She sat in her center and looked up through the surface, the wavering light like the sunlit crests of the ocean. The shadows danced about her features, shifting her, and she, combating to shift them. She knew herself to be whole, but just, and knew herself to be alive, but just. She tried to think of how she’d gotten there, and felt a pain sweep over her, both sickening and freeing at the same time. She decided big steps were not for little toddlers, and left well enough alone.
Above her was a glowing white box where she saw a woman with thick frame glasses and skin that changed colors (–red, blue, green–) staring blankly at her. Around her tumbled little sparrows and black kittens, their bodies moving slowly, dreamlike, as if time had been drugged and they were falling horizontally through the world. Far down below where she hovered, lay Nyx, naked. The Ailuran’s hair was longer, her eyes shut, her body shifting as though she were floating along a gentle current. She was a beautiful lure that Elmiryn would have very much like to have bitten into, but first she had to find a way to make the shadows stop pushing her around.
Soon came the music, and she felt indifferent to it.
Well THAT went well.
I suppose I cannot blame you.
Part of your attitude is what made me
Choose you as a toy to begin with.
Couldn’t we have thought up a smarter plan
Than antagonizing the Goddess of the HUNT?
Did I do that?
Yes, my little lummox.
Yes you did.
What’ll happen now?
Oh believe me.
You’ll see soon enough.
Why can’t you give me
A straight answer?
Why can’t you ask a crooked question?
Since you’re fucking here,
Can you tell that person
Staring through her little box
To go away?
And I suppose the floating animals
Aren’t enough to raise your choler?
Look, if you won’t help me,
Then I’ll figure something out myself.
You aren’t entirely hallucinating.
So take care in what you do.
Um…good to know?
As was usually the case, Meznik was gone, and so were his insights. Grumbling, the woman returned her efforts to the shadows. She’d never see the true depths of the situations around her she decided, because behind everyone and everything was a mystery of being–a symbology too complex to pick apart, even if afforded all the days in existence to do so. So she wanted her environment to be hers, and her life to be hers, and her desires to be hers. Because in knowing, there was control, and from there simplicity could be created.
So when the darkness stilled and the light ceased to dance, Elmiryn smiled and turned her gaze to the dark haired beauty that lay in wait for her.
Nyx’s complexity was underlined by her simplicity. Sorrow rooted through her life, but a sincere desire for redemption was there, even if the girl hadn’t seen it right away. It made it easy to build a bridge of contact–to make something that was purely theirs. None could trespass unless they chose it, but that didn’t stop that knot of tension in Elmiryn’s shoulders at the thought of foreign hands, and worse, foreign hearts, taking what she had helped to create.
The warrior descended through the space, existent only by its purpose of separation. Above the white box did not move, nor did the slow falling animals. It almost felt as though Nyx were the one who came up, rather than the woman going down, but she knew this was not the case. Her intent had pulled her to the girl, and the existence of separation vanished. Things were not entirely relative here.
Elmiryn stopped when the girl’s body was at her waist, and leaned forward, her hand reaching up to trail a finger along Nyx’s cheekbone. Her breath slipped through parted lips as her cerulean gaze fastened onto the Ailuran’s face. “You aren’t really here…are you?” she asked quietly. “What a rotten deal. I don’t know how I got here, but I do know that you aren’t with me. Isn’t it funny how the truth treats us?”
The woman’s smiled wryly and she turned away, her legs tucking up under her as she assumed a sitting position next to the girl.
“The last thing I remember was Halian charging at me as a wolfman. I can’t even remember if I won or lost that fight.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. If I’m here, then that meant something went wrong, and I’m the one who caused it. I must’ve been out of it if I pushed a confrontation with Artemis. Or maybe I had no choice?” Her eyes turned back to Nyx. They were filled with apology. “Och oeni. I keep biting off more than I can chew. I think I’m just too used to getting a pass on things. Does that have to do with luck? I’ll have to ask Tristi next time, assuming I don’t want to knock the guy’s head off. I doubt that’ll do my fortune any favors…” the warrior allowed for a dry chuckle at the thought.
After a moment’s thought, she pulled Nyx into her arms, and let her right hand trace the lizard-shaped mark on her friend’s breast before moving down the valley of her chest to the soft of her belly. There she laced her hands together and rocked back, the girl’s legs gently knocking into hers as they slowly cartwheeled through the free space. Elmiryn nuzzled past the Nyx’s long locks to kiss her neck, her tongue moving to taste the girl’s skin.
In this place, the warrior’s body did not react in the usual way, but her mind still blossomed with the warm desire she was so familiar with.
