If you were to ask my opinion of Tristi right then, it would have been summed up in a number of words: mercurial, carnal, alien, infuriating, bizarre, and…
And I use that word with not a little reservation. From one thing to the next, my new companion saw little pause, even when my presence seemed to be the very nature of disruption. She slithered to whatever task was set before her like an eel into the sea. She hopped over flights of steps that I stumbled on. She scaled a wall like it wasn’t even there, and I had to pause and find my footholds. She slid smooth down a pole that stuttered with my descent.
The woman was beyond my comprehension in ways that I’d really only encountered in Elmiryn at the worst of her delusional episodes. At first, I was indeed reminded of the redhead. But that connection was quickly lost upon seeing the focus that came in Tristi’s eyes, the ornate speech she employed, the stark shift of feminine grace to masculine bravado, and the spines that lined her laughter when those poor people were crushed by the tower. I think Elmiryn would have been insulted to have been compared to such a person, and I’m glad I never told her so, as you shall soon see. Tristi’s manner was feverish one moment, and chillingly calm the next. The change was lightning fast, and was made all the time. Hot to cold. Jovial to solemn. There was no halfway point. She was as much a dual creature as her goddess. Then I thought about what she’d said earlier about Lady Luck.
She is a master tactician, one that works from moment to moment.
It sounded like living on a part by part basis with only a misty goal in mind. It made me wonder…what long term affect would that have on a person’s psyche? Was this why Tristi was the way she was? “Tristi, how long have you been in service to your patron?” I asked her.
We were down a dark alley, between what seemed were two communal buildings where smaller parties were being held. Their merriment told me they hadn’t heard of the tower’s collapse. Indeed, the chaotic scene of the square was all but behind us. The city was alive, and off in the distance I could still hear music and laughter. What holiday were these people celebrating? We ducked beneath steam pipes and over water ducts. It was strange seeing the rats pay us no attention.
Tristi didn’t hesitate in her answer to my question. “I can’t remember.”
I squinted after her. “You can’t even estimate? A few months? A few years?”
The woman laughed, her deep honey voice echoing along the damp brick. “A few years?” She looked at me, her alien eyes squinted in mirth, and just shook her head.
I huffed. “What’s so funny about that? It’s a fair question I think. I’m new to this!”
“Did you know of Lacertli’s name prior to becoming his champion?”
My indignation cooled. “…No. I didn’t.”
“And did you know that before the old tales of arcane bards, that there were whole clans of such people, the vermagi?”
My steps slowed. I hadn’t told Tristi that word, nor had I even made mention of my abilities. Yet…she recognized it for what it was. Knew the name for it. If that magic had become extinct, than how did she know? And when I thought about it, she knew about Lacertli, without any further explanation from me. Did Legends learn of all the gods with time?
“Well I did,” Tristi said, without a hint of bragging. “I saw the vermagi. It was quite a thing to see several of them together, all singing a hymn. I was even around when there were still temples erected in Lacertli’s name. But those times are gone.” She looked forward again. “Lots of things are gone.”
“How…how did you live so long?”
“I am a champion. Technically I’m still mortal. I may die by unnatural causes, but if left alone, I could outlive generations.” She glanced at me. “The same goes for you, now.”
“And you’ve lived so long that you can’t remember when you first served your goddess!?” I balked.
We scaled a gate leading into a wide alley. I could see the street from here. Tristi held up her gloved hand, showing it to me. “I practice chance magic–that is, magic that uses my aura of luck. It is a dead practice, as far as I’ve seen for your world, and it has…affects on the user. It changes you.”
I frowned. Chance magic? I’d never heard of it, but given Tristi’s station, it seemed fitting. I didn’t miss the ‘your world’ comment, either. I remembered traveling with Lacertli, between the shards, and seeing all those strange places. Tristi must be from one of those places, I surmised.
The revelation of her vast age had me humbled into silence, and I said no more. Though her lack of consideration for those hurt had repulsed me, I was glad I hadn’t picked a fight with her. You just didn’t live that long without having considerable power.
“We’re almost there,” she said to me as we left the dizzying network of alleys, and emerged onto a road overlooking a bay.
Quincy breathed in harshly, her eyes rolling back into her head as she felt the spirit within her take hold of her limbs. Images flashed through her head, fast. The dwarven commoners fleeing the milita men. The Belcliff soldiers slaughtering them, eyes glassy, mouths frothing. The wizard choked and felt anguish claw down her insides like a cat on curtains.
