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Chapter 44.5

NYX____________________________

I was worried. Elmiryn was essentially naked, left unprotected from the weather. She said the cold didn’t affect her. Mind you, it was the summer season, but up in the mountains, nighttime could still carry with it a bit of a chill. I insisted we head to Belcliff so that I could sneak into town and buy her something suitable, but the woman just waved me off.

 

“It’s just one of those things that don’t bother me anymore, Nyx,” she said with a shrug.

 

Just like that, as if the environment didn’t matter. Then came the proof. I didn’t so much as see her shiver. Even as we found ourselves in the glare of the suns for much of a day’s travel, she didn’t even get sunburn. It was one of the numerous unsettling changes that I’d observed in Elmiryn. Hunting was a cruel joke now. Birds and small animals didn’t seem to notice when the redhead walked right up to them to kill them for dinner. By the second night, I’d also realized the woman didn’t sleep. I woke up three separate times to find her sitting there awake and alert, and each time the moon in the sky had moved significantly from its last position. But she didn’t betray any sign of exhaustion. Not physically anyway. Mentally, I could see the woman was haggard. Since cutting off her tether with the daesce, her ability to process her surroundings deteriorated. Just about the only thing she reacted to with any sort of normalcy was in conversation.

 

Since that was the case, I figured I should keep talking to her. I avoided talking about my experiences in Izma’s mind game, and even about the time I spent with the others at Holzoff’s. It was just stalling the inevitable. I’d have to tell Elmiryn eventually. She even gave me looks that said, I know what you’re doing. You aren’t fooling me, but for some reason she never called me out. I was thankful for the space. Instead I related personal stories from my childhood, as well as folktales I had read. It wasn’t until our last day of travel that I told Elmiryn about how I made it back to our world.

 

“So the tree that had been at Syria’s was demonic…” she mused after I’d finished explaining how I’d fought the cursed linden tree at Syria’s tower.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Do you think all the trees the demons planted behave the same? Quincy and Lethia were watching the whole thing, right? Did they observe anything useful while you fought the tree?”

 

I frowned. That was a good question. “I…don’t know!”

 

Elmiryn stared at me. “No one stopped to ask?”

 

“We were a bit disoriented, thank you very much!” She held up her hands, a look of suffering on her face. I winced. I might have let my vermagus power slip a bit there, and the redhead had already proven quite sensitive to it. “Sorry,” I mumbled.

 

“I’m just surprised, Nyx,” she stated. “Quincy and Lethia both are the types to stop and solve a puzzle just because someone put it in front of them. It’s like catnip for academics. ‘Where? Why? How?’ But what you’re saying sounds a bit out of character for them!”

 

“I really mean it when I say we were out of sorts, Elle. Things were…different. They still are.”

 

“How so?” She batted her eyes at me, bemused at my grave expression.

 

“Elmiryn, I think— Well, Quincy and I both believe that the astral demons must have done something to us.” I looked at her nervously. “I think they might have altered us.”

 

The words took a few seconds to sink in. Elmiryn’s steps slowed and her stare turned large and unblinking. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” she breathed tremulously.

 

I shrugged helplessly. “If what you think I’m saying is that we’re cursed, no! That’s not what I’m saying. The truth of the matter is that Quincy and I only suspect that the demons have done something to us. It may not be so bad as a curse. Maybe they just made it so that we could see them without us going insane.”

 

“But why would they do that?” she asked heatedly.

 

“I have no idea!”

 

“They might have turned you and the others into tools,” Elmiryn hissed, her eyes ticking back and forth furiously.

 

I squinted my eyes. “Pardon?”

 

She looked at me, a ravenous look in her gaze that made me take an involuntary step back. The warrior still looked very much like a wild woman. “When I escaped Meznik, I made an accidental detour through another world. In this other place, I spoke to two women, our speculums, and—”

 

“Speculums?”

 

Elmiryn took a deep breath through her nose as if she had to reign in her patience at my interruption and I crossed my arms, for once feeling unapologetic. “Elmiryn, you’re going to have to explain if you want me to follow along!”

 

So she did. She told me about Molly and Julie, our ‘speculums’ from another neighboring universe, and she also told me what secrets they had shared with her. Apparently, Meznik and Izma weren’t just a menace in our world, but across all universes. It all made me dizzy. I was still having trouble comprehending the demons as a danger in our world, let alone that there were more than one they wreaked havoc in.

 

“So you believe that the demons are trying to make us into tools to use against each other?” I asked slowly.

 

Elmiryn nodded her head eagerly and resumed walking. I hurried after her. “Yes! It might also explain why you and the others were all bickering with each other so badly.”

 

“Elle, I think that had more to do with the fact that we just don’t like each other.”

 

She didn’t respond to that, and I sighed. Perhaps I needed to finally apprise her of the thorny developments that had arisen with our strange group.

 

“Elmiryn, the situation with the others is…complicated, to say the least,” I said wearily. “I just want to prepare you for what you’re about to see.”

 

She raised an eyebrow. “And what am I about to see, Nyx?”

 

I took a deep breath before starting. “Hakeem is a withered husk. I’m not sure how Quincy has managed to keep him alive for so long, but she has. I suppose I’ve grown used to it, having seen it happen before my eyes, but it might be startling for you, to see him like that when your last memory of him is completely different.”

 

“You’re forgetting that my memory doesn’t work that way anymore,” Elmiryn reminded me gently.

 

A hand flew to my mouth as my cheeks reddened. “Oh! Of course! I’m sorry, Elle,”

 

“No, no. Don’t worry about it. Just go on. What else should I ‘brace’ myself for?” And she said it just that way too, emphasizing ‘brace’ as if she could conjure quotation marks into the air by her will alone.

 

Oh, she had no idea what we had been up to! But I wanted to let her down gently.

 

“Well, Paulo, as I’ve said before, is older. He’s still an insensitive hooligan, but now on top of that, we’ve learned he’s an untrained enchanter.”

 

“Oh!” the woman cried with a sarcastic grin. “Well isn’t that lovely!”

 

I nodded grimly. “I think Quincy has helped Paulo learn some basic techniques she had encountered in Crysen. They’re supposed to help him reign in his abilities, and protect his mind from the residual spirit energy surrounding the tower.”

 

“And how long will that last him?”

 

“Quincy says we need to find an enchanting master to train Paulo within the next two months, or the boy is at risk of either going insane, dying of brain fever, or turning all our brains to mush.”

 

“Marvelous. Anything else about our ragtag adventuring company?”

 

“Lethia, she—” My voice broke off, and I just stared ahead, blank faced. How do you break this sort of news to someone? It seemed Elmiryn wasn’t the only one who needed to approach this announcement gently. Trying to say it aloud brought back that bloody night in full detail, and with it, all the strong and conflicted emotions that threatened to undo me. And if I felt this way, how would the redhead feel? Before Elmiryn left with Meznik, I had sensed a kind of connection between her and the journeyman enchantress that hadn’t been there before. Would she be terribly upset, or would it slide off of her like rainwater down a blade?

 

“Nyx, what happened with Lethia?” she asked. “What happened?”

 

I cursed under my breath. Sweet Aelurus, I wish I didn’t have to do this!

 

“Elle,” I started quietly. “Lethia cut off her left arm.”

 

Whereas before Elmiryn had come to a gradual stop, now she just stopped altogether, her face going slack. “She what?

 

“Her left arm is gone.”

 

“She lost her fucking arm?

 

“Just above the elbow. She…she cut it an angle, so we were able to pull the skin closed over the wound—”

 

“Who did it?” she barked, advancing on me. Her expression had turned sharp and heated. “Who did that to her?”

 

I retreated from her, alarmed. “I—I just—I just said it! Lethia cut off her arm! She did it to herself!”

 

She glared. “That can’t be true! Why would someone do something like that? How? A person has to train hard and have the right weapon to cut off a limb in one go! And with one arm no less! What did she use, anyway? I seriously doubt you had a weighted and sharpened weapon just lying around!”

 

I felt ill when I whispered, “She didn’t do it one go. It took three tries.”

 

Elmiryn reeled. Burying both hands into her hair. She walked a slow, sloppy circle. When she stopped, her entire body seemed to clench and she turned a violent red. “That’s impossible!” she spat.

 

Now I started to get heated. “Are you calling me a liar?”

 

The anger in my voice seemed enough to get the woman to calm down a little. She still paced in front of me, her fists clenched. “No! No. Of course not, Nyx. I just can’t believe… No, I refuse to believe… I mean, why would someone do that? And again, how?

