Far Off Unhappy Things
Chapter 11: Narcissus
By Renko Doremi Rodenburg
The river Lus sparkled, even under the dimmed light of the Lands Lost. Allegedly, its riverbed was strewn with gemstones, but Kayleigh was not certain if that was a metaphor or reality. It was rather hard to check, since nymphs and mermaids really did not take kindly to people swimming in their river.
In front of her, the rolling hills where the riverlands became more land and less river. Besides her, Irene. The young girl could barely keep up, despite giving it her all. She would give her pointers on proper Seven League Striding form later.
“We’re not gonna find any this far out,” Irene managed to say in between gasping for breath.
Kayleigh stopped, and pointed northwest. On the riverbanks sat a lone nymph.
“Oh,” Irene said, excited. “That’s far out for a nymph.”
“Yeah, they’re moving away from the river delta more and more. Annoying for us, but good for people who dislike having their children drowned or eaten, I’d reckon. Do you wanna do her?”
“Hmhm, no,” Irene said while shaking her head. “She’s too far away. I’ll miss and we’ll have to go home empty-handed.”
“You have to get more confident, or you’ll never improve. Wait, give me a second.” Kayleigh put her bow down as she said it, and loosened a piece of cloth she had been wearing around her arm. She put it over her head like a blindfold, before asking Irene to hand her her bow and a single arrow.
“With your blindfold on?” Irene asked. “It’s the only nymph we’ve seen in hours, what if-”
“I’m self confident,” Kayleigh replied.
It was true, but not the truth. She could see very well with her blindfold on. Not light, but different things. Flows of energy. The faintest of sensations, normally drowned out by the sensory stimulus of seeing.
Irene handed her the bow and an arrow. Steadying her breathing she knocked the arrow.
Her bow made a satisfying whipping noise as she let go, and a second after her arrow rammed into the nymph’s neck with an equally satisfying thud. The woman fell on her back and struggled around, weakly clawing at the arrow sticking upright out of her throat.
“Yes,” Irene yelled. “You got her.”
“Good thing she didn’t fall over face-first and into the water,” Kayleigh said as she took off her blindfold. “It’s always such a hassle to get them out.”
The two went downhill, where their prey still weakly clawed at the earth around her. Irene ran ahead and kneeled next to the nymph- a pale, blue one with long platinum hair.
“She’s still alive,” she said as Kayleigh caught up to her.
“Yeah,” Kayleigh said. “Dying is a slow process. See if she has anything on her.”
The nymph suddenly moved more vigorously, and tried to grab the arrow sticking out of her throat with one arm while grasping for Kayleigh with the other. A soft gurgling noise came from her chest along with weak coughs that dripped pale blood from her mouth. Her lungs were probably flooded with blood with the arrow going straight through her trachea, the dying nymph too weak to cough it all up.
“Poor girl,” Kayleigh said as she drew a skinning knife. She grabbed the nymph by her hair and as she attempted to struggle, pulled her around roughly to get her to quiet down. The skinning knife was a leafblade, a gift from her patron goddess, Narcissus. It slid easily under the skin of the nymph who- still not dead- yelped in pain. Pale blood started to drip from the cut. Carefully, Kayleigh cut around the nymph’s ears, an unsteady hand could cause the structure of the ear to come apart.
“Look,” Irene said while Kayleigh worked. She’d found a little net with small rocks tied to the nymph’s waist.
“Hmhm,” Kayleigh replied as she deftly removed the nymph’s ears and folded them in leather before putting them in one of the pouches on her body. “Help me undress her, I wanna see if we can cut her up for meat.”
Irene took out her own dagger and started cutting through the tight-fitting clothes designed for underwater use the nymph was wearing.
“Hm,” Kayleigh grunted when they managed to get everything off her. The girl was scrawny, and her almost translucent, blue skin was white and blighted around her sides. Spots of blight had started to appear on her stomach and breasts as well. “Nevermind, this one’s no good for eating. Let’s leave her.”
“Okay,” Irene said as she sheeted her knife and packed up the little net of rocks.
“What’s those rocks you found?” Kayleigh asked her.
“They don’t look like gemstones to me.”
“You’re used to cut and polished stones. These are rough. They’ll need a jewelsmith to free their inner beauty,” Irene explained.
“Are they still worth something?” Kayleigh asked.
“Yeah, probably not as much as her ears but it’s still a nice bonus,” Irene said, smiling.
