Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 44.1

NYX__________________________

“Is there anything Lethia could use to hurt herself with?” I asked in a rush. “An axe, a sword, even a shovel?” I was already backpedaling for the door.

 

Quincy’s face went long and her eyes wide. “There was a small hatchet in the barn. Lethia saw it when you two came to find us!”

 

“Damn it!” I snarled as I ran out the door.

 

Behind me, I could hear Argos running, his paws rapidly thundering over the grassy earth, and in no time, the canine had eclipsed me. Ahead of us was the lit up barn.

 

It was about halfway there that I heard screaming, and I stumbled in my run, my heart skipping a beat. I almost didn’t want to get there. I almost didn’t want to see. But twisting my guts into knots was the unsettling possibility that Lethia could die from this…and it would be my fault. She had spoken to no else about her unusual requests, and hadn’t Lacertli warned me that something odd was going on between her and Paulo?

 

I broke into a sprint, clearing the barn doors before skidding to a halt.

 

Blood. It seemed to be everywhere. There was one large pool of it further toward the back, where I could see a sharp indentation cut into the waist-high partition of a barn stall. It spilled down the side, and it had sprayed onto the walls and stall posts as though someone had swung the weapon hard. The blood trail seemed to circle around in confusion from there. Crimson footprints went all over the place.

 

Daedalus was pale, his eyes bugged as he ran and clumsily grabbed a coil of rope off of a hook on a post. His entire front was covered in red. He ran back to one of the rear barn stalls, the one that Lethia had been so fastidiously cleaning earlier, and he paid me no attention. I couldn’t see where Argos was until the elven man pushed the dog into view. The canine’s white muzzle was stained with red, and he whined anxiously, his body dropping low to the ground like he was faint.

 

Lying on the ground near Argos was the bloody hatchet.

 

My skin went cold as I slowly approached. The barn had gone eerily quiet after the piercing screams I had just heard. Behind me, I heard Quincy and Paulo finally catch up. I didn’t turn to look at them.

 

It seemed to take ages to clear the stall’s partition.

 

When I did, what I saw made me feel….

 

Cold? Sick? Sorry?

 

The truth was I felt numb.

 

My horror felt tiny and far off. Inadequate. Like it couldn’t encompass the depth of feelings that coursed through me all at once, making me feel strangely and very suddenly detached. Daedalus was yelling something, and Quincy and Paulo crowded behind me, shouting and cursing, and even Argos seemed beside himself with grief as he rubbed his snout into the dirt and swiped at his ears with his paws.

 

Lethia lay in a pile of hay, her eyes silently streaming with tears as she stared up at the rafters like she was seeing something bigger and greater beyond our realm. For a surreal moment, it appeared as if she were dead, but then she winced and looked at Daedalus when he took the rope he had grabbed and tied it over the bloody stump her left forearm had become. With shaking fingers, he pressed the top and bottom end of her wound where the blood gushed the most.

 

The wound was just below the elbow, and I noted faintly that the hacked flesh was uneven. It was about then that everything finally hit me. Lethia hadn’t been able to cut through her arm in one swing. From the looks of it, it had taken three swings in total. Most likely she had become faint partway through, but her commitment to harming herself was disturbingly plain.

 

Daedalus was barking instructions at Quincy, because she was the only one of us who seemed to have it together enough to assist him.

 

“I need thread to tie off her radial and ulnar arteries or she will bleed out!” Daedalus seethed at the wizard.

 

Quincy fumbled for her magic bag. “All right I’m looking, tai’undu, I’m looking!”

 

“Why would she do this?” Paulo breathed behind us, slowly shaking his head. “She’s out of her mind! Why would she do this?”

 

“Shut up!” I spat at him.

 

He jumped and stared at me, taken aback.

 

“Lethia was grieving and repentant!” I continued angrily. “She was looking for a way to make it up to everyone! Even to you!” I looked at her sadly. “But none of us wanted to listen….”

 

“We can feel sorry for her later, Nyx!” Quincy sniped.

 

“Yes! Quite!” Daedalus said sternly. “Ailuran, please retrieve my medical bag from the cart. And hurry! We’ll need to disinfect this wound immediately!” Next he looked at Paulo. “And you, boy! Bring one of the lanterns. If any of you have a blade, put it in the flame and hold it there. We’ll be needing it soon to cauterize these arteries!”

 

Given our orders, we could only exchange brief grim looks before running off to gather the required supplies.

 

When I returned I handed the leather medical bag to Quincy, who quickly opened it and pulled out a clear bottle of liquid. Daedalus, who had tied off Lethia’s arteries, grabbed the bottle.

 

“Hold her!” He barked before he ripped out the cork with his teeth.

 

We didn’t need telling twice. Paulo took Lethia’s legs. Quincy took her left shoulder, and I took her right. Daedalus, seeing his patient secured, started to pour the liquid liberally over the girl’s arm.

 

Lethia, who up to this point had been lost in mute shock, suddenly and violently tilted her head back and screamed. She thrashed wildly, her body straining against our collective grip.

 

I was grateful when Daedalus set the bottle aside, but this relief was short-lived. What he picked up next was the heated knife.

 

Without a word, he pressed this to Lethia’s wound, at one of the points that he’d been holding before. The flesh sizzled, a small line of steam curling into the air before vanishing from sight.

 

Just as before, Lethia cried out and writhed, but we held her still again. This time though, she regained her ability to speak, “Gods help me! I had to do it, I had to! Halward! Mercy! PLEASE!

 

Daedalus cauterized the other artery before loosening the tourniquet and pulling out clean bandage cloth from his healing bag. Without saying a word, the elf grimly dressed Lethia’s wound. I watched, transfixed, as the cloth wound its way around the ugly flesh, concealing it from sight. When that task was finished, the elf stood and said quietly to Quincy, “Keep it elevated,” and like a ghost, he drifted outside.

 

I gazed after him, concerned, before asking Quincy, “Are you—?”

 

“I’ve got it,” she said tersely. She couldn’t meet my eyes. I was glad she couldn’t. I wasn’t sure I could meet anyone else’s gaze either.

 

With a solemn nod, I stood and went after Daedalus. I found the elf standing just outside the barn doors next to his cart. He was leaning on the outer wall, his eyes closed and his head bowed. I paused, wondering if I should intrude on this man’s show of emotion, but he turned and glared at me.

 

“She tricked me,” he rasped through a tight throat. “She had started telling me about Syria’s domination by a demon. How the woman had been led astray for years without anyone ever knowing anything. Then she said she needed help, and that was why she summoned me here. She asked me to get my medicine bag while she went to check on the patient you had mentioned to me. I was outside when it started.” He snorted and bowed his head again. “She was fast and she didn’t hesitate. Even…even when she had to strike again, the poor child did not stop, and like an old fool I could only gape at her until it was too late!”

 

“If anyone is to blame, it is me,” I said quietly. “I could’ve put things together, but I…” I trailed off and looked away. None of this was about me, and I felt irritated and ashamed at my reflexive self-pity.

 

“No, Ailuran. I know Lethia. She knew what she was doing,” Daedalus assured me in a way that was clearly more matter of fact than sympathetic. He was now staring off into the night with a haunted look. “When it was done, she…she whimpered to me that…her flesh was for a blood debt. She feels responsible for what Syria had done. All those people she killed and hurt.” He looked at me sidelong. “She also let slip, before the blood loss made her too weak, that she wanted to show everyone her resolve to make things right. That she had promised to.”

 

I shook my head earnestly. “We didn’t want this! None of us did!”

 

“It doesn’t matter what you wanted!” Daedalus retorted angrily. “Don’t you understand? This wasn’t about any of you! All that mattered to Lethia was her need to prove herself!” The elf straightened and narrowed his eyes at me. “How well do you know Lethia Artaud, Marked One? How long have you been in her company that you have managed to fail to understand the central trait that makes her who she is?”

 

He thrust a finger at the barn and spit flew from his mouth when he barked next, “Lethia is entirely defined by her honor! It is imperative to someone like her that the people she finds important feel they can rely on her! She does this through honesty, sacrifice, and commitment! And I don’t mean the superficial virtues they teach those air headed hooligans in schools, with their happy sing-alongs, but an extreme sort of dedication! It is spiritual for her! It is life and death!

 

I could believe this. Hindsight revealed so much. Hadn’t Lethia fought to rescue Syria, even when all the odds pointed to her being captured and killed? She’d even fought to go on after suffering a terrible injury. And didn’t the enchantress take extreme offense that time Elmiryn’s teasing had suggested she was of lesser character?

