Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 26.4

NYX____________________________

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.

ELMIRYN________________________

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!”

“Owak?”

“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?”

“Elmiryn.”

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!

“What?”

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.”

“Wha’dya mean?”

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.”

“A little?”

“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?”

“…Say specificity.”

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.”


Back to Chapter 26.3 | Forward to Chapter 27.1

Chapter 26.3

NYX____________________________

We were sitting on the ground outside of the medicine man’s hut, and Elmiryn was grinning like an imp.

“This is almost too much!” she giggled.

“Elmiryn…” Sedwick rubbed at his face and sighed.

“There’s something poetic about this.  I’m sure if I think hard enough on it…”

I gave her a look.  “The woman just passed out from shock!”

“I know!” Elmiryn squealed delightedly.  “C’mon, didn’t you find it a little bit funny?”

I’m sure there was some cosmic joke tucked away in all of this, and perhaps hindsight would grant me access to it, but at the moment I wasn’t amused.  “Elle, please.  Please.  For heaven’s sakes!  Just leave it alone!”

The redhead’s smile remained firmly in place, but she said no more of the matter.

Outside the hut across from us was a family in mourning.  Their hair was singed short, they wore gray animal fur over their shoulders, and their faces were smeared in charcoal.  What got me was their red, grief-stricken eyes, which blinked slowly at us.

Tonight my children drink to their fallen brothers.

The sight touched close to home for me, and I hastened to look away.

Without our escorts hurrying us by, we were able to see more of the secretive Lycan tribe.  I was on edge, my hands curled on my knees, back straight, eyes darting.  Even without the heightened senses of my Twin, I could still smell the must of fur all about me, that antagonizing smell of foreign beasts.

After the commotion outside of the giant tree, the crowd had largely dispersed, save for a few curious onlookers–mostly the young free of chores or duties–all interested in the strange outsiders that were now amidst them.  I squirmed under the attention, pulling out my snacks to nibble on while we waited.  I handed Sedwick and Elmiryn pieces, and they murmured their thanks.  The food was a small comfort.

Children hovered near us, down the village trail, round faces a little dirty, but full and rosy.  They squealed whenever we looked their way and scampered out of sight.

Then Hakeem stepped out from behind the curtained doorway of the medicine hut.

He looked at each of us, his boyish face holding a severity to it that seemed incongruous.  How could this be that sentinel of a man I had met before?  He was so slim, so small…

Then again, Hakeem hadn’t been very tall, had he?

“Tonatiuh,” the wizard said.  It sounded like a demand.

Elmiryn shook her head.  “Gone.”

His young face frowned.  “Forever?”

“Seems that way.”

“Huh.”

Hakeem sat down next to Elle.  He stretched out his legs, his dark eyes sweeping over their surroundings before settling on his bare toes.  His skin was ashy all over, and he looked to have quite a few fresh scrapes and bruises on his slim legs, but otherwise he looked fine.  He was no prisoner here.  When he nodded to villagers as they passed, they even nodded back.

“How is she?” the warrior asked.  She managed not to smile when she said this, and I let out a little sigh of relief.

“She hasn’t opened her eyes yet, but the healer suspects she’ll be all right.”

“That’s good,” Sedwick said with a nod.  He reached over us to shake hands with Hakeem.  “I’m Sedwick, by the way.  I’ve been traveling with your wife for a short time.”

Hakeem gave a polite nod, and we sat silent for a time.

Then Elmiryn burst out with a laugh. “Gods!  I can’t take it anymore!  What the fuck happened to you, wizard?!”

I rolled my eyes shut and waited for Hakeem’s angry response.

Instead, the man–or rather–the boy, said mildly, “I’ve lost my age.  Artemis tells me that to lose things is a common side effect of entering this dimension.  Especially for mortals.”

“That’ll be a hard thing to get back,” Sedwick murmured.  “How do you reclaim years?  Piece by piece or as a whole?”

Hakeem shook his head.  “I don’t know.”  He sounded tired when he said this.

I bit my lip at the pause that came.  Then I said, with a tentative glance, “I lost my Twin.  My animal counterpart, I mean.  She…um…she…we…are kind of like separate personalities…only…only we live in the same head.”  As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt like a fool.  How could Hakeem understand this without suspecting I was a lunatic?

But he didn’t give me a weird look.  He just put on a thoughtful expression and said, “That’s interesting.”

Elmiryn put an arm around my shoulders.  I felt a pleasant feeling rush through me and nestled deeper into her side.  Her voice echoed through me when she spoke and my insecurity faded.  “I lost my definition.  Y’know.  That thing that keeps us in a single, solid form.  I didn’t remember who or what I was.  Then I got my definition back.”  She gave me a squeeze.

“If only you could have lost that crudeness of yours instead…” Sedwick grumbled.

The woman just laughed, and at the sight of Sedwick’s wry smile, I couldn’t help but grin.  It felt good, feeling her laughter go through me…

When Elmiryn’s laughter faded, I looked at Hakeem as something occurred to me. “You said that the loss of things in this dimension is common for mortals.  So other mortals have been here before?”

“If the goddess says it is so…”

“Gods can’t lie?”  Elmiryn said.

We all stared at her.

She wasn’t looking at anyone, but had on an inward look.  When she felt everyone’s gazes, she glanced at us all.  “What?  Believe it or not, I was just asking a question.”

“What reason would they have to lie to us?” I asked, frowning.

The warrior held up her hand but said nothing further.

Sedwick was outright glaring at her.  Hakeem didn’t seem to care either way.

I cleared my throat.  “W-Well I suppose mortals must have been here, if Syria found a spell that opened a gateway to this dimension.  It was a silly question, I suppose.”

“But her spell went wrong.”  Hakeem pointed out.  “When a complex spell of that sort is weaved, there is only so much time before it begins to deteriorate.  We managed to stall her long enough that the structure of her spell was changed.  On top of that, Paulo was to be her original sacrifice.  Since Graziano was killed in his stead, that means that the results could have been drastically altered.”

Elmiryn frowned.  “Soo…Syria wasn’t trying to get here?”

“This is a half-way world.  A confusing mix of crossroads and backroads.  This could have been between whatever it was that the witch was trying to get to.”

“But what exists beyond this place and our world?” I wondered aloud.  Even as I said this, I knew there were dozens of worlds.  Strange places that I’d seen in the fog as we’d Traveled.  Were any of those Syria’s true destination?

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” Hakeem muttered.

The doorway curtain parted and a man with a smooth face but bushy brows looked down at Hakeem.  “Your Shimá has awoken.”

Hakeem was on his feet in an instant.  Without sparing us a backward glance, he went inside the hut.

We sat there for another minute, before Elmiryn rose to her feet.  She took in a deep breath, her eyes drifting toward the center of the village before they fixed back on us.  “Well.  Quincy’s not dead.  I’m going to find some place where I can relieve myself without being stared at by wolves.  Nyx, you want to meet up in a bit?”

I stood.  “Yes.  Maybe at the base of the big tree?”

“Sounds good.”

We looked at Sedwick.

He waved at us.  “You two go on.  I’ll wait here.”

Elmiryn gave a nod and looked at me as she began to backpedal down the trail which lead away from the village center.  There was something eager about her behavior that caught me off guard.  Maybe she just really had to go?  “See you in a few?”

I nodded with a smile.  The woman turned and trotted off.

With a sigh, I hugged myself.  I looked toward the giant tree where I knew Artemis was watching over her children from above.  I felt a twinge of envy.  The Lycans were so blessed to have their Mother so close at hand.  Ailurans begged and scraped just for the briefest word from their goddess.  Why did Aelurus find us so undeserving of such attention?  Why wasn’t she more like Artemis?

But then I felt a chill and my hairs stood on end.  Blasphemous thoughts.  What the gods did and didn’t do was not for me to say.  I was an abomination, after all.

