Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 1.1


 

Plan B Cover1

Purchase the official e-book on Smashwords!

Also available on Amazon and many other retailers!

Features several new scenes, new dialogue, and a much better reading experience. Comes in a variety of e-reading formats. Support the story and the author and buy a copy today!

Want to see that ol’ embarassing Tributaries cover from 2008? Click here!


…quietly…quietly…

i see you all.

but so apart

am i

spread apart:picked apart:far apart

am i

NYX____________________________

On a tower of metal and light, I saw the span of a great and perilous land.  Overhead, three small suns raged in the sky.  I was a shard of night beneath cold steel and rusted iron.

The wind rushed to me the scents of damp rosewood, fertile soil, pearled barley, bay leaf, musty fur, and chimney smoke.  Miscellany of a simpler life.  I crouched on the platform and the lids of my tawny eyes narrowed against the glare of the sun-lit Earth. The village of Toah lay in the valley below; it was a small and peaceful place, nestled like a babe amid those cold forests. Children played kickball near the horse stables and the women washed their laundry in the nearby stream.

Clouds rolled forth from the horizon reaching hopefully Westward as the storm before me fell over the village and claimed daylight in its smoky fingers.

With bandaged hands and sure boots, I climbed down the watchtower. This place would suit me fine. The rainfall would cover my trail and mask my scent, leaving the villagers ignorant as they cowered from the downpour. If I was good about it, a jug of mead would very well be part of the meal. My mouth watered at the thought of biting into the hen’s neck—snapping it—the hot blood splashing over my parched tongue as I tore it apart. The thought of all I would be tasting almost made me fall out of the tower.

But my fatigue was making it harder to keep from slipping.

My feldgrau gambeson bunched as I fell from the last foothold and landed onto the uneven dirt, the shock of a twenty-five foot drop piercing up through the soles of my boots. A cloud rose at my feet—scents came with it—the typical wildlife smells: sparrows, local cats, rats, spit from a small boy who drank cider, as well as the faded smell of a drunkard’s piss. To Toah, this tower was a place of congregation and socializing. I took a risk climbing it, but I had to see what I was to expect. My luck had not been good to me, and I didn’t want to take the chance of running into a large dog or, worse, a small militia.

I brushed my dark hair away from my face and stood upright. I last cut my hair with a pair of shears found in a garden shed…but I had gotten clumsy and my bangs were now at an uneven slope, so that only one eye was covered and the other completely exposed. I couldn’t wait for the hair to grow out so that I could mend my mistake. Even in a practical sense, it was annoying to march about the way I looked.

My brown cotton pants were baggy, and the seat of them molted with wear. My boots were dusty and worn, and the soles threatened to separate all together. I looked like a pauper, and that was all I could hope for, as people tended to ignore me. But I couldn’t take all the credit for my appearance. My clothes had once been my mother’s clothes. I came to acquire them when she passed away not long ago. It wasn’t until the recent year that I could fit into them…and I did so awkwardly.

I could still smell her in the fabric.

I was tired from walking all day, and didn’t wish to be seen by anyone, so I slinked off into the cover of the woods to find a berry bush and a soft patch of ground to rest on. I waited until the suns were out of sight before I came back again.

____________________________

Darkness. The new moon. I knew this even with the cloud cover.

I took off my boots and hid them near the berry bush, along with my other meager belongings. I had to take them off, or I’d tear through them.

Contrary to your assumptions, I am not a human.

Amid the bay trees, under the blanket of shadow that fell with Night’s passing, I shifted.

Now you can take that word and dissect it. Pick it apart however you like. Peek under the definition and garner whatever idea you’d like from it. Did I shift position? Did I shift demeanor? Did I shift motive?

No. I shifted. I changed. I transformed. I, being one thing, became another. …Or was always the ‘one thing’, and had only made it possible to gain a better perspective on the matter.

