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Chapter 4.2

“I want to speak to the despisers of the body. I would not have them learn and teach differently, but merely say farewell to their own bodies–and thus become silent.”1

NYX??____________________________

Don't Do This To Me
Color invades my world and I feel myself collide with thoughts foreign to me. Something passes through. Weight–glorious, blessed weight pulls at my body. I know this feeling. It happens when the world shifts to truth. A mirrored gaze glints at me from the depths of my cerebral home, and it sears with fear and resentment. …In moments of anger, I’d say she were angry at me, but that’s only for the separation. Who would want to admit to such an embarrassing dimension of personality?

I am Nyx. I am night. I am the finite definition.

But something is wrong. Different. Where is the pain of birth? The transitory agony that invades and renders me whole?

I DON'T CARE.

I take full command like a captain would his ship (ships? captains?) shifting in a curious shape of skin known only to me through dreams and fogged visions. (i feel…longer) I had always tried to imagine the other way in which I think, the other way I feel and see and interact with the world–yet now I find I don’t have to. (what’s going?)

[She stops and wonders why she–]

“Speaks.” I touch a hand to my lips, my eyes fluttering. “I spoke!” Groggily I shove at the lap I lay in, my body feeling odd and uncertain. I manage with some difficulty to push myself upright. It’s like my limbs are in rebellion, and I lurch forward, giggling at the funny feeling in my head. “I’m speaking!” I exclaim to my knees.

“That you are, kitten.”

I twist around, peeking through my mane to see the candle lit face of the woman warrior.

She looks at me, her eyes like reflective pools, and smiles. “I take it yer feeling better?”

[She takes a long time to answer. Words mash and tumble in her head. She wants to say–]

“They’re MY words,”

[But she can’t.]

“They taste different,” I whisper.

“What tastes different?” The warrior is looking at me, frowning a little. She seems drowsy, leaning her head back onto the wall behind her as she gazes down her nose.

I only shake my head. The feel of my bare skin (wait, what?) brushing along the inside of my gambeson feels horrid. I grimace and pull at my collar, looking down. I tingle. I go to scratch my collarbone, but pause as my hand (hand?) comes into view. I frown at it. Clench it. Give it a nip with my teeth and feel not sharp canines, but dull flat tipped things scrape against my skin. (it’s…mine.)

“You okay, Nyx?”

The warrior woman is looking at me again. I hear her sit forward, and she places a hand on my shoulder. I look at it, see the bandage that covers it. Then look at her apprehensively. What do I say to her? She is my companion in dreams, why not in my reality? Why do I hesitate under the feel of her touch?

[Because it is the first time.]

My bewilderment is lined with a feeling of disorientation. The world does not smell right, the world does not look right, the world does not sound right. I take a deep breath, willing my senses to work, but at most I can only pick up the basic scents–finer details eluding me.

Nevertheless, I feel this place is foul.

The warrior is still looking at me, waiting for an answer.

I nod at her.

She takes my chin and turns my face softly so that I look at her full on. “It’s just that you keep staring at your hand. You keep staring at it like it’s new to you.” She sounds uncertain.

“…It’s just this place.” I say quietly. The words feel thick in my mouth. They come with little effort, but they are foreign to me. This is not my language.

The woman smiles sardonically. “You know…sometimes I look at my hand the same way. I mean, I see that it is attached to my arm, and I can FEEL it…but sometimes I just can’t get my head around the fact that its MY hand…Have you ever had one of those moments? Before, I mean, when things were normal?”

I look at my hand again, and flex it slowly. The fingers seem long and grotesque. Then I furrow my brow and purse my lips. “No.” I answer firmly.

I don’t understand what is going on. I am not as myself. My skin is bare, my face feels flat and wide, my shoulders feel awkwardly placed, and my legs are these silly twigs, with my feet stuck in what I know to be boots, but which I don’t inherently get. Aelurus, why would anyone want to wear boots?

The world I see is not my world…it is wavering and smoldering. I try to breathe in deep again, but the stench of sweat and illness makes me gag and I cover a hand over my face and try not to think of the length of my fingers, the wet palm that presses against my fat lips–

Give me back my body, you abominable miscreation!

I tense up at the voice in my head. It echoes from deep down, from a place that tastes of my sanctuary. This voice (my voice) is using the words I so awkwardly express myself with. “I wasn’t speaking to you!” I snap.

The warrior blinks at me. “Well apparently not.”

How DARE you! Thief! Monster! You stole

my words! Look at you, speaking and thinking as

if you were capable of intelligent discourse.

“These words were never yours to begin with!” I hiss. “If anyone is the thief, you are.” I try to shift to my hands and knees–sitting on my tailbone feels wrong–but find my face planting into the ground for all my efforts. The Other roars.

CHARLATAN!!

“Stop accusing me! I don’t know what happened!” I shout lividly. There are some complaining groans from the others in the room, and the warrior jerks me back into her lap by the back of my gambeson. I give a surprise mewl, freezing in fear of what my punishment would be for making her angry.

Quiet,” she whispers sharply, her breath a hot tickle at my ear.I promised Sedwick we would bother no one.”

A derisive snort in my head. I can feel The Other pacing…four paws, claws lightly clicking on the floor of my mind. (what is this?)

This is wrong...this is all wrong...

Her anxiety (my anxiety) is getting to me. I squirm in the warrior’s lap, feeling confined and hot.

“What is going on with you, Nyx?” I hear her snap. She lets me go and I slide to the floor, panting a little. I am curled, uncomfortably so, with my chin to my chest, my shoulder blades digging into the adjacent wall, and my legs parallel to my companion’s. My hair is a damp mess, my eyes rolling around in their sockets as I try to sort out my thoughts. Eventually my gaze falls to a fat fly buzzing near my knees. It scuttles backwards haltingly, like it’s confused.

I stare at it for a full minute before blowing it with one powerful puff. The thing flips to its back, the legs squiggling in the air dazedly.

“Not even the fly can make sense of itself,” I murmur. Then I start to giggle.

[Then she realizes she’s giggling.]

And I begin to laugh.

(because this is impossible)

[Then she notices that Elmiryn–Elle–The Warrior, is looking at her like she’s turned a funny color.]

Then I laugh harder, and have to bite down hard on my lower lip to contain the noise. The warrior’s skin, Elle’s skin, Elmiryn’s skin, is painted the color of her soul, the way I am dressed in the skin of my dreams.

And I just think that’s hilarious.

I hear the woman shift next to me, and a second later her shadowy form is hovering over my shaking figure. She seems a little unsteady, and I wonder for a moment if she will fall.

“Hey…Nyx. Relax. Shh…don’t go crazy on me…” She says quietly, stroking the sweaty strands of hair away from my face.

My mind tickles with a memory I hardly recognize, and I look at her. “But…the humor,” I say through a smile. “I found it.”

“What do you think is so funny?”

I point at the fly, then grin. It’s still on its back. Elmiryn looks at it, then back at me with a quirked eyebrow. “The fly?”

I nod.

“It seems weak,” she remarks.

I shake my head. “Confused.” I blow at the bug again, using more force than necessary, and the thing is pinned to my leg from the force of the blown air, but then manages to scramble to its feet again. I make like I’m going to smash it, but stop, palm literally close enough to feel its wings, then pull my hand away. The fly hadn’t moved.

“It’s confused,” I say again.

Elmiryn gave a nod and sat back, this time so that her back was against the same wall I was against. “Well maybe you can keep it as a pet,” Then she snickers and covers her face with her bandaged hand.

I twist around and look at her. In my head, I sift through piles of unusual words. One word jumps out in particular.

“Anacreontic.” I say it slowly, carefully.

The warrior looks down at me, sleepy-eyed again. This annoys me. “Hmm…?”

“Don’t sleep!” I snap, clumsily pushing myself up.

“I’m not sleeping, just closing my–”

I nip her on the shoulder.

“Ow!” She looks at me in bewilderment. “Did’joo jes’ bite me!?” she says hurriedly.

“Don’t sleep!” I say again, ducking a little as the weight of her gaze presses down on me.  I’m reminded of the time I bit my mother’s tail, because she stopped grooming me.

“Nyx, I think YOU need to sleep.”

I shake my head, putting my whole upper body into the action, then giggle again when I have to steady myself.

Elmiryn crosses her arms and frowns, as if thinking. “Hey…what does…anack…anock…anickry…oh damn, what was the word you said earlier?” She looks at me squinty-eyed.

I grin, excited that I know the answer. “A-nack-er…er….” I blink.

[You guessed it.]

“I forgot.” I say sheepishly.

( i can’t remember ever being sheepish about anything)

————————————

Downstairs, the ceiling is higher and there are support beams disrupting my line of vision to the other side of the room.  The bar is covered with empty bottles, candles, and bruised fruit.  The bedrolls and the blankets and the pillows have vanished.  Some of the citizens are still inside, passing the time conversing in low tones, reading, or playing a game of some sort.  Outside, beyond the wavery views of the windows, I see that some children are playing near the inn, and some adults are standing there watching them.

I listen as Elmiryn and some young-something with ruddy hair and big dark eyes argue.  The adolescent (can’t be more than that) wants to join her to see the river guardian.  He’s terribly short, dressed in mismatched chainmail, and keeps fiddling with his over-sized sword belt.

Sedwick joins in.  He’s trying to persuade the boy to stay.  I pick up a name.  Baldwin.

I sit quiet to the side, nursing a jug of mead because my inebriation was fading and somehow I got the sense that the people around me wanted me dead.

A-quarter-of-a-jug and one-face-plant later I see Elmiryn standing over me with a critical expression.  At some point I guess I tried to stand again only to find that moving in this form requires a lot more practice and a little more sobriety.  The floor feels comfortable though.  And I see that underneath the bar children have stuck candy there.

Lovely.  Snacks for later.

“Nyx, I had you drink a bit to numb your discomfort and to keep your morale up.  The suns are well over the horizon now.  You shouldn’t need anymore!”  She stoops to take the jug.

I only hug it closer to my chest and bare my teeth, glowering at her.

“Your friend doesn’t seem quite right,” Sedwick says, appearing next to Elmiryn. “Perhaps she should stay?”

“I can go in her place!” Baldwin says.  I agree with him.

Elmiryn, to my dismay, shakes her head as she straightens again.  “She has to be with me.”

