Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 23.1

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn wrung the water from her hair.  Her face muscles were starting to hurt from smiling so much, but she couldn’t help it.  “My subconscious is brilliant.

“What’s so brilliant about coming back to the kingdom that wants you dead?” Quincy muttered, beating sand from her bottom.  She winced and twisted around to check on her wounded shoulder.

“Knowing Elmiryn?  I imagine she must get some sort of kick out of all this.” Sedwick turned to her, his mouth a slash.  “Isn’t that right?”

The redhead gave a shrug, her smile firmly in place.

“Well,” Quincy finished her vain attempt at sand removal, and crossed her arms with a great sigh. “So each of our pathways brings us a step closer to our goal.  This place holds something we need.  What are we looking for, then?  How do we begin?”

Sedwick pointed to the East.  “I can sense the Gate from here. It’s that way.”

“I don’t want to just leave,” Elmiryn contended.

Quincy nodded in agreement.  “There’s something else we need to do first.”

Sedwick raised a hand, mild exasperation on his face.  “Um, fine.  But first, care to enlighten me as to what you two were discussing in my absence?  Please?

“Aww, I think we hurt his feelings,” Elmiryn snickered.  She threw an arm around his shoulders as they went up the stairs to the dock platform.  “Y’see, when I was floating around back at the dwarven settlement, I came across a few things…” and soon he was appraised.

“This is getting strange, even by my standards,” the man said with a dubious shake of his head.

Elmiryn was already walking toward the stairs leading up to the wharf.  “I think I know where we are,” she breathed, eyes fixing on the building at the far end of the piers.  Quincy and Sedwick followed her up the steps just as her boots hit the wooden platform.  She gave an ecstatic nod.  “Ah!  Yes!”

“Which city?” Quincy asked.  She had a grumpy look on her heart-shaped face, and a pinky in her ear.

Elmiryn turned to her.  “I recognize that building there.  That’s The Big Brick.  It’s a low-end whore house.  Went there once–never again.”

“Contracted something nasty, did you?” the wizard cut in.

The warrior just smiled at her. “If disgust is a disease, I had it bad.”  Without another word, she turned and jogged down the wharf, passing the bollards and boat masts with the increasing pleasure of a creature freed onto its natural habitat.  It wasn’t long before Elmiryn rounded the stairs that led up to the main streets, and she let out another loud laugh.  “Ah, yes!!

Quincy’s voice floated up to her back.  “What, damn you?  What are you so pleased about?”

Elmiryn turned her head to see her companions coming up the steps.  She jerked her head.  “We’re in the city of Malvene.  I own a place not far from here!  We can get our bearings there.”

NYX____________________________

“Alright, I’ve let you have your time.  Now I must deny your request and return to my feeding.” The spirit stood from the bed, and the room about us expanded, and as it did so, it changed.  Layers from the walls peeled and fluttered in a wind I couldn’t feel, like sheaths of paper.  They thickened and darkened to curtains.  My bed grew–the headboard rising and rising till it reached the ceiling.  The ceiling, too, changed to something else, as the bare rafters retracted and the slant leveled out.  Coffers appeared into the wood, which melted to white plaster.  My desk slithered and shifted, like it were an animal, and became a low couch.  My books turned to pillows.  My chair, another couch.  Fiamman lamps sprouted from the floor like plants.

…Our surroundings had changed to the nobleman’s bedroom I’d seen before.

I gave a start as I felt the shadows slip from my grasp like silk through my cosmic hands.  One moment it seemed I had absolute power over the scene, the next it was ripped away from me.  My eyes went to the spirit as it stood, and I saw with a slackened jaw that he grew, like the room did, towering over both Tristi and myself.  It stooped, with arms elongating to the point that they brushed the floor.  The rest of its clothing fell away, leaving him to stand naked before us.  It was a disgusting sight.  He was like an emaciated old man, and his twisted body made him all the more wicked to my eyes.

I stood shuddering, feeling myself foolish for ever believing that I had power here.

It turned his dark gaze on me, its horns now curling high above his head.  They were black as well, with white symbols etched into them.  I’d seen them before, on the giants I’d seen in the crowds.  Were they in some way related?  It pointed to the door.  “Leave,” it said, its warped voice once again dripping in melancholy.

I blinked up at it.

…That was it?

“Leave?” I repeated.

The spirit frowned at me with its nose wrinkled, and turned to look at Tristi.  “You.  Take her and begone,” it spat.

Tristi shrugged his shoulders and looked my way.  “Nyx, our business is done.  You’ve tried your best.”

I stared from Tristi to the spirit and back.

I balled my fists and shook my head.  “No.” I pointed up at the spirit and tried to keep my hand from quivering.  “I will not leave without Farrel.”

The spirit blinked at me.  It bowed down, spine cracking as it snapped and twisted its neck to stare level into my eyes.  I resisted the urge to cringe and duck away.  For all my attempts at stoic bravery, I shook like a leaf.  “Your discretion did so little for you, I’m afraid,” the creature sighed.  “It took me a moment, but I recognize that symbol on your breast now.”  The spirit reached a knobby hand toward me.  This time I couldn’t fight it.  I flinched back, tripping on pillows.  I managed to right myself before I fell, but now my act of bravado was lost in my whining breath, my curved spine, my ashen face.  The spirit ceased its advance and fixed me with a droopy look.

…What kind of creature was this?  What was wrong with it?  Certainly, this wasn’t what I would have envisioned for a creature of lust.

“You are Lacertli’s champion.  Only one such as you could shift the shadows of my dreams.” The spirit straightened with a great sigh.  “But you are not he, and thus, cannot command me.  Weigh your options, vermagus.  Consider that I could crush you and your friend with nary a thought.”  It didn’t say this with much conviction.  Perhaps that was what revitalized my courage.

Tristi cleared his throat pointedly, and jerked his head toward the door.  “Nyx…let’s away.”

I spared a moment to shoot him a look, then looked back up at the spirit.  “…What is your name?” I asked.

The spirit narrowed its eyes at me.  It wrung its hands like an anxious wife, and muttered, “Volo.”

I gave a nod.  “I am Nyx…Champion of Lacertli.” I felt proud of myself for saying this with only one squeak.  “I will speak the truth to you, Volo.  I cannot turn away until Farrel is back in my company.  He may know things I need to know, and he could be of great help to me.  This is my path, and I will survive to see my will done.”

Volo’s expression drew long at me.  Tristi hid his face behind his gloved hand.

The only sound to be heard was the flickering of the Fiamman lamps.  I eased my breathing, my hands once more moving to cover myself.  The nobel’s room, now devoid of its writhing orgy, seemed very much empty.  With just the three of us standing there, even this massive spirit who had to crane its head to keep from bumping the ceiling, it felt…empty.

I looked at Volo, fighting my revulsion.  From his long, dry feet, up his shifty legs, along his sunken stomach and glaring ribs, I felt…

Pity.

Volo twitched his kinked nose and his eyebrows tensed, then relaxed, then tensed again.  He reached up a hand and scratched at the base of his horns.  Then he puckered his lips and spoke.  “So be it.  Follow me.”

He turned, and into the shadowed archway he lumbered, hands still dragging about his feet, his head lolling between his boney shoulders.  I hesitated for a moment, watching him go–the shift of his prominent spine, the trail of dust and flakes he seemed to leave in his wake (his skin shedding, I later realized).  I swallowed the lump in my throat and started to follow him.

Tristi, in just two large leaps was there before me.  One clawed handing holding his glasses in place as his other planted itself on my collarbone.  “Nyx,” he said firmly.  “Ah, Nyx, Nyx, Nyx…Nay, do not go, you would be a fool to go deeper into his world!”

I frowned and brushed his hand away.  “I have to.”

“False!  Incorrect!  Negative!  You don’t have to.”  He gave me a small shove and my frown turned downright incendiary.

“Tristi.  Move.”

“Nyx, you’re laying too much on the line for this.”

I glared.  My lips pursed and my hands balled to fists.  “How did you know where Farrel was, Tristi?”

“Fine.  I confess, I was here when he came.”

“You’ve been lying to me this whole time…”

“That was a lie, yes.  A white lie.  A sweet, baby lie–”

“A lie is a lie!  Damn you.  Damn you!  Did you lie about the tower collapse too!?”

Tristi’s eyes narrowed.  “I said the truth then.”

I bared my teeth at him.  “Tell me the truth now.  You aren’t the reason Farrel’s here?”

A muscle moved in Tristi’s jaw, and his thin nostrils flared.  I saw his pupils dilate, making his abalone eyes dark.  Without a word, the champion of luck slipped by me.  As I followed him with my eyes across the wide room, I could see the door he opened now led back to the original short hallway.  I turned forward again and gazed at the floor.  I heard the door shut.

“I can do this,” I breathed to myself.

With that, I followed Volo deeper into his lair.

ELMIRYN________________________

It was all golden and burning insofar that she could feel her veins pulse like it were lined with the brilliance of a drunken night, unaware of itself, and roaring.  She felt like her memories were a treasure discovered deep in cold soil, and with dusty hands she scrabbled for those precious recollections that had once attempted to slip from her into the hungry maw of the earth.  Corpses buried.  Things lost.  Emotions ensured a sad sort of freedom.  But Elmiryn was a tyrant, and she would keep her memories and emotions locked in her heart and her head, and nowhere else.

The streets were muggy, the sky like a dark cap that pushed and pressed on the light.  The brilliance of the city fought back the dark with little sign of fatigue.  There was much carousing, and sometimes they’d pass streets that were clearly in the heat of the celebrations, and others still that echoed, as if haunted from the merriment.  The phantoms about them swelled and ebbed.  Masked youth.  Laughing and running and skipping and dancing.  They’d seen this before on the shard mirroring Gamath, so they didn’t trouble themselves over ghost-like forms.

Still, Sedwick didn’t seem to know what to make of all the goings on, and he looked around him with his brow bunched, then eased, then bunched again.  Quincy’s interest seemed annoyingly passive.

“What are they doing?” Sedwick asked.  “I grew up in Gamath, so I don’t know about the customs of other places.”

“It’s the Aesutian Festival,” Elmiryn and Quincy said at the same time.  They glanced at each other, and the warrior resumed by herself, a humored curl to her lip.  “Every year, the Fiamman Kingdom celebrates the First Hero Aesutan, who defeated Nathric in a show of wit and strength.”

The brunette started in almost immediately.  “The legend behind the festival is this– There once was a spirit king named Nathric, who was a shadow that loved the night.  Fed up with daylight cutting short his fun, the spirit king reached up into the heavens, and tore Halward’s son Ortus from the sky.”

Elmiryn picked it up next, her arms crossing as she cut the wizard a look.  “He tore the immortal into seven pieces, and each piece became a new baby, glowing and bright.  You can never really kill an immortal, after all.  That first night, the spirit king ate one baby.  He reached for another but couldn’t bring himself to consume it.  Fuck.  You’d be full too, eating a seventh of an immortal.  So Nathric thunders, ‘I will wait until tomorrow, and eat another!’, so he does.”

The half-timbered buildings, with their warm exposed framing and creamy plaster, looked as though they had dozens of slanted teeth.  The quatrefoil windows whistled with the evening’s breeze further on.  The columns of a postal building seemed to bend in the corner of her eye.  The red-brick domes, with their gold ribbing, and star-like crowns, rose high.  All the while, the Fiamman lamps lit the streets hot, for the kingdom knew nothing of darkness and slept always in light.

Feeling content, Elmiryn continued.  “Aesutan was the son of king Koledus, ancient ancestor of the royal family, who governed the Fiamman clans.  Back then, we were just humble farmers scraping by along the southern coasts.  Without the sun, the Fiamman’s livelihood was jeopardized.  So, at the age of fifteen, Aesutan was visited by Halward, and he was pressed to find Nathric and restore order.  You don’t argue with a god, so the boy gathered up his father’s sword and cloak, and set out to find the evil spirit king–”

Quincy cut in. “It’s said that Aesutan was the first Legend to ever grace the world.  Halward’s example inspired his fellow gods to take up the trend, and soon the earth was swarming with them–”

“Can I tell my story or not?” Elmiryn snapped.  She held her hand out to the wizard as if begging cooperation to be placed there. The wizard gave a haughty sniff of her nose, but said nothing more.  The warrior went on, smirking, “Aesutan searched and searched until the equivalent of a day had passed.  By then, Nathric had made enough room to consume yet another baby, and he did.  There were only five left.  At a loss, Aesutan visited the Lycan tribes, to pay homage to Artemis at her temple.  As a favored subject in Halward’s heaven, the goddess of the hunt was sympathetic, and she appeared to the boy.  She gave him a mask resembling the wolves of her people, and counseled that he drink deep of their wine.  He did, and the night went on long.  A true Fiamman, the teenager was a damn good merrymaker.  The wine went straight to his head, and he shed his clothes, donned the mask, and lay with the Lycans in a wild orgy before darkness took him.  He awoke in a separate world.  I guess…this world.  The Other Place.  He dressed himself in the colors that went through the air like streamers, because all he had with him in that strange place was his wolf’s mask and his sword.  The smell of the therians masked his human scent.  He traveled with red across his chest and neck, and blue around his sex, and orange and purple around his arms and legs, and he walked like this for yet another day.  Nathric ate his third baby.  There were only four left.”

