The desire to shout Elmiryn down was there, for all of us, I think–but inevitably we found ourselves more concerned with the task before us. Hard to ignore the chance of finally facing down the one who had put us all through hell, after all. My only concern was in how well the warrior could function. I wanted to ask her to give me the gourd, but I could already foresee the clash of wills that would be, and I needed all of that energy for the task before us. It was easy, being brave and saying I wouldn’t let anything happen to Elle back in the blackwood. It was a wee bit harder at the actual threshold of the keep. After all…
If there was one thing the Other Place had proven to me, it was that it had no exhaustible amount of terrible surprises to sling at us. I’m not sure I could ever shake away some of the sights I’d seen here, and I suspected I had many rough nights of sleep in the future. Would this challenge really be the last I’d see? My fears seemed to stack up sometimes, swaying in the cold winds, and I was always stuck in the shadow of them, gulping down my courage–because things always tended to go wrong whenever I tried to do…anything. My lack of a family is probably my best example.
My confidence was like a rollercoaster. One moment I’d be filled with purpose, the next I’d be wringing my hands in doubt. I just wanted to do the right thing, and in such a dark and twisted halfway dimension, that became more and more distorted…especially when we were all walking such fine lines between salvation and destruction. And the horrible part? Half the time that misfortune was wrought by our own hands. Elmiryn’s drinking. My self-made monster.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, we came to the arched entrance of the castle keep. The looming structure, with its worn and mossy stone, its dark crenellations, and its many gazed windows seemed to bare down on us. The large double-door entrance was painted red, and had a smaller inset door to the right. We stopped before this, and exchanged looks.
In a weak attempt to bolster my courage, I tried to be blithe. “D-Do you suppose we knock?” At the looks I received, I resolved never to do that again. Ever.
Hakeem tried to pull it open by the handle. It didn’t budge. “We will have to break it down unless we can find another way in,” he remarked.
“Fuck that,” Elmiryn snapped. The drink was clearly working for her. Maybe I needed to have some.
She stepped up to the door as she took another swig of drink. Her other hand twirled her sword. Quincy crossed her arms and said in the dryest voice possible, “What are you going to do? Belch at it?”
The warrior turned and squinted one eye. “Uh…No. I was going to bust it down.” She turned back, shaking her head. “‘Belch at it’…what a boob!”
Quincy’s face grew red. “I was being sarca–”
“Shh!” I hissed. “Sweet Aelurus, we’re in a very dangerous place right now! Can we save this nonsense for later!?”
Elmiryn spoke, and as she did so, she raised her foot to kick the door. “Then let’s quit stalling and just–”
Before she could kick out, the door swung open with a faint creak. My mouth dropped and I took a step back. Elmiryn didn’t move, her foot still in the air.
“Orrr…that could happen,” she said insipidly.
I took another step back as my body trembled. “This could be a trap!”
Quincy shook her head at me. “You just ran through a field of evil spirits, but you can’t walk through a door?”
My hackles rose. “Syria could be on the other side of it with some diabolical plan to turn our minds inside out! She’s done things like that before!”
“Well it isn’t going to be very productive to just sit out here, now is it?” Elmiryn said. She had a jocular smile on her face, but I could see the way her head swayed ever so slightly on her neck as she turned to face the door. If she kept at that gourd, she’d be slurring her words any minute now.
Just as she started to cross the threshold, I jumped forward and ripped the gourd from her hands. She was quick to try and take it back, like I knew she would be, and maybe if she were sober, she would have succeeded, but she wasn’t. It only made me more certain that my bold move was in the right. Elmiryn had made the argument that she needed to keep drinking to stay functional. True, that her hands were looking steady now, but the warrior wouldn’t be able to stop herself from going too far. I had to do something, and that wasn’t going to be talking things out.
“Nyx what the hell!?” she cried.
I didn’t even stop to try and defend my actions. With a look that begged for understanding, I turned and fled through the door. I heard the others follow me, and was glad too, because the antechamber made my skin go cold.
The ceiling swirled in colors, bright and dark, cool and warm. As I stood beneath it, the yellow color on my skin began to rise up like liquid into the air. It floated up to join the colors on the ceiling. I shook my head slowly.
“What sort of sorcery is this?” I breathed.
