Oh look, oh look, oh look…
I could hear a sad song on a harp that made me think of winter. The music filled me, and my eyes opened, crusted and still leaking tears from the stress of my ordeal. As I tried to find the source of the sound, more messages came to me, lacking words but not lacking my understanding of them.
I have a something that is somehow somewhere sideways.
I have a something that is somewhat somewhere sacrilegious.
I have a something that is someone somewhere slain.
Goodbye, my little sum of some’s.
Then the music was gone.
I blinked and tried to sit up, pushing at the ground. Over me, I saw dead bare branches, claws against a white sky like wicked god’s hands–making me fear the moment that hold would give and the world as I knew it was lost.
It seemed I was lost already.
Wincing, I managed to push myself upright all the way and gazed around me. I was in a dark wood, the ground and bark covered in soot and ash. My heart clenched and I stood to my feet. “No…” I breathed. “Why–Why am I here!?”
The Kreut Forest.
My hands rose to tangle in my hair. “No, gods, how did I get here!?”
Then I heard laughter. Children’s laughter, coming from all around. My heart started to thump and with short breath I crouched down, head swiveling to try and see what it was.
I wish I hadn’t.
Dogs–or creatures that looked like dogs, came padding toward me, grotesque and horrific. Their mouths, instead of parting up and down, parted right and left, splitting their long snouts up to the forehead. At the end of each slimy jaw was a large fang to create something that resembled mandibles. Four crusted, lopsided eyes strained to see me as they circled around and around. They had short black fur, patchy and covered in grime and odd growths like moss or fungi. Their bodies were muscular and wide at the shoulders and hips, like rottweilers. And when they opened their mouths, instead of the usual growling and barking–they giggled. Like small human children playing a game.
I whimpered and started to tremble. Something warm trickled down my leg, but I was too terrified to be embarrassed.
One of the terrible beasts snapped his mandible-like jaws and screamed before charging at me. The others followed suit, and I squeezed my eyes shut.
She felt baffled in the way a theater actor would feel when a colleague on stage suddenly decided to jump off script. Her cheeks flared and her eyes took on the edge and glint usually found on knives. This couldn’t be right, as she was certain she had all the details–she’d fought with Quincy, felt her body heat, seen the wizard’s glow cut a swath into her mind forever. This…could not be Quincy. Once this thought took hold, Elmiryn’s initial assumption–shaky to begin with–was lost. As the russet-haired stranger moved to rejoin them, stiff and slow like someone unaccustomed to their body, Elmiryn turned to Sedwick and gesticulated her demand for introductions.
The man blinked at her, his hand rising up to rub the side of his face again. “You don’t know her?” he said, frowning.
“She knows me. She has to.” Quincy finally met them at the crest, her breath shallow as she doubled over to pant.
Elmiryn shook her head, the wrinkle on her brow becoming more pronounced as she scowled down at the cloaked head. “No,” she mouthed at Sedwick. She pointed at the brunette and held up her hands. “I don’t know her at all.”
“What is wrong with her?” Quincy asked Sedwick as she straightened.
“She lost her voice to a traveling spirit. I think it is still on this shard, so we should be able to get it back if we hurry and find Nadī.” He started walking, the women following suit.
“Oh, I’m not complaining. But if I may ask, who’s Nadī?”
Sedwick glanced at the wizard over his shoulder. “The Medwin river guardian.”
Elmiryn frowned and tapped the man’s other shoulder. “She had a name?” she mouthed, exaggerating the words so that he could lip read.
The man let loose a deep chuckle. “Elmiryn, did you ever stop to ask her?”
The woman blinked. That sounded ridiculously reasonable. Why hadn’t she ever asked? She pointed at the brunette. “Still doesn’t change the fact that I don’t know her.” She didn’t know if he understood her, so she shrugged exaggeratedly for added effect.
