Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 20.2

NYX____________________________

They’re vicious things, those black nymphs.  They can be as big as small children.  They have sallow colored skin that scabs and peels like they’re sunburned.  They’re mostly bald, with thinning dark hair, and they have large black eyes that roll madly about in their fervor.  Their teeth are jagged and crooked, with bits of wood and moss in them, and they are stained and rotted.

They hate everything.  Every living creature, every growing plant, every sunrise and sunset.  They feed off the dead trees, gnawing on the stiff dry bark so that you can see their teeth marks gouged into the wood.  They stalk any and all outsiders of their black forest and after they’ve accumulated enough gall, they begin to pelt their victim with any and all objects they can throw.  If they’re daring, they may even try to jump on your back and bite something off.  They sabotage tools and vehicles, burn clothes, and defecate on your food.  If they hate life, they hate civilization even more, and they want nothing of it in their forest.

…There was once a time when I dwelled here, in the Kreut.  It was…just after my banishment and all of my family were dead.  I was alone in that forest, mourning.  I shed my clothes and laid on the ash covered soil.  I writhed in the desolation, and I think the black nymphs took a liking to me.  And by that I mean…well I’m not sure.  Typically, black nymphs seek to drive anyone from their home, and in the beginning they did this with zeal.  But in my grief I thought I deserved it, so I took their punishment without complaint.  I think this confused them.  Startled them, even.

As the months stretched by, the evil creatures came to watch me in large gangs–black eyes winking up in the trees at night.  They’d whisper and grunt to each other.  They’d pelt me with objects when they felt like it.  Sometimes, they kept me from sleeping, shrieking in my ear or biting my limbs just as sleep (or unconsciousness) sought to claim me.  They tormented my Twin when we’d Change.  There was no doubt–they hated me and wanted me dead.  But it was with pleasure that I felt them plot my demise.  They giggled at my pain and sadness.  I think they found me special, and so their cruelty reflected this.

Those terrible creatures are the only things I hate as much as dogs and violence.  And if my memories of my time in the Kreut forest were stronger and clearer, then I imagine I’d hate them even more.

They’re vicious things, those black nymphs.

And they descended on me.  I knew it to be them, from the small voices that shrieked and hooted.  In the confusion, I managed to pick out my own name in the devilish chant that could be heard.  Nyx…Nyx…Nyx… It frothed in the horror.  It sent great shivers of revulsion through me that these filthy things would hold my name in their black hearts after all this time, but perhaps it was fitting, given my past.

Sharp teeth clamped onto me, and I noted Lacertli’s weight was absent from my shoulder, but I had little time to dwell on that.  Was Argos free of this?  I thought I could hear him howling and barking in the din.  He sounded far away.  I felt far away.

…This was really happening.

The pain came from all around.  I felt pieces of myself tear.  I was going to be ripped apart again, but this time I wouldn’t be able to walk away.  These things would not be satisfied with a small prize.  They would devour me whole if they could…

Away.  I had to get away.

Inward I went, through the unseen passage that led me to Her usual place in my mind–now empty–but I pressed onward, and as I dragged myself (it seems one of the evil things was close to gnawing off my right foot) somehow the pain I felt dimmed.  I imagined myself free of their bonds and my body started to heal.  I paused to allow the process to complete.  Gaping wounds closed.  I wretched and vomited up bloody bile.  The whole of me was covered in gore and other things I care not to name.  Then I was up off the ground (“When had I fallen?”) and was moving again.

I was once more forging through the labyrinth of my mind, following cold lonely trails through a landscape of a whistling canyon and cool rock beds, where beings caught between transformations pulsed in the rock.  I ran, my legs scything through the air and my boots pounding.  I was feeling a pull at my back even as the pain faded.  Reality was trying to draw me out of my subconscious, but I fought against its phantom grip and fought to clear the hill that seemed to hedge my mind until–

–A breath over me.  The pressure and the pull was gone.  I stood at the top of the sandy crest and nearly fell backward in my fright.

Standing before me was a giant creature with a hunched back and writhing skin.  It turned my way at my gasp and let out a roar.

…No, wait.

I squinted my eyes and saw with a start that the giant was actually hundreds of black nymphs all writhing together, clawing each other, biting one another’s limbs.  Black blood seeped down their bodies and I turned sick at the sight of some being burrowed into, intestines and other organs falling free to dangle by their fleshy attachments.  The nymphs were trying to become one…literally.

The giant’s head, already a bloody mass of corpses and half-dead nymphs turned to me, parting its misshapen mouth to scream.

“Someone has taught them black magic.  They have enacted a spell that brings them together as one.” Lacertli’s voice.  I jumped and turned to see the god was right next to me, once again in the guise of Marquis, his fierce eyes upon my face. “The spell has yet to complete.  The body is not yet whole.  Get at the abomination’s heart, before its skin turns to steel, and you will have defeated this threat.”  And then the god glanced to the side, his form fading. He quirked an eyebrow before he vanished.  “…And you should probably duck.”

I blinked and looked forward again just in time to see the mammoth sized clump of earth launch toward me.  My body tensed, intent on jumping, ducking, whatever–but it was too late.  It slammed into me, and sweet Aelurus, I thought my very soul had been ejected from my body.  There was pain throughout, down to the bone, and when I slammed down the crest I had just cleared, I felt that agony doubled.

Consciousness came slow.  Half-out of my mind, I thought the world was falling on me.  Was that what Elmiryn imagined, when she whispered that the world was too small?  I managed to shimmy halfway out from underneath the great clod of earth, but gaped in horror as the disgusting monster bared down on me, with frothing eyes squelching and popping fresh from the nymphs’ heads.  These things, like plant stems, snaked and slithered through the mess of the monster’s throat, and the eyeballs collected together on its misshapen face.  It opened its maw at me again and screamed.

…Or maybe I was the one doing the screaming.

ELMIRYN________________________

They returned to the smithy, because Elmiryn thought she saw a wheelbarrow somewhere there.  They indeed found a wheelbarrow and also a rusty shovel, short on the shaft but lacking any compromising cracks or splints along the wood.  With gentle hands, they took Graziano’s body, already stiffening, and laid him out in the barrow’s bed.  They wheeled him out of the building–a scribe house, what with the stray pages baring neat scrawls of history and literature and such.  The woman scooped one up and glanced it over on her way out.  At the top of the frayed paper, she read:

….Ohrek and Stedif broke through the swarm of tunnel worms, their slime and blood and excrement staining their cloth and boots.  They were merry in their slaying, for their prize was within sight…

It sounded interesting, so the warrior folded the page and tucked it down the front of her wrappings.  She hurried to rejoin the others.

The sound of the wheelbarrow squeaking and bumping over the flagstones left everyone quiet.  None looked at the body.  Not even Elmiryn cared to gaze upon Graziano’s corpse more than she needed to.  His eyes were half-open and staring at nothing.  She wondered, though, if the man would have been livid to discover himself being transported in such a graceless way.  This only made her a little sorry.  Elmiryn had liked Graziano’s company.  He was funny, and brave…even if he was a bit of a fool, like Quincy had said.  Were they ill words if they were the truth?  The warrior had been even less charitable to Baldwin back at Gamath, a boy she hardly knew, so she supposed she was being a bit of a hypocrite.  Perhaps the wizard had all the right to call Graziano things.  She knew him far longer than the warrior had.

…Aw, who cares.

Elmiryn looked up from her staring contest with the ground (“I lose,”) to find that the road opened up ahead.  One of the large statues towered there in the middle of a square.  It was all dark, and the face had eroded, leaving it featureless.  The stone that had once been the nose and the eyes and such had fallen to the ground below, wrecking the circular road about the statue’s feet.  She pointed, “Maybe we can bury him over there?”

“We’ll have to find a place where the flagstones are coming away, somewhere the soil is free,” Sedwick said through a grunt.  He was given charge of pushing the wheelbarrow, and he forced the thing through a wide pothole.

“A hard thing to find in this stony place,” Quincy muttered.  She gripped the shovel in her right hand.

“We’ll figure something out.  If it has to be a soldier’s service, then so be it.”

“A soldier’s service?” The wizard turned and gazed at Elmiryn with squinted eyes.

The warrior cursed her slip.  There was still the bounty on her head, and though Quincy claimed she could never find work as a bounty hunter again, a king’s ransom would likely change her mind… She gestured around them at the deserted shops and homes.  “There’s plenty of wood here.  Good for a pyre.  That’s what I meant.”  She tried to sound casual.

“No.” Quincy said firmly, perhaps with a note of bite in it–but then again, in her emotional teetering, she always seemed to have a level of bite in her.  “The Morettis come from the Santian kingdom, who believe in rest in the soil.  I would not do otherwise.”

Elmiryn’s eyebrows rose high.  “Are you suggesting that the fire is not good enough for him?”

The wizard glanced at her.  Then she pursed her lips.  “I’m sorry.  I know cremation is preferred in your kingdom.  It was not a reflection on you or your origins.  But…I feel honor bound.  If the task dragged on and you or Sedwick felt the need to move on without me, I would understand.  But I would stay to get the job done, whatever the danger.”

“…She says this as I grunt against the wheelbarrow carrying the deceased’s body.” Sedwick growled out, struggling once more to keep the wheelbarrow moving forward.  “Somehow, I feel my involvement in this is being under-appreciated…”

“You would put yourself at risk for someone you had spoken so critically of?” Elmiryn asked the wizard, ignoring the blacksmith’s grumbling.  She thumbed over her shoulder as her mouth took on a cruel tilt.  “Not even ten minutes ago–”

“I know what I said.” Quincy said, her eyes flashing.  “I say a lot of things.  Count on this being one of the important ones.  Graziano will be buried properly and in unhurried fashion because it is all the comfort I can give him considering–” Quincy stopped with clenched teeth as she turned her face away.

Sedwick gave Elmiryn a sharp glare and the warrior threw her hands up, exasperated.  “It’s alright Quincy,” the man said turning to her.  “I understand where you’re coming from.  Together we’ll do this right.”

“I wasn’t trying to…for fuck’s sake, never mind,” the redhead grumbled, crossing her arms and glaring off to the side.  It made her cross that Quincy was forgiven her outbursts, but the truth, however bluntly stated, was not tolerated.  She had been to many funerals, most for comrades, and she knew this to be true in each case.  A bit of irrationality was fine, but if you came in swinging with the facts, somehow you were the more evil for it.

“I think I see a spot.” Sedwick said, nodding up ahead.  “There.  The stone that fell off that statue broke through the concrete.  We should be able to get to the dirt underneath if we clear the debris.”

The warrior swiped at her nose, feeling it itch in her irritation, and she gazed forward with lidded eyes.  As her eyes swept around, she thought she saw something off to the side of the road, but when she looked again, nothing was there.  Still the feeling of being watched came over her, and she nudged Sedwick with her elbow.  “Hey.  Can you go on ahead and move that rock with your water powers?  I’ll push the wheelbarrow.”

Sedwick stopped and set the wheelbarrow down gently and Elmiryn moved to take his place.  The man, with a wavering form, turned clear as his body became entirely water and he lost his human shape, falling to the ground in a collected puddle.  In this form, he slithered ahead of them, his body a long thin stream like a snake.  He moved quicker in this way, and within the minute he was at the great chunk of stone, pushing at it in his watery form.  It didn’t budge at first, but as Sedwick became less human in shape and more like Nadī in her amorphous form, he managed to get under the edge of the rock.  This gave him more leverage, and within the minute, the great rock tumbled away.  Sedwick retracted his arms, looking so much like geysers, and he returned to flesh as Elmiryn and Quincy came up.

The patch of ground revealed was wide and like a misshapen oval, with flagstone shattered beneath it.  When they cleared these, there were still foundations of concrete to work through, but Sedwick again, proved useful, using his watery form to squeeze into the cracks in a way neither of his companions could’ve hope to.  The slabs were up and away, and they were met with soil.  They kept working, sweat beading on their skin as they expanded this patch to a suitable burial spot, one that Graziano could fit into.

“Is this really okay?” Elmiryn said, glancing around for the umpteenth time.  She kept thinking she saw something out of the corner of her eye, but when she looked there was nothing.  Perhaps her mind wasn’t all that much better in the Other Place.  “Maybe we would have had an easier time of it back in the tunnels?”

“Some of those tunnels are derelict.  Digging into them without any proper knowledge could very well see us buried with Graziano.”  Quincy hefted up the shovel and struck into the free soil.  “This is our best bet.  We may still be interrupted here, but at least we have a chance of finishing.”

For a short while it was just Quincy digging at the dirt, her breath rough as she kicked at the shovel’s head and sunk it in deep.  Then Sedwick turned his arms to water and he scythed at the dirt, taking away big clumps.  Then Elmiryn got bored and took up a rock, and though of all of them she did the least, she felt better being involved somehow.  Eventually, Sedwick had to stop with the water as it was making quite bit of mud, and both Elmiryn and Quincy found themselves up to their shoulders in the hole.

“This seems good.  I doubt we have to worry about flood or animals ruining the grave, right?” Quincy panted.  She had dirt on her face and all over her clothes.  Elmiryn as well.  “Yer taller than I am.  Stand straight and lessee if the grave comes to your ears.”

“I’m only taller by an inch or so.  How tall’re you?” Elmiryn returned.

The brunette leaned on her shovel, her face screwing up. “Must you make even a simple question difficult?

The warrior’s eyes narrowed.  “I’m not interested in being used to measure how deep a grave is.  I fill them up, not dig ’em out.”

“Ladies, I think your work is done.” Sedwick said over them.  “Let me help you both up.”

Quincy went for Sedwick’s hand while Elmiryn struggled out of the hole on her own.  She scraped her palms a bit but straightened, her gaze lidded as she turned to regard the others.

“So now…” The warrior turned and looked down at Graziano, with his limbs hanging over the edge of the wheelbarrow.  “Our Moretti.”

The warrior went to take up his limbs, and Sedwick moved to help her, but Quincy grabbed his arm and held a hand out to Elmiryn.  “Wait!”

“What?”  Elmiryn said, frowning at her.  She looked over her shoulder and back at the wizard.  “We’ve found him a good resting place!  We risk danger staying here!”

“I said I’d not just bury him,  but bury him right.” Quincy stepped forward, her bow-shaped lips puckered and her angled brows knitted.  She took up a pouch on her side, empty, and rubbed it with both hands.  After a moment, she loosened the pouch and turned it over her hand, and out slipped a handkerchief.  Another shake and a small vial of water fell out after it.  Elmiryn’s brows rose high.

“That’s useful,” she commented.

The wizard ignored her.  She took the vial and uncorked it, where she placed the handkerchief over the mouth and turned it over quickly.  With the newly dampened cloth, she knelt by the wheelbarrow and wiped at Graziano’s face.  The warrior noted the shake of her hand as she did this, but said nothing.  Quincy closed his mouth and wiped the blood from his lips.  She closed his eyes too.  There was nothing to be done of the bashed in nose, nor the cuts and bruising.  Still, with his mouth and eyes closed and the blood gone, the handsome young fellow that Elmiryn knew Graziano to be was apparent, even in death.

Quincy stood and with lips still puckered, she undid the clasp of her cloak.  With a sweep, she took it from her shoulders and snapped it out into the air, where the heavy cloth fell at full length alongside their makeshift grave.  Elmiryn stepped back, her eyes narrowed as she took in the brunette without her most prominent piece of clothing.  She knew she had seen the wizard without the cloak on at least once before, but that moment was lost in a blaze of heat and metal and blood.  No, now that image was gone from her head, and instead was this different person, shedding her cloak not for violence but…

Sedwick took Graziano beneath the arms and Quincy around his legs, and on a three count, they had him up and on the cloak.  Elmiryn stepped forward as a sudden thought occurred to her.  “Shit.  Unless we want to commit him gracelessly, we need to find someway to lower him in.  That grave is nearly six feet deep and too narrow for anyone to go down and receive him.”

Quincy frowned, looking stricken.  “And he’s dead weight,” she added cheerlessly.  “It’s one thing carrying him from the wheelbarrow, but…”

“I could turn to water and lower him that way, but it’d muddy the grave and that’d sully the poor man’s corpse,” Sedwick said.  He rubbed the side of his face.  “We could…”

There was a ‘harrumph’ from behind them.  Everyone jumped and turned.