“It could be a more focused form of energy sorcery,” I heard Quincy murmur behind me. “Though I’ve never seen it exercised on light before…barring Tonatiuh of course.”
I turned to look and there she was with Hakeem, holding a hand out to keep Elmiryn from trying to take the gourd back. The warrior glared at me, her expression speaking of betrayal, and I ducked my gaze.
Gods, she must think I don’t trust her to control herself! Why can’t she see that it isn’t HER I don’t trust, it’s her fae side?
Isn’t that the same thing? Kali responded quietly.
Quincy met my eyes, and leaving Hakeem to ensure Elmiryn didn’t do anything rash, she approached me with her hand held out. “Give the gourd here. I can keep it in my pouch.”
Grateful the source of conflict was being removed, I handed it to her and watched as she quickly slipped it into her magic pouch.
“Just how much can you hold in there?” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of me.
Quincy thought for a moment, then answered. “I think about as much as a two-floor mansion can, from floor to ceiling.”
My eyes went wide. Meanwhile, Elmiryn had stormed off to fume by herself, and Hakeem let her go. The antechamber wasn’t that big, so she didn’t go far.
“Gods, how can it hold so much?” I exclaimed.
“Well, actually, there’s a catch. Wizardry always has a catch. In the case of this pouch, I can only put in items that can fit through the four-inch wide opening. Next…things tend to get lost in there. So it’s best to keep the stock low. The pouch may be able to hold as much as a mansion, but I can only get as much as my arm can reach…”
Uncertain of what to say about all of this, I just nodded slowly. Wizardry was an odd profession–I knew this from my reading–and I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could find themselves practicing such an art. I mean, yes. I understand the appeal of having powers one would normally need to be born with. But wizards were a cutthroat lot, killing each other for their things, tomb raiding sacred sites, and battling magical beings on the off-chance that they may find some sort of treasure. Hakeem and Quincy both seemed very successful at it, given the number of artifacts they possessed. The average wizard only had one powerful artifact, and any number of common magicked items. In their case? From what I saw they were extraordinary, even for such an unusual practice.
We heard a door open and looked up to see Elmiryn pushing her way into the next room. I groaned and hurried after her, the wizards on my heels.
Wonderful. She’s mad, so now she’s going to be reckless about this all.
The next room turned out to be a sort of sitting room, but it was flushed with papers and books. There was a sofa chair, an ornate rug, and some tables, but otherwise the room didn’t have much else.
When we caught up to Elmiryn, I hissed, “Elle, please don’t rush off like that!”
“I heard something,” she replied in a steely tone.
I flinched and rubbed my arm. “Elmiryn, listen. I’m sorry, but I had to take the gourd–”
“Shhhh!” She held a finger to my lips and I stopped. “D’you hear that?”
I frowned, straining my ears. With my Twin back, my hearing had improved, but I heard nothing. I looked to the others and by their expressions they hadn’t heard anything either.
My eyes returned to the woman, my forehead wrinkling. “Elle, there’s nothing–”
“There!” She grabbed my shoulder, squeezing it painfully, and pointed at the empty chair.
Now my look was wary. “The…chair?”
She didn’t seem to hear me. Swaying a little bit, she walked to the chair, her boots clicking on the stone floor before they reached the carpet. With a graceless drop, the woman sat at the foot of the chair and gazed up, smiling.
My heart clenched.
“E-Elmiryn?” I went to her side, and waved my hands in front of her face but she didn’t look at me. She was fixated on something that only she could see.
When I looked to the wizards to ask them what we should do, I choked on my words.
Quincy had floated off to stare at a wall, muttering to herself, whilst Hakeem seemed to just fall asleep on his feet. I looked at them all in horror.
“This was a trap!”
“No. It wasn’t.”
I screamed and turned to see Lethia Artaud standing in a doorway I hadn’t noticed yet. From the way she stepped down to the floor, I assumed she came from a staircase. Clutching at my chest, I stared at her, robbed of words.
In a rush, memories came to me–long and stretched from a route of time that didn’t fit with my other memories. The one that stood out to me was the latest one. The one where I had stood and called Lethia a coward. How I’d threatened to break her bones. The silence felt heavy. There had been many things in my head I’d been keeping at bay, with Kali’s help, so that we could survive the challenges before us. But this one broke forth like a flood, weakening me.
