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Chapter 33.1

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn stood staring into the cave, her body seized by emotions too numerous to name.

“And you’re sure?” she whispered.

“Don’t be stupid,” Kali snapped. “Of course I’m not sure.”

“Given the intense atmosphere of malice here, I’m guessing we’re at the right spot,” Quincy whispered next.

“Oh come, come,” Gudahi murmured. “Maybe the air just woke up in a bad mood.”

“You’re still assuming the air is alive enough to wake up. All I can smell is death…” Hakeem muttered.

Quincy covered her nose and mouth with her hand. “This could also simply be the passing attack of the beast’s morning gas!”

Sanuye wrinkled her nose. “I’m confused. The air does not do these things!”

Gudahi bit his lower lip and gave three slow deliberate pats to her shoulder.

Kali shook her head, her ears flapping as she let out a low growl. “Arr! Are we pressing forward or not?”

“Forward,” Elmiryn said firmly, but her stomach was boxing with her insides, and her throat was constricting to the point that she was certain she’d either toss up her meager breakfast or scream for the want of drink. Her hands were shaking terribly. They had followed Kali’s guidance through the forest, watching with grimness as the trees became darker and the wildlife seemed to fade. Quincy dug into her with an, “I told you so,” but Elmiryn only snarled at her like an animal, because honestly, the tonic the wizard gave her barely gave any release from her withdrawals as it was. What did it matter?

Before them was a short cliff face, the gnarled roots of the trees at the cliff’s lip tangling down toward them like thick and earthly fingers. The stone and soil was dark and tinged crimson, the grass shrinking from the mouth of the cave that sat looming at the base of the landmark. There were no bones, no leavings of food or scat here to tell them they had found what they were looking for. There was just the aura of foreboding and the oddly electric feel of something unnatural in the air.

Elmiryn swallowed and clenched her quivering hands. She took one step, then another, and another…and soon she was marching, with great determination, the fear enveloping her and somehow inciting her anger—because she was Elmiryn Manard, damn it, and she wasn’t supposed to be afraid of anything.

The others followed quietly behind. She heard them draw their weapons, but she did not pull out her sword. They were here to find Nyx, and no matter what they found, she was not going to approach her friend hostile.

The darkness swallowed them. Soon even the feeble unnatural lighting of the Other Place was beyond their reach.

“Wait a moment!” Quincy called, and everyone stopped. Elmiryn heard rustling, and a moment later, she heard something strike—like a match. There was a hiss like something was lit, but no light came. She could hear the wizard curse, and again the sounds came, but still no light. Quincy tried and tried, but after almost a full minute passed, Hakeem quietly spoke.

Mweze, I do not think this darkness is natural.”

And she replied with resignation, “Taika, I think you’re right.”

Elmiryn had already started walking on ahead. Their voices grew smaller in her ears, but as far as she was concerned, their importance was little. The only thing that mattered to her was finding Nyx again, and she couldn’t take the separation anymore. The ground beneath her was level–smooth. It were as if the darkness wanted her to go forward, and she could feel her body steadily move into a quicker gait, like something were pulling at her.

Something winked in her eyes. A light. Fire.

Elmiryn started to run, her heart hammering in her chest. She couldn’t hear the others now. They were lost, like she was lost, like Nyx was lost. But soon that would be corrected. Soon, soon, soon…

The fire brightened, then flared, and with a roar it engulfed her…

LETHIA_________________________

“They’re here,” Syria said, a note of satisfaction to her voice. Lethia stared down at her plate of roasted meat and rice with gloom.

They were seated at the dinner table, a long and lonely stretch of dark wood that was decorated with a tasseled mauve runner and two silver candelabras to bring more natural light to their unnatural home. Syria sat at the head of the table, though she had no plate, only a silver goblet of some mysterious amber liquid that she refused to explain. Lethia sat adjacent to her on the right, a fork loosely held in her right hand.

“What will happen when they find her?” She whispered.

“She will kill them,” Syria said simply. “And if she does not kill them, she will damage their spirits enough for us to kill them.”

“Why do they have to die?” Lethia said, her voice growing hoarse. “Why must they suffer?”

She could feel her mistress’s unnatural gaze fix on her, and the teenager shrank, setting her fork down onto the table.

“Because, Lethia,” the woman said quietly. “They are not where they ought to be.”

“And where should they be, if not for us?”

“Us? And what did we do to lead to their misfortunes?”

Lethia balled her dress in her hands. “We brought them here. They never wanted to come.”

“They never wanted us to come either, darling.”

“And maybe they were right!” Lethia shouted shrilly. Her voice echoed far and long in the castle keep, scoring in further the audacity of her outburst. The girl squeezed her eyes shut, hot tears leaking down her face, but then she raised her head. Though her body trembled and her head began to ache, she forced herself to look into Syria’s face. The enchantress was, as always, obscured by her curtain of hair and some inexplicable magic. Yet through the part of the curtain, the teenager saw a single eye, and she held it, her headache turning to outright pain. “All these months you have tried to show me how evil the mortal world is! How people are lost and misguided! How we are but wretches under the tyranny of the gods! But these people—my friends—they have fought tirelessly for one single goal! EACH OTHER!  Whatever agendas they may have had in the beginning have been washed in light of their bonds, and I know it is true even if they don’t, because when I look into each of their faces, I can see there is still light there! And what have you done? Killed, and murdered, and manipulated everything so that it came to the satisfaction of some unfathomable monster that doesn’t belong in our world! Your soul is empty! Your heart is black!

Lethia shook her head, trembling fiercely now, her face red and her eyes bulging, a fever rushing through her body the longer she held Syria’s gaze. But she refused to look away. She was tired. She was done. “Was the woman who raised me just a lie? What happened to that kindness and wisdom I once knew? I looked up to you. You were my world, and I would’ve died for you…but now I see that it was never really my decision. You isolated me…Syria. You hid me from the world and controlled me for your sick schemes, and now my hands are awash with your blood debts! There’s only ONE way I know I can atone for any of this!”

Syria set down her drink and sat forward slowly, her hands gripping the armrests of her high back chair with a white-knuckled grip. Suddenly Lethia’s vision went black, and all she could see was her own abstract Fear, a twisted and maniacal thing, that constricted about her body like a snake and tightened until she found it hard to breathe. Syria’s voice came to her, echoing as though she were some omnipotent god.

“My Lethia…my sweet, sweet Lethia…I tried. I did. But now I shall spare you what my master would do a thousandfold. It is the only mercy I can spare, and for all my love, it is not enough…”

Lethia gagged, struggling in the dark space as the spiny Fear tightened and tightened. The teenager’s eyes rolled. She tried to breathe in, but could not. Distantly, she recognized that this was all an illusion. Syria was making her mind believe in a lie. But the conscious mind was inferior to the subconscious mind, for that was the part of a person that had a direct link to the animus, and so her awareness came to nothing when prefaced by her reptilian beliefs.

Her eyes rolled. She could feel herself falling away…death coming to her like sleep did a young child.

She heard barking through the ether.

Dazed, Lethia forced her eyes to blink open. She saw something large and white bounding toward her. At first she thought it were a monster. Then she thought it was some sort of albino bear. And then…

Her eyes widened.