“But why? I whine.  “This boy looks far more capable than I am!  Let him go in my place!”

Elmiryn looks at me as if I slapped her.

(i’m sorry.  i’m…scared)

Do NOT let her go by herself!

“But she WON’T be by herself–” I begin to say, touching a hand to my head.

If what is mine is yours, then so is my promise!

HONOR YOUR WORD

I wince and grip my head.  The jug slips from my hands and spills to the floor.  Heat flashes across my skin, I can hear The Other growling.  I slowly rise to my feet, recalling how Elmiryn had to half-carry me down the steps because I felt so unfamiliar with my limbs.  I steady myself, mead dripping off the ends of my hair on one side, and look up.

“I’m sorry,” I say, looking at the warrior.  The words fit better in my mouth, but my joints burn and ache.  “I wasn’t thinking clearly.  Don’t worry, I’ll be with you, Elle.  I won’t desert you.”

Sedwick and the adolescent stare at me, mouths agape.  The young one has even taken a step back.

Elmiryn frowns and cups my face with both hands.  “Nyx.  What’s wrong with you?”

I frown at her.  “What?”

“Your face…it’s gone all cat.”


Back to Chapter 4.1 | Forward to Chapter 4.3

  1. From “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, by Friedrich Nietzsche. First published in Germany by Ernst Schmeitzner, 1883–1885. []

Chapter 4.4

HER________________________

“What are we going to do?”

“About what?”

“About HER.”

“…And what would you propose to do? Sit and have a talk about how she’s NOT a two-legged creature and should quit behaving as such?” Elmiryn looked my way. “Nyx, get on all fours. Sedwick doesn’t appreciate your silly human antics.”

I scooted to the edge of my seat, ready to follow her orders when she reached over quick to pat my hand.  She had bit down on her lip so hard the skin turned white. “I was being sarcastic, kitten.”

I frowned at her bemusedly and sat back. I was NOT a kitten. I had been alive for over two-hundred and forty-seven moons. I would have had a mate by now if it hadn’t been for…

But then it occurred to me that Elmiryn was perhaps not being serious again.

I gazed, glassy-eyed, across the round table where Sedwick and Baldwin had joined us, mind mulling over the idea of saying things one did not mean. I got the concept–had even found myself doing it without thinking, as if some aftertaste of my other persona still clung to the newfound sapien faculties that had been dropped into my paws…er, hands (wait, i’m supposed to say ‘lap’ right?)

Belabored thoughts, lined with mead, tittered here and there.  Meanwhile, the discussion between Sedwick and Elmiryn grew more heated.

I felt spent.  My outburst had rippled through me–and I found it so confusing.  There had been an odd pull at the back of my head, and my thoughts had turned fuzzy and dim.  Then all at once, things were clear for me again.  (clear in what sense?  i feel lanky and weak, with ears that don’t hear, and a nose that can hardly smell.)  Now I sat, wishing I could go to sleep, wondering why I didn’t get a better chair, and cursing the stench of this place and these people.

Across from me, Baldwin stared, like he were waiting for me to lunge across the table and chomp off his head.  I peered at him with heavy lids, and couldn’t help but giggle at the idea. (he probably wouldn’t even taste good)

This seemed to set the boy on edge, and I could see his hand twitch as if he wanted to reach for his sword again, but a look from Elmiryn kept him still.

Sedwick sucked loudly at his teeth. “Elmiryn, you are taking one of our young ones into the company of an unstable therian. I can’t just ignore that!”

Funny. From where I was sitting, it seemed he was ignoring me pretty well.

You’re the one who gave him the okay!”

“But the girl has no grasp of herself! One second she’s raging on her feet, hissing and roaring like a beast–the next, she’s as daffy as an estranged aunt from over seas, gazing with avid interest at the floorboards!”

I was looking for my mead jug, you pontificating poop…

“Where are his parents? Talk to them if you are so uncomfortable about it all.”

“They’re dead, Elmiryn.”  Baldwin interjected.

The warrior blinked at him. “Oh. Sorry.” She gave a shrug and looked back at Sedwick. “Look, if it bothers YOU so much, then just come with us.”

Oh sure. The more the merrier.

“And who will protect the people here?”

“You forget that if this doesn’t get fixed soon, there won’t BE people here to protect.” Elmiryn barked.  “You’ll be the guardian of a graveyard. Do you understand, Sedwick? A fucking graveyard.”  She stood to her feet, as did the blacksmith and the boy.  I looked at them all sullenly.

This was stupid.

“Look outside. The city is EMPTY. These people here are at their wits end. You’ve no water and your food is dwindling. Merchants refuse to come here. Anyone who would’ve helped would’ve done so by now. You. Are. Alone. If it doesn’t get done now, this never gets done.”

“But why does SHE have to go?” Sedwick pressed stubbornly.

…I was kinda wondering that myself.

“Because. I won’t help you unless she’s there. Is that enough for you?”

“You’d let these people suffer just because–”

“I’ll let your people suffer if they can’t abide the way I work. I’m doing this at no cost to you, I really don’t see how you’re in the position to demand anything of me.”

Well, see if he got on his KNEES–

Okay, STOP. You are embarassing me!

“They can’t hear anything, you stuck up witch,” I snapped back.

Everyone stopped and stared at me.  Heat crawled up my skin, and I ducked low, peering over the edge of the table.  I wasn’t sure why, but I felt like an idiot.

Great. Now they think I am crazy...

“Uh…” Elmiryn wiped at her mouth and shifted her eyes as if not certain she wanted to say what was coming next.  Then she seemed to think better of it and waved her bandaged hand through the air.  “No.  Never mind.”  The woman rapped the table with her knuckles and made as if to leave.  “Come on, Nyx.  If you’ve got everything, we should get going.”

Sedwick stared at her.  “After that, you’re just going to take her with you?”

I could almost feel her eyes sweep past me and onto the man’s face.  He made an odd noise from the back of his throat, but didn’t move.

“The discussion is over, Sedwick.”

I made to get off my chair quickly, not wanting that tone of voice directed toward me, but I forgot myself and ended up falling backwards off my stool.  Elmiryn barely broke stride as she picked me up by the front of my gambeson and continued walking.  Like a doll, my feet dragged, but I got my footing.  My companion then let go of my top and instead kept me steady by gripping my shoulder as we marched out the inn’s main doors.  Baldwin followed us shortly, the sound of his armor a terrible racket in my ear.

Outside, the peasants stared at us.  As we passed, the adults pulled their children close and I felt a mingling of pity and shame toward them.

The dumb fools…didn’t they know they had more to fear from Elmiryn than I?

Though my nose wasn’t as I was used to, it could still pick up some scents.  Drawn close to my companion, I could smell the wilderness on her.  With only my eyes, I peered up at her through my bangs and leaned into her touch.  This woman was strong.

She was strong, and she was my new guardian.

(funny how meeting her has increased my potential in getting killed then.)

———

I had no use for aesthetic pleasantries, or poetic lengths of expression.  Complex communication?  Tempered thinking and voices of self-restraint?  It was all just silly fluff.  What words could possibly convey the mind-biting horror that tore my nerves asunder?  What had been experienced before, the unnaturalness and the illness and the wind-rushed scent of carrion, paled in comparison to what could be found out in those dead, ugly fields.  The brittle grass turned to ash at our feet and the sound of a terrible monster roared in the distance, the sound of its voice a blade that cut across the gray cold canvas of Gamath’s lands.

We were almost to the river.

And yet I found a comfort in my words, (her words) that eloquent locution… for to let loose the wail that built up in my throat would leave me open–I was certain–to whatever evil that infested this place. To save myself from that fate, I bit down hard on my tongue, and buried my face into Elmiryn’s side.

The warrior stood rigid, her strong body like a rock that defied the atmosphere that pressed against us. Glancing at her, I could see the veins in her neck, the tenseness of her jaw, the glassiness of her eyes. “We’re close,” she said tersely, her voice deep and rough. I missed the lyrical playfulness.

Behind us, there was the wet sound of slop hitting the ground. Coughing. Though the wind was blowing against us, a brief circulation of the air brought the acrid smell of vomit to my nose. I placed a hand over my mouth in an attempt to stop the bile from coming up my own throat.

Baldwin appeared at our side a second later, his young face now ashen and drawn. He had pulled out his sword. “Someone’s coming behind us,” he said weakly.

“Sedwick.” Elmiryn said, without turning around. “I figured he would join us.”

“Should we wait for him?”

“He’ll catch up.” Then she started walking again, her grip on me pushing me forward with her. I quickly tried to keep step with her long legs.

Ahead, white, grotesque-looking things and dark lumps riddled the grass.  As we neared, I saw that they were skeletons and decomposing animal corpses.  The bones were of varying sizes and shapes–belonging to such creatures as gophers, birds, cows, and deer–and were bleached white.  The corpses were animals that had died in the recent days.  These were fewer.  But as I looked at the body of a dead dog, I realized something unsettling.

“No flies…no maggots,” I whispered.  Elmiryn’s grip tightened.

We came up on a hillock.  At the top of it, we saw the Medwin river bend toward us, then away again.  It was wide and dark, and though the land appeared low and largely flat, the water turned white and swirled in places from little dips and the rocks that peeked beyond the surface.

Together, we ventured near the river’s edge, our gaits slow.  Once close, Elmiryn let go of me, and without thinking I slumped to the ground, ash and dust coming up in a startled cloud.  She went to the water and knelt down, where she dipped her hand into the current.

“What are you doing?!” Baldwin squeaked.

“Relax, Baldwin,” the woman said.  “Nothing happens to a person who touches the water.  It matters only if you drink it.”  Elmiryn withdrew her hand and sniffed her wet fingers.  Her eyes slipped closed and she clenched her fist.

“Would you drink it if you believed it were harmless, despite evidence to the contrary?” a new voice called.

We all looked to see Sedwick coming over the hillock, his helmet back on and his spear firmly gripped in both hands.  His pace was quick, and though I couldn’t see much of his face, it seemed the most the atmosphere did to him was set him on edge.

Elmiryn stood and I could see her lips twitching.  “Sedwick.  Good to see you decided to join us.”

He stopped near Baldwin and patted the boy on the back.  “I came to make sure this was finished once and for all.” He nodded at the boy.  “And to make sure he came home all right.”

The warrior woman gave a shrug.  “Fair enough.” She gestured toward the river.  “You said to come to this place, where the hillock overlooks a horseshoe bend in the river.  Well, we’re here.  Now what?”

