Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 28.3

NYX____________________________

There She was before me, my sister, my animal counterpart…but this meeting wasn’t taking place in my head.  She was apart from me, like a separate being, only she was no more whole than I was.  Here we both were, just two broken pieces crumbling into ether as the sand trickled down the hourglass.  Lacertli had said that the Other Place would undo us.  How much more time did we have?

…And how could we possibly come together again?

The Beast was as a large black panther, but in her feline face there was a sort of sapien nuance that was not a little disturbing.  Her tawny eyes cut through the dark, holding anger.

I took to pacing, my Twin mirroring my tense movements with her head low and her tail lashing like a whip.

“My, my!  What seems to be the problem, sister?  I thought you’d be happy to see me?” The animal’s voice held false goodwill.  Her fleshy chops pulled back every time she spoke, revealing her fangs.  I was certain she didn’t have to bare her teeth at me, but chose to.

“A meeting with you outside my mind is liable to give me as bad a headache with you in my mind, so pardon me if I’m not doing cartwheels,” I snarled back.

“But why not rejoice?  After all, I’ve spent two weeks crawling around this hellish place, the least you could do is show relief that your better half yet lives!”

“I didn’t know you were here that long!  Don’t you think I would’ve wanted to find you sooner!?  You do know what will happen if one of us dies like this, don’t you?”

“A great and wondrous peace?  A happy ending?”

I clenched my fists.  “We are not whole as we are!  We’ll die!  Are you so blind that you cannot see that!?”

She roared at me, her hackles raising, her claws gouging into the dirt.  Behind me, I heard the others shift, and I turned to shout at them, “Don’t!”

“Blind, am I?” My Twin screamed–the sound blending into a roar.  “Tell me what misery awaits me while I sit, a happy shard, free of your burden!”

I chuckled darkly.  “And you don’t think I haven’t enjoyed your absence, you mindless creature?”

Suddenly, I was pushed roughly to the side, but pulled back by the front of my doublet.  Sanuye’s livid face pressed into mine.  “Ailuran, what is this!?” she bit out.

I grabbed her arm tightly, my teeth bared. “None of your affair!”

She let out a bestial snarl, lifting me off the ground with one hand.  My feet barely skimmed the dirt. “I say it is mine!” she pointed at my Twin. “Why can that beast speak?  Is she the one we hunt?  Are you in league with the monster!?”

I felt my blood turn hot and my eyes narrowed.  That alien part of me, that otherness I’d only felt once before, came clawing out of my mouth with a vengeance, “Child of Artemis, thou will remove thine hand, lest the darkness swallow thee in thine impertinence…”

I could feel the shadows around us…feel them deepen in hunger.  Sanuye looked down in confusion just as my feet touched the floor.  Hakeem whispered something and I heard one of the Lycan men let out something between a sputter and a snarl.  The woman looked back at me, fear in her eyes.

She had sunk knee deep into the shadows.

I could feel her shivering as her hand came away from my doublet and she fell back with a cry.  Scrambling, she pulled her legs free and scuttled back to Gudahi and Makka, who pulled her to her feet.  They were all staring at me now with wide eyes.

Hakeem stood apart from them, his gaze piercing as we briefly locked eyes.  Somehow, he didn’t seem as surprised.

My expression softened as I looked back at the Lycans.  “I wish no harm, Sanuye.  Only to protect thee from my own nightmares.”

Then I took a deep reflexive breath, feeling as though I’d been plunged into cold water.  My knees gave out and I fell to the earth, shivering and trying to regain control of my breathing.

“What things have you been up to while I’ve been gone…?” My Twin asked slowly, her voice full of wariness and resentment.  Her eyes searched my face, wide and penetrating.  Her features twitched in their shocked mask.

I clutched at the stitch in my chest, and glared at her through the curtain of my hair.  “I–hah–sh-should be asking that–hah–question!”

“Stupid bitch.  What trickery was that?  What new taint have you brought on us??”

“Shut up!  If anything is a taint, it’s you!

Her furry face bunched as she padded near me.  I could see her muscles rolling beneath the fur, her body like a line of dark intent over the earth.  She opened her mouth, about to say something when she paused, her brow bunching.  “You…” I saw her nose twitch and she leaned in closer, like I were some unpleasant thing to inspect.  “You…smell different.  Up close.  You…”  I could hear a growl enter her voice as she circled around me.  “She’s all over you!”

My head snapped up at that.

Elmiryn.

Her eyes held disgust.  “You expect me to return when–when you–”

“When I what?  Find someone who actually cares for me!?  That’s it, isn’t it?  You just want us to live our lives alone and hated!”  My hands dug into the earth like claws as I screamed, “I don’t have to answer to you!

She started for me, spitting from the back of her throat.  I flinched, pulling back, my heart beating.  Could I fight Her?  Was it even wise to, considering what it could result in?

“I see, then, I see!  So all that is yours is mine, then is it?  This new fancy of yours, might I share in the pleasures?”  Her voice was mocking, but in her eyes a light glinted…

My face drew up in disgust.  “What?  No!  Never!”

She snapped her jaws and snarled, saliva dripping from her fangs.  I had a horrible recall of the pretas and felt the blood drain from my face. “But I’m hungry!” she bit out.  “Hungry for that same acceptance, affection, and love that you so craved for!  Why am I to be denied this and given only the shame, the heartache, the pain–!?”  As she said this last thing, she lashed out at me with her paw, catching me along the face with her claws.

I screamed and reared back, my hands going to my cheek where the blood flowed between my fingers.

“Nyx!”  Hakeem came to my side, and I was surprised to see Gudahi there, his spear held out at my Twin in case she pressed the attack.

But my animal counterpart only sat on her haunches, her head bowed low, her tail whipping behind her.  “I would rather live in pieces, then suffer under the wholeness of your tyranny…I would rather…live in pieces…” she said quietly.  Her voice was thick with emotion–rage, resentment…but was there grief there, too?

My Twin raised her head, her eyes narrowed. “I only have one more question for you…what of your promise to me?”

Panting, I struggled to stand up with one hand, the other still clutching at my face.  “Promise?  What promise?

“A stupid…empty question…for a stupid…vapid creature like you…” The beast muttered, turning her head.  Cat language.  I was insignificant.  I was unimportant.  A worm.

I bared my teeth, indignation driving me to my feet faster than my companions could help me.  “Look at me!  What nonsense are you on about?”

“A name!” She screamed at me, still not turning her head.

My eyes widened, and I took a step back.  Oh no…

My Twin’s tail stilled behind her, and her nose dipped to the ground where she made as if to sniff the earth, but then she raised her head just enough to fix her gaze on me.  “You promised me…a name.  Yet you have nothing…so clearly, I am nothing to you.”  She moved to stand on all her paws.  “So is it not in keeping, that I should vanish?  Perhaps perish and make your perceived reality come true?”

I shook my head.  “Damn it!  Damn you!  You’re blaming me for things beyond my control!  I didn’t want you hurt or lost!  It isn’t my fault this dimension has a warped sense of time, or that it separated us to begin with!”

“But it’s for selfish reasons that you wish the things that you do!  I am nothing to you!  Nothing!  You have changed Us.  You have allowed another to touch you, without so much as a thought to me!  How I may feel!  And what of your new nature?  Something is in you, sister, and I’d not have that darkness on me, not after freeing myself from–”

A deep and echoing sound struck through the forest, stirring the trees and sleepy wildlife.  It was filled with rage, but was unlike any animal I’ve ever heard.  It was an almost slimy, wet sound, contrasted with a harsh metal ring that spoke of weapons striking.  Under it all was a deep bass, tying it together.  All froze, eyes wide as we looked around at each other and for the source of the disturbance.

My Twin started to back away.  Even in her furry face, I could see the terror there.  “The beast…the beast, it strikes!” she panted.

I looked at her.  “Do you know of it?  Tell us, what is it!”

She stepped forward, then backward again, her eyes flashing up to us with something akin to appeal.  “Nyx–the dark things, they never truly leave us.  You ask for unity, but you know not of what you ask–!”

