When they had Traveled the In Between to a platform that hovered just above the various existences—just so much gaseous splendor and chaos—he asked:
Do you regret coming?
She thought about it, the glow of dying stars in her eyes.
Then she thought about it again.
She shrugged, crossing her arms defensively. “Maybe…”
She confuses you.
Elmiryn tilted her head back and took a deep breath. Then she gave a twitch of a nod. “Yes.”
She weakens you.
Now she scowled. “No.”
Meznik shook his head. He stood at her side, surveying everything beneath them like a collector did his baubles.
You aren’t focusing.
Your body followed me here
But your mind wanders.
What’s the point
If you aren’t going
To pay attention?
“What else do you want from me?” Elmiryn snapped. “I wanted answers. I’m playing your game. I’m here. It isn’t as if you’ve been the most helpful along the way!”
Meznik folded his hands behind his back and tilted his head to the side as he regarded her.
He looked away.
It’s also true
That you bent the rules
To your liking.
“…Are you sore because I used Artemis’s essence?”
Clever as it was
To use a god’s essence
To repel Syria
You do not
The full repercussions
Of such a risk.
“It worked didn’t it?”
But not without
I’m sure you will be feeling
The full effects of
Very, very soon.
Elmiryn spat and watched the spit fall into the web of existence with a soured expression.
“If I didn’t use Artemis’s power, I wouldn’t have gotten to Izma,” she argued.
Meznik let out a short snort.
You got to Izma
Because she got careless.
She always had a problem
Elmiryn squinted an eye at him. “Well if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black…”
We’re all just cookware
In the end.
“It was more than just speed and strength that let me hurt her. Admit it! I figured out what makes you demons so invulnerable!” Meznik only glanced at her. Annoyed, Elmiryn pressed in closer, her teeth bared. “Emotion! It all has to do with how we feel when we confront you, doesn’t it!? Izma needs us to feel despair, to feel hopeless and depressed! It’s why she tried to break our wills whereas you always seemed to try to incite us!”
You figured out
That hope and confidence
Is the anti-thesis of
But I wonder…
While you struggle
To stop feeling the emotions
That are so a part of you
Can you even guess
What the anti-thesis of
My power is?
Elmiryn opened her mouth, ready to spit out an insult when she faltered, the fury backing up in her throat like bile. She swallowed with difficulty, her hands clenching, then took a step back. Meznik was right. She didn’t know what emotion she needed to feel to finally fight him. And even if she did, how could she let go of her hatred for him, when it came to her so naturally? So powerfully?
It was like a giant wave that blocked out the sun as it towered over her, and when it crashed atop her…she drowned in it.
With a tight neck, she growled. “Are you going to tell me what we’re doing here, or am I going to be treated to another mind game?”
No more games.
I promised answers.
The demon chuckled, a deep effervescent sound of cellos.
As if everything
Can be summarily explained
In just a few minutes.
Elmiryn rolled her eyes. “I don’t care how long it takes so long as you start!”
Meznik swept his hand over the view before them, and said—
Can you see the patterns
She turned and squinted an eye at him. “The patterns?” She looked back down below. “Meznik, we’re too far for me to see—”
Then you aren’t really looking
You can’t expect
Me to give you everything
Without discerning some things
You’re a pet now.
Not a toy.
So act like it.
Elmiryn’s scowl deepened and she searched deeper, trying to see what her dubious company was attempting to point out. Her eyes traced the luminous colorful clouds in the infinite black, the burning pin points of stars feeding life and taking it away. Intellectually, she knew there were worlds down there. She also knew that in this great expanse were invisible barriers, preventing certain realities from meshing together.
There like a sliver between her world and some other one was The Other Place, a gray-green jagged line that streaked through a hot orange sea. Nyx was down there. She would be okay. She had to be. She was on the path home after all.
Elmiryn rubbed her forehead, feeling the light sheen of sweat beneath her fingers. She was about to tell Meznik she couldn’t see anything but a mess of life when her eyes widened as her mind finally made the connection.
“A braid,” she breathed. She looked at Meznik excitedly. “A braid! It’s all one!”
A debatable description.
Nevertheless it hits on to the point
I wanted you to see.
He gestured for her to follow and she did. They started to descend a translucent staircase that hadn’t been there a moment ago. With every step they took, the stars beneath them became dramatically closer, until Elmiryn was afraid they would burn up. She never felt any heat, however, even as they stopped at the point one star came so close as to match the size of a castle.
Meznik’s voice was a soft hum when he spoke.
Do you recall
Elmiryn nodded. “Yeah. Those two freaks. The ones who led us to the Exit back on Earth.”
Do you know
I call them
She shook her head. “You never told me.”
Because they are
Pieces of you
They are you and Nyx
Near the end stages
I described them
You share similarities
Even in ability.
Elmiryn raised an eyebrow and put a hand on her hips. “So which was suppose to be me, and which was Nyx?”
It is true
They are reflections
But they are not perfect
As I said
They are rearranged.