 

I threw my hands up in exasperation. “Those are the same things we asked!”

 

“But Lethia is alive, right? I mean, you’ve been talking to me this whole time like Lethia was still alive when you left. Right?

 

I rubbed at my face, feeling exhausted. “Yes, Elle. Lethia is alive. Aside from intense pain from her wound, she was perfectly fine. In fact, she was doing bicep curls with a water bucket last I spoke to her!”

 

The warrior’s jaw dropped. “Bicep curls?”

 

I just nodded mutely.

 

She shook her head and started marching at a faster clip. Cresting over a hill, Syria’s tower started to rise in the distance.

 

I barely heard Elmiryn mutter as I fought to keep up with her long strides, “I’ve got to see this for myself!”

 

——

 

The first thing Elmiryn did when we entered the tower grounds was ask where Lethia was. When I told her, she took off, running toward the barn.

 

“W-Wait!” I sputtered at her retreating back. “You still don’t have any clothes!

 

She didn’t so much as pause at this. Resigned, I sprinted after her.

 

When I caught up, it was to find the two women halted inside, as if in suspension. Lethia was lying in her barnstall-turned-bedroom. Elmiryn stared at her as if she were someone she had completely and utterly been unexpected to see. Then it struck me that perhaps the warrior didn’t recognize the girl. She hadn’t recognized me, after all, and I’d traveled with her longest out of our group. Why would this be any different?

 

Lethia seemed equally bemused by the sight of the warrior. Her lack of clothing didn’t appear to fluster her, though. This was just another strange thing to me, until I also remembered that while the young enchantress no longer had the curse that led her to sapping other people’s memories, she still had the unfortunate condition of being absent-minded.

 

I was about to jump in and re-introduce the two of them when Lethia recovered from whatever spell she had been under.

 

“Elmiryn! Welcome back! That is—it is you, isn’t it?” She let loose a nervous laugh and struggled to her feet. Since she only had one arm to balance herself, this looked much harder. I didn’t quite get what a blessing it was to have both arms until then. Brushing straw from her hair, Lethia forced a smile. “Ah, of course it is. What am I saying? I suppose I must look pretty grotesque to you. I trust Nyx explained things?” She glanced at me, and I shrugged, not making eye contact. I wasn’t feeling particularly angry toward her, but just…awkward. Like I was the fool walking back into a room after attempting some grand exit in the wrong direction. Guilt might have been a part of it, too. Maybe.

 

At Elmiryn’s lengthening silence, I could see Lethia’s false cheer wither and fall away. “Elmiryn, it’s Lethia,” she murmured. Then she sighed roughly and squeezed her eyes shut. “Lethy.

 

My eyebrows rose. Lethy? A nasty, tight feeling appeared in my chest.

 

Even after that helpful prod, the Fiamman did not move. Did not speak. It was like she was hoping she was hallucinating. Hoping that it was just her mind playing tricks on her. But when the warrior dropped her eyes, she knew. I knew she knew, because her eyes teared up and her jaw clenched. This might sound odd, but seeing my companion so emotionally turned around by Lethia’s dramatic injury made me feel a little better about myself. Elmiryn looked sad, and horrified, but I could see she was angry too. The dichotomy of her actions was almost a literal translation of what I’d felt the night Lethia had mutilated herself.

 

The warrior stomped up to the enchantress, her face now red, her eyes blazing, her breath coming hard through her flared nostrils—then she hugged the girl, gently about the shoulders, her eyes squeezing shut to allow two fat tears to stream down her face. Lethia took this without resistance, her face going blank, and her arms still at her sides.

 

When the woman pulled away to hold her at arms length, I could see her grip dig into the girl’s shoulders.

 

“You fucking idiot!” Elmiryn spat. She even shook the girl a little, eliciting a light wince from the enchantress.

 

That was when Lethia shrugged the woman off, her expression hardening. “Don’t tell me you’re like the others! I thought you, of all people, would understand!”

 

Elmiryn sucked at her teeth sharply, turning to lean on a stall partition. When she looked at the blonde sidelong, it was with a weary expression. “No. I get why you did it. But there are other ways now. No one lives by those old laws anymore!”

 

“Old laws?” I asked, frowning.

 

The two women looked at me, as if just remembering I was there. The nasty feeling intensified.

 

“I’m surprised you didn’t read about it, Nyx,” Elmiryn said, blinking at me. “Back when Fiamma was nothing but warring tribes, there used to be an old law that said great dishonor demanded great personal sacrifice in order to atone.”

 

Lethia explained next, “During that time, Fiammans didn’t have much in the way of substantial personal effects. They barely had clothes, they shared housing, and even their tools for agriculture were used on a communal basis.”

 

The enchantress raised an eyebrow at Elmiryn, who picked it up smoothly, “The popular thing to do, then, was to sacrifice children. Usually a first born.”

 

Lethia smiled wanly. “But in the instance that the offender had no children, they were then expected to sever a limb.”

 

I crossed my arms and glared. That natural back and forth…where had that come from? “Lethia, you aren’t a Fiamman!”

 

“In terms of nationality? You’re right, Nyx. I’m an Albian. But my ancestry is obviously Fiamman. When thinking of ways to purify myself, I preferred to follow my roots in this instance, given that everything I knew in Albias was related to the taint my former mistress forced upon me.”

 

My mouth opened to argue, but I had to snap it shut again. There Lethia went again, sounding so reasonable about things that, by all means, gave her leave not to be.

 

“That still doesn’t make it the smartest decision,” Elmiryn grumbled, kicking half-heartedly at the partition. She glared down at her feet as she did so, and I wondered if she was avoiding having to look at the girl again.

 

Lethia rolled her eyes and sat back down on her hay bed. I could see she was pale and a grimace was becoming evident, even as the girl tried to hide it.

 

Gently, I said to Elmiryn. “We should let her rest.” Then I turned and looked pointedly at the enchantress. “You will rest, right? No more exercising?”

 

Lethia sighed as she gingerly lay back down. “Daedalus found me out and threatened to put laxative in my food unless I stopped.”

 

“Good,” I said shortly.

 

The girl scowled but didn’t respond.

 

I gestured for Elmiryn to follow. “Let’s go, Elle.”

 

“Nyx?” Lethia called as we started to leave.

 

I paused near the barn doors and turned back. “Yes?”

 

“Hakeem is awake.”

 

Though I’d heard her perfectly, I didn’t comprehend this right away. When the information managed to filter through my thick head, my hands flew to my mouth.

 

“He’s…he’s awake?” I stammered.

 

Lethia grunted as she sat up to peer around her stall partition. “Oh yes! Hakeem woke up from his coma about a day ago.”

 

“And he’s normal?” Elmiryn asked, her voice tight.

 

I looked at her, confused by her tone.

 

Lethia shrugged. “He seemed normal to me. He was sitting up and talking without a problem. No memory loss, no slurring speech, and he moved just fine!”

 

“Where is he?”

 

“Up in the tower, most likely,” I answered. “But that can come later. Let me get you settled in first. In case you’ve forgotten, you’re still half-naked!”

 

She looked like she wanted to argue this, for some reason, when she gave a grudging nod. “All right,” she muttered.


Back to Chapter 44.4 | Forward to Chapter 45.1

Chapter 44.4

NYX____________________________

Elmiryn rose, her cerulean eyes piercing into mine. She was mostly-naked and barefoot, lacking pants and even her chest wraps. Her sword belt was gone, but gripped tight in her hands were her captain’s sword and Graziano’s pistol. Her hair was loose about her shoulders and filthy, dirt and leaves clumping the red locks so that they looked like matted tendrils.

That wasn’t even the worst of it. Most disturbing of all was the fact that Elmiryn stared at me as if she had no idea who, or what, I was.

Without taking her eyes off me, she growled hoarsely, “Grab it.”

The two daesce moved toward me, grabbing my arms and forcing me down into a kneel. I was too stunned by this to even fight back.

She’s controlling them? But how?

Elmiryn slinked toward me, her eyes flashing with a predatory edge that made my hairs stand on end. I could see her grip on her sword tighten.

Finally, I found my voice, “Elmiryn! I-It’s me!

She stopped cold. Her eyes narrowed, but she didn’t say anything. I could see the indecision darken her face like a storm cloud.