Sedwick cleared his throat and slowed to a stop, facing her. “Ah…Elmiryn, if I may, I recall you having a problem with your memory… Listen to this woman’s voice. Doesn’t she sound familiar to you? It’s just too unlikely that you both ended up here without knowing one another in some way.”
The brunette straightened and pulled back her hood just enough to peer at the warrior with narrowed eyes. “Elmiryn, enough with this. We have fought, we have even fought together–you can’t honestly say you don’t remember me?”
Elmiryn crossed her arms and sucked at her teeth. The woman sounded like Quincy, but…
“Quincy, are you in some way different than what you looked like before coming here?” Sedwick asked the stranger.
Elmiryn glowered and pointed at her head. “Her hair,” she took a lock of her own and pointed. “Her fucking hair! She’s not blond!” She pouted.
“I am not a doll whose appearance is to be quibbled over,” The other woman snapped, her voice taking on a note of anger. “I am the wizard known as Quincy and have always been this. My identity does not ride on the poor ability of your addled mind to recognize and compartmentalize what it sees.”
Elmiryn, suddenly feeling peevish, let a smirk curl onto her face. “You’re not a doll? ‘Cos you’re about as cute as one.” She winked. “I’ll let your treachery slide if you’ll play dress up with me…”
The brunette’s grip on her sword turned white at the knuckles. “What did you just say!?” So much emotion. So little control. This could not be Quincy.
“You can understand her?” Sedwick asked, pausing as he turned a quarter of the way around, his hands going to his hips. He looked between the two women as though at a loss.
“I can lip read in five different languages.” The other woman said, barely taking her eyes off Elmiryn. She held up a finger. “Fiamman, you are walking on thin ice.”
Sedwick cut between them, his mouth a downward curved line. “Stop it, the both of you. Nadī awaits us.”
Elmiryn crossed her arms and looked off to the side. The brunette snorted next to her.
The issue paused for the time being, the trio set out with Sedwick in the lead, his back straight and his gaze locked forward. Elmiryn and the stranger trailed side by side, neither one willing to fall behind the other. It was a muted game of pride, and hardly one to turn down a challenge, the redhead met the stranger’s silent challenge with nary a pause.
They came to a small cliffside, where the trees cleared as the slope climbed upward, ending at the vertical wall of eroded earth and rock. The cliff extended farther than they could see. Sedwick stated that Nadī was at the top. He bid the two women to meet him there, and without further ado, turned into vapor and drifted up and out of sight.
The other woman turned to Elmiryn. “You‘ve met him before? You know that…man?” she asked in a quiet voice, pointing.
Elmiryn nodded once mutely. “We both got swallowed by the Medwin river guardian,” she mouthed–not really bothering to face Quincy as she said this.
As a result, the wizard was left asking, “What?” while the warrior set into the climb.
She glanced back a second later to see that the brunette was hurrying to catch up. Her lip curling in amusement, the redhead doubled her efforts, grunting as she pulled up footholds and bare roots. At the top, she pulled herself up and tried to control her breathing so as to seem unfazed. She turned and stood at the edge, smirking, her arms crossed over her chest as the other woman looked up at her in surprise.
Elmiryn, containing a laugh, held out her hand. “Wanna lift?” she said offered mutely.
The brunette ignored the hand, her look souring, and pulled herself up.
The game over, Elmiryn turned with a satisfied grin to see Sedwick waiting for them. Next to him was a woman–or atleast it seemed as a woman. She had blue skin and white hair, her eyes a pale iris color. She was nude, similar to Sedwick. The warrior squinted, her grin turning a little fixed as she took in the lack of a belly button and nipples.
“Elmiryn,” said the white-haired woman. Her voice was layered, on one level sounding like a soft and gentle mother, on another level sounding like a quiet and trickling river. “It is good to see you in good health, though I confess this is most irregular. I hardly would have expected to meet you like this. Nor would I have expected to see you on the Sibesona at all. You should be halfway to the Indabe by now!”
Elmiryn’s eyes widened, and she pointed as the brunette came up at her side. “You’re the river guardian!?” She mouthed. “You’re Nadī?”