I started to feel trembly, and when I told myself to walk, my feet remained planted.  The Lycan scent seemed to grow thicker about me.  I bit my lip and looked at Sedwick.

He looked up, a bemused smile on his face.

I smiled at him anxiously.  “Y-You sure you don’t want to come with me?”

QUINCY_________________________

 It was hot in this place.  The heat came up over her head, drowning her thoughts in a dizzying swirl.  Quincy lay in her bed, only a shift on.  Tobias didn’t yell at her for it.  In the village of Kimbia, the young girls wore small cloth skirts with beaded necklaces around their necks, and nothing more.  The girl had only been there for four days and she already felt like it had been a year.  Her father, Jack, had left yesterday, promising to bring her back a special gift.  Meanwhile, she was to stay with her uncle Tobias.  The man in question stirred the iguana stew.  He hummed, his back to her as he sat hunched near the fire.  

The Fanaean language was still strange to her ears, and she felt like crying whenever someone tried to speak to her in the alien tongue.  The other children would point at her and laugh, pinching her white skin and calling her ‘dubwana’ over and over.  Quincy refused to go outside.

Outside of their hut, she heard Ma’Nguele barking at her son.  The woman lived in the hut next to theirs, and it was much bigger, fitting a family of seven–soon to be eight.  Tobias and Jack were friends with the family, and she was often dragged over whenever they visited.

A moment later, a sullen voice drifted in through their open doorway.  “Habari-kuz.”

Tobias looked over his shoulder and smiled crookedly.  “Habari, Hakeem.”

“Je, Quincy kuja nje ya kucheza?”

“Ndiyo,” Tobias said with a nod.  He looked at Quincy.  “Hakeem wants to play, little bird.”

She shook her head and turned her face away.  Hakeem was Ma’Nguele’s middle son.  He was older than her by a year, and unlike the other children, he was very serious.  He was also one of the few who didn’t tease her.

There was a sigh from her uncle.  “Yeye ni aibu,” he said to Hakeem.

Quincy felt a tap on her shoulder, and looked up.  The tears that had been slipping from her eyes trailed down her cheek.

Hakeem’s dark eyes fixed on hers.  He was frowning a little, but there was something intent in his gaze that made the girl blush.

Slowly, he extended his hand.  “Njoo, Quincy. Usiogope.”

…Come, Quincy.  Don’t be afraid.

———————-

Quincy stared up at the hut’s ceiling, the lingering smoke of unconsciousness still clouding her awakening.  Her eyes misted with the memory of that day back in Kimbia, the day Hakeem first took her hand and made her less afraid.  It had been very awkward at first, and the boy had gotten more than a little frustrated with Quincy’s inability to keep up.  The girl was tender-footed and had tired easily.  Partway through the day, Quincy had tripped and fell into a flower bed, scraping her knee, and she couldn’t stop crying.

But instead of getting mad, like she thought he would, Hakeem had stood over her, his cheeks red, uncertain of what to do.  He seemed to stare for longer than was necessary, his eyes going from Quincy’s blubbering face, to her mussed up hair, to her knobby shoulders, and her pale chicken legs.  Then he sat down next to her and started to make her a crown of white flowers.  She watched, red eyed and red nosed, still sniffling.

When he was finished, he gently placed it on her head. “Yako nzuri,” he said, smiling at her for the first time.  She hadn’t known what it meant at the time, or what she had done exactly to get the boy to stop frowning at her, but with time, she came to understand.

Yako nzuri.

You’re beautiful.

Quincy wasn’t sure if she was still dreaming.  She lay prone on the bed, which was lumpy but soft.  She feared moving, afraid some part of her reality would break should she do so.

The hut’s curtain pulled back as Hakeem entered with the healer.  Her eyes widened, and a chill ran up her spine.  It was like being taken to the past.

Quincy’s face crumpled and she covered her face with her hands, rolling onto her side so that her back was to the boy.  The tears came faster than she could hide them.

She felt a hand on her shoulder.  The woman couldn’t bring herself to look up.  “I’m sorry!” she whispered between her palms.  “Hakeem, I’m so sorry…”

“For what?” she heard him say, but his voice was young and light, as it once had been.  She flinched to hear it, and curled up into a ball.

“I’m sorry…I’m sorry about everything.”

“Quincy–”

“This is all my fault.”

“No.  It isn’t.”

The wizard let out a bitter laugh and lowered her hands to twist around and look at him.  “You stand there, and all I can see is the boy I hurt.  I want to warn him.  To tell him to run away from me, before his family dies and his world is ripped apart, but I can’t.  Those things are still in the past, even as the past stares me in the face.” She choked on these last words and looked away again.

“Quincy.”  His voice held a shadow of its former self, and the woman was startled enough to peek at him out of the corner of her eye.  Hakeem sat on the edge of the bed, but his back was to her.  His head hung between his shoulders.  “It was hard at first.  Seeing myself as I once was.  But…it doesn’t bother me like you think.  I don’t wish for things lost.  I wish for what could be.  The good things, the things I used to hope for as a boy but somehow stopped believing in along the way.”  He looked at her, his young face pressed into a solemn look.  “So don’t apologize.”

Quincy’s breath caught, and she rolled onto her back, her hip touching Hakeem’s back.  She reached out a hand, and the boy took it with both of his.  They were still rough, but not as large or as calloused as they had been when he was an adult.  They were slim and still yet retained some of their gentleness, moving over her fingers and palm with a knowing that came only with age.

…But Hakeem was a boy, and the woman was acutely aware of that fact.

She sat up and sighed.  “How can we return you to normal?”

The boy shrugged.  “I’ve been searching for a way here, and the Lycans have been kind enough to help, despite their hardships.”

“Will you hunt with them tonight?”

Hakeem nodded.  “I have been since before you arrived.  The Lycans found me and took me in.  It’s been almost two weeks now.  With all they’ve been through, and all they’ve done for me, I couldn’t just sit back, child or no.  I owe them a lot.”

“You’ve been doing this for two weeks!?”

“Yes.  How long has it been for you?”

“It’s felt like no more than two days.  I haven’t slept since we’ve started this journey.”

“Then perhaps this is the time to rest, Mweze.  If you’re to participate in the hunt, you will need all your strength.”

Quincy shook her head, looking at him with brows pressed up.  She felt worried at the thought of Hakeem, stuck in the body of a child, joining in the hunt, but she didn’t wish to insult him by saying so.  He’d been at it all this time all ready, hadn’t he?

It didn’t matter.  He could read the look on her face clearly.  And she used to be so impassive.

“I’m fine,” he said.  Her husband stood and struck a hand over his heart.  “I may be younger, but I am still Hakeem.”

The woman smiled, feeling proud at the fighting spirit she saw in her husband’s eyes.  It made her tears feel silly, and she hurried to wipe the last of these away.

“I’m glad I found you, Taika.”

“And I am glad you came, Mweze.” He kissed her forehead.  “Sleep.  We’ll talk more soon.”  He turned and started to leave.

Quincy reached forward and grabbed his arm, “Wait!”

Her husband looked at her curiously, and the woman blushed.  His eyes widened at this, and he turned to her fully.  “…Yes, Quincy?”

Suddenly shy, the woman looked up at him through her eyelashes. “Naku penda, Hakeem…”

The boy seemed taken aback, his mouth falling open.  Then he slowly smiled, and squeezed her hand.

“I love you too, Quincy.”

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn stared at her hands as they shook.  The wind swept through the trees and shifted the glowing branches, casting the green light over her in a dance of shadows that masked her distress.  The woman had stumbled out into the forest proper, sweat dripping down her face as she felt her heart beating like a rabbit beneath her chest.  With a shuddering breath, the woman rubbed at her face, then her neck.  She took off her jacket and hung on it a nearby tree.

Closing her eyes, she leaned against the trunk and turned her thoughts inward, calling up that familiar melody…

Meznik.