A streak of hysteria cut through me.  “What do you mean!?”

The great feline gave a shake of her head. “I cannot!  I cannot!” and she turned and fled, dirt and brush kicked up by her powerful claws.

I gave a shout and started after her.  “Wait!  Wait!

But I didn’t run far.  It was clear there was no way I could catch her.  She was too far away now for me to get a fix on her shadow, and in all the dark, it would’ve been hard to pick out anyway.  I watched her go until she was lost in the ink of our surroundings.

Another great call came, and soon following it were a short series of howls.

“Someone has made contact…” Hakeem breathed.

Sanuye barked something in Lycan, then her eyes fixed on me, as if daring me to show insubordination.  They needed every man to help, and if I refused to do so, it would likely be seen as being sympathetic with the beast.  Despite my show of power, this proud clan could not stomach such a sentiment, especially considering what they had already lost.  Would they all fight me to the death?

…But I had made Sanuye behave submissive around me.  She had retreated from me, on the ground, her belly up, clearly showing fear.  So…perhaps her stare was more of a question than a dare.  If I wished, I could probably do as Elmiryn did, and take a firm place in the village as someone deserving of respect.  Did I want the position?

I’d read somewhere that inciting a power struggle during a time of crisis was the act of fools.  At any rate, I was no leader.  While I had a sneaking suspicion that Sanuye hated the role herself, she was a lot better at it than I was.  All I had was a sliver of heavenly power, and I hardly knew the full extent of my abilities.

What had I been possessed by when I made Sanuye seek into the shadows?  A spirit?  Another personality?  Some remnant of Lacertli’s spirit?

Sweet Aelurus, as if my head wasn’t crowded enough!

Not even needing time to make my decision, I slouched my shoulders and lowered my gaze.  I was certain the matter wasn’t done with, but there were more important things needing our attention.

Sanuye didn’t even pause to revel in my submission.  “Get in formation!  We go to our brothers!” She barked.

 

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy came into the hut, her eyes adjusting to the low candle light.  She saw Eidan hunched over Elmiryn, his weathered face more lined than usual.  His younger attendant brushed back his long white hair and turned his smooth face toward Quincy.  The woman didn’t know his name, but knew he made his rounds around the village while Eidan kept his work near his tools and supplies.

“Quincy, bring the vial with the red stopper,” he said, his bushy brows knitted together.  Eidan didn’t even look up at her.

She went to the table holding all the serums and herbs.  At first she couldn’t find the vial right away, but then, hidden amidst a tall set of bottles filled with green potion, she saw it.  She plucked it up and stared at what swished inside.  The vial held a small amount of yellow liquid.

Pursing her lips, Quincy brought it to them, and Eidan took it from her without a word.

“What’s wrong with her?” The woman asked.

She pulled up a stool and sat on the other side of the bed, her eyes flickering between Eidan and the white-haired attendant.  Neither looked at her as they unstopped the vial and poured the contents into a bowl.  Eidan sprinkled a brown substance into it, murmuring in his Lycan tongue.

Finally, the attendant fastened his gray eyes on the wizard’s.  “Mortality.” He lacked an accent.

Quincy’s eyebrows rose high at this.  “Pardon?”

“Mortality.  Her heart, it struggles because of it.”

The woman’s face grew somber.  “She tried to defy Artemis.”

“Halian only suffered from the goddess’s intervention, and see how he fares.”  The man pointed over the woman’s shoulder.  She looked and saw Halian halfway down the row of cots, his naked back to her and his body shivering and twitching.  Sweat made his body paint run into the sheets.  Quincy looked back at the man.  “What could happen to Elmiryn, then?”

“Death or permanent paralysis.  She’s lucky she didn’t die outright.  Her spirit is a willful thing.”

Eidan lifted her head and held the bowl to Elmiryn’s lips, forcing her to drink.  Some of it dribbled out, but most of it went in.

Quincy frowned.  “And what is she being given?”

“A mixture,” the attendant answered distractedly.

“Of what?”

“Ginger, crushed periwinkle, and viper venom.”

“What!?”

“Hol’ her.”  Eidan ordered.

The attendant stood and took hold of Elmiryn’s ankles.  Quincy, still bewildered, took hold of the woman’s arms.  Eidan held her head, his rough thumb brushing her cheek.  “She will wake.  Wun be pretty.  Ge’ready.”

Minutes passed.  Elmiryn’s face twitched, sweat beading on her skin.  Then, without warning, she gasped, her body spasming on the table.  Her struggles became more and more violent.  Quincy grit her teeth as she fought to keep the warrior’s arms still.  Eidan stood and leaned over the woman, his elbows pinning down her shoulders as he continued to grip her head.  The attendant grunted, his teeth bared as the wizard saw his forearms cord from the effort of keeping the woman’s legs still.

Elmiryn wheezed, her eyes snapping open deliriously.

“Elmiryn–!” Quincy shouted, but she stopped there, because it hit her that the warrior was lost in some sort of hallucination.  Was it the venom?  Was it her ailment?

The redhead gnashed her teeth, her eyes seeing through the hut ceiling.  “Nngh!  Raaagh, hah…no…shuzz…no…noooo…myne…MYne!”  Spittle flew from her mouth as she continued to gargle and slur.  Quincy was aware that the left side of the woman’s face seemed slack, whilst her right side seemed quite normal.  It was in her limbs too.  The left did not pose as much of a fight as the right did.

Would she really be crippled?

Is this what becomes of a person who fights against the gods?  Quincy thought, horror a creeping emotion that came up her chest and chilled the sweat on her skin.

After a time, the warrior’s struggles grew feebler.  Eidan spared a moment to reach down and hold up another, smaller bowl than the first.  He forced the contents of this down Elmiryn’s throat, and this time more of it dribbled out then went in.  Quincy could see it was the green potion she had spied earlier.

They held her for a while longer, and with time they saw Elmiryn’s eyes rolling into her head.  Her struggles quieted, then ceased entirely.  Eidan released her, and Quincy and the attendant did the same.

“The venom…will it harm her?” the brunette asked quietly.

Eidan finally looked at her.  “If she suh-vive wrath o’ goddess, than venom no worry t’her.”  With that, he stood and went outside.

Quincy watched him go, and the attendant sighed, rubbing the back of his neck.  He looked at the woman sidelong.  “I am Merid.  Eidan is my father.  He…” the man smiled sheepishly, and lots of lines appeared about his eyes revealing the age his smooth face kept hidden.  “He isn’t given to nonsense.”

The woman screwed up her mouth and crossed her arms. “So I’ve seen.”

Merid nodded at Elmiryn.  “My father has only seen this twice before.  Most who deny the gods have their hearts explode in their chests upon the first denial.  To survive in defiance of heaven is the mark of someone…otherworldy.

“What others have done this?”

“A young boy–stupid and arrogant.  He thought the world didn’t need the gods.  He thought he could live free of their will and be his own man.  Upon the first declaration of this feeling, he died outright.  Then there was the Legend, Kati.  He was once Artemis’s champion.  He…was my father’s great grandfather.”

Quincy’s eyebrows rose.  “And what became of him?”

“He survived…but ceased to be a champion.  He left our village in exile and shame.”

“But isn’t it a sign of someone strong to be able to live through such an ordeal?”

Merid scowled.  “Just because one is strong does not mean he is entitled to everything.  Many of our leaders could be beat through brute strength alone.  It is the mind and spirit we cherish, and the body comes after that.”

Quincy held up her hands.  “I didn’t mean offense.”

The man stared at her long and hard for a moment, before he smiled gently.  “No.  I suppose not.”  He thumbed over his shoulder.  “My father goes to gather more supplies.  Would you help him?  I’ll stay and watch your friend.”

“What’ll happen to her now?  What can we expect?”

Merid shrugged, his gray eyes turned down.  “There’s no telling.  Kati was a champion, and walked away fine.  But your friend?  I cannot say for certain whether or not she will come out of this whole.”

Quincy nodded, her grim expression returning.  With one last look at Elmiryn, she followed Eidan outside.

