Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 38.1

NYX____________________________

I was feeling sick with fear. The tremors worked through me so hard that I could barely get a solid grip on Quincy as I grabbed her around the torso under her arms. Lacertli said nothing, just dug his claws in deeper to keep from slipping. My first instinct was, of course, to flee to the shadows, but this sanctuary was closed to me–I suspected it was because of the monsters that now threatened to storm the keep. They disrupted Harmony enough that the shadows resisted me. Left with no other option, I’d just managed to drag the wizard halfway up the dark staircase when a loud boom rocked the keep, and the clamor of moving bodies followed. The fiends were now pouring in. My terror reached its apex, and my surge of adrenaline was enough to override my shaky grip and allow me to throw Quincy over my unoccupied shoulder. Huffing up the stairs, I went as fast as I could, passing doors, until I reached the topmost room.

 

This was not Syria’s bedroom as I had expected. I didn’t know what it was. Warm bloody light shafted into the room and diffused softly into the dark corners by way of the open windows. The walls were covered in vines, the floor in roots. Swallowed in the plant life were a few sparse pieces of furniture—a desk there, a chair here—and at the back of the room, a large stone archway was fixed into the wall. There were no runes or magical symbols that I could see on the structure. I also could not see the source of the plants, but these were not my primary concern.

 

The monsters were making their way up the stairs. I couldn’t take them all…

 

Or could I?

 

I stared wildly around me as I set the wizard down.

 

The room was wide, and aside from the two or three recognizable pieces of furniture under the plants, there was nothing preventing the monsters from flanking me. I didn’t have enough to barricade the door, and anyway, I didn’t have the time. I considered trying to get Quincy to wake, but if my jostling her before hadn’t done the trick, then I was sure that slapping her around, while admittedly satisfying, would not work.

 

…But if I fought the beasts in the stairway, I could take them on one at a time without the risk of being flanked. You could even argue that having the upper ground gave me something of an advantage. Of course, there was the chance that flying spirits could squeeze in through the windows behind me, or perhaps the fiends in the stairwell would just overwhelm me through sheer force and number. But a choke point, especially one as narrow as the stairwell, would do me many favors against this number of enemies. I just had to keep fighting and not stop.

 

“Sir, any thoughts on my plan?” I was sure the god could see my intentions.

 

Lacertli’s tongue flicked my cheek. “Aye. Thy twin must assist thee from the shadows.

 

Kali perked at the sound of her name, but our confusion was shared. “What do you mean, sir?” I asked.

 

I mean just what I mean. She is more present than she knows.”

 

And as doubtful as it was that he would elaborate, our time was up for talk. I could hear the beasts rounding the last bend of the stairwell. I had to stop them before they got too close to Quincy, who was entirely vulnerable while she was still lost in Lethia’s illusion.

 

Going back down into the dark of the unlit stairwell, I let the pain of shifting my hands to claws slip in, and bared my teeth. I was terrified…but strangely eager. I never did understand Elmiryn’s need for violence as a means of release. Not until now. Maybe undoing my knot of darkness and weaving it through the rest of me completed my transformation from a pacifist to a warrior. Whatever the case, I had learned much in my time in the Other Place, and if there was one thing I was certain of, it was that I would survive above all else.

 

This determination fueled me. With time even my fear was edged out in favor of a sort of wrathful defiance against death. As such, I didn’t think about Izma when I ripped off the face of a red-skinned demon with four eyes. I didn’t think about Elmiryn when I punched my fist through a fat spirit’s chest and pushed him down the steps onto his evil brethren. I didn’t think about Lethia when I parried a dark knight’s mace into the skull of a child-like monster.

 

The bodies piled up, making advancement difficult for the beasts. I pressed forward, over these, because I knew I couldn’t let up until they were either all dead, or called a retreat. The latter seemed unlikely. These monsters weren’t organized, and with the fall of their nasty cohorts, they seemed to believe their chance would come when I would slip and make a mistake.

 

They weren’t far off.

 

You see, slaughtering things in a confined space leaves a horrendous mess, and given the focused area of carnage, where else would the blood go? The steps became slippery in gore, and even me, with my sure feet, slipped over the stone. I gasped and my arms went out to catch my balance. I managed this, but in doing so, I had left myself open, and here, three familiar hands seized the moment.

 

Just as before, I felt as though fire erupted across my skin, and I screamed in pain. Then I was jerked to the side and slammed into the wall. Once, twice, three times. My brow bled and my eyes rolled, but in my agony, I managed to turn my face to the source of my undoing.

 

It was the three Tall Men from the field. Their bloody eyes blinked in unison as they fixed me with their unnatural smiles.

 

In a fluid sentence, they each chirped out a word. “Hello-again-tasty-trickster! It-is-time-to-die-We-think! Shall-we-peel-your-skin-and-boil-you? Or-perhaps-saw-you-up-and-eat-you-raw?”

I could hear a roar in my head and something struck one of the Tall Men in the face. Interestingly, their unison seemed to be such that this strike affected them all, and they each loosened their grip on me. I fell to the steps, and though I was glad to be free of their burning touch, I knew I had to press my advantage, so I ripped out an uppercut at one of the devil’s throats, feeling my claws carve through his burning flesh…

And in the darkness of the stairwell, I thought I saw something strike one of the other men in the gut.

The Tall Men clutched at their throats and abdomens. I watched as dark fluid gushed from their wounds.

Get ready, more are coming! Kali shouted in my head.

I didn’t react right away, too stunned at the realization that those phantom attacks had been done by my twin. Somehow she had found a way to break the barrier that prevented us from both being present at the same time.

 

…Or maybe there was no barrier? The shadows were still not mine to command, but with the steady deaths of these villains, the veil that shut me out grew thinner. I thought of Lacertli, and how his form changed when in the darkness. Was that the same idea at work here? With Kali and I occupying the same body, did the darkness open up some way for my Twin to make her presence known in a way she couldn’t before?

The monsters below tore past the Tall Men, discarding them like refuse in their haste to get to me. Again with that tenacity, that single-minded belief that I would eventually fall if they just kept coming at me. I had to focus again. These were questions for later, when I wasn’t fighting horror after horror. After all…

 

I said I would survive, and I’d meant it.

 

ELMIRYN________________________

 

The issue for Elmiryn was less that Meznik had healed himself, and more that she had been the cause of it. In her experiences with the astral demon, she had known him to feed off of her in some way. For some reason, she had never fully grasped that it was her emotion that so gave him strength–and not just that–but her attention. And yet, how could she cut away his strength and still defeat him if she wasn’t paying attention to him? Meznik certainly wasn’t going to leave her alone if she ignored him, and there was no way she could forget all the things he had done in the first place.

 

She couldn’t help it.

 

Elmiryn sulked.

 

All the way through their escape–where she charged a policeman with her fae shield and smashed his head open with the nightstick, where Lethia finally traded the shotgun for the 9mm and winged a woman coming out to join the firefight, where Meznik casually touched a man’s head and boiled his flesh clean off–the redhead’s face was fixed in a perpetual frown. As they started to peel out in a stolen squad car, she’d finally had it.

 

“This is too fucking easy!” Elmiryn snapped, as she sped out of the back parking lot and out into the road. The squeal of sirens weren’t far behind them.

 

Lethia glared at her in incredulity. “Elle, we just killed a lot of people and are now leading a chase away from a team of very angry police officers!” The girl’s face was hard when she said this, showing just what she thought about that. “I’m not sure what difficulty setting you would like this set at, but right now, I think your preference is a bit irrelevant!”

 

“You talk too much,” Meznik muttered from the back seat. He was digging into his ear with his index finger. “You easily could’ve said that in three words. Maybe two.”

 

Lethia turned her glare on him. “And you’re a cur! Why’d I bother talking Elle into saving you?”

 

“Because you need me?” The demon shrugged. After the excitement in the back parking lot was done, he seemed almost bored. “How else are you going to find the way back to your home world?”

 

Elmiryn looked into the rearview mirror at him. She knew they needed to get away. She knew they needed to get back to their world. But she also felt desperate for a way to find Meznik’s weakness, and right now, taking him out of the only place that seemed to suggest any danger for him seemed counterproductive in that goal.

 

“Where are we going?” she asked in irritation. “I’m hitting the limits of this engine, and I can’t make a turn without flipping us unless I know when the fuck I’m doing it!”

 

“Head to the freeway,” Meznik sighed, letting his head loll back onto the headrest. “There’s a gateway there that will let us Travel.”

 

Elmiryn couldn’t think of a good excuse to go against this that wouldn’t result in them getting killed, so she nodded her head tersely instead. The squad car was built for chases, that much was clear. The woman only wished she had the skill to handle it.

 

For example, when they followed the first signs for the freeway, the cops had nearly managed to swipe them. Elmiryn felt as though her old self handled her newfound knowledge clumsily when she realized her mistake in trying to drive over a grassy divide. The car bumped and groaned, and an enemy squad car rammed them from behind, giving them just enough of a bump to get out of the soft soil and back onto the asphalt.

 

During this recovery, Elmiryn became painfully aware that the acceleration was in no way comparable to a sports car. Even as they roared onward, following the final signs for the freeway, she saw another squad car coming up fast on their left. When the car got closer, Elmiryn could see that it was Izma’s familiars–Officer Gale, or rather Quincy, and the “detective” Hakeem.

 

“Shit they’re going to ram us!” Elmiryn shouted, bracing for the impact.

