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Break Time: Consumption of Beauty

This isn’t what you all were expecting, but I came up with this short story quite suddenly and thought it’d be fun to post in the mean time.  It isn’t a bonus update, nor is it even canon, but hopefully you guys will enjoy it!

–Illise M.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn had her arm around the girl’s shoulders as Nyx settled between her legs, and the woman rested her head back on the arm rest with a satisfied sigh. The microfiber couch was a shitty dark navy one that sank in toward the back, but the warrior decided that if she were to be sucked into a furniture’s vortex, it was pleasurable to do so whilst so entangled in one so soft and warm. She closed her eyes to the fluorescent lighting, the attenuated office ceiling, and the fan blades that blurred in and out of view at the edge of her vision.

She heard the fridge shut with a loud bang.

“What the FUCK!” Quincy shouted. Elmiryn couldn’t help it. The corners of her mouth went up. “Who ate my sandwich!?” the wizard snarled next.

“I didn’t!” Nyx was quick to say. Quincy must’ve set her sights on her to become so defensive. Elmiryn could feel the girl’s back stiffen before she even sat up.

The wizard’s voice was snide. “Oh, you didn’t? You eat like a horse! Who eats five triple-patty burgers in a row?”

“Apparently I do. But I didn’t eat your sandwich.” There was a growl in Nyx’s voice now, but the warrior could feel her trembling.

She scratched the girl’s back, still content with keeping her eyes shut. “Just ignore her, kitten. Riding on a dragon’s back makes her cranky.”

“Cranky? I’m pissed! Why am I the one stuck on Praxidice’s back?” the wizard complained.

The redhead shrugged. She started to focus on the hypnotic shup-shup-shup of the ceiling fan. “Because you’re oh-so-lovable?” she said sleepily.

Quincy seemed to ignore her. “And on TOP of things, there’s a cliffhanger. A missed update, and a FUCKING cliffhanger.”

“Isn’t there always a cliffhanger?” Nyx said with a shrug.

“…Or MAYbe the author is just waiting to kill you off with a herd of disgruntled midgets?” Elmiryn muttered. Nyx snickered as she settled back against the woman.

The redhead imagined Quincy giving her the finger. “Very funny.”

Finally, Elmiryn opened her eyes. They were in a gray break room. There was a sofa chair adjacent to the couch, and a table in the center of the room. The room was equipped with a microwave, a sink, a water cooler, a vending machine filled with junk food, and a low-end refrigerator with magnets on it. The room held little color and personality save for the magnets, and the others took advantage of this liberty with:

Make-your-own-poetry magnets (“How Now Brown Cow”), Farside magnets, intellectually subversive magnets (“Prose before hos.”), singing Coke Cola magnets, feminist magnets (“I can’t believe I forgot to have children!”), fantasy magnets with half-naked fairies, and finally, a single gay porn magnet featuring a well-hung body builder. The last one was Elmiryn’s contribution.  She loved the irony. The first time Paulo saw it, he’d been so distracted, he’d turned and bumped into Quincy, sending his open sandwich slavered in mayo all over the brunette’s chest. Elmiryn couldn’t stop laughing. The others tried to throw the magnet away, but she fished it out of the trash every time, and now it sat on the side of the fridge under the cabinet, where it would be least seen.

The redhead started to comb her fingers through Nyx’s hair and was met with a pleased sigh in response. “Will you relax for a second?” she said to Quincy. “We’re being given a break here.”

Quincy unbuckled her sword belt and slammed it onto the table. In the break room, they were freed from their in-story injuries, and the wizard seemed to want to take advantage of her healed shoulder by gesticulating as much as possible. “This isn’t a gods damned break for me.  I’m hungry, and my sandwich is gone.  That was my one comfort in this god forsaken limbo!  All I can think about is what happens next in the story–!”

“If you don’t like it so much, then take it up with the author!” Nyx snapped.  “For heavens sake, the way you’re acting it’s as if you got torn apart by monsters…oh wait.  You didn’t.

“Oooh,” Elmiryn giggled.

Quincy kicked a chair.  “Illise couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag.  Why couldn’t I come out of Robert Frost’s head!?”

“Maybe because he was a poet?” Nyx muttered.

“That’s beside the point.”

“Why don’t you go find Hakeem or something?” Elmiryn offered impatiently.

“He’s prepping for his return.” Quincy sat heavily in the sofa chair and groaned at the ceiling. “I want my reuben…”

“Well get over here, and I’ll give you a ‘reuben’ you won’t forget!” Elmiryn sent the wizard a leer over her shoulder, but this look quickly was swallowed up with a look of surprise as the redhead felt a sharp nip on her thigh. She gave Nyx a small shove and a glare. “Nyx, for gods sakes, why do you have to bite me!?” The girl glowered over her shoulder before she struggled up from the couch. The cold feeling between Elmiryn’s legs felt unpleasant, and she tried to pull the girl back. “Halward, you’ve got to be kidding me… Hey, come on. I was joking!”

Nyx pointed at Elmiryn. “Quincy, maybe you should be asking THIS woman what happened to your reuben sandwich?”

Elmiryn could practically feel the brunette’s eyes rest on her. She looked back at the wizard and said with a wagging finger that punctuated every word, “I did not have gustational relations with that reuben!”

Quincy squinted her eyes at her, her head shaking back and forth like she were trying to shake the woman’s sense of humor off. “Okay. Elmiryn? Your puns? They’re horrible. Stop. Now did you eat my sandwich?”

“You’re a real fucking detective, did you know that? Why would I have been the one to have eaten your sandwich? Because Nyx pointed a finger at me?”

“She’s pretty convincing.”

“I’m pretty convincing,” Nyx asserted with a smirk.

Elmiryn wagged a finger at the Ailuran. “Watch. You just watch. Next scene? No kiss.”

The girl’s broad face tinged pink. She ‘hmphed’ and looked away. “That’s not much of a punishment. Seems more harmful to YOU if anyone.”

“Won’t you be dying for my touch soon? I can live without your affection kitten, just as I lived without ever touching Quincy’s stupid sandwich.”

Quincy snorted and scooted to the edge of her seat. She was rubbing her chin and had a predatory look in her eye. “IS that the truth? You eat as much as Nyx does. My sandwich was the very image of beauty. How could you–an aesthetically driven creature–possibly deny something so sumptuous?”

“The same way someone ELSE has been denying me every single night,” Elmiryn grumbled. Nyx started moving toward the door, but the warrior leapt up and blocked her way. “Joking! That was a joke!”

The girl’s mouth was pinched white and her eyes were a little misty. “No, it wasn’t. Your thinly veiled metaphors are ribald, and I do not have to suffer them during my break. Move.”

“That sandwich was nothing to me!” Elmiryn said.  She pressed her wrists together and fixed her expression to resemble that of a kicked puppy’s. She prayed it worked. “C’mon, really, don’t leave me in here with this harridan witch. She wouldn’t know beauty if it bit her on the nose–!”

“My sandwich was beautiful!” Quincy snapped. “It was a perfect blend of sauerkraut and gooey Swiss, with Russian dressing and corned beef grilled on homemade rye bread–”

“I wouldn’t give two shits if your sandwich could do backflips and play the ukele without hands. I didn’t want your food, Quincy. Not the corned beef or the gooey Swiss or the fucking homemade rye bread. Okay? I pack a box lunch! A BOX LUNCH.” Elmiryn looked back at the girl with a wince. “Really. Nothing. It meant nothing to me.”

“Then why do you keep dancing around about it with her?” Nyx jerked her head, her tawny eyes like a turned knife.

“Because she’s guilty! She’s been stealing glances at my food all week,” Quincy cried.

Elmiryn rolled her eyes. “In your dreams. Nyx, don’t listen to her. She’s paranoid and has deep seated emotional problems.”

The wizard snorted. “You’re one to talk.”

“I am one to talk. At least I don’t stuff my face when I’m troubled.”

“No. You just stuff your face every other day.”

“And hey, who has the ass to show for it?”

An ominous pause. “…You’re trying to say something aren’t you?”

“Just that beauty eludes you like the enormity of your own ass.”

“Ex-CUSE me!?”

Nyx stared back and forth between them. “The wizard’s right. This isn’t a break. This is a circus! What’s the matter with you two? Why can’t you just stop talking in circles?”

Elmiryn scrunched her face up like that answer was obvious. “Quincy’s questioning my integrity and is diminishing my excellent tastes with her CRUDE wantings!”

“Crude. That’s rich, Elmiryn.” Quincy stood to her feet. She jabbed a finger at the refrigerator. “During my last scene, you vanished off-story, and the only one that wasn’t accounted for was you and–”

“Tristi and Farrel,” Elmiryn and Nyx said in unison.

The wizard faltered. “Oh.”

“So it could’ve been one of them,” Nyx said, rubbing her temples as if to stave off a headache.

“Told you it wasn’t me,” Elmiryn sneered.

Quincy shook a finger. “No. You’re not off the hook. What did you bring for lunch?”

Elmiryn grinned. “A rubyfruit.”

“…You are unbelievable.”

Nyx frowned. “A rubyfruit?”

“NO!” Quincy blanched and made a negative motion with her arms. “Don’t ask for clarification–!”

“A rubyfruit, my dear Nyx,” Elmiryn started as she threw an arm over the girl’s shoulders and guided her back to the couch. “Is the most BEAUTIFUL thing in the world.”

“It is not,” The wizard snapped. She pinched her brow and closed her eyes. “Elmiryn–”

“It comes in the most DELECTABLE shades of pinks and reds you could ever imagine–”

“Gods why don’t I just leave–?”

“It smells like beauty–”

“I could just walk out the door and buy a ham sandwich–”

“It tastes like beauty–”

“Why do I insist on suffering such company–?”

“And the juices are the richest thing that will ever grace your tongue.”

Nyx’s pretty face scrunched up, and she looked between the two women again. “There’s just no end to it with you two, is there?” she despaired.

Elmiryn chuckled and patted her knee. “Don’t worry. I’ll let you try mine one day.”  The Ailuran turned bright red.

Quincy placed her hands on her hips and said seriously. “Nyx, I know you don’t like me–”

The girl winced. “That’s just what I need to top this moment.  Advice from you.

“–But listen to me when I say that you should not take a thing this woman offers you. She knows nothing of beauty because she has no love. None. I think she’s incapable of it.”

