————-

Luckily, Fotini had set aside a small batch of cupcakes with the extra batter she had.

At her two eldest children’s skeptic looks, the mother explained (for Atalo didn’t care either way,) “I just thought the powder was extra flour, so I dumped it into the main bowl.  I didn’t put it in this one.  It’s safe to eat, I assure you.”

She also assured Nyx and Thaddeus that if the kitchen wasn’t cleaned by morning, she’d show them both why she still wasn’t an old woman.

“Why am I doing this with you?” Thaddeus grumbled as he reached with a rag around the cabinet.  The cake had gotten everywhere.  They’d been scrubbing and wiping surfaces for the past hour while their mother and Atalo washed up.

“Because!” Nyx snapped. “Aelurus felt sorry for me.  I’m always taking the blame!”

“Why would she feel sorry for you!?” The teenager returned.

“I’m the middle child,” Nyx said simply, sweeping cake crumbs from around the stove.  “No one ever listens to me!  No one ever takes me seriously!”

Her brother stopped to give her a look.

“What?” she said crossly.  “It’s true!”

“…You really think that, Koah?”

Nyx hunched her shoulders as she swept the last of the crumbs onto the dust pan.  “Yes.  Sometimes,” she mumbled.

Thaddeus paused and looked at her.  “You’re…right, aren’t you?”

The girl did a double take as she threw the crumbs into the mop bucket near her.  “What’d you say?” she asked.

Her older brother swiped at his nose and leaned against the cabinet.  “I said you’re right.  You help alot.  You do…more than I did when I was your age.”

Nyx glanced down at the dust pan in her hand.

“I cause trouble, though,” she said sadly.  “I don’t know how not to.”  She rubbed her eye and felt her palm come away moist.  “I just want to be good.”

“Koah, you are good.”

“Then why am I so different from everyone else?” Nyx bit out.  She threw the dust pan to the floor.  “You tell me to fight, Taila tells me to fight…but what if I want to do what A-ma says?  What if I don’t want to fight back?  It always hurts worse when I do!”

“Don’t you love A-ma?” Thaddeus asked quietly.

Nyx blinked at him, startled by the question.  “Course I do!”

“And Atalo?”

“Yes!”

“What about me?

Nyx stomped her foot. “Cajeck!  Yes, I love you all!”

“Then you don’t really want to be left alone.  But you can’t run Koah.  So fight for the things you love!”  Thaddeus touched a hand to his chest.  “I love you all, so I fight to protect us.  But while I’m away, you have to keep supporting A-ma everyday.  Help her with Atalo and the house.  It’s up to you and me, understand?”

Nyx nodded, wiping her nose on her sleeve.

Thaddeus jerked his head.  “Alright, come on.  Let’s get this done before A-ma rips off our ears.”

The girl paused, her brush hovering over the crumb covered floor.  “She’d do that?”

“Oh sure, didn’t I tell you about that time my ear grew back over a week?”

Her gut did a somersault.  “…Koen, stop it!  S’not funny!” she snapped.

He looked at her, perfectly blank faced. “Who’s laughing…?”

That night, Fotini set on her son with a wooden spoon after she found out the reason why Nyx wouldn’t stop covering her ears around her.

——————————————————-

The final day came.

He hugged and kissed each of them, his bag of things slung over his back as all around them families said goodbye to their loved ones. He smiled, his muddy eyes winking in the sunlight.

“Bye, then,” was all he said.

And then…

Thaddeus was gone.

His room was shut up and dark.  The house seemed larger somehow, but not in the good way.  In the way that one felt as though they had too little for something that was meant to have more.  Atalo didn’t laugh, run, or scream.  Fotini didn’t care much for scolding them or taking care of the kitchen.  Nyx stared at her books but opened none of them.

The first night, both children slept with their mother.  Nyx traced circles into her mother’s stomach as she listened to her heartbeat and the grumbles of her digestive tract.  Atalo curled into a fetal position and didn’t move.

By the end of the first week, Nyx wiped her tears, rolled up her sleeves and did the dishes.  As the months passed, she did more and more.  She swept the floors and made the beds.  She helped Atalo with his lessons, and started dinner for her mother.

“Sometimes,” she said to Taila, one day at the lake. “I’m not sure if I’m good…But if I’m not good enough, I can fight for everyone else instead.  It’s easier.”

The older girl blinked her amethyst eyes at her.  Then she punched Nyx in the arm.  “I think you’ve got fleas in your brain.”  But she smiled.  “They’re good fleas.”

Nyx scrunched up her nose as Ampelos snickered on her other side. “Um.  Thanks.”

She waited for Thaddeus to come every year, and when he did, he made a point of thanking her.  “Thanks Koah, you did good while I was away.  You really helped out, A-ma says…but…” he sometimes got on her case, though.  “You saw the gods damned elf again!?  What did I say about him?  He’s no good!”

…Then one year, Thaddeus didn’t come back at all.

His room was shut up and dark.  The house seemed larger somehow, but not in the good way.  In the way that one felt as though they had too little for something that was meant to have more.  Atalo didn’t laugh, run, or scream.  Fotini didn’t care much for…anything it seemed.  Nyx stared at her books but opened none of them.

The first night, both children slept with their mother.  Nyx, fourteen years old, stared at the ceiling as her mother laid her head on her chest and traced circles into her stomach.  The girl felt her tears, cool and damp on her skin.  Atalo curled into a fetal position and didn’t move.

By the end of the first month, Nyx wiped her tears.  She rolled up her sleeves and did the dishes, swept the floors, made the beds, helped Atalo with his lessons, and made dinner for her family.  She fixed the creaks and squeaks of the house with the old tools they had.  She made trips to the market, sometimes with Atalo, but never with her mother.  She turned down the opportunity to join a traveling scholar’s company, and instead tried to find work in the village.

She kissed her mother’s forehead one night when the woman had awoken in hysterics.

“A-ma,” she whispered to a sleeping Fotini. “Sometimes, I’m not sure if I’m good…but I can fight for you.  You have me…”


Back to The Performers | Forward to The Lizard's Toll

The Performers

“You are mere flesh. I–I–I–I am utter flesh, density of desire, the gravity of skin: what makes the engine of creation run. Not physics but ecstatics makes the engine run. The body is the garden of the soul.” — The Angel1

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” — e. e. cummings


She thought she saw Halward in the back of her eyelids.

Images in the misty recesses that existed when the world was shut out; like precious opals, fleeting songbirds in the corners of her thoughts, and delicate rays of light dancing behind the curtain to her perception.  These made her think heavy things–like birth and death and the cost of breathing.

Usually when she was knocked flat onto her back by Thendril, her unrelenting trainer, she’d just think of something pretty and inviting.  Nothing quite so grand, abstract, and out of range for a twelve-year-old.  Her mother’s smile.  A painting she liked.  Happy music.  A cute puppy.  Today, however, she was training with Warner, her father–a rare occurrence of which had only happened once before–when she’d first started her training at the age of seven.

“Up, Elmiryn.  Now.”

She envisioned Halward, the All-God, reaching deep within her, and the girl choked on the sudden recall that hit her mind.  She remembered her mother, looking very young and pretty, working on a painting on the balcony overlooking their estate.  The girl had been small then, with an infant’s vocabulary and grabby hands.  One pull and the lip of a paint can tipped, sending red paint all over her.  She didn’t remember what her mother said exactly–but she recalled the woman being upset, even unto tears.

“You turn thirteen in just a few days,” her father said. She heard Warner begin to pace around her.  “My condition was simple.  Either you defeat me in combat before this coming birthday, or you’ll spend the rest of your training locked away here until you’re ready to serve in the king’s army.”  Her father paused, and the absence of his voice was heavy.  When he spoke again, it was with a low tone.  “Don’t you want to see your mother again?”

Elmiryn’s eyes snapped open, and all she saw was sunlight.

——————————–

Years ago, when Elmiryn was seven.

In her mother’s chambers, sitting on the edge of a massive bed.  Fiamman lamps in each corner lit the large room in a warm glow, making the crimson velvet curtains seem deeper and richer in shade and texture.  Candles at the bedside table flickered from the breeze drafting in through the one open window.

Brianna brushed her daughter’s hair carefully, using a silver brush with a mirror on the back, humming a song as she worked.  Elmiryn glowered at the paneled wall, her arms crossed over her tiny chest.

“I don’t want to wear it,” she mumbled.

“This isn’t a discussion,” was her mother’s smooth reply.

The girl let her lower lip pout even more.  “It’s itchy.”

“You haven’t even worn it yet, Elle.”  Her mother was the only person in the world who called her this.  It brought the girl immense pleasure.

Her face brightened at the nickname.  “I can tell the future,” was her riposte.

A small sigh.  “You cannot tell the future.”

“I can tell the future.  And when I wear the dress, I’m going to think that stupid thing is itchy.”

“Okay sweetest, if you can see so much, then what am I thinking?”

Elmiryn twisted around to grin shyly at her mother.  Brianna’s cerulean eyes held mirth. The woman had long, warm hair–not quite red and not quite brown, but a shimmering shade in-between.  She had an expressive mouth–long and curvaceous–and a slim button nose.  The woman had sent away the attendants, opting to help her daughter get ready for the ball herself.  Because of this, she still wore her domestic evening clothes, a lavender silk dress and a thin cotton robe with beaded slippers.

The seven-year-old puffed out her cheeks and stared up at the coffered ceiling as she tried to conjure up an answer.  Then an idea came to her, and she doubled over, giggling, her arms rising to cover her blushing face.  “Umm…’Elmiryn is the most beautiful girl in the world?'” she managed through her smile.

Her mother gasped, dropping the brush and feigning a look of shock.  “Oh my goodness!” she reached around and started to tickle the girl, sending the child into a squealing fit.  “You were able to read my mind!!

Brianna.

The game stopped immediately at the stern voice, and both mother and child turned to see Warner standing in the doorway.  He was tall and slim, with an angular face and hard gray eyes.  His bright red hair was swept back neatly.  At the temples, the strands were paling into a sort of platinum blond.  Tonight, he wore his soldier’s dress uniform–pleated gray pants and a thick wool coat with polished golden buttons.  Pristine white gloves on the hands.  Draping his back was a short, blue cloak, meant more as a symbol of status than protection.

“Stop playing with the girl and get ready,” the man said, already turning and walking down the hall.  “We’re due to leave in less than two hours.”

His footsteps echoed farther and farther away.

Elmiryn stuck her tongue out after him.  Brianna gave her a whap on the forehead that stung.  “None of that.  Your father’s right.  We’re late.” But as she picked her daughter up and moved to the dressing screen where the girl’s dress awaited on a hook, the mother couldn’t help but add with a slight grin, “Even if he is a stick-in-the-mud…” and they shared a conspiratorial giggle.

Two hot, itchy, and irritable hours later, they were at the Aimeri’s Ball.  The Aimeri House was strong in the royal courts, playing a part in nearly every major decision of the kingdom.  Their estate made those of the Manard’s, Elmiryn’s family, seem tiny in comparison.  They had acres to their name, and their home was second only to the royal family.

Elmiryn didn’t understand these functions at all–and fortunately neither did her mother, something she confided to her daughter during the carriage ride over.  Both were dressed in their finest, hair coiffed, cheeks powdered with rouge and eyes lined with black pencil.  Elmiryn wore small diamond stud earrings and a light-blue dress with white ribbons.  She felt like rolling on the ground to get at the persistent itch all around her.

Her father vanished upon arrival, stating that he had business to take care of, and since his departure, the mother and daughter were left to make what they would of the night.

They had come through the loggia out into the perrenial garden where some of the most powerful lords and ladies of the Engus province complained about the help, discussed the finer points of fashion, and debated political matters.  It sounded like drivel to Brianna.  To Elmiryn, it sounded like gobbledygook.

“If you don’t like it, mother, then why do you pretend?” Elmiryn whispered inquisitively as Brianna gritted a smile at the Lady Poratel, who waved at them from across the thorny rose bushes.

“Because, sweetest,” the woman explained.  “It is expected of me.  We are members of the royal court.  We must act accordingly.”

“But you don’t like it!  You told me so yourself!” the girl frowned up at her mother.

Brianna looked at her daughter, chagrined.  “Even so, I have no choice.  If I were to behave as I wished, it would shame your grandparents and your father.  It’s difficult for you to understand, but this would bring us much trouble.”

“But if you thought someone’s hat looked funny, why can’t you say so?  Maybe they’ll think it’s funny too?”

“Ahh…you’re thinking of that time you commented on Lady Mirabellum’s new hat?”

Elmiryn puckered her lips, her brow dipping low.  “Father got so angry with me that time…”

“You see, Elle, you must pretend for the sake of yourself as much as for others.  Your words brought you misfortune!  You can be yourself when it is safe, when no one would expect otherwise.  That is why I tease and jest in quiet.  But until that time of freedom, you have to just…go along with how the world works.”

The girl blinked and stopped walking.

Brianna stopped as well and smiled at her daughter.  “Hmm?  Was there something else, dear?”

Elmiryn squinted her eyes at the woman.  “I’m trying to see.”

“See what?”

“If you’re pretending to be happy with me.”

The smile fell from Brianna’s face, and she dropped into a crouch.  She grabbed at Elmiryn’s shoulders tightly and gave her a shake.  “What a thing to say!  Of course I’m not pretending!”

“But you pretend with father all the time!”

Brianna moved her hands to gently cup the girl’s face.  The woman’s eyes teared up and she looked at Elmiryn, wounded.  “You…think I don’t love you?”

At the sight of her mother’s tears, she immediately felt sorry.  She caught the woman in a tight hug.

“Mama!” She’d been told not to say this word, because it was a peasant’s word not befitting a noble.  But Elmiryn found her ability to speak reduced to simple consonants and vowels as she became emotionally gripped. “M’sorry!”

Brianna hugged the girl back, wiping at her eyes carefully.  “There, there.  I’m sorry too, sweetest…I didn’t mean…you just…do what makes you happy.  I suppose you’d be predisposed to such behavior, given your father’s bloodline…”

Elmiryn pulled back, her little hands cupping her mother’s cheeks.  Her face was tight with anxiety.  “You won’t cry anymore?”

“I wasn’t crying dear…”

The girl puckered her lips and frowned critically at her mother.

Brianna blinked, then laughed.  The sound was melodic.  She gently gripped Elmiryn’s wrists.  “Ah…I suppose I was!”

“Why do you laugh when you were just crying?” The girl asked, now even more puzzled than before.  “You smile when things aren’t funny, too.”

Elmiryn was about to add, “That’s really weird!” to her statement, but thought better of it.  The child had decided her mother was a bit emotionally sensitive, and didn’t want to set her crying again, even if she herself sometimes forgot the various ways one could upset a person.  This self-censorship made the girl start.

…Was this what her mother had meant about “pretending” until the time was right?

Brianna fussed over the girl’s appearance, tightening bows, smoothing wrinkles, and brushing back rebellious locks of auburn hair.  “Because, my little Elle.  One must always find a reason to laugh,” she smiled, but the expression seemed crooked somehow. “It can get you through the toughest of times, because you appreciate life, even at its thorniest.”

After the exchange was done, they admired the garden in peace, away from the others, the mother managing to avoid some of the chattier gossipers.  But a chime from the northern clock tower had the woman pulling her daughter along, her white gown and heavy beaded throw shining in the smile of the waning moon.

“We need to hurry sweetest, or we’ll miss the main event!” Brianna explained in response to her daughters complaints.  The girl would have much rather had stayed out in the fragrant garden, watching the trails of snails along the stone and the way the ants made the ground seem alive.

They rushed, not quite running but not quite walking either.  Their forms cast shadows along the limestone walls.  They returned to the focus of the evening, the ballroom, through large marble archways that kept the space cool despite the number of party goers.  Musicians let their sound crawl along the space–magnified by the concave ceiling painted with pastel depictions of the various gods prominent in Fiamman culture–chief among them Halward, the All-God, the Creator of the Universe and the Star Ruler.

Elmiryn blinked up at the ceiling mural, at the god king that sat half-naked, surrounded by his subjects.  He had a handsome, but stern face, with strawberry blond hair and a short beard.  Covering him was just a white sheet around the waist that came near his knees.  The girl wondered if he was cold up in heaven.

Her view to the dance floor was forested by an audience of nobles, but they had a reserved table near the front of the ballroom, close to the music.  Once there, Elmiryn sat on her mother’s lap and was able to see the orchestral sway of dancers along the polished floor.  It interested her for all but two minutes before her attention turned to playing with the cloth napkin on the table.  She’d seen the servants dancing in their quarters, and knew for a fact that real dancing involved alot more grabbing and kicking of the feet.

As such, the girl was very glad she wasn’t passed off to an attendant that night, because Brianna had a special eye for things, and she often shared what she saw with her daughter.

“Look, look,” the woman breathed into the girl’s ear as Elmiryn made a hand puppet of her napkin.  Blinking curiously, she followed where her mother pointed across the dance floor at a young couple that looked as though they were being tortured.  “The boy,” she went on, “I think he’s from the Winnolm’s House, he keeps stepping on the girl.  But the girl, from the Satorett’s House–you played with her little brother once–she’s doing the same to him!” Brianna giggled.  “They can hardly stand it, but the poor dears are being made to dance by their parents.”

Elmiryn didn’t know the Winnolm’s, but she’d been to the Satorett’s and she remembered that particular girl as being quite the priss.   When she was through giggling into her hands, she calmed down enough to turn and ask, “Why?”

Her mother smiled at her gently.  “Why what, dear?”

“Why are they dancing?  Why do their parents make them do it?  Isn’t it s’posed to be for fun?”

“SU-pposed to.  Don’t cut your words, Elmiryn.” Then Brianna’s brow wrinkled in thought.  “It’s…difficult to explain, why.  The simplest way to say it is that they want the two to marry.”

“Why?”

“Because they think good things will come of it.”

“…Like what?”

Brianna’s face turned flushed and she frowned at the girl.  “Elmiryn you’re being awfully persistent tonight!  Be a good girl and just enjoy the evening as best you can, hmm?”

Elmiryn puckered her lips and swung side to side in response. It had been on her mind in the latter days, ever since one of her attendants had brought up her sex life in detail whilst watching the girl play in the courtyard.  She’d thought the youth was out of earshot and had called over one of the water maids to gossip.  Elmiryn had learned early that adults tended to mention the most interesting things when they thought no children were around to hear them.  So the girl, meanwhile, had pretended she was hunting the evil Ailuran named Felix (really, just the house cat napping on the lawn–this was before the Fiamman-Ailuran war had started in full, and the trend of killing cats on sight had become popular in the kingdom).

Brianna winced and grabbed the girl by the shoulders, ceasing her movements.  “Dearest?  Your bottom hurts mother when you do that,” she smoothed out the girl’s dress.  “Remember what we talked about?  All your lessons with Lady Priscella?  Don’t fidget and–” Brianna sighed as she stopped Elmiryn from scratching at her back, “Never scratch.”

“I told you I wouldn’t like this dress…” Elmiryn muttered sullenly.

Brianna shushed the girl.  “Look!  The Duke is coming.  He’s promised us a grand show.  I’m sure you’ll like it.”

——————————–

The girl sat up as quick as she could, but winced as she moved.  Her father was a shadow over her, backlit by the morning light.  They were in the courtyard, where the blue sky was open to them, even as they were still in the confines of her father’s private training grounds, located in Ebinus.  She placed her hands over her head against the dirt, curling them back so that the fingers were directed toward the body.  She pushed next with her legs, digging in with her heels.  There was a twinge in her right ankle, but she could still put weight on it.

With a breath, Elmiryn kicked up from the ground hard, and as her body rose into the air feet first, she tucked her legs in and pushed at the ground with her hands.

The girl sprang up and landed on her feet with a decisive snap.  Her fists were before her, clenched and sweaty.  She glared at her father for a second, but let her eyes flicker to the ground behind him.  She’d lost her training sword in the last assault.  Though she was quicker than her father, she’d need the extra reach.  That, and while the conditions for victory required her only to incapacitate Warner, she knew hand-to-hand would be nearly impossible for her.

“Excellent,” her father said, nodding once at her quick recovery.  “You move like a true warrior.  Now think like one!”

And they were back to fighting.