“This used to be where the guardian would hold audience to any who would wish to speak to it.  It’s abandoned this place for some reason.  But the adventurer before you mentioned a cave entrance not far from here.  He seemed to believe the guardian had retreated there.”

“It’s on the other side, isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Elmiryn sighed.  She looked down at me, and I slunk low to the ground, certain I would not like what she would say next.  “Nyx, you aren’t afraid of water, are you?”

Soon, we were all standing on the edge of the river.  Sedwick stood to my right, and he kept staring out of the corner of his eye at me.  Baldwin stood on his other side, gripping his arm.  He looked like he was about to throw up again.  Elmiryn was on my left.  Her bow and quiver were discarded on the ground behind her.  “Rain, it can handle.  Being dunked into a river–not so much,” she said with a wry grin.

The warrior shook out her limbs and said, “Try and keep calm, Nyx.  This is just like any other swim.” She then looked at Sedwick.  “I trust both of you have swam across a river before, and the current isn’t particularly treacherous here.  The threat mostly lies in accidentally taking a swig of water.  Keep your mouths shut, no matter what.”  She took a deep breath.  “Ready?”

“Let’s go,” Sedwick said solemnly.

“Yeah.  All right…one, two–”

In unison, we all jumped into the water.  There was a brief moment where I didn’t move and let the water carry me.  Panic had set into my limbs at the feel of the water streaming past my lips.  It…was terrible.  In all my days, I could not recall a time when water had ever felt so abhorrent to me.  But I saw Elmiryn’s kicking legs and I set forth, pushing against a rock in the river bed to propel me forward.  Even as I broke the surface, I didn’t trust opening my mouth and taking a breath of air.  By the time I reached the other side, my lungs and head felt ready to burst.

Sedwick and Baldwin made it a second after I did, crawling onto the land and panting.  I wiped at my mouth, mindful not to let any of the water fall into my mouth, and looked up.  Elmiryn was separate from us, all ready on her feet, with her head bowed and her hand to her lips.  Dread set into my stomach.  I crawled on all fours toward her and swiped softly at her leg as an odd, inquisitive noise came from the back of my throat.

She looked down at me, blinking.  The edges of her mouth twitched again before she smiled a long curling smile.  “It’s okay, Nyx.”  The warrior reached down and pulled me to my feet.  “It’s all right.”

Sedwick and Baldwin came to us.  The woman looked at the blacksmith.  “Will you lead the way?  You know the land better than I.”

The man nodded.  “As I said, it isn’t far from here.”  He brushed past her, and Baldwin followed close, sparing a wide-eyed glance in my direction as he passed.

Elmiryn chuckled, though I didn’t know what was so funny, and we followed.

Just as Baldwin said, it wasn’t very far.  After following the river northward, we came to a point where a wide, uneven trail of dry mud led into the mouth of a cave set into a little hillock some yards from the river.  We stood at the jagged mouth of it, where pitch darkness barred our sight from seeing too far into its depths.

“It-It looks like it goes s-straight down…” Baldwin breathed shakily.  He took a step backward.  “I wo-won’t do it.  I wo-won’t go in there!”

I hissed at the boy.  After all his blustering, now his courage fled him?  Damn him.

“Sedwick,” Elmiryn said, not taking her eyes off the mouth of the cave.  Her eyes were wide and glassy again, and her voice seemed brittle and faint.  “Take Baldwin and leave.  Now.”

“What’s wrong?” But even as the blacksmith asked this, he and Baldwin were all ready backing away.

My ears tickled as I realized that the river had gone quiet behind us, like it were holding its breath.  I looked back and my face fell.  The two men behind us saw this and looked back as well.

The river had swelled into an impossible wave, one that grew and loomed over us until we were lost in its shadow.  I felt my stomach drop, and I would’ve fallen to a heap on the ground if Elmiryn hadn’t grabbed me by the armpit.  Baldwin screamed, and Sedwick muttered some sort of prayer.  But all was lost when the water came crashing down on us, its frigid arms carrying us into a world of ink and confusion.

———————

(…i feel cold…)

[Bones reconnect, bruises fade…]

…And I was aware again.

I felt like the nerves of my body had been frayed and grated, the muscles sliced apart.  My limbs were in bizarre positions, like I were a doll that had been dropped unceremoniously on some child’s floor.  I registered blood in my mouth as I lay face down on a damp and uncomfortable surface.  My fingers flexed, scraping.  It was rock, and it dug into my ribs.  I shifted and groaned as my eyes blinked open.   Wherever I was, there was a dim light coming from all over, causing a pale glow.  I couldn’t say for certain what the source of the light was–there seemed to be patches on the rocky walls that produced it.  Sight was still poor here, and much of everything seemed like vague shapes, even after my eyes focused.

Suddenly, something came toward me and I clumsily pulled my right arm out from underneath me and pushed myself onto all fours. An unintelligible sound slipped from my lips as I pressed against what appeared to be a stalagmite.

“I thought you were dead!” A familiar voice exclaimed.

I squinted.  It was Baldwin.

He was bleeding somewhere on his head as blood dripped down his neck.  He had black circles around his eyes, and his skin seemed to visibly sag, making his young face seem old.  He limped closer and knelt down, his silly armor making noise the whole time.  I tensed and looked around to see if anything would come investigate the racket.

“I don’t know where the others are,” the boy started.  His lip trembled and he rocked back and forth.  “Sedwick tried to grab me but the water…it pushed us apart.  I woke up here after my head hit the rocks.” He bit his thumb and then looked at me.  “We should find the others, don’t you think?  We have to get out of here!”

I stared right back, my lip curling.  Moron…why did he want to come at all if he were going to fall to pieces?

I carefully got to my feet with a grunt, and looked around.  We were in some sort of chamber.  The ceiling was high, stalactites baring down on us like fangs.  From where Baldwin had come toward me, I could make out what appeared to be a passage that lead into another chamber, one lit differently than this one.  In the center of the chamber we were in, there was a puddle of water.  I ventured near it.

Why was this the only trace of water left here?  Didn’t a huge wave just wash us down into the this hellish place?  I peered into it, holding my wet hair back with both hands, and I realized–

I couldn’t see my own reflection.

Behind me, Baldwin stumbled forward, the sound of his mismatched armor like a death knell.  “Hey!  You dumb animal, I’m talkin’ to you!!”

I turn and hissed loudly at him, my hands clenched like claws, but it was too late.  I saw a small rock fly past my face, saw Baldwin’s arm follow through with his throw, his face contorted in anger and frustration.

The rock hit the water with a loud splash.

Horrified, I looked back at it.  The ripples were so strong they caused the small puddle to flood onto the area surrounding it.  Slowly, I walk backwards, my heart thumping.

“What are you doing?  What’s the matter?” Baldwin asks, a little panicked at my sudden behavior.

“You’re an idiot,” I say shortly.

The water bubbled and frothed, rising higher and higher until it became clear it was taking the form of some creature.  Its rippling body was tall and rotund, little bubbles swirling around inside of it.  It seemed like a man with no arms, and its head, faceless, sprouted barbed tentacles.  The tentacles were long and lashed about angrily.  The thing’s torso twisted and writhed, and from it a gurgled wailing echoed off the rocky walls.

At the terrible sound, Baldwin and I were snapped out of our trance and took off running toward the only exit from the chamber.  Naturally, the boy made it to the passage before me, but as the red glow of the other room painted his face, something hit him in the back with a ‘shlop’, and he fell to the ground with a nasty crash.

As I passed Baldwin, I reached down and grabbed him by the back of his armor, dragging him from the chamber entrance.  I didn’t pause to look back this time, but I heard what sounded like water splashing against the rocks.  I stopped some yards away to inspect him.  I saw no wound in his back.  Confused, I rolled him over.  He was conscious and breathing, and he looked at me, his eyes wide and teary and his nose running with snot.  I shook him, growling.

…But then his back arched and his mouth parted open.  He gurgled once before his eyes bulged.  The moisture I had previously thought to be tears turned out to be just water, and it streamed down the sides of his face profusely.  I let him go, as if bitten, and when his head rolled to the side, more water gushed out of his mouth and nose, and I saw that in his ears it also pooled and trickled down onto his bloated face.  Blood appeared like a dark plume in the water.

The gurgled wail echoed around me again and I felt it rattle in my skull.  Trembling, I looked around for a way out.  There were other passages behind me on a higher level, and my only obstacles were a collection of thick stalagmites.  Without pause, I began to climb.

I had to find Elmiryn and get out of there.


Back to Chapter 4.3 | Forward to Chapter 4.5

Chapter 4.5

HER________________________

(where is she, where is she)

[Her hands sting and bleed as she runs on all fours, the rocks slicing her with vindictiveness. With her growing distress, it becomes harder to think with words–but this is natural to her. It was a borrowed process to begin with. Now in this dire situation, she can only conceive thoughts she feels relevant–short clipped things that sear boldly in a canvas of white.]

(i have to find her, i have to find the warrior.)

[The size of these strange caverns alarms her. Her nose, weak in this form, cannot grasp a proper scent. All she knows is that she is at the source of wrongness, and she wishes to leave.]

(where is my protector)

[As she flees, she registers the nearing wail of the water creature, and it makes her fevered and clumsy. The sound stretches and warbles, echoing off the rocky walls and causes dust to drift from the ceiling. She cannot name the thing for certain. But as a being born of spirit as much as flesh, she knows that no attack against the monster can hope to stop it. Without this last defense, she feels helpless.]

(trapped.)

[She hears splashing and whips around to see that other creatures have emerged from the shadows.  They twist and they gurgle, and she thinks she can hear them cursing her in some ancient tongue. They bare down on her from all around, bizarre forms trickling past stalagmites and large rock formations. She hisses, back bunching, hands tensed in an attempt to extract non-existent claws. They’ll make her drown from the inside. Make her face bloat–make her eyes, mouth, and ears flood. The monsters’ tentacles fire deadly barbs with a harsh whip. Baldwin’s face flashes in her brain before she roars beneath the rain of water.]

ELMIRYN________________________

She told herself to scream, because she figured it would make her feel better. But where would that sound go, in this terrible place? What would that sound mean here? It hardly meant a thing to her, after all… She was dead. A ghost…right? So what did it mean when the sound of anguish curled out of her mouth like a desperate hand?