But shifting hurt. It always hurt. Payment to the One for use of her gifts. It led me to wonder…was my ability really inherent and unavoidable? Or just a privilege? If the latter was the case, could I renounce what I had? Would that make life easier? …But something resisted this thought, and in me came up a feeling that tasted of anguish.

My skin rippled and tingled as—beneath—my muscles shifted and bones snapped and curved to their new places. The transformation always began in the torso and spread its way out all at once, debilitating me completely before it was done. The nerves screamed. The muscles felt like they were tearing, ripping, shredding themselves as I shifted. I bit the inside of my cheek. Fur sprouted along my body. From my tailbone sprouted a tail, which forced its way through a discreet opening in the seat of my pants. Blood pounded in my ears and hot-cold flashes ravaged me until all fell quiet. When I stirred I was on the ground. My clawed hands sought placement in the dirt and I pushed myself up from the ground like a drunkard stirring from sleep.

I tried to clear my head. Changing always left me face-down in the dirt. I tried not to think about the aches that lingered as I reoriented myself using my new senses.

Though dazed, my mind already perceived the world through a different view; eyesight became fuzzy around the edges and color became dull, but I could see better in the dark now, and farther into the distance; my ears had become large and pointed on either side of my head, and they twitched at the slightest bit of sound; my nose processed my surroundings, not missing a single smell; my whiskers, which sprouted from my fleshy chops, tickled with the changes of the wind; even my tongue was privy to relating information to my brain as I tasted the dampness of the air. Soon it would rain, and by soon, I meant in a matter of seconds. Sure enough, droplets of water began to fall from the heavens through the forest canopy.

I loved water. I tilted my furry head back and spread my mouth wide, and fat drops splashed onto my tongue. I was in what my kind referred to as the waxing crescent form—or ‘near-human’. As I was, a person in the distance would perhaps only make out a very hairy person with bad posture.

The ignorant would call me a ‘cat person’…but anyone who knew better would know that I was part of the Ailuran race. For my part, I tried to be quiet, cautious, and unassuming. For a little over a year, I worked hard to be in control of myself at all times—and in my solitude had gotten quite good at it. I knew when it was necessary to tap into my other self. The feline half. Not many of my kind knew how to do that.

Then again, not many had to.

My transformation complete, I slunk near the ground and my fingertips lightly touched the Earth. I panted a little. I felt excited. It wasn’t often that I allowed myself to change other than the full moon. I flitted amain, down the slopes that dipped into the heart of the valley. By the time I entered the field surrounding the village, the rain came down in sheets. The water tried to repel me, and it pounded against my down-turned shoulders and furry head. The heavens overhead thundered and howled with a strong wind. I flattened my ears and bared my teeth.

I would not be deterred.

I came upon the village empty; all the denizens had retreated into their stone-wood homes, and warm glows seeped through the cracks of shut-up windows. With a cursory glance around me, I crossed the village square to the storehouse on the Western side. It was a medium sized wooden barn with no windows and only one way in. The double doors were bolted shut with a menacing padlock. I took my right hand’s pinky, extended its thin sharp claw, and inserted it into the keyhole. After a moment’s work, the lock opened and I pushed my way inside.

Over the years, through curious circumstances and a certain tendency toward rebellion, I had learned the various arts of thievery. As a child,  I had crept past town guards to go swimming at night in the local lake; had snatched back toys my brothers had taken from me in a fit of sibling rivalry; infiltrated areas where adults spoke of dire things children were not supposed to know. These days, my shady skills were used for more serious affairs. …Like basic survival.

Bags of grain lined the floor and shelves inside the storehouse. I could smell the different kinds even without reading their markings. I plucked up two empty bags from a nearby rack and went to the grain sack that smelled of rice. With a scoop left on the rack, I shoveled enough into my bag to last a week. Deftly I tied it and slung the rice over my shoulder and went back out into the rain.  I locked the barn again. With luck, the villagers would never even notice what really had happened.

