Elmiryn wrung the water from her hair. Her face muscles were starting to hurt from smiling so much, but she couldn’t help it. “My subconscious is brilliant.”
“What’s so brilliant about coming back to the kingdom that wants you dead?” Quincy muttered, beating sand from her bottom. She winced and twisted around to check on her wounded shoulder.
“Knowing Elmiryn? I imagine she must get some sort of kick out of all this.” Sedwick turned to her, his mouth a slash. “Isn’t that right?”
The redhead gave a shrug, her smile firmly in place.
“Well,” Quincy finished her vain attempt at sand removal, and crossed her arms with a great sigh. “So each of our pathways brings us a step closer to our goal. This place holds something we need. What are we looking for, then? How do we begin?”
Sedwick pointed to the East. “I can sense the Gate from here. It’s that way.”
“I don’t want to just leave,” Elmiryn contended.
Quincy nodded in agreement. “There’s something else we need to do first.”
Sedwick raised a hand, mild exasperation on his face. “Um, fine. But first, care to enlighten me as to what you two were discussing in my absence? Please?”
“Aww, I think we hurt his feelings,” Elmiryn snickered. She threw an arm around his shoulders as they went up the stairs to the dock platform. “Y’see, when I was floating around back at the dwarven settlement, I came across a few things…” and soon he was appraised.
“This is getting strange, even by my standards,” the man said with a dubious shake of his head.
Elmiryn was already walking toward the stairs leading up to the wharf. “I think I know where we are,” she breathed, eyes fixing on the building at the far end of the piers. Quincy and Sedwick followed her up the steps just as her boots hit the wooden platform. She gave an ecstatic nod. “Ah! Yes!”
“Which city?” Quincy asked. She had a grumpy look on her heart-shaped face, and a pinky in her ear.
Elmiryn turned to her. “I recognize that building there. That’s The Big Brick. It’s a low-end whore house. Went there once–never again.”
“Contracted something nasty, did you?” the wizard cut in.
The warrior just smiled at her. “If disgust is a disease, I had it bad.” Without another word, she turned and jogged down the wharf, passing the bollards and boat masts with the increasing pleasure of a creature freed onto its natural habitat. It wasn’t long before Elmiryn rounded the stairs that led up to the main streets, and she let out another loud laugh. “Ah, yes!!”
Quincy’s voice floated up to her back. “What, damn you? What are you so pleased about?”
Elmiryn turned her head to see her companions coming up the steps. She jerked her head. “We’re in the city of Malvene. I own a place not far from here! We can get our bearings there.”
“Alright, I’ve let you have your time. Now I must deny your request and return to my feeding.” The spirit stood from the bed, and the room about us expanded, and as it did so, it changed. Layers from the walls peeled and fluttered in a wind I couldn’t feel, like sheaths of paper. They thickened and darkened to curtains. My bed grew–the headboard rising and rising till it reached the ceiling. The ceiling, too, changed to something else, as the bare rafters retracted and the slant leveled out. Coffers appeared into the wood, which melted to white plaster. My desk slithered and shifted, like it were an animal, and became a low couch. My books turned to pillows. My chair, another couch. Fiamman lamps sprouted from the floor like plants.
…Our surroundings had changed to the nobleman’s bedroom I’d seen before.
I gave a start as I felt the shadows slip from my grasp like silk through my cosmic hands. One moment it seemed I had absolute power over the scene, the next it was ripped away from me. My eyes went to the spirit as it stood, and I saw with a slackened jaw that he grew, like the room did, towering over both Tristi and myself. It stooped, with arms elongating to the point that they brushed the floor. The rest of its clothing fell away, leaving him to stand naked before us. It was a disgusting sight. He was like an emaciated old man, and his twisted body made him all the more wicked to my eyes.
I stood shuddering, feeling myself foolish for ever believing that I had power here.
It turned his dark gaze on me, its horns now curling high above his head. They were black as well, with white symbols etched into them. I’d seen them before, on the giants I’d seen in the crowds. Were they in some way related? It pointed to the door. “Leave,” it said, its warped voice once again dripping in melancholy.