They entered a courtyard with a gazebo in the center.  Shrubs lined their path.  They crossed through the gazebo, and over the buildings, she thought she saw the tip of the great Halward statue in the Oristel Square.  Not much longer now and they’d be in the old neighborhood she’d once frequented.

…It was odd, but why weren’t there fireworks going off over the statue?  As memory served her (which was a sadly shaken thing) Oristel Square was the rowdiest spot to be in during the festival.

Elmiryn said none of this, but just threw an arm over Sedwick’s shoulder and puppeted a monster with her hand.  “Then, Aesutan found the spirit of the dragon, Smok. The dragon said to him, ‘Boy! I would feed you to my young!’ and he attacked.  There was a great battle, but the Fiamman son was quick and nimble, and he managed to slay Smok with a powerful thrust into his soft underbelly.” She feigned a stab, and Sedwick gave a rough chuckle at her antics.  “In Smok’s nest, he found three eggs.  He placed them into the dragon’s stomach, using it like a knapsack, and continued his search.  Another day went by.  Nathric ate another baby.  There were just three left.”

She paused to breath in deep.  Damn her curse, to make her forget such a beautiful city.  Elmiryn loved Malvene.  She preferred it to her family’s estate.  The street beneath her echoed up her bones a sort of code, and it unlocked in her something she’d thought she’d lost.  Ghosts, faint impressions lacking in color and with little defining lines, made a shadowy play in her head.  These were what was left of her memories, walking the city at night and looking for satisfaction.  For fun.  For drink.  For company.

“On the start of the third day, Aesutan finally arrived at his destination.  He came to a forest, dense and dark–a black wood–and found a party underway.  It was filled with humanoid beasts and ugly spirits, all dancing and drinking.  They were celebrating the darkness, welcoming the End of Days, and they were paying homage to Nathric.  Making sure his mask was in place, Aesutan covered himself in the blackness of the wood, and passed through the party.  None stopped him.  He did not look human.  Did not smell human.  He sneaked by the loyal guardians who protected Nathric’s burrow, and slipped inside.  There, Nathric slept, the three golden babes near him.  They did not cry, did not make a sound.  The immortals just watched as Aesutan crept in, and with one eye on the spirit king, switched the babes with the dragon eggs he carried.  Just to make the ruse more authentic, he took their urine, and rubbed it over the egg shells.  Then, with a little of the black on his skin, he painted faces onto the eggs.  With the babes in the dragon stomach, Aesutan crept back out, where he slipped by the evil lessers and back the way he had come.  Halward opened a way for him, and the boy returned home.  He hid the immortals in his village and waited for his plan to take effect.”

“I always thought the bit with the eggs was silly,” Quincy muttered.

Elmiryn gave her a strained smile before resuming.  “Meanwhile, the day was approaching its end, and the spirit king awoke.  He was hung over from his drinking and could not see well.  He smelled the immortal babes on the eggs and thought nothing of it.  Hungry, he ate one.  And so it went, that with the next two days, Nathric ate the dragon eggs.  Another week went by in darkness, and the spirit king thought the battle was won.  But then he felt his stomach give a turn.”  Elmiryn clutched her stomach with both hands, feigning a look of alarm.  “He felt it again.  And again.  Suddenly, the discomfort turned to pain, and within moments, Nathric was howling.”  She winced with an ooh, and ahh, and Sedwick laughed again at her antics.  Quincy just rolled her eyes at her.

The woman held up a hand, her other still on her stomach.  “His lessers didn’t know what to do.  ‘Get them out of me, get them out of me!’ he howled.  Then, with a roar, the three dragon hatchlings burst from his stomach–” Elmiryn pretended something had punched its way out of her, and she howled and squealed, falling even to her knees for dramatic effect.

“Oh, Elmiryn, enough!” Quincy snapped.  But her lips were twitching.

The warrior ignored her, “The dragons had eaten their way out.  They were golden, with red eyes, their bodies glowing from the power they had inherited.  Nathric was not immortal, and so he perished.  The spirit king’s attendants fled, for the beasts had acquired the taste for evil spirit flesh, and from that day forth, they ate nothing else.  They came to be known as Praxidice, Erinyes, and Poena.  The dragon hatchlings left the burrow and expanded their wings for the first time.  Upon taking flight, they crossed the Other World into ours, and from the sight of the three golden dragons in the sky, Aesutan knew that he could now take the immortal sons from hiding without danger.”  Elmiryn held her hands up to the sky, a full smile on her face.

“What happened next?” Sedwick asked, his crooked smile in place.

The warrior hopped up.  “He took the babies to Halward’s temple, and there, the Star Ruler claimed his progeny.  ‘Aye, they will each have a place in the heavens.’  And he named them Nitor, Vires, and Azad.  He took his sons up into the sky, and that, as the legends go, is how we got the three suns.” She giggled.  “Oh, hey.  Did I mention that Aesutan was a redhead?  In that moment, Halward blessed Aesutan as his own son, and so his demigod line started, and many heroes were born from it.”

“Lemme guess,” Quincy grumbled.  “You’re a descendant of Aesutan?”

“More accurately, a descendant of Diokles.  A distant cousin.  Twice removed.  Doesn’t matter though.  A blessing is a blessing.”

“I think it’s a fascinating story,” Sedwick said diplomatically.

Elmiryn shrugged.  “I’ve heard it so many fucking times, I know it by heart.”

He chuckled.  “We can see that.”

An impatient sigh from the wizard.  “Are we close to your ‘place’ yet?”

“A few more blocks.”

“What happened to the other four babes that Nathric had swallowed?  Immortals don’t die easy, right?  So what became of them?” Sedwick asked.

Before anyone could answer, they heard a scream tear through the air.  All three stopped, eyes wide, heads craned up to the sky.

“It’s…closer now,” Elmiryn breathed.

“Was that a person?”  Quincy asked, her nose scrunched.

Sedwick shook his head.  “It didn’t sound human.”

“Maybe it’s the golden dragons,” Elmiryn giggled.  For some reason, the idea struck her as incredibly humorous, and she couldn’t stop for a long time.  The others didn’t laugh, but just stared at her in disquiet.

NYX____________________________

I was thinking of death by the time the doorways parted for us, the thick smell of bodily fluids and charcoal nestling far enough up my nose to make me want to gag.  We were now in a sort of hall, where a single aisle cut through, and on either side were more couches and pillows.  Cashmere floors felt funny beneath my bare feet as I tread in Volo’s shadow, his sagging backside an unholy precedent over my little form.  It made me slow my steps in the hopes of distance.  The ceiling rippled black.  Torches coughed and snarled as the tall arched doors shut behind us, and the company of the room seemed to pulse like slugs disturbed in their recumbent states.  There were dozens of people here.

I thought about death as the floor that was a blanket that was a bed, snapped, and made me stumble, like it were trying to catch me in its amoral embrace.  Death.  The stinking, sapping, hungry nature of it.  The way it suckled at vitality till nothing was left.  Like gluttony.  Like lust.

These lost souls, for I came to understand them as this, hummed without stopping.  Their forms shifted in unison with my passing.  The air throbbed with their voices, like a starved growl, seeking my trailing shame.  It was a long thing behind me, as long as I could envision it, and it rattled with embarrassing fantasies, hopeless wants, and the pain of love unrequited.

I had thought about death as the company passed us by like a hot summer night, voices still humming, eyes still fixed up on me, Volo’s backside still a terrible precedent before me.

…I was done thinking about death, or thought so, when thoughts of my mother came to my mind.

I had thought about my mother’s pallor, in the nights that followed Thaddeus’s departures.  I thought about how I’d press my palms–dusty from crawling on the floor–to her round cheeks.  She’d let out a sharp puff across my face, strong enough to flutter my bangs, and I’d smile at her silent greeting, before Atalo kicked me sharp in the back in his fits of sleep.  I remember over the years as those cheeks turned slim beneath my touch, her breath, softer and softer against my skin.

The ribbed hallway descended in a slope that I was certain would have made me slip under normal circumstances, but physics here were nigh non existent.  Like a skewered idea, I slipped through the lens of Volo’s dream.  I felt the breath recede in my lungs, thinned by this spirit’s power.  His animus was stifling me.  I wasn’t even sure I was in the Somnium anymore.  But was it even possible to enter a spirit’s mind entirely?  I could just hear Lacertli now.

I am the Path, and as such, it is my duty to inform you that you are stepping into a trap.

I thought about my mother, and the nature of her, a thing that concealed itself like the darkness that wagged from the corners.  These were dense, and shied away from my attentions.  They grew long in the corners of my eyes, and an irrational fear came over me about blinking.  Surely, my heart whispered, surely then, the shadows would seek to overthrow, thee.

…And the otherness from which my heart spoke turned me fearful too.

“And really…who the fuck gets Legends anyway?  When a god picks them to be their champion, it’s as if they become…I dunno.  Alien. They don’t think like a person of the earth would anymore–they think in terms of heaven.”

“Is that what’ll happen to me, Elle?” I thought, my eyes on Volo’s cracked heels flitting in and out of view.  “Is that what happened to Tristi?”

I was thinking of my mother when the hallway curved, straight down, and we tread its curvature with our feet still gracing cashmere floors that tripped me.  The entryway flowered and the warmth that had colored us was swallowed in a cool, silver light.  The room we approached–for I could peek through Volo’s crooked legs–was entirely of concrete, with drips coming from the domed ceiling.  A single opening in the center was the source of the light, and it came down in an eerie halo.

My mother–in the moonlight, two men atop her–and me, a child, hiding in the trees after a full moon, still naked, and just watching.  Scared.  Fascinated.

I did not know the true nature of my mother.  She was a mother.  A thing, a noun.  She was misty-eyed when she thought she was alone, and full of exasperation and awkward love when she was aware of myself and my brothers.  She glared at the younger women, something tight about her lips, and her gaze would cast our way.  Her eyes were heavier during those moments.  I learned to make myself scarce when she was like this.  Poor Atalo never understood that.  Never understood why she became so cross, then so depressed later.

But soon her passions waned, and her heavy gazes lightened, and her misty-eyes became a regularity.  As I became a young woman, her envy had shriveled to nothing so I never had that fury turned my way.  Instead, I suddenly became the one with the broom in my hand, mind weighted by the need to survive tomorrow.  My turn to be passionate, to be beautiful–to be jealous and slowly dying–was never to be had.  That legacy, passed from mother to daughter, was lost.  I pressed my palms to my mother’s cheeks and felt her fade under my touch, and I felt sad, because I still had yet to understand her nature.  I needed more time under her bed, more time watching her from the trees, more time inching near her doorway at night.

I may have been her ultimate ending, but really, death had been a slow thing, for all the time it took to weaken my dear mother Fotini.

I wanted desperately for my nature to be understood.  I did not want to be alien.  I did not want to be anathema.

I thought about death and my mother and myself, before Volo stopped before the circular room and turned to me.  The cashmere floor was turning hard under my tired feet.  I could see it taper off toward the bare concrete, reaching vainly as its cloth ended just short of the silver light.

“He sleeps,” the spirit intoned, one hand extended toward the center of the room where the light flooded most.

Shaking, I stepped around the giant, his dark eyes and wicked face peering down at me, and I looked.  I let out a cry and ran toward the ashen huddle on the ground.

Farrel!


