Well, friends, I’ve decided I’m just going to post the entire last chunk of “Bloodlines,” since I’ve taken my sweet time finishing it despite lofty promises of swift postings.
Make note of a few retroactive changes I’ve made in the story – “transposition” instead of “reconstitution” (as per the suggestion of astute fellow writer Bill Tracy), and flux no longer a permanent state. Also, pretend that there was never a time that people in the real world were able to see people who were actively within the epheria. Haha. As I’ve said before, you’re seeing the writing process happen here, and perhaps it’s both a blessing and a curse!
Without further ado, the conclusion to “Bloodlines of Epheria.”
The attack came immediately. For the first time, Sifani saw the dog-creature materialize: the air seemed to fold in a split-second of blue-white, and a mass of dark fur and two-inch claws tumbled out of nothingness. As it barreled toward them, its eyes glowed an unreal red.
It dived for Lorin at breakneck speed, and the man barely managed to shift his weight aside so that the creature didn’t touch him. The hellish thing skidded past and barked out something between a yelp and growl. A wicked grin cracked across Sifani’s face. “Eat this, you ugly son of a horse’s backside!” she cried, and honed her focus, razor-sharp, on the ground around the creature’s paws.
Her consciousness swimming in a sea of particles invisible to naked vision, Sifani systematically demolished a ring of earth around the monster. At first a small burst, then in increasingly larger chunks, brown and tan clods exploded beside it, causing it to dance from side to side. Sifani released a manic laugh as the rapidly dissolving ground formed a small island around the thing.
It was really only a bare handful of seconds before the monster regained its composure, unfortunately. It paused momentarily, and a snapped a few sharp barks. At its call, the air folded in four more hair-thin lines behind it. From them stepped reinforcements.
Sifani heard Lorin’s hissed intake of breath as four new dog-creatures bounded outward and forward around the edges of the crumbling island, even as their stranded companion vaulted over the growing rift between it and its prey. Over disgusting and guttural noises that for a moment sounded to her like language, Sifani almost didn’t hear the beat of Lorin’s running feet until the wind of his passing tugged at her hair and clothes.
At the first sight of him sprinting, Sifani reached hastily into her pocket to ensure that he had put the first of their plans into action. Her first closed around a hard ball of twine that was rapidly twitching and unraveling as Lorin ran off with the other end. Reassured by its presence, Sifani took off in a sprint in the opposite direction of her partner, hand still closed tight around the twine. Her body thrummed with pent energy and the morbidly pleasant thrill of the chase, though she ground her teeth as she considered their limitations once again. There was only so much they could do without touching the creatures with something from the real-world – they couldn’t use hands, couldn’t use knives…she was definitely missing Namiss and her knives right about now. As it was, this odd medium would have to do.
Sifani huffed a quick sigh of relief when the string stretched taut – she pulled her steps up short. It appeared that the twine hadn’t touched any of the monsters in the process of unraveling, thank Donis, since the scene hadn’t changed much. The monsters were close, though, desperately close, and obstructed only by the deep scars in the ground where Sifani and Lorin had transposed.
“Now, Sifani!” Lorin barked – that was the only cue she needed to begin transposing the twine stretched out between them.
Hers and Lorin’s joined powers were not insignificant. Together, they delved into the pieces that made up the string. Their minds danced between and weaved around one another as Lorin ripped pieces apart, and Sifani transformed them.
She really didn’t do much this time, only pulled the small, rough fibers of the twine outward into stiff needles. Piece by piece, at lightning speed, Sifani made the string into a deadly weapon, which Lorin summarily cut into sections. Then, together, they pressed the pieces away with all their combined might.
The result was explosive. The hardened and broken twine torpedoed outward into the enemy line. Agonized screeches made the air ring metallically, and as the twine ripped through into the dark flesh of Nume’s dog-creatures, Sifani and Lorin plunged back into the real world.
The monsters, having been touched by an object Sifani and Lorin had brought from the outside, appeared there with them, strewn across the ground. Sifani had hoped that all five would be lying stone dead – that the force of the explosion would’ve driven the sharp pieces deep into the vital organs of all the filthy things. Instead, despite the three that lay blessedly unmoving, two others stood on shaky, yet solid enough, legs. And as her luck would have it, those two were the two closest to Sifani.
Angered by their near defeat, they leapt onto her ferociously.
True to his nature, Lorin threw himself into the fray. Sifani could’ve sworn she heard him shout a triumphant, “ha!” as he wrestled one of the things off of her, rolling to the side and bellowing as teeth scraped the side of his face. Particles of dirt floated upward in small clouds, stinging Sifani’s nostrils as she struggled to ignore Lorin’s plight and concentrate on pushing the second creature away from her. Its stifling, meaty scent filled her nostrils as it snapped its jaws in her face, teeth bare inches from her.
Her arms felt weak, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to hold the thing off for much longer. It was in that moment of doubt that a handle suddenly and inexplicably protruded from between the creature’s shoulder blades as if it had grown there. There was a quick, gurgling sound from within the monster’s throat, a gush of warm blood and a spasm that caused it to roll off Sifani and onto the ground, and then death.