Argos!?

The dog came close enough that his furry face came into focus, and that was when Lethia noticed a dark mottled lizard atop his head. She blinked drunkenly at it, her will to stay awake just a while longer losing out to her lack of oxygen.

Then Lethia wondered if this were just another illusion, for the lizard spoke and said in a hissing voice, “Argos, thou wimpled sheep-biting scut! Forget thy simpering and give the girl what she needs!”

Argos whined and pressed his face against Lethia’s just as she started to pass out. As her thoughts and the illusions fell away, something light and warm and invigorating settled into her chest. It pulsed once before exploding.

Lethia’s eyes snapped open as she gasped for air, like a fish starved. She could see the dining room again—the colored walls, the lonely table, the high ceiling.

More importantly, she could see Syria, who had half-risen from her seat, her face drawn in shock.

The girl’s eyes blinked.

Wait…her face? Oh my gods! I can see her face!

Syria looked much as she had before this nightmare had started, except for a few key details. Her eyes were pitch black, even the scleras, and spidering about them were dark and wicked veins that vanished into her hairline. Two wooden horns sprouted from either side of her forehead, their branches bearing green tear-dropped leaves like they were saplings just beginning to grow. Small fangs could be seen from the woman’s open mouth as she stared in shock at the girl who should have died under her spell.

“How…” she whispered.

Lethia touched her head, then her heart, and felt her soul lift. “That power…that power you used in me to do those rituals in Albias…the one you tried to hide from me all my life…” The girl looked at her mistress with a new fire in her eyes. “It has come back!”

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn tried to control her breathing, her heart still doing a marathon in her chest. Slowly, she lowered her arms from around her head and looked around her. She was out of the darkness, out of the cave, and around her was much like the other cave entrance had been…only all those missing signs of habitation were present here. Blood stained the soil, bones large and small strewn about. The woman heard someone take a step behind her and slowly turned around.

“Nyx,” she whispered.

It was the Ailuran. There was no doubt in Elmiryn’s mind. But she was different. This wasn’t entirely unexpected for the warrior. From what Kali had explained, if Nyx had survived at all, it was to become one with the beast. Yet nothing could prepare her for the horrible sight before her. The one she cared for the most looked like a demon—her chest open to bare some impossible void, her body furry and clawed, her eyes holding the deepest contempt, her lips and chin stained with blood.

“What took you so long?” Nyx asked quietly, her pawed feet careful stepping over the bones on the ground as she began to circle around.

Elmiryn followed her with her eyes, her hands clenching and unclenching. “I tried. I tried really hard, Nyx, you have no idea—”

“I might have some,” the Ailuran interjected. Her voice did not rise, did not seem harsher, or more animal-like. She sounded like Nyx. But something was off. Her voice…was chillingly incongruent with her form.

The warrior shook her head. “I’m sorry I let myself get in the way of…us. If I hadn’t have–”

Nyx interjected again. “Us?” she chuckled softly. “What do you mean, ‘us’?”

Elmiryn blinked and stared at her, her body now turning on the spot to keep Nyx in front of her. “Nyx, you’re all that matters to me. You have to believe that.”

“Is that why you can’t help but go chasing after death and glory like a bitch in heat?”

The woman blinked at how much that cut into her. “Aside from you, it’s all that I have. You know that. You understand that, I know you do!”

“What I understand, Elle,” Nyx spat, pausing in her circling. “Is that you are a self-absorbed detestation who would still be suckling at her mother’s teat if only her father hadn’t shoved his dick into her fate.”

Elmiryn’s eyes fluttered. “Wha-What?

Nyx approached her slowly, and the warrior backed away, her eyes squinting in disgust as she saw the Ailuran’s ribs move back and forth like the teeth of a beast. The girl quickened her step to close the gap, making the woman flinch, but she only ran her clawed fingers down Elmiryn’s cheek and whispered, “Don’t act is if you don’t understand my Words. I know you do. You eat them up like a fat boy does candy. I have so many Words for you, Elmiryn. Do you want to hear?”

Elmiryn’s face lengthened in despair. “No…”

Nyx smiled emptily, her cat eyes turning wide. “Here’s a few descriptors for you. First word: Liar.”

“Nyx, this isn’t you.”

“Arrogant.”

“Nyx, stop it.”

“Ignorant.”

“I said–”

Whore.

“Nyx–”

MURDERER.

“STOP IT!” Elmiryn shoved the Ailuran away from her, her gaze wild. “This isn’t you, Nyx! This anger, this hatred! It doesn’t mean anything! You can’t even call it darkness because there is no light left inside of you to contrast it!”

Nyx hissed and slashed at the warrior with her claws. The woman dodged it, but the Ailuran didn’t press her attack. She only crouched low to the ground and growled out, “You’re right. As I am now, I am not darkness, I am me! This is the truth, Elmiryn! LOOK at me! This is what you and your fucking murderous kingdom created! All the years I spent fighting to keep my family together, only to lose it all for my hatred of YOU! Fiammans! Warriors! Soldiers! You may as well have killed Thaddeus. You may as well have killed Atalo and my mother! All the shit between us is a lie! THIS is real. This. Look at me, Elle, and see what you’re death and glory have created!”

Elmiryn felt like she was going to cry again, but she fought against it. Now was not the time for silly emotions. She was better than that. Trained. She knew better than to let her head get muddled with distractions. So when Nyx charged her, claws slashing, she was ready. She dodged and ducked. Blocked and parried. But she did not attack. She couldn’t bring herself to. This wasn’t like their sparring sessions all those weeks ago. This was life or death, and Elmiryn would rather die than raise a hand against her friend…

In the end, the others made it so that she didn’t have to.

A spear whistled and caught Nyx in the shoulder. The girl screamed, gripping the shaft and falling to a knee. It had gone completely through. Elmiryn’s head snapped around to see Quincy, Hakeem, Kali, Gudahi, and Sanuye emerge from the darkness of the cave. Gudahi lacked a spear, his face hard as he beheld Nyx.

“Don’t!” Elmiryn shouted at them.

Sanuye and Gudahi didn’t listen. They charged forward, Sanuye bringing her weapon to bare, Gudahi raising his fists to strike. Elmiryn ran to intercept them, but she was too slow. Nyx broke off the spear from her shoulder with one powerful wrench, her bestial scream alien and terrifying. As the Lycans neared, she parried Sanuye’s spear so that the tip jammed into the dirt before Gudahi’s feet, making the man trip.

Then, in one sure strike, Nyx stabbed Sanuye in her exposed neck with the broken spear shaft. The Lycan’s face went slack and blood gurgled from her mouth. But the Ailuran wasn’t done. She kept pushing forward, making the taller woman stumble back until she tripped on a skull and crashed to the ground. There Nyx ground the shaft in further, her face twisted with monstrous rage. Sanuye struggled feebly beneath her. Then her arms went limp.