Elmiryn tongued her cheek and stood. “That’s a quite a thing to say, given the source.”

Quincy glared. “It’s the damn truth!”

The warrior clenched her fists. “What the fuck do you know about me?”

“I know your idea of beauty is skewed by your perversity. Its all sensory and no emotion, just detachment and little else.”

“Speaking of detachment–when was the last time you FUCKED your husband?”

The wizard closed her eyes and smiled, but it was tight and her face was turning pink at the cheeks and nose. “I think I might’ve heard you wrong, because no one would dare say something like that to my face.”

Elmiryn nodded as she crossed her arms. “Just as I thought. Why don’t you go make a new SANDWICH Quincy?”

The wizard made a menacing move and the warrior held up her fist in preparation for a block, but a loud cough interrupted them. Both women turned and saw Nyx on her feet with a couch pillow nearly three times the size of her torso. She held it before her like a shield.  Her tawny eyes peeked timidly over the fabric as she spoke. “You both keep going back and forth about what constitutes beauty, and yet neither of you really seem to want to define what your personal requirements are.  You just keep hiding behind these metaphors for preferences.  Why is that?”

Elmiryn glanced at Quincy and found the brunette glancing back. The warrior shrugged. “You want me to start?  Fine.  I’ll start.  I think beauty is color–”

“Gods you really ARE a racist,” the wizard interjected.

Nyx pointed a finger at her around the couch pillow. “Let her finish!”

Elmiryn glared at Quincy before resuming. “Yeah. Beauty. Um…I think it’s color and shape. Especially different from my own.” She nodded as if to affirm her own thoughts. She went on slowly, carefully, feeling the words in her mouth before letting them loose. “I like variety, not mirror images. I don’t really care for symmetry either. I’d prefer things a bit chaotic to something neat and orderly.” She rubbed the back of her neck and looked up at the ceiling fan. “I also think it has to do with sound. Certain things can bring a lot of comfort, and a voice can encompass many things.” She took a breath and sighed. “That’s it. I think.  Happy?”

The warrior looked at Quincy and Nyx both. The wizard had taken to sitting in one of the plastic chairs at the table, and the Ailuran had lowered her pillow shield and held a smile on her face.

Nyx looked at Quincy next. “What about you?”

Quincy pointed at herself. “Me?” She gave a snort of a laugh. “Oh come off it, after Elmiryn you’ll just call me shallow.”

“Eye of the beholder and all of that. Go on, wizard. Speak.” Elmiryn threw herself onto the couch and giggled.

Quincy rolled her eyes at her. “Alright. Here. My idea of beauty? Is capability and all the things that would show it.” She ticked off her fingers. “Intelligence, wisdom, strength, tenacity–They’re ideal to me.”

“And Hakeem is all of those things?” Nyx asked. The girl took a seat next to Elmiryn, and the woman was quick to pull her close.

The wizard smiled proudly. “Yes.”

“Awww…he’s your utilitarian DREAM,” Elmiryn drawled.

Nyx pinched her ear, and the warrior let out a hiss of a cry. “She let you speak, now you let her!” the girl scolded.

“Nyx what happened to you!? You’ve gotten so mean!” Elmiryn whined as she rubbed her ear.

The girl ignored her. “Quincy?”

The wizard was snapped out of a reverie and started up like a machine unpaused. “I’m just trying to say that for me, beauty isn’t a physical thing, but a virtue.  A personal sense of fulfillment.  Hakeem is attractive, and yes, in a symmetric way if you must draw lines, but there’s a great many things about his personality that draw me to him. He is caring, honest, brave, stalwart, and passionate. He’s also stubborn, overly serious, fusses over money, and snores. But all of these things makes him the person I love.” She shrugged.

Now both women turned to Nyx. The girl quailed. “What?”

“You started this, kitten. You finish.” Elmiryn gave her a small nudge. “What do you think beauty is?”

The girl bit her lip and fidgeted next to Elmiryn. The warrior stifled a smirk. Quincy raised an eyebrow as she fisted her cheek.

Finally Nyx gave a nod. “Well, you two know we aren’t allowed to resolve anything outside of the story, and I know what I’d say would break status quo…soooo…” she grinned. “I say my idea of beauty is five triple-patty burgers lined up in a row!”

Elmiryn palmed her face and Quincy quickly set into objections:

“Wow, kitten…”

“Nyx, that isn’t FAIR!”

The door opened, and all three looked up.

Tristi was wiping at his mouth with what looked like a giant red and white checkered tablecloth. “Hello ladies. Just got the word from high up. We’re due back to our illustrious roles in very short time.” He burped. “Ooh! Pardon me!” He wadded the cloth and tossed it onto the table before closing the door with a smart snap.

Quincy squinted at the fabric, then snatched at it with her hands. She jumped to her feet and shoved it into Nyx and Elmiryn’s faces. “What does that look like to you!?”

There was a ruddy orange stain on it from when Tristi had wiped his mouth. The couple exchanged looks.

Elmiryn smiled broadly. “THAT, dear Quincy, looks like Russian salad dressing.”

The wizard’s face looked fit to burst with blood. She threw the cloth to the floor and grabbed her sword belt. “Damn him, DAMN HIM. I’m going to kill that bastard!” She ran out the door, slamming it behind her.

The room was quiet, and all that could be heard was the low hum of the refrigerator, and the shup-shup-shup of the ceiling fan. Elmiryn nestled her face into Nyx’s neck and smiled. “So, beautiful…has the status quo been maintained?”

“Depends.  Are you really going to keep from kissing me once we go back?”

“I couldn’t if I tried…and I don’t want to try.”

Nyx kissed the warrior’s temple and wedged her leg between Elmiryn’s.  A coy smile was on her lips. “Then maybe it has, Elle…” she whispered.


Back to Chapter 24.3 | Forward to Chapter 24.4

Chapter 24.3

QUINCY_________________________

It was time.  Finally–Quincy hadn’t realized how starved she’d been until now.

Tonatiuh was within her grasp.

It was true that he was nearly five times her size, a solid mass of muscle, and had scorching skin that rivaled the suns, but the wizard had handled such cases before.  She was more worried about getting caught in the crossfire.  One beast, plus two beasts, equaled Quincy dead between three.

As they ran, Nyx vanished from her peripheral vision.  When the wizard went to look, she saw that the Ailuran was gone entirely.  Elmiryn had looked as well but seemed less taken aback.  Or maybe she could spare little time to think about that, seeing as how she barely kept pace with Quincy.  The idiot’s inebriation took a great deal out of her.  In the back of her mind, the brunette agreed with Nyx that the warrior ought to have sat this one out.  But Elmiryn didn’t even entertain the notion, and if Quincy were in her place, neither would she.

That wasn’t to say she didn’t have her own difficulties to deal with.  There was still the cut on her shoulder that threatened to rip open every time Quincy jerked her arm too much.  There was also the red stinging of her hand from when she’d overdone it with the fire bracelet, not to mention the throbbing of her jaw and the mild headache it induced from when Elmiryn had punched her. (“Wait, she’s punched me in the head before hasn’t she?  Gods, it’s bad when you can’t keep track…”)  She grit her teeth and fought through the encroaching pain.

Tonatiuh was within her grasp.

Quincy could see the spirit, his great big body gleaming, the muscles shifting and coiling beneath his skin as he fought to keep the dragons from tearing into him.  It took all of his attention from her, which was in her favor.

As the story went, her blade came to host Tonatiuh when a nameless hero had pierced him with it.  She didn’t get much more than that–not why the hero felt the need to attack the spirit, where it happened, nor even where Tonatiuh had been stabbed.  But it seemed a simple enough task of trial and error.  Keep stabbing, hope something happens.  Keep stabbing, hope something happens.  Keep stabbing…

As the dust cleared enough that Quincy could see all three giants up ahead, the immensity of what she was getting into came in full light.  Tonatiuh stomped his feet, and her teeth rattled in her head.  One of the dragons’ screeched, and she thought she went deaf.  Tonatiuh struck with fists blazing bright, and she thought her retinas had been reduced to a cinder.  The dragons’ stirred the wind, and the woman found it hard to resist the currents.

She bumped into Elmiryn during one such moment and took the opportunity to scream, “Either they come to us, or we go to them!

“What?” the redhead bellowed back. The din of the battle was swallowing up their words.

Quincy didn’t have time to answer.  When she was close enough that the reality of being crushed was very much real, the wizard ducked around the swishing tail of the bearded dragon and closed in.  She felt the long tail whip over her, could swear she felt the scales skim her shoulder blades.  Her fingers spidered along the earth, feeling its heat as she scuttled on all fours.  The wizard hissed as the dragon stomped its foot and sent hot rocks and dust into her face.  Her vision clouded and she wiped hurriedly at her eyes, because she could not afford to be blind so close.  When her head lifted again, she saw the dragon’s foot descending towards her.

The woman yelled and rolled out of the way.  Her shoulder protested this greatly.  With a wince, she was once again on her feet in a readied crouch.  The dragon had ceased moving, at least for the moment.  Heart thumping, the wizard used its heel to leap up onto its rump.  At the peak of its height, the serpentine beast reached three stories.  Down on all fours, its long neck still had it reaching two stories.  From the ground to its lower back, Quincy had to fight up more than thirteen feet.  Its scales offered good footholds and she managed to hold on even as the beast started to shift and move.

Elmiryn kept running, her mind clearly set on some other plan.  As Quincy climbed further up the dragon’s back, she began to wonder if she should have tried for something else.  In summary, her current path sounded like folly.  “Jump up onto the dragon’s back, climb to its shoulder, then leap onto Tonatiuh like a Fury.”  Yes.  That sounded stupid even to her now.  As if to confirm the veracity of her feelings, the dragon was slammed in the chest by Tonatiuh.  The great serpent reared back, nearly standing up straight, and while Quincy clung to spinal fins halfway up, she felt like she really would be crushed.  To her fortune the bearded dragon slid its clawed hind foot back, its wings tilted forward, and with bunched muscles, it pushed Tonatiuh back with claws dragging along his skin.  The sunny giant screamed, claw marks on his chest.  Quincy cried out as the dragon landed on all fours again, its jaws snapping.  She felt as though all her bones had threatened to bounce right out of her skin.

