Elmiryn got that fevered look in her eyes, and I knew her intention was frolicking straight into yet another thorny bush of risk and danger.
That place, her little pocket of reality, was like nothing I’d seen before. It was…raw. My skin tingled, the whole of my body feeling both light as a feather and heavier than a boulder. The light here flickered, always at odds with the shadows, and I glanced at them, wondering if I could use my power to make them still. The “ground” was an imagined thing, as was “space”, and if I ceased to think of either, then they would no longer be there.
In horrifying turns, if we ceased to think of ourselves as separate beings, we could perhaps melt into one another.
All the while, the constant rain of kittens and sparrows came, and I wondered at their meaning. Elmiryn was becoming a fae, and the fae had almost inconceivable powers over perception and meaning. I heard tales of people making deals with the creatures to learn what a color tasted like, or to see music flowing through the air. They were beings that thrived in their own enigmatic definitions, and in this sparse world I recognized some hidden truth in Elmiryn’s imaginings, but failed to gleam any sort understanding from them. Though I was visiting through the Somnium, my understanding was diminished by Elmiryn’s will, much like in Volo’s realm. As such, I did not see her unsettling form as I had before. She looked normal here, her fair face, sun kissed skin, and piercing stare umarred…that was until the shadows grew starker, making her form flicker. Peeking through her self-image was the reality–the seed, the roots, the horns.
I kept this to myself.
Elmiryn looked to me, her cerulean eyes hot with intent, her tongue between her teeth as a trail of sweat came down the inside of her nose. She was breathing as if short-winded, and her right eye was swelling. The Real World was bleeding through.
“All right, Nyx. Okay,” she puffed. “So…I told you I know my own pattern, right? I think I can heal myself. I’ve put myself back together before. But this…this is a really bad knot. I have no idea what will happen if I try to undo it,” she shrugged, a shaky smirk on her lips. “Maybe I’ll unravel!”
I touched her shoulder, feeling my spine stiffen. “Elmiryn, I want you back in the real world, but if the risk is too great, maybe we shouldn’t!” Silently, I added, Please don’t add to the debt you owe Harmony!
She looked at me sharply. “And let the reality of the gods heal me?”
I huffed, throwing my hand up into the air. “What’s so wrong with that? That’s normal!”
“And is normal good?”
“I–no, that’s not–” but I broke off, wondering just what it was I wanted to say. Was normal good? I didn’t believe that, and Elmiryn knew it, but she had the temerity of battling against everything we had ever known, anything anyone had ever known…
I shook my head, my eyes squeezing shut. “I’m scared. I’m scared where this might lead.” I buried my face in my hands. “Elle, I know it’s hard for you to sit still.” I raised my face, my eyes imploring. “But this need to push things will kill you!”
The woman sat back, exhaling through her nose. Her eyes roved my face, and I could practically feel her gaze on me. It made me self-conscious, made me wonder if I was being unsympathetic. I didn’t know what it was like to be in her situation. I’d read somewhere that time could be funny in dreams…just how long had Elmiryn been here, conscious and alone?
“I’ve got to, Nyx,” Elmiryn said finally. Her voice was gentle, but I could hear the determination in her words. The warrior thought she had no Meaning, but hearing her, one would think she had all the Meaning in the world…
I closed my eyes and turned my head, but said nothing.
Elmiryn licked her lips and made to flex her arm. She felt flares of pain go up her muscles and tendons, and she stopped with a hiss. Her eyes widened as she saw the pain’s path–the way it crissed and crossed and dove and twined into her flesh. She saw muscles she knew ought to be moving instead still and stubborn, the light of her will coming short to motivate. Trailing her fingers over her skin, she bit her lip and started the process.
All around them, the kittens and sparrows stilled in the air, ending their endless descent. She felt, rather than saw, Nyx grow distant. Overhead the light turned searing, and an incessant buzzing entered her ears…but she was busy.
She expected to hear Meznik calling with some quip or insult, but the demon was absent, as was his way whenever she wanted him there.
“Want,” she murmured. “To desire something.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nyx turn her head. “What?” the girl asked.
