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Chapter 30.3

NYX____________________________

Nothing made sense to me as I was blasted off my feet, tree branches clawing at my clothes and skin.  The sharp pain was numbed by the sudden surprise.  I cartwheeled through the air, limbs and senses in a disarray as I felt the cold high winds whip around me.  I caught flashes of the earth below and found myself stories high.  As I fell, I screamed out, my voice shrill, and I saw the beast flinch back.

When I hit the ground, I had a crazy moment where I believed that the world had broken beneath me–but then I realized it was the sound of my own bones breaking.  I’d fallen at a bad angle with my legs bending in places they shouldn’t have been.  My back twisted to the side and I slumped backwards onto the ground.  In hindsight, the pain was not the worst I’d ever felt–but I wouldn’t have guessed it at the time!  I thought I was dying.  I couldn’t move–could hardly breathe even.  Blood gurgled up my throat and my eyes rolled up for an upside down view of what was happening.

The beast had been stunned somehow, its head bowed, its body lowered to the ground.  Taking advantage of its vulnerability, I saw Makka daringly spearing the beast from the front.  Sedwick had gone completely watery, and using his amorphous form, he catapulted Gudahi up onto the beast’s back.  The Lycan flipped once and landed with some difficulty.  Once his balance was gained, he proceeded to stab at the back of the beast’s massive head.

I heard the crunch of leaves and my eyes rolled to the side to see Hakeem approaching.

Behind him was Quincy.

She was gripping a boomerang with her right hand, and in the crook of that arm, she cradled the left hand, which was bandaged up from cloth.

Tai’undu, I overdid it again…” she muttered, hurrying to kneel at my side.  Up closer, I could see that her left hand was bleeding through the fabric.  “Gods, Ailuran.  You’re lucky you’re a champion now–I don’t think even one of your kind could survive damage this extensive!”

Hakeem came to my other side, his young face bunched.  “Nyx, if we move you into a proper position, will your healing ability kick in?”

Grimacing, I struggled to raise a hand.  “S-Sit…sit me up!”

At this, the married couple’s eyes met over me, their faces tense.

I could hear the air tremble as the beast let out a warble that signaled our reprieve was ending.  “Hurry!” I gurgled.

All hesitation gone, both wizards took a hold of my hands and my shoulders and lifted me up.  I couldn’t help it.  I screamed, the sound hoarse and drawn out, my blood slipping past my trembling lips and staining my clothes.  But even as the pain sought to undo me, I could feel my ribs and spine begin to heal, torn muscles regaining their strength and vitality at a speed I’d never known before.  Was it as Quincy said?  Was I only alive because I was a champion?

If it weren’t for the sounds of the beast rousing from its stupor, I’m certain we would have heard my bones snapping and fusing back together.

Weakly, I gestured at my legs.  “Now these!”

Quincy and Hakeem did as I asked them, and I could feel my legs begin to right themselves, the crooked bends vanishing.  It wasn’t moving fast enough for me, and without thinking I clung to Quincy, my fingers digging into her skin, tears streaming down my face.

“Gods!” I choked out.

She braced herself as my weight began to shift onto her, my body feeling cold.  I closed my eyes and felt everything become heavier.

“Nyx, you have to get a grip!” I could hear her say from far off.

My eyelids reluctantly slid open, eyes still rolling in their sockets.  My vision was blurry.  I could hear a strange voice scream, hear the death of the forest trees as they were uprooted from their only homes, feel the earth trembling in fear beneath us.  The wizards’ faces swam over me, blending into the black smear of the sky.  I could hear more voices–hoots and hollers.  Had others come?  Was I just hallucinating?  The beast’s roar was like thunder in my head, the intensity once more striking me in pain.  My ears would ring for days after this…if I survived, that is.

And as I considered passing out, I saw His golden gaze from the reaches of an ash tree not far from us.

My heart gave a stir, my eyes widening as I tried to get a better look.  My tongue pressed into the roof of my mouth, the alkaline taste of my own blood sharpening my senses somehow.  My throat moved in a swallow.

“Sir?” I breathed.

Quincy started pulling me up by the arms.  “Ailuran, get it together, we have to run!” she shouted.

“Run?” I murmured with a frown.  My gaze swiveled back onto the brunette’s face.  “Where…where are we gonna go?”

“Nyx, come on!” Hakeem said, pulling on my hand.

My frown deepened and I started to fight them.  “No.  No!

Quincy grabbed me around the chest and hefted me up, pain pressing down on me from the suddenness of the motion, the sensations dull but suffocating.  I tried to pry the woman’s hands off me.  Sound started to come in clearer, despite the ringing in my ears, and I could better hear the cries of many battling the beast.  More had come to risk their lives.  People were suffering.

NO!” I shouted.

What was the use? I thought wildly.  How could we run from this creature, who could so easily catch us like the prey we were?  There was no helping it.  We had to stand our ground.  And if the others were brave enough to do it…no.  No, I would not let myself run away again.  Even if I wanted to.  Even if every inch of me screamed for it.  People we hardly knew were risking their lives to help us, I’d be damned if I cut out on them.  I had a responsibility, didn’t I?  I was a champion.

This is my path, isn’t it, sir?

“This battle cannot be won!  We have to regroup!” Quincy argued in my ear.

I squeezed her wounded left hand, and the woman cried out, releasing me.  Hakeem tried to snatch at my legs, but I danced away from him.  “I can stop this!”

“Nyx, don’t be a fool!” He shouted, his face drawn in wild incredulity.

Trust me, Hakeem!”

The wizard hesitated at this, and I took this moment to stumble off into an awkward run toward the beast.  My limbs protested all of these heroics, but I ignored them.  I could take a beating better than anyone there.  I heard Hakeem shout after me, but didn’t stop to look back.

In all the time it took me to heal, so many things had happened.  Sanuye was there now with at least four others.  Her teeth were bared in ferocity as she rained the beast with arrows from her long bow.  There were crushed and mangled corpses littering the newly created clearing—meaning that our reinforcements had been cut down in short time.  Off to the side, I saw Makka dragging Sedwick out of danger, the elemental clutching at what looked like a serious wound in his gut.  It looked as if Gudahi had managed to cut off some of the beast’s fan-like ears, but now he was on the ground, trying to find an opening for a fatal blow.  The beast itself had shifted from its original position to better tower over its prey.  Now that its body was no longer concealed by the forest canopy, it was easier to see the magnitude of the danger we faced.

I could see Gudahi flit through the monster’s hind legs, his spear striking for its back tendon.  But with one timely kick, he was sent flying into the woods.

Gudahi!” I screamed.

The beast let out a sharp cry, flinching, its ears turning flat on its massive head.

Startled, I slowed to watch as the creature shook its ears out, its long tongue flashing out to lick its chops.  Everyone stopped and turned to look at me, and I gazed back at them with equal bemusement.

Hesitantly, I cupped my hands, and screamed out as loud as I could, “Hey!

The creature let out another cry, this time going so far as to slink close to the ground and step back.  Its ears quivered on its head as they flattened once more.  Feeling my heart lift.  I pressed in, screaming more at it.

You ugly bastard!  Begone!  Abomination!  Horrible BEAST!

Each time I screamed, the creature stepped back, more and more.  The Lycans pressed in, trying to take advantage of the situation, but they couldn’t seem to find that killing blow that would end the beast.  Its breast seemed too thick, its neck devoid of any vital veins or nerves that would incapacitate it.

Then things turned.

The creature stopped retreating, stopped flinching.  Instead, it seemed to become angrier and angrier.  It slammed its paws onto the ground, its claws gouging out pounds and pounds of earth.  Great stones rained on the few Lycan warriors left standing, and they were forced to retreat.

Alarmed, I tried screaming louder, pushing my diaphragm and expanding my throat muscles.  “DIE, DAMN YOU!”