A stout dwarven ghost, wearing a smithy’s garb of a dark apron, a knitted cap, and thick gloves, swept off his hat and bowed low to them.  Behind him, appearing more and more by the second, were men, women, and children.  All dwarves.  All as transparent as mist.  All watching them.  The first dwarf straightened some, his expression solemn even as it wavered from the likeness of flesh to macabre skull and back. “Pardon our intrusion,” he said in a deep bass-like voice. “But we think we can help.”

NYX____________________________

The abomination gripped me about the head–the head–and pulled.  Perhaps if I had not shimmied out from beneath the boulder of earth as I had, with arms pushing even after its sweaty, disgusting fist closed about me, then I would have been pulled in two and that would have been the end of my story.  Lacertli would have been quite disappointed.  And Elmiryn…

But to my good fortune, I was out just enough that the worst I suffered was perhaps a damaged spine and neck.  I speak of these things so lightly only because of what could have happened instead, which makes me shudder still to this day.  But at the time, make no mistake, my limbs and my nerves did not take to the horrific damage that came to me.

In this fashion, with the amalgamated beast’s clutching me about my petite head, I was flung up and away, stunned.  I think I blacked out mid-air.  The collision back unto the earth was what brought me back I think, considering the dust was still settling when I opened my eyes.  It was Lacertli’s sharp voice that had me up as I felt my spine right itself and my newly broken arm (I must have fell on it wrong) knit together.  “Up, Knave!  The beast comes!” he hissed.

Though I could feel my regeneration at work, my limbs still were quite twitchy.  Becoming a champion of a deity makes one more hardy, that was easy to see.  I looked and to my humiliation noted that my crotch felt wet again.  I suppose my bladder was not quite as empty as I had thought.  For its supposed benefits, my new station in life didn’t do much for my pride.

There was no time for self-pity, however, as I saw the great abomination charging toward me with its gray shifting skin, its misshapen head with its hundreds of little eyes.  Every stomp of its terrible feet shook the earth, and I did the only thing I could think of…

I forced myself to my feet, back still hurting, neck twinging in sharp pain, and with my vision blurring, I ran.

Lacertli stepped out from behind a tree ahead of me–a teleportation trick handy to gods, no doubt.  I found I resented his ease as he frowned lazily at me.  “Knave, what on earth are you doing?” he sighed.

“Surviving, sir!” I panted as I sprinted past him. “Begging thy pardon, but I believe this to be one of your tenets!” I couldn’t hold back my cheek.  I was the one running for my life, and yet he seemed unaffected by this danger.  A little help would’ve been nice.  But then again, Lacertli was a god, so I should count my lucky stars he didn’t turn me into a toad or something.

Behind me, I could hear the monster, its voice splintering into hundreds of little screams.  It was gaining on me, damn it all.

Then I remembered.  I could step through shadows.

My breath ragged I went diving into the narrow shadow of a twisted tree, and cold swept over me.  I tumbled, head over heels, and skidded gracelessly along the black ground.  With a groan, I straightened myself.

Just as before, all around me was black with shifting white lines.  A mimicry of the place I had just departed.  I thought I could make out the same twisted trees about me.  Except I was no longer in the Somnium.  I was in the Umbralands.

I turned and squealed as I saw the giant monster lumbering towards me.  It looked as a glaring white scribble against the black world.  I started to move backward, but like last time, the ground shifted beneath me and I fell.  The beast was so near.  I covered my head as it loomed over me, one foot raised.

…Then nothing.

I blinked and raised my head, coming out of my fetal position.  The monster was running on without me.  I blinked after it.  It didn’t see me at all.  Then I stood.  I took one step, then another.  Suddenly I was running after the thing.  This was hard to do in this dimension, so I tried to see some sort of exit like the last time I was here.

Just at the thought, I saw my chance appear in the form of a wall up ahead.  Lacertli had said I could shift the boundaries between the two dimensions.  Was this what he meant?  Could I create shadows where there otherwise were none?

I sprinted through this new passage, the pain in my back all but gone now and a new gleam in my eye.  I had an idea…

With a rush of air I was back in the Somnium, the dream of the world, and felt a sigh pass over me–like a mother glad to see her child.  Somehow, this thought emboldened me further, and I charged full tilt after the monstrosity, which had stopped and now tore trees up from their roots in rage.  I saw the shadows…felt them.  They were cold things.  Slippery, like the dark things I had taken hold of not long ago, when freeing those poor spirits.  I narrowed my eyes and pressed deeper, my gaze piercing into the beast’s chest where I knew my target lay.  As Lacertli had warned, the beast’s skin was smoothing, the grotesque tangle of limbs fusing to become one.  If the nymphs’ black spell completed, I doubted I could win this battle, let alone survive it.  But then the thing turned, and there I saw that the front of its chest had failed to close all the way.  Funny the things you fail to see when out of your mind with terror.  But my heart lifted.  I could still see the shadow of its heart.

I yelled in the way I imagined Elmiryn would have, charging in like this.  The beast, having spotted me, took its great arms and slammed them into the earth.  It opened its disgusting maw, and slime gushed forth, black and steaming.  Just as I came within its range, I gave a small jump up into the air, and the beast took one great step forward and raised both its arms again.  I closed my eyes as I fell, tucking into a cannonball, knowing that if this didn’t work the monster would bash my brains in.

…But with a ‘whoosh’ I was through the beast’s shadow.

Back in the Umbralands, I opened my eyes to find the monster over me, his chest bared.  I grimaced, but pressed forth, into it.  My hands clawed through gore and flesh to wrap around my bloody prize.

As I crossed back into the Somnium, I didn’t hear the sigh of the world.  Just the nightmarish howl of a monster whose heart was being torn out of his chest.


Back to Chapter 20.1 | Forward to Chapter 20.3

Chapter 20.1

ELMIRYN________________________

Well, there’s nothing else to it,” Sedwick said.  “We’ll just have to get through these tunnels until we find some light.  If you two haven’t noticed, there’s something in the air here.”

“You speak as though it has no effect on you,” Quincy said.

There was a smile in the man’s voice as he replied, “That’s because it doesn’t.”  His shadowy form gestured at himself.  “You two can see me a little, right?”

“Yes,” Quincy said.

“Yeah,” Elmiryn said next, her voice churlish.  Some part of her recognized that there was something ridiculous about being angry over the lack of things she could hurt, and she tried to decide in just what way.

There was the sound of Sedwick turning, and his form bobbed in the dark.  “Then follow me.  If there are any traps or pits, I’ll be able to take it.”

“Traps?” Elmiryn said frowning.  She and Quincy started to walk together, side by side.

“These tunnels, if they are indeed dwarven, likely have some traps about them,” The wizard explained.  “This tunnel is clear of tools and debris, meaning it was used as a road to the active tunnels where the mining was done.  Sometimes, though, looters would come and try and steal their bounty.  The dwarves rigged certain inactive tunnels with traps only they were aware of.  With all the digging going on, just collapsing the paths was too risky.”

“Oh.  Fun.”

“We might not have any trouble.”

The woman laughed, feeling some of her ire slip away.  “Oh hell, wizard.  We may just find ourselves slashing through hordes of giant rats and spiders instead!  If the angry midgets don’t find us first, that is.”

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” Quincy snapped.  Elmiryn could just imagine the scowl on her face.  “…And what kind of mkundu comes up with the idea of giant rats and spiders, anyway?” she mumbled next.

“And angry midgets.”

“They’re dwarves.  Are you that ignorant?”

“Heavens no!” The warrior said, feigning indignation.  “I had intimate relations with a dwarf once.  ‘Intimate’ being the operative word.  She was a pretty girl.  She was quite sturdy–”

“I don’t want to hear it,” Quincy snapped.

The warrior snickered, but she didn’t press the story.  They walked on in silence, feet crunching along the earthy ground.  Absently, Elmiryn wondered how deep the tunnels went.  How deep they were.  What were to happen if the walls shuddered, the ceiling cracked, and all of that rock and sand and soil came toppling down on them?  A whole world pressing down on them… Ah but wait, a world?  That was stretching it, wasn’t it?  Because they were on a shard, a broken impression of what really was.  Elmiryn was living in a concept.  A reflection, but hardly real.

Why, in this false world, did she thrive then?

The woman quickened her pace, her breath coming harsh through her nostrils as a sweat drop trailed down her temple.  She brushed past Sedwick, and the man let out a sound of surprise.  “Hey–ah–Elmiryn?”

Not much could be seen from where they were, but there was a dim light warming the cold earth as the tunnel twisted out of sight.  Elmiryn swallowed down the lump in her throat as she drew her dagger.  The weight of it felt solid and certain in her hands.  She swiped at her brow with her arm and behind her came the sounds of Quincy and Sedwick hurrying after her.

“Fiamman, what’s wrong?” Quincy.  Her voice was hard, but lacked the usual bite.

Sedwick spoke next.  “Elmiryn, can you slow down a moment?”

“I’m fine,” the warrior snarled, gripping her dagger tighter.  “I just don’t like these tunnels.  I don’t like this quiet.”

The light at the end of the tunnel blossomed and spread, warm reaches blanketing the dark walls and ground.  They rounded the bend.

What opened to them was a room as high as their eyes could see, with star like openings where snow filtered through, flakes of it fluttering through a dusty space to cover the tired looking structures below.  It was an underground city, filled with robust, basalt structures–as stern as Belcliff’s architecture but bolder and more rugged.  It lacked the contemplative statues of gryphons and gargoyles, and instead bared beveled designs of scultones and dwarves within its walls, with towering statues that inspired awe.  From the tunnel was a broken path of flagstones that led across a long arched bridge.

“Well this answers our question,” Quincy sighed at Elmiryn’s side.  The warrior glanced at her.  The wizard’s mouth was skewed to one side, and her narrow brows arched in a critical tilt over her rich azure eyes.  She wasn’t quite used to seeing the wizard like this.  Her previous incarnation had struck quite the impression.  Elmiryn was trying to honor her word and not pester the brunette so much, but she knew it was a schoolyard promise, good only for a time, before events led her to forget again.

Sedwick gazed across Elmiryn at Quincy.  “We’ll move quickly.  I think I can sense out the next gate.  It’s somewhere to the north.”

And they were on again.

NYX____________________________

Layers, upon layers.  It was as best as I could understand of the new power I had and how I had just used it.  The world was just layers upon layers of existence and consciousness.

But where did I live, with my splintered soul and my divided thoughts?  What was my home?

I was feeling another moment of collapse looming over me, so even as Lacertli had pressed me to move forward, I sat heavily on the ground and stared at the trees.  I remembered them twisted in that strange dimension, but here they were the same lonely, dead things I remembered them to be back in my realm.

…All this talk of realms and dimensions and layers was making my head hurt.

I gripped it, palms pressing at the temples as I touched my forehead to my bent knees.  The god, in his form of a lizard, scratched and climbed up the nooks and bends of my body until he was resting on my left shoulder.  His claws scratched in places, and I felt the cuts scab over quickly.  Lacertli’s tongue flicked against my ear, making me flinch.  “Night Child…

“Sir…” I croaked.  I swallowed and felt mucus trail down the back of my throat.  The edges of my nostrils felt damp and my eyes started burning.  My hands flexed, fingers tangled in my mane of hair.  I twitched, thinking of how the dogs, how the pretas, had just recently torn me apart.  How an unseen force had essentially laced myself with a god.  How I had taken the shadow of a tormented spirit and ripped it apart.

Nyx, you are falling on old ways.  Draw yourself up.

I hiccuped and felt a hot tear fall down my cheek.  “My apologies, sir.  I’m…I’ve always been weak in will.  I’m a coward.”

The god spat at me.  “Your Ghost is right in cursing this.  You will find no more pity in me, girl.   Thou art more than a coward, though your lack of discipline sees you playing the knave.  Arise and cease your tears.  There is still work to be done.

Argos, who had taken to sitting near me, shoved at my elbow with his nose.  He panted at me, tail flopping gently on the ground as his dark watery eyes batted amidst his furry face.  His great paw, as large as my hand, came up to rest on my knee and he woofed once.  I wiped at my nose and blinked away tears as I gazed at him.  “Don’t you remember Lethia?  You miss her, don’t you?  Doesn’t that…doesn’t that make it hard?”  I asked through a tense throat.

The lizard shifted on my shoulder. “Vermagus, I have told thee.  The dog has lost that connection.  He recalls her, but his devotion to her is absent.”  Lacertli raised himself and I glanced at him warily.  Though I was certain it was just in my mind, the god’s lizard face seemed to be frowning at me.  “Nyx, if thou insists on behaving as a knave, then I shall call thee as such.  Come Knave!  Arise, or you’ll feel the teeth of my displeasure.”

My body bunched at this stern declaration, and I wiped at my eyes as I rose to my feet.  “Y-Yes, Lacertli!” It was weird, answering to someone like this.  I hadn’t since I left my home.  It was true that I had started my relationship with Elmiryn due to being indebted to her, but the woman had never sought such servitude from me, and I was led to behave more casually despite my initial discomfort.

We will have to track our prey.”  Lacertli narrowed his gaze as his tongue tasted the air.  “They are honorless.  They feel your newly gained power and flee, seeking to consolidate their strength.” I began to walk and the god continued to speak.  “You have now seen how even this fractured place may be further pulled apart.  On the surface, the deformed and twisted spirits of misery that came to you were, in fact, the spirits of creatures once living.  That is the Somnium.  The dream of the universe.  There, a concept might become literal, and laws may be discarded completely.  It also can peel away all falsities and leave only truth, as it did for those souls you freed.”

“It felt more like murder…not that I am trying to correct you, sir.  I–I’m just stating how I feel!” I added hurriedly.

The god chuckled.  “I understood you.”  He swiped a paw over the side of his face, and shook his head.  “Those souls were undone, it is true, but they were returned to Life, the proper cycle.  They knew nothing of joy here, and you ended their torment.  If anything, take solace in that.

I nodded with a hard swallow, feeling my emotions rile up again.  It was still hard for me to think of, but when Lacertli put it the way he did, I couldn’t see anything else to it.  The situation was sad, but at least the pain was done.

Argos followed me closely, and my hand rested on his back.  I thought, “No wonder Lethia feels so safe with him.  His presence is very comforting…even if he could use a wash.”  The dog looked up at me, tongue lolling from the side of his mouth as he wagged his tail.  I smiled at him shakily.

Lacertli resumed his talk on my shoulder.  “Knave.  So you now have an idea of the place we entered and how it may affect the realities experienced elsewhere.  Leaving the Somnium to return to the world in question can be done in two ways. One, you may pick your way back into your own subconscious.  Or, you may pass through the Umbralands, as we had done.  That is the place of shadows.  It is the boundary between the world and the Somnium.  As a dreamwalker and my champion, you may now traverse this barrier. Indeed, you may even alter it.

The forest seemed to go on for ages.  I was pushing from one task to the next, and while Lacertli seemed satisfied by my performance thus far, the idea of somehow becoming his champion left me reeling.  Never in my years had I actually seen a Legend in the flesh, though I had heard of them in many tales, most recently being Tobias’ loose adventures of Earth and his companions.  Not that I suddenly considered myself a Legend.  Usually a reputation was required for that, and I had just begun my new station.

As I crouched, inspecting paw prints, sprays of blood on bark, and that trailing smell of death, a question came.

…Why did Lacertli choose me?

The god murmured guidance on my shoulder as we tracked the pretas and kept lookout for any sign of them or the black nymphs.  I knew the nymphs to leave no traces, being one with the tainted forest, but I had a nasty feeling they were very close.  I missed Elmiryn’s skill here, for she was a great hunter, so much that even my Twin lacked the awareness and finesse she possessed.  I started thinking about that frustrating redhead again, with little power over the emotions that came.

…Where was she?  Was she safe?  Was she alone?  And how was her damaged perception treating her?

“Sir,” I breathed, pausing between a buckeye and an elm.  “Can you…feel her?  Elmiryn?”

Lacertli’s head turned my way, his reptilian eyes blinking once.  “You mean, do I know where she is?  How she fares?

I swallowed.  “Yes.”

Of course I do.  But it is not my duty to indulge your flares of emotion, girl,” he said with a terse voice, turning his gaze forward again.  “…She fares yet still.  Naturally.  Else I would not have told thee of her lingering debt.

“I’m sorry sir…

“Focus.  Wipe your mind clean.  Take note of what is around you.

