Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 35.1

NYX____________________________

The situation was seized when Hakeem and I restrained Bronislav. The nature spirit seemed almost skeletal now, with his cheeks and eyes sunken in, and his grassy hair hanging limp and colorless. Without his well of energy to draw from, the spirit withered further, even as I tied some of the rope Quincy lent me around his chest, arms, and legs. Elmiryn recovered last from the lightning blast, and she was none too happy about it.

“The fuck was that…?” She slurred, her body still trying to keep itself steady even as she knelt on the ground.

“Lightning. From Quincy’s staff,” I answered as I crouched by her. “Are you okay?”

She looked at me, her face still twitching on a minute level, and I could see in her eyes just how much charity she was going to spare anyone who so much as pushed her a little bit. “No, kitten. I am not.”

Her head turned and she fixed her irate stare on Quincy, who was, at the present moment, happily cutting away at Bronislav’s meager clothing.

Quincy,” Elmiryn said in that iron voice that made my heart jump. “Do you make a point of not giving a shit about the people around you, or are you just that thick?

The wizard paused in her work, scraps of cloth in her hand as she slowly met the warrior’s gaze. “It was an accident. I wasn’t thinking.”

“So that makes it okay?”

“I’m sorry, all right? Hakeem was in danger!”

“You didn’t even know in what capacity, and yet you were just fine with blasting Nyx and me with your hocus pocus, huh?”

“When a god says my husband could die, I listen.”

“You’re eager to see our pact over aren’t you? You want me to draw on you now, you fucking klutz!?”

“Why are you yelling at me? I already told you, I didn’t mean–”

“The fuck with what you didn’t mean, you could’ve killed us!” Then suddenly Elmiryn pitched forward, clutching at her chest. “Nrrrgh!”

I grabbed her around the shoulders. “Elle? What is it!?”

Her heart,” Lacertli hissed in my ear.

I looked at him. Since the start of the fight, I’d forgotten he was even there. Or…no. Perhaps not forgotten. Because it hadn’t felt like he was there. It were as though he vanished, then reappeared, right back onto my shoulder. I suppose even a god doesn’t care to be struck with lightning, then thrown to the ground.

“He’s right,” Hakeem said over us. I looked over at him next.

The Fanaean wizard was sitting on the forest floor, patiently waiting for his wife to finish her work with the cloth scraps so that he could cover his naked body. While he sat loosely holding his knees, he made no greater attempt at concealing himself. In strange turns, his lack of humiliation made the situation less mortifying, and I was able to look at his face without blushing too much. If I could trick my mind into believing it, then Hakeem would be like any Ailuran male before or after a transformation.

That thought made me feel a lot better.

“Elmiryn’s heart has been through a lot recently, Nyx,” the man said. “Between her confrontation with Artemis, and her recent binge drinking, I’m afraid the risk of dying from heart failure is much greater now.” His face, now once more an adult’s, no longer conspicuously displayed his emotions. But I had grown accustomed to his features enough to suspect a hint of apology in his countenance.

“So the lightning…” I breathed.

“She should be careful,” he finished with a nod.

“What are you two saying?” Elmiryn snapped.

She shifted and raised her head, forcing me to pull away. Her face was tight with discomfort, but her bright eyes shone with determination. I wasn’t sure of it, but the colors that draped her skin seemed to glow brighter somehow.

“I can’t take it easy. Who the hell can take it easy in a place like this? We’re about to come to a swarm of monsters, and you want me to take it easy? Should I lay down for a massage, too?”

My eyes narrowed. “Elmiryn why do you insist on pushing things so far?”

“Pushing things how far? To where it needs to go? For all we know Syria could be right around the corner, and damned if I’m just gonna sit on my ass because mud boy here says my heart can’t take it!”

Quincy threw the cloth she had collected to the ground and stomped over Bronislav’s prone body. “Don’t call him that!” she shouted.

“Elle, you’re going too far!” I added.

Elmiryn glared at me, then up at the brunette. “None of you have any idea what I’m capable of. Not a single clue!” Then in one explosive motion, she bounded to her feet and drew her sword. She only stumbled a few steps, her eyes rolling briefly before she managed to settle into her stance.

I stumbled back, my hands up, my eyes, wide. Quincy’s staff appeared in her hands with a flash, her face contorted in anger. Hakeem had risen to his feet as well, a dark expression on his face.

We seemed to hang there, suspended in time, everyone waiting for that flinty move that would spark the next sequence of events. Sweat rolled over my pulsing temple. I could feel a massive headache coming on. Why did things have to be this way? Why couldn’t we all just work together and get free of this nightmarish half-world? Was it really just Elmiryn, or was it all of us failing to control our urges?

I would feel the same… I heard Kali grumble deep within.

The exchange that followed was faster than normal speech, less because we were talking quickly, and more because we simply understood the other’s wordless intent. This was the first time since I had been reunited with my Twin that I had felt so close in thought with her.

What do you mean?
I mean the way Elmiryn is behaving now…I understand it.
Why? I don’t!
Nyx…perhaps you don’t understand this feeling because you have always been reliant on yourself.
That doesn’t make any sense. I’m weak, and Elmiryn is the most independent person I know!
Is she?
I…Yes! Of course!
Let’s see. A woman who, since childhood, had her life planned for her by her father. A woman who worshipped the gods and trusted them to aid her in her road to greatness. A woman who relied on her fellow soldiers to keep her alive when facing down terrible threats. A woman who yearned for company so badly that she took an Ailuran outcast as her ward, despite the fact that she had been at war with the Ailurans for much of her adult life.
That…It doesn’t mean–
Elmiryn may be strong, and she may be capable, but she is NOT self-reliant. Since this whole mess has started, she has been forced to depend on people she hardly knows in very uncertain circumstances. That’s stressful enough. Now, after having everything she ever depended on taken from her–the gods, her family, her soldiers–add in Quincy risking not just HER life, but yours. You are the one person that has reliantly stuck with her since first meeting. I’d say, I’d be rather angry. I’d say, I might even be a little frightened. I can understand these things, sister, because I too have spent much of my life reliant on someone else. The very same person Elmiryn cares for, in fact. You.
Sweet Aelurus…

And time suddenly came crashing back around me.

Elmiryn let out a low roar and dashed forward. Quincy brought her staff to bear, ready to block the woman’s attack. I was stuck, rooted to the spot for my sudden revelations.

But what happened next was not what either of us were expecting.

Instead of cutting at the wizard, as I’d thought she would, Elmiryn pushed at Quincy’s staff with the flat of her blade, forcing the brunette to correct her balance. Taking advantage of this, the redhead side-stepped the woman and did a quick spin, her blade swinging.

It slammed into Bronislav’s skull, splitting it cleanly down to the base of the neck.

The spirit made no sound or indication that he saw his end coming. There was just his brutal end, marked with a loud wet crunch. I let out a cry, my hands going to my mouth. Quincy sputtered as she stared from Elmiryn to the sword and back. Hakeem…just stood there, his eyes narrowed. I suppose there would be no love lost there, considering Bronislav had tried to consume his age.

Still gripping her sword, Elmiryn slowly turned her gaze toward me. At first I thought she was looking at me, and then I realized Lacertli was her focus of attention.

“This is what you wanted…right?” she panted.

Lacertli’s black tongue flickered out once, before he gave a small nod. “Yes.”