The dragon beat its wings, stirring up the air so that Quincy’s hair was sent whipping, and the wizard turned her face into the creature’s back.  She lost her breath as the dragon pushed up, great wings beating even faster, and she felt gravity shift.  Her feet dangled free in the air.  “Oh gods, what was I thinking?” she thought as the vertigo seized her.  She dared to look.  They hadn’t gone high.  In fact, the creature had just used its wings to gain more lift on its jump.  It was kicking and whipping out its tail.  It caught Tonatiuh in his flat face, cutting his cheek and jaw.  Again, the giant screamed.  She could see the other dragon, rear up for a strike of its own.  This was the slimmer beast, with shinier scales and a gaze like blades.  The bearded serpent she rode scored a massive wallop into the spirit’s chest with its tail before it started to descend, one that Quincy was certain would have broken something, but the giant was quick to retaliate.  He grabbed the bearded dragon by the tail and before either Quincy or the serpent could react, Tonatiuh swung them onto the ground onto the other dragon, who was flattened with a growl.

Quincy screamed as she felt her shoulder rip open beneath the bandage.  The blood felt hot and was soaking through her wrappings.  The pain throughout her was one moment a throb, the next more like an all-encompassing stab.  She swooned, eyes rolling as she tried to better her hold on the dragon’s back.  The bearded dragon had landed on its side, but the wizard found its spinal fins a poor support to rest on.  The hand that gripped the fin was bleeding from the sharp edge.  Tonatiuh pinned both dragons down by their necks, using his right hand and knee.  In his left hand he gripped a steaming piece of meteorite, and this he raised in preparation for a strike.  She was concealed beneath the bearded dragon’s wing, the shadow over her large.

Once more Tonatiuh loomed over his next victims.  He was a devourer.  A parasitic agent that hungered without end.  Quincy knew how he worked, knew what it was he sought.  He was the very nature of a star.  Consuming, consuming, consuming…he’d eat these two beasts, and the power within them would become his own.  She knew this, from all the things he’d ever taken from her.  If he succeeded in killing the dragons, then all was lost.

As if to spare them, the sky started to rain…With weapons.  Quincy was nearly beheaded by a double axe.  This sparked upon hitting the scales, but the dragon’s hide was formidable.  Quincy, however, knew no such fortitude.  Wild eyed, she dodged next a sheathed short sword, a billy club, and a wide assortment of knives.  She was pelted by heavy metal objects at high speeds along her back and legs.  “Tai’undu, what is this!?” she shouted, wincing as a naked blade cut her hip.  Tonatiuh fared no better.  While the arsenal fell about her in an apathetic fashion, the naked blades and the heavy bludgeons seemed to seek him out, turning impossibly in the air to strike into his flesh.

“This, my dear, is a distraction, an interruption, a diversion,” said a deep tenor voice.  “I gave my magic a spin, and this heavenly fury you see is the result.”

The woman tried to look for the source, still wincing and squinty-eyed from the barrage.  What her eyes fell on made her seize up.  “Oh not you…”

The hail of larger weapons had ended.  The sky was clearing of the assault, and the man stood like he were impervious to the trickle of darts and bladed stars that now fell.  Tristi leaned on the dragon’s side with one hand, his deltaic face tilted to the side.  He flashed his fanged smile and said, “Hello little fledgeling.”

ELMIRYN________________________

Even as she gripped her sword, even as her brazen words echoed through her head, even as she felt the heat of the rubble stem up through her soles to the pit of her stomach in that pleasurable way–she knew she could not get in close.  Even with her injuries, Quincy was in a better state than Elmiryn.  The woman’s head was splitting apart at this point, and her stomach was lurching something fierce.  Her tongue felt parched.  She didn’t say them, didn’t even think them, but the words haunted the edges of her, pulsing like a heart in the dark–

Thirst Thirst Thirst Thirst Thirst

She heard him speak to her through the music in her head as she scrabbled over the destruction, her eyes vainly searching for some way she could join in the battle.

It was a bad idea.

She wasn’t surprised to hear him.  Still her lip curled downward and she muttered, “What was?”

The wine.

He was being unusually taciturn, and for some reason this annoyed her.  “You don’t think I couldn’t figure that out?”

Given your performance history,

I don’t think you could figure out

Which end shit is supposed to come out of.

That said,

I probably should have explained things to you.

You may have recognized

That you are different.

Well let me expand on that.

You are VERY different.

“Not quite human anymore, you mean,” the redhead spat.

No.  More like, “Not quite fae yet.”

She slowed, her heart thumping.  “…The fae?”

What did you think I was doing to you?

Turning you into a garbanzo bean?

“The things I can see that Quincy can’t…” She swallowed and felt her throat tighten.

Yes.  And the wine.

The fae cannot drink for a reason.

“Why didn’t you–DAMN it!  Why didn’t you tell me all this before!?”

You’re my toy.

That doesn’t mean I have to play with you all the time.

And I certainly don’t have to play by your rules.

Elmiryn felt a surge of illness overcome her, and she stumbled to the nearest broken column she could see.  She sat heavily on the uneven cement, and stared ahead with glassy eyes, her face green.  A big piece of meteorite, the size of her torso, flamed and crackled just a ways before her.  The flames licked the bottom of her field of vision, giving an infernal light to the battle before her.  Praxidice, the bearded dragon, had leapt up with wings beating, and had scored some powerful blows against Tonatiuh.  Poena, who had been turned away with a strong punch to the head by the giant, was now making to capitalize on this latest development.  But the advantage turned when Tonatiuh countered by grabbing Praxidice by the tail and slamming her into her sister.  Elmiryn saw Quincy still clinging to the dragon.

Quincy has a better head on her shoulders than you do.

Given her obsessions, that’s saying something.

The warrior rose again with labored breath.  The edges of her vision rippled as sweat dripped from her chin.  She scowled and closed her eyes.  She’d learned a lot of things.  Things she couldn’t tell Sedwick or Quincy.  She knew, in a tired sort of relief, that she could impart these things to Nyx when the time was right, but for the moment, these secrets were hers.  Things learned whilst her consciousness was free of her body.

Elmiryn responded to Meznik through the music.

Can’t you tell me what it is you want?

Why did you make that deal with my father?

What were you looking for?

She says to herself that she feels too ill and exhausted to muster up the usual hatred and fight in her words.  And even if she weren’t, what would be the point?  She can’t hurt Meznik.  But even she can taste the resignation in the back of her throat.  Meznik responds, and there’s a trill in the music, like he’s chuckling.

What a stupid question.

I wanted my toy.

Are you tiring of this, already?

What of the things we discussed?

Don’t change the subject.

Achieving dreams.

Rising above your station.

Getting back at those that abandoned you in hell.

I already told you, I can get you in arms reach of Him.

STOP it!

I’m not your toy!

I want a real answer.

Where is that effervescent hatred I love so much?

That bullheaded drive?

What is this exhaustion that I’m feeling from you?

His music wilted.  As the fight just didn’t seem to be in her this time around, so it seemed to flee him.  When next he spoke, it was with a subdued voice.

Moron.  Pay attention to what’s around you.

You’d better not die over this silly promise.

Remember, you don’t need any of the others to get out of here.

You just need me.

The demon that ruined my life.

A real bode of confidence.

There is a strange freedom in being so hated.

Furthermore, demons conjure up infernal beings of hell.

I thought you people didn’t believe in men with bifurcated tails?

…Men with what?

Never mind.

Just pay attention, or your head’s going to be crushed.

Elmiryn’s eyes opened, just in time to see a mace smash the meteor in front of her.  The woman jumped to her feet and looked up.  The sky was raining with all sorts of weapons, big and small.  She gave shout as she parried a falling sword with her own.  There was no cover close by, but the warrior figured it was better to run for it than stay and be bombarded.  She ran for the nearest building with an overhang, eyes on the sky, her sword slashing out whenever she thought the deadly end of a blade was sure to hit her.  She couldn’t deflect it all.  The woman bared her teeth as her body was pelted.  Once a sai had hit her in the middle of the back so hard, she actually fell to the ground and thought her back was broken.  She wretched but found there wasn’t much in her stomach to spit up.  With a push, she was able to pick herself up again and resume moving.  The rain of weapons stopped before Elmiryn could reach her cover.  She stood with cuts on her arms and torso, and her shirt ripped in places. Her breath came harsh and uneven.  Meznik was gone from her head.

She looked down at the weapons around her, and her eyes brightened at the sight of one…

QUINCY_________________________

Hello little fledgeling…

“Don’t you dare call me that,” Quincy snarled at Tristi.  Or tried to.  The struggle of the dragon choked the fierceness from her words as she fought to stay on.

Tristi stepped away from the stamping feet and thrashing wings to regard her.  “Why not?  It is what your caregivers called you.”

“And they’re gone, aren’t they?”  She had to shout to make sure her words were heard.

Tristi chuckled and wagged a finger at her.  Somehow, he didn’t seem to raise his voice anymore than normal.  “Y’know, I had bet Jack that I’d find you first.  He wasn’t really in the mind for bets–nothing like his old self, the poor fellow.  But the words left his lips, ‘I bet you…’ and you know what my tenets demand.  Ah, sweet, sweet little bird.  Do you know what agony your disappearance caused?”

“Tristi this is hardly the time for this,” Quincy bit out.  Her throat was tight and her breathing short.  She honestly couldn’t tell if it was the commotion happening or what the champion had said.

The man inspected the ends of his copper ponytail.  “Ah, Quincy.  I get the feeling you do not like me.”

“The last time I saw you, you’d turned me into a bird.”

“A hawk chick, to be specific.  I thought it was a compliment.  Tobias didn’t seem to think so, if you remember.  He hit me in the mouth.  Hard.  I think that was his specialty.  Hitting things like a rock.  He certainly had the head of one.  Come to think of it, he hit me with that too.”  Tristi feigned a shudder.  “Scary man, when angry!”

“Cute.  Can we not talk about this now?”

Tristi did not leave, even as Tonatiuh roared in frustration from the weapons that seemed to resume hitting him.  They no longer fell from the sky, but jumped up from the ground.  Tristi also did not go when the dragons beat their wings, and Quincy wasn’t sure if they were trying to protect themselves or to use the distraction to gain their freedom. The champion of luck gave a nod.  “I had this sneaking suspicion that it would be to my good fortune to follow Nyx.  When that meteorite fell and hit the dragon, I thought I was mistaken.  But here I have found you.  Will wonders never cease?”

Quincy went to snap something at him, but the man had vanished.  She gave a shake of her head.  “Damn him.”

