Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 4.1

ELMIRYN________________________

The cold and oppressive corruption was like ghostly palms pushing against her.

Her eyes shifted to the side to gaze briefly at her petite companion, whose mess of dark locks shielded her expression from view.  The wind was a nefarious agent, breathing death on their skin.  It chased ash around their ankles and the scent of carrion to their noses.

So vile.

Beneath their feet, the grass crunched and crumbled to dust. …So maybe it wasn’t ash? The blades were chalk white versus the fading yellow of your typical dead grass. The alder trees that sprinkled the fields were much the same, brittle clumps of leaves on their gray branches. How could anything be reduced to such a dismal state? There was stark line where this unnatural decay began, separating the green life that spilled from the sides of the Torreth Mountains from the gray death that affected the lands of Gamath.

The city could be seen in the distance.

Elmiryn’s eyes again shifted to look at Nyx. It were as if she were afraid the youth would drift away like a stray boat, out into a cold ocean that would surely swallow her whole. She felt like grabbing the girl’s hand and never letting go. And why the neediness? Why the fear?

The warrior thought of the moment back at the foot of the mountains and her body tensed. The girl’s face to the ground, her chest not moving…

She had looked like the dead deer.

Even as the details of the scene faded, leaving only the horror that shocked Elmiryn’s senses, this one picture stubbornly remained–golden–frayed at the edges and lit from behind by intensity of the woman’s feelings.

And the Ailuran had no idea what the problem was. Didn’t she feel the life leaving her? The cold that swept her skin? Did her lungs not scream for air, her mind scream for freedom, her soul scream from the molestation from evil? Elmiryn hadn’t understood immediately what the issue was. The girl had simply stopped talking, gone still on the ground. When she realized what was going on, it had threatened to throw her into hysterics.

Nyx had been like that for fifteen minutes.

But Elmiryn didn’t mention this. She didn’t tell Nyx of the illusory death that had overcome her for so long a time–too long for any living creature to know. She was certain the girl would completely shut her mind if this fact was mentioned to her. It would be too terrible.

And it was too terrible.

How long before the pestilence stole the freshness from her skin?

“Elle.”

Elmiryn stirred from her thoughts. “Huh?”

“I said did you feel that.” Nyx was looking at her now, her brows pressed together. She had rather striking expressions, this girl. Elmiryn was beginning to recognize when she was annoyed, when she was genuinely angry, when she was amused or sad. It was all guesswork, of course–her curse made it difficult to judge on appearances alone. But this girl made it…fun. Like it were a game.

Right now, Nyx was feeling afraid.

“It’s what he does,” Elmiryn said, looking back toward Gamath. “Meznik has spent a lot of time here. It’s deteriorated the natural order. You’re feeling that push on your eyeballs and the knotted stomach, right?”

The Ailuran gave a mute nod.

“Yeah…it means something isn’t right. It means HE was here.”

“Do you know what he looks like?” the girl asked quietly. She was hugging herself.

Elmiryn began to answer tentatively. “Honestly…I don’t really know. He takes many forms.” She shrugged. “It isn’t even entirely correct to call Meznik a ‘he’. In this language, it’d be more correct to refer to him as ‘it’.”

“Do you know why he cursed you?”

“…Again, I don’t really know.”

Nyx kicked at a rock on the ground, her bag of trinkets jingling from the harsh action. “Y’know, I’ve only read about two other astral demons in history. No one knew what they looked like or why they came either.” The girl continued to speak, though her voice was subdued. “There was Izma, who was accused with genocide and the disruption of many royal lineages. Then there was Bao-Gar, who raped noble women and stole riches from Kings…” her voice trailed away.

Elmiryn looked at her sideways. “You’re skeptical.”