 

“But what now?” I asked, frowning. “Do…do you think she’ll try to harm herself further?”

 

Daedalus scowled. “I don’t know. Lethia only managed to tell me a small part of her tale before mutilating herself. Extremely honor-bound or not, for a young girl to be of such a dangerous frame of mind toward herself…that does not suggest an individual capable of refraining from self-harm. With the right trigger, she might try. Humans are volatile that way.”

 

I nodded slowly, lips pursed and my throat tightening. We were officially on suicide watch, then. Assuming, of course, that Lethia survived her traumatic injury, the girl couldn’t be left alone anymore.

 

Expectedly, I thought of Marquis and his efforts to keep me from trying to commit suicide. I covered my face with my hand and sighed heavily. Did my friend feel this same immense sort of pressure when he was trying to help me?

 

Did I have it in me to help like Marquis had?

 

A ridiculous question, perhaps. But when I turned to walk back into the barn, it was as if a barrier stopped me, and I found myself gazing in with tear-clouded eyes. I couldn’t see Lethia or Quincy behind the partition. Argos was off by himself, staring into a corner, head bowed. Paulo paced slowly, his eyes listlessly taking in the environment before refocusing on the enchantress every time he drew near. This was a place I didn’t fit into.

 

I had to be honest with myself. I was still angry at Lethia.

 

In my chest, I harbored a sick, heavy resentment that, in truth, I didn’t entirely understand. I kept picking the various reasons apart when I had the chance to, like my anger was a scab and I couldn’t just let it heal. One moment, it felt like forgiveness was possible. Then in another, my fury drove me to a distant silence. I even sometimes got confused as to what I was even really mad about. Who was I most upset with? Izma? Lethia? Elmiryn?

 

And in a sudden rush, I realized that perhaps my pain had been displaced. After all, with Izma gone, and Elmiryn missing, who else could I lash out at?

 

Except Lethia was fighting for her life, and there I was, debating on whether or not she deserved my anger.

 

I let out a loud yell of frustration and slammed the heels of my palms into the sides of my head.

 

Sometimes, I wish I could stop thinking so much!

 

You and me both, Kali responded wryly.

 

As I forced myself back into the barn, my sister then asked. Why did Lethia think cutting off her arm was going to make things better?

 

Didn’t you hear what Daedalus said? It’s because she has a blood debt.

 

What is that?

 

We have one ourselves, sister. It’s when a dishonorable death takes place and you were somehow involved in it, intentionally or not. Some people dedicate their whole lives to make up for that. It’s about honor.

 

Kali snorted. Feh. Honor! It just causes trouble…

 

My mouth puckered. Not always, Kali.

 

Really? I wouldn’t care if a human wanted to cut out his own liver and have it for dinner, but if one of the people we need to rely on purposefully mutilates themselves over a silly idea, then I can’t help but be concerned!

 

I’m not condoning her actions. I just understand why she did them.

 

Of course you understand. You almost killed us both over the same stupid notion.

 

I scowled in irritation. I’ll thank you not to go dredging up painful memories for the sake of taking jabs at me!

 

I was only telling the truth… My twin grumbled, before slipping back into the deeper parts of our mind.

 

Inside the barn, I hesitated just near the partition that hid Lethia. With a breath, I rounded it and sit down next to her in the hay. She was frightfully pale and sweating badly. Quincy was ladling water into her mouth that Paulo must have fetched when I was lost in my reverie. The boy was gone now. Perhaps to check on Hakeem. Or maybe just to get away from the sight of Lethia. I ground my teeth just at the latter thought. If that were the case, then I was going to have words with the young Moretti.

 

Which led me to wonder next: what reason did Paulo have to stay here? We were back in our dimension now, and he hated this place, as he often made clear. So what was keeping him around? Why didn’t he just leave, especially given his dislike of Lethia and his resentment of Quincy? Lacertli had hinted at the trouble between Lethia and Paulo, and I’d been too foolish to act on it. But was it really over? Could something else happen, should these two remain in close proximity? Enough grievous damage had been done, what else could possibly go wrong?

 

But one glance at Quincy gave me my answer. The wizard had taken full responsibility of Paulo. Perhaps over guilt about Graziano’s death. Or was it more? I didn’t understand the details, and I hadn’t asked. I just knew that Quincy, after Hakeem’s needs had been met, would focus on Paulo. It wasn’t motherly, by any means, but more like some nagging older sister who found herself stuck with an insufferable charge. So then what were my ties to Quincy now? We had struck something close to cordial, me and her, but we didn’t have the same goals. Perhaps the only reason she needed to stay here was because of Hakeem?

 

That made sense. Hakeem was still in a coma, and they were wanted by the local authorities, no doubt. She couldn’t drag an unconscious man across the busy mountain trails and not expect to be seen. And if she couldn’t leave…where could Paulo go? He had a lost look about him, and I realized that for all the time he spent in the Other Place getting older, he was no more emotionally or mentally mature than he had been before. Ironically, in the same way he didn’t have the confidence to come to Syria’s without proper incentive, he wouldn’t have the courage to leave this place on his own.

 

That meant we were all stuck together.

 

Not us, Kali reminded me.

 

I have to wait, I thought back.

 

For what? Her?

 

Yes. Her.

 

Elmiryn was going to come back to our world soon enough, I was sure of it. What I feared was the state I might find her in.

 

I also feared the things I would feel when I did find her.

 

“Quincy, go to your husband,” I murmured to her. We were all tired, it was true. I had no desire to stay awake. But someone had to stay with Lethia. Paulo certainly wasn’t an appropriate choice; Argos, though intelligent and loyal, lacked the ability to administer first aid; and Quincy had other things to worry about, like Hakeem, who also needed close care.

 

The wizard looked at me uncertainly. “She might go into a fever. If she does—”

 

“I don’t think Daedalus will be going anywhere. If I need help, he’ll be here,” I said.

 

The brunette seemed to consider this for a few beats before rising. “All right. Make sure you keep the wound elevated, like Daedalus says.” She started for the exit.

 

“I will.” I focused on Lethia’s face. She appeared to have passed out in the time since I arrived. I was sort of relieved. After all, what do you say to a person who had just cut off one of their limbs?

 

“And Nyx?”

 

I looked over my shoulder. Quincy had stopped at the barn doors and the look on her face was unexpectedly grateful. “Thank you.”

 

I could only nod in response.

 

When she left, I sighed as I turned to face the unconscious enchantress before me. Gingerly I stroked her sweaty forehead with my thumb.

 

“It will be a long night,” I whispered.


Back to Chapter 43.4 | Forward to Chapter 44.2

Chapter 43.4

NYX__________________________

A quick search of the other floors in the tower proved Lethia had been right. We didn’t find much that we could use at all. Quincy and Paulo managed to find some left over firewood that had been kept dry in a shed, as well as a flask of oil. Other than that and the meager supplies we brought with us, we had nothing.

 

Before I left for Belcliff like we had agreed, Quincy stopped me outside of the barn.

 

She pulled out her magic bag and reached her entire arm in. I thought she was finally giving me the low level magic items we had agreed on a while back, but then she extracted a medium sized pouch that jingled. My eyes widened at it.

 

“Is that…?”

 

“Gold,” Quincy answered promptly. “About five hundred worth, give or take. This is a fourth of the reward money I received for Lethia.”

 

“But I don’t need this much!” I protested. I tried to hand the bag back to her, only to have the wizard shove it into my chest firmly.

 

“Just keep it, Ailuran! I have more gold than I know what to do with. If you don’t want to take the lot of it, just be sure you take enough for a few days worth of supplies. Bribery might also be a good idea. We’ll need to make some connections if we’re going to be left in peace up here.”

 

“Fine,” I sighed. Then I added, because it seemed relevant and we hadn’t brought it up as a group: “Lethia wanted me to bring back a friend of hers. Some elf named Daedalus.”

 

Quincy frowned. “Daedalus? Hmm…but is he trustworthy?”

 

I shrugged. “She seems to think so.”

 

“Well why does she want him here?”

 

“She seems to think he can help Hakeem. Maybe even fix things up for us here.”

 

“Hmm,” Quincy frowned.

 

I crossed my arms and stepped a little closer, glancing in Lethia’s direction. She was busy cleaning up a one of the empty animal stalls, a focused look on her face. “Quincy, do you remember that weird exchange Paulo and Lethia had before we got here? Something isn’t right.”

