Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 9.3

“The transformation is invested
With the mysterious and the shameful
While the thing I am becomes something else
Part character part sensation
The shadow is cast”1

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn didn’t feel bad, or guilty. Not really. Not truly. The way Nyx had to squint at the line she had drawn told her how much the girl’s senses had diminished–a side effect of her new “condition”. If the girl didn’t see her, then there was no harm. Nyx would soon be gone, replaced by her Twin, and Elmiryn’s memory would become a foggy dream. What did it matter?

She felt almost unreal, cut up by differing shades. Her hand was a spider’s reach that teased into the light’s view. Her eyes were wide, swallowing, trying to get in as much as they could.

Damn human sight. Damn her curse that brought a mystifying smoke to her eyes. She wiped at them, with her free hand, and tried to squeeze out the gray that mingled in the black, indigo, and milk. Elmiryn looked again, and balked.

Where’d Nyx go?

She placed a hand on the ground, where pine needles and torn leaves were crushed in her curled grip.

Elmiryn strained her eyes, felt her eye stalks ache like they were on the verge of pushing her eyeballs out of her skull. What were those pitiful sounds she was hearing? Was Nyx already changing? The moonlight spilled over the mountains, and came down in broken shafts through the canopy. Not direct light, nothing that lit the earth brightly, but enough to bring about some sort of idea in Elmiryn’s head of what was before her.  There was a trembling mass on the ground, spined along its backside, and at one end of it, pale arachnids tangled in a mass of black snakes–writhing, pulling, scraping.

…There she was.

The shadows still served as a frustrating veil to those finer details, but a warmth took home in Elmiryn’s skin. The delicate slopes and curves of Nyx’s body, the light skin slick with sweat, the labored breath and the low cries that stretched and died out in hisses and moans. The situation had quickly turned voyeuristic, but Elmiryn dared to creep closer.

The redhead wasn’t certain what brought the change. In her experience, it seemed to depend on the therian in question. Sometimes it happened only when the moonlight touched their skin. Other times, when the sun set, or the moon first came into view.  She thought of the hundreds of thousands of therians that would shift this night–the fear that would grip their enemies.  It tickled her throat.  Made her limbs suffer a dull ache.  Screams filled her head.

Elmiryn’s eyes peered through the leaves of a robust bracken fern, and they widened to take in the sight of Nyx’s flesh, changing.  Finally changing.  (Or forever changing…which was like never changing.  Static, like a fundamental principle.  …What a pain in the ass!  How can you “be” and “not be” at the same time?)

A gurgle brought Elmiryn’s attention back to the spectacle before her.  She had seen shifts before. But those had been fluid and graceful–more like a person changing position than a person’s flesh and bone twisting and reconstructing to fit another form. This, however, was drawn out agony, pure and unabashed pain. In her lapse of attention, the confused mass that had once occupied the center of the circle had been replaced with some horrible looking creature.  Nyx was…gone.  The thing in her place had a narrow chest, a sunken stomach, and a powerful back with a large spine.  A tail had sprouted, where it lashed, naked.  The thing’s head was turned to the ground.  Elmiryn crawled, past the fern, over the roots and tall grass, felt some of the light swathe her skin and it made her shiver.  Was the face still human?  Was there anything left of Nyx in those eyes?

Then the shoulders shuddered, and there was a sickening pop as the bones were forced to fit into their new sockets.  The hips too, which had seemed connected only by skin and muscle, appeared to snap into place.  The skin rippled, fingers and toes gave way to stout digits fixed with claws, and the soles and palms to tough pads.  It was a gruesome, choppy process, but it was like an inexorable wave that hit everything at once.  As the limbs changed, so then did the head.

Elmiryn, who had come near the line, eyes squinted in foggy discernment, reared back, dirt and sand still clinging to her bare stomach where it had dragged.  Her expression became stern, her mouth a thin line.  She went to her things, carefully set against an alder’s base, and took up her bow and quiver.  Notching an arrow, she aimed it at the new being before her.

Quiet, like a wind’s whisper, fur sprouted along the skin.  It swept over the stilled body, covered it in a thick coat of black that made even the shadows envious.  The creature stirred.  It trembled as it moved its legs, tucked them underneath it, and pushed.  Head still bowed, its wet nose quivered before its lips pulled back to reveal white fangs.

In a fraction of a second, the thing leapt forward, toward Elmiryn, its jaws spread wide.  The woman could imagine how her whole neck could fit neatly in there–tender, fragile, and delicate.  But she didn’t give, didn’t twitch.  When the beast came to the circle’s boundary, there was a crack, a small white flash, and the creature was blasted back.  The air smelled of singed fur.  It yowled, and its tawny eyes fixed Elmiryn with a look of astonishment.  True astonishment.  One of comprehension.  The warrior gave a whistle.