…Aw, who cares…

Elmiryn pushed herself upright, and her limbs shook with the effort. She came to an angle her spine disagreed with and fell back again, pain incising itself into her nerves. That dubious noise came to her lips once more, but rather than take flight, it clung there, shuddering, before it was lost in a sudden bark of laughter.

She had always wondered if Halward, moral god, would see fit to cast her in some dank hell. Well…she got her answer. How could she have survived such a crash of water? It cast her into dark–shattered her completely beyond recognition, like glass, like a mirror…

An emerald glow diffused from stark, jagged grins, and stony visages–quiet, quiet sentinels that leered at her as she tried to make sense of her surroundings. Or perhaps she was inside the mouth of a larger monster? Perhaps this creature was an amalgam of wrath and pride, crafted by Halward himself, to contain her for eternity?

Her scabbard dug into her leg, and her clothes clung to her skin. Though it hurt, Elmiryn lifted her head to look down at herself. Her skin was damp–naturally–she had just been killed by a wave after all. Only…

…It felt thick.

Then her heart gave a twist.

“No…” She whispered. She fought against the base sensations of her body as a new pain, a new horror, took precedence. Nausea washed over her and she felt as if her head would split in two. “No, no, no!!

She rolled over so that she were on her knees, and she felt the scales of the monster she was trapped in scrape and bite into her flesh. “Meznik!” The woman’s voice broke as she almost fell over from the agony. “Meznik!” Elmiryn forced the name out of her mouth as she shoved to her feet. “Meznik, where are you! You bastard!” She trembled. She wiped at her face roughly.

She had to get the slime off…the illness…the sickness…it was on her skin…

Elmiryn looked at her hands. Water, clear water, dripped from her fingertips. She would have breathed a sigh of relief had she not noticed the dark stain that blossomed on the palm of her right glove. With a scowl, the redhead took off the bracer and peeled the glove away to reveal the bandaged hand beneath. The cloth was also dark.

Do ghosts bleed?

“I don’t feel it…” Elmiryn whispered as she slowly unwrapped her hand. The stitched skin–previously a source of discomfort she only just managed to ignore–seemed as far removed as any unrelated image. The skin had become puffy and purplish, the stitches stretched apart over an angry valley of crimson that came flowing out in eager currents now that there wasn’t the barrier of a bandage. She figured she should have felt it. Everything ELSE hurt…so why then…why then did this…not register?

Elmiryn looked around, her eyes glassy. “Meznik,” she called in a calmer voice. “Where are you? I know you’re here, I can feel you.”

Ahead of her, there was a space of impenetrable black. Fangs and uneven gums marked the passage to that place. By some twist in her stomach, the woman was certain her tormentor was in that darkness. She took a tentative step in that direction, breath shallow as she fought to remain on her feet.

“You gave me your name. But you still hide your face,” She whispered. Steam seemed to exhale from the fangs. This smoke curled with a current of air she was unaware of. “…Well…you won,” Elmiryn said. She dropped her glove and bracer and spread her arms apart.

“Have at me.”

…Stillness.

Her jaw tightened.

“Go on,” She growled.

Still nothing.

Fucker. She was here, she was dead. Whatever scheme he had, it had succeeded. There was nothing left to do now but to take what he had always wanted. Yet here he was, continuing to play games. Toying with her. The warrior was certain she could hear the demon–reveling in this monster’s insides–festering like a wound in his black sanctuary.

Elmiryn screamed, and she could feel it pierce into the hellish atmosphere. “HAVE AT ME, I SAID!”

The smoke, which seemed to screen the passage, swirled at her voice, and the woman blinked as her mind briefly registered what appeared to be a rictus grin.

Then she heard the echo of a roar that tore her assertions down with staggering efficiency.

Elmiryn’s eyes widened and her head turned slightly to the side. “…Nyx?

But her attention was reclaimed when the smoky grin dispersed in a startled hiss, and a crimson tentacle of muscle and veins speared toward her…

HER________________________

[She’s certain of her end. Inside her, The Other is screaming. They drift further apart, anger and blame ripping a chasm as far as a mile between them. Then suddenly, She is knocked to the side, the splats of a dozen missed barbs hitting the hard wall. She crashes onto her shoulder, neck and jaw taking a sharp jolt of pain before she finds herself dragged to her feet by broad hands.]

“Run! Run girl, run!

Leather armor, studded. His helmet was gone, probably lost from the wave. A name came to me, and within a moment I found my words again.

It was Sedwick.

He carried me off, more strength in his form then could be guessed by looking at him. Still, as we avoided more of those insidious barbs, I could feel his grip slipping, and I worked harder to keep pace. Whatever the things were, they were slow, and as luck would have it, the passage we took didn’t lead into a dead end. As we ran, the glow from the rocks shifted–from cobalt, to yellow; from red, to violet–like the cavern itself was a living creature, and our fleeing set it into a frenzy.

It was disorienting. Sedwick kept stumbling, and even I found it hard to keep my pace steady. We came to a large chamber, and here there were no pools. Blue light painted our skin. The blacksmith slowed to a stop, panting.

“Wait…just wait.”

I looked at him and snorted. My eyes were wide, and I was certain that my skin was plagued as much by my own fear-induced sweat as the poisonous waters of the Medwin. I gazed back through the oval shaped passage we had just come from. From it echoed the wails of those water monsters.

“Where’s Baldwin?” Sedwick suddenly asked, looking up at me from his bent position.

I looked at him, startled. After a brief pause, I shrugged.

“You don’t know?”

“…No.”

He sighed and shook his head. “He shouldn’t have come.”

I looked away. My throat felt tight, but I tried to ignore it. “Let’s go.”

The man took another second to take a breath, then straightened, shouldering his spear. “Yes. Let’s find the others.”

“The others! The others! They have to find the others!

Laughter echoed through the chamber. Both Sedwick and I jumped–he settling into some fighting stance, while I simply ducked and tensed my hands. (i miss my claws)

A shadow danced over the walls before a man came into view, from behind a tall set of stalagmites. He had a strong chin and a full, flat face, with short black hair and elfish ears. His eyes were slanted, dark and shiny. His generous lips were parted to reveal large horse teeth. He came toward us, gait loping, like a person running across a room where a party was being held.

Sedwick didn’t lower his spear as he stared at the man. “…It’s you…” was all he said.

“Hey! Aren’t you that fine gentleman I spoke to a while ago?” The man wagged his finger. “You’re late! Tsk, tsk! I’ve been waiting in this place for what seemed like ages for someone to come get me.”

The tip of Sedwick’s spear dipped a little. “We…thought you were dead.”

I moved a little behind the blacksmith, my mouth parted as I panted anxiously. I didn’t like the look of this newcomer’s eyes.

Sedwick looked at me. “It’s all right, Nyx. This is the man we hired before Elmiryn.” He looked back at the adventurer. “Aidan, I think the name was, right?”

With alarming quickness, the man grabbed the blacksmith by the neck with both hands and gave him a rough shake. Spit came dribbling out of his insane grin. “You remember my name!” Sedwick grunted, his eyes wide as he tried to push the man away with one arm. Aidan didn’t let go, didn’t even seem phased as he giggled. “I’ve had nightmares! Nightmares, man! Afraid that I’d be forgotten in this hell hole! That not a soul would remember me! Not a one!” His smile vanished and at once all the muscles in his face tightened. His hands wrapped themselves around Sedwick’s throat. “But you remembered me…you knew I was here. You just didn’t come.”

Veins, like creeping plant vines, appeared beneath the collar of his cotton shirt. They were thick and purplish, and spread onto his face just as water would across the ground.

He slid one foot back, and with incredible force, drove his knee into the blacksmith’s gut. The man was lifted into the air briefly before he crashed onto the ground with an “Ooph!” He didn’t move again.

Aidan then turned to me. “And you are supposed to be my competition? You think you can stop the guardian? You bitch. I’ve fought trolls, werewolves, and witches! What can you possibly do but insult my memory with your pathetic efforts!?” He advanced on me, shoulders squared and fists clenched, his grotesque face contorted in rage, all pretense of jovial humor gone. I found myself falling backwards, scrambling.

Spit flew from his mouth as he roared, “I’ll kill you!

His foot came up and he moved to stomp my chest. I rolled out of the way, moving back to all fours. I saw his other foot come around toward my face but didn’t have time to react before…

[It connected. Her head snaps to the side, pain smashing into her like a hammer that knocks away her prose. She falls to her side, and he assails her again–stomping fast and hard with the heel of his foot until she’s coughing up blood and feels her sternum crack. The agony stabs at her, and her vision fogs. She is forced upright by the front of her clothes. Her head is slammed into the rock. Again and again. She’s certain he could kill her outright, with one blow, but he’s purposefully holding back. Making her hurt. Aidan is giggling as he straddles her.]

(…i’ll kill you…)

[The feeling, enters her heart. Aidan stops slamming her head, and instead back hands her–perhaps because of the strangled noise that had slipped her stained lips.]

(…i’ll rip you apart…)

[The Other, her ghost, her other self, speaks, and she just barely manages to hear her through the ringing and pounding in her head.]

Run away! Get away!

[Her back arches, and vainly she claws at Aidan’s face. She feels her dull nails scrape into the uneven flesh. Disgust rises in her and she grabs one of his arms instead.]

(i can’t. he won’t let me.)

Get out! Run! What are you doing!?

(he won’t let me.  he won’t let me!)

[She gnashes her teeth as she feels Aidan’s hands enclose around her throat. He leers at her, his eyes like dark stones that wink at her from beneath the short crop of his hair. Then she roars, vocal chords–though short of the animal ferocity she knows–still carries out in a note that rattles her audience.]

[She grips Aidan’s wrist and places her other hand at his elbow. There is a brief pause from him as he feels her shift beneath her, as he sees the wild determination set into her scarlet face. She bares her teeth for a moment before she digs her shoulders back into the rocky surface and pushes with all her might at Aidan’s elbow, forcing it in the opposite direction of its bend.]

[His eyes widen at the sudden brute strength that fights him, and he resists with a grunt. At best he manages to keep his arm straight, but She dredges up all she has in her and presses in. His arm shakes and shudders before it gives.]

[There is the snap of bone and the wet tear of flesh ripping. Aidan’s scream sends her into a frenzy, the blood that sprays her face cold and stale. This man is not alive. And soon, his charade will end, she will make certain of it.]