I blinked up at it.
…That was it?
“Leave?” I repeated.
The spirit frowned at me with its nose wrinkled, and turned to look at Tristi. “You. Take her and begone,” it spat.
Tristi shrugged his shoulders and looked my way. “Nyx, our business is done. You’ve tried your best.”
I stared from Tristi to the spirit and back.
I balled my fists and shook my head. “No.” I pointed up at the spirit and tried to keep my hand from quivering. “I will not leave without Farrel.”
The spirit blinked at me. It bowed down, spine cracking as it snapped and twisted its neck to stare level into my eyes. I resisted the urge to cringe and duck away. For all my attempts at stoic bravery, I shook like a leaf. “Your discretion did so little for you, I’m afraid,” the creature sighed. “It took me a moment, but I recognize that symbol on your breast now.” The spirit reached a knobby hand toward me. This time I couldn’t fight it. I flinched back, tripping on pillows. I managed to right myself before I fell, but now my act of bravado was lost in my whining breath, my curved spine, my ashen face. The spirit ceased its advance and fixed me with a droopy look.
…What kind of creature was this? What was wrong with it? Certainly, this wasn’t what I would have envisioned for a creature of lust.
“You are Lacertli’s champion. Only one such as you could shift the shadows of my dreams.” The spirit straightened with a great sigh. “But you are not he, and thus, cannot command me. Weigh your options, vermagus. Consider that I could crush you and your friend with nary a thought.” It didn’t say this with much conviction. Perhaps that was what revitalized my courage.
Tristi cleared his throat pointedly, and jerked his head toward the door. “Nyx…let’s away.”
I spared a moment to shoot him a look, then looked back up at the spirit. “…What is your name?” I asked.
The spirit narrowed its eyes at me. It wrung its hands like an anxious wife, and muttered, “Volo.”
I gave a nod. “I am Nyx…Champion of Lacertli.” I felt proud of myself for saying this with only one squeak. “I will speak the truth to you, Volo. I cannot turn away until Farrel is back in my company. He may know things I need to know, and he could be of great help to me. This is my path, and I will survive to see my will done.”
Volo’s expression drew long at me. Tristi hid his face behind his gloved hand.
The only sound to be heard was the flickering of the Fiamman lamps. I eased my breathing, my hands once more moving to cover myself. The nobel’s room, now devoid of its writhing orgy, seemed very much empty. With just the three of us standing there, even this massive spirit who had to crane its head to keep from bumping the ceiling, it felt…empty.
I looked at Volo, fighting my revulsion. From his long, dry feet, up his shifty legs, along his sunken stomach and glaring ribs, I felt…
Volo twitched his kinked nose and his eyebrows tensed, then relaxed, then tensed again. He reached up a hand and scratched at the base of his horns. Then he puckered his lips and spoke. “So be it. Follow me.”
He turned, and into the shadowed archway he lumbered, hands still dragging about his feet, his head lolling between his boney shoulders. I hesitated for a moment, watching him go–the shift of his prominent spine, the trail of dust and flakes he seemed to leave in his wake (his skin shedding, I later realized). I swallowed the lump in my throat and started to follow him.
Tristi, in just two large leaps was there before me. One clawed handing holding his glasses in place as his other planted itself on my collarbone. “Nyx,” he said firmly. “Ah, Nyx, Nyx, Nyx…Nay, do not go, you would be a fool to go deeper into his world!”
I frowned and brushed his hand away. “I have to.”
“False! Incorrect! Negative! You don’t have to.” He gave me a small shove and my frown turned downright incendiary.
“Nyx, you’re laying too much on the line for this.”
I glared. My lips pursed and my hands balled to fists. “How did you know where Farrel was, Tristi?”
“Fine. I confess, I was here when he came.”
“You’ve been lying to me this whole time…”
“That was a lie, yes. A white lie. A sweet, baby lie–”
“A lie is a lie! Damn you. Damn you! Did you lie about the tower collapse too!?”
Tristi’s eyes narrowed. “I said the truth then.”