My mouth watered at what I knew would come next. My claws extended in anticipation as I stalked toward the hen house, the empty bag I held in my other hand swayed like an unfulfilled promise with the motion of my arm. Inside the little shack, the hens clucked and tutted. They probably sensed my intentions.

I went to the locked door and meant to open it, as I had done at the food store. But there was a gasp, barely audible over the rain, that made me halt in my actions.

With bared teeth I whirled around, arms up and crouched low, ready to spring away. A man in a heavy cloak stared at me, his face hidden by the dark of his hood.

What was he doing?

No one was supposed to be out. No one. Yet, there was my unhap. I had shifted in order to sneak better, to use my claws, to see better in the dark…but my new form made hunger my master, and my distraction coupled with the rain had prevented me from noticing anyone was near. He could’ve been out to search for something precious he lost, maybe to fetch a tool he needed inside, or to double check that the hen house was properly locked. No matter what the reason was, I knew…

I had to run.

My clawed feet dug deep into the mud, and I tore off into a panicked run. I vaulted over the wooden fence. Behind, I could hear the man let out a hoarse yell as he slopped through the mud to get help. Inside me, the animal half of my soul growled low at the denial of meat. In the state I was in, my human nature still reigned supreme, but I could better hear the discontent of the feline beast within me. She was not a brave or ferocious warrior…but she was hungry, and well aware that the man could’ve been taken care of with a powerful swipe from our paws.

I wasn’t prepared for that.

I used my speed and agility to get me to the forest beyond Toah. I was on the other side of the village and would need to sneak my way back to the berry bush where I had left my other things. When I was deep enough in that I felt safe, I shifted back. Maintaining the waxing crescent form for a long period of time required a strong will. Without it, I would shift to my full form. I needed to keep quiet and focused—I needed to revert back to my “sapien” form.

The change back hurt just as much as it did the other way. I felt spent and nauseous, my limbs rebelling against me as I tried to rise to my feet. At first I only fell. The bag of grain I had spilled onto the wet earth. Normally after a shift, I would rest, fatigued.  Did I run far enough ahead that I could afford a few seconds to catch my breath?  No, I could not stop.

I forced myself up again, my body wet and my limbs feeble. I tried to keep steady as my vision lurched and I careened further into the forest.

I seemed to go on for some time, in a daze, trying to find a place that smelled of safety and comfort…but there was no such place. Try as I might, the angry call of those I wronged chased me quick and fierce like a monster all its own.

I plunged further into the darkness.


Forward to Chapter 1.2

Chapter 1.2

ELMIRYN________________________

She felt so small.

Small and quiet.

Against a plane of havoc wrought thinking, she dashed lithely between rows and shelves of contemplations, concentrating wholly on herself—her one true sense gone—breaking beneath the weight of silence.

Okay.

Not REALLY silence.

Just…none-speaking, none-moving, none-acting, none-changing. Static, punctuated by the rainfall. Gods crying. Who were they crying for?

Aw, who cares

Elmiryn sat beneath the cover of the maple tree. Her spine was protected from the harsh surface of the bark by her leather bustier. Beneath she wore an opaque-white cotton shirt that helped keep out the cold. The sleeves stopped a little past her steel shoulder guards. Going up her arm were emerald thick gloves, fingerless. Over these were leather braces with steel plates to match the guards.

The area simmered and hissed with the sound of the rain as it poured through the canopy. Where she sat, she still was victim to some of the rain, but here it was not so bad. Here, she could whittle her little stick in peace, with eyes glazed, thinking…thinking…thinking…

…Thinking this stupid knife was dull.

Then came the heavy footfalls. Elmiryn’s back stiffened and she leaned forward to gaze about with sharp cerulean eyes. The corners of her lips twitched, but her mouth seemed uncertain of itself. She sheathed her knife and rose to her feet, retrieving her bow and quiver from against the tree trunk. Quiet as a bog that crept through swamp, she went forward—over the roots and rocks and damp leaves.