“Um…” I looked around me, the perplexity bunching my face as I tried to see what Lacertli apparently did.  Around me was a circle of something thick and dark that had been spilled onto the dirt.  It fanned out, spraying tree roots, and there I saw bits of flesh and bone shards nestled amid the collection of twigs and dust against the base of the trunks.  I felt like my lungs were shot.

…I was standing in the middle of a ritual site.

Lacertli’s claws dug painfully into my skin, drawing blood.  “I am the Path…as such, I should inform you that in your carelessness you have just walked into a trap.” And here he looked at me with his yellow eyes narrowed and his mouth showing teeth.  “…I suggest you hold your breath.

I shoved at Argos, trying to spare him, my stomach dropping to my soles as a shadow fell over me and a great screeching tore through the air.

ELMIRYN________________________

“Why do we have anything to fear from these dwarves?” Elmiryn asked as they started to walk.  She looked at Quincy.  “You know.  What happened here?”

The wizard pinched the bridge of her nose.  “When I was doing investigation regarding the dark forces in Belcliff, I came across some interesting information.”  She gestured before them at the city.  “You see, the dwarven colony here was really only a colony by name.  The truth of it was that there were hundreds, maybe thousands of dwarves here operating under a loose organization.  They backed Belcliff’s coffers, and in return they had exclusive rights to mine under the Albian government.”

“Wait, wait,” Elmiryn said with a raised hand and a crooked smile.  “Okay…I already see where this is going.  Some disagreement cropped up over money, didn’t it?”

Quincy nodded.  “The marshal in power got into it with the dwarven leaders here.  The official records state simply that the dwarves had left.  Upped and took everything of worth here whilst leaving the rest inaccessible or useless.  Belcliff was in a financial crisis because of it.”

“All those dwarves just…vanish?” Sedwick said skeptically.

“Someone got greedy,” Elmiryn said.

The wizard went on.  “Those were my thoughts.  How does an entire population just disappear?  What happened to the gold and jewels?  I’m fairly certain the dwarven colonies to the west hadn’t seen an influx in population, nor had any of the other neighboring communities.  But then, why was everyone willing to accept this, given the lack of solid evidence?  That’s when I learned from Lethia that her mistress had been seeing the marshal for the last few years for problems of mental health.”

“Syria of Albias…she’s a powerful enchantress.  If she was able to open a portal to this realm, why not have the power to ensorcell an entire region into believing a lie?”  Sedwick said.

Elmiryn snorted.  “So what happened then?  The marshal turned on her.  Wouldn’t he have been afraid of her revealing his secrets?”

“For whatever reason, she chose not to,” Quincy said with a shrug.  “I imagine the marshal feared the connection he had with her, after she was found to have those mutilated men in her home.  From there it was a lot of double crossing and self-preservation.”

They were nearly across the bridge now.  Elmiryn took a moment to look over the edge.  She was met with a gaping abyss.  She stared.

“Elmiryn?”  Sedwick.  She decided she disliked his change in demeanor, however slight.

The woman didn’t move in answer to his voice, but instead leaned over, her elbow digging into the harsh stone, her shoulder hunching up to her ear.  Her eyes narrowed and she willed the darkness to stir.  It bowled inward, then toward her, like it were reaching…

Elmiryn.

Elmiryn hacked up phlegm from deep in her throat, then leaned farther still over the edge, like daring gravity to grab her and pull her over.  She let the spit trail from her mouth in a viscous rope that swayed like a pendulum from the weight of its bubbly end.

“Charming.  You are the picture of a lady.” Quincy.  It was bitchy and stuck-up, but Elmiryn preferred this to the ex-blacksmith’s unbridled sympathy.

The spit dropped, sailing into the darkness.  Elmiryn stared after it, her eyes empty, before she offered a smile to match.  She straightened and joined the man and the other woman.  “I spat in the great big wound.  Lessee if the world appreciates it,” she said jauntily.

Her companions shook their heads at her, but nothing else was said.  They cleared the bridge and were now in the midst of the city.  The buildings were low, unlike Belcliff’s towering buildings, or even Tiesmire’s messy stacks of architecture.  The stones were cut wide and blocky, save for the arches that ribbed the road, some broken, others casting blurred shadows on their faces as they passed.  The road was in disrepair–suffering from cracks and loose flagstones.  Elmiryn eyed the openings of the buildings as she passed, and her eyes lighted on one.

She slowed to a stop and called to the others, who glanced at her.  “Hey, there’s something in one of these!”

The warrior turned and went to the plain gray building in question and poked her head through the open entryway.  Inside was cold and empty, but on the walls were empty racks, like the sorts that displayed weapons.  In the corner to the right was a knocked over stand.  She ventured in further, toward the counter and peered over.  Behind this were strewn tools and things, and she suspected the back had a small forge.  This was once a smithy.

“What’d you find?  It’s risky dawdling,” Quincy said behind her.

Elmiryn hopped over the counter and peered into the back room.  A forge and an anvil.  Tools hung on the walls, and there was ore spilled over the floor.  She pointed at the wizard.  “You need a weapon.”

The wizard scowled at her in the dim light as Sedwick appeared in the doorway, the light filtering through his water legs.  “I do not.” The brunette hefted up her rusty sword.  “I have this.”

Elmiryn looked at her as if she were stupid.

Quincy huffed, brandishing her blade.  “And you don’t think this place has been picked clean by looters?”

“At best you can bruise someone with that, but it’s hardly lethal.  It’d probably break with a full force swing.  You need something proper.

“I’m not getting rid of it.” The woman snapped, storming back outside.

Sedwick hurried out of her way, blinking.  He turned his pale gaze Elmiryn’s way. “Do you see anything?” he asked.

Elmiryn ventured further into the back room, which was more spacious than the front in terms of square feet, but much more crowded by barrels of ore and dampers and other such smithy tools that were beyond the woman.  “No,” she said.  She smiled crookedly as she reached down and snatched up a few belts.  “But here’s a few holsters for the ninny.  If she wants to keep that stupid thing, she can at least keep her hands free.  I can probably lend her my dagger too.”

The woman left the building with Sedwick to find Quincy sulking on a low rock.  Elmiryn threw the belts at her feet.  “There, sourpuss.  You can keep the damn sword, but now you’ve got something to put it in, seeing as how you can’t ‘poof’ it away anymore.”

“I never ‘poofed’ it away,” Quincy grumbled.  But she leaned down and took up the belts, checking the holsters on them.  “It was more like a ‘flash’.”

“Oh.  Pardon me.  You ‘flashed’.  Not ‘poofed’.”  Elmiryn grinned at the wizard as Sedwick spared a chuckle. “Tell me.  Which sounds less fairy-like?”

“I told you I can beat you to death with this,” Quincy threatened, wagging the sword’s tip at her as though it were a finger.

“You are quite the violent one!  But I don’t take to swords being waved my way, so have a care and redirect that thing, huh?” Elmiryn warned, though she didn’t really care.  The wizard was just barking like a dog at the end of a leash, much like Elmiryn was like a cat batting at still water.  Neither intended to go all the way, so the exchange ended there.

Quincy had her sword sheathed, finally, and they were on, only now Elmiryn was trying to see into every building she could.

“I doubt you’ll find anything,” Sedwick said with a soft exhale.  “You’re slowing us down.”

Elmiryn stopped, her hands resting on one of the doorways.  “Oh…I won’t find anything, huh?” She faltered, the joke she had lined up slipping into the ether.  “I’m not sure…if I’m seeing this right.”  Her voice turned subdued.  This was enough to inspire a response in kind.

“What is it…?” Quincy said quietly coming up from behind.  She tried to peer over the warrior’s shoulder.  Sedwick came next.

Inside, through the broken roof, lay Graziano’s dead body, sprawled out on the mess of stones.  He had crashed there, his limbs in a disarray and his corpse covered in dust and ash.  Though his face was turned down, a small spray of blood could be seen where it had smashed into the edge of a broken slab of concrete.  His right arm twisted unnaturally behind him, out of sight, and his rapier pointed into the air, still in its holster on his hip.  His gun lay off in the shadows.

“It’s…I mean, is it?” Elmiryn said, frowning.

Quincy shoved past her, but the warrior said nothing.  Her eyes were still on the corpse, trying to make sense of it.

“Of course it is.  Don’t be a twit.” The wizard’s voice wavered a bit, even as she tried to sound harsh.

“I just,” The warrior stepped forward as well, standing next to the woman.  “It gets hard, y’know?  For me to make sense of things sometimes.  I wasn’t sure if this was one of those times.”

“He was there.  He was there like all of us.  He got sucked in.”

“I know that, I just wasn’t sure.”

“Who is he?” Sedwick asked.

“Graziano Moretti.  He was a bounty hunter.”  Quincy covered her face with a hand.  “He was…” her voice trailed away.

Elmiryn crouched down and picked up the pistol.  She held it closer to the light and ran her hand over the ivory stock.  Stared down at the triple barrel.  Cocked the gun and aimed it.  Released the hammer, and sat heavily on the floor.  “He looks like a doll.  A broken doll,” she muttered.  She glanced at Quincy.

“He’s not one,” the woman bit out.  “He was an idiot.”

The warrior’s jaw clenched and she glared at the ground.  “You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.  He’ll turn into a ghost–”

“And you’re a real authority, huh?” Quincy snapped, her face turning red.  “A ghost should know a thing or two, is that it, Elmiryn?”  Sedwick went to touch her shoulder, but the wizard swatted at him.  “Don’t touch me!”  She stomped to Graziano’s body and pointed, her spine-bending as she shouted with all the force in her lungs at the redhead.  “Go on!  Ghosts should be able to talk to each other.  You ask him why he didn’t listen to me.  Why he couldn’t think rationally when we had victory in our hands!  Ask him!

Elmiryn just looked up at her through her eyelashes, her brows knitted but the ire failing to appear.  She tried to remember similar scenes in her life, but all she could draw up were the sounds.  Phantom voices echoed in her head, and she felt her shoulders sag, knowing this moment of her life would soon be the same.

Sir, Lake was just a boy, I have to find a bit of him–

Lieutenant.

Just a bit.  Just a small bit, sir.  For his mother.

Lieutenant Saelin, we can’t stay.

But Captain, just a bit.  Anything, sir, please–

Get it together, gods damn it, you won’t find so much as a finger so just let it alone.

“Let it alone…” The warrior mumbled.

Quincy stomped her foot, her eyes shining with unshed tears.  “No!  I won’t!  I’ll curse him into a wisp for you and then you can ask this idiot why he didn’t listen to me–!”  She broke off, breathing harsh, lip quivering, her russet hair falling about her face.

Elmiryn just rubbed her brow and stared at the gun in her lap.

After a while, she stood, pushing the gun into the back of her pants.  “We should bury him,” Elmiryn said.

She was met with no arguments.


Back to Chapter 19.5 | Forward to Chapter 20.2

Chapter 19.5

NYX____________________________

Cataclysm.  Noun.  A large-scale and violent event in the natural world.

Hrmph.

You can’t find this in those dusty old tomes scholars paw over, nor the scrolls bandied about by intellectuals or historians.  You don’t know weight, you don’t know energy, you don’t know raw feeling until you feel the sensation of shrinking and expanding all at once.  Pores tearing open.  A vibration felt down to the marrow.  And I don’t know if one can call it pain.  That’s the strange part.

It was more like an awakening.

I had hardly stated my choice when all of this hit me.  It was an unseen force, pushing and pulling at me.  I gasped, not able to breath, and felt invisible hands lift me up from my insides.  Argos cantered back, his ears drawn against his head and his tail tucked.  He started to bark anxiously at me, but he sounded far away.  Every inch of me was flushed and sweating profusely.

Then the pressure and the energy was gone.  I fell to the ground in a crumple and my eyes rolled into the back of my head.

When I came to, I had not been moved like last time.  Argos had lain out next to me and jerked up, his ears perked as I groaned and touched a hand to my head.  Whining, he lounged across my chest and started licking at my face eagerly.  Even when he tried not to put all of his weight over me, he still squeezed some of the air from my lungs.

And sweet Aelurus, he needed a wash!

“Argos, stop it, stop!  You’re going to make me sick!” I said weakly, pushing at him.

That was when I saw Lacertli in the form of the fiery lizard appear on the dog’s head.  Argos turned still, conscious of the fact that throwing this creature off of him was probably a horrible mistake.  The god’s tongue flicked, and he turned his head to the side to fix its yellow gaze on me.  “Ah.  Nyx.  Thou hast risen,” Lacertli said. You are of sturdy make to be conscious so soon!  Others like you either remained recumbent for weeks or died outright.  But this is fitting.  You must be strong to represent me.

“Lacertli?” I blinked at him.  My voice sounded reedy.  “What happened?”

Mm…it is hard to explain to you.  The best a mortal like yourself may understand it is that a contract has just been sealed.  Thou art now my champion.  A level of my power and a certain control over my domain hath been bestowed to thee.

I rubbed my forehead, then stared at my hand.  I clenched my fist.  “I feel so heavy.”

The lizard let out a brief hiss as it nodded.  “Aye.  Your animus has been laced with my being, and this gives you a greater spiritual weight.  You are still your petite size, in terms of matter–but walk into a crowded room, and all that laid eyes on you would know the ethereal presence of you.  We are connected now, you and I.

I moved to sit up, and Argos shifted back, still conscious of Lacertli on his head so that he tried not to disturb him at all.  If I’d been of a mind to take note of it, I would’ve found it comical.  “Sir, why are you a lizard?” I asked, scratching Argos under the chin.  I seemed locked in an eternal series of questions.  I was trying to understand this phenomenal event, even down to the mundane details–things that I could’ve figured out if I had tried.  But everything felt so beyond me that I was afraid to make such assumptions.

It is my chosen standard,” Lacertli replied. “This humble creature embodies the principles that I find paramount.

“Um…no, I’m sorry.  What I meant was, why are you currently in that form?”

Take care in wording your queries and anything else that takes flight from thine mouth, vermagus.  For your kind, speech is a potent thing, and in this place, a being’s word can be as good as currency.”  He swiped his arm against the side of his face where he brushed off a small parasite crawling over his rough skin. This lizard is one of my avatars.  The elf merchant is but one of my skins, and I can only assume it when in the shadows of dreams.  In this form, however, I may accompany thee, anywhere. It shall be my usual relation with thee once we have left this realm.

“That’ll be odd, having a god on my shoulder,” I mumbled with dubiety. “What if something happens to you, sir?”

Lacertli shrugged, his eyes slipping closed.  It was an unusual mannerism to see on this little lizard body.  “It is but an avatar.  I can make another.  You will find that, unless I care to occupy it, this creature will be like any other of its kind…but perhaps a bit smarter.  Much like your companion here.”  The god careful leaned over to peer into one of Argos’ eyes.  “Thank you.  You may set me down now.

The dog panted, his tail wagging, and lowered himself to the ground, laying his head down on the stone.  Lacertli clambered off of him and onto my lap.  His claws made me wince, but mostly because I wasn’t used to it.  “Come now,” He hissed.  “We’ve work to do!

I took the hint and held my hand to him, carefully, he climbed on.  I raised him to my shoulder, hunching a little, and he slithered to the other side.  His smooth belly felt cold against me.  Taking his long tail, he wrapped it around my throat–not tight, but firmly enough to give him anchor.

“Sir, how am I going to get off this shard?” I asked as I rose.

The lizard hissed at me.  “It is as I said before.  There is a way, but the obstacles must be cleared from your path.  They not only bar your leave, but the usual manner of Travel here.  As my champion, your first task is to rectify this.

“By killing them?  How does one go about killing spirits?”  I couldn’t help but sound skeptical.

Lacertli nipped me on the shoulder and I flinched.  “Did that hurt?” he asked.

I looked at him, scandalized.  “Yes!  Yes, sir, it did!”

Then the same will work on these spirits,” he snapped. They are as I–beings tied closely to the physical realm.  You can strike their flesh.  They are not ghosts.  So cease your doubts.

“Y-Yes sir…”  I turned and looked out over the desolate forest.  “I won’t have to go far, will I…?  To find those dogs, I mean.”

Nay,” Lacertli said, his voice quiet as he raised his head to see farther.  “And they are not the only things to be found in this forest.  But thou art a champion now.  The occasion must be marked.  Proclaim.

“Um…Sorry?” I twisted my head to gaze at the god.  I was afraid he’d bite my ear next for my uncertainty.