This made the warrior screw up her mouth. “So who is most like me, and who is most like Nyx?”
Meznik spared a whistling sigh.
The one called Molly
You’ll recall that she
Was the quieter of the two?
“Also the shorter one,” Elmiryn remarked. Meznik turned, apparently giving her a look. She shrugged her hands. “What? It’s true!”
The ‘shorter one’
As you’d describe her
Is YOUR Speculum.
She most resembles
The redhead scoffed. “She looks nothing like me!”
Has the ability to see
And reweave the patterns
Also like you
Has a more aggressive approach
Compared to her companion.
“So the tall redhead? The one with green eyes?”
Like your feline friend
She is an agent
Of things far greater
The vehicle itself.
Her unique ability
Started with her voice
But since her spiritual growth
This has expanded to include
“She was a musician,” Elmiryn recalled, rubbing her chin. “She had a guitar with her when she spoke to us, didn’t she? So she’s a vermagus?”
That is not the term used there
But if in your world
She would be.
Now do you see
The connections between realities
The one thing you must remember
Is that the universe is alive
And it cannot help
But allow for these
Relations between worlds.
Like a writer or artist
With a distinctive style
A singular thread
Can be connected to everything.
That is why Speculums exist.
That is why what is called
English in one world
Is called Common in yours.
And even architecture
Depending on what world
Is next to which
You will always find
A common thread
That binds adjacent worlds
There is a thinner thread
That winds through the Universe
That binds them all.
This is meta-reality.
This is how the essence of life
Is passed on
No matter the shape
“So everything is connected. All realities share something, be it large or small.”
That thin thread
It is the gods.
Startled, Elmiryn’s eyes pierced the side of Meznik’s twisted face. “…What?”
In multiple realms
Like a body
Lying over borderlines
But like the realities they occupy
They are different and similar by degrees
In each realm.
This is why
They can only dream
Of who they are
In another world
Without ever fully comprehending
The enormity of their existence.
This is why Artemis
Does not know
The true depth
Elmiryn felt a dull ache in her sinus and her forehead wrinkled as she scowled at her boots. “That…that sounds…”
It is because
Artemis shared this with you.
The truth nearly killed you
But you are a pet now.
Should be well within
Even your challenged mind’s
Ability to process.
The woman wiped at her forehead, feeling the cold sweat slick her palm. Shakily she asked, “So what? What does that all matter? Why do you care?”
Because you dolt.
If the universe is alive
And its dreams create
A thread of continuity
In the gods
Then what would happen
If one were to change
The universe’s mind?
By subverting the power
Of those gods?
“Change…change the universe’s mind? That’s your big fucking plan?”
As if this were a simple matter.
I assure you.
It is not.
Case in point—
Change your mind?
Elmiryn frowned. “It…depends.”
I’ll make it easier for you.
Do you change your mind
You believe in?
Her scowl deepened. “Never.”
Now would you not say
That if changing
The universe’s mind
In the complete
Of not just one reality
As we know it…
Would you not say,
This is something
“Yes. I would.”
And would you not say
That such a process of change
Is not unlike a WAR
Going on inside of you?
So mark my words
Elle the Idiot.
Are at war.
And I mean to win it.
“But to what end?” Elmiryn asked with tightened jaw. “What is the point of changing it all? What would you even change it to? Is that what Izma is after too? To—To change this meta-reality bullshit?”
Meznik’s stiff features shifted to allow for a chilling smile.
We tried reviving Hakeem repeatedly. Quincy even found another strong smelling agent similar to the smelling salts in her deep magical bag. Nothing worked. To her credit, the wizard didn’t lose hope. On the contrary, she became more determined.
“You, Ailuran. You have natural strength don’t you? Help me lift him!” she ordered.
“You could try a hand at asking nicely,” I muttered, even as I hefted up one side and she the other.
Our first step was halting, and for a moment I wondered if Quincy would be able to bear her husband’s weight. Hakeem’s Aeumani Armor still had yet to return to its dormant, chainmail state. The added weight to the man’s frame made him a greater challenge to carry. I wished Lethia could help, but given the girl’s slight body and her depressed state, I knew better than to ask. Instead, she led us up the field, back toward the tower, where a small trail lead to the edge of this particular shard. The land cut off in a jagged edge, dropping off into the strange empty nothing that was the Other Place’s hallmark.
Lethia stopped at the edge as Quincy and I dragged behind her. I was tired, but not like the wizard, whose human strength was taxed with the burden of her husband. As we neared, panting and stumbling, the young enchantress turned to us both and pointed half-heartedly outward.
“It is here,” Lethia said in a feeble voice.
Then without another word, she stepped through. Quincy and I exchanged a brief glance over Hakeem’s hung head, and taking a moment to better our grip, we followed.
The way was heavy. Cold. It stung them, and Nyx thought Quincy would lose her grip. It makes her try to pull more of the weight, but the wizard snaps at her to keep the balance between them, lest they tumble from their Path and into some strange dimension. Chagrined, the Ailuran listens.