——————————–

The head of the Aimeri House, Duke Dreton Aimeri, gave a speech about the new year, about the good omens coming, and his contributions to the community.  Elmiryn started to nod off in Brianna’s lap, but a sharp pinch from her mother made the girl sit bolt upright.  She pouted at the woman, who gave the girl a warning stare.

Then, as promised, the performers came.

This had been all the buzz in the kingdom as word had been that the Aimeri’s had hired acrobats all the way from the Higashi Kingdom.

They appeared on the center of the cleared dance floor, ten men and ten women all dressed in close-fitted clothing, cool in color–unusual for Fiamma who was used to seeing warm shades.

The acrobats, with little fanfare, started their show.  They flew through the air without mechanical aid, graceful bodies arcing, perfectly poised, landing with confidence each time.  They made human sculptures of taut muscles, which built a brilliant sight to Elmiryn’s young mind.  These people looked so different from herself.  They had pearly skin and thin, jet black hair.  Their eyes were dark and narrow.  It was the first time she had ever seen people from outside the kingdom.

The finale was to be a human tower, consisting of twenty people.  The one to stand on top?

A small figure jogged across the dance floor to the gasps of many.  Elmiryn sat forward, pulling her legs up so that she could raise herself higher.  Brianna smiled with mild exasperation as she craned her head around her daughter.  She thought to pull the girl down again–she wasn’t carrying herself in a proper manner at all…but none were looking their way, and the girl seemed so enthralled with the sight before her that it seemed far too stern to interrupt.

The new performer, a young girl with bobbed hair, conquered the perilous mountain of limbs and shoulders in less than eight seconds.  When she reached the top, atleast fifteen feet in the air, she raised both hands and smiled winningly.  To make certain all in the ballroom could see, the members on the top shuffled to the left, creating the appearance of a revolving platform.

Elmiryn smiled, her eyes wide with wonder.

All around, the crowd clapped as the tower disassembled and the performers gave their final bow.  The general murmur was positive, but reserved.

“Wasn’t that just darling?”

“What a curious performance.”

“Why, they’re so like little dolls!

Brianna stroked Elmiryn’s hair.  The woman was smiling openly, showing all teeth.  “Did you like that, Elmiryn?”

The girl looked at her, and mirrored her smile.  But someone approached from the corner of her eye, and when they turned to see who it was, their smiles waned.  The child quickly sat on her bottom, smoothing out her dress as she gazed up at the newcomer through her bangs.

Elmiryn’s father stood, hands behind his back.  He raised his eyebrows at Brianna.  “I need to speak with you.  Unburdened, as it were.” His eyes flickered to Elmiryn.

Brianna frowned, even as she gently displaced the girl and stood.  “Warner, dearest,” she said in a low voice, “Surely whatever you have to discuss with me can be done in public?  If not, couldn’t this wait until we’re home?  We haven’t seen you all night!  You promised me we’d spend the evening as a family.”

The man’s lips thinned and his gaze narrowed a fraction.  Elmiryn wondered if her father ever pretended like her mother did.  If the coldness and strictness that shrouded him were really natural.  “Brianna,” the voice held steel.

The woman gazed back at him quietly.  Then she bowed her head.  “Let me find Julianna, then–”

“No need.  The Aimeri’s are kindly providing us with their child attendant.”  He stepped to the side and gestured at a short woman with platinum gray hair and wrinkled eyes that stood behind him.  He looked at Elmiryn.  “This is Eneste.  Elmiryn, I expect you to be on your best behavior.”

The girl resisted the urge to wrinkle her nose at the older woman.  She smelled like cabbages.  “Yes, father,” she said instead.

Eneste held out her liver-spotted hands, and the girl reluctantly stepped toward her.  She looked at her mother, pleading silently with her eyes.

The woman nodded and smiled, though the expression was subdued somehow.  “Go on, sweetest.”

Elmiryn craned her head as Eneste took her hand, her grip cold, and led her through the crowd of nobles.  The seven-year-old could hear her mother’s voice, even when she’d lost sight of her face.  “I’ll come find you soon…”

——————————–

She rose to her feet, coming out from another nasty fall.  She brought her fists back before her, her eyes flickering once again to her sword.  Her father had effectively kept her from retrieving it.  In truth, she knew he was dragging the fight out–wearing her down.  She’d trained every day since she and her father had last fought.  Elmiryn wanted to show her father what she could do.

She wanted him to see Halward in the back of his gods damned eyelids.

The girl bared her teeth and charged forward, kicking up dust as she rushed to engage Warner once again.

——————————–

Eneste liked to talk about all the children she’d once cared for.  She followed Elmiryn through the perennial garden, talking, her voice reminiscent of dead dry leaves.

“Ah, she was so darling!  You’re almost as pretty as she was, dear.  Lady Aimeri was such a special girl.  Once, she’d played the harp for my birthday!  Do you know how to play any instruments, dear?  Oh, Lady Aimeri knew so many…”

And it went on and on.

Elmiryn didn’t even try to listen.  The woman was slow and annoying.  She wanted to get away from her.

She pointed excitedly down one of the pathways and cried, “My mother’s coming!”

Eneste turned to look, squinting her eyes.  “Oh?  Where?”

The girl had pretended…until the time was right.

Elmiryn pulled away from the woman with a wrench of her hand, and ran in the opposite direction.  The attendant squawked as she realized what had just happened.  “Lady Elmiryn, wait!”

But the girl did not wait.  If anything, she ran faster.

Nobles stared after her, gasping and glaring as she pushed past dresses and cloaks and furs and legs.  She knew better than to return to the ballroom–if she were caught by her father…well in truth, she didn’t know what would happen.  Elmiryn had never done something so blatantly defiant before.  She wasn’t behaving as she should, and the pressure that pushed on her was immense.  There was so much indignation from the lords and ladies, so much open shock and so many appalled expressions.  Servants moved to snatch her up, but the little girl dodged them easily.  They would be poor opponents in a game of tag.

She decided she liked not pretending better.

Giggling, the girl ran through empty hallways, where guests were scarce.  As she came across guards and servants, she moved carefully, avoiding them.  She realized she was moving into an area she was really not supposed to be, but Elmiryn figured it was all a part of the adventure.  Her mother liked to tell her stories before bed, and they were much like this.  Certainly, she’d find something of interest…?

Elmiryn hopped down a short staircase, entering a peristyle–a columned porch that looked over a small garden.  At the back was a man-made pond.

Seated at the water’s edge was the little acrobat girl.  Elmiryn could hear her weeping from where she stood, and she stopped, transfixed in the shadows.

——————————–

She was a noble girl, no matter what.  Her father wouldn’t risk cutting her, wouldn’t risk damaging her face.  Appearances were everything.

That didn’t mean he couldn’t bruise her in places hidden.

Elmiryn cried out as she fell again.  Her body hurt with every strike of his sword.  Baring her teeth, she struggled to sit up again.  Her limbs quivered.  They’d been at this for more than ten hours and she had yet to have eaten.  Warner may have looked old, but he certainly didn’t act like it.

The man gazed down at her with imperious eyes. “Are you done?” his lip curled.  “All those years I put into you, and you’re already done? Maybe it’s just as well, then.  You would have been torn apart by the Ailurans, and it would’ve upset your mother beyond the point of return–”

“Shut up!” she screamed.  The girl pushed to her feet, swaying.  Sweat stung her eyes, and the strands from her ponytail stuck to her damp neck.  She fell into a fighting stance.  “Stop talking about her!”  She hated hearing Warner speak of her mother.  He objectified the woman, and vilified her.  But Elmiryn knew better.  She knew what Brianna had really thought of her father’s plans.  “You’re just pretending!”  Then the girl’s face drew blank and she stared at her father as though seeing him for the first time.  “You’re…pretending.” She repeated slowly.

——————————–

Elmiryn stepped forward quietly, the moonlight swathing her in a cool light.

“Hello?” she said.

The girl yelped and spun her head around.  The sudden movement made her hands slip on the wet stone, and she tumbled back into the pond.

“Iya!” she cried, flailing.

Elmiryn winced and hurried forward, her scuffed shoes squeaking as she bent and creased them in her run.  They had never been meant for such hurried movement.

At the pond, the youth wrinkled her nose at the smell of still water.  The acrobat girl had ceased her struggles, and stared up at Elmiryn with dark almond shaped eyes bewildered, wet locks of hair clinging to her porcelain face.  She shivered, dressed only in her thin performer outfit, and hugged her knees to her chest as she took in the sight of the redhead standing over her.  This made Elmiryn feel self-conscious, and she took a hesitating step backward.

She felt scared.  Her heart was loud in her ears.

Blushing, the redhead tried to summon her courage and held out her hand.  “Let me help,” she said.

The Higashan blinked up at her.  Then gingerly, she took Elmiryn’s hand.  With a grunt, she was out of the pond on her feet.

Up close, the seven-year-old saw that the young performer’s eyes were swollen and pink.  There were also tell-tale qualities in the way her expression shifted from that of fear to reservation, the gravity with which she carried herself…the acrobat girl wasn’t Elmiryn’s age.  She was much older. (“Much”–in her child’s mind–being some two years at the least.)

The girl was even an inch taller than her–a detail revealed only in proximity.  Elmiryn became even more bashful as she stared down at the ground.  Her left thumb flexed against soft wet skin, and she became aware of the fact that she was still holding the Higashan’s hand–

“…Hanasu, chi nu hai.”

Elmiryn’s eyes raised again and was met by the Higashan’s irritated face.  “Hanasu!

Then she wrenched her hand away from the seven-year-old.  The girl gave a start, stumbling back until she’d fallen on her behind.

“Gáau ngóh!” the Higashan shrilled, stomping her foot.  She turned her face away quickly then, but Elmiryn saw her face start to crumple in that familiar way she’d seen her mother’s whenever the woman was upset.

The girl stood up, her palms throbbing and a little scratched from taking the brunt of her fall.  She wiped them on her dress to rid herself of the rocks and dirt.  “What’s the matter?” she asked.

The Higashan didn’t even look at her this time.  She just waved a dismissive hand at her.  “Cheh-cheh! Gáau ngóh!”

Elmiryn bit her lip and stared upward.  “Umm…I dunno what that means.”  Then she corrected herself, remembering what her mother had said.  “I do not know what that means.” She didn’t want the Higashan to think she was stupid.

She peered at the acrobat, her brows pressing together as she took in how the girl’s shivering had gotten worse.  The night was a cool one, but a dip in scummy pond water was certainly enough to turn the breeze into a frigid wind.

Elmiryn lightly touched the Higashan’s shoulder.  She thought of hugging the girl, as she didn’t have her shawl with her, but the acrobat shrank away from her, hissing.

The redhead let her head drop. “I’m sorry I scared you…I didn’t mean for you to fall into the pond.”  Then her eyes brightened and she looked up with a grin.

The Higashan girl, named Ting, had run away from her performance group after her mother had attacked her with a switch for not climbing the human tower faster.  But now she was lost in the labyrinth that was the Aimeri estate.  She had been certain she would receive an even harsher beating for this, but had decided that she’d rather die at Fiamman hands for trespassing than suffer the tyranny of her mother any longer.  But instead of the guards Ting had expected, this little girl had come–and how troublesome she was!  Now to add to her misfortune, she smelled like pond scum.  Why was her life so hard and miserable?

Ting heard a splash and was drawn out of her angst long enough to turn around and see Elmiryn beaming up at her, her dress soaked from top-to-bottom with smelly pond water.

The redhead plucked up a lily pad, placed it on top of her head, and croaked out, “Ribbit!

Ting didn’t know what to make of this.  At first she stared at Elmiryn as though she were a lunatic.  Then, unbidden, she started to laugh.  She kept laughing until her ribs hurt.

——————————–

Warner shook his head, scowling at her.  “You’re speaking nonsense.  I never pretend.  Brianna was my wife before she was your mother.  You think she didn’t know about my plans for you?”

Elmiryn smiled slowly.

The man’s face took on a puzzled look.  “She’s weak-minded your mother.  She needed someone strong like me to guide her.  She needed me to protect her from those pirahnic fools that plague the royal court.”

The girl started to giggle, losing her fighting stance as she doubled over and leaned onto her knees.

Warner slashed the air angrily with his wooden sword.  “Insolent girl!”  He stomped forward, the weapon drawn back.  “If you wish for it, then I’ll punish you for your carelessness!”

When the man was within striking range, Elmiryn tipped her body forward and rolled off to the side.  Warner grunted as the blow he expected to connect fell through open air.  This left him off-balance for a second, and it was all Elmiryn needed to distance herself from the man.  Springing out of her roll with a newfound energy, the twelve-year-old recovered her blade from the ground and swung around into a charge.

——————————–

Names were easy enough to figure out.  Both girl pointed at themselves, stating their names emphatically, and the messages were well received.  On the other hand, it took a fair bit of miming on Ting’s part to explain her situation to Elmiryn.  The redhead delighted in this round of charades, seeing it as a sort of game.  Finally she thought she had it.

“So…you were attacked by your pet monkey and was looking for food to make it less grumpy?  Is that how you got lost?”

The only thing Ting got out of this was “monkey” and “food”–both Common words she’d learned one way or another–but she suspected it was quite far from what she’d been trying to say all along.

The Higashan face-palmed and waved the answer away like it were a lingering cloud of smoke.  “Mei!  Mei!” No!  No!

Ting sighed and pointed to the southern part of the estate.  She mimed running away by jogging in place and looking fearfully over her back.  Elmiryn looked to the North, where she’d come from, and back at Ting, who was pretending to run the opposite way.

Realization dawned on her young face.  “You…you’re running away?”

Ting nodded emphatically, touching her chest and pointing to the South.  “Run!” she said, her accent making the word seem thick in her mouth.  “Ting!  Run!”

Elmiryn bit her lip.  In her mind, she saw her actions like a stack of building blocks.  First, she’d run away from Eneste, second she’d trespassed into private areas of the Aimeri estate, and third she’d ruined her expensive dress.  Would helping a foreigner run away make things any worse?

“Hey!”  Both girls gave a start as an adult voice cut through the garden.  A servant carrying a basket of cloths pointed at them.  He’d appeared from the same hall Elmiryn had.  “You’re not supposed to be here!”

Elmiryn grabbed Ting’s hand and pulled her into a run, across the pond and into the cool hallway heading South…

——————————–

Warner turned around just in time to see his daughter’s face vanish within the blink of an eye.  What had really happened was the girl had dropped into a perfect split, and she jammed the tip of her sword into her father’s crotch.  The man curled in, dropping his sword as he stared at her with a purpling face.

Elmiryn smiled up at him briefly before she swept her back leg forward, hitting the back of the man’s left knee.  When he fell into a kneel, the girl thrust the edge of her sword into her father’s neck.  She pushed forward with all her body, and her father gurgled as the object pressed into his windpipe.  He slammed into the ground and stared up at his daughter, brows raised high and veins bulging.

“Mother taught me that,” she breathed, smirking. “Sometimes, you just gotta laugh.  And sometimes, you just gotta wait till the right moment to quit faking it…”

Her father said nothing for a minute.  Then his lips spread apart in an alligator’s grin.

Elmiryn straightened and clambered off her father, her face turning somber.

Warner chuckled deeply as he pushed himself onto his elbows.  “Good…very good, Elmiryn.  You finally used your head.  You’ll need that guile when you get older.”

“Are we done?” The youth pressed, her brows knitting.

Warner straightened and nodded his head once.  “We’re done.  I’ll have the servants ready your bath.”

——————————–

Elmiryn didn’t know the estate any better than Ting did, honestly.  But together they managed to slip past more servants and guards.  They entered the backwoods, and here the Higashan stopped, turning to Elmiryn with a smile.

“Kam sia.  Tank-yoo, xiǎo jie Elmiryn!”  Ting gently pressed at the girl’s back and pointed back North.  “Ting go.  Elmiryn go.”  She took her hands, palms pressed together, then separated them.

Elmiryn immediately understood what the Higashan meant.  The girl looked at her, pained.  “But…aren’t you scared?”

Ting blinked at her.  “Ss-scarred?”

“No.  Scared.  Afraid.”  Elmiryn mimed biting her fingers anxiously.  “Scared!  Aren’t you?”

Ting giggled and nodded, pointing at herself.  “Yesh!  Ting, ss-scarred!”

Elmiryn pointed at herself shyly. “Elmiryn…go?  With Ting?”

The Higashan shook her head emphatically.  “Mei!  Xiǎo jie Elmiryn home!” She pointed at the ground.  “Stay!  Fiamman!”

The girl’s eyes teared up, but she sucked at her lower lip to keep it from trembling.

Ting patted her head.  “Ja, ne?”

Then they heard someone speaking, and heavy footfalls on stone.  Both girls turned to see two figures emerging from the gates that protected the main grounds.  They ducked, hearts hammering, and as the men drew closer, they heard what they said to one another.

“One of the servants said they saw two kids run out this way.  But what kid in their right mind would pull a stunt like this on Aimeri land?”

“Who knows.  But we have to check, or we could get into even more trouble for letting them get by!”

Ting turned to look at Elmiryn fearfully.  “Iya!” she breathed.  “Chi nán dù!  Bad!”

Elmiryn grabbed at the girl, and carefully, they scuttled together behind a bush.  One of the guards drew closer, and his shadowed face peered their way.

“Did you hear that?” he whispered.

Elmiryn could feel Ting trembling next to her.  She looked at the girl, her heart like a humming bird in her chest.  She blushed when she realized how close the Higashan was.  She smelled…sweet.  And her body was warm.  But the look on her face twisted Elmiryn’s guts.  She decided she wanted to make the look of fear go away.

“Ting!” Elmiryn whispered.

Ting looked at her.

Elmiryn kissed her cheek quickly, making Ting’s eyes turn wide.  The redhead’s face was burning.  “Bye!” she breathed, before bursting out of the bush and running between the surprised guard’s legs.

“Woah–hey!  You!  Wait!”  He chased after her.

Elmiryn ran back toward the main grounds, her little lungs burning.  She ran until she felt hands snatch her up from behind.

——————————–

The Fiamman lamps were cold in the corners.  The bedroom was dark with the velvet curtains drawn closed.

Elmiryn stood in the doorway, her eyes on the mountain of blankets seemed to collect in the center of the vast bed.  She stepped into the room, aware that it was the first time in nearly five years.  Back then, she’d been such a small thing, with arms like noodles and a limited understanding of what it meant to have a father who was a high ranking official in the Fiamman military.  She’d worn dresses and stiff shoes, powdered her face and worn earrings.  Now she strode in pants and fresh leather boots, with a sword belt around her waist and a body that would shame even the fittest boy.

Elmiryn went to the curtains.  She stood before them, her body tensed like she were waiting for an attack from Thendril.  Her throat was tight.  Then she tore the curtains to the sides and whipped around, all smiles.

“Mother!  Rise and shine!” she cried.

The bed squeaked as Brianna startled awake, her eyes glassy but wide as she stared around.  Her hair was a veritable bird’s nest–quite a rare sight, as Elmiryn recalled her mother always being careful with her appearance.  She was always so careful with her appearance…

The newly-turned thirteen-year-old jumped onto the bed, making the woman gasp and sit bolt upright.

Elmiryn smirked at her and tilted her head to one side.  “Mama…are you happy to see me?” she asked, her voice teasing.

——————————–

Elmiryn felt a little ill as she was presented to her father and mother in a private room somewhere on the estate.  Unbeknowst to her was that Warner had promised Duke Dreton a fair bit of gold and a large favor to keep the matter quiet.

Brianna was in tears.  “Elmiryn, you foolish child, what were you thinking!?  You had me so worried!”

The girl looked down at her ruined shoes, scuffed and stained with dirt.  “I’m sorry…”

“Just wait until we’re home, young lady,” Warner seethed, his face purple as he glared down at her.

The girl hunched her shoulders around her ears.  Brianna moved to hug the girl, but her husband stopped her, his eyes flashing.

“We’re going home.  Now!” he snapped.

And sure enough, they were home within the hour–the carriage driver pushing the horses at Warner’s order.  Once there, the girl was denied supper, and instead, was sent to take a bath.

After her attendant’s had scrubbed her skin pink and the last of the pond scum was gone from her hair, Elmiryn emerged from the bath wrapped in a small robe.  Her attendant led her into the hallway, and there, the girl heard her parents arguing in their bedroom down the way.

“Warner, please don’t do this!”