Though the dragon’s struggled, the great giant just managed to keep his hold, and as if realizing what his distraction would cost him, Tonatiuh once more raised his bludgeon for a blow.  “Tāʾsīn!!” he screamed. Die!!

His hand came down, and this time there wasn’t a massive voice to blow him off his feet.

…No this time, his own shadow started to play tricks on him.  Quincy didn’t recall there ever being a shadow to begin with, since Tonatiuh’s radiance choked it from the face of the earth.  Yet now, from the bottom of her vision something dark had appeared, and just before he could crush in the head of his first victim, the shadow jerked, and his arm followed.  Quincy was certain she’d seen the shadow move first.  She sat up and watched, brows knitted together.  The flying weapons had stopped.  Tonatiuh grunted, his face bunching in bewilderment as he looked down at his feet.

Quincy’s eyes turned wide.  What was that small shadow flitting across the ground?  She looked up.  There was nothing in the sky.  Tonatiuh seemed to have an idea.

“Little witch!” He rumbled.  He tried to stomp at the shadow but found his own dark outline was beat back in the chest, and so his body followed suit like a puppet.  Every time Tonatiuh’s shadow was moved, so was Tonatiuh.  The shadow’s left knee was knocked to the side, thus knocking his aside, compromising his posture. Then his shadow was struck in the left shoulder, and for a moment it looked as though he would fall.  Alas, the giant righted himself using the slim dragon’s neck as his anchor.  At that moment, there was a short thwip and the giant’s head snapped back with a howl.  Quincy heard laughter and turned her head.

Elmiryn stood at a distance, sword sheathed and bow in hand.  She must have found it from the rain of weapons that had fallen from the sky.  She drew another arrow from the quiver she had strapped to her back.  She grinned and said, “Gods I love shooting people in the eye…”

Tonatiuh ripped the arrow out.  Quincy was sprayed with blood.  The spirit let out another howl.  His mouth gnashed as his right eye bled down his face and into the spaces of his teeth.  Then, without warning, his left fist flashed up to punch him in the face.  Quincy could see his shadow do this a fraction of a second before he did.  Then his other fist came around, this one still gripping the arrow so it left a little cut on his chin.  The giant stumbled back, off of the dragons and Elmiryn shot him again, this time in the center of the throat.  He did not howl, but instead let out a wet gurgle.  This arrow he tore out as well.

Quincy’s stomach gave a twist as she saw the blood from his neck and eye begin to stain nearly his whole front.  If he died before she could get to him–

The dragons, now freed, rose with a vengeance.  Unprepared, the wizard was nearly thrown off before she once again found her footholds on the bearded dragon’s back.

Tonatiuh’s face was tight and almost orange with rage.  He curled in on himself, and his body trembled.  Rapidly, his body began to grow brighter.  The dragons were advancing on him, and Quincy’s eyes widened.  “Wait, wait! Don’t go near him!”

To her surprise, the bearded dragon slowed to a stop and craned its long neck to look at her.  Its sister, however…

The heat around them grew immense.  The wizard knew this heat.  Knew what it meant.  How many times had she used this power against others?  She screamed at the dragon, “Get down!” The beast looked at the sunny giant.  This seemed to validate Quincy’s advice, for the beast got down and raised its wings to shield the woman.  Through the spaces of the wings, the brunette could see Tonatiuh snap upright with arms and head thrown back.  His mouth was open in a silent scream.

Then the light came.


Back to Chapter 24.2 | Forward to Break Time

Chapter 24.2

ELMIRYN________________________

Perhaps their sneaking wasn’t really necessary, as the great giants were more focused on battling one another than the little people scurrying off in the background, but Elmiryn figured it was good to err on the side of caution.  Quincy had seemed to think so.  They found Sedwick on the way over, hunched down in what used to be a cellar, with the rubble about his feet turning muddy from his watery touch.  His white eyes lit up to her and Nyx with astonishment.

“Nyx!” he exclaimed, rising carefully.  “Where did you come from all of a sudden?”

Nyx didn’t speak right away, and Elmiryn gave her a nudge.  The girl seemed to start up again, throat moving in a swallow.  “Sedwick,” she said.  Her smile was uncertain.  The warrior knew the girl harbored some guilt over what had befallen the man.  She was eager for her to see how well off he really was.

“With someone like Nadi around, I’d think anyone was well off!” Elmiryn thought with a smirk.

Sedwick reached up an arm, and after a moment’s hesitation Nyx grabbed him close to the crook of his elbow.  The man smiled and patted her shoulder.  “Well met, Nyx.  Well met.”  He jerked his head at Elmiryn.  “I’ve been having a time taking care of this one!”

Nyx smiled wryly.  “Oh?  Not too much trouble, I hope.”

“Hey!” Elmiryn snapped.  She glared good-naturedly between them.  Nyx and Sedwick had a small laugh, and the warrior let a rueful smile slip her lips.  “Sedwick, we were going to help Quincy.  Do you know what her plan is exactly?  I’d hate to come in and ruin things.”

“Plan?  She has no plan.  None other than getting in close enough to stab that great sunny brute with her sword.  That’s it.”  He shook his head.  “She’s going to get herself killed over this silly obsession.”

The warrior shrugged and said mildly, “In a lot of ways, it’s healthier than my pursuits.”  None offered to argue.

Sedwick stooped to pick something up, and when he straightened again, he had Elmiryn’s belt in his hand.  “Here, I got this for you.  I even found a spare holster for the dagger.  Nothing for the pistol, though.  I’ve got that here, to keep safe.”  Elmiryn took back her belongings with a purred thank you.  She would have gone out there without the weapons, but she certainly preferred having them.  Sedwick went on speaking as she fastened her belt around her waist.  “I was staying back, in case I needed to jump in and get Quincy for a speedy escape.  If you two are absolutely set on going in there, well…my only suggestion is to get the beasts’ attention.”

Nyx frowned.  “Why?  They would kill us!”

But Elmiryn was already seeing Sedwick’s point.  She turned to explain it to the girl.  “Look at that fight, Nyx.  Do you think we could get close without getting crushed?  If we have their attention, they’ll stop long enough for us to approach.  If they decide to both attack us, well…we’ll deal with that.  There was once a story of Diokles and how he battled a giant.  The giant was a great big man, but Diokles was quick.  The giant began to get frustrated because his stomping wasn’t working.  He had to get down low to strike at Diokles with more precision.  That was when Diokles was able to reach for a killing blow.  Do you see?  Force the giant to come to you.”

The girl nodded, but her frown remained in place.  “That still doesn’t account for the fact that we’re facing off three huge beasts, not just one.”

Elmiryn grinned. “And hey!  Look’it that!  There’s you, me, and Quincy!  Totally even now!”

Sedwick let out a chuckle.  “Woman, you do flirt with death.”

The warrior shrugged.  “I’d buy him a drink if I met him.”

“Go on.  Before the wizard beats you to the chance!  I’ll be here to scoop you all out if things begin to look hopeless.”

“Water gliding on your back, huh?  No thanks.  We’ll have this handled, Sedwick.  Just you watch.”

With that, Elmiryn and Nyx resumed their trek toward the battle.  They scurried from cover to cover, and all the while the redhead kept a look out for the wizard.

“Elmiryn,” Nyx said as they went.  “Do those dragons…can they communicate?  Do they understand Common?”

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at the question and glanced back at the girl.  “I have no idea.  Do you mean to strike up a conversation with them, kitten?” She chortled upon saying this.

The girl said nothing, and remained quiet the rest of the way.

Further on they went.  They were very close now.  So close that the rubble felt scalding hot to the touch.  Elmiryn was working up a sweat.  Her head was killing her, but she tried to ignore it.  Then the warrior spotted the wizard.  The wizard peered around a granite wall, her russet brown hair turned dusty.  She had her rusty sword out and pressed to her side with the length along her forearm.  Snickering, the woman bid Nyx to stop, and took up a small rock.  She took a moment to aim, and threw it at the wizard’s head in a small arc.

It connected.  Quincy just about jumped out of her skin, her sword whipping around as she searched for the source of the throw.

Elmiryn bit on her lip to keep from laughing.  Nyx scolded her.  “Oh, Elle, really…” she grumbled.

“Idiot!  What are you doing?” Quincy hissed.  Her face had turned red and her other hand rubbed the spot the rock had struck.  “That hurt!

“Tell that to my nipple,” Elmiryn said as she approached.

“Um, what?” Nyx’s brows burrowed in deep.

The warrior paused, sensing a hidden danger, and her eyebrows went up high.  “…Looong story,” she said, her smile fixed in place.

“That’s Tonatiuh there, I’m sure of it.  My sword’s been humming since he came.”  Quincy said, her gaze still a bit sullen as she held up her rusty sword and pressed it to Elmiryn’s arm.  Indeed, the warrior could feel the metal hum.

“Well now you can get him back.”  Elmiryn nudged the wizard with her forearm.  “And hey wizard, you weren’t the only one who lucked out.  I found my ward.”

“I can see that,” Quincy muttered.

“I also found The Rabbit, but he isn’t as interesting.”

“The…who?”

Nyx shook her head. “For heavens sake, why can’t you just call the man by his name?”

Elmiryn looked at her critically.  “You mean, ‘The Rabbit’?”

She received a sigh in response.

Quincy exhaled harshly through her nose before she spoke.  Her voice was tense and shaky.  “Elmiryn, it was quite nice of you to come dashing out here with your little friend, but unless you can figure out a way I can join in that fight without being crushed, I’m afraid there isn’t much else to do.”  There was a pause, then she added, “And I put out your stove fire too.  You were going to burn the house down.”

Elmiryn’s smile turned into a hook.  “My!  You certainly have a mind for the little things.  Did you also happen to dust the tables before you went?”

“If that’s the reaction you’re going to give me, I should have just left the damn fire going–with the grate open, just like you left it–and had some buttered crumpets instead.”

Thanks, Quincy.”

“You’re welcome, Elmiryn.”

“As for your grand plan, I’m in favor of not being crushed by those things.” Elmiryn pulled her jeweled dagger from its holster.  “And here’s what I propose to prevent just such a fate.”

“Your dagger?” Nyx said critically.

“I hate that thing,” Quincy said with a pout.

“Oh shut up, it’s perfect for this situation.”  Elmiryn gestured over her shoulder with it.  “I pull this, and all the sound goes out in the area except whatever noises the holder makes.  The beasts are bound to notice that in a hurry.  Whoever holds this dagger has the floor, and no one else will be heard.”

