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…
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?”
“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.