“Brianna, the matter is settled.  I’ve decided that the girl leaves tomorrow.  She’s shown the final signs.”

“It wasn’t a sign, it was childish antics–nothing more!”

“No noble child in her right mind would have done as she has.  This isn’t the typical youthful rebellion.”

As Elmiryn was led to her room, she pulled at her attendant’s hand, slowing their progress.  She stared, wide-eyed at the bedroom doors, and saw her father’s figure flit past the narrow opening before her mother stopped into view.  She was red in the face and looking frantic.  The attendant tugged at her arm, whispering that the girl had to follow, but Elmiryn only wrenched away and ran to the doorway, her slippers smacking over the polished floor.  She slid into a crouch outside her parents bedroom, the light that filtered through the door crack like a line dividing her down the middle.

“You base so much off the word of a seer,” her mother shrilled,  “What of me!?  Her mother?  Your wife.  Don’t I have a say in this destiny you keep going on about!?”

“I will not argue this further.  I’ve already sent a messenger to Thendril.”

“Warner.”

No response from her father.  Elmiryn felt a sense of dread pool into her stomach as the attendant caught up with her and dragged her back to her room by the robes.

Warner!” she heard her mother scream.

The next morning, Elmiryn was sent away to begin her private training as a warrior.  She cried for a full year before she remembered how to pretend.  It took another year before she remembered how to smile.  And once she did, it seemed hard not to laugh.  And when she started to laugh, it was especially hard to stop.

“One must always find a reason to laugh.  It can get you through the toughest of times, because you appreciate life, even at its thorniest.”

——————————–

Brianna stared at her daughter, mouth agape.  The five years had not been kind to her.  She seemed so much older now, with gray hairs appearing at the roots and faint lines around the eyes and mouth.  Her skin no longer seemed so radiant, and even her bosom seemed to yield to gravity.

The woman’s lips twitched.  Then her face flashed into a wide smile, showing all teeth.  “My sweetest Elle!  You’re home!”

Elmiryn mirrored the expression.  She couldn’t resist a smart response, however. “Oh, we’re home?  I thought father had tricked me into walking into a dungeon.”

For all her combat training, Elmiryn hardly expected the sharp whap on the forehead from her mother.  She also received a strong hug afterward, and she stared at the paneled wall across the room.  She grinned, but her eyes watered, even as she tried to keep herself from choking up.

“Elmiryn you’re incorrigible…” Brianna hissed.  Then she added quietly, “I missed you so much, dearest.  Really.”

Elmiryn squeezed her mother around the shoulders and closed her eyes, two tears leaking out of the corners of her eyes.  “…I missed you too, mama.  Really.”


Back to Short Term Solutions | Forward to Tooth and Nail

  1. From the HBO miniseries ‘Angels in America’; directed by Mike Nichols; written by Tony Kushner; produced by Celia D. Costas; first aired in 2003; starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Patrick Wilson, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, and Justin Kirk. []

Short Term Solutions

“One mistake in a subtle way
Like I’m walking again, all on me
Step slowly, you know that you fall between
Dark places, what a simple web we weave

We sing the nightmare of the lies that you speak
The beast that I lie beneath is coming in
We sing the nightmare of the lies that you speak
The beast that I lie beneath is coming in”1

QUINCY____________________________

Live steps.  Wired steps.  Livewired steps that shocked from the soles up the shins to the hips to the heart to the mind to the fingertips and back again.  She held her sword in her right hand around the scabbard, and tapped it against her leg.  She flashed along flagstone floors and compacted dirt trails that weaved in and out of the rocky mountainside.  Roots and vines weaved with statues, and fallen leaves flushed cold hallways.  She tucked a russet lock of hair behind her ear and hummed.  The ocean roar was a soothing presence all around and it set her in a good mood.  Somewhere, she could hear a chorus of people speaking in unison.  The carved, open windows looking outward onto the faded rooftops and white crest waves were stolen for the moment as she rounded the corner, heading eastward further into the mountain.  The commune was entirely based inside the looming mountain that overlooked the city of Crysen.  It was said that sorcerers had carved their place there, in the earth.

Torches lit the hallway she stepped through.  She flashed her eyes on younger pupils and they skittered out of her path, mouths agape, clutching at each other’s robes as she swept on by in a rush of lilac.  Then she paused at the archway at the end of the hall, the cold stone breathing around her from the draft of coastal air just ahead…

Quincy turned around and smiled, her left hand resting on her hip.

“Boys, where are you going?” she asked the two children huddled wide-eyed against the wall.

The two exchanged looks.  One stepped forward, barely four feet tall with gingery hair.  The shorter one behind him pulled his hood up and slouched.

“Alchemy lessons with Madame Igora…but it’s our first time, miss.  We’re lost.”

“Your masters?”

“We’ve got the same one, miss.  Master Fendrel.”

“Oh, I see.  Sorcerers, huh?”

The boy blushed and looked down at his tanned shoes.  “Not yet, miss.”

Quincy’s smile widened.  She jerked her head toward the archway and beckoned with her hand.  “Well come on, then.  Igora hates tardy pupils.”  She turned and started to walk, not waiting to see their reaction.

She heard the boys run to catch up.

They followed a little bit behind her as the hall led out onto the open courtyard, where a group of apprentices were stretching in lines.

Quincy looked at the boys over her shoulder.  “How’d you two end up at Crysen?”

“Our lord wishes for us to get training, so that we can protect him from any threats when we’re older.  We were escorted here by some of his personal guard.”

“Your lord must be powerful to get two boys so young to the Kilemare Coast.  Most of our newcomers are atleast entering their teens!”

The redheaded boy puffed his chest out and tried to square his shoulders.  “I don’t look like a teenager?” he said, voice strained from holding his breath.

Quincy giggled and stopped to ruffle the boy’s ginger mop.  “Don’t worry, you’ll strike others with your presence soon enough.”

The boy couldn’t seem to decide if he liked this attention or not.  Then his eyes lit up and he touched his head where her hand had been.  “…Miss, is it true you and sir Hakeem came to Crysen by yourselves and killed a full-grown dragon as a way to earn tutelage in the collective!?” he said this all quickly.  His little friend looked up from beneath his hood, his expression one of awe.

To earn training at the magical collective, one had to offer something of value to the master in question.  Some students, like the two boys before her, were sponsored by wealthy people of high standing.  She had even heard of certain students being the payment themselves–from previous students who had promised their first born child to their master.  While the masters ran their studies independently, arrangements often sprang up between them for collaboration, creating a sort of “school” environment without the proper system for it.  There was no headmaster and no detentions here.  The relationship between master and pupil was a personal one, and many masters residing at the collective still lacked students of their own.  Part of it was the dangerous location of the city.  The other part of it was that more than half of the prospective students died trying to prove themselves.

For those still awaiting training, idle minds delighted in twisting the truth.  Mystery and rumor was a staple of the commune, and Quincy found she was no more safe from it than a beach from the waves.

The girl scratched her head, a dubious grin spreading her lips.  “Um…”

“Quincy!”

Quincy looked up as Hakeem jogged toward her.  He wore thick boots meant for conquering rocks and mud, and loose cotton pants that draped over his shoes.  Normally he wore his special chainmail tunic, but at the moment he wore just a sleeveless shirt with a stained apron.  The teenage boy frowned at the two youngsters in her presence, then looked at Quincy again.

“Emiline told me to find you.  You’re due at the soup kitchen for lunch.”

The girl scowled.  “Now?  I can’t go now! I have to meet with Master Saerth!”

“If you don’t go, Emiline says she’s going to fire you without pay.  We won’t be able to pay Tegin for the room if this happens.”  Hakeem’s face was drawn and tense.  “Mweze, please.  Do this for me.

“There has to be another way.  Didn’t you try to talk to her?”

“Of course I did!  But do you think that mkundu listened to me?”  He pointed at the sword in her hands, sneering.  “If all you’re going to do is another useless session with that rusty sword, then please forget it and get over there.”

Quincy pursed her lips and gave him a leveling stare.  “I was told to meet with my master.  If the purpose just so happens to be for my sword, then it’s none of your flaming business!”  But her expression sobered and she gestured at the two boys.  “Look…Can you help them to Madame Igora’s?  I need to get this handled before I go.”

“So you will go?”

“Yes, yes!  I will, I promise.”

Hakeem glared down at the boys and the two shrank visibly.  He sighed and rolled his eyes.  “Fine, I’ll take these two then.  I have a bit more time before Emiline expects me back.”  He looked at the boys and jerked his head.  “Let’s go.”  He turned and started to walk away.

Quincy nudged the boys along and they stared at her pleadingly.  “Go on,” she said around her grin.  “He’ll only break your knees if you keep doddling!”

At this the boys ran to catch up with Hakeem, and when they did, they bumped into his back.  The man turned to stare at them with annoyed confusion.  “What’re you doing?

The brunette bit her lip, trying not to laugh as she turned to resume her original trip.  When she found Master Saerth, it was in his study, at the far corner of the collective.

Master Saerth looked up, his eyebrows raised.  “Quincy!  You’re early!  This is rare!  There were no tornadoes?  No runaway dragons?  No surprise attacks from assassins?”  He was only a little taller than her, with a short gray bushy beard, a shiny bald head, and shrewd deep blue eyes flecked with emerald.  When he stood from behind his desk, the room seemed to expand, as though to accommodate for his strong presence.

Quincy blushed before bowing low.  She was never late, but she did have a tendency to arrive just in the nick of time–and usually with a long tale as to how she nearly didn’t make it at all.  “No, Master.  Not this time.  Just some boys who needed my help.”

“Oh, well I suppose I can see how that wouldn’t deter you quite as much.”  The man came forward, hands behind his back.  Unlike some of the other masters in the collective, he wore thick wool pants and a white tunic without a belt.  His boots made sharp sounds on the stone floor as he came near.  “I do, however, get the impression that your punctuality was brought about by some pressing matter.  What’s happened?”

The teenager still didn’t rise from her bow.  “Sir, I face a financial dilemma.  As you know, I work at the local soup kitchen to pay for my living and training expenses.  Even though my husband and I have managed all this time, Emiline has served me an ultimatum–either I go to work for her now, or I lose my job and do not receive my pay for this week.  We owe our landlord in just a few days time, sir.  I face losing my home and a means to fund my studies.”

“So you came here first, seeking some sort of guidance?”

The girl tensed at the steel in her master’s voice.  “…Yes, sir.  If you’d be so generous as to advise me…”

Quincy heard nothing for a time, then a hand on her shoulder made her look up.  Saerth’s eyes were narrowed but his lip was turned into a sort of smirk.  “Raise yourself, Quincy.”

The man turned and returned to his desk.  He sat down again in his chair with a sigh.  “Given your circumstances, I appreciate your speaking with me first.  Today you may go,”

The girl straightened, her face beaming.  “Thank you, Master, I–”

However,” Saerth sat back in his chair and ran a hand over his bald head.  “I’m familiar with Emiline.  If you give her this today, she will ask for more until you are unable to meet both her demands and your obligations here.  This solution of yours is temporary, Quincy.  You will have to figure out a better way to resume your stay here if want to fulfill your aspirations.  I cannot give you the answer.  Part of being a wizard is being clever enough to work things out on your own.  My only advice is to put your true strengths to use.  You came here when you were, what?  Fifteen, sixteen?”

“Sixteen, Master.”

“Now you’re older, and you’ve learned much.  A soup kitchen is not befitting someone of your caliber anymore.”

Quincy blinked at him, then turned her eyes to the ground.  “Yes, Master.”

“When you next return here, I expect the matter resolved.  If not, then you no longer have the right to be my pupil.”  He blinked, then looked mildly at the long horned skull sitting at his desk.  “Even if you did bring me the head of a dragon hatchling.”  He poked the skull with a stubby finger, blinking once more.  “…I get to keep this no matter what, by the way.  I hear Igora can make some mean potions just with the skull alone.”

“Um…yes, Master.  Of course, sir.”

——————————

Quincy walked slowly through the hallways, her eyes holding a storm.  Other pupils passed her by, some glancing at her curiously.  Usually the brunette was tearing through the halls in a rush, but now she walked slow contemplative steps.  She and Hakeem had been at the magical collective for almost two years now, and it truly felt like home.  The turnout was high here–many hopefuls came, seeking the tutelage of the masters that resided at the impromptu school, but the lessons were hard.  Only the true seekers of knowledge remained, and Quincy had been certain that nothing would endanger her and Hakeem’s studies.  Except now…

She had left the commune and wandered down into the city, towards the beach, where she now sat in the sand with her sword in her hands and her russet brown hair whipping about her.  The wind had picked up, now that night approached, and even though she loved the sight of the ocean, the girl loathed the strong winds.  With every gust that buffeted her, Quincy expected him to appear.

“Jack…if you come…I’ll kill you.”  Tears trickled down her face and dripped onto the scabbard.  Quincy pulled her sword out partially and glared at the rusted blade that appeared.  “I’ll kill you with everything you ever gave me, do you hear?”

A familiar voice met her ear.  “I wish you’d talk to me before making these decisions.”

Quincy turned with a start and saw Hakeem approaching her, his fists clenched.  She hadn’t gone to the soup kitchen, like she’d said she would.  Her rebellion likely caused the boy to be fired as well.

She turned and bowed her head.  “M’sorry,” she mumbled.

Hakeem sat heavily next to her, his jaw clenched tight.  “Why do you always do this?” he muttered.

“Do what?”

“Throw things away when you think it doesn’t suit you anymore.  You never think about me.  How I might feel.  You didn’t like living in the jungles when we were young?  You stole from pirates and get us caught.  You started to hate living with pirates?  You lured me away from the ship where it ends up sailing off with all of my belongings.  Then I go along with your plans to come here–risking life and limb to get a gods damned master, a home, a job–and you’re threatening to piss it all away again!” the boy punched the ground. “I’m tired of being at the mercy of your whims!  I know things are hard, but sometimes you just have to stick things out, Quincy!  If you want to make a change–fine! But don’t cut away everything without something to fall back on!  Don’t make those big decisions without talking to me!”

Quincy swiped at her eyes and sniffled back the snot that had been teasing her nostrils.  She stared forward and didn’t look at Hakeem, though she could feel the anger rolling off of him.

But when he spoke again, he sounded tired.  “…If you can’t take our marriage seriously, then atleast take me seriously as your friend.  Talk to me.  Trust me.  Or else…why are we even together?  Are you going to throw me away too?  Do I…not suit you anymore?”

The girl looked at him, fear striking her heart as the boy stood to his feet.  “Hakeem!”

The boy didn’t stop as he walked away.  He continued trudging back toward the city with bunched shoulders.

Quincy stood and ran forward several steps.  “Hakeem!  Please!”

Hakeem paused but didn’t turn around.

The girl trembled, her sword forgotten in the sand where it had tumbled from her lap.  “Hakeem…I love you.  I’ve always loved you…it’s just–it’s just that–”

The boy whirled around, his face contorted with anger.  “No.  No.  Enough, Quincy.  There shouldn’t be an addendum when you tell me that.  I’ve sacrificed everything to be with you.  It’d be nice if you’d return the favor and quit placing our relationship as second on your priority list!  I don’t even know what it is you’re looking for, and quite frankly, I’m tired of waiting for you to tell me!!

Quincy watched as he left, her eyes clouding again.  She let her head fall, shivering as the wind shoved at her from all sides.

She started to speak, her broken voice rushed away by the breath of the world.  “…It’s just, that I never want to be at the mercy of anyone else again,” she watched as her tears fell into the sand.  The brunette raised her azure eyes to the sky, and her throat tightened with a desire to scream. “Jack…if you come, I’ll kill you with everything you ever gave me…because when you come, I’ll finally be the master of my life…answering to no one…untouchable…and when you and Tobias are dead, I’ll be free…”

HAKEEM_________________________

He heard the melodious chime of a bell singing into the evening air.  Here, even on the coast, it was warm, so the night’s approach felt muggy at best.  He liked this weather.  It reminded him of home, of the village he came from, where they lived with nature instead of trying to conquer it.  Quincy had been brought to his family and left in their care when they were young.  His father had known her father, was the terse explanation.  Things had been peaceful, up until…

Hakeem didn’t like to get sentimental.  He preferred getting mad.  Being angry made it easier not to think on how much he missed his family.  How much it still haunted him, seeing them burned to death and hacked to pieces by marauders.  Even as children, they knew, it was because the marauders were looking for something.  For someone.

Even when it was beyond her control, Quincy seemed to take so much away from him.

He didn’t blame her for the massacre, she was just a child.  But surrounding the girl was a leeching aura that demanded still more from him to be with her.  More sacrifice.  The boy didn’t know what else he had to give, and this made him angry.

At the market.  Hakeem glowered at the assortment of vegetables before him.  He figured he could make a stew tonight…the final good meal to be had in a while it seemed…

“Say, friend.  Why the long face?”

The boy turned to see a young man–perhaps early twenties–smiling at him.  He had dark tanned skin, short cropped hair, and was freakishly tall.  A large metal saber was strapped to his back.  Around his waist, a belt jingled with dozens of metal ingots.

Hakeem turned his face trying to ignore him.  “I’m deciding what I want in my dinner.”

“Oh?  You want to know what that says to me?  ‘Girl trouble’.”

The boy turned and glared.  “Leave me alone.”

“Yep, girl trouble.”  The man came to stand next to Hakeem.  He leaned against the vegetable stand with a smirk. “A real man should never make his own dinner.  It’s against nature.”

Hakeem shoved at the stranger with both hands, sending a few vegetables tumbling to the ground.  The merchant yelled at him, but he ignored him.  The teenager bared his teeth and advanced, full of murder.  “Stupid mkundu!  Keep running your mouth and I’ll smash your face in!”

The stranger laughed and held up his hands. “Woah, woah! I wanna help you!”  He thumbed over his shoulder.  “I know you come from the commune.  You’ve got a teacher right?  Or…what…a master you call it?  So you must know a thing or two about magic, right?”

Hakeem turned and started to walk away.  He had nearly gotten into a fight, and this would’ve gotten him in trouble with the local authorities.  If his master had heard, he would’ve been punished.  “Tai’undu!  Leave me alone already, you big ape!”

“Wait,” the man caught up with him and blocked him off.  “Now hold on!  I happen to know for a fact that you were fired from your job at the soup kitchen–”

The boy gave him a weird look, “You’ve been following me?  What are you?  A queer or something?”

The man thumped his chest, looking angry for the first time.  “Of course not!  My name’s Karolek, and I’ve got a proposition for you!”

“A proposition?  Definitely not interested.”

“…What?  No! I told you I’m not like that!”

“Move, or I’ll move you myself.”

“Listen, listen.  There’s a bounty out there worth five hundred gold,”

“Fine, I’ll count to three.  One…”

“It’s an easy catch–sort’ve.  I just need some help,”

“…Two…”

“Look here, I have the wanted poster–”

Three!

Hakeem buried his fist into Karolek’s gut, just as the young man reached into his back pocket.  Then he backhanded the man with all his might.  The oaf stumbled to the side, coughing.  The boy gave him a final shove out of the way, and Karolek was sent to the ground, still cradling his stomach.

“Idiot,” the boy mumbled as he stalked past.

QUINCY____________________________

Quincy had left the beach in a melancholy, the waves of people heading back to their homes buoying her forward.  Home

“Soon I won’t have one, and it’ll be my fault,” The girl sighed.  Then she stopped in the middle of the road, slamming the heels of her palms into the sides of her head, much to the consternation of those she forced to walk around her.  “Aaah!  Quincy, not now!  You can’t fall apart!”

When her head started to throb, the girl opened her eyes and turned her head.  She stared wide-eyed out into the night, the sky overhead now a deep plum with the stars peeking out from their vast blanket of the universe.  Colors blended together in a cool palette that made definition hard to come by, but her eyes lit onto one thing that stood out starkly in the growing moonlight.  A piece of parchment nailed to a tall wooden post.

Quincy drifted towards it, and her heart started to hammer at the sight of the words “REWARD:  500 GOLD”.