Then she saw.

A vague shape, one that shifted and displaced the darkness, moved rapid through the forest; but its speed came from panic, and panic made it clumsy and careless. Whoever it was stumbled and nearly fell face first into the dirt. Elmiryn ventured closer and she strained to see. Water seeped into her eyes and left them dry and wanting, but she resisted the urge to blink.

A girl. It was just a girl.

The rain began to let up. Elmiryn could hear better—there was the tramp of boots as others gave chase. The warrior could see the amorphous shadow of the ragtag mob of farmers even from where she remained still, hidden behind a tree. “What are they doing?” She wondered with a soft frown. “It’s raining, and there isn’t moonlight to guide them… Why are they chasing this girl? What makes any of this worth it?”

Elmiryn looked back to where the youth had been only to see that she had resumed her fevered run.

With furrowed brow, the woman followed, running parallel with her quarry. Though clearly out of it, the girl was unusually quick. Interest piqued, Elmiryn picked up her pace so as not to be left behind.

The girl came to a small cliff where a rock, placed there by time, jutted out like a little plateau. She peered over the edge, her shoulders bunched, hands and fingers tensed in an unusual fashion.

Elmiryn again stopped just far enough away that the girl could not hear or see her. Her clear eyes, lit with an intensity, narrowed as the warrior tried to make sense of this peculiar scene. There was something about how the girl moved, how the others chased her that painted this entire situation as unique…or maybe…

…Maybe it was just that ridiculous haircut she had?

The warrior’s thoughts were interrupted by a hoarse yell.

“There’s the beast!”

Elmiryn’s eyes snapped onto the group of men charging toward the small girl. “Farmers,” she thought with a roll of her eyes, “They have no tact…”

She looked back at the youth to see what she would do. Fight or flight. If the woman’s suspicions were correct, the girl would fight back or jump over the edge of the plateau. To Elmiryn’s surprise, the girl held her hands up and fell to her knees. “Please!” she begged, her voice hoarse. “Please, I was starving! I’m sorry! I meant no harm!”

Jeers from the men. One particularly large man, apparently the leader, brandished his axe. “Filthy animal!” he thundered. He raised his weapon with both hands. The girl, startled, scrambled to her feet and retreated to the edge where she swayed.

Elmiryn’s lips, which had twitched and quirked with her observations, finally seemed to make a decision of what to do:

She smiled, showing all teeth…


Back to Chapter 1.1 | Forward to Chapter 1.3

Chapter 1.3

NYX____________________________

I was dead.

Dead.

Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.

Or on my way to it. Being cleaved in half was synonymous with my demise, I thought. If I were to look up my end like it were an idiom in a scholar’s text, I was certain I’d find, “To be axed; To be hacked; To be chopped, etc.” Fear charged through me quick, like a viper strike. This was not as I had felt before. That was a stumbling, ignorant fear of the consequences. This, however, was fear for my life.

Aelurus, if I had fur, I’d have been a round ridiculous thing right then.

It made me angry too, I was surprised to find. I was cornered…by farmers. A fat thick man who probably never swung that damned axe on his own at home was about to take the sharp edge of it and whack it into my brain. That was unfair. I imagined something a little more…dignified. As dignified a way to go as anyone in my position—rueful as it were—could hope to have. Maybe dragged to death by a soldier’s horse, or torn to pieces by werewolves, or crushed beneath a glacial avalanche…during summer

But to be hacked to death by a peasant over grain and some scared hens?

The great oaf in question grinned victoriously amid the folds of his sweaty face. I was surprised he kept pace with the others. He wheezed and rasped as he tensed his arms, prepared to swing down the axe. I stood precariously at the edge of the plateau, aware of the other men that stood behind the fat farmer, blocking my only escape. My last hope, it seemed was to—

But that idea never finished.

