Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 43.1

NYX__________________________

We didn’t know what cold was. Back on the ground, where we had our humble campfire and our blankets, we only knew a sort of discomfort. Reality became a biting frigid beast of unholy chill up in the mountains, where we toiled toward the unlit sky against howling winds that took away our voices, our names, our hope.

When you feel emptied of everything that you are, that is when things become truly bleak.

At the start, we stopped at the first alcove we came across, only a few hundred feet up and nearly a day’s effort. It was too slow. Staring further up the mean dark cliffs, I knew that there was much more for us to traverse, and we would have to be faster. If we weren’t, we would die. Burdened with worry, I huddled together with the other five in a meager attempt to try and solicit some warmth.

That’s what happens in those conditions. You end up clinging to the people you don’t even like.

We nibbled on dried meat to quiet our stomachs, but our food was lean on fat. Kali whispered to me as I chewed the tough rabbit meat down: We need something more, or we will grow too weak!

I didn’t have energy to respond to her, even in the most basic sense. That first night’s travel, I fell asleep with my face buried into Argos’s hind quarters and Paulo hugging me from behind.

When we awoke again, the struggle continued. Paulo and I, both the strongest, lead the climb with the others tied to us by rope. We used climbing axes Paulo had crafted from daesce bone to haul our way up. All of us wore daesce cloaks to help lessen the cold, for all the good they did. Argos had become the one tasked with the burden of Hakeem, pulling him along in a strange hammock by a harness we had made from recovered armor. In turn, Quincy and Lethia helped Argos along over the areas where the dog’s lack of opposable thumbs proved a problem.

This is what made us slow. Much as I wanted to push harder up the mountain cliffs, doing so would put the others in danger. But how much longer could we climb under these conditions? The higher up we went, the thinner the air became, and of course, the colder it became as well. We didn’t have enough food to last us the whole way if this was the best speed we could manage.

Kali! I called in my head. Do you have any ideas?

I would leave the others and go alone, was her simple response.

I growled. Of course that’s what she would do.

But I couldn’t do that. Much as it frustrated me, I needed these people for what they could provide. Perhaps the real folly was in our preparation? Maybe we should’ve spent more time gathering food or fashioning protection from the cold then gathering materials for carrying Argos and Hakeem? We didn’t eat much our first day climbing, but stretching only a few days worth of food over such a perilous period…?

Biting my tongue, I pushed on and tried to clear my thoughts of such fears.

There was no going back. In our efforts to climb, the snow had swallowed much of our path, making climbing back down too dangerous an option. Anyway, as the end of the second day came, I could see the tip of the first mountain. Troubled as I was, the only way now was forward.

—————————–

Another two days went by. We had eaten what little we had of food, and even after Paulo caught a few rabbits, and I a snow ferret, that still left us weak and malnourished. We kept to the Albian cliff line as much as possible, but soon we had no choice but to traverse down into the dark valleys between the mountains. The relief from the cold winds was nice, but in exchange, we now found ourselves in daesce territory. This area wasn’t as infested as Holzoff’s, but the monsters still posed a threat, and their presence meant good hunting would be scarce.

How I loathed the daesce. We couldn’t even eat the damn things for their meat was tainted. I loathed them even more for our related wrongness. Being Lacertli’s champion was a chance at redemption for me, but that still didn’t change the fact that I was a being against nature. Kali was defiant on this matter.

I do not believe we carry the sole blame! She snarled, interrupting my thoughts one night. The gods have the power to stop such things, and they did not! We did not ask for this!

Be quiet! I snapped in alarm.

I wasn’t sure why, but my Twin was becoming increasingly blasphemous these days. Was it her experience against Syria that started it? I don’t know. All I knew was that she was sounding eerily more and more like Elmiryn in her opinions.

The last thing we needed was to be smited by heaven.

Though, it would be in keeping with the sort of luck we’d been having the past few weeks.

As this thought crossed my mind, we had been following Lethia’s direction across the valley when I stopped in my tracks. It took a while before the others noticed I had stopped. Quincy, beyond irritable since leaving Holzoff’s, marched up to me with a harsh scowl.

“Ailuran, what is the problem?” she snapped.

“Luck!” I whispered, smiling a little.

The wizard scrunched her nose. “What?”

“Luck, Quincy! Luck! That’s our problem!”