“Damn it, kitten, I need you here,” the woman whispered, her lungs filling with the earthy, musky scent that haunted her memories. “Or maybe I need to be there? Gods, my life could use with simplification…”
She trailed a finger along the inside of Nyx’s thigh, then pulled back enough to brush aside the girl’s long hair and kiss the nape of her neck.
Elmiryn rested her forehead there. “Look at me! I’m given a moment of freedom from all the bullshit, and all I can do is cry and whine and fondle a doll…”
Then Elmiryn froze. “A moment of freedom?” An excited smile spread her lips. “Shit, that’s right!” She released Nyx and drifted free. She brushed aside a chubby black cat that was moving toward her face, her eyes hungrily taking in her void surroundings. The kitten bumped into a young sparrow and they both let out drawn out squeaks of surprise. The woman ignored them. “This place is mine!”
She turned to the Nyx doll, who drifted along just as she’d been left. “It could be ours!“
Elmiryn looked up and shielded her eyes from the glare of the white box above her, the strange woman still peering at her. “Only, I dunno how to get rid of that fixture.” She looked around. “In fact…this whole place could use with redecorating. Too bad mother isn’t here. She’s better at that sort of thing than I am. Oh sure, I can tell you the difference between an Akhsan rug from a low end doormat, but you try sticking your enemy’s gut with that knowledge? Even then, I doubt I could tell the difference from a really good copy cat. Yep…appraisal just wasn’t for me.” She held up a finger. “But! Ask me the difference between a halbred forged by dwarves and one forged by elves, and we start to get somewhere! Halward’s tits, if I could just master all the basic elements, I bet I could make things from scratch!”
Elmiryn glanced at the Nyx doll, then did a double take. “What?” she said, slowly frowning. “This is the Other Place! There’s plenty of chaotic pockets to go around! I can make a little island for us, can’t I?” The woman stared at the doll for a few moments, then turned her eyes downward, her foot scuffing the imaginary ground. “Aww…even when you aren’t really doing it, you’re giving me a proverbial knock on my conscience.”
The woman let out a long sigh as she lay next to the imaginary Nyx. She turned her head to face the girl and whispered. “Hey. Do you think…you’d want to come? If I lived out of the boundaries, would you go with me?”
Moments stretched by. A cat tail tickled her ear.
Elmiryn’s brow tightened, and she rolled away, propping herself up onto her elbow. “No. Never mind. Don’t answer that.” She shook her head emphatically. “I–” she broke off, and felt the hollow ring of silence press in on her.
What were the others doing? Did they find the beast yet?
…How was Nyx? How did she look? Who was she with?
Elmiryn licked her lips and swiped at her nose, her eyes flickering up to the white box and the stranger that peered down into her thoughts. She glared up at the voyeur, feeling almost defiant. She rolled back over, and with a brief look at the Nyx doll’s face, she leaned down and pressed her lip’s to the girl’s in a kiss.
“I’ll be here when you become real…” Elmiryn whispered, before drifting away.
It was about this time that the shadows started to push her again.
To say that I was tired would have been an understatement. I was dead on my feet.
The way to the village was lost in fog as I felt my muscles moving of their own accord toward the emerald light breaking through the forest of trees. The roots of the dark willows and rigid poplars were swallowed by the hungry jaws of the briar bushes and wild ferns. Mournful wolf calls signaled through the night that the nightly blood-work was done. Lycan scouts. I could see their low forms slinking through the underbrush, their eyes glowing in the darkness. Their heraldry marked our arrival, and carried our defeat through the air, pressing our shoulders and heads down as we came into the village proper.
None cheered as we came. Even without the forward call, the villagers could see it in our faces. The beast had killed and had escaped again. The grief that I saw in the eyes of the families rendered my heart. They were afraid. Afraid their loved ones were among the dead. I knew that look well from my own war ravaged people.
In my naturally guilty state, I wondered…could I have done something to stop this? Did I hold my party back because of my argument with my Twin? I was a champion. Wasn’t I supposed to be helping these people?
My head sunk lower and I could meet no more gazes.
I made to part with the others but felt a hand grab my upper arm and begin to direct me to a more secluded spot, near the line of the trees. Behind the shadow of huts, I looked into the person’s face and saw it was Sanuye.
“Tonight you showed me great disrespect when I honored you with my trust, tkelechog!” She growled as she pushed me up against a fir tree. “No hunting parties would have taken you, and now I see maybe I was a fool to think different! I should kill you for the trouble you caused!” Her fingers felt more like claws as they dug into my skin. I swallowed and closed my eyes.