Hmm?

His response was swift, but his musical voice was lazy and distant.

What is it?

What’s happening to me?

We’ve all ready gone over this.

No.  Not that.  This.  This…problem, I keep having.

Oh.  You mean your newfound addiction?

Yes.  That.

I’ve had men in my unit turn to the bottle before.

They didn’t suffer this way.

Of course they didn’t.

They suffered addictions of the body.

Yours is a spiritual addiction.

In becoming a fae,

You interact with the world in a way

That no mortal could dream of.

It has its repercussions.

Such as?

You must drink often

To stave off your withdrawals,

For between sips,

They come back quick, and with a vengeance.

You’re now something of a lightweight, too,

No longer needing as much

To dance with the pink elephants.

In summary:

Less tolerance, more misery.

There really isn’t much more to it.

But I can beat this?

Like a normal addiction,

I can stop?

Meznik laughed, that awful trilling sound, and Elmiryn’s lip curled.

You could.

If you had the will of a god.

Her eyes snapped open at that, and Meznik’s laughter echoed louder in her head, making it throb in pain.  She hissed and pressed her palms into her temples, body curling from the assault.  Eventually, the sound faded, and all that Elmiryn could hear was the Lycan village nearby.

“Meznik?” she whispered.

Nothing.

The woman cursed and snatched her coat off the tree, her eyes holding fire.  She heard a whippoorwill chirping off in the distance.  The trees rustled again, sending their haunting emerald glow to cast shadows over the woman’s face once more.

Elmiryn gripped her coat with both hands, felt her trembles fighting through her grip even as she tried to still her hands by clutching the fabric with all her might.  The woman let out a breath through her mouth and it felt so dry.

“The will of a god,” she hissed.  “The will of a god.”

She tried saying this over and over, wondering if that would somehow ease the ache she felt in her chest.  But the coat seemed heavier for its prize, and the woman felt a manic feeling begin to rise up in her.

Fuck it!” she spat.

With clawing hands, Elmiryn produced the flask from her coat, and as soon as the cap was off, she drained the entire thing.  It was only after the last drop slithered down her throat that she realized what she’d done, and the woman yelled and threw the flask at a tree.

But it didn’t strike.

A hand had caught it.  A slim, small hand, connected to a slim, small creature, whose eyes glared at Elmiryn with impunity.  It was like a tiny naked child, but with lanky limbs, and a big head.  Its hair was white and swept back in soft spikes, defying gravity, and its eyes were large, dark, and watery.  Its pointed ears gave a twitch, and within a moment, several others appeared in the trees around the woman.

Dryads.  Tree nymphs.

The woman started to back up, but her coat, which had been discarded on the ground at her feet, tangled about her boots, making her fall onto her backside.  Elmiryn winced and looked up just in time to see the flask flying back at her head.

It connected, hitting her forehead on a corner, and she let out a shout as she slapped both hands to the spot.

Still grimacing, the woman looked up at the branches.  The nymphs still sat there, glaring at her.  The one who had thrown the flask had even folded its arms across its chest.  It tapped a long slim finger expectantly.

The woman she rose and started to gather her things.  “Sorry.  Didn’t mean to…insult you.  Or your…uh…tree.”

 She put on her coat and slipped her now empty flask back into its inside pocket.  The trembles were once more fading away, replaced with a warm, heavy feeling. With hands help up, she backpedaled toward the village.  “Forgive and forget?”

The dryad leader extended its middle finger and bared its sharp teeth.

Elmiryn’s eyebrows rose.  “Guess not.”


Back to Chapter 26.2 | Forward to Chapter 26.4

Chapter 26.2

QUINCY_________________________

It was hard, not wondering if Tonatiuh would have helped her spot the Lycans.  A mixture of feelings squirmed in her chest like worms.  She had walked away from the sword without looking back.  Was that brave?

…Or had she just been too afraid?

Though the temptation of power was still fresh in her mind, she still heard Nyx’s voice like a bright pulse in her dark thoughts.  It had illuminated Elmiryn and Sedwick’s pleas like a bright star.

…But what had really done it, was how the Ailuran’s piercing voice had cut to the woman’s innermost doubts.

Tonatiuh was a parasitoid–a being that fed on its host to the point of ultimate death.  Saerth, her wizard master from Crysen, had warned her of the dangers of prolonged contact.

“It is better to leave some things alone, Quincy…” he had said.

Finally, after years of use, the spirit was gone.  The wizard wondered if there was a hole in her soul where Tonatiuh had lived.  She wondered if a soul could repair itself.

Somehow, everything seemed more frightening, knowing now that her greatest strength was lost.  Elmiryn had challenged her to find a strength beyond her magic.    Quincy fought to dredge up that strength now.

They moved in a group, surrounded by their Lycan escorts.  The grass at their feet came up to their ankles, but no higher.  It hissed and shushed beneath their feet.  They went down the hill they had stood upon, struggling to keep their footing.  It was very steep.  Dips and holes were like traps to make them fall.  The men around them stepped around these with deft steps, unfazed by the steep decline.

Quincy wanted to appear calm.  She wrestled her features into one of apathy and walked with as steady a step she could manage, head held high.  She wanted to think, that if one were not privy to the situation, they wouldn’t suspect her as a prisoner.  And maybe they weren’t?  Though their lives had been threatened, they were not under bonds and their weapons had not been taken.  And as Elmiryn had said, wasn’t this what they wanted?  To find the Lycans and seek whatever wisdom or aid they could bestow?

And what lost thing, if each shard were to hold such a thing, had fallen here?

Once clear of the steep hills, the fourteen of them–the Lycans and their small group of four–moved at a quick gait.  As they entered the dark of the forest, a heaviness seemed to press on them all.  Quincy wondered if it were mortal magic or a strong spiritual presence.  Whatever the source, it felt like a thick cloak over her shoulders.  It didn’t feel malignant or foreboding.  It was just…there.

The darkness seemed denser here as well.  Details were swallowed in shadow, leaving only vague forms.  The wizard tried to recognize the trees they passed, tried to get an understanding of where they were going, but it was in vain.  The shadows about them were all similarly dendroid in shape and size, leaving nothing distinctive for her to pick out.  They did not walk a road.  There were no markings on the trees or the ground that she could see.  The Lycans just seemed to know the way.

Quincy took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the fresh scents of their surroundings–tree sap, damp soil…but also the sweat from the men around them.  One could practically smell their hostility.

From what the wizard had seen before the dark of the forest diminished everything in her eyes, Nyx seemed a veritable bundle of agitation.  She was in front with Elmiryn, who of course, appeared amused by the entire ordeal.  Sedwick, on the wizard’s left, was doing a good job of appearing unassuming, Quincy thought.

She had dealt with Lycans in the past, and she had found their staunchness could be used against them…but never had she faced so many of them at once, and caught unaware, no less.  Any chance at guile was lost with such a disadvantage.

Then Elmiryn started chuckling.

This didn’t incite any sort of reaction from their guards, and yet Quincy felt a great deal of dread flood into her chest.  The warrior’s laughter appeared mild at first before it began to gain in strength, piercing the thick silence about them in a way that almost felt blasphemous.  The wizard saw Nyx turn to look at her, and thought she was going to quiet the woman, but then Elmiryn giggled out, “Guard dogs!”

Quincy didn’t understand the joke, but then, to her surprise, Nyx returned the giggle.  It sounded hysterical compared to Elmiryn, but within a moment, the girl was also clutching her sides, and the forest echoed from their peals of laughter.

“Dragons, giant spirits, undead, demons–!” Nyx gasped between her fits of humor.

“–Guard dogs!” Elmiryn repeated breathlessly, her laughter having turned into silent convulsions.  By the sounds of it, something was supposed to come before that, but the warrior seemed incapable of more than a few words at a time, leaving her meaning clipped.

