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Chapter 40.4

SYRIA_________________________

Syria’s lip curled, even as the sweat tickled her nose and eyelids. Elmiryn was fading. She was on the cusp of giving in to unconsciousness. The enchantress wouldn’t let her die, of course. Why would she, when the redhead was the only way out of these accursed borderlands? But Syria could make Elmiryn wish she were dead. She could choke the warrior over and over until she gave in. After that? Then maybe death.

On the other hand, it would serve for the meddlesome pest to see her lover slain before her. Syria felt a jagged smile form on her face at the thought.

As she waited for the warrior to succumb, she could feel Elmiryn’s mental presence flicker, as if she had passed an object that broke Syria’s line of sight. This jarred the enchantress, but just as quick as it had happened, Elmiryn’s spirit settled back into place again. Syria hardly had time to think how strange this was before something changed. A new thing, just sitting on the surface of Elmiryn’s consciousness.

…A thing that resonated with Harmony.

Syria recoiled, her face paling as she broke off all contact with the warrior. She was a being outside of Harmony. She was Izma’s pet. She thought Elmiryn was Meznik’s pet, but how could the warrior bear a trace of the gods? Syria retreated, her rootish feet stumbling over themselves in their haste to put distance between her and the offending essence. Her limbs felt weak and uncontrollable. Her stomach started to heave up her throat. The woman felt the cold sweep of fear over her skin and could think of nothing…

Certainly not the magic spell required to hold Elmiryn in her earthly tomb.

ELMIRYN______________________

A breath–dusty and painful.

She coughed sporadically, trying to clear her airways.

The lightheaded confusion that came with being on the brink of unconsciousness veiled her thoughts and prevented her from making sense of time, of position, of impending danger. Then a single driving thought speared through the mist, and Elmiryn remembered one thing above all else:

“Syria!” she gasped. Her dusty eyelids batted open to see the enchantress in question standing some ways away, a look of horror on her face as she regarded Elmiryn as though she were a fire breathing dragon. The redhead was half-buried and leaning sideways in what appeared to be a large mound of dirt. Elmiryn swooned as she tried to raise herself upright and pull herself free. The spots in her eyes made vision difficult. She growled and shook her head, her expression tightening as she bared her teeth in a feral expression. Her hands tensed like claws as they fought to pull her out.

Syria watched, hands held out before her as though to keep the warrior at bay. “Wh-What…what are you?” she breathed shakily.

“Complicated,” Elmiryn grunted as she finally felt her waist and legs begin to free themselves. The redhead growled again, deeper this time. “Angry!”

“You cannot be of the gods,” Syria said, pained. Her cheeks tightened and her chin crumpled as though she were going to break down crying. Tears shone in her eyes. “You are supposed to be like me!

“Turns out we’re not so alike,” Elmiryn panted as she tucked her legs under her, then rocked to her feet. She nearly lost her balance, her arms wheeling, but she regained it with a huff and picked up her sword, which was sticking out of the dirt nearby. “You wanna know how?” she asked Syria.

The enchantress said nothing as Elmiryn twirled her sword once, then prowled forward, her head ducked slightly and her lips drawn.

“Izma feeds off of your sadness,” the redhead barked. “Meznik feeds off of my anger. We feel different things. Are motivated by different things. Hell, even our abilities are different.”

Elmiryn grinned wolfishly and flicked a hand at her head. As she did so, she took the golden strand that was Artemis’s essence, and she rewove it elsewhere. She could feel time stretch and her limbs feel energized. She was just ten paces away from the enchantress now. “You wanna know what I can do, Syria?”

Elmiryn broke off in a sprint, her boot gouging into the dirt as she launched forward, bringing her sword back for a large swing.

Syria reacted instantly, the whites of her eyes becoming very clear as she threw up both hands and called forth a wall of earth between them. But Elmiryn was faster. With Artemis’s power augmenting her, she could feel the ground rumble from the start of Syria’s spell. In reaction, she instinctively jumped, using an extra burst of air to push her higher over the fast rising wall. The shadows of the Umbralands seemed to grow starker as Elmiryn descended on Syria, a victorious shout ripping from her throat as she brought her sword down between the enchantress’s shoulder and her neck. The dark blood came quickly.