My eyes filled with tears and I ducked my head in shame. “Lethia…”
She didn’t say anything for a long time, leaving the colorful ceiling to echo back Quincy’s dazed mutterings.
“It’s not your fault,” she finally said.
My face crumpled. “It is…It is, and I’m sorry! There’s so many things I regret, Lethia, I can’t even–” My voice cut off as my expression cleared and I blinked away my tears. Something had occurred to me. “Wh-What are you doing here? Where’s Syria?”
Lethia’s oval-shaped face twitched as she looked down at her shoes, then back at me. “You don’t have to worry about her.”
“What? I–I don’t understand. Who cast the Manus Dei?”
Lethia wrung her hands, her shoulders coming up around her ears. With tight lips, she mumbled, “I did.”
My eyes went wide. “It was…you?”
“That’s what I said.”
“I was trying to buy some time. To think.” Her voice had gone tight, and I wasn’t sure if she was angry somehow, or simply fighting back tears.
As such I proceeded with caution. “Lethia, why are you here?”
Her green eyes fastened onto mine, and my heart leapt into my throat. The enchantress had the power to steal people’s thoughts by meeting their gaze. I looked away, feeling a little bad for my reaction, but more afraid of having my head emptied. Then I blinked.
Slowly, my eyes returned to Lethia’s. “Elmiryn said Syria had lied to you about your eyes. Have you…controlled your power then?”
Lethia thought for a moment. Then she shook her head. “No…not really. I still have wandering amnesia. Any given moment there is something I can’t remember. But for a long time I didn’t have my full power, so it wasn’t so debilitating.”
I frowned at the girl’s tone and took a slow step back. “But your power has…come back?”
She nodded once, and her gaze turned glassy. “Yes.”
The silence returned. I breathed hard through my nose, my heart rate going fast. Lethia just stood there, her hands and arms limp at her sides, her head lolled to the right, her face blank. There was something off about all of this, and I could feel Kali pacing inside me as I tried to figure out just what the danger was.
If the Other Place had taken her power, how did she even get it back? Syria clearly had been trying to keep Lethia controlled, and she wouldn’t have made the mistake of arming the girl with the very power that would free her. Lethia had only wanted to get away from this nightmare.
I took notice of the bandages on her arm…
“This isn’t a trap,” Lethia repeated suddenly, making me jump a little.
I raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”
“I said this isn’t a trap.” She reached a hand up and brushed her wavy wheat blonde hair back over her shoulder. “This is…a last chance.”
My back tightened. “Lethia, what is going on? Where is Syria? Why did you cast the Manus Dei?” Then I gasped and took another step back as something finally occurred to me. “You’re working with Syria, aren’t you?”
Lethia shook her head, an almost disappointed smirk on her face. “No…”
Now my confusion had doubled. “Then please explain to me what is happening! Why are the others not responding?”
“I put them in dream states,” the girl said with a shrug. She started to walk forward, and my fists clenched. “I just wanted to talk to you in private.”
“About what? Be straightforward with me, Lethia! Please!”
“Straightforward…that’s what you want?” She stopped just a few steps from me and Elmiryn. Her eyes flickered to the warrior, still dreamily focused on whatever it was that Lethia had tricked her mind into seeing. “Okay. I can be straightforward.”
Her green eyes locked onto mine again, and I could see her lower lip quake. “You have to help me decide. Either I choose your side, and risk the chance of Izma killing me, or I choose her side, and risk the chance of you and Elmiryn killing me. Give me your arguments.”
I didn’t know how to react at first. I stood staring at her, waiting for her to explain herself further, but the girl said nothing more. Up close, I could see now that her aloofness was really just an act to contain her numbing fear. Lethia was terrified, and she was asking for my help.
“I can’t…” I shook my head, my look twisting up in incredulity. “What kind of–?” I grabbed my hair and took yet another step back. “Lethia, what is this!? Some sort of sick game?”
“It isn’t a game,” and for the first time since she’d walked into the room, her voice cracked. “This is important. Life or death. But I can’t decide until I hear all the arguments! I’ve already heard Izma’s and now–”
“Who is Izma!?” I screamed.