Quincy still didn’t get it, but she didn’t need to.  Her eyes were finally starting to adjust to the dark, and she could see the looks the guards were now giving them.

Sedwick beat her to it.  “Quiet, the both of you!” he rumbled.

Nyx shut up quickly, her hysterical humor lighting out in the sea of her fear.  With bowed head, she mumbled an apology.  Elmiryn, with effort, calmed down, and they resumed their walk in silence.

With time, the wizard saw a glow up ahead…but not a campfire glow, or the burn of torches.  This light was a soft green.  She squinted her eyes and murmured, “What is that?”

“Dryads,” Sedwick murmured back.

The woman frowned, wanting to ask more, but a look from one of the Lycans silenced them.

As they neared, the sounds of people talking came their way.  Quincy could see what looked like huts, and the forms of villagers flitting between them.

The men paused as something small leapt from the dark bushes to block their path.  Nyx gave a great start, inciting the wizard to jump herself.  What she saw made her roll her eyes.

“For heavens sakes, it’s just a scout,” she snapped.

The scout was, in fact, a small wolf, with light fur and glowing eyes.  It peered at them all, ears perked forward, mouth panting, tail low.

The leader knelt down and spoke to it in a strange growling language that Quincy had only heard once before. Maicoh.  The language of the wolves.

When the man finished speaking, the wolf turned and bolted toward the village.

The dark haired leader stood, and for a moment, he seemed to look her way.  Quincy scowled at him.  With a silent jerk of his head, they resumed their jaunt.  Elmiryn glanced back at the wizard with arched eyebrow.  So she’d noticed too.

The smell of cooking food wafted toward them.  The sounds of village life were everywhere–children laughing, the sound of stone being pounded, hens clucking.  Quincy’s eyes had to adjust as they entered the clearing where the village resided.  The green light came from the trees.  The bark, the leaves, even the soil it was grounded into.  Dryad magic?  Was that what Sedwick had meant?

She squinted around at the huts–made of animal hide and thick lumber.  Waxing crescents were painted on the sides of the huts in what appeared to be a dripping blue paint.  Some of the taller huts had high ropes strung between them, where small metal and glass pieces were hung.  Outside, older women weaved baskets, mended weapons, and cooked food.  The younger women pounded herbs and grain in mortars with big pestles, and tended to the children.  Children played a strange game with brightly colored beads on a sort of diagram scratched into the dirt.  The men did a lot of heavy work–carrying water and materials to the women, and repairing their homes.

There was still no road to speak of, but the array of huts and the trampled grass alluded to a trail, and this they followed.

The Lycan folk, aside from their primitive garb of animal hide and beaded hair…seemed very much normal.  Other therians exhibited beast-like qualities.  Nyx, for instance, had very feline eyes.  These people, however, were deceptively human-like.  What gave them away were their unusual gazes.  No human had naturally yellow eyes.

Lycans peered curiously from doorways as they passed, and children hopped and skipped around them, trying to peer past their escorts to stare at Quincy and the others.  Some of the villagers hurried ahead of them, calling excitedly in their Lycan tongue.

They rounded a close cluster of huts which opened up onto a wide area.  A great large tree, as thick as a house and nearly five stories high, sprouted up the center of the area.  A large house had been built amidst its branches.  Quincy frowned, thinking this odd for the Lycans to have centered their settlement on, though she hardly believed this to be their only village.  Surrounding the tree was a large group of people, and they all whispered as they came near.  Trailing down from the tree house was a simple rope.

The Lycan folk cleared as their escorts finally reached the tree.

The leader of their escort pointed at the rope.  “Go up,” he ordered.

Elmiryn glanced around at them, and with a shrug, she started to climb.  Following her went Nyx, then Sedwick, and finally Quincy.

The climb took little time, and as they crawled up into the circular opening of the building’s floor, Quincy immediately understood its purpose.  There was a great circular hole in the ceiling where the branches parted and allowed for an unlimited view of the sky.  An observation platform.  Of course.  While the Lycans could see the stars from down below, to get an unlimited view of the heavens (and of their surroundings) required some height.  The house was equipped with astronomy tools, charts and measuring instruments, all of which could be found on a table against the wall.  This aside, this seemed to be the building’s only room, and it was largely empty.

That was, except for the one standing within it.

A tall woman with pale skin and silver eyes peered at them from a low window on the far side of the room.  Unlike the other Lycans, she was solid, like they were, indicating that she was fully within their dimension.  She had curly dark hair pinned back in a low bun and a tiara of branches on her head.  Like the leader below, her nose was aquiline in nature, but with a smaller tip and a lower nose bridge.  She wore an animal hide tunic with twine tied about her waist, much like the villagers, except that hers was cut in a low V at the front, showing a loose white garb beneath.  Strung across her back was a bow and a quiver of arrows.  On the back of her right hand, a crescent had been tattooed in black ink.  Her feet were bare.

She gestured for them to come near.

Elmiryn started to take a step, but then Nyx grabbed her arm and jerked her back.  When the warrior looked at her in confusion, the girl did not return her gaze.  Her eyes were on the woman, her body trembling worse than before.

Behind them, their male escorts began to climb up into the tree house.

The silver-eyed woman appeared amused by Nyx’s reaction.  She sat on the windowsill and smirked.  “What wouldst thy patron say, to see thee trembling so, little one?”

Nyx swallowed audibly and fell to her knees.  She pulled at Elmiryn. “Down!” she hissed.  “Elle, get down!

Elmiryn resisted, squinting at the silver-eyed woman.  “What?  Why?  What is…” but then her voice trailed away.  She looked sharply from Nyx to the woman and back.

Quincy’s eyes started to widen.  She looked to Sedwick, “Is that–?” but she cut herself off when she realized the man wasn’t there.  She twisted her head around, alarmed, then looked down near her feet.  Sedwick was down on his knees, his head pressed to the floor.  Startled, the woman’s mouth fell open.  She tried to say something…anything.

She wanted to appear calm.

…But who could remain calm in this situation?

The wizard fell to her knees but did not bow her head.  She didn’t want to miss a thing.

“Who are you?” Elmiryn asked, her voice guarded.  She was still on her feet, but now her fists were balled up at her sides.

The silver-eyed woman looked at her mildly.  “Me?”  She let out a throaty chuckle. “The Lycans call me Mother…but you can call me Artemis.”

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn blinked slowly.

“Artemis?” she echoed.

“Artemis,” the woman said with a nod.

“You’re trying to tell me you’re the Artemis?  The Goddess of the Hunt?  Mother wolf? Are you joking?”  This managed to illicit a growl from one of the Lycan men behind them, but Elmiryn didn’t care.

Gods were supposed to be out of reach.  Other-wordly.  Omnipotent.  This woman looked so…ordinary.  Except for maybe her eyes.  Her eyes were stark and shrewd.

‘Artemis’ crossed her arms, her wry smirk still in place.  “And thou art the Elmiryn Manard, daughter of Warner and Brianna Manard.  Thou were once captain of a company of dragoons, loved and respected by her men.  So much so that they forswore their king to help thee escape.  Your best friend was your Lieutenant Saelin, who shared in your queerness and tolerated your controversial nature.  He once asked you to marry him, out of convenience, and you gave him a black eye.  It was the first and last time you had ever truly been angry with him.  It was also the last time you’d seen him.  Though you knew you could not accept his offer, you regret your reaction.”

Elmiryn bowed her head, her shoulders bunching.  Unbidden, the memory came wafting in, carrying Saelin’s voice as if she were just then hearing it.

Sir…Elmiryn.  We’re both different.  You know that.  Why not…why can’t we just…get married?  That way our families will stop badgering us, and we can live our lives as we see fit!  I…um…Elmiryn?  ….Sir?