The knife had flown true, so of course it had to be Namiss. Sifani pushed herself to her feet and looked over to see the members of the band all wielding the weapons they had brought – Jatan fitting a new arrow to his bow, and Ileniel and Antian brandishing swort-swords in case they had the opportunity to strike close. Instead of looking victorious, though, all their faces were masks of horror.
Sifani felt her heart and lungs freeze, and she spun around to Lorin. He and the monster – which now had two of Jatan’s arrows sprouting from its flank – were thoroughly bloodied now, and still tumbling to and fro in their death grapple. There was a snap of jaws and a flash of grey teeth, and the thing bit hard into Lorin’s neck.
Sifani’s world exploded in anger and fear. LORIN! Her vision wavered, and suddenly she felt her mind diving almost against her will into the daydream-place that she had been able to access once before, at the Head Counselor’s home in what seemed another lifetime – that strange state of being that bridged the real world to her Reehler powers during fits of unquenchable emotion.
Her eyes trained on the dog’s body as it strained and twitched, trying to disable its victim. Her mind floated, melting back yet leaning forward, drifting further away and yet plunging exponentially closer.
She could see the skin and fur of the creature in startling detail, but knew it was not enough. In that strange tension between letting go and clutching tighter, Sifani further freed her mind to the daydream state.
And she saw pieces. So many pieces to a living creature. She had never seen an animal so close before. The pieces themselves had pieces – that skin and hair was made of up so many, trembling parts that only a few eyes must’ve ever seen. Plants were one thing, a kind of life that put the fear of the Deities, so to speak, in a person…but to know that the kind of life Sifani now held in her hand was one of flesh and blood, effectively making her the mistress of a conscious being’s destiny…it was horrible, and so very heady.
She took those pieces and transposed them into something that was, simply put, unnatural.
The truth was, Sifani didn’t know what to do with the building blocks of a conscious creature. She and Antian had talked about the ethical ramifications of that kind of tampering, but that was all, and at the time she had devoted much of her mental energy to ribbing Antian about taking his life too seriously. She regretted it, now. Like a child trying to rebuild a complex device she had dashed to pieces on the floor, Sifani took the blocks and formed them into something grotesquely wrong.
She pulled her mind back from its deeply-embedded state to see what she had done. As she had hoped, Lorin had moved back from the creature, not needing to fight. And though the wound on his neck bled, it did not look as dire as she had feared. Far from seeming debilitated, Lorin was watching a sudden, awful growth, large as a honey melon, sprout from the side of the creature’s head. His eyes flicked to her momentarily. She thought he looked slightly horror-stricken, but all he did after looking away was stick out his tongue and mumble, “Disgusting.”
Sifani thought she would have sicked up at the sight, had she the time. But there was nothing for her but to watch her handiwork go through to its rapid conclusion, knowing Lorin was alright. The monster’s cries became almost unbearable – rasping, high-pitched things that scratched the surface of the gut as the heavy growth dragged the dog-creature’s sooty head down to the earth. It thrashed madly for minutes that seemed to stretch on and on, spasming and frothing all the while until at last it lay still.
The only sounds were Sifani and Lorin’s panting breaths, though the silence from the watching members of the band was almost louder than those. The pair exchanged glances over the monster’s corpse.
“We’ve won the first round,” Lorin commented with grim satisfaction, then his eyes narrowed as he concentrated on Sifani’s face. “And that’s all that matters right now.”
Sifani bit the inside of her cheek. She must’ve been wearing her discomfiture with what she had done plainly on her face. She nodded tersely, acknowledging Lorin’s silent admonition. “Canvass again?”
Lorin nodded, and closed his eyes to slip back into the world where, despite their limitations, they were most equipped to fight one of the Deities.
When the world blossomed into blue, it took the space of an eye-blink for a fold to appear in the air – one that stretched itself endlessly upward like an upended bolt of lightning before Nume herself stepped out from inside it.
Her beauty was not what Sifani remembered, and perhaps it could no longer be called beauty. Her mien was not the cold and sneering beauty of a highborn lady, but the terrific rage of a monarch – full-throated, insane, and indiscriminate, a commodity left only to one impossibly powerful.
“YOU LYING BRAT!” Nume screamed. Her voice was dark and resonant as approaching thunder. “NOW YOU SHALL SEE WHAT COMES FROM SPURNING MY GENEROSITY.”
Don’t stop moving. Sifani’s own instructions replayed in her mind as she threw her body to the side full-force. A terrifying wave of heat followed close on her heels, and a tumultuous heaving of the ground knocked her further away. She scrubbed her arm across her dirtied lids just long enough to peer through the clouds of disrupted dust for Lorin.
He was no more than fifteen paces away from her, pushing himself up on his elbows and scrabbling backwards. Bless him – he had kept his head. Figuratively and literally.
She jumped onto her own feet and took off like a hind before the hunter. The only way that she and Lorin could keep Nume from being able to transpose them or anything on them was to never stay still enough for her to focus on any point on their bodies. It protected them to a degree, but – a column of fire flashed through the air half a foot away from Sifani, giving her a bare eye-blink’s time to turn heel – there was still so much more that Nume could do to destroy them.