Back to Chapter 22.3 | Forward to Chapter 23.2

Chapter 22.3

NYX____________________________

I heard her, saw her, felt her, and–gods help me–there wasn’t a thing I could do but stare deep into the eyes I had long since said goodbye to.  Everything came rushing back to me in a whirlwind of memories.  Days spent swimming at the lake.  The dramatic schemes launched against our rivals.  The moonlit nights where dreams were spent in a willowy exhale.  The festivals, the dinners, the market days.  The advent of adolescence, and the death of innocence, proper.

The force of emotion surprised me.  My thoughts had been so consumed by other things as of late…by other people–that I hardly would have guessed that my affections could…

Taila was one of my only friends back in Tosmai.  She defended me countless times, and were it not for her, I would’ve been beaten up a great deal more than I had.  She didn’t care what other people said about me.  “People talk all the time,” she’d snorted.  “Half the time, they don’t know what comes out of their stupid mouths!”  She’d lived on the edge of my home village, with her parents.  Her mother died around the time Thaddeus did, and just a year later, so did her father.  Since she was of age, she had the option of becoming a ward to the Nation–which meant that, while supported by public funds, she had to finish schooling, then take up whatever job the government assigned her.  Her other option was that she could stop taking lessons, and just fend for herself.  She didn’t even hesitate.  “Honey farming has been a part of my family for generations!  I’m not going to give that up just to become the Illuminati’s slave,” she’d told me.  Money became tight for her, but despite her hardships, she still managed to find time for me.  She helped me with my family.  In turn, I tried to help in her work, and keep her up to date on our lessons from school.

“Taila…” I reached with both hands toward her.  “Taila!” I choked out.

“What? What?” she laughed, hugging me.  Electricity shot up and down my body.  I squeezed her, as tight as I could, and breathed in that wonderful smell, sweet and intoxicating.  Then she held me at arm’s length, amethyst eyes fluttering.  She moved her hands to my head.  My hair felt stiff beneath her fingers as she tried to stroke it, and her smile waned a fraction as she took a lock, stiff with blood, between her fingers.  “Ugh!  Nyx, what’s this in your hair?”  She spoke to me in our native tongue, and I hardly thought about the transition.  I still dreamed in Ailuran, after all.

Taila was dressed in a cream long sleeved top, with long lapels, billowy sleeves, and polished silver cuff links.  Over this, a light brown vest–deer hide.  Caramel pants that came up high on the waist.  For boots, dark leather–a wrap around sort that was popular in the nation.  The kind of thing she wore when selling her honey at the market.  Her hair was pulled back into two low pigtails, just like she usually wore it, with one lock of hair slipping forth to tickle her right cheek.  There were soft parenthetical lines around her mouth.  Her smile made these deep, and wrinkles appeared around her eyes.  People our age weren’t supposed to know such signs of weather, but she had earned it from all her time spent in the sun, tending to the bees.

It looked fitting on her.  Lovely, even.

She shook her head at me, her mouth screwing up as she took in the sight of me.  “Cajeck!  What’ve you gotten into?  What’s happened to your clothes?  You’re covered in filth!”

I closed my eyes, tears streaking down my cheeks.  This was wonderful…

This was a nightmare.

“I’ve been through a lot,” I muttered.

“I can only imagine!”

“Not really,” I let out a shaky laugh, then let my head drop to my chest.

She’s so good humored.

“And that?”  She pointed at the lizard’s mark on my breast.

I shook my head, one hand going to cover the mark.  I didn’t want to talk about that.  How did one even begin to broach the topic?

“Well…” she gave me a soft flick on my nose, and I looked at her shyly.  Taila winked, her smile broad.  “Let’s see what we can do for you, hmm?”  She walked around my bed, past my towers of books.  Papers fluttered like birds about her feet.  She took the wooden chair from my desk and set it out in the middle of the floor.  “Sit,” she ordered.

I swallowed…and started to walk.

She’s assertive.  I can’t help but follow her.

I moved around the end of my bed–past my tower of psychology, past my tower of anatomy.  I looked down and saw that Taila had set out a large bowl and pitcher for me.  On the desk, were folded towels of varying sizes.  I sat heavily in the chair.  My friend patted me on the arm and stooped down, her back to me.  I glanced at her, then looked away quickly.  Taila always wore these…these pants. She had such a graceful shape.

In the next instant, the bowl was in my lap and a towel over my shoulders.  With firm hands, she made me lean forward, over the bowl.  Soon I felt warm water cascading over my scalp, and I could hardly keep back my sigh of content.  Dipping into the cold bay had done little to improve my condition.

Then Taila held a bar of soap under my nose.  It was a light golden brown.

“I made this,” she explained.  “Just for you.  It’s soap made with honey and milk.”

“Thank you,” I said, automatically.  Then I realized how insincere I might’ve sounded and murmured, “…Thanks.  Really.”

Taila said nothing.  Just hummed and worked the soap over my hair.

She also likes to hum.  She likes music.  They both do.

…Where is she?  What am I doing?

My eyes closed.  “I’ve been through so much, Taila.”

“You’ve told me.”

“No I haven’t.  Not the whole story.”

“…Do you wanna?  Tell me, that is.” Her voice went quiet.  “I mean…I mean…shoot, Nyx.  It’s been a year.”

This isn’t how it would’ve translated in Common, per se, but Ailuran can be slippery that way.  She used a phrase, “Grut, netiene och lionedretzch alunar.”

I could’ve easily translated her words to:

Good grief, it’s been so long.

Or…

Heaven knows, the time has stretched beyond measure.

Or…

Gods, my life has seen and felt every minute’s passing.

Anyone of those could’ve passed for a proper translation, and each one would’ve painted this scene in a different way.  But this story, as of this moment, is not in the hands of another.  It is in my hands, and I can tell you, dear friend, that Taila was a simple person by nature.  “Shoot, Nyx.  It’s been a year.”  That was Taila.  My Taila.  I felt safe with her.  I could sit with her, literally half-naked, and still feel safe.

Her intent never colored things badly for me.

They make no attempts to conceal things.  They are honest.  I find it frustrating, how abrasive they can be…but brave, all the same.

“There’s so much, I don’t know where to start,” I said to the dirty water.  It was a warm brown.  I was squinting my eyes, hoping no soap invaded my sight.  “I’ve run into paladins, enchantresses, wizards, and elementals.  I’ve had my arm ripped off.  Was nearly eaten alive.  I am–” but I stopped there.  I was about to talk about Lacertli, about my new place in life, only something kept me silent.

“Damn,” she tsked over me, like all I’d said was that a new book of mine had a torn page.  “I’m sorry, Nyx.”

“I wanted to spare you,” I rambled on.  “I’m sorry…for leaving so abruptly, the way I did.  Intruding upon you, the way I did, that one night.  You know.  When I came for my mother’s things.”  I started to choke up.  “I’m sorry for troubling you and Ampelos.  You should never have been friends with me.  I never wanted–”

I felt a light bop on the back of my head.  “Cajeck!  Stop that!”  Her hands left me.  All of a sudden I felt cold.

I lifted my eyes and saw Taila was looking at me with tears in her eyes.  “Fool.  You stupid fool,” she hissed.  “You never let me finish telling you what I needed to, that night.”

I stared at her in confusion.  “What?”

But then Taila had her hand at the back of my head and was forcing it down again.  “Down.  We need to rinse.”

I didn’t fight her, but now I was staring bewildered into the dirty water of the bowl.

“Close your eyes,” she said.  I did, and I felt her pour the water over my head again.

Wait.  You’re straying…this isn’t what I imagined…

ELMIRYN________________________

.

..

….

…..

She knew better this time.  She did not let her eyes wander.  Third time’s a charm, and all that…

Behind her, the others followed.  She pointed ahead of her.  Up this way!

Back to the crossroads.  Her crossroads.

There’s only one way we can go, Sedwick said.  There’s a barrier on the other roads.

As if to confirm this, Quincy presses her hand down the fourth path, or rather, the second.  They were counting backwards, weren’t they?  She finds the vision of what lies ahead ripples around the woman’s palm and fingers, and sees something push her back. Quincy retracts her hand with a shake of her head.  He’s right, she says.

Elmiryn gestures for them to follow her.  I already know.  Just follow me.

A ripple blasts through the air, and sends her hair upright.  She stops, hand going to her sword.  Sedwick and Quincy are similarly posed, eyes turned up, bodies rigid.  What was that? Quincy whispers.

A sound, something sharp and filled with fury, screamed about them.

I don’t know, Elmiryn breathes.  She didn’t say this, but she recognized the scream.  She’d heard it when she’d first arrived in the Other Place.  Whatever it was, it was closer now.

After a moment’s wait proved fruitless, they resumed their trek.

…It wasn’t good to dawdle when Traveling.

…..

….

..

.

NYX____________________________

My hair was clean.  Taila let me dry it, and I did so as quickly as I could.  When I was done, she took a slim clear bottle filled with jojoba oil and let several drops fall onto my waiting palms.  I smoothed this through my hair, disentangling it with my fingers as it turned silky.  Finished, I looked up and saw she was holding a small dripping towel.

“Go ahead and sit in the chair backwards.  Get rid of those rags.  I wanna get your back,” she said.  Her sleeves were rolled up.  The front of her shirt was wet.  She looked a little flushed and this made me–

“Are…are you sure?” I asked, brow wrinkled.  My eyes were on her shoes.

I heard her tut.  “Dummy.  Turn around.”

I did so without another word, my heart hammering.  I tore at the rags, all that was left of my tunic, and throw the pieces to the floor.  At this rate, I’d be bereft of all clothing.  I leaned forward onto the back of my chair, feeling weird with my legs straddling it.  I crossed my arms over the headrest and buried my face in their folds.  I couldn’t help it.  I flinched when I felt the towel on me.  It wasn’t too hot, it was just…

“It’s sad…” Taila whispered.  I didn’t ask her to clarify.  I didn’t need her to.  She was taking her time, caressing my Mark.  “I don’t cry for much, you know.  I’ve cried for my parents–Aelurus bless them–and I’ve cried for your family too.  But I cried when I heard what’d been done to you.  I cried when you left.”

My hands clenched.  I tried to swallow the lump in my throat.  “I know.  I’m sorry.”

“Stop apologizing.”

So I did.

I raised my head to rest my chin on my forearms, the skin there damp, and my eyes pink.  I sniffled back the runs of my nose and turned my head a little.  Taila was…really taking her time it seemed.  Not that I minded.

I should mind.  I need to.

I squinted my eyes.  “Taila, I think I have to go.”

“Stay still, I’m not done with you.”

I told myself to get up.  I bunched, like I was going to.  Taila’s hands came down on my shoulders, and they pressed till it hurt.  “Stay.  I won’t let you run out on me, again.  You hear?”  She leaned over me, the cloth of her shirt brushing my bare skin.  “…You hear?”  She kissed the side of my head and I jerked, less in thought and more in instinct.  As I moved from the back of the chair, it afforded her room to wrap her arms about me, the wet towel still in her hand.  Now her head was next to mine.

“Stay, Nyx,” she breathed into my ear.  “Please.  Just let me–” but her voice broke off in a shudder and I could barely keep my breath in my lungs as she dropped the towel, and her hands roved up, and up, and up, till they were on my breasts.  Everything burned.  My head rolled back.  Taila’s mouth was on my neck and I let out some sort of noise–a sigh?  A moan?  My gaze flickered to the ceiling of my room as I reached for her, my back arching…

I should care.  I need to.  I have to.

this wasn’t real.

I started laughing, but I found nothing funny.  It was hysterical, and pathetic, and grotesque, and I didn’t know what I was doing in that scene, at all.  I could feel the shadows all around me, feel them expand and contract like lungs.  The walls rippled.  My friend, much as she may have still cared for me, could never have tolerated my presence as she was now.  Lies.  All lies.  The Mark on my back made me abhorrent to all of my kind.  I could still remember the last time I saw Taila, the sight of her curling from me, shuddering as she gazed at me with a mixture of sadness and involuntary disgust.

My laughter grew worse as tears clouded my eyes.

The Taila-of-the-present paused and looked at me curiously, her pretty eyes batting.  I stood from the chair, wiping at my eyes, and she moved from me, our bodies bumping gracelessly.  Still chuckling, I pointed to my bed.  Suddenly she grinned and caught my wrist, pulling me toward it.  She knocked over my tower of fiction books as she went–the adventures, the horrors, the fantasies.  My eyes went to them, and my smile waned.

Good humored, assertive, mellifluent, and honest…but what makes them different is something simple.

“She listens to me,” I breathed.

Taila frowned at me.  “Huh?”

