Elmiryn stumbled, her eyes watering and coughs tearing up her raw throat. She wasn’t sure, but was there blood on her tongue? The woman wiped at her brow as she trudged back the way she came–away from the site of her incredible battle, which still smoldered in its destruction. Then wraiths rounded the corner of a tradehouse. They had great, shining sharp teeth and eyes as white as scultones. Their mouths were angry maws and their limbs immaterial reaches of ink.
A voice…A voice? Was it the wraiths? They sounded so far away, it seemed, Elmiryn thought it a pity to find this most basic mode of expression drowned in the after-roars of her battle. She took her left hand and, with her pinky, dug into her ear…
…Or it could’ve been the fact that her ears were ringing like a bitch.
As she inspected her finger (“Shit, is that blood on there?”) she heard the far away voice call to her again. “You! You, woman, stop now!”
The woman did just this and turned slowly on the spot. Her eyes were dull as she looked at the wraiths as a person regarded an insect they’d just noticed. (“Yeah, I think it was these things that were trying to call me.”) Their forms were smoke and whispers that trailed across her mind.
“Oh…hi,” she said, voice barely heard in her head. She raised her right hand to wave, but felt the pain spider along her breast and shoulder, and with a wince, she lowered it again quickly.
The wraiths appeared fully before her as cobalt reptiles–(“No!”)–toy soldiers–(“No!”)–bad ideas–(“Mmm…okay, I guess that’s what you’d call these things.”) with eyes of fury.
“Down on your knees and put your hands on your head!” One bad idea barked.
The woman snorted. “You want me to do what?”
“On your knees!”
Elmiryn chuckled. She rubbed at her face and stepped forward, her eyes sweeping over their surroundings, back to the hot destruction that clawed at her back. Her lips began to curl at the ends as she reached for her sword and looked at the bad ideas, dressed up in their chainmail.
“You think I’m weak. That’s…that must be…that’s gotta be what you think. Right? You think you can just crawl into my head and make me misstep? You morons! You…you fucking bastards! Ha! HA!” The woman started to laugh loudly. She drew her sword and brandished it, her humor making the blade tremble in the air. The bad ideas jumped back, spooked, pale faces dripping and running long to show their weakness.
“I’ll kill you!” she cried, between her harsh guffaws. She pulled her sword back, her shoulder protesting but doing little to persuade–
Shots. Sharp thunderclaps that ripped through the space of hushed silence. The ideas ducked in alarm, but Elmiryn just turned her head in curiosity, her weapon paused in the air.
Graziano came down the way, his triple-barreled pistol aimed and smoking. “No, my friends.” He stopped and pointed the gun straight at the guards. He smirked and narrowed his eyes. “Why don’t you get down?”
I looked away from Her.
This creature asked so little of me, but it felt like so much. It felt monumentous. Like a boulder, pressed against my back, my voice curdled and and begged for its removal. But claws I’ve had, and fur I’ve had—and not long ago, either. In Toah, I had dressed myself in Her skin, could even admit freely that I enjoyed the sensations, the smells, the strength…the freedom. Only, this way had been lost to me, through the screams of rivers and the tainting dreams of demons that were betrothed to my closest companion’s every word. My Twin had become more abhorrent. More disgusting. More of a disgrace. I could feel her, always, in the back of my mind, setting me on edge, running my mood afoul.
And yet She asked so little of me.
What did this home of hers reveal but torment and fury? I gazed around, a girl haunted in the images of beings twisted in pain, trapped beneath cold rock that concealed them like a beating heart. And where did this poeticism come from, but from MY expression, stolen like money from a till by a heathen who…who…
Who was getting maddeningly better at it with each passing minute. For every sentence she constructed, my wayward sister was fast catching up—pressing and pressing. But until now, she had shown me little more than base desires, so shallow and primitive as to hardly gain a second thought from me, save to curse it to the blackest parts of my mind.
…Yet suddenly, in suggestions, in questions, in sudden requests, she was making a fool of my conceptions. A name? A name? And now…a truce?
And yet She asked so little of me!
I was loathe to the idea, even now, with time’s hand at the back of my neck like a blade. Her claws, dripping with Atalo’s blood, still haunted me in sleep and in waking. The trauma was an endless aftershock that made even the briefest and smallest contact with her a battle. This could all be rationalized, surely. Survival. I pulled at my left boot, pain absent in this ghostly realm, and found that my tendon was indeed completely severed, going so far as to reach the ankle bone. Such incredible force, for such a little blade! I thought, detached, numbed now on an emotional level as much as a physical one. I reached over and pulled and pushed at my foot, face growing long at the sight of my own blood pumping out onto the ground like it were a pump at a well.