Stupid Fiamman…why couldn’t you just keep your big fat mouth shut for once!?

NYX____________________________

I had some practice running quickly through wooded areas, but I was unfamiliar with the lay of this land, and even in my low-light vision, details did not come readily enough for me to keep from stumbling now and again.  I only just managed to keep up with the others.  Hakeem, even in his young state, was remarkably fast.

My guess is that we ran for a quarter of a mile before the sounds of screaming and horror reached us.  Even before we came upon the break in the trees, I knew that we had come too late.

Before us, trees had been felled, the earth churned as the roots had been torn out.  Nymphs in the trees wailed at the sight of their fallen brethren.  Those on the ground stared numbly at their destroyed homes, their faces pale as their life force slowly dissipated from them in a rise of small glowing emerald orbs.

Blood sprayed everything.  The color was dark in the night, but its nature was unmistakable.  Mangled bodies were strewn about the destruction, deathly pieces that screamed and gurgled up at the sky.  I counted five people total, one of which was torn in half, his entrails trailing from his mangled torso.  I wasn’t sure if there were more, if the beast had stolen them away into the night to feast in private.  There certainly was a crowd gathering of those who had answered the call.  Many broke off to pursue the monster.  Many more remained still.

The sight of the gore…the mayhem…the wailing Lycans…

My knees grew weak and I leaned on a tree for support, breathing harshly through my nose.  Big mistake.  The blood, the rancid taint of the beast–like rotten flesh and old bile–filled my senses.  A wave of nausea surged through me, and I covered my mouth, trying to find that steeliness that Lacertli would no doubt demand of me.

My eyes clouded as I wretched over the ferns.

The earth beneath my feet was nothing but mud and blood.  It seeped through my toes, staining my skin.  I could see the maggots squirming around me.  I felt numbed, time and space compressing into a thick fold that echoed with the muffled screams of the soldiers.  Tears streamed down my cold face, my breath just a phantom that took my spirit with every exhale.  Around me lay bodies, hacked and bloodied.  Only the Fiammans screamed, clutching at bloody stumps and open wounds.  The felled Ailurans were all dead, heads cut off, hearts blown away, or spines severed.  I peered into these faces anxiously, trying to see if Thaddeus were among their number.

The numbness ebbed as panic began to set in.

“Koen!” I screamed, not thinking clear enough to realize that perhaps a proper name would have been more effective.  For me, Thaddeus was Koen, nothing more. “Koen, where are you!?”

I cried out as I tripped and fell, my eyes fastening onto the face of a dying Fiamman.  He bared bloody teeth at me, his eyes holding a delirious rage.  He reached for me with clawing hands, and I scrambled away, only to find a rough pair of hands drag me up.

Thaddeus glared down at me, his face pulled long in shock and his brow knitted.  “Gods!  Koah what are you doing here!?”

I was a stuttering mess.  “Ko-Koen!  I–I–I wanted, wanted–” I broke off, sobbing.  Why had I come?  Because I hated saying goodbye to Thaddeus every year?  Because I was tired of caring for our family alone?  Because Killen had dared me to?  “I don’t know!” I wailed, clutching at him.  “I just want to go home!”

The battle was winding down.  The Fiammans were calling for a retreat.  The cannon blasts ceased, and there were fresh screams as those who tried to fall back were cut down.  There was no cheer from the Ailurans left standing.  Thaddeus held me, his face contorted in anger–for me being there, for me seeing it all–and his hands clutched at me as I did to him.  Desperate.  Trying to find some sort of solace.  

But there was none.

“Koah, I’ll take you home.”

I had been eleven years old when I saw my first battlefield.  The memory always haunted me.  I knew better than perhaps anyone in my village what kind of ‘glory’ the children of Aelurus were finding in the war.  In another three years, I lost Thaddeus to that horror.  I vowed to keep Atalo from such a fate, only to find that…

…The dark things, they never truly leave us.

My eyes widened and my stomach stabbed with pain as my anxiety reached a new height.  The Twin’s voice faded from my head, but the truth of her words felt taunting somehow.  What did it have to do with everything I was seeing now?

Hakeem came at my side and laid a hand on my arm.  I glanced at him sharply and he pulled back, his gaze on the dark scene before us.

“The hunt is done for tonight,” he said somberly.  “The others have gone in the hopes of finding the beast again, but the chances of that are slim.  It is only discovered when it wishes to be, and now that it has its daily prize, it will not be coaxed from hiding.”

I frowned a little at him.  Upon meeting Hakeem, I found that he could be incredibly stoic.  Then, I thought he was a cold man with only an interest in profit.  Looking at him now, I saw…a warmth in his gaze.  He felt connected to these Lycans.  But more than that, right there and then, I saw his boundaries slip away long enough to recognize a familiar feeling.

Pain…loss

I swallowed and swiped at my eyes, feeling a hollow pride at having kept my tears in check.  “Are we going back?”

He nodded, his dark gaze returning to me.  “I don’t think I have to tell you to step lightly around Sanuye.”

I chuckled darkly.  “I will step lightly, while she will stomp heavily…onto me.”

“You really ought to give them more credit,” Hakeem admonished.

“Like the credit they give me?”

The wizard shrugged, walking away.  “Your shadow reflects your position.  Change your stance, and the shadow will shift.”

I stared after him as he made his way back to our party.  Sanuye was talking with Gudahi and Makka.  Her eyes flickered my way, and she motioned for me to join them.  Other parties had taken up the task of helping the nymphs and retrieving the bodies.  The rest began the return home.

Through sheer will, I managed to look on the scene once more.  Hakeem talked of shifting shadows.

…But could you have shadows in utter darkness?


Back to Chapter 28.2 | Forward to Chapter 29.1

Chapter 28.2

HAKEEM_________________________

They were outside of his borrowed hut, sitting on overturned baskets with their forms hunched toward each other as they conversed in secret.  There were enough bilingual Lycans in the village to warrant caution, and given what he’d just heard, it was not without reason.  Hakeem stared at Quincy to Sedwick and back.  He’d heard and seen a lot of things in his years (or, at the moment, lack thereof), and yet this seemed almost too much.

“Nyx is a champion?” he repeated quietly.

Quincy and Sedwick nodded mutely.

“And Elmiryn is turning into a…fae?”

Again, they nodded.

He rubbed at his face and thought.  After a moment, he leaned back and said, “The timing seems curious.”

Quincy and Sedwick exchanged confused looks.

Taika, what do you mean?” his wife asked.

He shrugged and thumbed over his shoulder at Nyx.  “I mean, doesn’t it seem a bit coincidental that both of these women seem to be ascending the average mortal station at the same time?”

They pondered on this.

“Nyx said she was the champion of Lacertli, the god of natural order.  I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with him,” Sedwick said.

“The Lizard King.” Hakeem scratched at his knee, leaving the dark skin ashy.  His companions stared at him, and he looked at them both, his finger stilling.  “What?”

You know who Lacertli is?” Quincy asked, sounding not a little surprised.

He frowned at her.  “You aren’t the only one who reads, Mweze.”

She blushed and gave him a pout. “I’m not trying to remark on your intelligence!  It just seems that no one knows who this god actually is!”

“Well, as Sedwick said, he’s the god of natural order.  Fanaeans were some of his last followers before the rise of civilization saw them doing away with the old ways.  With the advance of medicine and weapons and complex architecture, a god whose primary domain was survivability in the wild seemed less relevant.  These days, it’s easy to survive so long as you live a quiet life.  Unlike us, most people do.”

“Is there anything else you know about him?”

“Well, he’s also known as the Dreamwalker.  It’s said that survivability comes with wisdom, and wisdom is the ability to be creative and see the truth in things from different angles.  In Fanaean culture, the shadows are said to be the borders of dreams, and controlling these can lead to new realities.”

Quincy nudged Sedwick.  “I thought I saw some strange shadows across the ground when we were fighting Tonatiuh.  I couldn’t make out what they belonged to.  Was that Nyx’s doing?”

The elemental held up his hands.  “I didn’t really see either.”