The woman started to hand it to Quincy, but Nyx reached over and gently laid a hand on her wrist.  “Um–!”

Both women looked at her quizzically.  The girl blushed and cleared her throat.  “I–I think I might be best suited for this situation.”

Elmiryn smiled and looked at her with head tilted.  “Really?  Do tell, kitten…”

NYX____________________________

I’ve experienced all manner of situations at this point.  My legs felt weak, but they did not shake.  My palms were sweaty, but were relaxed in their hold of the dagger and its sheath.  My gaze did not waver.  Was I becoming…brave? Where did that timorous whelp go, who so clung to Elmiryn’s leg at the first sign of a threat?  I stood, not certain of what it was I was becoming.  Just a little bit more, I started to believe in Lacertli’s idea of redemption.  I could redeem myself, one deed at a time.

When I pulled the dagger free, my ears started to ring with static.  Elmiryn and Quincy tried to say something to me, but just as Elmiryn had said, they were completely silent.  They gestured for me to go.  I slipped from our hiding spot and approached the battle.  The heat came over me in thick waves.  I was sweating so much, my new clothes were drenched.  I thought about the dragons, and what Elmiryn said they were.  Halward’s familiars.  Surely, they were capable of some level of discourse?  But given their screeching, I wasn’t certain I could achieve an adequate exchange in this realm.  I paused for a moment and closed my eyes, quickly going through those cold canyons of my mind until I crested the hill that served as my gateway.  The world sighed over me, and when I opened my eyes, I was in the Somnium.

I was a little surprised by what I saw.

The dragons were much the same, except that their forms seemed to have an inner glow.  The giant, however…

Whatever he was, in the eyes of the universe, he had the body of a frail and emaciated boy–still large by height standards–but I could see his skin sag around his bones.  Though his face was still much the same shape, it was leaner, the teeth rotted, the eyes crusted, the bone missing from his nose, cracks along the edges of his face like he were made of stone.  And the sunny glow that I saw in the Real World?  Absent here, leaving his body pale and almost a sickly green, save for an ominous glow in the giant’s stomach that matched those of the dragons.  There was no use wondering where the first dragon had gone, now.

Disquieted, I stopped in my advance and just watched the desperate looking creature battle the two glorious serpents.  The anxiety grew in me, and I looked down at my feet.

The soil felt hot beneath my new shoes.  I wiggled my toes beneath the fabric, and my footprint widened from how my foot shifted.  The ground shook terribly, and I stumbled back.  Dust and rock met me in a rushing cloud.  Lowering my arms from my face, I saw that the giant had slammed the bearded dragon onto the ground.  The dragon had its wings pinned beneath it, and the giant was over him with one foot.  The bearded dragon’s sibling tried to spare it the killing blow that was sure to come, all claws and beating wings.

But there was no sound.

I hadn’t been sure how close I needed to get for it to work, but sure enough, from the moment the dragon slammed onto the ground to the muted scream that the sunny giant attempted, they quickly saw what had happened.  The battle stopped with the giant’s foot still on the bearded dragon’s chest, the other dragon on the giant’s back with its claws dug into his skin and its mouth poised for a bite to the back of the neck.

Now that I had the floor…I didn’t know what to say.

I tapped the blade against my thigh and cleared my throat.  “Hello.”  Then I cleared my throat again and in a louder voice, with the dagger raised in the air, I shouted, “Spirits, I am here!”  The beasts looked my way.  I felt fastened to the spot and my mouth went dry.  Now I had the shakes.  It wasn’t just for them, but for what I was about to say, and who was about to hear it.  Conjuring up all the force and sincerity I could, I said,  “Hail!  I am Nyx, champion of Lacertli, the Dreamwalker, god of natural order.  Giant, release the dragon.  I wish for peace whilst I speak with you.”  And here, I sheathed the dagger, its job done, so that the beasts could speak.

“Champion, I care not a whit for your god.  I will not be moved,” the giant bellowed.  He had an odd voice–high and riled, but like a deflated balloon that had once been very big.

I tensed.  Pathetic as it may be, it had just dawned on me that just because I had a unique voice and a god’s name to throw around, that didn’t mean all present would just roll over for me.  When I spoke next, it was from my diaphragm.  “Spirit, you will honor my request.”

“I spit on it!” The giant returned.  He raised his fist in preparation for a strike.

This time I screamed, everything in me pulling as I pushed out the following words, “CREATURE, IN THE NAME OF THE DREAMWALKER, YOU WILL STOP!”  I could feel my animus pulse.  My throat tingled.  The air around me stirred.

The dragon on its back slipped away just in time, before the giant was blown off its feet in a rush of dust and wind.  The dragons, they were well anchored, and turned their electric gaze my way.  I gulped.

ELMIRYN________________________

Nyx had moved just out of range enough that they could talk again.  The radius appeared to be something like fifteen feet.  The girl would have to get in close, no matter what.  Elmiryn felt a little tension in her stomach that she didn’t like.  It reminded her of the first time she joined the battle field.  Quincy wasted no time in voicing her grievances.

“I can’t believe you gave it to her.”

Elmiryn didn’t look at her. “Stop grumbling.”

“You really believed the nonsense she said, didn’t you?”

“I believe Nyx wouldn’t lie.  If she thinks she can do it, than she can.”

“But they’re dragons,”  Quincy said, incredulous.

Elmiryn said nothing to this, but kept her eyes on Nyx as she slowly crept toward the battling giants.  In her hand was her dagger.  “She can do it.  With my dagger she can do it.”

They watched as the girl paused, and with a flicker, the warrior became aware that something had changed.  She didn’t know what.  The colors that comprised Nyx seemed richer, and her form didn’t seem quite so solid, and there was something oddly more distant to the girl’s image than what Elmiryn knew she was seeing.

“Where’d she go!?” Quincy stood, eyes wide as she scanned for Nyx.

Elmiryn looked at her. “You can’t see her?”

“No!”

“She’s right there!”

“Where?”

There!

“What?”

Elmiryn pulled the wizard down, “Just get down!  She’s there, trust me!”

The warrior returned her attention to Nyx and saw that the girl had moved closer now and was looking down at her shoes.  Elmiryn frowned and willed the girl to look up.  She just about launched over the wall when the dragon was slammed into the ground so close to the Ailuran.  Quincy had to grab her by the back of her pants.

“Hold on, don’t!” She said.  The wizard pointed, an astonished smile on her face.  “Did you hear when the dragon hit the ground?”

Elmiryn looked at her sharply.  “Damn.  Your right!  I couldn’t hear a thing!”

Quincy nudged her.  “There!  The beasts are starting to realize the sound is gone!  Now is her chance!”

Nyx didn’t speak right away, but when she did, it was with a small voice.  “Hello.”  The warrior blinked.  Was this the amazing approach the girl was going to use?  But the girl soon recovered, and she started again.  “Hail!  I am Nyx, champion of Lacertli, the Dreamwalker, god of natural order.”

Elmiryn sat back, eyes wide even as she heard Nyx go on speaking.  There was a burning in her ears and her mind felt like it were on pins and needles.  Nyx?  A champion? As in…?

She elbowed Quincy.  “Hey, does this mean what I think it means?”

“What does?  I can’t hear her, just Tonatiuh.”

“Nyx just said she’s the champion of Lacertli, the Dreamwalker, the…the god of natural order.”

Quincy’s face drew long and she looked at Elmiryn sidelong.  “She said what?

But the exchange was cut short when Elmiryn heard Nyx scream, “CREATURE, IN THE NAME OF THE DREAMWALKER, YOU WILL STOP!”  The air swirled about them, and both women were forced to duck and cover their faces from the dust and rock that stung them.  Elmiryn could feel it down to her marrow, the way she felt the sound reverberate throughout her, then echo like she were a deep and vast canyon.  The hairs on her body stood on end.  Her ears rang as if she’d just been caught in a protracted battle, filled with bursting cannons and screaming men.

Slowly, Elmiryn raised her head, dust sifting away.  She saw Quincy do the same.  Both had their mouths open, and peered cautiously over the wall.

Tonatiuh was blown off his feet.

“She did that with her voice,” Elmiryn breathed.

“I heard a bit of that.  Like an echo from somewhere far away.”  Quincy swallowed audibly.  “What have you been hiding, Elmiryn?”

“I swear I had no idea.”  The woman started to smile.  “But thinking back on it…”

“What kind of magic is that?  Is it a new power she’s gained as a champion?”

Elmiryn just shook her head slowly, then after a moment’s thought, she rose and started to approach.  Quincy didn’t follow right away, but soon the warrior heard the wizard trailing behind her.  They arrived at the girl’s side just as she began to speak with the dragons, who, by and large, seemed to be attentive to her.

NYX____________________________

I was trying hard not to panic.

I couldn’t lose my composure with two great big dragons staring me down, but I was worried that I had overdone it with my voice.  I really had to ask Lacertli if he could train me in the ancient bardic arts–if he even knew them.  I worried that my voice had hurt the others.  Surely it was possible if Tonatiuh had been so blown away?  The sunny giant did not stir from his place on the ground, where he’d landed.  I wondered why the dragons hadn’t been affected.  Was it their natures as godly familiars that had spared them?

But that didn’t matter at the moment, for I had their attention, and it was their favor I had to earn.

I bowed low, my eyes on the ground.  “Spirits, I am honored in your presence.”

There was a rumble from one, and I dared to glance up to see that the bearded dragon was shifting off of its back to face me properly.  I felt Elmiryn and Quincy appear at my sides.  I was glad they were okay, but willed them to keep silent.

“Raise thyself, champion.” The voice was deep and bass-like, with a raking hiss that sounded as though breath were being drawn with each word.

Slowly, I straightened.

“Thou hast stunned the giant, and we have precious little time for discourse.”  It was the bearded dragon who spoke, though her mouth did not move at all.  It was like her thoughts echoed through the air.  “I am Praxidice, and my sister is Poena.  The noble dragon you had previously met was known as Erinyes, though she is lost to us now.”  It blinked its eyes slowly at me.  Its sister, Poena, gave her wings a shake and watched me with narrowed eyes.

I swallowed and placed my fist over my heart–over Lacertli’s mark.  “We had no quarrel with your ilk, noble Praxidice.  I would avenge your sister’s death.”