Elmiryn returned the nod, her lips pressed into a thin line. Turning her attention back to Bronislav, she ripped the blade out from the nature spirit’s corpse, then reached down into the gaping cavity that was his head. Ripping one half to the side, Elmiryn dug her hand in deeper, the wet sound of blood and organs telling me that she was really rummaging around inside. I felt sick, and I couldn’t help but remember my battle with the black nymphs and their monstrosity, their body parts littering the ground in so many disgusting pieces.

Stop thinking about that! Now you’re going to make ME sick! Kali complained.

“Elmiryn, what the hell are you doing?” Quincy asked sharply. She still hadn’t put her staff away, and I looked at her warily.

The redhead didn’t answer until she pulled her hand free of Bronislav’s corpse. Gripped in her hand was a dark object–too small and perfectly round to be any organ I recognized.

While I find it bothersome in the manner with which ye discovered this seed, I shall yield that it makes for a much more expedient end to this trouble,” Lacertli hissed.

“I could feel it,” Elmiryn said, holding the ‘seed’ up close to her face. “Inside of Bronislav. I knew it was there because it reminded me of my own.” She looked down at her chest, then back up at the seed, blank faced. I shivered at her sudden lack of emotion. “It’s different from mine, though…”

Tis natural, and of good make, that is why.” The god turned his head toward me. “She must plant the seed, so that a guardian may be born anew.

“Will this repay my family debt?” Elmiryn asked, clutching the seed close to her now. A small frown had appeared on her brow.

Lacertli looked at her. “When light and dark is once again in Harmony, then shall thy family regain a level of honor.

“It would take a lot more than this to get us back on track, wouldn’t it?” The woman muttered.

Such is the debt, such is the payment. Bronislav’s debt has been collected. Now let his successor take on the task of restoration.

She considered him for a moment. Then she said something that nearly made me faint.

“…No.”

ELMIRYN________________________

She relished the looks of astonishment on everyone’s faces. Quincy looked like she had just swallowed a bug, the way her lips screwed up and her eyes popped. Hakeem’s mouth dropped, his brows knitting together. Nyx looked ill, her skin paled and her posture weakened to the point that the warrior was certain a breeze could blow her over. And Lacertli…?

His golden yellow eyes blinked once before he grumbled and laid his head on the Ailuran’s shoulder as if to take a nap.

Elmiryn pouted. “Really? That’s all you’re going to do?”

Lacertli didn’t raise his head. “This god does not take to childish games, Fiamman. Plant the seed. My patience grows short.

The woman rolled her eyes and cleaned her sword’s blade on the grass. After sheathing it, she searched for an adequate spot on the ground. Meanwhile, her companions cursed at her.

“Halward help you, FIamman, you are such an idiot!”

Mkundu, bote swaini!

“Elle that was completely unnecessary!”

And so on, and so forth. It was all just so much noise to Elmiryn. She spared them an unconcerned shrug and knelt down at a spot she felt adequate to begin digging. As her fingers plunged into the soft soil, her mind tickled, and she froze, her spine straightening.

Thou art testing thy limits.

Lacertli. The woman smirked but the expression lacked real mirth. She didn’t like it when Meznik invaded her mind, why would she like it any more when a god did it?

I just wanted to see if I could say ‘no,’ even if I didn’t mean it. She replied inwardly.

Are ye satisfied?

Not really.

Then why play that game?

Better question–why not?

Elmiryn dropped the seed into the little hole she made and pulled the soil back in. After she patted it down, she stood and turned around.

“All right. I buried the seed. Now wha–”

Behind her, she felt a swift boom that knocked her forward a few steps. Dirt and rock pelted her back and rained on her head and shoulders. Stammering, she moved to draw her sword again when she turned and saw what had made the ground explode as it did.

A small child-like creature, with long skinny legs and arms, a perfectly round head, and leaves for hair, crawled up out of the soil, his green eyes blinking. He had the same fire in his gaze as Bronislav had, and his face was a rich blue.

Elmiryn stared. “Is that…?”

Tis not he whom ye so quickly dispatched, but his successor. I think I shall name him…Stanislav.

The little nature spirit blinked his small eyes and held his hands up to his face with wonder. “Stani…slav?” he whispered.

“Now wait a minute!” the woman seethed. “You knew he would come springing up from the ground like that! Why did you just let me stand there like a moron!?”

She wasn’t sure it was possible, given his inhuman face, but she could’ve sworn that Lacertli smirked at her. “As ye would put it…why not?

Nyx giggled. Quincy crossed her arms and fixed Elmiryn with a satisfied grin. Hakeem was busy looking at his feet, but the corners of his lips were twitching. The warrior could only stand there, her mouth struggling to come up with a witty comeback when it suddenly hit her…

She laughed.

The fact that everyone seemed surprised by this only made her laugh harder.

“What?” She giggled out. “It was good! It was a good prank!”

She was met with exasperation.

Undeterred, Lacertli continued. “Stanislav, I am Lacertli, and under my guidance, these braves have given thee life. Henceforth thou art the guardian of the blackwood. Thy successor, Bronislav, failed in his duties by letting desperation get the better of him. All ye must remember is to trust in thyself and the ways of Harmony, and thou shalt know glory like none other!

“This seems like a lot to put on a newborn…” Nyx mused.

Lacertli glanced at her. “As a spirit, Stanislav is born with innate knowledge from the energy he is comprised of. Only certain details need be filled, and he is ready to carry on his full duties as a guardian.

“The woods…” Stanislav murmured, his round face frowning. “They scream! What has become of the light here?”

Demons. Evil spirits. Search within thyself, Stanislav. Thou knowest where these interlopers carouse. Lead these braves to them, and the threat shall be removed in full, leaving you free to do thy good work!

Stanislav’s eyes suddenly began to glow, and he nodded vigorously. “Aye, m’lord!” He looked at them all, and Elmiryn’s face twitched from the eager look on his face. What an ugly little thing.

“Come ye braves!” He exclaimed. And without warning, he turned and dashed into the woods, his arms and legs suddenly becoming whip-like vines to grab and swing on the trees. “This way!”

“Hey!” Elmiryn started, before she took off after him.

Behind her, the warrior heard her companions give chase as well, and just like that they were tearing through the blackwood after Stanislav. Elmiryn struggled to keep his little form in view as he bobbed in and out of sight. The stitch in her chest protested, and her breathing became labored. She hated this new vulnerability in her. As much as she loathed to admit it, Hakeem was right. Her body had been through much–what with the lack of sleep, the close calls, the drinking. Speaking of a drink…her mouth was parched.

They seemed to go on forever until suddenly Stanislav stopped, his form ducked low within a set of shrubs. Elmiryn only spotted him because his leafy head was raised enough so she could still see his glowing eyes. He gestured for them to come closer, and following his lead, the warrior ducked low and approached. Glancing back, she saw the others do the same.

Up ahead, there were sounds of laughter and clinking glass. A small glow weakly flowed past the black trees.

“How many are there…?” Elmiryn breathed.

“Many,” Stanislav whispered back. “You glow too much. Stay behind me and the trees.” Carefully, he began to crawl forward, and with a sigh, she followed.

The treeline thinned as they went, and within a moment they had to stop, because before them was a great field. Looming over the field was an old castle keep–the one they had spotted earlier on the other floating islands.

Elmiryn stopped short, her eyes widening. Behind her, she heard Nyx give a low whine.