Elmiryn, Quincy, and Hakeem, who had each been moving to intervene, slowed their steps, shock evident on their faces. The only one who didn’t stop moving was Kali. Her dark furry face seemed enlivened by something–some sort of awareness that spurred her forward just as Nyx pulled the broken shaft from the Lycan’s neck, then pulled the spear tip from her back. They collided and rolled. Both shrieked and roared in anger and pain. Elmiryn watched in horror and fascination as Kali tore at Nyx’s throat, whilst Nyx’s rib cage seemed to bite into the feline on top of her, her claws raking down the animal’s back.

Simultaneously, as this all happened, Gudahi righted himself from his frantic stumbling, and he turned just in time to see Sanuye’s arms flop to the dirt. A number of emotions flashed across his face. Shock, disbelief, grief…

Then rage.

Kuhkle! Ey-hote, KUHKLE!” he shouted in Lycan. He charged the two fighting personas, and this time Elmiryn did not hesitate. She tackled him, bringing him up into the air briefly before slamming him down onto a pile of small animal bones.

“Gudahi, Gudahi! NO!” she shouted. But he was in a rage. Perhaps all he could see now was his dead alpha and younger brother, the warriors he had called brothers and sisters left strewn about in bloody pieces around the forest he had called home. Perhaps he had lost his mind.

It didn’t matter. Elmiryn knew somehow, that this was between Kali and Nyx, and she couldn’t allow him to interfere. She couldn’t interfere. It was both crushing and uplifting to know that for once, it was not about what she had to do. This wasn’t about her or her feelings. It was about Nyx. It was all about Nyx.

Sadly, Gudahi didn’t seem to see that.

With his prodigious therian strength, he flipped Elmiryn over him bodily with one foot, then rolled over onto his feet. The warrior scrambled to raise herself when she saw small black arms wrap around Gudahi’s neck. Hakeem appeared over the man’s shoulder, and he shouted into his ear. “My friend! I know you suffer, but you must not do this!”

Gudahi only screamed in response and pried the wizard’s hands from his throat. With one might swing, he threw Hakeem at Elmiryn and the two tumbled back to the ground, winded.

“Something’s happening!” the woman heard Quincy shout.

She raised her head and managed to see beyond Gudahi’s striding legs enough to see the grotesque event that the wizard was referring to. Kali was being…devoured, by Nyx. But not through her mouth. Through her gaping chest. The large feline howled as her body bowed and snapped to fit in through the void that was in Nyx’s body. The girl, in turn, was stiff, her back arched and her mouth open as her eyes rolled up into her head, veins bulging from her neck.

They’re becoming one again… Elmiryn thought.

Her eyes widened as she fought to disentangle herself from Hakeem.

Shit, and Gudahi’s about to ruin it all!


Back to Chapter 32.4 | Forward to Chapter 33.2

Chapter 32.4

“For the first time he had felt fear about life, for the first time he had truly understood that when life had sentenced you to suffer, this sentence was neither a pretense nor a threat. How meaningless it was, empty, empty, empty. This hunting for yourself, slyly observing your own tracks — in a circle, of course; this pretending to throw yourself into the stream of life and then at the same time sitting and angling for your yourself and fishing yourself up in some peculiar disguise! If only it would seize him: life, love, passion — so that he wouldn’t be able to invent it, but so that it would invent him…. it was sweet to dream himself so bitterly insignificant.”

–J.P. Jacobsen, from the novel “Niels Lyhne”

LETHIA_________________________

Lethia Artaud was in a place of irrefutable oppression. It lined her lungs with every maligned breath, the curse and cultivation of nightmares stirring her spirit to paranoia and incredible self-loathing. The walls shimmered incandescent with a prism of colorful energy that stirred creatures outside the castle keep to hoot and howl and holler. She lay in a bed of silken sheets, her slip of a gown feeling foreign on her skin. She pulled the thick blanket up to her chin and stared up at the ceiling–a swirl of cauldron blacks, candy reds, and bruised purples. The doorway to her small quarters lacked a door. She was not allowed to have any privacy after her last attempt at release. The girl touched her left wrist under the blanket.

She’d have to change the bandage again soon. The wound was beginning to pucker.

In the months since she’d come to this hell, Lethia had seen her friends suffer, find hope, then suffer even more. It was like a vicious cycle, spiraling downward to the inevitable end they were all facing. The guilt she felt kept her from sleeping. She missed Argos so much she laughed at the irony of the fact that he was a dog. The days were a relentless parade of lectures, cleaning, cooking, and studying. In summary, it was almost normal, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The castle keep was lost deep within a dark forest, surrounded by a swarm of monsters and evil spirits. It was a place of nightmares, and the teenager was trapped in it.

Syria gave her a potion to help her rest, and Lethia found she liked the dreamless coma she’d slip into upon drinking the concoctions. Only she didn’t drink her dose that night. Something kept her from it. Maybe the sudden realization that Syria was poisoning her somehow.

She understood that time in the Other Place was different than other dimensions. For Elmiryn and Quincy, Holzoff’s was a week in the past. For Argos, nearly two. Hakeem and Nyx’s “Twin” had been there a month. And Lethia? Eight months. Eight. She’d watched everyone’s journey in real time, and yet she had been there the longest. This paradox was beyond Lethia’s comprehension, but she also understood that the Other Place was not a place to be understood. It was a place to divide, to diverge, and to deny.

“What have I lost then? Besides Argos?” she had asked Syria some time ago. “Everyone else has lost something here…what have I lost?”

“I cannot know that, my dear. Perhaps you did not lose anything?” Her mistress was a mystery, because though she was usually in perfect view and good light, her face always seemed obscured somehow. In all the eight months Lethia had been there, even when up close, she had not seen Syria’s face. It was disturbing–a sign of the corruption that had taken her. Of the mark that now branded her the pet of–

“Lethia.” The young enchantress was snapped out of thoughts to see the very object of her attention standing in the doorway. “Come. Another lesson for you.”

The girl sighed and sat up. “Yes, mistress.” Her words were hollow. She had learned to stop bothering to resist, though her thoughts were still harder to regulate. Syria could hear all, sense all. It was probably why she still insisted on these “lessons” of hers. Lethia had never known true loathing, but the feelings she held toward the woman could only be described as much. Yet even this was not more than the loathing that Lethia felt for herself.

Vicious cycles, and all that.

It didn’t take long to pull on a robe and slippers. Normal amenities were somehow in easy reach in this place. Or maybe they were just an illusion…like her life had been.

When she emerged from her quarters, the teenager entered what was the central study. Here, volumes of old books were stacked on thick slabs of marble. The lighting orbs brought a surreal aura about the space as the cobwebs shifted with personality and the shadows flickered into life. Great thick reams of paper towered up from the floor in teetering heights, each and every one of them scrawled with some esoteric knowledge in a dead language. There was a giant plum-colored sofa chair in the eye of this storm, and Syria sank into it like a butterfly did a flower.

The master enchantress wore a sequined dress, the color of light ink, the fabric cut scandalously down the front so that it resembled a coat of sorts. Her generous bosom was visible, the fabric mysteriously form fitting, and her long graceful legs were displayed. All that kept it together was a golden clasp at the center of her chest, and a slim obsidian belt at her waist. Her feet were bare. They had to be.

