Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 11.4

NYX____________________________

It took another hour to get the mess sorted.  Lethia was doubly frightened without her stolen knowledge of who we were, and Elmiryn just couldn’t believe that the wailing youth had “the guts” to actually try and cave her head in.  Argos–to my great astonishment–was my biggest aid, for Lethia would listen to no one but him.  The moment I saw this, it became difficult to refer to him as “it” or “the animal” anymore, even if it all sat awkwardly in my mouth.  When Lethia had calmed enough to sit hiccuping on the log, and Elmiryn had put away her sword and quit peeking underneath small slabs of rock (as though her assailant had the power to turn wafer thin), we all sat down for a reasonable talk.

I went on to explain our arrival, and how Lethia had initially taken Elmiryn’s memory after mistaking her for “one of the bad men.”  Again, with Argos’ aid, the matter was cleared up in its entirety, and I sagged visibly in my spot seated across from Lethia’s log.

Elmiryn patted my shoulder, grinning.  “It’s a good thing your memory wasn’t taken, or else we’d all be in serious trouble.”

I shuddered at the thought.

Lethia sniffled and wiped at her swollen red eyes behind her shaded glasses.  “I’m sorry for all this trouble you two.  I guess what I was trying to say, before I…y’know…forgot…was that I have really horrible memory.  It’s because of the power inside me, my mistress says.  That’s why it isn’t the same as when a normal person forgets something.  Every moment of my life, the power shifts, and where it rests in my mind is where it blots out information.”

My brows pushed together in pity.  “So…there’s always something you can’t remember?”

Lethia nodded.  “I mean…I don’t know what it is until I try to remember it, of course, but that’s basically how it works.  Sometimes the power breaks up, and I forget lots of little things.  Other times, it gathers in one place, and I forget a large chunk of my life.  That’s only happened a few times, as I’ve been told.  Those times, I forgot…incredible things.” The girl’s face grew red, even to the tips of her ears, which poked out from her curtain of hair.  “L-Like how to…breathe.  How…to talk.”  She reached beneath her spectacles to wipe at her eyes again.

My hand flew to my mouth.  “Sweet Aelurus, how horrible!”

“If it weren’t for Argos, I wouldn’t have survived this long.”  Lethia gave a weak smile and scratched him behind the ear.  Argos groaned appreciatively, a smile on his furry face.  “He catches all my food, protects me, and finds the safest places to hide.  We weren’t going to stay here long.  He says the bad men will know to look for us near water.  But, he said we could afford it for a little while, since we’re ahead of them.  We lost them in the Witch’s Alley–the mountain pass that leads to Dolmensk.”

“What were you doing all the way up there?” Elmiryn asked brusquely.  Her arms were folded and her expression was guarded.  I gave her a reproachful look.

Lethia looked at her, nonplussed. “Looking for help.  I heard that many adventurers go to Dolmensk to brag and boast…but none of them wanted to listen to me!  Then the bad men chased me out.”

“Wait, wait…who are the ‘bad men’?  Why are they chasing you?”

The girl became interested in her boots.  “Because there’s a bounty on my head,” she mumbled.

I started forward, my mouth dropping. “On you!?  Why?  What for?”  Elmiryn just let out a laugh and turned her face to the side.  Her body shook with her humor.  I gave her a whap on the arm.  “It isn’t funny, Elle!”

Lethia shifted, her face scrunching up with anxiety.  “I…” Her chin crumpled.  She took a shaky breath as a tear slipped from her right eye.  I felt my chest give a great pull as the girl suddenly fell apart again…but this time in grief.  “I’ve been so scared!” She exclaimed, taking large gasps in some floundering attempt to remain in control of her emotions.  “I’ve been so tired of running…Syria’s all I have!  I can’t possibly live without her.  What if one day I forget who I am completely?  What if one day I forget how to breathe??

She gave a shiver, then bowed forward and gripped her head with both hands.  Argos tried to comfort her with a warm lick of his tongue, but the girl appeared inconsolable.

I sighed and went to kneel in front of her.  Gripping Lethia’s hand gently in my own, something solidified for me–an uncertain sympathy that had hovered in the shadows, waiting for the unmistakable connection that would validate all its impressions.  The girl was an unfortunate youth, alone and at the mercy of her own mind.  Given my situation–given Elmiryn’s–I could hold back my compassion no more.  I tried to ignore my fears from before.  Surely, the incident at the tavern had no bearing in this situation?

I leaned forward to look Lethia in the eye.  “Lethia…why is there a bounty on your head?”

The girl sobbed and wiped at her mouth with a trembling hand.  She turned her face away, then said quietly.  “My mistress…was charged with black magic.  The authorities took her away, to Holzoff’s Tower–the prison for our region.  She…She could’ve killed them all.  But she didn’t.  Because she’s good.  She helps people–people like me–people like you!”  She looked at Elmiryn next, and her face seemed to light up with some great hope.  “Syria specializes in memory and brain function.  Certainly she can help solve your problem!”

Elmiryn shrugged one shoulder.  “I doubt that.”

I frowned at her.  “Elle!  What about the river guardian?  Didn’t she tell us to look for answers in other places?  Perhaps this person can help us find it!”

The woman smiled, but it held no warmth.  “And what?  Forget about her other instructions to seek the sage on the Indabe?  And how do you expect to help Syria when she’s incarcerated?  Are we supposed to clear her name like a couple of gob-flapping politicians?  You, a Marked outcast, and me, an ex-soldier wanted for the same fucking crime?”

My face grew hot, and I glared daggers…but she was right.  I looked at Lethia apologetically.  “Lethia…she has a point.  There isn’t much we can do for your mistress.”

The girl frowned, and she gripped my hand back tightly.  “I’ve talked to all the scholars and politicians I could before they put the bounty on me.  They all believe she’s guilty.”

I scowled at her. “So…you want us to–”

“I’ve been looking for adventurers for a reason!  Syria has already lost in the courts.  What I want to do, is set her free!

ELMIRYN________________________

“No.”

“Elle.”

“I said no.”

“You aren’t even considering the possible benefits that might come–”

“What I’m considering are the things you seem to have forgotten.  Like, y’know, the snake at the Canon’s Punch, or the fact that I have a bounty on my head.”

“I agree with you that it would be too risky to try and do as the girl wants, but for heaven’s sake–she’s just a child!  Maybe we can help her–

“She’s hardly younger than you are, AND she’s a magic user.  Let her sort it out.  Maybe her Mangy Beast can do something for her.”

“I can’t believe how callous you’re being!”

“I thought you’d be happy to see me use my common sense for once.”

“Technically, there was never anything wrong with your common sense.  The issue was always the information your common sense was left to sort out!

“So I’m not crazy, just damaged.”

“Why are you being like this?

“Fuck, y’know what?  I don’t know!”  Elmiryn whirled around, a vicious grin on her face that spoke more of frustration than actual humor.  And this bothered her.  For such things, in her eyes should not bother at all.

…What did it matter that Nyx went and held the girl’s hand?

They had left the chamber and returned to the outside, Elmiryn having made the determination to get as far away from Lethia as possible.  It was nothing against the girl.  She thought Lethia was funny in an ass-backwards sort of way.  And she didn’t want to say it, but something of the youth’s general appearance created such an incredible image in her head that the woman was certain she was reminded of someone, only she didn’t know who.

Immediately upon the suns lighting her skin, Elmiryn felt as though she were watched.  The woman glared upward at the sky, feeling the light betray her somehow.  She gazed skyward, one hand up to shield her eyes.

“Maybe I’m like this because that kid tried to bash my head in?  Maybe because we didn’t get anything for following her mutt all the way back to her little hideout?  Maybe because I’m still hung over, the scar on my hand’s itching me, or I’m as hungry as a starved fat noble?”  The woman shrugged, and a genuine chuckle came up her throat.  She tried to stifle it, but this only seemed to make it worse.  “Or I don’t know.  Hell I don’t know.  I feel like the butt of a cosmic joke at the moment.”

“So you’re laughing at yourself?” Nyx’s lips jerked upwards as she said this, but she pressed them straight.  Elmiryn wasn’t fooled.

The woman placed a hand on her hip and shifted her weight to one foot.  She smiled jauntily.  “It’s a good thing, isn’t it?  Being able to laugh at myself?”  Then she bowed her head.  “Just like there really is a self to laugh at.”

Her companion crossed her arms over her chest, taking one pinky to scratch at her right eyebrow.  “Elle, the force of your personality leaves little question in my mind that there IS an Elmiryn for me–I mean–” the girl blushed and smiled sheepishly.  “For us to…laugh at,” she tried to cover her mouth to hide her smile, but the sound of her deep-throated chuckles soon proved that the humor was infectious.  Within seconds, both women were out of breath.

“We followed a dog–” Elmiryn started, her free hand now gripping her ribs as the other leaned onto her knee.