Wanting to be more, wanting to have more, wanting to know more, wanting to do more…perhaps Elmiryn wasn’t as different from her father as she’d initially thought. Perhaps that avarice was a thing passed down from blood to blood. In awe, she wondered just what else could have trickled into the cup of her being. She imagined her soul as a muddied thing, dark and viscous and heated by her own desires…
The woman’s thoughts were cut off as she felt her arm spasm and launch to the side, the nerves spiking in pain as it struck something–though she didn’t know what.
“Ow!” Elmiryn cried, cradling her arm.
Nyx was there in front of her in the blink of an eye, crouched and peering into her face.
“What?” the girl asked, clearly startled. “What happened?”
“I hit something,” the woman hissed through her teeth. She gave a deep sigh. “Ah, but the pain is going away now…” Then she frowned and stared at her arm. “Oh fuck, the pain is going away!”
Nyx scrunched up her nose. “Isn’t that good?”
“No!” Elmiryn said, shaking her head slowly. “The pain was a good thing! It meant my arm was responding! Now I’m not getting anything at all!”
Quincy held her nose, the tears clouding her eyes as she jumped to her feet with a loud curse. She’d been sitting next to Elmiryn’s cot, checking her temperature and the cut on her brow, when all of a sudden, the warrior’s arm flew up and whacked her in the face. She could hear Eidan chuckling at her as she blinked the tears from her eyes. Glaring, she kicked the redhead’s cot.
“Gods damn it! That hurt!”
“Aks-iden’,” Eidan grunted, his eyes already back on his patient. A young woman lay with fever and he had a hand on her neck, the other holding a cup of mixture.
“That wasn’t an accident,” Quincy returned hotly, sniffling back what she suspected to be blood. “If it were anyone else, yes. Sure. It was an accident. But with her? It never is!”
Despite getting up later than she’d meant to, the woman had managed a lot in the short afternoon. But the evening still came by faster than she would have liked. She and Eidan had searched for reagents much of the day, but instead of preparing them for use, the reest of their time was spent checking up on patients. With the hunt drawing close, the woman feared they would be caught poorly prepared.
Merid appeared at her side with a handkerchief. “You’re bleeding a little.”
Quincy checked her hand, then cursed again as she saw the red there. “I suppose I am.” She took the handkerchief from him with a fleeting smile. “Thank you.”
“Not too fond of her, are you?” the man asked, his gray eyes squinted in mirth.
The wizard grit her teeth. “If by fond, you mean walking arm in arm, then no. I’m afraid not.”
“What is she like?”
“Boorish, arrogant, deviant…” Quincy shrugged as she checked her nose one last time. “Oh, she’s a charmer.”
Merid chuckled. “Well, I believe we’ve covered everyone in the village. Let’s get started grinding up the herbs. I’ve started boiling some bandages for tonight. Would you mind fetching the basket of arnica outside?”
Quincy gave a nod, but not before awkwardly holding out the handkerchief. The man laughed and shook his head, and with a small shrug, she pocketed the item and left the hut.
Outside the village was buzzing with activity. The woman paused as she watched a pack of children race by, wielding sticks like they were spears and paint smeared on their faces. Men and women alike made preparations for the night, sharpening weapons, readying armor, putting away tools. The wizard sighed and shook her head.
“Looking at them, one would think they were at war,” she muttered as she turned for the basket of herbs.
Quincy paused as her eyes fell on the empty ground near the hut entrance. Frowning, she searched the area with her eyes and saw nothing. The woman went around the hut, wondering if Merid had found some odd reason to put it out of sight in case someone messed with their supplies. Again, nothing. Outright scowling now, the woman emerged back onto the village trail and her eyes fastened on a yellow petal down the road.
“The arnicas have yellow blossoms,” she breathed.
With quick steps, she approached it and plucked it from the dirt. When her eyes lifted, she saw more petals down the way. With a glance over her shoulder and pressed lips, the woman followed the trail through the village until it brought her to the forest line. As she ventured near the trees, she heard giggling and saw a group of boys dancing around, tossing the petals into the air. They were about Hakeem’s current age, bodies already hard from work, faces dirty from rough play and their hair in need of cutting. Their dusky faces turned her way, eyes lit by the emerald light of the nymph’s magic. Shrieking playfully at the sight of Quincy, they bolted further into the forest.