“Well, we’re done for today then,” Kayleigh said. “Let’s head back.”
“Hmhm,” Irene said.
Together they headed back west. Irene had trouble following, so they had to pause a few times. She was getting better every day though, and soon she’d be skilled enough to pass for huntress proper.
The sun was setting as they reached the edge of the riverlands proper, the endless sprawling not-quite town built across the entirety of the river delta. It was sparse enough it wasn’t entirely clear what part of it was village and what part wasn’t, but it was also too interconnected to really be able to tell different villages apart. Despite calling it a village, it was at least in square feet covered, three times the size of Luson and Lusan combined.
Kayleigh and Irene stopped at a trading outpost with mercenary connections to Luson.
“Ah, huntress,” a soldier staffing the front said. “How’d the hunt go?”
“Well,” Kayleigh said, slamming the two slender, pointed ears of the Nymph on the table. They had drained of all colour, and had started to curl a little. To wilt. Like a plant, she thought.
“Lovely,” the man manning the outpost said with a smile. “Here,” he said as he put thirty florins on the table.
“Thank you, that’s more than last time,” she said.
“Oh, those assholes are getting rare, so the Prince upped the bounty to motivate people a little more. But these lands are running out of nymphs, and soon you’re going to have to go to the dark forests to hunt for full-blood vampires, or all the way north to go after angels. So enjoy it while it lasts.”
“We’re really not in it for the money,” Irene chirped.
“I’m not,” Kayleigh corrected her. “She is, though,” she said as she handed twenty of the florins to Irene.
“Yay,” the girl said, stuffing the coins into a pouch on her belt.
As they left, the mercenary cheered them on with a ‘Happy hunting!’
“Hey,” Irene said outside. “Kayleigh?”
She already knew what was coming, but still pretended to be confused. “What is it, Irene?”
“Can you give me a hug and tell me you still love me?” Irene asked.
She laughed and pulled the girl close to her chest. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I still love you.”
The girl had an atrociously low self-esteem and seemed perpetually scared others would leave her. It was why she had to look after her, of course. They’d agreed on a system of little affirmations to keep the dark thoughts and abandonment issues at bay. So far it worked, and Kayleigh had made it her mission to get the girl more self-esteem, more confidence.
“Let’s go get rooms somewhere and get a boat to the temple tomorrow. It’s that particular time again, so I’ll be required.”
“Alright,” Irene said.
Most of the stuff in the riverlands was in the hands of large merchanting companies from the twin cities, who guaranteed stable pricing and such services like the promise of not being killed and eaten in your sleep by your host, a luxury not everyone in the Lands Lost had. They both paid for a meal and a room, and sat down in a corner of the tavern. Food was good, as somehow the riverlands farms had acquired a whole slew of new crops the last few years. Tomatoes, a red fruit, and potatoes, some kind of nutritious tuber. She didn’t know where they were coming from, but reckoned the companies were importing seeds or saplings from other parts of the Lands Lost. In any case, they made the soups most taverns had perpetually boiling over a fire considerably more edible.
After they were done eating, Kayleigh told Irene to go to sleep already while she headed out again. She didn’t feel like resting yet, and wandering around the riverland towns was a good way to unwind.
It was around midnight that while she was wandering around, a sudden wind set up, something not just uncommon but impossible in these lands. The wind always came from the same direction, it was always just too cold to ever really be comfortable because it had been September for quite some time now and things didn’t really change anymore.
Still, a breeze was blowing. Not a real breeze, she realized. It was something her heightened senses were picking up, not the movements of air and wind but something more subtle. Following the disturbance, she was almost blown away when she found its source. A tall man- or was he? It was hard to tell- with long blonde, sparkling hair and an aura blazing like the sun. He was almost too bright to look at. The inner light radiating outwards from him crashed into a mortal woman walking after him, casting a long shadow behind her. She was almost invisible next to the man, vague, seemingly on the verge of being blown away in the tempest of energy. His ears were long and pointed, sharp as knives.
Although she didn’t know the exacts of who this was, she knew why the two were here. She took her bow, nocked an arrow and aimed for the center of the woman’s body mass. If she shot her right here and now, the other would have to find a new champion on rather short notice. Tragic.
She let loose, and with a satisfying sound the bowstring whipped the arrow in her direction.
The man grabbed it out of the air. It wasn’t a natural motion. It was too smooth, too fluid. It was the kind of movement a master dancer could only dream of. And it was fast, precise. Far beyond the abilities of humans. He faced her, and raised an eyebrow.