Nume hissed as Sifani escaped her blast a second time, and began to direct her efforts toward her daughter in earnest. Sifani had rounded toward some jagged trees with low-hanging foliage the color of rot, and as she passed beneath one, a solid wood chunk the length of her thigh abruptly hardened, then shattered with a mighty crash. Something much harder and sharper-edged than wood pelted forward, storm-like, slivers tearing across Sifani’s arms and legs and biting through her skin like a hoard of stinging insects. She bit back a cry of pain and stumbled.
Throwing her arms over her face in a reflexive posture of defense, Sifani tucked and rolled as best she could with her numerous wounds. Though her mind was almost all hysteria now, her survival instinct sharpened her senses for a crucial second. Rolling back up onto her right shoulder – and wanting to die for the pain that coursed through her – Sifani fixed all her attention on the silver-violet slippers Nume wore, slapping the earth as she headed toward her quarry. Fabric – something blessedly non-living, and a medium Sifani had worked with often in the past. Knowing what to look for, Sifani easily detected the interwoven strands that made up the feeble shoes. She summarily unraveled them.
In any other situation, Sifani would’ve called it a cheap shot, but it was all she had, and the rules of a death-match would forever differ from those of a duel. The trick threw off Nume’s balance in the midst of her dead run, and she went hurtling forward, her hair a red-gold splay in the growing daylight.
And then, Lorin charged onto the scene like Sifani’s own personal hellion to finish the job. Rather, there was not actually any charging involved, but she saw his immovable stance, feet apart and fists clenched, as he transposed a strategic section of the already-crumbling garden wall into dust. As it dissolved, the stones it once helped to support trembled fitfully before cascading in a low rumble onto Nume’s prone body.
Sifani’s stomach jumped sickeningly. Could it be that, just like that, they had killed her?
She heard footsteps and the air next to her changed as Lorin slipped in beside her. “You’re injured,” he growled, looking her up and down bleakly.
Sifani hardly heard. “We should bring down the rest of the wall…”
“You think a wall is going to stop her?”
Her eyes shifted to him. “Says the man who brought it down in the first place.”
A sound like the purr of a thunderhead rose up near them. They turned toward the pile of rocks, and saw it shifting.
“As long as she’s in the epheria, we can’t hurt her using that kind of tactic. You’re going to have to transpose her, like you did with the creatures.” Lorin spoke matter-of-factly – they might’ve been discussing the situation over tea. “You have to do it now, Sifani, while she’s incapable of counterattack.”
Sifani stared at him in disbelief and horror. All of sudden, she felt utterly paralyzed. “I- I don’t think I can…”
Even as she spoke, a few of the rocks burst spectacularly into flowers of dust, and a woman pushed her head out and tossed her hair angrily, screaming, “You’ll pay in spades for that!” A few seconds later, the tree that Nume had transposed a part of earlier burst into furious, nearly white-hot flame.
“Too late,” Lorin muttered. Both Sifani and Lorin took steps back, their muscles tensed for quick flight as the entire trunk flashed almost instantaneously to ash. “She’s not at all one for theatrics,” he added wryly.
The pair bolted in opposite directions again as Nume stood among the rubble and lifted her arms, hefting an apple-sized stone above her head. Morbid and inexplicable curiosity overtook Sifani as she ran, and she peered over her shoulder to see what her mother was about. The woman hurled the stone, and her eyes followed it halfway through its flight before she transposed it…in mid-air. The simple rock became a flaming projectile that resembled a piece out of the ramparts of hell, and it was on a straight path towards Sifani.
All this happened in less than a breath. Sifani had just enough time to dodge slightly to the left, and even then she detected the sudden smell of burning – the rock had passed close enough to her to singe her clothes. Horror at Nume’s level of transposing power momentarily fuddled Sifani’s thoughts, and she glanced distractedly down at her sleeve to assess the damage from the burning rock.
That opening was all her mother needed. When Sifani looked back up from her sleeve, she was careening straight into a swift-moving Nume’s outstretched arms.
Her mother had circled around to intercept her. They crashed into one another and out of the epheria into the mortal world for a second time.
Sifani knew her friends would still be waiting vigilantly, but she wished she could’ve given them warning all the same. The world crashed back into full color as she and her mother tumbled to the ground, grappling wildly.
Sifani heard Lorin’s voice bellowing into the chaos moments later. “Remember our instructions! Namiss! Remember our instructions!”
Though Nume could not have been surprised about the presence of the band, being suddenly surrounded gave her a moment’s pause. In that space, Sifani was able to twist her body around and deliver a sound blow into Nume’s side, making the woman double over. Sifani wriggled out from underneath her, and staggered backward onto her feet. As she did, a bright sliver of silver whooshed past her forearm and into Nume’s leg.
Namiss, sure-shooting once again. They needed to stretch out the battle in the real world as long as possible before they could destroy Nume for good, and Sifani had explicitly ordered the band not to make a killing blow until she or Lorin gave the word. Sifani’s feeling of relief at seeing Namiss was at odds with the disquieting sight of blood streaming from her mother’s wounded body.
Nume’s eyes rose to discern her attacker.
In all her life, Sifani had never seen such distilled hatred in a person’s expression. It seemed to ooze from Nume’s hazel eyes that had gone dispassionately and dangerously flat. The other members of the band were closing in for support – the muscles stood taut in Jatan’s arms as held his bow drawn, and Ileniel and Antian still bore their swords with competence if not exactly confidence – but all the same, Sifani suddenly felt profound fear for Namiss.
