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.
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.
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.
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.