No shoe could fit in the tangle of roots that had become Syria’s feet.

Lethia seated herself next to these, her eyes downcast as she folded her hands before her. Listlessly, she took in how her mistress’s flesh transmorphed into live wood from mid-calf down.

“Elmiryn is reflecting on her attack against the Twin,” she heard Syria say.

At this, the girl’s eyes flickered up. She’d been hoping for more clarification on this issue. Now it seemed that moment had finally come. Moments between ‘scenes’ (as Lethia was coming to understand them) was different for them. It had been at least a week since she had seen Elmiryn part with the others to be alone.

Syria held up her hand, and Lethia tried to focus on it, because looking at the woman’s face (or lack thereof) brought about nasty headaches, as though the universe were trying to punish her for seeking what could not be sought. Over Syria’s hand, a white window opened, and the teenager sat up to peer through. When Elmiryn had been hiding inside of her own head after her encounter with Artemis, she’d gained an odd ability to see what shouldn’t have been seen. Lethia was the woman in the window. When the warrior had tried to talk to her, the teenager had tried vainly to respond. But the spell did not work this way. Syria wouldn’t have allowed it even if it did.

In the window, she could see Elmiryn, sitting alone. She was talking to herself, a habit she had picked up when the others slept and she remained awake. Her fae nature was growing stronger, and the things that humans needed were becoming less and less relevant. The fae did not sleep. They did not dream. Their very lives were dreams, populated by their insane and whimsical natures.

Lethia blinked as she saw the warrior throw a rock at the ground. She looked sullen, her cerulean eyes emptied of their usual alacrity and warmth. “What was I thinking…” Elmiryn asked herself.

That’s what I’d like to know… Lethia thought. Having seen everything there was to see about the people she had come to this realm with, she knew and understood the strange circumstances surrounding Nyx and her “Twin” persona. If the Twin, now known as Kali, were to be destroyed, then Nyx would die. If Nyx were destroyed, then Kali would die. While the two personas battled for supremacy within the same body, they were still not strong enough to exist independently of one another. The Other Place, as a spiritual alter-dimension, was capable of sustaining this separation—but for a short period of time. Syria had explained that both sides had already shown signs of decay in their actions. Their time was drawing to a close.

So with so much at stake, why on earth, would Elmiryn try to harm Kali?

As if to answer Lethia’s question, the warrior spoke. “Atalo isn’t my brother. Hell. I don’t even remember what he looks like.” The teenager pressed in closer, her nose touching the magical window so that it tingled. “But god, when that stupid animal said that…when Kali said that…I wanted to…” Elmiryn sat roughly onto the forest floor, her spine slumped in uncharacteristic defeat. With her leg half-bent, she leaned onto it, her arms lax at her sides. “What’s the point?” she sighed. “There…is none, is there?” She didn’t move for a long time, seemingly lost within her own thoughts.

Then suddenly the warrior slammed her fist into the ground and screamed, “Fuck! FUCK!”

What came next broke Lethia’s heart.

Elmiryn started crying. Crying. Real tears streamed down her face, blotching it. Her nose started to run. Her chest heaved with sobs and there was that undeniably broken sound of someone who had had enough. She pulled at the scarf Quincy had lent her till it unwrapped, revealing fully what it had barely managed to cover. The bruises on Elmiryn’s back had darkened considerably, and the long cuts in her skin still looked very raw and painful.

Lethia’s chin crumpled and she looked away. She felt ashamed, like a voyeur seeing something she should not have. She had felt this many times before, but something about this was so much more acute. This was someone’s personal pain, something she knew they would never let themselves show anyone. She even understood the why of it. Elmiryn wasn’t mad about Kali, or Quincy, or even the fact that they still had yet to find Nyx (though that certainly didn’t help)…It was because the warrior had been made to feel something she had never truly felt.

…Powerless.

She stayed there for a long time, just weeping. Then she went silent. The darkness had intensified, signifying that night had come. This shard did not have a sky, nor were the nymphs offering their magic this far from the Lycan village, so Lethia could only assume this was what it meant. With time, Elmiryn raised herself from the ground. She had not fallen asleep at all in that time of stillness. It was becoming less that she didn’t want to, and more that she didn’t need to.

After wiping her face clear, the warrior took some time to fix her hair into the iconic braid that Lethia had become so familiar with. After that, she took the itchy scarf and once more wrapped it around herself. Taking a rock, she marked trees as she went until she came to the stream. There she washed her face and drank some water. Her hands shook visibly. When she was done, she followed her markings to return to the place she had cried, which was not all that far from her companions’ camp. Upon returning to the others, she found they were all asleep, with the exception of Gudahi, who kept watch with a small fire. He did not act surprised or confused by her sudden appearance. Not surprising. As a Lycan, he probably sensed her coming.

What Lethia did not expect, nor Elmiryn too, it seemed, was the man offering the woman a small branch of leaves. They were light green and shaped like tear drops.

The warrior stared at it. Then at the man. “What’s this for?”

Gudahi gestured at his eyes. “To help with the swelling,” he said quietly.

Elmiryn’s face reddened. With a snatch, she took the leaves from him, and for a second she looked as though she were about to throw it into the meager flames. Then she paused. Her body was still tensed, the muscles of her athletic form like coiled springs ready to explode in a burst of energy. Gradually, she relaxed. She lowered the hand holding the leaves and sat down on the other side of the camp fire.

“What do I do?” she muttered.

Gudahi mimed with his hands, his eyes on the flames. “You tear the leaves and crush them in your hands. Then you take your fingertips and lightly dab the juice around your eyelids.”

Lethia watched, fascinated, as Elmiryn began to do as instructed. When she came to the part of dabbing the eyes, she asked, “How do you know this stuff?”

Gudahi smiled wanly. “My sister cries all the time for our dead brother.”

This was met with silence.

Elmiryn carefully set the leaves aside, grimacing as she wiped the sticky leaf juice onto her pants. Lethia didn’t know what they were called, and she wished the warrior were curious enough to ask, but she made a point to remember the look of the leaves in case she ever needed them. Which she suspected she would.

“So did things go to hell while I was away?”

Gudahi shrugged. “Kali was not pleased, but I get the feeling she is used to that. Quincy was her same ornery self. Sanuye was unshakeable as ever. And Hakeem was simply beautiful. Does that answer your question?”

The warrior narrowed her eyes at the man. “Why do you pant after Hakeem like that? He’s a kid.”

“I do not pant after him, as you say. And I wouldn’t dream of touching him as he is now…but I know what he was. Isn’t that enough?”

“It’s still weird.”

“You just dislike it because you dislike me on principle.”

“You’re right. I do dislike you.”

Lethia frowned, though this behavior had become the norm for Elmiryn as of late. The warrior was known for her candor, but also for her inexhaustible sense of humor. Even when angry, she seemed to try and make things a joke. That energy seemed gone now.

“You mustn’t worry,” The man sighed delicately. “Nyx shall be all yours…and I? I shall be alone.” He touched his heart with an exaggerated look of pain. “Oh so alone.”

Elmiryn’s head lolled back and she stared up at the forest canopy. “And not a single fuck was given that day…”

Ohuff! You are so mean.”