I bared my teeth at him. “Tell me the truth now. You aren’t the reason Farrel’s here?”
A muscle moved in Tristi’s jaw, and his thin nostrils flared. I saw his pupils dilate, making his abalone eyes dark. Without a word, the champion of luck slipped by me. As I followed him with my eyes across the wide room, I could see the door he opened now led back to the original short hallway. I turned forward again and gazed at the floor. I heard the door shut.
“I can do this,” I breathed to myself.
With that, I followed Volo deeper into his lair.
It was all golden and burning insofar that she could feel her veins pulse like it were lined with the brilliance of a drunken night, unaware of itself, and roaring. She felt like her memories were a treasure discovered deep in cold soil, and with dusty hands she scrabbled for those precious recollections that had once attempted to slip from her into the hungry maw of the earth. Corpses buried. Things lost. Emotions ensured a sad sort of freedom. But Elmiryn was a tyrant, and she would keep her memories and emotions locked in her heart and her head, and nowhere else.
The streets were muggy, the sky like a dark cap that pushed and pressed on the light. The brilliance of the city fought back the dark with little sign of fatigue. There was much carousing, and sometimes they’d pass streets that were clearly in the heat of the celebrations, and others still that echoed, as if haunted from the merriment. The phantoms about them swelled and ebbed. Masked youth. Laughing and running and skipping and dancing. They’d seen this before on the shard mirroring Gamath, so they didn’t trouble themselves over ghost-like forms.
Still, Sedwick didn’t seem to know what to make of all the goings on, and he looked around him with his brow bunched, then eased, then bunched again. Quincy’s interest seemed annoyingly passive.
“What are they doing?” Sedwick asked. “I grew up in Gamath, so I don’t know about the customs of other places.”
“It’s the Aesutian Festival,” Elmiryn and Quincy said at the same time. They glanced at each other, and the warrior resumed by herself, a humored curl to her lip. “Every year, the Fiamman Kingdom celebrates the First Hero Aesutan, who defeated Nathric in a show of wit and strength.”
The brunette started in almost immediately. “The legend behind the festival is this– There once was a spirit king named Nathric, who was a shadow that loved the night. Fed up with daylight cutting short his fun, the spirit king reached up into the heavens, and tore Halward’s son Ortus from the sky.”
Elmiryn picked it up next, her arms crossing as she cut the wizard a look. “He tore the immortal into seven pieces, and each piece became a new baby, glowing and bright. You can never really kill an immortal, after all. That first night, the spirit king ate one baby. He reached for another but couldn’t bring himself to consume it. Fuck. You’d be full too, eating a seventh of an immortal. So Nathric thunders, ‘I will wait until tomorrow, and eat another!’, so he does.”
The half-timbered buildings, with their warm exposed framing and creamy plaster, looked as though they had dozens of slanted teeth. The quatrefoil windows whistled with the evening’s breeze further on. The columns of a postal building seemed to bend in the corner of her eye. The red-brick domes, with their gold ribbing, and star-like crowns, rose high. All the while, the Fiamman lamps lit the streets hot, for the kingdom knew nothing of darkness and slept always in light.