She was about to cry out to her friend, when Nume propped herself up on one hand, the other one clutching her leg. In the time it would’ve taken for her to verbally command the earth itself, Nume turned the ground to water directly underneath Namiss’ left foot.
The girl was holding a knife aloft in her left hand, its twin already buried in its target. She had been preparing to throw it, but her sudden loss of footing caught her completely off-guard. As Namiss slipped downward with a stifled cry, Nume seemed to mock Lorin and Sifani with the preciseness she used to copy the trick Lorin implemented earlier to bring the stone wall down.
The stones that crumbled away left the heavy skeleton of the wall teetering, then toppling, onto Namiss’ elfin frame. Anger and dismay tore from the throats all around Sifani. She, on the other hand, could only stare, silent and aghast, at the wall, and then at Nume.
“In spades,” her mother said. “And he’s next.”
And though all hands surely itched to send their weapons toward Nume at that moment, there was the barest hesitation – the band didn’t yet have Sifani’s sanction to kill. While their obedience stayed them, Nume formed one of those strange folds in the air and dragged herself through it, wearing a gloating smile.
Jatan’s arrow whizzed through the suddenly empty space. He swore for the first time Sifani had ever heard.
All of them turned on their heels and rushed to where the stones had buried Namiss. Lorin dropped to his knees first and began hauling rocks off of her, one by one.
“Careful!” Ileniel warned shrilly as he approached Lorin from behind. “Shift one of those the wrong way, and you might make things worse than they already are!”
“You think I don’t know that?” Lorin’s voice was pitched almost to a shout. His arms, stained with his own blood, corded with muscle as he lifted one rock at a time in strong yet gentle hands. “Each of these is heavier than a moneylender’s purse,” he snarled to himself. Then louder – “Do you know where Nume went to, Sifani?”
When Lorin glanced up at her, his eyes were troubled and tender. Sifani still felt as if her mind and body were moving slowly, her senses mired in disbelief and fear for Namiss. And he’s next, Nume had said.
Looking back at Lorin, she realized what she must do.
“Sifani?” Lorin repeated. “Where did Nume go?”
“She went into flux.” Sifani put one hand on Lorin’s shoulder, suddenly calm.
“In flux…then, we can’t reach her there.”
“No.” She paused. “You’re not powerful enough.”
Lorin stood and ran a hand over his dirty face. He wandered to an in-tact section of wall and leaned his head against it for a moment. Then, he drove his fist into the hard stone and roared out a primal cry.
Sifani grimaced. She amended her statement quietly. “I said, you’re not powerful enough.”
Bloody fist still pressed against the wall, Lorin half-turned to look at her. Understanding flickered to life in his eyes. “No.”
Sifani was already walking away.
“No!” Lorin repeated, and stormed over to her, grabbing her fervently by the upper arm and turning her about to face him. “You can’t follow your mother into there! You said entering flux means you have to manipulate your own pieces.”
He was close enough that his breath pressed hot against Sifani’s face. The smell of his fresh sweat fell thick upon her nostrils, and beneath it lurked vibrant scent of wood and water that was all him. She breathed him in, stepped closer. And then jabbed her finger hard into his breastbone.
“So, you do listen to me sometimes, Lorin a-tayn Kavath. But if you had payed attention to all of what I had said, you would know that you and I will never be safe from Nume as long as she lives.”
“Sifani, you sounded unsure that you could even achieve flux!”
“Then trying it could kill you!”
“Yes, it could.”
Lorin’s heart beat forcefully against her hand, and Sifani pulled it away from his chest. Lorin’s mouth worked soundlessly, stymied as to what he could say – which was, of course, nothing. Of a sudden, he grabbed both her shoulders, and a look of uncertainty briefly touched his eyes. “I will not let you.”
Sifani tried to snake one of her arms out of his hand, but though his grip was not painful, it held like a vice. Her brows climbed in incredulity and outrage. She lashed out with her right hand, intending to cuff him on the side of the head like she might an unruly child. His left wrist moved like a shadow, though, soundly blocking her. More quickly this time, Sifani struck out with her left hand, only to meet the solid obstruction of Lorin’s right. Yelling in frustration, she leaned hard into her motion and swiped both of his arms outward and away. When her hands came back down, her and Lorin’s bodies were practically pressed up against each other.
Lorin stared into her face, then, and slipped one arm up her back and the other around her waist. And with a passion found only in a woman full of anger that has nowhere else to go, Sifani grabbed Lorin’s head in both her hands, pulled his lips to her own, and kissed him.
It didn’t take long for him to return the fierceness of her kiss, and as it turned out, he had more than enough to spare.
Their mouths parted slowly, reluctantly, stealing a few last touches before they stood apart, the summer-sweet taste of Lorin’s mouth still warm on Sifani’s lips.
Sifani gently disentangled her fingers from Lorin’s dark curls. Somehow their silkiness made the growing distance between their bodies profoundly more bitter.
Her lungs pressed out a quick sigh. “Why didn’t you tell me all that before, you big lummox?”
Instead of returning a wisecrack, Lorin abruptly, almost awkwardly, encompassed Sifani in a hug. As he held her, his shoulders heaved a few times, almost like he were laughing, but Sifani heard no laughter.