 

She nodded once, glancing at Lethia surreptitiously as well. “Yes. It’s making me uneasy.”

 

“Keep an eye on them, will you? I’m afraid they’re planning something drastic.”

 

Quincy raised an eyebrow at me. “Oh! That sounds like concern. I was under the impression you wanted nothing to do with them?”

 

I glared at her. “Lethia is in a dark place right now, and so is Paulo. Someone saved my life when I was in a similar position. I can’t just sit by and let them ruin their lives, regardless of how I feel about them.”

 

The other woman took a step back, appraising me for a moment. Then she nodded slowly. “I’m starting to understand why Elmiryn is so attached to you, Nyx.”

 

I had nothing to say to that, so I left.

 

—————————–

 

I had our supplies before sunset. So as not to raise suspicion, I only purchased the bare minimum for a few days. It would be too obvious if I bought a wagon full of supplies and headed up to Syria’s tower. People would talk. Left with just one task left to do, I slung my bag of provisions over my shoulder and flipped up the hood of the cloak Quincy lent me.

 

In the waning light, I followed Lethia’s directions, sticking to the shadows and avoiding the main streets whenever possible, and found myself outside of Daedalus’ shop. The elf had been described to me as a tinkerer, but as I looked up at his gold leaf sign, I realized his profession was that of a jeweler. Stepping through the small wooden door, a bell tinkled overhead.

 

A plump human woman with paling ginger hair pinned up in a frizzy bun and rosy red cheeks smiled at me pleasantly as I approached. She had a ruby necklace in her hands that she seemed to be inspecting with a lens. The shop was neat and well-organized, shiny baubles and precious trinkets gleaming under glass cases that were magicked to shower them in a bright glow.

 

Instantly, I wondered what these people did for security. Having lived as a thief for a good year of my life, I knew that if I had come across this place, I might’ve been tempted to steal something in order to sell it for food. There were no guards, and I wasn’t even impressed by the lock they had on their door.

 

Was there anything to barricade the windows with? I wondered as I glanced to check. Hmm. No latches. How odd! Is Belcliff really that honest a city, or is there something I’m missing?

 

But before I could really start poking around, the woman asked, “Hello! My name is Beryl. Is there something I could help you with, ma’am?”

 

I jumped and focused on her again. “Oh! Er, yes. I was hoping the owner was in? Daedalus?”

 

“Why, yes! He’s upstairs right now. Did you have an appointment with him?” She asked with a wrinkled brow as she consulted an open ledger on the counter.

 

I waved my hand. “N-No! No appointment. Um…a friend sent me. I was wondering if you could take these to him?” I reached into my pocket and pulled out Lethia’s old glasses.

 

Beryl paled and her eyes went wide.

 

“Oh!” She exclaimed, her hands flying to her mouth. “Oh my goodness! Wherever did you get these young lady?”

 

“Can you please just take these to Daedalus? I’m afraid it’s urgent.” I handed the glasses to her, my face tightening. This was such a risky task. What if these people weren’t as good friends with Lethia as the girl seemed to think? All it would take was for one of them to decide my visit was worth a tip to the authorities.

 

Grimly, I wondered what I was willing to do to ensure that wouldn’t happen.

 

But to my relief, Beryl took the glasses and hurried up the stairs in the back. As I waited, I took another look around the store. There were all sorts of things in the glass display cases and on the back shelves, but what gave me a start was seeing the metal statues in the corners of the room, including near the front entrance. The statues were unlike anything I’d ever seen before—tall slim elven men with what appeared to be pistols crossed over their armored chests. They were blank faced but seemed to have glass for eyes.

 

“Strange,” I murmured.

 

That was when I spotted the ruby necklace Beryl had left on the counter in her rush. Curious, I went to moved in for a closer look.

 

Before I even came close, the statues sprang to life in a metallic whir of groaning joints and hissing parts. Their eyes flared red as they pointed the pistols square at me and pulled back the hammers.

 

For the record, it is very unsettling to hear eight different guns cocked at the same time whilst being aimed at your head.

 

“Stand down!” a smooth, firm voice said.

 

I whipped around to see a tall elven man with cropped dark hair peppered gray at the temples coming down the final steps of the stairs. For a jeweler, he wore plain cotton clothes, and his face, though thin, was sagging and wrinkled. His neck was even baggy, as if he’d been heavier at one time of his life, but lost all the weight quickly. His electric blue eyes fastened onto me, and they were hard and appraising.

 

I tensed, but did nothing save to bow my head.

 

Daedalus was an elf. Elves were in touch with their spiritual essence as therians were, therefor he could sense the Mark that was on my back. I could see the judgmental edge come to his eyes quickly. I felt a dull ache at that, but a part of me, the part that was tired of the constant discrimination of others, bristled against the shame. I was not here for this man to judge. I was only here because Lethia wanted something from him.

 

The elf held up the glasses in a trembling hand and demanded harshly, “Where did you get this, Marked One?”

 

I squared my shoulders and frowned at him. “From a friend of yours.”

 

“What friend?

 

“A young blond one,” I said, an edge now creeping into my voice. I was tired. I wanted to go home. I did not feel in the mood for this man’s unkindness or his murderous guard statues.

 

Daedalus eyes widened as he took in what I’d told him. “There could only be one other person who would have these glasses and be as you say,” he said quietly.

 

I nodded curtly. “Are you still an ally, or will you turn me away?”

 

He shook his head slowly. “Her mistress did us great harm….”

 

“I’m not asking about whether you are still loyal to her mistress,” I replied, struggling to keep my patience. “I am asking if you are still loyal to her. She needs your help. Told me to come find you, give you those, and bring you back with me.”

 

“To where?”

 

I sighed. “You know where.”

 

The elf thought hard on this for what felt like ages. Behind him, Beryl fidgeted nervously. Finally the man nodded. “All right. What does she need?”

 

A small smile of gratitude appeared on my face. “She asked if you could please ride with me up to the tower in your spare part wagon with your tinker tools, a bottle of wine, and some medical supplies.”

 

His eyebrows rose. “Medical supplies? Is she hurt?”

 

I shook my head quickly. “No, but one of our group is. I imagine she believes you can help them.”

 

“What ails this person?”

 

“He is in a coma, but he is still clinging to life.”

 

He pursed his lips. “Well there isn’t much I can do for them, then. I’m an herbal healer, not a magical one. I do not have the ability to treat something of that nature.”

 

I cleared my throat and added. “There…. There is also one other that we have not found yet. We fear they may be injured upon locating them again, so if we could bring enough supplies to treat someone cut or with broken bones, I’d believe that would suffice.”

 

Daedalus turned to Beryl. “Close the shop early, Beryl. I’ll be leaving right now.”

 

—————————–

 

A short time later and we were on our way back to Syria’s tower. The road was busy heading toward the port city of Reg’Amen, but when we veered off the less beaten path into the mountains, the company thinned and soon we were rumbling along alone with only a lantern and the moon to light the way.

 

As we rode, I could feel Daedalus’ discomfort sitting next to me on the driver’s seat. I glanced at him now and again, and I could see the sweat on his brow as he fought to avoid looking at me. I didn’t really know what it was like for people to sense my Mark. When I had snuck back to my village to recover some of my family treasures, I had run into my childhood friend Taila. She all but cringed from the sight of me, describing the sensation as some sort of spiritual repulsion. But I had no idea what that really felt like. Marquis acknowledged that he had sensed my Mark too, but he hadn’t displayed any outward signs of discomfort like Taila had.

 

In a poor attempt at alleviating the tension, I asked, “What year is it?”

 

The elf blinked, though he still did not look my way. “By Halward’s grace, 3571.”

 

I stared at him in shock.

 

3571? That means we’ve been gone over a year!

 

Then came the question I’d been waiting for.

 

“What is a Marked Ailuran doing with someone like Lethia Artaud?” Daedalus asked tightly. He cracked the reins, though it was unnecessary. The horse was going as fast as it could already.

 

I stared ahead as I answered, still dazed by the information I’d just learned. “It was chance. I was travelling with someone else when Lethia’s dog approached us.”

 

“Argos?” The elven man asked, and I nodded.

 

“He led us to her, and she begged us to aid her,” I continued. “She wanted to break Syria free. As it turned out, her cause was aligned with me and friend’s, so…we decided to help her.”

 

Daedalus jaw clenched. “And by the four blasted winds, you succeeded!”