“Elle, it’s Nyx!” I said more firmly. “I’ve traveled with you for months now! Listen to my voice! You know who I am!” It was just as I feared. Elmiryn’s transformation into becoming a fae had progressed to the point that her ability to function in our world had been severely damaged. There was no telling how much she could even process now. Were her senses completely compromised? Had she lost all of her memories? I could only hope that her auditory memory still held.

Long tense moments passed as Elmiryn searched my face, the distress growing increasingly evident as the seconds ticked by. Finally, she barked at the daesce, “Let her go!”

They did so, but reluctantly.

I didn’t rise from my kneeling position. I didn’t entirely trust my legs to work. I stared at the daesce and whispered, “Elmiryn, what have you done? Did you…did you alter them?”

She crouched next to me, her eyes hungrily taking me in. Sweet Aelurus, the woman reeked.

After a long time, she whispered, “Yes.”

“But why?” I blurted, locking my wide eyes on her. “They are monsters! How could you–?” but I broke off when Elmiryn suddenly pulled me to her body. Startled, I started to hug her, but then I realized that hadn’t been her intention. She was fighting to open my backpack.

“Where is it?” she asked gruffly. “The drink! I can smell the drink!

I craned my neck, awkwardly pointing over my shoulder. “I-It’s there–!”

When Elmiryn found her prize, she pulled away from me and stood, ripping the cork off the wine bottle and tipping its contents down her throat. She drank without stopping until the bottle was drained, dropping it on the ground and belching loudly with a look of relief on her face. I just stared at her, agog.

This hadn’t quite been the reunion I’d imagined.

Wiping at her mouth, the wild mania that had haunted the woman’s gaze gradually slipped away, and she sat roughly on the ground in front of me. Her daesce companions wandered off, out of sight. They were clearly bored.
When Elmiryn looked at me, I could already see the effects of the wine taking hold, but in an odd way, she looked so much more composed.

Her head was turned to the side, her hair curtaining half her face. This was one of the few times I’d ever seen shame in the warrior, and it made my heart ache.

“Nyx,” she murmured, looking at me obliquely. “I…” she trailed off and lowered her gaze.

I didn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. I’m sorry? How are you feeling? Does preserving your human side mean anything to you anymore?

When she looked up again, she gestured vaguely in the direction the daesce had wandered off to. “They aren’t important to me, if that’s what you’re thinking. They aren’t pets. I don’t even have full control of them! I just…I needed something to guide me through the land while I was here. The only thing I could manipulate were them.” Her voice sounded rough, and I wondered if it was from lack of use, or because she was feeling upset.

“Because they’re abominations, Elmiryn,” I said harshly. “The daesce are outside of Harmony! Doing things that are not in our natural right, like giving things that are not ours to give, is exactly the kind of behavior that got the Spider of the West into trouble! It’s hubris.

She had the good sense to wince before glaring at me. “I wasn’t trying to flout the gods, all right? I was just trying to survive!”

I deflated, covering my face with my hands. “I know,” I mumbled into my palms. “But I’m scared for you!” I peeked at her over my fingers. “I’m still glad you’re safe.”

She smiled at me humorlessly. “In a manner of speaking.”

“When did you return? What’s it been like?”

Elmiryn sighed heavily. When her silence stretched on, I was about to tell her she didn’t need to tell me anything when she started to speak. I could already hear the lisp entering into her words as the wine started to take effect. Likewise, I could hear the woman fighting it, speaking slowly and carefully, struggling to remain coherent long enough to tell her tale to me.

“I think it’s been a little under a week. I dunno. The days smeared together for me.” The redhead set aside her weapons and drew her knees up into a hug. Her eyes glazed over. “I couldn’t see. When I stumbled out of the portal back to our world, everything just assaulted my senses. I’ve been to another realm, one that wasn’t mine, so…so I know what it feels like to be rejected by the environment. That feeling, Nyx? Of sensing things that I wasn’t supposed to know or understand?” She touched her chest emphatically as she swallowed hard. “I felt that here. I didn’t expect that. I’d been hoping coming home wouldn’t…wouldn’t be quite so bad. The daesce were my way to break through that. Through them, I could sense the world again.

“And before you ask: no. I didn’t make them more intelligent so that they wouldn’t attack me. They ignored me, actually. Just about everything out here ignores me. I can walk right up to a bird and it won’t know I’m there till I touch it. It made hunting easy. Too easy. But once I created a link between the daesce and I, and once I gave them awareness, I could sense the world so much better. Nothing hurts anymore. The wrongness was still there, though. Is still there.” Her voice tightened and I could see her staring around us as if the wilderness itself was preparing to attack her. “I don’t know how to put it into words, Nyx. Everything is just…wrong. I don’t even know when I’m hallucinating anymore. Before I could at least guess that I was, but now it’s like the rest of the world is crazy! Not me! The world has it wrong!”

I listened to her intently, feeling both sad and alarmed at the same time. Before we had been transported to the Other Place, Elmiryn had hallucinated quite badly. Now she was saying it was worse? And the only way she could tell was because she was processing the sensory information the daesce were giving her?

To borrow a phrase from her: That was incredibly fucked up.

“Where are the others?” Elmiryn asked, staring at her knees.

I cleared my throat and shrugged. “They’re safe. We’re all staying at Syria’s tower. It’s been abandoned so we’re hiding there until we can move on.” Then I remembered Paulo and added, “Oh! And Paulo is alive. We found him before we left.”

“Thas’ good,” she said without enthusiasm. “I can finally give ‘im his brother’s gun, then.” Then Elmiryn cleared her throat and asked, “I don’ suppose Hakeem made it out with you all?”

I blinked. “Hakeem? Yes, he’s with us.” Then I added with a grumble, “Mind you, he was unconscious the whole time. It wasn’t easy dragging him all that way.”

Now Elmiryn was frowning. “He still hasn’ woken up?”

I shook my head solemnly. “I’m afraid not.”

“Ah….”

I stood and crossed my arms. “Elmiryn, we’ve got to destroy your familiars.”

She made a face. “Don’t call ’em that!”

“What does it matter what I call them? They can’t exist anymore!”

“Are ya under Lacertli’s command or somethin? They’re still jes’ dumb beasts! What harm are they gonna do?”

“I thought you said they weren’t important to you?” I snapped. “And for your information, I don’t need Lacertli to tell me that their existence is wrong! The daesce weren’t meant to be that intelligent! Imagine if they breed and suddenly all the daesce became that way? It’d be utter chaos!”

Elmiryn rolled her eyes and rose up from the ground. “All right, all right! I’ll take care o’ them now–” she raised an arm, as if preparing to do some strange trick, but I quickly grabbed it and wrenched it back down.

“Don’t!” I hissed. “Your fae powers were what got you into this in the first place! We’ll dispatch them the normal way.”

The woman scoffed. “The ‘normal’ way! As if yer champion powers aren’ weird enough….”

With a shake of my head, I pointed at the ground. “Wait here! I’ll take care of this. Then afterwards, we’ll find a creek or a pond to clean you up in!”

Elmiryn pouted but sat back down.

With a deep breath, I reigned in my frustration and set of after the daesce. They weren’t that hard to follow. From where we had been, I could see their trail clearly in the moonlight, even when they had pierced into the thicket.

As it turned out, they hadn’t gone far. The two monsters were squat down on the ground, their backs to me. They were eating a mountain fox they’d caught, its blood and insides just a dark mess over the grassy dirt. I hadn’t even heard the fox cry out. No sounds of struggle, either. Given their distance, I should have. Were these two so deadly now that they could catch such quick and wily prey as they had without any effort?

They must’ve smelled my scent on the wind, for they both looked in unison over their shoulders at me. My look must have given me away. I should have known. Elmiryn had made these monsters smarter, I should’ve snuck up on them. Their lips peeled back and their hackles rose.

All I could do was deal with the choice I had made. Taking a breath, I let my champion sense expand, feeling the shadows around us. In the Other Place, most times the darkness had been fluid and easy to reach. Here, in our realm, however, they were hard, solid, and distant. I hadn’t attempted to manipulate the shadows since our return, so I hadn’t expected my attainment of control to take so long.

The daesce didn’t even hesitate to strike.

With sharp roaring screams, they charged me. I braced, grim determination on my face. It looked like I was going to have to fight them the old fashioned way–

Then their heads jerked to the side with an audible snap, and they crashed into the dirt, sliding up to my feet. Both were dead. Judging by the funny angle of their heads, the cause were broken necks.

Stunned, I stared down at them.