A muted boom could be heard, and I saw the force of my voice carve a way through the churned earth…

But the creature roared, and the force of it seemed to swallow my sonic attack as if it weren’t even there.  It came rushing at me like a great wind, and I was blasted back, a sharp pain in my ears like someone had stabbed my ear drums with a knife.  I could feel the blood trickle from my ear canals, my eyes rolling once more as I lay flat on my back, stunned.  Whereas before my hearing had simply been lessened, this time all I could hear was that infernal ringing.  I could feel the earth tremble as the beast came near.

Soon it was looming over me, its maggoty eye raining its putrid bugs on my face.  The beast bared its teeth at me, and with a low snarl, it raised its paw and slammed it down…

QUINCY_________________________

After following the arnica petals, Quincy had been aware that things were not right even before the pugot appeared.  She hadn’t immediately known what it was, or even that its intent was to eat her, but she did know that it was a predatory spirit.  Still, her curiosity got the better of her when the slimy devil revealed itself.

“You’re a brave one to go stalking these forests with the beast lurking about,” she’d said.

The spirit giggled.  “And you’re a tasty meal that was silly enough to do the same!

It attacked her, and while she was able to fend it off and escape, the damned thing bit off her left hand’s pinky and ring finger at the second knuckle.  It would have had more, if it hadn’t been for her boots.  She hadn’t told the others what they did when she’d picked them back at the dwarven settlement, but after a quick identification ritual, she learned her new boots brought misfortune to those who tried to eat her.  But as was the case with most wizardry items, there was a catch—the boots did in fact bring misfortune to any who would try to eat Quincy, as was evidenced by what occurred to Tonatiuh and the pugot.  What it failed to mention was that any creature was allowed one bite before this came into effect.  So the pugot had a bite of the woman’s fingers, but at least she was able to get away.

But surviving was the point, wasn’t it?  Live to fight another day, and all that.  Elmiryn would consider it giving up, but the brunette saw it more as a tactical retreat.

That said, Quincy didn’t understand Nyx’s sudden drive.  The battle was clearly hopeless at this point–the beast was unmoved by the Lycans’ skills or her magic.  They sought its weak points only to realize it had none.  Its great size and reach reduced all advantages to nothing.  Given what she’d learned from the Lycans she’d treated, she wasn’t even sure how they’d managed to survive for so long.  What else could the Ailuran do?  What else could any of them do?

It’s more important that we survive this than die fighting—we need to formulate a new strategy, gather a bigger fighting force.  We cannot win like this!  The woman thought.

But as the Ailuran fought against Quincy and Hakeem’s grip, the woman saw that this logic was clearly not on the girl’s mind.

NO!” she shouted.

“This battle cannot be won!  We have to regroup!” Quincy snarled, struggling to keep a hold.

Absently, the woman thought, Elmiryn will try to kill me if something happens to this little idiot.

The struggle was decided when Nyx purposefully squeezed Quincy’s injured hand.  She cried out, releasing the Ailuran.  Hakeem tried to stop the girl, but off she went, stumbling to her doom.  Afterwards, the woman told herself she tried.  She said it over and over and fought to keep the vision of Graziano’s corpse out of her head.

She tried.  She tried.

Then she saw why it was they hadn’t been destroyed yet.  Nyx’s voice seemed to have an effect on the beast, much like it did in the battle against Tonatiuh.  In retrospect, the wizard saw that each time the girl had screamed, whether in pain or out of fear, the beast had been staggered, buying them all more time.  Against all odds, it seemed they could win this battle, and Quincy’s hopes began to lift.

Of course, it wasn’t to last.

Somehow, the monster fought against the girl’s powerful voice, and in a cruel twist, it proved to have a sonic force of its own.  With one strong blast, it had Nyx on her back.  The sound had affected them all, and Quincy was on the ground with Hakeem, yelling and clutching at her ears.  She was aware of the beast moving toward Nyx, but couldn’t move herself to intervene.  She just watched, a cold feeling entering her gut, as the monster raised its massive claw and slammed it down on the girl.

Everything fell silent after that.  No one moved.  The beast seemed content to linger there, to better savor its victory.

The force of the slam sent Nyx into the ground a good few inches.  One of its claws buried itself in the girl’s gut, her blood mixing with the black ichor that stained the beast’s paws.  Her entire lower body was swallowed beneath the creature’s great palm.

This didn’t last either.

A blackness started to sweep beneath them both, like a vast shadow, but nothing loomed overhead.  A dark smoke emanated from the ground, and Quincy could see the veins in the beast’s naked paw bulge out.  The creature let out a low cry and tried to pull its paw away, but it seemed stuck.  Its struggles grew more frantic as it fought with all its might to become free.  The Lycans yelled as they avoided the sweep of its massive tail.  Nyx stared up at the beast with glazed eyes, her face stained with her own blood spray.  An expression of anguish was frozen there.  Quincy thought it was a look haunted with understanding…but of what?

Then the beast and the Ailuran began to sink into the ground.

The monster shrieked and fought, but try as it might, it could not stop its descent into the shadows with Nyx.

All present watched, stunned, as the beast’s massive form sank into the earth, the shadow that took it receding as it went.  Soon Nyx, the monster, and the shadow were gone.

Quincy was the first to rise to her feet.  Swaying, she walked to the place where Nyx had lain.  Then she turned her eyes on to the others.  “She’s gone…” she said.

“Who’s gone?”

The brunette closed her eyes at the voice, but slowly she turned to face the speaker.  When she opened her eyes, she saw Elmiryn standing there, cradling her arm, her face pale.  Panting, she stepped closer.

“Quincy, who’s gone?” she demanded fiercely.

ELMIRYN________________________

Words did not slip to her through the dark of the forest, no illuminating messages, no taunting thoughts.  Meznik was absent, as was all sense of regret or remorse.  She was barreling towards a fate shrouded in mystery and chaos, but she would happily meet this end if all it meant was keeping her friend safe.  She had promised.  The woman had promised to be there, and never had she cared so much to keep such a promise.  Harmony be damned, the warrior would turn reality on its head before she found herself barred from being there for Nyx.

…And it felt good, to admit this sort of thing.

It was fuel for fighting, and Elmiryn willed her body to keep moving, because she knew time was of the essence—could feel it as assuredly as one felt a blade against their skin.  She clutched at her limp arm, sweat dripping into her eyes as she tried to find her way through the dark.  She didn’t know where she was going.  She just knew she had to get away from the village before they realized what she’d done.

“Did your master teach you that?” Artemis asked, stepping out from behind a tree up ahead.

Elmiryn ran past her with out sparing a glance.  “I have no master,” she panted.

Artemis appeared further on still, sitting on a rock with her head in her hands.  “No.  I have decided you must have a master.  There is no way you could have done that trick without someone to have taught it to you.”

“I don’t have a fucking master!” Elmiryn snapped, charging on still.

Without a sound, the goddess appeared running alongside her.  With great ease, she said, “I heard whispers of Nadi the River Guardian suffering from just such a trick as that.  Making people believe what isn’t there?  Thou art a clever one!  And was it truly thine efforts that freed the city of Gamath, or was it all a ruse?”

Elmiryn bared her teeth but didn’t answer.  Artemis knew the truth, she was just toying with the woman.  But the redhead didn’t have time for games.  She had to find Nyx.

At some point, the goddess vanished, and the warrior lost herself in the ways of the forest.  The trees murmured over her, their interweaving branches like bastions against the looming void overhead.  The world was stuck in a silent nightmare, fear permeating everything from the soil, to the bark, to the rocks, to the leaves, leaving the air to be repressed by anxiety.  Elmiryn steeled herself as best she could.