 

But a brown convertible sports car–an old mustang by the looks of it–swerved onto the road. It came up alongside Quincy and Hakeem’s vehicle, and a petite woman with dark brown hair leaned out of the passenger window and extended a gun. Izma’s familiars reacted with shock, but it was too late. The stranger peppered the other car with shots before they could safely veer out of the way. Elmiryn watched, in the frantic back and forth from the road to her rearview mirror, as their enemy’s car collided with another pursuing squad car.

 

“Dear gods!” Lethia exclaimed. She was twisted in her seat, her eyes wide as she watched all of this happen.

 

Meznik still hadn’t bothered to sit up. He, in fact, seemed to have fallen asleep.

 

When the mustang sped forward in a burst of horsepower, the warrior tensed and barked at Lethia, “Lethy! The gun!”

 

But when they neared, the brunette with the gun simply shouted, “Follow us to the gate!” The warrior couldn’t see the driver, and she didn’t get another chance to. With their superior speed, the sports car pulled ahead of them.

 

Elmiryn stared after them, her mouth hung open. The sight of a police car advancing on them however reminded her of the direness of their situation, and she just managed to get on the entrance ramp for the freeway before she missed it entirely. After that, she saw it. The gateway.

 

This one was much like the other Openings she had come across in her travels of the Other Place, but this one was…larger. More imposing. She supposed it had to be. This was the way into an actual world, not just a shard in a halfway dimension.

 

The brown mustang vanished into its depths at high speed.

 

The woman’s heart raced, and for the first time since they acquired Meznik, she grinned. “Here it comes!”

 

Elmiryn pressed the gas pedal to the floor. They passed through the gate in a single breath, and the world vanished…

 

.

..

….

…..

They came to a gradual stop along the Path. Elmiryn wasn’t quite as used to the sudden change in speed–it had been a while after all–and everything here seemed to move slower. Or maybe the world they came from moved too quickly?

 

We need to get out of the car, Meznik said.

 

Why? Elmiryn asked.

 

Because those two women are coming toward us, and this car is disintegrating you dolt.

 

And when the redhead looked, she found that the very seat she sat on was doing just as Meznik said, so she hurried out of the car. Lethia, was already outside and on the driver’s side, or what was left of it, her expression wary as the passengers of the mustang approached. Meznik stretched unconcernedly behind them. Their squad car vanished from sight.

 

The two strangers, both women as the demon had mentioned, were of different height, one short and one tall. The short one was the brunette with the gun. The tall one was a redhead, like Elmiryn, but her hair was a lighter shade and pulled back into a ponytail. She also seemed to have an electric guitar strapped to her back.

 

This is the second time we’ve had to escort you out, the brunette said with displeasure.

 

At first Elmiryn thought she was speaking to her, but she quickly saw that the girl was addressing the demon behind her. The warrior stared at Meznik as he shrugged in response.

 

It was an emergency, he said simply.

 

You’re not welcome! The other redhead snapped. Do it again and we kill you! Izma gives us enough to deal with!

 

You know how to kill him? Elmiryn asked sharply.

 

Since they had approached, neither of the women had even glanced at Lethia or Elle. But now they looked at them both with sudden discomfort.

 

The tall woman pursed her lips. What’s your name?

 

What’s YOURS? Elmiryn shot back. Who the fuck are you people?

 

You should know by now that Travel is not a time for conversation. The brunette bit out. This was a final warning. That’s all.

 

She turned to her friend. Let’s go Julie.

 

The women turned to leave. Elmiryn watched as they did, and was surprised to find their car hadn’t disintegrated as theirs did.

 

Hey! Why’s your car still here and ours is gone? What do you know about Meznik!? HEY!

 

We should keep moving, Meznik said. He seemed to be in better spirits after that exchange.

 

This annoyed the woman. Why? she snapped. So that you can vanish the moment we get back?

 

He sighed with suffering. If I promise to explain away some of your boundless confusion, will you shut up?

 

Elmiryn opened her mouth to argue just as the women drove away in their car, but Lethia cut her off.

 

That girl was right! We shouldn’t talk and Travel. It attracts bad things. Let’s just go, okay?

 

Sullen, Elmiryn listened to her cousin, and the three Traveled under Meznik’s guidance, until…

…..

….

..

.

 

They emerged in a room covered in vines and roots.

 

Elmiryn felt odd, and when she looked down, she saw why. She was wearing the clothes and gear she had been before Lethia had appeared. The enchantress was also once more dressed in the clothing she had been before. The woman clenched her fists and glared at Meznik.

 

“Ok. We’re done Travelling. Now explain.”

 

He laughed. “Now?”

 

The demon was the only one who seemed unchanged by the journey. He was still in his bummy clothes, his face still human-like, his voice not yet a song.

 

The woman clenched her jaw. “Abridged version. Let’s go. What the fuck was all that back there?”

 

Meznik sighed and rolled his eyes. “The reason we lost the car, guns, and your clothing was to maintain continuity. Cross-world pollution gives the universe a headache, and to put it simply, you two were a walking migraine.”

 

“But I liked that jacket…” Elmiryn pouted.

 

“As for the women who so kindly helped us, they are…hmm, how to put this…” the demon trailed off, his index finger looping in the air. “Young gods?”

 

Gods?” Lethia interjected.

 

“The new movers and shakers, if you will. I know they didn’t look like much, but the tall reddy is capable of making your head explode with a glance, and the short brunette has a penchant for being aware of, well…everything–which was probably how she found us so quickly to begin with. We had some past altercations, when I was doing work in their world, but no more. I’m done with them. That world is currently going through some major changes in management, and it’s a messy process. Territories have been divided among the upstarts, and we just so happened to be running around in the area of those two lovely ladies. Molly and Julie. I don’t think it was an accident on Izma’s part either. They are your Speculums. You, Elmiryn, and Nyx’s.”

 

The woman squinted her eyes. “Our what?”

 

“You asked for the abridged version, and I’m giving it to you, so don’t expect to understand something so vastly complicated in less than a minute. Just know this: For every world, there is another world different from it only by degrees. You will see similarities in cultures, similarities in wildlife, similarities even in individual lives. This is because the seeds that start these existences come from related sources.”

 

Elmiryn’s face relaxed. “The fae?”

 

Meznik only shrugged his hands.

 

Lethia, who had drifted over to one of the open windows, gasped.

 

The warrior hurried to her side and peered out as well. “What is it?”

 

Down in the field below, she could see Quincy fighting with her staff.

 

“The wizard?”

 

But Lethia shook her head. “No, no! I let the wizard go. What I mean is–There! Look there!” She pointed frantically and Elmiryn craned her head to see.

 

Further out in the field, the warrior saw a greater commotion as the monsters and evil spirits practically stampeded over each other to get to something. Their direction kept changing, first one way, then another. This was all happening very far away, and the woman couldn’t make out the reason for this chaos at this distance.

 

And then she saw the small dark shape running up a reptilian monster’s spine, seconds before they swan dived off into the mob that frothed around them.

 

Her heart stopped.

 

“Nyx! Nyx!” Elmiryn screamed.


Back to Chapter 37.5 | Forward to Chapter 38.2

Chapter 37.5

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn caught up to Lethia. The sounds of the officers being subdued behind them echoed through the vents. The noises were loud and alien. The girl had ordered the enthralled cops to give their comrades a struggle, but not to kill them. The redhead wondered why as these people would just as well shoot at them as try to cuff them again, but she didn’t bother arguing. When she made her cousin fit into the small opening, the change hadn’t quite agreed with the girl, judging by the vomit at the corner. Elmiryn was feeling a bit out of sorts herself.

Being made no taller than four inches tended to do that.

But the warrior had expected this given that time after the trouble with Artemis. In that strange sanctuary she had discovered deep within herself, time had stretched to inconceivable lengths. She had practiced a lot altering her form, a fact she hadn’t been able to explain to the others whenever a wild idea struck her.

 

Gods, I wish I could see the looks on their faces, Elmiryn thought smugly.

 

Still, she figured it would be good to see after her companion. “You okay, kid?”

“I didn’t expect you to do that quite so easily…” the girl mumbled. She was still clinging her shotgun to her chest, her face drawn.

“It wasn’t that hard. I was just making us smaller. Not making us different or anything.” The warrior spun the pistol in her hand, a cocky grin on her face. Now, making your hand into a tentacle…THAT’S something!

 

She faltered as a sobering thought struck her.

 

“I’m totally going to lose my job over this,” Elmiryn muttered.

Lethia stared at her. “That’s what you’re worried about!? I thought you remembered who you are!”

The redhead glanced at her. “I do!” She shrugged one shoulder, an uncomfortable look on her face. “I just so happen to remember other things, too…”

A groan. “I really don’t need you to be fighting an identity crisis right now…”

“Well you should’ve thought about that before you brought us into this world, now shouldn’t you?”

I wasn’t the one who did this to you!”

Elmiryn sneered. “Ohhh no! You just helped.”

Lethia bared her teeth. “I’m trying to make up for it, okay?”

The woman rolled her eyes. “I’m not trying to pick a fight right now, kid. I have plenty of time to kick your ass later.”

“At least you have your confidence back,” Lethia said wryly.

The woman shuddered. “Ugh! I know, right? Other Me was such a pussy.”

“Somehow, I can’t bring myself to appreciate the irony of that statement.”

“Look, you may have the shotty, but I can pull off a shot with the nine faster. Okay, smartass?”

