Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 39.1

NYX____________________________

Out there, on that scarred field where malevolent beings had devastated the land with their depravities, all of us stood at a standstill, poised to fight and teetering on the edge of what could very well be a calamitous showdown. The soil beneath my bare feet was dark and muddy, and my toes squished in it, clenching and digging in anticipation. But I could see, in the lightless light of the Other Place, that the moisture that softened the earth beneath me was not water, but blood. In messy patches, it scabbed over the earth. If we weren’t careful, our blood would soon be joining the messy soup at our feet as well.

Elmiryn opened her mouth to speak, and I could tell by her expression that she was set to shoot off a witticism, but a loud boom cut her off and made us seize up like cornered animals. The source of the noise became quickly apparent, even without Quincy calling out and pointing. In a plume of dust and debris, something had blasted its way out of Izma’s tower and was now jettisoning towards us. My eyes squinted, struggling to assess just what the thing was—and then it dawned on me that this was not a thing, but a person.

And when they landed hard at the ground beneath Izma, dust rising from the crater that leveled with their impact, the sick realization of just who Izma’s champion was hit me in full.

“Syria…” I moaned. This would be the one trying to kill me. The one I was supposed to keep Elmiryn from killing. Oh this would be a disaster, I was sure of it.

The master enchantress straightened, her long silky black hair curtaining about her face. She wore a dark sequined dress, cut scandalously down the front, that clung to her voluptuous body. She wore no shoes…for her feet were rootish and wooden, their ends anchoring into the soil. She was a demon’s pet, enslaved to Izma’s mad designs. Was this the sort of transformation that awaited Elmiryn?

Since all this had started, I hadn’t thought of Syria as much as I perhaps should have. I’d been too preoccupied with surviving, with regaining the things I had lost. But now the question came to me…the Other Place was a place of division. Each of us had lost something in coming here. Me, my Twin; Quincy, Tonatiuh; Elmiryn, her physical form; Hakeem, his years; Farrel, his moral direction; Argos, his loyalty. Looking at Lethia, I knew it was the same case with her, though I didn’t know exactly what her sacrifice had been. Surely then, if all of us had suffered such a fate, a dog included, what did the enchantress lose?

When her gaze turned my way, Syria’s face bore a thin smile, and I could see that her eyes were red-ringed and swollen. Had she been…crying?

Lethia made a sound–and I could not tell if she were trying to swallow a sob or muster up the courage to say something. Her face showcased a sort of despair I felt uncomfortably familiar with. It was a look of regret. Of guilt. The anger in me flared.

She was still loyal to Syria this whole time! I thought, before I could stop myself.

Kali snorted at my brashness. Idiot. Listen!

What the teenager said next dispelled my foolish theory quickly, as my Twin so gently indicated. “I should’ve killed you…” Lethia intoned. “Then this wouldn’t be happening!”

“But you didn’t,” Syria replied, and her voice lacked the smug confidence I had been expecting. If anything, she sounded…disappointed.

“We don’t have to do this. We can just walk away!” I cried, trying to be reasonable, though I knew it was pointless. Syria, in her madness, was intent on following Izma despite nearly being discarded. Elmiryn, in her ambition to kill Meznik, was going to go through with her plan of playing along to the demon’s wishes. We’d all heard the others commands. We all knew there was no recourse, and it was a mistake on my part, to pretend there was. It made me sound weak and scared–which I was, but that was besides the point. Harmony had granted me the strength of presence, and right now, I was destroying whatever progress I’d made in my new image.

Not that it would’ve worked on Elmiryn, anyway.

She carefully moved away from Lethia, and Syria and I moved with her, all of us tensely united in our opposition of one another. The scenario was turning my stomach into knots, and I liked my insides well and ordered. I didn’t like the prospect of having to fight Elmiryn. In my peripheral vision, I saw Lethia move with Quincy. Together they followed our movements—at a cautious distance, but unwilling to stray too far from the upcoming action. Would they interfere? Could they? For all I knew, this would turn into a real battle royale.

Elmiryn, satisfied now that she had both Syria and I well in her view, slid her left foot back and raised her sword hilt to temple level. She had taught me this stance. It was the Ox. In this position, the blade was high and aimed at her opponent’s face or throat, with the weapon slightly angled to allow for blocking. Her weapon was trained on Syria when she did this, but I could see from the slight turn of her body that she was ready to evade me if necessary.

“Nyx,” the warrior said, her eyes still fixed on her target. “You know I’m doing this for you, don’t you?”

I responded with hands held out, beseeching, “Elmiryn, I don’t want to hurt you. Please. Don’t attack her! We can find another way!” I had already chosen my path, there was nothing more to lose in seeing it through. Maybe by some great distant miracle I could at least get the redhead to stand down.