“You weren’t paying attention,” Elmiryn said.  She smirked a little.  “Nyx didn’t get it.  It’s alright, all that fighting still did something for her.  Made her determined, made her stop worrying about the night.  But you?  You stopped focusing.  I bet you wanted to hurt me–kill me even.  But you see that line?  It means you can’t cross it.  You can’t leave until I say so.  So fucking sit down.  We need to talk.”

The animal snorted, paced back and forth, its paws trailing little lines of dirt from where it collected between its toes and claws.

The bow lowered a fraction.  Then Elmiryn chuckled and brought it up again.  “…Okay, fine.  So maybe it won’t be a conversation, really.  But I don’t fucking care.  You aren’t really the most admirable cunt-licker this side of the Torreth.”  Elmiryn ventured closer.  “So just to be absolutely certain…you understand me, right?  Give a shake or a nod.”

The cat just spat at her, ears flat on its head.

Elmiryn’s face hardened.  “I can just leave you here all night, if you’d like.”

The cat growled, looked all around it as if to try and confirm the existence of the circle.  Then with a short sigh, it shook its head.

“No?” The warrior grinned.  “So when I tell you I want to have a contest, you’d understand me?”

The cat nodded, but its face bunched, eyes narrowing.

“Then here’s my challenge:  I bet I can kill a deer before you can…without my bow and arrows.  If I win, then you have to respect Nyx’s space between each full moon, and respect our…uh…partnership.  Even when control is in your hands.  But if you win…then you get to do as you please, without my stopping you.  The contest doesn’t begin until I’ve named a target.  The kill has to be made where the other can plainly see.  Anything else, doesn’t count… I’ll only let you out if you agree to this–and by agreeing to it, you can’t kill me or run away.  You have to swear it.  Even a coward like you can’t break a direct promise like that.”

The cat blinked and its tail lashed behind it.

Elmiryn pulled the arrow farther back, her eyes flashing.  “Do you agree to these terms?  Do you agree to this contest?”

The cat nodded once, stiffly.

“Good.”

The woman licked her thumb, then quickly stepped forward and broke the line with it.  A breeze picked up, as the freed air circulated.  Elmiryn stepped back and jerked her head.  “Go on, you can get out now.”

The cat took cautious steps forward.  Its body crept low to the ground.  It took one tentative paw and with squinted eyes and attentive ears, lightly touched the earth beyond the circle’s boundaries.

“See?”  Elmiryn said, her bow and arrow put away, replaced by a short blade.  “The spell is broken.  Now come on.  The field Nyx and I crossed was riddled with deer dung.  Nearly stepped in it a few times.  I’m certain they graze near the forest at night.”

They left the little opening, and the feline was swallowed in the shadows beneath the trees.  Elmiryn paused to look for it again, when she saw its surly eyes shine at her.  Certain the creature would honor its promise, the woman went on, leading through the forest.  “What am I supposed to call you?” the woman asked in a low voice.  “Nyx and I have kind of started calling you ‘the Twin’, but that isn’t a proper name.”  Her steps were slow and careful.  She didn’t have the sight of her inhuman companion.

The cat let out a noise, like a weak growl and a yowl mixed together.  Elmiryn heard it lick its chops and grinned.  “It’s a serious question!  What if we’re in the thick of a fight, and you don’t realize I’m trying to get your attention?”

No answer.  Elmiryn suspected it was less because the cat couldn’t speak, and more because it just didn’t want to.

“Is a name so bad to have?” The woman shook her head.  “Don’t tell me it didn’t make you upset to realize Nyx’s name didn’t belong to you.  You know that, right?  That it isn’t yours?  I mean…that’d be accepting clothes, literature, and walking upright.  And you can’t.  You two aren’t in sync, but I heard and felt some of your feelings too, back in that cave.  They echoed of her, the way they echoed of you–”

The cat hissed, loud, the sound dying out to a rumbling growl.  Elmiryn stopped where she was, balancing on the ball of her left foot on a fat alder root, as her other foot hovered over a dark drop off where buried roots snaked out of an eroded dirt wall.  Narrowed cat eyes glinted at her, like the edge of a knife.

“Don’t be a fucking idiot,” the woman scorned, though her voice lacked the fire.  “You’re cut from the same cloth, whether you like it or not.  That’s why you’re the Twin.”  Then a thought occurred to her, and she rubbed the back of her neck.  “Actually, since you’re here now, then I guess Nyx’d be the Twin…which brings me back to my first question–what in the nine hells do I call you?”