“I doubt you even know how to use the gun. Doubly so because you’re using stupid slang to refer to our weapons.”

Elmiryn gave her an offended look. “Well fuck you very much! I’ve received in-depth instruction on how to handle this world’s firearms!”

“A Vin Diesel marathon does not count,” Lethia deadpanned.

The woman pouted. “I’ve got better aim than you do!”

Lethia glared at her. “Do not!”

“Do too!”

“Do not!

“Ladies and gentlemen, exhibit A,” Elmiryn stuck her finger in her cousin’s face. “The BB gun incident!”

The teenager clicked the back of her tongue. “I was eight years old!

“My dad still had to wear an eyepatch for a week!” The redhead paused. “Actually, that was pretty awesome.”

In the dark, the woman swore the girl’s cheeks had gone red. “Well I don’t care! You don’t need to be a marksman to use a shotgun!”

Elmiryn snorted. “You can barely handle it.”

“I doubt you could do better!” Lethia’s eyes suddenly went wide. “…That’s what you’re after! You want the shotgun!”

The woman tried and failed to keep her face neutral. “I would have a better grip on it.”

“Ha! Sorry. You missed your chance.”

“That wasn’t even the real me when you offered it,” the warrior pouted.

No,” Lethia snapped. “Besides, you’d just fire it randomly to see how it feels.”

“I would not.”

“Would too,”

“Would n—aargh! Fine. Fine. I don’t want the stupid shotgun anyway. I like the feel of the pistol better. The nightstick, even more.” The warrior patted the long weapon tucked into the seat of her pants.

“You might actually get a chance to use that, since we’re blindsiding our enemies like this.” Lethia stiffened, and she looked at the warrior sharply. “You can restore us, right? To our proper forms?

 

“Why? Are you saying you don’t want bigger boobs?”

 

“Elmiryn–”

 

“Because I can totally do you–I mean it–I mean, uh…woah.” Elmiryn made a face. “I just totally grossed myself out. When I said that, it was a Barney Stinson tic. I didn’t think. But you’re, like, my cousin and stuff–”

 

Lethia gave her a weary look. “Now that you have your memories back, do you really want to keep pretending that?”

 

Elmiryn fell silent as an unpleasant feeling washed up from her gut to her tensing throat. She ejected her pistol’s magazine, then slammed it back in with more force than was necessary. When she spoke, her voice was tight.

 

“I’m not pretending. I really believe it.”

 

Believe?” Lethia was staring at her. “Elmiryn, this life Izma gave you–”

 

“She didn’t give it to me. To us.”

 

“…What do you mean? I don’t understand.”

 

“I mean…” Elmiryn sighed roughly. “I mean that Izma may have brought us here. Set the stage so to speak…but we filled in the pages. Us.”

 

“How do you know that?”

 

“I just do.”

 

Lethia shook her head. “But how?

 

“I told you, Lethy. I believe.”

 

“Elmiryn, belief in defiance of reality doesn’t–”

 

“I also know,” Elmiryn continued hotly. “Because of my experiences with Meznik. These astral demons…Lethia, have you noticed? Aside from creating these scenarios and dropping in certain triggers, they are pretty hands-off, aren’t they?”

 

Lethia said nothing as she mulled over this.

 

Elmiryn went on, her voice gentler. “Look. I know some parts of it were lies. I know Izma put things in place to keep us from straying too far from her control. But some of that was real. All of my memories from our world are weak and distant. So I’m going to keep these new happy memories. I’m going to keep the good things, this Other Me found.” She cuffed Lethia on the head, making the teenager wince. “All right, baby cousin?

 

All right!” the teenager ducked away, rubbing her head.

 

The conversation ended, but Elmiryn thought she heard her companion sniffling in the dark.

 

The time stretched on as they navigated the vents. Being a smaller size meant they covered less ground. Down below, they could hear the police searching through their precinct. Elmiryn giggled at how baffled they must be, finding only the two enthralled cops in the storage room.

 

Lethia’s memory of the ventilation led them to their destination. A grate overlooked the holding cells, where offenders were held until they either posted bail, or were transferred to a jail facility. In their miniature size, the two women were capable of squeezing through the vent. Elmiryn felt smug once again for having the foresight to make them that small.

 

Of course, her cousin had to voice some concerns.

 

“When we drop down, will you be able to make us large fast enough?” she breathed.

 

Elmiryn sounded almost offended. “Kid, it took no time at all to shrink us down! Why would it take longer the other way?”

 

“Oh…I don’t know. Maybe free-falling through the air and the threat of being shot at any time?” She squinted her eyes as she peered through the grate openings. The downward slant of the grill made direct line of sight difficult. “Never mind that we’re…oh.” The girl’s eyes widened at the same time she said this. “Oh, no!”

 

“What is it?” Elmiryn tried vainly to see what Lethia was apparently seeing. All she could make out was a policeman’s gun belt as he hurried down the hall. There was the sound of metal clanging, and keys jingling. “What’s wrong? What did you see?”

 

“I should’ve thought of this,” Lethia moaned.

 

“Lethy, what?

 

“They’re moving the accused, Elle!”

 

Elmiryn pursed her lips. Without hesitation, she started squeezing through the vent. “The hell they are!”

 

The warrior hissed through her teeth as she felt the metal grill squeeze her ribcage. She wasn’t sure she could make it through with her leather jacket, but just as she was about to say, fuck it, and slip out of the sleeves, she was free from the vent. The sudden sensation of falling through air was unsettling, and it made the woman’s mind that much harder to focus. But focus she did, and with her faculties in order, Elmiryn honed in on her pattern and expanded it, like a balloon. She could sense Lethia falling soon after her, and she just managed to get a fix on the girl to do the same.

 

They both hit the ground with a dull thud, once again their normal sizes. The enchantress, still unaccustomed to the sudden change, could only flop to the side, the shotgun held loosely in her hands as the nausea undid her. But Elmiryn was ready.

 

She was ready in the way the men at either end of the hallway weren’t.

 

Bringing up her 9mm, the redhead fired three shots. One to kill the man at the door leading into the precinct. Another to kill the officer escorting a prisoner toward the emergency exit in the back.

 

…And the final bullet for the prisoner himself.

 

“You bitch!” Meznik screamed as he fell back against the corner wall just near the doorway. He stared wildly at his bleeding leg. “You shot me!”

 

“That’s so you won’t get away,” she said with a grin as she pulled a moaning Lethia to her feet.

 

But her moment of revenge was short lived, because in the blink of an eye, Meznik was standing again, and not just that…uncuffing himself.

 

He chuckled at her look of bewilderment as he strutted towards her.

 

“Elmiryn,” Meznik said as he twirled the handcuffs around one finger. “You still have yet to grasp the concept of pattern recognition. And here I was, actually about to promote you from toy, to pet.”

 

He stopped inches from her, and the woman flinched, gripping Lethia’s shoulders tighter.

 

The demon’s smile widened. “Your loving hatred just puts a spring in my step…”

 

NYX____________________________

 

Lethia’s limp body was in my arms. I carried her through the dark of the Umbralands, hardly blinking in the face of the monochromatic chaos around me. Though the shadow world shifted in a wild dance, illustrating that somehow I had been removed from a structured plane to a less stable one, still was I able to conjure up a solid path to walk. I stared resolutely forward, hoping to pierce the veil I knew to exist between the Real World and the Somnium.

 

My patience was rewarded.

 

As I passed through a gateway of light, I could hear that familiar sigh of the universe as I left the plane of shadows into a new strange domain. This place, draped in the wandering dream of energies far too ancient for me to comprehend, was a glass wonder. All the walls, the ceiling, the floor, were clear and transparent. The room I stood in appeared to be a foyer, and a set of glass steps headed up to a second level. I wasn’t interested in exploring however.

 

I set Lethia down against a wall without looking at her face, and with the same concentrated effort of keeping my view averted, I straightened.

 

My voice was loud when I spoke.

 

“Lacertli!”

 

Yes?

 

I turned and fixed the god with a glare. He stood only feet away, hands folded before him. As he was fully in the light, his guise was not that of Marquis, for once, but of his true reptilian form.

 

His dark scaly face was unreadable, but something in his eyes felt…intense. I wasn’t sure if he was displeased with me, or the contrary. I couldn’t see how he could possibly be happy with me at the moment. I was doing a fantastic job at slimming my odds of survival.

 

If only I cared.

 

“Sir, I find myself suspicious of the guidance we received by you. Even considering their then-present motivations!”

 

Thou art asking if I wanted thee to fall into Izma’s trap?” He hissed, his forked tongue slithering past his fangs.

 

My jaw tightened. “Yes.”

 

Then the answer is yes.

 

“Why?” My lip curled and I took a step toward him. “Why would you wish that upon me!? Have I not served you well!?”

 

Thou hast served me excellently.

 

“Then why–”

 

Art thou angry with me because of my desires, or because of the things I did not do?” He sighed.

 

I sputtered as my angry words crashed over my tongue. I couldn’t think on his question right away. First, I had to overcome my outrage at Lacertli’s exasperated demeanor. Second, I had to process that I’d been posed a question at all. Once these things happened, I worked on controlling my breathing.

 

That’s when Kali spoke.

 

Nyx…?

 

She sounded sleepy. Quiet. The relief I felt at hearing her speak was strange but not unwelcome.

 

Kali! What happened to you?

