There was a darkness lingering in these Lycans, hidden beneath their purpose, tucked under their bravado and their pride. I could see it peeking out from the edges of their masks when they gazed my way. The strange Ailuran was on the move amidst them, and this sparked a new sort of attention…one I had dreaded.
Could they sense my Mark? I knew Ailurans were highly sensitive to it, but did that apply to all therians? Certainly, none of them were lunging or cringing from me…but their gazes weren’t exactly friendly either.
In my life, I have not encountered other races of therians, not even those numerous therians of the sun. The Ailuran Nation wasn’t all that friendly to outsiders, which explains why I hadn’t met any others of my species before my banishment. I can only say that luck served me the rest of the way after that.
Till now, that is.
I had once used the image of Lycans ripping me apart as a preferable route to death over having an axe in my brain. Faced with that possibility (however unlikely whilst under Artemis’ protection), the idea no longer seemed as nice.
Mind you, there is no blood feud between Lycans and Ailurans. We haven’t had the chance to, with our being cornered into our respective parts of the continent. Perhaps if more of us traveled, if our peoples were allowed to expand, that would have eventually come due to cultural differences. But no. No blood feud. Still, there are some tales of Ailuran warriors facing off with our distant wolf cousins…of the North defeating the South in a victory of wits and strength. Just propaganda nonsense. I never really paid it any mind.
Still, if this signified anything, it was that the age old rivalry between dogs and cats was not entirely alien between our people. It seemed natural, and I could feel the Lycans around me taking to this idea with relish. Maybe I would be their new outlet of frustration. Maybe they felt genuinely threatened to have one such as me in their secret village.
…Or maybe they were just bored.
Whatever the reason, a rough shoulder bump told me just how things were about to go as I walked toward the village center. I didn’t bother looking back at who did it. I tried to ignore the smirks of some of the young men that leered at me from the shadows of their huts. I wished, not for the first time, that Sedwick had come with me. Perhaps he would have, if I had explained my fears to him…but something prevented the words from coming up my throat. Was it pride? Shame? It didn’t matter anymore…
I fought to keep from curling away as another shoulder roughly hit me, this time nearly sending me into an elderly woman sewing clothes. If I had fallen on her, it would have incited an incident, which I was certain was the goal. The Lycans may have been blustering, but they were still aware of the fact that we were there as Artemis’ guests. Still, I doubted even the goddess could intervene should the Lycans find fault in me. It was not her station to protect those who could not protect themselves, if my knowledge of the patheon was correct.
I doubled my pace, now with hands tensed like claws. I felt as though others were following, but I refused to look over my shoulder. I saw another young man coming towards me, his path too intent to cross with my own. I didn’t slow down, my heart loud in my ears and my throat tightening, and when he moved to trip me, I slid to the side and kicked at the back of his leg, making him stumble past. I stopped and glared at him. The young man looked at me, startled. Then his face darkened.
A hiss built up in my throat, but he slowly walked away, his gaze flickering up toward the goddess’s perch.
I let out the breath I was holding.
With head hung low I trudged over to the giant central tree.
The great tree, with its twisted, gnarled bark, was the central focus of the village. All around it were trade posts and artisans, all looking to trade or buy. There were some Lycans doing just that, clearly visitors from a neighboring village, for their hair beads and their clothes were of a different color and make than the natives here.
If I weren’t so afraid, I would have been very interested in learning about the Lycan’s culture. What were their beliefs? What did they like to do for fun? They were a secretive people who kept to themselves, and with their powerful alliances, no outsider had managed to pierce that veil for thousands of years. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Too bad these people looked more likely to bite off my nose than say hello to me.
The smell of spiced meat was in the air. The emerald light from the enchanted trees made everything seem soft and gentle. Sedwick had said the light came from the dryads. He said that because they lived in harmony with the Lycans, they were able to harvest more life force than any other nymphs in the world. They used the excess energy and converted it into a sort of light. That was why torches were scarce. The villagers didn’t want to risk starting a forest fire. Only a few artisans used them for need of clear light. They kept the flames away from anything flammable.