I lifted my eyes from my books and stepped toward her.  Her hands go to my waist, pulling me to her, but I do not let her pull me onto the bed all the way.  My hands go to her shoulders.  “She listens.  When I say something, she doesn’t make light of my thoughts.  When I don’t say something, she listens even more.  In a way, she understands me better than Taila ever did.  Elmiryn.  I have to find her.  Not because I need to, but because I want to!”

Taila’s eyes narrow.  “Kiss me,” she orders.

I looked at her, a frown of my own on my face.  I always did what she told me.

…But Taila never asked me to do something she knew I wouldn’t do already.

“No,” I whispered.

Her eyes went wide.  “What?”

“No,” I say, firmer.  I forcefully removed her hands from my waist and shoved her away from me, before backing up into the wall.

Taila sat up again, a foreign look coming over her eyes.  Suddenly, she wasn’t so attractive anymore.  “Nyx, what–”

“First of all, spirit,” I hissed, “Taila never wanted me that way, no matter how much I longed for her too!  Second, even if she did, she would never force me in such a lewd manner.  And third…” My cheeks flare, but I smile, suddenly feeling giddy.  “My heart has found another!

The False Taila just looked at me, rock still, her face gone blank.  Then she sat up and spoke–only the voice that entered my ears was not like Taila’s anymore.  It sounded like some warped version of a man’s.  It was deep and dry, but layered with a high squeak.  The impostor fixed me with a bored look.  “Mmm.  Yet for all your insights, you still played along.  Clearly, our fetishes take time to leave us,” the spirit murmured, crossing its legs.  The amethyst eyes were gone in a blink, replaced with a void black.  It gave a melancholy sigh and looked down at its lap “Ah, vermagus.  You did tease me so.  It’s been quite a bit of time since I’ve last lain eyes on your kind…your clan brought a unique flavor to the experience…”

I looked to the ground, my curious jubilation withering.  “You crawled into my head.  Saw my…most personal thoughts…”

“It’s what I do, stupid thing,” the spirit shrugged.  “I see and I exploit.  I do not beat around this sad little fact.”

“But you could’ve used something more…recent.”

“I felt more turmoil over this chimera than did I over your latest fancies.  Redheads?  Quite the leap, vermagus.  Yet still too fresh for me to twist and demean you by.”

I glared.  “You are a foul thing.”

“Aye.  Perhaps.”  The skin about its eyes began to dry and shrivel, the veins turning a stark blue through the skin.  I grimaced as the things eyelids began to pucker.

I narrowed my eyes. “I started to wonder as we went through those halls, looking into all of those nasty rooms.  All those people…it was all just you, wasn’t it?  This entire place is just you and the atrocities you can think up, isn’t it?  One big trap.  Why didn’t you pull us in?  Why didn’t you try to ensnare us at the start?”

The spirit shrugged again.  For a creature of lust, it certainly seemed dispassionate.  The clothes about its shoulders started to rot and fall away, revealing the way its shoulders–once fine and beautiful–now turned disproportionate and sickly.  “You would have seen through my attempts.  Better to twist your perception and let you begin the illusion yourself.  It creates a stronger belief.  You chose to play along, remember?”

I said nothing to this, my lips pursed and my hands tensed to claws.  It was true.  I had let the spirit play with my memories, my fantasies, if only to pretend for a moment that things could have been different between me and Taila.  To pretend, for a moment, that I could apologize to her and be forgiven.  But I found my heart was no longer in it, as much as my body…reacted…to all that had happened.

We are a passionate people, indeed.

“How many times did you touch yourself to such thoughts, vermagus?  You, who proclaim love for another?” The spirit sent me a leer, its face cracking as its first true smile spread across its face.  I saw the last of Taila’s visage fall like bits of dead leaves to the ground.  What was revealed was a sharp face with mottled pale skin.  The chin thrust forward, the cheeks sunk in.  The neck started to crack and pop as it elongated, earning an impossible kink as it went.  “Speak true, vermagus.  Speak true for this spirit, ah yessss…”

Fury overtook me and I pulled at the shadows, making the room turn small around us.  The bed cracked down the middle as it shrunk beneath the spirit.  I put all the power into my voice as I could, hunched over and red in the face.  “Blasted creature, to twist my heart and make a game of it—I damn you!  Where is he!  Where is Farrel?

The door opened.  Tristi peeked his head into the tiny space, as if looking innocently for the powder room.  He flashed his fanged smile.  “Ah!  You finally got it!”

I looked at him, startled.  The spirit glanced at him lazily. Tristi started to enter the room with a great deal of squeezing.  The room, in its reduced state, seemed too small to contain all three of us now.  Even I was crouching a little bit to keep my head from the ceiling.  The champion of luck looked right ridiculous.

I shot him a withering look.  “You knew this whole time, didn’t you?”

He winked at me.  “Of course I did.”

“I thought you came along to help me.”

The champion of luck tutted and shook his head.  He finally managed to close the door behind him, then leaned on the wall.  “Now, now, sweetest.  My duty was to not contribute to your death!  That was all!”

I slammed my fist into the ceiling, and dust sprinkled down.  “That does me nothing!  You may as well have sat outside!

Tristi blinked at me, then rubbed his chin.  “Ah!  You are right!  I could have!  Damn, why didn’t I think to?”  I wanted to throw one of my fake books at him.  He shrugged, a slash of a smile on his deltaic face.  “Ah well!  I’m fond of you, dreamwalker, and I’m impatient.  I wanted to know immediately whether or not you’d die or succeed in your task, so that I might quickly collect my prize!”

“Have I been forgotten?” The spirit sighed, raising a lazy hand.  “Am I refuse in this farcical gathering?”  Black horns were sprouting from the sides of its head now.

I opened my mouth to yell at him when something tickled my ear.  I drew up, but cursed as I bumped my head on the ceiling.  In the future, I’d really have to think more carefully about how to shift the shadows–especially if they were bearing me in a metaphorical dream.  Rubbing my head, I heard the noise again, and my tawny eyes went wide.  “Did you hear that?” I breathed.

The spirit and Tristi looked at me funny.  “Hear what?” the man eventually asked.

“Shhhhh!” I cocked an ear and heard it again.  “There!  It…sounds like it’s coming from outside!”

“Vermagus, are you going mad?  Might I resume my psychological picking of you?” the spirit droned.  “There was this scene with ropes I found intriguing…”

I frowned at it, turning a hot red, then looked at Tristi who shook his head slowly at me.  He gave me a funny look and pointed at his ears.  “Sweetest, look at the size of my trumpets.  I think I’d hear whatever it is you’re hearing…and did I just hear right?  Ropes?

I ignored him as best I could.  As uncomfortable as this was becoming, a niggling feeling came over me.  Something was pulling at me…  “But it’s so clear!” I breathed.  “All around us is so quiet, and yet you can’t hear it?”

“But what, dreamwalker?”

“A whistle!”  I cried, looking at Tristi.  “I’m hearing…a whistle!

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn wondered if she’d done this to herself.  Unconsciously of course.  It sounded funny enough.  Confusing enough.  Hell, if she could, she’d be more than happy to play a joke on herself.  It’d be a riot.

…Of course, she’d need to kick her own ass, later.

Upon crossing the gateway, they fell some twenty feet into cold, salty water.  Elmiryn came up, coughing and flailing before she got her bearings enough to see where the shore was.  When she did, she nearly stopped swimming all together.  Quincy tore past her, gasping. Sedwick was nowhere to be seen.

“Get a move on!” the wizard had shouted, mid-breast stroke.

Elmiryn fell in with her, and soon they arrived on the sandy beach.  The warrior, on all fours, lifted her head.  Her eyes trailed over their new surroundings.  The sky, for the first time since they’d arrived in the Other Place, was dark.  There were boats at the docks.  An old building on the pier.  Quietly, she took up her whistle and cleared it of water as best she could.  At first, it just sputtered and spat.  But her tenacity was eventually rewarded with a smooth passing of her breath–for she still couldn’t hear the trinket.  But her companion’s light flinch next to her was all the indication she needed as to whether or not it could be heard.  She blew on the whistle three long times, as hard as she could.

“Elmiryn, do you know what that thing does?” the wizard asked, eyes narrowed.  “You aren’t giving me a brain tumor, or something, are you?”

The warrior didn’t look at her.  Just let her whistle fall against her chest.

Quincy sat on her haunches and watched her, frowning.  Sedwick appeared from the water, his body clear liquid–explaining why they couldn’t see him–and he trudged calmly their way.  He stopped in front of them, looking from redhead to brunette and back.  As the man’s body turned to flesh from the chest up, he crouched down.

“Elmiryn, what is it?” he asked, placing a hand on her shoulder.  His bald eyebrows were bunched and pressed up, making his forehead wrinkly.  “You’ve this look on you.  It makes me worried.”

She looked up at him.  What could she say?  What was the right emotion for this occasion?

…Elmiryn smiled, showing all teeth.

“Sedwick,” she murmured. “I’m home.”  She jumped to her feet with a hoot and punched a fist in the air.  “We’re in the fucking Fiamman kingdom!!”

“Tai’undu.” Quincy face-palmed.  “I’m worried now, too!”


Back to Chapter 22.2 | Forward to Chapter 23.1

Chapter 22.2

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn tongued the new cut on her lip, one hand on her stomach.  It was starting to ache.  She smirked at the brunette seated next to her.  “Feel better, love?” she asked.

Quincy ignored her, brow furrowed, cheeks still pink and a bruise blooming on her jaw.  The warrior probably would have let her get away with the first hit, if she hadn’t struck Elmiryn in the mouth, too.  After that, she’d felt retaliation was necessary. She didn’t feel angry, though, really.  She was aware that perhaps she’d gone too far.  She’d promised Quincy she’d leave her be, after all.  A schoolyard promise, but still…

Sedwick was in the process of picking something for himself.  The wizard had already had her pick, being decidedly faster than Elmiryn.  As the water elemental made his choice, the brunette had left the small room and gone upstairs.  There she’d taken out a piece of chalk from her magic pouch and was doing a sort of ritual with the boots she’d picked from the shelf.  Both women were seated against the wall adjacent to the stairs, cross legged, the wizard sitting forward to keep from touching the cut on her back.  She had dressed it with the help of Sedwick, using cloths found in a supply shed.

Quincy wore the pearl earring Elmiryn had seen.  When the redhead asked if she was certain it didn’t have a hex that would rot her ear off, the wizard just flicked the underside of her chin and snapped out something in Fanaean at the warrior.  By default, the warrior decided anything foreign that Quincy said to her was likely something along the lines of, “Bitch,” or “Idiot.”

Elmiryn had pushed the jeweled dagger into her belt where it pressed into her hip.  She needed a holster for it, but that’d have to do for now.  The whistle she wore around her neck, looping a thin strip of cloth through the ring at the end of it.  The cloth she’d torn from her chest wraps.  With Quincy muttering things beneath her breath next to her, the warrior took to inspecting the item again.  She gave it another soft blow.  The wizard nudged her with a glare.

“What?” Elmiryn chuckled out.

“Knock that off!” Quincy snapped.

“What, this?” The warrior held up the whistle.

“Yes!  I’m trying to concentrate!”

“I can’t hear it.  Why can’t I hear it?”

“Why would you need to?”

Elmiryn blinked at this.  “…Good point!”  She gestured at Quincy’s boots with her chin. “What’re you doing anyway?”

Quincy sighed and looked back at the boots.  Now around the circle, she had drawn four odd symbols.  “I’m trying to divine its uses.  Henriette doesn’t know what it does, and I’m not putting them on till I’m certain.  If I don’t like them, I’m getting something else.”

“You put the earring on without a problem.”

“It was open to having an owner,” the wizard returned simply.  “I’m more surprised you were able to use that dagger without much preparation!”

Elmiryn shrugged, looking at it.  “Maybe it isn’t all that powerful.”

“Maybe you’re changed nature has something to do with it.”  The redhead cut the woman next to her a razor sharp look, which the brunette received coolly.  “Wizardry isn’t a game.  People think all you do is pick an item up and use it.  While that could be the case for low-level items, carelessness can lead to you getting your eyes burned out of their sockets.”

“Lucky me, I guess.”

“Let’s see if you still say that once we’re back in our world.”

Elmiryn narrowed her eyes at her.  “What do you mean?”

Quincy sighed and rolled her eyes to her.  “You haven’t even thought about that?”

“I don’t see what I’m missing.”