“She’ll kill you if I don’t stop her.” Then Elmiryn raised her voice and asked Syria sharply, “Isn’t that right?”

“I’m afraid your friend speaks the truth, Nyx,” Syria murmured. I could feel her eyes on me, heavy and hungry. I was her way back into Izma’s good graces. The only reason she wasn’t launching at me right that second was because of the warrior baring down on her.

My fists clenched, and I started to tremble. I wished Harmony would come back and steel me. I wished I had clothes to cover my shivering distress. I wished Elmiryn wouldn’t use me as a thin excuse to learn more about Meznik. I wished, I wished, I wished… But these wishes were useless. So I resolved to do the best I could and said instead, “Then I’m sorry, Elle.”

And without a word or a gesture, I willed her shadow to swallow her.

 

ELMIRYN________________________ 

The redhead realized what was happening just as she tumbled out of her shadow through to the Umbralands on the other side. She hit the dark ground with a soft thud. Her breath fogged in front of her face and her skin broke out in gooseflesh. Elmiryn straightened with an audible growl and quickly scanned her monochromatic surroundings. She was disappointed she hadn’t thought to anticipate such a move from Nyx.

She decided that using champion powers was a form of cheating, and it sucked, to borrow an otherworldly phrase. As she saw it, it was not a strength gained by the person in question, but a strength given by some unfathomable entity whose fat spirit took up too much cosmic space. But she was not angry with Nyx for flexing her god-given might. After all, the warrior had been given things too, and she had not neglected to use them…

Around her was a perfect mirror of the scene she had just been ejected from. Quincy, Lethia, Izma, and Meznik were all in the same places as before. Even the spirits watching the battle hadn’t moved. But as Elmiryn watched the fight commence without her—Syria lunging at Nyx, the girl dodging her, the mad enchantress striking with a quick reprisal—she knew she was not there. The others were gray and seemed…a touch blurry. The warrior could still see their faces, but their forms seemed fuzzy at the edges. Like she were looking through an unfocused lens.

Elmiryn tried to get her bearings straight. Tried to wrack her brain for a solution to get back into the fight. Syria had pressed her offense, forcing Nyx into the defensive. The warrior could see the girl had advanced exponentially as a fighter since coming to the Other Place, but it was her opinion that Syria was out of her league. If the lightning fast leg swipe that shook the girl’s balance, and the following meteoric uppercut that hit Nyx in the chin was any indication, Elmiryn had very little time to balance the battlefield. Even if all the warrior could do was interrupt Syria’s momentum, she was certain Nyx could regain her footing.

Syria had stumps of roots for feet, but judging by the way she moved, Elmiryn couldn’t say for certain it was a real hindrance. Her fluidity of movement even rivaled Nyx, who the woman knew to be naturally quick and dexterous. Quincy was twisting her staff in her hands, clearly eager to do something as she eyed the demons that stood apart from them all, quietly observing. Lethia’s focus was more on the fight, though now and again, her eyes flickered to Meznik on the ground, or Izma in the air. The demons themselves showed no desire to participate in the fight, as Elmiryn expected. They were passive creatures who liked to pit people against each other. Even if the warrior were foolhardy enough to attack them, she was certain it would come to nothing…and it would ruin a perfectly good opportunity in the meantime.

“Kill Izma’s pet. And as a reward, I’ll tell you where we come from!”

How could she resist? It wasn’t as if she had many clues to work off of now. She wished the others would understand. She wished NYX would understand. She couldn’t get close enough to Meznik until he trusted her. She couldn’t kill him until she knew what his weaknesses were.

She couldn’t even fight him because her hateful attention made him stronger.

But Elmiryn didn’t think killing Meznik would be much of a victory if Nyx died. So killing Syria was beneficial, really. She wasn’t putting anything on the line.

She wasn’t.

Really.

When the seconds ticked by and Syria kicked Nyx in the stomach with such force that it was a certainty something had broken, Elmiryn realized with great self-admonishment that she’d been looking for answers in the wrong place. There was nothing she could use on the other side to help bring her back, and every second she wasted was a chance for Nyx to die. She looked around her quickly–at the stark shadows and the harsh lines of light. Then an idea came to her.

Shadows here are solid, like walls. Light is the opposite. So if I do THIS…

Elmiryn raised a hand and focused the light around her to coalesce around her fist. Then with it, she drew an opening and felt the cold air rush past her, as if a vacuum had been created.

Nyx should’ve realized, she thought as she jumped through the passage of light. Color is a form of light, and I can control that. So her Umbralands can’t hold me.

