He had just witnessed some of the barest and most personal feelings of three women, one of which was his wife. Enthralled by the ugliness of it all, the man could not close his eyes. Their insecurities unfurled before him like a carpet, and he followed their fears until all lies were bypassed. Love. Hope. Identity. He saw them crack and fissure, watched with horror as they began to fall apart. How could they be so fragile? How could their hearts waver so, after all they had been through? Was this what they fought for? To exist in doubt and shame?
With a will, Hakeem turned his face away.
He heard Lethia’s voice, and it was devoid of the twisted humor that had so violated it. Izma was gone then. The man wasn’t sure if he felt all that much better with the alternative, however.
“I’m sorry…” she whispered.
“Does this satisfy your needs, Lethia Artaud?” He asked quietly. He gazed at the far wall, still trying to resist the macabre curiosity that compelled him to witness the systematic deconstruction of his companions’ minds. “Are you closer to your answers? Do you have what you want after turning Nyx’s love against her? Causing Elmiryn to doubt who she is? Making my wife–” but he broke off here, his voice choking out.
Ringing in his mind were Quincy’s words–over, and over, and over…
“I was Tulki’s concubine. Okay!?”
In all of Hakeem’s years, the only time he had felt so much pain was with the death of his family. Quincy’s words hit him hard and ripped out his soul. All expression felt inadequate for the amount of suffering that washed over him, powerful and suffocating. And the worst part was that his wife had been right. He had known the truth deep down in his heart. In his youth, he had beat his chest against the idea, choosing instead to trick himself into thinking he could keep her safe with a superstition. Even into adulthood, Hakeem liked to think that he had done right by Quincy and kept her safe. But he was just a child then, and a silly man now.
“I’m sorry…” Lethia said again. Louder now.
Like a wolf sensing blood, the man tensed up, his lips pulling back in a snarl. “You’re sorry?”
The enchantress said nothing, and Hakeem’s eyes snapped onto her. His gaze burned with his anger, his pain, his regret. Even in the grips of emotion, the man’s heart knew only pure focus.
“If you were truly sorry, girl, you would end this!” He spat. Lethia flinched and looked down at her shoes. Hakeem gestured at the ball of light before him with disgust. “Apologies do nothing for me. Nothing for them. It’s all just empty words. Mean what you say, or keep silent. Your presence is enough of a lie as it is…”
Lethia’s face turned blank, but in the girl’s eyes, the wizard saw his pain reflected. The tension in his shoulders eased, but his gaze remained wary as the youth turned and drifted away, toward the staircase.
“You’re right,” she breathed. “I am a lie.” She rounded out of sight, up the stairs.
Hakeem gazed at the place he saw her last before letting his eyes trail back to the orb of light before him…
Stuck in some sort of dream or memory, I watched as Elmiryn approached me.
“I was going to leave.” Her voice was playful, like when she liked to joke and play games with me. I tried to move, feeling my panic rise.
I don’t want to see this!
But try as I might, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even look away. I even tried calling the shadows or changing over to the Somnium. Nothing worked. I was being blocked somehow. Kali was absent in my mind, and it made me feel alone.
Amidst my hysteria, Elmiryn looked at me as if I had just spoken. “I would so leave you!” Her eyes pierced into me. I’d never seen such clarity in Elle’s eyes. The look…scared me. “I’d leave you and let you stew in your own juices. It’s what you deserve, the way you jerk me around.” The person Elle thought I was must have spoken again, because she let out a throaty laugh. “Mmm…yes. I like it when you’re bad.”
As the woman pulled me close and pressed her mouth to my phantom lips, I heard Lethia’s voice echo around me.
“You’re probably wondering what’s happening.”
Then it hit me.
If I thought it was bad before when Lethia mentioned my mother, it was a blessing in disguise being held captive like this, then. Words failed me. The only thing that would’ve satisfied my urges was violence. Whether Lethia was aware of this or not, she made no indication.
“I should tell you. This isn’t a memory per se. It isn’t quite an illusion either. Well, as far as what you’re seeing Elmiryn do. You could call this a mosaic of small truths. Everything Elmiryn is doing, she has done at one point or another with the lovers she’s encountered. It was really difficult, picking out the memories strongest in her mind. You know her memory is white-washed. I think I did well, though. Does some of this feel familiar?” I could hear the laughter in Lethia’s voice as Elmiryn guided me to the bed.
Every touch from the warrior I could feel, but I was not here. I was nothing. Just like all the women she had ever fucked and left.
I was nothing.
My anger was culled by my despair as I fell upon the silk sheets. It gave me room to speak. As I felt Elmiryn’s fingers trail down my abdomen to the place between my legs, her eyes fastened onto mine, I could only ask one thing–
Lethia laughed again, and it made my soul shiver.
“Because. I want to help you.”
How can this possibly–!?
