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Open Hands

Just an FYI, this is a bonus update earned from Eikasia’s facebook fans! This one is unusual because, unlike its predecessors, it is a direct “add on” to the main storyline.  This scene takes place between Chapters 9 & 10, and will likely be slipped into the chronological order of the final draft.

— Illise M.

NYX____________________________

I was getting into a foul mood.  Not so out of line, as I was now very familiar with the local ant population.  Face-plants into the ground tend to make discourse with insects much easier.  I had Elmiryn to thank for that.

The walnut tree murmured over us, and I could feel the sweat roll between the shallow valley of my breasts. The wind whistled about us, and its intimate touch made my damp skin sticky.  I gazed at my hand.  It looked like a livid creature tensed against the dark ridged bark of the tree.  Her shadow swallowed me from behind.

I turned to squint at her over my shoulder and Elmiryn smiled at me with long warm lips.  She had straight, white teeth.  For all of her wiliness, the warrior was a big fan of routines, and part of her daily checklist was dental hygiene.  A few small cloths, some herbs, some fine string, and water.  Remarkably simple.  I found myself envious.  I had an overbite, and what was understood to be “white” by society at large, could not be attributed to my shade of smile.  It was no wonder the warrior smiled so much.  She had something to show off, and so long as I stood by her, there would always be someone to admire it.

Today Elmiryn didn’t wear a braid or a ponytail.  It was rare that I ever saw her with her hair down and loose, and I took in the sight of her long, fiery locks trailing over her strong arms.  She held out her hand and said, “All right, here, let me talk to you a bit.  I think you did all right, but let me explain in detail.”

I sighed and turned in full, placing my bandaged hand in hers, but not before noting that scar in her palm.  It was a prize earned a little before our adventure in Gamath.  Elmiryn, the braggart, had made to catch an arrow with her hand.  She did it, but not without the arrowhead slicing her.  My tawny eyes flickered to meet her cerulean ones and I knew that if this journey kept up, that would not be the last of her spoils.  I felt a little guilty.  Being an Ailuran meant I didn’t suffer the same damage as a human did.  Then again, my Mark was all the scarring I’d ever need.

“So do you get it, Nyx?” Elmiryn held out her hands, palms up as we resumed our positions in our little sparring area.  “A person can do damage not just with their hands and feet, but with every other part of their body as well, provided they are well positioned, strike the right places, and use good timing.”  She wrapped her arms about her head and hunched so that her shoulders came up near her ears and her spine curved at the top.  This made her just a little shorter than me.  Through her arms, she said, “See, when you do this, it looks like you’re just cowering.  Keep your legs coiled under you, with your feet planted beneath your shoulders diagonally from your opponent. Dig the balls of your feet in.  You always want to have that back leg to support you.  When you come rising up, you’ll be steady on your feet.  Go on.  Make like you’re going to hit me.”

I did, and I thought I saw where she was going.  My grumpy mood seemed to breed something of a wickedness in me, for I let loose a slow right hook, like I was trying to catch her in the ear. I did it on purpose as this was a pet peeve for her.  I hadn’t been aware of it that time I struck her in the side of the head, just out of Dame, but Elmiryn has a fear of developing what is called a ‘cauliflower ear’.  That’s when strikes to the ear causes it to swell up and look…well…like a cauliflower.  I wouldn’t call the warrior vain, but rather, unwilling to lose her charms.

“Oh, you’re cute, kitten,” Elmiryn said as her eyes squinted at my smirking face.  “Very cute.  But look,”  She shifted forward a step, then threw herself to the left where her forearms knocked into the inside of my arm, effectively knocking it away.  “If you move in close, then ram the inside of the arm, not only do you avoid a blow, but you leave your opponent to this–” and here she rose slowly, and swung her elbows up as if to catch me in the nose and chin.  “If, for some reason, you are dealing with an opponent that is wearing a helmet or face guard, you can at least use this opportunity to push him away from you.”  She then demonstrated how, instead of rising up, I could continue to press forward, using my forearms and elbows as battering rams on the stomach and ribs.  She straightened, then stepped back.  I stepped back too, and allowed myself a moment to indulge in a slouch.

I missed being able to sleep in during the mornings.  Elmiryn was an early bird, damn all my luck.  We’d been at this since just after dawn.

She ran her fingers through her hair once and my surly attitude turned to bashfulness.  Her hair was mostly straight, but I suspected this was the weight of it pulling it down that way, for at the ends the locks curled lightly.  The fine hairs about her ears made bright ringlets against her sun-kissed skin.  I had the thought of curling them around my fingers…

“Okay, Nyx.”  My eyes snapped back onto Elmiryn’s.  “You’re right handed, yes?  Assume the starting position.  Put your right arm up and make sure it covers your temple, and let your right hand rest at the base of your head.  It’s like you’re making a pillow from your arm.  Now your left hand should come around and hold your right arm about the upper forearm, not too close to the wrist, but up there.  Hold it at almost a right angle.  There you go.  See how the left arm protects your nose?  Now since the side of your face is exposed, you’ll want to shift your body so that it favors the right.  That’s the main arm you’ll be putting all your force into anyway.”

Now I was in the right pose.  I held the position, bending my knees as I looked up at Elmiryn for what to do next.  She started with a smirk, “So you saw how a hooked punch works.  What about this…?” I bared my teeth and braced myself.  The redhead had a thing for throwing completely new situations my way after a few rudimentary lessons.  Thankfully, she came at me slow, and she was aiming for the top of my head with her elbow.  Her other arm was blocking her upper chest.  I thought about the possible counters she could execute, then struck.

As I had nothing to block with my forearms, I settled on striking first, moving forward to catch the warrior on her exposed ribs, then shifting my body up as I moved my right forearm to receive her elbow, then brought my left elbow up to catch the woman in the right cheekbone.  I moved as slow as she did and settled for a soft touch.  We fell still that way.  Her long lips curled into that infamous smile, and I became conscious of our proximity.  Blushing, I skipped backward.

A leer to her gaze now, the woman began to dress down my performance…Elmiryn nod–what?  Pardon?  …Oh for heaven’s sake, there was no pun intended!  Do I look like the sort of person who would resort to puns?  Sweet Aelurus…

ANYway–

Elmiryn nodded at me.  “That was good.  You were confident in using your arms both as a shield and as weapons.  I especially liked the last touch there, with the final strike.  You’d have to be very quick to get that last move, as most people would instinctively flinch back or move to protect the face if someone got in too close.  It’s like a dance.  For every one beat counter, anything following that has to be an immediate two beat.”  She illustrated this by clapping loudly once, then snapping in two short claps afterward.  “It’s always great when a counter takes the heat off you and lets you slip away.  It’s even better when you can use it to turn the fight to your favor!”

“You know much about formal dancing?” I asked, my brow quirking at Elmiryn’s mention of beats and rhythms.  She made it all sound like choreography for a moment.

The warrior crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one foot.  “Oh?  You thought the most I knew were country jigs?  Raunchy peasant stomps?”

I sniffed and turned my head.  “I know a few jigs myself.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Raunchy stomps, though, as you’d put it…”

Elmiryn placed the back of her hand on her brow and feigned despair.  “How low you must think of me!”

“So you do know ballroom dances?”

“Of course I do!” The woman shook her head, her auburn tresses swaying gently with her lament.  “Yes…I’d been to my fair share of balls.  But the bastards always made me wear a dress, even when I was a Dragoon Captain–!”

“No!” I said, pretending to be appalled.

“Oh, yes! And get this,” and here she leaned forward with a furtive glance to either side, as though fearing what the squirrels and the chickadees would think.  I leaned in too, ear cocked, and she whispered to me.  “…They made me dance with men!

I squealed, hands going to my mouth as I fixed Elmiryn with the most astounded look I could manage.  Actually, it wasn’t that hard.  The idea of Elmiryn letting a man touch her was shocking.  “Oh, Elle, no!  You couldn’t have!”  I was only half-joking.  That was the sad part.  I really couldn’t see it, but then again, she did come from nobility, and such things were expected of people her…

…Gods, it’s always odd when I think of it, but Elmiryn is a noble.

“I did!” She straightened and laid a dainty hand on her chest, where she then looked off into the distance with a pained expression.  If it weren’t for the fact that she was only wearing her chest wraps, I would’ve found myself believing she were still a maiden.  She could look quite innocent when she wanted to.  “I soldiered through it, and for all my troubles suffocating in clouds of cologne, having my toes stomped on, and knowing the horror of men far too old standing at attention–” I did a double-take on that one.  “–It was worth it!  You want to know why, Nyx?”

“Why?” I asked with an open smile.

She held out her hand, “Because now I get to show you the thrill of those dances!”

I stared at her, now flaring red.  “Oh!”  I took a step back and shook my head.  My smile was gone.  “Oh no, no, no!  I can’t–!”

“Please kitten?” She said, pouting at me, “Do I lack the stateliness of a prince?”  Then Elmiryn dipped low into a bow and looked up at me through her eyelashes.  With her fiery hair spilling forward, I think my head was ready to pop from all the blood and heat that clouded my brain.  She took my flabbergasted behavior to mean a yes, and without another word, took my hand, pulled me to her by the waist, and smiled merrily down at me.  “There.  Better!”

Ever the graceful one, I set into my usual sputtering.  “E-Elle, now really–!”

“Don’t think we’re taking a total break from our training this morning.  You’ll see how this is related.  Just follow my lead okay?”

“Elmiryn, I don’t–!”

“Take one step back with your left foot as I step forward with my right.”  She stepped forward, as she suggested she would, and I mirrored her…belatedly that is.  We stumbled, but Elmiryn’s hand firmly pulled me back to her and she gave me a stern look.  “Hey, are you paying attention?”

“Of course I am, but–”

“Okay, we’ll try again.  Just relax Nyx, and for the love of the gods, quit squeezing the life out of my hand!  Relax your fingers and lightly press your palm into mine.  There you go.  Think of it like this, you want to receive your partner with open hands, not crush them in your attempts to make a fist.”

I was startled enough to forget my situation for a second.  I looked into her eyes and I could see myself reflected in them.  With a swallow I relaxed my hand.  My tunic was already rather sweaty.  I had to keep it on due to that inconvenience with my Mark and Elmiryn’s curse.  With the dancing, I found myself soaking it anew.  Elmiryn hummed out a song–not Meznik’s, of course–but a waltz.