“Huh,” the woman said confused, not quite understanding what had happened. “What?”
“Rude!” the man yelled in a playful tone.
Of course. He had just demonstrated he didn’t need to take her seriously. She couldn’t scratch him.
“Do you want to explain why you did that?” He asked while turning to properly face her.
She was quiet.
“Then not. Please don’t do that again. She’s very dear to me.”
The woman smiled. She was barely dressed, and Kayleigh wondered if she wasn’t freezing to death. “Don’t worry,” she said. “They won’t hurt you. Starlight is goodness incarnate, they wouldn’t stab you in the back. You can leave.”
Tsk, Kayleigh thought. They. Starlight. Gross. The two turned around, and continued their path. Confused and defeated, Kayleigh headed to the tavern.
The next morning, while negotiating a price for her and Irene to be ferried further down the main branch of the Lus, to the Temple of the Eye, she got an unpleasant surprise.
“Would you look at that, it’s miss-would-be-assassin,” a high voice cackled. There was ozone in the air, and a soft crackle of power.
It was Starlight, or whatever their name was, and their human friend, who had a longspear strapped to her back today.
Irene, who hadn’t gone through any Temple training and thus presumably wasn’t bothered by the blazing inner power of the stranger, looked them in the eyes and asked “Assassin? Do you know my friend?”
“Oh, we’ve met once,” Starlight said. “But only casually. My name’s Aster. Aster Scarborough. Me and my apostle here are looking for a ship to the Temple of the Eye.”
“They’re here for the same reason we’re going to the Temple. It’s that particular time again,” Kayleigh explained.
“Oh!” Irene chirped. “You’re like Narcis. I should’ve known, really. By the ears. Oh, but that means-”
“Yeah,” Aster said, smiling.
“Yeah,” Kayleigh said, a grim tone in her voice. “That’s their champion. Tomorrow I’m going to kill that girl.”
The woman bowed. “If that is to be, then so be it. I’ve sworn to serve Starlight in life and death.”
Irene said nothing. The boatsman tapped Kayleigh on the shoulder and said “You’re going to have to look for another ferry, sorry.”
“That’s rude,” Aster said, then let a long silence fall.
“Hmhm,” Kayleigh grunted.
“What?” Aster asked.
“Can you leave so I can find a boat in peace?”
“Can’t we all go together?” Aster said, laughing. Kayleigh got the odd sensation that their voice was somehow closer to light or electricity than to sound. As if they were speaking in rays of- Ah. Starlight.
Her mind raced through possibilities. The goddess she served, Narcissus, had some kind of dominion over sight. It was logical that her siblings would also be gods. The previous one to come forth to challenge Narcissus had brought one of the living dead along as champion- that asshole hadn’t died until she had put six arrows through his head.
At least this one their companion looked a lot more fragile, despite her toned arms and legs.
“How do I know you aren’t going to drown me and my daughter halfway through the journey so that Narcis must- I mean so that Narcissus must find a new, probably inexperienced champion posthaste?”
Aster started laughing. Not the disdainful chuckles from earlier, but a hearty, deep laugh. “Autumn,” they swore. “That’s what you were doing yesterday then. Very clever. But, if you can take my word for it: I have no need to do such a thing, I trust in my dear apostle her prowess and I think such deceit or trickery beneath me.”
“So you want to travel together, despite believing your champion will kill me tomorrow.”
“It isn’t personal,” the woman with Aster said. “I fight these battles bearing no ill will.”
There were two possibilities, Kayleigh reasoned. Either Aster and their champion wanted time to observe her, get to know her- and thus didn’t actually believe their victory as certain as they were pretending to to- or were genuinely so detached and considered Kayleigh so far beneath themselves that they didn’t see her as a threat at all- and thus they would have glaring blind spots. In the first case, she could put in an effort to deceive them, and in the second she could learn much from observing them instead.
“Alright, let’s travel together then. My name is Kayleigh, and this is my daughter Irene,” Kayleigh said.
“I’m Fionna,” Aster’s champion said.
“Let’s go look for a ship willing to take us downstream, then,” Aster said.