The blue-skinned beauty batted her eyes, then turned to Sedwick. The man chuckled. “She lost her voice to a bad trade.”
“Normally, I’d laugh too, only–y’know. Still lacking a voice,” the redhead tried to say, her look dry as she pointed at herself.
“I told you, we can get it back Elmiryn.” Sedwick turned to the river guardian. “Nadī, I know who the spirit is. I don’t believe he’s moved on yet.”
Nadī nodded, her pearly tresses brushing the sides of her petite face. “Yes, it’ll be too bothersome to try to speak to her like this.” But she paused and placed a hand on her chest. “First, this other woman here. I would not seek to be rude. Elmiryn and I have already met. But I have not had the pleasure of meeting you…?“
“I am Quincy, bounty hunter and wizard master,” the brunette said, bowing low. Elmiryn rolled her eyes next to her.
Nadī gave a slight bow. “Greetings. I am sorry to meet under these circumstances. Sedwick told me some of your troubles…“
The other woman straightened. Her voice sounded stiff, like someone trying to keep their voice level. “If you can help, I would be grateful.” Her hands clenched at her sides.
“We shall discuss the matter in detail after we seek out the spirit that has taken Elmiryn’s voice.“
The air around them turned heady as steam appeared from nothing, then collected into beads of water. These beads collected into greater orbs that lumped together until the water shifted into an approximately seven foot long square, some four feet wide. Sedwick and Nadī stepped onto this, but Elmiryn and the Woman-Claiming-To-Be-Quincy remained where they were.
Sedwick gestured for them to get on. “Let’s go. We waste time!”
The two women exchanged looks.
“Well, you’re the one who knows them,” the brunette said, gesturing.
Elmiryn sucked at her teeth, but got onto the strange craft, behind Sedwick. The other woman followed suit, standing behind her. When the two elementals sat, so did they. Elmiryn wore leather pants, and so the water did not soak in–but it still shifted beneath her, feeling strange. Without much warning they took off, flowing away from the cliff where the land rolled downward back to sea level.
Elmiryn tapped Sedwick on the shoulder, and the man had to twist almost completely around to see her mouth. “I thought she could only flow downhill?” she said carefully.
The man shook his head. “Haven’t you seen yet? The bonds that hold spirits in the physical realm are weaker here. Nadī can go uphill, but it still takes her a great amount of time. Weeks, at the least. Nowadays, I just carry her.”
The woman quirked a brow at the word ‘nowadays’. Sedwick had really adapted to life as an elemental it seemed. And with someone like ‘Nadī’ to keep him company, she imagined the transition was made a great deal ‘easier’. She didn’t miss the way his face brightened at the guardians name, or how his cheeks flushed at her attention. Still…no nipples was just weird…
“You must find this strange, Elmiryn, judging by the look on your face. Strange, even to you,” Nadī said, hands held out as she navigated their train of water. “My form is different here. In this realm, us spirits have the luxury of choosing our forms. The physical world sees many limitations on this. What many fail to understand is that this is a place that resists all forms, all complex energies, and therefor all order. Upon entering here, if one is not prepared, one is picked apart. This can be on a spiritual level or a physical one…but what is lost can be found, as you shall soon see.“
Elmiryn nodded, immediately understanding. Upon first entering the Other Place, she had been left as a weak and undefined consciousness floating lost in a sea of nothing. It took great effort to bring herself to any sort of weight–be that in thought or in flesh–and it was with Meznik’s help that she was able to solidify in whole.
“My sword, had a spirit living in it.” The brunette said suddenly, pressing forward so that her voice sounded close to the warrior’s ear. Elmiryn leaned to the side with a wince. This was not Quincy… “Tonatiuh. I never knew his exact origins, save that he was in some way related to the suns. He’s gone, and he took his power with him. Are you telling me it’s possible to get him back?”