“Your first love was at the age of seven, and it was with a Higashan acrobat girl whom you had helped run away from home.  That experience really shaped you.  Though not picky about your partners, you tend to be attracted to the strange, the exotic, and the foreign,” here, the woman’s silver eyes cut to Nyx, who pressed her head to the floor.  The girl’s hands and the back of her exposed neck flushed pink.  The woman resumed.  “Whether out of habit or true belief, thou have on occasion presented offerings to my altar.  Your last offering was a fox you’d shot on a new moon night at 500 strides.  You bragged so much, you got into a fight with another commanding officer.  He’d called you a liar and drew sword whilst your back was turned.  You cut his stomach open, letting his entrails tumble over your new boots, which you had to toss away.  It was the last time you’d ever sought my blessing.”

The woman sucked at her teeth and looked off to the side.  When she looked back at Artemis, she muttered, “I liked those boots…”

“I assure thee, their ruining was not my doing,” Artemis chortled.  She shrugged.  “I liked the fox.  I was sorry to see your devotion wane.”

“You didn’t feel all that close to me.  None of your kind did.  After awhile, it felt more like I was talking to myself.”

“And do you not fear the retribution I could bring?  You have a lot of cheek, for a mortal.”

“Yeah?  Well you look really fucking plain for a god.”

…It happened faster than Elmiryn could even compute.

One moment, she was standing and looking Artemis in the eye–knowing that a god of wolf people would likely interpret that as a challenge–and the next moment, she was up in the air by her throat, her feet not even skimming the floor.  When had the goddess moved?  Were those claws digging into Elmiryn’s neck?

The warrior’s eyes rolled down to meet the goddess’s, and Artemis regarded her coolly. “Cease behaving like an insolent pup, and I’ll not treat thee as such.  I am not your chief god.  Your quarrels with Halward are not my concern. Understood?

The building shook and Elmiryn felt the hairs on her skin stand on end.  She gave the best nod she could, which turned out to be a slight twitch of her head.

Artemis dropped her.

The warrior crumpled to the floor, her body shaking.  Her throat throbbed.  She coughed, red in the face, as she shifted to her hands and knees.

The goddess took a moment to gaze at them all, allowing the weight of the situation to settle in.  Yes, she was a god.  Yes, she could fuck them up if she wanted to.

…But she wasn’t.

“If we’re to talk of concerns, I have a few I’d like to share with you all,” Artemis said.  “Please.  Will you all rise and join me at the window?”

She turned and walked back across the room, and one by one, the others followed.  Elmiryn was the last to rise.  She stared at the floor, her coughing having quieted to heavy breathing.  She felt like hitting something.  She hated feeling vulnerable.

She wanted a drink.

Nyx paused to help her up.  As she took the warrior’s arm, she leaned in and whispered, “Elle, my gods, are you okay?”

“M’fine…” the woman mumbled as they both straightened.

“Your hands are shaking.”

The warrior cursed and clenched her fists.  “It’s nothing,” she snapped.  Then with a wince, she said more gently.  “Just…a little shaken up is all.”

“In the future, can we avoid insulting gods?”

“Duly noted,” the woman muttered.

They joined the others at the window.  They all gathered around Artemis, who had taken to sitting on the windowsill again.

The goddess pointed out at the spanning forests around them.  “These forests are sacred.  Not just to me, but to any spirit or creature that values life and harmony.  My children protect this land from evil, both spiritual and mortal.  With my blessing and with the aid of countless spirits, we have turned away a great many threats.  But a new taint has entered our lives, and with each passing night, we lose more and more of my children to this wickedness.”  She nodded to each of them in turn.  “It is my understanding that each of you are pursuing a way back to your world.”

“Among other things,” Elmiryn said.  Her voice was still a little rough.

Artemis nodded, a teasing smile appearing on her face.  “As I’ve heard, you lot have been causing quite the stir with the traveling spirits.  They’ve been saying all sorts of things.”  The others must have looked alarmed for the goddess’s smile widened, and she added, “Don’t worry.  They’re good things…mostly.

She shifted so that her back leaned against the windowsill, one leg half bent on the ledge, the other tucked against the wall.  “Given all of your experiences, you must know by now that, to proceed, one must overcome obstacles.  To seek help, one must help in return.  It is no different here, braves.”

“You want our help in slaying this new evil,” Quincy said, her arms crossing.

Artemis gave another nod.  “Tonight my children drink to their fallen brothers.  Then when the darkness is at its thickest yet, we hunt.  I would ask that each of you join us.”

“What is this threat?  What would we be facing?” The wizard asked next.

The goddess sighed.  “We cannot be certain. It is fast.  Strong. Filled with hate and rage.  It can turn my children against each other, and it causes the trees and the plants to wane and wither as it passes.  As for how it looks, I cannot tell you.  My children have never survived an encounter with it.”

And yet you keep sending them out to die in your stead. Elmiryn thought darkly.

Artemis looked at her, and the warrior seized up, expecting another attack.  How could she be so stupid?  Of course the goddess would hear her thoughts.

But the deity’s eyes only held sadness.  “I would gladly take to arms for my children.  But there is no way I can fight without harming them all.”

The warrior looked away.

Clearing his throat, Sedwick said, “It’d be our honor to help.”

“Splendid.” The goddess stood and said something in Lycan to the men waiting at the back of the room.  One by one they descended back down to the village below.  The only one who remained was the male leader.  He asked Artemis something, and the goddess gestured vaguely as she responded.  He nodded, and started down the tree as well.

Artemis looked back at them.  “Anything you will need, my people can provide you.  Rest.  Prepare.  Tonight, you will need it.”

The goddess turned away from them, looking out at the forests.  It seemed their cue to leave.  They returned to the floor opening and descended down the rope.  First Quincy, then Sedwick, then Nyx.  Elmiryn paused, crouched on the floor.  She looked at Artemis with squinted eyes.

“I didn’t realize the gods had such a close relationship with mortals.”

Artemis barely turned her head.  “Not all gods like to sit up in heaven.  You would do well to remember that.”

Elmiryn pursed her lips and nodded.  She started down the rope.

As she descended, the woman heard a commotion going on below.  Frowning, she paused to look down.

A group of children had surrounded Quincy, all jumping and cheering.  They pulled on her arms and clapped their hands, chanting a single word over and over.

“Shimá!  Shimá!  Shimá!”

Curious, the warrior doubled her pace, jumping down the rest of the way as soon as it was safe.  She found Nyx and Sedwick in the crowd that had gathered, and asked, “What are they saying?”

They gave her equally confused looks.  “We don’t know,” Nyx said.  “There was already a crowd here waiting for us as we came down.”

The people around them started to point, smiles on their faces.  The three of them craned their heads to see who was coming through the crowd.

“Can you see who it is?” Nyx asked Elmiryn.

The warrior frowned as the people parted, letting something through.  “Not a fucking thing.”

The last of the villagers stepped aside, and they were finally able to see who was coming.

Nyx’s jaw dropped.  “Oh…my…gods…”

Elmiryn let out a surprised laugh.

Sedwick looked at them both, still confused.  “I’m sorry…do you two know that little boy?”

For the one who had come through the crowd, standing at no more than a full grown man’s chest, was a black boy, with dark brooding eyes and a close-shaved head.  He wore animal hide clothes, just like the villagers.

Quincy stared at him, the blood draining from her face.  “Ha…Hakeem?

The boy nodded.  In a voice that still had yet to deepen, he said, “Habari, bwa-mweze.”

That was about the time that Quincy fainted, the children around her letting out cries of alarm as they tried to catch her without being crushed.  Hakeem rushed forward, moving with a certainty that belied his small form.  Some adults followed close behind.

Nyx and Sedwick stood speechless.

…Elmiryn, on the other hand, couldn’t stop laughing.