Aster was strange. Kayleigh had to numb her refined, extrasensory perception to prevent being overwhelmed by the limitless energy crashing over her from them, but aside from that they seemed oddly normal. Narcissus was a goddess, so she was distant, cold and manipulative. She’d only seen a few of her siblings, but most of them had seemed very similar. Aster, on the other hand, kept pointing out things that interested them and cheerfully chatted with Fionna as if she were a good friend or lover while the group walked around the riverland settlements looking for a ship or raft.
“Did you know that the riverlands are the only place in all of the Lands Lost where ships are in widespread use?” Aster asked at some point.
“Yes,” Fionna replied.
“Wait, they don’t use boats elsewhere?” Irene asked, who had warmed up to the two in an uncharacteristic short amount of time.
“Upstream, the Lus is way too dangerous to sail on- because of rapids and waterfalls, but also because of the things living in the forest. The riverlands end up in the seas, which can’t be sailed because of the giant beasts living in them, and none of the other rivers are large enough to travel on with boats,” Aster explained.
“Giant beasts?” Irene asked, wide-eyed. “What are those?”
“Oh right,” Aster said. “Nevermind.”
“You have to tell me!” Irene demanded.
“There’s monsters living in the seas, giant, scary monsters. Snakes, which are very big and long monsters, and whales, which are very big and round monsters,” Aster said, while making exaggerated motions with their hands.
Irene took a deep breath, and stared off in the distance, no doubt attempting to form a picture of such beasts in her mind. Kayleigh decided she’d look around for a book with drawings of such monsters for her, sometime soon.
Fionna started laughing. “Autumn, you’re so good with kids,” she said.
“I’m not a kid,” Irene said. “I’ve killed a man.”
“Ah, Narcissus hasn’t become any less of a misandrist, I suppose?” Aster said, looking up at the sky.
It felt odd that anyone would talk about Narcis like that. Kayleigh was about to object and demand proper respect when she remembered that Aster, too, was most likely a god.
A while and several unsuccessful attempts at finding a ride later, they finally found someone who would take them far enough downstream. An older man with a large punt, who seemed accustomed to having odd company.
Kayleigh was about to pull out her pouch when Aster waved her to stop, and handed the man two silver coins that she didn’t recognize.
The man studied them for a while, before saying “Hmmmm,” then gesturing for the group to step onto his raft.
She took Irene all the way to the front of the punt, and sat down with her. Aster and Fionna sat down across from them, with the boatsman several rows of seats behind them.
“What did you pay him with?” Kayleigh asked.
“Spintria. That he accepted them also means he’s trustworthy, so we can discuss things without fear of them reaching far-off ears,” Aster said.
“I-” Kayleigh started, but stopped herself then said “Ah, very well,” instead.
The raft departed, the boatsman punting it forward using a large wooden beam. It wasn’t as fast as a sailing ship or a ship with rowing slaves, but it was far faster than walking still.
Kayleigh turned around from the others and took a while to look at the environment. Aster’s proximity blinding her third eye meant she had to use her real eyes for once, giving her a nostalgic but sad impression of the lands around her. Muted, like watching everything through a filter, from a distance. Or perhaps more like a painting- pretty, but only an approximation of the real thing.
“Have you been Narcissus her champion for long?” Fionna suddenly asked her.
“I have,” Kayleigh said, turning around to face the group. She had to suppress a chuckle when she realized Aster was hanging over the edge of the raft, playing with the water.
What an odd feeling that sight evoked.
“I see,” Fionna said. “Then you’ve killed many people.”
“I’ve killed many people regardless,” Kayleigh replied.
“You’re a huntress,” Fionna remarked.
“Do you worship Autumn?” Fionna asked.
“No,” Kayleigh answered. “None of the huntsmen and huntresses do. He leads and we follow, but we are not devotees or worshipers. Some of us even consider him our final enemy, the last prey.”
“I see,” Fionna said. “We are kindred spirits then.”
“You’re a huntress?” Kayleigh asked while looking at the girl’s unusual and rather skimpy outfit.
“No, but Starlight teaches the same.”
Aster bounced back up, apparently done with running their hand through the water while saying ‘splish splash’.
“You know what,” they said. “It’s inappropriate to just interrogate the poor girl like that. We should turn it into a game.”
“I’m sorry,” Fionna immediately said. There was a weight to her words, a deep reverence.
“A game?” Kayleigh asked. Something was starting to dawn on her, and Aster’s odd behavior started to make a lot more sense in this new context.
“Does anyone have dice on them?” Aster asked.
“Kayleigh?” Irene asked.
“No,” Kayleigh answered, shaking her head.