After a long agonizing moment, Sanuye let me go. She spoke over me, her voice filled with reproach. “If you wish to run in my group, then you must be plain. No secrets. No lies. You must speak, Ailuran. What was that talking beast?”
I shook my head emphatically. “It’s too hard to explain! You won’t believe me!”
“I said speak. What devil was that in the forest?”
I swallowed. Sweet Aelurus, this was not a conversation I’d envisioned myself having with a Lycan! “It…she…is my animal counterpart.”
“Keh! I said be plain! That makes no sense!”
“Didn’t I just say it’s hard to explain!?” I snapped, opening my eyes to fasten her with a glare before I quickly looked away.
I swallowed, eyes on the ground. “That animal is a part of my soul. She is the beast inside me, the thing I become when I shift under the full moon. I am not in the same dimension as you are. This place that I have come to divides things, and it has divided my soul into two. Even before that, we have always been divergent—apart, I mean. The animal is my other half, but is more like a twin sister, one that just so happens to live in my head. If she dies…I…I perish as well. It goes both ways.”
“And that meeting out in the forest. That was the first you saw of her?” She asked.
I winced, and wadded my doublet in my hands. “Y-Yes. That was the first time since I’ve come to this dimension that I’ve seen Her.”
“Back there. You spoke as the Old Ones did. What…are you?” Sanuye’s voice tensed here, and I realized that light growl in her words didn’t necessarily mean just aggression. She was anxious.
This made it a little easier for me to speak. I swallowed and tried to draw myself up. “I-I’m a pr…a p-proclaimer.”
“A what?” The woman’s eyes narrowed at me.
“I…am the champion of Lacertli, g-god of natural order.”
Sanuye let go of me suddenly, a new look in her eye. It was not fear alone, but something mixed with it. “The Dreamwalker…?” she breathed.
I brightened. “You know of him?”
“I pay tribute to him daily!”
I was surprised by this. “I didn’t know Lycans worshipped Lacertli!”
The woman snorted, shaking her head with a wry curl of her lip. “They do not. But I do. He is a mystery to us. But I hear he is the god of natural order. So I said, what harm in praying to him then?” She narrowed her eyes at me. “Still. That you should come into my party seems odd.”
A shaky smile spread my lips. “I know a person who would say it was more an act of Fortuna.”
“You think this fortunate?” The hardness in Sanuye’s voice made me wince.
“I’m only saying…never mind.”
The woman crossed her arms high on her chest, her look appraising. “You say you are Lacertli’s champion? Then he must have marked you! Let me see!”
I pursed my lips but undid my doublet, pulling at the cloth to better show the lizard mark over my left breast. Sanuye inhaled sharply at the sight of it, then whispered something in her native tongue. She looked back at me. “I answer first to Artemis, but should Lacertli’s will be known, than my spear will see it done!”
I shook my head. “You’re already pursuing that, I’m sure!”
She frowned at my choice of words. “The Dreamwalker does not speak to you?”
“He…uh…no. It’s been a short time since I’ve heard from him. But I know what he’d want, and that’s Harmony. The dark beast destroys this. I want as your people do, to end the suffering and to restore order!”
Sanuye looked me in the face, and I looked away, down at my shoes. She growled and grabbed my chin, forcing my eyes back to her. “Ailuran, you are not of us. You have powers beyond all here! Why do you yield to me?”
I gave her a weak smile. “Because that is the way I choose.”
The woman’s brow tightened a bit more before easing completely. She gave a small, incredulous laugh. “Than perhaps you are the greater of us all!”
I winced, but kept my smile. I realized that Sanuye, for the first time since I’d met her, wasn’t frowning. The small smile on her face did not quite reach the eyes, the luster there glazed by exhaustion and defeat, but I expected very little in the way of gaiety by the Lycans that night, and so took what comfort I could in the knowledge that I had perhaps made a new ally worth keeping.
Sanuye patted me on the back and gestured toward the village trail. “Come. As the beast can’t be slain without the sword, so the nightmares can’t be vanquished without the sleep to greet it!”
Frowning at the dark image, we returned to the open where I saw Hakeem waiting with Gudahi through the stream of weary warriors returning home.
“Nyx!” the young wizard called.
Sanuye gave me a small nod before going her way, and I watched her leave, her gait brisk but her shoulders not as tense as before. I looked back toward Hakeem and moved to greet him, shying through the stream of people. Why did Lycans have to be so tall?
When I reached the other side, I exhaled in relief. “Hullo,” I said. I started to feel a light tickle around my champion’s mark. Though it felt strange, I ignored it.
The wizard smiled gently at me. “Gudahi here has one of the biggest huts in the village, and he’s willing to share it with me and Quincy. You and Elmiryn can stay at the hut I’ve been using from now on.”