Hundreds and hundreds of spirits filled the field, and each was more terrifying than the last. The woman’s eyes flickered from horror to horror, and she tried to fashion a plan to get rid of them. When getting rid of them seemed less and less likely, she started trying to think of a plan to get by them. When even that seemed unlikely, she wondered if it was possible to at least steal a drink or two.

After all, when looking at the fifteen-foot-tall monster made of nothing but eyes, or the cackling mob of shadowy spectres, or the four-legged beast with the head of a mosquito–all of a sudden, the prospect of getting drunk didn’t sound so bad.

Then Elmiryn’s eyes widened.

“That’s it!” she breathed.

“What’s it? This entire journey? Because that’s about how I feel right now,” Nyx said weakly.

“There’s so many of them out there,” Quincy breathed. “Even more than the Belcliff soldiers we fought!”

“Somehow, I think this bunch will be a tad bit more challenging than a mob of shambling undead,” Hakeem muttered darkly.

“Will you fuckers listen to me?” Elmiryn snapped. When all eyes had turned to her, she jerked her head excitedly toward the evil festivities. “An army is like any snake. Cut off the head, and the rest becomes useless!”

Nyx frowned. “I’m not following.”

“She’s saying we should kill Syria first,” Quincy explained, but by her expression, she wasn’t thrilled by the idea.

“But I thought we were going to take care of these spirits first!” Nyx exclaimed.

Elmiryn replied, “We are going to take care of them, that’ll just be the last thing on our agenda!”

Hakeem frowned at her. “By your logic, slaying Syria will weaken this mob. Many of them will flee this place entirely. The ones who remain, we can pick off when they scatter. Is that right?”

“Yeah.”

“But you’re assuming the spirits will not somehow get involved when we confront Syria!”

Elmiryn pointed up at the castle keep. “Look at that place. Its space is limited. Only a certain number of spirits can enter at any time. Plus, we’ll have the advantage by having the upper ground. We can take whatever they throw at us!”

“Still too many assumptions. The variables are not in our favor!”

“Nothing is in our favor!” She snapped. The others stared at her. Elmiryn continued, her hand gesturing out at the field. “I don’t know how many times we have all come close to death, but we got past it every time because we were determined not to fail! Yes! You’re right! There is a chance we could die! But if you let your doubts beat out your hope, then you’re only raising your chances of failure! Nothing we do in life is guaranteed. We just happen to be living an extreme example of that! But I’d have thought you people would have accepted that by now!?”

“As uplifting as your hope-filled speech is, we still need a plan of sorts, or do you think we can just wish ourselves to safety?” Quincy remarked coolly.

Elmiryn grinned. “That’s easy, wizard. Tell me, what’s your favorite color?”


Back to Chapter 34.4 | Forward to Chapter 35.2

Chapter 34.4

Within a single stage, the Twins stood, both assessing the drama before them as would an audience at the theater. They felt more in sync than ever they had, and yet their thoughts revolved around each other, never touching. Their world felt…wider, somehow. But pulling at them was a force that demanded presence, and with their mindscape torn asunder, neither could leave the conscious realm. As their spirits responded to the situations before them, so did their presence ebb and flow like water, always leaving one sister to face the world even as the other slipped away, lost to the turns of their shared heart.

Elmiryn’s lamentations did not stir Kali, and the feline only huffed at the warrior’s complaints.

ELMIRYN

Argh! Why does my family always do this!?

But Nyx’s sympathy flowed powerful, bringing the light of reality harsh onto her countenance.

NYX

If that’s the case, Elle…then…

And with great force, the girl suddenly remembered the entire reason she chose to be a champion of heaven in the first place.

NYX

Sweet Aelurus! Elmiryn, this is wonderful! Don’t you see? This is a chance for you to restore your family’s honor! You can make amends by restoring Harmony!

Nyx gestured emphatically toward the world view, her face lit with excitement. Her feline counterpart, however, regarded her with trepidation. Their synchronization stumbled, birthing a distance between them. Kali slipped further into the shadow of their mind as her sister drifted toward the light of the world.

She looked at the large cat, still beaming.

NYX

Think about it! Do you remember what Lacertli…

Then abruptly she stopped, her enthusiasm waning.

NYX

Oh. I suppose you wouldn’t.

 

KALI

No…

Nyx thought a moment, then opened her mouth to speak–

LACERTLI

I see thou have come a long way since last we parted, to so eagerly fill your station.

 

ELMIRYN

You!

And then the time for speaking ended, and the girl did the first thing that came to mind…

NYX____________________________

I made Elmiryn sink into the shadows.

Not…not all the way mind you. Just enough so that her legs sunk in, and she couldn’t move. The look on her face I’ll never forget, and I make a point of reminding Elle whenever it strikes me to: Eyes like fat tall eggs, shoulders pinned to her ears, her mouth hung open like a nightie flap.

Then, that delayed look of realization.

Nyx, what the HELL!?

Quincy burst out laughing from behind us.

The reaction to hold the warrior still was immediate, and what had before required the dubious cooperation of my Twin, suddenly came with great ease. The world in my head, that place Kali and I occupied, had flooded with light. I could feel my intention almost as certainly as my hands, and it filled my body until I shook off all remnants of my subconscious. This all happened so fast. Even with Elmiryn shouting out curses, I found my attention more drawn by the fact that Kali and I no longer flickered in and out of the world.

At the thought of my sister, I asked, Are you okay!?

To which she replied, I-I’m fine!

Then came her indignant question, What did you do!?

Nothing! I shot back defensively. On purpose anyway…

Kali, it was my doing.

Which brought my attention back to what started all of this to begin with.

Blinking rapidly, I turned my head to behold Lacertli standing amid the blackwood trees. With Elmiryn’s color-lit body, his presence was struck with her unusual glow in places, but he was far enough away that the trees devoured enough light to leave him partially obscured. This created the unusual effect of making the god’s features shift from his elven avatar to his true lizard form.

With the eyes of Marquis, he held my gaze, but with the sharp teeth and forked tongue of a serpent, he spoke, “I trust that you can accept that and forgive your sister?

My face bunched, confused by how he addressed my Twin, but that quickly turned to surprise when Kali responded.

Y-Yes…I can see that now, master.

I rubbed my brow. “Sir, it confuses me when you speak directly to her like that. I’m not used to others hearing what is in my head!”

Lacertli stepped closer, his features gradually fading from reptilian to elven in totality.

Without the slightest hint of malice, which really just made it worse, he replied, “Nyx, thou really must shake the pretension that all things are about thyself.”

My cheeks colored and I lowered my head. “Y-yes sir.”

Hey!

My gaze flickered to Elmiryn’s livid face.

“Are you going to let me out anytime soon!?” she snapped.

She pushed at the ground, her strong arms bulging from the effort. The way I held her shadow, there was no way she would get free unless I allowed it. I put my hands on my hips and gazed down at her. That wickedness I’d felt before returned to me. My eyes turned hooded at the possibilities in which I could use a situation like this, but now really wasn’t the time.

Clearing my throat, I crouched down and said, “Elle, first you have to promise to behave.”

Elmiryn stared at me as if I were crazy. “What??”

I grabbed the back of Elmiryn’s head and covered her mouth to keep her from spouting out the flood of curses I knew she possessed.

Leaning in, I said with as much gravity as I could, “I’m not joking! This is serious, and I needed to keep you still long enough to get your word! I won’t have a repeat of what happened with Artemis–”

Lacertli interjected behind me. “Oh, I assure thee, I am not like my sister. I have no interest in fornicating with–”

My eyes squeezed shut. “Sir, if I may state, that is not helping!”

