In many ways, Estuary was two cities, separated by the massive stone-built Canal. On the eastern side of the river lay the homesteads of the Estuarine elite: powerful merchants and other captains of society. For miles, running parallel with the eastern edge of the river, was the great Market Road. It was here that the traders, artisans and farmers presented their products and novelties every day. One could spend many hours traveling the Market Road’s length—much as Animus had done during the week leading up to his near death—and not even begin to break the surface of the ocean of new discoveries. He had come across many marvelous and rare curios during his exploration of the bazaars.
But now Animus was not on that side.
The parallel path the wizard traveled seemed like hell itself. Shunned away from the affluence of the east, the decrepit slums of the western half of the city became a gateway into the underworld.
He shuffled along a dampened alleyway, staring at the bodies of broken men who curled away. Filthy men and women cowered behind any awning or ledge they could find to shield themselves from the storm. As he passed the husks of flesh and cloth, the wizard could not tell who was alive and who was dead amongst the debris. He began to understand why Nereus had arranged for the meeting here. Animus was to be just another old and rotting carcass in this abysmal land.
“These men are almost as wretched as I am. My fears of being recognized are shrinking,” he grumbled into his shoulder. “You were right, Cedric.”
A gathering of vagrants sat ’round a smoldering fire. A putrid stench wafted towards Animus and he recalled his original, clinical purpose for his visit to Estuary.
The smell…. These men are diseased.
The wizard looked down, easing his arm away to risk a glance at himself. The blood had thickened onto his sleeve and cloak. Pain soared as he felt the coagulated blood crack.
Perhaps the rumors were true and West Estuary really had become home to an outbreak of plague. He had been summoned by Nereus to help him address the growing concerns.
But there was nothing he could do for them now. He kept his distance, fearful of contraction.
When he rounded a bend in the passageway, the street widened, birthing shelter on either side. Ill-managed buildings—some little more than skeletal frames—sagged over the cobbled road, bleeding water into the gutters. Scattered among them, groups of muddied people huddled around more small fires that flickered an incandescence that cut into the dark blue desolation.
A sobbing woman clutched a swaddled lump to her chest, but Animus could not be sure of its contents. Children seemed rare among this populace.
He passed a group of old men who lingered near a dilapidated storefront, their robes and long scraggly beards damp with rain and mud. They looked up cautiously at him, and Animus tried to steady his nerves. Why do I worry? No one can say I don’t belong here.
The rain never stops in Estuary. The city was built on a perpetual flood, it seemed, and this reality was reflected in every architectural decision that Animus observed. Networks of plumbing and conduits elegantly wrapped the walls of each alley he walked down. Gutters flowing with water and sewage lined the streets, cordoned off from the expected day to day bustle. Besides the occasional puddle, nothing overfilled or collected, as the city’s excellent design efficiently delivered the excess water into the Canal. At the mouth of the river, the Canal deposited its run-off into the sea. It was still unknown to Animus whether or not the sea itself was a byproduct of the ceaseless rain.
The wizard’s path occasionally brought him back to the Canal’s edge. He continued to follow it south, towards the ever-growing heap that was the Drowned Castle. His goal was the next bridge over, that spanned the river just north of Nereus’s island, but another landmark was becoming more and more apparent: the lighthouse on the cliff and the inn that Animus knew was hers.
The wizard walked a bit faster, as he continued to adjust to his pained and awkward gait. Before Nereus had struck him down, he had disarmed him of his Cypre staff, destroying it. Walking without it felt strange and empty, as if a vital limb had been hewn from his body.
The pain and anger bubbled again, but he kept his eyes fixed on the cliff. The wind picked up, biting into the wizard through holes in his robes. A quick flash of lightning appeared behind the clouds, dazzling the night sky, followed by a growl of thunder. He drew nearer to the bridge.
“We’re here, Cedric. Our first obstacle,” he said.
The dragonfly emerged from a fold in the wizard’s collar. “Hmmm…. This does appear to be a problem.”
The bridge was enclosed, with six columns rising from the river below to support it. At different intervals, lamps glinted back and forth from within the bridge. The entrance was narrow and tall, and three hooded figures stood outside of it, carrying directional lamps of their own. As they turned to survey their surroundings, the light of the lanterns would occasionally illuminate the hooded figures into partial translucency. Their cloaks shifted like water, refracting their surroundings. Deep within, and only visible when the light pierced it, a dark mass hid, like a shadow puppeteering a suit of liquid.
Animus recognized them as the Nix, bewitched bodies of water summoned to life by Nereus himself. They had accompanied Nereus, during their confrontation hours ago.
They were created to serve the upper-class of the western district, policing bridges, ports, and roads. Every Nix was a spy for Nereus and would certainly be able to identify Animus.
If he were to come across one in his present state, the old wizard would not have the power to oppose it; they drew their strength from the endless downpour itself.