Quincy looked over her shoulder at the others. At their bemused looks, she turned back to me and said carefully, “Nyx, I think the cold and hunger might be getting to you. Maybe I should take point with Paulo and–”

I grabbed her by the shoulders. “How can you not see? Survival is one part wit, one part will, and one part luck! We need more luck!”

Quincy pulled out of my grip, her face contorted in a sort of disgusted wariness. “Uh…”

I gave an impatient growl and turned to the others. “Nine! We need to do as much as we can in multiples of nine!”

Paulo, Lethia, and even Argos exchanged looks.

The Moretti crossed his arms and frowned at me. “Why do we need to do that, Nyx?”

I shrugged. “Because it’s lucky!”

“That’s stupid!” Quincy said next to me. “Where did you get such an idea?”

I looked at her coolly. “Tristi told me.”

Her annoyance cleared, leaving a nonplussed expression on her face. “T-Tristi? The champion of Fortuna?”

“Yes.”

Quincy’s eyes ticked back and forth as she thought this over. I could hear the others shift restlessly. Standing in the cold was uncomfortable, I knew, but this was important. We had nothing to lose in trying my idea.

“How do we know that Lady Fortune would hear us at all?” Quincy asked next, hands on her hips. “The way Tristi practices it, it’s as though luck is a skill. If that’s the case, we’re all untrained in it!”

“Being untrained in it isn’t the issue,” I argued eagerly. “The issue is that we haven’t been trying to use it at all!”

Quincy snorted and gestured around at the desolate valley of white around us. “I’d say this was certainly a gamble, wouldn’t you? How can you say that we haven’t tried our luck?”

“Because this wasn’t a real gamble! Not in the sense that Fortuna would oversee it!”

“You can’t be serious!”

“She… She has a point!” Lethia interjected. We all turned to stare at her, and at the attention the teenager seemed to wilt. Looking at her boots, she stammered out, “I just–I mean to say that–When we started on this journey, we worked hard to prepare. I knew the way to go. We knew the risks involved. This wasn’t a decision taken on faith. It was one taken out of desperation. We had nowhere else to go! Logically speaking, that isn’t truly a gamble so much as walking through the only open door available to you. So… That would mean that this effort isn’t under Fortuna’s domain!”

I nodded at Lethia, and for the first time of what felt like ages, I felt genuinely grateful toward her. “Thank you, Lethia.”

The enchantress made a small choked sound and averted her eyes.

Quincy sighed roughly and rubbed at her face with her cloth wrapped hands. “Fine. Fine. You make a good point.” She flicked a hand out at the treacherous landscape. Daesce could be seen fighting amongst themselves. We had no way of concealing ourselves out here, but we couldn’t afford to skirt the valley. We’d freeze or die of starvation if we tried.

“I just don’t get what there is that we can do or count in multiples of nine!” the wizard groused.

“We can make it,” I said, clenching my fists. I turned and started walking in the direction we had been originally going in. I passed the others and didn’t take my eyes off the dark horizon. “We can make it. We can make it. We can make it. We can make it. We can make it. We can make it. We can make it!”

I heard the others follow me, and the teenagers repeated my words nine times, just as I had.

“We can make it… We can make it… We can make it…”

Amidst Paulo and Lethia’s chants, I heard Quincy grumble, “If we do make it, it’ll be in a very annoying fashion.”

There was a beat of silence from her. Then:

“If we do make it–”


Back to Chapter 42.4 | Forward to Chapter 43.2

Chapter 42.4

ELMIRYN______________________

Now that she was actually trying to walk straight on it, Elmiryn found she disagreed with the feel of asphalt. It was hard and cold and unnatural. She decided this was not the kind of place she wanted to vomit on all fours, so she made an effort to keep from letting vertigo swing her inebriation into the deep realms of unpleasantness. The challenge was increased, she found, by…well…a great many things.

The glare from the tall glass buildings hurt her eyes. The car exhaust from the rush hour traffic, and the steaming sewer grates created a ripe dizzying smell that was dwarfed only by the slum streets of Fiamma. The city also felt noisy with its car honks and people yelling. Elmiryn actually thought she’d prefer Tiesmire to this ruckus.

Then there was the bizarre wonderland that was Molly and Julie’s territory. There were moving pictures on the giant billboards, each waving to each other and shooing pigeons off of their signs. Mixed in with the ordinary people were cartoon characters made of crayon and objects come to life, like statues and stuffed animals.