Back to Chapter 26.1 | Forward to Chapter 26.3

Chapter 26.1

NYX____________________________

I was feeling lightheaded upon leaving Elmiryn in the wash room, and entered the kitchen with a hunger so vast that even I was startled by it.  A quick search produced strips of cured beef in a small barrel tucked into the corner of the room.  I wanted to eat all of it, and could have, but there wasn’t any time for it.  Finding a small canvas bag, I put some of the dried meat into it, along with a wedge of cheddar cheese.  I found a roll of twine on the counter and pulled out a small length of it, cutting it with a cooking knife.  Using that piece, I tied the bag closed.  That done, I cut a much longer piece of twine, and used it to make an impromptu strap.  I pulled the twine over my head, the length of it crossing my chest to where the bag sat against my hip.

Next, I grabbed a handful of beef strips.  Glancing around me one last time, I returned to the parlor.

Quincy and Sedwick sat sipping their tea in silence, side by side on the sofa.  The man appeared to be meditating, the wizard staring off into space with a haunted look.  They both looked up as I approached.  I became shy at the attention and sat on the floor near the center table, my shoulders hunched.

Sedwick stood.  “Here, Nyx.  Sit here.”

It was a gentlemanly gesture, but it made me uncomfortable.  “No thank you.  I prefer the floor.”

The man gazed at me a moment, apparently uncertain, but then he sat down without another word.  Quincy took a long draw on her tea as she gazed at me over the rim of her teacup.  It put me on edge.  I pulled my knees to my chest, hugging them, and tore out a large bite of beef.  I chewed it slowly.

I avoided making eye contact.  Sedwick cleared his throat and shifted on the couch.  I wanted to pour myself some tea, but felt too self-conscious.  The silence was to the point that we could hear the distant voices of those struggling to save their homes from the fires.  I hoped they weren’t spreading anymore than they had, but it felt like a futile wish.

I swallowed the food in my mouth and took another bite.  My eyes took in my surroundings, but my thoughts were elsewhere.

My mind still turned over what I had just done, and there were excited trembles blasting through me as I remembered each moment.

Elmiryn was right.  I had changed.  But was that so weird?  I had been in dark places, and the source of my hope and determination was once again in my company.  Whatever fears, whatever barriers of intimacy, were all gone now.  I could feel it.  Even given how close we’d been before, a line had just been crossed.

And…I wanted to do more.  Elmiryn’s facilitation made me braver, made me less concerned about my sexuality and the effects it may bring.

After feeling the shape of her under my hands, after tasting her desire on the tip of my tongue, there was no use in dancing around it.

I wanted her.  I wanted Elmiryn.

Not an altogether new concept, but to admit this was freeing.

Yet I had refrained in the wash room, aware that giving in to my impulses would be folly.  There were things to be done, and the time simply wasn’t there.  I didn’t want my first experience to be a rushed affair.  I also didn’t want to be just another easy conquest.  The idea repulsed me.

But it felt good to forget, just for a second, that I was some spiritual abomination outside of the natural order.  Lacertli may have provided a way to salvation, but the sting of being something so wrong was still acute to me.  Elmiryn dulled that pain.

My ears tweaked as I heard the warrior in question finally emerge from the wash room.  She began doing something in the kitchen, and I had to resist the urge to turn and look.  I didn’t want to appear over eager at her return.  Actually, I felt nervous.  The wash room had become a sort of special sanctuary for my forwardness.  Out here, though, I felt timid again.  This was all still new to me, for all my show of confidence.

Within a moment she came into the parlor room–dressed, clean, and looking re-energized.  I felt the tightness ease away from my body as I looked up at her.  Elmiryn looked very charming in her new clothes.

She gave me an amused smile as she crossed her arms high on her chest.  “Kitten, what are you doing on the floor?”

I swallowed the beef I had in my mouth and said, “Oh, you know.  Just subverting sedentary convention.  That’s all.”

Elmiryn giggled and I even heard Sedwick chortle.  I smiled, feeling warm.

“Shall we then?” Quincy said, setting her tea cup aside and standing.

I nodded and stood.  Then I gave a start and turned to Elmiryn.  “I should tell you.  Farrel’s gone.”

She arched an eyebrow at me.  “Gone gone?”

I looked down at my shoes, suddenly ashamed.  “Gone.  I couldn’t find him…alive or dead.”

Elmiryn reached out and patted my shoulder.  “Don’t worry, Nyx.  I’m sure the Rabbit’ll turn up.”

“Ah, speaking of which!” Quincy exclaimed as she looked at me.

I looked at her, wary.  It was true that I hadn’t had many encounters with the wizard, but what I had seen was forever burned into my mind–literally.  She’d blasted away the flesh of my hand once, after all.  To see her exclaiming in such a fashion, a very mundane and unmemorable thing to do, somehow seemed extraordinary to me.  The Quincy I remembered was cold, monotone, and seamless.  This was the opposite.  Did Tonatiuh really change her so much?

“Tristi’s also gone,” she said.  “And he wanted to send you his regards.”

“I’m sure he did…” I muttered.  Why had he hurried me up the entire time if he could have left whenever he wanted to?  I had a feeling I’d never understand the champion of luck, and I couldn’t say that I’d miss him too much.

“I have a few questions I’d like to ask you about him later, if that’s all right?”

“That’s…fine.”  It actually wasn’t, but I could see no reason to refuse.

We started to leave the house, but Elmiryn paused at the door to gaze back at everything.  I stood near her, and took in her expression–wistful…perhaps sad.  Eventually her eyes rested on something in the parlor, and I didn’t have to guess what it was.  I turned to gaze at the portrait with her.  Sedwick and Quincy waited outside, on the lookout for trouble.

I let the back of my hand brush the warrior’s.  She looked at me, and the fact that she didn’t smile had me worried.  Was it possible that her family could’ve been affected by the destructive battle with Tonatiuh?  “What’s wrong, Elle?”

“I don’t know where my family is.  I don’t know…if I still have a family.”

“The meteor, the fires…” I trailed off, unable to finish.

Elmiryn already was shaking her head.  “I don’t think my mother’s in Malvene.  She hates this city during this time of year.”

I felt a sense of foreboding about it, but I asked anyway.  “And your father…?”

The warrior’s face darkened in a way I hadn’t seen before.  “The asshole had better be alive.  We have unfinished business.”

I blinked, taken aback.  She looked at me for a moment, then grinned, the darkness fleeing her face.  “Sorry.”  She jerked her head toward the others.  “Come on.  I’m sure you’d like to hear our side of the story now.”

I swallowed and nodded.  Elmiryn could be a little mercurial at times, but that was by far the most extreme I’d seen.

As we followed Sedwick’s lead to the shard’s gateway, they each in turn explained what had happened since arriving in that dimension.  They got about as far as their conversation with Nadi before it devolved into bantering and bickering.

“Of course, this ginger-headed idiot had to open her foul mouth and speak ill of my husband,” Quincy said, with a disdainful tilt of her nose.

“You weren’t exactly being very kind yourself, if I recall…” Sedwick muttered. “You both gave as much as you got.”

Elmiryn just snickered.  “The difference being that I could handle it.  The wizard, on the other hand, turned into a hysterical chicken shit and tried to off herself–”

The wizard shot her a look.  “Shut up, Elmiryn, that isn’t how it went and you know it.”

The warrior crossed her arms, smirking.  “You ran off a cliff.”

“Well, given the company…”

“Ungrateful!  That’s what you are!  And after all those times I’ve saved your life…”

What?”  Quincy and Sedwick said this together.

“Quincy.  Come on.  You must remember how I caught you at the cliff.  Or the time I decapitated that soldier about to bite into your neck.  Or the time you nearly fell and got swarmed by the undead–”

“That’s just stretching it!  We were all watching each other’s backs

“And what about those rogue ghosts that were going to tear you apart?”

“I could’ve handled them!”