The woman couldn’t help but spare a brief smirk as she returned to the normal realm. Her smugness was short lived when she saw Syria encase Nyx in a gravitational field just over the ground–likely so that the girl couldn’t use her shadow power to escape. The enchantress raised a fist, and the air seemed to cyclone around it, whipping the dust and dirt around them into a frenzy. Her eyes glowed faintly from some deep power drawn up by her anima. She was going to try and deliver a killing blow, no doubt.

Elmiryn reprimanded herself as she charged Syria from behind, bringing her sword back for a swing. For fuck’s sake, I can pat myself on the back later!

 

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy could appreciate that the Ailuran was getting beat up by Syria, but she was a champion and frighteningly resilient, if her being ripped apart not long ago illustrated. The wizard had seen that much. Seen the blood spray into the air, Nyx’s body divide itself as the spirits took their prizes. She had survived that, and without much fuss. No, the wizard was more preoccupied with the demons that were currently in their company. The ringleaders of their misfortune. The sowers of all this destruction.

They’ve done something to HakeemI can feel it! She thought, trembling on a minute level with fury.

But a primal instinct tickled her from deep within, telling her that these beings were untouchable. This animal intuition was further backed by her sixth sense for magical energies, which she had trained and cultivated during her training as a wizard. The intellectual clusters–those bindings that fed energy through animas and minds–was warped. She could do nothing against them, much as she’d like to. At least for the moment.

Nyx had explained to them, in their exchange of stories not long ago, what she had gone through before arriving in the Fiamman shard. She mentioned Izma. Her otherness. How her alien nature was too much for her to comprehend.

And yet now, we can gaze on them freely. Is it some sort of power they activate? Some ward or barrier they use as a precaution?

Quincy would have kept on puzzling over the mystery of the astral demons if Lethia hadn’t cried out. The wizard snapped her gaze over in time to see the teenager rush forward just at the same moment Elmiryn somehow returned from the shadowy prison Nyx had cast her in. From the corner of her eye, she could see Meznik regard Lethia with a frigid sort of attention.

Moving quickly, Quincy caught up with the girl and wrenched her back by the arm. Lethia stumbled, her arms wheeling as she caught her balance. She cast an infuriated stare at the woman.

“What are you doing!?” She shrilled. “Nyx–”

“Is being helped by Elmiryn,” Quincy interjected. “Don’t go jumping in without thinking! You could just make matters worse!”

“You don’t actually mean to sit by and watch, do you!?”

The wizard sneered at her. “Why not? It’s what you’ve been doing this entire time!”

The girl’s lips pinched shut at this, but she turned her eyes back to the fight. Her body was still tensed as if ready to rush in at any second. Quincy rolled her eyes behind her back. If the little fool was so dead set on getting herself killed, then she wasn’t going to stress herself by trying to stop her further.

Her original train of thought already disrupted, the brunette found her eyes reluctantly turning to the battle at hand. Just as she had expected, Elmiryn had succeeded in intervening, but by the looks of it, only just. Quincy pursed her lips as she watched the warrior interpose herself between Syria and Nyx through a lancing hybrid attack of her fae power and her sword. With the master enchantress’s concentration broken, Nyx crashed to the ground.

An all encompassing gravity spell was hard to maintain no doubt, even for Syria, Quincy mused.

Lacertli was gone from the Ailuran’s shoulder, no doubt to watch the fight’s proceedings from the ethereal realm. Thoughts of the god got Quincy thinking about goals and allegiances as she watched the fight move further up the field, forcing some of the surrounding spirits to scramble out of the way.

Her eyes narrowed as certain promises nagged her.

The right moment, Elmiryn. I just need the right moment! Hang on!

The warrior in question was locked in with Syria now, and she pressed the enchantress away from her lover. Nyx, meanwhile, struggled to her feet, her face tensed and dirt clinging to her sweaty skin. She appeared winded, her left arm hugging her chest.

Did Syria try crushing her with the gravity spell? Quincy wondered.

Elmiryn and Syria began trading explosive blows–the master enchantress sending blasts of force at the warrior, while the redhead returned with a barrage of air and dust from her twirling sword. Quincy thought it stupid at first until Syria let out a curse and lost a costly second swiping dirt from her eyes. Elmiryn capitalized, but the manner in which she did so made the wizard start.

The earth about Syria’s rooty feet suddenly rose and gripped her ankles like hands. The enchantress only had enough time to look down before the soil ripped her legs out from under her, sending her whipping forward. No cry slipped her lips. She didn’t wheel her arms in a panic. instead, her hands instantly shot up, palms faced outward and fingers splayed, and she was halted in mid-air. Quincy couldn’t see the magic Syria was casting, but she could feel the gravitational forces in the air tensing as a foreign aura redirected a portion of the network. That was all magic was in the end–even primal magic. Networks. Patterns. Weaves. Creating an effect meant altering the existing state of life, and Syria did so with such grace and command that Elmiryn’s fae tricks seemed vulgar and clumsy in comparison.