That’s when I heard Elmiryn approaching from behind me. “Yeeeah…” she sighed. “I figured I coulda let ya do it, but then I’d be sittin’ there for ages twiddlin’ my thumbs. This way’s faster.”

I turned and glared at her.

And we’re supposed to keep this one from violating Harmony? Oh this ought to be fun… Kali grumbled.

ELMIRYN________________________

Nyx was mad at her. Elmiryn could tell as much, despite her inebriation.

Still, the question tumbled from her mouth, because she wanted to hear the girl say it, just to know it was real.

“Are ya mad at me?”

Yes.

“Oh.”

Was she supposed to be sorry? The question came without malice, a simple thing a young child might ask. Is this the appropriate response? She felt buoyed on that heavy, unstable feeling. The wine went straight to her head. It had been so long since she’d had a proper drink. Elmiryn had almost told Nyx, but refrained out of shame, that she had gotten by so long because she’d been eating rotten fruit. Mostly grapes and sour cherries. The fermented juice never sated her thirst, but it did keep the shakiness from her hands. She could just imagine the look of revulsion on Nyx’s face should she impart this one detail of her time lost in the Albian wilds. Perhaps she could tell Nyx still, despite the pity this might lead to. It would make her feel horrible, like a weaker being, like her father even, but at least…

At least it wouldn’t be the look of horror that Nyx would no doubt show should Elmiryn reveal what she was like before she’d figured out to eat the rotten fruit.

But this! It had felt like ages since Elmiryn had felt so good. She wanted to laugh again, and she couldn’t even remember the last time she laughed. It was interesting how something so simple could so define a person. It seemed the warrior had based a great deal of her approach to life on laughter, made it a core part of who she was, and then just like that, the sound was gone, taking with it a healthy chunk of her identity. What was she without the jokes and the giggles to mask everything?

But these were sobering thoughts, and Elmiryn didn’t care much for becoming sober yet.

Nyx led Elmiryn to a mountain spring she had found, then ordered her curtly to strip.

The redhead knew it wasn’t the time for a joke, knew it was perhaps her just dodging the real issue, but she just wanted a reason to hear Nyx laugh so bad (because, let’s face it, Elmiryn could laugh right now without a reason, but then she’d look insane)–

“Nyx, have ya ever had sex while campin’?” the redhead managed to snigger.

The Ailuran paused at the water bank to stare at her. “Huh?”

Elmiryn couldn’t hold it in. She was already leaning on her knees and giggling hard. “It’s ‘in tents!’ Get it?”

Nyx didn’t say anything. She only watched as the older woman collapsed onto her knees, lost in her intense amusement.

“In tents!” she sputtered. After a time, she realized Nyx was still quiet and pushed herself up with her hands. “Do ya get it, Nyx? ‘In tents’? Intense?

“I got it, Elmiryn,” Nyx said flatly.

The warrior’s laughter died swiftly. The girl wasn’t laughing. Not only that, but her voice sounded hard. Cold, even.

“Nyx are…are ya that mad about what I did?” Elmiryn asked with a mild frown.

The girl only shook her head. “We’ll deal with things in time, Elmiryn,” the Ailuran sighed. “Right now, my only concern is cleaning you up and making sure you’re all right!”

The redhead’s frown deepened, but she proceeded to strip naked just the same. The connection she had made through the daesce hadn’t severed her connection to the world, as she had feared, but their utterly primal minds were of no use in processing complex sapien expression anyway. Elmiryn wished desperately that she could understand the look on her friend’s face. Depending on auditory clues alone didn’t help much when the other party was so reticent.

Nyx also undressed, but not all the way, much to the warrior’s disappointment. She guided Elmiryn into the frigid water, silent as the woman shivered and leaned on her. Gripped in her hand was a large bunch of dried moss to act as a scrub.

“All right, Elle. Dunk,” Nyx ordered primly.

Elmiryn stared at her, horrified. “Dunk?”

“Yes! Up to your head, please.”

“But it’s freezing!”

“Oh don’t be a child! It’ll be no better if I splash you! Just dunk into the water, and then we can be done with this faster.”

“Fine,” Elmiryn groused, before letting herself slip down into the water.

Her body seized up as the water reached up over her head, and for a frightening moment, as she looked up and saw the moonlight filtering in through the billowing air bubbles, she thought she could see claws appearing overhead to keep her below the surface…

Elmiryn burst back up, whipping her head back and flailing.

Nyx, alarmed, yelled and grabbed the woman from behind. When this didn’t calm her, the Ailuran dragged them back to the water bank, allowing the Fiamman to lay on the mud and catch her breath.

“Claws,” she gasped. “Halward! He’s angry! I made ‘im angry!”

“Elmiryn, shh! I’m here!”

The woman felt the girl’s hand on her shoulder as she lay on her side, and she clutched at it, staring at the shifting treeline as wolfish silver gaze pierced at her from the dark.

“Nyx,” Elmiryn breathed shakily. “Stay with me.”

“I’ve already promised you that I would.”

“No, I mean–right now. Just stay close.”

Nyx’s hand shifted from her shoulder to plant itself on the mud as the girl leaned over her to peer at the treeline as she did. “Do you…see something?”

That pause. As if whatever it was that Elmiryn was perceiving was automatically suspect. The woman closed her eyes.

It’s just in my head. Artemis can’t appear on the mortal plane without affecting the environment. It’s the entire reason the gods handpicked champions, wasn’t it? To act as their agents on the living world?

When she opened her eyes again, the silver gaze was gone.

“It was nothin’,” Elmiryn breathed. “Forget I said anythin’.”

Nyx brushed back a lock of the woman’s hair, making her turn her head to look up at the girl. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Elmiryn relaxed further. There. That warm golden sound in the girl’s voice, the one that made the warrior feel at peace, was finally leaking through. But…it wasn’t as clear as it had been before. It was like it was struggling to get through something large and thick.

The warrior reached a hand up to touch the girl’s face. “I’m fine.”

Nyx helped her up, and together they returned to the water, where the Ailuran scrubbed away the dirt and grime. She tsked over the woman’s hair, pulling out the leaves and undoing what knots that she could. Ultimately Elmiryn’s nest-like head was going to have to wait for a brush to be truly returned to normal. The woman was fine with this. She didn’t expect to come out of the spring looking like polished royalty. Thankfully, neither did Nyx. Still, it was a definite improvement from before. As she was, the redhead smelled no better or worse than what they usually had when they were constantly on the road.

Nyx nodded with satisfaction as she pulled out yet another knot. They sat on the rocky shore, Elmiryn still drying out, naked between the girl’s legs. If there was one thing that the woman had been surprised by, it was how relaxed Nyx was. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the woman had stank worse than a pig sty, but the Ailuran hadn’t so much as batted an eyelash when the warrior stripped naked. Was her companion just getting more comfortable with her?

Or was it perhaps that she was losing interest?

“Nyx?” Elmiryn said before she even knew what she was doing.

“Hmm?”

“Have ya… Did ya think about me while I was away?”

Elmiryn felt a light touch at her jaw before Nyx turned her head to better see her. The Ailuran kissed her cheek before whispering into her ear. “Since you left, all I ever did was think about you.”

The redhead pouted. She didn’t miss the note of rejection in Nyx’s words. “I didn’ leave cos’ I wanted to, Nyx. I left because I had to!”

Nyx nodded, her nose brushing Elmiryn’s ear. “I know. I wasn’t trying to accuse you.”

“You mean it?”

A pause. “Yes.”

No.

“What can I do?” Elmiryn murmured, closing her eyes. “Tell me what it is that I can do to make you feel better about it all!”

Nyx pulled away, standing abruptly. “Again with the telling!” she snapped. “Why does everyone want me to spell things out for them! What if I don’t have the answers either? What if don’t know what I want?”

Elmiryn turned to sit on her feet, bewildered. “Um. Come again?”

“Do you assume that just because I know all these useless big words that I am somehow better at commuicating than you are?”

“No?”

“Well…then…you’d be correct! Because I’m not better at speaking than you are! And sometimes, even if I know what it is that’s bothering me, what if I’m not ready to talk about it?” Nyx pointed accusingly at the redhead. “How ready were you when you told me you were wanted for black magic by the Fiamman kingdom?”

Elmiryn shrugged, still nonplussed. “I didn’t care?”

“Oh that is bullshit!

“Nyx what point are you trying to make? I don’t understand why you feel so threatened all of a sudden!”