 

I don’t know…I…was there, and then…

 

Izma put her to sleep…in a metaphoric sense.” Lacertli answered.

 

I bristled at what felt like an intrusion on his part. Then I remembered he was a god, and that he probably couldn’t help hearing our thoughts.

 

This brought me back to the question he asked before.

 

“I feel like you’re punishing me,” I mumbled. My eyes stung with angry tears. Hurt tears. “Why would you wish for me to go through this? Fine. So I didn’t ask the right questions. But why would you desire for this to happen to me?”

 

Lacertli tilted his head to the side. His slitted eyes held me in their dark gaze, but I did not shiver. Like many other things, I had become accustomed to this as well.

 

You needed to grow stronger,” he said with a shrug.

 

My mouth dropped. “I needed to be violated by a demon to grow STRONGER??”

 

I did not know that was Izma’s intention, and thou should know that it brought me no joy.” I could see his scaly features tighten, and it was with a start that I realized he pitied me.

 

“Oh it didn’t bring you joy, sir?” I bit out sarcastically. “You didn’t know that Izma planned to take my love and rape me with it?” I pointed at Lethia and screamed, “She said the same thing!”

 

Aye,” Lacertli said. He gazed at the girl and his eyes narrowed. “And like this god, ye should know that she is not thy enemy.

 

“Well she certainly isn’t my friend,” I spat.

 

The god only shrugged.

 

This made me too angry for words again, so I started to pace.

 

In my head, Kali sounded wary. At first I thought I knew why–

 

Nyx…we are speaking to a god…

 

And then it dawned on me.

 

Sister…I beg you…act with caution!

 

…Kali was wary of me.

 

The thought was sobering, and I had to fight to collect myself again. I tried to find something to anchor myself with. In the past, this had been Elmiryn. She had been my focus in all things. And yet now…

 

I couldn’t help but compare our recent experiences with assault. The Fiamman hadn’t been very clear on the details with me about what Artemis had done to her, but what I gathered was that she had come close to my fate…only to fight back in the end, and prevent it.

 

Only I hadn’t fought back. If anything, I bent over backwards to let it happen.

 

I’d only just put it to words now, but I knew I had believed this since that terrible moment. I let it happen. I could not bring myself to be angry at Izma, then, if I did not even try that hard to fight back. It was why I didn’t attack her in that white room. Why I had even considered her offer of discovering what she had on the other side of the red door.

 

In the Ailuran Nation, and particularly my home village of Toah, we had known this darkness from time to time. Women, and in rarer cases men, would come stumbling home, skin caked in blood, clothes ripped, hair tousled, but healed from any wounds before they even got through the door. We Ailurans never took for granted our healing ability. Just because a body was mended, did not mean that the soul was. Healers would warn parents to keep an eye on their children after an assault, because of the havoc such a trauma could bring. Justice was usually carried out by the family against the perpetrator, with the village leader’s blessing.

 

This was, of course, only when a victim had the courage to speak out.

 

There was one girl in particular that I recalled from my youth. We were just entering adulthood when the news spread that little Hema had been despoiled by some ruffian in the night. And not just once, but numerous times. We weren’t friends, but I felt pity for the girl. She seemed…off. Oh, she didn’t appear different. She even carried on with a lot of the same activities as before. Then one day, in class, a boy tried to borrow a quill from Hema, and she just broke down crying. Wailing, even. No one knew what to say. Even Leander, my forceful navi, couldn’t bring himself to chastise the girl.

 

Was I in the same sort of shock? Would I break down suddenly? I didn’t feel like it. I was angry. Not scared. Not sad. Just angry. Angry at Lethia for losing her memory. Angry at Lacertli for embodying his tenets. Angry at Elmiryn for being the unattainable object of my affection.

 

I was angry that I knew I had no real reason to be angry at any of them.

 

It wasn’t fair. None of it was.

 

Lacertli’s voice was calm when he spoke. “Thou hast slipped away from Izma and now hide in this fragile hideaway…what wilt thou do?

 

“Throw a rock?” I muttered sullenly.

 

You could. But I thought perhaps you would use your god-given powers a little more intuitively.” His voice was wry when he said this.

 

“I’m already in the Somnium…maybe there’s a way out of this illusion Lethia has trapped us in–?” As I said this, I turned my head to glare in the girl’s direction.

 

…And gasped.

 

In all the time that I carried the girl, not once could I bring myself to look at her. But now, I could not look away. The Somnium was the universe’s dream…an interpretation of the truth in all things. What did this mean? What could this possibly mean?

 

Lethia’s face was healed from the wounds Izma and I had inflicted on her. She was older too, in the way that her body seemed freed of the ungainliness of a human teenage body. Her hair seemed paler and longer, and it twinkled faintly with what looked like stars. Her neck was a deep shade of blue, but her hands were a bright and warm gold.

 

Most bizarre was that she was devoid of all clothing and sexless, and fading out from her torso to her thighs and upper arms was a gateway.

 

I knew this because as I stepped closer to get a better look, the view within Lethia’s body shifted. It wasn’t until I was looming over her that I recognized where the gateway led.

 

With a deep breath, I dived through.

 

…And my eyes opened to find that I was back in Syria’s study. I turned wildly in my place near the tables of books. One thing quickly became apparent.

 

The only other person there with me was Quincy.

 

Lethia was gone from her chair, and Elmiryn gone from her place at the foot of it. Hakeem was nowhere in sight. I found myself thankful of Izma’s absence. A loud hiss made my head snap around. Lacertli, in his small lizard form, waddled out from behind a stack of papers. I exhaled harshly at the sight of him, but held my arm out for him to climb just the same.

 

He climbed onto my shoulders without a word.

 

That done, I steeled myself and approached Quincy.

 

The wizard was sitting at one of the tables, an empty vial before her. She stared into space and made no indication of even being aware of my presence. I confirmed this when she didn’t blink as my hands waved past her eyes.

 

“Wonderful…” I muttered.

 

That was when the room shook, and I heard a commotion outside. Like lots of angry voices, only these were terrible, twisted people to make such a racket as I heard. These were…

 

My face went ashen as the reality made itself fully apparent.

 

“The devils in the field…” I moaned. “Izma must’ve summoned them!”


Back to Chapter 37.4 | Forward to Chapter 38.1

Chapter 37.4

HAKEEM________________________

Hakeem stared into the orb, seeing the scenes play out before him in simultaneity. It was almost too much, and that was saying something, given all he’d seen. He even almost lost count of time, the intervals shuddering as they passed his numb attention. There were so many things to process. A practical part of him–quiet in these emotional moments–whispered that he should be cataloguing this information for later use. The greater part of him, raw and beating like a throbbing bruise, said that his companions needed help.

 

But his powerlessness was a black rain, coating his skin, his soul, his mind, and it told him he could do nothing. He was just a small boy again, watching as terrible power undid the things he treasured most.

 

And Quincy….

 

His mweze.

 

His wife.

 

His shima.

 

His woman of joy.

 

He loved her so, but over and over in his mind’s eye, the horrible image played…

 

Quincy uncorking the vial. Her drinking it. The glass container rolling along the table surface…empty.

 

He struggled to see it from her perspective–to consider how it would be for someone who had lived through the things she had, to feel helpless and at the mercy of a new life she was unprepared in ushering.

 

…But try as he might, Hakeem couldn’t help but notice that all Quincy had gone through…so had he.

 

Why couldn’t she talk to me? he thought with agony. Why…how could she choose to do that?

 

Even the knowledge that the woman may not have been pregnant at all did nothing to change his feelings. It was the fact that she went through with it anyway, in case she was.

 

In his homeland of Fanaea, it was believed a soul entered the moment a man’s seed met his partner’s egg. This was something Hakeem learned in Crysen, because he was far too young to know such things when he was last in his native land. In that Talmorian community, ideas on the subject were such a melting pot that the wizard hadn’t been able to form an opinion. Blocking conception hadn’t been the issue. Stopping it after that happened, however…?

 

The idea killed him.

 

And it cut even deeper that Quincy suggested she had resorted to such tactics before…and with the horrendous implication that she’d needed to because of the pirate Tulki no less.

 

Hakeem had always disliked the man, but now he could say, without a doubt, he loathed him.

 

It was a pity Tulki was dead. The Morettis had collected his bounty years ago. The wizard mourned his lost opportunity for revenge, knowing it was foolish and unproductive. He was man who was firmly grounded. He’d thought he was.

 

…But damn this Lethia Artaud for ever entering his life! Never had Hakeem had to struggle with himself, to struggle with the reality around him.

 

The enchantress’s words echoed back at him, almost mocking now.

 

“You don’t live in belief. You know that life is far beyond anything we can comprehend, and so you adapt. You’ve adapted all your life.”

 

Hakeem bit his tongue, hard, trying to stifle the scream of rage and sorrow in his heart.

 

He didn’t want Tulki’s shadow darkening their present. He didn’t want to feel shut out from the chance of parenthood after all he’d sacrificed. He didn’t want to see his wife suffer under her crushing fears while the life they created together withered and died in her womb with every desperate concoction she choked down. He didn’t want to adapt to this.

 

“There has to be some way…” he whispered, his throat and lips so tight, it was doubtful anyone would have comprehended his meaning.

 

He glared at the scenes before him as they played on, indifferent to his turmoil.

 

Then Hakeem’s mouth slackened, and his eyes drew wide.

 

His thoughts were quick and panicked.