“…Tonatiuh?” Nadī turned to stare at the brunette. “I’ve heard of this name. It is a name drenched in blood. Whatever would you want him back for?“
Elmiryn turned to glance at the woman. The brunette’s mouth was set in a thin line. Her eyes seared, bright as the sky. “Because he is mine,” she said.
Something of her voice made the warrior blink and stare as though seeing her for the first time. “…Quincy?” she mouthed.
The wizard, the golden ray, the chosen rival, pulled back her hood just enough to lock her azure eyes onto Elmiryn’s cerulean gaze. “Fiamman, you’re quite slow. You know that?” Quincy said.
The warrior grinned uncertainly. “So…you’re really not blond?”
“No. But I’m starting to suspect you are.”
While I had always been wary of dogs since I was young, my paralyzing, almost irrational fear had not come to fruition until a little over a year ago when a trio of hunting dogs had chased me through the forests. I was a different person then. But things carried over, I supposed, like a storm passing a kingdom that toiled beneath its dark blanket.
There I was as then. Nyx was a coward shocked back into infantile weakness–unable to help herself in any capacity.
But as luck would have it, I was spared, and by all people…
There was a crash and tumble, snarling and barking. My eyes creaked open to see the dog had rolled the leader of this wayward pack of creatures, his teeth bared, his fur ruffled and raised along the spine. Strange to be saved by the very same animal I was cowering from, but in my head I had raised the loyal dog to a state of higher being. Argos was not an ‘it’, but a ‘he’, and his personification waived all the usual fears I had towards his kind.
As the monsters attention was turned onto Argos, I saw him struggle against their horrible attacks. His size afforded him a great advantage as he was easily head and shoulders taller than all of them, but he was still outnumbered. Red stained his white fur.
I will state, abashedly, that the idea of fleeing came to me. It wasn’t my Twin who had proffered the idea, but me, and I hate that this is so. For a split second, I considered abandoning Argos. But then my lip stiffened and my hands flexed to claws against the dirt. My trembling grew worse, but I stood, the dampness on my pant leg now making me feel very awkward. I wanted to run, I didn’t want to be there–
–But I couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving Argos.
I took up a rock from the ground, one edge of it round and covered in dry moss, the other side clean and sharp like it had been broken off a larger rock. With a scream I entered the fray, the rock held in both hands, sharp side pointed away from myself as I bludgeoned the first monster I saw.
I noted a weakness in my limbs that I was not accustomed to. I had to strain to swing the rock. But the blows struck true, cutting one beast in his eyes, another his teeth smashed, another his shoulder cut. But the leader was clearly of a higher mind, for as soon as he was free of Argos, he came at me, his wicked mouth parting to snap over my hand. I screamed as the monster’s fangs sank into my wrist, slicing through flesh and veins where it pressed intimate with my bones. He wouldn’t let go. I dropped the rock in my struggles.
Argos, turning, saw the situation and leaped onto the monster’s back, his jaws clamping over the creature’s neck. He pinned the thing down, and this took me down with it for it still wouldn’t let go, and he placed a paw on the dog’s head and pulled–like he were trying to rip out his spine. But the demonic beasts seemed of sturdier make than we gave them credit for, because the damned thing still would not let go of me.
I sobbed and yelled as the other dogs set on Argos and myself. Fangs and claws dragged across our backs and limbs. One dog kept trying to clamp his jaws around my neck, much like Argos was doing, but I fended him off with my free hand as best I could.
Then I heard something spit from the back of the throat, and through the violent cluster of clamored bodies I saw a pair of golden eyes meet mine.
Vermagus. Thou must sacrifice.
“Wha–” I said, voice but a breath. The eyes were gone, swallowed by the dark bodies that jockeyed for a piece of myself and Argos. We would die, torn apart by these things. Another one had locked onto my left shoulder, worrying me. I was becoming lost in the pain…I was going to die…the blood was getting everywhere…
Thou must sacrifice. Thou must pay. Give them the weight they seek. It is within thine power to do so.