Proclaim to this sickened forest your new station.  Use the power within you.”

I frowned anxiously.  “I don’t know how to do that!”

You’re doing it now.  All that is needed is a bit more conviction.

I didn’t know what else to say, so I just sighed and walked forward several paces.  Argos padded after me, his tongue lolling.  I scratched at my head.  “How should I word it…?”

Your name is a good start.” The god offered dryly.

I blushed and gave him a resentful glare, only to remember who it was I was glaring at, and had the expression replaced immediately with alarm.  “Of course, sir!  My apologies.”  I bowed my head and let out another breath.  When I raised it again I took a deep inhalation from my diaphragm and shouted as loud as I could.  “I am Nyx, the–” I stopped short, my expression faltering.

What is it?” Lacertli asked with a sigh.

I scratched my head.  “That didn’t sound like a good start…” I mumbled.  I could feel my stomach cramp up and shivers set in.  It was like giving a report in front of Leander.  Thinking of my old Navi didn’t help, of course.

I didn’t choose you because you were a poet, girl.

“Apologies…” I kneaded my brow.  One might wonder why it was I was so particular about this.  What more was there to say?

I am Nyx, champion of Lacertli! Like a hello and a goodbye–hardly leaving room for chatter.  But I couldn’t do that.  It didn’t feel right.  And there was, of course, the hidden fear that if I said something wrong, like–I am Nyx, champion of Lacertli…and I will defeat you all! I could very well find myself up to the ears in spiritual reckoning.

I wanted to say something that felt…true to me.  Lacertli said I needed to proclaim, to mark the occasion, and if it was to be marked by my Words then it had to be right.  I needed it to sound right.  I cast about my thoughts and memories, looking for something, anything, to draw inspiration from.  My eyes slipped closed.  The indefinite security, the darkness, the inward sea found behind my eyelids spared me the sharper twinges of panic that blocked my expression.  I tried to think of something that made me feel…

Warm.

…I thought of Gamath, when the rains had returned and Elmiryn and I came in from the downpour.  I remembered firelight–the heat of those flames rivaled by the heat that overcame me.  The warrior so close to me.  My hands so close to her.  The redhead, mumbling her quiet insanities…Which felt unfair to say.  Terribly unfair to say.  Because I understood her.  It made me nervous then, but now it only made me feel…warm.  Not in a way that made one think of wellness or illness, good or bad, light or dark–just a reality set in between.  An understanding.  A kinship.  And maybe that explained our relationship, despite our differences?

“Haven’t you ever felt like your insides were cold?” Elmiryn said suddenly, like a machine startled to life.  ”As if the heat of the world can’t penetrate the shallow layers of your skin?”

“Yes,” I thought.

We were a madness in kind.

Fresh tears clung to my eyelashes and a lump appeared in my throat, but I raised my head.  I spoke, letting my feelings guide me.  “Spirits!  Hear me…”  I took a step forward and clenched my fists.  “Hear me! I am Nyx!  Daughter of Fotini!  Sister to the warrior hero Thaddeus!  I have come here, not of my own volition, but I will leave here of it!  I am Marked.  I am scourge to the living as you are, but I will leave here.  I have always been of the night and the shadows and the darkness.  I know your pain!  I know it and I share in it, spirits–!”  I sobbed and wiped at my eyes.  “If you…you hurt…if you ache.  If you know anger.  Come to me.  And I will relieve you of it!”  I bared my teeth.  I tried to steel myself and ended up screaming, my hands slashing through the air in my fierceness.  “I am Nyx, the champion of Lacertli, and I will take your debts!  I will give you passage onto something better!  Spirits, hear me!  Come and find your peace!

My voice echoed through the forest.

I fell to my knees, breath shuddering past my lips.

Lacertli looked at me.  “Mmm…that was good, Vermagus. The occasion is well marked.

“Thank you, Lacertli,” I whispered.  I panted and leaned over onto my knees.

Argos came near, his wet nose against my ear when he snorted softly.  When I was down on my knees and hunched over, he easily towered over me, even when sitting.  I looked at him and pet his fur.  “Was that good, Argos?” I asked, smiling shakily.  The expression was short lived.  “Gods, but what am I going to do about those dogs when they come?  …I hate dogs.”

Argos let out a growl, his dark eyes blinking at me.

I looked at him, nonplussed.

“Huh?” Then my face drew long and I shook my head.  “Oh, no, no, no!  I’m sorry!  I don’t hate you!”  Then I paused and scrunched my nose up.  “Sweet Aelurus, I’m falling over myself to apologize to a–!”  Argos let out a loud growl and shifted to turn his back to me.  I slapped a hand to my head.  “Ah!  No!  That–Argos, that isn’t to say you aren’t worth apologizing to–!

Vermagus.  Pay attention,” Lacertli hissed on my shoulder.

I jerked and gazed at the god on my shoulder.  There was something sharp of his voice.  It was the same weight that had been leveled at me before, and it set me rigid.  “Yes, sir?” I breathed.

He gestured with his snout off to the left, and my eyes turned that way.  My breath caught.  Shifting through the gray trees was a figure.  It shambled along the ground, like it were on crippled limbs.  I couldn’t make out its head, the thing was so misshapen.  As it neared, clearing the mist and the assailing ash that seemed to float and drift aimless in this place, I saw it was a gray thing–like the trees about us.  Its legs were short, but the flesh about its hips bulged, wrinkled and suffered from cellulite.  Disformed feet could be seen at the ends of these grotesque things, like its legs had been stuffed in like accordions.  Its stomach was like a round pale ball, barely quivering like it were so dense that it could hardly consider it.  Its arms were not symmetrical–for the left was skinny and had four elbows where it bent, and the right was a thick stick that stubbed into the dirt.  Its head, like its feet, seemed stuffed into its neck, and large dark eyes with long lashes fluttered at me as it came near.

Nyx and LacertliI resisted the urge to run.  Lacertli didn’t seem set with any alarm.  Argos stood and growled, but I set a hand on his snout, gently quieting him.  My eyes remained on the strange creature.

It stopped yards away.  Then, laboriously….it laid itself onto the ground face down.

I stared at it.  “Sir…what is it doing?”

It supplicates,” The being hissed on my shoulder.  His tail tightened a little on my throat as he turned and raised himself to gaze off in a different direction.  I followed his eyes and saw, with a start, that more were coming.

They were of different shapes and sizes.  Most were gray, naked creatures like the one that lay before me, but still others had coats of black fur.  Hard shells, and scaly skin.  Some seemed made of stone.

Each came, and without words, they knelt, or if they couldn’t, laid themselves before me.  I guessed them to be at about a hundred.

I was flabbergasted.  My heart pounded at this show and I took a step back.  Lacertli spat at me, making me jump.  “Nay!  Thou hast promised them peace under my name!  I would have thee keep your promise. Steel your resolve.

“B-But how, sir?  What am I supposed to…?”

Listen, and I shall tell thee.”  Lacertli shifted on my shoulder, pressing forward so that he hung by his tail practically.  Paws against my right breast he gestured with his snout at the crowd of spirits.  “Look inward, as when thou spoke with thine Twin.

I nodded and closed my eyes.  Turning inward was jarring.  It illustrated, in a way that words couldn’t, the gravity of my Twin’s absence.  Because in truth…I felt no different.  I still felt like me, still felt like everything that was ever mine was in my possession.  But that was the problem wasn’t it?  We were disjointed, disconnected, continually at odds.  That sort of intuition was lost to me.  We truly were like two beings apart, but now literally so.

My mindscape felt smaller, even as I pushed, peering with my inner eye to where Her sanctuary was supposed to be.  Nothing.

Lacertli’s voice was in my head, and it hardly startled me.  Now that we were “joined” his presence already felt at home in my head.

“Do not waste time seeking out thine Twin.  I have stated that she is not here.  Instead, follow me.  Your first lesson as my champion is to learn the ways of the Dreamwalker.”

I was scared.  Naturally.  “What–”

“Listen. Follow me.  Deep.  To the places where your memories lurk.  Where dreams are born.  Here is the misty place that will give you entry to the shadows.”

I pressed, down into myself.  I followed Lacertli’s voice, like it were leading me through a vast labyrinth.  Going into one’s head, as I’ve understood it, was never a literal thing for most.  Even my race of therians knew it was just metaphorical in nature–the idea of going “inside” and facing down their bestial self.  But I have stood in the dead soil that was Her world.  Saw the lonely canyons that my Twin stalked, where ghosts pulsed in the rock from memories of painful transformations and heartbreak.  There was weight and feeling in that secret place.  And it was all in my head.

…Putting it that way, I didn’t sound much better than Elmiryn, did I?

Irregardless, I followed Lacertli into this scary world–My world, as of yet explored, because the emotions here were like noxious gases trying to choke the life from me.  I couldn’t breathe.  I clutched at my throat as I stumbled, following the god’s disembodied voice through a gray and black valley that whistled gloomily.

“Nearly there.”

And as we crested a sandy slope, I felt something come over me.  A breath.  And with that, a pressure I hadn’t been aware of was gone, like the universe expanded, and before me was the very scene I knew myself to be present at in the real world.  But…

The trees were crooked, twisting to unnatural dimensions.  The sky was pulsing blood red.  Strangely, the trees lacked shadows.  And all those poor spirits, bedraggled and rueful and miserable in appearance were not the monstrosities that they were in the real world.  “Nymphs,” I whispered.  My voice choking as I took them all in.  “Ailurans.  Elves.  Deers, foxes, rabbits, bears…ah gods, what had they become!?”

And then there was Lacertli, once more in the guise of Marquis, his sharp eyes lighting my way.  He gazed at the spirits, whose forms trailed with smoke, and whose shadows clawed at the ground despite their owners stillness, their white eyes screaming.  “They are trapped.  Each of them came here, and in some way perished here.  The misery and the evil of this place have twisted them, leaving them as beasts and horrors to wander lonely and shunned by the natural world.  All they wish is to be returned to that which they have been cast out of.  They wish for release…”  The god pointed with a clawed hand as he crouched.  I crouched with him, squinting my eyes as I followed his gaze.  “There, Nyx.  What chains them are these shadows, who howl and screech in silence.  They have anchored them to the physical world, tying them to the Kreut forest.”  He looked at me, his eyes turned to slits.  “A being cannot exist without shadow.  Destroy these abominations and the spirits they are tied to shall be freed.  They will be unraveled, down to their basest of energies and returned to Life.”

I turned and stared at him.  Slaying shadows?

He closed his eyes and held up a hand.  “Before you ask.  What you must do is reach down and grab the shadows.  Separate them from their hosts.  They will fight you, and it will be a violent process, but you are a dreamwalker now.  The line between the shadows and light, real and imagined, is yours to command.  The shadows may be taken up like any other object, should you wish it.”  He jerked his head.  “Forward, Night Child.  The spirits await thee.”

I swallowed hard.  Wondered briefly what Argos would think of all this commotion–or if any of this would manifest itself in the real world at all.  I moved forward, eyes wide, to the first spirit.  It was an elf woman, with her forehead pressed to the dirt.  I couldn’t see her face.  Just the black phantom that gnashed its black teeth my way, its blank eyes narrowed in hate.

Had she a family in life?  Was she a merchant, an artist, a beggar?

I trembled, but my jaw set tight.  I reached down and grabbed her squirming shadow.

It felt like a strong cold stream of air were being blown against my hands.  The thing seemed weightless, but as I squeezed my hands, I found that my grip stopped at about an inch.  There was a low moan as the shadow looked at me in fear.  With all my body I pulled backward, my eyes squeezed shut and my teeth bared.  I heard the elf spirit scream.  Startled, I opened my eyes again to see the spirit reared back, her pale face drawn long as she screamed open into the air, her eyes glazed in an intense pain.  I let out a gasp, startled at how the shadow literally lifted from the ground, like a thin blanket.  It looked pinned at the elf’s knees.  The shadow batted at me, and I nearly lost my grip of it, but with a hoarse yell I wrapped my arms around it and wrenched back.

The shadow came free, blasting apart in a hiss and a rush of cold air.  The elf woman was gone.  I lay panting on my back where I had fallen, propped up on my elbows.  I looked to Lacertli, who watched me with his fist in his cheek.  “That was one.  Now the others.” He said, pointing with a lax finger.

I frowned, but took a breath and wiped the sweat from my brow.

The work was long and terrible.  The first had turned out to be easy.  The shadows came away one at a time, and some were stronger than others.  One was so strong as to punch me in the mouth and leave me bleeding.  Some of the spirits too, either driven mad by the pain of being essentially ripped apart, tried to fend me off.  But I freed them.  One by one, I freed them, and when the work was done, I thought I was ready to pass out.

I stared glassy-eyed to the forest around me.  All was quiet.  The spirits were all gone.  I let my eyes slip shut.

“Nyx,” Lacertli said over me.  I looked up at him.  His eyes glowed in the darkness, piercing into me.  He gestured with his arm and said, “Look.”

I frowned and stood to my feet, limbs shaking.  I looked around me.  “I don’t see.”

The god snorted.  “Then you aren’t paying attention.  What is different, young one?”

I blinked at him, and looked again.  My eyes widened.  “The trees…are straight.  They were crooked before, but now they’ve straightened.  And they have shadows now.”

“Aye.  The shadows that plagued those poor souls once belonged to these trees.  They fled their homes in search of life, and in doing so carried the taint of the forest to those mortals.  Now that the shadows are returned, balance in this part of the forest is returned.  But there is still work to be done.  Come, let us return.”  He walked, bare feet leaving reptilian prints along the dirt.  He went to the nearest tree, and without a backward glance at me, vanished in its shadow.  I stared after him.

“Lacertli?” I breathed.

I looked over my shoulder, then hurried forward to where he had disappeared.  But I stopped and stared at the bark.  Hesitatingly I reached forward.  My arm went through the tree.  It felt cold.  I pulled it back with a jerk.  I looked over my shoulder one more time.  Then with a deep breath, I stepped through.

I was in a black world.  A place of shifting white lines, like it were a chalk illustration on a black rock.  I covered my mouth with both hands to contain my shout of surprise.  Ahead of me stood Lacertli.  He gestured silently for me to follow him, and I did.  The ground shifted beneath us and for a moment I had trouble keeping my balance.  Then we came to a wall, and he stepped through this.  Unlike last time, I followed him quickly.  I didn’t want to linger in that strange place.

…And we were back.  I blinked as my eyes adjusted to the partial light, and I stared down at my feet, which still felt cold.  They were in the shadow of a tree–one with it.  Up to my shins they were gray and transparent.  I cried out and jumped to the side.  My feet turned solid again, smoke trailing back the way they’d come as though the shadows loathed to be separated.

Then I was knocked to the ground.

Argos was over me, whining and woofing as he licked at my face.  Gasping, I shoved at him with both of my hands.  “Argos, no!  Okay!  Yes, I’m back!  Get off!”  He climbed off me, his tail still wagging.  Scuttling out from behind one of his great paws was Lacertli, once more like a lizard.

That, vermagus,” he said, “Is the way of the dreamwalker.  What you have just done was travel into the subconscious, and from the subconscious, used the shadows to reemerge into this realm.

“Sir,” I said, as I pet Argos on the head. “Did we just…vanish? I thought we were in the same place the whole time, but appearing out of the shadows as we did, and Argos’ reaction, leads me to think that we had actually disappeared.”

Aye.  You had traversed from your subconscious into that of the world’s.  Doing so lead you to vanish from where you stood.

“The world has a subconscious?”

The god chuckled.  “Girl, the universe is a living thing, as much as you are.  Of course it has a subconscious.  How else might this realm exist?

My brow wrinkled.  Was that all we were?  Dreams within dreams?  “I don’t understand, sir.”

And that is fine.  You need only understand how to use this method of Travel.  Come.  We’ve still work to do.  If you hadn’t noticed, not all the spirits answered your call.  But now that you have returned the shadows to their rightful places, they are at your full command. You will need that when facing the black nymphs and the pretas.

I shivered, standing.  “The pretas…”  I swallowed hard.  “You mean those dogs, don’t you?”

What other things would I speak of?

“It’s just…in my culture, pretas were like…humanoids.  But with tiny throats.”

And I suppose all Ailurans are cute kittens with black fur and orange eyes?

I blushed but I couldn’t help but pout too.  I may not have found it as interesting as other cultures, but I thought myself to be well read in the matters of my people.  Apparently, they had a few things wrong.  “So the dogs are pretas,”  I pressed, feeling a bit stubborn.