 

I closed my eyes. “We had no idea it would turn out the way it had!”

 

“Turn out what way? Horrible? Ha!” The elf snapped, looking at me for the first time just to spare me a brief sharp glare. “Who was this ‘friend’ of yours? What were you two doing, getting involved in matters that had nothing to do with you? Are you a mercenary?”

 

My lip curled. I could feel my anger rise, despite my inner attempts at calming myself. “No,” I growled out.

 

“Then who—?”

 

“Enough!” I interjected loudly. “I am not bringing you along for you to interrogate me! If you want the whole story, ask Lethia! I, for one, am far too tired to suffer reliving my nightmarish ordeal just for a belligerent old elf who probably wouldn’t believe me anyway!” I slouched and glared into the dark of the night. “So just…leave me in peace!

Daedalus harrumphed and cracked the reins again. “Peace, she says! As though this elf will have any peace after tonight….” But he asked nothing more of me.

 

We arrived in silence at Syria’s tower, the horses nickering as we passed the open gate and pulled to a stop just outside of the barn. From where I hopped down off the driver’s seat, I could hear yelling up in the tower.

 

“Who is that? What is happening?” Daedalus demanded.

 

I didn’t even answer him as I ran to the tower and rushed inside.

 

Quincy had her staff out and was nervously facing down Argos in the study, her voice tersely repeating a warning. The dog’s hackles were raised and he paced agitatedly back and forth. Behind the wizard Lethia and Paulo were practically nose-to-nose screaming at each other. In all the noise, I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying at first. Then I started to pick out the words.

 

“I cannot let you harm the boy, Argos! Do you understand? He is my responsibility! I can’t help Lethia if you insist on this!”

 

“We made a deal! You said you’d do it! You even threatened me on it. Now you’re changing your mind? You COWARD!

 

“Shut up! I have the right to change my mind, lia! You’re the crazy one!”

 

“What are you all so upset about?” I said loudly, with a bit of vermagus force.

 

That got everyone’s attention fast. They all stared at me, eyes still lit with intensity.

 

“A silly altercation,” Quincy said first. “I’m trying to keep this from boiling over. You returned at a good time!”

 

“Daedalus?” Lethia exclaimed next.

 

I looked over my shoulder to see the elf staring at the enchantress in amazement. “So it was you!” he breathed.

 

Lethia hurried forward, brushing past me to hug the tall man. He blinked rapidly before patting her back awkwardly.

 

“My dear,” he coughed. “It is good to see you are still alive, but I’m afraid I’ll need some kind of an explanation from you!”

 

Lethia pulled away and held the elf’s shoulders. She smiled grimly. “Yes. Let’s talk outside.” She glared back at Paulo. “I find myself repulsed by the current company!”

 

With a gesture toward the door, she led Daedalus away to the field. I watched them go until the night swallowed them from sight.

 

I crossed my arms and looked at Quincy. “So the altercation? What was it about?”

 

She sighed and fixed Paulo with a withering look. “It appears that Lethia had made a rather grim deal with Paulo…but the boy lost his nerve, thank the gods!”

 

“I didn’t lose my nerve!” Paulo shot defensively. “I just realized how crazy it all was! I was angry when I said those, those…inseño things! People do all kinds of things when they’re angry!”

 

“But what?” I snapped, losing my patience. “What did you two make a deal about?”

 

“Lethia got Paulo to agree to come with us to Syria’s tower if he would…” Quincy paused and shot another dark look at Paulo, and this time the boy had the good sense to hang his head, “If Paulo would cut off one of her arms!

 

I reeled, my face tightening in disgust. I glared incredulously at Paulo. “You agreed to WHAT?

 

The teenager grumbled at his boots. “I just said I was angry, didn’t I? Coming back to our world was like coming out of a dream! The things I said in that dimension…I realized that wasn’t me!” Which I could’ve believed if he hadn’t added in a rush of petulance: “And it wasn’t as if I was agreeing to kill her! I wasn’t even going to take her dominant arm!”

 

I advanced on him, fists clenched so tight my bones ached. “That doesn’t make it any better! When are you going to accept responsibility for—” I broke off, my eyes widening.

 

“Wait a minute,” I breathed. “Was Lethia upset because you wouldn’t cut off one of her arms?”

 

Paulo frowned and nodded. “Yes! I’m telling you, that lia is crazy!”

 

Then it all made sense: Daedalus being here, the request for medical supplies, the odd behavior. Lethia wanted to atone for her mistakes by mutilating herself.

 

She wanted to do something that extreme, and we just let her out of our sight.


Back to Chapter 43.3 | Forward to Chapter 44.1

Chapter 43.3

NYX____________________________

Laboriously, I made to stand.

 

As if sensing my intention, the tree’s demon song strengthened, its notes raking down my very spirit. Literally. I could only take a single step before I felt my body shudder, my thoughts fracturing into pieces. Through my blurring vision I could see the edges of my raised hand shiver, the color in my skin pulsing white. It were as though my body was being pulled slowly apart on some tiny, unseen level.

 

I would have screamed, but the sound seemed to unravel before me, spreading into the air in a chorus of warped voices.

 

I gripped my head and took another unsteady step forward.

 

The tree, Izma’s tree, was trying to rip me apart.

 

Keep…going! came Kali’s strained thought.

 

My eyes rolled as I fell back to my knees. Blood flooded my eyes.

 

Kali, I—I can’t….

 

MOVE!

 

And I could feel my Twin slip into my arms like a ghost, urging my quivering muscles to move. Somehow, she was shielded from the brunt of the tree’s attack. I did not dwell on this boon. Any more of this, and it wouldn’t matter. The destruction of our body would slay the both of us.

 

Together, we raised our body from the ground.

 

Blinking away the blood, we kept our eyes on the tree, on its slim trunk, its light bark, its bright green leaves. How could something that appeared so ordinary be such an instrument of chaos?

 

Our steps were pained, and it seemed to take an eternity. The demon tree did its best to repel us, sending wave after wave of its evil music to flay our mind and destroy our body. But we resisted. Together, with my Twin, we reached the tree. The stench of its existence was thick in the air—the odor emanating from its rotting fruits reeking like alcohol and blood. It had a distinct tinge of loneliness and despair. Tears stung our eyes.

 

It’s a trick.

 

I know.

 

Grief. It sat heavy in our gut like a rock, and it grew heavier with every passing moment. This was the demon tree’s last defense. It wasn’t as though it didn’t affect us. Our throat choked up, our shoulders sagging. For the first time in months, I felt that deep black sort of sorrow that had almost led me to kill myself. With the almost burning, almost stabbing sensation of the flaying music, it could’ve been too much to bear.

 

But it wasn’t just me and Kali anymore. Others were depending on us. Paulo, Lethia, Hakeem…not even Quincy could get this close to the tree. It was up to us to get everyone out of here.

 

We took a deep breath, expanding our diaphragm to increase intake. Spreading our legs, we dug the balls of our feet in and leaned our shoulders forward. With clenched fists, Kali and I released a sharp, screeching roar.

 

The sound cut like a scythe.

 

The demon song was abruptly cut short as the tall linden tree creaked, then slowly fell over, leaves and bark blackening to what resembled a charred husk. Released from the relentless assault, my sister and I collapsed to the ground, spent.

 

In the fog, I could hear the others yelling. Heavy footfalls approached. Hands shook me, and I hissed in pain. My skin, my muscles…everything was trying to heal from the attack the demon tree had unleashed. I hadn’t realized it in all the sensory overload, but the abominable tree had nearly succeeded in stripping the flesh from my bones.

 

“Don’t touch her! Let her heal!” I heard someone snap. Quincy, perhaps?

 

“But she has no skin!” That was Paulo.

 

Leave her! You’ll only do more harm than good. Lethia, where is the gate?”

 

The enchantress was quick to respond. “It’s here!”

 

“Are you telling me it’s—”

 

“Yes, yes! Right here!

 

“What the hell…” Paulo breathed. “What do we fucking do then? Rip out the gods damned trunk?”

 

“Do you want to get out of here, or not?” Quincy retorted. Then she ordered next, “Lethia, you must have shovels here, yes? Get them. And bring an axe and rope, too. We’ll need to dig a wide enough circle around the stump and…”

 

I didn’t get to hear the rest of Quincy’s plan, because I fainted.