Hakeem raised an eyebrow. “You two don’t know what her powers are?”

His wife screwed up her mouth.  “There was a massive battle we had not long ago.  So much was going on that it was hard to keep track of.”

The man-boy held out his hands.  “That aside, the things I’ve read about Lacertli were contained within a footnote.  But from that small paragraph, I know that he was seen as arbiter in nature’s harmony.  The fae were creatures who bit their thumbs at harmony, choosing to create their own rules out of whimsy.  If Elmiryn is truly becoming a fae, then he will want to keep a close eye on her.”

“So he chose Nyx as his champion to better position himself against Elmiryn?”

Hakeem held up a finger. “Or the one who cursed Elmiryn.”

“Meznik,” Sedwick said with a frown.

“Possibly.”

“There’s lots of possibilities, but all this conjecture hardly gives us the means to seek out the truth.”  Quincy stood with a rough sigh.  “It wouldn’t hurt to talk to Nyx about her new station.  Maybe learning about one thing will give insight to the other?  I’ve tried asking Elmiryn for answers, and yet I still feel like she isn’t being entirely forthcoming.”

“I feel the same way,” Sedwick said.  “But to be fair, maybe she doesn’t understand it entirely herself?  Her main source of information is the one who caused her misfortune to begin with.  That’s shaky grounds to trust, no matter how you look at it.”

“I hardly think he’s the cause of all of her misfortune…” Quincy muttered.

She squinted her eyes as something caught her attention down the trail.  They widened as her face went slack.  “Speaking of which…”

Hakeem and Sedwick followed her gaze to see a certain redhead being carried into Eidan’s hut.

“You don’t think Artemis…did anything to her, did she?”  Sedwick asked, looking at them all.

“Only if Elmiryn kept her mouth from escaping her,” Hakeem murmured.

They all exchanged grave looks.

Just then, the war horn sounded.  It echoed throughout the village.

Hakeem shook his head.  “Tai’undu…that’s the call for the hunt.  Everyone is going to gather at the northern part of the village.”

“What about Nyx?” Sedwick said, looking into the hut.  “She’s still out.”

Quincy rummaged through her pouch and pulled out a small vial of white smelling salts.  “These should wake her.”

“Maybe we should leave her?” Hakeem said with a frown.

His wife shook her head. “Artemis said that she’d help us leave this shard only if all of us participate in the hunt.  I’ve been given pardon as Eidan requires my assistance.  Elmiryn clearly can’t participate.  Nyx, however, has no valid reason to stay here.”

Sedwick’s brows pressed up to wrinkle his forehead. “She might not see things so reasonably, especially if she hears where Elmiryn is…”

“What if I was the one to wake her?” Hakeem said.

They both looked at him, surprised.

Quincy fidgeted uncomfortably.  “But…Taika.  If she really wanted to, she could blow right past you.”  She gestured weakly at his small form.

Hakeem shook his head. “Not if I reason with her.”

“No offense, but you don’t even know her that well,” Sedwick argued gently.  He crossed his arms.  “She’ll have only one thing on her mind.”

Hakeem nodded.  “I know.  But I’m counting on all those things.”  He jabbed his thumb at himself.  “I’m the most impartial out of all of you, and I have the least reason to want to deceive her.  If she’s really going to be so singleminded, then I can use that logic to turn her determination toward the hunt.”

A group of Lycans rushed past them, streaks of white on their faces and spears in their hands.  They bared their teeth as they passed, growling and howling.  The village became a different thing once the warriors were on the move.  The aggression that had so bubbled near the surface rose for all to see, bearing forth their ferocity.

They watched as the warriors passed.  Then Quincy sighed and tossed Hakeem the salts.  He caught them with one hand.

“I suppose you’d better get to it, Taika.  They’ll be arranging the hunting parties soon.”  She turned to Sedwick.  “Let’s get going.”

Sedwick gave a nod.  “I’ll see you when we get back.  I wanna see how Elmiryn’s doing.”

Hakeem watched as his companions went off to their respective destinations.  When they were no longer visible amidst the surge of Lycans, he looked at the salts in his hand, then the hut.

Gripping the vial, Hakeem pulled back the curtain and peeked inside.  Nyx hadn’t moved since Sedwick had first laid her down, but her chest rose in small increments.  In a way she looked almost peaceful.  It seemed cruel to launch her back into anxiety and struggle.

The wizard sat on the edge of the bed and sighed.  He fingered the vial’s cork a moment before he pulled it out.  Turning, he held the salts under the Ailuran’s nose.

Her eyelids fluttered, and in the next instant she sat up with a loud gulping breath.  She nearly knocked the vial out of Hakeem’s hands, her legs kicking as if resuming their previous struggle.  Hakeem had read that therians reacted strongly to salts because of their sensitive smell.  But given the way she clocked his ear, the texts really understated it, in his opinion.

Nyx looked wildly around her, still gasping and clutching at her chest.  Hakeem jumped away and held out his hands.

“You’re okay,” he said in what he hoped to be a soothing voice.  It occurred to him that he didn’t have much practice in that regard.  “You’re back in my hut.”

“Wh-What? But–I–” Nyx stared at him, then down at her legs.  Her hands bunched the fur blankets in white grips.  “I was…”

“The fight,” Hakeem supplied.

Fear flashed across her face.  “Elle!” she clumsily made to stand.

Hakeem grabbed her by the shoulders, pulling her back to eye level.  “Nyx, listen to me.  She’s fine.  The match ended in a stalemate.  She’s being tended to now.”

Her eyes lit up with relief, and she grabbed him by the shoulders in kind, her grip tight with the release of all her stress.  Then this look slowly melted into a hard determination.  “Well then I’ve got to see her!”

Hakeem shook his head.  “The hunt has started.  As I understand it, you have an obligation to particpate.”

“I promised her I’d always be at her side!” Nyx knocked his hands away and stood.  She managed to step off the bed, before Hakeem danced in her way.

“You have an obligation, Nyx!  Elmiryn used her new fae powers to keep from getting killed, and it has earned Artemis’s fury.  By denying the goddess your promise, you endanger Elmiryn.”  He pointed up at the girl’s face.  “Also, I know what you are.  As a champion of Lacertli, don’t you think you ought to be upholding your patron’s values?  The beast that stalks these forests disrupts Harmony.  He won’t be happy to hear of your negligence.”

Nyx glared down at him, her face twitching.  The real sign of his victory, however, came in the way frustration welled in her gaze.  Common sense and duty were in conflict with the very thing her heart wished for.  He knew the feeling.

Lowering his eyes, he sighed and said, “Nyx, I don’t like saying these things.  But you know they are true.”

They stood silent, the hut curtain stirred by those rushing outside.  Shadows flashed about their ankles where the emerald light laid its mark upon the ground.  The Ailuran’s eyes narrowed, and she wiped furiously to catch the tears before they could fall.  She shifted her weight onto the ball of her right foot, digging it into the soil.  Her hands tensed to claws at her sides as her expression turned tight.  Hakeem braced himself in case she decided to lunge at him…

Finally, Nyx whispered, “I don’t understand you at all.”

Hakeem shrugged one shoulder, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.  He spared a glance over his shoulder before fixing the girl with a sideways gaze.  He said out of the corner of his mouth. “Do you really want to understand?”

The girl’s eyebrows rose high.

The wizard planted his feet beneath his shoulders and crossed his arms.  He felt almost like himself—the dark, broad-shouldered sentinel, spiced with just a little arrogance and a great deal of indifference.  “Understanding…goes both ways, ikati.  I’ve already told you why I show you my generosity…but if you wish to understand me, you would have to earn something else.”

When he didn’t continue, the Ailuran scratched her head, her eyes flickering elsewhere a moment before she looked at him again, almost shyly, and asked, “What’s that?”

“My complete and absolute trust.  As much as I appreciate what you and you’re friends have done to restore Quincy, that still doesn’t speak of who you are as individuals.  In strange ways, I have an idea of what to expect from the Fiamman.  But what can I expect from you?  I have no idea where you come from…though I may have a few guesses as to how you got here.”  His head tilted back and his eyes narrowed a fraction.  “You’re an outcast, aren’t you?  I can think of no other reason an Ailuran may be able to stomach the company of their hated enemy.”