My eyes fluttered, blood now staining the whole of me. My tunic was ripped to shreds. Argos was suffering an equally brutal fate, his yelps piercing my mind.
“Lethia will be so sad to know he’s gone. I couldn’t save him.” I was on the ground, trampled upon, blood now in my eyes and coming up from my throat in weakly ejected bile. My neck was so tight from the agony and horror. “Elmiryn will be…” My eyes widened, and I gurgled. “Elmiryn!”
Thou must sacrifice. Miss nothing of your weight. They are but chains. Undo these, and thou art free.
I closed my eyes. Understanding filled me, but could I do it?
Shifting hurt. It always hurt. Payment to the One for use of her gifts. Healing was much the same. A change in the body, radical and fast by the standards of other sentient species. It led me to wonder…was my ability really inherent and unavoidable? Or just a privilege? If the latter was the case, could I renounce what I had? Would that make life easier?
…And could I reverse healing, as I could reverse the manner of my form?
Time to find out.
Baring stained teeth, I thought of my shoulder rotting at the cuff. I thought of my wrist vanishing, the tissue receding like acid had eaten it away. I rejected this flesh. Willed my spirit to sever these.
The pain doubled, turned white and beyond measure. I was aware that I was screaming again–long and wet squelching noises that rose above the monstrous noises of the dogs. I felt my left arm fall away. Then my right hand.
Through blurred vision, I saw the dogs take to these, fighting, delighted at their prize. Normal predators wouldn’t have ceased their onslaught until their quarry was dead. But these were spiritual monstrosities, and they seemed quite satisfied to have those pieces of me. It likely satisfied some terrible spiritual ban.
They dashed away, yipping and fighting amongst one another. The leader managed to get ahold of the hand while another the arm and they ran off into the woods, the others giving chase.
My breath was choked and uneven, blood and vomit in my throat making me cough as I saw the dogs make off with my body parts. It was sickening and horrific and I wanted the sight gone, so I closed my eyes. Argos whined next to me, his body shifting a little on the ground but he seemed equally hurt.
I felt something flicker across my cheek. My eyes creaked open again. The demonic beasts were gone. Now a fiery lizard sat inches from my face. It had blotched skin that alternated between black, brown, and orange. Its dark tongue flickered as his head twisted to the side so that his golden gaze could fix on me dead on.
When it opened its mouth, it spoke–impossibly, incredibly, it spoke, “Night Child, Lost Daughter, Thee Lover of Ghosts, thou hast earned sanctuary for thyself and thine companion. Rest now.”
I could hardly argue.
My eyes fell shut once more and they didn’t open again for what felt like a long time.
Elmiryn chuckled mutely, her eyes over her shoulder, her previous indignation at the situation sloughing away to reveal amusement. It wasn’t quite right to say that she now believed the Quincy she knew to be the “Quincy” that was before her. Blond Quincy was cold and calculating with never a hair out of place. Her mind was hard to rattle, but all the more satisfying when it was. This Quincy however…she was different. It was degrees of separation but Elmiryn could see these like a keen observer noting the zipper on a good costume. This Quincy was not as in control, not as mindful, and certainly not as graceful. Elmiryn’s frustration seemed to have some root.
The Quincy in her memories looked one way, and therefor behaved one way. This person, this “Quincy”, looked different, and behaved different.
But once she was able to afford the brunette the name “Quincy” to begin with, Elmiryn was growing to like her for what she was. It was like getting a wrapped present or a new sparring partner. Mysteries were begging to be revealed. Not that she knew much of the wizard in her previous state, but still–it was interesting to her.
Who was this person…really?
The wizard’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Stop leering at me, Fiamman. Now.”
Elmiryn faced forward again, but her smirk remained.
They had moved away from the wilderness and were now slipping through the streets of Gamath. Here, the streets were empty, save for the occasional phantom drifting here or there. These were faint beings of smoke resembling ordinary people.