The minutes slipped by.  Though the conversation–if one could call it that–seemed finished, the woman still thought about it.  It bothered her, the idea of something so determined to be someone, but lacking a true name.  If there was anything in the world that was important, it was something to go by.  Even animals did it…right?  There were signature smells and unique calls, so that even those creatures that did not use spoken language could recognize one another.  In therian cultures, it wasn’t an issue.  After all, the animal within was just a part of a greater whole.  But in the Twin’s case…she was not whole.  Not truly.  And without Nyx’s name, she was nothing.

“If your goddess doesn’t think you’re fit for a name, then there’s no reason to fuss.  You aren’t worth it.”  Elmiryn went on, quiet, each step dropping her voice till it was barely a breath past her lips.  “You can’t talk, you can’t sustain yourself, and you can’t stay in control past a single night.  Maybe that’s why Nyx has trouble facing her problems…” Elmiryn looked over her shoulder, where the wraith that was the feline drifted behind her.  “You hold her back.”

She didn’t know if the beast heard her or not.  Perhaps it did, with those great ears that swiveled to catch all the world in its canals.  In many ways she didn’t care.  The creature was a selfish being, too focused on its present reality to ever consider the far reaching effects of its actions.  Nyx suffered for it.  She had nearly been left for dead because of it.  Elmiryn hadn’t intended for cruelty, but she had to admit…she felt good seeing the beast singed by the containment spell.

Ahead of them, illuminated, was the field.  It was a cool wave of tall grass.  Some short distance away, a family of deer grazed silently.  One deer was apart from the others, trailing away.  Elmiryn, who was crouched, tapped Her shoulder and pointed at it.  The wind was stronger here, but the gust carried Westward, to their advantage.  The feline, with its quarry marked, stalked forward, low to the ground.  Elmiryn didn’t budge or say a word.  She watched as the cat vanished into the tall grass, its movement concealed by the shifts of the field.  The cat seemed to make good progress–good at sneaking, which was no surprise–but its shortcoming soon revealed itself.

When the feline was several yards away, the deer raised its head, rock still.  Elmiryn guessed it was only acting on a gut feeling, but the feline didn’t seem to think so.  Almost in a panic, the creature lunged forth, paws scratching desperately in an attempt to catch its prey in anyway.  The deer quickly skittered away, its family bounding to the safety of the forest, but as Elmiryn sprinted forth, she saw it wasn’t a complete miss.

The cat had caught the deer clear along its left rear calf.  The wound was severe enough that blood stained the grass in fat dark splotches.  Sloppy, terribly sloppy.  Elmiryn held up her knife, the blade in her hands.  She felt her eyes burn, her heart pounding in her ears.  She was an instrument, a deadly tool, and she was faster than the clumsy kitten that scraped to its feet.  The Twin, snarling, snapping, smelling blood, perhaps tasting it already, went for the wounded deer.  But the creature was not down yet.  It made a painful spring to the side where its weight leaned on its hurt leg.  The deer stumbled, nearly fell, but righted itself.  Cut off from the forest, it headed east.

No, no!  It wasn’t supposed to move away like that!  Elmiryn would’ve applauded the Twin for steering their prey away from her…if she actually believed the thing had done it on purpose.  But it hadn’t.  Perhaps didn’t even have a greater plan other than running straight at it, tackling.  No method, no idea of what it took to anticipate a desperate animal’s moves.  Stupid creature.  Fucking moronic, mangy four-legged–

Never mind that now.

Elmiryn sprinted, after the feline, after the wounded deer.  In truth, it wasn’t so bad.  The deer would soon be fatigued.  But Elmiryn was already there, already seeing tunnels of rippling white and wondering why her breath was so short.  The cost of her earlier activities, of her skimpy meal.  Her muscles and bones rattled with every footfall.  She tried to keep the image of the hunt alive in her. “Remember who you are, remember what you’re doing,” she thought.  Elmiryn blinked the sweat from her eyes and focused on the cool air on her bare skin.

A surge of black barreled toward the deer.  Their prey bleated, but the sound was cut away as the Twin took its hind leg in its mouth and pushed upward.  The deer fell over, into the grass, out of Elmiryn’s view.  She cursed.  Did the Twin do it?  No, no, if she couldn’t see it then it wouldn’t count.  But if the stupid cat had thought about it even halfway, it would know, that Elmiryn couldn’t do this again and hope to keep up.  She’d have the advantage.  It had to end now, or else it was all over.

The woman stumbled to a stop, where a surprise sight made her relieved, yet wary at the same time.