The redhead smirked. “You should see me when I’m on my period.” Lethia snorted into a laugh. So her humor wasn’t all gone. That was reassuring.

Gudahi chuckled as well. “There it is.”

Elmiryn gave him a curious glance. “There what is?”

He looked at her with a kind smile, his fingers idly twirling one of the teardrop leaves. “That part of you that made Nyx fall in love. You bring levity to an otherwise heavy life.”

The woman blinked, but said nothing. She seemed oddly surprised. Gudahi looked at her when her silence assured no response. “Oh? Surely you must’ve known. I hope you did. Please, say you did! I cannot stand the thought of my pet being cross with me!”

She frowned softly. “I’ve known. I can…hear it. When she spoke to me, it was there.”

“So what is wrong? You should be happy.”

Elmiryn’s frown deepened and she gazed into the fire. After a moment, she whispered, “I wonder if I’m being selfish.” Lethia barely caught it. She bit her lip as Gudahi took a deep breath.

But all he said was, “Ahhhh…I see.”

“I mean, when we met, I had to press her to come with me. And then? She got tossed into all of my crazy, is what. Gamath, Albias, the Other Place…none of this would’ve happened if I’d have just—”

“This is where I’m going to stop you and go to sleep.”

The woman sputtered. Clearly, she wasn’t used to being brushed off, and this made Lethia smirk a little. “What the fuck? I’m opening up, which, if you haven’t noticed, is like finding a midget’s pot of gold up your granny’s snatch—and you’re just going to fucking sleep?

Gudahi gave her a dry look. “You’re still missing the point.”

“That you’re an insensitive twat?”

“No. That Nyx, despite all she’s gone through, still fought to be by your side.” He raised an eyebrow at the woman. “After all, isn’t she always telling people about how she was, ‘Literally torn apart!’ trying to find you again?” Gudahi managed to mimic the Ailuran in what Lethia thought was an eerily accurate voice. “If you can’t understand the sort of resolve that takes, then perhaps you really aren’t meant for her.”

Elmiryn blinked after the man as he went to sleep. She didn’t move for a time. Then, just as she seemed to come out of her shock, Syria closed the window to the scene. Lethia looked at her mistress in surprise. The way she always sat so silently, the girl almost forgot about her. The woman, with her hair curtaining her face, reclined in her sofa chair and steepled her fingers on the arm rests.

“What have you learned?” her voice was a soft murmur.

Lethia closed her eyes wearily. She hated these sessions. She never knew what the woman’s exact point was. Since coming to the Other Place, it were as though her sense of teaching had taken a turn for the abstruse.

“I have learned…” As such, the girl usually just listed off whatever she could possibly think of. “That Elmiryn can be broken. That she both craves, yet fails to understand Nyx’s love. That she may be incapable of reciprocating that love, no matter how much she wishes to. That she is very fearful, probably more so than anyone she has ever met. She is also lonely beyond words due to her own need to safeguard herself. Artemis is getting to her more than she wants to admit. But her fae nature has given her a power to resist the way of the gods, and thus, she is even more alone than she knows. It eats away at her, in her subconscious, because she can’t put it into words anymore than the people around her can. Elmiryn is alone because she lives outside of the world, and the one person who can reach her is missing from her life.”

Syria let out a pleased murmur, her long black tresses shifting as she tilted her head. “Now why can we understand these things?”

Lethia swallowed hard. With a trembling voice she whispered, “Because we are outside of heaven’s will too.” Only she felt ill as she said this. Maybe that was why she couldn’t see Syria’s face. Maybe that was why Syria insisted on these ‘lessons’. To make Lethia truly free of the gods…

…Even if she didn’t want to be.

“Good. Good, my dear!” Syria leaned forward to stroke Lethia’s hair, but the girl flinched, and her mistress pulled back her hand. The woman sighed. “Ahh…Lethia, my sweet girl…you will understand someday.”

Syria floated to her feet. “I have business to attend to with our host. If you could please see to it that She is fed?”

Lethia paled. She clasped her hands before her and shook her head emphatically. “Mistress! Oh mistress, please! Don’t make me!”

“Come now, what’s with all this?” The enchantress managed to sound mildly vexed.

Lethia sobbed, her eyes clouding with tears. “No! No! Please! Don’t make me go down there! I won’t try and kill myself again, I promise!

Lethia!

The amount of force in Syria’s voice shook the teenager down to the bone. She froze and looked up slowly. Her mistress bore down on her, and through the black curtain of her hair, the girl could see a shifting, flesh-colored storm of features, searing amongst which glared a single eye. The predictable pain came, slicing through Lethia’s head like a knife. She hissed and groaned, her eyes squeezing shut as she bowed her head.

Then the touch came, and Lethia felt drops of something wet fall onto the back of her neck. Her head raised a fraction. Her ears perked to the sound of hitched breathing—like when someone was trying their hardest to keep their tears in check.

“Lethia, you are precious to me. Can’t you see that? I have gone to great lengths to keep you safe! You are…you are everything to me, despite how things may appear. Just as Nyx has shown her resolve for Elmiryn, so is my resolve for you! And I won’t give up! I won’t. But I cannot protect you if you fail to heed my words. This is just for the one time, Lethia. Feed her, and I swear I will find a suitable cohort to take that duty. In the meantime, this must be done!”

Lethia closed her eyes. There were moments like these when Syria seemed almost like her old self. But that person was dead and gone, much like the Lethia of yesteryear.

“Yes, mistress,” was all that she could say.

 

————————————-

 

Dressed in her old traveling clothes, the girl carried a picnic basket weighed down with raw meat. The blood dripped through the wicker. Not for the last time, she wished Argos were with her.

Lethia hated leaving the keep. One good reason was for the horde of terrible creatures that seemed to cavort about the castle keep’s grounds. They were in a perpetual party, celebrating their master’s rise to power. Not Syria. The girl’s mistress was just a pawn, and the woman had even admitted as such. No, the spirits and demons that came here all worshipped the ruler of the keep. Just at the thought, the girl shivered in revulsion.

Just stepping down the keep’s path was like trying to wade through a garish orgy. Lethia covered her mouth and nose with a handkerchief, her old brown traveling boots stepping gingerly over rivers of blood, alcohol, and rotting food. She thought she felt Syria’s eyes watching from a window in the keep, but when she turned to look, she saw no one. She was effectively alone. Thankfully, the spirits didn’t pay her any mind. It was as though a silent word from their master had been all that was needed to give the girl safe passage through their cabal.

Another reason Lethia hated leaving the keep was because of the woods that surrounded it. The blackwood. As she left the throes of the party, she came upon the edge of the strange forest and swallowed hard. Here, the trees seemed to be voids of color, their forms simple black shapes in a sea of colorful spectrums. Lethia shivered as she passed them, for they hummed whenever she ventured too near, and coldness entered her bones.

Doing her best to travel carefully so as not to touch any of the trees, or run into the wandering spirits that had somehow drifted from the endless party, Lethia made her way deep into the blackwood until the keep was a small sight on the horizon. As she made her way through a clearing of hummocks, she came to the mouth of a large den. The stench there was thick with death and blood. Lethia gagged behind her handkerchief, her body trembling.