Elmiryn even saw a pink elephant squeeze its way into a compact car.

To make matters even worse, her head still ached from the want (or rejection–she couldn’t tell which) of forbidden knowledge. Her thoughts as she tried to make sense of things were wild and varied.

Cars have to go to gas stations, but why isn’t anyone stopping at this one? Isn’t that blue metal box on the sidewalk a ‘gas station’? Why the FUCK is that guy putting paper into it!?

Hakeem, meanwhile, seemed immune from the effects of being in a world not his own. He was alert, his eyes searching their surroundings as if expecting an attack any minute.

“How come ya aren’ havin’ a hard time like me?” Elmiryn muttered resentfully. “Doesn’ this world confuse ya?”

At the question the wizard suddenly chuckled. It was a quick, tight sound.

“Confuse me? Fiamman, I was struck dumb! I could not move or speak for how much pain and fear I felt!” he answered.

Elmiryn blinked at him. “So how’d you get better?”

“That girl. Molly. She seems to have your penchant for…ah…rearranging things that are unseen. It took a few days. She didn’t trust me out right. I’ve only been in my right mind for a little over a day now.”

“I’ve been here before. I wasn’ havin’ this much trouble last time…” Elmiryn said with a pout.

Hakeem nodded, giving her an intent look. “I know. I watched you.”

“Huh?”

He sighed. “It was before Izma sent me here. I was still with you all, but it was during her mind games with Lethia. She made me watch what everyone went through.”

Elmiryn scowled. “Why jes you?”

Hakeem raised an eyebrow at her. “Haven’t you been paying attention to what Molly and Julie have been telling you? The demon used me.”

“Nuh, uh. That don’ explain it, wizard. Ya said Izma made ya watch what everyone went through first. But if she wanted to send ya here and replace ya with a doll all along, why bother?”

He shrugged. “I don’t pretend to know everything. The best I can guess is that this is simply the demon’s way. She likes to watch others suffer.”

Elmiryn crossed her arms. “She wouldn’t have made you watch for nothing. She wanted to get into your head.” The woman’s eyes narrowed. “That’s it, innit? She showed you something so horrible, it made you not want to come back.”

“I’m not afraid,” Hakeem said ominously. “I’ve told you to leave the matter alone.”

“She got to you, wizard. But you know what…?” Elmiryn took a deep breath to say what came next. When this initial preparation fell short, the warrior paused on the sidewalk, hands on hips, and glared down at her boots. She mumbled through stiff lips. “She got to me too.”

Elmiryn looked up at Hakeem to see him standing and watching her with an unreadable expression. She thumbed at her chest.

“Maybe the drink is the only reason I can say it out loud, but Izma got to all of us! I could see as much in the others when we were fighting her. She’s a demon who feeds off of sadness and hopelessness. That’s how she works!”

The redhead flicked a hand. “But you know what? Fuck ‘er. We all survived!”

Hakeem gave a soft snort. “So I should just come back? Forget everything I saw and heard?”

“Uh, yeah. Thas’ bas-ic-ally what I jes said!”

“If you knew the things that I knew…” but the man broke off, turning and walking stiffly down the sidewalk. “Just take my word for it, Elmiryn. It is not so simple!”

Elmiryn stared after him, mouth open as she tried to grasp at the wispy, but very important detail that she suspected was staring her in the face.

What’s with this idiot? Being changed into a child didn’t faze him, but he sees some stuff and falls apart!

Then the warrior’s brows knitted together as she hurried in a haphazard line to catch up with the man.

And the hell does he mean, ‘If I knew what he knew that I…knew…what? …No…’

Elmiryn palmed her face as she fell into step a little after Hakeem.

I’m too drunk for this shit.

The rest of their walk continued in silence. Just when Elmiryn thought she was going to throw up again, Hakeem turned sharply down a narrow alley. Bewildered, she followed him until they took yet another turn, and that’s when she saw it.

This gateway was smaller than the ones that she had encountered, but there was no mistaking its shimmering energy against the alley’s dead end brick wall. She hurried toward it eagerly, but stopped when she realized Hakeem was no longer with her. When Elmiryn looked back, it was to see the man already backpedaling away, his face tense. For a fleeting moment, the redhead had an extreme idea:

If I grab him, maybe I can push him in?