Speaking of the warrior, Syria’s recovery hardly seemed to phase her. She started to go in for an attack, her sword held aloft and a sharp gleam in her eye–

–That was, until Nyx came out of nowhere and grabbed the woman by her right arm and pulled. Elmiryn managed to keep her balance, but when her body turned to adjust to her companion’s pull, the Ailuran did something that made Quincy laugh without thinking.

In one fluid movement, Nyx grabbed onto Elmiryn’s neck–and still holding her arm–the girl leapt up and tucked her body. She was not a heavy person, but her dead weight forced the warrior to bend forward. The moment this happened, Nyx wrapped her right leg around Elmiryn’s head, forced her right arm straight, and extended her hips with a snap. The warrior let out a strangled yell.

Quincy covered her astonished grin as she watched Nyx release the Fiamman to avoid having her skull crushed by one of Syria’s tree feet. Elmiryn stumbled off to the side, her left hand gripping her sword as her right arm hung limp.

Nyx just caught Elmiryn in a flying arm bar and dislocated her arm. That was…unexpected!

Of course, now the Ailuran had Syria to deal with on her own again. The girl rolled away from Syria, but the enchantress followed her doggedly, and the moment Nyx stopped in a crouch, the other woman sent a kick toward her face. The girl blocked this with her forearms and rose to her feet. Syria followed up with yet another kick, but instead of jumping out of the way like a scared girl as she had been before, the Ailuran raised her leg at the knee and used her shin to block the blow. Quincy winced as she saw the impact. She knew from experience that the only reason Syria wasn’t using elaborate magic spells was because she was using small scale casting to augment her martial arts. Add on to the fact that the lower half of her legs were made of solid wood and you were looking at fractured bones.

But to Quincy’s surprise, Nyx took the hit with just the barest of grimaces, her legs moving fast to intercept Syria’s other kicks. The wizard was in awe of how quickly the enchantress could move with such heavy appendages, but looking at her one would think she was even stronger than before. The exchange drew out as both women started to compete for the upper hand. Quincy realized that the battle was not for who could land the deadliest blow, but to see who would lose their balance first. Indeed, the more she watched Syria try to stomp Nyx’s feet, or Nyx to swipe out Syria’s legs, the more apparent it became that this was a battle of finesse.

Quincy frowned. She wondered why it was that the enchantress saw fit to challenge Nyx in a style of fighting that the girl clearly excelled at. Was it to make Izma pleased by illustrating how Syria was superior in whatever form of battle that she found herself in?

Quincy looked Elmiryn’s way. The warrior was trying unsuccessfully to reset her arm. Apparently her fae abilities did not extend to such an injury. Sighing, the brunette started to march toward her, staff out.

If there’s ever a moment to enter into things, it’s now!

At Quincy’s approach, Elmiryn snarled at her. “Stay out of it, wizard!”

“No,” she snapped back. She crouched down to inspect the exact nature of the injury. “We took an oath to help one another in our goals, right? Well this counts.”

“You’re just doing this because you can’t think of another way to find out where Hakeem’s gone,” Elmiryn grumbled, her eyes fixed on Nyx.

Quincy leaned her staff against her shoulder and started to roll up her sleeves. “Yeah, well…someone’s got to keep Nyx off you.”

Lethia’s voice cut in from behind. “Quincy, if you’re going to get involved too, then I can’t sit by and watch. This is my fault. I have to make things right. That means the demons can’t have their way!”

Elmiryn looked up sharply. “Lethia what are you saying?”

The wizard hadn’t even realized the girl had followed her. She blinked and looked up over her shoulder. Lethia’s eyes locked onto hers, and she felt something sharp stab just behind her irises and pull. As the numbness rolled over her, making her fall backward onto the ground in a stupor, Quincy heard Lethia say as she confidently removed her lightning staff–

“Excuse me while I borrow this…”

Quincy struggled for breath as the warrior’s face swam over her, her hand clutching the collar of the wizard’s shirt.

“Lethia Artaud, you get your ass back here!” Elmiryn shouted. “You give this woman back her skill! You hear me? …Lethia! LETHIA!

Quincy groaned and touched her head. “Wha…what? What happened? Elmiryn what are you talking about?”

The redhead looked at her with a grimace, then helped her sit up. “Lethia ‘borrowed’ your skill in using that lightning staff. She’s going to try and stop me from killing Syria—the gods know why!

Quincy blinked at her thickly. “…I—I had a lightning staff?”

Elmiryn spared her an impatient glare. “Wizard I haven’t got the time to deal with your goofy stupor, so just pop in my dislocated arm before I rip it off and beat you with it!”