“These must be sensitives–humans who can sense spirits and lingering emotional energy,” Quincy said quietly. “They have the potential to become enchanters, but likely will never know of their power, or never seek to develop this. Some see it as a curse. Odd. Gamath has a great number of these here.”
Sedwick replied, “It was after Gamath was restored. Some of the first here were affected by the lingering spiritual energy brought on by the death and taint. Most of that is gone now, but the effect carries on. Things didn’t start picking up until we found the tree–”
Elmiryn sat up straight, her eyes turning sharp. She grabbed Sedwick by the shoulder, forcing him to turn around. “What tree?”
Nadī turned her head some. “Sedwick.”
Sedwick’s pale eyes gazed at her, his brows bunched up so that they wrinkled his foreahed. “Ah sorry…we wanted to tell you when you could speak again. You see, to the south, we found a tree laced with foreign magic. Much of the spell, whatever it was, had weakened and turned inactive, but it wasn’t until we ripped it out by the roots that the land returned to full health.”
The warrior sat back, her eyes falling to her lap. “Meznik…” she thought, her face turning dark.
They left the city and entered the southern plains.
After a time of traveling, Nadī pointed. “There!”
At a lone elm sapling, Elmiryn saw the twig creature hopping up and down as it tried to grab at a low branch. She didn’t even wait for the water craft to stop. She jumped off, landing on all fours, her eyes flashing as she stalked toward the odd being.
The spirit sensed her approach, its grotesque eyes swiveling one at a time to stare at her before it shrieked and started to run away.
Elmiryn pushed to give chase. “Hey–!” she tried to shout.
A tendril of water lashed out and caught her by the ankle, tripping her. The woman fell onto the grass hard.
Nadī came up at her side, her left arm rippling as she retracted the water whip back to form her hand again. “That is not how we handle things here, Elmiryn. You should know better.”
The warrior grunted as she raised herself up. She coughed, rubbing her chest. “Point taken!”
Nadī pointed at the twig creature, who stopped to watch the exchange at a safe distance. “Spirit! Hear me! I lord these lands. I call on thee to resolve this altercation. Thou hast dishonored this heroine of Gamath, the very land you pass through. Your trade was unjust. I would ask that you return her voice and take a more reasonable payment.”
“That is quite unfair!” The twig creature squealed…in Elmiryn’s voice. It stomped a foot. “The transaction was made elsewhere, away from Gamath. Thou cannot compell me!”
“I can and I shall, impudent thing!” Nadī boomed, her pretty face turning a darker shade of blue. “I compell thee. Thou must return this woman’s voice or face my wrath!”
Elmiryn froze, her eyes rolling up to gaze at Nadī warily. When she said ‘compell’ she thought she heard a hum, a buzz, or some muted static–like something were being activated. Was there magic in these words?
The twig creature screamed and fell to its thin knees, its body creaking and groaning. “Ahh! Okay, okay! My apologies, fair guardian, I have been compelled! I would return this voice–” here it panted, its disgusting eyes knocking together as its stick fingers dug into the ground. “But first I would be promised my new prize! What would the heroine trade anew?”
Here Nadī looked at her as Sedwick and Quincy joined them. “Well?” the river guardian asked. “What would you give, Elmiryn?”
The warrior blinked. She raised herself up so that she was on her knees. “What do you mean?”
“Something. You must give it something.”
“What about her ability to turn to the left?” Sedwick offered with shrug.
Nadī shook her head, scowling. “No! Heavens no, that’s almost worse than losing her voice.”
“Her ability to hit C notes when singing?”
“No, that’s not enough…what about her next dream?”
Elmiryn made a negative slash with her hand. “Who on Halward’s Plane would give up something like that!?”
Nadī shrugged. “It could be a bad dream. You never know…”
“Hmmm,” Quincy said with a nod. Her lips had a suspicious quirk to them. “Why not give the Fiamman’s brutishness?”
Elmiryn flipped her off with a caustic smile.