But she discarded this quickly. She was in no shape to be wrestling with someone of Hakeem’s stature. Besides, the man would probably just leap right back the way he’d come.

“Ya really oughta come with me, Hakeem,” Elmiryn said somberly.

“I will return. I promise,” was his stony response.

The warrior cursed. “Yer askin’ a lot o’ me, y’know? If Quincy thinks ya died when I destroy that doll thing, she’ll…” she trailed off meaningfully.

Hakeem turned and started to walk away. “I trust you’ll do the right thing. Take care of my wife while I’m away. She’s more vulnerable than she’d like for people to think.”

Elmiryn sighed and let her shoulders sink as she watched the wizard round the corner out of sight.

“Yeah?” she muttered. “Well the same goes for you!”

Turning back around, the warrior appraised the gateway critically. Then she wagged a finger at it.

“Ya better take me home! I mean it! Or I’ll tell all the other portals jes how teeny ya really are!”

Just for good measure, she gave the gateway a stern glare, before stepping through.

 

LETHIA________________________

The date is unknown. I’m not even sure what time of day it is. Maybe I just won’t bother with that sort of thing for this. It seems a trivial thing to care for in a place that doesn’t follow time.

Before I write anything more, I just want to apologize to the soul whom I must now borrow this journal from. Jydel Anv.

Dear Jydel,

I found your journal near our camp when I was scavenging with my dog companion, Argos. It was wrapped up in cloth in a torn knapsack. Some of the earlier pages were damaged by the damp snow, but some were preserved. I was able to read enough to know that you were forced to become a guard at Holzoff’s, like so many were, and I know you were young. Not even fifteen. It was not fair that you met your fate at the claws of the daesce. I can’t presume to know what your last moments were like, but judging from your last entries, your guardmates were of the unsavory sort, and they must have left you behind at a critical moment for you to fall prey to the monsters. In that regard, I think we can relate to one another. I too know the sting of that kind of betrayal.

Maybe that’s how I should approach this? I’ll just write to you, from now on, Jydel. Pardon the charcoal. It was the only thing I could find to write with.

I wonder if the gods would frown down on me for writing on the pages of a dead man? Oh, but I’m almost certain they despise me anyways for all the taint I’ve been exposed to. Being a demon’s plaything and a mad woman’s prisoner leaves a person less than pure…

I’m sorry. I’ll stop. I’m not ignorant to my own self-pity. I know I should be stronger, and I’ve tried in awkward spurts to be just that, but my strength as of late seems so fleeting. I wanted to help my companions in our most recent struggle, but when the battle was over and I looked back, it really felt that nothing I did could make up for the harm I had caused. The others seemed to agree. Nyx, for instance, loathes me. I can hear it echoing in her thoughts sometimes. She’s been more on guard these days, trying to build walls around her mind. I think it was the revelation that Paulo is also an enchanter that did it. I don’t blame her. Two unstable enchanters must make a person feel paranoid…

My apologies again, Jydel! I’m talking about these people as if you know them.

Nyx is an Ailuran. She’s suffered a lot in her life, and more so these past few weeks. You should know that she’s Marked, but she is not a bad person. Like you, Jydel, she just made mistakes. Honestly, out of this strange group, she is the only one who might understand how I’m feeling right now, but also out of this group, she is the one whom I’ve hurt the most. It’s cruel the way life works sometimes. I wish I could make it up to her…

Quincy is a human wizard. She’s a bounty hunter–or was, I should say. Given her decision to help me sometime ago, I doubt she has much of a career to return to. Bounty hunters going back on their contracts is not a small thing. To be fair, of this group, she is the one who dislikes me the least. She’s more focused on trying to keep her husband alive.

Hakeem is a Fanaean wizard like her but he is in a coma and getting weaker by the day. I won’t bother talking about him much. I don’t think he’ll survive.

Argos is my dog companion, as I mentioned before. As a puppy, he was the subject of an illegal experiment by a satyr, and so grew very large and is very intelligent. I’ve always had an affinity for reading the minds of animals to begin with, so Argos and I, we speak telepathically. Very recently, my friend was apparently the agent of the god Lacertli. I doubt you’ve heard of him. I certainly hadn’t until recently!

Then there’s Paulo. He’s…

Actually I don’t want to write about him. Just know that Paulo is a young human man whom I’ve hurt the same, if not worse, than Nyx. It goes without saying that he dislikes me. Intensely.