Aye.”  The lizard chuckled, and he looked at me with a homodont grin.  It looked unnatural.  “Ah, forgive me.  Your recent victory leaves me in good humor.  What is it you Ailurans say?  …Oh yes,” His grin, if possible, broadened.  It made me flinch.  “Draw up your pride, Night Child!  For it is time to remind these ghosts who is master…”


Back to Chapter 19.4 | Forward to Chapter 20.1

Chapter 19.4

I was sideways rocked into f r a c t i o n…

I’ve mastered the tricky art of a person launched wayward to action…

ELMIRYN________________________

“I think you should get after her,” Sedwick said, gesturing.

Elmiryn thumbed after Quincy.  “Why don’t you do it?  Aren’t you the one familiar with this place?  And I thought I made people want to kill things.”

“The quarrel started with you and must end with you.” The man said, fixing the woman with a hard look.  “Both of you ended up here the same way.  You both need to find the same person.  Given the nature of your circumstances, splitting up is, kind of…well–”

Stupid.” Nadi finished, deadpan.  “Go on, Elmiryn,” The elemental said–not asked.  “Whatever differences you two have will need to be settled, or at the least, set aside.

The warrior considered being contrarian just for the sake of it.  She sucked at her teeth as she ran the possibilities in her head.

“Fine.  I’ll be right back,” she grumbled through a half-smile.

QUINCY____________________________

She stumbled over her own feet.  Tension and poor blood flow through her limbs left her feeling cold and on the verge of the pins and needles sensation.  All the heat had gone to her head, stuffing her up, clogging her thoughts, crowding her rationality.  Unruly emotions.  Nettling her.  It was like a revolt, a surge of hidden energies attacking her foundations.

Quincy was divided.

Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…She’d been saying that to herself since she’d awoken in this strange place.  She tried to control her breathing, to keep her tone level.  Tried to find comfort in the rhythm.  “Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba… But nothing worked.  The warrior hadn’t helped.  Now Quincy was even worse off than when she started.

Foreign trees expanded about her, and the woman saw shadows creep quick along the edges of time while others remained recumbent.  The world did not sit still.  Light was a restless thing, and it was spread thin, its breath the agent of something that wished for all to splinter.  Light wasn’t supposed to have breath.  Nor were the shadows supposed to move as they did.  All was wrong.  The woman jumped and turned, rattled as she thought she saw something coming up her leg only to realize it was the phantoms of trees brushing by her.

Phantoms.  Ghosts.

Hmm…but do you feel haunted, wizard?

Elmiryn’s voice in her head, taunting her still.

Looked for trouble.  Found it.  All for the possibility of getting…what?  Gold?  Another useless lead in her lifelong search?  A girl’s head trapped in iron, another scar over her breast, grains of time lost for her husband, a hot spray from the sudden headshot–Quincy stumbled again at this micro-thought, this flash and sting on her mind.  Did Graziano mean anything to her?  She kept seeing his corpse in the snow, life staining the white in a spidery cloud along the frigid ice.  She had met him when he was a boy, a little younger than Paulo–

“Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep ju–!!” she tripped on a wrinkle on the ground, stumbling forward once more.  A tower ready to fall.  She tried to right herself, but couldn’t avoid clipping her shoulder on a tree trunk.  When she managed to gain control her feet were at funny angles and her knees knocked together, both arms wrapped around the tree like it were a lifeline.  Her face turned red.  “Fuck.”  She struck a fist against the trunk.  Then again, harder.  “Fuck, fuck!

Her chest tightened and her breath turned thin and fast.  Quincy rubbed at her face with a shaking hand.  “Baghun, mahar-krun ekhep jukatiba…

She heard Elmiryn’s voice chasing her through the trees and bared her teeth, her body locking up.

“Wizard! Hey wizard! Wait, will you?” the warrior called.

Quincy said nothing.  Teeth clenched together as if to contain the river of expletives that wished to pour forth, the brunette simply shoved from the tree and resumed walking, faster this time.

Despite her quickened pace, Elmiryn caught up.  “Quincy, you aren’t being reasonable.”

“Do not talk to me about reason, Fiamman,” the woman snapped over shoulder.  She flipped up her hood, darkness about her face.  For a brief second she felt comfort in the indefinite mask, but then the agitation doubled back at the sound of her unwanted company.

“Fair enough.  I can get unreasonable.  Hell, I like to, sometimes.  It’s fun.  But this is just a bad idea.”

“I see no benefit in being in your company,” The wizard muttered.  Quincy cursed as she slipped a little going down a short sandy slope.

Elmiryn snorted as she jumped over it.  “You don’t see the benefit?  What about the common sense?  We need to find the same person to get out of here.  Syria.  We both have someone we want to find.  Nyx and Hakeem.  And we both have something we probably have to stab.  Meznik and Tonatiuh.  The best bet of achieving any of those is through teamwork.”

Quincy chuckled sardonically, “Teamwork.  Cute.”

“I’m being serious.”

“Thank you for telling me.  It gets hard to see that when it comes to you.”

There was a smile in Elmiryn’s voice when she said, “I find it interesting that most of your knowledge comes from spying on me.  You want to confess something, dear?”

Quincy rounded on the warrior her face tight. “Leave.  Me.  Alone.  I want nothing from you!”

Elmiryn didn’t flinch even as she stopped walking.  She just batted her cerulean eyes and smiled gently.  “Nothing about those chronicles Hakeem kept badgering me about?  Nothing about Tobias?

The brunette narrowed her eyes.  “You aren’t the one who knows anything.  You told Hakeem yourself.”

“Right.  Not me.  Nyx.  Who I’m looking for.”

“I could probably find her myself and suffer less trouble.”

“And Syria?”

“It’s like Sedwick says.  We just need to find her.”

The warrior chuckled.  “But y’know, maybe we won’t have to find Syria at all.  Maybe she’ll decide we’re worth the trouble and come hunting us down one by one.  Even if you find Hakeem…can you take her?  Can you beat her down without your magic?”

The wizard faltered for a fraction of a second.  “Fool.  My magic isn’t the only thing I–”

“Why is it that you keep stumbling around like you don’t know your own limbs?” The redhead asked suddenly.  She looked the brunette up and down, eyes sharp and deconstructing.  The intent shone in her eyes, hitting almost as hard as her words.

Quincy sucked in breath.  Her right hand tightened over her sword handle.  “Disorientation.  That’s all,” She said.  She tried to keep her voice level, but…  “This place it–”

Elmiryn stepped forward, forcing the brunette back a step.  “Tonatiuh took more away than just your flashy power, didn’t he?” she breathed, her smile broadening.  Her eyes were a bit glassy.

The wizard’s lips grew thin as she paled.  “Shut up.”

“How long were you bonded with him?  Two years?  Five?  Ten? What scares you more?  That something is missing, or that everything is still there?”  Quincy shook her head.  She turned and started to walk away.  But this didn’t feel fast enough.  She hopped into a jog.  Elmiryn’s footfalls were right behind her.  “He was like a wall, blocking out the noise.  Made you focused.  Made you strong.  But the wall is gone and now all you’ve got are those tricky feelings–making you confused and weak, right!?  Have you got anything you feel guilty about?  Things you were trying to forget?  Fears, anxieties…desiresDoes the wizard have a heart?”  The warrior was giggling.  Delighted.

“SHUT UP!”  Quincy started running.  Her eyes burned as did her vision.  She went as fast as she could.  She tripped, rocking her body forward, but she didn’t stop.  Just scuttled along the ground on her fingertips, spine curved, knees close to the ground like she were a cat stretching.  She straightened again with a gasp but everything was just streaks and smears–

“Wizard–”

That bitch.  That mkundu.  That lunatic bastard.  Who was she to say…?

Quincy stop!

Elmiryn didn’t know anything.

QUINCY!

The wizard was divided.

Divided, she fell.

.

……

…………

That was, until Elmiryn grabbed her by the back of her cloak.

Quincy yelled, but the sound was cut short as the fabric pulled at her shoulders and neck.  Her eyes bugged out as she stared down at a great white sea of nothingness below her.  One second, there had been an endless stretch of ground, countless trees, a vast promise of space–now she was swinging over oblivion, the ground gone from beneath her, something coming up her legs like it wanted to unravel her down to the bone.  When she craned her head up, she saw that the ground had indeed suddenly stopped.  It was like a floating island.

Elmiryn grunted, on her knees, her shoulders, and arms strained and already gleaming with a sheen of sweat.  Strands of her auburn red hair slipped forth as she started to shift backward, pulling at Quincy’s cloak.  The wizard clawed at the dirt with her free hand, her hood falling away, feet kicking into the soft soil for a hold.  Stubbornly, she gripped her rusty sword.  After several moments of this, she drew herself up over the edge, Elmiryn helping her.  When she was safely on the ground, both women lay back panting, Quincy on her stomach, Elmiryn on her back.

For a while, neither spoke.  The sound of their breathing became a strange rhythm in the air.

Then Elmiryn started to chuckle, hands going to cover her face.  “Halward help you, wizard.  You are heavy.”

Quincy pushed herself onto all fours and glowered.  “I don’t appreciate your insinuation,” she panted.

“You’ve still got shape.  Graceful curves.  Makes me a little curious to see more.”  Elmiryn sat up and wiggled her eyebrows, a smirk on her lips.

Quincy grimaced.  “I appreciate that even less.”

The warrior blinked her eyes at the woman.  Her smirk waned and she blinked again, faster.

The brunette scowled at her.  “…Elmiryn what are you doing?”

The woman pouted and sat up.  “I was trying to wink at you.”

Quincy didn’t know what to say to this so she just stared at the warrior.  Russet locks clung to her sweaty face.  She sat back onto her ankles and looked down at her lap where her sword rested.  “From one thing to the next, hardly missing a beat.  Do you ever think about what you do, Fiamman…?” she breathed.

She felt the redhead’s gaze on her.  “As in…?”

“Everything.  Every moment.  Leading to here and now.”

“Oh.  Like when I stole a kiss from Lunielle, the wash maid, two days before my thirteenth birthday?  And then got her to lay with me within the hour?  And then–”

“That wasn’t what I was talking about,” Quincy interjected, her eyes glaring daggers.

“I know.” The warrior smiled, but had a note of exhaustion to it.  “I know that.”  She sighed and let herself fall back.  “If I think I can, I would move things.  Always.  Without hesitation.” She held up her hands and Quincy narrowed her eyes as she watched the shadows splay across Elmiryn’s eyes like crossed bones.  “I would move what I could and what I can because it makes me feel right.  I guess I’m immature–still fascinated by cause and effect and all that.  I might’ve been a good artist.  Or a craftsmen.” Her voice grew faint. “It has to be mine.  The cause and the effect, I mean.  So long as I see a chance for that, I go for it.  I like feeling like I have some weight.  That the world still responds to me.  It’s been…harder lately.  To get that feeling.  I think I push too hard, looking for it, but I don’t know till after everything’s said and done.  If I think about it, I can sort out everything in my head.  But sometimes it takes too long.  Sometimes, like I said, I just let myself be irrational.  Nyx helps me.  Maybe…fuck…maybe I let myself think out of bounds just because I know she’s there?  I think, ‘Now I don’t have to fight so hard’.  But she’s not here.  She’s not here, and even when I fuck up, I still care.  That’s a good thing…I guess.”  She shifted on the ground so that she could look Quincy more directly in the face.  “Hey…”

Quincy blinked at her.  “Yes?”

“I was being an asshat, wasn’t I?”

The brunette glanced over her shoulder at the nothingness.  She quirked an eyebrow as she looked at Elmiryn with a puckered mouth.  “You did nearly chase me off into the oblivion.”

The warrior chuckled.  “If Nyx were here, she’d have told me that.  ‘Elle, you’re being an asshat.  Stop it.’  And then I’d get to hear her curse, because she hardly ever does, and I would’ve done anything she told me, at that point.  I might grumble, to prove a point.  But fuck me…sometimes…sometimes I forget what my point was.  …Is.  …Was.”  Her humor died away and the wizard thought of Hakeem and the way he’d sigh and bury his face in his hands.  The memory of this gave her the desire to make it up to him somehow.  She waited for it to pass.

It didn’t.

“Anyways–yes and no, Quincy.  I think about what I do some of the time.  Technically, I think about what I do all the time, but maybe not as much as I should given certain situations.  Like now,” Elmiryn finished in a mumble.  Then she added.  “You’ve calmed down a lot.”

“So have you.”  Quincy smirked, but her lips trembled and it was short lived.  “I think it’s the shock at work.”

Elmiryn sat up, her legs bending at the knees.  She gave the wizard a hard look.  “Wizard, you really don’t seem alright.  ‘Shock’ aside.”

Quincy lifted a shaking hand to wipe at her nose, which had started to run.  At least her sinus pressure was gone.  “I don’t feel like me,” she muttered.  She expected there to be more questions, and she was prepared to resist them–though she wondered why she admitted as much as she did to begin with–but Elmiryn just nodded, her face going somber as she looked at the worn-out knees of her pants.

Instead she just said, “How about this.  How about–if you want, we can have another go.  Like in Belcliff.  And it’ll be to the death.  But it has to be after all our goals are met.  We have to work together so that we can fight each other later.”

“What if I don’t want to fight?” The wizard asked, standing.  Elmiryn stood as well.

She grinned and pointed at herself.  “You want to pass up the chance to punch me in the face?”

“But I can do that now and suffer no real repercussion.”

“Okay, what about the chance to play with my dead body?”

Quincy stared at her, wide-eyed.  “Pardon me?”

Elmiryn looked down at herself, then back up.  She blinked a few times.  “You wouldn’t want this prize meat at your disposal?” Her shoulders sagged as her expression turned crestfallen.  “You don’t find me attractive?”

The wizard ruffled her russet hair.  “Argh!  Why do we have to get on the topic of necrophilia for you to understand that I don’t find you attractive!?

“I thought you were playing hard to get?”  Elmiryn blinked.  Once.  Twice.

“I have a husband.”

Elmiryn blinked again.  “You want to know what that translates to me?  Secret rendezvous points and lots of drunken fucking.”

Quincy bared her teeth.  “When can I kill you again?”

“We work together now.  Kill each other later.”  The woman’s eyes fluttered again.

The wizard pinched the bridge of her nose, eyes slipping closed.  If her near-death was any indication, she was going to need help getting through this bizarre spiritual realm.  Her emotions were hard to control, and she admitted silently that the matter would not be fixed with Elmiryn’s absence.  None of this made her any more eager.

“Fine Fiamman, but only if you stop pushing me.  It’s…taxing.  I’m loathe to say it, but…” and here Quincy sighed, letting her hand fall away.  “Tonatiuh’s absence leaves my self-control lacking.  I’m not used to feeling so much.  I won’t be of any use if half the time I’m wanting to cave in your skull.”

“If by pushing, you mean my teasing, then yes.  I’ll stop that.”  The warrior wagged a finger.  “But that won’t mean I’m going to roll over for you just because you’re apt to crying and throwing a fit.  If I’ve got something important on my mind, nicely worded or not, my ass is going to say it.”  Elmiryn shrugged.  “Of course, you’re free to get mad at me.  I’m sort’ve used to it.  I’ll even let you slap me.  On the ass.”  She blinked as she said this.

“Is this your idea of easing off?”

“No, this is just my way of saying I think we’d be great fuck buddies if not a pair of honorable rivals.”

“How about we leave it at honorable rivals?”

“Did I mention I frequently make out with my rivals?”

Quincy, red-faced, turned as if to walk away.

Elmiryn jumped before her, laughing.  “Done!  I’m done!  I had to get that out, I’m sorry.”

Quincy crossed her arms.  She tongued her cheek, her gaze hard.  Elmiryn seemed to struggle to make herself appear as innocuous as possible.  Finally the wizard came to a decision.  “Okay, Elmiryn.  Alright.  We’ll work together for now and settle the rest later.”

“Okay.”  Elmiryn blinked in response, her brow turning wrinkled.

The wizard slapped a hand to her face.  “And for the love of Halward, stop trying to wink at me.  You can’t anymore.  Just get over it!”

“But it feels weird!” The warrior complained rubbing at her eyes with both hands.

“That’s just because you keep thinking about it!”

“What if I pulled my eyelid down with my finger, does that count as a wink?”