The Twin was tugging at the deer’s leg, seemingly determined to tear it off.  The deer warbled low, its struggles weak and the life fading from its eyes.  Elmiryn looked at the feline, and turned the knife in her hand so that she gripped it by the handle.  Its eyes were glazed over, in a bloodlust.  Did it even remember what they were doing?

She moved sideways as quickly and as carefully as she could, keeping a certain distance from the deer.  Elmiryn wasn’t certain how the cat would react to her coming so near to the wounded animal.  When the deer’s body was between her and the cat, she crouched slowly, one hand held out, the other with the blade.  “Hey, kitten…are you paying attention?”

The cat paused and looked at her, brow bunched in what could be called a frown.

Then Elmiryn struck.  The knife plunged into the deer’s throat, killing all sound.  The deer’s weak struggles ended.  The woman didn’t even try to pull the blade out, only stepped back quickly, with hands held up.  The cat roared and advanced on her, teeth bared and its tail a whip behind it.  The warrior smiled down at it.

“The contest was to see who killed it first, not who brought the deer down.” Elmiryn shrugged.  “So I win.  You’re bound to your word.”

The cat looked at her, then back at the deer.  It licked its wet muzzle, where blood dripped in dark droplets to the ground.  It snorted and glared at her one final time before it returned to its meal.

The woman shook her head.  Turned her face as the cat began to tear at the fresh corpse.  What a simple creature.  Did it truly understand what she had just said?  Or had it simply gotten mad that she had laid hand on its prey?  It didn’t care that the kill was sloppy, or that the deer was of small size.  But to its credit, it was a show of self-restraint that it didn’t kill her immediately for getting so near.  It really had become smarter.

Elmiryn’s eyes narrowed as the sickening noises of the Twin’s dinner violated her ears.

“You’re smarter, Cat, but you aren’t any wiser.”


Back to Chapter 9.2 | Forward to Chapter 10.1

  1. ‘Mask’ by Bauhaus, from the album ‘Mask’. Beggars Banquet, 1981. []

Chapter 9.2

NYX____________________________

A person can be embodied in a sentence, a phrase, a word.  There are the distinct smells associated with that person–the special expressions that flash across their face.  Do they feel like leather, or rose petal?  What is their laugh composed of?  What colors drape their back?  The bits and parcels of life we glue together, messily, account for a typical creature’s memory.  What did people remember of me, then? Was I truly considered, animal and all?  Or was my shadow a separate entity; my hidden self, a sister, too shy to show her face?

Elmiryn had already made that distinction in her mind, it seemed.

“She’s listening, isn’t she? Your Twin?” She asked, with eyes that peered over her shoulder.  “She sees?  She understands?”

“She…just hears.”  I felt her digging at the back of my eyeballs in the hope of reclaiming one of them as she had the day before.  “But her vision is secondhand, like a dream.  I only say this from my own experience.  I’m, um…not certain if her vision has become sharper, or if she has any access to my other senses.  I just know she’s pushing to see.”

My mouth became a displeased curve.  “How can we do this?  How can we hope to do anything if she’ll have all the means to undermine our efforts?”

“She won’t.”

“And how not?”

“She just won’t.”

It occurred to me that it was stupid to bother asking–for if She could hear and even partially see, then what was the use in explaining, then?  Still, I disliked not knowing.  I wanted Elmiryn to be as a book, right then.  To reveal her intentions, dark with mystery and possible danger.

We passed deciduous trees–my favorite sort–great large things with broad leaves that grew shorter and stouter the closer we ventured to the Torreth Mountains.  Our progress was labored and slow, as we fought against thick underbrush and uneven terrain.  There were places so thick with bushes and low-branched trees that we were forced to make great detours around, which, in my weariness, appeared to set us back at least a dozen yards.

Rest came to us in a small little spot devoid of foliage, where the forest canopy broke onto the clear blue sky.  I stared upward, stricken by the rich bright shade of the day.  Somehow, the wind seemed to breeze easier here, and I relished the cool air that took the heat from my neck and back.  I leaned against the trunk of a lean poplar and sighed.

My eyes slipped shut, and I wondered which of these trees I could climb up and nap in. Then the sound of things snapping brought me out of my haze, and my eyes flew open to see Elmiryn with her favorite dagger out.  She pulled at the grass and small ferns, leaves weeping onto the ground as roots growled and snapped out of their homes.  She looked at me, then gestured at the trees.  “Go ahead.  Rest a bit. Have some breakfast too.  This will take me a while.”