Feeling content, Elmiryn continued. “Aesutan was the son of king Koledus, ancient ancestor of the royal family, who governed the Fiamman clans. Back then, we were just humble farmers scraping by along the southern coasts. Without the sun, the Fiamman’s livelihood was jeopardized. So, at the age of fifteen, Aesutan was visited by Halward, and he was pressed to find Nathric and restore order. You don’t argue with a god, so the boy gathered up his father’s sword and cloak, and set out to find the evil spirit king–”
Quincy cut in. “It’s said that Aesutan was the first Legend to ever grace the world. Halward’s example inspired his fellow gods to take up the trend, and soon the earth was swarming with them–”
“Can I tell my story or not?” Elmiryn snapped. She held her hand out to the wizard as if begging cooperation to be placed there. The wizard gave a haughty sniff of her nose, but said nothing more. The warrior went on, smirking, “Aesutan searched and searched until the equivalent of a day had passed. By then, Nathric had made enough room to consume yet another baby, and he did. There were only five left. At a loss, Aesutan visited the Lycan tribes, to pay homage to Artemis at her temple. As a favored subject in Halward’s heaven, the goddess of the hunt was sympathetic, and she appeared to the boy. She gave him a mask resembling the wolves of her people, and counseled that he drink deep of their wine. He did, and the night went on long. A true Fiamman, the teenager was a damn good merrymaker. The wine went straight to his head, and he shed his clothes, donned the mask, and lay with the Lycans in a wild orgy before darkness took him. He awoke in a separate world. I guess…this world. The Other Place. He dressed himself in the colors that went through the air like streamers, because all he had with him in that strange place was his wolf’s mask and his sword. The smell of the therians masked his human scent. He traveled with red across his chest and neck, and blue around his sex, and orange and purple around his arms and legs, and he walked like this for yet another day. Nathric ate his third baby. There were only four left.”
They entered a courtyard with a gazebo in the center. Shrubs lined their path. They crossed through the gazebo, and over the buildings, she thought she saw the tip of the great Halward statue in the Oristel Square. Not much longer now and they’d be in the old neighborhood she’d once frequented.
…It was odd, but why weren’t there fireworks going off over the statue? As memory served her (which was a sadly shaken thing) Oristel Square was the rowdiest spot to be in during the festival.
Elmiryn said none of this, but just threw an arm over Sedwick’s shoulder and puppeted a monster with her hand. “Then, Aesutan found the spirit of the dragon, Smok. The dragon said to him, ‘Boy! I would feed you to my young!’ and he attacked. There was a great battle, but the Fiamman son was quick and nimble, and he managed to slay Smok with a powerful thrust into his soft underbelly.” She feigned a stab, and Sedwick gave a rough chuckle at her antics. “In Smok’s nest, he found three eggs. He placed them into the dragon’s stomach, using it like a knapsack, and continued his search. Another day went by. Nathric ate another baby. There were just three left.”
She paused to breath in deep. Damn her curse, to make her forget such a beautiful city. Elmiryn loved Malvene. She preferred it to her family’s estate. The street beneath her echoed up her bones a sort of code, and it unlocked in her something she’d thought she’d lost. Ghosts, faint impressions lacking in color and with little defining lines, made a shadowy play in her head. These were what was left of her memories, walking the city at night and looking for satisfaction. For fun. For drink. For company.
“On the start of the third day, Aesutan finally arrived at his destination. He came to a forest, dense and dark–a black wood–and found a party underway. It was filled with humanoid beasts and ugly spirits, all dancing and drinking. They were celebrating the darkness, welcoming the End of Days, and they were paying homage to Nathric. Making sure his mask was in place, Aesutan covered himself in the blackness of the wood, and passed through the party. None stopped him. He did not look human. Did not smell human. He sneaked by the loyal guardians who protected Nathric’s burrow, and slipped inside. There, Nathric slept, the three golden babes near him. They did not cry, did not make a sound. The immortals just watched as Aesutan crept in, and with one eye on the spirit king, switched the babes with the dragon eggs he carried. Just to make the ruse more authentic, he took their urine, and rubbed it over the egg shells. Then, with a little of the black on his skin, he painted faces onto the eggs. With the babes in the dragon stomach, Aesutan crept back out, where he slipped by the evil lessers and back the way he had come. Halward opened a way for him, and the boy returned home. He hid the immortals in his village and waited for his plan to take effect.”
“I always thought the bit with the eggs was silly,” Quincy muttered.
Elmiryn gave her a strained smile before resuming. “Meanwhile, the day was approaching its end, and the spirit king awoke. He was hung over from his drinking and could not see well. He smelled the immortal babes on the eggs and thought nothing of it. Hungry, he ate one. And so it went, that with the next two days, Nathric ate the dragon eggs. Another week went by in darkness, and the spirit king thought the battle was won. But then he felt his stomach give a turn.” Elmiryn clutched her stomach with both hands, feigning a look of alarm. “He felt it again. And again. Suddenly, the discomfort turned to pain, and within moments, Nathric was howling.” She winced with an ooh, and ahh, and Sedwick laughed again at her antics. Quincy just rolled her eyes at her.