Nyx stomped her foot and yelled. “I don’t feel threatened! I feel angry! There’s a fucking difference!”

Elmiryn threw her hands up into the air, feeling her own ire rise. “Wonderful! So you’re angry! That still doesn’t fucking give me a reason why!” She pointed at herself. “That night I had to tell you about the bounty on my head? I felt horrible! If I had told you what my situation was instead of just keeping it to myself like an idiot, then you might’ve been better prepared for when we had first been attacked! Except I hadn’t done that, so I just…I dunno…dealt with it! It wasn’t as if I could keep ignoring the issue!”

The Ailuran glared at her as she shrugged into her gambeson. “I’m sorry, Elmiryn. Just…let’s just get going. With all the daesce and bounty hunters around, we’d be better off traveling until sunrise.”

The warrior leveled a hard stare at the girl. Did she really think after all that they could just cut so short? Nyx paused to glance nervously at her.

“Elmiryn? Please? I just want to go back!” the girl pleaded.

Slowly, Elmiryn nodded, feeling a large pit form in her stomach. “All right. Let’s get going then.”

Nyx is afraid to talk to me…I can hear it in her voice! But why? What could I have possibly done to make her feel that way?


Back to Chapter 44.3 | Forward to Chapter 44.5

Chapter 44.3

LETHIA________________________

 

Dear Jydel,

 

I’ll have you know that people are fantastically annoying sometimes.

 

Being tended to by Daedalus is fine. But Quincy? Ye gods! I would rather chop off my other arm than have to suffer her prickly bedside manner any longer!

 

Sorry, was that joke too soon?

 

It’s just that I’m so irritated! Everyone has started treating me as though I’m a lunatic about to hop off the nearest cliff. Halward help them, they just don’t understand at all! I mean, if I was really intent on killing myself, I think I would have enough intelligence to go about it more efficiently than just amputating a gods damned limb!

 

But what can I do? I can’t make them see what they don’t want to. And in the end, I didn’t do it for them. It was my own blood pact, paid in flesh. I know what my destiny is now, Jydel.

 

I have to kill Syria.

 

I lay awake in the barn, staring up at the rafters, and it’s all I can think about. And even if I told this to the others? I still do not think they would understand. They would say, “Ah! She must really hate Syria to wish her dead!”

 

That just isn’t true.

 

Syria was my mother. I can no more cease to love her than I could stop breathing. It is just a fact of my reality. But I do not need to love the crimes she has committed, and as her adopted daughter, I see it is my duty to preserve what is left of her legacy. I feel almost rejuvenated, to have such a clear goal in front of me now. Izma’s way was wrong. I couldn’t see that before because I was lost in the labyrinthine logic that no doubt trapped my mistress. What is wrong with intellectuals, that we manage to complicate things that are supposed to be simple? We get so caught up in our ideas that we lose sight of the point, whatever that may be.

 

Nyx does it. She weighs her thoughts on a scale like an alchemist, ticking off pros and cons, arguing one point against another. I think she would have made a stellar scholar. But her passion! It’s strong and highly unreasonable, jerking her this way and that by a storm of feelings. I can see it every time she looks at me. Conflict rages inside of her. The anger tenses her brow and darkens her eyes when her charity is scarce. But when she’s in a lighter mood? I see a strange bout of sympathy bubble up. It’s tiring, that hot and cold attitude. I’d almost prefer it be the anger alone if it meant I knew where I stood with her!

 

Oh, but listen to me complain! I’m sorry Jydel, I can probably guess what you’re thinking. “Complains about the drizzle, but hardly wants the storm. Typical woman!” I suppose I can just shut up and try to find the silver lining to this. Maybe Nyx can finally find it in her heart to forgive me? We’ll see. She left earlier today to search for Elmiryn. I don’t think she’ll be back for a few days. Maybe all she really needed was some time to herself.

 

Sometimes, I feel the same way.

 

At night, I think I hear Paulo outside of the barn, skulking. He’s such a self-conscious boy, Jydel. I think Quincy is aware of this, but Nyx isn’t. I can’t really blame her. It’s not as though Paulo makes it easy for anyone to feel sorry for him, but just imagine being stuck alone for a year in a cold, dark half world with monsters. Then the only company that finds you turns out to be group of judgmental women and a snarling dog.

 

Oh and by the way, your brother is dead. Cheers!

 

Don’t get me wrong. Paulo is still a git, but I can understand why he is one. Does that make sense?

 

Of course not. I suppose that’s what I can expect after living most of my life in a tower with a crazy woman. I end up feeling sorry for assholes. It’s like some weird cosmic joke.

 

If the universe thinks that is funny, it should see what I’m about to do next.

No. Nevermind. Tomorrow. I’ll tell you tomorrow, Jydel. My hand is starting to cramp up and I’m feeling anxious enough for a walk.

 

 

NYX__________________________

The Albian wilderness was no less treacherous now that winter was over. Despite the fact that the only snow could be found on higher altitudes, the daesce still lurked the mountains. I’d learned from Daedalus that Holzoff’s Tower had been indefinitely closed in light of Syria’s dramatic escape. That meant the food source the terrible daesce relied on was now gone. The population of monsters spread, sometimes in large herds, other times alone or in small packs, attacking and devouring whatever they could get their claws on. Families had been destroyed overnight. Travelers were attacked and left mutilated on the roads, hurting trade. This prompted the new leader of Belcliff to hire help in beating the beasts back, exterminating them where possible. Many of these people were bounty hunters waiting for their next real job. It was amazing the devastating effects, both in the community and personally, our group’s past actions had.

 

So traversing into the wilds, I was on guard at all times. There was no telling when a bounty hunter or a daesce could appear.

 

But with so much time to myself, I couldn’t help but brood.

 

Lethia’s words echoed in my head.

 

When you figure out what you want from me, tell me.

 

What do I want? I thought angrily. I want to stop hurting! I’m sick of feeling so much pain!

 

Kali chimed in on my private thoughts. It was her new favorite thing to do, apparently.

 

Perhaps instead of feeling sorry for yourself, you could just talk about it? she offered dryly.

 

I balked at this. What in the four winds are you talking about?

 

Oh you know. When you two-leggers open your mouths and sounds come out? TALKING, Nyx! Sweet Aelurus, I thought you’d be familiar with the concept by now? You do it all the time, after all!

 

But what would we talk about, I mean! I snapped back. Lethia knows what happened! She knows why I’m upset with her!

 

Oh, and I suppose you feel she understands everything you felt and thought given that moment?

 

Yes! She does! Quite literally, as a matter of fact since she– but I broke off, my feet slowing to a stop as I neared a slope that led into a small field between the hills I traveled through.

 

I was about to finish that thought with she was reading my mind the whole time but it occurred to me that in that moment Lethia hadn’t been in control. Izma had. Lethia’s decisions may have led to the situation, but did that mean she was present the entire time?

 

Kali, ever aware of my thoughts, said quietly, We once acted under the best intentions, and our family perished as a result. I don’t think Lethia meant for what happened any more than we meant for our family’s fate. That’s all I will say about that, sister.

My throat grew tight. I didn’t argue her point, but I didn’t dive too deeply into it either. I couldn’t afford this level of reflection if I wanted to stay safe and find Elmiryn before it was too late.

 

That thought firmly in mind, I forged onward.

 

 

LETHIA________________________

 

Dear Jydel,

 

Daedalus sat down to talk about the request I made of him the other day. You remember, right? I’ve kept it a secret from the others for a reason, but perhaps if they learned of my intentions, they would treat me differently.

 

After all, I couldn’t be suicidal if I intended to replace my arm.

 

And here’s the good news: Daedalus thinks he can do it!

 

He showed me some sketches and plans, then a few parts from his wagon that he thinks he can use. A lot of it, he says, will have to be custom made, and he’s missing some rare elements that would be necessary for the arm’s function, but he suspects he can find these things within the next few weeks! I was elated, I tell you!

 

Daedalus may make a living as a jeweler, but he’s always been a tinkerer at heart. I’m sure you can probably see up there in heaven, Jydel, but the elf’s work is amazing! His automated guard statues aren’t even his best work. Apparently, he’s been constructing a ship in his spare time too. He keeps it hidden, for you see, it’s not just any ship, it’s

 

[The ink trails off and smears]

[The writing continues at the bottom of the page, but in a shakier hand]

 

Jydel he’s awake gods I didn’t think it was possible but Hakeem is AWAKE!