 

These moments I’m seeing…in them, Lethia awakened to her situation, her memories restored, and each time, there was a tell that heralded her restoration. But these moments happened at different times! And Izma was cross-present in certain moments. Didn’t Lethia say that the demon could only appear to one of us at a time?

 

It took him only a moment to gather the significance of this fact.

 

Hakeem’s heart beat a little faster as he let go of the orb and hurried toward the staircase the enchantress had used to retreat from him.

 

If I really saw Izma in more than one place, then that could only mean all of this has already happened! Lethia must have had her memories back this whole time! But why would she lie to me? Except…

 

He scowled, his fists clenching.

 

To protect me.

 

But how would keeping me ignorant protect me?

 

Hakeem braced himself in the doorway and shouted up the staircase, “Lethia! Lethia Artaud, are you there!?”

 

Silence. The man swallowed as his intuition conjured up another possibility.

 

Maybe this lie wasn’t to protect me.

 

“Lethia!”

 

Still no answer came to him. Hakeem felt a sudden strange heat on the side of his face. Confusing this sensation was his sweat turning cold on his skin. The dread squeezed his lungs as he turned his head to see where the strange energy was coming from.

 

Maybe…

 

His eyes widened, and he braced himself against a bright blast as the viewing orb he had abandoned expanded explosively.

 

This lie was to USE me.

 

And then, Hakeem thought nothing at all.

 

ELMIRYN________________________

 

They entered the precinct shoulder to shoulder. Elmiryn wished she could feel more like Bruce Willis. Hell, even Jean-Claude Van Damme. But at the moment she was feeling more like wet toilet paper–weak.

 

The moment the double glass doors swung closed behind them, Elmiryn was acutely aware of a reality shutting her out. She had sensed that things had not felt right, and she also had sensed that somewhere in her had existed an…alternate history, where she was a different person. Stronger. Less considerate. Much more passionate.

 

But as Lethia marched on up to the receptionist, Elmiryn couldn’t help but wish she could go back to having just the one reality–the one where she helped car crash victims walk straight again, where she barely managed to pay her bills on time, where her love life was simple but unsatisfying…

 

Wait, what? She thought distractedly as the receptionist inexplicably buzzed them in.

 

Lethia glanced at her as she pushed her way through the magnetic door, toward the processing offices. “Jedi mind trick,” she said wryly, in answer to Elmiryn’s bewildered look. The woman blinked after her, but didn’t bother correcting her cousin’s assumption regarding her confusion.

 

Look at me, she thought miserably. I’m about to shoot up a bunch of cops, and I’m moping about something so stupid!

 

They were fortunate that the lobby was void of any officers. The processing offices were a different matter.

 

The moment they exited the adjoining hallway, people slowed to a stop and stared. The moment only lasted a second. After all, neither of them were cops, that was plain to see, and they were armed. An officer who had been stepping out of a doorway, papers in their hands, dropped these and drew their firearm.

 

“Drop the weapons!” They stammered out. Their eyes were wide. Alarmed. Elmiryn couldn’t blame them, she couldn’t quite believe she was doing this either, let alone that they’d gotten this far.

 

Lethia’s answer was to simply raise her shotgun and fire at the man.

 

The shot only grazed him, but it chewed up the length of his arm and his shoulder. He shouted in pain and fired back sloppily as he fell.

 

Too frightened to think to scream, Elmiryn fell flat to the floor in an attempt to dodge any bullets. In her haste, the pistol–a 9mm by the looks of it–clattered to the floor.

 

Lethia hurried toward a metal and wood desk that she flipped over. She shouted furiously at the older woman as she took cover. “What are you doing, you idiot!? Get over here!”

 

The other officers began mobilizing and taking aim.

 

Elmiryn gave a start as a stray bullet struck the carpet inches near her. A low whine escaped her lips as she grabbed the pistol by the barrel and hurried next to Lethia. Her hands trembled so fiercely, she had trouble putting her finger back on the trigger.

 

“This is insane!” she screamed as bullets pinged and zinged by them. “Why did I follow you in here!?”

 

Lethia hissed as she rubbed the center of her chest. The recoil of her recent shotgun blast had apparently been more than she could handle. “Gods, I can’t wait for you to drop this whiny persona!”

 

Elmiryn gave her a stung look. “I am not whiny!”

 

Her cousin bared her teeth as she fired blindly over the desk. “Elle, remember that time you beat up Jared Host for stealing my bra?”

 

“Is this really the time for–?” The redhead broke off with a gasp as splinters stung her face. The desk was holding up remarkably well. The woman remembered through the clouds of her hysteria some article she’d read about police offices having reinforced furniture in case of a situation just like this. But given the desk’s modest size and their pinned position, it was only a matter of time before they were overwhelmed.

 

“I’m asking–” Lethia broke off as she dared another wild attack. She continued as if she hadn’t just shot at trained police officers. “–Because that was the fiercest I’d ever seen you…in this life. Right now? I need you to pretend all of these officers stole my bra.”

 

Elmiryn stared at her. “If you’re trying to inspire me, you’re failing. Horribly.”

 

“Fuck you and just shoot someone!” Lethia screamed at her. “Fight or we die! Don’t you want to see Nyx again!?”

 

“But she’s dead!

 

Lethia grabbed Elmiryn’s shoulder and shook her. “Elle, wake up! I’m not brave! I’m not a real fighter! You are! I need you here. The real you! Now!”

 

Elmiryn could only stare at her cousin–stare and think the girl was wild and insane. Perhaps the feeling of wrongness–the sense of not belonging, of not behaving right, of not sounding right–had all been in her head. The reality of their situation was more sobering than a splash of cold water in her face. Elmiryn had made a mistake. She was not a fighter. She was not brave. She didn’t belong anywhere else but in this world–and any minute now, she could be evacuated to an early afterlife.

 

Lethia could see the doubt in her eyes as clearly as if the woman’s skin had turned purple. She shoved at the redhead in some show of disgust…but not just that. Fear. She had made a gamble, and now she had to face the sad result. Death by cop.

 

“I never wanted any of this either…” Lethia murmured, slumping down next to the woman. “I just wanted…I wanted to be a good daughter. I just wanted to help Syria. And somehow that landed me here. I wish I could get rid of this power I have. I wish I could forget how to breathe and just die. But I can’t, because I’ve made a terrible mess of things, and until I can get you all out of it…” she trailed off.

 

Elmiryn reached over and squeezed the girl’s arm. She felt sick with fear.

 

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Lethia choked out. Her voice was barely audible over the barrage of shots.

 

Would they kill them if they surrendered? Even taking into account Lethia’s shooting, Elmiryn didn’t think they killed anyone. The shotgun didn’t have very far range, and the officers were being careful. Then again, she didn’t know anything about situations like this.

 

Her cousin had stopped firing. Possibly to save ammunition. How many shots did she have left? Three? The shots fired at them eased as the officers tried assess this sudden change. The woman glanced at Lethia. She was staring into nothing, hugging the shotgun to her body like it were a teddy bear. How did it come to this? What could the woman do to save them?

 

People can change, Elmiryn thought somberly.

 

She closed her eyes and tried to remember the impossible.

 

She tried to remember being the person she had never been.

 

The minutes stretched on.

 

Someone shouted over them. Elmiryn bared her teeth as hands took her weapon away and shoved her down. A knee dug into her back. She heard Lethia cry out next to her. Still, the woman kept her eyes closed.

 

She heard little whispers in her head.

 

…won’t leave them…chained…can’t fight–

 

…sir, we can’t…to run…

 

…go…made my…flea-biters coming…

 

…Elle, no…

 

…Saelin, you asshole…

 

Someone latched on one pair of cuffs and started pulling her arms behind her to put on the other.

 

Elmiryn managed to turn her head over to Lethia just as they grabbed her other wrist, and saw the girl gazing at her sadly.

 

“Lethy,” the redhead hissed. She fought against the grip that tried to twist her arm and heard the man barking at her to stop resisting. Red faced, she shouted, “Lethy, do a jedi mind trick! Now!

 

The girl’s eyes widened. They had already cuffed her and were jerking her to her feet. “But–”

 

NOW!

 

Lethia’s head snapped up as they focused on something the woman couldn’t see. Elmiryn felt the grip on her wrist relax, felt the knee on her back shift away. The woman started to roll to her feet, but other officers grabbed her by the shoulders and tried to shove her down again.

 

“Carl, what are you doing!?” one of them shouted.

 

Elmiryn heard several shots, all of them deafening. Something warm sprayed her face. The sounds made her flinch every time, and the lapse in concentration should’ve been enough for her opponents to subdue her quickly…

 

…If only each of them hadn’t had a supporting limb shot out.

 

The officers around her screamed in surprise and agony as they gripped their injured limbs. More noises. More struggle. More shots. Elmiryn couldn’t take it all in. Her focus was on getting free of the tangle, and when she did she rose up in a crouch and a night stick shoved into her face. The woman gave a start, but quickly saw that it was Lethia who was holding out the weapon. The officer that had been handcuffing Lethia was now crouching with them behind their crowded cover of the desk. The officers that had been shot were knocked out.

 

Shouts echoed through the offices.

 

Elmiryn took the night stick from her cousin, and her brow wrinkled in concern as she saw the girl flinch and rub her head.

 

“What’s wrong?” she asked. Aside from this entire situation.

 

“It’s taxing…controlling people,” Lethia panted. She pointed toward a doorway behind them–it was across from the one where the officer she had first shot at emerged from. “Move! There!”