The woman held up a hand, her other still on her stomach. “His lessers didn’t know what to do. ‘Get them out of me, get them out of me!’ he howled. Then, with a roar, the three dragon hatchlings burst from his stomach–” Elmiryn pretended something had punched its way out of her, and she howled and squealed, falling even to her knees for dramatic effect.
“Oh, Elmiryn, enough!” Quincy snapped. But her lips were twitching.
The warrior ignored her, “The dragons had eaten their way out. They were golden, with red eyes, their bodies glowing from the power they had inherited. Nathric was not immortal, and so he perished. The spirit king’s attendants fled, for the beasts had acquired the taste for evil spirit flesh, and from that day forth, they ate nothing else. They came to be known as Praxidice, Erinyes, and Poena. The dragon hatchlings left the burrow and expanded their wings for the first time. Upon taking flight, they crossed the Other World into ours, and from the sight of the three golden dragons in the sky, Aesutan knew that he could now take the immortal sons from hiding without danger.” Elmiryn held her hands up to the sky, a full smile on her face.
“What happened next?” Sedwick asked, his crooked smile in place.
The warrior hopped up. “He took the babies to Halward’s temple, and there, the Star Ruler claimed his progeny. ‘Aye, they will each have a place in the heavens.’ And he named them Nitor, Vires, and Azad. He took his sons up into the sky, and that, as the legends go, is how we got the three suns.” She giggled. “Oh, hey. Did I mention that Aesutan was a redhead? In that moment, Halward blessed Aesutan as his own son, and so his demigod line started, and many heroes were born from it.”
“Lemme guess,” Quincy grumbled. “You’re a descendant of Aesutan?”
“More accurately, a descendant of Diokles. A distant cousin. Twice removed. Doesn’t matter though. A blessing is a blessing.”
“I think it’s a fascinating story,” Sedwick said diplomatically.
Elmiryn shrugged. “I’ve heard it so many fucking times, I know it by heart.”
He chuckled. “We can see that.”
An impatient sigh from the wizard. “Are we close to your ‘place’ yet?”
“A few more blocks.”
“What happened to the other four babes that Nathric had swallowed? Immortals don’t die easy, right? So what became of them?” Sedwick asked.
Before anyone could answer, they heard a scream tear through the air. All three stopped, eyes wide, heads craned up to the sky.
“It’s…closer now,” Elmiryn breathed.
“Was that a person?” Quincy asked, her nose scrunched.
Sedwick shook his head. “It didn’t sound human.”
“Maybe it’s the golden dragons,” Elmiryn giggled. For some reason, the idea struck her as incredibly humorous, and she couldn’t stop for a long time. The others didn’t laugh, but just stared at her in disquiet.
I was thinking of death by the time the doorways parted for us, the thick smell of bodily fluids and charcoal nestling far enough up my nose to make me want to gag. We were now in a sort of hall, where a single aisle cut through, and on either side were more couches and pillows. Cashmere floors felt funny beneath my bare feet as I tread in Volo’s shadow, his sagging backside an unholy precedent over my little form. It made me slow my steps in the hopes of distance. The ceiling rippled black. Torches coughed and snarled as the tall arched doors shut behind us, and the company of the room seemed to pulse like slugs disturbed in their recumbent states. There were dozens of people here.
I thought about death as the floor that was a blanket that was a bed, snapped, and made me stumble, like it were trying to catch me in its amoral embrace. Death. The stinking, sapping, hungry nature of it. The way it suckled at vitality till nothing was left. Like gluttony. Like lust.
These lost souls, for I came to understand them as this, hummed without stopping. Their forms shifted in unison with my passing. The air throbbed with their voices, like a starved growl, seeking my trailing shame. It was a long thing behind me, as long as I could envision it, and it rattled with embarrassing fantasies, hopeless wants, and the pain of love unrequited.