I believe that just about covers the basics for you, Jydel. I’m afraid I’m tiring, and fast. I will have to resume this some other time. Nyx and Quincy are returning from their scavenging, and Paulo is once again absent. We’re all doing our part to prepare for the journey to Syria’s tower, where we hope to find our escape from this place. It should be any day now…

————-

Dear Jydel,

I had a nightmare last night. Syria taught me that when an enchanter has nightmares they should be heeded. You see, in enchantment we see nightmares as more than just warnings. They are used as a tool by the animus to communicate with the intellect. What was my nightmare, then?

I dreamt of devouring myself, flesh and bone.

Yes, I know. Sometimes I wish my animus had better communication skills.

————-

jydel,

today was a bad one. i cannot even bring myself to say why. writing this alone takes effort.

i’m not sure i can wait till we get back to do it

————-

Dear Jydel,

Forgive my poor writing yesterday. Have you ever been so depressed you could not sit up, let alone move or speak? That was just such a day. That doesn’t excuse the childish scrawl I gave you, however. This is what happened that brought on such a thing–

I was out scavenging with Argos when I came across Paulo in the snow. Argos and I never travel far, and we usually search to the south. You see, unlike the others, I cannot defend myself adequately, and my companion can only do so much to protect me. The deeper into the valley, the more dangerous it is–as I’m sure you’re aware. Further north is much the same. Thus, why I was surprised to see Paulo. He usually delves deep and far northwest into the valley, but for some reason he had bothered to come around where we were.

To summarize things for you, I promised Paulo something grave in order to convince him to go to Syria’s tower. You see, he didn’t want to go. He was scared, and I understand why. As an untrained enchanter, his thoughts go unchecked, and his power has the curious effect of amplifying his mind. I saw his fears.

When he first visited Syria’s tower so long ago, back when he was hunting me as a bounty, he became afflicted by Izma’s taint. It was worse for his vulnerability as a magic caster. Since he lacked training… Well, you can understand it as a gaping wound having salt rubbed into it. Hard. It was traumatizing to him. He became haunted with visions and a constant pain throughout his body. Who would want to return to the place that started all this after such an experience?

But I offered him something he cannot resist. A chance at closure.

Argos protested of course. It pained me to do that to my friend, but I had to wipe that memory from his head to stop him interfering. He is suspicious now. He keeps asking me why Paulo changed his mind. Oh, how I loathe myself for treating my best friend so poorly! I don’t know what else I could have done. Argos certainly deserves better than me.

I’ve digressed. Back to what happened yesterday–

When Paulo sought me out in the snow, I suppose he was afraid I’d back out on our agreement. He threatened me. His words sent me low, and I had to return to camp early.

It’s sort of funny now, looking back. After the deal we struck, what could Paulo possibly threaten me with?

————-

Dear Jydel,

The day has come! We are leaving this terrible place. We have cloaks with hoods to protect from the chilly winds. We have enough food and firewood that, if properly rationed, should last us at least another five days. We’ll have to hunt for more meat, possibly. Quincy believes she can scrape out some more usable wood from her magical bag in an emergency. Together, we’ve either scavenged or fashioned tools for the trip. The one thing we still greatly lack is proper rope. Whatever ties we could scrounge up have gone to the task of hauling Hakeem’s limp body along in a sort of gurney. I was afraid to say it before, but I agree with Nyx. Trying to carry an unconscious man over the mountains with our poor resources is impractical. But we need Quincy to come with us–to fend off threats if nothing else, and believe me, that is plenty.

She cannot be convinced to see Nyx’s arguments, and Nyx is a vermagus. Have you heard of those, Jydel? Well. I suppose all you need to understand is that if Nyx cannot convince Quincy, the rest of us certainly can’t.

The others are calling me. I have to go now. We’re so close. If we can just get through this, I may find a way to make it up to everyone.


Back to Chapter 42.3 | Forward to Chapter 43.1

Chapter 42.3

NYX__________________________

More time passed. The slight shift from dark to utter dark was the only real indication I had of the day passing, but pass it did. One more day in that accursed snow, with these accursed people. I was at my limit. Now that I knew I could leave, I was determined to do so.