Then she heard it.  She heard the beast off in the distance.  The woman tried to stop, but her body was clumsy with fatigue, and she tumbled to the forest floor.  The roar was unmistakable—in all the time they had stayed with the Lycans, Elmiryn had never heard such a fierce roar.  It echoed from far off, and with a curse, the warrior realized she was on the wrong side of the forest.  With difficulty, the woman raised herself up again and resumed her run, this time in the direction of the beast’s cries.

The woman was beyond frustrated by the limitations of her body.  She felt almost confined by it, and why not?  After experiencing the speed of realization in her strange subconscious haven, who could stand the laborious reality of the real world?  But her perseverance was rewarded as the sounds of battle grew closer.  She heard Nyx scream out—she was using her voice to fight the beast by the sounds of it.  The woman felt a rush, her hairs standing on end at the amount of power the young girl held in her Words.

But then there was that fierce roar that ended it all.  Elmiryn screamed, falling onto her knees, her hand going to her ear.  Shivering, she thought she felt something dripping down her ear lobe, and when she checked her hand, she found it was blood.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something large and white, and she snapped her head to see.

Sitting on a small rise of earth, a white wolf with dark eyes peered at her impassively.  Blinking in the darkness over the animal’s shoulder was a golden reptilian gaze.  Elmiryn stared between them, then cocked her ear as something occurred to her.

The sounds of battle had stopped.

Rising to her feet, the woman tried to clear her ears of the blood and the ringing.  When this proved hopeless, she cradled her dead arm and cut through the thick brush.  The woman skirted the wild reaches of a fallen tree, which opened a view of such destruction that Elmiryn was stopped in her tracks.  It were as though the gods had reached down with great hands and churned the soil, overturning the life and order that had once existed there.  Bodies were strewn about, mangled and dismembered, and off to the side she saw Sedwick, hurt but still alive by the looks of it.  Quincy and Hakeem were also there, the brunette moving to a spot out in the messy clearing.

“She’s gone…” she said.

Elmiryn tensed as she stepped forward, breathing heavily.  “Who’s gone?”

The wizard closed her eyes, and after a moment, turned and looked at the woman.  Was that an apology in her eyes?  Somehow, it incensed the warrior further, and the redhead snapped, “Quincy, who’s gone?”

The other woman sighed.  “Nyx,” she said after a moment, looking away.  “Nyx is gone.”

The Lycans seemed to come out of their stunned silence and moved to one another’s aid.  One woman with a bow dashed back out into the woods, shouting, “Gudahi!  Gudahi!

Elmiryn kept her eyes on Quincy as she approached.  “What happened?”

“We fought, we lost,” Quincy said, defensiveness beginning to creep into her voice.

The warrior snarled, cutting in front of the woman.  “What.  Happened?

Azure met cerulean.  Quincy did not look away.  “Nyx tried to save us.  She tried using her power of voice to subdue the beast but…but the beast fought back, almost as if it had the same power.  She was beaten.  She…”  The wizard trailed off, her eyes fluttering.

Elmiryn heard Hakeem’s voice off to the side.  “She sank into the shadows.  With the beast.”

The redhead turned to look at the young-looking wizard, his dark face bunched in a deep scowl.  “She sacrificed herself to save us all.”

“Sacrificed?” the woman repeated, squinting her eyes.  Then her gaze widened and she turned to look back the way she’d come.

Stomping that way, she shouted, “Lacertli!  You slimy fucking bastard, this is your fault, isn’t it!?

A hand grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back roughly.  The warrior found herself meeting Quincy’s infuriated gaze.  “Watch your tongue!  If Lacertli is a god, then we wouldn’t want to repeat the experience you had with Artemis, now would we!?

Elmiryn’s jaw tensed, her eyes illuminated with her rage.  “God of sacrifice?  God of dreamwalking?  He’s just a creep skulking in the shadows–!” the woman broke off with a sharp intake of breath.  Eyes fluttering, she looked at Hakeem wildly.  “Wizard, did you say Nyx sank into the shadows?”

Hakeem nodded.  “Yes she–” his eyes brightened.  “…She did.” He laughed.  “She sank into the shadows!”

Quincy looked between them, her face screwed up.  “Is there something I’m missing?  The girl was simultaneously impaled and half-crushed.  You two honestly think she would have survived that?”

The trap has sprung, Elmiryn.  Now to free thy kitten, thou must find the one who set it in the first place.

Elmiryn nodded slowly.  “That’s what I have to do.  Artemis knew I wouldn’t get here in time to stop this.  What I can do is get her back.” Then she paused and thought with a frown.  “I wonder if that constitutes as accepting help from her?”

Quincy gave her a weird look.  “What’re you babbling about?”

The warrior waved her question away.  “Listen.  We have to find the one who set the beast loose to begin with!”

The brunette placed her hands on her hips as her husband rubbed his chin in thought.  “Who’s to say that the beast was ‘set loose’?  What if it just came into being on its own?”

Elmiryn looked at her as if she were stupid.  “Everything comes from something.”  Then she added with a jerk of her chin.  “By the way, what the fuck happened to your hand?”

The wizard crossed her arms, hiding her bandaged left hand in the folds of her arms–but the warrior saw the blood stains.  “It’s nothing,” the wizard bit out.

The woman shrugged and said, “Fine.  Anyway, I think I have an idea of where to start looking.”

“And where’s that?” Hakeem asked, though his eyes held knowing.

Elmiryn sucked at her teeth, then nodded her head at the woods.  “I hope you guys are up for another hunt.  We have a Twin to find!”


Back to Chapter 30.2 | Forward to Chapter 31.1

Chapter 30.2

ELMIRYN________________________

Back arched.  She clawed, legs kicking as her suffering dragged out a deep primal scream.

Shouts, far away.

Far.

Away.

Hands.  On her.

Fire was in her veins, hot and purifying, but she didn’t want to be purified.  She wanted poison.  She wanted corrosion in all its destructive beauty.  She sought to move her arms, trying to find that sundering, but instead she knew a greater prison in her body–her left arm was like a reluctant child.  It moved with great difficulty, a ghost of pain filtering up the nerves to scramble her thoughts.  In all the confusion, Elmiryn forgot the where and the how of it, but she knew one thing–things were not right, and she blamed the Hands.  Those wretched, foul Hands that gripped her.

Get off me!” she screamed.

Her tormentors spoke in tongues, their faces gradually coming through the warm haze like ghoulish masks.  Her vision was one-sided, her right eye swollen to the point that she could hardly see in her daze.  In a sudden surge of strength, the woman ripped her right arm free and struck in a wide swing.  She felt her swing strike true and someone cried out.  She battled through the waves of dizziness and nausea that wracked her and sat up, placing her bare feet on the ground.  Her breath was ragged over her parched tongue, and the air chilled the sweat on her skin.  Wildly she swiped at her other captor.  She missed, but they look go of her, leaving her free to move.  The pain was like a vice on her mind, squeezing.  Tight.  She was going to explode from the pressure, and her body knew it, from the way it trembled, right down to the hands.  Hands.  Her hands.

Elmiryn’s eye blinked rapidly as she tried to clear her vision of the fog.  She recognized that she was in a hut of some sort, and there were rows of small cots all occupied.  A great push of her will clarified her reality.  She was in the medicine hut.  But this bit of knowledge did nothing to quell her anxiety, and the woman growled as she stood swaying to her feet.  Her legs bumped into her cot, and infuriated, she flipped it over with one hand, hearing the crash and clatter of things falling to the floor.

All eyes were on her–strange, unfriendly eyes that wept accusations, and she hated them hated them hated them–

“Stop it!”

The woman’s eyes snapped onto the speaker, and she saw that it was a tall man with long white hair and gray eyes.  One of the healers.  Had she seen him before?

He held up his hands in a placating manner, his voice gentle.  “Please, calm down!  We only want to help you!”