But Nadī rubbed her chin in thought. “Mmm.” After a moment she said, “No. That’s too little. We must be fair.” Then her face brightened and she looked at the twig creature. “What about the heroine’s ability to wink?”
The spirit jumped to its feet dancing. “Yes, yes!” it giggled in Elmiryn’s voice.
Elmiryn stood to her feet waving her arms, her face drawn hard in incredulity. “WOAH! Hey, wait a minute!” She pointed at herself and mouthed at Nadī, “I wink! I’m a winker!” She pointed at the creature. “Furthermore what’s that little shit going to do with something like that, hmm!? He has no eyelids!!”
“Her wink! I want her wink!” The creature said, coming forward.
Nadī gestured between the spirit and Elmiryn. “This is the prize he’d like. I think it’s a fair one.”
Elmiryn shook her head and crossed her arms. She pouted again.
Quincy let out a hiss of breath as she reached a hand to rub at her brow. “Wikan a-lo kuele pon golj mkundu Fiamman…”
“Elmiryn, we haven’t got much time. It’s just a wink,” Sedwick said, mirroring her stance. “Lay out your priorities. Here and now. Do you want to continue arguing over this until a year passes by? Because in this realm that could very well happen! Time is precious commodity. Don’t squander it over something you don’t find dreadfully important!”
The warrior bowed her head, rubbing the back of her neck.
“What about Nyx?”
Elmiryn winced and closed her eyes. Her shoulders sagged.
“I want to wink! With both eyes!” The spirit cried, clapping its twig hands.
The warrior smiled, but it was fairly close to gritted teeth. “Well I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can only wink with my right.” She looked at Nadī. She held out her hands, silently asking, “How does this work?”
Nadī looked at her amused. “Will you give this spirit your ability to wink in exchange for him returning your voice?”
“Yes,” Elmiryn said, sounding sullen. Her eyes widened and a hand flew to her throat. She looked at the others. “Hey, my voice is–!”
Nadī and Sedwick smiled at her. “There,” the man said. “It’s done.”
Before them the twig creature didn’t seem any different. That was until a flap of flesh appeared out of nowhere to cover the right eye, then it slipped back.
Elmiryn shuddered. “That’s…not right.”
The twig creature danced away, its body creaking.
Nadī touched Elmiryn’s arm gently, her touch wet and cool. “Now that you are capable of it, we shall speak.”
“Yes. Thank you for getting my voice back,” Elmiryn said with a nod and a somber frown. “Because I’ve many questions about this tree you found…”
When I awoke again, it was in a cave. Outside the sky was still light, but there were harsh divides between the shadows and the world outside. Fire danced across the rock. Argos was awake and panting next to me, the blood washed from his fur–leaving him looking brighter and cleaner than when I’d met him. His tongue lolled from his mouth, a great paw resting on my stomach as he lay facing the direction of the back of the cave. I shifted to look down at myself. I was similarly cleansed, the blood and grime gone. The ruined tunic had been discarded, and my bandages appeared as new.
I even had my arm and hand back.
It wasn’t that I was healed that surprised me. Healing was a natural part of my life, and given the level of danger I usually faced, I was injured often. I took a grim satisfaction in knowing my tolerance for pain was greater than most. What did surprise me was the fact that I had been moved at all. Who had come and found us?
I sat up, slowly, flashes of gore flying past my mind’s eye like bullets. Tears clouded my vision, and I curled forward, toward my legs, hot tears falling from my eyes.
Argos butted his head against my arm, and I turned and stared at him.
I tried to sniffle back my tears, but in the end I lunged toward the dog, my arms going around his neck as I wailed loudly. I tried to make the images, the phantom sensation stop. But the inhuman laughter of those beasts would not leave me, and I shuddered, fearing the day I’d have to see them again–because I was certain I’d see them again.
…Was this my hell?
I was anathema. Funny how a wild and near-suicidal mission can make one forget the wrongness seeped into one’s life. Would I become as those monsters, tainting nature, preying on innocents?