“For miles it seems–” Nyx continued, red in the face and wiping at the corners of her eyes.

“An’–an’ all we got–!”

“Was a bigger headache!”  Nyx doubled over, shaking even harder.  She started to gasp out something, and Elmiryn, discovering that it was actually becoming increasingly painful to laugh (perhaps the dog really had broken something in there) tried to calm herself.

Nyx finally seemed able to speak when her wave of laughter subsided.  “I can’t…ah gods…ah why–why are we even laughing? It isn’t that funny!”

“Sure it is!”

“Ugh…your queer sense of humor is starting to rub off on me, I think.”

Elmiryn hid her face behind her hand and took deep breaths.  She heard Nyx begin to calm as well.  When the woman lowered her hand, she turned and took a few steps with eyes toward the stream.  Her eyes trailed the glittering water.  “Is it…really bad?” The woman began to say, eyes squinted against the glare of the stream.  “To leave the girl?  Would I have done that…a week ago?”

Nyx sighed behind her.  “You’re going to have to decide, Elmiryn…what kind of woman you want preserved.  You asked me to help keep you from turning into something else.  But…maybe you should ask yourself what you’re afraid of becoming?”

The woman turned her eyes to the ground.  She didn’t want to see what a Nyx-Filled-With-Insight looked like.

“Nyx!  Elmiryn!”

There was the sound of heavy pounding.  Elmiryn turned to see Argos sprinting towards them.  Nyx, unnerved by the sight of the massive dog barreling towards them, hurried to hide behind Elmiryn.  The woman grinned at how fast she moved.  Argos cleared the distance in less than two seconds, sliding to an incredible stop that left great gouges in the grass and dirt next to them.  Nyx squealed a little.

Coming much slower behind him, was Lethia, dressed in a large brown winter coat with shiny silver buttons and a high collar.  Her dark spectacles bounced on the slim bridge of her nose, and she panted as though she’d never ran in her life.

“Oh, please wait…please!

When she caught up to them, she leaned over onto her knees to catch her breath.  Her hair tangled in the breeze, and her pack, now bursting with her belongings, slipped off her shoulder to the ground.

Nyx turned to regard her fully.  “Are you alright?” Her voice was filled with concern.  Elmiryn bit the inside of her cheek.

Lethia raised a hand, signaling she still needed a moment.  When she straightened, she pushed her glasses higher up on her nose and gave a nod.  “I’m fine…I just…”  Her brows pushed together and she bit her lip.  “Um…I know you said you didn’t want to help me free Syria, but is it alright if I still travel with you?  At least for a little while?  You said you were going north, didn’t you?”

Nyx glanced at Elmiryn, who sucked at her teeth.  “Why are you going back north?  Isn’t that where they’ll be looking for you?” The woman said, a note of criticism in her voice.

Lethia drew herself up.  She balled her fists at her sides and glared at Elmiryn.  “I haven’t got a choice.  I can’t live without Syria and they’re going to execute her in a week.  I’ll figure something out on my own.  I’m still an enchantress.”

“Have you ever given thought to the possibility that maybe your mistress really did do those things?  Maybe you should just get on with your life.”

The youth started forward.  She tore her glasses off her face, and both Nyx and Elmiryn gave a start.  Lethia did not look Elmiryn in the eyes, but her gaze still flashed in indignation.  She bore holes into the woman’s shoulder.  “The boys the authorities found were fileted open from the navel to their chins.  Symbols were burned into their bodies, and their genitalia caught off.  Their skin sloughed away when their families tried to prepare them for burial.  I don’t know what sort of magic that is, but MY mistress is a good woman.  She would never do those horrible things.  She took me in when my parents died, and she’s given me everything I have now.  I will never abandon her.”

Lethia’s eyes flickered higher, towards Elmiryn’s nose.  The woman, out of stubborn pride, would not look away, but her back tensed and her hands curled to fists.  The girl continued in a shaky whisper.  “If I concentrate, I can take something specific from a person’s mind.  Just like I can forget how to walk one day, I can make someone else forget the same.  Don’t mistake my loyalty for weakness.  You’re a soldier.  You should know the difference.”

Then Lethia stepped back and placed her glasses back on.

Elmiryn stared at her as though seeing her for the first time.  The girl was trembling from the adrenaline, and Argos took to sitting next to her.  His fur was puffed and his teeth bared as he looked up at Elmiryn.  Nyx gripped the woman’s arm tightly, and she glanced at her companion who eyed her anxiously.

“Um…”  The warrior rubbed the back of her neck.  Then with a sigh, she extended her hand.  “I’m sorry.  You’re right.  You know your mistress better than I do, and you’re a brave girl.”  The woman grinned.  “Really brave.  Or really stupid.  Either way, you seem alright.”

Lethia took her hand.  Her face screwed up.  “…Thanks?”

“Look, if you want to come with us for some of the way, then I guess it couldn’t hurt.  Hell, you’re going that way anyway, it’s not like we could completely avoid the trouble.”

“Oh good!  Thank you so much!”  Lethia clapped her hands together and giggled in relief.  Argos woofed and gave a short wag of his tail.

“But kid, if you’re coming with us, you have to keep up.”

Lethia nodded energetically.  “Yes, ok!”

“How long can you run?”

Nyx gave a groan.  “Oh Elle, no…”

The youth scratched her head.  “Uh…”

Elmiryn looked from the tunnel entrance and back.  The corners of her lips twitched.  “Lemme guess.  You can’t remember?”

“Er, no.  No I can’t.”

“Well let’s hope you can keep up with a soldier and a therian,” she turned and nodded at the dog. “Or maybe Argos can carry you.”

The dog snorted and his dark eyes seemed to glare at Elmiryn from beneath his shaggy brow.

“Have you got any food?” The woman asked, though she already guessed the answer.

“Uh, a little bit left.  Actually, Argos was supposed to go hunting when he brought you two instead.”

Elmiryn, with a smirk, threw her hands up into the air and turned to start walking, just as her stomach gave a loud growl.

“Of course he did!”


Back to Chapter 11.3 | Forward to Chapter 12.1

Chapter 11.3

HAKEEM____________________________

Pieces, disordinate as a smashed pathway leading home.  He saw, he knew, in the rhythm that spoke to him in the lengths of moments that passed between the far away caterwauling and obnoxious humor.  Here.  Seated.  In a chair that held his level of control like a measured cup of fine wine, the man did not move.  Not even as the shadows grew along the plainly furnished room.  Not even as the creaks of shuffling feet outside begged rest.  Then begged wakefulness.  Then begged more rest.

Hakeem rubbed his chin at the display before him, indifferent to all but what he saw.  The world did not weigh on him–did not drag, did not pull.  Things washed away in the darkest reaches of his eyes where the waning candle light could not reach.  Time marched on.  The musty dark curtains soon blocked the morning suns, who laid a weak sliver across his pondering countenance.

He had spent the entire night, eyes fixed to blades, rope, a flask of oil, a grindstone, blankets, a bow and quiver, a change of clothes.  There were small pieces of burnt meat in a wrap, and in the inside of the large bag he had found these items, he’d found bread crumbs.

Pieces, disordinate as a slashed painting.

He was in the last available room at the Cannon’s Punch.  With the items spread out on the stained white bedsheet, the dark-skinned man gave each a dedicated amount of attention.  He was finally at his last.  Carefully, he sat on the edge of his seat so that his knees pressed into the bed cushion, and picked up the long sword with both hands, open palmed, at either end.

It was a Fiamman long sword.  The jeweled pommel and the style of the crescent guard were unique to them.  The blade was military issue, if he recalled correctly from his last visit to the kingdom.  Etched into the guard was a phrase in old tongue that he did not recognize.  He was certain Quincy would know the meaning of it.

Hakeem tested the sword’s weight, lifting his hands, then dropping them softly.  He tilted it one side, than the other.  It was heavier at the hilt, but extremely light by combat standards.  The blade was well cared for, judging by the shine and sharp edge.  He but touched it lightly with his thumb and found himself nicked.  The sword did not like his foreign hands.

Hakeem gave a rumble of approval as he set the blade down again.

The guard was lightly scratched.  The user had found themselves at odds with others quite often.  When the man eyed the hilt, he noted the soft change of the metal’s color towards the end.  This sword was old–so old that even the sweat from the user’s hand had begun to affect the metal.  It was the unavoidable fate of a frequently used sword, no matter how well cared for.  The true interest for Hakeem, however, came in the shape of the stain.

It told Hakeem that the user turned the blade and held it along their arm.

The cross-guard did not prevent this, but it would force the person to hold the flat of the blade against their skin.  Hakeem stood from his chair and took up the blade by the hilt, the way the user would have held it.  The hold, despite the lightness of the blade, required a great amount of wrist strength.  The man turned his head, eyes narrowed as he saw how the blade extended far from his elbow.

The person would have to hold their arm up and out.  What character of person would choose to fight in this way?