I had thought about death as the company passed us by like a hot summer night, voices still humming, eyes still fixed up on me, Volo’s backside still a terrible precedent before me.
…I was done thinking about death, or thought so, when thoughts of my mother came to my mind.
I had thought about my mother’s pallor, in the nights that followed Thaddeus’s departures. I thought about how I’d press my palms–dusty from crawling on the floor–to her round cheeks. She’d let out a sharp puff across my face, strong enough to flutter my bangs, and I’d smile at her silent greeting, before Atalo kicked me sharp in the back in his fits of sleep. I remember over the years as those cheeks turned slim beneath my touch, her breath, softer and softer against my skin.
The ribbed hallway descended in a slope that I was certain would have made me slip under normal circumstances, but physics here were nigh non existent. Like a skewered idea, I slipped through the lens of Volo’s dream. I felt the breath recede in my lungs, thinned by this spirit’s power. His animus was stifling me. I wasn’t even sure I was in the Somnium anymore. But was it even possible to enter a spirit’s mind entirely? I could just hear Lacertli now.
I am the Path, and as such, it is my duty to inform you that you are stepping into a trap.
I thought about my mother, and the nature of her, a thing that concealed itself like the darkness that wagged from the corners. These were dense, and shied away from my attentions. They grew long in the corners of my eyes, and an irrational fear came over me about blinking. Surely, my heart whispered, surely then, the shadows would seek to overthrow, thee.
…And the otherness from which my heart spoke turned me fearful too.
“And really…who the fuck gets Legends anyway? When a god picks them to be their champion, it’s as if they become…I dunno. Alien. They don’t think like a person of the earth would anymore–they think in terms of heaven.”
“Is that what’ll happen to me, Elle?” I thought, my eyes on Volo’s cracked heels flitting in and out of view. “Is that what happened to Tristi?”
I was thinking of my mother when the hallway curved, straight down, and we tread its curvature with our feet still gracing cashmere floors that tripped me. The entryway flowered and the warmth that had colored us was swallowed in a cool, silver light. The room we approached–for I could peek through Volo’s crooked legs–was entirely of concrete, with drips coming from the domed ceiling. A single opening in the center was the source of the light, and it came down in an eerie halo.
My mother–in the moonlight, two men atop her–and me, a child, hiding in the trees after a full moon, still naked, and just watching. Scared. Fascinated.
I did not know the true nature of my mother. She was a mother. A thing, a noun. She was misty-eyed when she thought she was alone, and full of exasperation and awkward love when she was aware of myself and my brothers. She glared at the younger women, something tight about her lips, and her gaze would cast our way. Her eyes were heavier during those moments. I learned to make myself scarce when she was like this. Poor Atalo never understood that. Never understood why she became so cross, then so depressed later.
But soon her passions waned, and her heavy gazes lightened, and her misty-eyes became a regularity. As I became a young woman, her envy had shriveled to nothing so I never had that fury turned my way. Instead, I suddenly became the one with the broom in my hand, mind weighted by the need to survive tomorrow. My turn to be passionate, to be beautiful–to be jealous and slowly dying–was never to be had. That legacy, passed from mother to daughter, was lost. I pressed my palms to my mother’s cheeks and felt her fade under my touch, and I felt sad, because I still had yet to understand her nature. I needed more time under her bed, more time watching her from the trees, more time inching near her doorway at night.
I may have been her ultimate ending, but really, death had been a slow thing, for all the time it took to weaken my dear mother Fotini.
I wanted desperately for my nature to be understood. I did not want to be alien. I did not want to be anathema.
I thought about death and my mother and myself, before Volo stopped before the circular room and turned to me. The cashmere floor was turning hard under my tired feet. I could see it taper off toward the bare concrete, reaching vainly as its cloth ended just short of the silver light.
“He sleeps,” the spirit intoned, one hand extended toward the center of the room where the light flooded most.
Shaking, I stepped around the giant, his dark eyes and wicked face peering down at me, and I looked. I let out a cry and ran toward the ashen huddle on the ground.