They come to a crossroads. Quincy knows these well enough to recognize the ways they have gone.
This was supposed to be the final path, Quincy puffed between gasps.
What? Nyx asks.
The wizard gives her a rueful look. We shouldn’t talk while Traveling, she says. I’ll explain on the other side.
And with Lethia leading them down the final path, they make it there.
Snow. In a way it answered why it had been so cold, even while Traveling. Coming back here, I felt both feelings of relief and a dragging sense of exhaustion.
We had come full circle. We were right back in Northern Albias. Surely the escape from this maddening half-world was near.
Judging by the curve of the road, we were close to Holzoff’s Tower. Lethia paused in her trek up the slushy hill to peer at us. Quincy had started to set Hakeem down on his back, and I followed.
“I need a break,” she panted.
“We can’t stay still long. The cold will drain us more than moving,” I warned. Then I added dryly, “I would also like to remind you that I’m still naked and my feet are already numb.”
Quincy waved me off as she put her hands on her hips and paced around in a tight circle a few times.
After a short glance at Lethia proved she wasn’t going to come out of her shell, I decided to pick up the conversation that had been cut short in Travel. “So explain about the paths again? Elmiryn mentioned it back in Fiamma, but I can’t recall all the details. It was…confusing, to say the least.”
The wizard looked at me, her azure eyes dulled by exhaustion and stress. She still sounded winded when she spoke. “Elmiryn said these paths were hers. She found something at the end of each, and each was attuned to an element. Air, fire, water, earth, and infinity. The first path—well, the ‘fifth’ she claims—had her find me. That was water. Then on her fourth path, she found Graziano. Earth. Her third? She found you, and the element was fire. Her second was—“
“Lethia?” I ventured, looking over at the enchantress.
“Yes, I think so,” Quincy affirmed. “I would argue that was air—given the openness of the Lycan lands and the way we had to travel to reach Izma. But the last path, Elmiryn told me, was supposed to reveal her true desire. Whatever that is, it must be associated to the element of infinity.”
“But if we followed her paths, then are we going to find her? How is the element of infinity tied here? It doesn’t make any sense!” I huffed as I kicked at the snow.
Quincy shook her head. “Ailuran, who is missing from our group?”
I shrugged, sullen. “Elmiryn?”
“So why would her secrets be revealed to us? As I see it, when she made off with Meznik, she must have come ahead of us, and let’s face it, that demon probably doesn’t take to walking let alone existing in a natural state. If the final element is infinity, then even if the secrets were right underneath us, without the right powers we have no way of accessing such a thing!”
“I might be able to see,” I muttered, thinking of the Somnium. But I couldn’t leave the others. Just as I was at risk of freezing to death, so were Quincy, Hakeem, and Lethia, who were hardly dressed for such cold temperatures.
Another minute passed and Quincy let out a foggy breath. “All right. Let’s go.”
I glanced up trail as we each took Hakeem under the arms. “Do you think our camp is still there? From before?”
“Only one way of finding out!” Quincy huffed.
Lethia, seeing us pick up, swayed around and resumed her unsteady march up the hill.
After much fighting up the way, the path finally began to level, and just up ahead on the dark rocks and white snow, I thought I could see a warm light flickering.
“Is that a campfire?” I panted excitedly. The numbness had crawled up my hips. I imagined the only thing keeping the frostbite at bay was my accelerated healing.
“Looks it!” Quincy responded, once more short of breath.
Then something came running around the bend, crashing through the unbroken snow. I nearly dropped Hakeem as an unpleasant shock pulled down my gut.
Of course. We were near Holzoff’s. That meant daesce.
“Lethia! Get back!” I screamed.
The enchantress certainly seemed to rouse out of her trance-like state, but it wasn’t to react as I expected her to. No, instead of running and screaming, she dropped to her knees and let out what sounded like a cry and a laugh. It was only when I abandoned my burden (Quincy cursing at me as I did so) and charged up the hill that I saw what was bounding toward us.
“Argos!” I laughed, feeling a warm, happy feeling for the first time in what seemed like forever.
The dog went straight to Lethia, whimpering with his tail tucked between his legs and his body hunched low to the ground. Even in his attempts to look small, the dog only managed to look like a giant white mass of fur that was still taller than Lethia on her knees. The enchantress latched onto him immediately, her face burying into the dog’s thick neck as she wailed loudly like a child.
“I needed him to take care of one more matter, if you’ll recall,” Lacertli’s voice said behind me.
I turned, only somewhat surprised at my patron’s sudden appearance. Such was his way and I was finally getting used to it. He stood in his usual guise of Marquis, his bare feet wriggling their taloned toes idly in the snow.
“What task, sir?” I asked.
With a lazy arm he pointed up the hill.
There, standing with a blanket over their head and body was a figure. I squinted at them, approaching slowly. Reluctantly, the person lifted their head and pulled back the lip of the blanket. My eyes widened in horror.
“P-Paulo…?” I breathed.