In a flash of recall, I answered my own question.
Ooooh…. My little sum of somes is quite a something! Now my error is known. Come. Tell Izma what it was like to break the things she loves…
The memory came hard and fast, and a residual pain appeared deep inside in a place unreachable–like my soul were being attacked–and I cringed, clutching my sides. When I caught my breath and managed to fight off the nightmare, my gaze crawled back to Lethia, who was staring at me wide-eyed now.
“You know her, Nyx. You know her,” she whispered, and tears pooled into her gaze. “You know she is chaos. You know she is powerful. And she has a hold on me, much as I try to resist it!” Her head tilted to the side and she smiled shakily. “But I managed to convince her…that I was not like Syria or Elmiryn. I am not a pet, or a toy. If I worked with her, it would have to be in my choosing. This gave me just enough time to decide whether to follow through or to try and fight her…but you’ve seen how powerful she is, Nyx!” The girl sobbed and shook her head. “I’m scared. If it were just a matter of dying, then I would gladly die, but it isn’t so simple with her. Defying her and failing…I would suffer. Immensely. Y-You were right. I am a coward.”
Slowly I shook my head and with cautious steps I went to her. “No…No! Lethia, listen to me. You are not a coward!”
“Don’t do that…”
“NO!” The girl shoved me away, her gaze turning wild. “I have to decide, and I have to decide now. Will I fight her, or will I fight you? I need arguments for both sides. Pros and cons. I…” She started wringing her hands again, her eyes trailing the room. “I can’t do it myself.”
“But why not!?” I cried. “You know what I’ll say to you! Izma is evil! She’s an abomination and she’s only going to use you for her own sick goals! And I…I thought we were friends? We fought together! We’ve confided in each other! Or do you really hate us that much??”
Lethia smiled at me brokenly. “I can’t remember.”
My breathing hitched, and my look melted once more into shame. “I…oh no…of course…”
“I can remember that I liked you all, and I can remember certain recent…unpleasant things,” she whispered, her gaze going glassy again. “But I don’t remember…us being together in our world. I don’t know why I liked you, or even how deeply that feeling goes. For all I know, I could’ve just thought you were nice because you shared a piece of bread with me in passing.”
“But even then, you could bring yourself to harm a stranger? The Lethia I knew wouldn’t do that!”
“The Lethia you knew is in the past.” She chuckled derisively. “She’s forgotten. Literally. Izma is terrifying, yes. And she is just using me, I know. But…she has a plan, Nyx. To fix the world. To make it better.”
“And you believe her?”
“Syria did. Maybe I should’ve trusted in her. I didn’t have all the facts before. I didn’t…” she trailed off, and I stared at her, wondering how these things could be coming out of Lethia’s mouth.
Izma had a plan? In most cases, that would be referred to as world domination, if I wasn’t mistaken. Why couldn’t the girl see that? The Lethia I knew had a high moral code, and she not only expected others to behave honorably, but for herself to. The girl before me was almost alien in how she was rationalizing–
…Sweet Aelurus…of course!
I didn’t know why I didn’t see it sooner. Lethia was hyper-rationalizing.
It was a common tactic by those placed under great distress to be able to compute what was happening around them. I’d read it in some book, of course, so my knowledge was limited, but in extreme cases such thinking could lead to decisions that others would find reprehensible. The enchantress was possessed by a moral code, and I had mistakenly conflated that with someone who took things on faith. Lethia wasn’t about blind faith. When she said she believed Syria was innocent of those murders in Albias, it was because the evidence hadn’t added up to guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As an enchanter, Lethia was also a scholar, and her mind functioned heavily on the process of scientific reason. If her amnesia was preventing her from remembering all of the possible arguments for why she should trust and work with us, then in her state of stress, Izma’s arguments for “changing the world” would seem much more appealing.
I had to change this, and I had a feeling I couldn’t just put a vermagus spin on my Words and let the whole matter be done with. If I didn’t want to fight Lethia, which was quickly turning out to be a very dangerous option, I was going to have to convince her it was better to fight Izma.
I rubbed at my face. “My gods, I haven’t debated like this since I was in erduk.”
Lethia took a breath, her shoulders shuddering. Glancing at me, she sidled past Elmiryn to sit in the sofa chair and crossed her legs. When she looked at me again, her expression was somber.