Then I paused, and looked at my Twin with such a fury as to dwarf all my previous dances with the emotion.
“What game are you playing, creature?” I snapped.
She looked at me, her furry brow bunching in a pathetic mimicry of human emotion. “What are you talking about?”
“This is your home. You have control over all around us. How do I know you aren’t just making me see things?” I gestured at my left foot with disgust. “How do you know what my ankle looks like right now? Not even I know!”
“This isn’t a trick!” She cried, ears swiveling forward. She rose to her feet and her tail set to lashing again. “What a dimwitted fool you are! Have you no sense!?”
“I have plenty! I have enough to know when you’re just trying to get what you want, and I won’t let you! Not after what’s happened with my arm. Not again!”
“You’d let us die for your hate and stupidity!”
“I’d let us die for everything you’ve done! Everything you’ve taken! I’d let us die just to spare the world your plague!” I screamed this last part. I paused, heaving, sensation coming to my spirit as anger gnawed at the edges of myself. I forced myself to my feet and turned my back to her, my body teetering as, even in this poor reality, I was at the mercy of her illusions.
“I’d let myself die.” I limped forward a few steps–toward nothing, I realized. Nothing. Beyond our space of dirt and dust and rock existed a sea of absence that I could hardly pierce. I stared into it with baleful eyes. “I’d…I’d let myself die, just for…just for letting this shadow take the form of a monster,” I said, wearily. “Just for letting you…let you. Just for letting you let–” I frowned. Clutched at my head. “Letting you…letting us…letting us let you let me, let…”
“It’s getting harder to think, isn’t it?”
“One can hardly expect eloquence when one is bleeding out through a wound so uncommon and barbaric as a nearly severed foot. I’ve only got a bit of you here, with me. You’re still at the helm, sister. So you’ll descend first…then I, cursed to be with you, will follow.” I heard the cat snort. “So you just continue letting us, letting you, letting me perish. Perhaps this is what you always wanted.” When she spoke again, it were as though she were traveling away from me, her voice sending in the opposite direction. “And damn it all, I’ve sullied myself in even thinking, for a moment, that you could look beyond our past. Even at death’s door, you spit in my fur!”
“Me spit on you!?” I whirled around, like an unstable toy. “Every moment since you’ve learned to speak, you’ve spent it cursing me, insulting me, conniving to rip away the little pride I have left! How dare you!” I stalked forward, my body feeling not physical sensation, but the ring of emotion, like a gong of war. “You’d cut me away, as if I were the cancer, as if I were the murderer!!”
The beast roared, the sound coming from all around to hammer me onto my knees. I gasped, shuddering, unable to comprehend the force of loathing that battered into my spirit.
“Idiot! Weakling!” She screeched, teeth bared and her furry face bunched. Her tawny eyes held me with murderous contempt. “I hate you! Yes! I loathe you! Yes! But I care more to survive than to let your transgressions drag me into the Lunamare!”
“My only transgression was in allowing you to exist, you disgusting creature!”
“And you had no hand, none whatsoever, in allowing Ekilluous out!?”
“No, of course not, I–” I paused, my face screwing up as I sorted out what She had just said. “Ekilluous? That monstrous form is in no way a part of me. That was always your curse!”
“…Sister.” The beast sounded weary. I hated that she sounded weary. I was weary. I was spent from all the years lost fighting with her.
“I am not your sister,” I snapped acerbically.
A snort. “Nyx, then!” I’d never heard her use my name. I’d never heard her admit, even indirectly, that it WAS my name. My jaw tensed and my scowl turned suspicious.
She sat again, but her head was bowed and her ears pressed flat against her head. Every muscle beneath her fur was coiled as though she were prepared to pounce on me. “Have you considered, even for a moment, that I’ve no more an idea of what is beyond this darkness surrounding us than you do?”
I blinked. I turned and looked over my shoulder, into the sea. Then I gave our surroundings another sweep. It occurred to me, how…reclusive this place felt…
“I…admit, I haven’t,” I said, now looking at Her with uncertainty. “I’ve had no reason to!”
The beast sighed, looking to the stormy sky.
“…Then I’m afraid you are very, very stupid.”
Elmiryn would have gone to sleep against Graziano’s back were it not for the bumping and gallumphing of the scultone. Still, there were unsettling moments when the world turned sideways, and she’d feel the man claw at her to sit upright on the saddle.
“Conio! Will you snap out of it!?” Graziano snapped, pulling Elmiryn back for the third time.