“One, two, three…and step!” I mirrored her step as she moved forward.  Then again, and again…in a rhythm, in time with her humming.  I wasn’t lying when I said I knew a few jigs–not all of my life was spent miserable and in exile.  So while this dance was very different for me, I found myself quickly finding the way of it.  Elmiryn never pushed me or pulled me, but her body “suggested” my next move, and by anticipating the steps, I kept it up.

Elmiryn hummed something jocose and light.  I could feel the music flood into me, and I wanted the song to stay with me forever.

We slowed to a stop, hips together, foreheads together, lips–

“I thought you said we weren’t taking a break,” I breathed.  My eyes were half-closed.

She gave a light shrug.  “I said we weren’t taking a total break.”

I bit my lower lip in a failed attempt to keep my smile down.  Then said, “So this is a partial break?”

“Mm hmm.  You were getting grumpy.  To the point where you didn’t want to play with me anymore.”

“Play?”

Elmiryn chuckled.  “You know what I mean.”

I did.  “If you’re referring to the cat and mouse games you like to instigate, then perhaps I have an inkling of what you mean.”  I said this with all the perspicacity in the world.  I looked away, jaw relaxed, and my eyes hooded–cat body language.  I may have had rocky relations with my animal counterpart, but the mannerisms of a cat were still well a part of my life, both in fur and in skin.

Elmiryn pressed her hand against the small of my back, squeezing me to her.  I let out a choppy exhale.  She still held my right hand aloft as my left flexed against her bare shoulder.

…Wait, how did I get into this position again?

“But you like my games…don’t you?” Elmiryn murmured, pressing in so close that her lips brushed my ear.  My eyes slipped shut and I turned my face so that my cheek brushed hers.  I breathed in the scent of her hair.  There was that wild smell–all the scents of untamed nature and freedom that made my heart feel like it was doing a marathon in my chest.

My skin was flushed and hot.  And there was that ache…It reminded me of being on the verge of shifting.  Maybe that was being drastic, but I did not like the idea of being swept up into the situation.  I needed to get my head back into the moment.  I was determined not to become just another conquest.  When I spoke, I did it with as firm a voice as I could manage.  “Elle, you said this was related to your lesson.  Show me how.”

Elmiryn pulled back enough to gaze at me, her eyes holding something of the sunlight in them.  My eyes fluttered at her. 

“Steady you dolt…you forget, there is an unwilling third party to this unscrupulous scene!” Ah, my Twin.  Never one to miss an opportunity for an insult.

The redhead grinned.  That was before she stepped back and slid her right foot forward, so that her hip brushed against my left side.  Suddenly, her right leg was crossing behind me, and with a strong twist of her shoulders, I was sent to the ground.  She could have been rough, but Elmiryn made sure my descent was slow.  With her well-positioned leg, my stability was compromised, so I could do nothing as I tumbled over her thigh.  The warrior held onto me as I touched the ground, and all the while she didn’t let go of my waist or hand.

She smiled at me, showing all teeth.

“You can do damage with more than just your hands and your feet.  You have to cease thinking of your limbs independently.  As isolated parts.  They’re attached to the same body, they work as a unit.  Be conscious of everything.  You take power from the earth when you block a hit, and you can spend that power through your fists when you throw a punch, but that energy has to travel to get from point to point, doesn’t it?  Can’t it exit from more than one place?  Must a successive hit mean a bruise or a cut?  Here you are.  Using my shoulders, legs, and torso in harmony, I got you on the ground, and now…”  Elmiryn tilted her head to one side. “And now, Nyx, I can do what I want with you.”

I blinked at her.  The woman’s smile turned gentle as she seemed to consider something.  Then she leaned down and kissed me.  She tasted like peppermint.  My eyes closed and my hand squeezed hard around hers as Elmiryn moved her lips against mine.  My hand went to her shoulder and I thought of pushing her back.  What a rogue!  Had she thought to do that the whole time?

Only I didn’t push her away.  My hand went to touch her cheek, then to brush back her hair, which was like a halo around me.  The warrior pulled back with a quiet smack to grin at me.  I blushed and let my hand fall back onto the grass.  I looked off to the side, with a “Humph.”

My hand lay open and relaxed as she laced hers between my fingers.

The woman kissed my neck and I shivered at her moist lips on my skin.  After that, Elmiryn spoke close to my ear.  “Nyx, listen to me.  You can do so much with your body as a whole.  Everything has to move in harmony.  Every inch of you plays a part in a successful move.  Including,” she tapped my head, “This,” and then she trailed her finger down to my left breast, over my heart, “And that.”  Her voice was a husky murmur now.  “You’ve already got more than half of what you need to become a great warrior.” She unlaced her hand from mine and used it to turn my head so that I faced her.

“So I want you to know…you’d beat me with open hands every time.”


Back to Chapter 20.4 | Forward to Chapter 20.5

Chapter 20.4

ELMIRYN________________________

The dwarves were of two groups.  There were the civilians, who were led by the blacksmith that had first approached them, then the warriors that had once comprised the volunteer army, led by the woman dwarf.  With the extempore ceremony done with, the blacksmith introduced himself as Madreg.  He was the finest of his craft and through his work had excelled as far as his station could go, making the best weapons and tools for the leaders and upper-clansmen.  The constant contact with the more refined and honor-bound dwarves made a gentleman of him.  His female companion, however, was of a rougher cloth.  Henriette was an orphan girl who had traveled to Albias from the dwarven colonies of the West, a harsh journey that had tempered her into a hard soul before even setting foot inside the Albian colony.  She had been quick to sign on to the militia, and as she put it, she was one of the last to perish at the hands of the marshal’s men.

“Aye,” she growled.  “And I took down ten of them with me, the dogs!”

Elmiryn, Quincy, and Sedwick followed Henriette and Madreg through the city, which turned out to be quite vast.  They were at the head of a long train of dwarven ghosts, all who sang and hooted behind them.

O’ look, ye braves!
The sun has gone.
The heavens blood,
Has rained so long,
So painted our souls
And belayed our song,
O’ braves, assay, assay.

The wicked snag
Of Night’s long smile
Has shrouded us in
Our sad exile.
Take up your arms,
We rise or sile!
O’ braves, assay, assay.

We’ll sow our rest,
With spent of mercy.
Our graves shall
Gleam in red.
But for those tots,
Whose eyes still shine,
We’d do it all again!

Braves, assay, assay, you lot!
Time hath withered,
We miss it not.
Braves, assay, assay, you lot,
For the darkness
Grows heavier still!

“If it were not for the fact that we were on the move from one task to the other, this could almost be mistaken for a wake,” Quincy mused.  Her eyes had a distant look about them and Elmiryn was wary to comment directly on that.  The wizard was clearly still given to sudden passionate outbursts, however silly and selfish, and the warrior wanted to bring her thoughts to other things.  So, she said instead,  “They sure seem in high spirits.” She then hummed to the tune and tried to commit it to memory.  It was better than that cursed melody which had so raped her life and fortune.  Meznik, you won’t take away my love of music, however vile you make it.

“It is a sad song, I think,” Sedwick commented.

“Everything is sad when you feel as though eternity has folded over on you a thousand times, sir,” Madreg said quietly.  It wasn’t accusing or resentful…but his subdued voice made the warrior gaze at him solemnly.  What was it like to be barred from the natural cycle, be that an eternal afterlife or rebirth?  The dwarves had perished but a few years ago, but stuck in limbo, it must have seemed an age.  The blacksmith went on, and Elmiryn came up near him to hear him better over the singing.  “What they sing now is a song before the battle.  A thousand years ago, when our people had a proper kingdom, the rebels sang it before rising up against their noble oppressors,” Madreg explained.  “Though it was that war that reduced our people to colonies sprinkled throughout the world, taking our glory and our power with it, we have taken comfort in its meaning.”

“Speaks to our situation, like,” Henriette added.

The dwarves behind them finished the song for the second time and were starting it over again.  Elmiryn didn’t mind.  It shook her down to the marrow to hear so many spirits singing as one.  “Where are we headed?”

“To where our remains lay open for molestation, no thanks to that bastard marshal!” Henriette snarled.  “It is such a curse to know that of all the things we can move, either as one or as a whole, that we cannot tend to our remains.  We cannot even help our fellows in death, for we perished under the same hands, on the same soil, on the same day.”

“And so, that dark day binds us,” Madreg said with a grim nod. “What we could do for you friend, we cannot do for ourselves.”

Elmiryn nodded and looked over to the others.  She strained her eyes–a bit out of habit, for she had gotten used to seeing illusions before truth whenever she sought to inspect something in detail.  But to her mind she could find nothing amiss in the quiet determination set into Quincy’s face, nor the pensive shadow that came over Sedwick’s.  She nudged the water elemental in the ribs and felt her elbow come away damp.  “What’re you thinking?” she breathed.  Madreg and Henriette tromped on a little ahead as she matched the man’s step.

He glanced at her and folded his hands behind his back.  “You spoke quite well back there,” he said quietly. “I’m certain Graziano appreciated it.”  The wizard, lost in her own thoughts, and no doubt unable to hear due to the din of the dwarves, did not look their way.

Elmiryn shrugged.  “I have been known to suffer a bout of eloquence now and again.  While it was short lived, I grew up in high society for a time.”

“You?  In high society?”

The woman smirked.  “Is that so surprising?”

Sedwick gazed at her.  Then he shook his head slowly.  “Mmm…no.  Not really.  You’ve certainly got the looks of a noble.”

“I’ve met prettier prostitutes.”

The man frowned at her.  “That’s an odd thing to say.”

“Don’t mistake it for insecurity.  I’m just of the opinion that nobility hasn’t got anything special aside from their gold, and that’s a finite thing.”  Elmiryn shrugged one shoulder.  “Even as a kid, I never really was taken by the pomp and performance.”

At this, Sedwick raised a bald eyebrow. “For one who doesn’t care much for performance…”

“What?” the warrior asked, perhaps a bit sharply.  The man was getting a bit too familiar with her and she found she didn’t like it.  You haven’t got me figured out, Sedwick.  You aren’t going to catch me out and get me blubbering like Quincy.