 

Elmiryn nodded tersely.

 

The officers, their strange silent allies, covered them with gunfire as they hurried into the other room. The woman quickly scanned the space and found it was a simple supply closet. When the officers followed them in, shutting the door behind them, it became very cramped.

 

“Well this is less than ideal!” Lethia breathed.

 

The woman twisted the night stick in her hands. “Lethia, we can’t stay in here!”

 

“Well we can’t go back to the lobby.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“I didn’t have time to mention it before, but my power isn’t infinite. The moment I took control of these two, the officers outside, the ones I’d been putting a mental block on… Let’s just say, they’re ‘awake’ now.”

 

Elmiryn blanched. “We’re stuck in here! Pinned!”

 

“Not necessarily.”

 

“Wh-What do you mean?”

 

“I mean our friends here provided me with some information about the building. Namely, that this vent,” she pointed at the back wall, where behind a large box of papers, a vent peeked. Elmiryn would have missed it. “Can put us close to where Meznik is being held.”

 

“I thought that only worked in movies.”

 

“You’re right. That’s why I’m going to need you to do something.”

 

Elmiryn was immediately wary. “What?”

 

Lethia’s face became grim. “I need you to make us skinnier.”

 

The redhead balked. “Not even Jenny Craig can get the kind of results you’re asking for!”

 

“Back there, didn’t you remember something? Anything at all about who you really are?”

 

Elmiryn faltered. “Not…not really.”

 

Lethia sighed.

 

There was movement outside. Everyone stared at the door.

 

“I don’t have it in me to pull a hat trick,” Lethia whispered urgently. “So whatever you need to do to remember your fae power, do it now!”

 

As she said this, the officers squeezed past Elmiryn and set to work getting to the vent. She looked from them to Lethia and back. Then with a shaky sigh, she stooped down and began to take off her shoes.

 

“What are you doing??” Lethia hissed at her.

 

“I’m trying to feel like Bruce Willis, shut up!

 

“What we need isn’t Die Hard! We need more like…like…” Lethia fumbled, trying to come up with an adequate reference.

 

Elmiryn glared at her. “I thought you said I could do whatever I needed to!”

 

“I lied!

 

“You can be such a pain in the–”

 

There was a loud clunk outside. Scuffling. The women exchanged looks.

 

“You don’t think that’s SWAT do you?”

 

Lethia swallowed audibly. “Maybe?”

 

Elmiryn’s voice was fast and strained. She tried to keep her voice low so that those outside couldn’t hear. “What’s this fae power you want me to remember so badly?”

 

“Fairy godmother!” Lethia gasped suddenly.

 

What?”

 

“We don’t need Bruce Willis, we need a fairy godmother! You know! Cinderella!?”

 

“But I can’t–”

 

Try.”

 

“You have to make a wish first, jackass!”

 

“I-wish-my-idiot-cousin-would-make-me-fit-into-that-vent!” Lethia said in a rush.

 

The officers in the room with them were working out the last screw to the ventilation shaft using a multitool they had found somewhere. Elmiryn waved her arms.

 

Shazam! Wish be granted!”

 

The look Lethia gave her made the woman’s throat muscles tickle, but she didn’t know from what. Clearing it, she tried again, this time with more feeling.

 

“SHAZAM!”

 

Her mind flashed with the image of the cops outside in the hallway, preparing to burst into their room, expecting a fatal finish…and suddenly hearing her ridiculous cries.

 

Elmiryn’s throat tickled again, and this time her lips twitched.

 

Lethia palmed her face. “We are going to die,” she moaned morosely.

 

The officers carefully set down the vent cover. The shaft was now open to them…but it was much too small for even Lethia to squeeze through.

 

“No, no, I feel like I’m onto something. Here…” The woman rolled her shoulders and took a breath. Then she threw her arms up into the air and bellowed, “Alla-ka-zoo!

 

“Elmiryn, would you stop–!?”

 

But the girl was cut off as the redhead burst into wild laughter.

 

Lethia stared at her aghast. “You think this is funny?

 

When the woman calmed down enough to speak, it was with an arrogant smirk. Her cousin’s expression cleared and her eyebrows went high.

 

“Kid,” Elmiryn said as she patted Lethia on the cheek. “Right now, everything is funny.” She thumbed at the vent. “Now let’s get you in there!”


Back to Chapter 37.3 | Forward to Chapter 37.5

Chapter 37.3

“Gimme danger little stranger

And I feel with you at ease

Gimme danger little stranger

And I feel your disease

There’s nothing in my dreams

Just some ugly memories

Kiss me like the ocean breeze

 

Now if you will be my lover

I wish you were insane

But you can’t be my master

I will do you anything

There’s nothing left alive

But a pair of glassy eyes

Raise my feelings one more time”

‘Gimme Danger’ by The Stooges, from the album ‘Raw Power’. Columbia, 1973.

NYX____________________________

 

To say that I was ‘ready’ for whatever it was Izma had to show me, would not have been right. Willing, yes. But not ready. I was just at my wit’s end.

 

The light of the room dimmed, and I could feel my hairs stand on end as I started to pull open the red door.

 

Then Lethia’s hand slammed the door closed again from out of nowhere. I gazed at her wildly, and her green eyes met mine, mirroring my bewilderment. Where had the enchantress come from? Was this another trick? I turned my head and saw Izma glaring, her previous smugness gone.

 

“You dare–?” she started.

 

Lethia cut her off. “I do!” But her voice trembled, and I could see her whole body shake as she turned back to me. “Nyx…you have every right to hate me right now. But please believe me when I tell you that going through this door will ruin you!”

 

I looked her up and down. “…Why?”

 

“It’s a trick, it’s Izma–”

 

“No,” I interjected through my grit teeth. “I mean why should I trust you?” Lethia’s expression fell. Somehow her deflation fanned the flames of my anger, and I shoved her, hard. It felt good, to see her nearly fall. To let out some of the wrath I felt toward her. “I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you, Lethia Artaud!”

 

“I know that! And I’m sorry!” Lethia fell to her knees and clasped her hands. “No more games! I’m done playing! I remember now, Nyx! I remember how you and Elmiryn went out of your way to help me when you could have turned and walked away! You risked your lives to save me and help me in my goals!” She buried her face in her hands.

 

I mulled over her words as she took a moment to compose herself. When the lights dimmed…that must of been her power shifting, letting her remember.

 

“I’ve repaid you terribly!” She continued, with her hands curled to fists she pressed them to her chest. “But even if you spurn me, beat me, or kill me, it would be a far better fate than to continue–”

 

Only she didn’t get to finish, because Izma grabbed her by the head and flung her across the room like a doll. It happened so fast, I barely caught it. Odd, how our group seemed capable of speeches and impassioned declarations whilst under fire. Izma didn’t appreciate our verbosity, clearly. Whatever Lethia had to say, she was going to have to be more economic about it. If she was even conscious.

 

…And I wasn’t too sure I was willing to keep listening anyway.

 

I gazed at her crumpled body on the other side of the room, her hair fanned out around her on the white floor, and felt strangely…passive about the scene.

 

Izma’s cold eyes fell on me, and I turned to face her. Her human disguise was vibrating, as if it would shatter at any moment.

 

“Well?” she asked, her voice harsher and deeper than it was before. “What are you waiting for?”

 

She was right. I had nothing to wait for.

 

I turned back to the door, ready to open it.

 

“She’s looking…for…you…” Lethia’s voice. It came in broken gasps.

 

My hand stilled on the doorknob and I turned to gaze over my shoulder.

 

Lethia’s arms shook as she tried to push herself up. I could see blood dripping from her nose, and I wondered if this was real, or just another illusion.

 

“She’s looking for you, Nyx!” she said more firmly. “You promised…to be by her side! Always!

 

My eyes widened.

 

Izma took a menacing step toward her, but I started forward, cutting her off. Lethia’s eyes brightened as she held out a hand to me. “Nyx! Oh, Nyx! Elmiryn needs–”

 

My fist slammed into her head so hard it bounced off the wall. Lethia’s body went limp, and I could see the blood pooling from beneath her down turned face. Her hair effectively covered the damage, but I was sure I had felt something break beneath my knuckles. I stood heaving over her, tremors of rage coursing through me.

 

“Promises? You want to talk to me about promises!?” I spat.

 

…And I felt a hollow sort of satisfaction–a salve, if you will–for all the cuts and bruises my spirit had suffered at the hands of this girl who, good intentions or not, managed to hurt me so much. The fury that I knew for her was violent and terrifying. But as I heard Izma laughing behind me, I felt that fire die down. It didn’t go away. I wasn’t sure if I could ever stop the wildfire that was inside me now. But without the incessant roar of bloodlust confusing my thoughts, I was able to gather that…

 

The girl may have played along with Izma’s sick game, but it was under great confusion brought on by her amnesia, and the worst acts I suspected she had been entirely absent for somehow. The parallels this situation had with Atalo’s death–the misguided intentions, the loss of control, the horrible consequences…Lethia Artaud was just like me a few years ago. She was as weak, as naive, and as self-righteous as I was. Faced with these facts, I realized I could not forgive her, because I could not forgive myself.

 

Izma’s hand touched my shoulder, and immediately a feeling of pins and needles spread down my flesh. Her voice sounded tight with glee.

 

“Kill her. Kill the weed!” She giggled.