“You had some among your company that tasted of dark power.”

I clenched.  The dragon was speaking of Farrel.  “Fair and noble spirit, the halfling was tainted by a greater spirit, who planned to deceive you as to his whereabouts.  I can lead you to the fiend’s lair.”  I bet Volo didn’t count on me actually utilizing my bardic talents to talk to the dragons.  It would be his undoing.

“Very well.  That accounts for him, young champion.”  But Praxidice fixed her eyes on Elmiryn, and bared her teeth.  “But that says nothing of her.”

“Who, me?” I heard Elmiryn say.

I looked at her and let out a cry.

The Somnium reveals things that the eye cannot see.  It makes ideas into a reality, does away with false appearances, and reveals that which lingers on a spiritual level.  This was the first time I had ever looked at Elmiryn in the Somnium, and I did not like what I saw.

The woman was translucent, not solid, and in her chest I could see a large seed that had sprouted, large and bulbous, that stemmed through her limbs, even up into her head where the trailing roots reached out of her ears and hugged the sides of her face in a spidery reach.  Her eyes were black.  There was something about her face that did not seem to sit still.  When she looked at me, the image smeared and blurred, and I could see the skull beneath her skin.  There were two dark bumps on either side of her head, near the hairline, and I saw how the roots seemed to be pushing at her skin, fighting to sprout.

I covered my mouth and stared at her horrified.

Elmiryn gave me a dubious smile before even that faded away.  “Nyx…what’s the matter?”  It didn’t occur to me at the time, but later reflection had me puzzling over how the woman could see me in the Somnium.  Quincy was oblivious to my presence, after all.  It didn’t take me long to draw up a theory.  The seed in the warrior was doing something to her…changing her.

“Her aura tastes of murder and madness, champion.  We sense something greater amiss.  Would you ask us to turn a blind eye?” This was not Praxidice, but Poena, I suspected. This dragon had a lighter voice, but it was harsher and verged on outright hissing.

I swallowed and reached a hand out to Elmiryn.  The woman took mine, and I could feel her warmth, feel her flesh.  I closed my eyes and said, with perspicacity, “My patron tells me that all beings under the gods are born with a certain amount of debt.  Some have more than others.  I too, have great debt, spirits.  I…care for this woman deeply, and I take her as my responsibility as she takes me as hers, and I would see no harm come to her.  If that is not just, than perhaps I do not wish to be just.  I only wish to be in harmony.”  My head bowed, and after a moment’s breath, I raised it again.  My mouth was thin.  “Spirits, I offer you my strength and the head of one you have sought long, and in exchange I would see that none of my companions be harmed.”

“You ask us to go against our nature.” This was Praxidice.

I looked at them, and something rose from inside me–something alien and different.  Something that wasn’t me. “Nature is ever changing.  It asks for sacrifice to see one’s will done.  What wouldst thou sacrifice to see thine greatest enemies felled?” My voice was steely.  The air felt charged from it.  I took a deep breath, suddenly starved for it, and my eyes fluttered.

Elmiryn squeezed my hand.  “Nyx, what’s going on with you…?” She was looking at me, that little wrinkle back in her brow.  I looked at her, and with a gentle hand, I reached up and brushed my thumb over her worry line.  I said nothing, but my expression was grim.

The dragons didn’t have long to think on it, for Tonatiuh was stirring once more.  I could feel Quincy tense up next to me.  The brunette muttered Fanaean curses.

“Champion…vermagus…Were you any other creature, my sister and I would snap up your company and seek our vengeance alone, but if you can aid us and promise peace until your departure, than so shall we spare you and yours our wrath.”

I bowed, “On my word, Praxidice, we will honor your trust.”  And I felt something claw up my spine and into my skull.  I shivered a little.

“And your word is no small thing, as we have seen.  But come, let us cease this talk, for the time for battle is nigh!”

The ground rumbled as Tonatiuh rose to his feet and screamed into the air, his fists pounding his chest.  I squeezed my eyes shut and went inward.  It was time to leave the Somnium and its sights.  I ran through the canyons of my subconscious, wondering how time worked in this somnambulant in-between.  When I was on the other side, I opened my eyes and found myself back in the Real World.  Tonatiuh was once again the burly giant he had been, and the dragons no longer glowed.  Best of all, Elmiryn didn’t look so nightmarish.  I handed back her dagger and said, “Elle, go back and hide!  You aren’t well!”

Quincy jerked, staring at me with eyes popped.  “Damn!  Where did you come from!?”

Elmiryn crowed into the air, “Oh-HO!  Now you’re telling me to stay behind?” She shook her head as she put the item away. “Not a chance!”  And with that, Elmiryn drew her sword.

The ground gave another rumble as Tonatiuh slammed both his fists down.  We fought to stay on our feet.  Quincy instinctively had grabbed onto my shoulder to keep from falling, and her gaze was intense.  Fearful…but hungry too.  “Sorry to burst your collective bubble, but I think the option for running is gone now!”

Tonatiuh screamed at us, the sound rivaling my own.  He pointed a finger my way, and bit out, “I shall eat your heart!!”  Then his gaze flickered to the side, and fixed on Quincy.  Without lips or eyebrows, it was very difficult to discern the emotion that came over his face.  It appeared like shock, but could’ve been confused with relief as well.  Then Tonatiuh’s body started shaking, and a sharp, rippling sound reached us.

…He was laughing.

“Ah!  Quincy!  Baghun knt ant alan!”  It wasn’t Fanaean, nor Indaban, nor Santian.  My guess was that it was Talmas, the common language of Talmor.  It seemed my guess of Tonatiuh’s origins had some weight.  The great giant laughed and slapped his stomach.  “Come!  We shall see who is master now!”

Quincy was red in the face when she pointed at Tonatiuh with her sword.  “I will have you, damned spirit!  You are mine!

Poena screeched.  No longer in the Somnium, I could not understand the dragons as I had before, but the meaning was clear.  They would have their vengeance before Quincy’s agenda was met, no exceptions.  They struck forth, kicking up hot rubble, and their wings stirred the dust high above our heads.  Straggling behind them, the three of us followed.

The battle began.


Back to Chapter 24.1 | Forward to Chapter 24.3

Chapter 24.1

NYX____________________________

We had started running even before the beast came, but it was like it sensed our presence.  The air became rent with its fierce cries, and no amount of haste could put distance between.  The sound filled us.  Spurned us.  Only Tristi seemed above it all, and he took the lead.  He guided us through dizzying passageways and small back streets where our view of the city’s festivities became filtered through steel fences, lenticular windows, and steam.  Overhead, the colorful fireworks continued to compete for everyone’s attention, but for our eyes, there was but one thing that stood out to us–and that was the great and sweeping shadow that streaked through the glory.

We came to the end of our cover when we entered a residential district filled with similar homes.  We were going to be forced out into the open with no opportunity to flee it again anytime soon, it looked like.  I prayed our exit from this shard was close.

“Don’t stop!” Tristi barked as he picked up his pace.  His jacket strained against his back as he charged out into the open street, the phantoms swallowing his form.  “The nearest alley is only two blocks away!”

We struggled to keep up.  Farrel panted behind me, and I fared only a little better–lacking that stamina that my Twin often lent when the going got hard.  I was ready to grab Tristi’s coat tails and let him drag me when–

I heard a whistle.  THE whistle.  The one I’d heard before, the one that had so captured my attention back in Volo’s company.  I nearly twisted my ankle looking over my shoulder.  “That sound!!” I exclaimed.  Farrel bumped into me as I stuttered to a stop.

“What sound?” Tristi asked over his shoulder.  Then he saw that I wasn’t following anymore and reluctantly slowed.

Panting, I gazed wildly around me.  It sounded like it came from behind us, but where exactly?

“Nyx, what’re ya doin!?” Farrel snapped, bent over onto his knees and his skin drenched in sweat.

I ignored him, my ears straining as I heard the whistle again, come closer, and closer, and then…

Like an apparition, she was there, her eyes on me like jeweled lenses catching the light and setting my skin on fire. My breath caught.  Even in her disheveled state, she still left me stupefied.  Her leather pants were whiter at the knees than I last remembered them.  She wore a wrinkled cotton shirt that was unevenly buttoned, and the frizz of her hair defied the restraint of her ponytail.  There was a ruddy look about her eyelids as if she’d been awake an age without ever pausing for sleep.  I felt my whole body tingle.

My voice was small in my ears.  “E-Elle…?”

“Nyx, I finally found you…” she whispered, her eyes fixed on mine.  Her face was blank, like this was as much a shock to her as it was to me–and then, she grinned.

I would have launched into her arms right then were it not for the terrifying screech and descending threat that broke the spell.  My eyes snapped up and I saw the beast–with its leathery wings, the span of four chariots, and its long spined neck craned toward us, with the talons of its feet glinting and spread in preparation to snatch up its prey.

…The thing that Volo so feared was a golden dragon.

It clipped back its wings and reared back its head, spearing itself toward us with claws a menacing promise of death.  Its gleaming sunny scales reflected the fury of the fireworks, and its blue slitted eyes fixed on us.  I had two choices.  Either go for Elmiryn, or go for Farrel.

…It really was no contest.

With a yell I leapt for Elmiryn, tackling her around the middle as the dragon’s shadow grew starker around us.  I could hear Tristi and Farrel shout, but with a will, we passed through into the Umbralands.  We tumbled, head over heels, and when we settled, I was the one sprawled on top.  The world around us was still a glaring white from all the damned light, so there wasn’t much room to move.  The white spaces were like pitfalls that led back to the Real World.  We sat on the black island that was the dragon’s shadow, and I held my breath as I saw the monochromatic figure tower over us, screeching.  A turn of my head showed me that Tristi and Farrel had vanished–their silhouettes absent from the area.  No doubt, the champion of luck had pulled off some trick.  The small pang of guilt I felt for leaving Farrel eased a bit.

“What in the nine hells just happened?” exclaimed Elmiryn.  Her voice reminded me that she had no idea what I was capable of–but even that seemed to take a secondary concern as I became aware of my face in her chest.  Oh, we are a passionate people, us Ailurans.

My head practically bursting with blood, I raised myself to look at Elmiryn’s face.  The woman in question gazed about her, bewildered, eyes straining as she tried to get a sense of where she was.  “Am I hallucinating again?”

“N-No, Elle,” I said quietly.  “You’re in the Umbralands.  I…I brought us here.”