The brunette snatched the parchment off the post and examined the large charcoal sketch of a man with a long face, rounded cheeks, and thick mutton chops.  A pair of goggles dangled from around his neck, and his expression was bewildered, as though he couldn’t believe the artist had drawn him on a wanted poster.  At the bottom, smaller text read, “This reward is offered for the apprehension of Kollin Endrick Montbrai, found guilty of selling illegal narcotics, polluting the water supply, public drunkenness, and besmirching the good Lady Rosalinda of Santos.  The above reward will be paid in part by the Lord Adalberto of Santos and also the city-state of Gulley upon his delivery in good health to the offices of Marshal Fuller.  ADVISORY:  Suspect lost his left hand, either purposefully or by accident, and uses an arcane hand crafted from steel as a replacement.  This hand is said to boost the strength of his entire left arm.  Suspect has been known to make and sell magical weapons, and so may be further armed.  He is well versed in the ways of alchemy.  Exercise extreme caution when dealing with him.  Rubber gloves and a cotton mask are advised when in close proximity.”

“Looks promising, yes?”  Quincy jumped and turned to see a tall young man with short-cropped hair and metal ingots on his belt.  He was sporting a bruise on his dark-tanned face, but he smiled at her charmingly.  He pointed at the poster clutched to her chest.  “If you’re wondering…I happen to know where Kollin is now.  But I need help catching him.”

Quincy frowned at him, glancing at the poster, then back at the man before her.  “Who’re you?” she eventually asked.

The man gave a short bow.  “My name is Karolek.  I’m a metal sorcerer.”  He straightened and wagged a finger at Quincy.  “Now…I think I know who you are…you’re Quincy, aren’t you?”

The girl raised her eyebrows at him, and her grip on her sword handle tightened.  If she swung hard enough, the scabbard would fly off and expose the blade, sparing her a second to catch him by surprise, but could she press an attack with just one arm…?

“I’ve seen you around here a few times with your boyfriend–”

Husband,” She corrected, tensing her sword arm.

Karolek held up his hands, his look surprised.  “Oh!  Wow, you’re…so young!”  The man scratched the back of his head, “Gods…well, I’d heard you and your husband killed a full-grown dragon to get yourselves a master–”

Quincy rolled her eyes.  “Look, about that–”

“–And I was just thinking I could really use the help of someone as strong and capable as you.  Catching Kollin will be easy with the two of us working together–won’t even take us a day.  I’ll split the reward with you 50-50.  I bet you can think of something you can use that gold for, right?”

The girl paused to think, her lips puckering.  She and Hakeem owed their landlord a hundred gold.  The reward from the bounty would float them for almost an entire season, and they’d have gold to spare for supplies and food…

“…Do you need to talk it over with your husband?”  Karolek asked carefully.  There was something teasing in his eyes.

Quincy blinked, her eyes widening as she looked at the man.  She shook her head emphatically.  She could easily imagine Hakeem’s reaction to this idea of hers–

“Bwa-mweze, wikan a thusa katsul ko zini-jyan!?”  My wife, why do you have such wild ideas!?

“No.  He’s busy.  When did you want to go after Kollin?”

Karolek smirked.  “Tonight.”

Quincy gave a nod.  “Let me get a few things and I’ll meet you by the city gates.”

HAKEEM_________________________

He came home tired, and with a satchel full of fresh vegetables.  The house was dark and cold.  Hakeem set the bag down and frowned.

His search was done with a single sweep of his eyes, for everything was forced into a small square space of masonry.  Their bed to the left was empty, the quilts still neat and folded.  The kitchen counter was clear and the stove dark.  The table to the right, however…

Hakeem cleared the distance from the door in two large steps.  On the table was a parchment.  His heart started to palpitate, and wild ideas sprang into his head.  “She really did throw me away…”  But then he saw from the poor moonlight that filtered in through the front windows what the parchment said.

“REWARD:  500 gold”.

The teenager’s jaw clenched and he went to the wardrobe adjacent to the door.  Tearing open the door, the boy saw that it lacked Quincy’s cloak and traveling boots.  The boy slammed the door shut with a shout.

“Quincy wikan!

QUINCY____________________________

They traveled on foot eastward, away from the coast and toward the savannah of the Talmorian continent.

“I grew up there, y’know.  At Gulley,” Karolek said, trying to make small talk.  “It’s my hometown.”

Quincy glanced at him from the corner of her eyes.  She stifled a yawn.  Normally she’d be asleep by this hour.  “Oh, yeah?” she really didn’t care to hear his life story.

The man put his hands behind his head, the ingots on his belt clinking together.  “Yes!  I know that city like the back of my hand.  All the shortcuts, all the best restaurants…” he smirked at her.  “Would you like to see these places, after we turn Kollin in?”

The girl gazed at him frigidly.  “No.”

Karolek laughed, throwing his head back and crowing into the night.  Quincy winced and glanced as she saw a rabbit peal away through the tall grass.  Was this how a person went about catching criminals?  By being as obnoxious as possible?

“No wonder you need my help…” Quincy muttered.

“What was that?” Karolek asked, oblivious.

“Nothing.”

“Say,” he went on, much to the girl’s annoyance.  “Where do you come from?  Your Common has a curious accent.”

The girl shrugged.  “What do you think I am?” she sighed.

Karolek rubbed his chin.  “Mmm…Fiamman?”

Quincy nodded.  “Sort of.  My ancestry is, anyway.”

“So then where did you spend your childhood?”

“Fanaea…mostly.”

“Ah, that explains it…You speak Fanaean don’t you?  With your husband.  Is he a chest-thumper like most Fanaean men?”

“You know most Fanaean men, I take it?”

Karolek sputtered.  “I’m not queer!”

“Hey, you said it.  Not me.”  Quincy kicked at a rock on the path.  “Anyway, can we not talk about my husband?”

“Oh…You two had a fight?”

“No.”

“Then can I ask–”

“Let it alone, already!”  Quincy snapped.  “Tai’undu!  You talk too fucking much!”  She stormed ahead, her cloak swishing behind her stiff back.

“Glad you’re not my wife…” She heard Karolek mutter.

Quincy, with little pause, scooped up a rock and threw it at his head, her face tight with outrage.  After that, Karolek finally stopped his inane chatter.  They walked for miles that way, the journey spanning nearly the entire night.  Finally, as the hours crept into the early morning, the girl could see burning lights on the horizon.

She yawned, stretching.  “Gods, finally!”

Karolek glanced at her, grinning.  “Tired already?  Do you want me to carry you into town?”

Quincy snorted, her arms crossing her chest.  “If I weren’t getting 250 gold for this, I’d have struck you with a bolt of lightning by now…twice.”

“It’s nice isn’t it?  Not having to pretend to be friends when there’s gold involved?”

“Shut up and lead the way, already.”

“My, you’re such a refined young lady!”

“Oh look!  That rock looks nice and sharp…”

Well! I guess we’d better get going.  Don’t want to miss Kollin, now do we? …gods what a bitch

When they entered the town of Akii, Quincy immediately recognized the sort of people she was about to encounter.  The buildings were still lit, and people stumbled through the dirt roads, wide-brimmed hats jilted on their heads.  There was shouting and loud laughter.  Dogs made a mess of the garbage, scattering it into the roads where carriages crushed and squished it with their wheels.  Quincy pulled out her four foot lightning rod, which she had kept tied to her back.

Karolek put an arm over her shoulders, and she was about to punch him in the face for getting so fresh, but then the man leaned down to murmur, “Relax.  Put the damn rod away.  If you keep acting this way, people will notice, and if people notice, so might Kollin.  If you stay close to me, no one will bother you, I promise.”

Quincy shrugged the man’s arm off.  “Fine.  But keep your hands to yourself!”  Still with a sour look, the girl slid the rod back into its strap.

“Why do you have that and your sword?” he asked.

“This sword never leaves my side.  It’s magical, but it won’t respond to me.  I keep it around just in case that might change.  The rod actually works, and was given to me by my master.  It calls forth lightning.”

“Wow,” Karolek led her to a one-story building with a flat roof.  He held the door open for her.  “Do you have any other goodies with you?”

Quincy passed him, entering a smoky bar.  When they were both inside, she responded, “A wizard always has an ace in the hole.”

Karolek nodded thoughtfully.  “Something to keep in mind, then…”

They sat at a table nearest the bar, because all the tables near the wall were taken.  A waitress came by and Karolek ordered a mug of beer.  Quincy asked for a glass of water and was reminded snippily that she was in a bar not a gods damned restaurant.  Then the brunette told the waitress to come back with some manners and fresher breath.  The sorcerer kicked her under the table as the waitress left in a huff to fetch their orders.

“Idiot!” he snarled.  “I told you to relax!”

Quincy kicked him back, harder.  “I like rude people even less than self-absorbed snoops like you!  Kick me again, and I’ll kick you so hard in your uchango you’d think you were a queer!”

The sorcerer winced, reaching down to rub his leg.  “Gods, girl!  Your inferiority complex is fierce!

“I don’t have a complex!”  She kicked him again, catching him on the hand.  That time it just felt good.

Karolek bit his lip to contain the yell that came up his throat as he cradled his hand.

Quincy turned her head, and her eyes widened.  “Oh!”  She looked away, toward the bar, her face turning pink.

A man appeared at the entrance, a bag slung over his muscular shoulders and a pair of dark goggles drawn over his eyes.  He had thick mutton chops and a length of straw between his lips.  He wore suspenders and a sleeveless blue shirt, with baggy brown shorts and untied leather shoes that stopped around the ankles.  His belt was weighed down with tools–a hammer, a wrench, a screwdriver, a pair of tongs, and other things she couldn’t name.  And on his left hand, or rather, replacing his left hand, there was a metal claw that occasionally hissed with steam around the wrist.  It clicked and whirred with bare mechanics as he flexed the fingers.

“‘Oh’ what?” Karolek grumbled, his eyes teary as he rubbed his swelling hand.

“‘Oh’ as in, ‘Oh, our subject of interest just walked in!'”

“Then, shh!” he hissed, slouching forward.  He glanced only with his eyes over the girl’s shoulder.  Then nodded.  “Yeah, that’s him.”

“What do we do?”

“What else?  We wait till he’s piss-ass drunk, then follow him to wherever he’s staying.”

“That’s it?”

“He’s a well known drunkard, and his brains are fried from all the fumes he’s breathed in.  I told you this would be easy.”

Quincy frowned and fisted her cheek.  “It seems too easy to me…” she mumbled.

HAKEEM_________________________

He was marching through the savannah, a lightly packed bag against his back, his eyes staring forward like harsh knives in the dark.  He was heading to Gulley because it was the best he had to go on, given what the poster said.  He didn’t know the first place to look for Kollin, and therefor didn’t know the first place to look for Quincy.  But when he found Quincy…when he found her…he was going to…

Without warning the boy kicked at an ant hill, cursing rapidly in his native tongue.

“Mweze, when I get my hands on you, there’s finally going to be order in this marriage!  You will be my wife and nothing more!  No more magic, no more get-rich-quick schemes, no more swords!  You’ll behave like a woman should.  TAI’UNDU!!  I should’ve done what my Uncle did with all three of his wives, and just tied you to my bed!!  AARGH!!  When I get my hands on you, you’ll cook, you’ll clean, and you’ll wash my under things–all at our home, where you’ll never leave and send me running after you again!” he stomped at the ants, his dark face taking on a ruddy shade, “Like. You. Were. Sup-Posed.  To. ARRGH!”

The boy fell to his knees, and screamed to the night sky.

Why did I fall in love with a white woman?  What the FUCK was I thinking!?

Then his eyes bugged and he jumped up, slapping at himself.  “Shit, those were fire ants!!”

QUINCY____________________________

“This is boring…” The girl muttered, struggling to keep her eyes open.  Her entire body felt heavy.  She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been up so long.  There had already been a few times when she’d nodded off, but a loud noise in the bar always woke her up.  The last she had looked, Kollin was still pinching the asses of women that passed his table, but he appeared surprisingly sober.  “Is he, like, almost drunk yet?”

Karolek snorted awake, his head having fallen back against his chair.  He wiped the saliva from the corner of his mouth and blinked at her.  “…Huh?”

Quincy sighed and turned her head to look herself.  Then she shot upright, her eyes bugging open.

“Tai’undu!” she exclaimed, jumping to her feet.

Karolek followed suit, startled.  “What, what!?”

“He’s gone!”

They spilled out onto the street, harried and cursing and blaming one another.  People stared as they barreled by.

“You big idiot, he’s gone now!”  Quincy scanned the streets and buildings, her face flushed.

Karolek glared at her, scandalized.  “How is this my fault!?  You were the one awake, why didn’t you notice he’d left?”

“You shouldn’t have fallen asleep to begin with!  What kind of man are you!?”

“Right.  Like you hadn’t caught a few minutes napping either!”

Whatever! Just help me look for him!”

Then she was running as fast as she could, everything on fire, the swing of her arms like blades cutting through the wind.  Clearly, the city of Akii wasn’t known for paved streets–in fact, the golden earth was hard and riddled with potholes.  Quincy struggled to keep her vision clear as they tumbled through the growing morning crowd–merchants and buyers out for the early market setup.  It was getting harder when she had to check her path to keep from falling and breaking her ankle.  The rod staff across her back didn’t help with matters either.  She knocked a man in the head with the tip of it, and the blow jerked her back a beat as the strap that held the staff cut into her chest.

The girl stumbled forward again, her eyes turning to gaze at the man in the fez hat apologetically.

“Ih-shun!” she cried.  “Sorry!”

The man shouted angrily at her, brandishing his fist.

“Gods damnit!”  Karolek grabbed her hand and forced her to run faster.  “Your Talmas is horrible!  How long did you say you’ve been living in Crysen!?”

“What’d he think I said?  I was trying to apologize,” Quincy panted, her cloak flapping behind her.  With her exhaustion, it was feeling quite heavy.

“You have to put more phlegm into the word next time!  ICH-shun!  Right now, you just called that man an ass fiddle!  It’s one of the gravest insults you can give, and coming from a woman, it’s even worse!  Now we have to run just to keep from being stoned!

Quincy glanced over her shoulder.  Sure enough, the man and some of his companions were chasing after them, their silk shoes and light clothing making agility seem effortless.  Then the girl slid and tumbled to the ground as Karolek made a sharp turn.  He jerked her up painfully by the arm and she had but a moment to prepare for the flight of stairs they jumped over.  They flew some five feet down, and the shock that hit Quincy’s soles made her cry out, but the man didn’t let her stop.  Behind them, the angry men followed.  They weren’t as weighed down by weapons and heavy clothing as she and Karolek were.

Quincy felt close to tears.  “I just…wanted…to make things up…to Hakeem!” she wheezed through a tight throat.

Then she had an idea.

“Leggo of my hand!” Quincy shouted, wrenching out of Karolek’s grip.

“What’re you doing!?” he snapped, looking fearfully over his shoulder.  “I don’t want to have to fight these men!  It could set the whole community on us!  I live in this area, damnit!”

Quincy pushed herself to continue running as she fished for the leather pouch she had tied to her hip.  Holding it before her, she rubbed the bag between her hands.  “Come on, come on…” she breathed.  Something long and thin grew beneath her ministrations.  The girl quickly loosened the opening and pulled out the item.

Karolek did a double-take, sweat rolling down his face.  “Is that…a wand?

“Yes!”

“What’re you going to do, pull a rabbit out of your ass!?”

“Shut up and get back!”  Quincy skidded to a stop and turned to glare at the men that charged after them.  She gripped her wand tightly in her right hand, the long smooth piece of wood barely weighing a thing.  The one in the fez hat led his five companions, men dressed similarly, possibly members of a guild.  He pointed at her angrily, shouting something in Talmas.  Gripped in his other hand was a large rock.

Quincy pointed the wand at him and said loudly, “Exorior Gerbillinae!!

The Talmorian men flinched back as she shouted this, their eyes bugging.  Clouds of dust rose about their feet as they skittered to a full stop.  Everyone stopped, waiting for something to happen.

Quincy looked around too, nervous.  She had wanted to transform the man into a gerbil, but nothing was happening.  Had she used the right words?

Then they heard a sound.  It seemed to rise up in their ears as a crackling and scratching first.  Then they heard the high-pitched squeals.

“Quincy…” Karolek said slowly.  He looked at her with his eyes, knees bent and his hands held out.  “What in the nine hells did you do?”

“I…uh…” she pointed at the man in the fez hat with her wand, who was staring around in confusion still.  “…turned him into a gerbil?  Or…or…tried to?”

“I don’t think it worked.”

The sound grew louder.  The squeals, the squeaking, the scratching…

Quincy’s face drew long in horror.  She stumbled backward, stepping onto her cloak, and falling onto her rear.  “I–I think I know how I m-messed it up!” she stammered.

From all around, flooding over the stone and the wood and the dirt, hundreds of little bodies flooded forth, their fur shining in the early morning sunlight.  Their tails were long but furry.  If she hadn’t cast the spell, she would’ve erroneously thought them to be rats.  But they were gerbils.

Exorior Gerbillinae.  Gerbil appear.  Apparently that wasn’t the phrase for transforming someone then…

Karolek cursed and took off running without her.

Quincy scrambled after him, “Hey, wait!”  He didn’t look back.  Quincy stubbed the tip of her boot on an uneven piece of ground and fell to the ground in a nasty crash.  Her left knee scraped the ground painfully.  Her eyes teared up and she screamed at Karolek’s retreating back.  “Damnit, wait for me!”  He still didn’t look back.

Behind her, the men screamed.  She glanced back and saw the little creatures clawing up their legs, the men writhing in pain before they fell over into the growing swarm that followed her.

The girl pushed herself to her feet.  She limped a few steps before she forced her left leg to work–then it was a matter of ignoring the sharp sensations that shot up her thigh from the knee.  With fear’s claw around her heart, she managed to double her pace from before, and within a minute, she outstripped Karolek.

“Woah, hold on, wait up!” His voice cracked as he reached out and tried to grab her.  The girl danced out of his reach.

“Fuck you, mkundu, you were gonna leave me!  We’re through!” she screamed over her shoulder.  She stumbled around the corner, her hip crashing into a fruit stand.  She limped a few steps again, bracing herself on an eroded wall, before she bared her teeth and tumbled clumsily onward.  Russet locks stuck to her sweaty neck, and she spat strands of hair from her mouth.  Down an alley, through a wide street and into another alley.  She didn’t know where she was running to.  She didn’t know this town.  Maybe she shouldn’t have left Karolek behind…?

She glanced behind her.  The gerbils, shockingly, were following her.  More than that, they were keeping pace with her.  She was certain it was because of the magic–gerbils couldn’t fucking run that fast.  Could they?

Then up ahead she saw a man in a cloak opening a heavy wooden door with a key.  The building had no windows that she could see and it was a small one-story.  She sprinted towards him just as he opened the door.  Quincy slid and bumped him inside with her hip, then nearly fell through the door herself.  She kept stepping on her cloak in a panic, but managed to get to her feet again.  Snatching the key off the floor, she turned around, slammed the door shut, then locked it.  Then the girl looked around, drawing out her rod staff.  The building was dark, but she thought she saw hooks and chains and springs hanging from the ceiling.  The two tables in the middle of the room was riddled with unnameable miscellany.  At the back, she thought she saw a messy bed.  There were two windows high up on the right and left, but they were small and closed shut.  She doubted the gerbils could climb up the bare stone walls…right?

“S’cuse me, sir.  Sorry, sorry,” she said quickly, turning her attention to the man she had bumped into.  “Ich’shun, Ich’shun.  There’s a swarm of rodents on its way here and I needed a place to hide.”

The man on the floor groaned, his head still covered with his hood.

Quincy bit her lip, kneeling.  “Sir…sir, are you okay?”

Then came the scratching.  The girl froze as the squeals and squeaks grew louder all around, turning into a hissing sound as the gerbils surrounded the building.  She kept on eye on the windows, just in case, but they didn’t seem to reach.  It didn’t seem to stop them from trying, however.  She could hear them clawing up the stone, the sound setting her teeth on edge.

The man before her sat up.

“Wow…you weren’t kidding!”  He pulled the hood back with a steel hand, one that hissed out steam at the wrist.

Quincy did a double-take.

Kollin Endrick Montbrai pulled the goggles off his eyes and blinked at her, white as a sheet.  When he spoke, all she could smell was beer. “Thanks, kid!  I can’t stand rodents…Say, what’s your name?”

The girl blinked, and stared at him.

Then she struck him across the face with her rod staff as hard as she could, little sparks of lightning flying into the air.  The man’s head snapped to the side from the blow, and his eyes rolled into his head.  He fell back, limp.  His cheek sported a mild burn.  Quincy brushed back her hair and smiled, eyes filled with wonder.