“If you’re so much better here, and if you’ve been changed, then how do you think you’ll feel when you’re home? Better…or worse than before?”

Elmiryn clenched her hands to fists.  She crossed her arms and leaned her head against the wall.  “We’ll see,” she murmured. “After all, you said that might not be the case.  Maybe I just ‘lost’ something.  Your words, not mine.”

“Don’t pout, for heaven’s sake.  I just wanted to make you aware of a point.”  Quincy fixed her eyes on her, brow wrinkled.  She seemed to forget her task for the moment.  “Elmiryn, what did you learn while you were away?  What did you find?”

The warrior closed her eyes for second, then opened them again.  “The number five.”

“And that means…?”  The brunette shrugged her mouth and held up a hand.

“Your name.  ‘Quincy’.  Isn’t that a boy’s name?”

Quincy’s voice soured.  “Elmiryn, get on with it.  What about the number five?”

“I once had someone in my command with that name.  He said he was the fifth son.  Five.  That’s what your name means.  It means ‘the fifth’.  You are number five.”  Elmiryn sat forward with a snap, her brow dipping low as she stared a hole into the opposite wall.  “Before I found you, I met that twig spirit.  He was the one who showed me how to travel in this world.  We came to a crossroads that split five ways, and he said to take the last road before I could reach the first.  Then I found you.  You were the fifth.”

Quincy leaned forward too, her eyes bright.

Elmiryn went on, fiddling with her whistle.  “Finding Graziano was my fourth.  My next path will reveal someone else…maybe something else.  The twig spirit said the last path was my true desire.  Since it knew this, I don’t think Meznik is the one who created this…I think…I did.”

“You?  You made the paths?”

“If you don’t know yourself, this place feeds on your…your divisions.  The Other Place reacted to my animus, my goals.  My fears.  I was torn apart, body and soul, floating in nothing, but when I brought myself together again, I unknowingly carved the pathways leading to the shards.  Five.  Like the five elements that make us.  Air, fire, water, earth, and infinity.” She counted them off her fingers, then held up her hand, fingers spread.  “If you had been torn apart like me–if you had been changed, been lost, been pieced together like me–then you’d have created five paths too.  Spirits are singular in thought, and thrive in their elements.  Their goals and feelings are simple, but intense.  They carve out straightforward roads for themselves in this chaos world.”  She paused, and wiped at her mouth.  Then she placed a hand on the side of her head and shook it.  “But I didn’t…I couldn’t…I didn’t know…”

“How can we use this information?” Quincy mused.

“When I followed Meznik’s trail, guess what I found?”  The other woman waited for her to continue.  The warrior smiled suddenly.  “I found five paths.  A crossroads, like mine.”

“Meaning…Meaning that–”

“Meznik came here, and he was upset.  He said this wasn’t his territory.  Maybe he was torn apart because of that?  Maybe his consciousness created those crossroads he has to travel now?” Elmiryn stopped and rubbed her face.  She breathed in deep and exhaled slowly.  She said into her hands, “Or they could have been there for a long time.  Maybe he’d been here before.  He may not have always been on bad terms with the other astral demon.”  Then she dropped her hands and smirked at Quincy.  “When I arrived at his crossroads, that was about the time you tried to contact me.  A part of me was still with you all.  When I lost contact with you, I just kept on.  Meznik’s first path was closed.  So I went down the second path.”  The woman started to chuckle.  “I stood at the threshold of the Window and looked in.  Went down the third and did the same.  Then the fourth.”

“What did you see?” Quincy breathed.

Elmiryn leaned in, her smile taking on an edge.  “Trees.  In different places of the world–OUR world.  Fucking trees.  Like Nadi had to destroy.  All thriving.  All singing.  And you wanna know what they sang about?”  Again, the wizard just waited for the warrior to continue.  The redhead did so with a low voice.  “Revolution.”

NYX____________________________

I suppose to other people I come across as devoutly religious.  I never really gave it any thought.  Religion was so a part of my culture that sometimes I wasn’t even aware of its presence.  It was embedded into our practices, our traditions, our outlooks.  Sexuality is a natural part of nature, and being creatures of nature, we do not shy away from it.  I remember once hearing of a fertility temple in one of the outer villages of the Ailuran Nation.  Phallic statues.  Ritualistic sex.  But the fertility temple was changed into a chaste temple, honoring the family.  Public view on sex, done outside of the goal of procreation, was once a thing behind closed doors, I’d heard.  It was population spikes that changed that.  It costs to feed so many mouths, you see.  But we’re spiritual creatures, and we feel passion acutely.  If we could not fornicate for one reason, then we’d find another reason, and so long as we avoided excess, we said none could fault us.  Sometimes I wonder if my people were really any different from the Fiammans.  Societal needs still shaped religious doctrine, after all.

I suppose to other people I come across as devoutly religious.  I have my beliefs.  I still follow my goddess, though she may scorn me, and I still struggle with my spirit, that it might one day find damnation, and in finding it, be punished for no more than just the things done in my past, and not my present.

Amusing.  What I have to hope for, is to be allowed punishment.  I was anathema, wasn’t I?  A thing outside of nature, with her Twin?  For a while it seemed entirely likely that I’d be locked out of the life cycle completely.  Lacertli gave me a way to ensure that doesn’t happen.  He gave me a way to right my debts against harmony.

Speaking of harmony, I have my feelings regarding flagrant sex and hallucinogenic stupors, and they are not very kind.  Such things diminish the spirit, and rot the mind.  This creates imbalance and chaos.  This was abhorrent to me.

As we pressed into the mysterious labyrinth that was the hallways of the whorehouse, Tristi was curiously stoic about the various scenes we passed.  At the start of our journey, with a flip of a coin (“And just a little luck,” he whispered,) and we took the left path, which tunneled a lime and yellow on the walls before the paint bruised purple, then angry red.  I knew our way was twisting, even as we walked, but my feet did not slip.  I swallowed, my heart leaping into my throat every time we looked into a room.  We were descending deeper into this hell, and the visions of the Somnium were intensifying.

What was this really?  If I weren’t in the Somnium, if I weren’t in this mirror-world dimension, then would the first hallway we traveled down stopped after only a few doors?  Would we have been staring into a wall?  Somehow, we’d passed through some sort of gateway–crossing a barrier between the reality and the living consciousness of our environment.  It didn’t matter that this was physically impossible.  What mattered was what that vile establishment had created–the years of memories and fantasies and emotions that coated the walls and the floors and the ceilings which smashed without boundaries

There was no plan.  We should have had a better plan.  But at the time, all we could think to do was look in.

None of the doors were locked.  I wished every time, but they were always free to open for anyone to waltz in…or join in, I suppose.  Not that I was interested.

…I wasn’t.  Really.

There was one room we came across where the walls were a pristine white, the floors covered in a large rippling canvas, the ceiling domed and splattered with a red material.  Initially I thought it was blood, until I took note of the little imp with greenish skin and just one ear (the other gnawed off) taking up tomatoes and throwing it at a naked man at the other side of the room.  He had a good arm, that thing, and when the tomatoes struck at high speeds, the man moaned.  We left at about around the time the man came all over himself.  I saw it as the door swung shut and tried to banish it from my memory.

“I’d say to each his own, but somehow I think that’d become hackneyed, here…” Tristi muttered.

We traveled on. I wanted to ask my companion how he came to press the veil–to cross that barrier between the Real World and the Somnium.  I had somehow gotten the impression that I was the only one capable of such a feat…but the champion of luck had promised to accompany me in my search, did he not?  Surely, he could not have discovered Farrel’s whereabouts without somehow coming here on his own.  That said, he’d already known how to enter this bizarre pocket of reality.  One thing I noticed, though, was that Tristi’s glasses were higher up on his nose, and when he wanted to look at something, he tilted his head back to look through the crescent moon lenses.  Maybe they afforded him some special sight?  That didn’t explain how he could hear me.  But since having him there helped me, I found no reason to question that just right then.  There were more pressing matters to deal with.

During our search, one door I opened revealed to me a giant bed room, befitting that of a noble, with its plush couches, coffered ceiling, and satin sheets.  The bed was massive and circular, with a headboard as tall as the ceiling.  The overall color scheme was light bone with rich taupe, accented here and there by gold trimmings and wine-colored fabrics.  The floor was white marble, the Talmorian carpets the last sign of status my harrowed mind could pick out before it filtered in the taut, handsome bodies, slick with oil.  The indiscriminate hands, the soft murmurs, the glazed looks.  I told Elmiryn about this scene in particular, through much stammering, and she just bopped me lightly on the head.  “The first thing you noticed was the decor?  Are you fucking serious?” Looking back, this reaction wasn’t far from my own.  But then I thought about it more.

For an orgy, those people were really quiet.

There were the soft cries of pleasure, yes, and now and again, I could hear the heady mumblings of the participants egging each other on.  I was more aware of the sound of the Fiamman lamps flickering than the twenty or so people fornicating in various imaginative positions.  None were hurried.  None were rough.  And then I came up with a reason for my glossing over the scene.  It makes me a bit uncomfortable but my theory is this…

Whenever there was a full moon, my village moved as one to a safe place in the forests.  There, we all stripped, and stood open to one another.  Human beings find this alien and strange.  The idea of families being naked together makes them disgusted.  But in nature, there is no guile in emotion.  Only in intent.  Being naked before others, even men, wasn’t a new thing for me.  It was always the intent that colored it.  The amount of importance one placed on certain aspects of the situation could tip things one way or another.  I remember my oldest brother, Thaddeus, sporting full erections plenty of times, not because he was aroused so much, as just a natural occurrence of his body.  He’d complain about it.  I wrestled with my little brother, Atalo, shortly before shifting–our bodies covered in mud, and our voices filled with laughter.  It was innocent.  Safe.  My mother was a different matter.  She was quite open about her interest in the opposite sex and didn’t hesitate to display as much, even with her young about her.  I’ve already mentioned how she brought strange men home with her.  It was outstandingly casual.

These people were so casual.

I shut the door with a snap when I realized I was staring.  Reacting to the–

“Hmm?  Not there, then?” Tristi asked, looking at me.  He was further up the hall.  We’d split up to speed up the process.

“No,” I said.  I tried to will away the knot in the pit of my stomach.  The warmth between my legs.

To the next door.  Here, I opened up to a room filled with a vast network of ropes, not unlike that seen with Syria’s chains.  At this center of this confusing tangle was a woman suspended by the torso, wrists, and ankles.  Her skin was raw where the rope held her, her head covered in a black cloth bag.  At the far wall of this room sat three figures.  Their bodies were disproportionate, with legs shorter than their torsos, and arms far too thin.  They wore plain white masks and dark robes, and from the hoods came long dark bones, like those tall giants I had seen before.  Something of this really startled me and I shut the door.

“I tried asking where your friend was, but these people just ignore you,” Tristi said with a sigh.

“They can’t hear us,” I said with a dry mouth.

“Why’s that?”

I didn’t answer her.  I felt an understanding creep up in me, but I was repulsed by it.  I didn’t want to devote my whole attention to it.  Couldn’t.  I just went and opened another door.

The rest of the sights were equally as mortifying as the last, but some were just…disturbing.  In one particular instance, I opened the door to a small dungeon-like room, where one man stood, fully clothed but barefoot on a blood slicked floor, his back to us, but his right arm jerking before him as he looked down at his feet.  I only caught a glimpse of it–just a crimson red pile of something on the floor.  Then suddenly, Tristi’s four-fingered hand flew before my eyes and gently pulled my head back.  He shut the door without a word and moved on.  My eyes fluttered, and I stared into the painted wood, breath short, a cold sweat over my skin.

Words failed me.  I retched and a small splash of vomit hit the back of my tongue, but I swallowed it down again.  I hadn’t eaten for some time, so there wasn’t much to eject.

Now I refused to look into any of the doors.  “Go on, tell me if he’s there.”

“Oh come now, dreamwalker–”

“Tristi, I will not–

“You repressed little thing you–”

“You can’t tell me this doesn’t–”

“Some of it.  A bit.  I’ve seen worse, really.” But Tristi, bless him, didn’t make me look.

We must have looked into a hundred rooms.  This hallway branched off into another hallway, then another, and another…they never seemed to end.  I don’t know how much time went by.  It may not have been long.  We didn’t linger at any of the doors we opened.  But I needed a rest.  I sat on the floor and had the edge of my right palm pressed against my eye, knees drawn up, my chin a wadded ball.  I still had nothing to cover myself up with and it made me feel like a heathen.