Paulo had been gone since the night before when he’d stormed off. Lethia had finally left the campfire. Earlier in the day, she had wandered out into the daesce valley, out of sight, Argos pressed protectively to her side. Quincy and I didn’t stop her, or even said anything to her. I was preoccupied with getting ready for the trek to Syria’s tower. Quincy too, in a way…

“There’s lots of scrap out there, Ailuran,” she said to my back.

I was busy stitching my new daesce cloak from grubby string and thin strips of fraying cloth and did my best to ignore the nettle in the wizard’s voice.

Quincy, persistent as ever, continued her nagging: “A gurney can be easily fashioned for Hakeem, and quickly, if I could just have your help!”

“First of all, human,” I said icily without so much as raising my head. “If you want me to even listen to you, you’ll have to refer to me by my given name. Second, I have already told you my reasons for not doing as you so brusquely ask!”

“Poor reasons!” Quincy spat. “Cold and cruel! This is my husband. I will not leave him in the snow!”

“Then I will leave you both in the snow,” I snapped, finally feeling my patience give. I turned and glared at the brunette with heat in my cheeks. “You think I feel good about leaving Hakeem behind? He saved my life. I will never forget that! The debt that places me in weighs heavily, and Ailurans always repay their debts–!”

“So then help him–!” Quincy started.

I cut her off, my voice rising, along with my ire. “But what you’re asking me to do? It’s unreasonable! Even Lethia says the man is gone. What you have there, Quincy is a huskThe only way I can repay my debt to Hakeem now is to end his half-existence, give him a proper burial, and work hard not to squander the life he so generously helped me to keep! But I’m not! Why? Because you’re still clinging to him! Now is that mercy, or is that in fact the ‘cruelty’ you so keenly sense in me!?”

Quincy stared at me, astonished. In the time we had known each other, I had never spoken to her this way. I could see it in her eyes, the degree to which I had gone out of her expectations. It made me disgusted. With her. With myself. I stood to my feet, throwing my work off to my side of the camp.

“I’m going for a walk,” I announced tightly.

I marched out into the snow–not toward Holzoff’s, but down the lonely trail we had first come when we arrived on this shard. We had quickly found it to be an area of little practical use, save to find some time alone. But maybe it wasn’t so useless, because that was just what I needed right then. Solitude.

Away from the campfire, I could feel the cold grip me, reaching deep past my clothes and my flesh to the bone. It was nearly pitch dark out here. Such was night in the Other Place. A lightless nether world that existed outside of natural law. The oppression of this atmosphere was powerful.

When I lifted my hands, I saw they were black forms, nothing more than shadow. I could feel the darkness around me, thanks to my Champion powers, and it felt almost suffocating. It were as if my whole being were becoming one with them, and as unpleasant as it was, I thought it was appropriate.

I felt black, down to my soul.

“She speaks to him now,” Lacertli’s voice said behind me.

I turned, but slowly. The Lizard King stood further up the trail, his back to our camp. The god had not appeared or spoken directly to me in days. There was a part of me that resented him, but this was a small part. The rest of me knew that, while I was still capable, survival was my job, not anyone else’s.

“You’re talking about Lethia,” I said. My voice sounded tired.

“Yes,” was all I got in response.

“He might hurt her,” I mused, looking down at the ground. I couldn’t see my feet in the snow and darkness.

“Perhaps.”

“Should I go to her, sir?”

“Dost thou need her to be whole and well?”

I shook my head. “…No, sir.”

“Are ye certain?”

Now I looked up at him, confused. “Pardon me asking, but what do you mean? Are you suggesting I do need her somehow?”

Lacertli shrugged. “Have ye been to Syria’s tower before?”

“No. But we are taking a way unfamiliar to Artaud anyways! She pointed me in the direction–”

“Generalities have been the death of many an adventurer, Nyx,” Lacertli said calmly. “Thine supplies art limited and these cold lands art treacherous. At times, depending on Lady Fortuna is unavoidable when surviving. But I would advise against putting one’s entire lot in her whimsical hands.”

My jaw clenched and I started my way back up the snow. “Fine,” I grumbled. “I’ll see about the girl.”

As I neared Lacertli’s shadowy form, he stopped me with a raised hand.

“Thou mistake my musing as a command. The girl faces her own demons. Let her.”

I looked at him, annoyed. “Then what–”

“How is thy thread and ‘needle’ serving you?” His tone sounded deliberately ironic, and I thought I could see his smirk in the dark.

I glared at him, feeling my cheeks burn. “It serves me just fine!” I bit out out defensively.