The two fell to the ground as Elmiryn crashed atop the other woman, but the redhead leapt back to her feet and was about to deliver a killing blow to her enemy, when off in the distance, she could see the others. In her quickened mental and physical state, Elmiryn could see immediately that something was off. What stuck out to her?

…Izma was down on the ground in front of Nyx.

Eyes widening, Elmiryn spared Syria one last glance before breaking off in another neck breaking sprint, back toward the others.

She should’ve known. Her anger swelled, not at the demons, but at herself. She couldn’t have expected the astral demons to play by their own rules. But if she could get there in time, that wouldn’t matter.

Elmiryn could break rules too.

Somehow in all the maneuvering she and the others had done, the warrior found herself in a position coming at Izma from behind. Dragging forth the pitfalls of light that hatched the Umbralands, Elmiryn directed them before her–behind Izma’s back.

The blood roared in her ears as she felt her wrath and fear come to a head inside of her, almost like an ocean wave reaching its peak in a high storm. She could even feel the lightning in her muscles, the salt in her veins, the chill of the wind on her skin as she leapt through the makeshift gateway back into the Other Place proper.

Things happened quickly after that.

The woman could feel her first foot hit the ground, could feel it slide along the dirt as her other foot swung forward. Her sword cut downward at an angle, just as Izma started to turn her way–head first, then body. Nyx reacted behind her, mouth dropping, hands coming up as if to shield herself. Quincy rose to her feet, her hand raising up Eate’s Son as if she were going to throw it, even as her expression said she wasn’t entirely sure what to make of what was happening before her.

Then Elmiryn felt her sword blade cut into Izma’s arm, the weapon following its arc until it sliced through the limb and struck the demon’s hip, where it stopped. The redhead saw the arm fall as the demon moved away, shrieking like brass instruments, and Elmiryn felt a vicious satisfaction as she scooped the limb up–it made her hand nerves tingle–and kept her body down to avoid the reactionary swipe Izma sent her way with her remaining good arm. Charging past her, Elmiryn plowed past Nyx and Lethia, sending the youths to the dirt.

It wasn’t that she stopped caring about them. To the contrary, this was to save them.

The warrior didn’t stop running until she passed Quincy, then with a scream she pulled Izma’s arm back and threw it up at Meznik in the air.

It would’ve hit the demon in the face had he not caught it like he expected it.

Here!” Elmiryn bellowed. “Syria is defeated! Izma is hurt! This bullshit is over! Tell me where you come from! Now!”

Meznik slowly lowered Izma’s arm. He stared at Elmiryn with his soulless eyes, and somehow things had fallen quiet. Not even Izma, who had been making such a terrible noise not a second ago, made a sound.

Then Meznik descended to the ground. When he was before her, he looked down at Izma’s arm again, then up at Elmiryn.

You want to know where we come from?

“Yes,” Elmiryn bit out.

Meznik held out Izma’s arm, and confused, the warrior took it.

I’m not telling you.

“What–!?”

But the demon cut her off, his voice a deep pounding drum.

I’m not telling you,
Elmiryn,
Because the conditions were
That you kill
Syria.
You did not.

He tilted his head back and folded his hands behind him.

…But
This was impressive.

The crowd of evil spirits around them began to disperse, hesitant at first…then in a sort of panic. They scurried around them, stirring up the dust. The chaos swallowed the warrior and the demon, but somehow they remained impervious.

You have earned
A reward.
So I will tell you
Something else of value.

Elmiryn’s eyes narrowed. “What is that?”

If the woman didn’t know any better, she would’ve said the demon smiled at her.

My goal.

NYX__________________________

It all happened so quickly. I would’ve reacted–maybe helped Elmiryn in her attack of Izma–but I was rooted with surprise. Even the demon was completely blindsided, as if her unintelligible noises weren’t enough of a clue. When Elmiryn cut off the abomination’s arm, I never would have guessed she would have picked it up, then barreled past Lethia and I. As I fell to the ground and watched her go, a million thoughts went through my head:

What is she thinking?