In truth, the woman didn’t quite get it either. Her wound had been cauterized shut, and she’d suffer no other serious injury. Perhaps it was exhaustion and a bit of dehydration, but did those things make the sky a silver plate she wanted to smash? Did that make the blood in her mouth turn to candy? Did that make them jesters, running comically on a giant ball of a world, struggling to keep from falling off?
The woman groaned and squeezed her eyes shut. Too many paper houses. Too many paper people. She felt like paper. Paper at the mercy of an angry wind.
Elmiryn jabbed Graziano in the side. “Stop,” she bit out.
He looked over at her, the head of the scultone dancing in and out of view as it galloped powerfully over the plains.
“What?” he shouted.
With teeth grit, the woman reached up, like a snake striking out, and had the man around the throat. “Son of a bitch, I said STOP!”
He gurgled, his hazelnut eyes wide as a little spit dribbled out the corner of his mouth. The Moretti pulled at the reins, and the scultone reared back, screeching. Both Elmiryn and Graziano were sent tumbling to the ground.
Elmiryn landed on her back, air leaving her lungs to leave her gasping like a fish. She stared up at the ceiling (“…No, damn it, the sky.”) It didn’t take long before she started to feel the world press down on her. She whimpered and rolled to her side, clutching her head. Any moment now, she was going to throw up, she was certain.
“Lia mas idi’uta al terrano!” Graziano spat over her. He had stumbled to his feet, and was now a shadow that towered into the sky. Elmiryn looked at him with squinted eyes.
“M’sorry,” she mumbled.
“Sorry? Sorry!? You could’ve killed us!”
“What’s the matter with you!?”
“The best way I can describe it is…is like a hangover…or somethin’. I dunno. I’unno, I–” Elmiryn retched. She rolled over onto her stomach and pressed her forehead against her arm. “Gods damn it…”
She retched again, then again, more violently. The woman raised herself up on her good arm just in time to let the bile splash out onto the ground. She wiped the little she had left on her lips and rolled onto her back. She closed her eyes with a frown, panting.
She heard Graziano kneel next to her. The scultone warbled and Elmiryn heard the creature amble off.
“Oye…lia…did that wizard do something to you?”
Elmiryn shook her head. “Besides stabbing me? Not that I know of.”
“What do you think it is, then?” Graziano asked nervously. The warrior opened her eyes some to see the man looking at her with a wrinkled brow. “I’m at a loss.”
Then the woman smiled humorlessly. “Hey…Graz…do you feel…a pressure at your eyes?”
Hakeem stared into the dirt, his hands on his thighs as he flexed them and unflexed them. He thought about counting. Counting all the way back. Counting back to Tiesmire, when Quincy had gotten that look in her eye. He thought about counting back to when he had first seen the warrior and the therian. He thought about counting back to when they’d first arrived at Belcliff to accept the marshal’s bounty. He thought about counting back…and back…and…
Argos barked in his ear.
The man jerked, all muscles tensed and quivering as he looked at the dog with fury. Argos, taller than the man as he kneeled, shrank back, his moist eyes blinking.
Hakeem sighed and he relaxed.
“My quarrel…is not with you.” He shook his head. “It’s not even with your companions.” He scowled darkly and stood.
“I’m not even sure it’s with Quincy.” Hakeem began to march toward Belcliff, his eyes narrowed. They entered the city limits. He resisted the urge to visit the site of Quincy’s battle–for there was no doubt in his mind that she and the Fiamman had been involved. The sound he’d heard…
The pair crossed a small park where statues of famous Legends stood amid evergreens and shrubs. The man eyed the faces, something akin to contempt flaring within him as he clenched his gauntlets. He had trained hard to keep his emotions in check…but damn it all, if Quincy wasn’t like a storm to a lone torch. And these statues of crusaders, of warriors, of heroes. He knew none of them, and yet how they ruled his life! Where was his chance for calm? When would he ever reach a point that the scream of a dying star did not haunt his dreams?
“Tai’undu!” Hakeem cursed suddenly. Argos looked at him sideways.
Quincy’s primary tool as a wizard was her sword.
Hakeem had seen all manner of enchanted weaponry–each with their own cost. Some were magicked to guarantee victory in battle, but did not guarantee you’d survive. Some had to be fed blood from its owner just to stay sharp. Some took your memories for every wound you inflicted. In the case of Quincy’s sword…it sought unification. On the surface, someone unlearned might find this completely innocuous. Some warriors even dreamed of living in complete harmony with their weapons of choice.
But for Quincy, Tonatiuh, the Wicked Blade of the Sun, wanted there to be no degree of separation. It wished to be one with her–to be her heart, and her its mind.