Hakeem could see Nyx’s skin go pale, even in the dim lighting.

He held up a placating hand.  “Stay at ease, Nyx.  I have no right to judge.  I only need to know if you’re past is a distant thing…or a present reality.”  He took a step back toward the curtain, then another.  “I cannot trust those that are led solely by their heads or their hearts.  I am open to understanding you.  Hunt with us tonight, and survive.  If a bridge can be built, than I say we shall build it.  Otherwise, my kindness will remain a distant thing, and you will be left to your confusion.”

With an abrupt turn of his body, he marched out of the hut.  He had said what he could, and now he couldn’t entertain the girl’s plight any longer.  There were other more important things to deal with…

…Which was why Hakeem smirked to hear Nyx hurrying after him.

NYX____________________________

Sweet Aelurus, the positions I find myself in!

All I wanted was to see Elmiryn with my own eyes, to feel her heartbeat, to know that she wasn’t going to wake from a nightmare and not find me there, waiting.  But Hakeem was right.  There were other things to attend to first…like my promise to Artemis.

I felt a chill, thinking of how the goddess may have looked upon seeing Elmiryn use her strange new powers.

Listen to me!  Elmiryn?  Powers?  Gods!

Wasn’t it just a little under a month ago when we first met?  Things were so much simpler then!  These days, I felt like we couldn’t take a step without the threat of powerful beings snapping us in half.  It was enough to drive a person insane, and in the cases of some, we were quite far along that road already.

As I followed Hakeem through the thickening crowds, I finally saw where everyone was gathering.

Clumped together in hunting parties, with many more waiting to be assigned, were powerful Lycan warriors.  Men–and women–of all different shapes and sizes gathered with their traditional weapons.  Many were painted in colored grease paint, the colors of war that marked their tribe.  It seemed like so much for just one beast, but seeing how this creature had hurt these people so, perhaps I just couldn’t fathom the truth of what I was getting into.

I stopped just a little behind Hakeem, who was looking around the area.  I felt timid and vexed by him at the same time.

“Where do I go?” I mumbled.

“Follow me.”  He didn’t look at me, his eyes intent as he searched the crowds.

As he tried to spot whatever it was he was looking for, I did my best to look inconspicuous.  In my favor, the heightened energy served to drown out my presence, as everyone present was more concerned with forming their hunting parties.  For the most part, I went unnoticed, but those that did see me paused to fix me with a curious look.  I mirrored it, but for only an instant.  Prolonged staring was one of the things I was supposed to be avoiding.

Hakeem seemed to see what he wanted, and with a jerk of his head, he led me to a small group of Lycans preparing near the forest’s edge.  There were three of them.  Two men and a woman.  The men milled about near the trees, while the woman sat on a rock sharpening a spear closer toward the village.

The wizard greeted them in their Lycan tongue, then turned to me. “This is Nyx, one of the newcomers.  She needs to be placed.”

The Lycan woman stood and stepped forward.  I was surprised to find that I recognized her.  She was the one who had told me to fetch Elmiryn from the ring after the first round of the fight.  Now that all the hysteria of that time was gone, I took in her whole appearance.

She was not much taller than me—perhaps an inch or so—and had wavy, shoulder-length dark hair.  Her narrow face now had on streaks of green and black paint that made her green eyes seem even brighter.  Her arms were exposed, revealing the lean muscles of her body.  She wore a dark leather vest with a v-neck and a pair of suede pants stopping mid-calf.  Her feet were bare, but around her right ankle was a small strip where a rabbit’s foot dangled.

She looked me up and down, then looked at Hakeem.  In the same thick accent as before, she said, “I am lead while Halian out.  I say she may run with us tonight.” She pulled a sheathed dagger from behind her, and tossed it to Hakeem.  With that, she went back to her place, resuming her spear sharpening without lifting her eyes.  She seemed upset about something and didn’t look like she wanted to be bothered by anything silly.  Like me, for instance.

Hakeem checked the dagger before giving a nod at me.  “So you’re with our party.”

I held up my hands, an anxious look on my face.  “I don’t know what I’m doing!”

“Ailurans don’t hunt in groups?”

“We did, but…not like this.  It was always more for sport, then.”

The man gave me a penetrating look.  Then asked, “And when you left your people?”

I immediately tensed, my shoulders coming up around my ears.  Then I remembered my surroundings and took a deep breath.  My shoulders eased back down.  With difficulty, I answered him.  “It was…for survival.  Even then I…was never very good at it.”

Hakeem waved the issue away.  “We’ll explain the hunting formations to you.  They aren’t all that difficult.” He nodded at each of the Lycans in our group.  “The tall one with the short spiky hair is Makka.  He doesn’t speak any Common, but he doesn’t say much to begin with.  His brother was one of the first to die at the hands of the beast.  The long-haired fellow next to him is Gudahi.  He’s very fluent in Common as he’s often visited Gamath and the Fiamman trading posts for outside goods.  Our leader tonight is Sanuye.”  He beckoned for me to come closer, and I bowed low to hear.  Hakeem leaned in to whisper, “Sanuye is displeased, so just stay close to me, or Gudahi, okay?  He’s a goodnatured man, and will probably take delight in thinking he’s ‘protecting’ an Ailuran.  Don’t take offense if he flirts with you a bit.  He flirts with everyone, and doesn’t mean half the things he says.”  

The last comment made me blink, but I nodded anyway. “Okay.  But why is Sanuye mad?  Do you know?”

Hakeem shrugged.  “My guess is that she’s unhappy with Halian’s absence.”

“Why is he gone?  He didn’t get hurt like Elmiryn did, and he would have healed those wounds by now anyway!”

“Nyx, you didn’t see because you were unconscious.”  Hakeem’s voice dropped even lower, and I frowned as I strained to hear him.  “Halian was going to kill Elmiryn after the final horn was blown.  Artemis had to step in.  That sort of intervention takes its toll on the mortal soul, no matter the species.  The man is just a shivering mute right now.  He’s in Eidan’s hut along with Elmiryn.”

I frowned as I recalled the goddess’s words…

I would gladly take to arms for my children.  But there is no way I can fight without harming them all.

Hakeem turned and called Gudahi over.  The man looked up from his conversation with Makka, then grinned right at me, making me blush and look away.  He sauntered over, Makka in tow.

Gudahi was much taller than his companion, and his long dark hair was silky and had one braided bang.  His face had less war paint then his companions, and rather than taking all the village colors, he only painted on thin lines of white, with dots around his eyes.  The designs made him less fierce, and more…beautiful, I suppose is the best word.  That isn’t to say he was androgynous, but he was clearly the sort that young girls would fawn over without end.

Makka looked a great deal more somber, his chin bold and with a small cleft. His face was a dark mask of black and green with a white X crossing from temple to jaw.  He slouched around Gudahi, but stared intently into my face.  Just as with the other man, I tried to keep from looking at him too long.

Gudahi lightly touched a fist to his breast.  “Hakeem.  Ua-kita!  Look at the present you have brought me!  I’ve always wanted a kitten.”  I tried not to tense at that.  I knew it was just the age-old rivalry at work, and if Hakeem’s words were true, then there was likely going to be some innuendo from this man as well.

He reached over and took a lock of my hair, then traced my jaw with his finger.  My face flinched, but I fought not to move away.  Dominant behavior involved a lot of touching, and from the looks of things, Gudahi was Sanuye’s second in command.  That meant denying him this small contact could be misinterpreted.

…This was all conjecture, of course.  I only had one night’s worth of observation to go off of.  Perhaps there was a line that even dominant Lycans were not meant to cross, giving submissives certain rights?  I didn’t know.

“She’s pretty.  I’ll keep her,” Gudahi announced jovially.  He had a light accent, but his words flowed along more fluently than Sanuye’s.

Hakeem sounded weary, but like me, he kept his shoulders relaxed and his eyes from staring too long into the Lycan’s face.  “Please, Gudahi.  I just wanted to ask you for help in explaining our formations to Nyx.”