She snarled at him, her spine curling, her right hand clawing at her shirt.  When had she been given a shirt?

“What did you do to me?” she hissed.

“It–the pain you feel may be the venom, but–”

The man’s voice became a distant, squeaky thing, overshadowed by the new focus that caught her attention.  Elmiryn lurched around the other cots, and the man trailed off.  She brushed past him roughly, her mouth salivating, her hands already reaching desperately for the table of bottled liquids on the other side of the hut.  Snatching up a wide, jug, the woman opened it and raised it to her lips.

Thirsty…” she croaked.

Hands grabbed her from behind.  “No, don’t!  That’ll kill you!”

Elmiryn yelled, shoving backward with her body, but she tripped, and without both arms to steady herself, she fell, the bottle slipping from her grip.  Her nose flared as she disentangled from the healer, and from some innate sense she didn’t know she had, she knew the liquid was not what she sought.  Baring her teeth, the warrior half-rose, half-stumbled, her clumsy attempt at standing sending her careening out through hut entrance to the village trail outside.  She crashed into a pair of women carrying jugs–sense and feeling a debilitating jumble for a moment before she mustered enough strength to claw at the confused Lycans belongings.  The women fended her off, yelling, and the warrior gnashed her teeth as they fled.

Slamming her fist onto the ground, she screamed, “I’m fucking dying of thirst you mangy savages!

Blackness billowed from her thoughts, making murder seem charitable.  Her fingers, bleeding from the way she scraped them into the dirt and rocks, pulsed with a need to find satisfaction.  Yet she knew this need would be the end of her.  It would turn her inside out and violate her.  She had to fulfill it–had to–because her body could hardly move without the shivering desire coming flush through the skin and bones.  She was effectively a puppet of this addiction, but Elmiryn would dance gladly to its tune, if only–

“A drink…” she panted, hands held out to the crowd that gathered around her.  “Just a drop, just a drink, anything, please–”

She started to weep…

…And then she caught it.  That special something, that delicious aroma, that thing she so needed.  Her nose worked, and she tilted her head back like an animal, her right hand out before her like she were blind.  Finally, her search lead her to the wineskin of an older man.  Roaring, she leapt for it, tearing it off his belt and knocking him to the ground.  The Lycans around her let out infuriated shouts, moving to capture her, but Elmiryn dodged them long enough to uncork the mouthpiece and get a good three gulpfuls before she was tackled to the ground…

……….

……..

……

.

……

……..

……….

…Sometime later, she found herself laying face down on the dirt floor, the taste of wine and vomit on her tongue.  Her hands were tied behind her back, and she found that she was in a hut once again–not the medicine hut, but a smaller one of simple comforts.  Groaning, the woman rolled to her side and felt her whistle pop over her arm and lightly against the side of her breast.  She craned her head up, struggling to see it with her one good eye.

“Hey,” she grunted.  Then louder, she called, “Hey!  Where am I!?”

The hut flap opened, and two men stepped in.  One was Halian, though he looked paler than she’d last seen him.  The other was the white-haired healer from before.  Neither looked pleased to see her.

“You’re awake.  Do you remember, then?”

She squinted at him.  “Remember what?”

“You struck my father,” the healer growled.  “And you attacked other innocent people of our village!”

“I was thirsty,” she mumbled, looking away.

“We should skin this stupid tkelechog,” Halian bit out, his teeth bared.  “We cared for her, and she turned on us!”

“I didn’t mean to, all right?” Elmiryn snapped back.  She swung upright with her legs and glared at the two men.  “It’s hard to explain to you, but I wasn’t myself!”

The Lycan warrior sneered.  “So it was your evil twin, then?”

Elmiryn’s glare softened.  “Twin…?”  Her eyes snapped wide.  “Fuck!  Nyx!  She’s in trouble!”

The healer’s frown deepened. “What do you mean?”

The woman struggled to sit up on her knees.  “While I was out, I…had a vision.”  That was simpler than what actually happened, anyway.

The healer crossed his arms, his expression skeptical.  “A vision?  You?”

The woman fumbled to come up with a good explanation, her mind still foggy.  “Nyx, she…I think she might be fighting the beast!”

Halian snorted.  “She lies!  The hunt hasn’t started yet, and that Ailuran was too much of a coward to go alone.”

“She is not a coward,” The woman hissed through grit teeth.  She looked back at the healer.  “I swear on Artemis’s head.  Nyx is out there and she needs help!”

Silence followed.

The healer sucked on his teeth.  Then he turned and laid a hand on his companion’s arm.  “Get Sanuye and gather a team.  Find Nyx.  Check the village first, and if she isn’t here then you have my permission to head into the forest.”

Halian’s pale face started to color as he clenched his fists, “But–”

Now.”

The Lycan warrior glared for a moment longer before dropping his gaze to the ground and storming out of the hut.

…Clearly the healing arts was more valued than the way of the warrior in Lycan culture.

“Checking the village will take too long!  I’m telling you, she’s out there,” the woman argued.  “I can find her.  Just untie me.”

The healer’s response was quick.  “No.”

Elmiryn stared.  “…What?”

“I said, no.”

The woman took a moment to breathe through her nose before asking tightly, “Why not?”

The man looked at her with stern eyes.  “Because you still have to answer for what you did.  Even if you were pardoned, I doubt my father would allow you to go.  So you’re staying.”

“Now you listen to–” As Elmiryn spoke, she made to stand, but as soon as she tried to rise out of a kneeling position, she found her bonds pull on something.  Blinking, she looked over her shoulder to find that she was tied to a thick stake in the ground with a large curved stone cap on the top of it.  Looking it over, the woman knew that simply pulling it out would be quite a feat, if at all possible.  Slowly, she looked back at the healer.

“I have…to save…my friend,” she said slowly.

The healer looked away.  “We’ll find Nyx.  Have faith.”  And without looking back, the man left.

Elmiryn lunged after him, feeling her binds cut into her skin.  “Hey!  HEY!

“Thou swears on my head, hmm?”

The warrior jumped and turned her head to see Artemis leaning on the stake, an amused smirk on her lips.

“I only said that to get them to listen to me,” the warrior snapped.  Then Elmiryn let out a rough sigh.  “You knew this would happen…didn’t you?”

The goddess feigned surprise.  “Knew?  Why, that would imply that I have some sort of command over these events.  Certainly, thou doesn’t believe that?”

The warrior glared.  “No.  I don’t.  Anyone with half a brain can make a deduction from a collection of information.  Namely, you knew more than I did about the situation and let me walk right into a burning building.”

Artemis shook her head.  “When good fortune comes, thou wish to claim it as thine own, but when misfortune comes, suddenly it is the fault of the gods.”  The goddess tsked.  “Long the yellow rain when a man drinks deep.”

Elmiryn gave the goddess a weird look.  “That’s a pub saying.”

“I thought I’d try speaking at your level.”

“You couldn’t get at my level if you tried.”

“Is that a dare?”

“Oh heavens no, because we all know what happened the last time I dared.”

Artemis considered the stake with puckered lips.  “I could help thee.”

Elmiryn closed her eyes with another sigh.  “Still not interested.”

“May I ask what your plan is, then?”

“You mean you can’t read my mind?”

The goddess considered her for a moment.  “That’d be boring,” She said finally.

The warrior shook her head and tried to think, and though she knew it didn’t help, she found herself at the conclusion that waking from the dream was the nightmare…

NYX____________________________

I feel that, at this point, it is safe to say that I am something of an expert on scary.  Being chased by giggling demons?  Scary.  Facing down a giant necromantic abomination? Scary.  Being chased by an angry lust spirit?  Scary.

But this?  This was terrifying.