 

When I came to again, it was to find myself once again whole. Sitting up, I realized I had been moved from near the tree, and instead I lay in the hay of the small barn. Carefully, I stood to my feet. In the hay bed next to me, Hakeem lay, still as unresponsive as ever. Outside, I could hear the sound of digging, occasionally punctuated by the sharp cracks of wood. Unsteadily, I made my way back to the others to see that they were working at removing the tree trunk.

 

I wiped the cold sweat from my forehead as I stopped near the wide circular hole they had dug. It was Paulo and Lethia toiling in the dirt up to their waist. Argos watched them, panting, his nose glistening and his paws dirty. Quincy, axe in hand, chopped at tree roots that anchored further into the ground. By the looks of things, they were nearly done.

 

It didn’t take much to remember what they were digging for. On this plane, I could not see the gate that Lethia had mentioned, but if I changed over to the Somnium, I could.

 

Closing my eyes, I took that strange inward journey, and when I returned, it was to find the others presented in their strange interpretations. Quincy was more youthful, just as I’d seen her before. Lethia was once more that strange starry being I had witnessed back in Izma’s trap, but instead of looking faceless and empty, the stars that gleamed inside of her seemed fixed and constant, a translucent sheen over them that suggested skin. She had white eyes and white lips, and I wondered what on earth the universe must’ve thought of her to envision the young enchantress in such a fantastic way. Paulo, in contrast, appeared covered in soot, his face streaked with what appeared to be tears. His chest, however, glowed a hot red, like a burning coal. Argos, meanwhile, simply glowed a bright white, his fur pristine and glossy. None of the others made any notice of my appearance or sudden disappearance into the Somnium. So engrossed were they in their work.

 

Quincy hacked away the last root, and the two teens climbed out of the hole. Everyone took hold of a rope, even Argos, and together, they hauled the trunk out of its place.

 

My heart leapt.

 

The gate!

 

In the center of the hole, the gateway swirled, but unlike the other passages we had taken, this one was a solid wall of white, not unlike the vast space we had been plunged into when Syria had first sent us here in her madness.

 

Quickly, I returned from the Somnium. In my brief absence Quincy and Paulo had hurried off to fetch Hakeem. That left me with Argos and Lethia standing at the hole.

 

The enchantress didn’t appear startled to see me. She looked at me with somewhat glassy eyes and offered a small smile. “Good to see you’re awake. I sensed your return to consciousness.” She turned her face away and stared down into the hole. “Your body needed to devote all its energy to healing, thanks to what Syria’s tree had done.”

 

I could see the self-loathing flicker on the girl’s features before vanishing. “Stop punishing yourself,” I scolded. “When we return to our dimension, it won’t be easy. We’ll all be wanted by the local government for what we did in Belcliff and Holzoff’s. You need to stay present if we’re going to survive!”

 

“We can’t run, Nyx,” Lethia replied quietly. “Not like we are. We need to recover.”

 

“And once we recover?”

 

She looked at me, and the distance in her eyes chilled me. “I will not run from the things I have to face.”

 

I wanted to argue that. I needed to. If Lethia Artaud was thinking of turning herself in on some misguided sense of guilt, then she was going to get us all killed. They would torture her, get her to talk, and then every bounty hunter in the world would be after us.

 

But Quincy and Paulo’s return interrupted any chance I had of getting into it with the enchantress. They came running, Hakeem dragging behind them on a wool blanket.

 

“What are you waiting for?” Quincy shouted at us. “Jump in, you idiots!”

 

She was right. Nothing was holding us back but ourselves at this point. I was done with the Other Place.

 

It was time to go home.

 

.

..

….

…..

 

They’re ripped through what is essentially a small hole in the universe.

 

Flesh contracts, organs stretch, thoughts vanish.

 

One, two, three, four, five, six.

 

They each plummet through the empty white, until it squeezes around them, fading to sandy gray, then a gritty brown, until they come to a thick blackness that stops them in a painful slam of shadowy dirt and dark sediment.

 

She was first. She claws her way up with actual claws, her Twin aiding as the claustrophobia assails them in a dizzying rush. They are starved of breath, gagging on earth until—

 

 

…..

….

..

.

 

We broke through to air, and oh, how sweet it was! We lay there coughing and panting, our eyes gingerly blinking away the dirt. Three details immediately struck me: first, the suns were out, so that meant we had succeeded in returning to the real world; second, there was no snow; and third, we had just come out of the ground from under a tree. How was that possible? I thought we had removed the tree in the Other Place? Did that mean we were not at Syria’s tower, but elsewhere? It certainly wasn’t impossible.

 

Kali was just behind me in consciousness, her intent tickling the pads of my fingers, until gradually she faded to her special place in our mind. Once again in sole control, I took one last deep breath before clawing at the grass and dirt to pull myself out. I could feel something pushing at the soles of my feet in the ground, and I knew I had to hurry before the others suffocated.

 

But this proved to be quite the battle. Not only did I feel weak and dizzy, but something just didn’t feel right. I couldn’t stop to try and figure out what was the matter, however, as the moment I freed myself from the dirt, a white hand burst through from the growing sinkhole I had emerged from. I grabbed it, and with all of my strength, pulled.

 

The others emerged that way, one by one. First was Lethia, who had jumped in shortly after me. Then Quincy, who pulled Hakeem after her. Paulo appeared next, and finally Argos.

 

When we were all present and accounted for, everyone just collapsed, exhausted on the grass. Since I had been the first one to climb out, I wasn’t nearly as winded, and so I stood glaring up at the linden tree that we had just climbed out from under. The sinkhole at its roots was a dark break in the otherwise lush and healthy grass. The tree itself was a deathly gray, branches devoid of leaves despite the apparent springtime weather.

 

I stared at it, trying to convince myself that, Yes, of course this was the tree I had just cut down! It’s the same kind as the one before, and there’s even a barn and tower near it. This was Syria’s land!

 

The buildings in question were not nearly as well kept as they had appeared in the Other Place. They were weather worn and weedy, the barn’s doors hanging off their hinges as if a crowd had battered their way in, and the windows of the tower all smashed and boarded.

 

How much time has passed that this place seems so abandoned? I wondered.

 

The dizziness had faded, though the feeling of weakness and wrongness did not. I wondered if all that was needed was sleep. It really did feel as though I’d been awake for weeks. My eyes even burned and ached as though that were the case.

 

But I could not rest quite yet.

 

“We…have to decide what we’re going to do,” I made myself say.

 

“I want to assess our immediate assets and secure the area,” Quincy immediately said. “This place looks…abandoned.” I frowned at her sudden tone of uncertainty. The wizard quickly covered this with a determined look as she knelt by her husband. Hakeem was very pale. “Scavengers may have raided this place, but there may yet be some supplies worth using. Perhaps in the barn or in the pantry? Lethia, is there a cellar?” She asked the enchantress.

 

Lethia looked at her, startled. “Er…yes? Yes. There is.”

 

My frown deepened. Did the trip disorient us that severely? Why are we uncertain about obvious details, and having trouble recalling important facts?

 

“Someone should head to town after,” I suggested. “It’s obvious that time has passed while we were gone. We’ll need to get an update on what has happened in Belcliff since we left. Whoever goes could also get whatever supplies we might still need.”

 

“What about Paulo?” Lethia asked.

 

This suggestion didn’t immediately strike me as strange. The two teenagers could hardly stand being near each other, and Paulo leaving even for a short while would certainly alleviate a good portion of the tension in our group. Yet, something in the way the two exchanged glances made me uneasy.

 

“Yes,” he said, lifting his head a little higher so that he was almost looking down his nose. “I should go. If what you say is true, Nyx, about the bounties, I’m the least likely to stir up trouble.”

 

I crossed my arms and raised an eyebrow at the young man. “And how’s that? You were seen breaking Lethia out of jail alongside me!”

 

“She has a point,” Quincy murmured, looking at Paulo out of the corner of her eye.

 

“Who else are we going to send?” Paulo argued hotly. He thrust a hand at Lethia. “She’s probably got wanted posters floating all around the Sibesona by now!” Next he pointed at Quincy, “And she went back on her bounty contract! Lethia’s head was not a small catch! She’s probably equally notorious! And the other two?” He swept a hand over Argos and Hakeem, causing the dog to growl at him resentfully.

 

“And what about me?” I asked flatly.

 

“Yeah. What about you, lia?” he shot back. “I’ve been watching you. You’ve been eager to leave us since the moment you showed up! What’s stopping you from fucking off now that your redheaded lover isn’t around for you to fool around with, eh? Disseme! Tell me!”