Even small displays of power caused Tonatiuh to come closer to the core of the woman, closer to her soul, closer to her life essence that gave anchor to the physical realm. The explosion he had heard, the great boom that was as death to him, was the sound of energy being released. Quincy had trained years to master the use of the Wicked Blade of the Sun, and her tantamount power was to scatter into the light, a being turned immaterial. …Quincy, as he knew it, was…gone.
The salt of her, the richness of her eyes, were ghosts that made it impossible to steel himself. He felt his fury pulse inside of him like a black heart. Then…like bile up his throat, horrible thoughts came unbidden. Hakeem thought about killing Argos by bashing his head in with his fists; he thought about destroying the marshal’s home while his family were still in it; he thought about choking the life out of Quincy–the light out of her eyes.
Hakeem’s steps slowed and he held out a hand to Argos, who stopped next to him. The dog peered up at the man uncertainly, his tail giving a tentative wag.
Hakeem looked at Argos with squinted eyes. “Do you feel that?” The dog stared at him blankly.
The wizard turned his head and blinked. He squeezed his eyes shut when he thought he saw one of the statues move. They were nearly out of the park. He thought about going back, but his thoughts were soon flooded with images of burning huts. He could taste ash on his tongue, and spat, grimacing. Somewhere in the distance, he heard someone screaming. Then in another direction, angry shouts and wild hoots.
Hakeem chewed the corner of his lip, biting hard, and tried to focus his thoughts. He tried to resume his counting, but his nose itched at the thought of finding the Fiamman and beating her within an inch of her–
Hakeem turned, still chewing on his lip. A manic look had taken over his eyes as he stalked one way, then another. Argos stared at him, confused. He woofed once–twice–but Hakeem didn’t even look at him. When the man tasted blood from his lip, he wrenched himself back in the direction they had come.
The dog didn’t follow immediately. He barked after the wizard, whines acting as bridges to his sharp calls. Eventually he went after Hakeem, snarling. Hakeem turned, fist pulled back in warning. “Argos, stop!” The dog skidded to a halt some feet away from the man. His lips were pulled back and his eyes seared a question.
“I’m not betraying your trust,” Hakeem said through grit teeth. “But we have to leave the city. There’s something here, floating through the streets. A taint. A curse. Something. It wasn’t here before. Or maybe it was, but not as strong.” The man gestured at himself. “It’s feeding off of my emotions. I imagine the recent battle may have something to do with it as well.” He pointed behind him. “The quickest way back out is the way we’ve come. Then we’ll go around. We’re more likely to find your companions like this anyway–the scultones were too large and conspicuous to take into the city. If need be, we’ll use my magic to catch up to them.”
Argos considered this, then he relaxed, fur settling. He gave a nod and Hakeem returned it. Instead of walking as they had before, the man took to a sprint, the dog easily keeping pace. They had to leave the city before the capacity to choose that option was lost.
It was the wizard’s new belief that the dark influence over Belcliff had made Quincy pierce herself with Tonatiuh’s fang. The warrior, the Fiamman, knew something–was related to this somehow. Had been from the start–before any of them had even been aware of what was going on. Hakeem had to find her. He’d gain their trust by aiding in the rescue of Syria, if need be. The enchantress was involved somehow, too.
Something had to be done.
“Why is taking some of my strength so reprehensible to you!?” My Twin snarled. “You took my arm without so much fuss, why this? Now!?”
“Because!” I shouted back. I opened my mouth, then closed it. I was starting to feel…faint. Thin. “Because!” I tried again. I frowned and rubbed at my eye, sighing. “Because…be…because…”
“I suppose our survival can wait while you sort yourself out,” the beast offered drily.
I glared at her. “…B-Because, I thought I’d have your arm for o-only a short time. Not…Not two days! What happens if we…if we…if…if we get stuck again? I may still be in control, but it’ll be…with your fur, and…and your fangs, and you p-p-practically a constant p-presence in my…our…my mind!”
“No more than now?”
I looked away. Tears were in my eyes. The formation of my thoughts came with great effort, and I was beginning to feel…immaterial.
The great feline padded toward me cautiously, her head bowed low. Around us, the shadows seemed to press in. “Nyx…we have no choice. Hate me as much as you’d like, but our time draws short. I fear we may even be too late!”
I looked at Her, my lips thin, my chin crumpled, my heart wrenching in disgust and loathing and fear.
I stretched out a transparent hand to touch her fur…
Heartbeats. Light, invasive, darkness fleeing, and…all image and sound was torn away by a din that heralds change.
How terrible to forget something like that. How much more horrendous to remember it!
…Shapeshifting…the pure agony of it!