The girl glanced at her, then shook her head. “I don’t doubt your sincerity. I don’t even doubt the fact that you’ve been cursed. But astral demons have been laughed out of magical studies due to people’s inability to prove their existence–and when you stop to think about it–don’t all the stories of Izma and Bao-Gar sound like caste-related paranoia? The kind whispered between the rich and those of noble class? The fact that all these occurrences could be explained away by spiritual hauntings, shape-shifters, enchantment…” Nyx gave a shrug and looked at Elmiryn nervously. “I mean, don’t you think it’s plausible?”

The warrior looked down at her, her cerulean eyes lidded. “And the sensations you are feeling now…what can you explain that away with?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“I guess we’ll see then…”

“Elle, I’m not trying to insult you. I don’t even really think it’s that big an issue! The fact of the matter remains–I’m still in your debt, no matter what.”

The corners of Elmiryn’s lips hitched up into a fixed grin. “Thank you.”

The closer they came to Gamath, the heavier the world felt. The woman could feel her boots drag like they were lead, and her breath became labored as a cold disgust washed on the shores of her mind. Nyx fared no better–if anything, Elmiryn was certain she was doing worse. Sweat had slicked the girls ashen face and her shoulders sagged. The warrior remembered Nyx’s rule–about proximity–but in this case she found it necessary to offer the girl support by slipping her arm around her, and the youth offered no complaints.

At the limits of Gamath, they stopped.

Unlike Dame, Gamath was much more spacious, and their roads were wide for the passing of carts. The cobbled thoroughfare was strewn with dirt and hay. The pressure that fought against Elmiryn made her head throb, and Nyx had started to lean against her as if she couldn’t stand on her own. The warrior’s eyes darted between the dark two-story cottages and the abandoned merchants stands. Her eyes lingered on a large pile of animal droppings, dry and untrampled.  The buildings were shut up and quiet.

“They’ve abandoned this place,” Elmiryn murmured. “…Good.”

Nyx trembled.  She shook her head. “I can hear something.”

The older woman looked down at her with a frown. “What?”

The girl gazed forward, her brows pressing together over her watery eyes. “Claws,” she whispered.

Elmiryn heard it growl before she saw it. Several yards ahead, a large shaggy mountain dog with a black coat, a cream snout, and honey-colored paws stepped out from behind the shadow of an overturned cart. The rival suns had fled the sky, leaving the subtle light of the moon, but it was light enough that Elmiryn could see the foam dripping from the mongrel’s quivering lips, the madness that glinted in its eyes as its muscles bunched beneath its thick coat.

Slowly, the warrior disengaged from Nyx and set down her bag. She pulled an arrow from her quiver, her eyes trained on the dog, and readied her bow, pulling the bowstring as far back as her chin.

The dog started forward, its claws clicking against the cobbled road as a vicious bark tore from its throat. Nyx stumbled back, falling onto her rear. “Elmiryn!” she squeaked.

Before the woman fired her arrow, a large spear came sailing in a clear arc from further down the road. It struck the mammoth dog in the back, eliciting a short-lived cry before it crashed gracelessly into the ground. Elmiryn blinked, but kept her bow at the ready.

Footsteps echoed toward them. The woman shifted so that her weapon pointed that way. A man came into view, dressed in a noseguard helmet and studded leather armor. He held up his hands and slowed his steps. “Ho there,” he called.

Elmiryn took a moment before responding. “Who are you?”

His retort was quick.  “Shouldn’t I be asking the questions?”

“Well if you told me who you are, then maybe I could answer you.”

The man stared at her, then chortled. He placed a careful hand on his chest. “I am Sedwick. The town blacksmith.”

“And what is a blacksmith doing here? With no business?” Elmiryn asked.

“I protect the last remaining residents of Gamath from the mad creatures that stumble through these streets.” He tilted his head to the side and his smile turned crooked. “I also protect the abandoned homes from would be looters.”

Elmiryn quirked an eyebrow. “I’m Elmiryn.” She slowly lowered her bow. “You say there are others here?”