The smallest hint of a smirk appeared on Hakeem’s lips.

…The kind that waltzed out of a room filled with hostiles with nary a scratch.

Hakeem went to the center of the room.  He swung his arm back and forth, slowly.  His dark eyes were trained on the sword tip and the light traces it made through the air.  His gaze burned with the after-image from the light that caught the blade.  Hakeem swung his arm faster, letting it travel loosely.  His eyes narrowed at the after-image that now burned his eye.

A tree–devoid of leaves.

When several more swings produced nothing he could recognize, the man decided that the sword was on to him.  It was loyal to its mistress.  He placed his feet beneath his shoulders and smiled fully.  A very good weapon–a shame it wasn’t his.

Hakeem returned to swinging his arm back and forth slowly.  He closed his eyes, eyelids still lit with the bizarre after-image, and focused on the force that went through him as he moved.  With the shock of a blow being absorbed by the reinforcement of his arm, Hakeem realized the potential the blade had for serving as a makeshift shield.  The metal was strong enough for it.  Such a hold required bracers to prevent from accidental injury, but it was indeed possible.  However, he still felt the offensive potential of such a grip.

Testing this theory, Hakeem slid his right foot back.  With the sword held behind him, he let out a sharp kai, then snapped his elbow forward in a wide, high arc.  Intrigued by the results, the man adjusted his grip to hold the blade against the underside of his arm instead, an action that barely took a second, so that the sword faced parallel with the floor.  He swung again, and this time, rotated his wrist forward mid-swing, so that the blade swung free.  It whistled through the air and he imagined the shocked look of his opponent as the sword tip slashed the exposed neck.

He loosened his grip toward the end of the arc, then with a light jump of the hand, turned his hand to hold the hilt the traditional way.  He swung again, the other way.  An unexpected follow-up.  His execution was sloppy, and took too long to switch back to standard sword handling, but he imagined the original owner had mastered that switch years ago.

There was something bloodthirsty about using an offensive item for defensive purposes.

The person was strong, highly trained, and had a taste for danger.  They didn’t mind a gamble, and thrived on their opponents being unprepared or disadvantaged by surprise.

Pieces, disordinate as raindrops to glass…but it began to come together in a single stream–a single picture–a certain path.

“I have garnered more about you from these items, than I ever would have speaking to you,” he thought.

The owner was a self-sufficient person, and very resilient, considering their belongings.  There was nothing of sentimental value, only necessities.  This could have been due to a coldness in the heart–but somehow, he didn’t feel this was the case.

Exhaling, Hakeem straightened and brought his feet together.  He held the sword up to his eyes.  Nice as the single-handed handling was, he imagined another blade was perhaps necessary.  He didn’t see the fighting style being used when the opponent was dancing cautiously out of reach.  It was meant for extreme close combat, when the swing of a long sword could not be executed satisfactorily, if at all.  The man turned and eyed the array of items on the bed.  The other blades were common tools–for skinning game, for woodcutting, for medicinal use–but one blade, six-inches long, glinted at him in the narrow shaft of sunlight that slipped through the curtains of the eastern window.

The dagger was meant for combat use, judging by the point of the blade.  The user could draw it, and while holding the long sword against their arm, could fence with the other.

There weren’t many that would employ such a combat style, least of all in the Fiamman military.  Part of their strength was in their no nonsense fighting and their unity.  There was only one unit Hakeem could think of that would tolerate such an individualistic method.

The dragoons.

Feared the world over, the dragoons were the Fiamman army’s greatest offensive force.  They tackled impossible objectives and were masters of horseback fighting, long range assault, and close-quarter combat.  They were versatile, ruthless, and as he heard it…unruly.  One of the more notorious troops Hakeem had heard of was led by a woman, daughter to a general and an aristocrat.  He could not recall the woman’s name, and this annoyed him.

He vaguely recalled hearing snatches of talk among the well-traveled.  The Fiamman king had put a bounty out on one of their own military leaders, a person of a respectable rank and notorious reputation.  There was no doubt in his mind, now that the evidence was gripped in his hand, that the woman he had seen was that same person.  Fiammans were not known to travel far from their kingdom without good reason.

Taking up the dagger, the man tossed it lightly in the air.  He tested the weight.  A little heavy, for his tastes, but this woman would need something with the mass to back up the force she’d likely use for her offensive maneuvers.  Hakeem turned to the side, tossed the dagger once more, and just as it came down, withdrew his hand at the last second.

The dagger, as though stunned by this betrayal, did not stick neatly into the floorboards, but rather, let its tip smash into the ground like a man’s nose before it hopped up once more to swivel and fall to its side.  Hakeem rubbed his chin and shouldered the Fiamman sword–careful to keep the blade away from his neck.

Swords as loyal as this one was not likely to respond well to macharomancy.

He counted on the dagger to let its guard down more.  The blade was not nearly as old as the sword, and as far as blades went…daggers weren’t the brightest.

Hakeem went to the window and threw the curtains aside with his free hand.  Then he returned to the spot where the dagger had fallen, and knelt down.  He brushed the dagger aside and shifted to allow the sunlight to fall onto the mark in the wood.

The man scowled deeply.

Nauthiz…” he breathed.

A bold line with a light downward slash through the center.  The dagger was not native to Fiamma, though Hakeem could’ve guessed it by the square pommel.  Nauthiz was a runic symbol used in divinations to the far Northwest.

“Your owner…needs something?”  Hakeem frowned.  “Or has she already found it?  Is it not enough?”  He closed his eyes, grumbling.  The after-image of the tree still remained.  Hakeem’s eyes flew open and he straightened.  “Tai’undu!  That woman actually wants…no but that’s impossible!  Why would she possibly want to go there?

Hakeem grabbed the dagger and stood, his body now tense with his new revelation.  He replaced the dagger and sword back on the bed.  Despite not having slept since the day before, the man knew exhaustion would not visit him until this new task was done.  He minded the time.  He and Quincy were under a limit, and there was much more at stake than just reputation.  His new conclusions only brought further questions, and they did nothing to shed light on the strange therian girl.  Who was she?  Why was she with the Fiamman?  What were they really after?

Hakeem set aside his findings.  Perhaps Quincy would be able to interpret them better.  She always caught what he didn’t see.

It was time to seek the bar waitress who had claimed to know one of Gamath’s citizens.  He needed to learn more about the Fiamman woman, as well as her companion, before he could set out.  Hakeem put the items away, save for the bow and quiver, which he shouldered.

Without a backward glance he left the room, bag in hand.

…Hakeem didn’t know if time was on their side anymore.

NYX____________________________

I squinted in the dim tunnel.  My feet slid disconcertingly, and I placed both hands on either wall beside me.  Down below, I heard someone shout, and there was the dull sound of something hitting the ground.  My heart clenched, and I froze.

“Sweet Aelurus, what was that?” I breathed, feeling the blood drain from my face.  I looked back over my shoulder, my first thought being to flee.  But I could not leave Elmiryn.  I took a deep breath and crept forward, trying to comfort myself.  “Elmiryn is alright.  Whatever happened, she must have taken care of it!”

I came to where the tunnel turned into a lit chamber.  Scarcely breathing, I peered around the corner.  My stomach dropped.  Elmiryn was on the floor, mouth open, her eyes rolling in their sockets as she looked around in a clear daze.  I saw the shaggy dog trot to her, whining, its wet nose quivering as it pressed against the woman’s ear.

Then I heard someone whispering.

Creeping out further, my eyes fell on a young girl, with wavy wheat blond hair and large green eyes crouched on the ground feet away, her body turned adjacent to us.  She wore a soft-blue dress with a low v-neck that revealed a white top, laced with black ribbon down the middle.  Her sleeves flared and pooled in her lap.  At the front, the skirt cut open at the waist, where I saw that the girl had on brown shorts and high brown boots.  The girl had her hands at either side of her head, and she looked at Elmiryn with an expression of anguish, rocking back and forth.  I caught snatches of what she said, and my fear grew, along with my befuddlement.

“Slash and parry.  You can’t…you can’t just cut through them.  They aren’t…they live.  They just want…And the men.  What about the men! What about–” The girl sobbed and shook her head.  She squeezed her eyes shut tightly and fat tears leaked out from the corners.  “Saelin!  Watch your back you idiot!”

Trembling I crept out into full view, hands held out before me.  I can’t recall if I meant to show that I wanted no trouble, or if I was trying to be prepared for it.  Either way, I moved forward, feeling my heart ready to leap from my chest.  My eyes fell on the frying pan on the other side of the girl.  The dog glanced at me, ears perked.  I saw its lips twitch and I half expected it to begin growling.

The girl’s eyes popped open, and upon seeing me, she began to scream.  The sound split my skull, and I winced and crouched as though lowering myself could somehow avoid the sound.  The youth scrambled backwards, her flared sleeves and the tail of her dress trailing through the dirt.