Slowly, she lowered her hand from her face, and she managed to call out.

“…Hello?”

A willowy voice spoke into her ear, “You’re late.”

Lethia dropped the basket and screamed. In her haste to get away, she tripped and fell, scraping her knee. Her breath caught as a shadow fell over her. With tears in her eyes, the girl looked up.

Nyx stood there, head cocked to the side. But this was not the Nyx Lethia had once known. This Nyx was covered in black fur, except for her face. She had pointy black ears on either side of her head, and her wild mane of hair seemed longer. Her eyes were cold cat eyes, her nose pink and heart shaped, her upper lip thin and split. Beneath those lips peeked sharp fangs. Her features were stained and dirty. Her legs were long and thick, with her toes ending in sharp claws, and her foot extending to a hock like an animal’s. Her hands were furry, clawed, and padded, the digits stouter than when the Ailuran was in her sapien form. Swinging behind her was a long thick tail. And yet, though shocking, these details weren’t what made Nyx so frightening.

No, it had more to do with the gaping chest cavity that displayed an impossibly empty void.

Lethia flinched away as black ooze from an exposed rib dripped near her boot, sizzling the soil where it fell.

Beyond Nyx’s horrific appearance, there was her intimidating aura—which was eerily similar to her naturally put upon state of existence, save for the underlying sense of darkness, hatred, and murderous intent. With a sulky expression, Nyx held out her hand.

“Lethia…the food, please?”

The teenager swallowed hard and blindly reached for the picnic basket. After missing twice, she managed to catch the handle and dragged it closer to her. With a deep breath, she held the basket out to Nyx, and flinched when the Ailuran took it.

Peering with squinted eyes, she watched sidelong as Nyx went to eat. She crouched some feet away, her back to the girl, and when she began her meal, it were as if her whole body was involved in the process of feeding. It was a loud and disgusting process. All sense of courtesy and etiquette were forgotten for a sort of rabid hunger that even animals would be embarrassed to display, Lethia was sure of it. (“Argos would, at any rate!”) The girl tried not to imagine what meat Nyx was eating with little success.

As she thought, Nyx spoke without turning around. “You need to change your bandage.” Her voice was flat and apathetic. Lethia detected a note of scorn hidden within it.

Nervously, she rubbed the bandage on her wrist. “Uh, yes. Y-yes, I was meaning to, but—”

“Did you go down or across?”

Lethia jerked with the straightforwardness of the question. Quietly she whispered, “Across.”

Nyx snorted, tossing a bone over her shoulder. “You did it wrong.”

Inexplicably, the enchantress felt offended. “I cut in pretty deep,” she snapped. “I went unconscious.”

“But you’re not dead,” Nyx pointed out.

“Not for lack of trying, okay?”

The Ailuran stopped eating, her head slowly craning to peer at Lethia. The girl’s blood froze, and she hurried to her feet. Nyx slowly ripped the head off of whatever it was she was eating—it looked sickeningly like a fetus—and just chewed her food for a while. The way she kept looking at Lethia was making the girl ill.

Finally, Nyx asked around the food in her mouth, “If you want to die so bad, then why are you scared?”

“…Uh…I—I—don’t—”

She swallowed her food and paused in her meal to stare a while longer. Then she whispered. “Lethia, you’re a coward.”

The teenager flinched again, this time her face crumpling for a new onslaught of tears.

“You want to know why you’re a coward?”

Lethia shook her head, her hands going to her ears. “No…please…”

“You’re a coward, because you can’t hold yourself accountable. Oh yes. You cry. I can smell the tears on you. But you secretly wish for people to forget you had anything to do with all the bad things that has happened since Holzoff’s.”

“Stop it…”

“You stay curled up in a ball, hoping that the Syria you once loved will return. You hold everyone else accountable for lofty morals no one even understands anymore, and yet you don’t follow through. Even in hating yourself, you can’t destroy yourself completely.”

Stop it.”

“Does it make you feel better? Saying that Syria is holding you up in that keep against your will, while she grooms me into her new pet monster?”

Lethia shook her head wildly, the tears dripping from her chin as she pressed her palms harder into her ears. “NO! Stop it, please!”

Nyx just laughed, and it sounded just like the old Nyx, except…it wasn’t. It was black. It was cold and hollow and empty. A shadow of her former self. Just like Elmiryn was. Just like Syria was. Just like Lethia was. “You don’t know dedication. Responsibility. Honor. You don’t have the resolve, for it, and so you are a coward, Lethia Artaud, and I have no desire to feast on a coward’s flesh…so if you were looking for some sort of ‘accident of nature’ to happen here, you will be sorely disappointed. I’m not going to relieve you of the pain you deserve.” Nyx turned her head away and took another bite of her meal. “Now get out of here before I break your arms.”

Lethia was only all to eager to comply. She ran through the blackwood, bursting through prisms of taffy orange and hard candy pink. Her clothes snagged on darkness—the infinite ink trying to undo her in her mad escape. She stumbled and tripped and fell. She cried and cried until she could barely breathe. The spirits, in their deviancy, laughed at her as she passed. And as she entered through the keep’s doors and fled to her room, she thought only one thing as she collapsed onto her bed.

Hope is just the universe’s way of lying to you. Identity is just your way of lying to yourself. Love is our way of lying to each other.

So if there’s nothing to do about any of this, do I do nothing? Isn’t that ‘nothing’ something in of itself?

Lethia listened to the mad laughter of the monsters outside, wondering if she already had her answer.


Back to Chapter 32.3 | Forward to Chapter 33.1

Chapter 32.3

???________________________________

Everything is my fault. Everything. I’ve hurt so many people. Maybe it’s good that I disappear. Maybe it’s good. Is this why my family left me alone?

 

Hope is just the universe’s way of lying to you.

 

All that pain and struggle…and for what? There isn’t any point when we become the thing we fear most. Honestly, how do you come back from that? You don’t…you just don’t…

 

If I’m going to be a monster, then please…someone slay me.

 

QUINCY____________________________

When Gudahi managed to wrestle the Twin off of Elmiryn, two things immediately became clear. Firstly, it didn’t matter how much charm and wit the redhead had, she just wasn’t very good at keeping her mysgaji tongue in check. Secondly, the Twin may have been angry…but she wasn’t murderous.

 

Quincy watched, shocked and alarmed like the rest of them as the giant cat roared and knocked Elmiryn to the ground. It was almost a certainty that before any of them could get the beast off her, the warrior was likely going to be missing her throat. But aside from a few harmless cuts and bruises, the woman was fine. The wizard felt her optimism rise. If the Twin wasn’t willing to kill Elmiryn after an insult like that, then there was still a chance to salvage the situation.

 

The Twin had already ceased fighting against Gudahi when he released her. She made no further attempts to attack. The warrior, meanwhile, was cursing up a storm. The past three days had seen her good humor turn thin, and though she had not ceased with her quips and provocations, there was a note of ire and bitterness to it that just didn’t feel like the Elmiryn Quincy had come to know. The wizard was amazed to say it, but she wished the old Elmiryn would come back.