The man laughed.  “I can show her a few positions!”

I blushed deeper, and despite my best efforts, my shoulders hitched up half-an-inch.

Formations.” Hakeem corrected firmly.

The Lycan was unfazed.  “Well, when the little prince becomes a big prince, will he promise to leave his shimá for me?”

Hakeem only sighed heavily, his eyes rolling at his feet.

Gudahi laughed and rubbed the wizard’s head.  “Hmmm…I’m a patient hunter.  Very well.  I will do this thing for you, akis.  But I expect a reward!” He took my chin and lifted my gaze, then he winked at me.  “From the both of you!”

Now I wanted to roll my eyes.  This man wasn’t just a flirt…he was a whore.

He clapped his hands together.  “Okay!  First, Nyx, you must understand our purpose.  We are the ta’ia, or the first runners.  Our purpose is to scout ahead, then call to the other parties once we have found our mark.  We do this through a series of howls that tell the others how to position themselves.  Since the beast moves ceaselessly, our job is the hardest.  We have to attack without aid, just to keep the creature still long enough for help to arrive.”

I felt a chill go over my skin.  Somehow I knew it’d be something like this.

Gudahi squatted down and motioned for us to follow him.  We did so, and using his thumb, he began to draw things into the dirt. “Now, here is how our formation works…”

Some minutes passed as things were explained to me.  I was still nervous about it all, but with practice I had a feeling I’d learn it better.  But could we afford that tonight?  Would Sanuye get angry with me if I messed up?

A horn was blown, this one deeper and louder than the one used for the fight.  Gudahi stopped mid-sentence and looked up.  Sanuye was on her feet and approached us, a frown on her face.

“The hunt has begun,” she growled.  “We move now!”

Gudahi patted my shoulder, his eyes fixing onto mine before I turned my gaze downward.  “Now my pet, get into form as I showed you!”

I nodded, falling in behind the man as our group moved into the forest.  Other ta’ia‘s were moving out as well, though they were spread apart to cover more ground.  Our group began to fan out in a wide V-shaped formation, and I did my best to keep my position as I was shown.  Starting with me on the right, the order going left was Gudahi, Hakeem, Sanuye, and Makka.

As we moved out into the forest, the emerald light left us, and the shadows seemed to take us whole.  I stepped carefully over the uneven terrain, my eyes adjusting to the dark but my feet still unaccustomed to the lay of the land.  Now and again, I saw eyes peering at us from the branches, and wondered what aid the nymphs could provide here.  I’d never seen healthy nymphs before, my only experience being with those of the Kreut Forest.

The hunt was very quiet at first, and I recalled my hunt of the pretas, knowing that somehow this uneventfulness could not last.

Sanuye would call for our halt now and again, and like my Lycan companions, I crouched low and put nose to the wind, trying to pick up a scent that could belong to the dark beast.  I sensed nothing.

Soon minutes turned to hours.

I was getting tired from the lack of action.  My nap with Elmiryn was not nearly enough rest for me after all the time that had passed.  When one stopped to think on it, I had been awake nearly three days with hardly any rest.  It was astonishing what fear and adrenaline could do for you.

And it was fear that I felt, when I heard something padding over the ground at a quick pace.

I let out a low hiss, and Gudahi looked my way.  With a stiff nod from me, he turned and called to the others in his native tongue.  All paused and crouched low.  Again, the sound of movement came, closer this time, and I knew the others heard it.

“The beast…” I whispered fearfully.

Gudahi asked Sanuye something in Lycan, and she responded to him tersely in what seemed to be a negative.  The sound grew closer still.  I could make out claws cutting over wood and rock now.  I lifted my nose to the air and tried to catch a scent.  Something entered my senses…

…And my insides turned cold.

Sanuye growled low. “That scent–!”

“It’s familiar,” Gudahi said.  “It…it belongs to…”

Ahead of us, a dark shape appeared, and it charged for us.  It was the size of a very large dog, and its form loped over the earth with grace.

Sanuye bared her teeth and stood, brandishing her spear.  Makka already had his hands shifted to claws, his look fierce.  Hakeem held out his dagger, his body taking on a fighting stance.  Gudahi brandished his own spear as he stood to his feet.

I jumped in front of them all.  “No! Don’t!”

Hakeem stared at me.  “Nyx, what are you doing!?”

“Get out of the way!” Sanuye barked.

“No!  You don’t understand!  The scent is mine!” I screamed.

Everyone stared at me.  Gudahi’s spear tip slowly lowered.  “Artemis ika lena!  She speaks the truth!” his face was long with shock.

I heard the beast slide to a stop behind me, and with eyes closed, I slowly turned.  I breathed in deep through my nose, trying to calm my rambunctious heart.  History saw fit to repeat itself, as the confusion of my life had led me to forget my greatest obstacle yet again…

A dark voice spoke to me.  “Ah.  Nyx.  I could smell your fear from a long ways off.  I just had to come see.”

I opened my eyes and greeted my Twin, my voice reflecting her lack of warmth.

“Hello…sister.”


Back to Chapter 28.1 | Forward to Chapter 28.3

Chapter 28.1

HAKEEM_________________________

If he traced the ways of his life with a finger, he was certain it would be as a river, branching off in wild directions, untamed save for the pull of the universe.  At the beginning, the line would be straight and singular and bold, entertaining no splits in motive or consequence.  But upon the moment he became a true wizard, upon the moment he gained his temporal chain mail, that all changed.  Suddenly it was a series of decisions and resets that cut across his existence like claws, telling him he was never going to get it right the first time.

…And yet, amidst the struggle, there was always that glow.  That pull of light that kept things going.

He could feel his wife’s presence at his side.

But this wasn’t the time for inward musing.  The wizard returned his attention to the matters at hand.

They took Nyx back to the hut Hakeem had been using.  Sedwick carried the young Ailuran, her head lolling in the crook of his arm.  Her eyes were shut and her expression lax, void of that fury that had so gripped her not long ago.  Void of that need to save her friend.  No…her lover.  He could hear it in the girl’s voice, as if she were clearly saying it herself. His ears had turned warm, tickled by a knowing that spoke of something…lacedwith power.

Given all this, he could understand the girl’s reaction upon seeing Halian shapeshift.  If it were Quincy in the ring, left with nothing but her fists and her wits, he’d be running in there himself, Lycan tradition or no.  But Elmiryn had managed to defend herself until the last.  She seemed to use a sort of force to keep Halian back.  Whatever the warrior had done, Hakeem sensed no magic…or at least, none that he had been trained to notice.

More and more, Nyx and Elmiryn were proving quite a strange pair.

The man-boy led them through the village with his wife at his side, the elemental trailing behind them.  The Lycans were slow to disperse, but there were some that had taken to following them at a distance.  They whispered excitedly, their eyes wide.  It was Elmiryn who had won the battle, but it was the group of outsiders who had collectively rocked the village.  The news would no doubt spread to the neighboring villages of the redheaded warrior who stood toe-to-toe with one of their best, and her bizarre group of comrades.

Comrades…was that what they were now?

Hakeem had in fact noticed an odd sort of connection, particularly between Elmiryn, Quincy, and Sedwick.  It wasn’t perfect and by no means smooth, but it followed a pattern of exchange that gave each person a defined role.  The clash he’d seen was not new to them.  But Nyx was not yet a part of this dynamic, and her presence seemed to add a new level of complication to the dynamic.

It was no secret that the Ailuran didn’t like Quincy.  While he would have defended his wife to the death, the wizard also knew when the woman stuck her foot in her mouth.  It was an old trait from her youth, and seeing it again had, in a bizarre turn, made him even more grateful to the others.  They were reawakening the woman he had originally fallen in love with.

If only he could turn back time enough to undo his loss in age.