“Wow…that was easy!” she giggled excitedly.

———————–

The girl spent the rest of the day waiting out the gerbil swarm.  She considered using her wand to make them vanish, but she was afraid she’d get the wording wrong again.  Quincy hadn’t trained much in linguistic prescriptivism–figured it had nothing to do with the magic items she wanted to use.  She made a mental note to correct this in the future.

By the time the gerbils were gone it was already the afternoon.  Quincy found some bread in Kollin’s cupboard and ate it quickly.  Then she took out her magic pouch and put in other food–some jerky, a cheese wheel, some fruit.  They all vanished without the pouch becoming full once.  Next, she rifled through the assortment of items on the tables.  There were gloves that gave off static energy, blades that were stained red, an assortment of bottles likely filled with illegal potions, and–

Quincy plucked up a small white box, frowning at it.  It was the only package on the table, and seemed unusually “prepared”.  Was it an item for a customer?  The girl opened the box cautiously, peering inside.  She raised an eyebrow.  Sitting in the box was small reflective orb with a slip of paper.  The teenager pulled the paper out carefully, not wanting to touch the orb–she didn’t know what the item did.  Opening the slip with one hand, she squinted at the scrawled message.

“Brom.  This is the Orb of Ilkmar.  I nicked it off this elf I drank under the table down in Gulley.  I’m scared.  I think he was just a delivery boy for someone powerful, and now I have this heat down my neck.  I want you to take it and keep it somewhere safe.  This thing is rare.  It helps you remember stuff you’ve forgotten, helps you find what was lost, and brings you to whatever it is that you desired.  If you’re in a bind and have NO CHOICE, then say these words when holding the orb, ‘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.’

Quincy’s heart hammered.  Her azure eyes flickered back to the orb, and she saw her face reflected back at her, smiling slowly.

———————

She kept her head down as she pushed the wheelbarrow through Akii.  It had taken her nearly an hour to clear the wheelbarrow of spare parts and to load Kollin’s limp body into it.  For good measure, she wrestled a chain around him too, and (as per the wanted poster’s suggestion) used a pair of rubber gloves she’d found to do it.  As she tied him up, she found he had five flasks of acid, a bottle of beer, a flask of oil, half a bottle of ether, and atleast six different knives hidden beneath his cloak.  Exhaustion bit at her, even as her preparations were done.  She was approaching 24 hours with hardly any sleep, and all the adrenaline was gone.  The girl forced herself to keep going.  With Kollin covered by a thick tarp, and the hood of her cloak pulled up, Quincy left the little impromptu home and tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible.

All around her, people were dealing with the damage wrought by the rabid gerbil swarm.  Many sported cuts and gashes, little chunks missing from faces old and young alike.  Quincy felt her heart twist in guilt as she passed one little boy, who was still screaming from the pain and trauma.  His dusty face was streaked with tears and blood, a piece of his ear missing, and scratches all over his face.  He was the worst she had seen, however–most of the damage seemed superficial.  Still, his one face was enough to haunt her the rest of the way.

She paused only to buy water and get directions.  She wanted to keep moving, lest Karolek see her.  She was certain the man still thought the alchemist was in Akii, and that suited her fine.  She’d done most of the work anyway.

As it turned out, Gulley was almost five miles away.  Though the wheelbarrow was a necessity, it also slowed her walking rate down by half.  If she stopped frequently, she’d be there in two hours.  Ideally.  That, of course, didn’t take into account the terrain.

Sweat stung her vision as Quincy fought to conquer thick plant growth and hard, clay-like earth.  Kollin awoke, not even an hour after she had left Akii.

He banged his head against the bed of the wheelbarrow, screaming.  “Aah!  Aargh, you bitch, lemme go!”

“Shut up!” She snapped, panting as she powered the wheelbarrow over a rock that had been blocking her for a full minute.

“Don’t do this!” Kollin begged, squirming out from under the tarp.  He squinted up at her, his scruffy face covered in grime and dirt.  “Please, you don’t understand what you’re doin!”  He tried to inch off the wheelbarrow, grunting.

Quincy set the wheelbarrow down, and ran around to the other side.  She kicked the man back on.  “Bastard.  Stop it!  I’m taking you in and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Kollin yelled and curled away from her.  She could see his left arm straining against the chain.

“That won’t work,” she said, going back to take the wheelbarrow’s handles.  She resumed pushing forward.  “I don’t care how strong that claw makes you.  You haven’t got the leverage to break out of chain.”

The man ceased his struggles, panting.  The tarp had fallen off of him, and he stared up at the afternoon sky, tears streaking from the corners of his eyes.  Quincy faltered as she saw this, her brows pressing together.

“C’mon, kid,” he said, his voice thick.  Kollin looked at her pleadingly.  “C’mon–Jes’ lemme go.  You don’t know what those men’ll do to me.  They won’t just kill me, they’ll make me suffer!

Quincy squeezed her eyes shut and tried to push the wheelbarrow up a hill.  “I’m not listening!”

Her foot slipped on the sand and she squealed, nearly losing her footing entirely.

“Fuck you!” he screamed, spit flying from his mouth.  He thrashed wildly again, his face turning purple.  “Fuck you, I wish you’d fallen flat on your whore face, you bitch!  I can’t believe you’d do this!  You’re just a stupid kid, how can you be so cruel!?”

“I said be quiet!!” Quincy screamed, grunting as she tried to crest the hill.  But her arms were shaking, and her feet kept sliding on the dirt.  Finally, she gave up and let the wheelbarrow roll back slowly.  It was almost as tiring keeping the thing from running her over.  With a heavy sigh, she set it down with a bang and sat on the ground.

“I have to do this!  I have no choice!”  Her eyes teared up.  “I wish Taika were here…” she mumbled next, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.

“Bitch…” Kollin said again, but his voice sounded as tired as hers.

Neither said a word for nearly fifteen minutes.  Then Quincy turned her head, wiping her face dry.

“Hey…who’s Brom?”  She would’ve been content with sitting in silence, but the question had been niggling at her since she’d left Akii.

The wheelbarrow shuddered as Kollin twisted around in it.  “How do you know that name?” his voice had an edge she hadn’t heard before.

She decided to play coy.  “A little birdie told me.”

“Were you going through my stuff?!”

“I wouldn’t be a good bounty hunter if I didn’t, now would I?”

“Have you got the orb?”

Quincy bit her lip and shrugged, even though the man couldn’t see this.  “No,” she lied.  “I left it there, along with all of your other stuff.  Your note was addressed to someone named ‘Brom’.  Who’s that?”

To her frustration, Kollin ignored her question again.  “You know the Orb of Ilkmar can lead you to whatever it is you truly want, right?  Just take it and let me go!  If you return me, they’ll torture me until they get the orb back!  It won’t even matter if I tell them!  That’s what this whole thing’s really about!”

The teenager got on her knees and twisted around to stare dryly at Kollin.  “So this is all just about the orb?  Meaning you didn’t poison Gulley’s water supply?”

The man actually blushed.  He swiped at his ear with his shoulder and stared at the bed of the wheelbarrow.  “When you’ve had two bottles of whiskey, inhaled clouds of witch smoke, and took a sip of ether, those things jes’ tend to happen…”

“I bet.  I’m surprised your list of charges weren’t longer.”

“So will you take the orb and let me free?”

“Why?” Quincy returned, drumming her fingers on the edge of the handle.  “So that I can have the state of Gulley coming down on my head?  No thanks, I’ve seen enough vengeance seekers in my lifetime,”

“Yeah, I guess a bitch like you’d piss a ton of people off,” Kollin muttered sullenly.

“It wasn’t my fault,” the girl said coldly.  “It was my father’s.”

Kollin glanced at her sideways.  “…That so?”

“Yeah.  That’s so.”  Quincy sat down again.  She leaned back against the wheelbarrow.  “Who’s Brom?” she asked again.

“…Brom’s my son.”

“What!?” the teenager sat forward some, her ear cocked to the side.  “You’ve got a son?  How old is he?”

“Fifteen now.”

“Gods, you barely look older than twenty-five!  How can that be?”

“An’ how old’re you?” Kollin returned hotly.  “I’m not that young.  I know I’m a fuck up, but I’ve been around.  You think I don’t know what ‘taika’ means?  How’s a kid like you married?  Was it arranged or somethin’?”

Quincy’s brow furrowed and her fists bunched in her lap.  “We were in love,” Then she corrected herself hurriedly.  “Are in love!”

Kollin let loose a sardonic chuckle.  “Uh-huh.  Yeah.  Well, so was I!”  He sighed heavily.  “An’ Brom was the only thing good that came out of it.”

“I bet you’re a lousy father,” the girl snapped, suddenly feeling angry.  She felt emotionally exposed somehow, and this set her on edge.  “Your choices will haunt your child for the rest of his life!”  She glared at the ground.  “I know from experience…”

“Whatever, kid.”

Silence followed.  Quincy spent another five minutes, taking a moment to have a snack from her magic pouch, before pressing onward.  Kollin struggled more, but there was less exchange between them.  The man seemed to writhe simply on principle, as though to illustrate his desire to be free.  Quincy watched him as he did this, thinking of his son, Brom.  She tried to imagine what the son would look like.  Probably like his father–and the boy probably wished he’d taken after his mother.  Quincy often found herself feeling the same way when looking into the mirror.  She thought of all the times Kollin must’ve failed to do his part, too busy running illegal deals and getting high off of his own concoctions.  The father had likely arranged a meet up with the boy, to give him the orb.  Would Brom show up at Kollin’s place tonight, only to find his father had disappointed him again?

Quincy disliked thinking of herself as somehow the reason for this.  Kollin’s life unfolded as he saw fit to shape it.  It wasn’t her problem if the man was going to be tortured over stealing the Orb of Ilkmar, or if he’d possibly never see his son again.

But the man’s face displayed an animal sort of desperation–an undying need to fight and struggle despite his hopeless situation.  Quincy watched with morbid fascination as the man kicked and strained against his chains to the point that the metal cut at his skin, making him bleed and bruise.

Eventually, she couldn’t take it anymore.

The girl stopped and produced her wand from her magic pouch.  She then went around to the end of the wheelbarrow where Kollin glared daggers at her.  The setting suns scorched the savannah in a warm glow as evening approached.

Quincy pointed the wand at Kollin.  “Stop doing that, now.” She swallowed the lump in her throat and willed her eyes to stay dry.  “Stop struggling, you’re hurting yourself!”

“Fuck you,” Kollin muttered, setting his head back against the wheelbarrow bed.

The girl bared her teeth, giving her wand a vicious shake.  This got the man’s attention, and his head shot up as he gazed at her in alarm.  “Hey, don’t go waving that thing at me!”

“This thing is the Wand of Beasts.  I’ll turn you into a turtle and carry you back to Akii under my arm if I have to!  You won’t struggle so much then!”

“Hey, hey! Come on, don’t play around!” Kollin looked panicked now.

Quincy squinted at her wand.  “You know, I wonder what I’d have to say to make that work.  Last time, I conjured up a gerbil swarm by accident.”

“That was you!?”

The girl blushed and pointed the wand at the sky as she placed her other hand at her hip. “Look, I didn’t train with this thing that much, okay?”

“What kind of shitty wizard are you?”

“One that gets her power phrases mixed up!” A faraway voice shouted.  Karolek’s voice.

Quincy paled, looking up.

The man was not far off, and speeding ever closer.  He tossed away a sandy-colored blanket, which he seemed to adorn with grass to make his camouflage better.  But what marveled Quincy was the object he was riding.

Karolek was standing on a round rectangular piece of metal, only a little longer than his arm.  It wasn’t hovering over the ground, but still sliding over it, propelled by some force she couldn’t see.  Quincy didn’t specialize in sorcery, but her interest in magic was enough that she had read about it.  Sorcerers could achieve something that, by appearance, was similar to gravitational magic, but still inherently different.  Sorcerers were masters of physical nature, and they interacted with these elements through their animus, which acted like a pair of ghostly hands that shaped the materials in question.  It didn’t matter if Karolek had been following this whole time, or if he’d just caught up.  With his camouflage blanket, he could have manipulated the metal ingots on his belt to make the board he rode, and thus, silently slide along the savannah as though he were gliding over air.  The metal was quiet and so was the power he used to push it forward.

And now the man was going to use this power against her.

Karolek jumped off the board some twenty feet away just as Quincy drew her lightning rod with her free hand.  The sorcerer drew his saber and pointed at her, his expression livid.

“I’m taking Kollin back!” he shouted.

“I did all the work!” Quincy shouted back, brandishing her wand.  Both Kollin and Karolek ducked as they wand tip turned their way.  “I even pushed this idiot all the way out here alone!  You can’t take him!”

Karolek spat on the ground, and behind him, the metal board lifted into the air.  It broke into two halves, then morphed into crude looking hammers.  The young twenty-something may have needed work on the finer details of elemental mastery, but the hammers still looked quite capable of caving her head in.

Quincy cursed and tucked her wand in her belt.  She placed herself before the wheelbarrow.  “Karolek, let’s not do this!”  But beneath her determined voice she was clenching in terror.  She’d never been in a magical fight before.

“This was going to come one way or another, Quincy!” Karolek barked.  “I was going to bail on you in the end anyway!  Atleast I can say it wasn’t my fault this time!”

The girl stomped her foot, her face turning red. “Bastard!  You didn’t contribute to this catch at all!”

Karolek charged forward, his saber drawn back.  “Who was the one who knew where Kollin was!?”

Quincy tensed and pointed her rod.  She willed lightning to shoot forth, and as quickly as the thought entered her mind, the rod staff shuddered, crackling briefly with tendrils of energy.  But Karolek anticipated her attack when she brought her arm up, and had one of his hammers drift before him.  The hammer caught the lightning, effectively absorbing it.

The man had never broken stride.  He tensed his arms, prepared to swing, and the hammer that had caught her lightning bolt rose in the sky, the heavy blunt end tilted back like a hand were holding it as well.  Quincy instinctively struck the ground with her rod, and a small explosion of lightning and energy shot forth, covering the area around her.  Karolek slid to a messy stop, but his other hammer, which had hovered dutifully behind him, shot forward like a bullet.

Quincy heard the hammer from above whistle down as well…but she was ready.

The girl thrust the rod toward the sky, yelling from her gut.  All around her, the remnant energy from the lightning surged and hummed around her.  She felt the all her hair stand on end as a faintly glowing field of magnetic energy formed around her in less than a second.  The two hammers struck the field, and they groaned, straining against it as Karolek tried to push his way through.  Quincy growled, jerked the tip of her rod to the side.  Both hammers were sent smashing into the ground as the magnetic force redirected them.

Quincy unclasped her cloak, her face drawn tight as she set her eyes on Karolek, who rose to his feet again.

Off behind them, Kollin squealed.  “Hey, hey, hey! Shit, wheel me away first before you go at it like that!!”

The girl ignored him, charging toward Karolek as the man brought about his saber and roared at her.  She feinted with one end of her rod staff, towards the sorcerer’s head.  He moved to block the high attack with his blade, but left his chest exposed, and here, Quincy shifted and struck with the other end of the staff.  She caught him hard in the ribs and a blast of electricity shot forth, entering his body and scorching his clothes.

Karolek let out a strangled scream, stumbling backwards as he tried to keep his convulsing limbs in his control.  His face turned a deep crimson, and veins bulged all over his neck, arms, and face.  Then he keeled over and fell still.

Quincy hesitated, her eyes widening.  Did she put too much into the strike?  She didn’t want to kill the man, much as she disliked him…

“Karolek?” she tried tentatively when he didn’t move for a full minute.

The man let out a wheeze.  “That…hurt…” he panted.  His breathing sounded labored.  His limbs were arranged in an unnatural manner, like he were a doll on the floor.

Behind her, Quincy heard Kollin shifting and grunting around in the wheelbarrow again, but she didn’t turn to look.  She stepped toward Karolek with a wrinkled brow.  “Hey you big idiot, stand up!” her voice was shrill.

“I can’t!” he snapped his arms twitching into movement.  He clutched at the tufts of grass near him and pulled himself over so that he didn’t stare up at the sky anymore.  He looked at his body in a sort of numb shock.  “My…my legs aren’t working,” he mumbled.

“What do you mean!?”

“I mean your lightning attack went through to my gods damned spine, and now my legs aren’t working!”  He pulled at his hip, turning the rest of his body over.

“…You really can’t stand?” The girl’s hand reached up to brush back her hair, but her hand was shocked and she winced, shaking it out.

“No!  I can’t!”  The man twisted around to stare at his legs.  He sounded on the verge of hysterics.  “Gods, what if I’m like this for the rest of my life!?”

Quincy’s eyes bugged.  Now she felt on the verge of hysterics herself.  “It’s…It’s just the magic.  If it were a real paralysis, a real spinal injury, you’d have passed out or something.  I’m certain you’ll recover!”

“Oh yeah.  Sure.”

The girl froze at the unexpected voice.  It was right behind her.  Slowly she turned around.

Kollin smirked at her, his chains in his human hand, his steel claw drawn back in a fist.  It seems he’d finally gained that leverage he needed.  “And I’m sure you’ll recover too!”

Then he punched her with his metal fist, and everything went black.

———————-

When Quincy woke, she was tied up in chains.  She felt a body against her back and twisted around.  It seemed not much time had passed, because the suns were still over the horizon, though that was to change within the hour it seemed.

“Karolek?” Quincy called softly over her shoulder.

“What?” the man grunted, shifting behind her.

“Oh.”  She sighed and hung her head.  “I just wanted to see if you were awake.”

“Yeah.  I’m still awake.  Still paralyzed too, y’know.”

“You sound pretty cavalier about it.”

“Oh that’s just to stave off the rage and panic inside.”

The woman sighed heavily.  “Please don’t start raging or panicking.  My body’s sore from pushing that wheelbarrow.”

“I’ll be sure to stay still then.  I mean, that ought to be easy considering I can’t move anything from my chest down.”

Quincy let out a sound of frustration, kicking at the sand.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry it was an accident already!”  Then she thrashed backward harshly.  “But you know what?  You brought it on yourself!  You tried to smash my head in with those hammers!”

Karolek threw his head back, catching her in the back of her skull.  “I wasn’t going to actually do it!  I just wanted Kollin back!”

Quincy cried out, curling forward.  “That hurt!” she whined.

“Don’t fucking complain to me!  I’m the one whose legs won’t move!  I might never get it up again!”

“I’m certain your boyfriends will be crushed…” Quincy muttered.

Karolek threw his head back again, this time harder.  Quincy turned livid and tried to twist around.  “Mkundu!  I’m going to gnaw your face off, I don’t care if you’re gimpy!”

“Crazy bitch!  Stay away from me!”

Then without warning, Karolek fell out from behind her, and Quincy teetered off to the side.  She blinked, feeling around with her hands behind her back.  The man wasn’t near her.  “…Karolek, we weren’t tied together?”

“Of course not!  Kollin just used strips of your cloak to bind my wrists.  I’d say he was considerate for propping me up against you since I can’t sit up on my own, but now I’m thinking that was just sadism on his part.”

Quincy rolled to her side so that she was facing Karolek.  The man had fallen over and was now facing away from her.

When she spoke next, it was in extreme exasperation.  “Dummy!  You’re a metal sorcerer.  He put chains on me.  Use your power to get them off!”

Karolek didn’t say anything for a moment.  Then he twisted his head around to look at her.  “Oh yeah.”

The chains shuddered around her.  This startled Quincy, who imagined them tightening, or turning into blades…but sure enough, the links came apart and quietly fell away from her as though they were a blanket pushed back with gentle hands.

Quincy sat up, rubbing her wrists.  She glanced down quickly at her hip and saw that her wand was still there, as was her sword and magic pouch.  At the sight of the last two items, she sighed in relief.  Then she gazed at Karolek.  She could leave him out here, in the savannah.  Gulley was just a mile away, after all…

Only the girl truly felt guilty for his predicament.  It was one thing to leave the big oaf when chased by a swarm of gerbils–he was capable of taking care of himself then.  But now he was completely vulnerable, and there were animals and monsters that would take advantage of his misfortune.  The girl stood, dusting off her pants.

The man glared at her warily.