 

As she thought this, she had to hold the redhead back whilst she screamed. “You stupid fucking piece of shit mangy animal—I gave you what you wanted didn’t you!? It was a perfect joke of a name for a FUCKING joke like you! Now where is it? WHERE IS THE BEAST!?”

 

Quincy had enough. Without a word, she drew the woman’s magic dagger from its sheathe.

 

There was a muted hum as all sound was sucked out of the air around them, blanketing them in an unnatural silence…

 

Except for Quincy.

 

“I think that’s enough of that,” she said dryly.

 

Elmiryn whirled around to glare at her. She tried to snatch the dagger back, but Quincy skipped back and pointed the weapon at her. “Ah, ah!” Tutted the wizard. “Do you really want to try and grab at the blade like that?” Backing away slowly, the brunette smirked. “Mmmm…it’s really nice not hearing your obnoxiousness for even a few seconds. But I promise Elmiryn, this will be quick.”

 

Not taking her eyes off the warrior, Quincy turned her head in the direction of the Twin and said, “You want a name, Cat? Then what about Kali?” Elmiryn’s face, so tight with insult and outrage, started to ease. The wizard continued her explanation at the insistence of her gut. She couldn’t see or hear the Twin, but she felt she was on to something. “The name means ‘sister of shadow’. There is a legend told in Crysen of twin sisters named Tali and Kali. None knew where they came from, but they were very talented with magic. It was discovered that Tali’s power became stronger during the day, while Kali’s power became stronger at night. They were polar opposites of one another, but they lived in tandem. They did that because they needed each other.” Quincy finally dared to take her eyes off Elmiryn to look at the Twin. Just as her instinct had told her, the beast was giving her full attention, and nothing of her demeanor seemed to suggest rejection.

 

The wizard nodded toward her. “As I understand it, you need Nyx to exist.  Well she needs you too. In fact, we all need you, but none more so than her. We can’t have light without shadow, Twin. So will you accept this name and help us?” As Quincy said this, she flipped the dagger over, catching it delicately by the blade, then carefully offered it to Elmiryn. The warrior took it with a grumpy look.

 

When the dagger was returned to its sheathe, the sound returned to them in a rush of air.

 

Still, no one spoke for a time.

 

Finally, the Twin stepped forward.  “Kali…” she bowed her head and closed her eyes. When she lifted her gaze again, it was with a fierceness and pride that Quincy hadn’t seen before. “This name is acceptable. You shall all refer to me henceforth as that. I will answer to nothing else. Now…as Nyx’s sister…” the beast squared its paws and tilted its head back. “I will help you find what you seek.”

 

Quincy gave a satisfied nod. “Excellent. Then it’s settled.” She shot Elmiryn a look, before asking next, “What can you tell us then…?”

 

The Twin—Kali—Sat on her haunches and her ears drooped. “I cannot speak of the monster without confessing.”

 

The wizard frowned. “Confessing?” She looked to Elmiryn and found a similar look of confusion.

 

“Yes.” Kali inhaled deeply. Her exhale came out as a low growl. “Back at Holzoff’s Tower, you all know that Syria had used her power to bewitch everyone.  Well as an observer who saw the present like a dream, I was the only one between Nyx and I, who was aware that anything was amiss. I tried to tell her that something was wrong, but my counterpart never did like hearing me, even before I gained the use of Words. Syria sensed my attempts and, with her power, she cast me deep into the darkest parts of Nyx’s subconscious.”

 

Quincy crouched, fascinated as she saw the feline’s face tense. Such emotion…it was hard to believe that such a creature could be the embodiment of Nyx’s animal nature. But perhaps that wasn’t true? Perhaps Kali wasn’t just some manifestation of basic instincts. But if not that, then what?

 

“None of you understand this, because none of you have ever been in the position I have. Being in that place…it is hell. It is cold. It is abstraction. Everything you are is just so much noise in a black vacuum. Being in that place…you could go mad. And maybe I did, a little. But I came across something, in that darkness…something that was strong, but unguided. That was powerful, but mindless. I had told Nyx that there was another shard in our mind, but now I don’t think it was right to call it that. It was just…an aspect of ourselves, something ugly that neither of us wanted to acknowledge so we locked it away and forgot about it. I took its essence, and I used it.” Kali looked straight at Elmiryn, whose face had gone completely slack. Quincy’s heart started to beat faster, and she looked to Hakeem. Her husband’s young face was sporting a look of resignation. The Twin continued, “What I found was rage, pure and undiluted. It was pain, it was suffering, it was hate and fear. I used that power to return to the conscience world and to break Nyx free of her stupor. And when we were sent here…we were split apart, and that essence of suffering…it became the beast.”

 

“You let out the thing that killed Atalo,” Elmiryn whispered. Quincy was surprised to see her eyes had gone teary. “You let out the monster that was inside of Nyx. The part of her she didn’t know how to control…that you didn’t know how to control!”

 

Kali hissed at her, her ears turning flat. “In the end, it was what saved us all. What would have happened had Nyx not inspired your heart to break free of Syria’s spell!? How would we even be alive today if I had not done what I did!”

 

Sanuye growled ominously. Gudahi bared his teeth, his hands fists at his sides. “Countless of my brothers and sisters have fallen for your mistake! Why is their lives worth less than yours!?”

 

“I did not know the beast would part from my control,” Kali spat. “It wasn’t my intention to kill so many, but tell me, when one has a choice between surviving or protecting indifferent strangers—no—racial rivals—what would you choose? And do not speak to me about the weight of my decision when you do not even understand the situation in full! Syria was a powerful woman whose designs were to destroy the world as we know it! Do I know how that would have worked out? No. You want to know why? Because I made a decision, and that led to her being stopped. So do not speak to me that way, puerile pup, until you have to make a choice that not only determines your life, but that of an unimaginable number of others!”

 

“Cut the bullshit!” Elmiryn shouted. “None of us knew what would have really happened! None of us knew what was going on! We could have figured something out! We could have beaten Syria without that thing, so don’t go making yourself out like a hero when you didn’t even understand the consequences at the time you fucking pulled this crap!”

 

“The decision was made, and there’s no changing it! The sooner you can accept that, the sooner we can deal with the present!” Kali snapped.  “Whatever you may think, that beast is out now. It is a part of me…and it is a part of Nyx. Killing it would only result in our deaths!”

 

Elmiryn gripped her sword handle tightly. “So what are we supposed to do, hmm?”

 

Kali snorted at her, then turned to Quincy. “What happened the last time you saw Nyx. How did the beast come into possession of her?”

 

Quincy cleared her throat. “Well. We encountered the monster three days ago, and Nyx tried to stop it using her bardic abilities—”

 

“Her what?”

 

Hakeem spoke next. “Nyx has an old power, and I suppose you do too.  It is one that allows her to turn her voice into kinetic force, among other things. She tried using it to fight the beast.”

 

Kali’s eyes widened. “But if we all share the same power…”

 

Quincy nodded gravely. “In the end, it was able to resist and fight back. When Nyx was down, the monster impaled her with its claws…but then its shadow grew beneath it, and they both sank out of sight.”