[He collapses on her, his arm–with its bone poking through the skin–no longer able to support him. The death that encloses her throat is gone, and she gasps, shuddering, before weakly shoving the lunatic off of her. He lies there, speaking to himself in dazed gibberish, the veins in his face pulsing red and angry.  The light of the cavern has shifted to a pale yellow.]

[She sits up with much effort, body battered, her chest hurting. Her vision blurs and a part of her wishes to remain still and never move again. …But the desire to live and see her threat gone wins out. She crawls on all fours toward Sedwick, who only just begins to stir. She does not wait to see what he does or if he is okay. The threat is still there. Still liable to do them harm. She takes his spear, forgotten on the ground, and with it pushes herself to her feet. She growls inaudibly, forcing her sapien chords to work in ways it was never meant to.]

[As she stands over Aidan, she sees that the veins have spread to his wound and now wrap around it–knitting the flesh back together. But he is still prone on the ground, lost in his pain. She raises the spear high before she stabs downward, into Aidan’s chest. His head raises from the ground, and he gurgles. She does this again, and again…and again.  The muted noise of his decimation is sweet to her, but not quite enough to satisfy her anger, to chase away her disgust…to quell her fear.]

“Stop it.”

[Sedwick. Or The Other. She isn’t sure. The voice seems far away and unimportant. The man hurt her. The man had sought to make her feel as much pain as possible before he killed her. The bastard.  The man had to hurt. He had to suffer.]

“STOP IT!”

[She screams defiantly against the dubious protest, before burying the spear in Aidan’s throat. She leans into the weapon, twists it, wiggles it–feels the tip of the spear finally scrape the rock on the other side. She wills for the head to come off completely–]

[But then she is knocked from behind and her body falls to the ground.]

“Enough!”

[There, her strength leaves her.  She feels her sternum knit back together beneath her chest. Her body is healing, but the pain does not go away. Her bones ache, her skin burns.]

[The Other is forcing her way forward.]

Animal...beast...I should not have let you...

(…you aren’t…no…you can’t…)

I cannot believe you are a part of me...

[She screeches as she feels the bones and muscles of her chest shift beneath her fevered skin. Sedwick reclaims his spear and looks down at her in horror.]

(…i…am the only one…the only one! the blood that was shed was mine!)

And the soul that suffers is MINE!!

[Her boots are kicked off to reveal padded, furry paws. Her fingers retract, claws protrude; her nose turns small and wet, fangs gnash in her mouth, and porcelain skin is lost to black fur.  She is confused.  She is…]

…Scared.

[Her back legs are short and bend the other way.  She feels a tail sweeping the seat of her pants.  She snorts and swipes at her nose with her paw because she feels the odor of this place assail her on a level that she had only conceived of in dreams.  The closest she knew of this life–this unique perception–was when she turned into the cat woman, as she had done at Toah.  Then, she could stand on hind legs and still had opposable thumbs.  But this…this…]

…Sweet Aelurus, I had come back…but in the wrong body.


Back to Chapter 4.4 | Forward to Chapter 5.1

Chapter 9.1


Part 2: In Sight, In Mind

“Our realities do not end in ourselves, but in the hearts of others.”  – Tobias


Light feet dashed through grass.  Moisture laid cold kisses on her bare skin, where the breeze chilled in its envy.  She held the book close to her chest.  Her heart hammered against the thick cover, the tome so large it knocked her chin and pressed into her waist.  Petite hands desperately clung to it, trying to find a firm grip.  Her little arms could barely encircle the book all the way, and the edges of it pressed into her muscles, cutting off circulation, and making the veins in her wrist and hands burn with want of blood. Still she didn’t stop.

Overhead, great misty giants from the north draped across a star studded sky.  The moon was not to be seen.  She crashed through growths of mountain grass, the tufts as whips to her bare legs.  A field opened onto her, alive and aglow with fireflies and the hum of crickets.  Her excited heart calmed.  The electricity in her eyes slipped away.  She spared one glance behind her before she walked to the center of the field, and sat down.

With her behind turned damp, and a mosquito buzzing in her ear, the girl opened the tome and began to read aloud.  Her voice and the symphony of spring became one, and a smile finally appeared on her face.

But she was interrupted when a heavy something collided into her from behind.  She yelped, but the sound was cut short as breathe left her.  With the edges of her vision rippling, she shoved at whatever had draped itself across her back.  She recognized the smell, her acute little nose wrinkling at the scents of sweat, taffy, and warm milk.

“Koen!?” Brother!?

A laugh.  A young face peered into hers, a monkey’s grin plastered there.  “Koah,” Sister, “You’re in big trouble if they find out!”

Angry, she shrugged him off.  He fell to the grass next to her, giggling.  “Cajeck!”  Idiot! She cried. “What are you doing, spying on me?”

“I’m not spying.” Her brother said, his face aglow. The dancing lights of the fireflies made it seem like he was still moving.  “Thad told me to look for you.  He wants to talk to you.”

She groaned and snapped the book shut with reluctant hands.  She pressed her forehead to the cover and muttered, “Where is he?  When did he get back?”

“He’s at the tavern, speaking with the nation leaders.  He and his men arrived three hours ago at the central grounds.  Leander told him about the things you’ve been saying in his lessons.  He even mentioned the elf trader.”  Her little brother sat up and patted her back in mock sympathy, “Aww…He might not whip you that bad, Nyx.”

“He won’t whip me!” She snapped, looking up to bump her shoulder roughly against his.  “He isn’t like Leander.”

“He was still mad, though,” Atalo returned, digging in his right ear with his pinky.  “You know he told you to behave while he was away!”

She bit her lip and looked at the tome in her lap.  ‘A Detailed Look at Elven Culture’.  “I traded all my gold pieces for this. I’ve been saving for months…” She sighed, eyes tearing up. “How am I going to hide this?  Thad will take it and burn it!”

Atalo fell quiet next to her, his little body slumping at the sight of his older sister’s tears.  He scratched at a rosy cheek and looked around.  Then his face lit up.  “I know where we can hide it!” he cried, shaking her with both hands.

She looked at him sullenly.  She wiped at her nose with her bare arm.  “What are you talking about, you little fool?  There’s not a safe place here or in the village to hide this great fat book!  Especially not with Thad looking for me.  He knows all my hiding spots!”

“No, no!  Not all of them!  Remember that great old tree we found not long ago?  We can hide it there, in the trunk!  All we’d have to do is cover the book with leaves.  Hardly anyone goes there, because of the ticks and spiders!!”

“But that’s so far away!  He’ll know I was up to something.”

“I’ll do it for you!”  Atalo cried.  He went for the book, but she shifted to keep it away from him, her expression incredulous.

“You’ve got to be kidding!?” She was barely able to keep from laughing.  “I had trouble carrying this book, how can you carry it all that way and not drop it?  What if you tear it, or let it fall into mud?”

Atalo looked hurt, his brows crashing together over his eyes.  “I can do it, Koah!”

She bit her lip, then slowly handed the book over.  “Don’t you drop it.  That took me a lot to save for!”

He immediately brightened up and with a grunt, hefted the book into his lap.  “Don’t worry, I won’t!”  Struggling, he stood to his feet with her help.  Her eyes flashed with worry.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay, Atalo?” She asked.

“…Yes!” He grunted, his face pink.

She gave him one long, fearful look, before she took off running, back toward their village.  As concerned as she was, she couldn’t keep Thad waiting.  He was an impatient soldier.

As her form took a shortcut through the forests, pupils widening to adjust to the dark, a shadow watched her flee past.  It was a large cat, tawny eyes turned low at the sight of the young girl’s retreating back.  Its maned head turned to look back the way she came, toward the field, where Atalo took slow, shaky steps northward.  Furry chops pulled back in a smile.

Atalo would drop that book at least five times, once even in a dirty puddle, before reaching his destination.  Nyx would not speak to him for days, until he gave her a handmade book–sloppy but sincere–and as he gave it to her, he would sheepishly say, “I made this so that maybe you can make your own book…”  She never wrote in it.  She preferred reading.  But she forgave him all the same.

That was seven years ago.

“Why are you here?” A new voice, strangled and low.  The great cat, whirled around, lips pulled back in a snarl.

Nyx, of the present day, had the animal fixed with a hateful gaze.  “You’re dredging up what isn’t yours.  …And for what? To cause me pain?”  Her eyes were like bleeding cuts.  They overflowed with tears, and the creature half-wished the bitch would die from the grief.

The cat lifted its head.  Inhaled, and exhaled slowly.  It approached Nyx on quiet paws.

The young woman tensed, fists clenched.

…But the great cat just brushed past her with a growl.

Then the memory faded out of focus, and drained away–leaving the physical world free to remind all of its presence.

NYX____________________________

I awoke, mewling in pain, anything more excited or forceful beyond my capabilities.  My muscles, my guts, my bones were in mutiny.  I felt as though knives were hacking at my skin, whittling away my cartilage, and leaving bare my bones to pinch and grind my nerves and veins.  My neck had swelled, making breathing difficult, and desperate gasps punctuated my pitiful bleats of agony.  I was paralyzed, my hands rigorously frozen to fetal paws held close to my chest. Across from me, Elmiryn remained asleep.

When my mind came into full function and I understood the situation at hand, I tried to smother my own voice and fight away whatever was happening.  I pressed my eyes shut, hard enough that they seemed to push at my eyeballs.  With practiced focus, I sought to reclaim control of my body.  Gradually the pain faded.  The swelling of my neck receded.  My hands unclenched and I could once again move my arms freely. My ears rang.  I wiped at my eyes, where tears had leaked from the corners, and made to sit up.

That’s when Elmiryn stirred. Her eyes were shining slivers, where I could only assume she looked my way.  Then they blinked and labored to open them in full.  I trembled a little.  My body was spent from the effort of returning to normal.  With my back to her, I looked at her over my shoulder.

“Good morning,” I croaked. My throat was still raw. Elmiryn reached out slowly, and ran her hand down my back in a lazy paw.  She let her hand rest on the blanket and closed her eyes again.

“Nyx…” she murmured.

“This is a bad habit you’re forming, Elmiryn.” I tried to smile, but my lips shook unwillingly.  A laugh, high and tense, reverberated through my chest.  It made my trembling worse.  “If I keep waking up before you, we’ll lose so much daylight!” Even as I said that, I knew it was very early. Birds still chirped sleepily in the trees.