“Oh, and did I mention?  There was a fly about to buzz into your open mouth.  I swatted it out of the way just in the nick of time,”  Elmiryn mimed doing just that, making Quincy startle back.  “Surely, it would have lodged into your throat, causing you to panic, and then–knowing your dramatic personality and naturally clumsy nature–would’ve resulted in the greatest cluster fuck this side of the Hellas.  No really.  True story.”

We all slowed to a stop to stare at her.

When Sedwick let out a rumble of a laugh, I smiled uncertainly.  Quincy looked ready to blow, the way her face turned red.  Elmiryn just kept batting her eyes, body posed in the most pretentious I’d ever seen–head thrown back, chest puffed out, hands high on her hips.

Then, without warning, a smile spread on the wizard’s face, and she put a hand over her mouth as her shoulders began to shake.

Elmiryn grinned as she nudged her.  “Hm?  Hmmm? See!  I told you!”

“We should spread the word then,” Sedwick started.  “Hamlets the world over will sing their praises of Elmiryn the Good.”

The warrior’s nose wrinkled.  “That’s not a proper name for a hero!  You could easily call a prostitute that.”

“Well I’ll be sure to let everyone know then.”  Quincy’s face wasn’t red anymore, but her cheeks were still tinged pink, and there was a light in her eyes that hadn’t been there in the previous hour.  She fixed the warrior with a smirk.

Elmiryn opened her mouth, a mischievous expression on her face when she paused and looked at me.  I blinked at her, confused.  Clearing her throat, the redhead shrugged and said, “Take care in what rumors you spread.  People may start thinking you’re a regular connoisseur of the world’s oldest profession.”

Quincy glanced at me, before returning her eyes on the warrior.  Her smirk had turned into a full predatory smile.  “Oh, all I have to do is say the right things to the right people.”

Elmiryn didn’t look amused anymore.  I felt nettled and frowned at them both.

Then Sedwick jumped in, his expression trying to convey a warning without words.  “Elle!”  He said loudly.  My ears tweaked to hear him use her nickname.  “If Elmiryn the Good wouldn’t suit you, than what would?”

The woman batted her eyes at him, and we all looked at her.

A slow chuckle came up her throat and she rubbed the back of her neck.

“Maybe…” she started slowly.  She shrugged and looked up.  “Elle, the Friendly Ghost?”

My eyes fluttered.

I tried to hide the smile that started to show by biting my lip, but I knew it was a losing battle.  “Um…I’m certain that’s already being used.”

Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck again, and I could see a sense of relief pass her features.  “Really?” she giggled.

Behind me, Quincy and Sedwick chuckled.  In truth, I was glad to have the tension vanish.  The banter continued, and it was more of the same.

“Shall we call you, Quincy the Klutzy?”

“Here’s a suggestion:  How do you like Elmiryn the Crippled?  Or what about, Elmiryn the Lifeless?

We went at a brisk pace, down avenues and alleys, piercing the shadows of tall buildings swathed in stellar splendor, and passed smaller structures colored in the fiery passion of Fiamma.  With the current company being so swept up in their talk, I found my thoughts began to trail.

It was strange seeing the way Elmiryn, Sedwick, and Quincy got along.  It was a complicated dynamic, I could already tell.  Elmiryn had clearly taken to her usual provocations, but it was different from how she’d behaved with me.  Now I saw that her teasing in the past had been very mild in comparison to what she and Quincy slung at each other.  It was sharp, nettling, and at times, bordered on cruel.  I was certain, given the prides these two had, that tails must have been stepped on often.  But seeing how Elmiryn laughed at Quincy’s hostile responses, I saw how much she enjoyed the interaction.

It made my hackles rise.

Quincy, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have any interest other than to find Elmiryn’s weaknesses and poke at them.  The wizard had a temper, it was easy to see, but she was also stubborn and resilient.  For every quip that landed home, the woman was back with a dozen to match.  Though she feigned contempt for Elmiryn’s antics, I could see that she was into the verbal sparring as much as Elmiryn was, though I suspected it was just to find a way to best the warrior psychologically.  She struck me as the type that liked to pick things apart.  A sort of scientific mind, if you will.  But when the wizard found her prize…?  What then?

I certainly wasn’t going to facilitate their silly games.  To have Quincy look at me as if I were some sort of tool to use against Elmiryn already had me wishing I could slap her.

Sedwick seemed to fit into the group as a long-suffering mediator.  He cut in when either woman crossed a line, and he kept things as light as he could by redirecting the conversation.  Much of the time, though, he kept out of it.  A wise decision, I thought.

Eventually, after Sedwick announced our imminent arrival to the gateway, Elmiryn turned to me.

“Gods damn, I just realized.  We were supposed to be telling you what we’ve been through this whole time.”

I gave her a strained smile.  “You were.”

The redhead looked at me with feigned uncertainty. “Did we mention this was a long story?”

“About three times, now.”

“It’s a really long story,” they all said simultaneously, wry smiles on their faces.

“But it’ll have to wait,” Sedwick said.

We followed the man over a retaining wall into a narrow road.  This far out, the buildings weren’t as collected together.  Elmiryn had muttered something about “round-assed nobles” and I suspected this was where some of the richer ilk resided.  Honestly, I’d heard of homes being this large in books and by word of mouth, but it never really strikes you until you see it, does it?  I looked across a vast front yard, gated of course, where a massive four-story mansion with large windows and a circular tower managed to cast a long enough shadow to reach us so far away.  I couldn’t imagine anyone living in something so large.  It just seemed so…excessive.

Where the main road curled about these mammoths of architecture, we strayed, coming up against the tall black iron-wrought gate for the grounds before us.  The bars were thick and close together, and there were wicked spikes at the top to discourage climbing.  Sedwick pointed through the bars.  “Our way off this shard is there.”

Quincy scowled.  “Well that’s inconvenient.”

I peered around the bars to get a look at the lock.

I grinned.  “Have any of you got a pin?”

No one had one, but Quincy managed to produce a hook knife which I recognized to be used in clay shaping.  I shook off my confusion as to why she would have something like this (she’d pulled it out of a pouch I’d thought empty) and set to work.  Five minutes later, we were walking through the gate.

“These people spend tons of gold just to make their homes feel safe, and here you come along to undo it with barely any effort,” Elmiryn murmured, an almost proud smile on her face.

“That lock was pathetic.  It’s obvious the owner just wanted to show off and look richer than he is without actually putting the money down to defend his claim.”  I shrugged.  “Of course, it’s entirely possible that there are guards patrolling the grounds.  Maybe some attack dogs.  Magical wards.  Who knows?  We aren’t actually breaking into his home…”

“But, attack dogs aside, they wouldn’t be a problem for you if we were, right?”

I bit my lip to hide my smile.  Pride comes before a fall, and all that…

The courtyard of the mansion was arrayed in a circular design, with waist-high rose-bushes and swaying willows.  The breeze picked up, and I inhaled that scent of destruction, of ash and dust.  Even this far out, the aftermath of that terrible struggle with Tonatiuh could be felt.

I glanced at the others, and found equally pensive looks on their faces.  Quincy looked upset, even.

At the center of the courtyard was a marble fountain.  Sedwick slowed to a stop before this, his head tilted back.  Elmiryn’s head was tilted back as well, her eyes focusing on something I couldn’t see.  All I could make out was that the air seemed to ripple before us.  The gateway.

The hairs on my skin stood on end.

And how did Elmiryn feel, leaving Fiamma for the second time with no clue as to when she’d return?

She looked at me, her eyes searching my features, for what I didn’t know.  Then her face broke into a grin.  “Let’s go, Nyx.”

I nodded, wishing I knew what she’d found.  “Lead on, Elle.”

Without another word, without even so much as a look back, Elmiryn stepped through the gateway, and we followed her.

.

..

….

…..

Nyx wasn’t used to Traveling the way the others were used to it.  She had only done it once before, and even she was aware it was in a very unorthodox fashion.  Her eyes wander into the spectral mist, catching glimpses of beautiful people and wondrous places.  Her steps start to slow, and she lets out a breath…

Then Quincy has her by the arm and starts to force her along.

