ELMIRYN______________________

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.

 

“No.”

 

Then she thought about it again.

 

“Yes?”

 

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.

 

True.

He looked away.

 

It’s also true

That you bent the rules

To your liking.

 

“…Are you sore because I used Artemis’s essence?”

 

Sore?

No.

Exasperated?

Quite.

Clever as it was

To use a god’s essence

To repel Syria

You do not

Understand

The full repercussions

Of such a risk.

 

“It worked didn’t it?”

 

But not without

Its costs

Of which

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

With arrogance.

 

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!”

 

Meznik sighed.

 

Clever ghost.

You figured out

That hope and confidence

Is the anti-thesis of

Izma’s power.

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.

“So talk.”

 

The demon chuckled, a deep effervescent sound of cellos.

 

Talk!

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!”

 

Very well.

Meznik swept his hand over the view before them, and said—

 

Can you see the patterns

Before you?

 

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

For yourself.

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 braid…

A debatable description.

Nevertheless it hits on to the point

I wanted you to see.

Everything

Is

Related.

 

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

The Speculums

We met?

 

Elmiryn nodded. “Yeah. Those two freaks. The ones who led us to the Exit back on Earth.”

 

Do you know

Why

I call them

Your Speculums?

 

She shook her head. “You never told me.”

 

Because they are

Pieces of you

Rearranged

Repurposed

And refined.

 

“Refined?”

 

They are you and Nyx

Near the end stages

Of power.

I described them

As demigods

I believe.

You share similarities

In personality

In appearance

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?”

 

Meznik shrugged.

 

It is true

They are reflections

But they are not perfect

Carbon copies.

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 brunette

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

Your qualities.

 

The redhead scoffed. “She looks nothing like me!”

 

She

Like you

Has the ability to see

And reweave the patterns

Of life.

She

Also like you

Has a more aggressive approach

Compared to her companion.

 

“So the tall redhead? The one with green eyes?”

 

Julie.

“Yes, her.”

 

Nyx’s Speculum.

Like your feline friend

She is an agent

Of things far greater

Than she

Rather than

The vehicle itself.

Her unique ability

Started with her voice

But since her spiritual growth

This has expanded to include

All sound.

 

“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

Yes.

She would be.

Now do you see

The connections between realities

More clearly?

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.

Why politics,

Chemistry,

Biology,

Sociology,

Theology,

Warfare,

And even architecture

Share similarities.

Depending on what world

Is next to which

You will always find

A common thread

That binds adjacent worlds

Together.

Similarly

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

It takes.

 

“So everything is connected. All realities share something, be it large or small.”

 

That thin thread

I mentioned?

It is the gods.

 

Startled, Elmiryn’s eyes pierced the side of Meznik’s twisted face. “…What?”

 

The gods.

They exist

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

Of herself.

 

Elmiryn felt a dull ache in her sinus and her forehead wrinkled as she scowled at her boots. “That…that sounds…”

 

Familiar?

It is because

Artemis shared this with you.

The truth nearly killed you

Actually.

But you are a pet now.

These things

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?

Say…

By subverting the power

Of those gods?

“Change…change the universe’s mind? That’s your big fucking plan?”

 

You speak

As if this were a simple matter.

I assure you.

It is not.

Case in point—

How often

Do YOU

Change your mind?

 

Elmiryn frowned. “It…depends.”

 

I’ll make it easier for you.

How often

Do you change your mind

For something

You believe in?

 

Her scowl deepened. “Never.”

 

Now would you not say

That if changing

The universe’s mind

Would result

In the complete

Reconstruction

Of not just one reality

But META-reality

As we know it…

Would you not say,

This is something

Monumental?

 

“Yes. I would.”

 

And would you not say

That such a process of change

Is not unlike a WAR

Going on inside of you?

 

“…Yes.”

 

So mark my words

Elle the Idiot.

We?

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.

 

NYX__________________________

 

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.


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