“I’m listening,” she murmured.
Quincy’s eyes narrowed as she took in Lethia, sitting in the sofa chair with her legs crossed. Her gaze crawled back over her shoulder. Her husband was standing near the door, swaying on the spot. Elmiryn was sitting in front of Lethia, grinning and nodding her head like a little girl listening to story time. And Nyx? She was off to the side, leafing through the stacks of papers on the tables, her eyes glazed.
The woman looked back to Lethia as she crossed her arms. “So you want arguments, hmm?”
“What the hell d’ya want me ta say?” Elmiryn snapped. “Izma is bad news. Even Meznik is afraid o’ her. And you wanna jes’ settle on some crackpot plan to fix the world’s boo-boos!? C’mon kid, I thought you were smarter than that!”
Lethia shook her head. “It isn’t that simple, Elmiryn, and you know it. Izma and Meznik are cut from the same cloth. Are you telling me that the things he’s told you hasn’t appealed to you at all?”
Elmiryn’s eyes widened. “The hell? What’re you… No. No. You got into my head…saw things…”
The girl just laughed. “Come on, Elmiryn. Remember what happened last time? We both know that–”
“–Wouldn’t work.” Lethia finished.
Hakeem nodded, his fists on his hips. He glanced at the others. Quincy murmuring at the wall. Nyx leafing through the papers. Elmiryn sitting on the floor like a little girl. He turned his eyes back on the enchantress.
“Then why talk to me at all, if you know this charade will not work?”
Lethia shrugged. “Because. I may be playing mind games with the others, but you’re…too shrewd. I’ll get bored manipulating everything. I’d like to have at least one unfiltered conversation.”
The man rubbed at his mouth, his eyes returning to his wife. “She’ll see through this, you know. She’s good at picking up lies.”
“That pearl earring of hers doesn’t hurt either,” Lethia said with a wry smile. “I know Quincy is smart. Nyx and Elmiryn will get caught up chasing their own tails trying to sort out the logic. But Quincy? I’ll have to make her believe. And trust me, she’ll want to. Your wife may be attentive, and she may be intelligent, but when you live in reality like she does, you become prey to belief. Like how she chose to believe that her father and uncle were dead. Like how she chose to believe using the Morettis as bait against Syria was the right thing to do. Like how she chose to believe that she needed Tonatiuh to be strong. Did you know? Reality just amounts to all we can touch, smell, see, and hear. The sad fact is…all those senses we rely on is less than one-millionth of reality. The rest is just faith. So you see…I won’t trick Quincy into buying the lie. She’ll do that all by herself.”
Hakeem’s fists tightened and his eyes searched the girl’s face. “And I suppose I don’t have that problem?”
“You don’t live in belief. You know that life is far beyond anything we can comprehend, and so you adapt. You’ve adapted all your life. Like how you became one with the Lycans. It’s just what you do. Perhaps the only reason you haven’t moved on with your life is because of your wife. Because she can’t let things go, and she’s the only thing you can’t let go–”
“Shut up.” Hakeem’s armor flared with power as he stood to his feet. “I thought we weren’t playing any mind games…”
Lethia gazed at him for a long time before shaking her head sadly. “You’re right. Even the truth can’t be trusted.”
Hakeem glared at the floor, his muscles tense beneath his armor. Finally, he bit out, “What is this all for? Why don’t you and your master just kill us all?”
The girl bit her lip and wrung her hands. “I wasn’t lying Hakeem, when I said I cast the Manus Dei. But I borrowed that spell from Syria, and that knowledge is gone. Even with my raw power, I can’t control it like she could. It was just enough to defeat her in a moment of weakness. But you’re all determined to go home. Your mindscapes are…vast. Complicated. I may have the power, but I don’t have the skill to keep you all under and talk to you separately like this.”
“Izma…she’s augmenting your power…” Hakeem said, his eyes widening. “She’s the one really in control, isn’t she? But that still doesn’t tell me why she’s doing this! What is her plan, Lethia?”