In his new state of youth, Hakeem found that he could not use his arcane armor.  In order to go back in time, he had to be able to assume that particular place in time. If he was restrained, if he was missing limbs, if he was in a drastically different state of health—then that place in time would reject him.  The wizard didn’t just go back to that time period as a future self versus his past self.  He became his past self, preserving the continuum of time whilst accomplishing what many only dreamed of doing.  As a child, he could not assume the role of a man.  He was a different person, and felt that acutely.

His time with the Lycans had given him something, and he was hard pressed to give it back.  People could be trusted, even the thorniest and the wild of them, and he meant to show his gratitude in as many ways as he could.

And yet there were present obstacles that still needed addressing.

“I worry for your friend.  Artemis’s attention does not come lightly,” Hakeem said.

“She’s a thick skin,” Sedwick said from behind.  “If she just keeps her tongue from escaping her, then she’ll be fine.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Quincy muttered.

“There’s not much we can do, anyway…” The elemental sighed.

It was true, so Hakeem moved on.

The wizard looked at his wife and said in Fanaean, “You seem out of sorts.”

Quincy looked dolefully at the sky.  “I miss the suns,” she said in his native tongue. “This Other Place keeps them hidden from us.”

“Maybe we just need to look harder.”

“My eyes are tired from searching.”

Hakeem reached out and brushed the back of his hand against hers.  She looked at him, her azure eyes alight, and he smiled.  “You have their brilliance inside you, Mweze.”

“Then perhaps I should remove myself, lest I scorch the goodwill about us.”

“You’re talking of the little spat you had?”

The wizard sucked at her teeth, a sour look coming over her features. “I’ll not apologize.  It was something that needed saying.”

“I was not going to ask for that.  I’d just like to know how you feel about it.  It seems to have upset you in ways beyond the issue at hand.”

Quincy glanced back at Sedwick, and Hakeem did the same.  The elemental locked eyes with them and spared a small smile before looking away.  His wife returned her gaze to him, her lips turned down at the corners.  “I always thought queer folk to be…strange, in a discomforting way,” she muttered out of the corner of her mouth.  She shrugged.  “In the end, I find it doesn’t bother me quite as much as I’d thought.  I don’t feel like shouting them down, anyway.  But…it still isn’t normal, is it?  It seems the thorniest way to love.” Now she blushed, crossing her arms and pouting a lip.  She debated what to say next, then started in suddenly with, “Elmiryn is a mama’s girl, like any other Sibesonan.  But say one foul thing against her mother, and she doesn’t just get mad, she gets practically murderous.”

When the woman didn’t continue, Hakeem prodded her gently.  “Mweze?”

Quincy released a breath of air she’d been holding.  She rubbed her brow and looked at Hakeem sidelong.  “That anger?  I felt it again after speaking to Nyx as I did.  Either the warrior is just really infatuated, or I’ve misread things.”

Hakeem chuckled.  “Quincy, you can only garner so much watching others from afar.  I’ve been trying to tell you that for years.”

The woman’s pout increased.  “I’m pretty good at it…” she mumbled.

The man-boy shrugged.  “Your insight has afforded you a view that others so close may not have seen, but now that you yourself are close to the people you observe, maybe you should consider switching your tactics?”  He looked at her, a glint of mischief in his eyes. “Perhaps by first gaining some.”

She huffed, swatting at his shoulder.  “I have tact!  I have all the tact in the world!”

Hakeem just laughed, letting the sound go unrestrained so that it reached up into the skies.

Quincy pointed a punitive finger his way.  “I think this new state has warped your senses!”

The wizard just smirked at her.  “You mean, I’m acting like a child.”

The woman blushed a deep red. “Th-That wasn’t what–”

“Mweze.  Please.  For the love of the gods.  Relax.”

They were nearly there.  Perhaps they could have walked faster than the leisurely stroll they moved by, but Sedwick didn’t seem to mind.  Quincy chewed on her tongue, her gaze holding fire as she looked around at everything but Hakeem.

Suddenly, she blurt out, “I don’t hate that they’re together.”

The man-boy looked at her with brow raised, but kept silent.

The brunette continued, looking increasingly flustered. “It’s just…it’s…it’s been so long since we’ve had that.  Why should they, with their backwards love, have it better than us?  I guess I just wanted to start some waves.”

“Mweze, as Sedwick said, your point was valid.  It was your motive and approach that was wrong.  If you know now that you were speaking out of envy, then perhaps that is something to look out for in the future.”

She sighed and nodded.  “You’re right.  I’ve been having trouble getting too emotional about things, and now I’m letting those feelings rule me.”  Quincy rubbed at her face.  “After Tonatiuh went, it was like…a fire had been growing inside me, and I hadn’t even been aware of it.”

“Then I will battle the flames with you, Mweze.”

She said nothing to this, and the wizard left her to her musings.

They came to the hut, and Sedwick laid Nyx down on the blankets.  The elemental turned to them as he straightened.

“She won’t be happy when she wakes,” he said quietly.

Quincy rolled her eyes. “She’ll get over it.  Elmiryn isn’t dead, that lucky idiot.”

As they exited the hut, Hakeem asked, “Can someone please explain to me what’s going on with those two women?  Nyx has something strange in her voice, and Elmiryn can apparently create barriers out of nothing.”

The others exchanged looks.  Quincy looked at him tiredly.  “Do you want the long, or the short version?”

“Short version, I suppose.”

“Too bad,” The woman said with a dry laugh. “There is no such thing!”

ELMIRYN________________________

Divine intervention was one of the things Elmiryn never thought she’d see…and yet, wasn’t that exactly what had happened?

There, in her billowy shroud, standing tall and ethereal with a fury too beautiful to name, was Artemis, holding back the beast that would have brought about an early death if only the incense sticks burned a little slower…

It sounded so poetic that way.  But as the warrior was scooped up like a child in the arms of the goddess, she decided that things weren’t quite so rosy.  Rolling off of the Huntress were thick waves of power, hot and disconcerting in their intensity, and flashing in the woman’s silver eyes was anything but kindness.  Elmiryn met this terrible fierceness with an ignorance she was aware of, and had no idea how to overcome.  It was as a child who met something so alien in its gravity that all one could do was wonder at the why and how of it.

With barely any effort, Artemis leapt up into the sky, and in a fashion that didn’t seem in keeping with gravity, she managed to slip in through the window of the tree house with barely a startled hair.  Elmiryn’s stomach lurched in her gut.

They are alien.

The gods, I mean.

Meznik’s melodic voice came in softer than usual, and the warrior thought it had something to do with caution.  Could the demon really avoid the attention of an almighty god?

That is why you feel as you do.

To understand them, is to be them.

Artemis set her down on the floor and resumed her perch gazing out at the forests.  Her eyes were narrowed now, her hand concealing half her face as she thought.

They like to pretend they know everything,

But omnipotence is overrated.

So let’s keep our little mysteries, hmm?

Let’s not be understood.

Elmiryn’s brow tightened, and she wanted to respond, but the opportunity slipped by like quicksilver.

“I’ve been aware of thy…troubles.”  Artemis said, her voice low.  She still didn’t turn her gaze.  “I know thy mind has always been a bizarre font of ideas, and likewise, thy spirit has always been a thing of curiosity…” Finally the goddess turned, her gaze searing.  “Yet what I have just seen is outside of the Way that governs the world.”

Elmiryn moved to raise herself from the floor, intent on looking the deity in the face, but found the weakness in her arms was too great.  The action seemed to disagree with her new intake of wine, the drink turning rotten in her veins and stomach.  Her left eye had swollen more, forcing it into a squint, and her lower lip was cut and swelling now as well.  Her head throbbed in a dull ache, the previous pain having washed away like an ebbing tide.

The warrior crossed her arms and looked into the goddess’s eyes.  “Halian came at me with all he had.  I did the same.  I don’t see the problem.”

Within the next instant, the woman’s vision tunneled so much she was blind, pain slicing into her head, down her spine, and into her limbs.  She was on the wall, Artemis holding her up on her feet by the shoulders. “The problem, Elmiryn, is that thou seems to have a power that was not meant for thee, and yet thou uses it with little thought to consequence!”