Back to Chapter 38.3 | Forward to Chapter 39.2

Chapter 38.3

NYX____________________________

Since I was young, I was certain that there was something inherently wrong with me. I became preoccupied with the image of goodness. Then when adolescence came, this obsession sloughed away, replaced instead with a bitter cynicism about morality. I knew society and community to be good things, in theory. It was just such a pity that I disagreed with mine so much. I learned that Ailuran values, while at their core, did indeed possess a sort of nobility and purity, I soon saw they became skewed the moment others tried to limit it. What my people failed to see, and what my government exploited, is that life is fantastically varied. What would be good and just in one situation didn’t necessarily apply well in another situation. But like myself in younger years, Ailuran society was satisfied in drawing harsh lines of righteousness.

 

As a dissenter, I had to hide my views. So I learned to adapt. Became good at lying. It’s no wonder I was such an adept spy.

 

In my teenage years, I told myself that I was no longer possessed by some need to exemplify some backwards idea of goodness. And yet, I still worried that something in myself was not right. Like the day Taila, Ampelos, and I played Get the Ginger. It was a simple, but silly game of cat and mouse named to adapt to anti-Fiamman sentiment at the time. It was essentially an inverse of the game of Tag. Instead of the ‘it’ person chasing others, everyone chased them. Naturally, that day, I was ‘it.’ But Taila said the game was boring, and with all of us nearing that age when such games were left behind forever, eleven or so, we agreed. So we raised the stakes.

 

“If we catch you, we tie you up and tickle you without mercy!” she announced gleefully.

 

I was allowed a rare moment of confidence at these words, because by that age, I was already adept at many roguish skills, including the art of escaping bondage. “Fine!” I agreed.

 

Well, we had our game, and with time, I was caught out in a tall field. Taila was always faster than I was in a dead run.

 

Ampelos handed her the rope, and with their combined efforts they contained my struggles and tied me up. Then Taila, without words and grinning wickedly, started to tickle me. All over.

 

At first it tickled. Of course it did. But then…then I became aware of her hands. I could’ve gotten myself free and defended myself. But I found I didn’t want to. I LIKED how her hands felt. But this is strange, I thought. Some part of me knew that none of this would mean much unless I was confined as I was. The ropes HEIGHTENED the experience.

 

Inevitably, I thought of Thaddeus, and how he denounced the Fiammans for what he called, “perverse past times in the bed room.” I started shivering, and the good feelings became mixed with fear and shame. I burned hot, my face turning into the dirt. And as if her hands weren’t doing enough to me, Taila was suddenly forced to lay over me laterally, down in the tall grass, because her father was looking for her and she was avoiding chores. I was hardly aware of Ampelos, who also hid at our friend’s desperate request. All I could think about was her body over mine, how my hands and feet were still tied, and how much I was at her mercy.

 

When Taila’s father had gone, I finally freed myself, surprising my friends with my hidden skill, and announced shortly that I was going home. They were baffled. They didn’t understand why I was so suddenly so upset…so mortified.

 

That day I learned several things. First, I finally realized I was in love with Taila.

 

And next, I learned I had the potential for being a sexual deviant. A fetishist, as it were.

 

I stopped practicing rope escape, because self-bondage started to arouse me, reminding me of that errant day in the field. I even avoided Taila for a while, for which I later apologized. With time, I put the experience behind me. For most, such an innocent, unassuming moment would not have been traumatic. But I was far more familiar with the ideas of sex then I should’ve been by that age, no thanks to my mother. Plus, Thaddeus’s loathing of what HE thought was a purely Fiamman occurrence fueled in me the fear that I was, for lack of better words, BAD on the inside. For a brief time, I became obsessed again with the appearance of being good.

 

Of course, honey soap would soon come to mean the same sort of thing to me as ropes would, try as I might to resist my urges.

 

In the end, what I’m trying to convey here, is that I could not escape myself. I could not NOT be what I was: A troublemaker, a pervert, and a social deviant. You can quibble whether this was a result of nature or nurture or both, but in the end, the only thing I’m concerned with is my considerable OTHERNESS. As a child, I wrestled with abstract ideas. Concepts like good and evil. As an adolescent, my struggles instead turned to simple realities: my home life, my romantic preferences, and my strange sexual turn ons. And now, as an adult, I find my battles are neither abstract, nor quite constructive. For instance, my life as one half of a spiritual whole with Kali could certainly be seen as ‘abstract,’ but it was a certainty that everyone I knew, my Twin included, had accepted. Nadi had once put it in such simple terms—

 

“You are a girl who inhabits the same body as a cat…”

 

And what followed this description was equally simple:

 

“…And this is an aberration of nature, as decided by the gods in heaven.”

 

‘You are this, and this is wrong.’

 

So succinct. Words from a nature guardian—basically a demi-god here on the mortal plane. If she didn’t know about Harmony, I didn’t know who did.