The sky knew a sort of blackness–imitating the dark of night in an empty sort of attempt at the reality–but this beast was the very essence of black, its thick coat contrasting so sharply to our surroundings that at first I thought I was looking at a shadow.  Its massive head was easily larger than any of us combined, and its long lupine snout quivered at our scent.  Its limbs were taller than all the trees, its hulking shoulders the size of four carriages lined up in a row.  Its paws were humanoid in nature–with opposable thumbs and long digits, but the pads of its paws were thick, I saw, and its talons set in deep in the digits, nearly constituting for the tips entirely.

As far as size went, the beast was topped only by Tonatiuh in the sun spirit’s greatest state.  But from where we stood, the treeline managed to conceal the rest of the beast, and somehow I knew it must be much larger.  In a wet crunch, the beast swallowed the pugot, its thick tunnel of a neck moving, muscles like beasts themselves.  It seemed to have one eye socket, but this was lidless and lacking any sort of eyeball, instead playing host to hundreds of thousands of maggots, which weeped from the orifice in a thick slime like corruptive tears.  Large, bat-like ears could be seen sprouting randomly from atop its head like a grotesque mane, the protrusions twisting and turning to catch the sounds of the forest.  These quivered and faced us, a faint hissing sound simmering the air, and the monster’s lips pulled back as it raised its head.

Hakeem was frozen where he stood, too shocked to react to the thing before him.  Sedwick’s breath had quickened, gaining a small whine I’d never heard from him before.  Behind us, I could hear Gudahi and Makka crashing through the brush–all attempts at subtlety gone as they came to our aid.  With my hands like claws about my mouth, I was trapped between the desire to run and the knowledge that there was no getting away from this thing.

A growl began to rumble in the beast’s throat, and I could feel it in my bones, spreading cracks through my resolve.

I can’t do this, I can’t do this

I took a trembling step back, then another.

The beast dug its claws into the earth, gouging out deep marks, and with a deep breath, it roared.  The sound was painful, stunning me so that I fell over, clutching my ears.  They rang, pain pulsing in my eardrums.  I tried to tell my legs to move, but they just kicked futilely at the ground, too shocked to be of any use.  It was at this point that Gudahi appeared over me, his spear pulled back with one hand, Hakeem’s spear in the other, his teeth bared in a warrior’s snarl.

Bia tsimbic da-sasua!” he screamed, sounding far away, just as he threw his spear.

It connected, the tip burying into the creature’s maggoty eye.

The beast reared back with a thunderous cry of pain, and as it stood on its hind-quarters, I got to see just how tall it was.

I felt hands on me, and looked up to see Makka dragging me to my feet, his usually stoic-face tight with emotions I couldn’t readily name.  Half-way on my feet, and I was already scrambling to run with him, the idea of putting distance between us and that thing a single great drive.  But as we moved to retreat from the beast’s no doubt devastating return to the earth, I looked over my shoulder.  Sedwick was fast following us, and Gudahi was striding to snatch up Hakeem.  The Lycan reached the wizard, and without a word, grabbed him by the waist, lifted him up, and swung around to follow…but the beast was already coming down, fast.  Sedwick was turning into water, and so would no doubt be able to escape being crushed by the monster or a felled tree through his shifting form, and Makka and I were well out of harm’s way.  But Gudahi and Hakeem…there was no way they’d get away in time…

With a yell, I pulled out of Makka’s hands, and sprinted back the way we’d come.  Sedwick stopped and yelled after me, “What are you doing!?”

Everything slowed down, my heart loud in my ears and my lungs burning.  I dove forward, hands outstretched.  Gudahi held a hand out to me, one arm wrapped around Hakeem’s small body.  Our fingertips met.  The earth shook and cracked, the thick ancient trees groaning as they started to come down around us, hundreds of pounds of weight, of life, all ending in a sudden blast.

We watched it all happen from the Umbralands.

Gudahi’s hand was sweaty as he gripped mine tightly.  His eyes were wide as he stared around at the dark dimension, then he stumbled as he moved to take a step back.  “Pet?” he squeaked.  “Where are we?”

Hakeem slipped from his grasp, and the glaze was gone from his eyes, though his dark skin had turned pale.  “The shadow realm?”

“The Umbralands,” I panted, but my attention was already elsewhere.  In the shifting environment, it was possible that we could still come to harm.  “Hakeem, grab onto Gudahi.  We still aren’t safe here!”

Instead of the protests, Gudahi and Hakeem quickly held hands.  I felt a twinge, wondering if I were really fit to be among such brave people.  Then I shook the thought away.  This wasn’t the time for self-pity.

Closing my eyes, I willed the shadows to take us, and there was a cold rush as we appeared back in the Real World just as the beast raised its paw to strike.

“Move!” Hakeem yelled.

We vaulted over the felled trees, the shadow of the beast’s paw growing starker over us.  With a whine, I knew I’d have to stop and do something about it, or the beast would have us crushed.  Skidding to a halt, I focused on the shadow over us and held out my hands.  It fought me, the shadow wiggling against my will, but with a concentrated shout, I threw it aside.  The ground rattled, and I tumbled backward onto my backside.  Opening my eyes, I felt my blood drain to realize how close I’d come to being flattened like a pancake. The beast’s paw landed just past my outstretched foot.

I wasn’t in the clear yet.  The beast’s hot breath rushed over me, its thick, slimy saliva dripping into my hair from large rancid teeth.  Trembling I twisted around to stare up at it, mouth agape, the feeling of shocked numbness returning to me.

Then the wind kicked up, and I was flying.

MERID__________________________

In the medicine hut.

Merid checked the cut on his father’s cheek one last time, making sure his medicinal paste had been properly applied.

“How are you feeling?” he asked in his native tongue.

“Boy, I sed m’fine,” Eidan snapped.  “I’m ol’, not fragile.”

Merid pursed his lips.  “Father, I know you’re a tough one, but living for three centuries tends to take its toll, all right?”

“An’ what do you know about livin’ for three centuries?”

The younger man held up his hands, his eyes rolling.  “Fine.  I’ve already checked up on your patients, but go ahead and make your rounds if you want to so badly.”

Eidan was about to reply when a young girl came bursting through the hut entrance, her face flushed and her eyes wide with panic.  “Fire!” she gasped out.

Merid straightened, his eyes widening.  Fire was a danger they took very seriously after the Great Fire hundreds of years ago.  The last thing they’re people needed was to be burned out of their homes for the beast to find.

“Show me!” The man said.  With one last glance back at his father, he followed the young girl outside, running after her along the village trail.

Then he saw it.  The flames, the heat, the smoke.  It was his hut.

The one where he’d placed Elmiryn.

Lycans were sprinting in from the great tree with jugs and bowls of water–but it wouldn’t be enough.  Merid buried his hands in his white hair, then remembered himself and looked around.

Grabbing the girl, he barked, “Did anyone pull out the human woman!?”

The girl frowned.  “Who–?”

Growling, the man let the girl go and turned on the spot, his eyes searching wildly.  He spotted a thick blanket hung out on a line across from the burning hut.  He grabbed it, draped it across his shoulders, and with a deep breath, rushed in through the entrance.

Elmiryn was laying face down in the dirt, her eyes closed and her body limp.  Coughing from the smoke, the man squinted in the face of the heat as he knelt beside her.  Taking out the small knife in his boot, Merid cut the warrior’s bonds, and gathered her into his arms.  Not stopping to lament his lost effects, the Lycan rushed back out of the fire, his lungs burning from the smoke, his eyes tearing up badly.

His fellow villagers rushed to his aid, pulling the cloak off his shoulders and taking Elmiryn from him.  He was given water and drank just a sip before setting into his coughing fit again.  Holding up a hand, the others left him alone.  The man sat at the edge of the trail and buried his face into his hands, trying to calm the nerves that sought to undo him.  He was not a warrior, and though he had a steady nerves for medicine, actual danger was a different matter.