Quincy’s mouth screwed up, like it wasn’t certain if it should frown or grin.  “…When can I kill you again?”

ELMIRYN________________________

Back at the copse.

“I’m glad you two worked it out,” Sedwick said as they approached.

Elmiryn shrugged.  “Yeah, sorta.  We’re gonna settle it all later.”

“Once I calmed down, I saw that I wasn’t in the position to refuse what help I can get.  Postponing things sounded like the best option,” Quincy added pragmatically.

Sedwick stared between them.  “And…you’re okay with this?  The both of you?”

The women glanced at each other.  Elmiryn noted that Quincy didn’t pull her hood up again, and though her face was still a bit pink and puffy from her previous agitation, her azure eyes were clearer.  More focused.  She supposed a near-death scare and a gentleman’s agreement was enough to set anyone straight.  As promised, the warrior resisted the urge to tease Quincy further.  Part of the fun was lost in it, too.  Tearing the wizard down when she was at her weakest seemed unsportsmanlike and far too easy.

Both women turned to the man, speaking simultaneously.

“Yeah.  It works for me.”

“It’s reasonable enough.”

“I mean, our situations are definitely…”

“Yes.  It’s odd but…”

“We’re fine with it,” they finished at the same time.

Sedwick rubbed the side of his face.  “Ah…okay?”

“Where’s Nadī?” Quincy asked, stepping away to have a better view of the area.

The man jerked his head.  “She went to clear the Way for you both.  With all the spirits coming in, it might’ve been dangerous for you two to try and pass through.”  He turned and started walking, and both women followed him.

If they were in the physical realm, then they would’ve been heading southwest, but given the nature of the Other Place, Elmiryn wondered what significance such concepts had in the world.  They walked in silence.  The lack of interaction left the warrior wanting, and her eyes roved over their surroundings for anything of interest.  Her eyes fell on something yards away to the right.  A small creature, with a teardrop head, one eye, and a lavender puckered mouth.  It had a sprout of blonde wispy hair, and no arms.  Its skin appeared like a human’s, but seemed shiny like it were hairless and rubbery.  Its feet consisted of two long and thick toes, which it used to pick up rocks and stack them up one atop the other next to trees.  She saw several trees it had already done this for.

“Hullo, little thing!” She called, waving.

The thing jumped, blowing a raspberry as it looked her way with its singular gaze.  Sedwick stopped to see what she was talking to, his attitude unconcerned.  Quincy however, jumped as though she’d heard a bang.

“What’s there?” she asked the warrior in a voice skimming a whisper.

Elmiryn pointed, her throat tightening as she tried to keep the laugh from coming up.  “There.  Right over there.  You see that little one-eyed spirit?”

Sedwick pulled her arm down.  “Don’t point!” he snapped.  “It might take offense.”

“I don’t see it!” Quincy said, vexed.

The being seemed to consider them for a moment.  Then it gave a perfunctory bow and resumed its work.

The woman rubbed the back of her neck.  “What is it doing?”

Sedwick resumed walking.  “It’s just a lesser spirit acting under a spiritual ban.  It seems to be trying to help the trees, somehow.”

“If it’s a lesser spirit, then why’d you make such a big deal about me pointing at it?”

“Because lesser spirits can become greater spirits.  At any rate, it’s just common politeness.”

“I didn’t see it…” Quincy muttered.

Elmiryn looked at her with a grin.  “It wasn’t that big a deal.”  She paused, then turned and squinted at the wizard over her shoulder.  “Hey, come to think of it, you went charging for that cliff earlier.  Did you see where you were going at all?”

Quincy shook her head, a severe frown coming over her face.  “I was distraught, I admit, but I think I would’ve noticed that. One second I was running, the next I was falling.”

“What’s this about a cliff?” Sedwick asked, glancing back.

“Nothing,” Elmiryn and Quincy said.  The man’s expression soured at their refusal to impart the story, but within the next instant they had arrived at their destination and the opportunity was lost.

Nadī stood, arms spread wide as, within the face of the mountain before her, a Window stood.  Elmiryn’s face drew long as she gazed in wonder.  This was even bigger than the one she’d previously entered, and it seemed a level bit more coherent too.  She saw odd contraptions rattle by, creatures she knew not the names to, and colors that had no place in her world.  Off in the distance, she saw the silhouettes of beings traveling, and guessed them to be spirits.

The trees about them had thinned once more, sparing a more open view of their surroundings, which was overrun by tall grass and shrubbery.  Daisies swayed, leaves waving in a friendly hello.  Elmiryn took her eyes away from the marvel of the Window and smiled, waving back at them.  “Hello!” she said.

Quincy had fallen back and appeared to draw into herself.  Elmiryn didn’t know why.  She seemed unconcerned, or possibly unaware, of the great Window.  Instead her eyes were on the meadow grass about her, her breath turned clipped as said grass started to bend in her direction, tangling and weaving into a thick blanket that stopped her from walking forward.  The blades roved over her legs and the woman looked to Elmiryn and Sedwick for help, her hands held up like she were afraid the grass would touch them.  “I can’t move!” she exclaimed.

Elmiryn bit her lip to keep from grinning.  Sedwick brushed by her and went to the brunette, his movements relaxed.  The grass seemed to part from him, but in a manner that the warrior saw more as a sign of respect versus fear or revulsion.  He lifted a hand.  Blowing softly across his palm, a light mist of water appeared, coating the tall grass.  A small sigh was heard, and the grass around the woman relaxed, releasing their hold of the wizard.

“There,” Sedwick said.  His voice held a smile to it.  “Don’t mind them.  Sometimes, they get a little too friendly.  I bet they just find you interesting.  You have a lot residual energy about you.  Nadī tells me that’s common among wizards.”

“I like them,” Elmiryn said, reaching down to brush her hand through the sea of swaying meadow.  A chorus of giggles met her and she smiled.

The environment usually gains a sort of cognizance around these Paths,” Nadī said as she came near.  The grass parted for her, much as they did Sedwick. “Something about the raw energy makes these things animated.  It isn’t possession so much as…spiritual evolution.

“Agnitio?” Quincy asked, staring at the grass.

Elmiryn squinted.  “What?”

“It is higher thought, empathy, emotion.  People confuse it with life, but that’s not what it is.  A plant has life.  Studies have shown that they do have a simple animus.  But they lack awareness.  That is agnitio.”

Elmiryn eyes glazed, a gentle curve took her lips and a warmth spread through her as words echoed through her head, devoid of images but powerful all the same.  “Nyx told me a story once about the Spider of the West.  She had figured out how to give agnitio without the gods.  Is that the same thing?”

Quincy grabbed the warrior’s shoulder.  Her hand felt sweaty.  Elmiryn quirked an eyebrow as the wizard stepped near, her brows knitted together.  “What story?”

“The Wind and the Web,” Elmiryn said with a shrug.  “From that book Tobias gave Nyx.”

Quincy’s mouth grew thin.  She looked to Nadī.  “How do we travel?  We need to get back to Albias.”

“I thought you said there was nothing there?”  The warrior said.

The other woman glanced at her.  “I said the portal wasn’t there.  I didn’t say we wouldn’t find something of interest.  Right now that’s our best lead to finding Syria, and possibly the others.”

Nadī motioned for them to follow her before she turned with a sweep of her long beautiful hair.  She stopped feet away from the Window.  “You’ll pass through here and continue along the Path.  I’ve cleared the way of all spirits, but you’ll need to hurry.  Some of the greater beings dislike being barred and are pushing at my barricades as we speak.”  She gestured toward Sedwick.  “As I cannot leave my domain, Sedwick will accompany you for as long as necessary.  He will guide you through this realm and help in any way he can.

“I’m not going anywhere with you until you put that thing away.” Elmiryn pointed at Sedwick’s penis unabashedly.

The man scowled at her.  “You didn’t have a problem with it before!”

“I see it this way.  This shard is like your house.  You want to go romping around naked in your house?  Fine.  But when we leave here and find Nyx?  I am not going to do it with a cock out next to me.  Sends the wrong signals, if you know what I mean.”

“No.  I don’t,” Sedwick said flatly, but everything from the waist down turned watery and clear.  “There?” He said, arms crossed.  “Happy?”

“Thank you.”  Elmiryn smirked.  “…Anyways, I don’t know why you’re pouting.  There wasn’t that much to put away–”

The man’s face turned pink.  “Elmiryn–!”

“Where are we supposed to go?” Quincy asked the river guardian, sparing a scornful glance their way.

Nadī blushed, her cheeks turning a deeper blue.  “My apologies, Quincy.  I forget myself.  As you and Elmiryn are human mortals, there are aspects of this realm that may remain hidden to you, as you are not of the spiritual level to be aware of such things.  Likewise, you may see things that are not there. Before you stands a sort of Way, a Path, an Opening.  Stepping through this will set you on the abstract highways that connect the shards. These were carved out by powerful spirits long ago, whose very natures are mysteries even to me.

Elmiryn frowned as Nadī explained this.  She raised a hand, bringing attention her way. “Okay.  Okay…wait.  You just said I’m not supposed to see this thing?  This giant fucking Window right dead in front of me?  Are you joking?”

Everyone blinked, exchanging looks.  Nadī’s expression in particular turned worrisome.  For some reason this bothered the warrior.  “Elmiryn,” the elemental said slowly.  “You…see this?

The warrior swiped at her nose and crossed her arms over her chest.  A light frown fell over her eyes as she gave a perfunctory nod. “Yeah!  It’s a little hard to miss!”

Nadī looked at Sedwick.  “Was there something odd about her when you found her, Sedwick?

The man had a blank look, his mouth a little open.  “Ahh…” he rubbed the side of his face.  “No.  I didn’t see anything.”

“What does it matter?” Elmiryn said with a shrug.

“Elmiryn, you have problems with your perception,” Sedwick said.  He gestured to her and the wizard.  “Between you and Quincy, it’d be reasonable to guess that you would be the one to have more trouble discerning these surroundings.  Now that I think on it, it has been the other way around.  In fact, you’ve been pretty good on keeping a straight head here, even given your recent encounters.  But from what I can recall from our shared memories all those months ago…you were prone to confusing things even on the smallest level.  Only you’ve been very lucid here.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” But Elmiryn’s chest was clenching.

Quincy looked at the warrior sidelong.  “Fiamman…even I’m getting the implications here.”

Nadī gazed at Elmiryn grimly.  “Did Meznik do something to you, Elmiryn?

The warrior swallowed hard.  “He…gave me something.  I was having trouble pulling my body back out of the nothingness.  He gave me something and it made me–”  but she stopped short as a cold swept over her skin.

Sedwick bowed his head, his face turning hard.  “It’s made you less human,” he said quietly.

Nadī stepped near him and gently placed a hand on his back, her expression remorseful.  Elmiryn swallowed through a tight throat, feeling surges of anger as she played her conversation with the demon through her head.  She pressed her knuckles into her eyes and tried to contain the shiver of revulsion that went through her.  When she dropped her hand, her knuckles came away damp.

There was an awkward cough.  Quincy spoke.  “It might be a bit extreme to put it that way.  Maybe she just lost something, like I did?  We might be able to get it back.”

Yes!” the elemental gushed, “This may well be the case! In any case, I’m sorry to be so brusque, but you all must go.  I feel my barricades slipping,”

Elmiryn rubbed at her face.  When she looked up again, she wore a fixed smile.  “Alright.” She looked to Sedwick.  “Ready?”  Her cerulean eyes pierced into him.

The man gazed at Nadī, his brows pressed together.  “I’ll be back soon.”  He ran a hand over his bald head and gave a resolute nod.  “Ladies, let’s go.”

The river guardian stepped back as Elmiryn and Quincy faced the Window with Sedwick in front.  When he walked in, they followed.

.

..

….

…..

The second time there, she found she wasn’t as taken in as she was previously.  Her wizard companion, however, seems a bit overwhelmed by the fascinating sights.  Elmiryn pulls her along by the arm.  You don’t want to dawdle, she says.  Believe me.

Sedwick is ahead of them, moving briskly, his arms swinging back and forth and sometimes wavering like his body craved to be as water.  She wondered if it were possible to discover other realms by Traveling like this.  She thought it had been suggested before.

There was a familiar glow on the horizon.

Much like before, they followed the Way in the direction of this light.  But she recalled something the twig spirit had said to her. At the strange crossroads, it had said she must start at the last before reaching the first, where her true desire could be found.  If she were returning from Gamath, where she had first wound up, then she needed to go to the next path…

The air grows thick.  Her nose wrinkles as she catches a whiff of something strong and repulsive.  Do you smell that? Quincy asks.  It’s like brimstone…

Up ahead Sedwick shouts at them to hurry.  He sounds agitated.

She starts to run, dragging the wizard with her.  The air is becoming hazy and it burns her eyes.  She starts to cough.

Some part of her knew better.  Looking over her shoulder was like begging for the unknown to become known, and that was like an invitation.  Maybe it wasn’t aware of them.  Maybe all they had to do was hurry on by it, whatever it was.  She looked over shoulder anyway.

That was when the smoke spirit fixed its fiery eyes on her and the woman cursed.

Run, run! She screams as she sprints.  Up ahead, through the haze, the light was growing nearer.

They make it.  It’s the crossroads again, with its five paths.  But the spirit is still right behind them.  There is a looming hiss that reminds of burning wood.  Smoke swirls about her legs and pulls them out from under her.  She loses her grip on the wizard as the being pulls her toward it, its smoke swallowing her.  Suffocating her.

She hears running water.  Sedwick shouts as he cuts a swath through the smoke, his body nearly all water, whipping and lashing and spraying.  He has a fluidity he lacked in his human life.  She admires this as he pulls her free, his hands wet on her skin.  He’s shouting that there’s only one way they can go, and it goes down.

She’s still coughing and wheezing when he literally throws her forward, to the only Way that was open.  As she falls, Sedwick and Quincy are right behind.

…..

….

..

.

Elmiryn groaned and batted her eyes open.  All around her was dark.  “What…?”

“We made it.” Sedwick further ahead of her.  He sounded a little winded.  “I just managed to close the Way behind us, but…” his voice turned angry.  “Elmiryn, why did you look at it!?”

The warrior winced and sat up.  “Oh you mean the big–”

“Yes, that–” Quincy sliced in from somewhere to the right.

“It was a being of vengeance.  Probably born from a forest being burned down for development.  We would’ve been fine if you hadn’t have looked at it,” Sedwick finished, his tone on the verge of being livid.

Elmiryn strained her eyes in the dark and her nose flared to the smell of soil and rock.  There was also the scent of some strong gas swirling about the stale air.  She coughed and felt like smoke was still in her lungs.  The woman wheezed and leaned back, tilting her head.  She coughed again into the air.

“Where are we?  This isn’t Albias,” There’s a rustle as Quincy stands and shakes out her cloak.

Sedwick lets out a short exhale through his nose.  “The other Ways were blocked,”  His voice turned gravelly.  “I don’t like this.  Our path was being guided.”

“Forced sounds more appropriate,” Quincy said.  The crunch of boots along the ground.  “…Well, clearly we’re underground somewhere.”

“Why the hell would we end up underground?” Elmiryn said with a scratchy voice.  “The nearest shards would all be from the Sibesona, right?  What place on the Sibesona would be underground?”

The other two said nothing for a moment.  Then Quincy cursed.  “Tai’undu!”

The warrior crawled around, her hands groping blindly in the dark.  “What, wizard?”

“Quincy?  Do you know?” Sedwick said quickly.

“I just had an idea,” The brunette admitted reluctantly.  “It’s most likely the answer, but I can’t be certain until we explore further…and it might be dangerous to.”

“Well what the fuck’re we supposed to do?  Sit on our asses till a solution goes crawling by?” Elmiryn found the wall–made of rock, and used it as her support as she stood up from her knees.  “Out with it, Quincy.  Where are we?”

“I’m getting to that, you crass idiot,” The wizard snapped.  She took a deep breath to calm herself.  When she spoke again, she was calmer, but also sounded tired.  “I believe we’re in the abandoned dwarf colony of Albias.  And given what I know…it is most likely teeming with angry spirits.”

Elmiryn blinked.  Then she shook her head emphatically.  “Fuck that.  Quincy, you’re fired.  Sedwick!” The warrior snapped her fingers and pointed at the shadow adjacent to her. “I just found out that I could be not-quite-human, so I really need to kill something.  Nothing more human than that, right?  Tell me we’ll face something I can actually stab!