 

My expression darkened when he brought up Elmiryn, and I had to resist curling my hands into fists.

 

“Out of all of us, I was seen the least, and therefor, I am less likely to be accosted by authorities. Never mind that I’m leaps and bounds better at sneaking than you are, and I think I can manage to get around. As for your suspicions….” I couldn’t help it. My voice dropped an octave, my anger tinging my words in a harsh growl: “You have absolutely no business questioning my character, considering the impressive jackassery you have achieved in the short amount of time that I have known you. If anything, you’re more likely to leave than I am! You have no ties to any of us, whereas I still need to wait for Elmiryn to return. Now who seems the bigger risk to send, I wonder?”

 

Paulo looked ready to argue some more, his scarred face turning hot and livid, but Quincy cut him off.

 

“She’s going.”

 

“She can’t—!”

 

Quincy stood sharply, her teeth bared and her cheeks tinged pink. “Shut up, boy! I said she’s going!”

 

“But the vote is split!” Lethia protested, standing now as well.

 

“This isn’t a democracy,” I replied wryly.

 

“And this isn’t a dictatorship either,” the girl rebutted. “Neither you or Quincy have fully assumed the role of leadership! That means Paulo and I have equal say!”

 

Quincy crossed her arms. “Does it, now?”

 

“Yes!”

 

Then I had an idea. “Why don’t we let Argos vote?”

 

The others didn’t seem to know what to think at first. Even Lethia seemed hesitant to agree, and I wondered why. Did she want Paulo to leave that badly that she didn’t want to risk Argos voting against her? It wasn’t a secret that Argos disliked Paulo. It was just as likely he could vote for the boy to go instead of me. One less thing for him to growl at.

 

But he surprised me when he padded up to me, and with his black eyes meeting mine, he woofed.

 

I raised my eyebrows and looked at the others. “That’s his vote! Are we agreed, then?”

 

“He’s just a dog!” Paulo complained, but a dangerous look from Quincy silenced him.

 

With that mattered settled, we set off to explore the grounds.

 

Quincy and Paulo took the barn. Lethia, Argos, and I took the tower. My companions were quiet as we approached the tall stone building. I couldn’t blame them. Once, they had called this place home. Now it was just the place they had lived with a homicidal madwoman.

 

At the front doors, Lethia breathed, “There are five floors. One is a sublevel—the cellar. The main floor is the biggest and is where the kitchen and study are. That’s where we can start. The second floor used to be my room. Third floor was…was Syria’s. The fourth floor was where we did astronomy and enchantment lessons.”

 

I nodded, uncertain of whether or not I should say anything. I’m sorry was such a trite thing to tell someone after all we had been through. I wasn’t even sure I had it in me to be charitable toward the girl, despite the pity she inspired. For some reason I just couldn’t shake away the resentment in my heart.

 

Without a word, we broke off to do our search. Me in the kitchen, Argos to the study, and Lethia in the cellar. The kitchen was small, one round table set off against the north wall with just two chairs set adjacent to each other. The cupboards were largely empty, even the plates and cups gone, but I did manage to find a small bag of white rice that had been missed in a far shadowy corner. A quick inspection told me they were still good.

 

Returning to the foyer, I found Argos sitting and staring up the stairs. He whined as I approached, his tail wagging once, and I patted his head.

 

When Lethia appeared a short moment later, she appeared faint. I gave her a discerning look, then asked warily, “Are you all right? You don’t look well.”

 

“I’m fine,” she said, except her voice sounded like a ghost.

 

I opted not to say anything. “This is all that I found,” I said, hefting up the half-empty rice bag. “It appears Argos hasn’t found anything. Did you find something usable?”

 

The teenager shrugged. “A few things. Some spare blankets that managed to stay dry. Three jars of pickled onions. A lantern, but no wick or oil.”

 

I pointed upstairs. “And up there?”

 

“We might find some more odds and ends, but no food.”

 

I sighed and rubbed at my face. “I was hoping for more….”

 

Lethia bit her lip before murmuring, “I’m not sure but…I might have some money hidden in my room. It isn’t much, but it ought to be enough to buy us some food.”

 

Before I could say anything to this, the girl started up the stairs, and with a glance at Argos, I followed her. The winding staircase reminded me of the keep that Syria had commandeered in the Other Place. My skin broke out in gooseflesh, and I could feel my jaw tighten.

 

We stopped at the first door we came to on the left, and when Lethia pushed inside. Her room was of medium size. There was a single size bed, but the sheets had been stolen and the mattress slashed. The shelves were bare, and I could see outlines on the western wall where a desk and a dresser appeared to have stood. Going just to the right of the desk spot, Lethia didn’t seem fazed by the emptiness of her room. Her face was a blank mask as she crouched down near the wall, and with her fingernails, she pulled out a cobblestone. It was darker than the others, and hidden behind it was a small pouch.

 

Lethia straightened as she opened this and poured out its contents. A handful of gold coins, an engraved silver bangle, and a small pair of copper glasses with dark round lenses. I guessed they were the pair that Lethia had worn when she was a child.

 

Gods…. Syria had cursed Lethia for that long?

 

I don’t understand, Kali asked in my head. Why do the glasses matter?

 

I couldn’t quite meet Lethia’s eyes as she held the items out to me.

 

I’ll spare you the search through our memories, sister. Syria had made it so that Lethia could not look anyone in the eye without emptying their heads of memories.

 

Oh…yes, I think I remember that being said, now. She must have been very lonely.

 

Kali’s words weren’t tinged with pity, but sympathy. This stunned me, leaving me inattentive to the words that Lethia had just spoken. I stared at the items in the girl’s hands. Of course, it had long been established that my Twin had her own opinions of things, but rarely did I hear her spare a kind thought for a human, let alone anyone.

 

“Nyx?”

 

I snapped my eyes up to find Lethia frowning at me.

 

“Huh?” I mumbled.

 

“I said I think there is enough here for one day’s worth of food. I don’t know where we can get money for anything else. Maybe Quincy has some in that magic bag of hers.”

 

I nodded dumbly, still trying to figure out why Kali would sympathize with Lethia after all we’d been through. I reached as if to take the items out of the girl’s hands, but she pulled them away from me, making me pause with a curious glance.

 

Lethia’s lips were pressed thin and her eyes had suddenly taken on a determined edge that bewildered me. “You can sell the bangle, but I want you to do something special with the glasses when you go into town.”

 

My brow tensed and I lowered my hand. “All right. What is it?”

 

“I want you to find an elven man named Daedalus. He’s a tinkerer in Belcliff and a good friend of mine. Give him these glasses and tell him to return with you in his scrap wagon with his tools.” She paused, but I could see from her furtive look at her shoes that she wanted to continue.

 

“And?” I prompted.

 

“Tell him to bring a bottle of wine and some medical supplies.”

 

I put my hands on my hips, my eyes going a little wide. “Why would we need medical supplies?”

 

Lethia gave me a critical look, and yet this time she was the one who failed to meet my eyes. “Nyx, Elmiryn is still out there. She’ll need a drink to ease the withdrawals she’ll no doubt be suffering from. There’s no telling what state she’ll be in, either. Wouldn’t it be best to be prepared?”

 

I nodded slowly, but I was still suspicious. The girl’s logic was sound, but I had a feeling this wasn’t her true reasoning. After all, why would she be so concerned with finding Elmiryn?

 

So I asked next, “What do you need Daedalus for? We’re in hiding, you know. The less who knows we are here, the better.”

 

Lethia took my hand and forced the coins and trinkets into my palm. With a sigh, she said, “First of all, we aren’t going anywhere, Nyx. I think we both know that. We still have to find Elmiryn, and Hakeem is still unconscious. Daedalus is not only a tinkerer, he’s also trained as a healer. Plus he has a wagon. I thought that it would be nice if you could return quickly, and then my friend can try to help Hakeem. Who knows? He might even come up with some ideas to make this place more comfortable while we try to rest and heal.”

 

All fair arguments, of course. Still, that nagging feeling persisted.

 

“Lethia, if there’s something you need to tell me—” I began.

 

She cut me off. “We should find the others. The barn isn’t that big. They ought to be done, now.”

 

She started for the door, and I could only stare after her.

 

Lethia’s voice came from the staircase as she left the room. She sounded small and distant. “You should leave now while you still have daylight, Nyx.”