“Hmm,” Aster said.
“We could make it a trading game,” Fionna suggested.
“Oh, good idea, good idea,” Aster said. “We could invoke the rule of threes.”
“What is that?” Kayleigh asked.
“Ah,” Aster said. “You see, the number three holds much sway. Things invoked in threes have power.”
Kayleigh was quiet, waiting for them to continue.
“I suggest we each get three questions to ask, with the invocation that the answer to each person’s third question must be truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Even with her third eye closed, Kayleigh could feel the world subtly shift around Aster’s words. She was certain of it now- where Narcissus was a god of sight and enlightenment, Aster was a trickster deity. Suddenly, she felt much less secure in her previous assessments.
“I agree,” Fionna said, smiling at Aster.
“I know you do, it’s more important if these terms are alright for our traveling companions.” They tilted their head, waiting for an answer from Kayleigh.
“Kayleigh?” Irene asked, clearly excited by the prospect of this game.
“Alright,” Kayleigh said. “Who’ll start, and do Fionna’s earlier questions count to her limit?”
Aster smiled. “Hm. Do you think they should?”
“No,” Kayleigh said.
“Then I’ll start,” Aster said. “Remember, you don’t have to be truthful unless it’s someone’s final question.” They smirked as they said it, and Kayleigh already felt like she was being tricked into something. “Kayleigh, do you love Narcissus?”
“I-” she started. I don’t know, she wanted to answer. “No,” she said.
Aster laughed. “What a delightful habit. You have a tell, you know?”
“Yes,” Kayleigh said. “And that was your second question.”
A tremendous, roaring laughter erupted from Aster. Sparks of electricity started to crackle in the water as they did.
“You got me good, little human,” they said, a maniacal grin on their face. “Let’s pass the turn to the next person. Fionna, go ask someone a question.”
“Irene, are you part of Narcissus’ cult?”
“I am,” Irene said. “I joined shortly before I met Kayleigh.” She smiled. “Can I ask a question- no wait, I mean: I will ask a question now.” She giggled, clearly having fun with the game.
“Alright,” Fionna said.
“Are you a boy or a girl? Because I really cannot tell,” Irene asked while pointing at Aster.
A small smile formed on Aster’s face, as if having fun with an inside joke only known to them.
“I am more than one person,” Aster said. “So I’m a little bit of both.”
Yet more dots were starting to connect in Kayleigh’s head.
“Woah,” Irene said, seemingly impressed.
“Next up is Kayleigh, then,” Aster said.
She thought about her questions for a bit. This was a game- and there were both known and unknown stakes. Being allowed to lie on the first two questions was, at face value, a simple trick- someone clever could force you to answer a question that would reveal earlier lies at the third question. She wondered if that was all, or if there was a layer she wasn’t seeing. She could- or rather should- use this to acquire information for tomorrow’s duel. She assumed this was Aster and Fionna their goal as well, which meant this was a game with stakes of life and death.
“Fionna, how long have you been Aster’s champion?” She asked. The truth of the answer here was immaterial- but the answer would give away bits about her internal process.
“Almost a year now, this will be my fourth duel,” she answered.
“I see,” Kayleigh said.
“My turn again,” Aster said. “And thanks to clever Kayleigh here, I’m already down to my last question.”
“Hmhm,” Kayleigh said.
“Do you believe in life after death?” they asked, looking Kayleigh in the eyes.
The question took her by surprise. She had expected one relating to combat- and the goal of this question wasn’t immediately apparent. It might be to unnerve her, or perhaps to try and steer her thinking, manipulate her own questions by making it seem there were Capital Q Questions that Aster had Answers to.
She opened her mouth, intending to give a non-answer and suddenly felt as if she was grabbed by the throat.
“I don’t know,” she said, wincing and tears forming in her eyes. “And that terrifies me. I serve a goddess. But she doesn’t preach salvation. She doesn’t answer my questions, and I’ve buried more friends than I can bring myself to care to remember. This world is cruel, and if death is an eternal, everlasting nothingness all my suffering, all my losses and all my victories will all have been for naught. It keeps me up at night, and ironically drives me to try and throw my life away.”
By the time she was done, she was crying. She had misunderstood the game, gravely misunderstood it. The answer to a third question was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And the truth hurt.
“Kayleigh?” Irene asked, scared.
Kayleigh winced, but no-one seemed eager to yell ‘hah, that was a question!’