Elmiryn rolled onto her back and stared up at the sweet, persimmon sky.  Her lips were parted slightly and her eyes lidded. “It’s morning…you’re right.” She sighed and sat up, head in hands.  “I had a bad dream.”

“What about?”

She looked at me through parted fingers. “You were hurting, and I didn’t help you.” My faux smile fell away.  I turned my face.

“It was just a dream.” I could feel her eyes on me.

She let her hands fall to her lap.  Her face drew long and a wrinkle appeared on her brow.  “Now I know…it wasn’t.”

“Elle, just cast it out of your head.”

“Your voice tells me the truth even when you aren’t trying to.” I closed my eyes to that and sighed heavily. She continued, voice flat. “It wasn’t that I saw you, my eyes were closed.  But I heard you.  Only, I didn’t know where I was.  I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t moving.”

“It’s normal to be confused when you’re half-asleep.”

Elmiryn shook her head and stared at her hands.  “I don’t like it.” She chortled, but it sounded sardonic. “I thought for a second…”

I turned to look back at her.  “…Elle?”

She wiped at her mouth as her eyes unfocused.  Then she stood to her feet, shaking her head emphatically.  “Nevermind.”

Elmiryn set about packing, and I followed suit.

I didn’t try to press the issue.  Pressing the issue would’ve meant returning to what happened to me, and I didn’t want to discuss it.  The Beast had gotten too close–dug so far deep into my memories as to usurp my dreamscape in favor of viewing what wasn’t hers.  In gaining this control, my body had become confused in sleep.  If I had not stopped her, I would have shifted.

You’re paranoid. That wasn’t my intention at all.

I cried out, dropping the blankets I held in my arms. Elmiryn looked at me, blinking. “Nyx, you okay?”

I looked around me. My mouth felt dry. “I…I thought I heard–”

Me. You heard ME.

In my head. A gravelly voice, much like mine, but deeper and with an accent that suggested the speaker was unaccustomed to the language.

I was speechless. I touched both hands to either side of my head and felt faint. “No…”

Your precious Expression is mine now too. Does it bother you, tyrant?

Elmiryn came towards me, hands held out in caution. “…Nyx, look at me.”

“But you’ve no USE for it!” I screamed, stepping back, as if that could distance us. Elmiryn froze, her eyebrows going high. I didn’t pay her much attention. I clawed at my head. “You thief! You vile monster, get out of my head!

“Nyx, that’s enough.”

Two hands grabbed my wrists and I became limp, falling to my knees. Elmiryn knelt with me. “I can hear her…” I breathed. “She’s speaking to me. I can hear her.”

“It was bound to happen.” Elmiryn said, stroking my hair. “She’s your Twin, remember?”

I leaned into her touch. “I don’t want to hear her at all.”

I dislike being talked about as if I’m not here.

I tensed. “Stop it.”

Elmiryn stopped and started to pull away. “All right.”

I grab at her. “No! Not you, Her!”

The warrior’s eyebrow quirked and she took a finger to tap at my head. “Maybe you should talk to her in your head. It’s confusing, otherwise.”

“She means you sound like a crazy person.

My fingers curled and my teeth found themselves grinding. I felt flames burn at the edges of my face, and a growl tensed my throat.

“Be quiet!” I thought.

My animal counterpart purred at me, amused, and sat on her haunches. Her den, her prison, had become larger. With my Expression, she had made it larger.

“Has she stopped?” Elmiryn asked me, still partly turned as if about to stand.

I wait, my eyes on the ground. Then I nod. “I think she’s done.”

Elmiryn patted my arm. “Then let’s go. We’ll need to find a good place for you to shift tonight, farther from the roads.”

This made me feel ill.

The Beast only chuckled.

You see? I have no reason to play games. Tonight is already MINE…


Back to Inter. III | Forward to Chapter 9.2

Chapter 18.2

HER________________________

I’m confused–naturally, as I’m only seeing things in a dream state.  You’d think this was natural.  But I fail to understand the reason the smells of the prison have faded to be replaced by…I don’t even know.  But it makes me feel nonplussed.  We’re moving toward a large entrance.  The woman known as Syria stops us, her hand cupping her ear to the door.  “It seems we left some of our fellows still waiting for us.”

The doors open, by no one’s hand it seems, revealing a beautiful garden.  Just as she said, there’s more people outside, but…I question this.  I make my concerns known to my sapien counterpart.  Just an empathic strike void of words, I’m not sure I can adequately describe what I’m feeling anyway–but as I receive Nyx’s dismissal (“Creature, keep quiet,“) I feel a simultaneous stab of pain through me.  Alarmed, I fall silent, shrinking into the cold mists of my world.  It smells of animality and desperation.  My face bunches as I gaze up into a sky that has turned cloudy.  Then all at once…I can see nothing more.

I scream.

Nyx! What treachery is this!  What’s happened!?  Why can’t I see–” my voice is cut short as the ink closes in around me.

A voice echoes from afar, but I recognize it…I know it because I’ve only just heard it…

“Animals should not speak,” the voice says, just as the shadows rise over my head…

ELMIRYN________________________

Syria bowed to the new guests, all smiles, all warmth.  She invited them into her home, but gazed out into the garden with dismay.  “Oh my,” she breathed, a hand at her lips. “The dogs must be hungry!  We must let them in.”

The garden.

Elmiryn’s gaze hardened as her eyes trailed the wave of carefully pruned rosebushes, neat green grass, and tranquil flower beds.  The mountain wind was somewhat nippy, but the woman didn’t feel the need for a cloak.  Their group of five stood aside to allow the dogs in, a pack of mixed breeds, and the animals scurried into the enchantress’ home.  Their claws clicked on the polished floors.  The warrior heard laughter, but the sound echoed with something else.  She started to look over her shoulder when she saw the others moving forward, chatting together like they were old friends.  Farrel flirted with Syria, and the woman flirted back.  Lethia giggled with Nyx.  Elmiryn listened once again to the sounds behind her, and as Syria traveled farther ahead, she heard it.  Clearly.

Screaming.

The warrior moved to catch up with the group, the edges of her vision blurring as they traveled farther away.  When she was within a few feet of them again, the blurring was gone, and so were the screams.  She had to keep up.  She tried to take some pleasure in the scene presented to her by looking up.  The sky was open to them, revealing stars–gods tears, caught in a veil that concealed heaven.  A veil, a screen–

A lie.

Elmiryn cursed under her breath.

Lethia fell into step next to her, looking shy.  She was wearing a blue frilly dress with light pink laces.  Her hair was pulled back with a jade clip.  Hands behind her back, she smiled at Elmiryn and met her eyes.  “So…what do you think of my mistress?”

Elmiryn sighed, turning her gaze to look at the drink in her left hand with dissatisfaction.  “Yes.  She’s very nice.  Pretty.”  Then she did a double-take.

Wait a fucking minute…

“Hey, your eyes–!” Elmiryn started.

“Hmm?” The girl tilted her head to one side.

The woman faltered.  Then she shook her head and turned her face away.  “Never mind.”

Lethia looked forward again, carefree.  “It’s great that so many people were willing to come to celebrate Syria’s birthday.  After all she’s been through, she deserves it!  She has you and the others to thank too, of course,”  The girl’s smile turned somber.  “Thank you, Elmiryn…for helping.  I know…I know I complicated things.  But you saved me.  And my mistress.”

“The last part is what worries me,” the woman muttered, sloshing her drink.

The girl looked at her, blinking.  “…Sorry?”

“Nothing.”  Elmiryn looked up at her.  “You’ve been having fun, it seems.  Have you thought about it much?”

“What?”

“How you got here?”

Lethia’s smile turned uncertain.  “Um…Elmiryn, are you having a good time?”

The woman gazed at her.  They were walking at the same pace.  Left, right, left, right, left…and yet somehow they still managed to be out of sync.  How annoying. “I’m having a great time, kid,”  Elmiryn eventually said.  She pointed at the girl, “Hey, by the way, how did you manage what you did back there…?  In the staircase.”  She elaborated at the teenager’s look of confusion.  “At Holzoff’s, I mean, with those two guards you controlled.”

“Oh!” Lethia’s eyes went wide.  Then she tapped her jaw.  “Ah…lemme see…wow that seems so long ago.  But I can try and tell you,”  She held up both her hands.  “You see, there are two categories people fall into:  believers and skeptics.  Believers are easier to convince that an illusion is true.  Skeptics need a great deal more work and effort before they’ll buy into anything, and more work if you want them to do as you tell them.  Walt was easy to control–he was a bit simple-minded.  The matrix of his animus was very easy for me to infiltrate and thus control.  But Redford wasn’t so easy.  His matrix was much more complicated.  I had to first present him something very innocuous, something that he could easily agree to, before gradually increasing the level of my commands.”

“Ah, that’s why he seemed to keep acting normal, up until the end.”

“Yes!  Usually that control would take weeks to achieve, but I didn’t have time to wait.  I had to shut down his thoughts altogether.”  Lethia’s brows crashed together as she looked off to the side.  “Come to think of it, I can’t remember how the man fared after we escaped Holzoff’s.  Typically…typically a subject would experience a great deal of mental damage given…given what I did…”  The girl’s expression turned anxious and her eyes fogged with her concerns.

Elmiryn gripped her shoulder.  “Lethia, you did what you had to.”  Skepticism at this point was dangerous, especially coming from the young enchantress.  The woman steered her forward, so that they caught up with the others.  “Don’t dwell too much on it right now.  We’ll figure something out.”

“It’s just…odd.  Even for me.  How could I forget that?”  Then the girl paused, thinking over her words, and without warning she burst into a nervous fit of giggles.  “Gosh, what did I just say!

Elmiryn started to chuckle.

How ridiculous this all was!

Farrel, walking arm in arm with Syria, turned to look at them over his shoulder.  His wisterian eyes, sharp and cool at the same time, were like bowls that held liquid curiosity.  His light lips broke apart in a smile.

“What has ya in such a humorous mood?” he asked.  His accent was back.

“You don’t hear that noise behind us?” Elmiryn asked, gesturing behind her.

The halfling frowned at her and Syria looked back at her now too.  The warrior smiled toothily at the enchantress.  “Your dogs seem to be having a good time with your guests…”

HER________________________

……………pi…………………………..ec………………….