“I am the Path, child, the Path.”

Sighing, I fixed my gaze back onto Elmiryn’s. Her cerulean eyes were burning, and her face had turned red beneath my small hand. The only reason she hadn’t knocked me away yet was because she was still trying to pull herself out. I shook my head, my face pained.

“I can’t let you go until you promise not to attack or disrespect Lacertli! I serve him now, Elmiryn, and you’ll have to accept this whether you like it or not!”

The woman stopped struggling abruptly, her eyebrows rising as she searched my face. I could feel her face muscles relax beneath my hand, and the tension in her neck and shoulders eased.

Now that she wasn’t causing a fuss, I had hope that she’d listen. Slowly, I removed my hands, my fingers trailing her cheeks.

“Please, Elle. Do this for me,” I pleaded.

Elmiryn’s nostrils flared as she let out one long hot exhale. Her lips grew thin, and I could see her mind working the situation over.

Then she gave a stiff nod. “I promise,” she muttered.

I let go of the breath I’d been holding. I stood and offered my hand. Still looking displeased, the woman took it, and with one strong pull, she was free of her shadow-trap.

Lacertli, who had taken to observing our exchange whilst leaned up against a tree, gave a slow nod. “Well done,” he murmured.

“Elmiryn,” I swallowed nervously and looked over at the others. Quincy had stopped laughing some time after Lacertli had stepped further into view. Her eyes were wide and she hugged Hakeem close to her body. The Fanaean, meanwhile, seemed almost stoic except for the fact that his fists were balled up and he couldn’t stop blinking. I gestured for them to come closer. They ignored me. “Hakeem, Quincy. This is Lacertli. Lizard King and God of Survival. He…he’s my patron.”

Quincy, wiping at the mud on her clothes, jerked into a curtsy. Hakeem, whom she still clung to, managed an awkward bow.

“I should also mention that he doesn’t stand much on ceremony,” I mumbled.

Lacertli regarded them with a smirk, his hands slipping behind his poncho.

“Lacertli!”

I blinked at the unfamiliar voice, then remembered what we’d been dealing with before my patron’s sudden arrival.

Bronislav had become free of Elmiryn’s trappings at some point during all the commotion, but he seemed in no better shape to take advantage of his freedom. He panted on the ground, his hand gripping his chest as he grimaced at the forest canopy.

“Please, my god! Justice! These agents of chaos seek to ruin me!” the nature spirit moaned.

I opened my mouth, ready to argue my case, but Lacertli beat me to it.

“Bronislav. Thou knowest I cannot honor thy request.”

The spirit’s face fell, what little hope that he still contained flickering out in his haunting eyes. “But…but they go against the Way of our world! They–”

“I believe attempts were made to undo the chaos that surrounds thee, great spirit. Perhaps thou should slay thy pride in favor of a fresh start?”

Bronislav stared. Then with a groan, he sat up. His large head hung low, his grassy hair shading his face. “I will do as my god wishes.”

“Wait, so what are we agreeing to do here?” Quincy asked, her eyes squinting.

“We’re ridding the blackwood of the evil spirits,” I said tiredly.

Elmiryn feigned surprise. “Oh, was that it? I thought we were letting him eat Quincy.”

“Not before I convinced him you’d be an excellent dessert,” the wizard quipped.

“So you do think I’m sweet!”

“Oh, I think you’re many things, Elmiryn. Sweet is not one of them.”

“And while we amuse ourselves with sportive interchange, the situation ripens before us,” Lacertli remarked. “Nyx? Your arm.”

I straightened like a rod and stepped forward, my arm out before me. The Lizard King seemed to take a step toward me, but in a swirl of shadow, he was suddenly on my forearm, in his lizard form. His claws cut into my skin as he crawled his way up to his customary resting place along my shoulders. I shivered as his tail wrapped around my neck.

I feel as though thine hair has gotten longer,” the god grumbled, his lizard head flicking my locks out of his eyes.

“No offense sir, but wouldn’t you know that for certain?”

His tongue flicked my ear and I squealed.

Focus! Thou art within a forest infested with chaotic forces all bent on destroying Harmony! Thou mortal enemy stands at the heart of the evil. Presently, thou stands to correct a grievous insult inflicted long ago by Elmiryn’s ancestor. What will ye do?

“Dispel the chaos and destroy the evil?” My voice was uncertain.

The god’s voice was dry. “An admirable attempt, but perhaps you should say it convincingly this time?

Inwardly, I sighed.

When I looked back to the others, it was to find them all staring at me. Even Elmiryn had retreated to a distance, her colorful arms crossed. Quincy had knelt down next to Hakeem, and I could see they had been whispering to each other. They stopped when my eyes rested on them.

“Neat trick,” Elmiryn said, gesturing vaguely at Lacertli. “The…transformation thing. It’s interesting. Are you just gonna ride along this whole time? Watching us risk our lives?”

My muscles bunched. “Elmiryn–!!”

I suppose I could participate in the events if everyone is interested in becoming struck dumb?

“No!” Quincy stood, shaking her head emphatically. She cleared her throat and gave Elmiryn a pointed glare. “No, my lord! That’s quite all right. I think we can manage.”

Excellent. Bronislav?

The nature spirit raised his head a little higher, his curious little lanter in his hands.

“I believe you can help these braves get started?” Lacertli said with a hiss.

“O-Of course!” Bronislav spared us a severe look before turning and walking out of the small clearing. His shoulders dipped and his head bobbed, his feet cutting a tottery path over the dark soil.

When no one moved to follow him, I started forward, a scowl on my face both for Bronislav’s dubious condition and everyone’s hesitancy. The only reason any of this was happening was because Lacertli was here. If he hadn’t shown up when he did, then Elmiryn would have killed Bronislav, and we’d be lost wandering through the forest without a clear route to our intended destination. If the nature spirit had been of better health, then he would have killed us, and our collective quests would have ended here.

But these things did not happen, and I was left to wonder whether or not Lacertli had planned for any of this. He was the Path. His godly domain included the present, not the future or the past. But how could he have designs on fate and still remain impartial to what could be? Did he really trust in me that much?

It seems I wasn’t the only one wondering these things.

“It was pretty indirect, but I’d say that was an order,” Elmiryn said as she fell into step next to me. She gazed at Lacertli’s small dark head sidelong, one hand on her sword hilt. “I thought you weren’t supposed to give orders to Nyx?”

Oh? What made thee believe that?

“You’re the Path, aren’t you? You aren’t supposed to comment on anything more than what is presently happening, isn’t that right?”

I closed my eyes. Sweet Aelurus, can this woman not keep her mouth shut for a moment?

I find this rather amusing actually, Kali purred back.

Thou wishes for me to disclose only but what is presently true?

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow. “I would, thank you.”

Very well. Thou art like a child throwing a tantrum over situations thou can hardly control–but chance has it that thy rumpus could stir the balance of things just enough that the end game falls to thy favor.

The woman stared. Clearly she hadn’t expected this sort of frankness from Lacertli. While the information felt new to me as well, something about his observation failed to rattle me. Maybe I always had believed Elmiryn was capable of stirring things on such a scale. After all, if she couldn’t, she wouldn’t have caught Lacertli’s attention.

Also, Nyx wishes thy mouth to ‘shut up’, as the phrase goes.

I rubbed at my face.

Or maybe I was just used to his unforgiving frankness.

“Really, Nyx? You want me to shut up?” She sounded amused.