My brow wrinkled and I looked at Elmiryn warily from where I still leaned.  Her complacency didn’t match the eagerness with which she attacked the undergrowth.  Torn bits of grass sprinkled the churned, dark soil, and I took a step back as if daring Elmiryn to truly excuse me from her arduous task.  When no protest or sly trick came at me, I turned and vaulted up the nearest oak I could find.

I felt bad, leaving Elmiryn to work alone–but perhaps it was in preparation for the coming night.  I told myself that it would therefore be counter-productive to the night’s success should I aid her, let alone watch her.  Feeling better by this line of logic, I took Tobias’s book out of my bag and began to read.

I flipped back toward the front end, the sewn parchment cracking like old bones at my hurried fingers.   I had read all the complete tales there were to be found in the book.  Now all that was left was to read were Tobias’s thoughts, his essays, and what I hoped, were intimate accounts of his own life.

But the first page I came to confused me, and I had to read the starting paragraph twice:

“Dawn.  With relish.  Had a man speak about the tragedy of a dying sun, and countered his churlishness with the radiance of a child.  He spat on my robe.  Had to get a scrub.  The stain was of tobacco.  Naomi would’ve killed him, but I think my unconquered positiveness worked toward a better victory.”

I wrinkled my nose and scratched my head.  It indeed seemed a personal anecdote, as I’d hoped, but there was no greater explanation beyond that.  Much of the book seemed comprised of that. There were vague thoughts, interrupted sentences, and even single words, of which entire pages were dedicated to. My skimming found six of these.  “Patterns, Stars, Singed, Ink, and Breath.”  But the one that caught my eye was:

Lilies.

The period at the end caught my attention.  None of the other words had one.  I tried to imagine the sort of state Tobias was in, to write this word alone on a page, and feel so compelled to have bothered with a period.

Excited by this bit of mystery, I held my chin and tapped the page.

It didn’t take much for my mind to travel to the story I had told last night–the tale of the Spider of the West.   In it, a flower had erupted from her chest, a white, six-petaled flower that resembled a star.  Though it was never explicitly named, my bet was that it was a lily.  But again, I came to a wall.  Just because the flower had been used in Tobias’ story did not make it particularly significant.

Such items were always meant to stand for something in literature…but there were enough metaphors and concepts surrounding the lily that I wasn’t certain which one Tobias had meant.  The first, and most obvious possibility was of tarnished innocence or purity; the Spider’s blood had stained the beautiful white of the flower.  The other two seemed related to the cycle of life.  Having read a book or two on such things, I knew that lilies were related to the two most incredible stages of life:  Death and Reincarnation.  The latter I believed in, as Aelurus had been known to reward great individuals with a new, and harmonious life.  But did Tobias believe in it?  Where was he from?  Was he worldly enough to adopt the ideas of others despite his origins?

“Elmiryn,” I called, eyes still on the scrawled word.  “What did you think of the story last night?”

Her voice floated up to me.  “What?”

“I asked, ‘What did you think of the story last night’?”

“Oh.  I thought it was funny.”

My nose scrunched. “…Really?  That heartbreaking story amused you?”

“Heartbreaking?  Are you kidding?  Do you really think the gods would bother themselves with judging some other deity’s lesser?  Someone will wake her up. Just you wait and see.”

“Will?”

“Yeah.  Will.”

I had an incredulous little smile on my face as I looked up.  “…Elle, it was just a story.”

“But you told me it was about that man…Tobias, was it?”

I shook my head, hand tugging at my ear as my eyes squinted. “You’re right, but I was only guessing! I hardly believe he actually did all of these things.  It’s all just one big metaphor for events in his life…I think.

“I dunno, Nyx…I remember hearing stories when I was younger, about a slave girl that made people hang in mid-air.  My father used it as a way to scare me into behaving.  He’d tell me, ‘Arachne will string you up with her silk if you don’t listen to me!’  That trick always worked.”

“But…Why would a Legend just walk up to me and give me a book?  Why didn’t he go and help Gamath, if he’s supposed to be an agent of heaven?”

Elmiryn grunted, and I heard the snarl of roots freed. “He vowed to find his fledgeling.  Simple.  He didn’t sound like the sort of man to take that kind of vow lightly.” I heard her let out a huff.  Then she added, “And really…who the fuck gets Legends anyway?  When a god picks them to be their champion, it’s as if they become…I dunno.  Alien. They don’t think like a person of the earth would anymore–they think in terms of heaven.  It was that sort of thing that killed so many of them.  They got full of themselves, and the gods had to kill them–if the people hadn’t already.  I don’t even know of an active Legend left alive anymore.”

“…So you’re saying that maybe Tobias–IF he were a Legend–would want to hang low?  To not attract attention?”