Why did she push me?

How in the world did she hurt Izma!?

But these were all silenced as the redhead threw Izma’s arm up to Meznik and demanded her victory.

…So that was it.

She was trying to win.

Even as I watched the growing exchange between Elmiryn and Meznik, I could hear a small sound behind me and turned to see Syria limp through the disintegrating gateway Elmiryn had left behind. Her eyes locked onto mine, her breath coming in low ragged gasps, before she turned and looked over at Izma. The demon in question was on one knee, her good hand clutching her stub of an arm in what seemed to be…shame? Disappointment? It was strange how these abomination’s fixed bone-like features could convey so many different emotions.

Wordless, Syria went to Izma and helped her up. Izma let her. The enchantress started to lead the demon away, and as she did so, she looked back–not at me, but at Lethia. I glanced at the girl. I could see her tensed as if ready to leap up and chase after them, her face red with frustration and her eyes shining with tears. But the girl didn’t move. What would she do, anyway? She was like me, too weak.

I returned my gaze and watched, morbidly fascinated by what the evil pair would do next. But Syria and Izma took only another step before they shimmered and vanished. Just like that…

It was all over.

All this time, I could hear Elmiryn and Meznik speaking behind us. Syria and Izma’s presence close by had stolen my attention away, so I didn’t know just what was said. Before I could tune back into the conversation, a great commotion erupted as the evil spirits that had spectated our battle began to flee. Without Izma here to protect and lead them, their confidence vanished, and they stampeded by, pushing and punching and slashing. I hurried to my feet and dragged Lethia with me. I shouted and she screamed as what appeared to be a giant centipede stormed towards us.

I did the only thing I could think of, which was to push the shadows of the devils away from us. As the laws of the universe made the body inseparable from the shadow, the spirits were forced to go around us in their escape, including the horrible centipede. Lethia and I huddled together until the chaos passed.

…It was not a short wait. Some of the spirits paused in their escape to fight each other. But with time, things finally quieted enough that I could make out Quincy in the dust. Pulling a dazed Lethia after me, we hurried toward her.

Hakeem was still unconscious, and somehow, at some point, Quincy had recovered her lightning staff and had used it to create some sort of field of energy around her. This vanished as we neared, and she rose to greet us, though she still refused to move far from Hakeem.

We both spoke at the same time.

“Where is Elmiryn?” we both asked.

When her question sunk in, so did my dread. “You don’t know where she is?”

Quincy shrugged her free hand and pointed at the last place we’d both seen her–speaking to Meznik. “She was there before these damned spirits stampeded!”

I let go of Lethia and tried to see through the lingering dust clouds if I could catch any sign of Elmiryn. I even resorted to calling for her.

“Elmiryn! Elmiryn!

The seconds grew into minutes.

“She’s gone,” Quincy stated flatly behind me.

“She really left?” I breathed, clenching my hands.

“Nyx.” I didn’t turn. The wizard said my name again, sharper. “Nyx.”

“What?” I snapped, finally turning.

Quincy’s face was tense and her eyes cutting. “We have to think of ourselves. The promise to Stanislav to clear the forest of the evil spirits has been fulfilled. Izma has fled. Meznik has fled. The way out of this infernal dimension is close by. We…have…to…move!

Lethia who looked like a ghost beneath the dirt that covered her tear-stained face, nodded her head faintly. “She’s right, Nyx,” she mumbled.

“But–” and my arguments died before I could even make sense of them.

I felt a part of myself die with them.

Elmiryn had made her choice. Her ambition had always been to get closer to Meznik.

There wasn’t much to salvage anyway. Just a pair of broken wizards, a broken enchantress…and my broken heart.