The man nodded, once again starting forward now that the threat of being shot was gone. He reclaimed his spear from the dog’s back, placing a firm boot on the corpse and yanking the long weapon out without so much as a blink of his eyes. He turned to Elmiryn. “There’s a collection of us held up at the Dripping Cloak, an inn not far from here. Forgive me for being so forthcoming, but I get a sense that you understand what’s going on here.”

“Word travels fast.  Hard to ignore one of the most important rivers of the East becoming poisoned.  Why would anyone stay here?”

Sedwick shrugged. “These are the sick and poor. When faced with the option of braving the mountains or crossing the river to the next civilized town, there was no choice.” His eyes flitted to Nyx, who shrank beneath his gaze. “And your companion?”

Elmiryn glanced at her, then placed a firm hand on her shoulder. “This is my ward, Nyx.”

The girl mumbled something, then gave a cursory bow.

Sedwick shouldered his spear and held out his hand. “Alright then.  Let me help you with your things.”

“No, I think we’ve got it.”

“Mmm…Fine.  Follow me.”

Elmiryn gathered her things again. Nyx put a hand to her mouth, then leaned forward onto her knees. The woman placed a hand on her back. “You okay?” She asked.

“It’s the air,” Nyx managed after a moment. “The smell here it’s…Elle, this place makes me feel so sick. I think I might throw up again.”

“Don’t you dare.” Elmiryn began to steer the girl forward, her eyes looking up to see that Sedwick was waiting for them. “Not after all that trouble I went to, vanquishing an animal in the name of your endless hunger!”

Nyx grinned, her head rolling back to look up at Elmiryn. “Okay. Just for you, I’ll swallow it down.”

“Good. Remember–only the girls who swallow it, get anywhere in life!” Elmiryn winked.

The Ailuran looked at her in surprise.  Then, despite her clear misgiving, she snorted into laughter, her voice echoing down the street as much as through the warrior’s head. Elmiryn offered the young girl support again and they proceeded to follow Sedwick as he led them to the only building where lights could be seen.  It looked like a tavern, but the sign was missing.

“It’s quiet,” She said, looking to Sedwick. “How many did you say were here?”

The blacksmith shrugged. “Perhaps only sixty. A few days ago, there were at least a 100 more, but they’ve all fled to Tiesmire, to the North.”

The man opened the heavy door that led inside, and as they entered, the two were met with more than a dozen baleful eyes. People seemed to be tucked into every possible nook and cranny, the heat from the collected body warmth like a wave of sweat and illness that rolled over them. Nyx, who had previously only been leaning, was now clutching to Elmiryn. The woman, meanwhile, felt her headache worsen, and pressed a hand to her head.

She felt a hand at her elbow, and she looked to see Sedwick gazing at her. “We’ve had a few like yourself pass through here recently. They fared much the same.”

“Why aren’t you affected?” Elmiryn asked, spots dancing past her eyes.

The man shrugged as he shut the door. “We’ve gotten used to it.”

The woman shook her head, then winced and touched her forehead again. She looked at Sedwick, then at everyone in the room. “This isn’t something to get used to,” she breathed, looking back at the blacksmith. “If this keeps on, you’ll be as good as damned.  I mean to put a stop to this.”

This declaration made the man’s brows rise high. “Oh really?”

Elmiryn narrowed her gaze a fraction.  “Yes. Really.”

Sedwick gave a dry laugh and clapped Elmiryn on the shoulder. “Don’t bother.”

He took off his helmet, and his overgrown sandy-gray hair flopped into his wide face, clumped and sweaty. Here in the candlelight, Elmiryn could see the color of his eyes–brown–and how stubble shadowed his jaw and upper lip. His eyebrows were uneven, one side looking as if it had been the victim of a knife. There was a deep cut across the left side of his face from the corner of his eye to his chin, and it wrinkled as he smiled at her and said again, “Don’t bother.  Really.”

He gestured for them to follow him and they did, stepping carefully over the huddled bodies and limbs.