Sedwick turned his face forward.  Then instead of answering her question, he asked, “Back to what we were talking about before.  You spoke very well for Graziano.  Were you made the speaker for your fallen comrades back in–?” the warrior nudged him, her eyes flashing.  She glanced at Quincy, but the wizard had drifted away from them a few feet and was still deep in her own thoughts.

She glared at the blacksmith. “I don’t know how much she knows about me, and I don’t want to make it easy for her!  If she learns where I come from it could be a great big headache!” she hissed.  Then she sighed and looked forward, arms crossing over her chest.  “Anyway, to answer you…Yes, I usually was the speaker for my men.  Away from home, we had to cremate those lost whilst still on the move.  When were lucky enough to find their remains, we committed them to the fire, and I would say a few words.” Her face grew hard.  “I don’t like funerals.  I don’t like the ceremony.  I’ve been through it too many times to find any real comfort in it anymore.  I always found consolation in action,” she reached behind her and patted the pistol in the seat of her pants as if to drive home her point.

“Hrm.  You truly can say that you can’t find any real solace in the idea that Graziano’s remains have been treated with respect, instead of rotting away, forgotten, where beasts and monsters would molest them?”

Elmiryn sighed and rubbed the back of her neck.  “Damn it.  Of course.  I’m not saying funerals aren’t necessary.  But what does that matter if nothing is done to serve the lost one’s life?  Not his death, but his life.  I find that to be more imperative.  So many people get caught up in death that they forget the life that came before it.”  She scowled and glared at the passing ground.  Then she raised her head, eyes narrowed.  “Can we not talk about this?”

Sedwick glanced at her.  Then nodded.  Instead, he gestured forward at Henriette and Madreg’s backs.  “Y’know, I’m thinking perhaps Quincy was right in some ways,” he breathed.

“How do you mean?” Elmiryn asked, though she thought she could chance a guess…

“Why a battle song as a prelude to a burial?”

The warrior decided to play devil’s advocate.  “A mass burial, as brought on by a battle.  It isn’t entirely unrelated.”

The man snorted, his pale eyes narrowing.  “While the ghosts may not be able to handle their own remains, they can certainly push about the soil and earth.  No.  Something is keeping them away from their final resting place.”

“Do you regret our decision?”

The man thought for a moment.   Then he shook his head.  “It’s as Henriette stated.  This is the way of things.  And while it will be hard, I believe the rewards will make up for our troubles.”

“Me too,” Elmiryn said with a nod.  Then she grinned.  “That, and for once, I’d like something I can face head on.”

Sedwick gave a wry smile.  “Tired of dealing with spirits and elementals who rise above the answer of violence on flesh?”

“My sword is thirsty.  It’s like any horse.  I can’t leave it wanting!  I’ve crossed blades with a few, Quincy being one, but those battles were short and without a true ending.  I want a little satisfaction.”  She’d have very much liked to have Meznik’s head in her hands as a way for that, if only she could be sure the bastard had a head…

“Still,” Sedwick said, rubbing the side of his face. “I worry just what we will face.  We could very well be dealing with more of the same.”

“I feel that I’m growing into an expert of the irregular, Sedwick my friend,” she clapped him on the back with a jaunty grin.  “Whatever we face, we’ll have it on its knees!”

The man looked at her funny, and she raised an eyebrow at him.  “What?” she asked.

“A friend, am I?”

Elmiryn rolled her eyes, but her smile remained in place.  “Halward’s breath!  I cannot bring a name to a relationship without people giving me a strange look–”

“And I imagine all have given you a strange look, at one point, or other ,” Quincy interjected.  She had come out of her reverie and was now leaning in to hear them.  “At least I know where I stand with you.  But poor Sedwick!  To not know what to make of you!” The redhead got the sense that the wizard was perhaps using the conversation as a means of distraction.  She didn’t mind.  If it meant she wouldn’t go on blubbering like she had before, then all the better.  For some reason, seeing Quincy cry really bothered her.

“Now, now!  That isn’t fair!” Elmiryn pouted.  “I am not beyond making certain permanent relations.”

“Your mother doesn’t count,” Quincy said, looking at the warrior sideways.

To Elmiryn’s annoyance, she blushed.  Her smile gone, she bit out, “Of course my mother doesn’t count!”

“Ah!  You are a mama’s girl.  You Sibesonans and your mothers, I swear.” Quincy tutted.  “At least it explains your queerness.”

This incited the warrior further and she raised a fist, a curse on her lips when Sedwick said loudly between them. “Ladies, please.  Spare a man the cost of being caught between two harpies!”  Now both women lighted eyes on him, and he faltered.  “Ah…now, I meant that in all good humor!” His shoulders hunched up.

The dwarves’ song carried on, roaring about them…

Braves, assay, assay, you lot!
Time hath withered,
We miss it not.
Braves, assay, assay, you lot,
For the darkness
Grows heavier still!

NYX____________________________

We were back.  But even then, I was having trouble understanding what I was going “back” to.  I suppose I had gained a bit of confidence in my situation–enough at least to risk a few assumptions here and there before I set about asking Lacertli bothersome questions.  I didn’t want to give him any more reason to call me “Knave”.  So upon thinking of the half-world, the Somnium, and the Umbralands, I came to a rough but otherwise satisfying conclusion.

While this shard and this half-world as a whole was but a reflection of my world, it still shared the same Somnium.  The only difference was in the borders, as the Umbralands depicted the same twisted shadows that this shard held.  Light here was just an illusion.  There were no suns.  No moon.  No stars.  But the shadows remained because so long as there was matter, there was an absence of light, and if anything, this shard in its limited recognition of natural law and order, understood that.

I was seeing a correlation with darkness and dreaming, and I began to understand what Lacertli had meant when he called himself the Dreamwalker.  What he meant when he said he couldn’t assume Marq’s form unless he were in shadows.  He was the master of dreams, where the indefinite night could breed wild and fantastic things in the mind.  And it was from my mind that I could circumvent the Umbralands altogether to reach the Somnium.

Survival, as Lacertli described it, was not about base instinct.  It required endurance, wit, and imagination.  All things within the domain of the Dreamwalker.

So the layers seemed to work as follows–The mind was the lowest, and from it one could directly reach the Somnium.  Of course, from the mind, I could reach the Real World as well. (That was term I came up with myself, even though at the time I was using it to refer to the broken half-world)  The Real World, with its physical weight and matter and light and Life, bred the Umbralands.  The Umbralands was but a border that hedged the Somnium.  This upper-most layer was the dream of the universe.  There were only two ways to and from that dimension.  The mind, or the Umbralands…

There were still things I didn’t understand.  Like how broad the Umbralands truly were, why I could connect my dreams with those of the universe, and how the universe could possibly have a dream to begin with.  But being able to orient myself in the ways I traversed these layers made the travel less dizzying.  I had done quite a bit of it in the last few hours or so.

Even as these musings quieted to nothing, there was something about the forest that seemed livened.  The air made my hairs stand on end.  Or they would have if my entire body wasn’t a virtual scab.  The blood was drying and flaking in some places.  My bandages and my pants were stiff from it.  My hair was clumped as the dark blood clotted on the locks of hair, turning my free mane into something resembling gruesome dreadlocks.

Lacertli had once more assumed a place on my shoulder, his tail around my neck, his claws tight on my skin.  As we moved through the trees, I watched with wonder as the shadows seemed to curve and follow us.  Since my battle began with the nymphs, I had not been in the half-world at all.  Upon returning to it, I saw that their defeat had brought about a change in the environment.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it felt…more welcoming somehow.  Argos, trotted next to me, ears perked, his shoulder sometimes bumping my thigh as if determined not to be separated from me again.  Poor fellow.  I had left him alone quite a few times.  Apparently, Lacertli had put him in a tree.  I was still jittery from my recent battle, and so the idea of the cat fetching the dog from the tree had me giggling hysterically.  A stern look from Lacertli silenced me.  He was right of course.  I had to keep it together.  From what I understood, there was but one other obstacle keeping me from finding Elmiryn, and damned if I was going to be kept from her side any longer.  I was tired of all these troubles.

Be wary, Knave,” Lacertli hissed into my ear.  “Not all shadows court thy brilliance.”

I was going to ask him what he meant when up ahead I saw something dark flit through the trees.  My walk slowed, but I didn’t stop.  Off at the corner of my eye, another shadow there and gone.  I laid a hand on Argos’ head and whispered.  “We’re not alone…”

Then I heard it.  That damned giggling.

I stopped cold, my eyes going large as I swept my gaze all around me.  The shadows of the trees, which had shifted to follow our passing now wavered and turned away, like a presence was disrupting the gravity my soul had for these things.  The pretas cooed and laughed like young children, delighted by the sight of me.  They were demons of hunger.  My hand and arm would not sate their gluttony again.

They circled around us, just as sharks in the water.  The circle grew tighter and tighter, and as they neared, I could smell their rank bodies.  Their mandible-like jaws snapped, and their forms were like rottweilers covered in fungus and bold with muscle.  Their paws moved unburdened over the ashen ground, and it was all I could do not to pee my pants again.

“S-Sir?” I trembled out.

Mmm?”  Damn his ease!

“Please, sir.  A word of advice, if you would be so kind?”  I was turning on the spot now, hands clenched at my sides.

Lacertli bowed his head, both eyes closing.  “Surely you do not need me to walk you through this step for step?  You managed to defeat the nymph’s abomination quite well on your own.  But if you insist…” He opened one eye and fixed it on me.  “The pretas will encircle both you and your companion, coming from all sides.  Why not turn this around?

I frowned.  “But sir, how–”

Only all conversation stopped when, the pretas closed in on us as one.

ELMIRYN________________________

They followed a road that led up a small cliff-face.  The city grew small as they ascended, and when they reached the top and the road twisted still further onward, they saw very little of the dead civilization.  Elmiryn could only hear the stale mountain wind whistle through the streets as it clawed up the cliffs to chill the sweat on her back.  The procession of ghosts had dwindled, leaving mostly just warriors and a few brave-looking dwarf commoners.  Young men cut down in their prime.  They carried on singing, but they had ceased the rebel ballad and this time sang a wordless song–a hymn more like.  Elmiryn didn’t like it as much as the other one.