 

NYX__________________________

The days came and went. I was losing myself in the Albian wilds, gradually returning to that almost feral way of life I had adopted before I’d met Elmiryn. It was nighttime. Kali hovered close to the surface, peering out of my eyes as we sat hunched in the dark in the shadow of a broad and fragrant blue juniper tree. We were downwind, and I was hoping the strong tree smell would mask our scent from the daesce that had wandered across our path. It wasn’t the largest I’d seen, but it was still big enough to make me pause. Its clawed paws dragged along the dirt as it lumbered along, head bowed, red eyes glaring at nothing. This one was skinny–its mangy white coat thinned enough in places that I could see its dark skin. I sighed. If this beast didn’t leave the area soon, I’d either have to turn around or fight it. I didn’t like either option.

The best part? I was just three days away from the full moon. All I could feel was the primal aggression burning in my limbs, urging me to run. It was part of the reason I had trouble resisting Kali’s will.

Fight it! Scare it off! she snapped at me.

No! I fired back. I don’t need to stir up trouble! Besides, engaging this one might attract others!

What’s the matter with you? You’re a champion of heaven and you’ve fought things twice this size! Just kill it and let’s be on our way!

I clenched my fists and bowed my head as I tried to reign in my frustration. Kali, enough! You know it’s not your turn! If you promise to behave I’ll…I’ll let you have full control for seven days!

That got her attention. I could feel her perk up like I’d just offered her a treat. A full week? You promise?

My heart skipped. What a fool! Just what had I offered without thinking?

In what I hoped felt nonchalant, I replied, Not a full week. Seven days. We’ll switch off.

Kali growled. You’re backpedaling!

I never said a full week!

It’s fucking semantics and you know it!

Regardless, this is the best you’ll get right now! I can’t have you running off and ruining the things I’m working for.

Why can’t you trust anyone? Kali asked, hurt clear in her words.

I faltered. I…I DO trust people! But things are delicate right now, and we both know you have no desire to take charge on those matters. At her sullen reticence, I added imploringly, Oh, sister please don’t be upset with me! I’ve already got enough on my plate, I don’t need to have you resenting me on top of it all!

I could feel her sink away from me, deeper into her realm. My gut clenched. Since we had more or less reconciled our differences, having Kali on my side had been a tremendous relief. I’m not sure I could have gotten through those last days in the Other Place had we still been at odds. But if she decided to quarrel with me again….

When Kali returned to the surface, I tensed in anticipation.

Fine. We’ll switch off for seven days, she grumbled. BUT I want to be able to walk upright.

I faltered at this. She wanted to assume the sapien form? I thought she hated it? Kali, I know we did that in the half-dimension, but what if it doesn’t work here? We’re fully in the realms of the gods once more, so there are more limits!

If I’m not really our animal nature manifested, then that should mean I can exist in the world as you do! Haven’t I done it before?

She had a point. Sort of. My sneaky sister was failing to mention that the only reason she had been able to assume my form in our world was because Meznik’s evil influence had allowed her to.

Still, I mulled over this.

After several moments, I replied, If you can do it, and Lacertli does not object, then I suppose it isn’t a problem…. I didn’t know if Kali purposefully taking control of my sapien form would somehow be an affront to Harmony. That was the tricky thing about being an abomination of nature. When your very existence was wrong, what could you do that was permissible in the first place? I was a champion of heaven–did that give us some kind of temporary pardon?

Thinking of the Lizard King made me anxious all over again. It had been almost a week and I still hadn’t heard from him. Just what did Fortuna ask him to do, and was he all right?

Are you worrying about a god? Kali snapped, annoyed. She was so much more irritable these days, it was exhausting. Focus! We’re still talking!

My expression turned contrite. Sorry…

Just at that moment, I heard a twig snap. Kali fell silent as I went stiff, eyes raising once more. Our inward exchanges were fast–taking mere seconds what would ordinarily take longer to say aloud. But even that discussion had been lengthy. I couldn’t see the daesce anymore. Was it really gone? There were lots of things lurking hidden in the Albian wilds. Many of these creatures were completely harmless. But if our inattentiveness had allowed a beast to get the jump on us….

I breathed in deep.

I could sense the damp soil, the juniper trees, the frost that clung to the rocks. The stench of the daesce was like an ugly streak in the air, making my nose wrinkle. I couldn’t hear the beast anymore, and the smell hadn’t grown any stronger. Perhaps it really had moved on?

I crept out of the shadows, cautiously straightening.

That’s when the daesce hit me from behind, screeching wildly. My face went into the dirt when it grabbed the back of my head and tried to crush my skull. My hands clawed at the ground in a panic as I tried to get the leverage needed to throw the monster off of me.

Rage built up, burning my muscles, slicing my lungs as desperate breaths cut up my throat in sharp whines. I loathed these creatures with every fiber of my being. Loathed their violence. Loathed their hedonism. Loathed our similarities.

With a roar I grabbed its supporting arm and wrenched, twisting my whole body. Without anything to bear its weight, it rolled with me, leaving us in a tangled mess, but at least it wasn’t on top of me anymore. With a few sharp elbow strikes and wild punches, I found myself scrabbling to my knees and leaping on the monster’s head. It’s rancid fangs bit down onto my hand when I tried to grab it under its chin. I screamed, but simply took hold of its entire lower jaw, my other hand firmly gripping the matted fur on the back of its head. With a sharp wrench, I snapped the thing’s neck, and it collapsed to the ground, dead.

Rolling away from the twitching body, I lay there, catching my breath. My peace was short lived.

Nearby, I could hear more daesce coming. It was by no means a herd–from the whoops and screeches, it sounded like two or three at most–but I had no idea how strong they were, and if this one was any indication, I didn’t want to be caught out-numbered, godly champion or no. Cursing, I fled in the opposite direction of the beasts, deeper into the thick underbrush and low broad trees.

Try as I might, the daesce were closing in. I could hear them crashing through behind me, trampling over everything in wild abandon.

In my desperation, I made the mistake of looking over my shoulder as I ran. That led me to charging straight over a low cliff. I wheeled my arms as I fell through the air, a shout ripping out of my mouth before I crashed and tumbled, head over heels, down the sandy slope to the hard earth down below.

Ye gods!

I stared up at the sky, pain assailing my entire body, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of deja vu at the situation.

Get up! What are you doing reminiscing for? They’re coming! Kali roared.

I jerked back up, my eyes wide. She was right. Sliding down the cliff’s steep slope was one of the daesce, a short but muscular brute that looked ready to eat my face. His companion soon appeared, leaping off the cliff with a wild hoot and a slavering mouth. He hit the ground hard, the vibration moving up my feet, and straightened with an almost knowing grin. He was taller, with unusually long arms and a misshapen face.

I backed away from them, and if I had been in my feline form, my hackles would have been raised. The two daesce circled me slowly, their red eyes taking in my petite form. I wondered at their hesitance. This wasn’t normal behavior for the monsters at all. They were ‘attack first, think never’ type creatures. But these two? They were assessing me, their eyes holding an intelligence that shouldn’t have been there.

Kali didn’t like it either. She didn’t say anything, but I suddenly felt the urge to growl deep within my throat.

I could kill these daesce with my vermagus abilities…but wouldn’t that just attract more? I didn’t have time to fight these beasts endlessly.

That’s when a third figure burst over the cliff, landing just behind the two daesce.

I froze, my eyes widening. “E-Elle?”


Back to Chapter 44.2 | Forward to Chapter 44.4

Chapter 44.2

NYX__________________________ 

Lethia didn’t die, thankfully. Within a few days of severing her own arm, she was up and walking—though she never stayed up for long. She never complained about the pain. Daedalus and Quincy gave her herbal mixes to help with that, but there wasn’t a plant on this world that could eliminate the discomfort entirely. I could see how it kept the enchantress up at night. Oddly enough, this was the most at peace I’d seen the girl since we’d reunited. Lethia always appeared lost in thought, and not in the melancholy way she had been before, but with an almost determined air. Determination for what, I had no idea.

 

It was thanks to Daedalus that her condition had not worsened. Just as I had expected, the elf had stayed, tending to the enchantress and helping her care for her wound. More than that, though, the two were constantly talking, heads bowed as if they were going over some secret plan. They always fell silent whenever I or one of the others drew near, and it made me suspicious. What were they talking about that they couldn’t share with the rest of us?

 

I mentioned this to Quincy, but she only brushed me off.