I’m sorry!” She shrieked through tears.  She stepped on her skirt more than once, and seemed to go mad in her attempts to flee more quickly.  “I’m sorry–I’m really sorry!  Please don’t hurt me–”

I shook my head, my expression anxious and confused.  “I–I don’t know–I mean, I don’t want to hurt–”

Elmiryn began to speak.  Muttering something.  She started to shift and I went to help her up.

“Elmiryn are you okay!?  What happened?” I asked, eyes flickering back to the young girl.  She had made it to the other side of the chamber, where she pressed her back to the wall.  Her pink face glistened with her tears, and she continued to babble under her breath.

“Where are we?” Elmiryn asked with a great exhalation as she sat upright.  She squinted and frowned as though her head hurt her.

“A cave.  We followed the dog.”  I gestured toward the dog with my hand.  The woman followed my pointing and blinked.

She reached for her sword.  “What on Halward’s plane is that?

I stopped her in alarm.  “No, no!  Stop!  It’s the ‘Mangy Beast’.  Our meal ticket, as you put it before.  We’ve been following it all day!”

“We have?”

“Yes, Elle!  We have!”  I scowled at the woman and took her face in my hands.  “What did that girl do to you?”

“I didn’t do anything!” The girl interjected from her place.  She was hyperventilating.  “I mean I did, I did, I did–but it was such an accident!  A REALLY big one.  M’sorry, M’sorry!!  It’ll go back. It’ll all go back–I don’t know when but it will!”

“What’ll go back?  What in the nine hells are you going on about!?”  I snapped.  My sudden ferocity came riding on my intense horror.  Elmiryn was behaving strangely, more than usual, and the girl’s cries didn’t help.  Elmiryn’s mind was already in such a delicate balance. What if the girl–whatever she had done–had tipped it beyond the point of return?

What did you do?” I screamed, feeling my eyes burn in frustration.

The dog snarled, lips curled back as it leapt before me.  Its hackles were raised and its dark eyes flashed a warning my way.  I didn’t realize it, but I had shifted as though I were about to leap forward.  I settled back quickly, my breath catching in my throat from the aggression the dog radiated.  Elmiryn grabbed my arm.

“Damn…that thing looks like it could eat you,” she murmured with a twitchy grin.

“I gathered that, thank you,” I returned acerbically, my wide eyes on the dog.  The Mangy Beast had settled back already, ears still perked, but its fur had settled and its tail was still.

I looked at Elmiryn out of the corner of my eye, my body trembling worse now.  I imagined I looked like I were in an earthquake.  “Elmiryn, how do you feel?”

“Sleepy,” she replied, dull in voice.  “And still a bit confused.  Did I drink that much last night?”

“We’re a few miles north of Tiesmire.  This girl says she did something to you.”

Elmiryn glanced at me, grumbled something unintelligble, than stood.  Her shoulders sagged, but her eyes flashed as she gazed across the chamber to the girl.  “Like what?” she asked quietly.

The girl looked as though she were about to start screaming again.  Her oval-shaped face drew long and her chest rose and fell rapidly.  With great effort, she began to speak.  “I-I-I t-took your memory.  By accident!  By accident!”  She pointed at her head.  “It’s–It’s just bits and pieces!  I thought you were one of the bad men!  They’ve been chasing me all month!  But then our eyes met–it was such an accident–and I took some of your memory!  I can’t control it!” The girl let out a shuddering sob, her large eyes squinting and letting two more tears leak down her face.  “I mean it!  When Argos came down the tunnel and told me someone was coming, I didn’t have time to grab–”

“Wait, wait,” I interjected.  I closed my eyes in disbelief.  “Did you just say, ‘Argos told me’?  You mean the dog told you?”

I looked as the girl faltered.  “I…I mean…well, yes.  The dog.  My dog.  Argos.  He told me.”

“How?” Elmiryn asked next.  She crossed her arms over her chest.  She seemed like she were about to start laughing.

The girl began to twist her right sleeve.  She looked at us both.  I frowned as I realized something.

The whole time, the youth had avoided looking straight into our eyes.  Rather, she looked at our shoulders, or our shoes.  It made her look as if she were blind.

The girl started to speak, and though her voice was tired and hoarse, she had calmed down enough to stop stuttering.  “I’m a journeyman enchantress.  I’ve trained all my life to master magic of perception and thought.”  She sat up and gestured at Argos, a warm smile blossoming on her still blotchy face.  “The study of animal minds is a path all its own in enchantment.  I don’t specialize in it, but I’ve always had an affinity for it.  Argos is my chosen familiar.  I’ve had him since he was a puppy.”

I stood to my feet, mouth partially open.

The girl paused and her face turned pensive.  She looked towards Elmiryn.  “I saw your memories, Elmiryn.  You’re a Fiamman soldier.  You were following Argos hoping that I’d pay you somehow.  I don’t have much…but…”  The girl shook her head, frowning.  “You’re different. Your memories aren’t right.  They feel like they’re going to break apart if I stop paying attention to them.  It’s unnatural!  Something has happened to you, hasn’t it?”

Elmiryn looked to me.  Her face was blank, but in her eyes I saw her ask me what to do.  I looked at the girl.  With a sigh, I nodded.  She knew enough already.  There was not much to hold back.

“I’m cursed,” Elmiryn said.  The remark seemed far too casual.  I gripped Elmiryn’s arm and the woman’s head bowed a degree.  Her voice grew quieter.  “Things I see seem unreal, and my memories are weak.”

The girl made to stand.  She dusted herself off with quivering hands and straightened.  She gazed at the wall just above us.  “Nyx.  You’re an Ailuran, an outcast from your people.  Elmiryn cares for you, very much.  You try to help her as best you can, don’t you?”

I gave the girl a startled look.  “Um…Yes.  I do.”  I wasn’t sure where this was going.

The blond smiled, one that rivaled Elmiryn’s in width and vibrance.  “I’m so glad!”  The girl bent over and patted her bare knees.  “Argos!”

The dog woofed and with its tail wagging, practically bounded to the girl.  The youth ruffled his fur and cooed.  “I’m sorry I didn’t stop to listen to you!  You were trying to tell me weren’t you?”

She looked up at us again.  “Y’see, I can communicate with him.  He’s a dog, so he doesn’t think in words, even though he understands them.  I have to actually focus on him to get his whole meaning.  When he came down, all I let him tell me was that ‘strong people were coming’, and then I panicked!”  She giggled.  “It’s been a very hard few weeks, so you can imagine how I felt!”

Elmiryn cleared her throat.  “Ah…this is all very interesting…but I feel it’s a little unfair, you knowing our names and us not knowing yours.  Care to enlighten us?”

The girl bit her lip and straightened.  She looked at us both, or rather at our chests, and wrung her hands.  The dog barked, its body hopping up to lightly paw at the girl’s thigh.  This seemed to decide it for her, and she shrugged with a nervous laugh.

“Yes, yes, you’re right of course!  It isn’t as if their magic users…so what’s the harm?  I’m being so rude!”  She spoke to the dog.  I struggled to keep my face straight as Elmiryn had to clamp a hand around her mouth to contain herself.  It felt a little mean, but seeing her talk to it was sort of humorous.

The girl drew herself up, then gave a low bow.  Her wheat colored hair swept forward to conceal her face.  “My name is Lethia Artaud, apprentice to Syria, the Enchantress of Albias.”

I sputtered.  “Syria!?”

Elmiryn turned and frowned at me.  “Who’s she?”

I looked at her excitedly.  “One of the most well-respected magic users in the world!  She’s rivaled only by Gaduman of the East, but he…well…went insane.  I’ve read some of Syria’s work.  Her theories on cognitive matrices in the animus were incredible!”

Lethia blushed and looked at her shoes.  “She wrote that when I was four years old.  I was her subject of study.”

I probably should have guessed this, but I was so surprised that it didn’t occur to me.  I ran my hand through my hair and gave an excited laugh.  “You were?  What was it like when she conducted the simulations?”

“I…can’t remember.”  Lethia gestured vaguely at her head as she went to the log.  Behind it was a pack, which she began to rifle through.  “Syria says that the mark of any true Enchantress is in her memory function.  The inherent magical power can greatly affect how it works.  In my case, it’s completely sporadic…and dangerous.  I can steal others memories, but…”

Lethia froze.  Elmiryn slapped a head to her head and cursed.  Then she went quiet too.  I looked at them both, alarmed.  “What happened, Elle?”

The seconds ticked by.  Neither moved.  Unnerved, I reached out and lightly touched the woman’s back.  “…Elmiryn?”

Elmiryn took in a shuddering breath, as though she’d been underwater for a long time.  She swayed and I steadied her, my expression turning fearful.  She placed a hand on her chest, and looked around with glassy eyes.

Lethia had slumped to her knees.  In her small hands, she held a funny pair of wire lenses.  The round-cut glasses were tinted dark.  She didn’t move right away, but when she did, she put on her glasses with slow, uncertain hands.  They completely concealed her eyes.