 

The moment Nadi said that to me had been one of the lowest moments of my life. Not as low as losing my entire family and being branded a criminal and outcast by my people, of course, but dispiriting nevertheless. It was on par with learning I was a pervert who liked being tied up. It was on par with Volo, the very manifestation of evil sexuality, EXPLICITLY STATING I was a pervert who liked being tied up.

 

Now please keep these experiences, and the tender age I had some of these revelations, in mind. Obviously, they shaped how I viewed myself, but less obviously, they also made me a lot less apt at self-discovery. Learning new things about who I was and what I was capable of frightened me, because I was sure some sort of evil would make itself known. It was part of the reason I fought Kali so hard. Why learning I was a vermagus had been a sickening and trying affair.

 

Being Lacertli’s champion meant that I was bound to discover new depths in myself. How far my compassion, courage, and patience went.

 

How black my anger, hatred, and fear could be.

 

In Izma’s tower…when I was fighting those monsters in the stairwell…I discovered something about myself again. I had surrendered to something. Completely and utterly.

 

My actions had been guided with fury and determination. I was determined not to die. The problem with determinations is that such things can do nothing about certainties, and it was certain that if I didn’t step up my focus, I was going to be overwhelmed. There were just too many foes to let raw emotion dictate how I fought. Extending my time was the best option for survival. It gave room for help to come. To do that, I had to gain such control that I wouldn’t make a mistake. Kali was in agreement.

 

So we surrendered to our power.

 

This wasn’t as complicated as it sounds. We simply yielded to whatever the universe had to offer, let our minds quiet of those vicious susurrations that brought unhappy recollections and deadly distraction. There was still a lot I didn’t know about how our abilities worked, both as a champion and as a vermagus. But one of the mysteries cleared the moment we let go. And then, Kali and I, we could feel it.

 

I had been afraid, when I first encountered that old ancient power, that it was the start of yet another personality to contend with in my head. It frightened me, and I pushed it away. But when I finally let it flow through me, free and uninhibited, I could see that the power I had felt was not some new dimension of myself. It was Harmony. My thoughts and my motivations were still there. They were just honed and sharpened.

 

As for my emotions…they were numbed. Not removed. Just numbed. Quieted. The best part? The only real side effect appeared to be antiquated speech.

 

So when I looked up into the sky with Elmiryn and saw Izma there, I was not possessed. I was present. It was all me. I was just…elevated, to a different state of being. The station of a champion became me. Saturated my skin. Everything I felt about what I had gone through had been converted and redirected into energy and strength I could use.

 

Izma was yet again in that curious human avatar, dressed in her simple yet strange attire, only she was hovering in the air, her eyes aglow and her hair whipping in the phantom air. I didn’t know what it was about this particular guise that she felt suited her. It was spriteful and beautiful to be sure. Perhaps it was the incongruity that she sought? Certainly, her radiating power was disturbing, coming from such an alluring persona.

 

“Little sum of somes…” she said slowly. “You disappoint me with these crass displays of blood and futility.” The demon’s face, a pretty lie that felt mocking, tensed and bared its teeth.

 

I folded my arms just as the new pink skin of my chest, from where the spirits had torn me apart, finished knitting together. It DID hurt, but…I was learning something from Izma’s games. Namely, that half the battle lied in what the other side believed. You could change the course of belief through presence. And presently? After having the innermost barriers of my heart penetrated, the truth of the matter was that I felt I had little in the way of things to lose. It was easy to take my belief and cloak myself in it. Harmony did the rest and quieted my doubt. Izma would be a hard sell, but she was not a mind reader. Why else would she need enchanters like Syria and Lethia, then? She had no foothold in my mind on her own. So I would make her believe what I wanted.

 

And that was that I possessed a cold determination to see her undone.

 

Lacertli’s tongue tickled my skin, his presence over my shoulders sudden and mystical. His abrupt appearance didn’t startle me, but with my skin so raw and new, his tongue may as well have cracked a whip over my body. I managed to conceal my discomfort, and said instead with an air of apathy, “Thy displeasure is worth nothing, Izma.”

 

“It is worth something and more, silly thing,” Izma retorted. Her frigid glowing eyes trailed to Elmiryn. The anger on her face melted to something sly. Suddenly, her speech changed, catching me off guard. “D’aww, baby! Are you leaving me? But didn’t we have fun together in our own little world?”

 

Not even Harmony could stop me from the shock I felt here, so sharp and deeply reaching it were as though some god (I couldn’t tell you which) had plunged their fist down my throat and pulled all my intestines out through my mouth.

 

My mask fell. Briefly. But it fell. I looked at Elmiryn sharply and was just in time to catch the flash of discomfort on her face. This look was quickly masked with a wry smile as the woman blew the demon a kiss. “Izzie, you couldn’t have PAID me to stay with you.”