Quincy leaned down and took him gently by the shoulders.  With a grunt, she sat him up.  “C’mon.  Let’s get you onto the wheelbarrow…”

HAKEEM_________________________

The teenager was beyond exhausted.  He’d walked ceaselessly from Crysen across the open plains and had been stopped by a rukh–a giant winged monster, similar to an eagle, with pure white plumage that reflected the glare of the suns and a reptilian head.  The fight against it had taken a while.  Everytime Hakeem attacked using the power of his magic armor, the bird would fly away again, circling around for another strike.  Eventually he was able to convince the monster that he was too troublesome to be prey, and it flew away.  He was left exhausted from his efforts and so his pace slowed.  Oddly enough, he was paused again by a swarm of gerbils, foaming at the mouths, but the man waited out their passing with a few deterring blasts and a gravitational shield.

“What in the nine hells…” he muttered as the last of the little creatures scurried away.

He walked on and on until Gulley was within his sight.

But as he picked up his pace, he thought he saw lightning flares, off to the north of the city.  Hakeem stopped and frowned, then slowly redirected his path to head to that location.

It wasn’t long before he saw a man approaching him in a jog.

The man had a long face, rounded cheeks, and thick mutton chops.  A pair of goggles dangled from around his neck, and his left hand was wrapped in a familiar dark cloth…

“Hail!” Hakeem called, holding up his hand.

Kollin Endrick Montbrai stopped and looked up from the ground, his eyes wide and spooked.

The two men stared at each other.  Hakeem started to lower his hand.

That was when Kollin took off running.

Throwing his bag on the ground, Hakeem gave chase.

QUINCY____________________________

She sighed as they entered the city.  She wouldn’t have made it pushing Karolek in herself, but the sorcerer proved that he was capable of some ingenuity.  Using his sorcery, he covered the wheels of the wheelbarrow with his metal so that all Quincy had to do was keep it from tipping forward while he rotated the wheels.

“Okay…” she said, guiding the wheelbarrow to the side of the road, where she sat on a low wall.  Gulley, unlike Akii, was turning quiet with the aging night.  She appreciated the calm that surrounded them.  “Where do you want me to take you?  A healer?  To Marshal Fuller to explain what happened?  Maybe we’ll get compensated for providing information…”

“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea.” Karolek said, shrugging morosely.  His saber was laid across his lap, like a broken toy.

Quincy nodded and stood again, taking the wheelbarrow’s handles.  “Okay.  Then afterward, I’ll take you to a healer.  I’m certain they’ll be able to–”

“Just forget it,” Karolek interjected.

The girl scowled down at the top of his head as they moved over the brick road.  “Look, I’m trying to help you.”

The man leaned his head back and sneered up at her.  “And that’s what I don’t get!  Supposedly, you hated me because you thought I was a nosy, talkative fool, then you hate me because I tried to save my own skin after you call up that wave of rodents–”

“–You forgot ‘dimwitted creep’ among your list of adjectives–”

“–Then you really hate me because I tried to take back Kollin–”

“–You had no right to him to begin with–”

“–And nownow you’re HELPING me after you could’ve finally been rid of me!  You make no sense, wizard!”

Quincy stopped and glared at the man with narrowed eyes.  “Karolek…regardless of what I think…you are an asshole,”

“Your kindness still strikes me with awe.  By the way, that makes no sense.  Opinion isn’t fact–”

“But whilst I may be inclined toward awkward fits of rage, I am not a complete bitch.”

Karolek blinked up at her.  Then he grinned and pointed up at her.  “You just called yourself awkward.”

Quincy took her elbow and dug it into his scalp, stopping only when she ran out of insults to rain down on the sorcerer.

They reached the marshal’s building.  Luckily, the entrance was a double door, so they were able to push Karolek in.  As they entered the torchlit room, they were both met with a surprising sight.

Kollin was being dragged off through a doorway to the left, his body limp as though he were unconscious.  Quincy could see jail cells before the sight was closed away from her.  A man dressed in an official-looking uniform–set with a black cape, black gloves, and black polished boots–was shaking the hand of–

“Taika!” Quincy exclaimed, dropping the wheelbarrow with a bang.

Karolek glared at her resentfully.

Hakeem turned to look at her, his brows rising high just as the man before him held up a filled coin bag.

“Quincy.”  He looked down at Karolek, and his expression turned dark.  The sorcerer held up his hands, grinning uncertainly.  “So it was you…” the boy seethed, stepping forward.

The girl hurried forward, “Wait, wait!” She stopped the teenager, grabbing him by the shoulders.  “I would’ve gone with or without Karolek.  I was desperate for the gold!”

“That doesn’t excuse what you did!” Hakeem snapped, brushing her hands away.

The official behind them cleared his throat.  “I’m sorry to interrupt…but…your gold?”

Hakeem turned around, “Sorry marshal.  Thank you, sir.”  He took the gold and returned to glaring at Quincy.

Quincy looked down at the ground. “Um…” she took a lock of her hair and rolled it between her fingers, turning her gaze to the ceiling next.  “So…I softened Kollin up for you!”  She smiled nervously and gestured at Karolek.  “And look!  I brought you a pet sorcerer!”

Leave me out of it,” Karolek barked. “I’m already paralyzed, for gods sakes…I don’t need anymore injuries.”

Hakeem pointed a finger at her.  His entire body was bunched.  “Mweze–”

She quailed as his voice broke off.  “Yes?

The boy seemed to struggle with what to say next.  Quincy watched him anxiously.  Any other time, and she would’ve been in his face, arguing her case.  But this time, she was aware, that perhaps she had crossed a line.

Hakeem let out a rush of air and gazed at her tiredly.  “Don’t…do this to me again.  I was worried.”

Quincy nodded emphatically, hugging him around the neck.  “Samahani…” she whispered into his ear.  Sorry

Then the girl sought his lips, and at first she was shy and careful, but his receptiveness bred bravery in her heart, and Quincy clutched at her husband hungrily.  She was sorry, and she wanted to show him just how much

There was a loud ‘harumph’ behind them.  The girl pulled away, hissing in irritation.

“This all would be very stimulating, if only I weren’t experiencing bodily difficulties,” Karolek griped.

Hakeem and Quincy stared down at him.

The boy looked at her, frowning suspiciously.  “You’re the reason he’s stuck there aren’t you?”

Quincy rolled her eyes shut.  “Well…”

“And the swarm of gerbils that passed me by on the way here?”

“Gods, you saw that?”

A sigh.  “Mweze, is there anything else that you did?”

“Um…nothing like the dragon incident.  Or…or the rukh breeding.  Or the possessed broom.”

“But there’s something else,” Hakeem deadpanned.

Quincy bit her lip and looked at him tentatively with one eye.  “It isn’t really that simple.”

The teenage boy covered his face with his hand.  “Tai’undu!  When is it ever with you?”

————————————

The girl promised to explain once they were safely home.  But first there was the matter of Karolek.  As promised, she took the man to a healer, and there they were assured that the sorcerer was indeed just suffering lingering magical effects.  He would be walking within a few days, with all of his…functions…returned.  In an attempt to ease her guilt, Quincy gave the man fifty gold, much to the protest of Hakeem, but the girl was able to reason that Karolek had earned atleast that much.  Then they started back home.

Once back at Crysen, their talk was further postponed when Quincy faced an immediate summons from her master.  Master Saerth had heard of some of the ordeal through one of his sessions of divinations.  He was pleased that Quincy had figured out a way to pay her landlord, but he ordered her to, “Fix the gods damned gerbil problem.  Immediately,” as punishment for her brash actions.  She was also forbidden from using her Wand of Beasts again…Ever.  Or atleast until he could train her to use the item properly.

Finally, when the landlord was paid and all other matters settled, Quincy and Hakeem sat in their home and talked.  She told her husband everything.  From the gerbils, to the talk with Kollin, to the fight with Karolek.  She took her time however in mentioning…

“The Orb of Ilkmar.”

“The what?”

“Here, look.”

Quincy took out her pouch and rubbed the sides quickly.  A round object grew between her palms, and she squeezed out the reflective orb, handing it to Hakeem so that he could see.

“The alchemist pinched it off of an elven courier,” She explained.  “I think it was meant for that Lord of Santos the wanted poster mentioned.  Kollin seemed to think it was the real reason he had a bounty on his head, anyway.”

“So now you have it?” Hakeem said, staring at her.  “Do you realize how much trouble this could bring us if they find out we have it?”

Quincy plucked the orb from his hands.  “But they won’t find out.  When they’re interrogating Kollin,” You mean torturing, a voice in her head corrected.  She tried to ignore it.  “He won’t know what really happened to it.  It was in my pouch the whole time, and Kollin must’ve thought the pouch was empty.  He’ll think I left it at his place back in Akii!”

Hakeem frowned at her.  “How does it work…?” he said cautiously.

“Don’t look so scared!  You act as though I’m going to blow something up!” She said crossly.

“That’s because you’ve done that before…”

Anyway,” she kissed the orb and smiled at it.  “It’s pretty simple.  All you have to do is say these words:  ‘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.'”

The orb flashed in her hands, filling the entire room with white light.  Both she and Hakeem jumped to their feet, chairs knocking back onto the floor.

Then the light was gone as quick as it had come, and both stared at each other.  Hakeem turned his head slowly.  “I just remembered…a bunch of things…”  he touched his head, then frowned at Quincy.  “Are you okay?”

Quincy was staring at her wrists, at the purple veins that could be seen through the creamy skin.  She looked up and smiled shakily.  “I’m fine.  That’s what the Orb of Ilkmar does.  If you’ve forgotten something, it’ll help you remember.  If you’re looking for something, you’ll find it.  If you’re trying to figure something out, it’ll bring you…to the…answer…” her voice trailed off and she stared down at the ground.

Hakeem touched her shoulder.  “Mweze?”

She looked up.  Then stepped into his embrace.  “Taika…let’s go to bed…”

Quincy hated it when Hakeem was mad at her, but she had to admit–make-up sex was incredible.  They weren’t through until morning, and then and only then, did Hakeem fall asleep next to her.  The girl kissed his cheek, one hand on her chest where she could feel his heartbeat.

Without a sound, she slipped out from beneath the covers, the cool air caressing her naked body in a way that made her shiver.  Quietly, she tip-toed across the floor to the cabinet where she took out a cooking knife.  Then she crept to the far corner to the right of the door, where leaning against the wall was her sword.  She knelt before it and took out the blade.

The rusted metal felt rough against her fingertips, but she knew the blade was too dull to cut effectively into her skin, so with bared teeth, she pressed the tip of the cooking knife into her palm and dug in.  Blood pooled in her hand and trickled down her wrist.  Carefully, the girl trickled this onto her sword.

At first nothing happened, and Quincy sighed.

Then she felt the blade glow warm, and the girl let out a small gasp.

Her blade started to glow through the rust with a soft golden light, highlighting Quincy’s features from below.  The girl trembled and held the blade up to her face.  It pulsed like a heartbeat in her hands…

…And a grim smile spread across the brunette’s face.


Back to Chapter 18.3 | Forward to The Performers

  1. ‘Dull Life’ by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, from the album ‘It’s Blitz!’. DGC/Interscope, 2009. []

Chapter 18.3

QUINCY____________________________

They didn’t try for conversation, which was fine, because the woman didn’t feel like talking.  Graziano and Paulo stuck to their side of camp, resting from the day’s events it seemed, while Hakeem and Quincy sat against the rock.  Argos was sitting, staring toward the tower, his head on his paws.  The woman watched the embers float to the dark sky–starless with the cloud cover.  One of the scultones sighed and the woman was fit to agree with it.  Earlier, the question was raised if someone needed to stand watch for trouble.  The blonde pointed out that she had already taken care of any oncoming threats, and when the others came with Syria, all they’d have to do was follow the main path to discover their camp again.

“My suggestion is to stay near the fire and be ready to move,” the woman said.

Then she thought of something.

Quincy drew up her magic bag, and Hakeem glanced at her.

“You need something?” he asked with a mild voice.

Quincy started to rub the sides of the bag, her gaze narrowed.  “I want to check the Divinare Cube.  Sadly, I used my last angel tear at Belcliff.  I think it’d be better suited to this situation.”

“It’s unlikely the cube will tell you anything you wouldn’t already expect.”  Hakeem inspected his armor, which he had decided to keep activated in case of trouble.  He wiped a snowflake off his shoulder.

Quincy shrugged.  “Perhaps you’re right, but I still want to check.”

When she felt points poking her skin, she opened the bag and let a small black stone cube fall into her waiting hand.  The woman took one corner of the cube and pushed at it with her thumb.  The little pyramid that had been the corner swiveled out, as though on a hinge.  Just as she had outside of Tiesmire, the woman turned and twisted the cube until it began to shift on its own.  Quincy favored its clear readings and broad divination.  There was an angry scorpion demigod on the Indaban continent that would’ve liked to have it back…but it had been worth the trouble for the amazing little cube.

Graziano and Paulo sat forward, watching with curiosity as much as apprehension.

“Oye, what’re you doing?” Graziano asked, his handsome face pulled into a frown.

Quincy glanced up at him.  “I’m checking the spiritual state of our environment.  I’ve heard Holzoff’s is drenched with unhappy souls.  They can tamper with our magic.”

Graziano squinted his eyes, as though he wasn’t sure he could trust her answer.  Then he sat back with a grumble.  Something about a “bruja maldita”.  She had been lying, of course.  For all she knew there was no oncoming threat–or atleast nothing they couldn’t easily handle, so the lie could be innocuous, but still–

The cube stopped its assembly.  It had changed to form a short straight line with a wide triangle jutting to the right.

Quincy clenched her teeth, her eyes searing.

Thurisaz.  The Thorn.  It meant danger.  It meant betrayal.  It meant destructive forces, spiritual possession, and two clear paths to take–retreat or attack.

The wizard wasn’t going to turn back now.

She looked at her husband, and whispered,  “Hakeem, we need to move away from camp and position ourselves in a way that we can see the others when they come.”

Hakeem frowned at her.  “What did you see?”

The woman held up the magic stone.  “Thurisaz.  If the others manage to return with Syria, I think something bad will happen.”

“Should we tell Graziano and Paulo?”

“Better to keep quiet.  If there’s too much suspicion, then things could end prematurely–and not in our favor. I can only guess that the enchantress is the source of the trouble, so I want to be prepared.  She can feel our emotions and thoughts if we’re in sight, but not if we’re out of sight.  Let the Morettis lull her into a sense of security.  We won’t be able to hide completely, she’ll still be able to sense our presence, but she won’t be able to use her enchantment to harm us, and then we can spring in at the most opportune moment.”

“This could be risky for Paulo.  Are you really okay with just…putting him out there like that?  We’ve known the Morettis for years.” Hakeem gazed at her hard.

The woman looks at him, annoyed.  What was this hesitance all of a sudden?  “They aren’t our friends.”

“Neither are Karolek or Jetswick, yet I know you wouldn’t let them risk coming to harm this way.” Hakeem managed to sound bitter.

Quincy blinked at him.  Then she sat back and sighed in exasperation.  “We can move fast.  Plus, I have some tricks to use in case trouble stirs before we can intervene.”  She stroked the side of the stone’s face, and it shuddered before shifting back into a normal cube.  She dropped it into her bag and it vanished into nothing.

She stood and held out her hand for him.  “Let’s go.”

The man gazed up at her for a long time.  Then he took her grip.  When he was on his feet, he leaned in close, his cheek brushing hers.

He spoke low in his Fanaean language, “Mweze, when this is all over, we will talk.”

Quincy glanced at him from the corner of her eyes.  She answered him similarly, “I will speak with you about whatever you’d like for as long as you’d like, bwa-taika…”  She let go of his hand and turned, leaving the camp.  Graziano and Paulo sat up, the elder sparing her a question, but she didn’t answer, and she knew they wouldn’t press the issue.  They knew better.

…Her husband should’ve too.

With her face turned from them all, Quincy’s eyes shone beneath the shadow of her hood.  “I will speak with you, but that does not mean I will listen.”

ELMIRYN___________________________

This was it.  Did she need answers?  Did she need a spiel laid before her, revealing the motives?

No.  The crimes committed by this woman were too severe.

Elmiryn slashed horizontally at Syria, but she didn’t put all her power into the stroke.  With only the one arm, the woman found her balance was hampered by the snow and her inability to adjust.  She couldn’t control broad power strokes unless she wanted to become unbalanced and open to attack.  But what a surprise!  Syria was quicker than the warrior had expected, leaning back so far, the tip of the blade just managed to graze her beneath the chin.  Her left hand, still swollen at the wrist, came rising up underhand, and Elmiryn had just a moment to brace herself when–

Quincy lanced forward from behind.  Syria let out a hiss, her eyes flickering to the side as though her mind picked up on the intention.  She shifted her body to dodge being impaled and the direction of her left hand was altered.

This change in motion meant everything, for it seemed the world around Elmiryn became muted for a split second, and she felt an immense pressure throughout the front of her body.  In the next second, she was sent flying, in a low arc, backward at high speed.

She tumbled and crashed, everything hurting to the point that thought was lost amidst the desire for release.  She heard herself screaming.  She felt like she had knives in her arms.  The fractured bones were likely stabbing her.  Perhaps the injury had been exacerbated.  Elmiryn finally came to a stop, down slope, face down in the snow.  She couldn’t breath in right away.  Beneath, her left forearm stung angrily, and there was a strong ache at her left shoulder.  Her right shoulder fared no better.  Perhaps the tumble had opened up the stab wound?

What would’ve happen if Syria had been able to hit her dead on, with all her power?  Would the warrior be alive, let alone conscious?

The cold bit her skin.  She wasn’t wearing proper clothing for this sort of climate after all.  She was a Fiamman.  It had never snowed at the kingdom.  She made a note in the future, if there was a future, to invest in heavier winter clothing.  Nyx had known a thing or two about the cold, why the hell hadn’t the girl thought about it?

–Oh right, they were poor. And it was sorta (kinda) her fault.

With bared teeth, Elmiryn made to rise.  Pain, pain, pain. She gagged and coughed, and dark fluid stained the white snow.  Her chest hurt with every breath she took.  Broken rib?  Internal bleeding?  She’d heard of that.  Seen it happen atleast once before–a man under her command dying from the shock of it.  She groped for her sword and found it, down near her leg, but she didn’t have the strength to lift it up.  The woman let herself fall back to the snow and let out a ragged sigh.  She heard the sounds of combat ahead, and felt anxious that she was missing it.  But as she tried to push up with her right arm again, her shoulder screamed at her, and the woman hissed and let herself fall back again.  The warrior still wanted to try and see what was happening, so she struggled to roll onto her back.  There, she craned her head back to try and steal a look.

Elmiryn saw the others, their heads atleast, over the slope.  The battle was furious and broad–covering a wide area so that she found herself cut off from them.  Though she couldn’t see the details of it, there were flashes here and there that told her Syria and Quincy were intensely engaged.  Even if she were well, Elmiryn was certain she’d find it near impossible to join the fray and imagined the others faced a similar problem.  It was all between the wizard and enchantress now.

The warrior was quite far down the slope, as detailed by the messy trail her body had cut into the snow.  The others seemed so far, their faces indefinite to her in the dark night.  She counted out the heads.  One, two, three…she imagined Paulo and Lethia were lying out of sight, still unconscious, but there should’ve been a fourth.  Nyx was missing.

She faded for a moment, wondering about the girl…

Then a cry cut into her thoughts and Elmiryn’s eyes snapped back open and shifted to see a streak of gold flash over the slope. Something tumbled down in a blast of snow to rival her landing.  The person slid to a stop just a little before the warrior.  Quincy.  She grunted and raised herself onto all fours, her eyes immediately turning to gaze up towards the battle.  Her limbs were visibly shaking, and her face was drenched in sweat.  Her hood had fallen back to reveal that her hair looked…luminescent. The others up ahead finally moved to take her place.  One stayed back to watch those unconscious.  The redhead guessed it to be Farrel, judging by the light hair.

Elmiryn turned to the woman, who had closed her eyes and was muttering to herself.  She grinned jauntily.  “Oh my!  How nice of you to join me wizard.  I was getting a bit lonely.”

The blond opened her eyes turned to regard Elmiryn with a blank face.  Her azure eyes were glowing too.