My shoulders tensed and I shot Lacertli a glare. “Sir, I wish you wouldn’t do that!”

The lizard god shrugged. “I was only honoring her request. Such is necessary to foster trust with you mortals, isn’t it?

“…You’re asking me?”

“You’re awfully informal with one another,” Quincy observed, her eyes squinted over her shoulder. It wasn’t her usual squint, though. It was the sort of squint you gave something wild and bewildering–like your eyes wanted to widen them, but your mind made them squint because you were trying to see better to get an understanding. I wasn’t used to seeing the wizard so…anxious.

I just sighed, my stomach knotting as I fed off her emotions. “I already told you. Lacertli doesn’t care for ceremony! The kind of respect he asks for is much simpler.”

“Do what he says, because he said it?” Elmiryn asked, an innocent grin on her face.

I wasn’t fooled, and my stomach knotted further.

I have chosen to inform thee, Elmiryn, that Nyx wishes to gag thee.

“Sir, please stop that!”

And mercifully, he did. Elmiryn seemed to cease her prodding too, perhaps because she didn’t want to push her luck, perhaps to spare me the heart attack, but either way I was grateful. Quincy and Hakeem remained silent, with the brunette looking back at Lacertli now and again as though she couldn’t believe a god was just sitting on my shoulder. I couldn’t blame her. It had taken me a while to get used to it myself. Bronislav, as a leader, was slow and seemed bothered by something. I watched him warily, afraid he’d turn on us and decide to fight us anyway.

As we crossed a dried up river bed, a thought occurred to me.

“Sir, what became of Argos?”

Lacertli’s golden yellow eyes peeered up at me, before falling closed as he rested his head back onto my shoulder. In an almost lazy tone, he hissed out, “Ah. The dog yet lives. He is currently carrying a task out for me elsewhere.

I smiled relieved. “I’m glad to hear he’s okay! Might I ask what he’s doing?”

No. You may not.

“O-oh. All right, then…”

Shortly after this exchange, a commotion happened at the front. Elmiryn and I both tensed up, our bodies moving to our respective combat stances. Quincy and Hakeem had leapt back, clearly alarmed by something. Elmiryn pressed past them, her sword drawn.

“What is it?” She asked.

I came up behind Hakeem, and over his bald head, I saw what the problem was.

Bronislav had collapsed, his large body on all fours as he clutched at his chest. Lying feet from him was his lantern.

“N-No!” He groaned. “I have seen the rise and fall of the tralorians! Seen the death of Ortus! Witnessed the rise and fall of countless kingdoms! I cannot fall here!”

Lacertli hissed from my shoulder, “And yet the scales do tip, Bronislav…

The nature spirit turned his blue-green face towards us, his bright haunting eyes flashing fear and resentment.

“Tisn’t fair…” he breathed.

Fair?” Lacertli replied, something darkening his tone. “What is fair about others having to clean thy messes, oh great nature spirit?” The words weren’t even directed at me, and I flinched.

I don’t understand, Kali said in my head. I thought Lacertli wanted to help Bronislav!

I frowned at this, but said nothing. There was something I couldn’t see, and it had been bothering me from the start. What was I missing?

Bronislav fought to his feet, his long arms swiping through the air to keep balance. “My god, why do you curse me!? Have I not served thee through the millennia!?”

And how cruel it is, that but a few scant seconds is all it takes to ruin one’s worth to Life,” Lacertli spat. “I can smell thy fear from here, dissident weed!

What the Lizard King said next, made me start.

Nyx! Your fate stands at the present path–either slay Bronislav, or see Hakeem perish!

I sputtered, my hands shrugging in helplessness. “But sir, what–!?”

Quincy’s swift response stopped my stuttering right then.

With a flash, her lightning staff was in her hand, and she struck out, striking Bronislav’s hand as he dove for his lantern. The electricity shot through him in a bright flash, and the nature spirit gurgled as he curled in on himself. Elmiryn was next to act as she rushed forward to grab the lantern from the ground.

I stared, my gaze twitching to and fro as my brain made the sorry attempt of catching up to what was happening.

Why must we attack Bronislav? Why is Lacertli saying he has betrayed us? What does this have to do with Hakeem?

Then my mind made the connection just as Kali did.

The lantern!we thought in unison.

Quincy was going to finish the nature spirit off, when a thick vine punched up from the ground, a rock wrapped at its end. This struck the wizard in the face with great force, and she stumbled back, her hand slapping to her mouth where blood flowed. In that same instant, the shrubbery at our feet stirred, and with frightening speed I found my ankles tangled in plants and roots.

“Nyx!”

I looked to Elmiryn, who held up the lantern. “Keep this away from him! He seems to want it bad!”

She tossed the lantern to me, and I caught it, wide eyed, my eyes staring into the strange glow. The light was not being produced by a candle, nor even a collection of fireflies. Peering in closer, I felt my mind tingle, and warmth touched my face. I took a deep breath–

Emerald green jungles surrounded me. I was running, short of breath, but laughing. Singing behind me was a young girl’s voice.

“Where are you? Don’t leave me behind!”

My elation slips away, replaced by exasperation as I hear the girl begin to cry.

“This isn’t funny! I’m serious!”

I stop running long enough to look back. I can see a girl with brown hair and a blue dress hugging what looks like a rusty sword to her chest. Her cheeks are streaked with tears.

“Hakeeeeem!”

I rear back, gasping, the lantern bouncing in my hands as I struggle to keep hold of it.

Nyx! Kali cried out. This is—!!

“Hakeem’s Years!” I finished aloud. “This will restore him to a full grown man!”

Now it all made sense. Bronislav had been dying. He’d been struggling to stay alive against the forces that drained his forest of its life. Then one day he must’ve come across Hakeem’s Years. There was no telling whether or not the nature spirit had consumed some of this energy for himself, but what did matter was that instead of letting nature take its course, Bronislav had selfishly used another’s life to prolong his own. This unnatural existence must have earned Lacertli’s anger, I was sure of it now.

My eyes searched wildly for the Fanaean. SInce the conflict had started, he’d been just as confused as I was. Now he was rooted to the spot along with the rest of us.

I pulled the lantern back and screamed. “Hakeem catch!

The wizard looked up just as I threw the object as hard as I could.

Bronislav screamed as he reached toward us, and my eyes widened as the earth exploded, a massive venus fly trap shooting up. Its prickly jaws rose for Hakeem’s Years, and I could see Hakeem watching helplessly on the other side.

That was about the time Elmiryn’s dagger struck the venus fly trap in the side of the head, effectively knocking its jaws away from the lantern.

All sound vanished, and I watched, horrified, as the lantern bounced off the side of the plant’s head, down to the ground. There, it shattered, the glass breaking apart in dozens of little pieces.

But it was just within Hakeem’s reach.

Desperately, I pulled at the fauna that held me in place. I couldn’t sink into the shadows with them in the way. I could see Elmiryn and Quincy doing the same. But the more I tore away, the more seemed to grow back. Hakeem let himself fall over, his arm reaching for the glowing orb on the forest floor. His fingers were just a breath away. Wildly, I looked up just in time to see Bronislav throw his arms up into the air. Like a wave, the fauna surrounding Hakeem and the orb rose up, and I screamed in the silence as the plants took them from sight.

I hadn’t been the only one watching.

At the sight of her husband vanishing, Quincy struck her staff against the ground.