When she looked our way, she squealed and fell backward.  “Who–Who’re you two?”

I stared at her, flabbergasted.  “You don’t remember?”

Elmiryn stared at the girl, then at me.  “I’m…missing something, aren’t I?  Is that the Mangy Beast’s owner?”  Then her body tensed, and she went to grab her sword.  “Shit, did you see where the bastard went that tried to hit me with a frying pan!?”  Lethia let out a hysterical shriek.  Argos let out a great heaving sigh.

I groaned.

Oh for heaven’s sake!


Back to Chapter 11.2 | Forward to Chapter 11.4

Chapter 11.2

ELMIRYN____________________________

She could see the dog’s incredible mass quiver beneath its fur with every bone-crushing drop of its paws.   It lifted its head a brief moment, and the wind blew its lips back enough to reveal massive, yellow canines that Elmiryn swore were as long as her middle finger.  Then again, her ability to judge things by sight was hampered, so maybe it wasn’t so bad.  Maybe the ground shaking was just in her head, and the dark eyes weren’t really imagining her as dinner, and maybe it actually liked tea parties, and didn’t chase squirrels, and thought elven history was a good read–

Who was she kidding?  Elmiryn was fucked.

“Nyx,” she turned, only to find her companion…gone.  Alarmed, the woman’s head swiveled around and her eyes found the girl up a pine tree.  She smirked sardonically.

Not that she could blame her…

Then her breath left her.  The sky and earth tumbled.  Pain crashed over her like a wave, and for a moment she could only see dark ripples.  Her back was on the ground, and a great weight pressed on her.  She blinked, fighting to see, and her vision returned to her just in time to see the dog lean down and–

“Ugh, fuck!

The tongue covered the entire right side of her face and left a horrible smelling slime to drip down her neck and chin.  Then came another long lick, and a whine, before the dog barked in her ear.  The sound tore through her head like tissue paper.  Elmiryn wretched once, twice–

Third time’s a charm.

She managed to turn her head just in time to keep the foul sick from flowing over her face and neck.  It wasn’t much.  A mouthful, maybe.  She’d done much of the work the night before.  Groaning, she shifted to keep her shoulder from dipping into the new puddle.

The dog sniffed at her face, tongue testing the vomit that had just managed to get on her cheek.  It was all rather disgusting, and the animal felt like a ton on her, but despite it all…

Elmiryn started to laugh.

The scholarly, tea-loving, earth-quaking dog just wanted to say hello.

“Ger’off, you big mutt,” she managed to say through her chuckles.  Elmiryn shoved it back with both arms.  They were weak, and quaked with the effort.  The dog moved more from suggestion than actual brute force.

“Ouch…” Elmiryn hissed as she sat up.  She touched her side and winced.  She glared at the dog, which had taken to sitting on her shins.  “I think you broke something…and I thought I said to get off!”  She gave it another weak push, and when her legs were free, she made to stand.  Her vision fuzzed again, her skull swirling in pain, and she felt her limbs go cold.  “Gods damn it.”

As the dog took to sniffing at her legs, Elmiryn looked up at Nyx in the tree.  The girl had climbed up in a great hurry, judging by the way she barely clung to the low branch with both arms and legs.  She gestured at her friend.  “Get down you pansy.”

“No,” came the strangled reply.  She couldn’t see the girl’s face, the way she held the branch.  “I hate dogs.”

“Well lucky for you, the dog doesn’t hate you.” Elmiryn leaned down and scratched at the dogs head.  “Isn’t that right you mangy beast?”

The dog whined and licked at the woman’s hand.  She grimaced and wiped her hand on her pants.  “Really, Nyx.  Get the hell down here.  It’s alright.”

No!

The warrior rolled her eyes and knelt next to the dog.  Down on her knee, was it her imagination, or was the dog taller than she was now?  She felt around its neck, her arms making an effort to reach around.  She frowned and sat back when she felt nothing.  “Hmm, no collar.  But then again, you’re not hard to miss, are you?”

Elmiryn, make it go away!

“Quit being a scaredy cat and get down!”

The girl cursed something in her native language.  Elmiryn’s mind still held some of Nyx’s memories, and by that token, portions of her Ailuran vocabulary.  She caught something about an idiot catching a falling anvil…Probably some sort of saying or proverb.

“Alright, well you can stay there while I find this dog’s owner.”

The girl craned her head back, her face pink from the way her blood drained into her cheeks.  “You’re going to what?

The woman patted the dog’s shoulder.  “I bet I can get a reward for returning this dog.  It’s clearly someone’s pet.”

“Elle–”

“So if you want to sit there all morning, by all means–”

“Elmiryn–”

“I mean, after the way other people have treated you, you’d think you could spare a bit of compassion for–”

Nyx let out a frustrated yell.  She banged her head on the tree branch, muttering fast under her breath, before she unwrapped her legs and (with a whimper) let herself fall to the ground.

The dog woofed and stared at her with ears perked, every muscle in its body still.  Nyx eyed it apprehensively.

“It…won’t hurt me?  You won’t let it hurt me?” She took cautious steps toward them, as if expecting her next step to be her last.

Elmiryn smacked the dog on the nose and it gave a surprised yelp.  Ears folded back, it hunched over and stared up at her with a scandalized look.  The woman pointed at Nyx.  “You be nice.  You’ll crush her if you aren’t careful.”

Nyx moaned.  “Elmiryn, that isn’t funny!”

Elmiryn blinked back at her, hand still pointing.  “I wasn’t trying to crack a joke.”

This only made the girl look greener, and it seemed for a moment that illness was going to visit her as it had the woman.  But then the girl took another trembling step forward, then two.  She made certain to keep the warrior between herself and the shaggy dog, her eyes wide.  When she pressed against Elmiryn’s arm, she could feel the girl’s heart beating like a hummingbird’s.

“Sweet Aelurus, why does it have to be so big?”  The girl breathed into Elmiryn’s shoulder.

The woman laughed.  The dog reached Elmiryn’s elbows when it sat.  With Nyx, it reached a little under her bosom.

“Maybe someone experimented on it?  An alchemist or something?” Elmiryn hypothesized as she began to walk.  She kept a hand on the dog, ready to grab at its fur–not the best of restraints, but it was so big and had no collar.  Fortunately the animal seemed content to keep pace with her of its own volition.  “I’ve seen chickens hatched from eggs that casters had magicked–they were the size of a human toddler.”

“Whatever the reason, it seems unusually agreeable, doesn’t it?” Nyx said, her voice flecked with mistrust.

Elmiryn looked down at the dog.  It eyed the camps as they passed, but made no sign of recognition.  Its owner was not there, and none came forward to claim it–though plenty stared.  One minute the monster-looking creature was charging past, the next it was coming back the way it came, two strange women in tow.  The woman winked at an old artisan wrapped in cloths who had been staring too long.  The stranger hurriedly tried to busy herself with her jewelry making.

“I don’t know, Nyx,” Elmiryn replied, looking forward again.  “There have been stranger things in this world than a friendly dog.”

“But one that picks us out of the hundreds of people camping out here?”

The woman shrugged.  Given recent events, the girl’s paranoid musing was not out of place.  She looked down at the dog and cooed.  “Have you got a surprise for us, mangy beast?”

Mangy Beast woofed and danced out of Elmiryn’s touch.  It stopped before the two women and canted a bit, pawing at the air.  It let an anxious bark, tail low but wagging, ears folded back.  Turning its back on them, it stared over its shoulder, tongue lolling.  Elmiryn and Nyx exchanged looks.

“That…isn’t normal, is it?  Could it just be that smart?” The woman said with a shrug.

Nyx shook her head slowly, her eyes on the whining dog.  “I haven’t the slightest idea.”

The dog gave a sharp bark, and with a shaky of its thick mane,  snorted and took off into a run, bits of dirt and grass startled from their homes.  Elmiryn gave a start, one hand extended. “Hey–shit–Hey wait a second!”

She pushed with the ball of her foot and gave chase.

She heard Nyx sputter behind her. “Elmiryn!  Where do you think you’re going?”

“After the dog! Where else?”

There was a groan, and when Elmiryn glanced back, she saw Nyx sprinting to catch up. Her expression was scrunched in what appeared to be agony. Elmiryn felt no better, but she was certain the dog was their way out of sudden poverty.

“But where is IT going!?” Nyx managed to wheeze.

“No idea!” she answered.  She managed a breathless laugh.  “Here, gimme a sec.  Lemme ask the fucking thing.”

“Oh, very funny!”

They moved through a dense collection of camps–a traveling company. Elmiryn leaped over a startled couple on a quilted mauve blanket whilst they were mid-lip-lock, and she waved at them with a grin over her shoulder. They blinked at her in confusion. Nyx ran around them, all apologies.