With their backs to the abandoned colony, they approached the mountain wall, where there yawned a wide and jagged tunnel entrance.  The warrior whistled as they crossed into the tunnel’s shadow.  “My!  Now what terrible contraption would have warranted this great big hole?”

“When we’d harvested all the stone we could from this chamber, we had to get more from a nearby source,” Madreg explained.  “The problem was that the machine we had made to do this was far too large for all of our usual tunnels–so we had to find a way to get our contraption through without bringing the world down on our heads.  It was our ancestor’s genius that saw us through.”

“And so explains the great big hole, and the transportation of things in and out of it,” Elmiryn said with a snicker.  Sedwick sighed next to her.  After dodging the heat of both women for his earlier comment, the man had migrated so that the warrior was now the one in the middle.

“I’m growing more and more alarmed over the fact that I seem to immediately get your crude meanings…” Quincy said with a trenchant voice.  The dark was beginning to close about them.  It was getting harder to see things in full detail, but thankfully they still had some light.  The ghosts in their company were a blessing, because they had a luminescent glow to them that lit up their surroundings.  Madreg and Henriette drifted on a ways ahead while the ghosts that remained–a scant fifteen now, as some had just vanished–gathered about them.

Elmiryn turned to look at one over her shoulder, a young dwarf with the starting of a beard and long frizzy hair.  He was the last commoner to stay.  All that remained with him were warriors.  “What is your name?” she asked.

“Físí,” he said, turning his head to look at her sideways.

“I’m Elmiryn,” she said, though she was certain he already knew, having witnessed all that he did.

“Aye.”

The warrior thought this a strange response, and he kept fixing her with that funny look.  “What is it, Físí?”

“Ye aren’t like your lady friend.  Nor your friend of the river.”

Elmiryn’s lips twitched and she thought she could feel Sedwick tighten next to her.  Quietly, she bumped him with her elbow and said to the dwarf.  “Nope!  As they’d put it, I’m something of a rogue.”  She expected Quincy to take this up with little pause, but the wizard was silent, leaving Elmiryn’s jubilant statement to feel flat and contrived.  Sedwick refrained from comment also, and the warrior let her smile fade in the dark.

“Ah, I just wanted to say, miss,” Físí went on.  “That…I’d be careful, for what’s ahead.  As I said, ye aren’t like your lady friend, nor your friend of the river.”  And here he vanished, his voice a lingering hiss of smoke, “Nay, miss, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were like kin to us poor souls!

Elmiryn had little time to think on that, let alone respond to it, when up ahead Henriette and Madreg came running back.  Henriette looked furious, while Madreg looked fearful for the first time since he’d been in their company.

“The damn things are in a tizzy!” the female dwarf snarled, her axe pointed up ahead.  “They’ve passed the barriers we used to block them.  Something has riled them up!”

“Riled what up?” Sedwick asked.

Henriette sobered, her brows pressing up instead of down.  It made her look a great deal more gentle.  “Aye…perhaps we neglected a few things.  The payment is fair, I’ll not deny that, but the dealings…they were…were not.”

“We pressed you when you were most vulnerable,” Madreg added, now looking equally sorry.  “We knew you all to be formidable, and your grief presented an opening for us.  In death…things are slowly lost.  Memories.  Compassion–”

“–And the funny thing is,” Henriette added with a scornful spit.  “Is that the more you lose, the stronger you get!”

Madreg held up his hands.  “At first, it took over a thousand of our ghostly hands just to move a single pebble along the length of a brick.  Now it only takes a hundred of us.  That’s what we mean by ‘strength’.”

Quincy groaned and slapped a hand to her forehead.  “Oh…of course…”

“Aye miss,” Madreg said gravely.  “When all of our memories are gone, and our basic decency with it, we’ll not need more than one ghost to move that pebble.  No, he’ll be able to move his very own corpse by then…but at that point he isn’t a humble grieving spirit anymore, oh no…”

“He’ll have become an undead monster,” Quincy finished with a sigh.

“Aye!  And that’s just what those Belfliff beasts became, those what fell here by our hands.” Henriette let loose a sardonic smile.  “See, apparently, that whole loss of compassion and i-den-ti-ty goes away ‘lot quicker when ye’ve snapped the gold necklace off a dead child’s neck a’fore dyin’!”

“But there it is for you.  We hide nothing else,” Madreg said.  “Coming up to this tunnel at this very moment is a horde of undead creatures, and beyond them lies our remains.  We hadn’t fought them because they have the capacity to turn us into one of them, and we…already lost many of our brave men in this cold afterlife.”  Here he glanced at Henriette sadly.

Henriette drew herself up, her face going hard in the way Elmiryn had seen soldiers do when their honor and skill were in some way cast into doubt.  “My men and I have suffered and given our very lives to see our people protected!  Our eternal existence is at stake, and I won’t be shamed for my caution.  Especially not after losing many of my friends to that evil.  But if you draw those devils to the far edge of the chamber, we shall catch them unawares in one last battle.  It’s all or nothing at this point.”

Sounds started to drift from up ahead in the tunnel, and Elmiryn thought she saw the dance of torchlights on the rock walls.

“And here is where we take our leave.  Remember,” Henriette started before she vanished.  Madreg and the other dwarves vanished too, leaving them in the dark.  “Break through, then draw them as far as you can to the other end of the chamber!

Elmiryn heard Quincy kneel and begin muttering under her breath.  She drew her sword and said, “Damn, they couldn’t give us a torch for our trouble?”

“I have something here,” The wizard said.  There was the sound of items being bounced around in a bag.  “I had forgotten about it–I have far too many odds and ends here, but…tai’undu, where is it…?”  Elmriyn didn’t know what Quincy was fiddling with, as she hadn’t seen the woman with all that much in her pouches.  Then she remembered the drawstring bag that had appeared empty– “Ah-ha!” and without warning a warm glow lit up their surroundings, and the source of this light came from Quincy’s right hand, where flames danced gaily.  She had put on a curious piece of jewelry.  On each finger gleamed a silver ring, and they were studded with what appeared to be rubies.  From the back of these rings, a chain trailed to hook onto a wide wrist bracelet of similar fashion.  The flames didn’t seem to hurt the woman, and she stood with a look of relief on her face.  “There we are!  If those silly dwarves had just been up front about everything, I would have had this out sooner.  Fire does not agree with the undead.”

The sounds were coming closer.  Elmiryn could hear the chink and clamor of armor and weapons.  Despite what Henriette had said, the redhead felt that most of the work would be done right here, where they could more easily meet the flow of enemies.  “What is that thing?” she asked the wizard.

“Just some jewelry,” Quincy said archly as she moved ahead of them, flaming hand held up.  “…From an afrit.” She added next.

“A djinn?” Sedwick exclaimed.  He had changed so that his whole body was once more water, and the light played off of his form in a strange way.

“A long story,” the brunette replied.

“So…you aren’t all that helpless after all.” Elmiryn twirled her sword as she stepped forward a bit, but not next to the wizard.  A little behind her, rather.  Something told her not to stand quite so close to Quincy.  Sedwick did the same, his arms turning to long tentacle-like whips.

The wizard glanced at her.  “Never was.  Never will be.”

The sound of the approaching undead reverberated around them.  Some dust fell from the ceiling as the ground shook from their spirited march.

“Soooo,” Elmiryn said, a smile blossoming on her face.  “Since you aren’t helpless and clearly are equipped with something better suited to this situation, it’s fair to say that I get first dibs on whatever the dwarves have to offer us in the way of equipment?”

Here Quincy turned and stared at the woman as if she were stupid.

Elmiryn giggled.  “Okay, okay.  How’s this?  Whoever kills the most enemies earns the right to first pick?”

The wizard looked forward again, but not before the smirk showed on her face.  “You know you’ll start at a disadvantage, right?  I’m in front, and with this fire I’ll burn most of the beasts that come at us!”

“Yeah, well…”

The way ahead finally birthed the sight of the horrible enemy–brown, sunken faces with lips rotted away and eyes turned milky if not gone all together.  All of them were dressed as Belcliff militia.  They shouted things upon seeing the three of them standing there, but without their tongues they made little sense.  The undead broke out of their march and stampeded towards them.

Elmiryn’s smile broadened as she fell into her fighting stance.  “…I figured I’d give you a head start.  It’s only fair!”

Then Quincy let loose the fire and the warrior’s eyes saw nothing but brilliance.

NYX____________________________

It wasn’t entirely correct to call pretas demons, monsters, or animals.  They were hungry ghosts–a sort of poltergeist–that rode on the waves of frost and chill to devour the Life that had been born in the spring.  During the winter, Ailuran citizens would burn ashes near their doors to keep them at bay.  Newborns, during that time, would have ashes sprinkled on their hair.  As a child, my brother Thaddeus used to scare Atalo and I with horrible tales of humanoids with tear drop heads and tiny throats, who tried vainly to fulfill their hunger.  Folklore said the spirits were made from the greedy and the selfish.  That they were the remnants of an unhappy soul.

…In the end, aren’t all monsters born from discontent and disharmony?  But there you have it.  The pretas were a hell of their own making.

I’m not sure how the beasts I faced came to manifest themselves as perverse Rottweilers covered in predaceous fungi.  Their side-set eyes winked at me, crusted and weeping as they jawed their mouths in their twisted humor.

When they closed in, their determination shown by taut muscles and spread jaws, one managed to bite into my left thigh while another slammed into me from the other side with a jump.  My scream was swallowed as my initial shock collided into another.  I would’ve been toppled to the ground if not for the ironic support provided by the beast on my left.  He refused to let go of my thigh and I leaned over onto his shifting back.  I could feel his fangs working into the muscles of my leg.  I choked back another cry as the confusion mounted.  My fingers buried into dirty fur and moss, with shoots of fungi quivering between them.  My attacker on the right pressed on me again, this time rearing back on his hind legs to fix his mandible jaws onto my shoulder.  Or he tried to.  I shoved at him with all the strength I had, then slammed my elbow into the head of the preta on my left.  It just kept getting worse.  Another beast came at me from behind, his jaws fixing around my right calf.  Now both my legs were being held fast.  If another preta jumped on me, I would go down and all would be lost.