He brought his arms away from her slowly as if he were releasing a bird, his eyes blank. He said nothing. Sifani took two steps back, not turning.
Then, because she couldn’t decide whether or not to say “goodbye,” she canvassed.
Tampering with her own being was not something she had ever even thought about before she had spoken with Nume in her circle of fire. It had been completely unthinkable, like cutting off her own finger just to see how it felt. So when Sifani slipped into the daydream-like state of mind that led her to the epheria, the act of focusing on her own pieces proved slow and nauseating.
The first moment Sifani became aware of her pieces, a jolt of panic coursed through her. Her focus fled immediately, and she sucked in air between her teeth. Her heart fluttered madly in her chest like a moth caught in a hand.
Sifani took a few steadying breaths before trying again, this time knowing what to expect. She would be doused by the sudden sense of being insubstantial, the feeling of hovering just outside of herself – outside of, even, her own conscious mind. It was a quivering certainty that there was little holding her together or making her real.
She plunged herself into that strange place with resolve, and held there only for a few long moments, knowing there was nothing for her but to go deeper.
Sifani honed her focus further on the trembling pieces of her being, her sense of them intensifying. If transition from simply standing in the epheria to focusing on her own pieces was the difference between knowing a cup existed and seeing it with her eyes, transitioning from the first level of focus to the second was the difference between imagining what the cup might feel like if she touched it, and actually touching it. Sifani was touching the pieces of herself, able to sense their movement and their potential, their placement and their function. She was both the drops of paint and the artist using them.
The familiar image of paint drops somehow set Sifani’s distant mind at ease. It helped her at least begin the process of manipulating herself – slowly, at first, but with rapidly increasing intensity and dexterity. Her presiding consciousness – the part of her that knew to focus deeper and not let go – became the paintbrush, and it took Sifani’s pieces, pushed them gently apart until they were suited to re-creation, and fashioned a new picture that bore faint resemblance to the old yet was something new entirely.
Sifani’s normal vision returned in a jarring rush. The memory of the paintbrush and colors dissipated from her memory. She found herself looking around at the space before her – a pristine white hallway that stretched on indefinitely, made of some strange, smooth material. No, Sifani thought, she was not “looking around,” exactly – she didn’t have eyes, or a body at that. But somehow she was perfectly aware of everything around her.
Her vision moved away from the floor of the hallway to its walls. They were not walls in any real sense, but Sifani could think of no other name to put to the sheets of spiderweb-thin glass that stretched from the floor to infinity on either side.
What was behind that glass was more spectacular. There were two worlds there, as one might see them from afar, as from the top of a tall hill. In one world, the band stood in the abandoned garden where Sifani had been standing only minutes ago. Namiss’ body lay unburied on the ground. Lorin held her in his arms. Through a pang of pain and regret, Sifani turned toward the other window-wall. Behind that one, a glowing blue color flowed across everything in the same familiar garden. She was looking into the epheria.
It could be a trap, she told herself…but no. Nume moved easily between worlds when she was in flux, even though it seemed she couldn’t stay in one for an indefinite amount of time. It appeared, then, that Sifani had achieved her goal – she truly was in her mother’s realm, and hopefully retained the same powers as the woman. Hopefully. She scoffed. There was so much she didn’t know. Lorin had been right to fear for her.
Even knowing she had no feet to walk, Sifani decided to try to move forward.
Sifani willed herself forward. With the vague sensation of flight, she…blew…to where she wanted to go, as swiftly as the motion of wind. Her mind sharpened with surprise, but before she could consider what had just happened her thoughts were grabbed away by something infinitely more pressing. Sifani felt her mother’s presence nearby, sharp as the scent of decay on the wind and clear as a black blot of ink on white parchment.
The presence was so tangible that Sifani located it without thought. She let the wind of her will sweep her rapidly in that direction – whatever direction meant in such a place – and quickly found herself in a circular chamber with the same white floor and glass walls as the never ending hallway that cut through the center of it. Nume stood in the center as well, enrobed in the same gauzy dress she had worn in the real world, her half-turned, regal face impassive except for a subtle tightness that bespoke shock at seeing her daughter again.
Why can I see her body? Sifani wondered, though another part of her pushed the thought away irritably. It was hardly the time to contemplate such things, and this was clearly not a place of matter, but of the mind. The things that were possible in flux, with the building blocks of different beings floating around freely, seemed limited only to the consciousnesses of those who had brought themselves here in the first place.
Standing before her mother, feeling the full weight of desperation that had driven her here after her, Sifani thought she should say something. She wanted to at least try to reason with this woman who had both abandoned and tried to kill her. She considered the cold hazel stones set beneath Nume’s dark brows, and language failed. There was no compassion there. She knew no amount of words would move her mother’s heart.
Sifani struck out at the same time Nume did.
Sifani struck out with the sensation of motion, but upon making contact with Nume, all illusion of physicality shattered, and she viewed the full scope of what it meant to be in flux. Its vastness was terrifying. Sifani was pure potential, a host of ideas waiting to take form. There was no way she could know how to do battle in this state.
Nume, on the other hand, took to the new form with horrifying familiarity. At first, Sifani didn’t even realize that she was under attack – not only that, she was losing rapidly. It wasn’t until she tried to push against the consciousness that was Nume that she realized part of her was blocked off, or missing, like a limb hanging useless.