 

“Daedalus and Lethia are old friends. The elf has been in her life since she was a child.”

 

“How do you know that?”

 

“Because he was one of the first people I questioned when I was pursuing Lethia as a bounty. If they want to talk in private, then let them! It may just be that he’s the only one she feels comfortable with confiding in right now,” she said.

 

I huffed. “Yes, but—”

 

“Nyx, I cannot entertain your cynicism right now! I need to massage Hakeem to prevent bed sores.”

 

Hakeem had not awoken since our arrival. Daedalus, humoring Quincy, had gone up to check on the Fanaean, who had taken residence in Lethia’s old room (since the girl had decided she preferred the barn), but he would not wake. He lay there still as a lifeless doll. Stubbornly, Quincy insisted on caring for him.

 

I pitied Quincy and Hakeem both.

 

Paulo, who had taken to sleeping outside, under the stars, was quiet and withdrawn. It was the return of the taciturn young man we had first encountered in the Other Place, but with a notable difference. Now, whenever Paulo was in the same room as Lethia, he would stop and do something for her. Sometimes it was small: He would bring her a cup of water; shut a window for her; or bring her whatever food we had cooked that day. Other times it was more. Once I’d seen him freshen up her hay bed. Another time, I saw him fix a leak on the roof of the barn that had been bothering the enchantress.

 

I didn’t really know what to make of this change. It seemed to happen so suddenly. Lethia didn’t seem all that surprised by it, but to say the two were comfortable around each other would have been overstating the situation. Paulo, after his task for the girl was complete, would practically flee her presence. Lethia, who always watched the boy intently as he worked, never said a word of thanks, nor attempted to speak further with him.

 

And how did I fare after spending so many days hiding and resting at Syria’s abandoned tower?

 

I was losing my mind.

 

If I weren’t in touch with the shadows, I would have believed they were moving. My eyes were always playing tricks on me, making me believe someone (or something) was lurking in the dark when there wasn’t really anything. Other times, I’d fuss over something incessantly—like tying my gambeson for instance. I’d be halfway through my ties before I’d start all over again, thinking I’d skipped one. Quincy happened upon me in Syria’s old room doing this, no doubt seeking help with Hakeem, before she stopped me in bemusement.

 

“Nyx, stop. You’re just going around in circles!” she chided.

 

“But I keep missing a tie for some reason!” I whined. “I keep counting them, watching my hands, but the gambeson doesn’t sit right! I don’t understand!”

 

Quincy crossed her arms and looked at me funny. “How long have you been trying to tie your gambeson?”

 

The question startled me. I took a moment to think, then mumbled uneasily, “H-How far have the suns traveled from the ten o’ clock position?”

 

The wizard balked at me. “You’ve been doing this for an hour?

 

“It can’t have been that long!” I protested. I started to fumble with my ties again. “I would have noticed!”

 

Quincy grabbed my wrists and I looked into her face sharply. Her expression was very solemn. “Nyx, you’re an intelligent girl. Surely you’ve noticed that things have not been the same since we’ve returned!”

 

“What do you mean?” I asked, but I knew exactly what she was talking about.

 

The wizard rolled her eyes and put her hands on her hips. “You know very well what I mean! The small hallucinations! Our foggy memories! Who does that sound like?”

 

I could feel my heart hammering in my chest. “Elmiryn,” I breathed.

 

Quincy nodded grimly. “Yes. Izma and Meznik mentioned that we had been altered in some way, to allow us to see them without losing our minds. At the time, I didn’t understand why they would want us to see them, unless of course they intended…”

 

“To use us,” I finished, my voice sounding hollow.

 

She only nodded again.

 

I buried my face in my hands. “Sweet Aelurus! I thought being a champion meant I would be safe from such influence!”

 

“You’re still mortal, Nyx. Don’t take your status for granted. And besides,” Quincy crossed her arms and I could see her eyes grow distant as she delved into some deep thought. “This has another side to it.”

 

“Really? And what’s that?” I muttered miserably.

 

“Isn’t it obvious? We can see the astral demons, Nyx! If we can see them, that means that we can fight them! They’ve lost one of their safeguards!”

 

I raised an eyebrow. “We’ve just established this is a double-edged sword, Quincy! We won’t be of much help to anyone let alone ourselves if we start to lose our minds like—” I broke off. I never thought I’d experience what the warrior had to go through, but now that I did, I regretted not being more supportive of her when we’d first met. To have to go through something like this alone…it was really just proof that the redhead had considerable mettle to keep from succumbing to what was obviously a harrowing state of existence.

 

Then another alarming thought occurred to me. “You don’t think that Izma and Meznik intend to turn us into fae, do you?”

 

Quincy frowned. “I don’t know. Why would they? Half the point of their war game seemed to be about displaying how creative one was in comparison to the other. Making a person into a fae would be old hat to them.”

 

I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. “So what now, then?”

 

“Well, seeing as how our new affliction allows us to witness the demons without trouble, reversing that seems detrimental. At the same time, we’d have to keep it from progressing further, or we won’t be able to function in our own world…” The wizard trailed off, her finger tapping her chin as she gazed through the floor. Finally, she shrugged. “I’ll research what I can. Maybe Lethia knows of something. Meanwhile, we should tell everyone what is happening so that they can be aware of the problem. Until such a time as we can come up with a way to mitigate our condition, we’ll just have to watch each other.”

 

I swallowed through a tight throat and nodded. “You came up here for something?”

 

“Oh! Yes. But first,” she gestured at my unlaced gambeson. “Let me help you with that.”

 

Once I was fully dressed, I went to help Quincy with moving Hakeem off his bed—she wanted to wash his sheets. As we worked, we discussed other ways of lessening the ill of effects of the demons’ influence. One such thing we agreed on—everyone needed to sleep better.

 

When I really stopped to think about it, I hadn’t slept all that much in the Other Place. Of course, there were moments where I had been unconscious, but the only time I could remember actually sleeping was during our stop at the shard where the Lycan village had been located. There, I had slept for a short time, and I don’t recall dreaming about anything. Yet here I seemed to dream every single night, and they were the worst nightmares. Every time, I awoke screaming, sweat drenched and with fragmented memories of what my consciousness had taken me to in sleep: a sea of nymph corpses that I drowned in; a herd of pretas that tore me apart; my chest ripping open and revealing a black hole—

 

Elmiryn leaving me.

 

What most pained me was that when I would descend from Syria’s room, it was usually to find Quincy sitting in the dark of the kitchen, staring at nothing. Or Paulo crouched just outside the barn doors with his head in his hands, his breath hitching. Or Lethia pacing—almost angrily—out along the property fence. Even Argos seemed to struggle with some inner trauma as he obsessively hunted down the gophers and other pests that had taken up residence on the land.

 

We were all suffering and yet none of us seemed capable of talking to each other.

 

Worse yet, Elmiryn still had not returned, and I had no idea where she could be. I only waited a day to see if she would turn up in the same manner that we had, out from under the tree’s roots. But after that, I risked a short trip into the wilderness with the wine. I had talked it over with Lethia and Quincy, and they surmised that the warrior, given her fae powers, could have circumvented the gateway we had entered completely and turned up elsewhere nearby.

 

But by the sixth day, I was turning up nothing, and I feared the worst.

 

This time, I wanted to go deeper into the wilderness, but not just for a day trip, like I’d been doing. I wanted to go deeper into the wilds, be more thorough in my search. I didn’t know how to approach the others with this wish, though. Even after our shared hardship, there were deep fractures that divided our group, and it hurt our trust and communication. I could anticipate the accusations from Paulo already.

 

Just to make sure I stayed honest, I told Kali, After three days of searching, turn us around!

 

She scoffed at me from her mental den. What do you mean, ‘Turn us around’? You aren’t a wagon I can just steer at will!

 

I sighed with as much patience as I could muster. Kali, what I meant was—hold me accountable to my original plan. I can’t leave the others for too long.

 

Kali grunted in response, and I took that as her assent.

 

Next, I needed to talk to the others…preferably one by one. I’m a coward at heart, after all.

 

The first I spoke to was Argos, because out of us all, I felt sorry that the dog seemed to be so frequently overlooked. The canine was chasing rodents out in the field, as usual. He stopped and listened to what I had to say—all my reasons and my assurances—and simply licked my cheek. I rubbed his head in thanks, thinking wistfully, I wish I could speak to you like Lethia can, and went off to find Daedalus, who was sitting inside the tower at the kitchen table. He was working with a number of various metal parts. No doubt, he’d taken them from his wagon full of spare clock pieces.