My question cut off as I felt Elmiryn’s fingers slide into me. Whether or not I was aroused by this situation seemed irrelevant. I was feeling what this other person felt. Or maybe what Elmiryn imagined she made them feel. It was so strange–feeling aroused despite my distress. I was just a puppet, doomed to the performance…and gods the shame I felt, knowing that someone else was seeing this. For all I knew, Lethia was putting this show on for everyone. Quincy, Hakeem…Elmiryn. The thought made me want to scream…
So I did, for all the good it did me.
“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be with a woman…” Lethia sighed, as if I hadn’t made a sound. “It’s horrendous being a virgin. I can see why you were so quick to cast yourself at Elmiryn.”
I started talking. Or…thinking I guess. As fast as I could. As much as I could. It helped take my mind off the feelings that started to invade me, against my will.
I didn’t throw myself at her. I’d resisted my feelings for a long time. I wasn’t even sure I loved her until we came to the Other Place! But things sort of–sort of–HAPPENED that way, and it gave me hope! It gave me strength! And I think about her all the time, because she is, and continues to be, the only true motivation I have in my life! I mean, that’s sad, I know–but but but–I mean, it’s just how it is, isn’t it? I can’t help that I’m an abomination–or could I have? I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t KNOW! I just know that I love her! I do! I LOVE ELMIRYN, and you can’t make me feel otherwise! Not with this sham. Not with this LIE! This isn’t Elle! This isn’t her!
“When you say ‘love.’” Lethia twisted the word. “You mean the kind of love you’re feeling right now?”
This is NOT love! This–This is–
Rape. It wasn’t really happening, but this was rape, I was sure of it.
I couldn’t help it. I moaned in pleasure. My shame and horror multiplied, and when I heard Lethia laugh at my pain, I finally realized that I had let myself get trapped here. I had let myself, because I had trusted in who I had been speaking to, taking for granted that if they had the power to control everyone in such a manner, then I was seeing the truth.
But Lethia Artaud, no matter how empirical she was, would never laugh so boldly at someone else’s pain.
The saddest part was…this realization was too late, and Izma knew it.
Had Lethia ever been there? Maybe she had been, but had been switched out partway through our talk? Or maybe she was still here somehow, just stuck in a parasitic relationship with Izma and unable to speak for herself?
…Maybe she knew what Izma would do and let it happen anyway?
Where is Lethia…? My voice was small. Weak. What would Lacertli say to me, if he could see me now? Some champion I was, duped and at the mercy of some abomination that had turned a friend against me.
“Ha! My little sum of somes is subtracted! Artaud? She lives. What really fascinates me is how you still manage to muster up the compassion when your friend, the weed, leaves you so divided,” Izma purred.
The game is over. You have no reason to hold me here. There is nothing left for me to give you!
“Ah, but Nyx I have every reason! You think that now the curtain has been pulled back, the show ends? But there is still so much to see!”
And while you waste your efforts with sadism, the others will free themselves of you, demon! They will cut you out, cut you apart, and I will watch–
So much for threats. My voice died out in a whimper as Elmiryn took my phantom breast into her mouth, and Izma’s melodious voice danced with amusement.
“My sum of somes. Let us engage in simple addition. Take one pathetic excuse for a creature–”
“–Add a reckless beast of debauchery–”
Stop it! Stop! SHUT UP!
“–And you get a sad couple, writhing futilely in their mortal trappings as they go careening into a mind-numbing hole of basic bodily pleasure. It’s a nasty worm, that need you have, Nyx. It has eaten its way to the core of you. I must give credit where credit is due–after all, it was very impressive how much you resisted your urges, even in Volo’s realm. Was it scary, realizing you were more like your mother than you liked?”
I’m…I’m not…like her…
“But of course, how silly of me! Your condemnation of Elmiryn’s rather colored past has absolutely nothing to do with your own insecurities–perish the thought!”
My mother overcame her problem! And in Elmiryn’s case, it was nothing like that! She has control!
“All the better for the warrior, then, to be able to wield her appetites with such precision! Your mother was sloppy in comparison, wasn’t she? And when all was said and done, the only reason she stopped was because she became too weak to keep up with her games. Contracted some disease perhaps?”
That isn’t true…
If I had any control right now, I would’ve curled up into a ball. Instead, Elmiryn was presently half-naked and utilizing that position she’d tried with me in the blackwood. How many women had she done this with? The question was almost compulsive, and I hated myself for it.
“Certainly, though, you’ve considered the possibility that Elmiryn will not be able to keep up with your appetites, dear?”
This conversation felt almost like a carefully designed tactic on Izma’s part. I didn’t want to think about what was happening to me, so I was eager for the distraction. But talking with this demon was dangerous–after all, it had already landed me here. But what else could she do to me? I felt broken enough already.
What do you mean? I asked, like a dumb beast wandering into a hunter’s shot.
“I mean, Elmiryn is but one human. Well…half-human, but we needn’t get picky. Can she really satiate your needs? Haven’t you ever wished to seek out the pleasure of others without care?”