……………………………pi…………………………………..

………….pi…………….ec………………….es…………….

……………………..pi…ec…es…………………………….

………………………pieces………………………………..

[It is a cold place.  A thankless, unforgiving place.  A place devoid of all but the basest of understandings.  But she feels a hook in her.  A way to the surface.  A thread that goes up–but it is too weak to return her.  Still.  Not all had been snuffed out.  Not all had been lost.  After all she still had–]

……pieces……………pieces…………….pieces……….

[–Of Expression still quivering in the surreal breeze like cobwebs still clinging to their warm corners.  This place is rank with fear and self-loathing.  In a bizarre way, the Expression brings her pain, because it brings her understanding, but she cannot do away with it.  She needs it.  Still, her understanding still fails to reach the answers she seeks.  How long had she been there?  A minute?  An hour?  A week?  She is a shard, lost within a vast sea of broken unwanted things–things her other self, her other personality had long since locked away.  This dark ocean once surrounded her sanctuary, threatening to swallow her too, and now it finally had her.  Was it possible to come back?]

…pieces…pieces……pieces…pieces……pieces…pieces……pieces…pieces…

[What if you could bring this chaos together? — She wonders.  Would this take away the cold?  Would this end her turmoil?  She cannot rid herself of the pain, but instead, she decides to embrace it, for it is the one thing she has to tell her she’s alive.  Still existing.  She starts to draw together the cobwebs and the whisperings.  The Dark Matter that made up this sea of unwanted things.  Somethings and Nothings that once were.  She brings these things together, joining them.  The darkness swells around her.  A thought occurs to her and she pauses.  What she was doing could bring trouble for her.  It could hurt Nyx.  It could grow and manifest and hurt the others–like Elmiryn.  It could grow and grow.  Could She stop it?  The thread she has to the light is not strong enough to bear her so she needs more to bolster it, but this Dark Matter is nefarious.  Only…she sees the art cobble together, and she sees a new beast, an unrelenting strength, that could be hers.

She stares at the–]

…pieces…pieces……pieces…pieces……pieces…pieces……pieces…pieces…

[–And decides she’d rather live, fractured in pieces with her Twin, than be lost here for eternity.]

ELMIRYN________________________

The woman couldn’t say for certain how far they’d gone.  Things had dimmed to a grayscale, failing to keep her attentive to the happy chatterings that passed through her head.  She started seeing snow in the garden, and felt colder.  Her broken arm ached more and more.  But amidst the blurry indefinite shapes that paraded and caroused in jovial fashion, there was the ever-colorful, ever beautiful art that she had come to know as uniquely belonging to Nyx.  The girl here, in this pretty pretend world, was radiant.  Her smile was broad.  Her hair was no longer in a mane, but in soft, even curls that bounced and teased her porcelain shoulders.  The girl was laughing.  Smiling with Lethia and with Farrel and with Syria.  Up ahead, there was a glow, over the tall hedgerows, and Elmiryn surmised that the dream would soon end.

The woman looked skyward again, and took a deep breath.

If the dream could last a little longer, than why not let it?

They trudged up a hill.  A large tree rested off to the side, disrupting the mountainous skyline.  There was barking in the distance.  Then Argos appeared, bursting through the bushes, leaves in his fur and his ears perked as he set eyes on Lethia.  The teenager squealed, gathering up her dress as she ran forward.

“Argos!”  She cried.

The great big shaggy dog ran to greet her, barking excitedly.  Well behaved, he didn’t jump on her, but when she crouched down to hug him, he froze, jerking out of her embrace to sniff the front of her dress.  At the injury she had so conveniently forgotten about.  Two silhouettes appeared at the top of the hill, backlit by campfire.  One was taller than the other, though that could’ve been because the one on the left was leaning on his knees.

“Oye!  You people look terrible!”  Graziano.

Elmiryn shouted back up at him, glad to hear his voice.  “Yet surprisingly, we’re still fuckable!”

Elmiryn.”  Nyx glared at her.

The woman grinned at her in return.

They were getting close enough now that she could see his face.  He was smiling a little, but his eyes were on Farrel and Syria.  Then Elmiryn noticed the gun in his hand.

“I don’t believe it.  You made it,” he said.

“Barely,” she said, glancing at the weapon, then at the man.  “Where’s the wizard?”

“Wasn’t he just behind us–?” Graziano started to look over his shoulder.

Paulo straightened, taking a shuddering breath.  He looked at Syria and grabbed the front of his shirt with both hands.  “Hello…Miss Syria.  I was told…you could help me.  P-Please…”

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at him.  She was half expecting more of his tantrums.  It sounded like he’d rehearsed this in his head.  Or maybe it was Graziano’s doing.

“You have others here,” Syria said suddenly.  Her brusque ignore on Paulo’s request made Elmiryn’s eyebrow quirk.  “More guests.”

Paulo blinked at her.  His eyes had dark circles now, making him seem more haunted than when Elmiryn last saw him.  “Guests?  Oh you mean–”

Nyx let out a choked noise.  She fell to her knees, her expression drawn in blank shock. Elmiryn let go of the mirage she had been holding–and the image of her “wine glass” vanished into nothing.  She was once again wearing a ruined doublet with a broken arm, her hair in a sweaty, tangled braid.  The beautiful garden wavered and fell away.  They were knee-deep in snow, almost to camp.  The warrior knelt by Nyx quickly, her eyes trying to make out what was happening.  Argos came up at her side, snarling–but it wasn’t at her or even the Morettis.

The large animal drew his teeth back, hackles raised as he stared up at Syria.  Lethia tried to pull him back from behind, but it was like trying to move a boulder.

Argos! What’s gotten into you!?”  The teenager looked at Elmiryn who hugged Nyx with one-arm.  The Ailuran was struggling to breath, and she was burning up under the touch. “Elmiryn, what’s going on?  What’s happened to Nyx?”  Lethia’s oval-shaped face now sported a light sheen of sweat and a healthy dose of fear.

The woman looked up at Syria, who gazed down at her from the corner of her eye.  She no longer seemed that beautiful anymore.  She was dressed in rags and there were shadows in her eyes.  Her slight smile had something twisted tucked away in it.  Her injuries didn’t seem to faze her, either.

The warrior smirked.  “Kid,” she said, “Stop and think a moment.  Why can you meet my gaze without emptying my head?  How did you get here to this party?  What day is today?”

“I–I don’t–” the girl’s voice cut short.

Elmiryn looked at her again and saw that a sleepy, blank look had taken over her face.  She sat back and Argos turned to look at his owner, his ferocity dying out with a whine.

“I was hoping,” Syria drawled over them.  “That the animal in Nyx would stay quiet.  I’ve never quite come across a mindscape like hers.  I was very tempted to risk everything in probing further.  Perhaps I should have invested more time investigating how her split personalities work…then maybe she wouldn’t have slipped from me.  It doesn’t matter.  It seems her malady removes her as a concern for the time being.”

Elmiryn closed her eyes.  “The Twin is all about survival.  On top of that, she’s intelligent.  She knows a cage when she sees one, and won’t allow herself to remain trapped.  Now whether or not her sudden rebellion was wise, that’s left up to debate,” the warrior shrugged her good shoulder.

The dark-haired woman looked at her, a wry smile on her lips.  “Your mindscape is quite interesting as well, Elmiryn. It’s just beginning to show signs of deterioration, but nothing of your thoughts gave you away.  I’d thought you were under my thrall.  It’s as though you’re smoke.”

Elmiryn opened her eyes and smirked up at the woman.  “I’m not so easy to manipulate.”

The noble laughed.  “I’ll remember that next time.”

“There won’t be a next time.”

“…You’re right.”

Farrel was staring between the two women.  Argos licked Lethia’s cheek and hand in an attempt to get her to wake.  She didn’t move.

Graziano held up his pistol.  He placed a hand on Paulo’s chest and forced the boy back.  “Elmiryn.  Tell us what’s going on…” he said, voice wary.

“Why are you doing this?”  The warrior asked the enchantress.

Syria looked at Elmiryn, eyebrow raised.  “You’re an inquisitive ghost…aren’t you?”

Farrel stepped away from her.  “I’m…not following any of this…”

“I was trying to wait this out, to see what Syria had planned,”  Elmiryn said nodding at the enchantress.  “Making us believe in her illusions just as much as the guards wasn’t in keeping with someone who was innocent.  But she spared us, unlike those men in the tower.  I wanted to know why.  She could’ve killed us right away and been done with the whole matter.”

Farrel clenched his fists as he looked down at himself as though seeing his armor for the first time.  He glared at Syria, all his affection and humor gone.  “What did you do?”

Syria laughed again, but the sound was dryer–harsher.  “Silly man, I saved you all!”

“What did you do!” He snarled.

She let the daesce into the tower,” Elmiryn spat.  “Those men are all torn apart by now.  What about the prisoners, Syria?  Didn’t you care about them?

The woman shrugged.  “They’re in prison cells.  Unless help doesn’t arrive, I imagine the worst they’ll suffer is starvation…so long as they stay away from the bars.”

“You’re insane!”  Farrel shouted, pink-faced.  He drew his dagger and held it before him, but it was like holding a twig to a raging fire, and the man knew it.

Syria looked at him mildly.  She gestured at Elmiryn.  “I’m no more insane than this woman here.”  She looked at Lethia.  “Up, girl.  There are magic users near, but they won’t be able to interfere.  At any rate, this won’t take very long.”

Lethia stood, a breath rattling from her lips.

Everyone around had stepped away from the enchantress and her apprentice, Argos included.  He whimpered, a last appeal to his owner who stared at Syria like she were the only thing in the world that existed.  Paulo drew his rapier, swallowing loudly.  Elmiryn dragged Nyx back by her clothes.  She lay the girl at her feet, who was still gasping, still lost in her mind.  The woman didn’t know what was wrong with her–but there was not much she could do.  Her eyes were still strained on the dark-haired enchantress, who now gazed skyward.

“I’m not going to indulge you all with a speech.”  She smiled, her expression sad.  “You wouldn’t understand anyway.”