I let out a sigh and sat on one of the large roots, hoping that Elmiryn would show up before I lost my nerve and went running back to Sedwick. I didn’t want any trouble, but it seemed intent on finding me.
I didn’t have even a moment of peace before I heard the thunder of little feet and looked up just in time to see a boy rear his head back and spit in my eyes. I shouted out an Ailuran curse as I jumped to my feet. I wiped the spit from my eyes, flicking away the slime from my fingers. I glared at the boy and his little friends.
…But I didn’t raise my hand. Didn’t move to harm him. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. My hand curled as if all it could think about was cuffing the little brat over the head.
Yet ingrained in me was the life of an outcast, and I’d faced enough situations like this in my time spent drifting through outposts and hamlets. People like me weren’t allowed to defend themselves. My time with Elmiryn and Lacertli had made standing up to men and women a possibility now. But…I was anathema, and such abominations could do little more than shy in the wrath of a child.
And that was just what I did.
The redhead was feeling good and tipsy, her gait unhurried and her smile firmly in place. She swung her arms and wheeled her hips a little, feet trailing an odd gait over the earth–wide and whimsical crescent steps that crissed and crossed a little. Her hands were steady and her head had stopped throbbing. The ever present thirst was a little more muted. The warrior felt good, and she didn’t want to think about what she’d do when a few hours time brought back the pain and the aches and the shakes. At the moment…she had…
…Glorious weight…Glorious feeling…
When Elmiryn found Nyx, the Ailuran was standing near the great tree, surrounded by children, all boys. The look on her face belonged to someone eyeing rabid dogs. Her bangs were plastered to her face on the right side from something slimy. They giggled and poked at her with sticks, babbling in their Lycan tongue. One boy even had the audacity to pretend he was a cat, and the others growled like dogs and chased him, making him yowl and feign fear. The children laughed. Some adults looked on in amusement.
It seemed there was no love lost between Ailurans and Lycans.
“No, no, no! Thas’ not how an Ailuran behaves!” Elmiryn said loudly as she approached.
Nyx looked at her in relief. The children gave a start, all turning to stare at Elmiryn with wide eyes.
Guilty lil’ buggers.
The warrior bared her teeth and let out a convincing hiss, her hands tensed like claws. “They’re fierce! Dangerous-sss!” To drive her point home, Elmiryn let out a sharp roar, not unlike the one she once heard from Nyx.
She made as if to grab the children and they screamed, running away.
The woman doubled over laughing, her hands hugging around her chest.
“That was an admirable roar,” Nyx said, smiling weakly.
Elmiryn wiped a tear from her eye as she straightened. “I’ve heard it ‘nough times t’get the gist of it.”
“My brother Thaddeus would be livid if he knew I’d been intimidated by a bunch of pups.”
“Those pups already know of a hundred different ways to kill a man, and just as many ways to deal with a rogue spirit,” a new voice said.
Elmiryn and Nyx turned to see the leader of their former escort coming toward them. His eyes flickered between them, a smirk on his lips. “They are true warriors. Unlike some.”
“Mebbe in body, but not in spirit. They hound a guest of yer village inna pack and think it makes ’em warriors? Do ya lay siege to squirrels too?” Elmiryn returned.
Nyx grabbed her arm, giving it a pull. “Elle, forget it!”
The man stepped closer, some of his men appearing behind them. “And what would a tkelechog woman know of those things?”
“Yer goddess is a woman, you fuckin’ idiot. Or have ya forgotten who lets yer people sit happy with the fairies whilst the world wars outside?”
“We are not afraid of you or your kingdom, woman.” The man snarled, pressing his forehead into hers. “I could kill you if I wished.”
“If ya could.” The woman replied, her smile having yet to falter. “How does that leash feel, guard dog? Careful Artemis don’t reign you in.”