My so called ‘thread’, the one I was using to stitch my daesce cloak, was little more than scavenged bits of string and frayed strips of cloth tied together. My ‘needle’ was a small rusty nail whose head I’d bashed into a poor eyelet. The holes in my cloak were a bit stretched as a result. I’d reasoned that so long as the damned thing lasted me to Syria’s, then it wouldn’t matter.

Lacertli just chuckled at me.

I threw my hands up in the air with a loud growl. “What, sir!? What am I missing now?”

“Search the present, Nyx. What is amiss?”

“Elmiryn’s not here,” I spat without thinking. When my cheeks burned hotter, I hurried to add. “I mean that she would have figured something out by now!”

The god crossed his arms and looked me in the eyes. His gaze was glowing a fierce gold. “But what would she have figured out?”

“A way to deal with these people!” I cried out in frustration. “As aggressive as she was, she was still better at dealing with others than I was!”

“Dost thou truly believe this to be true?”

“Of course,” I said with a caustic laugh. “Me and others? Specifically them?” I pointed up toward camp. “It’s a disaster!”

Lacertli shook his head with a small sigh. “As a being who can shape the shadows to her liking, one would think ye’d see the shadows in social interaction as well…”

My brow wrinkled. “Huh?”

With an air of suffering the god covered his face with one hand. “Thou art just putting on a show, Nyx. A shadow play. And the result of thy ham-handed performance makes itself known in the way thy company behaves and treats thee.”

I scowled. “You’re saying Lethia’s depression, Quincy’s denialism, and Paulo’s brooding is my fault? I can’t be held responsible for that!”

“True,” The god lifted his face from his clawed hand and looked at me sideways. “But even animals depend on a natural form of cooperation to survive. Thou true obstacle is not thy company, nor even thy impending journey. No. The obstacle, the thing holding thee back, are thine attempts at appearing self-reliant to cover thy hurt over Elmiryn’s apparent abandonment. It speaks of dependence and this nettles you. Nyx, I am the path. And this is the Present thou art standing in. My advice, as thy patron, is to cease with thy misplaced pride and self-victimization. Go to your comrades, for they are all you have.”

I could feel the invisible hackles rise on my back as I clenched my hands. At first, I thought a hiss was building up in my throat, but when it grew tighter and tighter, I realized it was a sob. My eyes burned.

I turned away, unable to look at Lacertli anymore.

Kali! I thought inwardly. I sought my sister out with a sort of desperation. In the time since our last fight with Syria, my twin had taken to resting deep within our mind. At my sudden presence in her mental sanctuary, she rose, yawning and stretching.

Hmmm? she grumbled. What is it?

Would you like to take control for a while? I asked in a rush.

This took her aback, just like I thought it would.

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. What happened? What did I miss?

Nothing, I shot back. It’s a yes or no question. Do you want control or not?

Kali sat on her haunches and seemed to think a moment, her black ears pinning back.

To my surprise, she slowly shook her head.

No, she said.

What!? Why?

Because, she responded sharply. We share our memories, and I can already see you want me to deal with your annoying humans for you. Well I won’t.

With a disdainful snort, she turned her back to me and laid back down on her bed of pleasant thoughts and memories. I will have my time in the world, sister. But it won’t be just to clean up your messes!

Huffing, I opened my eyes.

“Thy plan failed, I see.”

I groaned. I’d thought the god would just vanish now that he’d said his piece.

“Sir, please…”

“Please, what? I have said nothing.”

I looked at him with anguish. “It was…childish of me. To do what I just did. I know that.” My words felt hard to say. I felt equal parts embarrassed and angry. Angry that Kali hadn’t taken up my offer.

“What have I said about trapping thyself within concepts of right and wrong doing? They are illusions of society. That is not my domain. Is being childish detrimental to one’s survival? Perhaps in some scenarios, yes. But this god also recognizes that a child is resilient and resourceful in ways that adults cannot be. Having someone like Kali take over for thee? A messy choice, to be certain, but a choice that might have actually worked compared to thy recent conduct. Pity thy skills for persuasion are as poor in childish pursuits as they are in adult ones…”

I slumped, letting my head fall to my chest. Having a god basically call you both immature and ineffectual was in no way pleasant. “Fine, fine, fine!” I whined. “But regardless, I don’t want to be seen as a child. Not by you or anyone else!”