 

I reached down and grabbed Lethia by the hair. My lip curled as I laid eyes on the girl’s swelling face. At a glance, my guess was she had a broken right cheekbone. The skin was broken and bleeding. Her nose was still bleeding too, but I didn’t think that was from my punch. I pulled back my palm. A swift strike angled upward to the nose could kill her, especially given the force I could put into the blow. It was one of the fatal points Elmiryn had taught me to strike.

 

My jaw tensed.

 

Elmiryn…

 

Kill her,” Izma hissed behind me.

 

My eyes narrowed. “Would you ask me to kill myself if it pleased you?”

 

“Why would I want you dead, little sum?”

 

“Why do you want her dead?” I countered readily. I started to drop my hand, but still held Lethia’s head up with the other. “She has done everything you asked.”

 

“She has failed me. Tis simple.”

 

“Is it?” I let go of Lethia’s hair and rocked forward onto both my palms. Given how close I was to the enchantress, the space for this was cramped and awkward, but I was able to move well enough that my upper body weight was sufficiently shifted onto my hands. With a deep breath, I let out a sharp kai and kicked backward with both my legs.

 

They struck air.

 

I didn’t actually expect my attack to hit Izma. I just wanted to make a point. I was not going to become the astral demon’s new pet. Whatever hatred I felt towards Lethia, I had to admit to myself that I could not do to the girl what I could not do to myself–and that included killing her.

 

Grabbing Lethia’s body, I called on the shadows and willed them to swallow us. As we sank into darkness, I could hear Izma screaming in rage.

 

ELMIRYN________________________

 

The precinct wasn’t as busy as Elmiryn expected it to be, given the day and the hour. Still, there was a steady hum of activity–of printers squealing, keyboards clacking, chairs creaking, and papers rustling. The air smelled like ink, gun oil, and carpet freshener. Those brought in handcuffs were sullen and quiet, their attitude suggesting a familiarity with the setting. She didn’t like being here. It reminded her of her childhood.

 

“Thank you for your cooperation, Ms. Manard. It really helped us to clear things up faster. The other witnesses corroborated your statements, so just one more thing and you’re free to go.” Officer Gale undid the handcuffs and offered the woman a seat next to her desk. She’d mentioned her first name, but the woman had already forgotten it. The officer had russet brown hair at shoulder length, and rich azure-blue eyes. She didn’t look that much older than the redhead, but there was definitely some age about her eyes…probably from stress and sun.

 

Elmiryn rubbed her wrists, glad to be free of the confines. She locked eyes with the cop and grinned. “Hey, no prob. I know how you guys work. I mentioned my dad used to be an officer, remember?”

 

Gale smiled, and the redhead detected a hint of irony in the expression. “Yes. You did.”

 

“Oh-ho! You worked with him. I can tell.”

 

The other woman coughed and sat down in her chair. “That obvious?”

 

Elmiryn shrugged. “Warner isn’t exactly Mr. Congeniality. Let me tell you, whatever you went through, it was a thousand times worse being his gay daughter growing up. At least you got away from him when you clocked out!”

 

The other woman laughed. “I was never partnered with him. He was already an investigator by the time I hit the streets. He seemed a good man. Just…strict.”

 

“That’s a nice way of putting it.”

 

Gale laughed again as she pulled her clipboard to her. “Well, we’ve got your statement down. We just need you to confirm it with a signature. Your cousin is still filing her charge against the suspect. You’re free to wait for her if you’d like.” She passed the clipboard over with a pen.

 

Elmiryn signed it quickly, then glanced over her shoulder to the room where she saw Nick had been taken. “Say…D’ya think I could talk to that guy? Nick?”

 

Officer Gale gazed at her shrewdly. “We don’t normally allow for that.”

 

“Hey, I’m not pressing charges!”

 

“But your cousin is, Ms. Manard. You and the suspect had a physical confrontation. We’re not looking to have trouble in our precinct. The paperwork would be a nightmare. Anyway, I think they’re charging him formally now. He’s going to be transferred to a holding cell until he posts bail.”

 

“I don’t care where I talk to him. What if you were there with me? I just want five minutes.”

 

Gale puckered her lips in thought and craned her neck over the sea of desks. When she looked back at the redhead, it was with a sideways gaze. “Five minutes? That’s it? You aren’t suddenly going to change your mind about all of this? Because again…the paperwork. It’s a bitch.”

 

Elmiryn shook her head eagerly. “I’m not changing my testimony. I’ve already signed my statement, right? Soooo…can I see him?”

 

The officer drummed her fingers on her desk. Then with a sigh, she stood and jerked her head. “All right…Just five minutes! But the moment things start to get out of hand, I’m ending it!”

 

Elmiryn made a small fist pump. “Yes!” She stood with a pop. “Thank you!”

 

“Settle down. I’m still not sure this is a great idea.” Officer Gale moved past Elle, and the redhead followed her down the aisle to the interrogation room.

 

Gale rapped on the door briefly before poking her head in. Elmiryn could hear her speaking with someone, and a second later, she opened the door wider and stepped aside. Elle glanced at her before entering.

 

A plain clothes officer in a gray suit and dark button up was glaring at her as she entered. He was a tall black man with broad shoulders and slim hips. The light of the room made his close-shaved head shine. Elmiryn gave him a small wave when he didn’t move or speak.

 

“Uh. Hi,” she said. She glanced at Nick. “Geez, Nick. The way they’re treating you, you’d think you just tried bombing a place!”

 

Nick was slouched in a chair behind a small table. He smirked at her. “How are you sure that wasn’t what just happened?”

 

“Five minutes,” Gale said pointedly as she shut the door and leaned on it.

 

Elmiryn sat in the chair opposite the man. The investigator went to speak with Gale, and the redhead could tell her ‘five minutes’ was going to be more like three. She leaned onto the table with her elbows and narrowed her eyes at Nick.

 

“Did you get what you wanted?”

 

The man just chuckled and held up his hands. His wrists were still cuffed. “Elmiryn. Dear. Just look at me. What do you think?”

 

Elmiryn frowned and was about to point out that he was going to get legally boned when something occurred to her.

 

“Your face…” She breathed with widening eyes. “You look…different!

 

Nick’s face was fuller, his lips no longer dry and white rimmed. His eyes were clear and his hair looked almost lush. Like those shampoo commercials she hated so much.

 

“How do you think that happened?” he asked mildly.

 

“Water,” she murmured, looking away. “A comb. Maybe some Carmex. Fuck. I don’t know. Does it matter?”

 

Yes,” Nick hissed, and Elmiryn snapped her gaze back onto him. The man hadn’t raised his voice. Had barely moved even. But something about his presence screamed at her. “I was able to feed. Not the usual portions I enjoy from you, but our encounter gave me some strength, nevertheless. And hasn’t our little chat gotten you thinking?”

 

“About what?”

 

“About everything you ignoramus,” he snapped. “Honestly, I’m surprised a toy like you survived so long without me!”

 

“Why do you keep calling me that?” Elmiryn bit back. She struggled to keep her voice level. She didn’t need their meeting cut short. Weird things had been happening all night, and for whatever reason, she felt Nick was at the heart of it all. “How did you know my name? We’ve never met!”

 

Nick sat back and stared at her. “Good lord. You really have no idea.”

 

Elmiryn gave him a suffering look. “Duh! I’ve been saying that this whole time!”

 

“No. I mean…you have no recollection of anything. At all.” Nick rubbed his chin, his eyes turning distant. “Damn. Damn. Our connection has deteriorated, just as I feared. I was hoping Izma had just been leading you on, but I see it’s more than that now. DAMN, that you were such a fool to imbibe Artemis’s blood! I tried to warn you–!”

 

Elmiryn reached her limit of patience. “What are you talking about? Who is Artemis!?”

 

She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up to see the investigator looming over her. “Time’s up.”

 

“I’m not done!” she protested.

 

Gale appeared behind the man and placed a hand on his arm. “Hakeem, maybe just another minute–”

 

“No,” he said firmly, forcing Elmiryn to stand. “This guy is part of an on-going investigation, and we don’t need any more interruptions!” He started to guide the woman toward the door, his colleague trailing behind.

 

“This is bullshit!” Elmiryn ripped her arm out of the investigator’s grip just as she was forced out the door. She turned to square off with him, but Gale was there, blocking her way, her hands up in a placating manner.

 

“Hey, hey! Let’s kill it here, girl. If the man says leave, we have to do it!”

 

Elmiryn started to pace. “I wasn’t done! I need to talk to that Nick guy!”

 

“Look, he was dinged on some other charges. You’re just going to have to wait!”

 

The redhead clenched her fists. “If he had warrants out on him, then why would he let himself get caught!? That doesn’t make any sense!”

 

Gale raised an eyebrow at her. “Let himself get caught?”

 

Elmiryn opened her mouth to respond when she heard Lethia calling for her.

 

“Elle!”

 

The woman didn’t even have time to turn before Lethia crashed into her with a hug. She grunted as she patted her cousin awkwardly on the back.

 

“H-Hey, Lethy…” She looked up and her eyebrows rose. “And Nyx!”

 

The sorority sister smiled. “Hey hero!”

 

Lethia pulled away, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “Oh my GOD, can you believe all this happened?”

 

Elmiryn shrugged uncomfortably. “Are you guys through?”

 

“Yeah. I’m totes ready to go home…” Lethia took her hand and started to tug. “Let’s go! You’re done, right?”