Then he heard his brothers and sisters shout and holler.  His head shot up, and Merid turned to see what the commotion was about.

…His hut wasn’t burning anymore.  In fact, it looked as though it hadn’t been on fire at all.

Dumbfounded, the Lycan leapt to his feet and looked to his fellows for answers.

“What happened?  How can this be?  You saw it, right?” he asked shakily.  He looked into each of the faces around him, young and old alike.  His voice started to rise.  “You saw it, didn’t you!?  The fire, the smoke?  You felt it, right?”

“Yes! Plain as the full moon!” one answered.

“Could it be our Great Mother’s doing?” another wondered.

“It’s a sign!” another whispered.

“An ill omen!”

“Gods, what does it mean?  Is it the beast?”

The man scratched his head, his eyes sweeping over those around him.  Then his face drew blank.

“…Where’s the woman I just carried out?”  When none answered him, Merid’s face went white with rage and he yelled.  “Where is Elmiryn?  WHERE IS SHE!?


Back to Chapter 30.1 | Forward to Chapter 30.3

Chapter 30.1

HAKEEM_________________________

Tick.

Tick.

Tick.

Hakeem’s eyes were on the dark of the forest, its shadows pregnant with all the possibilities of what became of his wife.  His lips pursed and it was only a thin thread of common sense that kept him from barreling into the woods alone.  When Nyx and Sedwick first fixed him with those eyes, he knew that something had happened to Quincy.  It was an instinct, kicking in from years of worrying and fear.  The brunette had a tendency of getting into trouble, and Hakeem was used to having to chase her, if not bail her out.  But he was in the body of a child, and with the foreign surge of anxiety that frothed inside of him, Hakeem wondered if this time around, he would be his greatest obstacle.

A soft touch on the shoulder made the man-boy’s head snap to the side, a look of deep intensity tightening his youthful features into something akin to a snarl.  Nyx looked down at him in surprise, pulling back as though he were a wild animal about to bite off her hand.

“The others are ready!” she blurted, pointing nervously over her shoulder.

“Good,” Hakeem muttered, returning his stare to the forest.

He felt Nyx drift away from him and was glad for the space.  He wasn’t sure he could manage any level of civility, considering the matter at hand.  Another moment went by where the others murmured quietly behind him.  He felt eyes on his back, but didn’t turn to look.

A few seconds later and a spear was held out in front of him.  Hakeem looked up to see it was Gudahi offering the weapon.  Makka, his usual shadow, was there just a little behind him.  Gudahi looked him in the eyes, but the wizard gazed steadily back into the gaze, forgetting momentarily just what it meant.  Then he remembered himself and looked away.

“Thank you,” he said.

The Lycan clapped him heartily on the shoulder. “We will find her, do not worry.”

“So?” Sedwick said behind them.  “Who leads?”

The wizard was tempted to say, “Me,” but knew that one of the therians would be ideal to take point.  On that note, he gestured at Gudahi.

“You should lead,” he said.  “You know these forests better than anyone in the village.”

The Lycan nodded and looked to the others.  None offered any arguments, and so without another word, they crossed the tree line into the enigmatic woods.  The twisted boughs of the black willows creaked overhead as they went at a light run, the ghostly eyes of a forest creature following their path from the bosom of a magnolia tree in full blossom.  The wizard’s nose flared as the fragrant scent of the flowers wafted to him through the dark.  They fell into V formation, with Nyx and Sedwick at rear, and Hakeem and Makka flanking Gudahi.

The Lycan’s footsteps were light and swift over the uneven forest floor, but Hakeem was used to following Gudahi’s lead by now, and managed to keep pace.  He didn’t hear the others behind him, which didn’t really surprise him.  Sedwick was an elemental and could easily manipulate his form to soften the sound of his footfalls.  Nyx was clearly one who lived on the outskirts of society, and as a therian, had a natural inclination toward dark and natural settings such as this.  Wild landscapes were second nature to Hakeem, and with his time spent at the village, he had become familiar with the local terrain–not as well as Gudahi, but well enough to keep from stumbling like most humans would at this pace.

The firs, oaks, and poplars parallaxed by, just dark cuts in the corner of his eyes.  The shadowy earth, the light mist that shrouded the distance, the teeth of the forest canopy–they encapsulated everything he had ever heard about the dangers of the unknown.  His mother, Nguele, or Ma’Nguele as he was taught to call her, warned of evil spirits that brought misfortune to those foolhardy souls that underestimated nature.

Ya kabur aiju maiti juena adhab.

The flower may yet find the breast.

The trail of arnica petals they followed seemed strangely lit, not in brightness, but in color, their teardrop shapes standing out in the indefinite forest floor.  Owl hoots and distant wolf calls blanketed their surroundings in a loneliness that only served to prick at Hakeem’s tension.  He felt his young body shiver, its bodily control not at the maturity he was used to.  It left him open to thoughts of Quincy lost, hurt…dead.

The trail was excruciatingly long, giving ample room to build upon his fears.

At one point, they passed a clearing the great beast had cleared in one of its vicious attacks, and Hakeem felt his gut churn as his eyes searched the dark for Quincy.  But the trail continued on, and so they went until they came onto a small wetland.  The muddy ground sucked at their boots, flies buzzing in their ears as they came together in a line.  Mangroves, with their gapped, web-like roots, seemed to yawn silently at their plight, their thin trunks swaying.  The trail had ended, and the party exchanged looks.

“This cannot be the beast,” Gudahi said, crouched at the trail’s end.

The reeds rustled as a breeze swept through, chilling Hakeem’s sweat.  He swallowed and wiped at his brow.  He could see Nyx look at him from the corner of his eye and turned his head away.

The long-haired Lycan called Makka over, and they both leaned down toward the ground, sniffing.  They conversed quietly for a moment before Gudahi straightened with narrowed eyes.

“The smell of taint isn’t here,” he said.

“This didn’t seem the beast’s style,” Sedwick agreed.  He crossed his arms and looked around them, his brows bunching.  “My guess is a rogue spirit.”

Gudahi squinted an eye as he tugged on one ear.  “That’s also a problem.”

The elemental frowned at him.  “Why?”

The Lycan shrugged.  “There is no taint.  There is also nothing…”  His eyes flickered to Hakeem’s face.  “Nothing but your wife.”

Nyx crouched down and inspected the trail.  Hakeem could see her nostrils flare as she leaned down for a whiff.  When she straightened, she was also frowning.  “He’s right…but then why would Quincy just leave?”

Gudahi shrugged as he stood to his feet.  “Even a spirit will leave a scent.  Since I sense nothing, then perhaps Quincy came out of here of her own free will?  Maybe to look for more herbs and other reagents?”

Nyx wrinkled her nose at the thought.  “And she left a blatant trail of petals as she went?”

“It doesn’t matter the reason!” Hakeem snapped, throwing his spear down.

Everyone stopped to stare at him.  He glared back at them all.  “All I care about are the facts that will help me find my wife.”  He gestured at the trail.  “You say her scent is the only thing you can sense?  Then we know she has come this way, but that trail ends at this wetland.  We have to pick up a new trail again and keep moving!”

Nyx nodded, her gaze the first to fall away.  “All right, Hakeem.”

She turned, and with eyes turned downward, proceeded to search for clues.  Awkwardly, the other three men followed suit.  Hakeem sighed and took a moment to rub at his face before returning to the task at hand.

The wetland wasn’t very large, perhaps half the size of a typical lake, and the trees, though sparser, still found reach enough that the forest canopy still branched overhead.  A frog croaked somewhere off to his left as a mosquito tried to land on his forearm. He swatted at it as his eyes squinted in the dark.  He tried to make out footprints, smashed plants, or a torn piece of clothing, any sort of sign that someone had been through the area before they had.