My companion stood over me, his abalone eyes shining in the blue light that now swathed us.  It reminded me of my adventure in Gamath, where the slime on the river guardian’s cave walls shone with different colors.   “Dreamwalker.” The voice over me was even.  Perhaps indifferent.

“I need a moment,” I said, voice just above a whisper.

Tristi didn’t argue, nor did he prod.  He just sat down next to me, body looking too long as his lanky legs stretched out before him.  He rubbed his forehead.

“Tristi, what’s the worst you’ve seen?  Ever?” I mumbled, looking at him sideways.  I pressed my hand next to my temple.  My other arm was pressed between my lap and my chest.

“A bad question.  Open-ended.  That’s not what you want to know, sweetest.”

My ears gave a twitch at ‘sweetest’, but I ignored it.  “I feel like I’ve seen the worst.”

“You feel like you’ve displayed the worst.”

I frowned at him.  “Excuse me?”

Tristi, who had pressed his head back into the wall, rolled it my way, eyebrows high.  “Nyx, you are a repressed little thing.  Stop drawing parallels with extremes.  You aren’t those people in the rooms…and even if you were?  There are far worse fates.”

My hands turned to two balled fists.  “These people are agents of lust.  They are driven by their carnality.  I am not like them.”

“Your assertions only outline the depth of your insecurity,” the champion of luck calmly returned.  “…But you’re right.  You’re not like them.”

“Thank you,” I snapped out, turning my face away.

Tristi went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “What you are, Nyx, is the opposite.  You do not let yourself want, not because you feel for yourself, but for the people around you.”  I heard the ring of a coin being flipped high.  “Let this coin tell me I’m a liar.  I call for the crown.”

I rounded on him.  “I can tell you what luck couldn’t tell a halfwit, and that is this–you know nothing.”

“Wrong.” Tristi caught the coin and slapped it to the back of his hand.  He held a small bronze pence to me.  Fiamman mint, displaying the crown.  “What I don’t know, is why someone of your nature, so liberal in many realms of thinking, would leave herself so chained by linear thought?”

I swallowed and glared forward.

Tristi tapped his lap and fidgeted next to me.  “I’m going on ahead.  I want to get this over with, I’ve other matters to deal with.”  He didn’t sound harsh or cold when saying this.  Just honest.  It still hurt.  I was falling on old ways again, as Lacertli would put it.  I needed to drag myself out of this.

I rubbed at my eyes and heard his boots clicking down the hall.

After a time, I made myself stand.  I was suffering from chills.  Goosebumps flashed over my skin as I went to the door nearest me.  I knew we hadn’t checked it yet.  After so many tries, I doubted that there was anything to be found in these myopic sex scenes.  But for some reason, I went ahead and opened the door.

I wasn’t greeted with a dungeon, or a noble’s bedroom, or a clean whitewashed room.

I was met with my old room in Tosmai.  The door that led out to the hallway displayed darkness.  The window over my bed was similarly dark.  The towers of books were all just where I had left them.  There, in the corner, was my tower of science.  There, next to my desk, my tower of history.  There, next to my bed, my tower of fiction…

I walked in, conscious of something.  I glanced at the door.  Never had we fully entered any of the rooms, nor had we ever closed the door behind us.

I heard a cough and looked around.  My throat clenched tight and the tears came faster than I could’ve hoped to stop them.

“Nyx…” a woman said.

I flinched and stepped back, gaze turned to the ground.  This was a bad idea.  I couldn’t do this.

“Stop,” she commanded.

My feet froze.  My wide eyes were clouded, my breath shuddering.  A hand lifted my face up.  I met amethyst eyes.  I could smell the honey off her skin.

“Taila,” I whispered.

The door closed behind me.

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy frowned at her knees.  “You aren’t telling me everything.”

Elmiryn blinked at her.  “S’cuse me?”

“I’m saying you’re leaving something out,” The wizard flicked the earring she wore.  “You wanna know what this does?  It lets my mind know what’s truly relevant.  What’s important about the things you’re saying.  But it’s only taking pieces of what you’re telling me.  Meznik’s crossroads, the trees that you saw…but not how you found them.  Peeked in?  Elmiryn, you really just peeked in? You didn’t try to cut the trees down?”  The wizard wanted to add, “You figured out all that about the creation of the crossroads, about how this alternate dimension reacts to a conflicted mind, about the greater meanings behind the phenomenon of fives by yourself?  All this while ‘being one’ with the fucking rocks, and dead people, and dusty air?  You figured this out, devoid of all evidence?”  But she refrained.

Elmiryn sucked at her teeth.  She shrugged one shoulder, her smile turned crooked.  “Okay.  So I went down the third path.  I tried to destroy it–the tree, I mean–but I just felt the song all around me.  Trying to dominate me.  That song, over and over in my head.  I swore I used to hear it as a child, but maybe that was a lie?”

Quincy felt the music creep back into her head, and willed it out.  Hard not to think about, what you’re trying to think about… “How did you try to destroy it?”

“This’ll sound weird…”

“Elmiryn, go on.”

“No…”

“Tell me.”

The warrior glared at her.  “I tried…to bite it.  In half.”

Quincy’s eyebrows went high.

Elmiryn snorted.  “I told you it’d sound weird.  I wasn’t in the same form as I am now.  I didn’t have legs and arms.  I didn’t have a face.  I was just…there.  And I tried to scythe through it, with my spirit, but I couldn’t.  What happened instead was…” Her voice trailed off and her eyes turned misty.  This reaction bewildered the wizard.

“…Elmiryn?”

“I tasted it.  The tree sap.  The bark, the leaves, everything.  But really, the tree sap.  And you know where I’d tasted it before?”

Quincy’s face settled into a grim stone.  “When Meznik changed you.  He gave you tree sap!”

The warrior nodded, perhaps a little too eagerly, because she sat back with a shuddering inhale and jumped to her feet.  She went to the stairs and looked down the stairs.  Then she laughed, and pointed at Sedwick.  “Look!  It’s the human cannon ball!  That helmet looks fetching!”  She started to go down the steps.  “Here, lemme polish you, baldy–”

Quincy stood and grabbed her by the arm.  “Hey!  But the trees!  Where did you see them?  And what about the fifth road?  And the first?”

Elmiryn glared at her.  She jerked her arm away and snapped.  “I don’t know exactly where they are.  The one down the second path was in a jungle, the third up in snowy mountains, and the fourth on a cliff overlooking a green sea.  The first road was probably the tree Nadi and Sedwick killed.  I couldn’t get to the fifth.”

“Why not?”

The warrior looked at her as if she were stupid. “Because I had to stop to help you and Sedwick.”

Quincy didn’t try to grab her again.  Elmiryn went down the stairs and engaged Sedwick and Henriette.  The brunette just watched the woman.  She started to go back to her place at the wall when the toe of her right boot smeared the line of her divination circle and knocked over a boot.  She felt a rush of air, like it had been released, and she cursed.  She sat again, and took up her chalk.  She set to work, doing the spell over again.  But even as she redrew the circle, she couldn’t stop thinking about Elmiryn’s words.

The crossroads were like a keyhole, Quincy decided.  Better to call it that, as a crossroads suggested a divergence of intent.  This was a singular, if convoluted, way forward.  Elmiryn had unconsciously asked for a way to unlock what she’d needed.  This dimension, impressionable by anything strong enough to shape it, reacted to her request.  Thus the five paths.  She was like the key, unlocking the things that she needed.

…How much power did one need to command those chaotic energies?

“This doesn’t mean that Elmiryn orchestrated what happened to us.  No one did,” Quincy thought.  “But she found a means to find us, because we had things she needed to achieve her ends.  When she found me, she found two allies, and a great deal of information to get her started.  With Graziano, she discovered further things about herself, and now she has new tools at her disposal.  She mentioned elements.  There certainly seems to be a correlation.  First she encountered the strength of water, in Nadi.  Then we arrived here, inside the earth.  What will be the next element?  Is there some sort of order I’m missing…?”

The woman screwed up her mouth.  “Upon acquiring everything she needs, she’ll be able to find what she wants down the last path.  Her true desire.  I wonder what that is?  Meznik, maybe?” The wizard chewed her lip as she drew another four symbols around the circle.

“She said that if I’d been torn apart like she had, then perhaps I’d have made a crossroads too.  But I don’t think that’s true.  I think the only reason she had the ability to make those five paths was because of the changes that Meznik did to her.  She says he thinks like he’s an artist.  Artists create things, change things, manipulate materials to exact a final product.  Elmiryn, for a little while there, was able to control the dust and the undead.  She could have brought the ceiling down if she hadn’t reigned herself in.”  The woman rubbed her brow in frustration.  “Listen to me, I’m drawing connections without enough evidence.  Master Saerth would have scolded me.  I need to know more about Meznik’s abilities.  I need the full story from Elmiryn about Gamath.  About how she became cursed.  About her life before that.”

Quincy held out her arms and muttered a short incantation.  The dust from the chalk swirled about the boots in a soft cyclone.  “But I think it’s safe to assume that whatever Meznik can do, Elmiryn is learning.  Her very nature has changed…is still changing.  That’s the real significance of Meznik having crossroads of his own.  There’s a direct connection between the two of them now.  I bet if we could get more information about Elmiryn’s new nature and how her pathways work, then we can understand this astral demon and discover what he wants to achieve.”  The wizard’s hands clenched as she settled her arms back onto her lap.  “…He got mad that we came here.  Elmiryn suggested that the crossroads weren’t recently created, but perhaps made long ago?  It’d explain the trees.  If this was where his spell originated, then we could end it all here and now!”

Quincy held her hand over the boots and closed her eyes.

“Stop being so stubborn…” she murmured at the boots.  “Lend me your power and I’ll give you a purpose.”

She felt a pin prick of warmth in her mind.  Then it blossomed and spread, carrying with it wordless understandings.  The woman smiled slowly.

Sedwick and Elmiryn stood over her.  “You ready?”  The man now held the silver mallet.

Quincy took off her boots and squinted up at them.  “Hold on.  I found out what these things can do, and it’s nice, but I forgot one important detail.  Something I can’t figure out with a spell.”

“Which is?” Elmiryn asked, her lips smirking lightly.

The wizard struggled to pull on one of the enchanted boots and felt a light tingle of energy sweep through her.  “I can’t wear these if they don’t fit right, now can I?”

But they did, and so they left the chamber.

Henriette led them through the city, which felt devoid of everything now.  Just as Sedwick had predicted upon their arrival, the gateway was to the north.  Quincy felt a rush go through her at the sign of the gate.  “Your people…did they know of this dimension, Henriette?”

The gate was a massive creation up on a small platform, set against the mountain wall, with great gears and grinding wheels that rolled two fifty foot slabs of rock.  Chiseled into the rock was something in the dead dwarven language, Humi.  A series of life-sized dwarf statues stood at attention leading up the stone steps.

The warrior shrugged at Quincy’s question.  “I know a great many things about my people, but not everything.”  She pointed.  “This’ll take everything I have to open the stone doors by my self.  It’s on a timer, so ye’ll have to run through.  I’ll be gone before I see you go.”

“And the undead?  I have them jumping off a bridge right now.  I bet it’ll be really satisfying to see them go!”

The dwarf waved that away.  “I’m tired,” was all she said.

Elmiryn nodded.  “This is goodbye, then.”

Henriette looked at her, then smiled.  “Aye!”

Sedwick bowed at her.  “You’re a credit to your people, Henriette.”

The dwarven warrior just pshawed him.  “None o’ that!  Jes’ get on, already!”

Quincy smirked.  “Thank you.”

Henriette looked at her, her stern eyes narrowed.  She wagged a finger at the wizard.  “You mind yourself!”  She pointed next at Elmiryn.  “And keep your promises!”

“Count on it,” Elmiryn said.

Without further comment, the ghost vanished with a hiss and a pop.  Somewhere, they heard a loud crank, then a click.  The gears and the wheels began to turn.  With a great rumble, the doors began to slide apart.  Quincy couldn’t see the actual portal.  All she saw was the rock wall behind the doors.  Sedwick and Elmiryn, on the other hand, sighed in relief.  It was mildly frustrating, being left out of the loop that way, but given what she’d have to sacrifice to see as Elmiryn did, perhaps it was for the best.

In short time, the doors were completely open.