I sailed through the air, and my wet hair whipped out a trail of rainwater as I spun right over the edge of the plateau. The fat farmer let out a squawk of surprise—as did I. I crashed into the Earth at a funny angle, and the breath rushed from my lungs. I tumbled like a rag doll down yet another slope, this one steeper than the one I had descended when heading to Toah. So steep, that I may as well have been falling through air. I burst through bushes in an explosion of leaves, and felt my limbs painfully clip tree trunks as I continued to roll. Finally, I came to the end of the slope and stopped face down.

Ye gods.

Everything hurt. My eyes rolled in their sockets and I tried to focus my gaze to make the world stop spinning. I spat the leaves and dirt out of my mouth and turned my head away from the ground only to see an arrow had been shot through my collar. I stared. It had narrowly missed my neck had gone completely through the fabric. The force of the arrow hitting must have been what sent me over the edge. Did one of the of farmers fire it? I tried to move to remove it, but screamed when I found my left shoulder was dislocated.

Therians, the species my race belonged to, had a heightened rate of healing, but for this I was going to have to do it myself.

With a grimace I rolled onto my back, in the opposite direction the side the arrow was on, and with my other hand, bent my dislocated arm. I laid it on my stomach; then with several quick breaths shoved my left arm upward at the elbow, using all the strength given to me by the One Goddess. It popped back in. No, that wasn’t the proper way to do it, in case you’re wondering—but I was on my own, with men after me—and at any rate, therians could take a lot and still walk away fine.

But to be honest, the pain still made me want to pass out.

Weakly, I snapped the arrow shaft and reached back behind my collar to grab the arrowhead. I stared at it. Pewter. I let my hand fall against my chest. My body felt cold. The damp ground made my clothes wet. My face, hands, and feet itched. They had been slashed and cut, but were all ready scabbing over.

I gazed upward at the forest canopy and imagined what it would be like if moonlight shined through. Cool, bless-ed moonlight. I imagined its silver kiss on my weary skin, where I could indulge in the idea that Aelurus would take pity on her wayward daughter. My eyes started to drift shut. This damp, cold place, where drops of water pelted my sham of a body was not something I cared to stay conscious in anymore…

Then someone lifted me up. My eyes opened blearily. I was thrown over a shoulder—an uncomfortable one that dug into my gut. The feeling made me alert again. I stared down at the ground as it steadily retreated from me. I could hardly believe it. I was going up.

My mind took a second to register the grunts coming from the person carrying me. I looked at their back and noted the curves, the criss and cross of thick woven strings through the back of a bustier, the tight-fitted leather pants that griped with the movement of determined legs…

Was a woman carrying me?

…Up a tree?

I squirmed, suddenly worried I was being spirited away by some lunatic who had drank one too many enchanted potions. My shoulder still hurt, but I didn’t want to be in the hands of someone else. My protests turned to all-out struggles when the person didn’t release me.

The person, whoever they were, only gripped me tighter and said, “Idiot. Keep still. I’m saving you.”

I didn’t listen. I took my uninjured arm and struck my elbow hard against the back of the woman’s head. She sighed, but it seemed more like she were hissing through gritted teeth.

Then she shrugged me off.

By that time, we were at least twenty feet up a great old oak. As I fell through the air and saw how far I was from the ground, I thought blithely, “Wow. She’s a fast climber.” Then my fall stopped. My body jerked and I winced at the pain that shot through my still-injured shoulder. I could feel an iron grip close around my right ankle. I looked up in a daze.

Past the length of my body, I could see an auburn haired woman with light eyes smirk down at me. She held onto a piece of rope that was tied to a thick branch not far up. “Just kidding,” she said. Her voice was melodic and like steel…just as the instruments to the south of Fanaea.

“Now hold still,” the woman continued in a quieter voice, “And keep quiet. If you haven’t noticed, your friends are coming.”

I blinked up at her and slowly looked back toward the ground. I strained my ears. Sure enough, I could hear the farmers approaching, hear them grumbling amongst themselves sullenly. Not very subtle, these men, but I was so focused on the woman I hadn’t even noticed their approach.