He saw nothing.

With time providing no fruit for his labor, the wizard was about to ask the others if they had seen anything when a twig snapped behind them.

Everyone froze.  Nyx’s tawny eyes could be seen peering widely from a set of tall ferns.  Sedwick was crouched near a low rock, his form having turned watery.  Makka and Gudahi had ventured out into the wetlands proper, feet sunk deep in the mud and their flanks brushing through tall grass.  The two men looked at each other, then readied their weapons.

Together, they let out low hoots–an identifying call between their people.  The call was not returned.

Instead, they heard a voice.

“Fuck this chingali forest!”

Hakeem gave a start, his heart doing a somersault. “Mweze?”  He straightened and ventured toward the source.  “Mweze, is that you?”

Quincy emerged from a cluster of tulip trees, twigs and leaves in her hair and an irate look on her face.

“Damn those brats!” she bit out.

Hakeem hesitated, his eyes flickering to the therians.  Sedwick let out a chuckle.  Nyx looked relieved.  Makka’s look of indifference remained unchanging.  Gudahi smiled.

“You see my prince?  She is well and whole,” the Lycan said.  Then his smile turned wry.  “Well…she’s whole at least.”

“Which is more than I can say for those boys when I find them,” Quincy snarled.  She managed to free her clothes from the snatching branches, but her feet tangled and she fell backward, where she landed into the mud with a loud splat.  For a moment, time seemed to hang, uncertain of whether to go forward or to go back.  The brunette blinked, hands raised, her face frozen in horror as she looked down at herself.  As the reality set in, her face contorted as if she wanted to scream, but instead she clamped her jaw tight and let out a high pitched growl.  Hakeem hurried forward to help her out of the mud as the others broke out laughing.

“Are you all right?” He asked as she stood up.  He couldn’t help it–he was grinning, too.

The woman grimaced as she shook the mud from her hands.  “Some children took the flowers we needed, and I came chasing them.  I lost them halfway along and followed the trail of petals, but as you can see, that trail ends.  I was just poking around to see if I could pick up a new trail somewhere nearby.”  She threw up her hands.  “None of this makes any sense!”

Hakeem shook his head at her.  “You should have asked for help!  Running out into the forests is dangerous by yourself!”

“I didn’t think I’d gone far,” Quincy muttered with a shrug.  She looked around at them all.  “Wait…you all came looking for me?”  Her eyes fell on Nyx in particular.

Gudahi threw his hair back and made a show of sticking his nose up into the air. “And help my rival in love?  Nonsense!”

Hakeem knuckled his eyes.  “Gudahi…You’ve been picking up on Fiamman behavior, I see…”

The man grinned, examining his nails at length.  “Who’s to say they didn’t steal it from me?”

“My guess is the children returned to the village.  Can we go back now?” Quincy groused.

Hakeem had to keep from laughing in joy and relief.  “Yes, Mweze.  We can go back now.”

They turned and started to walk, the wizard reaching for his wife’s hand, and she seeking his, when a voice stopped them just before their skin touched.

“No, we can’t go back.”

Everyone turned to gaze at Sedwick.  He was glaring at Quincy.  Hakeem frowned at him over his shoulder, his hand falling back to his side.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

The elemental pointed at the brunette’s face, his face turning dark with anger.  “That thing isn’t Quincy.”

Nyx squinted her eyes.  “But her scent–”

Sedwick gestured at the ground and spoke quickly, “Tell me.  Where are the footprints Quincy just made?”

Hakeem clenched his fists.  “But we just saw her fall into the–”

“It’s gone,” Gudahi breathed, pointing at the spot Quincy had fallen.  “Her footprints, the mark where she fell…all gone!”

Makka already had his spear pointed at Quincy.  He said something gruffly in Lycan, and Hakeem’s wife stared at him blankly as she turned and took a step back.

Nyx let out a hiss, her eyes wide.  She gestured at Hakeem frantically.  “Sedwick’s right!  Hakeem, get away from it!”

Hakeem’s eyes strained to see what the others claimed to, but he wasn’t close enough to make anything out in the dark.  As he felt something slimy and cold warp about his throat, however, he found he didn’t need to.

With a yell, the man-boy struck at his assailant only to find his small reach wasn’t long enough.  He was lifted, choking, and came to see what Sedwick had been trying to warn him about.  Quincy’s form was gone, leaving only a black oily creature with bulky shoulders, a disproportionately slim waist, and no head.  Despite its lacking mouth, the being let out a gurgling chuckle.

Mmm…more meat!” it exclaimed.

Makka let out a yell and stabbed forward with his spear.  The creature let out a grunt as it made to dodge the attack, and without warning, he began to fall.  Hakeem and the monster hit the ground, the wizard on his side, the creature on its back.  When Hakeem sat up, he thought he saw a strange play of light across the ground–then he realized it was Nyx’s doing.  She’d tripped up the monster’s using its shadow.

“He’s slipping from me!” the Ailuran cried, her hands up and her face strained. “Get it! Quick!”

Makka didn’t hesitate.  He stepped forward and thrust into the monster’s chest, digging the spear tip in with a fierce look in his eyes.  Gudahi joined him, driving his spear into the monster’s gut.  The creature screeched, hands gripping the spear shafts as it writhed, but in time, it turned still.  Hakeem clumsily rose to his feet, his body covered in mud, some of it even in his ears and mouth.  The wet ground threatened to take his shoes from his feet and send him over, and he had to struggle to move away from the creature.

Both Lycans removed their spears with wet squelches, panting.

Spitting the mud out, Hakeem grimaced and asked,”Did you kill it?”

Gudahi turned his head to speak when a black ichor splashed into his face.  Screaming the man reared back, hands clawing at himself.  The creature sat up and threw its sludge at Makka, and the warrior tried to block his eyes, only to have the slime enter his open mouth instead.  He gagged, stumbling to his knees, his partner still clawing at his face.

Sedwick let out a yell, his body spinning as his arms turned to watery whips that lashed toward the strange being.  The creature let out a wet scream, its body turning into a ball that rolled away at high speed through the thick brush.

“After it!”  Hakeem yelled, already running.

The creature’s form barreled through a collection of briar bushes, and the wizard let out a shout as the thorny branches tore at his skin and clothes.  Gritting his teeth, he pushed through just in time to see his quarry quickly roll around a large sweetgum tree.  Now that they had moved away from the wetlands, his feet pounded over solid earth.  Hakeem sharply rounded the tree, filled with a sickening need to exact revenge against the monster who brought harm to his wife, only to find himself clotheslined by a black slimy arm.

He fell back onto the ground with a nasty thump.  Dazed, he watched as the creature reached for him, giggling blackly.  “Eee, hee, hee!  A meal!  A meal!  QUITE a meal!”

But the monster froze just as its claw-like hands neared Hakeem’s face.  The creature strained, sounds of frustration gurgling from its stump of a neck.  It couldn’t move.

Nyx stepped around the tree, her hand help up and a wide look in her eyes.

“You won’t have him!” she hissed.  “I have your shadow, you filthy creature, and if you so much as touch him I will end you!”

Sedwick appeared just behind her.  He touched the girl’s shoulder.  “You have it?” The Ailuran nodded mutely, and his lips pursed.  The elemental took a moment to look over his shoulder before returning his eyes to the black creature.  “Gudahi and Makka are still back there.  They’re hurt, but they’ll catch up.  The slime isn’t fatal or even permanent.”

The man stepped closer and extended a hand to Hakeem, who gladly took it.  “This thing is called a pugot,” Sedwick said with a sneer at the creature. “It’s a type of spirit from Talmor that can assume the identity of whomever it tastes, imitating that thing’s voice, movement, and even its smell.  That’s why it was able to fool you and the others, Nyx.”