In the chaos, there were some dozen or so beasts around us–and they quarreled with their peers over whom would have the right of tasting our flesh.  I can’t say if that number was exact, but given how crowded this violent meeting was becoming, there were some left only with the option of looking on from a distance.  More still snapped at the heels of our shifting circle of conflict, looking for a way to join into the fray.  Well, not much a fray so much as a massacre.

Blood flowed thick down my thigh and calf where it pooled into my boots.  The horrifying thing was that the pretas were all around me.  Literally.  The pressed on my sides.  Even as my legs gave out under me, I slumped over unto the back of the beasts.  They were claiming everything beneath my waist.  I could feel them biting and tearing.  My body seized up and the pain was getting to be…honestly, how many times can I say, “It was bad?”  I’ve had my achilles tendon sliced through, been penetrated by a spiritual being on an unseen level, had the flesh of my hand burned away to the bone, and lost my limbs in a situation much like this.  I’ve known pain.

…But sweet Aelurus, it was bad.  I was being eaten alive, and I couldn’t pull the same trick I had before.  I couldn’t just “reject” both my legs.

There were one or two who tried to clamor over their peers to get at my upper body but I swatted them away like an animal–palms rigid, fingers like claws.  I let out unintelligible sounds–things between moans and screams.  My eyes rolled in their sockets.  Lacertli, still indifferent to my situation, took to sitting at the nape of my neck as my hunched figure made this the steadiest place for him to rest.

My thoughts were reduced to broken ideas.

Get away.  It hurts.  Nightmare!  Damnit.  My legs!  Help, help, help–

And then…

ARGOS.

He was not so far from me, and through sheer strength had resisted being submerged beneath the attacking pack of devils.  Being the size of a small bear had its advantages, but even that would not last.  His white fur was stained red.  His growls turned to cries of agony.  One of the pretas got him by the throat…

The beasts swarmed over him till he was out of sight.

Gods, it was happening all over again.

I screamed.  Screamed not out of pain, but a livid sort of desperation.  Argos could not fall.  I could not fall.  I put all I had in the sound.  I needed the dog to drag up his will to survive.  It was a primal, basic, mindless drive that made my own voice tremble in my skull and ear drums.  I could feel it down to my feet.

Through the laughter of the pretas–almost smug in their assurance of victory–I heard a growl.  Then, the pretas that had covered Argos were flung away as the dog, with a miraculous surge of strength, bucked them off his body.  He was unrecognizable now beneath the blood and gore–with his shaggy fur damp and dark from his own life staining him.  In the brief second of freedom, he turned his massive head my way, his breath a thick fog, and I could see his dark eyes  shining.  He wasn’t giving up.

Emboldened, I looked down at my attackers, still jostling over the right to devour me.  Between their shifting bodies, I could see the stained ground.  With all the pretas gathered so near, they made an awfully big shadow…

I squeezed my eyes shut and with a yell I willed the darkness beneath us to swallow us whole.  It did, and I felt the breath leave me.  With a rush the ground swallowed us, plunging us into that dark inky world that, until now, had never seemed so beautiful to me.

The Umbralands.

The pretas squealed and cried like frightened children–and to my surprise Argos had been taken over too, and he barked and whined, his massive paws stumbling as he wheeled on the spot.  As I disentangled myself from the now disoriented mass with shaking arms, I shouted at him, “Argos, tear out their throats!”  I put in as much urgency as I could into the Words.  This got him going.  He moved with a bad limp–but considering the damage to his body it was incredible he moved at all.

“The power of inspiration…your voice has moved him even when his body would deny him this,” Lacertli hissed into my ear.  He probably heard my thoughts.

The ground, in this borderland, shifted beneath our feet like an unsteady sea.  The pretas, though spirits, were not accustomed to this place.  Unlike the nymph abomination, I had taken the pretas with me in my journey between realms.  Later reflection lead me to believe that, while I could see these spirits from the Umbralands, that didn’t mean they were a part of it.  It was like looking at something through a window.  I could see them, but they weren’t on the side I was.  Now I had brought the pretas with me to the other side of the window, so to speak, and they didn’t know what to do.

Lacertli had shifted to my shoulder again, and his claws buried into my skin.  The pretas around me squealed like unhappy children as their limbs flailed and their disgusting heads thrashed.  I was finally allowed to see the damage they had wrought on me.  Large chunks were gone from my thighs and upper calfs.  My rear and my hips also knew a terrible pain.  My pants were ripped and reduced to bloody tatters.  My boots clearly showed the beasts efforts in getting at my ankles and feet.  Thankfully they hadn’t, because at this rate I was going to be left destitute of clothing.  A silly thing to think, perhaps, but I’ve already shown a propensity towards hysterical thinking.

…I may have passed out for a minute or two.  Perhaps longer.  I can’t recall.  Sorry.  I can say without any conceit that my memory is quite exceptional, but this was one of the few times of my life that saw my recollection lacking.  Maybe because I try my best not to think of it?  Would you like to think of the time your legs were half-eaten and you were in a black, cold world, that was on the cusp of the Great Dream, with monstrosities squirming and crying about you?

I came to again, and as I did so, I saw that the pretas were also regaining their senses.  The charm of my initial surprise was quickly wearing off.  My limbs was having trouble responding to my commands, but I rolled over onto my hands and knees.  I shouted at Argos, “Brace yourself!”

The dog, having ripped off one of the pretas legs with his jaws, glanced my way, then crouched down, his ears perked.

The beasts around me were now on their feet, with their heads turned to the side so that their eyes could fix on me.  Argos had taken out two of them, and I could see their prone forms behind their brethren who circled around me.  They were wary now.  A brave one came at me, its jaws ready to bite off my face.  Ignited by this first move, another still took me by the shoulder.  Lacertli bit the latter in his eyes, and the thing drew back with a snarl.  I punched the former in the side of the head.  Then I willed an exit to appear beneath us, a great white hole, and I felt my breath suck out from my chest as I felt a resistance to my command.  We fell through, back to the Real World where we were lightly tossed into the air.  The pretas, unprepared yet again, were left bewildered and staggered about.

I could have remained in the Umbralands, or even shifted over to the Somnium, but the pretas seemed an adaptable bunch, and I feared their true form in the Somnium.  I wanted to keep them disoriented.  While Argos resumed the fight, I tried to shift alone into my own shadow, and I found this much easier.  Moving a whole group took a lot out of me.  Once in the Umbralands, I moved so that when I came back to the Real World I emerged from the dark of a tree instead, well behind my enemies.  I was getting faster about this movement, and I found I enjoyed it, however reviling the purpose was.

With those Argos dispatched, we were down to eleven of the beasts.  Immediate danger wasn’t a pressure on me, so I can be sure of that number.

I leapt back into the fray from my new vantage point.  A preta was slinking behind Argos, who was fending off three of the quicker-witted pretas in front of him.  The rest were still dazed.  I could see the thing’s intent–from behind, the monster could get in close enough to flank the dog and finish the work started on his throat.

“You now know that with effort thou may take others with you between realms.  But dost thou need to take them whole and complete?” Lacertli said quietly on my shoulder.  It was the most he’d given me since this nightmarish battle had started, but it couldn’t have come at a better time.

With a sprint and a jump, I descended on the wily preta, taking him around the neck and bidding the shadow to take us…

But as I fell through the ground and the preta’s body fell in head over heels, I closed the way.

When I stood in the Umbralands, what was left in my hands was a severed torso.  I dropped it quick, trying to steel my mind from thinking about the reality of my situation too much–because through the lens of the Umbralands, I could see that the battle raged on back in the Real World.  The pretas had recovered faster than last time from the shift over, and now Argos was facing the threat of being overcome again, despite ripping out the throat of yet another beast.  With my kill and his, we were down to nine.

I returned to the Real World through a tree.  I didn’t pause much.  With a running front kick, I slammed my heel into the head of a small preta that was looking on from afar.  Argos slammed one of the beasts down beneath his great paws, even as six more around him tried to topple him over.  The preta I had attacked whined and shook the stars from its head, but I took up a rock, and like I had the first time, I used it to bludgeon the creature into silence.  Its life sprayed my face, and I clamped my mouth shut in an attempt to keep the poison out.

I looked to Argos to see him rear back, with his front legs stiff and his paws held close together, before he slammed down onto the preta beneath him.  There was a nasty crack, and I saw the beasts torso deflate as his rib cage collapsed beneath the dog’s great weight.

Only this movement cost him.  His stability was compromised, and I realized his monstrous stomp had exacerbated the limp he had gained.  The pretas, cooing at one another as though realizing the dog’s mistake, shifted so that three of them were on one side.  Then as one, they knocked him over.  He had reached his limit, and I turned sick to think that he could already be dead.  Once on the ground, he didn’t move.

This frightened and repulsed me so much that I screamed, “Get away from him!”  I put my whole body into it–straining my neck muscles, curving my back, clenching my arms and digging the balls of my feet into the ground.  Argos had to be ok, because I couldn’t leave him behind here.  He had to be ok, because I didn’t want to be left alone.  He had to be ok, because he had to be with Lethia again.  I had to believe that he could regain what he’d lost–because if he couldn’t find it…what hope did I have to…

…So I screamed.

To say that the sound was greater than I expected would be an understatement.  The air stirred and the trees rocked.  The ashen ground shifted.  The shadows grew starker.  The pretas recoiled from the dog, their childlike voices letting out frightened whimpers.  They hunched low to the ground and fixed their sideways gaze on me.

They hesitated.  I didn’t.

I launched at the monsters, and they tried to scatter.  With a wild dive, I caught one by the leg, and just as before, I shifted into the shadows, then closed the way behind me.  I had a severed leg in my hand when all was still.  I dropped it with tense hands.  From that dark place, I saw the others flee.

They squealed and cried like children throwing tantrums.

“After them!” Lacertli spat, and I gave chase, leaving Argos for the time being.  I created an exit and charged through the white opening, back into the Real World.  Though I found this to be a bit ruthless, I had to remind myself that the pretas were ghosts who existed to prey on the good and living.  But the damned things were escaping me.  They were pulling on ahead.

Then I saw that the shadows were bending in my direction again.

I let out a fierce yell, outstretched both my arms, and with feet skidding in the dirt, pulled backward on what I hoped were the pretas shadows.