Back to Chapter 40.3 | Forward to Chapter 41.1

Chapter 40.3

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn knew what loss was. Knew the meaning of the word. Felt the effects of it like a person caught in someone’s else’s puddle splash. It lapped her knees, trailed her shins, licked at her ankles, just so much dirty water staining her boots and her stockings. She always tried to remember those under her command had homes to go to, lives to live after the war. They had courage and fear, strength and weakness.

She spoke somberly when delivering funeral rites on the field. She recognized that not everyone’s eyes were on the heavens and beyond like hers were. But those that came under her command were soldiers, and they were placed in her unit of dragoons for a reason. They were necessary assets. Tools of the kingdom’s will. She couldn’t be soft. Couldn’t get attached. Didn’t want to. Many didn’t make it past a year, either because of death or debilitating injury. Only those who stayed, those who she came to rely on for the most vital tasks, earned Elmiryn’s deeper camaraderie. To the others, she was just their captain, and she did for them what she could, but if they were lost… It was a passing sting. It brought on more of a professional criticism on her orders or how she carried out said orders, then a resounding sense of loss. Life became painfully pragmatic in that way, even for her rebellious sense of humor.

So the day Saelin took a sword to the gut, Elmiryn felt her world turn on its end.

She managed to keep the rest of her unit alive from a surprise Ailuran flank attack that surely would have slain them all, had she not had the forethought to call for an echelon formation that lined her mounted troops diagonally along the field. Saelin, being nearest to Elmiryn, was wounded, but managed to stay on his horse. With his reins in hand, Elmiryn defended him while her unit maneuvered around the attacking forces, driving them back.

After retreating to a marsh where they could anchor their position, she ordered the dragoon unit to implement immediate medical attention to their fellows while the able bodied stood guard. The damage was moderate. They were the vanguard of the Fiamman forces and would have to continue to press forward. Only Saelin could not advance. Left with no option, Elmiryn was forced to leave him hidden in the tall grass until the advancing army, with its regiment of healers and medicine men, could tend to him fully.

In a sense, it felt to Elmiryn like leaving a part of herself behind. She did her job, of course. She had to. The disconnect from feeling was not easy, but the warrior knew that other lives still depended on her command. Dying because of worry would not help Saelin survive. If anything, Elmiryn fought harder. If the opposing forces overtook her unit before the Fiamman army could catch up, then her lieutenant was doomed.

Back to the present, in the Umbralands, where Elmiryn’s world turned to noise and confusion as the ground rose up around her and lifted her bodily, pressing in like she were being buried alive. The redhead knew, that in order to ensure Nyx’s safety, she had to repeat that monumental feat of will and overcome her scattered mind. Panic would not save anyone. Despair would not save anyone. Fear would not save anyone.

But what about all three? she thought hysterically as her lungs began to burn for want of air.

Syria’s voice slithered into her head, a far off echo–for the enchantress could still not penetrate the strange workings of Elmiryn’s fae-adjusted consciousness. Small favors. Return us, and I shall not crush you, the enchantress threatened.

Elmiryn, still struggling to control her wheeling thoughts, returned a single clipped word: Mistake.

Syria’s voice soured in the warrior’s head. And it is mine to make. You don’t really leave me with many options, Elmiryn. The Twins were very good at holding their breath. What about you? 

The redhead knew the enchantress had her answer already, so she felt annoyed. Not even a full minute had gone by and Elmiryn thought she was going to inhale the dirt. Time… I need more…time… The woman thought with effort. The silence closed in on her, squeezing and pressing until she felt the last wisps of consciousness flee her.

As the dark-bright-nothing engulfed her spirit, the warrior became aware of a window into a place she had forgotten. It was a space cut harshly into the ether, a hole in space and time that she had created in her fear of the godly.

It was a hollow place filled with slow-falling sparrows and kittens.

 

NYX__________________________

Regaining my ability to breathe was not so immediate as I’d hoped. Even when Lethia righted what was wrong with my mind, my lungs still shuddered to work, my chest muscles and diaphragm not working in tandem in a way that is hard to describe. Was this what it was like for a newborn to learn to breathe? I sucked in air desperately, clumsily, and could feel my body tingle and twitch as my healing ability repaired the damage I’d suffered in my brain.