 


Back to Chapter 43.2 | Forward to Chapter 43.4

Chapter 43.2

Author’s Note: After a year of hiatus, Eikasia is back! To celebrate, please enjoy this ‘double update’ featuring installments 43.2 and 43.3. I’m finally ahead on my writing, so expect consistent updates for the next few weeks! Also, in case you haven’t heard, Tributaries, the first story arc, has had a huge makeover and is now available on Amazon and Smashwords as an e-book! It’s a new experience, so please consider checking it out! Thanks for keeping the faith everyone.

–Illise M.


 

NYX__________________________

It had been one week since we left Holzoff’s, and two weeks since we arrived on this damned shard. We were starving, and always on the verge of freezing to death. Our meager supply of wood was dwindling, as Quincy had run out of things she could pull out of her bag for us to burn, and some of the wood we had collected had spoiled from exposure to snow. The others had largely given up on my idea to raise our luck through multiples of nine. I still tried, though not as often as before. Talking took real effort now, and our conversations were well past desperate in nature.

 

Paulo even asked if he could chop off one of my arms for us to eat raw.

 

“No,” I croaked, nine times in reply.

 

But only after seriously debating it.

 

I’d already had to shed a finger or two with my regenerative ability because of frostbite. In a bid to keep everyone’s hopes up, I’d sacrificed some of my bandage cloth so that they could wrap their hands and faces from the wind. I was starting to regret the decision. I was noticing that my regeneration was slowing down, and every time I had to heal took a lot of energy out of me. The others weren’t all that cheered up by my generous offering, anyway.

 

We were approaching a steep ravine when Paulo suddenly turned on Lethia.

 

“I said STAY OUT!” he bellowed.

 

I could see Lethia cringe, but a dark look soon crossed her face, and she spat back, “I told you to shield your thoughts! It isn’t my fault if you think at the volume of a trumpet!”

 

Seres un lia bal!” Paulo shouted.

 

Everyone moved simultaneously. Paulo toward Lethia menacingly, while the girl retreated. Argos shielded his mistress with a snarl. Quincy and I intercepted Paulo.

 

“Paulo, be quiet,” Quincy hissed. “You’ll draw the daesce!”

 

He ignored her and craned his head to shout next, “You gods damned witch bitch! Do you want to settle things right now?”

 

“Shut up, boy!” I snapped. Or more likely it was my sister who said that. She sat just underneath the surface these days, tense and fearful. I knew she resented me for staying with the others, but we both knew this last bid for freedom to the real world was going to be a trial no matter what.

 

“Let him go,” Lethia mumbled behind us.

 

I took a second to turn and bat my eyes at the enchantress. “What?”

 

“Let him go,” she repeated, gently pushing Argos aside. “I owe him a debt. If he wants to collect it now, he can. It’s his right.”

 

“What debt?” Quincy asked next. She looked at Paulo next. “Did you make an agreement?”

 

Paulo started to answer her when there was a distant howl. All of us froze.

 

“Now you’ve done it,” Quincy hissed at the two teenagers.

 

Lethia moaned. “Are the daesce coming? But we’re pinned here!”

 

We were. The ravine was far too steep and icy for us to ascend normally with Hakeem and Argos. The mountain line, which previously seemed to embrace us, now seemed to box us in.

 

I shook my head, breaking off from the group to trudge toward the valley.

 

“No,” I breathed. “Those aren’t daesce.”

 

Sister! Kali exclaimed in my head.

 

I know, I thought in response.

 

Hurriedly I kicked off my boots and barked at the others, “Guard me!”

 

Quincy was looking at me as if I was insane. “You can’t be serious! We are in no shape to fight!”

 

“We have no choice,” I snarled back. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re trapped here!”

 

“But, Hakeem—”

 

“Guard him,” I ordered through bared teeth. The snow stung my bare feet as I trudged out further. Dark shapes could be seen through the snow blind far ahead, and they were getting bigger.

 

I glared over my shoulder at the others. “Paulo, Argos, cover me! I’m going to shift! Lethia, stay with Quincy!”

 

“What’s coming?” Paulo asked, but even as he did so he already had his rapier out and was joining me at my side. Argos appeared a second later at my other side, his furry face harder to gauge even at this close a distance.

 

“Wolves,” I choked out, before the shift took hold.

 

Ekikos. Near-cat. It was one of the five forms that Ailurans were capable of undertaking from the Sacred Five of the Lunar Hall, and it was one step after Ekilluos. It was a form mostly in Kali’s realm, steeped in her primitive and uninhibited passion as it were. Our body would shift to that like a predatory panther…but much larger, with a longer neck and longer digits that could almost function like hands.

 

As usual, the shift rendered us incapacitated, and through the pain of transformation I could hear Argos and Paulo meet the wolves in battle. Confusion and worry pulsed inside me, as I heard yelps and cries, and I had no idea if the fight was turning against us before I could even do anything about it.

 

It was just as well. Once the change was complete, and we raised ourselves from the snow, there really wasn’t anything I could do about it…because my Twin was the one in control now.

 

KALI_________________________

 

I opened my eyes and growled at what I saw.

 

There were three wolves before me, fighting the annoying boy and the large dog. My hackles rose. A pack of three could not survive in this harsh environment against the daesce. Beasts like these would need numbers.

 

We are being flanked.

 

The moment the thought arrived, I heard a scream behind me. I turned my furry head to see Lethia on the ground, a tall skinny wolf tearing at her right arm with hungry zeal. I let out a sharp roar from the very back of my throat as I pushed into a run, pummeling over the wolf that had set upon the enchantress. From the very edge of my vision, I could see Quincy fending off two more wolves that looked keen to get to the unconscious Hakeem behind her.

 

There were six wolves in all, and all of them were skinny. Still, I wasn’t going to be picky about a potential meal.

 

Which was just about all I could think of as I pinned the scrawny wolf beneath me with a massive paw on its throat and my jaws around its face. A sharp jerk, and even over the low howl of the wind I could hear its bones snap. One down. Without even pausing to glance at Lethia, I was moving again, my paws breaking through the snow like it was nothing. This power was costly, as Nyx whispered within the depths of our shared mind. This battle would have to be swift, or the exertion would leave me as vulnerable as Hakeem.

 

I charged in close to one wolf, my head ducking just underneath its chin before I reared up and back, ramming my neck and shoulders into the canine’s lightweight body. Like a pup, it was flung aside, leaving me open to bare down on its comrade, whom Quincy had just slashed back. The blood from its shoulder put me into a frenzy and…my thoughts became…harder to…hold…

 

Wolf turned to me. Wolf was food.

 

Looked like it. Smelled like it.

 

So I killed it. Chased it down and tore out its insides.

 

Made the snow a dark color.

 

Heard the other wolves yelp and howl. They ran.

 

Didn’t care. Got food. Was hungry.

 

Took my kill and dragged it to the other one. Both were mine.

 

Hunkered down so I could see the humans, and started to eat.

 

Mmm…meat.

 

Meat. Meat. Meat. MEAT.

 

Quincy started saying something to me. Ignored her.

 

Food was lean, but it was mine.

 

Twin in my head started saying something too.

 

Shut her out. Annoying. It wasn’t her turn.

 

Quincy started yelling and came too close.

 

Jumped and snarled at her.

 

Even in the dark, could tell she turned white.

 

Wizard backed off, hands up, spoke soft.

 

Words.

 

I tensed up. Words were important.

 

I was supposed to listen to Words.

 

“Kali…we…too eat…can’t have…all.”

 

I growled a little. Stupid Words.

 

This was sapiens’ problem.

 

Words made things complicated.

 

I killed food. Food was mine.

 

Simple. Easy.

 

But Quincy kept talking.

 

“We’re starving…Kali, please! You must share!”

 

I was distracted. Nyx wormed her way back in, too.

 

Kali! Please calm yourself! We cannot survive alone out here!

 

And with a shake of my head, the haze of bloodlust subsided.

 

With a great sigh, I took a few steps back, then sat on my rear paws. Quincy and the others stared at me a beat longer before nervously pulling the meat away. I was fine that they took the rest. I had already eaten my share. I may have even eaten too much, but that could not be helped now.

 

You did well, sister….

 

My furry face pulled up in what could be construed as a rueful smile.

 

No, Nyx, I replied inwardly. I barely managed to keep from making things worse.

 

It was true. For everyone’s attempts at bringing me out of that deep black primal fury that I was so accustomed to succumbing to, the only real reason I came back was for one simple fact. Exhaustion. I didn’t have it in me to fight off three humans and a bear of a dog, and the primal parts of me knew it.