Then she bit the inside of her cheek. Gnashed the flesh till a chunk came loose.
When they came back from their game in the jungle, they had no idea of what was happening. In a clearing, they found a mass of bodies–all people she’d known–tossed together in a pile, like rags. The beautiful dark skins she’d always envied were now hacked and slashed to bloody lines. Through the line of trees, she saw their village of Kimbia in flames.
The blood that came splashing on her tongue was sharp and warm. Her eyes watered as she crumpled to her knees. Sedwick was shouting at her, but his voice was cut off. She was alone. The spirit in her started to force her hands around her throat.
They had been hiding in the trees, rooted there out of fear and shock, when one of the children they played with came stumbling their way. Kikon was his name. He used to pinch Quincy’s skin and call her a dubwana. “Pale monster.” Kikon screamed and cried till he was feet away, then he tripped and fell. He turned his head and met Quincy’s blue eyes in the dark. Her breath caught. The marauders grabbed the boy from behind and hauled him away, laughing. She had to be dragged off by Hakeem as the men raped the boy at the foot of the hill.
More memories from the ghost. She saw hands that were not hers scrambling along the dirt. This man had fallen and was fleeing someone. Their shadow overtook him. The dwarf turned his head to look up. Quincy gurgled as the image burned her mind’s eye. The marshal. The loathsome man, forgettable in his blend of common features and poor leadership, suddenly had a name.
The marshal’s name was Fafnir.
He pressed a boot to the dwarf’s chest and without a word sunk his sword into him.
Quincy convulsed as the spirit forced her to bend forward. Her elbows pressed into the dirt, rocks biting her, and he forced her into her hands–constricting her throat till no air could go through. Saliva dripped from her quivering lips.
They fled deeper into the jungle till they were certain the danger was far behind them. Together, she and Hakeem lay curled in the high branches of a large kapok tree. Neither slept. When they returned to the village later, it was to find the marauders gone and the village completely destroyed. No one had been spared.
Die, was the wordless demand. The ghost pressed on her harder. Her skin started to tear at her back from his forceful power. She felt so cold. DIE, came the demand again. Quincy let herself fall away from the ghost’s sad memories. She had plenty of her own to wallow in. Her vision was going dark.
She had found her sword in the ashes, half-buried next to Hakeem’s dead mother. It was all they had, and she clung to it. They were orphaned now, left to fend alone in the wild. There had been no aid from the neighboring villages. There had been no swashbuckling heroes like from Tobias’s stories. Not even Tobias had come. Not even her father. There was just death and the vultures that fed on it.
Quincy started to struggle back. The ghost tried to lock her muscles, but she ignored its commands. The ghost’s thoughts and will were drowned out in the storm of her life, and she felt power return to her. The wizard straightened inch by inch, releasing the pressure on her throat and chest. She gulped in breath.
“Spirit,” she hissed. Her face was crimson. “I will not be at your mercy!” Quincy threw her head back and screamed. Pushing with her animus as she had been trained, she attacked the ghost.
The cold left her, and the ghost that had entered her body stumbled out into the open. It looked at her with hate in its eyes before it turned and regarded the ditch filled with corpses. Its expression changed. Without a word it turned to smoke and flew down to the bodies, where after a short flight, it entered one. Around her, other ghosts flitted past in curling wisps, and they too sought their own bodies. A glance showed her that Sedwick fended for himself some ways away. It seemed even half-elementals were not as easy to possess as average mortals. Henriette and her men came running up and stopped alongside Quincy.
“We beat them back, and they fled. They’ve gone mad, but the damn commoners still don’t know how to fight!” The dwarf woman growled. “So what was your grand plan, eh?”
The spirit that had possessed her now stood in his decaying body–all hair and lips gone. He pushed away the bodies around him as some of the ghosts that had joined him also began to rise. Quincy scowled and picked up her sword. “My plan was to have a target I could kill.”
Madreg, who had joined his fellows in their new state of death, hollered with a decaying mouth, “We won’t let you betray us! Not again!”
A laugh echoed through the air before the dust and dirt on the ground whipped up to blind them. Quincy winced and shielded her face. When the wind died down and the sand ceased to sting her hands, the woman dared to lower her arms. She coughed and covered her mouth, her gaze squinted against the dust that still lingered. Her face went slack.