They came closer and closer. If I was dizzy before, I was even more so now. My head felt so thick with blood and pressure that I thought it would explode. One man came beneath the tree, and his eyes swept around him. My heart thumped. He looked up.

The woman’s grip on my ankle tightened, if possible. She didn’t need to warn me. The feline within knew better than to move when in hiding, even if a threat looked her dead on. I froze, even holding my breath, and closed my eyes.

It seemed to pay off. He passed on.

After another five minutes, the men conferred somewhere nearby.

“She’s gone.” One said insipidly.

“We’ll never find her in this dark!” Another complained.

“What was it that hit her? Was it an arrow?”

“Do you think she died?”

“If so, we have no business left out here…”

“But that beast must be dealt with! She threatened our livelihood!” Ah. The fat farmer.

“It was just some grain, Humphrey. Hardly worth catching a cold over.”

“And if she comes back?”

“Didn’t you see her? That Ailuran was afraid. She won’t be coming back so soon.” Not ever, if possible.

“Let’s go.”

“Yes, let’s. My unmentionables are frozen…”

When their footsteps faded away, I let out a sigh of relief. Then I felt myself rise. “Swing and grab that branch there.” the woman said above me. Her bicep bulged from the effort it took to hold me up the way she was. I looked around and saw the branch she spoke of.

Warily I looked at her. “You won’t drop me?” I asked, my words thick from the strain of being upside-down.

The woman seemed amused by this idea. “You think I would?” she asked in a jocular tone. “And even if I did, don’t cats always land on their feet?”

I wasn’t really in the mood for jokes.

Her other hand was occupied so she couldn’t continue climbing until she wasn’t holding me anymore. If I didn’t try and grab hold of something, she’d eventually have to drop me.

Carefully, I stuck the arrowhead I was holding in my teeth, then I swung, holding out both my arms when I came close to the branch. The pain in my left shoulder had dulled to a dim ache. I grabbed hold of the branch, and the woman let go of me. My fingernails scraped against the bark for a frightening moment before finding purchase. I managed to pull myself up further and swing my left leg over. Exhausted, I took the arrowhead from my mouth. I was glad to have the blood rushing from my head. My eyes fell shut against the odd feeling this caused.

I was so tired…

Then I felt the branch quiver and my eyes opened to see the woman sitting across from me, closer to the trunk, her gaze a little too focused for my liking. She toyed with the rope in her hands, twirling the end of it around her long finger. My shoulders bunched like hackles raised, and I bowed my head with a guarded look. If I were a cat, my ears would have turned and flattened and my tail would have been lashing. “Who are you…” I asked in a low voice.

“Elmiryn,” the woman said with a wide smile. Strands fell from her long braid and framed her angular face. She seemed like a maiden…but she wasn’t. I breathed in deep. She smelled of steel—metallic and sharp. She didn’t have her weapon, but she may have hidden it somewhere in order to deal with me. I could also tell she had spent some time in the forests as I could smell the maple, bay, and oak trees on her skin like the scents were a natural part of her. The Earth was a part of her.

It was almost like she were wild.

“For an Ailuran, you’re awfully weird.” Elmiryn said, humor in her voice as she leaned back against the tree. Her long mouth shaped into a smile that teased.

I glared at her. “What would your kind know about that?”

“I’ve fought Ailurans. They’re prideful. Fiery. They would never kneel before farmers.”

I dug my fingers into the bark and leaned forward. “And what sort of warrior are you? Firing arrows at helpless creatures the way you did?”

“You’re hardly helpless,” the woman returned with raised brow. She sighed and placed her hands behind her head. She was being rather lax around me…or did she just think she could take me on? “I’m a good shot,” Elmiryn continued, “I saw my opportunity to help you and took it. If I didn’t send you over the plateau, what would you have done?” There was something smug about her tone, and it irritated me.