My muscles tore and pulled–ligaments snapping and bones shifting painfully beneath skin. Sweat. Blood in my mouth made me incensed and I gurgled out a scream. My chest expanded, filling my large tunic. My gambeson moved with my transformation, thanks to its enchantment. My skin tingled as fur sprouted, and heat swept over me. I wailed, then hissed, then released a bestial scream as my spine reassembled into its new form–my tail forcing its way out of the special opening in the seat of my pants. My feet tore through my boots. I clawed at the dirt, ears sprouting at the top of my head just in time to hear Paulo shouting in shock and surprise (possibly horror.) I gnashed my teeth, the pain in my gums giving way to a feeling of strength.
I opened my eyes.
The world was different. I exhaled, shamefully acknowledging…how much I loved being in this form. It was the one form of the Lunar Hall that I still felt in control–but best of all, I was stronger. As always, eyesight became fuzzy around the edges and color became dull. My whiskers, sprouting from my fleshy chops, quivered from the breeze.
The first one I saw was Paulo. The boy was some inches shorter than me now, and he pressed back into a building, scowling at me apprehensively. It appeared he’d dragged me to safety, behind some sacks of rotted vegetables, where my blood had pooled onto the ground. He’d tried to wrap a handkerchief around my leg to stem the bleeding, but from the looks of it, it had been futile. The boy had his sword drawn, and he held it uncertainly as though he wasn’t sure he needed to turn it on me yet.
I decided to ease his fears.
While I had taken a very humanoid form, my mouth–with its fangs–made speech much more difficult. When I spoke, I had trouble hitting my consonants, and I sounded as though I had a lisp. “Paulo…dun’ be afray.” I touched a clawed hand to my chest. I resisted the urge to smile (that would likely make him panic.) “I’s me…Ny’ks!”
His scowl deepened, but he gave a nod. He turned and pointed down the way. “Lethia, la loca, is fighting Karolek using his own magic!”
My ears turned flat against my head and I twisted around, claws tensing. “She’s wha’!?” I hissed. My tail whipped angrily behind me. “An’ you le’d her!?”
“I didn’t have much of a choice with you bleeding out and me being virtually no match for that giant calgato!” The boy shot back. “And if you haven’t noticed, lia, it’s a little hard to jump into the fray right now!”
He was right.
It was a flurry of metal–sparks flying everywhere, the din it caused awe-inspiring–with blade deflecting blade, and bullet paths warping to miss narrowly by inches. A stray spike flew our way, and the boy and I ducked as it made a crate explode into splinters from the impact. We dared to look again. Karolek and Lethia were standing yards apart, sometimes shifting feet or ducking, but largely remaining in place–their hands orchestrating the chaos in a flurry. The scene was almost too much to follow.
Lethia, through some trick of her power no doubt, had somehow learned how to wield Karolek’s power of sorcery. It took more out of her, this much was clear from where I stood (I could smell the exhaustion on her, even) but she was holding her own, manipulating the metal that flew through the air like she had been doing it for years. I had seen her do it when she stole Paulo’s skill in fencing. I was shocked (and delighted) to see that she could use this same power for certain skills in magic.
But then the girl cried out, and she fell to the ground, hand at her shoulder from a cut no doubt. Karolek pressed forward, his expression triumphant.
My Twin, whose presence was so clear as to make me feel as though she were peering with my eyes, let out a war-like scream. Then I realized that I was screaming, too–with Her. Karolek froze, his eyes locking onto me. The triumph on his face evaporated.
Always more apt to violence than I, my Twin prodded at my muscles. “Forward, sister! Attack now!” she hissed.
With Paulo at my side, I did just that.
Elmiryn was on her feet again, her eyes glassy. Graziano had his hand on her back as he frowned with worry.
“Lia…you look terrible! Like Paulo did just a few days ago!”
She chuckled. “I’m not surprised.” She wiped at her runny nose with her sleeve and gave a sniff, her eyes looking around them. The frosted fields, a palette of gray and white, cracked in her eyes as glass did–bits of dark grass and the shadows of hillocks giving stark contrast in the pale view. They were closer to the northern mountains, the city a dark mass behind them. Graziano had pressed the scultone into full gallop (“The militia already know about us–no use trying to be subtle. They’ll never catch up with their horses, anyhow.”)
“Holzoff is not far from here. We’ll rendezvous with the others and set forth with the second part of our plan.”
Elmiryn nodded, turning her head. She squinted as she saw something black fuzz out of view, then back. This happened again, and the thing, whatever it was, became closer. The woman blinked. And was that something white and shaggy flashing with it?
The man looked at her as he prepared to mount the scultone again. “Yes?”
“…Is that our prisoner teleporting toward us, or am I hallucinating again?”