“Fool.  If you’re done, then keep out of the way,” The wizard said.  Her voice lacked the malice the warrior would’ve expected, but it was strained–like she were pushing a large rock.  Quincy pulled her hood back on and shifted into a crouch, her golden blade gripped in her right hand.  The thing seemed to pulse at Elmiryn’s gaze.  She was waiting for an opportunity to rejoin the battle.

The warrior hissed through breath, trying to keep the spots from clouding her vision and the ice cold feeling from sending her thoughts under.  Sweat soaked her hairline and rolled down her neck. “Come now,” she cried.  “That’s uncalled for!  Just because I beat you before–”

“You didn’t beat me.”

Such a quick response.  So the wizard was a sore loser…interesting…

“Okay,”  Elmiryn grinned, closing her eyes.  Despite her efforts to remain conscious, she felt so sleepy.  “But can we be a little nicer to the gimp, huh?  I mean, no hard feelings, right?” she breathed, cradling her arm.  She was certain the splints were out of place now.  Then her eyes snapped back open.  “And hey isn’t your arm supposed to be broken like mine?”  Elmiryn twisted her head to the side so as to look at Quincy better.

The blond had already looked back to the battle, craning her neck to see what was happening.  “Never mind that.  You’re attack against Syria was idiotic.  You should know better than to announce yourself,” she said this without a glance.

“What can I say?” Elmiryn snickered.  “I’ve been a little insane lately.”

“Elmiryn!!”

The woman opened her eyes and turned her head.  Nyx’s shadowed form came tumbling, her breath a trail of fog behind her.  She was coming at them from the north, strafing along the slope, whose shifting made it difficult to run in a straight line.  She grinned as the girl came near.  She had probably gone and jogged a crescent through the snow, to give the battle wide berth.

The girl stumbled next to her, all panicked breath.  “Gods, Elmiryn, are you okay!?” she cried.  She glanced at Quincy warily, who resumed ignoring them.

Elmiryn winced pulling away.  Then she grinned.  “Sorry, I got cocky.  But you know, Syria can’t get a grasp on my thoughts, maybe I could–”

Nyx took hold of the woman’s face and shook her head.  Her eyes were clouded with tears.  “Enough is enough, Elle!  Cajeck, ni aji üle boeneh?  Your left forearm is broken, your left shoulder was just recently dislocated, and you were stabbed by–by–” the girl turned and glared pointedly at Quincy’s back, “By her. Speaking of which, why on earth are you even here!?” she asked the wizard, venom in every word.

Elmiryn pulled at the girl’s front.  “Nyx, put it out of your mind.  With our run of luck, we can’t be choosy about where help comes from.  You said the same about Farrel, didn’t you?”

“But that was different–”

Quincy turned her head slightly.  “Therian.  Stay with your friend for now.  Hakeem, Graziano, and I can manage.  The halfling is watching the others, but should one of us fall, you must be prepared to defend them.”

Nyx hissed at her, her teeth bared.  “Who are you to give orders!?”  But even as she spoke, Quincy was already dashing away.

“It must be exhausting, fighting Syria.  She’s good at mind control.  I bet they have to fight to keep in control of their minds every single second.  Syria told me my thoughts were like smoke.  I bet it’s my curse that makes it hard for her to get a handle on me.  If I could just get in there…But what can I do when I’m like this…?” she muttered.

A sigh.  “We can’t do it all, Elle.  You’ve already done so much these past few days.”

“I want to see this finished.”  The warrior felt anxiety thrash inside her.  She clenched her jaw and glared skyward.  “I don’t want to just sit here.”  But even as the warrior said this, she knew and understood that she’d be more of a hinderance than a help.  It bothered her greatly.

“We will see this finished, one way or another,”  Nyx said grimly.  “Syria is incredibly powerful.  I’ve never even heard of someone capable of using so many different forms of magic, and at such levels!  It’s better that you stay safe.  When I saw Syria hit you with that attack…” The girl’s voice trailed away.  She stroked Elmiryn’s face, her hands shaking.  “Och tet boenah üle lunam…”

I thought you had died…

Elmiryn gazed up at her somberly.  She had told the girl these things would happen.  There would be danger, there would be struggle…possibly even sacrifice.  The warrior had made it very clear.

But she knew, given her own scares with Nyx, that this made those moments no easier to handle.

The redhead found the girl’s hand and squeezed it.  From her mind, she drew up an Ailuran phrase she had learned from her borrowed memories back at Gamath.  It seemed appropriate here.

“Och oeni…” Elmiryn mumbled.

I’m sorry…


QUINCY____________________________

On the mountain ridge to the right.  They were just close enough to camp to still be able to make out which of the Morettis was which, but not close enough to see the expressions on their faces, or to hear what they spoke of.  Hakeem was crouched, his gauntlet gripping the rock.  They had a decent view of the tower.  Detail was robbed by mist and darkness, but they could still make out the gate at the end of the bridge.  Quincy squinted her eyes as she saw the gate roll up, leaving the tower entrance wide open.

“Hakeem, I think they’re coming,” she said.

Hakeem nodded, his eyes shadowed beneath his furrowed brows.  “But…what are they doing?”

Quincy shifted higher up the slope she rested on, her hands pulling her up.  She squinted her eyes as she saw the snow and rock surrounding the tower shift, almost as though…

“…It seems the daesce are invading the tower.”  She pointed, “But look there.  There’s a group moving away from it.”  Her voice took on a fascinated note.  “Those aren’t daesce.  Those are the ones we’re waiting for.  The monsters are ignoring them…”

“They have the enchantress…and she’s killing everyone in the tower,” Hakeem breathed.  His grip tightened around the rock.

Quincy sighed.  “If she’s that powerful…we’ll be in for quite a fight.”

“I believe you…but your voice suggests something else.”

“When I was in Belcliff, I told you about my findings.  The files suggested two spellcasters were needed for the damage done to the bodies.  Lethia’s hair was found at the site where the bodies were being kept.  If Syria is capable of controlling a mob of daesce, and possibly enchanting an entire tower beforehand, then what’s stopping a person from believing she could control Lethia?”  As she said this, Quincy reached for her leather pouch with one hand.  She pressed it to the rock and began rubbing it.  Within a minute, she felt a round object grow beneath her palm.  The item she pushed out from the pouch was the Orb of Ilkmar.

“Why do you think the woman controlled her?  Maybe the girl went along with everything?”

The wizard shook her head.  “Even Gaduman of the East was incapable of such broad mind control.  This woman’s power is on a level I’ve never seen before.  Enchantment is one of the Unbound Disciplines, what if Syria discovered new lengths in which to use it?”

Hakeem shook his head.  “I still don’t see what you’re getting at.  Syria’s an enchantress.  What happened to those bodies were the work of a master sorcerer and magician.  You said it yourself.”

Quincy shook her head.  The mystery was still working itself out in her mind, and she didn’t have that answer yet.

They watched as the group grew closer and closer.  Finally, they arrived, and the Morettis rose to greet them.  …But then something went wrong.  The therian girl had collapsed, and the dog, Argos, had turned on Syria.  Lethia fell to the ground, on her knees.  A newcomer, light-haired and dressed in guard’s armor, stepped away from Syria, visibly appalled.  He was shouting.  Quincy couldn’t make out what was being said.

Then everything went to hell.

The others were frozen in place, it seemed–for Graziano, the guard, the dog, and Elmiryn were in mid-movement before they suddenly stopped.  Lethia rose from her place on the ground, then proceeded to help Paulo undress.  She seemed different now, removed from her hysteria.  The boy was going along with it, but his movements were far too calm as well.  Syria was likely controlling them both.

What came next filled Quincy with wonder, and in a more diminutive sense, revulsion.  Paulo was now naked and levitated in the air by Lethia.  Syria used sorcery to command flames from the campfire to surround the boy.  The wizard didn’t have to guess at what the woman was doing.  She was burning symbols into his body.  From her place, the wizard thought she saw Syria speaking.  It wouldn’t surprise her.  Rituals of this sort usually required a spoken rite of some sort.  If this was correct, then Syria would draw out the process until the flames had worked down to the deepest tissue–almost to bone, and then she’d castrate the boy and have him gutted.

…This seemed as good a time as any to intervene.

Hakeem seemed keen on this, as he was already over the rocks.

But then Quincy’s eyes lightened and she grabbed him by the elbow.

Her husband stared up at her, surprised.  She spoke quickly, “Hakeem, I just realized how this works!  Enchantment deals in the mind.  When a person dreams or goes unconscious, the mind can delve into a hyper-state that creates a pocket of perceived reality.  Depending on the strength of the users mind, and their ability to control their dream state, an individual could–theoretically–make seconds into days.  Break this down further, and time can be removed as an obstacle completely.”

Hakeem gestured down to the spectacle below.  “Fascinating, Quincy–but don’t you think–”

She jerked his arm and continued on, doggedly.  “Listen to me! Think of the magic form of primality.  Time magic is the ultimate limitation that controls space and gravity.  Remove time, and space is free.  A person could then split themselves infinitely, like little ideas acting independently of one another but connected to the same intellect.  Taika, Syria is capable of simultaneous thought. She may not be able to control time in the real world, but it wouldn’t matter if she could simulate this in her mind!”  Quincy let loose her version of a smile, and the corners of her lips twitched up a fraction.  “She managed to fool her own animus, which is the boundary that contains the intellect.  Quite a feat, even for an enchantress, to make the mind forget the nature of the world on such a primal level whenever it conveniences her.”

Hakeem’s brows rose high.  “…And if given this control, this power, one could use it to their advantage.  Like–”

“Mastering different schools of magic,” Quincy said, her brow creased.  “In which case then, if Syria managed to use the ability of simultaneous thought with another individual of matching power–”

“Then she could use two magic forms at the same time.”  Hakeem looked down below him.  “Lethia Artaud must have an incredible amount of raw power for Syria to vicariously cast her magic through her.”

“I’m a bit envious, I’ll admit,” Quincy nodded and let go of him.  She held up her reflective orb.  “Unfortunately, we’ll be on the wrong end of that power in just a moment.”

Hakeem glanced at her.  “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to use the Orb of Ilkmar.  With just the two of us, we could possibly take down an enchantress–even one capable of mind-controlling so many at once.  But an enchantress who’s a master in sorcery, gravitational magic, and gods knows what else?  That’s why I had to stop you.  I think we’ll be needing a little help.”  She kissed the orb.  “Maybe this thing will give the others below an idea of what to do…”

And perhaps–the woman wondered quietly as she activated the magic–

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!”  Quincy threw the orb into the air and it flashed–

–Maybe the Orb of Ilkmar could reveal to her why it was someone so powerful, allowed herself to be incarcerated for so long?

ELMIRYN___________________________

At a glance, it seemed a bit unfair.  Three against one?

…But the enchantress was holding them back.  No, more than that, she seemed to be winning.

Quincy was as quick as the light she drew power from, for her attacks were like flashes, and her stabs as powerful and poignant as lightning.  Elmiryn meant it when she said she wasn’t surprised the blonde had come.  Hakeem was her partner, and if there was gold in it, then she would likely go along with their plans.  But more than that, Quincy was driven by some kind of code of honor.  When they had fought barely a day earlier, the wizard had believed her to be a part of the evil power surrounding them and had been determined to stop her.  Elmiryn wasn’t sure if Quincy was entirely convinced of her innocence, but given the greater threat before them, the matter seemed set aside for the moment.

Syria, after all, proved the greater surprise here.

For a woman who had been in prison with a body bruised and swollen and stiff, she moved like a leopard–fast, graceful, and indifferent to her body’s limitations…and the warrior was reminded of Lethia.  The girl had conquered a wall of jagged rock after suffering a possibly near-fatal injury.  Was this the true extent of enchantment’s powers?  Expanding one’s mind and rising above the mortal coil to defeat challenges with ease?  Mind over matter, as they said.  She wanted to ask Graziano how it was possible that Syria knew gravitational magic and various forms of sorcery on top of her enchantment.  Gravitational magic alone took years to learn, didn’t it?  And decades still to master it?  So why was Syria able to use it with such ease?

More help would be needed, and not from her.

Elmiryn tugged at her companion’s sleeve.  “Hey, Nyx.”

The girl looked at her, blinking.

The warrior pointed up the slope.  “You have to help them.”

“What?  But what about you?

“I’m not dead, gods damnit.  Let Halward do his part and keep me safe.  Your ass needs to get up there.”

The girl shook her head bowing down low.  She let out a shuddering breath through her mouth and stroked Elmiryn’s cheek.  “No.  You need me here.  I don’t want you getting hurt anymore than you are.  I don’t…” the girl choked back a sob. “I don’t want to go through Gamath again!  I can do something to help you this time!”

Elmiryn snatched at the girl’s upper left arm with her right hand.  It hurt, and she knew her grip must’ve been painful judging by the look that crossed Nyx’s face.  She jerked the girl forward and sat up as best she could.  Her mouth crashed against Nyx’s, the girl’s breath was harsh against her cheek.  She could feel the cry against her lips, and through her pain nettled an inexhaustible desire.

No longer able to keep the position up, the warrior fell back and turned her face away.  “Right now the others need you.  Go now…or you’ll regret staying with me more than anything.”  This phrase pumped acid through Elmiryn’s veins, and her eyes clouded.  Why…did she feel guilty now?

Nyx sat there for a minute, tears silently falling onto Elmiryn’s arm.  Then she stood and wiped her eyes on her sleeve.

“Elle…” she said in a querulous voice.  But when she spoke again, her voice steeled, and the woman heard hints of a growl in the belly of her words.  “I won’t let you down!”

And the girl was gone.

Elmiryn blinked the moisture from her eyes and weak tears dripped to the snow.  She took a breath and pushed herself into a sitting position, her vision tunneling away for moment and all her upper body protested.

…It hadn’t been her intention, but now that Nyx was not around to stop her, she could work on trying to stand again.


QUINCY____________________________

“But the right to first blood is mine!”

Idiot.  Did the Fiamman want to die?  …Or was she trying to give Quincy an opening?

The wizard saw Syria’s hand pull back and felt the power surging around it.  With little thought, she stabbed forward.  Syria shifted and her blade went slicing past its target, but the enchantress had been forced to change the course of her strike, taking away the energy she had built up.  The dark-haired woman lashed at Elmiryn, and the warrior was blasted away into the dark of the night, down a slope where she couldn’t be seen.  Was she dead?

No time to think of her.

Syria didn’t pause after her attack, and instead turned with a full whirl to send a sickle of gravitational force at Quincy.  The woman dodged and pressed forward, stepping in close enough that her left foot slid between Syria’s legs.  The wizard stabbed from low at her right hip, cutting up in a diagonal line towards Syria’s right shoulder.  The enchantress leaned back, and the sword tip sailed over her shoulder and just missed grazing her tender neck.

She lifted her right knee high to her chest, then shot it back down again, close to the center of her body.  Just as it came down along Quincy’s inner thigh, the enchantress hooked it to the right shoved at the wizard’s knee with hers.  Simultaneously, she leaned her body forward and to the left where she slammed her fist into the woman’s exposed left side.

The body blow was backed with a gravity force that, coupled with Quincy’s compromised stance, sent the woman flying.  Syria’s form and execution were excellent, but the power of the attack came mostly from the magic she used.  Though she was clearly ignoring the limitations of her own swollen wrists, that didn’t mean physical strength appeared out of thin air.

So to Quincy’s fortune, she wasn’t sent very far, and rolled back upright, her sword at the ready.  Her side throbbed, and she had to focus to get her breathing back on track, but the woman was fine.

Syria didn’t wait for her to counter.  The enchantress narrowed her gaze and brought forth more flames, which seemed to funnel from the campfire to roar in a hot cloud about the woman.  With a push of her hands, the woman speared the fire forward.

Quincy straightened and held out her sword.

As the flames neared, there was an inhuman scream as the fires that surged forth vanished and flickered, the cooled air rushing about Quincy in a startled gasp.  Her sword was engorged on the light and glowed hot.  She drew back Tonatiuh’s fang and let out a breath–

Flash.

Within a millisecond she was a blast of light, pulled through space in a hot sear through the dark.  She was raw energy, traveling at a high speed, and she rocketed toward Syria–but she met resistance. A gravitational field. How could this be? The world warped, and her form bent. Unlike before, when she had taken Tonatiuh into her heart, Quincy was still in a humanoid form. Perhaps because of this, she was denser, and of course, she wasn’t moving at the true speed of light.  This would explain how the field was redirecting her, so that she saw Syria beneath her, like she were looking through curved glass.  Within the next second, the wizard was headed for the snowy ground, unable to stop, she had just enough time to flip herself around, feet first–

The snow exploded and slushed about her boots as the energy left Quincy. The force of the landing sent her down onto a knee, and pain shot up from her soles.  She looked up just in time to see Syria swing overhand toward her.  She jumped backward, and the enchantress slammed her gravitational hammer into the ground.  The force rattled the ground.  Quincy pressed forward, blade drawn back at the hip.  She couldn’t flash forward again, but her weapon still held power.  With a slash, a long lance of hot light blasted forth towards Syria’s body, atleast four yards long, melting the snow it carved into.  Syria slid away, the snow shifting about her feet to pull her yards back.  She raised a hand and snow drifted up from the ground, collecting into hundreds of icicles at around her head.  She then pushed her hand out, and the icicles shot forth, whizzing.

Quincy shifted to the left, putting her companions further behind her.  Lifting her sword toward the sky so that the light shot up like a beacon, the woman closed her eyes and squeezed the hilt of her sword.  She felt the light, felt its heat and power, and imagined it as glass at the hands of her animus–her soul.  She broke it.

The light shaft shortened to stop just two feet above Quincy’s head.  It flashed and hundreds of rays cut forward.  She could see through the individual paths of light, see the icicles just as they were within three feet of her–The rays sliced into the icicles, cutting them up, melting them, leaving the wizard only to be sprayed with water and small ice chunks.  She could hear more snow collected, more icicles.  Syria was going to keep blasting her until the woman missed one.  She wouldn’t let this turn into a fire fight–there, Syria would have the advantage.  Quincy’s power was limited as her sword drew from light and the suns still hadn’t risen yet, but the enchantress could draw infinitely from their surroundings with her sorcery.

Quincy opened her eyes, swinging her blade to the side.  At the back of her mind, she could feel Syria fishing–trying to worm her way in, trying to anticipate what she would do next.  But the woman had been trained in protecting herself from such intrusions, and she steeled the barriers of her mindscape.

“You have no home in my mind, witch!” she called as she lurched forward into a charge.  The rays of light swirled and pulsed around her, obliterating the hail of icicles as they came.  But the rays were dying off each second.  Quincy knew the battle had become too complicated, too dangerous for the others to try and join in, but what could she do? The enchantress had attacked her with high power. The wizard had to respond similarly or be killed. This was most likely what Syria wanted–to fight them one at a time. Without a foothold to control the minds of those around her and so many things seeking to break her attention, her best bet was to isolate them in battle.

Quincy cursed herself. How could she have played into the woman’s plans so easily?

Syria didn’t run from her as Quincy came close, and this caused the woman pause.  She cut at her front, but she knew the blade would not reach, just slash near the mark.  It was to test the older woman’s resolve.  Syria didn’t move.  Didn’t even act to defend herself.  She seemed to wait for Quincy to come and deliver the final blow.  But the wizard didn’t take the bait.  She stared the enchantress down.

“Syria, what is this all for?” she asked quietly.

The enchantress gave her a pitying smile.  “Freedom.”

Then Quincy took in a breath and noticed the damp, humid smell.  She blinked and with squinted eyes saw the vapor that flew about her, highlighted by the last of the dying rays.  She cursed, stepping back, but it was too late.  Syria bowed her head, and within the next instant, the wizard was encased in ice that seemed to thicken exponentially.  Her eyes watered, and her skin stung from the cold.  She tried to twist, but her spine, hips, and shoulders ground painfully into the ice.  Her eyes stared through inches of translucent white.  The woman tried to suck in breath, but only managed to expand her chest a quarter of an inch before limitation stopped her.

“Tai’undu!” Quincy thought.  She saw Syria move away towards the others, who rose to engage her.  If she did nothing, she could suffocate in seconds–there was no new air flowing in and restriction kept her from even recycling her breath.  She had to get out, and quickly, but her sword had used up the last of the power it had drawn from the fire.

Quincy, however, came up with a wild idea.