She looked at me, cerulean eyes blinking.  “You did?”

I nodded, an odd quiet coming over me now that the object of my motivations was in my grasp.  The shadow around us shifted and I could see the dragon was preparing to take off again.  Once it did, we’d lose our place in the Umbralands, and I didn’t have it in me to create new shadows.  I reached a hand toward her face.  “You’re okay,” I breathed, eyes tearing up.  “Elmiryn, you’re really okay!”

She took a breath, eyes going wide, and I saw myself reflected in her gaze.  Then the woman smiled her broad smile, and she pulled me to her in a tight hug.  I hugged her back in kind, my body shivering.

“You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through!” I said with a tight laugh.

“I could say the same, kitten.”  Elmiryn returned, and her laughter became a part of me, sending a pleasure so deep as to force me to sit up and squeeze my thighs around her sides.  I pressed my forehead to hers and looked into her eyes–

And that was about as far as I got.

The dragon took off, taking its shadow with it.  We fell through the white and back into the Real World, bodies suspended before we crashed back to the ground.  Elmiryn looked green as I disentangled myself from her.  “Yeah, that? I don’t think I’m ever going to like that,” she said weakly.

“Sorry,” I said, but my eyes were on the skies.  The dragon was flying away.  No…not just flying away, but toward something.

My eyes bugged.  “Tristi!?”

The champion of luck was free falling through the sky with Farrel in his arms.  They were tiny so high up.  I could recognize them from the color of his jacket and Farrel’s light crop of hair.  I had no idea how they came to be up there so quickly, but my guess was that Tristi had called forth his chance magic…and this time, it didn’t look like the result was very fortunate.

I ran forward, the phantoms still teeming about us, and tried to call out to them.  “Tristi!  Farrel!”  But what could I do?  Within seconds, the dragon would have its meal and–

There was a golden flare in the sky, as something, a small meteor it looked like, came searing through the air to crash into the dragon.  There was a halo of light and dust around the burning rock, and this fanned out upon impact.  The air stirred, giving pause to all around us.   The great beast let out a painful cry, such that I was made to flinch as if I had been struck.  Intermingled with it was a chilling scream, like one from a man, but the volume was much too powerful to belong to a mortal’s.  The dragon came crashing, crashing, crashing down, and with a cataclysmic boom, it struck the earth.  What I found odd was that the meteor didn’t change course, or burst apart.  It seemed to…plow, as hard as it could, into the dragon’s chest, never once losing contact, even as I saw the dragon’s wings beat it.  Where did it and the meteor land?  Was anything destroyed?  Were any humans in our world killed, as when Tristi had dropped that orb of his?

If I had any question as to how this translated in our world, my answer came swiftly.  Screams and shouts filled the air as the festival goers ducked from the sweep of air that came surging from the point of impact.  A large slim column of dust rose, and there it towered into the dark sky, the night swallowing its peak to make it seem an endless giant.  Then the crowds around us fell still and quiet.  The fireworks, slow to realize the gravity of the situation, popped and cried jarringly, till less and less, they vanished for good.  The sky was scarred from their presence, and my ears rang from the absence of din.

My breath rattled past my lips and I shook my head.  “What…was that?” I breathed.

A dragon’s screech scattered my confusion as I twisted around to see yet another dragon coursing through the sky.  But it passed over us as it glided cautiously toward the landing site where its brethren no doubt still lay.  Another soon followed it, this one twirling and swooping in agitation.  It flew a bit lower than its fellow, and I saw it fix its blue eye on us, but like the other, he too passed us by.

This brought my attention to Farrel and Tristi, still falling, but so much closer now to their demise.  Their descent was much too fast, but I started into a sprint anyway, meaning to beg the shadows to take them.  In the back of my mind, I knew I was too far away.

I screamed when they hit the ground.

…And then…they bounced.

Having stopped in my horror, I was startled enough to move into a walk, then from a walk to a jog, then from a jog to a run.  “Sweet Aelurus, you’ve got to be joking!?”

Farrel and Tristi bounced again.

They were just within shouting distance, but I could hear Tristi laughing maniacally as he and Farrel rose up into the air once more, just over five stories, and came crashing back down.  Their bodies tumbled and twirled.  Farrel was screaming.  I wasn’t sure if they would bounce again, so as soon as I was able, I willed their shadows to take them.  They fell to the earth but didn’t come back up as before.  I slowed to a jog until I found the two of them, lying in the middle of the road.  The champion of luck had his eyes closed and was grinning, while Farrel was on his stomach and retching.  They must have slipped into the Umbralands, but without a shadow to sustain them there, they slipped right back, as I had planned.

“That was fun,” Tristi chuckled.  He opened one abalone eye and looked at me.  “Your trick was unnecessary.  We would’ve kept bouncing until we were safe.”

“Given your dislike for Farrel, I wanted to be sure,” I said dryly.

“Oh.  Perhaps wise.  Perhaps.”  The man’s eye flickered to something behind me.  He sat up.  “Ah, and who is your friend, sweetest?”

Sweetest?” Elmiryn appeared at my side.  She fixed me with a questioning look and I winced.

“I told you not to say that.  Why does everyone insist on calling me things I do not like?” I mumbled.

Farrel, with a little puddle of vomit next to him, rolled onto his back.  He glared at Tristi.  “Ya bastard.  You did that on purpose, didn’ ya?  I thought we were done for!”

The champion of luck pushed his glasses up onto his nose with a sigh.  “Little man, just be glad I wasted my good fortune on you.”

I kneaded my temples, eyes slipping closed as I tried to find my center.  “Elmiryn, you remember Farrel.”

“Oh.  Yeah.” She nodded at Farrel with a smirk.  “The Rabbit.”

“And this,” I went on, before Farrel could say something, “Is Tristi.  He, uh…” and I trailed off here, my brow bunching as I tried to think of what to say.  “He’s been following me,” I ended with a lame shrug.

“Is that all you’ve got to say?” Tristi chuckled.

“Is she supposed to say something else?” Elmiryn asked, a hook to her smile.

“Well, the girl was following me for a time.”

“And you find it important to make this distinction?”

“I believe in giving what is due, and in this situation, credit is due.”

“For following you?”

“For following my unfollowings.”

“What the fuck does that even mean?”

“Have you found anyone else, Elmiryn?” I interjected.  The last thing I needed was for the warrior to pick a fight with a champion–which was part of the reason I didn’t bother mentioning Tristi’s nature.  I was almost certain that if Elmiryn learned what Tristi really was, she’d go looking for trouble on that basis alone.  Given the exchange I just saw, I didn’t need to add to the fire.  “I found Argos, but he’s…well, he’ll join us later.  So far, no luck with the others.”

“Sedwick is with me,” Elmiryn said, her hooked smile still in place and her eyes stubbornly fastened onto Tristi’s.  Then, slowly, she broke the eye contact and craned her head.  The crowd had started to disperse in a low din, but not enough that we could see far beyond us.

My mouth dropped.  “Sedwick!  What is he doing out here?  I thought he was in Gamath!”

“Long story.  But I imagine we’ve both got those.” The woman stood on her tiptoes and blew her whistle.  I winced and clapped my hands to my ears.  The sound was sharp and incited a funny feeling in me. Elmiryn glanced at me with a grin.  “Sorry.  I forget it works a bit too well on some people.”

I pointed at it. “Is that thing magic? Where did you get it?”

The warrior nodded.  “Again, long story.  I think only people I trust or care about can hear it, myself not included.  I’m trying to see if the others can hear me.”

“I thought you said it was just Sedwick with you?”

“Did I?”  The warrior rubbed the back of her neck, “Ah, sorry.  I ran into Quincy too.”

I grabbed her arm, my eyes narrowed.  “Quincy? The-heartless-wizard-who-stabbed-me Quincy?”

“…Quincy, eh?” Tristi raised his head and stared at Elmiryn with deep eyes–those same thorny faraway eyes I had seen now and again.

The warrior looked at me.  “She isn’t heartless.  A bitch, maybe.  But not heartless.”

Tristi had propped himself up on his elbows and Farrel was now making an effort to sit up.  The champion of luck spoke.  There was a light to his eyes, much like when I’d first met him. “My luck has bought you all some time.  It would appear drawing the first beast’s attention as I had left it open to that strange interruption.  My suggestion?  Let’s away while there is still a chance.”  He smiled.  “All of us.”

“You did that on purpose?” Elmiryn said, pointing to the sky.  She shook her head.  “Do you know what you just did?”

“Stopped this idiot from being eaten?”  Tristi jerked his head at Farrel with a saintly look.

“Those are the Blessed Dragons, Praxidice, Erinyes, and Poena!  Halward’s familiars!  Y’know, the ones who ate their way out of Nathric?  The fucking reason this festival even exists?  You think you’ll get away with hurting one of those things?”

Tristi paused, eyebrows up high.

I looked at him, flabbergasted.  “Tristi you didn’t know that?” I exclaimed.  What I didn’t say, but still meant, was, “How could you not think of that?  I thought you said you’d been around an age!?

The man sat up, a scandalized look coming over his features.  “No.  Nonononononono-NO.  I knew that.  But the repercussions hadn’t quite reached me until now…You know how my magic works, little one.  There are certain outcomes I have no control over.  The death of one of the Blessed was hardly in my favor.” He frowned.  “Damn.  It won’t be long before Fortuna tells me to fix this.”  This surprised me.  So the goddess of luck could not cross lines?  Well, it was Halward, star ruler and god king.  It seemed all gods had their boundaries.

“I’m glad you did anyway,” I said, meaning it.  Was that blasphemous?  Somehow, the usual nervousness over such a concern was absent.  I extended a hand to Farrel and the man stood to his feet with a teeter.  “It’s the first honest bit of help you’ve given since I met you.  Thank you, Tristi.”

The champion of luck waved my comment away, his expression still preoccupied.  “Now, now.  Enough of that.  You’re going to make me ill.”

Elmiryn waved her hands to get our attention.  “Hey, this is all fascinating, but I think I like Tristi’s idea.  Let’s get the hell out of here while we can.” The crowd had thinned enough that we could now see down the street.  Further on, two figures could be seen, solid as we were, running toward the crash site.  Elmiryn frowned.  “What the hell?  Where are they going?  They must’ve heard my whistle…”

“Is that Quincy and Sedwick?” I said squinting.  I didn’t recognize Quincy–where was her cloak?  And wasn’t she a blond?  I didn’t know much details about her, other than these.  It took me a moment but I did recognize Sedwick.  He was still his bald, pale self.  Half his body was clear, like he’d turned a part of himself into water.