“Yeah.  Imagine how the man must’ve felt, having lost so much, only to see his comrades all fall in a short span of time?  There used to be thousands of Legends, before they all died and disappeared within a decade.  It was a sign. There were too damn many of them.”

“Too many…” My eyes glazed over.

If what Elmiryn were saying were true…then the word “Lilies” likely represented death.  Perhaps Tobias had been depressed.  The period after the word made sense now. It wasn’t reincarnation, it was death. The ultimate end.

I traced my fingers over the page and frowned.  Even this revelation felt insufficient.  Elmiryn had uncovered another possibility–one almost too fantastic to accept.  I had no way of proving it or disproving it, and that made me frustrated.

“Hey, I’m done,”  Elmiryn called.

I looked over.  Frowned.  “Uh…doing what?

Elmiryn had made a circle of dirt.  It was lumpy in places, but she had clearly tried to smooth it out–possibly with a big leaf.  She placed her hands on her hips.  “It’s a fighting circle.”

I nearly fell out of the tree.  “Today?  You mean to do that today!?

She nodded, her eyes unblinking.

“Yes.”

“But today is the day I shift.”

“I know.”

I visibly sagged.  Of course she knew.  But she was still insane.  Still ridiculous for believing nothing bad would come of this.  I could already feel Her inside me, pacing.  The idea of fighting made her anxious.  “Are you asking for a premature change?” I snapped.

“No, I’m asking for you to fight me when you’ll be less likely to over think things.  Get down here.”

“I’m over thinking things right now.  Namely, the word, ‘NO’, over and over.”

“If you’d like, I can make this your first lesson.  Get down when I say to get down, or I’ll make it happen.”

The words slapped me. I leaned back from the force, felt my eyes burn with surprise and hurt. I hurried to climb down, my eyes on Elmiryn’s face all the while.  “I don’t appreciate threats…” I mumbled as I went to join Elmiryn on the damp dirt.

She shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t like making threats either, but if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.  Your feelings can’t be coddled anymore than your body would.  And you’re going to be eating dirt today, make no mistake.”

As I stepped onto the damp soil, I immediately felt stupid.  Somehow–despite its hurried creation–the circle managed to look neater than I did.  Me, with my muddied pants and boots, my wrinkled tunic, and my disheveled hair.  I didn’t belong in it.  I nearly took a step back when a look from Elmiryn froze me in place.  It was similar to the look she had given Sedwick back in Gamath, when they were arguing.  But this was more focused.  What was just a threat, now blossomed into a promise.

“If you don’t mind,” she began, circling around me with hands behind her back, “I’d like to get a better sense of what you can do.  So far, it seems you’re extremely good at dodging a punch.  You’re agile, flexible, and have good reflexes.  Before you met me, you stole food to stay alive.  Am I right?”

“Yes.”  I resisted the urge to add “Ma’am” to the end of that.

“But a girl who takes from peasants doesn’t get the level of skill you do.  How’d you get it?”

I clenched my fists and stared forward.  My mind rolled over memories so visceral, my body ached just bringing it up.  I finally settled on an answer.  “My older brother, Thad, was a warrior.  He tried to teach me the basics of self-defense when I was younger.”

“But that isn’t all.  It can’t be.”

I blinked and looked at her.

Elmiryn was adjacent to me, the side of her face a glow of sunlight.  “I can’t recall the specifics of that day–you know my memory is a joke.  But I still remember how well you moved when the mercenaries tried to kill you.  For someone who told me she didn’t fight, for someone who told me she stole just enough to survive, it didn’t make sense.  I don’t care that you’re an Ailuran–that you have 200 bones in your spine, heightened senses, and the strength of a fit wrestler even when at your weakest.  Your story doesn’t match your reality.  Tell me what else you did, how else you trained.  You know I can hear when you’re lying.”

My mouth went dry.  I didn’t want to talk about this.  At least not so soon.  Wasn’t it enough that she had seen my brother’s last moments?  Seen my terrible Mark?  I felt as though I’d been stripped of things so personal…and here, she demanded more.  What more of myself did I have to kick out into the suns before I could rest my heart?

Slowly I began to speak.  “I was part of…a rebel group.  Against the war.  It was spread out, over several villages, including my own.  I never did any fighting.  I never…never hurt anyone.  I just wanted our leaders to stop killing us all over their mad agendas.”

“What did you do?”

“I was a spy.  I’d listen in on important meetings, copy records and plans, and sometimes helped with the sabotage… This went on for some time.  It was how I found out they were going to take Atalo away.  He was on a list of young men to be collected for battle.”

“They never charged you for treason?”

“They never knew.”