“Thou art not in hell, Lost Daughter.”
I twisted and peered from over Argos’ massive shoulder towards the back of the cave. Seated there, on a low rock beside the fire, was…
My breath caught in my throat, and I raised myself. “Marquis?” I whispered.
The man bowed his head and shook it. Marquis was the merchant elf that once visited my village. I had bought all my books from him. He’d…died, less than a year ago, when my own cowardice prevented me from helping him against those that would have killed him. They had wanted me dead as well, but Marq had sacrificed himself, earning my safe escape. Gratitude came slowly to me, for at the time, I had wished for death and it was Marq who had kept me from it, when grief over the recent loss of my family would have taken me over the edge.
I was lachrymose once more.
Face crumpling I let my chin fall to my chest. “Spirit, why do you taunt me? Why…why must you puppet his image before me? Hasn’t he earned his rest?”
“His debt was great, young one.” The stranger said. I thought I saw sharp teeth beneath those pale lips. He raised his head and leveled a stare at me across the fire–his gaze was a golden yellow, the flesh of his eyes a bright crimson. “To compensate, I now use his form as my avatar. Makes for more amiable conversation.” He stood, cotton shirt rustling, his canvas pants smoothing out. Bare feet wiggled on the stone, toes poking with thick black talons. “Thou art in a half-world. A limbo. A place where the spirits of your world may travel unburdened. Previously, I was unable to be so forthcoming with you. But this Place affords me the means to speak, and you the ability to listen.”
I stood, shivering. I couldn’t decide how to feel. Terror wasn’t out of place here. “Wh-What do you want from me? Why have you followed me all this time?”
The man circled around the fire, his talons clicking on the rock.
I backed up into the partial light. Up until that moment, Argos had been watchful, but calm. Now he stood, as he gave the man a small warning growl. It seemed to ask the silent question, “What are you doing? And it better not be bad.”
The man stopped, the fire tracing his form, embers on his shoulder like they’d come from his pale hair. This was not Marquis. His eyes turned to slits, and when he opened his mouth, a long forked tongue darted out past large triangular teeth, all the same size. He tilted his head and leaned forward, a breath hissing from the back of his throat.
“Night Child. Lost Daughter. Thee Lover of Ghosts. Hear me. I am not the Pathfinder. I am the path; the way; the bridge. I am not the Weaver. I am the art; the design; the creation. I am the dreamwalker and the harmony of Life, the inexorable cycle, the first inhale, and the last exhale. I am not death, nor birth, nor light, nor dark. I am the crucible. I am the Given. I am the Taken. I am sacrifice. I am survival. I am Lacertli.” Dust fell from the ceiling as all around me shuddered and trembled. I cried out, ducking.
He went on without a pause. “Vermagus, I would have thee take up my standard. Thou must. For the evils here have hungered for thee since you first stepped into their domain.”
I shook my head, falling to my knees. My eyes were wide and damp. “What…are you saying? What are you saying really?”
Lacertli, draped in the skin of a dead man, leaned forward with a homodont smile, making Argos jerk back with ears flattened and teeth bared. The spirit’s mask turned macabre, sinking in at the cheeks and eyes, the skin turning sallow as he crossed into the partial light, out of the stark shadows. “Vermagus, the spirits here hurt and ache and seek a way to release themselves from their pain. They would have thine Words. Thine Meaning. Thine Expression. They wouldst tear the very fabric of your soul to have the power that rests in you.” His skin started to crack and fall away, like clay, revealing warm scaly skin underneath. I sobbed and covered my eyes. I couldn’t see Marquis’ crumble away from me again, even if this wasn’t really him. But I still heard the spirit, even as Argos shielded me with his body. “I can save you…can make you stronger…if you promise thine power to me. Arise!”
There was a giant hiss and Argos snarled, though I felt him tremble against me.
“Nyx. Night Child. Lost Daughter. Thee Lover of Ghosts! I, Lacertli, would have none other as my champion!”