Elmiryn already was moving toward them, a frown on her face.  “Yes…it’s them.  Something’s wrong.  They had to have heard my whistle.”  She took off in a sprint, and with a start, Farrel and I followed.  I heard Tristi sigh behind us and soon he caught up, his long graceful body easily keeping pace.

It wasn’t back the way we came, but down the main road where much of the stunned aftermath I had seen at the tower collapse made an encore here.  But whereas the destruction of the tower saw the area all but deserted, there were many more people at the heart of the destruction, still lingering, still staring starry eyed up at the sky as the dust settled over them in a film–setting these phantoms deeper into their roles and us farther from them as mortals and beings from the same world.  I couldn’t help but gaze into each face as we hurried by and I thought, “This is Death preying on Life.”  Could I blame Tristi for what happened here?  I’d already been convinced of his innocence in the event of the tower, but here it seemed too incredible to even consider his guilt.  So huge was this destruction, that drawing connections between the almost otherworldly tower of smoke and the lanky figure next to me, was like connecting a single tiny ant to the cause of my own demise.  The threads of speculation ran much too thin, and it repelled me to even think that such a thing could be asked for.

And yet…looking into those crestfallen faces, seeing those lost children, those weeping women, those harried sidewalk heroes that tried to lend a hand whilst the authority figures around them–city guards–looked on in stupefied silence…looking into those faces as we pressed further into the heat, could I still tell Tristi “Thank you?”  His luck, his damnable luck that had played to his favor and ours now saw the cost of hundreds of lives, and my earlier gratitude soured, for it made me sick that my life was spared because of such destruction.  I would have rather faced off with the dragon.  Surely the damage would not have been so deep.

But here I am rambling.

The time slipped away from me, losing itself in compression, as minuscule moments filtered through my perception in all the hullabaloo.  The streets, for another two or three blocks, were untouched, save for the ash and dust that had started to rain down on the city.  But the closer we got to the site of impact, the more we saw the true spread of destruction.  There were cracks running down the streets.  Churned hard brick and cement revealed the dark soil underneath.  Windows were blown out.  Fiamman lamps bent or knocked over altogether.  Pieces of the meteor had broken away, contrary to what I had thought, and smashed into a building or two, the rock still flaming.  Fires spread.  People fought to save their homes and livelihoods.  Some tried to save their loved ones from the rubble.  We knew were were getting close when the number of buildings left standing was reduced to nothing, creating a sight of devastation and ruin.  This fanned out at least a quarter of a mile in radius.  We came upon this view, and yet it wasn’t the most awe-inspiring thing.

What was awe-inspiring, was seeing the dragons battling a giant at the center of it all.

Not like the horned giants I had seen before, mind you. But a glowing, sunny giant, who looked like a burly, muscular man in a loin cloth–but his head…  Sweet Aelurus, his head.

It was mostly flat at the front, and circular, and when he turned his face to us, I realized he had the face of base-reliefs from Talmor.  I had seen drawings in my books, and there was no doubt.  I would dare say, this giant was the inspiration for the style.  To further describe him, he had a feathered head dress and a red and green colored bone through his large hooked nose, with an elliptical rectangle tattooed about his eyes in black ink to make them stand out.  His face was boxy and wide at the cheekbones.  The horrifying part was that he lacked lips, so that he bared his large flat teeth perpetually in the face of his serpentine foes.

There was one moment when one of the dragons, with a long trailing beard from the bottom of its chin, slunk low, then struck up–meaning to catch the big fellow in his gut with its fangs.  But the sunny giant screamed so loud I thought I’d go deaf, and he smashed at the dragon’s head with his elbow, stunning it.  This was the source of that great scream I had before.  The beast’s brother tried to sneak up on the giant at this point, but the man was too quick.  He boxed the other away, and so it went.

The meteor had all but been destroyed, scattered pieces of it being knocked away in the scuffle as the great beings raged.  My guess was that the giant had somehow been in the meteor, but I couldn’t be sure.  I couldn’t see the dragon that had been first struck down.

We four hid in the rubble, behind a crumbled wall as the earth shook beneath our feet with the great battle.  Tristi and Farrel cautiously looked on.  “Öctér!  Look at them go!” the halfling exclaimed.  I could feel him shivering from where I sat.  Still, I didn’t look right away.  My eyes were on Elmiryn.  She’d gone pale and her skin was completely drenched in sweat.

“Elle, you don’t look well,” I said, touching her shoulder.

She glanced at me and smiled sheepishly.  “I’m…yeah, you’re right.” She twisted to peek over the top of the wall and whispered, “I’ve heard that giant before.  He’s been all over.  Must’ve found what he was looking for.”

“The dragons?” I asked.

“It would appear so…” Tristi said.  “Though what manner of creature he is, I haven’t the slightest idea.”

I wanted to say the same for Tristi, since his race, nor even his species, had been made clear to me in all this time, but I refrained.

I turned to Elmiryn. “Do you see the others?”

“Yeah…” she muttered, frowning.  She slid back down and shook her head.  “I don’t believe it.”

“What?”

The woman started to smile as she pointed over her shoulder.  “Quincy is going towards the fight!”

I looked now too, and sure enough, I saw a small figure slinking toward the battle, sword in hand. “Sweet Aelurus!  Does she want to die?”

No answer.  I glanced at Elmiryn to see that a look of realization was pulling her features slack.  “Tonatiuh?” she breathed.  Her eyes fluttered and she looked up at me.  “I think–no, I’m pretty sure I have to go out there,” she said louder.

I dropped down to her, both my hands grabbing her arms.  I looked at her with eyes wide.  “Elmiryn, no!

But the smile was spreading on her lips–that wide, full-toothed reckless smile that turned my stomach into knots.  With firm hands, she pulled herself out of my grip.  “I have to.  I promised.”

“Promised what? What could possibly justify running out there??”  My eyes were tearing up now.  Elmiryn, stay with me, please gods, you can’t just go gallivanting off again, PLEASE–

“Quincy and I made a vow.  We’d take care of our other struggles, and help each other find what it was we were looking for.  Then we get to fight each other, one last time, to the death.”

I hit her in the shoulders, tears spilling forth.  “Cajeck, why would you swear by such a thing!?” I shrilled.

“It was the only way we could work together.”  Her tone suggested this was obvious.

“That’s the best reason you can give me?  Y’know I had to literally be torn apart just to find you again!?”

“Technically, she found you,” Tristi said behind me.

I bunched, my eyes closing.  “Shut up, Tristi.”

Elmiryn palmed my cheeks, and I reluctantly opened my eyes.  Her face was close, and her smile had turned gentler.  “Hey…believe me.  I’ll be fine.  You think I’d leave my ward to fend for herself?” she blinked at me.  Then again.  …And again.  Finally she let her head drop and I could hear a loud dejected sigh.  “Gods damnit, I really wish I could wink at you.”

I grabbed her wrists with a baffled look.  “Elle?”

The woman raised her head again, and with one last look at me, kissed me on the forehead.  She gave it some thought, then kissed me on the lips next.  She lingered there, and my eyes fell shut.

But the moment was over too quick, and she pulled away, her eyes twinkling and her predatory grin back in place, before she turned and darted around the wall, out of sight toward the battle.

I sat there, blinking, my hands still in the air where I’d held her.  My mouth jawed, fingers flexing as I tried to process my situation.

…Then I leapt over the wall, after her.  Elmiryn didn’t expect me coming, so when I shoved at her from behind, she tumbled onto her knees.  Bewildered, she looked at me.  “Nyx?” she held up a hand.  “Aren’t you going off script, here?”

“Cajeck!” I shouted.  My face was red and my fists balled at my sides, and when I said the word again, I put in all the emphasis I could.  “Cajeck!”  Elmiryn visibly flinched as she rolled over onto her bottom.  She batted her eyes at me as I stood huffing over her.  I jabbed a finger at her face.  “You can be SO inconsiderate!  So obstreperous!  So–so–rrrrgh!–so damn full of yourself.  Did I not just say I had been torn apart trying to find you? Didn’t I!?  Did you think that meant I sat on my ass whilst you were running around–” I struggled for something to say, hands wheeling through the air.

“…Higgeldy piggeldy?” Elmiryn offered uncertainly.

I picked up without a hitch.  “Whilst you were running around, higgeldy piggeldy!? I am not going to be the mewling maiden you leave behind!  Call me a harridan if you must, but this fucking role you’re so eager to stick me with is not to my liking!  I may not be the most cocksure warrior there is, but I am also not a vitreous little fool to set aside!  I am not denigrating you, I am giving you a reality check.  I am not going to let you just run off!  Not after what I’ve been through.  No!  NO! I won’t.”

Elmiryn glanced off to the side.  Then her eyes snapped back onto me.  “Soooo…come with me.”  She shrugged.  “I don’t mind.”

I remained huffing and glaring at her, shoulders up around my ears, and my knees shaking.  Then I started to nod in a quick, jerky way.  “Yeah.  Yeah.  Okay.  Yes.  I’ll go with you.”  I cleared my throat and swiped my bangs from my right eye.  Then I added in a quick mutter. “Obstreperous.  Someone who is noisy and unruly.  Vitreous.  To have a quality like glass.  Denigrate.  To unfairly criticize.”

Elmiryn smiled slowly at me.  “Thank you.  So I’m noisy?”

I looked at my shoes.  “I was stretching that one a bit.  I wouldn’t say you’re noisy, per se.  Still, the word ‘disruptive’ applies, especially when you’ve had something to drink–”

“Oh, kitten, you do lavish me with your Words.”

“I’d rather lavish you with something else.”  I had said this low and fast, but still I went red hot.  The words came out quicker than I could stop them.  My eyes stayed fastened on my shoes.

“Huh!” Elmiryn sounded surprised.  Frankly, so was I.  All this excitement and honesty had me spilling things out before giving it any serious thought.

I squeezed my eyes shut.  “I–I–I want to make sure you’re safe, and I can’t rest easy unless I’m at your side.  So please.  Let’s just…get this over with, Elle.”

“Okay.”  I heard movement and creaked my eyes open.  Warily, I looked up.  Elmiryn was on her feet and held out her hand to me.  “Let’s go Madame Fussy Britches!”


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