“What’s it doing here, though?” Nyx asked, her voice sounding tight.

The elemental glanced at her.  “Here, if you’re getting tired, I’ve got it.”

Sedwick raised both arms, and Hakeem watched with interest as the limbs turned clear and watery.  They grew, defying physics as water gushed from the man’s form like he were a tireless font.  The streams of liquid drifted to the pugot, where they wrapped around the creature totally.  Lifting his arms, Sedwick lifted the being bodily into the air.

He looked at Nyx.  “You can let it go, now.”

The girl nodded and with a rushing exhale, let her arms fall to her sides.

Sedwick looked back at the spirit, his eyes squinting as he watched the pugot struggle. “Sometimes foreign spirits come to visit, but I imagine what happened in the North with Syria attracted even more.  With the beast wrecking havoc, this one was drawn here in particular.”

“I want to ask it where Quincy is,” Hakeem said firmly.

The man nodded at him, and he moved the water away from the spirit’s neck so that it could speak.

The first things out of its disgusting neck was, “Fiends!  Monsters!  Brigands!

“Shut up,” Sedwick barked.

Hakeem watched as the elementals watery bind constricted, causing the pugot to gasp.

“Where is my wife?” Hakeem asked, his brow knitted.

The pugot didn’t answer–couldn’t.  Its tense body only trembled, hands clawing in the water.  The wizard laid a hand on Sedwick’s arm, and the elemental eased his bind reluctantly.  The pugot let out a sigh of relief.

Wiiife…” it hissed.  “Mmm…tasty wife, yes.  Tasty fingers.”

Hakeem tensed.  “Where is she?”

The pugot grumbled something unintelligible.  Sedwick growled and tightened his bind again.  The spirit began to squeal.

Ah!  Ah!  Okay!”  It gurgled. “She got away!

Hakeem blinked.  He looked at the others, and they returned his quizzical looks.  Returning his gaze, the wizard crossed his arms.  “What do you mean, ‘she got away?'”

The pugot let out an infuriated shout.  “Urgh!  Human!  DUMB human!  The wife is gone!  Pugot tried to eat her, and she hurt pugot!”

Hakeem let out a relieved laugh, his hands going to his hips.  “She must have used one of her wizardry tricks!”  Then his smile waned.  “But then where is she?”

“Maybe she’s gone back to camp already?” Nyx said uncertainly.

“When was the last time you saw Quincy?” Hakeem demanded, his hands clenching and unclenching.

The pugot gargled angrily.  “Pugot tell you what it know!  Let pugot go!

Hakeem bared his teeth.  “Not until you tell all that you know!”

Pugot knows it will kill you!  It will kill your dreams!  Your tomorrow!  Your–

But they never did get to learn what else the pugot would kill, because a giant pair of jaws the size of Hakeem’s old hut burst through the forest canopy with a great crack and swallowed the spirit whole.

Sedwick let out a shout, his watery arms disintegrating before filling back into normal.  Hakeem stood rooted at the spot, too stunned to react.  Off in the distance, he could hear Gudahi and Makka shouting.  Were they running to help them?  Telling them to run?  Running themselves?  The trees fell over with heartbreaking groans, their roots snapping and snarling out of the earth.  The sky opened up to them, black and indifferent, and Hakeem saw the dark ending Ma’Nguele had warned him of so long ago…

ELMIRYN________________________

In the time since Nyx had left, Elmiryn had turned her arm into a tentacle, a sword, a banana, and a general misconception.  The game got old fast, however, and so the woman endeavored to restore her arm, and was still in the process of doing so when she felt her spine stiffen with an alien feeling.  Her eyes rolled up to the strange being in its white box high above her.

“Hey,” the warrior said, brushing by a frozen kitten.  The small animals may have stopped moving all together, but they hadn’t vanished either.

When the alien being didn’t answer her, the woman’s mouth screwed up, and in the next instant she wasn’t Here, but There, glaring into the alien’s featureless face.

“Hey!  You know something don’t you?  What was that feeling I just had?”

“That would be me.”

Later on, Elmiryn would find it very difficult to explain the level of shock and fear she felt at that moment to anyone–not only because she disliked admitting to such things, but because it was so deep and visceral and debilitating, that the only way a person could understand it would be to experience it.  Trapped in this intense emotion, the woman felt her spirit pulse closer to her body, and she nearly felt herself sucked back into reality until she fought this end savagely.  She was not ready.  She would not go.

“Oh?  Thou wouldn’t miss the tender flesh of thy kitten, so sweet and ready for you?”

As the effects of her shock ebbed, Elmiryn turned slowly.  “Artemis, what are you doing here?” she breathed.

The goddess was dressed in a more Western-styled outfit this time, her animal hide tunic gone, replaced instead with a black leather vest, dark leggings, a heavy green cloak, and grey boots.  Her arms were sleeved in white cotton, a Lycan necklace of teeth, beads, and feathers hanging over her bosom.  Her curly dark hair had been freed to fall about her shoulders, contrasting with the pearly complexion of her face.  Her tiara of branches still adorned her head, and her bow and arrows could still be seen on her back.  Her grey eyes were as sharp as ever, yet they held nothing but mirth as they looked Elmiryn up and down.

“I came to see how you were doing,” the goddess said simply.

The warrior screwed up her face.  “You came to visit me in my head?

Artemis nodded, smiling fully now.  “Yes.”

Elmiryn gestured around her, a sarcastic grin on her face.  “And is this everything you ever imagined?”

The goddess tilted her head left to right, her lower lip pushing up as she regarded the shifting light and shadows, the frozen sea of animals, the strange alien being and her window.  “It’s…interesting,” she said finally.

“Glad you think so.  Now please leave.”

Artemis laughed, the sound echoing through the void and making Elmiryn’s head hurt.

“Thou have survived, and are in such high spirits to boot!  How wonderful,” the goddess chuckled.  “Do you remember the secret I told you, by any chance?”

“The what?”

“Ah, I see.”

Elmiryn made a show of spitting.  “Arty, you’re a real poor guest, y’know?”  She tapped her temple.  “This?”  She made a slash with her arms. “Is not where you’re supposed to be!”

Artemis shrugged.  “Then make me leave, if it so pleases you.”

The warrior bared her teeth as her cerulean eyes cut what she hoped was a menacing look, but the goddess just folded her hands, her right hand displaying her crescent moon tattoo.

Elmiryn held out her hands.  “You want me to try?  Fine.  I’ll try.”

“You’ll try?” Artemis laughed.

The warrior glared.  “I just said I’ll try!”

“You remember what happened the last time you tried to defy me?”

“I heard it landed me here, which really isn’t all so bad in my opinion.”

And within the next instant, Artemis wasn’t in front of Elmiryn anymore, but a hot whisper in her ear.  The woman gasped and tried to turn to see where the goddess had gone, but she saw nothing.

Ah…you put on such a brave show.  But thou should know that I can see into thine heart of hearts.  I can see thy loneliness, see thy fears.  

“Get out!” Elmiryn shouted.  “Leave me be, I want nothing of your world!”

Why not?  My world has the one you so adore…the one who faces a threat she is not yet prepared for.

The warrior froze.  “Nyx?  What’s happened?  Where is she?”

The trap has sprung, Elmiryn.  Now to free thy kitten, thou must find the one who set it in the first place…but thou cannot do that in thy state of detached reality.  You have survived what others could not.  Now put that strength to good use, tackle this inconvenience, and my hunt may then continue.

Elmiryn let her shoulders drop, her eyes squeezing shut as the goddess’s words sunk in.

“So are you going to help me then?” she asked quietly.

A laugh echoed around her.

Would thou even accept my help?

Elmiryn smirked, her spirit already seeking her body.  “No.”

And when she next opened her eyes, it was to find herself back in the medicine hut, screaming with pain.


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