The man shoved her, knocking her into Nyx. The woman stumbled, but she had always been good in manipulating her drunkenness, and she stayed on her feet. She thought she heard the girl fall, but she couldn’t be sure. Her eyes were focused on the bully before her.
With a smirk, Elmiryn shoved the man back, harder. “I’ve handled bigger and smarter beasts’n’you. Don’t make the mistake of underestimatin’ me.”
She knew it was all a show, but it was still a test. These men weren’t accustomed to outsiders joining their ranks. If they were going to be accepted by these warriors in the hunt, they’d have to show they deserved respect, and that they were unafraid to fight for it if necessary. Quincy was likely okay because Hakeem had already been accepted by the village. Sedwick was surely clear, considering he was half-elemental and had a reputation as Nadi’s right hand man.
…But Elmiryn and Nyx were a different matter, and the warrior was more aware of it now than ever.
The man bared his teeth at her. “If you truly think you can beat me, then face me in owak when the last ladle has made its rounds during supper. I will make you taste the dirt at my feet!”
“It is our honorable duel, though you’re hardly deserving of such a thing. It will be just the two of us in the ring. No weapons. Just our flesh and our spirits in battle.”
The woman crossed her arms and chuckled. “Spirits, huh? Have ya ever fought a ghost before?”
The man frowned at her. “Eh?”
“Forget it. I accept yer challenge, guard dog.”
“What is your name, woman?”
The dark haired man took a fist and patted it against the underside of his chin. “I am Halian. Be there at supper, or my men will find you and drag you to me.”
Elmiryn offered a jaunty salute. “Looking forward to it!” she chirped.
Halian spat at her feet and left, his eyes cutting at her like knives. His men followed him, sparing their own glares as they went. The villagers around them had all paused to watch the exchange, but with things done for now, they gradually returned to their business.
The woman shook her head as she watched Halian’s retreating back. “He reminds me of my men, when I first took command as dragoon Captain.” She sighed wistfully. “Those were good times.”
The woman turned to find Nyx on the ground, glaring up at her.
“Oh.” Elmiryn extended a hand to her, helping her up. “Sorry.”
“It’s not that,” the girl snapped. She gestured after Halian. “It was that!”
Nyx started to dust the seat of her pants. “Why are you picking fights with trained Lycans?”
The woman glanced off to the left, then the right. She let her eyes flicker back onto Nyx. “Is…this a trick question?”
Nyx inhaled sharply and pressed her mouth so tightly, the lips turned white. With flared nostrils she finally exhaled and snapped, “You’re hopeless!”
Elmiryn snorted. “That guy won’t be a problem. If I can beat ’em, then the hunters won’t look at us funny.”
“They won’t look at you funny.”
The Ailuran rubbed up at her face, then pulled her hair back just at the hairline, making the short bangs stick up. The way her features pulled up made her look Higashan, and Elmiryn tried to bite her smile down.
“I’m an Ailuran, Elmiryn. No matter what I do, they will look at me that way.” The girl gestured around her. “Plus…these are wolves. At least in spirit.” She tapped her temple. “They think in terms of pack order. Even if you somehow manage to beat Halian at hand-to-hand, I’m still at the bottom rung!”
Elmiryn shrugged. “So you fight.”
The girl looked at her incredulously. “I don’t want to!”
“Why not? Ya could beat anyone one o’ these guys.”
“Just because I got lucky a few times in the past doesn’t mean–”
“A good warrior is a combination of luck and skill. Ya got plenty o’ both. You jes’ need to focus yer mind more.”
“Well I can’t,” the girl said flatly, crossing her arms. “This place makes me nervous, and there’s no telling how long we’ll be here. The Lycans have been hunting this strange beast for how long now? We’ll be lucky if we can catch it tonight. I’m not looking forward to staying here forever. These people have suffered, and I’m the perfect target for them to let their frustrations out on!”
“We won’t be here long.” Elmiryn took hold of the girl’s shoulders, rubbing them. “C’mon. Relax. Yer stressin’ out too much.”
“Tell me my concerns aren’t valid, and I’ll shut up,” the girl challenged.