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t even remember what my original plan had been. “No human makes that kind of shot in the dark. I just don’t believe you.” I snarled. I sat back roughly with arms crossed and turned my gaze elsewhere. This was body language. The cat inside of me was saying, “I dislike you. I don’t want to bother with you right now. You are beneath me.” But without the tail and ears this was hard to convey. She wouldn’t have picked up on it anyway.

Her voice was quiet when she asked, “You don’t believe I saved your life, or you don’t believe I’m that good a shot?”

I pursed my lips and found I could only glare at her from the corner of my eye. I DIDN’T believe she was that good a shot…but I DID believe she had saved my life, however unintentional. The question was, what would she do now? “You must’ve had a reason to want to bother with someone like me,” I said.

The woman shrugged, her eyes still gazing intensely at me. “I was curious.” her smile turned into a smirk.

“About what?”

“Why didn’t you defend yourself?”

I looked away. “That’s a silly question. I was outnumbered.”

“Therians are naturally stronger than humans,” she countered. Something about her voice turned hard. “They’re one of the strongest creatures on this Earth. Any idiot knows that. You could’ve held your own if you wanted to. Maybe even shifted just your hands to claws to keep them at bay…but you didn’t. Why not?”

I looked at her again, my eyes wide with incredulity. “Because I’m not like that, alright? Where do you get off speaking like you know everything!?” Why did any of this matter to her?

“Because that’s just how I understand things,” She responded. Her voice returned to its curious humor. “You can’t shame me for working off my prejudices–everyone on this planet needs a way to react to something new and mysterious if they wanna keep from getting overwhelmed. Heck, you’re doing it too. You don’t trust me, because in your experience, people like me must’ve done you or the people around you harm. That’s fine. But look,” she patted the tree branch and smiled jauntily. “Here we both are. You aren’t running away, and I’m not hurting you. Between the both of us is a need to understand. So let’s get to it. The first question is–and I get to ask since I saved your life, and all–is why didn’t you fight?”

I pursed my lips and ruffled my hair with both hands. My nose itched and on the tip of my tongue danced a curse, but this woman’s logic, as frustrating as it was, made it difficult to argue. Sullenly I muttered, “I can’t fight.”

Elmiryn leaned forward and tilted her head. “Can’t or won’t?” she asked. She came near enough that I could feel her breath against my skin. I leaned back, and my body turned rigid. Who was she to go invading my space? My throat tensed and my fingers clenched. The beast in me didn’t like being challenged like that.

After a long moment I managed to bite out, “I can’t.” Then I took several deep breaths to keep my other half, my feline self, in check. This woman seemed to push my buttons on purpose.

When I regained calm, I bowed my head. The anger drained away, replaced instead by shame. “I don’t know how to fight at all…” I sighed.

The warrior remained quiet. Then came four words that would change my life forever. As cliche as that sounds, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment for as long as I live.

“I’m on a quest,” She said in a candid chirp that sounded completely incongruous with the message that entered my ears. “An evil demon by the name of Meznik has been terrorizing the kingdoms and I mean to stop him.” She shifted on the tree branch a little, as if just mentioning her task made her anxious to complete it.

I looked up at her, bewildered.

…No, more like flabbergasted.

What did this have to do with me? And who went around announcing that sort of information in the first place?

She continued, and her smirk returned in a triumphant tilt. “It gets awfully boring on my own…so I just had an idea. Why don’t you come with me?”

Shocked silence was the only response I could give.

Elmiryn gestured at me vaguely with her chin, “You’re an Ailuran in need of food and protection, and I’m a warrior in need of some company. Who knows? Maybe I could teach you a few things?”

I shook my head, my face puckered in some expression that resembled disbelief. “You want me to go with you?? To…to seek out trouble and place myself in danger while you go around chasing astral demons!? Have you lost your mind? I don’t want to fight! I don’t want to be in the position to get myself killed! I just want to live my life in peace!” My tone was almost panicked. She couldn’t be serious?