Sifani panicked. She pushed again, frantically, and felt the growing impotence of her every movement. Black fear stole over her – Nume was using parts of herself to render parts of Sifani useless. A powerful distraction, and a further opportunity for Nume to prove how much more skill she held here than her daughter.
Sifani yanked herself back from where she had been pushing at Nume’s consciousness. She tried to clear her mind – tried to get used to the free-floating feeling of going without a body – and discern where her mother was blocking her. It took a few tries, but finally, she felt collected enough to quickly but carefully test each part of her many and scattered pieces for her mother’s influence.
Sifani found one place where Nume blocked her, and with a surge of bestial fury, shoved the unseen obstruction aside. Sifani exulted – the obstruction moved! – and had she a mouth she would’ve crowed with victory. If she could find the other areas where she was blocked in time, she might be able to meet her mother head on. As it was, she was beginning to feel the full force of Nume’s frontal attack, and it was rapidly growing unbearable.
Even as Sifani considered it, the frontal attack…doubled. No, tripled. It…Sifani couldn’t concentrate for the pressure that built up on her. What was Nume doing?
She formed a series of half-thoughts and half-motions, which were quickly swallowed up by an irresistible force pressing in all around her. Next to this, the parts of her that were blocked were a pittance. Sifani summarily ignored them. Her consciousness aflame with her power and the strain of the fight, she honed all her efforts on keeping herself from being sucked into the void Nume had created.
An idea struck her – if she stopped “touching” Nume, she might be able to regain her sense of “sight,” and maybe even get a hint as to how Nume was manipulating her being. Perhaps it was the sheer abruptness of the idea that made it possible, but Sifani acted on the impulse without waiting another moment. Sufficiently jarred, Nume let go her hold.
In a flash, Sifani was staggering backward in her body that was not a body, with her mother still looming before her in the white circular room. Except this time, Nume seemed larger, more imposing. When Sifani moved, she again felt that targeted emptiness that told her pieces of her had been ripped away, but it was exponentially greater than before.
The truth became clear of a sudden. Nume was not only taking Sifani’s pieces – her very life force – she was assimilating them into her own being. She was using her own daughter to bolster her life, her power.
So that was how one Deity killed another.
The realization twisted agonizingly through Sifani’s consciousness. In the flashes within her concentration, Sifani saw bodies filling in the spaces around where she and her mother fought. There were people of varying heights and colors, in clothing from muted homespun to elaborate, tasseled robes of emerald and violet. They stood like boundary stones with grave expressions, unflappable and still before the chaos of a mother and daughter’s wrath.
The crowd faded from Sifani’s awareness as Nume’s visible form again lunged for her, and her mind exploded back into the nothing-world once more.
Desperately, Sifani struggled against the wild, pulling force that was her mother using her as building blocks. Even without a body, it was painful, and if a kind of mental pain could be said to be worse than physical pain, this certainly was. It was the ripping and tearing of her very self, and Nume did it with alacrity. Sifani’s attempts at resistance were weak, and slowed her mother at best.
Simply because she didn’t know what else to do, Sifani attempted to pull one of Nume’s pieces into her being. She didn’t have the luxury of hesitation, and poured every bit of strength she possessed into it, though it scared her to her core to do so. Briefly, an image of the cancerous growth on Nume’s dog-creature assailed her mind. However, even with the ferocity of her effort, Nume hardly budged.
Heavily, the realization settled: there was no way that Sifani could win.
Her training in combat kept her going. Her consciousness continued to push back, to lash out, working as her muscles would work to swing a sword or throw a knife even when the battle was lost and death was inevitable. Her consciousness worked tirelessly, desperately, despite – perhaps because of – the grim thoughts floating by. She has stolen my life and my past from me. She will go after Lorin. And Namiss! Gods, I still don’t know if she is –
That was it. Namiss.
She could not summon the strength to destroy her mother’s being apart for her own sake, but for Namiss’…
Just as it had when Sifani formed the wooden birds to summon her mother, emotion fueled Sifani’s power to a furious level. Understanding brushed the back of her mind as she yanked on the first of Nume’s pieces and felt it give: the emotion could not be wild and chaotic, like anger, but something solid. Though she didn’t know how to show it most of the time, her affection for Namiss was solid if nothing else.
As before, Nume’s surprise at the counterattack was registered in the sudden withdrawal of her own attack. Perhaps her mother had not thought it possible that her half-breed daughter had a whisper of a chance against her in flux. Sifani would show her just how much strength there was in her father’s half of her bloodline, though. Daughter took advantage of mother’s pause, and tugged a larger swath of Nume’s being to herself. Even as she did, she reached out to a barrier that she could not, at the moment, see, but knew was there.
Sifani reached through the wall of glass into the real world, right into Namiss’ body.
At that moment, Sifani felt like a goddess. Her awareness burned with a bright white fire, making every second slow, every action exaggeratedly deliberate, and every subconscious supposition or piece of knowledge seem well-known and well-used. In one “glance” through Namiss’ limp body, she saw the damaged pieces in stark relief with those that were whole.