 

Elle glanced at Officer Gale, and the woman gave a nod. “We’re done for now. If we need anything else, we’ll be in touch.”

 

She felt disappointment settle in her gut. “…Okay.”

 

Together, the three women left the precinct offices. They made it to the lobby before Elmiryn’s phone started buzzing in her pocket. When she answered, it was Izzie.

 

Her girlfriend squealed on the other line. “Elle! Christ, are you okay!?”

 

Elmiryn followed the others as they made it outside. Pausing at the precinct doors, she held up her hand indicating she needed a moment, and stepped aside. “Hey, Izzie. I’m fine.”

 

“I only just got a chance to call you now. Oh geez. I’m shaking. I can’t even believe…I mean, a guy really pulled a knife on you??”

 

“Yeah…”

 

“Holy shit!” Izzie sounded like she was going to cry.

 

“Hey. Shh…it’s fine! We’re all fine. I totally clocked the guy. My hand’s a little sore, but it’s not swollen or anything. I can still make a fist.”

 

She heard a laugh. “Baby, you are so–”

 

Only Elmiryn didn’t get to hear what she was, because a surge of static swallowed Izzie’s words. The woman frowned as she double checked her connection. “Izzie? You there? Hello?”

 

“I need to see your phone.” The woman turned to the sound of Lethia’s voice behind her.

 

“Huh–?”

 

Caught off guard, the woman did nothing as her cousin calmly took her phone from her hands. Then, before she could react, Lethia dropped it onto the concrete and stepped on it with her heel. Hard. There was a loud audible crack, and Elmiryn let out a small cry, her jaw dropping.

 

“L-Lethy! Lethia, what the fuckin’ fuck, man!” she sputtered.

 

She dropped to her knees and started picking up the pieces hurriedly, as if being quick would somehow salvage her device.

 

“Elmiryn–”

 

“I can’t fucking believe you!”

 

“Elle–”

 

“That was, like, a month’s salary! And THEN some!”

 

HEY!

 

Elmiryn looked up sharply to see Lethia glaring down at her. “What?” she snapped. Behind her cousin, Nyx was approaching a concerned look on her face.

 

Lethia spoke through her teeth. “Elmiryn, you need to wake up!”

 

“From what?

 

“This isn’t our home, and we need to leave!”

 

“Why does everyone keep talking in riddles!?”

 

“Maybe if you didn’t keep your head shoved so firmly up your butt, it wouldn’t feel that way! You just. Have. To. Pay. Attention!

 

Nyx stopped at Lethia’s side. “Is everything okay?”

 

Elmiryn stood to her feet, holding the broken pieces of her cell phone. “Oh. I don’t know. Sure. Except my cousin seems to have lost her shit!

 

Lethia rolled her eyes and walked away.

 

Nyx stepped in closer as Elmiryn prodded the cell phone bits in her palm glumly. “She wrecked your phone?” the sorority girl asked.

 

“It’s toast…” Elle sighed. The woman turned to glare after her cousin. She had approached an officer in a kevlar vest at their vehicle and was saying something to them. “I don’t know what got into–” Her voice choked as she saw the officer open their trunk and hand Lethia a shotgun as if they were a librarian handing her a book.

 

Blinking, Nyx turned and looked too.

 

The officer loaded a pistol and handed the girl that firearm as well. Lethia smiled at him before she made her way back.

 

The moment she was within talking distance, she said, “Elmiryn, we’re on something of a time limit and we have a lot to do, so I can’t stop and give you a spiel. So while I appreciate you’re disoriented from being in a reality that is not ours, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to snap the fuck out of it and help me get Meznik out of that precinct. Pronto.” She glanced at Nyx and back. “And you might want to shoot her. For simplification.”

 

That would simplify things!?” Elmiryn sputtered. “Lethia what are you doing with those guns??

 

“Lethia, have you lost your mind?” Nyx added next. She was backing away, her face drawn up in horror.

 

The blonde ignored her and continued to address Elmiryn. “One gun is for you. One for me. Do you want the pistol or the shotgun?”

 

The redhead shrugged helplessly. Partly because her mind still had yet to make sense of the overarching mystery of the night. Partly because the part of her mind that had broken up her sensory information into manageable bits honestly couldn’t decide between the two weapons.

 

Lethia handed her the pistol and the woman took it weakly. “Fine. I’ll use the shotgun. Your doubt isn’t right for this firepower.”

 

“Jesus Christ, can you just explain to me–!”

 

“Elmiryn, what’s your opinion of this Nyx?”

 

“Th-This Nyx?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Elmiryn blinked and turned to look at Nyx. The dark haired sorority sister had backpedaled some feet away and was looking ready to run and get help. From who, the redhead wasn’t sure. All the officers in their vicinity still had yet to even take note of the situation.

 

“She’s–”

 

“Not real,” Lethia interjected harshly. “Shoot her. She’ll let Izma know where we are.”

 

“You can’t be serious…” Nyx whispered. She shook her head slowly, and looked at Elmiryn. “Please tell me you aren’t buying this!”

 

Elmiryn felt a sweat drop trail down the side of her pulsing temple. “I–I’m not–”

 

Lethia’s voice was low and fast. “Elmiryn, she’s just a caricature of Nyx. She’s too arrogant. Selfish. For Halward’s sake, she’s unbelievably pretentious! Is this the same girl you care about so much?”

 

Help!” Nyx screamed suddenly, putting her whole body into the cry. “Someone, please!

 

“They won’t hear you,” Lethia murmured. Her expression was dark.

 

“HEY! THEY’RE GOING TO SHOOT ME!”

 

“This isn’t Izma’s world. She just set up a stage on it. So I was able to gain control of these people. You’re without help.”

 

Nyx stared around her wildly. No one was moving. No one behaved as if they heard her at all. Slowly, she looked at Elmiryn.

 

“Please…” she begged, tears streaming down her face. “Don’t!”

 

Elmiryn frowned at her. “Do you…do you know what Lethia is talking about? Do you know who this Izma is?”

 

“Elmiryn, I like you! I really do! I know we just met, but please! Don’t do this to me!”

 

The woman’s frown deepened as she heard her voice in her head.

 

“What if you regret it? Where will that put us then?”

 

She didn’t remember ever saying that, but that was definitely her voice. Was it really a memory? Of a different time, a different place, a different person?

 

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she murmured, gripping the pistol. Her thumb checked the safety. It was off.

 

Nyx clasped her hands together and fell to her knees. “I can pretend this never happened! I won’t breathe a word, I promise! I’m even sorry that we ever met, but is it really right to punish me for that!? I didn’t ask for this!”

 

Elmiryn’s brow twitched as she heard Nyx’s voice in her head.

 

“…And for the record, Elmiryn, I never regret anything when it comes to you!”

 

Her face pulled long.

 

Nyx held out a hand to her. “Elle, please!

 

“I’m sorry.” The woman raised the gun and fired. The sound was loud, and her bones seemed to vibrate from the shock.

 

“…You don’t make me want to believe,” she breathed in the stillness.

 

Red spray stained the concrete dark.

 

Her hand stung from the force of the shot.

 

The people around them still did not move, as if nothing had happened.

 

Elmiryn let her hand drop, and as she watched Nyx’s blood pool out onto the ground, she found…she felt nothing. No horror, or glee.

 

“Do you remember?” Lethia asked quietly.

 

The woman stared at her cousin and gave a small shake of her head. “Not really.”

 

“But you know this life is a lie, don’t you?”

 

Elmiryn gave a stiff nod.

 

Lethia patted her shoulder. “Then that will have to be enough for now. I wasn’t kidding, Elmiryn. We have a time limit. Izma will try to stop us, and we still have the problem of getting Meznik free.”

 

“Why do we need him?” Elle’s voice was hollow.

 

“Believe me. I don’t do this out of any particular joy. But it’s necessary for the moment. A means to an end.”

 

“Can you…make the people in there not attack us? Like out here?”

 

Lethia bit her lip and shook her head. “No. I was able to take hold of this group because they were not aware. But the minds of this world are…foreign. I won’t be able to take hold of Izma’s other familiars within the precinct, and the other officers will be on alert. We’ll have to fight our way through.”

 

“And I’m…good at fighting, aren’t I?” Elmiryn murmured. In her head, she substituted the word ‘fighting’ with ‘killing.’ She could feel it, like an aftertaste riding on the reality of Nyx’s abrupt execution.

 

Lethia’s voice suggested she was aware of the distinction. “Yes. You are. Very good. That’s why I need you to remember as much as you can.”

 

The woman took a breath and looked at the girl. “Are you still my cousin?” She hated how vulnerable she sounded.

 

The blonde hesitated. “I…can be. If you want me to.”

 

“I do.”

 

“Then let’s go, cousin.”

 

Elmiryn clenched her jaw as she raised her pistol. “Let’s rock and roll, then!”

 

QUINCY_________________________

 

The light in the room dimmed.

 

Quincy paused as she glanced around her. Her eyes fell on Lethia.

 

“What just happened?”

 

Lethia rubbed her forehead with a wince. Her green eyes batted a few times before they lifted to meet the wizard’s gaze.

 

Quincy lowered the vial and rested her wrist on the edge of the table. “Are you all right?”

 

The girl stared at her for a few moments.

 

When she spoke, it was with a whisper. “I’m fine. Go ahead and drink, Quincy.”

 

The wizard scowled, and did just that. The drink burned her throat.


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