The wizard gave a start. “No, no! Where are you going!?”
For a moment, Quincy hesitated, her azure eyes stricken with annoyance and concern.
Finally, with one last look over her shoulder, she hurried after the children.
My eyes grew wide. “Elle, tell me you didn’t.”
“Oh, Elle no!”
“Okay, okay! I did!”
Despite my attempts at dissuading her, Elmiryn sought to heal herself once more. She explained to me that it was seeing a sort of woven fabric, and all she had to do was mend a knot in the weave so that her essence could flow freely throughout her form. It all sounded very alien and mystical to me, and I stared at the woman, suddenly struck by how…different she sounded. Upon first meeting her, Elmiryn was about as mystical as a rock. But given her newfound abilities, who was to say this wasn’t to be expected? I didn’t need to look far for a supporting example–what with my talk of the Umbralands, and the Somnium, and Harmony.
But staring at the woman’s hand, I was thinking even then, there just had to be a line!
Holding it by the wrist, Elmiryn held up her limb, which had turned green and reptilian, talons, scales, and all. “I didn’t mean to! It was an accident!”
Ashen-faced, I pointed at it. “How was that an accident!?” I cried.
“I was thinking, about lizards and how they can just lose their tails and be done with the matter! I didn’t mean to–” She broke off and covered her mouth, but I could see the mirth in her eyes.
I shook my head emphatically. “Elle, this isn’t funny!”
“I–I’m not–” but she snorted, and her hand fell away to let loose her laughter. “Sorry! I’m not trying to make this into a joke, it just happened that way! There’s been plenty of other things I’ve been thinking and those haven’t happened so–”
I looked at her sharply. “Just what other things?”
Elmiryn blinked at me, her smile fading. “Silly things. Like, wouldn’t it be funny if six was nine? Or if green became blue? And wouldn’t it be strange if…” she trailed off, her eyes going wide. “Oh.”
My stomach sank. “‘Oh’ what?”
The warrior sucked at her teeth and looked away. “I should really listen to that bastard when he tells me things in the future,” She mumbled.
I grabbed her around the shoulders. “Elle, what is it?”
She looked at me somberly. “I wondered why the beast always stayed away from the village.”
My eyes widened. With a jump I stood. “I have to go!”
Elmiryn grabbed at my ankle with her human hand. “Nyx!”
I looked at her, startled and mildly vexed. “Elle, I have to get back!”
She bit her lip and looked up at me through her eyelashes. “I thought the timing was strange! I wondered…Fuck–I wondered why do these things have to happen when we’re around? And then you know what I thought? It’s because it usually has to do with us…”
I narrowed my eyes, my mind working for some comprehension bought in my rising anxiety, that end was becoming increasingly distant. I reached down and touched her shoulder. “I have to go back. Everything will be fine, okay?”
The woman said nothing, just stared as I stepped away from her and slipped out of the Somnium and back into the Real World. Making that transition was getting exceedingly quicker, but I felt a fatigue enter my limbs that nearly had me toppling to the ground.
Merid, who had been tending to the patient next to Elmiryn, gave a jump.
I was the first to recover as I leaned over onto the edge of Elmiryn’s cot. “Sorry! It’s me.”
The gray-eyed man gave a nod, his eyes still misted over in wonder as he looked me up and down. “Ah. Hello, Nyx.”
I gestured weakly at him. “Have you seen any of my companions?”
The man frowned and tapped a brown root against his jaw as he thought. “Mmm…well, Hakeem is training with the warriors, last I heard. I’m afraid I do not know where the elemental fellow is, and…” he trailed off with a frown.
Turning he asked Eidan something in his native tongue, to which the old man gave a shake of his head. When Merid returned his gaze, it was troubled. “That’s odd.”
My stomach clenching, I asked, “What is it?”
The man gave a small shrug. “I asked Quincy to fetch the arnicas we had collected earlier from outside. That was quite a while ago. They should’ve been right next to the door. One of our patients began vomiting blood, so it all slipped my mind!”