The dog, once the women were following, seemed to slow down to a pace where they both could keep up. It would sprint forward, then pause to look back at them, ears perked and dark eyes shining from beneath its mane. Elmiryn wiped the sweat from her eyes, her breathing hoarse. Was the dog grinning at them?

She didn’t keep track of how far they went. The time seemed to melt in pain and heat, even with the merciful ocean breeze lighting on their flushed skin. When the traveler camps thinned out, and the Torreth Mountains began to curve away from the ocean into a tight valley parallel with the northern mountains, the dog finally took to a stop. It sat back and panted, eyes unconcerned as they passed over Elmiryn.

The woman fell to her knees, wheezing. The edges of her vision was a blur. “Hey…ya…mangy beast…you wouldn’t be trying to kill us…would you?” She looked behind her, her entire body swinging as though it were on a swivel. “Nyx?”

“I’m down here.”

Elmiryn crawled over the grass on all fours to gaze down the low hill they had just scaled. Nyx was farther down, on her back, spread like a star in the green. Her eyes were closed and her chest rose up and down fast.

The woman managed a weak laugh. “Hey! If it weren’t for all that running we’ve been doing before, I don’t think we would’ve made it this far!”

Nyx scoffed, but didn’t open her eyes. “If you weren’t already in shape, and I wasn’t what I am, we wouldn’t have even made it at all. …Where in the nine hells are we, anyway?”

Elmiryn turned to look at the dog. “Okay, Mangy Beast. Where are we? Where have you brought us?” She went crawling to it, but even this took a great effort. The grass looked so welcoming. Elmiryn was tempted to pass out on it. “I hope this wasn’t a wild goose chase, because I hear some kingdoms see dogs as a delicacy…” Her ears perked as she neared the animal. The dog did not move, but just watched her with an air of indifference as she came nearer.

“That sound. It’s just like…” Elmiryn, dredging up some last reserve of energy, scrambled forward. Her vision swam, and she made no attempt to stand, but as she came next to the dog, she managed to see through her exhaustion. Her face lit up.

“Nyx! It’s water! The dog led us to the stream!” Not waiting, Elmiryn tumbled down the hill to it–a clear run of water six feet wide. It ran from the Torreth and collected into a muddy pond further on, but the stream was beautiful. The stream was enough. Elmiryn dipped down to take a long drink, the feel of the water like heaven down her throat. When she came up again, she found both Nyx and the Mangy Beast had joined her.

She reached over Nyx to pat the dog on the head. “Good job, boy.  If we could afford it, we’d keep you!”

The dog whined, and turned its great head to face downstream. Elmiryn frowned and followed its line of sight. She saw nothing. “What is it?”

If there was anything of interest, the dog gave no further indication, but allowed Elmiryn and Nyx rest by the water and drink to their hearts content.  The redhead understood the situation exactly in that context, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on why that was.  The three suns crawled over the sky, and though hunger was now another issue, Elmiryn felt a great deal better.  Nyx seemed well, too.

The woman sighed, content.

But as she watched the dog, belly-up, wiggle in the grass, she felt her sense of danger prickle.  With narrowed eyes, she gazed at their surrounding landscape.

There were jagged ledges of exposed terrain, and small shrubs that rustled in dark contrast to the open fields of unchecked grass.  No one, no animal, was in sight.  The fields swept from the ocean wind, and all at once, Elmiryn felt exposed.

“We should get going. This spot isn’t good to dawdle at.”  She stood to her feet, one hand on the hilt of the iron sword.

Nyx sighed and stood with her, hands at the straps of her bag.  “Alright then…”

The dog brushed past Elmiryn’s legs, making her stumble.  It was more like having a bear nudge her in the side.   When she glared at it, annoyed, the dog gave a small growl, then began to trot through the stream, towards the northern cliffs.

“Well there it goes again…” The woman grumbled, arms crossed over her chest.  They followed it, walking briskly.

As they came down a gentle slope that led into the heart of the valley, Nyx touched her elbow.  Elmiryn looked at her and saw anxiety in her eyes.  “You were right Elmiryn.  This is odd.  I don’t think it is a coincidence, what happened in the bar and what’s happening now.”

The woman frowned.  “You don’t think we should follow the dog?  It did lead us to water.”

Nyx shook her head, her brow furrowed deep.  “But that wasn’t the stream the travelers spoke of.  I didn’t even see that one.  This is an isolated area.  The open valley begs for an ambush!”

“Look where the dog is going,” Elmiryn said, gesturing with a tilt of her chin.  “Farther to the north, and out of the open.  If there was some plot to get us, it would’ve happened by now.  I just don’t like sitting and waiting for that to happen, which is why I’d like to get moving.”

“But you admit this is strange?”

Admit it? I think I called it first, kitten.”

“I said not to call me that!”  The girl snapped, walking faster.

Elmiryn smiled and rubbed the back of her neck with a chuckle.  “Damn.  Sorry.”

As they reached the foot of the northern mountains, the dog stopped and barked anxiously at the women, its tail wagging.  Elmiryn jogged, because something in the dog’s behavior suggested impatience.

…Never mind that she was allowing herself to be hurried by a dog.

Nyx didn’t bother speeding up.  She only grumbled something under her breath and trudged along at a sullen speed.

When Elmiryn caught up with the animal, it gave a shake of its fur, then took off again, as fast as it could toward a collection of rocks and exposed earth in the mountain side.  The woman noted how the creature had no intention of waiting anymore.  She sprinted after it, still faint in body, but rejuvenated after her rest at the stream.

As she neared, she saw a jagged crevice in the mountain side that revealed an opening.  It was slim and blended in well with the dark surroundings, but Elmiryn saw it when the dog disappeared into its shadowy depths.  The woman looked behind her to see Nyx still lagging behind.  When the girl looked up and finally took note of her location, Elmiryn gave a wave before slipping in through the narrow entrance.

Light from the outside offered little reprieve once she was within the slim tunnel.  The rocky walls felt smooth, and the ground was slippery with sediment and small stones.  But as Elmiryn delved deeper, she began to see an orange glow dance along the tunnel walls.  One hand on the hilt of her stolen sword, she crouched low and slowly made her way forward.

As Elmiryn rounded the corner, the tunnel widened and opened to a small chamber lit with a single lantern that glowed brighter than it should.  Enchanted?  The dog was there, but the chamber was empty.  Its ears were drooped low on its shaggy head, and it whined when the woman came into view.  Its spine curved to such a degree as to make the woman almost believe it were trying to make itself average-sized.

She scowled and straightened as she entered further.  There was a bed roll and a half-eaten lunch of roasted meat and stewed carrots on a tin plate.  A log had been dragged into the chamber, and draped over it was a cloak and what looked to be a night gown.  Next to it were other curiosities, like odd crystals and vials that were laid out on a small silk blanket on the ground.

Elmiryn squinted at the half-eaten food, then at the whining dog, who was now attempting to conceal its face behind a paw.  Her jaw clenched.

There was a yell.  The woman ducked and saw a frying pan sail over her head.  Her assailant was on the left.  With little thought, she stepped to the side and let loose a right hook.  Her fist buried into soft cloth.  Blinking, she looked at the face of her attacker.

“…You’re just a kid!” She exclaimed, exasperated.  She grabbed the youth by the shoulders as they doubled over, hugging their gut where Elmiryn had punched.  It was a girl, a little taller than Nyx, with long wheat hair and large ears that peeked out from beneath the locks.

Her round, pearly face lifted to face Elmiryn.  It was drawn in shock, pretty pink lips shaped like an “O” as green eyes met blue.

Immediately, the woman felt as though hooks had been jabbed just behind the irises.  They pulled, and her mouth opened as though she wished to scream but the feeling came and left so fast.  It was drowned out by a sickening numbness that rolled over her–that made her fall to her knees.  But her eyes did not leave the girl’s.  Pretty green eyes.  Green.  Green.  Green.  Green…

…Mint green eyes that shone beneath a plumed helmet.  They called to her through the mist and dust, appealing to the true ferocity that demanded victory by the blood of foes.

“Rally the men, Saelin!  We’ll break through their eastern flank!”

Then the moment was gone…Elmiryn slumped to the floor, her face against the ground, eyes burning, her spine on fire, her head feeling as though it were underwater.  The moment was gone, the moment was…the…what?

Where was she?


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Chapter 11.1

NYX____________________________

We slept inland, amid a sparse collection of trees, the first seen for at least two miles.  The area around Tiesmire was cleared for matters of security.  It was easier to spot a threat in the open.

I curled into Elmiryn’s back–for the cold, I’d said–but my fingers were against her, and my knees lightly touched the back of her thighs.  This gave me a different sort of comfort.  In this closeness, I trembled, unused to the contact, made timid by it, but welcoming it all the same. I was grateful that Elmiryn sought no more, though her eyes flashed in the dark, and I could hear her swallow hard. It was a peek of humanity, beneath her slippery exterior of haunted laughter and distant looks.