Elmiryn shook her head. “No. Yer right about some things. There’s no tellin’ how long we’ll be here, huntin’ this ‘evil’. And maybe the Lycans will treat you different no matter what…but when has that changed anythin’? You’ve still got me, right? Fuck them. No one will hurt you, so long as I’m around, and I’ll do everythin’ I can to get us out o’ here, and fast. Kay?”
Nyx looked down at her shoes and gave a sullen nod.
Elmiryn gave an exasperated smile before she enveloped her friend in a hug. “Oh, kitten. What’re we gonna do with ya?”
“Throw me down a well?”
“Only if there were a feathered mattress at the bottom.”
The girl pulled back to give her an odd look. “You think that’d save me?”
The woman shrugged. “I dunno. I kinda like the idea of throwin’ ya onto a mattress, though.” Elmiryn smiled devilishly.
Nyx blushed and pulled back. “Speaking of a well, I’d like to rinse off. One of those boys spat in my face and I think it had some phlegm in it…” she grimaced as she delicately pulled her slimy bangs from her cheek.
The warrior made a face. “Ah. Children. Lil’ gifts from heaven.”
“They’re not all bad,” the girl argued, looking at the woman reproachfully. “You don’t like children?”
They started walking, Nyx leading a little as she tried to find a water source she could make use of. Elmiryn tried to keep her step from weaving, but she doubted she could hide the rosiness in her cheeks, even with all the emerald light.
“I don’ dislike children. Who says I…diss-like children?” Even Elmiryn was aware of her slurring her words now, and for the first time, she found she didn’t like how she sounded.
Nyx looked at her sharply, her eyes gone shrewd. “Honestly, I sort of assumed it,” the girl said slowly, her eyes searching. “I’d imagine having to censor yourself around little ones would be enough to raise your ire…”
The warrior tried her hardest to look sober, then wondered why she was bothering so much. Nyx was too perceptive for that.
“Censor myself?” The woman chuckled, trying to roll the knot out of her shoulders. “Please! I dunno the meaning of the word.”
“Censor,” Nyx said readily, a smirk on her face. “To scrutinize and cut out unsavory parts of a work or thought.”
“Ha. Ha. Ha. Real cute, kitten.” The woman feigned irritation, but her lips kept tilting up at the corners and by the sound of Nyx’s laugh, she’d caught it. It made the woman’s heart warm to see that she could help the girl forget her anxiety, if even for a moment. “But in all seriousness, I kinda like kids. They’re funny. It’s babies that weird me out.”
The girl looked at her, shocked. “Really!? But they’re so cute!”
After rounding the tree, they found a water pump on the other side. They stood in line after a woman with a clay jug. The woman eyed them over her shoulder, and Elmiryn waved coyly at her. The Lycan’s eyes widened and she snapped her eyes forward again.
“The thing is…well…” The warrior returned her gaze to her companion. “S’how they drool and soil ’emselves, y’know? And they sorta stare at everythin’ without knowin’ what it is. It’s weird.”
The girl gave her a dry look. “They’re babies. Of course they don’t know what anything is!”
“And they’re so dependent! They can’t defend ’emselves from fuckin’ anythin’.”
They moved up in the line. “Would it make more sense for a child to be able to pick up a sword upon birth?” Nyx asked ironically.
The warrior giggled and rubbed at her eyes with one hand. “Okay, yeh. I know I’m bein’ a lil silly.”
“Maybe what really gets me is where babies come from.”
Nyx let out a snort of a laugh. “You talk about it like it’s some sort of horrible thing to be whispered of in dark corners!”
Elmiryn shoved her lightly in the shoulder. “Hush! Ya’d freak out too if ya ever saw childbirth!”
“I have,” the girl said with a note of condescension. “I’ve been a midwife at least twice before meeting you.”
The woman shuddered. “How can ya stand it!?” She mimed something hideous crawling out of a tight space. “The way those lil’ buggers come sliding out…!”