We can’t stop, the wizard says.  And it’s dangerous to look into worlds that aren’t ours, so just keep your eyes looking ahead, unless you want to bring the attention of something dangerous.

But that’s fun!  Elmiryn exclaims.

Sedwick grumbles for them all to keep silent, and the request is honored.

Nyx rips her arm out of Quincy’s grasp with a glare, and moves to join Elmiryn in the front.

With time, they came to a crossroads.  This was strange to the Ailuran, because she hadn’t realized the In-Between space was capable of such structure.

After a moment of reorientation, Elmiryn pointed down one of the roads.

Here, she says.  This is our fourth path.

Without another word, they travel on, till the mist and chaos thinned to nothing.

…..

….

..

.

QUINCY_________________________

She took in a breath as the last of the Road gave way to grassy plain.  The mist cleared.

They stood blinking in the darkness atop a tall hill.  Overhead, there were no stars.  No moon.  Not even a cloud, as much as she could see.  The wind was strong here, and swept her russet locks into a wild dance.  She shivered and hugged herself, missing her cloak.  Her jerkin was a poor cover.

Elmiryn and Nyx stood apart, hand in hand.  Sedwick stood near, his brow furrowed.

“I think I know where we are,” he said lowly.

Quincy turned on the spot, taking in their surroundings.  They had landed on the edge of a vast hilly plain, where further off, the wizard thought she saw the sandy shores of a beach.  Behind them lay the edges of a dense forest that also stretched on as far as she could see.  With numerous societies occupying the Sibesonan continent, there were only two forests that could be as large and as untouched as this one, and only one of those was so close to the ocean.

“Yes,” Quincy said. “I think I recognize this area as well.”

The wind came again, this time nearly threatening to bowl them over.  Everyone braced against it, hands and arms shielding faces from the sting of the wind.

The wizard’s heart gave a twist, and she clenched her teeth.  She hated winds like this.  They always tricked her into believing that Jack was coming.  As the champion of Njord, he’d had command of the winds, and his arrivals were always blustery at best.  Older now, Quincy was certain that her father needn’t have arrived on such explosive winds, but Jack was a show-off by nature, and loved flaunting his power even when unnecessary.

Arrogant git, she thought with curled lip.

The wind died down.

With hands tight around her lightning staff, the woman turned and motioned for Elmiryn and Nyx to come near.  As they approached, Quincy crouched.  They did the same.

She asked in a low voice, “Do you two know where we are?”

Nyx shook her head, but Elmiryn nodded, a solemn look over face.  “We’re far south of Gamath.  I’ve passed this area before, but never ventured into it.”

“Then you know the precarious situation we’re in?” Quincy glanced at Nyx pointedly.

“Would someone like to clue me in?” The girl hissed, clearly vexed by their reticence.

Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck.  “Nyx…you must know about this continent front to back from your reading.  Tell me, who resides in the southeastern lands of the Sibesona?”

The girl didn’t even need to think about it.  Her face blanched.  “Oh no…” she moaned.

Elmiryn nodded.  “Lycans.

“As I’m sure you all know, therians are spiritual beings,” Sedwick said, drawing their attention.  He had crouched behind them, as well, his eyes narrowed at the forest. “That means, unlike some of the humans we’ve encountered, they’ll be able to sense us.  Touch us.”

“How can that be?” Elmiryn asked.

Quincy swept her hair back with a sigh. “Unlike other therians who appoint shamans, priests, and healers to take care of the deeper matters of the spirit world, Lycans train all their young in the ways of communicating and interacting with the spirits.  They also practice primitivism, believing that some of the newer technologies, like guns, and even swords, diminish their connection with the land.  Because of their staunch devotion, they hold the favor of some benevolent beings.  Powerful beings.  Forest nymphs, air spirits, earth trolls…”

“It’s why the Fiamman kingdom hasn’t tried edging them out yet,” Elmiryn said.  “They have greater numbers than the Ailuran Nation, and they have powerful magic on their side.  Their knowledge of the land would’ve put the king’s army at a great disadvantage.”

“So we were the easier target?” Nyx asked, her brow furrowed.

The warrior shrugged, unapologetic.  “Yes.”  She looked to Sedwick next. “Is it true that Lycans hunt spirits?  That they can kill and eat them?”

Quincy puckered her lips and looked at the man too.  Sedwick scratched at his scar.  “It’s true that they can kill spirits, but I doubt they eat them.  I’ve only interacted with them a little since becoming an elemental, and most of everything else I know is hearsay from the spirits traveling.  They’re a secretive lot.”

“Well, what do we do here?  What are we searching for?” the wizard said.

Elmiryn tilted her head back and took a deep breath.  “This is the fourth path.  Air.”  She looked at Quincy, then Nyx.  “Go on.  What does air represent in our world?”

Nyx looked up in thought.  The brunette frowned, but turned her eyes down to think as well.

She thought of the way dandelions flew with the breeze, the way a first breath after a long dive restored vitality, the way the world was shifted by the phantom hands of gusts…

She thought of Jack, holding her as a child, doing cartwheels through the sky.  She thought of how they cut through clouds, startled birds, and tore through the skies at high speeds with nothing to stop them.  Jack’s laughter mingling with hers.  The wind roaring.  Knowing that they could stay up in the sky for as long as they wanted, and often did.

“Wizard?”

Quincy hadn’t realized she’d closed her eyes, but judging by everyone’s looks, she’d been silent for sometime.

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at her.  “Well?  I thought you knew a bit about this sort of thing?  Or are you a two-bit hack who just pretends to know?”

The wizard narrowed her eyes and rubbed at her staff vigorously, making her hand tingle from the trade in energy.  Then, without a word, she reached over and tapped Elmiryn’s hand.

Zap.

The woman gave a jerk and let loose a sharp curse.  “You shocked me!” she exclaimed.

“I didn’t think anything could shock you, given your appalling history.”  The wizard held up her hand as the warrior started with her retort. “You want to know about the significance of air?  Well I can tell you.  I’m certain, given that we’re following your spiritual path, that the western symbolism applies here.  It’s simple.  Air signifies freedom.  Change.”

“Powerful inner strength,” Nyx added.

Sedwick nodded, rubbing his chin.  “We’re in one of the last remaining untouched resources of the Sibesona.  No industrialism, no destructive magic users, nothing outside of nature.  Dense forests for miles around, with clear and hilly plains to the far south.  The air here is clean and pure, rivaling those of the mountains…”

Nyx bit her lip and looked to the forest.  “And the Lycans.  They are shapeshifters.  Spiritually powerful.  They are the guardians of this free place and exhibit that same innate fortitude.”

Elmiryn stood suddenly, and they all looked at her.

“So instead of avoiding the Lycans, we should be finding them,” she said.

“That’s assuming they haven’t already found you,” a new voice answered.

Elmiryn stiffened and slowly turned, one hand going to her sword.  Quincy cursed, jumping to her feet with staff held at the ready.  Sedwick and Nyx did much the same.

Standing behind them were ten men, all dressed in a similar grassy camouflage blanket that shadowed their faces and stretched down to brush their ankles.  Their bodies were painted with a strange dark grease.  They lacked in clothes save for simple cloths to conceal their manhoods.  Each was equipped with two spears–one long, one short.  One for throwing, the other for fighting.  Their forms seemed to waver at the edges, and their color seemed dull…but these were not phantoms.  These men were very solid, and none looked pleased.

One of them stepped forward and pulled the blanket from his head, revealing a short crop of black hair and coal gray eyes.  He had a gentle slope to his jaw and a large aquiline nose.  His brow was bunched as he jerked his head toward the forest.

“Let’s go tkelechog, before death finds you as well.”


Back to Chapter 25.3 | Forward to Chapter 26.2