There were screams, pops, and then…nothing.  Just ashes drifting onto more ashes.

I slowed to a stop.  Stillness gave a way for exhaustion to claim me, and I leaned over onto my knees.  I swayed and nearly fell over.  I took several slow, deep breaths.

Lacertli gave a nod of his head.  “Very good knave.  I’m surprised you didn’t think to do that sooner.”

Now that I wasn’t running, punching, kicking, or clawing, I felt the trembles return to me in full.  All of a sudden the world felt heavy on me.  With effort, I straightened and walked back to where Argos lay.  I dropped to my knees next to him, my eyes clouding with tears at the sight of his once white fur now turned a filthy crimson.

Then something came rattling out of my mouth, unbidden.

“Still, sir?” I rasped.  My face drew long, and I knew I was pale from all of my exertions.  “Still, sir?  You call me knave?”  I could feel Lacertli look at me, but I pressed on, feeling a hole in me, and from it squirmed something awful.  Perhaps Nyx was gone, finally snapped from all this, and now her damned Twin could finally have her way.  What did anything matter?  “Still, sir?  You would call me knave?” I stood to my feet, swaying, my arms held out before me as my throat clenched, and I thought fiercely.  No, do not cry. But the tears still came to blur my sight.  I bared my teeth and shook my clenched fists where blood dripped from them.  “Still, sir!? Still, you call me knave!?” and I just kept saying this over and over, perhaps not making sense anymore, but I was worked up into a fine froth now, and was beyond caring.

Finally, Lacertli slipped from my shoulder where he landed on Argos chest before he moved to the ground on the other side.  He looked up at me, and though I flinched, I stood with straight back and glared at him openly.  There was a hole in me, and something awful squirmed from it.  Perhaps Nyx was dead. “Still sir?  With my payment of flesh, and my friend hurt before me, still you would call me a knave!?”

Then the god was not a small lizard anymore.  In the blink of an eye he was the lizard man, standing at his tremendous height, skin turned to scales, and his head long and serpentine.  My redundant rant sputtered to nothing.  I thought for certain he was going to smite me.  But then he bared his teeth at me–or maybe he was smiling–and said, “Nyx.”

“…Yes, sir?”

“Look at thy feet.”

I did, and gasped.  Breaking through the ashen ground were small budding plants.  They fanned out around me, covering the dismal gray in all their bright splendor.  Around us, the trees groaned and murmured as color came to their dry trunks, and overhead, leaves blossomed and cast us into a wondrous shade.  I stood, gobsmacked, hardly recognizing the scene around me.  The Kreut Forest was…

“Things move faster here.  It will take a while yet for this change to take hold in your resident world, but count on it, vermagus.  Through thine efforts, this forest may yet again thrive.”  He smiled at me.  Then he knelt down, and with a slow wave of his hand, Argos sank out of sight, into the ground like a ghost.  Flowers sprang up in his stead.

I gave a start.  “Argos!?” My chin crumpled.  “Sir, is he–!?”

Lacertli fixed his yellow gaze on me.  “Calm yourself, Night Child.  The dog still lives.  Argos has earned respite from me.  You shall see him again soon enough.”

I stared at him as he stood and pointed somewhere off to the side.  I looked in that direction and saw that the air wavered up ahead like something was there.  “Come.  The way is open.  Let us find thy Ghost.”

…It was only after he led me to the strange portal and our forms slipped through it that I realized…

Lacertli didn’t call me a knave anymore.


Back to Chapter 20.3 | Forward to Open Hands

Chapter 20.3

QUINCY____________________________

She had only ever seen a ghost one other time in her life, and she didn’t really care to speak with it to anyone as it was a rather unsavory part of her life to begin with–what with fending off the rough and salty hands of sailors day in and day out, the constant threat of death from both the pirates and pirate hunters alike, and the way the treacherous straits of the Southwestern Seas seized their ship in all of Atargatis’ fury.  It had been on deck aboard that ship, the Kijani Farasi, which translated to the Green Horse, that Quincy laid eyes on a spirit of a young sailor who had perished upon its breast, having taken the wicked punch of a cannon ball.  Or so he had said.

All in attendance were stunned to silence as he merrily rolled the heavy cannon balls along the deck.  Tulki came tearing out of his cabin, his saber drawn, looking about with murder in his eyes.  Quincy and those on duty at the time were nearly flogged, for the rolling of cannonballs was a sign of mutiny, but the ghost, whether out of mischief or mercy, made his presence known by making a cannonball levitate toward the captain, and with a Fanaean curse, dropped it at his feet.  To his credit, Tulki did not show an ounce of fear, but his anger was quelled and he ordered that the damned spirit be ignored.  Spared Tulki’s fury, the crew endured the spirit’s presence, though it never again made itself visible even as it pressed on with its scares and inconveniences.  The first port they came to, a shaman was called, and the ghost was banished for good. Though life returned to normal on the Kijani Farasi, Quincy had been thoroughly impressed by the whole experience.  The ghost, delighted at her foreign nature, targeted her.  For the month spent in that damned spirit’s company, she had been a pariah.

And now there was practically an army of ghosts before her, all staring, all radiating coldness and death.  She’d faced down demi-gods, sea beasts, and mad fae.  But somehow…

Quincy placed a hand on her sword, trembling, and damn it all, Elmiryn reached out to her, and her hand was over hers, and there–there–there was that damned knowing look.  That tilt of the lips.  The warrior knew.  “Easy, wizard,” she snickered out.

“You were the one who was jumpy before, twitching and looking over your shoulder, yet now–!” And the brunette snapped the words down, with a snarl on her lips.

“I didn’t know it was ghosts then,” was all the other woman said.  She turned an appraising eye on the dwarf spirits.  “But now that I know the situation better, I sense we have nothing to fear.  After all, if they had wanted to, couldn’t they have done away with us when we first came?  Besides what can a ghost do to us?”

Quincy shook her head.  “They cannot harm us physically, but they can harm us, Elmiryn.  Count on it.  Ever hear of spiritual possession?  They can also manipulate anything not living–like throwing chairs across rooms.  Do you want to find yourself under a hail of rocks?”

“Nay, missus, we would’na do that.” said the dwarf that had first appeared.  He grasped his hat in both hands and looked into each of their faces.  Quincy swallowed as he locked eyes with her, and she saw the macabre skull flicker into view, soulless sockets piercing their black-hole gaze into her head, before the sight shifted away into smoke.  “In truth, we did not know what to make of ye, and so we were vigilant.  But in seeing your dedication to your comrade, even given the dangers…”

“We could’na sit back an’ jus’ watch,” said another dwarf, a tall one for her race, who had long light hair braided back much like Elmiryn liked to have it.  Unlike some of the women, she was dressed in warrior’s gear and fitted with an axe, which she gripped in one thick fist.  “We can help lay your comrade to rest, equip you with what spoils we have left, and grant you safe passage to the Way you seek so ardently.”

“…For something in return.” Sedwick finished, frowning.

The blacksmith dwarf bowed while the woman just tilted her head back and thrust her jaw forward.  “Tis the way of things, sir,” she said, not in the least bit cowed.

The man sighed and looked to Quincy and Elmiryn.  The wizard glanced at the redhead next to her and she bit back a growl to see her smirking, yet again.

“I don’t like it,” she said lowly.  She leaned in close to speak privately, but she wondered if there was any point to the action.  How good was a ghost’s hearing, anyway…? “I have a feeling their payment will not be easy, and we’ve enough troubles on our own!”

“But didn’t you hear her?” Elmiryn murmured back, leaning in as well.  “They’ll give us the last of their treasures!  Dwarves are clever.  Their most precious of artifacts would have been hidden away from Belcliff’s militia!”

Quincy faltered, her eyes lighting up at the thought of possibly acquiring arcane weaponry.  “It could be just some third-rate armor left and spat on by the pillagers…” she said, trying to quell her own streak of avarice.  For all her tremors, it wasn’t working.

“If riches do not do it for you, what about the promise of our Gate?” Sedwick said.  He gestured vaguely to the North.  “I can sense the Gate, but our way to it may be barred.  Somehow, I doubt these souls would have allowed strange and foreign spirits to run amok in their final resting place.”

“Then how did we get here to begin with?” Quincy muttered.

“It was our forced path, remember?” Sedwick said, looking grim.  “This quest of ours may not be as straightforward as we’d like to make it, ladies.  Someone is orchestrating our journey.”

“Let’s just ask them, for Halward’s sake.  They’re ghosts, what could they possibly want?” Elmiryn said, already straightening.

Quincy opened her mouth, about to hiss, “That’s just what I’m worried about,” when the warrior boomed, “And what would you have from us?”

The blacksmith dwarf took a step forward, and clearing his translucent throat, he said loudly.  “For our services, sir and madames, we would ask for rest.”

“Rest?” Elmiryn returned critically.

She looked to Quincy and Sedwick, but the wizard was already staring, agog.  Her eyes swept over their audience, their vast and numerous audience.  The dwarven spirits filled their little square, surrounding them quite effectively (“They could slay us if they so wished it!”) and they filled the roads as far as her eye could see.  The brunette’s mind quickly did the work in her head.  “Gods…there must be at least a thousand of them.  And there’s likely more!”  She looked to Sedwick, whose brow was also furrowed.  “That’s far too much!”

“But what do they mean?” Elmiryn snapped.  “What do they want from us?”

“Rest,” said the tall woman dwarf.  Her eyes narrowed at Quincy, perhaps weighing her mettle.  The wizard raised her head and squared her shoulders.  “What we want is rest.  As you are giving your friend here.”  She gestured at Graziano.

Elmiryn finally got it, by the lengthening look on her face.  Her eyes went wide and her mouth made a small, “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Quincy grumbled.  “Oh.

NYX____________________________

Death is a weight, I find.  Both real and imagined.  It has pressed on me, in the past.  And there, knelt in the gore, it pressed on me still.

I had shoved, gasping out from underneath the deformed monstrosity I had just slain.  Its heart had slithered from my quivering hands and onto the soil where it lay bleeding and glistening purple and blue.  As I came away from it, the beast began to break apart, skin cracking along its misshapen surface as the individual bodies of the nymphs that it had taken to make it–or what was left of them–came free.  They were like fetuses, robbed of their usual shape and semblance of life.  I had seen a stillbirth once, the winter before my exile, when a neighbor had called on the aid of myself and my mother as midwives.  It horrified me then.  Surrounded by such a sight hundreds of times over…well…it was far worse.