“Elmiryn,” Sedwick sighed, “We’re most likely in the abandoned dwarf colony of Albias which is filled with very unstabbable angry spirits.”

“…Sedwick, you’re fired.”


Back to Chapter 19.3 | Forward to Chapter 19.5

Chapter 19.3

NYX____________________________

You can just imagine what came next after Lacertli’s statement.

Fainting very nearly happened, skirting the bright and heavy world of realization to remain in the black and misty question of “what if”.  I could’ve screamed and ran–if my legs worked enough that I could even stand.  I also could’ve just said “No,” or even in a wild slip of the tongue said “Yes,” when I meant to say, “No.”  If I hadn’t already done so, peeing my pants might’ve been one of the options too.

But rather than any of these, I just lifted my head, blinked, and stared.  Mouth agape.  Nose running from snot I hadn’t wiped yet.  I suppose it was a form of shut down.  One can only be shocked so many times, physically and emotionally, before a disconnect hits.  I even managed to forget that I had been literally torn apart by atleast a dozen monstrous dogs.  That I had just seen a man shot in the head right in front of me.  That I had been sucked into another realm–

When I told Elmiryn later, she wouldn’t stop teasing me.  “You must’ve been going through one hell of an identity crisis.” she giggled.  “‘Am I a scaredy-cat or a bad ass’?”

To which I replied, “You try facing down a–”

–Oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Upon leaving the cave, Lacertli had changed.  The light outside was like a veil pulled back, and without the shadowy world he had thrived in, he was something else entirely.  Now he stood as a giant lizard man, with a long face and scaly skin, claws instead of hands, and a thick long tail that swept the ground.  A dark tongue flickered out to taste the air.

Argos had gone rigid, but still trembled on a minute level like every part of him were tensed and tired from clenching.  It could’ve been fear, and it wasn’t out of place.  But his weight pressed on me as he no longer sought to shield me so much as use me as his prop.  I grunted, grabbing him around the neck and persuading him with a gentle pull to roll over to my side.  I shuddered out a breath of relief, but the feeling was short lived as Lacertli tilted his head one way, then another, before bowing down with his face peering into mine.

I let out a dry whine, falling backward away from him.  My tawny eyes batted quick, still drying from my tears earlier.

I must have an answer, young one,” he hissed.

My brows twitched and knitted together, my breath raking up my throat through phlegm.  I could’ve fainted, could’ve screamed and ran, could’ve said “No”.  But instead I said–no, blurted

“I’m not worthy!”  My chin started to tremble, but I held my face still, fighting against the new onslaught of grief. “I’m–I’m not worthy of being anyone’s champion!”

Curious.  For one who believes herself of such low station, you hold no qualms in correcting the ethereal.  You would dare to say I’m mistaken?  That I would confuse trash with riches?

I winced and flared red.  “Spirit, my apologies–I–”

I am Lacertli, foolish girl.  I would have thee call me by my chosen name.

“Forgive me!” I blurted, shifting around so that I was on all fours.  It was starting to feel like the right thing to do.  I didn’t know what Lacertli was–or maybe I did, but I couldn’t bring myself to admit it.  Shivering I pressed my forehead to the ground.  “Forgive me.  My confusion makes me clumsy!”

You are frightened is what you are.

I swallowed against the lump in my throat.  “Yes,” I croaked.  “I don’t know why…” I swallowed down a hiccup of tears.  Droplets fell to the ground.  Argos shifted next to me, panting and whining.  “Your interest baffles me.  I am a child of Aelurus.

She has abandoned you.”

I grit my teeth as everything in me flinched from the pain of this statement.  I had always believed this to be true, but it hurt doubly so to have this being tell me so.  “You don’t find me reprehensible?  I have failed.  I have done wrong.”

Thou art indebted is all.  I am giving you the opportunity to pay back to the life that has sustained you.  Blood is on your soul.  Walk my path and you shall be cleansed of it.

“Aelurus may have abandoned me Lacertli, but I have not abandoned Her.”  My hands clenched against the stone, awaiting his wrath.  Surely, there would be retribution in such a statement?

You confuse things.  Taking up one thing does not exclude the other.” Then the lizard sighed.  I heard him step away from me, and dared to lift my head.  He was once more entering the shadows, his form resuming his previous appearance.  “Thou art giving me excuses.  Not answers.  …But I am patient.  I shall wait.  I only wonder if you can afford such a luxury.  Listen, Night Child.  This world hungers for thee.  Will you be able to reunite with your Ghost?  Will you be able to reunite with your Twin?

I frowned softly and looked down to the ground.  Then my eyes turned to wide discs, and I straightened so that I was upright on my knees.

“Wait, what do you mean my Twin!?” I exclaimed.

ELMIRYN________________________

In a copse, sitting on a fallen log where a shying violet hid beneath her left leg.  The woman leaned over to smile at it briefly, and the plant waved a single leaf at her before ducking out of view.

“Elmiryn.  Are you ready, or do you need a moment?”  Sedwick.  Lingering about him like a weak aura was that air of authority he once had, a man used to having control over the toughest of substances.  It wasn’t fair to say he was weak or indecisive now, but she supposed after spending time with someone like Nadī, anyone of that mentality would be muted.  Nadī was, in truth, more than a spiritual guardian.  She was a demigod.  Why else would the Gamath lands depend so much on her well being if not for this reason?  A guardian could technically fall and the lands would remain safe should the conqueror wish it.  But a demigod…?

But this was just guessing on her part.  Elmiryn wondered if it were blasphemous to try and guess at the identity of gods, possibly attributing the word, halved or whole, to something in error.  Then she decided she didn’t care.

“Yeah,” Elmiryn said in answer to Sedwick’s question.  She looked around her.  Quincy was leaning on a tree near her, pulling at her cloak.  She was muttering to herself again, a phrase over and over, but the warrior couldn’t hear what it was.  Sedwick was to her right, arms crossed over his chest as his inhuman gaze fixed on her.  And across from her was Nadī.  “Can you explain what happened in detail, please?” Elmiryn asked the river spirit.

The elemental nodded.  She gestured at Sedwick with a sweeping hand.  “After your departure, Sedwick and I began the process of reversing the damage that had been done to the area.  Thanks to your help, Gamath was once again hospitable…but not 100% safe.  There were angry nymphs, poltergeists, sick nature spirits, wisps, and wayward animals to take care of.

“We had a hell of a time cleaning these things up.” Sedwick added.  “And for a while we really seemed to be making some progress…”

But for some reason we couldn’t rid ourselves of the trouble completely.  We came to a point where no matter how much we did, nothing would change.  It showed at the foundations.  The nymphs and the animals.  The animals were still overly aggressive and would exhibit erratic behavior, leading to their deaths.  The nymphs were much the same.”

“Nadī thought she knew the problem, though.”

Yes.  As you recall, in my madness, I was fixated on a tree.  A perversity of nature.  When it became clear that we were not moving forward, we tried looking for it.

“It took us a while.  But we found it.  A little over a month ago.”

“Where was it?” Elmiryn asked, her back tensing as she leaned forward on her knees.

“It wasn’t in the physical realm.  Your realm.  It was here. In this place.” Sedwick pointed at the ground.  The redhead frowned at the “your realm” comment.  So it wasn’t his realm anymore?  Well it was a fair thing to say, she just found it weird.  Sedwick was still part-human in her eyes.

“What happened?  How did you destroy the thing exactly?” she asked.

Nadī looked at Sedwick, who glanced back at her.  The two turned to Elmiryn.  “The tree was weak.  It was no bigger than an average oak.  Much of its leaves had fallen and turned to dust, and the bark was rotting off.  There were no wards around it, no spirits guarding it, nothing.  The tree felt abandoned.  The spell was already inactive.

“You mentioned that.  A ‘spell’.  What spell was it?  What did it do?”

“We don’t know, Elmiryn.” Sedwick said, rubbing the side of his face.  “The magic was foreign to us.  We’ve never seen anything like it.  Usually long term spells, even in this world, have some sort of anchor.  Usually the animus, or some sort of physical object.  This tree…had nothing.  There was no anchor, and no lingering connection we could tie it to.  So we just ripped it out.”

“You weren’t able to trace it to a person?  To something else in the physical realm?  At all?” Quincy straightened from her tree, her voice perking in interest.  Everyone looked at her, surprised at her interruption.  She’d been stone silent since the trade had occurred with the twig spirit.

Sedwick cleared his throat. “That is to say, we couldn’t find any of the usual anchors.”

“How do you mean?” Elmiryn asked, glancing at Quincy again with a slight frown.  The wizard had started pacing with her head bowed.

“I mean that the magic wasn’t coming from a person.  It wasn’t anchoring in any flesh, or the earth, or the plants…”

It was anchoring itself in the sounds.”  Nadī said, scowling in disgust.  “All around it we could hear the magic, and it tried feebly to taint us once more.  We tore the damned thing out and the magic vanished.  Silence had never sounded sweeter to me.

Quincy halted, her head lifting up with a snap.  “A completely sonic spell?” she shook her head.  “But sound holds no weight or inherent power.  It is just a component of a greater formula, never the foundation of the spell itself.  That, and you can hardly control it!  It travels through space until it peters out, swallowed up by…” she stopped, sucking in breath.

“Until it’s swallowed up by another sound,” Elmiryn finished, closing her eyes.  “Or it echoes, or it enters someone’s mind and stays there in their memories.”

“Life is filled with sounds.  The wind, the animals, the people, the ocean, or even the muted hum of energies,”  Quincy mused.  “These are so prevalent, that a sonic based spell would need a great deal of power to keep it going…and even more to keep it controlled.” Her hands went to her hips and a russet lock of hair slipped forth from beneath her hood.  “It would need someone practically omnipotent.”

Perhaps not omnipotent, but certainly something with a widespread consciousness.  Like a spirit,” Nadī said, closing her eyes.  “This idea alone isn’t new.  I had considered this possibility the moment I had been cured of my mental malady.  But what spirit could possibly enter this realm with such power without my knowing?  What spirit could be capable of this and have reason to wish it?  That is still the mystery…

“Roots.”  Elmiryn said, eyes still closed.

Everyone looked at her.

Roots.” She opened her eyes and gestured at the end of the log she sat on, where the bark twisted into a tendril–once the beginning of a tree root.  “Think about it.  A sapling may be small, but underneath the soil are roots that anchor it–small things, but strong and important.  They keep the tree from falling over when a storm wind wants to knock it down.  They keep the tree fed and growing.”  Elmiryn stood, her jaw tight. “I think Quincy is right.  It can’t be the sound, or even the tree you found that was the foundation of the spell.  If it was, then Nadī would have sensed it before it got as strong as it did.  She would have been able to have sensed the caster.  What we dealt with?  That was just above the surface.  ”

“The tip of an iceberg,” Quincy said with a nod.

Then the magic is still active somewhere…” Nadī sighed.

“Elmiryn, I told you we’ve had an influx of spirits coming through.” Sedwick said, narrowing his eyes.  “These are refugees.  They’re fleeing from something up north, something that is still there.  You were heading up that way.  Now you’re here.  Is there something we should know?  Is it related?  Can we expect trouble again?”

Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck and sighed.  “Maybe.  But…it’s not like you think.”

Nadī and Sedwick glanced at each other.  The redhead felt Quincy’s eyes on her.  “Elmiryn, what are you saying?” the wizard asked, her voice hard.

“I’m saying there could be more than one ‘iceberg’ to worry about,”  She looked at Nadī next.  “The stuff up north isn’t Meznik’s doing.”

“Meznik?” Quincy looked to the others for clarification.

“She believes it was an astral demon who was behind everything,” Sedwick said with a tired shrug.  Elmiryn glowered at him for the note of disbelief in his voice.

But to Elmiryn’s surprise (and delight, she found) Quincy didn’t scoff at the idea.  She just said, “Hmm, yes, Hakeem mentioned this…” and looked to the ground.

Nadī crossed her arms, shifting her weight to one side.  “Elmiryn, why do you believe the trouble to the north isn’t Meznik’s doing?

The woman shrugged.  “Because he told me so.”

All three present snapped their eyes on her, faces turned long.  “He what!?

NYX____________________________

Lacertli was once more dressed in the disguise of a dead man, his body long but graceful as he draped himself along the stone floor.  He spoke, the eerie inhuman voice gone and replaced with Marq’s, “Your Twin, as you have taken to calling Her, is not with you.” He propped his head up on a hand.

My mouth went dry and a cold sweat broke out over my skin.  “What?” I croaked.

He glanced at me with his golden eyes.  “Thou art repeating thyself, which I find tiresome, but I will clarify for thee nevertheless.  This realm is a collection of isolated shards–ghostly impressions of your realm forced onto a raw and basic energy.  Travel to the edges of this place and you will find that the ground falls away to nothing, like a floating island.  Your Twin is not on this shard.  Comb these forests as much as you’d like, and you would never find her.”

“How is that–”

“Girl, this is a place of divided things.  In its natural state it is a place of chaos and disconnection.  The local realms, by the strengths of their spiritual energy alone, has forced a sort of order on this place.  But that does not take away its baser qualities.  Upon entering here, each of your companions were separated, and in kind, each of you were divided, losing something that was inherent to you.”

I glanced at Argos, who had taken to licking and nibbling at the fur on his right shoulder.

“Yes,” Lacertli said, sounding amused.  “Even the dog.  He has lost his raison d’être.”

“You mean…Lethia?”  I reached a hand out to scratch at the dog’s head.  His ears perked my way and he licked at my arm, his stinky breath rushing to me and making me grimace.

“His need to be at her side.  With you, he is content to settle for as a companion.”

I frowned at him.  How could that be?  Somehow the idea of losing something so conceptual was beyond me.

I turned to Lacertli, my heart clenching as a thought occurred to me.  “If She is really gone…what happens if she dies?  Here?

The being shrugged, his eyes on the fire.  “Then thou wouldst be trapped here, your animus gradually unraveling as, already divided, it is unable to resist the punitive powers that would take thee apart.  You will not just die, you will cease to exist, never to return again to the cycle of life.”

I felt ill.  “Do…do you know where my Twin is?”

Lacertli spread his homodont smile, and it glinted in the firelight.  “Night Child, you think so little of me.  I wonder, if I were to appear to thee in full, would I impress upon thee the nature of my being?  I doubt thou wouldst survive the power of my presence–and I say this without conceit.  I choose to appear in my avatar to spare you from this.  What do you think I am, girl?”

There was something hard in his voice, something that reminded me of my mother when she scolded me for getting lippy.  My shoulders hunched and I stared down at the ground.  When I spoke, it was through a stutter.  “I–I–Ah–I mean,” I winced and bowed a little.  “I don’t…rightly know.  I confess, I haven’t the slightest idea of what protocol is appropriate here.  I wish to call you Spirit, but you say you are not one.  Your name alone feels far too personal, and I worry I am disrespecting you.”

“I would have thee cease your quibbling.  I am Lacertli.  Fret not over the conventions of society–that is not my domain, and I care nothing for the illusions that extend beyond the natural state.  I do not hate these things however.  That said, vermagus, I recognize thine need for proper etiquette.  If thou truly desire it, you may call me Dreamwalker or even sir.”

“Thank you…sir.” I bowed lower, then raised myself, blinking.

“I am an old being,” he continued.  “I have seen the creation of the universe, have seen the rise of sentient beings–and with their rise found my followers dwindle.  But I am humble, and my concern rests not in whether I am known, feared, or loved.  I simply am.  It does not surprise me that you were unaware of my existence.  Most are, in this age.”

I was beside myself.  This was so much to take in, so much for me to deal with, I felt myself on the verge of entering hysterics.  I struggled to keep a grip–aware that it was necessary.  I couldn’t fall apart.

“Lacertli are you…?” my voice trailed away, the word on my tongue but my courage failing to send it out.  It seemed too fantastic to say.

The being laughed.  “Vermagus, you are a transparent thing.  I shall remove thy doubts.  I have hunted with Artemis.  Quarreled with Eate.  Flown with Njord.  Kissed Atargatis.  Lain with Tellus.  Supped with Halward.”  He paused, and something gentle overtook his features.  “I have also run with Aelurus.”

My breath caught, and I fell to my knees again, my countenance lost.

“Night Child, now that you are aware of my nature, what wilt thou do?  I have told you the state of this place and your circumstances.  Walk a path girl.  Any path.  But walk.  This stasis will be thine undoing.”