The dwarven undead had fallen, flesh completely gone. They were now just clean bones over a mass of bodies, nothing more.
Behind them, she heard the tramp of many feet. Quincy turned and saw the Belcliff soldiers approaching them. Henriette and her men seized up. “Devils!” she bit out, and hefted up her axe.
Quincy held out an arm. “No!” She frowned at the approaching horde. “Wait a moment…”
She saw a crop of red amongst the shambling bodies. Without thinking, she smiled. “Elmiryn!”
The soldiers parted enough for the warrior to come near. She had a cocky grin on her flushed face, and her eyes were unnaturally dilated, but she seemed in good spirits. Better than before. She snickered as she stopped before them. “So yeah, as I was trying to tell you. I found out a few things.” At this point Quincy remembered herself. She rolled her eyes and looked away. She took to brushing the dirt off her hair and clothes.
“Quincy!” Sedwick came toward them, eyes on the soldiers that passed, smiling in amazement. “The Belcliff soldiers are–” he broke off as he spotted Elmiryn. “You’re back!” he exclaimed.
Elmiryn’s smile jerked up at the corners before waning greatly. “Mm hmm…yeah. I’m back,” she murmured.
“What’re you doing with them?” Henriette said, an edge in her voice. She watched as the soldiers stopped at the edge of the long ditch.
Elmiryn looked at her mildly, “I was going to use them to bury your dead.”
Henriette blustered as the dwarves around her let out negative cries.
“Don’t let her!”
“She’s mad, the witch!”
The woman dwarf backed their cries, “We were happy to see these beasts stopped, but we hadn’t a clue this was what you were intendin’. It’s a vile thing, to let them lay hands on us!”
Quincy stepped between them. Though she could see the use in Elmiryn’s words, she knew it would be hard. Quietly, she leaned in and whispered to the warrior, “There’s nothing else? You can’t move the Earth over them? Maybe move their bodies like you’re doing with the soldiers?”
“I can’t move the dust and dirt anymore–and it was only what was loose, none of the compact soil,” she whispered back. “I was in the heavier things, like the rocks, but now I’m back again, and my influence is just enough for these soldiers! The fact that there is still some spirit in them is the only reason I can keep this connection! Remember all that I said about sitting on a line and pulling at both sides of the blanket? Well I’m on the other side of the bed now! It’s this or nothing!”
Quincy sighed and nodded her head. She had surmised Elmiryn’s last move had taken a lot, and it was good fortune that saw the warrior’s spirit return to her body instead of being permanently evicted. Still, there was the trouble of convincing their disgruntled audience. The wizard cleared her throat and turned to the dwarves behind her. “Henriette, there are many of you. More than the three of us can handle. This is the only way we can put your people to rest and in good order!”
“Hear us out,” Elmiryn said with hands held up. Quincy found this unusually diplomatic of her, so she let the woman step around her and speak. The warrior gestured at the soldiers. “That’s more than a hundred sets of hands at our disposal. You wanted rest, we can give it to you. But you won’t find it clinging to your anger and your fears like Madreg did. Your time runs short and so does ours. You’re a warrior, Henriette, as am I. You know these experiences will never leave you–but it’s your choice on how you serve the memories.”
This made Henriette bow her head. Her men looked at her with deeply furrowed brows. Finally she looked at the two women sternly. “We fighters were the most susceptible to our darkness…but we were the most aware of it, too. When we saw that we too could become like these monsters,” she jerked her head at the undead, “We tried our best to avoid that fate. But…some, like Madreg, just weren’t prepared for it.” She ducked her head again, and her ghostly face flickered with the sight of a skull. She remained quiet for another full minute before she turned to her men, and began to speak in hushed tones with them. Then Henriette glanced at the women over her shoulder. “Give us a moment. We need to speak with the others. We’ll return with our requirements for burial.” And with a hiss of smoke, they were gone.
Sedwick nodded approvingly. “Good. This ordeal is finally ending.”
Quincy glanced at the warrior out of the corner of her eye. “That was well said.”
The warrior shrugged one shoulder. “I had to convince them. They need to move on, and so do we.”
“How did you handle the Fiamman-Ailuran war? Do those memories haunt you? Were you a good Captain to your men?”
Elmiryn batted her cerulean eyes. She fixed Quincy with a hot stare. “So you did know.”
“I really am starting to think you’re blond.”
“How did you figure it out?”