“Onward and forward,” Quincy breathed.  She glanced at Elmiryn. “This’ll be your third path.”

The warrior grinned.  “Fuck it.  Three’s my lucky number anyways!”

Sedwick looked at them, confused. “What’re you two talking about?”

The women exchanged looks.  Then Elmiryn looked at him with a snicker and patted him on the shoulder.  “Sorry.  We’ll explain it to you on the other side.”  The man looked put out by this, but there wasn’t time to address that.  The doors were sliding shut again.

Together, they stepped through the wall, and once more, they Traveled through the chaos.


Back to Chapter 22.1 | Forward to Chapter 22.3

Chapter 22.1

NYX____________________________

Now I’m certain,” Tristi started, in a voice befitting a dramatic tenor, “That this is in no way a socio-political remark on the capabilities of your gender, race, or species.  I’m certain that this will be detrimental in my not contributing to your death entirely by the parameters of this situation.”

“By being a man?” I deadpanned.  My eyes were furious lenses, drinking in the champion of luck’s changed hands–the thick wrists, the meaty palms, the short thumbs, the large knuckles–the strong jaw, and pronounced cheekbones.  I flinched at the apple that bobbed up and down his throat, and felt like pushing it back in.  As long as I’d lived, I had never encountered something so…

Gods, what were the words?

The woman—er, man—pulled out his half-moon glasses from an inside pocket, and put them on with a punctilious air.  “…Okay, I confess that the ramifications of this sudden change is still beyond me.  However, I’m certain it’ll do something good!”  He made a show of pumping a rousing fist.  His jacket strained against him as he flexed his bicep.  Everything looked too small on him now.

I batted away the sand from my body as I stood up.  “The one certain ramification of your base conduct is my vexation.”

Tristi blinked at me as I bent over and twisted around, batting at my legs and bottom.  Then he sat back.  From the corner of my eyes, I saw him look down at his lap.  “And it seems a ramification of your state of undress has commanded a great deal of attention from my anatomy!”

I practically fell over from my mortification.  Slapping hands to my bare breasts, I turned and stormed away.  “Cajeck!” I screamed over my shoulder.  If I’d been a cat, my hackles would have been raised.

There was a loud “Ahh!” behind me, and I heard the man scramble to catch up. “Your discomfort aside, I’ve already got an idea!”  He danced to my other side, like a buoy on the ocean.  Stupid, considering he could easily outpace me with his long legs.  That fact made his behavior all the more irritating.  “Listen, listen–I can enter the establishment as a patron! It’d be a harder sell to go in there as a woman.  Downright suspicious even–that isn’t to say that a woman couldn’t drink from such debauchery should she wish, I mean, she’s entirely entitled to it every now and again, I say–”

I cut in.  “Tristi, your point?

“–My point being, that given this establishment and its history of patrons, a man is best suited for the task of asking around.”

“They’ll just let you do that?  Ask around?  I thought you said the spirit that had Farrel was dangerous!”

“A tyrant might be dangerous, but he may still walk marble floors in a crown and robes, may he not?  These are spirits, dreamwalker.  Not animals.”

I pouted.  “That wasn’t what I–”

MEANwhile, you may make use of your innate abilities to sneak in with me!  A champion of the Lizard King ought to find this as child’s play!”  These last words became strained and grew a little distant as he ceased hounding my back.  Then I heard the tinkle of belts.  Tristi grunted behind me.   I spared a quick look back at him.  I regretted it.  The man had stopped some ways away, and unbuttoned his pants.  He was in the process of trying to–to…ah…redirect himself, down his pant leg.

I squeezed my eyes shut and turned forward again. “Sweet Aelurus, Tristi, is there no way for you to carry yourself in a less shameful guise?” We began to ascend the steps leading back up to the platform.

“No,” he said, voice a little sigh of relief.  I heard his belts tinkle as he buttoned his pants again and caught up.  “Not at this moment, no.  Not unless I chance upon it with my luck.”

I cut him a look.  “So try your luck, then!”

“I’m saving that for later, silly girl!  I can’t go using that up with scarcely a care.  I’m the champion of Fortuna, yes, but there are limits, y’know.”

“This is so…”

“Distressing?  Upsetting?  Disgusting?  Nyx, my dear little dreamwalker, why do you have such an aversion to my current state?”

“Not your state.  Your lunacy maybe, but not your state.”  Even as I said this, I started to feel the creeping guilt of a hypocrite.  Was I any less mad?  Wasn’t I usually host to more than one voice in my head?  What a sad thing, that being singular in my thoughts and feelings was a new reality!  This made me melancholy, and my ire at Tristi’s heedless behavior dampened.

We neared the end the wharf.  The salt water was drying on my skin, leaving me pruney.  My hair still dripped wet.  As we passed the docks and the forest of ships, I was able to make out the sign of the whorehouse, which squeaked on a rusted iron post.  The Big Brick.  It was a broad two-story building, with a balcony fitted with a balustrade whose off-white paint stripped off from the coastal air.  The windows were large and square, with wooden shutters that never looked as if they had been opened.

“Nyx?” Tristi prodded lightly.  We slowed to a stop before the building.

“What,” I returned, voice as flat as a new metal sheet.

Since meeting him, this was the first time I heard something shy creep into his voice.  “Maybe you should call me…Tristan?”

“…Are you asking to be called Tristan, or are you asking me if I want to call you Tristan?”

“I…don’t rightly know.” Tristi flashed his fanged smile at me.  “The last time this happened, I didn’t have to worry about semantics.  Forgive my fumbling.  It’s new, even for me.  As I said before,” and here he sighed, “It’s been an age since I’ve had company…”

This sobered me enough to think hard on his question.  Slowly, I shook my head, “Well…I see no reason to start calling you anything else now.  It’d serve only to confuse me further!” I became aware of a knot releasing itself from between my shoulders.  I nodded at the whorehouse, my voice kinder.  “It’s odd, isn’t it?  Where are all the patrons?  The women haloo-ing from the windows?  The men stumbling out into the air?  It’s so quiet.”

“Yes…” Tristi rubbed his chin.  “It seems on its last leg, doesn’t it?  This particular wharf is not what it once was.  But don’t let appearances fool you!” And here he winked at me.

I frowned softly and looked up at the building once more.  Appearances, hmm…?

“Tristi, I can shift through layers–see things from the shadows and beyond.  How will you know where I am?”

“Don’t worry,” he said.  Then he stepped forward and opened the thin wooden door without prelude.  He turned and looked at me, “Are you ready, Nyx?”  Smoke curled from around him.  I grimaced, but closed my eyes.

My thoughts turned inward, and I traveled through cold canyons.  I crested the barriers of my mind and felt the world sigh over me…

ELMIRYN________________________

The time crept by.  Henriette returned–alone–and related her people’s request.  The family’s had to be together, with feet pointing eastward, hands crossed upon their chests.  When they laid hands on a body, the spirits guided them.  It was clear the ditch needed to be dug wider.  The woman dwarf suggested using some of the machinery–“They still work,” she asserted.  The work began immediately.  The ghosts collected their efforts to push stones along the north-western side of the ditch.  There, they began the tedious work of chiseling in long-winded names and dates.  Over the giant list was a simple quote, stating, “Here lies the innocent, who on the third day of winter, during the year three-thousand five-hundred sixty-seven, were cut down as one.  Though gone from the mortal life, their freedom lives on.”

Doreth, of the House of Emev, B. 3557; Ton of the House of Whertep, B. 3532; Jodafer of the House of Roliath, B. 3553…

Elmiryn, of the House of Manard, B. 3544.

She let her eyes wander the names and wondered what it was like to have an ending.  She didn’t tell the others her secret.  It would frighten them.  Repulse the ghosts and undo all they had done.

The truth of the matter was, she wasn’t controlling everything the undead soldiers did.

She hadn’t lied to Quincy when she said the only reason she had any control left was because there was some spirit left in the soldiers.  She was imposing her will, to a certain extent, by keeping them on the task she wanted them to.  She pushed out the evil corruption that had grown in them. (“Maybe that lingers in the air like a cloud?  Maybe it’s my fault Madreg and his men went crazy?”)  Elmiryn dug up the Belcliff militia’s good natures, their morals, their basic decency.  Some of it was hard to find.  Some had very little to begin with.  It was cruel in a way, to show them what they had become.  She directed their pain and desire for penance into doing right by the dwarves.  Most of the men didn’t remember who they were.  Without a life to answer to, did goodness for goodness sake hold any meaning?

She felt more like a school teacher then a necromancer.   She directed these husks of rotted flesh, a quarter filled with emotion and ethics, and scolded them whenever their minds turned to mischief.  They were like impressionable children.  Her nose wrinkled.

Bad thought.  The redhead left the matter alone.

So the Belcliff soldiers worked without much need for aid.  She kept tabs on them.  Felt them tug on the connection she held with them like dogs on leashes.  Just a little longer and she could let them all go.  She planned on making them jump off a bridge before she left.  The undead may believe their actions served toward their penance, but in her eyes they deserved the hungry dark of the Earth…

When Elmiryn heard Quincy ask Sedwick how much time had passed, the man just sighed.  The warrior sat on ground and closed her eyes.  They were tired from reading all the names.  She felt like she needed to read all the names.  After all, who was going to come here and remember?  Who was going to come here and care?  Did the changes they make translate to the real world?  Were the rocks and the soil moving of their own accord?

…If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were like kin to us poor souls!

Hours went by.  Then she heard a pair of feet crunch toward her over the dirt.  They stopped.  Elmiryn opened her eyes a sliver.  Quincy’s boots were at her side.  “Elmiryn.”

“Mmm,” She replied.

“It’s done.”

“Mmm!” The woman stretched her arms over her head and stood to her feet.  She dusted off the seat of her pants and grinned.  “I know!”

Quincy scowled at her but said nothing.  She turned and marched down the length of the massive grave.  Elmiryn glanced behind her at the inscriptions chiseled into the stone.

Físí, of the House of Crag, B. 3544–

Elmiryn lifted her eyes and followed Quincy.  They walked the length of the grave until they rounded the end.  Sedwick waited for them on the other side.  Next to him stood Henriette.  The air seemed devoid of that unearthly presence, suggesting that the other ghosts had already moved on.  The warrior found herself glad that they could find peace.  She had wondered if their attempts would be taken as too crude.  But there it was.  Henriette was the last to go.

The ghost in question was fainter than usual, and seemed in good spirits.  She pointed at the Belcliff soldiers.  “And them?”

“Into the dark, where they won’t bother a soul again,” Elmiryn answered.  At this, some already began to shuffle away, to the nearest bridge.

Fuck off and die, all of you.

“I’ll see the last of ’em go first, a’fore I move on.  But enough o’ that!  I must hold up our end of the bargain.”  She beckoned for them to follow her.

Together they traveled back into the city proper, where Henriette led them to a staunch building with a flat roof and two stone sentinels posted at either side of the arched entrance.  Through the cold passage they entered the building, where Henriette instructed Quincy to push about the sliding pieces of an odd mechanism on the opposite wall.  The ground shook as the center of the floor rolled back to reveal stairs leading down into a dark chamber.  The ghost pointed at the cold torches near the door.  “Strike those on, so that ye may see,” she grunted, then descended ahead of them.

They did as they were told, and Elmiryn wondered just what sort of vast treasures the dwarves were protecting in so simple a place, when the torchlight Sedwick carried illuminated the answers to her question.  In a small cold room, where her breath filled with dusty, stale air, Elmiryn laid her eyes on what were no more than a scrabble of items.  They were all set on wooden shelves on the far wall, and none were bigger than her sword.  She rubbed the back of her neck, nonplussed.

There were knee high black boots with metal plated leg guards and white fur piping up from the insides.  A curved jeweled dagger.  A simple domed helmet with a thick spine.  A small pearl earring.  A silver whistle.  Wire frames for glasses–but they lacked lenses.  Horseshoes.  A mallet with intricate engravings that was as long as Elmiryn’s sword.  There were many smithy items besides these–hammers, tongs, ingots, and pokers.

“Alright, then,” Henriette stood near the shelves and gestured at them with her hand.  “Everything here is enchanted in some way.  Madreg made them himself!  Go on, take what ye’d like!”

“This is what’s left of your treasure?” Sedwick said, rubbing his bald head.  “I was thinking…gold.  Jewels.”

“And they don’t look all that outstanding,” Elmiryn added.