Now I’m certain most of you have never experienced electricity coursing through you, but let me just say here and now that it is a horrible feeling. Everything in you stops as your body seizes in a jerking pain. It’s like losing control of yourself and feeling your faculty for thought or awareness vanish entirely. All you know is a sharp wave of agony, so intense that when it leaves you, your body is reduced to s spent heap. And that’s exactly what I was when Quincy’s attack had passed.

My muscles still twitching, I tried to reorganize my thoughts as I stirred on the ground. My limbs wouldn’t let me raise myself, so I settled for rolling onto my back instead.

I saw Elmiryn lying prone on the forest floor just as I was. Her head and arm twitched on occasion, telling me she was still alive. Bronislav was incapacitated, his body slumped up against a tree as he stared into infinity. I knew he was alive from the way his eyes rolled in disorientation. Quincy, meanwhile, was kneeling on the ground, her hands gripping onto her staff for support as she heaved for breath. The attack clearly took a lot from her. Blood still dripped from her lips from where she’d been struck by the rock. The venus fly trap, and the fauna had all been killed, their remains smoking in the aftermath of the wizard’s attack.

But where was Hakeem?

Willing myself to rise, I forced myself to all fours and turned my head more fully. That’s when I saw him.

Hakeem had been restored to adulthood, his dark body back to its broad muscular form. But it seemed certain…articles did not change with him. My cheeks colored as he pulled Elmiryn’s dagger from the venus fly trap. Going to the warrior, he calmly rolled her to the side so as to replace the blade to its sheathe. Sound returned to us in a rush of air.

Hakeem’s eyes floated toward me, and he offered a mild smirk.

Ikati, you act as though you’ve never seen the male form before!”

I would’ve said something smart in return, but all I could manage was a weak mewl.


Back to Chapter 34.3 | Forward to Chapter 35.1

Chapter 34.3

HAKEEM________________________

When the dark came over them, whole and impenetrable, Hakeem ceased moving. When he looked back behind him, he saw no light. In their home world, this would be impossible—they hadn’t traveled far from the edge of the forest. But this was the Other Place, and it was a half-world, fraught with magic. This was a supernatural darkness.

He opened his mouth to mention this when—

“I can’t see!” That was Nyx. Her voice was tight with sudden panic. She sounded far away.

“Nyx?” Elmiryn. She was behind him.

“Get off my foot, idiot!” Quincy. She was to his right. Perhaps a few steps.

“Stay calm,” he said, reaching toward his wife. His hand swiped through air.

“Elle!?” Nyx again. Her voice traveled and he heard brush being disturbed. “Elle, where’d you—ah!” There was a thud.

Cajeck!” Kali, now. “Stop stumbling around like that!”

“Nyx, you’re going the wrong way!” Elmiryn called. Now she was on Hakeem’s immediate left.

“In case you haven’t noticed, Kali, we can’t see anything. Historically this has never been a good thing!” Nyx snapped.

“Elmiryn, gods damn it, get off my foot!” Quincy snarled.

The warrior’s response was tight with laughter. “Wizard, I’m not even touching you!”

“Then…Then what–?”

ELMIRYN!!” It was Nyx again. Hakeem heard sharp snapping sounds, like threads breaking.

“Nyx!? Nyx!” Hakeem felt Elmiryn shove past him.

The Fanaean covered his face with both his hands, a groan coming up his throat. “Everyone just calm down…

A scuffle. It sounded like snapping wood. Hakeem couldn’t pinpoint the source.

“Nyx? Where the hell—?”

“R-Right here, Elle.” Nyx’s voice was small. “I just…it was moss. Just…uh…moss.”

Kali’s voice was a disgruntled grind. “A Champion of Survival, and she still can’t stand the feel of hanging vegetation.”

“It was scary vegetation! Okay!?”

“Kitten…” Elmiryn’s relief was apparent even amidst layers of exasperation.

Hakeem spoke loudly. “If you women are finished being silly—”

“Hey, midget.” The warrior’s voice steeled. “I don’t care how little you are, I will kick you in the cod piece.”

He cleared his throat, clasping his hands in front of him. “Noted. I just wanted to let you all know that I recognize what’s happening.”

“And what is happening exactly?” Kali asked.

“We’re deep inside a magical edge effect.”

“A…what?”

“Are you familiar with the legend of the blackwood?”

“I am.” That was Elmiryn. Her voice had turned somber. “It was the forest of devils.”

Hakeem smiled in the dark. “Yes. The forest was famous for its ability to separate the color spectrum.”

“Aesutan used it to clothe himself in the ways of the universe.” Elmiryn’s voice was virtually a whisper now.

Hakeem frowned at this as he resumed. Was that a note of realization in her voice? “Yes…Meaning color can be manually manipulated.”

“Someone made a barrier of the color black!” Nyx exclaimed.

“Actually, black is the absence of color, and as color simply makes up the spectrum of light then it’s absence means—”

“We can’t see,” the Ailuran finished. “Fascinating! And…troublesome.”

“Very good, ikati. You’re correct. We should–” Hakeem broke off as his body tensed. Something just occurred to him.

“Hakeem? Is something the matter?”

The Fanaean waved his hands through the dark, trying to feel his way. “Mweze? Are you there? Mweze?

“Oh. Oh no! That’s right, Quincy hasn’t said anything for nearly a minute,” Nyx murmured.

“What’s the problem?” Elmiryn asked. “She does that all the time!”

“Yes, but she does that with a level of menace that usually tells of a desire to hit you. That feeling’s noticeably absent.”

“When you say ‘you’—”

“I’m referring to you, Elmiryn.”

“I…you know, for once I have nothing to say to that.”

Hakeem’s palms grew sweaty as he cupped his hands around his mouth. “Quincy! Quincy!! Bwa-Mweze zi gua-quli!

“Hakeem,”

“We have to find her!” He bit out.

“Hey, hey, little man! Now who’s acting up?”

“No, you don’t understand—”

“What? You going to tell me Quincy is afraid of the dark?”

You don’t understand! Quincy isn’t who she used to be!”

Nyx tried to be placating. “Hakeem, this darkness is impenetrable. Anyone could get lost here.”

“No, there’s something out here.”

“Hakeem—“

MWEZE!! BWA-MWEZE JA NGOLE!!

“Shut up with your monkey gibberish, for fuck’s sake,” Elmiryn snapped.

Nyx’s voice was dry. “Elle, somehow I doubt that’s—“

MWEZE!

Not long after Hakeem cried out did something curl around his feet and pull. With a yell, the man-boy was thrown to his feet, and when he hit the ground, his breath fled from him. Unable to talk, he reached out, his fingers clawing for something to hold onto, but they only raked through soft soil and dead leaves.

“Hakeem?”

He didn’t get a chance to answer. With a force of strength that made him feel as though his leg were being yanked from its socket, Hakeem was dragged away, along the uneven forest floor. Barely any noise was made save that soft rustle of leaves parting around his body like waves. Elmiryn and Nyx would assume he had just rushed off to look for Quincy unless he could say otherwise. And he tried…

And tried.

Something is stopping me! He thought with alarm.

He grit his teeth and shielded his head as best he could, the pain of being dragged reminding him of the time he’d been tortured by desert raiders. They had tried dragging him to death by camel, but the man had made use of a magical charm that lessened the damage he suffered until Quincy could intervene.

Quincy…I’m a fool! Why am I struggling? This thing will lead me right to her!

Hakeem relaxed his body. A less rigid form would suffer less damage. Keeping his breathing fast and shallow, the wizard closed his eyes and waited for the ride to be over. When he felt himself come to a sudden halt, he dared to open his eyes.