“They’re guarding the bridge,” the dragonfly said, “maybe to filter out the diseased from crossing?”
“It’s plausible, since the Nix can’t fall ill. Do you think there’s another way to cross the Canal?”
“I don’t think so. Unless we stumble upon a boat, although with that strong of a current… I don’t suppose you’ll want to be swimming, in this state?”
Animus paused. “No… but perhaps your flight can help us.”
“What am I gonna do, carry you? I’m a dragonfly, not a dragon.”
The wizard laughed. “Go fly ahead and scout the bridge. Look for a gap in the patrol, or a lower level, or any other way you can think of that will allow us to pass unnoticed, even if it is a boat. In the meantime, I need to rest. I’m going to find us a place to camp for the night to escape this weather.”
While the dragonfly searched, the wizard retreated to a vantage point up a small cobbled street. Taking refuge in a somewhat dry storage shed in the open lot of a large stone warehouse, the wizard could finally assess his wound. He stripped his outer robes—careful not to disturb the slash on his chest—and wrung the water out of them and his hat.
Small fires dotted the lower landscape, where the vagrants gathered for warmth. The wizard decided to take a chance and light his own. Materials were scant, but he managed to accumulate the necessary dry kindling into a divot he had dug into the ground.
Sitting cross-legged in front of the small unlit campfire he had assembled, he donned his hat and began to concentrate. Hovering his hands over the brush, he let the channeled thoughts flow through his mind. He imagined a burst of energy that ignited the tinder below him, flooding the small space with light. He searched in himself for the magic, turning the images over and over in his mind. Minutes passed.
The wizard’s shoulders slumped and he cursed his predicament. He was weak and drained. The magics that had once come naturally to him now eluded his understanding. He buried his head in his palms, exhausted thoughts fogging his mind, and let the half-soaked hat tumble off and into the pit.
Animus felt static in the air. He looked up.
A thunderous crack split the sky, bathing the shed in light. In the distance, a huge lightning bolt struck the street near the bridge, and blinked out of existence as quickly as it had appeared. Behind the rooftops of the block ahead, an orange warmth flickered. The wizard stood quickly, struggling into his robes and tucking his hat under his arm.
As he hurried down the street, the glow rose into a prominent blaze, casting long shadows onto the road. He tried to make out what it was, but the glare was still obscured by the buildings. Throngs of people emerged from their holes, crowding together to get a better view of the curious sight.
He reached the clearing and the wizard could finally see it. A large fire engulfed the side of a building, spewing bulbous plumes of smoke into the air. A few poor souls emerged from the windows and doors.
A small red streak buzzed onto his shoulder. “What did you do?” the dragonfly shrieked in excitement.
“This was not my doing.”
Several people ran past the wizard towards the fire.
“How else could a fire start in Estuary? A fire! Roaring amongst damp stone!”
“Hush, you’ll be heard!”
“But look, you fool—it’s working!”
Animus glanced to his left. The small lights that dotted the inside of the bridge were moving. One by one, they passed the windows until only a few remained. The Nix were streaming from the exit, intent to observe the commotion near the fire. The last lantern exited, and the bridge went dark.
“Hurry, Animus! Now’s our chance!”
The wizard caught his step and hustled towards the Canal’s edge, making sure to give the gathering of Nix a wide berth. He reached the low stone wall that guarded the drop down to the river and crouched beside it. When the last Nix had glided far enough away from the opening, he took his chance, hugging the wall in a stooped run. Animus rounded the corner into the darkness of the bridge’s entrance, nearly tripping over the guard-stone. The sounds of the storm and the fire became muted by the sudden enclosure.
Now that he was inside, the bridge seemed much longer than it appeared from the top of the hill. His destination was an imperceptible porthole in the distant darkness.
Animus quickened his pace, dragging wet robes behind him. The stone ceiling was low, and an uneasiness grew within him. His only reprieve from the claustrophobic space was the handful of windows that dotted the length of both sides of the tunnel. As he passed through the slanted columns of moonlight, he could hear the roars of the river that seemed to give the entire stone structure an ever-present pulse.
Occasionally, far in front of him, a light or a lamp would flicker, and the wizard would fear that more Nix would enter the bridge. But each light died out in turn, and Animus again found himself with a clear path to the other side.
“I think we’re over halfway there,” he whispered to the dragonfly. “During your flight, did you get a chance to see what sort of situation we’re walking into on the other side?”
“Nothing noteworthy. The Nix who patrolled here stayed mostly inside the bridge or on the Western banks. I don’t think we’ll run into too much trouble with them past this point. Our new concern will be the fact that you will look very much out of place amongst the cleaner streets. We might have trouble with the townsfolk if you’re spotted.”