She began to place the pieces she had taken from Nume into Namiss. The process might have taken a few seconds’ time in reality, but Sifani did not feel rushed, only capable, and determined. The pleasure of seeing Namiss’ form rebuilt – the walls of her skin and the muscle and bone inside coming back into place – was visceral. As a Reehler, Sifani had always felt abnormally powerful, but to see that power save…now that was something.
I wish I could see Lorin’s face now, she mused, as she pulled all of herself back into flux to contend with Nume. The image of him holding Namiss’ body, shoulders hunched in grief, seared her. The thought was quickly lost as Nume pulled on her again, however, dragging another swath of the pieces of her form into oblivion. Sifani knew she would still lose if she didn’t finish this fast.
Desperately, she reached out into her mother’s form to grab away her pieces again, but now that Nume knew what to expect, the effort felt worse than futile. Sifani could almost taste the contempt with which her mother flicked away the attack, responding with a counter-pull on Sifani that hurt twice as much as the last one had. The very fibers of her self were quivering, burning to dust in intermittent flashes. Sifani tried to resist, to push her mother away, but she hurt so bad she could hardly think.
Another great pull, and Sifani felt that she had been folded backward and in half and set on fire with torches from the depths of hell. She screamed with an invisible mouth, screamed murder and dismay and refusal from the center of her mind.
This is the end, then, Mother…
And then, like a note of music sounded in the midst of the clamor of demons, Sifani felt something new.
Her mind burst with something like the ghost of a scream – a rumble of denial and frustration that bored into her like a thick and dirty nail into a plank. And though she shuddered beneath it, she knew it as the sound of rescue.
It was not the kind of rescue she had expected. There was no gentle extraction, no arms bearing her away from the battle while allies vanquished the woman who had so assiduously been trying to kill her. It was jerky, as if a person – or group…the figures in the robes and clothes of all colors burst for a moment into her mind – had startled, and seen that perhaps he had been making a decision he needed to amend.
Sifani sensed herself being forcibly heaved out of flux and through the glass wall into the mortal world.
She fell to the ground, skidding backwards several paces away from where the band had gathered. As she pushed herself to her knees, she was almost surprised to look down and see her hands in front of her. She flexed her fingers tentatively, wondered whether she had died among the Deities.
A susurrus of disbelief broke the smooth, hard silence. Footsteps hurried to where Sifani knelt. She did not look up.
“You’re back, Sifani,” Lorin’s voice washed over her, a warm wave. His shadow fell onto her as he knelt, his knees pressed to hers. Only when he put his rough hand on her face did her eyes rise to stare back into his.
“Was it you?” The music of Namiss’ voice, weak but unmistakable, made Sifani tremble with unshed tears. “Whatever you did, Sifani, you brought me back. They told me I was as good as dead, and then you went after Nume…”
“What happened?” The gentle caress of Jatan’s voice. She felt the air stir as he knelt beside her in turn. “Child, how did you…did you…?”
“The other Deities let me live.” Sifani shook her head, the blonde strands of hair she had gotten from her mother brushing back and forth against her cheeks as she did. “They threw me back here, into the real world. My mother was about to kill me, but they interfered.”
The air was still – perhaps all breaths were held. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” Sifani let her forehead drop tiredly against the warm, hard surface of Lorin’s chest. Next to his heart, she couldn’t bring herself to care. “I don’t know.”
To be continued in the second book of the “Bloodlines” Trilogy.
Chris has already done a read-through of this installment for me. His comment was that Sifani knows too much from her one conversation with Nume, and needs to figure it out another way. I’ll probably change this in the second draft. Read on and see what you think.
If you need a refresher (since it’s been awhile since the last post), glance over part 15 again.
Not long afterward, Sifani was clean and her wounds dressed. She desperately wanted to stretch, longing to rid herself of that tightly-pulled feeling the stitches gave her. It made her feel all too restricted, like she might not be able to act quickly enough if someone or something decided to attack.
Fortunately, there were no enemies present now. Only the naked truth, which felt more threatening in some ways. She sat at the long table, next to the spot where she had ripped a chunk of the wood away for reconstitution. Though that kept her in the present, there was a small comfort in the fact that, as in the past, all the chairs at the table were filled.
She drummed her fingers on the table a few times, thinking of what to tell her friends first. Her eyes flicked up to Lorin. If he was feeling anything, he just managed to conceal it. Maybe if she addressed the issue concerning him, first, no one would question her about it further.
She cleared her throat. “Lorin, Nume knows that you are a weakness to me.”
Strands of Nume’s gold hair fell around her cheeks as she stood over Sifani, her lips appearing barely to move.“If you are to join us, you must not make the same mistake as I did. You must not allow even the smallest part of you to be tied down by the love of a mortal.” Those eyes seemed to search the depths of her.“So, Sifani? Do you love him, that boy who has twice thrown himself into the path of my creatures on your behalf?” She turned on her heel, stalking away. “I won’t have it! I won’t allow this folly again.”
“…You are a weakness to me,” Sifani continued, “and Deities cannot have weaknesses, especially not for mortals. Nume wants me to join her, to become a Deity. That is the only way she will let me live – I must become her ally to increase her power, and you must die.”
Lorin’s eyebrows climbed, and his lips parted in the beginning of speech. A horrified murmur washed over the crowd at the table. Sifani was about to continue, but Lorin chose that moment to flippantly interject, “By Donis, I know we have our differences, but I didn’t know you disliked me enough to lead me to the headsman’s block!”