“I’m okay, don’t worry,” she said.
“My turn again,” Fionna said. “Kayleigh, do you think Narcissus loves you?”
She wanted to complain that she had already answered three questions, then realized that hypothetically, every question could be aimed at her under the rules of the games- and then she had to go through that thing several more times. She was out of her depth, she had been outplayed from the start.
“I know she does,” Kayleigh said. “I am her champion, and of her followers, I am with her more than any other.”
“I see,” Fionna said. “I’m glad. Irene, it’s your turn.”
“Hmmm,” the girl said, thinking for a while. “Aster? How old are you?”
Aster smiled again. “Good question. Time works differently for my kind than it does for yours. I am at once ancient and not much older than you are.”
“Oh,” Irene said. “Kayleigh, it’s your turn.”
This was her second question. She should use it well, to lure either Aster or Fionna into a trap. Aster was too clever, she decided. She’d use it as a setup for her third question, forcing vital information out of Fionna.
“Fionna, what is your fighting style like?”
“Ah,” the woman said, a disappointed look on her face. “I fight from close range, using my spear as a staff, either tackling my opponent, or trying to put them in a chokehold with it.”
There was no way that was true, Kayleigh realized. That was a moronic way to use a longspear. Good, she thought. A good setup for her third question.
“I am tragically already out of questions,” Aster said. “Back to Fionna then.”
“Irene, what will you do if Kayleigh dies tomorrow?”
Kayleigh panicked. That was unfair. This wasn’t directed at Irene- it was an attack on her.
Irene started to cry. “That-” she started, but whatever enchantment Aster had woven prevented her from lying. “I’ll slit my wrists, and I’ll lie down where other cultists will find me,” she said between heaves and gasps for air, inconsolable. “I hope I’ll die, and if I won’t, I’ll hope someone will pity me enough to love me.”
Kayleigh was quiet. Crying, Irene looked her in the eyes. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to say that. I’m so sorry Kayleigh, please.”
“It’s okay,” Kayleigh said while pulling the girl towards her, hugging her. “It’s okay,” she said again while giving Fionna a murderous look.
“It’s your turn,” Fionna said to Irene.
She stared at Kayleigh.
“Be brave,” she chided her adopted daughter.
“Fionna?” She asked. “You’re not a good person, are you?”
Autumn, Kayleigh thought. Right for the kill.
“I am not,” Fionna said. “I have done terrible things, before and after I met Starlight. But they have forgiven me, so I am unburdened by guilt. If Starlight says jump, I jump. If Starlight says kill, I kill. I am a person no longer, I am a tool to be used.”
She seemed at peace. Once again Kayleigh realized she was far, far out of her depth.
“We arrive at our last question,” Aster said. “Use it well, Kayleigh.”
“I-” she started, then realizing she was about to be goaded into attempting to use her question to hurt Aster, stopped. If that was what Aster was trying to achieve, there was no reason to entertain them in that. Instead, she stuck to her original plan.
“What would you say your strongest advantage in combat is?” She asked Fionna.
The woman smiled, content. “My weapon, Spíne Gael, is unbeatable. It is covered in a million tiny thorns, and a single touch, even if it doesn’t draw blood, delivers a poison that kills even the strongest in mere seconds.”
Her previous answer had been a lie, as Kayleigh expected. She might’ve expected this to rattle her, but it didn’t. As much reach as her spear had, it couldn’t outrange a composite warbow. Her victory tomorrow was assured.
“I-” she faked, “How-” she said, playing the perplexed, out-of-her-depth victim.
The rest of the journey was spent in silence, save for the quiet sobbing of Irene.
It was almost nightfall when the raft finally reached the Temple of the Eye.
“We will meet tomorrow,” Kayleigh said, making it clear Aster and Fionna were not to follow her into the temple proper.
“That we will,” Aster said, waving her goodbye as they turned around and walked away, Fionna right behind them.
“I’m sorry,” Irene said as they left for the temple, a ziggurat in the style of ancient temples found in the kingdom of the Sun.
“You’ve done nothing wrong,” she told the girl. “Listen to me, Irene. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“I’m sorry,” the girl said as they reached the temple. “Please don’t go to Narcis tonight. Please stay with me, okay?”
“Yeah, I will. Don’t worry.”