 

My gods, this familiarity! The connotations were unmistakable. Elmiryn and Izma had… But clearly, it had been nothing like my experience. I was certain Elle would react much more explosively if that were the case. Or was she lying? But why lie? Pride didn’t seem to justify that enough, so it couldn’t be that. I could feel that I was missing something vitally important and it frustrated me.

 

Liars. We were all just liars putting on a performance for each other. The idea made me sick, but I wrestled back the sense of surprise and betrayal and resumed my ruse.

 

Stoic. I had to be stoic. Things would be explained later…hopefully.

 

Harmony was a cool wave, soothing away the sudden onslaught of emotions.

 

Izma smirked at Elmiryn, and her cold eyes turned to something behind us. Cautiously, I turned to look. This time, I was determined to maintain my role.

 

With the appearance of Izma the evil spirits around us seemed to withdraw—waiting on the word of their master. With the fighting essentially coming to a dead halt, Quincy approached us with her face slicked with sweat and her clear eyes dulled and wavering. Further behind her, I was mildly surprised to see Lethia hurrying toward us, with what looked like a tall slim man with dark hair and swarthy skin. Like Izma, he was also dressed in strange clothes—but these looked baggy and unkempt.

 

“And the wizard, the weed, and the interloper joins us. Wonderful,” Izma sighed, moving to delicately massage her brow as though fending off a headache.

 

The strange man chuckled. “Izma, you flatter me.”

 

Her nose wrinkled. “And you annoy me.”

 

He shrugged his hands. “But dearest, did you really think I could just sit by while you tried to steal away my favorite toy?”

 

“Your toy came to ME, if you’ll recall.”

 

“Only because your pet carried her off.”

 

“My pet has been disciplined, I assure you. I can’t be held accountable for everything.”

 

“Yes, but there is one thing you are NOT aware of—”

 

I was struggling to follow along without betraying my deepening sense of confusion, only to find I didn’t have to fight long.

 

Quincy raised her staff and a crack of lighting speared down to scorch the earth near her feet.

 

“ENOUGH!” She bellowed. She whipped her head as she looked back and forth between Izma and the man.

 

Finally, she pointed at the stranger. “Who are you!?”

 

He smiled and held up his hands. “Now, now…I’m just an observer here!”

 

Elmiryn, who was anxiously twirling her sword in her hand, bared her teeth at the wizard. “Quincy, I’ll explain LATER…”

 

My eyes narrowed. “Elmiryn, thou knowest something?”

 

She gave me an irritated look. “Yes, I KNOWEST something, but I was hoping to LEARNEST a little more. Slim chance of that now!”

 

“My husband is still missing, and now a strange man is talking to the one Nyx just called IZMA. Of course I was going to say something!” Quincy barked.

 

The man looked up at Izma with suffering. “You let them ramble too much. It stalls the action!”

 

She placed a hand on her hip. “Well since you’re here, why not lend an editorial hand?”

 

“I would, but that would defeat the entire purpose of our relationship.”

 

“Ah, I suppose so.”

 

And just like that, I knew who the man was. It was sudden, like being plunged into cold water.

 

So sudden in fact, that even my connection with Harmony was lost, and this time I could not get it back. The emotions, the mortal limits, the frightening realities resurfaced.

 

Thus when I voiced my findings, I sounded like me again—a coward.

 

“Meznik… That’s, Sweet Aelurus, that’s Meznik!” I gaped at him. I gaped at this being that, for a good long time, I had not fully believed to be real. More recently he had become a spectre I had accepted as existing if only because I could not explain our recent circumstances any other way. I gaped at this DEMON who had led to so much death and corruption, who was now here before us, being conversationally waggish.

 

And Elmiryn had known.

 

I glared at her, not wanting to believe that the two were somehow in concert, but the look on her face…I could see her begging with her eyes for understanding. I couldn’t speak anymore. I could only gape and wonder how any of this could be possible. If the familiarity between Elmiryn and Izma had been all, then I probably could’ve capitulated to the circumstances at hand and just admitted that I didn’t have all the facts. But this…

 

Quincy didn’t seem to know what to make of the news either. Surely she understood the gravity of who Meznik was by now. She backed away slowly, her staff up as she shiftily tried to size up the demon in human disguise. Hard to do when pincered by two of the despicable creatures.

 

Meznik palmed his face. “NOW they get it…” His sarcasm incensed me.

 

Then my eyes fell on Lethia. Unlike Quincy, she didn’t seem in the least bit surprised about any of this.

 

I hissed at her. “You knew about this too? Why didn’t you tell me Meznik was near!?”

 

The girl only bit her lip and lowered her eyes.