“And Sedwick?” Upon remembering the elemental, I turned my head in an attempt to spot him. Surely he would have stood out, but I saw no sign of him.
The ticklish feeling moved down my chest to my abdomen where a warmth blossomed up my sides. Frowning, I rubbed these places.
Hakeem didn’t notice my discomfort. “As I understand it, he has no interest in sleeping in one of the huts. I don’t even think that elementals require sleep.”
I blinked and stared, hands still rubbing. “Oh.”
Gudahi reached out and brushed my uneven bangs aside. “Nyx, you are a very odd girl! A little scary, but with such an air of misplacement!” he grinned. “I like this! I’ve not seen Sanuye so taken aback since I was a pup!”
I blushed and opened my mouth, ready to politely ask that the event be forgotten, when a sudden feeling of vertigo hit me. I swooned, swaying back a step before teetering forward into the wizard and the Lycan. They caught me–or rather, Gudahi did.
“What’s wrong, pet?”
My eyes batted and I struggled to right myself. “I…sorry. I don’t know what–what happened there.” A sense of movement seized me, and my legs grew weak, making the vertigo return once more. Gudahi grabbed me about the shoulders and held me up, and I couldn’t help but grab onto him.
“I think you should see Eidan,” the man said firmly, all humor gone from his voice. “You look feverish!”
“I’m fine!” I insisted, feeling irritated at my sudden weakness. I let the man go, fending off his attempts to hold onto me, and though I swayed a bit, the vertigo was gone, and so was the strange feeling of motion.
Instead what came next was a warm, wet feeling at my neck. My eyes widened and my hand slapped to that place.
Hakeem was giving me a real look of concern now. “Nyx, you’re acting strangely!”
“I–I keep feeling things!” I said, stricken. “It’s like–” I felt the feeling again at the nape of my neck and felt realization pull my guts to my soles. “It’s…it’s like someone’s touching me.”
Hakeem and Gudahi continued to stare at me in confusion, but I was already moving away from them, up the village trail. “I can’t explain! I just–I’m alright! Good night!” The words came out in a rush and I nearly fell onto my back side from tripping on a rock.
As I turned, I felt a light brush go up the inside of my thigh, and despite the strangeness of the situation, a knot appeared in the pit of my stomach as I became wet.
Panicked now, I ran the whole way to the medicine hut.
It didn’t even take me a minute to get there. I burst through the curtain, nearly bowling over the tall white haired attendant I’d seen earlier. I helped him to his feet, sputtering apologies, and he just looked at me bemusedly as he gathered his spilled herbs and left the hut. Quincy was seated at the table of herbs and potions, and stared at me.
“Ailuran, are you daft!?” she snapped.
I ignored her and went straight for Elmiryn’s cot, where I saw her laying still and quiet. Her skin was covered in a light sheen of sweat, her left eye was swollen shut, and her cut lip was swollen as well. She still lacked shoes and a proper shirt, and I wondered savagely why no one had at least thought to cover her in a blanket.
Kneeling at the cot, I could feel a ghostly brush across my lips and sighed. My eyes closed as I touched the woman’s arm, relief coming over me like a warm breeze. My eyes opened again, my gaze lidded as I leaned down to whisper into the woman’s ear.
The woman stirred, but it was a faint reaction. A slight shift of her right shoulder, a twitch of the face, but nothing more. I frowned and pulled back.
“She needs time to recover,” Quincy said from behind me.
I jumped and looked at her. I’d already forgotten she was there. “Did Halian knock her out?” I asked.
“You mean Hakeem didn’t tell you?”
I frowned, feeling dread encroach upon my heart. “Tell me what?”
The brunette rolled her eyes shut as she pinched the bridge of her nose. “Taika, tai’undu!”
With a sigh, the wizard grabbed a stool and sat near me. I tensed, turning to her fully. “Wizard, what happened?”
Quincy scratched at her head, then rubbed at her neck, the strands of her russet brown hair tussled from her fidgeting. “Nyx…Elmiryn’s really stuck her foot in it this time.” She let those words sink in, her azure eyes fixing on my face as she bit her lip. She spread her hands, then laced them back together, the action speaking of a weary helplessness. “Ba–sically…Elmiryn’s body started to quit on her when she tried to defy Artemis.”
My voice was hollow when I spoke. “What do you mean ‘quit’ on her? And why would she try to defy Artemis!?”