Elmiryn nodded, then moved so that she stood in front of me.  “I’m going to say this once, and only once,” her voice had lost all the melody I had grown accustomed to.  All that was left was steel.  “I will not take ‘no’ for an answer.  You do as I say, and fast.  You pay attention, or you’re going to regret it.  We stop when I say we stop.  And finally…”  She smiled, “You will not leave this circle.”

Then we began.

Elmiryn started off by telling me I had no business carrying a weapon until I polished my evasive techniques and learned how to execute a proper counter-attack.  This annoyed me, because I didn’t want to carry her silly sword anymore if I wasn’t even going to use it, but any opportunity for derisive thought was dashed away in the hours that came.

Hours.

I thought there would be running, push-ups, me carrying most of the equipment; consistent, but paced, physical training. Not this. Not hours of avoiding pain, feeling it anyway, wondering if I’d made Elmiryn mad, getting mad at her, spitting sand from my mouth, and sweat-stung vision.

I was given only enough time to think: “It hurts; Here it comes,” or “I can’t do this.”

Then another thought came to me, when I was laid out on the ground, eyes lidded as they watched a wisp of a cloud trail by.

“Elmiryn is trying to break me.”

And she was. This realization, when I finally came to it, made my sinus’ ache and brought an itch to my limbs. She was trying to destroy my timidness, trying to kill the pacifist that had made a home in me.

As such, Elmiryn did not go easy on me, did not feel the need to curb her attacks or start off slowly.  We practiced high attacks aimed at the head, mid-range attacks aimed at the stomach and waist, and attacks from behind.  Three different counters to each, three different ways to evade.  I didn’t catch on right away.

But to her credit, Elmiryn was patient in showing me the proper stances and movements.  It was the only respite she offered, and I quickly learned to pay complete and utter attention at these moments…or else.  The first lesson seemed simple enough.

“Keep your left arm in front of you, and the other near your chest.  Look at your feet placement.  Do they make an L-shape?  Point the toe the other way–or else I can come in and just knock you over like a tree.  Good… Now, when I come at you, keep in mind my momentum.  When inertia takes me past you, strike that way. With it.  Never go against the flow of a traveling object–especially when doing a counter.  Too much resistance might cause you injury, and even lessen your attack.  Keep in mind, unless you can leave me open or pull me off balance, then you can’t counter.  You’re better off not letting your guard down and getting cocky.  We’ll start off with attacks aimed at the head.  Unless your opponent is skilled in hand-to-hand, chances are, he’ll aim for your body more.  Easier target.  But this–this is just to get you on your toes.”

When she felt satisfied with my positioning, she mirrored my stance and locked eyes with me.  No more forewarning than that.

Perhaps Elmiryn believed greatly in my ability to evade, for she never stuck to one way of attacking.  I never would’ve been able to imagine so many ways to throw a single punch.  The target was the same each time–she was aiming for my head.  But she came from the sides, from below, at one point even feinting with her knee.  That time, I barely managed to block her right hook with a timid turn of my shoulder.  She scolded me immediately, telling me that in turning my face and baring me her side, I was asking for a kidney blow.

“Again!” she barked.

I returned to my stance, my heart hammering.  I missed the tenderness of the night before.  This was my error.  In that lapse of focus, Elmiryn pushed forward with her back foot, and feinted a strike with her right fist that I reacted to.  I lifted my left arm to deflect it, my face contorting in sudden surprise.  In that fraction of a second, her left fist came swinging in a fast arc toward my face.  My vision was knocked askew, and my jaw screamed with pulsing pain.  I went down, my vision blanking for a moment before it fuzzed back into view, spots and ripples making it difficult to even see the rich brown of the earth.

I resented Elmiryn, greatly.

As I pushed myself up shakily onto my hands, I had to pause to steady my breathing.

My lungs shuddered in my chest, ribs expanding a fraction, like a predator’s mouth.  Sweat dripped from the tip of my nose, onto the soil, and I saw it mix with the blood that dripped from my lips.  My front teeth had cut into the inside of my mouth.  I gasped and pulled at my mind–away from the claws of my Twin, who thrashed and snarled.

After that, Elmiryn let me have one break, when the suns were high overhead, and their brilliance a spotlight through the canopy.  I made to leave the circle when she jerked me back by my tunic.  Her eyes flashed.  I stepped back, muscles tensed for a blow that didn’t come.  She brought me some water and some left over sheep’s meat from the other night.  It tasted terrible, but I said nothing as there wasn’t much else of substance to eat besides bread and some fruit.  Neither of us spoke for a time.

When I was down to my last bites of meat, Elmiryn spoke.  Her voice was quiet, but it was the first time in several hours that the steel had gone from her words.