“That’s fine. I prefer my odds when dealing with people, rather than those conjured abominations behind us.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Animus, since you haven’t brought this up yourself. The trek through the upcoming residencies will be much easier if we magically conceal ourselves. Is everything… alright?”
The wizard hesitated.
The dragonfly could sense the answer. “You haven’t become that reliant on your staff, have you?”
“No, it’s not that. While you were out, I tried to start a small fire. There was nothing—not even an inkling. No familiar sensations of magic….”
“That is a scary thought.”
“I don’t know what’s impairing it. Perhaps my return from the dead has some… troublesome consequences.”
The dragonfly looked back. “But the fire—the lightning strike. There hasn’t been a fire in Estuary since…”
“Again, Cedric, that wasn’t me. It was merely a coincidence.”
“A miraculous coincidence.” Cedric’s tone was again tinged with an air of reverence. “Tonight is strange, Animus.”
The wizard stopped. Something moved.
The long stretch of stone ground ahead of them had remained inert, save the shimmer of rain in the moonlit patches. But now there was something here. A shift in the air around them. A new presence.
In front of them, the ground seemed to gradually glide towards them, like shallow tides of water. The wizard felt a quickening sensation of vertigo, as the distant floor rushed to meet him. The immobile walls and ceiling were the only things reminding him that he wasn’t being thrown forward into space. Suddenly, the illusion broke, and Animus understood what he saw.
A flood of water approached him at a moderate speed. Rippling along the indentations of the brick floor, a figure slowly emerged from the water’s center. This new shape towered towards the ceiling. It was much taller and wider than any of the Nix he had seen at the entrance.
“Animus! We have to hide!”
The amorphous shape transformed, assuming the form of a hooded man. There was a darkness pulsing inside of it: the magic that held the waters together. In the recess of the hood, Animus could see a face. It had pupil-less eyes, a large brow capped with wispy eyebrows, a hooked nose, and a long threadbare beard.
Nereus! The wizard found himself backing into the shadow of the wall as he tried to regain his faculties. Memories of his death flashed before him, overlapping with reality. Nereus Bight protruding a golden sword, drawing it back to strike him…. The vision was gone.
“Animus, you old fool, do something!”
The giant Nix with Nereus’s face was nearly upon them. There was no cover but darkness to mask their presence. It would spot them soon.
The wizard slid on his back down the wall, cowering beneath the looming blob. He concentrated on his magics, reaching into the void to draw out the spell, but there was nothing there. He felt a brand new sense of utter helplessness he had never felt before. The security that his magic had always brought to him—for the majority of his life—was gone. There was a hole where the power and feeling had once come so naturally.
But I have to do something! He tried again and searched his consciousness in vain, but it summoned nothing but pain. He felt his eyes shutting tightly. He clutched his stomach.
The air thickened with heat. Animus could feel a warm breath lingering on his skin. He opened his eyes.
A muggy mist enveloped the tunnel. The Nix with Nereus’s face, mere meters away, had slowed its movement, curious of the changing environment. The wizard sat still in the dense haze.
The dripping approximation of Nereus’s face tilted slightly, as if it were examining the fog. Its gaze seemed fixated on a window. Undulating its body in waves, the Nix brought Nereus’s head out into the open air. The drizzling rain sent ripples down its back.
For a long time, the Nix stood still, peering out onto the river. The wizard sat motionless behind it, stifling the panicked shudders of air that threatened to escape his lungs. The mist seemed just thick enough to gently obscure him from the monster.
The Nix slinked away from the window. As it sloshed down, its height diminished, until all that remained was a puddle. Satisfied, the puddle crept away, past the wizard, and continued along its original course.
When the thing was out of sight, Animus finally allowed his body to spasm with the shivers of cold and fear. He gulped at the hot air, fighting involuntary muscle movements. He waited until his breathing slowed before attempting to stand.
“Are you okay?” Cedric asked.
“I’ve never felt this helpless before.”
“We’re still alive. We made it.”
The wizard lowered his gaze, staring at the ground as they walked. “Not yet. This was too close of a call. I’m not sure how much longer our luck will last.”
A cold breeze drifted through the bridge, dispelling some of the heat.
“Was that not your magic that boiled the air?”
Animus sifted through the events that had just transpired. He hadn’t felt any of the metaphysical impressions he usually associated with magic, but the form and execution was undeniably his style. Heat, fire, smoke, light—these were his magics. It was as if a spirit of his own sorcery lingered, but without his awareness or control. Could it all just be coincidence? The lightning strike, the steamy mist—were they all just flukes of nature?
The thoughts ached his head. The pain was everywhere. His identity seemed to be floating away from him, and all that remained was the broken shell of a man they once called Animus. A dead carcass, shambling through the dark blue hellscape.
A stream of water run-off spilled onto his face as he crossed the threshold onto the open street. He had made it—he had crossed the bridge, unseen.
He decided not to answer the dragonfly.
To be continued…