“I watched you for almost two days. You’ve got the arrogance of any other mercenary, but your daily routine is on the militant side.” Quincy smirked. “Plus, your Captain’s sword sticks out like a sore thumb.”
“Oh.” Elmiryn frowned at her sword’s jeweled pommel. Sedwick chuckled.
There was a long pause. Quincy brushed the last bit of dust off her shoulder. “That said, I know about your bounty.” Elmiryn sucked at her teeth. The wizard flipped her hair back and placed a hand on her hip. “I heard about it sometime ago, but I had already taken up the Lethia Artaud case. I never handle more than one client at a time. I know I’m a pariah now, as far as bounty hunting goes, but I bet your king would do business with me. I bet I could earn enough gold to last me a life time.”
“So why don’t you turn me in, if you want it so bad?” Elmiryn said with a raised brow.
Quincy looked at her as if she were stupid. “And do that from here, how?” She shrugged. “No, I have more things on my mind than gold. That, I have plenty of. What I really want, I need your help to find.”
Elmiryn said nothing to this. She rubbed at the back of her neck and glanced at the wizard’s red hand. Instead she asked, “Hey…what happened earlier? With that bracelet you were using?”
The wizard glanced at her hand and turned sheepish. “I pushed it too far,” she mumbled. “Wizardry can offer shortcuts to power, but at a price. I hadn’t trained with that item so I didn’t know what the limit was. Every time I used it, it took a little breath from my lungs. And there was no real protection from the heat my hand saw.”
Elmiryn narrowed her eyes. “You blew things up a lot when you were a kid, didn’t you?”
Quincy’s reddened face was all the answer she seemed to need. The warrior bit on her lip to keep from giggling, not with a lot of success.
“What was it that you learned whilst you were away?” the brunette asked briskly.
The woman thumbed at the undead. “Besides this? I’ll tell you later.”
“How’d you do this–” Quincy mimicked the motion. “–Anyway? What are you, the ruler of dust and dead things?”
Elmiryn barked out a laugh. When she calmed herself, she shook her head, “No. I doubt I’ll be able to do something like this again. Wouldn’t really care to, either.”
“But how?” Sedwick now. He stepped a little closer, arms crossed over his chest.
The redhead thought for a moment, her eyes wandering around them. Then she started. “There was…a hole in this place. In the air. Don’t ask me what that means, honestly. It’s the best explanation I got. When I started to get pulled through, I felt a film of power on everything. The dust, the rock, the soldiers. It was everywhere. It gave me something to hold on to. My spirit is on pretty shaky ground as it is, and whatever Meznik did to me reacted to the influence that still lingered here. It was like this pull, on the inside, and I was the fish getting reeled in.” She tapped her boot on the ground. “When I saw what was happening I scrambled all that I had to help. It was a good thing there weren’t many rogue dwarves. I dunno what we would’ve done then. When it was finished, I felt tired. I felt myself fall out of the environment and back into my body, like nothing had happened.” She rubbed her head, eyes going a little glassy. “Well not entirely nothing. My head hurts, and I feel like I was shaken out of sleep.”
Quincy gave her a shrewd look before walking off to better appreciate the undead, all standing at attention. She shook her head. “Dear gods…”
“Oh hey, Quincy!” Elmiryn.
The wizard looked at her with wary eyes. “What is it?”
“I believe you were at some 100 kills? Go ahead and count the undead. Once their duty is done, I’ll dispatch them all. That’ll put me square at 155 kills, not counting the dwarves I took care of!” The warrior beamed.
Quincy glared at her, slack-jawed.
We crossed the street, musty with hay and fallen vegetable leaves from imports, and hopped down the fifteen foot retaining wall to the wharf below. The wooden walkway went on to the left, but to the right there were steps that led it down to the beach below.
Tristi walked, with arms held out, along the ropes that were tied to the bollards. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, brow wrinkled. She stopped on one of the posts and pointed up ahead. “Your friend is up there, past the docks. Sailors go there for some fun. That’s a nice way of putting it. The mean way of putting it also happens to be the truth, which is, I shall finally state, without further posturing, at all, is a whorehouse, so thick with hallucinogens, mind-altering substances, and subversive activity, you’d think you’d fallen into a pit of hell.”
I looked to where she was pointing. Where the walkway spanned into the docks leading out into the bay, there was a great collection of skiffs, dinghys, gigs, and rafts. Further on were larger boats–schooners, barges and the like. It was past these that I saw a major building–built on a high pier.