Feeling faint, and with a headache blossoming throughout my head, I slept, and wondered if Elmiryn would still be there in the morning, both in body…and in mind.

The morning was quiet, and a mist carried over us. I felt it trace my exposed ears and nose. Confused with sleep, I opened my eyes to see my surroundings, and the light of the morning tore into my retinas, sending a pain like my nerves were being shaved by a razor. I hissed and turned my face into Elmiryn’s back, and relished her warmth. Then my mind stirred, bothered by an observation.

Elmiryn was still there.

Normally, she would wake me with impatient hands. Today, I could hear her snore a little, a light growl that signaled she would not rise soon.

I came up from the ground, stiff, and with a damp side sprinkled with dirt, and tree bits.  I stretched and groaned, inhaling deeply.  Something in my mind said I didn’t breathe in right, so I took a breath in through my nose again, faster this time.  Confused, I swiped at my nose and took another breath, one that left me feeling light headed.  Then I realized what was missing.

My sense of smell had dulled.

I could certainly smell the campfire smoke, the damp soil, the dew on the plants and trees…but now that I stood, I could no longer sense the signature smell that I had attributed to Elmiryn–untamed nature, sweat, sometimes wine or other drink, and oiled metal.  I could not sense the bluebirds chirping in contest with the crows and the siskins.  I could not sense the trace markings of local wildlife–deer, mountain lions, foxes, or raccoons, usually apparent in the moisture.  I could not even sense the rotting trunk yards away, its broken insides alive with bugs and moss and fungi.

And how had I come to see this now?  How had I noticed that which wasn’t mine?

For it was Hers, all of it, the strong sight, smell, and hearing.  I was just the creature that played at being human, the one who knew society and language like second nature.  I could no more take back what she had taken than erase my own memory.  It made me think of Elmiryn’s attempt to protect me from Her, my Twin, and I scoffed derisively–not at the intent of the action, but at the reality of it.

There was nothing either of us could do.  Locked together as quarreling sisters, we would always trespass on the other’s most personal thoughts.  But my hands were mine, my voice mine, my smooth skin mine.  In her world, she knew fang and talon and fur–and could sense far more than I could, even with good health, utter silence, and utmost concentration on my part.

It made me feel inadequate.

But I pushed these things away, and let my base needs take precedence.  I had to go to the bathroom–which surprised me.  I’d thought all the poison and water in me had been pissed and vomited away.  But the burn I felt, and the pinch of my bladder told me I was terribly wrong.

Being upright was a terrible feeling, one made worse with the pain the light offered my squinted and resentful eyes.  I felt like an unsteady pole on a swaying ship.  My limbs, as I walked, were sluggish and my head felt stuffed in cotton.  My mouth was dry, and the light frayed my nerves.  I could almost swear, my brain was a swollen organ that battered the inside of my skull with every clumsy move of my body.  I leaned on my knees, occasionally finding a close enough tree to hold on to while I tried to catch my breath.  Snaking roots and mischievous rocks were my bane.

From our place, one could see the Tiesmire road and the ambling mass of bodies and vehicles, thicker here than towards Gamath.  Around us, others also camped, sprinkled on the sloped hillside.  Light smoke trails and shifting forms made the land seem alive.  Each resting traveler sought meager privacy, and so tried to keep their camps spread apart.  None were near us, but eyes followed me as I made my clumsy way.

Then an unwelcome voice resounded in my head.

“Quite possibly the dumbest thing you have done, second only to agreeing to follow Elle the Idiot–”

“Shut up, ingratious animal!” I snapped aloud.  Her voice echoed in my head, and it hammered my senses painfully.  Didn’t this hurt her too?  I wondered.  Or was the venom in her voice because she felt as I did?

My Twin went on rambling, “–Let me in control for a while, your sense are shot–”

“No.”

“–I’m asking this purely out of necessity. You’re straying from camp–”

“I have to relieve myself!  You aren’t supposed to–”

“–And you’ll be more vulnerable with your pants down–”

“–You think shifting before all these strangers won’t make me vulnerable–?”

“–US vulnerable. And I’m only asking for a moment–”

“NO, gods damn you!”

“FINE.” She snarled, and then she fell quiet, slamming the proverbial door shut and locking it.

I snorted and let Her have her tantrum.  Now that she was sealed away in her unnameable home, she didn’t make my head hurt as much.

When my business was done, I returned to our little camp.  We couldn’t find a proper space, but our exhaustion robbed us of any care for absolute perfection.  I knelt down by Elmiryn, and my heart palpitated in my chest a healthy rhythm.  The sight of her cheeks, turned a fair rose, with her hair as hot searing locks tangled in the cracked leaves and dark dirt…  She was quiet and still, her face devoid of her typical restlessness.  But this was only her exterior, her shell, and I knew with an ache in my throat that she was lost to something unseen.  I raised a cold hand, and contemplated brushing back the rebellious locks that trailed her cheeks.  My hand curled back and I chewed my lip.  I thought, “I’d rather not be burned.”

I went to my bag and pulled out my gambeson.  The bag deflated like a hollowed out corpse.  The clothing was rolled tightly and smelled of soap.  I held it up in the sleepy light and frowned unfavorably at the darkened fabric.  The blood didn’t wash out completely.

My grip tightened as my mind flashed–bringing the sight of a pale man with spiky dark hair and wild eyes.  Aidan’s pale face, once handsome, was dominated by thick purplish veins and cancerous red skin.  His hands at my Twin’s throat, sick laughter echoing in our mind, Sedwick screaming at Her to stop, me pushing forward to force her to do just that–

My eyes teared, and I bit my tongue to anchor myself.  I pressed the gambeson to my nose and tried to find the scent of my mother.

…I sensed nothing of her.

I stared forward, feeling as though someone had just ripped the breath from my lungs.  One small tear leaked out the side of my eye, but I didn’t bother wiping at it.  I let my hands fall to my lap, where the gambeson draped my thighs like a dead skin.  With slow hands, I pulled the item on, tying it at the front.  Underneath, my tunic bunched and wadded, but the warmth my gambeson afforded me in this morning chill was worth more than the slight awkwardness this caused.  Even if I could no longer smell my mother in the fabric, I tried to find consolation in the fact that, no matter what, it was once hers.

I repeated this to myself as I rubbed my arms, fingers stinging after a while from the brush of the cloth.

Partly selfish, partly sympathetic–my motives for letting Elmiryn sleep on was met with no irritated questions.

Her eventual rising was slow, and she greeted the late morning like a corpse in the sun–stark and morbidly beautiful.  It were as if she were an artistic portrait that no one knew the meaning to anymore.  I was afraid for a moment, the way her eyes seemed so glassy…

So dead.

“Elmiryn…good morning.” My breath was a fog.  There was still a chill about us, even with the sun over the Torreth.

No answer.

I shifted nervously from my place sitting next to her.  “Maybe we should get going?” I asked.

She remained quiet, some flicker of recognition coming over her eyes as she gazed my way.  Then she pulled her knees up to her chest and braced her hands on the ground.  Her lips parted to let out a rattle of breath.

“Meznik…?” she narrowed her eyes.  “Do you feel this, Nyx?”

I shook my head and lightly touched her shoulder.  “Elmiryn, it isn’t Meznik.”

Elmiryn scowled.  “Then what–?”

“We were drinking last night.  You’re hung over, like me.”

“…I am?”

The odd turn of this conversation wasn’t lost on me.  I gave a tentative nod of my head.  “Yes…you are.”

Elmiryn’s eyes lit up.  “That’s right.  That’s right!”  She broke into a laugh.  The sound was off to my ears, like she forgot what key her humor was supposed to be in.  “Let’s look for some water and something to eat,” she said, standing with her newly acquired sword.  She still had a jocular smile on her face.

As we walked, passing camps and wary stares, her smile faded.  She spoke and her tone was uncertain.  “I had a dream.”

I looked at her, trying not to appear concerned.  I didn’t want her to feel doubt regarding her summation.  “What about?” I asked.

“I was fighting.  Lots of people.”  She shook her head and rubbed at her temples, closing her eyes.  “My head hurts…”

“Who were you fighting?”

She blinked.  Elmiryn scratched the back of her neck and rolled her shoulders.  “Everyone.  I think.  My hands sting like it, anyway.”

I frowned and gazed at her sidelong.  “Huh?”

She held up her hands to show me.  “Look, aren’t they swollen?  The knuckles?  The palms?”

“No, they aren’t.  Save for the scar in your right hand, they look normal.”

“Scar?”  She frowned and looked at her palm.  “Oh, right.”

I gave her an uneasy smile.  “Elmiryn, you weren’t really fighting.  That’s why it was a dream.”

“Uh-huh.  That’s what I said, right?”

I forced a smile and looked to the ground, my arms still around me.  My grip tightened.  I felt like crying again.

“Yes…of course, Elle.”