“The soldiers carted off the shiny stuff,” Henriette said with a shrug. “Understand, we had other arcane items too, but those were either stolen or destroyed.”

Quincy placed a hand on her hip.  “Marshall Fafnir took whatever he could to pay the militia to keep quiet, then kept the rest for himself.”

“Whatever the reason, we’ve nothing left but these items.” Henriette pointed at each.  “I know they look like a rabble of trinkets, but don’t let’im fool ye!  Some can pack quite a punch!!”

The wizard started forth, making as if to point one out, but the warrior cut her off.  “Ah, ah, ah! We had a deal, didn’t we, Quincy?  Whoever killed the most, has first pick!  Technically, that’s me.”

At this Quincy soured but acquiesced without a word.  Elmiryn looked at Sedwick.  “You mind?”

The man shrugged.  “I’m not all that interested, so have at it.”

The warrior nodded.  “Henriette, can you help me out here?  What’s the most useful item I could grab?”

The woman dwarf looked at her uncomfortably.  “Er.  Well you see, I dunno.”

Elmiryn stared at her.  “What do you mean, ‘you dunno’?”

“I mean, Madreg knew better than I what these things did!”

“Henriette, can you at least tell us if they’re safe to the touch?” Quincy asked.  “That they won’t explode on us if we pick them up?  Turn us into goo?  Drive us mad?”

“They won’t,” Henriette said with a stern face.  No one moved.  After a moment, the woman seemed to falter under the scrutiny.  “Ah…I…at least I don’t think so…”

Elmiryn jerked her head toward the shelves.  “So! Quincy!  Wanna go first?”

NYX____________________________

I was some sort of fool. What was I expecting when I crossed the threshold of that awful building? Courting? A ball party? Too much rouge and garish outfits?  The Somnium revealed no underlying glamor to this scene.  It was equally abhorrent in the Real World, I was certain.

The tables were squeaky, some even lacking chairs, and the ceiling was riddled with such cobwebs that it was a wonder if these people knew what a broom was at all.  The haze in the room was quite thick, and as soon as I took in breath, I gagged and covered my mouth with my hand, opting instead for the length of my arm to provide me some modest cover of my chest.  There was but a corner of the room that seemed to have any design with regards to style–and this was a pathetic attempt, at that.  It was at the far corner of the room, past the few tired old sailors sucking in mind-altering smoke, their hairy hands occupied with mugs of grog.  The entryway to this space was curtained with a cheap sheer cloth that had been torn.  Past the entryway, the floor switched to sofa cushion and was piled with stained pillows of faded color.  Writhing bodies could be seen under the hot lamp.  To the right of this was the beginning of a hallway, lit with candelabras, where I saw many close, shut doors painted with numbers.

But some people didn’t wait for their privacy.

To my immediate left, near the door, a young woman was on her back on a table, her feet in the air, her plain cotton dress torn open at the front so that her sweaty chest could be seen by all, her brows pressed together in…ecstasy?  Pain?  I couldn’t tell.  Meanwhile, a large man fucked her slowly, buttocks clenching as he thrust in, then pulled back, and over again.  His face tilted toward the ceiling, mouth open, eyes closed. When my eyes fell on them I felt ill and ashamed.  I looked away, glaring at the ground.  “Disgusting.  That’s what this place is!” I hissed.

And surging through the fog were smoky beings who flitted here to there aimlessly.  They set me on edge, but they ignored us, never venturing far from the sailors breathing in the fumes of the pot that billowed this nasty agent into the air.  One middle-aged harlot sat on a sailor’s lap, bony fingers combing through the customer’s wiry gray hair.  I noted other companions, simply dressed, hugging the walls near the far end of the bar, waiting for the customers that wouldn’t come.  They were stooped and looked emaciated to me.  How much of this was true in the Real World?  How much of this was the Somnium’s twist in perception?

I wanted to run back out the door.

Tristi, on the other hand, seemed completely unfazed.  “Ah!” he breathed.  “They have witch’s smoke!  Must’ve been imported from Talmor.  Maybe I’ll have some before we go.”

I cut a look at him, and tried my best not to look at those making out in the corner, or the couple openly having sex on my other side.  “You’d pay for such things?”  Then I remembered that he couldn’t hear me.

Tristi walked to the bar, where a man with an eggplant nose sat dozing with a fist in his cheek.  I followed the champion and listened in as he engaged the bartender.

“Pardon me, sir.” He pointed to the wall behind the bar, where crude lithographs were displaying various sex positions and their costs.  “I’d like service 3…and a bit of 2.”  Fillatio, and ‘a bit of’ what the couple were doing in the corner.

How vulgar.

“In private?” the bartender asked sleepily.

I wondered at how Tristi could interact with the man.  He didn’t seem all there, and technically, were we not in another dimension?  The bartender was likely helping himself to the stock.  Was he alone?  I answered my own question when I saw, off in the corner toward the front of the main room, the mountain of muscle that I soon recognized as the hired security.  He had a hand on a billy club and seemed completely sober.  He frowned strangely at the bartender as Tristi gave a nod.

“In private.”  He glanced at the two fucking near the door.  “Very private.”

“Blond, brunette, reddy–”

“Surprise me.”

“Aye.  That’ll be one gold and three bronze pence.”

Tristi fished this out.  He slapped the gold coin onto the counter, then counted out the bronze pieces.  He dropped only two.  I looked at him in confusion.  I knew the champion could count, so why did he leave short change?  The bartender started to slide the coins to him without question when Tristi stopped his hand.  “Ah, wait!  I’ve counted wrong!”  He made a great show of taking back all the pieces, gushing with apologies, letting his wrist go limp and his head loll to the side in a way that now seemed awkward in his male state.  He counted the coins again, fangs flashing, and this time left but three bronze pieces.  The gold I saw him slip away, in a sleight of hand, up his glove.

The bartender frowned at the change.  “Still short,” he grunted.

Tristi shook his head, holding out his hands.  “Wrong!  I’ve already given you the gold piece.”

“You did not!”

“I assure you, I have!  Never once did my hands leave your sight, sir.”

“Liar!”  The bartender looked to the mercenary in the corner.  “He’s trying to swindle me, Errol!”

The hired mercenary sneered at him.  “Oh shaddup, Doyle.  No one’s tryin’ to swindle you…daffy old man, talkin’ to himself again…”

Ah.  So we were phantoms to these phantoms were we?  The bartender’s intoxication seemed to leave him open to ‘seeing’ things.

The man in question, under his cloud of malaise, frowned.  Then he looked sullenly at Tristi.  “Apologies…” he mumbled, taking the bronze pieces.  He handed her a key.  “Down the hall, third door on the left.”

Tristi took the key, then leaned in.  “Say…has anything strange happened lately?  Bumps in the night?  Bad brew? Foreigners?”  he slid across the gold piece he had withheld.

“That sir, I can tell ye!” The bartender said with a smooth swipe of the coin.  His eyes, polished umber glass, twinkled as he leaned in.  I rolled my eyes.  What an acid-addled fool.  “Had a rumble from the sea floor the other day.  Sent the waves knocking at the columns and was a frightful quake!”  He nodded in the direction of the wharf.  “The bay spat up a weird one on the beach.  Halfling.  He comes in, shivering and half-dead.  Said he’d been cast about in the water for a time.  Lips all chapped from the salt.  Purple eyes a craggy red.  The Boss was in that day.  Took a shine to him.  He brings the lad to his special room.  Haven’t seen him since.”

Tristi frowned.  “And would that special room be upstairs?”

The man’s look turned to a leer.  “No, lad.  Tis down below, in the pit of hell itself!” Then he cackled and turned to put away the coin.

Something about this chilled my skin.  Tristi thanked the man and proceeded down the hallway…but instead of entering the room he’d been told, the champion of luck kept walking on.  I wasn’t sure where he was going, but followed him just the same.  The walk lasted several minutes.  I was beyond bewildered.  Surely, the hallway could’ve been cleared in thirty seconds?  When we came to the perpendicular hall at the end of the stretch, I gasped.

The hallway stretched on, and on, as far as my eyes could see, where it branched in impossible directions to the north, south, east, west, up, and down.  It defied all physics.  Gaudy colors painted the halls that warped and twisted down and out of sight.  The building was in no way this big.  Finally, the Somnium had revealed to me this place’s true nature.  I shivered as I saw a dark liquid oozing from the open door of one room down the way.  A purple tentacle flopped through the open doorway of another.  I heard bizarre tongues, people moaning…people screaming.

Tristi pushed his half-moon glasses farther up his slim nose and sighed.  His eyes focused on the same places mine did.  Then he looked directly at me.  Could he have seen me all this time?  How?

“Nyx,” he said, with his hands on his hips.  “Are you perhaps regretting your heroic condition now?

ELMIRYN________________________

“No, no, Elmiryn,” The wizard said with a dry smile.  “Go on.  Pick.”

The warrior rubbed the back of her neck.  “Hah…damn.  Fine.”

She stepped forward and her eyes trailed over the choices.  She let her hand hover, teasing, contemplative of the contact that could birth any number of horrific possibilities.  Horrific.  Why did it always have to be horrific?  Why couldn’t it accidentally cure diseases, or accidentally make you rich, or accidentally make your sex life perfect?

Elmiryn stooped down to the third to last shelf where the whistle shone in the torchlight.  It looked just polished.  She gently picked it up.

She didn’t die, didn’t break out in boils.  So far, so good.

She put the mouthpiece to her lips and gave it a soft blow.  She heard nothing.  She looked at the others.  “Anything?” she asked.

“Any what?” Sedwick asked.  “It made no sound.”

“None at all?”

Quincy rolled her eyes.  “You can’t just expect a magical item to leap up and–”

Elmiryn blew again, harder.  Still she heard nothing, but for some reason, the others reacted.

Quincy flinched and slapped her hands to her ears, and Sedwick did the same, his body rippling to water.  Henriette popped out of sight before flashing back again, waving her arms.  “Enough, enough!” she shouted,  her skull showing through her ghostly visage.

“Sorry,” Elmiryn said with a grin.

“I can’t remember the specifics, but that whistle can only be heard by certain individuals…only I don’t know who.” Henriette rubbed her brow and frowned at it.

Elmiryn stared at the item intently.  She ran her fingers over the shape of it.  She picked up a sense of safety.  Of trust.  After a moment, she tossed it up into the air and caught it.  “I’ll keep this.”  Next, she picked up the dagger on the middle shelf.

“Getting greedy, aren’t we?” Quincy snapped.

“You can take what you can carry,” Henriette said with a shrug.  “It will serve no one else otherwise.”

“But why does she–”

Elmiryn pulled the dagger from the sheath.  Her ears perked to the sudden static that hit her.  The redhead turned to look at the others.  “Hey what happened?  Did you guys hear–?” her voice cut short.

Quincy had a hand on her throat, her azure eyes wide.  Sedwick looked bewildered. His mouth started moving but no sound came.  Not even the sound of the torch cracking could be heard.  “Weird…” Elmiryn breathed.  “Can you guys hear me okay?”

They all nodded.  Quincy furiously signaled for the woman to sheathe the dagger.  The warrior did so, and as soon as the blade clicked all the way in, the sound came back.

“–the dagger back in, or–” Quincy stopped.  “Oh.”

“It muted everything!” Sedwick exclaimed.

“Aye.  Everything but the noises she made,” Henriette said, thumbing at Elmiryn.

“Fat lot of good that’d do her,” Quincy said.  “Elmiryn moves like a–”

The warrior quirked an eyebrow and pulled the dagger from the sheath.  Quincy fell silent, and seemed to sputter off, her face turning red as her heart-shaped face screwed up with wrath.  Sedwick looked between them warily.  After a minute of dancing from the wizard’s attempts at taking the item away, Elmiryn sheathed the blade again.

Quincy’s voice came back. “–an ignorant, inbred, fucking harpy, and I’ll–”

Elmiryn unsheathed the dagger.  She watched as Quincy nearly went purple.  Sedwick tried to say something, a plea of sorts, at the redhead.  Giggling, the woman sheathed the dagger.

“–tear out your fucking–”

Unsheathed.  Sheathed.

“–plague on the common intellect–”

Unsheathed.  Sheathed.

“–you back surfing, cream-filled tart–”

Unsheathed.  Sheathed.

“–BITCH–”

Unsheathed.

Elmiryn could hardly breathe.  After a moment, she managed to crow, “I think I’ve made my choices!”

…Then Quincy socked her in the stomach.


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