They moved up in the line again. They were next to use the pump. “It’s beautiful, Elle. It’s life.”
“One that I’ll gladly skip out on.”
“So no children for you? No one to carry on the legacy?”
What flashed into the woman’s head was cracked mosaic. It was a marble palace where a river of blood swathed over the alabaster stones, fetuses floating on the horrible currents. Elmiryn’s face darkened. “Legacy? Am I a man to fret over such things? If I really wanted kids, I wouldn’ have’ta turn into some fat fuckin’ breeder ta do it. There’s plenty o’ children sittin’ n’ starvin’ on golden streets.”
Nyx flinched, and the woman realized just how cutting she’d sounded. Her expression softened and she touched her friend’s shoulder. “Shit…m’sorry. I didn’ mean ta say it like that. I was jes…” the woman’s voice trailed off.
…She was just what? Where had that come from?
The girl shrugged her hand away, her eyes gaining a foreign steeliness to them.
“You’re right,” Nyx said, not looking at her. “I shouldn’t have teased you like that. There’s more than one way to be a mother and it’s none of my business whether or not you’d like to take that road. I won’t be so presumptuous again.”
The finality in the girl’s voice alarmed the woman.
Elmiryn closed her eyes and rubbed at her neck. “Aw, c’mon it isn’ like all that…”
The woman in front of them finished with her business and Nyx stepped up to take her place. She bent near the pump, pushing down on the handle so that water came gushing out of the wooden spout. She splashed her face vigorously with the running water.
When Nyx straightened with hair dripping, she turned and said, “Just do me a favor, Elle.”
The woman looked at her, eager to make things up. “What is it?”
The warrior blinked slowly. “Spess…” she frowned. “Spesss…spessy…fissy…spess-fissy-ity–”
“You’re drunk,” Nyx grumbled, her expression darkening.
Elmiryn winced. “Yes.” She held up her hands. “But in my defense, I know plenty o’ people who couldn’ say that shit sober!”
The girl walked away from the pump, and the woman followed her. “I didn’t think the Lycans would be passing around their spirits quite so early,” the Ailuran said, still scowling.
The warrior kept her mouth shut on that one. She felt the weight of her flask like a guilty press on her chest.
Nyx crossed her arms and shot Elmiryn an incendiary look. The woman could practically feel it burning a hole into her skin. “And by the sounds of it, you had quite a bit, even for you. What will you do if you become ill at the hunt? Why don’t you think these things through?” the girl chastised.
Any other time, and the warrior may have been fit to argue. But somehow, she could not bring herself to excuse her actions. “I couldn’ help it…” she whispered. Her shoulders slumped. “I couldn’, Nyx.”
The girl’s expression softened. She sighed and rubbed at her face. “What am I going to do with you?”
The warrior smiled sheepishly. “Throw me down a well?”
Nyx shook her head with a weary smile, and the conversation trailed off.
In her head, Elmiryn’s thoughts whirled. She considered telling Nyx everything. From how the woman learned her new strange powers and how her sudden addiction was tied to her changing nature. But she felt…afraid. Afraid somehow that the girl would be disgusted…that the girl would be frightened…
…That maybe Nyx would actually want to help her.
If the woman kept quiet, then for a little while, she could evade the attentions of her friend and drink to her heart’s content. But damn–why had she told Quincy and Sedwick anything? Why had she mentioned her fae nature? She could’ve explained away the shakes of her hands if she’d only thought about it for–
Elmiryn stopped walking.
Nyx trailed to a stop and looked back at her, confused.
“Elmiryn?” she said.
The woman couldn’t bring herself to look at her. “Nyx…”
The girl stepped near her and took her hands. “What is it, Elle?”
That warm, golden feeling was in the girl’s words again, and Elmiryn felt compelled enough to lift her gaze. She felt her breath thin at the concern in Nyx’s eyes. How could the girl turn around and show so much compassion to someone who had behaved so cruelly with her?
The woman took a breath.
“Nyx…I have ta tell ya somethings…and I’unno if yer gonna like it.”