QUINCY____________________________

Quincy was drawn in the cool reaches of groaning buckeyes.  A shadow beneath her cloak, unmoving, she watched from her lofty place as the young therian wandered from camp and hid behind a large shrub.

On her way there, she heard the girl snap at something.  She appeared agitated and unsteady.  Hung over?  Likely.

When she returned, there was a curious moment where the girl paused to gaze at her friend.  It was with admiration and warmth, but her expression was somewhat strained by a sort of fear that Quincy didn’t quite understand.  Concern.  For her friend.  Beyond the typical companionship.  How long had they traveled together?

The therian reached toward the older woman’s face before curling it back.

Ah.  Longing.

Having reconsidered her previous action, the girl turned to her bag and took out a feldgrau gambeson, its shade uneven as though it suffered some large stain.  She then pressed the item to her face and inhaled, and her eyes opened with some haunted realization.  She went slack, letting the gambeson fall to her lap and remained there for a time, staring into space, before she pulled the clothing on with shaking hands.

A precious item–but it had lost something.  Something important.

When the other woke, she could hear their words, even with the cool wind in her ears that swept eastward from the ocean.  Her fingernails gripped into the grain of bark as Quincy shifted just ever slightly, enough to see beneath the spined reach of the buckeye to catch the bewildered expression of the therian.

She was particularly intrigued by the very human-like mannerisms that draped the girl, as if her other self was just a different coat, to be tucked away, unseen, until the right time.

Her companion was another curiosity.  At first she spoke slow and quiet–like a hollow instrument–but then as alertness set into her the woman revealed to have a melodic voice that lifted and jumped on the ear drums–pulled along by some hidden observation that colored her words with humor.  Her eyes were perhaps her most intriguing feature.  Whereas her therian friend’s gaze spoke of the otherness that essentially completed her, the woman’s eyes were devoid of something.

They slipped, flickered, rolled, found something distant and far to watch, before they were back to her friend, perhaps the only thing she could fully focus on for any stretch of time before the world danced with her attention again.  She was restless in her gaze, and yet she still laughed, fascinated by the things she saw.

Not inattentive.  Just searching.  For what?

Quincy did not know what to make of this person or her companion.  She was an expert of observation, a master of detail, yet these two presented only more questions with every revelation.  Her azure eyes narrowed as they began to pass her, hidden, farther inland.

Carefully, she slipped out of the old buckeye, her choice for the all-night watch she had endured.  With confident steps, she followed the two women, eyes trained on them.  She did not feel exhaustion weigh her down, did not feel thirsty, or hungry.  She was honed in on her targets, her new interests.

…How did they know of the chronicles?  How could they possibly know?

Nyx.  The small dark-haired girl.  Elmiryn.  The taller, red-haired woman.  Perhaps the latter was her age?  A little younger?

She’d heard tell of the saviors of Gamath.  The stories varied from person to person, but she had gathered enough accounts from eavesdropping at the rooftops to have an idea of the truth.  Two women, one taller than the other, with beautiful eyes and more danger than either had ever intended on.  They came from the West on a mission, still a mystery to the general gossiper.

Heroes?  Fame chasers?  …Victims of circumstance?

Quincy’s eyes were sharp beneath the lip of her head, and they pierced through smoke and trees to the two women.  For her intended gamble, it was enough.  She could survive circumstances of dubious outcome, could defeat a person of greater reputation, could hold her own when outnumbered–this challenge would be no different.  She would make sure.  True, it would take more work, but Quincy was certain she could have her answers, have her reward, and be unscathed in the end.  With Hakeem, she was doubly sure.

Since she could recall, she had always encountered some unexpected variable in the equation.  She had gathered information that had led her here, and she knew the one she searched for was near.  The city had barred her original quarry from entering due to inexplicable incidents that occurred within its walls.  Cast out and with supplies dwindling, they wandered along the Tiesmire road, searching.

Quincy did not believe in fate, but she believed in resilience and preparation.

She slowed as the two women before her slowed, instinctually keeping a measured distance.  The smaller one was red in the face, and her voice had become shrill.  The taller one looked sheepish.

You spent all the gold!?

“I wasn’t thinking!”

“No!  You were drunk.  And gods damn it, so was I!” The girl gripped her head and teetered.  “Sweet Aelurus, my head…”

An Ailuran.  Quincy figured she was a therian of the moon, but she’d hoped for a Lycan.  Easier to manipulate.

The redhead gripped her companion’s shoulder.  “We’ll be fine–”

Nyx brushed her hand away and glared.  “And how will we be fine when these camps stretch on for several more miles?  With so many people, the only water and food to be found out here is to be bought! All of our most important things were left in that filthy tavern you dragged me into!  We can’t even trade!

If they had set up a water catch, Quincy thought, then the clean morning dew would have been enough for them.  The girl didn’t seem the sort to know this, but the redhead did.  If her assumptions were correct, the woman should have remembered this even while sick from drink.  The blond found herself disappointed by this.

“Maybe someone will be generous,” Elmiryn said with a shrug.  The situation seemed lost on her.

“I’ve had my fair share of ‘generosity’.  That’s why I never could make a living as a beggar.” The girl sat heavily onto the ground.  “Go on, Elmiryn.  Ask around.  I see no point in walking until the matter is solved.”  She fisted her cheek, then glared forward.

The woman threw up her hands and walked away, a loose smile on her lips and her eyes rolling.

Yes.  Completely lost, that one.

Elmiryn approached a man fletching arrows.

Quincy reached for a small bag on her hip.  It was limp and empty.  With both hands, she rubbed the bag until she felt something grow beneath the suede leather.  It was round and smooth.  It grew and grew until it fit snug into her palms.  Then she loosened the bag’s strings and let the ball fall into her waiting hand.  It was a reflective orb.

The woman closed her eyes and held the orb to her lips.  “I see, so you see.  I hear, so you hear.  I know, so you know.  Illuminate this for the eyes of the blind.  Reveal what is hidden, bring forth what is desired,” she whispered.  Then she kissed it, and when she was certain none were looking her way, she tossed the ball high into the air.  It caught the morning light in a brilliant shine.

The light seemed brighter than it should be, and it flashed onto everyone nearby.  Quincy caught it as it came down and tucked it away again.  She turned away, behind a plume of smoke, and was gone in the refracted light of someone’s shield.

NYX____________________________

I glared holes into the ground.

In truth, I wasn’t sure who I was angrier at.  Elmiryn, for being foolish enough to spend the little money we had on something so stupid, or myself, for allowing her to.  I wasn’t much of a drinker, and while the wine was child’s play compared to an Ailuran’s brew, I was a cheap drunk.  A very cheap drunk.  I made a note to never drink again–especially in Elmiryn’s company.

I watched sullenly, out of the corner of my eye, as Elmiryn went to speak to a man some yards away.  I was a bit surprised she was actually asking around.  Not begging–she was too proud for that.

I squinted my eyes and rubbed at my head.  It still pulsed with pain, and I suspected my foul mood was due in part to my illness, but I didn’t care.

“Elle the Idiot” should never have spent all the fucking gold…

There was a flash that lit the ground.  I frowned and sat up to look around.  Then my ear prickled at the snatch of a nearby conversation.

“–Yeah, sure!  A small stream up North, run-off from the mountain.  Very refreshing–”

My eyes brightened, and I turned to look at Elmiryn.  She was coming back towards me, an enthusiastic grin on her face.  All around us broke out sounds of surprise and joy.  Distantly, I found this odd, but didn’t pay it too much attention.  I rose to greet her.  We both started to speak.

“Elmiryn, did you hear–?”

“Hey Nyx, this man just told me–!”

A thundering sound, like heavy paws on the earth, made me stop.  My expression caused Elmiryn to stop as well, and she placed her hands on her hips with a quirked eyebrow.  Shouts of alarm came nearer and nearer.  I looked past my companion, and my face drained in horror.  Elmiryn turned to see what the ruckus was as well.  “What–?” but then she saw.

A massive shaggy dog, the size of a small bear, came charging, its eyes fixed on us.  With every great push of its incredible paws, clumps of dirt and grass flew, and a thick thread of drool trailed from its large pink tongue.  Elmiryn whipped around, shoving me behind her, one hand on the sword hilt.

“Nyx, have I got this right?  It’s coming our way, isn’t it?” She asked quickly.

My heart was pumping hard in my chest. “I-I’m not–”

As it neared, I saw just how huge the animal was.  On all fours it nearly reached Elmiryn’s waist.  There was no hope in out running it, and as I heard, that only made the dog want to chase you more, but the urge was hard to resist.

“Well is it, or isn’t it?” Elmiryn snapped.

“It–It looks like it!  Yes! Oh Sweet Aelurus, yes it is!!”

The woman bent her knees in preparation, her grip on her sword tightening.  I cowered behind her, feeling nauseous again.

Shit,” the woman cursed.


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