Light. It was weak–so weak that it had barely pierced his eyelids–but it was more than enough after the sort of pitch black world he’d been in. The light was a warm, a pensive sort of gold, and he could see the way the trees breathed it in like it were air.

In and out. In and out.

When he adjusted to the soft glow, Hakeem could make out a tall, hunched figure, stoking what appeared to be fire in a lamp. The being wore only a brown skirt, and had long hair with a beard. Something was off about this, and the man-boy sat up slowly, so as not to attract attention to himself. Then his eyes widened.

A leshy…a being that protects the trees and animals!

“Spirit…” He said as he cautiously stood to his feet. “Whatever wrong we have brought upon your home, please know that we did not mean it. We are lost and simply wish to be on our way.” Hakeem swallowed. “I would be most appreciative if you released my wife.”

“Your wife crushed a budding daisy. The sweet child had only just known the grace of the suns when that fat human squashed it.” The leshy turned, his hair and beard swaying so that they better caught the light. Grass. Long grass, just as Hakeem had thought.

The nature spirit plucked up the lamp off the ground and labored toward Hakeem, his weight shifting onto a wooden cane with each step. Even hunched over, he was easily teen feet tall.

“Spirit, you are tired…” Hakeem said with a frown. “Does it have to do with this darkness around us?”

The leshy laughed as he neared, the sound like a drum. “This is the blackwood. Light is the peculiarity here, man child.”

“You see the way of things,” Hakeem said as he peered up.

The leshy had a long, teardrop-shaped face, with his chin ending in a point and his forehead widening to allow room for his ample brow. His ears were large and pointed, with the lobes hanging long and low. With a hooked nose, bushy eyebrows, and fiery-green eyes, the leshy did not look pleased. Even his cheeks, which were supposed to be blue according to legend, were tinting purple instead.

“I see intruders who have caused a mess,” the leshy growled.

“You…are the keeper of these woods?” Hakeem breathed, his eyes narrowing. “I thought this place was said to be a place of devils?”

As soon as the words left his mouth, the wizard knew he’d spoken ill. The leshy roared, and with a short swipe of his cane, he struck Hakeem along the face with it. The man-boy hit the ground, his head split with the sharp agony of the blow.

Devils!?” the leshy roared, cane raised for another blow. “Does Bronislav the Peaceable sound like the name of a devil to you boy!?”

“No!” Hakeem exclaimed, holding up his hands. He struggled to focus on Bronislav’s faint form. “I was only…confused! I was raised on stories that seem to be untrue. I see that now.”

The rage from the leshy’s face drained. If possible, he hunched even more, his head hanging as he lowered his cane. “It is true. My forest has become the haven for creatures of darkness ever since Nathric’s rise.”

Hakeem rubbed at his face, working his jaw. When he was certain it wasn’t too damaged, he returned to his feet, dusting his legs. Peering up at Bronislav, he said, “But Nathric fell hundreds of years ago…?”

“But his followers did not,” the leshy sighed. He glared upward with contempt. “The God King saw no reason to have Aesutan aid his other subjects of Harmony. Damned rot, that was.”

Hakeem thought a moment. “So…if my companions and I can cure your forest of its infestation, you will free my wife?”

The leshy frowned at him, his grass eyebrows knitting.

“Who said I was in possession of your wife, man child?”

“How can that be?” The wizard’s hands clenched as his chest grew tight. “She was taken in the dark! She was–”

“Hakeem?”

His head snapped around at the voice that came from the dark behind them. A moment later, he saw a slim figure enter the sphere of light. The leshy raised his lamp to illuminate the stranger, and Hakeem let out a cheer.

“Mweze, you’re all right!”

Quincy was covered in mud and looking sour but was otherwise fine. She wiped muck off her shoulder and gave her husband a strange look.

“Of course I am! Why do you keep assuming I’m in trouble lately?”

Hakeem smiled sheepishly, his hand rubbing his bald head. “Perhaps because you keep vanishing, then reappearing covered in muck?”

His wife squinted her eyes at him, her mouth open.

“I don’t like what you’re implying…” she said slowly. When she continued, her tone was snappish. “It was a forest imp, all right? He was standing on my foot because the little bastard was trying to reach my pouch! He almost made off with it before I zapped him…” She grumbled, gripping her magic pouch possessively.

“And the mud?”

Quincy’s face flared. “It’s dark out here, Taika. Don’t you start!”

“This is your wife, man child?” Bronislav asked, pointing a chipped nail.

Hakeem nodded absently. “Yes, she’s–” he did a double-take, “No, wait!”

Too late.

With one great swipe, the leshy grabbed Quincy around the waist, then hefted her over his shoulder as though she weighed no more than a feather. The woman tried to defend herself, but her reaction came late, with her lightning staff flashing in her hands only after the spirit guardian had lain hands on her. Shouting out curses, she tried to strike the leshy in the back with her weapon, ungainly as it were in that position, but the spirit’s grassy hair came to life, and as though she were a child with a toy, it took the staff and held it out of her reach.

Quincy screamed with rage. “GIVE THAT BACK! Damn you, ko galani chudopek! I should’ve killed you when I had the chance!”

Mweze, quiet!” Hakeem snapped, his face pale. He clasped his hands before him, then gave a bow. “Bronislav, please! Do not harm my wife. She did not mean to harm your flowers!”

“But she has!” Bronislav thundered. “I will flay her skin and use her to liven the soil.”

“You wish to strengthen your forest, do you not?” Hakeem said quickly, raising his head. His voice rose. “Then do not attack the unintended symptoms of the problem. Attack the problem itself!”

The wizard straightened, pointing off into the forest. “There is a balance that keeps all nature within Harmony! But a parasite has descended upon your home, sundering whatever peace you had left since Nathric’s downfall!”

Hakeem slammed his fist into his chest three times, shouting. “Bronislav, lay your trust in me, and this threat shall be removed! But my wife cannot be harmed, you must swear it!”

The leshy scowled down at Hakeem, almost looking annoyed by his offer. He looked at his lamp, with its strange fire-less glow, then back at the wizard. His mouth opened to speak–

There was a flash of light, and without warning, the clearing was intensely illuminated.

A twig cracked. Hakeem and the leshy turned in the direction of the sound to see Elmiryn and Nyx standing before them.

Nyx appeared nonplussed, even as she retracted her foot from the black twig she had crushed. Her tawny eyes, still flickering between states, alternated between Hakeem, Bronislav, and Quincy. Standing near her was Elmiryn, and she did not look right.

Striped all along the woman’s skin were…colors.

Candy pinks and bruised purples, sunny oranges and hazardous greens.

As if the giant forest spirit was not even there, the warrior flexed her arms and flashed an arrogant smile.

“I am brilliant!” She announced. She fanned out her hand and look at it at arms length. It was the only part of her body in a solid color–a bloody red. “I could feel traces of light deeper into the trees and ripped them out! Now I look just like my ancestor! Isn’t this fantastic?”

Hakeem closed his eyes and hung his head as he heard Bronislav begin to sputter with rage.

Why…why do I even bother?

ELMIRYN________________________

The ground trembled, the soft soil churning as black vines surfaced. They seemed to strain around a large chunk of earth, raising it, before they succeeded in hurling it through the air. Elmiryn pressed the air and particles before her into an immovable force shield as she pressed Nyx behind her. It wasn’t that she had been unaware of the big spirit or the fact that Quincy was being held captive by it.