Kali stirred, sluggish in her dark space. I could feel her outrage and saw the memories of her underhanded assault from Syria. Mingled in the information was a sense of indignity that she had allowed for herself to be disabled in such a way that both our lives were risked. In the past, Kali was the one who got us out of bad situations, violent, belligerent, and power-hungry as she had been. She felt this was her first real failure–I could feel her sentiment as if she’d said it out loud–and I wanted to assure her that she had done the best she could. The truth of it was, that the two of us, as we were, could not defeat Syria. She was so powerful, and there was still so much we had to learn.

But as I regained the ability to sit up, Izma began to descend, and Kali was just going to have to settle for my unspoken assurances, for as soon as the demon’s feet touched the ground, she began to advance toward us. Lethia, who had been at my side in her attempts to heal me, quickly rose and inserted herself between me and the demon. I could see her body tremble, though. She had discarded Quincy’s staff and so was without a weapon. All she had was her psychic abilities, but what good was that against these abominations, these creatures that drove a person mad just from looking at them?

A glance at Quincy showed that the brunette was prioritizing her husband’s safety over everything else. I didn’t blame her. The man had taken some nasty hits and his injuries were sure to be grievous. He was human and couldn’t heal. What if he were bleeding internally? What if Syria’s mind tricks had put him into a coma?

Izma stopped before Lethia and the demon seemed to take a moment to appraise her. She looked over at Meznik and said in her alien musical voice:

They are stubborn,
Aren’t they?

Meznik shrugged his bony hands and responded in kind.

Very.
It’s such a bother!

Izma rubbed her sharp chin as she peered over at Quincy and Hakeem.

Seeds?

Meznik shook his head.

If it amuses you.
I have no interest.
I have enough of a challenge
With the ones I possess.

I let out a strangled sound as I grabbed Lethia, and in a clumsy and confusing fumble, used her to rise to my feet and simultaneously shove her behind me. I was the godly champion here. If these demons were talking about what I thought they were talking about, then I had a better chance of fending them off then anybody.

At least, I hoped so.

“You can’t,” I rasped out harshly, my body swaying as I fought to strike an imposing demeanor.

Izma chortled.

And what resistance
Can the little sum spare?
You have been found lacking
Trembling cat.
Methinks you would offer
Such poor sport.

“You can’t,” I hissed again. Lethia started to tug at my arm insistently and I pulled away. My next words came with effort. I still felt winded, still felt my chest ache with the effort of sucking in breath. “You can’t…because you are known to us, demon. Your mystique is gone. We know what you look like, where you lurk. We will fight.”

At my words, the demons began to crow with their abhorrent laughter.

She sees our masks
And thinks she knows!

Meznik guffawed–a dry sound like a trumpet honking.

Lethia’s voice squeaked in my ear, a whisper that was creeping into a whine. “They’re right, Nyx! We don’t know anything about them, not really. But us seeing them in this form means one thing–that they’ve altered us somehow! We have one foot in the door, and they want to pull as all the way in!” Her voice receded to a breath at these last words, filled with terror.

My eyes widened, and I had to resist taking a step back, both from Izma and Lethia.

…Altered us? I had thought it strange that I could look upon Izma now and not suffer as I had before, but did that really mean she had changed my spirit somehow? How could this be? Did Lacertli not protect me from such evil? Wouldn’t Harmony have found a way to correct this?

Was I going to become like Elmiryn?

The thought terrified me. Kali echoed my sentiment, and we both let out a sharp bestial scream–marked with fear and outrage. My Twin lent me her claws and fangs and I took them eagerly, not even batting an eye at the momentary pain of transformation. I would have launched at Izma right then…

If not for the black portal that opened up behind the demon.

ELMIRYN______________________

Elmiryn took a breath of relief as she entered into her white-black space, her personal “mindfuck” as she’d once referred to it. It was just as shapeless and infinite as before.  The kittens and sparrows tumbled around her in slow motion and she brushed by them as she paced the imaginary floor and tried to think.