“The last man that tried to solve our problem never returned.  Some upstart named Aidan.  We gave him the last of our gold–but for all we know he made off with it. There were more that came, seeking payment for their services–but we can’t afford it now.  Needless to say, that’s still the case.  No…it’s best to just leave this to a Legend to take care of. It’s what they’re good for.” He began to climb the stairs to the second floor.

“Legends aren’t known for their punctuality,” Elmiryn said. She gripped the railing tightly as she tried to drag Nyx up with her. The girl seemed to be losing the use of her legs.

“Look.” Sedwick stopped at the top of the stairs and turned to look at Elmiryn with a tired expression.  It looked like a tremendous weight was pressing down on him all over. “You wanna get turned inside out by the guardian? Fine. But don’t expect anyone to help you should anything happen. Like I said, we can’t pay you either…” and here he sighed.  “IF you are so gods damned set on this, then my suggestion is to get some rest.  A safe place to sleep is as much as we can offer you.”

“I intended to go during daylight anyway…Goddamn it Nyx!” But Elmiryn’s voice lacked any conviction. The Ailuran was slipping to the steps, her eyes going glassy. Her hair had turned to sweaty clumps, strands of it sticking to her face.

Elmiryn looked to Sedwick, holding out her bag.  “Here take this for a moment.”  He did, and she next handed him her bow. “Thanks.”

With a grunt, the warrior knelt down and scooped the girl up, much like she had the first night they had met. When she straightened, she groaned and squeezed her eyes shut.  The world lurched, and pain split down the middle of her skull straight into her sinuses.

“This way. There’s a spot on the floor for the both of you.” She heard Sedwick say. “I’m afraid we’re reserving the beds for the sick and children.”

Elmiryn blinked her eyes open and followed him. When they came to the last door in the hallway, the woman asked quietly, “Have you any drink?”

The blacksmith looked at her. “What…you mean spirits?”

“Yes.”

“Sure, we’ve lots of it down below. Why?”

“I was wondering if I could have a bit of wine.”

“You realize of course that we haven’t any water to give you should you make yourself ill, right?  The same goes for food?”

“That’s fine.  Oh, and I’ve some meat there, in that bag.  Deer.  Killed just this morning.  Now the wine?”

The man let out a surprised grunt, pausing as he set the bag down to look through it.  He came up with the wrapped meat. “Thank you!”  He smiled, his scar wrinkling.  “Okay, I’ll be back in a moment with your wine…There should be a space in the far-left corner for you in here.”

Elmiryn entered the room as he left and squinted in the darkness. She saw that, indeed, the far-left corner was empty, and gingerly made her way there.  On a dresser next to their corner, a collection of candles flickered, offering a small bit of light. She rolled Nyx off her shoulder and laid her down gently in her arms. “Nyx?” she prompted.

The girl stirred, her tawny eyes rolling in their sockets before fixing on Elmiryn’s face. “Was’happenin’ ta me?” she mumbled.

The warrior brushed the hair from Nyx’s face, her gaze going soft. “The source of Meznik’s corruption. We’re closer to it. That’s why we have to take care of this quick. The longer we stay here…” Elmiryn’s voice died in her throat as Nyx began to look elsewhere, her tongue slipping out of her mouth, reptilian-like, to trace her teeth and lips. She was trailing her fingertips on the floor, her hand flexing occasionally.  She took a sharp intake of breath and arched her back when Elmiryn placed a hand on her face and forced her attention back toward her.

“…The more we see what he wants us to.” The warrior finished quietly, sitting back.

A moment later, the door opened again, and Sedwick came, handing Elmiryn two bottles of red wine. “Maybe you should drink those downstairs,” He said, glancing at the sleeping forms around them.

“Don’t worry,” Elmiryn said before uncorking the bottle with her teeth. “I’m a good lil’ drunk.”

Sedwick looked skeptical. “Swear on Halward’s head that you’ll keep quiet?”

“I swear.”

“Good.” He stepped out of the room.