It was a surprise, the sort of sanctuary such problems presented to my mind.  This was something I could contend with, something that I could handle.  The overwhelming realization of Lacertli’s nature was passed for a moment.

I looked over my shoulder.  “I have to leave this place,” I whispered.  “To reunite with my Twin.  To reunite with Elmiryn.  To get back to my realm.”

“Yes.  But the creatures here wish to keep you.  You can avoid some, but not all.  The obstacles will have to be cleared from your path.”

I thought of the inhuman dogs and curled in on myself.  “H-How?” I stammered.  “I don’t know if I can–” I gripped my shoulder, where my flesh had separated with a sickening pop–once again I was hit with flashes of gore, flashes of horror, and I felt ill.  I wretched from the fear and disgust.

Lacertli spoke, his voice low and taking on a gravelly edge.  “I can help thee, but my assistance comes with a price.  I must have my champion, vermagus.”

I bit my lip and glanced off to the side.  Argos bumped my shoulder with his head and whined in my ear, his tongue lolling.  I ignored him.  A war raged in my head.  Amidst my back and forth thoughts, something nibbled at me.

“I sense a question within you,” Lacertli said.

I looked up through my bangs.  I hesitated one more beat before asking, “Sir, why do you keep calling me vermagus?”

Here Lacertli chuckled, the sound dry and fast.  He looked at me.  “Because thou art one.”

I shook my head, a hand reaching up to rub at my brow.  “No–I–I mean–”  I sighed and tried to word the question right.  I tried again.  “What I meant was, what is a vermagus?”

The being smiled lazily.  “A vermagus is a bit archaic, I confess.  Forgive me, it has been an age since I’ve had to speak personally with any mortal.”  He sat up, his head bowing a little as he let his lips curl at the corners, where they speared into his cheeks and left his face lined and sinister.  “Long ago, a vermagus was the word used to describe those whose voice was laced with the power of their animus.  It was once a well known and practiced magic art.  But vermagi were born, not made, and the pure line was lost.  There had been descendants, but there was none with the ability to utilize the true power of the vermagi.  Their powers were such that they could inspire whole armies or terrify spiritual beings, all by their voice alone.  Today, the legends do not call these people vermagi…” Lacertli flicked his long dark tongue and his smile gained a slant.  “They call them bards.”

My breath had turned short.  Even before Lacertli had said the word, I had thought it.  I had read stories of these ancient people, these bards of the arcane.

…It made me scared.

“Think on it, Night Child.  Your Ghost…she suffers a rare curse, damaging her ability to perceive, does she not?  But is there ever any question upon the nature of your Words?  Upon the nature of your Meaning?  Does she not hear things within thine voice that tell of more than thou wouldst seek to divulge?  Whereas others fail to reach her, you shall always succeed, because it is your power that pierces the veil of her damaged reasoning.”

All this talk was turning my stomach into knots.  I had another question, and since he seemed open to answering them, I wanted to change the subject.  Fast.  “…Sir, may I ask something?”

“Speak, young one.”

“Sir, you say you are the essence of survival…if on the surface it appeared necessary, would you seek to have me abandon my friends?  The people I love?  All just so I can keep living?”

Lacertli sat up, leveling a stare at me.  It had weight–not metaphoric, but literal–and I swallowed, afraid I had offended him.  “I am not survival for survival’s sake.  I am not the essence of self-preservation at the expense of all else.  That is vanity, girl.  Dost thou think me vain?”

I bowed, trembling.  “My apologies Lacertli, I wasn’t trying to imply–!”

He went on with little pause.  “I am the preservation of Life as a whole; of Harmony and the keeping of it.  I propagate the cycle, and this cycle furthers the make and matter that shapes thine world.  I have told thee this.  I am not the Pathfinder.  I am the Path. My role is not to tell thee where to go, but how to go.  I am not a being of the future or the consideration of it.  I am always in the present.  Choose what path you would, and I shall give you the strength and wisdom to survive what comes.  If you were to seek thine friends, I would not stop you.  But if their survival goes against Life, if they create great disharmony, I would have thee collect their debts.”

“I can’t bring myself to kill them…” I murmured.

“The first thing thou must understand, child, is that every mortal has debt.  The simple act of birth places them there, for they borrow from Life to exist.  Upon death, they return all they had borrowed back to Life.  A person, whilst still in mortal existence, can undo their added burdens by restoring Harmony.  If you insist on seeing yourself as beyond salvation, then so be it.  Morality has no place in my domain, just the keeping of balance.  Your Mark signifies but a moment in your past to me, nothing more.  But I would have thee think on thine Ghost, young one.”

I lifted myself and stared at him, lips parted.  “Elmiryn…?”  My hands flexed on the ground.  “She…is at risk?”

“Her circumstances do not factor into my judgment.  Only what she gives and takes away from Harmony.  She takes more and more as she descends into madness.  She is at a dangerous point, vermagus.  In her delusion, she has mistakenly taken an innocent life.”

My gut fell to my soles.  “What??  When!?”

“At Holzoff’s Tower.  She slayed an innocent.  She also allowed the deaths of all those men at the hands of the daesce, despite having the power to stop it.  Those monsters are abominations, negative energies, knots in the Greater Weave, and she allowed the feeding of those beasts.  Beyond right and wrongdoing, this is against the basic principles I represent.  If you truly care for her, then take up my standard.  I can help you alleviate her debt, before her actions bring her to an early end.  Vermagus, what will you choose?  Time grows short.”

My eyes clouded.  I stared down at the ground.

When I lifted my face again, the fog was gone from my eyes and I opened my mouth to speak.

“Lacertli, I will take up your standard. I will be your champion!

ELMIRYN________________________

“Elmiryn you spoke to him?  You spoke to this being, Meznik?” Sedwick stepped forward, his mouth a downward curve.  “Why didn’t you say so!?”

“What does it matter?” the woman returned, standing from her log.  “Unless you can find a way to slay a song, there’s nothing we can do now is there?”

“But what did he say?” Quincy snapped.  “If he was somehow involved in all of this, don’t you think this would’ve been good information to share?”

“He didn’t tell me much, and I didn’t ask him alot as I was a bit busy trying to make myself whole again.” Elmiryn rubbed at her face, then her neck.  The anxiety and anger she felt in Meznik’s presence rushed back to her. “All he told me was that he wasn’t behind Albias and…I believe him.” It made her sick to say this, and the woman spat on the ground.  She took to pacing, her hands resting high on her hips as she glared down.  “He’s vain.  He’s always thinking of himself.  He hasn’t always been forthcoming with information, but whatever he’s told me has been true.”  She paused and took a breath, eyes slipping closed.  “Meznik seems to think my struggle with him is some sort of performance, and he fancies himself as the director, maybe even a fellow actor.  He gets upset whenever my focus isn’t entirely on him.  He even got mad with me for getting involved in Albias.  Said that I ‘wasn’t supposed to’.  Like I was going off script.”

“He sees himself as an artist,” Quincy said.

Elmiryn nodded, lifting her head to gaze at the wizard.  “He wants me to be a certain way.  He’s really concerned with how I think of him, too.  He feeds off of it, I think…” the warrior clenched her jaw and glanced off to the side, eyes low.

The wizard tapped her chin.  “You said he exists in a song?  Could we conjure him if we sang it?”

“No.” Elmiryn said firmly, her eyes flashing.  “If you sing the song it can harm you.  It does nothing to me, probably because Meznik is saving me to do…whatever it is he wants me to do.  But if anyone else sings it, even thinks of it, they go into a death-like state.”

How do you know this?” Nadī asked, her brow gently furrowed.

Elmiryn looked at her.  “Before arriving at Gamath, Nyx thought of the song.  She…passed out, even stopped breathing.  When she woke up, she was perfectly fine.  It isn’t so much just mentioning it as actually recalling the melody or singing the music itself.”

“Is Meznik still here, in this realm?” Sedwick asked.

“I don’t know.  But he said we were in danger.  Both me and him.  If there really is another astral demon in the north, then they don’t get along.”

“And they work the same way?” Quincy asked.  “Music and trees and all that?”

“It was what got me confused in the first place, so I imagine so.”

Nadī held up a hand.  “I think we’ve heard enough.  Unless there is anything else to add, we must now decide on a course of action.

“My priority is finding Nyx.” Elmiryn crossed her arms as though she could not be moved on this.

Sedwick raised a brow at her.  “And after that?”

The woman shrugged.  “Look for a way out of here and handle things as they come.  Unless you two can tell me how to leave now?” The elementals exchanged looks.  Elmiryn smirked. “Lemme guess…not that easy?”

“It’s easy enough for beings like us.” Sedwick said apologetically.

But for you two who are human mortals…” Nadī went on.

“The process could kill you.” The blacksmith finished with a wince.  “You’d be fleeced through the very fabrics of your realm.  Imagine trying to stuff a melting one pound slab of cheese through a needle’s eye.”

The woman grimaced.

Sedwick nodded grimly.  “Exactly.”

“So then what can we do?  Are we stuck here?”

There is one option.

“Returning to Albias?  Where we got sucked in to begin with?” Elmiryn tried.

Quincy was quick to answer this.  “The portal must’ve closed by now.”

Quincy is right,” Nadī said with a shake of her head.  “What I was going to suggest was finding the caster who had opened the portal to begin with.”

“…Syria?”  Elmiryn scowled, her hand going to grip her sword just at the mention of the name.  “What good would that do us?”

“Clearly she knows how to get here.  Make her open a way back.”  Sedwick smirked at her.  “Unless you have a better idea?”

Elmiryn looked at the wizard.  “Well?  You’re the magic user, not me.  What do you think?”

Quincy let out a harsh sigh.  “I think I’ve been very patient in waiting for this discussion to address my situation.”  She turned to Nadī.  “Can we atleast travel safely from these shards you both mentioned?”

“Hell, I did,” the warrior said with a shrug.

Your way left you short of a voice.  I want to get back what I find important.  I’m not keen on losing anything else in this place.”

Here, Elmiryn smirked.  “Oh yeah.  Sure.  When my sword stopped trying to possess me, life just didn’t feel complete anymore.  I totally get why you’d want your homicidal spirit back.”

Quincy glared daggers at her.  “I was talking about my husband.”

Here the woman paused.  “Oh.”  She frowned, but her eyes held a mischievous glint.  “Oooh.

Sedwick was kneading his brow, eyes closed.  “Elmiryn.”

Quincy placed her hands on her hips.  “What, Fiamman?”

Elmiryn smiled, the ends of her mouth curling like a cat.  “It just explains alot.”

“What does?”  Quincy went to Elmiryn, her shoulders bunching like hackles raised.

I’m sensing we’re losing control of this, Sedwick.” Nadī whispered as she went to stand by his side.

The redhead chuckled and gestured at the wizard.  “I mean, y’know it’s just in the way you talk and move.  You’re  like…y’know…”

“Elmiryn!” The man snapped.

elmirynandquincy2.jpg picture by MajikNiNENadī sighed, going to his arm.  “Perhaps we should let them?

“But–”

Only faintly aware of their talk, the warrior stepped toward her rival, nearly face to face, eyes locking as she smiled, showing all teeth.  “Quincy, you’re like a fucking mud man.”

Quincy moved, pulling back her rusty sword with one hand, and so did Elmiryn raising her arm.

When the pain registered and the ringing started to subside, Elmiryn’s mind caught up to the fact that despite her high block, the wizard had still managed to clock her in–

“My ear!” Elmiryn shouted.  She reared back, hands going to the side of her head as the pain stemmed along her jaw and temple as well.  “FUCK! What is with everyone and hitting me in the ear!? Is there a conspiracy to turn me into a fucking cauliflower!?

“Stupid mkundu!” Quincy hissed, pointing with her sword.  “Matokeo mkulima ya utafutaji kwa!”

Elmiryn turned and jeered at her, hands still at her ear.  “Oh, I’m sorry, maybe you should throw in a few more clicks and grunts for me, maybe then I’ll get you!”

Quincy ripped her hood off, her face a deep crimson.  “I said your mother was the farmer’s favorite sheep.”

Elmiryn’s face turned red and she stood drawing her sword.  “Take that back or I kill you now,” she seethed.

The wizard gestured for the woman to come at her.  “I’ll beat you to death with this rusty sword first, you lunatic.”

The redhead crowed up at the sky, but the noise was filled with incredulity, not humor.  She slashed her sword through the air as she jabbed a finger into her chest.  “You impale yourself with a possessed sword and somehow I’m the lunatic?”

“You’d pick a fight with anything just to get a thrill,” The other woman snapped.  “You have no respect for life.”

“I have more respect for it than you do, you emotionally stunted halfwit,” The warrior snarled.  Every part of Elmiryn’s body was coiled, and she slid one foot back as she brandished her sword.  “Wizard– Take.  Back.  What.  You.  Said.

Quincy flicked the underside of her chin with her fingers and went on babbling in Fanaean.  The foreign noise incited the redhead further.  She started forward, intent on chopping off the wizard’s head for her blatant disrespect–but a whip of water lashed out, effectively stopping her in her tracks.  A cursory glance told her that as hands off as Nadī and Sedwick were being, they would not allow for violence.  If it were Sedwick alone, the warrior would have probably just pressed on–but Nadī was the true buffer.  The air tingled as the elemental spirit narrowed her eyes at the warrior, offering a silent warning.  She held domain here.  Elmiryn knew she would fail if she tried to contend with her.

Reluctantly, she stepped back again.  Quincy, who had assumed a stance in anticipation of attack, relaxed.  The warrior couldn’t quell her need to voice her desire however.  “I should’ve fucking killed you back in Belcliff,” she barked, her voice all steel.

Quincy was quick to respond in kind.  “And I should’ve killed you–”

“Well atleast we agree on something–”

“Not likely.  You kidnapped my husband–”

Elmiryn scrunched her face in vexation. “Oh please. You stabbed me in the shoulder–is that fair!?  We never caused Hakeem any great harm!”

“I didn’t know that then!  At any rate, it’s your fault my reputation is ruined.  I’m never going to find work as a bounty hunter again!”

“Did I make you help us at Holzoff’s?  You stole our friend away from us for a sack of gold, then changed your mind just so you and your husband could get more gold.  We, on the other hand, were trying to stop the magical corruption at the roots whilst helping Lethia.  Tell me, which sounds worse?”

“You are not a fucking folk hero!  You didn’t even like Lethia Artaud when you met her!  You’re a madwoman!”  Quincy stomped her foot, but when she spoke again her voice touched a note higher and her eyes were shiny bits of glass. “And for your information, you idiot, I’m a bounty hunter! I was doing my job–”

“Guess what?” Elmiryn held her arms out at either side of her.  “I was doing mine!

Both women stopped, huffing.

Then Elmiryn grinned suddenly.  “…No seriously, take back the comment about my mother.  Or you’re gonna meet the pointy end of my sword.”

Quincy quirked an eyebrow at her, her lips puckered.  “Take back your racist comments and maybe I’ll do that.”

Elmiryn looked put out.  “I was just fucking with you.”

The brunette’s jaw jutted forward as she glared at the woman down her nose.  She was trembling at the shoulders.

The warrior pouted.  “Fine.  I’m sorry.  I won’t say it again.”

The bounty hunter didn’t respond right away.  She exhaled harshly through her nose, hands going to grip her arms with white knuckles.  Her swallow was audible.  “Then…” The woman brushed back her hair with both hands and inhaled. When she spoke, her voice sounded taut.  “Then I apologize as well.”  She looked up at the sky.  Then down at the ground.  Then without warning, Quincy turned on her heel and started to walk away.  Over her shoulder, the wizard said with a terse voice, “But now I’m absolutely certain I can’t travel with you without feeling like killing something.  Rather than tempt fate, I’ll just leave.  Goodbye.”

Elmiryn stared after her.  “Hey, what?” She looked at Sedwick, then Nadī.  “Did I miss something?  I apologized, didn’t I?”

Sedwick just rubbed at his face in exasperation.  “Elmiryn, are you confused about the homicidal tendencies you inspire, or the fact that she’s not going to put up with it?”

The warrior opened her mouth to say something.  Then she closed it with a snap.  Her hand went to rub at her neck and she smiled at the man sheepishly.

The elemental made a show of rolling his pale eyes as Nadī shook her head next to him.  “That’s what I thought,” he muttered.


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