She drew in breaths, quick and short.  She consciously conjured up memories of the smoldering remains of huts and charred flesh.  Of gusty winds that buffeted her.  Of a certain young enchantress with her head trapped beneath iron.  Of manacles on her wrists while a shadow stood over her, seagulls squawking overhead.  Of sea salt and blood on her tongue.  Of tall, tall men with tall, tall tales of heroes and villains and gods.  Of standing in a swaying field, a heavy sword in her tiny hands, watching as a cloaked figure grew farther and farther away…  “You have more than that, lazy beast,” she thought, tightening her grip around Tonatiuh’s hilt.  “Pathetic, worthless scrap metal.”  Suddenly it wasn’t that hard to feel angry.  She strained against the ice, felt her muscles press and twist painfully.  It fueled her fury.  “I’ll cast you into the sea, where you can rust away in Atargatis’ dark belly!  Cursed weapon!!”

The weapon grew hot beneath her touch, scalding her.  Fire seemed to erupt in her chest, and her skin flushed with heat.  Sweat rolled down her tight face, and Quincy groaned.

“That’s it,” she panted against the ice.  “I’m feeding you.  It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?  Take my anger!  It’s yours!

Tonatiuh flashed, blinding her.  She felt herself blasted backward, through crumbled ice and water where she sailed through the air.  She felt like she flew a long time.  Then she crashed and tumbled into the snow.  Dizziness and a relentless heat boiling inside her made movement an impossibility.  Than through sheer effort, the woman raised herself with a grunt.  She looked up the slope she had tumbled down, craning her head to see the battle resume without her. She took deep, slow breaths.  Beneath her cloak, she was trembling, but she banished this weak show of constitution by repeating a mantra her old master had taught her, to reign in her emotions when they had slipped away from her.

She closed her eyes and muttered this to herself over and over, quickly. “Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…”

Tonatiuh was laughing in her head, even as she struggled to fight down the unwanted memories.  Then Quincy heard a voice.

“Oh my!  How nice of you to join me wizard.  I was getting a bit lonely.”

GRAZIANO__________________________

“How do you figure Tulki managed it, Graz?”

“What?”

“Capturing those Lycans?”

“Pure silver, likely.  Some other alchemy trick, who knows.”

“I figured you did, hermano.  You know so much about this crazy stuff.”

“Choi, that’s only because your ass of an older brother won’t bother keeping up with the new ways.”

“If Ard were around I bet you wouldn’t talk so fresh, eh?”

“Yah, yah–c’mere perrico, lemme show you what he’d do if he were around!”

“Ow, ow!  Distagea, distagea hermano, merci!”

Paulo’s body was covered in rune-shaped burns, the skin blistered and in some cases peeling some of the superficial layers of skin away.  Some of the runes were weeping blood and puss, staining the snow.  The smell of burned flesh was nauseating.  There was a weak pulse at his neck.  Graziano held the boy’s face, his hazelnut eyes shocked wide and his entire body trembling.

“Choi?” he whispered.  He avoided the hollow of his cheek, because there on each side, mirroring runes had been burned in.  Symbols that looked like they belonged to an ancient language.  He didn’t recognize them.  There were too many to count.  All he saw was pain and horror, and while he half-wished his brother would regain consciousness, he feared the suffering he’d find if he did.  The man tore at his wavy hair, his body tensing as something indescribable built up in him.  He thought of his older brother, Arduino, and what he would do.  What he would say.  His brother had been the surrogate father to them both, but this time Graziano had thought he’d known better, he’d thought…

“Pardona me,” He sobbed, rocking back and forth.  He scraped at the skin around his neck and tore at his shirt, trying to find release from the pain and desperation that gripped him.  “Pardona me, Choi! Yo no sabea!”

“Oye, Choi!  Look at you!  Big bounty hunter now!  That was quite daring of you, swinging down on the rope the way you did.”

“Tulki was going to shoot you, Graziano.  You smell funny, pér familia is everything!”

“Ha!  I love you too, idi’ute…”

A light touch at his shoulder.  Graziano jumped and turned to stare wild-eyed at Hakeem.  The dark-skinned man was gazing intensely toward the battle.  “Graziano, forgive me, but I think trouble is turning its eye on us.”

The Moretti blinked and looked in the direction the wizard was staring.  Quincy was trapped in a rock of ice, and Syria walked toward them calmly, her expression blank.  The man grabbed onto the hilt of his rapier, but paused and looked at his brother in anguish.  “But my brother–”

“Go,” said the halfling man.  He held a hand over Paulo and gave Graziano a nod.  Argos brushed up next to him, panting.  “I just have my dagger with me, and I’m not much good with close-range combat, but I’ll watch him and try to keep him safe as best I can.”

Graziano clenched his jaw and nodded once.  Then he looked at Hakeem, and together they both rose.  The Moretti drew his sword and held it before him with quaking hands.  He tried to steel himself, but rage and anguish were devils that sought to overthrow him.

“Why have you done this!?” He screamed, advancing slowly.  Hakeem kept pace on his left, his fists held up.  “Paulo is just a boy!”

Syria stopped and blinked at him.  Then she looked to the ground.  “I will answer you, Moretti, because your pain is so vast, it warrants some response…though I doubt you’ll like my answer anymore than you’ll understand it.”  The woman took a breath and raised her head.  “Paulo is fertile.  He is young and vivacious.  He had everything she needed, and I must deliver him to her.”

“To who!?” he raged.  He slashed his sword through the air.  “For what!?

“To the one who speaks to me always.  I fought her for years, but I found I could do this no more.  My own struggles were futile in the end.  If it were not me, then it would be others still.  Like my Lethia.  The one who speaks to me seeks to break down boundaries.”  Syria turned her face toward Holzoff’s. “My last rebellion was in allowing myself to be taken away.  If structured bodies could stop me, as a virus, then perhaps the world had merit in its incarnation?  But…my darling girl showed me how such things could be conquered through pure and basic principle.  Unabashed loyalty.  Love.  Then I realized there were purer things then the insecure practices so many abide by.  These crippled societies, these hungry kingdoms, these prejudicial communities…I have seen and touched the dreams and minds of so many.  You would not believe the horrors that breed in sentient minds.  Belcliff’s marshal saw me for years over guilt for what he did to the Albian dwarves.  He murdered them all, you know.  Kept it quiet.  With my help, he kept it quiet.  Yet he feared I’d reveal this, even as he begged me to help him with his pain.  Do you see the broken madness in this?  What’s wrong then, in opening the flood gates, and returning the world to its baser qualities?”

Syria’s chin crumpled and she took a breath.  “I tried to keep Lethia safe.  I didn’t want her to know about what was really happening.  But her subconscious always remembered the rituals. The blood.  Her nightmares were so powerful, they flooded the minds of all in Albias.”  Suddenly, a crooked smile spread across her face, and she looked at Graziano and Hakeem again.  Tears trickled from her eyes into her frozen smile.  “But despite this all, I’m glad an end can finally be reached!”

“You’re insane,” Hakeem said, he pulled a fist back, and the space around it rippled.

Syria cackled and raised her arms.  Wind swept up around them, whipping up snow.  Graziano took a step back as he saw the snow collect together, then hardened into thousands of icicles.  They slashed at his skin, and the Moretti shouted as he tried to shield his face and neck.

He looked at the wizard, “Hakeem, do something gods damn it!”

The man in question raised his fist in the air.  There was a muted rush and Graziano felt an invisible force brush past all of his body.  The wind and icicles stopped.  He lowered his arms and saw that Hakeem had created a sort of barrier around them.  Outside, the wind still whirled sharp ice.  Syria’s lip curled and she made a beckoning motion with her hands.

Both Hakeem and Graziano fell as they snow they stood on shifted, like a carpet had been pulled beneath them.  The snow shifted again, and the next thing they knew, they were sliding towards Syria at high speed.  Hakeem had other plans, however.

Striking both arms against the ground, the wizard knocked both himself and Graziano upright with a strong gravitational blast.  The Moretti stumbled, unprepared for this sudden change in position, but the wizard charged forward, and in the next instant, he was throwing punches, his attacks backed with gravitational force.  The wind around them died as the enchantress couldn’t keep the magic going.  But Syria, for her ragged appearance, dodged the man’s advances.  There was a critical misstep, and Hakeem was sent spinning to the ground from a blow to the shoulder.

Graziano didn’t pause in taking Hakeem’s place.  He jabbed at her stomach, but the woman shifted away.  The man followed up quickly with a slash to the face, but this too Syria dodged.  She mirrored his footwork, tracing a perilous dance through the snow.  With each stroke that missed, Graziano’s rage grew.  It pulsed within him, tearing away at his control.  His attacks grew wilder, leaving him open.  Syria struck him in the chest, knocking the wind out of him, and he was launched backward to the ground.

Gasping, he stared up at the sky.

“Capturing Lethia Artaud…This is the last bounty before we go back home to Erminia, right?”

“Yes, Choi.”

“…I don’t want to go back, hermano.”

“Why not?”

“It’s alot more fun, being out here with you and Ard.”

The man growled and scrambled to his feet.  Hakeem was back to fighting Syria one-on-one, but this time, Graziano didn’t wait.  He pressed forward, his blade swinging at Syria’s head.  The tip of his sword nearly hit the wizard’s neck, and the man strafed away from him, his eyes cutting.  Graziano ignored him.  The only thing that mattered was killing Syria.

Their fight gained a rhythm.  Syria was forced to travel backwards, her black hair a swaying curtain as she dodged both fist and blade.  She tried to shift the snow beneath their feet, but both men recovered quickly each time.  Graziano became dimly aware of Quincy’s joining the battle.  The blond didn’t say a word.  For a time, she followed the battle fine, but the attacks soon clashed and the rhythm was lost.  Syria took advantage of this.

With a stomp of her foot, the ground rolled like a wave, going outward from the enchantress in a growing circle.  The three of them were forced backward.

Quincy shouted at Hakeem, “Give us some paths!”

The man nodded, and with a swing of his gauntlet, he sent a roll of force at Syria.  The woman jumped away, but the man didn’t appear too concerned.  The air seemed warped there.  He punched both arms out from his sides, yelling from his gut.  Another wave of force blasted from his fists.  As he did this, Quincy attacked Syria, keeping her busy.

Despite her talk of teamwork, the woman seemed to be doing alot of the fighting herself. The Moretti recognized this to be her impatient professionalism–the old “If you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself,” at work.

He spat at the ground, his grip tightening around his sword.

…And what about him? What about his family’s right to battle?

Hakeem called to Graziano, “Moretti!  When the time is right, jump into my pathways and try to keep still!  We can flank her in ways she can’t follow!  If you can, back her into the pathways.  They’re a condensation of space, and it could disorient anyone unprepared for it.”

The man gave an imperceptible nod.  Hakeem leapt through one of his pathways, flashing to the end of it.  There, he let out a kai and sent another wave of force slicing through the snow.  Another pathway.

From the corner of his eye, Graziano saw someone jogging toward them in the snow.  He glanced and saw it to be Nyx, her expression taut with apprehension.  She stopped near him, watching as Quincy fought against the enchantress.

The man grabbed her by the shoulder and pointed with his rapier.  “Quincy’s just keeping her occupied.  We have to help her or Syria will just overwhelm her in the end!”

The girl swallowed and nodded.  As they ran forward, Graziano pointed at the pathway before them, where view of the battle was warped like a fish lens, “Watch out for these.  I know they’re hard to see right away, but if you go through them it can be dangerous.  Here’s an opening, come on!”

They passed through, the air between the separate pathways charged with static energy that made his hair stand on end.  As they neared the fight, Syria had drawn back her arm and was about to lash at Quincy’s head.  The wizard had just missed with a downward stroke and her body tensed to dodge the blow.  She wouldn’t make it.  Graziano yelled and lunged at Syria, forcing the woman’s attention on him.  The enchantress fell back, and instead of lashing out at Quincy, sent her attack at the Moretti instead.  A swing of her arm and the man felt a sickle of force strike him from his left shoulder down to his right hip.  The blow did not knock him down, but he was forced to stumble back several steps.

Nyx, a little wiser it seemed, flanked the enchantress, taking the time to go around to the woman’s side and strike with a kick to the back of the knee.  Syria went down, and the therian moved to knee the woman in the face, but as she lifted her leg, the enchantress jerked her head back.  The snow beneath Nyx shifted, and the girl gave a surprised yelp as she fell backward.  Quincy slashed down to cut at Syria’s head.  Their opponent rolled backward and slammed her fists into the ground.  The force of the blow, much like Hakeem’s move, launched her to her feet in an instant.

“Therian help me!” Quincy shouted as she pressed forward.  Nyx wheezed but was back on her feet and following suit.  Graziano watched as they fought the enchantress back more and more.  The Ailuran had what the Moretti didn’t–control.  Her speed and agility made each attack seem part of a greater whole, an interwoven series that allowed little pause on the part of the defender.  Graziano had always known Quincy to be the adaptable fighter.  She fed off of the girl’s rhythm, using it to her advantage to offer the power that Nyx’s technical skill lacked.

Did the enchantress know what they were doing?  Was the relentless onslaught so much that she couldn’t change it, even if she did?  Whatever the reason, the outcome was the same.

With a unified kick to the chest, Quincy and Nyx sent Syria flying backward into Hakeem’s pathway.  …But she went in the wrong way.

From where he stood, it was like the woman’s body was warped to be no wider than three inches, and no shorter than seven feet.  There was a choked gasp from Syria, and then she fell back, out of the pathway.  Hakeem, jogging up to join Quincy and Nyx, waved his arms, and the pathway vanished, leaving Graziano’s view of Syria clear.

The woman fell to her knees, gasping for breath.  Her eyes were wide and her arms limp at her sides.  Was it over, was it done?

Graziano sheathed his sword…then drew his pistol.  The ivory stock fit his palm so nicely.  He walked forward with slow steps, his face blank.

He could hear Quincy speaking to the others.  “…must close the ritual somehow.  The magic is still active, but it’s deteriorating, leaving the required objectives less definite.  That’s even more dangerous.  The last thing Syria needed for this to be complete was–” the wizard cut off as the Moretti appeared next to her.

“Un otrie sin casé, no posque funcío,” Graziano whispered, silent tears trailing down his cheeks.  “A tool has no purpose without a hand to use it…” he lifted his pistol.

In a rare show of expression, Quincy’s eyes widened, and she made as if to grab the man’s hand.  “No, Graziano don’t!

The man managed to squeeze off three shots in rapid succession before the wizard grabbed his wrist. He didn’t just want the woman dead. He wanted her to suffer

One shot entered Syria’s right shoulder.

The other two stopped in mid-air just before they could.  These would’ve struck her in the forehead and throat.  The woman’s eyes flickered back to life, and they moved to meet Graziano’s horrified gaze.  She offered him a thin smile, her eyes clouded with tears.

Dimly, he thought about his father.

“Papa, don’t worry, Arduino and I can take care of Paulo just fine.”

Then the hovering bullets shot forth at him.  One pierced his heart, the other the middle of his forehead.

Graziano fell, and when he hit the ground, he didn’t think about anything anymore…

ELMIRYN___________________________

The warrior made a last push up the slope, her breath ragged.  She teetered backward for a scary moment before she managed to right herself.  Doubled over, she tried to catch her breath.  Then she heard three gunshots, and her head snapped up.

Nyx screamed.

Ahead of her, far away, Graziano fell to the ground, limp.  To the side, Farrel had stood to his feet, one hand clenched like a punch he was considering throwing.  Quincy stared down at Graziano’s body like she couldn’t compute it.  Nyx fell to her knees, also in a sort of disbelief.  Hakeem pulled the both of them back harshly, leaving Elmiryn with a clear view of Syria.  Blossoming in her right shoulder was a blood stain, from a gunshot wound it looked like, but this didn’t seem to phase her.  Her head was tilted back, and the enchantress whispered something into the air.

Elmiryn stumbled forward as quickly as she could.  “Nyx!” she shouted.

The girl turned and saw her.  She ran to the woman, arms held out.  Nyx was in hysterics as she took the woman a little too roughly by the shoulders.  “Elmiryn, she killed him!  She killed Graziano!”

The warrior winced at the harsh contact, but turned her eyes to Quincy.  The wizard was staring at Paulo.  Elmiryn followed her gaze, and her brows crashed together.  “Oh fuck…”

Farrel stood staring down at the boy’s body with horror, his face under lit by the white glow that shone from the burned in runes on the boy’s body. Argos stood near Lethia, as though shielding her with his body, his hackles raised and teeth bared.

The air around them grew thick.  Elmiryn grabbed Nyx’s hand and squeezed it.  “Stay close to me, something’s happening.”

“Should we run?”  Nyx asked quickly, her voice taut with fear.

Overhead, a white mist had appeared, and it shifted in the sky, like milk being stirred.  Drops of water and light pieces of snow began floating upward, toward the sky.  With each passing second, the mist grew wider until it were a dense liquid disc that occupied all the sky overhead.  A powerful hum began to reverberate all around them.  Elmiryn started to feel the hair on her skin rise, and her blood felt thick in her body.  She clenched her jaw and began to pull Nyx back toward camp.  There, the scultones stood watching, their white eyes glowing in the dark as they flared their nostrils and took in the scene.

“Oh gods…” Nyx whimpered, squeezing Elmiryn’s hand.

Quincy and Hakeem jogged toward them.  Elmiryn slowed to a stop and gazed at them hard.  The man spoke, out of breath.  “We can’t get near Syria–there’s something preventing us from getting near.”

“Graziano, the fool…” Quincy muttered, staring blankly upward.  “The ritual needed a sacrifice to be completed.  Because we had interrupted Syria’s process, the magic had started to deteriorate, leaving that requirement open to be interpreted by the power in question.  Graziano’s life and blood were enough to substitute for Paulo’s…but the reaction will be different than whatever Syria expected.  Not even she can control it now–however she doesn’t seem to mind.”

“But what the fuck is happening?” Elmiryn snapped.

Quincy sighed.  “Nothing good.”

The warrior started to run, dragging Nyx with her.  “Then why are we just sitting around talking about it!?”

She started to feel lighter.  Her feet sunk less and less into the snow.  When her next step barely skimmed the ground, Elmiryn shouted and tumbled forward on purpose, back to the ground.  Her hand still held Nyx’s, and when she turned, she saw the girl was in the air, floating, her legs kicking wildly.

“Elmiryn!” The girl screamed in a panic.

A little behind them, Quincy and Hakeem were holding hands as well (oh, they were a couple?) and were floating up, but they’re expressions were less surprised.  They looked at her with somber expressions.

“Elmiryn.  We aren’t running, because we already know it’s too late,” Hakeem said, his brows together.

Elmiryn started to feel her body lift as well.  She looked to Farrel.  The man was clutching both Lethia and Paulo around their upper arms.  Argos was writhing and snarling near Lethia’s feet.  Farrel looked wildly at her, and she thought she heard him shout over the growing hum, “What’s goin’ on!?”

The warrior craned her neck to see Syria already floating near the mysterious liquid overhead.  Her expression seemed peaceful as her body was swallowed whole.  When she was out of sight, the liquid rippled, and the redhead’s eyes widened as she saw a myriad of colors flash in the white.  She thought she could make out objects between the ripples–mountains, rivers, people–

Syria had opened up a gateway.

Elmiryn’s tension sloughed away.  As she drifted up, ever closer to the liquid, she pulled Nyx to her and held the girl around the torso.

“Nyx…” she breathed, her eyes shining with wonder.  “I think I know where this goes.”

The girl seemed beyond speech.  She was trembling and hugging the woman tightly, so that it hurt, but the warrior was beyond caring.

She laughed and threw her head back, the momentum twisting them both around so that they slipped into the liquid feet first.  Upon touching it, she felt as though her nerves were on pins and needles.  Nyx was staring at her, hyperventilating.  She opened her mouth, trying to say something but nothing came out.  Hakeem and Quincy were already halfway in.  The warrior couldn’t even see Farrel and the others anymore.

“I’m going to tear this evil out by the roots,” Elmiryn said between laughs shortly before her head was swallowed by the oblivion.

And the torrent of unknowing that howled around them, pushed and pulled, wanting and puzzling and tasting to make sense of their particle existences.

…Because in the Other Place, definition had to be destroyed before it could be discovered again…


End of Part II


Back to Chapter 18.2 | Forward to Short Term Solutions