Graziano pointed his gun and Elmiryn saw his finger flex on the trigger, but he didn’t pull.  Sweat rolled into his unblinking gaze.  She made to push into a run, to charge with her blade, screaming.  But her body couldn’t move.  At first she thought she was suffering another episode–but then it occurred to her that such things weren’t supposed to be noticed by the subject in question–and at any rate this was happening differently.  She was still aware of her body, still aware of the size of the world and her place in it, but an invisible force was physically preventing her from moving.  The woman could still move her eyes, and she saw that she was not alone in her entrapment.  Graziano was similarly stuck, as was Farrel, and so she guessed, was Argos.  They were like grave statues.  But then Paulo walked forward, dropping his weapon.  His face now sported the same blank expression Lethia’s did.

Syria held her chin, her face turned away.  She seemed lost in thought.  Paulo stopped before Lethia, and the two faced each other.  The boy removed his shirt, and Lethia crouched down to pull at his pants.  Within a minute, the boy was standing naked in the cold.  His limbs were wiry and he sported an erection (“Quite a feat in this cold!” the woman thought.)  The dark-haired enchantress waved one hand.  The snow crunched and hissed as it shifted to make a flat relief in the slope.  Paulo lay down in the center of the newly cleared snow and Lethia stood over him, both hands held palm up at either side of her.

Syria stood at Paulo’s feet, her eyes shining in the dark.  She gazed at her captive audience.  “Enchantment is not the only form of magic I know.  It was my secret for years.  But you can all still walk away, today, without ever knowing the extent of my power.  You can live long lives, and I can wipe your minds free of the burden of these memories.  For freeing me, this I can offer you.  But I have something I must finish first.  I’m sorry, but this will not be pleasant.”

Then she looked at Paulo again.

Lethia raised her hands.

At first Elmiryn didn’t understand it, but then Paulo began to rise in the air, perfectly horizontal as though he were still lying at his back.  Then there was a roar, and in the next instant, a stream of fire flowed over them.  Syria was taking the fire from the camp and multiplying it.  Elmiryn would have ducked, would have shielded Nyx.  But the woman still couldn’t move.  She couldn’t even blink.  She could only watch with watering eyes as the brilliant fire encircled Paulo.  Then…

Flames licked out, with purpose, over every part of the boy’s body, tracing shapes into his skin.  He didn’t scream.  He didn’t squirm.  It were as though he wanted it, wished for it to happen.

Syria was murmuring, her face a tight scowl as she worked.

Then there was a voice that drifted on the wind.

I see, so you see.  I hear, so you hear.  I know, so you know.  Illuminate this for the eyes of the blind.  Reveal what is hidden, bring forth what is desired!

Syria didn’t even turn her head.  Simply pointed with her arm, and a surge of flames broke away from the ritual to fly back toward camp.  Something flashed overhead, a bright white light.  Elmiryn’s mind felt as though it were electrified.  Thoughts flashed through at miraculous speed.

“Syria’s using Lethia as a puppet.  I’ve never heard of it–I don’t know shit about magic, really–but I guess it’s possible isn’t it?  It’s like she’s possessing the girl.  She has Lethia levitate Paulo while Syria burns those symbols into his body–sacrifice, he’s a sacrifice, a seed–but what’s it all for? Take out Lethia and Syria’s power is halved.  The girl…her eyes.  She never needed those glasses.  Syria had just done something to her, to control her–Lethia must be powerful for Syria to put such a cap on her.  But none of this solves my problem of fucking moving–”

HER________________________

I start to rise forth, all gritty vengeance, the vestiges of a world nameless and unwanted slowly stripping away from my spirit as I spearhead my way into the forefront of this shared intellect.  I’m gripping onto my newfound weapon, the Dark Matter, my force of primal instincts gathered together with these lost thoughts and feelings.  It is a black ribbon, a rope that takes me higher.  It lashes in my grip, but I command it still.  With this, I am the forgotten and unwanted daughter.  But I will have my say.

My return from the darkness brings Nyx to her knees, and I feel the ghostly wave of shock and inertia take hold of our body.  I’m pushing into her consciousness, but I’m not seeking to conquer it.  I feel like the entire world is pressing down on me, squeezing my limbs, gripping my spirit.

Two souls cannot be in control.  Two souls cannot fit here.

The mind struggles to make a stage for us both.  Within seconds we stand opposite the other, staring each other down–me upright, but with fur and claw, she looking just as she had in Syria’s illusion.

Nyx starts, trembling.  It could be rage or fear or both. “What’re you–”

I cut her off.  We do not have time for the usual dance of words. “Nyx.  You must remember where you are.  Do you really think you’re at Syria’s home?  Do you remember anything of Holzoff’s?  Of how we got there?”

“Of course I do!” she snaps.  “But that doesn’t explain–”

“What’s my name.”

Nyx blinks.  Stares at me as though I’ve suddenly turned into a human (scary thought.)  “What sort of question is that?”

I bare my teeth, my tail lashing behind me.  “You self-important baboon…you forget so easily!?”

“What?  What did I forget?”

“That you would give me a name!  After Holzoff’s Tower, I would’ve raised the issue, and yet you cannot even recall sparing a thought for it!  What happened to all those guards you left behind?  The prisoners?  What happened to Belcliff?  Why is Syria’s tower suddenly a castle instead?”  I’m screaming at her now.  Why is my life tied with this fool?

The girl hugs herself.  Her breaths–imaginary in this place–turn to fog. “How do you know this?  All you see is just a dream to you, how do you know this isn’t just your misinterpretation?”

“Our malady doesn’t quite work that way, sister.”  I spit the word out.  I crouch and point a claw at her, the black ribbon snaking up my arm.  “Whatever you experience, I still feel.  I still sense.  When the prison suddenly vanished, I knew something was wrong–but when I moved to speak to you Syria tried to silence me.”

“So she’s…”

“Not as she seemed.”  I look up at the black overhead that looms over us.  “I imagine something is happening now.”

“Why’s that?”

“Moron.  Because she hasn’t tried to stop me yet.”

Light flares around us, and riding on its hot intensity comes a deep understanding.  Then the stage tears away, unable to hold us both.  I willingly slip back into the subconscious, back to the sanctuary I have made.  Given the look that had crossed Nyx’s face before sight and sound had been torn asunder, I decide that for once, my sister can handle it.  It’s a surprise, and not an unpleasant one.

I don’t really envy her position.

At any rate, I’m always here in case of disaster, and I have the Dark Matter to aid me…

ELMIRYN________________________

Nyx shuddered and rose, her nose and ears bleeding just as the light overhead vanished.  She was heaving breaths, her eyes wild and glassy.  Syria didn’t think it necessary to restrain her, it seemed.  She looked at Paulo, Lethia, then Syria.  She didn’t need long to make a decision about the scene before her.

“No, NO!  We have to stop her!”  Nyx screamed, scrambling to her feet.

The Words echoed in Elmiryn’s head.  There was something spiky about it, that made her body tingle pleasantly.  She had felt tired, despite her determination, her body shuddering on the last stretches of its strength.  But she suddenly felt rejuvenated.  Nyx said they had to stop this, and she was right.  Elmiryn took as much breath as she could, and…

Again, Syria didn’t even move her head.  A slight flick of her hand, and the flames surged forth, reaching angrily.  There was a muted boom.  Snow exploded before them and the ground shook.  A black gauntlet struck away the flames, where they perished in the cold air in a hiss of embers and heat.  Nyx stared, dumbfounded as Hakeem, dressed in his mage armor, stood over her and Elmiryn both.

The warrior grunted, forcing her muscles to move against the invisible force.  When she gained an inch forward, the woman screamed and pushed her body harder.  There was a rush of air around her, and she tumbled into Hakeem’s side.  She was free. The man was still crouching before them, his arm held up as he maintained some sort of gravitational shield against the fire that lashed at the group.  They were literally caught under a bordello of flames.  Snow turned to slush, turning their boots and pants damp.

Panting, the woman winced as her broken arm stabbed with pain.  She looked at Hakeem, “We have to stop this before she kills Paulo!” she shouted over the roar of fire.  She pointed forward with her sword.  “Give me cover, I think I know what to do!”

The man nodded, his face tight with exertion.  “Go now!”

Elmiryn returned the nod, and with a breath, she pushed forward into a run.  Hakeem roared, pushing with all his body as he rocked the shield forward so that it cleared a way for the woman to run through the flames.  As she passed beneath Paulo’s body, she saw Lethia, her face slack and disconnected from the chaos before her–indifferent to the hellish flames that came frighteningly close to scorching her.  With a shout, she slammed her fist into the girl’s mouth.  The teenager’s head snapped back, her eyes rolling back into her head.  Lethia fell backward…unconscious.  The warrior continued her run, legs pumping through the snow.

Behind Elmiryn, there was a crunch.  Without the gravitational force keeping Paulo aloft, his body had crashed down into the snow.  The woman started to wheel around, her gaze flickering to Syria.  From the corner of her eyes, she saw Graziano and Farrel freed of their bonds.  The Moretti moved, his face drawn in horror as he took in his brother’s mutilated body but Hakeem held him back, saying something that was lost in the resulting commotion.  Was the boy even still alive…?

“Your therian friend possesses an ancient magic, it seems.  I thought that art form was dead.  Somehow I missed that,”  Syria sounded more exasperated than angry.  Her arms swung, and her eyes held the flames of the fire she now orchestrated toward Elmiryn.  “Something wrong was bound to happen, it’s been so long since I’ve had to command so much at such levels.  But do you really think you can win?”

…Only, the fire died, sputtering as they fruitlessly stretched through the cold air.  The warrior stopped and watched as the flames literally flickered out to nothing before her face.

Overhead, there was a bright and orange glow.  Elmiryn looked up, her eyes widening.  Were those the suns…?

Like a bolt of lightning, the light condensed together, then flashed down with a crack.  Syria stirred the snow about her feet, sending up a snow wall as she stumbled backward.

Standing in a crater of melted snow, steam curling about her, Quincy pointed her golden blade at Syria–her body glowing with a bright light.  “You thought yourself supreme, and thus underestimated us all.  Perhaps Hakeem and I aren’t enough to stop you.  But these people will not just sit back and let you carry out your sick plans.”  The woman drew back her blade as she fell into a fighting stance.  “Let me be the first to show you the error of your ways!”

Elmiryn laughed and charged forward, her sword poised to strike.

“Somehow I’m not surprised you’re here, wizard!”  She cried.  Syria turned, her eyes widening with surprise as the warrior drew back her blade.  “But the right to first blood is mine!


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