 

“What are you doing?” I asked out of curiosity.

 

He glanced at me, but didn’t stop polishing a small gear. With much reservation, the elf murmured, “I’m working on a new creation. Was there something you needed?”

 

The phrase ‘Marked One’ hung there at the end, even if he didn’t say it.

 

With a resigned sigh, I went about telling him of my intentions. Then I asked if I could take some of his medical supplies with me.

 

“No,” he said firmly. He set down his work and turned to glare up at me. “Those supplies will only last me until the end of tomorrow, and Lethia’s wound still needs much tending to! If you want to take healing supplies, you’ll have to go into town and get your own!”

 

I didn’t bother arguing. With dropped shoulders and a lowered gaze, I hurried off to find Quincy upstairs.

 

The wizard sat at her husband’s bedside, a damp wash cloth in her hand as she dabbed at his head. I winced at the sight of the unconscious Fanaean. His cheeks were sunken in. What really surprised me was that he wasn’t dead yet. A touch at his shoulder still proved he had some living warmth to him.

 

Quincy looked at me quizzically. I didn’t typically visit unless she asked me to.

 

“Can I help you, Nyx?” she asked.

 

I held her eyes, my mouth open to say something, but I suddenly had to look away. There was a pit in my stomach. I was leaving Quincy alone to deal with the others. She already had so much to deal with. Was that fair?

 

“You’re going to look for Elmiryn,” she stated quietly.

 

I swallowed and peered at her sidelong before giving a nod.

 

The brunette took a deep breath and tossed her wash cloth back into its basin at the floor. With both hands she rubbed at her face before standing and crossing her arms.

 

Quincy met my eyes. “I understand. If it were Hakeem, I would do the same.”

 

I fidgeted on the spot. “You’ll be all right? With…with everything?”

 

“Daedalus is a big help. Paulo seems repentant, which is good. Lethia seems to be in a better mood than she’s been in for a while.” She shrugged one shoulder and puckered her lips. “Yes. I think we ought to be fine!”

 

“Good! That’s good.”

 

A long pause.

 

“How long were you going to search till?” she asked next.

 

“Three days.”

 

Quincy tilted her head to one side. “You’ll need supplies for Elmiryn, won’t you? I noticed Daedalus’ supplies dwindling.”

 

I was already backing up toward the door. I still had to speak with Paulo and Lethia, and I was eager to start my search. “I’ll figure something out—”

 

“Nyx, wait.”

 

I paused and looked at her curiously.

 

Quincy already had her coin purse in hand. “You need to buy things, don’t you? You sort of need money for that, right? Here. Take the rest from last time. That should do it.”

 

I frowned as she approached to press the purse into my hand. There were at least two hundred gold coins left in the purse. Medical supplies were expensive, so I could very much use the money…but this situation was different from before. I wasn’t buying supplies for the group, just for Elmiryn. Was Quincy expecting a sort of trade again?

 

“What would you like in return?” I asked wearily.

 

She put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes. “Huh?”

 

I jingled the purse. “For the coins? What do you want?”

 

Quincy scowled. “You think I’m bartering with you?”

 

I blinked at her, taken aback. “You…you mean, you—?”

 

The wizard only shook her head at me and turned away, insult and hurt evident on her face. “Smart as you are, you can be a little thick headed, can’t you?” she muttered.

 

I took a step after her. Did I really misunderstand things that badly? “Quincy, hold on—!”

 

“Just go, Ailuran,” she snapped, picking up her washcloth again. “I suppose you’re not as perceptive as Elmiryn claimed you were.”

 

That stung. Had Elmiryn sung my praises while I was away? If she had, I already must have gone against every kind thing she said. It doubly hurt because it meant that perhaps the warrior didn’t understand me as much as she thought she did. I seemed to be discovering new lows every day.

 

Without a word, I sought out the others. Paulo, expectedly, brought up the possibility that I was leaving them for good.

 

“I’m not going to do that!” I snapped at him.

 

“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” he argued back. “Even if you really are looking for Elmiryn, you two could just run off together the moment you’re reunited!”

 

“You want to know how you can trust me?” I snarled.

 

“Yes! How?”

 

“By having faith!” I spat. And I left it at that.

 

Last of all, I went to speak with Lethia.

 

The girl was in the barn, as she usually was when the suns rose into their noon-time position. It was on Daedalus’ orders. The heat, he had warned, could encourage infection. Stay somewhere cool at all times!

 

Lethia seemed to like this about as much as I liked getting into trouble.

 

Still, I was shocked to find her topless, her blouse off with just a brassiere on, doing curls with her right arm by using a filled water bucket. Without turning around, she panted out in clipped phrases, “Nyx…you’re going to…look for Elmiryn. Go ahead! I don’t mind.”

 

I stared at her, feeling uncomfortable. I even overlooked the fact that she had read my mind again. “Should you be doing that? You’re wounded!”

 

Lethia barely glanced at me. “I’m fine.”

 

“Does Daedalus know what you’re up to?”

 

With what sounded like a huff of annoyance, the enchantress finally turned to glare at me in full. I gave a start. In the few days since Lethia had cut off her arm, I had purposefully avoided the more intimate ways of helping her—like dressing or bathing. Whether it was because of anger or shame, I did not know. But seeing her now, I found myself greatly humbled at the scars Lethia’s brand of honor had done to her.

 

In addition to her now severed arm, the teenager had the long grey scar running along her chest from the daesce that had attacked her. The old wound was not just superficial—it had also taken out a chunk from the top of her right breast, judging by the uneven nature of her brassiere.

 

Lethia’s sharp green eyes pierced me when she said, “Nyx, you weren’t interested in caring for me before. Don’t pretend to start now. It’d just be bothersome at this point.”

 

I winced. That was the second time someone had managed to make me feel horrible in just a few words.

 

Not that hard, apparently, Kali drawled.

 

Hush!

 

“So you didn’t do this to spark sympathy?” I shot back as I gestured at her arm stump. Immediately I regretted that. It sounded awful and petty, even to me.

 

She raised an eyebrow at me and murmured, “Can it be that you still don’t understand?” She sighed heavily, her lips pursing before she turned away from me. “I was wrong to think we had something in common, then.”

 

This made me angry in ways I didn’t expect. I stomped to Lethia’s side and hissed, “Why is it that everyone has to understand you? What makes you of such importance that I am somehow lesser for failing to understand your convoluted logic?”

 

Lethia frowned at me. “What do you want me to say? I’m sorry? Again?

 

At my furious silence, she leaned in just enough to breathe. “If the only thing you want is to be angry with me, Nyx, then that is your right. I hurt you, I know. I hurt everyone. But I need you to know, I don’t intend to just sit back and live the life of a cripple.” She stepped away, turning to resume her bucket curls. Through quiet grunts, she said with strain: “I also don’t intend to spend all my life begging for forgiveness with words when I can do more through my actions. When you’ve figured out what you’d like me to do, then by all means…tell me. In the meantime, I will do what I feel I must.”

 

I glared at her, feeling a sickening mix of guilt and anger surge in my throat like hot bile. It is the worst feeling, when your head is going one direction, and your emotions are stampeding off in another.

 

Stiffly, I turned to leave.

 

“Good luck, Nyx. I hope you find her,” Lethia called after me.

 

I paused at the barn doors, but walked briskly away.

 

The exchange left me rattled, to say the least. The teenage enchantress seemed so much more confident than I’d ever seen her, including when we first met. Add on the fact that she was physically older than before our strange other-dimensional journey, and it was like speaking to an entirely different person.

 

And what she said made sense. Even in my heightened state of emotion, I could understand.

 

I just didn’t want to. I felt petulant and resentful that Lethia would treat me so firmly and yet somehow manage to remain sympathetic all at the same time. It felt unfair.

 

Space, I thought. I need some space. Some time to think.

 

I was hating what I was feeling. Who I was turning into. It was like watching myself in the mirror turn ugly and dark, like a hag, and feeling powerless to stop it. I wasn’t powerless, of course. But it wouldn’t be enough to pretend I wasn’t angry and hurt. The charade would be shallow and short-lived. If I really wanted to move on from the devastation I’d faced in the Other Place, I was going to have to reach in deep and purge myself of all the ill feelings that so led me astray.

 

I was going to have to overcome myself, if I wanted to any sort of peace.


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