 

I may not be the essence of bestial instinct, Nyx. But of us both, I know, that it is I who holds that violence closer to her being.

 

And to this, my Twin could spare no other words.

 

As the others collected themselves, I turned and slipped further into the darkness of the weak storm that was dying down. Nyx was in no hurry to reclaim control, and I knew why. In an effort to keep things amicable between us, I decided to humor her desire to hide away from the others a while longer. She was tired. I supposed she deserved something of a rest. It was only theoretical in nature anyway. We shared the same body, after all.

 

I shook my head with a snort at this thinking. Theoretical? When had I started concerning myself with such bewildering ideas? When had I started thinking in such convoluted patterns, for that matter? It seemed like only yesterday when the most complex thought I could come up with was a mental picture of eating a gopher. I almost missed the simplicity of such an existence.

 

Almost.

 

As the moments drew on, I decided it was perhaps best to urge the others to continue our journey. The daesce would smell the wolf carcasses soon enough, and the only way we could cook and eat them in peace would be if we were on higher ground.

 

Just as I started to return, a strange petite woman appeared before me, blocking my way.

 

I froze, my body immediately tensing. I could not recall seeing her before, and judging by Nyx’s alarm, neither could she.

 

She was topless, her breasts small and almost prepubescent, the nipples a warm shade of pink. She was chubby, her short golden hair in tight curls that teased her ruddy cheeks, and her eyes were a crisp apple red. Draping her slim hips was a white skirt, hemmed with gold. In her right hand she gripped a short golden sceptre with a circular crown that held rotating arrows pointing in all directions. What was most striking about her were the wings, of course. These sprouted from her back in bright white plumage that almost glowed.

 

This…this is…! I knew what my sister thought even though she couldn’t finish the idea in word.

 

The ethereal woman tilted her head to one side and smiled pleasantly. “Kali,” she said in a dulcet voice, all sweet honey…except, there was something sharp about it. Like she hid some darker spice, and it was just waiting for the right moment to come bursting out of her. It made me nervous.

 

Sure enough, the woman’s eyes darkened—literally darkened, like blood—and she spoke my name again, more forcefully: “Kali. Speak. Thou know who stands before thee!”

 

That was right. In this world, I could speak in my natural forms, even if I could not in the Real World.

 

“My lady!” I growled anxiously, dipping into my best version of a feline bow. “Forgive me…Fortuna!”

 

The goddess smiled again, her eyes once again lightened to their almost candy red shade, and she said, “I had to see Lacertli’s champion for myself. Thou art a curious thing, to be sure!”

 

“Curious, and in your debt,” a familiar voice hissed behind us.

 

I glanced briefly before deepening my bow. Lacertli appeared at my side and gazed levelly at Fortuna.

 

“Sister, it is unlike thee to appear under such circumstances. May I ask why?” the Lizard King asked.

 

Lady Fortuna shrugged, her innocent face turning coy. “Thou have brought a new game piece to the board, brother! Do not tell me that is not reason enough! Not when I am one of the few to have kept her piece in play!”

 

Lacertli made a face of disgust. “Not everything is a game.”

 

The goddess only laughed. “Please! Thou of all should understand best! Are we not in constant competition? Besides,” and here Fortuna spared me a wry look. “The Abominable Twins kept prodding me with their numerous invocations. She was lucky I was in such a good mood to treat her crude luck-mongering favorably!”

 

I could feel Nyx cringe.

 

I snarled at her mentally, Next time, don’t try our luck so hard!

 

Lacertli startled me right then. He reached down and patted my downturned head.

 

“She will not bother thee again. She was acting under my guidance. What would thou like in reparation?”

 

Fortuna’s eyes glinted and she smiled wide at Lacertli. “We shall speak elsewhere. This is not for mortal ears, champion or no.”

 

Lacertli sighed, and I could hear the gravity of the situation in his voice. What had we done?

 

“Very well.”

 

“Master?” I dared to raise my head and look at the Lizard King. I had only truly served him for much less than Nyx had, but it already made me anxious to think he would be gone from us. Just about the only thing keeping me from losing hope in this place was the thought that Lacertli was watching over us.

 

Lacertli shook his head. “Kali. Nyx. Thou art to proceed as planned. Trust in thine instincts, for they are strong. I will be with ye both shortly.”

 

“But—”

 

Except both gods were gone in the blink of an eye before I could protest further.

 

I stared into the dark, a heavy sinking feeling settling in my stomach. Being in Fortuna’s debt was not a good thing. I imagined it was no less treacherous even for a god.

 

“Kali!” Quincy’s voice. I snapped my eyes in the direction of it, and found her approaching through the snow. “What are you doing? We have to hurry!”

 

I didn’t need her warning. I could hear the daesce roaring in the near distance.

 

With one last look around me, I hurried to join the others.

 

LETHIA________________________

 

Dear Jydel,

 

I hate mountains.

 

Not a lot of elbow room in this crevice we’re sleeping in.

 

We’re halfway to our destination, surviving off burned wolf meat and frozen weeds found under loose rocks. I cannot say I’m eager to return home, but anything is better than this. Nyx shifted back. Kali couldn’t climb the mountain, obviously, but she went as far as she could before changing. It was almost nice having Kali around. Of the Twins, she holds the least resentment towards me.

 

My left arm is tingling. I think it knows what awaits us at Syria’s tower.

 

—————————–

 

Dear Jydel,

 

Forgive the smudges. Argos drooled over my shoulder when we were taking a break on a plateau. I’m afraid he may have read some of my letters to you. I suppose I could just refrain from saying anything important here, but it’s one of the few things bringing me comfort these days. If I must, I’ll simply wipe my friend’s memory again. It is a horrible thing, but it has to be done. Otherwise, I won’t make it. I need this, and Paulo needs his wish fulfilled. Sometimes, when I wake from sleep, I catch him looking at me. At first I thought it was scary, but I’ve come to accept it, now.

 

I think we’ve only a half day’s journey left. We’re going to forego sleep for one last push to our destination. I hope I can make it. The last of our food ran out and the cold is making me sleepy…

 

—————————–

 

Jydel,

 

We’ve finally reached the top of the mountain, and I can see it! I can see the tower!

 

Nyx and Quincy agreed to take a short rest, but we’re leaving again in a few minutes. The hard part is done. Now we can go home.

 

NYX__________________________

 

I could hardly believe it.

 

After so many days, so many places, so many hardships, we were at the end of it all. We had arrived at our escape from The Other Place. This gods damned half-dimension teeming with spirits and warped by confused laws and time. The eight-story tall gate surrounding Syria’s land seemed hardly an obstacle compared to everything else. I picked the lock at the gate with ease, pushing it open and ignoring the discarded chains at my feet. Lethia pointed and said the gateway to our freedom was toward the tower, and I ran, down the dirt path that cut through the snow-covered grass to the tall stone structure, where a small barn and a tree stood near it. None of the others could keep up with me, especially whilst dragging Hakeem. It was beyond selfish, and I told myself I wouldn’t leave without them. But I just had to be there, closer to the way out. I wanted to see my salvation with my own eyes.

 

It was a little after halfway down the path that I started to hear it—

 

Singing.

 

It was wordless, and mournful, and terrible, touching all the places in my mind that I hadn’t even been aware of. My body tingled and I yelled, covering my ears. The others, who had been just as eager to reach the tower as I had skidded to a halt near me, their eyes wide but their faces showing they did not hear what I heard.

 

I tried to return to them, tried to escape that horrible sound, but like a noose around my neck I was pulled back, and the sensation in my head reached a crescendo of full out pain. I fell to the ground writhing, trying fruitlessly to claw the noise out of my ears.

 

“The music! It hurts!” I screamed.

 

The others backed away, their tired, pale faces drawn as they watched me helplessly. I thought I heard Quincy or Lethia yell something at me. Paulo looked on the verge of running back the way we’d come. Only Argos seemed wiling to try to venture closer, but I stopped him with a frantic wave of my hand.

 

“No!” I bit out, fighting to gather myself. “Don’t Argos! It’ll hurt you! It’s…the sound…is coming from…something near the tower!”

 

When I tried to get up, I swooned, my vision rippling with rainbows and stars. I thought my head was going to split into two. It was made worse by the sensation of maggots in my brain.

 

I slowly looked over my shoulder. Through the burst of colors in my eyes I could make out the tower, the barn, and the tree.

 

My eyes widened.

 

I looked back at Paulo, then back again.

 

“An axe…for the tree!” I panted.


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