“I’m not going to turn you over, you big lummox,” Sifani answered testily, rolling her eyes at him. “Obviously, I’m not going to join the Deities, either. We can go along with Nume’s plan until she lets her guard down – and the moment she does, we’ll strike, and end this for good.”
At that, hell broke loose. Everyone began speaking at once. The loudest demand was for Sifani to explain how – how – was it possible for her to join the Deities? And just how did she expect to defeat Nume with only herself and Lorin? There were a few cries of protest to her fighting at all, what with the beating she had just taken, and only one voice – Sifani never identified who it belonged to – wondering aloud why Lorin, not Namiss or Jatan, had been pegged as Sifani’s primary “weakness.”
Finally, Jatan held up his hand, and in a few long moments, they all fell respectfully – though perhaps grudgingly – silent. “Becoming a Deity. Explain.”
Sifani nodded, detecting severity in Jatan’s tone. “It’s difficult to explain to someone who isn’t a Reehler, but I’ll try. As I’ve explained in detail to Antian,” she gestured to the tawny-headed man, “entering into the epheria, canvassing, is like shifting your mind from focused thought into a daydream state. In the daydream state of mind, a Reehler can see things in terms of their pieces. The harder a Reehler focuses in the epheria, the deeper she settles into the epheria, and the deeper she can see into different objects.”
“You know how I’ve told you that objects in the epheria burn with a kind of white light, and people are the brightest? It has to do with the amount of life, and the complexity of life, in them. That’s why a stone is dull, a tree is brighter, and an animal or person, brightest.” Sifani took a deep breath. “Well, the less bright something is, the easier it is to break down. Of course, that makes the same true for the ease of creation. It was definitely easier for me to create dust and rain than it was to make the birds I used to summon Nume.”
Sifani glanced down unconsciously at the ripped spot on the table. “Well, the point of saying any of that is that a Reehler who is strong enough can manipulate her own pieces. The process requires a simultaenous breaking down and building of matter. It’s…” How much should she reveal of her own unsurity, Sifani wondered? “It’s hazardously abstract at best. It will put me in a state of flux that allows me to interact with the epheria at a level of complexity none of us could’ve imagined. Creation on a whim, and destruction just the same.” Sifani let that hang, to make sure they all understood. “And that, just that, is what it takes to be a ‘Deity’: a Reehler bloodline strong enough to remake yourself.” The weight of the admission prompted her to follow that, in a quiet voice, with, “I’m sorry.”
There was a long silence, and then Jatan stood up, avoiding all eye contact. “Just like that, the religion of the Deities dies. And shall it be born again?” he asked, quietly.
Lorin shoved a dark curl from his forehead irritably. “We can ask the philosophical questions later. I think the more pressing matter is, if I may opine,” he gestured with exaggerated civility, “how we are planning to defeat one of the most powerful Reehlers who’s ever lived who also happens to be in an ambiguous state of existence, as well as haul my rump out of the cookfire?”
The tension that had clearly been building in Namiss – who sat hunched over the table opposite Sifani – snapped, along with her patience. “Oh, Lorin, for the gods-cursed love of—!”
“No, he’s right,” Sifani interejected swiftly. Whatever the next few days brought, she wasn’t going to spend them with Namiss and Lorin at each others’ throats. “We need to focus on what we can change now. Don’t worry – this time, I have a plan.”
Sifani didn’t favor him with a reaction. “Nume has had the advantage thus far – she’s always picked the battleground. But if we can force her off of whatever territory she chooses, we can throw her off – gauge her weakenesses.”
“What exactly do you mean?” Lorin asked. He narrowed his eyes at her suspiciously.
Jatan put his fingers under his chin, scratching it thoughtfully. “I think I may know where you’re going with this, Sifani. Can a Deity transition out her state of flux?”
Sifani pictured Nume appearing to her father for the first time, fully human, at least, as far as he could tell. She saw her mother standing before her only a little while earlier, a beautiful form invisible to those in the real world; therefore, Sifani guessed, a woman fully in the epheria.
“She can. Only for a little while, though,” Sifani answered. “That’s the price a Deity has to pay. Once you join their ranks, you must stay a Deity until the end – a sort of un-being, unable to be anything for true. I think that if Nume stays in a definite state for too long, she’ll collapse. ”
Lorin’s smile was tight and mirthless. “You think .” He wagged his head. “Conjecture is not good enough to win this, Sifani.”
“As if I don’t know that!” It came out wildly, desperately. Her hair swung as she looked at him squarely. “Lest you believe it’s my life I care most about preserving, here—“ The words died on her lips. The flash of emotion died as well, leaving her shoulders slumped over wearily.
“Though I’m not entirely sure of any of this, you have to admit that my guess is better than any of yours. I know the epheria most intimately. Our best chance is to keep Nume in a non-Deity state as long as possible. Long enough, and she will likely die.”
Jatan replied gravely, “Then it’s my turn to tell you I’m sorry.”
Sifani tossed her head. “Tell me your sorry after Nume’s been defeated.” Looking away, she ran her hand over her face tiredly. “That alone is more than enough worry for all of us, now.”