Elmiryn didn’t stop to look at the wine’s seal, nor did she put into effect any of the typical customs associated with wine tasting. She simply took the bottle into her mouth and tipped it far back. Some of it dribbled out the corner of her mouth, but she managed to swallow most of it. The feel of the lukewarm drink cascading down her throat was a sort of comfort to her. She stopped to take some air, a little over a quarter of the bottle gone. Elmiryn then turned her attention to Nyx.

“Nyx…here, drink some of this.”

The girl’s eyes had fallen shut and she had her hands in her hair–she ran her fingers through the uneven strands and forced them through knots with startling force. Each time this happened, the girl would wince and whimper, but she didn’t stop. Elmiryn was reminded of a baby pulling its own hair.

She grabbed Nyx’s wrist. “Knock it off!” With a sigh, she pulled the Ailuran up into her lap and forced her mouth open with her free hand. “Open up, Nyx. You need to drink some of this.” she poured some of the wine into the girl’s mouth, and Nyx choked and let out a cry that was certain to wake someone up, but at the moment Elmiryn was too preoccupied to care. When the youth turned her face away, coughing, the warrior took another swig, then set the bottle down.

“I’m sorry, Nyx. You can scream at me later.”  Elmiryn could feel the world shift and felt a warmth grow in  her chest.  Her headache had lessened. “But for now, you’ve got to drink…you’ve got to see this…as one big joke.”  The girl didn’t seem to be listening.  The woman took her thumb and wiped away a drop of wine from Nyx’s chin.

Surprisingly quick, the youth grabbed at Elmiryn’s retreating hand, her face turning to stare at it like it were a mouse.  Then without warning, she took the warrior’s thumb into her mouth, biting a little, but mostly sucking.  The woman breathed in sharply at the feel of Nyx’s swirling tongue, warm and wet–but just as quick as the moment had come, it was over, and the Ailuran nuzzled back into Elmiryn’s lap.

The woman blinked down at her, warmth spreading over her skin.  Then she sighed and scooted over so that she could lean against the wall.

“…Y’know…I’d probably be of the mind to take advantage of this situation if I didn’t feel like it’d be one child molesting another.


Back to Chapter 3.4 | Forward to Chapter 4.2

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 4.3

ELMIRYN________________________

She took her hands and traced the more bizarre features of her companion like a blind woman.  Her mind jammed, like a broken cog, on this sudden information.  “Nyx looks different.  Nyx has changed…is it even Nyx?”  Smooth skin beneath dry fingertips caused Elmiryn’s eyes to slip shut for a brief second before they fluttered open again.

This was her companion, Elmiryn reasoned.  She couldn’t logically be replaced by anyone else without first vanishing from sight completely, not even with the aid of magic.  It wasn’t a trick of the eye, either.  The Ailuran had indeed shifted her form.

Nyx’s fine, round-tipped nose had changed to a low-sloped, dainty thing that was pink, wet, and heart-shaped. Her eyes slanted further upwards and were now host to a slitted bestial gaze. Her lips had turned thinner and pinker, the upper lip gaining a low curve that overpowered the lower lip at the ends. Barely visible from the shadow of her parted mouth were sharp canines and a rough-looking tongue that seemed to pulse with every anxious exhalation.  Elmiryn even forced the girl’s head to the side and found that her ears had become pointed and fuzzed at the tips.

After suffering this for ten seconds, Nyx pulled away and fell clumsily against the bar. “Stop it!” she snapped.  A clawed hand touched her flushed face.  She paused at the feel of her sharp nails against her skin, and Elmiryn could see her tongue go to feel the points of her canines uncertainly.

The warrior stared at her, her hands still in the air where she had felt the girl’s ears. “Why didn’t you hurt when you shifted?”

“She’s…she’s a therian.” Sedwick breathed.  He took a small step forward and shook his head. “I don’t know why I didn’t notice befo–”

“She’ll kill us!” Baldwin squeaked. He grunted, and Elmiryn’s ears tickled at the sound of a sword hissing out of its scabbard.