I think I slipped into another state of shock, the gore about me stilling me–even by way of thought–so that all I could do was kneel and gaze with glassy eyes.  Dark blood was in my hair, on my arms, my legs, my hands, my feet, everywhere.  The smell filled my lungs.  Limbs, drained of their life, lay in disarray about me like broken parts, snapped off of toys.  Intestines and hearts and lungs and things came tumbling…almost slithering from the hunk of flesh that was once the monster.  The sound…gods…that awful sound.  The black magic was broken.  The spell that had bound the nymphs together in their hate now saw them undone.  Their vile color shaded me…perhaps in more ways than one.

I was a darker person now.

In my haze, I saw clawed feet step unburdened through the mess.  “Knave, you have done well!” Lacertli’s voice.

Slowly I raised my gaze and stared straight into his slitted, yellow eyes, which were squinted in their mirth. Then I swallowed and stood to my feet.  The desire to weep was a strong one, but with Lacertli’s sobering presence I was able to bring my thoughts out of their squalor and saw that such behavior would be wasted.  There was still more to be done.  This time I did not dwell on things.  Just lifted my head and with lidded eyes said,  “Yes, sir.”  My voice sounded thin.

“Nyx you keep calling me brave.  But here, Koen is going to tell you a secret…are you listening kitten?  The truth of it is…I’m always afraid.”  Her brother smiled, and swept back his long and curly hair.  The autumn wind was making a mess of it.  She could understand why the other girls in the village fawned over him.  Even Taila.

“But how can you stand all those terrible things?  All that blood and…”  She thought back to that time…that terrible day when she saw a battlefield for the first time.  The young girl shivered and hugged herself.

Thaddeus’ hand came to rest on her hair.  “You…don’t,” he said quietly.  “You just don’t think about it, Koah.”

“Aye,” Lacertli went on.  “This god is proud of thee.  But the trials are not yet over.”

“The pretas,” I said with the faintest of nods.  I swallowed but knitted my brows in resolution.  I did not look forward to more violence, but I did look forward to leaving this place and finding Elmiryn.

Elle, just hold on.  I’m coming.

The god nodded.  He held out a hand, gesturing to the shadow of the nearest tree.  “Come, let us return to the shard, where your companion awaits.”

“Is Argos okay, sir?” I asked as I lurched to my feet.  There was something wrong with my stomach, and I put a hand over it to quell the feeling, but it started to push up my throat…

“Aye.” Lacertli said.  “The fool dog was about to leap into battle with thee, but I whisked him away before he could.”  That explained the god’s sudden absence from my shoulder, when all this started.  “He would have been slain in the effort, for sure.  In this next task, however, methinks he will be of great assistance.”

I nodded, the action automatic and lacking the usual undercurrent of understanding.  I opened my mouth to say something, but instead of words, I burped, all of my chest and throat muscles heaving.  Alarmed, I stumbled to the side, feet squelching through the guts and bloodied limbs beneath me.  I wretched again and what little was in my stomach came gushing from my mouth.  I kept retching.  I nearly fell over from the discomfort and nausea that came over my head, but I leaned on my knees and after closing my eyes and breathing shallow breaths I was right again.  Still green, I imagine, but I felt like I could fight off any lingering sickness.

“Art thou finished?” Lacertli said, indifferent to my hunched figure.

Some part of me wanted to curl away from his unforgiving nature, but…it was like the lack of sympathy left me no place to hide.  And without a place to hide, I knew I had to keep on.  Turning, I faced the god and tried to will some color back into my sickly skin.  “Aye, sir,” was all I said.  I didn’t bother to wipe at my mouth as both my arms were covered in blood, so some sick still dripped from my quivering lips.

We moved to the shadows to enter the Umbralands.  I felt a little loopy, for I blurted out, “It is funny, sir.  When I think on it, that battle did not take long.”

Lacertli chuckled, his reptilian grin once again in place.  “‘Twas short, for certain.  It had to be.  If it had been any longer, your luck and guile would not have spared you the fate of having your brains ground ‘tween the beast’s rotted molars.”  I shuddered at the thought as I slipped into the shadow.

QUINCY____________________________

“Well…how bad could that be?” Elmiryn asked with a shrug.  They had once again convened, heads pressed together as they spoke quietly on the matter. “I mean…yes I know there’s a lot of them, but we can figure something out.  Right?  Besides don’t we need this?  Never mind Graziano.  Not that he doesn’t matter, but what if the way to the Gate is blocked?  And what about those treasures?  Quincy still needs something proper for herself.”

Quincy rubbed at her face. “Elmiryn, think.  You are being far too blasé about this and it irks me, because I know you cannot be this much of a dullard.”  She thumbed over her shoulder.  “That’s over a thousand dwarven spirits.  They want rest.  Proper rest, something the Belcliff militia denied them.  Their bodies were likely thrown into an open ditch.  Not even considering the possibility that they may each have their own individual requests as to burial, there is the trouble of sorting out their remains, then finding a new and appropriate resting place for them all.  Think on all that time it would take.  We’d be here for an eternity.”

“Well hold on,” Sedwick said, holding up a hand.  “They came to us as a group, and they seem to have their leaders.  As such, they must have agreed on some communal burial.  They aren’t fools.  They know our limitations, and for us to even consider this bargain, they must know of our time constraints.  I’m certain they can be worked down from whatever lofty wish they have for rest.”

“And they keep saying it like that,” Quincy said, biting her thumb–her thumbnails had been torn off in Belcliff when she was in the dark influences.  “They want rest.  They don’t say burial, they don’t say ceremony.  They say rest…what does that mean to a ghost?  And don’t say ‘peace for the soul’, because that’s equally vague as to the achievement of that end!”

Sedwick frowned at this and thought as well.  Elmiryn, finally, seemed to cool her ardor enough to think a bit too.  None said anything.  There was a cough from behind them, and together the three turned and saw the tall woman dwarf, her arms crossed high on her chest.  “Begging your pardon, but as you have your time, so have we.  A decision must be made.”

“Don’t ghosts have all the time in the world?” Elmiryn said, smirking.

The dwarf looked at her sharply.  “Woman, you would not speak so flippantly if you knew the suffering we bear.”  She looked at Sedwick, then let her eyes rest on Quincy.  She let them sit there a long while.  “We will have your decision now, or we vanish.  For your sincerity, we shall leave thee undisturbed.  We believe thee to be good souls doing honest things.  But trust that things will go hard for you then, with or without our hands in the mess!”

Quincy’s mouth turned down at the corners.  She looked to the others.  The decision was on their faces.  She still wasn’t keen on this.  Her hands were still trembling and she had to stare upwards just to spare herself the sight of all those spirits watching her.  But in the end, she was still in the minority…and it wasn’t without its benefits, surely.  The woman was trying her hardest to gaze away from the dwarven children, still clutching to the stout legs of their parents.  Belcliff had much to answer for.

The wizard let out a long exhale and nodded to the others.  Glances were exchanged as to who would give the final word, and finally Sedwick stepped forward.  Quincy thought it strange that Elmiryn passed on the chance, being the braggart that she was, but perhaps it was for the best, what with the warrior’s last comment souring her in the eyes of their chilling audience.  Sedwick was the spiritual authority in company, anyway.

“Your offer is well met and humbly received.  We accept your terms and request aid in committing our poor soul to his final rest,” He said this with a slight bow.  Quincy took the cue, and gave a small curtsy.  She gave Elmiryn a pointed look and the warrior gave not a curtsy but a bow.  Well, at least she didn’t behave as a complete buffoon.

The two dwarven leaders, for that was clearly what they were, turned and regarded their fellows behind them.  The female dwarf pumped her axe and bellowed as her male colleague next to her did the same.  “Alright you sods, all together now!” she roared as her partner bellowed, “Quickly, as one!”

Then with a strong gale, they all vanished, faces and limbs scattering like startled mist.  All was quiet around them.  Quincy wondered if the dwarves had actually vanished for good, but in the next instant, she felt all her body turn cold and the hairs on her arms and neck raise.  She couldn’t resist the shiver that blasted through her, and to her astonishment a fog appeared before her face.  “Lo, lo!” she exclaimed in Fanean, Good grief!–but she resisted the urge to rub warmth into her arms because Elmiryn wasn’t doing it and she didn’t want the woman to smirk at her like that again.

But the warrior, virtually topless, was having a hard time clenching her muscles tight enough to keep them from shivering.  Every bit of her was bunched, and for all her efforts to appear stoic she still shivered.  She bared her teeth, hissing out fog as she gazed across at Quincy…probably thinking the same way, as her hands turned to fists at her sides in her attempt to keep them there.  Sedwick didn’t seem quite as affected as they, though he did let out a small shake and a, “Brrr…”

Then they all gave a start as they saw Graziano’s body at their side rising, seemingly without aid.  As he floated, body straight and the cloak beneath him fluttering, Quincy thought she could see a flicker beneath him, but she couldn’t be sure.  He drifted peacefully over the grave, then slowly, the ghosts lowered him down.  Elmiryn, Sedwick, and Quincy stood around the edges to watch him as he descended.  The wizard swallowed hard when she saw the dwarven spirits, in their kindness, take her cloak and wrap it about the Moretti’s body, like a full shroud.  Finally, he lay quiet and still at the bottom of the grave.

Within time, the spirits appeared once more about them all, and they doffed their hats, with heads bowed.  Quincy frowned and gazed around at them.  “What are they doing?” she breathed.  But Elmiryn and Sedwick were looking at her expectantly.  “What?” she asked.

Sedwick bowed his head like the ghosts and rubbed at the side of his face.  Elmiryn, with her cerulean eyes gazing sharp over the mouth of their fresh grave, said,  “We’re waiting for you, Quincy.”

“Me?” Now the woman’s shoulders bunched.  “What for?”

“You knew him best,” Elmiryn said simply.  “Can’t you say a few words?”

But Quincy was already shaking her head, her russet brown hair swaying about her face.  “No,” she bit out.  “I can’t.”