 

“From the way the monster struggled to free its claw,” Hakeem said. “It appeared surprised and unwilling. That, and finding you still alive has led us to believe that Nyx is also still alive.”

 

Kali nodded. “If that is so, then I may have an idea where she is. I have not gone there, mind you, but I have known spirits and animals to fear that region, so naturally I steered clear of it as well. If there is ever a place for the beast to lurk, it would be there.”

 

Quincy gave a sigh of relief and started to walk away. “Well, now that that’s settled, I’m going to find something to eat and pretend I have all my fingers. I find this ordeal rather taxing, and any moment spent not thinking about it is a good moment…”

???________________________________

If I am truly so clever, none of this would have happened. I would have seen where the stars were leading me. I would have figured out her motives before we got sucked into this hell. She leaves me to watch them struggle, and at first I thought she was punishing me. Trying to break me.

 

And then I realized she was trying to teach me.

 

I hate her for still trying.

 

I hate myself for still wanting her to try.

 

ELMIRYN___________________________

Elmiryn fisted her cheek as she glowered down at her roasted rabbit. Everyone was quiet at camp. After a brief rest and a small meal, they had resumed their journey with the Twin at the lead. Or wait. She wasn’t supposed to call it that anymore. Now it was Kali…the bitter, self-preserving beast that had visited torment onto the Lycans and started them all on this bizarre search for her better half.

 

Kali.

 

Kali.

 

The woman’s hand shook as she brought the meat to her lips and took a disinterested bite.

 

The large cat was up in a tree, just outside the reach of the campfire, her eyes aglow in the shadows as she silently watched them below. Elmiryn narrowed her eyes at her.

 

“Something is clearly on your mind, so why not just say it, instead of staring rudely?” Kali growled. The others looked up with a start.

 

“Wow. I never thought I’d see the day when an animal talks to me about etiquette.” Elmiryn tossed her rabbit leg onto the ground. She wasn’t hungry anyway. “All right.” The woman stood and approached the tree, moving past Quincy, Hakeem, Sanuye, and Gudahi. Placing her hands on her hips, she regarded the cat above her with a raised eyebrow. “Now that you have your own name, what else do you want?”

 

Kali blinked down at her. “What?”

 

Elmiryn sneered. “It’s a simple question, Kali. You have a name. What do you want now?”

 

The cat turned her head, her ears flicking. “What I want, I will no longer need to beg for.”

 

“But what do you want?”

 

“My own life. I thought that was obvious.”

 

Elmiryn rubbed her forehead. “You mind telling me how that’s gonna work without a body of your own?”

 

“Must you constantly remind me of my plight?”

 

The warrior shrugged. “I just want to make sure we’re clear on the issue here. We both know that Nyx is the real one—”

 

Kali hissed and leaned down, her dark features slipping into the glow of the fire. “And what constitutes real for you, when you see faces in smoke and think the sky is made out of paper? What makes me less important when Nyx needs me to survive?”

 

“She doesn’t need you.”

 

“She is a shell without me! Our survival has been entirely my doing since the day we were born! When she tried to starve herself to death, I kept us alive. When others cornered us, I fought back. When she needed strength to help her friends, I gave her that. Me!

 

“And yet you couldn’t save Atalo for all your gods damned strength!”

 

Atalo would be alive today if that stupid whore hadn’t taken him away!”

 

Elmiryn hardly thought about what she was doing. One moment she was gazing into the haunting depths of Kali’s eyes, the next the cat was pinned down beneath her over the fire pit, the bright embers of the fire scattered and singing her arms and face. The beast screamed, claws out, struggling, but a strength that the woman hadn’t felt in a long time appeared in her limbs. She held the beast down, her vision tunneling as she hissed over and over.

 

“Die, die, die, die, die…”

 

“Elmiryn, get OFF her!” Arms wrapped around the woman’s throat and pulled her back. She could smell that wild musk of fur and sweat and forest. Phantom memories of hands holding her down and teeth raking her skin sent a jolt of panic down her spine. She let go of Kali and let out a strangled yell, her eyes wide, her hands reaching up to scratch at her assailants face. She was lifted bodily into the air and she started kicking her legs wildly.

 

“For heaven’s sake, stop! Stop it! Let her go!” That was Quincy.

 

Elmiryn was released. Without pausing, she turned and launched her fist. She caught Sanuye across the face. The woman stumbled back, but only appeared mildly surprised. Her lip started to bleed.

 

Heaving, the redhead pointed a quaking finger at her. “Don’t touch me. Do you hear me?” Sanuye said nothing. Her eyes flickered to Quincy and Hakeem, but the warrior aggressively held her gaze. “Do you FUCKING hear me!? I said—DO. NOT. TOUCH. ME.”

 

Quincy appeared at her side, and Elmiryn flinched away from her, her gaze wild. The wizard was looking at her like one did a bridge jumper: clearly alarmed, all caution. “Elmiryn, you’ve been on edge since we’ve found Kali. Something happened, didn’t it?”

 

“Nothing happened.” Elmiryn snapped, perhaps too quickly. She stormed away from camp, recklessly smashing through the undergrowth. To her frustration, she heard the wizard follow her.

 

“So then why do you have those scratches on you?” Quincy asked doggedly.

 

“The Twin—”

 

“That’s a lie, Elmiryn. The marks on your back couldn’t possibly have been made by Kali.”

 

The warrior rounded on her, her teeth bared. “And why the hell not?” They were far enough away from the camp that the other’s voices had become indistinct.

 

Quincy shrugged carefully. “Well, for one thing, the fact that the shape and angle of the injuries don’t make any sense for a quadruped to make. But to make things simpler, I’m just going to point out the bruises shaped like fingers on your back.”

 

Elmiryn stiffened.

 

The wizard placed her hands on her hips. “Now that we’re out of earshot, do you mind telling me what’s going on?”

 

The warrior gazed at Quincy for a long time. When she spoke, her voice was strained. “No.”

 

Elmiryn heard the other woman sigh heavily as she walked away.

 

???________________________________

The sphere before her sat on a billowing geyser of smoke, and within its watery depths, the girl could see the two women split–Quincy returning to camp, and Elmiryn wandering off to be alone. The trials of the Other Place were deepening the cracks in their resolve. The more their problems fissured, the less likely any of them would survive.

 

“Elmiryn’s suffering comes from her failure to understand that she is simply a toy. Toys do not have goals or ambitions, and never do they act independently. They are containers of the imagination, to be filled with the dreams of whoever handles them. Her world does not know free will, though she is given the illusion of such. In reality, her existence is determined by causality.”

 

“But she resists. Her ability to resist should denote a capacity for free will, shouldn’t it?”

 

“She is an actor refusing to play her part. But the show must go on, as they say, even if the play must carry on without her.”

 

“In denying participation, she holds herself ransom against the world. That is indicative of a spirit capable of controlling the outcome to her liking.”

 

“But you’re assuming that she is a key component to the issue at hand.”

 

“…Isn’t she?”

 

“That’s what she would like to think.”

 

Then what does that make you, Mistress?  Lethia thought, her eyes tearing with despair.

 


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