Just because she had bought herself time didn’t mean that Elmiryn was free. Syria still had her in her death grip and the warrior had been just seconds from losing all consciousness. So how could she save her life in the next…oh say…two full seconds? What could she possibly do in that span of time to turn things around? And it wasn’t as if time stopped here. It just defied the rules a bit, like a dream often did. A short nap could feel like days in a dream. For Elmiryn, one real world night felt like a year in this space. She just wasn’t sure what the actual exchange of time was, and it made her nervous to take advantage of it. After all, what if it wasn’t constant? What if time was more “wibbly-wobbly” and ended up speeding up on her?

“Fuck!” Elmiryn huffed, after what felt like an hour had gone by.

Up above the watery shadows and lights shifted and rippled, making the woman’s head hurt. The window, where the odd person had been, was gone. The warrior half-wished they were back so that she could talk to them and bounce off ideas, not that they ever responded. It just felt better to think out loud, and while she could do it herself, it never felt as natural as with another person.

“Thou could speaketh to me?” A familiar voice purred.

Elmiryn froze and turned to see Artemis standing very close and wearing her white robes and hunting bow, just as the day they had first met. The goddess laced her hands before her, then took exaggerated steps around the woman. Elmiryn didn’t move.

“Dost thou know this goddess still waits?” Artemis asked after a moment.

“For what?” Elmiryn growled tightly.

Artemis leaned in close and whispered, “For thee.”

The redhead snapped her head toward the goddess and spat out a hiss from the back of her throat, leaning in so that Artemis was forced to move away.

The goddess laughed mellifluously. “My, my, my! Been picking things up from our feline friend, now have we?”

Elmiryn spared her a venomous smirk. “Well what can I say, Arty-kins? We’re like cats and dogs.”

Artemis feigned a pout. “We’re not so unalike…”

“Is that so? I seem to recall never needing to force myself onto someone.”

“Oh come! Thou speaks as though this tactic was unexpected.”

“A person never really wakes up thinking, ‘Welp, I’m getting divinely raped today!'”

Artemis shrugged. “And yet did it actually come to anything?”

Elmiryn actually clenched her teeth so hard, she thought she could feel one of them crack. “It came to plenty,” she finally ground out.

The goddess sighed and fisted her cheek. “By the heavens, such precious seconds paid in honor of my brother Resentment. I shall have to tell him of thy generous contribution to his godly tithe.”

“Fuck you and your pantheon,” Elmiryn spat. She turned away and resumed pacing.

Have to focus. Have to figure out a way to beat Syria!

“Elmiryn…dost thou remember the moment ye imbibed my spirit?”

That stilled the warrior’s feet. Memories came, hot and furious, of Artemis’s attack in the Lycan forest. Elmiryn had fended her off by biting off the goddess’s tongue. There had been so much blood in her mouth that…

Oh no.

Slowly she turned and regarded the goddess, who smiled wolfishly at her.

“Ye may be outside the realms of heaven,” Artemis said quietly. “But hast thou considered that heaven is within thine realm?”

Elmiryn batted her eyes once, and in that fleeting moment, she felt Artemis brush her lips over hers. But when her eyes flew open and she swung her fists, the goddess was gone.

“Perhaps,” Artemis’s voice echoed around her. “What ye would see as misfortune, is actually a boon to build upon?”

The warrior fought to control her breathing (forgetting that she didn’t need to breathe to begin with) her eyes large circles as the shadows of falling animals trailed across her face. She was pretty certain after that huge distraction that she had less than two seconds left to act. In the tumult of thoughts that sped through her mind, Elmiryn thought of Meznik, that maybe the demon had said something…only she couldn’t remember specifically what, and it made her angry that she couldn’t remember a potentially important, or non-important (well, maybe VERY important) detail.

And in the fucks and wolf bitch‘s that her colorful vocabulary supplied, Elmiryn realized something.

Wait. WAIT. I know my pattern. So wouldn’t I see a fucking stain in my own fabric!?

Wouldn’t Syria?

 


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