“I just want you safe, Nyx.”  She didn’t look at me, just up at the sky.  “I know you hate this, but you know we have to do it.  And you have to get this fast–because I don’t know when the next danger will come.  I have no idea.”  She looked at me, her face blank.  “You can’t shut me out, or else this will be for nothing.  Are you mad?  Then focus that energy into what we’re doing.  Or else, this will be for nothing. Got it?”

I sighed.  Rubbed at my eyes and found tears there.  I swallowed and held them back.  I thought about Thad and fought to make my voice as strong as possible.  “Got it.”

And we resumed.

My momentary brush with danger aside, Elmiryn had perhaps been right in starting my training that day.   I did feel angry.  Angry for the pain Elmiryn made me feel, angry at my Twin for her brutish gibbering, angry at myself for not being stronger.  I felt it burn my skin and pull at my being.  It took away my exhaustion, my desire to hide, any possibility of pretense or civility.  The dirt circle had become my cage, and in it, I felt myself fight, passionately, to purge the anger that built up with every blow, every surge of embarrassment and fear.

In the early evening, I had finally managed a counter or two, and the red on Elmiryn’s cheek showed it.  She didn’t cry out or get angry.  She smiled at me and nodded once.  Then we kept at it.  I was exhausted, and I could see she was too.  Her skin was flushed, and sweat trailed through gleaming skin.  Wisps of her hair came out of her braid, and she had discarded her top, leaving her chest bare save for the strip of cloth she used to wrap around her breasts.  At that point, I wanted to do the same, but I remembered my Mark, and let out a low growl from the back of my throat.  If she touched it, we could see a repeat of the day before.

Elmiryn stared at me when I did that, pausing mid-movement, and I paused to look at her too.  She let me have another break, then.

Not long after, the forest became dark.  Overhead, the sky was a deep violet.  The birds had become quiet in the trees.

Heaving, Elmiryn and I stared at each other, feet away.  “Elmiryn, it’s almost time.”  I felt spent.  Spent of all anger, spent of all energy.  I fell to my knees and looked at her helplessly.  “It’s almost time.  Please tell me you had something in mind while we spent all day grunting and sweating.”

She nodded, and took a step back, out of the dirt circle.  She took her right hand and made three deliberate gestures–tracing a circle, a slash, then a fast squiggle, like she were making a character from a language. I didn’t recognize it.

All around me, I felt the air press in. My heart clenched.  “What did you do?” I squeaked.  My hair stood on end.  I went to the edge of the circle and she held out her hand, shaking her head.

“Relax,” Elmiryn breathed.  “You don’t want to cross the line now, believe me.”  She tapped her foot, and I had to lean down to see the line Elmiryn had drawn into the dirt.  All that time, and I hadn’t noticed it.

“I’m trapped in here?” I said, my voice little more than a breath.

“Until I let you out.”

I nodded grimly, then looked skyward.  The sky was almost completely dark.  I looked at Elmiryn.  “Could you do me a favor?”  My voice was turning hollow and faint.  Not by choice.  My body began to feel sore, and my eyes drooped to a sleepy fraction.

“Sure,” she said.

I let out a little sigh.  “Could you leave me alone for a bit?”

Elmiryn didn’t say anything.  I thought I saw the corners of her lips twitch, but she nodded and walked away, without looking back.  I waited for her to slip completely from my view before I proceeded to shed my clothes.  There was no use in staying dressed when it came to Her.  She didn’t like wearing clothes–not even clothes that shifted with her.  Shivering in the cool night air, I folded my belongings as neatly as I could, then lightly tossed them out of the circle.  I tried to swallow, and felt my throat constrict.  Overhead, I watched as the sky turned dark, and the teeth of the universe glinted at me.

Then my body seized, and I sank to the ground with a choked wail.


Back to Chapter 9.1 | Forward to Chapter 9.3

Chapter 9.1


Part 2: In Sight, In Mind

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


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

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

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

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

“Koen!?” Brother!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Yes!” He grunted, his face pink.

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

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

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

That was seven years ago.

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

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

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

The young woman tensed, fists clenched.

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

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

NYX____________________________

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

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

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

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

“Nyx…” she murmured.

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

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

“What about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elmiryn set about packing, and I followed suit.

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

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

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

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

Me. You heard ME.

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

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

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

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

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

“Nyx, that’s enough.”

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

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

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

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

I tensed. “Stop it.”

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

I grab at her. “No! Not you, Her!”

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

“She means you sound like a crazy person.

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

“Be quiet!” I thought.

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

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

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

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

This made me feel ill.

The Beast only chuckled.

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


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