Lethia’s voice was raspy when she spoke. “She wants to know more about you all. She wants to see if she can turn some of you. Part of it is out of spite. She wants to anger Lacertli by taking away his new champion. She also wants to steal Meznik’s toy. A power play. But in the case of you and Quincy…it’s curiosity. She recognizes your origins. The kind of triumphs you’ve achieved. The disasters you’ve survived. She thinks it might be useful.” She turned her face away. “And in the end, it all just amuses her. Your death or cooperation don’t really mean anything to her.”
“And you? Do you think she’ll spare you somehow?”
“…No.” The girl’s face crumpled and she shook her head. “I’ll be just like Syria. Just a thing to use and throw away.”
“So why play along?” Hakeem asked angrily. “Why do this to us?”
Lethia closed her eyes and tears slipped down her cheeks. “My mind is so confused, Hakeem. You may think my choice is easy…but it really isn’t. You all have agendas, just like Izma does, and I have to know which side is best to follow. I have to decide where I can do the most good.”
“And how will you decide this with Izma puppeting you!?” the man half-shouted. “Even if you can’t remember why you should trust us, you have got to know that Izma isn’t the answer!”
“Izma…she isn’t…she isn’t in control all the time. Please–” Hakeem started to speak, but Lethia stood, raising her hands. “Please! Let me explain!”
Hakeem crossed his arms, scowling. “Fine. But only because I’m certain I can’t kill you in this…illusion you’ve created.”
Lethia paled, but she moved past Elmiryn, daring a few steps closer. Wringing her hands, she started quickly. “Izma’s game works like this. I am her…screen. The field where she’s conducting everything. Imagine that she’s the controller, boosting my powers. But because she’s boosting my enchantment, she can only appear to one of you at a time. Most of the time, you’ll be speaking to me. I’m not allowed to tell the others what’s happening. She only allowed me to speak to you because she knew you wouldn’t fall for it, and for that she’s particularly interested in you. But the others…what she intends to do is to pick their minds. Peel away the layers. Izma is an astral demon, meaning she can do a lot, but she still isn’t a god. She doesn’t know everything about us, just certain things. While she tries to fill in the blanks, she’ll be evaluating your worth and interest. If she likes what she sees…she’ll convert you. If she doesn’t…” Lethia’s voice trailed, but Hakeem didn’t need her to finish.
He shook his head. “It’s a festival game. Hit the rodent when he peeks out from his hole. How can the others tell her apart from you?”
The girl shrugged helplessly. “Do you even know if I’m here right now? Maybe I’m Izma, just chatting you up. Judging your life.”
The man glared at her sidelong.
Lethia hugged herself and turned her body a quarter away, her chin tucking into her chest. “That’s the game, Hakeem. The others all think they’re only speaking to me, but at any given moment Izma can slip into my consciousness like I were a glove and just take over. If they can see it’s her…well…that’ll be dangerous, but at least they have a chance to fight back. I don’t like this either, but I have to know. I have to know what to do, and the only way I can do that is by talking to you all. One-on-one.”
“Only it’s not,” Hakeem snarled.
Lethia covered her mouth with her hand, her head shaking. He could hear her stifled sobs.
The wizard clenched his fists, then released them. Then with an explosive yell, he struck out, an arc of gravitational power blowing a table apart and sending books and papers into the air. He felt powerless. He didn’t want to feel powerless. He didn’t want to sit waiting for…whatever would happen.
For a long time, he stood panting through clenched teeth, his neck tight. Finally, he hissed, “This isn’t right…this is all just a lie…”
Lethia let out a cold laugh, and Hakeem looked at her sharply.
The girl was gazing at him with dead eyes, and the man shuddered involuntarily.
“Izma…” he whispered, taking a step back.
The demon grinned at him, Lethia’s green eyes glowing from the tainted presence.
“Silly, silly little time keeper. Don’t you know? Hope is just the universe’s way of lying to you. Identity is just your way of lying to yourself. Love is your way of lying to each other. Little Lethia knew this. Perhaps I should show you?”
Hakeem couldn’t help but flinch as the demon held up Lethia’s hand and a ball of light appeared. The orb flew to him faster than he could retreat, and the man’s eyes widened at the scene he saw within the orb’s depths.
Izma’s words gave way to music, and yet the man understood her meaning, as much as it repulsed him to do so.
“Hope, identity, and love…look, little time keeper. Watch as these things die one by one…” the demon giggled.