The warrior sucked at her teeth as her gaze turned lidded.  There was something heavy in her eyes…was that disappointment?  Then Elmiryn straightened, her hands going behind her back as she placed her feet beneath her shoulders.  “Fine then,” she said, without looking at Quincy.  There was steel in her voice.  “I will speak.”

The warrior’s expression softened and she looked down into the grave.  She started to speak, and it was with a slow and careful speed, like she were trying to word everything just right.  “I met Graziano on a road less traveled, and looking back, I think it appropriate.  That was less than a week ago, but it seemed like so much longer…and I think, with my particular condition, that such individuals who are capable of remaining in my heart and in my mind are all the more valuable to me.  That was this man.”  She paused here, her brow wrinkling.  Then she went on.  “On that day, Nyx, my ward and close companion, had become wary of the way the road cut through the mountains.  Lethia, our new friend and escort, begged us to move forward.  It was Graziano that changed our fate, forcing us forward.  He was a bounty hunter, hired to apprehend Lethia and return her to Belcliff–” there was an increase in the chill in the air, but Elmiryn went on without missing a beat, “But while his work was unpleasant, the young man was anything but.”  And here the woman smirked.  “Of his three brothers, I believe he was the heart and soul that kept them in good spirits.  Through a surprising twist in circumstance, Graziano and his young brother Paulo became our allies, and together we traveled for a time.  He cared for his brother, and it was one night in the dance of a fire’s glow that he related to me the reason for his care.  He had promised his dying father to protect his youngest sibling, and he carried this vow unto death.”

The warrior, turning her eyes to gaze ahead at nothing, drew the pistol from the seat of her pants and held it aloft with bent arm.  She still kept one hand behind her back.  “Yes.  The day I first met him, Graziano was eager to show me his gun, which aside from his brothers, he treasured greatly.  I will take this gun to his brother Paulo, for I believe him to be alive, and the boy will know the extent of his brother’s love.  This I so swear!”

Though they were quiet and subdued, there were, “Hear, hears!” from the dwarves attending.

Elmiryn brought her feet together, one fist over her heart and bowed deeply.  When she straightened again, she was smiling broadly, her eyes on the form down below…and were they a little misty? “Graz, you were damn good for a laugh and braver than most men I’ve met.  Tell Halward he owes me a harem when I get up to heaven, as I’m certain he most surely has one waiting for you!”  She then turned and grabbed a handful of soil, preparing to sprinkle it down onto his form.

Quincy, shaking, couldn’t take it anymore. “Wait!  Gods damn it all, wait!

The woman paused, as though not surprised to hear this sudden outburst, and Elmiryn turned to gaze at her coolly.

“I will speak…” The wizard breathed, perspiration chilling on her nose and forehead.  She gave a glance over her shoulder at the dwarves, all looking at her with equally reserved expressions.  “I will speak.  I must.  I…said I’d do this properly.  So…I…must speak.”

Quincy rubbed at her face and let her hand remain there for a moment.  Then with a shudder, she raised her head high and gazed up at the craggy ceiling of the underground city.  “I met Graziano ten years ago, when I had just turned twenty-years-old.  He was just…a boy then.  Barely twelve…” and here she allowed for a small grin.  “…And he was already trying to flirt with me, the little lahasho…that means horny devil in Fanaean.  I used to call him that all the time.  Lahasho,” she added as an afterthought.  She let herself cross her arms and closed her eyes.  “It was my first time in the Santian Kingdom, and having been in the bounty hunting life for only two years, I was still getting the hang of it.  My husband and I were looking for work when Arduino, Graziano’s older brother, offered to guide us through the Erminian jungles in pursuit of a bounty.  His family worked with monsters, but they had fallen on hard times.  That is how the Morettis began their careers as bounty hunters, and this is how I came to be in young Graziano’s company.

“The two years I lived in Santos, I was good friends with the Morettis, and an even better partner.  I was there that very day that Graziano vowed to look out for Paulo, and later attended their parents funeral.  He was fourteen at the time.  It was that sad year that my own ambitions overcame me, and I betrayed him and his brothers.”  Quincy could feel the hot stares all around her, none worse than those of Elmiryn, who snorted softly.  The wizard tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and let her fingers stay there, rested lightly at the hinge of her jaw.  “You would be right in cursing me.  I was frustrated by the Morettis lack of focus following their parents death, being of an independent and hardened mind myself then.  I was used to being an orphan.  I didn’t understand. All I could think of was gold and precious artifacts.  It was when Graziano failed to back me up in a venture with the local Aikandi that I, in petty fury, cut them out of the very riches that could have seen their family business restored.  What I could not see then, and what I would not let myself see later, was that Graziano, along with his family, were still grieving.  Arduino, though hard working and as crafty as I, did not know how to play the role of father.  He could not bring his brothers together…but I believe Graziano could.  Later, when the boy was approaching manhood, I could see how he kept Arduino from falling into darkness, and how they both worked together to raise Paulo.  My relationship with the Morettis was complicated, to say the least, and Graziano made it clear that he still had not forgiven me for my betrayal all those years ago…but he wasn’t an evil person, and I don’t know if he knew any true amount of hate until the day he died.”

Quincy couldn’t help it.  A small sob came up her throat and she clapped a hand over her mouth and stared down into the grave where she imagined Grazino’s marred face twisting in fury.

Ah, lia…you have done me wrong, you have…

She shook these thoughts from her head, and with small gasp for air, the woman managed to keep from breaking down.  Hot tears spilled from her eyes and she trembled fiercely, and it wasn’t for the cold.  “It is true!  I was a bitch, wasn’t I Graziano?  And the worst of it is, all your family’s misfortune was my doing.  Even unto your death, it was my doing…”  The woman squeezed her eyes shut, for Elmiryn’s face was hardening and her eyes seemed to hold a promise of violence.  Even coming from this warrior, this rival, this uncouth knave, the wizard found her usual defensiveness and arrogance petering out in the gales of her new found sentimentality.  She wished, with not a little shame, that Tonatiuh could make her numb once more.

“You see, Graziano,” Quincy blinked and stared balefully down into the grave.  “I had an idea of the danger that was to come, that night at Holzoff’s.  I even thought to use you and your brother to smoke out Syria, who I suspected of foul play.  I hid safe in the shadows, out of the mind witch’s reach while you and Paulo suffered, and, and–” and finally she gave.  Her knees came out from under her and she bawled and keened, rocking a bit as she covered her burning face in all her shame.  “It’s my fault!” she wailed.  “I was a wily coward.  None of this would’ve happened if–”

“Oh shut it!” Elmiryn barked, and Quincy stared up at her in shock, her sobs quieted to hiccups.  The warrior sneered at her, her eyes cutting.  “Yeah, we get it.  You were a worthless human being.  But this isn’t about you,” Elmiryn gestured over Graziano’s grave.  “You spit things out of your mouth Quincy, but damned if I’ve seen you back up anything you’ve said so far!  You wanted Graz to have a proper burial.  So make your peace with him and let the poor man rest.”

There were murmurs of agreement, and Quincy stared at her, stunned.  Then she wiped at her eyes and bowed her head.  She let it hang there for a time, before she lifted her face and gave a jerk of a nod.  “You’re right.”  She stood to her feet.  “You’re right, Elmiryn.”  The wizard curtsied low, and as she rose, she said, “Graziano, please forgive me for all that I’ve ever done.  I’m…not very good at this.  I don’t know how to make it up to you and your brothers, but I’ll figure out a way.  I will.”

Quincy sought out Elmiryn’s eyes and found them.  The warrior nodded to her, and she held out her fist, which still gripped her handful of soil.  “Go in peace, Graziano Moretti.”  She sprinkled the dirt and it pattered down into the grave.  Then the warrior turned and with shovel in hand proceeded to throw in dirt.  She didn’t do this for a long.  Some of the dwarven spirits in attendance vanished once more and with their ghostly suggestion, the grave was filled in no time.  There was a chipping sound and Elmiryn, Quincy, and Sedwick turned with surprise to find that in the base of the stone statue, those same spirits chiseled in Graziano’s full name, his birth year, 3547, and the current year, 3569.

To this, the wizard’s eyes fluttered.  “How…did they know all those things for certain?  Graziano was twenty-two, it’s true, but he could’ve been born either the year of ’46 or ’48!”

The dwarven warrior woman, with her axe still in hand, gazed up at her with hard eyes.  “We’re ghosts, miss.  Jus’ because we’re stuck here, don’t mean we don’t see those in passin’!”

Quincy’s heart stilled.  “You…spoke to him?”

The ghost nodded her head, and her lips quirked up at the ends.  “Aye, miss.  He came up as soon as he was in the grave.  Seems he was stuck in that body there.  Lemme tell you, he could’na hardly believe you were weepin’ over his poor form!”

“You’re teasing me!” The wizard snapped, seeing the grin expand on the dwarven woman’s face.

“Tis the truth, damn you!  He’s still angry with ye, and I don’ blame him…but he appreciated your sincere apology, and a’fore he left he had one last thing to say.”

Quincy thought she was about to start crying again, and Sedwick moved near, as though prepared to catch her in case her legs grew weak again.  “…What did he say?”

The dwarven woman scrunched up her face as she struggled with her mouth to imitate the bounty hunter’s voice.  Though her accent made this an awkward affair, the tone was unmistakably inspired by Graziano.  “‘Dry up your alligator tears, lia!  You always were too self-involved.  If you want to make things right so bad, then you do what I couldn’t.  You take care of Paulo.  Arduino is a grown man and I don’t think there’s anything to be done with him…but tell him I love him.  Tell them both that.  And tell Ard the picture is in the back of the vanity dresser, back home in Santos.  I’m sorry I hid it from him.‘  And that was it, miss.  He was on.”

Quincy nodded, her head ducking as tears dripped from the end of her ruddy nose.

“Hey.” She looked warily at Elmiryn, who had come to her side, arms crossed and brow furrowed.  The redhead punched her in the arm.  Hard.  “So now you know what you can do,” she said simply.

The wizard gazed at her, quiet.  Then she smiled weakly.  “Yes.  Now I know what I can do.”  She looked at the ghosts about them.  “Thank you, spirits!  Now lead on!  We have much to do!” And there was a cheer.


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