She turned hard on the ball of her foot and grabbed the boy’s arm before he could fully draw his weapon. Sedwick jumped back, his hands tightening on his spear as he held it before him. Elmiryn only glanced at him before looking at the boy. “Keep your head on straight,” she breathed as her eyes looked resolutely into Baldwin’s dark ones. “You think hard about drawing out that sword of yours. Doing so commits you to a dangerous situation. This girl,” Elmiryn made a vague gesture over her shoulder with her chin. “Is with me. You hurt her, and you find yourself answering to my blade. Given how there are bigger things at stake, maybe you ought to reconsider getting yourself killed before we head to the guardian?”

Baldwin blinked at her.  His face dripped with sweat. “You…You mean you’ll let me come?”

Elmiryn nodded. “Yes. But only if you listen to what I say and think.

The ruddy hopeful looked from Sedwick, to Elmiryn, and back again. The blacksmith relaxed and gave a stern nod.

Baldwin sheathed his sword. “Okay. …But if she does anything–!”

“She won’t.” Elmiryn turned back to Nyx. The girl was staring into a reflective plate she had picked up from somewhere on the bar.  Her face had gone slack.

“What’s…happening to me?” she breathed.

“Elmiryn, I think we need to have a serious talk.” Sedwick said firmly.

Elmiryn gave a brief look around the room.  Those inside the inn were now staring their way, most on their feet and with uneasy expressions.  With a sigh, the warrior took her stunned companion by the shoulders.  “In a moment,” she said to Sedwick before she guided Nyx to the darker side of the inn, where they sat at an empty table away from the others. The warrior sat across from the girl, with her elbows on the wooden surface and her hands interlaced.  She pressed them to her lips as she gazed levelly at the Ailuran.  “You didn’t feel the shift happen?” she asked quietly.

Nyx looked at her, still holding the plate.  She was shaking, and her eyes shined with tears. “I…didn’t.” Elmiryn noted how the girl’s head seemed unsteady and her gaze fogged.

The woman took a deep breath and closed her eyes.  When she opened them again, she said, “…Were you lying to me about the Mark?”

There was a great pause.  Elmiryn’s eyes fixed onto Nyx’s flushed face, and the table seemed to lengthen between them.  The youth’s mouth curved downward at the ends, and her eyes narrowed.  In anticipation, the warrior leaned back.  Her eyes blinked as she saw Nyx stand roughly, her chair knocking to the floor.  The image of Nyx, her animal countenance, became irresolute.  But Elmiryn’s attention was drawn away from the girl’s face when the Ailuran took the plate she held and threw it to the floor, where it shattered loudly. “How DARE you!” she screamed.

Baldwin made a move for his sword again, and Sedwick started forward as if to intervene.  The others in the room fled outside, curses and exclamations falling from their stuttering lips.

The woman was on her feet, hands held up.  She looked at Sedwick and gave a harsh shake of her head.  The man ceased his advancement.  He looked to Baldwin and made a negative motion with his hand.  The youth soured, his chubby face going red, before he sheathed his sword again.  Elmiryn looked back at the Ailuran across from her.  “Nyx. Sit. Down.

Nyx began to pace, her hands tensed so that her clawed fingers curled.  “To even suggest that I’d willingly claim such a shameful burden–for ANY reason!!”

“All right, I get it.” Elmiryn slowly sat down, hands still held up. “I get it. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

The girl kept moving, her shoulders hunched around her ears.  She didn’t take her eyes off Elmiryn.  “No.  Elmiryn, I don’t think you get it at all.”  She growled, and ran her hands through her wild hair.  “I don’t feel…like…this skin is right…”  She hugged herself, pressing her chin to her chest so that her head seemed to retreat into her body.  “Not right…at all.”