“Okay,” I said with a nod. I turned to her.
But I found Tristi wasn’t there.
I turned my head to see her walking back the way we’d came. My jaw dropped. “Where are you going!?”
She glanced at me, unconcerned. “I told you. Off this shard. My business is done here.”
I ran up to her, hands turning to claws on my chest. “You’re just going to leave me here!? What about my friend? You said it’d be more trouble than it’s worth trying to get him. I mean–a whorehouse–yes, that’s vile–but what real obstacle is there?”
Tristi sighed and stopped. She wheeled around and looked at me with eyes strained wide in a show of barely restrained exasperation. “Because, dreamwalker, he is in the grips of a spirit. A very powerful spirit. And he won’t be relinquished without a fight! But that isn’t my problem!” Then her expression changed to that of a suffering mother, telling her child goodbye. She even patted me on the head for full effect. “Nyx! Sweet, sweet little Nyx! I really liked you! But I would not deign to soil your reputable efforts. I’m a cad! Really! I am!” She gave a flourishing bow, the buckles of her long coat tinkling. “So I bid you farewell!” Then she spun around and started, literally, marching away.
I blinked after her. Then my gaze darkened. “Oh, fine. Fine. I can do this myself.” I turned and started to huff away, my grimy hair bouncing with each stomp. “I bet you would’ve gotten me killed anyway–”
Tristi was at my side in an instant, her fiendish smile in place. I startled away from her, and my feet slowed to a stop. Carefully she lifted her glasses and fixed me with her naked stare. “A bet! Oooh, I like the way you think, Nyx.” She straightened and held up her hand. The smooth oval on the back of her glove began to glow a light yellow, and her smile broadened. “Let’s say we do as these spirits do, eh? What are you willing to wager?”
I shook my head, peddling back. “No, no! I–I have nothing! When I said that, it was just a figure of speech.”
“Nevertheless, I heard it, and the meaning was quite clear. You give yourself away vermagus. Perhaps you should learn to cap your Meaning next time?” She took off her glasses and stepped toward me. “Now. Your wager.”
“But I have nothing!” I pleaded. “Please, just be on your way! I can do this myself.”
“And I do not doubt that, but I’m afraid my honor is on the line. You see, Fortuna would have me meet all bets within my power. It is one of her tenets, and a condition of my servitude. I cannot refuse and neither can you–so! If you cannot offer a prize, I shall then ask for a favor, to be specified at the time I wish to collect. If you win, well…” she tapped her chin, “I suppose I can guarantee you an honorable burial?” She gave a weak shrug.
I turned pale. “Tristi, no, please–” Why didn’t I just let this lunatic go when I had the chance?
She held up her gloved hand. The oval on the back began to glow a light orange. “Witness the first step in my process of NOT being the cause of your death!”
It was the first time I’d ever heard someone word something that way, and I can’t say it reassured me. “Tristi–!!”
The glove turned bright, and symbols flashed past the oval jewel. I recognized none of them, but I felt the hairs on my skin rise, and I shrank further back until I bumped into a bollard. The air turned charged, and I turned my face away as the symbols stopped flashing and settled on one, which rose off the glass and floated in the air. There was a high ring, and I forgot my modesty in favor of covering my ears. The symbol duplicated, surrounding Tristi in a sphere, before there was a great flash. I turned away, and through sheer clumsiness I managed to slip off the bollard, the rope tripped me, and I fell into the water.
I drifted for a moment, stunned. The force of hitting the water made one of my boots loose. I heard another splash and saw Tristi’s form swimming towards me. She grabbed me by the waist and started swimming to the surface. When we came up, I gasped in the air, and quickly disentangled myself from her hands (which were unscrupulously upon me) and swam for the beach at the far end. The boot that was loose fell away, to the water’s depths. I didn’t bother going after it. Within a moment we both washed up on the beach.
My rags were dripping wet. I sat on my bottom and pulled off the remaining boot and flung it away. They were too big for me anyway. Then my eyes cut an acidic look Tristi’s way. “For someone who practices a magic based on luck, you certainly seem to bring me quite a bit of misfortune!”
A very deep chuckle answered me. I blinked. Did that come from her?
Tristi raised herself to her hands and knees and looked at me. All of a sudden that question of gender I had written off came roaring back. Her cheekbones were more pronounced, her shoulders broader, her chest flat…
My mouth felt dry. “Tristi…were you turned into…a man?”