I was already turned and hurrying toward the hut entrance before the man finished. At his final words, however, I paused and gazed at him somberly. “Merid, if what I’m thinking is right, you’ll need to collect more of those flowers for tonight.”
With that I left, intent on finding Sedwick. Just as I had feared, time had passed slower in Elmiryn’s sanctum than in reality, and it was already nearly time for the hunt. I wasn’t sure what the warrior’s last words to me truly meant, or how it related to Quincy’s disappearance. All I knew was that I had to fill in the blanks and act, fast.
Finding the ex-blacksmith wasn’t as hard as I’d originally thought. He was providing water to some of the walking wounded, drawing a small crowd of on-lookers as he performed his water abilities. Seeing me approach, he finished filling one more jug before excusing himself and greeting me.
“Nyx,” he said with a nod.
I returned it. “Sedwick, have you seen Quincy?” I was out of breath from running.
The man frowned and shook his head.
“Damn!” I cursed, looking around.
Sedwick touched my shoulder. “What is it?”
I looked at him, hands clenching at my sides. “Quincy may have gone missing. I haven’t finished searching the village yet. Would you mind helping me?”
“Of course not! Let’s meet back at the great tree.”
And so we split, each of us going in opposite directions. Though it made my anxiety worse, I even went so far as to ask some of the Lycans if they’d seen the wizard. Many of them didn’t understand my common, and I got more than a few bared teeth for my trouble, but all answers were the same–no one had seen Quincy.
When my rounds were finished, I returned to the great tree as promised, and a moment later, Sedwick joined me. The look on his face confirmed my fears.
“She’s gone,” I said, shoulders tensing.
Sedwick threw up his hands, his face tensing in frustration. “This doesn’t make any sense! Why would she just vanish without telling anyone where she was off to?”
I rubbed my brow. “We have to tell Hakeem.”
“Tell me what?”
The young voice made me jump, and I turned to see Hakeem standing before us, Gudahi, Makka, and a small group of other Lycan warriors in tow. The man-boy took a step forward, his eyes flickering from my face to Sedwick’s
My brows pressed up as I held up my hands. “Hakeem–”
With a yell, the wizard took off running, his roaring shouts belying his small form. “Mweze? Mweze!?”
Sighing, I exchanged a brief look with Sedwick, and we quickly followed. To my surprise, Gudahi and Makka were quick to fall in behind us. Hakeem ran down the village trail, stopping occasionally to grab a passing villager and ask for his wife. With each denial, he grew more frantic. Finally, his wild search brought us to the western edge of the village where he collapsed to his knees and beat the ground with his fists.
My heart clenched at the sad sight of the wizard in such turmoil, his huddled form looking so lonely against the backdrop of the dark forest.
“Has something happened to his shimá?” Gudahi asked, his eyes on Hakeem.
“She’s gone missing,” Sedwick explained.
The Lycan nodded his head gravely, then said something to Makka in Lycan. The quiet hunter frowned and said something quietly, then touched a fist to his breast.
Gudahi explained upon seeing our inquisitive looks. “He says he’ll help find her…or avenge her, whatever the case is.”
I smiled wanly, then approached Hakeem. I didn’t like Quincy, but after seeing what the beast did to its victims, I didn’t want that fate to be anyone’s, not even hers. Gingerly, I moved to touch the young wizard’s shoulder when something caught my eye. Frowning, I went to it and carefully picked it up.
“Arnicas!” I exclaimed.
“What?” Hakeem was looking at me, his eyes watery but no tears falling free. He sniffed and stood as I held out the yellow petal I’d found.
“Arnicas have yellow blossoms. Quincy was supposed to be getting the arnicas outside of the medicine hut!”
Hakeem blinked the moisture from his eyes as he stared at me, to the petal, and back. Next his eyes fell on the ground where a moment’s search produced another petal, and another.
“There’s a whole trail!” he breathed.
I gestured for the others to come closer.
“What does this mean?” Sedwick asked after having looked at the petal.
I pointed the trail out to him and the two Lycan men. With pursed lips and a rapidly beating heart, I said, “This means our hunt starts a little early!”