Narcissus was beauty incarnate. Clothed in only a wreath of flowers and a blindfold, she sat in a lotus position on the edge of a platform surrounded by water in the middle of the temple, Kayleigh behind her. Normally, here in the sanctum, Kayleigh wouldn’t be allowed to be clothed either, but this combat was the exception. Across from them, seven large steps away, stood Aster and Fionna.
“Narcissus,” Aster said cheerfully. “Still no clothes on?”
“Don’t talk to her that-” Kayleigh started, but Narcissus raised her hand, ordered her to stay quiet.
“Do you have no shame, Aster?”
“Shame is a terrible trait, I thought the woman keeping a shrine full of naked servants would understand that. We are gods, sister.”
She shook her head. “We aren’t.”
Aster laughed. A hearty, energetic laugh. “You don’t believe that. You’re enshrined. You’re worshiped. Your name is synonymous with ego and vanity.”
“I am a teacher,” Narcissus replied. “I teach to let go of ego.”
“Hmmm,” Aster said. “Feels like a waste.”
“You’re here to fight,” Narcissus said. “Don’t waste my time.”
“If we fight, my champion will win, and your lovely servant here will die. I can concede the fight if you want to.”
Fionna tensed up.
“Why would you do that?” Narcissus asked. “One champion still has to die.”
“We’ll trade,” Aster replied. “I get to look into those eyes of yours. In exchange Fionna here will throw her life away.”
A shiver visibly went up Narcissus’ spine, surprising Kayleigh.
“Tsk,” Aster said, shaking their head. “You should put on some clothes if you’re getting cold.”
“Why do you joke like this?” Narcissus asked them. “Why are you like this?”
“You’re mistaken, dear Narcis. I’m the only one of us here who isn’t joking around.” They threw their arms wide, and gestured around themselves. “What have you done the last few hundred years?” They asked. “You played goddess of the riverlands here with your odd cult. Hyacinth is farming pumpkins and playing Good Witch of the Pasture for some heathlanders. Achlys is- well, I don’t know what Achlys is doing but it can’t be good because the ground freezes around her feet and birds drop dead from the sky wherever she goes.”
“Stop it, Aster,” Narcissus reprimanded them. “Get to the point.”
“Alright. Here’s my offer: let’s be siblings again. Playing in the springs on Eden. Swimming around the lake, gathering flowers to give each other little wreaths and crowns as gifts. Sneaking off to fuck each other where father wouldn’t find us.”
Kayleigh recoiled. She once again realized she didn’t really know Narcissus, despite having been practically raised within these temple walls.
“You’re delusional, Aster,” Narcissus chided her sibling.
“Please,” Fionna said. “Hear Starlight out. They can fix all of this.”
“They can’t,” Narcissus said, her voice now cold and angry.
“Whatever you want,” Aster said. “Then let’s fight. Are you ready, Fionna?”
“I am,” she answered.
Aster leaned in, and kissed her on the cheek. “Even if you fall, I’ll be there for you. I promise.”
“I won’t,” she said.
“Kayleigh?” Narcissus asked.
“I am,” she answered, raising her bow.
“Only eight or so paces,” Aster said. “You’re faster than she is.”
“Aster,” Narcissus said. “Be quiet.”
Aster shrugged, and walked to the side of the platform.
Kayleigh tensed up as Narcissus got up and did the same. The moment she reached for an arrow, Fionna would charge her. A single touch from her spear was fatal. But she wasn’t afraid. She took one step back, and then without moving, seven more.
Fionna’s eyes widened as the distance between them suddenly started to grow.
“Oh my,” Aster said with audible surprise, before seemingly remembering they had been told to shut their mouth.
An inverted form of Seven League Striding- not walking backwards, but having a truly negative speed- folding space as a result.
Fionna couldn’t reach her in time, not before she’d riddle her with arrows. Yet, the moment she knocked her first arrow, a sharp pain, harsher than anything she had felt before stung her in her abdomen, followed by a quickly dulling ache.
She looked down. Spíne Gael was sticking out of her stomach as well as her back, having gone straight through her. She looked up. Fionna stood fifty paces away from her, having just thrown her spear across the arena.
“Whhhrng-” was all that left Kayleigh’s mouth as her blood curdled, and her lungs refused to obey. Something was inside of her, she realized. Growing. Threads, boring through her flesh. Time slowed, and she could feel it clearly. It didn’t hurt, if anything it felt rather nice.
She stumbled backwards, and fell off the platform and into the water.
Ah, she thought, as plants started to break through her skin. So this was what death was like. She understood now.