“I don’t know why. As for what ails her, Eidan says it was the heart. If the heart ceases to work properly, even for a moment, then other things can go wrong…like in the brain.” Quincy scratched at her brow with her pinky. “Honestly, the idiot was lucky her heart didn’t just explode–”
“She isn’t an idiot!” I snapped angrily. My eyes started to cloud and I looked back at Elmiryn, my hands gripping her arm perhaps a little too tightly. “She knew there were consequences in defying the gods! You saw how she backed off the first time we met Artemis! Elmiryn isn’t the kind of person who takes delight in being outmatched. The only reason she kept fighting Halian was because her pride preferred being beat down to backing out! If she defied Artemis then…” My heart clenched and sweat broke out over my skin, but I let the words rush out of my mouth. “Then I’m sure she had justification!”
Quincy hissed as she leaned in, looking around them nervously. “Fool! Do you want to end up like this too?”
I squeezed my eyes shut, the tears leaking out in big fat drops. “I know Elmiryn makes mistakes, but I can’t believe that this didn’t happen without reason!”
“If she made poor choices, then she should have dealt with the consequences–especially if they would have let her live! Now? Even if she survives, I’m not sure what kind of life she’ll have!”
“How do you mean?”
“If she manages to wake, that’s just the first hurdle! She could have brain damage, paralysis, severe amnesia…the list can go on!”
I wiped at my eyes and looked at the woman, my expression brightening. “She’s there…”
Quincy gave me an odd look. “Well of course she is.”
“No, I mean–she’s in there! Conscious!”
“Ailuran, she’s completely out. We gave her viper venom, and one of the side effects is coma. We held a light to her eyes and they didn’t dilate–meaning she’s unresponsive. There’s no telling when she’ll wake.”
I looked at her, incredulous. “Why did you give her venom!?”
The wizard glared at me. “Keep. Your. Voice. Down.”
I lowered my voice, but my words held no less bite. “Quincy, why venom?”
She gave me an impatient roll of the eyes. “It’s a remedy the Lycan’s discovered for poor blood flow. A small amount can help improve the flow of blood to the brain, which is what Elmiryn’s heart problem inevitably led to. But my guess is that the alcohol in the woman’s blood didn’t take too well to the serum we administered and so–” she gestured at Elmiryn’s prone form.
I licked my lips and looked back at the woman. “Then…then maybe she’s just not there.”
“Elmiryn. She may not be in her body.” I looked at the wizard, and she was still fixing me with a weird look.
“Ailuran, I’m not following.”
My brow twitched at being called an Ailuran again. I was tempted to call Quincy ‘human’ just to be snide, but taking it from race to species felt far too low, and I did my best to ignore the peeve.
I took a breath and tried to explain my thoughts. “The last time Elmiryn had an out-of-body experience, she was able to interact with the physical world. She’s doing it again!” I felt a ghostly touch over my chest and my nipples hardened, sending color into my face. “Right now!”
“But with what?” Quincy asked skeptically. “Last time she nearly caved in a giant chamber! Nothing like that has–”
“Just take my word for it,” I bit out, turning my face away. The ghostly touch was traveling lower. If this kept up, I wasn’t going to be able to talk much.
I glanced back at Quincy. “Make sure her body isn’t moved. I’m going to try something.”
The wizard opened her mouth to respond, but I was already looking inward, time compressing tightly as I traversed the canyons of my mind to cross that familiar border between the Real World and the Somnium. The world sighed over me. Leaving the wilds of my mind, I returned to the scene at the medicine hut.
Quincy was on her feet, looking around wildly. “Nyx!?”
Here, the Somnium revealed something interesting to me. The wizard was not the thirty-something she looked to be…but younger. She was closer to my age, her hair a little longer and her eyes holding a sort of quality that I’d once seen in Lethia. I fished around my vocabulary, trying to pinpoint the trait. Then the word hit me–
Naive. The wizard looked naive.
Here Quincy did not look so guarded, so moody, so world-weary. Her features seemed unburdened, her gaze was brighter, and her movements seemed less refined.
I would have been given to more staring if not for the white cut-out of Elmiryn’s body on the cot. It was like a piece of art, where someone had simply come along and cut out the woman’s form, leaving a void space in her place. Shivering, I peered down into it…
…And saw black kittens and tumbling sparrow chicks slowly falling through the air. Bewildered, I reached a hand into the space and found that it went through. Pulling my hand back, I bit my lip and spared a last look at the wizard. With me gone, she had resumed sitting at the stool, now looking for all the world like an adolescent who’d been given an unfavorable chore from their mother. The idea, strange as it was, made me giggle a bit.
Comforted by the fact that my way back was being dutifully watched, I sat on the edge of the void and slipped in one leg, then other. With a deep breath, I pushed off and fell in.