Elmiryn’s head tilted to the side.  Her eyes were bright cerulean pieces of glass that saw and filtered by short means of conception.  They took in the sight of Nyx, a picture of frustration and anger.  Those were easy enough things to relate to.  But, in the literal sense, the woman wasn’t sure if the youth’s ears were disappearing into her hair or if the strands had simply shifted to obscure them from view.  The way Nyx kept moving, details were hard to grasp.  Was her nose migrating higher up her face and turning rounder at the tip?  And were her full expressive lips returning?

The warrior rubbed her temple, trying to remember the previous night.  Moments came to her, slippery shapes and washed colors emerging from the back of her mind.  She could hardly set them straight in her head.  …But the voices rang clear.

“But…the humor.  I found it.”

From what she could recall, the warrior attempted to draw some form of a conclusion.  Elmiryn at first considered an escalation in aggression–the shattered plate and the shouting last night her main reasons.  But as she shifted in her seat and felt the small stab of pain in her muscle from where Nyx had bit her shoulder, her mind turned, and she found herself traveling up another path of reasoning.  She glanced at her friend briefly.  The girl’s fevered movement was familiar.

Elmiryn snickered as she fell onto an idea.

Nyx looked at her sharply at this sound.  “What?” she snapped.  She ceased her going back and forth in favor of rocking side to side.

This made the woman giggle again, and she wiped at her mouth as if to try and remove her amusement.  She toyed with a stray spoon on the table.  “I remember the word from last night.”

“What word?”

“THE word.  You can’t remember?” The warrior sat back and breathed harsh onto the spoon.  She proceeded to clean it with her shirt.

The Ailuran growled again, and this time the sound came from deeper within her throat.  “Well tell me, and maybe it’ll jog my memory!”

Elmiryn grinned as a chortle came bubbling up.  From across the inn, Sedwick and Baldwin watched.  Sedwick’s jaw was set, and he gripped his spear with both hands before him.  Baldwin fidgeted nervously, closer to the door.  He glanced back at it occasionally.  The warrior felt their eyes and she thought it amusing they were so frightened.  Her grin turned to a full blown smile.

“Oh I don’t know, I don’t want to give it away if you can’t remember,” she said to Nyx.

Nyx leaned forward onto the table as a long, loud exhale hissed through her bared teeth.  “Why are you playing games now!”

“A-nack-me-on-dic.”

“…What?”

“That’s what you said to me. Do you know what it means?”

“I…” Nyx blinked. Once. Twice. “…I think I–”

“You either do or you don’t. Go on. Tell me.”  Elmiryn looked at the spoon with feigned interest, her tongue between her teeth.  She winked playfully at her own reflection.

The girl straightened with a huff. “What a silly word! Did you make that up?”

“Well of course not. I’m not of the habit of making things up.”

“…You’re lying. That’s not a word.”

“Fine. What about pestiferousness? Chimerical?”

“Uh…”

“Cantankerous? Eruditeness? Paralytic?”

“I…I don’t KNOW!”

“You think I forget the things you tell me just because I find it hard to remember what things look like?  These were all words YOU readily gave me yesterday. Are you still so drunk that you can’t even make use of your own vocabulary? Are the words even YOURS–?

Nyx slammed forward.  “They are ALL mine!!” she screamed.

Elmiryn’s smile turned more curved, and she quickly reached, grabbing Nyx hard at the nape before she could pull away again. The girl relaxed, and her body clumsily fell over the table as her body reacted to the strong contact. The warrior traced her fingers over her friend’s facial features as before and gave a small, “Huh.”

“What?” Nyx asked in a breathy whisper, her eyes wide.

The older woman smirked and held up the clean spoon.  The Ailuran gazed into it, her mouth falling open a little.

“You’re completely human again, Nyx.”

The warrior released the girl, and Nyx slowly slid off the table, taking the spoon and gazing into it with what appeared to be disbelief.  She touched her nose, which was again round, and felt her smooth ears.  Her lips pursed and she looked sharply at Elmiryn.  “So do you understand what’s happening, then?” she asked.

“Not a fucking clue,” Elmiryn said cheerfully.


Back to Chapter 4.2 | Forward to Chapter 4.4

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