No. I am not like that!
“So repressed! I can feel your shame, feel your self-loathing, so powerful it makes my taste buds tingle! Mmm…but child, I imagine we’d both be more satisfied if you’d just let go.”
Of what? My moral sense!?
“Don’t be stupid. Morals are only illusory concepts that people use to trick themselves into believing they are right. What you need to do, my sum of somes, is to remove this crippling idea that you cannot have the things you want. If you want, then so should you pursue. The truth of whether or not you should have the object of your desire rests only in your success or failure. A simple prospect, yes?”
My spirit recoiled.
No! That’s just selfish indulgence! What can that bring but more suffering?
“Do you think morals and common sense to be the same thing? Goodness, even Lethia Artaud knows the difference! My suggestion does not carry with it a wanton disregard for consequence, little sum. What it carries is an awareness that there are certain paths in life that can be taken with little struggle, others, with more. Even your god, Lacertli, can attest to this, can he not?”
This argument startled me. I hadn’t expected Izma to bring up the Lizard King to support her claim anymore than I had expected her to suddenly become a benevolent being. But the logic twisted around my mind, and as the rushing ecstasy of Elmiryn’s ministrations hit me, so did I understand the demon’s reasoning. If all parties were willing, if all intentions were clear, then what harm was there in having multiple partners? Especially if you knew you would never see them again? Lacertli only cared for Harmony–and even he pressed me to discard notions of right and wrong. Was this how things truly were then? Primitive and empty? Did people really just collide into each other and spiral away? I wasn’t agreeing with this idea. But…
I just thought it strange that I had never let myself see things that way.
Having reached her climax, Elmiryn–this dream version of the woman I said I loved–rolled to the side of the bed and immediately started to dress. The phantom I was embodying gazed at her back, and my heart wrenched as though I was the person she were actually leaving.
Izma’s voice sounded smug around me. “Here is a simpler question, Nyx, as it seems the last has overwhelmed you. Without too much thought, I want you to answer me this: If you knew Elmiryn held no love for you whatsoever, would you lay with her again?”
I didn’t need to think on the answer, for I already knew it. My voice was small. Almost non-existent.
Izma chuckled with satisfaction. “Then see what your ‘love’ has enslaved you to.”
My phantom must have spoken again, because Elmiryn turned to look at me over her shoulder.
“Of course I’m leaving,” she said simply. “You were late. I have things to do.” There was a pause. She shrugged at my apparent response. “Honestly? I’ve had better.”
I sat up quickly, as the scene demanded that I did, and Elmiryn looked at me sharply, her hands stilling on her shirt buttons. A cold smile spread her lips and she chuckled. “I’m a bitch, huh? Funny. That was the same thing your sister said after I fucked her. Did you two practice on each other? Because your techniques are much the same!”
My shock mirrored my phantom’s.
“Don’t shrill. I just said I’m leaving.” The warrior gathered her coat and blew a kiss as she passed me by. “Goes without saying that I won’t be coming back, darling. Do give my regards to your sweet sister!” As I heard her slip out the door, I heard her mutter, “Stupid cunt.”
The room faded to black. I was lost in a place of darkness, and all I could feel was my heart breaking into a thousand sharp pieces.
This…this isn’t…happening…this can’t be real…
“As I’ve already explained,” Izma sighed. “This is a collection of small truths. Everything Elmiryn has done or said…she has done or said before!”
But how could she be so cold? I’ve…I’ve never seen her so cold!
“Perhaps you do not know your lady love as well as you thought? It stands to reason. How can you know her, if you do not know yourself?”
The darkness around me began to lighten. It became warmer. Like a sun was rising. I found myself shivering on some tiled floor, hugging my knees to my chest, tears streaming down my face. Confused, I looked around me and saw a woman with short cropped brown hair and gray eyes. I stared at her. Her clothes were strange–she had on what looked like a soft green brazier with thin straps and small blue shorts. She smiled at me as she cocked her head to the side.
“Do you want find out what really lies inside you, little sum?” Izma. Her voice was light. Almost normal.
I didn’t answer. I was so afraid and the pain of what I’d gone through still struck deep.
Izma’s avatar stepped aside, and behind her was a red door. She gestured toward it. “Here…Surely, you cannot serve your Lizard King if you are too afraid to know what you are?”
Slowly I stood.
There were lots of things I was afraid of.
I had told Lethia that, as an abomination, I was not deserving of love. But in my dedication to Elmiryn, wasn’t I acting out of some dim hope that someday my feelings could be reciprocated? Ailurans were passionate people, and our hearts got away from us sometimes. We could act on our desires on a subconscious level, and never be fully aware of what was really going on. The truth of this had already led to tragedy once in my life–when my dark rage and pain surfaced to murder Atalo. What if something equally horrible happened if I clung to this notion that Elmiryn could possibly love me back?
Skirting past Izma, I went to the door and turned the handle.