It was that she wanted the attention on her.

When the earth struck in an eruption of dirt and rock, the woman’s feet slid along the ground, and she had a sudden epiphany.

“Uh. This isn’t the arktan thing all over again, is it?” She mused with grit teeth. Her shield had lost integrity and she was trying to restore it.

“I think so, Elle!” Nyx breathed behind her.

Black vines sprang forth all around them, thick and tangled and creaking. Elmiryn’s eyes widened as she pulled out her sword. The shield fell away as her concentration on it vanished. Its protection wouldn’t help against a foe that could attack from all sides, and she wasn’t sure she could muster up the energy to maintain something more encompassing.

The kitten’s right! This thing isn’t a normal spirit. It has some sort of power over the forest, just like–

But the warrior’s thoughts were cut short when a vine grabbed her leg and pulled. With a nasty flop, she was thrown to the ground, then hoisted up into the air upside down. Elmiryn’s eyes widened when she saw Nyx fall, then vanish under a swarm of the black plants.

With a sharp roar, the warrior swung her sword, slicing the vine holding her captive. She hit the ground in a painful heap, her body just turning in the air in time to keep from breaking her neck. Feeling old wounds protest, Elmiryn raised herself to all fours, her eyes swerving to where she saw Nyx last.

The girl was gone.

Squinting, the warrior was about to call out for her when something crashing into the side of her stomach and sent her skidding along the ground. Vines sprang forth, holding her in place. The woman struggled to get a grip on her breathing. Pain wracked throughout her as she managed to look up.

The large spirit glared down at her, Quincy still on his shoulder, his other arm raising a long wooden cane.

His green eyes held fury as he bared long teeth at her.

“That I could repay the insult brought upon my home so long ago…I see now that this is providence!” the spirit roared. “Halward, I, Bronislav the Peaceable, thank thee for this offering, and know that I take it with great pleasure!

The spirit swung his staff down…

…And missed.

Elmiryn could feel the heavy tip of the cane brush by her hair, where if it had found its mark she was certain it would have crushed her skull. The spirit was not a little surprised at this, but he did not dwell on the why of it as he brought his cane up for another swing. Down it came, whistling with all the force he put behind the blow–

Only to miss yet again.

Bronislav glared at his cane. “What trickery–!?”

Then without warning, he jerked to the side and fell. Elmiryn stared. The spirit hadn’t just tipped over…something had swiped his legs out from under him, whilst something invisible struck him in the upper body. Quincy let out a surprised squawk as she hit the ground just behind the spirit.

Her eyes flickered up to see Hakeem his wife up with a displeased look on his face.

“Well?” He said, glaring at her. “Do you need us to free you as well?”

Elmiryn didn’t need telling twice. With the spirit incapacitated, his black vines hung lifeless and still. She had to get the upper hand. With some difficulty, the woman managed to free herself just as Bronislav began to stir.

Using her fae power, the warrior brought down another wall of air and dust, but this time she pressed it down as hard as she could.

“How DARE you!” Bronislav raged.

Elmiryn grit her teeth, struggling to keep the magical field intact. Cracks grew along the threads of magic, her weave straining under the pressure.

Then the woman just about had it, and kicked the spirit in the head as hard as she could.

Bronislav’s head snapped to the side, and when he shook his eyes straight, it was to see Elmiryn’s sword pointed at his face.

“I am no god’s offering,” She snarled. “I’ve killed plenty with this sword. But I think you’ll be a first!”

“Elmiryn!”

The woman jerked to see Nyx pulling herself out of the ground as though she had just jumped down into a hole. But all that was there beneath her when the girl had finished was her shadow.

She tripped the spirit in that shadow place! Elmiryn realized. She must’ve signaled Hakeem somehow!

Nyx’s face flickered with feline features, but no matter what the look of determination was the same.

“You can’t kill him!” she cried out.

The warrior raised an eyebrow at her. “Why not? He would’ve killed us!”

“He wouldn’t have, if you had treated his home with some modicum of respect!” Hakeem snapped. He gestured at her. “How did you take the light as you did? You realize that the blackwood relies on light, no matter how scant, to survive, don’t you!? That is why it is a black forest! The trees devour all the light!”

Quincy pointed at Bronislav, “Hakeem was just about to make a peaceful deal with this being before you showed up in all your huff and puff!”

Elmiryn scowled. “Huff and puff? He attacked me first! All I did was draw his attention!”

“Ha!” Everyone turned to look down at the captive spirit. His face was twisted with contempt. “Just like your clan, to abuse the powers given to you!”

“You mean humans?” Elmiryn asked with squinted eyes.

“Your family,” Bronislav spat. “Just like Aesutan before you, so do you come and bring destruction. Well I demand an end, do you hear!?” The spirit’s face became lined and weary as he turned his head. “I am tired of this universe’s neglect.”

Elmiryn’s sword lowered, but she kept the force field up, in case Bronislav tried to spring at them.

“Aesutan hurt you?”

“He abandoned him,” Hakeem said quietly. “When Nathric fell, the devils fled into the blackwood to escape the return of light. Its been a safe haven for evil spirits ever since.”

“But the legends say this place was their home to begin with!” Elmiryn said, her eyes widening.

Hakeem shook his head. “No, Elmiryn. The legends spoke false. Look at this creature. Have you never heard of his kind? He is a leshy, a high being–”

“A spirit guardian,” The warrior breathed. She sheathed her sword, her brow wrinkled as she looked Bronislav up and down. “His control over the environment reminded me of Nadi…but…he’s weaker! We shouldn’t have won so easily!”

“My strength is devoured by vermin like you,” Bronislav intoned, his peculiar eyes fixing on her sideways. “If I were half what I once was, then you would have been slain! Do not doubt this!”

“I don’t…” Elmiryn muttered, walking away. Her head hung low and her hands found her hips.

Stopping near the tree line, she heard Nyx follow and looked back. The girl was wringing her hands. Her form was less shifty than it was before–perhaps her and her Twin were getting a grip on their body.

“You’re upset about what they said…about Aesutan,” Nyx said quietly so the others couldn’t hear.

The Ailuran stepped in close, hugging the woman’s arm. Elmiryn’s tension eased at the feel of the girl’s bare skin on hers, her breasts soft and inviting. But even as she felt the stirrings of arousal, these things could not compete with her distress.

“He was my hero, Nyx,” Elmiryn murmured, fingering the jewel on her sword’s pommel. “But I know what the others are saying is true. Aesutan must have known that Bronislav needed his help, but he just took what he needed and left!”

“M-Maybe it wasn’t in his power to–”

“No!” Elmiryn bit out, her tension returning. “It was always in his power! He just took the easy way out and left a big fucking mess for me to find later!” She kicked at the dirt. “Argh! Why does my family always do this!?”

“If that’s the case, Elle…then…” Nyx’s eyes brightened and she gave a little jump.

Elmiryn’s eyes returned to her companion’s breasts, her desire suddenly surging.

The Ailuran’s voice only just managed to reach her. “Sweet Aelurus! Elmiryn, this is wonderful! Don’t you see? This is a chance for you to restore your family’s honor! You can make amends by restoring Harmony!

I see thou have come a long way since last we parted, to so eagerly fill your station,” a new voice hissed.

Nyx’s eyes widened and her head snapped to look into the trees. Elmiryn, confused at the new voice, looked as well. Her face reddened.

You!” She bit out.


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