“Little thought…to consequence…huh?” The woman panted, feeling her adrenaline kick in.  Firing under her skin was a deep animal instinct to curl up and hide, and she fought this with everything she had.  She would not curl up.  She would not apologize.  “I thought about it…plenty, Arty.  I thought about dying…before I could get the person I care about…out of here alive.” Elmiryn spared the briefest grimace before a smile blossomed across her lips.  Her vision still had yet to clear, so she stared with eyes wide, hoping some sight would tell her what to expect.  She went on, her breath returning to her, “I thought about the bitch enchantress that got us into all this mess, and how I’d like to get her head on a fucking pike.  And ya wanna know what else I thought about, when all those stupid concerns over undoing a reality I can’t even buy into anymore was bleating off in the distance?”  Elmiryn grabbed Artemis’s wrists, her body shaking.  “I thought about all those assholes sitting up in heaven who let a little girl fall to the mercy of a greedy idiot and an insane demon!”

The goddess’s face finally appeared amidst the snowy tunnel of her vision, and the warrior could see the Huntress was more than a little surprised by her audacity.  It wasn’t shock or rage that illustrated this to her.  It was the deity’s non-reaction, her blank expression, her cooled gaze.  The fire and fury had fled from her all at once.

Artemis slowly let Elmiryn go, and the warrior slid down the wall to the floor, her heart doing a marathon in her chest.

“You think so little of us…” the goddess breathed, frowning.

“I think shit of you,” Elmiryn spat.  She was surprised to find her eyes welling with tears.  Her body wracked with shivers as the need to run increased ten-fold.  The anxiety was foreign to her.  She had never known this much fear.

Artemis crouched down, her gaze now intent.  “I see thy mortal soul is still intact.  Dost thou know why thee weep?  Why thy heart palpitates with such fear?”

The warrior, still shaking, wanted to say something snide.  A rage, one she hadn’t even felt whilst facing Halian, was fighting its way up, and upon realizing she was not immediately dead, it was getting hard to stop.  She was like a child throwing a tantrum.  She hated that she kept drawing those parallels.  I’d be a terrible writer.

Yet for all the foul insults she could conjure, they all lodged in her throat.  Instead, the woman shook her head jerkily to the goddess’s question.

Artemis smiled for the first time.  “Thou art out of Harmony, and thy soul mourns the lost connection.  In fighting me as you are now, you are causing your spirit great stress.  Stop fighting nature, and thou shalt know peace again.”

“And what?  Just accept you’re always gonna rule the world?”

The goddess shook her head.  “We do not ‘rule’ the world as you say.  We are the world.  The very air you breathe.  Everything you taste, feel, touch, and see is in communion with us.  Why rail against that which provides structure in a universe of chaos?”

“Why not?  Maybe chaos is better.  At least we could build from scratch,” Elmiryn snarled, feeling the tears course down her face.  Her cheeks turned hot and her head started to pulsate with a new breed of pain from the way her sinuses strained to produce more tears.  She wiped at her face and said, “You haven’t exactly given me many reasons to feel nice.”

Artemis only raised an eyebrow.  “And by that token, neither have you.”

“So what?  Do you break out the tea and we sit and talk about our feelings?  Do you tell me what it’s like to sit on top of a world and not care about it, and I tell you what it’s like to be crushed under your fat ass?

The goddess let out a sudden laugh. “Oh, what sharp tongue!  Thou art fortunate I am the one to hear this tantrum.  Many of my brethren might not be so forgiving!”

“Fuck you,” Elmiryn bit out just before her face crumpled and she turned to the wall.  Damn it, why can’t I stop?

“I already told you why.”

Get out of my head!

“I am not in your head.  You just happen to think loudly.”

“Well pardon me…” Elmiryn covered her head with her arms.  “I…I feel like I’m six again,” she whispered, sniffling back snot.

She felt Artemis hand on her hair and peeked through her arms to see the goddess gazing at her with the same look of intent as before.  “Perhaps, thou should have been my child, instead of Halward’s.  I would not dare speak against the god king, but I cannot fathom why he would neglect such a willful thing such as yourself.”

“Luck I guess…” Elmiryn muttered.

“There is fortune, in being deemed worthy enough for challenge.”

The warrior looked at her suddenly, her good eye wide open.

Artemis tilted her head to the side, a lock of her curly dark hair slipping forward near her temple.  Her brow tightened.  “I have every reason to kill thee…” she murmured.  The goddess shook her head.  “Thou art not of my blood…and thy mouth runs a fool’s marathon.” The goddess pressed closer, and Elmiryn swallowed reflexively, feeling herself…out of herself.  She was not this person.  Or perhaps, she was not the person she imagined.  Quiet things, quiet ways, quiet realities were surfacing here, and the ignorance she had found shelter behind was crumbling.

“Yet more and more I only wish to see how much farther you would seek to run from me…” Artemis breathed, her lips brushing the woman’s ear.  “I have missed thine offerings…have ye something else to offer perhaps?  It would kill thine ails.  Free thee of the suffering you feel…”

Elmiryn’s breath caught.  She was a mortal.  Artemis was a god.

She had…

“…A song stuck in my head,” she whispered.  Elmiryn looked at the goddess sideways.  “That’s all…I have.  Everything else…is spoken for.

“You would deny me?”

“I would deny you what isn’t yours to take.”

Artemis scowled.  “If you continue this defiance, your soul will come apart, and you will cease to be.  You cannot go against heaven.”

Elmiryn leaned in close, two more tears slipping down her face as she felt a rush of cold go over her.  “I am not of heaven.  I have been torn apart and left in chaos, and I have found my way back, through no help of yours.”  She could feel the fabric of her being shudder, feel the weave strain and pull.  She dared another inch, pressing in so close that her sweaty forehead touched Artemis’s.  Her hairs stood on end from the contact, but if there was anything more to feel, her mortal senses were at their limit.  “I am not of you.  I am not beholden to you.  I just am.

“Your power is a stolen thing.”

“And where did your power come from, Arty?”

Artemis stood, glaring down at the woman.  Then her expression melted into a smile.  “Do you want to know a secret, Elmiryn?”

The warrior blinked and tried to sit up properly.  Her eyes rolled from the effort, and she settled for slumping to the floor.  “Oh.  Sure.”

“I don’t know.”

“…Dunno what?” A weight started to press on the woman’s chest and it became harder to breathe.  Elmiryn’s eyes fell closed to the sight of Artemis’s bare feet.

“Where my power comes from.”

“How’kin ya not know?” Words slurred, but it wasn’t from drink.  The woman pressed a hand to her head and said.  “I’m not…not followin’.”

Artemis’s voice started to move away from her, and when the warrior cracked her eyes open, she saw the goddess back at the window.  “My consciousness lays across worlds.  In many ways, I do not know the whole of myself–just this particular shard.  That isn’t to say I am incomplete.  I am connected with the core of my being in a place far away…but my soul is so large that it cannot reside in a single place.  So here, I rule as the Huntress, whilst elsewhere, I may be a goddess of the sea.  I have dreams of my other selves sometimes—really just flashes past my eyes because I never sleep unless I feel like it.  I am so Vast that I cannot be understood save for My permission, and the veil that holds my soul is thick indeed.  I dream…I dream of my other selves, and yet I know not of who they truly are or from whence they truly came.  So…where does my power come from, you ask?  I am Great, and Knowing, but these things I do not know.  I do not know, and that is my humblest answer.”

“Huh? Whe…nd…ga…” the words failed to form, and Elmiryn forgot what she was trying to say.  She couldn’t feel her face, her left arm, her left leg.  Her head screamed at her, and the parts she could feel tingled. “Nngh…”

She heard the sound of the trap door opening and footsteps along the wood floor.  Artemis’s voice sounded far away.

“What I have just told you would kill an ordinary man.  An extraordinary one would be driven completely insane.  Mortals cannot bear such knowledge…so if you are truly free of the domain of gods, then we shall see if you live tomorrow, let alone remember what I’ve said.” Someone picked her up.  The goddesses’s voice became a whisper in her ear as Elmiryn was carted away.

Live.  For I will treasure this hunt, as you are a prize like no other…


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