 

“Don’t yell at her. It wasn’t her fault,” Elmiryn snapped.

 

“I’m not yelling at her, I’m accusing her of exactly what she did,” I bit back with clenched fists.

 

“Well she did it with good reason, all right?”

 

“OH! And I suppose—”

 

“Right, I’m not sitting through a lover’s spat,” Meznik interjected loudly.  “Izma, you really do have a problem with letting things run off.” Izma ‘hmphed’ here, but he continued with a step forward, hand held toward Elmiryn. “Now, as I was TRYING to inform you, the reason matters between us have changed is because my toy has been promoted.”

 

Elmiryn did a double take. “Come again?”

 

Meznik shrugged. “You’re my pet now. Congratulations.”

 

Her face reddened. “What the fuck? I thought you didn’t think I was ‘pet’ material?”

 

He shrugged his mouth and glanced off to the side. “I changed my mind. It happens.”

 

Even Izma seemed taken aback. “Doing that within the markings of my territory…now that IS bold.” Her eyes narrowed to slits and her skin started to crack, shafts of light breaking through. “Well then, Meznik. Shall we compare the efficacy of our choices, then?”

 

Meznik grinned, just as his skin began to darken and peel. Lethia gave a gasp and hurried away from him, toward Elmiryn, who strived to push the girl behind her. The brief moment of intimacy between them confused me, but I did not have time to dwell, for Meznik cried out, “Yes! I would love that, Izma my dear.”

 

Izma’s face had cracked and fallen away, and when I went to look—

 

Pins and needles, all along my brain. It hurt. My head lanced with agony, and I turned away…shouting…

 

…Only, something was different this time.

 

Though it pained me to do so, I forced myself to look at Izma’s true form.

 

“I can see her!” I breathed, horrified and amazed at the same time.

 

Once before, I had gazed at Izma directly, and this had reduced me to a feral screaming creature wrapped up in fear. Now, though the feelings of fear and repulsion were still present, I did not find myself turned mindless by it. On the contrary, I could clearly control myself, and was able to drink in the details of Izma’s horrible appearance.

 

She seemed made of some harsh, dry material—like bone, but this could not be, for her exterior yielded to movement despite its hard appearance. The demon’s teeth were fierce and gruesome and perpetually bared without the presence of lips. Though I noted the inorganic appearance of her face, I could see muscles in Izma’s neck. One of her eye sockets were empty, while the other was higher up on her face, the eyeball therein trapped behind sharp spines. I grew nauseated as the thing wept blood. Izma’s hair seemed to comprise of long willow vines that cascaded from small branches sprouting from her head. Her body, bony and deceptively frail looking, was cloaked in what appeared to be light and stardust.

 

When I turned my head, I saw that Meznik was similar, but different.

 

Whereas Izma’s body was pale and ashy, Meznik was dark like a burned corpse. His teeth were not sharp, but flat and brutish, making me think of beasts who crushed small hard prey with their mouths. His face was devoid of natural flesh, as Izma’s was, but its composition seemed to suggest flesh. That said, Meznik did have lips, and he did have a nose…but they seemed chiseled from some dark shimmering stone, the lines and angles far too sharp and harsh to be natural. His long chin and rounded cheeks pulled his black lips high so that what passed for gums could just be seen. The effect was an eerie smile, showcasing those large menacing teeth—all molars, I realized—and their subtle suggestion of crushing power. Unlike Izma, whose neck was short, slim, and muscled, Meznik’s neck was devoid of any semblance of flesh, and was left only with a long hulking spinal column. However, his body, though dark, was as skeletal and frail looking as Izma’s, and he too, was cloaked in light and stardust.

 

Lacertli, who had remained dead silent at the one time I was certain he would say something, finally spoke up in a low growl. “Nyx, thy truest test thus far has come—

 

Simultaneously as he spoke, Meznik addressed Elmiryn—but his words were no longer words as just insidious music filling the air.

 

Elmiryn, I promised you some excitement

Well here it is—

 

And as he spoke, so did Izma, in the same unnatural way. To whom she was addressing, I was not certain, for she seemed to sing out to the sky.

 

It seems we are challenged, pet

End the doubt—

Lacertli continued to speak, and I was having trouble focusing. So much was happening at once and I wanted to catch all of it—“You have suffered. Now show them it was not for nothing—

 

Elmiryn, to my shock, slowly began to drift toward Meznik, her face slack with a sort of childlike wonder. Lethia tried to hold onto her only to be firmly shaken off. The demon said to her:

 

Kill Izma’s pet

And as a reward

I’ll tell you where we come from!

 

Izma, to the sky:

 

Bring me the head

Of Lacertli’s champion

And I shall forget thy failures!

 

And finally, Lacertli to me:

 

Whatever happens, you must NOT let Elmiryn succeed.


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