“Oh.” was the woman’s only response. She sagged, deflated. Somehow, I didn’t trust this switch in demeanor. I gazed at her with apprehension. Elmiryn blew some strands out of her eyes and shrugged one shoulder. “Okay. That’s perfectly fine. You’re entitled to do as you wish. I just thought this might be a good way for you to repay your…ah…” and here she paused, smiling cattily, “Debt to me. For saving your life.”

“Debt?” I echoed, incredulous. But a part of me squirmed…

Those light eyes—frigid cerulean—fell on my face and I shrank unconsciously. “I was just under the impression that Ailurans honored all debts,” she said in an affable tone that belied her fierce gaze.

My face fell. She was right, of course. My people were honorable, above all things. I may have been a coward, but I was an honorable coward, damn all my luck…

I slumped, defeated. “You…You won’t expect me to help you, will you? I’m not mincing my words when I say I cannot fight, I cannot defend myself, and I have no courage whatsoever.” I said this in a tired voice. What was I going to do? Refuse? There was something peculiar about this woman warrior. Her simple gaze was enough to make me nervous.

“Now let’s not get so hasty.” She said with a raised a hand. “I’ve seen bravery come from the most unlikely places.”

I smiled at her for the first time. It was a sad smile. “Not here, I assure you.” I rubbed at my face and sighed. “I should also let you know…I’m an outcast. I’ve been…been Marked.”

Marked. I could barely get the word out of my throat.

Ailurans dealt with criminals two ways: death…or the Mark. Death was preferable. The Mark was a curse—a brand burned into the criminal’s skin by magic. The design of it varied on the crime itself. The curse that was set upon the individual made shape-shifting an agony, and prevented them from stepping into any Ailuran establishments—like temples. Others of my kind could sense it on me. They hated me for it. Other therians and other species tended to target outcasts like me, because they were such easy prey—also because they knew that the Mark was a serious punishment, and anyone with it could be a murderer. A distasteful attribute in any culture.

“Did you kill anyone?” Elmiryn asked, her gaze probing. I looked at her, startled. It seemed to be the only question that mattered to her. Did she believe then, that everything else was tolerable so long as I answered her correctly? If I told her…If I said to her…

“No.” When I spoke it was with a frail voice—but I gazed straight into her eyes. Like daring a fearsome monster to attack. “I’ve never killed a person—not in my entire life. …Directly or indirectly.” I added the last part hastily. Conspirators were apt to getting the Mark as well.

She nodded, her face suddenly somber.

Despite myself, I was surprised to find that I desperately wanted her to accept me.

Then, Elmiryn smiled, a long satisfied smile. “Well, I don’t really see what the problem is then.” she said.

I smiled back at her uncertainly.

What had I gotten myself into?

“What’s your name?” She asked, tossing the end of the rope she still held so that it stretched out to the bottom of the tree.

I hesitated a moment before answering.

“Nyx.” I said in a small voice.

She held out her hand to me and smiled, this time more warmly. “Give me your hand, Nyx…it’s time to rest. We’ve got a lot of walking to do tomorrow.” The rain had almost completely stopped. Water no longer poured through the canopy—instead there was a light mist that tickled my nose. Did she have a camp? Blankets? Some place dry and warm to sleep? And what about my boots and other belongings?

I swallowed and gave her my hand.

Elmiryn didn’t move. Instead, she squeezed and looked at me quizzically. “Can I ask just one more thing, though?”

I blinked at her. “I…suppose,” I said slowly.

She gestured at me with her chin, her eyes on my head as her lip curled in light disdain. “Who the hell did you pay to cut your hair?” When I didn’t answer right away, she shrugged one shoulder and offered off-hand, “I can beat them up if you’d like.”

I gave her a deadpan look.

Aelurus, just what in the heavens had I gotten myself into?


Back to Chapter 1.2 | Forward to Chapter 2.1