“In that case, stop acting like one,” Lacertli snapped. “This isn’t a riddle, Nyx.”

I raised my head, ready to shoot off something defensive when I realized Lacertli was gone.

With a heavy sigh, I turned and looked back toward camp.

“All right then,” I mumbled.

Once I returned from the trail, I stopped next to Quincy, but couldn’t think of what to say right away. She looked up at me with as icy a stare as you could expect from someone who hated you.

Grudgingly, I pointed toward my side of the camp, where my daesce cloak lay. “A needle and thread. So that I can finish my cloak. I’m sure you must have some in that magic bag of yours. Give me those, and I’ll help you make what you need to take Hakeem with us to Syria’s tower.”

Quincy narrowed her eyes at me. “Why the change of heart?”

With one hand on my hip, I wearily pressed my fingers into my closed eyelids. “Quincy…” I lowered my hand and glared at her. “You need help with Hakeem. Argos doesn’t have opposable thumbs, I doubt Paulo would be so eager, and Lethia doesn’t have the strength. That just leaves me. Do I agree with your reasons? No. But it’s what you want, and I’m willing to help you so long as you help me. So will you give me a needle and thread or not?”

Quincy pursed her lips and looked down at Hakeem. After days without proper food, the man did not look so good. He was turning pale and he’d lost an unhealthy amount of weight.

“Stitch cloaks for the rest of us too, and I’ll toss in one of my lesser magicked items,” the wizard said primly.

My mouth dropped. “That’d take me even longer to finish! Another two days at the least! What are you going to do about Hakeem in the meantime!?”

“I’ve been mixing in well chewed bits of food with his water. It isn’t a lot, but it’s giving his body enough nutrients to last a few more days. Once I get back to our world, I can find an alchemist who can help to sustain him!”

At my skeptical look, the wizard gave a harsh sigh. “All right! I’ll give you two lesser magicked items! Does that work for you!?”

I shrugged my hands. “What am I going to do with magicked items? I’m not a wizard!”

“The keyword you’re missing is that they are lesser, meaning you don’t need any particular skill to use them! I have several items to choose from, and some of them can be very useful. Do we have a deal?”

I stuck out my hand after a second of thought. “Deal.”

Quincy turned away, but in that fleeting moment when we shook hands, I could see her features ease to something akin to relief. She turned to look at her hip and pulled her magic bag from her belt. Reaching in, she searched for a few minutes before producing the needle and thread. It was the same ones she’d used to make Hakeem his makeshift clothing in the blackwood.

Taking these, I eagerly sat down to begin work on my cloak. She meanwhile, searched her bag again, promising to produce the magicked items for me to choose from.

As our camp fell to a quiet that could be ranked as the least tense since we’d gotten there, we heard someone approaching. Both of us stood, ready to fight. Normally the others announced themselves before coming to camp, so if it was a daesce, we were going to have to fight it off.

But when Lethia, Paulo, and Argos entered into the camp light, we visibly relaxed.

Lethia trailed after Paulo, her head bowed. Argos was at her side, as usual, yet he seemed on edge. Paulo walked a little head of them, his head raised in what looked almost like defiance. The runed scars on his skin seemed a shade darker as he glared at Quincy and I.

“I’ve changed my mind,” he said stiffly. “I’ll go with you to Syria’s tower.” Then he went to his side of the camp and sat harshly onto the icy ground, ripping his hood up over his head before fixing a glare into the fire.

Lethia meekly sat down adjacent to him. Argos, to my surprise, came to me.

“Hullo, you,” I said, not a little bemused. Much as I disliked his owner, I liked the dog just fine.

He whined and gave my cheek a soft lick.

Leaning in, I whispered. “How did Lethia manage to convince him, Argos?”

Argos growled and turned to look back at the teenagers. My eyebrows rose and I looked at them too.

I thought about my conversation with Lacertli, and as embarrassed as it had me feel, I realized something.

As the god explained to me, even animals depended on a natural form of cooperation to survive. Did I need Lethia to be whole and well for this cooperation to work? Well enough, at least, to lead us to Syria’s. Did I need Paulo’s compliance for this cooperation to work? Obviously, but his cooperation was desired in the first place because he knew these lands now better than any of us. So that took care of their relations with me.

But did their relations with each other threaten the survival of our group? And if so, in what way?

…And what in gods name could I do about it?


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